A Travellerspoint blog

January 2014

Cultural exchange

The many influences on Melaka (and its food): 23-25 Jan '14

sunny 28 °C
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It was with a spring in our step that we left KL for Melaka - hoping it would be more fun. It was. Melaka is awesome. A UNESCO heritage town (yep, another one), its full of amazing architecture reflecting the many influences on the town - a bit like George Town in Penang - except more.

Melaka was originally founded by a Hindu prince from Sumatra in the fourteenth century, "protected" by the Chinese from 1405, conquered by the Portuguese in 1511, then the Dutch captured it in 1641. This is due to its excellent position in the now called Straits of Malacca, which ships had to pass through to get to the lucrative spice islands and to China. The British took control in 1795 during the Napoleonic Wars so it didn't fall into French hands, but gave it back to the Dutch, albeit having destroyed the strategic fort etc. to reduce Dutch influence in the area. It worked. Britain and the Netherlands later negotiated ownership of various places in the Malay peninsular and what is now Indonesia, with Britain gaining Melaka. The let it decline in favour of George Town, situated further North, and Singapore, further South. So Melaka's decline is part of its charm, as it didn't continue to grow as a thriving port like Singapore, so retains a lot of its old buildings and quirky streets.

So Melaka's influences are:-
- colonial powers: Portuguese, Dutch and British;
- distinct peoples: Malay, Straits Chinese (Peranankan or Baba-Nonya - early Chinese immigrants that settled and adopted Malay dress and customs rather than later Chinese settlers), Indian, Chitties (Indian-Malay) and Eurasians (Malay-Portuguese);
- religions: Muslim, Hindu, Chinese Buddhism-Confucianism-Taoism, Catholicism and Protestantism (in two forms).
So its pretty mixed.

Pretty wicked. Some excellent temples and churches:
- St Paul's was originally Portuguese, then Dutch, then British;
- Cheng Hoon Teng Chinese temple was very relaxing;
- the Hindu temple where we got fed;
- Masjid Kampung Kling (a mosque) with a pagoda shaped minaret and stained glass.
We also saw remains of Fort Malacca, the Porto de Santiago, and loads of colonial houses in all styles. The bright red Dutch Stadthuys was unfortunately being renovated, so covered in scaffolding, but a real highlight was the restored shophouse - a style first built in Melacca and exported to George Town and Singapore - our hostel was in one of these, which was fascinating to see the changes from the original. Oh, and we walked to Bukit China, a Chinese cemetery, for sunset views over the city. Except there was quite a haze.

Small but relaxed. Chilling by the river in the Reggae Bar (a genre of bar only extant in SE Asia it seems) was great fun. But the highlight - Jonker's Walk famous Night Market (only at weekends) - packed from end to end and very colourful with Chinese New Year coming up. One thing marred it - the man with the supernatural finger of steel - a Chinese doctor who can break through a coconut with just his bare finger. The actual breaking of coconut was impressive but the hour of talk beforehand and more afterwards , together with attempts to sell his miracle oil were infuriating. We left before the second coconut breakage. We couldn't stand anymore talking. Neither could half the front row.

This is one of Melaka's highpoints. Its pretty good (understatement of the year).
- Indian: always a favourite
- Chinese: dim sum for breakfast was epic. The steamed pork bun with ginger was yummy yummy yummy.
- Nonya food: Melaka's speciality (also available in George Town and Singapore, the other two settlements with Straits Chinese communities). Basically a mix of Chinese and Malay, and in Melaka, Portuguese. I had:
*Egg custard tart - it was almost a Portuguese nata but not quite
*Aubergine in a spicy sauce a bit like Indonesian sambal (so Malay stylee)
*Popiah - like a spring roll but with carrots, chili, garlic, pickled turnip and palm sugar among other fillings
*Laksa - well I tried a bit of my friends. It tastes like Penang curry you get in Thailand.
*Cendol - shaved ice covered in palm syrup with green rice worms, red beans and coconut milk
*Nonya rice parcel thing - it was blue rice (apparently from blue ginger flower) stuffed with pork and spices, all cooked in a banana leaf
*Nonya pineapple tarts - pastry filled with chewy pineapple jam like stuff - like a jam tart basically
*Lime juice with sour plums. I love lime juice and I've eaten sour plums, so this was a well-gauged experiment. Tasty, but too sweet and sour for me - I prefer straight lime juice without much sugar.
And I ate lots of other stuff too, including some green rice paste balls covered in coconut served warm with liquid palm sugar in the middle, which were bought for us by a friendly local lady. In Indonesia they're called celepon so probably a pretty similar name in Malay.

So Melaka is pretty cool. Very chilled with pretty buildings and awesome food. And people were friendly, unlike KL. I love Melaka.

Posted by GoonishPython 19:30 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

Acting the flashpacker in KL

20-23 Jan '14

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So having been recommended a party hostel in Kuala Lumpur, we were looking forward to a bit of fun. But man the hostel was fancy - proper flashpacker! Totally unexpected as the guys who recommended it seemed anything but. What we quickly realised about KL is it wasn't female friendly. Even pretty covered up we were still shouted at time after time - so much we were constantly tense, as it was pretty much every 5 mins or so that someone commented or made kissing noises at us. Unfortunately it sort of ruined KL for us. Not fun. I also had caught a cold so a little disappointing.

Wandering round KL was quite fun, but its definitely not a city for pedestrians - you'd suddenly come across a massive road but no obvious way to cross it. We of course visited the Petronas Towers, and saw the beautiful colonial architecture and enormous flagpole in Merdaka Square. We also went to the oldest Hindu temple in Malaysia - Sri Mahamariamman - beautiful, but even the worker there couldn't be polite in asking Elin to cover up a bit more. A highlight for me was the afternoon spent in the Islamic Arts Museum - absolutely stunning and fascinating - and in a beautiful setting next to the Lake Gardens Park and a strikingly modern National Mosque.

Despite some fun in our hostels rooftop bar, KL was marred for us by being a) expensive, b) full of rude men. Not our kind of city.

Posted by GoonishPython 19:23 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

Back to the islands

Pulau Pangkor: 18-20 Jan '14

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As a contrast we next headed to the island of Pangkor for some R&R. Our resort (no hostels here), between jungle and beach, turned out to be scruffy and old, but our room was at least clean. It was a shame here was a powercut on the first night, no internet at all on the second and we were surprised by monkeys jumping on the roof, including one who say just above our door and almost launched itself at me when we went to get in, then following us when we walked away. I've never been threatened by something so small. Other wildlife included hornbills, which we saw being fed.

So, the beaches. No.1 - Telak Nipah - meant to be a nice golden sand beach. Well it is. But no one mentions the crowds of holidaying Muslims (so you have to move away to not be offensive in a bikini), or the monkeys colonising one end (and chasing intruding tourists away), or the huge amount of rubbish in the remaining bit. Definitely not expected, and it was mostly cloudy! Next day we waled the 5 mins to Coral Bay - prettier, less crowded and no rubbish - we even got some sun! We visited the main town (and a bakery) for lunch, but returned to Coral Bay for dinner - sunset across the sea made up for most of Pangkor's failures.

Posted by GoonishPython 19:17 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

A bit of cool relief

Tea and mountains in the Cameron Highlands: 16-18 Jan '14

rain 17 °C
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The Cameron Highlands are essentially where Brits came to cool off. Although a bit humid (it rains), it is only ever about 21C. Coming through the villages and towns in a frankly scary minibus (I hit my head), I was struck (not just by the roof) how much poorer it looked than Penang and Langkawi - suddenly there was ramshackle houses built of corrugated iron and rubbish by the side of the road. Contrastingly there are huge big colonial style buildings and lots of industry - especially strawberry farms and tea plantations.

We visited the Sulas Palais Boh tea plantation, and after a brief wander round, indulged in some tea and cake overlooking the green hills. I had Earl Grey with tangerine - which basically tasted like Lady Grey - and butter lemon cake. Very tasty, but I definitely felt all colonial again! We then walked back through the beautiful plantation to the main road - suddenly dirty, noisy and busy.

The Highlands also sprout bee farms and butterfly gardens - we headed to the latter. A big mistake. Although the butterflies were stunning, the garden also featured various bugs, snakes and spiders and some incredibly unhappy looking animals and birds - the guinea pigs looked utterly wretched, huddling together and shaking. It really ashamed me to have paid to go in to the butterfly garden. Followed by a bad meal, it really put a downer on the day, especially when we then couldn't find the bus back. Luckily a taxi driver scooted by and gave us a cheap price, else we would have had a very long walk.

Posted by GoonishPython 19:08 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

Enter the colonial: being British in George Town

13-16 Jan '14

sunny 30 °C
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Arriving in Penang I have never felt more like a colonial - within minutes I'd seen a clocktower dedicated to Queen Victoria, a bunch of European architecture and I was staying in an old colonial house in Love Lane in George Town. Now I know George Town was founded by the British and was the very important port between West and East, but it still comes as a bit of a shock. Nowhere else are four of the dominant influences on modern Malaysia so apparent - Penang's culture of Chinese, Indian, Malay and British is intoxicating. So where to start...


Chinese clan houses (kongsi) and temples abound - you literally see one every time you turn a corner. I photographed and/or wandered into eight. Khoo Kongsi is one of the most impressive - very beautifully restored, but I really liked Tokong Han Jiang and Hock Leik Chieng Sin, which were much smaller but almost better for it, and Kuan Yin Teng, which wasn't pretty, but was so busy and exciting - a real working temple full of incense and people.

I also visited the Kapitan Keling Mosque - and after a brief guided tour, was almost forced to take a book explaining how the Qu'ran and science work together (I was too polite to refuse). It was pretty, but Ottoman mosques beat it hands down. On the second night I also saw a Muslim procession - no idea what for though.

Sri Mariamman is a massive contrast to the mosque I saw - this Hindu temple is the oldest in George Town and its pretty crazy inside and out - and seemed more alive than the mosque (even though I was at the mosque at prayer time) - with ladies meeting for a gossip, painted Hindu priests wandering around, and the preparations for Thaipusam - where devotees do such things as piercing their own tongues with a spear, or stick hooks through their skin and then carry things. Unfortunately I left Penang before the festival, and our next two stops didn't really seem to celebrate it.


One of the best things to do in Penang is walk around admiring the architecture - apart from the temples you also have Chinese jetties, colonial Raj-style buildings, churches, a fort, colonnaded walkways floored in British style Victorian tiles, and most impressively, mansions. The Penang Peranankan Mansion celebrates the Peranakan or Straits Chinese community - those Chinese who settled in Penang, Malacca and Singapore from the sixteenth century onwards, rather than later settlers from China. They used the Chinese religion, but customs, language and dress of Malays. Often very wealthy, this sumptuous mansion is covered in gold leaf and full of stunning furniture and jewellry. The mint green building is beautiful, and even includes a secret passage to the clan house next door. Similar but even more impressive is the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, or Blue Mansion (it's indigo). Not a Peranakan, Cheong Fatt Tze was a Chinese businessman who was so astoundingly rich and famous he was known as the 'Rockefeller of the East' - this mansion is just one of many he had spread around Asia. Although basically Chinese in style, it incorporates Western elements too - the tiles are Victorian patterns from Staffordshire, the iron posts are from Glasgow, the stained glass is art deco in style. It's awesome, and really came alive under the stories of the tour guide.

Street art

The other thing you notice when walking around is the street arts. Its everywhere. Some is pretty purposeful - "marking" George Town with metal cartoons with historical undertones - some is interactive - you can sit on a swing next to two kids or behind a guy on a motorbike - and some is just plain wicked.


Penang is known for its food. It should be. It's ace. Although the specialties are mostly Malay/Chinese fusion, I mostly gorged on Indian food. In three days I had Indian five times. Once I had seven vege curries at once, plus rice and poppadom for just £1. I had Rogan Josh, garlic naan and mango lassi that made me think I was in Birmingham. It rocked. And the Chinese and Malay food was pretty good too.

Posted by GoonishPython 18:43 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

The Andaman Coast: island hopping from Thailand to Malaysia

5-13 Jan '14

sunny 33 °C
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So just after New Year, I headed to the Andaman Coast for a spot of island hopping - thi is where all those pictures of turquoise seas and limestone karst islands with white sandy beaches come from.

At the advice of a friend, I headed to Krabi, and from there to Ao Nang and on to Railay, which is, frankly, pretty stunning. It's actually known for rock climbing, thanks to the dramatic limestone cliffs, but the beaches are pretty good too. I even took the 20 minute scramble over some rockes to Hat Ton Sai, which was definitely quieter, and actually almost prettier than the more popular Hat Railay West.

Next stop from Railay was Ko Phi Phi, famous both for its looks and its nightlife. I ended up there at peak season, so it was packed, including with all those who had just left Koh Phangan after New Year Full Moon Party. So there were no dorms - I got the final bed in a not great one. But it was fun and sociable enough - although two nights partying on Phi Phi is enough when you're already tired and combining it with half a day travelling to Phi Phi Leh for snorkelling, swimming and some spectacular beaches. The most famous of those, Ao Maya, used in The Beach, is beautiful, although totally packed with tourists.

So on I headed to Ko Lanta - one of the bigger islands, and actually surprisingly flat (in comparison). I originally intended to spend 1 night in Lanta, but my guesthouse was lovely, and because they'd overbooked the dorm, I was upgraded for free to a double room. Having bumped into a girl in the street, we ended up hanging for a while at a chilled beach bar - sipping a beer while listening to the sea and Bob Dylan is always a good end to an evening. The next day - four more islands and a lot more snorkelling and swimming. A very choppy journey by longtail, but pretty worth it. Ko Lanta is known for diving, so it was almost guaranteed to find some fish, although the drivers dropping nbread in to attract them was not my idea of how it should work. Chilling at another bar to the early morning was maybe not the best start when you have a 5-hr ferry the next day, especially when it ends up taking over 7 hours. But Ko Lipe is worth is - because although its become popular, its not yet totally commercialised and you can still sit on one of the main beaches without it being too busy.

Unfortunately my time on little Lipe was short, and after one day I headed to Pulau Langkawi, my first stop in Malaysia. Langkawi is actually a pretty big island, and its duty free, so the cheapest place to drink in Malaysia. I actually stayed in a little village in shore - a big mistake as it meant I was suddenly reliant on lifts to get anywhere. Some people in my hostel shared a hire car, so we headed to Langkawi's big attraction - the Skycar - essentially 2 cable cars to the top of a hill so you can see amazing views of the island chain. Impressive. We then did a brief climb up many many steps to Seven Wells, a load of pools, and the waterfalls below. It was pretty, but nothing to compare to waterfalls in Laos. But overall I was actually glad I wasn't spending much time in Langkawi.

Posted by GoonishPython 13:06 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

Adventures in Bangkok: Part 3

3-5 Jan '14

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So after another epic bus journey (involving being left at the border and woking out ourselves how to get to Bangkok) - Cambodia is getting a record on these - I arrived back in the busy capital of Thailand about 4 hours late, and just ready to sleep. With my favourite hostel full, I'd booked one nearby, and unfortunately it just wasn't good, but at 11.30 pm, you can't take the risk of refusing it and finding somewhere else. A very uncomfortable night followed, but at least the shower was warm.

The next day began badly with finding I'd broken my glasses, and continued going wrong, although I did meet some lovely people once I'd headed back to Born Free for a better hostel experience. We went out to a local festival and night market at Santichaiprakan Park, before a brief excursion to Happy Bar and Khao San Road. I headed back to sleep, and on getting up to get the bus to the airport, discovered my fellow revellers just coming in. A wise decision on my part then.

Posted by GoonishPython 12:54 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

Snorkelling and secluded beaches

Sihanoukville and Koh Rong: 30 Dec '13 - 3 Jan '14

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So after a very very long bus journey from ho Chi Minh, interestingly for a direct bus going via Phnom Penh, and made longer by the lack of toilets or stops, I arrived three hours late in the brash seaside city (town to our standards) of Cambodia - Sihanoukville. Essentially a collection of beaches linked together with bars, Sihanoukville is famous for its laid-back but lively nightlife, $3 dorms and sex tourism. Absolutely your first choice of stop. So close to New Year's Eve, accommodation was almost non-existent, so I'd booked a $12 (pushing the boat out) hotel room. Alright on first impressions, but you gradually realised how filty it was. So after a long complicated day, in which I'd been ripped off and ignored, Sihanoukville was not giving a good impression of Cambodia, a little different to the time before. Although the expat bar with enormous English breakfasts was a treat.

Despite its lack of charms, Sihanoukville is the gateway to Cambodia's hidden gems: the islands in the Gulf of Thailand. Koh Rong is a tropical island of forest and sandy beaches that has been spotted as a tourist destination - although plans for a road around the island and an airport are yet to materialise, possibly because no one wants to invest in an economy that is so corrupt it might fall at any second. Most of the guesthouses etc. are focused in one area in the south of the island, but where I stayed was on the north side - the aptly named Lonely Beach. A deserted stretch of golden sand with views across to the other islands, it is simply a restaurant. dorm a few bungalows and some very basic bathrooms (toilet, trough of water and big scoop for flushing and showering). But the Cambodian style open-sided dorm - a platform on stilts in the jungle, was cool and comfortable, and the setting was sublime. Sharing the dorm with three French girls living and working in Cambodia, they invited me to join them for dinner - some treats from home - Foie Gras and green olive tapenade - and a bottle of reasonably drinkable Australian red wine. Delicious. Together with some other guests (there was probably only 20 in the whole resort), we settled down to a beach bonfire to see the New Year in.

New Year's Day dawned bright, clear and sunny, and after a swim, we set off to snorkel off a nearby island. For my first proper try, it was pretty spectacular, with loads of tiny colourful fish darting around the greyish-white coral and rocks. A few hours reading Robinson Crusoe (almost completely coincidentally) on an almost empty beach, while watching crabs dig holes and a bit of gentle paddling is enough to relax anyone.

Sadly I had to head back from the delights of Koh Rong to Sihanoukville. This time, with a dorm bed at a rock themed hostel, was a lot more fun. having spent a relaxed afternoon in a beach cafe at Serendipity beach, I ended up out at a few of the classic backpacker bars - Utopia it may have been named, but Utopia it was not. Luang Prabang's Utopia beats it hands down.

Posted by GoonishPython 15:20 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

'There are more than four million motorbikes in Ho Chi Minh'

Motorbikes and the Mekong: Ho Chi Minh and the Mekong Delta: 26-30 Dec '13

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Faced with choice of a cheapish flight or a 30 hour bus journey, and with the weather in Vietnam so far not inspiring for beaches, I cheekily flew from Da Nang, near Hoi An, to Ho Chi Minh. Saigon was, for me, a difficult city to travel in. As the biggest city in Vietnam, it has all the infrastructure, plenty of hostels and bars, and lots of interesting places to see. But my hostel was half-empty and it was seemingly impossible to find out or book onward transport through the Mekong Delta to Southern Cambodia. Sure, buses exist, but no one can tell you when or how they work, but they'll assure you the do know, before suddenly not being able to sort anything out. So a very frustrating time was involved.

Despite this, the former capital of South Vietnam is a fascinating city, and packed from end to end with a multitude of motorbikes. HCMC is the place to learn about the Vietnam War - with the interesting Reunification Palace - preserved as it was when the Northern tanks broke through the gates in 1975 when South Vietnam surrendered - and the War Remnants Museum, which poignantly displays the atrocities of the war, although not from an entirely unbiased perspective. I also took a trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels, where the Viet Cong controlled a large area by hiding from the US in an extensive tunnel network with scarily ingenious traps and other guerilla operations to stop the US army in its tracks.

In contrast to this, I visited some of the symbols of old Saigon - the Notre Dame Cathedral, the impressive French Colonial Post Office, and two contrasting temples, the Mariamman Hindu temple, all riotous colour (including neon) and the Jade Emperor Pagoda - a Chinese style temple that was surprisingly darkly coloured, although with the explosion of statues like the Hindu Temple and a lot (an awful lot) of turtles.

But the best thing in Ho Chi Minh was the street food - who can argue with lunch for half a dollar? My favourites were Banh Mi - a baguette filled with a pate like substance plus various salads and meats, and possibly an egg - and a noodles salad where she just kept adding things to the bag. I also got fresh Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki, which is guaranteed to make me happy.

The nightlife in HCMC is as bustling as the day - with a big fair in the park full of food, live music and even badminton, and the big street bars in D Bui Vien, where you can drink to your hearts content for a couple of dollars.

Next stop was the Mekong Delta, which I ended up doing on a day trip returning to Saigon - not my original plan, but the only one that seemed to be giving me any sense. Although obviously geared to tourists (visits to a workshop making coconut candy, popped rice and rice wine (whisky) anyone?), it did give you an insight to the Delta - with visits to Cai Be floating market, Vinh Long land market, cycling through a village, and boat rides through tiny canals and the Mekong itself. It made me wish the original homestay plan had worked out...

Posted by GoonishPython 15:01 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Cooking, Christmas and Cham temples

Hoi An and My Son: 23-26 Dec '13

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So Hoi An held a lot of hopes - after all Lonely Planet describes it as "Vietnam's most atmospheric and delightful town" - and everyone kept telling us how beautiful it is, especially with all the lights at night, which should be good at Christmas. I'd arranged to meet a friend there, a guy I travelled with in Cambodia and Laos, as neither of us wanted to spend Christmas alone. Yes, Hoi An is beautiful - as a Unesco World Heritage Site the old town has been preserved, but we saw what we wanted to in half a day! It didn't quite have the culture of somewhere to chill out in - it was a bit too high-end for backpackers. It was still a cool place to wander round but as its so small, you do find yourself quickly orientated. The traditional nineteenth century merchant house was very interesting, with its mixture of Japanese, Chinese and Vietnamese styles, as were the Chinese temples, but travelling with someone who's just been to China means he quickly got pretty templed out, and actually, after you've seen one Chinese temple, they all look pretty similar.

So, after a few very cheap beers (3000 dong a glass - about 9p), we headed to find another few bars - trying the recommended Why Not? bar - it was empty at that time - then on to Before 7 now - not the cheapest but with pool tables and a decent jukebox for a chilled end to the evening.

Christmas Eve started early with a cooking course - Hoi An is famous for its cuisine - and we ate from 7.45 am to 2pm - starting with breakfast (many many choices - we ate about 10 things), then a tour round the market with fruit to try, sampling more food at the restaurant (the silk worm salad made me gag - not from the worm but from the mouthful of peanuts), then cooking four different things to eat for an enormous lunch, We just couldn't fit it in. As Christmas Eve was important to my friend - he's Danish so celebrates a day early - he caught up with his family and then we headed in search of cake - after all, its not Christmas, or a bakery tour of South East Asia, without cake. We even found a Christmas tree to go with it. We managed a late, busy and drunken evening, thanks to cheap beer and our hoarded bottle of Lao-lao - bought in a fit of surprisingly sober confusion at the night market in Luang Prabang (the black rice wine had only made it as far as the night train from Laos - Thailand). We even floated lanterns down the river, resplendent in our Christmas hats.

Christmas Day dawned, and with it, a trip to My Son - a collection of ruined Cham temples in a beautiful setting. As we knew we'd be wanting some sleep that morning, we'd sensibly opted for motorbike taxis instead of an organised tour - and although more expensive overall - we got to see the temples rested and without many tourists - win win I'd say. I wasn't sure what to expect, but actually, it reminded me most of Bagan - lots of small brick stupas rather than big impressive temples. Pretty cool. We celebrated Christmas again that evening, but a little more chilled - and it wouldn't be Christmas without tipsy Jenga.

So overall, a pretty relaxed Christmas with very good company - quite appropriate for my first Christmas away from home.

Posted by GoonishPython 16:00 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

In search of a lost city

Hue: 21-23 Dec '13

rain 15 °C
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On the banks of the Perfume River lies a small city that can claim to be the heart of Vietnam. Hue is the former capital of the Nguyen emperors and the Imperial City is a world heritage site. Unfortunately it was heavily bombed by the US, but it's gradually being reconstructed. For me, Hue was slightly ruined by one big thing - it rained pretty much continuously for two days. Now I know I'm British and get what rain is about, but this was pretty excessive even in our terms. So while the citadel was impressive, tramping through the mud when you're wet through to find the Forbidden Purple City suddenly becoms a bit of a chore, especially when its so ruined you walk right past it. The To Mieu temples in the Imperial Enclosure were pretty spectacular though, and gave you a real sense of what the rest of the area must have looked like. I'd have loved to explore more, but sadly torrential rain tends to put a downer on things.

The next day dawned just as wet as before, but we had booked a motorbike tour of the royal temples and pagodas scattered outside the city. We quickly plunged into rural Vietnam - speeding along small tracks above the rice paddies and down paths in villages. First stop was Thanh Toan Tile, a Japanese (I am assured Vietnamese) style bridge, and a fascinating local market. We also visited an agricultural museum - definitely not exciting, but the little old lady demonstrating rice preparation and fish catching (including using her shoe as a prop) made up for all of it. Heading up to a bunker overlooking the Perfume River, we failed to see views of anything, but the trip to the incense and conical hat making workshop (the crafts Hue is famous for) was mercifully short - our drivers got that while they were meant to take us there, as backpackers we weren't going to be splashing any cash.

In the forest we then pulled up to To Dinh Tu-Hieu, a Vietnamese Buddhist monastery, which had some small tombs, a very Japanese looking garden, and some grey-swathed monks and novices who definitely needed a lesson in chanting together. It settled beautifully into the forest, seemingly beginning to peacefully blend and hide into the trees - but maybe not quite as well as Hōnen-in, the moss covered temple in Kyoto, which I also saw in pouring rain.

Next stop were some of the Imperial tombs - Tu Duc tomb is probably the most famous with lovely temples and buildings set around a purpose built lake, complete with its own island that used to house the emperor's zoo and private relaxation space, as Tu Duc was also where the emperor escaped court life. But better than Tu Duc, and much further from Hue, is the tomb of Minh Mang, which despite the rain reaching a drenching peak, was still stunning, with temple buildings surrounded by forest and lakes. We continued to Thien Mu Pagoda, which has an octagonal tower and some intriguing statues, and also the car in which a monk was driven to Saigon before self-immolating in protest at the treatment of Buddhists by the Diem regime in 1963. This was the first of a number of self-immolations by Buddhist clergy, which brought their problems to the international stage.

Finally, after six hours, we settled down, thoroughly wet through, to some traditional Hue cuisine. Emperor Tu Duc was apparently so fussy he had 50 meals prepared by 50 chefs, and Hue's variety of food is the result. We had banh khoai - Royal pancakes - essentially a sort of deep-fried rice pancake filled with meat and shrimp (mine minus shrimp) and vegetables, whcih you stuff with herb salad, cucumber and green banana before dipping in a special sauce. Very tasty, but my stomach unfortunately didn't agree.

Posted by GoonishPython 11:01 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Good morning Vietnam!

Hanoi & Halong Bay: 17-20 Dec '13

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Journeying to BKK to catch a flight to Hanoi, I encountered a fellow traveller from our tour through Cambodia and Laos. In our time in the airport, numerous grops of school children approached us to ask questions for a school project - but they were irrestibly drawn to Claudia, probably because of her blonde hair.

Despite a good flight, first impressions of Vietnam were interesting - first a Thai businessman asking far too many questions, and then an almost two hour wait for our bags. Having met a British girl at the airport, we arranged to meet for streetfood and the night market in the old quarter. A good choice as we saw Bach Ma temple, one of the oldest in Hanoi - an ornate very Chinese style temple - as well, before settling down in a street cafe for very good noodles and beer.

The next two days were spent cruising Halong Bay - a simple stunning collection of three thousand limestone karst islands dotted with caves. The setting is almost indescribable, but with so many tourists the cave trips are busy and crowded, although the tour guides bizarre description of rock formations as various animals etc. was amusing (the ostrich described as a big chicken with a long neck almost won the day, and nearly proved the existence of prehistoric salt-water chickens).

Returning to Hanoi, I checked into my new hostel (the first had been very boring), and immediately discovered it was the hostel's anniversary, so a big party was in order. With my face painted within roughly 30 minutes of arriving, a fun but expensive night ensued.

The following day gave me a real taste of Hanoi. First, I met a friend of my friend's mother who lives in Hanoi. We had breakfast - an excellent bowl of pho in a tiny local place - followed by caphe trung da - a coffee made with beaten egg white that tasted like tiramisu in a cup - andwith views overlooking the lake. Delicious. Next, a walking tour through the old quarter including Hoan Kiem lake and Ngoc Son temple - on an island in the lake and housing an embalmed giant turtle. Bizarre doesn't quite cover it. Then the tourist moments - the Temple of Literature and the Fine Arts Museum - both well worth a visit. The Temple of Literature is a Confucian temple from the eleventh century, and late a university. Scholars obtaining a doctorate would be awarded with a stone turtle supporting a slab - as a fellow traveller remarked: if only education was valued as much today - although a bunch of Vietnamese students were having their graduation photos taken there at the time. The Fine Arts Museum gave a good introduction to Vietnamese art throughout the centuries and well labelled so you understood the differences. Some of the modern art was brilliant, and the bizarre monk statues almost hilarious.

Despite being ill (again), Hanoi had a lasting impression - beautiful and ugly by turns, full of motorbikes in tiny winding streets and stunning temples, but with both amazing and weird food, and friendly people contrasting with pushy people or those out to make a quick buck, but generally, pretty cool.

Posted by GoonishPython 22:13 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Adventures in Bangkok: Part 2

14-17 Dec '13

sunny 33 °C
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My return to Bangkok began with a trip to Laos' only railway station - taking us just over the border to Thailand and to catch a night train. Unusually, the night train wasn't in the compartments - instead bunks were down the side of the carriage, so two bunks facing two across the aisle. Armed with cheap Pad Thai, supersweet cake and a new brand of beer - Archer - as well as some Laos black rice wine, we settled into a merry evening, including such oddities as teaching a Danish boy to sew.

On arrival in Bangkok, our group dispersed - some to meet up again that evening. We passed a relaxing day in coffee shops and a park, before heading for a massage. Despite selecting only feet, neck and shoulders, pretty much all of me except my front torso and nether regions got at least a little attention - well worth the few dollars, although being jabbed with a stick was not fun. Returning to Khao San Road again, mercifully a little busier this time, the remainder of our group reconvened for merriment our tour leader had originally planned for the first night. However, finishing a tour singing along with a guitarist in a bar seemed a fitting end to our trip.

Unfortunately the next day I spent with food poisoning, occasioning a cancellation of my planned bike tour, but I got a lot of necessary planning and research done. Back at my favourite hostel, I headed out to chill in the surrounding area with a pile of food and a few (soft) drinks. A relaxing evening, but not what you would necessarily expect in such a mad city.

Posted by GoonishPython 22:03 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

A bakery tour of Laos

Pakse, Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng & Vientiane: 9-14 Dec '13

sunny 28 °C
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Our time in the homestay over, we headed to Pakse, a town surrounded on three sides by two rivers. And here began the abiding theme of Laos: bakeries. Settling down for a cofee and a French patisserie in Pakse when there is afew hours before you head to an airport seems like a good idea at the time, but in Laos it was the beginning of the end. Bakeries followed bakeries; Luang Prabang clocking up three (plus additional cake) in under three days, Vang Vieng an extended stop and Vientiane an impressive three in half a day. Not so good for the waistline, but definitely worth it for the proper coffee. In fact, the visiting of bakeries/coffee shops had started long before in Cambodia, but it took on a whole new level in Laos, which seemingly continues to this day.

Luang Prabang is an UNESCO heritage site, which means the beautiful old French colonial buildings and quiet temples have to be preserved. The result is a laid back (typically Laotian) sleepy, beautiful town. That said, the night market is bustling and crowded with excellent street food, and a few decent bars enliven up proceedings. The same cannot be said of the Laotian nightclub we visited, where everyone does the same slightly bizarre dances, depending on how upbeat the music is.

Luang Prabang was also where two of us tried to give back a little by volunteering to read to children. It did not go well, as we weren't actually wanted! A real highlight was visiting Kuang Si waterfalls, which we climbed over the top of and then once back below, some of us jumped into the pools off a swing rope in a most refreshing manner. We also saw and heard about moon bears, an endangered species often poached for their use in Chinese medicine. The bear centre at the waterfalls houses a number of rescued bears with the intention of releasing them into the wild.

The temples and monks are one of Luang Prabang's lasting memories - Wat Xieng Thong is simply stunning - but the fabled monks alms in the morning did not quite live up to lunchtime in Bago's (Myanmar) Kha Khat Wain Kyaung monastery.

Next stop was Vang Vieng - legendary hedonistic party town known mostly for tubing. Tubing is essentially sitting in a big rubber inner tyre and floating down a river - basically something me and my brother did in the sea as kids. Actually, Vang Vieng is a sleepy town set in a beautiful landscape of karsts and ricefields, and although you can still party (we did) and tube (we didn't), in fact many of the bars have been closed down, and Vang Vieng is instead full of outdoor activities - caving, trekking, climbing, kayaking to name but a few; some of us hired bikes and after a brief and bumpy ride through the fields, pedalled leisurely around the outskirts of the whole town.

Vientiane may be the capital of Laos, but as typifies the whole country, it is hardly the most lively of cities. We visited Pha That Luang, a very important temple and national symbol. Its huge gold taht (stupa) is impressive but surprisingly tame after the mass of super-ornate stupas in Myanmar. It is, however, square, so a little different. We followed this by a visit to Patuxai, the vertical runway - a replica of the Arc de Triomphe in concrete - so called because it was built with cement donated by the US for building a new airport.

This was followed by visits to three bakeries. Oops.

Posted by GoonishPython 22:00 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

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