Monday, August 29, 2011

Day 137 - Conquering fears and waterfalls

I'm standing at the top of a waterfall, looking down into the extreme wall of water pouring from just behind me, which I am about to abseil into.  I am not in the calmest state I've ever been in to be honest.

Mallary and I are 'Canyoning', which involves abseiling down waterfalls, hiking through forest, sliding down waterfalls as if they are water slides, jumping off cliffs, and swimming through canyons.  We started the day with a quick warm up session, getting used to holding our own weight on the harness and ropes, and slowly walking and jumping down a small slope.  Then, it was straight into our first wall.  It was a little slippery, and dropping into the water at the end was invigorating, but it was nothing compared to what was to come!

We hiked through the forest for a while before reaching our natural water slide, first, we went the easy way, feet first.  Then it was time to go in backwards - now that was scary! Luckily we had helmets on!  But again, this was just all small stuff compared to what was waiting for us after the next hiking venture.

The mother of all waterfalls, slippery as hell, at a "just don't look down" height.  The first bit was easy.  The moss made it slippery and finding footholds proved a little difficult, but when I got down to the second part was when it really got tricky. With water splashing into my face like it was coming from a high pressure hose, I could barely concentrate on anything except trying to keep my eyes open.  I slipped, got stuck on the rock, water then bearing down on the top of my head, found my footing again, just to slip once more! But I eventually made it, and the 4m drop into the water when the rope ended was an adrenaline rush all on its own.

After jumping off the cliff (sans helmet!), we hiked and scrambled over rocks to get to our final waterfall, also known as 'The Washing Machine'.  Named after the force of the water when you meet it, making you feel as if you are tumbling inside a washing machine.  My guide told me that it is technically the most easy, but also the most frightening.  I really didn't think I had the courage to go down this one.  I took it slow, breathed deeply, and was more than delighted to finally hit the water.  I made it! That washing machine sure made an impact on me!

Exhausted, hungry but happy, we climbed up the final mountain to our picnic lunch spread.  Gone was the girl frightened of the slippery limestone at Pai Canyon, and reemerged was the adventurous, "yeah I'll give it a go" girl I'd be searching for my entire trip.

Canyoning - some of the best fun I've ever had, whilst still keeping my clothes on ;)

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Day 134 - Tearing Up Some Sand Dunes

I've just had one of the most exhilarating days of my trip.  I'm in the coastal Vietnamese town of Mui Ne, which is known for its wind surfing and its sand dunes.  Not really being that interested in wind surfing, Mallary and I hired a scooter and found our way to the sand dunes.

There are two types of dunes to play in here; white and red.  The red ones are close to town, and not quite as picturesque, then there are the seemingly endless white dunes.  After quickly arriving at the red dunes, we decided to carry on the 20 some kms to the white dunes first.  With our handdrawn map in hand, which tells us to just go straight for 'a short distance', then make a right, we thought it would be simple enough to get there.

After having no choice but to make two left turns, we started to voice our concern over the accuracy of the map.  Inevidably, we got lost.  Quite a bit lost.  Once the road markers started telling us how close we were getting to the next town, and consequently, how far from Mui Ne, we knew we weren't going the right way.  We pulled the scooter over and flagged down a local.  Although he didn't speak any English, he knew exactly were we wanted to go, and pointed us back in the right direction.

As we approached a left turn, about 10 minutes of driving later, we stopped and peered down a dirt track. A Vietnamese woman, who was lying in a hammock out the front her house said "yes, yes" and pointed down the road. We loved that this Vietnamese woman knew exactly what we were looking for just because we were two Westerns on a scooter!

What was just beyond the next corner was really beyond words.  As we got closer and closer, I couldn't believe we had stumbled upon a mini desert.  Sand dunes reaching the sky as far as the eye could see! We paid our 15,000 dong (AU$0.75!) for a plastic sheet that we would use as a sled to tear up the dunes!

We spent the next best part of an hour sliding down the dunes, having the time of our life, and then painstakingly running back up the dune to go again.  It felt like we had stepped into a postcard for the Sahara desert, and we were only a couple kilometres from the ocean!

It was definitely the best fun I've ever had for 75c, plain and simple fun, like being a kid again.  If you're ever in Vietnam, do NOT skip Mui Ne! (Even if it means you will be finding sand in every possible crevice of your bags, clothes, shoes for the rest of your trip!)

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Day 132 - Crawling in the Cu Chi Tunnels

After sleeping in a little longer than we were supposed to, Mallary and I found ourselves in a bit of a pickle.  We had missed all the tours going to the Cu Chi Tunnels for the day. Dammit. Ho Chi Min City isn't exactly a budget destination, and we really needed to move on after today.  But the Cu Chi Tunnels were on our 'must see list' for Ho Chi Min.  The tunnels were used by the Viet Cong in the 60s to control the Cu Chi district, and at their height, reached all the way to the Cambodian border.  Just within the Cu Chi district, there were over 200km of underground tunnels.

Being the saavy travellers we are (you tend to get the hang of it after 4 some months!), we figured there must be a local bus out to the tunnels.  We walked to the bus station, and in broken English, found which bus number we needed to catch (number 13).  We boarded the bus, paid for our ticket (25c!) and rode the two hours to the Cu Chi district, hopped on a scooter and drove the further 25km for only $2.50! Not only did we save money by sleeping in and missing the organised tour group, we also got to the tunnels when they were blissfully quiet, once all the tour groups had already left.

Visiting the Cu Chi Tunnels was a completely different experience to visiting the war reminants museum.  I felt that the war reminants museum focused on the US and anti-communist Vietnamese attacks, weapons and their overall involvement in the war, whereas Cu Chi was more about how the Viet Cong outsmarted their enemies, and fought back, despite having less sophisticated weapons and being severely outnumbered.

The tunnels themselves were absolutely tiny! We walked through two different passage ways that had been made bigger so westerners could fit through.  We learnt that most of the Viet Cong had to bend down or crawl through the tunnels to fit.  Just walking the 40 or so metres in the tunnel, bend over in order to fit, was incredibly exhausting, I can not even begin to imagine what living down there would be like.  However, being a little claustrophobic and a lot scared of the dark doesn't exactly help!

But what I took away from the Cu Chi Tunnels the most was just how smart the Viet Cong were in their battles.  They used techniques they had previously used for catching animals in the jungle as booby traps, they stole US weapons and modified them or cut them open to make their own hand grenades.  They created tunnels just large enough for them to fit in, but that almost no American soldier would be able to crawl in without getting stuck.

Visiting the Cu Chi Tunnels (and enjoying another bowl of Pho) was the perfect ending to our time in HCMC, it really rounded out the history lesson that began at the war reminants museum.

But now, enough serious stuff, we are off to Mui Ne to tear up some sand dunes!!

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Day 130 - Vietnam: A History Lesson

I'm in Vietnam! I arrived in Ho Chi Min City yesterday, after a mostly painless flight from Oz, and met back up with Mallary.  We indulged last night in a little Aussie feast consisting of cheeses (vintage cheddar and blue vein), hummus, Allen's lollies, Aussie wine (white and red!) and Caramello Koalas.  There are somethings you just can't get over here in Asia, and I wanted to introduce Mallary to the myriad of awesome stuff from Australia.

Today, being our first actual day in the city, we began by exploring Ho Chi Min City from the front of a 'cyclo'.  A cyclo is a modified bicycle, in which one passenger can sit on the front, and the driver peddles from the back.  It's a cool way to get around a big city like Saigon because its a nice slow pace, and you're sat at the front of the vehicle so you can actually see everything!  You do feel a little like you're being pushed around in a wheelchair though.  And the traffic feels even more crazy (if that possible) when you're being pushed directly into it beyond all control.

Our final destination was the War Reminants Museum.  It was intense to say the least.  We started by walking around the US Army tanks and fighter planes, but it really hit home when we walked into the recreation of the Con Dao and Phu Quoc Prisoner Camps.  I realised that what I learnt about the Vietnam War in school was totally biased, and how the Vietnamese prisoners' of war were treated was absolutely barbaric. The torture techniques used on these prisoners were so far beyond inhumane, I don't think there is a strong enough descriptive word to use.  I felt like I was going to throw up just looking at the torture devices and reading about the torture techniques. I can't even begin to imagine how it would have felt to be one of these helpless prisoners.  It is clearly so far flung from any level of pain I've ever experienced, I felt as if I'd never felt pain in my entire life.  Mallary and I both commented that we felt like we couldn't remember a single painful experience that had occurred in either of our lives.

This is called a 'Tiger Cage'
These barbed wire cages were used as a torture device. The small size (1.8m x 6.7m x 0.4m) was used to hold 3 people. 
With concerned looks on our faces, we learnt of the after affects of the war too, and the birth defects still occurring in babies today from Agent Orange, the chemical weapon the US sprayed over a large portion of Vietnam during the war.  We read a tear-jerking and heart breaking letter from one child to Barrack Obama, desperately asking for his assistance in seeing that sufferers of Agent Orange in Vietnam get the same compensation as the US sufferers.

Mallary and I kept commenting to each other that we really did not learn enough about the Vietnam War in school, and even though we knew they suffered during this time, we had absolutely no idea of the deep level of suffering, and just how lopsided the fighting was.

Feeling a little numb and a lot overwhelmed, we needed sometime to process what we had just learned.  We did this over our first bowl of Pho.  Vietnam's national dish.  And a delicious dish it is.  Pho is a noodle soup, usually with some kind of meat, a tasty broth, and a myriad of ingredients you can add yourself to change or enhance the flavour of the broth.

Watching a traditional Vietnamese water puppet show (which they have been practising since the 11th century), was the perfect end to the perfect day of immersing ourselves in Vietnamese culture and history.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Day 121 – Culture Shock!

I’m back in Australia. No, my trip isn’t over. I’m in Perth, my hometown for my sister’s engagement party (Congrats Elle and Gael!). But, whoa, culture shock.

I felt the first effects when I stepped off the plane.  It was freezing! Going from 30°C+ to 14°C was horrible.  Perth isn’t known for it’s cold weather, but it hit me like a tonne of bricks!  Being surrounded again by Australian accents also sounded so unfamiliar, I could really hear the Australian twang in everyone’s voices.  Then, after seeing my family and telling them all my travel stories, they told me I had a new accent!!

Another thing that struck me was how clean everything was.  Not that Thailand is especially dirty, but Australia is hospital grade clean in comparison.  I immediately felt unclean, and like I needed to jump in the shower ASAP.

It was definitely nice to walk on carpet again (I think I forgot it existed!), and I really missed using a big fluffy towel (rather than a thread-bare sarong).  It’s also become apparent that I have developed some strange travel habits, like looking for a water bottle before I brush my teeth, or grabbing toilet paper from my backpack when I need to go to the toilet.  Drinking water straight from the tap also felt strange.

But the biggest thing is that even though I’m at “home”, even though I’m here in the “real world”, I feel like I’m on holiday from my regular life.  Catching buses every couple of days and dragging my backpack everywhere has become so second nature to me, it feels strange that I’m not doing it!

Friday, July 15, 2011

Day 69 - Redemption and Depravity in Laos!

I don't think I've ever been so uncomfortable in my entire life. My shoulders ache, I feel like I no longer have movement in my neck, my knees are killing me and this is all compounded my the fact that I feel like I've haven't been to the toilet in my entire life. I'm currently crammed on a minibus on my way to Udomxai.  There are seats for 20, but there are 28 of us on this bus. But, I'm one of the lucky ones. The man next to me doesn't even have a seat to sit on, he is perched on top of a bag of rice instead. But that's Laos transport for you.  I'm sure we are bound to pick up at least another two extra passengers before we reach our destination.

I've just left the town of Luang Namtha, and the journey there was a similar story, and I'm only just recovering from the lactic acid build up in my thighs from that one.  Luang Namtha was mostly a disappointment.  I had wanted to go into Northern Laos to get into the local food, do some trekking or kayaking, and escape the tourist trail.  However instead what we found were expensive (by Laos standards) guesthouses, annoyingly slow internet connections and very over-priced trekking offerinfgs. Luang Namtha felt like a town built on tourism, with one problem, it was empty.  There were barely any tourists around.  This is not the experience I was seeking.

Yesterday Luang Namtha redeemed itself a little however.  Our original plan was to hire a scooter and just generally ride around town whilst trying to suck any fun we could out of it. But after studying the map of the city once more, Tom came up with the idea that we could do a walk through some of the nearby villages instead, and perhaps we would stumble across something that inspired us.  Stumbled indeed we did, but let me explain first.

We set off from the town centre and made our way across a little (but surprisingly sturdy) wooden bridge over the river.  As we walked through a couple of small villages, I was (apparently rather annoyingly) pointing out every species of wildlife I laid my eyes on, from butterflies and dragonflies, to cows and baby chicks.  We soon found ourselves walking along a dusty track surrounded by rice padi fields on either side.  Once we reached the main road, not so helpfully named 3A, we took a left to make a loop back to town.  As we were walking along the main road in the searing hot sun, a friendly 'Sabai Dii' (that is hello in Lao) was called out to us from a small group of locals, we smiled, waved and returned the friendly greeting.  One of the men hand signed to us 'eat?'.  Tom and I looked at each other, 'Really? Should we?', 'Free lunch! It would be rude to refuse'. So there we were, eating lunch with the locals in the middle of a rice padi. Whilst enjoying a generous spread of sticky rice, bananas, papaya salad, boiled spinach and some sort of chilli paste, we explained in broken english we we're from, how long we are travelling for, and 'why you in Laos?'. Then, with the help of a 'Speak Lao' app on our iPhones, said our names and learned there's.  Who needs to pay US$75 a day for a 'cultural experience'? Not us.  Such a friendly and generous gesture gave us both a fresh outlook on the town, and we continued our walk with a bit more spring in our step.

A couple of kilometres from town we saw a big blue tent and one hell of a sound system set up, seemingly in the middle of the street.  With a refreshed perception of the locals, we decided to gate crash whatever this party was.  We snuck around the back and found ourselves being invited to take a seat at one of the many tables set up. Immediately plastic cups full of ice and Beerlao were thrust into our hands.  After a chat to some more of the very friendly locals, we learnt we were at a party to celebrate the birth of a baby.  These local guys spoke amazing English, I was thoroughly impressed. All the while having our cups overflowed with Beerlao, we introduced ourselves, and spoke mostly to a guy named Tag.  He'd just finished studying in Luang Prabang and worked for the electricity company as an engineer.  He earns just $1 million kip per month. Thats about AU$115. I was astounded. It hit home that Laos really is one of the poorest countries in the world.  Before we could protest, our drinks of ice and Beerlao soon had a new addition: Laolao, the local spirit.  Which is a nasty spirit let me tell you. I think Laolao could strip paint stripper! So feeling rather tipsy, we were invited by a cute local girl to 'please come and dance with me'.  We danced some traditional Lao dances and were introduced to a whole new group of locals, this time, law students. Again, they spoke impeccable English.  All the while more and more drinks were being forced upon us.  After politely refusing a number of times, and after I'd consumed far far too much alcohol, it was time for me to call it a day. I couldn't walk straight, think straight or see straight. It was time to throw in the towel.  Tom wasn't quite ready to leave yet, so I left him with some very cute Lao girls and walked in what I hoped was the direction of our guesthouse, leaving the blaring Lao music behind me.

It wasn't until I was a couple of hundred metres down the road that I realised Tom had the map and I really had no idea where the hell I was.  Drunk and lost in the boiling afternoon heat, I stumbled all the way to our guesthouse. I'm not really sure how the hell I found it actually, I kind of just turned a corner and there it was; I was overcome with relief.

I shall leave the story of the remainder of Tom's debauchery for him to tell, but I will say this; Tom busted into the guesthouse about 3 hours later, stumbled up against the wall, hiccupped and then said "We HAVE to leave tomorrow".

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Day 66 - Into Laos!

Finally we have entered Laos!  Last night we caught an overnight minivan to Chiang Khong, the border town that will get us to Laos.  Originally we had decided to get up at 6am (the bus arrived in Chiang Khong at 3am), to get the earliest bus we could to Luang Nam Tha.  That didn't happen.  Instead we are on the 12 noon bus.  Definitely the right decision given just how cramped this bus is.  This minibus regularly sits 17 people. We currently have 27 people (and one dog) aboard.

Cramped is not a strong enough word. Perhaps claustrophobic might be a better description.

Besides the muscle pain in my legs, and the joint pain in my knees, my first impressions of Laos are good ones.  The people here seem a little more cautious of foreigners (or falang)than Thai people are, but the serenery is absolutely amazing. All around us are huge, luscious green mountains.  The only thing I can liken it to is driving through a movie set.  Everything just looks so green and amazing.

One thing that really threw me though; in Laos they drive on the right.  Already I feel a bit disoriented and I've only had to cross the road twice.

By the way, there are now 33 people (and still one dog) on this minibus. Welcome to Laos!