Adventures in Asia 2008

my travels through India, Nepal, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Taiwan.

Ni Hao from Taiwan!

Posted by maudholma on 7 July 2008

Apart from the odd metro station name (it only took 4 days to remember and semi-correctly pronounce Zhongxiao Fuxing), “hello” and “thank you” are about the only Mandarin words I’ve picked up during 2 weeks in Taiwan. I have, however, become an expert in the art of pictionary-sign language-hand waving. Sometimes it works but since people here consider it embarassing or shameful to admit that they don’t know something, you rarely find out until afterwards even when it doesn’t! Although the Taiwanese seem quite reserved initially (especially in comparison to Filipinos) they’re actually very friendly under the surface and we’ve felt very welcome here despite the language barrier.

Apart from 4 days in the south of the country (S and I the main attraction amid Taiwanese trying to avoid the sun at all costs even when on the beach…) we’ve spent most of our time in Taipei. I expected a busy, modern, and unfriendly metropolis but was instead surprised to be met with a very charming city. It’s a place which has found a good balance between old and new – home to the world’s most reliable metro system, the world’s tallest building and fastest elevator, a 300 km/h high speed railway network, and designer malls filled with Lagefeld, Gucci, and Armani but also boasting a wealth of local markets, herbal doctors, early morning t’ai chi lessons in the park, tea plantations, hot springs, cheap clothes and accessories at various night markets, ornate temples, and the world’s largest collection of Chinese art and artefacts. A bit like the Taiwanese people, Taipei has a cool and glossy exterior with a warm, rich, and traditional heart.

We’re lucky to have been shown around the city by some of S’ friends and have because of this been able to experience things which we wouldn’t have seen had we been following a guidebook. The most exotic things have, of course, been food related: Dumplings, buns, pastries, soups, noodles, meat, fish, vegetables whether fried, steamed, cooked, grilled or raw. The only thing we decided we weren’t adventurous enough to try was “stinky tofu”, a local speciality which smells like someone dumped the contents of a septic tank onto a frying pan, but apparently tastes a little bit better. Maybe next time!

We leave for the airport in a few hours and I have to admit that I’m heartbroken to be leaving Asia, the continent that I’ve called home for the past 6 months. This trip has exceeded all of my expectations and has been hands down the most rewarding experience of my life so far. I don’t know if I’ll be coming back to Europe a new person exactly, but after half a year on the road I would be disappointed with myself if nothing had changed and I hadn’t gained some new perspective on life. If for nothing else, I vow to smile more!

All good things must come to an end, I suppose, but we still have 3 weeks in the US before this trip is over so there’s still a little more to go before we’ve made it all the way around the world.

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(Nearly) Avoiding a Storm

Posted by maudholma on 26 June 2008

Our peaceful stay on Camiguin had a less than peaceful ending when 2 days of rain and wind turned out to be the work of Typhoon Frank rather than just “regular” bad weather. The night before we were due to leave for the mainland all the ferries had been cancelled and the part of the beach that wasn’t already under water was constantly beaten by frothing waves. Amazingly, the wind had eased by morning and we felt lucky that we wouldn’t be missing any of our upcoming flights. At the airport, on our way from Cagayan to Manila, I made the mistake of thinking that we had a good chance of experiencing our first on-time departure with Cebu Pacific Air. 7 hours later, freezing from the powerful A/C and braindead from watching the same five horrible commercials on loop in the departure hall (literally a big room with nothing but chairs and said crappy TV) the loudspeaker announced that all passengers should go through security and get ready to board. As if we hadn’t already been ready and waiting for half the day!

The Manila that we landed in was completely different from the sunny place we had left about a month earlier. Palmtrees looked like they would snap in half from the gale force winds and it was difficult to find shelter from the downpour. During the cab ride to our hostel we were in the midst of scenes I’ve only seen on the news before – people wading in knee-deep water surrounded by cars that should have been rowed rather than driven down the street. The disappointment of our flight to Taiwan having been moved forward by a day so as to avoid Frank, who was supposed to have been wreaking havoc in Taipei around the time we were due to land, was tempered by our discovery of Manila’s shopping malls. We were luckier than many people in that the main damage caused by Frank was to our bank accounts!

The irony of our flight to Taiwan being the only flight to/in/from the Philippines without a delay (not counting 24 hours) wasn’t lost on us as we stood in a check-in queue for two hours, followed by an immigration queue, and then a security queue, leaving us with barely enough time to run across the airport (now there would have been plenty to do, of course) to our gate. Although Frank decided to skip Taiwan for Hong Kong, 95 % humidity, sunshine, and temperatures of over 30 °C means we’re almost as wet here as we were in the Philippines…

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Beach Bums (Part II)

Posted by maudholma on 19 June 2008

After Malapascua, we went to Siargao Island, the surf Mecca of the Philippines. Despite my best efforts, all I got out of my surfing lesson was bruised knees and a bruised ego. The kid teaching me tried to blame it on my board being too short, but I took the fact that I spent more time under the water than on the water as a sign that I should stick to diving and headed over to Camiguin Island instead. The 7 volcanoes (only one of them apparently not active anymore) on the island mean that the sand here is jet black, except for a small white sand island a short boat ride away from where we live. It’s s different kind of paradise, but a paradise nonetheless!

After a few days of jumping on and off different buses and ferries from Malapascua to Siargao and then Siargao to Camiguin, we began our time here by relaxing, perfecting our tans, and completely losing track of time. We then spent a few days underwater, exploring volcanic rock formations and all manner of aquatic life. Before our final dive, a night dive, we watched a striking sunset before gearing up while looking at turtles coming up to the surface to breathe. Half an hour later, surrounded complete darkness except for our flashlights, we were diving with said turtles and even got to pet one! Definitely a sign that I should stick to diving.

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Magnificent Malapascua

Posted by maudholma on 7 June 2008

Just over seven days ago I was extatic about seeing a few Nemos but the last week on Malapascua Island has set the bar just a little higher. We lived about 10 meters from a nearly deserted beach, looking out over an endless ocean as well as the odd fishing boat or group of kids playing in the water. I’ve fallen in love with the Filipino people and the locals on Malapascua were no exception – nothing but smiles and people asking us whether we were sisters all the time since we apparently look exactly alike… And then there was the diving.

For the sake of all the people reading this who don’t dive and have no interest in hearing about how many kilos I had on my weight belt or how many bars of air I used per dive, I won’t go into the specifics. Not that I know the names of most of the fish I saw, and since my descriptions usually went something like “It was sort of like a grey boxy squareish fish with a blue trim”, it’s no wonder our diving instructor found it a little hard to help. On the last day of my course I did a night dive, and although I missed the mating of the fish we had been watching in the same spot for about 20 minutes (essentially the purpose of the dive…) I was on top of the world after seeing a seahorse, getting underwater fireworks from fluorescent plankton, and ascending to a pitch black sky littered with stars. I told myself things couldn’t get any better and tried to memorize the feeling as best as I could for a rainy day. The following morning we got up before sunrise in hope of catching a glimpse of the thresher sharks, Malapascua’s claim to fame. We not only saw two of them, one so close that I could see its pupil, but also had a manta ray glide past us before disappearing into the blue! I forgot all about the cardinal rule of diving and stopped breathing for a second or two.

We were so high on life when we left this morning that we just assumed people were being happy around us because that’s the way it’s done here. After 4 hours on a bus and a walk around a shopping mall we realized it may have had something to do with S’ capris having a giant rip in the back and that people were smiling mainly because she was showing them a different side of herself.

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Kumusta from the Philippines!

Posted by maudholma on 28 May 2008

After our last evening avoiding getting run over and royally ripped off in Hanoi, our flight to Manila was over 2 hours delayed. A great ending to our stay in a country that was already getting on my nerves… Bleary eyed and without really knowing where we were going, S and I found a “jeepney” (a cross between a jeep, a pick-up, and a bus) to the nearest skytrain station. During our 5 minute walk, we were met by people saying hello, waving, smiling, and asking if we needed directions. And for a change, no one was trying to sell us anything. After our first 2.5 months in India trying to get used to people being friendly for no reason and the last 1 month in Vietnam trying to get used to people generally not being friendly for no reason, the Philippines had already scored major points and has kept doing so ever since.

Manila, which I had expected to be a city full of noise, pollution, and traffic, is nothing compared to what we’ve experienced in other countries. It doesn’t rank among the most beautiful cities I’ve visited – most of the parts we’ve seen so far are actually quite ugly – but the people make up for the otherwise lacklustre surroundings. There’s something about the Filipinos’ way which is incredibly genuine and I havet yet to feel as if someone is starting a conversation only because they’re out to get something from me. Besides which, people are constantly smiling, whether it’s the mall security guard checking your bag, the old lady sitting next to you on the bus who feeds you cookies, the supermarket workers who do a choreographed dance by the checkouts (to ease the customers’ boredom?!) or the jeepney driver who gives you a free ride from the airport because you don’t have anything smaller than a 1000 peso note and he has no change.

We only spent one day in Manila getting our visas extended and grinning from ear to ear at how adorable everyone was before flying to Puerto Princesa, the biggest city on the island of Palawan. We ended up staying with a slightly loony (but very sweet) Filipino woman who arranged our onward bus tickets to the town of El Nido. She offered to wake us up at 3:00 so that we could catch the 4 o’clock bus which meant that we would arrive in El Nido anytime between 11:00 and 14:00. S’ alarm rang at 3:15 and when Loony Lady woke up 5 minutes later, she informed us that the bus was actually not leaving until 5 o’clock. Still, she assured us, we should be there at 4:00 so we hadn’t gotten up in the middle of the night in vain. We got to the bus station at approximately 3:50, an hour and a half before the bus. Our enthusiasm for the Philippines waned even more during the 9 hour journey squished into the back row of a bus with 4 others, one of whom took up the space of two people. There were no windowpanes, so all the dust and dirt from the road ended up in our hair, faces, clothes, ears, noses etc. We swore we would rather walk back than repeat the journey but since the ferry schedule to the island of Busuanga, where we were planning on diving among WWII wrecks and soaking up the sun, didn’t match our itinerary, we woke up at 4:45 this morning and sat on exactly the same bus (driver, ticket guy, lack of windowpanes) back to Puerto Princesa. Fortunately, the roads weren’t as dry this time so we avoided the worst of the dust. Unfortunately, it started pouring towards the end so I ended up soaked from both the water coming in through the window and the holes in the floor.

The trip was undoubtedly worth it, however, after our island hopping trip yesterday. El Nido is the jumping off point of the Bacuit Archipelago, a host of islands, limestone cliffs, untouched white sand beaches, and turquoise waters. S and I drove around this small piece of paradise in a boat with our own driver, stopping off at different places to swim in lagoons, lie on the beach, eat fresh grilled fish, and snorkel. As well as one fish, two fish, red fish, and blue fish, there were white fish with yellow stripes, brown fish with blue dots, neon green fish, iridescent fish, tiny fish, huge fish, pretty fish, ugly fish, nice fish, mean fish – one actually bit me! I was just about to get out of the water at our last stop when something made me decide to keep going for just a minute. I put on my snorkel, swam about a meter, and saw a sea anemone when all of a sudden…a group of mini Nemos came swimming out! I would say that nothing can crown finding Nemo in the Philippines, but we still have over 3 weeks left so I won’t jinx it.

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Firmly on the Tourist Trail

Posted by maudholma on 22 May 2008

By the time we arrived in Hanoi, comparing Southeast Asia itineraries with other travelers was making me feel like a broken record. There are only so many times you can talk about which countries you’ve already been to and where you’re going next before you start to have a speech memorized. “The food in Thailand was incredible. Laos was beautiful. Cambodia was hot.” And Vietnam is touristy. We’ve bumped into the same Argentinian couple in most of the cities we’ve visited here and as amusing as it is, it’s made me feel a bit like a cow being herded from the south of the country up to the north with everyone else currently traveling in Vietnam. That is, until we spent the past 3 days in Halong Bay and the term “touristic” took on a whole new meaning…

Most people visit the thousands of islands and limestone cliffs that make up Halong Bay on organized tours from Hanoi. We arrived at the port along with a few dozen other minibuses dropping people off and picking others up. It got a little better when we got onto our boat with the 12 other people in our group; at least we no longer looked like war evacuees standing around with our backpacks, waiting in one place, then another, then a third etc. It was difficult to appreciate the stunning scenery at times when everything we did was designed to remind us that we were tourists and that what we were experiencing was nothing close to genuine or authentic. We visited a cave which would’ve been beautiful but for the fact that the rock formations were highlighted by neon lights and the camera flashes of the 50 other people visiting the cave at the same time as us, walking in an ordered line along the paved path from one end of the cave to the other. We stopped at a small floating village to go kayaking and were immediately accosted by women trying to sell us Oreos, Pringles, Coke, beer, and cigarettes. We were herded from bus to boat to pier to bus to hotel like cattle at a livestock market a few times each day.

Considering how touristic the tour was, it’s surprising how disorganized the whole experience actually was. We rarely knew what we were going to do each day, which was probably for the best since most people who were given itineraries were disappointed that reality was nothing like what they had been promised. Each time we moved from bus to boat or vice versa the people in our group changed, the guides apparently exchanging people at random. This was especially unfair since people who had paid $40 and those shelling out $80 for a superior or VIP trip had exactly the same standard of accommodation and transportation. And since no one told us what we needed to wear, there were people doing the trek to the top of a mountain in Cat Ba National Park in flip flops. I wore sneakers and still felt like I was tempting fate when I was slipping around on the muddy paths or clinging onto jagged rocks, branches, and anything else that I could get my hands on while trying not to sprain my ankle or break my neck the last 100 m up to the top. There were, of course, no railings or anything which would have broken a fall…

If it hadn’t been for the breathtaking nature of Halong Bay, which was the overwhelming highlight of the past 3 days and made the whole experience worth it, I would be leaving Southeast Asia disappointed and with a bitter taste in my mouth. Instead, I’m glad for the past 2 months or so here but also giddy with excitement about getting on a plane tonight and flying to Manila. Bring on deserted beaches and crystal clear waters – I’m badly in need of some R&R!

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Popping Pills and Sipping Snake Wine

Posted by maudholma on 10 May 2008

I’ve spent the past 3 days lying in bed, feeling a combination of the following symptoms: nausea, headache, runny nose, throatache, shivers, sweating, and general “all over” pain. As a result of the 4 different kinds of multicolored pills I’m currently taking, I now feel as if I’ve been run over by a car rather than a three ton truck. In between battling what I though was my impending death and the cockroaches in our bathroom, I dragged myself around Hoi An, getting fitted for clothes at some of the many tailor shops that the town is famed for. I can so far think of 2 possible causes of my illness.

Even though we’re generally too poor (or stingy?) to afford A/C rooms, a lot of the buses we’ve been taking have it, even when they don’t have enough suspension to deal with the uneven roads and the entire trip is spent gripping the armrests and trying to avoid hitting the ceiling. From hot and sweaty outside to cool and dry indoors, it’s no wonder the body finds this diffcult to deal with.

Or it might be the lunch we had the day before we left Da Lat. We took a motorbike trip around the countryside with 2 guides, one of whom took us to a restaurant serving cay to. That’s young dog. It came prepared in 2 ways, boiled and barbecued, was accompanied by grilled snake and washed down with snake wine. Our other guide didn’t join us because he believed he would become very ill if he ate dog.

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Xin Chao from Vietnam!

Posted by maudholma on 3 May 2008

A list of the best and worst of Vietnam so far:

BEST

Friendly people. From the moment we arrived in Ha Tien to the present, we’ve been met by smiles, waves, and hellos from the locals. Undoubtedly, the highlight was the A/C minivan of businessmen who took mercy on 2 sweaty backpackers looking for a place to stay under the midday sun in Mui Ne and made sure we found a hotel. The driver even offered to take us back to Ho Chi Minh City if we were unsuccessful…

Incredible food. We’ve eaten everything from spring rolls to seafood to soup and have yet to be disappointed. Still on our list of things to try are goat, snake, and dog.

Beautiful nature. Even though we’ve only covered about a third of the country, we’ve already experienced beaches, sanddunes, forests, mountains, lakes, and rivers. Although Vietnam suffers from the same littering problem as all the other countries we’ve visited, if you manage to close your eyes to all the garbage, the scenery is picture perfect.

Floating markets. From Can Tho, a town in the Mekong Delta, we took an early morning boat trip to the floating markets which set up every day in the area. People selling mainly fruits and vegetables stuff their boats full of their wares and tie a sample to a bamboo pole in the bow. People buying these things gallantly manouver their boats around the market, picking up things as they go along and sometimes enjoying a coffee or tea from the “refreshment boat” which zigzags around.

Da Lat. A town in the mountains which, despite being made mainly of concrete and not being quite as quaint as I had thought, still possesses a certain charm. This is no doubt partly due to the fact that we have a satellite TV in our room (don’t judge – we haven’t watched TV in over 4 months!) and the lack of sweating due to the cooler temperatures at this altitude. It also checks the boxes for the first three items on this list.

WORST

Motorbikes. I thought that riding one was dangerous at first, but have now realized that the person sitting on the motorbike is much safer than the pedestrian. In HCMC, motorbikes drove in the wrong direction, across lanes, and even on the sidewalk from time to time. Even in Da Lat, I feel as if I’m watching a tennis match whenever I cross the road because I’m constantly looking in both directions and trying to stay alive.

Mosquitoes. Actually more like tiny little flies, Mui Ne seemed to be infested with insects that devoured our feet. I currently have 13 bites on one leg and 15 on the other and they all itch like hell, all the time.

Power cuts. It was around 40 degrees on the beach in Mui Ne and only marginally colder at night. After the third shower of the day and the cool breeze of a mediocre fan, it was usually possible to fall asleep without any major problems. On the evening of Liberation Day, with a group of drunken Vietnamese men sitting on the lawn outside our room, making what they probably thought was sweet music with only their voices and plastic buckets to bang on, the power went out and our fan stopped working. Add to the mix the mosquito bites, and voilà, you have one long and sleepless night.

Tourism and all that it entails. High prices, ugly concrete buildings, pushy salespeople, ignorant/rude foreigners. I hate it all, but as a foreginer myself, I suppose I’m to some extent adding to the problem. As much as I’d like to think, smiling a lot and knowing how to say a few words in Vietnamese doesn’t make me blend in. And that’s not only because I’m blonde.

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Traffic Chaos

Posted by maudholma on 27 April 2008

“We will pick up a few more people and then go”, S and I were told when we got into a taxi from Sihanoukville to Kampot. At this point there were four of us in the car. After few more minutes and a few more people, four of us sat in the back with the remaining four (including the driver) in the front. How someone manages to switch gears when he is wedged between a man sitting on the gearstick and a woman whose feet are competing for room with his remains a mystery to me. Maybe it’s best that way.

“We will wait for four more people and then go”, we were told when we got into a taxi for the Vietnamese border a few days later. That would have been one less than the previous time. We lucked out, and instead of waiting until the car was full managed to find another taxi with one passenger that was getting ready to leave. This time there were only two people in the front (including the driver) and four of us in the back (including two backpacks), until we stopped to pick up two more people, who squeezed into the front and seemed to think nothing of it. S and I couldn’t wait to get to Vietnam, where driving was sure to be safer and taxis not as full.

“We have no taxi here – only moto”, S and I were told after we had crossed the border and started to kindly decline motorcycle drivers’ requests to drive us the 10 km to Ha Tien, the nearest town. After all, who would put a 15 kg backpack in front of a moto driver, strap on a helmet, and hop on the back? The answer: two people with no other means of transportation. We watched a garbage truck, an egg van, and a minibus full of businessmen pass us before realizing that we were not likely to experience safe driving or empty taxis in Vietnam. After a few days of taking motos I can confirm that this still holds true. I never thought I would miss a Toyota Camry that seats eight.

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Wedding Bells

Posted by maudholma on 21 April 2008

In between our stops on the tourist trail of Cambodia, S and I did a homestay in a village near the town of Kampong Cham, a few hours from Phnom Penh. The family we stayed with consists of an American man, his Cambodian wife (whose whole family lives and farms in the same village), their 2 adorable children, a dog, and some chickens. During our two day visit, we got to see a glimpse of “real” Cambodian life and, like our elephant riding experience in Laos, is probably going to be the most memorable experience of this country.

In 1975, the Khmer Rouge took power in Cambodia after years of civil war and unrest and immediately began forced evacuations of Cambodia’s cities and towns. People were told that there was a threat of US bombings and that they would be allowed to return in 2 or 3 days. Instead, these “New People” were forced to move to the countryside and join the “Ancient People” in an attempt to create the perfect Communist state, built on agriculture. During the 4 years that the Khmer Rouge were in power, an estimated 1-2 million people (according to some reports, one third of the country’s population) died or were killed. Many starved to death due to food shortages and terrible living conditions coupled with inadequate healthcare, with the rest being tortured and killed by the Khmer Rouge. Ironically, since most of its leaders were well educated, the group targeted those with an education as well as monks, teachers, and members of the previous governments. It’s shocking to think that this happened only a little over 30 years ago and that it was allowed to go on for so long before anyone intervened. Kheang, the wife of the family we lived with, remembered stealing fruit as a child whenever she could to supplement the meagre rations of watery rice soup with fish paste that they were given. Since she was only 5 years old when it happened, her memories were a little more innocent than those of her mother, who said she still feels like she’s opening up old wounds when she talks about that time and felt disappointed in that some of the perpetrators have never been brought to justice.

As a slightly more uplifting part of our homestay experience, S and I attended the wedding of Kheang’s cousin. At the ripe old age of 28, her parents had told her that she could no longer turn down proposals, and essentially forced her to marry someone she had only met for 15 minutes before the wedding. During an entire day of ceremonies, the bride and groom rarely looked at each other and didn’t exchange a single word. They did, however, change clothes about 10 times, each outfit more ridiculous than the previous. S and I didn’t do much better – we wore stained and sweat-drenched t shirts, capri pants, and flip flops. As one does to a wedding… Nevertheless, the bride insisted on having her picture taken with us and everyone tried their hardest to drag us onto the dancefloor! If for nothing else, I learned that I don’t want a wedding photographer who habitually lifts up his shirt to are his beer belly due to the heat, a husband-to-be who teams a red jacket with pink pants, white socks, and black shoes, or techno music when I get married.

After a quick stop in Phnom Penh for some sightseeing and more sweating, we made our way to Sihanoukville, on the south coast of Cambodia, where white sand, turquoise water, fresh seafood, and breathtaking sunsets are the order of the day. I probably won’t get much sympathy if I complain about the heat?

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