Saturday, 26 November 2011

Days 81 to 84: Overnight Hat-trick

Hue to Ho Chi Minh (aka Saigon) to Manila to Banaue. Four destinations, three overnight journeys linking them: overnight train, overnight flight, overnight bus. I'm a little tired now.

For the traveller, a good overnight journey is an excellent way of incorporating accommodation with transport, thus saving on the cost of a hotel; for the normal person the overnight journey is a gruelling test of endurance, involving lack of comfort and sleep. I like to think I fall somewhere between the two. They are a necessary evil, an enemy with benefits, an exchange of energy and peace for money. For Burness and myself, it was a way of minimising the time spent in two cities we had no particular eagerness to visit - Ho Chi Minh and Manila - but utilising both their airports. Thus, as we boarded the sleeper train from Hue to Ho Chi Minh, we were primed for a bit of upcoming fatigue.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Days 79 to 81: Hue

Hue (pronounced Hoo-eh) is a small city in central Vietnam. It has an old citadel, a pagoda, and... well, I don't really know. I have to admit I spent most of the time drinking.

For that, you can blame two English fellows, Steve and Luke, plus another English fellow who joined in for day 2, Jamie (i.e. of Ha Long Bay's Jamie and Heather duo). Our sleeper cabin from Hanoi to Hue had four beds, and Steve and Luke filled two of them. With beer readily on sale from a tiny, no-nonsense woman who moved through the carriages, we were obliged to celebrate the Union with several each. Steve and Luke too were interested in my Wonder quest, and offered a few of their own, one of them - Ellora's Kailasanathar Temple in India - I have subsequently decided to add to my list (more on that in a future entry). Beer and conversation flowed, with travel tales exchanged, and even the Grade of Baroso was cracked open, to widespread surprise ("It's not as bad as I thought!").

Monday, 21 November 2011

Days 75 to 78: Ha Long Bay

Burness and I arrived in Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam (though Ho Chi Min, aka Saigon, is the bigger city), on the Wednesday past, the 16th. It didn't take us long to realise we fancied moving on. Don't get me wrong, I liked Hanoi, but I really was not in the mood for it. Wild scooter-filled streets that simply defied all sense at crossroads, the city was a cacophony of horns and scooter engines, and crossing the street was as much like playing real-life Frogger as I've ever done. "Walk very slowly across" was the general advice, and there was no other way to manage it. Any sudden movement would see a scooter, from some direction, crash into you. Slow moment allowed them time to weave around you, or so you'd hope. I don't know how many pedestrian collisions that Hanoi sees every year, but it surely must be a lot, probably mostly involving jittery foreigners. It was not for the faint-hearted. Mum - please don't visit Hanoi.

Ha Long Bay: New Natural Wonder

Just ten days ago, on November 11th, the new Seven Wonders of the World were announced. This time it was the turn for nature - what were the seven best things in the natural world? The vote was open to the public and in their wisdom they chose the following: the Amazon Rainforest, Ha Long Bay in Vietnam, Iguacu Falls in Brazil, Jeju Island in Korea, Komodo Island in Indonesia, Puerto Princesa Underground River in the Philippines, and Table Mountain in South Africa.


Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Day 74: Bowling In Luang Prabang

"Tuk tuk sir? Bowling? Opium?"

That's the order of things here - you start with a tuk tuk ride and end up smoking opium. After a few days in Luang Prabang, I've only managed step 2, the ten-pin bowling. I'm suffering for it today, as I sit in the town's small airport, flight to Hanoi delayed, feeling grim. Last night began innocently, playing pool, then befriending a bunch of screamingly camp locals. This developed into the town's after-hours activity, ten-pin bowling. The scenario is so surreal I'm still not sure it really happened, but I recall (and I was somewhat drunk by this point) entering a vast warehouse of bowling, filled with foreigners and Laotians alike, drinking, listening to trance, and bowling.

If it really happened, it was a highly enjoyable and improbable evening. But it's probably a good thing we escape now, before one thing leads to another and in that timeless tradition, the lure of ten-pin bowling leads us into the opium den.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Day 73: White Dreadlocks

Anybody who knows me well, or who has simply heard me speak occasionally, might know that although usually a person of immense tolerance, there are a few pet peeves I have. With relation to backpacking, it is unquestionably "white dreadlocks". I can accept that some Jamaicans, when not shooting each other, might want to grow dreadlocks, but it is the European dreadlock that I am referring to. It is a quite remarkably bad style. Even I - no stickler for sterile hygiene - can see that it looks pretty damn disgusting. Can I see beetles crawl around? The perpetrators invariably have slightly pinched faces, talk earnestly about a "cosmic consciousness", and dress in a bohemian way. They would attend anti-capitalist protests if they could be bothered. It goes without saying that they want to stick it to "The Man", and detest Starbucks (except when drinking the coffee). The idea of dharma and karma appeal, and their travelling experience is a journey of exploration and awakening without limits - until papa stops wiring the cash. Oh, white dreadlock, how I judge you; I judge you more than you can dream.

Burness Corner: The Sydney Opera House

My travelling companion, Burness, has started a blog which can be found linked somewhere on this page. Burness approaches each Wonder from a different perspective from me, having had less build up and being told not to read up much on each upcoming candidate. Ideally as an experimental control, he would have never heard of any of the Wonders, but as many are quite famous this isn't possible; nonetheless I intend to feature his comments on each World Wonder as an alternative, and hopefully useful, opinion to mine. I'll also be conducting a short interview with him for some concise and lucid insight.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Days 65 to 68: Angkor Temples: Ta Prohm

My search for Wonders is focussed on the man-made efforts: any hunt for the natural Wonders of the World will have to wait another day (and risk the untold wrath of my girlfriend who, perhaps understandably, is already somewhat displeased about my current project). However, sometimes there is an overlap. The upcoming Banaue Rice Terraces in the Philippines is an ongoing agricultural sculpture of mountains to grow rice - "tweaked mountains" you might say - and even Machu Picchu relies on the mountainous backdrop to glorify the man-made ruins. The Angkor temple of Ta Prohm is another example, a cross between ancient temple and creative jungle to make something quite spectacular and unusual.

Days 65 to 68: Angkor Temples: Bayon

"It really does make a difference seeing things twice..."

Monday, 7 November 2011

Day 65: The Grade Of Baroso

Can you make the grade?

Day 64 & 65: Siem Reap

Siem Reap has one of the better city names around: in Khmer it translates to "The Total Defeat of Siam". It relates to the centuries of conflict between the Cambodians and the Siamese, in which the Siamese - though my large Cambodian readership may disagree with me - came out on top. The Angkor (i.e. Cambodian) civilisation did pretty well for a few centuries until the Siamese came along and nailed them. The fall of Angkor saw the emergence of the Siamese Ayutthaya. So why "Total Defeat of Siam"? Sheer petulance. While on the backfoot, the Cambodians still managed some decent battle victories, one which is commemorated in Siem Reap's overblown name. Given their own way, the Siamese would have ruined Angkor and its temples more than they did, but the Cambodians, fortunately, prevented this. That's something perhaps worth some celebration. Still, it must have hurt when "Total Defeat of Siam" fell under Thai control for over a century up until 1906. The Thais preferred the pointed Siam Nakhon or "Siamese Town" as their name for the city.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Day 61: Goodbye Burma

It's fair to say that just under three weeks ago, when arriving in Burma, I wasn't sure what to expect. A pariah nation under sanctions for decades, under an illegal military regime with a history of human rights abuses, I had a vision of a Big Brother state with soldiers at every corner, passports being scrutinised, and oppressed people slinking about the streets trying to go unnoticed. Red tape would abound and free enterprise would be locked down into a back street black market with battered wooden tables and chairs that would go flying every time the military police made another raid. Nobody would look each other in the eye. But this is not Burma.

To all superficial appearances for the casual traveller, Burma is a dusty, shabby, bustling country with a very low level of police appearance and a very high level of dogs, motorbikes, street food, "beer stations", and seeming freedom of movement. There's a lot of poverty, but that's not a phenomenon restricted to Burma. The internet is unrestricted. Tourism is pretty noticeable. If I had arrived in Burma knowing nothing of its political state, I would assume it to be just another emerging Asian nation. Which it kind of is. But I have to be very careful with that statement.