A Travellerspoint blog

Ho Chi Minh - Part 2

Wet n Wild

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Arrangements had already been made for us to stay above the gallery again and they had looked after one of the backpacks for us while we were away. We joyfully reunited with yoghurt space, had a kebab from one of the street vendors and then headed to bed.

We decided to stay in Ho Chi Minh the next day to tie up some loose ends and plan our next move. Now that we'd experienced the freedom of the bike, we soon forgot about our sore bums and went back to rent one for the day. We steered clear of our old friend and went for a semi-automatic instead, it was smaller and maybe a little more agile for getting around the busy city. Our first priority was how we were going to head North and we decided that we might like to take a train, so we needed to find the train station. Unfortunately we were unsuccessful as we'd forgotten the map and the hand-drawn one in Adam's guidebook wasn't detailed enough, so after a bit of guess work we had to abort the mission. We did manage to navigate ourselves to the post office though, where I proceeded to burn my leg on the exhaust as I got off the bike. Adam then went in to see if his package had arrived while I doused my wound with cold water. He returned triumphant with parcel in hand, so that was one thing that could be ticked off the list and we were both pleased that his camera would be working again as it's far superior to mine.

We then popped round the corner to grab some lunch at a small restaurant we had been to before. You have to take your shoes off when you go in and then climb some very narrow, steep stairs to the upper level. Then you seat yourself at the low tables on round, flat cushions, it is very bright and airy up there and has a modern, Asian vibe.
Then we both consumed steak sandwiches and chips, not very Asian but very tasty! I ordered a glass of ice and continued to tend to the circular red patch on my inner calf, although I feared the damage had already been done.

After lunch we decided to make our way back to our room to get the map as we weren't having much luck without it. Needless to say we got ourselves a little bit lost on the way back but in the end saw some landmarks we recognised. When we were just one street away when the first drops of rain began to fall and they soon multiplied. We took refuge under the awning of a fruit stall and waited it out as we had also forgotten our rain gear. I was a little sick of mine any way as it had begun to rip and it had also gotten quite muddy. When the rain began to ease we decided to make a dash for it and didn't end up getting too wet.

We picked up the map, I grabbed my normal rain mack, Adam his poncho and we headed out the door once more. With the detailed street map to refer to, finding the train station was very straight forward and we were there in no time. When we found the right person to talk to we quickly established that train travel was an expensive business, well in the context of our budget. It would be a 20 hour trip to Da Nang and with two sleeper tickets, it was going to work out as double our daily allowance, we decided that we couldn't justify spending the money. So our only other option was taking the bus. There are plenty of tourist buses available which are called Cafe Tours (why?) and the tickets can be bought at one of the numerous travel agents in the tourist area. Going on them doesn't really appeal to either of us though because we'd rather do what the locals do as much as possible. So in the pursuit of authenticity we had to find our way to Ho Chi Minh bus station.

I located it on the map no problem and we set off once more. We took a wrong turn at a roundabout and headed over a bridge, and I said to Adam, 'those clouds look a bit ominous.' Sometimes it's not very fun being right! The clouds were dark, huge and heavy in the steely grey sky. Suddenly the atmosphere which was already thick with moisture broke and as if some had turned a tap on full the rain began to fall. We quickly pulled off the road and once again took refuge on the pavement by a shop front. There were some people gathered round, I think they were selling lottery tickets and they asked us where we were heading. We told them the bus station and they motioned back in the direction we had come from, and we nodded in agreement as we'd by now figured out where we had gone wrong. However there was no way we were leaving at the moment, so we all stood and watched the rain fall and the now poncho clad people that had decided to continue their journeys. I was surprised how many there were.

There was no let up, the supply of water appeared to be endless and the mighty force at which it fell remained the same. The narrow slip road we were on began to flood as the drains could not cope. This flushed out the cockroaches and we saw one rat in the grass getting an unwanted bath, and I now have a very good image to go along with the saying 'I look like a drowned rat.' I had visions of us being marooned here, which was really no where, we were out of the city beside some main road and so we made the decision to try and make our way back. It was stupid though because visibility was zero, the rain lashed into our faces and the roads were turning into rivers. We were forced to pull over once more and we ended up at a little garage. By now we were drenched, my skirt was clinging to my bare legs and I had to ring it out before I sat down on the little plastic chair I was offered.

As we sat there with the garage owner and another man who appeared to be waiting it out, we listened as thunder boomed out all around us and then the sky briefly lightened. After a little while things seemed to ease slightly and we thought it was a good time to move on again, as long as we took things slowly. The bike stuttered when Adam tried to start it but with a little bit of perseverance and help from the on hand mechanic we got it started again. Now that we had come this fair we headed for the bus station, it was closer than going back to the room at any rate. As we turned on to the right road we realised the full extent of situation, it was completely flooded. There was about a foot and a half of water to drive through and it was still falling from above. It was slow going as everyone did there best to keep moving, I suppose this has happened before and no one seemed too perturbed.

Thankfully it wasn't too far to the bus station and although we were dripping wet we had made it. Prices for bus tickets weren't cheap either, but it was less than the train and took the same amount of time so that was something to be pleased about. There was the option to get a sleeper bus but sticking to our tight budget meant going with the less comfortable option and we opted for a chair. Even if the thought of 20 hours in a seat wasn't very appealing. The ticket bought we were told to return at 1:30pm the next day and that the bus would leave at 2pm. Now all we had to do was get back to the safety of our room.

It was still raining when we made it outside and we gingerly made our way back to the spot where we'd left the bike. I looked at the map which was now soaked like us and tried to memorise the route back so I wouldn't have get it out again. Once I was pretty sure I knew which way we had to go Adam tried to start the bike. Nothing. Again and again we tried but still nothing. There were a few guys around us, some of who worked for the bus companies, but one boy in particular who just seemed to be keeping dry offered his services. He tried pumping the kick start, giving it some gas, tweaking nobs and wires but nothing seemed to work. A few of the workers tried as well but in the end they all looked at us apologetic and defeated. We were stuck.

I called up the bike rental place and the lady who spoke a bit of English understood when I explained it wouldn't start. I had to pass her over to a Vietnamese man to tell her where we were as my pronunciation wasn't up to scratch. When he returned the phone to me she didn't offer to come and save us like I was beginning to hope she would. Instead she asked us to get it fixed as we were too far away. Not what I wanted to hear but there wasn't a lot we could do so Adam began to push the bike.

There was no avoiding it now we had to wade out into the flooded roads. I was in flip flops and tried very hard not to think about what was in the water I was walking in. Adam on the other hand was in shoes and despite his best efforts not to get them wet, for fear they would never dry, he took the plunge and off we went. It wasn't too far to the nearest place but there was a bit of queue forming as people rolled in their flooded, lifeless bikes. We got seen to quite quickly by a man who turned up just after we arrived, clearly called in to help with the demand, our knight in plastic poncho! He wasn't quite has chivalrous though, as he gruffly directed Adam to steady the bike while he lifted the front to get any water out of the exhaust. This unfortunately didn't do the trick. He ended up removing a part from his own bike and trying it on ours, it spluttered to life and we were saved! He sent some other boy off to buy the part, fitted it and gave us the old one. When he spoke to me in very speedy, aggressive Vietnamese, I suppose telling me the price, I looked at him blankly and he seemed to think I was incredibly stupid. In the end though the money changed hands and we were once more free to sail the seven seas!

It took a while to get back, but slowly the roads began to improve and in the more modern end of town there was no flooding at all. I was immensely grateful for how well Adam handled it all in what were really difficult conditions at times. He followed suit as people drove up on to pavements to try and escape the worst of it and negotiated a lot of the roads which have been turned into narrow gulleys as maintenance work is carried out in the centre of them. Needless to say I was very pleased when we reached our destination and I slid off the bike. The women did look at us quite sympathetically as we tried to explain all that we had seen and experienced. I think we wanted to convey just how bad it was, especially considering it only looked like a bit of rain in this part of town. She knocked some money off for the part we'd bought when we showed her the old one, which was nice of her considering it wasn't really her fault.

The gallery people looked a little surprised when we returned and we tried to tell the tale again, they just laughed a bit. We were now in the dry though and happy to be so. Later that evening when the rain had stopped, we went out for dinner and managed to laugh about it. As Adam said, 'it was an experience!'

Then it was early to bed as tomorrow we had the 20 hour bus trip experience to look forward to...

More Soon,

Laura & Adam

Posted by LauHot10 04:07 Archived in Vietnam Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Motorcycle Diaries - Mekong Delta

Big Canals, Big Smiles, and Big Raindrops

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Our adventure South started with some ducking and weaving as we made our way out of Ho Chi Minh. The shear volume of traffic is the first obstacle and with most people on motorbikes it constantly seems to be moving as people try to find ways through. Staying still is not something they like to do and this often means red lights are not adhered to and people will go the wrong way down the street if necessary. This happens frequently because there are a lots of one way systems, so I was very impressed with how Adam handled it and we were soon free of the city. Only to be confronted with some severely rain damaged roads which when combined with heavy traffic made for a muddy, stop-start beginning to the trip. Adam seemed to enjoy himself though as he picked out his path and avoided the larger puddles. I definitely found gliding past the larger, stationery traffic a satisfying experience, something I've never had the pleasure of doing before.

There is only one main road which heads South and getting round is very simple really even though there is a distinct lack of sign posts. Our first stop was Ben Tre, as we'd read this was a good basis for exploring the surrounding area. It was about a 100km to get there and was pretty easy going, not exactly beautiful though. The roads are generally quite busy and often the land is simply flat and nondescript. However this was not the point, the point was we were free to go where we wanted when we wanted. Now I realise that you may think this is what we have been doing for four and a half months, and we have to a certain degree, but we are always tied to where the buses or trains go. Now we could really explore, if a road looked interesting or we saw something in the distance we had the means to investigate.

In order to get to Ben Tre we had to go over a very large bridge and we got our first proper view of the Mekong Delta.
This part of Vietnam is characterised by it's rich, agricultural land, all of which is carved up by a web of rivers and getting from one place to another either requires a bridge or a short ferry hop.
When we reach Ben Tre we were disappointed, it was as far as we could see a bit of a nothing town. We stopped for a Spot of lunch at a little pavement eatery, we got a few odd looks as we sat down on the plastic furniture which would have fitted very nicely in my Wendy House, but people were soon smiling and trying their best to understand us. We gobbled down a couple of baguettes, which may sound odd considering we're in Asia but they are readily available, they are a left over from the French colonisation. As soon as we were re-fuelled we retraced our steps a little bit and then turned South West to reach the town of Can Tho. Getting here required a trip on the ferry, so we bought our first drive-thru ticket and then entered a gated area which filled up with other motorbikes as we waited for the ferry to dock. Once it had the barrier was lifted and it was like horses being released from their stalls, and we were off , all jostling for position, everyone wanting to be the first off at the other side.

In the end it was a leisurely ride over. A man came over to have a chat with us, he seemed impressed that we had ridden all the way from Ho Chi Minh. As we would soon come to realise the number of Westerners in this part of Vietnam appears to be very few. Those that do come tend to go on an organised day tour. Once in Can Tho we soon found a hotel and were pleased to be off the bikes to give our bums a rest. It was quite a large place and had a fairly lively atmosphere which we weren't really expecting. Most of it was coming from the local large appliance store which was blaring out dance music well in to the night. We found a place to eat and the staff were falling over themselves to accommodate us, which may have been because we were the only ones in there but nonetheless they were incredibly friendly. Again to us it would seem the bad reputation was unfounded.

The next morning we woke up to heavy rain, not a lot was visible from our hotel room as the torrential downpour distorted the view.
In the end it seemed the worst was over and we decided to move on again. However we did not get very fair when the heavens opened once more and we were forced to pull over to don our ponchos. Adam was in yellow and I was sporting a red poca-dot number, thankfully we really did not stand out. We drove on for as far as we could but at points it was really silly and despite our best efforts to stay dry, by the time we reached Long Xuyen our bottom halves were soaked. It wasn't our choice destination but it was going to have to do because venturing any further seemed a little foolhardy.

We were starving so tried to find some food but were initially unsuccessful. They have a lot of Cafes in Vietnam but they do not serve food, just drinks. We pulled in to one and both ordered a coffee, and we were given ice coffee which is standard here. It is basically an espresso shot in a tall glass with lots of ice and a long spoon. You then ram the spoon up and down to break up the ice to add water to the coffee and mix in the healthy serving of sugar at the bottom. We were both surprised how much we liked it and we have enjoyed many since. After consuming the coffee you are given a pot of green tea that you pour directly into the same glass, which usually contains the dregs of the coffee. A little odd but you get used to it and it's really refreshing.

Now we were both re-hydrated we set about finding a hotel room, which we did with ease as there are a lot to choose from in Long Xuyen. The people running the hotel did not understand a word of English but with some gesticulating on both parts we managed to get a really nice room. They all seemed incredibly amused by our presence but were once again so full of smiles and you soon get used to hearing people giggling as you pass by.

Although Long Xuyen is the capital of the largest island in the Mekong Delta it doesn't boast any great attractions and some may even call it quite dull however we enjoyed ourselves there. We ended up having to stay two night because of the weather but during that time we met some really friendly people. This mostly occurred when we were eating, and one thing I can say for the South, it has the best food in Vietnam. As no one speaks English we learnt how to say thank you and people really appreciate it when you make an attempt to communicate with them. Although we couldn't sit and have conversations with people there was always a warm atmosphere, lots of smiles and it definitely made the experience for us. We went back to the same girl several times to buy fruit as we tried some things we had never happened before and Adam got his Dragon Fruit fix. She really seemed to appreciate the repeat business.

The morning that we left one of the young girls at the hotel beckoned us to follow her up to the top floor and from the back window we looked down on to a crocodile farm. It was feeding time and they were all worked up in to a bit of a frenzy. It was so sweet of her to make sure we saw this and we all laughed and she watched as we snapped a few photos.

It was another intermittently wet day as we worked our way further South and we were often pulling over to yank on our ponchos. We'd invested in better quality ones although they did still rip really easily. At one point the rain fell like a sheet and we were forced to pull into a little cafe, where once again there was a smiley women to serve us coffee and her little short legged dog darting around to keep us entertained. We were aiming to get to a place called Hon Chong which is situated on the coast, there were meant to be some idyllic beaches and islets like the ones found at Halong Bay. It wasn't exactly beach weather but we persevered and as the day drew to a close we saw the sea for the first time. Thankfully we found a nice little place with a deserted but good hotel. We had noodle soup served to us with friendly smiles and a bit of broken conversation before calling it a night.

The next morning we continued on to the beach and found ourselves at Vietnam's equivalent to to the English seaside. There were lots of little stalls selling a whole variety of items, a lot of it was the tat (as you would expect) but we did find some nice little vases which really cost nothing. It was not raining which helped and there were some very pretty islets a little way of shore; mounds of rocks rising out of the water.
We did try to get on a boat but it seemed to have been hired by other people and we couldn't communicate well enough to establish whether we could go too. We visited a little Buddhist temple,
consumed some deep-fried crabs and prawns which we ate whole (shell and all), and then looked at some strange looking lizards both alive and dead, then decided it was time to be on the move once more.

The hotel owner oiled up our squeaking brakes, the noise being generated from a distinct lack of brake pads and we waved good bye to Hon Chong. We tried to get away from the main road and go along the smaller coast road which we did do for a while. It was nice to get away from the traffic and see a little more rural Vietnam. We must have taken a wrong turn somewhere because we ended up basically doing a loop and we hadn't actually covered much ground. Knowing we had some distance to go we pushed on, however we didn't get very far before we forced to a halt. We had a punctured tire. It could have been a whole lot worse though, with the number of motorbikes on the road, a repair shop is never too far away. Adam only had to push the bike about 100 metres as I trudged behind with the backpack. The man was already tending to one bike so while we waited our turn his wife made us a coffee and we continued our primitive communications of nodding and smiling.

There is quite a community feeling despite most of the villages being strewn out along the roadside. I'm not sure whether it was word of mouth or if this little repair/convenience shop is always this busy but there were a steady stream of people who came through. A lot of them lingered a little while as they gazed at us, our broken bike and then chatted amongst themselves, all the while laughing at the apparently amusing situation. It was never done in a horrible way though, nor did they make us feel uncomfortable, I felt they were pleased that we were there. The man removed a huge nail from the inner tubing which it transpired had already been repaired once, and with the large gash in it was now beyond saving. With a bit of cajoling he got the old one off and a new one on and soon enough we were ready to set off once more. We waved goodbye to our little audience headed North to Chau Doc.

We spent most of the day off the main road and the sun made a few appearances which really helped the scenery. The river systems are extensive and we were continuously crossing over little bridges which navigate you over the water which stretches off, poker straight into the distance.
Low lying boats chug along and the pace of life is set to slow and relaxing. Little villages cling to the banks, the houses built on stilts above the water on one side and then back on to large fields of crops on the other.

By the time we reached Chau Doc the day was almost over. It is the closest I have ever come to Cambodia and is often where people cross over the border, so for the first time in the last few days we saw a few Westerners. We didn't really have time to do much exploring but it was a colourful little town with a square in the centre which is where we stayed for the night.

The next day we were set the fairly daunting tasks of making it all the way back to Ho Chi Minh, about 300km. We set off early and made good progress as the roads are all in pretty good condition, the only problems were our bums which by now had had enough. Getting back in to the city we faced similar problems with the damaged roads and it was painful at times. Not helped by our bike which was really on its last legs, the brakes were now completely shot, and it was continually back firing and often cutting out entirely. We saw some interesting things though, such as a man with a few baskets full of ducks.
I don't like to think about where they were heading or the fact that they looked a teeny bit squashed, it was just something I have never seen before.

Soon enough we were back in Ho Chi Minh and found our way back to the bike rental. I was quite pleased to be reliant once more on my own two legs, even if they didn't really feel like they belonged to me any more. That said we had really enjoyed the last few days, and although we hadn't seen the most amazing scenery, which wasn't helped by the weather, we had experienced a very warm welcome. As things stood that bad reputation was well and truly out the window.
More Soon,

Laura & Adam

Posted by LauHot10 04:04 Archived in Vietnam Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Good Yoghurt Vietnam!

oh and a nice city too...

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Our flight to Kuala Lumpur was “re-timed,” which we are pretty sure is just a more pleasant way of saying delayed. It was only by an our or so though which was good. However once we got to Kuala Lumpur our flight to Ho Chi Minh was also delayed. Again it was not by very long just an hour and a half or so but it was still annoying and meant we would arrive quite late.

We caught a taxi from the airport to the main travellers area, and had our first introduction to the dollar/dong dichotomy. More often than not you are quoted prices in US Dollars and then you can either pay with them or you then have to convert it to Vietnamese Dong. They work on the basis that 18,000 Dong is 1 USD. Good job that we already carry around a calculator to work out our daily spendings because it really has come in handy.

First impressions of Ho Chi Minh were good, it felt quite modern and it definitely buzzed with people. Most of them were riding around of scooters/motorbikes, I have never seen so many in all my life. Every one is very safety conscious though, well when it comes to helmets, which are worn by all and appear to act as another fashion accessory. The driving is a little sketchy in places, but we have come to expect that so it was nothing new. Both of us were feeling a bit sleepy so we ended up crashing at the first place we came to. On the face of it, it seemed clean, fairly new just a little compact. After a while though we noticed a smell coming from the bathroom and resigned ourselves to finding some where better the next morning.

The area we were staying is definitely tourist-ville, there are dozens of hotels, bars, cafes, restaurants, souvenir shops and so on. We found a room above a gallery (this seems to be good business here, people reproduce famous paintings to sell to tourists) and were really happy. It was perhaps a little tired but it was quite large and the people were friendly. So far their bad reputation was looking a little shakey. As it was Sunday we couldn't do some of the things we needed to, so we just had a easy introduction to Vietnam. After a little bit of a walk around we stopped for lunch and had our first (of many) bowl of noodle soup. This is one of the staples when it comes to food here and is eaten for breakfast, lunch or dinner. The soup is really more like a broth and always has a very clean and fresh taste. It was a good culinary day all round, we had a very nice dinner and I continued to hone my chop stick skills and then came our best find of all. For desert we ventured in to the bright, colourful land of Yoghurt Space.
Neither of us had ever really gone in for frozen yoghurt before but we are now complete converts, well to Yoghurt Space at least which unfortunately appears to be HCM City based. I won't go in to too much detail but you get to use Mr Whippy style machines and fill up your own tub with lots of different flavours like coconut, passion fruit, coffee, chocolate and then there's a whole host of toppings to choose from. I am sad to say that I think it has ruined ice cream for me, it just isn't as good. We went back every day we were there.

The next day spent in Vietnam's second city was a fairly frustrating one. It reconfirmed to us that you should never just take people's word for it. We got our visa for Vietnam in Manila and we were quite pressed for time so we decided to get a two week visa which could be issued on the spot, we knew it would not be long enough but we were told we could extend it once we were there. So off we trotted bright and early Monday morning to jump through the administrative hoops so we could get on with our travels. However when we finally found the right building we were told that two week visas could not be extended and we would have to get a travel agent to apply for a new one. It baffled us both that a government official would be directing us to some high street travel agent, who are usually trying to con you out of all your money, to sort this out when we ourselves were willing and able, but there you go. We did a bit of research and it seemed this was the case, however we were now confused about what to do for the best as it was going to take five working days and we were entertaining the idea of coming back to Vietnam at a later point to see the north.

While we pondered we headed over to the famous Ho Chi Minh Post Office which is situated next to the cathedral. They are both set in a very spacious square and the grand buildings feel more European than Asian.
We were hoping to pick up a package from Adam's mum containing all the necessities to revive his camera but unfortunately it hadn't arrived yet. So that was another spanner in the works. We spent the rest of the day um-ing and ah-ing and in the end decided that we would hand the passports in, rent a motorbike to see the South and then return to Ho Chi Minh to pick them and Adam's package up before venturing North. It was a day of organisation as we sat in a coffee shop and using the free wifi worked out all the dates and booked the rest of the flights for Asia. So now we just have our fingers crossed that nothing goes wrong. That night we decided to be a bit lavish with our dinner choices and dined on Shrimps, Snails and Wild Boar amongst other things.

On our last day in Ho Chi Minh we actually got a bit of site seeing in, after organising the motorbike for the next day that is. It cost us $5 or 90,000 Dong per day for a fully automatic bike which in hindsight was a really good deal. They were a little concerned that we couldn't give them our passports for insurance but we managed to get round it. After that we headed over to the Vietnam War Museum which was a sobering experience. Outside there are a number of planes and helicopters that people posed with and then inside it was quite stark.
There are no big visual displays or anything that was instantaneously eye-catching but as soon as you wondered over to one wall and began to read you were completely drawn in to the tragedy of it. The victims of Agent Orange, the gas which was used by the Americans was what really got me. It is not only the people who lived through the war that suffered but their children and their children's children. Many have been born with terrible deformities and live completely restricted lives, although in a number of pictures they are shining out with brilliant smiles. I think you would have to be pretty heartless for it not to strike a chord and I wondered how American's feel when they visit.

After leaving the museum we delved in to some of Ho Chi Minh's markets and spent a bit of money on various bits and bobs. We then continued sauntering around for a little while and ended up getting completely drenched in an immense downpour. We decided it was time to invest in some ponchos which are a necessity in the rainy season. It continues to surprise me how the motorists of Vietnam change in to this rain gear so quickly. They appear to have Superman's outfitting changing speed, as it seems the rain has only just begun and the streets are full of people encased in brightly coloured, plastic tents which billow in the wind. When it didn't look like the rain was going to give up even a little we hailed a cab to take us back to the tourist area. After we'd dried off, we headed out for some dinner and then got an early night. We had an adventure to begin in the morning.

More Soon

Laura & Adam

Posted by LauHot10 03:53 Archived in Vietnam Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Welcome to the Jungle

Monkeys, insects and sweat!

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Our final destination was Kutching, the capital of the state of Sarawak in the Northwest of Borneo. On the way we planned to visit the Niah Caves, which may not be as famous as those at Mulu (the ones drunk David gave us the hard sell on), but they are far more accessible and therefore more affordable. It was a long way from the border to Kutching and with the stop at the caves we were hoping to arrive around 10pm, having gotten up at 5:30am we knew we were going to be exhausted.

We hopped off the bus about an hour and a half after boarding and things seemed to be going well so far. A local man took us the next 15km to the national park and we managed to stow our backpacks in the cafe, I wouldn't have wanted to do the walk to the cave with mine on that's for sure! When we bought our tickets we found out that the walk to the caves was a little further than we had expected and so Kutching and ultimately our bed for the night seemed even further away.

To make things a little easier though the whole route has been carved out through the rainforest and an elevated pathway of wooden boards have been lain.
It would have been nicer not to have the pressure of time ticking but it was certainly eased by the scenery. We were now really in the jungle and although it was all kept at arms length as we remained on the path it was still there surrounding us. You could feel the density of the place as the trees rose up all around, many of them hundreds of years old with their twisted roots snaking along the ground. On one side we had the forest and on the other shear rock faces began to rise up and we knew we were getting closer to the caves.

The once endlessly flat pathway began to turn into climbing stairs that hugged the side of the rock and when we rounded the corner we came to our first cave.
I should probably mention that Bird's Nest Soup originated at Niah Caves. Traders Cave, the first one we came to was where the traders in the soup used to sleep. There are some still some remnants of their old dwellings, just a few wooden beams which would have been part of the main structure, it was interesting to see. We passed through this cave which although being impressive in size, was nothing in comparison to the next one.

Before we entered the main cave we stopped to look across at the view which had now opened up as we'd broken out through the trees. With the high mountains around us it felt like we were in the middle of no where and civilisation was a long way off.
We turned our back on the bright light of day and made our way into the cave. As the mouth is enormous light does find its way in and the result is a slightly eerie green glow which illuminates the brown earth and the moist, uneven rock.
I'm not sure if a 747 could park itself in there, it might be a bit of a squeeze at points but it could fit in at a weird angle I think. As we got deeper into the cave the smell began to become overwhelming, this would be the bat guava. The only way I can think to convey it to you, is for you to imagine the worst body odour you can and then times it by a thousand. I could almost taste it.

I think I've mentioned I'm not good with things that flap, so the combination of birds and bats made me a little nervous. Add in the fact that I'm somewhat claustrophobic and think people who enjoy pot holing or anything similar are clinically insane, and you can imagine I wasn't at my most comfortable. Still it was hard not to be distracted by the sheer size of this natural phenomenon. You could also see the primitive ladders which are still used by people to climb up and get the birds nests for the soup. I'm glad that's not my job!

As we continued to walk things began to get very, very dark and we realised why you had the opportunity to purchase head torches. However we hadn't and so our cave exploration came to a conclusion, much to my relief really. We retraced our steps all the way back to the cafe to grab our bags and then found someone to drive us back to the bus station.

When we arrived there was a bus going to Kutching so we thought our luck was in. We had been hoping for a bus that was as nice as the one we'd caught early, unfortunately we were disappointed a couple of times. Firstly we were informed that it would take twelve hours to get to Kutching, not the eight that we had thought and secondly the bus was not as nice. We were not very happy when we sat down but there wasn't a lot we could do and we resigned ourselves to a night on the bus.

In the end it took more than twelve hours because the bus seemed to stop every two minutes, sometimes we couldn't even understand why. We both had a fairly restless night, any time we did manage to drop off we were quickly awoken by the noise of people getting on or off. Finally we made it to Kutching at about 5am and a taxi took us to a hotel quite close to the waterfront which is the pretty and therefore touristy part of the city.
Once in the room Adam went to sleep for a bit but I just couldn't manage to drop off so perused the internet trying to figure out what we should do here.

Kutching is a really lovely little place and has quite a quaint feel about it. There are lots of little streets to wander down and there is also a museum that we decided to visit.
It is a small natural history museum and there was a whole plethora of animals, birds, insects, and all sort of marine life for us to look at downstairs. Then upstairs the history of the people of Borneo is depicted through scale models of their native dwellings; long houses and also there are many examples of weaving and tools which were historically used.

Although we had already had our Orangutan encounter, we had read that there was another rehabilitation centre that we could visit which was not far from Kutching. It was meant to be quieter than the one at Sandakan and we were hoping we may have a more intimate experience. We managed to locate a mini bus which was going and as we waited for it to leave it began to fill up with other Westerners and our high hopes were slowly being deflated. By the time we had disembarked at the centre and we were waiting to go in to the rainforest we were part of a crowd of tourists and then it began to rain, hard.

Apparently the rain would not effect the chance of seeing the Orangutans though, so at least this was something and as we made our way through the trees it was definitely more rustic than the other centre and it felt more real. As we stood on the raised platform we hard a crack and then a swoosh as a branch broke under the weight of a hairy, orange creature and then he used his weight to shorten the gap between one tree and the next.
Soon enough there were a number of Orangutans in the trees above us all making their way to the feeding platform.
It felt much more wild than the other place and a number of times we were shepherded away from certain areas when the apes got to close. One of them was a female with a little baby clinging to her side, and it was really very, very magical.
She grabbed some fruit for them and then retreated to the safety of a nearby tree, the baby then disentangled herself and climbed up the tree a little to munch on her banana.

When we'd boarded the bus to the centre earlier we were informed by the driver that 'The King' had been there at morning feeding time. This being the leader of the pack, the main man, and so we were hopeful we would see him too. He did not let us down and his arrival was marked by a low murmur which rolled through the crowd. Suddenly he came in to view and he was imposing, to put it mildly. He was much bigger than than the largest Orangutan we had seen at the Sandakan Centre. Unfortunately my camera had run out of battery and Adam's hasn't worked for some time now, so we just stepped back to take it all in. We over heard one of the employees telling someone that at his last weigh in, The King had tipped the scales at 160 kg/25 St. We were then treated to a moment of shared embarrassment as we witnessed an unusual show of dominance when one of the younger Orangutans tried to take some of The King's food without asking. I won't go in to details but just say it involved The King's face and the little one's bum! Needless to say we weren't quite sure where to look and people's eyes fell to the floor as they nervously giggled.

Although there were more people at this encounter it was in some ways a more magical experience, it felt more natural as far as the Orangutans were concerned. They arrived from out of the jungle, making their way through the trees high above our heads. We were witnessing them getting on with their lives rather than a kind of show being put on for us, which is what we had always wanted. We made our way back to the mini bus, pleased that we'd made the effort.

The last thing we really wanted to do before leaving Borneo was get ourselves in to the jungle. So the next morning we got up bright and early and caught a bus to Baku National Park. After a short trip in a mini bus and having paid our entrance fee we jumped in a speed boat which took us away from civilisation and dropped us off on a beach.

That kind of makes it sound like we were marooned there with the dark, uninviting jungle stretching out in front of us and a king of “you either make or you don't” set up. However it was in fact fairly organised and we had to go sign in and pick our trail so they would know where we were heading, we also arranged a pick up time with the speed boat guy, so rescue was almost guaranteed. The only slight problem we had was a big Macaque who didn't want us to pass and when I tried to he charged at me, teeth bared. Thankfully there was a man who was not scared of him and walked along and made a very loud noise and waved his walking stick around, the monkey backed off.

We had got there fairly early so as we finally climbed over a few rocks and disappeared in to the trees we were pretty much alone. We had picked a trail which would take roughly 3 hours as this is all the time we had. As it was our last day in Borneo we had a few things to sort out in Kutching. In the end though I think it was enough time and we got out before it got busy. The beginning part of the trail was quite strenuous, we were making our way up and although there was a sort of path to follow it was comprised of twisted roots and rocks that jutted out at different angles. Still it was good fun picking out the best route and moving quickly from one slightly precarious footing to the next. I am beginning to feel the benefits of a more active lifestyle and although we sweated buckets, I didn't feel like I was going to keel over after five minutes!

The jungle was heavy and oppressive, you could feel the weight of the humidity even in the morning. It was also teeming with life, lots of it was very, very small but it was there. We saw a whole army of ants, about ten abreast, all of which were heading off on some mission. Adam filmed the line for as far as he could follow it, it appeared to be never ending. Our trail then broke out of the trees and we were on a flat plateau of rock with scratchy grasses poking out through it and patchy, scrawny trees surrounding us.

We followed the little markers and the muddy jungle gave way to a sandy path and a much lighter forest on either side. The trunks of the trees shrunk and lightened and the leaves brightened. One of the things we had hoped to see here was the Probiscus monkey.
It is native to Borneo and is a little unusual looking, well in the nasal region. We both heard a rustling in the trees and as we peered through the foliage, squinting our eyes, we saw one sitting in a tree. It wasn't the clearest sighting ever but it was there and we had achieved one of our aims.

The next part of the trek involved some very long, straight wooden board walks that guided us through the sandy, marsh beneath us and in the end brought us out on to a cliff above the beach. We sat for a little while looking down as the tide slowly drew the water back and exposed more and more of the beach. Once our batteries had been somewhat recharged we retraced our steps, snapped a few more pictures for the memory bank and emerged from the perils of the jungle fairly exhausted but otherwise unscathed. Our boat was waiting for us and we took off our shoes and socks and waded out in to the shallow water to climb aboard.

Once back in Kutching we tied up all the loose ends, had dinner and went to bed. We were looking forward to getting to Vietnam and finding out whether the people really did deserve their bad reputation for being rude, dog-eaters.

More Soon,
Laura & Adam

Posted by LauHot10 03:50 Archived in Malaysia Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

The Quiet Capital

mosques, kites & a rainbow


As we set off at dawn we were still hopeful of making it to Brunei today, it would just require all the connections to run smoothly. The David's had informed us there was no bus until much later and we would have to get a mini cab but ideally share it with a few others to keep costs down. As we waited on the highway there didn't seem to be any around. When one did show up we were the only ones wanting to go so the price was a little too high, we made the decision to see if any other people showed up. Thankfully about half an hour later there were now five of us and the price was justifiable.

It was much more satisfying to be in the mini cab than on a bus because you knew it was taking a direct route and it was only going to stop a maximum of four stops. We speeded along and it took about an hour and a half to get to the ferry port. We hurried in to buy our ticket Labuan which is a small, duty free island of the coast of Malaysia, from here we would have to get another boat to Brunei. Drunken David thought we should go here because (and he directed this comment at Adam) “there are lots of bars and women!” It would seem that luck was not on our side and we had just missed a boat and the next one was not for about four more hours and there was no way that we would then make a connecting boat to Brunei. We resigned ourselves to a night on Labuan and then sat down to think about how we were going to fill the next few hours.

Thankfully the time went quite quickly and we managed to get some internet research done into where we could stay in Bandar Seri Begawan (BSB) the capital of Brunei. As it is a fairly expensive country we wanted to find the cheapest place possible. A little more clued up we headed back to the ferry and were soon enroute to Labuan. Once there we searched for a hostel we had read about but it seemed to have disappeared, if it had ever existed, so we ended up at a hotel which despite being in a fairly bleak looking building was quite new and had nice views of the boats out the window.
Labuan itself seemed a fairly sad place to me, there were duty free shops every where selling cheap alcohol, cigarettes, perfume etc but they were empty and we weren't enticed to venture in. We simply had a nice dinner sitting outside on the pavement and then returned to the hotel for an early night.

Next morning we were up early to catch the ferry but when we got to the port we found out it had been cancelled and the next one was not for a few hours. Again we made the best of a bad situation and utilised the free wifi to search for a cheap campervan to rent in Australia, although this unfortunately does not seem to exist. Finally we were passing through Malaysia immigration and boarding a very claustrophobic boat to Brunei. Thankfully the crossing was shorter than I'd expected and suddenly every one was standing up, eager to get off even though it was another 15 minutes or so before we finally docked.

As we climbed on to land we had now reached our fifth country and we were eager to find out for ourselves whether Brunei was boring. Our time here was going to be short as we needed to move on the next day so we really only had an afternoon to soak up all that BSB had to offer. Although we initially got the taxi to take us to the bus stop it didn't appear that one would be leaving any time soon so we decided to pay a bit more for him to take us into the city.

The first thing that you notice about BSB is that it is quiet, almost eerily so.
It is hard to actually believe that this is a capital city. Although there are cars on the road, there are not many but there are not really any people on the street either. There are only 40 taxis in the whole country. Based on our internet research we had decided to stay at a youth hostel which is attached to a local youth centre. It would mean that we would have to sleep in different dorms as boys and girls are separated, but it made the most sense money-wise. It took a little bit of time to find and then we hung around while we waited for someone to show up but after we'd filled in the necessary paperwork and stowed our bags away in our rooms we were ready to explore.

The main things we'd read that we should see in Brunei were the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque and the water village. As we walked out of the hostel we were still taken aback by how quiet it was, but that was what made it so interesting. Everything is very clean, modern and there is a deliberate and well thought out order to the layout. It is clearly a new city in global terms and there doesn't seem that there is the population to inflict too much wear and tear.

The mosque sits right in the heart of the city and there is a small lake in front of it where a boat has been placed. It is quite beautiful with its golden dome which glistens in the sun light.
That is another thing we noticed about Brunei, it does seem to be quite a bit hotter than Borneo. The mosque seems untouched, as if it just sits there more as a symbol, although we could go inside we decided that we did not really have the time to.

Just a short distance from the mosque we stumbled across the water village of Kampung Ayer.
We had both been under the impression that this would be out of town but it actually sits just on the fringes of city, stretching out into the sea by about 500m. It is a maze of over 29,000 metres of wooden walkways which link together houses, restaurants, schools, mosques and a hospital, all of which are built on stilts.
Although it also seemed to be fairly deserted it showed much more signs of life, and we passed one school where the class were being taught the Qu'ran. We could have felt quite out of place, or almost like we were intruding but any people that we did bump into gave us nice, warm smiles. This place has a long history, people have lived here for over 1300 years and they have all the modern conveniences. It is the largest and most famous water settlement in Southeast Asia.

Instead of walking back to the centre we decided to get one of the many water taxis that stop at the little concrete jetties which have been built. The speedboat quickly cut across the water and within minutes we were back in the modern hub of BSB.
We wandered around a little bit more but apart from just soaking up the strangely peaceful atmosphere there wasn't a lot more that we could do. In the end we decided to catch a bus to another mosque which was just a little way out of the centre. Continuing the theme the buses were the quietest we had been on and they slowly chugged along, nothing here is done in a rush. It truly must be the most laid back capital city in the world.

We jumped off when we were told we had reached our destination and walked up to the mosque. It covers a very large area, sitting in beautifully maintained grounds, with flowers and fountains. The mosque itself is covered in mosaic and the patterns vary from being very ornate and elaborate to quite uniform.
We walked round the perimeter and gazed up the large domed spires, architecturally it really was impressive and was great to photograph.
Afterward we sat by one of the fountains and contemplated what we should do next, it was early evening now and we were worried the buses wouldn't run late so decided it was best to head back into the city.

Once back in the centre we had a really lovely dinner which was definitely welcomed by me as I hadn't been enjoying food that much of late. Our tummies now full we went back to the wooden walkways of Kampong Ayer and saw that a rainbow was arching across the sky, and as the evening drew on the children of the water village now free from school came out to fly their kites.
At one point I counted 25 kites in the sky and it was so perfect in its simplicity. I think it was one of the most enjoyable moments I've had on this whole trip because it was so natural and uncomplicated, this place felt so untouched by the outside world and we were just quiet bystanders.

Full of a nice warm, fuzzy feeling we walked back towards the hostel and now the sun had set the city had begun to twinkle with thousands of multi-coloured lights.
They are strung above all the roads, around all the buildings and also they light up the face of the Sultan himself who is a ever present in many pictures around BSB.
Again we had to be up at about 5:30am to catch the first bus of many to make it back to Borneo. Adam and I parted ways and agreed to meet back at the same spot in the morning, it was the first night we'd spent apart in 4 months so it was a little strange for both of us.

Once in my dorm I met up with my room mate for the night, a Chinese girl and although she told me her name I didn't quite pick it up. She was very sweet though and we chatted for a little while about her time in Brunei and the short trip she was making around Malaysia. I think she too was of the opinion that Brunei was boring but I know that both Adam and I were very pleased that we had made the effort to come here. It was definitely worth a visit, if only to see how different it is. BSB that is I couldn't extend that to the rest of the country. One day I might like to find out though.

I did not have a very restful night. I was relying on my slightly unpredictable watch to wake me up and I didn't trust it, so never got off to sleep properly. The morning soon arrived and Adam and I met at our rendezvous before trudging down to the bus station fairly bleary eyed. We had to wait about 50mins for the first bus as we'd never really been able to establish what time it left. Once on there it took about an hour and a half, on the journey we saw for the first time the oil plants and pumps which make Brunei the rich country it is.
We then took another bus which we were only on for about half an hour, we were hoping it would take us past the Billionth (oil) Barrel monument but unfortunately it didn't. We then hopped on the bus which would take us to the border and soon enough we would once again be in Malaysia.

More Soon,

Laura & Adam

Posted by LauHot10 00:57 Archived in Brunei Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

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