Portland: Week One

Before I start, there are three points I feel I should make.

  1. Portland is the nicest, friendliest city I’ve ever been to.
  2. In a gridded city like Portland/San Francisco/New York, it’s impossible to get lost; the avenues run from 1st upwards and, in Northwest Portland at least, the streets run in alphabetical order (Burnside…Flanders…Lovejoy…Quimby… Are you starting to see where Matt Groening got his inspiration for Simpsons characters yet?)
  3. This is going to be quite a long post. I thought about splitting it into two parts, but overruled the idea. You’ve been warned!
Even businesses are friendly

Even businesses are friendly

Monday

After a long weekend with the ratio of being awake to sleeping soundly standing at 10:1, it was time to start exploring Portland. I’m a little ashamed to say that I was a bit nervous being in a new city and I hadn’t quite understood the street numbering/lettering system yet, so my excursion twenty feet down the road to the Co-op to buy some milk was a nerve-wracking but rewarding one.

After consulting Google and contemplating just how far to venture, I settled for Forest Park, a 5,100 acre expanse of pure beauty, a haven of greenery and nature that cuts off all sound from the city that lies no more than a mile away.

Joaquin, who is hosting me, lives in the Northwest quadrant of Portland, and the Forest Park trail starts at the end of the road he lives on, so, with a mental picture of the map of Portland in my head, I left the house, turned right and walked for a mile before I realised I should have turned left.

Tuesday

Portland has the highest number of strip clubs per capita than any other city in the USA

Portland has the highest number of strip clubs per capita than any other city in the USA

Secretly annoyed with myself for being such a dim clot, I was determined to make a go of it on Tuesday. I visited Trip Advisor and head out the door into the drizzle of not-quite-summery PDX. First stop: Lan Su Chinese Garden. Speed turned on heel when I saw the admission price: moderate to quick.

I walked from 3rd & Everett to 9th & Burnside, where I excitedly sifted through numerous classical LPs in the famed Jackpot Records. Although I came across a rather lovely copy of Massenet’s “Le Cid” performed by none other than The CBSO (whose Chief Conductor has just been appointed Music Director of The BSO – congratulations Andris!), I understand that 12′ vinyls aren’t the easiest of objects to backpack with…

My next stop was one block up, at the magical Powell’s City of Books. Occupying a whole city block (nearly 68,000 square feet) and buying, on average, 3,000 used books every day, it essentially gives the finger to every eReader company on the market. Upon entering, I was actually provided with a map of the store, as too many people had complained of getting lost. In an ideal world, I’d set up camp on the second floor and make my way through the shelves, but I fear the staff would have something to say about that.

Wednesday

This was a particularly busy day, as I had decided to advance into the Southwest quadrant of Portland; this area is more built up and business-like than Northwest, hosting taller buildings, coffee shops every ten metres and, like in any city, a diverse range of people either high on life or something more illegal.

David Cotter sculpture in Couch Park

David Cotter sculpture in Couch Park

Within the first five minutes I’d witnessed a suited woman skateboarding down the middle of the road, a man stood on the corner dressed as a Smurf, another man rocking out in the middle of the street on a child’s plastic guitar toy and a chap running into the middle of the highway, picking up some moss, continuing to the other side (oblivious of horns blaring) and proceeding to plant the moss into the grass, all the while shouting, “I’ll save you!”

Farmer's Market on SW Park Avenue

Farmer’s Market on SW Park Avenue

Keeping my gaze glued firmly ahead of me, I visited the Farmer’s Market, the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall (unfortunately closed at the time of day I went, but I hope to get a look inside before I leave Portland) and the Pioneer Courthouse.

I decided on my way back to visit Washington Park, home of Oregon Zoo, the International Rose Test Garden and the Japanese Gardens. On the way, I was shown fully the kindness of Oregonians. I had stopped on the sidewalk to take a picture of a tram that was rapidly approaching, when I realised there was a car that would be between me and it at the crucial moment. I lowered my camera, knowing that I could get the shot at a hundred other points in time. The car, however, actually slowed down and the driver indicated to me to take my photo.

Gobsmacked, I lifted my camera and took the picture, marvelling at the graciousness this complete stranger had shown me. Of course, when I got home, I discovered the picture was blurred, but that’s neither here nor there.

International Rose Test Garden

International Rose Test Garden

I never expected to have fun in a garden full of roses; the same roses my father insists on showing me in his garden every time we Skype, but the IRTG was exceptionally beautiful. Flowers in colours I didn’t know existed, a pleasing Shakespeare Garden with his memorable quote etched in stone under an arch, and the cutest little Asian girl you ever did see picking at petals before attempting to put them back.

Definition of cute?

Definition of cute?

With another rapid heel turn after seeing the price of Oregon Zoo, I made my way down Stern’s trail and back to the house to ready myself for my first outing with the North Portland Run Club. Meeting at Bar Bar on Mississippi Avenue in North Portland every week, they offer a 5k or 10k run, perfect for me, running for the first time after ripping every tendon in my ankle to shreds whilst tumbling in gymnastics two months previously.

24 minutes later, I drank three successive glasses of water. By 10pm, I was home. By five past, I had passed out. A brilliant day.

Thursday

Still aching and limping a little from the night before, how better to spend the afternoon than with a four mile hike through a different trail in Forest Park?

Forest Park

Hiking through Forest Park

The scenery was, as always, beautiful, with quirky touches all through the forest, including this lovely quote carved into a tree trunk:

“Running has given me the courage to start, the determination to keep trying, and the childlike spirit to have fun along the way. Run often and run long, but never outrun your joy of running.”

The rest of the afternoon was spent relaxing in the sun before heading out to Last Thursday, a street party in North Portland that takes place on the last Thursday of every month. Bands sing and play, bars heave and everyone smiles. All of life can be found at Last Thursday, from folk groups to dancers to food vendors to people jousting on bicycles to completely naked women who have had their bodies painted in many themes and styles.

Folk band playing at Last Thursday

Folk band playing at Last Thursday

Before the night was over, I made my first real cultural mistake: ordering a two-scoop cone ice cream. Forgetting I was in the US of A, I handed over my money and in return was handed a snack almost the size of my head. An hour later I finished it. My stomach didn’t thank me for it.

Friday

Still slightly achy from running and walking, but not wanting to sit at home all day, I called a friend and we set off into Forest Park once more, taking yet another trail; one that would lead us to Pittock Mansion, a sandstone, French Renaissance-style château situated in the West Hills, offering incredible panoramic views of Downtown Portland.

Built just over 100 years ago, it was home to Henry Pittock, the publisher of The Oregonian, Portland’s major daily newspaper.

View from Pittock Mansion

View from Pittock Mansion

Six miles later and we were back home, showered and ready to head to Brew Fest, a festival marking the importance of Portland’s many breweries. Being a non-drinker, I socialised with new people, watched the simply awesome folk band play on the stage and took photos as the sun set over the beer tents.

Child

Someone threw a small child in the air, so I took a picture!

After a Mexican dinner at Matadors, it was once again time to rest up for the next day’s activities…

Saturday

After an hour’s drive, we arrived in Silverton, a city in Marion County, south of Portland. Silver Falls was to be our hiking destination; a five mile trek encountering some of the most beautiful naturally occurring waterfalls in the States. Also, a chance for me to cross off an item on my bucket list: “Stand behind a waterfall.”

Waterfall

The first waterfall on the Silver Falls hike

We hiked as a group for just over a mile, before the majority decided to turn back and head for their cars. The weather had improved dramatically over the course of the week, and Saturday was the first day it had peaked at over 30°C. Joaquin, Gunnar, Gandhi and I decided to carry on, and five miles later, huffing and puffing, we were back at the car. A good workout in those conditions!

Jen had put on an incredible barbecue, and I stuffed my face with chicken/seafood skewers, homemade salsa dip, bratwursts and ice cream for the next hour. Again, my stomach definitely didn’t thank me.

Sunday

Today was due to be hot. The hottest yet, in fact. As the temperature hit 34°C, Joaquin and I were running errands; picking up paint for his other house and supplies for the 4th July camping trip we’re due to be taking.

The afternoon and evening was spent taping and painting the house, with good company, good music, good pizza and a happy heart.

I love Portland, and I’m one very happy camper.

Standing behind waterfall

Stand behind a waterfall: check

Portland, OR – Settling In

After four relaxing days in Portugal with family, I had one night at home in the Essex countryside before embarking on the adventure I’d been so looking forward to since the idea was conceived in April. From now, I’ll be travelling for over two years through multiple countries, from the USA, to Canada, the Bahamas, Australia, New Zealand and through to Southwest Asia.

The whole trip nearly ended before it had even begun, as at Heathrow Airport in London, I wasn’t allowed to board without a return ticket to the EU within three months of my departure. After some frantic head scratching, telephone calls and a hurried cigarette, a solution was found: buy the most expensive, fully refundable ticket you can and cancel it as soon as you get to the USA. Crisis averted.

Sunset in Portugal

Sunset in Portugal

After some gorgeous weather in Portugal, I was glad to board the flight bound for sunnier climbs when the conditions in London were so dreary. I was flying with Air New Zealand (incidentally, the best airline I’ve ever flown with – you could start using the in-flight entertainment system as soon as you were seated before takeoff – it’s the little things…) for the 12 hour flight to Los Angeles, where, upon arrival, I would have to sleep overnight in the terminal building for my 7am flight the next day to Portland.

Travel tip: if you’re ever stuck in LAX overnight, head for the Tom Brady International Departures building; comfiest seats in the whole airport.

Without a wink of sleep, I boarded my flight to Portland with Virgin America (hmm…) and was picked up by Joaquin, who I met travelling through Southeast Asia 7 months ago. We were driving straight from the airport to Lake Billy Chinook in The Cove Palisades State Park, three hours East. Joaquin’s friend Cristie had rented a “party barge” and two jet skis for the eleven of us, and the next 5 hours were spent soaking up the sun and speeding across the length of the lake at 50 miles per hour.

Joaquin & Rona tearing it up on Lake Billy Chinook

Joaquin & Rona tearing it up on Lake Billy Chinook

By 6pm, with a fuel refill and some swimming, drinking and sunburn under our belts, it was time to take the barge and jet skis back to the marina and head for the campsite.

Party Barge

Party Barge

With tents pitched, sleeping bags unravelled and fire lit, Rick and Tats got the cooking underway, barbecuing chicken and beef skewers. For dessert? S’mores. Two Graham crackers filled with melted marshmallow and chocolate; one of the messiest and tastiest snacks I’ve ever eaten. We happened to be camping the night of the super moon, the largest perceived moon that can be seen from Earth, and just before I turned in for the night for my first wink of sleep in 50 hours, it rose and perched on the canyon top above us.

Supermoon

Supermoon

After a good night’s sleep, the tents were packed away and, after a breakfast of bacon, egg and bratwurst, we started the drive to Smith Rock State Park, an area near Terrebonne famed for its many miles of hiking trails and tuff/basalt rock formations that hold over a thousand climbing routes for beginners and experts.

Climbers at Smith Rock

Climbers at Smith Rock

We started the four mile hike in moderate sunshine, walking up the zigzagging Misery Ridge trail to the peak, where we were welcomed by the intensely beautiful views this stunning area has to offer. Continuing in light drizzle, we arrived at Monkey Face, a ~200 foot rock with a very distinctive profile. In pouring rain, we finished the hike and ran for our respective cars before heading to the nearest food joint for my first American burger. I learnt two things over the course of the meal: it’s only acceptable to eat with your hands in the US, and if none of the filling falls out, one is deemed to have failed at life.

Smith Rock State Park

Smith Rock State Park

One very tasty burger consumed and we were back on the road to Portland. I experienced another first along the way, when Joaquin announced he was tired and I was tasked with controlling an automatic, left hand drive car on the wrong side of the road in torrential rain. Only slightly nerve-wracking, honest…

Chiang Mai – Temples, Tigers & Thai Boxing

The morning after we arrived back in Thailand, we were in for one of the most varied days yet: culture, tourism and then a mix of both. Leaving our hotel soon after breakfast, we arrived within two hours in Chiang Rai, about a third of the distance between the border crossing at Chiang Khong and our destination at Chiang Mai. The sun was already high in the sky and the heat was very dry, making for almost unbearable conditions outside of the minibuses.

We had stopped at Wat Rong Khun, an unconventional Buddhist temple that was started in the late ’90s and is estimated to be finished by 2070. The temple is painted brilliant white, with small mirrors covering certain slopes and grains that reflect the sunlight in every direction. A small pond is situated next to the walkway that takes visitors through a sea of sculpted hands, reaching up from the ground, holding skulls and small bowls to the heavens.

Wat Rong Khun

Wat Rong Khun

On the inside of the main room (where pictures are strictly forbidden), the walls are painted with the strangest murals; the back wall holds a painting of a demon with George Bush in one eye and Osama Bin Laden in the other. Inside the mouth of the demon is a scene depicting the collapse of the Twin Towers, a missile, some spaceships, and, just for good measure, Spiderman. Other items painted on the walls include Kung Fu Panda, Michael Jackson, Keanu Reeves‘ Neo, Darth Vader, a Transformer, Jigsaw from the Saw films, Harry Potter and a single Angry Bird.

All of these bizarre objects converge in a mass of light at the roof of the temple, symbolising the escape of all the evils of this world, achieving enlightenment, joining Buddha in his serene state above it all, in heaven. Or some such nonsense.

Pagoda at Wat Rong Khun

Pagoda at Wat Rong Khun

We left the temple and drove on south west to Chiang Mai, where we checked in to our hotel and hopped into a couple of Tuk Tuks which would take us to Tiger Kingdom. This was another experience I was particularly excited about and another point I’d be able to check off my bucket list.

When we arrived, we were shown the options – there were four categories: smallest (0-3 months), small (3-6 months), medium (6-12 months) and big cat (12 months+ – fully grown). One can buy tickets for each category in any combination, or all four for a discounted price. Joaquin and I decided to make the most of it while we were here, so we paid our ฿1,400 (approx. £30) and visited the big cat enclosure first. The tigers prowled around, making me awfully nervous, but the guides were brilliant and told us that we could touch the cat anywhere bar its head.

I may have gotten a little close to its head...

I may have gotten a little close to its head…

For the rest of the afternoon, we went from enclosure to enclosure, becoming increasingly more confident the more tigers we petted. The guides told us we could lie down, use their tails as scarves and play with them as if they were cats or dogs. So we did! The experience was out of this world, and I’m definitely glad we bought a pass to see all four ages. The youngest ones were particularly cute, with blunt little teeth that would clamp on your arm and only smart a little. They are very majestic creatures, and it’s comforting to know that even though these tigers are not drugged in any way (as they sometimes are in other sanctuaries), there has never been an accident at Tiger Kingdom.

My new Thai fashion accessory

My new Thai fashion accessory

With one cultural and tourism aspect out of the way, it was time to head back to Chiang Mai and take in a sport that is seen as entertainment by the locals and a novelty for the visitors; Thai Boxing. There were eight fights billed for the evening, starting with two 14 year old boys and ending with an international match, in which an American would fight a local.

The fight between the two young boys was soon over after one knocked the other clean out, and from that point on the fights grew gradually longer, at one point peaking at five rounds before a winner was declared on points. The strangest and most entertaining fight of the evening was between five Thai men, all wearing blindfolds. The objective? Hit anything you bump into. The in-ring referee gave up and went home after being floored twice.

The American won the last fight of the night, taking quite a beating in the process.

The American contestant

The American contestant

I can’t say I enjoyed the sport so much that I now follow it or would make a point of going again, but it was certainly interesting and I’m glad I went. Exhausted after a long and busy day, we headed back to the hotel after the fight and the next morning were treated to our first lie-in in a month.

That day was spent lazily seeing what Chiang Mai had to offer; the market selling the same tourist tat we had been seeing for the last 30 days, the ancient city wall, Thapae Gate and to finish it off, a massage.

The evening brought with it our final sleeper train, which would transport us to Bangkok, arriving in the early hours of next morning…

2 Days on The Mekong

After two fun-filled days in Luang Prabang, it was time to board the barge for our trip upstream. The boats are owned by local families, who have an agreement with the tour company to transport passengers up and down the river for a fee. That way, the costs are lower for both family and travellers. We boarded at 7:30am and made ourselves as comfortable as possible. The boat was very narrow and incredibly long, with train-style seats occupying about half the space. There was an area at the front for the driver and a retractable canopy (should the sun come out), plus a kitchen, bathroom and engine room at the back.

Physics shouldn’t have allowed the thing to turn a corner without capsizing, and I laughed inwardly when the owner split us evenly into two groups, asking one half to sit on the left and the other on the right for balance. We set off from port, all of us wrapped up warm in the cold morning air.

The layout of the barge

The layout of the barge

For the next eight hours, we were left to our own devices. Some slept, some played board games or card games (Skip-Bo made another appearance) and some read. I had ordered a Kindle before going travelling and was a little annoyed it hadn’t arrived before I’d left, so I made do with my iPod and its vast library of classical music. For that reason, the Mekong will forever more have a Maurice Ravel/Constant Lambert soundtrack in my mind.

We had made good progress, so at 3pm, the barge was moored and we climbed onto land. We had stopped at a small village on the banks of The Mekong, and we walked up the steep sand dune to be greeted by approximately 30 people; men, women and children of all ages. As our guide explained a little about the village, we walked around the site, taking in the houses on stilts, the dogs and chickens roaming free and the equipment used to de-husk rice and catch fish.

A sweet little girl showed us their daily routine

A sweet little girl showed us their daily routine

Our guide explained to us that everything there was home-made or had been charitably donated. They do not utilise money; items are traded for other goods. He also told us that the ceramic Eastern-style toilet that stood on one side of the village is the most expensive object they own. We messed about on the sand dune for a little while, then, as the children waved goodbye, we set off once more for our overnight destination.

View from the sand dune

View from the sand dune

The Mekong is over 2,700 miles long, the 12th largest river in the world, and is used as a major trading route throughout Southeast Asia. When we pulled into Pak Beng, night had already fallen, and the driver looked a little relieved that we had made it before encountering any of the larger vessels that travel by darkness.

We trudged up the hill to our lodge, tired and hungry, and dropped our bags off in our quaint little rooms, each with two single beds draped with mosquito nets and a balcony overlooking the river. Pak Beng is based exactly halfway between Luang Prabang and the Thai-Laos border and is minute, inhabited solely by people who have moved here to accommodate the enormous number of boats that travel the waters. After dinner, we slept until our next early wake-up call, and re-boarded the boat to the border.

Ari, Dan, Bendik & James keep themselves amused

Ari, Dan, Bendik & James keep themselves amused

The second day seemed longer than the first. There wasn’t a lot to do on the boat, so after eight hours it was refreshing to see the border and jump onto dry land once more. We had to disembark on the Laos side of the river, take a Tuk Tuk to the passport office and get our books stamped before boarding another boat to take us the short distance to the Thailand side.

When we arrived, a mercifully short five minute journey took us to our hotel and brought us to the beginning of our last five days in Southeast Asia…

 

Luang Prabang – Elephants & Monks

The journey from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang took us over one of the most beautiful mountain passes that exists in the world today. We drove past whole villages, stretched out for miles in linear form down one side of the road between the tarmac and a sheer precipice. The road twisted and turned so frequently that the going was slow, and was sometimes so steep that the air conditioning in the van had to be turned off so more power could be supplied to the wheels, leaving the sun to cruelly beat down and render us all sweaty messes.

About three hours into the journey, we stopped at a restaurant located at the highest point between Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang. We had seen many stunning landscapes over the last 22 days, but this blew them all out of the water. Without a cloud in the sky, the sun lit up the mountainous landscape, casting shadows over the vegetation and producing some effective lens flare. After buying some pineapple and mango from the restaurant, it was time to continue on to our destination.

Midway between Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang

Midway between Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang

We arrived at Luang Prabang mid-afternoon. We were due to spend two full days here, and not wanting to waste any time, Maxim and Julia (a young Russian couple here on their honeymoon who had joined us on day 20), Joaquin and I walked to Mount Phou Si, a 100-metre-high hill that stands in the centre of the city. On the way up, we passed a local woman selling small birds in wicker cages. My ornithological knowledge isn’t great, so I’m not sure what species the birds were, but the premise is for one to buy them and set them free on top of the hill.

Joaquin bought a cage before realising that another two birds would have to be caught in order to keep stock levels up. When we reached the top, we looked out over the picturesque city and let the two birds fly towards the setting sun. Standing just below the golden stupa of Wat Chom Si, we took pictures of the beautiful landscape before heading back down to the night market.

The Angel of the Far East?

The Angel of the Far East?

That night we dined at Lao Lao Garden, a quirky outdoor restaurant complete with a fire pit and (due to the time of year) a massive Christmas tree. I had been advised by a friend to try the table barbecue, so, not really knowing what to expect, we ordered and waited patiently. We had learned by this point that there is no sense of urgency in Laos. Food does not come quickly; even canned drinks can take ten minutes to arrive at your table. But no matter, that’s their way of life, and who are we to say otherwise?

We were quite surprised when the waiter asked us to stand up, and more surprised when he proceeded to lift the middle section of the table clean out of its base. He then popped a cauldron-like coal pit in the hole and a convexly domed cooking panel on top, where strips of meat could be placed to cook. We ate our body weight in food over the next half hour, musing at the ingenuity of the simple device. After dinner we departed for the hotel; we had to be up early the next morning for a very exciting treat indeed.

Table BBQ at Lao Lao Gardens

Table BBQ at Lao Lao Gardens

As the sun rose, we were already on our way by Tuk Tuk about 20 minutes up the road towards the river. Joaquin, Ari, Maxim, Julia and I had decided that this would be the perfect opportunity to do something we had all wanted to do. It had been on my bucket list for years. When we arrived at the river, we jumped into a longboat and our driver manoeuvred downstream to our destination. We clambered off the boat, onto dry land and up the hill, finally set eyes on the cynosure; the only reason we had come. The elephants.

We had paid for a “Ride and Bathe” package at the Tad Saé Waterfalls, and not really sure what we were in for, we climbed aboard our elephants and set off through the forest. After a rather ephemeral jaunt through the trees, our elephants took us into a waterfall-levelled creek. There they walked around whilst munching on leaves and cooling their legs in the cold water, before walking up the ramp and back to the shelter.

I licked my elephant. It seemed shocked.

I licked my elephant. It seemed shocked.

Feeling a little disappointed that it was over, I was thrilled when the guide approached us and asked us if we were ready for the bathing part of the excursion. We stripped off to our swimwear and re-boarded our elephants, steering them down to the waterfalls once more. For the next half hour, we swam with the gentle giants, fed them and washed them, all while other tourists watched from overlooking balconies. It was an incredible experience, with only one hairy moment when I was thrown off my elephant and nearly drowned as it trampled me. Alas, a minor detail…

I didn’t see a single person dismount these animals without a grin from ear to ear. I had had the most enjoyable hour of my trip so far, and have thought about it hundreds of times since. We decided to stay on and swim in the waterfalls for some of the afternoon, the curglaff effect wearing off the warmer the day became.

Bathing the elephants

Bathing the elephants

I was still smiling as we arrived back in Luang Prabang. It had been an incredible day and I was finally able to tick the activity off my bucket list. After a look round the night market, it was time for dinner then bed. The next morning would be a very early one.

My alarm went off at 4:45am. I fell out of bed and packed my things, ready for my return in a couple of hours’ time. A few of us were heading down to the main street to watch the procession of the monks. Monks don’t earn money, so they cannot buy food. They rely on the locals to give alms and feed them every day. As the sun started to rise, so the line of bright orange robes became visible in the distance. They strode down the street with open canisters, receiving rice and vegetables from both locals and tourists.

A monk received alms from a local man

A monk received alms from a local man

We had been asked politely by our tour leader not to participate in the ceremony, which we had agreed to. It’s not our tradition, and one can only wonder how the monks feel if a tourist is giving them food just for the sake of being part of the ceremony and their culture, which, undeniably, they are not.

We watched as the line of monks snaked its way through the streets of Luang Prabang, and walked back to our hotel to collect our bags and pick up a quick breakfast.

The next 48 hours would be spent on a long barge travelling upstream on the Mekong River. It would likely be uncomfortable, cold and rather boring, so all my gadgets were charged and ready to go the night before. We departed the hotel at 7am and drove towards the dock, at last seeing our mode of transport for the next two days…

Laos – Vang Vieng, Backflips & Motorbike Accidents

After saying farewell to Vietnam, it was time to say a very apprehensive hello to Laos. Before arriving, I had not read anything about the country, so I had no clue what to expect, and to be completely honest, the capital didn’t blow me away. I was feeling a little unwell after the flight, and when we landed in Vientiane, it was a short bus ride to our hotel and, with luggage dumped, dinner.

In every hotel we had stayed in so far on the trip, there had been the option of leaving valuables behind reception in a safe, and that night was no different. However, when I returned to the hotel after dinner and asked for my money bag, I was told I could not have it until the morning. I was poorly, grumpy and agitated and flipped out at the poor guy until he went and woke up the boss for the safe key. Not my proudest moment.

Sunset on the way to Vientiane

Sunset on the way to Vientiane

Vientiane was remarkably unremarkable, and I was all too happy to leave the following morning for the four hour minibus trip to Vang Vieng, a tiny tourism-orientated town on the banks of the Nam Song River. Street vendors sell pancakes, corrugated iron shops stock touristy clothes and the bars are heaving with visitors from across the world. Vang Vieng is formerly the most popular tubing site in Southeast Asia. For those who don’t know, tubing is simply floating down the river in an inflatable rubber ring stopping at every bar on the way.

However, all the bars were closed midway through 2012 because deaths on the river rose to two per week, with rings bursting on the rocks and their inebriated inhabitants drowning. One can still rent a ring and buy a six-pack of beer, but not many people do.

Karsts in Vang Vieng, Laos

Karsts in Vang Vieng, Laos

We hired bicycles upon our arrival and pedalled the two miles or so to the Tham Phu Kham cave system, also known as the Blue Lagoon because of its rich, milky-blue coloured waters. The site is beautiful; a tree with two major branches stretches over the lagoon, allowing visitors to climb up to either level and jump, and a rope swing has been added in addition to the bar and huts that surround the area.

We spent the rest of the afternoon at the Blue Lagoon, meeting fellow travellers and swimming in the sun-warmed water. It may sound daft, but I quite enjoy jumping off of things, so it was the perfect playground. As the karsts blocked the sun from view, we cycled back to the town.

The vivid colours of the Blue Lagoon

The vivid colours of the Blue Lagoon

With our bicycles returned, we ate a large dinner before heading back to our quaint lodge accommodation. On the way, though, it was only right to buy some very short shorts (most probably designed for women) with the Vang Vieng Tubing logo inscribed on the front, as a memento.

The next morning, we were up bright and early and on our way about ten kilometres out of Vang Vieng with a trailer loaded full of kayaks and paddles. We soon stopped and lowered our kayaks into the clear water, pairing up as we did so. I shared with Joaquin, who is very well-built and has a lot of experience kayaking and rafting down rivers with higher grade rapids than the Nam Song would offer. I, on the other hand, am positively weedy and had no experience, but it was a stunning day and we got the chance to mess about on some of the platforms left over from when the banks were populated by bars.

Larking about in the river

Larking about in the river

It took us a couple of hours to paddle our way back down to Vang Vieng and after a quick lunch were ready to head back to the Blue Lagoon to finish off our last day in this picturesque little town. Instead of hiring bicycles, we opted for motorbikes. After all, we had used them in Vietnam and there had been no issue, and the fact that we weren’t supplied with helmets wasn’t a problem; this was Laos! What could possibly go wrong?

After a pit stop at the garage to fill up the tank with fuel (less than US$2), we were on our way down the gravelly road to the Blue Lagoon, overtaking Tuk Tuks carrying tourists and crossing bridges, under which local kids were swimming in the streams. There was not a cloud in the sky, and arriving at our destination without incident, we enjoyed the next few hours larking about in the water and playing volleyball in the sun.

As the sun was getting lower, we left to drive back to town. This was when Johan, a loveable Swede, came off his bike in spectacular fashion. He had sped off ahead and rounded a corner too fast, his front wheel sliding away from him, bringing him crashing to the ground. He had sustained some pretty serious cuts to his knees, shins, feet, elbows, back, stomach (he wasn’t wearing a T-shirt), hands, chin and nose but had quite amazingly avoided hitting his head or causing anything but surface damage. The worst injury was a sizeable stone that had found its way under his skin and was lodged quite firmly in his heel.

Some of Johan's injuries

Some of Johan’s injuries

With Johan and his motorbike loaded into the back of a Tuk Tuk and the driver instructed to take him to the hospital, we drove our bikes back rather more steadily and stayed with him whilst his wounds were cleansed with iodine, the stone was plucked out with miniature forceps and he was bandaged up to such an extent he started to look like Hargreaves’ Mr. Bump.

The men from the bike shop came to the hotel to wish Johan well and claim the money for the bike repairs; he had not only injured himself, but also punctured a tire, burst the fuselage, torn off both mirrors and broken the front headlight. He paid the US$150 and we left him to rest, paying a brief visit to the Irish bar in town to show off our new short shorts. The kayaking had taken it out of me, so I left before it got too late and walked back to the hotel.

In the morning, we were due to drive the five hours to Luang Prabang over one of the most scenic mountain passes in the world…

Hà Nội – Water Puppets, Final Phởs & Farewells

We had reached day 18 of 30 by the time we disembarked in Vietnam’s capital city. Although a few of us were carrying on through Laos and Thailand, some of the group were leaving after day 20 and flying back to their homes across the world. As in any large group, smaller syndicates are formed through similarities in interests and/or age groups. The group I had become acquainted with included Joaquin, Kirstin, Katharina and, from day 10 when she arrived, Uli. The three girls would be leaving on day 20, along with Kieran, Dane, Heidi, Rose and Daniel, so it was important to make the most of Hà Nội.

Our first stop was at the Water Puppet show… We had no idea what to expect from the experience, but it had been described to us as “unmissable”, “incredible” and “entertaining”, so we were hopeful. We were wrong to be hopeful. With three women crooning into over-amplified microphones in the corner, we sat for over half an hour watching puppets on sticks being dragged through the water by invisible bodies, struggling to understand the storyline. It was not incredible or entertaining, and certainly not unmissable; it was bizarre, and not something I would go back to see in a hurry!

They did this as an encore. I'm not sure why...

They did this as an encore. I’m not sure why…

After a quick stop at the Hà Nội Opera House, we headed back to the hotel to get ready for dinner. Back on day 10 in Hồ Chí Minh City, I had asked Kirstin to go for a meal with me. To my surprise, she had said yes, and for the next week, over a couple of dinners and drinks on the beach, we had become closer. As she was leaving to travel home (to New Zealand) in less than 48 hours, we were going for dinner alone on her penultimate night. Rod had told us of a nice restaurant on the other side of town, but after reaching the place and finding it had gone out of business, we improvised and found a lovely fresh fish restaurant, where one has to walk past the tanks and choose their food as it lives and breathes.

Later that evening, we met the rest of the group at Murphy’s, the Irish bar in town which Rich, the only Irishman in our group, had managed to sniff out with no issue. A night of fun and dancing later, and the next day had arrived, bringing with it a trip to Hồ Chí Minh’s Mausoleum. Surrendering our phones, wallets and cameras, we stepped in to the ominous building.

Hồ Chí Minh's Mausoleum

Hồ Chí Minh’s Mausoleum

He has been embalmed, and is preserved perfectly in a glass case to this day, 44 years after his death. It’s an incredible sight; a corpse that looks not dissimilar to an old man having an afternoon nap. His security presence was the feature of the visit that affected me most. Ten at a time, we were allowed to walk three walls of the room where he lies, in single file, hands in front of one’s body at all times. No photography, talking, food, drink or chewing gum. The old lady in front of me, walking slowly with a cane, stopped for a second, whereupon one of the sixteen guards surrounding the body immediately stepped forward and told her to keep moving. I stepped off the red carpet by no more than a couple of inches and was scolded by another guard. Scary, but extraordinary to have seen the man who gave his name to the most densely populated city in Vietnam.

About a five minute walk away was the Hồ Chí Minh Museum, dedicated to Vietnam’s revolutionary struggles against foreign powers. Widely seen as a propaganda tool of the Vietnamese Communist regime, the museum is filled with memorabilia providing a comprehensive overview of his life and leadership for Vietnamese independence from the early 1940s until his death in 1979.

My ultimate wish is that our entire party and people, closely joining their efforts, will build a peaceful, reunified, independent, democratic and prosperous Vietnam, and make a worthy contribution to the world revolution. Hồ Chí Minh’s testament

Myself, Kirstin, Joaquin, Katharina, Uli & Kieran having one last Phở

Myself, Kirstin, Joaquin, Katharina, Uli & Kieran having one last Phở

After another night on the town, our last day in Hà Nội was upon us. We were up and about early to make the most of the day, and set off for the Temple of Literature, which includes the “Imperial Academy”, Vietnam’s first national university. Built in the 11th century, the pavilions and halls were used for offering ceremonies, studying and taking exams.

Now, the temple is a tourist attraction, but is still frequently used by locals for prayer purposes. There are five courtyards, each with their own beautiful features: topiary, pavilions, the “Well of Heavenly Clarity” and mountains of offerings for Confucius.

Pavilion at the Temple of Literature

Pavilion at the Temple of Literature

And that was that. Our time in Vietnam had come to an end, and it was with a heavy heart that I packed my rucksack and started to say farewell to the people who had made the last three weeks incredibly memorable. Parting with Kirstin was very difficult for me; she had made Southeast Asia a lot of fun and, as well as being intelligent and beautiful, she had a brilliant sense of humour and made me smile. J.M. Barrie wrote, “Never say goodbye because goodbye means going away and going away means forgetting.” I think I said, “I’ll see you soon.”

Vietnam had been incredible; everything I could have hoped for. I cannot wait to return, but for then, it was time to head to the airport and catch a flight to Vientiane, iPod headphones jammed in my ears and feeling sorry for myself…

K+Z

Hạ Long Bay – Bucolic Beauty

The time had finally come. I had primarily come to Vietnam to “boat around Hạ Long Bay” (as it says on my bucket list), so when we arrived at 7am I was ready and raring to go. However, our rooms weren’t ready and we wouldn’t be boarding the boat until later that morning. So while the rest of the group sat in the lobby and either caught up on sleep or read on their Kindles, I went exploring. I walked along the beach, down the main pier and stepped onto the floating platform, accompanied only by two fishermen who completely ignored me.

It was a foggy morning, but the longer I waited, the clearer it got, until suddenly I could see them. In the distance, some of the limestone karsts that the bay is famed for and what I’d come to see. Because of the fog, it was impossible to judge my propinquity to them, but I took some pictures then headed back to the hotel for a power nap before the boat trip.

Limestone karsts in the distance

Limestone karsts in the distance

An hour’s sleep later, and we were on our way to the marina, where thousands of boats were waiting to take tourists through the maze of rock formations. Being December, the water wasn’t busy and the majority of the boats sat empty. We boarded and were told to stay inside the boat until it had left the port, whereupon we would be allowed upstairs. It took about an hour and a half to reach the first sculptures, in which time we lounged on the roof and each had a turn at steering, before we were called downstairs for lunch.

Rod getting cosy with Katharina, Uli, Kirstin, Heidi & Rose

Rod getting cosy with Katharina, Uli, Kirstin, Heidi & Rose

King prawns, noodles and chicken rice were served, and when finished, we all grabbed our cameras and stood on the front of the boat to take pictures of anything and everything. There is no conflation or imbrication of the karsts, which range from 50 to 100 metres in height; each one is completely unique. The sun caused a penumbra on each and every rock, showing the magnitude of the area we were moving through.

Small fishing boats passed us with the locals onboard waving happily. I found this a little surprising, as we had been told that it is due to the high amount of tourism in the area that the area is so foggy, or rather, smoggy. Most of the locals are born on floating villages, live on the water, and die on the same platoons, never setting foot on solid ground. Boats laden with exotic fruits and vegetables pulled up next to ours and the inhabitants threw produce to us in exchange for coins carefully thrown back.

Admiring the view in Hạ Long Bay

Admiring the view in Hạ Long Bay

As we continued through one of the 775 insets, we eventually reached two smaller rocks jutting out of the water. We were informed that the locals call them the “Kissing Chickens”, as they (apparently) look that way. However, none of us could really spot the reference, and we carried on, laughing for a while. My tip: if you are asked if you would like to see them, don’t bother. They are remarkably unremarkable.

Our next stop was to be at the Hang Đầu Gỗ grotto, the largest in the bay. After alighting, we walked the steps to the entrance, and spent the next half hour walking around some of the most beautiful naturally-formed carvings I’ve ever seen. Coloured lights lit up the hundreds of stalagmites and stalactites that decorated the inside of the vast space.

Panorama of the inside of the Hang Đầu Gỗ Grotto

Panorama of the inside of the Hang Đầu Gỗ Grotto

Before returning to shore, we had one last stop at the Dau Go Cave, created in the Pleistocene epoch around two million years ago. In the centre, a huge wooden platform has been constructed, and this was once used as a setting for classical music concerts. As a musician, this was of great interest to me, and when asked why they were no longer held, our guide told us that they had not drawn enough of a crowd. Understandable, being in a cave in the middle of a bay off the coast of Vietnam, as it’s not exactly an easy commute, but a shame nonetheless.

A short while later, we were back on shore and on our way to an Italian restaurant for dinner. One questionable pizza later, and understandably worn out, the majority of the group left for the hotel, but a couple of us sat on the seafront and saw in the evening with a drink or two.

A mother and daughter leave their floating village to offer us fruit

A mother and daughter leave their floating village to offer us fruit

Hạ Long Bay is beautiful and, like everywhere else we’d visited so far in Vietnam, I would head back without hesitation.

The next morning we had a two-hour bus journey to reach Hà Nội, the capital of this amazing country…

Huế by Motorbike

The bus from Hội An to Huế took roughly three hours and included one of the most breathtaking scenes one can ever hope to see. I snapped the picture below from inside the bus, but if you ever saw the Top Gear Vietnam Special, you may remember that this place featured quite prominently. Jeremy Clarkson said in the episode, “That image really is a metaphor for Vietnam; the mountains, the coastline, the big new engineering project and the traditional fishing scene…” He went on to say, “It is a fabulous country, it really is,” and he couldn’t have been more right.

View from the Hải Vân Mountain Pass

View from the Hải Vân Mountain Pass

Once off the Hải Vân Mountain Pass, where the clouds had been so thick that visibility had been no more than 20 feet, it was a straight drive to Huế. The rest of the day was dedicated to a motorbike tour of the city, each of us with our own personal driver, none of whom, we soon realised, spoke one word of English. Huế is situated a few miles inland from the South China Sea on the banks of the Perfume River, and so it was necessary to wrap up a bit warmer for the trip. We drove away from our hotel and opted to have a late lunch instead of waiting four hours for an early dinner.

Once copious amounts of Phở had been consumed, we were back on our bikes and whisked down busy roads, narrow tracks between paddy fields and through tiny villages to get to Thủy Thanh Commune, a small village dependant on rice cultivation, complete with its very own Japanese style Thanh Toan Bridge. (I must stress that taking photos from the back of a rapidly swaying motorbike is not easy, so please excuse the blur!)

Biking through Thủy Thanh Commune

Biking through Thủy Thanh Commune

We met our guide here, a soft spoken Huế local with an impressive grasp on English. He explained to us that the river rises to dangerous levels, wiping out months of hard farming work and rendering 99% of the village people even poorer than normal for the rest of the year. Only a small fraction of the residences are more than one storey, so quite often a house will be completely submerged under flood water.

We went inside the small museum, where a completely batty but incredibly sweet old lady demonstrated for us how the farming tools worked. She showed us how rice is cultivated from stem to individual grain, beating off the husks with a swift blow from her pestle before separating them by chucking the whole lot in the air and catching the grains before the empty shells could float down.

Not a clue, bless her!

Not a clue, bless her!

Leaving Thủy Thanh Commune, we had a short ride to the village of Thuong Ba, the final resting place of Emperor Tự Đức. A pavilion overlooks a bare courtyard with two rows of stone statuettes facing each other, rather like a chess board. On the other side of the pavilion, men fished for their supper, throwing their catch into the boat they’d make their way home in.

Our guide explained that the Emperor was struck by smallpox and became impotent, fathering no children. His Nguyễn army had fought against France, but were no match for their superior tactics and fire power. France had become victorious and were seen as the rulers of the region once more. The last Emperor to rule Vietnam independently, Tự Đức died at the age of 53, cursing the French with his final breath.

Bendik getting into the Asian spirit

Bendik getting into the Asian spirit

We departed, and soon arrived at a roadside shop that sold brightly coloured incense sticks by the thousands. We were sat down individually and given the opportunity to roll our own stick. I must have done OK, because I got a thumbs-up and a grin from the main maker. We were told afterwards that she can make upwards of 5,000 sticks a day, which made me feel a little inferior…

Another short ride later, passing a group of grinning village children waving enthusiastically, we were standing outside an abandoned battle stadium; Hổ Quyền. No ordinary battles had taken place here, though. Not human versus human or even human versus tiger, but tiger versus elephant, an incredibly cruel sport where two animals, one with the advantage of speed and one with the advantage of weight, were pitched against each other. We weren’t told which would most likely win.

Our last stop of the gradually greying day was at the Thiên Mụ Pagoda. This place was going to be more significant to me than I had first thought. At school, I had learned of a monk named Thich Quang Duc who had performed the act of self-immolation in Hồ Chí Minh City. There is a famous picture taken by Malcolm Browne of the event (below). As we came to the end of our tour of the Thiên Mụ Pagoda, we were shown a car; the exact car that took Thich Quang Duc to his death that day.

Thich Quang Duc's self-immolation & the car that took him there

Thich Quang Duc’s self-immolation & the car that took him there

Once back at the hotel, Rod told us that there was only one place in Huế worth going for a night out, so we walked down to the Brown Eyes club for an evening of pure cheese: Jenga, music choices that included the Grease Medley and very questionable dancing. It was great fun, and Huế had proved itself as a place worth stopping, even if just for a day.

The next afternoon we were to get our longest sleeper train yet (16 hours) to Hạ Long Bay. This is what I’d been looking forward to for many, many months…

Hội An: Tailored Suits, Cooking Classes & Motorbikes

Another exhausting sleeper train later, and we had arrived in Hội An, a stunning city on the South Central Coast in the Quang Nam province. Our hotel was the best yet; the rooms reminded me of James Bond’s suite in Venice at the end of Casino Royale, with beautiful dark wooden beds and heavy doors leading out onto a balcony overlooking the pool. We had been pleasantly surprised throughout the trip as the itinerary had stated “basic accommodation”. We had been briefed before our arrival; this was the place to buy tailored suits if one so wished.

We were only scheduled for two full days in Hội An, so it was important to get measurements taken as soon as possible. The city is a little inland, so even the short walk from the hotel to the tailors seemed an epic journey in the sweltering heat. Out of the 13 of us on the tour, 12 decided to have something made, whether it be for work, leisure or both. The attraction is so great because the quality of the clothing is faultless, the service is so fast and, of course, it’s very cheap.

Feeling overwhelmed at the choices on offer

Feeling overwhelmed at the choices on offer

Those who know me personally may claim that I am little flamboyant, and I suppose they’re right. The percentage of new people I meet who think I’m gay is probably proof that I’m a tad camp. I didn’t help my case by being a little daft with my choice of jacket and waistcoat linings, but I’ll come back to that in a bit…

That afternoon, we were booked in at the Tam Tam Café for a Vietnamese cuisine cooking class. Adorned with conical hats, we followed our bubbly guide into Hội An’s food market, where she explained what she was getting and what it would be used for. We walked the short distance back to the restaurant laden with everything from rice grass and pork to peanuts and banana leaf. Over the next hour, meat was shredded, added to salad, tossed, seasoned and wrapped in the leaf in which it would be cooked, spring rolls were wrapped delicately and fried, and tomato skins were peeled in a singular helix and wrapped tightly to create a rose decoration.

Tourists? Us?

Tourists? Us?

The best part of the day? We were to eat the fruits of our labour for dinner that evening. We tucked in to the feast on offer, devouring spring rolls and being pleasantly surprised at how well our variation on Chinese Zongzi had turned out. When we had finished, we thanked our hosts and departed.

We had been told to return to the tailors for around 8pm, so the next hour was spent wandering aimlessly down to the Thu Bồn River and taking photos on the famous bridge. We had gotten used to the street sellers now; a young boy was attempting to attract passers-by with candles in floating holders that can be placed on the river, but was not garnering much interest.

Young street vendor

Young street vendor

After a brief visit to the tailors for a couple of adjustments to be noted, a good night’s sleep in comfortable beds and an early breakfast, we were on our way to the motorcycle hire shop. I had never driven a motorcycle before that day and had no idea what to expect, so, once perched on the saddle of my 50cc moped, with a Burberry-esque helmet, flip flops shamefully taken from the previous hotel’s bathroom and borrowed ladies’ sunglasses (my $2 market ones had surprisingly broken), I was ready to pick up a passenger and head the five kilometres to the beach.

Fifteen terrifying minutes later and we were sat on the sand in the blazing sun and cool sea breeze, listening to iPods and reading books on Kindles, and there we stayed for the next three hours. With some expert sand sculpting, Bendik became a mermaid while Kirstin was transformed into a muscle man, complete with rather impressive sand package. Immaturity is undeniably promulgated in numbers.

Kitted out in all the right gear for my first motorbike experience

Kitted out in all the right gear for my first motorbike experience

The afternoon brought clouds with it, and the temperature drop meant we were soon off the beach and heading back to the tailors for one last visit to try and collect our new clothes. I was finally going to see my suit in the fabric as it were, and I was not disappointed. I had ordered a made-to-measure, three-piece pinstripe suit, six shirts (mostly in loud colours and all with double cuffs) and four ties, all for the total sum of US$200 (£130).

But the pièce de résistance, masterpiece and magnum opus was the tricolour silk lining I had chosen. I completely understand if you hate it, but I believe my personality is perfectly personified in those three panels.

Gaudiness defined

Gaudiness defined

Hội An is a beautiful city and yet another place I wouldn’t hesitate in revisiting if I were given half the chance. The city is known for its tailors, and although there are plenty of “up-market” options (A Dong Silk springs to mind), I recommend the one we used whole-heartedly. The women are friendly, helpful, relaxed, open to haggling, and keep your details on record for three years in case you want anything else made. Like most tailors, they also offer a handy postage service for a little extra cost, so your clothes can be waiting for you at home when you get back from your travels. Thông Phi tailors; remember the name.

With our new clothes packed and shipped, we had one more night in Hội An before a three hour bus journey the following morning to Huế

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