Closing Time

Today was my last full day in Asia. Kathryn and I flew from Ha Noi back to Ho Chi Minh City, arriving early evening. We had our last meal together, did some last minute shopping (I had to stock up on dvds!) and packed. I’m all set for my 27 hour commute back to Canada tomorrow morning, but I wanted to take the time out to finish this travel blog properly before I leave this continent!

I will be moving to Toronto and attending Centennial College to pursue publishing in the fall! So sadly my travels are over for the time being, which means this will be my final blog. I’m so excited to go home and see my family and friends, to be in one place for a while. I’m especially excited to stop living out of a backpack! But I’m never going to forget the wonderful experiences I’ve had over the past 14 months, beginning with the move to China last May and finishing in a hostel in Vietnam after seeing what Southeast Asia has to offer. Thailand and Vietnam are definitely 2 of my favourite places that I’ve visited, and I will always carry a part of my China experience with me in whatever I end up doing with my life.

Thanks for being a part of my journey, thanks for following my narrative as I made my own story through Asia! It’s been a joy to share these experiences with you.

I’ll see you soon!

Steph

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Halong Bay

This is it! The end of my Asian journey! I can’t believe it’s over, it went by in a happy flash.

We journeyed to Ha Noi on the 6th by plane and the heat was so sticky and brutal we couldn’t stand exploring the streets too much that night! We stayed for one night (enough time to book our trip to Halong Bay) and travelled by bus to Halong City the following morning. Unfortunately, Halong City was a bust. When we arrived it was raining and dreary, we were tired, hot and hungry, and no one could speak well enough English to help us find a proper hotel or restaurant. We wandered around with our heavy backpacks for about 40 minutes looking for a decent hostel to stay at but no matter where we went they either had no rooms available or had disgusting living conditions. We ended up picking a random dodge hotel that had one available room on the 5th floor (and no  elevators, the horror!), box-springs for mattresses, smelt like urine, and donated duvet covers as sheets. Whenever we asked the front desk for advice or help, they would just laugh because they couldn’t understand what we were saying! There weren’t any other foreigners around, just a lot of Vietnamese people from other parts of Vietnam, travelling to the beach town for their own vacations. The foreigners that travel to Halong Bay usually don’t stay in the city but instead take tours that travel from Ha Noi straight to the boat cruise for 2 or 3 days and then back on the bus to Ha Noi. Kathryn and I thought it would be nice to check out the city for 2 days before taking the cruise. Mistake. It rained the whole time, the beach was absolutely crowded, and the city is actually very small so there are no interesting sites to take a look at.

That is, until we got on the boat tour on the 9th! The boat we travelled on wasn’t very big but we had our own room for the first night that was as good as can be expected for an asian boat tour. The first day on the tour we sailed around the famous Halong Bay islands that are featured on the countries money (Vietnam dong), visited the Sung Sot Caves, kayaked into a beautiful secluded pool area in the middle of one of the islands, and jumped off the top of the ship into the ocean with a beautiful sunset in the background! I was too chicken to jump from the top at first, but Kathryn coached me through it and I managed to do it at least once while Kathryn jumped a number of times. That night we slept on the boat and the following morning we were up early to go to Cat Ba Island where we trekked up a steep mountain and took pictures at the very top! The trek was exhausting and dehydrating, I almost fainted when we reached the top! When we climbed back down the Island we were taken to “Monkey Island” (ironically monkey-less) for some rest and relaxation. There was a restaurant, a number of small cabins, and a rather rocky beach at this location so Kathryn and I spent the majority of the afternoon swimming in the wavy ocean and sunbathing. We had dinner with a group of Norwegians we had met on the boat and headed to our cabin for the night. Terrifying enough, our cabin was full of insects! Cockroaches mostly, but also strange centipedes that literally glowed in the dark! I hate cockroaches so much so it goes without saying that there was much squealing, shrieking and lack of sleep that night. We both didn’t waste any time packing up and checking out in the morning, that’s for sure! Our final day on the boat was spent travelling back to Halong City and enjoying the sun on the top deck of the boat! The cruise ended around noon and we took a bus back to Ha Noi, where we spent the night wandering the streets, eating, and relaxing.

Goooooooooood Morning Vietnam!

I love this country! I loved it the first time I visited back in January and I’m revisiting the feeling since I arrived 5 days ago! Kathryn and I took an exhausting night bus across the Cambodia/Vietnam boarder and spent 1 night in Ho Chi Minh City, where we revisited the War Museum, wandered the market streets and ate… a lot. Vietnamese food is absolutely delicious, I can’t get enough.

We flew to Da Nang city on the 3rd and the flight was crawling with babies! Not that I have anything against babies, but in a small area with nowhere to escape, they can be loud, goobery and bothersome. There was one right next to me and one in front of me, and they both kept staring at me the whole time, it was unsettling. THEN I wasn’t impressed when the breast-feeding-in-public-I-have-a-baby-so-the-world-revolves-around-me mother sitting next to me accidentally squirted me with fresh breast milk from her teet as she fed her newborn. Not impressed at all. And neither was Kathryn, as she had to listen to me rant about it for 2 hours up until the plane landed in Da Nang airport.

When I escaped that baby hell hole, we travelled by over-priced cab to the small town of Hoi An, a beautiful ancient beach town that is a very popular heritage site! The name Hoi An translates as “peaceful meeting place”, and I couldn’t agree more. The town has a popular area called “old town” comprised of dozens of pale yellow buildings surrounding the narrow, winding streets, decorated with coloured silk lanterns and flowers blossoming down the walls. There are many cute cafe’s, restaurants and bars in old town, and what seems like hundreds of stores selling custom-made tailored boots, dresses, suits and pants. I didn’t know this before, but Vietnam is famous for it’s tailoring, and Hoi An has the best business for it. Kathryn and I spent all of our 3 days in this area, sight seeing, biking, going to the beach, and swimming! It’s been unforgettably hot since we’ve arrived in Vietnam, and yesterday for some reason we decided that running the 4 km route from our hotel to the beach was a good idea, regardless of the intense heat. So away we ran and about 3 km in we had to stop and buy a 2 litre of water out of fear that we’d both get heat stroke! We finished the trek but quickly sought refuge in the ocean and stayed there until our body’s cooled down! We stayed on the beach for another few hours and unfortunately I burnt again! That night we were both exhausted (dehydration from sweating out what looked to be every ounce of water in my body) and went to bed quite early. Good thing too because we had a cooking class the next day!

Today we were up at 8 to attend our first ever cooking class! Our group toured to the local food market where we bought all the ingredients we needed to cook with (various herbs and vegetables, beef, shrimp, spices, etc). We ventured by boat to an island where we witnessed how some of the food was harvested and cleaned, and then we got down to cooking! By the end of the 4 hours Kathryn and I made Vietnamese noodle soup(Pho Bo Ha Noi), traditional fresh salad rolls (Goi Cuon), pork and shrimp crispy crepes (Banh Xeo), and (my favourite) beef vermicelli (Bun Bo Nam Bo), which is a beef/noodle salad. The best part about making the food: EATING IT! Of course, it was also very cool because we got to make all the sauces ourselves as well. Such fun, I really hope I remember some of what I learnt to try when I get to Canada!

Almost immediately after returning to the hostel we were on our way back to Da Nang (only a 30 minute drive) and flying to Ha Noi, where we are for the night! I was sad to leave Hoi An, it was such a lovely town, the beach was beautiful and it was so relaxing! Ha Noi is almost the opposite: Loud, hectic, smoggy, lots of people! We’re leaving early tomorrow morning to go to Halong Bay, which is supposed to be another beautiful and relaxing paradise. We want our last week of travelling to be exactly what Vietnam has offered us so far: relaxation and joy.

Also, sorry that I have so few pictures lately. I lost my camera remember!!

Photo updates

Here are all the blogs I’ve gone back and updated with photos, if  you don’t have me on facebook or are interested enough to check them out. You can go to the right and click the archives drop box to find the month they were written in, saves you some time:

August 16, 2011: The Inner Mongolian Grasslands

September 13, 2011: The Mountains

October 14, 2011: Journey to Beijing

October 16, 2011: Touring Beijing, ie. Puke Crawl 2011

October 19, 2011: The Great Wall of China

October 24, 2011: Qingdao Day 2

October 27, 2011: Qingdao day 3

October 28, 2011: Reuniting with Beijing, encountering Zombies, and the journey home!

October 29, 2011: When Thunder Bay tours Hohhot + Steph’s first bout of homesickness

November 1, 2011: Happy Halloween!

December 14, 2011: My First Chinese Wedding Experience

January 2, 2012: OH MY Shanghai

February 4, 2012: Vietnam!

February 9, 2012: The Lantern Festival

March 1, 2012: Lost in Translation

April 9, 2012: Beijing Round 2

April 16, 2012: Xi’An

April 27, 2012: Chengdu and Emei Shan

May 26, 2012: More Goodbyes

May 29, 2012: Tears and Rain

Currently, Kathryn and I are in Cambodia! We went to 4000 Islands but it was so incredibly, can’t-stand-it hot that we left after one night and escaped to Phnom Phen, Cambodia! There, we randomly but awesomely visited a shooting range and shot 2 types of guns: an M16 and AK-47, whatever that means. They were big and powerful and embarrassment aside, there was a lot of screaming/squealing from both Kathryn and myself, from when we held them for the first time, anticipating the first gunshot, and basically throughout the entire shooting ordeal. It was fun though. I originally wanted to shoot a small, hand-held gun but they were out of bullets for them. Good times!

Following this, we ventured to the Killing Fields (the Choeung Ek location), a memorial museum and historical site that commemorates the genocide of over 3 million Cambodians during the Khmer Rouge regime. At this particular site over 17000 people were murdered and buried in mass graves between 1975 and 1979. We did an audio tour of the area, where we were guided through the fields where you can still see the large impressions in the ground where the graves were discovered while getting a lot of historical background on the process, evolution and outcome of that particularly horrendous chapter of Cambodian history. There’s a Stupa in the middle of the fields that is filled with over 5000 human skulls found in the grave site. It was very haunting to witness up close. We didn’t take any pictures with Kathryns camera because it felt wrong, somehow.

Our second day in Cambodia was literally spent reading at a cute little Cambodian cafe near our hostel called 50 Cents Cafe. 6 hours spent there reading and eating, I consider this a day well spent! It was too hot outside to venture anywhere else, or so we told ourselves. We took a bus that night to Siem Reap, where we are now! It’s been raining (considerably hard!) ever since we got here, so we haven’t done much here either. There’s an interesting pub street and huge night markets that we checked out, but we haven’t gone to the popular Angkor Wat temple because it would be a very wet experience, considering most of it’s outside. So basically, Cambodia has been a very relaxing experience. I haven’t soaked in any of the culture because we’ve stuck to touristy areas, but I find that travelling doesn’t allow that sort of cultural experience that I got while living in China. Choosing between the two, I think I prefer living somewhere and learning more about the culture and daily life of the people as opposed to travelling somewhere for 2-4 days and seeing everything noteworthy in that time. Just my opinion though. 🙂

Heading to Vietnam by night bus tonight! Can’t wait!

Laos

Laos is the most beautiful country I’ve ever seen. However, it’s a bit disorientating. I can’t remember when we came here because it’s all gone by in such a blur. Kathryn told me today that we’ve stayed longer than she had originally planned, but it’s ok because we’ve been having so much fun! The country is disorientating for a few reasons that I’ll address below.

We travelled from Chang Mai to the Thailand/Laos border to get our visas which took one day. We stayed at the border and early the next morning we were on a leisurely slow boat down the Mekong River which took the majority of the day. We stayed at a small village somewhere on the river for the night and continued on in the boat for another 8 hours the next day! We arrived in Luang Prabang early evening, which makes it 3 days of travelling. It seems like a long time to sit on a boat for and it’s one of the reasons why I feel so out of touch with reality, but the view was absolutely stunning to witness, I promise you. And we managed to make a group of friends on the boat that we’ve stuck with for the majority of our time in this country! They are mostly British (a few from Holland and Ireland) and weirdly enough they are all in their 19s or very early 20s, on their gap year following high school or holidays after their first year of university. It’s odd being one of the oldest travellers in the group, in China I was used to being one of the youngest!

Luang Prabang is a beautiful city! We spent much of our 3 days there hanging out with our new friends, drinking fruit shakes and seeing the country side. On our second day there Kathryn and I, along with some of our friends, rented bikes and decided to bike to the waterfalls up in the mountains. Most people would simply take a taxi, but we were feeling adventuress. Bad choice! It was a 30km bike ride, a lot of it being uphill, and it took 2 hours to get to the location. It was worth the sweat and cramps though, the waterfalls were brilliant. The water was so fresh and blue, after taking a few pictures we jumped in immediately! It felt great to swim in fresh water, it made me miss summer in Northwest Ontario! As you might have guessed, we were all exhausted from the biking exercise and opted to pay a cab to bring us home, bikes and all.

We left Luang Prabang 3 days ago I think and got into a mini bus to head to Vang Vieng. The ride was incredibly nauseating. We drove through the mountainous countryside of Laos, which is basically made up of bumpy, windy, wavy, sharp-cornered roads. I was in the very back of the car and didn’t get to enjoy the scenic views because my eyes were closed and I was furiously concentrating on keeping my lunch down. It didn’t help that we’d go over a large bump every 2 minutes and I would be jerked out of my seat and into the pile of bags next to me! Once we arrived after the 6 hour drive I was relieved to find a hostel quickly and go to bed!

Vang Vieng is the main reason for my disorientation. It’s a very small tourist-orientated town with a huge party reputation. Tourists come for the tubing: a day excursion where you rent a tube and float down river for 5 hours. This is so popular because there are bars lining both sides of the river with free shots if you enter and very cheap drinks. The bars also have swing ropes to jump into the water with, loud music and plenty of bucket drinks. If you want to stop tubing and go to bar, you just put up your hand as a signal and someone will throw you a pop bottle tied to a rope and they reel you in! And once you’re finished with partying on the river, you come back into the village square to any restaurant and eat while watching Family Guy or Friends, because both shows play on giant tv’s, 24/7 at every restaurant in the village. It’s like, the ultimate hangover solution. In Laos. This is definitely the strangest place I’ve ever been. I can’t wrap my head around it, even though I’ve been here for 3 days. In the middle of the most beautiful, peaceful, quiet country there is this underground, seedy community of drunk tourists gathering from all over the world to party, eat, and watch Friends reruns together! The only Lao people I see are the owners of the restaurants, bars, and hostels. It’s just…it’s nuts. Fun, but crazy and beyond disorientating.

I can’t even tell you any of the dates for the Laos chapter of our journey because it’s all been such a blur! No, not because I’ve been drunk the whole time (I really haven’t!). Plus, I lost my camera so that doesn’t help me remember certain events when I go back to review the photos I’ve taken. Kathryn and I are leaving tomorrow for the 4000 islands, hopefully this car ride, which will be over 12 hours, wont be like the last. Fingers crossed!

xoxo

Thailand Birthday!

Yesterday was my 24th birthday!! It went really well too, exactly how I would like to spend my 24th. Kathryn and I are currently in Chiang Mai, Thailand! We travelled from Bangkok after 3 days of being there by night train.

Bangkok was fun and had a few really neat things to do. We flew there on Monday afternoon and wandered the streets for the majority of the night. They have a popular night market that we checked out (even though it rained pretty hard all evening) and were offered tickets to one of Thailand’s famous sex shows! Sorry, no details of that. We politely declined the offer 😛 . On Tuesday morning we went to the famous floating market outside the city, where you basically market shop but in boats and on a river. Bartering with merchants as they rowed past was an interesting experience to say the least! Following the floating market we went to an elephant camp where we were able to ride elephants through the jungle if we paid enough. We opted out of this tourist trap, it was very expensive and I personally have a problem with these types of businesses in regards to their treatment and care of such massive and beautiful animals. Following the elephants we were brought to a cobra-fighting show, where snake handlers fought with snakes for 45 minutes, and then you could walk around and see poor reptiles caged up in what looked to be very poorly kept bathtubs. This part of the trip was a bit scarring, I wish I hadn’t gone in to watch because I had suspected exactly what I witnessed: Asian animal abuse. Shame. That night we met two English guys, Josh and Richard, from our hostel and we all went for dinner and a few drinks in the market. The following day we went with the same guys on a ferry boat down the river of Bangkok to check out some well known and beautiful temples. We also checked out a famous street in Bangkok for shopping, bars and tourists called Khao San Road. Later that day, myself, Kathryn, our new English friend Richard (a 28 year old world traveler) who happened to be traveling our way, headed for the night train to Chiang Mai!

We arrived in Chiang Mai on Wednesday June 14th around noon. I like Chiang Mai a lot, we wandered the streets for about 8 hours that day and got a good feel for the area. It’s very relaxed, has a lot of temples, and there’s a lot of things to do here in terms of adventure. We went to their famous night market, which has literally anything you want to buy. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Thailand has amazing food! And I’ve eaten some of the best meals here in the past 2 days.

So my birthday was on Friday (June 15th) and when I woke up Kathryn and I went to a local bakery and she bought me a brownie and banana milkshake! How sweet! We had a nice breakfast together before meeting up with Richard (who is sharing a hostel room with us) back at Panda House (the hostel we are staying at currently). After sharing some small chit-chat in our room while we were getting ready for the rest of the day, Richard let slip that he had once studied hypnotism when he was younger! I thought this was extremely interesting and asked him to hypnotize me for my birthday! Relaxation hypnotism, not the crazy kind where you think you’re a chicken. He agreed and I fell into a conscious state of relaxation for 15 minutes on my hostel bed before I was woken up, feeling alive and fresh for the day! I like hypnotism, it’s really cool and it’s so neat that I happened to be sharing a room with someone who had actually studied it! Such a cool experience and good story for later on.

After the hypnotist show we headed to TIGER KINGDOM! Tiger Kingdom is a sanctuary for around 40 beautiful tigers. The tigers living there were born within the facility and have been around humans their entire lives so they weren’t dangerous, although their size and strength would suggest otherwise! For a certain price you can pay to take pictures with either a full-grown tiger, medium sized tigers, or babies. We opted to see the babies because we assumed we’d be able to play with them, which we did! They were beyond adorable; I’ll even say I was as equally in love with them as I was to see the Panda’s in Chengdu. We got many wonderful pictures of and with the tiger cubs (there were at least 8 of them running around the area), and I got a few good pictures of the full-grown tigers while walking around the enclosure afterwards. Tigers are enormous; I had no idea how intimidating they were until I saw them up close! They are truly gorgeous creatures though, I’ll post some pictures of them on here 🙂

Following the tigers I had a very relaxing/leisure filled birthday night. No drinks, just lots of laughter, food and wandering. We went back to the night market for a bit, and then went to our hostel to watch a scary movie on Richards’s laptop. Scaring Kathryn is beyond fun in my opinion. Such a great birthday, I might even say that it’s been my favourite birthday of all the 24 that I’ve celebrated! The only downside is that I lost my camera somewhere between Tiger Kingdom and coming back to the hostel after the night market. I’m miffed about this, BUT I’m also relieved because every time I’ve returned from my computer at the hostel after an eventful morning or night, I’ve uploaded my photos onto my computer in case I accidently lost my camera. This way I wouldn’t lose all my pictures too! Smart thinking, because clearly my camera is missing BUT I had put all the pictures from Bangkok, the floating market, and Tiger Kingdom on before venturing back out for dinner! I’m so relieved I did this, you don’t even know! So it’s a bummer about my camera (maybe it’ll turn up somewhere, who knows?) but at least I’m not missing out on any of the pictures I’ve taken because they’re remembrances of the wonderful experiences I’ve had on this journey so far!

Today the three of us did a day long jungle trekking adventure complete with elephant rides (these elephants are properly cared for), hiking to a beautiful waterfall in the jungle, white water rafting, and drifting down the rest of the river on long bamboo rafts. It was quite the adventure, we are all back at the hostel now completely exhausted! I think we’ll watch another movie and go to bed. Kathryn and I will say goodbye to Richard and head to Laos tomorrow, which includes a bus and then a slow boat down the river for 2 days until we hit to our next country destination! Should be fun, I’ll keep you posted 😉

xoxo

Kuala Lumpur and Thailand so far

I’m 2 weeks into my travels with Kathryn! Currently we are on Koh Samui Island in Thailand and we have free wifi so I thought I’d take some time out to update you on what we’ve done so far!

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: So hot. I couldn’t walk up the street without my entire body sweating. I didn’t enjoy KL so much because of the heat. I’ve never experienced heat like that before; hot, sticky, uncomfortable humidity. And we were not near any oceans or lakes to cool off. I saw the famous KL Petronas Towers, they were pretty impressive. Malaysian food is pretty decent, but very oily. We visited the Batu Caves which took over 300 stairs to reach, but they were pretty neat. Otherwise, I didn’t fall in love with Malaysia mostly due to the heat of it all and because KL was just a big city, nothing to sing about.

We took a night train (13 hours) to Thailand, and the VISA was free, which is beyond great. We reached the train station in Hat Yai, Thailand, where we took a 4 hour bus ride to Suratthani, a small town on the ocean. From there we caught a night boat (6 hours) at 11pm to Koh Samui, an island where we’ve been stationed for the past 7 days. The boat ride was surprisingly easy to sleep through, perhaps because it rocked back and forth due to the high ocean waves, like a baby cradle. We reached port at 6am and sleepily stumbled our way to a taxi and to our hostel in the Lamai district of the island.

Thailand is unreal. I actually am falling in love with it. We were in Lamai district for the first 6 nights. Our hostel was right on the beach, which WOULD have been nice had it not been raining for the first 3 days. We came to Thailand during their monsoon season, so I don’t know what we expected. HOWEVER miracles happen and 2 days ago the sun showed it’s beautiful face on the Island of Koh Samui! Kathryn and I rushed to the beach for a glorious morning of tanning and swimming, before the clouds resumed their firm positions in the sky, casting a depressing shadow over the island. Unfortunately we learned the meaning of the expression “be careful what you wish for” because our frolic in the sun resulted in a rather painful sunburn for yours truly, one that I’ve been heroically suffering through for the past few days and I’ve tragically forced myself to stay out of the sun as much as possible over the past 2 days to allow my skin to heal itself. WORTH IT in my opinion, I’m getting nice, brown and tanned (I can almost hear my Chinese friends in Hohhot cringing at the very thought!). Our area was smaller than other areas of the island, less people (well, young people) and fewer shops. But we enjoyed it because of it’s emptiness because we didn’t have to deal with stupid, drunken teenagers.

The same day we arrived on the island was Thailands infamous Full Moon parties on Koh Pha Ngan, the island next to ours (only a 20 minute bumpy boat ride over). The Full Moon Party is an all-night beach party that includes brightly coloured body paint, bucket-sized drinks, and a lot of dancing. I’d guess that there were close to 20,000 people on that beach that night, no kidding. It was insane! We had such a good time! We met a few people on the boat ride over to Koh Ph Ngan and danced with them all night. It was an unforgettable night not only because of the crazy body paint and people, but because there was downpour the majority of the night! I don’t think I’ve ever felt so wet in my entire life, but it was awesome because we didn’t even care about the rain. The Full Moon Party was probably the greatest part of my experience travelling South East Asia so far, and definitely the biggest, most outrageous and best party I’ve ever been to in my entire life!

Also experienced in Thailand: Henna Tattoos on the beach. Monkey handlers practically throwing their tiny monkeys on you (you pay to take a picture). EXCELLENT and DELICIOUS Thai food. One taste and I was hooked! AND…Lady-man drag show. Thailand is well known for their positive outlook on cross-dressing, transgendered people…and trust me, there are a lot of them here! We went to a show full of them and I gotta say, some of those “ladies” were drop dead gorgeous! So tall and striking! I’m going to try and add a photo for you.

Kathryn and I fly to Bangkok tomorrow! Currently we are in our hostel in the Chewang district of the island (we switched it up for our last night). The Chewang district is a lot more hectic; more tourists, more expensive, more popular. We enjoyed our day here checking out the beach and busy streets, and we were lucky enough to see an incredible sunset! I’m sad to leave the island but looking forward to seeing Bangkok and experiencing the rest of our journey as it unfolds.

I’ll try and update as soon as I can! I hope you enjoy the choice 3 photos I’ve included in the blog (and I’ll definitely revisit my past blogs to add photos now that I’ve taught myself how, just give me some time)! Until then, toodles!

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