Friday, 23 July 2010

The end of my amazing trip!

So my travels in South East Asia have come to an end- sob! Here is a re-cap of my final week-and-a-bit:

From Nha Trang we travelled to Hoi An; a quaint and beautiful city with an iconic Japanese bridge and a gorgeous beach only a short ride away. We even got to lie on actual sunbeds if we ate at the beachside restaurant- an absolute necessity with the scorching temperatures of the sand making it almost too hot to sprint across never mind sunbathe on!

Hoi An is famous for its many tailors- they can make absolutely anything you want overnight no problem and then make alterations in an hour or two if needed. I fell in love with the stunning silk in a tailors called Thi, and my seamstress Hui made me a colourful kaftan/robe with chinese buttons and a matching waist tie for only $12. I drew a slinky dress for my friend and she had it made in crushed nude silk, and some of my other friends had silk-lined jackets made exactly like the pictures they had printed off the internet. Some of them even had cute leather or suede shoes made to measure!

While in Hoi An I decided to try their delicious regional speciality dish; Cao Lau- noodles, beansprouts, tender strips of pork, deep-fried crispy rice paper and greens. We also splashed out on some exquisite deserts from one of the french-style patisseries near the Old Town that tasted as good as they looked, before another bus journey up to the historical city of Hue.

In Hue we went on a relaxing dragon boat trip up the Perfume River to see the oldest house in Hue and its fruit-yielding gardens, a floating fishing village and the Heavenly Lady Pagoda. We also got an all-you-can-eat buffet lunch, which resulted in sore stomachs all round! That evening we had a fablous night out, and the following day we visited the Citadel and explored the Old Town before getting our last sleeper bus up to Hanoi.

From Hanoi we were picked up and taken to Ha Long City, ready to depart on our beautiful old-fashioned boat to Ha Long Bay. We visited huge caves which were stunning but disappointingly unnatural due to the added mood lighting, music and guards playing on lap-tops. After that we jumped off the top deck of our boat and went swimming, careful to avoid the jellyfish, before kayaking around the stunning bay and soaking up the magical atmosphere.
The food on-board was wonderful and included whole fish, seafood noodles and vietnamese spring rolls, and as there were only 13 people on our boat we got to socialise with new people as we watched the sunset around the limestone islets rising out of the emerald water. Getting up early to catch the sunrise was definately worth it, but our trip had to be cut short due to an impending storm about to sweep the area.

Back in the capital of Hanoi we enjoyed a great night out playing pool in an Irish bar; Finnegans, with people we had bumped into earlier in our trip. A bowl of steaming pho bo (beef noodle soup; delicious and only abour 70p for a huge bowl) from a tiny street kitchen at 3am really hit the spot and began my obsession with the traditional dish, which I have been craving every morning since then! We wiled away the next 2 days exploring the city-centre Hoan Kiem Lake, including its Turtle Tower, Jade Mountain Temple and huge varnished giant turtle, and buying souvenirs at the atmospheric markets.

A flight to Bangkok gave us one last day before our flight home, so we did a pit-stop tour round the main temples, buddhas and pagodas (which turned out to be a bit of a scam!). Every day is 'Buddha Day' it seems, and when a friendly tuk-tuk driver told us that means free entrance to many attractions and he'd drive us round for only 10 Baht each (around 20p), we thought we'd go for it. I'd heard about scams to do with 'Buddha Day' before but we went with it, thinking our guy was genuine. It turns out he wasn't, and after making us go and pretend to be interested in a tailor's suits, he left us at the 3rd stop on our route, though as we hadn't paid him we don't really know what he got out of leaving us! We got another tuk-tuk who told us that the Grand Palace was free after 4pm, so we let him drive us to other attractions until then. On arrival at the Grand Palace we learnt that it closes at 3.30pm and we had been fooled again! Aside from missing this we had only paid 10 Baht and had seen a lot in a couple of hours, so we didn't feel too bad, and set off to find our other friends on Khao San Road.
After a couple of my friends got henna tattoos we went for a final thai curry, then spent all our left-over currency on cheap beer vests, ice-cream and souvenirs before running through the torrential rain back to our shack. I can't call it a hotel room; it was a shack with a bed in it.

Rising at 5am and picking up our friend from her (much swankier!) hotel, we flew the first leg of our flight home to Bahrain, where our 12-hour stop-over meant we were provided with a glorious hotel (with carpets and a marble bathroom that didn't smell of urine!) and fed with delicious Arabic food before our final flight to Heathrow.

Now back in England I am so thankful for having had such a wonderful time travelling. I would do it again in an instant and would urge anyone thinking about going to just book your flights now; South East Asia is such a fantastic area of the world filled with amazing sights, interesting cultures, delicious food, friendly (but not always honest!) people, and great experiences to be had.

The only thing I need to decide now is where to explore next...

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Good Morning Vietnam!


Well, the bus journey to Vietnam from Cambodia ended up taking 16 hours (it was dire) but once we arrived in this AMAZING country I knew it was instantly worth it- I love it here!

We first stayed in Ho Chi Minh city; formerly known as Saigon, and once we'd mastered the art of crossing a road heaving with motorbikes (it's all about keeping a steady pace!) we settled right in. I even tried my first traditional shrimp and pork spring roll, which was nice and fresh but I unfortunately prefer the much less healthy deep-fried versions to the rice paper ones favoured here.

On our first full day we visited the Cu Chi tunnels used by the ingenious Viet Cong guerrillas in the Vietnamese war. We learned about their lives, clothing and weapons (including cleverly making their bombs from their enemies bomb materials and designing brutal booby traps), tried their food (some potatoey substance dipped in nuts with weak tea) and crawled through their infamous undergound tunnels.

That night we ate shrimp noodles ($1) on the market and had a night out in the city, which was fabulous until we were getting fried rice at 3am and my friend's bag was swiped by a passing motorbike thief!

The next day we visited the War Remnants Museum, where the graphic images and shocking information about the Vietnam war really affected me and my friends. Photographs of American soldiers holding up the heads of the Vietnamese dead, burned victims of Napalm bombs and disfigured children of civilians gassed by Agent Orange were among the most affecting, and alongside the propaganda posters, torture stories, prison cell replicas, the place had a strange feeling of sadness that clashed with the contemporary setting.

That night we experienced our first sleeper bus; rows of double-decker reclining leather seats that as it turns out were not so great for getting a good nights sleep! Arriving in Nha Trang at 7am we dumped our bags and headed straight for the gorgeous beach until the midday sun and our drooping eyelids meant we had to go and nap until 5pm, then we got up and hit the town for another fab meal and a few cocktail buckets!

Today we went to Vinpearl; a great waterpark/aquarium/themepark island reached by cable cars, with white sandy beaches, animal shows, water fountain displays and more fast food restaurants than you could shake a chopstick at. Personal highlights include being mesmerised by the huge stingrays, eating too many cornettos and screaming all the way down the waterslides like I used to as a wee nipper.

Tomorrow we are hitting the beach (I'm finally moving on from SPF 50 to 30) before getting another sleeper bus to Hoi An where we will hopefully get some lovely clothes made for cheapy-cheap! Off to do some internet reearching now, net-a-porter here I come!

Saturday, 3 July 2010

My Visit to Cambodia!

Suor Sdei from Cambodia! A land of friendly people, tragic history, very skinny cows and pyjama-clad women!

My 7 fellow travellers and I arrived in the bustling capital of Phnom Pehn after far too many hours of travelling from the Thai islands. On our first night we found a basic hostel in a back-packer area that had less-than luxurious rooms but my much-sought after hammocks on the wooden "floating"" structure that jutted out over the river. We watched the movie "The Killing Fields'" in preparation for our next-day plans, which turned out to be upsetting but poignant and worthwhile, and we made friends with the friendly Cambodian staff, who later robbed my friend's phone from our room!

The visit to Cambodia's largest killing field invoked high emotions as we thought of the of the 3 million people who died at the hands of the Khymer Rouge up until 1979. It was hard emotionally as in the soil you could see human teeth and fragments of cracked boned from the victims of the Khymer Rouge that were taken here to be killed. Before the prisoners were taken to a hushed-up Killing Field to be executed, they were imprisoned in a former school called S21. We visited here next and were shocked by the tiny bare cells the prisoners were filed into, and the hundreds of pictures of emaciated victims.

That night we had a few pre-drinks by the river (literally, we were on the Mekong river bank wall with our own shop-bought drinks talking about which cocktails we would love to have instead). A great night out ensued in which we finally got to drink the cocktails we'd been drooling over, and have a ruddy good dance to the resident DJ (who was actually great and mixed in all our requests!).

 After a 6 hour bus journey the next day from Phnom Pehn to Siem Reap, we found some cheap lodgings ($2 a night) and went for a fabulous meal at a Cambodian restaurant, where our entire bill (for 6 meals, with rice, drinks, tea and fruit) was $26. Happy student travellers! My friends would recommend the traditional beef lak-lak and the fish curry that is served in a hollow coconut, in case you re ever in the area.

On Saturday we visited Angkor Wat; the magnificent temple complex near Siem Reap (where Tomb Raider was filmed!). We hired tuktuks for the day and got up at 4.30am to make it in time to watch the beautiful sunrise, and explore the different temples before the stifling midday sun kicked in. The temples themselves were vast and imposing but so intricately detailed that we were in awe; needing to just 'have some me-time' to soak up the magical atmosphere. Many mesmerising temples, nasty monkeys and persistent kids trying to sell you something later, we went home for well-deserved naps. Later that afternoon we visited the central market and sampled some more of Cambodia's culinary deights before booking our 13 hour bus ride to Ho Chi Minh city in Vietnam at 6.45am tomorrow morning.

I am not looking forward to the journey but Vietnam itself will hopefully be awesome!