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Cycling around Kep

22 Dec

After a “I hear Kep is supposed to be nice” comment from  fellow traveller Raf, we were on a bus to the little coastal town, not far from Kampot in Cambodia (where loads of pepper is grown).

Once we arrived we secured a bamboo hut on the hill side (they were pretty comfortable, though electricity only came on from about 5pm), with a beautiful view of the bay. We rented a couple of bikes and along with our friend Raf we scouted out the local area.

Kep, once a popular resort area until the Khmer Rouge came along and forced everyone out, it now had an air of abandonment; but not it a trashy way, just reclaimed by nature and time. The old fancy broad-walks along the coast, now cracked and grown over in some places, coastal homes lay gutted. Though next to all this decay there were also a few wonderful local restaurants and newer resorts (like our own).

We stopped to try the local crab (which the area is known for), and did not regret it. We ate peppered crab with pepper from down the road and crab not more that 30M from where we sat and ate on the shore.

The next day, feeling energetic we set off with our bicycles once more in an attempt to find more old abandoned houses whilst we circled the hill which a part of Kep sat on. We cycled for miles through the most beautiful countryside. Passing locals retrieving mud from the river (not sure either…) and field after field of rice. Stopping here and there to say hello to the local children of picking up playing cards (once again not sure either… ask Clare). As we doubled back to round the other side of the hill, we happened upon a mosque almost in the middle of nowhere. It looked pretty incredible against the swirling skies of an ominous looking storm.

 

2 Minutes up the road we ploughed into the nearest restaurant/cafe/shop/thingy at the side of the road, rain just on our heels. As we propped our bikes up and ran under the tarp that was the front of the shop thing, the heavens opened. I know! I know! Its a massive cliché, but there really was no other way to describe it. SO MUCH WATER FROM SKY! We sat and ate some chewy fried things and nibbled on some hard cinnamon baked things whilst we waited, watching the road become a river.

After a surprisingly short time the rains just stopped and on we went.

We cycled only a short distance and discovered an amazingly blackened building in the middle of a luscious green field of rice. We all stopped to take pictures and after a minute we realised how quiet and peaceful it was around there. Well, not entirely.

“What’s that sound?” Raf asked.

“What sound?” I replied

“That sorta whooshing rushing sound? Sounds like TV Static? Oh my god is that rain?!”

“Shit, CLARE RAINS COMING, Run!”

We grabbed our bikes and peddled as fast as we could in the direction of the nearest building, which happened to be a farm house with a pig-sty next to it. Not seeing anyone in the house we ran for the iron lean-to that was the sty. And then the rain fell, heavy as before, soaking Clare to the bone as she was a little way behind us (she had gone up to explore the building).

Eventually the rain slowed enough (the owners of the farm house had seen us standing in the sty) and we we’re invited into the farm house. It was an incredibly humble home, with dirt floors wooden beds with no mattress only mats and a barrel in a back room for washing. We spent quite some time in there, waiting for the rain, in the warmth of the simple home. We made the time pass by trying to bridge the language barrier; playing with the children  (Clare teaching them yoga and getting them to play ‘Simon Says’ which was more like ‘Copy Clare’), drawing pictures in a little note book, teaching the kids to count in English and showing photos from our camera’s. I don’t think I have felt that welcomed by strangers in a long time, though there was no common language and we had nothing to give to them in the way of thanks, we really did feel so welcomed.

Eventually the rain let up and we left, waving and shouting “Ar Kun” (thank you). After a short ride we finished the circle, to climb the guest houses hill once more, arriving exhausted and sweaty.

How to get to Cat Ba Island from Hanoi (Info)

23 Oct

Post with two parts here. 1st info for other travellers, 2nd return to our normal programming

1. Getting to Cat Ba Island from Hanoi

I searched for ages for this information but there seems to be very little on it. So here’s how to do it WITHOUT booking a hideously expensive tour.

Some quick Info:

  • You can go direct from Hanoi’s Loung Yen to Cat Ba Town with one ticket
  • It costs around 190,000 Dong ($10 USD) at time of writing.
  • Ticket price includes coaches and boat.

Details:

In Hanoi go to Loung Yen bus station. Ignore anyone asking if you want to go to Halong Bay, just say Cat Ba. In the ticket office (which is pretty modern and well kept) there should be a bus company named Hoang Long, this is the company.

The price of the ticket includes:

  1. Coach- Hanoi –> Hai Phong
  2. Minibus- Hai Phong –> Ferry Port
  3. Boat- Hai Phong Port –> Cai Vieng (Cat Ba Island)
  4. Minibus- Cai Vieng –> Cat Ba Town

It seems complicated but its really well organised and you don’t normally wait in any of the change over places for very long.

Unfortunatley I forgot to take a picture of the depature from Hanoi, so I don’t have all the exact times. But here’s some info from what I remember and from what I wrote down from Cat Ba (24hour clock):

Hanoi -> Cat Ba

  • First bus 07:15
  • Last bus 13:20

Cat Ba -> Hanoi

  • 07:15
  • 9:15
  • 13:15
  • 15:15

Muddy Motocycles/Feet

30 Sep

After another sporadic meeting with Paul, we were introduced to two girls (Lisha and Rose). Lisha wasted no time after our introduction and went straight in with:

“So we’re going to rent some motorbikes tomorrow to go explore the other side of the river, want to come?”

“Ermmmm yeah? I guess?” I hesitated a reply.

A day of tubing and relaxing later me and Clare stood waiting whilst our bike was made ready. Up role the 3 on their bikes as we climbed aboard ours. I feel like someone should have shouted out a corny one liner like “TO ADVENTURE!”, but instead I just said a rather British, “Shall we go?”

The ‘Road’ (a muddy track) was immediately hard going. Last nights rain had taken its toll and while the road wasn’t hugely muddy, the huge pot holes had become lakes and due to the soft verges the only way forward was through. Due to the varying size and depth, it was often down to a game of ‘whoever’s first try’s it’, AKA puddle roulette. Most of the puddles were passable, but occasionally they would sink deeper and deeper and suddenly you’d find your feet (which meant the engine as well) were under water. This gave you only one option, gun it and hope for the best. This normally meant you’d end up with your legs covered in a thick orange mud or the bike would slip and you’d end up on the verge desperately trying to stop the thing sinking into the outer mud. This of course lead to a number of “God dammit!”‘s and “QUICK GET OFF THE BIKE ITS SINKING!”.

After our trial by mud we reached some flat ‘road’ and even managed to reach 3rd gear at some points. We drove on roads surrounded by paddy fields and through little villages which almost every inhabitant would call out “Sabadi!” (hello) and wave. With huge khast mountains as the backdrop against the sky, it really was beautiful.

Blue Lagon

Eventually after a few narrow wooden bridges and more mud, we reached to where we had vaguely planned on going, ‘The Blue Lagoon’. First impressions were of an empty car park (a field) and an attendant asking for money. Though once we parked and headed towards the lagoon our views quickly changed. A beautiful swimming hole lagoon, with water a brilliant blue/green, a tree growing over with swings and ladders and a roofed bridge crossing over it. Locals swung from ropes and dived into the inviting waters. Now this may sound corny but it really did look like something you’d see in a film or postcard.

We all played for hours, swinging from swings, diving from the highest branch we could manage (the water was so deep even from jumping near the top of the tree could you not even feel the push of the bottom). It made the hellish start to the ride seem completely worth it.

After a brief visit to the cave which was half way up a mountain (literally), we rolled on to a cafe we had passed near a bridge. Some locals served us some 2 minute noddles that took about 45 minutes to cook (though the mango and mint shakes were amazing). From this part of the journey onward we were joined by a French lady on a mountain bike (who often out paced us!).

We decided that the way we had come was probably not best to be the way back (Surely there must be and easier going way back!?). A map check confirmed there was another route back to Vang Vieng. So often we zoomed, thinking it be easier to at least TRY going another way.

After a few games of puddle roulette we hit our first snag. After I picked the wrong route through a puddle, caking me, Clare and bike, bike refused to restart. Fearing I’d drowned the thing, I started to wheel it to a garage. Amazingly the nearest bike garage was less than 50m and the mechanics had watched the whole thing.

“It no work” I said pointing at the muddy thing.

“????” and a thumbs up from the mechanic.

A old man stumbles out the garage speaking Lao and smelling of alcohol, another man in the background laughs and signs me to sit down on the bench. The mechanic has a go at starting the engine and immediately says “Ahh!” and runs into the garage. He now holds a new spark plug and says “BOOM!”, “Ok?” I reply and he begins to unscrew bits of bike.

I am then offered a shot of Lao Lao (homebrew whisky/moonshine/alcohol/engine de-greaser), which I politely turn down considering how much harder this would be even after a single beer let alone a shot.

Quicker than I realise the bike is fixed and actually working better than when I had hired it. So off we went again, desperately trying to hold on to our bikes through the mud and praying not to drown in the puddles.

Snag two happens. Paul hits a particularly deep puddle, couriers off road, through the mud and ends up accelerating into a tree/hedge. Luckily this was more comical than medical and we were on our way soon enough.

Then we came to this:

Apparently this roller-coaster of planks was a bridge. The bridge looked so flimsy we were unsure if anyone could walk across it let alone think about bike. Suddenly a local comes by on a motorbike, beeping and cursing us for being in his way he sped across the bridge, it flexing and sagging as he crosses.

“What!? Really?! You CAN cross that on a bike?”

“Who’s going first then?”

“I don’t mind” I say, “but I think I’d rather just wheel the bike over”

Timidly I crossed, with the bridge creaking and flexing like it really wasn’t happy. I made it across to 3 women sitting in a straw hut, asking for money to cross the bridge (apparently it was a told bridge!?).  Then snag three happened, a crashing sound like motorbike meeting timber came from the other side. The toll bridge lady jumped up and sprinted up the first hump of the bridge to see what was going on.

The Fall of Paul

Apparently Paul had tried to ride across and lost control and fallen off the bike. By some luck his bike had hit one of the only two uprights that held the bridge up, thus saving the bike from falling into the river. The toll bridge lady promptly removed the bike from Paul and wheeled it across (“Let me do it for you”).

The girls then expertly drove almost full pelt across the bridge and then took lead of the group (“Rose’s Riders”). We passed some wonderful scenes of locals playing in rivers, huge paddy fields with mountainous backgrounds and open khast quarrying (?).

Rose's Riders

We only had one small snag on the road on the way back, a flat tire on Rose’s bike. This was expertly fixed (again by the looks of the inner tube) by a local repair man. Who’s whole family of children came to watch. Me and Paul (much to the entertainment of the kids) took to pulling silly faces.

Cycling Map Free around Luang Prabang, Laos

22 Sep

Yesterday, we (me, Dom and our older nomadic traveller friend, Paul) went on a bike ride to nowhere in particular, which I quite like doing because there are often surprises along the way.

About half an hour in though, we came to Luang Prabang Airport; not really a must see site. We’d decided to take the route across the wooden plank bridge because it looked nice. It kind of seemed like we’d gone the wrong way and that bringing a map would have been a good idea after all.

However, when you’re on a ‘let’s just cycle and see’ bike ride there isn’t really a right or wrong way, providing you have no expectations. I think we were all hoping for lovely countryside, mountainside jungle or interesting riverside paths, apart from Paul who was just happy to lose some calories.

We carried on cycling anyway and stopped again after an hour to sit in this wooden shelter in the shade by the side of the road opposite some houses and fruit trees.

Unsure which way to go next I asked a man walking past, “Khwy sawk haa” which translates badly as “I’m looking for forest.” He shook his head and I asked again replacing ‘forest’ with ‘river’. He then smiled and pointed left. In the mean time Paul had been given a papaya from a lady who lived in one of the houses opposite.

As we continued to cycle, the river turned out to be unsuitable for swimming but we later found a small cafe where we could consume sugar and eat the papaya. The woman who worked there happily agreed to cut it up for us. 10 minutes later she returned with a plate of the South East Asian speciality, papaya salad- spaghetti like strands of papaya, soaked in a kind of chilli fish oil with tomatoes and green herbs. It was surprisingly tasty.

Towards the end of our bike ride we ended up finding a 3-floored temple on a hill with a fantastic view over Luang Prabang. Most temples contain mural paintings and artworks. However, in this one the work was different. Am I right to think that the people in this part of the mural are eating themselves?

On the way out of the temple an old wise looking, white robed woman, who I assumed worked there smiled at me and gestured for me to come over to her. She reached for my hand and tied several plaited, gold threads around my wrist whilst muttering something in Lao. I thought, how lovely, she singled me out because I’m paying extra attention to the art and deserve a bracelet. However, once she’d finished she held out her hand and said, “Money.”

Now I have 2 thread/ string bracelets on my right wrist which are supposed to symbolize happiness. The left wrist is knowledge. Perhaps I’ll get another one of those soon.

As we rode slowly back to Luang Prabang, we spotted a huge rainbow running right through the sky; a lovely clichéd ending to a ‘There’s no right or wrong way’ bike ride.

Jungle Trekking

8 Sep
Clare tests out a bamboo bridge

This Is A Bridge?

After a bumpy hour long ride standing in the back of a pick-up truck we arrived at Akha Hill House. It felt like a tree house built on to the side of a mountainous jungle. The place was a little run down and after some really terrible noodles (think supernoodles with way to much soy and pretty awful veg) and over priced beer we hit the hay. The rooms were as basic as they come (a bed with a mosquito net, one light, four walls, roof and floor) but it was actually pretty comfortable and cool to sleep in.

There were a few jungle treks you could pay for, but as most of the starting prices were around 2000 Baht a person, we decided just to get a little advice and do it ourselves. The nearest ‘attractions’ around were a waterfall and hot springs, being that we hadn’t seen the waterfall yet (as we saw the hot springs on our previous cycle) we set off for that.

The path that one of the guides had told us about took us up higher and away from the village. It was hard work in the sun but the view was pretty stunning. Eventually the path narrowed as we left the hills village and slowly entered the jungle. With bamboo thickets on one side, sheer drops on the other and mystic plants growing over the path it felt pretty adventurous. We pass only one other person;  an old man carrying a huge sack of rice (of course).

Soon we could hear the rush of water and eventually could see bits of waterfall. We reached a path off the main track that lead to a large pool of water just before one part of the falls (it was more like many smaller falls rather than one huge drop). I could see that the only way further down the falls was to first cross the river, the only obvious way to do this was across 2 sections of bamboo that had been laid down. Edging along the 2 beams of bamboo no more than 20cm wide we crossed. After trekking down we reached another bigger pool which had a slightly weathered bamboo bridge (with a bamboo woven floor and bamboo railings) leading from the edge so you could access the pool.

This pool was great to swim in and although it wasn’t deep the ‘exit’ was protected by a huge rock, which meant there was no chance of being swept downstream or over the edge. The spray from the falls and the huge trees that surrounded the area meant it actually felt quite cool in the area, so returning to the hill house after this meant it felt even hotter than before. After some lunch we somehow reached the conclusion that the walk to the hot springs in the midday sun would be a good idea.

Clare stands in extremely tall grass

Child Height Grass

We pushed through the jungle once again; this time it opened out into a strange grass like field. The grass was so tall here that it felt like being a child again, playing in the fields next to my home. This path then sidled up to a bamboo fence, which took us past paddy fields and around a little village.

After passing through a village (where everyone gave us the look of “why… why are you here? HOW even!?”) and running low on water, we finally got to the point where we admitted we were horribly lost. Then from the road in front came one of the guests from the hostels.  He asked (without prompt) if we were looking for the hot springs, we nodded and he told us to follow the road for another 2km or so and we’d get there.

The hot springs were more than a welcome sight, it was an accomplishment. We soaked our aching bodies in the bath water warmth, to the point where the return journey seemed like it would be hell.

The return journey along the road was a lot less pretty and less interesting, save for the fact it was rapidly getting dark and we had no torch (except Clare had pointed out at the time “I have my mobile and part of my sandal glows in the dark”, though to what effect these would have been on a jungle mountain road is anyone’s guess). We made it back to the hill house through some tea plantations just as the daylight gave out.

Cycling around Chiang Rai (“Just one gear on my fixie bike”)

1 Sep

Yesterday we hired two bikes from our hostel at 50Baht each (1 pound roughly). Slightly too small frames and with fixed gears we set off in search of a cave we read about in our guide. Crossing a bridge and ending up in the suburbs we cycled past an arc by the river, apparently this full size building was a church…

After a 3km cycle through some nice flat countryside we reached the first cave. Down a track with abandoned huts down one side, the atmosphere was pretty spooky. A monk greeted us with no English and signed that we could go up this worn looking stair case. With Clare in front it felt as if this was some old spooky temple (which it half was) and we were about to steal some precious jewel after dodging a few ancient traps and shooting bats. And yes, there were actually bats in the cave way above where my touch beam could reach into the darkness of the main cavern.

After running out the cave screaming with a flock of bats in pursuit… well not really, we carried out towards another “Buddha Image Cave”. This cave was some how less impressive and felt more like a hollow in a rock wall. The resident monk in this place was pretty nice and obviously didn’t get many visitors. He took us through every ritual and got us to pose for a picture in front of one of the statues.

We decided that even though we had seen what we come to see the countryside alone was much more worth the time. With this in mind we continued up the road steadily getting deeper into the countryside. The views were pretty incredible and a light warm rain kept us going. We happened upon a sign saying there was a hot-spring 12km away, with no other real aims we decided this must be where we needed to go (after a small disagreement of “You REALLY want to go to a tourist elephant village along the main highway?”). This route lead us across a huge swelling river, up through mountain villages, over red mud slide covered roads and past smiling/waving villagers.

After a distance that felt way over 12km (I swear it took us about 5 minutes to do 3km then 2 hours to do 1km, according to the signs) we arrived at the hot-spring. The bubbling 87degC water, smelling of eggs, with pipes running into a pool… that was closed.

It was now around 4:30pm and it would be getting dark soon. From what we could tell it was about 20km+ back to Chiang Rai. We needed to cover some serious ground back as we had no lights and our map was pretty much useless out this far. 8km later we were exhausted with some huge hills still to go (remember we had no gears) things were looking a little sketchy. Its worth pointing out at this point pretty much the only vehicles we saw on the road (which only seemed to be every 30 mins or so anyway) were motorbikes or 4×4’s. Behind us I heard the deep rumbling of a vehicle, looking round I saw heaven… a pickup truck. Madly flailing my thumb out and waving frantically the vehicle stopped on the side. I pointed down the road and simply said “Chiang Rai?” hoping that would be obvious. He pointed and gave the thumbs up, we chucked our bikes in the back and pretty much flopped into the back with them.

At last, now we would get somewhere, even if it was not all the way. But after only 5 mins of traveling we stopped in a village I really didn’t remember passing. The driver and his passenger got out to a road side ‘shop’, pointing at a bottle of something and then motioning to us we realised he wanted us to drink with him. They paid for a shot of this white clear rum(?) topped off with a fruity/cherry/red stuff mixer. It was actually pretty nice and wouldn’t accept me paying for any of the drinks at all. In the end they did drop us on the outskirts of Chiang Rai and it was only a short cycle to our hostel. It really is true about the kindness of strangers out in the rural parts.

Night train to Chiang Mai

22 Aug

Me and Clare in the bar on the night train

Me and Clare took the 7:30pm night train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. Each train compartment had 2 sets of bunk beds, I had the lower Clare had the top, though there was basically no difference. The train was air-conditioned, but i’d rather it not have been as I woke up the following day feeling terrible.

The train did have one strange saving grace, the restaurant/bar carriage. This was more like a moving party carriage, it had flashing christmas lights, coloured ceiling lights, music and plenty of slightly overpiced beer. We danced to too many 90’s songs with tourists and thai’s.

We’re now staying at “The Good Will Guesthouse” which is only 250 Baht for both us a night (roughly 5 pounds a night). The room is very basic with only a fan and shower/toilet, but the staff are so friendly (with the cutest little dog) it really makes up for it.

More photos added here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/treesareweird/