Ciarán & Elaine's Travelog

Monday, July 30, 2007


Leaving Phi Phi we had decided to go to the Cameron Highlands in the centre of Malaysia for a few days before flying out of Kuala Lumpur on Monday. What we thought would be a nice scenic journey (1 ferry ride & 1 coach ride) turned into the journey from hell!!

Our friends Hol & Bex had been to the Cameron Highlands a couple of months ago and raved about it so with only 1 week in Malaysia it seemed like a great spot. Unfortunately our journey didn't go quite to plan.

Instead of 1 ferry and 1 coach trip we ended up getting a ferry then two minibus's, then crossing the border to Malaysia, then another minibus then a coach which dropped us at the bus station in Kuala Lumpur at 2am. Too late to get a hotel and a 7 hour wait for our next coach to the Cameron Highlands..... A not-so-fun night sitting in a dirty city bus station surrounded by lots of weird/criminal looking folk followed by 4 hours on another coach eventually found us at the Cameron Highlands - 35 hours after we left Phi Phi and thoroughly exhausted. Our usual attitude of 'what an adventure' didn't quite work this time as the rain was pelting down in the highlands.

The reason for going there was to hike for a couple of days but with the rain so bad the tracks were all waterlogged so there was no hiking for us and after a cold, wet evening we decided to head back to KL the next day. We booked a bus for lunchtime which should have seen us reach Kuala Lumpur at 5pm. We got a learner driver who insisted on never going over 50 kmph and we were further delayed when a tyre blew out. We eventually arrived in KL at 9 o'clock, again in the lashings of rain. Unfortunately the taxis wouldn't take us to our hotel as they said the traffic was too bad! So we had to walk 3km's in the rain with our backpacks on.

Not such a good start to Malayisa!

To be fair, Kuala Lumpur is a great city. It's full of tall buildings and the biggest shopping centres we've ever seen. We stayed for 5 nights right in the centre of the shopping/entertainment area and spent an absoloute fortune in the shopping centres, but we thought 'what are the last few days of a trip for if not to blow the budget!'

We did a few of the touristy things, like going to the famous Petronas Towers, the KL Tower and going to the markets in Chinatown and Little India, but nearly everything in this city seems to revolve around shopping centres - the biggest one we were in had 14 floors - paradise for Elaine although I don't know if we'll fit everything into our backpacks!

Malaysia is quite interesting with a big ethnic mix here. The population is a mixture of Chinese, Indian, ethnic Malay and Middle Eastern. It's a Muslim country and its evidence is everywhere. Nearly every woman we see in KL is either wearing a habib or a head scarf and guys take out their prayer mats and face mecca at the drop of a hat. It's amazing to see such a different culture but it's so easy not to even see the women when they're wearing the full on black outfit. Elaine calls them ninja's cause one minute there's nobody in front of you and next you see this black ninja moving toward you! It's really like they're invisible especially when they wear glasses. Honestly I don't know how it works but they've caused us to jump out of our skin a few times now!

Malaysia is probably our least favourite country in S.E. Asia, the people here don't seem to be as happy as any of the other countries, although there were major celebrations last night when Iraq won the Asian cup. Then again at this stage we're really just looking forward to getting home and seeing our families and friends - its been so long, but just a few days to go now!

Monday, July 23, 2007

Paradise on Phi Phi

The second we stepped off the ferry at Phi Phi we loved it. Wandering to our hotel through the windy streets we immediately noticed that there was no traffic at all. Everywhere we've been in Asia has been teeming with mopeds but here on this little island they don't have any motorised vehicles and it was such a change not to have to constantly duck out of the path of a crazy driver. Apart from the 'island' feel the sun is shining and it's hot hot hot here!!!

Phi Phi is famous for two things; the movie 'The Beach' and the Tsunami. Two tragedies. There is evidence of the tsunami everywhere on the island. Apart from the evacuation route signs, the memorial garden which is so sad and the photo's in bars and restaurants of the massive cleanup operation afterwards there is so much rebuilding going on. Everywhere you go you can see construction sites.

One of the days we took a walk up to the viewpoint and were chatting to a Thai guy up there who had photo's of the island from the viewpoint before the tsunami and again just after. The difference in the landscape was unreal. It's so sad to think of what happened.

Aside from the tsunami Phi Phi is amazing. It's tiny and two of the beaches split the island into one of the most picturesque places we've been. Couple that with great food, great weather and great nightlife and you've got a little piece of paradise.

We met up with Marc & Megan again and bumped into some other people that we've met while travelling through SE Asia. It seems like everyone's on their way home now and determined to make the most of the last few weeks. We intended spending three days on Phi Phi but ended up staying for ten.

One of the real highlights was a trip to the beach from the movie 'The Beach'. We took the sunset boat trip, stopping along the way to kayak to Monkey Bay to see the long tailed monkeys, followed by snorkelling and more kayaking in the lagoon before reaching the 'tunnel' to the beach. Like in the movie, it's not the most accessible place. We had to swim from our boat and clambour over rocks (there were ropes to hold onto) before making it through the tunnel. It was worth the effort. The Beach is stunning, definitely one of the nicest we've ever been to. It began to rain lightly as we reached the water but swimming in the warm sea with the rain coming down seemed to make it even more beautiful.

Phi Phi has been a real highlight of Thailand. Eating at Papaya restaurant, which has the best Thai food and friendliest staff, free drinks in Tiger Bar and watching the fireshows on the beach at night. Topped with blue skies, hot sun and swimming in crystal clear water - it's been a perfect end to Thailand.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Koh Tao

Leaving Bangkok we took the overnight bus to Chumporn then the ferry to Koh Tao which is on the east coast of Thailand. We'd decided on the east coast because we were told that it was dry season here and monsoon on the west. Unfortunately the weather wasn't what we'd hoped for. Although it was quite hot the sky was often grey and we were getting at least one torrential downpour a day, which always managed to catch us out. Saying that though, we stayed for 5 days and had a fantastic time.

We found a nice guesthouse on Sairee Beach and met up with Marc & Megan the Canadians that we'd first met on the way to Laos. We also bumped into Sorcha - one of the girls from Sydney and a group of English lads that were good craic.

Most of the bars and restaurants are lined along the beach and at night time the tide comes right up to the edge of the restaurants and they have to move all the seating for the bars back . For such a small island there was great nightlife with Ciaran heading off one night with two thai girls from the bar to a Pirate Party. I found him at 5am outside our room stuffing pringles into his mouth with a pirate patch over one eye. Next day I was happy to be the one with no hangover!

During the days we just wandered around the island checking out other beaches and the small town. Marc & Megan had left for Koh Phi Phi on the west coast and mailed us to say the weather there was better so after 5 days we packed our bags and headed back to the ferry.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Back to Bangkok....

So we've spent the last few days back in Bangkok and can't believe how different it seems this time round! When we first got here in May we thought it was chaotic and the people were all trying to scam us, this time around and perhaps because we've had 7 weeks in Asia it seems to be the height of civilisation. We love it here and would easily stay for weeks. The shopping centres are amazing and we spent a day at the cinema - something we haven't been able to do since we left Australia.

Naturally, there's been some big nights out - you can't come to Bangkok and not go a little bit crazy and we've met lots of really fun people but now it's time to leave. We're about to jump on the bus to Ko Tao for a little bit of island hopping..... ah, white sandy beach, a hammock and a cocktail - I can't wait!!!

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Sapa - day 2

Our second day in Sapa saw us heading off on a 3 hour walk to the villages of Lao Chai and Ta Van.

While we were waiting at the hotel for Mu we got chatting to lots of the local kids who work in the town selling silver and little bracelets. They were so curious about the colour of my hair with one of them actually asking 'what happened to it', they all wanted to touch it and just like in Hoi An, rub my freckles! When Mu arrived a couple of the kids from the Black H'mong tribe decided that they would take the day off and come for the walk with us instead (I think they just wanted to keep an eye on my hair) so off we trooped in the direction of Lao Chai.

It was quite a drizzly day but the cooler weather certainly made the walk more enjoyable. The scenery today was even more beautiful than yesterday and we were lucky enough to see lots of people working in the rice fields, men ploughing with water buffalo's and other young guys bringing wood from the forests. We even saw a couple of young boys catching frogs from a small waterfall. They're quite a popular dinner choice in Sapa, and we reckon the frog may have known what was coming next as it dangled from the piece of string.

Mu pointed out the more interesting flowers and shrubs that are used in traditional medicine. She also showed us the Love Poison plant, eating only one leaf from it can kill you, in fact, her sisters ex-boyfriend ate the plant and died after they were refused permission to marry!

Without a doubt though, the best part of the day was getting to know our new little friends; Na, La, Chun and Lane. They were such gorgeous kids and although they have to work long hours in Sapa they are so happy and free spirited. They're aged between 5 and 8 (Chun is older) and they all speak H'mong, Vietnamese, English and a little bit of French even though they only go to school for 2 hours a day.

The track to the village was quite rugged, often crossing small rivers or walking over slippery ledges but the kids were so agile running ahead but then coming back to tell us 'slippy, careful careful' and taking us by the hand. Then they'd go racing off into the bushes again and come back with different berries for us to taste. They all loved the berry that turns your tongue blue, particularly 5 year old La who must've eaten hundreds of them, by the afternoon half her face was blue! They made us all crowns and wings to wear from ferns (although I'm not sure what Ciaran thought of his wings.....) and spent plenty of time squabbling over whose turn it was to hold my hand.

Not all the girls from the tribes are lucky though, Mu told us quite a frightening fact about being so close to the border with China. For the past number of years there's been a growing number of kidnappings of the girls from the tribes. Aged about 15 to 20, they're taken over the border to China and sold as wives because of the shortage of women in China, one of her friends was kidnapped last year but the family knew somebody in the government and they managed to get her back. They take the girls from the tribes because they usually only speak the tribal language, that way there's no chance they can ask for help.....

All in all though we thought Sapa and the tribal villages were amazing, particularly getting to know the kids. It was the best part of our trip to Vietnam but also one of the highlights from our entire travels. We can't wait to go back someday and seeing as it is so close to the Chinese border maybe we can plan on taking a trip in that direction too!!!

Monday, July 02, 2007

Sapa - day 1

4 hours after getting off the boat from Halong we boarded the overnight train to Sapa, an area in the North West which is renowned for being one of the most beautiful places in Vietnam. Sapa is a small town in the middle of some of the highest mountains in the country and is surrounded by small villages of minority tribes. It was our last place to visit in Vietnam and we weren't disappointed.

We arrived at the station at 6am and immediately noticed how much cooler it was up here - at least 10° less than Hanoi - such a relief! As we drove higher into the mountains from the train station our breath was taken away by the stunning scenery, thousands of terraced rice paddies being overshadowed by towering mountains and deep valleys. It reminded us so much of the Sacred Valley in Peru, just much greener.

After checking into our hotel we met our guide for the next two days, a young 19 year old girl called Mu who is from the Black H'mong Tribe. Mu has never been to school but is so intelligent and articulate, speaking 3 languages but only recently learning how to read and write. Between the two days of the tour she gave us a little insight into what it's like to be from a minority tribe. She doesn't consider herself Vietnamese but H'Mong and has never danced or been to a bar because if anyone else from her tribe saw her she'd get a bad name. She's got great ambition though and is determined to open up her own tour company within the next couple of years.

We set off for Cat Cat village where the people mainly wear traditional tribal clothes which has been woven from hemp and dyed from indigo leaves. Each family has a couple of rice terraces for themselves which they use for food but they grow cardamon to earn money, although it takes 6 years for each crop to mature they can get up to US$6 per kilo which is a huge amount of money here. It's a hard life but everyone had a smile and a wave and were very welcoming. The children were having a great time running around like little ragamuffins.

They live a very basic life, how we'd imagine Ireland 150 - 200 years ago, no electricity with everyone living in an old wooden house consisting of just one room as kitchen, bedrooms and living area. The typical family home will house not only the mother, father and children but also the married children and their children, sometimes up to 15 people in a tiny little place. Most people are married by 16 (usually arranged and always to someone in their tribe) and by 20 have a couple of their own kids. The women usually work in Sapa, selling woven goods and silver to the tourists while the men work in the forests and rice fields.

It was a great experience to visit some H'mong people in their home and to see how such a simple life can still be so happy. Further down through Cat Cat we reached a lovely waterfall where we had a break before jumping on the back of motorbikes to race up the hill before the rain came.

In the afternoon the rain poured down but as we only had two days in Sapa we decided that we should fit in as much as possible. We donned the most hideous poncho's (although I like to think I looked better in mine than Ciaran.....) and headed up Ham Rong mountain which is another big tourist attraction because of the views of Fan Si Pan the tallest mountain in Vietnam and also to see the town through the clouds. It was worth getting wet, we had a lovely afternoon wandering around but were glad when we got back to the hotel and dried off.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Halong Bay

From Hanoi we booked a trip to Halong Bay which is about a 3 hour drive away and again is a Unesco World Heritage Area. The bay has over 1000 karst peaks which makes it so spectacular and unusual. We've wanted to go to Halong for quite a while so decided on a 2 day boat trip.

The boat we were on was really nice and compared to the boat we were on for the Whitsundays in Australia it was practically luxurious! There was a great group of people on board and we sailed around the bay stopping to visit huge caves which were stunning.

We also had an opportunity to go kayaking around some of the karst peaks and through the floating villages. It's amazing to see entire communities of people living on floating houses. They even have a floating school and they set up shops in rowing boats and row around the place selling their goods.

The sea in the area was just beautiful for swimming in at the end of the hot day, I was jumping off the roof of the boat into the water as the sun set - fantastic!