A Travellerspoint blog

Bicycle update

I never finished writing about my trip to SE Asia, which now was over 2 months ago... Long story short, I took a boat trip down the Mekong river from Phnom Penh back into Vietnam. I spent a couple of days in the Mekong Delta area visiting floating markets, as well as touring the Viet Cong tunnels used during the war before I finished my trip back in Ho Chi Minh City. As I'm sure you've gathered by now, the trip was great and I had an amazing time.

Two weeks ago, I rode my bike into town (about a 45 minute ride). I spent the day exploring more of Suzhou, and as I was finishing my day, it started to sprinkle, and the weather looked like it would start pouring at any minute. I decided it wasn't worth riding home in the rain, so I left my bike near the pedestrian area of town, locked it (not to anything, just itself), and took the bus home. Unfortunately, due to my schedule and the wet weather the following week, I wasn't able to make it back into town to retrieve the bike for a little over a week. This past Monday, I finally was able to make it there and much to my disappointment (although not my complete surprise), my bike was gone. I talked to a guy nearby who was some sort of guard and told him (in my very broken Mandarin) that my bike had been here and now it wasn't. His response was somewhat between amusement and boredom. He wasn't any help and told me he didn't have it...The one thing that made this theft somewhat bearable is the condition my bike had been in. As I've mentioned, it wasn't the most pristine bike when I got it, and the sub-par Chinese manufacturing that is always in the news also describes the care used in the manufacturing of my bicycle. One of the plastic pedals had broken off and I hadn't gotten around to fixing it, so I had been pedaling with one pedal and just a metal bar under my other foot. Also, the brakes were a little loose. It was definitely due for a tune-up, so it gave me a little pleasure that the thief had to deal with those problems.

The rest of my week consisted of walking and taking the bus where I needed to go, which is much less convenient that having the use of a bicycle. I had been mulling about what I should do, since it didn't seem worth it to buy a new bike with only about 2 months left here, but I also didn't want to go that long without the use of two wheels. Yesterday, I went looking for used bicycles, which don't really seem to exist in China. I talked to a couple of Chinese friends and they didn't really understand the concept of second-hand bicycles ("You mean you don't want to buy a new bicycle?"). I looked around the city's University thinking maybe there would be a place that sold used bikes there, but alas, no bicycles. I wandered around the city some more and ended up near the scene of the crime from the week before. I decided I might as well walk by again and see if, by some miracle, the bike was there.

I got to the spot, and believe it or not, the bike was there! Now, the way that I know it was my bike and not one of the millions of others is that I had purchased a new seat for mine when I got it, and I have still never seen another like it(it's red, gray, and black - quite stylish!). Also, there was a sticker on the ever useful basket that makes it very identifiable. I couldn't believe my luck. It, of course, had a new lock on it that the thief had put on to stop OTHER thieves, but that wasn't going to stop me from taking what was rightfully mine. I grabbed the bike, and as the lock was looped through the back tire, had to hold the back of the bike up as I rolled the front wheel of the bike away. A couple of blocks away, I found a bike repair stand (they're everywhere in China) and I got him to hammer the lock off of the bike so that it could be pedaled. And the cherry on top of this wonderful story of karma was that the jackass who stole my bike had replaced the broken pedal and tightened the brakes, so now I have my bike back, as well as new pedals and better brakes. This just goes to show you that if you're going to steal a bike, you shouldn't steal it from the exact same place you're going to return to a week later.

Posted by rdut 21:14 Archived in China Tagged bicycle Comments (0)

Winter vacation (Part 3)

Cambodia

After visiting Vientiane, I flew to Siem Reap, Cambodia, home of the world-famous (and rightly-so) Angkor Wat. Angkor Wat is the name of only one of the temples that are in the area around Siem Reap, and I spent the next three days exploring the area with Buna, the motorcycle driver I hired to drive me around while I was there (this is how almost everyone visits the temple complexes as they are so spread out).
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All of the temples were interesting and had their own stories and history, but long story short, they are all really old and in various states of repair (or disrepair). My favorites were the temples that had not been as well maintained, and show how the temples looked when Western explorers discovered them (they became better-known in the mid 1800's), with the jungle encroaching and climbing over walls and through the buildings.
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There's something oddly comforting seeing nature slowly reclaim what was once jungle a thousand years ago. Also, lucky for me, I happened to plan (unknowingly) visiting Siem Reap on the week that all of China was on vacation for Chinese New Year, so I was surrounded by Chinese tourists... If felt like I was back in China what with all of the Chinese tour guides noisily barking into their portable speakers and everyone wearing matching hats!
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After touring the Siem Reap area for three days, I flew to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. I had heard from many people during my trip that they didn't really enjoy Phnom Penh, and while it is true that it's not as interesting as Siem Reap or as captivating as Luang Prabang in Laos, it appealed to me because it seemed more like a "real" city than most of the other cities I'd visited.
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It's a big, capital city that isn't as beholden to tourism as most of the other places, so it was interesting to see how "real" Cambodia does things. There are a few things for tourists to do, although most of them are pretty heavy. The Killing Fields, which is an area on the outskirts of town where Pol Pot, the horrible leader of the Khmer Rouge, slaughtered somewhere between 1.2 - 2.2 million people (this out of a total population in the country of 7.5 million at that time). It is estimated about half of those that died were tortured or were killed while the other half died of starvation and disease) people from 1975-1979. Not much is left at the fields, other than a newly-built memorial and big craters in the ground where the mass graves were found and subsequently dug up.

I also visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a former school where the Khmer Rouge interrogated and tourured over 14,000 people before most of them were sent to the Killing Fields to be killed. Horrible stuff, but for me not as powerful as the concentration camp Auschwitz was, I think partly because there isn't much left from the Khmer Rouge (buildings, personal belongings of the victims, etc) to effectively demonstrate the number of people that really were affected.
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It is amazing to know that some of the people who were involved in the killings and torture have been free until now. I just saw a Google news article a couple of weeks ago about how the trials of some of the people in the Khmer Rouge are just now beginning. I also found it interesting (and quite depressing) that I did not know anything about this part of world history until I started researching Cambodia prior to my trip. I thought maybe I just happened to miss this day in History class, but most of the people I met or talked to while traveling said the same thing. It seems though, that the Cambodian's view of this period in time is that it's now behind them and that Cambodians are looking forward rather than back.

After Phnom Penh, I needed to have some down time, so I took a ~3 hour bus ride to the beach town of Sihanoukville on the Gulf of Thailand. The beach was not very wide, but it was nice to just chill for a day after a few days of touring. Sihanoukville, like many SE Asian beach places, have restaurant after restaurant after bar directly on the beach. They all have a number of chaise lounges and comfy chairs that are yours for the taking provided you buy something from them at some point during the day. So, I spent the day relaxing and reading with a girl from England that was also my bus from Phnom Penh. All of the restaurants have beach side BBQs at night and the seafood we had was delicious.
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The next day, I headed back to Phnom Penh to go back into Vietnam the next day.

I thought Cambodia was great. Siem Reap is one of the most interesting places I've ever been, and I found Cambodians to be just as friendly as the Vietnamese and Laotians, and again, everyone seemed to speak very good English. More Angkor Wat and other pictures in the gallery...

Posted by rdut 01:50 Archived in Cambodia Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

Winter vacation (Part 2)

Laos

After missing my flight to Laos from Hanoi on my first try, I finally made it to Luang Prabang, Laos the following evening. Luang Prabang used to be the capital of Laos, so has many important temples and other historical sites, as well being in a beautiful spot situated between two rivers.
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It is very small and laid-back, though, even with the influx of tourists the past few years (I was really surprised by how many tourists there were). At "customs" after landing (just a man behind a desk), one guy on our plane was $1 short the cost of the visa fee, so was allowed to go through customs to go to the ATM and bring back the money to get his visa and "officially" go through customs. And after being in Vietnam, it was very refreshing that not everyone seemed concerned with trying to get as much money as they could from all of the tourists. The taxi touts (of which there weren't many) didn't constantly harass you as in Vietnam. I'm sure that in a few years that will change, but for now, the country does not seem "spoiled", as I felt a lot of places in Vietnam were.

I spent a couple of days with an Australian and German exploring the town and surrounding areas, including quite a few Buddist temples. The most impressive of the Wats was Wat Xieng Thong, and is almost 450 years old.
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Due to the number of temples, there are monks in orange wandering around everywhere in the town, and one morning I got up very early to watch the almsgiving ceremony, where the monks walk single file down the main street and collect rice from the locals for the day.
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Luang Prabang is also famous for a really neat night market that shuts the main road down every night, and I also spent my time eating and drinking at various cafes along the Mekong River with my temporary traveling companions.
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After two days in Luang Prabang, the next morning I headed by "minibus" (actually just a van) 3 very bumpy and slow hours North to Nong Khiaw, which is surrounded by mountains.
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However, Nong Khiaw was not my final destination. I then took a boat ~1 hour upstream on the Nam Khan River and I finally arrived in Muang Ngoi (pronounced "Mwang Noy"). Muang Ngoi is only accessible by boat, thus there are no cars or motorbikes in the village.
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There is only one "road" thru town, which is dirt and follows the river. Sandwiched between some very steep mountain peaks, chickens and little children run around the tourists that come here. It looked and felt like I was either on a movie set or had traveled back in time.

Since it takes a commitment of quite a bit of time to get here, there were MANY less tourists here than in Luang Prabang. I found a bungalow overlooking the river that would be my home for the next 2 days... Very basic - just a bed with a mosquito net, but definitely enough for me for a couple of nights. After wandering around the village (this took about 10 minutes), I had dinner with two Brits that were on the boat to the village with my earlier that afternoon. Afterward, we went to the village's bar. There, we met three airline pilots on vacation who were from Alaska (some of the very few Americans I met on the trip). Promptly at 10 pm, all of the lights at the bar went out. This was not surprising to us, though, as the entire town is only powered by generators, and the main generator only runs from 6 pm to 10 pm. It was very funny to see all of the villagers huddled in their houses during that entire time as that's the only time that they can watch the thing. We all stumbled home in the dark not too long after the power was cut (the stumbling was due more to the fact that there was no lighting than the fact that we had been drinking!).
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The next day, I spent hiking around to some of the minority villages that are scattered in the mountains near Muang Ngoi. I also ventured into some totally deserted caves. My Indiana Jones moment came when, while crouching down to pass through a very small hole in one of the caves, my backpack brushed against the ceiling. I thought that I felt something on my neck, my hand went back to brush off the dust, and as my hand came back into the light from my flashlight, there were four or 5 spiders on my hand, and I could feel that there were more on my neck and in my hair. I definitely jumped (as much jumping as I could do while crawling through a small opening), but luckily they were daddy long leg-type spiders and nothing big, black, and poisonous looking! After (what I will now call) my near death experience, I continued hiking through the hills and valleys in the area, across a couple of streams and rivers, past countless water buffalo, and made it back to Muang Ngoi just before it started getting dark. It was a great day of seeing some great scenery and relaxing before I plunged back into Lao civilization (which isn't all that stressful to begin with).
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The next morning, I headed back downriver an hour to Nong Khiaw. At the boat dock when we disembarked, a guy asked who of the tourists were headed back to Luang Prabang, of which I was one. I said that I was and I and three others got into what they call a sawngthaew, a converted pickup with two wooden benches down the side of the bed. We assumed we were taking this VERY uncomfortable vehicle to the bus that would take us back to Luang Prabang. Unfortunately, we soon discovered that this contraption was going to be driving us and about 15 Laotians all the way back to Luang Prabang. It was one of the dustiest, most crowded, smokiest (I very seriously considered taking up smoking right then and there so that the 4 hour trip would go by faster), noisiest experiences of my life. Adding to the noise of the trip was another passenger of the sawngthaew... One of the passengers evidently had a pig that he had to take to Luang Prabang. So, the driver and this guy spent a few minutes hogtying the animal to the back of the vehicle. Every bump that we hit on the road (and there were A LOT) would be accompanied by a squeal and then a couple of snorts. I was shocked at the end of the trip that the pig, after being untied, was not only still alive, but able to walk.
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Since it was too late to take the bus to Vientiane, my next stop, I stayed the night in Luang Prabang, and the following morning, took a ~9 hour bus ride (this time a real coach-type bus) across a few mountain passes to Vientiane, the capital of Laos. The trip was beautiful and VERY windy. Luckily, I don't get car sick, but there were definitely a lot of other passengers that took advantage of the emergency plastic bags that they passed out at the beginning of the trip.

Vientiane was also a really neat city. While a lot bigger and busier than Luang Prabang, it is still very small compared to the other capital cities of the neighboring countries. I visited Vientiane's Arc de Triomphe, or what they call "Patuxay". As you know, all of these old French colonies are a little sore with the French, so the Lao government decided to build this Arch after gaining independence and it is supposedly just a few inches taller than the one in Paris. To add insult to injury, it was built with cement that was donated by the US (although the US had donated the cement for a new airport). Another must-see in Vientiane is Pha That Luang, a stupa that is the most important national monument in the country.
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On my second day in Vientiane, I rented a bike and rode to the Buddha Park that is outside of the city about 25 kilometers. The park is filled with concrete Buddhas and Hindu god sculptures, and it is definitely a cool place. There a huge, reclining Buddha, as well as hundreds of statues in various other sizes.
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The last place I visited in Vientiane was Wat Si Saket, the oldest temple in the town at about 200 years old. It houses 2,000 small silver and bronze Buddhas in alcoves built into the walls, as well as 300 larger, seated Buddhas. Laos like their Buddhas!
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Laos was definitely my favorite country of the three that I visited, and Luang Prabang was one of, if not the, favorite place I visited on my entire trip. Everybody that I met in the country (both locals and tourists) were extremely friendly and laid-back. Very different from the fast pace and constant noise that I experienced in Vietnam.

I was then off to fly to Siem Reap, Cambodia. I'll try to add that entry fairly soon as opposed to waiting another 2 weeks.

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As last time, I have uploaded more pictures in the gallery than I have posted in the body of this. Enjoy!

Posted by rdut 02:36 Archived in Laos Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

Winter vacation (Part 1)

Vietnam

Well, I am back in Suzhou after a wonderful time of traveling around Southeast Asia for the past month.
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My future profession... Pineapple courier

I started my trip in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam (Saigon to you old-timers). It was hot and humid, which felt great after freezing the past month and a half in Suzhou. I spent a couple of days touring around the city, including seeing Reunification Palace, which was the Vietnamese Capitol building prior to the end of the war (the tanks plowing through the gates at Reunification Palace signaled the fall of South Vietnam and Saigon), and the "War Remnants Museum", which essentially was a museum showing all of the atrocities of the Vietnam War (which they call the "American War").
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Reunification Palace

I flew next to Hoi An, about halfway up the coast of Vietnam. Hoi An is famous for being spared any bombing during the war, so it has a really neat old town area with original French-colonial type buildings. It is also famous for having hundreds of tailor shops in the city (and it's not a big city by any means). I wasn't planning on buying any clothes, but the dang Vietnamese women are such good salespeople, that I ended up buying a tailored wool coat and suit.....both for $100. Of course, this required me to pack the clothes with me for the next three and a half weeks in my backpack. I think they're close to being unwrinkled by now, though!
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I count five tailors in a row...
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Lantern shop
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Hoi An

After a couple of days in Hoi An (which turned out to be one of my favorite places of the trip), I rode the train up to Hue, and spent a day touring the city. I then flew up to the capitol, Hanoi, in the North of the Country. I joined a tour group for a 2 day/1 night trip to Ha Long Bay which included sleeping on the boat in the bay for the night. Ha Long Bay is VERY touristy, but since the Bay is so big, it didn't seem crowded at all, and it was beautiful.
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Ha Long Bay

The group on my tour was really fun and after arriving back in Hanoi, I spent the next couple of days with a Canadian couple that had just finished teaching English in Korea and three Brits that were traveling around as well. We toured Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum (I can confirm that he is dead as I saw his embalmed body), and the "Hanoi Hilton", the POW prison where John McCain spent about 5 years (including some interesting pictures of [a MUCH younger looking] McCain and the other POWs playing soccer, cleaning toilets, etc.).
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Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum

I had another day to kill before my flight to Laos, so I decided to head south a couple of hours to Ninh Binh, which I had heard is sort of an "undiscovered" destination in Vietnam. This is saying something because I was AMAZED how touristy and filled with Westerners Vietnam was. Ninh Binh was great - my hotel told me of a place within bicyling distance that was just starting to gear up for tourists (their application to be approved as a World Heritage site has just been submitted, meaning it's going to get crazy in the next couple of years). I boarded a little boat, and a sweet little lady paddled my along a river through some great scenery and some caves, the longest of which was over 400 meters long! Luckily, the woman seemed quite experienced at avoiding the stalactites, although I did have to duck and bob a couple of times to avoid a direct hit from the caves' appendages.
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Trang An caves and river... Just a matter of time before it's swamped with tourists!

I headed back to Hanoi and the next day I headed to the airport for my flight to Laos. Unfortunately, that's not the end of the story. I made it to the airport about 2 hours later than I should have due to a really bad traffic jam on the only road to the airport. After spending 3 hours stuck in traffic, I missed my flight and due to the fact that there's only one flight a day to where I was going, I got to spend another full day in Hanoi (which by then, did not really please me as I was ready to leave Hanoi). Luckily, the next day, I was able to take off and head to Luang Prabang, Laos.

Vietnam as a very interesting place. I had been wanting to go there for years, and I'm so glad that I was able to see it and experience it. The food was amazing (the best pho I've had, and spring rolls everywhere) and the people there were SO friendly, even when they found out that I was an American. Never once did anyone seem remotely put off by the fact that I was from the country that destroyed a huge portion of their country. It also was interesting to see how much it differs from China. I've decided that China is to the US as Vietnam is to Mexico. Going to Vietnam was in a lot of ways like going to Mexico - it's a lot dirtier, and the infrastructure is not too good and everyone wants to be your friend for one reason or another. Also, all of the menus are in English and everyone speaks English. China on the other hand, is clean, has efficient transportation, but all of the menus are in their language and no one (okay, a little bit of an exaggeration) speaks a foreign language... Sound like the US at all?!

I will update this soon with part two of my trip. I hope everyone is doing well. I have added more pictures than those shown in the body of this entry - they should be in the gallery portion of the webpage.

Posted by rdut 05:31 Archived in Vietnam Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

Wat a vacation

I've gotten a few inquiries as to if I was swallowed by the country of China and am still alive... In fact, I'm great; the (main) reason that I've neglected updating this recently is that I am currently traveling through Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia for a month as I got a month's vacation for Chinese New Year. I will update this with details of the trip and so forth after February 8th or 9th. Happy Chinese New Year everyone!

Posted by rdut 05:22 Comments (0)

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