Bagan

IMG_3589Having gotten off our nightmare 20 hr train journey to get here we were greeted with 37 degree heat and the usual Burmese 80+% humidity. We hopped our cab to get us to the accommodation. Now when I say cab…we sat in the back of a ute on a thin mattress and bounced around until arriving at our booked place. Our booked hotel was pretty good… considering. It was $25 a night for both of us which included breakfast of eggs, toast, fruit, pancake and coffee. The TV had a total of 4 channels none of which were in English and despite advertising wifi… We could not get any internet for the entire time we were here. That was not just the hotel but also included every cafe, coffee shop and restaurant along the entire main drag.

Between 1044 and 1287, Bagan was the capital as well as the political, economic and cultural nerve center of the Pagan Empire. Over the 250 years, Bagan’s rulers and the wealthy citizens constructed over 10,000 religious monuments (approximately 1000 stupas, 10,000 small temples and 3000 monasteries) in an area of 104km2 in the plains. About half of these remain today and so Bagan is today home to the largest and densest concentration of Buddhist temples, pagodas, stupas and ruins in the world.

Jill read in her planning books that the best way of getting around to the sights was on a horse and cart…so this was in her head as the way we must travel. Totally ignoring the motorbike hires, the air conditioned cars…nope…horse and cart it was. Fair is fair, it was a great way to get around to all the ruins, temples, pagodas and stupas. A car would have been annoying as the distances between each was quite short and the air conditioning would have no time to kick in, the busses were just packed and wrong, and motorbikes and bicycles would be in high heat on sandy tracks. The horse cart gave us a breezy, shady ride with minimal exertion and views 100% of the way.

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This was a great day. It was another of those days where our photograph count went through the roof as we snapped away at each of the relics. Each one is individual and unique in its own right, add to this the extreme detail on each one and then add the fact that each angle opens up new views and aspects. There is nothing you can do but to snap away and try (and fail) to capture some sense of just how good this place is.

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Once you have snapped away at the ground level temples etc you hit a few that you can climb up. From these high vantage points atop the pagodas you get a sense of just how vast the Bagan plains are. You basically have 360 degree views of the whole place and in every direction all you see is trees and temples. We tried to do some panorama style shots to give you guys a sense of what it was that we were experiencing. Once again they will not do it justice but hey…it’s what we’ve got.

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As we were here just after rainy season the place was lush and green, making the contrast between the red bricks of the pagodas, or the white or gold of the stupas really stand out against the green of the foliage. The area is quite hot and dry so I imagine that it could be brown at other times of the year making the contrast less defined. Either way, we had an incredible day cruising around the relics.

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We have been to several of these sorts of things so far and still have a few to go. It will be an interesting recap and comparison of these ancient sites once this leg of the journey is over. So far on this trip we have been to Hampi in India, Bagan in Myanmar, Polonnaruwa in Sri Lanka and we are yet to do but are heading off to Siem Reap in Cambodia and Luang Prabang in Laos. While the funds will not allow it on this trip, and we will have to go home and be adults for a while…we have the intention of saving our pennies and doing a similar journey to South America which will hopefully add a bunch of ancient Incan cities and ruins to further add to our comparisons.

Three Years on…

So again here we are three years after our last post and I thought that I would just follow on from the previous post and give a sense of what has changed and my thoughts on the place as it stands.  On a positive note…Bagan still rocks…the temples, the weather, the people and the prices. Everything about this place screams as a fantastic destination.

Once again the tourist numbers were way up on last time but the hotel prices were also well down. We moved ourselves to a new hotel that was much closer to the restaurant strip and we are so glad that we did. The last place had crappy wifi and was quite the trek from any restaurant worth eating at. This time we were in the heart of it all in a hotel with a little less crappy wifi.

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The biggest change that you notice  is the abundance of e-bikes…these things were not here the last time and they are a blessing. For between $5-7 a day you can hire these whispering assassins and explore the temples of Bagan at your own pace and leisure. To be honest, on your first day of exploring the temples I would still recommend doing the horse cart…it is just one of those things that you will talk about for years to come.

So on day one we hit the usual trail and snapped about 3000 photos of temples, stupas and pagodas. And it  was fantastic (again).  The first trip we bought a couple of the sand paintings but as it was towards the end of our BIG adventure we were a little cash poor and were certainly luggage challenged. This trip however  we were cashed up and had plenty of room for souvenirs (that said we only bought 2). So on day one we checked out what was on offer and the sorts of prices that you could expect to pay.

This is possibly the biggest tip of all for travellers and will be obvious to most…but never buy on the first day. By day 2 or 3 you have walked away from so many touts and have heard how low the prices can go and therefore are more likely to grab a bargain. We were wandering  the temples on day 2 and heard some Americans bartering to pay between $18 and $20 for  the same pair of pants we had been offered the day before  for $5. So day one was the usual suspect temples and the local cuisine and of course for those of you who have been following along…those damn stairs.

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So day one done and the photos taken it is off to the local restaurants. Now while we ate Asian with a smattering of Burmese last time we did not really immerse ourselves into the local fare. Something that we absolutely did this time around. Jill found and incredible little lunch joint for the next day called Myo Myo. It was a lonely planet special recommendation and involved about 30 tiny local dishes that you grazed upon as it suited you and you only pay for what you eat. This was lunch time of day two and the pair of us ate like champions and had change from $10. But the dinners were equally as tasty but were a tad more expensive as they were washed down with icy (and I do mean icy) cold beverages.

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So day one over and we hopped on the e-bikes and off we went exploring at our own pace. We saw it all. Days two, three and four allowed us all the time in the world to check out anything that we wanted. We spent an entire day when we went off  the reservation and found ourselves in random, out of the way villages. We found ourselves amid a cattle drive, and 30 minutes later were surrounded by goats. We were in the villages where all of the lacquer-ware was actually made. While commuting we came across a little market garden come restaurant. It was lunch time so we stopped.

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We ordered some local Burmese salads, a bean salad, vegetable salad, tea leaf salad and a tomato salad…and we were blown away by them all. As we were the only ones there…a conversation ensued. As this was so far off the beaten track very few tourists happened upon the place and even fewer ate the local fare. So we asked about what made the food so nice…long story short…we came back the next day (quite the effort finding it again) and had a private cooking class with his wife  in their dirt floor kitchen in the middle of nowhere.

The number one thing on the menu that I wanted to learn to make was the local boiled egg curry…and of course work out what was in those damn salads to make them so good. So back we came…everything that we needed was in the garden or in a small collection of powders and sauces. And off we went…the truest and most authentic experience you could ever have. He spoke very little English and she even less. The ingredient interpretations took some doing but we got there and after about an hour we had a feast on our hands.

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We ate, we washed it down with cold beers and when we tried to pay the comment was that it was their gift to us…now obviously that was not going to cut it…so we guessed at how much it would have cost for the food and drink and multiplied it by 4 and paid that.  We thanked them for their time and their hospitality and for the sharing their knowledge with some interested travellers.

And on the way out we happened across a local wedding…The bride and groom sitting atop an elaborately adorned oxen cart…so we snapped away.

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So the verdict is that Bagan is fantastic and a must see for all. We have been twice now and it has not disappointed either time. Put this one on your bucket list.

 

 

 

 

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Yangon to Bagan

Jill’s new found love of all things train, especially small gauge, came to the fore once again. She booked us on a 17-18 hr train journey (which ended up being almost 20) from Yangon to Bagan. We have had some spectacular rail journeys in the last 12-13 months. The Maglev in Shanghai maxing at 431kph was great, the 24 hr journey to Tibet on the world’s highest railway was also good. The steam train through the Indian blue mountains to Ooty had character as the rack and pin cranked us up the mountains, as did the ones in Shimla and Darjeeling. The beachside journey down the coastline of Sri Lanka was incredible…This one was not.

IMG_3581The first thing that she mentioned was that they were prone to being a touch unreliable and could be running up to 12 hrs late. When we arrived we were met with a 1940’s model (about when the British left) insect and arachnid riddled train. We had the best seats in the house, which was the upper class sleeper…so god knows what the other classes were like. In its defence…it did leave dead on time.

While tourism is quite new to Myanmar it doesn’t take long for people to find an angle and try it on. Before we left the station we had beggars, hawkers, bag carriers and the usual onslaught of people trying to take money from tourists in any way they can. Those on Facebook may have seen my post where we bought 10 beers for $7.10 of course on the train this was now $3 each…ridiculous…who would pay $3 for a 640ml beer (I think I may get a reality check when I get home). Anyway we set off…at half the speed of smell.

At one point I shooed one of the many Mosquitos out the window of the moving train to get rid of it… Bugger me if the thing didn’t fly along next to us taunting me before accelerating and entering the window of the cabin 3 windows in front of us. The train had so much both vertical lateral movement that while seated on my bunk I became airborne, then flew across the cabin and nearly fell out of the window. Yes…I said vertical…somebody decided to build the railway track on sections of the local motocross tracks outside each city and town.

The train hit big sections of speed bumps every 20 minutes or so…so much so that the impact all but caused renal failure as my kidneys decided they couldn’t take it any more and buggered off. Woo hoo…only 17 more hours to go… Fair is fair… Once you leave the city, the landscape is pretty. We are here in winter, just after the end of rainy season and everything is lush and green. And it is fascinating to see just how poor Myanmar is as a nation, as you quite literally pass grass huts…not just the roofs but the whole place, thatched walls and all. Add to this the corrugated iron mansions and you really do get a feel for just how poor a nation Myanmar is.

Within 45 minutes of the sun setting (which was beautiful) the lights had attracted every bug within a 2 mile radius into our cabin. So we had a choice to make…keep the only semblance of breeze by having the windows open or be eaten alive by tiny critters. When a grasshopper the size of my forearm flew in we decided it was time to close the windows. Lathered in anti bug cream and a room fogged with bug spray we tried to sleep.

At 2:30am we stopped and a local man, who could snore professionally, joined us and then left at a local stop at 6am. In a very quick chat before the train stopped…his first words to me were “thank you for visiting my country”. He was replaced by a man we found out was the regional superintendent of the railways. This meant that everyone on the train and every station we got to was kowtowing at every opportunity…so there was a constant stream of people arriving at our door or window saluting and ensuring that all was in order. Add to this the fact that each of them brought food or drinks for the boss.

Needless to say our morning coffee (Nescafé 3 in 1) was all of a sudden free. In a chat the railway king told us that they would be opening a steam train leg that day for tourists…from Bagan for a 3 hr sunrise and sunset journey. He arranged for a personal viewing of the train and photograph session. He commented that he had been to Seoul in South Korea and that their trains were very different…we agreed. He mentioned how smooth the Korean trains were and said that his were more like riding a horse. When he found out where we were staying he offered to help with organising and negotiating our taxi etc. It was 37 degrees when we arrived but felt hotter due to the humidity…did I mention it was winter.

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The scenery on the train was lovely and by morning the track had levelled out a bit and was no where near as bad as it had been for the first three hours of the journey. While the train aspect of this journey was hellish…the human interaction with the Burmese people was stunning. My initial thoughts was to recommend that nobody ever takes this journey…find another way to get to Bagan…road, air, horse cart…they all had to be better than this experience. But then you would miss the human interaction with the locals which really made the journey special. Having said that…I was bruised and battered by the time morning had come…

I remain conflicted… I can neither recommend nor dissuade such a journey.

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Yangon, Myanmar

 

I came to Myanmar back in about 2007 on a work trip and I found the place totally charming. As soon as I got back home i told Jill that this place was fantastic and that it was just the sort of place that she would love. There is an intangible quality to the place that automatically rang the “Jill would love this” bell in my head. The thing about this place is that it is clean. The locals take pride in the place and it is spotless. The skies are the kind of clear crisp blue that we have not seen since leaving Australia, There is no smog, no filth just a pretty town ready to be explored.

Myanmar has been under the control of a military regime since 1962 following a coup d’état. This military dictatorship officially ended in 2011. Throughout the military regime rule tourism has been virtually non existent but since 2011 the doors have been slowly creaking open. This all changed dramatically with the introduction of online e-visas. This officially came on line on 16 September and we applied on the 19th. So we are some of the first in under the new world order.

The change is obvious…banking facilities have gone from 2 ATM’s in Yangon to over 600 within a matter of months. The advertising on the TV is heavily geared toward the tourist…and towards the locals to encourage the tourist and greet them warmly. The travel challenges that once existed are almost gone. There is a heap of infrastructure work going on to improve things and wifi which was once non-existent and mobile phones which were impossible for foreigners to get are now all simple and commonplace.

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The first thing that I noticed on arrival was the introduction of chewing betel leaves and the constant spitting of this red goop all over the place. This was not a commonplace thing on my first trip 7-8 years ago…now it is everywhere..and it is disgusting. We checked into our hotel which was quite nice and hit the pavements as we tend to do on arrival in a new town. We headed up the main drag to town hall and the Sule Pagoda.

Across the road we went…to the main park and cruised the main courthouse before deciding we were melting (mostly me) in the 32 degree heat and 89% humidity. We checked the long range weather and we basically have 32-34 degree days the whole time we are here and humidity is set to fluctuate between 83 and 89%…good thing we came in winter. We headed back to the hotel to hide from the heat of the day with a stop at a street stall by me for lunch. A plate of rice, two curries, some dried fish and an egg $1.

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We headed out that night for a walk along the strand. We have walked along many strands and esplanades so we had a preconceived idea of what to expect…we were wrong. Safe to say this will never make any of the guidebooks. We found a joint for dinner and walked back past the earlier attractions for a spectacular nighttime viewing of them all lit up. We crashed and were up early the next morning for the main attraction.

The Shwedagon Pagoda (officially named Shwedagon Zedi Daw) is a 99 metre tall pagoda and stupa, gilded in gold, standing atop Singuttara Hill in Yangon. It is the most sacred Buddhist pagoda in Burma and wiki tells me that there are relics of four past Buddhas enshrined within. These are the staff of Kakusandha, the water filter of Koṇāgamana, a piece of the robe of Kassapa and eight strands of hair from Gautama.

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The craftsmanship of the many temples is superb – such detail, and so much gold, especially on the main pagoda (where the gold is real!) The main pagoda is currently surrounded with bamboo scaffolding as workers remove and replace the gold cladding. We spent our time hanging out at the top of the pagoda watching people praying, reading holy books, making offerings, pouring water over the Buddha (an act of merit) – all insights into how Buddhism works out in practice.

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This place was the highlight of my trip almost 8 years ago and visiting it again…I recall why. The Shwedagon Pagoda is a stunning sight and something you should add to a bucket list. Oh by the way…I was right…Jill loves Myanmar. The one trick to know is that shorts above the knee and singlet tops are not allowed in any of the holy Buddhist sites. So you must cover up. My shorts were apparently too short so I had to buy and wear a lungi or longyi the local loop of cloth, skirt, sarong thing worn by everyone here.

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Three years on…

Well here we are three years on (almost to the day) from the original post (above) and we thought it was a good idea to come back to Myanmar. There were a few reasons behind this. The primary one was that we loved the place so much another was that the Shwedagon Pagoda was covered in scaffolding at the time so our photos were just a little bit “less than”. Add o his a couple of very busy jobs and the time just seemed right.

So here we are…and how things have changed…

Firstly the airport has had a total revamp and resembles any modern day international airport…next is the surge in high rise buildings…the place is almost unrecognisable…and lastly was the number of foreign faces…they are everywhere…

Our boutique little travel destination has started to become mainstream…it is nowhere near its neighbours (Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam) but it is on its way. Encouragingly many of the things that we loved have endured. The traditional dress and the friendly demeanour remain firmly entrenched in the local ethos.

In a financial sense for travellers Myanmar has gotten cheaper. When we last came here the gates to foreign tourism had only been open for 3 weeks so the hotel prices were normalised with many places being a flat $50. Time and market pricing have set appropriate levels and the place that we paid $50 for last time was now only $30.  We maintained our previous standard and the place maintained its standards, proximity to everything and friendliness.

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Firstly I must  say…oh how we missed this…

The hustle and bustle of Asia is just something that works for us. The total assault on your senses is just amazing. The sights, the sounds and the smells are simply incredible and we immediately feel at home. So the first thing we do is hit the street food stalls for a taste of the local culture.

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We used our trusty friend “Tripadvisor” to tell us what was both nearby and good. We found the place that we wanted and off we went. Alas, every now and then TripAdvisor gets it wrong.  We headed to the 19th Street BBQ strip in the heart of China Town. Sadly the first thing that greeted us after we sat down was a small child with her hand out saying  ‘hello money’. This pattern continued throughout the meal with a gang of about 5 children working the street while funnelling any proceeds to a rather obese woman who was clearly orchestrating the entire venture. This is something that would never have happened 3 years ago.

The next was the food. To be fair it was tasty…but it was also obscenely overpriced and there was not a local face to be seen. You will pay on average  3 times the price for  your  meal here and probably not enjoy it very much. As a newcomer to Asia there is an element of excitement to it all but for any seasoned traveller…don’t bother.

So on to the main event…the Shwedagon Pagoda…

It was impressive a decade ago, as it was 3 years ago and it remains so today. It really is one of those things that you need to experience for yourself. I have been 3 times now and have been glad that I did each and every time.

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The rest of our trip in Yangon was just us doing our thing. We hit the small restaurants, the street food vendors the out of the way little holes in the wall. This may not do it for most people, but for us this is heaven. So we wandered, and we interacted with the  locals in the most authentic ways that we could.

 

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Kota Kinabalu, Sepilok and KL

Kota Kinabalu is the capital of Sabah, on the island of Borneo. Commonly known as KK it is the gateway to most people visiting Sabah or Borneo. It is the main launching point for mount Kinabalu and the range of Islands off the Borneo coast, including Labuan. We hopped the Kota Kinabalu Ferry from the Jesselton Point pier and headed away.

When we were finished in Labuan and Brunai we returned for a couple of days in KK. The first order of business was laundry as Malaysia is hot and humid, meaning that clothes get sweatier much quicker than normal. This created a problem as we dropped them off at noon with a 10am pickup the next morning…the next morning we found that it was a public holiday and everything was shut…including our laundry. The laundry would reopen the day after at 10am…but our flight left at 7am. So we had a down day… mucking around to try and get our clothes and Jill making a start on her last assignment of the year.

Some phone calls from the great staff at the hotel…and the owner of the laundry came in on his day off, retrieved our clean clothes, and delivered them straight to us. Malaysia really is fantastic and the people will help any way they can. Our hotel was right next to the night market for goods and a short walk to the food market. We had a huge seafood meal of crabs, scallops and calamari…with beer for under $20.

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The next stop was the one that I had wanted since coming here to Borneo…we were off to see the orang utans… I have had an unhealthy love for all things orang utan since seeing Clint and Clyde in “every which way but loose” and “any which way you can”. We landed in Sandakan and headed straight for Sepilok which is the home of the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre. It is 43 sq km of protected land at the edge of Kabili Sepilok Forest Reserve that was turned into a rehabilitation site for orang utans back in 1963.

Exiting the airport at 8am we were met with peak hour in Sandakan and bumper to bumper traffic on the exit to the airport. I commented to the cabbie that the traffic was bad today, who responded…no traffic…too many cars. A ridiculously long period (and 14 miles) later we arrived at our accommodation… the Sepilok Jungle Resort. This place is squarely placed in the heart of the Borneo jungle and is a 250 metre walk to the entrance of the orang utan sanctuary.

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For about $20 you can get a day pass which covers the 10am and 3pm feeding times and access to the infant orphanage. The centre cares for young orang utans orphaned as a result of illegal logging and deforestation and those who have been illegally caught and kept as pets. They are trained to be rereleased into the wild. There is an infant nursery for the littlest ones and once the orphans get their skills up they are released to fend for themselves within the protected forest. There is a twice daily feeding for those unable to cope however the meals are identical every day…making it a very boring diet and thereby encouraging them to forage for their own food.

On the visit the first afternoon we saw 4 orang utans coming in for the afternoon feeding and then another 4 in the infant nursery. Despite the “silence” signs all over the joint the peace of the jungle was ruined by the rudeness of Russian and British tourists who clearly were above the rules and their experiences were the only ones to matter.

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The next morning we headed back for another fix…while leaning on the rail watching the action Jill got a bite from a centipede/millipede. After a few hours of sitting in the jungle in the heat watching the orang utans and we headed back to the hotel pool to cool off and for Jill to do the last masters assignment for this year. After three days our sojourn into the jungles of Borneo was over. In case anyone is interested…this is a trip very worthy of replicating.

IMG_3483Having left Borneo we headed back to Kuala Lumpur for a few days and actually got out of the airport for a change. Jill had some cousins (Jen and Paul) that we arranged to catch up with while we were in town. We had a couple of drinks together and a catch up but having 2 year old twins severely impacted the time we could spend together as the attention spans were short. Our accommodation was right in he heart of Chinatown and Jill had the last assignment to finally put to bed.

She studied while I wandered the streets checking out the local sights and of course food outlets. The last thing of note was that the venom from Jill’s centipede/millipede bite combined with the left over toxins from her jellyfish sting a week or so earlier to cause a fairly nasty reaction.

Her arm swelled and the healing  jellyfish welts became inflamed and she generally became unhappy as competing toxins decided to mess with her system,

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Brunei Darussalam

Leaving Labuan we hopped the ferry to go to Brunei Darussalam. The main reason for this was to tick up another country…we were only a 90 minute ferry ride away so why wouldn’t you. The first thing that must be said is that Brunei is strictly Muslim and is dry…the whole nation…no alcohol to be bought…anywhere. It would be a short visit. The next most important fact is that Brunei has the largest oilfields in Southeast Asia…so Brunei hasn’t turned its rainforests into palm plantations. Darussalam in Arabic apparently means ‘abode of peace’.

So we hopped a ferry and headed to the capital Bandar Seri Begawan or BSB for most. The ferry ride was fine and clearing customs and immigration was a relative breeze…other than the visa cost was 4 times that which was quoted in the travel guide…but hey it was about $20 each so no real damage done. We hopped off the ferry and headed to the bus stop for the shuttle to take us to town. We knew that this was an infrequent service but talking to the locals it had not run for the last 2 days. No reason given…it just didn’t turn up.

We decided to cut our losses and caught a black list taxi (the only guy nearby offering to take anyone even near town). And $35 later we arrived at our accommodation. This place was GOOD, VERY GOOD…and the staff were possibly the nicest we have encountered in all of our travels thus far…this is high praise after a year of hotels. For those planning a trip you honestly can not go better than the Capital Residence Suites which are a 300 metre walk from the Royal Regalia Museum and 700 metres from the mosque.

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As we arrived in the late afternoon we hit the road walking to the main tourist spots. Stopping at the Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque cruising along past the Kampong Ayer (the water village) and stopping for icy cold (non-alcoholic) beverages as this place is hot. January is Brunei’s coldest month when it gets down to a frigid 30.4 degrees. We zipped around and made it back to the hotel for its nighttime free shuttle to the Tamu Kianggeh (food night market). We cruised the market where almost everything cost a dollar. We ate, we looked and happily sampled the local delicacies.

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On the drive to the market we passed the Jame’asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque which is the largest in Brunei and was built to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the sultan’s reign. It is massive. On the way back we conned the shuttle driver into stopping for photos. Upon returning to the hotel we then got the hotel staff to tell the driver to take us to the Istana Nurul Iman which is the residential palace of the Sultan. Alas you can only really get decent aerial photos of the palace but the hotel was happy to allow us to use their driver and van as our own personal tour guides…at no cost.

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The next day we would leave but in the morning we headed to the Royal Regalia Museum (Bangunan Alat Kebesaran Diraja) which displays the royal accessories used during the coronation, and the various gifts received by the Sultan from all dignitaries etc from around the world. Now this is a fascinating concept…what do you give to the man who has (or can afford) everything. The entire museum is filled with gifts and trinkets from all over the world along with the carriages, uniforms, and regalia used during various official functions.

From here the hotel once again offered us the shuttle bus to take us back to the ferry terminal…at no cost. These guys were lovely, every staff member from the desk, driver, restaurant and the cleaners were incredibly nice and were genuinely interested that we had enjoyed our stay. Luckily I met with the general manager of the hotel over breakfast and was able to tell him how good his staff were. We have not previously recommended anywhere to stay as this trip is not about that…but these guys were so far and above everything else we had encountered that we had to give it the wraps.

Oh…and all this was for about $50 a night…breakfast included.

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Mañana, Borneo and Labuan

Well this was a break away from everything on a beach in the jungles of Borneo…literally. We flew from Penang to Kota Kinabalu where we were met by our cab driver who drove us 70 minutes into the jungle. As we popped into a village of about 8 houses he stopped the car and started unloading our bags…pointing at the ocean.

In the distance we could see two boys one 18 years old and the other about six…they were doing burnouts in a red inflatable rubber duckie. He saw the cab then sped over to where we were. He grabbed both bags (no mean feat as combined they are almost 40kg) and started wading through the water to the rubber duckie. We took our boots off, unzipped the bottom of our trousers and followed the wading.

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Knee deep in water hopped on and we sat on the edge of the life saving rescue vessel and off we went to our lagoon. Same scenario on the other end…hop into the water and wade onto the sand…and be met by a grinning owner. This place is quite literally an inlet with about 100 metres of sand, about a third of that of grass and buildings…and then the jungle. There was a main building which was the size of a double garage that housed the kitchen and a dining area which was under a lean-to type structure attached. And then there was the little bungalows.

Our little villa had a ditch filled with stones running through it…we assumed it to be a drainage issue but we were raised above the ground so I don’t really know why.it may have been artistic…but in reality it was a fall hazard…especially heading to the toilet late at night. Our toilet was not in our villa but rather out the back in an open air lean-to. There was a toilet, a sink and a cold water shower which was attached to the upright of the veranda structure.

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We had a dip in the ocean, settled into our hammocks and generally kicked back for a while. At sunset we took some photos from our villa and the beach then waited for the generator to kick in. That evening we headed to the garage for a reasonable sort of dinner and crashed early…making sure to plug in all of our devices as we only had electricity overnight while the generator was running. This place is a petrol driven, internet/ technology/ communications free paradise.

The next day we swam and lazed in our hammocks…that is all you can really do here. The one bit of excitement was watching Jill’s arm swell, blister and change colours after the jellyfish sting she got while swimming. This didn’t stop either of us from going for two hourly dips and lazing on the hammocks in between…did I mention that this is all you can do here. At one point we watched the English girl who made the cocktails hop in a kayak and paddle off returning about 3 hrs later. We found out that night that she had paddled to the opposite side to a different beach…to call her mother on the cell phone…as that is what you have to do to get any sort of reception.

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Late in the day I started chatting to a guy painting a door blue at the extreme end of our 100 metre stretch of beach. He was painting the door of the soon to be established dive and snorkel shop. Many moons back I did my open water dive ticket…much to the amusement of my sisters who called me shark bait for a period. So anyway we arranged that the next day I would get a quick refresher and we would head out to dive some scuttled Japanese war ships a few inlets over. Jill would lay on her hammock.

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The few days were mostly spent in the hammock and reading…as there was little else to do here…not so terrible. From here we did the reverse journey back to Kota Kinabalu where we hopped a 3.5hr ferry to Labuan Island which is a duty free launching point outside of Borneo. To be honest there is very little going for Labuan township. It is a ferry terminal, a dock and a bunch of duty free stores. But the timing of ferries is such that you cannot do it in a day trip but need to overnight here.

As you are forced to overnight…there are very few hotels here and of course all the cheap rooms are taken…always. It was quite a funny place actually. There were a lot of girlie/boys loading up on cosmetics, a bunch of body builders loading up on supplements (and probably roids) and a bunch of drunks getting booze and taking in their daily limit to Brunai Darussalam which is only a 90 minute ferry away…but is totally dry.

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Penang

 

We arrived back in Malaysia for about the 5th or 6th time during the last year. Up until now we had not made it away from KLIA2 (the airport)…add to this two previous times and we had been to Malaysia about 7-8 times without ever having been outside of Kuala Lumpur. Alas we arrived at a time when smoke from Indonesian forest fires shrouded Singapore and Malaysia in a thick haze. We spent a night at the airport hotel then headed to Penang.

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I immediately fell in love with this place. I had always held Malaysia relatively high on my list of nice places but this early foray has placed it VERY high on my list of favourite countries. Based in no small part to the excellence of the food available here…you can get anything you like here…add to this the happy and friendly nature of everyone you meet…how could you not love the joint.

Malaysia has been recorded as a major trading hub on the spice route going back as far as the 1st century AD. It seems to have had for almost all of its time a multi-ethnic, multicultural, and multilingual society…which continues up to this day. Malaysia’s foreign policy and apparently the populations policy is “officially based on the principle of neutrality and maintaining peaceful relations with all countries, regardless of their political system.” This means that they pick no fights and generally try to resolve issues pragmatically. As such there is very little disharmony and the place is a pleasure to be in.

We set up camp in the old town section of Georgetown which is the heart of the tourist district. On our first day our hotel owner sat with us for about 30 mins and on a map pointed out all of the tourist sites and identified the lesser known ones that were not to be missed. For the ones with a bit of distance he added the bus numbers, where to catch them, how long it would take and how much it should cost. All of this at no cost and with no benefit to him other than making sure that our stay was as pleasant and fulfilling as it could be…WOW…

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The main thing you see when you hit the old town section of Penang is the street art. It is everywhere. It started from small beginnings in an attempt not to lose the history of the neighbourhoods but has grown a life of its own. Every street, every corner, any spare bit of wall is fair game for what has become roaming gangs of artists. Not graffiti…actual art. And some of it is incredibly clever and it adds a whole level of character to old crumbling buildings…so much so that the crumbling etc is incorporated into the art. The street art here is a beast in its own right so I will do an extra sideline for this alone.

On the first night we migrated into little India in search of a feed and a beer (which we thought may be a little challenging in an overtly Muslim country). No issue. We wandered through typically (sort of) Indian streets and markets with spices, trinkets, saris, tailors, food and gram everywhere you looked. I say sort of…because it was clean here…no urine and faeces (human or cow) on the road. The water was clean and running (not in a rusty, filthy drum) and all the scary bits about India were removed leaving only the best bits.

With this knowledge we happily settled in for a meal. Alas it had been too long between curries for me and I went crazy with the ordering. I absolutely love the concept of having a bit of everything…thali style…but for two of us spraying orders across the menu is less than ideal. Either way I ordered about 6 mains for the two of us…plus breads and beers. What was delivered was authentic Indian…it was good. I however have been reminded of the two dish ordering rule…in my defence…we ate it all…and it was fantastic.

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The next day we hit the road following the map suggestions of our hotel owner which were spot on. The first port of call was the local Yum Cha (Dim Sum) joint about 150 metres down the road. We then wandered up “Jalan Mesjid Kapitan Keling” commonly known as harmony street…why harmony street…Because the Kapitan Keling mosque, Kuan Yun Chinese temple, Saint Georges church, Hindu Sri Maha Mariamman temple, Cathedral of Assumption, Acheen street mosque, Nagore shrine and the Khoo Khongsi clan temple are all located side by side within a 5 minute walk. As they have done for the past 180 years.

So we wandered the street hitting the end where we found Fort Cornwallis, town hall, city hall, and a bit further on and around the corner the Cheong Fatt Tze mansion for the guided tour. All of this was on the recommendation of our little dude and it was all awesome. The only detractor of this was that the town was still choked with smoke from the Indonesian fires, it was about 34 degrees and high humidity…and we both had bellies full of curry and yum cha making it a touch uncomfortable.

We hid In the air conditioning for a few hours before heading out to the red garden food court which is a brilliant food court style eatery surrounded by almost every type of hawker stall you can think of. We got our seat, ordered our beers and off I went in search of food. Alas I completely forgot (or disregarded) the 2 dish rule…I cannot be trusted with so many delicious food options. We had Chinese roast duck, Syrian schwarma, Asian braised pork belly, some Malaysian noodles and German beers and got change from a $20. Oh my…we would be back.

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The next day we got up late and missed our yum cha and had to settle with coffees and scones for Jill. We then hit the art trail using the well appointed map supplied by our little hotel dude. Another high temp high humidity day but 4-5 hrs of walking and checking out and photographing the street art…followed by another night at the hawker stall for another spray of delicious goodies from across the region.

The next day was day 365…our 12 month anniversary since departing Australia. We had a day in…blogging, this and our 365 post followed by a revisit to little India for more curries. My god I love this place. The next day was sushi train, some assignment prep for Jill and back to the food court for our last meal in Penang as we would be leaving early in the morning to head to Borneo.

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365 days…

Well today officially marks 12 months since we left Australia on our midliferadventure. We flew out on 13 October and here we are a year on… Both of us fitter, skinnier, more tanned, better travelled…and yes more broke. Some of you think that we have been on a long holiday which in part is right but the counter point to this is the fact that this sort of trip transcends a holiday and becomes hard work.

I got into a Facebook drama with my sister Karin about this point as she seems to think that this has been one very big, very easy jolly…which it has not been…she seemed to be further supported by my other sister and KAT. Perhaps some of you will never be convinced of such a fact but this has been hard work. We have gone past the holiday and are firmly into traveling…a nuanced distinction many of you will probably not make but trust me it is a very real distinction. Especially when you are married to a slave driving, mountain goat such as my wife.

Don’t get me wrong…I would not trade this experience in for the world and we have done some incredible things along the way…we have ticked off some major bucket list items… Including some that were never even on the list. So a year into the trip it is time to take stock and see what it is that we have actually done. Needless to say at times Jill and I have had different views on the best and worst bits of the trip thus far.

So this post will be a snappy recap of the best and worst bits and some basic stats on just what it is we have done over the period away from friends and family.

Number (#) of days – 365

# of countries – 8

Actually a bit dirty on this number…Taiwan, Hong Kong and Tibet in my mind are all different countries but officially they all only count as China.

# of cities – 101

This obviously does not include the transits.

# of photos taken – 18,682

We had previously done a 9 week honeymoon through Europe and Egypt and came back with 36 photographs. So this number represents a major shift in philosophy on our part.

# of different beers – 135

This only includes those that I have sampled on this tour…but it seems like a worthwhile thing to continue.

# of plane flights – 48

Wow…even I had not thought that the number had gotten that high. We are frequent fliers on almost every airline group that exists these days.

# of airlines – 17

# of train rides – 52

This is only the long hall transit type train journeys and does not include the metro rides within a city. The shortest was one hour long (excluding the maglev) and the longest was 26 hours. The fastest hit 431kph on the maglev in Shanghai while the slowest was under 10kph on the Ooty train.

# of bus rides – 20

Once again this does not include airport transfers, local busses or the various short journey chicken busses.

Highest point – 5248 metres above sea level

Best and Worst

Category Jill Richard
 
Best Day Taj Mahal and Fort Halong Bay
Worst Day Sick in Jaipur Climbing Tai Shan
Best Experience Cant split between Hampi, Everest or Jiuzhaigou Food glorious food
Worst Experience Bhubaneswar Mt Everest – nearly killed me
Best Country China China – variety won
Worst Country India India (also had some of the best bits)
Best City Hampi Penang
Worst City New Delhi Bhubaneswar
Best Airline Indigo Air Asia X
Worst Airline Spice Jet Spice Jet
Best Hotel Garden Hotel Datong Garden Hotel Datong
Worst Hotel Sri Shyam Calcutta Sri Shyam Calcutta
Best Driver/Guide Tappa (Hampi) Tappa
Worst Driver/Guide New Delhi driver Most Indian Tuk Tuks
Best Toilet Xiamen Airport KL Airport
Worst Toilet Mt Everest Base camp Mt Everest Base camp
Best Meal Crab in Mangalore or feasts ordered by Frank in Beijing Too many to narrow down
Worst Meal Anything Tibetan Yak meat in Tibet
Best Sunrise Sri Lankan Beach The ones I sleep through
Worst Sunrise Kanyakumari The ones spent transiting
Best Sunset Sri Lankan Beach Alleppy houseboat
Worst Sunset Kanyakumari Beijing Smog

Most expensive / cheapest

Category Expensive Cheapest
 
Country Australia Vietnam
City Hong Kong Hanoi
Tourist Attractions Sri Lanka (Government run) China free museums for foreign passport holders
Coffee Urumqi airport $20 for nescafe instant Indian Railways 13c a cup
Beer Korea – Aussie nightclub prices Hanoi – beer hoi 40c for a big glass
Meal Hohhot (Lamb leg worth every penny) Hanoi $2 a head including beers

Most Overrated attractions or events

Couldn’t decide between the terracotta warriors or Yangtze River cruise.

Notable friends made along the way

Ruwan and his wife in Sri Lanka

Heath – Our real estate selling mate that we found lost in Shangrila and who showed us all around Jinan.

Emily and Simon – the Brit couple we met in Urumqi and caught up with again in Kyrgyzstan. Got to share good times, meals and drinks.

Foons – The two Aussie Paramedics cycling from Melbourne to Edinburgh. A familiar accent and sense of humour when we were furthest from home.

Cindy – The Canadarian / Chinese, rock climbing Mt Everest dynamo

Jills Favourite Pics

 

Floating markets Can Tho Vietnam

Floating markets Can Tho Vietnam

View from top of Sigiriya Rock Sri Lanka

View from top of Sigiriya Rock Sri Lanka

St Sophia's in Harbin

St Sophia’s in Harbin

Mount Everest plus prayer flags

Mount Everest plus prayer flags

View from the train to Lhasa

View from the train to Lhasa

Camel in Kashgar square

Camel in Kashgar square

Sunset on the beach at Phu Quoc Vietnam

Sunset on the beach at Phu Quoc Vietnam

Fat bottom sheep at the Kashgar Sunday Market

Fat bottom sheep at the Kashgar Sunday Market

Snowcapped mountains from the plane

Snowcapped mountains from the plane

Jiuzhaigou blue lakes

Jiuzhaigou blue lakes

Jiuzhaigou snow capped mountains

Jiuzhaigou snow capped mountains

Jiuzhaigou stream

Jiuzhaigou stream

Chinese pond with stone bridge

Chinese pond with stone bridge

Prayer Wheel and burnt remains of Shangri-La Old Town

Prayer Wheel and burnt remains of Shangri-La Old Town

Stone Forest Kunming

Stone Forest Kunming

Pagoda in Hangzhou

Pagoda in Hangzhou

Feeding the Koi

Feeding the Koi

Varanasi by the river

Varanasi by the river

Jodhpur the Blue City

Jodhpur the Blue City

Fat Man of Datong

Fat Man of Datong

Mt Everest plus Yaks

Mt Everest plus Yaks

Ruins in Hampi

Ruins in Hampi

Camels plus Driver in the Jaisalmer Desert

Camels plus Driver in the Jaisalmer Desert

Halong Bay

Halong Bay

Lighthouse in Galle Sri Lanka

Lighthouse in Galle Sri Lanka

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Hong Kong

We came into Hong Kong for one reason only…to catch up with some of our favourite people, Mike and Patricia, who were holidaying here. These guys are great friends that we had not seen for over a year…and the short hop across from Vietnam to catch up was not to be missed. While we were here we would also take the opportunity to see some of the bits of Hong Kong that we didn’t see when we were here in March for the rugby 7’s.

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We left Hanoi at 7am and did the flight to Kuala Lumpur, hung out at the airport waiting for our connection then did the flight to Hong Kong arriving at about 9pm. Alas we arrived in Hong Kong amidst a furore of protests which centres on the election of Hong Kong’s chief executive. Under a new plan, Hong Kong residents would be allowed to vote for chief executive for the first time—but only from candidates approved by Beijing.

These protests are taking place across Hong Kong but are centred in two main areas, being central and Mong Kok (Kowloon side)…the violent clashes, arrests and tear gassing is happening at Mong Kok…our hotel is in Mong Kok…about 80 metres from the centre of the protests. Mike and Patricia are in a much nicer place…about the same distance the other side of the protest. So to catch up…we traverse through the middle of the demonstration each day.

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In reality there are two opposing protests happening simultaneously…this is mostly split across generational lines with the pro-democracy (students) using “occupy” tactics and shutting down the roads in the two main business and shopping districts. And the anti-occupy group which are mostly middle aged business people upset that the occupy tactics have shut down shops for over a week. The peaceful students were being confronted by frustrated business owners, the odd triad roughneck, and the ever present “rent a crowd” agitators (that exist all over the world) which in turn were met by police. During the day this is quite calm, but of an evening this turns into an entirely different prospect.

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We sat one evening having a lovely meal watching hundreds of police (tooled up) filing past our restaurant…in the direction of our hotels. We finished our meals but called an early end to our post meal sip and bunked down for the night…as we listened to the sounds of sirens, shouting and chanting etc into the wee hours. All of this had been going on since the previous weekend…and the key question was how much longer would it be allowed to continue.

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Despite all the goings on, the place was fairly calm and apart from late in the evenings we did not feel uncomfortable or unsafe. We walked calmly down Nathan road (which was a lovely pedestrian walkway thanks to protest road closures), then traversed the mid level escalators, before being caught in a monsoonal downpour. The next day headed out to the world’s oldest continually operating yum-cha restaurant for breakfast, hit the Dr Sun Yat Sen museum, checked out the maritime defence museum and generally ate and drank and enjoyed each other’s company and catching up after so long.

We then headed off on a bus to the opposite side of the island to Stanley a former pirate port and one time (1842) pseudo capital before the British moved it to the current site. A lovely day traversing over the mountains and wandering along the peninsula and having lunch by the seaside. The highlight of the day was watching Mike haggle with both the shop keeper and his own wife simultaneously.

IMG_3199In short the starting price was 200, Mike offered 120, the shopkeeper refused so Mike said he would go somewhere else…

Let the games begin

Mike kicked in with all of the long standing haggling tools of the trade such as threatening to walk away, being generally disinterested in the item, and claiming the price was just too high…

Enter Patricia…who chimed in with…but that is a good price, it is the same as that Asian guy before you paid…so…

Mike offered more, the shop keeper counter offered, Mike started to walk away…Patricia pulled Mike back and told him that he should give the shop keeper an extra 20…This happened about 3 times…Mike tried valiantly to haggle but it was 2 against 1 and every tactic he employed Patricia countered…the shop keeper was laughing…Mike was whipped…he ended up paying 180.

After we had eaten lunch he stopped at a different shop and bought something else…but by this time he had lost his mojo…he paid the sticker price, no haggling, no negotiation… He just meekly handed over the cash…a beaten man.

The next couple of days was spent being tourists, eating yum cha and having a nice little sip. We somehow managed to pick close to the clearest days (smog wise) to go to the top of Victoria peak and were able to get some relatively clear shots of Hong Kong from on high. We were warned to go early as the tram ride to the top gets packed…and boy was that good advice. We headed up early, had coffees overlooking the city, poked around at the top, had lunch on the summit and took the tram down. At this point we were met with the lines that we would have faced had we done the yum cha breakfast that we were going to do first.

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From here we headed to the nunnery and the park which had some of the most impressive bonsais and topiaries on the planet. A slow wander around the park and a great day was had by all. Cap this off with cheese, sushi, bubbles, red wine, beers and gin and tonic in their room…and all was good and time for Jill and I to traverse the midnight protestor crowd.

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We caught up with Jeanette (not sure of the spelling) a long time friend of Mike’s who has been living and working in HK for 17 years. She lives off the main island, on Lamma Island, a short ferry ride away. So on her day off (we learnt that in HK they do 6 day weeks of about 54 hours) we hit the ferry to Lamma Island for a catch up. On what was her only break for the week she was the perfect host, taking us to a great yum cha on the island. We did the one hour hike to the other side where we settled in to the breezy Oceanside restaurant for drinks and pleasant conversation. After sampling several less than auspicious ales we got a ferry back to the big island and then out to an award winning restaurant for dinner that evening.

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And our catch up was over…a last minute souvenir shop at the local markets gave Mike one last chance to redeem his haggling mojo while shopping for trinkets. He had done fairly well reducing a starting price of 180 down to a final price of 100. A short distance further on I asked how he had gone and then tried to see if I could match his negotiated price…I asked how much…and she started at 100. We exchanged looks and chose not to keep playing this game and walked away with the sound of the woman shouting lower and lower numbers at us with each step. Nothing more was said on the matter.

Mojo not restored…we continued for a last meal and a couple of beers and rued the fact that we had not seen each other for so long. Moments like this week have reminded us that friends are those people that we choose to allow into our lives. We have chosen well.

 

 

Categories: China | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Da Nang and Hoi An and out

Leaving Cat Ba we were faced with the nightmare transit…but in reverse. After the journey inbound we decided to use a different company on the way out…and it was immediately better. The transit still involved a 45 minute bus to the ferry, a 40 minute ferry to the mainland, a 45 minute bus to the bus station, a wait, a 2 and a half hour bus to Hanoi bus station, a cab to the airport, a wait, a one hour flight to Da Nang, and finally a cab to the hotel. But even with all this it was fine…no screaming kids, no obese Americans with 15 items of luggage each, no obvious skin diseases, minimal loud talking…just a complicated commute.

Da Nang is the 5th largest city in Vietnam and was lovely. Very little to see in real terms but a really pleasant feel about it. Most people come for the beaches and the stunning seaside promenade…for this we chose Hoi An instead. Rather we stayed in the heart of the city and took in the riverside promenade scenery and checked out the local attractions. Temples, pagodas, dragon bridges and churches were the order of the day.

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Add to this the street side gem restaurant that we always manage to find and life was good. Our first night we found a tent on the side of the road selling cold beer. It was hot so we stopped. We ended up playing menu point and pray, lucky dip and struck gold with 3 awesome dishes of Kim Cut Roty (quail), Ben Cha (mystery meat with raw garlic) and Cai Xao (pork mince with rice cracker and murderously hot chilli). These with 10 cans of beer came to a total of 240,000 duong ($12). The next night was squid, pork ribs and a different mystery meat concoction.

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We hopped a bus for the 45 minute ride to Hoi An which is a tourist beachside town In the middle of the country. It is UNESCO listed thanks to its old town which is apparently the perfect example of an Asian port town between the 15th and 19th centuries. Today it is a tourist Mecca with everything imaginable on sale…but most notably the tailors shops. There is a tailor shop every third store ready to quickly knock together almost anything you like…for very cheap.

A tailored suit, with shirt can be purchased for as little as $65 but more likely around the $120-150 mark. You will be measured up and by the next day or two you can pick up your specially made items. This is a long held thing throughout Asia and I have had 2 suits made (one in Bangkok and one in Singapore)..but this place is even cheaper again. Alas our backpacking does not allow for such purchases…but if you were in the market you could not go wrong here.

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The town and surrounds are beautiful, the food is great, the place is clean and almost everyone speaks fluent English. If anyone is looking for a 1-3 week getaway you really cannot go past Hoi An. There are 5 star resorts if that is your thing, backpacker hostels or in our case a nice 4 star equivalent joint, with breakfast included and a pool for $25 a night for both of us. We had blue skies throughout our time here and the only detractor was the oppressive humidity that leaves you soaked in sweat if you try to exert yourself too much during the middle of the day. We found that this could easily be avoided by lazing by the pool and swimming.

IMG_3143At night ancient town glows from thousands of lanterns and the shops and restaurants are abuzz with activity. We found an awesome little restaurant on the recommendation of fellow travellers and sat down to the set menu (pictured beside). This place was amazing. your food was on the table before your bum was on the seat.

The staff had you watered, and were showing you how to compile the ingredients listed beside into rice paper rolls and how to eat the local delicacies. So mush so that they will dip the rolls that they make into the chilli and satay sauce for you and actually feed you. From here you are on your own. This place was an eat until you are stuffed joint and I am certain that they would keep food coming as long as you were able to ingest. Round one was more than enough for us.

At the end of our meal we had eaten our fill, washed it down with 4 beers and when our bill came we paid the exorbitant price of $15…for both of us. After a few days in Hoi An we headed back to Hanoi for the trip to Hong Kong. At this point we had had a great time in Vietnam with the minor exception of Saigon. As we were only transiting we stayed at a hotel next to the airport, with a pickup service, for a shower and an overnight kip. Alas our parting memory of Vietnam was spoilt by this…the hotel we booked and another one around the corner was owned by the same mob…one cost 50% more than the other…we had booked and paid for the nicer of the two and upon arrival the pick up driver was told to take us to the other one.

Arriving at the lesser one we were relatively understanding…until we found that the wifi was not working and they had lied to us about services available. Jill hopped online using her phone and found the price differential between the two and the ranting white woman kicked in. Within the hour we had walked out, been picked up by a taxi and shuttled to the original hotel, at no cost to us, and were given what we had paid for. Needless to say a gobful was handed out to any poor bugger who came within earshot of my darling bride.

That night we headed into the back streets to find a meal and came across a tent with a street side smorgasbord. We entered, pointed at an array of items which were piled high onto a plate of rice…then pointed at some beers and we sat down to a great meal. At the end we walked up to pay the bill…which came to a massive 80,000 duong ($4)…this was 2 huge plates of food and two 600ml beers.

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Vietnam – an overview

Our introduction to Vietnam was not ideal. Saigon was a busy city and we were staying in the bar district which meant we saw the worst that western tourism can bring to a developing country…lots of old fat men trying to pick up small Asian women (LBFM’s for those that know the terminology). This gave us immediate Philippines flashbacks which were not pleasant. Add to this the poor initial food options and little to see and we were less than impressed.

This was followed by the Mekong delta which was a little better but not thrilling…and then the world changed. Everyone who has been here loves the place and from this point on we both understood why. We actually did not have any negative experiences at any point throughout our Vietnamese odyssey but by the same token it had not grabbed us by the throat like India, China, Kyrgyzstan and Sri Lanka had done.

It is possibly the ideal introduction to Asia that you can find. The people are friendly, the food is good (once you learn to avoid the evil weed that is coriander…maybe that is just me), the prices are cheap, the place is safe, the beer rocks, and the sights are pretty without being historic. It is family friendly, has awesome beaches and Ha Long Bay is a must see for everyone.

I think the thing that turned Vietnam around for us was a change of attitude on our behalf. We had been travelling for almost a year, seeing historic sights and taking in the history and majesty of ancient worlds and huge constructions like palaces atop mountains and the Great Wall etc. Vietnam is not about this, it was smashed during the war and is a nation that is, and largely has, recovered. The historic sites are relatively minor…it is like going to Australia which is 200ish years old and trying to compare it with the colosseum in Rome…apples and oranges.

Once we shook off that way of thinking we loved the place. It is the ideal location for a 1-3+ week holiday and we will come back for just that at some point in the future. It would be incredible to do the country by yourself on a motorbike or similar where you can get up into the mountainous regions and explore the place on your own schedule and timeline. Everything that we have seen would mean that this is entirely possible, and every time we hopped on motorcycles here we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh may be tough to negotiate however as the traffic is entirely nutty.

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