Friday, 1 October 2010

I have nothing to declare, except my genius.

I've been very lucky in the last six weeks. No missed flights or connections, no illness, no passports or wallets lost or stolen. It all went very smoothly - too smoothly, almost. However, it appears the travel gods realised this a little too late and decided to give me a shake-up on the way home just for good measure. The story begins in Kota Kinabalu...

On my return from Sepilok I was driven from the bus station back into central Kota Kinabalu by a lovely, friendly, English-speaking taxi driver. I arranged for him to pick me up at 6am the following morning to take me to the airport and, as he requested, called him later that evening to confirm. That evening I packed everything in anticipation of my early start and headed out for dinner. I ate an extremely average meal at a local restaurant - I was forced to send the meal back because the chicken was hot on the outside and cold in the middle - clearly they hadn't microwaved it long enough. Classy. I had a beer, sat on the restaurant balcony and watched the world go by, contemplating my last few hours in Borneo.

Upon leaving, I decided to go across the road to the fancy bar at the Hyatt hotel and get myself a double whisky. I never sleep well the night before an early start so I figured a little helper wouldn't go astray. Crossing the road in the rain, I was met with a large sign outside the bar stating 'NO SINGLETS, NO FLIPFLOPS'. I was wearing both, and a pair of jeans. Dismayed, I turned away and crossed the road in search of somewhere else. I reached the corner of the street when I heard someone calling out to me. I turned, and saw a well-dressed local huffing and puffing - I remembered bumping into him at the restaurant earlier that evening. Evidently he'd been chasing me along the road, and said he saw me alone and wanted to know if I'd like to join him and a couple of friends for a drink. I figured why the hell not, so off we went. He led me back to the hotel bar, where I pointed out that shabbily dressed backpackers were not welcome. He waved it off and said "Don't worry, you're with me" and in we strode - nobody batted an eyelid and he was greeted warmly by all the staff. I deduced from that he was either someone special, or a raging alcoholic.

It was a brilliant night - whisky was ordered by the bottle, free shots of Japanese whisky were shouted for us by management and there was an enormous cheese platter set in front of me which I got stuck into - a year in Korea without cheese does that to a girl! I reeled out of there around midnight, politely declining his offer to put me up in the Hyatt for the night if my accommodations weren't up to standard. Er, no thanks.

My 5am start was hideous - my mouth felt like I'd been brushing my teeth with a cats tail, my head was pounding and I was suffering from a whisky and cheese hangover. At 6am I waited patiently outside for my pre-booked taxi which didn't actually turn up. Given my flight departed at 7.25am for Kuala Lumpur I was definitely cutting it fine, and ended up running down the road in search of another taxi which I eventually found. He drove me to the terminal like a bat out of hell and I made check in by a whisker.  That was one major stress I didn't need, as if I'd missed that flight there were no more connections that would get me to KL in time for my flight to NZ. But, crisis averted. Phew!

On arrival to KL, I made my way from the LCCT across to the international terminal which took around fifteen minutes by bus. I made the decision to take a sleeping pill on the flight and try and get a few hours kip despite the fact it was daytime. Down went the valium and a couple of small bottles of white wine for good measure. Evidently this was not sufficient, as I only dozed on the way to Melbourne and got off the plane drugged up to my eyeballs and rather incoherent.

I was meant to transit in Melbourne for six hours, however in my drugged up state I decided I was in New Zealand and needed to go through customs. Stamp in passport, I proceeded to the baggage collection where it took around ten minutes to dawn on me that in fact my luggage had been through-checked to Auckland and I was in fact land-side in Australia - exactly where I wasn't meant to be. I trudged back through the airport and approached the check-in counters, intending to check in and return to the warm, comfortable transit lounges. By this time it was around 1.30am Melbourne time, and there were only two check-in counters open. I explained (slurred) my predicament to the highly amused check-in guy who advised me to take my boarding pass to security and go through - "no worries, mate". Apparently security didn't see it that way and refused to let me through until three hours before my flight. So there I was, drugged up to hell, no luggage, a thin sweater and stuck in the public terminal where the temperature inside was the same as outside - six degrees. All of the seating was lumpy and made of metal, and in the interests of public comfort the construction work currently being undertaken by the airport was done only in the wee hours, when nobody was around. Except for idiots like me.

I staked out one of the few solid metal benches around the terminal and decided to try and get some sleep. Right behind me a jackhammer was going full tilt and every ten minutes or so an enormous trolley laden with scrap steel would be pushed out the door, past my head and out through the terminal - the noise was incredible. As I was settling in and making my 'bed' (head on suitcase, curled up in fetal position with metal seat digging into my hips) I made a comment to a uniformed guy near me about how some forgetful idiot had left their backpack behind. The look of concern on his face failed to register in my drug-addled brain and I promptly fell asleep. I was rudely awoken by a large group of over-zealous security guards advising me that I was required to leave the area immediately as the 'team' was coming in to dispose of the suspicious bag. It was at that point I wished I'd kept my mouth shut. 

I wandered around the terminal for quite some time, pondering my predicament and feeling a great deal of empathy for Tom Hanks' character in 'The Terminal'. The one cafe that was still open was off limits to me as their credit card facility wasn't working and the only cash machines I could find dispensed a minimum of AUD$50. Against my better judgement I ended up first in the breakfast line at McDonalds as they were the only ones who would accept plastic - given that's what my breakfast tasted like I thought it was rather apt, really. 

Finally I was permitted to return to the lovely warm transit area, where I promptly fell asleep on one of the comfortable chairs. On my return to New Zealand I managed to screw up also. After clearing customs, I waited in a long queue for the xray machine (which is about ten feet from the arrivals hall) only to discover on reaching the front that I didn't fill out a customs declaration. In my defense, my microchipped passport declaration had included a customs declaration so I thought that was it. Apparently not. I announced to the customs officer that I didn't know I had to fill one out - he listened to my Kiwi accent and looked at me with a puzzled expression on his face. I'm sure he thought I was a complete muppet. I was escorted by a customs officer back through the airport and back through customs where I had to fill out a form and be escorted back through and trek all the way back to the xray queue. All this to hand over a piece of paper declaring that I have nothing to declare. It did cross my mind to quote Oscar Wilde and say 'I have nothing to declare, except my genius' however based on my series of aforementioned actions this probably wasn't that appropriate. 

On top of that, my own mother didn't recognise me in the arrivals hall, and I quote - "I wasn't looking for someone blonde". I ended up greeting myself and searching for 20 minutes before I found her.

Still, I made it home safe and sound, no bags lost or major dramas occurring. Travel gods, you're good to me! Valium, you're not.

Monday, 27 September 2010

Can orangutans tell the time?

My final destination on this trip was Kota Kinabalu, Borneo. Despite its tropical island location, it is really just another city and for that reason didn’t hold much appeal for me. So, in my search for something a little different (and some much needed time on my own) I boarded a bus to Sepilok, located approximately six hours east of Kota Kinabalu. It was an interesting and beautiful journey through winding jungle-covered mountains and narrow gullies – it was made all the more colorful by the stunning digestive pyrotechnics on display right throughout the bus. I was lucky enough to be seated in the immediate vicinity of no less than four travel-sick passengers (one behind, one in front and two beside) and at times found it difficult to keep my own breakfast down due to the loud retching and heaving emanating from the seats around me. Looking on the bright side (and armed with decent set of earplugs and an impaired sense of smell), for MYR$40 I got transport and entertainment.

Sepilok itself is a tiny place, and has very little to offer in the way of shopping, restaurants, nightlife or culture. In fact, at first glance it has very little to offer apart from a remote jungle location and a large roundabout. Whoopee! – I hear you say. Screw Paris and New York, let’s go where the action is! But really - what draws visitors to this tiny one-horse town? It is in fact the Sepilok orangutan sanctuary. Established in 1964, the sanctuary runs a world-renowned orangutan rehabilitation program which attracts thousands of visitors each year.

Set up on 43 square kilometers of land on the edge of Kabili Sepilok forest reserve, the sanctuary caters for orphaned and confiscated orangutans together with dozens of other wildlife species. Each orangutan takes over ten years to be fully rehabilitated – this may sound like a long time in human terms but in fact is only a relatively small chunk of an orangutan’s 60-year life expectancy. The baby orangutans are nursed and nurtured much like any human baby – fun times, jungle gym games and other activities designed to help them develop the necessary upper body strength required to function in the wild. They then move on to ‘infant school’ where they learn to interact and establish bonds with other young orangutans. Once they ‘graduate’ (usually around five years old) they move on to ‘outward bound school’ where they are introduced to life as a forest-dwelling orangutan and human contact is significantly reduced and restricted. Once they find their feet they are left to their own devices, rarely returning to the sanctuary for a free meal and a bit of company. The sanctuary has an incredible setup in the jungle and it was truly a rare pleasure to see the orangutans roaming freely in their own territory.

The public are allowed in to witness the twice-daily feeding at 10am and 3pm – how the orangutans know exactly when lunch time is baffles me, but at every feed without fail, there they were, ready to go. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they’ve got stolen Casio digital watches hidden under all that fur – they are rather partial to ‘borrowing’ the odd item from tourists.

The area is also inhabited by a huge number of other species, most notably the macaque monkey. Cute but feisty, the macaques in these parts are a dime a dozen and by all appearances (and in stark contrast to the low reproduction rate of the orangutans) breed like rabbits. Upon entering the sanctuary early this morning I came face to face with a large, mature short-tailed male macaque which terrified me no end. I was alone and heading toward the feeding area when he climbed up on the narrow walkway railing and headed straight towards me. He eventually stopped right opposite me and sat and stared. I took a couple of pictures and realized that I could do one of two things: run like hell, or talk calmly and quietly to him as I walked away. The former option would almost certainly result in a chase and possibly even a few bites and scratches – the latter carried the same risk but was infinitely preferable so I decided on that. He wasn’t terribly interested in me, and after cocking his head at me as I spoke softly to him (“I’m going to go this way, it’s ok, please don’t bite me as I’m too young to die of rabies and I don’t want to look like Sharon from Kath and Kim”) he looked fairly non-plussed and wandered off into the jungle. All I can say is that I’m glad he was alone – on the return journey we (being a group of around 30 people) encountered a ‘gang’ of macaques blocking our exit from the sanctuary. Attempts to get past them were met with teeth baring, snarling and lunges in our general direction which had us retreating at roughly the speed of sound. We ended up having to wait for the ranger to come along and scare them off so we could get through. Life’s tough in the jungle!

In short, my visit to Sepilok and the sanctuary was a truly magical and unforgettable experience. In the absence of words to do it justice (and the presence of some rather strong local beer) I will instead leave the pictures to do the talking. Enjoy!

Friday, 17 September 2010

Lunacy on the Nam Song

It has been described as both a traveler’s paradise and a sullied Eden: whichever way you look at it, Vang Vieng is an almost obligatory stop on any travel route through Laos. The mountains surrounding the town are breathtaking – the limestone cliffs jut out of the Nam Song river and tower above the town’s 25,000 residents and hordes of tourists. The area is steeped in natural beauty and offers a wide range of activities including rafting, mountain climbing, caving, kayaking and trekking. With all this on offer however, tourists flock to the muddy banks of the sometimes lethal Nam Song river for one purpose – tubing.

After hiring a large rubber inner tube, we traveled around three kilometres upstream where we were deposited unceremoniously at the first stop on the tubing trail – the ingeniously named ‘Bar Number 1’. Sitting rather precariously on the river bank, this small wooden shack reverberates with dance music and offers the cheapest drinks on the river. Tube-goers can sit on the decks and smoke shisha, play some table tennis, get themselves painted up by the ever-obliging bartenders or take a seat on a cushion, soak up some sun and watch kayakers capsize on the nearby rapids. A rustic ‘Engrish’ sign outside advertises ‘free shorts’: you’d be forgiven for thinking they went so far as to provide free clothing for unprepared tourists. Instead, on arrival you will be offered a free shot of a particularly vile unidentified alcohol containing wasps. Yes, wasps.

As with many south east Asian countries, health and safety isn’t a consideration in most aspects of daily life. Poverty is rife in Laos, and with a large percentage of the population living under the poverty line it isn’t what you’d call a litigious society. So, health and safety aside, a number of enterprising locals have capitalized on the hedonistic tendencies of tourists and lined the banks of the Nam Song river with wooden shacks, enormous rope swings, zip lines, water slides and bars selling cheap alcohol. A recipe for disaster? Absolutely. This recipe, however, contains one more key ingredient – a river. In the rainy season, the river levels rise to the point where they virtually engulf some of the river bars and the murky brown water moves with frightening speed.  A fair number of tourists have lost their lives to this river and, from what I understand, are often not able recovered from its waters. There are days (particularly after heavy rain) where the river is ‘closed’ to tourists, however the bars are still open and tubes can still be hired for those brave or stupid enough to take it on.

We spent some time at Bar Number One having a drink, soaking up the sun and chatting to fellow travelers. When we were ready to move on, we plunged into the river via the small slide attached to the bar. As we discovered, this slide doesn’t claim lives but it does claim sunglasses – two pairs from our group. Billy was unable to find his, but was offered a new pair for free by a woman toting a large bag of lost and as-yet-unclaimed sunglasses. He promptly lost these at the next bar and spent the rest of the day blinded by the bright sun.

The second bar we stopped at (imaginatively named Bar Number Two) offers an incredibly precarious and highly dangerous rope swing. Even at low river levels, there is insufficient clearance to let your legs dangle down as you swing. The first day we went tubing, the river was swollen from the previous day’s rain and most people were unable to clear the water at all and instead hit it with great force, wrenching their shoulders and forcing them to let go. I’m surprised there were not more dislocations and injuries although in saying that alcohol is a great anesthetic – I’ve no doubt that sobriety later that evening would have been accompanied by a great deal of pain. I was also greatly amused by the strategies of a good number of men who tried to avoid hitting the river on the downswing by lifting their legs up either side of their body, exposing their nether regions. Of course when they don’t achieve sufficient clearance, you can imagine exactly which part of the body connects with the water first. At high speed. If I had a dollar for every man I saw emerging from the waters breathless, pained and holding themselves I could have purchased the entire bar.

Bar Number Three offers a far safer alternative – a swing with a far greater level of clearance, even in the rainy season. It looked like great fun and I eventually worked up the courage to climb the slippery wooden ladder and have a go. My legs were shaking as I climbed and I couldn’t look down as that would have been the end of me. I realized upon reaching the top that there was nowhere to go but down via the swing, as the ladder would have been infinitely more dangerous to descend. So, grabbing the swing I set off and discovered that, like a lot of things, it wasn’t anywhere near as scary as what it looks like. No sooner had I been fished out of the river at the bottom I was back up the ladder for a second go.

We finally left this bar and, jumping in our tubes we floated down river headed for a bar on the opposite river bank. We bypassed a number of other bars including one offering mud wrestling and mud volleyball. We declined to stop as we have it on good authority that these mud pits were in fact pink-eye central – the scourge of the Nam Song affecting a huge number of travelers. The bar we arrived at boasted three attractions – a zip line, an incredibly high rope swing and an enormous waterslide. It was also what appeared to be ‘self service’ – you relied on whoever happened to be standing on the dock to toss you a rubber ring and fish you out of the river otherwise you’d just whizz on by.

Lip service was paid to health and safety, with signs everywhere proclaiming you would be refused admittance to the swings and slides if you had imbibed any alcohol that day. The bar is conveniently situated at the base of the slide and zip line entrance and the women behind the bar were dishing out alcohol with great gusto and watching as people downed their drinks and headed straight for the slides. The madness doesn’t stop there, however. No attempt is made at coordination of those on the zip line, rope swing OR slide, so your chances of a mid-air collision at any given time are pretty high. Billy quite literally came within centimeters of colliding with a guy who had just come down the zip line. Just to add a bit of extra danger to the mix, there was also an approaching kayaker AND someone tubing down the river at the same time so upon landing all four of them were dangerously close together. I can’t imagine what landing on a kayak would feel like, and I’ve no doubt that a mid-air clash of heads could quite easily result in death from drowning. Very scary stuff.

Tubing is dangerous, but with a bit of common sense and an appreciation for the dangers of the river it can be a lot of fun. Every tourist-filled bar pumps out music and offers incredibly cheap alcohol (bucket of whisky and coke for $2, anyone?). The atmosphere is fantastic, the weather is hot and it’s a great way to meet fellow travelers and take a break from reality. I’ve done it for two days running and will take a break today ready for one final day on the river tomorrow. After that, the next stop will be Vientiane and then on to Malaysia, Brunei and Borneo. Sabaai dee!

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Relaxing in Luang Prabang

Last Friday we said goodbye to Cambodia and hopped on a plane to Luang Prabang, Laos. It was one of the most expensive legs of our entire journey (around $200 for a one hour flight!) but well worth it considering the bus journey can take anything up to 24 hours from Siem Reap.

We touched down on time at a tiny little airport on the outskirts of Luang Prabang. Upon obtaining our visas Billy was horrified to find out that Canadians are charged considerably more than any other nationality in the entire world - US$42 to be exact. Even Bin Laden would get a cheaper visa than him. I paid my US$30 and skipped on through – I love being a New Zealander!

We had pre-arranged accommodation and were picked up promptly by a rep from our hostel. Our transport turned out to be a flatbed truck with two sets of three seats on the back of it. The seats had clearly been liberated from a van at some point and were literally thrown in the back of the truck – they were not bolted down in any way. I was amused to see that these same seats now form an impromptu ‘waiting room’ outside the hostel bathrooms.

Luang Prabang is a beautiful little city and has provided welcome respite from the craziness and the begging which was so rife in Cambodia. Situated 425 kilometres north of the capital Vientiane, the city is a UNESCO world heritage site and is home to a little over 100,000 people. There is a huge number of restaurants and cafes here – overall there’s a strong Thai influence, with a little bit of French thrown in for good measure. Not a bad combination if I do say so myself!

We initially planned to stay four nights but have ended up extending that a little as (a) we’ve heard some rather dubious things about our next destination, and (b) it’s such a lovely relaxing place we don’t want to leave! I’ve largely spent my days cycling around the town taking in the views along the river, dining in cafes and visiting local sights and attractions.

On Sunday we planned to go to Tat Kuang Si Park, located about 30 kilometres out of town. During breakfast we met a couple of other travelers who ended up coming along and it turned out to be a great day. On arrival at the park we paid our $2 entry fee and made our first stop at the ‘Free the Bears Rescue Centre’. Unfortunately it appeared to be cleaning time and all we got to see was a few Laotian cleaners – not quite what we were hoping for! We moved on through the park and within a few minutes arrived at the waterfall which was absolutely gorgeous. After a good walk around we found a good swimming hole and settled down for a while. Unfortunately Jacques re-injured his already injured foot while entering the water so was unable to swim – the rest of us braved the climb up a large tree to make use of a rope swing above the falls which was great fun! One of the Laotian guys with us managed to snap some hilarious mid-air shots of me, so they will be duly posted once he emails them through! Apparently he showed his friends and they call me the ‘flying foreigner’.

That night we met up with some other travelers from the hostel and hit the night markets for some dinner and drinks. After much consumption of Lao Lao we decided that given it was a Sunday night, what better to do than go to a Lao nightclub! It was an interesting place – it was surprisingly busy for a Sunday night and we had a good dance and a few drinks. One of the English guys with us began chatting with an attractive Laotian girl and came back very quickly to report that many of the ‘girls’ around us weren’t actually girls. A lot of them had done a great job at presenting themselves but there were one or two sporting rather large man hands, shoulders and jaws – something no amount of makeup can cover unfortunately. I tried to study some of them discreetly and figure out who was who - it was a bit like playing ‘Where’s Wally’, but with an adam’s apple.

I have also spent some time at a little place called ‘Big Brother Mouse’ which is located in the central part of Luang Prabang. BBM is a Laos-owned and based project which promotes literacy and English to rural and urban Laotians through the publishing and provision of books. They also run a daily English practice program, whereby foreigners can drop in to the centre between 9am and 11am each day to help locals improve their English. Today I spent two hours teaching English to a sixteen year old Laotian girl who has minimal English skills – it was tough, but I really hope she got something out of it. I spent a lot of time on the alphabet and phonics as it seemed she hadn’t even really grasped the basics yet. She was very sweet and very diligent – fortunately I was aided by a man who was there for conversation practice who was able to speak Lao and a bit of English, so he provided translation for me when needed. She doesn’t own any textbooks – just a notebook full of phrases written by foreigners who have visited the shop. I am going back to teach again tomorrow and have bought her a small Lao-English picture dictionary to help her along. BBM publishes one which isn’t particularly comprehensive, but is more than ample for beginners and costs less than $2. The centre is doing some great work and is a cause well worth supporting – . I was interested to note that in the three times I’ve been in, the only volunteers I have come across have been New Zealanders. There will be a future generation of Laotians with Kiwi accents – watch this space!

Tomorrow we head to Vang Vieng to go tubing. Given the amount of rain we’ve had recently I suspect the river will be rather high and potentially quite dangerous so I haven’t made up my mind yet as to whether I will go tubing or not. The other consideration of course is the current outbreak of pink-eye which travelers are picking up from the river – the thought of tubing down a river full of poo really doesn’t excite me, so I think I will find something else to do with my time!

More from pink-eye central soon.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Cambodia, you're so good to me.

We arrived in Phnom Penh by bus, a mere six hour drive (including customs and visa formalities at the border) from Saigon. We travelled by ‘luxury’ tourist bus and found ourselves once again considerably disappointed at what we received for our $12. Much like my experience on Aeroflot Russian Airlines, it was nothing like what the brochures and posters promised. I sat squished into my uncomfortable, non-reclining seat and was forced to listen to a hideous Vietnamese karaoke DVD on repeat. I passed the time by counting the bugs scuttling past, willing myself not to need the on-board bathroom (revolting beyond belief) and glaring daggers at the poster stuck to the window proudly proclaiming the company’s ownership modern fleet of top-class red luxury tourist buses. Ours wasn’t red, nor did it boast any of the other features proclaimed on the poster. However, one can’t be too choosy I suppose – considering we made it in one piece I should be thanking my lucky stars it didn’t fall apart entirely en route.

It is hard to believe that two of the most popular tourist attractions in Phnom Penh are an old school and a bit of farmland on the outskirts of the city. Although seemingly insignificant, these two places have in fact been the sites of some of Cambodia's most horrific war crimes. We spent a full day exploring the S-21 Genocide Museum and killing fields – a sobering experience but one I would recommend to any visitor to the city.

Cambodia's history has been a long and fairly bloody one - in 1975 the Khmer Rouge took power under the leadership of Pol Pot and began a backwards social revolution of sorts. His goal: re-starting civilization from ‘Year Zero’ through a form of agrarian socialism. He drove city dwellers out into the countryside where they were forced to work – those who didn’t or couldn’t were shot dead on the spot. Those in the upper classes were shot, as were the educated or those holding any power in government. Many Cambodians were captured and tortured in S-21 until they confessed to working as spies for the US government – even where this was not the case ‘confessions’ were given simply to put an end to the torture which in some cases went on for months. In total, over 17,000 Cambodians were sent to S-21 – ultimately only seven survived. That’s a 0.04% survival rate – not good odds, really.

Fortunately, Pol Pot did not succeed in his mission to revolutionise Democratic Kampuchea and despite estimates of up to three million lives lost to the Khmer Rouge regime, today the country is slowly rebuilding itself. Poverty is still rife – you can see it in the living conditions, the begging and the horrific levels of child prostitution that still exist today. Modern-day Phnom Penh was no exception – every night that we ate dinner in the city we were approached by no less than four or five children selling books, bracelets or other worthless trinkets. They are proficient in English, masters of manipulation and, as we discovered upon refusing to buy their products, have a wide and rather colourful vocabulary which may either be presented in full word form or spelled out and accompanied by a middle finger.

A couple of days in the city proved to be enough for the three of us. Kristin moved on to Battembang and Billy accompanied me to Sihanoukville, a coastal town 5 hours away on the Gulf of Thailand. There we spent two nights staying in a small bungalow near the beach, relaxing on the sand, exploring the peninsula by bike and soaking up the lively nightlife. The last morning we were there, I was both horrified and delighted to find that my pre-purchased snacks for the long bus trip back to Phnom Penh had been mauled by rats. I had woken up the previous night convinced I could hear packets rustling and in my sleepy state assumed it was Billy with a case of the munchies. When I couldn’t see him, I then decided it was the rain outside and promptly fell back to sleep. Come morning, there was not one individually-wrapped packet left untouched and it was clear the local rat population had dined like kings whilst I slumbered. I mentioned earlier that this also delighted me – primarily because upon inspection of the bungalow, the only possible entrance point we could find was situated in the wall right above Billy’s bed. I was tickled to think that in his alcoholic, absinthe-induced catatonic state he inadvertently provided a small tribe of rats with a human obstacle course.

We returned to Phnom Penh to collect our bags and stay one more night before heading north to Siem Reap. As it turned out we were sharing a dorm room with two other EPIK teachers from South Korea who, as it transpired, I had met at orientation a year ago and Billy had met in downtown Daegu. Small world! They ended up getting the same bus as us to Siem Reap and we’re currently staying at the same hotel here.
This week we spent two days exploring the temples of Angkor. I won’t bore you with the details, but needless to say it has been incredible – the temples are absolutely mind-blowing. Unfortunately I wasn’t allowed up the main tower of Angkor Wat as I wasn’t suitably clothed (you could see my knees – hussy!). I did however climb one temple called Pre Rup which was spectacular. On reaching the top, I was struck by the number of people who were just sitting there, enjoying the view and contemplating life. After a few minutes of doing the same, I began to wonder whether they were actually still contemplating life, or whether their thoughts had moved on to more pertinent matters such as “how the hell am I going to get back down those f*cking stairs”. There’s only so long I can pretend to enjoy something, so eventually I was forced to hand my bag over to Billy “They Named A Goat After Me” Stevenson and began my slow and clumsy descent. Let it be said, I have not had an aversion to heights or stairs since I bungy jumped and threw myself head first down a flight of stairs in London, breaking my femur. Clearly those two events were not simultaneous, but both have left me very nervous of heights and precipitous staircases! I noticed several people bounding past me down the temple face like mountain goats, but I would venture to say my movements were more sloth-like. Anyhow, I made it to the bottom safely and in one piece, so I guess that’s the main thing.

My two favourite temples so far have been Ta Prohm (the temple in which parts of Tomb Raider were filmed) and Kbal Spean – a river and waterfall located deep in the jungle around 45 kilometres north east of Ta Prohm. It isn’t strictly a ‘temple’, but rather a series of carvings in and around the river dating back to as early as the 11th century. It pre-dates Angkor Wat by almost 200 years, making it one of the most ancient sites in the entire region.

Right now I’m kicking back in my hotel room relaxing – it’s 33 degrees outside and 70 percent humidity which doesn’t make for ideal daytime exploring conditions. I’ve also managed to pick up some sort of cold or flu virus and eye infection so am trying to get a bit of rest before we head into Laos on Friday. Siem Reap is a hedonists paradise – a good meal out will set you back around $3, cocktails $1 each and a one-hour full body massage anywhere from $3. Our hotel is situated less than five minutes walk from the central district (ingeniously named ‘Pub Street’) and the night markets – my bag is quite literally bulging with dresses right now. I think I need to book myself into Dressaholics Anonymous after the purchase of my tenth and eleventh dresses last night. Although to be fair they aren’t all for me… (well, 2 aren’t).

More from Laos soon!

Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Cu chi coo, Ho Chi Minh

And here we are in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). Bigger, crazier and just as 'tooty' as Hanoi, we managed to find a hotel off the main roads and secure a little bit of piece and quiet. 

One of the highlights of my time here was the Cu Chi tunnels, which are located in the Cu Chi district around one and a half hours drive from Saigon. The tunnels were constructed during the war by the Viet Cong and used as a hiding place from the American soldiers who were unable to find the tunnels and, when they did, largely underestimated their complexity. 

The tunnels at Cu Chi have been preserved by the Vietnamese government and cover around 121 kilometres: a staggering distance when you consider they were dug entirely by hand using only small spades and buckets. We were able to travel through a small section of the tunnels (approximately 120 metres long) and experience what life was like underground for the Viet Cong. I can't say I could have survived in those cramped conditions - the tunnels are tiny, dark and very, very hot. You wouldn't want to venture down there if you were claustrophobic or, unsurprisingly, if you were partial to pies. 

The Vietnamese were a wily lot - their tunnel system was exceptionally labyrinthine, and the traps they dreamed up for the American soldiers were nothing short of genius. No stone was left unturned in their quest to outsmart the US and what they lacked in fire power they more than made up for in cunning. They would hide out in their tunnels during the day when American soldiers were patrolling, well hidden underneath the trap doors scattered throughout the Cu Chi area. By night, they emerged and fought when the Americans were resting and when the malaria-ridden mosquitos were out in force. Malaria was a prominent cause of death for Viet Cong soldiers, second only to battle wounds.

Our tour guide for the half day was a fascinating man. Vietnamese, he spent seven years fighting for the Americans and was a wealth of information and stories, some of which he was reluctant to share. His name was 'Bin' (pronounced 'bean'), or as he liked to be called, Mr Bin. Prior to the war he attended medical school and was training to become a doctor. He met his girlfriend there and they planned to marry. Tragically, war broke out and his girlfriend and family were murdered by the Viet Cong and he was drawn into the war to fight for the Americans.

It is pretty incredible to think that so many of the people who still walk the streets of Saigon today have been witness to the horrors and atrocities of the Vietnam war. It's even more incredible to think they survived. To live through this and maintain any sort of faith in the human race or in God (presuming there is one) would be a difficult task and require exceptional strength of character. Although that said, if you've lost your livelihood, your home and even your family what else is left except blind faith? It doesn't bear thinking about.

The atrocities of the Vietnam war are well documented at the War Remnants Museum in central Saigon. The building is home to a range of war paraphernalia such as old aircraft, tanks and munitions along with an extensive collection of photographs from newspapers and private collections around the world. Interestingly, it has been known by a number of names across the years, including 'The House for Displaying War Crimes of American Imperialism and the Puppet Government', the 'Museum of American War Crimes' and later as the 'War Crimes Museum', until 1993 when it was given its present name following liberalisation and normalisation of US-Vietnam international relations.

The museum also features a craft workshop which provides work for those affected by Agent Orange - this is set up right next to the main entrance and is the first thing you see upon entering the building. Those working at the shop are mostly kids, and all have obvious physical deformations. Blatant marketing strategy? Absolutely. Heart-rending? Undoubtedly. Exploitation? I'll let you be the judge.

Some of the photographs from the exhibition were truly breathtaking, particularly those by Japanese photographer Yasufumi Murayara who documented the aftermath of the war and, primarily, the lives of those who were affected by Agent Orange. Some of the photos were sad yet inspiring and others tore me up inside. I actually had to leave the exhibition around three quarters of the way through as I was viewing the photos through a haze of tears. How anyone could inflict such horror on an innocent population with such little understanding and disregard for the long-term effects is beyond my comprehension. Murayara began photographing Vietnamese victims (mostly children) in 1998 and the extent of the deformities they suffer is heart-wrenching. His pictures capture an incredible amount in a single shot and despite their quality it seems surreal and wrong to find beauty in them.

You may have noticed from my earlier explanation regarding the museum's nomenclature that it is not the most impartial exhibition in town. It focuses solely on the Vietnamese war perspective and the evil of the Americans. Admittedly, I can't say I could stand in that museum and say I was proud to be an American (not that I am but that's beside the point), however it is important to note that there are two sides to every story -  the Vietnamese are equally as guilty of perpetuating the horrors which plaster the walls of the museum. Not only that, but they committed these heinous crimes against their own people.

It's hard to understand the point of museums like this sometimes - although historical, paying money to witness such suffering seems macabre and borderline voyeuristic. Of course, they pay tribute to the innocent lives lost in the name of war and document history so that we may ensure it never repeats, however the very same events are still taking place today in the world. Tragically, those who incite war aren't the ones visiting these places - they are the war mongers of the world whose opinions won't be swayed by the suffering of a small south east asian nation. Whether it be over communism, religion or natural resources, the wars will continue regardless. We will not learn.

But, I digress. The rest of our time in Saigon was great. We met some great people at our hotel and spent a lot of time with them and found many great places to eat and drink. We also ran into friends we had met in Hanoi and Hoi An which was a nice surprise - it's just like being back in little ol' Daegu!

One other memorable part of my trip was my visit to the Christina Noble Foundation Sunshine School which is located in Ho Chi Minh City. After reading Bridge Across My Sorrows and Mama Tina many years ago (and countless times since) I made it my mission to visit there if ever I made it to Saigon. That I did, and yesterday I was privileged enough to visit the school, meet with some of the coordinators and also one of Christina's daughters who arrived with her own family as I was there. The school was amazing - far more modern and developed than I could have imagined and staffed by some of the loveliest people you could meet. I saw a lot of the kids too, who were just like Korean kids - cheeky, inquisitive and full of boundless energy. I'm giving consideration to a volunteering post there next year for a few months, so watch this space.

And on that note, I will leave you. I find myself finishing this post in Phnom Penh, Cambodia - it has stopped raining outside and there are streets to be explored and food to be eaten. I'm off to the killing fields and the Tuol Sleng museum tomorrow morning so that should be a cheerful day all round! I will attempt to upload some photos soon too - unfortunately the connection here is too slow and I'm too impatient. 

More soon!

Sunday, 29 August 2010

Finding happiness in Hoi An

Sorry folks ... a quick and boring post this time as I'm really tired and now don't have a computer as mine passed away this week. Again.

Last week we left bustling, noisy Hanoi and boarded the sleeper train for Hoi An in search of a little peace and quiet. We arrived around midday to an incredible amount of rain which transformed the streets from arid scooter-filled highways to small rivers. The Vietnamese of course were well prepared with enormous rain ponchos, whereas we were not and ended up getting rather soggy.

Hoi An was a refreshing change from Hanoi, with smaller, cleaner and quieter streets and quaint French architecture dating back to colonial times. The city is relatively small and is a gastronomic paradise - you could virtually eat in a different restaurant every night for months, probably longer at the rate a lot of them turn over.

We initally checked into a lovely hotel with a swimming pool but decided that we would only spend two nights there in order to preserve our travel budgets. We moved across the road and spent two nights in the Sea Star Hotel which was far from exquisite, but doable.

I can't say that I really did much in Hoi An and this is precisely why I loved it. The pace of life is slow, and more notably it was too hot to really do a heck of a lot. Early in the stay we attended a cooking school which turned out to be great fun. And, contrary to popular belief, I am actually capable of cooking edible food! The fact that I am still alive and writing this is proof, as I ate everything I made. We met Sanj and Kristy, a British couple who have been travelling for almost two years. They were absolutely lovely and we ended up having dinner with them a few times before we left Hoi An.

We also met up with Cristian, a Chilean traveller we met in Hanoi. A fairly large night was had on Wednesday after dinner - Billy and I ended up in a strange bar in what seemed like the middle of nowhere drinking vodka and playing pool with four Polish guys. Vincent and Cristian (French and Chilean guys) arrived later and the night went on until the wee hours when we finally managed to navigate our way home.

On Thursday Vincent, Cristian and I hired bikes and rode out to China Beach and spent the afternoon swimming and relaxing in the sun. Billy paid us a surprise visit later in the afternoon looking like a human lobster after deciding to ride a scooter all the way to Da Nang and back without any sunscreen on. Needless to say he spent the next few days regretting that decision!

My final day in Hoi An was spent relaxing, posting home the clothes I had tailored, and having lunch down on the river. We then rode around the island for the rest of the afternoon and met Billy, Kristin, Sanj and Kirsty for a final dinner before departing for the airport to catch our flight to Saigon.

All up, it was a brilliant stay in Hoi An - I really loved the city and it's sleepy vibe and of course the people we met there. I hope to go back one day soon with an empty suitcase as it's a shopping paradise!

Onwards to Saigon ... more soon.

The lantern bridge spanning the river, Central Old Town

Tree-lined streets in the Old Town

The river heading out to China Beach

Having dinner at our favourite restaurant by the river

Looking up the river from the island

Traffic jam, Hoi An style

Cooking school - getting taught the basics!

My Hoi An pancake - not quite to recipe, but absolutely delicious!

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

You've heard of snakes on a plane ... now for cockroaches on a boat!

Hanoi is a great city, however there is only so much smog and tooting one girl can take. So, what better way to take a break than to jump on a smelly, noisy, tooting tourist bus and head to Ha Long Bay, a beautiful UNESCO world heritage site in the north east of Vietnam. 

We purchased a three-day tour package which gave us one night sleeping on a Vietnamese junk boat (very aptly titled, but more on that soon) and one night in a three-star hotel on Ha Long Bay's largest island, Cat Ba. We were lucky to get a relatively small, friendly and wonderfully diverse group of passengers from the USA, Canada, England, the Czech Republic, Austria, Denmark, Belgium and Peru. A lot of the tours are designed for young backpackers and involve copious amounts of alcohol and 'hookups' which wasn't what we went to Ha Long Bay for - perhaps with the exception of Billy we were all delighted to have a such a low-key group!

Our accommodations were simple and by all appearances, fairly pleasant. The small group meant that there was plenty of space on the boat, even after factoring in the hundreds of cockroaches and the tribe of rats residing in our ceiling. I'm all for wildlife, but the thought of sharing my bed with a number of small, stealthy and exceptionally speedy cockroaches gave me the willies and you will not be at all surprised to hear that no blissful slumber was had that night. The rats in the ceiling were evidently delighted to have some human company and spent much time in the dead of night screeching at each other and having races across the length of the ceiling. That evening Billy was also evicted from the room due to alcohol-induced snoring, so between cockroach paranoia, rat races and pouring Billy out the door it wasn't a particularly satisfying night's sleep.

But, I digress. The trip itself was great - we saw some incredible places including Sung Sot cave: an enormous limestone cave that seemed to stretch on for miles. Despite the fact that the cave has been developed to accommodate large numbers of tourists, much of it seems to be well preserved and, for the most part, tastefully done. I did take exception however to the garish rubbish bins scattered throughout the cave complex. You would think that in a world heritage site considerable effort should be made to blend in any necessary man-made objects such as rubbish bins with the natural surroundings. Not in Vietnam. The rubbish bins were .... giant metal penguins. Classy. 

Late on Friday afternoon we moored around the back of a small island and jumped in some kayaks. We kayaked right around the island and returned to the boat for a swim in the beautiful emerald coloured water. It was incredibly warm and deep, so we decided to jump from the boat which was, in hindsight, better in theory than in practice. The boat was around eight or nine metres high, which doesn't sound like much until you're standing on the edge looking down clad only in a flimsy bikini. Myself, Kristin and two other English girls eventually worked up the courage to take the plunge, with Peter the Danish tourist on hand to photograph the event. I went feet first, got a sinus full of salt water and, for my troubles, ended up with my bikini top around my neck. I decided to go again, and this time tied everything tightly to ensure no unwanted public exposure. However, what I didn't factor in was the slippery deck. We had decided to jump as a group of four but as the other three girls leapt gracefully off the deck and into the emerald waters below, I slipped sideways and ended up tumbling off the boat in a most undignified manner. There were some unrepeatable and most unladylike utterances on my way down, but despite all this I emerged victorious, bikini intact. Job done. 

Our evening was lazy and relaxed, with drinks on the top deck after dinner until late into the night. The following day we moved on to Cat Ba Island, the largest island in the archipelago. After checking into our hotel and having some lunch, we took a short boat ride out to the promising-sounding Monkey Island. We had visions of a large and beautiful island offering white sand, clear water, lush foliage and teeming with wildlife, and we were naturally disappointed when we were told we would have only around one hour on the island. 

As it transpired, Monkey Island is to idyllic paradise as Kim Jong Il is to world peace. We climbed off the boat and found ourselves standing on what was (to be fair) white sand. Unfortunately you couldn't really see this as most of it was either covered with Vietnamese tourists or trash. In approximately five seconds we went from excited to confused, confused to disappointed, disappointed to disgusted, and then finally just bemused. What possessed any self-respecting tour company to ferry passengers to this remote rubbish receptacle is beyond me - by the guide's own admission even most of the monkeys have upped and swam to other islands, which with short arms and legs like theirs would be no mean feat!

We walked the length of the beach, returned and pondered what to do with our remaining 58 minutes and thirty seconds. It was around this time we spotted a group of Vietnamese tourists crowded around a lone monkey in a tree near the water. We approached cautiously and, like the bona fide tourists we are, began to take pictures. At this point one particularly idiotic Vietnamese man decided to try and poke the monkey, or provoke him into doing something - goodness knows what. The monkey responded by baring its teeth, screeching and swinging wildly in the man's direction. I managed to get a mid-lunge photograph before emitting a pretty decent screech of my own and retreating rapidly to a safe distance. 

In short, Monkey Island wasn't what it cracked up to be. We saw two monkeys, enough rubbish to fill a tip and more tourists than Paris in the spring. Despite the dearth of monkeys on the island, the over-abundance of idiotic tourists ensures that the name 'Monkey Island' isn't entirely false advertising.

We returned to Cat Ba and had a lovely evening getting shoulder massages and manicures and watching a spectacular (and fortunately distant) electrical storm whilst sipping cocktails on the waterfront. The next day we re-boarded the Cockroach Express and headed back to Ha Long City via a lovely little floating village.

It might sound like our trip to Ha Long Bay was a bit of a disaster, however that isn't the case at all. Like anything in life you need to realise that sometimes things just won't be up to expectation - this tour was no different. The scenery was beautiful, the people were friendly, the weather was excellent and overall it was a fantastic three days. It's hard to put into words the beauty of the area, so I'll refrain from giving you a full history and instead leave the photographs to do the talking. Enjoy!

Inside the caves on a small row boat - so beautiful!

The boys on their boat with our guide

Inside the cave complex and my attempt at a panorama photo

Kristin and I on the row boat

From the 'what were they thinking' files

Stunning shoreline at Monkey Island

A particularly aggressive monkey lunging at an idiot tourist. Go monkey!

Our lodgings on the Cockroach Express

Jumping off the boat. Undignified fall not captured, thankfully.

Ha Long Bay - the view from our bedroom window. Spectacular!

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Good morning Vietnam!

We were awakened at 10.30am by a loud knock at the door. It was Billy, who was up, dressed, fed and raring to go. Bleary-eyed, we dragged ourselves downstairs to take advantage of the free breakfast which finished at 11am, then headed out to explore the city on foot. We were joined by Cristian, a Chilean guy who was also staying in Billy’s dorm room.

Our first stop was Hoan Kiem Lake, situated in the heart of the Old Quarter. We paid our 10,000 dong and headed across the bridge to visit the Ngoc Son Temple which is situated on an island at the northern end of the lake. It was a beautiful little temple but the main drawcard as we discovered was the embalmed remains of a giant tortoise who previously inhabited the lake. It is said there are still other tortoises of his kind in the area but whether this is true is debatable – I can’t imagine that a lake in the centre of a bustling, relatively dirty city like Hanoi would be a haven for tortoises, but you never know!

In a bid to better understand Vietnam’s bloody political history, we headed around the lake to the Hoa Lo Prison Museum. Given the nickname ‘Hanoi Hilton’ by American prisoners in sarcastic reference to its overcrowded and unsanitary conditions, the prison was used primarily during the war to house and torture captured American servicemen in order to elicit information. It was also used to elicit false statements from American soldiers regarding treatment of prisoners by the Vietnamese for as a tool for anti-American war propaganda. Built by the French in the 19th century, the prison occupied almost 13,000 square metres of land and housed hundreds of Vietnamese political prisoners and agitators. What remains of the prison today occupies a much smaller site and offers a glimpse into Vietnam’s tumultuous history that is fascinating, horrifying and startlingly reminiscent of the atrocities of Nazi Germany.

The museum presents many aspects of prison life, some considerably more horrifying than others. We viewed the small, claustrophobic cells in which political prisoners were incarcerated and tortured, stockades in which they were held and, most disturbingly, an enormous guillotine with which many hundreds of prisoners were beheaded. Interestingly, what remains of the prison today is situated immediately next to a large international high-rise hotel in a fascinating juxtaposition of old-day revolutionary ideals and present day capitalism. 

We continued on through the city, meandering towards St Joseph’s cathedral. We stopped for lunch and a drink at a little café called La Place which unbeknown to us was a top pick in the latest edition of the Vietnam Lonely Planet guide. The food was fantastic, the drinks cold and delicious and the staff wonderfully friendly. We had an impromptu Vietnamese lesson from one of the waitresses whilst we sipped on fresh mojitos and iced coffee. It’s tough being a traveler.

After lunch we crossed the street to St Joseph’s cathedral, an impressive old building reminiscent of medieval Europe. The church was beautiful inside, and offered a peaceful retreat from the incessant cacophony of motorbike horns in the streets outside. We emerged from the church next to a school where students were flooding out, greeted by what seemed like hundreds of parents – all sitting astride scooters. It made for quite a sight and made crossing roads in the area nigh on impossible!

Perceptions so far
Hanoi is buzzing. Scooters are absolutely everywhere and much like Korea, road rules seem to be a minor concern if not an inconvenience. Cars and scooters toot their horns loudly and incessantly, weaving through traffic and crowds of pedestrians, often whilst delicately balancing an enormous load of goods destined for a market stall somewhere in the crowded city streets. Persistent street sellers hawk some of the most ludicrous goods imaginable whilst the locals crouch on the filthy roadside surrounded by food stalls, small children and mangy-looking animals. The streets are dirty, the air is thick with the stench of sewerage and exhaust fumes and even the leafy green boughs of nearby trees are unable to hide the tangled web of electric cabling which snarls its way above and along the city streets.

Yet despite all this, Hanoi retains an air about it which I cannot put a finger on. Despite the seemingly frenetic pace of life, a sense of calm somehow overrides the chaos and you find yourself content to simply meander along the street and soak up the atmosphere. The roads are in chaos, yet somehow everything seems to work. The locals are incredibly laid back and their countenance is apparent even as you observe what appears to be pandemonium all around you. Hanoi is a city steeped in traditions and culture yet buzzing with activity and rife with change. Hanoi is alive, and I love it.

Our hotel room at the Little Hanoi Hotel

Crazy scooter traffic on an intersection in the old quarter

Hoan Kiem Lake, Old Quarter

First picture together - we made it!

Day One: Farewell to the land of the morning calm

The day dawned clear and warm, and only around one hour after I bid the previous one goodnight. Dragging myself from the warmth of my bed and piling into a taxi at 6.15am I said my final goodbyes to my life in Korea through a sleepy haze. Kristin and I departed Dongdaegu for the last time and boarded the Express bus to Incheon International Airport.

We made excellent time, arriving in just four hours. We checked in our bags, which, contrary to our confident predictions, weighed a ton: so much for packing light. Our flight left Seoul at 2.15pm and landed in Guangzhou, China three hours later. After discovering that there is in fact nothing to do in Guangzhou Airport we settled into a coffee shop to have some dinner and to avail ourselves of the free internet. As it turned out the internet isn’t actually free and, because neither is China, we were unable to access the majority of the sites we wanted to view.  It was a long four hour layover.

Our arrival in Hanoi was smooth – we processed our visas with no problems and managed to locate our driver, allowing us to avoid the taxi touts at the arrivals gate and move swiftly from the airport to the hotel. After sixteen hours of sleep-free travel and only one hour of sleep the previous night, bed has never looked so good.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Indulging my inner hippopotamus

Mud, glorious mud. Even as an adult there's something inexplicably appealing about it. A return to childhood? A break from the stresses of daily life? Or a chance to be 'at one' with nature without the need to hunt for suitable foliage to use as toilet paper? Whatever your motivation, if you're looking for mud look no further than Daecheon Beach, South Korea - home to the annual South Korea Boryeong Mud Festival.

Last weekend Boryeong underwent its annual transformation from sleepy Korean seaside town to a magnet for Korean and foreign tourists alike. Hundreds of thousands of people flocked to the opening weekend from all over Korea to wallow in the mud and experience the many delights the festival has to offer. Not only can you soak up its purported therapeutic benefits, but you can also unleash your inner brat and indulge in some literal mud slinging which, as I discovered, has its own mental therapeutic benefits!

The festival began back in 1998 and was the brainchild of a local cosmetics company seeking publicity and promotion for it's range of mud-based mineral-rich skincare products. In the 13 years that have followed, the festival has attracted millions of tourists to sleepy Boryeong, placing it firmly on events calendars both in Korea and around the world. The attraction to the event lies not only in the mud, but in the adjacent 3.5 kilometre stretch of beach which offers a place to relax, unwind and wash away the stresses of city life and, of course, the mud!

Setting off from Daegu early on Saturday morning, we made the four-hour journey north together with 2 busloads of foreigners and a large amount of beer. Two hours into our trip our peace was shattered by the introduction of the 노래방 (noraebang) machine, which and provided some ... interesting entertainment. On arrival in Boryeong we deposited our bags at our pension, changed and headed straight for the center of the action - Daecheon Beach.

The festival offers a huge range of activities, including a mudfall (think waterfall, just with mud!), inflatable obstacle courses and slides, mud wrestling pools, coloured mud body painting, a 'mud prison', 'self-mud-massage' stations and mud-flat skiing to name a few. A list of all the activities can be found on the official website which, in true Korean style offers some wonderful flowery language and some fabulous Engrish.

After arriving at the beach and finding the weather rather cold and windy, we decided to warm up from the inside out. Stripping down to our bikinis and dumping our gear in one of the free lockers, we headed to Family Mart where we purchased some drinks and headed down to the mud pit. We walked straight into an all-out mud war which proved to be a fun, albeit somewhat painful experience! The mud had been dumped in a car park and contained not only sand (great for exfoliation purposes!) but also gravel and small rocks. A number of brave (stupid?) people had parked very close to the area and in some cases the cars were so coated in mud you couldn't tell what colour the car was meant to be. I'm sure the mud itself wouldn't harm the paintwork, however the rocks and sand wouldn't have done it any good, particularly when hurled with the same vigor as what were pelted with!

 Mud slinging

Classy ladies (L-R): me, Jo and Michelle  
(photos thanks to Megan Preece Photography)

Our visits to the mud pit were interspersed with swims in the sea which were welcome relief from the crusty, fast-drying mud. One of our friends had purchased an enormous inflatable raft which provided endless entertainment - that is to say until it met an untimely end at the hands of a rock (or possibly a screwdriver).

Saturday evening was spent lounging down by the beach with friends - we briefly saw some fireworks and a few short performances on the main stage. I use the term 'performances' loosely, as the majority of what we saw consisted of randomly selected drunk foreigners showcasing their dubious dancing talents and apparent lack of dignity to a small, bemused crowd of Koreans. We also encountered a seemingly underfed and voracious mosquito population - I became a human pincushion that evening and even now, 4 days later, I have all the outward appearances of carrying some sort of strange disease. I am crimson from my sunburn and my feet and legs are covered with bites that no amount of antihistamines and cooling cream will relieve! Ah, Korea.

Saturday night I had a great sleep, although unfortunately the same can't be said for Kristin and Bosun. I've always been aware I'm a heavy sleeper, but that night I slept through multiple noisy attempts by drunks to access our room and bathroom and a further attempt at window entry by a drunk foreigner. Being a heavy sleeper definitely has its perks, however I do worry what would happen if my house ever caught fire!

Sunday was spent lounging on the beach, with our return to Daegu around 3.30pm. I elected to return on another bus with friends, as the one I booked for the tour departed at 1pm and I wasn't keen to leave the sand and sea that early! I have to say in hindsight that I would never book with Daegu Pockets on any tour ever again - this is the second one I've been on that has been poorly organised and totally unprofessional. This year they planned six buses and three houses, however managed only two buses and what I can only assume was one house because nobody would or could tell us where the other one was. It was (in my opinion) absolutely not worth the price they charged and it has to be said that certain members of their staff could benefit from a little remedial training in basic customer relations.

Overall it was a brilliant weekend and one I will remember for a long time to come. Unfortunately I can't say the same for another friend of mine who was involved in a freak accident shortly after his arrival to mudfest. A deliberately ugly slide tackle in a friendly ball game left him with a broken tibia and fibula (front and back shin bones in laymans terms). He had to return to Incheon by bus with NO painkillers and has since undergone surgery to insert a large metal rod the length of his shin. This incident has left me dumbfounded on three separate counts - firstly, the guy who tackled him knew the damage he did and apparently offered no apology or assistance; secondly, the surgery was done under local rather than general anaesthetic (Kevin was awake to hear every little thing) and thirdly, the hospital has offered him no appropriate pain relief medication such as morphine at any stage during this ordeal. He told me the pain has been excruciating and beyond anything he could imagine, however the Korean doctors maintain they don't provide pain relief because they don't believe in drugs. This is coming from a national health system notorious for over-medicating its citizens - visit the doctor for relief from flu symptoms and you will be prescribed a minimum of fifteen pills a day (and I speak from personal experience with three separate doctors). I can only hope Kevin gets through this ordeal safely and with his sanity intact. Having spent time in hospital last year for the same thing, I know exactly how hard it is to be away from family at times like this. That said, I can't even begin to imagine the same situation with cultural and language barriers thrown into the mix. Get well soon Kevin, we're all thinking of you!

High point: Buying soju in a plastic bottle from the local convenience store in my underpants
Low point: Being the main course in the mosquito feeding frenzy

Kristin (centre) and I (right) making a beeline for the water after being pelted in the mud fight

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

The South East Beast

I've had a lot of questions around where and when I'm travelling, so thought I might as well save time and put it down on my blog! Hopefully this will provide some sort of incentive to write a bit more about my travels as they happen, but don't hold your breath.

Furthermore, if you have any recommendations (good or bad) for any destinations on this trip, please leave a comment below.

(a rough itinerary)

August 16th - 18th
Hanoi, Vietnam

August 19th - 22nd 
Halong Bay, Vietnam

August 23rd - 27th
Hoi An/Da Nang

August 28th - 31st
Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam

September 1st - 5th 
Phnom Penh, Cambodia

September 6th - 10th
Siem Reap, Cambodia

September 11th - 13th 
Luang Prabang, Laos

September 14th - 17th
Vang Vieng, Laos

September 17th - 21st
Vientiane, Laos

September 21st - 23rd
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

September 23rd - 29th
Borneo and Brunei(exact dates for Brunei tbc)

September 29th -30th
Depart Kuala Lumpur for Auckland

September 30th
Touchdown - Auckland!

T minus 32 and counting!