Rachel and Matt’s World Tour

Random header image... Refresh for more!

Up the Mekong

Hello all,

This post comes to you from Chiang Mai, as we arrived back in Thailand today. Laos was gorgeous. From Vientiane we headed north to Vang Vieng… home of tubing: the art of floating down a river in a truck inner tube, drinking too much beer laos, mud wallowing, rope swinging, dive bombing and flying of the end of a very tall concrete slide!

A definate highlight or our trip, although the travel snobs will disagree because the town is full of tv bars pumping close to 24hrs of Friends, Family Guy and The Simpsons, to westerners who are either beered up or mellowed out on ‘happy’ shakes and pizzas…But ignore them because it is a really great place to have fun and meet many new friends.

We dragged ourselves on from fun time to Luang Prabang, a pretty town full of old wats and temples. There was awesome scenery on the bus ride there, as the road winds through the mountains, but we suffered a near death experience when the bus swerved to avoid a broken down truck that was hidden around the corner, and flirted with the edge of a cliff! Somehow the guy on the back row slept through the swerving and the screaming of all the girls on the bus (including Matt)! Similarly to Vientiane, Luang Prabang is very french colonial in appearance and has great restaurants, so it was a very pleasant place to while away a few days. We took a day trip to ride an elephant and swim in the turquoise waters of an expansive waterfall area.

We spent the evenings wandering around the Hmong market where I fell in love with many bags that I was not allowed to buy.

We left Luang Prabang and headed for the border on the SLOW boat up the Mekong River. 10 hours each day for 2 days! Luckily we had good books and good company. It should have been closer to 8 hours a day but the boat kept breaking down! We stayed over night in Pak Beng the first night, which is nothing more than a cluster of guesthouses and restaurants. The second night we stayed in Huay Xai,in a cute wooden guesthouse, where one of the adorable old sisters that runs the place proceeded to explain her medical conditions to us in  great detail and for some time, bless her. A real mumsy character, she organised our transport across the river border into Thailand and onto Chiang Mai today.

That all for now, laters x

September 2, 2009   11 Comments

Cambodia and Southern Laos

Hello everyone.

Here’s what we’ve been up to in the last few weeks….

From Saigon we took a very long and tiring 12 hour bus journey up to Siem Reap in Cambodia. The journey was made much worse by the constant Vietnamese karaoke videos, which no-one seemed to be interested in! We arrived in Siem Reap late and arranged a Tuk Tuk to take us to the Temples of Angkor the next day. The temple area is huge and contains far more sites than we imagined. We have been overdosing on temples in SE Asia so opted to visit just the most famous ones, Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and Ta Phrom. Angkor Wat was the first stop and didn’t dissapoint. The place is huge, surrounded by a vast moat. We hired a guide, who explained how the temple was built and what a few of the thousands of intricate carvings meant. We had a very cloudy day, which while good for us, made the pictures a little grey. It is far more impressive in real life. Next was Angkor Thom. Built after Angkor Wat, the huge walled city housed over 1 million people at a time when London was 50 thousand strong. We passed through the very impressive walls to the main temple located in the centre. Over 100 Shiva faces are carved into the temple walls and towers so that there is no escape from her gaze! Finally we visited Ta Phrom. The first Tomb Raider movie was filmed here and you can see why. It was much more like we were expecting… collapsed ruins, huge tree roots forcing the stones apart and very atmospheric.

Rach wouldn’t do any Angelina/Lara Croft impressions for me though 🙁 . Siem Reap has a great selection of restaurants and we enjoyed a very good and very rare Mexican that night.

After we spent the next day mooching around the markets in Siem Reap we headed to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. We arranged to see the Killing Fields of Cheung Ek and the S21 prison. We have learned much about the Khmer Rouge and their regime while planning our trip, but actually seeing the methods of their extermination and the results of the torture of thousands of Cambodians, including children and even babies, was very harrowing and disturbing. We spent the second day in Phnom Penh getting our Laos visa sorted and visiting the extremely boring National Museum and Royal Palace.

Our hotel was located next to a particularly smelly fruit and fish market. There is a fruit in SE Asia called the Durian which seems to be very popular. On the way through the market late one evening the smell nearly overcame Rach who doubled over and was very nearly sick! (She has a very sensitive gag reflex). Our final stop in Cambodia was Kratie, home to the Arrawaddy river dolphins. We spent over an hour on the river watching in awe of the beautiful creatures swimming around our boat. They were too quick for our camera though, so we only managed a few shots!

The next day we passed over the border and into Laos. Only a few KMs up the road was Si Phan Dhon, a collection of large and small islands on the Mekong River. We spent 4 extremely relaxing days on the beautiful islands of Don Det and Don Khong. With nothing much to do apart from drink beer, eat, sleep and read it was a very welcome change of pace!

We hired bikes one day and enjoyed cycling to the Lyphi falls via very photogenic rice paddies and small villages. Oddly enough they also have a cracking Indian on Don Det! After we thought we had lazed around enough we headed up the Mekong to Champasak. Here we found Wat Phu Champasak a very early temple of the Khmer who built Angkor Wat 400 years later. It took a good hour of cycling in a humid 35 degrees to reach, but the view from the top terrace of the temple was well worth it. There wasn’t much else to do in Champasak so that evening we got a night bus (with real beds!) to Vientiane, capital of Laos. So far we haven’t seen much but it does seem very nice and quiet for a capital city and the food is amazing: pain au chocolat for brekky and juicy steaks for dinner thanks to the french invasion!

That’s it for now. We hear you are all enjoying a sunny summer.Rach says it would be nice to get a few more comments on the blog – is anyone still reading (apart from our parents) ?!

August 22, 2009   13 Comments

Vietnam Part 2

Hello everyone.

From Hue we took a short (for Vietnam) 4hr bus trip south to Hoi An. The old centre of Hoi An is a very pretty place with lots of small alleys between the 200 year old buildings, and lots of lantern shops lighting up the river at night. It is also the tailor capitol of Vietnam. There are literally hundreds of tailor shops in the town, offering excellent custom made clothing for bargain prices. Both Rach and myself had a few bits made, which we were very happy with.

We took a half day trip to My Son, which is an area dotted with temples from the Cham era. Unfortunately the US bombed the area during the war and destroyed much of the temples, so there weren’t many left to see.

After a few days in the sweltering heat of Hoi An, we took an overnight bus down the coast. We had started to think that rainy season in Asia was a myth, but it tipped it down as soon as we got to the beach resort that is Nah Trang. Our snorkeling trip was canceled due to the bad weather, so we didn’t really do much there to be honest.

Next stop was Mui Ne. A big stretch of beach, with great swimming and restaurants. Again the weather wasn’t really suitable for beach bumming but we did manage to get out on a scooter to the sand dunes a short ride away from our hotel. 

They were massive and not something you’d expect to find in Vietnam. We had a great laugh sliding down the dunes on plastic sheets. The same evening we went out for an Indian and had the best curry since leaving home!

Our last stop in Vietnam was Ho Chi Minh City, aka Saigon. We had a great hotel right in the middle of the action. First day we took a walk to the Reunification Palace. The palace was left in the same state as when the North Vietnamese captured Saigon, so the interior is very 70’s retro, and from the outside it looks like an office block. The same day we also visited the War Remnants Museum. This was particularly harrowing as it included very graphic photos of the war, though with very one-sided descriptions of the action.

The next day we went to Cu Chi Tunnels on a day trip. Our guide Joey, was very unintentionally funny with his controversial comments relating to race, gender, sexual preference, you name it. The tunnels were a 200km+ network of tunnels built by the Vietcong from 1954 and used to fight the French and Americans. Most are inaccessible due to the booby traps still present but the ones we climbed through were still very dark and claustrophobic. We also got to see a selection of very medieval looking traps designed to kill American troops who dared to investigate the tunnels. I also got to fire a real AK-47 on the shooting range. The noise was unbelievably loud and took Rachel by surprise. Oddly, a woman nearby couldn’t seem to stop laughing (see video page)!

That rounded off our 3 weeks in Vietnam. We both agree that it is a fantastic country with great scenery and culture, though the second half wasn’t as good as the first. The food and drink were also superb and we didn’t see a single McDonalds, Burger King, Pizza Hut or Starbucks!!

Till the next time…

August 10, 2009   3 Comments

Vietnam Part 1

Good Moooooooorning from Vietnam!

We are 11 days and 3 towns into Vietnam, and so far so great. ‘Nam is
gorgeous. We stayed in Hanoi for 5 nights as there is not a huge amount of tourist sights but it has a really good ‘feel’. It’s bustling and friendly and we enjoyed wondering around the markets and Hoen Kiem Lake in the old quarter. Paddy bought a conical hat, he says he wants to blend in with the locals. I reminded him he is an 8inch tall bear. Matt is enjoying a new adrenaline sport – road crossing. A slow, confident stride across is usually sufficient to part the tide and increase the heart rate. I’m too much of a wuss for this sport and am usually left trembling in Matt’s wake. In Hanoi we visited the Ngoc Son temple on the lake (see photo of gant stuffed turtle?!), the Ho Chi Min Mausoleum complex (see photos of his house, no photos allowed of stuffed man), and the temple of literature; a nice garden/temple area to wander round in the heat of the day.

From Hanoi we took a side trip to Halong Bay. We stayed on a chinese junk and cruised around some of the 2,000 limestone islands and caves for 2 days. We kayaked around the fish farm, where the families that live on the small boats here never go back to the mainland! In the evening we drank beers on deck, watched the sunset and talked under the stars until bedtime, the whole group avoiding our guides pleas to come downstairs and sing karaoke – man they love it here.

The next night we stayed on Cat Ba Island but after a morning climbing up what felt like a mountain in extreme humidity, we were far too tired to explore the beaches, so it was a social drink in the evening then straight back to bed.

Our next stop was Ninh Binh. From here we hired bicycles and toured the surrounding area. We visited Tam Coc for a trip in a row boat which they all seem to row with their feet! Tam Coc has to be some of the most gorgeous scenery we have seen on our whole trip; a peaceful river drifting through cave tunnels, surrounded by rice paddies and limestone cliffs. We also visited Bich Dong, a temple set in a cliff, which was worth the visit for the journey there alone. We cycled through picture postcard Vietnam; ladies working in the rice paddies, water buffalo cooling in the streams, local villages with kids tearing around on their bicycles and shouting hello.

On day two from Ninh Binh we cycled to the ancient citadel at Hoa Lu, there were a couple of temples but not much else as it has mostly been destroyed.

We are now in Hue, but leave today for Hoi An. Hue is a great town for very different reasons than Hanoi. For a start it is much more sophisticated! It is clean, and there are parks filled with sculpture all along the river, which is bridged by modern structures. We walked around the huge citadel, where the walled inner courtyards of the King are now open to all. Much was destroyed by wars and typhoons but they are busy restoring and the new builds are almost as gorgeous as the old crumbling ones. Yesterday we took a boat trip along the ‘perfume river’ (I don’t know why it’s named that – it doesn’t smell nice). Many Kings are buried in tombs along the banks and we visited a few of the most impressive of these, and the Thien Mu Pagoda where many monks still live. In ’63 one of them burned himself alive to protest the policies of the then president!

That’s all for now. Sorry it’s a long one but I expect you can tell I’m very taken with Vietnam already, hence the enthusiasm.

Laters x

PS. After hearing so much about the Top Gear Vietnam special from fellow travellers we watched it online. Apart from being hilarious it accurately portrays the Vietnam experience.

July 26, 2009   5 Comments

Island Hopping

It’s been a while since our last post and nearly a month since we arrived in Thailand.

After arriving in Phuket we had our first taste of Thai hospitality when our taxi driver conveniently forgot where our guesthouse was. After a very frustrating visit to their travel agent ‘for directions’ (and a sales pitch) we did eventually manage to get the driver back in the car and get in the general area of our hotel. After a call to the owner he managed to find us arguing with the driver at the end of the street. The driver was maintaining that after being given directions several times that he still had no idea where it was, but of course he could take us to a much nicer hotel. That’s pretty much how it works in this part of the world- not quite the land of smiles, more like the land of con artists, touts, scam merchants and seedy bars, but after a month we are used to it and can avoid most of them! Phuket was an odd place. It was low season when we were there and in the bars the tourists were far outnumbered by the go-go girls!! The beaches were great though and I had some fun with a body board.

After a few days we took a boat to Koh Phi Phi. The movie, The Beach was filmed on one of the islands though it was far from tranquil when we saw it having been invaded by loads of boats loaded with day trippers. We stayed in a nice bungalow on Long Beach, a short walk from the main village on the island. Phi Phi was badly hit by the 2006 tsunami so a lot of the bars and hotels are newly rebuilt. Long beach on Phi Phi Don was a gorgeous place to while away a few days with great views across to Phi Phi Ley (although we still have yet to find anywhere more idyllic than Kecil, one of the Perhentian Islands in Malaysia).

Next we headed to Krabi, back on the mainland. The beach where we stayed, Ao Nang, didn’t have much to do, so we took a day trip kayaking. The route took us along a river, towered over by limestone cliffs, we paddled through some cool caves and lagoons, though our arms were seriously aching the next day!

I had been thinking about doing some scuba diving on our trip for some time, but kept putting it off. Our next island destination, Koh Tao off the east coast is a diving mecca so I decided to take the plunge and signed up to do a 4 day open water course. So now i’m a certified diver! We stayed at Ban’s Diving Resort (highly recommended) which is where Rachel did the same course 6 years before. She was very surprised to see how much the island had changed. Although the resorts are springing up all over the place we still loved the place and could happily have hung around for a while, but the next island adventure awaited – Koh Phangan for the full moon party!!

We learned another valuable lesson relating to Thai business practices – NEVER pay up front! We were panicked into believing that at full moon everywhere gets booked up, so instead of our usual practice of just turning up and finding a room when we get there we booked on the web. We chose what looked like a lush hotel, bit pricier than we usually pay, but what the hell?! Anyway it was a dump, and each room looked like it had been broken into many times. Rach attempted ‘negotiations’ for quite some time but as we had already paid we had little bargaining power, so we were stuck with the place. Thankfully we were not robbed and the party was brilliant so it’s not all bad news! There was fire dancing, fire skip rope, buckets of booze, dance music, fluro painted bodies everywhere (including us), palm and tarot readers, all through the night til sun up.

After a day to recover we took the ferry and night bus to Bangkok, and from here we fly to Hanoi in Vietnam on wednesday. So until next time……

July 13, 2009   6 Comments