Monday, August 17, 2009

Trip Itinerary

As previously promised, here is the itinerary from the SE Asia part of our trip:

SE Asia 2009 Vacation

Before hand, we spent 3 nights in Tokyo, 1 night in Hakone, and 1 night in Kyoto. All in all, we were on the road for just about three weeks.

The contrast between Japan and the rest of the stops was remarkable, but I'm not sure I would recommend combining the trips as getting from Japan to Vietnam takes a bit of energy (and money).

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Phu Quoc

After my initial amazement of a private villa about 10 feet away from
the ocean for next to nothing, I've now had about 24 hours to get to
know this island. While the hotel and beach leave nothing to be
desired, except maybe the large volume of trash floating in the ocean,
it seems that this island is proof communism is alive and kicking.
Walking a few hundred yards down the miles of beach, hotels which have
been abandoned become a common sight - in some cases they are more
upscale, apparently too expensive for this venue, in others they look
the same as the rest, only they are falling in on themselves.
I say this shows communism is alive, even under "flexible communism,"
because land is owned by the government and therefore no one seems
keen on improving a site which could then be taken away again. Were
this a capatalist environment, I can not see a situation (short of
natural desaster) under which a beach front property would be let to
fall into ruin.
While there have been plenty of other small reminders of just how
different this place is from home, I think this is the one that has
made it clearest to me. If the standard of living is ever to rise,
certain frameworks would need to be established to create the right
incentives for small / medium non-farming businesses.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Phu Quoc

After 12 hours in Ho Chi Min - which I can only describe as a blur or
modern city and developing country moshed into one - I am now on the
beach:

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Cambodia 2.0

After my visit in January, I have repeatedly said that Cambodia is on
my list for a second visit. We arrived late yesterday afternoon, and
although the tour guide spoke nearly no English, and there was a piece
of packing rope in my food, and it was raining during the sunset, this
remains my favourite place in Asia.

The thousand year old temples are breath taking. I imagine the
grandure similar to the pyrimids, however every surface here has
intricate carvings on it. You stumble through some jungle path and
suddenly there is this mass of rocks, some fallen over, others still
standing - hinting at what they once were - making you feel as if you
are the first person to rediscover them.

Health and Safety would have a field day. There are almost no parts
which are roped off - either for your protection or the ruins - and
many of the stairs leading to the upper heights require you to claw up
on hands and knees.

The countryside also is a distinct reminder of how low the quality /
standard of living is. I think this is the poorest region we will see
on this trip. While I'm not proud/willing to say I enjoyed seeing it,
part of me is glad for the reminder of just how extreme a place the
world can be.

While Sapa was beautiful, and Luang Prabang was untouched, for sheer
wow factor I would recommend Siem Reap and the ruins of Angkor Wat -
try and get here before it does become roped off, and just another
museum, while you can still truely "discover" it.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Monks

It's 6am and I've been up for the last hour - in Luang Prabang there
is a tradition of giving alms (sticky rice) to the monks as they make
their morning rounds. Silent processions from the various temples work
their way through the town, stopping at little corners with a few
ladies kneeling on the ground to hand them clumps of rice.

Much like the chanting yesterday, we were only told "be at this corner
around 530." out of the mornin haze the first group appeared a few
moments later. Again like the chanting, they do not mind the tourists,
however this is not done for us as a show. It is a living tradition
that has gone on for a long time, and will hopefully continue.

Laos

The travel book starts off describing Laos as one of those places
where people intend to spend only a few days, but end up spending much
longer. I can certainly relate, as I wish we had a few more days to
explore the laid back villages, the winding trails through the hill
side, or go play with the elephants. As it stands, tomorrow will find
us in Cambodia - but I look forward to coming back here.

Yesterday the guide took us to a few temples, and we finished the day
hiking up to, and then swimming in a waterfall. I've already mentioned
my experience with the various tribes - which was a highlight that was
only trumped today listening to monks chanting in their temples. These
small moments are what I hope will stay with me. This isolated country
has been a joy to see, even if I continue to wonder how to visit
responsibly.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Train travel

Surprisingly, a large part of this trip has been by rail, in both
Japan and Vietnam. I've been reading "The Great Railway Bazzar" and
came to the Vietnam chapter just as we were boarding for the second
night on the train. There is something exciting about travelling that
way, and glimpsing the hundreds of years of history wrapped up in the
adventure.

In Japan, I had the trains described to me as tin cans that go fast
and do as advertised - but not much else. In Vietnam the jolting and
thumping of the old line holds a lot more charm (but at a fraction of
the speed take much longer). Thinking about how the line was built by
the French, destroyed in the war, and is now being revitalized to
bring tourists to the remote regions is a brief histroy lesson in how
the country has changed in the last 100 years.

While I am not big into meeting other travellers on trains (to be
honest, I like a berth with a lock I can control), they alsoser e as a
chance to glimpse the culture of who is travelling: in Japan it was a
mix of business people, local tourists, and a very few foreigners.
Vietnam was almost entirely tourists, with the guide explaining that
most locals can't afford the $20 ticket.

The moments like these, whereyou're not spending hours at airports
worrying about security, and are seeing something unique are my
favourite moments of travel - and make me understand the idea of
travelling to travel, not to reach a destination.

Hill Tribes

As part of exploring the countryside in both Vietnam and Laos, we've
had the chance to vist with some "hill tribes" "minority people" or
"local tribes" - large composed of h'mong people displaced from
Mongolia. Their existance is largely based on subsistance farming,
with a bit of income from selling handicrafts to tourists.

Interestingly, in both Vietnam and Laos different tribes live within
about a kilometer of each other, and as a result of their traditions
and culture have significantly different standards of living. For
example in Vietnam one tribe keeps fish and ducks to sell in addition
to their rice, while their neighbours only farm rice. The former enjoy
larger homes built slightly raised from the ground, while the later
live in smaller dwellings built on the cold earth. When asked, the
guide explained that the tribes are too proud of their traditions to
copy what the other does better - even after hundreds of years.

The contrast between Laos an Vietnam is also interesting, as in
Vietnam the government has provided some level of support for the
tribes and used tourism to provide an income stream, while in Laos the
tribes seem to live in a status akin to a trailer park - for lack if a
better comparison.

As I said before, I wonder whether visiting these tribes is truely in
the best interest of preservation, however upon seeing the conditions
here in Laos, it seems it is a positive to have the government act to
try and preserve rather than simply relying on the natural course of
things.

A few othe points of interest;

• in Laos the hill tribes used to make a living growing poppy for
opium

• some of the hill tribes believe in multiple wives, while the budist
tribes do not

• male / female relations are still in a very different place than at
home. We are continually surprised at how these views are applied even
to us.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Off to Laos

To say that our last day in Hanoi was a low point isn't entirely fair,
but it was as long and somber day. We got off the night train from
Sapa around 430am, and the flight to Laos didn't leave until 630pm -
meaning we had 14 hours to get through and no where to take a break
for a bit.

We packed the morning with a few sights like Ho Chi Min's home and a
bike tour, but after lunch (green fish coked over coals) were just
tired and had nothing left to do. At last around 3 we headed to the
airport, o ly to be caught in a rain storm. Whileof little consequence
for us, shortly up the road we saw the body of a motorcyclist who had
been less fortunate. Up until last year there was no helmet law for
riders, and c10,000 people died in accidents. This has come down, but
with 3+ million bikes in Hanoi alone, it is still far from Sade and
we're told scenes like that are still common.

Making it to Laos around 9, we simply laughed when the fixer
recommended a 430am start to go see the monks. Need some vacation in
all this travelling.

2 days in Sapa

Having spent the last two days hiking in the wonderful terraced rice
fields of Sapa, we are now again on the night train. Sapa is one of
those places where I feel I could try my hardest, and yet not capture
the beauty of it. The greens are more lucious than my eyes could take
in.

There are several different local hill tribes which grow rice in the
area. Seeing what subsistance farming is actually like gives me a new
appreciation for the hard work they endure. Every task is focused on
getting through the next winter and ensuring survial - something
completely taken for granted anywhere else I've been.

The government seems to be trying to preserve these cultures, but with
the influx of tourists and the awareness of another life outside the
village, I wonder how long these communities will last. Already now,
the youngest girls follow the visitors around with a constant chorus
of "where you from? How old are you? You buy from me?"

And so, while I would say it is worth the visit as the hiking is
wonderful, the people are interesting, and the landscape is
breathtaking, I worry whether more people will be good for Sapa.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Vietnam - first impressions

Having spent the last day in the hectic motor scooter filled world
that is Hanoi, I'm amazed at every corner that this world functions.
Through the chaos and the frantic pace, however everything seems to
have its own rythem and somehow the scooters don't hit the
pedestrians, and aren't hit by the cars.

I will at some point post a copy of the itinerary, so I won't rehash
the sights we've seen, but rather just share some observation:

• there is a distinctly French feel to the place, only further
intensified by the large number of french tourists. The hotel almost
reminded me of New Orleans a bit.

• while not nearly as friendly as the people in Japan, the locals
generally tollerate tourists. There also seem to be a lot more of us
here.

• travelling with a "fixer" (guide who handles just about everything)
is one of the greatest things I've done. As there aren't many open
arms (see above) this makes everything a touch smoother and easier.

• hiking today, I have never sweat so much. Because of the high
humidity things also just don't dry. My shirt and shorts, which are
about as wet as if I'd gone swimming in them, are still a damp mess.

We're now on the night train to Sapa for a couple more days of hiking
and exploring. I'm looking forward to being out of the city, as
crossingthe street should not be a life threatening experience.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Japan

First a quick note: I've not had Internet the last few days, so a
number of posts are sitting in my out box, and will all come through
at once.

Sitting on the plane back to Hong Kong, some closing thoughts on my 6
days in japan:

• the people are among the friendliest I have ever come across.
Always willing to point you in the right direction, or help with many
of the more peculiar customs.

• while food was about on par with most other big cities in terms of
price, transportation is much more expensive. This really hit me in
Hakone. Also, the fact that there are multiple companies serving the
same city doesn't really help all the much in terms of ease of use.

• the food was amazing: I had the best beef, the best sushi, and the
best things on sticks of my life. The dining culture is also very
social which makes a great meal even better.

• while train travel is enjoyable, in Japan it is purely utilitarian
- designed to get you from A to B as quickly as possible - the romance
is certainly not preserved.

• walking through most of Tokyo and other parts of Japan, I get the
sense that this is what we thought the future would be like 20 years
ago. There are lots of neon lights, overcrowded streets, and
everything feels slightly worn down - very much reminds me of
Bladerunner.

• I leave with a sense of wanting to come back - Tokyo was an
enjoyable big city like many others, but Kyoto gave a taste of
"Japanese" culture which I would enjoy seeing/learning more of.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Kyoto

Kyoto was a bit of a whirlwind - After including hakone on the plan,
we ended up with just 20 hours in town (including sleeping time).
Making the best of it, we hit the ground running and headed to the
biggest temple we could find [will update with name]. After strolling
through some of the winding lanes, we ended up on Potocho by the canal
- A small lantern lit alley bustling with restaurants. On nyt
recommendation Cafe Zuzu served up a wonderful dinner, highlighted by
their interpretation of chicken dumplings. This morning was a dash to
the shogun's palace before jumping the train back to Tokyo.

Making comparisons between cities is never fair because you seldom end
up seeing the best parts of every city and being in the right mood to
enjoy them is a challenge - that being said, Kyoto was hands down my
favorite part of Japan. The old parts felt like what I imagined Japan
like before arriving. There was an energy in the air that made it seem
lively and fun. Lastly, the sights were more accessable, although I
would have enjoyed another couple days to see some of the other parts
of town.