Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Some of this, some of Da-Lat!

Hey kiddies,

My travels have found me here in Dalat, which is just North East of Saigon, which is quite a change from the beach that Lily and I were sitting on in Mui ne. It is also very beautiful here. Rolling hills and countryside along with incredible farms and coffee plantations.

We rolled in yesterday afternoon, and after getting off the bus, we were immedietly followed by a member of the "Easy Riders"... self-proclaimed motor bike drivers eager to take tourists on one of thier signature "tours of Dalat". If you have enough money, they'll take you all the way to Nothern Vietnam on the back of their Hondas!

A little background on the Easy Riders: there used to be only 10 members, magically wisking travelers away to destination spots not offered by tourbuses and treks. Today, there are over 70 Easy Riders, complete with Jackets and badges that strategically find you as soon as you get into town. It's like they can smell you or something (despite the fact that foreigners stick out like a ladyboy defrocked at a strip club in Bangkok in this small town of Dalat). Once we realized that he wouldn't let us go without reading at least 3 testimonials in his little journal of goodies, we sat down for coffee and planned a day trip with Mr. Lou Lou and Than, and depsite the fact that it was a bit pricier than we had hoped ($20 for 8 hours) I think it was a good choice.

After a great night of dinner and market shopping, Lils and I retired to a movie and the cozy confines of our $6 guest house complete with winter blankets. We woke up at 8 and met up with our pilots for a day in the countryside. We hopped on the hoggs, and headed out of the hustle and bussle of downtown Dalat and into the winding forest roads. We saw everything from the silk factory, to "Crazy House" (you'll see in the photos later) to coffee plantations,

Saturday, November 24, 2007

My Partner in Crime Has Arrived!

Lily is here! She made it safe and sound, and boy, is it great to have her company. Lily is one of those friends who even though we've been apart for 7 months, it doens't feel like a day has passed! We met at a little retaurant on Thursday, which so perfectly happend to be Thanksgiving!

Instead of going the traditional Turkey route (which is quite difficult to track down in Vietnam anyways!) we met up with a friend of a friend named Nick who has been living here for 3 years working for a University. Boy did we live it up from that moment on! He treated us to a wonderful Sushi dinner downtown. We stuffed our faces. I would say that if there is anything I would rather eat than traditional food on the holidays, it would have to be Sushi! Mostly because I can eat so much of it! We gorged ourselves and then jumped on the back of his motorbike (that's right, 3 people on one!) and went to a really fancy bar downtown and had some cocktails. We ended up staying out pretty late and were feeling it the next morning!

We got up at 7:30 and went to the Cu Chi tunnels, the infamous tunnels of the Viet Cong during the war. We had a killer tour guide (complete with Karaoke songs including "In the army now" and "we are the world" with an adorable Vietnamese accent) and got to crouch through the tunnels briefly. You wouldn't believe how small the Vietnamese people would have to be to fit in these tunnels. Some of them lived there for months (maybe years!)hiding from the Americans. There were also still craters from the B-52s that we dropped there. It was pretty crazy, and quite the experience, despite the fact that it was pretty touristy and loaded with a healthy spread of cheese!

After that, Lils went to check out the War Museum that I had visited a few days earlier. She agreed with me that it was pretty depressing (obviously) but was glad that she saw it. After our big day, we went to the market, then to the travel agency that we used for the Tunnels and booked out Open Bus ticket for Vietnam. For $22, you can book this tour that takes you all along the west coast of the country from Saigon all the way up to Hanoi, the northern "capital city". Once you buy the ticket, you are able to stop wherever you want (mostly more developed areas) and stay for as long as you'd like. When you are ready to leave and travel on, you just catch the but the next day and off you go! Our next stop will be in Dalat, which is one of the most poular honeymoon spots for Vietnamese due to the fact that the scenery is spectacular. There are waterfalls and every sort of outdoor activity you could ever want to do including rafting, climbing, mountain biking, hiking, everything! We'll probably do another trek in the mountains there, which we are both really looking forward to. They have an excellent eco-tourism program in Dalat much like they did at the place I trekked in Northern Laos.

Yesterday we arrived here in Muine, and I'll tell you, now I feel like I'm on vacation! We are staying literally 15 steps from the sand (I counted) and the South China Ocean is beautiful! For some reason, there are not a lot of tourists around, (maybe the weather scared them off, or perhaps it's just not so well known yet!) and this place has such a peaceful charm to it. Short palm trees that just fit above your beach chair, endless flesh-toned sand that stretches for miles, the hint of an island off in a distance, killer Pina Coladas, and the freshest seafood. Last night we got Crab (that we picked out live) steamed in coconut water, and it was simply fabulous. We are going to have it again tonight it was soo good...and cheap! Only $4 which is nothing compared to your other options of noodles and chicken at $3!

First thing we did this morning when we woke up was jump in the ocean. Feels like home. What a great opposite to the city life of Saigon! INstead of falling asleep to the sounds of motorbike horns, we are now falling asleep to the sound of (loud) crashing waves...Oh, and did I mention the weather is perfect? 80 degrees, and barely a cloud in the sky! We plan on sledding in the multicolored sand dunes, and boogie boarding while we are here. I've heard that the sledding is awesome. Little vietnamese children rent you the sleds, and help you get up the hill! Sarah, I'm wondering if this is where you did this?

Ahhh, rough life I tell ya! More in a few days! Only 30 shopping days till Christmas!

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Photos from Cambodia!

Here are some shots that I loved from Cambodia. Hopefully this helps you get the idea! Haven't quite figured out all the functions on this thing, so excuse the format. A bit screwy!

(below) Ta Prohm: Where the movie "Tomb Raider" was filmed. This amazing fig tree has grown right down the center! Incredible.

(R) Me and the kids at the orphanage. If you can zoom in, please do! The little girl in the green towel was too sick to play with us :(

(Above right) A bed located in one of the torture chambers at S-21 in Phenom Penh. So scary.
(Above) a temple...can't remember the name, but sooo cool, isn't it?
(R) Bayon. This is where I spent sunrise at Angkor Wat. You can imagine how eerie the faces looked in the early morning light!

Enjoy! Another post to come soon!


Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Good Morning Vietnam!

You knew that title was coming, didn't ya! Here I am, in the heart of it all, formerly Saigon, now known as Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. What a crazy place it is! If you can believe it, people drive even crazier here that they do in Cambodia. I've got some great video of it, that's the only way I can possibly describe it.

I ended up spending another night or two in Phenom Penh realxing with some English and Irish friends that I made. The backpacker area gets a little old after 4 nights of playing pool at the same 2 bars, so I decided to move on, though I am still awaiting the arrival of Lily to Vietnam. She'll be here Thursday (just in time for the Turkey...hopefully!)

Today I went to the War Remnants Museum. It was really tough to be an American walking around that incredibly sad place. I read up on a lot of history, and studied the photographs and captions on display. So many atrosities in that damn war. I'm still not quite sure why we were there other than to "save" our country from the Communists. It just doesn't make sense. What really didn't make sense to me is a little thing called Agent Orange. Just to type the word gives me the chills.

I just can't believe that human beings are capeable of this tremendously inhumane act against one another. Some of the photos of the children born with disease and deformities were simply atrocious, not to mention adults who were so sadly affected by the dioxins. I felt disgusted by the past of our nation. Traveling really helps you put into perspective the fact that we are all of the same blood and bones. That none of us is better or more righteous than the other. While some of us most CERTAINLY are much more fortunate than others, it simly does not make us "better" than them. Different is fair, but those differences should be met with respect. War is the ultimate sin, no matter what your religion. War is no different that killing a loved one. This is why we all need to travel, and stop living in our sheltered, selfish little worlds where the white man rules and materialism is a goal. What are we doing to ourselves? This is the lesson that I hoped I would learn on this trip, and although I already knew it, I can finally embrace it and make sense of it.

Not quite sure what I'll be up to for the next couple of days, but I'll tell ya, the city just aint for me! I've got a TV in my room which is pretty nice, so I think I'll catch up on some movies. That'll help me save some dough too! It's good to get out early and sight see and then hang out for the afternoon and evening. I'm 99.8% recovered (no more bandages! YAY!) so swimming is in my near future! I may have to spend the day at the pool at a nice hotel tomorrow...mmm, that sounds pretty good!

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Dying Young...

I spent the day yesterday with 22 8-16 year olds with H.I.V. at an orphanage yesterday. I asked what I could bring and the woman who runs it said they have no food and really need rice, so I hopped on the back of a motorbike and bought 40 Kilos of rice ($40) and brought it to these poor unfortunate kids.

They were so beautiful. Some of them were very very sick. Many of the girls had sores all over their bodies and their poor little complexions were so pale and sickly. All of the kids' parents died of AIDS and the orphanage was set up by 2 Irish girls who wanted to do something to make a difference. The sad part is that they have no funding for food or supplies, so they rely on tourists to visit and bring them much need provisions.

We played all day. I racked my brain for ideas on games that would work despite to the language barrier with limited options. I chose "duck duck goose" and "musical chairs" to which I figured would work if I hummed the tune to "Pop Goes the Weasel". It was brilliant. The smiles and laughter that came out of these tortured souls was amazing. It makes you wonder if they understand the world of hurt that they live in. We played soccer, laughed, drew, and just had a good old time. Some of the kids really took a liking to me and almost had tears in their eyes when I left. I got some great photos that I will send along later. What a privileged life I live. I feel so fortunate to be able to give something back. My next mission is to spread the word about this orphanage so that other travelers will visit them as well. When you sit down for Thanksgiving dinner, please think of them, and although it's a lost cause, please pray for their recovery. Cherish life.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Cambodia...same same, but completely different!

Cambodia has been such a whirlwind so far. I got off the plane from Laos and stepped into the thick and muggy air of the Siem Reap, home of Angkor wat. My first impression was that it was incredibly poor and unfortunate, which it certainly is. ..but i was surely surprised when i whizzed past Lexuses on the back of a moto (motorbike taxi). Cambodia is the poorest of all the countries I've been to so far, but I didn't realize how poor until I got under the skin a bit.

The first day i arrived, I checked into my guest house and immediately went for a tour of the "floating village". Hundreds of families literally living on a horribly polluted lake filled with plastic and crocodiles. Their existence seemed rather peaceful, but I just cannot imagine. t Needless to say, these are some of the poorest people in Siem Reap, and possibly in Cambodia. As you cruise along the water, kids in long-tailed boats creep up to you with coolers selling beer and soda, or anything they possibly can! It's hard to say no, but I did. You really don't want to encourage the kids to beg because the money goes right back to their parents to gamble with.
A crocodile farm (cage) and a few kids with water snakes wrapped around their necks and I was back at my guest house to find bed early in preparation for my big day at Angkor Wat.

Since I had already spent $200 to get there and an additional $70 in 24 hours, I decided that Angkor Wat ($20 to get in per day) would be conquered in a day...and for me, it was. I simply cannot imagine going back for another day, let alone an entire week which some travelers do.

I woke up at 4:30 to make it to the gates for the 5:30 sunrise. I opted to go to a less visited wat for sunrise since the big one Angkor Wat is magnificently crowded with an influx of Japanese and Korean "photographers". I wanted some peace and quite, and I'll tell ya, probably the best decision I could have made. I was the only one at Bayon (for those of you who looked it up, sunrise made the amazing faces even more erie). Went to 10 other wats throughout the day including the one where Tomb Raider was filmed and ended my temple day at 3pm. The original plan was sunrise to sunset, but i was spent after 10 hours. I think that'll do for temples for a while!

The next morning, I caught a bus to Phenom Pen (the capital city) where I am right now. Last night I took it easy, explored a bit and had a few drinks with some other travelers over a game or three of pool. This morning, I stepped into a world or Cambodian Tragedy by visiting "S-21" and the "Killing Fields" where thousands of Cambodians and Asians were held executed by the Khmer Rouge in the mid-seventies. What an atrocity, and what an experience. It's weird when you are in a place like that learning about something so disgusting and so tragic. Everyone around you is silenced and you can barely muster up a smile, but it feels like that's how you are supposed to react. S-21 was a former highschool that the K-R overtook and made into a holding cell for the pre-destined detainees. Soooo erie. Then to the Killing fields where the dropped the prisoners and executed them on site, cutting off their heads, raping them, and throwing them into ditches to be buried dead or was heart wrenching. I had a pit in my stomach all day and still kinda do.

Tomorrow morning, i'm going to an orphanage for kids with HIV. There are 22 kids there and they just love having visitors. I think I 'll bring them some paints and crayons. I can't wait for this experience! I'll be in Cambodia for a few more days, and then off to Vietnam. I'll write again before I cross the border!

Love you all!

A few long-awiated photos!

The village children are sooo beautiful. This boy can't be more than 8 and he's carrying his infant brother around on his back all day long. Look at the cuties in the background too! Soo cute!

The dreaded they are in all their glory. Don't worry, they look much better now. I just look like I have a skin disease! Didn't get any shots of the old'll see the scars!

I am with one of the village locals at sunrise! Holy cow was it amazing! See the crazy bamboo huts that the village people live in? No doors, barely floors, and all made out of bamboo and palm frons. Remarkable!

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Trekking to the corners!

Trekking (or hiking) is a very popular traveler's past time in Southeast Asia. You can trek from so many different places in Asia, that it is hard to decide where to begin. Although I was tempted to trek from Chiang Mai in Thailand, I'm glad I waited until I got to Laos to undertake this once in a lifetime extraordinary experience for a few reasons:

From Luang Nam Tha, we caught a sangthaew to Muang Sing, which is in the western corner of Laos bordering China on one side and Burma on the other. The first night we arrived there, we met 4 Irish kids, 2 girls and 2 boys, and man, were they everything they're cracked up to be. After drinking Beerlao after Beerlao with them and dancing at the "disco", Mick and I decided maybe it would be better to let them do their own trek (they got a bit loud, but hilarious all the same!)

The next morning, we got up early and headed to the morning market to gather provisions for our trip including snacks, a $2 backpack, a novice monk beanie and a sarong for bathing. One of the main reasons we chose to trek from Muang Sing is because the only place you can book a trek is through the eco-tourism office. This is excellent because unlike so many other trekking companies, all of the money you pay goes directly to the village, and helps fund research for eco-tourism. Brilliant.

We met our 19 year old student trek guide(who would also be our cook, translator and friend), Phone (Pawn) and headed out for a 3 day trek through the forest of Northern Laos. When you trek here, instead of camping in a tent, you stay with a local hill tribe village in their guest house (more on that later). Our first stop was at an Akha (hilltribe) village to gather up the chief of the tribe to accompany us on our journey...crazy huh? Chief was about 5 ft tall and an ex Lao soldier...he wore the hat and everything. We had lunch at his village and started walking.

The first day was pretty hot. We had to go about 7 km (5 of them uphill) which wasn't too bad despite the heat of the afternoon sun, but the reward was more than worth it. At about 5pm, we arrived at a huge village of Akha Pouli (sp) people. I can't even begin to explain what this experience was like other than to say it was as though we had jumped in a time machine and traveled back 100 years. People living completely off the land in every way. The children almost never had pants on (and it was pretty cold at night) and the women would breast feed in the middle of the road. Children age 8 had an infant sibling tied onto their back with a sarong and 40 year old women had 90 lbs of rice on theirs! The men stay at home and feed the children and look after the home while the women work in the rice fields all day. A remarkable number of children frolicked around half naked, so did goats, water buffalo and countless cats and dogs all living together in and around bamboo huts made by hand. I can't even explain what it was like, but I'll certainly include some pictures as soon as they are done.

That night after playing with the children and trying to find a common ground between the language barrier (facial expressions and games worked well) we settled in for dinner. Every meal consisted of rice (surprise surprise) and some sort of vegetable, chilies, and usually pickled fish. Yep, breakfast too! After dinner, we enjoyed some lao lao (rice whiskey) and in came the teenage girls for a massage which is traditional in these villages. The girls were dressed in their nicest clothes and giggled back and forth to each other about how cute our guide was while they massaged us. It was certainly not your typical serene massage, but so fun all the same.

The next morning, we had to gear up for a big hike. 8 hours up and down the mountain side straddling China and Burma. We did about 15Kms that day, most of it uphill as well. The views were breathtaking and again, the reward of another Akha village made it so worth while. Upon arrival, a shower was in need... so I tied on my sarong, and headed to the water spicket, followed by every child in the village. They watched as I struggled to keep my sarong on while washing the important was pretty hilarious! After that, more food, and some excellent interaction with the children. I had them all playing air instruments in our own little pretend band! Sooo fun. They got the biggest kick out of it. I could hear them singing all the way up at the house 20 minutes later!

Another massage, similar to the previous one, but a bit stronger (which was nice) and then layed down and had a great conversation with Phone. He told us all about the Akha culture. Everything from their religions, to societal roles, to sex lives. Really amazing stuff.

By the next morning, we were about ready to get back to "civilization" if you can call it that! We trekked for about 4 more hours through a couple more villages and finished up at the tuk tuk to take us back to town my 3pm to catch the last bus back to Luang Nam Tha.

Yesterday morning we woke up and jumped on a 8 hour bus to Luang Prabang in central Lao where I sit right now!

Whew. I didn't even come close to saying everything that I'd like to, but the photos should tell the story, don't worry, they're on the way!

Off to Cambodia tomorrow or the next day to visit Angkor Wat...just google it, trust me!


Sunday, November 4, 2007

Halloween inThailand...of course!

In my last blog, I was taking it easy and trying to let my wounds heal up, which I am still doing...but I did take a pause to celebrate Halloween of course! Mick and I decided, what better way to celebrate Halloween than to make fun of ourselves, plus, it was pretty darn cost effective!

You see, in Thailand, many many Farang (foreigners) get injured in motorbike accidents. 5 a day just in the 3,000 person town of Pai, so needless to say, we were quite a spectacle with bandages wrapped all around us. Everyone was very sympathetic to our condition, but it got old after the first day having to tell the story of the magically appearing speed bump! We thought the best way to combat the comments would be to play it up a bit. Mick had a set of paints in his bag so we did up the bandages with some "blood" (we also added one around our heads for dramatic irony!) and made signs to hang from our shirts that had a motorbike with a circle and line drawn through it. We accessorised the sign by writing Farang in both English and Thai so that everyone would be able to read it. As soon as we walked in to the Halloween party at the nearby bar, everyone was laughing! There was one thing that we didn't calculate however...the fact that no one believed that our wounds were real! After about 3 slaps on my open wounds, we decided that it would be best if we told everyone that they were real (it started to get really painful). The pain paid off though, because, surprise surprise, we won the costume contest! One bottle of 100 Pipers Whiskey sure helped to ease the pain. One of the judges had slapped me twice because he didn't believe me, so that might have helped in the win as well!

The next day, we were feeling a bit better and decided to chill in Pai for another day. We decided against the Raiki due to the fact that it was both pretty expensive and time consuming and after having spent 5 days in one spot, it was time to move on. On our last day in Pai, we felt like celebrities! Everyone remembered us from the night before and was calling us "costume champions"! It was great to spend some time in a beautiful place and really get to know the locals. They really accepted us and appreciated our humor in making fun of ourselves. It made for a pretty memorable time!

I was originally planning on going South to the beaches by today, but after careful reassessment, I've decided that I will stay North for a bit longer until I heal up for a couple of reasons. 1:I can't swim, and being at all those white sand crystal clear beaches would be shear torture. 2: It's still raining there and again, can't get the dressings wet 3: I've been told by so many other travelers that Laos is the place to be, and that Southern Thailand is just another huge tourist trap. There is so much to explore in Northern Laos, and some really good environmentally friendly trekking here, so I decided this would be a better option. I should be all healed up by Tuesday, and then the trekking shall begin.

Crossing the border from Thailand to Laos was quite interesting. You simply jump on a ferry across the Mekong River (about 1/4 mile) and you're in a different country! Got to buy your visas, and you're in! That's it! I must admit I felt kind of embarrassed checking into the country with an American Passport after the tragedy we caused this beautiful country during the Vietnam War. Laos was the most heavily bombed country in the world, and they were neutral. I think I'll tell everyone I'm Canadian from here on out (which is never a bad idea, except when someone tries to speak French to you and you don't understand!)

Right now I am typing on a computer located in the most remote town I've been to yet called Luang Nam Tah which is in Northeastern Laos. 35,000 people live here, but I'll be damned if I know where they all are! Heck, all 12 people from the bus-ride here got into the same Sangtheaw (truck-taxi) along with luggage and 2 chickens!

More in a few days kids! I love you all!