Sep 8, 2013 - Pacific    No Comments

Squats, deadlifts and Polynesian hip shaking awesomeness…

So after a night of broken sleep Ali knocked on my door bang on at 5:30am and off we went still in the dark to fill up our water bottles and up the hill through the main village. And then I was shown to a local saw dust like gym that had everything that we needed (read oly bars, plates, squat rack, pull up bar and some dumbbells). Apparently, it was initially funded by the local government to help local sports teams improve their performance but then snap and the funds were magically cut and diverted somewhere more worthwhile (DOH!) but at least the equipment was still there…

aitutaki gym 1

I was amazed how naturally and well Ali moves! I guess it just shows that not sitting on his glutes all day in the office and then on the sofa in front of a screeching box helps with maintaining the natural human movements that sometimes take me weeks to reintroduce to the lives of westerners.

After a few squats, deadlifts, lunges and pull ups  I promised Ali a decent programme to go with his rugby training and we agreed to talk about his diet another day as it was time for him to set off to work.

ootu beach and lagoon

I was seriously worried that he wasn’t going to be able to dance in the local island night show I was invited to later that evening as I pushed him a little on his squats… I guess we can only see later!

aitutaki breakfast

… and once again the day was amazing with yet another awesome breakfast overlooking the sea on my little decking and a cycle trip around the island where I not only swam in the lagoon at Ootu Beach but then also discovered a little deserted strip of sand that got me meditating and changed the way I look at life potentially forever…

deserted beach 2

I nearly killed a baby chicken on my way as it was desperately trying to escape a big truck approaching in the opposite direction… The bike nearly fell apart but who cares really! I loved my trip and tremendously excited got ready for the Island Night at Tamanu Beach, where I tasted some more local food and loved the dance, drums and fire show to then be horribly embarrassed trying to dance like the locals and failing miserably (your pelvis is not meant to move that way by the way!). I’d have thought that stuff like that wasn’t really my cup of tea but I loved it really… (no pictures of it sorry as my camera’s battery diet, probably for the better;))

my bike on ootu

One of the most amazing moments of the day however was meeting a couple that left their day to day lives to sail the Pacific and even though it was originally meant to be a 12 moths gap year for them, there they were 5 years later still going strong and circling the South Pacific for the second time loving it more than ever! You can check out their story here.

boats

I’ve had it with Europe! I want to be back on the road… and I have a feeling it will happen quite quickly!

Sep 6, 2013 - Pacific    No Comments

The smell of freedom…

– Can you smell it?

– No???

– Really?

– Nah, not really…

– There’s a distinct smell in the air. Are you sure you can’t smell it?

– Nah I really can’t…

– Well, this is my life; this is what freedom smells like…

This is what Ali said to me. Ali Rino, catain of Titi ai Tonga (The Wind Of The South) of  the Te Vaka Cruises I went on on Wednesday, my second day on the beautiful island of Aitutaki.

titi ai tonga

He stopped and asked me that question while walking around the stunning One Foot Island (that truly is a postcard perfect little motu) while we talked about my life in the UK and his 26 years spent in the Cooks between both Rarotonga and Aitutaki.

one foot island 2

I was lost for words, truly gobsmacked and flabbergasted (feel free to enter another similar adjective of your choice in here)!

It took me a moment to put myself back together and continue the conversation.

There are pros and cons of living in such remote little place but if you spend your free time playing guitar with your friends on a deserted island that most can only dream of being on under the full moon shining over the lagoon and making the sand look silvery  – golden under the sparkling stars what more can you ask for really?

one foot island

Another one of those moments, where I had to inhale deeply just to steady myself and snap back into consciousness to continue our conversation.

The last couple of days were filled with cultural interaction, meeting the locals both on a touristy and personal level when I got to experience their real life here on the island.

The cruise was awesome! And I’d definitely recommend it to anyone. Especially with the crazy dude on board, one of the Raro day tour crowd, singing, dancing and generally making a loon of himself to everyone else’s delight. What a guy!

loon

It was my first opportunity to taste some local delicacies like steamed young taro leaves, arrowroot and the lovely jelly like coconut and banana dessert I can never remember the name of.

Swimming with giant fish, snorkeling in the lagoon, watching hermit crabs make little shells their home, visiting some of the most stunning islets and beaches in the world with water so amazingly turquoise and the sand so white that it makes your eyes hurt were just some of the day’s highlights. It ended with setting up a cheeky training session in a local gym with Ali the next day to help him with his rugby training and work on his technique a little…

hermit crab

giant fish

A good but still jet lag broken sleep was on the agenda to then wake up super early to train at 5:30 am before Ali has to hit ‘the office’ yet again and spend the day out in the lagoon…

Sep 5, 2013 - Pacific    No Comments

And 37 hours later here I am – in the Cook Islands

Reeeeewind…

It feels like it’s been the 3rd of September for 3 days now and I am struggling to get my head around the date and time but I guess no need to worry about it for at least another 3 weeks…

Raro welcomed me with a lovely cool breeze. Felt a bit sad and broken being at the airport on my own. Welcomed by Papa Jake…. a local artist that has been playing his ukulele to both welcome and bid farewell to all travellers come rain or shine for more than 20 years! Everyone seemed to be with someone, arriving on holidays, visiting family, going to weddings…

raro airport

Had to secretly wipe down a few little tears rolling down my cheek uncontrollably and suck it up making my way across the road to the Pacific Aquarius Hotel that was my home for the night before being whisked away to the most beautiful lagoon of the Pacific that is Aitutaki in the morning.

All I could hear all night was the sound of crashing waves on the beach and after the roosters decided to wake me up after just 3 hours sleep I opened my blinds to see this… WOW!

aquarius view

Spoke to a lovely granddad over brekkie to discover he was a marine surveyor living in Tahiti and coming over to the Cooks regularly for work every couple of months. What a life eh?

Flight over to Aitutaki was fairly painless and it was just absolutely stunning watching the lagoon appear in the distance… You really think you can see things like this only on the telly or on a postcard! Crazy!

aitutaki bird's eye 2

After a super warm welcome by Sepa – the tourism officer on the beautiful little gem and my hosts at Rino’s beach bungalows I spent my first day wandering around little town (if you can call it that?) and sourcing some fresh local veggies and Mahi Mahi that has just been delivered to the local shop and cut into portions. WOW once again! Local and fresh food at it’s finest.

food shop aitutaki

As cool as that was I couldn’t help myself but feel sad when I saw a text book example of milk bottle syndrome when a local girl no older than 3 or 4 maybe smiled at me in a local shop and all her front teeth were rotten and gone from the excess consumption of sugary soft drinks and other western crap that not only Polynesians but no one ever was meant to consider food… It’s really disturbing seeing that I am the only one buying fresh produce while everyone else, both locals and tourists leave with several loaves of what can’t even be called white toast bread and a few tins of meat like MRM rubbish. I’ll leave it here as I could go on forever and this is definitely a separate subject for another time.

aitutaki cooking

In just a couple of days on the road on my own I realised how ‘out there’ it was for me to brave the journey and set off on my own (I know some of you see it as norm but I’ve not done anything like that ever before) but at the same time I feel strangely sheltered and anxious, a bit scared of exploring on my own. I guess the next 3 weeks will be about discovering, as much as the world around me but also myself… Me myself and I… After all…

‘it is the journey that brings us happiness, not the destination’

Anyway… after cooking some food and snapping a few sunset pictures that will be my closest friend for the next week I passed out reading a book on the sofa.

 aitutaki sunset 2

I’ve been horrendously jet lagged… I guess it will take me a few days to get over it!

 

Sep 3, 2013 - Pacific    No Comments

Back on the road again… Pacific bound.

So this is it… It really is happening!

Parting with C was hard. And on several occasions I felt like turning back round and running after him. As much as I am looking forward and am excited about my first solo adventure I can’t imagine not sharing it all with him. I miss him tremendously already.

IMG_2667

I am a little bit anxious and a tad nervous I think… Why? I am not sure. Maybe because of the unknown always being a little unnerving. But here I am after a glass of bubbles to calm my nerves before boarding, a 12.5 hour encounter with the new Airbus A380, a 4 hour stopover and another 10 hours this time flirting with a Boeing, back on the NZ ground, soaking up the Southern Hemisphere sun wondering why I ever left…

Stopover in KL wasn’t too bad after all but the two long flights absolutely ruined my body. I wonder how long it will take to recover…

bird's eye auckland

Butterflies in my tummy flying over Auckland’s CBD and now trying to catch just a glimpse of fresh air after spending the last god knows how many hours in artificial air.

Sitting on a bench just outside the main terminal, watching people being shuttled around to pick up their camper vans, knowing they’ll have the time of their life makes me smile but I can feel just a little stab under my sternum at the same time…

auckland airport

Another 7 hours and I’ll be on the plane to Raro, to the Cook Islands – the best-kept secret of the Pacific.

I want to be back on the road again… I am happy here!

 

Jan 7, 2012 - SE Asia    No Comments

Malaysia bound – our double flight trip from BKK to Kuala Lumpur

The time has come to move on and leave the islands behind… Booooo hoooo, sniff sniff and all that.

After somewhat ridiculous start to our journey to BKK airport we cruised down the highway at the speed of a mini rocket in our private mini van and managed to get to Suvranabhumi with a few hours to spare. That resulted in us eating some very bad food and spending a small fortune on Starbucks. We got to Phuket airport for our second leg of the journey south and proceeded to find a little quiet spot for our overnight stay but failed miserably. With a gigantic pack of local tourists screaming at each other instead of talking and getting their kids to wee in the bin (!!!) next to our seats as clearly the toilets do not exist at international airports we endured in a little people watching as sleep wasn’t an option. With me eventually managing to drift off, C continued to guard our backpacks while watching Step Brothers (what a classic!) once more. The night turned into the next day and once more we had to give in to the horrendous airport catering having a somewhat ridiculous breakfast of dried chicken sandwiches (when do we ever eat sandwiches!) and a portion of clearly essential at 8am dairy queen ice cream before boarding our plane to KL.

Petronas Towers at night

Petronas Towers at night

Just over an hour later we found ourselves wandering around an amazingly lemon grass and coffee smelling KL airport. Considering we sold all our guidebooks and had no map with us we did pretty well in finding our bearings. The only thing that got us was Malaysian cashpoint with its keyboard the other way round (yeah, the 7 8 9s were on top instead of the bottom). Luckily we didn’t get our card eaten as one of us stayed with it and noticed just in time.

We got ourselves straight into the heart of KL’s China Town and proceeded to find our next accomodation. How it reminded me of London’s Soho and China Town but just that little bit messier and just a tad smellier than what I lived next to for over 4 years… How random it was when we ended up in Soho Town Hotel…and yet again in a room with twin beds and no windows (joy!). Done it once before in Cambodia but seriously! I didn’t know that the newly engaged tend to sleep in separate beds only a week after proposal. This is what you call running on a tight budget but yet refusing to stay in a hole that was recommended by a dude on a bike that relentlessly followed us for over an hour until we managed to run away and hide in our new home for the next few days.

Once settled in our windowless box  we moved on to try and I can’t stress it enough TRY and find some food.

Fast forward 2 days and I know we were well and truly spoilt with all other SE Asian cuisines but all of you raving on about Malaysian food please holler at me as this has so far been the most frustrating couple of days on our travels trying to desperately find nice tasting local delicacies.

Having finally found some semi decent grub in the Central Market we went off to check out the amazing structure that are The Petronas Towers and boy were we amazed! Refusing to get sucked into the touristy hullabaloo we skipped the Sky Bridge and people watched once again waiting for the sun to go down and witness the towers in their full glory – at night. Wow! What a spectacle it was.

After one of the best night’s sleeps, mission breakfast failed once more and we were left with nothing better but wandering over to Jalan Alor (just off Bukit Bintang) that apparently is meant to be the place to be if Malaysian food is what you’re after and guess what… We ended up with one of the most tasteless meals so far on our travels (and did I say it was a rip off too).With both os us loving food so much sadly KL was one of the biggest disappointments so far.

The next day was spent wandering around Kuala Lumpur’s shopping district, including KL’s Pavilion and Bintang. Neither of us have ever seen anything like it before. We thought BKK’s paragon and MBK were big for shopping. How wrong were we. Several, multi-storey shopping malls that I swear were only there to provide an air-conned hide out from constant scorching heat and the sun.

Buddy Bears on Tour in KL

Buddy Bears on Tour in KL

Witnessing the 143 Buddy Bears on Tour that made their way to Malaysian Capital all the way from Europe somewhat made our stay in KL worthwhile. How happy was I really to have found a Polish Buddy Bear that was colourful and quirky (while his GB friend was somewhat disappointing).

Polish Buddy Bear in KL

Polish Buddy Bear in KL

 

Together with a trip to a suburban hill to get a glimpse of an amazing skyline that is Kuala Lumpur with yet again no food and a drink only but hey ho, it was all worth it!I wish I has some serious photog gear with me as my little point and shoot was incapable of capturing what I’d like to show you just now…

KL skyline at night

KL skyline at night

Next stop Melaka…

Nov 30, 2011 - SE Asia    No Comments

The love, the hate and all the other mixed up feelings… Cambodia continued.

It only took me a month to contemplate and make my mind up as to what I really think of Cambodia… Having been to Vietnam and Laos so far and ending up back in Thailand I must say the feelings towards the country of Angkor are still quite mixed up!

Back streets of Siem Reap

Back streets of Siem Reap

Again, I really did like Siem Reap and got to experience some of the most amazing things out there. Take the evening school for disadvantaged kids that was set up by a random guy that calls himself Jimmy, just because he wants to help and hopes that some of these knowledge thirsty kiddos end up in universities while otherwise they’d probably end up on the street or in the scam fuelled tourism industry, if they’re lucky. Jimmy sacrifices his private life 6 times a week and gets volunteers involved in teaching English to kids between the age of 3 to 13. How incredible was the experience when we stumbled upon his school on one of the evening walks in Siem Reap. I couldn’t help but stood there sobbing as the little ones run up to us to introduce themselves and ask how we were to practice their skills. Jimmy – the head teacher, said to us that nothing has so far been provided by the Cambodian government. All they have came from people like us – tourists! We spent the evening helping the kids with their spelling and talking to some of them, especially the ‘deputy teacher’, a 13 year old boy called Tommy that aspires to go to uni and one day to become a lawyer… An eye opener for both of us!!!

Faces of Bayon

Faces of Bayon

The touristy side of Siemp Reap however left a bit of a sour taste in my mouth. Not only all trips and sightseeing that you want to do are very pricy, you can’t even see the money going back to community… The Angkor Wat and the other temples are the prime example. Paying $20 to get in you’d expect something pretty special and all you get is massess of begging children (some as little as 3 and able to say not much more than ‘give me dollar’!) battered roads with potholes the size you’ve never seen before and just general mess and madness everywhere. Don’t get me wrong it is a place to see if you are in Cambodia but will I go back again… I don’t think so! Also being a geographical geek that I am, I was super excited to see the Tonle Sap lake on the Mekong and I did see it… Only on the map, sadly! To go to one of the floating villages and enjoy a 2 hour boat ride on the lake will set you back another $25 and at the end of it your local boat driver asks for tips as he never sees any of the money you originally paid for the trip. Having read a bit about it and spoken to a few people we decided against it and set off to the Capital – Phnom Penh

Royal Palace in Phnom Penh

Royal Palace in Phnom Penh

In Phnom Penh we got to walk around and chill out for a couple of days cheering for the all so enthusiastic local people exercising to music at the river side! What a view for a fitness geek like me! Wandering through the side streets and local, ever so real markets was also part of the experience. All joyful and jolly, putting the sad experiences of mass tourism in Siem Reap behind, we went on a half day trip to get to know a bit more about the bloody and tragic truth that is Khmer Rouge. Let me put it that way… After visiting the S-21 – the genocide museum and the killing fields our moods turned rather gloomy and we both needed some quiet time to digest it all and I don’t think either of our brains simply wanted to acknowledge that something like this has ever happened. Now I know why mum and dad never wanted to take me on a trip to Oswiecim (Auschwitz) back home untill I was old enough and ready to decide for myself whether I want to see it or not.

Through the window of S21 prison

After an evening of brain storming and deciding what to do next we followed Simone and Tanner and headed down south to meet up with them in Sihanoukville (aka Very Lame Ville or simply Shit Ville as we now call it). It is meant to be the place to go when Cambodian sea side is concerned and… yeah, if you like Magaluf or Zante kinda feel with lots of shitfaced kids and people generally looking out to get wasted.com then off you go! It’s defo a place for you… We instead decided to hide in a little French bakery downstairs from where we stayed and spent our evenings catching up with S and T before we moved on to Vietnam. On one of the nights however, when the time came to say good bye to the guys and see them set off to Phnom Penh we ended up drowning our sorrows of not seeing them for a while in several glasses of Ankor beer and jumping in a bar swimming pool at 2 am in the morning just to do some planche press ups on the side (C) and pulll ups on the statue in the middle of it (me). If the 3 days in Lame Ville were worth anything, that was definitely it!

After the drunken shennanigans of S Ville we headed back to Phnom Penh to experience a bit more scamming action and me finding ants instead of chicken in my fried rice before heading off to the mad and crazy Saigon.

Cambodia… it’s been a pleasure to meet you. Will I come back though? Unless it’s to see Jimmy and the kids at the Siem Reap evening school I’ll probably have to say I’ve had my maximum dose of the Kingdom of Angkor.

M
Nov 17, 2011 - SE Asia    No Comments

Seeing the new Natural Wonder of The World – Halong Bay cruise

What an incredible experience! To start with, let me explain. As it’s getting closer to the big day, 21st of November – C’s bday, we got to treat ourselves a little, courtesy of the Wildes.  THANK YOU!!!
We booked a table and had an amazing meal at the French/Fusion restaurant La Badiane in Hanoi. You know how big we are into our food so experiencing the fine skills of their head chef Benjamin was a pur
e pleasure to our taste buds (not so much when he sent us a couple of glasses of Calvados to make sure our dinner went down wel, hahaha)!
La Badiane - Hanoi

La Badiane – Hanoi

After a lovely night out we headed off on a two day cruise in the famous Halong Bay – the newly estabilsed natural wonder of the world. Having never slept on a boat I was a little sceptical and didn’t know what to think of it. We paid a little extra to avoid the overcrowded junk boats with the masses and what it looked like did the itinerary the other way round, getting places after or before everyne else which was lovely and added on to the charm of the experience.

IMG_2274

Halong Bay Beauty

What an experience it was! Words can’t describe how beautiful this place is. You just hope that the Unesco donations go in the right hands and make sure it’s preserved as best as it can. The bay covers approximately 1.5000 square km and has up to 2000 lime stone islands popping up over the surface. The main part of it is nearly 350sq km and has around 775 islands. You can only imagine how calming and mind clearing it was, sitting on the outside deck of the boat with a glass of wine and staring into the blue and green never ending beauty. Incredible! I can’t even describe how and why I managed to chill out so much that I had the best sleep I’ve had since we went away that night. I actually can’t remember sleeping that well for a long, long time back in London.

Apart from all the chilling out we managed to do a few bit more touristy bits like kayaking through the caves and one of the floating villages (the locals must be so fed up with all the tourist) which consists of little platforms floating on big styrofoam blocks with shacks built on top. It still does not stop them from having full on tv and sound systems powered by mini generators at the back of their platforms! We also did a mini coooking presentation and raced folding up spring rolls so that we can enjoy them for dinner. We sadly missed the sun rise tai chi class as the bed was just too comfortable…

Spring roll racing

Spring roll racing

You’ll get to see it all in pictures once I manage to upload them all somewhere in the world of the slowest internet connections on planet to see for yourself what I mean.

I absolutely loved it and can’t wait to go on a proper cruise some time soon, a somewhat changed approach to sea travel on my side.

Love you all!

M x

Nov 14, 2011 - SE Asia    No Comments

North vs. South – being a tourist in Hanoi

So here we go… South East Asia strikes again. We have been kind of stuck in Hanoi for probably a couple of days too long. Only because we both desperately needed to switch off  from the mad running around like crazy nutcase tourists. We collectively decided to drop Sapa from our Vietnam schedule as it would mean spending 3 out of 4 nights in transit, including a 24hour bus journey to Laos… JOY! Anyway this is not what i wanted to talk about in this blog.After the extatic experiences in Dalat we headed to the sea side town of Nha Trang. A bit sceptical as Lonely (read useless) Planet calls it the Party Central of Vietnamese coast we landed our bums in a really nice and cosy hotel right by the longest and widest beach we’ve seen so far on our travels. Nha Trang does indeed have the bulit up, European feel to it with its big developments and the abundance of hotels, backpacker hostels, bars, restaurants and party places, however it is really easy to leave it all behind and lose yourself walking along the beach. You’re not getting anywhere near as much hassle as in Scam… ekhem, Cambodia and you’re pretty much left to your own activities, still having the option of popping just around the corner to have a decent lunch or dinner. Or you can end up drinking buckets or double vodkas if you meet old uni friends you’ve not seen for 7 years! Nadia and Arek, you know who you are !

Cliff and Arek working those double vodkas... bad idea!

Cliff and Arek working those double vodkas… bad idea!

The people everywhere in Nha Trang (apart from the train station) and the rest of Southern Vietnam were absolutely lovely. When we ventured out to the local market everyone invited us to try their specialities that were cooked on the spot and I even managed to buy a top for the whole 15000 dong which is about 30p. Been wearing it constantly since then! We also found a true street food place at which meals consisted of a local soup, portion of rice, fried egg and a very tasty grilled pork chop, all for  a silly 25000!!! We ended up getting take aways to eat on our longest so far, 27 hour train journey to Hanoi.

Our fav street food in Nha Trang

Our fav street food in Nha Trang

After paying 1.5 million for your soft sleeper train ticket you’d expect at least half decent conditions… Boy how wrong we were! Not only was the train about an hour late, the carriages looked like taken out of a war zone, with dirty linen and generally dirt and filth everywhere. Oh well, at least our sleeping bags came handy! How surprised were we when out of 5 Western people ont he whole train we eneded up with 2 Polish people in the same cabin! At least we could communicate, well… I could! The fellow travellers were equally as disgusted with the conditions as they said it was the most expensive yet the dirtiest train they so far took in Vietnam. Laughing and joking at how bad the train was and how much it reminded us of the old Polish sleeper trains we kept ourselves entertained until the food arrived… Food for locals that is. As we are Westerners the catering trolley and staff flew past our cabin not even offering us a drink. I poked my head out and asked for some food and was offered the crapiest looking bits of chicken and dry rice while the locals were feasting on stewed beef with veggies and steamed rice. It only took me 10 minutes to argue with them and say that yes I will eat what the locals are eating and no I don’t want to pay for the food as everyone else is getting it free! One of the guys stormed into our cabin snatching the food away and said NO FREE, YOU PAY! I gave up at this point and got C to hand over the wallet. The crew once they got their dosh just walked off laughing… That was the first glimpse of what we were to experience being
tourists in North Vietnam.

I got myself ranting again I know, but I guess I just have to get it off my chest so I can leave it behind and move on. Out of the 4 nights we spent in Hanoi on 3 of them we ate at the same lovely little place called Gecko as it was near impossible to get any decent food on the street without being completely ripped off. Paying 3 x as much as locals… Come on! Give me a break! Most of people would either ignore you once you wanted to buy something or not engage in the art of haggling (which is a necessity in South East Asia) purely because you are the Westerner and they don’t care! Getting anything sorted is near impossible as everyone gives you completely different information that basically suits their business at the time and getting our tickets booked for the 24 hour bus journey to Laos only took us a day!!! It’s best to ask open ended questions and see what happens as otherwise they just simply repeat what you said to them to make sure you hear what you want to hear. They do it to the Westerners you’d think… It all peaked last night when sitting in a mini road side, pavement bar we saw a big, swanky mercedes being pulled over and the local girl driving it being pulled out by 6 policemen and asked for money simply because she had a nice car. We only fully knew what was going on as a Vietnamese lady sitting next to us explained what was going on. Apparently the driver didn’t know ‘the right phone number’ to get the police off her back as she spend way too much time talking to them and whoever was on the other end of her blackberry. Eventually everyone smiled as she handed over a few bank notes and they let her go… Spoke to my folks about it and dad just commented how it reminds him of Poland back in the day.

Those of you who have been to SE Asia will either agree or just say that I am a Western snob used to all the conveniences and not going with the flow of Vietnamese culture… I would not agree on this occasion. I do quite enjoy haggling with local people, especially in Thailand as you can often get into really interesting little conversations and get what you want fairly cheap. I love the local food and I don’t mind paying a little extra but all that’s been going on up Norf has just been ridiculous and I honestly am looking forward to leaving, which is quite sad!

Chilling out with Simone, Tanner and Leonie in Hanoi

Chilling out with Simone, Tanner and Leonie in Hanoi

C's favourite (NOT!) water puppet show

C’s favourite (NOT!) water puppet show

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Don’t get me wrong, we had some lovely experiences like C’s early birthday treats, a few lovely meals and met some lovely people. We went to the famous Water Puppet Show which gave C a banging headache (the high pitch singing was just a bit too much, lol!) and met up with Simone and Tanner (a fellow traveller couple we met on the bus to Siem Reap) a few more times but enough is enough and I guess we both can say that what Western tourist get to experience up north is just a piss take!

Till next time!

M

Nov 5, 2011 - SE Asia    No Comments

Eeeeeasy! Strawberries and the 80s feel.

Our last evening in Saigon went pretty much like that:
Random dude on the street: You want to come for drink?
Me: No, thank you.
RDOTS: You need hotel room?
Me: No, we’re leaving.
RDOTS: You want another piercing before you go?
Me: No, thank you!
RDOTS: Come on, one more…
Me: NO! I don’t want anything!
RDOTS: You want marijuana?
Me: Eh…???
Nothing like being resourceful! Clearly Vietnamese street vendors have anything on offer. If you need it, you know where to come.So off we went again, on an overnight bus journey. I must say after this trip I’m not sure if I’ll ever get on a bus again. I’d rather walk I guess… Well, maybe not but in the last couple of weeks I developed serious ‘I hate bus journeys in Asia’ approach. And the music they play on them… The rant could go on.We arrived in Dalat early in the morning and got dropped off at our guesthouse that was meant to be our home for the next 2 nights. The owner seemed a really nice old man although pretty battered after being woken up at 7am. Unusual as most people around here start their days really, really early. As early as we used to back in London. Good old days being up at 5 am, NOT! Anyway, he showed us our room that wasn’t much bigger than the double bed inside it but we though for $8 it was a bargain not to be missed. We settled well in our chicken coop and after a nice hot shower decided to head out to get some breakfast. As we were just about to walk out of the hotel two guys on motorbikes magically turned up to offer us their ‘easy riders’ services. The easy riders in Dalat are a bunch of wicked guys on big motorbikes taking you on trips around the city, out to the countryside or on longer several days long trips from Dalat to other Vietnamese destinations – the best way to see Vietnam.Having read a thing or two about the jolly bunch we were excited to meet our host’s ‘friends’ and decide which trip we wanted to do. Having a few options and a quote in our heads we said to the boys we’ll get back to them in the afternoon, once we make up our minds and decide where we want to go. How lucky we were not to pay them any money or booking the trip with them…

We walked around the city of Dalat that in places looks as if the time has stopped and really reminds me Poland in the 80s (mum and dad asked, how the hell do you remember the 80s… well I really am that old folks, hahaha!) and they sell strawberries everywhere as the climate is much cooler and fruit and veg friendly than anywhere else in Vietnam. We even found an old school market that literally had anything in there from fruit and veg and fish and fresh meat to live chickens having their necks snapped as you bought them (scary!). This is how it used to be!

Local market in Dalat

Local market in Dalat

Having found some nicer bits to it and a bit more of a central part of town how surprised we were to find out that the Easy Riders (the real ones!) actually have their main office and are all uniformed with licences, insurance and all that kind of official malarky… Slightly confused and a bit pissed off that we were quoted quite a bit more by the easy rider wannabes we decided to try and make our way out of having to speak to them again and making ourselves scarce in the chicken coop hotel… But we didn’t have anywhere to stay! No problem, says Mr Tan, one of the Easy Riders pack and showes us to the most ridiculous place we have stayed in so far, right next door to their offices. The place has only been opened  3 weeks and is brand spanking new with massive beds, en suite bathrooms and may as well be a 4 star hotel. And how much a night in this little gem? $10!!! That is just not right.

Les Sapins 60

Les Sapins 60

So after plotting our little escape from the other place, we stayed there one night and off we went to check in into Les Sapins 60 and were welcomed by Mr Tan and Kim our Easy Rider guides for the day. Que, the girl working 18 hour days (another ridiculous thing!) made us omelettes and green tea for breakfast. And here we go… We had the most amazing and incredible day so far at the back of Tan and Kim’s motorbikes having seen places we would never have otherwise seen and these guys’ knowledge is second to none… Someone even called them wikipedia on wheels.

Mr Tan and Mr Kim our Easy Riders for the day

Mr Tan and Mr Kim our Easy Riders for the day

We started the day with visiting a temple and a bit of exercise as they made us walk up a massive hill so we can ‘talk about our love’ while overlooking the city of Dalat and then drove us to a stunning viewpoint so we can have a look at the incredible terraced fields where Vietnamese people grow anything from strawberries and cauliflowers to ‘totatoes’ as mr Tan calls them, hahahaha! All the work is done by hand as there’s no way for any serious farming machines to get up to the fields (Dalat is over 1500 above sea level).

Then we went off to see the flower plantations where most of the pretty things you boys buy your girlfriends grow. Yeah, one savvy Dutch man married a beautiful Vietnamese lady once and realised how good the soil is to grow beautiful flowers and is now making his millions exporting them all over Europe. If you think one piece costs an equivalent of about 10p in Vietnam and back home you have to dish out about 3 squid to please your lady… You do the maths! Unreal! Bamboo workshop, silk factory and a coffee plantation followed. My head was buzzing from all the beauty and amazingness of the locals’ work and how stunning the scenery was only for Tan and Kim to exceed themselves and take us to the Elephant waterfall. I have never seen anything like it. We walked to the bottom of it to have a ‘little shower’ and then snapped some piccies of the incredible thing. It was time for lunch…

And what a feast it was! If you ever do the trip, let these guys order food for you. The only question they ask is if there’s anything you don’t or can’t eat and then the feast turns up. Absolutely stupid amounts of food. Spring rolls with pork, a massive plate of stir fried beef and veggies, chicken, stewed fish, soup, rice and omelletes… You name it! And it was well yummy! The best food we’ve had in Vietnam so far. And you know what’s the best part? All for under 7 pounds for all 4 of us. Disgusting!

The oh so lovely Vietnamese food

The oh so lovely Vietnamese food

We have visited coffee plantation earlier in the day and Tan told us how Vietnam is the second largest coffee exporter in the world after Brasil so it was time to try some of the most expensive coffees in the world… The weasel coffee. We have tried the Vietnamese brew before and it really is ‘the thing’. Rich chocolatey and smooth. But this stuff takes to the next level… Well, let me explain. The whole idea of weasel coffee comes from the times when local villages were built on the edge of the jungle and since most of the fields are filled with coffe plants the forest weasels had something to feast on. The coffee beans before they’re dried and roasted are really sweet and have that jelly like coating that I am assuming all the weasels like so much. The thing is that they don’t actually digest the beans and they come out the other end… They are then picked up dried and roasted… You get the idea! In the past farmers would actually go in the forest to pick up the precious weasel’s thing but now most of the stuff comes from weasel coffee farms. The process is still exactly the same. The weasel eats it, doesn’t digest the bean, it comes out the other end and boom! Here’s the most expensive shit in the world… literally! And it also tastes amazing, believe it or not!

Weasel Coffee

Weasel Coffee

We then visited another pagoda with a giant laughing buddha sitting in the garden, the guys made us walk a little in the hills again to make sure we don’t get lazy after lunch and we then went back to Dalat to visit one of the most unreal buildings I’ve ever seen – the crazy house. A massive building that looks like a tree! The only comparison that comes to mind is Gaudi’s houses in Barcelona but again taken to the next level. We have some pictures of it so you’ll get the chance to see it when I upload them later.

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The Elephant Waterfall

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Laughing Buddha

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We then got back to the centre and had a lovely dinner at our new well underpriced guest house and decided to do absolutely nothing the day after. Having done zero in the morning I decided to upload some pictures for you all to see and apart from getting several viruses on my usb stick it only took me 3 hours to get 100 pics online… That’s how fast the internet can be around here. Joy! Anyway the rest of the day was pretty chilled out and after a lovely dinner interrupted by a jolly drunken Vietnamese man trying to speak to us we retired to bed before heading off to Nha Trang the next day.

I must say Dalat made it for me! Probably one of the best things we’ve seen and done so far!

M x

Oct 30, 2011 - SE Asia    No Comments

Hello Vietnam! Saigon… You’re mental!

So here we are! Hello Vietnam…

After leaving all the mixed up feelings behind we arrived with an open mind and looking forward to experiencing the madness of Saigon everyone has been preparing us for over the last few days. How right they were is unreal… The 2 days we spent here were nothing short of awesome! The first night was focused on learning the ropes of how to get across the street in the city of 5million motorbikes and yes, you do it like the locals do – very very SLOWLY! They won’t stop, they may just slow down a little and that is they’re looking.

They won't stop... forget it!

They won’t stop… forget it!

Anyway, after withdrawing a couple of million from a local ATM (we’re millionaires for once!) and booking a trip to the Cu Chi tunnels, we hit the sack and tried, well at least me, to have a good night sleep which unfortunately did not happen. Insomniac, frustrated and home sick I stared at the ceiling and after not much more than 3 hours sleep we ventured out to check out the Vietnamese War remnants aka Cu Chi tunnels and the Museum. It is incredible how little the Vietnamese had available i.e. some their weapons were nothing more than tools they used to use to hunt animals, yet they still managed to build over 200km of 3 level tunnels, some as deep as 12m (that had kitchens, hospital rooms and fighting bunkers) and kick the American’s assess! We went underground to crawl only about a 100m distance and was just a little bit in awe of the Vietnamese soldiers doing some 5-6k crawls with nothing more than a flashlight… FYI… being as diddy as we are we still found it hard and nearly got stuck at one point and they said they widened the tunnels for tourists… Incredible! After visiting Cu Chi we went to the War Remnants Museum and stared at the American tanks and helicopters, especially the giant chinook for ages.

War Remnants Museum Saigon

War Remnants Museum Saigon

We then went to see the incredible ‘Requiem’ photography exhibition that Tim Page managed to put together in remembrance of the war. I just hope I can get a book with them all in somewhere for my dad as I know he’d love that! What we saw is just hard to describe so I won’t even try. Look up some of the photos online to see what I mean. The most disturbing was the last part of the exhibition showing and talking about the victims of chemical weapons aka ‘agent orange’ of which one of the major suppliers was Monsanto… Yes, that Monsanto that is responsible for most of the genetically modified food these days. We see the victims of agent orange here on the streets everyday and some of the views are pretty horrifying so I’ll leave the judgement up to you… We also saw some of these guys working on traditional handicrafts in local workshops dotted around the main tourist trails and some of the work they do is just incredible but I still don’t really know what to make of it as no one really knows how much of the profits actually go to the people that spend days carving a plate or a vase that we then buy as a souvenir and forget about quickly after our return to the homeland… Anyway, on a more positive note the next day proved to be rather joyful as we set off on another tour to the mighty Mekong Delta that me being a bit of a geographical geek I was super excited about. And super exciting it was!

Rowing boat in the Mekong Delta

Rowing boat in the Mekong Delta

Our tour guide aka Mr Buffalo did not disappoint and kept us entertained throughout the day. We hopped on an off a rather comfy boat and travelled between some of the Mekong Delta islands visiting coconut candy workshop (made of only 3 natural I gradients this stuff is to die for!), tasting some honey tea on a bee farm and banana wine (a killer drink not so tasty!) we proceeded on to having a pork and rice lunch – rather simple followed by tasting something called a dinosaur egg and an elephant fish (straight from the Mekong) spring roll. We then walked around the local market, raced horse and donkey carts and saw some giant snakes and lizards followed by about a dozen massive crocodiles and monkeys.

Coconut candy - best sweets in the world

Coconut candy – best sweets in the world

My (and C’s) favourite part of the day was definitely the rowing boat trip. A small rowing boat on which 4 of us hopped on with two tiny Vietnamese ladies paddling away off we went on a jungle covered narrow leg of the Mekong to taste some fruit and listen to some local music. As the poor ladies have been doing their job all day they got C to help them out and paddle away which turned into his daily workout… Clearly an arm and shoulder day! Once we jumped back on the big boat Mr Buffalo announced it was ‘game over’ so we went all the way back to Saigon to have some MSG free dinner (really hard to come by) and a family like treatment from our host lady who not only let us keep our bags in the hostel after we checked out but also use her own bathroom to shower after a long day only to then treat us to some local specialities and an ice tea. What a legend! Now it’s time to say good bye to the mad Ho Chi Minh city and head into the night (hope we survive the 300km bus ride) to arrive in apparently beautiful Dalat tomorrow morning.

Stay tuned for more news!

 

M xxx

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