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Industrial and smoggy but Guangzhou is still pleasant.

Cough, Cough!

sunny 33 °C
View Thanh and Mark's RTW Adventure 2009-10 on malmn's travel map.

Nihao!

Before heading off to Beijing, we took the bus from Zhongshan to Guangzhou, the capital of the province of Guangdong, and chose to stay for two days and three nights.

I found Guangzhou to be a mix between Hong Kong and Zhongshan. Like Hong Kong, this city has many western influences, like 7-Elevens, Starbucks, Ikea, luxury shopping malls, expensive European and American vehicles and a subway system. This city is very urban and busy. On the other hand, like Zhongshan, it is quite industrial, very smoggy, somewhat unclean, and to be polite, the people here still have a rural “way of being” to them.
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For only 35$ a night we stayed at the Lilac International Suites near Citic Plaza. We highly recommend this place because it was a great deal. The room was super clean,cute, included wifi and a/c, and was next door to the subway station.

For our first full day in Guangzhou, we went to have breakfast at a very famous dim-sum restaurant, or yum cha as it is called here, named Tao Tao Ju Restaurant in the Xia Jiulu & Shang Jiulu area This place dates back to the 17th century! Too cool! Needless to say, this was the very best dim-sum we have ever eaten in our lives. The dumplings were perfect (less salty than usual) and the fish congee really hit the spot. Our teapot was kept warm with an oil lamp, which I found to be a great touch.
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After dim-sum we visited Shamian Island, which was formerly occupied by the Brits and the French. This leafy island has many nice, but run down colonial style buildings.
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Later on we took the subway across town to visit the Mausoleum of the Nanyue King. His tomb was only discovered the 80’s when digging the foundation for a new shopping plaza. Besides the thousands of artifacts found in the tomb, but the coolest part was actually entering it.
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Before heading home, we walked across the street the street to Yuexi Park to take a several pictures of one of Guangzhou’s most famous landmarks, the Five Rams Statue.
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For our second day, we strolled around Beijing Lu, a very shopping and tourist friendly road with many bronze statues and large billboards, for several hours. Being white, I was continuously hassled by hawkers for “Rolexes, Armani suits, Luis Vuitton bags”, etc. I am actually very patient in these situations and I had a lot of fun playing around with these ridiculous characters. Any hoot, one of the best things to see here are the ancient roads discovered underneath Beijing Lu itself, and now underneath glass for everyone to see. There are several authentic roads which date back different dynasties, like the Jin, Qing and Ming. Very, very cool!
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Besides that, we took a subway across the Pearl River to get a closer look at the New TV Tower. The tower is yet to be completed but it is already very impressive and will certainly become an important Guangzhou landmark.
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Before I end this this blog entry, I would like to clear something up and hopefully enlighten a few people reading our blog...Although China is ruled under a one party system, and that party is still called the Communist Party of China, this grand nation is NOT a communist one. For various reasons (like propaganda), it is a common misconception in the Western world to think so. China is actually a SOCIALIST REPUBLIC (a people's democratic dictatorship) and has been so for nearly 30 years, ever since Deng Xiaoping opened up China and it's economy.

Well, now we are off to Beijing. Thanh is very excited as it will be her first time visiting this ancient and truly historic Chinese capital. I am excited as well! :)

Baai-baai!
Mark & Thanh!
GO HABS GO!!!

Posted by malmn 05:12 Archived in China Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Beijing; The Great Wall, Forbidden City, Chairman Mao and ++

Our last week in China! We're gonna miss the food! :(

sunny 18 °C

It was my first time in Beijing and I wasn’t sure quite to expect. Mark has been 3 years prior and says thing have drastically changed since the Olympics (for the better; much cleaner, more English and a lot less smog). Well after a week there, we have to say that we’re rather impressed with the Chinese capital. Even though their people are quite “different” than us, the food is out of this world and the historic sites are numerous and very remarkable.

We arrived late afternoon and after checking in our hotel went across the street for a quick dinner of hand-pulled noodle soup (2 huge bowls with 2 beers for only 4$!). Afterwards, we headed for the historic Tiananmen Square where we witnessed the formal flag removal ceremony. We also snapped pictures of ever the recognizable Gate of Heavenly Peace with its huge portrait of the late Mao Zedong. From there we made our way to the night market, which apparently exists mainly for tourists, and tried some fried scorpions among other more “normal” dishes. We somehow managed to pass on the starfish, seahorses, worms, testicles and several kinds of exotic insects.
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We woke up the next day quite excited for what it had in store for us: The Great Wall of China. Even though Mark has been, he was quite excited since we were going to explore a section of the Wall that he hadn’t seen before. As for me, I was losing my mind out of excitement; the wall was the only reason why we decided to put up with the “colder” weather of Beijing. For this national monument, we chose, for the first time on our trip, to participate in a guided tour. Once onsite, we decided to get the full experience and walk up the endless stairs to the wall. After what seems to be an eternity of stair climbing, we arrived at the wall, I got goose bumps… I couldn’t believe it!…I was standing on THE Great Wall of China. Needless to say, it was quite something and it didn’t disappoint me. To add to my satisfaction, it was a beautiful day, with few clouds and lots of sun, which is very rare in Beijing, let alone China. We walked along the Wall for a couple hours before we took the cable car back down. Interesting fact: among the materials used for the base of this Great Wall: dead bodies & glutinous rice. Huh.
That afternoon we got to go to the site of the Ming Tombs though it was quite disappointing since you could only see everything around it, but couldn’t go near the actual tombs.
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On our third day, I was already getting sick and tired (and frustrated!) of having to put my bag in the security scanner every time we went to use the subway. Is that really necessary? Also, why is the subway always so packed, you have better chance at winning the lottery than to find an empty seat on those trains! Anyways, we went to the Olympic village and braved through the elements (the strongest winds I’ve ever experienced, the loads of people trying to sell their picture-taking services or cheapo souvenirs, and the inconsiderate Chinese tourists) to take our picture with the famous Water Cube and the even more famous the National Stadium a.ka. The Bird Nest. I have to say, the Bird Nest is quite impressive and we think it will be a significant symbol for the Chinese people for many decades to come. That night, I took a stroll by myself around the neighborhood and it felt so good to just blend it and not get constantly harassed by different vendors to buy things. I feel bad that Mark probably won’t be able to feel that for a very long time (being a white guy in Asia).
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The next day, after another extremely cheap lunch, we walked to the historic Temple of Heaven. The site is absolutely beautiful and there are tons of things to see. We were also spoiled with many “live bands” performing throughout the site. It wasn’t really for show nor for money, it was just musicians and singers getting together to have a great time doing what they love to do. Those magical performances made up for all the pushing and shoving that we received going through the temple. That night we experience the ultimate Beijing experience: having Peking duck! We went to this 5-star (Beijing standards) restaurant which was apparently THE place to experience this delicacy. After waiting for more than an hour to get a table (the place was extremely busy) we had a complete duck carved into something over 100 perfect thin slices that we ate wrapped in some thin pancakes with various condiments. It was very delicious, but we might actually prefer the other version of the Peking duck: cut up in big chunks with the bones on it with some steamed rice. That night, we also tried the very expensive sea cucumber which I found very yummy.
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Our complete 5th day was spent at the massive Forbidden Palace a.ka. Forbidden City a.k.a. Palace Museum. A full day wasn’t enough time to see half of it! We got ourselves some very informative audio guides which came in handy since they had a map of the site on it and it is so easy to get lost in this vast area. We walked through the ever present crowd (there were hundreds of different Chinese tours each with their members wearing matching caps, vests, t-shirts or even track suits.) for hours and hours totally amazed at what we saw. Our eyes feasted on temples, halls, palaces, gardens, empress quarters, and concubine quarters with all their thrones, luxuries, jewels and gold. Also worth mentioning for today; while making our way to the Forbidden Palace, we saw a lot of toddlers wearing crotch-less pants. Chinese people puzzle me, they have enough patience to build the Great Wall but they can’t be bothered to pull down their kids’ pants for them to piss or…
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With only a couple days left in Beijing, we went to see the Bell tower and its next door neighbor, the Drum Tower. Both consisted of going up many very steep steps to the top to see either a gigantic bell or some gigantic drums. At the Drum Tower, however, we got treated to a drum show. Afterwards we walked around the neighborhood to explore the many hutongs around the area. In case you didn’t know, hutongs are closed, intimate neighborhoods of alleyways where families make their homes. During our exploration, we stumbled on this very attractive (but touristy) area with a huge lake surrounded by tons of restaurants and cute shops (the best: the Oba Mao T-shirt shop). After dodging hundreds of rickshaws offering all kinds of tours, we decided to have lunch at this historic restaurant known for their mutton. Though the mutton was quite good, the best part of this restaurant was its English menu. Please see the picture below….now how did the Iraqi government make its way onto this Chinese restaurant’s menu? It blows my mind! After lunch, we went to the Jinshan Park to get the best possible views of the Forbidden Palace and some silly pictures of me as an empress (again, please see pic below). Doesn’t the costume look like it was meant for me? We ended the day by taking a stroll down their new shopping street decked with brand name stores like Gucci and Rolex. The Chinese are really moving up there, fast!
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On our last full day in Beijing, we experienced something extraordinary: Chairman Mao’s corpse and the most INSANE lineup to see him! We did make it a point to get there early to beat the crowd, yet once we got to Tiananmen it actually took us 30 minutes just to walk from the beginning of the lineup to find its end. This must have been the longest queue in the history of mankind. Seriously! The lineup was constantly moving, never standing still, and we estimate (‘cause we ended up cutting in line – see below) it easily took over three hours to get in the mausoleum. Hopefully someone called the Guinness crew to put this in their record book. Crazy!
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But it wasn’t the sheer size of the lineup that was only impressive; it’s what we experienced while lining up that was. During the hour that we lined up for, we experience all personality traits very characteristic of the Chinese. Let me take you through it;

1- They love their country and are very proud of it: The fact that people were ready to wait 3-4 hours to get a 5 to 10 second glimpse at Mao Zedong’s body (he looks looked like a wax mannequin to us – LOL!) just tells you how patriotic these people are. I also saw people cry their eyes out after seeing his resting body.
2- They are scammers and love to take advantage of foreigners. While we were waiting in the line for Mao, some “security guard” in a cheap suit came up to us and explains to us that I couldn’t bring in my purse and camera into the mausoleum (which is true) and to follow him. He eventually takes us to the bag check office and tells us to pay 20 Yuan to check my tiny purse (we later discovered the actual price was 2 Yuan!) He then takes us to the front of the line and asks us to pay him 50 Yuan in order to skip the unimaginable queue. With a hint of guilt but still without hesitation we handed him the asking price (50 Yuan (9$) is nothing to skip 3 hours of waiting in line) and he then winks towards another security guard who let us in. We felt a bit bad for getting in front of these people, but maybe they should stop trying to scam us all the time. This time being “western” actually gave us an advantage.
3- They have no manners: They will push and shove you even when it’s not necessary, they will always try to get in front of you even if that only saves them 10 seconds of waiting. And it’s not an “excuse me” kind of shove, more like an “I’ll push you to the ground if I need to” kind of shove. Thanks to Mark’s size (compared to the Chinese at least), he was easily able to stand his ground and protect me.
4- They are unable to follow rules…: they will smoke under a non-smoking sign, men will wait in a female-only line, they will skip the line even when it says to line up properly. While in the mausoleum, there were about 10 signs saying to be respectful and keep quiet, well it was very far from being quiet, very far.
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5- …but the government is trying to make its people change: just the fact that they are making people form a queue to get in is major. Also, while waiting, we saw a few people trying to get ahead and the security guard screams and yelled at them threatening to take them out. We also saw an older woman get yanked (violently!) out of the line since she tried to get ahead. OK, I’m not saying the methods are the best, but… Also, there are posters all around the city teaching people how to throw their garbage into the trash can, how to form a queue and how to be respectful. Yes, very complicated stuff but amusing to us!!
6- They don’t trust anybody: you have to go through metal detector and check your purse everywhere you go, even just to climb up a gate to see a view. It was getting really ridiculous.

  • *In all fairness, not all Chinese people exhibit the above behaviors, but a lot of them do.

Anyways, with all that said, we saw Mao’s body!! Well mostly his face, his body was covered and we only got to see it for about 10 seconds since they were rushing us through, but still, it was a big deal! So his face looks pretty accurate, but very waxy and also very orangy, like he just got the Hollywood spray tan or something.

That afternoon we had Peking duck again and ordered a fried prawns dish for 15$...well it was only ONE prawn and not even a tiger prawn (medium sized at best)… 15 freaking dollars for a single prawn! I rest my case: scammers!! We also got curious about all those vacuum sealed roast ducks that everyone seems to be buying and went ahead and purchased one for ourselves. we also bought some pancakes and green onions to make it authentic. We brought it all back to the hotel and Mark carved it out with his Swiss Army knife. It was a mild success; it tasted good, but it was too salty, and it needed some reheating.
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Well that’s it for China, we’ll really miss the food and…no, actually, just the food. We’re now going to Vietnam where we, or I, can finally understand the language.

Posted by thanh13 17:25 Archived in China Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Good Morning Vietnam!

Hanoi, Halong Bay and Sa Pa

sunny 29 °C
View Thanh and Mark's RTW Adventure 2009-10 on malmn's travel map.

HANOI

After a whole week in colder weather, we were glad to head to Hanoi for some heat. Our introduction to Hanoi was very friendly; a complimentary pick-up at the airport at 11PM, very friendly staff and a very comfortable room at the Charming boutique hotel. It wasn’t until the next morning that we really got to see Hanoi.

Our first day was spent walking around the Old Quarter which is very touristy and geared to westerners with their expensive silk and art shops, travel agents and boutique hotels as well as western restaurants and, of course, prices. The main attraction in that area was not the beautiful Hoan Kiem Lake with its Ngoc Son Temple sitting in the center of the lake, nor the hundreds upon hundreds of shops of all sort squeezed together, it was watching foreigners attempt to cross the streets! Having been to Ho Chi Minh city on a previous trip, Mark and I had much needed practice so it was quite entertaining to watch the others take a stab at it. It’s quite a scary experience at first seeing the non-stop traffic of thousands of motorbikes and cars coming at you with no intention to stop whatsoever (they won’t even stop at red lights), so the trick is to blindly and slowly walk forward and hope that the traffic will dodge you and it really works!
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After a couple of hours walking around and being annoyed at the millions of vendors constantly harassing you to buy anything from a photocopied version of the Lonely Planet to a motorbike ride (some guy asked us if we wanted a ride while we were sitting down at a street restaurant enjoying our meal!) to all kinds of snacks, we were introduced to our favorite thing in Hanoi; their draft beer – bia hoi! It’s about 30 cents a glass and it’s just so refreshing and good. While sitting down on a tiny plastic chair enjoying our beers, we noticed that our eyes will never be bored in this city: from the men smoking their tobacco bongs to the ones leaving the beer garden totally drunk then hoping onto their motorbike, the very frequent traffic accidents to the skewers of dog meat being grilled at the shop right next to us; there was always something new and weird to look at. That night, we had dinner at this outside (meaning: you miniature table, kid sized, is on the sidewalk!) grilling restaurant which was very good.
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The second day was spent like the first, just wandering around to see what this chaotic city has to offer. We noticed that you can’t really walk a straight line on the sidewalk for more than a few seconds before you have to dodge a parked scooter or car, a restaurant table, a street vendor, a sleeping dog, a rooster… We also went to see the water puppet show which apparently is a traditional Vietnamese thing to do but I’ve never heard of it and I was the only Vietnamese person in the audience. We also walked through the night market which was pretty predictable; cheap clothing, accessories and snack stands. Worth mentioning is that we found the trick to stop the harassment from vendors: I taught Mark a few sentences in Vietnamese, and when he would pull them out in response to the vendors, they were so shock that it made them speechless then they would laugh a little and leave us alone.
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The Ho Chi Minh mausoleum complex was our destination for the next day and it was quite disappointing. For one Ho Chi Minh’s body was unavailable for us to see since it was shipped to Russia for some “maintenance”. Also the Imperial Palace was off limit for no apparent reason, the Ho Chi Minh museum was a weird mix of an art exhibition and history museum with very random pictures and pieces that don’t really seem to make sense. We saw tons of pictures of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Il and his propaganda which was quite disturbing. We also saw what they say was Ho Chi Minh’s stilts house but it looked as if it was built 5 years ago and no one ever lived in it. To top it off, most of the areas were off limits and there were arrogant guards who would yell at us if we stopped too long to look at the fishes in the pond. Our day will end as it will often end in Hanoi: with tons of Bia Hoi Ha Noi (the famous draft beer).
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Our remaining days in Hanoi consisted of the same: walking around different areas of Hanoi, witnessing more drunken men hop on their scooters and witnessing more accidents. We actually saw a traffic accident between a motorbike and a taxi. After the passenger of the motorbike punched the taxi driver, it gathered a huge crowd, noticeably absent from the crowd was the policemen sitting in his car right across the street who just couldn’t be bothered. We also spent our days relaxing, planning future segment of our trip and of course, trying new foods.
One night while having dinner at this really popular traditional Vietnamese restaurant, we got to talking to Mr. Vo who happened to sit in front of us. After a few exchanges, we learn that he’s a self made millionaire turned philanthropist from Ho Chi Minh City. He was quite interesting and even invited us to coffee after to teach Mark how to become rich (I was taking notes just in case Mark forgets). He gave us his card and told us to contact him once we’re in HCMC, we’ll give him a ring just to find out if his stories were real or just BS.
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The real highlights of Hanoi were the couple times that we left it behind, once to go to Halong Bay and the other to go to Sapa.

HALONG BAY

Our minivan ride to Halong City was quite uncomfortable but it taught us that on the highway in Vietnam, you’re allowed to go anywhere from 80km/h down to a complete stop!! And not even a complete stop on the side lane, it was on the fast lane!! These people are insane.

We miraculously arrived alive at the wharf and boarded our very nice “junk” style boat. It was named the White Dolphin and we spent the night on it. We had our own private cabin equipped with AC and hot water.
As it sailed into Halong Bay towards the Hang Sung Sot cave, we feasted on a very good seafood lunch. At our table was this very sweet Chinese/Vietnamese couple from Toronto who would become our partners in crime during the next couple days. We also met Rachel and Jamie, a cool, young couple from Yorkshire, England. We would hook up with them later on in Sa Pa.
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The best part of our lunch was without contest, the view of Halong Bay, it is breathtaking. We stopped at the cave and went to explore its 3 huge chambers, it was the biggest cave we’ve seen so far and ended with the most spectacular view of Halong Bay. After returning to our little cruise boat, we got our gear and kayaked to the nearest beach for a climb up the mountain for another great view of the bay and also for some much enjoyed swim. Our evening ended with dinner, some squid fishing, Karaoke and a few drinks with our boat mates.
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The next day, we made our way to Cat Ba Island and headed to the National Park for some surprise hiking (our tour schedule described it more as a visit to the zoo/botanical garden so we were not in hiking gear at all). After an hour of slippery, dirty and dangerous climbing, we made it to the top which could barely fit 20 people yet we were around 50. The view was quite spectacular, but it was too crowded and we were too tired to really enjoy it so we made our way back down which was not any easier. Dirty and muddy, we checked in our hotel room on Cat Ba Island, showered, ate and napped. Later on, we took a stroll on the main street and saw some crabs, floating restaurants and boat homes. Cat Ba is quite small, quiet and very peaceful. It doesn’t have much to offer in terms of sights and activities since we’re not really rock climbers. The day after, we went back to our boat and sailed back to Halong City where our minivan was waiting to take us back to Hanoi.
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SAPA

We went to Sa Pa on a very pleasant overnight train ride where we played cards, enjoyed some snacks and a few hours of sleep on our pretty comfortable private berth. We arrived at our hotel in Sa Pa early in the morning with Rachel and Jamie, who were also on the same train as us.
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After a morning snooze, we hit the town and met up with Rachel and Jamie. We lunched on grilled skewers and buns and climbed up some mountain for great view of downtown Sa Pa and beyond. On the way up, the boys showed us their manly side; they each shot a few rounds of arrows using a wooden crossbow, and they both hit the bull’s-eye! That night we introduced Rachel and Jamie to the traditional hot pot which we all enjoyed while exchanging travel stories.
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Sa Pa is very different than the rest of Vietnam. It’s a bit cooler, way less crowded and a lot more relaxed. The harassing vendors from Hanoi were now replaced by much friendlier but still persistent H’mong girls/women. In their colorful traditional outfit, they will follow you (all the while making very friendly conversation) until you agree to buy some bracelet, purse or postcards.
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On our second day in Sa Pa, we walked to Cat Cat village where the H’mong people live. The walk was filled with spectacular views of the landscape and its many rice paddies. At the village, we saw birds, ducks, an arrogant rooster, pigs and piglets, lazy dogs, ox, kids running around, bathing and sun tanning buck-naked. We also saw the many rice paddies and the H’mong traditional homes. It just felt so humble and innocent. Mark and I agreed this was one of our highlights so far in this trip.
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That night, we met up with Rachel and Jamie again for another adventurous dinner; among other dishes, we decided to try the black chicken, also known as the cruel chicken, for the first time. It was quite delicious and Rachel made herself a back scratcher with the foot. We were lucky enough that night to witness both a religious ceremony outside of the main church (we’re still unclear as what the ceremony was) and a variety outdoor show. That night we sadly said goodbye to Rachel and Jamie with the hopes of seeing them again.
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Our final day in Sa Pa saw us wander around town for several hours, and we found dog for sale at the market. DSC01106.jpg
Afterwards we packed our things and made our way to the train station to catch the overnight train back to Hanoi. From there we’re off to the beautiful UNESCO heritage city of Luang Prabang in northern Laos, but we'll be back in Vietnam in less than a month to spend a month at the beach town of Mui Ne.
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Posted by malmn 19:54 Archived in Vietnam Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Quiet Laos (but more touristy than we imagined)

Toto, I have a feeling we're not in Vietnam anymore.

sunny 30 °C
View Thanh and Mark's RTW Adventure 2009-10 on malmn's travel map.

** Unfortunately our computer caught a nasty virus in Hanoi (no, not H1N1) and we ended up losing all of our Laos and Cambodia pictures (except for those from our waterproof camera). Please refer to the following link to see the pictures that we did manage to post on Facebook before our computer got hijacked.**

Luang Prabang: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=343407&id=680240141&l=89796f0376
Pha That Luang: http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?pid=9901960&l=2fe2684833&id=680240141

Luang Prabang

We flew from Hanoi to our first stop in Laos, Luang Prabang, a fantastic UNESCO Heritage town. We landed late in the evening and hired a jumbo, a small pick-up truck where the passengers sit in the box, to take us to what would become one of our favorite guesthouse on this trip; the Manichan. After we settled in and read the rules of the guesthouse, which included “not make sexual movies with prostitutes” (!!!), we went to have our first Lao meal. Along the Mekong River we found what the Lao call a grill. This heavy BBQ made from brick was placed on our table and was full of hot charcoals. On top they place a metal dish with holes in it for the fat to drip. On this dish you place the meats, noodles, veggies and water to create a tasty broth. You cook all this yourself on the grill. You do all of this while praying that the whole thing doesn’t tilt and spill on you as the whole setup was quite unstable and dangerous. Afterward we took a stroll down to the night market, which easily holds over a hundred stalls, selling all kinds of Lao souvenirs; paintings, sculptures, clothing, jewelery, snake wine, etc. We got to know this market very well since it is located the main tourist street and busiest in the city, and it was also right next to our guesthouse.

For the next six days we took our time to really discover this wonderful town and its surroundings, and we really enjoyed and loved it. During this time we got to visit many of the beautiful wats and temples located between the Mekong river and the Nam Khan river, and the Royal Palace. One of those days saw us rent a couple of mountain bikes. Besides biking around town, we ventured outside the city limits to explore the more “real” and rural side of Laos, as well as a couple other temples. This was lots of fun and one of our highlights of our time spent in Luang Prabang. But maybe our favorite thing of all was the Lao cooking class we took where we got to visit the local market, cooked up seven traditional Lao dishes, including the ever popular sticky rice, and feast on our creations.

Another special moment was when we witnessed the daily early morning alms (like 6am early) where locals and tourists line up the streets to offer sticky rice and other foods to the monks. It was quite something to experience though it was a bit ruined by the many rude tourists who can’t seem to understand how to respect and not get in the way of a tradition. At some times it seemed like the monks were being followed by the Paparazzi.

Though the city had mainly restaurants that cater to the foreigners, we did manage to find a few that serve local foods like khao niaw (sticky rice), laap (meat salad) , khai phun (fried seaweed), various noodle soups, BBQ meats, curries, and fresh fish from the Mekong. We (Mark) also downed everything we ate with a lot of LaoBeer. We also drank lao hai (fermented rice wine), lao lao (rice whisky) and our favourite, Lao style ice coffee (we were addicted!!). On our last night, after Mark had a few beers, he thought it would be a good idea to have a late night snacks of a few BBQ meats including buffalo intestines and liver. No need to get into details but it turned out to be a regretful mistake, especially the next day.

The Lao are a very quiet and modest people as there lifestyle is greatly influenced by long and hard working days and a government imposed midnight curfew. Lao people, while wanting to get a piece of the tourist business, still are very polite and respectful, and are never pushy nor aggressive (and was a welcome change compared to Vietnam). Even if this Luang Prabang caters itself to tourists (the city highly depends on tourism), with the hundreds of guesthouses, Western style restaurants, travel agents and souvenir shops, it is still very quiet, peaceful, pretty, and most importantly, very charming.

Viang Vieng

After six wonderful days, we boarded a minibus for a 5 hour trip south to Vang Vieng. The allure of tubing Nam Song river was probably the only reason why we decided to swing by Vang Vieng before heading to Vientiane. They (our Lonely Planet) say it is a right of passage for all backpackers traveling through Laos. Anyhow, since the road to Vang Vieng was through a mountainous area and our minibus’ suspension was shot, we got jerked around left and right, up and down during the whole bus ride. To make things worse, we were the suckers sitting in the back (the worst place on the bus for motion sickness) and we already felt very nauseated from the late night snacks which were knocking at our throats wanting to come back out. Needless to say, it was 5 hours of pure hell.

So we finally arrived in Vang Vieng and our first impression was: spring break! The town was filled with young people ready to party it up. Since Laos has a curfew, most of the partying happens before, after, and as we learned, during tubing.

Our first day saw us pretty much bedridden, drinking lots of fluids while our stomachs tried to forget the late night snacks we had on our final night in Luang Prabang and the minibus ride from hell…

…but the next day, we were ready for tubing!! So the whole process consists of renting a tractor inner tube, riding a jumbo to the launching point where you jump onto your inner tube, and let it take you away for three relaxing hours. Before going down the river you are welcomed by several loud riverside bars where tubers get all liquored up, spring break style. To get to one of these riverside bars, someone throws you a rope, hauls you in, sells you dirt cheap alcohol, play insanely loud music, and also offer you a chance to swing on the “tarzan” rope and jump into the river. We opted to skip on this fun since we told ourselves that we would stop later on at one of other bars along the way. It turned out that we never ended up not stopping at any of the bars because floating down the river was just too enjoyable and relaxing (or maybe we are just getting too old - lol!). With that said, at some points the current can speed up and get a little violent, and if you’re not alert (like drunk), you can lose your trunks/bathing suit (as we saw happen to an obviously intoxicated dude!) or injure yourself (we saw a dozen people with bandages walking around Viang Vieng and Vientiane). After three very pleasant hours, we arrived at the end and wished we could do it all over again.
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That night, we had Indian food, played cards, had a few beers and feared the next day’s bus ride to Vientiane, the capital of Laos.

Vientiane

Fortunately the ride to Vientiane turned out to be a lot more comfortable and pleasant. Compared to Luang Prabang, Vientiane has more of a big city feel, but it is not near as pretty nor charming. The only thing the two cities have in common are their tourist! We actually ran into some of the same people we saw in Luang Prabang and Viang Vieng.

Vientiane is not fascinating nor is it memorable, but during our couple days there we still managed to see some interesting sites. Along with a few nice wats, we got to see the Presidential Palace (the inside is closed to the public except for festivals) and its grounds, the Patuxai (Laos’ Arc de Triomphe, but not really…) where we got to climb numerous flight of stairs to get a great panorama of the city. On our final day we visited the country’s most important wat and landmark, the Pha That Luang. The latter is a large gold covered Buddhist stupa regarded as a national symbol. We barely enjoyed it due to the scorching hot weather . It was something like 40C in the shade that day. Anyhow, the national monument was pretty cool and nice even if it was really freakin’ hot.

During our 12 days in Laos, we noticed a few things:

- We were really excited to see Laos since it was rumored to be an unspoiled, “non-touristy” country. We could not be more wrong! I don’t know if it was because we stuck to the major sights or because the towns were too small to absorb all the tourists, but it seemed like there was more tourists than locals at times, and it also wasn‘t easy to find truly traditional Lao food.
- The Lao are anal with US money or big denominations; they will not accept a bill unless it is practically in mint condition. A 2 millimetre rip will just freak them out and may just refuse a sale.
- They never have change! Making change for a 5 dollar bill is often overwhelming for the Lao.
- They think it’s OK charge you 4$ for a coffee just because that’s how much it costs us back home.
- They do not like prostitutes. The guesthouses we stayed at all have posted rules of “no prostitutes”, how discriminating. lol!
- There’s a lot of old white man with young Lao girls. Mark became paranoid that people might think we’re one of “those” couples. This phenomenon may explain the no prostitute rules.
- Outside of the main touristy areas, the Lao people are extremely poor, but yet they are so much nicer, pleasant, honest and fair.
- They love to sell bootleg Lonely Planet book with missing pages and maps that don’t even belong to the country the book is about. We bought one anyways…

Next on our trip is our beloved Siem Reap (Angkor) in Cambodia. We are going there for a second time this year…

Thanh & Mark
GO HABS GO!!!

Posted by malmn 05:22 Archived in Laos Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Cambodia - "A Kingdom of Wonder"

We return to our favorite place on earth, the Temples of Angkor, and we finally visit Phnom Penh!

sunny 34 °C

**Because we lost all of our Cambodia pictures, we have posted a Facebook link to our pictures from our trip to Siem Reap and the Temples of Angkor earlier this year (March 2009)**

http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=238508&id=680240141&l=3976c13f86

Siem Reap

The trip from Vientiane to Siem Reap was interesting; the airport in Vientiane was like an abandoned garage with no clear signs of where to go, the tickets and luggage tags are still done by hand and we had a transit at the Cambodia border where they just dropped us off with no instructions on where to go or what to do. Anyhow we still arrived safe and sound in our beloved Siem Reap. This was our second trip to the Kingdom of Cambodia this year. We quickly visited Siem Reap during our trip to S.E.A. last spring before we lost our jobs.

Siem Reap is well known for the temples of Angkor which we spent most of our time at. We went back to our favorites; Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom (where Mark tease some monkeys and learned his lesson) and Ta Phrom (location of the Tomb Raider movie), but also managed to see new sites like Phnom Bakreng, a temple you climb up to get a great view of the city including Angkor Wat. This time time around, rather than using the most popular mode of transportation in Siem Reap, the Tuk-Tuk, we rented bicycles and used them to visit most of the temples. I have to say, that biking to the temples was a better and more fulfilling experience than the last time.

During our 5 days in Siem Reap, aside from the temples, we also managed to see the Angkor National museum, watched a documentary film about Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge and discovered the Angkor Night Market where they have the best bar we’ve been to on this trip, the Island Bar. There we met a fellow Canadian from Newfoundland, Andrew, and his girlfriend Erin, who is from Utah. Andrew introduced Mark this new drink to Mark, the Cai Pirinha. Judging by the way he drank it, it was as if it was lemonade. Needless to say, we didn’t do much the next day. Walking around the city we also stumbled upon this beautiful pagoda which depicts all stages of Buddha’s life (we can’t remember the name and have no picture to remind us of it). We also spent every evening on the popular “Pub Street”, which is a very cute and charming streets full of bars, restaurants and shops where all the tourists hang out when they’re not at the temples. There, Mark was courageous enough to try the Fish foot massage (thousands of tiny fishies suck and nip at your feet). Besides that, we got to savour on very delicious Cambodian versions of western foods as well as traditional dishes (the “amok“, fish in coconut milk cooked in banana leaves, is out of this world!) and Mark also drank lots of the local brew, Angkor Beer. As for strange/exotic foods, we behaved ourselves this time and only tried some grilled snake and crocodile.

We both agree that Siem Reap is one of our favourite places on earth not only because the temples are breathtaking and the food absolutely delicious, but mostly because of the people. Although Cambodians they are still reminded of the hardship their people went through less than 25 years ago (There are numerous land mines victims every year . The tourists are reminded as well since these victims roam the streets looking to sell things or receive a donation), they are extremely joyful, respectful and have a great sense of humour. It is no wonder that it is called the “Smiling City“.

Phnom Penh

We were sad to leave Siem Reap but excited to see a new city for us, the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh. So after a 6-hour bus ride we arrived at Phnom Penh and were greeted by the most aggressive drivers (tuk-tuk drivers) I’ve ever encountered to date, I had to hide behind Mark out of fear. Quickly I understood that Phnom Penh is very different then Siem Reap! The city is much bigger and more a lot more urban, and it is much dirtier and poorer with tons of beggars. People are not used to tourists like they are in Siem Reap and they tend to stare a lot more, and they are not as friendly, inviting, nor funny as in Siem Reap. The tuk-tuk drivers here are very unreliable and dishonest; we had one ditch us while walking his tuk-tuk because he found someone willing to pay more than us, one who changed the fare on us once we arrived at destination (Mark taught this one a lesson…no no there was no violence.) and a few who promised to way to bring us back and just disappeared on us.

Although we were not charmed by the Cambodia capital, we still got to see some interesting attractions during our 3 night, two day stay. First we visited the chilling Cheong Ek Killing Fields which is an abandoned concentration style camp once run by the evil Khmer Rouge regime. The fields still exist today for the people of Cambodia and tourists to learn, remember and not forget the great tragedy occurred and the terror that reigned. Your visit to the site allows you to witness the mass graves which were used to bury thousands of innocent people, trees where they smashed babies against to kill them, a museum, and most touching, a commemorative stupa where hundreds of skulls and bones of the genocide victims are laid to rest in full view.

All of this still did not prepare us for our next historical destination, the S21 ex-prison, which is another site utilized for remembrance purposes. This high-school turned prison housed the many genocide victims before they were sent to the Killing Fields by the Khmer Rouge. We got to visit the entire prison, enter each creepy cell, and see actual pictures of victims chained to their bed, being tortured, mutilated or dead. Also on display were the mug-style pictures of thousands of innocent people before their deaths. These pictures were taken by the Khmer Rouge officials in order to document the killings.

On our second day we visited the much less depressing he National Museum, which holds thousands of artefacts from the Temples of Angkor, and the Royal Palace, which was pretty nice but nothing too impressive considering that most of it was off-limits to visitors. We also got to see a few markets in Phnom Penh, like the Russian Market, which sells many famous western brands being manufactured in Cambodia like Gap, Banana Republic, Element, Quicksilver, Abercrombie & Fitch, American Outfitters, Levis, etc., at a fraction of the price back home. Unfortunately we don’t have the room in our backpacks to take advantage of all the good, cheap clothes.

Next on our itinerary is Vietnam, again….a third time this year! We said goodbye to Cambodia and boarded our bus for Ho Chi Minh City to experience our first overland crossing on this RTW trip.

By the way, our next blog will have pictures! :) Thankfully the virus is gone and we now back up our files! ;)

Posted by thanh13 07:40 Archived in Cambodia Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

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