Thursday, May 30, 2013

Mind the gap

Night train Nong Khai - Bangkok
 It was a funny way, the one I choose to exit sleepy Laos… The pick-up brought me and some fellow travelers way too early to Thanaleng station, where we were supposed to take the connecting train over the border, to Thailand – Nong Khai station. What to do with one hour to spend at a remote and desperately empty railway station outside Vientiane? Ok, first pay the USD 10 for the 1 day overstay but then – then kill two bottles of whisky with the local station staff and the crew of the train you are about to board. Yes, that’s what happened, my little knowledge of Lao vocabulary flattened the way into the funny round at the only table of the station. The 6 of us really killed the two bottles within one hour (felt like 10min). The driver of the train was a responsible guy, he only had a few glasses, instead of several. Then it was time to go, ciao Laos, welcome Thailand, country no. 4.

Bangkok - from Bayoke Tower

The night train brought me to Bangkok, where we arrived in the early morning hours. The vibrations and noises of the train kept me easily awake, even though the early morning times. Looking out of the windows, I could see how we slowly but surely arrived in a bigger town. The tracks took us through slums, school areas, Don Muang airport and Porsche garages. All those environments were overlapping and seemed to sort of coexist, without much interaction. As we finally made it to the station and as we all managed to squeeze ourselves out of the tiny doors, we had to stop on the platform for another little while. Everyone dropped his bags and stood still, in order to listen to the Thai national anthem (and I thought we had left areas of Vietnam-like nation pride).

It did not take me long to arrive in the ‘’Big Mango’’. On the first day I managed to figure out how; (1) to ride for free in all the Tuktuks (just tell them to stop at their friend’s tailor- or jewelleryshop, the driver will get a coupon for food if he brings customers), (2) to end any conversation with aggressive street vendors who intend to sell you ‘’bumbum with young lady’’ (just ask them about their daughter) and (3), to find a drumset! After not having hit any snare or tom for almost two months, my hands started to abuse any pair of chopsticks available. To find a true set and rent it for one hour was a true relief – for an addict like me. Two days after, my drummers heart experienced even greater joy, after playing jazz in Paris and seeing Jojo Mayer live in Bern, another milestone was achieved, I joined a late night blues session in the heart of Bangkok. Should you ever be in Bangkok and tired of all the lady boys, hookers and street vendors of Khao San road (the most famous backpacker and tourist spot), I strongly recommend to walk to Samsen road 13 and enter ‘Adhere the 13th’, where you can enjoy high quality Lao beer and live blues at its best. Should you be a musician yourself, you would be more than welcome to jam along – a great place.

BKK China Town
During the 5 days in Thailand’s capital city, I also figured out that the best way to travel around the city is the boat-busses, which circulate on the many rivers and canals with high frequency. For a fraction of what a Tuktuk or taxi driver would charge you and with a lot more atmosphere than the subway or the sky metro the boat busses bring you around town in no time. They also bring you to Bangkok Chinatown:
Maybe together with the Chatuchack weekend market, Chinatown and the surrounding Little India and Arab Corner made it to my favourite places in Bangkok. And guess what, with the aid of funny gestures and ‘miiaaoo’ noises, I found a place where I could finally satisfy my cat-hunger (Bangkok has it all, from drumsets to lady boys to cat soups)! The soup was delicious (no kidding here), although the meet was very well boiled and maybe I did not experience the true flesh taste due to the quite spicy soup. I shall go for another one in Chengdu therefore, one without a soup around it. Plus, I don’t know, maybe it’s the cat, but somehow I feel like I could go for a rat right now…
Apart from the food experiences in China Town, I was also fascinated by the network and cluster effects that perfectly played their power in those areas. All Hindus, all Chinese and all Muslims somehow managed to live together and to create their very own Bangkok around them. I could even pull out my few words of Arab, in order to communicate with locals at a mosque.

Hello? - Anyone? - Minglaba?
Then it was time to leave vibrant Bangkok, country no. 5, Myanmar and my friend Fred were waiting in Yangon for me. My previous position at Panalpina Airfreight allowed me to travel for free from Yangon International Airport to Yangon down town. After riding on the back of a local pick-up to the main bus station, I quickly made friends with a Qatar Airways airfreight staff, who paid for me the bus ride downtown. I never imagined that my internship in Basel would one day allow me to ride a bus for free in Yangon Myanmar… Once Fred and I met up, we wanted to arrange a short call home, in order to confirm our arrival (see picture) – our efforts were not honored with success.

In Myanmar were welcomed by the friendliest people I have met so far on the entire trip. People are happy to see foreigners, have a short talk with them and maybe show them their business. We came to see a local printing office (where my little knowledge about Heidelberg machines was a good deal of help), as well as a local movie production office. The latter also inspired us to go to a local cinema – which was a great deal of fun too. Other than being impressed by the locals and their friendliness, we visited various pagodas in Yangon. Dressed up like locals (with a long skirt) we visited also the Shwedagon Pagoda, one of the most important buildings in Buddhism. Unlike in Mecca, anyone is allowed to visit the pagoda, even a nonbeliever like me. We visited this mighty place a sunset time and stayed until the night arrived. Impressed by this much gold and the sound of 3154 little bells in the wind, we could not leave. We circled the pagoda twice and hat good talks with monks who came to this place from near and far. Later that evening we explored another local custom and chewed some tobacco nuts. All the men are doing this here, all day long. Once they are done with a nut, they spit it out on the street – which is fun to watch and irritating at first for sure.
Shwedagon Pagoda
Yesterday we spontaneously entered a local train which took us during three hours around entire Yangon. On the way we saw beautiful places, had funny conversations with locals and witnessed how Buddhism is not able to deal with family violence. In brief, take the local train should you ever come to Yangon, it will make your day. At the time we were back, the daily rains as well as darkness have arrived – mystical. 

Fred vs. Asia
Next destination: Inle Lake.

Stay tuned, GH.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Chaos in Laos

The floor is even! No its not, its definitely not flat! - or is it?
We never really figured out, whether the floor of the Moon Pub in Vang Vieng is now actually flat or uneven. In spite of the floor question, the place anyhow made us wonder, its strangeness is hard to be topped - maybe on the same level as an unique party I once attended in ancient soviet buildings, in the middle of Estonia. To give you a hint of what was happening there; first of all, to get there you needed to cross an ancient airbase, built by the Americans some 40 years ago (mostly to support the operations in Vietnam, also to export tons of opium, which was growing happily on the fields around Vang Vieng). Bewildered by this historical place, you would then arrive at the Pub, located in a sort of hangar/barrack, filled with 1.50 tall hookers standing on beer cases to appear taller - that's why the floor question came in. Then when looking around, checking the crowd, you could not tell whether people were on alcohol, weed, mushrooms or sober. Some of them might also been bitten by the giant spider that was crawling on the entrance door. In brief: Chaos in Laos.
Sunset view over Luang Prabang, Phousi Pagoda
Before we eventually ended up in the chaos of Vang Vieng, we took some pace out of our journey and travelled during two days on a slow boat from Huay Xai via Packbeng to Luang Prabang. The boat ride took two full days on the Mekong, driving us through breathtaking scenery and manouvering us through razor-sharp rocks that stick out of the river, due to the current dry season. The captains were skilled enough to ensure a very confortable ride, on which we had time to become friends with some great people. With some Canadians, Americans and Germans who we met on the boat, we decided to kick off our swimming season at the Kuang Si waterfalls near Luang Prabang. Quite some monks shared our intentions:
How much Laos can one get into 1 picture?
The falls were absolutely amazing, one of the most beautiful places of the entire trip so far. We met a guy from Brazil over there, he was close to tears, telling us that he had never been to a more beautiful place in his entire life before. Since the water was surprisingly fresh, we could finally also cool down from the 40 degrees Celsius, that made the last days to a permanent bath of sweat.
Luang Prabang itself was by far smaller than we expected. With some 60'000 inhabitants, it barley is a town. However, with lots of French influence remaining, and a well preserved Lao culture, the place is tempting to stay for more than just a few days. Also in Luang Prabang, we found a bbq-restaurant which is run by two guys from California, US. So it came that one night we skipped our fried rice and noodle soup diet and went for a huge and delicious piece of meat. Similar to the wine experience we had in Hoi An Vietnam, as we did not have a proper piece of meat for quite some time, it felt as the best meat we ever tasted.
In a mini-van, driven by a pirate, we squeaked around the curves on the way further south to Vang Vieng. This very beautiful piece of road (Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng), with mountains high enough and valleys deep enough to scare some of the passengers, made us feel a bit like home. Again our wish to still be on the bikes came up, maybe only because we did not really trust our pirate behind the steering wheel. An even better idea would be to conquer the country by para glider - this would allow one to get more out of the beautiful mountains and to get rid of those endless hours in tiny Lao buses.
Vang Vieng is famous for the 'tubing' which means that you get a tube and a tuktuk, drive some 5km upstream and then let yourself float back again, with the one of the other stop a one of the bars along the river. As we stopped more than once, we did not make it back before a huge thunderstorm broke out. The strong winds coming along with it made us float upstream (!) at times. Apart from the tubing, there is not too much to see in Vang Vieng. Too many restaurants and bars, no true Lao culture and more western than Asian food on the menus. Far different from places like Oudomxay or Huay Xai.
Kiridara resort? approved!
Now we are in Vientiane, the capital of Lao. Still we are travelling with Josh (US), Daniel and Thiemo (DE), who shared with us a great time since we met on the slow boat. Vientiane is also the place of splitting up, the three will head for Ha Noi Vietnam, Flo took the bus this morning towards Udon Thani Thailand, from where he will take a flight to Chang Mai Thailand. He intends to spend a week or ten days in a monastery, with no talking, no drugs of any kind, hoping to learn proper meditation. I wish him good luck for this, although, knowing him well, I doubt that he will endure the full week... . Flo and I had an absolutely great time and unique moments, like back then when we:
- were arguing with an entire lobby filled with Vietnamese officials and neighbours
- had a swim in a bay famous for shark attacks
- threw baby powder at strangers in order to celebrate Khmer New Year
- nearly died on our way from Saigon to Ha Noi
- tasted snakes, krickets, ants, dogs, French wine or Californian bbq

The above picture is showing the two of us, chilling in a pool of a five star resort in Luang Prabang. Of course, we sneaked in for free, because we can. My time in Laos is also coming to a halt. Tomorrow I will enter a train bound for Bangkok. After a short stay of a few days in busy BKK, I will fly to Yangon, Myanmar where I will meet up with Fred, another great friend from back home.

Congrats to the Swiss Hockey team for a) the silver medal and b) demolishing the Yankees in the semi final, that earned me some good money ;-)

until then, GH, living the life.

To finish this time a bit different (not talking about my hunger for a cat), here is some wisdom that I would like to share with you dear readers. Its a quote coming from the Bertrand Russell book, which has been me travel companion since the very first day:

"In action, in desire, we must submit perpetually to the tyranny of outside forces; but in thought, in aspiration, we are free, free from our fellow men, free from the petty planet on which our bodies impotently crawl, free even, while we live, from the tyranny of death." - Bertrand Russell

Saturday, May 11, 2013

New World

Success! After talking to various backpackers and local scalpers, we managed to find buyers for both of our bikes. ''Claudette'' and ''Du Hung'' were sold for a total of $600, the exact same price as we paid for them initially in Ho Chi Minh City. Given the fact that Ha Noi and Saigon are two totally different markets, we were pretty lucky. Overall the journey on the Honda Wins cost us about $150 for both (all included, repairs, fuel etc), which is still less compared to bus prices from south to north. To sum it up, travelling through Vietnam on a bike with zero bike experience and a fake licence is just great, its the only way to discover the true Vietnam.
Enough about bikes, we sold them and took the night bus up to Sa Pa, a mountain village in the very north-western corner of Vietnam. It is always a battle of pros and cons, when its about night busses; yes, you somehow save time as you travel while you sleep vs. no, you will not sleep anyway in these shitty 160cm long beds with all the Asian-Karaoke-Sound coming along with it.
We arrived after few minutes/hours of sleep in the early morning hours. Sa Pa and its neighbouring villages are known for the different tribes that live up there. Most popular and biggest tribe are the 'Mong', others are the 'Zai' or the 'Dsou'. All of them have their very own language plus they speak a crushed Vietnamese to communicate with each other. To fully get into this new world, we decided to do a home stay instead of an overpriced hotel booking. A French couple which we met in Cat Ba recommended us this option, and also told us about 'Shosho', the lady at whoms place they were staying. So it came that Flo and I were wandering through Sa Pa market at 7am, looking for a certain 'Shosho', who supposedly has her right hand cut off (now think of the gestures and conversations we had this morning). Eventually we sat on the back of two scooters who brought us to Ta Van, a village some 15km below Sa Pa. 'Shosho' was no where around, instead a certain 'Sausai' who was offering home stays as well. However, here place was nothing like a home-stay, it was more like a Ho-Tel. We waved her off and started to talk with two local Mong women. After some talks, they started to walk up mountain with us and brought us to 'Xu's place. Xu is also a Mong and we were told that we could stay at her place, if we wanted. Of course we wanted, since the house was in the middle of all the rice terraces and since it was truly a Mong home, nothing artificial.
We spent the day walking through the rice fields, talking to Mongs, playing with locla children. Xu and her family were absolutely genius, we had a great time. She told us that together with her husband, she would like to get into the home stay-business. We, being her first guests ever, told her to please not transform her lovely house into another fake home stay that will sooner or later appear in the Lonely Planet, she should rather keep it as real and simple as it is now. Should any of you readers be interested in this option, I have name, address and phone number of Xu.

Monastery in Houay Xay
After having seen a totally different Vietnam in Sa Pa and Ta Van, our days in the communist country were numbered, we headed off towards Laos. In busses and banana cases with wheels we drove into the interior in Southeast Asia. Again, a totally new world awaited us. With Dvorak's New World Symphony in the ears, we kept on climbing up and down the endless jungle mountains of northern Laos. In between we saw rural villages, huge areas of deforestation, bomb craters from one of the two Indochina wars and over and over again, beautiful views. At times, the wish of still sitting on the bikes came up, since the streets in Laos seem to be much saver and much calmer. However, with only very few mechanics on the way, it would not really be ''Claudette-Land'' here.
We arrived in Houay Xay and directly went to the booking office of 'The Gibbon Experience', which is a local tour operator, offering trekkings into the Lao jungle, with the possibility to see Gibbon monkeys in wild life. So it came that we spent the last three days far from any civilization, deep in the jungle. We slept in tree houses, we zip-lined through the bushes and we swam in remote jungle waterfalls. It was an amazing experience, mother nature at its best. This morning we got up at 4am, zip-lined through the darkness and walked to a viewpoint, from where we could follow the breathtaking sunrise

We were lucky to have an experienced guide, he knew exactly where to be at which time, in order to actually see a Gibbon. There is unfortunately no foto-proof of it, but we did see one, rushing from one tree to another, too fast for any camera. I do have pictures however, from all the spiders, rats and praying mantis, with whom we shared the tree houses at nights.

Yes, the guys were huge and not for all of our six group members...
I shall however terminate this post with nicer pictures, showing our main activity of the past days,  ziplining through Lao jungle mountains:

stay tuned, GH

(p.s. no cat could be found in Ha Noi :-(

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

From south to north

Strawberry Rice fields forever... We made it! Approximately 2'000 km lie behind us, yesterday evening we arrived in Ha Noi, with our bikes. With goose bumps on our arms, we drove over Long Bien Bridge in Ha Noi, the view over the town and its humble skyline was proof that we arrived. Unlike when exiting Ho Chi Minh some two weeks before, we were very confident on our bikes. With ease we curled through the masses of motorbikes, busses and lorries. We will encounter difficulties back home in Switzerland, should we continue with our Vietnamese driving style... It really is a dangerous place, the streets of Vietnam. Everyone is a pirate, and every second one is drunken on top. Worst of all are the bus drivers, they must be under immense pressure to maintain a certain schedule and to run their line as fast and as many times as possible. The only way to survive is to become a pirate yourselve and to have a rice wine with locals here and there. Sometimes I tried to explain their way of driving with their sacrificial offerings; we visited multiple temples and religious locations where people would offer literally anything, hoping that it would bring them luck. Some offered money to the goods, others a watermelon or a pack of cigarettes. Right after they would swing themselves back on the scooter and hit the road with not a single look back, left or right. With 40 deads per day on Vietnamese streets, I am sceptical about this method of insurance...

Our journey through Vietnam took us to places where no bus or train would ever take you to. We stopped at beautiful small fishing villages to taste delicious seafood meals, we made breaks at remote beaches that we only had to share with sharks. All in all we both somehow cought fire with this travell-on-a-bike-through-a-remote-destination idea...

The picture on the right is showing the morning sun over Tam Coc (near Ninh Binh). After stopps in Hoi An, where we got some tailormade suits, and Hue, we arrived at 6 am at this wounderful place. To gain some time, we loaded our bikes from Hue to Ninh Binh in a nightbus, which turned out to be a great decision. At the time we arrived in Tam Coc, no one was awake yet, just us and the sun. We still managed to hire a local lady for a boat trip through jungle hills, sharp rocks and underground caves.
Later that day we (stopped at the mechanic again for Claudette) headed for Hai Phong, the container harbour of Ha Noi. We managed to find a ferry to Cai Vieng the same day:
Once on the island, we drove to Cat Ba. Amazing landscapes and a broken clutch accompained us on the way. Once there we were about to discover that every single room in every thinkable place was taken by Vietnamese tourists who came here to celebrate the Victory of North Vietnam over South Vietnam. As everything was full, we had to take any offer available and were in the end happy to find this cosy place:
Ok, yes, it was full of cockroaches and the roof was leaking. But guess what, we are in Asia and this is Asia. Furthermore, the room came with a private roof-top terrasse, which offered us the best view you can get on Cat Ba harbour and on the festives taking place due to the independance day. So we spent a good time with the following view, some beers, and communist songs in the background.
 The reason why we eventually went to Cat Ba was not the town itself (although worth a trip), we intended to book a boat trip through Lan Ha Bay and Halong Bay, starting from Cat Ba. Should you ever intend to see the Halong Bay as well, I strongly recommend to do it via Cat Ba as well. Prices are not even half as high compared to what you pay from Hanoi or from Halong City. We managed to book a tour for $20 each, including a full day trip through the two bays, snorkling, swimming, caves and kayaking in the bays plus food included (and even good and plenty of food).
Halong Bay really is as beautiful as you always think. More than 3'000 islands and hills offer a unique experience. There are two downsides however 1) in Halong Bay itslef, there are too many tourist boats (go to Lan Ha Bay, fewer boats there, just as beautiful). 2) The littering issue! The bays are in parts full of swimming plastic bags, water bottles or beer cans. Its horrible how this amazing place gets more and more ruined by the waste thrown into the sea. We witnessed a couple of times how Vietnamese people threw their empty bottle or can out of the ferry into the water, as if it was supposed to be like that... It also has some dangers when swimming in the bay, you might easily confuse a swimming plastic bag with a jellyfish...

Nonetheless, we had a great day in the bays, our endless hours in the saddles of our bikes were more than rewarded. The following morning we left Cat Ba in pouring rain, we were heading for Ha Noi. Voila, here we are now, trying to sell our bikes. It seems however, as if Ha Noi is not really the best place to get a decent price for a Honda Win. These ''Hondas'' are made in China and are far less seldom in the north than in the south of Vietnam. While a really good Honda Win costed about 350-400 USD in Saigon, similar bikes are available here for 250-300 USD. So we will see... either we find a French backpacker willing to pay a nice price, or else we will keep them and drive to Sapa by bike instead of bus. This would ultimately mean that we would also take them to Laos later on... (if Claudette does not fall apart earlier).

Ha Noi is at the same time probably the last chance to find a fried cat - unless I might be lucky in Chengdu, China later on...

stay tuned,