Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Travels: Saigon & Mui Ne, Vietnam

Vietnam was the country that I was the most excited for before we began our journey. Unfortunately, it was the biggest disappointment of our trip.
After the warm and friendly people of Cambodia and Laos we felt harassed and bullied by taxi drivers, street hawkers and hotel staff upon our arrival in HCMC (Saigon).
The traffic in Saigon was crazy and overwhelming, but also really amazing (for the first hour anyways). Crossing the road there required you to just walk out into a sea of moving motorbikes, who just parted, and flowed around you. It was terrifying but also really cool.
We took a day trip to the Cu Chi tunnels, a place where communist soldiers lived during the war. It was shocking to hear all of the comments about "crazy devil evil Americans" or the communist fighters who won special awards for killing the most Americans. I quickly realized that we would only be getting one side of the story! Interestingly enough, the Southern Vietnamese who fought alongside the Americans were not mentioned.
After leaving Saigon we went to Mui Ne, famed for it's beach and sand dunes. After a run-in with an extremely rude hotel/restaurant worker, we settled into a decent room and went out to erplore the town. The beach was not great ... at all, but the sand dunes were awesome. We went on a tour to the Fairy Stream, a fishing village and the red sand dunes. Well worth the time, money and the trip to Mui Ne.
From Mui Ne we took our first sleeper bus ... and that's when we really started to regret our decision to visit Vietnam.
To be continued ... I have a flight to catch!
xoxo

Travels: Phnom Pehn, Cambodia

After an amazing time in Siem Reap we went to Cambodia's capital, Phnom Pehn.
Bigger, louder, dirtier and more confusing than Siem Reap, but still full of really lovely people.
We visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields. Both very upsetting, but informative and important to understanding Cambodia's recent history. They gave me a better understanding of the atrocities suffered, and of the amazing growth that has been made since the genocide occurred.
After 2 nights in Phnom Pehn we were ready for our next destination - Vietnam!

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Travels: Internet Issues

Sometimes I cannot wait to get home ... for the decent internet connection!

I have tried uploading photos to facebook, blogger and emails so many times, wasted countless hours, and have not managed to have any luck doing so in weeks. I'm getting very frustrated.

Now, I am in Vietnam, and Facebook seems to be blocked.
It was working in Saigon, the southern part of the country, but now in Mui Ne I am having no luck. Even proxy sites aren't working. Very frustrating.
Any tips on getting around this?

Things are still going well, but not being able to stay in touch with friends and family is very frustrating. At least I have more time for blogging...

On the menu for today: A bus ride from Mui Ne to Nha Trang (5 hours) and then immediately get on a bus from Nha Trang to Hoi An (11 hours). It's not going to be a fun day!

Oh- and my bug bite allergy has returned (it was suprisingly dormant in Laos and Cambodia). Usually my huge swollen bites only get bad around my ankles and lower legs, but I woke up last night realizing my biggest fear since I discovered this allergy to southeast asian mosquitos - facial bites!
Thats right, 2 big bites on the left side of my forehead, and one where my right eyebrow stops. They hurt, and I look like a monster. So far no pus, but they are soooo swollen. My corticosteriod cream + allergy meds regime isn't working. Cross your fingers for me.
The only positive? They are better than Botox - I've tried wrinkling my forehead, and no luck. Yay for the anti-aging properties of giagantic allergic reactions!
Clearly I am not a happy camper today.

More updates from Hoi An ... I need to go ice my face.

xoxo
Maddie

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Travels: Siem Reap, Cambodia

We left Southern Laos bright and early in the morning, and were ferried to the mainland. After an hour and a half wait for our bus to show up we boarded to find that all of the large reclining seats were full and we were stuck in small seats at the back of the bus.
We quickly arrived at the Laos/Cambodia border, and were in for an interesting experience. There was a "stamping fee", and fee to pass the health check, and an inflated visa processing fee. After being scammed and ripped off for an hour we were back on the bus, on our way into Cambodia.
We were supposed to arrive in Siem Reap at 9pm .. making it a 13 hour bus ride. We arrived at 1am. 17 hours. Worst bus ride ever!
We then set out to find a room, checking at 4 guest houses before finding one with available rooms. By 2am we were settled and ready for some sleep.

The next morning we woke up, and after a nice breakfast decided to head to the temples of Angkor. After buying the $40 pass we were ready to go!

On our first day we saw the complex of Angkor Thom, and we very impressed.

Our second day included sunrise at Angkor Wat, a midday break by our pool, then Ta Phrom (filming location of Tomb Raider) and a few other tmeples in the afternoon.

On the third day we made the best decision of our trip, visiting Beng Mealea, a temple about 75km from Siem Reap. It was described as the "big sister" to Ta Phrom, and it did not disappoint. It was set out in the jungle, and was totally overgrown with trees and vines, and falling apart. The guide led us through the crumbling ruins, and it was actually strenuous to climb over the fallen stones. It was one of my favourite parts of our trip so far. So so cool!

The temples near Siem Reap were incredible, and I'd love to return someday. Another great part of the city is the food. We ate really well in Siem Reap. One of the really cool things was that many of the restaurants we visited were in place to fund charities for disadvantaged families, people with disabilities, and children involved in street begging. Good food and good causes - a win-win!

Friday, April 23, 2010

Travels: Southern Laos

We decided to spend our first day in the Si Phan Don (4000 Island) area of southern Laos on Don Khong, the "city" island. Lonely Planet introduced it as being laid back. That is the understatement of the year.
The island was almost too quiet. The only activity was sitting at a restaurant and enjoying the gorgeous view. We decided that we were looking for a bit more adventure so decided to rent a motor bike for the day. Luckily George had a bike in Korea, so I trusted him on the near empty roads of Don Khong!
We drove around for a few hours, enjoying the views of palm trees, fields, small villages, cows and water buffalos.
Unfortunately I suffered yet another accident, and badly burnt the inside of my calf on the boiling hot exhaust pipe when getting off the bike at one of our spots. It's still healing - almost 2 weeks later!
Upon trying to find internet we ended up at an internet cafe - which turned out to be in a family's living room.

Finding things a little too relaxed, we took a boat the next day to the more lively islands of Don Det and Don Khon which are further south.
We stayed for 3 nights on Don Det and really enjoyed our time there.
Although it was also quite low-key, there were great biking trails criss-crossing both islands, many restaurants and convenience stores, and even a few internet cafes that weren't in anyone's living room. Overall, just more convenient for tourists.

In our time there we rode bikes around the islands, stopping at a waterfall, and swimming with some locals, sampled some good food, sat on hammocks drinking Beer Laos and floated around the islands on inner tubes.
I also spent some time nursing my 2nd degree burn from the stupid motorbike. By day 2 the whole area turned black and I had some nasty scabbing, bistering and peeling. Attempts to put gauze over top to protect from the dusty streets and bike chain just made things worse!

We finally decided to tear ourselves away from Southern Laos in order to go to Cambodia, but it wasn't easy.

Our 2 weeks in Laos were amazing, much in part to the warm and friendly people there. I would reccommend it to anyone, and I would love to go back someday!

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Update

I've been bad at keeping my blog up to date lately - sorry!

Updates to come on Southern Laos and Cambodia soon.

Tomorrow we head to Vietnam ... and apparently Facebook is blocked there - on no!

Hopefully I'll be able to access Blogger ... but if not I'll be back at it by May 8th :)

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Travels: Vientiane

Vientiane is the capital city of Laos. Although it's beautiful, there isn't a whole lot to do!
We arrived with our friends Kailey and Ethan mid-day, and after finding all guesthouses to be dirty and overpriced, we decided to treat ourselves for the night and checked into a new hotel ... for the low price of $20 (not exactly fitting our budget, but in comparison to home, a really good price).
On our first evening we went to Patouxai, Vientiane's version of the Arc de Triomphe and walked around the surrounding park.
The next day we took a local bus (hot, sweaty and crowded) out to Buddha Park. The park was smaller than I expected, but had some neat statues, mixing Hinduism and Buddhism. Not sure if it was worth the long trip, but there wasn't much else to do in Vientiane.

That night we said goodbye to our awesome travels buddies and boarded a sleeper bus (a bus with twin beds instead of seats) to Southern Laos.

For me the highlight of Vientiane was the food. It was especially welcome after Vang Vieng, where I don't think we had any quality meals! There wasn't a lot to do, but it was a relaxing place with a nice, laid back vibe, and I enjoyed our short visit.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Travels: Luang Prabang & Vang Vieng

Our first day at the waterfall left us with the impression that we'd found a pretty place to cool off and beat the heat. We weren't aware how much more there was to see!
A few people had told us to climb to the top, through a stream, past some wooden stairs, that it would be totally worth it. We set out to discover this less frequented area of the waterfall and were not disappointed.
After climbing up some trails, and then some stairs, we had to wade through a tiny branch of the waterfall ... over trees and rocks, which luckily were not too slippery. We were rewarded by reaching one of the coolest places I've ever seen. Near the top of the waterfall there is a large, deep pool, surrounded by more waterfalls, and cliffs perfect for jumping. It was exhilarating to jump into the cold water, and realize what an amazing place we'd found. One by one, people leapt in, and without fail surfaced with huge smiles on their faces. We spent the majority of the afternoon there, and it was definitely on of the highlights of our trip so far!

The rest of our time in Luang Prabang was spent eating good food, relaxing, and checking out a few temples.
On Wednesday we took a mini van to Vang Vieng ... the site of the infamous Laos tubing. The ride was about 6 hours long, and the winding, narrow roads made it quite stressful. Luckily it takes a lot to make me carsick, so I was able to read and ignore the bad road conditions. However, when I did dare to look up from my book I was rewarded with some absolutely stunning scenery.

Vang Vieng is basically a party town. It is filled with foreigners and bars. The major draw is tubing ... you rent an inner tube and float down the river, stopping at bars along the way. I was really excited to be in the water all day, but it turned out that most of the bars were in a small stretch at the beginning of the route, so after 2 hours we'd only moved about 100m. After that we skipped the bars, and just enjoyed the ride downriver, amazed at the scenery (if you haven't picked up on it already, Laos is gorgeous!). The tubing was fun, but there were so many crazy activities taking place that I was nervous the whole time that I'd have to put my expired first aid skills to use. Most bars have giant rope swings for customers to swing on. However, the river is so shallow in places that I was terrified watching people swing. Also, drinking and water sports is never a good idea, but Vang Vieng seems to take it to a whole new level!
Overall, a neat idea, but maybe I'm just a worrier ... it scared the $&@$ our of me!

Tomorrow we're moving on to the capital city - Vientiane for 2 nights, then onto Southern Laos.

So far I've enjoyed Laos so much more than Thailand. The atmosphere, natural beauty and the people are amazing. I'm really looking forward to the rest of our time here!

Monday, April 5, 2010

Travels: Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang is in north central Laos and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is a quiet, beautiful little town, with old French style buildings, lots of palm trees, and an abundance of friendly locals and travellers alike.

On Sunday morning we woke up, switched guesthouses and set out on foot to explore. After walking to Wats (temples), a river-side cafe, the market and an internet cafe we were hot and tired. It was in the high 30's so I guess that's understandable! We had dinner and walked through the night market with friends and then met some other friends for a drink. Luang Prabang has a midnight curfew, so we were home werl before then, tired after a long, hot and active day.

This morning we woke up early in order to be at Big Brother Mouse (a volunteer organization which promotes literacy) only to find that too many volunteers and not enough students had come to the morning session. Luckily they organization also publishes books for kids, and we bought a few pocket sized ones to distribute to kids along our travels.

We then visited Wat Xieng Thong, which was a beautiful temple on the river.

We had breakfast with our new friends, a couple (Ethan and Kailey) at a gorgeous restaurant over looking the river.

As the day got too hot (around 38 today), the four of us found a tuk tuk to take us to a waterfall about 30km from town. We were shocked on the way there to have a group of kids, and then a grown woman douse our truck with buckets of water. We strill arent sure if they are starting the new year festivities early, o0r if it's just a usual occurence! On the way home we were hit about 5 times, but managed to fight back with our own waterbottles.

We arrived at the waterfalls and spent a few hours checking out the different levels of pools, all a bright turquoise blue. It was so nice to have a break from the heat.

So nice in fact that we're planning on going back tomorrow ... but this time armed with water guns of our own!

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Travels: Thailand to Laos

After 2 amazing days at Elephant Nature Park we boarded a night bus from Chiang Mai to Chiang Khong, a town on the Thailand-Laos border.

We arrived at 2am, slept for a few hours, and were up again before 7 to eat breakfast, check out of the guesthouse and take a boat across the border into Laos.

After obtaining our Laos visa and changing some currency we were off on a series of very confusing stops, at a travel agency and a restaurant to be offered advice and services before boarding the boat.


Around 10 am we finally boarded the boat in Huay Xai and scored some amazing seats at the front of the boat (basically the folding back seats of a van!) and found that we had sat down with a really great group of people. The hours passed quickly and without too much discomfort we arrived in Pakbeng. The travel time was from about 10:40am - 5:30pm. After dinner and a few Beer Lao it was an early night, in hopes to be up early enough to score good seats once again.

Unfortunately we chose wrong - opting for a large open area of floor at the front of the boat instead of tiny wooden benches, because many people got on as the boat stopped at small villages along the river. For a few hours I had a woman sitting almost on top of me. The combination of the hard floor, cramped conditions, lack of sleep and the sweltering heat made today's journey (9:30am-6pm) a lot less enjoyable!

Upon arriving in Luang Prabang we set out to find accommodations with another couple, only to walk across town with heavy bags and get caught in a downpour. For the first few minutes it was a welcome relief from the heat, but we grew a bit frustrated as we found ourselves crossing a sketchy bridge (twice), waking through mud, and searching in vain for the place we had been told about. After a few team meetings we settled on the next place we found which turned out to be quite nice.

More on Luang Prabang soon!!!

xoxo
Maddie

Travels: Elephant Nature Park

Just over an hour out of Chiang Mai lies a little slice of heaven - Elephant Nature Park. We had heard about the park years ago and had been dying to go ever since. On Wednesday and Thursday of last week we were lucky enough to do so. The park is home to 30 rescued elephants, about 70 dogs, and countless cats, cows and water buffalo. It is a conservation centre, so the focus is on the elephants - no riding, painting or other such exploitative things. It was started by an amazing woman named Lek, who is so inspiring. Her compassion for animals in a society where it is not commonplace is remarkable, and it was really neat to see the way that all of the animals at the park reacted to her.

We were picked up early Wednesday morning and taken to the park, where we were given a briefing on safety and some coffee. After that we helped to feed watermelons and bananas to an older elephant. It was a really neat experience, and I was so excited each time she grabbed fruit out of my hand with her extremely dexterous trunk. FYI: Elephant trunks are covered with wiry hair, and tend to be pretty snotty/drool-y, but are really really cool!


After more elephant feeding we were fed an amazing buffet lunch, and then got into the river with the elephants for bath time. It basically involved us throwing buckets of water on them while watching out for any floating elephant poo.

After watching some of the younger (and more uncontrollable) elephants have their bath time we went inside to watch a documentary about elephants in Thailand. I was shocked to learn how terribly they are treated, and how awful the tourist attractions are. We learned that all trained elephants go through a technique called crushing, in which they are built into a traction-like apparatus, and tortured for days on end to break their spirits and establish the mahouts role as boss. This is not an ancient or out-of-date practice, all elephants who are ridden, who are painting, who are street begging, or who are working in the logging industry or farming have gone through this terrible experience. The video footage was so disturbing, and the fact that this is so common and accepted is horrible. We also learned that the use of hooks by mahouts is the most common technique for training and controlling elephants. The mahouts at Elephant Nature Park are not allowed to use hooks, and are all being trained to treat elephants with more respect than the average mahout. I was so glad we chose to support a place that rescued elephants from abuse, as opposed to one that abused elephants for our touristy enjoyment.

After the program ended on day 1 we had "free time" which we chose to spend at the baby elephant corral, encouraging a mischievous little boy to come over for a scratch behind the ears.

The first day ended with another amazing meal, and then we chose to have Thai massages before bed. The "70 dog chorus" managed to keep us up a lot of the night, but aside from that the accommodations were great!

Day 2 stated early with breakfast and a walk through the park to "meet" all of the elephants. We approached each pair or group, learned their (mostly devastatingly sad) stories, and if they were friendly, were able to feed or pet them. This was my favourite part of the experience, getting up close and personal with so many elephants, but it was also so sad to hear about the terrible things these animals had suffered through. There were so many injuries, from broken ankles, to a broken pelvis, to blindness (caused by purposeful human attack), to a land mine injury. However, this reality check was enough to turn me off of elephants in the tourism industry forever and further cemented my belief that the work being done by the park is a great thing. At the end of the 2nd day I found myself wishing I was staying for a longer time, and vowed to return someday for a longer volunteer experience. As we left the park, a staff member pointed out some elephant trekking camps on the road back to town. After spending 2 days looking at healthy and happy elephants the contrast was shocking and disgusting - the trekking elephants were so thin and kept in horrible conditions. I wish that the truth about this terrible industry was known by more people.

Elephant Nature Park is truly a wonderful place, and I was so happy to have been able to experience it.
Please check out the website: http://elephantnaturefoundation.org/ to learn more about the park, and the elephants who live there ... and think about visiting the park if you are ever in Thailand!

(pictures to come if I can ever find some high speed internet!!)

Monday, March 29, 2010

Travels: Chiang Mai

We rolled into Chiang Mai early on Sunday morning after a cramped and uncomfortable 12 hours on a sleeper bus.

The entire bus load of people was taken directly to a guesthouse, given coffee and forced to listen to a pitch from the tour company that ran out of that guesthouse. As soon as it finished we left to find other accommodations, but probably should have stayed at the first place, as it had a swimming pool! I think we'll check back in tomorrow and spend the day lounging by the pool.

We found a room for about $7/night and after catching up on some sleep decided to check out the Sunday market and the Sunday market street. We bought a few things but had to walk away from some really cool stuff. You could spend a lot of money in Chiang Mai!


In the evening we walked a few kms to the Night Market to see the goods. We also discovered a Subway restaurant ... I might have to go there before we leave for Laos.

We also went to the office of Elephant Nature Park to book our visits. Unfortunately they are very busy so we aren't able to visit the park until Wednesday, meaning more time here than we'd initially planned. However this is something we'd both been dreaming of since university, so well worth the wait! We'll be going for an overnight visit on Wednesday.
Today, with time to spare we decided to visit Tiger Kingdom. Like Tiger Temple near Bangkok there is controversy surrounding the park, because it seems unbelievable that tigers would allow people to touch them, lay on them etc. We were torn between our desire to see tigers, and our ethical concerns. After visiting the park I feel a bit better. The tigers that you can visit have all been bred in captivity, and are used to handling by humans from birth. They are mostly uninterested, and just lay there, panting because it is so hot. Whether they are drugged or not, I can't say, however, as we walked around and saw all of the tigers who were not "visiting" that day, we saw the majority asleep anyways. Also, the tigers we were in the cage with proceeded to get up and change positions while we were there, and to go for a dip in their pool shortly after we left. Either way, I believe that although captivity isn't ideal for any animal, that it's the lesser of 2 evils. Tigers are still hunted illegally in Thailand, and here they are safe, healthy, and able to reproduce. So although its sad to see them caged, they are not chained, have large, clean enclosures, lots of shade, pools, and staff that seems to enjoy working with them. We spent 15 minutes with the newborns (2 months) and 15 minutes with the adults (1.5 years) and then were free to walk around the park and look at all of the other tigers. Overall I was happy with the experience, and was glad to see that the park was large, clean, and that the tigers appeared to be very healthy and well cared for!

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Travels - Bangkok & Ayuthaya

We managed to get everything in Korea packed up and left Busan on Thursday night. Even though I've been ready to leave for awhile, I really realized how great of a year it had been, and how thankful I am for the whole experience.
After taking the KTX to Seoul on Thursday, we spent the night at Quan's house, then caught an early flight to Bangkok. The flight was terrible - turbulence the whole time, and a huge amount on the landing. However, we flew Jin Aur, Korea's new budget airline and it was pretty entertaining. There were party beats playing when we got on the plane, and the flight attendants were wearing brightly coloured polo shirts, jeans, ball caps and converse sneakers!
When we landed after 6 hours we were tired but ready to explore. We took a taxi to meet Nick, George's high school friend who has been travelling for about 6.5 months (On a side note - check out his amazing website - http://theworldonatoilet.com/). Nick's uncle has an apartment in Bangkok, so we were lucky enough to stay there. We ventured out to eat some street food for lunch ($1 each and delicious) and then took a water taxi towards the Grand Palace. The boat ride was pretty wild. We took a tuk-tuk ride to the Grand Palce, only to find out that it was closed for the night. We were lucky that next door was Wat Pho, which was still open. We explored the grounds and saw the main attraction, a giant reclining Buddah.
After Wat Pho, we walked to nearby Khao San Road, a famous backpackers street. On the way there we walked through the main protest area, and found ourselves surrounded by red-shirted protesters. Luckily the mood was quite festive, and many people were just relaxing, selling goods and giving massages.
Khao San Road was overwhelming. The most foreigners I've seen since leaving for Korea a year ago. There is incredible shopping, and tons of nightlife, but it isn't somewhere I'd want to spend much time.
This morning we woke up and took a van to Ayuthaya. We've spent the last 4 hours biking around to all of the temple ruins on the island. It is hot here today - in the low 30's, so we're taking a break in a nice air conditioned internet cafe. The sights here are amazing ... red-ish brick temples and ruins set in large parks ... it's really spectacular. I spent the first hour running around like a kid in a candy shop, but was soon too hot to express how excited I was! It finally hit me how awesome it is to be here, and how many amazing things I'll see in the coming weeks.

This evening we're going to watch the sunset over an off-island temple, and then boarding a bus to Chiang Mai at 8pm. We'll arrive tomorrow morning at 7am ... that's right, 11 hours on a bus!
Luckily it has big reclining seats, a/c and a bathroom, so we should be pretty comfortable.
More updates and pictures to come tomorrow once we're settled in Chaing Mai!
xoxo
Maddie

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

It was a sad day, bad day, sad day, bad day

This is my last post from school ... sad, sad day.

I just taught my last class, said all my goodbyes, and probably terrified the students and staff with my splotchy-faced crying!

Some days it was hard to realize, but I was really lucky this past year. The staff and students here are wonderful and treated me with a lot of kindness.

I will miss Jangan Elementary School :(

Friday, March 19, 2010

Leaving town, leaving town.

Less than a week left in Korea!

This is my last weekend, I have 3 days of teaching left, and only 7 sleeps until Bangkok.
Where did the time go?!

I am so excited to do some travelling and then return to Canada, but I am really going to miss certain aspects of Korea.

Oo Mi has arrived home safely!!!!!!!!
I highly recommend petairline.co.kr. The representative did an excellent job, and patiently answered my millions of questions, and saved us the stress of having to navigate customs by ourselves.

Speaking of recommendations, here are mine:

Bocky's Best of Busan

Non-Korean Food: Blowfish in Songjeong makes the best burgers in the city hands down and there are 2 adorable pet cats to play with; Sunset Lounge in Mipo has a wide selection, and specials each day; For Vietnamese food, Pho Mien in the Benecity building in Dongbaek is phenomenal; for amazing Japanese BBQ go to Jangsan station, exit 4, walk straight to Hinomura (S set is great for 2 people); Mexican food - Taco Senora, Haeundae.

Korean food: well, aside from the classics at o-shops (orange signed Kimbap shops, otherwise known as 김밥충국) such as kimchi jiggae, cheomchi dapbap and kimchi bokk eum bap there are some excellent Korean foods to be found. In Jangsan I like mix things up between bbq, sundubu and shabu shabu and George swears by Geomjatong.
For navigating O-shops, check out this awesome blog post:
http://maryeats.com/2006/11/16/kimbap-nara-menu/

Sights around Busan:
Haedongyounggungsa temple, Songjeong
UN Cemetery
Beomeosa temple and hiking
Oncheonjang cable car
Seokbulsa temple
Busan tower
Botanical gardens, Oncheonjang
Igidae Park

Drinks:
Blowfish, Songjeong - great summertime beach bar, awesome staff
Thursday party, Gwangalli - can't beat the view
Rock and Roll House, Haeundae - again, great view

Shopping:
Nampodong outdoor and underground
Seomyeon underground
PNU

And there you have my favourite places in Busan!