Released Anna and Sam Travel from Auckalnd to London
New Ze Adieu Auckland
We both longed to travel, to experience the world. It was a shared dream that we realised on Boxing Day 2005. We said goodbye to our friends and family in Auckland and headed out into the world. We had planned our trip over six months, flying from Auckland to Sydney, Sydney to Hong Kong; travel overland from Hong Kong to Singapore; then fly Singapore to Dubai and Dubai to London. We would then settle down in London and find jobs and a flat.
Sunny surfy Sydney The first stop on our long journey from Auckland to London was Sydney. Sydney feels like a larger version of Auckland making it a nice way of easing into travel. We enjoyed Sydney, especially all the beaches (Bondi, Bronte and Manly), making the most of our 7 day transport pass on the ferries, buses and trains. The Boxing Day and New Years Sales were very tempting, we did not buy too much (though more than needed for travelling) as we were restricted by the size of our pack and having to carry it all!!! New Years Eve was fantastic. There is an early fireworks display for families which was occurring as we arrived at the harbour. Once over, prime spots on the quay just down from the Opera House were abandoned and we snuck in. There
was a lack of entertainment prior to midnight, and the ground was still extremely hot from the day sun. However, the fireworks were worth it with night flowers rising up all around us off the Harbour Bridge, boats in the harbour and water front buildings. Our studio apartment was nice and tidy. We were staying in Annandale - about 15min on the bus from the top of town â€“ a similar distance for Mt Eden in Auckland. We had plenty of nice delis and shops around so we could buy good quality cheap ingredients to make tasty dinners. New Years Day was a corker reaching 45 degrees, Sydneyâ€™s hottest day for 70 years! It was too hot to do much at all. We had to find a pub for air conditioning while we waited for a bus to take us to the movies (more air con). We did make to the beach in the morning but by lunch it was too hot to be outside.
We flew with Virgin Blue from Sydney to Brisbane (our first taste of budget airlines) and stayed at Anna’s Uncle’s house with her parents. We were welcomed to Brisbane by the most amazing meal of king prawns, Australian prawns, oysters, and Morton Bay Bugs, followed by rosemary lamb slow roasted on the BBQ. Anna’s Uncle also had a lovely pool so we had plenty of swims. We spent a couple of days exploring Brisbane before hiring a car and heading up to the sunshine coast.
The four of us stayed in a nice two bedroom apartment in Coolum overlooking the beach. We had a lovely time in Coolum walking along the beach, swimming, eating ice cream and generally laying about.
Hurried Hong Kong Hong Kong was our first taste of Asia. We have a theory that you never truly like the first Asian city you visit due to the culture shock, smell, noise and throngs of people. Despite all this, there was plenty to enjoy and Hong Kong and we took many special memories from it. We were non-stop bustling around Hong Kong fuelled by the differences and excitement, but not on very much food. It was hard to find places to eat that were not grease-buckets or white bread bakeries, so we lived on coke, sweet buns, and oothappam (savoury Indian pancakes).
Here, there and everywhere We purchased Octopus cards giving us easy access to all public transport, taking full advantage of them; catching buses, trains, trams and ferries all over the place. Without them I believe our legs would have dropped off early on. Highlights for the trip were; the Peak, Macau, Big Buddha and the light show. The Peak is the Mountains behind the Hong Kong skyline. We caught a tram up to the top, enjoying wonderful views of the harbour and Hong Kongâ€™s hazy high rise sky line.
Nuts in Nanning
We caught the ferry over to Macau (in China, so more passport stamps), a big melting pot mix of Portuguese and Chinese culture. There are wonderful old Buddhist temples such as A-Ma from the 16th Centuary, as well as Porteguese churches such as Sao Paulo. The lighthouse and old fort up on a central hill gave wonderful views of Macau as well as respite from the busy streets.
With our itchy feet wanting to explore more of Asia, we caught a night bus (13hr) from Hong Kong through the desolate Guangzhou district to Nanning. We arrived at 8am in Nanning and walked into the first hotel we found, a very flash but not too expensive four star.
Beautiful Big Buddha Another ferry ride took us to Lantau Island, where we visited Po Lin Monastary and the Big Buddha statue - the tallest outdoor seated Buddha in the world. It was a wonderfuly serene and magical environment. We went up just before dusk after all the tourists had left, very peaceful.
Laser Light show At 8pm every night there is a lightshow conducted across the tops of many of the Hong Kong and Kowloon buildings. We watched it from the Avenue of the stars, under the watchful eye of Bruce Lee. The light show and symphony was spectacular.
After checking in and having a nap we headed to the train station to book our tickets to Hanoi, only to find nothing in English, crowds of people and very long lines. Luckily we spotted another European face (before this we had seen no other travellers and were attracting very strange looks). Rob, an American, had got lost on his way to Nanning from Hong Kong (taking the train that we missed) and ended up being helped by a group of university students, one of which had purchased his ticket to Pianxing (near the border with Vietnam). Colin, the university student, was kind enough to also buy tickets for us and help us out. We ended up having a fun night in Nanning that night, drinking lots of beer and eating yummy food (ordered by Colin and paid by us). It was Colinâ€™s first time in Nanning, he comes from a small village with 9 people in it! We even met up with some Kiwis and Aussies that had just come from Vietnam so shared some stories in a bar in Nanning that night.
Good Morning Vietnam Mung Dang Mung Xuan Hanoi The next day we caught an 8am train to the border. We were surprised as there were twice as many people as seats but luckily we made another local friend who helped us out and set us up with a taxi to the border. Once across the border there seemed to be no easy way to Hanoi. We jumped into a mini van that got packed full of people then a chicken (at the height of avian flu!). After a 4 ride from the border we finally arrived in Hanoi, filled with millions of scooters, people and horns. It is quite an experience crossing the street whereby you pick a line and the scooters go around you, no lights to cross at there. On the bus we also met Joseph (English tourist) on the mini bus ride and the four of us (including Rob) decided to head on a tours to Ha Long Bay and Sa Pa together. Mung Dang Mung Xuan is on all the banners, posters and flower beds in Vietnam celebrating National Communist day. We originally believed it meant â€œHappy New Yearâ€? as Tet (Chinese New Year) is only a couple of days before the Communist Day.
Jaunting in a Junk around Ha Long Bay After bussing through China and Vietnam we finally stopped in Ha Long Bay, considered one of the most beautiful spots in Vietnam and a World Heritage Site. Ha Long Bay was very relaxing; we went on a tour that included two days on a boat cruising round the limestone crags, trekking up one of the mountains and relaxing on Cat Ba Island. The limestone crags are similar to Milford sound, only instead of close in cliffs it was lots of small islets. Some of the islets even had pagodas on top. The weather was cloudy and the temperature not overly warm. Still we braved the waters for a quick swim. We visited one of the many caves, although we all wished that we had not. It was a real shame; they took the biggest most impressive cave and cleared out most of the stalactites and stalagmites, and replaced them with plastered ceiling and paved floors, complete with coloured disco lighting. It was definitely made for Asian tourists, who appear to like the allusion of nature. The trek up a 1500 mountain was stunning; scrambling over boulders, with the reward of a great view from the top of the surrounding bays of Cat Ba. The group that we travelled with in our tour was great, we got on really well with some French Canadians (Guillaume, Anne-Marie, Lam and Phat), Brits (Joseph), and Aussies. All were young and fun. This group was to become the core of our Vietnam travelling friends.
Climbing Cloudy Sa Pa After Ha Long Bay, we caught the overnight train in a soft sleeper to cloud enshrouded Sa Pa. Sa Pa stands at 1200m above sea level, and was in the clouds during our stay. We were very lucky to get one of the best guides for our walks, Sisi; a 16 year old Black Hâ€™mong local. She was very funny and talkative, having learnt English from 2 years of guiding (she could speak 7 languages - mostly picked up from guiding).
Hiking the hills We completed a 2 day trek with Sisi, and Rob the American we met in Nanning. The trek was amazing, dipping under the clouds into valleys of rice patties, vege gardens, and small villages of ethnic minorities. Sisi liked taking us the back ways, and we spent a large amount of time balancing precariously on the small stone walls separating the terraced rice patties. Some of the mud hills we walked down were pretty crazy - hard not to slip especially when chased by felled trees, but we managed it thanks to the gumboots we hired for $NZ1.50 a day. On our first night, we stayed in a local village, Ta Van, with a family that comprised at least 3 generations; the oldest man in the house was 96, with little children only a few years old crawling round his legs. Together with Sisi we made spring rolls, beef stir fry, pork stir fry, cabbage and other tasty food and ate together with the family. It was a wonderful experience. Sisi is a card shark and insisted on many games, with the loser taking shots of rice wine. Sam lost every hand. Anna quickly swapped the rice wine with water to help Sam out.
Freezing fun Our second night in Sa Pa was also fun as we went out to a local bar with Sisi and met up with lots of nice travellers including a Belgian, Jonathan who we would end up travelling with later and meeting again in Europe. We played cards for a few hours Sisi loves cards, and is excellent at it, taking all us Westerners to the cleaners. Sa Pa was absolutely freezing, only a couple of degrees, and our hotel had no heating! We had to hire a heater for $US2, which did next to nothing. Luckily Sam got a fire going in Robâ€™s hotel.
Hectic Hanoi Chaotic Old City Hanoi is an amazing city. Backpackers congregate in the Old City; a haphazard melee of small busy lanes, lovely small shops, street stalls and motorbikes. Each street is named for the original type of shop that it housed, such as silver and ceramic. We made sure that we got out of the hectic old quarter for part of every day. We spent a couple of days strolling down either side of Ho Hoan Kiem (the lake in central Hanoi). On one side is the French quarter, which is full of large French buildings like the Opera house and big boulevards. The next day we walked down the other side of Ho Hoan Kiem, visiting lots of little pagodas (Buddhist temples), and 2 more lakes Ho Thien Quang, and Ho Bay Mau.
Wizardly Water Puppets One of the highlights of the trip was the Water Puppets. They were amazing; the puppeteers stand waist deep in water behind a screen and control wooden puppets using bamboo sticks and pulleys, while a Vietnamese folk band play and narrate. The show is an hour long, comprising of 20 short stories showing farming life and myths and legends - such as Lo Lien returning his magical sword to the giant turtle in Hoan Kiem Lake.
All Set for Tet The Vietnamese hold Tet in late January, celebrating the Tet Offensive and coinciding with Chinese New Year. The streets of Hanoi were all decorated for Tet, with hanging lanterns and red banners. Instead of Christmas trees they use mandarin trees and a winter flowering tree, which makes sense as they come nicely pre-decorated. You see the trees everywhere as people take them home - we even had one in our train cabin returning from Sa Pa. The fireworks on Saturday night for Tet were impressive launched over Ho Hoan Kiem lasting for 15min, and right above us - we actually got hit by the debris from them! We were welcomed back to the hotel to cheers of happy new years, and treats.
Paddling the Perfume Pagoda On our second to last day in Hanoi we visited the Perfume Pagoda. This involved a 2hr drive west of Hanoi, then we got into little row boats (12 plus 2 rowers - not very stable), and were rowed down a small weed filled river for an hour through a tranquil valley surrounded by small mountains, and petite pagodas. From here it was a 2000m climb up very rough stone steps up to the perfume pagoda - it was very tough going, as the temperature had warmed since Sa Pa, and we were properly dressed to be respectable for the Buddhist temple. The path was very rough, almost twisting ankles. The pagoda at the top was a giant cave hollowed into the mountain - quite impressive. When we got back to the bottom, turned the corner and explored the lovely Buddhist monastery. It was a large monastery with many different altars, cloisters and buildings, full of reverence.
Honouring Uncle Ho On our final day in Hanoi, we rose early and paid our respects to Uncle Ho, still sleeping in his mausoleum, and the presidential palace. We caught a cyclo (bicycle rickshaw with double seat welded to the front) there which was fun. Uncle Ho looked serene, even with the terrible luminous yellow light that made him look like a B movie villain. He was rather tiny. Seeing his body, really showed how much power and respect the man commanded. There were so many guards set protecting him. We rounded out the morning by going to the temple of literature. It was an amazing complex of beautiful buildings, stunning altars and lovely grounds with flowering lotus filled ponds. As a special event during Tet there was a game of Vietnamese Chess (not sure what it is called, but looks like chess) using teenagers dressed up in yellow and red as the chess pieces. Two old men directed the teenagers where to go. We also enjoyed a traditional music performance while we were there.
Away to Hue The Pretty Purple City After Hanoi we caught an overnight train to Hue. We met a couple of nice Brits on the train, including Dave who we then travelled with throughout Vietnam and Cambodia. Our first day in Hue was spent exploring the Imperial City (aka, the Purple City). The Imperial City covers 10 hectares and sits on the Perfume River that runs through Hue. It is home to the remains of imperial buildings from the Nguyen Dynasty. Sadly most are in ruins from fire in 1947, and bombs in the Vietnam War. They are working to restore some of the buildings which are a sight to behold with bold use of reds, golds, and roofs decorated with dragons, bells, and elaborate tiles. The City was complete, to Samâ€™s delight, with elephants.
Tombs along the River Perfume On our second day in Hue, we toured on a boat ride down the Perfume River to visit the many pagodas and Royal Mausoleums that line the banks. Our favourite Tomb was Khai Dinh which sat perched atop a hill. This Mausoleum was the most elaborate and breathtaking tomb, complete with a gold embossed statue of Khai Dinh, beautifully tiled walls and a small army of stone soldiers and elephants outside; truly incredible. Other Mausoleums visited included Minh Mang and Tu Duc.
Clothing Plan in Hoi An From Hue we bussed down to Hoi An. Hoi An is actually a shopping mall disguised as a city. The streets were full of tailors, silk shops, galleries, souvenir shops, restaurants, bars and pretty much every souvenir you could want.
Tailor made fun We quickly found someone to tailor suits for us, purchasing two suits and three shirts each. They whipped them up overnight, followed by a fitting. Great quality, cheap and quick! We also got some light linen pants made and a couple of light shirts. It was a bit dangerous really, the longer you spent there the more tempting new clothes became (anyone who knows us well knows that we like to shop). We spent a small fortune, by Vietnamese standards, at the post shop as we are limited to what we can carry.
Regional delicacies Hoi An contained some of the tastiest dishes in Vietnam. Regional delicacies included: White Rose (small pork dumplings sprinkled in dried shrimp and served with chili and soy), spiced fish bbq in banana leaf, beef and banana flower, and fresh spring rolls. Unfortunately while we were enjoying the best food that we had had on the trip, Anna decided to get sick and spend 36 hours in our hotel room. Luckily she recovered quickly, and we were able to move on.
Hanging in Nha Trang From Hoi An, we caught a rather gruelling 12 hour overnight bus ride to Nha Trang. Unfortunately we booked through a different tour company than we had been using and ended up on a very cramped and uncomfortable small bus complete with people sitting in the aisles on mini plastic seats for the journey. Needless to say we did not sleep much. Nha Trang is famous for its diving, nightlife and seafood. Unfortunately the weather was no good, ruling out the beach. However, we certainly made the most of the food, from shrimps cooked in a tamarind sauce to a delicious mixed seafood claypot. While we were in Nha Trang we rented a motorbike. After a quick lesson Anna drove us around Nha Trang. We visited the Cham Towers (the kingdom of Champa reigned from the 7th to 19th Centauries) and a giant 23m high white seated Buddha and an 18m long sleeping Buddha. Not as impressive as the giant bronze seated Buddha in Hong Kong but still serenely beautiful.
Elephant Pat in Da Lat From Nha Trang on the coast, we climbed 1500m up to the mountain town of Da Lat in the central highlands. Da Lat is a popular weekend destination for people from Saigon wanting to escape the heat. Da Lat is famous for its strawberries and we did indulge in buying some delicious strawberry jam, strawberries lollies, and tried the strawberry ice cream. Overall we were not that impressed with Da Lat and just spend two days there. We did go on an interesting one day private tour (as no one else booked the trip), with Lee our tour guide. On the tour we went to Tuyen Lam Lake (aka Paradise Lake), and took a boat trip to a reserve where we rode an elephant. Our elephantâ€™s name was Tang Ren, a gentle giant and quite a character. He decided towards the end that he wanted to drag a 20m long bamboo tree with us. Luckily as it was low season there was no one else around and we had the elephants to ourselves. On the day tour we also visited the Meditation Monastery, complete with 120 practising nuns and monks, the Chicken Village, a small minority village, and the Crazy House, literally some weird guesthouse accommodation concocted by a crazy monk with strangely placed mirrors. Lee told us about what you have to go through to become a monk, including attending college for two years, and then going through the selection process, and sitting in a small room mediating for 45-90 days! Lee also told us about his time in the army and could not believe that it was not compulsory for us to go through army training.
Red Clay of Muinee From Da Lat we caught another bus down to the seaside village of Muinee. Muinee is famous for its windsurfing and is on the Asian Windsurfing network. It was a beautiful spot but we were a bit disappointed to find the beaches somewhat polluted with bags and rubbish, and boarded by concrete walls into mini private beaches. Nothing like the beaches in NZ and Australia! We spent a couple of days relaxing in our beach bungalow, soaking up some sun, and enjoying the plentiful seafood cooked in claypots. We did one small trip out with Anna driving a motorbike to the red sand dunes (dyed by the clay) on our first day and were taken to the top of the dunes with a couple of kids and plastic sheets and had fun sliding down the dunes. It was like a red version of the dunes by the lake at Bethels Beach.
Taking a spin in Ho Chi Minh City Saigon was our last major stop in Vietnam. Saigon feels quite different to Hanoi; the streets are wider and busier, buildings are higher, and it does not have the charm of the Old Quarter with its side street stalls. We did a day trip out to the Cu Chi tunnels, where the Viet Cong hid in the small confines during the Vietnam War. We crawled for 100m underground in a tunnel section that had been slightly enlarged for western tourists. The introduction video was a fantastic piece of propaganda. There were displays of American tanks and Viet Cong traps. We had one final drink with our French Canadian friends; Guillaume, Anne-Marie, and Lam before heading on to the Mekong Delta and Cambodia.
Regional Differences It was interesting descending the length of Vietnam in a short time and observing the differences and similarities. Vietnam can easily be divided into 3 regions; Northern, Central and Southern. The people in the North were all quite rude, and really try to rip you off. Everything is centred around Hanoi, which is a rather crazy but cool city. We enjoyed the Centre the most; everyone was very friendly and laid back - lots of smiles. The South is a mix of the other 2, it is much hotter and there are many more people.
Mekong Delta, and into Cambodia Mekong Delta Boats, buses and bags We spent three days on the Mekong Delta, it was a fairly full on time, feeling much like a school trip at times; especially the first day. We were shepherded onto 5 different types of boats ranging from car ferries to 4 person row boats, and visited a fruit market (mmm dragon fruit and mangos), coconut lolly factory (mmm sugar goodness), unicorn island (mmm unicorns, no wait, we still do not understand that one) and Sam got to hold a huge snake. We stayed that night in a bamboo bungalow on the river, which was very cool, and even tried snake for dinner (tastes like chicken, but even more so). The major drama on day one was Annaâ€™s bag going missing. During one of the many bus rides in the delta (thought we were spending all the time on boats - go figure), some stupid Australian woman who changed buses, took Annaâ€™s bag instead of her own. The bags were different colours, shapes, sizes and weights - so quite how the mistake was made we have no idea. After much shouting, the tour company managed to track down Annaâ€™s bag (phew) and bussed it back for the following day yay.
Cruising with crocodiles The second day was much better than the first, as we had more time relaxing on the boat, and visited a couple of floating markets where all the locals go up in their respective boats and bargain, barter and banter with each other. Each boat and junk had bamboo sticks stuck high in the air with example produce as their banner. Afterwards we visited a huge crocodile farm, which made Sam miss his cowboy boots. That evening we climbed Sam Mountain (yes, they loved Sam enough to name a mountain after him), and watched the sunset over Cambodia.
Cambodia Crossing The third day on the Mekong was a slow boat up to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. It was nice and relaxing, lying in the sun on the roof of the boat. The heat and humidity in the delta and Cambodia was incredible - high 30â€™s. It was amazing to see the difference in the countries so quickly while on the same river. It was evident how much poorer Cambodia is by seeing the smaller size of the people, the falling down houses, smaller crops and bonier livestock. We had a good group of people to travel with in the delta which made things fun; Jonathon (a Belgium we first met in Sa Pa), Dave (a brit we first met on the train to Hue) and Damien who we met on the boat. We carried on travelling with these guys in Cambodia.
Poignant Phnom Penh While the description of the Mekong may not sound tiring, with the heat it was exhausting. So it was nice to relax in Phnom Penh for a few days and not be constantly moving. Still we are suckers for punishment, so our first full day was full on.
The Killing Fields We caught a tuk tuk to the Toul Sleng Genocide museum. Toul Sleng was a former school, which the Khymer Rouge turned into the S21 prison. The classrooms were divided up into many cells, and torture chambers. The frame for the playground swings was converted to gallows. The prison operated from 1976-1979, and had 14,000 prisoners during that time; almost all were
killed. It was a gruelling experience. There were rooms showing the mugshots of all the different prisoners; including many children. After the museum, we visited the Killing Fields, 15km south of the city. There is a memorial Stupa full of skulls, showing the victims of Pol Pot. The Killing Fields comprise of some 400 mass graves, for 9000 victims; mostly the educated and high officials. 50% of Cambodian doctors were killed during this time. 20% of the entire Cambodian population died.
Cheering up After a morning of genocide, we decided to cheer ourselves up a bit with cakes and lamingtons from the Kiwi Bakery - a good taste of home. Full of cake we walked to the Royal Palace. Anna was not allowed in, in her singlet and shorts, so had to rent a t-shirt and oversized skirt, which made things pretty darned hot for her (and quite amusing for the rest of us). The Royal Palace is incredibly ornate; the chedi (roof) of the buildings were highly sculptured. There were many Buddhist monks wondering about in their bright orange robes. The central markets in Phnom Penh are excellent. They are housed in and around a huge soviet style building built in the form of an equidistant cross. You can buy anything in this market, better than any we found in Vietnam. Sam attended a football match with Dave. The game was an international between Cambodia and South Korea. The standard of play was poor with South Korea winning 2-0. Still the game was fun, and the Cambodian King was sitting not far away.
Amazing Angkor We had a great three days in Siem Reap. Siem Reap itself is a bit of a hole. It is a huge tourist trap; without Angkor it would basically not exist. All the restaurants are overpriced (along with everything else but the accommodation). Angkor though, makes up for it all. The Angkor complex is amazing, and spread out over a huge area. We only saw the main sites and it still took us 2 full days.
Angkor Wat and Ta Prohm The first day we started at 9am, going straight to the crowning jewel of Angkor Wat (amazing building!), then drove through Angkor Thom (the last capital), to Ta Keo, Ta Prohm, Pre Rup, lunch, Banteay Kdei, Prasat Kravan, back to Angkor Wat (afternoon photo), then Phnom Bakheng where we watched the sunset (6.30pm). We spent 2 hours walking around the four levels of Angkor Wat. Almost every stone there is carved with patterns, text or figures. We bought a rice paper rubbing of an Aspara (dancing woman) from Angkor. The steps to climb each level were a challenge; the Angkorians must have been 3m tall with feet 5 cm long for those steps.
Ta Prohm was another favourite temple. It is a monastery complex full of huge trees growing amongst the buildings. In many places a war is being waged between the roots and the stones, with the trees slowly winning. Tomb Raider was partly filmed in this temple.
Bayon and Terraces The second day we started at 5am for sunrise at Angkor Wat, then went into Angkor Thom where we looked at Bayon, Terrace of the Elephants, Terrace of the Leper King, Phimeanakas and Baphuan. Afterwards we visited to Preah Khan, Neak Pean, Ta Som, and East Mebon. After sunrise we headed straight to Bayon, beating the crowds. Bayon contains 35 towers, of which most have four faces near their peaks. The faces all look like friendly Buddhas, smiling down on you. Everywhere you turn you are greeted by a giant face. There is also a great deep relief frieze running around the outside wall. Beside Bayon is the Terrace of the Elephants and the Terrace of the Leper King. These terraces are large walls completely covered with carvings. The Elephant wall predictably is covered with lots of elephants, while the Leper King has 7 levels of figures.
Lovely Laos In and Out of Vientiane We had one final drink with Jonathon, Dave and Damien in Siem Reap before going our separate ways; us to Laos, Damien to Bangkok and Dave and Jonathon back into Cambodia. We flew from Siem Reap in Cambodia, with Laos Airways to Vientiane, the Capital of Laos. Vientiane did not really live up to our expectations and we stayed only one night. One night was long enough to enjoy a dinner of bbq whole fish from one of the side street stalls that set up along the Mekong for sunset, shout ourselves to a cafe meal including carrot cake, vegetarian pizza and mescalin salad with vinaigrette, and to see the sights it had to offer. We did a two hour tuk tuk ride (very cheaply thanks to Sam’s tough bargaining skills) to see Wat Sisaket, The Golden Stupa, the morning markets and Laos’ attempt at the Arc d’Triomphe.
Winding Down in Vang Vieng From Vientiane we bussed to Vang Vieng, a haven for Thai tourists who hop over the border and back to extend their Thai visas. Despite this, Sam and I really enjoyed relaxing. Vang Vieng is a picturesque town seated beside a small river in front of a back drop of steep brooding mountains. We filled our days with floating down the river on truck inner tyre tubes, doing a kayaking and black water raft trip, Sam swinging and catching flying foxes into the water, and lying in restaurants eating Laos cuisine while watching DVDs. We also found a great Indian Restaurant.
Tourists who did not stray far from the beaten track would believe that this was just a one street town, Sam and I discovered that there is a village tucked behind. After spending four nights relaxing in Vang Vieng we took what was possibly our worst bus trip taking us north to Louang Phrabang. Seven hours of windy roads with people jammed in the bus aisles on tiny plastic seats, erratic use of the air con by the driver, and some rather sick kids. To make it worse we did this at the same time Samâ€™s friend Corb was bussing the other way so we never saw each other.
Giving Alms in Louang Phrabang Louang Phrabang reminded Sam and I of Hoi An in Vietnam, a City disguised as a shopping centre but without the tailor shops. We enjoyed our time in Louang Phrabang and did indulge in a bit of shopping. The City has the most amazing night markets, where woman from local Hâ€™Mong villages come to sell their wares. Our packs became heavier with a duvet cover, clothes and gifts. Louang Phrabang is the old capital of Laos and is packed full of Buddhist monasteries. Each morning around sunrise the residents give alms to the monks. The monks walk around with a large bowl, the food they receive is all that they eat for that day. Anna purchased some sweets and gave them to some of the younger monks. We also did a day trip on a slow boat to Pak Ou Caves which is a retirement village for unwanted Buddha statues.
Laos Food The food in Laos was tasty, our favourite traditional dish was Lap Chicken, which was cooked with garlic, peas, spices and mint, and served with sticky rice (a staple in Laos). We also enjoyed some tasty fried rice dishes and our last taste of the crunchy French baguettes which we knew that we would not be able to get in Thailand (the only country in SE Asia not to be colonised by the French or anyone else). By now we had also formed a slight addiction to fresh fruit shakes (banana, apple, papaya, watermelon and coconut) - a necessity to cooling yourself down in the heat. Sam also enjoyed the Beer Laos after tasteless Vietnamese and Cambodian beer.
Thailand: Same Same but Different Speeding into Thailand There was much deliberating in Louang Phrabang as whether to head down to the Thai border on the slow boat (two days - no stops), or the fast boat (one day). We decided on the fast boat. Imagine a mini teeny weeny version of the Shotover jet. We sat on the floor of the boat, luggage strapped to the front, legs tucked up, earplugs in, helmets and life jackets on for 6 hours. Despite being cramped in we really enjoyed the ride. The scenery was amazing and we also met a nice British/ Canadian commiserate with on the breaks. There was only one scary moment when we literally went underneath the wake of a cargo ship and got completely soaked!
Choice Chiang Mai Chiang Mai is Thailand’s second city and home to over 300 Wats (temples). It is an interesting City with an Old City set in a series of moats. We had a fun day exploring the sights of the city seeing a number of Wats, and shopping at the great night market which seemed to continue forever. However the main reason that people come to Chiang Mai is for the trekking.
Hiking the Hills We booked ourselves on a three day trek in the Pae region. We were picked up on our second morning in Chaing Mai by our guide Dragon (as he liked to be called). With us on the trip were two Brits, two Swedes, a German couple, a French couple and a French Canadian. Our most internationally diverse group by far. We soon found that we had travelled a lot more of SE Asia than the rest of the group and were now the ones sharing information and telling stories. The first day was really tough; a long (5hr) accent up 1300m in sticky heat to the village where we stayed the first night. Beautiful views and a delicious Thai dinner (green curry and stir fried vegetables) cooked by Dragon. We had a fun night sitting on the deck with Dragon challenging our minds with stick puzzles. The second day was again tough, having to head down a very steep hill back down to the river and along to a waterfall for a swim. We spent our second night at a little camp by the river and had a delicious yellow curry and pumpkin curry. We were also fed lots of fresh watermelon and pineapple along the way.
Elephants and water The last day was a bit of fun and much more relaxing, beginning with a short easy walk to the Elephant Camp and then 1hr riding elephants lucky Sam got to sit on the elephant’s head female Anna was not allowed as it would offend the elephant’s spirit. Then we headed down the river on white water rafts. After the rapids, we changed to bamboo rafts and headed at a leisurely pace down to a spot for lunch and back to Chiang Mai.
Bustling Bangkok After getting back from the tramp we had a short time to shower, re-pack our bags, have a banana shake and jump on the bus to Bangkok. Long drive, bad driver, too many stops, and a broken TV so no movie. We had a rather rude awakening to Bangkok at 5.30am in the morning. We had great trouble trying to find accommodation and in the end settled for a small grey cell to sleep in until people checked out at 12pm. We did manage at 12pm to find a nice hotel with a roof top pool. It was quite a treat for us to be able to escape the heat and swim several times a day.
Shopping and eating To our surprise we enjoyed Bangkok, despite the bad press that it gets from everyone (as stated earlier Westerners generally do not like their first Asian city). We explored the markets along the notorious Backpacker ghetto of Khoa San Road which were not as large and varied as Chiang Mai but still fun. We subsisted on Phad Thai and mango served with sticky rice and coconut milk from the side street stalls, and found a local restaurant that serves the best wholemeal bread, homemade muesli and pitas with falafel and humus, and had a few curries - yellow being our favourite so far. We found DVD restaurants like those in Vang Vieng and watched Brokeback Mountain while sipping Chang (elephant) beer. As most of you will know Thailand is home to rip off CDâ€™s, DVDâ€™s, t-shirts, wallets, bags, shoes, watches...... We also visited the famous MBK Shopping Centre which was filled with a crazy number of shoppers.
Walking the Wats As well as relaxing and shopping we did some sight seeing. We caught a boat down the Chao Phraya River and visited Wat Arun (Temple of Dawn), despite all the temples we have seen during this trip, this offered something different. It is a massive 5 pranged complex, completely covered in porcelain. The porcelain was donated by locals, so you can see many shards of plates etc. Afterwards we crossed the river to Wat Pho renowned for the 45m long reclining Buddha that it houses. We tried to get into the Grand Palace but it was closed for a reception. We also bussed to Wat Traimit which houses the largest solid gold Buddha in the world.
Ko Phi Phi Paradise All our travelling had taken its toll on us and we were excited to finally arrive at a beautiful Thai island. Unfortunately our first taste was a little disappointing. When the tide is out in Ko Phi Phi it goes out a long long way, so no swim on our first afternoon. The second day was much better, we swam, read our books and lay out for half the day. The water was very clear and still; picture perfect. We went on a cruise around the Phi Phi islands; Phi Phi Don (our island), Phi Phi Ley and Bamboo Island. Phi Phi Ley is where the film â€œThe Beachâ€? was filmed, and comprises very large limestone cliffs encircling a small spit of white sand and jungle - very cool. We went snorkelling in a several beautiful locations. We met some nice people on the cruise. We mostly chatted to an American teacher, but also to a couple from Melbourne and 3 Brits. So we had a good group of people, wonderful scenery and lovely water. All up a great day. Ko Phi Phi was badly hit by the Boxing Day Tsunami. The geography of the island is two large balls with the town an isthmus in the centre. The tsunami hit the town from both sides killing over 2000 people. There was still much rebuilding going on and damaged properties as well as plenty of warning signs.
Lost in Lanta In Ko Lanta we stayed in a beach bungalow. The beach was nice, but not as picture perfect as Phi Phi. The water was warm, calm and clear.
Crabby in Krabbi
We met a very nice Dutch couple that were staying at the same place as us on Phi Phi, on route to the pier to go to Lanta. We had fun chatting to them on the ferry, and ended up staying in neighbouring bungalows. It was nice to have another couple to chat, swim and drink with.
We made a mistake of trying to squeeze in one more place in Thailand rather than continue to rest with our Dutch friends in lovely Lanta. We bussed to Krabbi, did not like what we saw so jumped on a local bus (ute) to Ao Nang. The weather clouded in further souring our mood. Ao Nang is full of package tour Europeans with overpriced hotels and restaurants.
The food at our resort was excellent, we had a lovely meal on the beach of shrimp and chillies with rice, and mixed vegetables. After dinner we rolled over next door to the bar and lay on cushions against logs on the beach while listening to Dylan, Lennon and U2 while a couple of the staff performed fire dances; twirling fire around themselves on string.
We took an average trip that differed considerably from the description due to tsunami damage (nice to be told after you board, not before you pay). We ended up on a long tail boat that went to 5 islands including beautiful Hong Island. It was kind of like Ha Long bay with all the limestone islands in the sea, but not as plentiful or as large. We cheered ourselves up by taking photos with grumpy faces.
Malays Small Explore of Kuala Lumpur
After an early start and long drive back to Phuket airport our plane was delayed by 4 hours. After the flight and a long drive through peak traffic into Kuala Lumpur we struggled to find accommodation before settling for another cell block at 9pm (there goes our rested selves).
We were a little disappointed by Kuala Lumpur although we found some tasty claypot for dinner and enjoyed the night market. It had more in common with Hong Kong for us than the rest of South East Asia. We went up the Petronas towers to the observation bridge for nice views of the city.
Singap Offshore from Singapore
After the hustle and bustle of our trip from Hong Kong to Kuala Lumpur, Singapore was both very Western and very Chinese. We found a nice guesthouse opposite Bugis Junction, an ideal spot due to a great shopping mall and busy MRT (public transport) hub. We enjoyed wandering around the various shops in Bugis and Orchard Road. Anna took quite a fancy to Little Match Girl, while Sam loved Simlin Square for all the electronics. We bought a new laptop and an iDog.
We walked around the Fountain of wealth, the colonial district, marvelled at the Esplanades Theatre and enjoyed the Merlion park. As a brilliant summary of our trip we visited the Asian Civilisation Museum wandering around the exhibits on China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore.
Another highlight was the night safari at the Singapore Zoo. We enjoyed the ambience of walking around at night with not many people around, and seeing the various animals that we do not have at the Auckland zoo, like the Fishing Cat, Clouded leopard, Flying Squirrel and Mained Bear.
United Emirate Divided Dubai
We had a rude start to Dubai, with Sam getting strip searched by a lugubrious security guard. Afterwards we had to wait several hours for our hotel room to be free. We filled up on buffet breakfast then collapsed into bed. We slept for 16 hours, watched 2 movies, enjoyed hot showers, air conditioning, and a really soft bed with pillows that were not lumpy!. Luxury. We also had a swim in the hotel pool and ordered room service for dinner (something we had previously never done). Our second and final day in Dubai was spent wandering around, catching water taxis and segregated buses (ladies and men sections). Highlights in Dubai were seeing the worlds only 7 star hotel (from a distance), exploring the many souks (markets) especially the gold one, visiting the Dubai museum set in an old fort and catching a taxi up the river to the sounds of noon prayer reverberating from Mosques on each side of the river.
d Arab es
United Kingdo Upon London
On April 2, 2006 we finally arrived in London. Hamish and Bex picked us up from Heathrow and we tubed and bussed to their flat in Hackney. We stayed at their place for seven weeks, sleeping on a blow-up air bed that we pumped up and down each evening and morning. We repaid their kindness by cooking dinner and cleaning.
It took us a while to find work and a flat of our own. Eventually we moved into a brilliantly done up flat on Exmouth Market. Soon after, Sam started temping as an Office Angel bidding with John Laing, and Anna found work as a Planning Liason at the Environment Agency.
Join our Heroes Anna and Sam on their first big adventure, as they journey from their home town to London. The plan was simple; Auckland to Sydney, Sydney to Hong Kong, overland to Singapore, Singapore to Dubai and Dubai to London. From the beaches in Sydney to the souks of Dubai, fun is just around the corner. Australia: Sydney, Brisbane, Coolum China: Hong Kong, Nanning Vietnam: Hanoi, Ha Long Bay, Sa Pa, Hue, Hoi An, Nha Trang, Da Lat, Muinee, Saigon, Mekong Delta Cambodia: Phnom Penh, Siem Reap Laos: Vientiane, Vang Vieng, Louang Phrabang Thailand: Chiang Mai, Bangkok, Ko Phi Phi, Ko Lanta Kuala Lumpur Singapore Dubai London