A Travellerspoint blog

December 2010

Malaysia

sunny

After a short stop off at Kuala Lumpur airport we flew on to the UNESCO world heritage site of Penang. I’m not sure of the process for applying for UNESCO WHS status. Perhaps you fill in a form and send it along with a cheque and SAE and a few weeks later your new status is sent across to you. Whatever the process, I’m pretty sure nobody from UNESCO has ever been to Penang. It does have a few nice colonial style buildings but nothing to get too excited about. Much of the city of Georgetown is a rundown mess. Perhaps it has some charm which is beyond my cynical outlook on life. It certainly has the best chicken tikka and naan bread I have ever tasted although there was not a penang bite in sight.

Our first night was spent in the Hotel Mingood – as the name suggested it minged, it minged real good. Our first action upon checking in was a trip out to find somewhere else to stay for a few nights. As the Penang marathon was taking place over the weekend there wasn’t anywhere available in which we were keen to stay. We pulled the flashpackers emergency ripcord and checked ourselves into a proper hotel in the beach resort of Batu Ferrengi.

In fairness to Penang – once you leave Georgetown the area improves dramatically, probably helped by our beachfront hotel and our free upgrade to a suite with amazing views over the ocean. What’s more – the sun was shining. We spent a couple of days here sitting in the sun and having delicious curries for dinner.

Once the marathon had left town we found a room in a hostel in Georgetown and used that as our base to see some tourist spots such as the spice gardens and the national park. The latter really was lovely, being rainforest / jungle which stretches to the coast. We hiked the trails in the jungle for a couple of hours and then had our picnic on the beach.

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On our way back, the trail met a troop of monkeys which were happily swinging on vines and jumping into the water to cool off. So cute..... at least that’s what I thought as I crossed the bridge through the middle of them. Niamh was not so sure... She hesitated but finally when most of the monkeys had gone she bravely stepped onto the bridge.

I have never heard a scream quite like it, the volume and the implied terror made me spin around fearing the worst. The last remaining monkey on the bridge, one of the bigger ones, took at look at Niamh, bared his teeth, and with a hissing scream made a lunge for her. She ran, he missed and no one was hurt. It later transpired that the mistake had been to make eye contact with the blighter. This is the second run in we have had with monkeys since we have been away. As cute as they might look whilst they rip the windscreen wipers and trim off your car as you drive through a safari park, sorry Lisa, these bastards are cruel, vicious and mean, aren’t they Niamh?

Next we take a minibus to the Cameron Highlands where they grow tea and strawberries. The temperature was noticeably cooler here and we got to wear the jeans we have been carrying around for 3 months. We drank tea, ate strawberries and trekked in the jungle for a couple of days before our bus journey to Kuala Lumpur.

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Christmas has hit KL in a big way – I haven’t seen such enthusiastic representation of the Christmas spirit for some time. Complete with carol singers, snow machines and more lights per square foot than even I manage in my typical over excited festive decor. All the more impressive since this is a Muslim country.

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We took in the sights, tall towers, china town, little india, hit the shops, walked in the park and generally engaged in big city stuff. Upon the advice of the signs in our hostel, Niamh didn’t visit the “unprofessional massage services” that were available from the two scantily dressed ladies that flanked the steps at the entrance of our hostel. We say ladies as that was how they were dressed, it was the subject of some debate as to whether this was an accurate gender allocation so I too refrained from availing myself of their services.

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We had intended to spend a week or so in Malaysian Borneo to climb a mountain, see an orang-utan or two and perhaps have a dive but our fear was that it was the wet season in that part of the world and it would be pretty miserable doing those things in the driving rain. We’ll just have to come back next year. For now we boarded our train for Singapore.

Posted by steve1000 13:24 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

Cambodia

sunny

Cambodia is a worry for me – I have been more nervous about this country than perhaps anything else. I have been hoarding food and researching every possible scam (of which there are a great many) – forewarned is forearmed and all that but it didn’t help my nervous expectations.

Scam 1:

We arrived in Cambodia after a 2 day Mekong river cruise but I was ready for the first scam that everyone is subjected to on entering Cambodia – the visa processing fee. A visa for Cambodia costs $20, it’s very easy to complete the paper work and doesn’t take much time. Helpful individuals (in this case our tour guide) will tell you the complete opposite and charge you a $5 fee to process it for you which is wholly unnecessary. In our case she only wanted $2 per person to process the visa and since we didn’t have any change we gave her $2 for both of us. I would gladly pay $1 at every border to have my paperwork completed.

Scam 2:

I have nothing for you, sorry..... There were no more scams (at least that we were aware of). There are certainly lots of people begging for money or trying to sell you dodgy books and sunglasses (the book sellers are mostly children so obviously Niamh was buying) but there was no pressure, no hassle – a simple no thank you was plenty to be allowed on your way.
Phnom Penh turned out to be a lovely city although I suspect we spent most of our time in an area catering to tourism and the many NGOs that are present in Cambodia’s capital city. The food is excellent, the accommodation was some of the cleanest and most comfortable we have seen to date.

Cambodia has an extremely sad, turbulent and violent history and nowhere is this more apparent than at the two top tourist destinations in Phnom Penh. S21 is an old school converted into a prison that was used to house and torture opponents and members of the Pol Pot regime. The Killing Fields is where the residents of S21 and thousands of others were taken for execution. The Cambodian government is keen for people to visit and be made aware of the atrocities and genocide that occurred in Cambodia, not least, to try and prevent it occurring again.

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My experience was that even when surrounded by the torture instruments, the mass graves and the transparent stupa, being the final resting place for over 8000 human skulls, it was impossible to get a sense of the barbarity and scale of the genocide that occurred here. There was time for a moment of quiet reflection standing next to a gnarled old tree that had perhaps the saddest history of all.

On a more positive note we got the opportunity to visit more palaces and wats (we had missed a couple of days of wat-ing whilst boating on the Mekong) we tried the Cambodian chicken curry half and half that nearly matched up to Fidel’s own and a poutine that puts the Cayman efforts to shame.

Next stop the wat capital of the world – Siem Reap.

We arrived in Siem Reap and checked into our posh hotel, with a pool on the roof, ready for a swim. Naturally it rained so instead we rested up ready to once again hit the bicycles for a 3 day cycle tour of Angkor Wat and surrounding areas.

To say that we are a bit wat-ed out at this point would be an understatement but at least a cycle tour would provide some exercise to break up the seemingly endless supply of temples in this area. Once again Cambodia comes through with a surprising victory. Temples and wats here are brilliant – old ruins entangled with tree routes but with enough structure to climb up towers, creep through corridors and explore all sorts of nooks and crannies. As if that wasn’t enough our first temple was where parts of tomb raider were filmed – well if it’s good enough for Lara it’ll do me.

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The temples were just a small part of our tour, much of our journey was through small villages in the Cambodian countryside where you get a real insight into the Cambodian daily life. Children would come running out of the houses, schools and orphanages to scream out hello or bye bye and they seemed so happy to see us that even I got caught up in the infectious atmosphere and was waving and calling out greetings with the best of them.

The only downside to the trip was the sunset over the temples – it all started out well – a long climb up the hill, scrambling up near vertical staircases to reach the top level of the temple. Then the first few drops of rain were felt. Good news at first – it gave me a clear view over Angkor Wat and some nice rainbow photos. Then the rain got heavier and heavier. If it had taken 20 minutes to climb to the top with relatively small crowds and dry underfoot it took perhaps double that to get back when everyone was descending the treacherous, slippy stairs at once. The photo we have of us afterwards does not do our sodden wetness justice. Had we jumped in our hotel pool fully clothed we would not have been wetter than we were when we climbed on the bus to come home. On the bright side, the sunset, which was somehow not obscured by the rain, was spectacular.

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The final day of our cycle tour was ANOTHER boat trip to another floating market, give me strength......

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This one was actually pretty good, boats heading back and forth with all manner of vegetables and fruits. I was quite taken with the floating pig pen. The real highlight was having our packed lunches in one of the floating village houses. It was our boat driver’s father’s house with 3 generations living on the river in a one room structure (with a screened off area for the “marital couple” to sleep.) The patriarch was an old man who had lost his wife 10 years earlier when she was fishing and accidently hit upon some unexploded ordinance. Educated whilst the French were still very much in town he spoke francais along with Vietnamese. My french language skills which are have been unused for the best part of 20 years suddenly came in handy. I managed to thank him, tell him that he was very kind for allowing us to use his house for our lunch and that he had a lovely home. At least I think that was what I said – either way he seemed very happy about it all.

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Exhausted once again we made our way to the airport and made our way to Malaysia.

Posted by steve1000 01:29 Archived in Cambodia Comments (1)

Hue to Saigon

Hue, Hoi An, Nha Trang & Ho Chi Minh City

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We’ve been incredibly lucky with the weather so far. Only one day of rain up until the point we arrived in Hue. That was all about to change. We had one day of nice weather whilst we looked around the citadel but once we were onboard our boat tour the following day, the heavens opened and pretty much stayed like that until we hit reached Saigon.

Hue itself is a nice enough spot with the citadel and some quite impressive tombs but I’d be happy to skip it if I were coming again or was on a tight schedule.

Hoi An, is yet another UNESCO world heritage site (there are a lot of them about) and this one deservedly so. We had high expectations from reports of friends and other travellers and with the exception of the weather we were not disappointed. Our plan had been to spend a couple of days in town and then a few days at a beach resort but as it didn’t stop raining the entire time we were there, we spent all our time in the town.

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No 1 activity in Hoi An is having tailored clothing made and there are literally hundreds of tailors in town. It’s probably fair to say that in the old town the majority of buildings house a tailor shop. W visited a few. Niamh, who for a girl, was surprisingly disinterested in the process, had a few dresses made. I had a couple of suits and a tux knocked out. Upon showing her the picture of the tuxedo I wanted our helpful assistant was a little too quick to point out that the best tailoring in the world was not going to turn me into Daniel Craig – thanks for that.

The rest of our stay in Hoi An was spent between suit fittings and coffee shops which isn't too bad a way to kill a day.

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In a continuing search for good weather and the beach – we boarded our over night bus to Nha Trang. We arrived at our pre-booked hostel and found her so rude we walked out and got a place in a hotel around the corner for a fraction of the price.

Early indications were good. The sun was shining, the beach backdropped by the mountains looked spectacular. No fear though – it was raining again in no time. If the beach is not an option then Nha Trang has very little to do. We did have the option of an easy rider tour – on the back of a motorbike – but this didn’t seem like much fun in the rain so after one night we continued our journey south on another night bus to Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon as it used to be known, and still is in the central district).

At last we found the sun but no beaches or pool to speak of. We contented ourselves with a walking tour of Saigon and immersed ourselves in, what I am sure must be biased if not without basis, history of Vietnam’s struggles for independence and the American war. This included playing with tanks and machine guns at the War Remnants Museum and crawling though the amazing Cu Chi tunnel network (made bigger for western tourists but pretty tight all the same.) Marvelling at how the VC lived their lives and fought their war. I couldn’t help think of the US guys that had to actually go into these tunnels, not knowing their way around, facing the risk of the pretty fierce traps in place to skewer those who take a wrong turn. Not to mention the Vietnamese that actually had to live in them.

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Much like Hanoi, crossing the road is perhaps the biggest adventure of all. The guidebooks tell you to put out your hand and walk across the road very, very slowly irrespective of what is heading towards you. It is one of the strangest experiences, walking out into moving traffic, the instinct is to stop or run in order to avoid all manner of cars, bike, scooters and trucks that are racing towards you. This is NOT the correct approach and will lead to your being seriously injured. The trick is to allow them to avoid you not vice versa – they see you and adjust their route accordingly – any variation on your part adds unpredictability and therefore increases risk. Walk slowly and we found it best to not even look at the traffic heading your way. I should have had an amazing piece of video to demonstrate the point, it even had balloons, however when I went to review it I realised I hadn’t taken the lens cap off.

We finished our Vietnam trip with a river tour to take us into Cambodia. At this stage we have seen quite a few rice paddies and a good bit of the Mekong River but it was still very pleasant to cruise along and watch the river communities going about their daily lives and was more than adequate to get us onto our next country.

Posted by steve1000 00:51 Archived in Vietnam Tagged saigon hue hoi_an hcmc Comments (1)

Quick Update

yes - we're a little behind

Finally got around to posting the entry for Hanoi so we are only about one month behind on updates. At this stage we have finished with Vietnam, travelled through Cambodia and Malaysia and now we are in Singapore. Tomorrow we fly to Australia where we will be until after Christmas.

I'll try to catch up over the next week or so but for more recent updates check out the Sniamh advent calendar on our photo website.....

Posted by steve1000 17:22 Comments (2)

Hanoi Vietnam

Taxi Adventures in the North of Nam..

sunny

Hanoi is not for the faint of heart. If you were dropped into the old quarter you genuinely wouldn’t be able to identify which side of the road they drove on. On the dual carriageways it was more straight forward at least most of the vehicles on each carriageway drove in the same direction. Even crossing the road is and adventure that will test your bravery (or stupidity). At first Niamh and I were pretty much stuck on a short circuit that required no such crossings but we had to be braver if we were to see any of Hanoi. Once used to the chaotic madness of Hanoi we set about our sightseeing – pagodas, museums, old houses.

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Our plan for our next move was to get a bus / boat combo to Cat Ba Island and use it as a base for seeing Halong Bay. As such we headed on foot to the bus station to check out departure times and if possible pick up some tickets. We got lost en-route and when we did eventually find the station the lady was extremely unhelpful and refused to sell us tickets stating that we could buy them on the bus the following day. It was at this point that we decided to be lazy and take a taxi back to the old quarter...

Every direction you turn (lonely planet, travelfish, hotel websites, hotel maps) warn you of the taxi scams – normally they take circuitous routes or tell you your chosen destination has burnt down, is closed today (delete as applicable) and take you to an entirely different location of their choosing. Some even have dodgy fixed meters. Niamh and I were discussing this as we were surrounded by taxi drivers and we tried to find one that spoke some English and knew their way to the Hanoi Hilton prison. We found one – he reset the meter and off we went. In the wrong direction.

Niamh with her map and Stiamh with his GPS – too clever for this taxi driver. We indicated our dissatisfaction with his route choice and he promptly made some turns and got us back on course. Score one for Sniamh.

All was well, the meter at a mere 40,000 dong (about $2) very reasonable. Quick check for a street sign to monitor progress and the meter is suddenly at 365,000 dong. I suggest we pull over immediately but apparently the area was a little too busy for our driver and he found a quiet alternative with just a couple of kitchen appliance and washing machine shops around.

We were stupid – we knew we had been scammed but we knew it was a risk and should have agreed the price upfront and not ridden on the meter. We gave the guy 500,000 note and waited for our change – which was 20,000 dong. A dodgy meter was one thing but this was undisguised theft – Sniamh’s collective foot was put down - we were not having this.

Niamh opened the taxi door and started calling to the shop for help meanwhile our friendly local taxi driver was simultaneously hiding 500,000 dong in his sock and showing us that his pockets were empty. He was insisting that we had given him 2 x 200,000 dong notes. It seemed futile to point out that we had given him no such thing and that even if we had he was still short changing us, we pointed it out anyway. At this point he mysteriously lost the gift of the language of Shakespeare and was only able to converse in Vietnamese.
The man from the shop appeared – looked at the meter, laughed and hurried back to his shop to summon a lady we took to be the owner of the shop. Through a series of hand gestures and map pointing we got across to her the route we had taken, she seemed shocked and phoned the taxi company. At this point she was not aware that any cash had exchanged hands. The taxi company told her that 50,000 dong was the fair price for this ride. With more hand gestures, scribbled numbers and arrows Niamh got across the cash transactions that had taken place. Our lady friend immediately stationed her shop assistant in front of the taxi so our driver couldn’t abscond, she insisted we stayed in the car and she called the police.

Our cabbie was now starting to look a little nervous, putting the car into gear but with the door open and a man standing in front he had nowhere to go. He gestured for us to leave his cab and even gave us some more money back, in fact the correct change from 500,000 if we were to pay the full metered amount of 365k. We declined his offer, informing him that we knew he spoke English and that he had missed his chance, that he was a thief and we would wait for the police – he then had the audacity to ask for the money back – a request we politely refused. Meanwhile the shop owner was berating the taxi driver – we don’t know what she was saying but the gist, we think, is that tourism is good for Vietnam and people like him will stop people like us coming.

More nervous gear movements followed by a phone call to summon another friendly cabbie who upon arrival took receipt of the 500,000 dong note from the aforementioned sock and thus disappearing with the evidence of the crime. Our friendly washing machine dealer photographed the transaction on her phone for the police to enjoy later on.

Finally the police arrived – they had no interest in Sniamh but talked at some length with our shopkeeper heroine and the taxi driver. Another phonecall, another cabbie arrives and we are given a further 200,000 dong – this is apparently the end of the matter for us. We leave the taxi, thank our friend the shopkeeper and make our exit stage left as the taxi driver takes a policeman for a ride – presumably to check his meter but perhaps not. Somewhat appropriately we head to Hanoi Hilton followed by an emergency visit to get a dirty bird (that’s KFC for the uninitiated).

Upon getting back to the hotel we booked the first trip out of Hanoi for the following day – a cruise to Halong Bay.

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This episode illustrative of a wide reaching problem in SE Asia. There are so many people out to scam you that it darkens your view of everyone, you stop trusting and find yourself rudely turning away those that offer genuine help with no strings attached. The vast majority of people are wonderful, welcoming and helpful people like our shop owner. Should you find yourself in Hanoi and in need of kitchen appliances – please let us know and we will send you in the right direction.

Tally updates:

Victim of Scam: 3 (we have already included Hanoi taxi in early updates) net cost to Sniamh $5.25

Reluctant tourist update:

KFC: 1

Posted by steve1000 16:59 Archived in Vietnam Tagged taxi bay hanoi halong scam Comments (1)

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