Thursday, 20 January 2011

29 Days in Southeast Asia: Dec2010-Jan2011

I started my Indochina Encompassed tour of Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia from Bangkok on 9th December 2010 and it ended after 29 days on 6th January 2011. Read on for some of my thoughts, images and experiences from the tour...


Bangkok (Dec 9th/10th)

I met the tour group on the 9th (this included 1 Belgian, 2 South Africans, 3 Canadians and the Irish tour leader) and had dinner off Khao San Road (tourist central area), followed by some bonding time at roadside bars.

Wat Pho
Next morning, we had a boat ride down Chao Phraya River (this city was once called Venice of the East) that took us to the huge Wat Pho (Bangkok’s oldest and largest temple, known for the largest Reclining Buddha in Thailand and also for being the most prestigious traditional medicine and massage school for centuries). We followed this up with another temple, The Golden Mount, before taking a night train to Chiang Mai.
Bells at Golden Mount

Chiang Mai (Dec 11th)
Equipped with a map, I promptly went and visited all the temples I could and was later taken on a guided tour of Doi Suthep atop a hill. Legend has it that in 1596, the king sent off an elephant carrying Buddha’s relics and where the elephant finally rested, he built the Doi Suthep temple. I got blessed by a monk here and also got some fabulous fortune telling done via the precise method of numbered straws! Later we had dinner at a riverside restaurant and explored the colourful night market.
Me at Doi Suthep

Chiang Khong (Dec 12th)
After another half day in Chiang Mai (more temples for me!), we drove to this border town, where we had dinner by the Mekong River (across which we could see lights in Laos) and then we went to bed.


Pakbeng (Dec 13th)
Apocalypse Now?

Board says it all...
Bright and early, we crossed the river and the border to enter into Laos. We then continued down the Mekong River on a slow boat till late afternoon and stopped at a village of rice farmers, where we happened to see the locals helping a friend build his house. Finally we arrived at a small town called Pakbeng in the evening, had dinner and then went to the ‘one bar in town’.

Luang Prabang (Dec 14th/15th/16th)

Going to Pak Ou
Yes, these are real snakes/scorpions
in whiskey bottles!
Back on the slow boat down the Mekong in the morning, we stopped at Pak Ou Caves, famous for housing thousands of Buddha figures – many of which are broken and have simply been dumped here for centuries. There was yet another stop at a village – this time of whiskey brewers. We reached Luang Prabang, the UNESCO World Heritage-protected town, by late afternoon, had dinner outside at a very cool restaurant with a bonfire and explored the night market.

Kuang Si Falls
Next morning we went to the Royal Palace Museum and heard stories from our local guide about how the royalty lived here and how they were killed or exiled after the revolution in 1975. Then we proceeded to the very famous Kuang Si Falls (which also has a small rescued-bear-sanctuary).
Me at the Falls

Sunset at Phu Si

We followed this up by heading to the Phu Si temple atop a hill, to watch the sun set as per recommendations. As part of our tour package, we were to have dinner with a local Lao family, which turned out to be an interesting experience as all the ladies of the house (there were four from different generations) ‘blessed’ us before the meal and tied some threads around our wrists. The food was good too!
Blessings from a Lao family

The next day was ‘free’ so I did what I do best – got a map and went to see seven temples! En route we stopped to speak to some school kids, who practised their French with Louis, the Belgian on tour, and while we were just sitting somewhere, a young boy came to talk to us and we found out loads of interesting stories about his life. Also, this is the day when I had three brownies from different bakeries as I wanted to test which one was the best out of the ones listed in my guidebook. JoMa won (what a brownie!!!). There was more eating and night market shopping later.

First batch of monks
Very early the next morning (at 5am) we headed out to see the locals giving alms to the monks – this happens every morning: monks from all the different temples walk down various streets and the locals sit there with freshly cooked rice and other food to give away. This is the only form of sustenance the monks have and this happens 365 days a year! Amazing.
More monks join from the other side

Vang Vieng (Dec 17th/18th)

View from guest house in Vang Vieng
Later the same day we drove down to Vang Vieng, a town that has little to offer in the name of culture, but is a tourist haven because of the umpteen bars and the opportunities to do kayaking, river rafting, tubing, mountain climbing etc. I made use of the two nights there to relax, sleep and enjoy the sun at our very beautiful resort. Also, I had the most amazing stir-fried noodles with vegetables and the best mixed fruit shake, at two different restaurants in this town - and my opinion should not be taken lightly as I had these two things in every single city we visited!

The best food I had on the trip
Vientiane (Dec 19th)

We reached the capital after another long drive and immediately set to checking the city out as we had less than 24 hours here. Having seen the communist flag in every city in Laos, despite the vehemence with which they deny being officially communist, it was interesting to see that even in Vientiane, the flags were everywhere, including official government buildings! I was very impressed by the wide boulevards and the beautiful buildings in this city, including their Arc de Triomphe-like Victory Gate (Patuxay), which they think looks like a ‘monster of concrete’ (it was made out of US aid for a new airport and is also referred to as the ‘vertical runway’), whereas I thought it was gorgeous. 

Buddha Park
I then disengaged from the group and, walking past the Presidential Palace, I hopped on a rickety bus to go to Buddha Park 25km outside the city. This was the crazy dream of an eccentric yogi/shaman who wanted to merge Hindu and Buddhist mythology and iconography and so created a park with all kinds of almost-gothic figures that do not completely belong to either religion! 

I returned to Vientiane and saw That Luang, the official symbol of the city, in the light of the late afternoon sun.
That Luang - symbol of Vientiane

The next morning, on my insistence, Shane (the tour leader) offered to take the interested parties to COPE. As I learnt on this trip, Laos is the most bombed country in the world per capita. During the Vietnam War, between 1964 and1973, the US Air Force dropped roughly 260 million cluster bombs here (some say they did it because they didn’t want to carry the entire load back home). Not only did that create havoc and destruction 40 years ago, the 30% of the unexploded bombs (roughly 78 million) continue to kill and, worse still, maim the Lao people today. COPE is an NGO that is spreading awareness and providing prosthetic limbs as well as physical and psychological support to the victims and their families. Check it out:
Model of cluster bombs falling
The COPE Centre


Hanoi (Dec 20th/21st)
Motorbike jungle
The same afternoon, right after COPE, we headed to the airport and flew to Hanoi. After the serene beauty of an under-populated capital, the mad, MAD motorbike traffic of Hanoi hit me hard! Traffic lights mean nothing here and the guide to survival is that you cross the street, at whichever point you wish, by walking straight into the traffic, at tortoise-speed (DO NOT RUN) and the motorbikes will swerve inches away from you. This may sound like we had a death-wish, but trust me, this is what the guide books say, this is what the locals say and this is what our tour leader said and demonstrated. I thought I was going to die at least 4-5 times when two bikes would suddenly swerve in front of and behind me, leaving me with just enough space to stand.

Drinking on a street kerb
The first night in Hanoi I had ‘roll your own’ fresh spring rolls (not fried), which was an interesting experience. Later we sat on plastic stools, on the kerb, at a junction and the group had Bia Hoi (local beer), which cost them 3,000 dong (15 cents) per glass. While we sat there, a ‘waiter’ pointed to Louis’ trainers, which were getting a bit torn and offered to fix each for a dollar. So, while he drank, Louis’ shoes got stitched, cleaned and returned within 10 minutes. It was bizarre watching all this unfold, but so much fun.

Around the Presidential Palace
The next day, we went to see Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum, where his embalmed body is kept (sceptics say that it’s a wax figure from Madame Tussaud’s, but I find it far more fascinating to know that the body travels to Russia for three months every year for ‘maintenance’). HCM is a bit of a God here, so we had to show extreme reverence as we paid our respects to him, and then went to see his lodgings (in and around the Presidential Palace), while hordes of school kids on their field trip shouted ‘Hello!’ and ‘Where are you from?’ at us – obviously they decided to practise their newly acquired language skills on us. 

A couple of us then went to see more of the city – my favourite bits include a Hogwarts-style staircase in the Temple of Literature (the site of the country’s first national university built in the 11th century) and the electronics’ market that was operating straight out of a shipping container. That evening the group was booked to attend a water puppetry show, a historical Vietnamese art. Accompanied by live music the puppets, which were being operated by under-water mechanisms rather than strings, did all sorts of crazy things for the next hour and we were mesmerised. We then went to KOTO (Know One, Teach One), a restaurant with a heart that gets kids off the streets and gives them vocational training, as well as, some schooling and helps them build a life for themselves. Here we met our next tour group (3 Austrians, 1 Swiss-Moroccan, 1 Scot, 1 American, 1 Dane and 1 French) and prepared to bid adieu to some from our first group (2 Canadians and 1 Belgian). The old group went to yet another Bia Hoi plastic stool bar on the pavement of a small road and had cheap beer. 
Walking around Hanoi

Water Puppetry Show with fire and all!

Halong Bay (Dec 22nd/23rd)

This was the most amazing day and night I had on tour – and yet it wasn’t like we did all that much. I was told we’ll be on a junk boat and, having no concept of what means, I was shocked to see the beautiful, small boat, with wood-panelled cabins and en suite bathrooms, two decks and a gorgeous little dining room. Why they’re called ‘junk’ boats, I will never know.

We spent the day relaxing on the decks and eating the most amazing seafood (roughly 10 courses of it each time) for lunch and dinner and brunch the next day. Also, we got off the boat to see the Sung Sot Caves, got into another small paddleboat to see a blue lagoon and another time the next morning to catch the misty view of Halong Bay from atop a hill. During the night, some of us tried their hand at squid-fishing and the rest of us chatted till 3am under the stars in the most peaceful surroundings possible.

Hanoi (Dec 23rd)
We returned to Hanoi for a few hours, to pick up our belongings (as we only took a day bag for the boat) and do some quick sightseeing before we boarded the worst overnight train in the world to Hue (it wasn’t the worst – we had air-conditioning – but it wasn’t very clean and was a far cry from our last overnight train between Bangkok and Chiang Mai).

Hue (Dec 24th) 
My fabulous bike ride
Ms Thuy's hats
As if to make up for the train ride, we checked into an excellent hotel and went to have brunch at Mandarin Café run by an eccentric, but brilliant photographer. And then as an optional activity, we went on a motorbike tour of the city and surrounding villages. Having had trusted cousins and close friends, who have all unsuccessfully tried to convince me to ride a bike with them, it’s ironic that my first bike ride was with an ageing stranger, on a locally-made bike (with a broken speedometer and a broken mirror), on bumpy dirt roads, through the woods, in a foreign city! I loved it though! We saw the countryside and visited a rice-farming village, an incense-making shop and a famous one-armed woman who makes traditional conical hats. Later in the afternoon, our bus took us to some royal tombs and a pagoda. Dinner was at a roadside restaurant run by a deaf family that our tour leader supports. As it was Christmas eve, all the 40 to 60+ people on tour went to drink and party with our tour leader, while all of us under 35 were too tired, so we went to bed.

The next day, after the most unbelievable breakfast (5 kinds of cakes included – seriously, I’ve never seen anything like it), we visited the Imperial Citadel and then drove to Hoi An.

Hoi An (Dec 25th/26th/27th)
My first impression of this city was that ‘this is what Cuba must be like’! From our hotel room balcony, I could see the palm-lined beach 4km away and beautiful old buildings dotted all over the place. Alas, it was misty all the time we stayed here so we never went to the beach – in fact, one night there was a rain and thunderstorm apparently, which I blissfully slept through.

Cargo Club - favourite cake place
Hoi An is the tailoring capital of Vietnam, with at least a 100 shops ready to put together any imaginable outfit within 24 hours, along with another 100 shops offering to create custom-made shoes. As I wasn’t very interested in either service, I spent the 3 days and nights there just relaxing at various cafes (they have the most unbelievable cakes there) and generally sleeping till early afternoon. Two of the girls on tour had their birthdays in Hoi An, so we had even more cake to consume and loads of time to bond and have fun together.
More birthday cake please!
Ho Chi Minh City (Dec 28th/29th/30th)
We flew to HCMC, also known as Saigon. Our tour leader, Shane, took us on a walking tour of the sights and we passed Pho 2000 (where Bill Clinton once stopped to have dinner), the Opera House, Notre Dame Cathedral and the Reunification Palace besides various large departmental stores and lavish hotels. I fell in love with the city pretty instantly. I think this was my favourite place in Vietnam. The traffic is wild, but not as bad as Hanoi’s and the tree-lined streets combined with beautiful colonial architecture, made it all a very pretty place.
Wild traffic!
Just a pretty government building

The next day we went to see the Cu Chi Tunnels, a 250km network of underground pathways and rooms, used by the North Vietnamese guerrilla soldiers to fight American armed forces in the US ‘War of Aggression’. It was amazing to see how these people burrowed themselves and cooked, lived and planned in tiny spaces infested with snakes and scorpions, and managed to keep fighting till the Americans finally left them alone. The tunnels have been turned into a major tourist experience, with a propagandist documentary to initiate the tour, displays of the homemade booby traps, opportunities to enter and crawl through the very tight tunnels and, of course, the weird possibility of firing an AK-47 or an M16 for a dollar a bullet. Visitors even get offered warm tapioca and hot root tea, the staple of the Viet Cong soldiers – I liked it but am not sure if I could eat that day and night for years. 

Our guide Bruce ("like Bruce Lee, but without the Kung Fu") told us some interesting stories about the life and times of the soldiers – apparently they all wore cross-strap flip-flops made out of old tires and when the Americans searched the villages for Viet Cong fighters, they would look at their feet for cross-strap tan lines!
Bruce shows us one of the tunnel openings at Cu Chi
After the tunnels, the group got dropped off at the War Remnants Museum to explore it at our own pace. This was one of the most depressing places on tour (I hadn’t hit Cambodia yet). Often described as propagandist, I thought it was just a very hard, long look at a war, which can never be justified; the display was one-sided maybe, but not propagandist. The museum describes with medical, environmental and political evidence, how the US systematically committed genocide in Vietnam. There is an entire gallery of photographs, taken by very famous war-time photojournalists, that makes one wonder at the depravity of mankind. Quite a few people seemed to be walking around like zombies after two floors of painful exhibits and by the third floor, I actually saw people coming out of the rooms and weeping. I completely understand.
Shocking photograph on entrance wall
Just one of the many historic statements

After this, I went to see a few other sights in Saigon, none of which cleared my head, and ended up at the Reunification Palace, which stands as a symbol of the victory of North Vietnam in 1975, when it captured Saigon and therefore, South Vietnam. After having witnessed the horrors of the war earlier in the day, I quietly cheered for the victory of the communists.

Later in the evening, we had dinner at a classy restaurant, and it was time to bid adieu to our Vietnam tour group – so we lost the 3 Austrians, 1 Swiss-Moroccan, 1 Scot and 1 American, while 2 South Africans, 1 Canadian, 1 Dane, 1 French and I continued on for the last leg of the tour.
The entire group on our last night out

Traditional Vietnamese performance
The next day, this group boarded a boat and travelled to the Mekong Delta, where we saw some ‘floating markets’, stopped at candy-making and rice-paper-making small industries and then had lunch in a village where the owner family sang and performed with traditional Vietnamese music, as part of our Mekong Delta experience.


Phnom Penh (Dec 31st / Jan 1st)

Cyclo tour!
 Boarding a public bus (the only one throughout this tour) early in the morning, we travelled quite a few hours to cross the border into Cambodia and then some more to reach Phnom Penh. We got dropped outside our hotel, checked in and soon after we got on cyclos for a scheduled city tour. A cyclo is a bit like a rickshaw – the difference is that the cyclist is behind you pedalling away and you have a clear view of your route. Also, it’s an only-one-person-ride. We went past some markets and temples, various beautiful French colonial buildings, the Victory Monument and the Royal Palace and stopped at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club (FCC), which is located just by the river, so we had a beautiful view. We had the best spring rolls there, before moving to our restaurant-with-a-conscience called Friends, which runs on the same principle as Hanoi’s KOTO – they take street children and give them vocational training and teach them to live with dignity. After dinner, we went to another bar and amidst laughs and loud music, we brought in the new year.

Barbed wire to prevent escape or suicide at S21 Prison
The next morning, with little sleep, we went to one of the most gruesome historical sites on tour. We visited the S21 Prison (Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum), where Cambodia’s maniacal leader Pol Pot, held and tortured 17,000 prisoners, before having them killed mercilessly at the nearby Choeung Ek Killing Fields. During his regime (1976-1979), a whopping 1.7 to 2.5 million people were tortured and killed; a case of mass genocide within my lifetime that I was not at all aware of. He and his Khmer Rouge party killed everyone who had any sort of foreign blood, or could speak a second language, or was an artist or an intellectual. He even killed anyone who wore glasses, as it was a sign of education. He did all this and continued as the Cambodian representative to the UN till 1992, even when he was no longer in power in his own country. We followed the trip to S21, by visiting the Killing Fields, where our local guide continued with stories about how men, women and children were killed, often by battery rather than shooting, as the Khmer Rouge didn’t want to waste precious bullets. This was a difficult and painful start to the new year. 

Yard of National Museum
I went to the National Museum after this, but the day had started with the bleakest thoughts and so the rest of the day was fairly sombre too. It ended with dinner at a restaurant, where they serve fried tarantulas, and as one of the guys sitting at a table close to us wanted to see what his food looked like when alive, I got to see two live tarantulas crawling around on a platter, before the waiters took it away. Eek! This was our last night in Phnom Penh and I ended it by torturing my Canadian roommate with The Twilight Saga: Eclipse alternated with Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na. She fell asleep.

Siem Reap (Jan 2nd/3rd/4th)
We flew to Siem Reap on the morning of the 2nd and on reaching the hotel I got terribly excited by the touch-button light controls by our bed – yes, I can be a child at times: ‘Buttons’!

Cambodian Batmobile
As usual, tour leader Shane took us on a walk around town and introduced us to Pub Street right next to the Night Market. The ‘downtown’ is cramped with cafes and restaurants, smiling people and funny tuk-tuks (there was a Batmobile that I especially wanted). I loved the general Cambodian temperament and the hustle bustle of this city and was dismayed a couple of days later when I realised I had never gotten to see the other end of town, which was full of beautiful buildings allocated to posh hotels and museums. Anyhow, that night we had dinner at the Temple Club (on Pub Street), where we watched an apsara dance routine – the kind that was once only reserved for royalty. It was fascinating.

Angkor Wat after the sun rose...
The 'library' where we had
the BEST view
The next morning, we were out at 4.45am to make it for sunrise at Angkor Wat. Our seasoned tour guide marched us in pitch darkness, but under a starlit sky, to what he told us was the library building where we were to have the best view. Soon we weren’t the only ones there. In the creeping light, we witnessed the entire ground in front of us filling up with people and slowly the world’s eighth wonder appeared as a silhouette. By 6.30 the sun was up and we clicked pictures from all angles - but really none can do this place justice. At 7 we drove back to the hotel for breakfast and by 8.30 we packed into the bus again to visit other 12th-13th century temple ruins before the sun started blazing. In succession we visited Ta Prohm and Angkor Wat (we went in this time), which took up 4 hours in all. 
Back at Angkor Wat in the early afternoon

Sunset watching at Phnom Bakheng
After a lunch break back at Pub Street, we went to see the bizarre and creepy Bayon (the one where the king had erected 54 gothic towers, each with his face on 4 sides – so there are 216 enormous images of his in the temple), the Terrace of the Elephants, the Terrace of the Leper King (legend has it that when it was re-discovered hundreds of years later the local people thought the broken statue was of a leper king, when in fact it was just a ruined statue – the name has stuck despite better knowledge of the truth) and we ended the day with a sunset, by climbing the extremely precarious steps of Phnom Bakheng atop a hill. Exhilarated, but exhausted, we returned to the hotel after the sunset, then went out for dinner at the local FCC and then hit the night market yet again.

The next morning, we went to a few more temples, as that is what you do in Siem Reap. By lunch, we were all but templed-out and so we went back to Pub Street for lunch, rested at our hotel and then once again went to Pub Street for dinner.
Me in front of yet another crazy tree

After dinner, we watched Bettina, our Danish friend, get a fish massage/pedicure, which was basically her dangling her feet in a tank of water, while the fish nibbled at her dead skin. Creepy but interesting and Bettina cussed away for a few minutes before she actually relaxed and started enjoying the bizarre experience. After some actual shopping at the night market, we headed back to the hotel and packed up before going to bed.

What amazing marketing!
The fish do like dead skin!


Bangkok (Jan 5th/6th)
De' Moc's unique style of
presenting towels!
After a long bus journey and time spent at border crossings, we made it back to Bangkok and the hotel we started the tour from – De Moc. After dinner at a riverside restaurant, we spent some time at a blues bar called Adhere the 13th, and then a few hours at the tourist hub, Khao San Road, where the weird and weirder is absolutely normal.

The next morning, which was officially the end of the tour, I joined my Canadian roommate Kate and the Danish Bettina on a tour of the Grand Palace and Temple of the Emerald Buddha. By 2pm, we said our final goodbyes and thus ended my Indochina Encompassed Tour with Gap Adventures.

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