Monday, 4 April 2011

Not a lot happening

Monday 4th April 2011

MP3 track of the day: If I ruled the world – Jamie Cullum

Weather: a bit of everything. Hot, cloudy and spitting with rain












GOOOD MORNING VIETNAM!

Being up early saw me out early, trying to complete the only job I had left; I wanted to change some 'Vietnam Dong' into 'Chinese Yuan'. Just like finding an ATM, two days ago, this proved very difficult. I was walking the streets of Hanoi for, what seemed like, hours and all I got was 'no', 'we only exchange for American dollar' and 'too little money to change'. It was quite weird finding South East Asians unwilling to take my money … this never happens. I was going to spend the rest of the morning 'window shopping' however the city doesn't lend itself to that activity. To avoid getting run over, or being asked if I wanted my shoes shining … again, I hid within my hostel.

Some guy was uploading new films onto the TV's hard drive, therefore the TV was out. I sat myself down at a computer and surfed the web. Having copious amounts of time does make you look for something to do. I found myself looking at my 'near-future' travels which consisted of Hanoi to Nanning, Nanning to Hong Kong and then Hong Kong to Shanghai for the F1. Time isn't on my side, for this leg of my trip. What's more, I was horrified to find that both Chinese trips would take over a day to complete. I checked my diary … and then check it again. I didn't really have time to do two major overland journeys and be in Shanghai by the 13th April. I therefore started to look at budget flights through a site called 'Ctrip China', which was recommended to me. I found a flight from Hong Kong to Shanghai, on the 13th April, which was only £5 more expensive than a twenty hour train journey. I booked it thus easing my travel woes within China.

I still had the problem of too much 'Dong' and no 'Yuan'. If I couldn't exchange my 'Dong' then I'd better spend it. I started to think of anything that I needed, or wanted; the only thing that I could think of was a new Mclaren shirt or baseball cap (as mine is rather dirty) for the race. With the equivalent of £15 in my pocket I wondered where, within Hanoi, I was going to start looking for Mclaren merchandise, let alone actually getting any. I spoke to the receptionist and she marked, on my map, a department store. She also marked a place where she thought they might be able to change my money. As the money exchange store was on the way to the department store I went in to find things hopeful. The guy behind the counter seemed interested, however the person who deals with money exchange was away for the next five minutes. I said that I would return. I left to hunt out this department store only to find it closed … permanently.

I headed back to the money exchange to find the blokes mum holding a big wadge of cash. As I sat down the lady showed me a calculator with a number on it. The exchange rate seemed pretty good and so I swapped almost half a million 'Dong' for one hundred and fifty 'Yuan'. After this I headed back to my hostel. As I had to swap a little more money than I wanted I had a light lunch before re-packing my bag and watching 'Scott Pilgram Vs The World' ... Quite funny. For the rest of the evening I split it between surfing the web, watching films and eating tea. As I'm not leaving until 8:00pm tomorrow, but I have to move out of my dorm by 11:00am, I will be stuck within my hostel looking after my luggage. I feel tomorrow will be more of the same, without the search for currency.

As I find my time within South East Asia is coming to a close I've done a 'round-up', just like I did for the other nations that I've visited. So I bet when I left Singapore you were wondering where the 'country round-up' was. Well I've decided to put all of South East Asia into one big post. Overall I've enjoyed my travels within South East Asia; its certainly been an experience. Below is a list of the South East Asian countries that I've visited, in order of my favorite finishing with my least favorite.

- Vietnam – The 'saving grace of South East Asia'. Hue and Hoi An are two of my most favorite places I've been to. The country has so much to see and so much to do. The people are friendly, though prices can fluctuate a lot 'travel company' to 'travel company'. One of my most favorite countries I been to within the world. Just skip Hanoi.

- Thailand – People where friendly, lots to see and not bad value for your British pound though you really can't trust the people where money is concerned.

- Malaysia – Lots to see; I had a great time in Georgetown and Melaka, the food was lovely. The country is very pretty, especially the Cameron Highlands and the Taman Negara National Park.

- Cambodia – It started off so well. Siem Reap was lovely and the temples of Angkor were amazing. The problem with this country is everywhere else. My bus journeys through Cambodia weren't amazing and the less I say about Phnom Penh the better. The country is also a lot more expensive than Thailand or Laos.

- Laos – Beautiful but not a lot to see. With it's lack of infrastructure, and it's 'up and coming' drinking culture, Laos is a country that I won't go back to in a hurry. It has some very beautiful parts and, in certain ways, the country has kept a 'rustic charm', however there isn't a lot to do in Laos and the country can be completed in less than two weeks.

- Singapore – A little unfair due to it's size; Singapore was okay but after a day or two it got pretty boring. The food wasn't that great either and it was the most expensive country out of the lot.

Coming from organized countries it took me a while to get used how things worked here. Instead of booking a bus ticket, or a tour, online within minutes it took a good half a day to walk around numerous travel agencies to get the best price … which did become extremely annoying. Not being able to trust the people where money was concerned did start to overtake my feelings towards the people and it's true that Japan or New Zealand, for me, were countries that I enjoyed traveling in a lot more than South East Asia. I am a bit of a worrier and so not being given information about travel arrangements was very disconcerting, however I got through. In order of the countries that I've visited, below are my favorite experiences within South East Asia..

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Singapore

1) The surrender of the British ArmyVisiting the 'Battle Bunker', and 'Changi Prison', gave me an interesting incite into the 1942 surrender of the British army and the consequences of that surrender.

Malaysia

1) MelakaA great city to chill in.

2) Taman Negara National ParkVery beautiful and a great boat ride through the jungle; a 'must do' if you go.

3) GeorgetownThe food was great and this was my favorite city within Malaysia.

Thailand

1) The White Temple, Chang-RaiMy favorite temple within Thailand.

2) Chang-Mai – A great city to hang out in. Due to the city being near the mountains its quite cool, making the temperature pleasant to walk around in.

3) Kanchanaburi – Very sad but the 'bridge over the river Kwai' is a must see, especially the cemetery located there.

4) Elephant trekking – Quite scary but how often are you going to be able to travel by elephant?

5) Cooking course – Thai food is lovely and to be able to cook it is a bonus.

Laos

1) The slow boat down the Mekong – Two days of beautiful scenery and playing cards. I would say that this was one of the best journeys I've made in all of my traveling.

2) The mini-van ride between Phonsavan and Vang Vieng – High up in the mountains the scenic drive has only been beaten by the 'Icefield Parkway' within Canada. Very, very beautiful even if the driving was a little erratic at times.

3) The Plain of Jars – An archaeological gold mine the Plain of Jars were pretty impressive.

4) Louang Phabang – Best food, and night market, within Laos. I great place to spend a couple of days relaxing.

Cambodia

1) The temples of Angkor – The 'Bayon' was my favorite temple however 'Angkor Wat' and 'Ta Phrom' were both amazing.

2) Teaching the children in Phnom Penh – A real experience that will stay with me forever. Something that all of us would enjoy.

3) Siem Reap – Yes it is touristy, however the city has a nice, safe, feel to it and the river makes it look lovely.

Vietnam

1) Hoi An - A very beautiful little town where you could end up spending a fortune. It's a great place for a weeks holiday; a beach close by, a pretty town, not too busy, lots of stuff to buy and great food. The paintings and cakes on sale here are amazing.

2) Hue – So much to see including an excellent ancient citadel, the demilitarized zone and old emperor tombs. The city itself isn't that pretty but the historical weight of the area makes up for it.

3) Da Lat A lot different to the rest of South East Asia. What it lacks in main attractions it makes up for with a chilled out atmosphere and beautiful scenic drives.

Below I'll go through certain aspects of South East Asia.

Accommodation

The budget accommodation within Singapore isn't any better than anywhere else within South East Asia, though it is more expensive. Overall South East Asian accommodation is clean and cheap, with the average dorm costing £5 in Malaysia, £4 in Vietnam, £3 in Thailand and £3 in Cambodia. Dorms were hard to come by in Laos however a double room only cost about £2, making the Laos accommodation the cheapest within South East Asia (though cleanliness was a little 'hit or miss'). All hostels and guesthouses, apart from in Laos, have free WiFi ... even in the remotest of places, which was certainly a benefit. Most Vietnam accommodation came with a free breakfast however don't get too excited, it was never that good.

Transport

The VIP buses within South East Asia were very comfortable. Good sized seats, loads of leg room and being pretty cheap they were my favorite form of transport. HOWEVER, if the trip was six hours or less, they weren't my first choice as they always use bus stations miles out of town. It means that you have to get a tuk-tuk to said bus station and then another when you arrive at your next destination. This system of out-of-town bus stations is stupid, annoying, time consuming and totally illogical. I therefore opted for the mini-vans within Laos, Thailand and Malaysia.

Very cramped, but often cheaper than the VIP bus, the mini-van picked you up from your guesthouse / hostel and droped you off at your next one making traveling less stressful. Apart from the lack of room the other problem with the 'mini-van' was the total lack of information from the driver; breaks would just appear and you never knew how long each break would be. In Laos both VIP buses, and 'mini-vans', stopped at out-of-town bus stations; however mini-van travel was cheaper and quicker. The driving within Laos and Cambodia was the most dodgy of all of South East Asia; it was perfectly normal for a mini-van driver, in Laos, to over-take slower vehicles on a blind corner. In Cambodia I had a bus driver who was drunk. Cambodian mini-vans, and buses, stopped miles out of town, however most guesthouses and hotels provided a free tuk-tuk pick-up as it's common for Cambodian tuk-tuk drivers to take you to a guesthouse of their choosing rather than the one you wanted to go to.

Boats are good, cheap, and usually float. They maybe a little noisy however the boat is certainly the most relaxing way to travel.

The train within Thailand was certainly cheap however it was slower than the VIP buses and quite dirty. Personally I would avoid this type of travel. Malaysia, Cambodia and Laos had no passenger train services worth taking and Vietnam's train service was much more expensive than coaches.

With 'Air Asia', flights are extremely cheap HOWEVER, 'Air Asia' only serve major airports and so flying to smaller towns and cities can be more expensive than flying within Europe. Flying within Laos is ridiculously expensive as 'Lao airways' are the only operator. I looked at booking a flight from Pakxe to Siem Reap and it would have cost me over $160.00 for an hour long flight. Lao airways did used to have an appalling safety record however recently this has improved.

Weather

Hot, hot and hotter. Even though I traveled with South East Asia's 'cool season' It was biblically hot the closer you got to the Equator. Singapore, Malaysia, Cambodia, Southern and Central Thailand were really hot. However, once in Northern Thailand, Northern Laos and the Cameron Highlands (Malaysia) temperatures plummeted at night making it very cold indeed. I did like the change in temperature however my accommodation, within the colder regions, wasn't great in providing extra beading or blankets ... not sure why.

Vietnam was odd. It was late March when I arrived in Hue, on the same lateral line as Savannakhet (Laos). Hue was very cold and wet which I found baffling as, back in January, Savannakhet was hot.

Money

Singapore cost me £30.00 per day making it the most expensive of all South East Asian countries. However, due to it's size, I was only there four nights and so I didn't end up spending a lot. I found both Malaysia and Thailand to be more expensive than I planned with both costing me around £20.00 per day. However I did do quite a bit of shopping in Malaysia and quite a few tours within Thailand so my money did stretch a long way. Even without shopping, or doing any tours, Cambodia was extremely expensive; my average daily amount was £21 making it more expensive than Malaysia. Laos was the cheapest country for me, within South East Asia. With little to entertain me – and the fact you could get a good meal for less than 90p – I ended up spending, on average, £12.00 a day. Vietnam ended up costing £18 a day; considering how much I liked the country I would that it was worth every pound.

People

The local people here have been quite mixed. In Malaysia I found them rude and unhelpful. That's a little unfair I suppose, it was really only Kuala Lumpur that I felt that way. In Georgetown and Melaka the people where nice enough however, anything regarding money, and it was difficult to trust them. Purchasing items within Thailand was worse as, if you didn't purchase at the price the shop owner wanted, the owner could turn quite nasty. Overall I got annoyed with the constant 'buy this' and 'buy that' … 'this is lucky for you sir' and 'I do you good price'. Take money out of the equation and the people in Thailand where helpful and friendly; in Malaysia they still weren't that great – as they knew no income could be made – but generally they were okay. The people of Singapore where much like the people within Malaysia.

Only within Laos and Siem Reap, Cambodia, were the people genuinely nice. Often the people wouldn't mention money at all, leaving it to me to remind them. Whats more the people of Laos were always honest with the change and didn't expect a tip. Whilst staying within Laos I almost forgot about the hard sell of Thailand, however the hard sell was very apparent within Cambodia. The amount of times I was asked if I wanted a tuk-tuk, motorbike, book, cool drink, scarf etc in Phnom Penh was more than I could count; it became extremely annoying and I became ruder with my replies. Vietnam's 'hard sell' wasn't as bad as Thailand, however it was worse than Laos.

Infrastructure

As you would expect Singapore's infrastructure was as good as Western Europe ... within the tourist areas. Go out to 'little India' for example and things became less glamorous with broken pavements, chaotic traffic and badly kept retail areas.

I don't believe that the people in Malaysia, or Cambodia, know what a pavement should be used for as vehicles, rubbish and stalls took up all the space present; I didn't enjoy walking within the road. It also appears that traffic lights are just something that changes colour as the traffic moves regardless. The road layout is chaotic and the road laws are a complete mystery to me and, it appears, the local population. Rubbish is left all over the place however internet access is everywhere and reliable.

Pavements can be used within Thailand and Vietnam. It appears that these countries try to make their cities look appealing with a lot of street art. Apart from Bangkok, Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City the road system seems to work well and there's a lot less rubbish around than in Malaysia or Cambodia. The internet is just as reliable, and free, as within other South East Asian countries. Vietnam's street scene looked more affluent than Thailand's. The annoying thing about Vietnam was that you could only withdraw £60, from an ATM, at anyone time; this meant that a lot more withdrawals, than normal, were needed adding additional bank charges.

The lack of ATM's and banks made Laos a 'plan ahead' country. Traffic Jams are problems that happen in other countries, however this isn't due to great road planning, more to the lack of traffic. Tarmac seems to be an 'optional extra' on most of Laos roads but pavements are walkable. The internet was everywhere however it was a lot slower than any of it's South East Asian neighbors. Laos, being the poorest of all South East Asian countries, can be forgiven for it's infrastructural downfalls. However I do feel that communism, unlike in Vietnam, is holding the country back with the lack of international investment, lack of international banks and the 11pm curfew (which, to be honest, isn't that well enforced).

Plumbing was fine within Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore and Vietnam. Hot water was plentiful and usually didn't cut out at certain times. Hot water within Laos and Cambodia was sporadic and depended on how much you paid for your accommodation. No South East Asian plumbing could handle used toilet tissue being flushed down the toilet.

Food

The food within Singapore wasn't that good and was pretty expensive for the region. Heading north, Melaka and Georgetown, in Malaysia, were two of the best places I've eaten within South East Asia. The food quality continues within Thailand with Thai food being my favorite of all. Once in Laos the food took a turn for the worst. Overall the food was okay but, after a while, it got very bland. Local Laos food is pretty cheap however anything international is expensive; whats more, unlike Thailand, there is little in the way of 'street food'. Most food is cooked in restaurants, behind closed doors, which doesn't allow the customer to see their meal being cooked. This would be fine in most countries however I feel that Laos probably has the worse hygiene record of all of South East Asia; there isn't one person I know who hasn't been ill within Laos. Cambodian food was good, a little like Thai food, however western dishes were just as expensive as local ones therefore I pigged out on food that I had been missing. The bread within Laos and Cambodia was amazing, totally down to the French influence.

I found the Vietnamese food a little disappointing. It was more of the same, however I was hoping for a little 'Chinese' influence. Don't get me wrong, the food was fine, just not as nice as I was hoping for and not as tasty as Thai food. Before I left for South East Asia a lot of people recommended the food; they described it as 'mouth watering'. Don't get me wrong, the food is tasty however don't be fooled that it's any better than any other country within the world. Each country has great tasting food … even the UK.

I usually always Purchase food from street stalls and I've always felt fine. I had two golden rules in regards to food within South East Asia; make sure the food is cooked in front of you and make sure that it is served piping hot. If you are not sure if the food you have just eaten was dodgy or not order a coke as that will usually kill any unwanted bugs within your stomach. I love spring rolls and the best were in Melaka, Malaysia … closely followed by most places within Thailand. Laos and Cambodia moved away from deep fried spring rolls and opted for fresh ones which, in my opinion, is the worst idea since Abraham Lincoln decided not to stay in one night and instead decided to 'take in a show' at his local theater. Vietnam provided a mix of 'fried' and 'fresh' spring rolls however neither were brilliant.

Driving

The driving within South East Asia is entertaining to say the least. I was surprised to see that Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand were all supposed to drive on the left-hand side of the road however most road users just tried to find any empty bit of tarmac. The driving in Laos was the worst of all; it wasn't uncommon for bus, or mini-van, drivers to over-take slower vehicles on blind corners and I'm sure a few drivers were a little drunk (or high on something).

Traffic doesn't stop for pedestrians so you just have to work your way through the chaos. Scooters are the worst as, when they do stop for traffic lights, they usually stop on the pedestrian crossing making it unusable. Scooters which don't stop will just mow you down. Tuk-tuk's are also pretty bad. For general chaos I'd say the Cambodian nation took first prize; you have to see it to believe it. Vietnam was the most 'road organized' nation within South East Asia. Many signs indicating 'one way', weight and speed restrictions were erected in strategic places. It's just a shame that the entire population ignored them.

Would I come back?

Vietnam yes; the rest No. For me there are better places within the world to visit that may cost more, however I feel that they give you a better return for your investment. I see travelers choosing South East Asia for their six to twelve month traveling experience, which isn't a bad choice. However, once investigating further, I find that money has a lot to do with their decision. I would urge people, who are thinking of traveling, to put money aside and choose a country(ies) that you feel you would enjoy the most, even though it may mean cutting the length of your trip. I would have preferred to have spent three months in Japan / New Zealand / Canada than six months traveling through South East Asia as, for me, pound-for-pound, I feel that I would have gotten a better return in experiences and enjoyment in one of those other countries.

Would I recommend South East Asia to others?

Yes; However I feel Laos is certainly an area for the younger traveler (the rest of South East Asia caters for all ages pretty well) and I would re-cite the above statement to make sure that people coming here are doing it for all the right reasons

Conclusion

South East Asia is a strange place. Apart from Vietnam (which has a Chinese feel), culturally it isn't as stimulating as I thought it would be; I felt that South East Asia was trying so hard to catch up with the west's quality of life and, in doing so, it was forgetting it's heritage. You can't trust any of the people where money is concerned and you always have to be careful with your possessions. It is cheap, the weather is good, and there are a lot of other backpackers here. I've had some great times but generally they have been because of others and not because of what the countries have to offer (apart from Angkor Wat and Hoi An).

Finally I recommend purchasing a pair of 'flip-flops' before coming to South East Asia. It's polite to remove your shoes before entering most buildings and, after five months of taking my shoes off at least four times a day, I'm fed up of laces!

Toodle Pip!

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