A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: cjandthepeagan

"You're never too far from summat mad in India"

Disclaimer: this blog is not suitable for reading by persons under 18.

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After a great few days in Fort Cochin we needed to go north to Delhi so we could catch a train to Khajuraho. To put the distance into perspective, it’s the rough equivalent of travelling from Manchester to North Africa, which means our options were a fifty-six hour train ride or a not much more expensive six hour flight. Not surprisingly, we chose the flight.

Long story short we arrived at Khajuraho to freezing conditions, or at least that’s how it seemed after the 35oC heat of Kerala. We were here for one reason only… sexy temples! ;-)

Known as the ‘Kama Sutra’ temples, the temples of Khajuraho are basically Chandela era porn. The erotic carvings of surasundaris (heavenly nymphs), couples and copulating groups are exquisitely rendered in sandstone and left us marveling at not only the skill required to carve them but the sheer effort involved in piecing them all together. We’ve put some pictures in below which save us the embarrassment of having to write about them…

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Graphic. We spent the day admiring the temples and giggling at the Indian men’s reactions to a western girl taking photos of the Chandela blue. We did think about trying to re-create some of the carvings but Louise was still aching from the yoga in Kerala ;-)

The next few days were spent making our way through Madya Pradesh, from Khajuraho in the north down to Tala in the south east. We’d been relatively lucky travelling around south India , but when we got to the north it was a whole different ball game. The accessible transport links that we’d gotten used to in the south were replaced with long waiting lists, huge queues and no easy option for the budget backpacker.

So, after almost being savaged by a wild dog in Khajuraho (this is no exaggeration, it was only because Chris turned round and hurled abuse at it that we didn’t get mauled), our first leg of the journey was a five hour local bus to a town called Satna. It was a long, bone rattling journey over some of the craziest ‘roads’ we’ve been on. Rock filled, pot-holed, crazy cambered dirt tracks with vertical drops at the sides and nothing to stop you falling to your certain death. Once in Satna, we were supposed to change on to a train, but the bus we were on was running late and we missed it, so had to do an overnight stop.

The next day began with a ride to the train station in a rickshaw full of school girls, followed by a train to Katni junction (like Satna, another ‘local town for local people’). The trains have been one of our highlights of India but this was the first and only time we’ve had to risk the unreserved carriage. We would have taken a picture, but we were packed in too tightly and literally the whole carriage was staring. Not too intimidating. About 20mins in, everyone had squeezed in to their space, heads had started lolling on to strangers knees and the people in the luggage rack had made themselves comfy amongst the bags. By the time the novelty of a couple of westerners was wearing off, we were like ‘standing baba’s’, switching legs to keep the circulation going. Things had settled down nicely and we were beginning to wonder what all the fuss was about (everyone, including guide books and forums, specifically says to steer clear of the unreserved class) but, as Karl Pilkington, of ‘An Idiot Abroad’ fame, once said, “You're never too far away from summat mad when you're in India”… cue the snake charmers.

After forcing their way through the crush of passengers, they settled in our berth for a couple of crazy flute tunes, where the King Cobra looked more interested in trying to sleep off the drugs than putting on a show. The guys came round to collect their money and give a Hindu blessing and they were being quite pushy, but it was when the cobra was slapped on Chris’s head things got even more surreal. Whether it was drugged or not, it’s just not fun to have a massive snake put on your head when you’ve got no room to move let alone move away. Some Indian men next to us started shouting “Angreezee”(English) when the snake guys ignored our repeated refusals to pay and after a short exchange between them all in Hindi, they moved on. It’s definitely one of the more memorable experiences of the trip.

Much relieved, we jumped off the train at Katni junction and found our way to an auto-rickshaw. We were winging it now and had to rely on the kindness of the rickshaw drivers to tell us how to get to Tala. They agreed to take us to the bus station, but not before giving the locals (some of whom had clearly never seen a westerner before), an opportunity to take photo’s on their 90’s Nokia’s. One man went as far as to say it was his “most glorious moment”…poor guy! We rounded the two days off with a 4 hour bus ride to the middle of nowhere. Thankfully, this turned out to be just a mile outside Tala (the base camp for Bandhavgarh National Park) and we hitched a short ride to the village from a park ranger who took pity on us. And that was it, after this 2 day epic journey, we were in Bandhavgarh National Park, getting excited for tiger safaris.

Bandhavgarh National Park’s claim to fame is having the densest population of wild tigers anywhere in the world and is one of the most likely places anywhere to spot one. We turned up to the park to find it closed, but after our two day journey we were resigned to the fact we’d not be able to be as spontaneous as we’d like in India and so used the time to plan and book trains for the rest of our trip. Tala is simply a main road with guesthouses, restaurants and some supply shops, but it makes for a peaceful place and it’s easy to meet people. However, we didn’t have to try hard to meet Liam, who was staying in the room opposite us and would be our safari partner for the next day or so. We had a good night drinking beer and swapping travel tales.

Our first safari came at 6am on a very chilly Thursday morning, we were feeling a little hungover and weren’t sure what to expect. Our gypsy (jeep) met us from the hotel:

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As you can see, it wouldn’t have been difficult for a tiger to maul us and Louise was, it’s safe to say, absolutely petrified! The hotel owner laughed at our reaction and remained confident the jeep was up to it. We rumbled our way along a few kilometers of very bumpy road, before arriving at the gate.

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The way the guides locate the tigers is by following tracks and listening out for alarm calls from animals. Nerves were replaced by anticipation as we realised the skilful and serious nature of our guide. He didn’t even seem to care that we were there, for him it was a game of hide and seek and a test of his tracking abilities. We came within a few metres that morning. We sat in silence listening to alarm calls from spotted deer that we couldn’t see, but were only feet away. Tension levels were rocketing and we waited for shouts of ‘TIGER’! Unfortunately, despite our guides best efforts the tiger stayed hidden and we ended up booking on to an afternoon safari. Here we saw a lot more wildlife, but again no tiger.

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Nevertheless, here are some pictures of the wildlife we were lucky enough to spot (Jungle Cat, Elephants, Spotted Deer, Gaur, Indian Bluejay)

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We left Bandhavgarh at 4am to catch our train, slightly disappointed and with a feeling of unfinished business… The only 2 seats left to book on the train from Katni to Allahabad were in first class! What a shame! In India, this gets you a private, lockable, quiet cabin, a cosy bed, clean towels, a wardrobe, table and someone to tell you when it’s your stop. It was one of our best sleeps in India and a world away from the sleeper class we’d gotten used to.

Feeling slightly refreshed but also slightly run down from the 6am freezing safari, we checked in to our hotel in Allahabad to find it was worth a fraction of the price we’d paid online (we had to ask to get the toilet seat cleaned… ), but as there was nothing we could do about it, we sucked it up and tried to get excited for Kumbh Mela.

For those that don’t know, Kumbh Mela is the destination for Hindu pilgrims wanting to wash away their sins in one of the many sacred rivers in India. It frequently breaks the record for the largest gathering of people in one place and this year promised to reach over 100 million over the 55 day festival. This particular Kumbh Mela is called the Maha Kumbh Mela as it is held every 144 years, to celebrate every 12 Kumbh Mela’s. Complicated! This time it was in Allahabad, where supposedly Vishnu spilt a drop of elixir of life in to the Sangam, the meeting of the Ganges, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati rivers.

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Unfortunately, because of transport issues, we’d not been able to make it for the 27th Jan, one of the main bathing dates (though people bathe throughout) and consequently the atmosphere at the mela was not as electric as we’d been imagining. We also had blossoming colds, which were hindering our enthusiasm. We don’t want to do it down, it was obviously very amazing to witness so many people in one place for one reason and we’re glad we made it there. The Indian’s were very welcoming and clearly pleased to see us, but other than a couple of ash covered Sadhu’s the place felt quiet and like it was saving itself for the next bathing date. It was warming to feel a part of it but left us feeling what it must be like when it all goes off.

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So with the mela done, we’re off to pay our respects to Mumtaz and Shah Jahan…

Posted by cjandthepeagan 08:51 Archived in India Comments (0)

'Bangers' and Backwaters...

Bangalore, Alleppey, Fort Cochin,

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It was 6am on a Sunday when we jumped off the train at Bangalore en route from Hampi to Kerala. Bangalore is famous in certain circles for its very rapidly growing software industry and has already established itself as the silicon valley of India. Outside the station our minds were blown when we found our second auto-rickshaw driver in India who was willing to use the meter to take us, rather than quote us 10x the price upfront (sound of Hallelujah chorus)! :-D

We passed the early hours walking round the lovely Cubbon Park and being mesmorised by the diverse displays of morning exercise. It was clear from the clean wide roads and high rise buildings, ‘Bangers’ was doing alright for itself. We were sweaty and stinking and couldn’t wait to get to Kerala, but wanted to make the most of our time in this happening city. So after a lovely masala dosa for breakfast (rolled up lentil pancake with spicy mash inside) and a wet-wipe wash, we made our way over the road to Lalbargh Botanical Gardens (rock’n’roll!). This was the scene for an annual flower display (a 30ft Eiffel tower made from roses and a bigger than life size Barbie doll) which shows off the flowers to be used for Republic Day celebrations (Indian Independence Day).

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Bangalore was just a day stop and we didn’t get to see a lot of sights other than the flowers, but the day will be remembered for two Indian families. We were sat in the park when a young girl with her two brothers started to chat to us. It took us by surprise when after 15 minutes her mother and grandma came over and started dishing up some tasty pilau for us. It’s considered very rude to refuse food so after a further 15 minutes of eating, showing them wedding photos, swapping stories and the kids referring to us as ‘Auntie’ and ‘Uncle’, we were starting to feel like part the family. However, the atmosphere changed dramatically for the worse when after about an hour of getting to know each other, the daughter, after much prodding from mum, asked if we would pay her school fees (120 quid). Not exactly what we'd been expecting. We said no. We did a lot of reading on the ethics of giving to beggars before starting this trip, and while this family weren't begging in the traditional sense, it amounts to the same thing. We always find it extremely difficult to say no and we certainly don't blame them for asking, let's be honest, what parent wouldn't do everything they could to ensure a better future for their child. You have to go with your gut when meeting people while backpacking and we’ll maintain they were a genuine family who just saw an opportunity to ask. Either way, it left us feeling both confused and drained. We’re not going to get to deep in to this, but the whole day was tainted by this exchange and we left feeling we’d been naive to assume they’d just wanted our company.

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We were feeling down about what had just happened and the walk through roads stacked high with rubbish, rotting food and human waste, coupled with the depressing sight of starving cows, neglected dogs and malnourished people picking through those piles to find scraps of food, put us on an all time low for the trip. India is full of these terrible sights, but some days are harder than others and this was one of them.

As so often has happened in the past few months (especially in India), when we go through a tough experience, a great experience is just around the corner. We got our connecting train to Kerala that evening and were sharing our sleeper bay with a family we had met the night before on the platform in Goa. They were all lovely, friendly people, but the 10 year old daughter was something else! Full of beans and not remotely shy, she was the entertainment of not just us, but the entire carriage. We babysat for the evening while Mum kept up our energy with sweets, homemade chapatti and chili pickle in between catching up on her much deserved sleep. It was a massive contrast to our earlier experience that day and couldn’t have come at a better time!

We missed our Kerala stop by a good few hours, as we were told by our travel agent it was a 9:30am arrival, when in fact it was more like 5:00am arrival. What can we say, the alarm didn’t go off! ;-) So we took a couple of buses and 4 hours later than planned we arrived in Alleppey. By this time we’d been squashed into a couple of sweaty sleeper trains at 40oC and hadn’t been near running water for way over 48 hours…delicious. So we checked in to a guesthouse, readied the wire scrubbers and detergent, and had the best shower of our lives :-)

Alleppey is the houseboat hub for sailing the Kerala backwaters in style and we weren’t disappointed when we arrived at the dock to see our converted Kettuvallam (rice barge).

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The boat was impressive enough but unexpectedly we had our own private chef and butler. To be honest it was a little overwhelming after slumming it for so many months, so we offered them a few beers and left them to it. We passed the time taking in the scenery, chatting and doing the blog over a few beers. It made a nice change to have a few days luxury honeymooning in amongst the budget backpacking.

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Fort Cochin was our next stop in Kerala. We spent the first day walking round the mix and match of Portuguese, Dutch and British buildings this town offers and from what we’ve seen of India so far, it’s one of the prettiest places in the country.

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Kerala has recently become a booming tourist hotspot, which along with the local council’s favorable land reform, health and education policies, gives it an affluence and rate of development rarely seen throughout India. The contrast between Kerala and the rest of India is evident in the cleanliness of the streets, the very well dressed locals and the ease of communication. It’s a very nice place to be and clearly has money.

The second day we spent walking round the rather bluntly titled ‘Jewtown’ in Matancherry. A 20 min walk from Fort Cochin, its home to one of the world’s oldest synagogues, spice markets and a small ornate palace converted in to a local history museum.

Interesting museum fact: Indian women used to wear dresses which left their arms and shoulders exposed, until the British came along as recently as the 1900’s and insisted they cover up. This certainly took us by surprise, as it’s now the Indian women who insist on modesty and look very unfavorably at British dress. How things change!

After a crippling yoga lesson at 6am (Louise was pushed too far in to a pose by an inadequate instructor and couldn’t walk for the rest of the day), the third day was spent catching up with family, the blog, photo uploads and general trip admin while we watched the streets of Fort Cochin bustle by from an internet café balcony. If you’ve wondered why the blog and photo’s have slowed down somewhat, it’s purely due to the fact we can’t whip out the laptop wherever we like (safety first) and wifi is a bit sparse! We’re doing what we can, when and where we can. Please bear with us… :-)

Posted by cjandthepeagan 04:27 Archived in India Comments (0)

Boulders, birds and broken bikes...

Temples at Hampi

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At the end of the last blog we were about to board a night(mare) bus to Hampi... obviously we survived, but believe us, it was touch and go! The Indian traffic is everything you've heard and more. We boarded the bus, pleasantly surprised at the plush velveteen double 'beds', but with more than a little trepidation having already experienced the buses and also having noticed the lack of street lights at night. The driver tore round corners at speeds which slammed us in to the side of the bus, hit the brake so hard we repeatedly smashed our heads and took speed bumps at a pace which made our bodies leave the floor. If you came across this kind of driving in the UK you wouldn't be cross, you'd be asking the driver if he wanted a cuppa and a chat. It was the first time in the trip when we both genuinely feared for our lives, which wasn't exactly conducive to a good night's sleep. The fear combined with the white-knuckle experience kept us clinging to the mattress and staring at the roof until the early hours. Least said the better, but we won’t be doing it again, it was terrifying!

Anyway, we didn't die (yay!) and emerged from the bus, battered and bruised but with a renewed appreciation for life, to the most amazing landscape we've ever seen.

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Hampi is an ancient market town built amidst volcanic rock boulders, paddy fields, palm trees, rivers and, most significantly, the ruins of Hindu temples. The cloudless blue skies and vividly green fields contrast against the red rocks to make dramatic and unique scenery. We were staying in a place called Virupapur Gaddi, just a one minute river crossing from Hampi.

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Justifiably, our first day was spent sleeping off the nightmare journey, so it wasn't until the day after that we paid our ten rupees and squeezed ourselves among the bicycles, motorbikes, backpacks and people to take the short boat ride to Hampi Bazaar.

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The star attraction of Hampi Bazaar is the imposing Virupaksha Temple (you can’t miss it!) and its central location made it a good place to start our day. The Hindu temple is one of the city’s oldest structures, dating back to 1442 and is still used today. As we entered we came across Lakshmi, the temple elephant, being painted with various colorful spots on her trunk. It was a very compelling scene and only added to the feeling that we had left the resorts behind (disclaimer – Louise in no way condones this picture being on the blog and would like people to know she was watching the WILD monkeys instead ;-))

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The temple had some lovely carvings, some fully painted priests doing blessings for Hindu's and of course the ever present monkeys. It set the tone for the next few days.

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Once we’d done the temple, Louise found herself needing to brave the 'pay and use' public toilets. After negotiating her way through a maze of Indian women washing themselves and their clothes, removing a drying sari from the cubicle door in order to shut it and squatting with the best of them, there came the task of washing her hands. The crowd of young Indian girls stopped their morning ablutions to watch as she attempted to turn the tap on, but completely removed the stopper in her attempts, thus drenching herself and everyone nearby. Once they'd stopped howling with laughter, the girls crowded closer to help shut off the water, clapped and cheered when it was managed and by the time Lu left, they were apparently firm friends. This is the India we've come to know; every interaction makes you feel part of a big family.

We walked west to a big statue of Nandi (Nandi is a bull and Shiva's preferred mode of transport) and admired the views of the Bazaar and the Virupaksha Temple this elevated position allowed.

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The statue marked the start of a trail in to the rocky wilderness, it started with a hill and when we reached the peak and gazed around, the full scale of the undulating landscape was revealed.

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Continuing over the hill we spotted our next stop off, the Achyutarata Temple and Sule Bazaar. Sat in the middle of the surreal terrain, with
no-one around us for what seemed like miles, we really could have been transported back in time. It felt like we were walking in to a painting.

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When we reached the Achyutarata Temple, there was no-one else around and all we could hear was the sound of the squirrels squeaking to each other across the landscape.

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We wandered around the ancient courtyard and took in our surroundings.

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According to Lonely Planet, the undisputed highlight of the Hampi area is the Vittala temple. It was packed with tourists as well as about six
school trips and was very similar to the previous temples, so we decided to sit on some stone steps and take a break from the midday sun. We’ll always remember the temple for our meet and greet session with some school kids. Two of them had walked passed and we had waved and said hello, so, feeling brave, they walked over and gave us the traditional Indian ice-breaker we've become so familiar with, "which country?" We hadn't even had time to answer before the rest of the class descended on us and we were completely surrounded, each girl competing with the others to ask us questions.

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We lazily walked back to the Bazaar, stopping at a lake for a cool drink (not from the lake, we had a bottle of water ;-) ) and at the request of some Indian kids ("please to sing a song?"), sang 'Twinkle Twinkle Little Star'. The lake itself was a great photo spot for ornithologists and animal lovers alike and here's our best attempts at capturing the wildlife.

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Our feet breathed a sigh of relief when we concluded the first day. Turns out India’s a bit of a dust bowl ;-)

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Day two was more temples, but with the added bonus of rented bicycles. We say bonus…

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This was the second puncture Chris had gotten in the same wheel (also note the dodgy stand, which had a mind of its own) and we ended up spending 4x the bike rental cost on getting them repaired. Still, once we found a village and its resident puncture man, we had some fun chai-fuelled conversations in Hinglish with whoever was passing the bike repair shop and have noticed there seems to be a pattern to the questions we’re being asked. It usually starts with ‘which country are you from?’ and it’s no surprise for the questioning to go as far as ‘what is your salary?’ or ‘does your husband have a good family?’! It’s not meant to offend, but it is strange to reveal so many personal details to someone you’ve never met and are unlikely to meet again.

In total we did a 20k ride round increasingly surreal terrain. Here are some pictures, as they describe it better than we can…

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So, feeling a little sore-bummed, the second day finished with a steep climb up to visit the ‘Durga Temple’. It was a tough ramble up hundreds of stairs, but once we were there, we were rewarded with panoramic views of the area. It was truly beautiful and worth draining the energy reserves for. We made it just in time for sunset and relaxed on some boulders to take in the view.

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Whilst up there, the ever present monkeys made off with a ladies purse; shouts of “does anyone have any fruit?” echoed round the rocks in a bid to try and lure the monkey back. The lady didn’t hang around and left, explaining the purse was only a gift, but this can’t have translated in to Hindi as a couple of agile Indian guys leapt over sheer drops in hot pursuit of the monkey, only to gaze disappointingly at the empty contents when their mission was complete!

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Day three was spent relaxing in the Bazaar (we say relaxing, what we actually mean is fending off more monkeys who were attempting to climb through the restaurant window to steal our dinner!) waiting for the night train to Kerala, including a nine hour stop in Bangalore, to take an overnight houseboat tour of the backwaters...

Posted by cjandthepeagan 23:12 Archived in India Comments (0)

Just popping out for a 2 month curry

Mumbai & Goa

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For us, India is best described by a cockney couple we met on the train who said “it’s an absolute ‘eadache, but we lav it!”(- best cockney accent, please!)

During our research prior to India, Louise had read a lot of information on forums and books on how she should dress and behave. This highlighted some key points like don’t make eye contact with men, don’t return smiles, if you have a conversation with a man keep it short and try and introduce the fact you’re married and dress conservatively. While this is obviously sound advice, it didn’t really help to make us feel relaxed. We’ve since accepted that although some men can be a bit starey (and some of Louise’s underwear hasn’t made it back from the laundries!), a lot of this advice is in fact a bit OTT and most people are very friendly.

First stop in India, Mumbai. Mumbai is intense, it’s packed to the rafters with people, the traffic is absolutely everywhere, the slum is the one of the biggest in the world, buildings rich in history tower over everything, the smells of the food permeate the air and you can’t escape the poverty or the rubbish. We’d booked our hotel online months before and it turned out to be in a less touristy part of town. When we arrived it was dark and the hotel offered us immediate sanctuary away from a world which we were unable to familiarize ourselves with. It’s fair to say we were both feeling nervous. The next day, we went for breakfast in the hotel restaurant next door. It was busy, but very quiet and we were being stared at intently by a few of the locals. All in all, it was quite intimidating and not the welcoming atmosphere we had become accustomed to in South East Asia. Still, we waded right hand first in to our dhal and chapatti then headed out in to the streets.

The heart of Mumbai (and seemingly every other Indian city, usually the colonial part) is Mahatma Gandhi (MG) Road, full of extremely impressive British built buildings. One of the star attractions is the Prince of Wales Museum, so called to commemorate the visit of the Prince of Wales (not Charlie but the one before him, can’t remember his name). It’s a very beautiful building and the museum wasn’t bad either.

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The highlight for Louise was when we were walking through a room full of stuffed dead animals (delicious) and came across a whale jaw bone… did someone say Whitby?

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After the museum, we took a trip down MG road, passing the very impressive Victoria Railway Terminus and ending at the Taj Mahal Hotel. We were tempted by a room, but the rates started at 30x our regular budget, so we gave that one a miss! Instead, we headed to Leopold’s Café (of ‘Shantaram’ fame – read it if you haven’t yet) and pretended to be in the 1980’s Mumbai mafia over a couple of fiery curries.

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One of our main jobs in Mumbai was to go out and by some more appropriate dress for Louise. We took a walk round Colaba Market where vest tops and shorts were traded in for Salwar Kemeez and generally baggier, more concealing clothing. We knew there was a lot more to Mumbai than we had allowed time for, but after doing Hanoi to Bangkok to Mumbai, we were yearning to escape the big cities and relax a bit. So, looking slightly less like we’d just stepped off the plane, we made for the train station to take on the Indian railway system (for those of you who have seen the Indian Top Gear special, you’ll know what’s coming next)…

In total it took 3 hours, which considering we had our own ‘tourist window’, wasn’t that bad compared to the regular queues next to us, which didn’t seem to be moving at all. The process involves filling in a request form (which we only discovered after half an hour of queuing and subsequently lost our place), then when you finally get to the front of the queue, finding an available train, picking from the 6 classes of seat (if available), choosing from upper/middle/lower berth, then starting again if your request isn’t do-able. Once that’s done, there’s passport and visa checks and finally waiting for the 1980’s BBC style computer to print your ticket (even had the perforated paper down the sides ). All that done, we were bound for Goa on a sleeper train (2nd to lowest class) the next day! We had to do this, as we’ve been trying for a month now to register for the Indian Railway website to buy tickets online. More headaches.

Lonely Planet and other forums advised that ‘sleeper class’ was only for the more adventurous backpackers and most tourists opt for the higher classes of seat for reasons such as safety, comfort, cleanliness etc. What a load of rubbish (again)! The people were friendly, the bangra music blasted out from people’s phones, the smells of the food wafted past with the vendors, shouts of “chai, chai, chai”, “lassi”, “biriyani”, “samosa”, “cold drink” etc filled the air, beds were comfy and if Indian families were willing to have their kids run about, it can’t be that dangerous! It was a lot of fun and is now our preferred method of travel.

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Next day we woke up in Anjuna (Goa) and headed straight for the beach. Anjuna is famous for its all night parties in the 1980’s and is the heart of ‘Goa –Trance’. We used the time there to sunbathe, swim in the big waves and just chill out, as we were both genuinely exhausted from 3 months travel and felt we needed a holiday from the itinerary. Chris also took this opportunity to photograph his imaginary trance album cover.

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We dabbled with the party scene, but from the pictures we’ve seen online (5am beaches rammed full of ravers), it was a shadow of its former self.

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If we had to pick some highlights out, it would be watching a couple of old hippies doing yoga demonstrations and seemingly making glass balls fly with their hands (one of those I don’t know how they’re doing that moments!), a masseur who promised a massage from him would make Chris “a 24 hour power shower” (no clue), but the weirdest one being a guy who offered to swab Chris’s ears on at least 3 occasions (I mean we’ve been offered a lot of unusual things by now, but really?). We both massively enjoyed it though and can see why so many tourists flock to the beaches year on year but it wasn’t why we came travelling so we headed for Panjim to check out the state capital…

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Goa was occupied by the Portuguese for hundreds of years resulting in some very pretty architecture being left behind. Panjim is a small town and we managed to see the sights in 1 day, they were nice enough, but the town was more about the atmosphere than the buildings. We ran out of things to do a lot earlier than we expected, so we booked on to a 1-hour sunset cruise for the evening and grabbed some food to kill the time.

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When we queued for the sunset cruise, we thought we’d bought the wrong tickets. In the daytime, the ticket office had looked like a typically run down sea-side resort so we were expecting something like a small boat with a couple of other tourists. We turned up to see the best part of a thousand well dressed Indians all hustling for position in the queues. We must have looked surprised as a couple of people kindly pointed us in the right direction, before we boarded our boat ready to go. The boat had 3 decks, the lower one was a disco where ladies got in free, but men had to pay 50 rupees, the middle deck offered different foods and a bar, and the top deck, where we were, was filled with Indian families, a DJ booth and a lot of dancing. The MC proceeded to call up “the gents”, then “the ladies”, “the kids” and finally “the couples” who all (it’s fair to say) absolutely had it to some filthy Indian style electro house beats. They were shameless but very competent dancers and we felt embarrassingly British as we stood at the back with our jaws dropped at what was unfolding. Louise shed a small tear and I think we both realized at this point that we were in India. We got befriended by a couple of Indian families who were also on holiday in Goa. They took it upon themselves to explain Indian lifestyle and make recommendations about places to see. The cruise only lasted 1 hour as promised and was a great introduction to an Indian party.

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In the evening we went to the Lonely Planet’s ‘Top Choice’ for food in Panjim; Chris had a chicken dish and spent the night on the big white phone to God. Despite the other countries editions being reliable, we’re quickly learning to take the Indian Lonely Planet with a pinch of salt (and sugar).

The next day we took a local bus to Old Goa. Once at the front of the ticket queue, Louise had to stave off well placed elbows and loud Indian voices who thought they could muscle in for position. But she more than held her own. Don’t worry this is the norm in India, women are expected to push to the front of queues, which makes Chris’s life a lot easier! ;-). We were shoehorned on to an already crammed bus, Chris spent the journey with an Indian woman pressed up against him (she looked like she enjoyed herself, as she turned round with big smiles on more than one occasion), Louise spent her time trying not to put her bum into another women’s face. It’s a true test of balance and upper arm strength when the bus swerves around oncoming vehicles, bends and meandering cows. We thought we’d get some relief when a couple of guys jumped off, but they were replaced by 7 NEW PEOPLE! It took a while to close the door.

Old Goa is basically a complex of churches and cathedrals built by the Portuguese with the grisly main attraction being the embalmed body of a dead saint (Saint Frances Xavier, the pioneer of Catholicism in Goa). Chris was still feeling rough from the night before, so after seeing the big 3 cathedrals (including Se Cathedral, below, the largest one in Asia) we took another bus to Palolem for some more R&R and someone’s birthday...

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When you think of a textbook beautiful beach, you think calm waters, crescent shape white sands, palm trees, islands, sunshine and a nice cold drink. Palolem has that beach. It’s one of the most beautiful spots in Goa and it also happened to be Louise’s birthday. Win.

We celebrated by having an hour and a half private Yoga lesson, which we found tougher than we’d expected. We were certainly ready for more beach time by the time we called an end to the session with 3 chants of ‘ohm’. We definitely enjoyed it and will be doing some more whilst we’re here. In the evening we had a candlelit meal on the beach and Chris arranged for some fireworks, although he doesn’t know anything about it, Louise just insists they were for her. We ended it with a big Skype session with family. All in all, Louise had a great day and Chris has his work cut out to top it next year!

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Next stop on the itinerary was Hampi, so having run out of transport alternatives; we booked on to a tourist night bus to get there… :-S

Posted by cjandthepeagan 06:49 Archived in India Comments (0)

Back to Bangkok...

Bangkok, Khao Yai National Park

sunny 35 °C

After a bit of an emotional goodbye to Vietnam, we headed back to Bangkok to await our flight to India. We hadn’t planned to do much whilst there so, having stayed there the first time round, we opted to go to the Khao San Road area because we knew it. Bad idea. As soon as we arrived the reasons we’d had for disliking the place so much hit us again with full force.

Take for example our first night back. We got in to Bangkok at 2am and, once we’d found the guesthouse we were booked into, spent the first two hours trying to get the receptionist to give us our room key, as she wouldn’t accept our email confirmation from Agoda. In the end she had to ring the hotel owner who, after a disjointed conversation with Chris where both parties had to shout to make themselves heard over the ridiculously loud house music coming from the club next door, agreed to take a deposit from us and let us stay in the room, subject to their own email confirmation being received. All well and good, but then there was the room itself, which was a 2x5m concrete cell with sick stains on the door, an old mattress dumped in one corner of the room and creatures living in the walls. All this in addition to the aforementioned house music, which went on ‘til 4am and shook the walls, and the fact that the guesthouse also doubled as ‘workspace’ for the local prostitutes (we witnessed a few negotiations whilst arguing for our room in reception), just added to the appeal! Our room did however have a lovely framed pencil sketch of Tom Cruise on the wall, so, y’know, things are never that bad ;-). Needless to say, we got out as quickly as possible, and relief came in the form of Khao Yai National Park.

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We took the local bus and sawngthaew (pic link) to a guesthouse on the outskirts of the park and were greeted with friendly faces, warm smiles and beautiful scenery. The guesthouse cost five pounds per night, had just been refurbished well and had big beautiful grounds surrounding a swimming pool filled from a water feature in the style of a cliff. This was the Thailand we remembered fondly and it was nice to be back. We happily arranged to go on one of their safaris for the next day and spent a much more relaxed evening doing admin for India.
The tour started at 8am when we met our guide, Ta-ta, and made the short journey by jeep into the park. Ta-ta spoke fantastic English, had a few jokes up his sleeve and was very relaxed. We made our first stop in the park at a viewpoint overlooking the valley and were each given a pair of rather fetching ‘leech socks’ (modeled below by Chris). We were also descended on by a group of monkeys, obviously accustomed to human contact, which set about making friends with whoever looked like they had food. Ta-ta didn’t want to spend too much time with the monkeys though, he said we’d see loads of them throughout the day, and so we carried on.

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We cruised very slowly through the park to avoid scaring the wildlife and the guides were in constant radio contact with each other to give us the best chance of seeing something special. It wasn’t long before we pulled up and Ta-Ta started pointing at the treetops. Who knows how he spotted it, but sitting nonchalantly high in the treetops was a white gibbon. We spent some time looking through Ta-Ta’s powerful binoculars before a shout from another guide further up the road signaled even more gibbons. We hotfooted it over and walked a little way into the trees where another white gibbon and a family of black gibbons were enjoying the morning sun, swinging around the treetops and even taking time to hang around the lower branches to have a closer look at us and pose for some photos.

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If these cute characters had been the only animals we’d seen all day we’d have been more than happy, but Khao Yai turned out to be an absolute treasure trove of wildlife and we were in for plenty more surprises.

We travelled a little further in the jeep before jumping out to take a 2 ½ hour trek through the jungle. Ta-Ta stopped occasionally to talk through the different types of flora including tiger balm plants, cinnamon trees and fig trees that plant themselves on top of host trees and grow downwards, slowly enveloping and strangling the host. Grim!

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As we were walking down a fairly steep leafy hill, Ta-Ta turned round and stopped us, he gestured for us to walk slowly and quietly and to stop talking and as we gathered round where he had set up his binoculars we understood why. Two Great Hornbills were sat in a tree only one hundred metres from where we were walking. Standing about 1 metre off the branch, the bird was not only massive but with its multi coloured beak, also very beautiful. When one of them flew to another branch, you could literally hear the individual wing flap reverberating round the trees. We watched them for about half an hour, unable to take our eyes off them. They were absolutely magnificent, so much more amazing than seeing them on TV, it’s difficult to describe but we were completely awestruck. It was a definite highlight of the day, and of the whole trip.

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Not long after, and nearing the end of the trek, Ta-ta urged us to hurry up as he had just been radioed through the location of a wild elephant who’d taken a break from the mask of the jungle. After a 5 minute march, we turned a corner and there he was, wild as you like, majestically stood on the edge of the jungle munching some grass. Ta-Ta warned us not to get too close, as it was mating season and the elephants get a bit hormonal. We watched him make his way across the path in front of us until he disappeared back in to another part of the jungle. Ta-ta had a hunch that he would be heading for the next nearest salt lick (these are made by the park rangers to help with the elephants diet), so we got there ahead of him and sat in wait. It didn’t take long before he came boldly striding round the corner...

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After this we headed for the park’s information centre for lunch, which itself was a haven of wildlife. Groups of deer had found a home by the river that runs past the restaurant area and as we ate we watched as a water monitor hunted down a freshwater bird.
After lunch we were taken to see the waterfall used in the film The Beach, which was nice but nothing special (unless you’re a huge fan of the film), before being driven to the cliff summit of the park to overlook panoramic views of the canopy and beyond. It was beautiful.
On the drive back, we stopped very briefly to see the same elephant at a different salt lick, and another group of hornbills, this time much further away, but again, we only stopped briefly as the overall feeling in the group was that they wanted to return home. One of the Dutch guys in our group joked that some people must have paid to see the road, not the wildlife. It was slightly disappointing, as we both felt like we’d rather make the most of our time there, but the trek was long in hot conditions and some of the group were a bit elderly.

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So with Khao Yai done, the curtains were sadly starting to close on South East Asia. We headed back to Bangkok and tried our best to steer clear of the notorious Khao San Road area but the cheapest room we could find was 3 times what we had budgeted for. So, after an hour of searching in the heat, we admitted defeat (for the sake of the cashflow) and headed back to Khao San for one last night in the madness. We were comforted by reminding ourselves we’d rather spend money on jungle adventures than on free toothbrushes and origami hotel towels ;-)

It has been lovely to be back in the country we started in. The route we took made gradual changes to the landscape, the people and the food but it was when we came back to Thailand, that we realized just how different the four countries had been. We’re sad to leave South East Asia after such an extended stay as, despite moving from place to place, it’s come to feel like home. However, we were both ready for a new challenge and India is shaping up to be just that! If we’re honest, we were a little nervous to be taking on India, everything we’ve read about it says it’s going to be a love-it-or-hate-it complete sensopry overload of a country, but we’re also confident we’re going to have a fantastic time. So goodbye from South East Asia and help make some more sense of the blog, here’s a map of where we’ve been! :-D

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Posted by cjandthepeagan 01:55 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

Boxing Day and beyond...

Hanoi, Halong, Hanoi

overcast 16 °C

We’d been in Hanoi for a couple of days, but it had only been a quick stop before travelling to Sapa and then a few days over Christmas when we didn’t really want to be sightseeing. So we’d not really had the chance to explore. We’d been staying in the Old Quarter which is an area full of back-alleys and street sellers, where each little lane offered a different product or service and motorbikes ruled. If we’re honest, we didn’t really warm to the place as it was fast-paced, dirty, congested, loud and you always had to walk on the road due to the amount of motorbikes/stalls on the pavement. It was all in all a typical big Asian city, perhaps the type you might find in an 80’s kung-fu film ;-)

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We had a bit of time before Ha Long Bay, so we set about taking in some sights for a couple of days. The first day we went to the Temple of Literature, Vietnam’s first university and now, due to the American War, one of the few places you can see a good example of Vietnamese architecture. The place was pretty, but we had more fun chatting to some Vietnamese students who had taken a shining to Louise when Chris went off to photograph a dragon (!). The Premier League’s massive in Vietnam and Louise held her own in a game of “do you know…Wayne Rooney?” (swap the name here and you get the picture). Football is a good ice breaker with many Vietnamese (before you can
move on to more interesting topics, says Louise).

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Day 2 we started the day with some lovely street food before heading for the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. You could, if you wanted, go and see Uncle Ho’s body lying in state, but this isn’t something we massively wanted to do as he’s clearly very precious to the Vietnamese and you have to look at a stuffed dead body! Mmm…We ended the day by deliberately taking on rush hour traffic on the back of a ‘xe om’ (motorbike cuddle). It’s one thing to stop and stare at the madness on the roads, but it’s an all together more thrilling experience to be weaving amongst the other motorbikes and cars.

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The highlight of the two days was on the way to the mausoleum when we headed to the nearest local coffee shop for a ‘happy room’ break. There was a group of Vietnamese old boys outside (including one guy called John who lived in Detroit and kindly acted as translator) sharing an afternoon bottle of Vodka. We asked for a couple of Vietnamese drip coffees but by the time Louise had come back from the happy room Chris had already had vodka shot number one and was being inducted. We spent an hour with them drinking vodka, exchanging wedding photos with the lady owner and eating free oranges. One of the old guys kept standing up to give us hugs referring to Chris as “ooohh Chriiisty!” and said with a straight face “you 29, me 60... you are my son now”. Another guy said that to Louise that “to see us so happy, made him feel it wasn’t too late for him to feel happiness again either”. All in all, it was very touching. They refused to let us pay for anything as John had said “today you’ve made an old man very happy”. They sent us on our way a bit tipsy and with big smiles on our faces. :-D It was refreshing to have a couple of days speaking to decent Vietnamese people, because after the Sapa incident we were getting a bit sick of being ripped off.

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We’d done a few tours recently, which due to better transport links isn’t something we’ve really needed to do in previous countries. There are big advantages to tours, such as journey times are reduced, sharing the experience with other backpackers while getting lots of good tips on places to go, and also getting well informed knowledge on not just the tour subject but any other question you want to ask the guide about the country you’re visiting. But then there are also disadvantages to tours, you lose some freedom, sometimes it can feel like you spend more time travelling than sightseeing, if you don’t warm to the people you’re with (and are stuck with them!) and depending on the guides enthusiasm, it can feel a bit monotonous! We’ve been picking and choosing when we need to do them, or just when it’s more practical. Ha Long Bay was a definite tour, as the place is seriously massive and to do it ourselves would have been expensive.
We’d heard a lot of horror stories about Ha Long Bay tours (rats and cockroaches on the boats, food poisoning terrible service and in the worst case 11 people drowning in 2011) as they sell for as little as 40 pounds for 3 days to thousands of pounds depending on your desired level of comfort. We elected for a 3 day tour with reputable company and paid a bit more than we’re used to, to boost our chances of a good experience.

Day 1
We were picked up by minibus and headed straight out of Hanoi for the boat. Our guide ‘Tiger’ informed us half way that due to windy conditions we wouldn’t be able to board until 2pm, a couple of hours later than scheduled. Although bad news, it was nice to see they were taking things seriously. So we had lunch in a harbor restaurant and all got to know each other. The group consisted of us (obviously), a lovely German couple called Benno and Karolina, Maria a nurse from Spain who was travelling with her boyfriend Manuel from Switzerland, a Dutch family whose kids were all studying in the UK and a couple of Czech girls who kept themselves to themselves. Everyone was very chatty and we soon realized that they could all speak at least 3 languages fluently (French, German, Spanish, Russian, English etc)… thankfully, they elected to speak English most of the time!  It made us feel a bit lacking, so one of our new year’s resolutions is to get bilingual (on your asses).

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When we reached the boat it wasn’t as we’d imagined (still nice though), mainly because in 2011 the government had demanded all boats be painted white. However, once on board and with a beer in hand the beauty of Ha Long Bay was revealed from the mist. We cruised past the ‘Kissing Cocks’ islands (below - named by Chris, the official title is Love Chickens Islands) towards Surprise Cave, a large cave in one of the limestone karsts and our first stop.

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As all the tour boats set off together at 2pm and a lot of one day tours took in Surprise Cave, this was a bit of a procession and we all had some reservations that the tour would be marred by the popularity of the Bay. The cave wasn’t the best we’ve seen but still impressive and despite losing Tiger in the masses on a couple of occasions, we had a good time. As for the surprise part of the name, judge for yourself
below:

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Afterwards, we all sat down for dinner and did a bit more getting to know each other before crashing in our cabins. Despite paying $4 for a small can of beer (ouch!), the boat was lovely and the rooms were certainly better than we were used to.

Day 2
We started day two with a trip to a lagoon, in the middle of the bay. To access the lagoon we boarding rowing boats, as we had to enter it through a gap in the limestone karsts that surrounded it. We should have visited it the previous night but due to schedule running late, Tiger had us out of bed at 6am to be the first ones there. It was worth it, the place was so quiet and we all had some time away from the bustle to appreciate where we were. Next stop was Ti-top Island, 425 steps up to the top of a very tall limestone karst with panoramic views of the bay. Again, we were so early, every other tour group were still on their boats so it was just us. It was lovely and laid to rest our fears of
overcrowding.

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After the Ti-Top Island, we made our way to the largest of the islands Cat Ba Island, to visit the National Park. After a bit of boat hopping, we said goodbye to the Dutch family and said hello to Angie, a Chinese girl who after travelling the world now lives in Singapore. She was very chatty and quickly integrated herself in to the group. After arriving at Cat Ba Island, we were all given bicycles and went for a 30minute hilly ride to a local village. This was to be the start and end point of a 1 ½ hour trek through the jungle, led by Tiger. In the UK a tour would have started with an over the top checklist about everyone’s physical well being and a talk through the specifics of what we would be doing. But this was Vietnam and before we knew it we were literally climbing limestone rock faces, hiking through jungle and traversing high log bridges with no handrails. Perhaps the fact that we didn’t have time to get nervous made it all rather matter of fact so we cracked on and had a good laugh. We were at the front of the group being led by Tiger, which seemed an advantage until he jumped out from behind a massive leaf, scaring Louise witless! Funny, but we were scrambling down sheer rocks at that point (still funny, says Chris).

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At the end of the jungle adventure, we headed for the hotel to celebrate New Year like never before! During the day, Tiger had got chatting to Angie and discovered that she was a demon table tennis player (her former coach now coaches Argentina no less), so he’d invited her out for a game as he was a keen player too. Angie, wanting moral support, invited us along, so we all jumped on the back of motorbikes and headed for the local hospital. The doctor’s staff room was the scene for the 3-0 white-washing that Tiger gave Angie and we stood by drinking beers (bought from the doctor’s canteen!) and taking in the match. After the win, Tiger took on all the other players and as testosterone levels reached their peak, Vietnamese men were banging walls with their rackets, punching the air when a shot was won and almost piling in to us in order to reach their shots. It was all rather dramatic and very aggressive (in a sporty way), but it was also very funny to watch. After the game Tiger took us to his favourite fresh seafood restaurant (as in pick your own from the aquariums outside) and ordered for the table. Chris gorged himself on the nicest Oysters and Prawns he’s ever eaten. The vegetable mixes weren’t exactly shabby either! When the night came (below), the drinks flowed, culminating in free Champagne on the beach and a 2am bed time. Great day and night had by all! :-)

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Day 3
We woke at 6am again to get breakfast and start the long journey back to Hanoi. We’d all had 4 hours sleep and were suffering a little from the night before, but still maintained strong conversation all the way back to the minibus before the heat and the busy 2 days caught up with everyone and we all passed out! Back in Hanoi, we capped off a great trip by meeting up for some street food (fried eels) and Bia Hoi before saying goodbye to our new friends. We were so busy chatting that we’ve not taken as many pictures as we should have done. But there’s some more en route courtesy of the other guys.

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Our time in Vietnam drew to a close after our tour of Ha Long Bay. We had one more day in Hanoi, which we used to do a lot of travel admin and finished with a delicious tofu based meal (below). We spent a total of 9 days in Hanoi and had learnt to love it for all the things we initially didn’t like about it. Hanoi is a special city, a million miles away from all the cities where you feel could be anywhere and is the place that best sums up the Vietnam that we know and have come to love. 30 days was no-where near enough and we’d love to come back :-)

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Posted by cjandthepeagan 06:21 Archived in Vietnam Comments (1)

Mulled wine in the mountains...

Hanoi, Sapa, Hanoi

overcast 15 °C

We needed to be in Hanoi by the 18th December to obtain an Indian Visa in time for January. We’ve read a lot about the Indian embassies being particularly strict and we didn’t help ourselves by not doing this in the UK prior to leaving, as their website demanded, so we were both a little nervous about it. We spent the whole day filling in the dreaded online forms, getting special sized photographs done, changing dong in to dollar (for the fee) and gave it in with just 2 mistakes! ;-). In the end, the embassy guy was quite nice and didn’t see there being an issue with it...

We didn’t stay in Hanoi long, as we’d planned to get up north to the mountains for a couple days before Christmas. Sapa was our destination so we booked ourselves on to a train and got off in Lao Cai. The connection to Sapa was a minibus from the train station and Lonely Planet had said it should cost us about 50,000dong. We were accosted by touts as soon as we stepped off the train, all wanting us to get on their bus, but when we asked the price we were asked to pay 300,000dong each! The guy wouldn’t budge so we refused and set about trying to find alternative transport, but he followed us and shouted in Vietnamese to everyone we spoke to, who would then repeat the same false information he was giving us. In the end, surrounded by a group of ten men we were left with no other option. We managed to haggle the price down to 200,000 each which we had to pay before boarding. The worst part came during the journey and the lead tout collected 50,000dong each from the Vietnamese passengers. To put it simply, it felt like racism and up until this point Louise had tried to stay empathetic and understanding during the constant stream of lies and money-grabbing we were being subjected to, but after this, she finally broke. A life lesson learned.

The Indian Visa application required us to leave our passports with their embassy, something we weren’t massively happy about, but we’d made photocopies of the passport for checking in to hotels (the police frequently check) and in case of emergency. When we checked in to our hotel in Sapa, the owner took us in without an original passport (breaking the law), we’d also forgotten to copy our visa but she let us stay anyway (again, breaking the law) and we managed to negotiate a discount. It was in sharp contrast to the bus incident and highlighted the benefits to corruption in Vietnam.

The whole episode paled into insignificance as soon as we walked out on to our balcony :-)

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Sapa is an old French hill station and a popular base for hiking in the north, set at 1600m above sea level and surrounded by breathtaking scenery. The town is in the clouds and the mist gave the place a very Christmassy feel. Every day the streets are crowded with women and girls of all ages wearing rainbow-bright clothes, carrying babies or baskets on their backs and selling handicrafts that they make as they sit and chat on the town square. The women come from the tribes (H’mong, Tay, Dzao) in the surrounding mountains to sell their wares, and the whole town had the feel of a huge marketplace.

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We’d heard Sapa was a bit of a tourist trap (and understandably so) but it was out of season, so to speak, when we went, so the streets were relatively quiet and when we hiked through the mountains we could walk for hours in between seeing other tourists.
The day after arriving we woke up bright eyed and bushy tailed, and after buying some warmer clothes (we’d been wearing shorts and t-shirts for 2 months, we weren’t quite prepared for living in the clouds) and having a huge breakfast, we set off into the mountains. Many of the H’mong women act as guides on treks in the mountains, but we’d bought a map and, feeling fiercely independent, decided we were going solo. Unfortunately, we neglected to buy a compass and, as Louise’s dad rightly pointed out afterwards, you need to know which direction you’re walking in order to use a map. Chalk it up to experience! But even despite the minor directional challenges, we had a great day. During one steep descent, we were followed for a mile by three kids who had made a really fun game out of singing, “Hello, money? Hello, candy?” in unison, on loop for 20 minutes! Thankfully, they found something more interesting to do. All in all, the walk took a little longer than anticipated; there was one point, after scrambling a fair few feet up a very steep ‘path’ that we realized we’d left the trail and were bravely making our way up a dry, rocky waterfall. Luckily a couple of H’mong guides spotted us and gestured madly for us to turn back, so we retraced our steps (carefully, haha). Ultimately, we walked for 7 hours and covered around 16 miles, 4 villages, 6 litres of water, 78 photos and 5 wrong turns :-s.

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The next day our legs were suitably trashed and we certainly felt like we’d been trekking. We decided to relax a little and soak up some of the atmosphere in the town, so after breakfast we positioned ourselves in the main square and people watched. Lots of H’mong ladies took it upon themselves to come and say hello, some were pushing tribal souvenirs, some were happy to chat. After a while we decided to buy a H’mong blanket (as we’re in the process of decorating our fantasy house, much to our backpacks’ visible displeasure), we were extremely careful not to make eye contact with any vendors and stealthily caught glimpses of the different designs until we settled on one we liked. It all felt a little MI6. So Louise, feeling brave, approached the seller to negotiate a price but before we could do anything, she was surrounded by 8 shouting H’mong ladies all wanting to offload their rugs. Chris should have done more to help, but the photo opportunity was too funny to miss. Eventually, we managed to get the rug and both Louise and the H’mong lady (check out her dyed blue hands) were visibly happy with the price, which is what a good haggle is all about!

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We spent the afternoon walking to the local village, called Cat Cat (below). It was only 3k from Sapa which meant it was accessible for people of all shapes and sizes; this also meant we had to descend the valley through a gauntlet of tourist tat and upon arrival, Cat Cat felt like more of a living exhibition than a real working village. Tourism gone wrong. Our legs were still feeling the previous day’s exploits, so we each jumped on the back of a motorbike for a rather fun ride back to Sapa and then dinner in a restaurant with a roaring fire and mulled wine.

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Day 3 on our adventure up north saw us take in the Sunday market of Bac Ha. It is a popular local market, where local villages from all around the region come and display their goods and was a vibrant sea of different colours and shouting voices. We elected to take a tour up there after sampling the minibus service from Lao Cai but once we arrived we had the option of being guided or roaming free, we went for the latter. It was truly cold so we put as many layers on as possible and had some piping hot ginger tea. There’s not a great deal to say on this, as it was just an opportunity to mingle, browse and try lots of crazy food, which naturally we went for ;-).

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On the way to being dropped in Lao Cai we stopped at the Chinese border (below). It was a bridge over the river running through Lao Cai with Vietnam one side and China on the other. It was quite strange to stand and see this secretive country in front of you.

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We decided to try another night train on the way back, to give us more time for the itinerary. We chose the most basic sleeper bed option, so weren’t sure what to expect, but we woke up in Hanoi at 6:45am feeling like we’d had a good night’s kip and ready for Christmas Eve in the capital…

We knew the Vietnamese love Christmas, especially Christmas Eve so in the evening we were eager to get out on the streets and join in with the festivities. Chris proudly wore his Santa hat and we wandered the streets of Hanoi getting thumbs up and approving smiles from the locals. During the day a huge stage had been erected and at night it played host to chart singers, dancers, children’s choirs and acrobats, but the main attraction for us was the audience. The stage had drawn a huge crowd of people, the majority of whom were still sat on their motorbikes. The scale of the crowd was evident as we fought our way through it; there were literally thousands of motorbikes all trying to edge their way closer to the front, regardless of pedestrians. We seemed to be a part of the entertainment for the Vietnamese as well and our evening was punctuated by shouts of ‘Merry Christmas!’ and ‘Hello!’ and people asking to take our pictures, and in one rather surreal case, a couple of girls asked Chris to take their picture… with our camera. Odd behavior, but they seemed very pleased with the result.

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Christmas day… unfortunately, the least said here the better. After getting dressed up and going for a lovely, traditional Christmas curry, we were booked in to Skype our families. Sadly, due to unforeseen technical difficulties (and a lot of hours spent running around Hanoi) this wasn’t meant to be, with the happy result that we bought ourselves a netbook for Christmas! :-)

Posted by cjandthepeagan 19:12 Archived in Vietnam Comments (1)

Hello moto? Hello t-shirt? Hello menu? No... maybe later?

Escaping the tourist traps

sunny 25 °C

Vietnam is exhausting! The street sellers lie in wait on every corner hawking their wares to the now so familiar battle-cries of 'Hello, t-shirt/pineapple/menu etc' and if you so much as make eye contact they'll follow you to the next block. Even when you've managed to dodge the street-sellers a cool head is needed to dodge the motorbikes that avoid the road traffic/red lights by driving on the pavements. The hotel touts are persistent at best, harassing at worst, and even if you do decide to stay where they're pushing, every subsequent walk past reception sees you running the gauntlet of 'cheapcheap' tours that they offer. So the hotels push buses, who push hotels, who push tours, who push souvenirs. Then if you want to actually buy anything, first you have to pick from a myriad of vendors selling the same things, haggle hard to reduce the price to something suitable, make sure you get the correct change and make sure the item you get is what you actually wanted. Every single day. Phew! A big part of the reason for this, as far as we can see, is that Vietnam is extremely linear, with few tourists choosing to venture inland and the majority following the coastline, which makes for one long tourist trap. It sounds like we're having a moan, which we are, but it's still completely worth it and we wouldn't change it :-) For all the negatives we've just listed, there are so many positives that far outweigh all of them... cue Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park.

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Our journey off the beaten track began with a 7 hour hard seated train (Vietnamese style). Loads cheaper than the sleeper buses and, as it turns out, much more entertaining. It was standing room only until three young Vietnamese girls squished themselves onto one seat to let us sit down. They didn't speak much English and we don't speak much Vietnamese but we managed a basic two minute conversation, which gave them all the excuse they needed to whip out the camera. Louise found herself playing photographer to at least 3 cameras while young Vietnamese girls cuddled up to her husband. Bit awkward ;-)

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Train journey over, we settled in a little town based at the foot of the National Park, called Son Trach. The town was basically a 3km straight road with very basic amenities and extremely friendly locals. After much walking, due to no public transport, we found our way to the local adventure tour operator and booked ourselves on to a tour of the park. We got the option of a car or an old US army jeep. Seeing as half of this marriage is Chris, guess which one we went for?

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The tour started with breakfast in a little street cafe where we met our guide Phong (Fern). Over breakfast she gave us a quick lesson in the pronunciation of some Vietnamese phrases we'd obviously been getting wrong for three weeks, which explained the raised eyebrows and quizzical looks we'd been getting.

The tour consisted of three stops around the national park. The first of which was a visit to a memorial cave where eight women had been trapped for 9 days after the cave mouth collapsed. Despite rescue attempts the women sadly died on the ninth day. Paradise Cave, the largest dry cave in the world, was the second stop and one of the highlights of our trip so far. Having read about it, we knew it was going to be special, but we still weren't prepared for the reality. As we walked into the mouth, the sheer scale of the cave was overwhelming, nature blew us away to the point where we couldn't try to comprehend its formation and just stood there gobsmacked. The colours were a beautiful marble mix of yellows, blacks, browns and greens and in parts, the stalactite and stalagmite formations were the size of a block of flats. The Vietnamese have named each of these formations in accordance to what they look like, (we made our own names up too). Phong pointed one out shaped like a bride and groom stood at the altar of a big church, called the "Wedding Room"... aww!

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After lunch we were taken for a swim in one of the big rivers running through the park. The currents were feisty and the water was freezing, still, it made for an entertaining dip before we voluntarily called time and asked to go on to the next part of the tour! We finished the day with a trek to a natural source of water. The sight itself wasn't spectacular, just a few ripples in the water where the jet surfaced from below, but Phong explained that divers had gone 50 metres deep and still couldn't find the source. With rainforest, strong rivers and caves the size of counties, the mystery behind this source of water just helped create the feel of a world left behind. With the discovery of the worlds largest cave (http://www.sondoongcave.org/), it's tipped to be a BIG tourist trap in future, so it was refreshing to be able to experience a place where only a few tourists have ventured so far.

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Back in Son Trach we had a four hour wait before our overnight train to Hanoi which we spent sat by the river (below) chatting to locals. We say chatting, what we really mean is we showed our pictures to whoever seemed interested and posed for pictures for whoever asked, while stumbling through broken sentences in Vietnamengish. Son Trach and the National Park came at the perfect time for us. It was a welcome relief from the hustling and bustling cities and we got to see Vietnam without the tourism sheen.

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The overnight train was painless, despite only having soft seats we slept really well. We woke up in Hanoi, tired but ready to discover the capital...

Posted by cjandthepeagan 01:20 Archived in Vietnam Comments (1)

Lu finds a B-52 in Hue...

sunny 30 °C

We arrived in Dalat about midday after relatively painless 'Open Tour Bus' journey from Nha Trang. Don't think we've mentioned about the open tour buses but they're playing such a big part in our trip through Vietnam, we thought we would. Think the knight bus in Harry Potter, they're literally buses with bunk beds. As well as delivering passengers, they've been described by Lonely Planet as 'milk floats'...one of the ones we traveled on did a spot of egg delivery making us 2 hours late!

Dalat is the honeymoon capital of Vietnam and one of the main attractions to newlyweds is the 'Valley of Love' (Valle D'Amour). Awww! We mentioned in our last blog that we'd heard it was really kitsch... nothing prepared us for the reality! The Valley itself is a beautiful place with rolling green hills surrounding a serene lake. Then there's the sculptures.

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IMG_1420.jpg The last pic is of lots of padlocks, all inscribed with sentiments. The keys were thrown in a nearby pond by honeymooners.

See? ...they were everywhere.

We wandered round taking cliched posed photos, as well as squeezing in a bit of archery and dodgems, but the highlight for us was definitely propelling ourselves across the lake on a plastic swan pedalo.

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After gorging ourselves on romance we made our way to the Crazy House. It's as good as it sounds. An ongoing project of a local designer who has created her own surreal take on a guesthouse. It's as if you've just fallen through the rabbithole. The main design is of a huge Banyan tree and walking through the structure into various rooms, via twisting stairways and tunnels, you can easily find yourself lost in the lairs of animals, glittering grottos or the maze of tree branches and toadstools. The designer's goal is to bring people back to nature. Difficult to describe, so take a look.

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We've already talked about how beautiful the food is here in Vietnam, but allow us to reiterate. We had our evening food in the street market stalls that night. Chris ate some very questionable meat in a noodle soup (he'd never tasted anything like it before...), perched with his knees by his ears on a tiny plastic stool by the roadside, and then some even more questionable 'chicken innards' on a stick. Louise discovered barbecued yams, which she has religiously sought out every day, in every town, since.

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Bit of a dramatic end to the night when Lu had to remember how to be a nurse again in the middle of the hotel lobby. Difficult after being a lady of leisure for two months! A fellow backpacker had fallen off his motorbike the day before and needed a leg wound patching up. It actually worked out really well for us, because while we were chatting he gave us some great tips on what to see and do in the North of Vietnam.

We were headed to Hoi An next, which required a 60 minute change over in Nha Trang. To kill the time, we headed to the nearest street restaurant and were ready to order, when the head waitress came over to Chris with a mobile phone and said "this is for you" (erm - sorry, what?). It was the owner on the phone, telling Chris the restaurant we were shown in to and about to order from was closed. Chris put the phone down and the waitress asked us if we were ready to order. We were getting quite confused at this point. Chris explained he'd been told on the phone that the restaurant was closed. Anyway to cut a long story short, the guy Chris had spoken to arrived from nowhere and explained the restaurant was closed but would be open tomorrow. We were in fact being waited on by the restaurant next door. The owners were happy for us to stay on their closed premises and be served by their new competitor, but that felt weird, so we moved over a few tables and started again!

One 17 hour bus ride later (inc. TEN delivery stops in the night, a passenger left to sleep in the aisle and some very-near crashes), we were in Hoi An. It was at this point we made a pact to never use the open tour bus service again!

Hoi An reminded us very much of Luang Prabang, and we would have stayed longer if we didn't have so much left to see. Another UNESCO World Heritage Site (the first of three successive ones in our Vietnam itinerary), much of the town is walking and cycling only which immediately gives the town a quieter, more sedate feel. Its streets are made up of Vietnamese, Chinese and Japanese architecture, all painted the same shade of yellow and it's really picturesque. We hired bikes and managed to do the whole town in a day (legs and bum killer) and had a welcome break with a row boat ride from a 52 year old flirtatious lady, who was very impressed with Louise's choice of husband.

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So after being so productive in Hoi An, we've taken the same enthusiasm to Hue (H'way). Hue is another UNESCO World Heritage Site ('Nam's just showing off now) famed for its inner citadel built during the Chinese N'guyen dynasty when they occupied Vietnam some 200 odd years ago.
We looked about for a day, but being honest after all the many different temples we've seen (specifically the temples of Angkor), we weren't blown away. We hit a bar in the evening to plan a few trips in that would take us off the tourist trail and Louise discovered the B-52 cocktail a flaming combination of Baileys, Kahlua and Triple-Sec, to be drunk (quickly) before the straw melts.

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Day 2 in Hue was a group tour around the Demilitarized Zone (the area in the middle of Vietnam where no fighting was supposed to take place, or DMZ to save our fingers). We were asked to be ready at 6am so we could make the drive out to a place called Dong Ha and the guide could jump on board. The tour itself included 'The Rockpile' (a mountain imaginatively named by USA and their main base for surveillance), a stop to look at the Ho Chi Minh trail, a 30 min walk round the now defunct Khe Sanh Combat base (US base with a disused bunker network and a few planes etc) and the undisputed highlight of the trip the chance to walk through the tunnels at Vinh Moc. The tunnels were built by the villagers of Vinh Moc, who were forced to go underground to hide from relentless US bombing. Thankfully, the tunnels were tall and wide enough that we managed the full 1.7km guided tour this time. It was a surreal experience to pass maternity rooms (17 babies born there, 16 of which survived and are alive today and some still remain in the village above ground), meeting rooms and family rooms, 15 METRES underground in a network so hot, the clay walls left fingerprints and left you panting and covered in sweat. The tour itself relied heavily on busing about the region and felt a little bullet pointed, but the experience in the tunnels is one we'll keep forever.

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Tomorrow we get the train (HOORAY!) to Dong Hoi, then a quick trip over to Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park. The highlight of the park is the worlds biggest dry cave which is a part of the same network of caves as the Son Doong Cave, the worlds largest cave. Son Doong Cave was only discovered in 2009 and is still closed to tourists, have a quick look though, its crazy big.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VFWhqJeThfc

Posted by cjandthepeagan 22:54 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

MERRY CHRISTMAS EVERYBODY!

overcast 15 °C

MERRY CHRISTMAS FROM HANOI

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Posted by cjandthepeagan 20:48 Archived in Vietnam Comments (5)

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