Saturday, June 30, 2012

Summer 2012 - 2nd Stop: Hoi An

Unexpected maybe, as it doesn't really have many 'sights' to speak of, but Hoi An has emerged as a real dark horse and firmly staked its claim for this summer's top spot! A classy riverside town with antique buildings, ambient lanterns and tranquil surroundings, and the latest place to be added to our "must return someday" list.

As we left the action, we were boarding our night train to Hoi An (well, technically Danang, as Hoi An doesn't have a station itself). We got two hard sleeper beds in a six berth cabin filled with locals (and I mean filled!) - a man and woman, quietly above us, and then a family of 6 crammed into the two beds below! A very cosy 16 hours for everyone involved…

And our travels weren't over yet, as we still had to get an hour long bus from Danang to Hoi An. We had read that the bus station was nearby, but we didn't know in what direction. The taxi drivers outside obviously weren't much help either, chiming in with "the bus station is too far to walk" or "no no, it's too late, no more buses today". Each story ended with us having to get a taxi instead, funny that... We finally pieced together directions from people along the way and miraculously spotted a Hoi An bus stop at the side of the road, so we were finally good to go after travelling for the best part of a day.

But Hoi An was certainly worth the wait! And our accommodation, Phuoc An Hotel, only added to the experience - nice room, TV, balcony, swimming pool (that we actually only paddled in once), breakfast, the list goes on. We didn't want to leave!

Hoi An is also the tailoring capital of South East Asia, with practically every second shop ready to measure you up for some new garments. Handily enough, our hotel had a tailor shop of its own in town (one recommended in the Lonely Planet too), and as guests we were entitled to a 20% discount, so... when in Rome! I got a suit made up and Aisling a dress, (although, I've got a feeling they might have bumped up the price after we told them we had a discount) - Tip of the day: announce you have a discount, after they give you the price. Still, a tailor made, three piece suit for €80 isn't too shabby. There were other places in town with lower prices, but I wouldn't really put much faith in a €20 suit. With most things in life, you get what you pay for. I would put up pics of us in our new purchases but they're all packed away at the moment. We even had to buy another bag to hold all of our souvenirs, mostly just lanterns...

In fact, all lanterns.

Our first night in Hoi An was spent just walking around the old town, which is a UNESCO heritage site. It's an incredibly beautiful place, and because it's a protected area, there are strict laws about future development, so no building of massive office blocks or luxury apartments, no tacky shop-fronts or sleazy neon lights, and no cars or motorbikes are even allowed in the old town area. It's good to know that these streets won't lose their unique charm any time soon.

The next morning (after getting ourselves fitted for our new rigouts), we went on another Lonely Planet inspired walking tour of the town. You're meant to buy an Old Town Ticket if you want to go inside any of the temples or old houses, but nobody ever asked us, so we just kept going from place to place without one! In our defence, we did try to buy one at one stage, but there was nobody at the ticket booth, so we took it as a sign for a free day of sightseeing! I wouldn't even call it sightseeing because, as I mentioned earlier, there are no real sights here, just a few small Chinese temples or old houses or bridges. Hoi An itself is the sight.

The town isn't even that big but we had to stop off a couple of times for drinks because it was so hot. And this is meant to be the rainy season! It was quite easy to be tempted though by the many riverside cafes, and we gladly accepted, enjoying the shade and watching the world go by outside. Aisling even had to whip out her Circle K umbrella (Hong Kong's finest) to act as a makeshift parasol for the day.

And to round off our afternoon, we went back to our hotel, ordered some food up to the room, and a couple of traditional massages too for good measure. Why not, we're on holidays!

The next morning, we took a half day tour 55km up the road to the temple ruins of My Son. We were gone for 5 hours, from 8am - 1pm, and even though only an hour and a half of that was spent actually walking around the ruins, it was still a bargain at $4 each. Unfortunately, My Son was a real disappointment and pales in comparison to many others we've seen elsewhere in Asia. (Now there's a sentence I hope I won't have to say in a different context in the future!) Seriously though, it wasn't that good. It may have been mildly interesting if this was our first time seeing something of this kind, but having previously been to places like Bagan, Ayutthaya and Angkor Wat, this wasn't even in the same league. 

That was as good as it got...

I would have said it wasn't worth the trip if it hadn't been for these two Japanese guys we met, and one of them in particular. He was your stereotypical, broken English, extremely polite, over-enthusiastic (but in a lovable way) Japanese tourist. He was a hoot! Our first interaction with him was when he asked to take a picture with us (why, I don't know...) and when we gladly obliged, we were bombarded with "Thank yuuuuuu!" and bowing, like we had just saved his life! And whenever we'd walk past him after that, he'd happily wave or give us another "Thank yuuuu".

Later on in the day, we saw that he was asking his friend for a tissue, so Aisling gave him a pack of her own.'ve never seen someone so grateful, "All for me?!?! Whaaaa?! THANK YUUUUU!!!" He even got his friend to take a picture of Aisling giving him the pack of tissues! We, of course, had to get a picture with them too.

We bumped into them again later that evening when we were collecting our clothes from the tailor, and it absolutely made our night! And his! His face lit up when he saw us! We were the first people from Ireland they had ever met, so we hope we made a good impression. He certainly made a good impression on us anyway! We just hope that when we go to Japan, everyone is like him!

If you'd like to learn more about our travels in Hoi An and Ho Chi Minh City, watch this video diary:

The next morning, we got a bus to Hué, a sleeper bus in fact. (I don't know why it was a sleeper bus, seeing as it was only four hours away, and during the day...) It was a nice comfortable journey though, landing us in Hué just in time for lunch. More coming soon!

Monday, June 25, 2012

Summer 2012 - 1st Stop: Ho Chi Minh City

Here we go again, 10 more weeks of travelling! This time around we’ll be in Vietnam, Laos, China and Japan, so three new countries for us there, a serious haul, and our first new country since The Philippines at Christmas (a whole six months ago, poor us, I know…). We were working in HK right up to the last minute and on top of that, we've just moved out of our apartment, so it was a very hectic few days, getting everything moved out, packing our things and finalising everything for the holiday itself, but we’re here now, at our first destination, Ho Chi Minh City.

GOOOOD MOOORNING VIET--- nah, I can’t do it... 

So, here we are in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon. We flew out from HK to HCMC, via KL, on the morning of June 19th (a ridiculous number of initialisms in that sentence!). We changed our money at the airport into a mixture of US Dollars (which seem to be a secondary currency in most countries around here) and Vietnamese Dong. But seeing as €1 gets you 25,000 Dong, we were left with a serious wad of cash, I could barely fit it all in my wallet. First world problem, I know.

It made me quite self-conscious though, my Dong was making a serious bulge in my pants!

On the flight over, we met a lovely local who gave us some tips for our stay. He also told us that we’d really like Laos because the people are lovely, but the Vietnamese, not so much… I don’t know if he was being modest or honest, although a few other local people so far have told us the same thing. As of now, we’ve no complaints, they’ve all been very nice and friendly to us, but I suppose like any country in the world, you’ve still got to keep your wits about you.

We arrived at our hostel late that evening, so it was straight to bed and then up the next morning for a leisurely walk around the city, as recommended by the Lonely Planet. Our first stop was Ben Thanh Market, which we just walked straight in and out of - once you've seen one traditional market over here, (unless you're looking for something in particular) you've pretty much seen them all. Next, a couple of nice buildings, the Hotel de Ville and the Municipal Theatre, and onto the 70's styled Reunification Palace.

It was a nice enough place, a couple of tanks outside, a few important looking meeting rooms but that seemed to be all. We had read that the basement was the most interesting part but when we went down there, it just seemed to be a set of eerie corridors that led to nowhere. We thought we must've been in the wrong place but as we delved a little deeper the eeriness became all the more eerier (I don't know if either of those are real words...). The corridors became scattered with doorways that led to random, Kafka-esque rooms, with maybe a single desk and a telephone or a machine that looked like it did something really important but impossible to tell what.

This one had TWO telephones!

We finally made our way out of the underground passages, stopped for a milkshake, and then headed to the War Remnants Museum, formerly (and more accurately) known as the Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes. It was one of the most interesting museums I've been to, but not one for the faint-hearted, or if you're a proud American.

It basically documents some of the atrocities of the Vietnam War, and drives the point home with pictures of mutilated bodies, bombed towns and, probably the most horrific of all - the survivors, many of them maimed or disfigured, or the children born with deformities from chemical weapons. I won't put up pictures from here. As I said, not one for patriotic Americans, unless you take pride in seeing pictures of an American GI posing with the corpse of the child he just shot dead. A really interesting museum though, a must-see if you're in the city.

We finished off our tour with, the thoroughly out-of-place, Notre Dame Cathedral (as seen below), and the thoroughly disappointing and hard to find, Jade Emperor Pagoda (as never to be seen again).

The next day, we went on a little day trip to the surrounding areas of HCMC to see the Cao Dai temple in Tay Ninh, and the Cu Chi Tunnels. One thing we've learned over the course of our travels is that you never really see much of note in the big cities, it's always in the small towns or in the countryside where you find the real gems, and today was no different, with two very different, but very enjoyable excursions.

First to the town of Tay Ninh, which is kind of the Vatican City of the Cao Dai faith - a 20th century religion which takes elements from the teachings of Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism, pretty standard stuff. They also have a few saints, you know the usual suspects, Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed... Shakespeare... Napoleon... Joan of Arc... as well as around 70 other "Holy Spirits" such as Winston Churchill, Lenin and Louis Pasteur! Well, if you're going to make up a new religion, then why not bring in the big guns?!

The temple itself was actually really unique and beautiful though, and we even stayed for the 12 o'clock service. Have a look at 54 seconds of it here:

You might as well, seeing as we forgot to make a video diary...

After Tay Ninh, and a stop off for lunch, we went to the Cu Chi Tunnels - an intricate, underground tunnel network built by the local Vietnamese and used by the Viet Cong in their fight against American troops. We first watched a documentary and then the tour guide showed us around, telling us of the ingenious ways the locals fought back - from home-made booby traps, to clever little back-to-front sandals, and of course the tunnels themselves.

At some points, as you can see above, the entrances were little bigger than a shoe box, but underground they widened out and were equipped with ventilation, bomb shelters and booby traps for anyone brave enough, or stupid enough, to follow them in. We crawled our way through one section of the cave alright, but that was more than enough to experience how dark and cramped things were down there.

And that was that for our stay in Ho Chi Minh City. We got the bus back from the tunnels, had dinner and then embarked upon a 16 hour train ride up to Hoi An, sharing a 6 berth cabin with 8 other people - fun times ahead!

Sunday, June 17, 2012

CNY 2012: Myanmar - Part 2

Five months after we went to Myanmar and two days before we go off on our summer holidays, I'm finally getting around to finishing the blog. I don't know why this always happens...

So, we left Inle Lake on the afternoon of the 25th (January 25th, that is), arriving in Mandalay just before sunset. As Aisling was still recovering from her Mandalay Rum induced sickness, we just took it easy the next morning, only going to see two nearby places. First, Mahamuni Pagoda which, despite being the second holiest pilgrimage site in the country and one of the top recommended places to see in Mandalay, wasn't that good at all... Not at all! It's main draw is a 4m high golden Buddha statue, and maybe that's what's so great about the place, but we didn't even get to see it! Women aren't allowed into the statue room, so Aisling had to wait outside, and when I tried to go in, I was turned away for wearing shorts! A disappointing visit all round.

Our second stop of the day, to Shwe In Bin Monastery, was much more enjoyable. The building itself was nice enough - an old, carved wooden structure - but we had great craic with a couple of monks we met there, certainly the highlight of the day for us!

They said they watch Premiership, La Liga and Bundesliga matches every weekend, so we were chatting away to them about that for a while. Quite a surreal experience, having a chat about Villa with two Burmese monks in a Buddhist monastery in Mandalay. (They weren't too impressed with McLeish and thought we shouldn't have let O'Neill go. They are indeed wise...).

That afternoon, we rested, regrouped and headed out again, this time to see a few more sights around the city - Sandamuni Pagoda, Kuthodaw Pagoda and Shwenandaw Monastery.

Kuthadow and Sandamuni were much the same, but both equally beautiful. In fact, I have photos from each of them but can't tell which is which...

They were both full of energy too, not the solemn, respectful places of worship you'd expect, with a group of young, female monks (monkettes... monkees...?) playing hide and seek in among the hundreds upon hundreds of whitewashed stupas, and a local boy running up and down the paths flying a kite, which he eventually got stuck in a tree, and then impressively retrieved from said tree.

The next morning we got a boat across the Irrawaddy River from Mandalay to the small town of Mingun, and we had a lovely half-day there. The town itself really is tiny and so you can take your time, have a stroll around and see everything very easily on foot in a few hours. No need for a posh taxi or anything!

It could have been quite a famous place though when in 1790, work began on building the world's biggest stupa, which was set to peak at 150m, higher than the Great Pyramid at Giza. Unfortunately though, it was never completed due to an astrologer predicting that the king would die once the temple was finished. Work stopped after the base was constructed, so now it's just home to the world's biggest pile of bricks, a less illustrious title.

Mingun also has the world's second largest bell. It's just a town full of nearlys!

We also visited Hsinbyume Pagoda, a large whitewashed temple in the area. Mingun itself is quite a strange place as, apart from the handful of temples and pagodas (still don't know the difference between the two), there's actually very little else in the town, maybe a couple of shops, a couple of restaurants, and that's about it! I like it though, it makes a change from towns just being turned into tourist traps to squeeze any money they can out of visitors, at the expense of the town itself.

We got a boat back to Mandalay that afternoon and made our way up the deceptive Mandalay Hill for sunset. I say deceptive as, at least 4 or 5 times, when we were climbing up, we'd reach a point and think 'ok, this must be the top...' only to see another set of steps leading up further. I know it sounds stupid as it should be fairly obvious when you're at the top of a hill or not, but you'd be surprised!

When we finally did reach the top (the real one), we were less than impressed. There are some very nice places around Mandalay and nearby towns, but the city itself isn't that attractive, just an endless maze of identical dusty roads with no real character to the place, so as you can imagine, the view from the top of the hill wasn't really that good. We even left before the sun actually set.

The next day was our most action packed yet, as we got up early to take a day trip to the three small surrounding towns of Amarapura, Inwa and Sagaing. This is apparently quite a popular route to take, so we left it up to our driver to show us the sights, and first on his list was a monastery in Amarapura where you can watch the hundreds of monks have breakfast.

Although I don't know if it can be classed as breakfast, it was about 10:15. Brunch maybe...?

It was actually a really fascinating sight to behold, although the amount of tourists there was horrible. It must be quite annoying for the monks having to put up with this every morning, especially with some ridiculously obnoxious individuals unashamedly shoving cameras in their faces. I did take a few photos too of course... but at a distance! And even then I felt bad about it!

Because of this (and to beat the crowds for the rest of the day), we left early and went to the next town along, Sagaing, and in particular, Sagaing Hill. It was a great decision to leave the monastery early as we had the whole place to ourselves and what a beautiful place it was! Probably the nicest hilltop pagoda we've been to on our travels, shitting all over Mandalay Hill in every respect!

Even the tiled floors were pretty!

We stayed there for a while, enjoying the view, until the crowds started to catch up with us again, so we bolted off to the next town, Inwa, a former Burmese capital. We stopped for lunch before crossing the river and embarking upon a three hour horse and cart ride around the historic circuit.

So, we made our way along the bumpy dirt paths, stopping every so often at temples, monasteries and watch towers. It's hard to believe this place was once an ancient capital, when now it's little more than a village. Well worth a visit though!

Our last stop of the day was where we had started off, Amarapura, this time to see the famous U Bein Bridge, the longest teak bridge in the world and an iconic symbol here in Myanmar. It was an incredible sight too, I've never taken so many photos of the same thing! We arrived there in good time, so we took a walk to the other side and back (1.2km each way) and then hired a boat to watch the sunset across the water.

A lovely way to end the day, or any day for that matter! Every day should end with a view like this!

And that was our last day in Mandalay. The next morning we flew back to Yangon. We had actually kinda been looking forward to the flight back just for the airplane food. You see, the last time we were in Myanmar, we flew back to Yangon with Yangon Airways and got two slices of cake each. This time, we were with Air Mandalay, and all we got was a crappy cheese sandwich, and that was it! So there's my tip for this entry - don't fly Air Mandalay. Ya, they're safe and efficient and everything, if that's what you want from an airline... but if you want cake, fly Yangon Airways!

On our way into the city from Yangon airport, we shared a taxi with a lovely Indian guy named Roger. We got chatting and he was telling us how he was in town looking to invest and that he had found a 200 acre plot of land on the outskirts of Yangon for $60k, so whatever that is, €45k or something. So anyone looking to invest, Myanmar is the place to be!

On our last day in Yangon and Myanmar, we just took it easy and went for a stroll around the city and up to Kandawgyi Lake, as seen above. We also returned to out tiny, tiny room in Yoma Hotel and made a little video diary. I say little, but it was actually anything but! Our video diaries are usually 4 or 5 minutes max, but for this one, I had to cut down 14 mins of video into something more manageable, so... eh... enjoy!

And that was Myanmar! Our second visit here, and although it was very different from our first time around, it was still a hugely enjoyable trip. We'd love to come back here again someday but who knows when that will be or what state the country will be in...

Anyway, as I said at the top, we're off on our summer adventures in two days so look forward to more blog updates from Vietnam, Laos, China and Japan! Until then, toodle-oo!