The Hidden Hitch-hiker

25 02 2012

Sometimes when you’re travelling you have days where you think, why do crappy things always happen to me?  Days when you are dead set certain that nobody has gone through what you have, and that the universe has taken offence to something you’ve done and is seeking payback.  These are the days when you wish you were that friend sitting in their cosy office back home, with their colourful stationary and hot mochachino reading your travel blog.  Ironically, the one wishing they were in your shoes.

Today was one of those the-universe-hates-me days and it started when we awoke to discover unpleasant and mountainous mosquito bites dotted all over our bodies…and damn did they itch!  For an hour we clambered around our room trying to spot the miniscule culprit, but to no avail, and in the end we zipped up our backpacks and left our room to the pesky insect.

Petrol Drive Through - not for human consumption, for your scooter!

When we arrived at the airport, the universe had decided that no matter which queue we chose, it would be the wrong one.  First it was the long queue into Bangkok Airport which had been moving smoothly, until the bloke in front of us blocked our turnstile for five minutes while he discussed his faulty token with the train guard.  Next it was at the Air Asia counter where we waited for twenty minutes while the dufus up front argued insistently with the air hostess about the size of his hand luggage.  By the time he and his family of eight had moved on, we were the very last passengers to check in.

We strode quickly to gate B4, pointing and sniggering at travellers sprinting past us who were heading in the other direction, obviously late for their flight.  We arrived at our gate just in the nick of time to board, only to discover the lounge empty.  Huh?  On the door, an electronic signboard was flashing “Gate Change – Go to A6.”  It was only the gate at the bloody other end of the fourth largest airport terminal in the world!

And so now we were the passengers running for their gate.  We sprinted along the travelators, cursing groups of tourists and happy families who were leaning casually in our path, chatting about their travels and how early they were for their flight.  We burst with gusto into the A6 lounge with minutes to spare…only to hear the announcement that our flight had been delayed by twenty minutes.  We were the last to board the plane, and in another stroke of bad fortune someone had purposely sat in Roger’s window seat.  Never take the window seat of a man who is obsessed with aeroplanes, and after much grunting, flared nostrils and muttered swear words, he got the quick heave-ho back into his aisle seat.

Patong Beach, Phuket

As quickly as the plane was up it was down again and we had arrived in Phuket airport.  We felt like Posh and Becks as we sauntered through the arrivals foyer while touts, taxi drivers and tour guides clambered over each other, shouting and waving at us in an effort to siphon our Thai baht from our wallets.

Owly lapping up the Thai ladies in Phuket.

Finally we were welcomed at our hotel with a cool glass of pineapple juice and shown to our room, where we more than impressed with the towel arranging abilities of the room attendants.  And as we dropped our backpacks and flung them open, what should zip out right under our noses?  The bloody mosquito from Bangkok!  Unwilling to be a tasty meal two nights in a row, we spent twenty minutes staring into vacant spaces trying to spot it flying by.  Finally, Roger successfully smeared it across the bathroom mirror.

The towelling swans

We headed out into the heat and the streets of Patong Beach, and we had no sooner crossed the road when it struck – an uncomfortable, unnerving churning and gurgling sound coming deep from within the recesses of my stomach that was causing my face to pucker.  I paused on the other side of the road, unwilling to go any further.  And suddenly everything became quite urgent.  With aching belly and clenched butt cheeks I hobbled, staggered, cross-legged shuffled quickly back to our hotel, Roger one step behind me acting as a shield in case I didn’t make it.  But I did, just in the nick of time.  And as I knocked back my first dia-stop pill of the trip, Roger sat smug-faced on the bed happily slurping from his can of tuna.  Given his delicate and selective constitution, I never thought for a minute that it would be me needing the pills!

Enjoying a coconut milk outside our hostel - fresh from the shell!

But within the hour, I noticed Roger standing quietly next to the fridge – eyes bulging, lips pursed, legs buckled and his butt cheeks tightly pinching the back of his cargo shorts.  It seemed I wasn’t to suffer alone this evening!  He bolted for the bathroom, returning twenty minutes later, face a light shade of green and completely spent.  Of course I made him beg for his dia-stop pill.  Nobody laughs at me in my hour of need and doesn’t suffer some sort of punishment!

Even Rog tried some...could this be the culprit?

So the party lights of Patong Beach would have to wait another day.  And then we noticed three fresh mosquito bites.  It seemed that we had not one, but two stowaways with us.

Like I said earlier, some days when you’re travelling you just wonder “Does this shit only happen to me?”  I can wholeheartedly say no.  I think every traveller at some point on their journey has a day just like this.

Elephants, Tigers and the River Kwai

22 02 2012

Our mini-van arrived to collect us at 6.30am and this time it was pimped – tinted windows, chrome alloy wheels and bull bars.  Sweet ride we thought, scurrying to get our seats.  Approaching the vehicle there looked to be no one on board, but when we flung back the sliding door we were met with a chorus of “Good mornings” from smiling, happy tourists.  Our faces dropped.  We were the last to be collected and the only remaining seats were the ones at the back.

I wouldn't have thought it was necessary to SAY it?!

Having squished our way into the back seats we sat grim-faced as we bounced haphazardly out of Bangkok to Kanchanaburi.  The only two things that made us smile in the next three hours was the thought we had sensibly eaten our breakfast while we waited outside the hostel this time, and this sign at the front of the mini-van.

After a merciless drive, and with me dangerously close to vomiting all over the Canadians sitting in front of me, we arrived at the bridge over the River Kwai, made famous by Alec Guinness in the movie of the same name – and of course the Allied prisoners of World War Two.  We battled our way through the hordes of tourists towards the bridge and after a quick stroll to the other side and back, we were back on the bus (groan) for another fifty minutes to reach the start of our rafting expedition.

Roger at River Kwai Bridge

Roger walking on the bridge

We both donned oversized, brown camouflage life jackets – God knows how they were going to find us in the brown debris filled river if we inadvertently fell overboard – and clambered carefully onto a traditional bamboo raft which was towed about one kilometre up river, before being released to drift peacefully downstream.

Being towed on our raft up the River Kwai

Rickety old footbridge across River Kwai

After an uncertain leap from the raft onto the shore, we walked up the bank to where our elephants awaited.  With great sympathy, we climbed onto the smallest elephant of the bunch, and unluckily for us, we also had the youngest and cheekiest driver of the bunch.

Feed the elephants for 20THB - NZD0.80c

As we meandered slowly behind the other elephants, and began to relax into the ride, our driver decided to take us off-road!  Glancing back over his shoulder, he threw a mischievous grin our way and then proceeded to nudge the enormous animal down the steepest incline he could find.  Roger and I involuntarily flopped forward, our chins hovering above the elephant’s great flapping ears, and our legs scrambling clumsily backwards as we desperately tried to stay in our seats.

Other tourists on elephants from our group

He also thought it would be funny to stop the elephant halfway down the steep slope, leaving us suspended awkwardly in mid-air for what felt like centuries, before kicking the elephant back into action.  And as it lumbered up the bank on the other side, we tumbled backwards, our stomach muscles straining and buttocks clenched tightly to hold us upright so that we wouldn’t roly-poly backwards off the elephant’s rump.

Me, Roger the sheikh, our elephant and the brat!

During all of this our elephant driver sang loudly, at least I don’t think he was rapping, to his heart’s content in Thai, kicking the elephant behind the ears and shouting “Hee-yah, hee-yah!” every now and then.  Yes, very bloody funny.  Freak the white – sorry, slightly tanned by this stage – tourists out!  Of course it’s just not an elephant ride without getting a trunk full of elephant snot blown up your leg, which only I had the pleasure of enjoying!  I’m not sure if that was also from the encouragement of the little brat seated in front of me, but I wouldn’t trust him as far as I could throw him!

Following our very nerve-wracking elephant ride, it was back into the mini-bus again (GROAN) and this time we stopped at the Tiger Temple, a wildlife sanctuary run by monks.  It is a place where they open their doors to the public, and for a fee (of course!) you can get your photo taken with a wild tiger – no fences, no tranquilisers – just you and a vicious, man-eating tiger.

Roger and a tiger at the temple.

So what happens?

First, one guide takes you by the hand and walks you around the tigers while another guide follows you with your camera and takes photos of you.  So, there you are, in a sandy canyon in Thailand, holding hands with a strange Thai man, strolling amongst twelve gigantic tigers and smiling uneasily into the lens of your camera that you know will capture your messy and gruesome death should the tiger you have your hand on smell the fear oozing from every pore in your body!

I don't think I look as comfortable as Roger. In fact, it would be safe to say I was shitting bricks!

Of course there are a lot of precautions to be taken: no red or striped clothing; no hats; no sunglasses; no bare arms or legs, especially the temptation of a succulent thigh; and finally no sudden movements – which is not applicable to the tigers, as Roger discovered when he placed his hand on a tiger’s thigh and the huge beast threw its legs wide open, sending his heart into atrial fibrillation!

This tiger almost sent Roger running for his life!

We also spent a small amount of time with some tiger cubs and this was where we questioned the humanity of the Tiger Temple.  One small cub, attached to a peg in the ground by a leash, moved round and round in a figure eight for the entire fifteen minutes I sat watching it, while another young cub cowered in fear when a monk raised a bamboo cane in front of its face.  These two examples, and a few others I won’t go into here, left a bit of a sour taste in our mouths.

A monk feeds the tiger cubs

A feisty tiger cub

The temple closed twenty minutes after we had arrived and soon we were back on the bus from hell again (GROAN GROAN) heading back to Bangkok.  It had been a long and uncomfortable day.  Our day started at the hostel at 6.45am and ended there at 7.30pm.  The total time spent off the bus enjoying the sights was about four hours – you do the math!

The Ruins of Ayutthaya

19 02 2012

Initially Roger and I had planned to buy a third class train ticket to Ayutthaya (phonetic pronunciation:  A-you-tay-a; Roger pronunciation:  Are-you-there-yet), then take a ferry across to the island, hire a tuk tuk to get into the town and from there explore the ruins by bicycle for the day.  Thank god we chose to take an organised tour instead!  The ruins were spread all over the place and it would have taken us hours to bike around them all, and today was the hottest day we had experienced since arriving in South East Asia.

We clambered onto our mini-bus at 6.45am and wedged our large bodies into the tiny seats that were clearly designed for small Asian passengers.  Sitting on the back seat (the only seats available) we tried to eat our breakfast that had been so lovingly packed for us by the manager of our hostel, but it was difficult with our elbows steadfastly pinned at our sides.  We felt like tiny T-Rexes flapping our lower arms about in vain, trying to butter a croissant, peel a banana and then transport those items of food into our mouths.

Something to do on a rainy day:  have someone wrap your arms to your torso in glad-wrap leaving only your lower arms free, and then try to eat your lunch while they bounce on the sofa next to you.  Not easy is it?

Owlface getting spiritual at Ayutthaya

Aside from the lack of room, there also appeared to be a significant lack of suspension in the back.  The highways and roads around Bangkok were atrocious and the bus ride was one of the roughest I’ve experienced since I broke Dad’s land rover axle off-roading at Kurow!  And not only was the road pitted, slumped and cracked, but we hit these deformities at 130-140 kph!  I cursed the absence of a wonder-bra as my boobs bounded haphazardly of their own accord in every direction, while our maniacal driver zigzagged in and out of the traffic, not slowing down for a second – except for when he pulled into oncoming traffic and was forced to brake abruptly, the back end of the mini-bus sliding sideways while the locked wheels skidded along the road.  That made my knuckles turn white!  Did I mention there were no seatbelts?

Me contemplating ascending our first temple in Ayutthaya.

Crinking our necks downwards to see out the window, roadsides littered with rubbish and scrap whizzed by, cats and dogs roamed about ownerless and impoverished, filthy little shacks stood precariously on stilts, polluted flood water lying stagnant underneath.  They were the most squalid and atrocious living conditions I have ever seen in my life.  It made Castle Street in Dunedin seem like a luxury resort, and it certainly made us appreciate the small things in life – like clean running water and the wonder of electricity!

Roger taking a moment on the way up.

So after one and a half hours travelling (groans) we arrived at the first cluster of temples at Ayutthaya, the former royal capital until 1767 when it was destroyed by the Burmese.  Pleased to be off the bus, and full of sprightly enthusiasm, we strode up and down the steep steps like a couple of mountain goats – stopping to take just the right camera shot here, just the right camera shot there, descend back down to halfway and then climb to the top again, buttocks burning, and all in the name of a good bit of film footage.

The Sleeping Buddha at Ayutthaya

Hot, sweaty and grinning we leapt back onto the bus and headed for the next attraction:  the third largest sleeping Buddha in Thailand.  It was here that we learned of the devastating effect the Bangkok floods of October 2011 had on the ancient temples and ruins of the area, washing away or damaging the foundations so badly that in two or three years, the temples and monuments may no longer be standing.

A shrine of worship in front of the Giant Sleeping Buddha.

But my, my, how our enthusiasm waned as the day wore on.  By the time we reached the foot of our eighth temple I had my old-woman-shuffle on.  I had to be cattle-prodded by Roger to climb just five steps for a photograph, and only then would I do it with the promise of a Thai massage when we got back to Bangkok.

Ruins at Ayutthaya

It was steaming hot, and just when you thought it couldn’t possibly get hotter – it did.  As the mercury hit 38 degrees and the humidity peaked at what felt like 100%, my eyeballs began to sweat.  Even those tube things that fill up with air and flap about excitedly behind the rugby posts in New Zealand couldn’t get themselves up.  The faded, dusty tubes were flopped over in half on the sides of the road near petrol stations, and every now and then they would make a feeble attempt to burst full length up into the air, only to cave over side wards and loll on the ground.  That was me and Rog – we were those tubey things, slumping against each other on the ground at the foot of a three hundred and something year old temple.

When the Burmese attacked Ayutthaya they cut all the heads and arms of the Buddha statutes. The roots of this tree picked up a head as it grew and it is now firmly embedded within the tree roots.

The last stop on the tour was at Bang-Pa-In Palace, and by now our whole tour bus had the old-woman-shuffle!  Our chirpy Thai tour guide dressed in her tight jeans, cool t-shirt and not even a flush in her cheeks, dropped us at the entrance and told us to be back in an hour.  As she flounced out the gate, we all turned slowly and began to stumble, shuffle, our way around the collection of buildings that were built over the years from 1637 – 1889 by the various Kings of Thailand.  These buildings were in vast contrast to the ruins we had spent the day amongst.

The Divine Seat of Personal Freedom, built in the middle of the pond in 1876

Rog and I at Bang-Pa-In Palace.

Finally we were back on the bus from hell for the one and a half hour drive to Bangkok.  Same maniac driver, same terrible roads, same backseat boob bonanza.   Tomorrow we would NOT be on the backseat – no, no.  We would not be a couple of chumps two days in a row.

Hello, hello! Tuk Tuk?

16 02 2012

Bangkok is a deceptive city.  Looking at a street map most tourist hotspots seem within relatively easy walking distance, but once you start walking from point A to B you realise that it is actually a hundred times further than first anticipated.  Problematic?  Well ,yes, it is when the temperature soars to 38 degrees in their “winter season.”

We caught the SkyTrain into town (brilliant transportation link!) and quickly found Smile Society, our hostel in the Si Lom district.  We checked in and signed the obligatory agreement:  we the undersigned hereby agree not to smoke in the premises of Smile Society nor bring girls or boys back to the premises for sex.  Sure, no problemo!

We dumped our bags and immediately leapt on the Metro for Wat Traimit.  But when we exited the train station we were met with road works, construction and temporary walkways.  We had only paused for a few seconds trying to spot a street sign when our first con-man slithered up to us.  Dressed in a fine suit and with all the pretence of trying to be helpful, he told us the temple was closed and could we follow him please.  Not on your nelly mister!

Unwilling to stall a second longer for fear of his friends arriving in their tailored suits, we quickly took to our heels having no idea which direction we were walking in.  We just had to keep moving.  “Hello hello!  Tuk Tuk?  Hello!  Tuk Tuk?” – we were being attacked from all sides!  Spotting two Western tourists walking towards us (they weren’t hard to spot – they were the ones with rivers of sweat running down their faces, bad fashion and bulky backpacks), we strode in the direction they had come from, certain they must have come from some nearby tourist attraction!  And once they had passed us, we walked towards the next Western tourist, and the next, and the next.

The top of Wat Traimit

And that was how we finally stumbled upon the massive Wat Traimit temple – a huge and spectacular white and gold-plated temple in the heart of Bangkok.  We climbed to the top and sat gaping in awe at the five tonne solid gold Buddha sitting cross-legged at the top, incense wafting all around us, and Thai worshippers in a state of prayer and reflection.

Standing in front of five tonnes of gold!

Our next objective was to walk through Chinatown to the Grand Palace.  Although it was closing soon, we hoped to get at least an hour strolling around the grounds and to see the reclining Buddha.  We set off at a steady trot and soon we were in the heart of the hustle and bustle of Chinatown.  Stalls lined the streets for miles selling everything from mops to bracelets to clothes to lottery tickets to mattresses to food to spices to fish.  Every sense we had was assaulted as we wandered through a maze of stalls.  It was very claustrophobic and poor Roger was having a sensory overdose!

Entering Chinatown in Bangkok

After walking for twenty minutes, Chinatown showed no hint of ever ending.  It just went on and on and on and on.  And then after almost getting scalded from a hot plate, and Roger getting his achilles sliced open by a sack barrow we were desperate to get out. We stumbled helplessly around for close to an hour but we just couldn’t get out of Chinatown.  By now the Grand Palace had closed, the hot sun was absolutely stifling and the map I had grabbed from our hostel didn’t have all the streets on it.

Finally we stumbled upon the Chao Phraya” express boat”, a very old, rickety, wobbly boat that had far too many people on-board.  As I boarded hesitantly (it did not look like safe transportation to me!), the ferryman blew a sheep whistle sharply next to my left ear.  Everyone shuffled left, shuffled right and moved through the pen in unison!  Actually he seemed to be using it to communicate to the driver, but it was deafening and the more he whistled his screechy little tunes, the closer I came to pushing him into the river.  My ears ached and I was not amused!

Head of golden Buddha at Wat Traimit, Bangkok

We got off the ferry and it took us another hour before we finally made it back to Smile Society…and by then we were not smiling.  However, all was not lost as it turned out that the Night Bazaar was right outside our door.  So wallets in hand we hit the markets to try our hand at haggling.

It wasn’t long before the bright colours of eight minis on a Paul Smith tank top caught my eye – and the game began.  First of all, did she have my size?  While she thought I was a medium, I was pretty sure that a large would be a safer bet given the tiny frames of the Thai women.  There was of course nowhere to try on the clothes, and you wouldn’t really want to anyway it was so bloody hot and I was very VERY clammy!  Turned out, she did have my size, and after some polite compliments about our body sizes, we were into it.

“How much?” I asked, my eyes drawing into fine slits, giving away nothing.  She reached for her 1980’s Casio calculator and punched the keys efficiently – 1200baht (NZD$46).  “No, no, no,” I said shaking my head and waving my hands in exaggeration.  “Too much.”  She handed me the Casio.  “What your price,” she demanded.  By this stage Roger was eagerly bouncing on his toes behind me.  “Go low, go low.  You can always go up but you can never come down,” he whispered excitedly in my ear.  I punched my price into the calculator – 300baht (NZD$11).  She rolled her eyes and muttered something about having to make a living, then punched 800baht into the Casio.  I hesitated, quickly calculating into NZ dollars in my head.  The pressure was on.  Perspiration formed…well…everywhere!

I took the Casio – 400baht.  She sighed, lamenting in Thai before punching 600baht into the calculator.  I could hear Roger hissing behind me “Walk away.  Walk away.”  In a grand gesture I turned away from the Paul Smith T hanging on her stall, shook my head and said “Nah, I don’t like it that much.  Thanks anyway.”   Seconds later I felt a hand on my arm, “Okay okay – 400.  You tough lady!”

The deal completed I handed over my baht, which she flicked across the other t-shirts in the stall as a sign of good luck for the evening.  She bagged my item for me and I walked away as smug as a cat.  Got her….or so I thought.  I ended up paying NZD$15 which I thought wasn’t too bad – I wouldn’t say it was really cheap in NZ money terms, but I thought I had done okay.  Until we reached the next market down the street and I saw the same t-shirt for 250baht.  Bugger!  I guess that’s the roll of the dice.

The night markets were brilliant!  The atmosphere was electric, frantic and alive with colour.  Hundreds of tourists were either getting the bargain of their lives or being scandalously conned.  And all the while a sexual undertone oozed throughout the markets as pole dancers wiggled at us from open windowed clubs and dodgy blokes offered us gay porn DVD’s and Ping Pong Pussy shows at every turn.  In fact Roger was offered so much gay porn that he began to question his sexuality – “Do I look like I would be into that kind of thing?” he blushed.  “Don’t worry dear, they are offering it to me too.  I think they are pretty indiscriminate about their customer base!”

POSTSCRIPT:  We have since learned that there were three bombings in Bangkok on Tuesday aimed at foreign tourists and we would like to assure friends and families that we had moved on from Bangkok at that time….thankfully.

Life on the Mekong Delta

12 02 2012

The scent of incense from joss sticks smouldering in their bronze holders outside people’s doors, wafts on the morning air down the alleyways.  The rooster announces the arrival of a new day while the ding-ding of a nearby bell indicates worship has begun.  At the far end of the alley Christmas lights sparkle around a small religious shrine attached to the wall, and a street seller, his old wooden wagon filled with fresh bananas, shouts his wares to the open windows above.

An elderly Vietnamese woman sweeps her doorstep with her coconut leaf broom, as a stray cat scurries by in hot pursuit of a lone cockroach dashing for a hidey-hole amongst the concrete walls.  Her work done, she sits on the doorstop in the cool morning air waiting for the heat of the day to intrude.  She stares uninterested at a small street seller quietly pedalling his wares to a young, male tourist.  His sandwich board, filled with sunglasses, lighters and nail clippers pulls down on his thin shoulders, and by night-time he will be stooped from the weight of it.  He will be back to do this all again tomorrow.

Is this the idyllic setting you imagined? Words are powerful but a picture speaks a thousand of them!

It is in this setting that we wait for Tiger, our guide for the day, to collect us for a day tour of the Mekong Delta.  He is forty-five minutes late but once we are on the bus, we quickly push our way through the city traffic and are soon amongst the paddy fields of rural Vietnam.  After a quick rest stop, where I dutifully dispose my paper in the metal basket next to the toilet (as per the custom), we arrive at the delta and board our old wooden motor boat.  Shuffling down the

Our Mekong River Tourboat

rickety gangway, I uneasily eye the filthy brown and polluted water below me, and stepping carefully I take a seat at the back on one the old wooden slatted seats next to the clanking diesel engine.   The noise is like sticking your head in a blender filled with marbles, and it is only moments before Roger has his ear-plugs firmly in place – he is always prepared for everything.

We arrive at Unicorn Island where we visit a local bee farm and take a traditional rowing boat ride along the coconut canal.   Unfortunately, it has been a long time since the area has had any rain and the river is at least a metre below what it should be.  The result is a congestion of about twenty traditional Vietnamese rowing boats all trying to fit at once down a four metre wide canal that is ½ a metre deep.  It is complete chaos!

Coconut Canal Ride - Just like being amongst the scooters!

We are instructed to keep our fingers inside the boats to avoid them being sliced off as we crash consistently into the boat next to us.  I again uneasily eye the smelly brown, debris and litter filled canal.  About half way down we have a head on collision with a boat travelling back up river.  Roger and I grab at the sides of the boat in an attempt to steady it.  Two Polish women seated in front of us chatter furiously “Gushta pushta mushta” (or something like that!).  They seem as nervous as we are!

If you can't beat em, join em!

We are filled with sympathy for our canal riverboat guide as he smiles and proudly points out his home to us – a tiny run-down bamboo shack on the side of the river where he, his wife and their three babies live.   Shortly after this he taps Roger on the shoulder and rubs his fingers together – international sign language would suggest he is after money.  “Another bloody ploy,” mutters Roger, “he probably doesn’t even live there.”  We give him a tip nonetheless.

At Ben Tre we visit a handmade coconut candy workshop and enjoy a sample of tropical fruits while listening to Southern traditional music.  As our tour comes to an end we board a speedboat back to Saigon.  It only holds fifteen people but a bulshy and self-important Polish tourist has bribed the driver to get him back to Saigon faster than the bus he should be on, and as him and his four companions climb on board, the boat sinks unsettling low in the water.  Once more I uneasily eye the filthy river splashing up around the side of the boat as we fly down the Mekong River, past houseboats, peasants washing their dishes on the shore and barges transporting huge piles of soil.

A peasant's home on the edge of the Mekong River - open plan, double garage and air-conditioned with colour steel roof.

Just as we begin to relax into the ride, the speedboat veers sharply to the right and the nose dips down quickly.  Brown murky water floods along the sides of the boat.  The engine has cut out and we are adrift in the middle of the mighty Mekong.  Roger and I glance anxiously at each other – what the hell is going on?  The driver restarts the engine and reverses the boat slowly backwards.  We turn away from a large clump of floating bamboo sticks and tree debris, and before long we are roaring up the river again.

Just one of the many boats working the Mekong River

We arrive back at our hostel in the alleyway.  The same old Vietnamese woman still sits on her doorstep, only now it is dinner time and she is cooking a fish on a small coal brazier fire outside her door.  We are fondly hugged by our host again before climbing the steps to our room to a welcome shower, where we wash the mucky Mekong away down the plughole.

Tomorrow we leave for Bangkok, Thailand.

K 🙂

Turning 40 in Saigon

9 02 2012

Today was the big one:  Roger’s 40th Birthday (Happy Birthday gorgeous!) and it was a birthday that he would never forget!

If you’re the kind of person who walks on the far side of the footpath to avoid people collecting money for charities, or shop assistants trying to tempt you with the latest new-age defying moisturiser, then you will find Ho Chi Minh City confronting and challenging, as did my husband!  From the minute we made our virgin dash across the pedestrian crossing we were pestered non-stop.  “Gidday-ya.  Where you going mister?” a grinning cyclo-driver called out as he walked towards us, arms outspread in an attempt to shepherd us towards his tatty blue bicycle.

And it pretty much continued like that all day:  sunglasses, motorcycle taxi-rides through the city (I don’t bloody well think so!), lighters, ice creams, cone hats – all sorts!  At one point Roger whispered, “Don’t get your map out, people will know we’re tourists.” I looked at him in his NZ Tui beer hat with his bright red, sweaty face and white legs.  “I don’t think it’s the map that will give us away dear,” I laughed.

The Saigon Schmoozer - I wonder how many other tourists have a photo of this guy?

But it had to happen sooner or later.  The friendliest, happiest Vietnamese man living in Saigon approached us balancing buckets of ice cold water and coconut milk in little coconut shells.  He spoke the best English of anyone we had met so far, he walked us up the road and showed us where to cross to get to the Reunification Palace, he posed for photos with me, he let Roger carry his wares for him….and when we tried to walk away, his little face dropped and his big brown eyes pleaded with us.  “Ahhh come on mister, it so heavy and I work so hard.”  I sighed.  Roger looked at me.  “It is heavy ,” he agreed, nodding solemnly.  And that was it – hook, line and sinker.  I was done for.  “How much for water?” I bemoaned.  “Thirty thousand.”  Without even a second thought my dong was out of my purse and into his hand.  I paid four times more than I would have in the supermarket, which was still very cheap compared to NZ, but my haggling needed some serious attention!

He was the first of many we encountered carrying water and coconut milk

Roger trying his hand at street selling.

around the streets, most of them power-walking along beside us talking hard and fast to get us to give up our dong.  In the end, Roger thought the best idea would be to carry a coconut around with him all day just so that they would leave us alone!

Our first stop was the Ben Thanh markets.  Let the bartering begin!  Having first been told by some cyclo-drivers at the roundabout that it wasn’t open for another hour and a half and did we want a jaunt around the city while we waited (thanks Lonely Planet – I was prepared for that little deception!), we strolled on in.  It was enormous , an intricate web of row upon row of stalls.  Every step we took hawkers hung shorts, shirts, scarves, watches in front of our faces.  “You buy Madam.  You like Mister?”  Oh we liked alright!  This was it.  Our big haggling experience had arrived.

So we cruised the stalls, checking ‘em out and then we arrived at the food section which sent Roger’s nostrils into overdrive and his gag-o-meter off the scale!  As we passed a stall filled with what looked like bags of dried penises, the smell was horrific and Roger veered quickly, hand over mouth, towards the nearest exit – only to double back when faced with a posse of cyclo-driving, sunglass selling peddlers standing outside the door.  “Ha mister Mister, you ride!” they shouted at him.  In a flash he had turned on his heels and scurried off quicker than a cockroach down another row, me hot-footing it behind him.

All in all we were too flustered, harassed and hot to buy….well, actually….we completely chickened out!  We exited the market only fifteen minutes after we went in, and all the things we were going to buy for “only one NZ dollar” stayed hanging on the racks.

We moseyed around the streets past the Rex Hotel, Notre Dame and the impressive Post Office,.  We visited the Reunification Palace and then finally arrived at the War Remnants Museum.  This last attraction I found quite disturbing as images of deformed and mutated men, women and children affected by Agent Orange and other nasties hung gruesomely on the walls, tormenting me throughout all three levels of the building.   My ignorance can be completely embarrassing at times.  The only thing I knew about the Vietnam War I learned from the “Tour of Duty” television series in the eighties, and even then I spent more time ogling the hunky Sergeant!

Replica tank that broke down the gates of the Reunification Palace.

We wandered back through the streets of the city, wrestling with the traffic the whole way, before arriving back at our hostel whereupon our host hugged us both with delight as we stumbled exhausted, hot and sweaty into the foyer.  I think he was relieved that we had made it back alive!

For his birthday treat Roger had originally planned to go to a massage spa that was recommendation number two on Trip Advisor’s top 10 things to do in Ho Chi Minh, however it was on the other side of town so instead he went to a place just around the corner from where we were staying.

As it turned out it was a Traditional Massage centre run by the Vietnamese Blind Association, all of the masseurs being either fully or partly blind.  They managed to find their way around his English body no problem and he returned to our hostel feeling relaxed albeit frazzled after a demanding day.

Notre Dame, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Our next jaunt would be out to the Mekong Delta and both of us were looking forward to getting away from the hustle and bustle of the city, which is one hell of an understatement.  The culture shock had hit us hard since arriving, but my mum always says things look different after a good night’s sleep.

Kiri 🙂

Psycho Scooter Drivers In Saigon

7 02 2012


After what felt like three weeks on a plane and one hundred stop overs, we finally arrived in Ho Chi Minh City.  Our primary objective was to get our entry visa, get the bags and meet our taxi pick-up waiting outside.  We had prepared the forms and photos for our visa and presented these quickly with our passports to the visa clerk who snatched them from us and impatiently waved us on to the next clerk.  We shuffled two steps to the right and stood in front of her. She immediately waved us back to the clerk we had just come from without so much as a glance, so we shuffled two steps back to the left.  in turn waved us away again muttering “Na dong yipso” or some such thing.

We looked around confused before shuffling with trepidation towards the military officials sitting nearby.  Both boys, all of about 18 years old, completely ignored us, continuing to text on their phones while we stood waiting stupidly to be noticed.  In frustration I viciously shook my slip of paper at them and they waved me back to where we had come from.

At this point we realised we no longer actually had our passports and didn’t have a clue what we were supposed to do.  Eventually, an English speaking tourist advised us that we were to take a seat and wait until our name was called.  We were stunned, is THAT what the hand wave meant?  If this was how communication was going to be in Vietnam, then we were well and truly up the Mekong without a paddle!  Welcome to Saigon.

And then we came head to head with Saigon traffic. There were scooters, hundreds and hundreds of them, everywhere!  Scooters going the wrong way, scooters without their lights on, scooters carrying up to five passengers at once, including children who seemed to be the only people NOT wearing helmets.  Children were even sleeping on scooters wedged in between mum and dad, heads lolling up and down as the small motorcycle bumped over the potholes in the road.

Add to that buses and taxis weaving amidst all this and throw in a few pedestrians trying to cross the road and you’ve got yourself one hell of a chaotic transportation system!  You can imagine what we must have looked like in the back of our cab, faces pressed against the glass with mouths gaping and eyes wide in disbelief.

It wasn’t until 4am the next morning when the local rooster was crowing its head off down our back alley (you can imagine our pleasure at that!) we realised we were going to have to confront this madness.  While the pedestrian crossings exist at every intersection, the traffic does not stop for you.  We learned this on our first day in Saigon while standing at a corner waiting patiently for some considerate drivers to stop, or for a gap in the traffic.

Fifteen minutes later we were still standing on the footpath outside our hostel.  Unless we wanted to spend the rest of the day walking around the block, we were going to have to conquer these intersections!  Roger and I grabbed each other’s hands, stepped off the pavement and took three strides onto the road as surgical masked scooter riders closed in around us.  And then we froze!  Idiots!

Could you step confidently into the middle of this?

Scooters, cars and buses were zipping around us on all sides.  Watching the left we managed to negotiate to the middle, then watching the right we managed to negotiate our way to the other side, and almost thinking we had made it, two scooters came unexpectedly from the left again (on the wrong side of the road no less!) and we scampered up over the gutter.  Standing there after my near death experience I swear I thought my legs would buckle.  My adrenalin was on full pump, my armpits had exploded, my hands were trembling uncontrollably and my legs looked like my knees had folded backwards.  I clung to Roger for support as we made our way down the avenue to the markets….and then we arrived at the next intersection….and it was a bloody roundabout!  You can see a clip of me crossing the road here:

(Mum – best you don’t watch this, you’re too young for stents!)

I really can’t do enough justice in describing the traffic.  Roger’s photos will give you an idea, but even those I don’t think capture the reality of it!  Oh and we also spent some time marvelling at the electrical concepts they are employing over here….Sharni or Jan, you must show this to Steve!

Isn't there some saying about getting your wires crossed?

Anyway, I have no doubt that traffic is something that Saigon is famous for….but I never read about it in the Lonely Planet – or anywhere else for that matter – and just a heads up would have been nice!

One thing I have learned today – once you’re committed to crossing the road follow it through, don’t hesitate or waver for a second – that’s the safest way to reach the other side.

Kiri 🙂

Welcome To My Travel Blog!

2 02 2012

As I was updating my Yahoo account yesterday with everyone’s emails, phone numbers and postal addresses, I began to think hard about this blogging business.  From my trip to Europe last year I have produced a travel journal which I intend to sell online as an E-Book sometime later this year.  It is called “A Kiwi, a Brit and a wedding in Spain” and I have posted a couple of chapters here for you to dip your toes into.  The book is in its final stages – my ‘lawyer’ is just looking into a potential defamation of character lawsuit.  No biggie.  LOL  Anyway, it took a long time to type up, edit and finalise that I thought maybe this time I would try blogging my tales as I go.

So here we go!  Welcome to Kiri’s Travel Tales where my traveling experiences will be uploaded for your entertainment, for mum’s peace of mind, and to provide me a tangible memory of my travels in years to come, when I have forgotten where I parked the car and the idea of carrying a backpack makes my toes withdraw abruptly to my ankles!

And where am I heading to this time?  *drum roll*  “It’s South East Asiaaaaaa” I call in my best Miss Universe commentator’s voice.

The Backpackers

I am on the brink of my next big journey and itching to get my pack on my back and get exploring.  My Hepatits A immunity is ready for any potential enemy microorganism attacks, my super strength Bushman’s insect repellent (SPF 15+ inclusive – perfect for those early morning starts!) is ready to dissuade pesky mosquitoes from feeding on my delicate, tasty, freckled skin, and I have four Diastop pills in the corner or my bag next to the toilet paper…just in case.  Reminder:  keep mouth closed when in shower.

I also have Roger, my trusty travel sidekick/photographer and husband, to keep me fully entertained as he battles with rice, noodles, cockroach skewers, fresh monkey’s brains and any other delectable dishes that pass across our restaurant table.  He has already decided on his diet for the next ten days: canned tuna, bananas (peel-able fruit is considered ‘safe’), one multi-vitamin supplement a day and Gatorade – because “water tastes like crap”.  He will be fine, he will eat when he gets to England.

We have been brushing up on our bartering skills using our Vietnamese Dong in mum’s living room and we have discovered that we are, for want of a better word, useless!  While Roger refuses to budge an inch, I give in at the tiniest bit of pressure.  Throw in a small, hungry, smudgy faced child and I’m a goner!  And as always when I am planning my trips, the Lonely Planet has been invaluable , including handy little tips like “Don’t sit on the back seat of a bus as they are reserved for monks.”  No problemo.  I was never cool enough for the back seat at school either!

So if you’ve managed to get this far, brilliant!  Welcome!  Come along with me on my travels.  It will be my shout, you don’t need to pay a cent.  To keep up with my posts just insert your email address in the bar on the right of this page and then click on the FOLLOW button.  Whenever I post, it will come straight to your email.  Easy aye?  For my more senior readers who may have difficulty reading the small print on this blog, hold down CTRL and press the + button to enlarge it.  To reduce, hold the CTRL and press the – button.  (Got that Mum?!  LOL)

Alrighty then.  Time to get my bags packed and find that elusive passport of mine.   Our adventure starts on Sunday 5th February at 5.30am (cheap flight).  Talk to you again after that.

K 🙂