One year honeymoon around the world...17th April 2007 to 9th March 2008! Yes we're home!!
Tuesday, 11 March 2008
We’ve arrived! Immigration was a breeze: the easiest yet. All the desks were manned and open. Very efficient. About 20 in all for residents and visitors combined and absolutely no queues. Has anyone ever seen Heathrow open all the desks?? Maybe they’re saving them for a busy day :-)
When we filled in our visa application in Singapore we had to state where we were intending to visit and what our occupation is as certain trades are not allowed in. We’d already fibbed as we didn’t think it best to say ‘Unemployed’ so we put ‘Bank Clerk’ and I gave Goldman’s address and my old desk phone number J So I’m expecting to be grilled about why we’re in China and I’m ready to say “I’ve come to see the Giant Pandas” and the happy smiling Chinese man simply puts a pen tick on my visa, stamps my passport with the date and smiles as he hands back my passport! Easy peasy! Fastest immigration yet!
Also worth a mention was the interactive feedback panel on the counter – five faces ranging from big smiles for “Greatly Satisfied” to upset face for “Greatly Dissatisfied” and you were encouraged to push the face that you felt. I happily squished the Greatly Satisfied button as I skipped away from the desk. Ben and I later wondered if there was a spot prize at the end of the shift for the border guard with the best rating and hence they were so smiley and quick. If anyone knows anyone who works at a UK airport please suggest this! And preferably before we return into LHR :-)
The next excitement was found at the baggage carousel. Now please correct me if I’ve been mislead but is there not an unspoken code amongst Westerners that if you’re first to the baggage carousel with your trolley then that is YOUR space and someone can only squeeze up to the belt temporarily to retrieve their bag as it passes and must then move back…!!??? Well not the case here in China. I was outsmarted by a man shorter than me who executed a deft Bend & Snap maneuver. If you’ve seen Legally Blonde you’ll know what I mean. He bent past me towards the belt reaching for his luggage (or so I thought) and without picking anything up he snapped back up swinging his hips left and knocking me clean out of the way. And he didn’t even blink. Not a sign of acknowledgment that I had been standing there. I know that Asian queuing is a new concept to us English and Ben and I are getting the hang of that but purlease he barged me out the way!
So Ben switched with me and when his rucksack came off the belt he whacked it into the guy’s leg…accidentally of course :-)
For those of you unfamiliar with Asian queuing, if you can’t smell the shampoo on the person in fronts head then you are not in the queue and someone will very quickly stand in front of you. They will also step around you in a roped queue if you have not filled every available space and if you try to hold onto the rope with one hand you must not let go to scratch your nose else they’re round you before you get your fingers to your face!
Unfortunately whilst I used to be an extremely considerate person and would hold open doors for others and would know who had been waiting in a shop before me it’s wasted here, you snooze, you lose, and this morning Ben said I cut up an old lady waiting to pass through a door way. Like I said, you snooze you lose here.
We’re checked into our Hostel but again it’s more of a hotel and very nice at that for 20 GBP a night. Looking forward to exploring Beijing tomorrow.
Thursday, 28 February 2008
I also tried on Mickey's shoes...
Adrenaline rides are the seriously lacking at HK Disney. They've done a great job with Space Mountain which left us both feeling slightly nauseous even though it doesn't go upside down but otherwise all the rides are incredibly sedate.
Wednesday, 27 February 2008
Tuesday, 26 February 2008
Going back to Thursday last week (21st Feb) we said bye to my M&D at Phuket airport, Thailand and took a plane to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. We'd bought the ticket online with budget airline Air Asia. Whilst our RTW ticket allows us 2 checked bags each the budget airlines limit you to 1 checked bag of 15kg.
- ChineseNew Year - Petronas Towers - KL Tower - Little India
I was rather underwhelmed by Singapore. I think you need money to enjoy Singapore and at this stage of our trip cash is lacking. Or perhaps I should say cash for posh meals and unnecessary shopping is lacking but it is to be expected given we've been unemployed for almost a year now. It was clean but not spotless as it is reputed to be and I expected the people to be more orderly and a strong police or official presence but I didn't see a single policeman in 3 days. No one queued at trains like KL. .
Thursday, 14 February 2008
Koh Phi Phi is an extremely beautiful island of towering cliffs, turquoise seas and white sandy beaches. Most of the town on KPP was devasted by the tsunami at the end of 2004 but the local people have done a good job of recovering from their town being flattened. I really liked the fact that there were no cars on the island and it was great to stroll around the small streets and dusty trails on foot.
Tour of the Phi Phi Islands
After the climbing we had a great day cruising round the bays in a canoe, we found our way through a few limestone sea caves at the bottom of cliffs and stopped off at some great beaches. The next day we were off to the island of Koh Phi Phi!
Thursday, 31 January 2008
We overlanded today all by ourselves from Siem Reap in Cambodia to Bangkok. We left our hotel in SR at 7.45am and arrived at our hotel in Bangkok at 4.15pm - we reckon it must be a record as its a heck of a way.
Flying to the islands tomorrow for some serious beach time and hopefully get chance to catch up on blog.
Absolutely loved Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. All different and equally amazing. Can't wait to tell you all about them.
Off for Bangkok street eats.
Saturday, 26 January 2008
From the book "The Tunnels of Cu Chi"
"One of the more remarkable but little known campaigns of the Vietnam War was fought inside the 200 miles of secret tunnel networks around Saigon between Viet Cong guerillas and special american forces known as "Tunnel Rats". This is the harrowing account of soldiers of great courage who volunteered to enter the black tunnels armed only with pistols and knives and often fought in deadly hand to hand combat with the enemy"
Our guide was a rather toothy mad vietnamese guy who shouted at the top of his voice most of the time. There were some guys in the minibus from Australia and the guide then proceeded to tell us everything about Australia in a barely intelligible accent as if nobody had ever even heard of the place. Apparently there is a city called Sydney located in the state of New South Wales! The guide's ramblings continued and he began telling us about muslim terror attacks - he told us about 9/11 as if he was revealing something that only he knew about. The randomness of the guy continued, topics including Nicole Kidman, Bindi 'the jungle girl' Irwin (of whom he had a laminated picture - rather disturbing) and to top it all he proceeded to tell us that Osama B L was hiding out in the Cu Chi tunnels.
After the obligatory stop at a crappy workshop designed for ripping off tourists we eventually arrived at the tunnel complex. To be contd....
Thursday, 24 January 2008
Saturday, 19 January 2008
Our visit to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum was a rather interesting experience even if I did get a reprimand from a guard for walking disrepectfully (I had my hands behind my back!). There was a family in front of us with a couple of teenage kids (think Kevin and Perry) - the elder son was severely scolded for wearing his baseball cap but I think it was just because he had a serious attitude problem!
We had a fantastic lunch in a very simple local cafe. A soup, rice and 3 main dishes plus drinks cost a grand total of GBP 3.00. Later on today we braved the streets again and checked out a couple of markets which were selling mainly a load of crap so we headed on to another area for evening food. We decided to go for a proper meal instead of "street-eats" as we have now termed it.
For anyone unfamiliar with Asian "Streateries" - Street eats basically consist of any area on the pavement dedicated to the preparation and serving of food. After 3 weeks in Asia we are becoming quite adept at sniffing out places where you can eat cheaply but without contracting a horrendous bout of gastroenritis. Some "street-eats" are literally 4 plastic chairs on the pavement and a women with a wok on a bucket of coals and a wooden block with a few ingredients on it hovering around 3 inches above the gutter.
The washing-up gets done in 2 stages: stage one let any animals in the area (if they've not yet been cooked!) lick the plates clean. stage two throw the cold plates into a bucket of cold greasy water, wipe with a rag which looks like it's been used for mopping floors for the last 5 years and then rinse under a random tap sticking out from the nearest building. Whilst all the above may sound mildly off-putting it is actually a very interesting and usually tasty experience nourishing oneself at "street-level".
After bumping into 2 Chilean girls who we have met several times since trekking with them near Chiang Mai we headed off to alittle Tapas restaurant. The food and atmosphere were fantastic and we forgot for a while that we were actually in Hanoi. After the dinner we headed back to the area where we are staying which consists of a warren of narrow streets dubbed the "old quarter". We decided to sit in one of the tiny street bars at a busy 4 way intersection and watch the world go by. The bar consisted of a bunch of plastic chairs which would look at home in a kindergarten kicking around in the gutter. Inside the tiny shop sat an elderly couple and a couple of kegs and a few soft drinks. The beer was delicious and tasted like Hoegaarden with one slight difference...it only cost 2500 Dong per glass (around 8 pence :o)))). Perhaps I should mention at this point that the Vietnamese currency is called the Dong!!! :o))) (there are around 30,000 Dong to the GBP). It was great to watch the miriad of scooters darting in all directions and the occasional 4WD driven by some idiot who had got lost.
Back in our room now and looking forward to our trip to HaLong Bay tomorrow. More on that later!
Friday, 18 January 2008
Yes we both squeezed in there!
Flight last night was good. We chose Vietnam Airlines over Laos Airlines as Laos do not publish there safety records... erm...?? Also we met an Irish guy called Marc who been a pilot with Vietnam Airlines for the last 3 years and he said whilst there maintenance isn't quite european standards they do have relatively new planes. We were also faced with 24hours on a bus or 1 hour flying.
We arrived at Ha Noi airport and a guy had our name on a piece of paper from the Hotel we'd reserved. We hadn't booked a transfer but it was same cost as taxi so we took it. Very enterprising are the Vietnamese. On arrival at hotel they didn't actually have a room for us but took us next door (room was perfectly adequate but on 5th floor up an inordinate amount of stairs! Ben was complaining of altitude sickness :-)) This morning we came back to the Viet Anh Hotel for a free breakfast and then checked in! And they have free wifi! I'm happy! Getting all photos uploaded to flickr and blogging.
Had a very yummy dinner last night - Vietnamese food is very similar to Thai but less spicy or not spicy at all. The food is so much fresher and crisper than the greasy oriental rubbish we are served back in Europe. The meat though is below average and given the veggies are so delicious I'm sticking to vegetables and rice most of the time. We overdosed on western cafe food in Vientiane so happy to be back to asian food here in Ha Noi.
This morning after sorting out our plans for the next few days (Halong Bay tomorrow for 2 days, then we fly to Hoi An for 3 days then fly to Ho Chi Minh City aka Saigon) we jumped in a taxi to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. The definition of Mausoleum is "a large burial chamber usually above ground".
Quote from Lonely Planet..."In tradition of Lenin, Stalin and Mao, the final resting place of Ho Chi Minh is a glass sarcophagus set deep within a monumental edifice.... Ho Chi Minh's embalmed corpse gets a three-month holiday to Russia for yearly maintenance..."
For those that are unfamiliar with Vietnam's history...and this is entirely my interpretation so don't quote me... in roughly 1880 France colonised Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh (this is a man) founded the Vietnam Revolutionary Youth League in 1925. During WWII Vietnam was able to resist Japanese occupation due to the Communist-dominated Viet Minh (Ho Chi Minh's forces). At end of WWII Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnam independent. The French tried to retake control which led to full-scale war in which the American's got involved in 1965. A cease-fire agreement was signed in 1973 which included total withdrawal of US troops and release of POW's.
So the people (again my view) see Ho Chi Minh as being the person who got them independence but for all his efforts and against his wishes (he wanted to be cremated) the guy has been pickled and stuck in a glass case for locals and tourists to gawp at.
For the rest of the blog when you see HCM its short for Ho Chi Minh.
Our experience at the HCM Mausoleum was chucklesome but also disconcerting. We checked in our bag but kept our camera as there are lots of other buildings in the complex in addition to the tomb. We then queued up with lots of other people, asian and western, and went through a metal detector and I was given a red bag for the camera. We then filed out of the security room and we made to stand in two single file lines. We were then walked, still single file, across the complex to another hut where we now had to deposit the cameras. More single file walking to the front of the Mausoleum. Ben was holding his hands loosely behind his back and a army-looking type with a bayonet (aka gun with a very sharp knife on the end) told him he had to have his hands by his side (mine already were). We then maintained the two lines as we walked 3 sides of a square around the glass cabinet housing HCM.
We went to the Bodies exhibition in Frankfurt years ago (the one where bodies are preserved and cut in various ways) so this wasn't remotely gory by comparision - just looked like a wax work. He looked at peace, asleep. The spooky thing about the place was the regimentary staff. Staff is the wrong word as they appeared military people but maybe that's just the socialist/communist way. This is the first South-East Asian country (been to Thailand and Laos) where I've felt I a serious need to conform. Thailand and Laos are much more laid back.
I collected the camera and we wandered around other buildings but only from the outside: palace, house-on-stilts, museum.
We then took the Cyclo-Rickshaw ride to the Old Town and went for lunch... I've come full circle.
Thursday, 17 January 2008
We were dropped by the river and after a quick look in the Lonely P to see where the main congruence of hotels were we put on our rucksacks and went for a wander. A couple of nice-looking places had FULL signs. The first place we went into had one double room left (result as we often get stuck with twins) and on inspection was fab! and 22 USD. More than Vang Vieng but Vientiane has a lot of expats and more upmarket tourists than backpackers.
We dumped our bags and went out to find lunch. Outside a Swiss couple who had been on our minivan were huffing and puffing that we got the last room and virtually implied it was unfair as they had tried to run there but gone down the wrong street. The girl was clutching the Laos LonelyP. I realised there was a room-finding etiquette with regards to the LP in that most guesthouses have maybe 10 to 20 rooms so when several bus loads of backpackers hit the town within an hour, without reservations, there is a mad dash to find a room. We'd been too slow in Vang Vieng and had taken nearly an hour to find a vacancy but that day we'd been lucky as we hadn't even been looking for a particular guesthouse :-)
That reminds me... I have a rant about backpackers and minivans. Anyone with a remote business brain knows that to make money you need to fill all your seats in the van. So why is it when we're the last two people to be picked up and have to squeeze in with the other 7 to 9 people we get dirty looks and people sigh! Especially in Asia the van is not going anywhere until the bus is full. The swiss couple I just mentionned had commandeered the first row (which seats 3) and were trying to make me sit in the front between the driver and another strange man. Like I want to be squished between 2 big blokes on a non-seat without a seatbelt so I can be the first to headplant through the window if the driver brakes too hard. No thanks!
Back to lunch... we went in search of JoMa, a western style bakery as we were craving a bread fix. Actually we had quiche and salad but the point was it wasn't rice. Deeelicious!!
Sightseeing wise, we headed on foot to Patuxai. As per LP, "Vientiane's haughty Arc de Triomphe replica..." was built in 1969 (so not exactly old). The best bit is they built it using cement donated by the USA which was intended for a new airport.
On the way there we stopped to check out Wat Si Saket.
Ben trying streeteats - dried fish on a stick - whilst we watched the sunset over the Mekong
Wat Si Saket...
Sunset Drinks & Stickys...