Posts Tagged ‘customs’

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 Iโ‚ฌ 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… ๐Ÿ˜› 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. ๐Ÿ™‚ 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 beย  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… ๐Ÿ™‚ 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… ๐Ÿ˜€ 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 theย  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… ๐Ÿ˜› 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,ย  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.

Elephants, Rhinos and Crocodiles

Friday, March 27th, 2009

19. March
The medicine against my amoebas has not presented any side effects so far, for which I am very grateful! I had a pizza night with the teenagers at KICC on Saturday. 11 people had said they’d come for sure, 5 that they might show up. We were 25! It was a great evening, and I had six people say they’d like to organize the next Social! For this I am very grateful. The bandh in the Terai area ended on Sunday, and I got the opportunity to go to Chitwan National Park after all! For this I am immensely grateful! ๐Ÿ˜€ ๐Ÿ˜€

On Monday I got up at 5am, to go take the bus. The bus left at 7am, and we arrived in time for lunch at around 1pm. After lunch, we walked around the village, looking at how the Theru people still live in a very traditional environment, albeit with some modern improvements (and drawbacks) to their lifestyles. The most obvious improvement was tin roofs on some of the houses, instead of the thatch, which leaks and needs changing very often. The most obvious drawback was the everpresent non-biodegradable garbage.

After dinner, there was a dance show, where a local group of men(!) danced traditional dances.

On Tuesday I got up early as well, at 6.30am, and immediately after breakfast, I headed off ride an elephant into the park proper to look for wild animals. We saw a couple of really big deer, but all in all it was a disappointingly devoid of life. Riding an elephant was awesome, but even more awesome was bathing with them! Wearing our bathing shorts, me and one of the French guys who were also doing the elephant ride at the same time got on an elephant without a saddle, and it walked into the river. The mahout (rider) got him to shake us off. When we were getting back on, we stood right in front of the elephant and stretched up. The elephent let his head down so we could grab his ears and stand on his trunk, and then he lifted us up on his back! ๐Ÿ˜€ When we were on his back, he continuously splashed us with water from his trunk, and eventually the mahout made him lie down on his side to be scrubbed. ๐Ÿ™‚ It seemed a bit brutal when the mahout slapped the animal with a stick when it didn’t pay attention, but apparently their hide is so thick that it’s the sound, not the pain, that gets their attention to the mahout’s shouted commands.

After the swimming there was lunch, and and after lunch I decided to take another elephant ride, this time in the so called Community Forests that surround the park. My guide told me that we were almost guaranteed to see rhinos there, because it was a rather small habitat, with a population of about 20 rhinos. In the north side of the park, the water holes were filled in with silt, by a flood 15 years ago. After that the rhinos migrated south to the other water holes, or north to the community forests. The water holes in the community forests were also destroyed by the flood, but since it’s not protected, the local community dug them out again. In the park, ironically, that’s not legal, and thus there is less wildlife… When we came to get an elephant (me and the guide, the French guys, who were the ones who had insisted on going to the park proper that morning, didn’t want to come) the elephants were all busy. We considered waiting, but the schedule for the day being rather packed, there was no time to wait, so we decided to go on foot.

Not long after entering the community forest, we smelled fresh rhino dung, saw tracks so fresh that water was still seeping into them, and trees with their lower trunks covered in mud where the rhinos had rubbed up against them. A few minutes after that, we found the first rhinoceros unicornis (one-horned rhino) in a clearing. There was an elephant nearby, that we had allied ourselves with for protection, and we called them over. We got closer and closer to the rhino, with the elephant between us and it. Soon we were less than ten meters away from this massive, wild rhino bull, when the mahout on the elephant says he’s spotted one more. “No, wait TWO more in the bushes!” One of the ones in the bushes came out, and we could see the last one standing in the shadows, looking at us.

Suddenly the second rhino looks like he’s about to charge us, and we sprint behind the elephant, while throwing sticks at the rhino to make him think twice. The mahout charges the elephant toward the rhino to deterr it from attacking us. He successfully chases it away, but that leaves the two of us vulnerable from the other two, so we leg it out of there before we get completely surrounded! Not thirty seconds later, my guide spots another rhino in the dense undergrowth of the jungle, and the elephant is once more called in as a body guard. We reach the next waterhole, where two grown rhinos are wallowing in the mud, a mother with calf is grazing, and two more adults come out of the brush opposite from where we are! Again the situation suddenly goes from interesting to dangerous, and we decide that it’s time to get out of there before we’re surrounded!
On less than an hour’s walk through the community forest, I saw a total of ten rhinos, and the guide saw eleven!

Immediately after the intense jungle walk, we headed over to the river to go canoeing. The canoe was a hollowed out log, and we were seven people in it, including the guide and the guy poleing us down the gentle stream. The first croc we saw was submerged, with only it’s nose and eyes sticking out of the crystal clear water. Soon after we got ashore to look at another great big rhino bull, this time from a safer distance. Back in the canoe we saw a half dozen more crocs, before we reached the place where we got out to go to an elephant breeding centre. In november one of the elephants had twins, according to the guide the only time such an event has happened! One of the older elephant calves was very curious, and being no bigger than a pony, he wasn’t tied up, so he walked over to everyone and smelled their stuff, and tried to take the things that smelled good! ๐Ÿ˜€ He was about one year old, but a bit sickly, so he was smaller than the other one year olds. When a tame elephant gets pregnant, it takes 2-3 years before it can work again, so wild elephant bulls mating with the tame cows is actually quite a problem! It is also very expensive, and takes a lot of work to raise and train an elephant. The training can’t start before the elephant is about 2-3 years old, and it can’t do any work until it’s about ten. Between the age of 16 and 18 they reach maturity and become able to breed.

We were picked up at the breeding centre by a jeep from the resort, and inย  the sunset on our way back, we saw another group of rhinos, and stopped. It turned out to be a group of five, led by a huge bull. I got some awesome pictures, and ended up having seen 16 rhinos in one day!

Wednesday Morning I got up at 5.30am, for an hour and a half of bird spotting, before breakfast and the bus ride home. I was home at 3.45pm, and at four I met up with some of the Norwegians for a going-away-dinner. Immediately after dinner, we had a final meeting between me and the church board, and I was given a very nice letter of thank you for the work I’d done. This morning I was up at 4am, to do some laundry while there was electricity… I went back to bed at five, however, and slept till seven thirty. I packed, returned the bicycle I’ve been borrowing, and then one of my “bosses” was very kind and drove me to the airport. It’s been great, and Ive felt very welcome in the community of expats in Kathmandu. ๐Ÿ˜€

It is now just past midnight, I am in New Delhi, and will soon be boarding my flight to Bangkok. I’ve been upgraded to first class on this flight, so I might actually look forward to some sleep tonigh, which is more than I expected. The flight leaves at 1am Indian time, and arrives four and a half hours later, at 7am Thai time. There I will wait nine hours before I fly the last hour and a half to Ho Chi Minh City.

20 March

13 hours later… I am waiting for my flight to Ho Chi Minh, boarding starts in 50 minutes. The plane saved up a good half an hour on the flight to Bangkok, so I arrived before 6.30am. First class was brilliant, but I still didn’t fall asleep before we had started the descent, and woke with a start as we touched down. I’ve slept about 5 minutes in the past thirty hours. I tried to lie down for a bit on a row of seats here at the airport, but the world was spinning so bad I started to get nauseated, so I dropped it. I guess I’ll sleep like a baby before we take off from Bangkok…
When I got here, I went directly to the transfer station, at the other end of the airport. There I was told I had to pick up my luggage myself, which meant going through immigration in Thailand. Baggage claim was of course at the end of the airport where I’d arrived, so I walked back. Immigration, which was almost deserted when I arrived, was by then crowded to the point of bursting. By the time I got my luggage it was 9 o’clock, and I headed directly for check in, so I could go back through customs and immigration, and find a place to crash. The problem was that it was too early, check in for myย  flight didn’t start till 12, so I had to hang around for three hours. When I finally got to check in, the woman at the counter started asking for some letter from Vietnam that she meant I had to have to get into the country, but I’ve double checked that I, as a Norwegian citizen, don’t need that letter unless I’m staying in Vietnam for more than 30 days. I guess I was pretty convincing, in my rather reduced and sleep deprived state, because she then proceeded to check me in. By the time I got back to the place I’d been at 6.45am, it was 1pm. I can’t fall asleep now, because then I suspect I will oversleep the boarding call, even though I’m sitting right next to the gate. I decided to write this in order to stay awake, so bear with me if I’m not making any sense. ๐Ÿ˜‰

I sincerely hope they won’t make any trouble at the airport in Saigon, and claim like the clerk here that I need some extra letter, because I’m so worn out I’m not sure I’ll be able to explain that I’m Norwegian, and don’t need their stupid piece of paper! ๐Ÿ˜ฎ

I also hope Annikken is not as beat as I am, because then finding a hotel to stay until I can check for answers from the CS’ers I have sent couch requests to might prove to be a daunting task… ๐Ÿ˜› (By the time you read this, things will probably be in order, though, and I have slept enough to be coherent again)

Ulan Baatar, the world’s ugliest capital?

Tuesday, December 2nd, 2008

BaikalI met my Dutch friends, and we went to Listvyanka village by lake Baikal, about an hour from Irkutsk. It was definately a huge lake, and I took some cool pictures (that I still can’t upload, as the computers in this internet cafe don’t have accessible USB). My first priority was to find a dive centre, and lo and behold, even on our way into the village, we saw people in scuba outfit on the shore just next to the road! After a nice lakeside lunch, we trotted over to the dive centre.

I contacted a dive centre in Irkutsk a while back, www.baikalex.com, through the contact box they have on their page, and via email. They never answered, but I called them when I got to Irkutsk. They said they were fully booked, and that I should have contacted them via their web page… They suggested I just go out and have a looksee at Listvyanka village, so there I was. For a while, I actually thought I was going to get to dive! It then turned out that there HADindeed been a free spot in their previous dive, a couple of hours earlier, but the next free spot was in the middle of next week… (just about when I’m posting this) ๐Ÿ™

Pribaikalsk Nature ReserveInstead of diving, we went for a hike in the pribaikalsk national park, which turned out to be an, if not equal then at least decent, substitute. We went up one of the valleys from the lakeside, between quaint old wooden houses, on frozen creeks, through snow that was about ankle deep, and up steep hills. We were originally planning to head over to the next valley, and then go back to the village from there, but we instead decided to get up to the top of the hill, and thus followed the ridge when we got to the highest point of the pass. The two Dutch guys were beside themselves, which is maybe not so surprising, seeing as they both live four meters BELOW sea level… The view from the top was gorgeous, and at least lessened my disappointment at not having gotten in that dive.

When I got back to Irkutsk, I had to take a taxi to my host’s place in the suburbs, pack my stuff, and then back to town to catch the train. Anastasia saw me off, and offered to help me getting supplies and everything before I got on the train.

The train from Irkutsk to Ulan Baatar was the most expensive so far, because they didn’t have third class, which is what I’ve used so far. The only carriage that was crossing the Russian/Mongolian border was second class. In third, the “compartments” aren’t really compartments, because they don’t have doors or walls. Second class was a whole different deal. The third class carriages look like they’re from the early seventies, but the carriage I was in from Irkutsk was brand spankin’ new! Each compartment had a tv and you could get either the onboard radio or the tv sound from minijack outlets above the beds. Each bed had a reading light, the windows were clean so you could see out, you could open them to get fresh air, the provodnitsa spoke English, the toilets smelled of soap instead of piss, all in all it was a whole different world! Still, the biggest change was being able to have proper conversations with the other travellers. I shared my four berth compartment with a couple from New Zealand, two compartments over was a father and daughter from Holland, who both were fluent in English, and a few of the other passengers also spoke English!

The train was a really slow one, however, and apparently I missed some of the most impressive scenery in Russia, going through tunnels and across bridges along the southern bank of Lake Baikal, since we passed it in the night.

We got to the border about 1pm the next day, and then found out that passport control wouldn’t come till 4pm. We went out and looked around a little, but it was a tiny village, so there wasn’t much to do. I spent my last few rubles buying some more credit for my Russian sim card, and used it to send some messages to my friends in Irkutsk. Then we waited. Around three thirty we got some customs forms to fill out in duplicates. At five to four a guy came into our compartment, looked at our passports, took the customs forms, stamped them, gave one back, and left again. A while later, another guy came in, got our passports, and trotted off with them. After more waiting, first one, then two more people searched our compartment. I couldn’t say what they were looking for, because they didn’t even touch our luggage… About seven hours after we first came to the border, we started moving again… Ten minutes later we were at the ACTUAL border, and twenty minutes after that, we got to the first Mongolian station. There, we had to write immigration documents and more customs documents, and of course the Mongolians had to take our passports. I don’t really know how long the whole border crossing ordeal took, but it must have been over ten hours… ๐Ÿ˜›

The next morning, we were woken up at 5:30am, about forty minutes outside of Ulan Baatar. The plan was to borrow a phone and write my host in UB an sms with my arrival details as soon as we entered Mongolia, but I fell asleep before I thought of asking anyone, so I obviously wasn’t met at the station. There were several hostels that had pick-up-service however, so I hitched a ride to a hostel, had breakfast, borrowed a phone, and sent an sms. Fifteen minutes later my host picked me up from the hostel, and we went to his place. He went to work, and I spent the day relaxing, catching up on international news on BBC World, and fell asleep in the middle of an airplane disaster show on Discovery. It was unspeakably nice to get a proper shower and a shave, which I hadn’t had since Ekaterinburg. (I had shaved, but my host in Irkutsk didn’t have a shower, only a communal washroom)

Today I’ve been walking around UB. It just might be the ugliest capital in the world… ๐Ÿ˜‰ There are, however, some pearls buried in the massive concrete soviet heritage pig sty. My host runs a restaurant a few minutes walk from the city centre, and on my way from the restaurant to the Sukhbaatar Square, I found a small, run-down buddhist monastery, that wasn’t even among the few sights listed in my Lonely Planet guide! It was quite cool, with it’s prayer wheels,ย  huge communal Gers and locals going around offering their prayers! There is a bigger, more beautiful monastery in UB too, which I’ll visit later. I finally feel like I have time to do what I want, with two weeks here!

I also went to a large park that was marked on my map, but it turned out to be more like the ghost of a park… I don’t think it was supposed to be open to the public, because all the entrances were welded closed, except the one I reached first, and even that one was deserted. I was the only person in there, which was both nice and really eerie at the same time… There was a broken fountain with no water, a big, empty, dusty bowl where a pond was marked on my map, lined with broken statues of exotic aquatic animals. Further over were the skeleton of an old rollercoaster and a rusty ferris wheel that looked ready to collapse. The walk paths had almost no paving left on them, and dry, brown undergrowth was sticking up through the snow everywhere. I was really far from the place I’d gotten in, and all the other entrances were welded shut, so I ended up squeezing through a hole in the fence, in order to get out of the park on the right side…

My cs host has friends that are nomads, and live in a yurt out in the countryside. He’s arranged for me to go there tomorrow! I will be staying and working with the family there until Friday. Then I head back to UB, because I’ve been invited to a concert with Mongolia’s first (and only) death metal band! Can you say clash of cultures, anyone?