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.

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July in Vietnam: The Madcap Motorbiking Adventure

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Maybe my hide had been toughened by the experiences of the last week, maybe my sense of reckless adventure got the better of me, but still I don’t know what got into me. After being harangued for my previous experience, the travel agent suggested I take a motorbike ride down to my next stop, the Cuc Phuong National Park, where I was up to more monkey business. He assured me that the motorbike driver, Hu, was absolutely proper and wouldn’t even try to touch me. Excellent that we got that sorted out and we were off.

Our route took us past the spectacular Thac Bac (Silver Waterfall) where I spent ages gawking and trying to figure out whether the water droplets falling on me were from the drizzle or the splash of the waterfall.

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It was a steep but very scenic walk up to the top…

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… and the views were nothing short of spectacular.

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We went past Tram Ton Pass which, according to Lonely Planet, divided the warmest and coldest places in Vietnam, Lai Chau and Sapa. As expected, when hot and cold met, you really could see air. It was mistily beautiful and mysterious, one of those places that has to be seen while you’re there. I couldn’t get any pictures because my camera was hopelessly fogged up. As we headed downslope, the mist cleared up slightly and I managed to catch some of the amazing scenery in pixels.

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Some parts of the hills gave way to little pockets of land flat enough for padi. It was the first harvest season and villagers were working hard to dry their harvest along the road, …

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… and subsequently thresh it by hand.

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It was tough work in the fields and it was also tough work staying on the bike. It was my first time for long at the back of the bike. Astride behind Hu, I had to hold myself straight and not grab onto him for propriety’s sake. It meant a mean day-long workout for my abs and thighs. When my abs were tired, I stood up slightly on my knees and when my knees were going to give way, I held my abs in to straighten up. The only alternative to this tough workout was to slump with my face against Hu’s back and I wasn’t about to let that happen. Boy was it tough going. I was so glad to get off the motorbike when we came up to a river crossing.

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Here, there were geese on the banks waiting for us. They must have thrived on the grass growing along the muddy banks.

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After waiting for enough customers at a little shop/tea-shack and chatting with the proprietor to pass the time, we got on board the little boat to get across.

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And after a short two-hour ride more, we were at a village homestay where the pigs very enthusiastically greeted us in the dusk.

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It was also where I very enthusiastically tackled my food (yes, the portion in the picture is only for two!) after a long day’s workout and passed out in the roomy common room of the stilt house.

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More next post.

April in The Philippines: My First Propeller Plane Ride

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My time in Puerto Princesa very quickly came to an end. The main problem was finding accommodation. It was impossible to find an empty bed at the time as there was a regional sports meet in addition in the city in addition to the bible dedication.  After the dedication was over, I felt that I shouldn’t overstay my welcome. After coming back from the morning at Honda Bay, I knew I had to bring my plans forward and head out of Puerto Princesa, and fast.  The next leg of the trip involved heading north to Coron to dive the famous WWII wrecks. I thought I’d splurge on a 1 hour plane ride instead of taking a bumpy and unpredictable ride that could take 24 hours via various public buses and ferries. The only problem was that the flight was leaving in two hours and I still hadn’t a ticket.

Michael took me on what was a mini version of The Amazing Race and sped me round town first looking for the travel agent and then finding that they were out on their lunch break, straight to the airport. I managed to get past airport security without a plane ticket by waving my Singapore passport at the nice guard at the door. To cut the long story short, I managed to get on the plane, but not all the way to Coron. Instead I was to stop at El Nido even though the plane was heading there and had empty seats. Why? Because there was only sufficient fuel to carry 36 kg more of payload! Dismayed that I wasn’t an anorexic teenager, I resigned myself to stopping in El Nido first. At least I made it on the plane.

When I saw the plane on the tarmac I realised why they had to be so precise in their fuel measurements. It was the smallest plane I’d ever been on!

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Of course I had to take a picture with it!

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This baby could take a grand total of 11 passengers and had no aircrew. To my great surprise, I was flying with the mayors (or some sort of official-type) of Coron and El Nido. They were very friendly and of course astonished that I would travel on my own like this.

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I wasn’t too impressed by the level of safety for the pilots here. I was seated right behind one of the pilots and throughout the flight I enjoyed the lovely view of half of the back of his head.

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This flight made me realise the sheer delight of flying. Forget jumbo liners, the scenery from lower flying propeller planes is what you want. First, you get the clouds…

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… then as the clouds clear, you see the islands. Darkest green against the deepening blue, they faded out into further distant islands fringed by pale yellow sand beaches.

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It was utterly captivating just to watch the play of colours across the landscape. For once, I put away my books and note-taking, simply sitting back to take it all in.

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It looked like one of those pictures that appear only on travel brochures.

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It was only too soon that the journey ended at the smallest airport I’ve set eyes on. More of that later, but not without first taking a picture of the cockpit…

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… and charming one of the pilots into a photo with me!

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March in Laos: A Stroll Through Luang Prabang

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Luang Prabang is a lovely little town quite deserving of its UNESCO World Heritage status. Despite the many tourists, it retains a peaceful atmosphere augmented by the frangipani trees lining the main street.

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The architecture was fairly simple with graceful curves reaching to the sky.

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We went into the Royal Palace Museum where the beautiful side halls were offset by coconut palms.

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There was a rather strange Soviet-inspired statue of (most likely) King Sisavang Vong, the longest ruling monarch of Laos. In fact, his rule was so long that he was only surpassed by King Bhumibol of Thailand in 2001.

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Pardon the poor photography, but I think you get the idea of the pretty vista leading up to the main hall.

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The main reason to visit the museum is to see the Pha Bang, which is what Luang Prabang is named after. This Buddha image cast in gold and finished with precious stones is believed to protect the city and give legitimacy to the ruler in possession of it. Too bad no pictures were allowed. It was pretty though rather smaller than I expected.

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The rest of the museum wasn’t particularly interesting bar a rather impressive sword and weapon display. I liked the ornate door panelling at some of the halls too.

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Next, Siamese Cat and I climbed up to That Chomsi, the golden spire at the top of Luang Prabang hill. It was a pretty strenuous hike up the many stairs. Good thing there were lots of signs proclaiming the number of steps to the top.

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The spires can be seen from most locations in the town. It’s especially pretty seeing it up close at the top.

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The main reward for reaching the top was the fabulous view. You could see the settlement stretching out along the neatly laid roads…

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… and the Mekong curving through the city on its way south.

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August in China: Hakka Tulou

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One of the highlights of my trip in South China were the tulou (literally: earth apartments) in the Hakka region of southern Fujian. Here the Hakka tribes migrating down from the north some hundreds of years ago sought shelter in these tall structures made from mud and corn starch. These characteristic circular structures dotted the verdant terraced valleys, making very unique scenery.

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One rumour goes that during the Cold War, US recon planes reported these structures as missile silos!

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Getting in a little closer, it’s hard to imagine how these charming structure could have any remotely military functions.

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Some of these tulou have rather impressive front doors which are kept open all day to let the breeze in.

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On a fine day like the one I was there, the unique curved roof makes a lovely juxtaposition against white cloud and blue sky.

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Some tulou have a double circle structure. The smaller building inside is used as a temple for ancestral worship.

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Next instalment I’ll tell you more about what happens inside the tulou. Now I leave you with what happens when visitors enter: they get served local green tea and chat with the locals.

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August in China: Yangshuo

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Tortoise and I headed over to Yangshuo, which was about a couple of hours away by coach. While still touristy, this place certainly has a lot more charm than Guilin. It has slightly cheesy but very atmospheric restored ancient street, complete with old-style inns and dining places. It was fantastic walking down the street and looking up to see the hills looming above.

Still, there was no escaping the tourists. Check out the number of tour buses and coaches in the small tourist parking area.

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We made arrangements through our guest house for a trip on the Li River. After about an hour on public transport in a packed minibus and then a modified jumbo tuk-tuk of sorts, we came face to face with one of the most famous images in China.

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This appears on the back of a ¥20 note so we had no choice but to follow the lead of the domestic tourists to whip out our prepared notes for a photo!

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We then got onto our private bamboo raft and chugged up the river. It’s a pity that the sun was in our eyes and the light wasn’t good for photos. You’ll just have to make do with the ones here.

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The limestone formations here covered the gamut of weird and wonderful. Our map described a good 10 names of features we could hardly make out. After a couple of times shouting over the phut-phut of the engine to our raft driver, we gave up trying to figure out which name corresponded to which spot. It was all starting to look the same kinds of weird to us.

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Before long, other rafts carrying domestic tourists came by and starting spraying water on us. They’d bought plastic spray guns from street vendors and indiscriminately drenched passing rafts. We beseeched our bewildered raftman to avoid them as far as possible. He probably wondered why we didn’t want to have fun playing in the magical murky waters. No good pictures of the water fights for fear of getting too close and then being caught in the crossfire!

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