Monday, 27 May 2013

Australia's East Coast: Speed Mode

After my last entry, Steph and I continued down the east coast. After leaving Airlie,we took a 16-hour bus ride to Noosa, a posh beach town just north of Brisbane. We only stayed for a night, so all we really had time for was to walk around town and take a stroll along the beach. We also indulged just slightly by staying at the Flashpackers Hostel; it's still at hostel, but is beautifully designed with an inviting lounge area and a giant kitchen. After two nights on a boat with no showers and one night sleeping on a Greyhound, we were very willing to sacrifice the 28 dollar price tag, not to mention throwing in eight bucks for all-you-can-eat pizza night. In town, we once again braved the shops - Steph and I tell ourselves that we shouldn't shop because we're both on strict budgets, but we know we're going to do it anyway, so we instead we make bad jokes about our shopping habits to laugh it off and ease the tension of our bank accounts.
 The next day was Steph's birthday, and unfortunately, it started with an early morning three hour busride to Brisbane. We had originally planned to rush to the koala sanctuary, so that Steph could hug a koala for her b-day, but once we found out that our hostel offered a special tour leaving the next morning, we decided to hold off. Instead, we opted to do what we do best: shopping. Once we checked into our twenty bed dorm (ridiculous...), we took off to the downtown core, rushed into the nearest Starbucks, and then shopped til we dropped... And until all the stores closed, so we really had no choice but to stop. Steph had looked up what was going on in town that night, and discovered a venue with some interesting DJs, so after power naps, we headed for a night out. Even though it wasn't my usual thing, the DJs were admittedly pretty good, but we had definitely entered the hipster zone. After realising the set ended fairly early, we decided to club hop and make up for a lack of nights out. We checked out mainstream ones, and even delved into a salsa night (which ended quickly after Steph ran into herself in one of the bathroom mirrors...very trippy). All in all, despite the lack of koalas, I think - or at least I hope - Steph had a satisfying birthday.
 The following morning it was finally time to check out some koalas. After a stop at a viewpoint to see the entire city of Brisbane, we arrived at the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary - located in the adorable suburb of Fig Tree Pocket. We didn't really know what to expect other than the koala hugs and photos, but the whole sanctuary was actually quite serene and seemed to host a lovely habitat for all kinds of animals. Steph and I started with the koala show - where I decided to pet one instead of doing the cuddle - and then Steph went for her koala experience. At the end of the day, it really was just posing for a photo. Steph was basically told to stand like a tree while the koala rested on her; not so much a cuddle as a statue. At the very least, we got some cute photos. We then discovered that there was an area where you could feed kangaroos, so we bought some food, and wandered around the field, interacting with dozens of kangaroos. I didn't realise quite how domesticated kangaroos could be, it was almost like going to a petting zoo at home and feeding the goats, except the kangaroos didn't try to eat everything on you. It was without a doubt one of those surreal moments where you think how the hell did I end up hand feeding kangaroos in Australia.
 That night, we kept up with our speed pace and took a bus to Byron Bay where we had planned to stay for a few days. Our first day, we dove right in and went for a surfing lesson; after all, you can't come to Australia and not surf. Needless to say, Steph and I both sucked, and only managed to actually stand a couple times, but it was great fun and we both spent the afternoon in hysterical fits of laughter over how disastrous each attempt was. That night, Steph had arranged to meet up with her cousin who she hadn't seen since she was two years old - even before Steph and I had met! After meeting Juniper and her fiance, Adam, and hitting it off, we ended up having dinner and drinks and chatting for hours. They offered for us to come stay with them, but since we'd already paid for the hostel, we declined. Things changed drastically, however, when we discovered that someone in the hostel had stolen our English muffins (a true travesty), and we immediately contacted Juniper to take them up on their offer.
 Before moving over, we relaxed at the beach for a day - braving the chilly weather - and did a tour to Nimbin. Nimbin is known as the drug capital of Australia. While drugs are extremely illegal in this country, the police have turned a blind eye to Nimbin, and allowed this hippie community to flourish into a marijuana mecca. Soon after we boarded our hippie school bus, the tour guide explained to us that, while all activities of the day were more or less illegal, he didn't give a shit, so we could pretty much do as we pleased. First, we made a rest stop along the way, where he encouraged us to load up on alcoholic beverages for the busride - again, very illegal in this country. Next, we headed straight to Nimbin, where he told us the best places and prices for weed. Steph and I already knew about this, and while Steph doesn't engage with that sort of thing, I decided to follow my 'you only live once' mentality and purchase a weed cookie. It was sort of humorous really, since I've never bought drugs of any kind of my life, and don't know the first thing of how to go about it. Luckily, it's not too hard in Nimbin, as all kind of hippie characters are constantly offering you weed as you walk down the main street. I opted to purchase only one cookie, as I've never been a big stoner, and just wanted to try it out the once. After about an hour, it started to hit me, and I just got extremely tired. To Steph, I think I just looked like I was in a daze. Either way, it was an experience. Our driver then took us to a park where he cooked up a BBQ lunch ( I'm sure you can imagine that a bus full of stoned backpackers are probably all dying for food by this point). After a brief stop at a national park viewpoint, we headed back to Byron, at which point thankfully, my one cookie wore off.
 We moved into Juniper and Adam's place that night. The two started their own granola company, and live just outside of Byron Bay, in a loft space they created in their warehouse. While some may think it doesn't sound ideal, they've created an amazingly trendy space that features a lot of Juniper's ecclectic style and ceramics. They made us an amazing home cooked dinner, and I finally got to buy Steph a birthday cake that we were all able to celebrate together. In the morning, after trying out some seriously good granola, Steph and I utilized our day to do some seriously productive... shopping. We checked out every shop possible in Byron, including the Salvation Army, and went back to enjoy homemade pizzas and wine with Juniper and Adam before catching our overnight bus to Sydney.
 Originally, we had hoped to couchsurf in Sydney - an organization that connects travelers with people that have a spare bed or couch in locations all around the world - but after a failed attempt to find a host, we picked the cheapest hostel we could find. Minus the fact that we had to find our own way there carrying all our luggage and groceries (which has grown monumentally due to the shopping), the hostel wasn't actually that bad, it even featured free wifi, a rare find in this country. Being on an increasingly strict budget, Steph and I had marked down all the free art galleries in the city, and decided to take on those first. We only managed to get to one on our first day, but also saw the botanical gardens and the library (sounds dull, but they were showing some photography, so I couldn't resist). With bad weather, we were running out of indoor activities, but after a quick Google search, I found that there was a Lindt Cafe nearby, and there's nothing better than chocolate on a crappy day. Chocolate waffles, two hot chocolates, and several Lindt chocolates later, we were stuffed, and headed back to the hostel.
 We had planned to visit the Blue Mountains the next day, and agreed it was better to do it ourselves, rather than book a tour. We started our morning with a two-hour train ride through the Blue Mountains to the town of Katoomba. As soon as we arrived, it was clear that we had picked the wrong day. Not only was it pouring with rain, but the fog had rolled in and you couldn't see a thing. Steph and I decided to make the most of a bad situation, and buy the hop-on-hop-off bus tickets anyway. After buying a wool hat, bundling up, and chatting up our bus driver, we managed to do a short walk by some waterfalls, check out chocolate factory, walk down to the edge of the Three Sisters - where because of the fog we could only actually see one sister (three rock points famous in the Blue Mountains), check out umpteen gift shops, and do a short walk through the Leura Cascades and Leura village. After a reasonably full day, we felt we'd given it all we had, and - both soaked - loaded onto the train back to Sydney.
 On our last day in the city, we planned to do some of the more typical tourist activities, but first I had planned for us to meet up with Mel. If you can vaguely recall, Mel is an Aussie I met in Vietnam. I'd spent several days with her there, and was more than happy to see her again while on the road. After a disastrous train ride getting slightly lost along the way, we met her in the suburb of Newtown, a more artsy/hipster neighbourhood. We caught up over coffee and lunch before Steph and I had to head off and squeeze in our day. We headed straight to the harbour where we took cheesy tourist photo after photo of the Sydney Opera House, and then headed to the Contemporary Art Gallery, where funny enough they were featuring a Vancouver artist that I studied in university. We wandered through parks and into King's Cross before deciding to head back down to the harbour to catch the beginning of Vivid - a lights festival in Sydney where they bring in light technicians from around the world to project light shows on all the buildings. We were so thankful that we managed to see it even for a bit; it's not often that you see all kinds of crazy lighting graphics being projected on the Sydney Opera House. We rushed back just on time to catch our Greyhound to Melbourne, whch is where I now find myself.
 Melbourne is our last stop in Australia, and my last destination to explore on my trip (I'm not counting my stopover in Bangkok of course, as I've already been there twice). I briefly went through every place I've been to on this trip in my head the other day, and it was quite a long list. While so much at this point seems like a blur, somehow I've managed to cram so much into five months, while also really getting to experience certain people and places. I go home in one week, and like I've mentioned in previous posts probably, I'm not really sure how I feel about it at this point. I guess it's mostly because I know that my life at home is what it is, and will always be there, but there is so much of the world I want to see and experience, and I truly do enjoy constantly seeing new things and meeting new people in all kinds of unexpected ways. Anyway, I think I only have one blog post left after this, so I'll leave it until then to really sum up the trip. Seven days to go!

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

How ya going?

 Well, I have finally made it to my final country: Australia. This is my tenth country since I started back in December. It also happens to be my final continent to visit (other than Antarctica, but I can live with that... for now).
Steph and I loaded up at Caravella
 Steph and I started off by meeting up in Cairns. Now, I can't remember if I've said this before, but Steph is my oldest friend. We met in our first year of kindergarten when we were both four years old. We were best friends through most of elementary school, and after I moved to Vancouver, we had a few hiccups - only normal in that long of a friendship. When the opportunity came about though for Steph to join up with me on my journey, she jumped at it with great enthusiasm, and it was booked almost immediately.
 In Cairns, we stayed at a hostel called Caravella, and it was probably one of the better hostels I've had along the way (though nothing will beat the Sunflower in Hoi An, that hostel was truly epic). After our first day of exploring the city, however, the weather decided to turn sour, and I had to brave the rain for the first time in months. Steph and I easily filled the time though by fully exploiting every shopping option in the entire city - which isn't actually that much - but if it was there, we found it. We also visited a couple art galleries, and even picked up some kangaroo fingerpuppets to join us on some of our Aussie photo-ops. While sitting outside a travel agency stealing their wifi, one of the workers managed to lure us in, and before you know it, we'd spent a thousand dollars on our bus passes and tours.
Charlie from Wicked Travel with Koala and Sharkie the kangaroos

 Our first tour was a day out on the Great Barrier Reef. I was debating if I should dive or not, but when life gives you lemons...Of course, I dove. Twice. Steph, who wasn't as adjusted to being on a boat in rougher waters, opted for snorkelling, and I joined her between dives. The diving was alright, but I think that after my liveaboard in Komodo with Saskia, there was serious tough competition. Plus, one of the divers in my group lacked experience, and continually bobbed up and down, constantly landing on coral and breaking off pieces of the reef. With people like that allowed to dive, it's no wonder that even divers are contributing to the speedy deterioration of the Great Barrier.
 After a second day of shopping and stealing wifi, Steph and I went on a tour of the Daintree Rainforest, just north of Cairns. On the way, we briefly stopped in Port Douglas, and Mossman Gorge - a beautiful protected rainforest. After crossing a ferry across a crocodile infested river, we drove through the forest up to Cape Tribulation where we stopped at the beach. Steph and I also convinced our driver to make a brief pitstop at a local ice cream shop that used jungle fruits to make their flavours - a stop that the entire bus fully took advantage of. Our last activity was a river cruise looking for crocs and various birds. While the weather wasn't phenomenal, Steph and I still managed to have a great time (and I think Steph was slightly relieved to be doing a tour on solid ground).
On the move in the Whitsundays
 After spending our last day in Cairns taking full advantage of our hostel's pool, we hopped on our first Greyhound and headed for Airlie Beach. Almost twelve hours later, we arrived at a hostel for the night, and got a bit of sleep to prep us for our next leg: the Whitsundays.
 When booking our Whitsundays tour, Steph and I had requested a more laid back boating experience, not a booze cruise, and that's exactly what we got. The sailboat had about 25 passengers including the three crew members.Steph and I were also lucky enough to share a double bed directly under the hatch, so we could watch the stars while lying in bed. This snorkel experience was much more calm and successful for Steph, and although we didn't see any turtles or sharks, we did see some giant napoleon fish and parrotfish, and some beautiful coral. On the second day, we visited Whitehaven Beach, rated the second most beautiful beach in the world. Steph and I walked around the water edge, taking it all in, and even finished with some meditation on the sand. We cruised around visiting more snorkel spots in the afternoon, and working on our tans (which unsurprisingly turned into sunburns...). After one last snorkel at 6:30 am, we returned to Airlie, and are now waiting to board a bus to our next destination: Noosa.
 There is only a little over two weeks left in my trip. It feels like practically nothing. The challenge now is to live in the moment as much as humanly possible and take in every little thing before I have to return to my confusing and chaotic reality back home... Challenge accepted.
P.S. My title is just the common greeting here in Oz.

Saturday, 11 May 2013

No hurry, no rush, this is our party

 Well my last entry was two weeks ago, and while I probably should've added something half way through my Indonesia trip, it was way too crazy to even think about taking out my laptop.
Making new friends at Monkey Forest, Ubud
 I spent my last night in Bangkok with Hannah - the German girl that had been traveling with the British guys and I - and Alex - a Brit who had traveled with Hannah a few weeks prior. Hannah had been planning on doing a meditation retreat, but ended up returning to Kho San Road, and instead of praying, she ended up shopping and getting piercings with Alex and I (she actually fainted after getting her bellybutton done... scary, but hilarious). The next morning, I boarded my flight to Bali, and waited not-so-patiently for Saskia's flight to get in. For those of you who don't know, Saskia is one of my closest friends from high school. Originally from South Africa and from a worldly family, it is of no surprise that she's well traveled and always up for a new international adventure. Last summer, before I'd moved to Toronto, we were sitting in Argo Cafe in East Vancouver having lunch, and somehow schemed a plan for her to meet up with me for a couple weeks during my travels. We had traveled together before - first in Galapagos during high school, and then to San Diego as a grad trip - so neither of us were too worried about being compatible travel buddies. We decided on Indonesia and worked out dates that would match up, and before we knew it, we both had flights to Bali and had booked a liveaboard diving trip to top it off. When she finally arrived, I was overwhelmed with relief to see a familiar face, but also slightly saddened to think that I was already so far into my trip. We immediately took a taxi to Ubud - Saskia got her first taste of my bargaining obsession - which is a small town in central Bali. While Ubud is quite touristy (mostly because of the book and movie Eat, Pray, Love), it is filled with traditional Balinese culture and charm, and is a great hub for visiting local temples and rice terraces. Saskia and I didn't really have too much of a plan, but quickly found a driver to take us around to see the sights (we also realised that Balinese people have five common nicknames for Westerners to call them, meaning that almost every local we had encountered was named Nyoman). First, lush green rice terraces, then a view point of a volcano and lake, next to a coffee plantation where we sampled all different coffees and teas (including Luwak coffee, made by feeding the beans to an animal who then poops them out before the beans are grinded for consumption). We followed this up with three temples, renting sarongs at each one to cover our knees, and being asked by Indonesian tourists to pose for pictures as if we were celebrities. One of the more humorous aspects of the day was that each temple has a sign clearly stating that it is strictly forbidden for women who are menstruating to enter the temple. Apparently it brings bad luck upon the entire community. Let's just say, one of us committed very sinful acts all day long. That night, Saskia had already planned for us to attend a local dance performance, showing off Balinese theatrical costumes and makeup to tell stories of the island.
 The next day, we decided to partake in a Balinese cooking class. As I already knew, and was confirmed during my Thai cooking class, I am a mess in the kitchen. Luckily, everyone in the class took turns preparing different items, so there was minimal room for me to screw up. We made satays and curries, vegetable dishes, and fried bananas, and Saskia and I plotted to repeat the recipes for family once we'd both returned back home. We filled the rest of our day by visiting the monkey forest - a park where monkeys roam around freely and willingly climb on you looking for food - and getting cheap, but totally amazing and necessary, massages. Even after eating all day long, we still managed to feast that night, each having giant portions of delicious satay (spelled sate in Bali, the place it actually originated).

It was around this time that Saskia and I decided that instead of our trip being like "Eat, Pray, Love", we were more along the lines of "Eat, Explore, Dive"; to us, this sounded way more fascinating.
Taking in our fate at a market in Bima
 Our next destination for the trip was to Labuan Bajo on Flores Island, where we had booked our diving trip. In an effort to save a few bucks, we'd booked our flight on Merpati, a cheap local airliner that was blacklisted in pretty much every other country. After a strange landing filled with unusual noises and odd pressure changes, we were ushered into a waiting area where Saskia and I assumed we were placed while they unloaded our baggage. Thirty minutes later, Saskia went to look at a map and discovered that we weren't actually in Labuan Bajo, and that we had somehow missed that we'd made an emergency landing in Bima, a town on the island of Sumbawa, just west of Flores.After some research and eavesdropping, we found out that we'd made an emergency landing and that the breaking system was broken. Five hours later they finally decided that we'd have to stay in Bima for the night, and threw us in cabs to a hotel for the night. Saskia and I were obviously panicked about potentially missing our boat, but after a phone call, found out that we would actually still make the boat. We saw this as a blessing in disguise and set out to explore Bima.
 Dressed appropriately in proper t-shirts and long sarongs, we wandered to the Sultan's Palace and through the streets and marketplace. Saskia's guidebook suggested that Bima was an awful town with nothing to see, and where locals were rude and unwelcoming. We found quite the opposite. It immediately became apparent that tourists did not come here, and seeing two young white girls was somewhat shocking. We were basically celebrities that everyone wanted to talk to, and pose for pictures (perfect since Saskia and I took the opportunity to do some street photography). Everyone was curious, yet extremely welcoming and friendly, greeting us as if we had blessed them with our presence. In the end, Saskia and I were the ones who felt blessed - blessed that we'd had this odd turn of events that had resulted in such a genuine experience.
Sunset over Komodo Island
Best dive buddy a girl could ask for
 After a shaky plane ride, we finally touched down in Labuan Bajo and headed for the dive shop. While waiting for the boat, we quicky found a spa and indulged yet again in some fabulous massages, and of course spent hours using wifi ( it has unfortunately become my guilty pleasure on this trip). We then boarded the giant sailboat called the Jaya and set out for Komodo. The crew was filled with interesting characters and backgrounds: a crazy New Yorker couple and their friend, a young Aussie couple, a French father and son accompanied by a friend, a young Dutch guy with Indonesian heritage, and a young New Yorker backpacker, Mike. We also had several divemasters, including Diego who was Saskia and my instructor for our advanced course, and funny enough, happened to have instructed Kim, a girl I'd met in my first few nights in Thailand. The boat was beautiful; Saskia and I had our own room (which quickly turned into a cyclone of clothing), there was a seating area for meals and a lounging area on the deck for sunbathing, and outdoor sleeping, which we fully took advantage of. For three days, we would wake up, have a coffee, dive, eat breakfast, dive again, eat lunch, dive again, then dinner (or dive again, as we did on our second day with a night dive). We also got some breaks for snorkeling, a hike up a small island to watch the sunset, and of course, to visit Komodo National Park to see wild komodo dragons. Saskia and I also received intermittent lessons for our course. While some people on the boat probably immediately notice our high energy level, we were more than happy to show our enthusiasm and goof off a bit for the sake of having a good time. Well apparently, a good attitude pays off because Saskia and I had some of the most successful dives. Every dive got better and better; first we saw a couple sharks, then we lost count of how many sharks and sea turtles, and then we saw seven manta rays on one dive, with one of them swimming right over us. Even our divemaster took out his regulator to mouth "What the fuck". It was truly incredible. We also got our first taste of a deep dive, where we both suffered a bit of narcosis (underwater drunkenness), and got slightly goofy, messing up our underwater numbers game and having an submerged laughing fit through our regulators. We also fell slightly inlove with one of the divemasters, Marcel - a local from Flores who had somehow done over 800 dives in two and a half years - who was so adorable every time he did our briefings, routinely stating "No hurry, no rush, this is our party". When our three days were finished, the group met up for a parting dinner. We had also invited Mike to join us for our trek up Rinjani on Lombok, meaning that he would be traveling with us for a few more days. We decided to stay in Flores for one more day, and Marcel offered to show us around on motorbikes. I, of course, wanted to drive my own, and Saskia rode on the back of Mike's. Well, my two days of prior experience in Vietnam meant nothing on the roads of Flores. It was a constant snaking road through the mountains filled with gravel and potholes. When we got close to the waterfall, we turned onto a dirt road full of bumps and even log bridges. I wasn't doing half bad until I got stuck on some rocks going uphill and rammed myself into a bush...I opted to ride with Marcel the rest of the way. On the way back, however, I was a little shaken up and managed to fall off my bike when going down a tight corner with another bike coming up over some gravel. I was totally fine (except a slightly sore foot), but learned my lesson that motorbikes cannot be mastered in a period of a couple days. Besides that, the waterfall was beautiful and a local cut up some fresh coconuts for us on the way back, letting us take in the local village.

 In our mission to leave Flores more smoothly than we'd come to it, I dropped the ball. I had accidentally booked our flights for the wrong month, and we were stuck buying tickets directly before our flights in an attempt to get to Lombok as early as possible. Twelve hours later, we had found our way to a hotel in Praya, Lombok, and had organized a ride to the base of Rinjani.
 We began our trek extra early, getting picked up at 5 am, and heading up the mountain by a few hours later. The hike was grueling at times, but the occasional sighting of monkeys and the sounds of the jungle kept it interesting. When we arrived at the top nine hours later, we were greeted with a gorgeous late-afternoon view of the giant volcanic crater, the lake, and the small crater that had formed in the middle. After settling into our tents, we watched the sunset behind the surrounding layer of clouds, had an early dinner, and gladly went straight to bed.
 The following morning was a leisurely descent down the mountain, followed by a long car ride to our stop for the night, Sengigi, a small beachtown on the west coast of Lombok. After traveling with Mike for about a week, Saskia and I continued on our own back to Bali.
 We decided to head to Ahmed, a small quiet town on the east coast, close to a shipwreck that we had been hoping to dive. We asked our driver to drop us off in the town centre, so that we could search for accommodation, and the first place he could pull over was right infront of Uyah Lodge, a beautiful beachside ecolodge. We decided to look at a room, and despite the price, we were immediately sold - Saskia by the modern, dreamlike decor of the room, me by the two swimming pools right outside our door. Needless to say, the next two nights were extremely relaxing.
Testing out the muscles on Rinjani
 We immediately found a dive company, and headed to the wreck the next morning. While we knew our standards had been set extremely high by our dives in Komodo, we didn't expect to be quite as disappointed as we were. It was mostly because our divemaster treated the dive more as a tourist photoshoot than a dive, but also because the wreck was crammed with divers. If I was any kind of fish, that is the last place I'd want to be, and it was made pretty clear when our divemaster went right up to a sea turtle and let off a flash straight into its eyes. Saskia and I finished our day with our own photoshoot by the pool, playing around with her underwater camera. After spa visits, tanning by the pool, and lots of food, it was time to part ways. I was off to Australia, and Saskia was staying in Ahmed for a couple days (where Mike was planning on joining her). After a giant hug, I headed off to the airport.
Wreck Diving in Bali
 Right now, I'm seated in the airport in Darwin, Australia. After what I hope will be a somewhat decent sleep on an airport couch, I'm headed to Cairns to meet up with Steph for the last leg of my trip. I have now officially been to ten countries on my trip (Austria, Italy, Switzerland, Thailand, Singapore, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia, and Australia). For the past few days, the idea of going home has become extremely daunting and stressful. I don't think I've mentioned this yet, but I found out when I was in Laos that I was accepted into Ryerson for my Master's degree in Professional Communications. In the meantime, I've also been put on the reserve list for entrance into a similar program at the London School of Economics. I have three months when I get home to Vancouver to save up and figure out what the next year is going to look like for me, but because I'm in a bit of a transition and my life has been divided across the country, I feel like there's no solidarity when I get home. Everything will continue to feel like limbo until I get settled in the fall. And what if I go to London? Then I've got a whole new adventure ahead of me with a million unknowns. I'm trying to shed the fear of returning to reality, and hold on to the excitement of seeing family and friends, but I have a feeling it might be hard for me to do that until I'm boarded on that final flight home. Maybe this is just one of those moments in life where I need to calm down and say to myself "No hurry, no rush, this is our party".
*many photos courtesy of Saskia Nowicki!!!

Thursday, 18 April 2013

"I want tomato because it has my name in it"

After I last wrote, I continued on my journey through Cambodia. I can't remember if I mentioned this before, but I immediately went down to Sihanoukville, searched for accomodation with a group of people I met on the bus, and ended up at a super cheap hostel. I was absolutely exhausted and beat down, and felt like I needed a break from traveling, if only for a few days. The first night in Sihanoukville was awful. At midnight, the power cut out (apparently a common occurence in Sihanoukville), and that meant no fans in the dorms. The cramped, dirty dorm was a sauna, and there was no possible way to sleep. I went outside to rest on the patio a few times, but was eaten alive by mosquitoes. At one point, I just started covering my face in tiger balm to get a cooling sensation. The next morning, two Norwegian guys from my bus were also moving places, so we decided to split a room in a hotel down the street near the beach. Naturally, this meant that I spent two days hanging out on the beach with Norwegians! On the second day, we checked out Otres Beach, which was supposedly a much more quiet and oasis-like beach a few kilometres down. It was beautiful, and it was amazing to just relax for a few days. No sightseeing, no crowds. On the second night, the Brits arrived and, sticking with tradition, I met up wih them for a night of drinking. We went to a few different bars along the beach and caught up from when I'd last seen them in Saigon. Since I had to move accomodation the next morning anyway (the Norwegians were headed off), I got a room in the Brits' hotel, and that set the tone for the rest of Cambodia...
 We spent two more days in Sihanoukville, one at Otres, and the next I broke off to do a scuba diving trip off of Koh Rong, a serene island lined with beach bungalows off the coast. The diving was phenomenal. The first dive, I couldn't get down, as my sinuses had been a little rough from a cold. I decided to wait for the second dive, and took the opportunity to do a little snorkelling nearby. Almost immediately after I swam over to the rocks, I looked down through a school of fish and spotted my first shark. It was nothing big, either a bull shark or a black tip I think, but it was enough for me to decide that I'd seen enough, and head back to the boat. After lunch, I gave diving another shot and managed to get down. The reef was gorgeous. Instead of bleached coral like you see now in much of the world, the reef was alive and full of life and colour. We saw giant porcupine fish, fuzzy crabs (I think that's what they're called...), blue-spotted stingrays, and too many fish to count.
Some of the hundreds of skulls in the memorial at the killing fields
 The following morning, after a serious lack of sleep, we all headed to Phnom Penh, the capital city. It was the four guys, a German girl - Hannah - and I, and I was more than happy to have some other people to make decisions for me for a few days. Almost immediately after arriving, we ran into Neil, a guy we'd all met in Laos who's biking around the world. We decided to group together for the next day of sightseeing where we would visit the killing fields and the S-21 prison, both important landmarks in the genocide led by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s.
One of the buildings at S-21 prison
Pictures of the victims at S-21
 We started with the killing fields, a place where prisoners were taken, murdered, and buried in giant pits. Because bullets were expensive, they explain the brutality of the murders which could sometimes be pretty graphic. While hearing all of it is depressing, I actually found it less disturbing than the Vietnam War Museum. I think it was because without the imagery, it's hard to picture all the chaos and brutality when you're only staring at a pile of dirt. Either way, it was an eye-opener and a must-do. Next we headed to the prison which had a much more intense experience attached to it, for me anyway.You walk into each cell, and you can still see the blood stains on the ceilings and walls from people being tortured. Then you walk around the rows and rows of faces; images of the victims, with women, men, and children, young and old. Every so often you'd hit an image that just stared deep into your soul, and you could feel the fear and pain. You then wander down the rows of tiny chambers where prisoners were held with wooden doors peeking open, and it's haunting. By the end of the prison, I got the depressing dose of reality that I'd been expecting that day.
 Meanwhile, all day long our tuktuk driver had been drinking, celebrating Songkran - Thai New Year. By the end of it, he was pissed drunk and there was nothing we could do but go along with it and have a good laugh. He kept asking us if we wanted cheap beer, so he ended up taking us to a cell phone shop with a fridge...They pulled out a table and chairs and a long night of festivities began yet again. Eventually we moved on to a restaurant for dinner, and by the end, our driver was drunk enough to let one of the Brits drive the tuktuk while he rode with us in the back. I can't imagine what people must of thought of some white guy driving a tuktuk around downtown Phnom Penh with a load of drunk people stuffed in the back.
Frog legs for dinner!
 Back at the hotel, I ended up running into the two Canadian girls from Tofino that I'd met in Hoi An, Vietnam, and they joined our group for an evening of dancing. Overall an amazing night in the capital.
 Our last stop in Cambodia was in Siam Reap to visit the famous Angkor Wat. We knew the best way to do it was either sunrise or sunset so we opted for the former and rolled ourselves out of bed at four in the morning to head over to the temples. Nine hours later, we were hot, sweaty, exhausted, and totally templed out. Angkor Wat was amazing though. The ancient ruins intertwined with giant twisting trees gives a mystical feel as you wander through archways and around fallen stone. After a ridiculously long day, Hannah and I decided to take some much needed girl time to have dinner and shop, and ended up meeting up with some of her previous travel buddies for a few drinks and pool. That's just how it works here: you want a peaceful night, yet there are always going to be more new people to meet and down time just doesn't work. After debating if I should stay in Cambodia longer or just head back to Bangkok with the group, I decided to head back to Thailand and get things in order before Indonesia. It was crazy to think that I was back in Bangkok. It seems like so long ago that I was here with Rachel and Jo and felt like I still had my whole trip ahead of me. It makes me unbelievably sad to think that my trip is so close to ending (which is completely ridiculous since I still have six weeks...). The guys decided to stay in Bangkok for one night and go all out, so of course I joined in, as it was probably my last night with them. I've now had two days to relax, catch up on sleep, and prepare myself for my next big stop: Indonesia! I'm beyond excited to see Saskia and do our advanced diving course while living on a boat for four days, not to mention all of our other amazing stops along the way. I head to the airport in four hours, and am counting down every minute!
 Oh, and by the way, my title is a reference to a joke one of the Brits made that I felt summed up my travel week with them: a good laugh (his name is Tom and he ordered tomato...I laughed so hard that I ended up crying hysterically...).
*more photos coming soon!
Most of the group clubbing in Phnom Penh (courtesy of Facebook)

A Whirlwind Week

At the sand dunes for sunrise in Mui Ne
It has only been about one week since I last wrote, but it's been an action-packed week. After my last entry, I spent another night in Dalat, and went on my canyoning tour. With the company of a Dutch couple, we set off for a waterfall park area. I had brought the wrong kind of shoes and had to switch shoes with the guide, ending up with oversized sneakers, falling apart at the seams. Great start. At first, I was hesitant at the safety factor; they first guided us to a practice wall where we strapped ourselves into our harnesses, attached a rope, and learned to control our own descent. Having control of my own rope wasn't favourable, but I went with it. After the first two abseils, I felt pretty good. We had descended down rockfaces, dropping into water at the bottom, and swimming to land. We also did a couple rockslides and one cliff jump after lunch. Our third descent was straight through a waterfall descending 45 metres, and five metres from the bottom, you had to let go of your rope and jump down into the water below. Our guide told us that people often slip and fall on this one, so we needed to learn how to stand back up. As I started my descent, I felt good about my grip, and figured it probably wouldn't be that hard. When I got into the main section of the waterfall however, it was a very different story. The force of the waterfall was unimaginably strong and it pummeled down over my entire body, making it increasingly harder to keep my feet against the wall. I ended up slipping three times, each time getting pushed under the force of the water, soaking my eyes and filling up my mouth. Each time, I had to take a second and tell myself that I could do this, I would not be letting go of the rope or giving up. I would see it through to the end. Finally, after asking the guide fifteen times if I was okay to let go, he gave me the go-ahead and I plunged into the water below. Shaking from adrenaline after I got to shore, it was of little surprise that I whimped out on the last abseil. Still, all in all, a great day, and something that I might have never thought to try in any other place. Before exploring the town, I headed to the tour agency to pick something up I had left on the bus, and ended up having a long talk with a tour guide about his beautiful, mysterious country. I had wanted to ask someone about what it was like to live in a communist country, but hadn't yet met the right person. He explained to me that while Vietnam is technically titled communist, it is actually a very capitalist way of life. He said they have an expression: If you are rich, you are alive, if you are poor, you are dead. He explained that while they pay the government, they still have to pay for all education and healthcare. I also asked about their sentiments towards Americans. He told me how his grandfather despised Americans, but his generation took a different position. While they could forgive, they would never forget. I was so thankful that this man had been so willing to give me some insight into his country and couldn't believe that one simple conversation had taught me so much. That night, I walked to the market to grab some street food for dinner. As I eyed some chicken porridge, a Vietnamese man who spoke English saw my struggle to order, and immediately jumped in to help me out. It turns out he was actually a Canadian from Vancouver, and was just visiting Vietnam on holiday. We chatted about home and about my next destination, and then said our goodbyes. After briefly befriending a local painter ( an art student who sold her dad's paintings each night at the market), I headed back and prepared myself for my morning journey to Mui Ne.
Sand Dunes in Mui Ne

 I arrived in Mui Ne and checked into a gorgeous hostel with a beautiful pool by the beach. After wandering the town to check out the shops, I booked a sunrise tour to the sand dunes the following morning, and spent the rest of the day laying by the

View of a fishing village outside Mui Ne

rock formations along a river near Mui Ne

pool. Every time I get to bask in luxury, I think about how I am the luckiest person in the world to get to leave behind the routine of home and work to simply indulge for five months. The next day I was up first thing at four to board a jeep for the sand dunes. The dunes are simply rippling mountains of sand overlooking the ocean on one side, and a lake on the other. As the sun rises, you see the complexion of every colour in the sky, and are then given the chance to ride down the dunes on a sheet of plastic. After visiting the red sand dunes, a fishing village, and a river surrounded with towerung rock formations, we headed back to town, and I headed straight back to the pool, resting up before my bus ride to Ho Chi Minh City.
A copy of the famous image inside the War Museum
 From what I'd heard, I'd expected a fair amount from Saigon (renamed Ho Chi Minh after the war). People had continually said they liked it more than Hanoi, and I'd really enjoyed Hanoi. After arriving at my hostel, I immediately met some German guys, and joined them for dinner and drinks on the main backpacker road, Bui Vien. Not surprisingly, I ran into the British guys who'd also arrived that evening. The next morning at breakfast, I quickly began chatting with a British girl, Annie, and an American, Chris. We decided to spend the day together, but since they'd already been to the war museum, I broke off and planned to join up with them for dinner. After wandering the streets for nearly an hour in the scorching heat, I finally found it. The war museum was one of the most overwhelming educational experiences I've ever had. Between the images of massacres of women and children, to photos of agent orange victims, to the prisons showing methods of torture, by the end of it, you just want to sit down, breaths, and take a minute to absorb everything you just saw. All I'd known of the war before this was the basic statistics and facts. Now, I've been exposed to a side of the war history books breeze over, and it is a beyond depressing reality.
Crawling through the Cu Chi tunnels used by the Viet Cong
 I wasn't up for much more sightseeing afterwards, so I checked out a market and headed back to get ready for some local food with Annie and Chris, and some people from our hostel. Well, I'm not sure if it was the street alley food or not, but I spent the next full day in bed with a fever and a rough stomach.
 On my last day in Saigon, I decided to visit the tunnels; 200 kms of underground routes built by the Vietkong to hide from American soldiers. I originally planned to go to the non-touristy tunnels with the Brits, but plans fell through, and I opted for a tour to the frequently visited ones. In the end, that was one of the best decisions I ever made...
 Later that night, I heard from one of the Brits who wanted to go for a drink and just have a chill night chatting. We met up and he told me how they had met a Brit in their hostel and he had gone with them to the tunnels. Well, long story short, the guy was in the tunnels, and something went terribly wrong - most likely there was a snake or a scorpion involved - and the traveler died almost instantly in the tunnel. The Brits spent most of their day dealing with the aftermath and taking all the steps to help out the guy's family back home. When I first heard the story, I was shocked, and thought about all the little decisions that were made for that scenario to play out exactly as it did. What if they hadn't told him their plans? What if they'd gone the day before like originally planned? What if I'd gone with them? It's hard to really grasp how quickly life can slip through your fingers until something like that happens. After hearing about that tragedy, I was more than okay with moving on to my next destination, Cambodia.
 I planned out a route in Cambodia that lets me see the main attractions in nine days. I'm starting in the South, Sihanoukville, and making my way to Pnom Penh, and Siam Reap. Sihanoukville has been a cluster of lazy beach days, and tomorrow I'm hoping to go on a diving trip to the island Koh Rong. While the beach here is great and there's a vibe similar to that of the Thai islands. The only difference is the amount of child vendors approaching you on the beach which at times can be extremely depressing. It was actually worse in Saigon because the children were often drugged. Here at least the kids sometimes get to act like kids. I also conveniently met some Norwegian backpackers on my bus down, and have been splitting a room with them for a couple days. Naturally, the Brits arrived shortly after me, meaning that Sihanoukville will probably be filled with memorable nights out. I only have a week until I'm off to Indonesia to meet up with Saskia, which means I'm coming close to the final legs of my journey.
 Looking back to my first entry, I think I've come a long way. When I left for Asia, I wrote about feeling as if the weight of the world is on my shoulders, but the longer I'm here, I realize that that weight is not as heavy as it seems, and there are always people there willing to help you with the load. I've also been humbled by some of the things I've seen and experienced. Life is completely what you make of it, and at the end of the day, if you're doing something you love, the obvious path might not be the right one. This trip has also enhanced my travel bug, and definitely not relieved the itch to see the world. I've already started thinking about my next couple trips: I'm thinking a yoga course and meditation in India and my divemaster in Central America. Saying this of course, I should probably wrap up this trip first and avoid getting ahead of myself.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Good Morning, Vietnam!

I know, cheesy title, but it just happens to be extremely fitting for this entry... I have now been in Vietnam for just short of two weeks, and I am absolutely LOVING it! I want to say this is my favourite country so far, but all the experiences have been so different, I don't think they're completely comparable. I had heard so many mixed things about this country before I got here, and I rarely heard that it was someone's favourite on their trip, but this country is simply amazing. Yes, there's a ridiculous amount of traffic, and yes, the people are way more in your face constantly hassling you to buy things, but a culture needs such nuisances to really make it tick.
 After my last entry, I spent one day on Cat Ba Island, and treated myself to a rock climbing and kayaking tour. I'd never rock climbed before, but hey, why not develop a new hobby in a new country. I also wanted to explore Lan Ha Bay, which I'd read was even more beautiful than Halong Bay. We took a boat to a small island that so happened to be just across from the Hanoi Backpackers Castaway Island - what I called the Halong Bay Booze Cruise. The main hostel in Hanoi organizes tours for young travelers to Halong where they stay in beach huts, do watersports, and get completely pissed drunk from dawn until dusk. Apparently at 9 am, they'll already be shotgunning beers, and even one of the guides was puking by 10 am (just from one of the many stories I heard...). While I'm all about socializing and drinking, I am unbelievably glad that I passed up a five-day hangover for my tamer and more relaxed exploration of Halong. Anyway, while we were setting up the ropes - or actually while my trusty guides were setting up the ropes - a group of drunk bafoons kayaked over and then proceeded to drop their shorts, flashing everyone back at their island. Exactly what you want at nine in the morning: pale euro asses. Two Aussies and a Brit ended up joining the climbing group, and we attempted three different rock walls. It took me a second to realize that I was perfectly safe, and that if I had to let go of the rock, I wouldn't plunge to my death. Once I got it though, the adrenaline went way down, and I became more than happy to let go, and readjust my position. I managed to complete the first, but ended up getting stuck about forty or fifty feet up the others (at least, that's my guess at how high they were). Still, it was heaps of fun and definitely a challenging workout. On the last wall, I gave in simply because my arms went limp. After a huge lunch on the boat, the group headed out on kayaks, pulling up on beaches to explore caverns and arches connecting different beaches and lagoons. The one thing that is really sad about Vietnam is the garbage. Halong Bay is one of the seven natural wonders of the world, but there is nothing wonderful about pulling up on a beach covered in trash - at one point, we even saw a bunch of used needles. It's just depressing and shows that the waste of humanity really does spread everywhere. That night, I wandered around Cat Ba Town looking for dinner when I saw Hannah and Marten, the couple I had trekked with in Northern Laos. I ended up having dinner with them, and chatting about our first impressions of Vietnam. While I was so far satisfied and in awe, they had had a very different experience. From food to the unfriendliness of people, they were not enjoying themselves. I think a huge part of travel is luck, and if it's not on your side, the things that can happen can completely ruin your entire trip.
 The next day, I took an early morning ferry and bus ride back to Hanoi. I was hoping to see a few of the sights before heading to my next stop. When I got there, however, my plans were slightly altered, and the only thing I accomplished was a day of shopping in the Old Quarter. Hanoi is really interesting in that the shopping is organized by streets. There's the shoe street, the cheesy-yet-useful souvenir boulevard, grocery road, even lingerie lane. I was in desperate need of knock-off Tom's, and of course, nothing stands in the way of me and my shoe addiction, not even in Asia. After wandering the streets for hours, I sat down at a sidewalk restaurant (vendors set up mini plastic chairs and tables) to eat before my bus ride. Seconds after I sat down, I began chatting with a couple Brits who were living in Hanoi teaching English. They had both been there for multiple years. All I could think was about how so many people had told me they hated Hanoi, but there must've been an equal amount who loved it just as much. A local came and joined the Brits, and we began talking about my trip, and before you know it, we're all eating peanuts and meat dumplings, having a beer, and adding each other to Facebook to give me suggestions for my trip. In retrospect, I wish I'd seized the moment and just changed my trip plans then and there, and asked if they'd be willing to show me around Hanoi for a day, seeing the places that tourists just wouldn't find. Unfortunately, when you move around as much as I do, you constantly think about what you should've done in past situations to have had the best experience. In the end, I gave a quick goodbye and thank you, and rushed off to catch my sleeper bus to Hue.
 Hue is city about halfway down Vietnam, just off the coast. It was a major battle site during the Vietnam War, but still offers scenic attractions making it a stop for backpackers. I stayed at the main hostel in town, and headed out alone for a day of sightseeing. I first went to the Citadel which shows how the Emperors and Royals used to live, and boasts gorgeous gardens. By the recommendation of an old Brtish man I met at the bar, I headed to the war museum afterward, and only then did I realise that the Citadel had actually been the location of a major bombing during the war. Images showed the ruins of the Citadel, and the ways the Americans tortured and killed local civilians. Unsurprisingly, the war is portrayed in a very different way in Vietnam, and visiting these places is really the only way to get both sides of the story. It's kind of eerie though; there are a bunch of old American war tanks and jets outside the museum, and you can see Vietnamese families and children playing on them and posing for pictures. On my way back to the hostel, I walked through a park along the Perfume River, filled with modern statues. Just before I left, a young Vietnamese girl approached me on her bicycle and explained that she was an English student and was hoping I would sit and have a conversation with her, so that she could practice. I had been wanting to have a real conversation with a local, and it's not like I had anywhere to be, so we sat down on a bench and went through the routine questions of ages, families, and jobs. She told me of her desire to work abroad in a developed country, but she didn't think she could, as it's so expensive and she comes from a poor family. She asked which countries I'd been to, and was shocked as I listed them off. She assumed I must be rich, and although I'm obviously not poor, I explained to her that traveling and seeing the world was a priority for me, and that if she really set her mind to it, she'd be surprised by what she could accomplish. She taught me a bit about Vietnam, and the poverty that exists here, and eventually a couple of her friends came over, which I took as my cue to leave. And that was Lala from Vietnam.
 When I got back to the hostel, I immediately began to meet people. An American guy in my room invited me out for dinner with a group of people, most of whom happened to be Canadians, from Calgary. Of course dinner led to beers which led to a night out, and I was more than okay with this, as I'd taken a reasonable breather from partying to have some peaceful time to myself. The next day, the Canadians and I visited the local market, and more or less just relaxed and walked around the town. The Vietnamese man from Hanoi had told me that I needed to go to Lang Co Beach outside of Hue. It ended up being pretty far though and I couldn't figure out how to get there, but I was determined, and where there's a will, there's a way. New arrivals in my room told me they were planning on motorbiking down to Hoi An the following day. While none of them could take me on the back of their bike, I was more than welcome to tag along on my own bike. I thought this through carefully; only a week or so earlier, I'd told my dad that it seemed liked an unbelievably stupid idea to drive a motorbike in Asia considering the amount of accidents and deaths. Then again, you only live once, and you can't live life fully if you never try something new. Plus, what's life without a little risk? I told the hostel I wanted to try it out the next morning. If it went horribly, I'd pay extra to have a driver. I did one run down the block, and almost hit a bus. For some reason, I judged that as a success and went for it. For the first hour or so, I took my time going slowly and getting a feel for the bike. After I built up my confidence, motorbiking in Vietnam became one of the best decisions I'd ever made. Driving through farming villages and along the coastline was unbelievably liberating. I had the ability to go where I wanted in a country I didn't know, and every new bend in the road presented a new scene, almost always more beautiful than the previous. School kids would line up as we passed, holding out their hands for us to high five them as we drove past; a lady with a motorbike crammed with geese drove past us with feathers flying out in all directions; men and women would pass by going the other way, sometimes giving us funny looks, shocked by a group of white tourists (and women at that) driving motorbikes with no locals. We finally got to Lang Co Beach, and honestly I was a little disappointed. Yes, it was pretty clean for Vietnam, and it went on for miles, but it was completely deserted with little character or appeal. After a quick lunch break, we kept going, driving through the windy mountainous roads of Hai Van Pass - not to mention the occasional goat and cow crossing - until we hit Danang. Danang was the only city we had to go through, but we had no choice but to follow the main road which was swarmed with motorbikes. I wasn't as afraid of hitting the other bikes as I was of losing my group and getting lost in the sea of mufflers. Luckily, I picked up motorbike driving fast enough to navigate my way through and come out in one piece. After that, it was a straight shot along the coast to Hoi An. That was it, I was hooked. The second I returned my bike, I was ready to go again.
 And I did, the very next day. I met up with the Canadians in Hoi An, who also knew two Canadian girls, so we all rented bikes and headed to Marble Mountain, along with an Aussie girl, Mel, and a Danish girl, Mie. Mel and I got bored and wanted to take full advantage of the bikes, so we took off early and headed back to explore the rice paddies and local fishing villages. I decided to take some photos for my portfolio - a task which has fully been neglected of late - and worked up the courage to ask some of the locals for their picture. They were more than willing, and I managed to get shots, from an old lady striking a pose outside her house, to two men posing the water buffalos they were using to till soil. That night, the Canadians managed to find a hole-in-the-wall local restaurant that serves up a table full of food for a set price, and you eat until you can't move. A few of us decided to go out that night, and found a bar that literally serves free alcohol. I ended up running into that group of British guys - yet AGAIN - and spent the night drinking crap moonshine, and dancing on pool tables.
 Despite the late night, the next day, I was up immediately, not only for the buffet breakfast at the hotel, but to visit one of the four hundred tailors in Hoi An to have clothes made. I knew about this feature of the town, and told myself I would only get a business dress made. A business dress, sun dress, leather shoes, and spring coat later, I decided I just couldn't afford anymore. I couldn't have been happier with my tailor. Every time I went for a fitting, she'd sit me down, offer me a cold drink, and we'd chat. One day we got into a deep conversation about her marriage. She's 25 years old and has a baby daughter. She said her husband used to be different; he'd also been a tailor and worked hard, and treated her well. After they were married, he stopped working and expected her to support him, as well as maintain the household. When she was pregnant, she found out he had a girlfriend. Now she was expected to take care of their daughter, run her own business, and wait on her husband, while he doddled around, drank coffee, and socialized all day. She knew she wanted to leave him, but didn't want her daughter to grow up without a father. I was so confused about what I should say to support her. The me at home would say ' Screw him! You're daughter will be happy if you're happy, and no one deserves to take crap like that from a man!', but I know it's not as simple as that, especially in Vietnam. On my last visit, I gave Ann the tailor a hug goodbye, and wished her luck with her business.
  In Hoi An, not only did I manage to blow money on clothes and motorbikes, I also happened to blow a whole seven dollars at a self-serve ice cream shop with 45 flavours. When you're in Asia for this long, treats like that just can't be missed. Soon after the Canadians left and I had passed a day watching Mel shop and drop a grand on a new wardrobe, new Canadians arrived: two girls who lived in Tofino. We immediately hit it off and had dinner and an amazing night out of bar hopping. The following morning, I skipped the hangover saga for a day at the beach before I had to leave for my next destination. I'd spent five nights in Hoi An, and I would've gladly stayed there for three weeks. Between the buffet breakfasts, the pool, the people, the adorable town with tiny streets and a gorgeous river, Hoi An was like living in a summer dream. On this trip though, all good things eventually come to an end, and the search begins yet again for the next mind-blowing adventure.
 So after yet another sleeper bus, I am now in Dalat. Weeks ago, I was flipping through a guidebook and saw that Dalat had an attraction called the Phang Nga Crazy House, an architectural marvel that was described as Gaudi meets Alice in Wonderland. On this alone, I decided it was worth visiting; something slightly off the beaten track that would give me something more than the usual parties and scene of the backpackers route. When I arrived today, after avoiding a thunder shower, I went in search of the Crazy House. Admittedly, it was pretty cool. Not only is it a structure full of funky walkways and narrow staircases weaved in with the natural trees of the property, but it's a guesthouse with rooms full of strange animals, like a kangaroo with glowing eyes or the 'Bear Room'. After exploring the central market, I booked a canyoning tour for tomorrow: a day of abseiling down waterfalls and cliff jumping (apparently Vietnam has me running towards adrenaline rushes). I only have about five days left in Vietnam, but if they're as good as the past two weeks, I have absolutely nothing to worry about.

Sunday, 24 March 2013

The Laos Backpackers Route

Day Two at the waterfall with the group of guys

After my trek in Luang Namtha, I headed back onto the regular backpackers route. Usually from the Thai border, people take a two-day boat down the Mekong River to Luang Prabang, but since I'd decided to go North with the Scots, I skipped twenty hours on a wooden seat on a long boat - figured I'd got the best deal. In Luang Prabang, I was officially on my own, making my own way. To say the least, I've met LOADS of people. After wandering around aimlessly with a couple from my bus looking for my damn hostel, I was put in a room full of guys. Initially I thought 'shit', but it didn't turn out too badly. One thing I learned immediately is that you meet plenty of characters. Among the first few was a guy who biked to Laos from London, and was headed to New Zealand, and a South African who I can only describe as a true nomad (I'll go into more detail later). Like I've said in the past, you constantly run into the same people in Southeast Asia, it's a very small world. When I had been with the Scots in the North, we had met a couple Brits, and it so happens I continuously run into them, so it comes as no surprise that I spent my first night out with a big group of Brits. In Luang Prabang, the backpackers have a routine: go to an amazing bar on the river called Utopia, and when that closes at midnight, head to the bowling alley (naturally, of course)!!!! I had heard from the people in my room that the waterfall near Luang Prabang was amazing, so I headed there the next day with the South African. The waterfall is touristy,  but beyond beautiful. There is pool after pool of crystal blue water the colour of Lake Louise, and at the top is a massive, powerful waterfall. We spent the day relaxing in the glacier cold water, and I learned a suprising amount about this fascinating person who has been traveling for what seemed like his entire adult life. He had crazy stories from being in the Amazon with tribal people to working in the circus. He also happened to be a bit of an artist, and sold little things to make a few dollars along the way. After lazying about and shedding off the previous night, I visited the night bazaar and finally bought a couple small gifts. The next day, I didn't really have a plan, and since a big group of people were heading to the waterfall, I figured why not. On day two, I was with a big group from my hostel and others that they had met along the way. One of the pools there had a giant rope swing that I'd been dying to try, so of course, I had to (ungracefully no doubt).
            The next day, I headed to the next spot on the backpackers trail to a town called Vang Vieng. Not too long ago, this town was infamous for its tubing and partying. Backpackers would rent inner-tubes, head down the river that was lined with bars, rope swings, and slides, and spend hours drinking and getting high. I think it was in October when the government decided that too many tourists had died there (rumour has it twenty people died last year), so they shut most of it down. Now it is a much more relaxed version with a few casual bars. I immediately met a couple British girls in my dorm, as well as the group of Brits from the bowling alley upon arrival. After spending a night at the town's Irish pub, we headed for the blue lagoon - a crystal blue stream with a giant rope swing and tree to jump off of, and a nearby cave to explore. To no surprise, I ran into a Belgian guy and a Spanish guy who had known some of the people from my previous hostel, and before you know it, we're all spending the day together. I had to jump off the tree and rope swing, and then five of us went to explore the cave. Not knowing what we were getting into, we were all wearing flipflops and had one headlamp. A Lao man at the bottom tried to rent us flashlights, but since we're all so used to getting scammed, we ignored him. Turns out, we were slightly wrong. At the cave entrance, my flipflops broke, so I had no choice but to do some barefoot spellunking. The cave was amazing. We had to navigate our own way through the rocks, getting slightly lost along the way. We topped off our day by having our tuktuk driver hit a cow on the way home.
            The next day, it was time to do the infamous tubing. It wasn't too bad, but definitely wasn't too crazy. We met a British couple and a guy who was biking around the world (his name is Neil Churchard and he's raising money for Unicef, check himout on Facebook if you have a chance), and spent the day with them having a few beers while relaxing on the tubes.
            I decided to head to Vientiane (the capital of Laos) with a couple guys I'd met through people at my hostel back in Luang Prabang, the Belgian and Spaniard. I ended up splitting a room with them, and had one night out to look at the night market along the river, and of course, down a few beers at a particularly creepy bar lined with old white men looking to get with young Lao girls. Ugh.
            Getting my visa sorted out for Vietnam turned out to be pretty straight forward (and expensive), but I was able to head to Vietnam immediately on the hellish 26-hour bus ride. I'd never been on a sleeper bus before, so I didn't really know what to expect. It's basically a bus where the seats go all the way down. It's still squishy and not ideal, but it is what it is. After yet another extensive border crossing - it took three hours to get everything sorted out - and another 10 hours, I finally arrived in Hanoi. I'd met a Spanish woman on the bus, and we decided to have dinner together and wander around the Old Quarter. She was middle aged and had left everything - her husband, her house, and her job - to travel and have a new lease on life. Some people might think she's crazy, I found it quite admirable. There's no testament to personal strength like shedding away everything you know and have known. After dinner, I ran into that same group of Brits from Luang Prabang and spent the night having a few beers with them before heading to sleep.
Halong Bay with a similar tour boat
            I had decided not to stay in Hanoi since I'm short on time, and I left first thing the next morning for Cat Ba Island. Cat Ba is part of a large area called Halong Bay, and is currently one of the seven natural wonders of the world. A lot of backpackers do a booze-cruise deal where they take you to an island to stay in huts and you do water sports and get pissed drunk all day. I decided to do my own more relaxed (and less expensive) version. I hopped on a boat for a one day tour of Halong. The tour took us to a giant - and way over touristy - cave lit up with fluorescent colours. We then cruised around the islets, eventually landing on Cat Ba Island. I found a cheap hotel in the town and got some much needed rest. The following day (which happens to be today), I found a rock climbing and kayaking tour. The guides were amazing, and it made me unbelievably jealous that this is their life: going around on a boat taking tourists to beautiful islands and more or less just enjoying life. Rock climbing turned out to be pretty challenging, it's definitely a good workout. For my first time though, it wasn't too bad; no accidents and no deaths. Always ideal. In the afternoon, our guide showed us little caves and routes in between beaches. The rock formations here have created endless tunnels and caves connecting beaches and lagoons. It's pure beauty. And that's it! Tomorrow I'm heading back to Hanoi where I'll spend most of the day before hopping on a night bus to my next destination, Hue. I've only been in Vietnam for a few days, but already my list of things to do has gotten monumentally longer and I feel like there's never enough time. I already happened to have looked into extending my trip by a couple months (unfortunately I don't think it's financially possible). Oh well, I'll just have to plan the next trip immediately after returning home!!!! No guarantees, but it's a nice thought!
View of Halong Bay