Olivier and Sven goofing around in Asia

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Shopping in Thailand (June 6 - 9, Sven)

Posted by goofingaroundinasia on June 22, 2009 at 5:25 AM Comments comments (2)

Chiang Rai

Travelling from Luang Nam Tha to Thailand went very smoothly - took a tuk tuk to the bus station and took the bus from there to Huay Xai. About 4 hours later the bus dropped me off in Huay Xai. A tuk tuk took me to Laos immigration, got my stamp and exchanged my remaining kip into baht. Took the ferry across the Mekong to the Thailand immigration office (well, after having my temperature taken to make sure I didn't have swine flu :p), and got my 15-day permit. A moto took me to the bus station where I decided to take a bus to Chiang Rai.

I had decided to go to Chiang Rai quite last notice, so I wasn't really prepared,  didn't read up on it and didn't know what to expect. I wasn't too impressed when I arrived though. I checked into the nearest guesthouse and walked around; didn't really like the city, quite dirty and noisy, not cosy at all, and few people spoke English there. Had dinner and decided to check out the night market, because after all that was what I came to Thailand for in the first place: shopping. I wanted to buy some souvenirs and send them back home as the postal services in Thailand are known to be quite efficient. Well, the night market was cosy, there was live music and the food was great, but I wasn't really impressed with the stuff that was being sold. A lot of clothing, jewelry, shoes - but not many original souvenirs. So I decided to only buy a few things and do some more shopping in Chiang Mai.

Chiang Mai

Spending one night in Chiang Rai was more than enough, so I decided to move on to Chiang Mai the next day. The day started with frustration though: when I wanted to check out of my guesthouse the staff (2 people) couldn't give me my passport back because they didn't have the key to the office - their boss would "come later on today" (whatever that means in Asia :)). I got angry and made them clear that I needed my passport right now. It took them a while, but they managed to call their boss who came over to return my passport. Phew!

Once at the bus station I met Anders, a Danish guy I decided to travel together with for a few days. We also met Domino and Patricia, quite a funny couple. He's the drummer of a Thai band, she 's from the UK. She was drinking whiskey early in the morning and couldn't stop talking; also making a lot of noise in the bus. I must admit that at some point I wish she would shut up, but when we arrived in Chiang Mai Domino and Patricia offered us to give us a ride to the hostel. Patricia had sobered up a bit and we had great fun in the car. Whenever we would have questions or need help we could call them. It once made me think how people tend to judge others easily: when I first saw them I thought "oh my god, what a marginal couple", but they turned out really nice and hospitable (although I don't approve their lifestyle :p).

We decided to stay at Spicy Thai's Backpacker Hostel, where Simo (a Swiss cs'er I had e-mailed with before when we were both planning to travel to Cambodia) had been working for 6 weeks. Simo was really nice and it was great meeting her. The hostel, however, was a bit expensive and they only had dorm rooms available. The atmosphere was great though, lots of backpackers talking about travelling and exchanging travel stories and advice. I did realize though that I wasn't used to dorm rooms anymore - everyone's luggage was spread out the entire room, people snoring, always having to be quiet when entering the room -  but it was a great experience for one night :)

At night we went to the Sunday market. Simo had told us how great it is, so I had big expectations - and rightfully. Chiang Mai's Sunday Market - held every Sunday - is HUUUUGE and full of souvenir stalls. We walked around the whole evening and I bought lots of original souvenirs . I was glad I didn't buy that much in Chiang Rai the day before! After shopping Anders and I decided to check out some live music. Went to two places, among Riverside Cafe (or something like that) ; the band that played there was great.

The next morning Anders and I decided to check out of Spicy Thai and head to the city centre to find cheaper accommodation. We found a nice guesthouse right in the city centre. After checking in I decided to take all the souvenirs I bought -  along with some stuff I didn't need anymore and wanted to send back home - to the post office. They really seemed to be used to tourists sending stuff : everything fitted perfectly in the box they gave me and filling out the forms necessary only took about 10 minutes. And I was glad not having to drag around those 6 extra kilograms anymore :p

We didn't do that much the rest of the day : went to a book shop and met up with Simo and some others cs'ers at night. Didn't hang out that late though, just had dinner and some ice cream.

The next day Anders and I both went our own ways - I was flying to Singapore, he was going to Pai for a few days before going back home.

- Sven





Laos (Sven, May 26 - June 6)

Posted by goofingaroundinasia on June 5, 2009 at 5:57 AM Comments comments (1)

As I previously mentioned, I had doubted whether to go to Laos or not, thinking it would be comparable to Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam. But everyone I asked seemed to really like it there, so I decided to give it a try.

As all flights to Vientiane or Luang Prabang were quite expensive, I decided to book the 25-hour bus from Hanoi to Vientiane. A very reputed itinerary, as I had read on the internet - it's just a basic bus with no comfort and no air conditioning, travelers are crammed into the bus together with heaps of luggage so you have no leg space, they stop underway to load more luggage and sometimes people have to move, who objects is being shouted at and there's really not much you can do. Well, it was exactly like that, but I have been through worse situations during this trip so I decided not to get irritated. I took a seat in the back and had a lot of leg space, listened to some music, talked to fellow travelers and even managed to sleep for about 5 hours.

Crossing the border wasn't too much of a hassle - exchanging some remaining Vietnamese Dongs into Lao Kip, checking out on the Vietnamese side and getting a Visa On Arrival at the Laos side. Well the way they work is not efficient at all, but I got used to it already. To get your Visa you first have to fill out a form at office 13, that person keeps your passport and gives you a paper. You have to take that paper and go to office 6 to pay the Visa fee. They stamp the ticket and you have to go back to office 13 to get your passport back. Then you have to go to office 10 to get your immigration stamp. The office numbers don't make sense, it takes a while and people are wandering around, but eventually it all works out - as it usually does :)


When I arrived in Vientiane, I decided to first have dinner with 2 fellow travelers, then my cs host Anna picked me up. She's living just outside the city center together with her boyfriend Patrick and two Lao students of her who both have the name Noy.  Had a chat with Anna and then helped Noy with her homework on the present simple - fun to do some English teaching :p

The next day I decided to walk to the center to do some sightseeing. A local approached me and offered me a ride ; free of charge. He turned out to be retired and now spending a lot of time coaching the local football team. He dropped me off at the start of my walk, Patuxai. Reminiscent of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, this is Vientiane's most prominent monument. Unlike the Arc de Triomphe though, it boasts 4, rather than 2, archways. A stairway leads up and from the top you have a beautiful view over the city and Th Lan Xang, a very big and long road reminiscent of the Champs Elysées. The rest of the walk took me to Talat Sao (a local market), the presidential palace, several temples and the riverside. There I decided to stop at a local restaurant to try the Khào jii páa-té, a French baguette stuffed with Lao-style paté, vegetables and dressings. It was delicious, though a bit spicy, so I had a good excuse to flush it down with a Lao beer :)

Continued my walk, then decided to do some reading along the riverfront. There I found this Belgian restaurant (don't remember the name). Well I couldn't resist to order some vol-au-vent with French fries and a Chimay Bleu. I ended up talking to two other Belgians. They both lived in Laos for quite some time already and gave me some good advice on the itinerary I wanted to take and wasn't sure about.

The next day, I got up early and rented a motorbike. One of the Belgians had advised me drive to Ang Nam Ngum (Nam Ngum Reservoir). The reservoir wasn't that impressive, but the drive was fun as it went through several villages. Back in Vientiane I met up with Kent and Allison, an Australian couple Olivier and I had met in Delhi, we were all staying at the same cs host's place and had a lot of fun there. We kept in touch ever since and it seemed that our itineraries would cross - time to catch up. It was great to see them again and even more, it turned out to be Allison's birthday so we decided to throw a party (funny anecdote is that the baker didn't understand Kent very well and put "Happy Birthday Il" on the birthday cake - instead of "Al" :)). We had a lot of fun and we all ended up quite drunk (we remember to have ordered 4 Lao beer towers of 3l, ahum?). Because my host's place was quite far, they offered me to "couchsurf" with them :p

The next day we didn't do much as we were all hungover. Watched some TV, walked around and shopped a bit. In the evening I got back to Anna's place and watched a movie with Anna and Patrick.

The next morning Kent, Allison and I took the bus to Vang Vieng.

Vang Vieng

 I had heard a lot about Vang Vieng and was afraid that I wouldn't like it as the Lonely Planet describes it as very touristy, though beautiful nature around, so I decided to check it out.

The first night we had quite a party and Kent and I decided to try a "mushroom shake". Quite an experience for sure, it sure messes with your mind. Nice to have tried it but I'm not eager to try it again :p

Well one thing Vang Vieng is famous for is "tubing", floating down the Nam Song river on tractor inner tubes, so we couldn't miss out on that. It turned out to be a nice and relaxing day, floating down the river and stopping by some of the riverside bars, watching people jump off swings into the water. When we got back we decided to have dinner at one of the bars playing "Friends". Yep, that's another thing Vang Vieng is famous for - bars with TV's playing all episodes of "Friends" over and over again. Well, fun for one night, but after a few days I was "friends"-ed out :p

As we wanted to get a bit off the tourist trail and discover the surrounding nature and villages, we rented motorbikes the next day. We had read about a trail in our Lonely Planet, describing the trail as "roads are bad and the trail can be difficult, if not impossible, during the rainy season". Can't be too hard we thought and we were up for a challenge! Well the road trip was great fun and the nature astonishing, but then it got to rain quite heavily. We got soaking wet and the roads turned into mud pools. One time we got totally stuck in the mud. Fortunately there were 2 locals on a small tractor around (they got stuck as well), they helped us lift our bikes out of the mud and take them further down the trail.

We helped them push their tractor out of the mud, so everybody was happy :) It started to rain even harder and the roads were very slippery. Also, we had to cross several small rivers. After crossing one of these rivers my engine stopped and I couldn't start my motorbike anymore! Fortunately, I eventually got it started so we could continue our journey.

Once back in town Allison decided she'd had enough of motorbiking for the day and Kent and I decided to continue driving around the area. We followed part of the main road to Luang Prabang, which offers beautiful views. We saw people at a local restaurant grilling something which smelled very nice, and as we were hungry we decided to stop. When we asked what kind of meat it was we first understood "duck" but it turned out to be "dog". I didn't get the chance to try it in Vietnam and Kent had tried it before and said it wasn't bad, so we decided to have some. The meat was a bit chewy but very good. Tastes delicious with a good Lao Beer :p

Luang Prabang

The next day we decided to move on to Luang Prabang. The bus ride took about 7 hours, but the views were amazing.

Once arrived there we decided to look around for a guesthouse. We ended up staying at Guesthouse Manichan (Ban Pakham, Louang Prabang, tel. +856 030 5141273, peter_vandevelde@yahoo.co.uk), run by a Belgian guy and his Lao wife. The price was fair, rooms were clean and Peter and his wife were very friendly and helpful. We had dinner by the riverfront and went to an internet café to catch up on e-mail afterwards.

Funny to mention: in some hotels reading the hotel regulation can be quite funny. A few of the rules quoted from Manichan's Guesthouse:

"Do not any drugs, crambling or bring both women and men which is not your own husband or wife into the room for making love"

"Do not allow domestic and international tourist bring prostate and others into your accommodation to make sex movies in our room, it is restriction"

We had a great laugh about these rules :)

As we wanted to do some sightseeing in the city centre, we got up early. It took us a while to figure out about the streets as Lonely Planet maps really suck -  street names had changed, some streets were left out. 

The walk took a few hours and took us along the major sights - a whole bunch of wats (temples), the Royal Palace, the market, and Phu Si hill, which offers great views of the city centre.


In the afternoon Kent and I went to Wat Nong to visit Sombath, the assistant abbot of the temple. My friend Tom - who visited Luang Prabang during his travels earlier this year - had met him and asked me to say hi. It was quite interesting talking to him, and I realized that although on this trip I have visited so many Buddhist temples, I don't know that much about Buddhism, the rules, the rituals. Some things he told us:

-          People can get an education in the monastery and become a novice. Because many people in the countryside are poor and can't offer their children an education themselves, they send them to the monastery to get an education;

-          Inside the monastery it's hard to see who's a novice and who's a munk; when they leave the temple they wear their robe in a different way;

-          Novices have 10 rules to obey to, munks have 277 rules;

-          Novices sleep on the bare ground (hard surface);

-          People can decide to stop being a munk or novice whenever they want to and lots of them do;

-          Although there's Buddhism in many countries - India, Nepal, Tibet, Thailand, Laos- the rituals sometimes vary. Lao and Thai rituals for instance are the same, but are different from the rituals in Tibet;

-          Every morning the munks and novices get up early to go around town, they ask the people for rice and pray for them; 

When we started talking about technology, he told us he had bought a Mac Book and he loved it, but the adapter gave up on him and he didn't know what to do. Well I couldn't fix it, but Kent later found out that Peter - the owner of our hostel - has exactly the same laptop and charger, so Sombath was going there the next day to test and see if he could charge his laptop.

When we left Sombath gave me bracelets for Kent, Allison and I and said a prayer for us.

At night I met up again with Céline, the French traveler I had met in Hanoi. She was travelling around Laos as well and teached English in a monastery for a few days. Her, Anthony (an Australian traveler she had met in Vang Vieng) and I went to a local restaurant. The food was delicious and we had a great time. It's fun to meet people along the way all the time and get to catch up with them afterwards.

Well it was great fun travelling together with Kent and Allison but in Luang Prabang our ways parted. They were staying there for another while as they were flying out of Luang Prabang. I wanted to head further up North and then towards the Thai border, so I had to push my schedule.

Luang Nam Tha

One thing I noticed in Laos is that people are trying to rip you off more than in Cambodia and Vietnam, which possibly has to do with the fact that Laos is a lot more touristy. When I booked the bus to Luang Nam Tha they showed me a picture of a nice bus and guaranteed me it had air conditioning. When the pick-up driver (a motor driver they hired to pick me up from my guesthouse) dropped me off at the bus station "the air-conditioned bus had broken down, so there was another bus without air conditioning". It was an old bus which looked far from luxurious. It's a well-known scam mentioned in the Lonely Planet, but then again,  what do you do at that point? I was dragging along my back-pack so didn't feel like going back to the agency to demand for a refund and miss my bus that day, and I couldn't complain to the pick-up guy as he had nothing to do with it - he had just been hired by the agency to pick me up. You're getting so fed up with everyone "trying to take the piss out of ya all the time" like my Australian friend Kent would say :)

Anyway, I decided not to get frustrated and just get on the bus. The bus ride was very bumpy (at some points I was lifted about 1/2m out of my seat!), but it only took 8 hours instead of the 10 hours they had told me, so it wasn't that bad after all.

I was dropped off at the bus station about 10km from Luang Nam Tha, where I and another traveler took a jumbo (that's what the tuk tuk's here are called - funny how they're called differently in every country) to the town centre.

This morning I got up early and was planning to rent a motorbike to discover the area. I wanted to drive 60km up north to Muang Sing, near the Chinese border. The town is known as a confluence of cultures, there are many hill tribe villages. Well that's what I wanted to do; it had been raining the whole night, and in the morning the owner of the guesthouse told me it'd probably rain all day - which is has so far.  Reminds me of good ol' Belgium :)

I could have gone there anyway, but would have gotten totally soaked again (which isn't nice on a motorbike) and the roads would probably have changed into mud pools. Besides, I'm quite happy with what I've been able to see and do in Laos so far and don't feel like having to get more out of it. I just decided to walk around the town, visit the market, upload my pictures, update my blog (as I won't have much time for that the next few days) and reply to some e-mails, and just relax a bit.

Tomorrow morning I'm taking the bus to Huay Xai to cross the Thai border to Chiang Khong. From there I'll take the bus either to Chiang Rai or Chiang Mai.

On June 9 I was supposed to fly out to Bangkok from Chiang Mai, then from Bangkok to Singapore a few hours later, but last night I received an e-mail from Airasia telling that my flight to Bangkok is cancelled! They would put me on the next flight - free of charge - but then I would miss my connecting flight. So I'm about to go on the internet to see if there's another solution. Oh well, travelling's fun but you have to accept that annoyances like this happen and things don't always work out according to plan :$

- Sven


Cruising around beautiful Sapa (Sven)

Posted by goofingaroundinasia on May 24, 2009 at 9:16 AM Comments comments (0)

Sa Pa District is located in Lao Cai Province, north-west Vietnam, and 350 km north-west of Hanoi, close to the border with China. The Hoang Lien Son range of mountains dominates the district, which is at the eastern extremity of the Himalayas. This range includes Vietnam's highest mountain, Fan Si Pan, at a height of 3142m above sea level. The town of Sa Pa lies at an altitude of about 1600 m. The climate is moderate and rainy in summer (May-August), and foggy and cold with occasional snowfalls in winter.

Sa Pa is a quiet mountain town and home to a great diversity of ethnic minority peoples. The total population of 36,000 consists mostly of minority groups. Besides the Kinh (Viet) people there are mainly 5 ethnic groups in Sapa: Hmong, Dao, Tay, Giay and a small number of Xa Pho. Approximately 7,000 live in Sapa, the other 36,000 being scattered in small communes throughout the district.

Every traveler I had talked to had recommended going to Sapa, so I decided to check it out. The train ride takes approx. 8 hours, so I decided to go there by night train. I shared the compartment with 3 retired Vietnamese people and had a great time talking to them. They're 2 brothers and 1 sister, they don't see each other very often but once a year they travel together.

Around 5.30am the train arrived in Lao Cai. From there we had to take a minivan to Sapa (+/- 40km). I booked into a hotel, rested for a few hours and decided to walk around the city for a few hours. Sapa is a nice town, fortunately not too touristy as I had feared. There are Hmong people everywhere in the streets approaching you for a chat and eventually wanting to sell you one of their handicrafts. The rest of the first day I basically just relaxed, did some planning and arranged a motorbike for the next few days.

The second day I got up early and drove to Cat Cat village, home to Hmong people. As it's the closest village to Sapa (3km) it's quite touristy, but fortunately I was early and there were no other tourists. It was nice walking around, looking at the houses and seeing people in their daily lives - planting rice, working in the fields, weaving. There was also a traditional music & dance performance held every few hours which I attended. Only, as I was quite early, I was the only audience there. Private performance :)

The next few hours, I decided to follow the road, drive around the valley and visit a few more villages (Sin Chai and some I can't remember the name of). Quiet and peaceful, interesting to see how the people over here live in close harmony with nature.

Next, I decided to drive up to the Tram Ton Pass  (also called Heaven's Gate), the highest mountain pass in Vietnam. Made a short stop-over at the Silver Waterfall (nice, but I've seen so many waterfalls on this trip already :p), then drove for hours over the mountain pass and beyond, all the way to Lai Chau. The views were amazing, the weather was nice and I took lots of pictures.  

On my way back, I was driving behind a Chinese bus for a long time. It was driving quite fast and I couldn't pass it on these dangerous roads. As the roads were quite sandy I was covered with sand when I got back at my hotel. Two Hmong girls were laughing at me from the other side of the street :p

I took a shower and decided to get some food in the town centre. There I met the Hmong girls again. We talked a bit and they asked me if I wanted to buy something. Some of the handicraft they are selling is beautiful so I wanted to buy some souvenirs anyway, so I didn't mind buying from them. We worked out a nice agreement: one of the girls - Sú - would accompany me on my motorbike the next day, show me around the area, take me to some more villages, and then I would buy some souvenirs from her afterwards.

The next morning Sú was already waiting in front of my hotel. We took off and we spent several hours driving around the area. We drove up mountain roads (quite a challenge as they were in bad condition; we even had to cross a small river) which offered beautiful views on the valley and the rice fields (check the pics). Then, we visited a village where some of her friends live. She showed me how to weave and we entered the house of one of her friends where some locals had gathered to have lunch. Also, she told me a bit more about the different tribes, her village and her family. Then we decided to drive back to Sapa. As promised, I decided to buy some of Sú's handicrafts. She seemed really happy to be able to sell something. I can imagine it's not easy for her as there are many people and shops selling handicrafts.

When I told Sú I wanted to climb the hill with the radio tower in the afternoon, she offered to join me. It was quite touristy though; there were flower gardens, an orchid plantation, there were even ostriches. I Didn't expect them here :p The view from the top was pretty nice though, so we took some pictures.

When I told Sù I would take the bus at 5pm she insisted to come see me before I left. She also gave me a present: a small bag for a cell phone, really sweet of her. And I had to promise her to visit her again if I ever come back to Sapa.

On the bus to Lao Cai I met Stacey, an English traveler. We had some fun and interesting conversations and decided to have dinner in Lao Cai before taking the night train to Hanoi. We obviously had to exchange the tickets they gave us at our guesthouse to get our train tickets, which took a while but eventually we got them. For another traveler it obviously hadn't worked out, the guy had lost his tempor and it had come to a fight. Stacey and I both shook our heads - if you've been travelling around for a while you know it's better not to let something escalate to a fight around Asia.

Didn't sleep too well on the night train, kept on waking up. At 5am the train arrived in Hanoi. As I was doubting whether the people at my guesthouse would be awake already, I decided to have a coke first. I talked to some other travelers who turned out to be from Gent as well, it's a small world indeed :) We talked for a while and exchanged e-mail addresses. Then I took a motorbike to my hotel.

Didn't do much today. Topped up on some sleep, walked around a bit, put my souvenirs and some stuff I didn't want to drag along anymore in a box and went to the post office in Hanoi to send it. Everything worked out perfectly, only took 10 minutes. I was amazed as I had prepared for a lot of frustration :)

Oh, and I decided upon my itinerary for the next 2 weeks. I decided to go to Laos and booked a bus ticket. Tomorrow at 5.30pm I'm taking the bus to Vientiane - a 22 hour (!) ride. I hope everything goes well as I read many stories about people experiencing border struggles, keeping my fingers crossed :)

Tomorrow in the afternoon I'm also meeting up again with Doan, a Vietnamese guy I met last week. Quite funny actually, I had some time to kill so decided to go for a walk and sat down on a bench in the park. Doan and some friends of his asked if they could join me and talk to me to practice their English. They were really nice and we had some interesting conversations. One of the guys had a job interview coming up so asked me to do a role play where I was the company owner and I had to interview him. And they all had a small book with words in English and they took notes. Sometimes it wasn't easy to communicate, but one of the girls had an English-Vietnamese dictionary so we managed. Quite an interesting experience, me teaching English near the lake. When the others had to leave, Doan and I had some tea.

Hmm, not doing much anymore tonight, just have a beer and sleep. Zzzzzzz :)

- Sven


Hanoi and Halong Bay (Sven)

Posted by goofingaroundinasia on May 17, 2009 at 11:40 PM Comments comments (0)

Arriving in and exploring Hanoi!

Because I had visited the southern part of Vietnam, coming back - to Hanoi in the north this time - wasn't much of a challenge. Everything worked amazingly well; Lonely Planet and fellow travelers had warned about touts and persistent taxi drivers trying to overcharge but we didn't experience anything of that - we found the Vietnam Airlines shuttle bus to the city centre right away, the lady on the bus offering a commission paying hotel didn't insist when we were not interested and the hotel we booked into (recommended by a fellow couchsurfer), Dong A Hotel (Ma May St 50) was relatively cheap. To make it even cheaper, me and Johann (a Swedish guy I met on the plane) decided to share a room.

The next day we walked around the city centre and visited the Prison Museum. I noticed that the city doesn't have that much to offer, but it's less hectic, more lively and people are generally friendlier and less stressed than in Saigon.

In the afternoon we met up with Dave (a cs'er from the US who's been travelling and working abroad for a long time) and Jonathan (a cs'er from Canada). We had a great time chatting, walking around and having a few beers. In the evening we met up with Lenc, a Polish cs'er who's teaching English in Hanoi, and we joined him and his expat friends to taste the Bia hõi. Bia hõi, (usually translated "fresh beer"), is a type of draft beer popular in Northern Vietnam. It is mostly to be found in small bars and on street corners. The beer is brewed daily and each bar gets a fresh batch delivered every day in plastic jugs. It is a very light (~3% alcohol) refreshing lager at a fraction of the cost of draft or bottled beer in the Western-style bars. Bia hõi production is informal and not monitored by any health agency.


Halong Bay

Ha Long Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage site located in Qung Ninh province, Vietnam. The bay features thousands of limestone karsts and isles in various sizes and shapes.

Local legend has it that long ago, when the Vietnamese were fighting Chinese invaders, the gods sent a family of dragons to help defend the land. This family of dragons began spitting out jewels and jade. These jewels turned into the islands and islets dotting the bay, linking together to form a great wall against the invaders. The people kept their land safe and formed what later became the country of Vietnam. After that, dragons were interested in peaceful sightseeing of the Earth and decided to live here then. The place where Mother Dragon flew down was named Ha Long.

The next morning Johann and I had to get up early as we had booked into a tour to Halong Bay. I try to travel independently - not booking into tours - as much as possible but everyone I had talked to so far had recommended me to book into a tour instead. And eventually I was glad I did because it was good value for what we paid (US$ 49/person for a 2 day 1 night excursion on a boat which hosts 16 people; food included + transfer from/to Hanoi, visit of the caves and kayaking).

I was a bit afraid this would be too touristy - certainly when we arrived at the docks where we saw buses full of tourists arriving and waiting to get into a boat. However, once we were on the boat and set sail for the karst formations there were only 16 of us left, and we got along quite well with our fellow travelers.

I had seen a lot of pictures about Halong Bay before, but in reality it's much more beautiful. So I ended up taking lots of pictures while cruising around.

The bay consists of a dense cluster of 1,969 limestone monolithic islands, each topped with thick jungle vegetation, which rise spectacularly from the ocean. Several of the islands are hollow, with enormous caves. We stopped to visit the Thien Cung caves. Quite impressive but a bit too touristy.

After cruising around for another few hours, having lunch and chatting with some of our fellow travellers, it was time for some action. We went kayaking and swimming along the bay for 1,5 hour, which was great fun. After that, we had dinner, did some squid fishing (which didn't really work out as we wanted) and played cards.

The next morning we relaxed and cruised around the bay for another few hours and eventually reached Halong City. There we had lunch and took the bus back to Hanoi.

Chilling in Hanoi

Because I had been travelling around a lot the past few months - always moving on from one place to another, and because I needed to top up on sleep, I decided to book into Dong A Hotel again and lay low for a few days. And in the meanwhile get a few things done:

-          Send e-mails to friends and family

-          Get rid of a virus on my laptop (felt like working again, but I needed to get rid of that little monster :p)

-          Download lots of music (I got bored with the 13GB of music on my MP3 player)

-          Read the section about the north-west in my travel guide and make plans for the next few weeks

-          Send postcards

Well, currently still chilling and it feels good, really needed that :p

In the meanwhile I've met up with lots of people: Jonathan (the Canadian cs'er I met before), Doan (a local), Thomas (a German traveler I met), Wade (an Australian cs'er who works and lives in Thailand), Tatiana (a Dutch girl who worked in Danang for 4 months) and two Danish girls whose names I can't remember, Melow and Vanessa (two French cs'ers) and Céline (a French traveler I met during lunch). Although I'm not really used nor eager to travel on my own, I do realize that you meet people more easily that way.

I still have to sort out my plans for the next few weeks. Probably I'll take the night train to Sapa tomorrow, rent a motorbike there and cruise around the area. I heard the mountains there are beautiful, and I'm even considering driving up to the Chinese border. Another option is to climb Fancipan, Vietnam's highest mountain (3,143m).

Gotta go now, meeting Céline for lunch! will post more later!

- Sven


Philippines, the highlight of our trip so far! (Mar 24 - May 8)

Posted by goofingaroundinasia on May 17, 2009 at 8:01 AM Comments comments (1)

Whew, we're way behind on blog writing again! The past 2 months have been so busy and hectic that we didn't manage to keep our blog updated. However, a lot has happened and we travelled a lot.

Initially Olivier and I didn't plan to go to the Philippines. It's quite far and we didn't really think it had that much more to offer than Thailand. We met lots of travelers on the way though who told us how beautiful the Philippines really is and how we should go there. Because we were quite curious and it seemed challenging to travel to a country you don't know that much about, we decided to give it a try - and we're so glad we did as for both of us it's the most beautiful and versatile country we visited so far!

Here's a summary of the places we visited:


When we arrived in Manila, it looked like any other big Asian city: noisy, polluted, hectic traffic. The only thing that struck us was that all the security guards - even those in front of hotels - were carrying big guns (something we got used to after a while). We cruised to "Melate", what our Rough Guide's guidebook described as the "backpacker area". The hostels that were mentioned in our guidebook were fully booked; eventually someone referred us to "Mabini Pension", which still had rooms available. Walking around during daytime we didn't really notice much, but once it got dark we soon discovered that Melate - the area we were in - is actually one of the red light districts of Manila. One bar after another,lots of "KTV's", girls and ladyboys constantly offering all kinds of "services", people selling marihuana and even Viagra/cialis along the streets. Finding a "normal" pub to have a beer seemed to be quite a challenge :) However, we did find a place called "Bedrock", featuring some great live music, a place where we hung out quite a few times.

We soon found out that Manila's a place home to a lot of pickpockets as my wallet and Olivier's mobile phone got stolen. No idea how it happened, it was in my pocket behind a zipper the whole time :$ Fortunately, as I never carry too much money at once I didn't lose that much.

We were really happy to have Stijn and Kris coming over, two very good Belgian friends. We had a lot of catching up to do, so the first few days we basically lived at night, having fun and partying - and sleeping during the day :p After a few days we decided to break this habit to avoid withdrawal effects and decided to do some sightseeing:

-          Rizal Park is like an oasis for relaxation and fun in the midst of Manila and situated next to Intramuros. Rizal Park has gardens, historical markers, plazas, a grand stadium, an observatory, an open-air concert hall, an artists' sanctuary, a light-and-sound theatre, restaurants, food kiosks and playgrounds, and dozens of fountains. Rizal Park is in the heart of Manila's thriving financial, commercial, industrial and institutional centers, overlooking the famous and picturesque Manila Bay. The park was a tribute to the Philippine's national hero, Jose Rizal, a doctor and novelist who was shot by firing squad at this site on December 30, 1896 on charges of fomenting local rebellion against the Spanish government.


-          Intramuros, located along the southern bank of the Pasig River, was built by the Spaniards in the 16th century and is the oldest district of the city of Manila, the capital of the Philippines. Its name, in Spanish, intramuros, literally "within the walls", meaning within the wall enclosure of the city/fortress, also describes its structure as it is surrounded by thick, high walls and moats. During the Spanish colonial period, Intramuros was considered Manila itself.



-          Binondo is located across the Pasig River from Intramuros and the home of Chinatown in Manila. The district is the center of commerce and trade for all types of businesses run by Chinese merchants. It is said that this district was already a hub of Chinese commerce even before the Spaniards came in 1571. We also visited Divisoria Market there, a typical Asian market.


-          Baclaran, a barangay (or locality) containing flea markets, selling everything from clothes and electronics to home decorations and traditional medicine. We spent a whole afternoon shopping there.


-          Makati is one of the cities and municipalities that make up Metro Manila. It is the major financial, commercial and economic hub in the Philippines, often referred to as the financial capital of the Philippines since many global companies have their offices and headquarters in the city. It is noted for its highly cosmopolitan culture, also being a major cultural and entertainment hub in Metro Manila. Many expars live and work in the city. Makati is also home to many first-class shopping malls. Walking around in these shopping malls wearing our tourist outfit (shorts, t-shirt, slippers) we felt like bums :)


Baguio - Sagada - Banaue - Batad (April 1 - 7, 2009)



as a city isn't that special, but as a stop on the way to Sagada, we decided to celebrate Stijn's birthday there. The nice people in our guesthouse recommended us to go to Alberto's, a nice pub with good live music. We sure had a blast, enjoying the music, dancing the night away and having way too many beers. The next morning we found out that we were too late to catch the bus to Sagada. Looking around for another guesthouse, we met Eberlyn. She was staying with her mother and invited us to stay there as well, an offer we couldn't resist. We had a whole cottage to ourselves. In the evening we decided to cook for Eberlyn and Cherry, a girl who lives nextdoors.

The next morning we got up early to catch the first bus to Sagada, a quaint and quiet town tucked away in the stunning mountains of northern Luzon.  We decided to go there to visit:


-          The "hanging coffins". This was a traditional way of burying people that is not utilized anymore. Not anyone was qualified to be buried this way; one had to, among other things, be married and have grandchildren. The coffins we saw in the burial/Lumiang cave seemed very authentic, the "hanging coffins" we saw on the cliffs (applied to the rocks with iron pillars? these being over 300 years old? Hmmm :p)


-          Sumaguing cave, which offers steep descents and rewards the spelunker with quirky stalactites and stalagmits formations such as the King's Curtain, the Disappearing Turtle, the Crocodile, the Chocolate Cake, the King, the Queen, the Prince and the Princess (the last four are playful descriptions of the formations that look a lot like human genitalia :p). It involved rappelling and crawling through tight and narrow spaces and it was very slippery inside the caves. At the deepest point there's a pool where we decided to go for a swim, being it short though as the water was very cold :p

Our next destination was Banaue. Sometimes called the "Eighth Wonder of the World", the Banaue Rice Terraces begin at the base of the mountain range and extend several thousand feet upwards. Two of the terrace clusters in Banaue, namely Bangaan and Batad, are part of the Unesco World Heritage inscription. It is said that their length, if put end to end, would encircle half of the globe. Built 2,000 years ago, the rice terraces manifest the engineering skill and ingenuity of the sturdy Ifugaos. They are irrigated by means of mountain streams and springs that have been tapped and channeled into canals that run downhill through the rice terraces. Getting to the rice terraces and the waterfall afterwards involved a long and strenuous climb but was rewarding, the landscape was beautiful!

On our way back to Manila we decided to stay one more night at Eberlyn's mother's place. We went out for dinner and went back to Alberto's to enjoy some more live music.

North Palawan (April 8 - 14, 2009)


As everyone we talked to confirmed that Palawan is one of the highlights of the Philippines, we couldn't miss out on it.

Palawan is composed of the long and narrow Palawan Island, plus a number of other smaller islands surrounding the main island. Its almost 2,000 kilometers  of irregular coastline are dotted with 1,780 islands and islets, rocky coves, and sugar-white sandy beaches. It also harbors a vast stretch of virgin forests that carpet its chain of mountain ranges.


We wanted to go to El Nido, but because there were no flights to El Nido we decided to fly to Puerto Princesa instead. There we rented 125cc Honda XRM motorbikes and started a challenging 300km motorbike trip up to El Nido.

It took us two days to get there. The first day we drove up to Port Barton. It was already dark when we arrived and we were covered with mud as it had rained the days before and the last stretch of road involved driving on dirt  tracks. The beach there was absolutely beautiful though. We had a meal and beer at the beach side bar and when we told the owners that it was Olivier's birthday they installed the karaoke equipment. We had a great night out singing and talking to locals and other travellers.

The next morning, we continued our journey. The road up to Tay Tay was in good condition, but from there on driving was dangerous and exhausting - the roads were full of bumps, pits, rocks and continuous concentration and awareness was needed.

When we finally arrived in El Nido we were exhausted, but the long ride turned out to be rewarding: El Nido turned out not to be as touristy as we feared it would be and the beach was stunning. We had a wonderful time relaxing and having a meal and a beer at the beach.

We ended up spending 2 days in El Nido. The first day we just relaxed as we needed to recover from the exhausting motorbike ride. The second day we went island hopping and snorkeling to Small Lagoon, Big Lagoon and Secret Lagoon on Miniloc Island, Simisu Island and 7 Commando Beach.  The underwater wildlife was amazing and the beaches so beautiful.

The next day, started driving back to Puerto Princesa. It took us two days again to get there. We spent the night in Roxas, a relatively small and quiet town. We went for dinner, then went to a karaoke place together with two local girls, Jazzel and Lorilie.

The next day we took the flight back to Manila. We went shopping and met up with a few local couchsurfers. On April 17, Kris had to leave for Belgium. It was sad to see him leave because we had a great time together in the Philippines :$

Legazpi - Albay - Mount Mayon (April 17 - 21, 2009)


Legazpi City, Albay is one of the Bicol Region's top tourist destination. It is where the Mayon Volcano, one of the Philippines' most famous volcanoes is located. Mayon Volcano is the Philippines' most active volcano and is considered to be the world's most perfectly formed volcano for its symmetrical cone.

Stijn, Olivier and I all considered climbing Mt Mayon to be one of the highlights of our trip. Through our guesthouse we got in contact with Lorenzo A. Fernandez (+639165864102), a local guide. We met up with him, got along quite well and the price he charged for a 2-day/1 night trek (7000 PHP / 3 people including food, drinks and accomodation) was reasonable.

Climbing Mt Mayon was quite a challenge. The first day was relatively easy, we only walked for a few hours before we reached Camp 1. The climb to the top the second day was quite strenuous as trails were quite steep and slippery. We started climbing around 5.30am and reached the top around 9.30am. The views from the top were amazing (check the pictures!). It was a disappointment though that we couldn't actually climb up to the crater; climbing is only possible up to Knife's Edge (2200m altitude).

During our stay in Legazpi, we went to the Magayon Festival in Albay (http://magayonfestival.com/)  every night. The month-long harvest festival embraces a comprehensive line-up of events, including cultural activities, trade fairs, travel and tourism exhibitions, sports competitions, and other special activities. We had a lot of fun and got used to being stared at and there were people wanting to talk to us all the time because we were the only white people around.

We also tried balut. A balut is a fertilized chicken egg with a nearly-developed embryo inside that is boiled and eaten in the shell. It is commonly sold as streetfood in the Philippines. Popularly believed to be an aphrodisiac and considered a high-protein, hearty snack, balut are mostly sold by street vendors in the regions where they are available. They are often served with beer. The Filipino and Malay word balut (balot) means "wrapped" - depending on pronunciation. Anyway, it sure looks disgusting (you can actually see the chicken embryo) but it's not that bad :p

Taal Lake & Volcano (April 22 - 23, 2009) (Sven)


The volcano has erupted violently several times, causing loss of life in the populated areas surrounding the lake, the current death toll standing at around 5,000 - 6,000. Because of its proximity to populated areas and eruptive history, the volcano has been designated a Decade Volcano worthy of close study to prevent future natural disasters. It was thought to be named as "a volcano inside a volcano" because many believed that the lake that circles the volcano was once a crater or mouth of a volcano.

Samantha, a Filippino girl I had met a week earlier while shopping in Baclaran and I decided to check out Taal Lake & Volcano. We took the bus from Baclaran to Tagaytay, then a tuk tuk to Talisay. There we chartered a boat to the island. Once arrived there it seemed a disappointment at first - there were many tourists, people were trying to make everyone believe you actually needed a guide to go up, they rented out horses and we found ourselves walking the horse trail together with quite a few other tourists. The trail wasn't quite challenging. The view from the top inside the crater lake was nice though, but not really worth the whole trip. Well - until we discovered a small path further down that actually led into the crater. We followed the path for several hours and climbed inside the crater. Once arrived in the crater, we noticed that no other tourists came there. There was some seismological measuring equipment and some cows, that's it. It was quite clear that Taal is an active volcano as we saw a few mud pots and mud geysers, pools of boiling mud. We kept at a safe distance and made sure not to inhale the sulphuric fumes though.

After having spent some time near the volcanic lake in the crater, we started hiking back up... which turned out to be harder than we thought. When we reached the top there was no one there anymore and it had started to get dark. Fortunately our boat driver was still waiting for us, so we managed to get back to Talisay.

Once there, we were craving for a beer :) It took us a while to find a shop where we could get beers though. As everything in the town was starting to close down early we realized that we wouldn't be able to make it back to Manila the same day, so we decided to get a room.

I turned 31 that night, so I got to spend my birthday in a town in the middle of nowhere :p

The next morning awaited us a rather unpleasant surprise. After paying the room we both didn't have enough cash left to pay the tuk tuk and bus fares back to Manila.  Stupid situation. I never carry too much money with me and the transportation had been more expensive than I thought :$ Anyway, I called Olivier who was so nice to arrange a taxi to pick us up.

The night before Olivier had been to Six Underground, a live music venue in Pasig. He had had a great time and because it was my birthday he, Samantha and I decided to go there. It was quite fun and the bands were quite good.

Batanes (April 25 - May 2, 2009) (Sven)


I had seen a lot of beautiful pictures of Batanes Islands and was really looking forward to going there. It wasn't easy to get a flight booked though - the only airlines that fly to Batanes are ZestAir and SeAir and almost all flights were fully booked. I did found one outgoing flight and one incoming flight though and I didn't hesitate to book it :)

Batanes lies on a group of islands collectively called Batanes Islands and they are the northernmost islands of the Philippines. They are located between the Babuyan Islands (belonging to Cagayan Province) and Taiwan. The islands are sparsely populated and subject to frequent typhoons.

The three largest islands are Itbayat, Batan, and Sabtang and almost one-half of Batanes are hills and mountains.

Arriving in Basco airport on the main island Batan is quite funny - the airport is actually just a small building. Once arrived, I decided to walk around to explore the town, which was great fun. I discovered Batanes is quite authentic indeed, I was about the only tourist there. I had to get used being stared at all the time again :p Watching sunset at the beach was amazing - locals were gathering and swimming and the atmosphere was great.

The next day I decided to rent a motorbike. Travelling independently around Batanes islands is really not hard I noticed as whatever question you have, locals are so friendly and willing to help you out. People referred me to a local petrol station where they had motorbikes for hire. I had downloaded some basic maps from http://www.ironwulf.net/2008/06/05/maps-of-batanes-islands/ , which were detailed enough to know where I had to go.

Driving around the island was amazing: there was barely any traffic, the weather was quite good (no rain, but not too hot either) and the sights along the coastline and rocks were truly stunning! I ended up stopping a lot to take pictures (check them on the photo page!). And driving through the small towns and socializing there with locals was great fun. Ivatanes - that's what the inhabitants of Batanes are called - are truly very friendly, relaxed and hospitable. Also, I stopped in Ivana, one of the towns, to watch a traditional dance performance. Obviously it was the start of the Akus (garlic) festival, which is held every year. I drove around the whole day and visited several towns, mountains/hills (the Marlboro Hills were beautiful!), lighthouses, ruins, beaches, a windmill park,..

Once back in the hotel I inquired on how to get to Itbayat, the biggest island but also the most authentic and remote. I got in touch with Juliet Cataluna (+639193695341, jpcataluna@yahoo.com), a travel agent who's originally from Batanes.  She was so nice to provide me with the information necessary and even arranged accommodation for me in Itbayat.

While driving around town in the afternoon, I met some local farmers who were drinking and eating lemon. They invited me to join them, so I did. They had been harvesting lemons the whole day and made me taste some. Talking to them was great fun. They liked to practice their English, made me taste some local meat soup and showed off with their roosters (which participated in cock fights).

The next morning at 7am we had to take the Itransa ferry (well there's actually 2 ferry companies, Ocean Spirit and Itransa, but the latter is known to be the most reliable). Juliet was waiting there along with Trixie, her niece, and three people from Manila who booked into a tour with them: Ted, Jazz and Fe.

Well... the boat ride was quite an adventure. The sea was quite rough - the roughest I've ever experienced - and it took us about 4 hours to get to our destination. Some of the passengers got seasick and had to vomit, including one of the crew members. My stomach handled quite well, but I made sure to keep focusing on the horizon :)

Once arrived in Itbayat, someone picked us up and brought us to Ms Faustina A. Cano's place (+63193004787), a retired history teacher who rents out accommodation. She showed us a map and told us all about the history of Itbayat. The rooms were basic but nice and cheap - 250 PHP/night. First Ms Cano took us to Laura's small canteen to have lunch - we had coconut crab (one of the specialties in Batanes), fish and rice for only 100 PHP/meal! As renting a motorbike didn't work out the first few days, I decided to join Ted, Jazz and Fe on their tour. Ms Cano and Tobias (a local guide) drove us around Mayan (the capital),, the school of agriculture, Reale, the airstrip (which they have been constructing for several years but which still isn't completed :p) and one of the ports (which is still under construction as well). We also visited a local pic-nic organized for returning inhabitants of Itbayat - people who've been living abroad and came back to visit their home country. The atmosphere was great there and people were so friendly - at that point I regretted booking into the tour as we had to move on, I wish I could have stayed there longer to socialize with the locals :p We had dinner again in Laura's canteen and the food was delicious - as always.

As Ms Cano told me she couldn't find a motorbike for rent, I texted Juliet for advice. She texted me back to look for Gideon de Sagon, her nephew. He's a local police officer and has a motorbike for hire, she said. I talked to Gideon and he would see what he could do for me. Quite funny, renting a motorbike from a police officer :p

I decided to join Ted, Jazz and Fe on their tour for the rest of the day. We all agreed that we didn't want to sit in the car the whole day and be driven around so we talked to Toby and changed our schedule a bit. We decided to drive to the Torongan Cave, from their start a long walk up along several settlements, eventually climbing Rapang Cliff and then walking back to Mayan. Tobias first doubted whether Fe, Jazz's 57-year old mum, would be able to do the trip but Fe was confident on going :)

The day trip was amazing. We visited some caves (among Torongan Cave with the nice "window"), walked for hours through the hills, passed by some old settlements (where we saw some traditional graves in the shape of a boat), and climbed up to Rapang Cliff, from where the views on the coastline and smaller islands was absolutely amazing. Toby kept doubting whether Fe would make it and said we shouldn't climb up the cliff, but Fe proved him wrong :p

By the time we got back to Mayan we were all exhausted, but the trip had been worth it. We had a great time chatting about it at dinner.

In the meanwhile Gideon had texted me some good news - I could pick up his motorbike :) I was looking forward to driving up to Mount Caroboboan up north the next day; was quite surprised to see his bike was a 125cc Honda XRM which is quite powerful (I had driven the same kind of motorbike in Palawan).

Got up early the next morning to drive up to the mountain. The weather was nice and I would make way up there using a small map Ms Cano drew for me. But the map seemed to miss a junction and I found myself driving through the mud in dirt tracks. Road signs are non-existent on Itbayat, soI had to ask around with the few farmers I met on the way. Eventually I made it up to the mountain. The views from there were really nice.

At noon we took the ferry back to Batan. The ferry ride back was only 3 hours and the sea was less rough than when we arrived.

Once back in Batan I booked into Ivatan Lodge (+639282451337), a relatively cheap hotel Juliet had recommended.

The next day I decided to go to the third island, Sabtang.I had to get up really early (4.45am!) to take the jeepney (the local jeeps/taxi's in the Philippines) and I got off at Ivana Port. There I had to wait until 6.30am for the ferry to go to Sabtang, but in the meanwhile I had a chat with the captain. I told him I wanted to rent a motorbike on the island, and he promised me he'd get me in touch with someone renting out his motorbike.

Ted, Jazz, Fe and Juliet arrived too. Seems that they were going to Sabtang as well :)

The ferry ride to Sabtang only took 45mins and the sea wasn't rough at all. Once arrived there, I decided to book accommodation in the Fishing School. Accomodation there is basic, but people are very friendly and they only charge 150 PHP/night. In the meanwhile the captain of the ferry had introduced me to Ritchie, a local jeepney driver, who rented out his motorbike. My motorbike was ready, I could start driving around :)

In the afternoon I decided to drive around and explore the southern part of the island. I really enjoyed the ride, the weather was nice and the scenery on Sabtang is even more diverse and beautiful than the other islands. Also, it was fun to drive through local villages. Where the southern road stops, I decided to park my motorbike (erhm... well, in fact I had to as it seemed not to be powerful enough to make it up to the hills :$) and make a long walk along a deserted beach. Took a lot of time to take pictures, so beautiful and peaceful there :)

In the evening I had dinner with Ted, Jazz and Fe in a local canteen. The seafood there (coconut crab, different kinds of fish and lobster) were delicious. Really nice to have dinner with my fellow travelers and seafood lovers :p

The next morning I got up early to drive around the northern and western part of the island. The weather was nice again the views amazing. Where the road stops in the south-west I parked my motorbike and went for a long and exhausting hike up to one of the highest hills. The views from there were stunning - check out the pictures!

Taking the ferry back the next day was quite a hassle. We had decided not to take the first ferry, but it seems that only the first ferry has a fix schedule and next ferries just leave when there's enough passengers and cargo. The second ferry which we were supposed to take appeared to be hired by a tour group, so we had to wait. When the third ferry arrived, the captain told us we had to wait for the sea to calm down before we could go, which afterwards turned out that they were waiting for a few tourists on tour. Anyway... we waited for over 4 hours and had to cope with a lot of inefficiency and frustration  before we could finally go. Oh well, eventually we made it back to Ivana Port. Once there, we heard that part of the Akus festival was still going on. During the festival, local people invite people in for lunch. Juliet invited me along with Ted, Jazz and Fe to have lunch at her place. An offer we couldn't resist, and the meal she and Trixie had cooked was delicious.

When Ted, Jazz, Fe and Juliet continued their tour I decided to take the jeepney back to Basco. There I checked into my lodge again and decided to relax a bit.

The next morning, I took the plane back to Manila. I felt sorry having to leave Batanes as I really enjoyed it there, but I had got the most out of my trip anyway.  

Once back in Manila, I found out about something that wasn't too pleasant - I usually take care of my belongings, but somehow I had taken out my camera out of my bag before checking out of my hotel in Basco. I called the owner and she confirmed that the camera was still there. I called Juliet, and she was so nice to pick up the camera for me and send it to Manila. I'm so thankful she did that, as all my pictures of Batanes were on there :)

Mount Pinatubo (May 5, 2009) (Sven)

Mount Pinatubo is an active stratovolcano located on the island of Luzon, at the intersection of the borders of the Philippine provinces of Zambales, Tarlac, and Pampanga.

The volcano's eruption in June 1991 produced the second largest terrestrial eruption of the 20th century and the largest eruption in living memory. The effects of the eruption were felt worldwide.

After eruptions ended, a crater lake, Lake Pinatubo, formed in the 1991 caldera, with the 1992 lava dome forming an island. At first, the lake was small, hot and highly acidic. Abundant rainfall cooled and diluted the lake, lowering the temperature and raising the pH.


Having seen some pictures of Mount Pinatubo and the crater lake on the internet, I wanted to go there for sure. As I thought it would be more fun and less expensive in a group, I put out a post on a CouchSurfing group. I got 5 people together and booked with Wendell (+639196084313), the president of the 4WD association and tour guide. Jason, Beauty and I met up at 2.30am at the EDSA Victory Liner bus station in Pasay. We took the bus to Baguio and asked the driver to drop us off at Capas Juntion. There Marianne and Vigile joined us and Wendell picked us up.

We first drove to Sta Juliana, the starting point for the 4WD ride. Wendell asked us to wait for a while because it was raining and it wasn't sure if we could actually climb the volcano. The airforce controls the area and if weather conditions are too bad they don't allow people to go. Fortunately after a while Wendell returned with good news for us : the airforce allowed us to go, yay :)

The 4WD ride took about one hour. Where the surface became too rough for the 4WD, we got out and started walking. In the meanwhile the rain had stopped and the sun had started shining. The walk took about 2 hours and wasn't too difficult. Then we reached the crater and we were all amazed by the view - the crater lake was so beautiful; even more beautiful than any picture I had seen.

We just couldn't resist going for a swim so we all dived in, which was great fun. When more tourists arrived, we decided to have lunch: the Chow King fastfood Wendell had bought for us. Well not the best food around, but not bad either, we didn't complain :) After having spent some more time by the lake (and Jason's unsuccessful attempt to swim across the lake *wink wink*)  we decided to go back. We were all quite tired and half of the bunch was sleeping in the 4WD :p

Anyway, climbing Mount Pinatubo was great fun. Not only because the walk was so nice and rewarding, also because we had a great bunch together and we all got along really well!


Back in Manila (May 3 - 8, 2009) (Sven)


Being back in busy Manila coming from Batanes was weird. I had to get used again to being in the busy city, and this time on my own as Olivier had just left for Hong Kong. I had booked into Mabini Pension again, and although the people there we very friendly, I realized that I was tired of being in Melate, the area where we were staying (the "backpacker area" aka red light district :p).

Because I hadn't couchsurfed for a while and because I wanted to spend some more time with locals I had sent out some cs requests. Evie, a girl from New Zealand responded - she was staying with a Filippino family : a mother, daughter and aunt. The daughter, Margaret, is going to Belgium in July to study there at Gent University for one year so she had a lot of questions about Gent and Belgium, which was fun. Evie told me I was welcome to stay at their place in Pasig, an offer I gladly accepted. Yay, away from Melate :)

Evie, Marge and I got along really well from the moment we met up, and I ended up having a wonderful stay at their place. They sure showed me what Filippino hospitality is all about, something I've never experienced before - they booked me into a Spa as a surprise present, provided me with a lot of information, went out of their way to arrange things for me, and Marge's mum cooked meals for me. Well I told them they were spoiling me way too much, but they didn't want to hear it :D

It's just a pity that I didn't get to spend more time with Evie and Marge. They were really busy and although I had initially planned to relax during my remaining days in Manila, I turned out to be away all the time :p Met up with and had a great time with some friends:

-          Met up with Beauty, one of the people who joined me to "conquer" Mt Pinatubo :) We had a great afternoon joking around and talking about all kinds of subjects. When it started raining we went for a drink and enjoyed some live music.


-          Met up again with Grace, someone I had met up with a few weeks earlier.


-          Met Ted again, who I had met in Batanes. He was so kind to join me to Ortigaz Medical Clinic to get my tetanus/dyphteria vaccination. I had tried to get it done before, but I ended up being sent to 3 different clinics and different drug stores, just to hear that they didn't have that vaccination. Anyway, the doctor told me that the tetanus vaccination is easy to get, but dyphteria is a disease that is not common in the Philippines, so that's why the vaccination is difficult to get. She made some phone calls and fortunately she found a doctor who had the vaccination available.


-          Met up again with Socs and Rhea, who I had met a couple of weeks ago. They took me to a local restaurant and made me taste some more Filippino food and afterwards we checked out "70s Bistro" where a local rock band, "The Jerks" (what a name :p) were playing.  


-          Met up again with Stefan and his girlfriend Jenny. I had met him a few weeks earlier in my former guesthouse in Melate. He's Belgian and his girlfriend is Filippino. They both live and work in Thailand, but are planning to move to the Philippines. We had a great time talking and exchanging travel information.


-          Met up a few times again with Mai, someone I had met up with a few weeks earlier. She had texted me that her dad had had a stroke and was taken to ICU in the hospital. I went to Makati Medical Center a few times to visit her while she was taking care of her dad. Fortunately, her dad recovered soon..

That last week in Manila certainly made me wonder and realize a few things. It's the first place on my travel where I've made so many good friends - of whom some have done everything they can to help me out or make my stay enjoyable - in a short amount of time. I think mostly because the culture is quite close to Western culture, so it's easier to relate to, but also because the people I met here have strong values (friendship, family, hospitality) and principles (punctuality, helping friends and family whenever they can), something I really appreciate - and sometimes miss in contemporary Western society as everyone there's too busy with themselves to care for others  - generally individualistic and egocentric.  And Manila as a city? well, at first I didn't like it, but after a while I really started to appreciate it.

One thing's for sure: I had a hard time leaving Manila and my friends there, and I sure hope to be able to go back there!

Speaking of people helping me out, if it weren't of Marge and her mom arranging a taxi for me last notice, I would certainly have missed my plane to Bangkok. Travelling around for a long time and taking planes like I used to take buses back home, I sometimes forget to double-check on things, so I realized I had to be at Clarke airport (1 hour drive from Manila!) instead of Terminal 3 (Manila). Whoops :p I made it in time though, thanks guys :)






- Sven



(Sven) Mar 18 - Mar 23, 2009: Kuala Lumpur + trip to Cameron Highlands w/ Joey

Posted by goofingaroundinasia on May 2, 2009 at 4:39 AM Comments comments (0)

Arriving back in Kuala Lumpur was like coming home as both Olivier and I had had a great time in KL during our last visit. Unfortunately Somsiah, our previous host, was in Indonesia with her son, so we couldn't catch up with them. Nabil, a couchsurfer and good friend we met in Cambodia, offered us to stay in his place.

Well I came back to Malaysia for three things: to relax (the past few weeks had been quite exhausting, constantly moving on from one place onto another), to catch up with some of my friends in KL and to visit  the Cameron Highlands, something I wanted to do but didn't have the time for last time I came to Malaysia.

So basically I just ended up doing three things in Malaysia:

-          Just erhh... lazing around :)

-          Mar 20 - Mar 22: trip to the Cameron Highlands. I asked Joey to join me as I knew she wanted to go there too. We had a great time. The first day we booked into a half-day tour organized by our guesthouse (Father's Guesthouse). They took us to a Rose Garden, strawberry farm, bee farm  and tea plantations (beautiful!). Quite interesting for sure (and the strawberries were delicious :p). The rest of the day we decided to go for a walk. Visited the Robinson Waterfall, then followed a trail into the forest. Anyway, we walked for a very long time and very far, and by the time we got back I experienced something I deemed was never possible: Joey being tired and awfully quiet. She got me worried there for a moment *wink wink*. The next day we went for a small walk and sat down near the river, talking about various subjects. At 2.30pm we had to take the bus back to KL. Anyway, even though it was only two days, I really enjoyed this trip, and it was interesting to travel with Joey. We're really different and have different backgrounds, but that led to interesting conversations (and misunderstandings :p) and we became even better friends.

-          Meeting up again with Fanny, another good friend. We had a great afternoon - a lot of fun, interesting conversations about various subjects and good food :)

Actually it felt strange to be back in KL. I loved to be back and catch up with friends again, but even though I felt good to be back, after a few days I already started getting bored with it. The magic it had when we visited it in November last year had disappeared. Somehow I was glad I could leave KL again and fly out to the Philippines.

- Sven



(Sven) Mar 4 - Mar 17, 2009: southern part of Vietnam

Posted by goofingaroundinasia on May 2, 2009 at 4:37 AM Comments comments (0)

I doubted a long time whether to go or Vietnam or not, because I had talked to a lot of people who had been there; some of them loved it, but some of them hated it too! The ones who hate it had been harassed, ripped off, even threatened! They told me Vietnamese people are quite aggressive, especially when they're drunk. But the ones who love it kept on mentioning how friendly the people are there! So it was a hard decision, especially seeing that I'd be travelling alone.

Eventually I decided to just go and find out about it myself, and I'm glad I did because I loved it. I had two weeks to spend, and travelled the southern part of Vietnam:

-          I started my journey in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh). It turned out not to be easy to find an inexpensive hotel there. Judith - a German tourist I met there who was also looking for accommodation - and I spent about 1,5 hours searching, eventually we ended up at this new place called Blueriver Hotel (54/13 KyCon ST., Dist. 1, HCMC, tel: +84 839152852).  The price was reasonable and the staff was extremely friendly and helpful. The next day Surayya arrived, a cs'er from Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) with whom I'd travel together for a few days. We walked around the city and checked out the War Remnants Museum, Ben Thanh Market, Notre-Dame Cathedral, Opera House, post office. In the evening we met up with Natascha, Def and another cs'er whose name I can't remember. We went to Rockfest 2009, a rock/metal festival for which Natascha had obtained free tickets. Although I really appreciated Natascha getting the tickets, I didn't like it that much: the average age was about 16-17, the music was too soft to be classified as rock/metal and not to forget: there was no beer! A rock festival without beer? huh? :D Afterwards Def and I decided to go for a drink and check out Apocalypse Now, a night club. Although I'm not really into nightclubbing I liked it there, the music was quite alternative. The next day Surayya and I decided to book a tour - as people recommended us (against my principles but hey, I'm open to advice :p) - to the Cu Chi Tunnels. From the moment I got on the bus I regretted booking the tour: the bus was full of "package tourists"! The guy on the bus was talking rubbish for half an hour, like mentioning the price of a motorbike there and how poor Vietnam is and how rich the tourists are and how we should book another tour with their travel agency. And then they stopped for half an hour "for people to go to the toilet", but they stopped at this shop where they undoubtedly had a commission! Well I was still tired and a bit hungover from the night before and wasn't quite enjoying myself there. The Cu Chi Tunnels itself was even worse: I expected to hear about a lot of stories and history, but the whole place looked like a tourist amusement park. There were plastic puppets representing Vietcong soldiers, only a part of the tunnels was open to the public, you could buy souvenirs there, you could even buy the kind of sandals the Vietcong used to wear. And worst of all: they had a shooting range where you could buy bullets and try shooting different weapons: AK-47, M-60,... That disgusted me as much as the shooting range in Cambodia: trying to make money out of their dreadful history! Anyway, I was glad when the tour was over and we finally returned to Saigon. I'm sure Surayya was too, if only for my skeptical and cynical comments :D In the evening we went to a cs-dinner at a restaurant called Koriander. Too many people there, but I met some nice people and had some interesting conversations.


-          The next morning we went to Dalat. Because Dalat is part of the highlands and is at higher altitude, temperatures are lower there, so we liked the climate there. Dalat city itself we didn't like at all - quite dirty, not much to do and see, even hard to find good food - but once we rented a motorbike the next day and drove around the countryside we really started to enjoy the area. It was great driving up and down the hills, driving through villages, talking to people... we ended our journey at the Elephant Waterfall. Oh, almost forgot : earlier that day we visited the Crazy House, an extraordinary architectural creation. We both loved it - check the pictures ! The next day Surayya had to leave unfortunately. I rented a motorbike again and drove up to I rented a motorbike again and drove up to Lang Biang mountain and Lat Village. There were two mountains actually. On the way to the lowest one I met Bertil, a 70-year old Swedish man who had been to Vietnam for 18 times already. He used to be a journalist during the Vietnam war and knew a lot about its history and culture. I ended up having a few beers at the cafeteria at the top. When he left, I decided to climb the other mountain. Quite a long and  exhausting hike but well worth it: from there I had a nice view over the area.



-          As someone recommended it and I had to make my way up to Kon Tum as soon as possible as the time I could spend in Vietnam was limited, I decided to rent an Easy Driver, someone who drives you around on a motorbike wherever you want to go and takes you to interesting places, explains about the history and gets you in touch with local people. The guy I hired was Sinh, a 61-year old man who knew an awful lot about Vietnam, its culture, its people and history. He and I drove a total of over 1000 km in 4 days. We drove from Dalat to Buon Ma Thuot, from there up to Kon Tum. As Colour4Kids (the Dutch organization we'll be doing voluntary work in Mongolia for this summer) had a project at the Vinh Son orphanages a few years ago and had provided me with contact details, I decided to visit both Vinh Son 1 and 2 orphanages. Both host about 200 children. Even though I was only there as a visitor, I ended up taking part in a conversation and acting as an interpreter between a French woman, Anne Marie - who was part of an organization called Poussières de Vie (whose English wasn't that good) and the orphanage's staff (their English was basic and they didn't speak French). Anyway, the conversation was very interesting.  Anne Marie was there to check on the current situation of the orphanages and to see where her organization could help out. We found out that there are 6/7 external organizations are working there, but coordination and communication is a big problem - so much more could be done if there would be more communication and co-orperation. We also talked to a person of another Belgian organization, Les Bouts de Kontum, and he confirmed the problem. The remaining few hours I visited one of the orphanages, played around with the kids and chatted with the staff - the kids were so cute, I could hardly leave :) Well as my "mission" was to get a video to the staff of the orphanage where they had their project a few years ago, I returned and visited the other orphanage the next day. There I met Anne Marie again and finally got to talk to Sister Jeanne, the one in charge. I handed over the video to her and took a few hours walking around, playing with the kids and taking pictures. I really enjoyed my visit there. Anyway, time to move on... so Sinh and I drove on to Hoi An. Here I must mention that I had a wound on my leg which kept on opening up and which had started infecting. Sinh had provided me with some basic medication and had helped me clean the wound every night, but my foot started swelling and I could hardly walk anymore.



-          On my way to Hoi An I texted Nhung Lu, a couchsurfer with whom I would meet up the next day, and she gave me the address of a good English speaking doctor (thanks again Nhung Lu!). Once arrived in Hoi An, I visited him. He took care of the wound and provided me with the antibiotics necessary to stop the swelling and heal the wound eventually. It would take up to a week before it would be healed though, and I shouldn't walk too much. So, seeing that I was limited in my movements, I had come to a point that I had to rely on people to get me around. Sinh showed me around the city of Hoi An, then the next day Nhung Lu took me on her motorbike and drove me around. Afterwards we had some coffee and some interesting conversations.  Anyway, Hoi An was nice. Cosy and picturesque, touristy yet not too touristy. Stayed there for 2 days, which was perfect to see what I wanted to see. The next evening Sinh and I drove to Danang, from there took the Hai Van Pass to Hué. A wonderful stretch with nice views, but quite dangerous as it was getting dark already. That whole ride was quite dangerous actually, some people drive without their lights on and their driving style is crazy.



-          Anyway... eventually we made it safely to Hué, where Sinhs way and mine parted. The next day I met up with Hoa and Nguyen, two couchsurfers from Hué and Ted from the UK. We went to the beach, visited Hoa's grandparents, had a big lunch and went for a walk. Also, Hoa was so nice to drive me around the city on her motorbike to show me around (thanks!!!). Even though I had a great time there, I still feel like I should have had more time to explore Hué - oh well, you can't see it all right :) That night the owner of the hotel invited me to have some wine and we had some nice conversations.

The next day I took the plane back to Saigon. I met an English girl who had been travelling for a while as well, Michelle. We decided to put our bags in a locker and share a taxi to the city centre. There I met up with Annie, Hoa Le and Diep Truong. I had a wonderful afternoon with them, eating ice cream, chatting, having fun - they made me taste some local food (served in a plastic bag!?). When the time had come I had to go back to the airport, they insisted in taking me their on their motorbike, so I got to experience rush hour on a motorbike as well Well... with a goodbye committee like that they sure didn't make it easy on me to leave Saigon and I had to promise to go back to Saigon and hang out with them again one day

Anyway, from there I took the plane to Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia), back to a big city and time to meet up with some old friends again.


- Sven

Mission in Koh Tbeng : Building new houses in the village

Posted by goofingaroundinasia on February 23, 2009 at 4:10 AM Comments comments (0)

It's been a few days since the last update of our blog but we have been living in the village for some time which has been a great experience so far. We have been very busy over there. Unfortunately, Mathilda from France has left the village a few days ago; she ran out of money and decided to take a flight back home from Bangkok. Her departure from the village wasn't easy, both Mathilda and the locals had a tough time saying goodbye to each other. During the past three weeks, she became a part of the village and did a great job there, helping out whenever she could. The people are still talking about her every single day, she's definitely being missed over here.

The good thing is that Sven arrived two days ago and he committed himself to live in the village for at least one week. He was quite sceptical about the whole thing in the beginning but as soon as he noticed how friendly and hospitable these people are, he enjoyed being there with us as well. Me and Mathilda had already started building a new house for Sophet's family a few days earlier, together with some men from the village. We tore down the old house in one day and the next day we started building a new one. This is a job not to be underestimated here in Cambodia ... some of the materials such as concrete pillars, wooden columns and bamboo have to be brought in from other villages, which can take a while. It's also not easy to find some locals to work for you and actually work hard. We're happy that we found three strong local men to build the new house for us. They're building a traditional wooden house and some know-how is needed to do that; still, the whole building process doesn't look very logical to us, sometimes they make things much more difficult than they're supposed to be, but who are we to criticize them all the time? It's the end result that counts, and it actually looks good so far. They need some coordination though and it also motivates them a lot to reward them for a hard day of work. We decided to buy them 10 litres of local palm wine every day to share all together after work. In this way they started to respect us much more, it makes us "part of the gang" in a way I guess. We definitely broke the ice by doing that, me and Sven were also singing English songs around the campfire, showing them pictures of the work they do, and stuff like that.

Half of the house has been finished by now. We still need to make the bamboo floor and the walls. We also had another great idea that we will integrate in the new house; there are many men working near the lake and there's no shop that is selling the famous palm wine in the surroundings. We decided to build a small palm wine shop attached to the house so Rai (the 26 year old girl who also lives with Sophet) can run it. This will generate an extra income for them, we all agree that she can earn good money with it if she's motivated.

The total cost of the house (materials, labour, transport) will be around 500 USD. We're keeping close track of all the expenses we do, since we hope to be able to build a few more new houses for the poorest families in the near future as well. Of course the houses are not completely new, some of the materials of the old house are being re-used. We make sure that they're being build in a good way, though. We hope to build another house soon for the very poor family of 8 who are cuurently living in a small hut of hardly 5 square metres.

After long talks with some locals and Sithal, Sven and I realized that it's very hard to change something in the long term. In many cases, there's a big chance that they will not care anymore as soon as we leave; animals that we buy will be sold again or killed for food (instead of being used for breeding), the bicycles will be sold again, children might stop brushing their teeth, medicines might not be shared anymore, and things like that. It's so hard to change their mentality, and this can be pretty frustrating. Fortunately, we are optimistic and patient. We talked about making them grow their own vegetables so they could sell them, but I guess they're too lazy to do that. It's quite hard to understand because many people in the nearby villages grow a lot of veggies and fruits. You have a few families in Koh Tbeng who work really hard, and of course they have a much better life than most others.

We realize that we can only change their thinking if some of us will be living there for a long time, constantly monitoring every move we want to make. As soon as the backup is gone, most of the results of your work will disappear as well. Since I really started liking living on the countryside, I might consider coming back later to live in the village for a longer time.

For now, we're putting our efforts and money in the things that can really change something in the long term without uis having to be there day by day : building decent houses for the poorest families, repairing the broken well and trying to improve the local school. Today our good friend Nabil from Phnom Penh will arrive in Kratie to spend two days in the village. He promised to bring 60 T-shirts, 100 writing books and 200 pens for the kids. We will also talk about the future of the project with him and the community leaders.



(Sven) - Time to catch up on blogging again - Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, Kratie, Ratanakiri

Posted by goofingaroundinasia on February 19, 2009 at 6:13 AM Comments comments (2)

Because the past couple of weeks have been so hectic and because internet access was not always readily available, I didn't manage to post blog entries regularly, so here's an update of my past few weeks in Cambodia:

Phnom Penh

When I first arrived in Phnom Penh, I didn't like the city at all. Pollution, tuk-tuk drivers on every corner of the screen shouting "tuk-tuk sir? Motorbike sir?", beggars everywhere, hectic traffic, the major highlights like Wat Phnom and the Silver Pagoda turned out not to be much special and not much going on at night (according to what the first people I met here told me).  

Then I started discovering the city, walked around a lot and met up with a few people. First Joanne, Megan and Len spent a lot of time at first introducing me to PP nightlife (oh, and eating spiders, something Joanne insisted on - well they were okay, just a bit crispy :p). Then met up a couple of times with Nabil and Sokhom, who invited me for a traditional Khmer lunch at their office and with whom I had many interesting conversations about Cambodia, its people, its mentality, its history and how the country's now being exploited by China. Then I met Mia, a traveler from NY who was planning to do voluntary work in Phnom Penh and who was getting bored. So we decided to hang out a lot together, ask around and check out  as many cool pubs and restaurants as possible. We also managed to discover Snow's (Maxine's Pub it's officially called), one of the nicest bars I've seen at the other side of the river. Few people know about it, and it's great to watch the sunset there. We hung out with a few other cs'ers (Sam, Anna, David) and had great fun.

It was also great to see Luk and Wendy again as I met up with them in PP and planned to go to Siem Reap, so we spent a lot of time sharing travel stories.

Anyway, as I first didn't like Phnom Penh, I really started to like the city after a while and I had a hard time having to leave again. Strange how you can change your mind about a city after digging past the surface!

The main tourist highlights didn?t appeal to me that much:

-          Wat Phnom was not that big; seen many bigger and more impressive temples on this trip;

-          The Silver Pagoda was not fully accessible and in fact just a small copy of Bangkok's Wat Phra Khao;

-          Tuol Sleng Museum and the Killing Fields were interesting and what happened there was horrifying, but it's hard to believe that the Killing Fields are "privatized" by a Japanese company; it's deeply disturbing that a foreign company was permitted to exploit Cambodia's tragedy. Also, an information stand at Choeung Ek describes what happened as "worse than what the nazis did" (which is not true) and some bones and remains of clothes of people who were killed there are scattered all over the place in a very disrespectful way!

Honestly, the main highlight of Phnom Penh was the waste dump of Stung Meanchey.


Siem Reap and Temples of Angkor

I had stayed in Phnom Penh for over 2 weeks so it was time to move on, so Luk, Wendy and I took the bus to Siem Reap. The next day, my friend Tom from Belgium arrived and we would travel together around Cambodia for the next 2 weeks.

Siem Reap was to me like I expected and once again not at all like how the Lonely Planet described it. Busy and way too touristy and everything was waaaaaaay too expensive, so I didn't really like it. We got ourselves a 3-day temple pass, ended up seeing most of the temples in 1,5 days. Although spending that much time visiting temples was exhausting, they were impressive. The temples I liked most are Angkor Wat (of course, it's massive!), Angkor Thom and the Bayon, and Ta Prohm, which has been "swallowed" by the jungle, and looks very much the way most of the monuments of Angkor appeared when European explorers first stumbled upon them. Ta Prohm is a temple of towers, closed courtyards and narrow corridors. Many of the corridors are impassable, clogged with jumbled piles of delicately carved stone blocks dislodged by the roots of long-decayed trees.

Tom and I decided to check out the floating villages of Chong Kneas and Kompong Phhluk, both built on soaring stilts. Nearby the latter is a flooded forest, inundated every year when the lake rises to take the Mekong's overflow. As the lake drops, the petrified trees are revealed. The village itself is a friendly place, where most of the houses are built on stilts of about 6m or 7m high. Getting there wasn?t easy and appeared to be a major tourist rip-off. There was only one boat company in charge, and they tried to charge us US$ 110 first for 2 people. When they didn't want to lower their price to what we wanted to pay (US$ 50 maximum), we decided to take off - but then suddenly they agreed. We still thought it was a lot of money, but the boat trip took about 1,5 hours one way and we couldn't have had it cheaper there. We walked around at the village, talked to locals, handed out books and balloons to the kids and visited a local school. The boat ride back was nice as we managed to see the sunset.

Phnom Penh... again

As Tom wanted to visit Phnom Penh during his trip and he heard that the boat ride to PP was nice, we decided to give it a go. I looked like a lobster when I arrived in Phnom Penh (was sitting on the deck in the sun), but the 5 hour boat ride was nice indeed.

Funny anecdote here is that I hadn't checked up on my e-mail for a few days, so I didn't know about Olivier's plans. When I texted Mia to meet up in Phnom Penh, she told me Olivier was there too. I could only briefly meet up with him because he was busy trying to take the kids to the hospital, but he told me about the village and his plans there, and he told me I should go to Kratie to visit the village.

We stayed in Phnom Penh for a few days, which was fun to meet up and hang around with Mia again. Then we decided to move on to Kratie.


We decided to take a minibus to Kratie, which turned out to be a 7-hour ride. It was quite exhausting, but fortunately we could take the front seats - and we spent about an hour on top of the bus too, quite an experience. When we arrived at U-Hong Guest House in Kratie Mathilda was there to welcome us; she had already arranged a room for us. She told us about the village, what they had accomplished and what they would like to do.

The next day, we met up with Sithal and we all drove to the village. We gave some food to the kids, talked to the locals, walked around, had a short boat ride and a delicious Khmer-style lunch. Then we were informed about a water pump that was broken. Surprisingly, nobody ever even opened up the thing to see what was wrong with it or whether it could be fixed in an easy and inexpensive way, so we decided to give it a go. We noticed that a small rubber had to be replaced, so we drove back to Kratie to get a replacement part. Then we drove back to the village to try to fix the pump. When we got the pump back together, we noticed that there was pressure on the pump now, but still no water was coming up. Then one person at the village mentioned that with the water level this low, the pump had never worked properly!? duh! Also, people seemed willingly to help, but it was clear that they needed some coordination. This situation together with what Nabil and Sokhom had told us before about Cambodian people made us realize that the big challenge would not be helping the people out or getting things done short-term, but coordinating things permanently, making them understand what needs to be done and why it needs to be done that way and follow up on them, to hopefully change things in a long-term perspective. Quite a challenge, but very interesting!


When I booked the shared taxi to Ban Lung, the guesthouse owner asked me whether I was sure - because they squeeze one driver, two people on the passenger's seat in front and 4 people in the back. Because Tom and I wanted to be in Ban Lung as early as possible and because it sounded like quite a challenge, we decided to go for it.

The trip took about 4 hours and was quite exhausting - indeed, we were squeezed in the back with 2 more people, they were playing horrible Khmer music and the roads were bumpy.

We liked Ban Lung right away: a small but lively town, friendly people and only few tourists, and very remote. The only way to get around is by motorbike, it's not safe to drive around at night (which we only heard after a few days of getting back in the dark - it seems that some people get mugged :$), roads are very bumpy, there are only a few road signs so you have to ask around all the time to get to where you want to go and roads are full of red dust!

We rented motorbikes and explored the area:

-          At the heart of the protected area of Yeak Lom is a beautiful crater-lake set amid the vivid greens of the towering jungle. The lake is believed to have been formed 700,000 years ago and some people swear it must have been formed by a meteor strike as the circle is so perfect. Some Cambodians believe that mysterious spirits inhabit the lake, that?s why they don?t swim there. We did swim around though and got along with the spirits quite well :)

-          Visited the Chaa Ong Waterfall and had a refreshing swim there with some locals. From there we drove on to Lumphat, the former provincial capital. It is something of a ghost town these days thanks to sustained US bombing raids in the early 1970s;

-          Went on a day trip to Ta Veng, 57km north of Ban Lung, driving around a landscape of beautiful jungle, mountains and authentic villages. It was in the Ta Veng district that Pol Pot, Ieng Sary and other leaders of the Khmer Rouge established their guerrilla base in the 1960s. In Ta Veng, we walked around a Lao village. People were drinking rice wine and whisky there; they believed that inviting people would bring good luck to their family. So there we were, drinking rice wine and whisky, talking to the locals (which was not easy as some of them were drunk and only one of them understood some basic English) and making music (using whatever we could find to use as drums, quite fun :p). They offered us to stay there for the night, but as we had a long way drive ahead of us and we had to get up early the next morning to do a jungle trek, we decided to get going. On our way back, we noticed that a wedding party was going on in a small village called Poi. We stopped for a break and we were immediately invited in. We had to take place around the table and have dinner, drink and dance with the guests, which was a wonderful and authentic experience. People were very friendly and everyone wanted to talk to us, even though it wasn't easy to communicate as most of them didn't speak English. Around midnight we decided to head back, mainly because we had to get up early the next day, but also because most of the guests were getting really drunk and communication had become virtually impossible :p

-          The next morning, we had to get up early for our jungle trek which was hard because we hadn't slept much the past night.  Our guide Sareth and us drove 40km up to Voen Sai by motorbike. There, we drove our motorbikes on a small ferry and crossed the river. From there we had to drive for about 2 hours through the jungle, following dirt tracks, through the mud, crossing pools and rivers, through dense jungle - quite a challenge and not without risks but a wonderful experience. We drove past the border of Virachay National Park ; when it started to get dark we stopped and built a wooden construction to attach our hammocks to. We made a camping fire, barbecued some chicken and went to sleep. I didn't sleep that well in the hammock - the mosquito net was bothering me and it was way too hot, but sleeping in the dense jungle was quite an experience, all the sounds at night. We heard deer walking around and a snake.  We got up at 5.30am to spot gibbons. We walked to an open field where it was possible to spot the gibbons if we were lucky and watched for the sunset. Well the sunset was beautiful and we heard multiple gibbon families, but the bastards didn't want to show themselves obviously :p After breakfast Laa (a local guy who lives in one of the villages) took us into the jungle. This guy was amazing. We walked for hours and we could hardly keep up with him. He knew the jungle by heart, climbed like a monkey and while we were sweating all over, he didn't sweat at all, even though he was wearing long trousers and longsleeves! We stopped by a waterfall to have a rest, then moved on. We didn't spot any wild animals, but we did see some spiders along the way - big (the size of a hand) and poisonous ones. When we arrived, Tom and I were both exhausted. Then, we drove our motorbikes out of the jungle - following the dirt tracks, crossing the river. We also visited some Lao and Chinese villages. We took the ferry, then drove the 40km back to Ban Lung. When we arrived at the hostel, we were totally exhausted and I felt sick. I was dizzy, had a headache, my stomach hurt, I was shivering all over and what worried me most of all - I had a fever of almost 39°C! Reading up on my medical info, I figured it could be Malaria as some of the symptoms matched. I went to sleep right away, and when I got up - 13 hours later - I was at least relieved to see that although I still felt weak, my fever was gone. The people at the hotel did recommend me to have a blood test done though. They called a doctor who picked me up on his motorbike. He stopped at a small shop. For a moment I thought we were going to have a beer, but in the back of the shop was a lab :) Taking a blood sample was done in a second. He drove me back and would come back with the results an hour later. I was stunned how quick and effective this was, I'm not used to that in Cambodia :p When the doctor arrived, I was relieved to hear that the result of the blood test was negative. The fever I had was probably caused by being exhausted and driving in the sun with the motorbike for multiple hours! phew!!

Yesterday the time had come for Tom to move on. He left for Saigon and will travel around Vietnam for a few days and then fly to Kuala Lumpur. I decided to stay here for a few more days to just catch up on sleep, relax, catch on e-mail and blogging, do some shopping and simply... have some private time to do some planning and thinking.

I don't have a clue what my plans will be like the next month. Tomorrow or the day after I'm going back to Kratie to hear more about Olivier's plans in the village and his plans and expectations for the next month. Either I will stay there for a while too, or I'll travel on - to be continued :)

On a psychological level I have to  back up Olivier's opinion - a long trip like this is not to be underestimated. It's a wonderful experience which broadens your perspective, but you're confronted with several situations and yourself from time to time, not being around your natural environment back home with your good friends around for a chat when things get hard, experiencing ups and downs in a more intense way than back home. Also, although we appreciate each other a lot as travel companions, we realized that Olivier and I sometimes have different needs while travelling, so it's important to go our own way from time to time. Which is good as you learn to be more independent and meet new people more easily. But anyway, even though it's not  always easy, it's more than worth it in the end and we're still enjoying our trip to the fullest !

-  Sven



Mission in Koh Tbeng : a long update about the past week in the village

Posted by goofingaroundinasia on February 18, 2009 at 1:11 AM Comments comments (0)

First of all I will give a small update on the health situation of That and Lun Luy, the two kids that I took to Phnom Penh for free treatment and medicine. I took That and his mother Sophet back to the National Pediatric Hospital for the results of the blood test : it indicated that he might be suffering of a blood disease called �Thalassaemia� and he needed a supplementary blood test at the Institute Pasteur in Phnom Phen, so I took them there and had the test done for 8 USD. It would take four days before we had the results, so Nabil suggested that we went back to Kratie and he would pick up the results later. Unfortunately, this also didn�t work out as well as we hoped � when Nabil went back for the results, they refused to give it to him because the patient was not there. Right now he�s trying to get the results through another doctor and if that also doesn�t work out I�ll have to take That all the way back to Phnom Penh. That�s not too big of a disaster since I have to go back anyway with Lun Luy who needs an evaluation of his treatment and a new stock of free medicine in about two weeks. Lun Luy is reacting very well to his medicine; he had no more seizures since he started taking the pills and he�s also not suffering from any side effects. He�s finally able to go swimming, riding his bicycle, play football, go to school without always having to be afraid of having a seizure. His parents are so happy, they insist that we have lunch and dinner at their house every day (and Sokhoen is a great cook!)

We found out that That is suffering from a blood disease called �Thalassaemia Minor� and that he�s lacking in proteins and folic acids, caused by malnutrition. It�s a genetic disease and it�s very important that he doesn�t marry a girl that has the same disease, otherwise their future children might be disabled. We need to make sure that he eats a lot of lemon, oranges, nuts, eggs, meat, � stuff like that. He also needs to drink more water because his body is lacking in fluids most of the time.

On Saturday we all took a shared taxi back to Kratie (me, the two mothers and the two kids). This time we found a cheaper one for only 25 USD, but we had to share the backseats amongst the five of us which was a big ordeal � it was a car, not a minivan, so we got really crammed in the back for more than 4 hours and it was very hot outside. It was great to be back in the village, especially for Sophet who had missed her other kids a lot. As soon as she came back, she was smiling all the time and talking about all her adventures in the big city. Mathilda and I realized that they would probably never be able to live in a city, they�re so used to their own way of life on the countryside. We watched the pictures together with the other villagers and Sophet cooked some delicious food for us.

The next day we talked to one of the community leaders about the future of the village and the work we do. The older woman actually offered us a room and working space inside her house! This was perfect for us because up to now we have been spending quite a lot of money on transport between Kratie and the village and accommodation in the town. She gave us a sleeping mat, pillows and a mosquito net. From now on, we will always be able to talk to her whenever we need her. We want the entire community to be involved in our future efforts, it�s the only way to change something in the long term. The biggest challenge of all is only starting now.

It�s quite a challenge for us to live in the village as well. We�re so used to our comfort and life is very basic over there. They wash every evening near the well (of course there�s no shower or whatsoever), they sleep on tin mats on the bamboo floor, there�s no internet (we realized how addicted we are to that as well), and in the early morning and late evening there�s no interpreter which forces us to learn more Khmer language. The language is very hard to learn but we�re happy to learn a few more words and expressions every day. We also discussed the safety issue of us living there with the community leaders. We don�t want to endanger ourselves and the villagers by being here, and there have been a few violent attacks in the past. It�s important that we keep a �low profile� while being there, so people from nearby villages don�t become jealous of us helping there. Poor people can be very desperate to find money.

We are currently building our workspace inside the community house so we can work from there as well. Together with the community woman we started a local pharmacy in her house, we bought a big metal box with a lock and a basic stock of medicines. Of course we will make all the decisions together. We also bought tooth brushes and tooth paste for the children and started implementing dental hygiene awareness. Many of the adults have very bad teeth over here and they�re afraid of going to the dentist for treatment, so it gets even worse. Every morning at 6 am and every evening at 6 pm we gather near the well to brush teeth together with the kids. It�s actually working out very well, they�re all very enthusiastic about it. It�s a good thing that they do it all together and we encourage them a lot. Especially the girls seem to be very proud to have a white smile, I guess it makes them feel more beautiful. The boys need a little bit more encouragement but they do fine as well.

Another problem is lice. Almost all the kids have lice, so we bought some shampoo to treat them for that, and will start this soon as well. We also bought special wooden combs to remove the lice from their hair. Some children also badly need a haircut, so every time we�re going back to Kratie we take the ones that need it the most, and we also buy some new clothes and shoes for them. It�s easier to treat the lice when they have shorter hair.

Unfortunately, the market in Kratie only has limited amounts of tooth brushes, tooth paste and shampoo to treat lice. I�m afraid that we already bought their entire stock, but we�ll definitely need more in the future. We don�t want to interrupt their daily routine because we run out of products. Our friend Nabil has two good friends coming over who would like to do some volunteer work for one month as well. He�s going to send them to Kratie in a few days with a new stock of products.

We had amazing times with the children as well. We teach them how to play together and respect each other. We play volleyball, more simple ball games, sing songs together, have a movie evening every week (yesterday we watched �Happy Feet� in Khmer, even some parents totally got into that), go swimming in the nearby lake together, � we know most of their names by heart already and they love that. We have to be careful that they don�t like our company too much, though. We found out that some of them were skipping school because they preferred spending some time with us instead. We talked with the community leaders and parents about that, it�s very important that they go to school every day. We visited the school before and took a group picture of all the students and their teachers. We will have a print of that picture soon so we can give it to the school principle. The school actually needs a lot of work as well, there are no concrete floors so it gets very dusty inside the classrooms and some children have problems to breath. That�s why they keep the lessons as short as possible. There are only three teachers for 148 children (also from nearby villages) and currently they�re teaching Khmer, biology, mathematics and history to the kids. There are NO English lessons and none of the present teachers speaks English. It�s our goal to find a young, motivated English teacher for the school as soon as possible, we already talked to the kids and they would love to learn English. The school also requires them to buy their own books and pens which most of them can�t afford, so we�re trying to get that sponsored as well.

Sophet started selling vegetables in nearby villages using the bicycle that we bought for her. She�s actually earning a decent income now, ranging between 2 and 4 USD a day. We will monitor her in the future to make sure that keeps on doing it.

There�s some bad news to tell all of you as well � Mathilda is leaving in one week, she ran out of money and her parents want her to come back to France. She�s having a hard time accepting that but there�s no other way. She will try to come back in the future, though. She has been very committed right from the start and she wants to do more for the village in the future. Luckily, we have two new volunteers joining us soon and Sven might come over as well. It�s very important that we will always have a representative in the village, and that�s not as easy as it looks. Sithal has been wonderful as well. He helps us almost every day, being our personal interpreter and sharing his own ideas with us. Of course he needs to get paid as well (between 7 and 10 USD for a whole day including transport) but we realize that we really need him. He�s very supportive of what we do but his wife is putting quite a lot of pressure on him to bring back money every day, they�re quite poor as well and they have their own family to take care of. As long as Sithal doesn�t bring her along, everything works out very well.

A new bank account (in Belgium) is being opened right now for the people who would like to support the project. We already received many nice replies. The money will be used for community purposes such as improving their educational system (investing in the school), sponsoring an English teacher, repairing the broken well and maybe building a new one, renovating the houses that are in bad shape (new bamboo floor, new walls, new roof), continuing the hygiene awareness program, � everything will be communicated through the website.

Some houses really need to be renovated. As said before, Sophet�s house is in very bad shape, and also some other ones. Two days ago, we took Sophet and the three kids to the community house to spend the night with us, there was heavy rainfall and they got totally soaked and cold in their own house. They must have an awful time living there during the rain season (July-August-September) when part of the village gets flooded because of the heavy daily rainfall. We want to make sure that they have a decent house by then. One of the local men is currently making the bamboo for us that will be used to renovate her broken floor. It will take about one week and as soon as we have the materials, we will start renovating the floor ourselves. Some other poor families might even need a new house because the foundations (pillars) are rotten and it�s way too small for their family living in it. We met one very poor family of 6 who are currently living in a house of less than 5 square metres. They can hardly fit inside and they have no kitchen, they have to cook outside and during the raining season this is virtually impossible. There are about five very poor families whose houses need to be renovated or rebuilt. The other families have a decent � yet very basic � house to live in.

It can take up to one week before the next blog entry will be posted since we decided to move out of our guesthouse in Kratie (we were paying for a room while not being there) and staying in the village instead. We will come back to Kratie every three or four dates for new updates on the website.