Archive for May, 2009

Tubing in Vang Vieng

Wednesday, May 27th, 2009

On Wednesday night my train left Bangkok a little past eight. I was travelling with Daniel and Joachim, whom I€ met in Pattaya, and in a bunk near us was a Dutch girl who was going to do an internship in the tourist industry in some National Park in Thailand. The girl was nice, and had a deck of cards, so we sat in the cafe carriage playing until they kicked us out. We returned to our own carriage, and probably kept people awake with our talking long into the night.

When we got up the next morning our train soon pulled into the city closest to the Laotian border, where we bought tickets for the final 15 minutes into Laos. We went through the Thai border control before boarding the train, and got our visas with surprising efficiency when we reached the other side. We shared a minibus with some other backpackers the 20 minutes ride into Vientiane, where Daniel, Joachim and I eventually found the bus station where the cheap local buses for Vang Vieng leave from. Apart from a couple of girls from Denmark, we were the only westerners on the bus. It was an old and rickety bus without aircon and with broken fans, but the windows were open, so I wasn’t too hot. One funny incident on the way, was when we passed an overturned pick up truck in the road. The truck lay on it’s side, and it’s load of fruit had been gathered up on the side of the road. The bus pulled over next to the truck and everybody got out. We promptly tipped the truck right side up, got back in our bus again, and continued on our way.

When we reached Vang Vieng I asked the Danes whether they had a guest house booked, because that’s often how I get to the cheap places to sleep, by leeching off of other people’s research, not to mention it’s a great conversation starter when you meet beautiful young women… 😛 They didn’t have a reservation, but we set out together to see if we couldn’t find a decent place anyway. The first one we stopped in had a nice laid-back lounge up front, with lots of DVDs, hot water, free wi-fi, a roof terrace, free drinking water, and basically seemed nicer than most places. Since we arrived at the same time, we were asked if we wanted a room for five people, and after a little deliberation and some overdue introductions, that became the arrangement, so that night we were five Scandinavians heading out to an Indian dinner together.

Vang Vieng is located in beautiful karst scenery, like Halong Bay and Ninh Binh, and this has been developed by the locals, to offer kayaking, climbing, caving and tubing. Seeing as the young crowd these things attract don’t necessarily have a lot of money, the place is set up to cater to backpackers, and the prices follow suit. The small town is packed with backpackers’ guest houses, restaurants-cum-TVroom that show Family Guy, American Dad or Friends non stop, not to mention bars galore. Thus, after dinner, Daniel, Joachim, Simone, Cecilie and I headed across a plank bridge to an island in the middle of the Nam Song river, and a place called Sunset Bar. The place is outdoors, but has platforms with roofs over for those rainy days, and hammocks and pillows strewn all along the platforms. We all really liked the place, and stayed there till it was time to head home to sleep.

Friday morning we all got ready to go tubing, which is the main attraction in Vang Vieng. That meant that we put on our swim suits, rented inner tubes from trucks’ wheels and got driven by Tuk-Tuk three kilometers out of town to a place in the river where we got dumped with our tubes to float our way back down on the river. All along the banks were bars with swings, zip lines, water slides, mud pits and the like, and we had a lot of fun. On the way, when we stopped along the banks, somebody took two of our tubes, though, but we decided to return the next day, and just swim down the river instead. 🙂 The mud pits were at the last place we stopped at, and we didn’t get all the mud off, so our bathroom was literally COVERED in mud by the time we’d showered. After some pizza we headed back to Sunset and the hammocks, but were so exhausted from tubing that we soon went back and to bed.

Saturday morning started with breakfast at one of the places where you lie down on pillows by a low table, and watch Friends. After breakfast we checked out of the Babylon, since the power was gone, the water was gone, internet wasn’t working, and the owner was a psycho who hauled Joachim out after his hair when he asked when the power might be  back… We checked into a much better AND cheaper room in the guest house next door, called Nazim. Like we had planned, we went back to the river without the tubes, and had a great time again, and again rounded off the night at Sunset after dinner.

On Sunday we decided to go explore a cave, after our long Friends-breakfast. We rented three scooters between the five of us, bought a map, and headed out of town. Some 15 kilometers out we turned off from the main road, and followed a gravel road a few hundred meters towards, and across the river. From there it was more of a path than a dirt road… 🙂 We finally reached the cave, where they rent out tubes and torches, and we started swimming into the cave. A tributary to Nam Song River runs out of the cave, and although you can wade in during the dry season, it’s been raining enough lately that we had to swim. The cave is apparently 500 meters long, but we didn’t follow it all the way to the end. It was a really weird experience to be floating around in a tube, deep inside a mountain! On our way back it got dark, and it was time for dinner. After dinner we decided to honour the Scandinavian tradition of a Vorspiel, before-party, in our hotel room, so we bought some beer, and sat around playing games and listening to Kim Larsen… 😀 Once again, we rounded off the night with our friends in Sunset, since that was THE place to meet people.

Monday morning saw us at the Friendsfast again, and I went tubing with the girls, while Joachim went for a looong ride on a rented scooter, and Daniel was stuck in bed with problems of a digestive nature. At the end of the  day’s playing in the river and dancing at the bars, we didn’t even TRY to rinse off the mud from the mud pit, and instead headed into town covered from head to toe, assaulting other, cleaner specimen of tubers… 😛 I thought the bathroom was dirty the first night after tubing, but after we’d helped each other get rid of all the mud on this day,  we had to shovel the mud from the floor! Even though it was still early, the others fell asleep as soon as they’d dried off from the shower, and in one case before, so I just headed out on my own for a baguette for dinner and went to bed myself.

Yesterday the boys headed back to Bangkok to get some clothes made and stuff before going back to Norway, and the three of us that were left moved into a smaller room in the same hotel. A slow day was spent watching Friends, buying bus tickets out of there, getting a massage, playing pool, and as usual rounding off in the hammocks. This morning the bus left at 10am, and we arrived in Vientiane around 2pm. I said goodbye to Simone and Cecilie at the bus station, where they were getting on a bus to Hanoi in Vietnam. I myself took a Tuk-Tuk downtown, and I’m finishing this post in my room here. There’s unfortunately no wifi here, but I’m hoping to get this posted somehow before I go to bed.

May 17 in Pattaya

Tuesday, May 19th, 2009

May 15

I reached a decision as to where to head next on Wednesday, and bought a bus ticket to Bangkok for the following morning. The dreaded road from Siem Reap to the Thai border has been renewed, and is now one of the best roads I’ve seen in months. The border crossing was long, hot and tedious, and the wait for our connection from the border into Bangkok was just as bad, but around 6pm we were finally there. I tagged along with some other travellers from the same bus, and we found a cheap guest house in the pouring rain. The rainy season is just on time, and at least a shower is to be expected every afternoon, but that doesn’t make it any colder, only more wet… 😛

This morning we all went out for breakfast together, before I started looking for a way to get to Pattaya. A crowded inner city bus took me from the backpacker area around Khao San Road to Siam Square, and from there I got on the Sky Train. It’s been over six years since the last time I was riding that same line to my then hotel on Sukhumvit Road, with the aircon blasting, and an ingratiating female voice announcing the stations, my favorite being NANA, pronounced in a distinctive nasal voice… I got off next to the bus staion on Ekkamai, bought a ticket, and was on the bus about ten minutes later.

Last night I did a CouchSearch, and put out a request for a couch in Pattaya. When I arrived here, I found a place where I could use the net, Viking hotel and restaurant, and found to my surprise that the request went through, on such short notice! One of the girls working here let me borrow her cell to call the guy, and now I’m expecting him here in a few minutes.

Tomorrow I guess I’ll see if I can find the Norwegian Seamen’s Church, and on Sunday I’ll be celebrating there, with the Norwegian community here. I’m curious to see what it’ll be like, I’ve never been to an official celebration the Norwegian National Day outside of Norway before. When I lived in Italy we’d get together for a breakfast and some waving of flags, but here I’ve read they even have a march! 🙂 For all of you back home, enjoy the weekend, and have a good 17th of May, hipp hipp hurra!

May 16

So. Things don’t always work out as planned. The couchsurfer I was going to stay with showed up, but he had a Thai girl with him, and said I couldn’t come because she was going to stay with him. We went out for dinner, I met a couple of his friends, and I checked into a crappy guest house instead. Pattaya is known for the sex tourists coming here, but I had no idea to what degree before I got here. One of the couchsurfers’ friends was showing me around, since my host was “busy”, and the friend stated quite matter-of-factly that he’d slept with 20 girls in the past 10 days, but he did not consider himself a sex tourist, since he didn’t go with girls that wanted payment, only the opportunists looking for a rich husband. He was in his mid-thirties, doing his job over the net, and doing quite well for himself, so he put himself in a different category than the retired old men who come here for whores. Like he said, “they know that I’m only in it for the sex, and I know that they’re only looking to land a rich, western husband or lover and benefactor, so the playing field is level and we both know the rules…” He did not appear to have any qualms about taking advantage of the fact that these girls have only that one chance to find a way out of poverty, or even considering himself to be taking advantage of it. He was an otherwise nice guy, and wanted to show me more of the city today, but I didn’t know if I could take another evening talking to someone with opinions that deluded, so I claimed to have plans…

I found out in other ways too, why the Thais in Bangkok that I asked about how to get to Pattaya looked confusedly at me and wondered if I was sure I wanted to go there… There are at least two “Go go bars” or strip clubs on every street. The pubs that aren’t strip joints, have “bar-girls”, pretty girls who hang around and shout lewd suggestions at people walking by, or physically ambush them, to get them into the pub.  There are at least three massage parlors on every street, and two of them will offer a “happy ending.” The staff at any kind of establishment will also offer other services, like this example from yesterday: I needed to do some laundry, so I took a bag of my dirty clothes to a place that offered laundry service. One of the women working there sorted through the clothes, told me how much it would cost to clean and also wanted to know if I’d like to have sex with her while the clothes were being washed!

This morning I checked out of my guest house because it smelled too much of mould in the room, seeing as it had no window, except one facing the hallway… At noon I headed over to the church for the Saturday Rice Porridge, and met some of the people who live here. There were a lot of retired people, as I had expected, but also a couple of other backpackers, here to celebrate May 17 as well. I asked one of the volunteers there if there were any decent but cheap places to stay, and she was going to show the three of us to an OK place. One of the retired people I’d talked to over dinner, Liv, came over as I was talking to the other backpackers, though, and said she had a spare bedroom, and asked if I wanted to borrow it for a couple of nights! Here I am now, in a big appartment on the 31st floor, with my own bedroom and bathroom! 🙂 Tomorrow we’re getting a free May 17 breakfast at the church before Service, and later there’ll be the celebrations.

May 19

SjomannskirkenThe celebrations for May 17 were very nice. At ten am there was a short service outside the church, and then a proper Norwegian breakfast. At noon there was the parade, but the marching band was exchanged for a pick up truck with a sound system. 🙂 The parade ended on a big lawn, where there were the usual speaches, ice cream, hot dogs and games. Most of the time the weather was swelteringly hot, but we had a half hour of tropical rain as well… There were somewhere between 150 and 200 people, most of them retired people who’d moved out there, but there were a couple of other backpackers as well. They were going to Bangkok the next day as well, so after we’d spent the evening together, we made plans to meet up the next day and go together. We arrived back in Bangkok yesterday afternoon, and tomorrow we’re headed out to Laos on the overnight train.

We met some nice Brits in Bangkok last night, and with them, we tried crickets and some roachlike insects. They were pretty good, but they obviously look gross… 😛

Siem Reap – pool days

Tuesday, May 12th, 2009

On Friday I did meet up with Patrick, and he brought a whole bunch of other travellers he’d met too. I ended up going to the night market with one of them, a British fella who’s name’s escaping me at the moment, and I had a weird and funny experience… We were walking through the market, and came upon a place where a bunch of people were sitting around a big fish tank, with their feet in the water. It turns out that these little fish, who live off of algae in the wild, love dead skin as well! So for three bucks we sat down, stuck our feet in the fish tank, and the fish flocked around our feet and started eating off the dead skin… It tickled at first, but then it was just a very strange, but pleasant feeling, and my feet probably haven’t been so soft since before I could walk! 😛

On Saturday I managed to find the place with the miniatures of Angkor Wat. It was cool to see how it looks from above, and I took some photos, but it was only interesting for about ten minutes… Saturday night I treated myself to Norwegian food at the Soria Moria hotel, where they offer everyting on their menu at half price on Saturdays before eight. I had a feast on Norwegian poached salmon, with boiled potatoes, carrots, cucumber salad and Sandefjordssmør, and for dessert I had Norwegian waffles with strawberry jam… Heaven!

On Sunday I managed to find an international church in Siem Reap on google, and I went to the service at the non-denominational Christian Fellowship of Siem Reap. It was quite nice, but I didn’t really get in contact with many people that go there regularly, although I did speak to a Danish couple who work for an organization operating orphanages in Cambodia.

Yesterday I decided I wanted to learn how to cook some traditional Cambodian dishes, so I headed out early, and signed up for a cooking class at a restaurant called Le Tigre de Papier. At 10am I returned, after a hearty breakfast and an interesting conversation with a German guy who has treasurehunting as a hobby… Not old treasures, but “treasures” left out by other afficionados! They hide something somewhere virtually inaccessible, take a note of the GPS position, and post it on the net, at geocaching.com, then others can go out and try to find the treasure…

Another German, Jan Eric, was the only other person doing the cooking class that morning. We met up at 10am, decided what we wanted to make, and then headed off to the market with the chef to locate the ingredients. We didn’t actually buy anything, but she showed us what everything looked like. As a starter I made Nem, Cambodian spring rolls, and my main course was Amok, a very famous Cambodian fish curry. Jan Eric made a mango salad, and a variation of the Amok with scallops. For dessert we boiled tapioca and bananas in coconut milk. It was DELICIOUS, and we shared the food we ate, but weren’t anywhere close to being able to eat everything!

After the cooking class we decided to head out to a place called Aqua, that Jan Eric had found the day before, which has a swimming pool with a bar in the middle, and a pool table, pun intended, where we played pool in our swimming costumes. 🙂 He went to Phnom Penh this morning, but I went back to lie in the sun and read, and float around in the pool with an ice coffe in my hand most of today. I am considering moving on into Laos soon, but I’m also thinking about heading to Thailand to spend the Norwegian Constitution Day, May 17, at the Norwegian Church Abroad, Sjømannskirken, in Pattaya.

Temples of Angkor

Friday, May 8th, 2009

I am now travelling alone again. Annikken and I spent our last night together in Vietnam in the company of Karoline, Jake and Bryan at the GO2 in Saigon. I stayed in a cheap dormitory that night, and Bryan saw what it looked like when he followed me over to get money for the bus to Cambodia. They made fun of it the whole night, but when it came down to it, I slept like a baby. 🙂
Early Monday morning I went to the guest house where our three new friends were staying, had breakfast with them, and got on the bus to Phnom Penh. Later the same day, Annikken got on a plane to go to Hong Kong, then London and finally Oslo, but I didn’t see her that day, as I left too early. This goes out to you Annikken: It was really nice to see you again, and to travel with you, even though I don’t think I’ve ever spent so much time with anyone in go, ever. The more I think about it, the stranger I find it that we didn’t have more fights!

On the bus, one of the bus company guys collected all our passports, and filled out our Cambodian immigration forms for us. I was going to buy my visa on the border, and the bus guy said he’d fix it for me, the price was seventyfour dollars. I got worried, because I didn’t anticipate such a high price, and told him as much. He kept sticking to his price, but I just didn’t have that much dollars on me, so I couldn’t give it to him. When we got to the border, I fixed the visa myself, for 20 dollars, and it took about five minutes. This is the kind of behavior I’m getting tired of, you ALWAYS have to be worried about getting ripped off.

Before we got to Phnom Penh, we decided to keep going directly to Siem Reap, as the others were flying out of Phnom Penh later, anyway. We arrived there in the evening, really tired, but booked a trip to Angkor the next morning anyway.

The alarm went off at 4:45am on Tuesday, and we were off at 5, in our little Tuk-tuk. The one day ticket cost 20 dollars, and was printed with our photo on it, taken at the counter! Around 5:30 we reached Angkor Wat, the temple city, itself, and together with the crowd of tourists, we watched the sun rise over the thousand year old temple complex. We spent the next couple of hours exploring the huge temple, climbing stairs and photographing bas-reliefs and fascinating architectural details. The only disappointment was that the stairs to the upper level had been closed off, because they’re so steep, and some tourists have fallen down and hurt themselves.

At the end of it we met up at the tuk-tuk, and continued to Angkor Thom, the Great City. Angkor Thom was the capitol of the great Khmer empire, and the area housed about a million people around the turn of the last millennium! Much of it was swallowed by the jungle after the fall of the empire, and some claim that there are still undiscovered structures hidden in the dense growth, even though most of the sites are overrun by tourists. We were among them, as we entered through the South Gate of Angkor Thom, over a bridge where statues of men holding the bodies of two great seven-headed Nagas formed the balustrade on each side. Once inside, the jungle still grows, but is kept at a distance, so it more closely resembles a park. The second stop inside the walls, after breakfast, was the Bayon temple, with a stunning 54 towers, each adorned by a smiling face of Avalokiteshvara, in what they say is a great likeness to the face of the king who had it built, King Jayavarman VII, who ruled from 1181-1219. Inside Angkor Thom is also the Baphuon, which was constructed by King Udayadityavarman II who ruled from 1049-65. In the 15th century parts of it was dismantled, and used to build a seventy meters long reclining Buddha, which is still part of the rear of the structure. We went to the Royal Palace with Phimeanakas, and to the Elephant terrace, where the kings would watch elephant races and acrobat shows and other entertainment. At the opposite side of the racing ground were big towers, between which long wires used to be fastened, for acrobats to “fly” through the air before the eyes of their audience. We had lunch before we left, and then headed out the east gate of Angkor Thom.

The first place we stopped at once outside, was Ta Keo, which is almost devoid of carvings. Lightning struck the temple before it was finished, and this was considered such a bad omen that construction was just left as it was, and to this day the place looks like it’s almost done, and is only lacking decoration.

Our last stop was Ta Prohm. This temple is the only one close to Siem Reap that is still partly overgrown, but even here the growth is kept down, and only the biggest trees with the largest roots are left standing. King Jayavarman VII, who also built Bayon, built this temple dedicated to his mother, and it contained massive treasures. Some of the many Sanskrit inscriptions apparently state that there used to be thousands of pearls and precious stones, and golden dishes weighing more than half a ton each! The one thing that the temple is most known for today, however, is that Angelina Jolie was here as Lara Croft for the filming of a couple of scenes for Tomb Raider… By the time we were done sneaking through dark galleries and climbing over roots and fallen pillars like Indiana Jones, it was getting late, and we headed over to Phnom Bakheng, a temple on top of a hill, where we watched the sunset before heading home for dinner. By the time we got back to our hotel, we’d been walking around for 14 hours, and my feet were sore in my new sneakers.

The last couple of days, I’ve been taking it easy, reading and relaxing. Jake, Bryan and Karol left for Phnom Penh on Wednesday, and went looking for a cheap hotel. I ended up in a place called Sakura Village, where I’m staying in a double room with aircon, my own bathroom, cable TV and minibar for 5 dollars per night. One of the things that are peculiar about Cambodia, is that the ATM machine only dispense US dollars… To change to Riel, the local currency, you need to go to street-side exchange operations or banks! The Riel is used instead of cents, so that one dollar divides into 4000 riel of small change, but price is almost always given in dollars. Across the street from where I stay, is a hotel called Soria Moria. Because of the name, a palace in the clouds from a Norwegian fairy tale, and because it had a Norwegian flag, and promised Scandinavian food, I went there Wednesday night. It was run by a couple from Sandefjord, and I spoke briefly with the wife. It was one dollar night, with tapas at a buck a piece, so I stayed a while, and sampled amongst other things the Swedish meat balls… They also had free Wifi, and when I got online, I found that there was to be a small Couchsurfers’ meeting that night, at a place called… Soria Moria! I kept hanging around, and eventually met up with a group of surfers. After dinner, three of us went to the Bar Street to play pool, and after several rounds eventually ended up playing Wii Sports in a bar until time came to head off to bed. 🙂
Yesterday I sat in a garden restaurant reading all day, just enjoying life, and today I am meeting with a German guy Annikken and I met in Hoi An. First though, I am planning to go see if I can find this place that’s supposed to have some nice miniature landscapes, copies of the Angkor areas, and get some nice bird’s eye view photos. 😉

PS: It’s REALLY IS a small world. On my last day in Vietnam, I walked into a restaurant to have an iced coffee, and I started talking to some of the other patrons. Two of them were Swedes, and the third was a Norwegian they’d met and travelled with for a couple of days. His name was Jostein, and he went to school with one of my best friends, Hallgeir…

Saigon – full circle

Saturday, May 2nd, 2009

On Thursday Vietnam was celebrating a special day. It was the 35th anniversary of the Reunification, i.e. the end of the American War. We got on the bus in Hoi An at 6:30pm, and headed south. We spent a couple of hours on Friday morning in Nha Trang, from 6am to 8am, before continuing on to Saigon. As we stopped for lunch in Mui Ne, Gjerulf was the last person off the bus before it was locked, and Annikken was the first person back on after it was unlocked. In the mean time, someone had stolen her cell phone from the top of her day pack… We asked the bus drivers if they had let anyone in during the stop, but they didn’t understand the question. Eventually they called the office, to give us someone who spoke English, but even then all they could come up with was a shrug and a wagging of the right hand from side to side, which apparently means “Shit happens” or “Nothing we can do about it” or something of that sort.

We met some nice travellers on the second bus, who are living in Tokyo, teaching foreign languages; a German, Karoline,  teaching German, and two Americans, Bryan and Jake, teaching English… 😉 Jake had his camera and ipod stolen from his bag on the previous bus, so someone was definately making some extra money on that trip.

We went out for dinner with the three teachers last night, along with a Canadian guy from the bus, a Japanese girl that the teachers had met earlier in Vietnam, who just happened to be there, a Japanese guy who had studied with the girl in Australia a couple of months ago, and who also just happened to be walking by, and last but not least a Scottish guy whom the Canadian had met elsewhere in Vietnam, and who ALSO just happened to be there… When you’re a backpacker, these things tend to occur. The night ended early, however, as most of us had just gotten off the bus after a 25 hour bus ride…

Today we met up with Bryan for breakfast, and Karoline a bit later, and then the four of us spent the day walking around Saigon, buying stuff at a local market, and we even managed a tour of the Reunification Palace. The tour was very interesting, and we learned a lot about Vietnam. For example, they had four presidents in South Vietnam during the war, one who was president for three years before he was killed, but managed to start the building of the palace we visited. The second president was in power for eight years, and lived in the palace. The third president lasted about a week, and the fourth president lasted all of 43 hours in office…

Tomorrow is the last night before Annikken gets on the plane to go home, so this will be our last blog post together. To all of you who have been following Annikken, hope you’ve enjoyed it, and see you back home soon.

Gjerulf will continue to travel, and continue to write. He might head into Cambodia with the three teachers we met, on the same day as Annikken goes home, but we’ll see. So long, and thanks for all the fish.