July in Vietnam: Sapa

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I hopped on the night train to Sapa hoping that things would get better there. I arrived early the next morning to vastly different weather. In contrast to muggy, humid Hanoi, Sapa was cool and on the verge of chilly, though still quite humid as it was the rainy season. Higher up in the mountains, the weather felt almost temperate. I was surrounded by beautiful hills and verdant valleys again, the quintessential hill country.

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I took a walking day tour to Cat Cat, followed by a 2D1N trip slight further into the hill country. Hmong tribeswomen immediately attached themselves to our group as we ventured out with our ethnic Viet tour guides. I thought it very odd that it was rare to find a Hmong tour guide and that most came from the cities. One of them didn’t even seem to hold a very high view of the local indigenes, which unsettled me quite a bit. Nonetheless, we proceeded on with a procession of Hmong women joining us on the way.

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We walked on in the drizzle and were amused by how the Hmong women whipped out their umbrellas with alacrity and offered to shelter us. A bit discomfited because the Viet guide told us that they would ask us to buy their wares at the end, we kept slightly away from them. But as they helped us up and down slippery muddy slopes along the paddy fields, it was hard to keep a distance. We were soon won over by their charming ways.

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Before long, we arrived at Cat Cat village and its beautiful waterfalls. We spent ages oohing and aahing over the wonderful views and the almost poetic splash of water obeying the laws of gravity.

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Treks on the other days took us through more padi fields cut into the hillside, making for a breathtaking view through the mist into the valley below.

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As we walked on, we gazed longingly at the pack animals going by…

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… and followed behind our guides, amazed that they were wearing rubberised slippers and getting along fine while we were in proper sports shoes slip-sliding behind them at the treacherous bits.

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We paused to admire more of the wildlife, like these too cute ducks posing for postcard souvenirs to send home.

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This was the youngest of the Hmong women joining us, I think she’s probably about 12 years old. Check out her intricately embroidered clothes, especially her sling bag and belt. Later in the less touristy villages I would see progress in the form of villagers choosing the less labour-intensive and probably cheaper way of wearing western-style clothes bought from the market.

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Hmong women really did have the coolest clothes and accessories from all angles. Here you can see their intricately patterned clothes and accessories, from belts to sleeves, to earrings and hairclips. Exquisite.

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We stopped at yet another beautiful waterfall for a breather (note sign of breathtaking scenery fatigue setting in here).

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And also in huts along the way. It was here that the penny dropped and I realised that our informal guides were decked out in ceremonial Sunday best wear, while those who were actually working the padi fields wore far simpler clothes sans heavy embellishment. It spoke volumes on the value of the tourist dollar here.

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We stopped for the evening at a village where I experienced the most beautiful sight of my time in Sapa. A young river flowed past the village, gushing past the boulders in its path, worn smooth by the rushing water. I perched on one of the boulders enjoying the warmth of the setting sun and dipping my toes into the icy water. It was a great ending to a damp day of trekking.

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June in Thailand: Off the Beaten Track

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And the most adventurous part of Thailand started with Tom and me taking a school bus type vehicle out of Chiang Mai, past seriously obscure villages perched on curves of streams…

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… to an equally obscure little town called Mae Sariang that even Dee hadn’t heard of when I texted her. Lying in southern Mae Hong Son province, Mae Sariang lies in a predominately Karen region with other tribal groups like the Lawa mixed in. According to Lonely Planet Thailand, it is also the best base for trekking in the province.

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Mr Salawin, the best and only trekking guy in town, treated us really well. I’d called ahead to warn him that two of us were coming in for a 3-day trek and he sent two motorbikes to pick us up from the bus station even though his “office” was only a 5 minutes walk away. We had a good chat to discuss the itinerary and what we wanted or didn’t want. (Tom wasn’t too keen on the elephant trek because he’d learned that some elephants weren’t treated too well.) He also recommended good places to stay and eat and also sent us on a motorbike back to the station to pick up a book I left on the bus!

We didn’t really know what to expect on the trek except that it would probably rain and that we would need a pair of trousers, a pair of shorts and two shirts (maybe three). Jare and Kiat, both relatedly to Mr Salawin in some convoluted way, were our guides for the trek. They first hauled in three big bottles of water for each person (probably making my bag about 10 kg by now, so much for one pair of shorts and two shirts), got all their gear and food into impossibly tiny packs, and packed us into a public sawng thaew (pickup with covered seats at the back) replete with the usual assortment of people and chickens.

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Somehow the chickens out here seemed to be the scrawnier, less attractive kind. They looked so traumatised at their own appearances and probably life in general that I kinda pitied them. Poor guys. They did have pretty fashionable woven baskets shaped like women’s shopper bags as their transport though.

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And after bumping our way in for a couple of hours, we finally made it to the border town of Mae Sam Laeb, which was to be the start of the trek. It was strange being so near to Myanmar as the Salawin River formed the border. I couldn’t help but imagine the types of trafficking occurring between the rebel  Karen-controlled Burmese side and the peaceful Thai side. It all looked so deceptively peaceful.

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More soon!

April in The Philippines: Long Trek to Clark (Kids, don’t try this at home)

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You know what they say about always trusting what you hear on the ground and that your guesthouse is the most reliable info source? Well, it’s not always right that I can tell you. Thanks to my guesthouse, I probably took the longest route ever to get to Clark airport for my flight out of The Philippines. I guess it turned out pretty cheap, but I sure would’ve paid the extra needed for a direct bus there.

This is what happened: I checked out at the ungodly hour of 5.30am and hopped into a cab to take me to Pasay Bus Terminal. There, I caught the onward bus to Dau. It was a pretty uneventful trip as it was an airconditioned and not very crowded coach. It was only when I got off the coach that I discovered to my horror that (a)  I still had to navigate past the gate of Clark Freeport Zone to get into the airport and (b) the trike ride from Dau would only take me to the gate. The 5 minute trike ride of less than 1km cost me 50 PHP (S$1.50). Feeling stiffed, I stood uncertainly at the gate of the Freeport Zone trying to figure out how to get inside without spending the last of my reserves on a taxi (200 PHP) and getting stranded for not having the local currency to pay my airport tax.

A couple of jeepney drivers offered to take me and my dive gear (it was a huge bag) into the complex for 180 PHP. I refused and decided to try my luck with a bit of crying. The stress of the journey and the early morning start helped. Soon enough, another jeepney driver came up to me, telling me he could take me into the Zone somewhere close to the airport for 20 PHP, but I’d have to walk to the gate myself. Wiping away my tears and thanking my lucky stars, I climbed into the front seat of the jeepney (a rare privilege), waited for it to fill up with people and we were off!

The Zone was rather large, and to my surprise (doh!), more people wanted to get to other parts of the Zone than the airport. I was set down about 5 minutes later in a fairly deserted area about 500m away from the airport. There wasn’t anyone around except the odd security guard patrolling the odd gate. They all smiled at me and pointed me in the right direction. Given the dive bag that was almost size, it was pretty obvious which direction I was heading. One of the guards even introduced himself and we had a little chat. Another one motioned to me that I had to jumped across a drain at the narrow part if not I’ll be stuck and not get to the terminal! It’s amazing how friendly they all were to an odd stranger.

After a pretty long and sweaty trek in the hot sun, I finally reached the airport gates! After showing my passport to the guards, I fairly stumbled to the cool of the waiting area outside. A chat with the locals made me realise that I was quoted the right prices, and even the lowest possible prices. They were amazed that I trekked in to the airport.

After taking a cab, a bus, a trike and a jeepney, then going on foot, I hopped on the plane and sank into the comfy seats, secure in the knowledge that Noid was picking me up in her car on the other side.

[post script: I later found out that there were scheduled buses leaving from SM Mega Mall to Clark Airport. Le sigh.]