Sunday, August 26, 2007

Negotiation - Cambodian style ...

As with so many of the major sights we've visited there is no lack of opportunity to buy things from stalls outside the temples in the Angkor Wat area.

It can all get incredibly wearing - it would be all too easy to react with intense irritation when being given the hard-sell over a coconut you don't want for what seems like the hundredth time that day. You just have to keep reminding yourself that people are simply trying to make a few dollars a week to enable them to feed their families - it's the kind of hand to mouth existence that I can only begin to imagine. Just a smile as you decline normally gets a one in return and the good humour of the Cambodian people immediately becomes apparent.

As we left one of the temples late in the afternoon a young girl of around 7 or 8 started walking allongside us, and the usual routine started. "You want drink? Coconut? Postcard? Book?". After replying "No thank-you" to every item on the seemingly endless list a brand new tactic presented itself. Gradually bringing into view a meat cleaver she was carrying by her side, she just smiled sweetly and said "are you suuure?". We were in stitches (of laughter).

I don't think I'll be importing that particular negotiation technique into the UK when I return next year - in any event, I couldn't carry it off nearly as well as she did ...

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Dirty monkey ...

Temple monkey with frog

Our visit to the temples of Angkor Wat was every bit as amazing as we'd anticipated - even if the dining habits of the resident temple monkeys left something to be desired ...

In all honesty I thought we'd already seen enough temples already to last us a lifetime, but even so we managed to spend 2 long hard days clambering up and down the most impressive ancient architecture you could hope to find anywhere. You can see some of the many, many photos I took by clicking here.

Angkor Wat

We based ourselves in Siem Reap, which innevitably had many of the hallmarks of a tourist trap (hawkers, strips of restaurants & bars) but still gave us an interesting insight into life in Cambodia.

Again it was automotive matters that stood out, the road rules being much the same as in Vietnam, but with a couple of interesting additions;

Firstly, the petrol station forecourt sliproad. Upon encountering one of the rare "Esso style" forecourts on a corner you wish to turn at, it is standard practice to cut the corner through the station. In fact I didn't see a single vehicle use the alternative road route.

Of course this is made far easier by the second notable difference - almost no-one uses forecourt petrol stations to buy fuel. The norm in Cambodia is to pull up at one of the many stalls selling whisky bottles full of pee-coloured liquid, and tip it into your moped filling tank. I'd guess there must be some sort of price advantage ...

After just a few short days we left Cambodia to head for a rendezvous with some pals from the UK in Bangkok. Like idiots we decided to save some money and take the bus. I think I'll just show you the photo I took from the bus window and let your imaginations do the rest ...

The bus to the Cambodia-Thailand border

I've added a few new beers to the list - 2 from Cambodia - Angkor the official national brew and the rather nicer Anchor. It all made for rather confusing bar orders after a few had been consumed ...

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

the secret's in the soup ...

Sometimes it's the little things you really enjoy when travelling.

Like the traditional Vietnamese breakfast called "Pho Ha-noi" that they served up at our hotel in Hanoi - basically noodle soup with beef, served with red hot chillies and freshly squeezed lime.

When we got to Laos I was pleased to find that it's also the traditional breakfast here - but much better and just 50p for a massive bowl complete with a big plate of herbs, chillies and limes.

I was just coming to the end of the bowl when I discovered an added bonus - an authentic relic from the secret war. A US military issue spoon.

Now I'm no expert on warfare - but surely if it's supposed to be a secret war you really ought to remember to take your spoons home. Although I guess I should be grateful - the other thing they left behind were landmines, and you really don't want to find one of those in your soup ...

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Kill or cure?

Views from your hotel room balcony are hardly ever this good, especially not for under 20 quid a night.

It didn't take long for us to realise that Luang Prabang is almost too good to be true in many other respects too. The old town consists almost entirely of old French colonial architecture and sits on a peninsula barely 400 yards wide, at the confluence of the Nam Khan and Mekong rivers.

As the old royal capital of Laos, it's jam packed with stunning buddist temples and stupas at every turn - and the French influenced food is absolutely amazing. We felt at home immediately and with plenty of things to do locally we decided to hang around for a couple of weeks.

After the first 4 days exploring town we headed off to a luxury jungle retreat. The bungalow we stayed in was pure decadence, complete with polished teak veranda big enough for a football game and huge bathroom plus outdoor shower. If it hadn't been for getting food poisoning from the otherwise very pleasant restaurant it would have been a perfect 3 days.

As it turned out I spent 2 days with suffering from stomach cramps that felt like being disemboweled (plus a good deal of other unpleasantness I won't go into). The beginning of relief only came when we made it back to town and Mel came back from the pharmacy with antibacterial medication and a sachet drink that tasted a bit like liquid clay. Then my neck started siezing up and I was so dizzy I could hardly leave the hotel room for another 2 days.

After more visits to the pharmacy and some internet research we discovered that the new symptoms we're listed under serious side-effects of the medication I was taking. All told it was a good 5 or 6 days before I returned to somewhere like normal (for me anyhow).

In the end I was just glad it happened where it did and we had the time to deal with it. We still had plenty of time to do loads of great things like riding (and feeding) elephants, white water kyaking (kind of scary), taking a slow boat up the Mekong or visiting the picture postcard perfect Khang Si waterfall.

Not forgeting time for a deep research into Beerlao for the beer league. It's absolutely perfect for lubricating a stiff neck ...

Lao Jungle and Luang Prabang photos are online now.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Lao or Laos ...?

We arrived in Luang Prabang, Peoples Democratic Repulic of Laos, early one August evening to possibly the most laid back international airport in the world.

As Laos suffers rather badly from people never having heard of it, this post provides a very brief history as best I understand it.

Laos is a former French colony in SE Asia which was captured by the Japanese during the second world war. It was briefly returned to the French after WW2 before regaining it's pre-colonial independence in the early 1950's.

The country is sandwiched inbetween China (North), Vietnam (East), Thailand & Burma (West) and Cambodia (South) with the ethnic majority Lao people (80%) being the same stock as the hill tribes of NE Thailand. It's also home to a number of minorities such as the Hmong who in the main still live a tribal existence unchanged for hundreds of years.

About the same time as the Vietnam War (or American War if your perspective is Vietnamese) there was a communist uprising in Laos. I was headed by the Pathet Lao who were supported in turn by North Vietnam and an unlimited supply of Chinese and Soviet military hardware. Fearing the supposed domino effect of communism taking hold throughout Asia, the US supported Laos in a so-called secret war against the communists for over a decade.

Throughout the Vietnam War the North Vietnamese continued to use the Ho Chi-Minh Trail (in Southern Laos) to allow it's troops to bypass the demilitarised zone (DMZ) seperating South Vietnam to wage geurrilla warfare on US forces, despite continued ariel bambardment of the trail. It's in part due to this fact that a small nation who have never declared war on anyone became one of the worlds most bombed in history.

After the US pulled out of SE Asia, both Vietnam and Laos became communist states (Laos a rather more peaceful one) - and both countries still retain a single party system, despite the fact they adopt a capitalist approach.

Today's Laos is still one of the worlds poorest countries, with an average annual salary of just $300 USD per capita. It also suffers terribly from the UXO (unexploded ordinance) that litters the countryside and claims 1500 lives per annum.

So those are the facts; however the first question most people have is "Do you say Lao or Laos?". Confusingly, I'd heard both in equal measure before we left the UK.

It turns out the country was always called simply Lao before the arrival of the French. The s being added by them to fit in with French language rules i.e. you don't pronounce the last letter. This means that the only change was designed simply to keep it the same. Which is not really a great help.

So I still don't have an answer (the only local I asked just shrugged), but on balance I'll be sticking with Lao for the next couple of weeks, as we find out what Luang Prabang has to offer the weary traveller ...

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Junkies ...

With our time in Vietnam fairly limited we decided escape the craziness of Hanoi by splashing out on a luxury 3-day junk trip in Halong Bay. The bay itself is an extension of the same sort of scenery found to the northwest in Yangshuo - loads of limestone karsts, just sticking out of water this time - it made for a spectacular backdrop to all the wooden junks sailing past.

The weather in Halong at this time of year is supposed to be mainly cloudy, with frequest storms. It was absolutely scorching with blue skies the whole time during our trip - which meant we could make the most of the activities laid on, sea-kyaking through tunnels into remote lagoons, visiting caves and trekking through jungle on Cat-Ba island.

Given the heat, by far the best activity was jumping off the side of the boat into the sea to cool off - an opportunity we took whenever it presented itself. It's probably some measure of just how relentlessly hot it was that even Mel was perfectly willing to jump into the harbour at Cat-Ba, despite it being visibly full of fish - her pet phobia.

Evenings were spent together with all the other junks in something approximating a circle of covered wagons - we discovered this was due to what was described as a small piracy problem. Well, shiver me timbers and splice the mainbrace - we made sure our cabin door was firmly locked at night.

One of the places we visited was "Suprise Cave" - a huge cavern inside one of the karsts. As well as being a stop-off for most tours of the bay, it's where the 1800 people who live in floating fishing villages here take refuge during the worst storms. Our guide delighted in showing us the multiple rock formations such as "the turtle" which was quite impressive - unfortunately others required rather more imagination on the part of the viewer, such as "two bears loving each other" which was really just lumps of rock. Getting into the spirit of things, I started making up my own and to my suprise found a really great one of Sir Trevor McDonald ...

Back in Hanoi for one last night and we got one final taste of what Hanoi does best - lunatic driving ... the cab driver who took us to the airport the next morning was undoubtedly the most insane I've ever experienced in my life. At one point I'm sure I heard him muttering "die" under his breath as he intentionally swered in front of a scooter, whose only crime had been a momentary delay in pulling into the slow lane to let us past.

I can only begin to imagine how he would have reacted to the genuine insult he surely deserved ... all I knew is that we we're very releived to arrive in one piece at the curiously deserted Hanoi International Airport. Perhaps they'd heard he was coming ...

You can see all the photos from Halong here.

Bum for lunch anyone ...?

We saw this interesting little item back in Pingyao, China.

If it hadn't been for the rather more appealing Spongecake with Lard we might have been tempted ...

Monday, August 06, 2007

Hanoi's unique highway code ...

In our original plan for mid-July we'd have been heading through Tibet into Nepal to begin trekking the 21-day Annapurna Circuit ...

For a whole heap of reasons (Mel's trauma on Mt. Fuji featuring highly) we'd decided to visit Nepal on a future trip, rather than during the summer monsoon. With the benefit of hindsight this was inspired decision making - 750,000 people have just been displaced in Nepal's worst flooding in living memory. Needless to say, this might have disprupted our plans a little ...

So, enter Vietnam. No gradual change in culture here as you cross the land border - everything is completely different. Buildings, clothes, even down to the style of motorcyle riding. Here in the countryside it's always "bandit style" with just your eyes visible above a full-face bandana - slightly unnerving until you get used to the fact that each overtaking maneouver isn't the opening move in a hijack.

Then we arrived in Hanoi, surely one of the very best examples of chaotic SE Asia you'll find. It's almost impossible to imagine the number of mopeds here - apparently the official figure is around 2m - in a city of around 3.5m people. The really impressive thing is how they seem to move around the city in swarms - and when one swarm meets another, they somehow just manage to pass right through one another. It must be seen to be beleived.

There are a few new skills you need to learn in order to get about here - all of which go against the natural instincts acquired living in a western society.
  1. Ignore all calls of "motorbike", "moto", "cyclo", "lychee" or "hat" - these are all things you will be offered several times a minute. Therefore any eye contact, never mind a simple "no thank-you" to each offer will just result in a doubling of your journey time.
  2. Using the "imaginary" pavement. In theory there is a real one, but in practice that's where people park their mopeds. The imaginary one is the first 75cm of clear road. The mopeds screaming past at 30-40 mph will avoid you - but only if you beleive in it's existence.
  3. Use of the "imaginary" zebra crossing. It doesn't really matter if you find a real one, even with a green man, they work exactly the same as the imaginary ones as the traffic doesn't stop anyway. Just face the oncoming traffic, beleive in the imaginary crossing and confidently walk across at a constant pace - the traffic will just move around you. If you lose confidence and stop or change your pace the traffic will somehow lose it's ability to avoid you.

Once these skills were mastered, we found Hanoi's Old Quarter a very pleasant place to spend a few days - incredibly cheap shopping, great food with the added novetly of vegetables (a little scarce in Chinese restaurant dishes), and our cultural activity of the week, the very wierd Vietnamese Water Puppet Theater.

Once again we proved that luck can be a better servant than informed planning - our visit to Hanoi conincided with the Quarter Final of the Asia Cup, the game between Australia and Japan being billed as the game of the tournament.

Armed with a ticket procured on the black market I headed out to the brand new "My Dinh" National Stadium in the scorching late afternoon heat. The journey in itself was almost as memorable as the game - my taxi had no less than 7 different horns, all of which the driver seemed intent on wearing out in order to cut a path through the sea of scooters during the 40 minute journey.

The game itself was pretty entertaining and at 1-1 following extra time it went to penalties. I think the writing was on the wall when a rather unfit looking Harry Kewell missed the opening penalty for Australia, and so Japan made it through to the semi-finals.

Back in town we went for one last meal of "roll-your-own" rice paper spring rolls filled with caramel beef and fresh herbs, all washed down with 640ml bottles of ice-cold Tiger Beer for just $1 ... rather predicatably, we think Hanoi rocks!

You can see the photos from Hanoi here

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Beware of the dog ...

"No problem. I haven't had hotpot for quite a while ..."

Innocent enough words in their own right. But when overheard as a response to a request for dog-sitting a small labrador puppy, they brought the realisation we'd entered dog eating country.

Of course in this instance the young lady at the cafe in Yangshuo was only joking, but we knew we'd have to order our meals increasingly carefully as we headed toward the border and into Vietnam.

Last stop in China was a quick 36 hours in Nanning to arrange our Vietnam visas. With its palm lined boulevards, Nanning rather put me in mind of the Florida I know from watching Miami Vice as a youngster. Except for one notable difference - a whole street dedicated to cuisine of the canine variety. We steered well clear.

Then just as we we're getting ready to leave for Hanoi, I receive this rather concerning email from the hotel we'd booked;

Hi again,

I just checked your website - really nice job! Since you're interested in "special" foods, I'll be sure to get some recommendations ready for you while you're here. Dog is off the menu, I take it? I suppose cat will be too? Still, there's always crocodile, scorpion, or even duck embryos. Vietnam, as you probably already now, does have many "special" foods, so I hope you'll get the chance to try them all.

Best of luck planning your trip!

I am officially getting worried.