Thursday, 27 November 2008

Stuck in Paradise

Our trip around some of the world's continents was organised way back in June.

Naturally, we didn't know specifically when we would be flying from city to city so we booked some provisional dates safe in the knowledge that we could change the bookings at any time for free.

We were originally meant to be flying to Australia out of Singapore on Dec 1st but, given we are 2,000miles away in Bangkok (more on that later) due to welcome delays in China, Hoi An and Phnom Penh, we need to push the dates back.

So we phoned Singapore Airlines yesterday and the conversation went like this:

Jeff/Ann - Hello, can we move our flight booking from the 1st to the 18th of December?

Singapore employee - No, I am afraid all flights that day are full.

Jeff/Ann - Oh, no problem, how about the 17th.

Singapore employee - Also full.

Jeff/Ann - How about the 16th.

Singapore employee - Let me just tell you that all flights are fully booked from the 11th of December right up to Christmas.

Jeff/Ann - Right, good, we'll phone you back.

The long and the short of it is, our pre-Australia travelling will now be continuing right through into the middle of January!

So Indonesia and/or Phillipines stamps will be getting added to our overflowing passports. Needless to say, the unexpected extension to our trip has not been too much of a disappointment but goodness knows where we'll be spending Christmas and New Year!

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Good Morning Cambodia

Yes, it was Good Night to Vietnam as we crossed the border into Cambodia, adding another passport stamp to our collection.

And what a way to collect it, halfway through a 5 hour speedboat trip up the Mekong River we stopped at a border control and sorted out our visas. Sitting back reading our intellectual literature (Ann - Barack Obama biography, Jeff - Beginner's Guide to Swedish) we rode the lazy waves of the river that starts in China and in some parts has dolphins, crocodiles and catfish that can reach 3 metres long. Not really what we're used to back in Europe then, though sadly we saw none of the above creatures. Only mosquitoes!

We were soon taken by bus into the crazy city of Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. The Lonely Planet book marks it as an area of contradictions and so it proved.

The city itself is a vibrant, energetic place full of lively bars, great restaurants and a buzzing riverfront that is being upgraded for the increasing number of tourists that arrive each day. But Phnom Penh's main attractions are less joyous and more unsettling.

On Sunday morning we took a tuk-tuk the 12km south to the Ek Cheong site, better known as the Killing Fields. It is this area where large mass graves were found in 1979 holding victims of the Pol Pot genocide that took place between 1975-79. The genocide killed 2million people, a quarter of the entire population.

From Ek Cheong we went to Teol Seoung, an area that has an even deeper intensity and is certainly not for the faint-hearted.

Teol Seung is a former school but the Khmer Rouge regime headed by Pol Pot turned it into a detention and interrogation centre, a prison from where most victims were taken to Ek Cheong to be executed. I can honestly say the traumas of 30 years agoi can still be felt while quietly walking around the corridors and into the rooms, most of which still have the beds, iron bars and handcuffs that assisted in so much pain and suffering.

Rows upon rows of photos were pinned to walls, simply showing snapshots of the victims before they suffered between the walls of Tuol Seung. The seemingly neverending unsmiling faces of children, men and women was difficult to follow. That same questioning gaze from each Cambodian that even now in 2008 is met with so few answers.

We learned a few staggering facts.

That Pol Pot was never tried for his crimes and died naturally in 1998.

That the Khmer Rouge continued to sit at the United Nations up to 1991 meaning that the criminals were representing the victims.

That the United Nations itself criticised Vietnam for attacking Cambodia in 1979 even though Vietnam was merely putting an end to the awful situation in its neighbouring country.

That Cambodia has sold the Killing Fields site to a Japanese private company, thus making a profit out of the tragedy of 1975-79.

So from these intense experiences, questioning how horrific humans can still be to their fellow citizens, we staggered back into the Phnom Penh nightlife and restaurant scene, once again caught up in the buzz of 21st century Cambodia and its energy and vibrancy but feeling signifcantly more unsettled by it all. That deep stare from the old men and ladies in the market took on a whole new meaning.

So our 'Good Morning' in Cambodia was certainly a wake up call to the secrets in this part of the world, one we won't forget. Thankfully Cambodia's other big secret, which we will visit in a couple of hours, is Angkor Wat and it promises to be incredible and intense in a much more positive way.

We just hope the camera will still be working when we get there!

Friday, 21 November 2008

The American War

Well, Saigon has come and gone for us in a bit of a flash.

After a brief stop off in Nha Trang (Wednesday), Vietnam's most popular (if a little dirty) beach resort where we basically laid on sun loungers, listened to waves rolling in and drank fruit shakes (Ann - Dragon, Jeff - Mango), we made it to the country's biggest city, Saigon, for one day only.

Officially the area is called Ho Chi Minh City, renamed after the North Vietnamese forces 'unified' the country using tanks and guns under the command of Ho Chi Minh himself.

Despite Ho Chi Minh being something of a hero the residents still call the city Saigon and therefore so too do I.

The city itself is often compared to Hanoi and we had to agree that it's bigger and brasher; the scooters are driven more crazily, the youngsters pose with even more style and the food and drink on offer is much, much more. Even if we did have a Western night and eat pizzas ourselves.

The highlight of the visit was the War Remnants Museum. So often back in Europe we are told about 'The Vietnam War' so it's actually a nice twist to come to Vietnam and be told of 'The American War'.

The museum includes some incredible photos from journalists who died while following the historic situation unfold (including Pulitzer prize winning photo as shown here. Note that there was another with the family, all alive, some years later so they lived to tell the tale thankfully).

Also in the museum were stories of some American atrocities and the use of some horrific weapons and their effects not only directly on people but also those born after the war was finished.

Glaringly absent from the whole story was why the Americans were there or what may have caused the war in the first place but purely as an exhibition, as a record of what happened so recently in a land that now seems so peaceful, the experience was fascinating and truly humbling.

It says a lot that we were there for a few hours and it only felt like 5 minutes so engrossed in the story that was unfolding before us.

Today we recharge our batteries in a small town a few hours on from Saigon. We are in Chau Doc, in the Mekong Delta. We have seen floating markets and also seen some coconut candy being made. Tomorrow we board a morning boat that will take us further up the Mekong River and into Cambodia.

Another stamp in Ann and Jeff's passports awaits!

Monday, 17 November 2008

Million dong man

Jeff posted this on his blog ( but I thought it had a place here as well, enjoy!

Million Dong Man

Yes, you've had the million dollar man but now we have the million dong man for that's how much my new Vietnamese suit cost. Well, it was actually 1.5 million but what's half a mill between friends.

The truth is, that's only about 60 pounds. 60 pounds for an Italian Cashmere suit, made to measure. So despite the numerous 000s it's something of a bargain. The price tag variation goes to show the wide variation in currency value between countries. On our trip we have agonised over 10,000 Dong tips and yet that's only 40p.

The Asian Financial Crisis of 1997 is one of the main reasons for Asian currencies having values a factor of many thousands less than that of the UK's. Indeed many businesses still deal in both US Dollar and Vietnamese Dong here in case there is a similar crash to that of '97 in the near future.

Evidence of how far off the pace Vietnam is from Western economies has been with us on a daily basis on our travels. Local newspapers advertise jobs for 100,000 dong per day which is the equivalent of 4 British pounds, beer is purchased for as little as 20p and Western tour buses travel alongside local buses on freeways with the same destinations yet with wildy different ticket prices. (Mercifully the tour buses don't travel at the same reckless speeds as the local option.)

Our most personal encounter with the Western currency value clashing so brutally with the Vietnamese currency value came in a humble sampan, a small rowing boat that was powered by an old woman as she navigated us through the Tam Coc region of central Vietnam. The tour was 60,000 Dong. About 2 pounds. The ride lasted 2 hours.

Don't get me wrong, the ride was lovely as it took in some beautiful scenery but there is surely nothing much more discomforting in this world than an old pensioner rowing your rich white bottom around for a couple of hours for a couple of quid, a large slice of which won't even make it into her pocket.

Furthermore, there was a 4th person in the boat, a younger lady who with broken English was trying to sell us Vietnamese knick-knacks for half the duration of the trip.

Despite the Western guilt, the knowledge that money that you wouldn't bat an eyelid over if it dropped out your pocket one day is enough to sustain this lady's family for a month, I have to confess that I didn't buy any of the products.

We did take a lot away from the experience though. Namely what is our duty in this world? Is the West deliberately keeping struggling economies low for their own gains (cheap imports etc)

Also, is it so terrible for people to be paid such low amount of money in such an economy? Will such wages, significantly low on a global scale, mean that the vast majority of Vietnamese have no chance of visiting Scotland while I can visit their country on a whim? Is such a situation fair and equitable? Should I start a campign group? (I guess Make Trade Fair beat me to it though by a few decades though.)

I don't know if aiming for a one-to-ne currency exchange rate across the world is the answer but in the absence of a solution to the inequality in the world I suppose for now I will have to satisfy myself that the next best thing is to travel with a smile, be respectful and keep buying sampan rides and million dong suits where I can.

Saturday, 15 November 2008

Food and Clothes in Hoi An

They may be two of life's necessities but here in Hoi An they are so much more than that.

Yes, our journey down the Vietnamese coast has brought us to a small town called Hoi An which is home to some 200 tailors and all of a sudden these backpackers (and flashpackers) are dressed a lot more smartly on the road. Including our good selves. Bought so far:

Ann - 2 skirts, 1 shirt, 1 pair of dress shoes, 1 pair of comfortable shoes, 2 pairs of trousers

Jeff - 1 suit, 2 pairs of comfortable shoes, 1 shirt, 1 silk tie, cufflinks.

We've heard stories of people staying for weeks and weeks as they double their wardrobe back home. For us, we'll be keeping our fancy clothes for a special James Bond film night in Bangkok later on.

And as for the food, it truly is sensational. As Lonely Planet puts it: "an antique city of lacquered wooden shopfronts and hands on cooking courses". Sums it up nicely since the food markets are bursting with colour and smells (although we both agree that the dried fish is a no go area!)

So we're staying here for 3 days, in the land of the suits, the skirts and the shellfish. But who knows, maybe that 3 days will become 3 weeks if we're not careful!

Thursday, 13 November 2008


Our journey through Asia has brought us into contact with many different forms of public transport.

From local buses that drive at crazy speeds as you sit in the corner trying to look relaxed (the white knuckles of your clenched fists holding on for dear life tells another story) to the big expensive tour buses with their lovely leather seats, reclining of course, that glide you through the Vietnamese scenery.

Trains have a similarly wide variation. We've had the 'soft bed' and the 'hard seat' between which is a world of difference, particularly when travelling overnight. Indeed, the hard seat option has led me to call the Northern Vietnamese town of Ninh Binh 'Numh Bumh' for obvious reasons.

So, we have decided we are not backpackers after all. We are 'Flashpackers'. Travellers who can afford just that little bit extra while on the road.

We will be choosing soft beds over hard seats and tour buses over local buses from now on, language permitting. Heck, if we don't want to walk we'll just hire bikes. Or a scooter once we've worked up the courage.

For example, today we are in HuĂȘ, a former Imperial City of Vietnam close to the former DeMilitarized Zone of the American War. In the hotel room, we have satellite tv (Last King of Scotland has been passed over for the local Eastenders/Ugly Betty series.), we have internet in the room and our laundry is being dry-cleaned overnight. Dinner tends to come with those extra spring rolls, or that banana dessert, or a 3rd (or 4th) beer.

We may be living cheap but with every dirty, tired, dreadlocked backpacker we pass living in $2 a night dorms, we appreciate it could be a lot worse!

heavenly halong bay

Leaving the backpacking feeling for a couple of days we booked at tour to Halong Bay and were picked up by a minivan that took us out to a junkboat. The sun was shining, the water was shimmering and the karstformations were magnificent. We soon realised we were in for a treat!

The junkboat left the harbour and while we headed off to the karstformations we got served an amazing lunch which gave us an opportunity to talk to the five other travellers on the tour. Among them was a vietnamese women that for the first time returned to Vietnam after fleeing to USA 40 years ago. It was intressting listening to her story and seeing how much living in the states had changed her.

The first day on the boat was spent on the topdeck, lying on sunchairs and beeing amazed by the scenery around us. We made stops for a cavevisit and one for climbing up one of the karstformations. The sun was already setting when we stepped into the kayaks and while we were out on open water we could see the sun go down and the full moon rise. Back on the boat we could enjoy the moon and the stars on the top deck while a warm breeze was blowing and some music was beeing played on a boat not far away.

Before returning to the harbour the second day we stopped for a swim. Diving from the junkboat into the turquoise, warm water was the perfect way to end the magical 24 hour tour on the south china sea.

Monday, 10 November 2008

look left - right - left again...or just walk!

Hanoi has taught us one thing. When you're about to cross a road, forget everything you've ever learned and just walk straight into the chaos and everyone will just find their way around you. Ok, there are traffic lights but that's just a token gesture that there's some sort of order to the craziness.

But if children can ride their bikes in it, whole families can fit onto scooters in it and old women an carry their fruit for sale in it, then we worldy Westerners can surely survive when hiring bicycles to ride on the roads?

Well, no. We chickened out and just walked all day instead. Don't have any broken legs to speak of though! And I'm sure we'll find a nice quiet beach resort to hire some bikes at.

Speaking of which, it's off to Halong Bay tomorrow for living on a 'junk boat' and kayaking around islands.

Saturday, 8 November 2008

Lost in China

Today we had a "wee" sleep-in, which might seem strange considering it was going to be the only full-day we were going to spend in this amazing place, but there we were, waking up at 10.23. Feeling a littel bit ashamed (but very well rested) we rushed through a very nice breakfast. Now nine hours later, sitting in a very cool bar with a cold Tsing Tao beer in our hands after going on a 3 hour tour on the river and biking 25 km I think we still managed to get the most out of the day and I almost regret rushing this morning! 
Most memorable today was definitely the bikeride. Since we started out a little bit late at 16.30 we could se the sun starting to go down and we knew there was a small chance that we would get caught in the dark. Up for the race we headed towards moon-hill  wich was supposedly is a must see here. Following crowds of bicycles, mopeds, pull-along carts and even water buffalo, we sped on to Moon Hill (a mountain with a hole in it).

Passing The Butterfly Caves and The Big Banyan Tree we got there and it was really worth the ride, although the views along the way were the real high point.

So, now we had a choice. The sun was setting and we had little time to get the bikes back. Do we take the easy road that we have just cycled along or the dirt track to our left
? Easy choice, the dirt track it is.

So off we went, passing beautiful rafts, local villages, chickens and even getting stopped by a teenager demanding a tourists "lost in China" tax. It was only 26 krona (2 pounds) so we went with it.

Before long, we were lost, with boys playing in the river openly laughing at us as we carried our bikes up a steep hill onto the road. It turned out the road was still being built so it was quite nice to have it all to ourselves.

Eventually, with more twists and turns, we got back to Yangshou and as we settle the bill here in the wi-fi providing Havana Cafe Bar, it's on to Nanning and then Hanoi.

Friday, 7 November 2008

Umbrella? Watches? Massage? .... Banana?

We have reached Yangshou from Guangzhou and it's been quite a dramatic change.

The overnight train dropped us off at the Guilin train station at 7am and there we were to be scammed for the first time. And hopefully the last.

A kind man instructed us that the bus beside him was going to Yuanshou, took us up to the very back seats, gave us some friendly chat ("oh, you're from Sweden/Scotland, how nice") and then charged us Y50 for the ride (about 4 UK pounds). Ten minutes later, when the genuine driver of the bus came up to ask for our Y15 and shook his head at the bit of paper Mr Con Man had given us, we realised we'd been duped.

But this was only a short term blow. Yangshou is a backpackers dream. Jawdropping scenery, bohemian bars and restaurants and as many trekking paths, bike routes and river boats as one bearded traveller could possibly wish for.

Just a shame it's been raining constantly ever since we got here. Looking good for tomorrow though (Sat 8th Nov).

One thing to be mindful of is the haggling, you absolutely have to do it as I learned when we first arrived.

Y180 i was quoted for a nice pair of North Face light-fabric trousers. I suggested Y120. The lady in the shop suggested Y170. I stumbled and lost my confidence. Y170 it was and the lady stifled a mocking laugh. I was even harrassed on the street for a boat cruise while trying to put the trousers on (see picture).

But people here will try to sell you anything for any cost, and why not, it's how they get by. For example, what we heard this afternoon from a lady: "You want umbrella? Watch? We got watches? (*pause as we walked away*)...  banana?"