Thursday, 25 January 2007

Good Morning Viet Nam!

Well, Ha Noi. What a town. Population approximately 4 million, compared to the entirety of Laos which is 5 million. Luang Prabang, my last stop, was only 30,000. The culture shock of being somewhere so different, so noisy, so exhilarating and exhausting, has been amazing and huge. This place is quite unimaginable unless you've been here: rabbit warrens of streets chock-a-block full of silk, red lanterns, food stuffs, beads, images of Ho Chi Minh, the Vietnamese flag, bootleg CDs and DVDs, conical hats (I had thought they were a thing of myth, but no). Interminable traffic which makes it nigh on impossible to cross the road. Communist propaganda spewing forth from loudspeakers on the road every morning. Constant horns honking and people calling out: Motorbike madam? People following you, hassling you, touching you. Pagodas everywhere. Buildings that are narrow and long and brightly coloured. Men in berets and leather coats. Pho (noodle soup) and baguettes everywhere. A cacophony of noise, colour, people, smells, things everywhere.

Getting here was interesting too - I'm counting my lucky stars in fact, as I'm fairly sure we had a malfunctioning engine on Vietnam Airways flight VN864 or whatever it was - I had been planning to fly from Ha Noi to Hue, but I think it will be the long bus ride for me! It's never comforting to feel "this isn't right" for a whole flight, and then see ground crew run to meet the plane and immediately dismember the engine and look concerned. At least I got here in one piece!

I'm staying in a fantastic backpackers in the old quarter, run by Aussies and providing free internet, tea and breakfast as well as cheap beer and aussie bbqs! The food in Ha Noi is great and I've dined at a couple of places that train disadvantaged youth in hospitality roles - notably KOTO which is run by a Vietnamese Aussie and has interested me since seeing a documentary on it a couple of years ago. Great food, cheap, funky, and friendly staff.

This morning I went to visit "Uncle" Ho Chi Minh, who is embalmed and resting in his mausoleum despite dying in 1969. He is still idolised here. There are reminders of the war everywhere; and you realise that every single person here has been directly or indirectly affected by that conflict. It makes one incredibly grateful that we have never experienced war on Australian shores, and makes one question the legacy that the Iraq war will leave on that country.

An incredible country. Far more hard work than Laos, but fascinating and enjoyable nonetheless. I think a day or two respite in Ha Long Bay will be required - probably starting the 27th. In the meantime, love you and miss you - Sophie.

Sunday, 21 January 2007

Highlights of Laos

Sunday in Luang Prabang and "Lao Time" has become even more distinct: things will happen, but slowly; they will take a couple of hours more than you may expect; you should just head to a cafe with your book (White Teeth by Zadie Smith - I still think it is one of the best of all time) and relax. So that is what I have been doing today, and now I thought it time I catch up with you all.

I've been back in LP for several days now and leave on the 24th for Hanoi (via Vientiane - it's a 40 minute flight from LP to Vientiane and then on to Hanoi). I'm not looking forward to leaving this place, but I am excited about going to Hanoi and the rest of Viet Nam. LP is a serious competitor for my favourite place on earth. The entire city (town?) is a UNESCO heritage site, with 34 temples. It's local population is 30,000 - that's about half the population of Glenorchy for the Tasmanians reading. Monks and novices walk the streets amongst the cafes, the raw meat and fresh vegetables in the markets, and the tuk-tuk drivers. The people are amazingly friendly. It is beautiful, relaxing, funky and unpretentious.

I've spent my time here at a Lao cooking class, learning even more recipes for you guys back home (but there may be a price attached - I may have to charge $5 for my culinary skills to go to the orphanage here, which has a budget of 20 cents a day, per child, for food - the poor little things are living on nothing but rice). I've been sharing food with the locals; shopping at the night markets; indulging in fantastic lemon tart and tea; practicing my french with the local school kids; drinking Lao coffee; taking loads of photos; and walking up and down and up and down the streets.

This country is incredible, but it is changing rapidly. Suddenly people are coming as "a thing to do" and I have seen the most amazingly arrogant travellers - and this place is changing so quickly to accommodate the whims of these people. I could step onto the soap-box but I'll restrain myself for the moment. What I will say, though, is that if you are keen to see Laos, come here sooner rather than later, and do your best to come here respectfully - please learn a little about the history and the culture, because this place deserves that. Edit - all that being said, I have also met the most amazing, beautiful, generous and considerate people, which is one of the best parts of travel.

The Highlights of Laos have been:
  1. The People
  2. Slow Boat on the Mekong
  3. Hill Tribes
  4. The spring roll place in Vientiane
  5. The landscape, the plants, the geckos, the buildings, everything
  6. The LP nightmarket - ridiculous amounts of money spent
  7. Just hanging out, watching the world go by
  8. Tubing in Vang Vieng - but that was the only thing to recommend that town
  9. Sublime sunsets
  10. The food generally - Lao coffee, croissants, baguettes, chicken Laap (stir fried chicken with herbs and spices), fried eggplant and pork, fresh everything, mmmmm.

I'm looking forward to posting from Viet Nam. Love you and miss you, Sophie xx

Tuesday, 16 January 2007

Quick update

I don't want you guys to think that I've had a bad few days, but I did want to share all of those previous stories with you (in hidsight, they're pretty funny). But can't leave it on that note, so will give you a quick round-up of some of the highlights thus far:

Luang Prabang in Laos. Loved it so much I'm about to head back for 5 days or so.

Clubbing in Luang Prabang. It was hilarious, one of the funniest nights ever.

The food. Always the food.

The Group I've been travelling with. Great people.

The Facial I had yesterday in Bangkok. Fantastic. Possibly best 250 Baht I've ever spent.

Ok apparently I'm on my last 5 minutes of internet time, so had better go, but will be online again from Laos tomorrow.

Much love, Sophie.

View over the Mekong, from Houay Xai in Laos

Imagine me here, with a Beer Lao in my hands. This was my first night in Laos. Pretty spectacular hey. Fantastic country.

Things I have Lost on this trip (already)

1: My Bathers. Left them in my haste to flee Bangkok for Chiang Mai. Picked up a very cute replacement pair in CM.

2: My Travel Documents. Left them in a safe in CM. Realised half-way in Chaing Rai (several hours away). Paid a man 1000 Thai Baht (about $40 AUD) to bring it all the way to Laos for me. Got them back less than 24 hours later, all present and correct and had not even been opened. Love Thai and Lao people.

3: A sarong. Lost whilst tubing down the river in Vang Vieng.

4: The fake wedding band I'm wearing over here to stop men harrassing me (incidentally, this has already been used countless times to great affect). Lost whilst tubing in VV. Replaced in Vientiane at the Patouxai (replicar Arc de Triomphe, random) for less than $1.

5.: My bag. See the below post. Lost by negligent hotel staff, found 3 hours later (after a trip to the police, lots of money spent on phone calls, and lots of tears). At least all safe and well now!

I think that I have just about reached my quota of lost goods for the trip, and so should be safe to continue the trip. Will let you know, though!!

Things One Should Really Avoid When In Thailand (or: ...WHAT????)

1: Getting One's Bag Lost or Stolen. This will result in a World of Pain. See below for more.

2: Needing the Thai Police's help when one's bag has been Lost or Stolen. This will only be beneficial if you are a VIP. If, on the other hand, you are a poor falang (foreigner) girl, freaking out because her bag has gone missing, you will sit in the police station for half an hour, then decide it is all too much and you can sort it out yourself, thanks very much anyway.

3: Relying on CCTV footage to find out where said bag may be. Yes, the hotel has CCTV cameras everywhere. But are they operational? Can you see anything whatsoever other than a large black blob? No? Funny that!

4: Staying at the First Hotel in Petchburi Road, Bangkok. One of the following is almost inevitable (and each has happened to at least one person on our trip): a) bedbugs; b) inadequate cleaning; c) water gushing in through the roof; d) a toilet that doesn't flush; or finally e) they will put your bag in a room that isn't yours, put a do not disturb sign on the door and refuse to go in it because of that sign, be completely rude and useless when you can't find your bag for 3 hours, refuse to let you use the phone to make a toll free call to your insurance agency, scowl at you the whole time, and when it is discovered that they were at fault for the lost bag, not apologise, not help and not make recompense at all. Hmmmmmmm. If you are on a Geckos trip that leaves from there, spend the least amount of time possible at First Hotel. Take your - wait for it - $60 a night - elsewhere (in Bangers, that will get you something gold, rather than what has just been described).

So that was my day yesterday! Definite low-light of the trip thus far, but all ok now, and I am flying to Vientiane again tonight to spend another week in Laos, chilling out...

Tuesday, 9 January 2007

Luang Prabang, Laos

Hill Tribe kids (the one in the green was a classic!)

Laos is an incredible country. It's beautiful, the landscape is spectacular, the people are so friendly and the food is great. It is also a country which is still struggling with significant adversities. The average life expectancy here is 53 years. Forty per cent of the population is under 15. In some areas, one in four children die before aged 6. It is the most bombed country, per capita, ever in the history of warfare - and about a third of those bombs did not explode, meaning there is unexploded ordinance everywhere, just waiting for a bamino to come and play with it. So difficulties are everywhere, but this does not stop the Lao from smiling and being friendly and accomodatiing. With the stats above, you can probably tell that there are a lot of babies around - and they're the cutest things. Have had to stop myself adopting them all, several times!! It's awesome to see them Nop you (the prayer like geture similar to the Thai Wai) and say sabadii (hello).

Fot this part of the trip I am with a tour, all of whom are lovely. It's a small world as two of them went to college with one of my closest school friends, Soph. I've also just run into a girl I went to school with which is pretty funny - of all the bakeries in all the world... Our tour leader, Tui, is a Lao man and is hilarious.

We crossed into Laos at the border town of Houay Xai and from there, caught a slow boat over two days down the Mighty Mekong river, stopping in Pakbeng for a night before arriving in Luang Prabeng yesterday. Meandering down the mekong was so relaxing - lots of reading and playing cards and sunbaking. We stopped in on a couple of Hill Tribes who only see Westerners every three or four months. The kids took great delight in watching us take photos of them and then show them on our digital cameras. We also stopped in at Pak Ou caves and the Whiskey village.
Getting to Luang Prabang was nice as it meant a flushing toilet and a hot shower - who'd have thought those things would be so nice. We had Indian for dinner last night and indulged in some night market shopping. Although everything is uber cheap (7,000 Kip to the Aussie Dollar) I am spending a lot!!! Everything here is beautiful and high quality.

The food is incredible - Lao coffee has got to be the best in the world, made with condensed milk so it is sweet and smooth. The french colonial influence has brought fresh bread and croissants which are among the best I've ever had - in fact better than Jackman & McRoss'!! I'm drinking so much beer Lao it's not funny - $1.20 for a long neck of some of the best beer in the world.

This is a place where you realise how lucky you are, every minute that you are here. On one level, I am a lucky girl because I have electricity and hot water and more than 3 years of education (the average here). On another level, I have got to be one of the luckiest people alive to have seen the sunsets I've seen, the rollicking hills surrounding the Mekong, meeting the Hill tribes, and being able to have the fantastic meals I've had. I'm also incredibly lucky to have you guys back home and I miss and love you all very much. I am also missing Australian domestic politics (tragic), haloumi cheese, cooking at home, and my jewellery (pathetic)!!!

Take care all and looking forward to hearing more from home, much love, Sophie.

Thursday, 4 January 2007

Getting Out of Bangkok!!

Ok, although I knew it would be safe (ish) in Bangkok, it wasn't exactly pleasant in the day or two after the bombings. As those of you who heard from me in those couple of days know, I was actually pretty scared. DFAT was issuing a travel warning to suspend all unnecessary travel to Bangkok. Moreover, I had already had a week there and so had run out of things to do - and my new hotel was SHABBY (I'm talking bed bugs. Which is ok, except in Bangkok where there are plenty of cleaner options for the same price) and in an awful part of town. I didn't feel safe on the streets, I didn't want to stay in the hotel, and there were no bars or cafes nearby for me to socialise in. I was actually pretty damn miserable, not like me at all! So I got in contact with a friend, Mel, who has travelled pretty extensively, and she gave me some advice which is up there with the best I've ever had - trust your traveller's instinct. I got on the phone to Thai Air and was in Chiang Mai by that afternoon! Mum was travelling here already so it was easy, I already had a place to stay, and I'm now meeting the tour group here tomorrow morning before crossing into Laos the day after. Hurrah!

I feel much, much safer here and sometimes that's all that matters. It was certainly the right decision, even more so when I read in the Bangkok Post this morning that there were 2 bomb threats yesterday on the road I was staying on.

Chiang Mai is further north, full of night markets and the gateway to trekking in the far north or all sorts of other things. I really love it here, it's lively but not the rambunctious city that Bangkok is. Yesterday mum and I had a priceless day at an elephant conservation park about 2 hours drive north of here. They rescue abused elephants (which, it turns out, are almost all elephants in Thailand - any that aren't wild, any that are engaged in tourism activities like rides etc) and let them essentially roam free, with mahouts to command them and volunteers around to manage them. We got to feed them and bathe them in the river, there are about 30 elephants plus 3 baby elephants which were the cutest things! It was an awesome day, just being there with these majestic animals and some great people, and also probably the best Thai food I've ever had (a big call, believe me!) and the clear mountain air. Really great.

Today was spent shopping (oops, have spent more than I planned to, oh well!). And just walking around Chiang Mai. It's going to be really hard to leave Thailand, I love this country so much, but I am looking forward to seeing Laos. I hope you're all well and I miss you all very much, love always, Sophie.

Monday, 1 January 2007

Safe New Year

Just letting everyone know that we're safe and weren't affected by the bombings in Bangkok last night (several bombs went off in various parts of Bangkok last night. Two people were killed and according to the Australian newspaper, 36 injured. Reasons remain unknown - possibly an expansion of the violence in the far south that has raged for years; possibly related to the coup of 19 September). We watched it all on the news from the safety of our hotel room. It's all pretty distressing to tell the truth, I feel so terrible for the poor Thai people that were affected, and hope that this does not adveresly affect people's livelihoods. I also hope it doesn't affect tourism too much, as this place is built upon it, and without it people will really suffer. I'm in Bangkok until the 5th before heading North, then into Laos. Mum has left for Chiang Mai in the North today. I promise I'll take good care of myself in the next couple of days. Love you all terribly much, Sophie.