July in Vietnam: Monkey Business

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Having been inspired by my previous Gibbon Experience sans gibbons, I figured that it would be good to at least catch a glimpse of one of these creatures on my jaunt through Southeast Asia. The entry on in Lonely Planet described a gibbon sanctuary in the middle of Cuc Phuong National Park and I knew that I had to somehow make it there. It was great that my travel agent in Sapa thought of this fantastic solution of getting me there by motorbike, giving me plenty of flexibility to linger. Or so I thought.

I started off in Cuc Phuong doing the rainforest walks. As it was mainly dense secondary rainforest, this hardly seemed any different from any other national park in the region. I’d seen this and more in Thailand and Malaysia. Nonetheless, it was a handsome patch of forest.

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Supposedly, no visit to Cuc Phuong is complete without paying homage to the Big Tree, a 1000 year old whopper so big that I couldn’t capture it on only one photo.

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Having dispensed with the formalities, I hotfooted it to the Endangered Primate Rescue Centre. (There was a bit of a hairy moment here with Hu as he threatened to abandon me at the National Park, but more later.) Here, primates recovered from smugglers and illegal traders were rehabilitated and slowly reintroduced to the wild.  I walked past little cages full of stick insects, marvelling at how realistic their mimicry was. These were meant for the monkeys’ meals (can’t remember which particular species). They were so finicky that they had to eat the insects live, yet another reason not to keep endangered animals as pets.

First, I saw a large enclosure with Delacour’s langurs. These were the cutest monkeys with black and white coloring patterned so that it looked like a black monkey wearing furry white short pants.

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Photos don’t do them justice, hopefully this rather low-quality video helps a teeny bit.

And then there were the douc langurs.

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I’m really sorry that I couldn’t get any good pictures as they were rather shy and it was hard to get up close to them, even while they were in the enclosure. Perhaps it’s a bit disrespectful, but with their wispy white beards they look like miniature Ho Chi Minhs.

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And most magnificently, there were the southern white-cheeked gibbons. It’s absolutely gobsmackingly amazing how the male is pitch black and the female a creamy white. I don’t know how they camouflage themselves in the forest and how they could hide from predators. But they definitely wouldn’t have any doubt at all in mating season!

Even though I spent only half an hour or so at the Centre, it left quite an impression and the images are very much still fresh in my mind.

July in Vietnam: More Motorbike Adventuring

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The motorbike trip took me off the well-beaten Lonely Planet path. Not only did I not find any descriptions of the towns I passed through in the book, I also fell off its map. I still can’t quite place the route we took through the northwest of the country. The first night, I stayed in a nondescript town with only a main street. It could’ve passed for any provincial outpost anywhere in China or the rest of the Southeast Asia. No pictures of that because it just didn’t seem worth it.

But the second night was spent in a charming little village that was back in the Lonely Planet book. Mai Chau lies in a beautiful valley filled with padi fields and its thatched bamboo stilt houses with electric lights and flush toilets were very welcome. Here’s a very relieved me coming into Mai Chau after being absolutely chilled in the drizzle and fog.

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As we set out the next morning, the morning mist had yet to lift. The motorbike laboured a bit as it made its way up the hillside.

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And the spectacular view of Mai Chau valley was revealed. The patchwork of different shades of light green and brown against the deeper green of the surrounding hills was such a sight to remember. It perked me up when I wondered what on earth I was doing suffering muscle and joint pain in the middle of nowhere going God-knew-where.

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It was rare to pass by anyone at all on the road and here, both rider and bullock herder gawked in equal measures.

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Some bits of the road were rather hazardous, especially with the summer rains. There were numerous landslides, one so bad that there was mud everywhere and the original road was impassable. Some enterprising locals cleared paths to get round the worst of the mudslide and extracted a toll for each vehicle that went past.

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On the last day, the road started to get better. We were nearing civilisation!

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But of course not without first passing by some beautiful scenery of the distant hills.

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The early morning light made everything look so clean and fresh.

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It certainly did make everything very much worth it, especially the short stop to stamp off the cramp in my legs and the crick in my knees.

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It was the last I saw of the highlands of Vietnam and I was sad that there wasn’t time to see any more.

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The next thing I knew, the sun had come out in full force and we were in the lowland areas in the southern Hanoi region. This area is characterised by the limestone formations, something like an inland Ha Long Bay.

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It was lovely to be part of the traffic, savouring the country life. We pulled up at a local place for lunch, a simple affair of boiled chicken, rice and herbs served with fish sauce. The chicken was the toughest yet the tastiest I’ve had. Nothing yet has surpassed that amazing concentrated chicken taste from a chicken that probably spent plenty of time running about pecking in the dirt for real grubs and real food.

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I drew nearer to my final destination, greatly anticipating my next stop with the monkeys.

June in Thailand: Elephants and Other Modes of Transport

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It was our last day in Ayutthaya and I went wandering the streets on my own while Tom recuperated from the heat. Along a shady area between wats, I found a little food stand and sat down to a simplet yet fabulous lunch of braised chicken with preserved salted vegetables, lots of herbs and incredible chilli sauce. Of course, all the ordering was done in sign language and it helped that I peeked at what other people were having before sitting down. There is nothing like street food for tasting what the locals eat and nothing like street food to have the true taste of a country.

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I wandered past the temples again, this time slowing down to take in the views.

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Outside one of the bigger temples, I spied a group of elephants from afar. The getup of the elephants was supremely touristy but somehow apt and nicely atmospheric for this city.

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The elephants looked so grand in their brocade and tassels.

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The mahouts perched on the elephants’ heads wore matching red costumes.

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And the tourists (Japanese?) posed cheerfully for my shots.

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They formed a very grand retinue, such a lovely sight all together.

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Soon, they ambled off as a group and it was time for me to go. I approached a nearby motorcycle-taxi driver, negotiated my price, and off I went back to the guest house to meet Tom and get to our next destination.

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March in Laos: A Long Bus Trip

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Our next stop was Huay Xai, right on the border with North Thailand. By plane, it was only an hour away but the schedules and prices just weren’t suitable. Our next options were either to take the slow boat up the Mekong that would take two days or the bus that took a third of a time, just 15 hours. That’s Laos for you: when they do slow, they really show you what slow means.

To make things hopefully less painful, we took the overnight bus that was scheduled to leave Luang Prabang at 4.30pm. Lord knows why they even bothered with the precision of :30 because we sat around in the bus till 6pm before it finally pulled out of the terminus.

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The funny thing about Lao buses is that they are never full. Siamesecat and I were thankful that we arrived in time for the bus as we got a double seat to ourselves. Slowly the bus filled up, mainly with locals and some rowdy backpackers at the back. No chickens yet. Then there weren’t any seats left. Still, the bus wasn’t full. To our amazement, the conductor whipped out some plastic chairs to line the aisle, so more people squeezed on. They started tying to the roof big sacks of what was probably rice and after a while, we headed off.

As we trundled off, it dawned on us why the journey would take so long. The bus seemed to stop every hundred metres or so to pick up more passengers. The bus was never full. Soon, even the plastic chairs in the aisle were filled up and there were people standing in between, hanging on for dear life as if on a 15 minute commute rather than a 15 hour one. We gradually dropped off the sacks of rice. They landed heftily on the ground with muffled thuds as the night turned pitch black. At one point, a motorcycle putted up and there was a bit of commotion and grunting on the roof. Soon, the rider squeezed his way on board, helmet on head to free up his hands for holding on. At the only dinner stop, we all trooped off the bus and gawked at the amazing sight of the motorcycle lashed to the roof of the bus. We hurriedly grabbed some dinner, looed, and rushed back to reclaim our seats, thankful that we were kiasu-Singaporean enough to “chope seat” by leaving our packs on it.

The bus started to pick up speed as we drove through the mountainous, truly sparsely inhabited area of the far north. It felt like we were the only ones hurtling through the dark lonely night. A few hours after the dinner stop, the driver flipped on the tape deck and loud Thai remixes of 90s boyband songs came on. After a couple of turns on repeat, the rowdy backpackers at the back started heckling and demanding that the driver switch it off. Siamesecat and I kept quiet, we agreed that it was  better to be deaf and alive than just dead if the driver needed the music to stay awake. We were glad when the driver simply ignored the heckling and kept going.

The cheerful Thai boyband pop became a bizarre counterpoint as lightning started flashing around us. For split seconds, we saw the trees and slopes lit up in dark grey-green around us. Then came the thunder and the accompanying driving (!) rain. Siamesecat and I were now doubly thankful that we decided to keep our bags with us instead of putting them on the roof. It was worth the lesser discomfort of having to fold ourselves into a semi-crouching position with feet on bag on floor than to discover our possessions sodden beyond salvage the next morning. Music still blaring, we drifted off to sleep. The closed windows misted over as we continued on our way.

I woke intermittently and as dawn crept up on us, this lovely sight greeted me:

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There was more. The valleys were clouded over and in the morning sun was nothing but stunningly beautiful.

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We were firmly in the hilltribe area. Curious kiddos did the usual, stopping their play to stare and wave. We saw villages slowly come alive as the doors to stilt huts slowly opened and tribespeople emerged on their daily business. Some went to work on the mountain slopes, others took goods to the market and still more laid out their wares on mats along the road.

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Exactly 15 hours later, we pulled past the Red Cross building at Huay Xai. We made it in one piece! I(n any case, true to Lao-style, the place was shut.)

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Knees creaking, we went off in search of a guesthouse.