A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: niscratz

Namaste from Nepal

View From Ireland to New Zealand (Nov 07-Jun 08) on niscratz's travel map.


Hope you're all keeping well..For those of you that might not know, I'm on my way to New Zealand to hopefully work for a year but I'm taking the slow route thro' Asia. It's been almost a month since I left Ireland and this is the first proper chance I’ve had to catch up…I’ll try to keep it as short as possible ;o)

So, for the story...the flight out was fine – had 6 hours in the middle of the night trying to sleep on the floor of the transit lounge in Delhi airport… Had the most perfectly timed arrival into Kathmandu – Marcus was just about at the top of an hour long queue at the visa counter so I only had to queue for 5 mins!! Marcus is an English friend of mine that I’m traveling with until mid-March. We did a 3 week work camp together in the French Alps in July of 99 and have been good friends ever since. He’s on his way home from 3 years in NZ at the moment.

On Marcus’ flight from Auckland to Kathmandu , he met a kiwi girl called Cushla who was planning on doing the same trek as us and we’ve pretty much been hanging out with her since then.. First off we spent a few days in Kathmandu, getting over jet-lag (we were on opposite clocks – Marcus and Cushla would wake up really early whereas I’d struggle out of bed, but in the evenings I was wide awake and they were falling asleep!), making enquiries about the best way to do the trek (completely independently, with just a porter or guide or using a package where all food and accommodation and everything is provided), buying some bits and pieces of warm clothing at ridiculously cheap prices (it’s all fake North Face etc. stuff here) and doing a little bit of sightseeing around the city. The pace of life there was fairly hectic – the typical hustle and bustle of a developing city. But I loved all the sights, sounds and smells of the place. There was so much colour everywhere, especially in the market places. Traffic was mad with cows being very high on the list of what not to knock down, with pedestrians definitely lower!

After a couple of days there we fled to Pokhara as it’s closer to the beginning of the trek than Kathmandu . It’s also a much nicer place. Everything was a lot more relaxed and chilled out, altho’ we only hung out in the touristy district of Lakeside… Here we organized a porter for the trip (for myself and Marcus – Cushla was carrying her own pack all the way!) thro’ our hotel, we hired a bag for our porter and I hired a brand new goose down sleeping bag for something ridiculous like 50 cents (euro) a day! We also visited the World Peace Pagoda on top of one of the hills overlooking the city and its lake and took a row boat out on the lake for an hour.

On Sunday Nov 11th we set out on the trek around the Annapurna Circuit. It was amazing!! We spent 18 days trekking around the 211km – that included a mandatory acclimatization day in Manang on the way up and a rest day at Tatopani on the way down – Tatopani boasts some amazing hot pools..!! To be honest, I don’t think myself of Marcus had a clue what we were really getting ourselves in for. While most of the trek was just plain trekking – the middle part, where you go over one of the highest passes in the world that people actually use, was very tough – not just physically but mentally too. The pass is at 5416 m. About 4 people died in the area this season alone (Sept-Nov) and 2 of those had died only a week before we went over. We crossed the pass on day 10, and in the 9 days preceding that, at least 6 helicopters went up the valley. Helicopters cost about 1500 USD for a call out so they’re only called out for serious emergencies. And apparently the pilots are putting themselves at risk flying at that altitude too – I have no clue about the dynamics of how helicopters work tho’.

From somewhere between 3000 and 4000 m we could really start to feel the lack of oxygen. Manang’s acclimatization day was 3540 m. We went to a lecture there about altitude sickness given by a Scottish doctor who was volunteering for the season. It was really interesting and really simple too. It reminded me in ways of lectures on decompression sickness – some of the factors that make you more prone to DCS are the same for AMS. Basically you shouldn’t sleep more than 300-400 m above the altitude of your previous nights sleep and you should always sleep lower than the highest altitude you’ve been to during the day. This often meant getting to our destination and then heading off up the side of the nearest hill for a few hundred metres, waiting there for about 30 mins and coming back down again. If you get any symptoms then you stop ascending until they’re gone, if they get worse you descend. People that die are clearly not listening to their bodies and are just too gung ho about getting over the pass – very understandable in one way – who wants to turn back? We passed a good few people between Manang the base of the pass (Thorong Phedi) on their way back – they all looked unwell and down…one couple went by on horse-back – she looked awful! But better to turn back than die! Anyways, as you can imagine the days leading up to the pass were a little bit stressful – everyone is wondering whether their headache is altitude, when will it go away, will they be sick/lose their appetite/suffer insomnia? People definitely get a little paranoid. I started getting headaches when we arrived at Manang. But they’d be gone after a little rest. Both myself and Marcus started taking Diamox (a drug that helps with acclimatization by changing the pH balance in your blood which makes your brain tell you to breathe more quickly, thus giving you more oxygen) the evening before we were due to go over the pass. I think everyone suffered from some insomnia in the days leading up to going over the pass.

Anyways, despite the stresses, going over the pass was amazing!! Such a sense of achievement! I’ve never walked so slowly anywhere before, nor forced myself to breathe so heavily all the way to the top – it was a 1000 m climb from Thorung Phedi (base camp) to the top and a 1600 m climb down the other side to Muktinath. I have to say I wasn’t feeling well at all by the time I got to Muktineth! In fact, if you don’t like vomiting stories, then skip on to the next paragraph now!!! But this is a funny one worth telling.. So I wasn’t feeling great – had a splitting headache and then my tummy started to feel not so hot..didn’t feel like eating anything. I’ve no idea what was wrong – it couldn’t have been altitude sickness cos we’d just descended 1.6 km, but I guess maybe it was the exertion of it all in the sun and snow and all the rest. Anyways, when Marcus and Cushla went for dinner I asked Marcus to get me a bucket cos the bathroom was pretty disgusting and too far away considering I’d have had to put my shoes on first too…so he got me a “bucket”, only it was actually a wicker basket type bin…so when I did eventually get quite horribly sick, the liquid part all leaked out over the floor…and not only that, but in no time someone was running up the stairs shouting wondering where the “water” that was dripping into the room below was coming from – the room below happened to be the dining room and there was a table full of Japanese people sat under my room having soup!!! They weren’t v impressed with having stuff dripping down around them when eating needless to say – but I felt so much better after getting sick that I thought it was hilarious!! The guy in charge was livid…and an asshole too! We’d quite a fight with him the following morning as he tried to charge us for it – but sure I couldn’t help being sick or not making it to the bathroom or that he had crap leaky floors!! We didn’t pay him anything extra – if he’d been a nice guy I would have.

So..hmm..this is getting pretty long!! Food along the way was great. Generally accommodation was good too, altho’ a bit draughty at times – we’d be wearing lots of layers to bed at night and would be down to t-shirt and shorts in the heat of the sun during the day. Bathroom facilities were better on the other side of the pass than on the way up – mostly just squatting toilets and a bucket of hot water as a shower on the way up – altho’ solar heated showers were available too – they’d never be more than lukewarm tho’ if you were lucky. The other side is better equipped as it’s a trek in its own right called the Jomosom trek, so it gets a lot more trekkers and has western toilets and gas heated showers. I couldn’t tell you which side I preferred trekking on – it was all great except for a part of the Jomosom trek where they’ve got a road and the trek follows the road – not very nice for walking on..

Oh yeah, we met Maoists 3 times too!! The first time they wanted to charge us 100 Nepalese rupees per day that we’d be on the trek. This was way more than we’d heard they’d charge (90 rupees is about 1 euro) and we’d already paid 2000 rupees for the official government pass, so we really didn’t want to pay these guys any “voluntary” contribution! So we told them we’d pay later at another checkpoint. The second time we saw them was on the other side of the pass, but they were busy with other trekkers so we just walked by. Unfortunately on the last day we met them and couldn’t get by without a receipt proving we’d already paid. So we pretended we’d flown into Jomosom and spent 4 days trekking and only paid them 400 rupees. We also pretended not to speak English and told Ganga (our porter) to pretend he couldn’t communicate with us either. This sort of thing worked especially well for trekkers who didn’t have a porter or guide that the Maoists could communicate with. One couple of Israelis we met left their porter miles behind and pretended to be deaf and dumb and walked by (that was at the first checkpoint), a couple of Aussies also had a funny story of their meeting, but it’s way to long to go into here and wouldn’t have the same effect anyways!

We met a great group of people on the trek. We were kind of hanging out with them on the way up, but over the other side, where everyone was way more chilled out and relaxed, we made sure to stay in the same accommodation each night and we did a fair bit of trekking together during the days too. In fact, we had enough people in our group that when we arrived at Kalapani (that would have been day 14 of 18) two of the German guys we were with (Michael and Karl), on seeing some of the locals kick around a football, challenged them to a match the following morning!!! So, at 2500 m, we played a 2 hour game of football (which we won 5-2 despite the difficulties running at that altitude!) against the Kalapani villagers – it was great craic!! The pitch had tyre ruts running thro’ it which often made the ball bounce in very unexpected directions. I think it was our height and longer legs that partly helped us win, although we had some pretty decent players on our team too!! At Marpha (day 13) we were lucky enough to be around for a Buddhist ceremony in honour of some Japanese people…not really sure why, something to do with a twinning between towns.. Anyways it was really interesting too. Generally speaking, the way down was just way more relaxed than the way up. We also took a rest day on the way down at Tatopani cos there were some hot springs there – way to tempting to leave behind! Also, our hotel in Tatopani was a really nice one and the village was lovely too..

Some videos of the football:http://youtu.be/aEQM8Q27az0, http://youtu.be/t07maxQAjow

Now we’ve been in Pokhara for 4 days. Originally we were going to leave after 2 and go rafting down the Seti river to Chitwan National Park with Perry and Jeanette (2 of our trekking team). But then Marcus got sick and so did Cushla, so that fell thro’. Perry and Jeanette tried to organize a second rafting trip for themselves leaving this morning, but that fell thro’ last night – rafting season is pretty much over apparently as the rivers are drying up…so I think we’ll skip that one! Cushla, Perry and Jeanette all left this morning by bus for Chitwan NP so this morning was the first morning that it was just myself and Marcus at breakfast since the beginning of the trip. He’s feeling a lot better now so we’re going to take the bus to Chitwan tomorrow morning and meet the others there. It’s a national park that has tigers, one-horned rhinos, elephants, two types of croc, a river dolphin and some other stuff…but I doubt the chances of seeing a tiger are v high – altho’ I’d love that!! We can do the safaris by elephant, dug-out canoe, walking (!!) with a guide and by 4WD…not sure what we’ll do yet.. From there we’re going to head to Limbini, the birthplace of Buddha. It’s close to the border with India so we’ll cross there and head to Varanasi – can’t wait for that!! I reckon it’s going to be pretty mad!! We’re going to follow the railway (Marcus isn’t too fond of buses) from there to Delhi stopping along the way at places that seem interesting, including Agra for the Taj Mahal.

Anyways, I know this is probably one of the longest emails I’ve ever written – well done if you’re still reading now!! But I doubt I’ll get another decent chance until Hanoi at the end of Dec…so enjoy this!!

Oh yeah, one final thing – did you know Nepal has a different calendar to us? In Nepal time we’re in the year 2064, in their 7th month and I’m not sure what day of the month is is…somewhere in the middle tho’!! Also we’re 4 ¾ hrs ahead of GMT and when we cross the border to India we’ll be 4 ½ hrs ahead! If we crossed the other border to Tibet we’d be 8 hrs ahead – bloody Chinese having just one time zone for their entire country that suits those on the coast best!

Take care all of you and I'll be in touch again sometime,


Posted by niscratz 08:48 Archived in Nepal Comments (0)

Seasons Greetings and all that lark

View From Ireland to New Zealand (Nov 07-Jun 08) on niscratz's travel map.

Well helloo all,

Hope you’re all keeping well and that ye’d a lovely Christmas time wherever and however ye spent it.. I feel like I’ve done and seen so much in the last month that I don’t even know where to begin telling ye about it.. But before I do, I meant to let ye know last time that I left my mobile phone behind me in Ireland – it was as old as the ark anyways! So if ye’ve been trying to contact me or anything that way, well, it would have been a bit of a waste of time.. I’ll get a new one when I get to New Zealand and send ye on the number then. Also, I recently signed up to Skype – so if any of ye are on it feel free to add me as a contact – my username is niscratz (of course!). And one other thing...for some odd reason, email addresses disappeared from my email account before I sent the last mail...it was alphabetically related...people who's names began with A and B..? Anyways, I think I've sorted it now, only I just realised Ben's name was also missing...so I've made a guess at it this time...Anne - could you forward it to him please - I'll get it next time.. So, sorry if you missed out on the last installment...altho' maybe you're happy about that?! Also, neither Collette's nor John and Marie's addresses work - at least the ones I have.. If anyone thinks they'd really like to read this stuff then send me on another email address for them please :o)

Right so, last time I was in touch myself and Marcus were in Nepal planning on rafting from Pokhara to Chitwan National Park with Cushla, Jeanette and Perry. Well, both Marcus and Cushla got sick, so the rafting fell thro’ and we all ended up going to Chitwan by bus instead – not half as exciting but probably alot warmer for that time of year! Myself and Marcus arrived a day later than the other 3 as we were waiting til Marcus was completely better.. The 5 of us stayed at the same place in Sauraha – a lovely little village on the edge of the park. Basing oneself there is way cheaper than being based in the park and all the same safari activities can be arranged.

The first morning myself and Marcus joined the other 3 on a jeep safari around the 20,000 lakes area which is in the buffer zone around the park. To be honest, while we had a laugh together, it wasn’t exactly amazing safari-ing by a long shot.. Lots of birds, some deer and monkeys, but that was about the size of it.. Both Perry and Cushla left after that – they had less time than the rest of us and had to motor on.. Myself and Marcus decided, on speaking to a really sound guide called Dipak, to do a two and a half day walk thro’ the jungle!!! At first I thought we were mad given how potentially dangerous some of the animals there are (tigers, rhinos, and sloth bears being the ones you’d least like to meet up close!), but it turned out to be a really lovely way of doing a safari. We also managed to twist Jeanette’s rubber arm and she joined us for the few days..

Trying to remember it...it’s difficult...we didn’t see any tigers (phew!) but did see some tiger tracks and, apparently, smelt some tiger scent...well, our two guides did, but all we could smell anytime they stuck the end of a stick with a bit of earth and the scent of an animal on it up towards our noses was the earth! On the first afternoon our Dipak gave us a whistle (the sign to pay attention) and pointed ahead of us (there was a bend in the track – we couldn’t see what was ahead) and started to run quietly... It turned out we were all running after a sloth bear, which fortunately was running away from us, very quickly – I’m glad he didn’t decide to chase us or anything – we wouldn’t have had a chance!! I really did get a sense of going against my natural instincts chasing a bear...We also had a close encounter with a rhino – and you really wouldn’t want to get chased by one of them – they’d trample you to death no hassle! That was a scarey one as we couldn’t see the rhino properly, we just heard a sudden noise that sounded like it was coming towards us and we all did exactly what we were told not to do...started to run away!! But the noise stopped so so did we..

We took breaks for food and siestas in high look out towers. Sometimes we’d just sit down in the middle of the track and listen for sounds of animals..or meditate..Dipak was quite a spiritual guy...really interesting to talk to – both of the guides were. They knew so much about the jungle and the animals in it. The huge benefit of walking around was how relatively quiet we were compared with jeeps. But had we come face to face with a tiger (and it has happened...altho’ it’s not very common at all – cats are nocturnal afterall) I’d certainly have been wishing for a jeep!

Anyways, we spent more time at Chitwan than we’d originally intended as I wasn’t feeling too well for a day or so before the walk so we spent our time chilling out by the river. It was quite tropical in alot of ways and very relaxing.. One morning Marcus and Jeanette took part in the elephant bathing along the river. There are lots of elephants at Chitwan – I don’t think there are any wild ones left in the park. The elephants are used to take people into the park. I’m not sure that elephants need to be bathed everyday – but it’s a way for someone to make money. I couldn’t join in the elephant bathing experience...watching one American tourist “yee-hawing” on one of the elephants like it was some sort of toy just turned me off.. It reminded me a little of animals being made do tricks in a circus. Marcus and Jeanette really enjoyed the experience all the same and I guess there aren’t many places in the world you can have an experience like that..

After Chitwan Jeanette headed back to Kathmandu and myself and Marcus headed off on our own...until this point we were able to count on one hand the number of dinners we’d had just the 2 of us in the 5 or so weeks we’d been travelling... We headed for Lumbini, the birthplace of Buddha – or so they say – I guess they’re right?! It’s a small place near the Indian border and there’s not much to see there really. There was the Maya Devi Temple where the birth actually took place. And there’s the Lumbini Development Zone where there are lots of temples built and being built by Buddhists from around the world. We visited the Maya Devi Temple on the evening we arrived there and the LDZ the following morning by bike. That was it really – we left after that – headed for India ..

On the way to the Indian border we had a 6 km journey on the roof of a jeep – sooo exciting!! I was dying to travel on top of a bus/jeep/anything!! It was a bit scarey tho’ – not much to hold onto properly – well a roof-rack thing, but not much else...and they drive way too fast over there and do really risky overtaking.. We got there in one piece fortunately and walked across the border to India ...

Some pics from Nepal: http://www.flickr.com/photos/niscratz/sets/72157626474766800/

India, I really don’t know where to begin here...there’s so much to tell and yet I’d never paint a real picture – you’d need video with smells and still you wouldn’t really appreciate it without going there. There are so many people, so many of them just stare at you. Fortunately I didn’t experience anything other than staring! Gone was the organisation of Nepal – what time would the bus go from the border to Gorakpur (a stopover for a night)? When it was full? What sort of time was that?!?!! We spent 2 hours moving from a bus to a jeep and then to another bus before we finally left the border! That was half the amount of time spent there by 2 French guys we met – they were not very happy at all!! And at one point, it was dark at this stage, our bus decided to go off the main road onto some back road and it came off the road a little – all the locals got off and started walking!! Fortunately it got itself back on the road and we made it safely the rest of the way to Gorakpur. We only took the one bus in India – every other time we took the train. But that wasn’t much better. Not one of the trains (now we only took 3 so it’s hardly enough to judge!) that we took left on time. One hour late was good, but they were as late as 3 hours! So basically, India isn’t that easy to travel around. It’s takes time. You need alot of patience and a good book! People are forever bugging you about something – begging for food/money, offering you “special price” autorickshaws/taxis/whatever, offering you whatever they had for sale. At the beginning I’d quite politely say no – but pretty quickly I learned to ignore completely, because despite being ignored, some of them would follow you and call out sir or madam or whatever up to 30 times before they’d walk away – we counted!! I think Marcus found it more difficult than I did – I’m not sure he’d rush back to India . But altho’ I found it annoying sometimes, other times it made me laugh – that’s really the only way to deal with it. The other thing about India is it’s so filthy – dirty hands, fingernails and clothes every single day – it was impossible to stay clean.

Anyways, our first major stop in India was Varanasi . This was an amazing city. It’s built on the river Ganges which is a very sacred river for Hindus. Hindus bathe in the river water and wash their clothes in it – it’s very dirty water – I wouldn’t even put a finger in! We stayed in a hotel in the old town along the ghats which are the steps leading down to the river. There was so much to be seen from the hotel balcony never mind from just walking along the riverside. Pretty much all but 2 of the ghats are for bathing. The other 2 are the burning ghats for cremations. Those are amazing. There are bodies burning from morning til night and one of them is a 24 hour one! People from all over the city bring their dead here to burn them and then put their ashes into the river. What type of wood you use to burn the body depends on what you can afford – there’s a certain weight necessary to burn a body completely. Richer people can choose more expensive wood but poorer people have to make do with cheaper ones – I’m not sure what the difference between them in terms of the actual burning is.. But you see all these guys weighing huge logs on massive scales. Male bodies are covered in white cloth and female in orange. Male relatives shave their head – or maybe it was just the male head of the family – there’s really so much to it all and I didn’t get to find out all of it much less remember all of what I found out. Then that male wears white for a certain amount of mourning time. It’s all such an amazing thing to watch – all the comings and goings around that ghat – which was very close to out hotel. Naturally no-one is allowed to take photos around the burning ghats, so you’ll all just have to visit Varanasi yourselves if you want to see what it’s like.

We went on a walking tour of the old city – lots of Hindu stuff. Again it’s all really amazing. I learned so much about the faith. The one problem with the older part of the city and the ghats area is the shit – literally – everywhere. Every living thing, from rats to humans, used the streets wherever they need to as a toilet – ok, maybe not adult humans, but men do take a leak wherever and whenever they feel like it.. I wouldn’t wear sandals in Varanasi because I was afraid of what I’d step in – I didn’t want to spend my days watching where I placed my feet!

For our last night in Varanasi we moved to a slightly posher hotel away from the ghats area with a swimming pool, jacuzzi, steam room and massage service... Of course, I only ended up taking advantage of a massage. It was a little chilly for the pool and the jacuzzi wasn’t heated (!!) and the steam room was smaller than the sauna on the Celtic Explorer!! Marcus was happy enough tho’ cos we had a tv in our room and he found the premiership! So anyways, I went for a full body massage the morning before we left... Now I’ve had full body massages before, so I had a notion of what to expect... But nothing is as you expect it in India . The masseuse says to me “all the clothes off” and the modest western in me looks around for the screen or towel that I was going to change behind...or at least wasn’t she going to leave the room? But no, I end up starkers in the room with her and a full body massage there is just that – butt, boobs, belly and all!! Nothing sexual at all I should add – stories do abound about massages that turn quickly into more than you bargained for..this place was reputable, it just wasn’t exactly what I expected! Anyways, that was Varanasi ...

We took the night train to Agra from Varanasi ...another experience where stories of robbery are two a penny. So when we booked our ticket one day in advance we asked for the top class of the 4 available berths – we’d decided we’d settle for the second class, but alas it was all booked for a few days ahead, so we went in the third available class – not the worst, but certainly not the best. There was a pretty even mix of Indians and Westerners in our carriage. Bags were padlocked and chained to as close to us as possible. My camera was going inside my sleeping bag liner and my memory cards were going in my bumbag thing – I wasn’t taking any risks.. Fortunately all our stuff was intact in the morning. Marcus did have his wallet and cards nicked when we first got on the train unfortunately.

Agra was amazing – home of the Taj Mahal and also only a day trip from Fatehpur Sikri. So it was a couple of days of admiring and photographing Mughal (Persian) architecture. Both were incredible. We also visited Agra fort, but after the stuff at Fatehpur Sikri, it was a little lacking. We visited the Taj Mahal at sunrise. It’s probably the most expensive touristy thing we’ve done so far in terms of how long you spend at it, but well worth it. Don’t think we did anything else at Agra – we only spent 2 nights there. Then we headed on to Dehli. We definitely didn’t do much in Dehli apart from shop! It’s a great place for bargains and bargaining! By the time we got to Dehli I was well used to bargaining for everything. I got myself a lovely pair of pants down from 850 rupees to 300!! Walking away works best! Absolutely everying in India is bargainable..almost! Both of us sent home big packages from Delhi – my bag felt so light leaving. We went to a Bollywood film in Delhi – we didn’t understand a word, but it was a chick flick so it wsa easy to follow!! There was an interval in the middle – Marcus left at that point but I stayed til the bitter end...well, I really wanted to see what happened even tho’ it was quite predictable!!

I did spend one afternoon touring around some of the sites in Delhi – Marcus needed to be close to a toilet that day so stayed put in the hotel. I went to the Red Fort first, but the queue was way too long. I stood in it for 5 minutes and then discovered that it was the queue for those who’d already bought tickets – well, there was no way I was leaving and re-joining at the end so I just took a photo of the gates and left! Anyways, I reckon it was going to be more Mughal architecture and it wouldn’t have lived up to Fatehpur. So I wandered along Chandni Chowk – the markety area in old Delhi . I had to give into a craving I’d had for a few days for McDonalds chips – but I had the most delicious McAloo Tikka burger with them!! Veggie potato thing...they should get that at home – they’d sell loads..mmmm! I wandered into a Gurudwara as I’d seen the name in places but had no idea what it was – at least, I knew it was aplace of worship but I’d no idea for what religion. Anyways, there I learned a bit about Sikhs – those are the guys who wear the turbans. I also went to India Gate – an Arc de Triomphe look-alike for all the world, dedicated to all Indians who died in the wars.

India was amazing – I’d go back in a flash. We only saw the 3 most touristy cities, so in terms of annoying touts etc, we really must have experienced the worst the country has. The food is to die for and if you can find the genuine people out of the lot that are trying to rip you off and chat to them they’re really interesting. It definitely ranks as probably the hardest country I’ve travelled in, but well worth it..

Some pics from India: http://www.flickr.com/photos/niscratz/sets/72157626357064657/

We flew from India to Ha Noi in north Vietnam arriving on Dec 22nd. So far Vietnam is a breeze compared with India . Touts go away after one “no”! No-one is staring anymore, at least if they do and you catch them they look away.. Hanoi is lovely. Really nice old quarter. Very cheap Bia Hoi (beer – you’d get over 10 glasses for a euro!) on the street corners, some very nice people too. We spent a couple of days there just wandering. We went to see the water puppetry on Christmas Eve – it was really cool, well worth seeing. On Christmas morning we headed out to Ha Long Bay on a 3 day tour of the area. First night was spent on the boat and second night on Cat Ba island. It was lovely doing an organised tour as it was the first time we’d met up with a group of people in ages. And we got on really well – got quite drunk in a karaoke bar on Stephan’s night, in true Irish tradition! Marcus even ended up singing!!!

Back in Ha Noi I spent a day sorting out crap stuff – on Christmas Eve I’d left my camera in an internet cafe and it was 3 hours later before I noticed!! Needless to say it was gone and I was gutted! Especially as I may have lost all my India photos – well, most of them!! I had put some on the usb part of my mp3 player, but now it turns out the computer I was using had a virus that is now affecting the usb part of the mp3 player...so I can’t get at those photos and I’m not sure if I’ll ever be able to recover them. A guy in a techie shop being the recovery process but it’s going to take a while and I didn’t have long enough...he reckons it will work – who knows?! Anyways, apart fromtrying to recover those files, I had to get a police report for my insurance company – that was hard work I can tell you. Not one of the policemen spoke English. They wouldn’t even look me in the eye. They were sooo rude!! If it weren’t for these 2 ladies at the station I’d never have gotten it. They were the ones who ended up signing the form for me – yer man the head guy wouldn’t even do that when he was handed the filled out form and a pen!! And then, when I was thanking both ladies and shaking their hands onw of the men had the cheek to insinuate that I should be shaking their hands too?!?? For what?!? They did nothing for me – nothing at all!! Anyways, now I have a Vietnamese police report to add to our collection. Marcus lost his mp3 player in Nepal and, as I already said, his wallet in India ... I hope we don’t have to visit any more police stations...mind you I guess that’s another part of experiencing a country.. I also bought myself a new camera yesterday – yay :o) And for all you canon-philes out there, you’ll be delighted to hear I’ve left the “dark” olympus side behind and joined you..

So, that’s the end of another way-too-long update...maybe I should do them more regularly? We left Ha Noi this morning and are in Nimh Binh now, about 90 km southwest of Hanoi . We’re on our way south. We’re on day 7 of a 30 day visa here. It’s quite overcast here – not the best time of year – looking forward to hitting about half way down the country where we’ll see the sun :o) Happy new year to ye all...hope ye have a great one.

Take care,

Aoife xxx

Posted by niscratz 02:09 Archived in India Comments (0)

Tales from the land of conical hats

Well, it seems like ages since I last emailed. We’ve made it thro’ Vietnam , spent 3 weeks in Cambodia and have just arrived in Laos ...but that’s way too much for one email so I’ll stick with Vietnam ... By the way, meant to say last time, I really love hearing from all of ye, so thanks to all of you who’ve had the time to reply...I haven’t been particularly great at replying back tho’ and I’m sorry for that…I will get around to it at some point...still keep the comments and gossip coming :o) Oh, also for anyone who may be interested, I changed my flights so instead of arriving in NZ in mid-April, I'll get there in early June...YAY :)

So last time I emailed we were in a place called Ninh Binh where we hired bicycles and spent a day cycling out to Tam Coc and around that general area...kind of like Ha Long Bay but inland...there were the same limestone formations, some pagodas and temples...not very exciting, prob the nicest thing was the cycling: trying not to get lost in the country lanes with the crap maps we had and trying not to get killed as we cycled along the edge of highway 1 – the main north-south road in Vietnam...also seeing rural life from a bicycle is way nicer than a bus or car..

We moved south to Hue (it was still cloudy all the time but not cold) which was an ok city, not particularly picturesque, but has some great stuff around it to see. We did a boat tour on the Perfume River (flows thro’ the city) and saw a pagoda, a temple and some mausoleums of leaders from imperial Vietnam (the Chinese had control of Vietnam before the French turned it into a colony, which was before the American war...I always thought there was just the one “Vietnam” war, but apparently there were 2: the French one and the American one about 2 years after the end of the French one...this American one is the “famous” one about which all the films are made..), they were pretty cool.. Unfortunately it actually rained that day so that put a dampner on the days proceedings quite literally. Some of the other tourists actually wouldn’t get off the boat for the day – what a waste! As if the rain would melt athem!!

Before I go on, one may think that we’re kind of tour freaks...always going on organised tours – in fact we avoid them whenever possible, but in Vietnam it’s not very possible at all... Everything is organised for tourists and trying to do stuff yourself costs way more and takes way more time...so we had to succumb to doing tours...I guess the upside is that you get to meet other people which I love to do :o)

So the next tour we did from Hue was a tour of the DMZ – the demilitarised zone around the Ben Hai River which served as the border between north and south Vietnam during the American war. The DMZ stretches for 5 km north and south of the river and we visited some famous places in the area. Of course, not being a big fan of war movies nor a big history buff, alot of this area would have meant nothing to me had it not been for our guide that day. Guides in Vietnam vary in their quality depending on the level of their spoken English – most can no doubt write English but their accents can leave alot to be desired...it was known for both of Marcus and myself to turn off fairly quickly to guides because they were so difficult to understand, but fortunately not on our DMZ tour. So, we visited the Vinh Moc tunnels which were dug to house north Vietnamese civilians during bombing raids by the Americans. There were lots of tunnel systems dug thro’ out the country, but these and the Cu Chi tunnels near Ho Chi Minh city are prob the most famous.. And these are different as most tunnels were apparently dug for soldiers and not civilians...anyways, we got to walk thro’ the tunnels and see how narrow and small they are and how claustrophobic they could be – villages spent days on end in them...babies were even born in them! We also drove along the east-west running highway 9 stopping by the Rockpile and the Khe Sanh base which has now been turned into a museum...a little bit biased in favour of the north Vietnamese (they were the communists that won and are still now in control – the Americans were fighting on the side of the south Vietnamese). We also saw part of the infamous Ho Chi Minh Trail which has now been turned into a highway... This was the route along which the north Vietnamese got supplies and weapons and stuff down to the Viet Cong (the southern Vietnamese who supported the north) in the south...Anyways, the tour to the DMZ was a very educational experience in terms of the war – I’ve developed more of an interest in the history of the country now – at least the recent history!

The only other thing we did in Hue was to hire bicycles (again) and cycle around the Citadel – a legacy of the Imperial days – the Forbidden Purple City is a smaller area inside the Citadel and reminds me alot of the Forbidden City in Beijing...not surprisingly.. We also had massages in Hue ...a little more “western” than the one I had in India – altho’ the masseuse was so tiny that she was up on the table with me!!

After Hue we headed south to Hoi An. This was probably my favourite town in Vietnam of those that we visited. It’s really bright, colourful and lively. The place is over-run with tailors who’ll whip up anything you may need (including shoes!) in record time – like about 24 hours!! I got myself a lovely warm woolen winter coat... Would love to have gotten more stuff made – it was class: you could choose whatever design you wanted and whatever material...dangerous really considering how cheap it all was...but thankfully I’m not the biggest shopper going or my budget would have suffered! While we were in Hoi An we did a day tour to the Cham ruins at My Son – apparently one of the holiest of Cham sites...The Kingdom of Champa was an Indianised kingdom that ruled over parts of what are now central and southern Vietnam for over 1400 years...but they were always fighting with the Vietnamese in the north and the Khmers (most Cambodians are Khmer) in the south...I guess somewhere along the way they lost to the Vietnamese. Anyways, the ruins were nice but nothing spectacular...in my opinion anyways! On our last day in Hoi An the sun came out, so we rented bicycles again and cycled to Cua Dai Beach for some swimming and chilling out...

After Hoi An we stopped at Nha Trang. We ended up travelling by night bus alot in Vietnam , altho’ we had intended on going by train – Marcus prefers trains as he’s not the best of travellers.. Nha Trang had lots of potential – the sun was shining properly for the first time since we’d arrived in Vietnam , there was miles of golden sandy beaches and there were dive centres all around the place. But my first day there was probably the worst day I’ve had so far... Myself and Marcus were each doing our own thing that day, as we often do when not on an organised tour.. My thing brought me to a quieter end of the beach and while I was sitting on a bench above the beach reading a book while I waited for my feet to dry, these 2 people on a motorbike came up behind me and pinched my day pack from where it was sitting on the bench beside me (there was no back to the bench). As I heard the sound of the moto getting closer to me than it should have done (there was a relatively busy road not 10 m behind me), I turned around and saw the whole thing happening in slow motion. I started to run after them (they’d slowed down a bit to get the bag and those things don’t have the fastest acceleration esp. as they weren’t actually on the road at that point) but as I didn’t have my sandals on, I tripped over something and went flying (screaming at them if I recall correctly) and lay on the ground watching my bag disappear knowing I’d never get it back...It was a sickening feeling of utter helplessness. And what was in my bag?! Well, only the brand new camera I’d gotten in Ha Noi (complete with another almost full memory card!), my MP3 player (with our last chance of saving our India photos on it), my glasses, my journal (not that I’m a big journal keeper, but there were some email addresses and stuff like that in it), my diving logbook (with everything in it and nothing photocopied! and I’d only had with me that particular day in order to sort out some diving!! Usually it stays “safe” in the hotel room) and some other bits and pieces that weren’t a big deal but annoying to lose anyways...even my sandals had been attached to the bag to save me carrying them along the beach!!! So there was I, standing on the side of a road cut and bruised and in my barefeet with only some elderly people around me who spoke no English and didn’t know what was going on... Fortunately a local doctor who spoke good English came over to see what was going on and took me to a police station and stayed til he knew the police man was going to help me – myself and the policeman couldn’t communicate at all – the best he could do after the doctor had gone was offer me a cigarette – and I was so upset and angry that I almost took it!! Anyways, the rest of that day was spent between our hostel (the owner was acting as in interpreter) and the police station getting another report filled out. And then in a photocopying place to make copies of all my travel documents (the originals were in the bag but I had copies in my rucksack). Fortunately my passport and credit card and money was in my bumbag... So all in all, it was a pretty crap day. There were alot of tears followed by alot of beers and the following day I was feeling alot better about it – I think I had very quickly realised that, while it’s really frustrating (to put it mildly) to have that stuff stolen, none of it really matters...passport, money and health are the most important things – everything else can be relatively easily replaced. I hadn’t swum while on the beach cos I knew the bag was full of stuff that I didn’t want stolen and so I was going back to the hostel in a roundabout way to dump stuff when it happened!

Of course I’ve since heard a few horror stories that put everything into perspective – like about a French girl travelling on the back of a moto in Cambodia who had her day pack on her lap but attached to her – when someone pinched her bag, they knocked her off the moto and she was killed! And I heard of one girl whose stuff was nabbed in Vietnam and included a video camera. She was at some market after the robbery and saw her video camera for sale!!! She (a mistake in my opinion) told the guy it was hers and he tried to get twice what she had originally paid for it from her – it still had whatever she had recorded in it...she had to leave it go... Anyways, once again I learned the hard way and I’ve been trying ever since not to become a cynical person expecting everyone to be checking me out to rob me...I don’t like the sound of any vehicle slowing down behind me tho’!

So Nha Trang doesn’t exactly hold very dear memories for me! And apparently, we’re proving to be somewhat of an amusement for the work mates of one of Marcus’ friends in England, who evidently checks her emails at work and now her workmates try to keep abreast of all the awful bad luck that we have – they say they’ve never heard of anyone traveling that has had the same amount of bad luck as us!! Marcus wouldn’t leave my side the following day! We just chilled out at the beach. I also squeezed in a visit to the Oceanographic centre there as it had been recommended to me by Robin (my PhD supervisor)... I never ended up diving cos the visibility was not up to much. I did get some help from a guy who owns one of the dive centres tho’ in terms of printing off my one and only PADI dive qualification from the internet...thank God for that qualification – without it I’d wouldn’t have any way to prove I’m a qualified diver and would prob have had to do an open water course or something (Imagine that!?) !!

So after Nha Trang we headed on to Ho Chi Minh city ( Saigon ) for a few days. We didn’t do much there to be honest – wandered around a bit. I bought another new camera!! Unfortunately camera prices there were closer to those at home so I had to downgrade from the previous one – my budget just didn’t include replacing cameras every 3 weeks or so!! It’s quite sickening really – I spent the average annual Vietnamese wage on cameras while I was there – no wonder they think westerners are so rich..relatively speaking we are! Oh, we did visit the war remnants museum in HCMC which was great – a must for anyone visiting the city. It’s got a great exhibition of photos taken by war journalists from both sides...very moving altogether. We also had our last Bia Hoi in HCMC..

From HCMC we joined a 3 day tour of the Mekong Delta that took us right over the border to Phnom Penh , the capital of Cambodia . But in the middle of the tour we side-tracked off to Phu Quoc Island (the easiest way to get there is to fly, but we didn’t book on time and there were no flights left for when we wanted to go..).

The first part of the tour of the Mekong Delta was great, mostly because there was a great bunch of people in our group.. We all got on well. We spent a lot of time on boats visiting the floating market at Can Tho, going thro’ the little canals in the delta area and visiting a coconut candy making place, a paper noodle making place, a rice factory place…all interesting to see…

Floating market video:http://youtu.be/MzsngM0E8vI
Noodle making video:http://youtu.be/WceEoyKXIc8

Phu Quoc Island was AMAZING!! I loved it…my first tropical island experience. It was relatively quiet as the only way to get there is to fly from Saigon or to bus and boat it – which we did and which is a bit painful, but totally worth it! Apparently flights are expected in the future from Singapore and Bangkok so that’ll kill the quietness of the place.. Anyways, we found some cheap accommodation and spent our time chilling out in hammocks on the beach, taking a dip to cool off. Evenings were spent eating yummy seafood (bbq shark…mmmm…) and drinking beer by the edge of the sea. We’d met a lovely Australian girl called Phoebe when we arrived – she’d been on our boat, and we ended up in the same accommodation as her so we hung out with her the whole time pretty much. One day we went out on a snorkelling trip off the southern tip of the island – pretty cool coral reefs there (bearing in mind these are the first tropical corals I’ve seen!) and I went diving another day off the north eastern corner of the island – that was pretty cool too. I didn’t end up doing the night time squid fishing that they have there, altho’ if I’d had another night I would have done…I’m hoping to find that somewhere else along the coast of the gulf of Thailand…could be fun?!

After 4 days on the island we had to return to Can Tho to meet up with the second half of another Mekong Delta tour…it was touch or go when we got there as to whether or not there was room for us on the tour, despite our having booked it ages in advance, but we were crammed onto the bus in spite of the protestations of the driver! The second half wasn’t as good, prob not because of what we did or didn’t see, but the people on the first half had made all the difference.. We visited a crocodile farm (yawn) and a pagoda (would it be really rude if I said double yawn?! – after a point tourist sites get a little tiresome and what makes traveling is the traveling itself and watching the life of the locals, chatting with them when lucky enough to be able to do so) and on the final morning, a fish farm on the Mekong and a local village of a minority Cham group. We continued up the Mekong by boat to the Cambodian border and after sorting visas etc, continued a bit of the way towards Phnom Penh by boat and the last bit by bus…It was a lot of boat travel, and it was fairly pleasant once you weren’t stuck on the sunny side of the boat… People on both side of the border waved to us as we went by…kids especially. It was a lovely way to see life along the banks of the river.

So that was Vietnam . I enjoyed it. We spent the entire 30 days of my visa there – probably not the best idea to be leaving a country with no spare visa days if there’s a problem at the border, but fortunately we had no problems. I visited everywhere I wanted to visit apart from Sa Pa in the north and Dalat which is inland down south – but there’s never time for everything. So far (including Cambodia ) Vietnam was my least favourite country, or rather, would be bottom on my list for a return visit if the chance arose…I’m not sure why, Vietnamese people just aren’t as friendly as others we’ve met since… But it was great to visit.

Some pics from Vietnam: http://www.flickr.com/photos/niscratz/sets/72157626405985215/

So, that's all for now, hope all's well and will be in touch again when I get time :o)

Take care,

Love Aoife xx

Posted by niscratz 02:55 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Stories from Cambodia

Well hello again all...been ages again since I last managed to get an email together...seems I'm just having too much of a good time to be spending ages in internet cafes...but have just spent the last 2 days in hospital here in Koh Tao cos of food poisoning, so with little energy for anything else but sitting down in front of a fan and a computer, this is as good a chance as any to update ye... Hope ye're all keeping well and had great Paddy's Days and Easters...can't believe that's all over already! Anyways, here goes...

We arrived in Phnom Penh , the capital of Cambodia , on January 21st at the end of our tour of the Mekong Delta. The first thing I noticed on the drive thro’ the countryside to the city was how much poorer rural Cambodians seemed to be than rural Vietnamese: lots of the younger children in the villages along the roadside were running around with very few if any clothes on…But my first day wandering around the city of Phnom Penh told quite a different story – not since leaving Ireland had I seen so many massive SUV type cars and other fancy expensive cars (never been good at makes, but could prob tell you all about the colours!): the effects of corruption staring me straight in the face… Needless to say jail walking, which is the only way to cross roads in Vietnamese cities where motos will drive around you, was out of the question here…way too many fast cars…traffic lights were a welcome sight!

We spent a few days in the city checking out the sights and being particularly careful with our valuables as we’d heard stories about how dangerous a city it could be – fortunately we didn’t experience anything that confirmed those stories for us (phew!). On the first day at lunch this guy at a table across the restaurant kept looking over at me – and me at him – he looked so familiar (very similar looking to “sexy boy from Belfast ” – but I knew it couldn’t be him..). He came over and introduced himself when he was leaving as he realized I’d no idea who he was…and you’ll never guess – do you NUIG GMIT divers from 1999-2000 remember Durgham Mushtaha?! Well, he remembered me…I guess I haven’t changed much… He was running for a flight somewhere so it was a very fleeting meeting...oh, the small world of the Irish!

I guess the most “memorable” things I did in Phnom Penh were the very depressing but highly educational visits to both the Toul Sleng Genocide museum and the killing fields at Choeung Ek – what happened in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge in the late 70s was – well, I can’t think of a suitable adjective – but when I began to meet Cambodian people and noticed how friendly they were and how happy they seemed I wondered how it’s possible after all they went thro’…I guess the human spirit is remarkable. I also managed a second-time-lucky visit to the Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda – first time my sleeves weren’t long enough (actually, sleeveless is how I believe it’s described) and I got turned away! And while wandering around the city we saw some of its other sights…

After a few days in the city we headed south to the sleepy town of Kampot . We spent just 2 days there and I pretty much just read a book one of those days. The second day, which happened to be my birthday, we hired a tuk tuk and driver for the day and drove around to a local coastal town called Kep. En route we visited some of the local things to see…salt fields, a cave (one of many in the area) and pepper corn plantations. In the evening there was a massive thunder and lightening storm and the streets of Kampot were knee deep with water – not enough to keep us from the pub tho’…a few drinks and the premiership – a great birthday combo ;)

From there we headed to Sihanoukville…the beach resort of present day Cambodia . Kep used to own that title in the days of French Indochina. Sihanoukville, named after King Sihanouk, wasn’t a hugely impressive place. The main tourist beach was an awful place full of bars right down to the water’s edge…ok at night but dreadful in the daytime. The afternoon of the day we arrived I went wandering along it on my own only to be accosted by a small group of boys trying to sell me men’s swimming trunks ?! They were very persistent and instinct told me they were up to no good…fortunately the position of the sun was in my favour as the shadows it cast told a good story of what was going on behind me (only one of the kids – the biggest – was in front of me trying to “sell” me the stuff…the rest were “lagging” behind). One of the other bigger kids was trying, and not completely unsuccessfully either, to open the zip of one of the pockets of my bag?!?!?!?! I got so incredibly angry incredibly quickly…it was way too soon after the episode in Nha Trang to have people messing with my stuff again… Fortunately for the kids, while the shadows appeared to (and did) tell the truth, I couldn’t be 100% sure and so I didn’t hit them – and believe me I really wanted to…but that would’ve achieved nothing of course. I just went into the next bar where the barlady asked me if I was missing anything from the bag – she’d seen it all. I wasn’t tho’ (missing anything) – and there was nothing in it that would have been worth nicking anyways… But I was shaking with rage at that bar, and altho’ I ‘d been planning on stopping at a bar and having a drink along the way – the Reggae Bar with lots of stoned westerners lazing about would probably have been the last bar I would have chosen to stop at… I had to stop there til the rage abated… and until the kids had gone off to find another potentially easy target… I swear, sometimes I reckon it would have been so much easier to be doing this travelling if I’d a penis! Women are definitely, very sad to say, seen as easier targets…especially those on their own…

So anyways, I never did make it to the end of that beach! But myself and Marcus did wander around the coastline to the various other beaches in the area – and all of them were way nicer than that main one. Another day we did a day trip into the local Ream National Marine Park – a nice day indeed but they could have done sooo much more with it…still I guess tourism is still a growing industry in most parts of Cambodia. And another day I went off diving for the day around one of the local islands called Koh Rong. That was a great day – water was 29 degrees and I saw barracuda (ate lots of bbq barracuda in the evenings too…yum yum!) The rest of the divers were lovely but the company that we’d chosen to go with could have done a better job...

A vid of some cool crabs on the beach in Sihanoukville:http://youtu.be/32DK1bHpQf8

So, after Sihanoukville we spent a very long and sweaty day busing it over to Siem Reap in western Cambodia , the home of the Angkor temples. This is by far the most visited city in Cambodia . I reckon everyone who visits the country visits these temples, from backpacker types to bus loads of Japanese, Chinese and South Koreans and from families with kids to older retired types on tours…the place is chock a block. Ticket options to get to the temples range from 1 day to 7 day passes. We chose a 3 day pass – definitely enough templing at one go! We hired a tuk tuk and driver to take us around for the 3 days. We had thought at one stage of cycling to the closer temples, but it was starting to get very warm in that part of the world and some of the temples take up to an hour to walk around – so cycling in between them sounded way too much like hard work in our opinions! We visited about 18 temples in the 3 days and also visited one river site where there are lots of carvings in the river bed and on rocks along the edges of the river. We visited the most famous and the largest of the temples, Angkor Wat, twice. The other “famous” temple we visited was Ta Prohm – where the film ‘Tomb Raider’ was filmed!! Neither myself nor Marcus had seen the film, but we still took photos of the “famous” Tomb Raider Tree where Lara Croft (a.k.a. Angelina Jolie) apparently picked a jasmine flower before falling thro’ the earth…hmmm…I guess I’ll have to watch the film when I get to NZ! Anyways, the temples are lovely but after 3 days memories of each begin to blend into one and appreciation of the architecture and the bas reliefs on the walls and everything else that makes them so amazing just begins to fade into a tedious monotony – that’s when it’s time leave.

While we were in Siem Reap however, we also got to do something that most visitors to the city do not experience. While we were in Kampot we’d met two American girls who were volunteering at a small school in Siem Reap as English teachers. So when we got to Siem Reap we got in touch with one of them (the other had since finished up and returned home) and we spent one day hanging out at the school sitting in on the English classes and joining in with the afternoon games. It was great fun watching and listening and taking part (the children wouldn’t let us away with not doing whatever they had to do!). It was very funny, one class were learning the letter G and a few choice words were used to teach it, including the word girl. So Brittany (the American girl) went around the class pointing at everyone individually and the children had to say whether the person was a girl or not…when they got to me a few said “girl”, but some smarter, cheekier ones said “woman”!! And there I was still thinking I looked the same as I did at 16 ;o) We joined in all their songs too and they got such a laugh watching Marcus “turning all around” while doing the hokey pokey in a space that was way too tight for him (between the desk and the bench!)… Afternoon games were great too…we joined in some of them, played soccer with them and generally just hung out with them – they really enjoyed two new faces :o)

I had a great day altogether – it was a really lovely experience. These children get to go to a half days worth of regular school in Siem Reap (run by the government I assume but I don’t remember) as all children are entitled to do, but without this school they’d be on the streets trying to sell stuff to tourists for the other half of the day. The staff of this school pays their parents in rice to ensure that they attend the school. And it’s obviously so much better for them to be there learning some bit of English (altho’ their abilities and ages are so mixed that it’s hard to know how much they’re actually learning) and having fun in a safe environment than being out on the streets.

Another thing that I did in Siem Reap was go to a concert in a local children’s hospital that was set up by a Swiss doctor called Beat Richner. This guy is pretty amazing. He’s a paediatrician who went out to Cambodia in the early 70s but, as with all other foreigners, was forced to leave when Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge came into power in 1975. In early 90s he went back to Cambodia and began opening up children’s hospitals. There are 6 or 7 in total now between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. These hospitals offer free health care to all children. In the rest of the presumably government run hospitals, the families have to pay. His hospitals are also up to the standard of Swiss hospitals and almost all of the staff are Cambodians that have been trained there. Only about 10% of his funding comes from the Swiss and Cambodian governments, the rest comes from private donations. I’d heard about this doctor from a Swiss guy we met in Vietnam and so went to the concert out of curiosity. He plays Cello and is a remarkable entertainer mixing classical Cello pieces with pieces he’s composed himself and he mixes it all up with some video footage from short films he’s made about the health situation of children in Cambodia (he calls it the silent genocide with reference mostly to the Dengue fever epidemic and TB that kill many children every year – can’t remember the stats but he had them all) and lots of information about his experiences in Cambodia. It was a really informative evening and it was free. The idea was to educate us, the mostly western visiting audience, and then hopefully to get some donations. He asked that everyone who was old (and defined old in Cambodian terms as 50 yrs or more) would give him some money, that everyone who was young would give him some blood and that everyone in the middle would give him some blood and some money. I went to the hospital on the last evening we were in Siem Reap and gave them some blood – probably the last thing I ever would have imagined myself doing while travelling especially given how many excuses I seem to have come up with every time the transfusion unit came to Galway in the past few years!! And of course given the low standards of hygiene etc. I would have imagined a hospital in Cambodia to have…but it was like being in a very, very good western hospital. In fact Princess Ann, in her role as something or other with UNICEF told him, in a derogatory way, that his hospitals had higher standards than regional hospitals in Britain ! According to Dr. Richner, it is believed by the WHO that the quality of a country’s hospitals and health care system should reflect the state of the country’s economy…he doesn’t agree.. Beat Richner has a website if anyone’s interested in finding out more…www.beatocello.com.

From Siem Reap we headed in the direction of Laos . One of our last stops along the way was an overnight in Kratie, a small town on the Mekong . One of the only attractions of this town is its proximity to a population of Irrawaddy dolphins in the Mekong . These are an endangered species of dolphin only found in rivers in Asia . Anyways, I took a boat trip out to see them and I enjoyed it. Altho' they don't jump right out of the water the way the common dolphin does, there were plenty of them swimming around and only 2 other boats on the river when I was out.

Our very very final stop before hitting Laos was in the Ratankiri Province of northeastern Cambodia . This province has borders with Laos and Vietnam . It’s not too much on the tourist trail but there are westerners around. Ban Lung was the town we stayed at - a long dusty road trip away from the Mekong . The first day we were there we hired a motorbike and driver and both myself and Marcus squished on and visited some of the local waterfalls and a local lake. It was Chinese New Year when we arrived there so the town and the lake were busy with locals that had come home for the holiday and Phnom Penh natives escaping the city for the long weekend. We also booked ourselves on a 2 day 1 night trek in the buffer zone of Virachay National Park. To trek in the park itself you need to go for at least 2 nights.. We joined an American girl and two English guys on this trek and the five of us and our guides spent the night in hammocks in the forest!! It was class!! The trekking itself wasn’t brilliant – a sweaty walk thro’ a forest would be a better description. There were only short bits of the walk where you could get any views. But we all had a good time. On the second day we visited the village of a minority tribe, and never had any of us felt less welcome somewhere. We were totally stared at, altho’ that’s not too bad, but most of all nobody smiled…to compound the situation we turned up in a big jeep and we had the impression that our main guide had had a little too much rice wine with lunch.. We weren’t sure whether or not our guides realized how unwelcome we all were – they certainly shouldn’t have taken us there… Anyways, it was interesting to see but we’d all have rathered not intrude on these people if they don’t want westerners intruding. In the village we had had lunch at we also didn’t feel very welcome, but at least they must have been making some money out of the fact that we ate there… I’m not sure the second village was benefiting in any way at all.

We left Ban Lung and crossed the border into Laos at Dom Kralor on February 12th. And that is as they say, all for now folks...til the next time take care xxx

Some pics from Cambodia:http://www.flickr.com/photos/niscratz/sets/72157626914432591/

PS hospital was pretty cool really...private room with air con and tv and all paid for by my insurance!! I'm not used to such luxuries!!

Posted by niscratz 03:06 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

Laos: The land of a million elephants

Hi all,

Hope you're all keeping well.. Here are a few stories from my time in Laos..

Laos was one of the most amazing countries I've visited...I loved it!! Didn't see a million elephants of course – just the one and, sadly, it wasn't wild...! But apparently there used to be lots of them wandering around.. Laos was the third (and final as I believe there were only 3?) of the former French Indochinese colonies that we visited. And for the record, because I never knew until I got there, Lao people pronounce the “s” at the end of Laos...so now I do too. The Lao people are smiley, friendly and noticeably more laid back than their neighbours – that's probably their most charming trait. Life is chilled out, relaxed and things happen when they happen...

Anyways, myself and Marcus crossed into Laos from Cambodia and headed north along the Mekong to Don Det on February 12th. Don Det is one of an archipelago of large sand-bank type islands called Si Phan Don or 4000 Islands (Si is Lao for 4, Don is island so I'm guessing Phan is thousand..). Apparently this archipelago is at the widest point of the course of the Mekong River. There's not much happening at all on Don Det, it's a very sleepy place with a very slow pace of life. Lazing in hammocks and drinking Beerlao (the country's best beer...in fact the region's best beer!) featured quite a lot in my time on Don Det. I did also hire a bike occasionally and cycle around the small laneways on the island and across the bridge that links the island to its closest neighbour Don Khon, where there are some waterfalls and a beach or two... The French built the bridge for a railway line they put down from the north end of Don Det to the south end of Don Khon in order to transport goods more easily than by river as there are some rapids in that part of the Mekong. One afternoon myself and Marcus went tubing (i.e. we sat in a tractor tyre tube with a bottle of Beerlao and floated downstream until the beer bottle was empty and then scrambled up the sandy edge of the island and walked back to the place we hired the tubes from) which was lovely and relaxing. On my last day on the island I bumped into Adam, an American guy I met in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam, and had dinner and drinks with himself and this three travelling buddies – including the two Joes from England, who I've bumped into three times since!! A stop at Don Det, or at least at Si Phan Don, is becoming more popular with tourists but it still manages to remain beautifully quiet.

I spent five days chilling out on Don Det. Marcus spent just four. This was the point in our trip that was always going to happen at some stage where we went our separate ways. With a little over six weeks left in South East Asia then, Marcus was beginning to feel a time pressure that I didn't feel as I had two months on top of his six weeks left, so he headed off before me from Don Det. Besides, 3 months is a long time to spend traveling with anyone and I don't do 24/7 very well, so it was time to go it alone.. After Don Det I headed to Champasak to see Wat Phu, a(nother) ruined Khmer temple from the Ankgorian era and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I wondered at myself for going to another temple having had my fill in Cambodia, but it was worth it thankfully. I crazily chose to cycle from my guesthouse to the temple – a distance of maybe only 7 km – but it was a killer in the heat!

From Champasak I continued north to Pakse, the main town in Champasak province, in order to visit the Bolaven Plateau. Pakse was one of the many towns I passed thro' while making my way north that's situated on the east bank of the Mekong with Thailand on the other side. Most of these towns show architectural influence from French colonial times...I'm sure it's very interesting if you're into architecture, which I'm not, but I did find lots of the buildings quite pretty and quaint..

The Bolaven Plateau is, as the name suggests, an area of high ground at an altitude of between 1,000 and 1,300 m to the east of the Mekong River. The area has some lovely waterfalls and is home to some of the minority peoples of the area. The French realised the potential of the local climate for coffee and tea growing and set up some plantations that produce apparently world famous coffee beans...I don't drink coffee (well, I had my first ever cup while I was there...when in Rome and all that) so I wouldn't know whether the coffee was good or not nor would I remember the brand names...maybe they still have a market in France? The strains they grow are arabica and robusta. Laos, at least in the eastern reaches of the country, had the unfortunate title of being one of the world's most heavily bombed places in the 1960s as the Americans were trying to stop the passage of arms and men from North Vietnam down thro' the mountainous Ho Chi Minh Trail, most of which lies in Laos, to support the Viet Cong in Southern Vietnam during the war. In fact it was the heaviest US bombing campaign since WWII, a fact that was kept very much secret from US citizens, and the rest of the world no doubt! There's still lots of unexploded ordnance lying around but the locals make good use of some of the shells of bombs that they've found. I visited the Plateau on a day trip with four others from my guesthouse. It was a lovely trip but, as with other places in Laos and some places in Cambodia and Vietnam, the freedom to do it on my own would have been great, but only possible on a motorbike! I need to learn how to ride a motorbike!! During the trip we visited three waterfalls, coffee and tea plantations and two minority villages: one Alak and one Katu.

Next stop on the journey north was Savannakhet – another French colonial town on the banks of the Mekong which forms a border town with Thailand. I didn't stay here long as my reason for stopping was to check out how much it cost to do a trek to the east of the town visiting an animist (animism is the belief in spirits in nature, as in that animals and plants etc. have spirits..) village which all sounded very interesting. But it was too expensive because of the distance to the area unless I had about nine other people with me!! So I paid a very quick visit to the local dinosaur museum, which was surprisingly good despite the fact that all the information was in Lao and French only and I'd too much of a hangover that day to be attempting to read scientific French!

Next stop on the way was at Tha Khaek, yet another town with old colonial architecture situated on the banks of the Mekong with Thailand across the river. This time my hope was to do a trek in the Phu Hin Bun NPA (National Protected Area). I took my usual wander around the town to see whatever there was to see. As it happened, I had arrived there on the February full moon which is when Lao Buddhists (and Buddhists in other countries too) celebrate Magha Puja – considered one of the most important of the Buddhist festivals. I went along to the local stupa, Pha That Sikhottabong, with some people from my guesthouse to see what was going on... It was a big party really with the Buddhist religious thing going on around the stupa and in the temple and on the non-religious front there was a boxing ring set up (no-one was actually boxing when we were there), lots of different stages with music, lots of food, market stall, the works – it was fun to wander around.

Fortunately there were enough people in Tha Khaek interested in doing the same trek as me in Phu Hin Bun, so eight of us set off with our guide for a 2 day, 1 night excursion in the NPA. It was an interesting trek in terms of the company I had – all seven were Germano-phones (is that a word?!). There were 3 Germans, 2 Swiss Germans and 2 Austrians...it was the first time on the trip where the group I was with wasn't made up of a mixture of nationalities that defaulted to speaking English. And altho' I did spend four years learning German, I've never visited the country and have never had the chance to practice it so can barely string a sentence together now. Fortunately (naturally!) they all spoke English from fluent down to pretty good, but obviously they conversed in German quite a bit too...by the end lots of words that had long since disappeared into the depths of my mind were coming back and if I'd spent another few days with them I'm fairly sure I would have tried speaking some.. Anyways, enough of that, the trek itself was amazing. The scenery was gorgeous. It's a karst region so lots of limestone outcrops and lots of caves. Lunch on the first day was a fantastic spread and the “tablecloth” was lots of big green leaves laid out on the ground!! We spent the night in a local village. We arrived there in the evening when it was still bright and played football with the children. They were a lot of fun. The boys continued playing football with two of the guys in the group and then one started swinging them around...which they all loved and wanted a go of!! Some of the girls taught myself and Eva, the Austrian girl, how to count in Lao and we joined in playing some of their games. We also had great conversations with them – well, they spoke Lao and we tried to guess what they were trying to tell us! I don't think anything much was understood, but it was fun for all of us!! The animals were being fed in the evening and they let us help feed them – just some pigs and ducklings...but it was all so cool – I loved it :) And more importantly, they loved helping us get involved.. In the evening we had dinner with the village chief and he performed a traditional basi ceremony on each of us...and of course we shared some Lao Lao (whiskey – awful stuff especially when, like me, you're not at all a whiskey fan but you have to drink it to be polite..). Some things were a little wierd, like when we were all sat around the dinner “table” (it was all sitting cross legged eating off the floor) it was only the chief and some other men from the village who joined us – the women, who had incidentally cooked all the food (altho' myself and Eva did help a little with the prep) sat away on their own with the children... I know societies are different and lots have very specific roles for males and females, but it did make me feel a little uncomfortable..was I really “better” or “socially higher” than the women of the village to get such a privileged position at mealtimes?

The second day was great too – more wandering around the countryside thro' some wooded areas and to some lakes. I even ate red ants!!! Our guide just took the ant-nest from the tree and squished it in his hands and offered it to whomever wanted some...I was very reluctant at first, I think only Oliver (Eva's boyfriend) and one of the German guys tried them, but when I saw they weren't keeling over and dying I decided to try some too...really very tasty as long as you actually break their tiny bodies...it you just swallow them you taste nothing.. Otherwise you get a really lemony kind of taste...bet you didn't know that before!! Our guide was full of informative knowledge about the area (the flora and fauna and the local traditions) and had pretty good English too – always a bonus! Anyways, I think the photos will tell a better story than I can.. It really was a beautiful area and a great trek and I'd recommend it to anyone in the area.

In another part of the NPA is a cave with a river that can be navigated for 7 km thro' it and out the other side. To get there I'd to leave Tha Khaek and make my way up and around (the NPA) and back down again further east to Ban Kong Lo (Ban is village/town in Lao). Unfortunately I kind of flew thro' here only spending one night in the village where I could have happily spent a few days. Life was simple there and I had the feeling it could be the last really simple-life place that I would have the chance to spend the night at.. Two locals took me in a boat thro' the cave (Tham Kong Lo – Tham being the Lao word for cave) which was pretty cool I have to say. It was pitch black apart from where their headlamps were shining and there were bats flying around. Everytime there was a non-navigable part (rocks/small rapids) the guys made me get out and pulled and pushed the boat along...it was upstream on the way and downstream on the way back – much easier for them! I had a few drinks with some of the locals that night and with very simple English tried to learn about their lives – oh to speak the local lingo...but Lao is like Thai – very tonal. So you can have one 3-letter word that can be pronounced in about five different ways to give five different meanings...and I sure as hell can't hear any differences between any of the sounds...I felt like the only white person in the village that night – I wasn't..there were at least three others, but I didn't see them...it was a great feeling :) Actually, all the travel that I'd done thro' Laos up until that point (and on as far as Vientiane) had been very local. I was often the only white person on the bus or songthaew (local trucks with three rows of seats in the back – one down each side and one in the middle...best seats are definitely along the sides...) or at least one of only a small small handful. I had some great conversations on some of those trips with various locals jumping at the chance to practice their English. They're all so interested in what you're doing and where you're going, and I was equally interested in what they were up to. I loved it :) Anyways, enough of the reminiscing...

After Phu Hin Bun I headed north to Vientiane, the capital of Laos and yet another city on the banks of the Mekong with a view across the river to Thailand. Vientiane was a nice enough city. I only spent two days there. I wandered around some of the sights in the city centre and hired a bicycle to cycle to some of the slightly further away ones. For a capital city the roads weren't very busy. Accomodation wasn't very easy to find on the first night even tho' I hadn't arrived very late in the day. I ended up sharing a room with a family from Quebec that I'd met on the bus from Phu Hin Bun that first night – a little strange...reminded me of when I was little on family holidays. For the following two nights I took a bed in what was probably the dodgiest dorm I've slept in this whole trip. There was a German-speaking guy in the dorm with me who went drunken (I think) sleepwalking in the middle of the night and tried to get into bed with me...he'd been out very late that night and there were blood stains all over the floor the next morning from where he'd cut his head...a little freaky – I didn't sleep very well that night at all and was delighted to see him packing and leaving in the morning! On my second day in Vientiane I bumped into John, an American guy I'd met in Nha Trang, Vietnam, and spent that evening eating and drinking with himself and his two travel buddies. Anyways, not a very exciting place..

After Vientiane I headed north to the infamous backpacker “town” of Vang Vieng. Really it's only a few streets that have grown up because of backpackers. The town is situated in another karst area and there's a river running thro' it – the Nam Song (where Nam is the Lao word for river). This was definitely the least Lao place I visited in Laos. The main reason that the majority of backpackers come here is for the tubing. You pay for a tractor tyre tube, take a tuk tuk ride to somewhere a few kms upriver of the town and you float back down the river to the town...well, that's the theory of it anyways. Very few people actually make it all the way back to the town, which should only take 3 hours non-stop. The reason is that there are lots of bars set up along the banks of the river with all sorts of swings and zip lines and offers of free beer and buckets of strange concoctions to tempt even the not-so-big drinkers out there.. North Americans I've met have likened it to spring break...it's a little like rag week back home I suppose – lots of young people drinking themselves into oblivion. So for that reason I was a little wary of arriving there on my own. It's one of those places that I imagined feeling a little like a granny. But I figured I had to stop by anyways and see what it was all about. There is another thing that Vang Vieng is known for – 'Friends' bars... yes, that's right...walk down the main couple of streets and you'll hear snippets from various different episodes of 'Friends' blaring from both sides of the street. The bars are completely open to the street and all the seats are facing big screens where re-runs of entire series of the sit-com play. And two bars next door to each other would always be playing different episodes from the same series. There were also some bars playing 'Simpsons' and 'Family Guy' re-runs. Now while this is certainly very surreal and very far from the “Real Laos”, I am a big fan of 'Friends' and thoroughly enjoyed sitting in one of the aforementioned bars the first evening I was there watching the entire last series while eating dinner and having a few drinks. And I even met people in there despite how antisocial it all sounds.

So, Vang Vieng turned out to be quite a cool place as long as you ignored all the early 20s drunkards. I did a caving/kayaking trip one day (lots of fun), visited some local waterfall/spring another day and I did go tubing too with Jason, a Canadian guy I'd met. The tubing was fun – I didn't drink very much as I'm not a huge fan of the alcohol/water activity mix, but we did play table tennis at one of the bars and I had fun watching the drunken antics of the other tubers. I didn't do any of the swings or zip line things either – there were just too many stories of people landing in the river in funny ways and ending up in the hospital...I guess I'm getting a little sensible/boring in my old age..! Lots of people go rock-climbing in Vang Vieng but I didn't get around to it. I ended up spending four days there and thoroughly enjoyed it. Apart from Jason, I met a few Americans on my kayaking trip who were lovely and also a little older than the crowd and not all about the drinking.

After Vang Vieng I was hoping to head north east to see the Plain of Jars, but between one thing and another (mostly my watch hadn't realised it was a leap year and I hadn't noticed and thought I'd lost a day somewhere which meant I really didn't have time to make that side trip..) I didn't go...next time! Instead I headed for the UNESCO World Heritage Town of Luang Prabang...another Mekong River town, about six long slow windy hours of a bus journey north of Vang Vieng. Jason (the Canadian) came with me. Luang Prabang is a very picturesque town with lots of things to do in the surrounding countryside. We went kayaking one day on the Nam Ou. There were a few serious rapids, at least in my mind they were serious enough, and I capsized on the first set...scarey stuff but great fun!! There was also a beautiful waterfall not too far away that we visited one afternoon. I also took a wander around the town and up Phou Si, this hill in the middle of the town with lovely views of the surrounding area from the top. It was a little busy at the top at sunset of course! The food in the night market at Luang Prabang was delicious – such an amazing choice and for nothing! The was also a night market with lots of lovely crafts that was lovely to wander around.

I left Jason in Luang Prabang and headed to the Lao-Thai border town of Huay Xai by night bus to rejoin Marcus for a 3 day 2 night experience that really has yet to be rivaled on this trip!! We had signed up for the Gibbon Experience (www.gibbonx.org) about six weeks previous having heard about it from two Australians we met in Vietnam. Booking in advance is necessary as there are a limited number of places per trip. Anyways, Marcus and I met up in Huay Xai and shared Laos stories over a delicious Indian (I'm sure Marcus won't agree with that statement as it made him quite ill). The following morning we met up with our fellow “trekkers” (I'm not sure that you could really call this a trek..): Dani and Simon – a lovely couple from South Africa, and seven Dutch people – a family of five (three children) that live in Vientiane and two of their friends who were visiting from the Netherlands. We set off on the two hour drive into the jungles of Bokeo Province in north western Thailand (bordering Myanmar/Burma)...for 3 days of the best fun ever!!

So what did we actually do? Well, to be honest – not a whole lot apart from swinging thro' the trees for three days!! We had signed up for the classic experience as opposed to the waterfall experience, which I believe does involve some real trekking. Our accommodation for the two nights was in a tree house that was at least 100 m above ground level. The only way in and out was by a zip line!! There's a small network of zip lines that we had to use in order to get deep into the jungle where our treehouse was. They were so much fun!! The idea behind the Gibbon Experience is ultimately to save the natural habitat of the Black Gibbon, a monkey once thought to be extinct in the area. Natural forest is often destroyed by slash and burn techniques in this part of the world to gain land for farming. Poaching and logging (usually illegal) also take their toll on the environment. So, the group behind this novel tourist venture wanted to help the locals realise that they could make money from their forests without destroying them, thus saving, hopefully, the natural habitat of the Black Gibbon. The idea of course is for the tourists to try to get a glimpse of the monkey, but it's fairly illusive so sightings, as with all wild animals, are not guaranteed! Each morning when we were there we could hear the gibbons singing. I'm not really sure that singing gives an accurate impression of the noise they make tho' – they'd be amazing creatures to use to create soundtracks to computer games – they make all sorts of siren-like noises...really cool and you certainly wouldn't sleep thro' it. They sing early in the morning...very early! In the morning our guides showed up and took us on an early morning “trek” thro' the jungle to try to spot some gibbons, but I didn't get the impression that they (the guides) were particularly keen, and to be honest, I wasn't too bothered either – I was more interested in getting out and zipping around!!

And that's what we (Marcus, the South Africans and myself) did each day...we just zipped around taking photos of each other, making movies of each other flying along and generally acting like monkeys...I guess if you don't get to see the gibbons, the next best thing is to see what it might be like to fly around the tree tops like they do :) I was lucky enough one day tho' to spot three gibbons in a tree way in the distance. I watched them for a short while, took the mandatory “yes I really did see them” photographs and then went to get the others...of course they were gone when we got back...! The whole experience really brought out the children in all of us – I think all of our faces were smiling the whole time we were there!! And Marcus was caught singing the theme tune to Indiana Jones once while swinging along on one of the longest lines...he thought no-one could hear him...!! We're hoping one of us has a video with the sound of it in the background!! Anyways, I have to stop talking about this now cos I could ramble on forever... It's one of those things that when you meet someone else along the way who's also done it you both reminisce for ages about it :) So so one of the most amazing things that anyone passing thro' Laos should make the time to do....

So that was Laos anyways, only ended up spending a month there – crossed the border at Huay Xai into Thailand on March 12th :( Really could have spent another month there and did have a 2 month visa, but I knew I'd miss out on other stuff at the end if I did and it was getting unbearably hot and I wanted to get to Bangkok at the same time as Marcus to give him a proper send off – who knows when I'll next see him....I'll just have to go back and visit the north of the country another time :)

Some pics from Laos:http://www.flickr.com/photos/niscratz/sets/72157626914440749/

Gibbon experience video 1:http://youtu.be/t3zMoxWu_as
Gibbon experience video 2:http://youtu.be/BBU9cQglu5s
Gibbon experience video 3:http://youtu.be/enUQmDtx1sk
Gibbon experience video 4:http://youtu.be/0jJUjlvIa7k
Gibbon experience video 5:http://youtu.be/-hsNZKix4WM
Gibbon experience video 6:http://youtu.be/Uijb1XcScIk
Gibbon experience video 7:http://youtu.be/0pVip7K9gmI

Right, so Thailand stories next, hopefully sooner rather than later as the photos are all already uploaded on Facebook so it's mostly a matter of just writing the blog!!

Take care all,


Posted by niscratz 06:54 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

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