Friday, August 12, 2011

Travelling Light

This photo shows you the amount of baggage that Katie and I travelled with for the majority of our six week long Southeast Asia trip.  We each carried a small backpack.  Katie also carried a small purse and I carried my fairly large camera bag.  Early in the planning process we decided that our trip could be simplified if we avoided the dreaded “checked luggage”.  Not only is there the risk of your luggage not arriving with you at your destination but discount airlines such as actually charge you for checked luggage.  So we packed light and had our laundry done on an “as needed” basis.  It turns out that we needed our laundry done five times.

Here is a list of the bigger items that I packed:

1 sleep sheet (which we didn’t even use because luckily the places we slept were clean enough)
1 sarong (used as a blanket or towel as required)
1 long sleeve dry wick shirt (used twice in cold airports)
1 baseball cap (not really packed because I wore it all the time)
5 pairs of socks (not really needed since I wore flip flops for the entire trip)
1 pair of running socks (definitely necessary)
1 pair of running shoes (I think we ran about 140 km during the trip)
1 pair of flip flops (cheap Thai ones that completely wore out during the trip)
2 pairs of camping pants (one would have been enough)
1 golf shirt (which I wore on our three year wedding anniversary in Vietnam)
5 dry wick T-Shirts
1 dry wick running shirt
2 pairs of cargo shorts (which undertook massive amounts of abuse)
1 bathing suit
1 pair of running shorts
6 pairs of boxers

I’m sure that Katie’s stuff was similar enough to mine with the exception of the sun dresses (I don’t find them flattering on me).  In the end, we are very happy with the amount of “stuff” that we dragged around with us.  Sure we would make some small changes if we were to do it again but overall it worked very well especially when you put three people and all their baggage on a motorcycle in Vietnam (which happened more than once).  For now we’ll have to wait and see where these small bags will take us in the future.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Last Leg: Loas

Katie:  Tom, did she just say that we can't ride to the waterfall on the bikes we just rented?

Tom:  Yup.

Katie:  We are going to ride to the waterfall on the bikes we rented, right?

Tom:  Yup.

Challenge accepted!  I wish the woman who rented us the bikes would have said "you shouldn't ride to the waterfall on these bikes" or "you'd be crazy to ride to the waterfalls on these bikes."  Nope, she said can't, and we don't respond well to can't statements.  It took us 2 hours of biking and occasional walking in the pouring rain, across a Loas mountain range to reach the waterfall... almost.  After parking our bikes we followed an incorrect trail up the muckiest slope to ever lack a "trail closed" sign.  Then when we reached the bottom of the waterfall, we followed a sign saying "To the top", although the word "top" should have been replaced by "leeches".  It took another 15 minutes of scrambling over and under fallen trees on muddy terrain to get to... well... leeches, and no flowing water.  You wouldn't believe how creative leaches can be in moving through the breathing holes of our running shoes.   We went back down, and debated sliding back down the now muckier trail we'd taken up, or walking along the ledge of a small cascade to the correct path, which all the other tourists seemed to have followed just fine.  We chose the latter option, and forced smiles for this photo.  It really was a pretty waterfall.

Sadly, the story I just told was the most successful cycling story during our time in Laos.  Our next bicycle rental, in stunning Vang Vieng, was short-lived.  We came across a few parked bikes next to some rice fields, with signs for caves.  We decided to explore.  About ten minutes into the walk came some more famous last words.

Tom:   Katie, I'm sinking in mud over my ankles.  Do you think we should turn around?

Katie:  Nah.  We've come this far.

Tom:  We may only be a tenth of the way to the caves.

Katie:  Only 9 tenths to go then.

At least an hour and one broken flip flop later, we made it to the unexciting cave.  Our friend Andrew (who met us in Turkey) got me into the weird habit of taking pictures of my feet at cool places.  I swear these are really my feet.

We decided to rent bicycles for a third time in Loas to make up for the short distance we'd made it the day before.  This time when we were maybe a km past the spot we'd stopped the previous day, I got a flat.  Great.  We locked up the bikes and continued on foot, reaching a sign for not 1, 2, or 3, but 4 caves!  This walk was slightly less muddy, and the caves were slightly more interesting.  Finger painting my name on the cave wall in mud was fun.  Walking my flat-tire bike back to the town in the pouring rain for nearly an hour, not so fun. 

Let me also mention that this extra time made us 4 minutes late for renting innertubes to tube down the Mekong (the most famous activity in Vang Vieng), so instead we wound up at the tubing take-off spot with no tube, and about 200 very drunk high school age students (I would know) in their bathing suits.  We ran into a Dutch couple we'd met at the waterfalls a few days earlier, and showed them that yes, Canadians can party, even old ones like us.  I don't think I've ever felt as old as when Bjorn said "I hope we're like you guys when we're your age."  Funny, because we hope we never act that age again.  We`ve officially added tubing parties to our Murtaugh List.  We`re too old for that sh!t.

Our last city stop was in Vientiane, the capital of Laos.  Our first night there we went out with some Americans working there, but had to take it easy (read last paragraph).  They taught us to enjoy ice cubes in our beer as the Loa people do.  I wouldn't do it at home, but it's pretty hot there, so it kinda hits the spot.  The following day, we did not use our past experience for learning, and we rented bikes.  On our way to see this big gold temple that is "the icon of Laos", I got a flat tire.  Yes, that was the 2nd time in 3 days.  Thankfully it wasn't too far, and it didn't pour rain that day.  I did get the bike replaced and rode it the entire next morning without getting a flat.  Woohoo! We spent our last night in Southeast Asia sitting on the banks of the Mekong River enjoying Beerlao.  Cheers to an unforgettable trip.

Next stop:  Ottawa, Canada.  I can barely believe it!

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

What's Wat?

In three sentences or more, tell me everything you can about Cambodia.  If you were actually able to come up with three sentences, then I'm impressed.  I know that I couldn't have a couple of weeks ago.  That's what made me so excited to visit Cambodia.  Unlike with Thailand and Vietnam, I had never been to a Cambodian restaurant, or met a Cambodian person.  Being wedged between the two countries, I didn't expect it to be too different.  I was right enough, although it does have its own personality. 

The first thing I realized was that I was wrong about Vietnam losing the furniture lottery... Cambodia somehow came out worse.  The Cambodian street food stalls have the same kindergarten stools as in Vietnam, but usually that's all they have... no tables.  The street noodles here are more delicious than in Vietnam, to mine and Tom's tastes anyway, so we can accept eating them from our laps. 

We enjoyed Cambodian food so much that we decided to take a cooking class here.  The class first took us to a local market to pick up ingredients, and to see lots of gross things like chicken blood and guts, and not-dead-yet fish.  I thought the entire class might become vegetarian on the spot, but no such luck.  We prepared mushroom amok, fried spring rolls, and tofu lok lak.  Sounds like another night of feeding someone (don't worry, not you mom or dad) some Southeast Asian cuisine.

We have enjoyed things other than food in Cambodia.  So far we've spent a lot of our time here visiting Wats, which is just another name for temples.  Buddhist temples, with their tiered roofs, huge sculptures, and colourful paintings can be really stunning.

Yesterday we had a wonderful day enjoying wats, the Cambodian countryside, and most of all the Cambodian people.  After an early morning run, we rented a motorbike to head to some sights just a little too far out of the city to see by bicycle.  About a half hour in, we could see the first temple complex at the top of a nearby mountain.  Within thirty seconds of seeing it, our bike felt a little wobbly.  Upon pulling over, we saw that we had a flat.  Great.  Luckily we had just passed a sort of police check point, Tom pushed the bike back to the police to ask for help.  They pointed to a small roadside canteen, which was also apparently a garage.   The woman who sold us a bottle of water made a call, and within a few minutes, a guy showed up to fix our flat.   We waited about a half hour, playing "The Price is Right" regarding the repair.  Tom thought $30.  With more faith in Cambodian people, I said $7.  Neither of us was closest without going over.  The new tube + 1/2 hour of labour cost us $1.  Not bad.  Unfortunately he pointed out a slit in the tire, so we drove the bike back to the rental place, worried about having to pay for a new tire.  Not a chance.  The rental company quickly put us on another bike, and actually siphoned the few liters of gas we had bought into our new bike.  As we retraced our steps, Tom sang "On the road again..." 

The Wat on the mountaintop was quite picturesque, along with the view across Cambodian mountains and farmland, although our favourite part was actually a canyon/cave between some temples.  Down a stone staircase we arrived in this canyon with some stalactites like a cave, but open to see the surrounding trees and mountains.  It was really peaceful and beautiful in a unique way.  On our way back down to get our motorbike we spoke with a monk who was trying to practice his English, before heading off to a complex of ruins.  The climb up to the ruins was exhausting, and they were a little more ruined than not.  Trust me, you're not missing out on any exciting photos of the site.

Our last stop was at Cambodia's one and only winery.  Speaking with a very friendly woman in very broken English, we learned that this small family-run winery has been operating for 11 years.  We got the tasting menu, consisting of 4 drinks made there:  red wine, brandy, grape juice, and ginger juice.  I actually thought the red wine was pretty good, although Tom found it a little "barnyard" (Glenda and Adam will understand).  The kind owner let us tour the vineyards on our own.  They were more impressive than those in Egypt.  We soon learned why, as we motorbiked back to return our motorbike in the pouring rain.

Now we have reached the "pièce the résistance" of our trip:  Angkor Wat, the world's largest religious complex.  Tom saw photos of Angkor Wat in 2003, and has been talking about visiting it ever since.  We arrived this afternoon in a nearby town, and will be bicycling there for sunrise tomorrow, and exploring the ancient town of Angkor for 3 days on our rented bicycles.  For Tom, the 8 year wait ends tomorrow.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Nam

The Americans coined the not-so-original nickname "The Nam" during the war in Vietnam in the 60's and 70's.  I thought it was a pretty orginial blog title for the second half of our Vietnam travel, which included much war-related site-seeing.

Shortly after writing the last blog about our motorbike travels to the beach, Tom and I got caught in our first Southeast Asian downpour.  Not bad given that it is rainy season here at the moment.  In continuing with our Vietnamese copycatting, we bought cheap raincoats from a street vendor, and scurried around the busy streets to find a restaurant to take cover in.  Give us a break, we've probably seen less than a half-dozen rainfalls in the last year!

After a quick meal of "com chay" (rice and vegetables), we headed back to our hostel to wait for our overnight bus to head to our next destination down the coast:  Nha Trang.  Nearly 12 hours on a honking bus is not fun.  It's especially not fun when they even fill the aisles with makeshift mattresses so that nobody can move.  It's even less fun when the person next to you doesn't realize they shouldn't move, so they hit you with their foot, knee, or elbow each time they shift.  No, I'm not talking about Tom.  I'm talking about the stranger that was sleeping next to me when they separated Tom and I to let another couple sleep side-by-side.  Let's just say it wasn't the highlight of our trip.

Nha Trang was a great city though.  With about 4km of beach, it is relaxation at its best.  We spent much of our first day lounging on the beach, spent the second day with a Texan we met, riding a motorcycle around the countryside to see some unique churches and enormous Buddhas, and spent the next day scuba diving.  I forgot the evening on the beach at a brew pub.  Tough life!

Our next train ride, to Saigon, was only 7 hours, was in the daytime, and didn't have anyone sitting in the aisles.  You really start appreciating the little things when you're traveling! 

Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City as it is now officially (but very uncommonly) named, is a big city, with a nice friendly backpacker area.  After taking it easy for our first evening, we met a woman from Edmonton in the morning for a run.  Friendly as you would expect a Canadian to be, she also met us that evening for dinner, along with a local.  Between the run and dinner, we went to the heart-wrenching War Remnants Museum.  Formerly named the "American War Crimes Museum", the museum is full of beautiful photos of a very ugly time and place.  While difficult to look at, it would be very short-sighted to visit Vietnam and ignore the war that although finished about 35 years ago, continues to impact Vietnam today. 

The following morning we went to the Cu Chi tunnels with Mady, a friendly guy from India that we met (actually the Canadian woman's roommate).  This is a tunnel network that was used by the North Vietnam army for hiding, living, moving supplies, and even attacking.  In the photo above, Tom is inside a tunnel that had a hidden area for shooting outward.  Only Tom and one other guy got to go into that section since they were closest to the size of Vietnamese soldiers at the time.  In our guide's words "they not drinking much beer or eating McDonalds back then".  We also got to crawl, and sometimes run, through the slightly larger tunnels.  I may have down a sort of crawl-run along with a girly scream when a bat was flying in one of them.

That night Mady cooked us amazing vegetarian Indian food, and showed us photos from India that have quickly shot it up our list of travel destinations.  We certainly don't have enough time to detour there on this trip.  We have lots of travel left in us for later!

This brought our big city stops in Vietnam to a close, but we still had a 3 day/2 night trip down the Mekong Delta remaining.  This region at the southern tip of Vietnam along the Mekong River has maintained a much more rural feel, although both cities we stayed in were larger than my hometown of Cornwall.

On the first day of the trip we stopped at a completely uninformative honey bee farm and drank some pretty tasty tea with honey.  I'll stop at uncle Genie's sometime to get the real scoop on making honey.  The boat ride within canals surrounded by coconut trees was quite pretty, and the coconut candy at the coconut candy factory was even better than the tea with honey.  The chocolate-coconut candy... not as much.  It tasted neither like coconut nor chocolate.  We slept in a city called Cantho that night, and left early the next morning for a trip to the floating fruit market.

The floating fruit market was like no market I've ever seen.  All buyers and sellers were on boats, mostly motorized, filled with bananas, papayas, dragonfruit, jackfruit, watermelons, pineapples, and lychee.  There were even boats that served as corner stores, with pop and chips, and as restaurants, to make you noodle stir-fries.   

Next we got to stroll through fruit orchards.  The first area we got to was full of "rambutin".  After saying it 3 times only to get a blank stare from me, the guide spelled it for me:  r-a-m-b-u-t-i-n.  As if this helped.  Finally he picked one, and I saw that it was what I had been eating and thinking was a lychee.  Apparently it's a little less sweet.  My favourite fruits to look at (and pretty high up there to eat) are dragonfruits.  They are such a bright pink, and the "scales" really do look like I picture a dragon looking.  That night was spent in Cau Doc, near the Cambodian border.

Another early morning and we were off to see a floating fishing village.  This time we took rowboats, which were rowed by Vietnamese teenagers and grandmothers half our size.  It was really peaceful coming down the river without the sound of motors.  The village was so interesting.  We'd seen a floating village when we were up in the north of Vietnam in February, but it only had a couple dozen houses.  This one had hundreds.  We rowed through it for at least an hour.  There were houses on stilts, some floating on canoe-like boats, and some built up on fishing cages.  I will try to explain the fish house design to my dad.  I know he'd love to open his living room floor to a fish pond. 

This was our last tourist stop before a beautiful boat ride and long and hot bus ride to Cambodia.  Goodbye Vietnam.  Good morning Cambodia.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Kindergarten Furniture

Sheri Ly, ask and you shall receive.  Here is Tom having his breakfast this morning:


This is the norm, not the exception. 

With only 2 days left in Vietnam, we will write a full blog about the second half of our Vietnamese travels later this week.  Next stop:  Cambodia.  Furniture size:  unknown.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

When in Vietnam...

"Canada people like exercise!"  It was the only conclusion our Vietnamese boat driver could come to.  After taking us for a "not-quite-sunset-yet" cruise to a pagoda, he asked us our plans for the following day.  We told him that we planned on renting bicycles and going to the beach (about 15km away).  Not motorbikes, but bicycles.  What you have to understand is that motorbikes are the vehicle of choice in Vietnam.  Tom and I estimate that they outnumber other vehicles by about 10:1.  Our bike ride to the beach was... let's just say indirect (we took my dad's kind of shortcut)... and very very hot and humid.  By the time we arrived, you'd think I'd already jumped into the water. I really shouldn't complain when I get to spend a day sitting on a beach on the ocean though.  We learned our lesson for the next beach trip.

Yesterday Tom and I rented a motorbike to take to Marble Mountains and to the beach.  The Marble Mountains were just that... 5 mountains made of marble.  What made them interesting were the many cave temples and Buddha statues within the mountains.  The fact the the mountains are entirely marble was also cool of course, especially after a year of sandstone.

For the afternoon we wanted to go to the beach "as the Vietnamese".  This means:
#1:  Going by motorbike
#2:  Going around sunset

Seriously, despite having oceanfront beaches all the way down the coast, most Vietnamese don't go to the beach in the daytime.  It's just too hot.  Plus they're not exactly into tanning the way North Americans are.  In fact, when we look for sunblock in pharmacies around here, it is often next to the "skin whitening cream".  So we headed to the beach on our motorbike around 4pm.  It was a little busy, but not nuts... at 4pm.  Tom much enjoyed his $0.75 beer. 

There was a steady stream of arrivals, 2, 3, or 4 on each motorcycle.  By 5pm the water and beach were packed with happy-go-lucky Vietnamese friends and family having a great time.  Tom thought it must be like Spring Break at Daytona Beach, with more children and less wet white t-shirt contests.  When we left around 6pm, as Canadians who don't make a habit of sitting on a sunless beach, the motorbikes were still flooding in.  While we were a bit curious about how late the party would continue, I wanted to try out the motorbike in daylight, and we both wanted to get out for some street food on kindergarten-sized chairs.  Seriously, they lost a furniture lottery in this country or something. 

I tried out the bike on the most deserted road we could find, and let made Tom takeover before getting to my first intersection.

I'm pretty sure I went from 0-50 kph in about 2 minutes.  It felt fast to me!  Tom got to (aka:  I made him) do all the city driving, and did an awesome job of it.  We won't be getting motorbikes in Canada though.  We'll stick to the bikes that give us excercise.  But we're in Vietnam... so we did as the Vietnamese.