Can hardly believe it's been a year since my last entry! And what a year it's been - the year of change (and a few other things I could mention - devastation, upheaval....but also friendship, and new beginnings). Anyway, just thought I'd post this up to say if anyone's interested in reading any of my current exploits then please get in touch - firstname.lastname@example.org - and I shall add you to my new, permission-only (ooh, la-di-da!) blog over at blogger.com!
Location: Nairobi, Kenya
Am finally back in Nairobi - got to the airport after a 24 hour journey at 5am, feeling less than impressed after an Indian boy started stroking my arm towards the end of the last flight! Despite repeated (and increasingly hysterical) requests for him to stop he just carried on, staring at me with creepy eyes, so I was forced to move to another seat - not what you need after nearly 24 hours without sleep!
Phnomn Penh was great, though nothing will ever quite measure up to Siem Reap in my mind! I had a relatively painless bus journey down and checked into the Indochine2 hotel which was very close to the riverfront. Decided en route to have a crack at stopping smoking so has been a testing few days (so far so good, although am already feeling my resolve crumbling now back in Nairobi where everyone and their wife seems to smoke and it's dirt cheap - must.....stay......strong.....)! The first night I found a lovely restaurant called Lemongrass which made the most delightful pumpkin soup, and ended up eating there again the second night and having exactly the same thing!
On Saturday morning I got up early and took a tuk tuk to the Killing Fields 15kilometres out of town. Was a harrowing experience seeing the monument full of victims' skulls and walking around the mass graves, but an important one nonetheless. Even more harrowing was the Tuol Sleng museum afterwards, the site where victims were taken to be tortured prior to being taken to the Killing Fields and executed. The cells, which used to be classrooms, are left pretty much as they were found, with shackles on the floor, and there are some very graphic pictures on the walls of the bodies after being tortured. Worst of all is the room full of pictures of the victims, which was so upsetting to see. Must admit I had a bit of a rant at some French men who were having a heated debate in the middle of the room - told them to go outside as they were being disrespectful!
Afterwards I went briefly to the busy market before heading back to my hotel. In the afternoon, after lunch on the riverfront, I visited the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda, where I met some nice Americans. Was ridiculous as when I arrived I found out you needed to cover your shoulders or you wouldn't be let in, so proceeded to pay $2 for a tuk tuk back to my hotel to get a wrap, only to find on my return that a) they won't let you in wearing wraps, only proper t-shirts, and b) they'd been selling t-shirts right behind the ticket booth for $1 a pop all along! Talk about wasted journey. Still, it was a nice place to visit.
Yesterday I headed to the airport at 7am and began my mammoth journey - the 5 hour stopover at Bangkok was pretty painful but the Doha one was eased by the presence of a South African guy named Peter, whom I chatted to for a couple of hours while he waited for his flight. Was horrified to find several middle aged women phlegming into the sinks in the toilet when I visited - is this some kind of tradition in Doha, I wonder? Gross!
So here I am, dazed, confused and rather annoyed with myself for picking what could possibly be the most stupid time EVER to try and quit smoking. Am holding off for the moment though in the hope that this wobble will pass, and in the meantime trying to get my life in some sort of order. Am excited to have had my second article published on the Guardian Abroad website - gives me the impetus I need to keep going on the freelance writing front, and couldn't really have come at a better time.
The Chat (ie deciding what the hell we want to do with our lives!!) will be had later today - and I tell you one thing: if I get through that without a cigarette I really am on the road to recovery!!
Location: Siem Reap, Cambodia
Words really can't describe what a wonderful few days I've had, it's been simply amazing and I feel so blessed (bleurgh - cheesy moment alert!!) The trip to the Mekong Delta was well organised (apart from the fact I ended up having to sleep in a non-air conditioned dormitory on a BOAT with about twenty other people.....) and I met some fantastic people - three other girls travelling by themselves and a lovely Spanish couple (Antonio is a professional photographer in Spain who does shoots for Vogue - dahling!) We did so much in the two days we were there - visiting coconut candy workshops, floating villages, fish farms, quaint little villages, Islamic temples...the list goes on. Was just fab. And saw a gorgeous sunset on the first evening and sunrise the next morning - waking up in the middle of the floating market was sensational. When I got back to HCMC/Saigon I was absolutely knackered, but it was worth it.
The next morning I flew to Siem Reap in Cambodia and booked into a nice guesthouse on the outskirts of town called Jasmine Lodge, with really friendly people whose English is excellent. In the evening I met Gabrielle, one of the girls I met in Mekong, who had arrived the same day, and we had dinner at the Butterfly Garden Restaurant. The following morning we got a tuk tuk to visit the temples which were suitably impressive, then in the afternoon we visited the Artisans D'ánkgor workshop, where disadvantaged kids are chosen to enter into programmes like woodwork or sandstone carving to help them provide a better life for themselves. Bought a gorgeous Buddha picture which will take pride of place in my next home! In the evening we had dinner in a wonderful place called the Dead Fish Tower with split level mezzanine floors and drop dead gorgeous green curry.
Yesterday morning we rose early for a two hour horse ride through the countryside - absolutely fabulous views and great fun, other than when my horse bolted and I nearly fell off! In the afternoon we went back to the temples for the sunset, which was beautiful, and this morning we went back for the sunrise - Angkor Wat at that time of day is just mindblowing.
So all in all it's been a FANTASTIC few days, am full of the joys of Cambodia and definitely want to come back one day. Wish I wasn't leaving Siem Reap in an hour but I have to - onwards to Phnomn Penh and then back to Nairobi. Can't wait to see what happens next...
Location: Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam
Hmm, not too sure what happened there - was halfway through writing an update and it shut down. Useless computers!
Well, it's finally happened and I'm all by myself in Ho Chi Minh - feeling quite bereft without my girls but have spent the last two hours taking refuge in an internet cafe which has helped enormously. I've also booked myself onto a two day/one night tour of the Mekong Delta leaving at 7.20am tomorrow morning, after which I've booked my flight to Siem Reap in Cambodia for 11.40am on Tuesday, which means the only unplanned time is this evening (it's now 5.35pm) and Mon eve after I get back. Until I get to Cambodia that is....but still, not so bad.
Where did I last leave you? I believe it was before we made our way from Hue down to Hoi An in a private, air conditioned car (having had such a hideous experience of the public transport on our 19 hour train journey - which, incidentally, only saw us covering about 400 miles!! - that we couldn't face a repeat). Hoi An was lovely, rammed full of tourists but charming nonetheless. We stayed in a very pleasant hotel with an 'indoor-outdoor' swimming pool, and whilst I was struck down with a horrid cold almost immediately upon our arrival I managed to make the best of things. On our first day we got xe om's (motorbikes) to the beach and did some sunbathing, then the second day ordered some clothes at the tailors and Anna and I went on an excellent afternoon cookery course, which culminated with a lovely meal and boat trip back into town.
After Hoi An (and buoyed by our successful and surprisingly cheap car trip) we headed to Danang where we were due to spend my birthday evening. Unfortunately, however, the hotel was considerably less pleasing than we had hoped, and Danang itself turned out to be a bit of a hole (though I'll admit we weren't there long and only saw a fraction of it). Anyway, rather than spoil my b'day entirely we opted for a last minute change of plan and booked ourselves onto the next flight to Nha Trang, which turned out to be the best possible decision. Did mean spending most of my b'day travelling, but when we checked into the amazing Sunrise Beach Resort (which, at $185/night isn't exactly a backpackery kinda place....) all was well. Very well. A bit too well, in fact, as several champagne cocktails in the sky bar later we stumbled into a cab bound for the Sailing Club (hottest venue in town according to the lonely planet) and vowed to continue with our raucous evening. Which we did. Cue lots of drinking, dancing on the beach and general merriment, and three VERY sore heads (none sorer than mine...) the following day. Nothing a massage and manicure couldn't fix though....:)
Ended up being v.naughty and staying two nights at the Sunrise Beach, whose swimming pool was absolutely gorgeous and made for some unmissable suntanning. On Wednesday, feeling revived, we got another private car to drive the four hours to our next destination, Mui Ne beach. When we arrived we checked into the Kim Ngan guesthouse, but our booking hadn't been understood properly so they'd put us in two separate rooms, one of which had no air con (should point out at this juncture that I'm well aware I sound like a stuck up cow, it's just that mozzies are so much less hassle in an air con room!!) Ended up staying there one night and moving to a nicer hotel (with pool - but only $48!! Honest!) the following night. Lots of sunbathing, yummy seafood etc etc.
Yesterday we packed up and, yup, you guessed it, got another car to Ho Chi Minh, entering into a rather nasty thunderstorm as we broached the outskirts of the city. Checked into the Giant Dragon Hotel where, once again, our booking hadn't been understood. This time, however, it worked in our favour and we were given an 'executive suite' for the same price as a normal room ($30). The suite itself was rather hilarious, with a fake orange tree, some fake flowers hanging from the light fittings, a chandelier and some very interesting blue halogen lights in the ceiling. Guess you get what you pay for! We then got motorbikes to the Sheraton Saigon hotel, which has the best views across the city, where we had a cocktail before heading to a nearby restaurant for dinner.
Which brings me to today. Have been feeling very emotional about the girls leaving, not least because it's looking increasingly as if my travels are going to come to an abrupt end a lot sooner than originally expected (Tim's work in Africa looks to be drying up, so we may return to UK in next couple of months. We'll see), so there's a whole lot going on in my head, but I guess in some ways there's no better place for me to be as I'm keeping busy! This morning we went to the Jade Emperor Pagoda which was lovely, then got our nails done in a local salon and had pizzas (yes, pizzas! First bit of western food in two weeks - FABULOUS!) for lunch. Then we moved from our 'luxurious' suite into my (actually very nice) new room and the girls showered, changed, packed up and left! There were a few tears shed as they rounded the corner, but I soon had to pull myself together - it would not do for a western girl to be seen standing in the street in floods of tears!
So now I'm alone, but it's okay coz I HAVE A PLAN, and as long as I HAVE A PLAN I reckon I'll be okay. Will keep you posted....
Location: Hue, Vietnam
I'm writing this from an intermittently sunny Vietnam, and am pleased to say that (annoying cold aside) I'm having a fantastic time. We arrived in Hanoi on Sunday afternoon after a long but stress free journey via Singapore. My sleeping bag, sadly, did not arrive with us, but I refused to let its absence dampen my spirits, and immediately got on with the important task of booking our first hotel. They sent a car for us but, on arrival, I realised it wasn't the one we'd wanted to stay in at all - my jetlag had obviously addled my brain and made me call the one listed above it in the guide book - doh! As it turned out it was a happy mistake, however, as on leaving that evening for a little stroll I bumped straight into my friend Ben and his girlfriend, neither of whom I've seen for over 13 months as they've been travelling the world themselves. Talk about coincidence! We ended up going to a lovely little restaurant nearby called Cyclo, so called because all the chairs are made from the bicycle-style taxis that fill the city. Afterwards we went our separate ways - them up to Sapa on a night train and us back to our clean but cramped lodgings.
The following morning, on the advice of our sweet but totally insane hotel owner, we got a 3 hour bus to Ha Long Bay and hopped onto a boat for an overnight trip around the islands. Was absolutely beautiful (pics will follow as soon as I can work out how to downsize them on these interminably slow computers) - definitely an experience not to be missed. We did some sunbathing on the top deck, visited a cave and even spent an hour kayaking, then in the evening we ate in the lovely dining room before getting an early, jet-lag enforced night.
Arrived back in Hanoi on Tuesday afternoon and went for a wander before treating ourselves to cocktails in the stunning Sofitel Metropole hotel and dinner at Bobby Chinns, a fantastic restaurant run by a half Vietnamese, half Egyptian chap who apparently hosts a food programme on the BBC! It was full of silk drapes, rose petals, sheesha pipes, cafe del mar music and out of this world food and wine - a winning combination! Not quite the typical backpacker budget experience, granted, but we did save money on our lodgings!
On Wednesday morning Anna and I hauled ourselves out of bed to do some sightseeing. Took a cyclo to try and find a restaurant recommended in the guidebook but when we couldn't find it we ended up eating pho (a noodle soup dish) in a streetside cafe - quite a shock to the system as my chicken pho contained some very suspect pieces of meat, one of which resembled an eye socket.....gross. Afterwards we risked our lives on motorbikes which was excellent fun, and went to see the one pillar pagoda that I'd read about in the guidebook - took us the best part of two hours to find and turned out to be a tiny wooden thing, which had us in stitches.
Turned out our flight to Hue was cancelled due to bad weather (a typhoon was heading up the coast right for us apparently - nice! We later found out how lucky we'd been to visit Ha Long Bay as for the following three days they cancelled all boat trips) so we took an executive decision and booked ourselves onto an overnight sleeper train instead. Then we spent the afternoon watching a water puppet show (fantastic) and having a leisurely Vietnamese lunch.
Now, the train. Words can't really describe it but I'll try. We were in a six-bunk dormitory, though thankfully there were only four people in it. Our companion was an elderly Vietnamese gent - very sweet but with a rather alarming tendency to cough up a little bit of vomit after eating or drinking anything - not pleasant to witness. We ended up on the damn thing for NINETEEN hours instead of the scheduled thirteen, which was understandably upsetting (especially as I'd leapt off my perch shortly after 9am and spent a good hour staring out of the window in hopeful anticipation, only to find out from the horrible grumpy wench who worked onboard that we were running five hours late. Could have smacked her - and the other staff too for that matter, would it KILL them to crack a smile every now and then?)
So, after that horrid journey we arrived in Hue yesterday afternoon, and promptly took ourselves off to a hotel we'd spotted in the lonely planet guide book that looked nice and had a pool. Turned out to be a good choice - our room is lovely and spacious and we're in a nice quiet part of town, inside the citadel walls. Last night we went to a cute little restaurant that served traditional seven course Vietnamese meals, which we all thoroughly enjoyed. After a restorative sleep we got up today and hired some bikes to take us around the town. We visited the citadel within a citadel, tried on some hilarious outfits, had a nice lunch and (slightly foolishly) cycled five kilometres out to visit the tomb of an old emperor, though got caught in heavy rain which wasn't ideal. Am now feeling shattered and have the definite beginnings of a cold but won't let it get me down - tomorrow we leave at 7am in a taxi (no more trains for us!) to Hoi An, which I'm told is the nicest place in Vietnam, where we plan to relax for at least two days and nights. Just what we need.