So Long, South East Asia

After two and a half months, it’s time to depart South East Asia. And as is tradition, here is my recap of the last few months, along with my favorite pictures.

Same Same? Definitely Not.
I had two major assumptions before heading into this region. Firstly, that it would be a similar backpacker adventure experience like South America. Secondly, that each of the countries I would visit (Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam) were essentially the same. With both, I couldn’t have been further from the truth.

Backpacking in South East Asia is very far removed from the adventurous, confusing, bewildering but ultimately rewarding experience that was South America. It’s more of a holiday destination, navigated equally easily by old hippies carrying satchels, yuppies with carry-ons on wheels, and busloads of middle-aged tourists. It’s never necessary to know any of the local languages beyond hello and thank you. A complicated, multiple-change busride is easily arranged through any guesthouse (including tuk-tuk pick-up and drop-off). It took the edge off the adventure a lot, and I needed some time to stop and reconsider my priorities (ie less culture, more fun).

The second surprise was that the four countries are vastly different. The landscape of Thailand cannot be compared to that of Vietnam (to be honest, no country’s landscape could be compared to the incredible beauty of Vietnam’s). The people of Laos are completely different from those in Cambodia. And the languages share some commonalities but are in no way interchangeable. I had been quick to throw all four nations under the header ‘South East Asia’, but I can now proudly and happily say that I understand more of the sensibilities driving each place.

Things I Haven’t Done
Visit a ping-pong show in Bangkok, pet a tiger, see a tarantula. Trek through the snowy hills of northern Vietnam. Drunkenly float down the river in Vang Vieng.

Music Makes The People Come Together
But if I ever hear another David Guetta song again I will shoot the DJ. For nine months now I’ve been chased relentlessly by tunes like ‘I’ve Got A Feeling’ or ‘Sexy Bitch’ and I’m afraid I can’t stand it any longer. It’s just the same music night after night. And don’t even get me started on ‘We No Speak Americano’, which was fun at first but has after many months of overexposure degenerated into something that makes me escape a club like it’s on fire.

Laos – Please Don’t Rush
My favorite country here was without a doubt Laos. It seemed to me to be the true ‘original Asia’ – hot, humid, slow, exceedingly hospitable and friendly, towns bursting with life only at 6am huddling around woodfires to prepare the morning rice, old colonial buildings slowly falling into disrepair, monks performing the morning prayer ceremonies, the smell of incense filling the air. It was really, really perfect, and I loved it there. No surprise then that it was also the country where I connected with the locals and ended up visiting two weddings and a funeral.

No I Haven’t Forgotten
I’m still planning that charity to help kids go to school. I just need a name – all suggestions welcome!

You Count Down, I Count Up
Haggling, they say, is a skill. I say it’s a pain in the ass. It’s all fun and games in Thailand and Cambodia. Especially in Cambodia with the tried-and-true ‘divide the quoted price by four and refuse to go up, they’ll budge eventually’ strategy. But in Vietnam it became some kind of battle to the death. I tried to buy some shoes and was quoted a price of $25. I countered with $15 and would have happily bought the shoes for $20. But no, no, $15 was impossible, had to be $25. I usually wait for the vendor to make the first price drop, but here there was none forthcoming, so I increased my offer to $17. Fine, she said, I will drop my price as well. To $24,50. And that was as low as she would go. At that point I decided to just walk away. This happened time and time again in Vietnam, where haggling was about as enjoyable as pulling teeth.

Backpacker Prices vs Real Life Prices
After a couple of months on the road, enjoying $1 meals, $0.50 beers, $4 beds, etc. it was a rough shock to the senses to spend a few days in the real world. The Hua Hin Sheraton is a marvelous resort and I very much enjoyed my three-night stay there, with its private beach, 560-meter lagoon pool, massive bathtub, limousine service, huge pile of fresh towels, midnight room service, the works. But I couldn’t help but swallow hard when I realized that the White Russian I was drinking was the equivalent of 35% of my normal daily budget. It’s going to be tough to be back in Europe and not have my eyes pop out when I buy a round at the bar.

The Best Place In The World?
I’ve visited some amazing places in the last few months. The incredible atmosphere of Luang Prabang. The perfect relaxation of the Four Thousand Islands. Saigon’s traffic insanity. The two-day drift downstream the Mekong River. Halong Bay. But my favorite place here, and perhaps in my whole trip, was Bamboo Island on Cambodia. It was a little backpacker paradise hidden away on a tropical island with water so warm to the touch by day and so brightly phosphorescent at night. With fellow backpackers who were perfect company, also off the islands as we kept running into each other across Vietnam. Where you would ask for an update of your tab, dreading the moment what with all that food and drink and random fake Rayban purchases, only to be told that you’re only spending $25 a day. With a brightly painted goat called Rambo, and a cheeky cat named Pringles. A staff that made everyone feel right at home, and would get a new party going night after night.
A three-night stay turned into eight nights, and I’m very glad to have been there.
Places like that are becoming exceedingly rare as tourism goes upmarket here, and indeed Bamboo Island will be gone by this time next year to be replaced by a French eco-resort. But for the time being it’s still there, and it’s perfect.

What’s Next?
I fly home on May 3, and in the last month I intend to have one more adventure: India. When I originally planned this trip, I intentionally saved it for last, hoping to accumulate enough backpacker skills and the necessary level of zen relaxation to withstand the assault on the senses that India is supposed to be. And now I can say that I am ready, and I’m excited. Saturday I fly to Calcutta, and the last chapter of this trip begins.

Nine Photographic Highlights

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Vietnam: love it, hate it, love it again

The trek north through Vietnam continues. I’ve been suited up, wandered through a bullet-pocked citadel, enjoyed the greatest waterpark ever, and it’s culminated in a visit to one of the most beautiful places I’ve had the pleasure of being in: Halong Bay.

I left Nha Trang in a spur of the moment decision after a most excellent day at the Vinpearl waterpark. Highlights included going down a water halfpipe on a tube, Asian ladies crying from fear on the swinging ship, a stroboscope slide, the world’s largest above-water cable car, and so much more. We had a blast all day, but it was time to get going and leave the craziness of Nha Trang behind. What I didn’t know was that I would also leave behind the great weather I’ve been blessed with over the last few months.

Arriving in Hoi An, the tailoring capital of Vietnam, the next morning I was greeted by rain, a chilly breeze, and overcast sky. Needless to say this got me thoroughly depressed (as well as a cold) and while tailors were busying themselves over my suit and shirts I had time to reconsider my travel plans. I decided to push on anyway, and endure a week or two of crappy weather in order to see the sights in the North.

Hoi An is not just a place to get suited up for what amounts to spare change, it’s also a pretty, quaint town lit by lanterns at night while classical piano music is piped through speakers hidden along the streets. But it’s also completely overrun by middle-aged tourists, similar to the scene in Luang Prabang in Laos which makes me wonder where they all go in-between? As soon as my clothes were done, I grabbed a quick bus to Hue, the original capital of Vietnam.

In Hue I spent a good day wandering through the Citadel, the residence of the Vietnamese emperors. Although largely destroyed by vicious streetfighting during the Vietnam War, there is still enough left of the palaces, temples, baths and other quarters to give a good sense of this huge place. And you can still see the bullet holes pockmarking the walls, an eerie sight.

Quickly though, it was off to Hanoi, which is the base of operations for my last week in Vietnam. Right away I went on a three-day tour of what has been my most anticipated destination of this entire trip: Halong Bay. Thousands of limestone islands jut sharply up from the sea, completely uninhabited except for huge numbers of nesting birds. We stayed at a junk sailboat for the first night, and then in huts along a small stretch of beach for the second night. We went out for wakeboarding, engaged in an unbelievably high level of consumption, but the absolute highlight for me were the kayak trips. On the first day we went in a big group, all coming back to the junk as the sun was setting. But on the second day, me and and English guy Thorne went out by ourselves, got a little bit lost, and ended up finding our way back to the beach in pitch black darkness, the dark rocks contrasting with the shiny water. And occasionally we would kayak through a patch thick with phosphorescent algae, lighting up our paddles so brightly it was like a fire in the water.

Every look at Halong Bay is stupendously beautiful. The rocks just keep coming up one after another, scattered around, all so majestic and beautiful. It was breathtaking, an absolute highlight of my trip and well worth the hype I’d been setting it up for.

Back to Hanoi for a few days of relaxing, laundry, and a quick run through the sights here: The Army Museum, Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, a crashed B-52 bomber. But the coolest detour was to Snake Village, where I got to handle, pet, then kill and eat a snake. We drank snake blood mixed with rice wine, snake bile, ate crushed snake bones, snake intestines, snake ribs. Not all of it was fantastic but it was certainly very interesting, and washed down easily with rice wine.

So if all is well, then why the subject line for this blog post? That has to do, unfortunately, with the Vietnamese people. By and large they are wonderful, beautiful people, but it seems that anyone in the business of tourism is just terrible. In the beginning it’s kind of cute that kids cuss you out when you refuse to buy their wares, or when old ladies try to charge double for a bottle of water. But after a while it just gets tiresome, and it seems to me that they’re not trying to be clever or hustling, but that they straight up disrespect and dislike tourists. It’s a terrible feeling because disrespect is so easily reciprocated. Especially when contrasted with the incredible generosity and hospitality in the other South East Asian countries, or even the way other Vietnamese people are, it’s such a shame that anyone involved in selling you anything is actively out to screw you.

Still, this does not take away from the fact that every look of Vietnam is amazing. And Halong Bay was the very pinnacle. Here are some photos to back that up:

Next up I head back to Thailand for a very exciting rendez-vous and a few days of well-deserved R&R at a five-star beach resort. It’s a champagne lifestyle on a lemonade budget!

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Welcome to a country that’s all hustle and all bustle. The pace here is nothing short of insane, the locals are crazy and the tourists even crazier. I’ve been here now for a week and have squeezed in more hedonism and good times than I thought possible, while also getting a chance to explore the beautiful countryside.

My first destination was Saigon, home to seven million people and five million motorbikes. It’s complete chaos as a city, nothing ever closes and everything is possible. I arrived at 10 in the evening, and when I got out sixty hours later I had managed to sleep for only nine of those. In-between the parties I managed to see the main things to see in the city, namely the two American War-related sights: the War Remnants Museum and the Cu Chi tunnels. History is written by the victor so in this case the Vietnamese are glorious ‘American-killer hero’ peasants and the US soldiers are cast as vicious babykillers.

Neither place is exceptionally interesting, the real draw of Saigon is the city itself. It’s so crowded and hectic and loud and fast. Crossing the boulevards is an act of faith, with motos whizzing by all around you. They’ll swerve around you at the last moment, never slowing down. There are thousands of them. The trick is to walk slow, straight, and to never stop lest you get stuck out there.

I found a breath of fresh air (literally) in the mountain town of Dalat. On the back of a motorcycle I explored the gorgeous countryside, rolling hills covered in pine forests. I was guided around a local tribe’s village, sampled the rice wine (horrible) and visited a silk farm. I never knew that the silk worms were boiled alive, so that was a learning experience. Mostly I just relaxed and enjoyed the amazing Vietnamese coffee. It’s very strong, and so thick you could stick a fork in it. It has a smooth flavor that is unlike any coffee I’ve ever had. I won’t start my day without it now.

From Dalat I headed to the beach to experience the madness that is Nha Trang, but I was pleasantly surprised that it’s actually pretty relaxed compared to Saigon. The city beach is massive and it’s a good place to get some tanning in, hang out with fellow travelers, compare plans and exchange tips, and enjoy the comforts of a big city.

Tomorrow I’m taking a night bus to Hoi An, which is a more traditional, cultural city. It’s also the tailoring capital of South East Asia and I look forward to getting some fine threads made. Time to start traveling in style!

Here are some photos.

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Cambodia: Between Heaven and Hell

It’s been two weeks of major contrasts. I’ve been to the most amazing and to the saddest places here. The contradictions were sharp and sudden. From one of the most disgusting cities of Cambodia, rampant with sex tourism and crass commercialism, an hour-long boat ride took me to the perfect island paradise. One morning I strode along the mass graves of the Khmer Rouge regime, and thirty minutes later I emptied out the clip of an AK-47.

After Angkor Wat, I headed to Phnom Penh for a quick visit to the Khmer Rouge sites there. The two main things to see are the Tuol Sleng prison, where the interrogators tortured their way into full ‘confessions’, and the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, where the victims would be shipped to be beaten to death and dumped in mass graves. The disturbing aspect of the Khmer Rouge is not so much the death toll as much as the willful malice to their own people. A blind rage was directed inwards and nobody was safe, all the way up to the most senior party members. And when the time of execution came they didn’t even have the ‘courtesy’ of ending it quickly with a bullet. Instead, the prisoner would be bludgeoned or hacked to death, undressed, and dumped into a mass grave. When all had been such disposed of, DDT was poured over the bodies to hide the stench of the dead and to kill off those who were still alive.

Somewhat anachronistically, included on that same daytrip is a detour to an illegal shooting range. It’s set up in a joint venture with the army who makes good money supplying the ammo and turning a blind eye. I did my part in resolving Cambodia’s ammo surplus by firing an M-16, AK-47 and even a Russian machinegun. The rocket launcher was too expensive at $350 and although a handgrenade was a reasonable $30, there’s no way I’m pulling the pin out of a rusting, Chinese-made, thirty year old grenade. What I learned there is that if the revolution or zombie outbreak begins you’ll want me on your side. From 25 meters out, with an old AK-47, I hit the torso target 40% of the time with an additional 10% being direct hits on head and heart regions. All those years playing Counter-Strike paid off – three round bursts for accuracy!

My next destination, beachtown Sihanoukville was awful, with middle-aged European men fondling their petite Asian ‘girlfriend’ or ‘boyfriend’ on the streets. So very dispiriting to see. Thankfully I didn’t stay long and made my way over to Koh Ru, the Bamboo Island.

The tourist boom has destroyed many once quaint, perfect places. Seasides are getting packed with endless bars and restaurants and drunken foolery. The islands are where you can find the real magic of the tropics, but ecotourism, 5-star resorts and shady Russian development is killing the options for an ordinary backpacker or socially minded individual. But I was lucky enough to chance upon just such a tropical paradise. A three night stay turned into eight nights as this place was really amazing. A great staff, perfect atmosphere building from the uberchillness of the morning to hectic drunken pandemonium at night to midnight skinny dipping where the motions set alight thousands of phosphorescent algae.

It’s the rhythm that’s so relaxing. It’s the mix of folks, everyone staying for different durations and mingling freely. Each morning started with bleary-eyed but happy folks dragging themselves to the bar for a solid breakfast and exchange of last night’s gossip. Each night ended with all of us dancing wildly, bright facepaint everywhere, smiles on all faces. And it wasn’t exclusive – every new arrival was greeted and made to feel welcome.

So with sadness in my heart I left that place behind, because tomorrow I’m going to Vietnam, and I now only have three weeks left in South East Asia…

Here are some photos!

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From Laos into Cambodia

I’ve slacked a bit on the weekly updates, and I’ll try to make it up with this post. It features the most incredible temples of Angkor Wat (aka the world’s biggest jungle gym), a little slice of paradise on a river island, and one great idea.

Working back from the end, I’ve spent the last four days in Siem Reap, Cambodia, the base to visit the Angkor temple complex. Angkor Wat, the world’s largest religious building, is the most famous and quite obviously the jewel in the crown, but the whole area is littered with amazing structures that take days to explore. It’s actually the world’s largest pre-industrial city (home to a million people at its zenith in the 12th Century), stretching to 1000 square kilometers. My tuk-tuk driver Narat zipped me from location to location which saved me a lot of exertion in the 37 degree Celcius, 80% humidity weather. I didn’t think I’d ever drink four liters of water in a day and still be thirsty.

The jungle has taken its toll on all structures, with massive trees growing under, around, and right on top of the rocks. It’s the strangest sensation to make your way through the thick brush, strange birds and bugs screeching and yelping everywhere around you, only to stumble onto an overgrown temple, glowing green with moss. And although Angkor is massively touristy it was still quite easy to disappear and appreciate its beauty by myself. The highlight for me was to watch the sun rise over Angkor at 6 in the morning, the colors slowly changing from black to red to orange until the red sun appeared right above the towers. It won’t give you chills because it’s already 30 degrees and you’re starting to sweat, but it’s a magical sight.

Two weeks before, I had an idea to keep moving a little quicker in order to have more time near the end of my trip (instead of taking more and more time away from India, as I’ve been doing so far). That plan lasted exactly one day. Things were looking on the up and up when I left Vientiane, the capital of Laos and not that interesting, a day early to head for the Cambodian border. But then I ended up in Don Det, a perfect little place.

Right on the border, the mighty Mekong river fans out into a delta and thousands of islands rise above it. I spent my days hopping from island to island, enjoying barbecues, sunsets, floating down the river on a tube, keeping a steady diet of Lao beer, gin & tonics as well as the local whiskey ($1 for a bottle!), mapping out where all the kittens and puppies lived, riding my bicycle, spotting one of the world’s most rare dolphin species, and generally chilling out completely.

Outside of the social hustle & bustle in the ‘center’ of the main island, I found peace & quiet & a very good time with a lovely South African couple who had a bungalow on the other island, literally the last house before the rice paddies, who loved playing the card game shithead and relaxing. I didn’t know there was another gear below ‘complete Zen sanctity of spirit and peace’, but it’s there and I was happily enjoying it for as long as I could.

One thing I’d like to share with you is that in Don Det they have some truly bizarre roadsigns. My favorite I’ve included a photo of below, and my top three would be:
– (besides a bridge) DON’T JUMP! IT’S FUCKING SHALLOW
– (on a restaurant) WE HAVE NUTELLA
– (on a house) PUNCTURE YOUR TYRE – $1

Now all that’s left to tell you is my great idea. Traveling through Laos and talking with locals and expats, you notice just how poor the country is. Not in terms of starvation or disease, but economic and educational poverty. On Don Det an average person makes $30 to $50 a month. Schoolteachers are relatively well paid with $50. To go to school costs between $1 and $1.50 a month, not a huge sum but when you make only $30 a month it’s a burden (and imagine if there are three school-going kids, that’s 10% of the monthly income gone).

As such, school is not mandatory here, and most kids only get to stay until they’re about 12 (girls usually until 10, 11) if they go at all. Now let’s do some basic math: $200 a month would pay the salary of two schoolteachers as well as the tuition of 70-80 children. It would make a huge difference there while only being a small burden to any employed Westerner. Now I’ve had this idea in my head for a few days now, and the biggest thing will be that I’ll have to set up my own organisation and ensure the money doesn’t get hung up with authorities, but I really think it’s a feasible plan and I look forward to work it out more and confront whatever difficulties, frustrations and sagging motivation come along with it. If anyone has a suggestion for the charity’s name, I’m all ears.

And in case you think I’ve lost my marbles, this will push you over the edge. In my tuk-tuk on the way to Angkor Wat I would pass a children’s hospital every day. There’s a sign outside saying ‘outbreak of hemorrhagic dengue fever – blood donors needed’ so today I gave them a pint of my blood. In return I got a free T-shirt and now I know my bloodtype: A+. Good times!

Other strange things are also happening. I’ve added a new page to my diary called ‘Places To Visit Next’ – so far there are three entries. I guess that’s what they call the travel bug. For now it’ll suffice to head over to Phnom Penh and then get some beach time in Sihanoukville.

Here’s some photos!

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