Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Sri Lanka: More steps than a bad 90s pop group.

On Sunday we left the disappointingly average Colombo and headed for Kandy. Surely a place bearing the name "Kandy" is obligated to live up to the expectations that comes with it. Having said that, Sunshine in Melbourne does a fantastic job at contradicting this theory.

At 8:40am we entered the busy Colombo station and bought first class tickets for 500 rupees, which equates to just under $5. First class isn't as special as it sounds. Basically you sit in the same type of carriage as everyone else, but get a fancy (make that grimey and unclean) viewing window that looks out the back of the train (we were in the last carriage). You're also only sharing with about 17 other people as opposed to 300 and several goats. The train is a rusty old diesel engine that could be as old as Sri Lanka itself. Considering how bumpy the ride is, I'm surprised the old thing manages to stay in one piece.

The train left Colombo on schedule and as we had previously read, the journey did not disappoint. The train sneaks between kilometers of dense green rainforests, occasionally clearing so that you get a glimpse of the breathtaking Sri Lankan countryside. It's quite surprising just how mountainous this island is. We left our seats in first class to go check out the view from the storage cabin which had its loading doors opened wide allowing us to get a better look. Workplace Safety isn't a high priority in Sri Lanka. We sat in the door way and dangled our legs out the side of the train as we bounced along the countryside. After a couple of near misses, which would have most certainly ended in me becoming a double amputee, I decided it would be probably best if I returned to my seat.
A Sri Lankan cattle wagon (train) 

We got to Kandy after roughly three hours and set off on the increasingly frustrating task of finding a hostel or guest house. We had pre-decided on one particular guest house to avoid having to wander around the streets of a country which has yet to embrace tourism, but this still didn't help our plight. Sri Lanka is the first country I have been to where taxi and tuk tuk drivers don't have the faintest idea where anything is. This is despite us showing them numerous maps and addresses. We even managed to somehow get an off duty policeman drive us to our destination and he barely bad a clue.

After a couple frustrating hours we finally arrived at our guest house. We were pleasantly surprised to find another couple of backpackers staying there. These guys were a cool couple from Sydney who were starting the beginning of a seven month trip and Sri Lanka was their first destination. They had just come from the south so it was nice to get some info on where to go, which meant our itinerary changed for 40th time.

We did some exploring around Kandy and we're relieved to find it an awesome little city with a great vibe. There's a nice big lake in the middle and pretty cool temple which apparently possesses a tooth of Buddha that has super powers. Apparently it floats and stuff, but you don't get to see it. Lame.
Don't mess with the hornets 

The next day we decided to pay a driver to take us out to a place called sigiriya which has a massive Uluru type rock with a temple on top of it. For some reason Sri Lankans enjoy ripping off tourists and had set the entry fee at $30, which seems to be standard practice throughout the country. It'd be nice if they recognised that we're not all wealthy tea barons who wear monocles and play croquet. Despite the steep cost, the place was actually pretty awesome. It's about 1500 steps to the summit and it's worth it just for the view from the top. Just make sure you don't get attacked by the hornets at the bottom. There's not much left of the temple that was originally built on the top of the rock, but the view of the surrounding countryside is pretty damn impressive. After shaking a bloke who wanted a tip for following us half way up the rock we headed for home.
The view from sigiriya 

We hadn't eaten for the entire day meaning I could eat the arse out of a low flying duck. Thankfully it didn't come to that and we had the pleasure of cooking with our guest house host. She put on an amazing spread of local Sri Lankan food which to call amazing would be an insult. It was easily the best food we'd had. The food here is a bit of a combination of Indian and Chinese food and is actually solid unlike Indian. Thankfully my stomach has coped quite well with it and I haven't experienced any Delhi belly just yet.

After much deliberating with the help of our new Sydney side friends, we decided to join them and head for Adams peak. Adams peak is a 5000 step monster mountain with a temple on the top. We didn't really know what we were getting ourselves into when we signed up.

The journey would begin the morning after at 2am and we would arrive at the summit just for sunrise. This place is nestled in Sri Lanka's highlands so the temperature is bloody cold. If the 2am start was enough for you, it wouldn't have mattered if you started this climb at 11 in the morning after 3 red bulls and 4 cups of the coffee. The ascent lulls you into a false sense of security with some nice low gradient inclines and friendly steps before smashing you with cobbled platforms and near vertical sections. By the half way point I was keeling over in total exhaustion. 

We finally managed to hit the top at about 5:30 just in time for the sun to rise. The ascent is almost completely in darkness, only illuminated by the occasional light to guide your path. This means you have no idea what to expect when the sun finally pokes from behind the thick mist and clouds which envelope the peak. We joined the throng of shivering tourists and waited for the moment. I can honestly say that when it happened it was one the most amazing experiences I've ever had. You are literally above the clouds and it looks almost exactly like it does when you look out the window of a plane. On this particular day the clouds were too thick to see the ground, but it was still very surreal.
It might look heavenly, but the walk up was hell

We made the descent back to our hostel which was much more enjoyable than the ascent. The entire mountain is surrounded by view after view of amazing scenery and it makes the climb well worth the pain. Currently I feel as though I have developed parkinsons disease or something as I can't even hold my legs still. I don't even want to think about how painful tomorrow will be.
One of many amazing views

So now I'm going to have a nap, hopefully wake up, drink some local rum and figure out the next stupid thing to do.

Sunday, 19 May 2013

Sri Lanka - insane or ingenious trip?

So as a few you have probably found out, I have taken an impromptu trip to Sri Lanka. For those of you who don't know, my former employer was nice enough to cut me loose three weeks before the end of my notice period (I resigned) and agree to continue paying me until the end of the month! A rare showing of generosity indeed! So after a solid 17 seconds of consideration once the good news had been delivered, I decided that rather then start my new job early and earn some nice double pay, I'd rather spend my time sweating buckets and arguing with tuk tuk drivers. I must have a slight masochistic streak. It seems I'm not the only one though. In bizarre circumstances, I have managed to recruit someone to join me on this poorly organised trip to the sub-sub continent. A young lady by the name of Carla has decided to partake in my laissez-faire, and sans-plan style journeying and will probably never speak to me again by the end of it. Poor decision? We'll certainly find out. Less than 48 hours later we found ourselves on a Singapore airlines A380 headed  for Sri Lanka. Some of you are also probably asking "why Sri Lanka"? Well never having ventured further than the Colombo airport, I can't really answer that question either. Apparently there's some nice beaches here, but I'll get back to you on that.

After a pleasant 14 hour journey over the indochine, we arrived at Colombo airport. Everything had gone incredibly smoothly up until this point. A little too smoothly. We didn't miss our flights, I got the chicken on the inflight meal and an under booked flight meant I got to use an empty row of seats as a couch. Of course this meant that something had to go wrong at some point. Well I basically got to the finish line before some smug Sri Lankan border guard decided he would rain on my parade. So after watching Carla pass seamlessly past the guard, I assumed I would also slide past into freedom innocuously. Sri Lanka has a system where you apply for a visa online, which is basically approved on the spot. It's a pointless piece of beurocracy, no doubt put in place simply to line the government's pockets. All you do is submit your passport number and $35 of your hard earned. Now you're free do whatever you want in Sri Lanka. You're probably all aware of that mysterious letter that precedes your passport number that you're never required list on anything. Well that little letter was the difference between me entering Sri Lanka and me not. As I had not noted the number on my application, despite it being approved, the border guard decided he would not let let me pass. I even tried to bribe the bastard 30 cold hard USD and he still wouldn't budge. I found myself being directed to an immigration office filled with extremely questionable looking native gentleman while Carla looked on from her position of freedom confused. After sitting there watching the immigration head honcho stairing at a clock for 15 minutes, not processing a single query, I decided there must be another way. I walked over to the visa on arrival desk and purchased another visa for $35. This time with the letter M. Bizarrely enough this is all it took to get into the country. What a waste of 45 minutes of my life.

This morning we arrived at our first Colombo hostel. It's an amazing villa style mansion in an extremely affluent neighbourhood (the UN headquarters and French consulate is next door) which has been converted into a b&b/hostel. It's run by an old woman who clearly takes great pride in looking after her guests. Unfortunately she suffers from alzheimers meaning we've had the same conversation with her about 18 times. I was kind of worried we'd leave the hostel and not be let back in!

Colombo itself is a bit of a shit hole. It's pretty similar to any other Indian city, yet cleaner and less chaotic. The Sri Lankans actually know the difference between a red and green traffic light and can use bins. It's refreshing to say the least. Apart from that, there's really nothing to do here except eat. Carla has had a pretty good introduction to what it's like being a white female in India/Sri Lanka. She's probably already had her head super imposed on to several different porn pictures. The amount of ogling foreign women cop here is unbelievable. We have only seen about five other Westerners since arriving, so that may have something to do with it, but in all honesty, you'd think women were an endangered species here. Anyway, I'm pretty sure Carla is contemplating picking up a Burka at the next mosque we pass.

That is one thing that has really struck me though in Colombo, the lack of tourists! I'm not sure if it's because it's low season, or because everyone comes here an immediately leaves due to its overwhelming drabness.

The tuk tuk drivers here are as bad as any other Asian city and require serious haggling. Thanks to the advent of google maps and cheap foreign data plans, I can call bullshit on them when they try to tell me a five minute drive is a 28kms away. This makes life so much easier. On a positive note though, the first tastes we've had of Sri Lankan food have been excellent and I'm looking forward to delving further into the many tastes on offer. We ate in a food court here and it was better than your local Indian joint by a country mile.

Tomorrow we take the train to a place called Kandy. With a name like that it has to be good. Apparently the train route is supposed to be incredible, so we're looking forward to that. The overall route we have decided on taking is to start in the country's highlands and then make our way down south to the beaches.

Thanks for reading! Hopefully my next entry will be more interesting!

Saturday, 26 January 2013

Goodbye Vietnam. Thanks for not killing us.

So we finally made it. Somehow we managed to avoid the busses, goats, potential food poison and all the other hazards Vietnam throws at motorcyclists.
So I'm typing this entry from the comfort of an aeroplane seat. I use the word "comfort" extremely lightly because I'm wedged between a guy reading an enormous Chinese newspaper of which I can't spy over his shoulder on because I don't speak a word of Chinese and Liam who has passed out within seconds of the flight moving half a metre up the runway. I wait patiently for the snoring to commence.
So we finally leave Vietnam behind to return to Australia. I gotta say, I'm pretty sad that I have to leave as I was having an amazing time. Before I talk about what happened in Saigon, I probably should update anyone who's still reading what happened between Saigon and Hoi An, after all, it is basically half the country!
So 6 days ago we I arrived in Nha Trang after what could be called the bus ride from hell or any other negative hyperbole you can come up with. It was bad. Fortunately for us, Nha Trang was pretty enjoyable. For those looking for a cultural experience and a place to relax, maybe Nha Trang isn't for you. As I think I mentioned in the last entry, it's basically Vietnam's answer to the gold coast. Almost every building is a hotel, a bar and a restaurant and almost every local is trying to sell you cigarettes,. Marijuana or a prostitute. If you're really lucky, they might be able to sell you all three. Anyway, I won't go into too much detail about Nha Trang because all I would talk about is a bad theme park where they make dogs and monkeys ride bikes, an abundance of Russian people and us getting moderately drunk and laughing at said Russians. I will mention that the weather was fantastic and we did get sunburnt. Liam learned the harsh lesson that no matter how much reverse psychology you use against the sun, UV rays will still fry your skin. I did warn him, but I won't go there.
The weather in Nha Trang was perfect for sunburnt westerners.

So after a couple of days of getting burnt and snorkeling with people from Siberia or some place miserable, we got back on the bikes and set off for Dalat. The road from Nha Trang to Dalat is probably one of the most amazing roads I have ever seen. It pretty much sums Vietnam up in 120kms. Basically you start your ride in tropical jungle and finish in alpine forest surrounded by French villas and cold fresh air. The ride itself is almost entirely up hill. Dalat lies about 1600m above sea level so it is significantly cooler than the rest of South Vietnam. The road snakes through the mountains until you get to a point where the mist is so thick you can't see 10 metres in front of yourself. This might not sound like a big deal, but keep in mind we're only 60kms from getting sunburnt on a beach at this point! Every few kilometres we would stop on the side of the road to enjoy the incredible view and put on another layer of clothing. At the peak of mountain I was starting to think that the mist would never end and we would have to continue ascending into it for another 60kms, but almost immediately we crossed the pinnacle and began the descent. Within 5 minutes of riding the mist completely disappeared and we again we found the temperature rising. The whole moment was like a scene from one of those immensely cheesy B Grade horror movies where they go overboard on the dry ice. If anyone has seen that TV show "Garth Morenghi's Dark Place" you'd know exactly what I'm talking about.
So after escaping the scotch mist and cruising down the hill with the clutch in at a lazy 80km/h, we closed in on Dalat. Unfortunately for us we were extremely low on time and weren't able to stay there for more than one night. The surrounding countryside looks amazing and apparently there are activities you can do such as white water rafting and mountain biking. Also unfortunately for us the only extreme sport we'd be partaking in is dodging busses. One of my personal highlights of being in Dalat for 12 hours was the opportunity to drink some milk. As some of you may know, Asians have a hard time with milk, so as you can imagine, Vietnam isn't exactly brimming with the stuff. You can however get laughing cow cheese, but who the shit wants to eat that crap? Certainly not this cheese snob. Anyway, Dalat has dairy cows, so there's plenty of milk around. I'm not sure if it's purely for dairy craving tourists like myself or because the Dalat locals have evolved to not throw their guts up after a glass of delicious pasteurised full cream milk. I didn't ask them. Yum. So yes, Dalat is an interesting place. It looks more like it would belong in France than Vietnam thanks to it's wide open spaces, French architecture and alpine landscape. The place even has a mock Eiffel tower. Yeah, maybe a little bit much.
The road to Dalat is beautiful.

So after waking up after our first night of 8 hours sleep in what feels like several years, we commenced our last ride of the trip. This would be a 320km journey from Dalat to Saigon. The ride out of Dalat was mostly downhill, which is a hell of a lot more enjoyable than riding up a hill on a 110cc motorbike. Again the scenery was amazing, but unfortunately for us, we weren't able to stop and enjoy it. We blitzed through our first 200kms, knocking it over in a little under three hours. Both Liam and myself were flying through south Vietnam at a speed that even the Viet Cong would have been proud of. That was until we got the wake up call of a lifetime. Shortly after refueling our bikes at a petrol station we witnessed a horrifying scene that will probably stay with me for a long time. A man on a scooter had attempted to overtake and was met head on with an oncoming truck. With his bike smashed all over the road and his twisted body lying in the dirt, a man covered him with a bamboo mat as we both rolled passed, not able to process what it was that we were actually witnessing. I immediately turned to Liam and mentioned to him it was probably time for us to slow down. Needless to say, the ensuing 120kms took us considerably longer than the distance preceding it.
After spending almost a month riding across Vietnam, it has occurred to me that the closer you get to Saigon, the more crazy the people on the road get. It was almost as if we were playing some kind of video game and Saigon was the final boss. Literally all the stupid and insane crazy shit that these roads had thrown at us over the three week period were being launched at us in threes and on a constant basis. Fortunately for us, we had honed our skills and were more than a match what lay ahead. After missing a few turnoffs, going in the complete wrong direction and almost colliding with a rickshaw full of pigs, we made it to our final destination: District 1, Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City. Both us were exhausted, covered in a combination of dirt, exhaust fumes, dead skin and wood chips from some truck I was too terrified to overtake. A hotel owner rushed over to us to promote his hotel as we stopped on the side of the road. Neither of us even bothered to negotiate the price and just asked him where we could park. Of course the hotel was almost as bad as sleeping in the gutter, but we weren't really too bothered. 60kms of Saigon traffic makes you a bit desperate I suppose.
I'm pretty Saigon inspired this game.

District 1 in Saigon is probably the closet thing in Asia to Khaosan in Bangkok. It's basically where all the tourists come to get drunk, buy expensive tours and be tourists. For us, this was ok. We'd had our fair share of "off the beaten track" action. There's not a huge amount of stuff to do, but if you like your history, there's plenty of museums and exhibitions that revolve around the American/Vietnam war. The night life is probably on par with Nha Trang, but has a lot more variety. During our stay here we pretty much did all the touristy stuff minus the Cuchi tunnels. The Vinh Moc ones are much more impressive so we thought we'd give it a miss. Basically it was just nice to sit down and drink with some other tourists and celebrate the fact that we didn't end up under a bus wheel and had achieved something which I believe is quite impressive.
So today we waved goodbye to Vietnam with a visit to the dentist. $30 for four fillings almost made the entire trip worth it. There's something slightly unsettling as the dentist worked simultaneously on Liam and myself whilst a person waiting for their turn sits and watches from the front of the "clinic". But hey, that's Vietnam.
Some more road to Dalat for good measure.

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Chasing goats and making suits

So time for a new update. We've been so busy the last week, I've barely had a chance to count the Russians let alone do a post.
So the last week has seen us move from Hue to Nha Trang. If you didn't know already, it's a really long way. We did however cheat a bit, but I will get to explaining that.
Hue was a nice place to stop at. The centre of the city consists of an ancient city, which was pretty much destroyed by the Americans during the war. Looking at pre American war photos, you get the feeling it would be pretty awesome if it were still standing today. There's not a whole lot left, but if you use your imagination, you can get the idea of how oriental the place of would have looked. Apart from this however, there's not really a whole lot to do other than visit a few tombs of old kings around town, argue with vendors who try to charge you more for a soup than the MCG does for a pie and get drunk with the locals at extremely cheesy nightclubs. It's especially fun if you like hearing gangnam style 10 times a night. I wish I was kidding. The beers are fantastic though. If you're ever in Hue, get on Huda beer. Great stuff.
Despite Hue's myriad of tourist attractions, we couldn't make wait to ditch the place and make tracks. Hue is about 150kms from Hoi An and between them is the Haivan Mountain pass. On the other side of that mountain pass was something more exciting to both of us than gangnam style repeats and expensive soup; warmth. The mountain range between Hue and Danang separates the North from the south and apparently keeps the cold out. We couldn't wait to get there. At 9 in the morning, we donned our warm jackets and jeans for the last time and waved goodbye to Hue. After about 2 hours of riding we finally hit the pass. It was almost as if someone had instantly hit the sun switch. As we rode over the hills the clouds parted and sun hit our faces. Well it wasn't that dramatic, but we certainly did our fair share of fist pumps and horn beeps. The locals looked confused, but we didn't care. Liam was already wearing his singlet (I didn't even see him stop to put it on) and we were on our way to getting a better tan.
The Haivan pass itself is a beautiful part of the world. The road snakes through the mountains where you are surrounded by total jungle, which then drops off below into the sea. The view is amazing and we added about 2 hours to our ride merely from stopping to enjoy the view. We also lost time which was spent chasing wild cows down the mountain, which had been grazing beside and on the roads. We also chased some goats, which seemed to travelling in enormous packs up the road. The weirdest part about the goats and cows is that this is a major road, not some bumpkin side street. I now consider animal chasing a favourite pastime of mine.
Some of the goats I chased and ate.

After we'd finally finished chasing farm animals and also after Liam's accelerator cable decided it would snap three kilometres out of Hoi An, we finally reached our goal. We then did what any good tourist would do; checked into a hotel and set off to get suits made. For anyone who doesn't know, Hoi An is the tailoring capital of the world. I'm not even joking, 90% of the shops here are tailors. Hell knows how they all stay in business, because there's not just one street of them, but an entire city. The great thing about it though is it's so cheap. You can get a suit that will fit you better than anything you can get from David Jones for around $100. They will also make you anything you show them. We even saw some bloke having an assassins creed outfit made (that's a video game for all you uneducated). In the end, we ended up spending about $500 each and the tailor we used even bought us lunch.
Ok, so we didn't just go to Hoi An to buy suits, we did some other stuff too. Seeing as we both consider ourselves admirers of Vietnamese cuisine and don't shy away from a bit of a dabble in the kitchen, we decided to sign up for one of the cooking courses offered by the number one restaurant in town "Morning Glory". For those of you with your minds in the gutter, Morning Glory is not an annoying early morning errection but rather an Asian vegetable.
Get your mind out of the gutter: Morning Glory 

Aside from getting the feeling that we were looked upon by everyone else as a gay couple, it was really enjoyable. The class confirmed to me that I will never be able to make a rice paper roll, which pretty much ended my dreams of opening a Vietnamese restaurant. The lady who took the course owned three restaurants in Hoi An and is apparently a worldwide renowned Vietnamese chef. She also mentioned she regularly frequents footscray market when she visits Melbourne, which instantly raised her cred in my eyes.
Vietnamese cuisine is a lot more technical than it looks. The amount of herbs, vegetables and other random ingredients they use is insane. We took a visit to the local market where the locals buy their produce. I had no idea ginger came in so many varieties and that you can buy a herb that smells and tastes like fish. (the fish herb explains some really bad soups we've sampled). The Viets really have got their food down pat though and it's definitely one of my favourite cuisines in the world. It seems that in Australia we only get access to a fraction of the food on offer here. There really is so much more to it than Pho and spring rolls.
After seeing what Hoi An had to offer and staying a day too long due to spending more than the entire Vietnamese GDP on suits, we realised we were running out of time. We had to make the tough decision of chopping a few places from our places to go to list and instead take a 12 hour sleeper bus to Nha Trang. The bus company allowed us to stow our bikes underneath, which we were extremely happy about. After almost missing the bus due to the bus driver forgetting to pick us up and sleeping in a seat that was closer to a sleeping in a sardine tin with four other people, our happiness soon  turned to frustration and then hatred. Not only are the busses arseholes when you're not on them, but bigger arseholes when you have the pleasure of riding one. After enduring 12 hours of the bumpiest ride I have ever experienced we finally arrived in Nha Trang. The drivers basically physically kicked us off the bus and tossed our bags and bikes onto the side of the road. Shortly after the bus had driven off into the morning sun, we realised they had snapped both our mirrors off, broken a foot peg and worst of all, failed to return our keys. We walked our bikes to a nearby hotel, not looking forward to dealing with a mechanic about replacing the lost keys. Thankfully we found a genius locksmith who somehow managed to copy the keys and get our bikes back on the road. They can literally do anything here. Major relief. I hate Vietnamese busses... lucky I drive a motorbike and not a freaking tank.
So now we find ourselves in the gold coast of Vietnam, which I'm not sure is good or bad. As we're almost out of time we're really going to try and make the most of our stay here. Hopefully that means we do some more things other than suit buying and goat chasing. The main goal I think is to try and stay as sober as possible and not piss off the Russians. Oh yeah Nha Trang is little Moscow or something.
Last I heard, Putin was trying to annex Nha Trang due to the high number of native Russian Speakers.

Friday, 11 January 2013

Kamikaze busses and dog meat

So before I talk about what stuff we've done in the last few days I thought I'd mention a little about the roads and what happens on them in Vietnam, because I believe it's part of the cultural experience here. I'm not even kidding.
Vietnamese drivers, motorcyclists, cyclists and pedestrians are all either insane, incredibly impatient or quite simply they just don't give a single shit about anything when it comes to road rules. Vietnam's roads are not the best in the world by any measure, but they do have traffic lights, roundabouts and the standard infrastructure in place to facilitate road rules. However, these things seem to purely be in place as a formality and it's not uncommon to see someone go backwards around a roundabout or drive the wrong way down a freeway lane into oncoming traffic. Any standard driving behaviour here would have you landed in jail and probably the front Page of the news. Pedestrians will just walk across the road, phone in hand without even looking up, despite 40 mad scooters hurtling towards them in what should end up in a gruesome death. The thing is, it never seems to end in the disaster you'd imagine. Somehow 5 thousand drivers and pedestrians all not giving a shit seems to work quite well. It doesn't take long to adopt this mentality when riding a motorbike on Vietnam's roads and it actually becomes quite enjoyable. Here if you miss a turn off on the highway, you just turn around and ride back the way you came, along shoulder until you can turn where you missed. If there's a bottle neck at a freeway entrance, screw waiting! Just mount the footpath and ride along it until you can get ahead of the traffic. All you have to do to be part of the amazing Vietnam roads is think to yourself, "what's the most retarded and illegal way for me get from point A to point B?" then do it. Voila. You're doing it right.
This isn't even that bad.

The bus (coach busses) drivers in Vietnam are the most insane and dangerous drivers on the planet. I'm not even kidding, these guys are real life freaking kamikaze pilots. I'm not sure if it's the drugs they take to stay awake or if they're on really tight schedules, but these guys will risk a bus load of passengers just to overtake one car into oncoming traffic just because it is travelling slightly slower than the bus itself. I feel safer on the bike, despite the fact that you encounter several of them a day barrelling head on towards you in your own lane at 100km/s and you have bank onto to the shoulder to avoid being evaporated. The only thing more dangerous to a motorcyclist than the crazy buses are the crazy dogs that seem to live along every major road in the country and seem to get a kick out of running out in front of you at any opportunity. I did initially feel bad about the dogs being eaten here, but these dogs deserve to be eaten for the amount of heart attacks they've given me thus far. That and tires probably make great tenderisers.
Death on Wheels: They don't even stop for Police

Anyway, enough about the roads as I could write a bloody book about Vietnam's traffic issues. Liam and myself have had an insane few days on the bikes which has seen us cover over 550kms and mostly in rain. On Tuesday we rode 350kms from Ninh Binh to Phong Nha along the Ho Chi Minh highway. Leaving at 830am and arriving 730pm, It was painful and amazing at the same time. Unfortunately for me, my motorbike likes to flick every bit of mud and water onto my shoes and shins, leaving me looking I'd dipped my legs in shit. It also caused my shoes to spurt water out of the lace holes whenever I took a step. Despite being completely miserable and shivering the majority of the way, my mood quickly changed when we got to the section of the hcm highway that passes through the jungle mountains close to Phong Nha. Even though it not being the first time I'd experienced them, it still made my draw drop witnessing the raw beauty of the limestone cliffs and peaks covered in mass amounts of greenery. This continues for about 100kms and it really is a breathtaking experience that I'd recommend to anyone to see, even by kamikaze bus.
Riding such huge distances can really take its toll on your sanity. At one point we thought we had missed our turn off by 60kms and strayed into a hill tribe area without any fuel stations. We were even preparing to sleep in the jungle and use our ponchos as blankets.Thank god for us we hadn't missed the turn off and were most likely too delirious to read a map properly, because I really hate monkeys. Liam at one stage thought we were being stalked by Vietnamese scooter bandits in the dark, who were following us with their lights off. Thankfully after asking for directions from a Vietnamese lady at her house, she had the owner of the phong nha farm stay come and rescue us from our burgeoning insanity and direct us to their lovely hostel.
Phong Nha farm stay is a hostel run by an Australian guy who is married to a Vietnamese woman. It's a pretty amazing place to stay and I recommend it to anyone going to Vietnam. The owner is a real bloke and he loves a beer. I think he's a bit bored of all the pseudo intellectuals that stay there, so if you show a bit of personality, he will make you feel more than welcome. There was some Cambridge educated guy staying there who harped on at the camp fire about the renaissance or some shit for about an hour, so you can understand what I mean.
Imagine this guy travelling. He was at Phong Nha

Phong Nha is a pretty amazing place. It boasts two of the biggest caves in the world and the surrounding scenery is stunning. It's genuinely hard to put into words how beautiful it is. The place is currently a bit off the tourist trail as well, so it's also the perfect time to visit. Liam and myself went to the paradise cave and were told that we were one of the first 200 westerners to see it. Paradise cave really needs to be seen to believed. I'm not going to try and describe it here because I can't do it justice, but you should really google it. I have no doubt that in a few years it will be a major, major tourist attraction. It's literally jaw dropping.
Paradise Cave, Phong Nha

After experiencing the cave and spending a couple of nights getting drunk and setting fire to our shoes so they'd dry on the camp fire, we had some repairs done to our ever reliable bikes and made the trip to Hue. The ride was 220kms and mostly along the main highway, so not very scenic at all. We did however stop at the Vinh Moc tunnels which was a bizarre experience. The Vinh Moc tunnels are a series of tunnels used by the Viets during the war. It's a massive complex with tunnels that have had lighting and signage put through them so you can walk around then. These things go three stories below ground. Now that's not the weird part. We rocked up to this place on our bikes and it looked completely deserted. We actually walked 50 metres down the path before some woman chased us demanding we pay for tickets. She must have fallen asleep in the booth or something. We happily paid the tickets and carried on expecting to come across some sort of guide or even other tourists. Nope. We simply just wandered through these tunnels, which could be quite dangerous if you fell in them or got lost as they're pretty far below the surface. There were even tunnels that hadn't been lit up for public access that were still accessible with no one stopping you. Needless to say, we watched our steps as I didn't fancy being found as a corpse in one of the many tunnels when a tourist comes through in a months time.
After hanging around Vinh Moc for a while we finally made our way to Hue where we'll stay a couple of days. There's quite a lot to do here, so it should be good fun. Hopefully the weather improves in the next couple of days because I think I'm paler than when I left and potentially developing rickets. Liam looks Norwegian or some shit and you can see his veins through his face. Not attractive.
Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Goodbye partying, hello dirt.

As some of you probably know, Liam Usher and myself have headed to Asia for combination of sun, drinking, boring tourist activities and most importantly a 1800km trek across Vietnam on unreliable motorcycles, which will probably cost us more in repairs than the initial outlay.
So I won't bother trying to update you on our week long trip to Thailand as no one likes to read about two fools getting drunk, missing flights and eating pizza slices.
So we arrived in Hanoi from Bangkok on Thursday, hungover, sleep deprived and insanely under dressed. We had heard that it was likely to be a bit mild in Hanoi, but we didn't expect 2m visibility mist, sub 10'c temps and constant drizzle. This certainly didn't bode well with our shorts, thongs singlet get up and the curious looks we received from the locals which probably equated to "stupid westerners", were probably justified. First stop after checking in at Hanoi Backpackers Hostel was to go and find some suitable attire. I was certainly looking like a knobber after telling Liam that all he'd need were shorts and singlets. Luckily for him he'd disregarded my wise advice and brought a jacket and jumper. Myself however, was left to freeze until I tracked something down. Thankfully for us, Vietnam is a counterfeit clothing paradise, not so great for Liam, shoe sizes don't exceed size 9.
So after finally sorting out our clothing issues, we were free to explore Hanoi unrestricted by the weather. The only ways to describe Hanoi are as "unique" and "confusing". For an Asian capital city it has somehow retained almost all of its old world charm. Walking the streets is like stepping back in time as people cook food in the streets, sit around makeshift fires and sell their wares along the roads. If you're willing to disregard the fact that majority of food is prepared in the gutter (is that too much to ask?) you'll find some of the best food in Asia for what seems like loose change. Believe it or not 10,000 dong is only 50c. Pho is the dish of choice in Hanoi. As any Melbourne hipster will be able to tell you, it's a noodle soup with slices of rare beef. You can pick up a Pho for around $1 anywhere from a fancy restaurant to a bubbling pot in the gutter.
Hanoi's colonial architecture proudly dominates the city streets. Despite Vietnam not being a French colony for over 60 years, they've carried on the French building style themselves.
One of Hanoi's best features are its people itself. After putting up with Thailand's fake money grabbing smiles for a week it was refreshing to experience some rare genuineness. People are often actually happy to see you and aren't trying to rip you off. We were even treated like celebrities, with locals asking to pose for photos with us, making Liam's head even bigger in the process.
You can almost see his head expanding

As far as night life goes, Hanoi is pretty tame. The police have apparently been trying their hardest to suppress any form of fun being had after the sun goes down. Apparently the government wants to quell the "social evils" which drunk westerners get up to, which is apparently some kind of threat to the party. Hanoi boasts its fair share of good bars, but they are completely hampered by the fact they are required to close at midnight. So you're probably thinking that the bars just call last drinks at midnight before booting everyone out, right? Well, if only that was the case! An army style truck with police piled in the back individually visits every single bar and yells at the owner until every single patron has left. Fun right? Like any good dissenter, however, we managed to find hidden bars to conduct our "social evils". After a few local queries and few wrong turns, we found ourselves in a local dive bar, with barb wire on the walls and $2 vodka red bulls. Take that communist party.
After enough dissenting to last a life time, Liam and me decided it was time to find our motorbikes. After getting in contact with a couple of locals (cheers Bob Usher) we found ourselves the proud owners of two beat up Vietnamese motorcycles. One a mean looking Honda win 110cc (feel the power) the other a flashy red Yamaha FX scooter, which is apparently the envy of all boy racers. Lucky us.
Not exactly Harleys, but close enough. 

Yesterday we finally began our 1800km journey to Saigon and the  first destination was the "Ha Long bay on land" Ninh Binh. After having a bit of a hard time finding the road we needed to start on were at last part of the Hanoi grind. The traffic in Vietnam can only be described as chaotic and hell. The pollution on the roads is an asthmatics nightmare. After battling it all for 120kms, we finally arrived in Ninh Binh.
On first impressions, Ninh Binh is a dust covered, polluted and over developed shit hole. Without the knowledge that it possesses some of Vietnam's best natural wonders, we would have most certainly kept right on driving. Ninh Binh boasts an amazing complex lime stone rock formations set amongst the backdrop of rice fields. Right now with it being so cold, the mist surrounding them gives the place an enormous feeling of surrealism. Riding the bikes between the various peaks makes you feel as though you're in one of those weird Chinese films where the characters can jump really far. You know the ones...
After much riding around, taking wrong turns and not even killing each other, we even managed to squeeze in seeing south east Asia's largest and most pointless Buddhist temple. The lonely planet suggested that we not visit the place if we wanted a spiritual experience because it would be jammed with tourists. Well, we were the only ones there.
Upon leaving the place we had our first mechanical issue with one of the bikes. The Honda win was already notoriously hard to start, but when I snapped the kick start off it, that just took it to the next level. Thankfully because I'm a genius when it comes to motorcycles, I was was able to push start that sucker home (which was actually easier to start than the pre-snapped kick start). One of the many 24hr mechanics was thankfully able to repair the bike for a $10 in about 10 minutes. I'm still pretty sure he ripped me off.
so if you somehow managed to make it this far, you've got a higher level of concentration than me! Also, my next entries will be a lot shorter as I won't be required to give a back drop of what we've been doing.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Goodbye civilisation

(This has been on my desktop for a few days and haven't had a chance to upload.)

Well, haven’t I been lazy with getting one of these up lately? So where have I been the last two weeks since leaving Quebec City? I ended jumping on the Greyhound (who might I say have the worst customer service I have ever encountered) waved goodbye to the snow and made my way down to semi-sunny New York.

So New York… Big, massive, hectic, overwhelming…. The amount of superlatives you can use is pretty much endless, but generally, they all point to the same meaning. From my perspective, a lot of things I’d heard about New York were true and many others not so much. The first Hostel I booked In New York was in northern district of Harlem. The only thing I’d heard about Harlem before my arrival was the Harlem Globetrotters, and I didn’t expect to see them spinning basketballs on their fingers any time soon.  A quick google of the place and a few reviews of the hostel quickly suggested Harlem is no American Utopia where everyone gets along. Most of the phrases tossed around were “dodgy area,” “Didn’t feel safe walking at night” and “suspicious looking people in the streets.”  I was set to arrive at my hostel around 7pm, just after sundown, so I was preparing myself for an interesting journey in trying to locate the hostel in my perceived post-apocalyptic, every man for himself warzone.  Not surprisingly, it wasn’t like that at all. Harlem is a massive melting pot of cultures that has developed its own distinct personality. I had the pleasure of staying in West Harlem, which is considered the black area and then found myself in the eastern area, which is considered Spanish Harlem, due to its large central American and Mexican populations. The places weren’t dangerous at all and luckily for me, gave me a great view on some of the “real New York.” Walking around and just listening to the locals speak with each other is like being in movie.  At the end of one drunken night out, I managed to successfully negate central park alone and find the fable white castle at 5am in the morning unscathed so it can’t be too dangerous. (Please don’t try this if you visit New York.)

A taste of some of NYC's best buskers
During my time in New York I did all the touristy stuff, which I won’t go into too much (any?) detail about. One thing that I think is worth mentioning though is the New York residents. I found them to be a great bunch of people who are proud of their city. I didn’t really have a single negative encounter at all and on numerous occasions people in the street would just begin chatting with me out of the blue. They really do come across as a genuine bunch and have to be some of the friendlies people I have met. They have certainly improved the image of American people in my eyes.  Riding the subway is just an adventure in itself. The amount of things you see on it are just down right bizarre. The one that tops the list is the dancing/rapping 10 year old buskers on the Lexington 4 train. 

I did manage to get myself to a few museums while I was in the place including another contemporary art museum, the MOMA. I have now promised myself from now that I will now completely avoid contemporary art. It was great to see the Andy Warhol pop art, which was about 1% of the gallery, but the rest of it just made me feel stupid.  I just can’t see how some of this stuff, which includes a black & white video of someone blinking on loop is considered art. It just comes across as a torture mechanism to get suspected terrorists to speak.  I apologise to all the contemporary artists out there, but my uneducated view of the stuff is that it belongs in a serial killer’s lounge room.
If it means contemporary art, then I have to agree.

Before I left New York I also visited the Bronx zoo which was hugely disappointing.  In the colder weather basically every animal is removed, so hardly anything was on display except for the animals nobody wants to see anyway, like the peacock. The absentees included the Honey Badger, much to my great disappointment. I guess I will have to continue to the search in India, where they do roam wild after all.
I also made the 5 hour journey down to Washington DC to check out the capital. I was surprised at how small the white house actually is and how close you can get to it. As a capital city, it certainly puts Canberra to shame.

Potentially me if I can't find this vaccine.
So I’m typing this from my hotel room in Mumbai (Bombay) severely jet lagged after the 17 hour flight. My body doesn’t even know what time it is and I haven’t felt tired once. It was the first time I’d successfully slept on a plane so when I got off it, I wasn’t tired for once. I think I’d have preferred to be knackered when I got off than have been awake, after the last 24 hours.  My first impressions of Mumbai are that it’s completely and utterly chaotic. I’m not even sure why there are traffic lights as the cars just do what they want. I think the horn must be connected to the accelerator as they honk incessantly.  I have now consumed two curries – a Chicken Masala and a Chicken Moghali and they have both been incredible. They were both for the measly price of around $2/£1.40. I’m currently in the process of trying to track down some vaccinations as I was too lazy to do it in the UK.  I managed to locate the Hep A vaccine, which comprised of me asking for it at a chemist, then them handing it to me with a sealed needle and a block of sealed medical ice. The guy honestly expected me to inject myself! Thankfully there was a hospital over the road, which administered it for $3. I managed to track down the Typhoid vaccine, but the Polio one still eludes me.  I can’t have them until Monday anyway as my immune system is currently in battle mode with Hep A. 

So, better get back to battling the Hep A vaccine and my jet lag, the next one will be quicker.