Sunday, February 20, 2011

Hanoi Birthday Reunions

After an exhausting 12hr layover in the Changi Singapore airport I finally found myself on my flight to Hanoi, Vietnam where I was planning to meet with Ange, Tiana, and Ania in celebration of Ange’s birthday on November 14th.  Upon arrival in Hanoi I decided to save myself some money by taking the bus into the city from the airport.  I was assured that the bus would be leaving in ten minutes when I took my seat but it was not long before 10 minutes was translated into an hour, and thus I had my first taste of travel in Vietnam where nothing ever leaves when it’s scheduled to and always involves long bouts of waiting in between.  Once the non-English speaking driver made it clear that I was at the ‘foreigner’ stop I found myself just outside of the old quarter.  I quickly oriented myself based on the map in my guide book and lead myself to the wrong location due to an error I made in lining up the location for my intended hostel. It took me just enough time to get frustrated and very sweaty carrying my big bag around before I realized that the place I was looking for was on the other side of the lake.
I was scheduled to meet with Ange and her friends the next day although I was not sure what time they would be arriving at since they were currently touring the northern countryside on motorbikes.  Luckily Ange found me easily and we spent the day exploring some of Hanoi and Tiana and I spent a few unsuccessful hours trying to find shoes that weren’t tiny. That night I went on the snake tour where I gained the nickname Killer and was appointed captain of my table. During this tour we got to handle, kill, and eat the still beating heart of Vietnamese brown snakes which are breed for their meat. I volunteered for the opportunity to kill one of the snakes but I only ate a defrosted snake heart. We also did shots of Hanoi Vodka mixed with the snake blood and the snake bile as well as many other shots of this vodka which had been aged with snakes while we feasted on snake tapas. I must admit the actual snake we were served was fairly tasty but the alcohol certainly wasn’t and the entire group was more than a little inebriated by the end of the night.
The night before Ange’s birthday was celebrated with some of her friends who had international development projects in Hanoi where we feasted on Canadian poutine in true Vietnamese style at the French Canadian “Le Pub”.  We then tried to find a karaoke bar but due to the strict curfew imposed in Hanoi we were unsuccessful in finding one that was still open.  Instead we settled for eating chocolates down a dark street in some random part of Hanoi. For Ange’s actual birthday Tiana, Ania, and I arranged a picnic lunch in a very pretty park with their other friends. Unfortunately however Ange decided to start her special day by spraining her foot resulting in a quick trip to the hospital. I would like to believe that the merry-go-round ride in the park made up for her misfortunes because it was definitely a highlight of the trip for me. Concluded the day by enjoying the free keg that our hostel provides on Sundays and some extremely delicious birthday cake that we managed to get made such that it catered to all of Ange’s food allergies.
Hanoi has proven to be the most difficult city I’ve been in so far and is quite a shock after all the time I’ve spent in small towns or relaxing on beaches. The last city I had been in that could possibly compare to Hanoi would be Bangkok which I had not visited since the first two days of my trip. People here aren’t as friendly or helpful, street vendors are aggressive and dishonest (yes I’m pretty sure a sweet potato shouldn’t cost me $7.50 and no you may not just grab the money out of my wallet), and your possessions are never safe when you’re walking around the city. This is something I made the mistake of forgetting while visiting the night market near the end of my trip in Hanoi and I got my purse slashed and my money stolen from it. It is lucky however that I was aware of these dangers and had been very careful to leave my hostel with the minimum amount of money that I would need and I never carried my passport around with me.
Despite the difficulties I’ve endured in this city I actually adore Hanoi. It’s busy, face paced, colourful, and exciting. The parks are beautiful, the lakes peaceful, and the people are very active. Also I have to acknowledge that I can’t apply judgement on the actions of a few people to everyone and that it was unfortunate that there were people there to leave such a bad impression.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Gili Equation

There are two ways to get to the Gili Islands from Bali. The first is by taking the fast boat and basically takes about an hour. The other and MUCH cheaper way is by slow boat and although it is advertised to take 7hrs I can personally tell you now that it will take longer. Following four hours sitting on the top deck of a ferry boat in full sun, then a few hours driving up the coast of Lombok, then another 45min boat trip, interspersed of course with several bouts of just standing and waiting around, I found myself on Gili Trawangan. This is the largest of three small islands off the coast of Lombok known for its parties, beaches, and marine life.
I landed in Gili T with two new friends Anna and Sarah from England and we settled ourselves in a bungalow behind Rudy's pub, famous for its Friday night parties and mushroom shakes and with a very wildtra staff who love to dance behind the bar and crack jokes to people walking by on the street. Unfortunately after our very first night I was struck with the dreaded traveller's diarrhea and spent the following few days sleeping lots and unable to consume more than a third of any food I ordered. I did manage to force down a whole ice cream cone but I was rewarded with some intense stomach cramps.
Lucky for me though Saturday and Sunday nights in Gili are considered to be nights off and the big party nights are Monday, Wednesday, Friday so I was recovered enough by Monday night to do a little bit of dancing.  It was at this point that Sarah and I had set up our formula for life in the Gilis: dive, party, recover on the beach, repeat. The diving was probably the best I had ever seen and I got to see so many different sea life and beautiful coral. You're guaranteed to see a sea turtle on any given dive and on our last dive in Gili we had the extremely good luck of seeing a manta ray. It was huge and I spent about 10mins chasing it as it swam away then turning tail when it was swimming towards me, a truly amazing experience.
Other highlights on Gili included riding.pushing bicycles around the sandy road that runs around the island (there are no cars in Gili) during which we got caught in a torrential downpour and had to seek refuge at a random beach bar secluded from the majority of the island which is normally frequented at sunset. One day the island was circled by a helicopter film crew because the contestants from the amazing race were performing one of their challenges on the island. Probably one of the best things about Gili though is the homemade gelato stands set up conveniently both on the beach and next to where I was staying, it was a delicious curse.
The time flew while I was there and after 10 days I realized it was time to move on so Sarah and I left and spent a few days in Sengigi on Lombok. Nothing super exciting happened while we were there since the rainy season was hitting Lombok pretty hard. Sarah and I were on separate buses getting into Sengigi and they of course didn't drop us off in the same place in town but luckily on one of my ventures to search for her I met a local guy, Raja,  who had recently set up his own small guest house. We ended up with a gorgeous room at an excellent price and full access to his kitchen plus we had hot water for showers! This was absolutely amazing after the salt water showers in Gili from a broken shower head. Our big plans to rent bikes and tour some of the country side the following day were dashed by the endless rain so instead we settled in for a typical rainy day at the cottage. We spent the day reading, mending clothes, writing post cards, and we taught Raja how to play monopoly. Some of Raja's friends came over and they cooked us some of the best food that I had while I was in Indonesia. All in all it was a fairly enjoyable end to my venture with Sarah. The following day I booted it back to Bali as fast as possible on the slow boat to catch my flight to Vietnam.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Meeting an old friend across the world

After a shopping spree in the Kuala Lumpur airport where I finally broke down and bought a camera to replace my broken one I boarded my short flight to meet Jess at the luggage carousel in the Bali, Denpasar airport. A short taxi ride later got us into Legian (a 10 min walk from popular Kuta beach) where we found ourselves wandering down dark side streets looking for a respectably priced homestay that was still open so late at night. It was a shock getting used to the new currency since $1 was equivalent to about 8500 indonesian rupiah and all the bills had way to many zeros on them but we managed do ok. We celebrated our arrival and reunion with some of my recently bought duty free vodka and caught up on each other’s lives for a few hours. It was a bit funny because I guess you don’t realize how much you miss your friends until you’re back together. After over 6 weeks of meeting strangers and have many of the same repeated conversations I found that I couldn’t shut up once I met Jess. I guess there’s a lot that you don’t say when you aren’t with close friends.

The following morning we woke up early since Jess was still adjusting to the time difference and after an interesting breakfast of this custard bread we set out to explore our new town. What were discovered wasn’t exactly to our enjoyment since sadly tourism has boomed like crazy in recent years and Kuta has gone from being a surf haven accessible only by a simple dirt road to a becoming an over developed tourist town . It is impossible to walk a few streets without being asked to buy sunglasses or if we need transport or if we want to get a massage etc to the point that you have to be rude and just ignore all the hawkers. It wasn’t long before we were formulating our plan for escape and after consulting my guide book we decided to spend the day trying to learn to surf then to head up to Pemuteran near the national park on the North West coast of Bali. Although we were planning to just rent some long boards and try our luck we were quickly convinced to get a surf lesson from some locals on the beach for a pretty reasonable price so it wasn’t long before I was getting up on the board looking like the most awkward and unstable surfer who’s ever existed and trying bail gracefully before washing up on the beach. Although Jess quite on very quickly, no doubt with some help from her snowboarding experience her sensitive skin wouldn’t give her a day off and she ended up having to end her lesson early due to an extremely uncomfortable rash on her thighs from the board. The rest of the day we walked around, got some nice sandy massages on the beach and watched the beautiful sunset. We enjoyed some delicious nachos and Caesar salad at an Aussie bar for dinner, a real treat for me having not had much western food recently then got ready to experience some of the famous Kuta nightlife.

We woke early the following morning to go for a run on the beach, some of the little exercise that I have gotten since leaving from home. It wasn’t until we were packing up to leave that I realized that I had lost my credit card. This resulted in a very stressful two hours where we had to post-pone our shuttle bus, find a phone number for the airport where I had left it and for the credit card company to cancel the card. All of which was proven to be much more difficult than should be possible and still I we achieved none of these things before we embarked into our shuttle to Lovina. After a few hours of driving through the windy hilly roads of central Bali, during which we got to see some monkeys much to Jess’ delight we arrived at the bus station where we caught a bemo. These are the form of public transportation in Bali and it was a very cramped and sweaty 1hr drive before we landed at our homestay in Pemuteran. Although quite beautiful Pemuteran was not a budget location to stay in and to top that the owners of the homestay we were at did not seem very friendly or welcoming so we set out to find a better place to stay. We were fortunate to locate KubuKu eco bed and breakfast down the road which had a room in their own home which was much more tour liking. The owners were very friendly and helpful and by staying there we were supporting their non-profit afterschool program which helped children to develop English language skills and teach them about traditional Balinese culture through music and dance. The following morning we rented a scooter to share and drove up to the nearest town so we could use their atm then went to the nearby hotsprings. Despite the rainy weather the hotsprongs were quite beautiful and it turned out to be a very nice relaxing afternoon moving from one bath to another and trying to stay afloat in the very heavy mineral water, a feat that seemed quite difficult in comparison to the nice buoyant sea water I have become accustomed to.
We finished off Jessica’s last full day in Bali with a fantastic snorkelling trip in the Tasman Selini national park. This was probably the most beautiful snorkelling I have done to date. The coral reef was extremely beautiful and there were loads of fish. Jessica brought her waterproof camera allowing us to take awkward pictures of each other underwater and to snap a picture of the massive triggerfish that I had a near encounter with when I freaked out to see it so close to my face. 

We finished off the day with a trip to the sea turtle reserve where that hatch baby sea turtles and protect them until they are three months old before releasing them into the sea. There was also an adult turtle there named buddy who had refused to leave so we got to pet his shell. After catching up on a few episodes of grey’s anatomy (just like old times) we called it an early night so that we could wake up at 5am to get to the airport on time for Jess to catch her flight to Montreal. At the same time I checked for my credit card but it sadly ws not amongst the huge stack of cards people like me had left behind at the airport so I am very lucky now to have a good friend in Jess for lending me hers. I owe you Jess!!!!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

So Malaysia was cool

My journey in the Cameron Highlands was cool, relaxing, and restful. It was certainly nice to spend some time in a less humid climate and give my body a break. In the evenings it would get quite chilly and I would don fleece sweater and scarf to keep warm while enjoying a few beers by the nightly campfire behind my guesthouse. Daniels guesthouse had and excellent vibe with I chillout area to relax and read during the day and jungle bar out back with a pool table and a campfire to spend the evening hours. On top of that there were plenty of trekking trails to explore full of dense jungle foliage, mossy trees, nice views and some modest waterfalls. It was also impressive to view the agriculture here with gorgeous tea plantations everything is grown on the hillside. Despite the hard work for the locals who work here it seems like such a beautiful setting to work outside in everyday. The downside of all this hillside agriculture is all the land erosion and frequent landslides can be devastating to peoples homes. Most of the roads aren't properly built to prevent this since it provides more employment if there is constant road work from what I told.

Although I was planning to stay in the Cameron highlands longer then explore some of Kuala Lumpur I couldn't resist a visit to the Perhentian Islands after all of the great reviews I was getting from travelling returning from there. I was extremely glad I followed their advice because the Perhentian's turned out to be the best island paradise I have visited so far. I stayed on the smaller island named Kecil in a tiny resort with it's own private beach accessible only by boat. Despite warnings of the coming Monsoons (in fact much of the island was already shut down for the season) I was very fortunate to be greeted by three days of gorgeous sunshine, soft white sand, and crystal clear waters. The larger town of Coral Bay was accessible by a 20min jungle walk which was fun to walk back through guided by the full moon after a BBQ dinner and some drinks there with some friends one night. The rest of my time there was spent laying on the beach and a day snorkeling trip where I saw sea turtles, black tip reef sharks and many fish and bright coral. At night a I slept in a very simple yet charming beach hut with it's own hammock and much needed mosquito nets. Fans were available provided that the generator was left on for the night but some nights it would turn off earlier. One of the more interesting quirks about the place was the very vocal pet otter who was very affectionate and would follow you around asking to get pet. It was remarkably smart and loved to play fetch with a snorkel or for fish. Unfortunately it was only loose when the owner was home and spent a lot of time in a cage where it would cry for attention.
I would have loved to stay in the Perhentian islands longer but I had to boot it to KL so I could catch my flight to meet Jess in Bali. It was a long 9hr bus ride to get there and once I arrived I had really no clue as to where I was in the city or where I was going to spend the night. Travelling through the city is remarkably easy since it served by three different train lines in addition the buses and people were very kind in giving directions so I managed to find myself in China Town at a pretty funky hostel with many aquariums housing HUGE fish. Since it was Friday night there was also a delicious free dinner on the rooftop garden providing a good opportunity to relax with other travelers. I spent the following morning walking around the many street stalls in China town and enjoying some good food before heading to the airport. I certainly have no regrets about spending my time in the Perhentian islands bit it would have been nice to have an extra day in KL so I could have visited some of the bigger attractions and buildings.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Goodbye Thailand

After four days of battering my body and acquiring both bruises and some very sore muscles from climbing to dizzying heights on the gorgeous cliffs of Rai Leh I came to the realization that I had spent four weeks (a third of my travel time) exploring roughly half of a country. Hurriedly I book my bus and ferry to get to the tropical duty free island of Langkawi in Malaysia before my Thai visa expired. Langkawi has of course all the usual touristic activities to do and when we arrived at the jetty on the other side of the island it felt more like we had entered an airport or a shopping mall complete with a Starbucks, McDonalds, and Baskin Robins. Our taxi to the otherside of the island brought us to what we truly wanted a beautiful sand beach and not much to do. I stayed with some truly amazing  and fun people at a place called Gecko house where I was surprised to learn from many of the people staying there that they had been there for over a week and had no plans of leaving in any hurry. A typical day for someone visiting Langkawi involves getting sunburned on the beach, trying not to lose your bathing suit playing in the waves as the tide comes in, then visiting the reggae beach bars at night finishes off with a late night snack of Roti Canang. Easy to understand how someone could stay there for so long but being on a time limit and with more of Malaysia to discover I left after only four night stay and had to say bye to all of my new friends.
From there I went Georgetown on the island of Penang right off the coast of Malaysia. This is an old British settlement with many old heritage building so it looks unlike any other town I have been to so far. In Penang the most popular thing to do is eat and the food is amazing having a mixture of Indian, Chinese, and Malay influences. Unfortunately my experience in Georegtown was tainted. I befriended a Malaysian man at the bar underneath the hostel I was staying who was very fun and friendly at the beginning of the night having lots of travel experience and tips to share bit later after he had drank more he accused me of being "stingy" for not wanting to necessarily share everything him with him. Then later that night I was sleeping in the dormitory of the hostel which is basically a big open space with beds on the upper level and some other drunk man had managed to find his way upstairs into the dorm. I woke up startled to find him kissing my cheek then he sat on my bed and I told him to go away. A man working at the hostel showed up very quickly and kicked him out then came back and told me he had called the police to have him arrested. They gave me another bed to spend the night in in a room where I could lock the door from inside but after that experience I was not comfortable staying there so I moved to find another place to stay on Love Lane. My second night was a much better experience and Georgetown does have many good qualities to it so it unfortunate that my experience was not a good one. If anything it was a reminder that I should be more careful meeting people since I am travelling alone.
I am now inland in the Cameron Highlands which seem quite beautiful so far though I have not been here long. Here the temperature is much more comfortable with the daily highs reaching only 20C which is a nice change from all the humidity and and sweating I was doing at the lower altitudes.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Still more beaches...... (yes life is hard)

Well I really can't complain too much about life in Thailand. Of course there are some places that are purely magical and then other places just want to send you running. I decided to spend a few more days hanging out with my buddies from Koh Phagnan and followed them to the touristic and larger island of Koh Samui. I hadn't originally planned to go there and upon arrival I realized that I had been right not to have those plans. Although it was nice not to have to say bye to everyone we were all split up since we booked accommodations in different places. I was staying with my Korean/Indian friend Esther in a very nice hotel in Chaweng. Chaweng is the hub of Koh Samui tourism where all the beaches are lined with large expensive resorts. It is impossible to walk the streets without being harassed to buy to buy a suit, get a massage, purchase souvenirs, or eat at somebody's restaurant. On top of that the taxis drive around honking at everyone constantly looking to see if someone needs a ride which is something I will never get used to. There were some good points to Samui however, Esther and I spent an afternoon taking a scooter up to a nearby waterfall where you could swim in the cool, refreshing spring water. This was a welcome change from the tepid ocean water I had been swimming in though many people thought it was too cold. I found this entertaining since it was quite warm compared to the Canadian lake water that I am used to.

Following two nights in Koh Samui I boarded a ferry and bus to Krabi town on the west coast of Thailand. This town is considered to be a jumping-off point to access the west coast beaches and islands. Although it is not a particularly exciting town I feel comfortable staying here and the cost of living is much lower than on the islands.The most exciting I witnessed was a cat trying quite unsuccessfully to hunt a scorpion. Also every place here seems to be some combination of guesthouse/restaurant/travel agent/bar/karaoke/massage place/gas station. I have been lucky enough to find a nice guest house to stay in with a very friendly and informative owner. For about $6 a night I get my own private room and bathroom and there is a very good WiFi connection throughout the building. In addition the place offers meager kitchen facilities which is a first for me, and free coffee and tea. I will probably end up sleeping about 8 nights here by the end of my time in Thailand since I'm commuting from here to go rock climbing in nearby Ao Nang. During this time I have also inserted a four night stay in Koh Lanta. Koh Lanta is definitely my favourite island to date. It was very quiet and relaxing and much less touristic than other places I had visited. Because it is low season there is hardly anyone about. The one downside I have to pay for low season fares are unpredictable storms which seem to be worsening as we approach the end of the rainy season and the winds shift directions. I still managed to get a sunburn, go scuba diving, and drove a scooter around the island with my Swiss friend Angela where we discovered the most beautiful private beach I have encountered to date. I also made a Canadian friend, Chuck, who I expect to see again in Indonesia. Soon I will be saying goodbye to Thailand and boarding a bus to cross the border into Malaysia. My first stop will most likely be an island of Langkawi which is reported to have the cheapest beer in the whole country. Shouldn't be too difficult a transition from life in Southern Thailand!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Life in the islands

After one last rainy day of visiting some of the more famous temples and the Grand Palace in Bangkok I boarded an overnight bus and ferry to arrive in the diving paradise of Ko Tao. Here it is sunny all the time and there is a nice breeze next to the ocean. Ko Tao is probably the most popular place to get a diving certification due to low prices and so the tiny island is covered in dive schools. While I was there I got to go on a few dives, do some kayaking, climbed up to and amazing lookout on one of the small neighbouring islands and do some snorkeling. After a few days of relaxing island life I moved on to Ko Phangan the island of the legendary full moon parties. Other than spending time on one of the numerous beaches and swimming and snorkeling I think the most popular past-time is to party. Haad Rin has a huge beach party every night with lots of fire dancers, buckets, and music playing everywhere. This is all leading up to the full moon party tonight which promises to be even crazier than the past few nights have been. It is important to be well rested since the party goes on until sunrise. This island is much larger than Ko Tao and I have rented a scooter to share with my friend Ester while I'm here and learned how to drive on what are probably the hilliest roads around (20% grade). I think after this I can probably drive anywhere! Soon I will be leaving the crazy parties behind and crossing over to the west coast which is supposed to be even more beautiful than it is here.