Monday, 30 November 2009

Hmong New Year and the Plain of Jars

We took a minivan to Phonsavan on true Lao time - the driver first had to stop for air in the tyres, then fuel, and then brunch an hour later - we eventually made it to Phonsavan in time to catch some of the Hmong New Year celebrations.

There was a fun fare in full swing, packed with locals and pretty Hmong girls in their traditional dress - layers of multicoloured tassels dangling with bells and coins attached to tunics and all different shaped brightly coloured hats finshed off with not so traditional socks and heeled sandles! The girls stand in lines, abreast from each other, with boys doing the same and opposite them, while they throw tennis balls to each other while they chat and sing songs as a way of courting one another - speed dating Hmong style! AND if they decide to take a wife, the young suitor 'kidnaps' his chosen bride and keeps her at his parent's home while he goes to negotiate the dowry.

The main reason for visiting Phonsavan and braving the very long and winding road (the locals really struggle with car sickness!) to reach it is to see the Plain of Jars, a mysterious collection of huge stone jars spread across the local plains and hillsides. The jars are dated at around 2500 years old and there are two theories as to their origin - the Lao theory is that there was a very powerful tribe that won a battle against their local enemies and the jars are basically what's left over from the huge party that ensued and were used to make rice whisky; while the western theory, researched by a French archeologist in the 1930s is that the jars are actually funereal urns however the bones found by the archeologist at that time were lost and never found again particularly after the US significantly carpet bombed the region during the late 1960s and early 1970s (in fact, a ridiculous number of unexploded ordinances remain in the regions and hundreds of Laotians, including children, die each year from trying to recover these unexploded bombs).

We took a tour to visiting three of the main sites - the first was a plain with more than 300 stone urns, some more than 2m high; the second on two small hill tops overlooking lush valleys; and the third was a small cluster of large jars on the other side of some rice paddies. We also dropped in on a rice whisky home brewery where Grandma rolled out her best drop but as you can see from the pic, Libs was not impressed!

Phonsavan was also our first taste of cold weather for some time so we had to unfortunately drag out our winter clothes and wrap up warm for the freezing nights. We don't know how we are going to cope in the UK in December! Best not to think about it.

Mr and Mrs T xx

Laid back Laos

It was a fairly smooth flight into Vientiane, Laos on the twin propelled plane with all 6 of us on there plus 4 crew (we're both still surprised they didn't actually cancel it with so few of us!). On arriving into Laos we could already see how relaxed Laotians are - there was some confusion on our part as to where to get a taxi from but no one seemed to worry...eventually someone told us to buy a ticket here and wait here and then eventually that same guy who did that turned up in the taxi. Brilliant! It was a quiet taxi ride to our hotel in what is meant to be the busy capital!

We hired bikes to explore the capital (something we wouldn't of dared dream of in Vietnam) but it didn't exactly take long to see the sights - one temple complex called Pha That Luang and an Arc d'Triumphe like gate called Patuxai - so after just a few hours we dropped off the bikes and took a bus to Vang Vieng. Again the laid back Laotians meant our supposedly 3 hour journey ended up being over 5 hours. Their laid back organisational skills are something you grow to love and have patience for in Laos.

Vang Vieng was much smaller and quieter than we'd imagined and full of young drunk or hungover travellers recovering from a days tubing. Our first meal in Vang Vieng was yet another taste of how laid back Laotians really are - the maitre'd/owner/chef/waiter/dishwasher was so laid back he was almost asleep - good job we weren't in a hurry to catch a bus or anything.

We awoke the following morning to a down pour which seemed to stay all day so unfortunately this put a dampner on our plans to go tubing (probably a good thing!). Instead we had brekkie by the Nam Song River and kicked back having a lazy day watching the rain - chilling out like true Laotians.
Mr and Mrs T xx

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Angkor temples

The temples of the lost civilisation of Angkor are really like nothing else on this planet, one of those rightly cliched "you've just gotta see it" places as no words or photos do justice.

Out tuktuk man, Mr Lucky, was waiting to take us through day one of our Angkor experience. We started at huge Sras Srang lake and Banteay Kdei which was beautifully quiet. Then it was onto the famous Ta Prohm where the armwrestle between the temples and the tress and vines growing over and through them continues but that temple is so popular that it is almost impossible to get a photo without another tourist in shot!

Ta Keo was a huge unfinished pyramid, too steep for us to climb, especially in our flipflops and in the driving heat so we went through the Victory Gate to the enormous Terraces of Elephants and the Leper King as well as the long causeway of Baphuon before arriving at the bewitching Bayon, where more than 300 huge stone faces look down and smile at you whereever you turn. While we were there, a great rainstorn hit, leaving us and Mr Lucky to take cover at one of the small stalls by the temple.

We waited out the storm before pressing on to Angkor Wat for a few hours of wandering and waiting for sunset, the sun fading over the western gate and throwing long shadows on the large grounds. It was more fantastic food for dinner, this time at Angkor Palm, whose fish amok is sure to become part of Dave's culinary repitoire!

Super early start for day two, up at half four to leave at five to try to catch sunrise over Angkor Wat but the cloud closed in just as the sun was rising, so we woke up Mr Lucky so we could beat the rush to Banteay Srei, some 20 odd kms from Angkor. Mr Lucky lived up to his name for us as after pushing through torrential rain to reach the temple, the sun broke through and when we arrived, there were only 4 other people there! It is a supremely beautiful temple with intricate carvings in salmon marble, a must do for any visit to the Angkor region.

We then doubled back to Eastern Mabon and Ta Som where a huge tree was overgrowing the eastern gate and very clever local kids sold their wares while counting to ten in english, french, german and spanish. We moved onto Preah Neak and the enormous Preah Khan where another massive tree was taking hold at the front of what was once a buddhist university, now covered in luminous moss and jumbles of vines.

By that stage, we were pretty templed out but you could on and back for days and days, exploring and sampling at different times of day and in different lights. It is a photographer's paradise and one we loved.

Mr and Mrs T xx

Siem Reap rewards

It was with a heavy heart and serious hangover that we left Lazy Beach, at least thankful that the sea was as calm as a lake. We boarded a bus the following morning for the long ride across Cambodia to reach Siem Reap for some templing.

It was less torturous than we were expecting, good service on the bus and a good driver who managed to dodge the many cattle and pigs stepping out onto the road. We made a short stop in Kompong Thom where a street stall was selling bugs, crickets and tarantulas - Libby was revolted and Dave wasn't even tempted! We pulled into Siem Reap just after another magnificent sunset (how many of those have we watched on this trip?!?) and took a quick tuktuk ride to Good Kind Guesthouse where we seemed to be the only people staying there! No matter, like the sign said, it was good and they were kind.

We took another tuktuk into town for a dinner at Khmer Kitchen of fantastic fresh spring rolls, Khmer fish curry and pork lab salad (minced pork with mint and chilli). Yum!

Dave noticed Siem Reap had changed a lot since he visited in 2006 but the food at Khmer Kitchen is still oh so good!

Mr and Mrs T xx

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Lazy Beach

Thanks to a tip off from Dave's friend Collins, we took a boat out to Koh Rong Saloem to reach Lazy Beach resort, an idyllic and relaxed spot with just 12 timber bungalows with straw roofs, sitting on a pristine beach of soft sand, crystal water and long sunsets! Bliss!

We came for three nights but ended up staying five! Chris, Jay and Carrie were suitably laidback hosts in this supremely laidback piece of paradise, with afternoons and evenings spent sipping beers and chewing the fat with them at the bar. Or watching huge geckos catch cicadas for their dinner. Or Boysy and Spoon (Chris' dogs) nick barstools whenever anyone stood up.

We did manage to get in some snorkelling on two occasions, seeing some decent fish and some live coral. We also grappled with the wildlife on our doorstep - literally so sometimes! - with cicadas howling like boiling kettles at sunrise and sunset, mongoose and monkeys rustling the trees in the jungle behind our bungalow, geckos scampering around at night chasing a feed and what turned out to be a hornbilled stork that woke Libs up with a fright when it called out loudly from the roof directly above our bed at four in the morning! It was also nice to see hermit crabs out at night for mating season as well as the phosphorus looking like stardust in the dark water!

There were lots of long days spent doing very little at all, a morning swim, late breakfast and a good read over coffee and juice, some sun, another swim, maybe a snorkel or digging some clams out of the beach sand for dinner, then some lunch, more sun and swimming in the late afternoon as we watched the sun slowly disappear and leave crimson and pink streaks across the striking blue sky. Then a shower before the bugs struck and another highlight, the fantastic dinners that were cooked up by the local cooks, we've never tasted such amazingly fresh food! And to top it off, a few lazy drinks over boardgames, cards and chats at the bar.

Paradise lost? Now found @ Lazy Beach, Cambodia.

Mr and Mrs T xx

Holiday in Cambodia, Holiday in Cambodia!

With this Dead Kennedys ditty ringing in Dave's ears (Libby had no idea what he was on about!), we made a pretty seamless transfer from Vietnam to Cambodia, taking a bus from Saigon to Phnom Penh after having flown from Hanoi to Saigon the night before. The only hitch was having to squeeze into a minivan when we got close to Phnom Penh as the Water Festival was in full swing and the non-stop police checkpoints meant our bus couldn't proceed.

The Water Festival was awash with colours with dragon boat racing taking place on the Tonle River and street stalls selling deep fried shrimp patties as well as less than inviting bugs and crickets! It also lived up to its name when the heavens opened in the afternoon and an almighty downpour hit, leaving tourists like us to run for cover in cafes while the locals simply walked through the deluge as though it was nothing to worry about! It had cleared by dinner time when we walked back to the riverfront (where huge lightboats were moored along the shore) for some excellent Khmer food, watched on by the biggest gecko we had ever seen!

The next day we hired a tuktuk for a tour of the city, starting with the confronting Killing Fields. It was difficult to comprehend the pure evil that was perpetrated there but the excellent stupa memorial paid due tribute to the almost 9000 victims' skulls and bones that had been recovered.

We then visited the S21 Tuol Sleng prison, another place full of tortured ghosts past. There was an excellent photography exhibition from Cambodians who had lost their loved ones during the Khmer Rouge's reign of terror and again, it was hard to fathom the random hate and murder they brought upon their own people. Cambodia still carries those scars as many of the main members of the Khmer Rouge either died before prosecution, including Pol Pot, or are yet to be brought before the specially commissioned court.

The Russian Market was not much to see but the Royal Palace was suitably grand, especially the Silver Pagoda with silver tiles lining the floor and diamond encrusted buddhas on pedestals. It was however a lot of grandeur in what is still a very poor country.

The next day we took a bus to Sihanoukville, down on the south coast. There were Cambodian karaoke videos and badly dubbed kung fu movies blaring from the tv as free, but ultimately unwanted entertainment. It was lovely to be on the coast again and we spent the afternoon having drinks by the water, watching boys net fishing for tiny fish that just didn't seen like the effort! In the evening, we had a fantastic one hour massage for less than 6 quid each!

Holiday in Cambodia!

Mr and Mrs T xx

Monday, 16 November 2009

Heaven on two wheels!

Back in 2006, Dave made his first visit to Vietnam and found some of the best travelling he'd ever done was on motorbike, with a local guide from Voyage Vietnam in Hanoi, heading northwest to Thac Ba Reservoir and to see white Thai villagers in Mai Chau.

So Dave was over the moon when Libby agreed to ride pillion passenger on a 9 day tour through the far north and northeast of Vietnam this time round (what a super wife!).

We had hoped to do the ride alone with a guide but that just didn't work out so we joined a tour that was leaving at around the same time, with 12 riders flying in from Melbourne for the experience. We were a little apprehensive about touring around with such a large group of riders we hadn't met before, but as you'll read below, it turned out to be another magical experience that we will always remember.

The general route was to visit Ba Be lake and Thac Ba Reservoir on the first two days before heading right up against the northern border with China and working our way east through the highlands there before returning to Hanoi, hopefully, in one piece! It would be some of the most difficult riding Dave had ever done but the scenery we saw and people we met were more than enough reward for our effort.

DAY 1: Hanoi - Red River - Vinh Yen - Son Duong - Dang Nga - Cho Chu - Bang Lung - Ba Be Lake, Pac Ngoi Village and Nom Ou Community
The first morning at the office in Hanoi was complete mayhem! We seemed to be short on bikes and top heavy on luggage! Due to delayed delivery of a number of 250cc bikes, Voyage Vietnam had to hire bikes to get us going. Also, as some of the guys from Melbourne were big fellas (120kg+!), the bigger bikes went to them and we ended up with a Yamaha YPF125cc. Not the most exciting bike to ride but it ended up being very reliable and generally comfortable.

As our motley crew of bikes (including a few Russian Minsks whose two stroke 125cc engines can be seen spewing blue smoke all across Vietnam) made the hot and sweaty exit from Hanoi, we first hugged the Red River and then cut across town past the airport to escape the crazy city drivers and riders. The traffic slowly thinned out as the sprawling industrial towns started to give way to rural communities.

After lunch we worked the bikes up through green countryside, greeted at almost every turn by children running out to scream "Hello!" as we rode by, a beautiful phenomenon that would greet us on almost every day of our ride. We were also greeted by what seemed like all of god's creatures who hung out either by or sometimes on the roadside - dogs, cats, chickens, ducks, geese, buffalos - all sharing the road with us and making for some hairy moments as the sun started to fade as we finally reached our homestay on Ba Be Lake after a very long day's riding.

DAY 2: Ba Be Lake - Bung Lung - Yen Thinh - Vinh Loc - Tuyen Quang - Thac Ba Bridge - Vu Linh Community and Ngoi Tu Village for homestay with Dao tribe family
After waking up to the cacophony of cocks crowing across the valley and joining our group on the patio for banana fritters for breakfast, we rode out past the spectacular Ba Be Lake where locals were up early and fishing with nets from longboats, heading onto Bang Lung. What better way to spend a morning than an early ride through wonderful scenery?!?!

From Bang Lung we took a small dirt road which started out as a single sandy lane and soon turned into a track only wide enough for a single wheel which hugged an outcrop beside a river below. This was used by French colonial troops during their occupation of Indochina and often the track passed through small tunnels in the mountainside before reaching a 'bridge' made of three planks of timber which we gingerly crossed.

On the other side of the river, the track was very wet and slippery which one of our group, Graham, found to his detriment when he managed to plunge his bike (luckily, without him going also) over the edge and into the river! Now, remember those big 120kg+ boys? Well Michael and Greg came in handy here as they basically climbed down, lifted the bike back up to the track and got it going again! The single wheel track continued along the river, then became a dirt road again before spitting us out across a suspension bridge to reach the sealed road again, some welcome respite of easy riding after a long morning of offroad.

After lunch it was an easy section onto our homestay by Thac Ba Reservoir, but not for the poor calf we saw hog tied and hanging off the back of a Honda Cub 110cc!

There are a few things guaranteed at a homestay - warm hospitality, good local food and lots of 'happy water' aka homemade rice whisky! Our hosts at Ngoi Tu village made sure that we learned how to say '1-2-3-go!' in Vietnamese as we downed shot glass after shot glass of the warming booze - 'mut-hai-ba-jo!'

DAY 3: Vu Linh -Thac Ba - Yen The, Luc District - Pho Rang - Bac Ha - Long Phinh market - Xin Man
Well today turned out to have absolutely everything from a riding point of view! We started with a very quick but very bumpy run alongside Thac Ba Reservoir (we had a few bucking bronco moments where we were both ejected out of our seats as we dipped through huge potholes!), stopping at Yen The before taking a fast downhill run on a good paved road to reach Pho Rang for lunch where the very drunk locals at the table next to us provided free entertainment.

After lunch, it was a lovely run up through verdant hillsides, we could have been anywhere in western Europe! We stopped in at Bac Ha for a drink where Mike was accosted by some local flower H'mong ladies who were more than happy to hawk their wares to him.

But the last run of the day, between Long Phinh and Xin Man, was some of the toughest and best riding Dave had ever done. You couldn't really describe it as a road, more of a goat track that will one day become a road as works are currently underway. However, with steady rainfall in the days before we arrived, the track had become a muddy mess! But it was not just mud that tried to halt our progress (though there was more than enough of that!), but it was also very slippery clay and loose rocks, deep holes filled with groundwater, huge pine tree branches that the local villagers had cut down and were dragging home along the track and giant loose gravel stones that were yet to be secured as roadbase for when the road finally appears!

As the sun set behind us, we pushed on through all of this to reach the steep, but thankfully, sealed road to Xin Man. It was an incredibly difficult ride through that area but one we are very happy to have done and somehow, managed to stay upright all the way through!

In Xin Man, we had two little surprises we wished we hadn't met. Firstly, there was a grasshopper the size of a kitten waiting on our bed when we checked into our hotel and secondly, the circus was in town which included a few sad shows were a monkey was paraded on a bike and tightrope while his 'trainer' kept the whip at the ready should he make a mistake. It was a sorry end to a great day out.

DAY 4: Xin Man - Vinh Quang - Tan Quang - Ha Giang - Tay Village and Lan Phuong Community
Unfortunately, rain greeted us this morning as we left Xin Man after scooping down some beef pho for breakfast. It was a long and difficult ride through spitting rain and thick mist as we wound along on twisting roads that hugged the valley sides but the scenery was again spectacular and on balance, probably made all the more so by the weather. The steep valleys were full of terraced rice fields, poking through the mist that tried to hide the river below. We made a great stop at a high point to meet and interact with a group of Red Zao tribespeople, especially their beautiful children with their traditional head dress.

We eventually pulled out onto the highway and pushed on to reach Ha Giang city, a large hub with a direct road to the Chinese border. We stayed in a homestay at Tay Village, some 5km out of town and walked around the village to see their stilt homes with ponds full of fish, cucumber crops and as always, women working in the fields.

DAY 5: Tay Village - Tam Son - Yen Minh - Can Ty market - Dong Van - Meo Vac
It was a quick morning ride through Ha Giang and then out of town where we hit more bloody roadworks! By this stage, the tour had started to feel like we were delibrately visiting every section of roadworks in northern Vietnam! But we pushed through before making another long and beautiful climb through lush green mountainside, reaching 'Heaven's Gate' where we had a stunning 360 degree view across the far northern highlands, stopping at Tam Son for a coffee where Libby saw a dentist working on a patient out on the front patio and facing the main street!
On the way out of town, we stopped into a local market near Cay Ty which was full of blue H'mong and Zao tribespeople, mostly in traditional dress. Dave took a quick dip in the river while we waited for a few lost guys from the group to catch up again and then we moved onto Yen Minh for lunch before riding up, up and up again where the green fields slowly gave way to tall pines and volcanic looking rocky outcrops which gave the impression that we had stepped into a prehistoric land! We met some local kids at one high point and gave them some pens and notepads and balloons. One boy lost his balloon over the precipice and promptly run around the barrier and climbed down the rocks to catch it!

DAY 6: Meo Vac - Ban Tong - Na Phong - Bao Lac - Tinh Tuc - Nguyen Binh - Cao Bang
It was chicken pho for breakfast this morning in Meo Vac before a magnificent morning ride out of the valley, passing the Jurassic scenery of black rock formations with tight cropped green between them broken up by huge mushroom shaped piles of corn stalks. Simply stunning! It was another quick dash along the valley floor, lots of twists and bumps, then across the river where we came across another local market, this one near Na Phong, with lots of curious locals gawked at our bikes.

In the afternoon, we had some close calls with some roaming cows and saw a toddler running by the roadside with a baby sibling on his back, one of so many images that will stay with us long after this trip is over! We also passed the 1000km mark for the tour and got a photo of the 'Minsk Club' of Mike, Colin and Dicky who had managed to get their Russian machines to that important milestone in one piece!

DAY 7: Cao Bung - An Lei - Quang Uyen - Trung Khan - Nguom Ngao cave - Ban Gioc waterfall - Quay Son River - Bang Ca - Ha Lang - Quang Uyen
Just another day of fantastic riding, again!

We started out with some good smooth tarmac with lots of fast bends, then passed a cement plant that had blown dust across the nearby fields, giving them a dusting of 'snow'. It was then on through small villages on some more fast and bumpy stuff to reach Nguom Ngao cave, some 900m in length, full of limestone formations and used to be called Tiger Cave when a tiger lived there in the 1920s.

It was a quick run round the corner to reach Ban Gioc waterfall, made up of very pretty cascades but 'NO SWIMMING!' as enforced by the little man with his whistle - with China on the other side of the Quay Son river that the falls form part of, you could understand his apprehension! Not that it stopped us riding a little further down the river for a quick refreshing dip with Mike and Dicky before a Party member came along and told us to get out!

The afternoon ride back from the border to reach our homestay in Quang Uyen was fabulous, beautiful countryside, happy children all out waving and shouting, all against a stunning sunset!

DAY 8: Quang Uyen - Phuc Hoa - Dang Khe - That Khe - Van Mich - Binh Gia - Bac Son - Thai Nguyen
There was more fast twisting sealed road to start the day as we rode out of Quang Uyen to Phuc Hoa but that soon changed as pushed through some more difficult roadworks, again full of tough terrain, giving Michael a flat front tyre and for Brian, unfortunately, a busted knee. He had to take a bus back to Hanoi to get it stitched up so we would catch him again tomorrow when we got back.

We were very happy to see some more sealed road to That Khe for lunch but it was bumps again after that and then a small winding road down the hillside to reach Binh Gia and onto Bac Son where we were supposed to spend the night. But the hotel had no water so we pushed on to Thai Nguyen through polluted industrial towns. It was here we had our last dinner together and had the opportunity to thank our trusty and patient local guide, Tam and our ingenious mechanic, Cong.

DAY 9: Thai Nguyen - Hanoi
It was a quick but absolutely crazy run for the last 76km back to Hanoi. Ridiculous traffic, stupid drivers and riders, we saw the aftermath of at least 4 bike accidents (including one that looked fatal) after having seen no accidents at all in 4 weeks in Vietnam!

At one point, we were forced onto the gravel verge as a car overtook the bus coming towards us, and a minibus overtook the car overtaking the bus so they were three abreast the roadway!

Needless to say, we were overjoyed to make it back to Hanoi in one piece, never having dropped the bike as we covered more than 1600 km in 9 days across all sorts of terrain and through all sorts of hazards!

But more than that, we were thankful to have seen a side of Vietnam that so few tourists get to see and to meet the real tribespeople that inhabit the northern highlands of this beautiful country!

Truly amazing.

Mr and Mrs T xx