Monday, August 29, 2005

Our day in Cambodia

So finally I get to one of the more crazy parts of our trip... Our day in Cambodia :)

Everything started off pretty well. We were taking a $4 each bus ride (you couldn't actually get a more expensive, more comfortable trip short of flying there) from HCMC to Phnom Penh. We headed over to the tour office with lots of time to spare, inquired if we could use Vietnamese Dong to pay for the Visa, and then went and got out enough to cover the Visas. Jokingly, I told Mel to go and grab a tin of Pringles... Just in case we didn't get any other food today...

After a couple of hours on the bus we got to the border. Very dusty, very isolated, not particularly interesting as border crossings go (although they are building a ton of stuff around there). Just as we got off our bus our tour guide asked us if we had US Dollars or Cambodian Riel. Of course we looked at him as if he had three heads. Just 2 hours ago, they said that Dong was fine... He then informed us that we had to change the Dong to Riel... It was at this point, for the first time today, that my heart dropped. I realised that we took out enough money for one Visa, not two! Ahh well, we'll just go to an ATM... Ehh, no ATM's here mate. Credit Card?!? Similar response.... Hmmmm. First things first, we changed what we did have into Riel (which our guide said was enough for the Visa) and headed for the boarder.

Early in the day we met a few Irish people who were also travelling to Phnom Penh and who we also met in Nha Thrang... With this vital knowledge, we hurried along to the Vietnamese exit point, caught up with them and got a lend of $20 to cover one of the visas. Happy days, I though... By the time we got to paying for our Visa, the guy at the counter said we were about €6 short on Riel! Feckers! The damned, guide (T & M Brothers – I found this interesting site about them there now when I did a google - moral of the story, they are cheap but DON'T use them!) together with the “foreign exchange agent” ripped us off (an old woman with a fist full of cash). Feckers!!! Luckly we caught the Irish guys just before they left the border region. We were last through and very nearly got stuck in no mans land :) Anyway, after all this excitement, we were going to met the Irish guys (yeah, I realise I'm Irish, but that's what myself and Mel called them, so I'll continue to call them Irish Guys) once we got to Phnom Penh and get the money for them from an ATM.

Crossing the Mekong

... several hours later while reading the Lonely Planet Cambodia book, we realised that there is no ATM in Cambodia, there was no banks open (today was Saturday night) and basically, apart from some Yen I had – we had no money. When we got there we found a Western Union (that was closing in about 5 minutes)... we thought that our prayers were answered, but of course there was something wrong. The area on the back of my credit card had wiped off a bit and the VOID sign was visable. (It wiped off because of rubbing against other cards in my money belt). About 5 minutes of Irish charm, and we where leaving with $100 in our pockets :) It took my licence, passport, bank card and lots of friendliness, but in the end we got some money. Now our plan was to have some food (we only had Pringles all day), have a few drinks, and go out. A solid plan I thought...

We had a meal in a really nice restaurant where you sat outside and a band played for you – the portions were a bit small (especially after the day we had), but we consoled ourselves with lots of dessert. Next, we went off to a supermarket that had a 70cl bottle of Stolichnaya Vodka for $4.50 :) (Stoli was our drink of choice when we were in Vietnam in addition to a cocktail that Mel fell in love with... It was called “I love you” (It's something like this). We went back to our hotel, chatted to the people at the reception about good places to go out and had a few drinks while we got ready... We decided to go to the hip night club that was recommended by our hotel. Big place, good music and almost exclusivly locals. At about 10:30 we left our hotel, each of us on the back of a moped on the way to the niteclub... Normally this is the point where I start talking about the club, how crazy it was – mad music etc... Errrr, not this time... Both myself and Mel's last memories were sitting on the back of a moped driving through Phnom Penh at night... Our next memory was both of us sitting on the back of a moped, driving home from the club... 4 HOURS later! Neither of us remember what happened. (Although I reasonably sure nothing bad had happened to us – both of us where perfectly dressed (I was wearing white and cream linen which is hard to keep clean in the best of places), my money belt was full of money as well as everything else that should be there and we felt no other ill effects.... abduction by aliens is getting higher on my list of things that could have happened to us!).

So, fresh from our moped ride home (the guy dropped us right outside our hotel) I was going through the cash in my money belt to pay him ($2) and he lunged, grabbed my money and sped off into the night! OMG! I just couldn't believe what had just happened. It wasn't a huge amount of money, about $100 minus what we spent that evening- but OMG. I had not been robbed face to face before (I was burgled about 2 years ago when €2,300 of my stuff was nicked from my room in Dublin). There was a couple of people around who saw what happened and came over to help us – one of the locals said that he would take us to the police station and help us out... So we got onto the back of his moped and headed, again, into the night. It was actually quite fun. 3 people on the moped driving around Phnom Penh. We eventually got to one, but about 2-3 minutes of being in there, the guy decided that it wasn't good enough and told us to go to another police station. We hopped on and drove another bit. Eventually we got to "a better" police station and walked in to find 4 guys either lying on the floor or in a hammock, all in their underwear and looking more then a bit pissed off.

Unphased, we started to say what happened to us and they started writing a report. After about 20 minutes the guy asked me if I would recognise our assailant. I said I would and the guy helping us said that he would too, they talked a bit and it became apparent that this person was seen hanging around the nite club we went to. (Some proof that we went to the club :)). So the police man turned to me and said, “come with me”. He then walked to the back of the room, picked up one of the 8 AK47s (at least I think that's what it was – otherwise, something very similar), threw it over his shoulder and walked out the front door. I walked out, only to find him starting his bike... For the next one and a half hours we drove around Phnom Penh trying to find the robber. It was crazy!!! At least I got to see a lot of the city!

Luckily, we didn't find the guy... (I didn't want to know what was going to happen) and we sat for about another hour writing a report. They wanted our passport information so we had to go back to the hotel to get it... It was 5am, so when we got to our room – Mel said that she was too tired (both of us where annihilated at this point) and I went back with them. Another hour later, they dropped me home.

We both woke at around 12 the next day and headed down to get the police report – we picked it up and had to sign it with our thumb print! It was gas!!! The report is great and we will no doubt frame it at some point. The only thing that I can recognise in it is our names and our passport numbers! After we got the report, we had breakfast and we looked at a sign above the reception...

Bangkok $115

Hmmmmmm, we asked when the next flight was, and they said in two and a half hours, we booked it there and then with the idea that we would be in Samui the next day. From here on out, things went smoothly :)

Leaving Cambodia so quickly needs a little explanation... Everyone there, apart from the guy who robbed us, was amazing! The people were really friendly and it hasn't been hit as bad with mass tourism as Vietnam or Thailand. I want to, and no doubt will, return there in the next couple of years to explore. The people were really friendly and I actually met people who didn't want to sell me something. (One of my gripes about Vietnam is that everyone we talked to inevitably wanted to sell us something... Everyone!)

Another thing that I wanted to do was recover from our travelling and spend a relaxing week on a beach with my sweet heart. We weren't really going to get to do that in Cambodia as we would have travelled north to Siem Reap... so flying to Bangkok wasn't as mad an idea as it sounds...

The flight from Cambodia was grand. We flew with Bangkok Airways which are amazing...

Myself and Mel in Phnom Penh airport

The last week of our trip was a little less crazy, but I'll get to it on yet another post. (The final one about my trip, I think...)

Monday, August 22, 2005

Mui Ne Beach to Ho Chi Min

Mui Ne Beach to Ho Chi Min

(Some of this stuff I've taken from an email Mel wrote :) )

We left Nha Trang and took a day bus to Mui Ne Beach. One word describes Mui Ne beach really well. Quiet! It was quite pretty and we stayed in a really nice hotel for $12 per night. :) Mui Ne is famous for it's kite surfing (and to a lesser extent surfing and wind surfing). We ended up staying two nights here and spent most of our time sitting on the beach watching the kite surfers or driving about on a moped. One of the days we took the moped and went around a fishing village. It was one of the first places in Vietnam that we were in that wasn't completely geared towards tourists. It was great, walking around, taking photos, chatting (or at least trying to) to the locals. The only bad thing was that every now and then there was a horrific smell that we have decided to call “Fish Sauce”. It pretty much smells like an open sewer. (Just like Fish Sauce :))

It was so fuuny. We were sitting at the beach and a lady walks buy carrying two toilets. I don't really know what she was thinking... Maybe there is no toilets close to the beach...

Mel and I at the sand dunes on Mui Ne. Apart from the beach itself, this is the other touristy thing to do. Little kids try to scam you into hiring a piece of plastic to slide down the side of the dunes. I paid about 25c to slide down the dunes. It's not much fun, but the kid did take this photo.

Look how much I trust Mel :) Later in the trip, Mel drove the scooter a lot with me on the back. We got SO many stares from the locals. They have possibly never seen a girl drive a guy on a scooter before!

A photo from the fishing village. These tiny fish being dried out is probably the case of the Fish Sauce smell....

Next we traveled to Ho Chi Min City. My first impression of HCMC is that it's a lot more cosmopolitan then anywhere else (except Bangkok) that we had traveled. Tall buildings, nice hotels, Starbucks... okay, not quite (that was Bangkok). The most interesting thing to do in HCMC is to take a trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels. These are the tunnels that the VC used in the war against the Americans – basically, in quite a small area there is about 250km of tunnels under the ground including bunkers). So you have the chance to climb into these tunnels through tiny holes in the ground which are totally invisible and walk in a crouched position, and sometimes on all fours (they were definitely not built for us), for about 10 min through hot, humid and dark small holes about 3-10 meters underground. The funniest thing was when a few bats woke up and flew over our heads causing a few girls to break out in hysteria in the middle of a dark tiny tunnel... but a very interesting experience! We even got to shoot an AK47 afterwards. After this we went to the War Remnants Museum (formally called “Some Pictures of the US Imperialists Aggressive War Crimes on Vietnam”) and were shocked for about one and a half hours (the length of time it took us to walk around the museum).

Mel climbs through a hole in the ground into the tunnels.

The next day we set out for Phnom Penh but I'll leave this story to another day. Basically, the next 24 hours was the craziest time of the trip and almost certainly any trip that I've been on!

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Sapa to Halong to Hoi An to Nha Trang

So, the last place that I mentioned in my blog was Sapa. Being there was simply amazing. Just imagine huge mountains with terraced rice paddies and small wooden huts. From there we took an over night train back to Hanoi. The different classes on these trains need to be described.

First there is “Nice Class” (the one we stayed on the way back from Sapa and from Hanoi to Hoi An) It's basically a 'soft' sleeper bed. 4 beds per cabin. Actually quite nice.

Next there is “Chicken Class” (we were cheated onto this one on the way to Sapa – we payed for a Nice Class but they snuck us onto this... but that's another story) This is basically a 'hard' sleeper. 6 beds per cabin, small amounts of comfort.

Next is “Worm Class” - seats with a cushion.

Finally there is “Ant Class” - I wont even go into this one.
The prices obviously differ dramatically - our ticket in Nice Class from Hanoi to Hoi An (it wasn't an inflated tourist price) was $33 each! You could squirm in Ant Class for about a handful of rice and 3 chicken feet!

The train service itself is actually OK except that it is horrifically slow. Something that could be done in Europe in 2 hours takes 3 days and 7 different types of medication. Some of their railways stations are a sight to behold! The one in Hanoi is great. I'll quote Mel on this... “a train station that somehow strongly reminded me of a WW2 train station for people fleeing the towns, chaos over chaos” (later we found the tourist entrance :))

Next, we made one of our few mistakes on our trip. We went for the cheaper option on a 2 day, 1 night trip to Halong Bay. This is supposed to be one of the wonders of the world and is a world heritage site. It's basically a bay with hundreds of tiny limestone (I think) islands. I'm sure it would have been great except that it poured down for almost the whole trip, and we felt like sheep, no that sounds to comfortable, chickens being led to a slaughter house. In addition, we stayed in the worst 'hotel' that I have ever stayed in. The room had not been cleaned since the late seventies, the door was broken (you could see into our room!), and there wasn't even a window. I've stayed in crappy hostels before and places worse, but this place had the called itself a hotel! Oh yeah, all the food on the trip was crap too... I'm going to stop now... (I'm sure our whole experience would have been different if it stopped raining long enough for us to see enjoy the sights) This part of the trip only lasted 2 days and is possibly the only low point.

Halong Bay (It wasn't raining for about 10 minutes at this point)

Our next stop on our trip was a place that both Mel and I fell in love with. It's a small old twon called Hoi An about half way down the coast of Vietnam which is very famous for both clothes and shoes. (Anyone who knows me, now knows why I fell for this place. Mel did too, but she's a girl :)) As usual I decided to go low key and only got two suits, 4 shirts, 5 ties, 2 shoes... (ehhh, I think I'll stop now – I knew about this place before had so I traveled very light up until this point, about 10KG.) Mel of course couldn't help herself with a similar wardrobe purchased. Everything was tailored for you and some of the stuff I've already worn a lot and the quality seems grand. One of the mornings we got up early (I think the earliest ever for me at about 4:40am) for what they called a sun rise tour to My Son. My Son is basically the Cham cultures/dynasty religious head quarter. The place was amazing, however it was the one of the first major eye openers for the damage the American War did to Vietnam. There was 5 meter deep craters from B52 bombs next (and thus almost completely destroying) buildings that had stood for a thousand years. It was very sad from architectural point of view. Basically, most of the place was carpet bombed, poisoned, burned.... Still, the trip was amazing and defiantly worth getting up at that early hour for. There was something quite surreal about us walking around there with our guide and being the only people there.

Mel hard at work in Hoi An

Me outside one of the Cham buildings in My Son

Our next stop on our merry trip was Nha Trang. Do you know when you are on a roller coaster and you are heading straight for a huge rock (or something sturdy looking) and just at the last moment you pull up and it wizziz inches past you. This is our overnight trip from Hoi An to Nha Trang. These people are absolutely crazy (I haven't been to India yet but I hear they aren't that great either). Last year in Thailand, I thought that they were crazy. My feelings about the Thai are quite different now. In Thailand they only over take around a blind corner if they DON'T see someone coming. In Vietnam, you could be passing a truck on to the right around a corner and see two tour buses drag racing in the opposite direction one of them in your lane, the other on the truck that your passings lane on a two lane (one in each direction) road. Oh, and of course there is the family of 5 on a mopped nipping in between all of us. I didn't worry too much though... we had the obligatory flashing Budda at the front of our bus... That will save us :) (The Budda and the Buses horn are the only two safety features as far as I can see)

I have mixed feelings about Nha Trang – it is VERY touristy and the beach and surrounding islands don't match up to Thailand. There is massive development along the beach front and I'd say that in about 3 years it will look like Vegas. On the other hand, the night life was a lot of fun. As usual, myself and Mel found ourselves in an interesting situation. A club with about 1,000 people, thumping 80's dance music and two white people. It was great though, I think it was a local only type place and they were all great craic! It's a long time since I did the dancing train thing around a disco! Other nights we went out with Irish and Dutch people that we met on an excellent boat trip. If you are there, do the 4 island tour...

The view from our hotel in Nha Trang

Getting ready for a night on the town :)

Hmmm – this post is getting closer to an essay then a post, so I think I will stop here – spread in a few photos and call it a night :)

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Back from Vacation :(

So I'm back at work in the US again after my holidays. :( It's really tough to be back to the 'real' world and not traveling. It's also hard to collect all your thoughts after such an amazing holiday. So hard, I'm not even going to go into the stories yet ;) I'm attempting to use this blog to try and document the trip in some way for myself and Mel, in addition to photos and her journal. Someone else may also find some interesting things in it if they where planning a similar trip)

Over the next few days I'm probably going to add little sections about all the places we where. So far I posted up until Sapa. From there we went to Halong Bay, Hoi An, My Son, Mui Ni Beach, Ho Chi Min City, Cu Chi, Phnom Penh and then Samui. All of the places where amazing and a few stage 5 nights were had. (I rate nights out in crazyness from 1 to 5) Some I will talk about – others will remain secret :)

When we were in Sapa (North West Vietnam, along the Chinese/Laos border) we went trekking for 3 days. Mi (standing next to Mel) was our guide. She actually belongs to one of the Minority Hill Tribes (Red Dzao). She isn't wearing the traditional dress like everyone else in the region because "It's too warm".
There was weird sand dunes beside Mui Ni Beach. This is my current desktop background :)
This was the view from the sea of Mel in front of one of the beach huts that we were staying in on Samui. It cost 250 Baht a night (about 5e) and was simply amazing!

This is the view out from the hut. Unfortunately, I am in the way...

This is what I meant when I said "Over Kill!"

I think this will just about hold my bike...

My new wheels :)

While any of us Edgespace folk are in California we always rent a car for the duration of the trip. This last while we have been dealing with a company called Enterprise for two reasons.

1. We get good deals with them because of the place we stay.
2. They actually acknowledge that people under 25 may want to hire a car (Unlike almost every other car company who spit on people that are less then 47 million years old).

So I went around to the dealer close to our clients office looking for the standard car - the guy met me at the door, was hugely friendly and when I requested that the car should be able to transport my mountain bike, he smiled at me and pointed me to this truck!!! Talk about overkill! I think I could transport a small army in this thing! Still though, he gave it to me for no extra charge (beyond what a crappy normal car would cost) and I'm not planning on driving much over the next two weeks so I don't feel to bad about using up huge amounts of fuel.