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Archive for the ‘Photography’ Category

Flashpackers!

We enjoyed the taste of luxury in Chiang Mai so much there could be no looking back. We booked ourselves in Hotel J Pattaya for some R&R, alas the backpacker budget was blown wide open. We enjoyed 3 nights there before heading back to Bangkok for one last visit. This time only 5 stars would do (so Gem said anyway…), so the Banyan Tree was to be our home for the final 2 nights. Here we enjoyed stunning views of the city from our 46th floor room, not to mention the swimming pool on the 22nd floor. A thoroughly enjoyable experience topped off with an England win…at last eh!!

So after….6 Months, 25 weeks, 173 days, 16 flights, 9 overnight buses, 6 overnight trains, 5 boats, 56 rooms, 3 home-stays and 1 earthquake

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After a few days in crazy hectic Bangkok we made a plan to escape for a while. Originally we were to head straight to Chiang Mai before being convinced to take a couple of stops on the way up. The first was an overnight stop in the old royal city of Ayutthaya. Essentially this is a poor mans Angkor, sorry Thailand but it’s true. So as you can probably guess it’s a city filled with temples. The beauty about them being you can quite easily cycle around the vast majority in a couple of hours. Although we’ve seen our fair share of temples already we decided to hire bikes anyway and explore the town.

Temples of Ayutthaya


Buddha in the tree!

After a night in Ayutthaya we headed a couple of hours north to Lop Buri, commonly known as Monkey Town. It’s not hard to see why it got this name, there are literally hundreds, maybe thousands of monkeys all over the town. No place is safe from these little creatures. The locals love them and feed them so the town is now overrun with them. It’s quite a sight to see. We stayed here for just a few hours to witness this and grab a bite to eat whilst watching the opening game of the World Cup.

Monkey on a wire


Peekaboo

Fourteen hours later we arrived in Chiang Mai by the overnight train . We took it easy during the day, watching World Cup fever building in Thailand. We managed to search out a bar showing the England game with English commentary. Kick-off was 1:30am local time so it was closer to 4am by the time we got back to our hotel. Needless to say we were not impressed by the drab performance. It was quite amusing watching the game with commentary coming from Radio 5 live via the internet and the picture from whatever Thai channel was on. At no point were the 2 things in synch, often the commentary was 2-3 secs ahead of the picture. Lets hope we do better tonight! Argentina looked very good last night so Gem’s already placed her bet on them to win, where’s her loyalty honestly!

After 3 hours of sleep we departed Chiang Mai for a 2 day jungle trek. Afterall it was our wedding anniversary and I could see nothing more romantic than a night in a bamboo hut with a mozzies for company! After this Gem expressed her need for some luxury so we sought out a nice hotel with a pool for a few days of R&R. We’ve pretty much spent the last 3 days doing nothing but lying by the pool and contemplating life back in the real world. It’s hard to believe we have just shy of a week left now! Where has 6 months gone….

Well before you all start feeling sorry for us (yeh right, eh)…today we head back to Bangkok again on the overnight train. We won’t be spending any time in Bangkok though because we’re heading to Pattaya for 1 night and then on to Ko Samet. This will be our last stop before we return to Bangkok for 1 last blow out night on the town.

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Sabai-dee Laos!

We arrived in beautiful Laos a few days ago (actually it was way longer but we haven’t had a decent internet connection to upload this blog post!). Our first stop was Luang Prabang. The pace of life is a far cry from the chaos of Hanoi. Luang Prabang is a charming little city on the banks of the Mekong. The architecture is a mixture of French colonial and traditional Laoatian (wooden houses made from teak). There are numerous “Wat” temples dotted around and a correspondingly high number of monks, more than any other place we’ve visited.

Monks at the temple


Rice stalls on the streets of Luang Prabang

The first thing that struck us when we arrived in Laos is how nice the people are. They are very gentle and friendly people and the whole place has a very different feel than any other Asian country we’ve visited. Unlike Vietnam they don’t seem to have any propaganda or museums dedicated to the Vietnam war – despite Laos being the most bombed country per capita in the world. They have transformed the bomb casings into flower pots and the craters into fish ponds. We read that more bombs were dropped on Laos than were dropped during the entire second world war – the equivalent of a plane load of bombs every eight minutes around the clock for 9 years! A frightening statistic. Most of this occurred during secret bombing missions.

We got up at daybreak yesterday to watch the daily ritual of alms giving to the monks that live in Luang Prabang. Each monk carries a gold topped wooden box in which they collect the offerings from the local people. They give ‘alms’ of sticky rice as an offering to feed the dead spirits of their past relatives. It was quite a spectacle to see the long line of monks, dressed in their traditional orange robes, silently walking barefoot through the streets of the city collecting the alms.

Alms Giving

Monks with alms

Later on we hired a tuk tuk with four other travellers and took a trip to the Kwang Si Falls. After our superb experience in Iguazu we weren’t expecting anything to match the magnificence of Argentina…. but we were very pleasantly surprised. The beautiful cascades run into turquoise pools which you can swim in! There is also a bear sanctuary as you enter the National Park. This was the first time either of us had seen real bears in the flesh!

On the way back into Luang Prabang we stopped off at a local Hmong Village and saw a very basic existence – houses made of bamboo with straw roofs but with very little furniture inside. The children of this Hmong village have a very tough life. You really feel for them and realise just how lucky we all are.

Please buy from me


Village Life


Gathering wood

We have also taken to sampling the many local delicacies Luang Prabang has to offer. The food is quite different to Vietnamese but we have loved tasting the different specialities Laos has to offer! The most famous delicacy is something called Khai Penh which is a dried river weed. It is fried with sesame seeds and served with a delicious spicy dip. Divine! We also fell in love with the Luang Prabang sausage. It’s very coarse in texture but has the most amazing flavour. In the evening there is a wonderful night market with many stalls selling everything from silk scarves and slippers to banana and coconut cakes. The sellers are much quieter here. There is no pressure or hassle to buy unlike other Asian countries we’ve been to. Neil was also very brave and decided to sample the best local culinary experience by grabbing some night market food. It was barbequed fish on a stick. It tasted superb and was a bargain $1.50!

Khai Penh

After a lovely few days of relaxing in Luang Prabang we set off on a long bus ride to Vientiane. We opted to take the VIP bus… but the bus wasn’t quite the VIP service we imagined. The bus journey was expected to take around 9 hours but after three breakdowns… yes THREE breakdowns we arrived at the Capital city 11 hours after leaving Luang Prabang. The bus driver must have anticipated that the bus would breakdown as there were about four mechanics travelling with us. It was quite remarkable to see them in action. And just when you are in the middle of nowhere and the bus is showing no sign of starting up, suddenly a moped with two passengers pulls up carrying two barrrels of fuel! The driver and his mechanics worked on the bus for a whole other hour, trying various things. Eventually the bus started again… releasing a big black cloud and then 30 tense minutes later we arrived at Vientiane bus station. Phew!

Vientiane is described as Asia’s nicest capital city. It’s so different from the frantic cities of Bangkok and Hanoi. It’s very compact and easy to get around on foot. Being so small you can see all the sights in one day. It has a big French influence here. In fact there maybe more French restaurants than Laos restaurants! We’re off to sample our last taste of Laos cuisine before we set off on another long journey to Thailand. We are booked on the overnight train to Bangkok so no doubt another travel adventure awaits…..

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We’re not sure where the time has gone but we’re already leaving Vietnam. Tonight we’re on a plane to Laos, specifically Luang Prabang.

After Hanoi we took an overnight train to Sapa in the very north of Vietnam, only about 3km from the Chinese border. The train journey was not the smoothest ride because our carriage developed a high pitched squeak after a few hours, needless to say we got very little sleep. We shared our sleeper cabin with 2 chaps from South Korea. One of them had a handful of Korean snacks with him so we had ourselves a little feast to pass the time. It turned out he was in the business of making dried noodles. He was visiting Sapa to meet with a farmer who will grow shitake mushrooms for him! His friend owned a company that manufactured zips and was along for the ride. You do meet the most random people travelling.

Sapa was probably the highlight of Vietnam for us. In order to trek in Sapa you need a guide, I’m not sure if this is local law or just advisable because there are no marked trails as such. Most of the time we felt like we were walking through peoples farms. We decided to pay a little extra and get a private guide rather than join a group tour, this turned out to be a good decision. Our guide took us through a number of local villages to get a feel for the life people lead. No doubt it is a tough life for the people of this area. In many ways it reminded us of South America with the locals belonging to various ethnic tribes, each with their own special clothing and strange rituals, for example only those women that are married can wear earrings. On our first night we did a home stay with a local family. It wasn’t anything near as primitive as previous home stays in South America but it was a lot of fun. In the end we got drunk on rice wine during dinner. Afterwards they unleashed the karaoke on us along with a few beers! It was a great night, Gem looked like a natural up there belting out the notes!

black hmong woman


Deep in thought

The next day a huge thunderstorm rolled in. Luckily it gave us a chance to recover from the rice wine before we headed out trekking again. We went through a huge bamboo forest before reaching a number of small villages and an impressive waterfall. The scenery along the way was spectacular.

Trekking in Sapa

It was a great time to visit Sapa because they are busy planting rice at the moment. Unlike the lower regions of Vietnam they can only plant rice one time per year in Sapa. The first step in the process is to get the terraces in order. These are the flat plains of land they create on the steep hills to plant rice. This is incredibly hard work for both the farmer and the buffalo, see the picture below. The terraces do create a beautiful landscape unlike anything else we’ve seen in Vietnam.

Rice terraces from afar


Buffalo in a rice paddy


Planting Rice

After 3 days of trekking we headed back to Hanoi on the overnight train again. This time there was no squeak so we managed to get some sleep at least.

Today is our last day in Hanoi so we headed out in search of our final Vietnamese meal. We weren’t disappointed with our choice either, it was probably the best meal we’ve had in Vietnam. We enjoyed a green papaya salad, BBQ pork ribs and grilled fish with noodles cooked on a hot plate in front of us. All this was washed down with a couple of drinks for the princely sum of $8.5! We grabbed a couple of fresh pineapples on the way back from one of the many street hawkers. They cut and peel them for you, the price for 2 of the freshest tastiest pineapples you’ll ever eat, 30p! We will definitely miss the food in Vietnam, although Laos promises to be good too.

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We left Hoi An for Hue, a relatively short journey up the coast. Hue is famous for the numerous temples within a short distance of the town. After visiting temples in Cambodia we opted to give the outlying temples a miss and just visit the Imperial City. It is built on the same principals as the Forbidden Palace in Beijing and housed the emperor and all his family around the 1800’s. Unfortunately most of it was destroyed during the wars. There is a lot of reconstruction going on but ultimately it was a disappointment for us. In hindsight we could have skipped Hue and gone straight to Hanoi. That said the other temples we didn’t visit might have been more impressive.

The highlight of Hue was meeting a chap from Bolton! Small world as they say. He had converted to Buddhism and lived in Taiwan. We got talking to him in a cafe whilst avoiding a storm outside. In the end we had to get up and leave because he just wouldn’t shut up! We actually had 2 Bolton “connections” in Hue. We met a crazy Kiwi couple whose mother was born in Bolton.

After a couple of days in Hue we flew up to Hanoi to avoid a mammoth bus journey. Hanoi was similar to Ho Chi Minh in many ways, non stop moped traffic and noise. That said I think we both preferred Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh. We saw some stormy weather in Hanoi too. Luckily we were sat on the balcony of the local microbrewery watching the world go by over a beer.

After a couple of days we took a trip to Halong Bay. This was definitely the highlight of the area. We stayed overnight on a Junk boat…no not a boat that was junk…a traditional (built in 2009!) Vietnamese Junk boat. It can be a minefield choosing a boat because there are so many companies and tour operators. Luckily our hotel staff were very good and recommended a company to us. After a little research we decided to go for it. We ended up on a boat called the Amber Gold. There were only 8 of us on the trip although the boat could accommodate 24. We had a lovely room and thoroughly enjoyed the trip. We kayaked around some of the caves which was really nice.

Here’s a few shots from Hanoi.

Snake Whisky


Halong Bay


Wheeling Along


Street Barber

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Hoi An

The journey from Nha Trang to Hoi An didn’t get off to a good start. We were expecting to be collected from our hotel in Nha Trang at 7pm to catch the train at 7:26pm (yes very precise times here). At 7:10pm still no sign of our pick up. At this point we also caught a glance of the clock in reception and realised that either my watch was 5 mins slow or it was actually 7:15pm! In panic we scrambled to get a taxi. The Vietnamese don’t seem to understand the term “put your foot down mate”! Traffic just crawls along, in fact yesterday was a prime example; our minibus almost got overtaken by a motorized bicycle, you know the type with a hairdryer for an engine! Anyway the train was late arriving in Nha Trang so we made it, phew!

We’d booked a sleeper carriage in 1st class, the only way us backpackers travel 🙂 We shared this with a lovely Vietnamese family. They had the bottom bunks so it was over to us to clamber up top with our rucksacks ‘n’ all. We slept suprisingly well though and arrived in Danang at 5am. Luckily our pre-arranged taxi was waiting for us so no need to haggle prices whilst still half asleep. It was a 40 min taxi ride to Hoi An. We were suprised to see all the locals swimming in the sea and playing badminton by the beach even at this crazy hour. You can’t blame them though, by 7am the sun has started to burn through and the temperatures are back up in the 30’s.

We arrived at our chosen hotel without a booking to find no rooms available until 11am. Given that it wasn’t yet 6am we decided with some sceptism to check out the other hotel they owned slightly out of town. It turned out to be the best decision we made all day. The hotel was so nice, large room, marble bathroom, balcony, tv, ac etc etc They had a lovely swimming pool and offered a free shuttle bus into the centre on request. All this for $20 US per night! It’s hard to compare with the hostels we stayed in throughout South America.

We instantly fell in love with Hoi An. It’s without doubt our favourite place in Asia so far. The quaint historic streets are filled with lovely cafes, restuarants and art gallaries. The people are very nice and approachable. It’s perhaps best known for it’s tailor shops though. Here you can get any kind of garment made for a very good price. Gem picked up a lovely dress, hopefully she can get it home in one piece! I resisted the temptation to buy a few “whistle and flutes” knowing it would be a hassle to carry them around.

Hoi An is also at its most picturesque during the evening. At this time the streets are filled with glowing lanterns of varying colour and people are sitting outside enjoying a cold beer or cocktail whilst the sun goes down.

On our second day I went on a little photography expedition. They day before I’d met a French guy who’d moved over to Hoi An 3 years previously. He was just in the early stages of starting to offer photography tours around Hoi An and the surrounding area. With the promise of seeing something a little different I signed up for a morning tour the day after. We started early at 4:45am to catch the sunrise whilst making our way to a small fishing community across the river from Hoi An. There were 4 other people on the tour too and it was a nice group. I really enjoyed the tour and managed to get some good pictures which I wouldn’t have otherwise. We arrived in time to see the fishermen returning with their catch. Following this is frenzy as the local women fight over the best fish. I’m not exaggerating; two women almost came to blows over one basket of fish. We then took a break to enjoy some Vietnamese coffee and cake. The Vietnamese make coffee very very strong, served in a shot glass with sweetened condensed milk. It sounds horrid but actually tastes pretty good. Afterwards we returned to see the fish being loaded into the smoke house for smoking. Also a number of the fish are laid out and dried in the baking sun. A short cycle ride back to the town followed. It was only 9:30am, a perfect time to meet Gem for some eggs benedict in our favourite little French inspired cafe.


After escaping the sunshine during the heat of the day we took a couple of bikes from our hotel and cycled off to the beach. We avoided the typical tourist beach and headed a little further out to An Bang beach, popular with locals and expats. It has a more relaxed feel with many bars and restaurants setback slightly from the beach. We enjoyed a lovely drink here before cycling back whilst watching the sun go down behind the mountains; a beautiful time of the day as the rice paddies are lit in a radiant red. Definitely one of those pinch yourself, life doesn’t get any better moments.

We’re now on our way to the historic city Hue.

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Nha Trang

We left Ho Chi Minh on the “sleeper bus” heading for Nha Trang. Lets just say the sleeper buses in Vietnam are not like the ones in South America…in a bad way in case you’re confused! They are this weird combination of two levels of reclining seats, a little like bunk beds on a stripped out bus, however, the beds are half the size! Anyway it was not an overnight journey so it didn’t matter too much.

We finally arrived in Nha Trang around 10hrs later. We hadn’t booked any accommodation and managed to get our cheapest hotel deal yet, $10 per night! The hotel was lovely and the room was great too. That’s one of the big differences between here and South America. In SA it’s all about the hostels whereas here it’s hotels or guest houses and the standard is excellent.

Anyway we had a great time in Nha Trang. It’s a lovely coastal town with a nice beach. The beach is popular with the locals at crazy o’clock and also when the sun is going down. It has a much more relaxed feel than Ho Chi Minh.

Nha Trang Beach

We did some snorkeling around 3 small islands off the coast of Nha Trang which was great. It was the first time for Gem and she was amazed at the underwater world. The reefs were beautiful and we saw loads of different fish. You never know it could be the PADI next. Included in the trip was a great seafood lunch. The tour guide on our boat was a little confused though. He came out wearing a Man Utd shirt and a Chelsea baseball cap! On the way back we passed a floating fishing village. Here they still fish using the traditional boats like below.

Back with the "Catch of the day".

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