Thursday, December 31, 2009

Bangkok, Thailand

Bangkok, Thailand’s capital is very hectic; enough said. The city was a great place to do some shopping and experience Western conveniences after spending one month “in the country.”

The city’s spectacular temples, Wat Pho and Wat Phra Kaew are worth visiting. The temples have ornate chedis (conical-shaped structures). One great way to experience the sights is to take a ferry, the “Chao Phraya River Express.”

Juxtaposing temples are modern, multistoried shopping malls, many next to each other and containing identical stores! These malls are interconnected by a elevated walkway in the Siam Square area.

Chiang Mai, Thailand

I was determined to trek in northern Thailand for that was my reason for enduring a rough 14-hour overnight bus ride from Luang Prabang, Laos (it was another sleepless night). Thus, I headed to Chiang Mai after one day in Chiang Rai.

Chiang Mai is touristy, but much calmer than I expected. Besides the numerous temples, there were massage parlors, and Thai cooking schools. And most of the Thai people are so friendly, not to mention the cheap food and accommodation (cheaper than Laos). No wonder why people keep flocking to Thailand! This is a town that I could spend a week living during my next visit!

I did end up joining a touristy activities tour. Basically, in the span of a day, I went trekking to a waterfall, rode an elephant, visited hill tribes and went bamboo rafting. There were only three of us on my tour; I assume Lonely Planet’s negative implication of these touristy tours deterred many backpackers from joining. I actually enjoyed my tour as my Thai guide displayed excellent customer service and knowledge of the area (unlike the guides in Vietnam).

Chiang Rai, Thailand

Chiang Rai, in the far north of Thailand, is a quite, viable town that is used as a base for trekking. I came to specifically to do that but was unable to find enough travelers to form a group.

However, the town was pleasant enough to stroll around and I got my taste of the dozens of Thai temples. I also sampled Thai food in Thailand for the first time. This included curry noodle soup and green curry. Yum!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Nong Khiaw & Muang Ngoi, Laos

Nong Khiaw is a town about four hours’ drive north of Luang Prabang. The picturesque town is situated on the Nam Ou River, surrounded by peaks. I was there only to take a one-hour boat ride to Muang Ngoi. Along the way, I witnessed water buffaloes, villagers fishing and rowing and many limestone peaks.

Muang Ngoi is a tranquil village of a few hundred people on the banks of the Nam Ou River. The village, similar to the Four Thousand Islands, offers bungalows with either an enclosed bathroom or an outhouse. Even with the tourist boom, Muang Ngoi has managed to retain its simplicity, with no Internet, no hot water (only freezing cold showers) and electricity only for three hours in the evening.

I really enjoyed the river and mountain scenery of Muang Ngoi. I was able to go on a day trek to a cave and to Ban Na village. (I was glad I did this as I dislike guided hikes.) On the way, I walked along dry rice paddies and was in a valley surrounded by peaks. It was indeed very relaxing! The village itself was typical of the area, with wooden and straw huts on stilts. The people were dressed ordinarily and not in their ethnic garb (which seems to be only for the tourists).

Luang Prabang, Laos

Luang Prabang, a UNESCO world heritage site, is Laos’ most touristy destination. The city is scenically located at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers and is surrounded by mountains. The city also boasts diverse architecture, primarily the French colonial and Lao wooden styles.

Luang Prabang is famous as the imperial capital of Laos. The National Museum (formerly the National Palace) is situated there, with the Pha Bang, the gold Buddha statue that the town is name after, housed inside. There are also numerous temples, or wats.

One highlight of the city is witnessing the morning alms procession by the monks. Every morning, around 6:30am, groups of monks clad in orange robes would march from their temples around a couple blocks to collect alms from people. These alms primarily include sticky rice and sometimes bananas and candy (though the latter is usually thrown out of the alms bowl by the monks to the children). This daily march has turned into a “tourist show” with many people snapping photos and even paying for the privilege of sitting on a mat and handing out rice to the monks.

Similar to what I observed in Vientiane, there were more tourists than locals! It also seems like the French influence is the strongest in this city. This can be proven through the number of French restaurants, cafes, signs and architecture that pervades the city. Because of this, many tourists find it comforting to find Western fare and end up staying longer than they had planned.

Many of the guesthouses in Luang Prabang have undergone renovation and are now posh B&Bs. This is unfortunate as backpackers are being priced out of Luang Prabang. I believe that in 10 years’ time, the city will turn into a retirees’ village, with only the wealthy able to afford staying there.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Vientiane, Laos

From Pakse, I took a ten-hour “VIP” sleeper bus to Vientiane, the capital of Laos. I was glad that I could lie down (even though it was a narrow bed), but the journey was cold and bumpy. We were served snacks and drinks though, a cut above the Vietnamese buses.

I arrived in Vientiane after the conclusion of the 25th Southeast Asian Games and thus I did not expect prices to be cheap. I was right as I struggled to find an available room for less than $10. (Keep in mind that rooms could be easily found costing $5 two years ago, according to the guidebook.) It was also hard to find a meal for less than $1, even in the street stalls (unlike in Vietnam). Bus prices in Laos were double those in Vietnam. Thus, Laos has been sticker shock for me, as I, like many others, are basing prices from the guidebook.

These days in Vientiane, tourists outnumber locals. I believe it is great that development money is pouring into Laos and the people are improving their lives. However, I am wary of Westernization as it makes the world a bit homogeneous. It also introduces unhealthy elements into people’s lives, such as over consumption and the obsession with money. What was once the exotic, “untouched” Laos ten years ago is now a very touristy country. I guess there are very few places in the world that are not turning into “Disneyland”.

Vientiane, just like the rest of Laos, is very sedate (no honking!). The city has a few famous sights, such as Pha That Luang, the golden stupa that is the symbol of Laos; and Patuxai, a pseudo Asian-style Arch de Triomphe.

One interesting observation is that French influence is very visible (the country was once colonized by France). Street and building signs are still in French. There are a good number of French restaurants and bakeries. And of course, there are many French tourists (for once outnumbering the British)!

My highlight in Vientiane (I was bored after my first out of two days there) was dining in a makeshift restaurant by the Mekong River. During the day, there is nothing but construction on the shore. However, at night, the place comes alive with people setting up barbeque and fruit stands, along with tables and chairs. I treated myself to a Chinese-style hotpot by the Mekong. It was delicious and commanded the best view of any street dining I have ever had!

Pakse, Laos

Pakse is a town in southern Laos that was a bus connection point for me. It was my first visit to a Lao town and I was surprised by what I observed.

Unlike most (if not all) countries in Southeast Asia, Laos is relatively calm. There are few people, sidewalks are clear for pedestrians and there is no honking. Honking is practically the only sound one will hear in other Southeast Asian countries. Laos is so quiet!

Pakse itself does not have many attractions (most of the highlights in Laos are in the countryside). There are a few notable temples in the Burmese style. I did, however, spot many monks leaving their biological sciences class. Before they left, they had to swept the floor!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Four Thousand Islands, Laos

To get from Siem Reap, Cambodia to Four Thousand Islands, Laos, I had to travel by bus, during the day, for 12 hours. It was a grueling ride through the flat expanse of Cambodia. Arriving at this “unofficial” border crossing, everyone had to pay a US$1 admin fee to the Cambodian officials and a US$2 admin fee to the Laotian officials. These admin fees are akin to bribes.

I immediately fell in love with the Four Thousand Islands, an inland archipelago near the Laos-Cambodia border. I arrived during sunset, with its stunning display of colors and reflections. The place was very tranquil, with villagers fishing or picking fruit. In fact, the islands did not have electricity until last year!

I stayed on an island called Don Det and rented a bungalow with a hammock on the porch for only US$2.50 per night! This was a very relaxing way to vacation and I can understand why this place has become touristy these past 10 years.

On my only full day there, I spent some time walking along the water on Don Det. I spotted some water buffaloes “swimming”. There were plenty of stilt homes where the locals live. At a certain point, I crossed the French-built bridge to the neighboring island of Don Khon. This island is famous for its waterfalls and dolphins. I only saw the former, an amazing bunch of cascading water. I savored the view while sipping a coconut.

For food, I ate fried noodles, fried rice and laap, a Laotian salad with meat (either fish, chicken, beef or pork) with basil leaves, bean sprouts, and nuts. I drank lots of fruit shakes; these proved to be refreshing on a sweltering “winter” day.

Siem Reap, Cambodia

The supposedly five-hour journey from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap turned out to be seven hours. This was due to frequent 20-minute breaks, poor roads and a 30-minute delayed start because the driver wanted every seat to be filled. Bus journeys in Southeast Asia can be so tiresome!

Siem Reap is the gateway to the Temples of Angkor, a Hindu-Buddhist temple complex that is one of the world’s greatest architectural achievements. I spent a very full day visiting the main temples, hiring a tuk tuk driver to take me around. The complex is extremely tourist-friendly, with food and beverage stalls everywhere! It is difficult to describe the grandeur of the Temples of Angkor; it probably exceeds all the superlatives available.

I started my visit with Preah Bakeng (on a hill) for sunrise. On top of the temple, I could see vast expanses of forest. Then it was on to Bayon in Angkor Thom, my favorite temple. This complex is known for the gigantic face of a god carved in stone. I was amazed at the intricate details of gods, people and words that were carved all over the place. Another noticeable temple is Ta Prohm, the site of the filming of the movie Tomb Raider. This temple has a rough feel, as many tree roots have surrounded many of the doorways.

The grandest temple of all is none other than Angkor Wat. This complex is surrounded by forest, lawns and water, something akin to a palace. Angkor Wat has three levels, of which the highest one was unfortunately closed for restoration. Inside the temple are gigantic Buddha statues, elaborate friezes and empty pools.

I will definitely be back to the Temples of Angkor, for it is a magical place. In fact, I will be back in Cambodia, as I did not spend enough time there. Even though the country is stifling hot, even in December, the people there touched my heart. They are a very resilient, industrious and friendly people. They have put their painful history behind them and are working hard to advance their lives. One example is the widespread knowledge of English (unlike in Vietnam). Furthermore, even the hassling of tourists is polite, always with “sir” or “ma’am”.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

It was time to leave the hassling of Vietnam behind and head to Cambodia. I boarded a bus from Saigon to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. I was impressed with the wide leg room and excellent customer service on this bus (way better than the service on Vietnamese tourist buses). The attendant even filled in the Cambodian visa form for me, ensuring a seamless border crossing.

Phnom Penh was chaotic! People who everywhere, hawking goods. Like Vietnam, motorcycles and makeshift cafes took over sidewalks. Noticeable differences include the pervasiveness of tuk tuks (motorcycle-pulled-carriage) and litter.

As soon as I got off the bus from Saigon, I was harassed by hotel and motorcycle touts. Along with travelers Ivy (from Laos) and Anh (from Vietnam), we found a hotel and explored the city together. Sights in Phnom Penh include the markets, Wat Phnom (Khmer-style temple after which the city is named), Independence Monument, National Museum and the National Palace (with its temples). A stroll along the Mekong River waterfront is also an enjoyable experience.

My most profound experience in Phnom Penh, though, had to be the visit to the Tuol Sleng Museum, a school--turned-prison that was used by the Khmer Rouge to torture people. The Khmer Rouge were a group of radical Marxists who terrorized Cambodians from 1975-1979. Basically, anyone who did not support their agrarian revolution were killed. These included innocent people such as teachers, doctors and intellectuals. The Khmer Rouge were finally driven from power by the Vietnamese in 1979, only to have the UN refuse recognition of the new government. The Cambodian government finally established a Khmer Rouge Tribunal in 2006, eight years after the leader, Pol Pot, passed away.

Inside the museum were remnants of what appeared to be a concentration camp. There was a case full of clothes and a case full of skulls. In the courtyard, there were the gallows, used to hang prisoners. The classrooms were either torture rooms or prison cells. Each prisoner had a metal can, which served as his or her bathroom.

The photo exhibits were what touched me the most. It was very eerie to walk past thousands of photos of victims’ faces, before they were executed. In fact, it was sickening and inhumane that such injustice could be done to others. Another intriguing photo exhibit was put together by a Swede, one of the few foreigners allowed into Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge period. His pictures each show his thoughts from 1978 (when he visited) and from 2008 (the year the exhibit was compiled). His opinions were very different, as he was a Marxist back in 1978.

Saigon, Vietnam

Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City, is the commercial heart of Vietnam. I liken the city to Shanghai, for it has a blend of historical and modern architecture.

I was expecting Saigon to be a cramped, chaotic city, similar to Hanoi. Saigon is filled with honking motorcycles and people and has bad air pollution. However, the city has wide boulevards and open spaces, making it less dense than Hanoi. Furthermore, the city has modern cafes, bars and restaurants for those who are tired of eating at street stalls. I was surprised at the number of modern hotels and skyscrapers in Saigon compared to Hanoi.

My time in Saigon was spent sightseeing and eating. I was lucky to finally have a local, my CS host Tuan, show me around. Tuan took me all over Saigon on his motorcycle. We visited French colonial buildings such as the Old Post Office, Notre Dame Cathedral and City Hall. We passed by the War Remnants Museum, with its U.S. tanks, helicopters and planes displayed outside. Tuan then led a tour of the Reunification Palace, the former presidential palace. He narrated the history of the building and was more knowledgeable than the other Vietnamese tour guides I have met! One unexpected place we visited was the expat neighborhood, a new development in south Saigon. I was again surprised to see Western-style apartments and homes in Saigon.

One of the highlights of my time in Saigon was the food! Tuan took me to street stalls and local restaurants. Among the items I tasted include self-wrap rolls (with veggies, pork, fish sauce), pork and egg rice, meat and spring rolls on rice noodles, veggie juice, and fruit shakes (plenty of these). I thank Tuan for showing me around, for I would probably not venture to these eateries on my own, or with other tourists.

Hoi An, Vietnam

Hoi An is another central Vietnam city with a UNESCO world heritage old quarter. Unlike Hue, there are no city walls in Hoi An. However, there are more historical buildings here.

Hoi An is and will be my favorite Vietnamese city (I have yet to visit Saigon, but I doubt that I will fall in love with that city.). The old town, right beside a river, is absolutely charming. Inside, numerous Chinese temples stand side-by-side with French style yellow buildings. Many of these buildings contain art galleries, souvenir shops and tailor shops. In fact, one can get a designer suit custom-made in Hoi An for a fraction of the cost elsewhere! One other notable structure is the pink Japanese Covered Bridge.

A stroll along the river on the opposite side of the old town is a must. On the river, I saw boat rowers wearing the traditional conical farmer hat. I also saw the reflection of the old town, the ultimate factor that made me fall in love with this city.

At this point in time, I am getting tired of the soup noodles and rice for breakfast. Most people eat noodles and rice throughout the day. Despite its French influence, there are few bakeries in Vietnam! The only places that sell baguettes (the only bread that they eat) are street stalls that sell Vietnamese sandwiches. I have seen most of the Western tourists eat baguettes--they must be getting tired of the rice and noodles too.

I spent only the afternoon in Hoi An. That evening, I embarked on a nearly 24-hour bus ride to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). The first part of the journey was on a sleeper bus, where the seats reclined to a near flat bed. However, the bed was very narrow and short. Buses are slow in Vietnam; I find it ridiculous that it would take that long to travel 1,000 km.

Hue, Vietnam

Hue is a city in central Vietnam that has a UNESCO world heritage old town, enclosed within the walls of the Citadel. The city served as the imperial capital of Vietnam from 1802-1945, during the reign of the Nguyen Dynasty.

This was the first place where I experienced hotel touts. Basically, the moment a tourist bus stops, crowds of men would harass each tourist, asking them repeatedly if he/she wanted a moto taxi or hotel. If one walked away, one would be followed for a few seconds. Through a little persistence, I managed to escape from these touts.

Walking around Hue was relatively enjoyable. Like any Vietnamese city, there was honking and crowds, but not to the level experienced in Hanoi. Most of the old buildings are centered within the Forbidden City, an enclosed area within the Citadel. There, I saw gates, temples and palaces, all in the Chinese style. There were stone dragon and unicorn statues throughout the complex.

The unfortunate aspect was that many of these old buildings were under renovation when I visited; thus, they were not in their best appearance. Furthermore, most of the canals were so polluted and littered that algae was concentrated in them. It’s ironic that they named the river that flows through Hue, Perfume.

Lastly, it seems that most of the old town outside the Forbidden City was either destroyed or razed, as I saw mostly modern buildings with no aesthetic value in them.

One interesting observation I noted was in a supermarket (in fact, the only supermarket I have been into in Vietnam). There, baguettes were on sale and hordes of people were pushing and shoving each other in order to obtain as many baguettes as possible. At first I was wondering if there was a food shortage and then I realized that all of these people were probably going to resell these baguettes at a 50% profit.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Halong Bay, Vietnam

Halong Bay, with its karst limestone formations jutting out of the water, is similar to Guilin, China. Unfortunately, I went on a rainy, overcast day.

I joined a day tour from Hanoi to Halong Bay. This was quite rushed, as I only got to spend 4 hours on a boat cruising the bay. Of this, about 2 hours were spent eating lunch (boat stationary) and waiting for the other people to kayak. The highlight was definitely admiring the dramatic scenery, quite appropriate for a painting or movie. I also enjoyed the one cave we toured. Inside, there were large stalagmites and stalactites and limestone shaped like creatures.

Lastly, my camera lens broke the day before, so this is the first place where I do not have pictures for. However, I will most likely purchase another one when I get back to Hanoi.

Sapa, Vietnam

Sapa is a town in the northern hills of Vietnam, surrounded by hill tribes. This town is very touristy and the biggest moneymaker are trekking tours to the tribal villages. I originally wanted to take a train there and arrange for my own tour to the villages, but decided that it was worth a few extra dollars to start the tour in Hanoi, as I was spending too much time comparing and bargaining for tours.

The overnight soft sleeper train to Lao Cai was very comfortable. However, once I got to Lao Cai, I had to take a minibus to Sapa. Everyone on the bus waited 45 minutes as the bus driver would not head to Sapa until ever seat was taken. What an inefficient and third world practice!

Sapa itself is not a very attractive town. It’s just a smaller version of Hanoi with honking and touts everywhere. Just like Hanoi, there is no architectural uniformity. Unfortunately, the attractive buildings are covered up with huge, ugly signs.

The tour I signed up for was a 2 day/1 night home-stay and trekking tour. I enjoyed the food, the scenery and the walks. I saw plenty of rice terraces, villagers in traditional attire and water buffalo. This was great despite the misty and overcast conditions.

However, there were certain aspects that could be improved. First, I felt that there was no value for money. We only trekked for 3 hours the first day and 2 hours the second day. I should have signed up for the 1 day tour! The guide simply wanted us to hurry along so that she could have free time. Second, the guide did not explain much about the various tribal customs and lifestyle. The walks were designed so that women in colorful attire would walk with us and then harass us to buy their crafts until we would cave in. Third, there was no interaction with the family at the home-stay. In fact, it felt more like a hostel. Hence, I am quite disappointed. I am never a person to join tours, but I realize that it would be difficult to find my way back from the villages if I did not.

Hanoi, Vietnam

Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, was a rude awakening to this Southeast Asian country. The scene in the city was nothing similar to the surrounding rice fields that dot the surroundings.

After my plane landed, it took me over 30 mins, perhaps much more, to clear immigration. I can’t remember the last time it took me this long to get through. After I cleared customs, I knew I would be harassed by taxi drivers, a scene all too familiar in third world countries. Ignoring them, I went to take the airport shuttle to the city center. This shuttle had no official price, as the numbers had been scratched off the sign. How unscrupulous!

The scene in the city was chaotic and overwhelming. Everywhere, there were motorcycles and people. In fact, there were so many motorcycles parked on sidewalks and so many people sitting on stools on the sidewalks that one simply had to walk on the streets. There was constant noise pollution in the form of honking and smog filled the air. Crossing the street was an adventure each time as one had to continually dodge motorbikes.

Everyone was trying to make money off tourists. This is very easy due to the fact that prices are never posted for anything, making bargaining a must. Men would constantly gesture tourists over for a motorcycle taxi ride. Sellers would hawk their goods. Travel agencies would copy reputable agencies’ names, confusing the tourists. Travel agents would try to sell overpriced tours, saying whatever the tourist wanted to here but not necessarily delivering on his/her words. There is very little customer service in poor countries like Vietnam.

Thus, Hanoi was a shock to me. I did not enjoy the city as much as I thought I would. However, I did have a few highlights, including the water puppet show and the food. The water puppet show is one where puppets performed on a pool of water, with an accompanying band playing Vietnamese music. It was quite a cultural experience! As for the food, it was very similar to Chinese food, with the main staple being rice, accompanied with tofu, vegetable and meat dishes. I also tasted the famous pho (beef soup noodles) and nem (spring rolls).

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Kuala Lumpur is a dynamic and modern capital. I came for two reasons--the delicious food and the fact that my flights connected there.

As my CS host Mike told me, eating is a national pastime. It didn’t take me long to witness and experience this hobby. The ethnic diversity of Malaysia, with its Chinese, Indian and Malay populations, contributes to its culinary greatness. On my first night, Mike took me to a local Chinese outdoor food court. There were stalls selling wonton noodles, dim sum, fried noodles, fried rice and other items. We each drank a refreshing coconut. To fill our stomachs, we savored chicken and beef satay (skewers dipped in peanut sauce); and curry laksa (noodles with tofu and meat in a curry broth). Other foods and drinks I sampled include nasi lemak (rice with curry anchovies wrapped in a banana leaf), roti canai (thin, flaky Indian flatbread), banana leaf rice (rice with veggies, dhal and curry laid out on a banana leaf; Indian), char key teow (thick noodles with prawns, eggs and shellfish), sugarcane juice and long-an juice (fruit). I simply ate and ate as everything was scrumptious!

The second reason I came to KL was due to my Air Asia flights. Air Asia is the biggest budget carrier in Southeast Asia with flights to many destinations. The airline is based in KL and thus many travelers end up visiting KL even though it was not there original plan. The airline is strictly no frills--nothing is free (not even water). To keep ticket prices low, the airline does not allow passengers to consume their own food or drink; the airline limits checked bags to 15kg; the airline has seats narrower than usual. I think that it is bearable to fly with Air Asia for a few hours. However, my eight-hour flight from the Gold Coast (in Australia) to KL was unbearable, mainly due to the narrow seats. I felt squished!

As for sightseeing, the most prominent landmark in KL is the Petronas Twin Towers, featured in the film Entrapment. My CS host Mike took me on a nighttime tour of KL on his motorcycle. I got the opportunity to view the magnificently lit towers. The next morning, I waited in line for one hour before obtaining a ticket to the twin towers’ sky bridge, which is on the 41st floor (the total number of floors is 88). Other attractions include the National Mosque. Chinatown, Little India and Merdeka (Independence) Square.

Byron Bay, Australia

For my last stop in Australia, I decided to cross into New South Wales state and visit Bryon Bay, home of the easternmost point in Australia.

Byron Bay is known for surfing, art and is alternative lifestyle. The latter includes yoga, meditation and organic food. When I visited, the town was packed due to schoolies week, a period of debauchery and drunkenness for graduating high school seniors.

My highlight of my stay was the hike around Cape Byron. There, I was able to hike through coastal rainforest while at the same time admiring the rocky coastline and pristine beaches. The path took me to the Cape Byron Lighthouse, which is near Australia’s most easterly point.

At this point, I am ready to move onto Malaysia and the rest of Southeast Asia. I enjoyed my time in Australia, but am a bit “beached out.” I believe good things are best enjoyed sparingly. Australia has the world’s most beautiful beaches and scenery, but is culturally devoid, just like the U.S. I am ready for a unique cultural experience in Southeast Asia!

Brisbane, Australia

Brisbane, the largest city in Queensland, is a modern Western city with many contemporary skyscrapers and apartment blocks lining its river. The city surprisingly (to me) is very international, with a healthy mix of Asians, Europeans and Africans. Brisbane is a hub for international students and working holidaymakers.

My highlights of Brisbane are actually outside the city. My CS host Nicola and I spent a Saturday morning bushwalking along the coast of North Stradbroke Island. There, we spotted two manta rays and a kangaroo. The beaches there were very white and the water, similar to Sydney’s had two shades of blue.

Another highlight was the visit to Daisy Hill Koala Centre. For the first time, I spotted koalas! The cute, cuddly creatures were very sedentary, preferring to eat eucalypt leaves while hanging onto branches.