Adventures in Asia 2008

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

Sues’day from Cambodia!

Posted by maudholma on 14 April 2008

After four days of relaxing on the island of Don Det, S and I said kop chai lai lai and bye bye to Laos and crossed the border into Cambodia. Two minibus rides and a night in Phnom Penh later, we argued our way onto a bus to Siem Reap. It’s currently Khmer New Year in Cambodia so we weren’t the only ones trying to get out of the capital! We smiled, we pleaded, we begged, and were eventually successful. This time we were the only pigs sitting and lying on the floor; there was a family of 4 who didn’t initially fit onto the bus either, but they were given small, plastic stools to sit on. When we pulled into the bus station in Siem Reap, men with signs for different hostels started appearing in the windows. By the time we stepped off the bus we were each surrounded by 5 of them talking non stop. “I’ll take you to the guesthouse for free, you don’t need to pay anything”. “We have double rooms with fan or AC”. “You saw me first when you got off the bus – come with me”. “I’m a tuk tuk driver, I don’t work for a hotel, so I’ll take you anywhere you want”. (One of the big surprises of Cambodia so far has been how well people speak English). S and I were standing about half a meter apart but couldn’t talk to each other without screaming at the top of our lungs and even then we could barely hear each other!

Siem Reap is best known because of its close proximity to Angkor, a collection of ruins from the Khmer empire. Yesterday we woke up at 4:30 in order to see the sunrise at Angkor Wat (said to be the world’s largest single religious monument) followed by 9 hours of sightseeing at two other temples and the ruins of the city of Angkor Thom. It was definitely an experience and some of the sights were incredible, but the hundreds of tourist buses plying the routes between the main sights, not to mention the thousands of tourists running around with their cameras, ruined the atmosphere somewhat. We barely had enough energy for dinner last night and made a half-hearted attempt at celebrating Khmer New Year before giving up and going to bed. Instead we’re planning on celebrating both the second day of New Year (the holiday lasts for 3 days) and the second day of the halfway point of our trip tonight!


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Motion Sickness

Posted by maudholma on 6 April 2008

(Almost) Every bus trip in Laos begins with the driver handing out plastic bags. S and I noticed this on our third bus ride in the country, from a small town on the Mekong river called Pakbeng to Louang Phabang. We had taken a slowboat from Louang Phabang to Pakbeng the previous day and despite the stunning views, decided to avoid the 10 hour journey back by spending 7 hours on 2 separate buses instead. It’s strange how the definition of the word easy  changes so much after only a few months on the road… We drove through adorable village after adorable village where kids, cows, and chickens in the street scattered to avoid the bus. One chicken was not so lucky – there was a honk and a crunch, and then only annoying Lao pop music blaring from the tape deck. Otherwise, the beautiful scenery was interrupted only by the girl in front of me repeatedly throwing up into the small, clear plastic bags she had been given and launching them out of the window every 10 minutes. I didn’t check, and I don’t think she did either, to see whether any kids, cows, or chickens were hit.

When we took a night bus to Vientiane one day later, the plastic bags were a little bigger and thankfully not clear. Nevertheless, very little was left to the imagination as the woman in front of me, behind me, and across from me all began to retch as we made our way along small mountain roads. Not only were the seats supremely uncomfortable, but when my iPod battery died, I spent the remainder of the night listening to the choir of nearly half the bus throwing up mixed with annoying Lao pop music (also apparently a vital ingredient on all bus trips here). When we took another night bus down south to Pakxe (having spent 2 days bearing temperatures close to 40 °C in Vientiane) and had made ourselves comfortable in our beds, S and I weren’t sure whether the plastic bags that our bus stewardess handed out were as a precaution against puking or to be used as trash bags for the pre-bedtime snacks that we were served. Despite the presence of yet more annoying Lao pop music – I can now sing along to 2 songs – I slept like a baby for most of the night so can’t say for sure whether anyone in fact threw up,

We actually came to Pakxe on the recommendation of a French couple, who had visited a small village nearby called Ban Pa Phou to go elephant riding and said it was one of the highlights of their trip. On the songthaew ride there, were were squeezed in among 15 sacks of cement and about 10 ladies with bags containing mangoes, raw meat, spring rolls, cigarettes, chips, toys, and a whole lot more. After two punctures during the first 50 km we turned onto a small dirt track for the remaining 27 km and arrived 4 hours after we had set off, looking like we had tried to put on self tanner in the dark – a brownish-orange streaky color. It would be an understatement to say that Pa Phou is in the middle of nowhere: When we had showered, a large portion of the village’s 200 inhabitants had gathered at our guesthouse to watch Mr. Boun Hom, the owner cum doctor-of-the-village, tend to a little boy who had been hit by a motorcycle, but most of them found the sight of 2 falangs to be more interesting than a 10 year-old with a hole in his head!

This morning we woke up at 5:30 to ride elephants in the sunrise. It was without a doubt one of the most incredible experiences of this trip so far, if not of my life! We – me on the elephant’s neck, S on its back, and our guide Ing sometimes sitting, someimes crouching, and sometimes standing behind her – rode through rice fields, with nothing but mountains on a deep red and orange horizon in front of us and a herd of water buffalo wandering in search of something to drink, up to a mountain where the elephant breakfasted on bamboo and a small tree that it pulled up, roots and all. On our way back, we picked up its friend so both S and I got a chance to sit on the elephants’ necks and try “steering”. Ing did most of the work and could control both elephants just by yelling a few words or pulling their ears, although apart from a few stroppy moments when they wanted to stop to watch a tractor drive by or eat a few banana leaves, both were very well behaved. After the perfect morning, we were both dreading the songhtaew ride back, but other than the 7 pigs lying on the floor, crapping like crazy when they weren’t screeching or trying to stand up, it went rather smoothly. Tomorrow morning we’re going to Si Phan Don, the Four Thousand Islands, at the southernmost part of Laos and just by the Cmabodian border. Apart from the odd swing in a hammock, I’m looking forward to staying still for a few days without electricity, running water or any other comforts.

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Sabaidee from Laos!

Posted by maudholma on 2 April 2008

Crossing the border from Thailand to Laos was a world away from what we experienced when going from India to Nepal and back. Instead of a man filling our details into a logbook by hand, everything was computerized and hyper efficient. Maybe the entrance fee (more reminiscent of something you pay to enter a theme park than a country…) that everyone crossing the border into Laos must pay goes toward this?

Our first stop was Vang Vieng, a small backpacker town north of the capital, Vientiane. Lying on the banks of the Nam Song river, the place is surrounded by absolutely awe-inspiring limestone mountains which were even more dream-like since it was overcast and a bit hazy for most of our time there. After making an unsuccessful attempt at finding a nearby cave with a lagoon in it – we crawled through claustrophobic tunnels that led nowhere – we spent the following 2 days getting indoctrinated into two Vang Vieng institutions: watching Friends episodes at one of the dozens of cafes along the main road and tubing. Since the first 100 m stretch of river where the tubing is done is home to about 10 bars, we quickly found out that drinking and socializing are the most important parts of the experience and that tubing is just a way to move from one bar to the next! Many of the places also have platforms over the river with swings on them, from which people jump into the water, but which I was too scared (my mom would probably use the word “sensible”) to try after seeing peoples’ scrapes and cuts. S slipped and is currently sporting two gigantic greenish-yellow bruises on her thighs as well as a cut lip… What we thought would be a 2 hour whoosh down the river turned out to be a 7 hour beer and Lao Lao (rice whiskey) fest with a banana for lunch.

We’re now in Louang Phabang, a little further north. It’s an adorable little town by the Mekong river which used to be the royal capital when Laos was still a kingdom. Dripping with character, there are about as many Buddhist temples here as French colonial villas. For S’ birthday, which lasted 2 days since she was sick for part of the actual day, we took a break from being smelly backpackers: Breakfast (a banana muffin and cappuccino while reading the newspaper) at a coffee shop, herbal steam bath and massage at the Lao Red Cross (never did I ever imagine I’d be standing in a 4 m2 room with six Lao women and zero visibility followed by a cup of tea on the veranda and a shower), drinks at the former residence of the Royal Family, and dinner at a cute little restaurant topped off with an enormous glass of red wine. I could stay here forever!

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Whirlwind Tour of Northeast Thailand

Posted by maudholma on 24 March 2008

S and I have spent the past week traveling through the northeast of Thailand, which is a world away from Bangkok and our AC/swimming pool hotel! We started off by going to Khao Yai National Park, not too far from the capital. Having decided to give camping in the jungle a miss, we stayed in a small town called Pak Chong (about a 20 minute drive away) and spent one day in the park, hiking to a waterfall that was used in the movie The Beach. Unfortunately, we saw no lions or tigers on the way but did spot something resembling a bear climbing down a tree and a hornbill which was so big that it sounded like a plane was flying over us when the bird flapped its wings! Because we were stood up by our new French “friends”who we’d agreed to go back to town with and didn’t want to pay for a taxi ourselves, S and I decided to hitch-hike back to Pak Chong instead. After two different rides on the back of someone’s pick up truck (the second time with 6 other people and what seemed like all their worldly possessions), we were dropped off by the motorway which was, incidentally, not where we wanted to end up in the dark… We then decided to walk the rest of the way, until a woman stopped to ask if we needed help and informed us that we had about 5 km more to go. Before we knew it, she had offered to give us a ride back and all 3 of us were cruising along on her little moped!

The following morning we had possibly the best Thai massage ever and then undid most of the womens’ pushing, pulling, and stretching by dragging our backpacks from one bus to another… We then spent a few days relaxing in a small town on the Mekong river, where there wasn’t much to do other than eat mangoes (about 1 kg each per day), have massages, read, play Yahtzee, and relax. From there we had another day of bus hopping which was made much more enjoyable by the fact that we spent an hour standing on the back of a songthaew (a southeast Asian “bus” which consists of a pick up truck with a roof and seats in the back), something which we have seen people do and have both been hoping we’d get to experience. When you travel, it’s all about the little things… Which are generally better when you’re not entirely sure whether they’re legal or not!

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Sawat Dee from Bangkok!

Posted by maudholma on 17 March 2008

Despite feeling sad about leaving India, I quickly perked up on our Jet Airways flight to Bangkok: we had a menu from which we could pick our food, we drank red wine, we watched TV and made our own music playlists on our personalized entertainment systems. The only downside was that the flight only lasted 2.5 hours!

Although it was over 2 years since I last came here, Khao San Road – the backpackers’ area – hasn’t changed much, if at all. You can still get your hair braided, drink buckets of Sang Som and Coke for about 4€/£2.50, buy everything from t-shirts to pad thai or watch “girly ping pong shows” (which apparently involve meters of fabric but neither darts nor ping pong balls, or so I’ve been told). During our first few days here, S and I tried to get used to the humidity while doing some sightseeing. We spent most of the time sweating and dreaming about the next AC bus we could get on. On Saturday we visited Chatuchak Weekend Market, where you can buy just about anything imaginable at one of the nearly 8000 stalls. After a 7 hour shopping marathon – mainly shoes, clothes, and accessories – I had spent about 20€/£12. Even though Thailand is by no means expensive (see the previous sentence), it’s amazing how money conscious and cheap you become when you’re traveling. Especially having just been to India, where it’s normal to haggle down most prices by at least 30%, it was a shock to only get about 5% off here. I have a feeling I may get thrown out of Topshop when I’m back in London!

For the past 2 days we’ve been treating ourselves, staying at a hotel where we have our own bathroom, hot water, TV, and AC. Most of what we’ve seen of Bangkok during this time has been the view from the rooftop pool… The plan for tonight: dinner at our favorite street kitchen and a mango shake, followed by a movie in our room and some Finnish candy, courtesy of the parentals. Tusen tack!

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I ♥ India & Nepal!

Posted by maudholma on 10 March 2008

Day 1: S&M arrive in Mumbai, dressed in clean clothes but nevertheless feeling a little dirty after 7 hours on a plane. They can’t wait to take a shower at their hotel, and recoil in horror at the cockroach living in their cold water shower! During the following few days, S&M marvel at Indians eating with their hands, literally shoveling food into their mouths. They laugh at their first visit to a “hole in the floor” toilet but realize that they are lucky – they actually saw someone urinating in the street! A week later, they take a 13 hour train ride to Goa. Lying on uncomfortably padded, 80 cm wide berths and unprepared for the cool night air, S&M consider themselves to be real travelers when they arrive the morning after, slightly tired after sleeping for only 8 hours.

Day 71(ish): S&M arrive in Kolkata after an 8 hour train ride followed by a 17 hour bus journey. Not having showered for 5 days on account of the cold, rain, and hail in Darjeeling, coupled with a lack of hot or indeed running water in their hostel bathroom. They are dressed in their one “cold weather” outfit which has stood them in good stead for the better part of a month, but in which they now look more like the homeless (wo)man peeing in the street than the perfectly manicured tourists paying $270 to stay at the Oberoi Grand. Considering the 35°C outside, S&M are living proof that girls do sweat, not just perspire. However, they are delighted to realize that they no longer need to wear their down jackets (S’ is losing feathers at an alarming rate while M’s has turned from white to grey) or sleep with hats and tights on. The previous night’s dinner was preceded by a visit to a “hole in the floor” toilet, in which the lack of a hole was compensated for by a slightly sloping floor. During the following 10 minutes, S&M frantically shoveled rice and curry into their mouths, washed their dirty right hands, paid, and hopped back into their 1 m wide double sleeper bed, where they slept uncomfortably for 4 hours.

But just to clarify: Even at my coldest, dirtiest, sweatiest, and most tired, I have LOVED both India and Nepal! Food poisoning, theft, sleeping on luggage shelves, buying winter clothes, wearing winter clothes, sleeping in winter clothes, strikes and road closures, and torrential rain were most definitely not on my “to do” list when we came. But even though most of these moments weren’t a joy to experience, the majority of them are funny in retrospect, and all have made our trip so far in their own ways. It’s undoubtedly true that you see a misery here which is unimaginable and indescribable and which would never be allowed to exist in the West. The flipside is a warmth, kindness, generosity, and spirit which is almost equally difficult to describe and unimaginable to a Westerner. As much as I hope that development helps both India and Nepal, I hope that it doesn’t destroy what makes these countries so special and charming – the corner shops, the bargaining, the rickshaws, the cows, the funny signs and menus, the smiles, a rich culture, a genuine and interested people, and of course the food and drink. Because masala nuts wouldn’t taste as good if the man selling them hadn’t blown on them to get rid of the peanut skins. Samosas wouldn’t be as savory if they weren’t fried in day old oil. Fresh fruit juices wouldn’t be as refreshing if they weren’t served in glasses which had only been rinsed in a bucket since the last time they were used. Paneer egg rolls wouldn’t taste the same if they weren’t wrapped by the guy handling the money. Banana lassis wouldn’t be as sweet if they didn’t contain a few flies. And that’s what I’ve loved most about India and Nepal – all the things that would never happen at home!

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Political Hotpotatoes

Posted by maudholma on 2 March 2008

Filling in a few forms, a passport-size photo, 30 USD in cash, some stamps in our passports, and a scribble in a log-book was all it took to get a visa on arrival at the Nepalese border. A direct bus to Kathmandu was harder to find, owing to the roads being closed due to strikes in the south of the country. If you had asked me a week ago what I knew of Nepalese politics I would have been hard-pressed to come up with anything more detailed than “The Maoists don’t like the King”. In fact, since the Maoist insurgency in 2006, a majority of the political unrest has stemmed from the ethnic Madheshi community in the southern plains pressing for autonomy and representation before the elections in April 2008. Which, in a landlocked country covered by mountains whose major highway runs east-west through the region in question, means that strikes have the power to cripple the entire country. Or make 2 Finnish girls’ trips to and from Kathmandu that much trickier; we spent 15 hours on a nightbus, saved only by our iPods, masala nuts, and the 2 Nepalese soldiers we sat next to.

Of our 7 days in Nepal, we spent 4 and a bit trekking in the Kathmandu valley, while hoping that the roads would be open by the time we returned. “There have been talks for 12 days now, but maybe soon they will come to some agreement” we were told by people who didn’t seem to think that “soon” would, in fact, come very soon. While keeping our fingers crossed, we climed nearly 6000 steps, countless more hills, walked about 75 km, and reached an altitude of 3000 m. Along the way, I acquired 3 blisters (S beat me by 2), a sunburn which is now peeling, a few unimpressive pictures which do no justice to the beautiful mountains and hills covered with terraces of fields that we saw, and a new friend in the form of a Bhutanese monk living in a monastery on a hillside.

S and I followed our own Colonel von Trapp (a smallish Nepalese version with a feathery moustache, named Tirta), running through valleys and hills “alive with the sound of music…” while worrying about how much further we would be forced to walk on account of buses not running due to Maoist agitation in the countryside. More pressing was the shortage of, among other things, petrol, the evidence of which we experienced whenever we traveled anywhere. On the way to the beginning of our trek, we discovered that you can fit 30 people onto a minivan designed for about 15 and in that way run half the normal service. On our way back to Kathmandu, we not only had elbows in our faces but also a few pairs of feet dangling from the roof, not to mention an extremely agile ticket inspector who jumped from the roof onto the bus while it was moving. Armed policemen guarded deserted petrol stations surrounded by barbed wire while people were lined up by the side of the road with petrol canisters (all tied to a long rope, to prevent people from cutting) for hours on end for their 5 litres or less.

When we returned to Kathmandu, we visited the UNESCO World Heritage site of Durbar Square, where we went to see Kumari, the 11 year-old “living goddess” who appears at her window from time to time. Instead of the shy, graceful girl S and I were expecting, a surly, chubster wearing too much make-up and reminescent of Vicky Pollard stuck her head through a window for 30 seconds before disappearing. I half expected her to start saying “Yeah but not but yeah but…” Disappointed by what should surely have been the experience of a lifetime, S and I returned to our hotel, fearing that we would be told the talks had failed and that we would have to spend 36-48 hours traveling to Darjeeling. Against all odds, (maybe seeing Kumari did have some effect after all – apparently even a glimpse of her brings good fortune) the “Breaking News” on the TV screen in the reception had nothing to do with the Colgate commercial that was playing, but signalled that a deal had been struck and that the roads had opened.

We were so happy to have avoided a hellish trip back to India that the 1 hour delay and 1.5 hours of traffic jams leading out of Kathmandu seemed a small price to pay. When we subsequently spent 4 hours going down a narrow mountain road at 100 km/h in the dark, our driver not thinking anything of overtaking 3 trucks at a time, breaks screeching, and the suspension pushed to the limit by the poor condition of the roads, the Kumari magic was clearly still working, since we arrived at the borded alive the following morning.

From one set of politically motivated strikes to another, albeit slightly smaller. We had to take a Jeep from a place near the border up to Darjeeling since the buses weren’t running. I have yet to figure out exactly what has been going on, but from what I can tell, it has to do with the Gorkha movement in the northeastern part of India. “The Ghorkas don’t like the Indian government”. Or something like that.

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Indian Quirks (Part II)

Posted by maudholma on 23 February 2008

A few more things I thought of during our approximately 30 hour trip (train, bus, rickshaw, bus) from Varanasi to Kathmandu:

  • You’re taking a cycle rickshaw somewhere and while you’re whooshing down the road at 5 km/h a second rickshaw driver starts cycling alongside, asking you where you are going and whether you wouldn’t like him to take you to a store or a restaurant. Your own rickshaw driver is not best pleased.
  • Toilet paper being advertised as “safe” which begs the question of in what situation toilet paper could be deemed unsafe?!
  • Hotel touts praising their rooms as “hygienic”. This is obviously not something you assume to be the case, so it’s always nice when it’s specified.
  • You (female, white) step off the train after a 10 hour journey, feeling a little tired and worn, and are greeted by a man holding a sign for “Mr. Murakami” looking at you as if to ask “Yes? This is you?”. Falls in the same category as being called “Sir” by people trying to entice you to come into their shop and buy their jewellery, scarves, “safe” toilet paper etc.
  • Although a bus is scheduled to leave at 8:30, it doesn’t actually start moving until 10:30 when enough people are deemed to have sat down so as to make the bus full. You are suitably amused when, after 2 stops within the first 5 minutes of the journey, people are standing in every available space and hanging out of the open door.

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Posted by maudholma on 21 February 2008

I’ve finally put up some pictures (use the More Photos link on the left to see them) but the internet here is incredibly slow so there are only about 4 from Mumbai so far. I’ll add more whenever I can so check back every once in a while to see where we’ve been and what we’ve done.

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Indian Quirks (Part I)

Posted by maudholma on 21 February 2008

A few things which I just can’t see happening anywhere other than here:

  • Even with a waiting list of 150 people, there is a 90% chance of getting a sleeper place on a train when booking the ticket one day in advance. The fact that our tickets would have been valid for travel even if we hadn’t been successful (which in itself is quite miraculous) goes some way to explaining why there are always so many people sleeping on the floor and the luggage shelves. Apparently there is no maximum capacity on Indian trains. As I said before, the only thing not possible in India is “not possible”!
  • Indian people, who are very family oriented and have a lot of respect for their elders, nevertheless think nothing of elbowing their way past old ladies, children, and people carrying 2 bags in each hand when making their way onto trains. The same applies for getting off as well, even when the train has arrived at its final destination.
  • Foreigners have to pay a 750 rupee entrance fee for the Taj Mahal (250 entrance + 500 tax, “free” bottle of water included) while Indians pay only 20 rupees. However, guidebooks are not permitted at what is undoubtedly one of the world’s most famous tourist attractions.
  • When leaving your belongings in a deposit box at a temple, you ask how much you have to pay. The attendant (usually a sweet looking old man) gives you a broad smile and replies “As you wish, madam”. You hand over a 10 rupee note and, smile still intact, the sweet old man tells you he’d like another 10 rupee note. As a variation of this, you hand over a 10 rupee note and, smile still intact, the sweet old man tells you that you can give some more when you come to pick up your things.
  • In the holy city of Varanasi, Hindus are cremated with 4 different types of wood and their ashes scattered into the Ganges in order to guarantee purity. Holy men do not need to be purified in this way so instead, their bodies are tied to stone slabs and lowered into the river. After having taken a boat trip to watch people washing themselves and their clothes in this same water, you are approached by a man who asks you: ” Would you like to see the burning of dead bodies? No? Hash or marijuana?”

After all this, sitting on a rooftop terrace, drinking a banana lassi, and playing cards while watching the sun set over the Taj Mahal seems like a relatively banal occurrence.

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