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By Asmodeane in Posts, Travel

Oh Lung Prabang, Luang Prabang… Where to start. Lets start with the overbearing hype I’ve listened to for the three weeks before I arrived in Luang Prabang. I’ve asked a lot of people along the way as to where they’ve been, what they recommend, what they’d warn against, all like a proper backpacker. And the three people I’ve “interviewed” that have been to Luang Prabang have all used adjectives like “amazing”, “brilliant”, “awesome”… The city of fucking waterfalls and temples. So yeah, we were pretty stoked to get there. The truth, however, proved to be quite different, as it has a nasty habit of being.

Luang Prabang, far from being a tranquil nexus of tranquil tranquility, is pretty much an overpriced Mecca of middle aged western wankers with zimmer frames (gross exaggeration) and disappointed backpackers who haven’t yet heard the news of Luang Prabang’s demise over the backpacker grapevine. The place is bunk, people. There is nothing to see here, move along. It is terribly overpriced, more expensive than both Vientiane and Vang Vieng, and it is geared towards the kind of tourist that despises adversity. Everywhere you go, you are confronted with a Las Palmas-like view of bakeries, spas, tons of gray-haired white people, banana pancake stands, and a few bewildered backpackers. The shittiest of shitty guesthouses charge 100k for a night, a princely sum that ought to get you a decent room with a decent toilet (the kind that doesn’t smell of sewage and that has proper hot water) close to town center. Here, it gets you a rape room with dirty walls, full of palm prints, as if the previous occupants were forcibly taken from behind, palms futilely grasping onto said white washed walls. They say that if you press your palm against a drity, bloody imprint on the wall, you can feel their pain wash over you…

I’m scratching my head here, trying to think of something to counerbalance the flood of negativity in the above paragraph. And I am coming up empty. There is nothing there to counterbalance with, people. You might find solace in organized tours to look at poor disenfranchised tribal people in the forests nearby, or maybe you like seeing elephants beaten into submission, forced to carry heavy loads and maybe even step over prone tourists, but there is nothing there in Luang Prabang itself.

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By Asmodeane in Posts

New year passed in boredom. We ate an expensive (45,000 Kip) but small pizza at Pizzeria Milan (infamous for its “happy” pizzas and a drug den upstairs) in honor of the changing year, had a few beers, looked into the Irish pub to see if there was action and fun to be found. There wasn’t. The atmosphere was pretty gloomy, the crowd was decidedly English-looking, and still too sober. We basically just gave up and went back to our hotel. We barely managed to stay up until midnight and that was that as far as our New Year’s Eve was concerned.

The next day we took a minibus to Luang Prabang. The bus was nice enough, the fare cheaper than a VIP bus’ and the driving swifter. And now I finally got to experience the hairpin bends and sheer cliffs. So did girly, who spent most of the way with eyes closed, in prayer to whatever deity it is that atheists in the foxholes  pray to. We drove through many a thatched village clinging to the steep mountain slope, basically just a collection of huts clustered along the mountain road, eking out a meager living from selling Chinese merch and local food to trucks and buses driving by and goat herding. Eventually our minivan ascended into a dense cloud layer and didn’t leave it for a few hours, until the descent into Luang Prabang. That meant that it was rather chilly all of a sudden and that the dangers preying on our intrepid little minivan could no longer be clearly observed. Apart, of course, from numerous orange mining trucks that seemed to leap out from behind every curve. Luckily they usually sounded their horns before rounding a bend, but a few didn’t, which meant some pulse-raising evasive action on our part. All that nauseating swerving and braking meant that it was impossible to get any sleep, or play iPad games, or even read, and the trip seemed very, very long indeed.

Eventually we reached Luang Prabang, where a long haggle-war ensued between passengers and local tuk-tuk drivers. They wanted 20,000 Kip for a drive to town and we only offered 10,000 Kip. The tuk-tuk cartel won, of course. We were in no position to negotiate, and they had no competition we could turn to. Petty cash, in European terms, of course, but you can’t help but think according to local values, and I think it is the only right way to think in terms of prices. The tuk-tuk drivers didn’t really know where to go, either, so we just hopped off in town and looked for a place to stay on own. We looked at about 5 places, and were unpleasantly surprised with the price rates. Prices were at least 1.5 times the Vientiane or Vang Vieng average… A portent of the things to come.

But enough, the lappy battery is down to 10%. I should probably praise it now, the poor thing survived an untimely HD transplant half a year ago, after only two and a half years of service. Now it is creaking and clacking, many of the keys rubbed bald, all rubber padding on the lid disintegrated and the fancy speaker grille long gone. The battery still manages four to five hours of wifi surfing, and as much as six to seven of text editing, and it’s great for playing older titles and indie games. Photoshop CS2 runs fine and photo editing is, of course, head and shoulders above the possibilities my 3rd gen iPad offers. So all praise to my old HP Dm1z, may you putter away for many more years to come.

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Vang Vieng

December 31, 2013
By Asmodeane in Posts, Travel

It is with a deep seated satisfaction that I write these lines. We took a fairly long hike today, went out west to see THE blue lagoon (there are about half a dozen impostors) and a cave, walked 16 - 18km all in all, and are now sitting at the Veggie Tables restaurant drinking a well deserved beer (from a neighboring restaurant, they don’t sell beer here) and waiting for girlies tofu burger and my deep fried spring rolls. Both are awesomely delicious here.

But yeah, enough with the drivel. We made it to Vang Vieng just fine, on a nice VIP bus with dead CRT screens for entertainment. The seats didn’t really recline either, but the ride was short, only about four hours. I hoped for some truly spectacular mountain pass crossings, with hairpin turns and bottomless drops right behind the window, but no. We went timidly along the Mekong river, with barely any rises along the way.

Oh, and I guess this is as good a place as any to dispel any rumors about bad roads in Laos. We have heard so much bullshit from backpackers of all nationalities about the sleeper bus ride from Hanoi to Vientiane and about the roads in general and we believed them all. But in our experience the roads were great! Sure, they weren’t autobahn level highways, but compared to the “highways” of India and East Africa they were superb. The buses were in great technical condition as well, and the drivers careful. And this goes for “normal” sleepers as well, ones that are used by locals as well as by the (poorer) backpackers. I will forever remember the backbone breaking rides on disgustingly dirty and decrepit buses with shot suspension and an overactive AC on system on permanent Siberia setting that never went off. Maybe the people that are bitching about the buses have never had the pleasure of experiencing true extreme bus rides. Loser bitches.

But I digress. Vang Vieng, despite all the rumors and writings on the intertubes, is no longer the amphetamine-fueled party capital that it once had the dubious distinction of being. Kind of disappointing really, I was looking forward to seeing nubile western girls in the throes of drug induced lust squirming topless on the ground, Woodstock-style. But no. The tourist mix was overwhelmingly Asian, with a few backpackers and older westerners thrown in. That seems to be the case in many of the South East Asian destinations, the growing middle classes are demanding holidays and entertainment and are flooding the neighboring countries. Crass, uncultured bastards most of them, apart from the overtly civilized Japanese and South Koreans. The raucous braying and spitting masses of Chinese tourists remind me of the Russians in the early and mid 90s.

We were originally thinking of finding accommodation on the quiet side of the river, preferably in Maylyn Guesthouse (about 80,000 Kip a night for cheapest rooms, 110,000 for bungalows), but found good digs on the city-side of the river. The town was so quiet though that we didn’t fancy going to the other side of the toll (4,000 Kip there and back!!!) bridge, lugging our backpacks for kilometers, so got a cheap, clean room with a surprisingly good mountain view not far from the bridge for 60,000 Kip a night. Hot water shower, fan, a good bed, nice clean blanket, working WiFi during the daytime hours… The works.

After that we just chilled. Girly got most of the performance out of her system during the three weeks we have been on the road, so it was no longer the case of running around “doing” sights and activities. We didn’t really fancy tubing, even though that is what most people do in Vang Vieng. I guess we’re rebels that way. Or it could be that the water was kinda cold and we didn’t feel like soaking our arses in the water for two to three hours while yawning our way downstream. They demolished the riverside bars, too, so no fun pitstops along the way, either. Plus it seemed kinda overpriced at 60,000 kip (plus deposit of 55k) a head. And no way in hell was I gonna wear, or even buy, one of those tasteless hoodies one saw all over Indochina.

Prior to going to the Blue Lagoon & the Cave we went to our cheap-ass local breakfast place, and ordered two gigantic stuffed baguettes to go. I took one with omelette and girly chose one with vegetable & cheese filling. Thus properly equipped we started out on our trek. I won’t bore you with any more details, but let me say that the tourist breed is lazy beyond belief. We were passed by numerous vehicles, bikes, scooters, cars, jeeps, dune buggies, but only saw one other walker. So basically we swallowed a lot of dust, but our smug self satisfaction grew with every clogged alveolus. The lagoon itself was pretty neat, the water indeed aquamarine blue and deep, swarming with fishes that bumped into my back and took nibbles at my stinky feet. The cave was a cave, nuff’ said. There was a reclining buddha in it though, on an altar of gold, with a gaggle of middle aged women primly sitting around it, eyes closed but occasionally peeking to see if anyone was watching them be culturally aware and profoundly spiritual.

We had a beer, dried off after our swim, and headed back the way we came. It was New Year’s Eve and we had no plans what so ever.

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Vientiane

December 29, 2013
By Asmodeane in Posts, Travel

We spent two days and two nights at Vientiane. The hotel proved satisfactory, the owner, Air, very nice. There was a bit of a problem with mosquitoes (dengue fever and malaria spring to mind, I’m not medicated) and a pungent sewer smell in the bathroom, but nothing we couldn’t handle for 4€/person a night. The water was warm, the linen clean enough, as promised, there were plenty of functional power outlets, and the WiFi worked, at least during the day. What more could we ask for?

The town itself was something of a one horse affair. It was pleasantly chill, the streets were not congested, there were pleasantly few scooters and nobody really used the horn. The central area could be traversed in twenty minutes on foot, there was no need to take cabs or tuk-tuks. There were plenty of restaurants and bakeries, the latter especially pleasant, thanks to the years of French domination. We tried Lao cuisine, but it was a bit of a fiasco, we got recommended dishes that were practically drowning in ginger. Have you ever chewed up a chunk of ginger the size of a cherry tomato? You’ll swear off the stuff for the rest of your life if you ever do. Besides, after masticating the first chunk you won’t be able to taste anything else, it robs the sense of taste as effectively, if not more so, as chili.

We visited a few temples, but were already overtempled to begin with, and frankly all those wats and stupas are pretty identical. Then we just ambled about, ate a little, looked at the dried up Mekong, girly wrote some report thingy for her uni, and I read books. There was nothing much to do, I guess, but that was ok. We could have visited the People’s Museum, but didn’t feel like it. Vientiane was enjoyable enough as it is, a pleasant town, with cheap food and accommodation.

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By Asmodeane in Posts

Ah, the glorious sleeper bus, what a way to travel! Bouncing your way through time and space, on almost fully, but not quite, reclining leather chairs, that can almost, but not quite, fit a western man. Although we didn’t have much problems, being barely over 170cm tall. We had to take off shoes when we came in, and put them in a plastic bag, because people would sleep on the floor as well, on special mats.

We also ran into the oft reported phenomena of “westerners ride at the back”, taking seats almost up front but being banished a few seats back later. The four Aussies and Brits didn’t fare as well, being told to sit right at the back. Then a black man came on board the bus, the lads at the back thought he might have been American. He sat right at the places we were told to vacate, and was left alone for a while, but then, too, banished to the back of the bus. I wanted to crack a Rosa Parks joke as he walked past, but, um, didn’t. We were left unharassed for the rest of the trip.

The dreaded Vietnamese karaoke / singing contest shows came on for a while but were quickly turned off. After that it was uneasy sleep until about 6:30 am, when we arrived at the Laos border crossing. It was pretty cold and misty, the landscape churned into mud by trucks and construction works at the edges of the road. A few uneven huts leaned on each other, and the border control barracks was barely visible behind the line of cars and buses waiting to cross. I put on borrowed flip flops (you can borrow flip flops on the bus, it’s a wonder!) and tramped off behind the other westerners to battle at the customs hatch. To my surprise, despite the chaotic queuing habits of the locals, it all went smoothly, and 30 minutes later we had our Vietnam departure stamps. But that wasn’t all, we had to walk one kilometer across the no-mans land to the Laos border control facility, where we paid 36$ for the privilege of entering Laos and received a colorful, full page visa. Much nicer than shitty Thai and Vietnamese stamps.

After that our trip went on, we were about half way to Vientiane. There were a few stops, and I was able to buy some omelet and rice with some of my remaining Vietnamese dongs. That fed girly into a satisfied stupor, so I was able to continue reading my “boring submarine book” (amazing work, can’t believe I haven’t read it before, especially back in my U-Boat enthusiast days) without being pestered. And suddenly, just like that, we were in Vientiane, only 22 hours after departing Hanoi, with no major breakages, no accidents, no plunges into the bottomless chasms, no border incidents (except for the black guy being denied entry) and no pillage and rapine.

We were met by a “people truck” driver at the station, and the Aussie/UK gang convinced us to join them for a drive to town, haggling the guy down to 2$ each. And a good thing we did, too, because we didn’t arrive in the center of town as we thought we would, but 15 km to the north east. We were just about to confidently walk out of the bus station courtyard, dripping wet backpacks on our backs (the bus cargo hold had some holes in its bottom, so every mucky puddle the bus drove over splashed onto our backpacks)… Brr. The driver dropped us off at the Syri 1 Guest House, a cheap (80000 kip a night, about 8€) place with hot water and semi-working wifi. Bliss!

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By Asmodeane in Posts

I must apologize in advance for the wall of text that is about to follow. Due to some hardware and bandwidth constrains there will be no pictures for a while, either. So just bear with me, eh?

After a brief stint in Hanoi, staying at the Paramount Hotel, where the wifi was dead and the rooms were nice, we booked a tour to Ha Long Bay. The hotel offered us some fairly exorbitant rates, about 150 to 200 bucks a person, but we were right on one of the main backpacker streets of the old quarter, so there were plenty of competing travel agencies around, so we got our trip booked for 87 dollars from Lily’s Travel Agency, a deluxe package that was supposed to include a better boat and a nicer hotel. The trip itself was a three day, two night affair, one night on the boat and one night at the hotel on the Cat Ba island.

The start was pretty inauspicious. The pick up service was late, and the characters on the bus thoroughly dodgy. Once we got to the harbour the going got weirder. Our guides turned out to be a bunch of conniving bastards, and we got lectured not to ask uncomfortable questions cos they are “busy”. Fine. Our questions produced some results though, because we did eventually get separated from the rest of the pack and assigned a marginally nicer boat. It even looked somewhat similar to the pictures in the unrealistically glitzy brochures we were offered at every travel agency. Identical brochures, mind. After boarding the boat (and having lunch while the stereos were blasting incredibly shitty techno mixes of christmas songs) we were taken to the first sight on the cruise itinerary, the caves.

The bay of the island was packed with white cruise boats identical to ours, but the caves themselves were impressive, huge and very airy and full of all that cavey stuff, stalagmites, stalactites, weird rocks shaped like cocks and boobs that our insane and incredibly annoying guide (by this time dressed as a santa claus) was all too happy to point out. The guy behaved like a bag of dicks that he apparently was, his speech full of “gangsta” affectations and ridiculous swagger. He noticed our dour demeanors and tried to “cheer us up”, but that only made it worse. We tried to keep as much distance from him as possible, and enjoy the caves without distraction. We shared the caves with about a billion of other tourists though, so distraction was not easy to get off the menu. By this time quiet despair was beginning to set in, we were pretty certain that that was it, we were ripped off and stuck on a cruise from hell…

An hour later we cruised deeper into the archipelago, leaving most of the white tourist boats behind, and there we had to grudgingly admit that the place was extraordinarily beautiful. I thought that after the gorgeous karst islands of Thailand we would be somewhat disappointed in Ha Long Bay, but we shouldn’t have feared. Their beauty was different, more rugged and stern somehow, the water a cool milky blue-green, the skies overcast, giving it all a more temperate appearance. Thai islands were never so numerous and varied, either. This place truly deserved its place on the Unesco natural heritage list.

Next on the itinerary was kayaking. We stopped at a beautiful bay, surrounded by islands, home to a floating village of fishermen. The kayaks were old and beaten up, the GRP patched and cracked. I’ve never kayaked before, but it proved to be a piece of cake, didn’t even tip the thing over. We skirted the shores, and even rowed our kayak through a crack in a small karst island, the mass of it hanging over us. Will definitely have to try kayaking again, although learning better rowing technique is a must, mine was atrocious.

Afterwards we got assigned to our cabins. We were taken to one side before anyone else, and quietly got handed the keys to “the best” room, which proved to be quite delightful, albeit somewhat identical to all the others. We were further placated when the ratsy guides showed up with a bottle of bubbly and two glasses, as well as a vase of flowers. We locked ourselves up in the room, and enjoyed the gorgeous archipelago floating by, sipping our “champagne”, which tasted exactly like the fake south Russian “red wine” made by mixing powders and spirits with water. And afterwards it was time for the weirdest christmas party I’ve ever seen.

It all started with a dinner (all meals were included in our trip), after which two of our ships got tied together and we mingled on the other one, listening to all kinds of crap music really, really loud. A strange semi-melted cake featuring baby Jesus in a grotto was brought out, and the drinks started flowing. The guides were drunk as skunks already, one did a really good impression of the “Gangnam style” dance, and all went rather well, until a massive speaker dropped off its perch and landed on a side table, crushing it and the glasses on it. That put a damper on things, and the boat staff along with the guides had to sober up and clean. We got evacuated to the other boat, the one our cabin was on. The party turned dull then, it was too loud and dark, the strobe was driving me insane and most of the foreigners disappeared somewhere. So we retired as well, around 11pm, took a warm shower and went to bed (the thumping music thankfully stopped around midnight).

The following day we moored at Cat Ba island, home to countless species of endangered wild things and a natural park, with trees and stuff, as well as pretty hills that we later climbed. Part of the group, with one night deals, took the boat back to the Halong City, and we continued onwards to the nature reserve on a rickety pink bus. The reserve was staffed by a few old people, one of whom was elected to become our guide. He did show us which way to go, but other than that was absolutely worthless, scaring the wildlife away with his monkey imitations and “funny” hoots and hollers. He didn’t speak any english either, so couldn’t tell us anything about the park. Not that it is in any way certain that he knew anything about it.

The park visit culminated in climbing a hill, a fifteen minute climb perhaps, on top of which stood an ancient look out tower. It was probably put there back in the glorious cold war days, maybe during the Vietnam war, and certainly looked the part. About 20 meters high, it had a sign on it that expressly forbid climbing the tower, but our guide told us that it was ok as long as we went up two at a time. An american aerospace engineer from SF, Tyler, volunteered to come along, and we scaled the tower all the way to the top. Man, that thing is bound to make headlines some day. “Two Tourists Killed in Deadly Watch Tower Collapse”. The railings on the top level have pretty much detached from the main structure, and are in places paper thin due to rampant corrosion. The stairway that circles the tower sags away from it under its own weight. Oh and then there’s the case of the missing floor boards on the top level, just some planks thrown over the abyss.  If you’re ever there I thoroughly recommend the climb, and hey, you might even make the news!

After that we were once again separated from the group, who were put up for the night at some dinky rape rooms far from the shore, and driven to the sea side boulevard of Cat Ba town, where we were dropped off at a three star high-rise hotel and given a closet of a room with no windows. Fuck that, right? So I went down to the reception and demanded a better room, so after scratching their heads and looking at each other they gave us a brand spanking new sea view room with two wonderful double beds and a shower to die for. That, and the “deluxe” cabin on the boat, as well as the bubbly bottle, were worth the 20 USD we overpaid. Also, we had the whole evening to ourselves, and were fed as if for slaughter by the hotel, who obviously thought a bigger group would be arriving.

The hotel also arranged kayak rent at our request. We paid 8 USD per person for half a day (1pm to 5pm in our case) of kayaking, complete with scooter (my first ever scooter ride, can you believe it?) pickup and delivery. The kayaks we got were little better than at the bay we moored at the day before, but this time there were no limitations as to time and where we could go.  We went to the Monkey Island, home of the legendary pirate Guybrush Threepwood. At first we found no monkeys, but no people either, so the beach was ours. Girly had a swim, and reported something I already suspected, namely that the water was about as “warm” as in the Gulf of Finland in the summer. I didn’t follow her shivering example. There were some goats far up on the cliffs, and our attempts to reach them failed, but then a group of western tourists came along from the depths of the island, with a local guide, whom the monkeys apparently recognised. They swarmed onto the beach, maybe eight or nine of them, and I had a brilliant idea of getting a small, half eaten baggy of cashew nuts I had in my messenger bag, and feeding them, imagining that it’d be like feeding squirrels. But no. The minute they saw the bag and heard the rustle they mounted an intensive rush attack, and only the stick and vigilance of the local guide stopped me from being violently separated from my nuts (and cashews)… Some british tourist said that most monkeys have rabies, and the guide agreed, so I decided to forego any feeding attempts in the future. Shaken, we decided to depart the accursed island.

We circled amongst the islands for a while, landing at another beach to switch places (I was heaviest so sat at the back, to better aid steering), until something wondrous happened. We were paddling along when suddenly a fish jumped out of the water right by our paddles. Then another, and another! Then one hit my paddle blade with a satisfying thwack, whee! Another one jumped right onto the kayak, and ended up in my lap! I caught it, it was maybe 8cm in length and 4cm tall, pretty flat, with a spike on its belly. I held it, dipping it in the water occasionally so that it didn’t suffocate, until girly took a picture me and my new scaly friend. I then let it go. I guess we paddled right into a large school of these flat little silver fish, and they mistook the droplets from our paddles for flies or some other tasty tidbits on the surface, and tried catching them? Don’t know, but it sure was fun.

We paddled back through a different channel between some islands, not really sure if that was the way to go, amidst a large floating village of fishermen, with dogs and bickering women, playing children and smells of food. The fishermen waved at us, looking up from their net mending and boat patching. The children screamed what were probably insults at us. The sun was setting, and the dogs were barking. It was a glorious end to a glorious day spent amidst a glorious archipelago. We were picked up by a guy on a scooter and rode off, the three of us, with me sandwiched in the middle. Lovely.

Next morning after another good breakfast it was time to leave. Our previous night at the hotel was marred by wifi that was apparently turned off for the night, and by hot water, that was apparently turned off for the night as well. Good thing we had a gloriously scalding, über long shower before that. We were picked up at 8am by the same pink bus, greeted our tour mates who spent the night at a crappy hotel with paper thin walls and shit beds, and were taken to the harbour. There we boarded our ship and slowly coasted to Halong City, enjoying the scenery and the sun from the top deck. We didn’t have a room reserved for the night, nor did we have a train/plane/bus ticket to anywhere, so we asked our snaky guide to drop us off “at the south station”, where we thought the buses to Vientiane, Laos, departed. He agreed, but also tried selling us 55$ (later coming down to 800k Dong) tickets, motivating it by claims that we’re not gonna get a ticket because they are all bought out in advance by scalpers. We politely declined, but still asked him to take us to the station. He once again agreed.

We were dropped off somewhere near the Opera house, about 3km from the south bus station, with the guide claiming all along that the bus station was “200 - 300 meters away”. What a fuckweed. Oh, and once we got there, having to take a taxi because we got lost along the way not knowing where it was, we found out that it was the wrong station! Time to catch another taxi, which took half an hour driving us to the other end of town in a traffic jam for over 200k Dong, (about 10$). To add insult to injury, or vice versa, I accidentally paid our driver with a 500k dong note, taking a hit for about 300k, or about 10€. Fuck. It was dark and I hadn’t eaten anything and was shaking from lack of sugar, ok? So lets drop it. At least we made it with 45 minutes to spare, the next bus was slated to leave at 19:00, and the ticket was only 500k! I could still afford it even despite the loss of cash at the cab! When asked whether it was one of those newer VIP buses the cashier didn’t answer. Needless to say, it wasn’t. I mean, it was still a sleeper, but one with only one floor, no “in-flight entertainment” or toilet. Still, 500k is nothing, so off we went! About an hour late. But hey, welcome to South East Asia.

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Hanoi doesn’t rock

December 23, 2013
By Asmodeane in Posts, Travel

My sense of time seems to be utterly warped by all this hopping about the subcontinent (South East Asia is a subcontinent, right?). It seems that almost every day counts for three, what with all the exciting goings on around us and vivid new experiences. So it was with a slight sense of surprise that I noticed that it’s been days since I’ve updated this blog instead of months. This injustice to my only reader (although there might be two?) had to be rectified. In my defence, I should state that the internet connections here in Ha Long Bay and on Cat Ba island have been mildly atrocious, and our Hanoi hotel didn’t have a working WiFi at all.

Thai Ronald. They're everywhere.

Thai Ronald. They're everywhere.

But on with it. We made it to Hanoi fairly fine. Girly, having slept like a particularly exhausted log for most of the 20 hours we spent in Bangkok, was past the worst stage of food poisoning and was merely weak, no longer violently ill (although militantly cranky). The flight to Hanoi on a dirty AirAsia A320 was uneventful and boring, although the DM airport departure area turned out to be a pleasant place, all carpeted spacious halls and nice stores. They even had a Subway and McDonalds, although the McD didn’t serve (or even display) anything other than crappy breakfast stuff that early (6am) in the morning. I would have liked to see what locally themed monstrosity they thought up for Thailand. Subway seemed to be identical to the ones at home.

Main train track south.

Main train track south.

We left the country with as little hassle as when we entered it, just a quick stamp, and an adorable incident at the border control.  As the border control lady looked at my passport she suddenly started giggling. I was a little surprised, my passport photo is pretty boring, and my grumpy and unshaved morning mug not particularly funny, but she went on quietly giggling while leafing through the passport and stamping it. Then, handing it back to me, she very quietly, almost whispering, asked: “Sir..? Have you seen…” and the she giggled into her palm again, looked around, leaned in towards the glass separating us, and continued, in a whisper, “…the real Santa Claus?”. When I lied to her that yes, in fact I did, she lit up and covered her face with her cupped palms. Incredible… Girly, coming up behind me, was briefly puzzled as to what occurred and why was the customs lady giggling at her as well.

It's about +20c

It's about +20c

Having arrived at Hanoi we passed the immigration with surprising ease, although we should have gone to the Visa on Arrival desk first, if I interpreted the eye rolling customs officer correctly. We just got a boring stamp in our passports valid for 15 days, and that was it for bureaucracy that day. Our next adventure was getting a cab to the hotel. Well, right after figuring out how many Dongs make a Euro (way too many, we were instant millionaires) and getting some from the nearest ATM. The tourist info lady that we asked about the cabs was all too willing to sell her own fixed rate transfer minibus for 30$, so we took our chances with a meter cab. It was ok, except that the bastard took a shot at delivering us to a fake hotel, where a sleazy scam artist tried to persuade us, before we even left the car, that our hotel “had an accident / was overbooked”, I never managed to find out which, and we had to transfer to another hotel nearby. I called him insane, told him that this was the wrong address, and that I wasn’t born yesterday. There was an awkward pause, then the taxi drove on. I told our driver “no more fake hotels please”, he gave one of those nervous asian laughs and drove us to our real hotel. The whole trip cost about 370,000 Dong, so about 18 dollars even with the fake hotel stop. Win!

Grinning scooter granny.

Grinning scooter granny.

The hotel was great, but Hanoi failed to deliver a pleasant first impression. It was smelly, polluted, noisy and incredibly congested. We went out for a walk and balked at the mass of scooters, scooters driving on the sidewalks, scooters parked on the sidewalks, scooters being repaired, scooters being washed, scooters driving on the wrong side of the road, and all of them constantly honking and emitting noxious fumes. Some of them must have been two-strokers,  because the amount of smog was incredible. It wasn’t quite as bad as Delhi, but certainly approached Chinese levels. But scooters, man, those things ruin the city. There’s just too many of them. They crowd the pedestrians right out, especially in the old quarter, where the sidewalks are narrow and a parked pack of scooters can easily take all of that walking space up. Hanoi should institute a bike (or electric bike) only policy, backed up by an occasional shooting of offending individuals. I guess Hanoi is worth a visit, but apart from the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, the Ho Chi Minh museum and the Military Museum there is precious little to do here, except stage trips to Sapa or Ha Long Bay. Oh and apparently there’s always the night life. If you’re into that.

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Bai Bai Tonsai

December 21, 2013
By Asmodeane in Posts

Climbing butt

Climbing butt

Another glorious morning in paradise found me taking pictures of butts. Butts hanging off the cliff wall, strapped into a harness, to be precise. Sometimes a face would appear and shout out something excitedly unintelligible, but mostly it was just a vast array of butts. You guessed it right, my overactive girly took a beginners course in rock climbing. I tagged along for the pictures and general interest in the whole thing, and was not disappointed. The people were great, and the climbing intense. The group leader, “Max”, I don’t remember his Thai name, but he looked like Mr. Myagi with rastas, had no problem with me tagging along and didn’t charge anything for the boat transportation to the East Railay Beach climbing point.

The climbing itself wasn’t anything special, level 5 and 6 climbs. Our group was great, a japanese guy from Osaka called Tukaru (or something along those lines), a german bloke from Cologne, Michael, who reminded me of a certain hairy buddy of mine, right down to the way he walked, and Zale, a canadian lawyer from Toronto with a bushy beard and an awesome jew-fro. They were so much fun, we quickly became buddies and now I have to send bloody gigabytes of photos all over the world. Girly did great, climbed all the way up to 25m until a lvl6+ cliff finally defeated her. I was exhausted from just watching them climb, my neck sore from looking up for five hours. There were no incidents, except for a few scrapes and bruises, oh and Tukaru getting high and almost killing poor Michael, who got dropped about 5m without warning, when his attention slipped and he did something wrong while belaying. He was then dismissed from all future belaying duties, quite rightfully, too. I understand that all the guides are old potheads that, according to their own words, spend every evening after climbing classes high as kites, but they should put their foot down when it comes to students toking up before and during climbs.

Sunset at Princess Beach

Sunset at Princess Beach

Afterwards we took another trip to the Princess beach, where we swam and snorkeled. I found a somewhat rusty 10 Bhat coin on the bottom, amongst the coral, and we both got covered by fish eggs, which was kinda gross. They look like strands of tiny peas in a translucent goo, and are released by fish in great numbers, forming clouds and clouds of future fishies. The fish around us had a right proper feeding frenzy, devouring their brethren (or even children?) with no qualms what so ever. For us that meant that we got to dive and frolic amongst large schools of colorful fishies, which is always nice… Girly then climbed to the second look out point and I stayed below, due to exhaustion caused by watching her climb earlier. We walked back to Tonsai Beach along the tide-exposed sea bottom, had a couple of beers with some of our group, listened to Zale groove it with the local live band on his acoustic guitar, and even found a token finn, but then disaster struck.

Jammin' before The Disaster

Jammin' before The Disaster

We were betrayed by a fish. Or then it might have been the vegetables the scaly bastard hung out with. Or maybe the suspicious mayo-based sauce that came along with them. Be it as it may, about eight hours after eating the barbecued slab of Kingfish (150 Bhat at the roadside restaurant at Tonsai), it was projectile vomiting time. It was 6am, and we had a flight to Bangkok to catch at 13:30. Catching that flight meant getting up at 7:30, gathering up enough people to get a cheap rate for a boat to Ao Nang, and finding an airport shuttle bus from there. Then one had to queue for security checks, check-in, and baggage drop, and later boarding. Quite a feat to manage in severe gastrointestinal distress. I carried both our backpacks (luckily they were light at 12 and 14kg), cozily sandwiched between them, feeling like a safe chubby turtle. We managed to grab a boat, found the bus stop in Ao Nang, bought the tickets, boarded the bus, too, and then I felt something wrench deep down in my guts. I tasted girlies fish dish, and tried the mayo sauce, so got the same affliction as she did, only in a very diluted version. No puking for me, just nausea and Delhi belly.

Our pretty birdy.

Our pretty birdy.

Airport was fun. Girly looked like she was about to depart for greener pastures, all greenish pale skin and a vacant look that stretched all the way to pearly gates. She couldn’t stand in line so had to sit on backpacks or just the floor, which was almost more than she could manage. But make it on board the plane we did, and here I am, descending into Bangkok’s DM airport, drinking a very expensive (although not by Finnair standards, being only 90 Bhat or 2 Eur) can of Singha beer. Guess it is time to “fasten seat belts, stow your tray table and put your back rest into upright position”…

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Monkeys are awesome

December 19, 2013
By Asmodeane in Posts

Perpetrator, Victim, Loser

Perpetrator, Victim, Loser

I saw two monkeys fuck today. It was amazing! The guy monkey was done in seconds, then pulled his tiny red pecker out of the screeching female and retreated, leaving a thin, extremely long strand of sperm stretching from him to the victim (for Nature knows no consent). The female seemed to belong to another guy’s harem, so that guy screeched a little ways off, impotently baring his dirty yellow fangs at the banging couple. Poor Beta. No offspring for you!

This wonderful glimpse into nature’s ways happened at Railay, where we went after Phi Phi Islands. Oh, the last night on Phi Phi went fine, although not as well as planned. The Brits (again with the bloody Brits!) upstairs kept stomping like elephants, although it seems that the shoddy construction of the hotel complex was to blame for the drum-like acoustics. Girly also suggested we form a society to fight heel-walking, but I found it to be unnecessary and vetoed her suggestion, as the suggested methods of resistance were too reminiscent of ones employed by the Third Reich against a certain much suffering ethnic minority.

We woke up early (I’d once again love to place the blame solely on the stomping Brits but we did have an alarm clock set to wake us up as well), and walked all the way to the Northern end of the Long Beach, to a place called “Shark Point” to try and catch a glimpse of the elusive cartilage fish. It was a futile little excursion, but gave me a chance to end Jim Gaffigan’s abortion of a book, “Dad is Fat“, and start on a much more interesting read by Clay Blair, called “Hitler’s U-Boat War: The Hunters, 1939 - 1942“. After the exhausting trek back to the hotel and a quick shower we took a very comfortable (tinted windows and aircon!) ferry to Railay peninsula.

Railay: East, West and Tonsai beaches

Railay: East, West and Tonsai beaches

The trip took only an hour and a half, and brought us to the West Railay Beach, where longtail boats picked us up (Railay has no deep-water pier and the beaches are very shallow) and dropped us off at the Hat Ton Sai beach, the most ramshackle beach of the three beaches that compose Railay. Ton Sai is home to Rastas, surfers, climbers, base jumpers and general hippie-wannabees, losers and downshifters. It also boast the cheapest accommodation options and the chillest bars. An easy choice, in other words. We stayed at the Paasook bungalows for the first night, where we were offered three choices, rape rooms for 400 Bhat, somewhat less rape-y rooms for 600 Bhat, and a big bungalow for 800 Bhat. We settled on the big bungalow, even though that 800 Bhat didn’t get us AC or hot water, not to mention WiFi. Electricity was also in limited supply, with the diesel generators somewhere deep in the jungle right behind the resorts rumbling non-stop from 6pm to 6am (some are on 24/7 for stores and restaurants but not tourist accommodation), and the lights flickered to such an extent that I didn’t risks plugging any of my electronics in, lest my adapters fry. I liked the bungalow, it was spacious and sort of cute in a 3rd world way, but girly was kinda squeamish about it. The pillows sucked, true, the sheet-rock walls were painted lime green and the bed looked like a prime breeding ground for the dreaded bed bugs, but it wasn’t all bad, really. We decided to look for other options for our last two days on Railay, though. Having walked about comparing bungalows and rooms we settled on Mambo Bungalows and Restaurant, that promised vacancies the following morning, where we paid 400 Bhat for a dingy little thatched bamboo hut that looked as if it was just about ready to collapse, but at least it had a descent bed and a good mosquito net. Massive savings, as we were running out of liquid assets.

One of the steps of the descent into the Lagoon

One of the steps of the descent into the Lagoon

We went to Railay West beach on the second morning, to search for the mythical exchange hut or at least an ATM (they charge 180 Bhat on top of every withdrawal, plus whatever fees VISA or MC imposes, so not cheap at all, don’t make our mistake and bring a lot of cash!), and to climb the look out point, and see the Princess Cave, Princess beach and an interesting inland lagoon.  The lagoon was at the bottom of about 100m deep shaft, and had no visually apparent connection to the sea, muddy and about 70 to 90m across. And boy did we have fun! The way up to the look out point turned out to be nearly vertical, with muddy knotted ropes and tree roots providing barely sufficient hand and footholds. The way up was fun though, if a little dirty and slightly scary. We made it up to the East Viewpoint, which was ok, and then made towards the Lagoon. Oh boy were we in for a surprise! There was no other way to get down other than to scale sheer walls with the aid of some alarmingly frayed ropes. The height alone was intimidating, the wall just falling off towards what looked like an infinite drop towards the murky blue water of the sleepy lagoon below. But at closer inspection it became apparent that there were only about 10 to 15 meters of sheer walls between small plateaus, and maybe about 5 stages that culminated at the sea level. The climb was super exciting, slippery and dangerous, with plenty of places to bruise or cut oneself (which we tried to avoid but, of course, ended up doing), and plenty of places where one could conceivably die due to inattention.

Tinkerbell, AKA Ginger Wonder, at the lagoon

Tinkerbell, AKA Ginger Wonder, at the lagoon

The lagoon itself, with its invitingly milky blue surface, was too dirty to swim in, even though some, like a couple from Poland, did. We were sweating and bleeding, out of breath, but oh so very happy! There was a cave on the opposite end of the lagoon with some clay “statues”, we had to squeeze through some rather tight places to get there and lose some more skin in the process, but it was well worth it. The place was fairly empty, since very few actually braved the climb down, there was a polish couple, a very young british couple (a Welsh fellow and a Cheshire gal that we hung out with on and off through out our Railay trip), and a couple of Koreans that started back pretty much as soon as we ascended. It truly seemed “earned”, that lagoon. No throngs of tourists, just a select few that dared..!

Your truly in majestic flight

Yours truly in majestic flight

The way up was a both a little harder and a little easier than the way down. You could see where you were going, but it exacted more physical effort to pull my once again overweight carcass over the razor sharp karst cliffs. We later went to the Princess Beach, overrun by nouveau rich Russians (the Princess Beach is home to the most expensive resort on Railay), and home to a cave filled with giant wooden dildos (as ancient fisherman offerings to the drowned princess, with a somewhat crude but sound logic behind them). There was also a cliff there that had a large sign in English and Thai that jumping off it is strictly prohibited, and people were of course jumping off it all the time. It was only about 10 or 12m high, so I took it as a challenge and climbed the cliff, only to discover that all of the jumpers on it were Russians like me, three guys ranging in age from 12 to 40, from Murmansk, Novosibirsk and Moscow, all unacquainted. Funnily enough it seems that the sign was a sufficient deterrent for all the other nations…

Now we’re sitting at our “resort” bar, with crickets chirping and reggae playing, enjoying the cool tropical night and planning our tomorrow. Girly is gonna take a climbing course and I am going to take pictures of her butt from below and read my book.  WiFi is costly, so I am going to upload this text later, maybe from Bangkok. Now I guess it is time for that one last beer. Total bliss…

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By Asmodeane in Posts

Oh man, what a day. My manly legs are still giving out an occasional shudder. We climbed up the steep slopes of the Phi Phi island to the viewpoint and then down the other side to the Rantee beach. And vice versa. Felt like quite an accomplishment, really, by the time we came back to our new hotel room with its AC, WiFi, and hot water shower.

Ton Sai Bay by night

Ton Sai Bay by night

But yeah, it seems I’ve skipped a few entries here, eh? Last time we just arrived at Koh Lanta, I think. Koh Lanta was great. Especially compared to Phi Phi. Ok that was a little unfair, but we’ll get to that. Lanta was all long blonde beaches and gentle seas, not too touristy, kinda underdeveloped, with a certain 3rd world vibe about her. We took a Four Island Tour (700 Bhat), snorkeling around Koh Chuek, Koh Mook, Koh Wan and Koh Ngai. All gorgeous places, but the snorkeling was a tad sub par after Cuba, because the coral reefs were mostly dead… We also got fed local grub, which was nice. All in all, a great day out on a long tail. Got pretty burned, of course. Even though I “don’t burn”™.

Last night on Koh Lanta

Last night on Koh Lanta

Afterwards we got a slow boat to Koh Phi Phi Don. It is (was?) supposedly one of the most awesome islands of the east Thai archipelago. Now it is a fairly raped piece of real estate. The swarms of tourists have to be seen to be believed. The Brits are sending all their chavs here, too, apparently, probably because it is cheaper than incarcerating them and less scandalous than forced euthanasia. The island is home to some horribly loud and garish bars, completely out of place in these surroundings. Go to fucking Ibiza if you want to get fucked up and get a tattoo of the Union Jack on your ass. We stayed at three places while here, first at Phuphaya resort at a bungalow, but that was throbbing with the base beat skipping across the bay from a multitude of trashy bars. We then got a “rape room” from some Pong place (cheap dinky room that looks like someone might use it on an hourly basis, if you get my drift), but there were Brits across the hall so only got two hours of sleep. Now we’re at Tapear resort, it’s 22:30 and there are some worrisome developments in progress upstairs. Fuck this island, it is ruined.

What are you looking at, bruv?

What are you looking at, bruv?

Or is it? Because if you can find a quiet (and cheap) enough place to sleep the place does have some fairly nice restaurants that won’t rob you blind, some nice day tours to take, and cheap scuba diving courses. As well as some rather good diving (and of course snorkeling).  As I mentioned earlier, we climbed the hill up to the viewpoint (I forgot my camera back at the hotel, of course) and down the other side, a steep jungle path complete with snakes and monkeys, and were rewarded with a gorgeous beach and some of the best snorkeling I’ve ever had. I drifted with a huge school of fish, was circled by barracudas and dove down to the cold cold darkness 15 meters beyond, barely making it back to the surface. You will just have to try it yourself, words do it no justice.

Sigh. This night it seems that Swedes will be our scourge. We’ve got to wake up at 7am to go shark-diving (ourselves, not as a part of any tour), so will be mighty pissed off if can’t get no sleep for the third night running.

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