Contemplated blog posts

Topics we wanted to write about, but never got around to:

– Crossing the street in Hanoi: a primer by Mark and Zoe
– Driving a motorbike with one hand while carrying a parasol: a primer by Laotian school girls
– Horn honking as a defensive (and offensive) driving mechanism: a primer by Vietnamese bus drivers
– Regional variation in Coca-Cola, including can versus glass bottle comparisons
– Sticky rice: a Laotian’s best friend
– 70 km through the mountains on a ladies’ Dutch single speed bicycle
– Thai music videos: heartbreak and cell phones
– Thai karaoke videos: pretty ladies and waterfalls and wait, is she taking her shirt off?
– Ode to potable tap water
– Any road with less than 2 lanes in each direction and no median does not deserve to be called a highway, especially if there are water buffalo on it
– Small birds in cages: good luck, except in Mark’s nightmares
– The insidious proliferation of Nescafe

Hanoi, Vietnam! Bonus: new photos

New photos posted again at Please enjoy as each upload is a dedicated act of love involving very low bandwidth, 10 year old computers, Windows and a hubby gnawing hungrily on his arm upstairs in the hotel room.

There’s one photo set for Laos, including the epic Mekong River ride (though we later found out another boat had it worse when they hit bottom, sprung a leak and promptly sunk) and beautiful Luang Prabang, with its myriad temples and quaint French Colonial architecture.

There’s a new set from this week in Hanoi, about half of the shots are of food, which has been amazing. We’ve been relying heavily on the street food guide and have sampled some pretty delicious variations on noodle, broth, meat and greens/herbs.

When we first arrived in Hanoi we were suffering our first bout with stomach bugs and stuck to mild pho and a delicious, eggy, challah-like cinamon raisin bread we found at a local bakery for 50 cents a loaf. We’ve since recovered and now venture further afield, and Mark is happily well enough for the famed Vietnamese coffee (usually black and sometimes with sweetened condensed milk on the bottom).

Hanoi itself is an interesting city of colonial facades, thriving commerce, and Communist propaganda. Colorful government billboards and red and yellow banners line the streets, which light up at night with Christmas lights in hammer and sickle shape. We arrived in time for the end of the lunar new year celebration with many locals making offerings (burning incense and fake money) at temples and shrines around the city for luck, prosperity and good health in 2010.

Probably the biggest hurdle we’ve faced is that there are almost no price tags on anything, so haggling skills become essential. Typical tourist price inflation is between 200 and 500% for the initial price quote; the pineapple and banana ladies seem to be the worst but it’s everything from bottled water to shoes (it’s cold enough that Zoe finally needed sneakers) and of course, taxis.

We’re going to spend a few days in Ha Long Bay and Cat Ba island relaxing, possibly rock climbing. It’s only a two hour bus ride from Hanoi, we’ll see about that.

Pak Beng, we hardly knew ye (misadventures in Laos)

We thought we had left the beaches behind in Thailand. We were wrong:

The 2 day slow boat from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang has been described as “a floating backpacker ghetto” (thank you Wikitravel, our new favorite source of pithy travel advice). It’s a pretty apt description for a boat crammed full of Europeans smoking constantly and drinking copious amounts of Beer Lao. There were a few Lao but I think it’s rare for villagers to travel that far and for shorter trips they take motor powered canoes.

It’s dry season and the river was low; running down some minor rapids we hit bottom pretty hard and bent the rudder. We docked near a small village to check out the damage to the boat. Curious children ventured over and went into paroxysms of glee when shown their images on a digital camera. The rudder was bent pretty bad and a second tourist boat flagged over. Just when we had all squeezed on, it was decided that there wasn’t enough daylight left to make it to Pak Beng, where we were supposed to stay the night.

Instead both boats ended up sleeping on the beach/on the boat (the boat was less comfortable but marginally warmer as it actually gets chilly overnight this far north). The children’s parents descended to give us succor in the form of ramen noodles and more beer Lao. Meanwhile the boatmen attempted to bang the rudder back straight over an open campfire (unsuccessfully, as it was far from hot enough; we got a replacement boat in the morning).

Needless to say it was epic. However, it did breed some traveller camraderie. I practiced my Spanish with some Spaniards and a Peruvian and sang some Serge Gainsbourgh with some French Belgians with a guitar. Mark drank some varnish-smelling Whiskey and Coke with an Irishman and a South African woman who disliked Americans (but not all of us). Plus, the scenery was nice, and as we discovered later on a twisty turny and bumpy overnight ride to Ventiane, buses are something you want to avoid in Laos. Except tonight we’ll be hopping on another one for the 24 hour ride to Hanoi! Let’s hope the Pho is worth it.

Vivre le Roi

Thais love their king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, also known as Rama IX. He’s been on the throne since 1946, longer than any other Thai monarch. Now, however, he’s in the hospital as speculation rages over whether he will be replaced by his neer-do-well son or more beloved, but less likely for succession because she’s a woman, daughter (side note: if the son ascends the throne the national color remains yellow because he was born on the same day of the week as his father; if it’s the daughter Thais need to start investing in another color).

The king’s face is everywhere. You cannot lick stamps, because his image is on them. Similarly, it’s the height of disrespect to step on a coin or bill. Every home, shop, or restaurant has at least one large photo displayed, though often an entire wall is dedicated. On the highways, long banners hang from street lamps, and at the entrance to each town his enormous visage, 10 to 15 feet high, looks out at you from gilted frames. At the Chiang Mai flower festival, his face was arranged in flowers on floats.

Through the variety of photos, we feel that we have come to know him. With his mild countenance and wire rimmed glasses, he looks less at ease in royal regalia on the throne or in military dress with a formal sword than he does posed peering intently at an open book. These are the most common photos, but occasionally there are new ones. In a cafe in Chiang Mai there was a treasure trove of older photos including one colorized shot of the Queen in a very Jackie O outfit, and another black and white shot of a younger king looking debonair in a Western style suit perched on the front of a car. His glasses haven’t changed much over the long decades of his reign.

Climbing Crazy Horse in Chiang Mai

We got in a couple of days of climbing here in the 5th largest city in Thailand. The Crazy Horse Buttress is a local crag that’s been well developed by climbers from the city’s only climbing shop, CMRC. They run guiding services but also for 250 Baht they’ll shuttle you to the crag and feed you lunch so long as someone else is going that day.

The drive is not far, about 40km, but the first day climbing we rented a small 110cc Honda Mio scooter and returning in the evening with traffic was more excitement than Mark could handle. The food and the comfort of the back of the sangthaew (a covered pickup truck with benches) allowed us a much better second day of climbing, which included Zoe’s first real 6a (5.10a/b) sport lead climb. And the prepared Thai lunches were delicious.

The rock is the same Ratburi limestone karst found throughout peninsular SE Asia, however, without the salt sea air and the sheer amount of climbing traffic (as in Phra Nang) the holds are much more positive. There is even the odd off width crack climb. Mark’s father’s military climbing instructor would’ve proudly admonished “jam your hand in that crack!” and we did; it was overrated at 6c (5.11a, more like a 6b+ or 5.10c/d) called ‘Song of Stone’; we top roped it. Though Mark did lead a 6c+ (albeit hang dog fashion) called ‘The Tree Surgeon’ which was seriously pumpy on the back side of the Crazy Horse Buttress cave.

We met an Australian couple at breakfast/on the crag that recognized us from Tonsai where we had stayed at the same bungalows. They are traveling the same route we are, hitting the major climbing destinations between Thailand and China, only for them this is just the first few months of an 8 month trip as they move on to France and then Africa. In another coincidence, they have also been looking up Avatar showtimes at cineplexes across southeast Asia, but like us have yet to make it to a showing in theaters (we both passed on the Russian bootleg copy they showed at the bungalow restaurant in Tonsai).

Next up for climbing and culture: Laos

Sunset at Angkor Wat

People are like sheep. Tell them that this particular temple on this particular hill is THE place to view the sunset, and they’ll go there (or their tour buses will take them). As a result, come 5pm the normally overrun temples are nearly empty for the rest of us, and there is a great stillness (in theory, this is true for sunrise at 5am as well, but despite our intentions, we never tested it out).

The sunset view from Angkor Wat, the largest and most grand of the many Angkor temples, is nothing great. The sun falls behind a parking lot filled with vendors and waiting tuk tuk drivers and in the distance a tethered hot air balloon takes tourists up for an aerial view of the complex (like a ‘white diamond’, it floats over the jungles). But inside the temple the light of the magic hour casts a rosy glow onto the sandstone pedestals and bas reliefs of the 900 year old structure.

We were warned ahead of time Angkor Wat would be over touristed but it’s one of those places you just have to see anyway. It is true, there were busloads and busloads of packaged tour groups, predominately South Korean and some Japanese, but there is something magical about these stone monuments that are testament to a deep faith (and the power of the monarchy).

In the grandeur of Angkor Wat, or the enigmatic faces of the Bayon, or the intricate carvings of Banteay Srei, there is a reminder of the beauty and majesty that man is able to create. At Ta Prohm, the trees have so encroached on the temple that they couldn’t be removed without damaging the structure. Huge ancient trees strangle the stone walls to poetic effect (watch the end of Wong Kar Wai’s ‘In the Mood for Love’ and you will see why we wanted to come here). It’s a good reminder that as powerful and awe-inspiring as the works of man can be, nature is always stronger.

Cambodia by bicycle

It is a truth universally acknowledged in Siem Reap that a foreigner on the street must be in need of a tuk tuk (technically, these are not tuk tuks, they are moto-remorques, a trailer hitched to a scooter, but that’s a rather big French mouthful). It could be 9 o’clock at night, you could even be on a bicycle, but you will invariably be asked if you need a ride by every driver you pass.

We did take a moto one day to visit a few of the more remote sites, otherwise we mostly biked. Pretty much all of the bicycles are single speed steel women’s bikes. Kids will ride them to school, two to a bike, even children so small that their heads are the level of the seat and they have to stand the whole time, peering out under the handlebars. Rear racks support hanging bundles of coconuts or large woven baskets carrying who knows what.

Riding a bicycle around Siem Reap means being one with the traffic. You never stop before making a turn, you just kind of flow. The roads are shared use, and as a result of the constant passing vehicles seem much more aware of their surroundings. Slower vehicles stay right, so we’d pass food vendors pushing their carts, just about any Cambodian on a bike, and occasionally a slow moto. Passing us, in the middle of the road which is basically two way, are tuk tuks, faster motos, cars, minivans and tour buses, all of which constantly honk to let you know they’re coming, which is somewhat considerate, if loud.

The main temples are between 6 and 15k north of Siem Reap but our nicest ride was to a village about 10k to the south of the city, where a hilltop temple (both an Angkor ruin and a modern working one) affords a panoramic view of giant Tonle Sap lake in the distance and bright green rice paddies all around. The road there is raised, with the rice paddies below and simple houses rising up on rickety wooden stilts to the level of the road. Little children play in the dirt on the edge of the road as women tended shop in traditional skirts and checked cotton headwraps, and through the open doors of the immaculately swept houses we got a glimpse of rural Cambodian life.

Border Crossing – Poipet

The Bangkok-Siem Reap route is infamous in backpacking circles. A Bangkok based airline has a monopoly on flights, inflating the price, and was rumored to have been paying off the Cambodian government to delay the paving of highway N6 which runs between the Thai border and Siem Reap. The road was finally completed in the middle of last year, cutting travel time from 6 hours to 2, but there are still other hazards to the crossing.

A long running scam involves buses from Bangkok to Siem Reap taking as long as possible to do the trip, sometimes detouring to a further border crossing. The bus company gets a comission from the Siem Reap guesthouse where it drops travellers off; the later that is, the more likely you are to stay there. As a result, there are horror stories of 20 hour trips.

We went the independent route, taking a train to Aranyaprathet then spending the night, a tuktuk to the border in the morning and shared a taxi from there to Siem Reap.

Before technically ‘arriving’ in Cambodia there are several casinos, hundreds of touts and many people pushing heavily loaded carts back and forth on the dusty road across the border. Cambodian visas are $20 on arrival, but that doesn’t mean that everyone won’t still try to make an extra buck or two.

Our tactic to expedite the Visa process involved an “express fee” of 100 Thai Baht each (lowered from the initial asking price of 2500 baht for two visas, about double their actual cost). Once that was out of the way we watched our passports immediately receive 30 day Visa stickers. Walking further down the same dirt road with casinos they would actually get stamped. At this point we’d ‘arrived’ in Poipet, Cambodia. Now all we had to do was negotiate a reasonable cab fare to Siem Reap…