Friday, August 28, 2009

Phnom Penh, Moi, Bee, Bey (1,2,3)

"Have you been to Phnom Penh?"
"How was it?"
"Shit"/"Dirty and disgusting"/"Hated it"/"I got robbed 4 times"...etc etc

This has been the general gist of conversations we've had with people who have been to Phnom Penh. Combine this with the fact that the L.P warns of bag snatching rip offs and general dodginess in the capital, we were shitting ourselves at the prospect of spending much time there.

After reuniting from our week apart, we stashed our wallets, cameras and anything else of remote value in our hostel room and heading out with minimal cash for dinner, expecting to return battered, bruised and penniless. Luckily, we survived day one without any issues and after seeing the streets full of smiling moto drivers rather than knife-wielding gangs of thieves, we realised that, perhaps we over-reacted a little. Sure, PP can be a pretty dangerous city, but in our experience it actually turned out to be quite much so we ended up spending a week there all up.

Aside from the lack of visible muggings, the two things that really stood out to us in Phnom Penh were how friendly the people were and the abundance of info available for foreigners (and Cambodians) of the country's recent and difficult history. Admittedly, we weren't very well versed on Cambodia's history (we knew the basics, but nothing in great detail), so places like the S-21 prison (former Khmer Rouge torture prison) and the killing fields proved to be horrific, yet highly informative for us.

S-21 prison was quite confronting

S-21 prison

War remnants aside, Phnom Penh has some interesting markets, a stunning Royal Palace and a few nice Wats all complete with striking orange robed monks (with nicely accessorised orange umbrellas too!)

Striking orange robed monks....shame they didn't have their matching umbrellas

Royal Palace

Eight-legged lunch anyone?

Many would say the riverside in Phnom Penh is the place to be...but after trying at both the river and lakeside, we'd have to disagree. For us, the lakeside was a lot more relaxed and social, but more than anything, it housed #10 Lakeside Guest house/bar. Being the bar flies we are, this became our regular haunt where we would sit, drink, laugh and learn Khmer from the locals (we can mow say: "thank you" , "1, 2, 3, 5" (not 4), our ages, "what's the time", "eat", two different words for sex and "boobs"...all the important stuff.

Believe it or not - this is part of the bar at our guest house

It's fair to say that Phnom Penh exceeded our expectations (not hard, they were very low). We had an awesome time and were sad to leave our new Cambodian friends who made us feel so very welcome in their city...or crime...and dirt....

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Xin chào Vietnam!

Often when we arrive in a new city it can take a little while to feel comfortable - questions of; 'Is this place safe?', 'Is this taxi-driver ripping us off?', 'Will we like it here?' come to mind as we approach our new destination. Arriving in Hanoi, however, brought no such worries as it is a city we'd both been to before, during out study tour to Vietnam in 2006.

After 6 weeks of navigating unfamiliar China, a few weeks in Vietnam was going to be a breeze...after we battled our way through customs that is. The orderly customs procedure we experienced at the airport last time we came to Vietnam was the polar opposite of the land border crossing from China. Queues were non-existent as was air-con or any resemblance of order. Every part of your body was required to push your way through the sweaty crowd towards the customs window. Actually reaching the window was an impossibility, so throwing accuracy was needed to get your passport through said window and into the hands of a customs officer, who, rather than processing each passport as it came to him, decided to stamp dozens of passports at a time and return them at random, causing a frenzy amongst the waiting crowd. It was exhausting, but once finished we were back in 'nam and very happy about it!

Upon arriving in Hanoi, we found that the hostel we'd booked online didn't actually exist... awesome. We weren't exactly surprised by this, but the problem was quickly solved by our discovery of a nearby hotel owned by the same company who compensated us nicely for this mis-hap, by giving us a much better room than we had booked, for the same price! Whoot whoot!

Having covered the sites of Hanoi on our last trip, we spent our days leisurely walking around and consuming delicious baguettes and coffee in copious numbers of cafes. Basically, we were laziness personified... although we did manage to get ourselves to a water park where we spent the day floating around in over-chlorinated water, getting stared at (and mildly harassed) by locals. One middle aged man even tried to pull Amy's shorts off before insisting on a series of swimming races in the wave pool with Claire. Fun times.

One place we hadn't explored on our last visit to Vietnam, was the North-West town of Sapa, so we headed there for a few days to wonder around the beautiful mountain town and its surrounding villages. As usual, the weather was not kind to us and we spent our time in Sapa dodging storms, but this gave us more time to lazily sit in cafes and chat with the local hill-tibe girls selling crafts on the streets.

From Sapa it was onto Ho Chi Minh City, a place with some sentimental value for us as it is where we first met eachother back in 2006 (and despite what it sounds like, we're not a couple). We enjoyed re-visiting our old haunts and were amazed at all the changes that have taken place in the last 3 years.

The main reason we re-visited HCMC was to catch up with a dear friend we made in Korea - the one and only Tommy Yikes! Those of you who know Tommy, can probably imagine the hilarity that ensued. In addition to a lot of pub time, Tommy invited us to spend an afternoon with him at his school - so we went along curious to see the man in action. It will come as no surprise that we were tricked into teaching Tommy's class for an hour... Australian history to be precise. It's the kind of subject you need a little prepartion for, but as Tommy's middle school world history textbook failed to mention our country at all, we had to get creative with the facts. It was kind of fun to be back in the classroom....even if we did make up half of the things we taught! At least a whole class of Vietnamese kids now know about Kylie Minogue and K-Rudd.

Getting Tommy to act like a 'normal' person is not easy...
But we love him

At the end of our time in HCMC we were forced to do the unthinkable....we separated for a whole week!! In the last 15 months the longest we hadn't seen each other was 3 days (and once again, no, we're not a couple). Amy visited her grandparents in Perth while Claire was left to her own devices in Vietnam. Fear not though, we were reunited in Phnom Penh, Cambodia a week later!

Thursday, August 6, 2009

I'm a celebrity, get me out of here!!

In the 6 weeks we were in China, we spent a grand total of 173 hours (or, just over 7 full days) on long distance buses and trains.... and 9 times out of 10 this involved some kind of debacle or disaster, be it someone refusing to move from our reserved seats, lengthy delays, incessant staring (now we know what it must feel like to be famous), being dropped off in the middle of nowhere or just some out and out foul behaviour from fellow passengers - we've been through it all.  You may recall our "Hell on Tracks" post about our trip from Beijing to Xi'An.... little did we know then, that that trip was a walk in the park compared to what we would encounter over the next month.  

Here are our favourite stories from the road...

#1 THE RETURN OF BERTHA  (Bus: Kaili to Xijiang)

A one hour mini-bus trip to Xijiang village was supposed to be an easy trip, but, in China, things don't often work out the way they're supposed to.
A while ago, we told you about 'Bertha' - our train mate in "Hell on Tracks"... well, turns out Bertha has a twin from the Miao ethnic minority who is as equally creepy and gross as her sister... we call her Bertha II.  Bertha II also likes to stare at people and pick her nose, but, unlike her sister, she doesn't travel so well.. we discovered this when her breakfast splattered across our window as our minibus wound around the mountains.  Figuring we only had to endure the sight and smell for another 20 mins, we weren't too fussed, however, China, as always, had other plans for us.  Heavy rains had caused a pretty heafty mud-slide over the road just hours earlier, giving us an extra 2 hours to gaze at and debate about the contents f Bertha II's spew.  Awesome.

#2  KEEP YOUR FLUIDS TO YOURSELF, PLEASE (Train/Bus: Kaili to Fenghuang)

Usually when we travel on trains in China, we opt for the cheapest tickets... the hard seat (or hard sleeper for long journeys).  It's certainly not the most comfortable way to travel, but we got pretty used to it.  In addition to the hardness of the seats, the people on these trains can also tend to be pretty 'hard'.  Usually, the carriages are crowded with farmers and peasants, and without exception we were the only foreigners in sight.  On this particular journey, we got on the train to find our seats occupied by a gang of ticket-less peasants who preferred to sit and stare at us struggle to find a place for our bags rather than vacate our seats. Cheers guys.  One incredibly grubby little girl, did, however give up her seat.  Not out of politeness of course, but because she was terrified of the two funny looking foreigners standing before her.  The rest of the journey became a game of musical chairs (and stares) as every time one of us got up to go to the toilet, we'd return to find some new curious onlooker sitting in our seat.  Four hours had never passed so slowly and it was an incredibly uncomfortable journey... you can't underestimate how exhausting it is to be stared at by a carriage of people for 4 hours solid.

Adding insult to injury, after getting off the train we immediately boarded an overcrowded bus to Fenghuang.  Again, it wasn't a long journey, but by God was it painful.  

Aside from the terrible condition of the roads, the lack of suspension on the bus and a broken seat, our bus mates ensured we were grossed out for the entire journey.  As the bus pulled out of the station, the guy sitting next to us got a blood nose - not just a little one, but torrents of blood pouring out of his face.  Rather than use the packet of tissues in his hand, he chose to drip blood on the floor, just centimeters from our feet, which he didn't bother cleaning up at all, leaving us to stare at his pool of blood on the floor for the next 2 and a half hours! Joy!

As if this wasn't enough, the obligatory spewer on our bus was a little girl a few seats in front of us.  After the poor little thing had soaked herself and her dad's t-shirt with vomit, her dad resourcefully used the fabric cover of the seat head-rest to clean her up.  Needless to say our bus didn't smell or look good at all.

#3 THE CREME DE LA CREME (Hotel in Huaihua & Train: Huaihua to Guilin)

This story would have to take the cake as far as our disgusting travel stories go...

Unable to get on a train before morning, we were forced to stay overnight in a dodgy little city called Huaihua.  After a bit of searching, we managed to find a hotel that was both cheap and clean.  Perfect! As the sun was setting, we checked in and went out for a few hours, but upon returning to our room, we found our hotel was not so perfect after all.  There was one little problem... or more like 10 big problems.  Cockroaches.  We turned on the lights to find these dirty bastards on our beds, in the bathroom, under our bags and on the walls and floor.  Being too late to change hotels and given we had a very early morning train, we considered spending the night in an internet cafe, but decided we had to harden up if we were going to survive the next 4 months in Asia.  So we stayed and faced our demons...  Well, we left the lights on and pretty much spent the whole night sitting up, dispersed with periods of fitful sleep in the foetal position until we could get up at 5am for our train.

We'd never been so happy to check out of a hotel, nor had we ever been so eager to get onto a train, and we were so looking forward to the next 11 hours of roach-free sleep.  You can imagine, then, our exhausted disappointment when we got on the train to find that (a) it was from the dark ages (complete with coal powered hot water urns), and (b) that there were two women sitting on our beds who refused to move.

Tired and shitty we began the process of trying to negotiate our way onto the beds we'd paid for.  It was during this process that w noticed one of the women was holding a baby between her legs.  The baby was pant-less.  The baby was pissing and shitting all over the floor of the cabin.  The mother had removed it's nappy to allow this to happen.  The floor of the sleeper in which we were to spend the next 11 hours was covered in piss and poo. Well, that was the last straw... we lost it.
Eventually, the women got the picture that we didn't want baby crap on the floor, and removed the offending nuggets, before spreading wee all over the cabin floor with a piece of newspaper.  

With our bags safely tucked up on our tiny beds, we waited for the pee on the floor to dry and looked on in horror as people unknowingly stepped, barefoot, in the puddle before stepping onto our beds while climbing up to their own.

Claire unhappy with the piss covered floor

From sharing stories with other travellers along the way, it's pretty safe to say that we've been unlucky with our travel companions.  We've seen some pretty gross things and seen a side of China we didn't quite expect to see! While some tried our patience, they've given us some very real experiences that have kept us laughing along the way and that we're unlikely to forget.

Xie Xie, China! 

Monday, August 3, 2009

May the Hot-Pot have mercy on your ass

Our last few weeks in China were hectic compared to our slow-moving 1st month. In the 1st 4 weeks we averaged one city a week, but in our final 2.5 weeks, we managed to visit 10 cities/towns/villages in the southern half of the country.

Our first stop after the wonderful Tibet was Chengdu, capital of the Sichuan province and known for it's spicy food and pandas. To be honest, we didn't do all that much in Chengdu aside from get our visas renewed, but here are some photos of what little we did;


Our hotpot!

The owners of the Tiny Mao Museum

On a whim, we decided to head South East from Chengdu to Guiyang - theft capital of China and gateway to a number of small towns and villages we wanted to visit. Guiyang didn't have a great write-up, so we were pleasantly surprised to find that it was actually quite a cool place - a lot of energy and vibrancy with an awesome public park complete with wild monkeys!

Wild monkeys

Our next stop was a small city called Kaili. Aside from a busy internet cafe and a small night market (where you can watch the nightly outdoor group dancing classes), Kaili isn't exactly action-packed... and the people there are unusually short... but it's a good place to base yourself for day trips to the nearby minority villages. we chose to visit the Miao minority village of Xijiang and spent a day wondering the cobbled streets and admiring their unique wooden houses.


From Kaili we headed to the stunning riverside town of Fenghuang. After a long ordeal involving cockroaches, a train, a bus, a thunderstorm and getting very lost, we eventually found our gorgeous little hostel nestled along the riverbank of this amazingly beautiful town.


What could be described as the Venice of Asia (but better), Fenghuang is a town you instantly fall in love with - despite the hoards of Chinese tourists and overpriced cafes and bars (hey, at least it has cafes and bars!!)

After barely seeing another foreigner for over a week, our next destination, Yangshou, and it's crowds of Western backpackers was a surprisingly welcome sight. The town itself is beautiful and set amongst karst mountains, but rain prevented us from doing many of the activities on offer in Yangshou. Instead, we indulged in long breakfasts (that turned into long lunches) and drinking cocktails with some great people we met along the way.


While our time in Yanghou was laid-back and relaxing, we also saw something there that nearly reduced us both to tears/vomit. This involved a farmers market and some very mis-treated animals, in particular, dogs... If you don't want to know more, we suggest you don't read on.
This market had a large section where you could chose your meat in live animal form. We understand where meat comes from and all of that, but the way these animals were treated was pretty horrible. Cages crammed with a mixture of live geese, rabbits, chickens, pigeons etc lined the aisles of the market. Other aisles displayed random animal bits such as intestines, feet and testicles and there was an aisle of dead geese with their slit necks hanging off the edge of the tables. While all of this was a little unpleasant, it is something you get pretty accustomed to seeing in Asia... but we weren't quite prepared for what we saw in the back of the market. Several stalls were selling dog meat... we're not talking just a chop or a fillet here and there, but whole dog carcasses hanging from hooks, dog heads lying on the table, dogs being skinned and gutted on the floor, and worst of all, terrified looking live dogs squished in cages awaiting their fate.
We found it difficult to conceal our anger and disgust at this, but experiencing different places, cultures and practices and dealing with them even when they upset you, is part of what travel is all about, right?

From Yangshou, we headed to nearby Guilin. By this stage we were tiring of Chinese cities, so we spent our time exploring a cave on the outskirts of the city with some super tacky lighting and hung out at the nearby Longji rice terraces.

Longji rice terraces

In 6 weeks in China we saw some truly amazing things and had an amazing time... but, China can be really hard work at times, so we were kind of ready for a change of scenery. We had originally planned to head back West to Kunming in order to get down to Sapa in North-West Vietnam, but, as we tend to do, we changed our plans at the last minute and went South-East to Nanning to get our visas for Vietnam and jump the first bus to Hanoi.


We can't be bothered going through our past photos and adding them to our old blog posts so here are 2 links to some facebook albums Amy put up.