Thursday, 29 March 2012

The Bay of Dragons

So after a few days exploring Hanoi we decided to do the obligatory tour to Ha Long Bay. I think it's probably a must if you come to Vietnam that you visit Ha Long Bay. Unfortunately the day we were due to go the weather was still pretty rubbish and it was chucking it down and rather foggy but we were hoping for more when we were on the open water!

It took a few hours to get to Ha Long but we had a lovely mini bus (although Dan unfortunately chose the short straw and had to sit in the middle of the aisle the whole way!!) when we arrived we had to somehow squeeze through the crowds to get to the harbourside it was amazing how many tour groups were descending on the bay in one day.

Our boat wasn't situated right at the harbourside so we had to get a smaller boat out into the bay but once we arrived into our boat (and tried not to fall over board when changing boats!!) we were welcomed with a rather random cinnamon flavoured drink and were allowed to check into our cabins. I'm not really sure what I was expecting, some kind of Brittany Ferries tiny little cabin you can hardly move in but both me and Dan were pleasantly surprised and apart from the gentle rocking it was as good as some of our hotel rooms!

We were then treated to a lunch which seemed to go on forever whilst the boat was taking us to the caves. Unfortunately when we arrived at the caves my memory card decided to break so we only have two photos from inside but they are amazing if slightly fake looking. Our tour guide was absolutely hilarious and kept pointing out all the shapes in the rocks such as an "elephant", "dog" and "monkey" however as Dan pointed out the person who came up with all of the shapes must've been pretty stoned or drunk...

We then thought we would be going back to the main boat before kayaking in the afternoon so we could get changed into swimming gear, how wrong we were!! We got taken straight to kayaking, now I am not particularly confident around water but Dan really wanted to do it and as there were only two person kayak's available I took one for the team. I wasn't particularly filled with a lot of confidence when everyone else kayaking in the other groups had life jackets and our guide said "as long as you can swim you'll be fine..." I did kick up a bit of a fuss and demanded a life jacket even if I did look like a bit of an idiot...

It was actually probably the best part of the trip and we both really did enjoy ourselves, apart from Dan completely soaking his only pair of shorts and having to wear swimming shorts for the rest of the trip!!! Lucky he doesn't wear speedo's really...

The evening consisted of Karaoke something no-one apart from the Vietnamese crew really wanted to partake in and ended in us learning a new card game Yaniv!! Which is an amazing game and will definitely be getting played everywhere on our trip.

The next day we went to visit a floating village and we could have a tour of the Tomorrow never Dies rock/cave but we decided to opt out and play Yaniv instead. After another massive lunch we had arrived back at the harbour ready to begin the trip back to Hanoi, this time snagging a pretty good seat, no middle seats for us!!

We venture down to the old capital of Hue in the next installment so stay tuned...


Friday, 23 March 2012

Raining in 'Nam

There's something to be said for the rain in Vietnam. Having just touched down and gone for a drive through the city of Hanoi, it is abundantly clear that torrential rain does not cause the city to slow any. Let's face it, if the city moved any faster on a given Saturday than it was today, it'd be washed away!

But yes, it was pouring. Not only that, but foggy too. There was a strange moment, crossing a bridge that went into the city that kind of summed up the whole thing. An odd feeling of drifting into the unknown. Looking out the window to the left, all to be seen was the railing of the bridge, then an impenetrable white-grey nothing. To the right, the same. Out the front windsheild could be seen a couple hundred yards of the bridge, but then it dissolved into the white-grey nothing, too.

Coming from the sheer madness of Thailand, what I've seen thus far of Vietnam seems fairly civilized. Sure, there are women hanging up washing outside in the pouring rain. Sure, there are men driving mopeds on the highway with multiple kegs of beer or entire tree trunks strapped to their bikes. Sure, there are guys sat on the curbs in the broad day light smoking what look suspiciously like foot long bongs. It feels like a good place. Everythings taking on a slightly skewed, surreal tinge thanks to the massive sleep deprivation I'm currently handling, but I think we'll be happy here!

Time for some sleep!

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Pai Oh My

Pai is, for all intents and purposes, a hippy commune. Unfortunately for it's founding fathers,  it is bereft of hippies. There were a few lone wanderers to be seen with dreadlocks and glazed eyes, searching, no doubt, for peace and free love. Probably more for the free love. But generally speaking, it was filled to brimming with posers. 

That said, I like Pai alot. Delightful little town. But it's a town very much geared toward travellers, and most of the ones that actually wind up there know exactly why they are going. Cheap living and loose morals.

 Nestled high in the mountains of northern Thailand, it really is an escape from the bustle of what the rest of Asia seems to call everyday life. The further from Chaing Mai we went, the worse the twists and turns, hair-pin bends and treacherous mountain roads became. My travel-sick co-conspirator was not happy with any of this business, but we got through it sure enough. Mini-bus for four hours, Ah yeah.

We got to talking with a Swedish girl on the bus and when we eventually made it to Pai, we wandered with her for a while to her hostel, which was very nice. But we had already seen one online that we thought we liked better, so we parted ways. Upon reaching our destination, however, comprehension crashed around us: the place we had so liked online was not quite what we had been expecting in real life. The owner was such a dude, however, we didn't want to upset him by moving that evening. Instead we stayed the night and moved on, back to the original place with the Swedish girl. Oh, and when I say dude, I really do mean in the Bill and Ted sense. But Thai. He was excellent.

Anyway, as I said, the town itself is splendid, all wooden shacks and outdoor bars and about three actual roads. But, alas, my travel-companion came down with a bug on the first day, and I got whipped with the business end of some mean man-flu, so we saw little more of the place than Main Street.

Thai Countryside

If ever there is to be another adventure into South-East Asia, Pai will certainly be a spot for some further exploration. Right now, thought, I wish you all a fond farewell.

See you on the flip-side, bitches. x

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Back to School...

So whilst in Chiang Mai we decided to do what any self respecting traveller seems to do when in Thailand and learn to cook Thai! Now since arriving in Thailand we hadn't been particularly good at eating Thai food but we were determined to try and after a particular good meal at Ratana's Kitchen the night before (as recommend by just about every guide book going!!) we decided we needed to jump in with both feet!

We chose the Asia Scenic cookery school as we had heard good things about it and we'd heard it came with a brilliant cookery book at the end of the day. We decided to go for the full day cookery course out on their farm.

We got picked up from our hostel at 8:30am and taken to the cookery school in the centre of Chiang Mai, from there we were split into the different cookery groups and met our host and teacher for the day Palm. We had to decide what dishes we wanted to cook before going to the market to look at the ingredients. We had to 5 dishes + 1 curry paste.

We were then taken to the market where Palm talked us through the different types of rice, noodles and tofu. And showed us the Thai equivelant of a grocery store. Markets are very important in Thai culture and they don't really buy fresh produce from a supermarket it's all from the markets and they are absolutely amazing, you can pretty much buy anything you want from the market!! Whislt we were being shown around the drivers were rushing around haggling all of our ingredients from the stalls!

Lots of Rice!!

After Palm drove us out to the farm which was about 20 mins from Chiang Mai, it was beautiful and really in the middle of nowhere! We were then taken on a garden tour where all of the different plants and herbs used in Thai cooking were explained to us, there are so many different herbs some of which we have never heard of before so this was great, although we did have to keep dancing on the spot to avoid getting bitten by the very viscious ants!!

Thai Welcome Snack

We started by cooking the stir fry course of the menu, I made Pad Thai and Dan made Chicken with Cashew Nut. Both were fab and it's amazing how quick it is to make once all of the prep is done. The only problem with the cooking course was we got to eat our food after cooking it. Everyone was full from the stir fry course and we still had four courses to make and eat!!

All of the food was fab, but I think we both enjoyed making the stir fry course the most, although we both enjoyed making and eating the deep fried banana's they were amazing!! It was really interesting to learn how to make a curry paste and make the curry from that. We also learnt more about thai eating culture and table etiquette. 

Overall it was a really great day and we got an amazing cookbook to take home with us, so hopefully we'll be able to find the ingredients again as we would love to cook them for our friends and family! If you are in Chiang Mai then definitely do a cooking course we had so much fun and it was a great way to spend our last day before heading up to Pai!


Saturday, 17 March 2012

Chiang Mai-Zing

So I've finally managed to get the computer away from Dan to start on the Chiang Mai portion of our trip! Although I've no doubt he'll manage to wrangle his way onto this post. He does have a good way with words after all!

So after our train journey we arrived at our new hostel for the next FIVE nights, which in backpacking terms is practically settling down! We chose the lovely Finlay's Cottage it was AMAZING, we had superb hosts of Keith and Ratree. The room was lovely and the air con was very welcome after the heat of the day and every single morning we were greeted by a very happy "Good Morning" from Ratree and the choice of whatever we fancied for breakfast. I had a bacon sandwich nearly every single day! It's hard not too when the offer is there. If you are looking for a place to stay in Chiang Mai I would not hesitate to recommend.

 We didn't have a lot of plans for Chiang Mai, we didn't want to spend the whole five nights there not in the actual city, we wanted to explore the city and just soak in the culture. So the first day we just decided to wander around the old town. At first we were slightly let down by the "moat" and "gates" I think we were expecting some kind of old castle and moat but really it is pretty cool when you get over the fact it isn't a castle.

That evening we decided to visit the Night Bazaar for the second time already and were joined by two fab friends from the hostel Max and Ruth. They had just finished 6 months teaching in Southern Thailand and are on a whistle stop tour of the rest of Asia/Oz before returning to the UK for work. We had loads in common and a "quick" trip out to the night bazaar ended up in Ruth and I having foot massages whilst encountering the wrath of an angry German man. Dan and Max managed to conveniently find some beer and we kept losing them as they went on the look out for food! 

The Night Bazaar outside stage
 We also visited Chiang Mai zoo whilst there. I'm not a MASSIVE fan of zoo's and I do get worried about how some of the animals are cared for but we had heard good things about CM Zoo so we decided to give it a chance. We managed to completely haggle a tuk tuk driver down not intending to get one at all and managed to get out to the zoo for 60 baht (about £1.15) which for a half hour ride is pretty good! The zoo admission itself was only 200 baht each (£4!) which included the whole zoo and admission to the panda bears and the use of the zoo bus. Absolutely amazing when you think how much zoo's cost in the UK.

We did enjoy the zoo and there were some really cool animals, the pandas especially were hilarious, but the zoo itself is huge and it's set on a hill, we must have walked about 4/5 km by the time we decided to go home and we still missed out a section of it. We enjoyed ourselves but some of the animals enclosures did make me sad, and I wasn't very happy about some of the elephants being chained. But overall it was a good zoo and I think they were all cared for very well.

We didn't do a lot of exciting things in our time in Chiang Mai, the city itself is so fun and laid back that we enjoyed just being there. We did however partake in a cookery day on the Sunday but I think it deserves a post all of its own so I'll save that for the next blog post....

Until next time...

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Fear and Loathing in Thailand

 So we escaped Bangkok with our lives, sanity, and purses intact. I will admit that the city is an ideal jumping in point for a person beginning their excursion in South-East Asia for the simple fact that it will probably break you. Do not fret, for this is a good thing. Once you have experienced the squalor in its streets, the blind rage of its Tuk-Tuk drivers, and the murderous stares from its local population, the rest of Thailand the world seems a much nicer place!

As I say, we made it out without experiencing as much tragedy as one could easily face in Bangkok. There was this one Tuk-Tuk driver who almost brought us to ruin, and we sadly discovered that at least one of the cities holy men was not quite so holy as he first appeared.

Our salvation came in the form of the night train to Chiang Mai. The train itself was not an altogether unpleasant exerience, as we shared a cabin with some delightful Americans, Scott and Meredith, who are travelling through Asia for six weeks. We chatted a long way through the night before turning in for a restless slumber on the small bunks which offered marginal privacy and zero comfort.

The next morning we arrived in Chiang Mai where we were instantly fleeced by a Tuk Tuk driver upon leaving the platform, however we didn't allow the con to worry us for long as this new city is such an overwhelmingly relaxed and hospitable place, we forgot all our worries and got involved in the frivolities and festivities of Big Buddha Day!!


Sunday, 4 March 2012

Apathy in Bangkok

Greetings from Bangkok!

Today was our first full day experiencing the sights, sounds and smells of Bangkok. As today is Sunday, the weekends latter half, we decided to start our day off with the Chatuchak Weekend Market. Due to serious lack of foresight in terms of body clocks, we decided to go to sleep around 7pm local  time last night, and so woke up at 2am fully refreshed for the day ahead. Not ideal. We did manage to kill some time by going back to sleep before setting off for the market at around half 7 this morning!!

It was about a 20 minute walk to the market, which was great as at that time in the morning it was hot but not oppresive. We had to navigate a massive road to get to the market, walking further than necessary just to find a bridge to be able to cross over! (It is noteworthy that some of the more aggresive Thai locals do cross the road as we would in the UK, however most of the throng will seek out safety first. Traffic on this particular road was akin to the kind of madness you would expect if every driver was fully drunk.)

The market itself was really interesting. When we got there it was only just opening so a lot of stalls seemed to spring up from no where whilst we were looking; it seemed to expand as we wandered through, stretching on forever! A lot of the stalls stocked the same kind of tat as one another, but we made a few purchases, and really enjoyed just getting lost, soaking up the atmosphere.
Chatuchak Stalls

We were a bit sad when confronted with all of the caged animals being sold, there were SO many puppies which were really cute but unfortunately we didn't think the parents would be impressed with the 100 or so puppies we wanted to 'rescue'! 

Unfortunately, after a couple of hours not only had it started to get ridiculously hot but our feet were beginning to feel the strain. Lucy has been afflicted with the first of what will no doubt be many blisters. So we wandered back to the hostel which probably took us longer than it should have, and just had a bit of a relax, a sit down and a read! It was still before 11!!

This afternoon we decided to venture on the Sky Train into more central Bangkok. The Sky Train itself was really easy to use, the ticket system seemed really innovative, and the LED lights on the map in the carriages really helpful for beginners to know exactly where you are.

We decided to get off at Siam as it was a big station, so thought it would be some kind of hub of activity. It turned out to be shopping mall after shopping mall. And whilst it was interesting to look at all of the shops they were pretty much the same as at home and not really why we came to Thailand! However we were pleased to see a Forever 21 which had been a favourite stomping ground in the USA last year. It proved to be the first port of call for our International Crime Wave, too. We unwittingly tried to steal a Minnie Mouse t-shirt, which appears to be frowned upon over here as badly, if not worse than it is at home! A word of warning: there is only one floor to 'Bangkok Forever 21'. Ignore the escalators and the signs, if it looks like there are two floors this isn't real and you do need to pay for any items before trying to leave.

We then decided to walk a good 10/15 mins extra to go and see the Erawan Shrine, making good use of the Skywalk to avoid the VERY busy road. However when we arrived we couldnt help feeling underwhelmed.... It was tiny, right on the corner of a busy intersection, and thanks to the ever worsening condition of our feet, not really worth the walk...

The Shrine...
 At the moment neither of us are very enthused with Bangkok. The street food which seems to be widely praised by the travelling community is far from appetising. Watching raw and cooked meat alike sat on the edge of a cart in the boiling hot sun all day, not to mention the stink that emanates from the stuff, it doesn't particularly make you want to eat there. Also I'm not sure what it is but the atmosphere just doesn't seem very fun or happy in Bangkok. When you get a local on their own they are all incredibly cordial and polite, but on the street there is something of a 'New York' mindset.

Both of us are looking foward to going up North and getting to Chiang Mai. At the moment we are re-considering whether to return to Bangkok for Songkran or go up to Chiang Mai or even down to an island.

We are off to the old town and Khao San Road tomorrow, so hopefully that will change our opinion of Bangkok.

Over and out for now.