Trip update (29/01/12)

I am writing this latest update from Siem Reap in Cambodia. Siem Reap is best known as the gateway to the Angkor region where you can find Angkor Wat, so integral to Cambodia’s identity that it’s found on the national flag.

After my last update we went on a day trip to the Cu Chi tunnels, which also included a visit the the bizarre central temple of the Cao Dai religion. As I understood it from our incomprehensible tour guide, this religion is a ‘best bits’ combination of all the main religions of this part of the country. We were joined on the trip by Rosie, whom we met shortly after I posted the last update. The Cu Chi tunnels were slightly disappointing. We had high expectations after the harrowing story told by the photos at the war museum. Certainly worth the visit though.

The next day was more relaxed than planned. In the morning, we saw what little was still open of the central market – most people were on holiday for the new year. The plan was to meet my friend Gemma, whom I met on the CELTA language course in Brighton (see my first post), in the afternoon. She has been teaching English in Vietnam as long as I have in China. We didn’t meet until the evening because her bus back from Cambodia was massively delayed. It was well worth the wait, and only a shame our visit to Ho Chi Minh exactly coincided with Gemma’s new year holiday.

The next morning, we crossed the border into Cambodia and carried on through to Phnom Penh, the capital. The Vietnamese houses that I like to describe as ‘slices’ (tall and narrow buildings with an ornate and colourful front, but dingy and completely flat on the sides; standing alone, it looks as though slices of Parisian terraces have been dotted around the Vietnamese countryside) were replaced by shacks on stilts to protect them from the flooding of the Mekong river. That same night we went out to celebrate Australia day with the rest of the dorm in our new hostel.

We thought we had had our fill of reflection on the brutality of mankind when we learnt of the havoc that had been wreaked on Vietnam during the Vietnamese war. But just as Vietnam was finding its feet again, Cambodia was falling under the shadow of Pol Pot’s horrendous regime. In Phnom Penh we went to one of many ‘killing fields’ spread across the country where Cambodians murdered fellow Cambodians in their thousands. From 1975-9, an estimated 2 million of a population of 8 million died as a result of the Khmer Rouge regime. The killing field and the prison within the city went beyond the statistics, doing their best to bring across the horror of those years. I was especially shocked that the Khmer Rouge continued to receive official UN recognition long after having committed such atrocities. It was only the intervention of the Vietnamese army that brought this brutal regime to an end in Cambodia.

The next day was thankfully free from war and genocide. We went to see the impressive royal palace before hopping on the bus to Siem Reap. Today we met up with our friend Heather, who has been teaching English in Korea. We know Heather well from our year in Bologna. It is wonderful to see her again after almost a year in Cambodia, of all places! Today we all went together to see a ‘floating village’ – a village on stilts that went way beyond the scale of something similar we had seen in Hong Kong (I haven’t written about that yet!). Tomorrow we are going to see Angkor Wat – a great source of excitement and anticipation in this trip so far.

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Trip update (23/01/12)

I have done a lot since the last update. The four days spent in and around Hanoi were frantic but enjoyable. We went to Sapa, which, unlike the rest of northern Vietnam, was bathed in glorious sunshine. We spent two days trekking through the stepped rice paddies that swirl across the Sapa valley. We took a night train there and a night train back. So we were a bit worse for wear when we left for our next trip three hours after the train got back to Hanoi at around 5am! This trip was just for the day at Halong bay, which is basically Yangshuo but under water. Unfortunately, we didn’t get the weather we got in Sapa. But it hardly mattered when we were able to kayak right up to the beautiful, rocky oddities that protruded from the sea! We still couldn’t rest even after that trip because the next day we had to catch the train from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) at 6am. It was only in our cramped cabins that we finally had the opportunity to catch up on much needed sleep. I think 35 hours is enough time! At midnight, on the evening of our arrival in HCMC (last night) we watched the fireworks as Vietnam saw in the new year. I don’t think I would be exaggerating if I said it was the most impressive display I have ever seen. Today, we explored HCMC. We visited the traumatising war museum, which, with good reason, hardly gave a balanced account of the war against USA, and we visited the ‘reunification palace’, the downfall of which signalled the end of the puppet regime in southern Vietnam and the end of the Vietnam war.

Tomorrow we are going to see some of the tunnels from which the Vietcong waged their war. We are also going to the circus. Way too much animal involvement judging from the pictures, but curiosity got the better of us! Thursday we leave Vietnam and cross the border into Cambodia…

Trip update

I haven’t forgotten that I still owe you the last two days of our trip to Hong Kong. It might seem a little irrelevant by the time I post them, but I’m sure they’ll be worth a read.

This is just a short post to let you know how we have used our Chinese New Year holiday so far. I fully intend to flesh it out with detail when I have more time. I wasn’t able to post anything while we were still in China because I didn’t take my computer with me. The one with the VPN that allowed me to bypass the ban on blog sites in China.

I’m writing this post from our hostel in Hanoi. We arrived on Sunday after a gruelling two-day coach journey from Yangshuo. Our week in Yangshuo was without doubt the best I’ve had in China. It would have been enough that we were surrounded by the most stunning scenery I’ve ever seen, but we were lucky enough to have chosen a great hostel in which we met a great set of people. In particular, we met Stan (Dutch) and Maja (American) with whom we enjoyed just a few of the numerous activities available in Yangshuo. Most days involved a leisurely start to the day with a full English breakfast, then cycling to a nearby tourist attraction, before finding a place to eat and see out the day. I think these days were so especially enjoyable because we felt under no pressure to do anything except have a good time, and, on top of that, we had new friends with exactly the same aim!

Two days into the Vietnam stage of our trip and there is just as much beautiful scenery to enjoy, but now there are several more scooters to contend with!

Tomorrow evening we will be going on a trekking trip to a place called Sapa for three days. Then a day later we will head to Ho Chi Minh on the train. It would have been ideal to stop in more places along the way, but we are too short on time if we still intend to fit in Cambodia and Thailand. It’s been everything I’ve hoped for so far. I hope it continues that way!

Hong Kong – Boxing day

On boxing day we said goodbye to the hotel and met up with Cari and Emma – our companions on the trip to Xiqiao mountain who happened also to choose Hong Kong as their Christmas destination. We took it easy that afternoon, in no rush to stretch ourselves in attempt to see everything Hong Kong had to offer. Cari and Emma planned to get their sightseeing done when they visit again for Chinese New Year. Our excuse was that it was still Christmastide and we’ll probably visit again given its relative vicinity to GZ. We met at the harbour, ideal for photo opportunities. The across the water on Hong Kong island, the sea of huge tower blocks that overlooked the sea itself struck a big impression. The only thing was that the view was somewhat murky. I guess on another day the view may have been crystal clear, but it was all too familiar coming from GZ. Very impressive, nonetheless. Hardly having started the day’s activities we willingly succumbed to the inviting allure of the Starbucks that sat in the Hong Kong cultural centre – the home of the Hong Kong ballet. We had inquired, rather optimistically, as to whether there were couple of tickets available. This coffee break was yet another opportunity to take advantage of the things that Hong Kong had that China does not. From there we meandered our way to and through Hong Kong’s avenue of stars where we saw Jackie Chan’s and Jet Li’s hand prints and a statue of Bruce Lee. Next stop on our casual tour of Hong Kong was the history museum. The museum optimistically set out to present Hong Kong’s history from pretty much the beginning of time. The first section was devoted to the formation of certain rocks in the Hong Kong area. We then got a history of Hong Kong’s wildlife followed by its human history. We ran out of time for the part of the museum that probably would have interested me the most – the political history. Maybe another time… Still, the interesting, thought provoking layout of the museum stood in strong contrast with the museum we had seen in GZ. Having eaten little more than a sausage roll in Starbuck’s, it was time to eat! I want of a better option in an extremely busy shopping complex, we settled for an overpriced burger joint. Overpriced but good!

    

After linner (hardly needs explaining!) we said good bye to Cari and Emma who, unfortunately, had to teach the next day. It remained for Amy and me to fill in some time before we had to find our way to Eleanor and Andy’s, where we were to spend our remaining two nights in Hong Kong. Eleanor is the daughter of our long-time next-door neighbours at Lancaster Rd. But for while spent in Burma, Eleanor has lived in Hong Kong for many years bringing up her still-young family of three boys: Matthew, James and Adam. Eleanor is also the reason I could be sure that I would have a Christmas present to open from home, having agreed to receive a parcel sent from home. Sending post to Hong Kong is significantly easier, quicker and more reliable than sending it to China. To fill in the time, we visited Temple street night-market, which was just setting up when we got there. When we arrived at Eleanor’s, it didn’t take her long to ask the one question we had been longing to hear: ‘Would you like some tea?’ And as if they had known me all my life they provided, along with the tea, two of the things I love most: Football and lebkuchen. So we sat out the remainder of the day watching Andy’s team Fulham muster an entertaining draw at Stamford Bridge against Chelsea, chatting in between gripping passages of play. It was so nice to experience after two months a settled family home.

    

Locked out!

An funny thing just happened and I thought I’d share it with you although the joke is entirely at my own expense!
I was hanging up some washing outside on the balcony, and I decided to slide the door shut in order to keep the heat in. Today might just have been the coldest we’ve had so far in China. It’s about to get colder when we get to Yangshuo. Just 5 hours away on the coach and it’s 2*C there! Anyway, I’d just finished hanging up the washing when I remembered: the balcony door only has an opening mechanism on the inside of the flat!
I pondered my predicament for a moment before vainly wrenching at the stubborn door. I was stuck outside in the cold on on a balcony with a washing machine, a dustpan and brush, and a load of wet washing. Luckily, a solution was at hand. I had fortunately brought out with me my phone and my keys. Had I been without them it could have spelt disaster …and a nasty cold! I called Amy, who, hardly managing to suppress her mirth, made her way downstairs and out to where my balcony looked onto. There she retrieved my football boot, which I dropped from the third floor, stuffed with the wallet that contained my keys.
Before this solution occurred to me I was inspecting the wall for a route to climb down. I think it’s best that it didn’t come that! I just hope that’s the last time this happens!

Hong Kong – Christmas day

Christmas day 2011 will surely prove the least Christmassy I ever have. The day was strictly dedicated to the enjoyment of the hotel’s facilities. Emboldened by the bright sunlight streaming into our room, we started the day with a swim …in an unheated, outdoor pool in temperatures of about 15*C. I actually thoroughly enjoyed the invigorating effects of the very short swim. I also enjoyed the hearty appetite it gave me in anticipation of our Christmas meal! The Christmas lunch was a buffet, tables laden with an embarrassment of food unattainable, or at least hard to find, in mainland China. Despite this, it was clearly an attempt at a Christmas meal rather than genuine. The classic roast turkey may not have been possible given the scarcity of ovens in China. There were at least sprouts and potatoes. In addition there was smoked salmon (no good to Amy!), gammon, sweet and sour pork (Cantonese cuisine, virtually non-existent in Canton!), spare ribs, and, for the first time in two months, toast! For dessert, there were mince pies, a chocolate fountain, fruit, cake, stollen and ice cream. I did my all to make the most of this feast. I don’t think my stomach thanked me for the variety of my intake! It was lucky we had swum before the meal because staying afloat might have been an issue!

    

We walked off the lunch along the elaborately-named ‘Gold coast’. It’s not the first time I’ve walked along the beach on Christmas day, but it is the first time I have done it in blazing sunshine and relative warmth. Before you smart with envy, I believe the cold is a crucial aspect of an ideal Christmas day. It didn’t really lend itself to the Christmas feel, pleasant as it was (I’m sure there is a whole bunch of Australians who’d readily disagree!). It was great to feel the sand between my toes and dip my feet in the South China sea, which apparently can be inhabited by sharks in warm weather. There were notices warning swimmers to be wary in waters that exceed 26*C! In the afternoon we watched the obligatory Christmas film – that day it was Home Alone. After the film there was enough time for a Christmas Skype home. The family were late, having overslept!

    

The Christmas dinner was, if anything, more unusual and varied than the lunch. While out and about in search of a suitable eatery, we happened upon a charming area of shops, market stalls and restaurants on the harbour, where there was also some live music. Had this been in China, the market sellers would have been hawking for all they’re worth, the restaurants would have been a choice between McDonald’s, KFC and Chinese and they would have been uncomfortably full, and the music would have been intrusively loud. But this was not China, and it endeared me to this area of Hong Kong, which, until then, had been just unnecessarily far from the centre. The place we chose was a Kebab house, which drew us in with a set christmas meal that ticked off a number of cuisines we wanted to remind ourselves of while we were in Hong Kong. The meal included a Greek salad, chicken wings, a pizza, a chicken massala with naan, and a glass of wine each. Please don’t judge – China has significantly lowered our standards! And we managed to tick off Greek, Italian, American, and Indian in on fell swoop!

     

Amy spoke to her family when we got back. I have Sophie (one of us five Shishan-ers!) to thank for the only Christmas present I opened that day (I opened one from home the next day). I already knew what it was, but it was good to get something at least! I can’t say I’d recommend a Christmas away from home, or rather away from family. It was just as well it didn’t feel too Christmassy in Hong Kong, because each bit of Christmas we experienced served to remind us just how far we were from home. As a weekend away it couldn’t have been much pleasanter, but as a Christmas celebration it didn’t live up to much.

Hong Kong – Christmas eve

Please forgive the delay for this post. I’m afraid our Christmas break has triggered a lull in productivity. Let me assure you all, just four days before our Southeast Asia trip, the blog is well and truly back on track! There’s a lot to cover before then starting with Christmas in Hong Kong…

I doubt it passed anyone’s notice that the Sunday before last was Christmas day, but it could easily have passed ours had we not taken advantage of our days off by heading to Hong Kong. The only winter festival that anyone pays any attention to here is Chinese New Year, and so evidence of yuletide is scant in these parts. But for the odd day of cold, and tinsel dotted around the place, there weren’t many clues. But it is the feeling that you get during the build up to Christmas that is most lacking. It was only the date reminded us of the Christmas card sending, the frantic present buying and the food and drink that we normally associate with this time of year, That said, there was another big indicator which was just as incongruous and devoid of festivity as all other evidence for Christmas here. For the past two weeks we have been daily treated to a medley of Christmas songs as the children rise from their midday naps. Its irrelevance in this context is no more exemplified than in the fact the medley remains the ‘set-list’ for that time of day a week on from Christmas day. The school cannot be faulted though in its effort to recognise that last week was Christmas. For a start, they gave us three days off – relatively generous for foreign English teachers. The English department also gifted us each a scarf – a kind and practical gesture. It might surprise you that a scarf could be considered a practical present in south east China, but we have been treated to a number of relentless cold spells in buildings that have been specifically designed to let heat out!

We set off for Hong Kong early on Saturday. An inquiry into the bus timetable of the bus we got last week resulted in another offer of a lift from Zheng Mei! The Christmas Eve journey to the train station on the GZ metro was just like any other. The train journey to Hong Kong was not. Hong Kong is essentially its own country and as such we had to go through customs each side of the border, filling in departure/arrival cards along the way. Chinese citizens are only allowed two entries into Hong Kong a year without having to pay for an expensive visa. Luckily such restrictions don’t apply to us. As we took the seats we had booked two weeks earlier, we were just as excited about leaving industrial, smoggy Guangdong as we were about heading to Hong Kong.

We arrived in Hong Kong expecting to find a difference, but the difference was way beyond anything we could have anticipated.  Having made it through customs, the first thing we did was to change our money into HKDollars, which included $1000 notes (worth roughly £80 each). We also acquired an Octopus card each (the decision to name it after a sea creature beginning with an ‘o’ did not pass our notice!). We then marvelled at the double-decker buses outside the station. We sat down at a coffee place where we were served, in faultless English, a ham and cheese croissant and a sausage roll. To find any aspect of this order anywhere in Shishan would be utterly unique. The journey not yet complete, we found our way to the metro to our hotel. It was utterly astonishing to see people adhering to the stand-on-the-right escalator rule! We could have seen all these things and still have felt as if we were in China. It was the vibe we got from the people around us that confirmed to us that we were somewhere altogether different. Everyone seemed to have an unspoken way of communicating that we could easily empathise with. The culture was closer to Britain than it was to China. This was perfectly exemplified when, in a busy metro station, I absent-mindedly bumped into someone and they felt the need to say ‘sorry’! Another difference was the roads. I realised, half way walking across a road for the first time in Hong Kong, that I was looking the wrong way because everyone was driving on the left. It didn’t matter that I was looking the wrong way because the pedestrian crossings actually mean something in Hong Kong!

It took us most of the day, but we had finally got to our hotel rooms. Completely exhausted, we only had enough time for a bath each before having to leaving our evening’s commitments. But what a bath! Apart from the hot springs, this was the first time I had managed to combine washing and relaxation in over two months. The hotel was well out of the way of the centre, but it made up for this with a stunning balcony harbour view, gorgeously comfortable beds, and a golden beach just outside the front door. That evening we were to meet up with Nicky (one of the English teachers from our school) and her husband for dinner and then meet with a friend of mine from Newcastle, who now lives in Hong Kong. After much confusion over the names (Nicky wasn’t aware of the transliterated English names of the metro stations) we met in the centre of Hong Kong for our traditional hotpot dinner. On our way to the restaurant we saw the lit up nighttime streets that had dominated my impression of Hong Kong before arriving there. To Amy’s dismay, this hotpot dinner was fish-themed (Amy has had strong aversion to the very sight of fish ever since being pushed overboard into a tuna farm in Turkey), and to make matters worse there was sat in front of us the large, picked-at carcass of a raw fish. People already at the table had been dunking bits of flesh into the simmering hotpot or straight into their mouths. This hotpot also included clams, sweet corn, bits of beef, tomato and vegetables. I only dared one bite of the fish! This whole meal was courtesy of the boss of Nicky’s husband, whom we had never met and I’m sure will never meet again. In China, it seems to be customary for one person to foot the bill rather than splitting it. From there we hurried to Hong Kong Island where we were to meet Drew, who took us to a flat party, complete with mince pies, quality streets and wine! That party, at which we were rather subdued by tiredness, was as Christmassy as it got for us in Hong Kong. Half asleep, we headed back on a still-packed metro network – the metro was providing a 24-hour service for two nights only.