Ciarán & Elaine's Travelog

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!

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Hanoi, Vietnam

After 18 hours on the bus we reached the capital of Vietnam, Hanoi. The city is chaotic, just like Ho Chi Minh but has a lovely old quarter which we stayed in. There's a really nice atmosphere here and everyone is full of smiles and so friendly, even when they're trying to scam us - it's been pretty much like that through all of Vietnam. Also, just like the rest of Vietnam so far it's roasting hot and unbelievably humid.

The old quarter is right beside a big lake and most of the streets are dedicated to one purpose. There's shoe street which only sells shoes, bag street for bags etc, it's quite odd to walk down a street which only offers one product but I suppose it makes shopping a little easier. One thing we saw which we'll never be buying and quite frankly would give me nightmares was roast dog..... Lined up along the side of the street you could see whole dogs, skinned and roasted on big skewers...... Agghhhh!!!!

We didn't have much time in Hanoi, but based ourselves here while we visited Halong Bay and Sapa. Everyone we met assured us that if we didn't have much time in Hanoi, the one thing we couldn't miss out on was the Water Puppet Show at the Water Theatre. After seeing the show I'm not quite sure I'd agree with that!

Water Puppets are one of the traditional entertainments of the Vietnamese people and the show basically involves a small orchestra playing instruments that we've never seen or heard of before, a couple of 'singers' who sound more like tortured cats, and some water puppets. The puppets are the freakiest looking things ever and are controlled in such a way that they appear to dance out of the water.... I'm sure it's very interesting, if you're interested in that kind of thing!! And have no doubt that the puppeteers have a difficult job hiding under the water while they make their puppets dance but I think it was just a bit of culture overload for us!

After the show it was straight to the pub for a glass of much needed Hanoi Beer and to watch the people go by - much more interesting to us than water dancing puppets!

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Hoi An, Vietnam

Twelve hours and one overnight bus later we arrived in Hoi An town. We were pretty tired from not getting too much sleep on the bus journey so we just checked straight in to the hotel that the Canadians had recommended to us - Thanh Xuan (Long Life Hotel). It was great to get into such a nice hotel. It had a swimming pool, nice garden and breakfast and internet access was included. We had a lovely room with big bathroom, minibar, cable TV, aircon and a view out over the hotel garden and surrounding countryside and and the bed had small flower petals sprinkled all over it - now thats what I expect for EUR13 per night!!

After a couple hours sleep, we headed out to do the thing that most tourists go to Hoi An for - get some clothes tailor made! Everything we own is out of shape and practically falling apart at the seams so it's definitely time for something new! We went to a tailors just around the corner from our hotel and were immediately surrounded by several women sizing us up and pointing out different style and materials to us. After much mayhem and discussion we made our decisions but no matter how many items we chose they kept on saying 'buy two, buy 3, buy 5'!!

I had originally just wanted to get 1 or 2 shirts made but I somehow managed to leave the tailors with 4 shirts, 2 trousers and a thick winter jacket measured up for me! All for the princely sum of EUR100 - guess I'm a sucker for a bargain...

There is a lot to do around Hoi An including day trips to the Mai Ly massacre site, trips to My Son (an Angkor Wat style ruin) but we loved the town itself so much that we stayed there every day except for one day to go to the beach.

The beach is about 5km outside the town and we rented bikes and cycled out there for an afternoon. It's by far the nicest beach we've been to in Vietnam with golden sand, clear water and no pollution at all. The weren't that many tourists at the beach and the number of street/beach sellers nearly outnumbered them. They were all selling mangos, pineapples, drinks and nuts.

Vietnamese people (in fact nearly everyone we've met in S.E. Asia) are constantly trying to cover up from the sun as they regard whiter skin far more beautiful than darker, tanned skin. The steet sellers on the beach were no exception. Even though the temperature was well above 30°C all of them were wearing at least 3 long sleeve tops, long trousers, thick gloves, conical hats and bandanas or surgical masks on their faces. We don't know how they don't melt in the heat but they're all fascinated with Elaine's skin, teling her 'me no lucky, you so lucky, white, white want pineapple, mango, banana? Me no lucky today....'. Quite funny for me considering Elaine thinks she has a tan.

We bought a pineapple from one named 'Lulu Number One' for about 15,000 dong (about 75 cents) and literally 3 minutes later she charged the people sitting next to us 30,000 dong, telling us to be quiet as she took the money and did a legger! Its a different price for everyone over here!

Hoi An itself is a Unesco World Heritage site and really is a beautiful old town with pagodas side by side with old french colonial shuttered buildings. The tiny winding cobbled streets were filled with art galleries, restaurants, colourful lantern shops and literally hundreds of tailors - practically every 2nd shop is a tailor! We spent hours wandering along the streets, looking at the food markets and fish markets at the riverside and just generally soaking up the atmosphere of the town.

On the river we saw several families of boat people. These people don't own any land or house and actually live in these tiny little boats with woven bamboo roofs. They just live off what they can get from the water and even cook in their narrow little homes. We saw them bailing water out from the bottom of the boat - a daily chore for them, just like sweeping the floor for other people!

As we were crossing a bridge to look at some of these people an old lady came up to Elaine and grabbed her arm, examining it intently, looking at her freckles and turning it over to see how white it was on the underside. After that she just let her arm go and walked off without saying a word looking suspiciously back at her! We've gotten used to people staring at us like we're a freak show all throughout S.E. Asia but that was quite a strange experience...

After several trips back to the tailors for fittings and alterations we picked up our clothes and it was hugs and kisses all round from the girls there - such nice people and a great bargain too!

Next stop - Hanoi but only after a long bus journey - 18 hours in all. When we were leaving the hotel it was hugs and kisses all round from the reception staff there too and they gave us both presents of wooden bracelets and stood at the door, waving us off as the bus left. It's been by far the nicest place we've stayed in Vietnam and the people working there are unbelievably nice and helpful, so hopefully we'll get back there someday...

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Nha Trang, Vietnam

Further north we reached the beachside town of Nha Trang which is billed as Vietnams Beach Capital. Well, we didn't think it deserved much of a title at all really. It was a busy small town with a beach but nothing more exciting than that. Perhaps if it hadn't rained every day we might've been more excited to be there!

To be fair though, it was surrounded by lots of little islands with some great beach bars and lovely restaurants. The grey sky was a bit off putting though so after a couple of days it was back on the bus and North again to Hoi An.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Mui Ne, Vietnam

We left Ho Chi Minh and headed to the tiny beach of Mui Ne. The drama of getting to Mui Ne far outweighed the excitement of the town itself.

Mui Ne is a gorgeous little fishing village consisting of just one street with lots of guesthouses, and a beach, needless to say we had a very relaxing few days here. Swimming in the sea and eating dinner at the beachside restaurants.

Unfortunately the coach trip from Ho Chi Minh wasn't as relaxing. As a 4 hour journey turned into 7 hours at breakneck speed, swerving in and out of lanes beeping the horn every two seconds and slamming on the brakes. The cherry on the cake; driving up the top of a hill on the wrong side of the road to be greeted at the cusp by two huge trucks, one overtaking the other..... don't know how we survived that...... But hey, we did, and Mui Ne was great!

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Cu Chi Tunnels, Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam

The next day we headed 60km out of town to the Cu Chi tunnels that were a Viet Cong stronghold.

On the way we stopped at Handicapped Handicrafts! Strange name but all the goods there were handmade by people that had been affected by Agent Orange. The stuff was absolutely gorgeous so we picked up a really nice duck eggshell picture - we get something nice to keep
and they get some money towards their cause.

When we first got to the Cu Chi tunnels we were shown this propaganda video that constantly referred to the Americans as 'the enemies' and how the Vietnamese were only poor ordinary farmers. Maybe it's true, I think I've been brainwashed! In all the scenes that showed the Vietnamese people helping the Viet Cong, they all had these strange smiles on their faces and the background music was something out of Bonanza - very weird!

The Viet Cong were quite ingenious with their tunnels. All the entrances were completely hidden and they had underwater escape routes into the Saigon river. There were 16,000 people living in these tunnels and they had sleeping areas, dining areas and the kitchens had smoke vents that dispersed the smoke from a cooking fire far away from the entrances. During the height of the war there was a network of 250km of underground tunnels in this Cu Chi area. They were spread over 3 levels ranging from 3 metres deep up to 10 metres deep. Bombs from the B52 bombers were the only ones that could destroy the lowest tunnels. Only 8000 people survived the war in the tunnels.

The tunnels were tiny, only 80cm wide by 120cm tall - and those were the newer, 'bigger' ones! We crawled and hunkered our way along a 90 metre stretch, but by the time I got to 30 metres I had to get out, it was just so small and my legs were so tired from having to walk at that angle - I suppose there's not a lot of 6 foot Vietnamese men!

Our guide Kon was a translator against the French and then the Americans during the war and spoke with this weird Vietnamese/American accent told us that the Viet Cong would be able to travel up to 10km in these tunnels in 1 day. I don't know how they managed it, apart from being cramped it's pitch black down there and they just had kerosene lamps to light their way.

They showed us some of the traps that the Viet Cong used on the Americans - they were so vicious it would send shivers up your spine to see them. There were sharpened bamboo poles sticking straight up from a covered hole in the ground to two rollers with huge nails sticking out so that when a person fell in the hole their body fell through the rollers and was pierced all over. As Kon told us - you don't need a medic after that trap. Many other traps though were designed to maim and not kill though so the Viet Cong could take them as POW's and interrogate them, then trade them for their own soldiers back.

While we were there I couldn't resist the opportunity of going to the shooting range and I had a few minutes with an AK-47. The main thing I would say about this is that it is sooo bloody loud. Even with ear protection I still thought my eardrums were going to burst. The
recoil from it wasn't too string but the bullets fly out of it so fast. 1 second on the trigger and about 5 rounds have gone off - with me completely missing the target of course!

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Goooood Morning Vietnaaaaam!

We left Phnom Penh and got the bus to Saigon, Vietnam. First impressions? This place is mental. We thought we'd seen a lot of bad and crazy driving already in S.E. Asia, but nothing compares to the sight of about 20,000 mopeds and motorbikes speeding through the city, ignoring all road markings and speed limits. Traffic lanes? Who needs them. Brakes? They're for losers.
Thats how life is over here. A kind of disorganised chaos that just somehow manages to work. The rainy season also appears to be starting in earnest these days with huge downpours happening almost every day like clockwork at 1pm and 8pm, kind of weird that you can set your watch by the rain. Just before the downpour the humidity gets unbearable and the wind really picks up so that we're nearly glad to see the rain lashing down.

Although the place is a bit crazy it was still really nice getting back to a more developed city with lots of cafes, bars and other signs of modern life after being in Phnom Penh. By no means is Vietnam the richest country around but it's a world apart from Cambodia.

We stayed in the Pham Ngu Lao area which is the main backpacker strip and quite a cool place with tonnes going on day and night. We were talking to a local guy in a bar and asked him whether we should call the place Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City as everyone we've met seems to call it something different. He told us that it used to be called Saigon and then was renamed Ho Chi Minh city (in honour of General Ho) after they beat the enemies in the 'American War'! He's very proud of their victory - don't know what the yanks would make of that!

We went to the War Museum in Ho Chi Minh City. It had photos from the 1950's to the 1970's showing the lead up to and during the "American" War. It was quite shocking to see so many photo's depicting horrendous scenes or tortures and the bodies of not only soldiers but the women and children that had been killed by US troops. It was fairly gruesome.....

Beside those were photos of people that were affected by Agent Orange and the disabilities that it has caused in subsequent generations. And beside those were a lot of propaganda posters designed to show how the "whole world" sided with Vietnam over the war. We overheard an American guy talking while we were there, telling his friend about the first time he shot someone in the head in the war. Pretty distasteful considering where we were.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Phnom Penh and the Killing Fields

Leaving Siem Reap we noticed immediately outside the main tourist areas how bad the roads were – covered in huge potholes and often just a dirt road. The 6 hour drive to Phnom Penh was broken by a lunchstop at a roadside ‘café’ where the menu was a choice of either fried noodles or fried rice (I’m going to turn into a grain of rice soon). We were happy enough with the rice considering what the locals were eating – fried cockroaches, grasshoppers and now, one we hadn’t seen before – deep fried giant black spiders. Disgusting!

We paid $10 for our air conditioned spacious coach for the 6 hour trip. We thought it was good value but when we saw how the majority of Cambodians were travelling I think we would’ve been happy to pay $100. The Cambodian people were all wedged into tiny 12 seater minibuses; each one must’ve carried at least 30 people with a minimum of two people to every seat and at least 5 on each roof along with mopeds and whatever produce they were transporting. It was crazy to see these minibuses racing along the road overtaking each other as the mopeds and people on the roof swayed precariously from side to side.
We arrived in Phnom Penh to be greeted by utter mayhem outside our bus as all the tuk tuk drivers fought to get close to the door to get our fare. Battling to get out the door, with our backpacks whilst being grabbed at by about 30 pairs of hands we raced across the road and hid behind a big sign while we got our bearings. Considering the bus had just stopped at a random street, not a station and we couldn’t find a sign with the street name this wasn’t to easy so in the end we had to go back to the tuk tuk drivers and negotiate a fare to get us to the area where all the guest houses are. Our drivers name was Setho and as he drove us around in circles to all the hotels he’d get commission from he convinced us that we should allow him to take us on a tour of the area the next day.

So the next morning we set off with Setho, first to the Vietnam embassy to apply for our visas, then we headed 18km’s out of the city to The Killing Fields. As we approached the fields Setho told us that his father had been one of Pol Pots victims and had been massacred at the Fields. We don’t know a huge amount about Pol Pots regime, or the genocide that happened in Cambodia in the 1970’s which killed over 1 million people, but we could still feel the unbelievable sadness of this field where thousands of men, women and children were slaughtered. As we stood looking at the Stupa which houses more than 8,000 skulls of the victims (on many of which we could see bludgeon marks or bullet holes) and thought of how they died after the most terrible tortures it was nearly impossible not to cry.
Looking at the ‘Beating Tree’ which they beat babies against to kill them before tossing them into one of the mass graves was just devastating. Another tree was also named. The ‘magic tree’ used to blare out music at deafening volumes so that people working in the vicinity wouldn’t hear people moaning, crying and screaming for their life.

After the Fields the gloom continued as Setho drove us to S-21 the Genocide Museum also know as Tuol Sleng. Before Pol Pot & the Khmer Rouge Tuol Sleng used to be a school but during the genocide electrified barbed wire was put around the gates and over 14,000 people were brought here blindfolded and tortured for months on end….. Every victim was photographed when they arrived at S-21. The photos of terrified mothers holding their little babies and pictures of little children and old men were all so desperately heart wrenching….

Each of the victims of S-21’s details were recorded in case they might escape, which wasn’t very likely considering they were shackled to the floor and kept in the most horrible conditions imaginable. They were tortured in terrible ways for their ‘crimes’ which could range from being an educated person to somebody who wears glasses….. We walked around S-21, looking at the photos of hundreds of those victims and couldn’t even begin to fathom what kind of monster would do something like this.
Of the 14,000 people that were sent to S-21, only 7 came out alive.

Thoroughly depressed we left S-21 and Setho offered to take us to an orphanage. We declined the offer, as we’d had all the misery we could handle for one day and instead went to the Royal Palace which was very grand but we really weren’t in the mood to sightsee at that point so headed back to our hotel.

Phnom Penh is a city of about 1 million people of which an estimated 10,000 children are homeless. It’s a thoroughly depressing city and without a shadow of doubt the most impoverished place we’ve been to. Unlike other places where the poverty is really bad, for instance in Bolivia, in Phnom Penh there is a palpable air of desperation.

Even 30 years after the defeat of the Khmer Rouge you can feel it’s a city that’s not yet back on its feet. We saw no old people at all and when we asked about this we were told it’s because Pol Pot killed them all….. With no educated people or older generation the city has obviously been struggling for a long time.
We’ve never experienced anything like the amount of begging in PP. The average wage here is $1 per day but we’ve been told that a lot of families survive on less than half of that.
Obvious land mine victims are everywhere with their hand out which is so sad but worst of all are the children.... Little kids as young as 1 and 2 years old are wandering around the streets by themselves, tugging at our legs with their hands out, the saddest eyes in the world and distended bellies…. A little 5 year old girl called Norlina who only looked 3 nearly broke our hearts as she played at the side of the busy road, we were all set to run to the adoption agency with her and bring her home. We had dinner at Friends restaurant which is a training school for former homeless children run by an organisation called They provide training and support to thousands of homeless children in PP and all profits from the restaurant go towards funding more programs.

On the street a lot of the children carry heavy baskets full of books to sell to tourists. At first we said no to all of them but eventually Ciaran decided to buy a book and called one of the little boys over. Once the other children saw this they all swarmed around, with one little boy in particular very upset that Ciaran had earlier said no to his books. He told Ciaran that he hoped his heart was breaking for what he'd done to him and by the look on Ciaran's face I'd say it was.

Later we sat along the main street having a drink and chatting to a girl who worked in the bar. Her name is Alech and she ran away to Phnom Penh when she was 14 after her father died and with no money the family had to live in the neighbours shed. Her first job in PP paid $12 per month and then she got her lucky break working for a hotel for $40 per month, they told her that if she didn’t learn to speak English within a month she'd lose her job, so she learnt English and now earns $60 per month. Luckily for her an English couple met her a couple of years ago and after getting to know her offered to sponsor her studies so she now goes to the best University in PP and hopes eventually to be a tour guide. It was so refreshing to see some hope in somebody..... Strangely enough she told us that her 4 best friends all married foreign tourists and are now living all over the world, one of them is actually living in Naas and is seemingly not very happy with the Irish weather!!!

We took a motorbike taxi home even though we were less than a 5 minute walk to our hotel but we would've had to walk through the old market which is seemingly where all the local gangs hang out at night and Alech reckoned our chances of making it home without being mugged were fairly slim.....

Visiting Phnom Penh was definitely an experience that we won’t forget in a hurry.....

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Angkor Wat?

We left Luang Prabang and flew Lao Airlines to Siem Reap. Elaine really hadn’t been looking forward to the flight as Lao Airlines don’t have a good reputation and a lot of Western countries recommend that their citizens don’t fly with them! Elaine’s not the best flier in the first place but a trip to the local pharmacy in Luang Prabang and some over the counter valium soon sorted her out - she nearly flew there on her own! To be fair to Lao Airlines, apart from the terrible food that you get on every flight there wasn’t even a bit of turbulence. Once we landed in Siem Reap, we quickly found a taxi and made our way to a nice hotel, organizing a tuk tuk & driver through our taxi driver for the next day.

The reason we’re in Siem Reap is to visit the famous Angkor Wat temples which are situated only a few miles from SR. We bought a 3 day pass as that was what everyone we’d met had recommended but we thought it would be a bit of overkill. Who’d want to spend 3 days wandering around temples? But we had completely underestimated the size and scale of these ancient monuments. It’s more than just 1 temple but a series of temples and cities and in the 12th century it was the capital of Cambodia, housing over 1 million people.

On our first day, as we were driving along a big river on the way to the temples we asked our tuk tuk driver if we were near and he started pointing just up ahead. It turns out this ‘big river’ was in fact the moat around Angkor Wat. The moat is 200 metres wide and certainly puts the one around Drimnagh Castle to shame! When we got to the carpark and got out of the tuk tuk we got our first glimpse of the famous image of Angkor with the 3 spires rising into the sky. It’s hard to believe that it’s approaching 1,000 years old!

The next thing that struck us was the detail. Every last square inch of the stone walls and pillars was decorated with ornate carvings. We had always assumed that Angkor Wat was a Buddhist temple but in the past in Cambodia, successive kings switched religions between Buddhist and Hindu (this switching eventually led to the demise of the Khmer Empire) and so nearly all of the carvings depicted Hindu stories, lore and symbolism.

Our guide proceeded to relate the story on the walls to us. It ranged from flying monks to 3 headed elephants, giant turtles to monkey warriors (led, of course, by their monkey general!) There were stories of a 7 headed serpents – some story I tell ya! I don’t know where these guys get the imagination from but they certainly worked hard to carve it into those walls! The carvings went the whole way around the outside of the temple and by the end our heads were swimming with too many facts.

The next level of the temple at one point housed over 1,000 statues and images of Buddha. The King that built Angkor Wat was a Buddhist and so filled it with Buddha statues, but his grandson who succeeded him was Hindu and destroyed all the statues of Buddha. In fact this crazy grandson had even gone to the bother of defacing anything that even slightly resembled Buddha but of course leaving anything Hindu and the Apsara celestial dancers untouched.

We then went up to the next level via a set of extremely steep stairs. They apparently made the steps so steep so that people couldn’t ascend upright, but rather, had to scramble upwards so that they would enter the temple with their head bowed. A way of making sure they showed enough respect. The final level is the one with the spires at the top (5 spires but only 3 are visible from the front) and the view out over the temple and moat was amazing. The whole place was completed by the monkey that was wandering around on the top level - happy as you like!! On the way down those steps I was clinging on to the handrail so hard - steep as it looked from the bottom, it was nothing compared to how steep it looked from the top! I can’t believe they don’t have accidents there all the time!

Angkor Wat itself took only 30 years to build which is an amazing feat, considering the ornate detail on every surface. They did use 54,000 people though, so that may have something to do with that fact…

After we went back to our tuk tuk we were immediately surrounded by loads of kids trying to sell bracelets, postcards and books. They were all so persistent saying that they would wait for us outside the café and that we would buy from them afterwards. Elaine was dubbed Lady No Name by one little girl after she wouldn’t tell her name and anytime we saw that girl later during the day she would run over to us saying ‘Lady No Name, lady No Name, you want this bracelet?’. We eventually gave in and bought something from them – just to get them to leave us alone if nothing else! That didn't stop the kids from the other sites though trying their luck though...

After Angkor Wat, we went just down the road to Angkor Thom, which used to be the ancient capital, and within its walls were a host of other temples. On the way there we passed by a wooded area and saw loads of monkeys on the ground, running across the road and eating used coconuts - our tuk tuk driver seemed to be amazed to hear that we don't have monkeys in Ireland!

The first temple in Angkor Thom we went to was called Bayon. This one wasn’t as well preserved as Angkor Wat but we thought it was almost more impressive with every pillar having 4 faces pointing in different directions. The walls here were all carved too, but these ones were depicted daily life at the time as the king wanted to show future generations how they lived. There were scenes of hunting, fishing, traditional boxing (which look suspiciously similar to Thai Boxing), wartime with the generals riding atop elephants. They even depicted the different races that lived in the area with a lot of Chinese with different facial features - it gave a good feel for what the society was like there.

After that it was down the road to Ta Prohm. Now this really is like something out of a film. Tombraider in fact. Some of the scenes from the first film were shot at this temple and it’s easy to see why they chose this location. This temple mightn’t have been as atmospheric as the others but it really did look so cool! There were huge trees growing in the temple and sprouting out of everywhere – on top of buildings, through buildings, through walls with roots tangling amongst the stones. I don’t know how the whole place hasn’t just collapsed under the sheer weight of these trees.

After our couple of days at Angkor, we had one day at Siem Reap but we basically spent the day running from one cafe to the next trying to find shade and the elusive air conditioning. It was so hot and humid that day that any other sights at Siem Reap got overlooked! We did make it into one of the markets though and it was quite strange to see a lot of the vendors turning on the lights as we approached their stall and turning them off as we left - anything to save a bit of money as they all seem so poor.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Luang Prabang

As soon as we reached Luang Prabang we fell in love with the place. Laos was a French colony in the past and it was evident as soon as we got off the boat and started strolling around town. Most of the buildings may be slightly crumbly and there is a definite lack of money around the place (Luang Prabang got it's first and only ATM last year) but you can see the French influence everywhere; from the shutters on the windows to the baguettes at the street market to the local tuk tuk drivers playing Boules while waiting for a fare. It really is a case of East meets West here and the people are unbelievably laid back. It makes the pace of life in Kerry seem like New York!

We've spent such a relaxing few days here, wandering around the streets, eating real "Western" food - such a treat! We hired bikes and cycled around the area which seems to be the way most people get around here. We saw whole families going past on bikes and mopeds! Watching all the locals standing in the river fishing with their nets we can really feel the pace of life going so slowly, and we thought Thailand was relaxed! Here we're actually able to walk the length of a street without being approached by 50 people trying to sell us anything they can.

We took a trip up Phou Si which is a hill in the centre of town with a temple on top and the view from up there was lovely; we were able to see the Mekong river stretch and wind its way into the distance on one side and the Nam Khong snaking its way along on the other.

We've also had a few nice meals out and drinks with the Canadians that we met on the boat, but the nights have ended quite early as everything apart from the bowling alley closes at 11pm!

One of the days we all took a tuk tuk up to Kuang Si waterfall. There was a black bear sanctuary at the start with quite a few bears that had been orphaned by poachers and there was also a tiger (they were kept apart which is probably for the best!). We had a really nice afternoon swimming at all the waterfalls and pools and cooling down from the humidity.

Apart from that its just been a case of relaxing and soaking up the nice atmosphere. Tomorrow morning, we're leaving Laos and flying to Siem Reap in Cambodia going to check out the Tomb Raider place, if I'm really lucky Angelina will be back there visiting.....

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Slow boat to Laos

Laos is not the most developed country in the world, so much so that it doesn't even have roads to a lot of areas which is why we ended up on a two day slow boat....

We left Chiang Khong and took a 'ferry' across the river to the Laos side where we got our visas. We were then shepherded around the town, stopping in the most random places where we had to show the most random people our passports. It was all just a big ploy to get us into these people's shops, I mean, why on earth must we get out of our tuk tuk to show the newsagent our passport?!! Still, it was an interesting experience and it just made us laugh.

We boarded our boat along with about 200 other people for the two day trip to Luang Prabang in Laos. The boat was so crowded and uncomfortable with most people sitting on the floor, we managed to get a space on a wooden bench but when we were told that the first day on the boat would take 9 hours to get to the town of Pakbeng we were a little worried. We had purchased a package deal from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang and hadn't really asked any questions so we felt a bit like what it must feel like to be a refugee as we crammed onto this uncomfortable boat, unsure of where we were going, with nobody to ask and being unable to speak the language.....

It turned out to be a really good day though, we got chatting to lots of people all round us. With everyone literally 'in the same boat' we were all happy to have any kind of distraction possible. The scenery along the Mekong river into Laos was beautiful. And as we passed little settlements we could see the men out in their boats fishing with huge nets, wearing those pointy hats. The women sitting along the banks washing clothes in the river.

Our boat was a fairly rickety old thing and when we reached Pakbeng, where we would stay the night we all had to stand on the left hand side of the boat as it was tipping so much into the water on the right. It took nearly an hour for everyone to get off because it all had to happen so slowly.

Pakbeng is a really poor little village where the electricity is switched off at 11 o'clock each night. We met 2 Canadian couples on the boat; Mark & Megan and Matt & Erin who we got on really well with so we all went for dinner. Dinner was cooked by a girl who couldn't have been any older than 11! It's like a different world over here. We had our first sample of Beer Lao and Lao Lao (Lao whisky) neither of which were very nice although Ciaran seemed happy enough with them.

The next day we boarded a different boat to take us the rest of the way to Luang Prabang. Amazingly enough, this boat was even smaller and more uncomfortable than the last one! I ended up sleeping for a while on a black plastic bag underneath our bench, anything just to pass an hour or two as we were told that today's boat journey would take 11 hours....

The time on the boat passed a lot quicker than we expected, some of the scenery we passed was spectacular; tiny bamboo villages dotted along the waters edge, huge limestone escarpments. The boat even stopped so that the 'captain' could buy some fish from a fisherman on the river. It was a definite 'experience' but we were delighted when we arrived in Luang Prabang 3 hours ahead of schedule. We checked into a really nice guesthouse and went out for a delicious Italian (such a nice change from rice & noodles) dinner with the Canadians.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Chiang Khong

We left Chiang Mai to begin our three day journey to Laos. A few hours in a minibus where our driver stopped off so we could check out a cashew nut farm (how random!) and we eventually arrived in Chiang Khong which is on the Thai side of the Mekong River. Across the water we could see Huay Xai, Laos - our next destination. Chiang Khong is not the most exciting place we've ever been, basically just one street with tonnes of guesthouses and cheap restaurants. We still managed to get completely lost though. Then it was an early night to prepare for a long day on the slow boat to Laos.