Thursday, June 30, 2011

Water water everywhere

Pak Beng, Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng, LAOS: 20 - 28 June 2011.

My first two days in Laos were spent cruising down the Mekong River to get from the Thai border to the beautiful city of Luang Prabang. While this "slow boat" option certainly was slow, it gave plenty of time to look at the river scenery and I met three people on it with whom I would spend the rest of my time in Laos. So overall it was a good introduction to my third South-East Asian country.Luang Prabang is a riverside city that I found perfect for drinking fruit shakes in the morning, cycling in the countryside during the day, then strolling through the night market before drinks in one of the bars overlooking the river. My afternoon relaxing in the multi-level natural pools that are at the base of a waterfall outside Luang Prabang was only topped by the day I spent at an elephant sanctuary. There are plenty of opportunities for elephant riding in Asia, but often the elephants seem to be kept in relatively poor conditions. Therefore I was happy to pay a bit extra at the sanctuary for a full day of riding, feeding and bathing the elephants. Sitting on an elephant's head as she fully submerged herself in a river was an unforgettable experience. Then it started to rain. And it didn't stop for three days. The typhoon that left scores dead in southern China caused the Mekong to rise rapidly washing away bridges and, to the grave disappointment of backpackers, the riverside bars in Vang Vieng. Like the full moon parties on Thai islands and Khao San Road in Bangkok, tubing down the river in Vang Vieng while drinking at the bars along the way is known by all backpackers travelling in this region as a place to party. For many it seems tubing is the only reason to come to Laos. Despite my mis-givings about some of the people that Vang Vieng attracts, I decided to go because I had heard so much about the tubing and, to be fair, it sounded fun.

But alas the river was too dangerous. So I went there, spent a day playing cards looking at the the flood, and then my bus out was held up for nine hours in the middle of nowhere due to a landslide blocking the road. Oh well, at least I now have a typhoon and landslide story.
Given that I have so much time overall, I feel bad that I only spent eight days in Laos, all very much on the tourist trail. But I have just one month left before going back to Australia so I decided to spend most of it in my next stop: Vietnam.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Shop, breath, stretch

Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Pai, THAILAND: 8 -19 June 2011

In contrast to Borneo (which I had never heard much about but wanted to go), I had never really been attracted to going to Bangkok even though (or maybe because) I have met so many people who have been there. This was in part out of a fear of being surrounded by younger backpackers who are mainly only interested in getting drunk. I was therefore pleasantly surprised by Bangkok. It is a fascinating mix of the old (scores of impressive Buddhist temples; a bustling Chinatown)
and the new (the open air Dome Sky Bar on the top of a skyscraper, as featured in The Hangover 2, is the bar with the best view that I've ever had a drink in).
This juxtaposition of old and new was most clearly evident when I got the traditional canal boat to an area full of modern shopping malls. Shopping, whether in the maze of stalls in Chinatown or those modern malls, is a big part of life in Bangkok.

While I enjoyed my time in Bangkok, it is an exhausting city. So after three days I was happy to hop on the sleeper train to head 13 hours north to the charming city of Chiang Mai for a complete change of pace.

I spent four days in Chang Mai, two of which were spent taking part in a meditation retreat run by one of the many Buddhist monasteries in the city. It involved a 5am start, being silent all day apart from some chanting, and a mix of sitting, walking and lying down meditation. It was a very worthwhile experience. The monk leading the retreat, a very peaceful and smiling man (like all Buddhist monks I've met or seen), said that "Our minds are like a monkey, constantly jumping around from one thing to another. But here in Thailand we can train monkeys, and you can train your mind too". While I found it difficult at times to clear my mind and just focus on breathing, I made some progress. I especially liked the silence rule. The first principle of ethical conduct in Buddhism is "Right Speech". This includes abstaining from lying but also abstaining from "idle chatter that lacks purpose or depth". I can't imagine this "talk only when necessary" rule working well in Ireland.Continuing with doing my mind and body some good, I went three hours further north to the town of Pai for two days of yoga. While realising that I've a long way to go in terms of improving my flexibility, I enjoyed doing yoga, although the head-stand was a bit painful and disorientating.I had thought that I needed to take a break from constantly travelling. But now that I'm in South-East Asia, there is so much to do and see that I want to keep moving to see as much as possible. So after doing the meditation and yoga, I've decided to head east from northern Thailand to Laos.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Where's Borneo?

Kuching, Mulu National Park, Semporna, Mabul, Sukau, Kota Kinabalu, MALAYSIAN BORNEO; 24 May - 8 June 2011

Borneo sounded exotic, so I decided to go. Although that decision was made in ignorance (I knew next to nothing about Borneo), it turned out to be an inspired one. After deciding to go, I then learnt a few things about Borneo: it is the world's third largest island; the largest chunk is part of Indonesia with the rest being the tiny, oil rich state of Brunei and two semi-autonomous Malaysian states - Sarawak and Sabah. I decided to stick with Malaysian Borneo, with a week in each state.

During my two weeks I saw an amazing range of animals: monkeys (long tail and proboscis), bats, snakes, dolphins, a wide variety of birds (including hornbills, kingfishers, eagles, oriental darters), crazy insects (including a hammerhead worm),
sharks, turtles, octopus (and so much more incredible marine life during two days of scuba diving around the world class islands of Mabul and Sipidan - a highlight of my entire travels to date), and Borneo's most famous wild residents - orang-utans. I failed to see the elusive Pygmy Elephant, but coming across its footprints in the wild on the banks of the Kinabatangan river was surprisingly exciting.
Apart from all the animals above, Borneo is also famous for its leeches. I found many of these bloodsuckers on my legs during a sweaty two day trek in Mulu National Park up to The Pinnacles. Giving some blood to the thirsty little feckers was a price worth paying to see the unique, jagged rock formations.
While most of my time in Borneo was spent in national parks and wildlife areas, I started and ended in its two main cities: the wonderful Kuching, which means "cat" and hence the city is full of cat statues;
and Kota Kinabalu, where I finished my trip with a great, cheap meal of fish and squid.
I loved my time in Borneo, with its cheap, tasty food (once you avoid the bizarrely omnipresent KFC outlets!), its friendly and not pushy locals and its natural beauty. Borneo will rank highly when I list my favourite places at the end of my travels.