Sunday, July 27, 2008

With a Tropical Paradise Comes Tropical Storms!

I have arrived in PARADISE! After my quick pitstop in Bangkok I had a smooth, almost luxurious overnight bus ride and early morning ferry and arrived in Koh Tao. I am stayng in a tiny little beach bungalow here and the island looks beautiful!!!! Crystal clear water and white sand beaches. Sairee Beach is lined with restaurants, cafes and and lounges and all the seating areas extend down to the beach with pillows on the ground, low tables, and torches blazing after the sun goes down.

Koh Tao is known as a diving mecca and thank god I have had that to fall back on the last few days, because since i boarded the ferry the weather has been attrocious....literally!!!! I have never experienced storms like this. Luckily, at the bottom of the sea, it doesnt matter what the weather is like up above! On my first dive in years, we hopped on a huge boat and had to go to a small sheltered cove on the other side of the island but the seas were so rough! The swells were maybe about 25 ft and the boat was crashing all over the place. Things were flying left and right and water was coming over the side in massive rushes. The only comforting factor was the dive masters and thai guys were having a field laughing all the way (mostly at the domino effect of sea sickness going around!) Although i have never really experienced sea sickness, it gave me a reality for my 'year on boat' is gonna take alot before i would feel comfortable commandeering conditions like that! Anywho, we made it, and as soon as we were submerged a foot under water all the turmoil disappeared and it was as peaceful as can be!

The dives were fabulous. The first dive, my dive master was a highly amusing British guy and because i did a refresher coarse I had to go through all the skills with him before I got to "fun dive". Once the boring stuff was out of the way though...diving in Koh Tao definately deserves its reputation! I have done 4 dives so far and seen the most incredible stuff. The coral here is, in my opinion way more interesting than that in the Great Barrier Reef, and even though due to the storms the visibilty was a bit low, we still saw tons!

There are blue spotted sting rays which i have seen lots of and they are soooo magical. Their blue spots are irridescent and their massive eyes stick out like googley eyes! I saw a Harlequin sweetlips, which is a fun little fish with lots of fins and dangly bits; when it is a baby it almost just flops and dances about because it is not sure what to do with all it's parts yet to seamlessly glide through the water. I saw a few puffer fish and emoray eels, trigger fish, angel fish.... and schools of hundreds of brightly coloured fish that seemed just as curious of all the divers, as we of them. The most amazing fish I saw, which i cant really recall ever seeing before, or even hearing of...was a box fish. And we spotted 3 of them, which is apparently quite rare. A box fish is just that- it is shaped as a damn box (like the picture up top)! On my last 2 dives our dive master was a wickedly cool german girl and she explained that the poor box fish were cursed because they were not ergonomically made to swim. They are super tiny, maybe just 2 or 3 inches long and are a vibrant yellow with black spots. So strange and beautiful, and hilarious to watch clumsily go through the water!
So I have been on the island for almost 4 days of grey weather and some mad storms. In fact on the first dive day, there was a spanish couple who had been on the beach when the first storm hit (they come out of nowhere FAST!) and they were trying to refund their dives because they had been scared off thinking the storm was a tsunami because the waves coming in were getting bigger and bigger. I was walking when the first big storm came and it is sooooo dangerous to be unsheltered. A thai man pulled me into his shop lecturing me not to be out. Stuff flies every which way. The coconuts drop (which can be a fatal blow to your head) and leaves and trees are shaking and blowing everywhere. Needless to say it was a great show for a tropical storm, and even more entertaining that no one saw a problem with hopping on a boat and going out diving in the torrential rain and lightening and thunder!
So I leave Koh Tao tomorrow and am headed to Koh Phangan, yet another island, in search of sunshine! I figure the weather will break soon enough and when it does i will be sure to be beach-ready! Saying that though, although it is not sunny out right now, it is still boiling hot with a nice hot breeze, i am reading a great book on Myanmar and so I am headed to the beach to sit with a malibu and pineapple and watch the day go by!

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Full Circle

I arrived into bangkok late last night after a pretty exhausting 15 hour journey from Cambodia. It is amazing how different i felt this time compared to just a few moths back when i landed here from England not knowing my ass from my elbow. This time is was a peice of cake! I knew where I was going, where I was staying, what to eat and most importantly how to get out of Bangkok as quickly as possible. So i checked out of my guest house and have been idling the day away, waiting till 8pm when i hop back on a bus south to Koh Tao for some much anticipated diving, sun tanning and generally being a beach bum!

Not much blogging in the last 2 weeks cause I had my mom with me and was kept busy pretty much 24/7. i am now back to flying solo, though the last 2 weeks were great!!!

After a couple of days in Saigon we headed on a boat trip to the mekong Delta which was supposedly going to take us luxuriously over the border to Cambodia. I am not sure in Asia knows the defintion of luxury. In hindsight it was a blast but during the couple of days journey it was pretty hellish. My mom made a good point that NOTHING EVER phases her, she can always get put through the grinder and come out with a smile on her face....but she'd HAD IT! And fair enough. We basically got transfered from one boat to another, then a bus ride, then back on a boat, a quick site see (which was ridiculously stupid, one was at a fish farm that boated us to, we got out and looked at fish in a net and had to hop back on the boat and boated back to our boat...seriously!) Our main boat that we slpet on, was pretty grimy. the bathrooms were repulsive, the food was less than respectable AND the sleeping arrangements were pretty gross too. It was dorm style, so we shared aroom with about 15 other people (in bunk beds) and mom and i had top bunks by the doorway to the dining room whcih was all open concept and the lights were on. So all night we were showered in 100's of dead little was pure filth!!!!! I dont think either of us got more than a few winks of sleep, and mom was definately not impressed (NOR WAS I!) She was a tropper though, cause evn after waking up feeling dirty and gross and a bit fed up...we still had a killer journey for the day. again we were shuffled from boat to boat to boat, we had to get out and walk across the border to Cambodia (where we ALSO had some technical difficulites with visas...NOT something to muck about with in Vietnm) and then back on a boat and to a bus to Phom Penh! Yowzers!!!! Oh and then the icing on the soon as we got into the outskirts of Pnom Penh, there was a tropical storm that you had to see to believe! So we had to find our way about to find accomodation in the dark rainy evening! Mom was a TROOPER!

But we got there, and it was great. We spent the next day few days in the sun wandering around and exploring (and enjoying a well deserved spa trip!) Next stop was Siam Reap, where Angkor Wat is. Definately a trip highlight!!! We spent the entire day wandering from temple to temple on the massive grounds of anciet Angkor Wat. What a day!!! It was so unbelievably hot, but we had hired a tuk-tuk that took us to each of the different locations, where we explored at our leisure. AMAZING!!! One place was more beautifull than the next and I sent all my pictures home with mom so I have nothing to upload but i swear i mustve taken about 500 pics over the course of a few days at the temples!

Mom left me in Angkor Wat to make the trip back to Pnom Penh and start her LONG journey home. I spent a few extra days wandering around on my own and enjoying just hanging about in Siam Reap.

Although I unfortunaly didnt get to spend as much time as I would have hoped in Cambodia, I still loved it! The people were beautiful and I actually learned so much about the struggles of the people in their recent history. I learned all about Pol Pot and the Kmer Rouge and what the people had to endure during his reign.....and the craziest part is that it is such recent history. The Khner Rouge stormed and conquered Phnom Penh the day before my brother was born on April 18th 1975. So so many of the people I met lived through the days of the Killing Fields and al the atrocities that went on, and were speaking from first hand experience. It was definatly an eye opener and made me appreicate how damn lucky I am to be born where I was with the life I lead. Vietnam and Cambodia's history is absolutely astonishing and they still manage to thrive and survive what they have been through, they are remarkable people.

Anywho, enough with the heavy stuff.....I am headed to the beach :) In exactly one hr i am jumping on ANOTHER bus and heading south 8 hrs where i hop on ANOTHER boat, but by tomorrow morning I should be kicked back, bikini clad with the sand in my toes!!!! Woot! WOOT! I am headed to Koh Tao, which is supposed to be a scuba divers paradise so i will get some dives in to. Tough work this traveling is....fufufufufufuf!!!!

(for all those NOT in the know, fufufufufufu means hahahahhahaa in japanese:)

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Back in touch!

Where oh where to begin? I think I am way behind and so much great stuff has been happening!!!!! I somehow feel though I am going to get backto Toronto with no fun and adventurous stories since I am writing them all on my blog, so maybe I will just graze over some of the goings on in this part of the world to pique your some interest and then in the flesh, when I am home, i can bore everyone with the details!!!! I think I left off last entry with the possibility of snake blood in the air???

Well........snake blood we had and snake bile and snake hearts, snake ribs, snake skin, snake organs, snake in a roll, bbq'ed, name it-we had!!!!! It was someones 31st bday and we managed to muster up a HUGE crowd to head to Snake Village and we feasted the night away on Cobra delicacies!!!!!

Then.....MOM arrived! YAY, same and sound and with a frickin' backpack stuck on her back! So impressed! I hold a run a tight ship, so the next morning, after Mom arrived we were off to Halong Bay. Halong Bay was one of the places I would sit at mydesk in Toronto at work daydreaming about. And last week we hopped on a big beautiful junk (it had sails but unfortunately they were never rigged up) and spent 2 amazing days in the Bay floating through limestone karsts. It was incredible!!! There were minor issues like being over run with tourists in the harbour boarding 1 of hundreds of junks, and a major water pollution problem everyone seemed to over look- but SOMEHOW, it managed to be so peaceful and highly enjoyable. Lotsa seafood, seakayaking, swimming and of course just overall contentment thatI was on a boat on the water! (also made me realize HOW BADLY i want my dream of living on a boat for a year to come true!)

From Halong Bay we spent a bit more time in Hanoi then headed south on a flight to Hue, whicj in my opinion was a thorough disppointemnt. It could ve been the rididculous heat all day but I htink it came dowm to what we did. I went against my personal traveling code and.....(gulp) did a "tour", What a bloody waste of money. We were herded like cows into and out of a ghetto bus with fake air conditoning from one spot to the next. From tomb such and such to temple whatchyamacallit to pagoda blahblahblah!!!! Hell! Honestly I felt like a ticking time bomb i was so annoyed! We were even fed lunch at cafeteria-style tables (similar to grazing up to a trough). Abd although you paid for a tour- NO entries into the "attractions" were included. It was such a rip-off. Mom was quick to point out, that the actual monetary value of our tour was peanuts when the dongs were converted to dollars but to me it was sheer principle. It SUCKED!

Next stop....Hoi AN. Thats where we are now and it is heavenly! First of all, the towns predominant business is in tailoring. On every street corner is a tailor and they tailor everyhting from wool coats, to shoes to bags to clothing...i am in heaven, it is a shoppers paradise!!!! It is looking like maybe I am going to have to mail a small package home from Saigon cause I dont think my new shoes/wool coat/pants/dress will fit in my backpack!!!!! No problem! Aside from shopping this town is a beauty. I am finally by the ocean, something I have been waiting for, for weeks! We went for a bike ride today and ended up at China Beach. The ocean water was like a hot bath but at least there was a slight breeze to make it enjoyable! We managed to put up with all the alarming stares when we stripped down to our suits (the local women swim totally clothed!!!) and enjoy every once of sun sand and water!!!

Hoi An is a quaint little seaside place with little markets, hotels everywhere and really nice restaurants with sea food everywhere!!!! We are staying in a hotel that still smells of paint it is so new, with 2 double beds, laundry servcie (DESPARARATELY needed!), bathroom (this isnt always a given), a balcony, 2 fans and proper air con...and we are paying a WHOPPING $10 US/night. How mad is that? It is blissful!!! And actually since MOM has been here I have been in paradise because I have been living the high life...I am being kicked outta the internetcafe- closing time. (no time to proof read, sorry for all the spelling mistakes!)

Off to Saigon on Tuesday with more stories to write about.......

Friday, July 4, 2008

Tourist...or Tourist Attraction?

I had a couple of days in Ninh Binh and the main thing to go and see there is a place called Tam Coc. It is known for the limestone rock formations that look almost like a small mountain range lying just on the outskirts of the city. So for a few hours you hop on a little row boat and a little Vietnamese woman (with pipes of steel!) rows you on a little boat down a river through rice fields with the most beautiful scenery of waterbuffalos bathing in the water, rice fields and mountains. It was boilng hot (which you think I owuldve gotten used to by now) and beautifully amazing. The river takes you through 3 of the mountains and you are inside rowing through these dark grotto caves. In the massive caves there are stalagtites forming everywhere and refreshing drops of cold water pattering down like rain....

So thats Tam Coc. I have been so luckily and managed to wind up at the wrong place and end up being surrounded by Vietnamese local tourists instead of the "backpacker"western crowds.....wicked. This one was the icing on the cake.

So Trang An, is a smaller version of TamCoc but so much more amazing. I dont think very many people go to NinhBinh, but since I am just killing time waiting for my mom to show up, I ended up here. The super friendly and helpful man from my hotel told me if I have the time, see Trang An. I showed up there and was the only white person to be seen. I hopped in a boat with a Vietnamese man and his young 15 year old son and off we paddled. Communication was minimal, and Quang, the son new only a handful of English words. The guide, or the woman rowing the boat more like, spoke not a word nor did the dad. Off we went along the river. Trang An was about a million times more amazing than tam Coc. First of all the caves were smaller, and when i say smaller, i mean we had to duck our heads flat down against the boat to squeeze through, and we were bouncing off both sides of the walls. The stalagtites were massive and our rower expertly navigated the boat through the almost pitch dark caves without taking off our heads.

We got to hop off the boat at a few temples and check stuff out and most of the time we were the only boat with in eye sight. However at one of the stops, we got off and there seemed to be nothing there but stairs up one of the limestone mountains. The guide was yappering on in Vietnamese to the father and son so I just shadowed them and did as they did. Through the whole journey they were so friendly, offering me their foood, curiously glancing at me checking me out and smiling and hand gesturing and attempting to make conversation, I loved it. So up we climbed, father, son and I, and we literally came across the equivalent of a tour bus of Vietnamese people, returning to their boats. Once the first one saw me it was like broken telephone as they called to one another to look whats comin'round the mountain! So instead of passing the big group and the 3 of us continuing on our way- the huge group of tourists followed us and were chatting a mile a minute to the man and his father while gawking and looking at me. Fun times.

So with our new entourage, we climb the top of the mountainand down the other side and I see the destination is this small little temple in the middle of nowhere. It was so beautiful and remote but out of the woodwork pops these men with cameras and little mini printers, who charge you and sell you postcard pictures of you amongst the limestones and in the temple. Man, they had a field day with this, so out come the camers. The photographers cameras AND everyone with their little digies.....I had to pose with every SINGLE one of was hilarious! It started with just the Dad, he was so sweet he bought me a post card of me standing with his super embarrassed looking son- the 2 of us side by side and then once the other Vietnamese saw this they hopped on the bandwagon and literally ALL of them posed with me for pictures and postcards. I am a celebrity!!!!! It was tooooooooo cute! Most of the time they were really friendly and genuinely intrigued by me, but I couldnt help at times feeling like maybe I was a bit like a circus animal to them (especially when I stick my tongue out, I have learned to use that as my wild card while travelling...tongue peircings wow the shit out of some people!) Father, son and I eventually manged to shake the crowd and get back to our boat, after our run in with the paparazzi, and serenly finish our trip down the river through the caves,grottoes and the rice fields.

Once we were back on terra firma, I couldnt locate my motor bike driver and with much sign language, I think father and son were pretty much prepared to safely take me back to Hanoi with them and help me...honestly they were just the sweetest bunch!!!!!! Ít was such a nice change from hanging with the backpackers even though less than one sentence worth of english was said!

The rest of the day just kept getting better and better. The next stop was Hai Lau, which was actually the original capitol of Vietnam way back when. (I was the only non-Vietnamese tourist again) There was a few ruins to see and temples that were somewhat interesting somewhat boring...but this time I hooked on the tails of a group of senior citizen Vietnamese amusing. This group was not as enthrawled with me as the morning bunch, but i would catch the men and women sneaking in glances here and there and then chattering away and looking back at me. My favorite is the attempts to communicate when I dont speak a word of their language and they dont speak a word of mine...but somehow a basice conversation is conducted with a lot of hand gestures, body parts, smiling and laughing!!!!

The last stop of the day was Kenh Ga, a floating village. Another boat trip down another river and through a beautiful little village on the water........I am in love with Vietnam and have only been here for less than 2 weeks, I cant wait for the rest of this trip!!!!

I am headed back to Hanoi now and though the city doesnt really interest me that much, i am rendezvousing with some of the people from the Gibbon Experience back in Laos, and Saturday is one of the guys 31st birthdays. Celebrations look to involve a sacrificial snake, shots of snake blood and the birthday boy getting to swallow the heart while it is still beating (I kid you not!).......nothing like some good old fashion birthday fun!!!

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Travel vs Travelling

Does it seem somehow wrong that my least favorite part about travelling is.......the actual "travel" part?

I was sad to leave SAPA, but sadness turned into utter frustration and misery once i boarded my overnight "VIP/First Class" train ride back to Hanoi. Can you pictures animals being crated up into tiny little cages, I am thinking of chickens in particular, and then boxed into frieght cars on a train. There is no such thing as VIP or first class for chickens and that mightve well been the case for me getting back to Hanoi. It was STIFLING hot. We were in our cages.....I mean cabins, 4 per room and found it quite odd that the AC wasnt on yet, seeing that the train was scheduled to leave momentarily. The Vietnamese passengers (that was all of the passengers in my car...i was the only foreigner) were up in arms and shreiking and cursing and STILL nothing was happening, so I figured there was no point in me attempting to get anything accomplished (like what i dont know, maybe get a tool box out of my backpack and start fixing the AC, hahahah). Anywho, after about 15 minutes of inhumane conditons (thing 35 degree heat in a cardboard box with NO windows to let air in) finally the air started circulating and we all tucked into our bunks slowly cooling our body temperature down. When I had just about climatised, maybe one hour into the journey, lights out (again think cardboard box-TOTAL BLACKNESS) and no AIR. Fun times. This happened about 3 more times through the journey and to be honest i just didnt have the energy to move. I was the only backpacker, and of course was armed with a flashlight so I clung to that, taking comfort against the total darkness in my cage with fellow Vietnames men.

We rolled into Hanoi just after 4am. I hopped onto a xe-om (motorbike) and safely got through my first xe-om taxi with my backpack. Luckily at 4am Hanoi is not at its peak of chaos so it was easy enough to navigate. I went back to the hostel I was staying at the night I flew (I think this might be the only actual Ozzie style hostel in asia) and it worked out perfectly. I squatted there for a few hours making use of the free internet, showers and free breakfast and then caught another xe om taxi to a bus station once i decided where I was headed at a much more reasonable hour. WHoah........this bike ride (i know dad i AM SUCH A frickin' hypocrite!) was MADNESS! There were 3 of us on the bike (well my the driver and my backpack, which now that i have been collecting stuff on the way is the equivalent size of another person) and it was rush hour and i honestly could think of nothing else to do except chuckle at how INSANE people driver. For example, the arrows to make a right hand turn in hanoi are in the left lane. Ditto, to go left, stay inthe right lane....i swear to god! oh, and you know how in Toronto they installed those pedestrian friendly little countdown on the street lights? To let you know how much time you have to safely cross the street. Screw that, here there is a coutdown timer that lets the drivers know when they can take off....and NO ONE waits for it to hit zero. and red lights..those optional, ALL THE sounds like I am exaggerating but i kid you not. I am so upset my camera is broken, otherwise I would be taking videos to upload. When mom comes I will use hers and do madness!!!! Lets say at least I am coming to turns with my traffic paranoia as a pedestrain. Crossing the street is hilarious (in a sick kinda way). The only strategy you can use is -JUST GO. you have to walk with a purpose. The motorcycle drivers (there are pretty much no cars) just swerve and manouver to avoid you easily. They see your route and navigate around you, the trouble lies when you hesitate, that throws them off. To locals it is no problem, an ingrained way of thinking and moving. However, as a Western, and one that has had a run in with cars while on foot long ago...this practise is a little threatening! But like i said, i am becoming a much bolcer pedestrian!

At the bus station I hopped on a local bus (only foreigner again...i love it!!!! they unabashedly stare at me like i am a tourist attraction!) and was headed south of the city. Thankfully out of Hanoi before the city swallowed me up. After about an hour on the bus journey, just as I was thinking to myself how this journey was working out well and I knew where i was going and nothing unespected or unexplainable had happened in the last few hours......the man sitting 2 seats ahead me unleashed. Like i thought someone was pouring out a 2litre bottle of water......nope it was his breakfast. sorry to be graphic but i have no pity to you sitting comfortably at your desk, in your office, or kicked back on your laptop. this shit was in my face!!!
So gross. and ya know what? what was i gonna do? get off the bus? hahahah, a few peices of newpaper over the offending mess, AC off, windows down, the driver never even slowed down! is like a love hate relationship, I think. Bittersweet. Well here I am in Ninh Biinh. Safe and sound and in one peice and thrilled to figure out this see what lies around the next corner, I am ready to choose my next adventure :)