Adventures in Asia 2008

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

Archive for May, 2008

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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