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Back In Thailand

Only six days to Delhi

sunny 34 °C
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I guess it's been a few days since I last wrote. My apologies. But Happy New Year!

After flying back to Bangkok from Hanoi on Boxing Day, I made my way to Koh Chang, an island off the coast of Thailand, near Cambodia. I had plans to meet up with the Aussie and the Kiwi I had met over Christmas in Hanoi. We didn't book ahead based on the travel agent's recommendation that there would be 'plenty' of accomodation on the island for New Year's. This was dumb. We got there on December 30th, and found that the entire island was completely booked out, and the only room available was at this woman's house for 1000 baht (about $30). Since there was three of us, it wasn't that expensive, but when we got there, it was just a space in her living room with a couple mattresses on the floor. No door. We moved into one of her crappy bungalows for the same price on New Year's Eve, and then bolted the next day.

New Year's was a good time, though. We went to a backpacker's place called the Treehouse on Lonely Beach, and it was overflowing with people, but very, very relaxed. There was even a fireworks show. My sandals got stolen though. Either that or I was too drunk to find them at the end of the night. But it wasn't a big deal, I think I paid 55 baht for them, which works out to less than $2.

After New Year's, we decided to find some much needed quality accomodation and found an awesome place on the opposite side of the island. It was like a hotel, but it was built over the water connected by a long pier. We spent six days there, rented motos virtually every day and explored the whole island, finding beaches no one went to, navigating dirt paths that these scooters were absolutely not designed for, and generally just lying in the sun. We also took a boat on one of the last days to a smaller outlying island that had a very picturesque little beach. I admit that I shaved my beard off before I got to the island because I didn't want to be disgraced with a beard tan, but it's coming back in nicely, and by the time I get back to Van (which isn't too far away now), it'll be full again.

I'm back in Bangkok again, this time for almost a full week before I leave for India next Sunday, the 13th. I'm pretty excited to see a culture completely different from Southeast Asia, and I've heard many people simply cannot handle the culture shock India provides. I'm reading a fantastic book right now called Shantaram, a true story written by an Australian that broke out of maximum security prison in the 80's, escaped to India, lived in a slum, fought in an Afghani war, acted in Bollywood, and ultimately got caught and spent more time in an Aussie jail. It's probably the best book I've ever read and it has great insights into Indian life. Apparently it's being made into a film starring Johnny Depp. As for my trip, I actually fly into Colombo, Sri Lanka and spend a night there first, before flying to Delhi the next afternoon. I'm hoping I'll get a chance to look around the city, but they're not giving me a visa, so I'll probably be confined to my hotel room. I'm planning on doing a full tour of the state of Rajasthan, in the northwest of the country. Apparently there's a ton of culture there, and the Taj Mahal is just east of Rajasthan in Agra. I've only got three weeks, and I'll be back in Bangkok again on February 5th, before flying back to Vancouver on the 9th.

I cannot believe how quickly the time has passed; it's already been three and a half months, and the next four weeks will surely pass quickly. I'm glad I went away for so long though. If it had only been two months, or even three, I don't think I would have been as satisfied as I already I am. The time allowed me to get pretty homesick at one point, and then plenty of time to work through it to the point where the last three weeks have been some of the best of the trip, simply because I appreciate being away.

Some pics, I haven't taken a ton lately, so there's not much to choose from:

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This was the little peninsula beach on the smaller island next to Koh Chang. There wasn't a soul around but us.

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Another empty beach we took motos to. The dirt path to the beach was downright dangerous at one point, which made it so much more rewarding to get to.

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Me.

I've been reading that there's some bad storms hitting the West Coast? Do you guys have snow or what? See you all soon ..

Posted by sam.m. 16:00 Archived in Thailand Comments (3)

Christmas in Hanoi

I miss Vietnam already

semi-overcast 27 °C
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Merry Christmas! I guess this is a couple days late, but it doesn't matter.

I arrived in Bangkok late last night, a day later than expected. I wish I was still in Hanoi.

I arrived in Hanoi on the 18th, and my original plan was to go to Sapa in the north for a couple nights before heading to Halong Bay for a couple more, and then back to Hanoi for Christmas. Well, plans change, as they have numerous times on this trip and when I got to Hanoi, I just wasn't really interested in taking another long bus ride to Sapa, so I just stayed put in Hanoi for a few days before heading to Halong Bay on the 22nd. I saw some sights and generally relaxed. I met some Welsh people and we made fun of each other's accents for a few days over ridiculously cheap Bia Hoi, the local brew, which goes for 2000D per glass. The Vietnamese currency is the dong, and the exchange is 15000D for $1. Do the math and a glass of beer goes for about 15 cents. Pretty awesome. It's definitely not the best beer in the world, but come on, 15 cents.

Halong Bay was stunning. Unfortunately the weather didn't completely cooperate, and it was raining the first day and pretty cloudy the second, but no bad weather can corrupt Halong Bay. The bay has hundreds upon hundreds of huge, jagged limestone formations that jut out of the water. My pictures don't justify it; it's so vast and beautiful. I wanted to go on a three day, two night tour, but the tour company forgot to pick me up the first day, so I settled for a discounted two day tour. Not that big of a deal. The one night I spent on the boat was really fun. Besides one Vietnamese family, there was a Brit, a Norwegian, a Swede, a Danish couple, three Americans and me. We played drinking games and sang Vietnamese karaoke until the wee hours and it was one of the funnest nights I've had so far.

After Halong Bay, I went back to Hanoi for Christmas. This being my first Christmas away from home, I wasn't sure how I'd feel about the whole thing, but I luckily met a big group of great people, and it was very memorable. I spent Christmas Eve at an Irish pub called Finnegan's. It was packed to the brim and everyone sang Christmas songs the whole night. I spent it with a group of Irish guys, an Aussie and a Kiwi. Most of them were staying at the Hanoi Backpackers' Hostel, which is the only dorm available for travellers. I wasn't staying there, but I was lucky enough to run into them, and I found out that they were having a big turkey dinner the next day on the roof of the hostel. This was plenty good enough for me, and I spent the majority of Christmas Day eating turkey and drinking free beer with all the other transplanted travellers that happened to be in Hanoi.

I was supposed to fly back to Bangkok on Christmas night, but I forgot my passport at the hotel when I went to the airport (hotels in Vietnam require you to leave your passport with them, and I was in a rush), so I missed my flight. Luckily a flight to Bangkok from Hanoi is dirt cheap, and immigration didn't even charge me for overstaying my visa when I left on Boxing Day. So now I'm back in Bangkok, and I miss Hanoi and the rest of Vietnam already. Hanoi has a ton of character, and coming back to Bangkok is a real letdown. I don't think I realized how much I liked Hanoi until I arrived in Bangkok, and I instantly missed the bustle of the streets, the chilly nights, the suicidal nature of crossing the street, and of course, all the wonderful people I met that made Christmas so memorable. I was really enjoying Vietnam and I won't hesitate to go back there in the future; it's been my favourite country.

Here are a few pics:

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Hanoi at night. While it only has half the population that Saigon has, the streets are much, much narrower, and it's much more intense. I initially liked Saigon much better than Hanoi, but after spending over a week in Hanoi, it completely grew on me.

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Sunrise in Halong Bay.

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The Christmas party at the backpackers' hostel.

This will probably be my last entry until after New Years, so Happy New Year! Thank you for all the Christmas wishes!

Posted by sam.m. 10:40 Archived in Thailand Comments (3)

Hoi An!

and all the random people you meet

overcast 26 °C
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Hello again! I can't believe it's almost Christmas. It's amazing that I've been travelling for 11 weeks; it's all a blur and I don't want it to end. Of course, there are times that the homesickness kicks in full blast and all I want to do is go home and watch a hockey game, but I know that as soon as I get back home, I'll wish I was sitting on a beach in Thailand, or tubing in Laos, or just meeting some random person in a pub and having an eye-opening conversation. The whole experience is starting to really affect me in the best way possible.

I was in Nha Trang about a week ago, playing pool with an American guy, and a girl walked up to me and we started talking. The great thing about travelling is that everyone has something in common: no one is home. Conversations are incredibly easy. So we were talking, and it turns out this girl works for the State Department in Baghdad. She said she used to work in Washington, but got bored of it and took a year long contract in Iraq. They pay her about twice what she made in the States for the same job because of the danger involved, and she gets three weeks of holidays every three months. I asked her if it was as dangerous as they make it out to be, and she said that Baghdad is pretty stable now, but she has been truly scared about three times in three months so far due to explosions. Pretty crazy. Just an example of the different types of people you meet.

I've been travelling with the American guy I met that night since then. He's from Laguna Beach, California, the same town as the show, and when I asked him he rolled his eyes and told me that's the first thing anyone ever says to him. He's right too, everyone we've met since has asked him, especially the girls. He must get right sick of it. It's funny though, his brother's girlfriend is on the show. So anyways, he lives in South Africa now and has for the last six years, running a surf/safari company with a partner, and he's on his way back to Laguna for Christmas.

We spent four nights in Hoi An, one of the best cities I've been to in Southeast Asia. It's a pretty small town, but it's got loads of old French architecture, and all the streets are tiny. It's full of character. Many travellers go there to get clothes made, because there are tailor shops absolutely everywhere and they're dirt cheap. There must be well over a hundred of these shops, and the town isn't very big at all. I shopped around and ended up buying a dark brown, three piece, cashmere suit with pinstripes, two collared shirts and really nice jacket, all for $107. I've never had clothes fit me so well in my life.

Right now I'm in Hue, an old capital that has a few sights to see. I'm leaving tomorrow night on a sleeper bus to Hanoi, a 14 hour bus ride. But these sleeper buses are great, so it shouldn't be too bad. I've only got nine days left on my Vietnamese visa, so I'm only spending one night in Hanoi, then I'll go to Sapa in the north for a couple nights, then to Halong Bay in the east for a couple more (supposedly one of the most naturally beautiful places on the planet), and then back to Hanoi for Christmas. I fly back to Bangkok on Christmas night, and I'll be in Thailand for a week or so to celebrate New Year's, and then it's off to India for a month, as long as I can get everything arranged in Thailand. After that, it's back home. I can't believe I can see the end, but there's much more left to see.

Some pics:

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This was in Hoi An. There are so many neat little shops like this. I wanted to buy so many things ..

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A typical street in Hoi An.

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Being a Communist country (well, not really, but that's another blog), Che's image turns up often. And it seems writing things on the wall is a big thing in Hue. Lots of restaurants and cafes are covered in graffiti written by the thousands of travellers that have passed through.

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My awesome jacket.

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My awesome suit.

That's all for now. You'll be happy to know my massage hickeys have all cleared up, although I'm sure I'm far happier about it than any of you. Until next time!

Posted by sam.m. 20:19 Archived in Vietnam Comments (8)

From Dalat to Nha Trang

An Easy Ride. Sort of.

overcast 28 °C
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When I last wrote, I was trying to decide on the length of my trip with the Easy Riders. I had met Long, who had offered a five day trip to Hoi An from Dalat, which would take me through the Central Highlands, a part of Vietnam you can really only see with these guys. In my indecision on whether or not to do the trip, another traveller had snapped up Long, and he was gone. I waited a day for him to come back, but when I couldn't find him, I booked a six day tour to Hoi An with another rider named Buddha, a short, plump, jolly man who seemed very friendly and knowledgable. The night before I left with Buddha, I found Long and tried desperately to change my trip to go with him, but since I had already placed a deposit with Buddha, the deal was sealed and there was nothing that could be done.

I had heard from other travellers that the driver you choose can make or break the trip, and I found out that couldn't be more true. Within a few hours on the first morning, and after only a couple stops, I realized that Buddha and I had trouble getting along and communicating. His English was more broken than I realized, and I found myself asking him to repeat things more often than I would have liked. I don't like doing it, but when you can't undertand, you can't understand. This made him extremely irritated, and he would raise his voice and talk to me like a little kid. This, in turn, annoyed me, and I ended up just nodding my head and saying yes to everything he said throughout the rest of the trip, regardless of whether I understood him. He was never very interested in having a conversation with me either, he would just brush me off and tell me what he thought I wanted to hear. On top of that, we stopped about every 20 minutes to look at rice fields or crops or goats while he made some analogy relating it to the Vietnamese people, which is fine, but when you stop to look at rice fields for the fourth time, it gets old. That morning I decided to change the trip to a three day ride to Nha Trang. He seemed relieved.

Despite this clash of personalities, the trip was pretty memorable. The scenery was breathtaking. We rode down the side of a mountain on a winding road, through vast fields of bright green rice paddies, and through little villages where EVERYONE stared at me. I don't think I've ever felt so away from home than I did when we stopped at these villages. I'm not saying that's a bad thing, but when you meet local people who are just happy to meet you and you have little kids following you around because you look different, you realize how removed some people are from your way of life. I also ate local food for every meal, sometimes at a family's house where I didn't have to pay because I was basically joining them for dinner. I would listen to them chatter away in Vietnamese for an hour or so, trying to read body language and pick out the few Vietnamese words I knew, and trying to not mind the kids staring at me for the whole meal.

Besides my driver, I do have another not-so-great experience that happened to me on the second night. We were staying in Ca Na, a little beachside town, and after dinner, Buddha recommended that I get a massage from the masseuse at the place we were staying at. He said they were great after a long day of riding, so I agreed; I had gotten a lot of massages since I'd been in Asia, and I didn't expect this one would be any different. A woman came to my room (don't worry, this isn't dirty), and she went to work. I couldn't see what was happening as I was on my stomach, but I later realized she had taken these glass jars, heated them up with a mini homemade torch, and suctioned them onto my back and shoulders in about 15 different places. It felt funny, but nice, and I didn't want to complain or object, so I just let her do her thing. I would later regret this decision. When she was finished, I paid her and she left the room (I know it SOUNDS dirty, but it's not), and I caught a glance of myself in the mirror. Usually, this is a pleasant experience, but to my horror, there were 15 deep red hickeys/burns all over my back and shoulders. It looked like I had been shot with a high-powered tennis ball gun. I was pissed. The next day, I showed Buddha my massage wounds, and he laughed and told me they would go away in a couple days. Well, it's been a couple days, and they're as dark as ever. I don't expect them to fade away for a good couple weeks. I'm in Nha Trang now and it's got a great beach, but there's no chance in hell I'll be taking my shirt off here, I look absolutely ridiculous.

So that was my Easy Rider trip. It was very memorable and I don't regret it at all, but I guess it could have been better. Here are a few pics:

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Dalat is a beautiful town. This is just a slice of the countryside outside the city centre.

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We stopped at a cafe that had a few monkeys chained up, along with numerous caged birds. See the length of the chain? That's all the slack he had. Kind of sad.

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A gecko on the outside of my door. These little guys are everywhere, and they range from the size of your pinky toe to the size of your forearm. I've been trying to get pictures of them the whole trip, but as soon as I get close enough they scurry away.

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A group of workers at a Vietnamese War Memorial we stopped at. They knew how to say "hello" and "goodbye", which is about the extent of my Vietnamese, so we had a good conversation.

So that's it for now. Feel free to leave comments. No seriously, leave a comment.

Posted by sam.m. 17:12 Archived in Vietnam Comments (3)

I Love Vietnam

and other related things

sunny 17 °C
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First off, is it snowing in Vancouver? I read there's a storm coming and you guys are getting 20cm or something. Maybe it'll be a white Christmas. And Luongo! Three shutouts in a row! It's too bad I can't watch the games because it looks like they're really on a roll right now.

Second, here's a map of the trip. I don't think I've posted one in awhile. You can zoom in and move it around if you want.

Anyways, I entered Vietnam on November 26, travelling by bus to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) from Sihanoukville. It was a lengthy ride, about 11 hours, but we had to go through Phnom Penh and change buses. I don't really mind the bus rides, to be honest. I'm getting used to them. I usually read, so I'm lucky I don't get motion sickness. I think I've read more books on this trip than I have in my lifetime.

I instantly noticed that Vietnam is far more developed than Laos and Cambodia. It definitely put the poverty of Cambodia into perspective. Maybe I didn't fully notice it because I had came from Laos and the poverty was gradually introduced to me from Thailand, but Cambodia really is a step behind it's neighbours. Laos is poor, but it's also Communist, so everyone gets something. Even driving through little villages in the countryside, every hut has electricity, a TV, and a satellite dish. Cambodians really have to work for what they've got, and tourism is a huge part of life there. Most Cambodians I talked to were optimistic about the future and thought the country was ready to turn the corner, so I guess we'll find out.

But back to Vietnam. I loved Ho Chi Minh City. There were trees! It was nice to see big trees lining the streets. The city is bustling, but it's very comfortable and I got a great vibe from it. I've never seen so many motos in my life. I heard there's over three million motos in the city, and it's really ridiculous watching the traffic. There aren't any rules. If you want to cross the street, you basically just walk into traffic and all the motos just drive around you. You're safe as long as you don't stop. If you stop, they don't know what you're doing and you're as good as dead. I spent three days in the city, mostly just walking around seeing the sights. I also went on a tour of the Cu Chi Tunnels, which is the tunnel network the Viet Cong used during the war. It's pretty impressive, over 200km of tunnels that in some parts were only 45cm wide and 100cm high. The tour came complete with a deafening shooting range, where you could fire off rounds of various different weapons. I didn't bother, but it was funny how relaxed they are about it. If you want to fire a gun in Canada, you basically have to sign your life away, give an insurance deposit etc. There's rules and regulations. But here, I watched a Vietnamese load up a handgun for a tourist, hand him the gun and point him towards the range. So there he was, some guy with a loaded gun walking freely towards the range. He even had to ask for ear muffs because they forgot to give them to him.

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A million motos waiting for the green light.

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A church in Ho Chi Minh City. About 10% of the Vietnamese are Catholic, so there's Christmas stuff everywhere. I'll probably be in Hanoi for Christmas, so at least it'll be a bit festive.

From Ho Chi Minh City, I caught a bus to Mui Ne, a little beach town about four hours north. I spent another three nights here, mostly just laying on the beach. I also took a day trip to see these huge sand dunes just north of the city. Mui Ne is super touristy, the beach is lined with resort after resort, and there's a lot of old people taking taxis up and down the strip, even though it's easily done on foot. But who am I to judge? There's also Russians everywhere. Some of the signs are even in Russian and most restaurants seem to have someone that can speak the language. I thought Canadians could hold their liquor, but my god, Russians drink. I watched a table of about six of them pound back two full bottles and rum and numerous beers in an hour, and they were just getting started.

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White sand dunes outside Mui Ne.

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Sunset on the beach in Mui Ne.

I left Mui Ne this morning for a little town called Dalat, which is in the mountains in Central Vietnam. I only arrived here a few hours ago, but it's my favourite city so far. First, it's a lot colder. I mean, not super cold, but at night it probably dips down to 10 degrees, which is a bit of a shock after two months of sweltering heat. It's kind of funny because all the locals are bundled up in winter jackets, toques and scarves, while I'm walking around in shorts and a tshirt. It's comparable to a sunny Vancouver day in April. The air is also really fresh up here too. The town is nestled in the mountains, surrounded by green forests and crops that creep up the hillsides. If I didn't know better, I could easily mistake it for somewhere in BC. It's beautiful here.

That takes me to my current dilemma. My original plan was to go to Nha Trang by bus after a few days here, but another, much more attractive option has come up. There's a group of moto drives here called Easy Riders, and they offer extended tours through central Vietnam. There's a three day tour to Nha Trang, and a five day tour to Hoi An, which would be my next stop after Nha Trang. It's just you and a moto driver on a vintage bike. He acts as your guide and takes you to minority villages, waterfalls, and goes way off the tourist trail to see the Central Highlands of Vietnam that are essentially off limits otherwise. I've already met one of them, Long, he speaks great English, he's friendly and he's really knowledgable about all things Vietnam. The problem is that it's a bit pricey at $60 per day (accomodation included), but everyone I've talked to raves about these guys, and the reviews they've gotten are absolutely glowing. And if I do it, I think I'd want to go all out and do the five day tour, which means I'd skip Nha Trang (Tuyet's hometown!), but I guess I could always backtrack. I definitely have the time. Anyways, I guess you'll find out what I decide soon enough ..

So that's it. You're up to date. Enjoy the snow!

Posted by sam.m. 03:40 Archived in Vietnam Comments (3)

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