May 23, 2005
Yes, as the title suggests, we’ve finished our travels for the moment and are resting up awhile in Dublin. We left you in Beijing with the last update over a month ago but in keeping with the rest of our travels, we’ve been very busy since then.
After leaving Beijing, we made the most of our 16 hour stopover in Helsinki by catching up with Kev’s sister’s boyfriend, Pekka, for some food and a few drinks. It was a bit of a jolt to the system to encounter snow and 2 degree temperatures, but all in all, Helsinki gave us the impression of being a nice, pleasant and orderly place (especially compared to China). The European prices were a bit of an eye-opener, since everything had been relatively cheap until now.
Directly after the short stopover in Helsinki, we reached Nate’s hometown of Barcelona. It was really great to meet and catch up with all the friends and family that were with us in our thoughts throughout the year. Our week flew by here and it felt like a kind of halfway house re-introduction to the “real world”.
Still having a small bit of appetite to travel left, we left Barcelona for our final destination of the whole trip, Cairo. Using the first few days to see the Sphinx, pyramids, and treasures of the country, we decided to relax for the last days of our time away. It might be awhile before we get away after this mammoth trip after all! Iberia and Lastminute.com came up trumps for us and we were able to spend 4 days bumming around a nice hotel complex just outside Cairo and while away the time hanging out by the pool and manicured gardens.
The last flights back to Dublin were quite a rough ride. Not because of the plane or turbulence though; it was at this stage that Kev became violently ill (about as bad as he’d been during the whole year)! It was super to get back to our old life once again, but it ended up taking the bones of a week to recover from everything. Nearly three weeks back and we still feel like we’re trying to adjust to the fact that the journey is over and have had to slowly ease ourselves back into the swing of things.
The trip certainly exceeded our expectations of what’s possible in a year and we feel so lucky to have been able to undertake something like this. The freedom of the road is very liberating and the ability to jump in and out of different cultures and ways of life thought us many things. It’s unbelievable how fast the year flew by as it really only seems like a couple of weeks ago that we were heading off in this grand adventure.
The foreseeable future will have us settling down and we’re looking forward to not having to live out of a bag once again. Many thanks to all those that tuned into the blog and we hope that you enjoyed the window into our world.Continue reading / Continuar leyendo "Home at Last! / Ya estamos de vuelta!"
April 27, 2005
No time to go into it too much but here's a few pictures of our time in Beijing...Continue reading / Continuar leyendo "Photos from Beijing / Fotos de Beijing"
April 14, 2005
I am afraid that it's going to have to be more a pictorial update for this one! Time is starting to go against us, and we're feeling the squeeze a little bit; we've barely enough time to see the things we want to, let alone write home about it. I think we'll probably be able to talk to most of you in person over the coming weeks anyway.
We managed to catch Tokyo at a good time (apparently) where the cherry blossoms were blooming and the whole country was going a bit mad having "cherry blossom viewing" picnics and parties to celebrate. Needless to say we encountered plenty more weird and wonderful sights during our week here. Here are a select few, which I hope you enjoy.
Ciao for now!Continue reading / Continuar leyendo "Tokyo in Colour / Tokyo en color"
April 06, 2005
Our choice of taking a cheap flight from Bangkok to Macau still sounded like a good idea to us until we got a slight shock while trying to get on the plane...
Exacerbated by not having any seat numbers (and a delay of a couple of hours), our fellow passengers were very eager to board. The accepted method of boarding was to get as close to the person in front and push; resulting in a huge melee around the boarding gate. In the midst of all this hustle our concept of "personal space" was crushed and we realised that we were a long way away from home and being able to understand all this. At least, once we did manage to get on board, the plane was comfortable.
When we landed on the small island of Macau, it was a breeze to go through the simple airport, and we encountered a country that fits the "East meets West" cliche. We were able to decipher the signage as it was in both Chinese and Portuguese, and we enjoyed a lovely Portuguese meal while we had the chance. The budget level accommodation was really not up to much here though; so bad in fact that we couldn't bring ourselves to stay in it and had to upgrade to a proper hotel.
The following day,we caught a 2-hour ferry to Shenzhen, a modern Chinese city bordering Hong Kong. Kev's uncle Dan put us in touch with a very hospitable host, Mick, who's been working out here for the last year and a half and his apartment became our home for the next three days. He certainly rolled out the red carpet for us as he helped us figure out things about the culture here and showed us around. The nightlife seemed to be a big part of things for the burgeoning western community here and we were able to celebrate Kev's birthday in style, in a place called the U--Bar.
Realistically, if it wasn't for Mick, we wouldn't have been able to do much here as everything was written in Chinese, and there was little English to be found. When we wanted to go somewhere, Mick would give us a card for a hotel near to the place we wanted to go, and we could pass that to the taxi driver once we flagged one down. Thankfully, the taxi's here were very cheap or they could've been the ruin of us!
In Hong Kong, the story was very different. The British influence (until recently) and the incredibly efficient and economical public transport system made life simple. With these things in place, we had no problems getting around to the tourist sights (The Peak, Big Buddha Statue, etc.) and do some window shopping along the way.
We've officially entered our last month of the journey now! We should be kept quite busy trying to absorb the cities of Tokyo and Beijing on our way back to Europe but we'll use whatever spare time we have to keep you all up to date on things.
March 30, 2005
The last time we left Bangkok, we said that we'd be back; it's much sooner than we expected but here we are again!
After travelling around Lao and Cambodia at a comfortable pace, it started to look like we were going to have to rush through Vietnam to reach our next flight from Hong Kong. A quick review of some of the budget airlines around these parts gave us some food for thought though. And, when we spotted a couple of EUR 20 flights from Bangkok to Macau on AirAsia, we snapped them up in a flash. The entry visa for Vietnam was going to set us back about EUR 40 each anyways, so under the circumstances, this is a much better way for us to get up to Hong Kong fast (and we can always come back to see Vietnam on an other occasion).
It felt like home once we reached our safe-haven in Bangkok, Suk 11, so we settled in for a very nice week here once again. Like the last time, the time flew by with some very enjoyable meals and drink sessions with some of the other long-termers in the hostal.
We only did a small bit of sightseeing this time around as we'd already seen most of the spots that we wanted to last time.
We were lucky with the amount of events going on in Bangkok during this stay though. Two of the things that we made the effort to head out to were the Thailand X Games (Extreme Sports competitiion) and the Bangkok Motor Show. The Asian style of motor show was different to what we expected and we were treated to some weird spectacles of dancers inside huge plastic bubbles, live bands, people jumping up and down on trampolines while wearing skis and other strange things. Toyotas concept car the I-unit was also quite bizarre.
It really feels like we're coming to the home staight now... Our next move to Macau takes us out of South East Asia and onto the next leg of the trip. We've only got a few more hops, skips and jumps over the next month as we head back to Europe. Whether we'll be able to keep the site up to date as we change country every few days, will have to be seen.
March 21, 2005
The last couple of weeks has seen us move away from the ruins of Cambodia's distant past, into the horrors of it's recent history, and then on to the commercial reality of it's present...
After the ruins of Angkor we headed for the capital, Phnom Penh, where we plonked ourselves in the thick of it, in a clean, fully-equipped, $10 room. From this vantage point, near the central market, we were able to see the everyday things happening around us from our balcony (or whenever we stepped outside our door). There was plenty going on in this busy and none-too-clean city that gave us food for thought.
One of the icons of this city are the cyclos (a three-wheeled bicycle taxi), and we were surprised to find that this vehicle would serve as a home for many of the guys working them. Once it got late enough, we found some of them stringing up hammocks against a pole or tree. Across the road from us there was a building site which also doubled up as a home for the builders working on it. When work stopped for the day, with little else to do, they would squat down and people-watch from the upper levels of the unfinished building. Based on scenes such as these, it was pretty clear that Cambodia has a few years of development ahead of it.
During our stay in Phnom Penh, we also took the time to learn a bit about the regime that was in place here during the late 70's. We already knew a little bit; basically, that the leader of the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot, wanted Cambodia to be a communist state. His plan of achieving this was to take the country back to what he called "Year Zero", putting people back to a more rural way of living, and removing anyone that was a perceived threat.
The logical conclusions of following this, lead to some very dark days for the country. Some of the "sights" around Phnom Penh that hark from those times are very grim indeed. The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek are about 15km from the city centre and was the site of a mass grave where nearly 20,000 human remains were found. It's believed that during the time of the regime, every area would have an extermination camp like this nearby, and it's responsible for the dissappearance of between 1 to 3 million people during a five year period of genocide. There is a monument built at Choeng Ek that contains around 9,000 human skulls found in the area.
Perhaps even more eerie than this was Security Prison 21 (S21), an old school which was converted into a detention centre in 1975. Everyone, that passed through this centre was documented and photographed, and these make up some of the exhibits of the musem that stands here today. Academics, foreign language speakers, doctors, lawyers, and more who did not fit into Pol Pots plan for the country would have been sent here before being sent on to the extermination camps. Some of the classrooms were converted into torture rooms and contained the metal frame of a bed to which prisoners would have been bound. It still sends a shiver down the spine when we think of it...
Obviously needing a change of scenery after all this, we headed to the south coast of the country in search of beaches.
We started off with a brief stay in Kampot, which was surrounded by beautiful countryside and a nice scenic river. The town itself seemed a little like a shadow of itself though; the beautiful colonial houses and wide avenue in the middle of town seem like they have seen better days.
After this, we made our way to Sihanoukville, which is a fairly modern and sprawling, expat-filled peninsula, surrounded by some nice beaches. The main beaches were full of kids trying to sell fruit and bracelets, but they weren't that bad really. We rented a motorbike for a few days, to take us to some of the further beaches, which we had mostly to ourselves.
Following the previous weeks, a schedule of sunning ourselves, and going for some dips in the warm sea water was heaven; and a great way to end our stay in Cambodia!Continue reading / Continuar leyendo "Cambodia's past and present / El pasado y presente de Camboya"
March 05, 2005
It's now two weeks since we left the waterfalls of Tadlo (Lao) and even though the days are flying by, we're still left with a very good taste from this beautiful part of the world.
Our plans of entering Cambodia from Lao took a bit of a diversion after we did some investigation into the practicalities of doing this; and then compared the crossing from Thailand. In the end, we decided to briefly go back into Thailand, before then crossing into Cambodia.
Why would you want to do that, I'm sure some of you are thinking? The answer was "simplicity" really. We would have required a prearranged Cambodian visa before attempting the crossing from Lao, whereas one can be easily obtained at the border with Thailand (less waiting around and less cost). Also, the more we looked into it, the more the route through northen Cambodia was starting to sound like a hassle-filled "pain-in-the-ass" (in this case you can take that literally, given the state of the roads). Let's just say that, at this point in our extended travels, the limited options of getting around were not too appealing.
On entering Thailand, we were a bit in awe of how well things seemed to be set up. Having got used to the small, simple shops that are found throughout Lao, the supermarkets here seemed a bit on the extravagant side. I'm sure the space-age malls in Singapore would have been way too much for us to handle at this stage!
We made some good use of our time in this Eastern part of Thailand by taking a day out to see our first Khymer ruins at Panom Rung. On top of that, we stocked up on as much cash as possible because Cambodia still does not have any ATM's (that we could use)!
Feeling refreshed from our stopover, we were ready for the adventure to come...
As soon as we crossed the border from Thailand to Cambodia (at Poi Pet), we were bombarded with all kinds of hangers on trying to "help" us get around. Ridiculous figures were being thrown around for how much it was going to cost us to get to Siem Reap (which was supposed to be about 4 hours away), so we stepped past all this madness to see what we could find in the town. Unfortunately after a hot, sweaty walk through the dusty, rubbish-covered streets, we hadn't come up with much else. The choice was either an expensive taxi now or a few hours wait for a slow (and still quite expensive) bus to whisk us away. When a taxi rolled up beside us and an English guy (who had crossed the border at the same time as us) asked if we wanted to share, we were only too happy to accept. From his passenger seat, he confirmed that it would take us about three and a half hours to reach our final destination. Little did we know, but our driver was about to shatter this estimate down to nearly two hours!
Taking off at about ninety along the bumpy, sandy road we were pinned to our seats, trying to take in our first sights of Cambodia. In a style of driving that could best be described as a mix of Colin McRae with Michael Schumacher, we were jolted around as the driver used whatever part of the road he saw fit to continue the way forward. His technique of using the horn as an alternative to the brake was certainly resourceful, if nothing else. We later found out that this fits the normal description of driving in Cambodia, although the speeds are not usually so high.
We took a day off to recuperate from the journey, but the next day we bought a three day pass to visit the famous ruins of Angkor Wat. People from all over the world come to see this symbol of Cambodia, so there was a fair number of buses rolling up on a daily basis here. Not surprisingly, this also meant that there were many locals selling all sorts of things around the area. While they were quite persistant, they were generally good-natured and added more to the experience than they took.
The first day, we got up at 4:30 am and took a remorque-moto (a carriage drawn by a motorbike) to catch the sunset at the most famous of the temples here, Angkor Wat. Barely able to keep our eyes open, after the early start, we struggled on. The rest of the day was used to go around one of the circuits of the area, where we caught most of the main sights.
While this was all well and good, to allow ourselves some more freedom to explore the surroundings, we rented some bicycles for the next couple of days. Thankfully the area was all flat and over our remaining days we racked up about 80 kms under our own steam. Our curiosity about the ruins, was well and truly satisfied by this stage.
The temples that we most liked were those that were least restored and one in particular, Ta Phrom, stood out above the rest (incidentily, this was used recently enough for scenes in "Tomb Raider" and 'Two Brothers"). It was amazing to see the awesome power of nature at this temple, as many ancient-looking trees had taken over parts of the buildings and engulfed them with it's roots and branches over the years.
I'll leave you with some of our favourite photos so you can get the idea.
February 19, 2005
Before heading on into Cambodia, we decided to make a pitstop in a small, tiny village in southern Lao, called Tadlo. This remote place, without shops or internet, brought us to a state of relaxation that we had yet to find throughout our whole trip. Appropriately enough, the strap of our only watch broke on the way here so there was no timetable for the next 5 days!
Days drifted by simply and easily here. We would usually wake up at 5:30am to the sound of a few neighbouring cockerals; but that didn't necessarily mean we would get up for the day then. If we felt up to it, we'd venture out for a walk by the banks of the river before it was too hot. When the sun got unbearable, we'd take refuge under some straw shelters to read in our hammocks.
During these long days, we explored a bit of the river banks, bathed under the Tadlo waterfalls and went for an elephant trek. Common sights around the area were the nearby villagers using the river (to fish, wash or cool off), and on one occasion we even got to see a runaway monkey! Another time saw us encountering a whole village chipping in together to build a house. Everyone was helping to weave some stripped bamboo into walls which are placed onto a thick wooden frame on stilts.
We were actually staying in a similarly built hut ourselves (with wicker walls and thatched roof). Behind our bungalow was an excellent restaurant which was run by the same familiy (the Tim's). The owner, Soulideth, and his family (including the dogs) received us with open arms and helped us out with everything we could possibly need.
The restaurant was a nice chilled out spot with some great music and seemed to have quite a high reputation in the area as it was very busy most nights. We shared many conversations and great meals with some other fellow travellers and people working in the area and enjoyed kicking back to the delicious, fresh watermelon and coconut juices.
Of course the time eventually came when we had to leave this paradise. With only a few days remaining on our visa, we had to formulate our next plan of action and continue moving.Continue reading / Continuar leyendo "A little slice of paradise / Un pedacito de paraíso"
February 12, 2005
Hi all, we're still ambling along in Lao since the last update. To survive here, we've found that the "no rush" attitude has to be embraced, otherwise it would drive you mad.
At first it seems like there's a lot of time being wasted; a half hour here waiting for your bill to turn up in a restaurant, another few minutes there trying to track down someone in a shop/hotel that is supposed to be working there. After awhile though, you begin to appreciate the luxury of this time for reflection and the ability to squander it away like this. Slowly but surely we are succumbing to "Lao time"...
Leaving Luang Prabang, we spent a day going in a south-eastern direction to reach a dusty, rural town called Phonsavanh. This is best known for the mysterious "Plain of Jars", which is a collection of huge jars (some weighing up to 3 tonnes) carved from solid rock, and believed to have been used for funeral purposes up to 4000 years ago.
Minutes after arriving, we met a sound British / American couple, Simon and Heather who were planning on making their way to Vietnam, and went for a nice meal in a restaurant that was reported to be good. After the enjoyable (but slow to arrive) meal, we had an eventful enough time trying to leave the building.
As is customary in many Eastern cultures, we removed our shoes before entering the building. What was not so customary though when we returned was to find that one persons pair of flipflops was missing. After a while of searching around the lobby area and alerting the staff to the problem, you'll be glad to know that they finally turned, up on the feet of an elderly German tourist, who thought that they were complementary from the hotel!
Also in this restaurant, we were able to investigate the extensive collection of war memorabilia hanging on the walls. Rocket launchers, bomb casings, cluster bombs and more were all on the display and are left over from the so called "Secret War" of 1964 - 1973. Over the days we would see plenty more of these items, which reveals quite a lot about the recent history of this area.
With over 2 million tonnes of bombs dropped here by the U.S. during that unofficial war (2 tonnes for every person living in the area at the time), the locals have had great problems dealing with its legacy. There have been over 12,000 accidents relating to unexploded bombs since they stopped falling in the early 70's and to deal with the huge amounts of scrap from the war, they have had to come up with some ingenius uses for it. It's very common to find bomb casings used as fence posts or fashioned into hanging baskets for flowers, cluster bomb casings turned into oil lambs as well as much more. A bomb case converted into a barbeque was our personal favourite!
We met up with Simon and Heather again the next day to go for a tour of the surrounding area and check out the "Plain of Jars". It must be said that they did a great job of tracking down a cool set of wheels and a friendly driver before we'd barely awoken. We got to see three separate sites where the jars were located, as well as an old Russian tank and a village where we were shown how they make the potent Lao lao (rice whiskey).
While these were all intriguing to see, we think the thing that hit home most, from seeing the surroundings, was the extent of the unexploded ordnance (UXO) problem here. There were craters just about anywhere you looked and visible ongoing work by MAG (Mine Advisary Group) and United Nations UXO Lao to try and clear the areas. When we got back to Phonsavanh later that day we went over to a nearby guesthouse to watch an interesting documentary called "The Secret War", which went into the details of what had happened here and the problems that were created by the conflict.
After Phonsavanh, we continued heading south to the sleepy capital, Vientiane. We could barely believe that this was the most important city in the country and most of our days here were spent lounging around and reading a few books (on top of making the most of the excellent variety of food on offer). Whenever we felt bothered, we pushed ourselves to see a few of the surrounding sites.
One of the things we saw was Patuxai, an unfinished "Arc de Triomphe" type structure, supposedly made with concrete donated by the U.S. to build an airport. The stuppa (sacred Buddhist monument) That Luang was also very impressive and is considered to be on of the national symbols for the whole country. About 26 km outside the city was the surreal looking "Buddha Park". This contained many Buddhist and Hindu statues, in an effort to draw these two religions together years back.
Anyway, we think that's enough talking about nothing for one day. Our current plan is to continue heading south into the allegedly "quieter" part of the country. From there we intend to take a route through Cambodia, which we're still looking into.
'Til the next time...Continue reading / Continuar leyendo "Still on "Lao Time" / Seguimos en "Hora Laoense""
February 04, 2005
Since our last update, we've gone through another change of country, language and currency once again and made our way into Lao PDR.
As expected, this direction has taken us to a slower pace of life, which we are getting used to now after our first week spent mainly in the northern town of Luang Prabang. The journey from Chiang Mai was a painless enough affair and went something like this...
Only three hours away from Chiang Mai, we stopped off overnight at the more laid back town of Chiang Rai. As we marched about with our rucksacks, trying to locate the guest house that we wanted to spend the night in, we got pounced on by some local kids, who wanted us to help them with a project they were working on. The timid interrogation was easy enough but after the few kilometres we'd walked to this point, we were feeling far too sweaty and tired to be hanging around for long. Luckily, a few questions later and a quick photograph and they set us off on our way, in the correct direction of the guesthouse.
The next morning, we were the only foreigners using the public service to the border town of Chiang Khong and were well looked after on the way. The conductor was regularly pointing out the signs to us on the road so that we knew how far we had to go. A local teacher was only too happy to practice his English with us and learn how we lived back home. The conductor jumped to our service again when we reached the end stop and seized some tuk-tuks to take us to our guest house of preference.
The only way for us to cross into Laos from this part of Northern Thailand is to take a boat across the Mekong, so we chose a guesthouse that could help out with this. SP Guesthouse made the whole process very simple and was like a one stop shop for everything that we needed to get across the border and continue onwards into Lao. This crossing really couldn't have been easier. Besides taking care of all the various connections we needed along the way they were even able to sort out a packed lunch for us too!
Despite having it so easy, it must be said that we did create a bit of an incident on the night before making the crossing.
Realising that we had a Thai phone card with some credit remaining on it and not having called home in a while, a quick jaunt down to main road (and the public phone) seemed to be in order. It sounded easy before leaving our room, but trying to navigate the dirt road in the pitch black at 1:30 in the morning (so that we could synchronize times) proved to be a bit tricky.
From the beginning it wasn't looking too good. After barely setting foot on the road, we were confronted by the barking of the neighbours dog, who didn't like the look of the two dodgy characters prowling about in front of him. If this barking didn't wake the neighbours up at this stage, then they would not be able to ignore the commotion in a few minutes.
Rounding a dimly lit corner, we stumbled close to a resting cockerel in the sort of encounter that surprises (i.e. scares the bejaysus out of) all parties involved. Our relief at not being in mortal danger quickly subsided when the deafening screech of this startled bird called all the other cockerels in the area into action. Within seconds the noise mushroomed out of all control as they all simultaneously sprang into life.
I think that it's fair to say that luck must have been on our side, as we managed to make it back to our guesthouse without being lynched by the locals that night!
The next morning, once formalities were completed at the borders, we began a nice leisurely 2 day 'slow' boat trip down the Mekong towards Luang Prabang. While it was admittedly quite a touristy affair, the passing scenery was fantastic and it was nice getting to know some of the fellow travellers on board (especially an Aussie/US couple, Ben & Lissy, a hardened Costa Rican traveller, Alex, and two Canadian friends, Russ & Andy). Though the seats were hard and uncomfortable, the views of the mist covered hills along by the banks were stunning and thankfully the long time spent on the boat was broken up nicely by a overnight stay at a small riverside village called Pak Beng.
When we reached our final destination (Luang Prabang), we first dealt with the necessities of finding a place to stay and somewhere to eat. After going for such a long time as an outsider, it felt strange sitting outside eating our meal, and seeing all these faces that we recognised walking by (or even stopping for a quick chat from time to time). It seemed like we knew just about everyone. We'd spent the last couple of days on the boat with many of the people around and everyone seemed to be staying on or around the main street in town.
As the days went by, people disappeared to different corners of the country while we took our time checking out the area. Our initial plan of resting here for about 3 days, ended up being stretched out to a full week. We also found out to our delight that the French influence in these parts did not stop at just the architecture and games of petanque that were quickly evident, but included things such as the pastries, baguettes and coffee which we were glad to indulge in.
The days passed by easily here and on one of these we went to check out the Royal Palace, which seemed to raise more mysterious questions than it answered (like where exactly are the royal family today and what happened them?). On another day, we spent a dollar renting a bicycle, and took it along some terrible roads to check out some of the neighbouring villages. The smiling kids waving like maniacs and shouting "Saibadee" (hello) along the way was all part of the charm.