A Travellerspoint blog

16 - Monks, yaks and pilgrims

It was great arriving back in China - back on familiar turf. Spitting men, smelly drains, babies with no nappies, helpful signs in the toilets....

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We checked into a brilliant hostel which used to be a printing factory back in the 1970s so we were straight down to the bar to use the free wifi and drink beer for 25p. The main reason people visit Chengdu is to visit the Giant Panda Sanctuary on the outskirts of town. It really was quite fantastic and we hadn't realised that there would be so many pandas and that we would get so close. The young ones were really very cute and seemed quite playful.

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Of course, being in Sichuan we had to try the famous Sichuan Hotpot.

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We'd had one of these when we were in China before...a bubbling pot of chilli where you cook your stuff much like a fondue. This time though we decided to step things up a notch and add some duck's tongues into the mix.....probably not something we need to do again......

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And then it was on another plane and onwards to Lhasa! It had been quite a challenge getting all the paperwork and the tour organised for Tibet as the restrictions change all the time. At present the Chinese government has decided that all Western tourists must pay for a guide and a car each day. So it was a nice luxury for us to be met at the airport by our guide Nawam and transported straight to our hotel in central Lhasa. We met Sharon and Steven there who are both from Malaysia and were the other two members of our group. We all went out for lunch and immediately realised we were at 3600m as we almost passed out trying to bound up the 2 floors to the restaurant. Fi got stuck into some yak dumplings....the first of our many yak products. Yak lasagne, yak cheesecake, yak butter tea, yak cheese, yak steaks, yak yoghurt. We also walked the first of our many Koras...or pilgrim walks....around the Jokhang Temple seeing the sights and smells of Lhasa. It's imperative that you walk clockwise...the only people who don't do this are the patrols of Chinese soldiers.

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Yak Butter...

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Bryn getting stuck into the local home brewed barley beer

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Prayer Wheels a plenty whichever way you look

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We spent a couple of days with our guide doing the main sights of Lhasa. The summer palace of the Dalai Lamas, from where the 14th made his escape to India back in 1959.

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And the first of many monasteries...the Sera monastery where we were treated to the monks 'debating' in the open air courtyard. They get quite impassioned by it....

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We visited the Jokhang Temple early in the day,past the pilgrims doing their protestations out front....

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And then on with the rest of the pilgrims and followed the trail through the numerous chapels all lit by yak candles. We played spot the Buddha with our guide........trying to guess the difference between the Past Buddha, Present Buddha, Future Buddha, Medicine Buddhas, Protectors, Disciples, Tara, Kings etc etc We weren't very good at it.....Buddhism is pretty complicated.

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But we did have some fun on the roof looking out across Barkor Square and all the pilgrims doing their koras and protestations.

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The Potala Palace is definitely the star attraction in Lhasa. It was a beautiful day for it as we puffed our way up the steps :)

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No photos allowed inside as usual.....but we were blown away by it. The gold coffins of the Dalai Lamas were particularly impressive. It was sad to see the living quarters of the 14th Dalai Lama who is in exile in India. But all in all a very impressive building.

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We were glad to get out of Lhasa and to see the Tibet landscape. We did a very long day trip to Namtso Lake...one of 3 holy lakes in Tibet. Namtso Lake is at 4700m and the highest salt lake in the world. Many barren landscapes on the journey there with a few yaks in....

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The lake was really pretty....frozen round the edges, prayer flags fluttering everywhere.

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We puffed slowly up a small hill at the side of the lake for a better view. It's very wierd getting so out of breath doing so little!

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And then we off on our Everest Trip with a scattering of more monasteries on the way. We caused chaos with our Chinese guide who was quite unused to tourists wanting to walk anywhere! We did persuade him to let us walk the kora around the monastery at Shigatse early one morning. More prayer wheels, pilgrims and reincarnation merit for all Buddhists out there.

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Lots more driving and we found ourselves in Shergar at 4300m a cold, windy place. Nothing to do there apart from huddle in bed!

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And then up early for our final assault on Everest. Our first views from a distance!

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And then after a very bumpy road for 4 hours we were off...walking the 4km from the tourist camp to the proper mountaineer base camp! Lots of stops for photos as we puffed our way up to 5200m!

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But then we were there! A really great moment :)

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And also a photo of our new travelling buddy who actually stowed away in our luggage - unknown to us!

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And then a quick march back to the van trying to escape the impending storm...

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Then it was a long long journey back to Lhasa (too much for some)....

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....where we said goodbye to Steven and Sharon. We spent a quiet few days...feeling guiltly that we'd paid money for a guide and car and all we wanted to do was chill out. We did however go on a great walk in the hills around Lhasa where we saw the skyburial sites. Tibet isn't blessed with either soil for burial or trees to provide fuel for burning so they rely on vultures to dispose of their loved ones. We felt quite queasy as our guide explained how the bodies were pounded up. We walked to our first nunnery - where we were welcomed with open arms and spent half an hour chatting with one of the head nuns - with the aid of our interpreter/guide.

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We try to maintain open minds in all countries that we visit. Things are always more complicated than they seem. And we tried our best to find out as much as we could on the politics, economics, culture etc of Tibet from our 3 guides. Having Tibetan and Chinese guides did give us a more balanced view on things. Whilst many businesses were run by Han Chinese...there were options to patronise Tibetan businesses which was great. It was interesting understanding the Chinese viewpoint.......and whilst there are definitely pros and cons of Tibet being part of China, it was quite sad some of the things we found out. It's sad that they aren't allowed photos of the 14th Dalai Lama as he is their religious leader. It's wierd that the 11th Panchen Lama is stationed in Beijing and not in Shigatse where all Panchen's before him have stayed......leaving aside whatever happened to the little boy who was installed as the 11th Panchen Lama before him. It's sad that some Tibetans are seemingly not allowed to get passports. There's definitely a very visible Chinese military presence in Lhasa. Definitely no photos allowed of them!....we did see them run after tourists who tried to take photos! But just a reminder that Big Brother is always watching you in Tibet....

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Posted by FiColes 02:03 Archived in China Comments (0)

15 - Cooking up a Cockle Curry

After a grueling day of 4 buses from Brunei we arrived in Miri and caught our 15 minute flight to Gunung Mulu National Park, Sarawak, Borneo

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Where we had our sights set on their most challenging trek that they offered to help prepare for our Nepal trip - 'only for the super fit'...and us it would seem! Mulu is set in the middle of the dense Borneo jungle and it was great to see that not all of Borneo is palm plantations :)

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Gunung Mulu NP is really well organised and they offered a whole series of trips ranging from canopy walks......

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To Clearwater Cave, the largest cave system in the world....

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However, before we knew it we were off on our 4 day trek up to the Summit at about 2500m - a 48 km round trip.

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It was quite a pricey trip and we'd been lucky to meet up with Linus from Sweden to share the costs. Linus turned out to be an ardent Middlesborough supporter and he and Bryn were able to talk football for four days solid. We had a great guide, Henry, who was really keen on doing the trip. It turns out that only 10 groups do the summit trip every year despite the large numbers of visitors who go to the park so the guides don't often get to do the trip. We'd already been prepped that day 1 was going to be tough....and it was! 6km on the flat, dodging the mud swamps and crossing a couple of big rivers, and then 6km straight uphill to 1500m. It was really tough carrying all our gear and food for 4 days! However, we were truly impressed when we arrived at Camp 3. It had a kitchen, toilets and a great sleeping area to hang our luxury mosquito net!

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Bryn and Linus cooked up a storm in the kitchen and did their best with the tins we'd been able to buy in Mulu.....cockle curry being one of their delights.

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Day 2 was up and down....passing pitcher plants - carniverous plants which trap insects in their pitcher shapes which are filled with water. Thankfully day 2 was a lot easier than the previous day and we were able to take time to admire the views....

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And arrive in enough time for a game of 500 on the helipad at Camp 4.

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And assessing the summit....

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Before getting up pretty early for our summit ascent.

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Thankfully we were able to leave our packs behind in camp 4....because before we knew it we were hauling ourselves up ladders, hanging onto ropes next to sheer drops and generally scrabbling up the mountain anyway we could.

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Getting to the top was a great moment :)

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Just a pity that Fi couldn't see the view from the viewing pole....

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After half an hour wait at the top the clouds finally parted as we had to start our descent! Note the pitcher plant on the side :)

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Going down Tracker Fi spotted a tiny bright green frog on the trail.....which Bryn promptly picked up.......and then threw away quickly as Fi screamed it could be poisonous. Henry had only been telling us the day before that frogs can be much more deadly than snakes!! Turns out that this one wasn't poisonous and that actually it was quite rare. People have gone up the mountain for weeks just to see the frog and failed!!

Going downhill was pretty tough going and it took us all day to get back to camp 3 - where Bryn uncovered a near deadly leech attack.....

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We'd actually been really lucky with leeches as it hadn't rained once on our trip - which was unbelievable luck as that would have made things even tougher!!

The next day, despite having trailed the lads all trip, the talk of post trip beers powered Fi down the mountain in record time...arriving at Camp 1 for a long river swim before the boys even turned up! Everyone was impressed to see us back in time for lunch. We were quite the celebrities down at HQ as all the staff seemed to know about our trip! Unfortunately Linus had to go catch a plane so we headed off on our own to Royal Mulu...the posh hotel in the area for our post trip beers.

The next day was a few more caves....Deer Cave, the largest open passage in the world....

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With it's spitting image profile of which US president??

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And Lang's Cave with it's impressive stalagtites and mites...

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And then the bat exodus at 5:30pm. This was a really amazing sight.....as 2-3 million bats exit the cave for their nightly supper. They tend to leave the cave and swirl round until they have sufficient numbers to head off in curling ribbons made up of thousands of bats.....trying to stay as part of the group to avoid the bat hawks which in turn are after their supper. These ribbons went on for about an hour and we watched completely mesmorised by this display....we're told it is on Planet Earth for those with the DVD.

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And then it was off to Singapore and a manic 48 hours there. We were staying in Chinatown which is a great place to stay and although we arrived at midnight we checked in and were straight out and enjoying our beloved dumplings...yumyum :) The next day we headed over to Raffles for our Singapore Slings, courtesy of a wedding present from Tom - thanks! We had fun eating the monkey nuts and chucking them everywhere.

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Reeling slightly from the effects of a mid afternoon cocktail we headed over to Harbourfront where we were reunited with our winter clothes which friends of Katie's had been looking after for us - thankyou Nicci and Neill! We had dinner in Little India and the next day headed to Changi Airport which is definitely worth the hype. We were just upset that we hadn't arrived earlier in order to make use of all the facilities!! However, Bryn got himself in prime position for the Premiership roundup....

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And then at 2am in the morning we were off on our flight back to China!!

Posted by FiColes 03:00 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

14 - Certainly not a Bore-neo!

Finally had to leave the wonderful Philippines with time ticking on and a RTW flight schedule to try and keep to.

Flew into the capital, Kota Kinabalu, and Bryn struggled on and off the full public bus into town at every stop with our full rucksacks in order to make room for people....not good in the searing humidity! Got our first taste of Malaysian food since a trip to Penang 6 years ago - as good as we remembered. We loved the Philippines, but the food really is poor (thank you America!)

We had a lovely trip to see the fireflies and Proboscis monkeys on a jungle river just outside KK, courtesy of Pip and Colin's wedding present - thank you! It was great to see the trees lit up like christmas, which considering it was lashing with rain was quite impressive, even if we were cowering under our lifejackets. Photos impossible though :(

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On to Sepilok for the Orangutans at the rehab centre, which we thought was really good (others thought a little to captive). They really are all characters! They all live alone though which is wierd - what do they do each day?

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Also came face to face with a roaming green viper!

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Again - the heavy rain was a little frustrating but you just have to go with it.

On to our Jungle Lodge in Kinabatangan - The Last Frontier - which Bryn had booked up in advance....a bit of a treat really....a couple of slightly more luxurious days than many backpackers have in the jungle! French cuisine, ensuite bathroom, air con private 4wd transfer, private wildlife spotting boat cruises. Its a tough flashpacking life!

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We got a better look at the human-like proboscis monkeys; plus got to see hornbills and eagles. The long lens came in handy....finally worth lugging it round for 5 months!

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We went on a short jungle walk tracking animals and were upset to see palm plantations as far as the eye could see instead of pristine jungle :(

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The pre-dawn boat cruise was all a bit much for some........

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Our final destination in Sabah, Semporna, aimed to further capitalise on Bryn's newly acquired scuba skills and Fi's newly acquired dive buddy. We did three days diving at various islands, based from our resort on a wooden platform in the ocean - Singamata. Our resosrt had it's own aquarium which we could snorkel in....it had some really giant fish which was great fun.

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Off on our dive trip, our boat actually got lost in the middle of the ocean on the first day as the rains came in and we weren't able to see more than a few hundred metres. We were literally going round in circles in the mist for an hour!

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It was hilarious to see the fishermen fishing in their pants as it rained - although the dancing guy complete with Peter Stringfellow g-string and posing pouch was a little too much!

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And although we're not complaining :) It was so cold from the constant rain that between dives we had to sit in the water to keep warm!

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The coral wasn't as good as in the Philippines but we got to see massive turtles from a couple of inches away! Also saw schools of Jackfish, Devil Scorpionfish, an Octopus etc etc (god we are turning into dive bores! Bryn and Fi felt pretty good now buddying up together with perfect buoyancy.....a lot better than poor old Marco, the nice Italian in the group, who refused to let go of his inflator and shot up and down clattering coral left right and centre! Big let down was that we were unable to get permits for Sipadan, which is the premier dive spot (only a limited number of divers are allowed per day), but together with Mount Kinabalu, which we were also unable to get permits for, they will make for a great future 2-3 week holiday.

After a 10 hour night bus, and 7 hour boat trip we were now in Brunei, oil country! Picked up some duty free wine on the way and nearly got into problems at customs for not declaring it in a Dry State ..ooops.

This Sultan is seriously wealthy. Checked into the only cheap hotel in the country - the youth hostel....separate dorm rooms for Bryn and Fi. The capital BSB is immaculately designed and cared for, with immaculte roads, flower border, gleaming mosques and no crime issues. The problem is, it is a bit boring after a couple of days - even the locals say so! Dry state and everything closes at 6pm, even the buses stop running. However, the salaries are good and as the Sultan provides free education and healthcare, cheap efficient public transport and subsidised pilgrimages to Mecca(!) people seem to stay. Virtually all the museums and sights are free which is nice, as tourism revenue is small fry next to oil money. Don't know what will happen when the oil runs out in 10 years if predictions are correct?!?!

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The beautiful main mosque..........

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Over half of the capital's population live on the river villages - a complex network of stilt houses, so we thought we would hire a boat and get a better look........

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Not quite a Barratt new build development, but similar.....
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The villages are all fully self sufficient, complete with their own....

satellite tv, parking spots

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schools
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gas stations (possible the most scenic in the world!)
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rubbish collection
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exposed electrical switchgear!
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Also good to watch all the locals having some banter down at the market....

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Our main reason for staying so long in Brunei was actually to get our Chinese visa for Tibet. We'd been warned not to tell the embassy that we were planning on going to Tibet.....but the problem was they asked for our flight details out of China so we had to fess up. We had a tense half hour as the head honcho explained that we were supposed to have a pre-visa authorisation from officials in China. After some whining and glum faces, they eventually agreed to process our visas without this form...phew!

Off now to see the largest cave in the world and hike to 2500m at Mulu National Park in Sarawak - will keep you posted!

Posted by bcoles 00:18 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

13 - Volcanos, snakes and turtles in the Philippines

Our flight to Boracay really got us in the mood for more beach time as we had fun spotting numerous desert islands from the plane. The key attraction on Boracay is White Beach where we were busy relaxing approximately 30 minutes after touch down.

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The sand really was beautifully soft and white and the waters were perfectly clear. All 4km of White Beach are covered end to end in bars / restaurants / shops....so we took it for what it was and spent a relaxing couple of days lounging round pretending we were on a package holiday....sipping cocktails at sunset and scoffing down all you can eat seafood buffets.

We then travelled down to Guimares (via a stop in IloIlo) a small island in between Panay and Negros. We ended up at the Valle Verde Mountain Resort in the middle of the island which is set in a lush jungle valley complete with it's own spring fed swimming pool. There's only 5 huts there so it was very peaceful and we got plently of reading and DVD watching done. It was a lovely family run business and their home cooking went down a treat.

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We did set out on a walk into the jungle one morning before breakfast which didn't bode well for future walks!! Within 15 minutes we were covered in sweat, had lost the trail and our heads were spinning.

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After Guimares we got the boat over to the large island of Negros where we planned to climb Mt Kanalaon which is in the top 6 active volcanoes in the Philippines. We visited the Department of Environment Office in Bacolod where we were able to get a permit to climb it. They only allow one group per day so we felt lucky to get our permit. We spent a busy day in Bacolod buying provisions for the trip and equipment. We needed our own tent so Bargain Bryn picked us one up for $12. For some reason we were in charge of providing food for our guide so we picked up a load of tins and hoped we'd be able to whip something up with them. We stayed the night before at a thermal hot springs resort on the slopes of the volcano.

The alarm clock buzzed into life at 5am and to be honest shouldering our full 75 litre packs (we hadn't opted for a porter) at that time in the morning seemed very hard work. We were puffed and sweating by the time we'd crossed the resort for our rendez-vous with our guide! The first couple of hours were extremely tough going....quite steep uphill and with the biggest packs we'd ever walked with in our lives. When we'd booked the trip they hadn't been too keen to let us walk this route due to the thermal power company activity in the national park. Unsurprisingly they have a few issues with green activists upsetting the ongoing activity. However, we passed by the works unscathed and the security guards even smiled at us. A definite blot on the landscape however as we could hear the hum of the thermal plant most of the day. As we ascended though it did gradually get cooler.....and after a long old day walking we finally hit an old crater at the top....1800m higher than we'd started that morning. Our campsite was inside this old crater which is now full of swamp. We explored the swamp swinging through the trees between the dry spots...

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We got an early night as it was so cold - and got into our sleeping bags to scoff oreos and try out our new headtorches

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The next day was less uphill but provided more jungle challenges for us. But it did give us our first view.....

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We spent the whole day ducking, weaving and climbing over things.

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At some stages we even had to conduct vertical ascents with our packs on!!

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We passed by many pretty lagoons.....

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Before we came upon our target.....Mount Kanalaon

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We had to camp in the trees near the crater so that they would provide shelter from any ash that was erupted during the night. We tried not to think how our $12 tent would hold up in those circumstances. By this stage the guy ropes were all frayed and the poles were splitting! Goodness knows how Fi managed to fit in there too......!

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However, after setting up camp, we made our final ascent up to the crater's edge. It really was a breathtaking moment looking over that crater rim for the first time.

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Over the edge it dropped vertically off....straight down a few hundred metres to a pile of ash....and then a large tunnel ominously heading off into the bowels of the earth. We stood staring down at this for quite some time.....it was truly awesome.

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Successful team on the top of Negros Island.....

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Heading down to our camp for dinner there was a truly spectacular sunset over the crater.....even Bryn was impressed

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The next day heading downhill our thoughts had turned to getting to the beach as quickly as possible. Tracker Fi spotted our first wild snake (which Bryn has since identified as a deadly Black Mamba) slithering across our path before settling behind a foothold. We scuttled quickly by! We were back in Bacolod for lunch where we amazed the McDonalds employees with our burger eating capacities before heading to Dunkin Donut for desert. We have built up quite a penchant for donuts - Dunkin Donuts, Mister Donut, Krispy Kreme Donut etc etc!

We then had to spend a whole day on a bus before we arrived at Sipalay where Sugar Beach is billed as Boracay without the crowds. Bryn quite rightly pointed out that it was more like demerara sugar but either way it was pretty nice.

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We were staying at Takatuka Lodge which is run by a couple of Swiss guys with an eclectic sense of interior design. We were in the Superstar Suite.....complete with a pink cadillac bed with working headlights

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And a movietime balcony

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Yes, the light is a video camera and the light switch was a camera!

However, keen to do some diving we soon headed on...spending a night in Dumaguete complete with it's floral wastewater treatment works in the centre of town. Definitely puts Thames Water to shame.

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We got the ferry over to Bohol Island where we had a short tuk-tuk transfer over to Panglao Island and the diving. We found the cheapest dive operator in town and headed off in a boat the next day to Balicasag Island where we did two amazing dives spotting the black coral which is a local speciality and also 2 turtles which was an amazing moment :) The next day saw a spectacular wall dive, us swimming through a coral arch and also our first drift dives where Bryn enjoyed sitting in his Buddha position, not moving a muscle, showing excellent buoyancy control and watching the coral pass by.

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We transfered back to Bohol Island and hired two motorbikes the next day and set out on a day trip to see the local sights. It's great that everyone speaks English but a few road signs wouldn't go amiss. Within 10 minutes we were lost and were directed to our destination via some pretty small pot-holed roads. Bryn had to regularly stop for 15 mins or so to wait for 'Hells Angel' Fifi to come roaring round the bends....putt putt putt putt! The child riding the BMX was even suprised to be overtaking her down a hill!

Note the unplanned matching biker outfits........

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We made it to the Tarsier Centre mid morning and had a personal tour around the Tarsier enclosure. Tarsier's are one of the world's smallest primates and can fit in the palm of a human hand....their heads can turn almost 360 degrees and their eyes are 125 times bigger in relation to their head size than a humans. All in all pretty cute.

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We stopped at the Butterfly Farm for a quick tour. Didnt realise you could touch moths' wings - but we touched this one's............

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Before heading to the Chocolate Hills which are a spectacular formation of coral deposits which have eroded into perfect little chocolate drops - during the dry season the vegetation roasts to a chocolate brown colour. Having spent some time negotiating some pretty tough roads we were glad to find a nice flat straight road with perfect tarmac.....but unfortunately the heavens opened and we were completely soaked by the time we arrived at the viewing area! Luckily though we were pretty impressed by the views :)

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Then it was time to leave the Philippines where we'd felt pretty at home for the last month. We hopped on a ferry to Cebu - admiring the wonderful nautical scenery?......

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Played a couple of games of bowling and had our first starbucks for nearly 6 months - caramel machiatos all round!

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And jumped on our plane to Borneo!

Posted by FiColes 03:09 Archived in Philippines Comments (0)

12 - Kayaking to paradise in the Philippines

Sadly enough, getting on our Thai Airways flight was an exciting experience for us. We thought our meal was amazing and we loved the unlimited wine served with it even though it was 10am.

Arriving in Manila, we took a taxi to Malate – a relatively salubrious part of town where we hoped we could get a cheap room. No such luck…we viewed some of the smallest coffins of the trip before finding a relatively OK one above Starbucks. It was just a pity that it was Saturday night and and at times it actually felt like some carnival was processing through our room.

However, the next day we were still up bright and early for our city tour.

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We walked to Intramuros, the Spanish walled town, and had a potter round a few churches and the cathedral which had been rebuilt about five times due to earthquakes.

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Then we went over to Fort Santiago which the Spanish had originally built but had been occupied by the US, the Japanese and even the British for a short period.

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The Filipinos don't believe in wasting a good castle moat...and have turned it into a golf course....

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Then in classic Bryn and Fi style we decided to walk to China town ignoring the numerous taxis and jeepneys that were beeping us for a lift as we proceeded over a huge multi-lane bridge which clearly wasn’t used to seeing many pedestrians. We then found ourselves in the middle of a slum next to the port. However, people were very friendly and Bryn had an offer to play basketball.
We were very excited to catch a jeepney later in the day. Jeepney's are modified US Army jeeps - but now the jeepney drivers try to outdo each other competing for the gaudiest decorations...

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We then spent the rest of the day camped out in Burger King which offered free wifi and tried to decide which way to go from Manila. Eventually after an awful lot of trauma we got a flight booked to the Calamian Islands off the coast of Palawan so that Bryn could do his PADI course. But not before a day spent chilling out and watching more movies inc popcorn…..note the rather unusual lights in our room!

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The next day we boarded our tiny plane for the 40 minute hop over to Busuanga Island.

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We met up with Gerd from Rocksteady Diving who had agreed to take Bryn on. It’s a new dive operation so we were the only customers of the day and had a great time on the boat on the way to the dive site. We were really lucky to not be just one of the crowd with the other ‘fastfood dive operations’ on the island. After a few basics it was time to put the kit on! Bryn seemed to have a lot of fun doing this....the regulator providing particular entertainment...

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Then the wetsuit...

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Fins...

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And mask...

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Before preparing to jump...

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And then jumping!!

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We both had a fantastic 4 days. Fi joined in on day 1 as she was having her refresher course. Gerd couldn’t believe that she actually hadn’t dived in the sea before having only done 10 dives in England’s dark and cold reservoirs and quarries. Bryn got his Open Water PADI qualification on day 4 - he did very well, although our instructor did admit to us that he didn't think Bryn would make it after the first day. Unfortunately Bryn's biggest problem on day 1 had been the fins - he'd been given the biggest clown feet fins you've ever seen and as he’d never snorkeled before his pin legs struggled somewhat with them!

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Fi also got in on the action for a few of the dives once Bryn had qualified and we loved Barracuda Lake...which is a really special dive. First of all, you have to do a 25m ascent in full scuba gear over big jagged boulders to get from the sea to the lake.

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Everyone was impressed that Fi managed it as normally the boatmen carry the gear for the women - but we explained that 17kg of scuba gear is nothing compared to our rucksacs! Once we made it over to the lake we descended down into brackish water and at about 10m we hit a layer of hot seawater....about the temperature of bathwater. Just as we were about to overheat we found a layer of much cooler water. It was so wierd swimming through all the different layers...at times we couldn't see due to the heat haze. It was really quite amazing.

The main reason divers come to Coron is to do wreck diving - and after a day of rest we were off to dive two of them. The wrecks are mainly the Japanese fleet which was seeking shelter in WWII when the US bombed and sunk most of them. Unfortunately the warships are all mainly at a depth of 30m+ so being novices we decided to give them a miss. The 2 ships we got to dive were auxillary ships mainly carrying cargo. Despite being stripped by salvage teams there was still plenty to look at on them. It really was spine tingling seeing them looming up for the first time. Visibility wasn't great but it kind of added to the eeriness of the situation. They were both covered in coral with lots of bright fishes eyeing us up as we explored. We were able to penetrate the second wreck and were amazed to swim along corridors and into the engine room. We felt quite James Bond, brandishing our torches, as other dive groups would suddenly loom out of the gloom. With both dives reaching a bottom point of 25m it was an impressive set of dives for Bryn’s sixth and seventh dives of his career.

One evening we visited the local hot springs where Bryn was befriended by the local youths who wanted him to sing love ballads with them. Filippinos love to sing and in Coron Town there is a constant background noise of karaoke bars and they think nothing of striking up in public…..

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We were sad to leave Coron as we’d grown quite at home there after a week but we were also glad to board our first Philippines ferry which seemed to exist just to ferry backpackers to El Nido. We were glad to get off the Jessabel after 8 hours on board and arrive at the picture postcard town of El Nido which is the gateway town to the Bacuit Archepelego - a series of jagged limestone karst islands just off the coast interspersed with beautiful beaches.

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We had two days of activities lined up courtesy of Gem and Phil’s wedding present. Day 1 was spent on a small boat touring the local sights such as lagoons, beaches and snorkel spots…..the seascape really is stunning……

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Promising to keep the Secret Lagoon secret…..

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On Day 2 we had our own two person kayak and set off on our own into the open sea.

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We headed over to a tiny island with a beach and had thought we had it to ourselves before a boat of Filippinos turned up to cook their lunch! We pushed on and found a picture postcard beach for our lunch complete with coconut trees and hoardes of scuttling crabs. It really was a treat to kayak along the island coast and to spot an enticing beach and to paddle over and pull up! Only a handful of people live on the island so it really was our own piece of paradise for the day! Sea kayaking is particularly tough against the waves and by the afternoon we were knackered!! But we needed to push on as otherwise they’d send out the rescue boat. Fi was glad to not be left behind as usual and will lobby for a two person kayak in future. We did make it back to El Nido and quickly turned around to head out for a slap up meal, including a bottle of wine, to celebrate a fantastic two days – thanks Gem and Phil!!

We got the bus down Palawan to Puerto Princesa in a rush to find the Immigration Office so that we could extend our visas. After 7 hours on our bus there we realised it was a Saturday....doh!

So we went off on a day trip to the Sabang caves....the longest caves in the world which we were able to take a boat trip in them for 2km. They were pretty amazing....and home to lots of bats. It was slightly disconcerting to feel drops of water or bat poo land on us throughout the trip.

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When we came out of the caves we were amazed to find monitor lizards roaming the picnic area and gangs of ninja monkeys making raids on people's lunches....

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Surprisingly we’ve almost stayed three weeks in the Philippines and it’s totally whizzed by. We really are enjoying the country and its people. It’s a strange mix of contrasts….some of the nicest people we’ve met on our trip so far but also a country with a security guard stationed outside each and every shop in the cities. We're starting to get used to the politeness - everywhere we go we are greeted by Ma'am and Sir which makes a change from the snotty nosed teenagers in the UK. Christianity is big here and instead of commercial billboards lining the road on the way to Puerto Princesa it was nice to see the Lord’s Prayer spelt out….phrase by phrase over a kilometre. The American influence is strong and the malls in the cities are full of American fast food chains. It’s also really nice being able to chat with people, something we were really starting to miss on mainland SE Asia….as everyone speaks great English (not just people working in tourism).

But anyways.....off to catch our flight to Boracay.....one of the top 10 beaches in the world. Backpacking is a tough life :)

Posted by FiColes 21:57 Archived in Philippines Comments (0)

11 - Speeding through Laos and Thailand

In the jungle Bryn had had a bit of a platypus incident and his passport had got wet - unfortunately the entry stamp for Cambodia had washed off so we were a bit nervous as we approached the border with Laos to make our exit. We were glad to make it across the border into Laos - paying the same bribes as everyone else :)

We were heading to Si Phan Don or 4000 Islands which is an archipelago of islands in the middle of the Mekong where we were looking forward to some much needed relax time after the jungle. 4000 Islands is one of two destinations in Laos that the Thailand party crowd visit and we approached with some trepidation.

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The groups of 18 yr olds grinning inanely and waving peace signs at us didn’t help matters as our boat took us over to Don Khon – the quieter of the two islands which we hoped was more our scene. However disaster struck as it turned out that everywhere on the island was full aside from a coffin room which wasn’t Fi’s ideal scenario to see in her 30th birthday. So we headed over to Don Det, paying the extortionate boat fee on our way – they unfortunately know you are trapped on the island and take advantage of that.

We arrived onto Don Det and were pleasantly surprised that it wasn’t all party central – and due to the late hour we headed to a basic bamboo shack to look for accommodation the next day. 90% of the accommodation on Don Det doesn’t have electricity or running water so we (and Fi in particular) were ecstatic to find the poshest place on the island had a room free for us. Little Eden was a lovely little hotel with only five rooms and was the perfect place for Fi’s birthday :) We spent most our time there relaxing in hammocks and taking dips in the Mekong. There was a lovely terrace overlooking the river which was perfect to sip a Laos Mohito and watch the sun dip down.

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On Fi’s birthday we took a walk across the island and over the bridge to Don Khon along the old French railway line. What the French were doing building a railway across two islands barely 10km long was beyond us. Unsurprisingly it has fallen into disrepair and we had fun exploring the rusting locomotives scattered around.

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We also visited Li Phi Falls where the Mekong churns through a few narrow gorges – it’s quite a spectacular sight.

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Then unfortunately we had to head off….. and despite only 3 days in Laos we were heading to Thailand. We’d have liked to spend longer in Laos but our overstays had cost us and after 2 months in SE Asia it’s perhaps time to explore somewhere different.

However…not before a touch of Western luxury in Bangkok. After a rather unpleasant 24 hour bus ride from Si Phan Don to Bangkok we were glad to arrive and find a hotel pretty quickly. Even better it was no where near the Kho Sanh road and we were in the middle of mall-land. We got stuck straight in and after a stop at McDonalds Bryn was in his element heading round the electronics shops and comparing prices and Fi was off spending the entire daily budget at Boots. On the electronics front, the original scope that had been agreed with all stakeholders was that we buy a DVD player as Bryn reckoned we could get one for $50. However, things changed quickly and before Fi knew it we had bought a little Lenovo laptop. We spent the rest of our time in Bangkok watching movies that we probably should have had to buy cinema tickets for and searching out wifi spots :)

Oh and we did see some of the sights that Bangkok has to offer! A cruise down the Chao Praya and then a baking couple of hours round the Grand Palace trying to avoid the sun’s rays reflecting off all the bling.

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And we got sucked into the Kho Sanh road to try and swap some books….but we departed swiftly before any young ladies touting ping pong balls got us.

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And we also did a fantastic cookery course – a wedding present from Sarah and Matt – many thanks it was fantastic!!! We went to the market to buy our ingredients

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And then set about cooking fried rice, red coconut curry, fried bananas, spring rolls and green papaya salad. The best bit was eating our dishes and we’re determined when we get home to track the ingredients down!

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Then it was time to move on again and off to the excitement of the airport and our flight to Manila!

Posted by FiColes 02:34 Comments (0)

10 - Cambodia

-17 °C

Phnom Penh - City Time

Arriving into Phnom Penh we were really quite excited to be in a new country and we had high hopes for not just being seen as walking $'s. Phnom Penh is actually quite a nice city on the river and we spent a few days doing the local sights - albeit mostly related to the Pol Pot genocide years. We were also dead excited at getting our first tuk-tuk of the journey...

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We visited Security Prison 21 which used to be a secondary school before the Khmer Rouge came to town. It was really spine chilling....a totally normal school turned into the largest centre of detention and torture in the country. The exhibitions were hugely informative and gave us a start at understanding these years......such as trying to understand why on earth the UN let the Khmer Rouge genocide perpetrators keep their seat on the UN general assembly until a staggering 1991.

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The Khmer Rouge like the Nazis kept detailled records of their victims and it was sad to see the faces and their expressions of the S21 detainees staring out at us....some of sheer horror, saddness, resignation and defiance....

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We also visited the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek - the extermination camp where the detainees from S21 were transported. Sobering stuff.

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And of course we had a drink in the Foreign Correspondent's Club where the journalists hung out back in the 70's and now tourists pay lots of money for smoothies

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Sihanoukville - Beach Time

We were then delighted to head off to Sihanoukville where the beach was beckoning us. We stayed in a lovely stilt bungalow looking down on Otres Beach (away from the oykes in the seedy main town). The water was blue, clear and calm, with the temperature of bath water and we loved swimming and sipping fruit shakes :) It was sad to see the darker side of tourism in SE Asia of the Gary Glitter variety and we picked our bars carefully after day 1.

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Bokor Hill Station

We travelled down the coast to the peaceful river town of Kampot where we found the Sisters cafe run by an inspiring lady who was sold by her family as a child, lost a leg and now also runs an orphanage. The cafe provides jobs for the orphans when they grow up. We were able to help fund her good works by eating large portions of her lemon meringue pie and apple pie with ice cream (taught by the US NGO that rescued her - trust me a real treat in Cambodia! Yum-yum :)

However, we were glad of having eaten so much pie as we set off on our 2 day hike to the Bokor Hill Station in the National Park. Bokor is at approx 1000m and was where the French colonials holidayed to escape from the heat. It's now a ghost town as it got caught in the battle between the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese. This was our first group walk and not wishing to let the side down we duely turned up in full hiking gear and our matching Deuter rucksacs. At the other end of the scale were a couple of girls in summer dresses, flip flops and handbags.

However, setting off it became clear that we'd dressed appropriately as we staggered up through the jungle in the stifling humid heat.

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At the top we were treated to the run down buildings such as the king's old palace...

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The catholic church

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We loved exploring the old casino and hotel...

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And sunset

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Before settling into our basic accomodation for the night. There was uproar in the group the following day when it became apparent that the guides hadn't brought enough food for breakfast let alone lunch! We'd of course brought loads of snacks and goodies with us....but they didn't stretch too far in our group of 12.

Back in Kampot we met up with the group at an expat bar called the Rusty Keyhole (run by a mancunian bricklayer who serves the best sticky ribs and mash in SE Asia - a whole piglet's back apparently) and played cards late into the night - too late! Fi and Max gave Bryn and Ryhs a tough time...

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And of course there was the post-game analysis

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But Bryn was happy when he realised that despite losing he could still keep drinking beer....

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Temple Time

Then we were off to Sian Reap and our 3 day temple tour. Bryn could scarely believe that we had to pay $40 each for our 3 day passes but amazingly we both totally enjoyed the entire 3 days worth of temples (well Fi a little more than Bryn)! We hired a tuk-tuk to take us round each day as the baking heat wasn't conducive to our bicycle touring ideas.

Our first stop was Banteay Srei where the tourist hoarded worried us somewhat...

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But thankfully after a Red Bull to keep Bryn going we were able to view most the other temples without the tourist circus

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We visited the Tombraider temple where the jungle has encroached somewhat....

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And we saved the spectacular Angkor Wat for day 2.....we really were impressed at the sheer scale of it. Fi went for the burka look to ensure she kept cool!

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Our tuk tuk driver working hard for his tip.....!

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And we had to love the huge faces staring down at us from everywhere at The Bayon

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Kompong Cham

We arrived at the sleepy Mekong town of Kompong Cham to try and get a better insight into rural Cambodian life.....but not before a nice bit of refreshment,......

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We organised a homestay with Don (a 65 yr old American guy), his Cambodian wife Kyeung and their son and daughter Na and Ra. Their dog Mreck, had just had a puppy and therefore saw Bryn as a threat (?) and decided to savagely bark at every move I made - I am sure they can just sense our fear and play on it! We even saw our first wild snake which slithered in one morning whilst we were eating breakfast - apparantly it was not one of the cobras and just eats frogs!

Despite the basic accomodation, we experienced amazing home cooking for a couple of days - all rural delicacies and were treated very well.......although Fi wasnt convinced about the field snails for a light snack.....

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We went on bike rides....

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Mind the cows!

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And walks to speak with locals working the rice paddies....

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Go on, have a go Fi.........!
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Pathetic! This lad was much better!

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And extracting palm sap to then turn into palm sugar...

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We even had a guest speaker each night (well family actually) who we could ask about anything including the Pol Pot era. During those years despite her mother's protestations Kyeung had 'volunteered' for school and had instead been sent to the children's work camp to build a dam. We learnt a lot from them all about Cambodia today and it helped us understand why it's only now that the first trial of the Khmer Rouge is starting in Phnom Penh.

Kyeung also runs an English school and one afternoon we were able to join in and be their guest speakers for the lesson. It was funny though how their simplest of questions could launch us into the longest of explanations...I'm still not sure that they really understood what I was going on about when I explained the concept of eBay to them.

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Life in rural Cambodia is often a life without electricity. To keep anything cool the entire country depends on icemaking centres and then the big ice blocks are distributed on the back of motorcycles to everyone's cool boxes. Bryn caused chaos one morning when he didn't see the candle in the bathroom and put his synthetic top down on it causing it to melt somewhat....

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Kratie - dolphins

We stopped at another Mekong Riverside town to see the legendary freshwater irrawaddy dolphins! There are now only 100 or so left after little conservation. It was a baking hot day so we rented a moto and headed off to the river. We quickly saw the dolphins coming up for air - but they disappeared so quickly again it was a case of watch and enjoy or try and take impossible photos (Bryn did the latter!)

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Banlung - into the jungle!!

After some internet research, Banlung seemed ideal for our first lengthy jungle trek - an organised government trekking facility in the National Park and not ridiculously priced. We felt pretty hardy after outperforming many of the others at Bokor, so signed up for the longest trek (8 days) deep into the jungle and to the wilderness grasslands of Virachey National Park.

But before our trek we had a day on a moto round the local sites such as crater lake where we had had great fun swimming and jumping in

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And numerous waterfalls

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On the way back into town Bryn had to take evasive action on the bike from a mini tornado that was gathering steam ahead of us on the road!! No, unfortunately there wasn't time to take a picture :)

And after a last Western meal involving a huge pizza we were off into the jungle! It was just the two of us and a Ranger, assistant ranger and local minority guide and despite carrying all our own stuff, the other people had to take the food and had double our loads! We really felt like Bruce Parry on our way to the village on our tiny little boat heading along the river....

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We spent the first night in a minority village where we were definitely the local attraction for the night. But we did get to try some rice wine...

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Unfortunately our guides didn't decide to translate for us so we were left with most the village watching our every move. They were fascinated by our card games :)

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Ducking and diving in the jungle was tough work with a big pack - Bryn managed to saturate his top with sweat after 3 minutes and was wet through from then on!

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Did some great river swimming and slept in hammocks out in the open at a different camp each night.

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Food was suprisingly good considering - there was always enough which is our key criteria - although the tinned pilchard and rice 4 day home streach did start to grate! For water we drank boiled river water - don't know how we didnt get sick as some of the streams were more muddy stagnant pools! The water also tasted of bbq pork from the saucepan and had sediment floaters - oh well, when you are thirsty, you are thirsty!

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We reached the grassland on day 3 after having insisted on walking a double day as we'd been surprised at reaching our camp on day 2 after only 4 hours walking. The grasslands are Cambodia's own mini African savannah. As it was the dry season there weren't any animals at the watering hole sadly. But we did have a great couple of days wandering around the top spotting a selection of poos....leopard, wildcat, deer etc

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We also went to a bat cave where Bryn bravely wriggled in to take some fantastic photos...emerging covered and stiking of bat poo later....

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We had to chuckle one day when we pitched camp and then went off for a swim in the river only to find that the river was dry....so everything got packed up again and off we went to find a camp near some water!

After the grasslands we started to look forward to getting back to Banlung....the way down was easy until we reached the river where we spent half a day slithering and sliding along. There wasn't a set route and we would be on land forging a way through the jungle with a machete and the next second wading through water up to our waists. The key thing in our minds was to not fall over and ruin our cameras and also our beloved goose down sleeping bags!

We reached another minority village on day 7 and found out that we, or rather the rangers, weren't welcome there. Some men from the village had been caught illegally hunting by the park rangers a few days previously. No one would sell us any food!! So it was an easy decision to endure the crampt 2 hour boat ride back to town for a celebratory beer!!

Woohoo - 7 days survived in the jungle!! But slightly concerned that we've spent yet another month in a country when Bryn's planning spreadsheet had only allocated 12 days....but anyways Laos here we come!!!

Posted by FiColes 00:54 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

9 - Beaches, dunes and delta

Mui Ne

Arrived at our first beach for three years!!!! :) Another classic Lonely Planet 'unknown sleepy gem' that everyone therefore now goes to and hotels are up everywhere! We splashed out and stayed at a place with a swimming pool and spent a few days having some much needed R&R time, swimming and reading (yes Bryn was reading books - novels as well!)

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The beach was ok, but the hotels have been built too close to the sea and the beach disappears at midday - a bit of a let down. Bryn did nearly caused an international incident as his milky white body was revealed for the first time and started to divert the planes overhead!

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Also had an afternoon trip to see the local sights...

The Fairy Stream which you walk along barefoot to see sand formations....

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Had to share with the local cow herd...

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Off to the local fishing harbour

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Then the Red Canyon

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And the White Sand Dunes....

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And the Red Sand Dunes....

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Also enjoyed loads of fresh squid, fish and prawns each day in true roughing it, backpacker lifestyle!

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Saigon

We went to Saigon briefly in the end after realising it would be too difficult to bypass (we were getting a bit sick of doing city stuff and wanted some trekking). Got one of our worst, but cheapest rooms to date and explored for a day and a half.....

War Remnants Museum.....even worse propaganda than before - although all the agent orange deformity photos were gut-wrenching. They also love the photos of woman and children capturing american GIs. The ''tiger cages'' (cells) where the French used to keep their prisoners through to the 50s were pretty appalling.

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Walking tour of the city taking in some of the most impressive buildings and parks.

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Mekong Delta

As our 30 day visa was running out (we were well behind on Bryn's itinerary spreadsheet) we bit the bullet and did the Mekong Delta region on a 3 day tour which would take us into Cambodia. The Mekong is the most fertile area of the country , they get 3 rice harvests annually - and so most people want to live there. This means pretty packed floating markets - with everyone trading their crops by boat. Lots of genuine smiley kids all saying 'hello'' with big teethy grins.

Was good fun seeing the locals making the local foods - although it was a bit touristy (but a day off from thinking isn't always a bad thing).

Rice papermaking....

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Rice candy making....
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Coconut candy making...
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Local spirits (snake and scorpions included!) were also being made - go on, down in one Fi!......

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Stayed overnight on the boat one night in a room with 12 others - a bit like school camp - luckily no heavy snorers! Another day stayed in a floating hotel which was really pretty for sunset. Went on lots of different size boats.....

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Did some biking...

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Relaxing....

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And visited a local child sweatshop aka Silk Factory - where actually the kids seemed to be having a right laugh - albeit they probably should have been reading books or learning a language or something. Bryn went down a treat with the girls, as he had learned some basic Vietnamese phrases by now - heard the giggling fits down the street!

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All that was left was a nice meal with a drunk frenchman......
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All ready now to take the boat over the border into Cambodia. Cant wait for something a bit more off the beaten track......fingers crossed! tbc......

Posted by FiColes 05:51 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

8 - Into the Central Highlands

Kon Tum

Kon Tum is supposedly the friendliest town in Vietnam - think probably because it is not famous for anything else! However, we immediately noticed the lack of people selling to us and the amount of kids shouting ''hello, hello, hello' with big smiles was drastically on the increase. We checked into the nice Family Hotel, with a balcony room overlooking the garden - perfect place for getting our smalls dry! We started to feel the baking heat of SE Asia for the first time and a planned hike became more of a gentle meander as our bodies waned. Walked through one of the traditional villages with a communal Rong House where all the villagers meet up. Good bit of banter with the bakery boys as they realised they were pretty short next to Bryn....and Fi! Discovered excellent egg, dried fish and salad baguettes at roadside stalls for only 15p - nice!

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Buon Ma Thout
Headed on to the home of rubber plantations in Vietnam and also the coffee capital ...Buon Ma Thout. Tried to organise a national park trek in town through an agent but were being quoted $100 a day without transport and sleeping in a tent - they had gotta be having a laugh! Headed to the village of Ban Don ourselves, where the national park HQ is base to try and cut out the middle men (Bryn likes lean supply chains!). Got a 'local' bus, which was hilariously packed, and we kept knocking people out with our big rucsacks. However, the locals found us very amusing and were very friendly - albeit with limited comms. Stayed in a basic stilt hut which was fun - although not the most comfortable environment for washing and relieving! Lots of dogs with scars and a monkey in a small cage :( Headed off the next morning to play negotiating hardball with the park ranger. He was not budging on price even though when he tried to break it down at our request it made no sense. We later found out that the government runs all tourism in the province and so it is basically take it or leave it - which is why they never get any damn tourists! (I would love to see their business plan!). The only other tourists we met also walked away based on the ridiculouus prices levied - oh well, still nice to have some adventure again for the first time since China. Did manage to have our frst ever elephant ride (see piccy below!) - Fi got rather excited.

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[b]Dalat[/b]

Arriving into Dalat we commenced our biggest accomodation search trek to date. We were convinced that there must be some lovely place to stay in this colonial French hillside town. Sadly we couldn't find it! Heading out that night Fi was amazed to run into an eBay colleague from Richmond who we had dinner with and shared flashpacking stories.

Dalat is the home to vietnamese wine, because of its elevated cool climate so it was perfect for apair of wine bores from the UK! We splashed out on the top wine made in partenrship with a french cooperative - if that is the best they make they should stick to the rice spirits! Bit of subtelty with the oak would have been nice - felt like we were licking the barrell!

Dalat was perfect for doing our own thing and we immediately hired a tandem bicycle and set off round the lake. An interesting experience...particularly the hills.

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Visited the local flower garden...

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Loved Emperor Bao Dai's art deco palace....

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The cable car ride.....

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The reservoir....

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And some waterfalls....

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Bravely hired a motorbike and set off to climb a mountain - and were glad to suffer just a flat tyre on the way there. Couldn't believe our luck when we discovered this next to garage....which only charged us 40p for the fix! We loved a day walking up Lang Bian through the jungle up into the clouds.....

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And then we were on the bus....quickly descending down out of the hills down to the beach :)

Posted by FiColes 05:44 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

7 - Tourist, tourists everywhere!


View Fi & Bryn's Big Trip Travel Map on FiColes's travel map.

Hue
Arrived into Hue and it was pouring.....! We stubbornly pushed past the tuk-tuks etc and walked out into the downpour - arriving like drowned rats into our hotel later! Hue is a pretty town with a river flowing through - the main attraction being the Imperial Enclosure area which is the Vietnam version of the Forbidden City. Sad though to see the amount of decay happening to it - the wet season is pretty tough on wooden buildings.

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New Year was pretty low key and we scuttled back to our hotel as soon as the new year started as we needed to be up at 6am for our Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) tour. We'd splashed out and hired our very own South Vietnam army veteran for the day to show us round the locations. The DMZ was the area between North and South Vietnam and
many of the key battles in the American War were fought here.

Stopping at a catholic church riddled with holes on the way to the zone it was sad when he broke down in tears, as he lost a lot of good friends during the American War.

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He had lots of good stories such as at Khe Sanh Combat Base - otherwise known as Hell to the US GIs. It sounded absolutely horrendous...with the Viet Cong regularly sending in missiles. Our guide really brought it to life for us with his tales....drug taking was a regular occurence here with many perishing because they didn't react to the air raid sirens. The GIs had only 2 minutes a week to speak to their families in the US and he told us that often they never actually managed to get any words across to their families as they couldn't stop the sobs....

Also went to the Vinh Moc tunnels....these tunnels weren't fighting tunnels like the Cui Chi tunnels in the South.....these were built next to the China sea and was the main inward location for the VC arms from Russia.

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From here the arms would be transported down the Ho Chi Minh trail to the south. We had a fabulous time scurrying through the tunnels appreciating being on a private tour and ignoring the signs saying 'No Entry' and heading off down unlit tunnels with only our torches! Despite the massive bomb craters we saw, from the extensive US bombing campaigns, the US never managed to penetrate these tunnels. Amazing ingenuity.

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Because he fought with the US, our guide has been treated harshly by the government/police, monitored ever since leaving a 'reconditioning unit' following the war. Getting work was very difficult. He has written 15 letters to the US to try and get recompense or move across, but apparently they had all been ignored. In fact, our tour was conducted under a shroud of secrecy as officially he was just our non English speaking driver.

Also went off to the Royal Tombs of the Nguyen emporers and the infamous Thien Mu Pagoda....

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Hoi An
Hoi-An was a bit of a tourist circus - just a town of silk shops (check out the exact replica of Fi's Ted Baker dress below!), tailors and cafes and restaurants - not much for us hardy backpackers.

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Nonetheless a pretty riverside town full of canals and flooding roads....

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Nearby are the mystical ruins of My Son which we were lucky enough to arrive at for sunrise thereby beating the tour buses. Sadly the site did suffer in the war, and the area is still mined.

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Everything in Vietnam is separated into 'Tourist'' and 'Non-tourist' - public transport, hotels, restaurants, prices, areas of town etc etc. This is good in that everything is very easy for the tourist and you dont have to think much. However, it was starting to irritate the hell out of us, as we were not speaking with any locals unless they wanted to sell us something, were subjected to attempted overcharging a lot, were not seeing the real Vietnam and generally our minds were getting stale and bored with the ease of each day. I know this sounds odd - but when you backpack the day-to-day logistics and banter with the locals is great fun! Decided to take action and rerouted away from the tourist run along the coast and headed into the Central Highlands instead. The bus ride to Kon Tum was fabulous...in with the locals and the scenery was stunning. We were actually following the Ho Chi Minh trail up, climbing up through winding valleys and through small villages. The foliage was lush, green and dense and we did wonder how the US GIs must have felt heading off on their patrols in terrain such as this.

Posted by FiColes 05:35 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

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