Monday, August 29, 2011

Malaysia, truly Asia

Believe it or not, it was that add campaign (more like the song that was attached to that add campaign) on CNN that made us want to go Malaysia. "Malaysia, truly Aaaaaasia".



And it turned out that Malaysia was the perfect place to depart from our trip because Malaysia Airlines offers a service where you can fly into one city/country and depart from another. So we landed in Incheon, South Korea and were able to depart from KL, Malaysia which helped us to nicely plan out our trip without any back tracking! Awesome!!

Now, we had a lot on our agenda 60 days, 6 countries is no easy feat, so we knew that with Malaysia being at the end it was likely that we would get to spend less time there than in the other countries. In every country there was a delay by a day or so and this came straight out of Malaysia and then when we met up with friends in Thailand, Malaysia was pushed up even further. So in the end we only ended up with 5 days in Malaysia and now, after being there, I am determined to go back and give the country the time it deserves!

Malaysia doesn't have the ruggedness of the rest of South East Asia but there is something so nice about it! And one of the best things in Malaysia is the food! Oli and I were excited for Thai and Vietnamese food but never expected food from Malaysia to triumph. It was delectable!! You see, Malaysia is a smorgasbord of different cultures and its food has a lot of Thai and Indian influence which makes it absolutely outstanding!!! If ever you wanted a culinary holiday..I would suggest Malaysia...yum yum!!








Our first stop in Malaysia was Penang which is the Food capital of the country! I am so upset that we only spent a day there because later we found out that there was a food festival on. URG!! Penang has its own charms although I must say the service from our hotel was some sort of shit, they had really bad attitudes and didn't appreciate our business. Anyway, the time we spent in Penang was relaxed and we ate some of the most mouth-watering curry ever. After our meal Oliver told the restaurant's owner about South Africa's bunny chows....he was impressed!!

After Penang we headed to the Cameron Highlands which is described in the lonely planet as a place with roaimg hill sides and strawberry farms. Unfortunately the Cameron Highlands were somewhat of a disappointment, we stayed in a small town that had not much going on and getting to those rolling hills wasn't so easy. The beauty was also tarnished by industrial stuff going on around the area. So Oli and I found ourselves stuffing ourselves to the brim with good food and playing round after round of chess (which I'm ashamed to say I lost everytime). It ended up being quite relaxing and gave us some time to catch up on admin and plan our arrival back in SA. Considering I was leaving for Sweden soon thereafter meant that there was quite a bit to get done!


We left Cameron Highlands heading for Kuala Lumpur and not expecting too much. But we actually fell in love with the city. It had so many charms! Seeing the Petronas Towers at night was amazing! being in the towers and seeing the view from one of the world's tallest buildings was also awesome, even if we did have to stand in a queue for three hours. But just chilling out, hanging around the park and taking in the surroundings was amazing! After two months of solid travelling, lugging around stuff, and sleeping in dodgy places resting in KL was special! Again, the food was epic, the vibe was spectacular and Oliver and I were simply soaking up each other's company!





It was a great end to a great holiday and I hope to return again one day!

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Thailand!!

I realise that we left you stranded somewhere in Laos and haven't given you an update since...even though our trip finished two months ago!

Apologies...its just that while backpacking you get swept up in the mix of it all and the blog becomes a secondary thing because you don't feel like sitting in a room, paying for internet and writing while all the fun is outside in the sweltering heat! In my defence...I had written an entry for Thailand and then just before submission it disappeared...the frustration sent me reeling and I just couldn't deal with the slow internet and try again! So here I am two months later, telling you a little but about our time in Thailand.

OK, Thailand is prepared....prepared for tourists and prepared on how to make us happy. After Laos where the people where indifferent (but lovely) the efficiency of Thailand came as a nice change. There were even "yes sirs" and "no maams"...Not that I'm a prude or anything but it is appealing when all you've had for the past month and a half is "Laaady, one dollar" or "I don't know" or anything in-between then someone actively listening to you and wanting to help you is a welcome reprieve.

Thailand was a mixed bag there were things about it I loved and things about it that got under my skin.

Chiang Mai was our first stop and we were lucky enough to be there on a Sunday and experience their massive Sunday Night Market which is filled with trinkets, T-shirts and art or all sorts of variety and is a real treat to roam! We would have loved to have explored more of northen Thailand but we had bigger fish to fry!! Bigger than exploring Northern Thailand?



Yip, good friends of ours from South Korea were in Bangkok and we couldn't pass up the opportunity to party with them like rock stars in one of the world's most infamous cities!




Night one in Bangkok involved us drinking some vile whiskey or brandy or something out of a glass hip flask thing while simultaneously glugging a beer and watching all the young backpackers go crazy on the only street in Bangkok that they like to keep us, Kho San.



Bangkok has its charms but I found myself getting restless in it...we spent 5 (maybe 6 ) days there...more than I would have liked especially considering all the other amazing things in the country. For me, Bangkok wore thin quite quickly but Oliver and the boys revelled in it!!! So I guess Bangkok isn't for everyone!! That said, it was fantastic to be there with our "Korean" crew.





From Bangkok it was off to Koa Tao one of the last stops of our backpacking journey and it will definitely stay in my mind as a highlight!! We stayed in simple bungalows overlooking the fantastically blue waters surrounding Thailand! I snorkelled everyday and marvelled at the cool little fish and abstract corals!! I really loved that!!! Just relaxing, playing cards and indulging in Black Cock (a locally named whiskey) were exactly what we needed!! Amazing!!!






Then it was off to Malaysia on a rocky, overnight ferry!! More on that in the next post!!

Monday, June 27, 2011

Loving Laos!

After the intense temple trudging in Cambodia Oliver and I were ready for some serious relaxing and adventure and man was Laos the place to find it.

We took a veeeery long bus ride to Four Thousand Islands in the south of Laos and found ourselves on an island in the middle of the Mekong with very little to do. So we kicked back, emjoyed the rustic nature of our bungalows, got some reading done and just lounged around in hammocks for two and a half days! Bliss....eat, drink, sleep...that was the formula we were after and we found it on the little island called Dong Det!







After our spate of ultimate relaxation we prepared ourselves for our arrival in Vientianne, Laos' capital. But to be honest Vientianne was almost as laid back as the islands, albeit more developed. Vientianne felt like a French town more than a capital city but it was a lovely stop and introduced us to the next part of our adventure, a four day motorcycle trip through Laos.



This wasn't an organised tour, rather, Oliver and I hired a 250CC Baja from a company called  Jules Classic Bike Hire. They were excellent and helped us map out a route from Vientianne to Luang Prabang where we would drop off the bike.

The first stop was the infamous Vang Vieng. We had heard that the place was like Spring Break on steriods and the deaths on that stretch of river paid testament to it. We weren't however prepared for the beauty of the region with flowing rice paddies, endless waterways, and massive, untouched caves. After some proper cave exploring (no lights...just us and torches) we decided it was time to engage in what Vang Vieng is famous for, tubing.








As we climbed on the river it started to rain and we found oursleves sipping beer, cruising down the river and getting drenched by rain, epic! Then it was time for a bar stop and men threw ropes out for us to catch we were reeled in and handed free shots (that's when we knew...today was going to be crazy). So we sat down, had two buckets (made of red bull, sprite and super cheap whiskey) and watched the madness unfold. Before we knew it we too were happily drunk and the sun was setting. We scurried to get off the river and find a tuk-tuk. Once the tube had been returned Oliver and I stumbled around Vang Vieng eating as much as we could and having an all round merry time.

However, we decided to get up at sunrise the following day and despite our best efforts to eat away our hangover we both woke up with shinning barbies. The best cure is a good broth so that's exactly what we had...we ate our share and then got on the open road heading for Phonsovan, which is famous for its Plain of Jars. The day unfolded spectacularily with breathtaking views, friendly villagers and children waving, and close-to-perfect weather. Could life get any better? As Murphey would have it, it wouldn't. Shortly after lunch our bike started making some bizare cracking noises and then the back tire began to feel not too sure of itself. Consequesntly, we found ourselves roling into a tiny village with noone who could speak English and being looked at like we were some strange aliens. Eventually through a series of odd hand gestures and pleading looks we managed to get help and get the message across the we were stuck and needed a phone.




From there on Jules Classic took care of everything from our transport to Phonsovan to getting the bike repaired. We were set back by a day which was far from eventful but one day later we were back on the road.

Itching to go we were up at sunrise yet again. This time we were heading for Plain of Jars Site 1. It was beautiful and quite something to be next to these massive jars (and bomb craters) without another soul in site. It was a good start to the day and it would appear that Murphey was on our side again. The day involved doing 350Km which were amazing to view and incredible to be on one the back of a bike. The only downfall was the pain our butts endured. The agony of our behinds meant that we had to stop every half an hour or so but eventually we arrived in Nong Khiaw (thank heavens because as we arrived we ran out of petrol and the sun had set....eeeeek). We slept like babies!

The next day was the last stretch of our motorbike journey so we had a look at a historic cave and put foot! We landed on a national highway which made for clear sailing and we were in Luang Prabang in no time at all.

Luang Prabang is an amamzng place...the type of place where you let time disappear and your drift into the untimate mix of relaxation and luxury. We had arrived and our bums we ever so pleased!

With limited time in Luang Prabang we decided to make the most of it by shopping in night markets, looking at old temples, swiming in turqoise waterfalls, and indulging in good food and drink. Because we had been set back by the bike we would have to spend less time in either Chiang Mai (Thailand) or Luang Prabang. We opted to stay on in Luang Prabang and do a two day Mahout training course which was epic.

We spent a day and a half learning how to ride bare-back on elephants, washing them and learning about their fate as a result of the logging industry. We went through Elephant Village who were exceptional. The staff were outstanding and from what we could see the elephants were adored and treated so well! We were amazed by the personalities each of these animals had and how gentle they were. It was such a wonderful experience!

And Booom! Just like that 13 days were up and we found ourselves on a bus heading for the border. Next stop, Chiang Mai, Thailand~

Friday, June 10, 2011

This is long overdue. Cambodia.

So the last time anyone heard from us we were somewhat planning our way into Cambodia, via Nha Trang and then Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). Nha Trang was a fantastic little stopover, allowing us to spend a day on the beach, lying under a thatched sunshade, sipping on cold beer and doing some long overdue relaxing. Claudia even had herself massaged for about 5 Dollars for 35 minutes, not a bad deal for a beachfront massage.

The following day was spent in Saigon, or outside of it, at least. I made it a point to go and visit the infamous Cu Chi Tunnel system. The Cu Chi Tunnels are without a doubt one of the greatest 'systems of war' ever used. A roughly 250km network of underground tunnels, dug out and used by the Viet Cong and surrounding villages, that served as the headquarters for the VC during the 1968 Tet Offensive, and managed to elude the 'mighty USA' throughout the entire length of the Vietnam War. Incredibly interesting, and one of my highlights from Vietnam.

Following day ---> Cambodia!

We entered Cambodia and headed straight through to Phnom Penh. Wow. A very definite change from Vietnam. The basic layout of the streets is very similar, as is the fact that everyone and their mothers is doing business on the side of the road, or in front of their shop (as opposed to *in* it).

The biggest change from Vietnam to Cambodia? Without a doubt the people. Where people in Vietnam seemed at times (especially further North) to be very unreceptive and cold, using us as nothing but a source of income, the folks here in Cambodia are warm and welcoming, and will almost always greet you with a smile and open arms. A very welcome change indeed.

In Phnom Penh we visited the by now very well known 'Killing Fields' at Choeung Ek, which is one of the better known sites that still bears witness to the attrocities that happened under the Khmer Rouge. There are many reminders there that show us how sickening and detestable humans can be to one another.


Definitely a part of history that we can only hope will be resigned to the books forever.

Unfortunately, as luck would have it, Claudia got struck down by a mysterious illness, which was as good an excuse as we needed to do some relaxing, and in Claudia's case, healing.

Next stop, Battambang.
This is Cambodia's second biggest city, but walking or driving around the town, you really wouldn't believe it. The town itself does not offer all too much, but the surrounding countryside has its fair share of seductions.

A definite must-do is the Bamboo Train, which is a rickety piece of hand made transportation that runs along a very warped and unused piece of railway, and is used to transport everything from motorbikes and dead pigs, to groups of willing tourists. We were lucky enough to have a proper rainshower erupt and drench us while riding shotgun on this soon to be defunct piece of history. Properly proper!

A definite must-see is Ba Nan temple which is located about 15 kms from the town, and is a pleasent drive from the front seat, or back seat, of a locally hired motorbike! We made the commute there quite early and were lucky enough to experience the temple in its state of morning peace, before anyone else was able to intrude and interrupt our time of zen. Beautiful.
The way up to the temple is a roughly 365 stair staircase, which is dispatched in about 10 minutes or so. Once again we were reminded of Cambodia's grim past, with signs posted up and nailed to many of the trees around us, no more than 5 metres from where we were walking.


Danger Mines!

At night we watched a show put on by former street kids in the area. A mixture of acrobatics and performance art, a definite must-see, and of course all the proceeds go towards a good cause!

Two of the performers

After Battambang we headed off to Siem Reap, to spend a few days exploring the world famous temples of Angkor. The first morning we set off at 5AM in order to catch the famous sunrise at Angkor Wat...what a terrible disappointment. The temple itself is beyond impressive, but a huge part of the front facade was covered by green netting, which of course defaced the temple completely. We were just some of the unlucky sods to catch Angkor Wat during one of many ongoing restoration projects.

The next 2 days were also spent at various temples throughout the huge temple complex. My highlight...definitely Ta Prohm, which shows just how awesome the power of nature is, and gives you a glimpse of what the temples looked like when they were first 'discovered' by the French.


A view of Angkor Wat

One of many overgrown structures at Ta Prohm

Today will be spent sitting and relaxing somewhat, and doing some much needed drinking with our good mate Mike, one of our compadres from our year in Korea. And then tomorrow it's off to Laos. *insert feeling of sadness and of joy*.

Goodbye Cambodia and hello Laos!


Monday, May 30, 2011

And the heart grows fonder

Hello again!!!

Yes, we have been quite for some time now but we have totally been feeling ourselves settle into the swing of things, feel ourselves drift further into backpacking lifestyle, and start to really enjoy our travels to the most.

Ninh Binh was excellent for helping us slow sown and realise that not all Vietnamese people are trying to rip us off (which seems to be the case in Hanoi). After day 1 in Ninh Binh (riding through villages on a small bike a rowing through Tam Coc...epic) we decided that another day was needed. After falling in love with seeing the countryside on the back of a bike we hired the small motorcycle for another day of adventure. This time we travelled a little further afield to one of Vietnam's most well known Nature Reserves (Cuc Phuong). The drive was beautiful and the park was exceptional. We did a hike on the forest floor and sweated our way through a two hour trail (we stopped to look at a 1000 year old tree along the way and were attacked by numerous strange bugs). On top of that we visited their primate and turtle rehabilitation centers which were GREAT!



Sadly, it was then time for us to leave Ninh Binh (the place that had sparked our love affair with Vietnam). We hopped on an overnight bus heading for Hue. That was an experience...disco music played and the chairs lay almost flat...but Oliver and I were seperated and I found myself between two men (hilarious but weird). We arrived in Hue at about 7am and were bombarded by people offering us rooms and bikes. We found a nice place to stay and went about seeing the city.

First stop, the Citadel which is gorgeous but sad. It is a relic of war in itslef as it shows some of the destruction that was caused during it. Some buildings stand perfectly preserved while others are littered with bullets and some were even bombed to the ground. After that a trip to the market to eat some delicious noodles and we were done for the day.



The next day we headed out on a tour of the old DMZ...although tiresome because of the amount of driving it was incredibly interesting. Especially when we visted the tunnels (not fighting tunnels....village tunnels). Communities literally lived underground to dodge the American bombing. They had nurseries, family rooms, meeting rooms and ventilation systems. There were three levels, the deepest going 24m. The human willingness to survine is amazing.


Then it was another bus to another destination...Hoi An!

Hoi An is amazing! It is littered with tailors willing to make clothing and shoes to your heart's desire, it has an old town that is remincient of something in Eurpoe and utterly romantic in its own right and it has a beach with white sands and blue waters. We found ourselves spending more than we should and not caring. Hoi An slowed us right down and we spent a solid three days milling about and enjoying life. If someone out there is looking for a unique honeymoon destination...don't do Vietnam, do Hoi An.


We are now sitting in our lovely little hotel (all of which have been suprisingly clean and friendly) waiting for yet again another overnight, sleeper bus. Next stop, Nha Trang...but only for a brief while before we hop on a train to the infamous HCMC and start to slink our way into Cambodia.

Monday, May 23, 2011

And three days later

I can't believe that we have only been at this for three days...it feels like we have been out here for a while. It is crazy and exhausting but one hell of a journey.

So much has happened since our late night arrival. On day one we found ourselves walking around the streets of Hanoi wondering how anyone, let alone ourselves, were alive while crossing the street. There are scooters and motorbikes everywhere. Road rules don't seem to apply and pedestrians seemingly walk through intersections without so much as blinking an eye. It is hair-raising stuff, especially when you realise that looking left, then right, then left again won't even help your cause.






Hanoi was full of hustle and bustle. It was a city that never seemed to run out of things to see, buy and be scammed with. We had read that being scammed and taken advantage of was part of the journey but we could never have imagined the extent to which it takes place in Vietnam. In our three days we have been so blatantly ripped off that we have had to reach a stage of accpetance. The cash amounts of the "rips" are not too big but the concept it unnerving.

However, on the flip side of the coin Vietnamese people seem to be super friendly and hotel owners always willing to help (this may be attached to the commission or extra fee they get for helping). The food is also delicious and eaten at these cool pavement restuarants.

After a day of craziness in Hanoi we decided it was time to head out...so we went to the supremely famous Halong Bay. And it is easy to see why it is so popular. The massive boulders and rock formations are simply breath taking and being able to swim in the water next to your "junker" and then also in an isolated cove is just awesome. And to top it all off we had birds of prey swooping down to catch fish. An epic experience. The only thing that detracted from it was the fact that we were charged huge rates for any alcohol that we brought on board, "corkage fee" and we were overcharged for alcohol onboard. This was initially a problem but eventually a bottle or two of vodka were bought and everyone seemed merry.

Day three, today, we got an early start. The boys wanted to swim some more and show off their diving and jumping skills. Then it was time for a simple breakfast before kayaking through a fishing village which is one hell of a sight. It is a simple village floating in water equipped with police stations and schools. Most of the houses also have dogs and cats as pets (Yes...cats...I know it's madness).

Once we docked Oliver and I had to rush to catch a local bus to our next stop Ninh Binh. We climbed onto the small bus and were relieved that there were so few people on. Still the bus was tiny and we crammed ourselves in the back together with all our gear. We were then told that the journey would take five hours and we were off. About half an hour into the trip the bus operator (not the driver, this is the guy that gets the money and asks people if they want to get on or off) told us to pay an additional 100,000VDN for our luggage on the bus. We had already bought our tickets and felt that we were being cheated but later we realised how full the bus gets and  realised that our luggage was taking up a seat. So I guess from that point of view it is understandable.  I didn't get a wink of sleep during the five hour journey. Partly because I wanted to keep an eye on our stuff and partly because the driving was INSANE. I mean buses driving on the wrong side of the road. Two big vehicles driving toward each other head-on until one pulls away at the last minute. It is hair-raising and put me far, far out of my comfort zone.

However, I am happy to report that we got to Ninh Binh safely and in one piece. We are even unwinding at a nice little place and finding enough time to spend on the internet.

So the first three days have been absolutely minblowing. With another week left in Vietnam we an only guess what we will see and do next.

Friday, May 20, 2011

A late night arrival

I finally have enough time to write about what we are up to. Oliver is sleeping and I stirred from deep sleep once music started playing and motorbikes started zipping down the street outside our hotel room at 06:30. We are in the Old Quater in Hanoi.

Last we we met up with Oliver's dad in South Korea. We paid our final tribute to the country we love so dearly by taking Oliver's dad to the best sights the country has to offer and by tasting the best food in the world. We thourourly explored the East coast going from Seoul, to Chuncheon, to Gangneung, down to Gyeongju along the coast, then finally off to Busan. On the way back North we made stops in Andong for the Soju museum and in Danyang for a ferry ride and an experience at Jangdari Sikdag. Yesterday, we left Korea and it was difficult to say a final goodbye. After some tears on the areoplane it was time to focus on the next adventure.

We landed in Hamoi just after 11 pm and found ourselves stranded at the airport, not to sure what to do. The airport is far away from Hanoi itself, Oliver and I were suspicious of the taxi drivers, and we were to nervous to take a bus into the center of town at such a late hour. We spent over and hour deliberating, trying to decide what would be the safest and cheapest option for us. Taxi's encircled us like vultures, offering us deals just a bit higher than they should be. However, after spotting another couple at the airport, clearly also backpacking, we inquired what their plan was.

They said they were going to hotel and they were were waiting for a shuttle, which was free, the hotel was a bit steeper than we had hoped for (30$) but with very few options at that time of night (and considering we had no stinking clue what was going on) we asked if we could piggy back a ride in their shuttle. The only problem is the shuttle never came and there appeared to be some communication error of sorts. However, this was ok. We shared a taxi with our two newly made friends and found ourselves driving through the eerie roads of hanoi. They weren't well lit but had this fog and mist about them that gave them a strange appeal. The buildings were steeming with charatecr and the odd sights of scooters going by that were dressed in tons of gear was enough to peak my interests.

We have arrived!!!

We will only be in Hanoi for a day or two before shipping of elsewhere so I am eager to get out there and see what's potting. Oliver's alarm is bound to go off any minute now and then we can get a taste of our first Vietnamese dish.

We will keep you updated as often as possible and pictures are likely to follow only much much later.

Eeeeek....wish us luck :)