Path: Travel > Destinations > TINDO 2007 > TINDO 2007 Mails English

TINDO 2007 Mails English

Following is the full text of all English emails we sent during this trip. The texts are original copies, shown here as sent: typos, errors, warts and all (the same in French).


Subject: 12.11.2006 One week to go...

Date: Sun, 12 Nov 2006 16:43:02 +0000

Dear all:
well, the subject says it all... tomorrow in a week we will head to
Heathrow (hoping that we won't run into a terrorist plot to blow up
airliners with a mixture of sun-cream and Chanel No 5) and board our
flight to Amman from whence we'll continue onwards to Bangkok.
Vero has spent the last ten weeks with reading (no, studying!) guide
books about the region and she has drawn up a very detailed plan.
Thomas knows nothing about all that, so it'll be a big surprise for
both as to what we will actually do, once we're on the ground.
Anyway, Vero's plan says that we will stay in Thailand for about two
weeks, mainly Bangkok and the east towards Laos. Then we will turn
south and cross into Cambodia. There we'll try to find Angkor Wat,
Pnom Penh and then go to the south coast (three weeks). Next comes the
border crossing to Vietnam, exploring the Mekong delta before heading
to Saigon. We will continue up north (Hoi An, Hue...) to Halong Bay
and Hanoi. After a side trip to Sapa (time and weather permitting) and
four weeks in Vietnam, we'll head for the Laotian border.
We will criss-cross this mountainous country for roundabout four
weeks, looking into all nooks and crannies, before returning to
Thailand for the final two weeks or so (probably we'll go to Chiang
Mai and then stay for a few days on a beach... perhaps).
Vero has already started packing and Thomas is trying to ignore the
turmoil she's creating (his rule of thumb is simple: passport, credit
cards and two pieces of everything: socks, trousers, T-shirts... Of
course he still expects to find all the small stuff (like a compass or
torches or aspirin)... so that's why Vero is stoically going through
her Excel-produced checklist (would you believe that she has done a
Pivot table for that list? Neither would Thomas, but she has: in her
opinion spreadsheets without Pivot tables are amateurish jobs, at
best:-)).
We'll get in touch from Bangkok, once we're over the shock of
displacement and we have survived our first Thai food. (Actually, the
food is something we look forward to with a mixture of curiosity and
trepidation... how about grilled beetles in Cambodia, for instance?
But if the locals eat it, we will try to eat it as well.)
So watch this space for culinary and cultural comments as well as
remarks about scenery and people...
Take care!
Vero + Thomas

Subject: Bangkok

Date: Thu, 23 Nov 2006 16:18:13 -1200

Dear all,
we're now in, you guessed it!, Bangkok.The place is not as
overwhelming as the guides and other travellers made us believe.
(Perhaps after the frenzy of Tehran *every other* city is not so
overwhelming any more...)
Well, one thing is sure: we won't die of hunger here. Food stalls and
restaurants and street kitchens are everywhere. There's even more of
that than in Indian cities. (In fact, some aspects of Bangkok did
remind us of Calcutta: the size, the hustle and bustle, the
"Asianness" of the place.)
We have already had a good filling of Wats (temples) and Buddhas
statues: these are almost as plentiful as the food stalls:-). The
architecture is strangely similar to what we've seen in Nepal and
Tibet (both also with many Buddhist monasteries): the stupas (called
chedis) are more pointed, and much more colourful than in Nepal but
it's recognisable the same thing. Temple roofs are spectacular:
sometimes there are five or even more interlocking roofs in different
colours: green, yellow, red, brown...
Another thing we see all the time are canals... and Bangkok was in
earlier times called Venice of the East. This sounds more romantic
than it really is, though, as most canals and waterways are pretty
smelly.
Lots of people wear yellow T-shirts or shirts, yellow being the colour
of the king. His portrait is everywhere, he leads the hitparade
together with Atatuerk of Turkey and Bashar of Syria.
Today we will do the National Museum and the Thonburi side (that's
west of the big river that intersects the city)... and see more Wats,
for sure.
One thing that we found surprising, even unbearable, is the oppressive
heat. It's not so much the heat than the humidity and combined they
make for a really sticky, tiring environment. Hopefully, the sex trade
(of which we have seen no traces so far), is conducted in air-con
rooms...
Another remarkable thing is that the city, streets, parks (of which
there are very few), temples, everything is extremely clean. Even the
(shared) bathroom in our guesthouse is cleaner than anything we've
seen before.
As to Bangkok being a shopping paradise, that is clearly true. The
Chinese district is overflowing with wares, everything imaginable
under the sun. Plastic, electronics, clothes, you name it, they sell
it. The actual shopping lanes are a little like bazaars in the Middle
East: tight, packed with people and shouting porters.
However, Thomas found something he couldn't buy: he needs flip-flops
and thought Bangkok might be a good place. Well, it is... so long as
your feet are about the size of local feet. Thomas having 11 (UK) or
44 (EU) simply couldn't find anything that would fit. Finally, in
Chinatown, he found one place that sold really huge flip-flops... but
it was a wholesaler:-( So, you can buy everything in Bangkok... but no
oversized flip-flops.
Tomorrow we leave Bangkok for a place called Ayutthaya. Hopefully
it'll be less humid there. We will stay for three days, doing a few
daytrips and then go on to Khao Yai National Park.
Okay folks, our next mail will come from either Khorat or Surin
(that'll be after the National Park) and by then we should've seen
something of the countryside as well.
Take care
Vero + Thomas

Subject: Bangkok, Ayutthaya, Lopbu(l)i, Khao Yai

Date: Sat, 2 Dec 2006 11:34:53 +0700

Dear all,
surreal: we are sitting in an internet cafe in Phimai, surrounded by
about 20 kids between 5 and 10 playing all sorts of computer games...
a pretty lively and noisy environment, to say the least! (So if what
we write doesn't make sense, it's the kids:-)).
We left Bangkok a week ago, took a train to Ayutthaya and stayed there
for 3 days, visiting ruins of ancient temples and less ancient
Buddhist wats. The weather was (still is) very hot and humid, so we
more or less hopped from shade-giving column to shady trees and back.
These temples are interesting but most are pretty crumbled, some of
the prangs (main towers) more resembling a heap of rubble than
anything else. Still, there are some very nice remnants.
Next day we went to Lopburi which the locals pronounce Lopbuli. More
temples and ruins, more heat and sweat (though no blood, that came
later...): folks, believe us, this is really hard work:-)
One thing is that all these temples are very similar to each other, so
it becomes a bit "boring" after a while. Well, one of the Khmer
temples in Lopbuli is home to a troupe of macaques and what a lively
bunch they are! Plus it was the day of the annual monkey dinner: a
local business man pays for a real dinner that is given to the monkeys
(no kidding)... so the whole place was full with food and drinks and
feasting monkeys. An unusual sight, we can tell you.
Next stop was the National Park of Khao Yai. This is about 700 to 800
metres higher than the plains and almost cool. What a relief! We
stayed for three days and it was really worth it. The jungle is dense
and damp and pretty much a sauna, so we had great fun criss-crossing
the underwood (there are paths, but they are not always very easy to
follow and sometimes covered with fallen trees, all sorts of roots and
lianes and giant leaves). We saw no tiger (luckily), no elephant, but
many deer (barking and Sambar), gibbons (which sound a little like a
Manhattan police car) and macaques and many colourful birds and even
more butterflies.
Of the birds we only identified one species: the Great Hornbill. This
is an amazing beast: a wingspan of almost 2 metres with yellow striped
wings and when it flies it makes a characteristic flapping noise...
you always hear these birds before you see them.
We also saw a couple of impressive waterfalls, among them the one
which figures in the movie The Beach, and had two swims. Water was
rather dirty and we swallowed a bit but nothing bad came of it.
Why did we mention blood earlier on? Well, during the rainy season the
paths through the jungle are infested with leeches and for whatever
reason there were quite a few left... and upon seeing Thomas they
decided to have a meal or two. They are not dangerous in any way, just
a bloody (literally) nuisance. Thomas had five of these guests, Vero
just one. (Then again, mosquitoes prefer Vero.)
We will later today see the Khmer temple ruins for which Phimai is
famous. More about that in the next mail.
A few general remarks: the Thais have something they call night
markets. These markets start with sunset and they sell food, household
wares, pretty much everything. We are obviously most interested in the
food: they have many varieties of noodles, rice, beef, pork, chicken,
duck, all sorts of seafood (some of it unidentifiable) and the whole
is just AMAZING! We eat like the locals, so if we see something
tempting we just go for the stall and have it. (No side effects so
far.) One thing we still have not tried are the fried insects: we are
still in the courage-building phase:-)
Dept of Stereotypes: Thai women are pretty and Thai men are lazy. Both
are true. Well, not all women are beautiful (and not all men lazy),
but it is easy to see why so many Western (and increasingly Chinese
and Korean) men fall for a Thai woman. Slender, nice tan, fine black
hair, lots of flesh (though never indecent: they just like mini-skirts
and shorts)...
The men tend to do not very much. Women care for the kids, do the
shopping, cooking, cleaning... We have seen a group of women cleaning
a big, dirty water pool of weeds and two men "supervising" them:
sitting in the shade of a big tree and just doing nothing. This is a
typical scene for a medium-sized town (Bangkok or bigger places are of
course different).
Well, that's it for the time being. Next mail will come from Cambodia
(Angkor Wat, one of the highlights of this trip) if all goes according
to plan.
Take care
Vero + Thomas

Subject: Phimai, Surin, Samrong, Siem Reap

Date: Sun, 10 Dec 2006 16:39:47 +0700

Dear all,
we've just arrived in a town called Battambang (by a 6-hour boating
extravaganza across the Tonle Sap freshwater lake and up a long and
winding river overgrown with all sorts of strange vegetation: all very
tropical and hot and humid... but so many nice vistas!).
Okay. Back to Phimai where we visited a well-preserved Khmer temple
which was relatively small but turned out to be a perfect introduction
to the wonders of Angkor Wat. The temple has all the elements of the
bigger Angkorian stuff but it's small and easily explored. In the
evening there was an impressive son et lumiere with a sort of giant
buffet... sponsored, it seemed, by a local company. We saw a light
show, beautiful dancers (a bit in the Apsara style), a golden Buddha
was paraded and there were fireworks. Very nice.
Next day we went to Surin which was just an overnight stop on our way
to the Cambodian border. (One tiny tidbit: the room in the hotel had a
sign "Forbidden for prostitutes and lepers".) There was another fete
going on in Surin; we think the Thais need no reason at all to have
some fun.
Then we crossed the border. Most people go via Poipet to Siem Reap and
Angkor, but Vero had found this small crossing more to the east, at a
place called O'Smach. Well, the first part was easy, from Surin to the
Thai border post, bus, nice road etc. The other side though was a
completely different matter: no tarmac in sight, only ramshackle huts
and all very, very basic. We have probably never before crossed a land
border where the two sides are so utterly different.
We didn't want to succumb to the local taxi mafia which charges about
40 dollars for the 75 km to Anlong Veng (Pol Pot was cremated there),
so to the amazement of the guys we started to walk down the dusty
track (but something always turns up). It did in the form of a
friendly Thai engineer and his 4x4 who was on an "electrical mission"
to Samrong, about 40 km south-west and took us on board. The dirt
tracks are a-t-r-o-c-i-o-u-s but the Cambodians somehow manage to
drive fully loaded (and then some more stuff) Toyota Camrys over them.
We ended up in Samrong too late for a pickup to Siem Reap, so we
stayed. Small town and a nice introduction to Cambodia. The Cambodians
are friendly people (not that the Thais are unfriendly but the latter
have already too many things to do with money and status and
consumerism on their mind: put overly simplistic, poor people seem
somehow to be more genuine than rich people.).
Cambodians have an endearing habit: if they are embarrassed, they
laugh. So if we want to buy, say, bananas, the girl doesn't understand
us... and laughs. If we ask for the price, she laughs. If we show some
notes, she laughs... You can imagine how amiable a transaction
becomes... if it takes place at all:-)
Next day we took a pickup to Siem Reap. Imagine a standard issue 4x4
pickup: five seats in the front and a back platform of about 1.8 m by
2 m. Further imagine 32 people (us included), some livestock, about 15
sacks of rice, our 2 backpacks and assorted other stuff. The front is
loaded with 7 people and all the rest goes on the platform. We would
not have believed this to be possible. But it is very definitely
possible. The drive to Siem Reap (134 km) took about 5 hours and was
of the sort that is indescribable. Let's just say that it's one of
those experiences one has to go through -- but only once:-)
Siem Reap is the touristic base for the Angkor Wat temples. We stayed
5 days, tried to get our bums back into something that didn't hurt...
and we did the temples. (We rented bikes because the ruins are
scattered over an extended area. This didn't help with the bum thing.)
Well, what can we say? Angkor Wat is amazing. Go and look for
yourself. This is really one of a handful must-see sites in the world,
perhaps on a par with the Taj Mahal or Petra. The main temple is
Angkor Wat, and this is a marvel of architecture. It's not that the
site is especially huge or grandiose. It's not small either but the
real eye openers are the intricate sandstone carvings along the walls
and galleries: they pretty much cover everything, every surface, wall,
frame... This is something that has to be seen.
A second temple (inside a walled city called Angkor Thom) is similarly
impressive. This is the Bayon and it's more ruined than Angkor Wat
which is pretty well-preserved. Still, there are amazing bas-reliefs
and huge Buddha faces carved into the towers (the whole top level
resembles Chambord with its many towers, chimneys and nooks and
crannies).
The other temples and monasteries are less impressive but still worth
an investigation, especially the sprawling, overgrown monasteries:
throw in Harrison Ford, a couple of blondes, a few bad Nazis and you
have all you need for an Indy movie.
Taken altogether, Angkor Wat is a #1 hit: we expected a lot and we got more.
We will stay in Battambang for another day, to relax and do not very
much after the exertions of Angkor. Then we'll head to Phnom Penh and
Sihanoukville. More about all that in the next mail!
Otherwise all is well; Thomas has tried his first beetles,
grasshoppers and other assorted insects (comment: "Crunchy and quite
eatable, but your mouth is full of small legs and other bits and
pieces afterwards: have something to drink handy.")
It rains pretty often in the evenings, sometimes sharp showers,
sometimes cats and dogs. The days though are beautiful and hot.
Take care!
Vero + Thomas

Subject: Battambang, Sihanoukville, Phnom Penh

Date: Mon, 18 Dec 2006 11:52:54 +0700

Dear all,
first of all, a few more words about Angkor: as already said the site
is an absolute gem, especially the magnificient main temple of Angkor
Wat. The downside to this is that the number of tour groups is just
beyond believable (we have never, ever seen a site with so many
groups, not Gizeh, not the Taj, not in the Aya Sofia).
The majority are Asian, Chinese, Korean and Japanese plus the
occasional Western group. The different temple sites are pretty big,
but the number of people is such that they are sometimes creating
"traffic jams". Well, we can't complain, we're tourists as well.
One funny thing about that is that we saw not nearly as many tourists
in Siem Reap, the township a few kms to the south: they all probably
hide behind the walls of their huge hotel compounds (of which there
are dozens plus there's a veritable building boom).
Battambang was a nice, completely untouristed town, and though we
found the famed French colonial architecture a bit faded (to avoid a
word like crumbling), we liked it because it afforded us an insight
into the way Cambodians go about their daily business. And the two
days there gave us (and our backsides) a much needed rest.
The Tonle Sap lake between Battambang and Siem Reap extends all the
way down to Phnom Penh where it meets the mighty Mekong. This gives
rise to a fascinating phenomenon: during the rainy season, the Mekong
swells and swells until finally the flow of water out of the lake
towards the south reverses and the back-flowing Mekong waters
quadruple (!) the size of the lake. It's all a bit like the Nile
floods in the way it increases the number of fish and the soil
fertility... actually, this economic "feature" was the main reason why
the Khmer empire could afford to build all these temples and
monasteries between 800 and 1250 AD.
Sihanoukville was the next stop, for two reasons: this is by far the
easiest place to get Vietnam visas in all of SE Asia and we thought we
might explore its famed beaches as well. Getting the visas was indeed
a breezy but the beaches were a disappointment (then again, we know as
much about the beaches of the world as the second wife of an
impoverished Iranian mullah:-)). Anyway, we found them pretty small,
rather dirty and on their way to become huge hotel building sites a la
Benidorm. The best of the lot (Sokha) is already in the hands of an
international Hotel chain and most of this beach is closed (sometimes
being deaf has its advantages: somehow we did not hear the admonitions
of the security guard).
Next Phnom Penh. What can we say? This is a funny, quaint little
capital city. Some of the main arteries are so devoid of car traffic
(there are quite a few motos though) that crossing the street is as
easy as in a small village. The cars are either Toyotas (Camrys or
Landcruisers) or Lexus (we've never seen so many Lexus 4x4s in one
place: it's a bit like the Hummers in Beirut). Well, a few people
drive Korean... Hyundai etc. We can only speculate how traffic will
explode once there is a sizeable middle class able to swap their motos
for a car. For the time being, PP is a nice, sleepy backwater,
especially when compared to places like Bangkok or Ho Chi Minh City or
indeed even Kathmandu.
Sightseeing-wise PP is not the biggest thing since sliced bread (of
which, incidentally, there is much to be found in Cambodia... plus
baguettes, contrary to almost breadless Thailand). There are a few
Wats, mostly closed to visitors (the Thai Wats were mostly open),
there's the Royal palace and the famous Silver Pagoda whose floor is
covered with 5000 silver tiles (sounds more spectacular than it is)
and there are the markets. The markets are always the most interesting
and lively (and smelly) quarter in Cambodian towns and cities. PP has
many small and four or five big markets and the really big ones can
put a fully stocked Middle Eastern bazaar in the shade: they are so
incredibly cramped and overloaded with stalls, produce, people,
livestock and, in all the chaos, moto drivers that they are an
experience in themselves. They are not for the squeamish, though: hot,
suffocating, most animals and fish (lots of fish) are killed on the
spot, spluttering blood and all, the dirt (among it the inedible
remains of slaughtered animals) and all the ensuing smells (all
perfumed with their own distinctive note) are beyond description. An
amazing sight and one of the more memorable experiences of Cambodia.
Cambodian women are much more conservately dressed than Thai women.
During the last two weeks we have seen not a single (local) woman in
shorts and only a couple with a skirt showing the knees. They do have
a lovely, always colourful day dress that very much looks like pajamas
to us.
We are still going strong, all is well. PP is sunny and a bit cooler
than further inland; we will see how Vietnam feels. Tomorrow we'll
float down a side arm of the Mekong to Chau Doc, our first Vietnamese
stop. And the next mail will probably come from Ho Chi Minh City,
after Xmas. So we take this opportunity to wish you a very happy,
quiet and enjoyable Christmas!
Vero and Thomas

Subject: Chau Doc, My Tho, Sai Gon

Date: Wed, 27 Dec 2006 06:48:31 +0100

Dear all,
Xmas is over and we have spent it in Sai Gon (the conurbation is
called Ho Chi Minh City, but the very center is still Saigon, or, as
the locals write, Sai Gon).
We took a boat from Phnom Penh to the Cambodian/Vietnamese border and
crossed more or less hassle-free. The only problem was the Vietnamese
immigration officer who bellowed at us like an ex-drill sergeant of
the Viet Cong, and provided a nice introduction to the country...we
later learned that some Vietnamese people think that if you don't like
being treated like shit you shouldn't come to Vietnam in the first
place. On the other hand many are genuinely friendly and welcoming:
this is just one of the many contradictions of Vietnam.
Well, we toured the Mekong delta for 4 days and if the maps tell you
that this is land cut through by a few arms of the Mekong they don't
tell the truth. There is much more water than earth here, there are so
many waterways and channels that we very quickly complete lost our
bearings. Luckily the boatmen didn't and they ferried us to Chau Doc,
a surprisingly modern town.
The delta is a very fertile region, with many rice paddies and coconut
plantations: all the sights you connect with Vietnam are there. It was
a relatively slow introduction to the country and we enjoyed the four
days there. We even saw a few mosques: this area is one Muslim
stronghold.
Sai Gon, though big and lively, was a certain disappointment: there is
the French quarter, the Chinese quarter, some very nice, untidy and
smoky pagodas (think incense) and a few other things to see but on the
whole the place seems to be strangely soulless. We think this may have
to do with the fact that it was not given a chance to develop an
identity of its own after independence: first it was French, then
anti-communist, then almost American, then harshly communist and now
it's trying to emulate a modern Western city. With some success, it
has to be said: there are still slum-like areas and stinking canals
but there are also buildings, whole quarters even, that look like
Singapore or even Paris.
The markets here are less frantic and overwhelming than in Cambodia
(then again, had we seen Vietnam first we might write the same about
Cambodian markets). The traffic is amazing: there are not many cars
around, not even in Sai Gon, but an incredible number of motorbikes...
perhaps, if that's possible, even more than in Tehran. However,
crossing a street is not the same life-or-death proposition as it was
in Iran: the motos are much slower and the drivers actually use their
common sense and their brakes... Still, sometimes it feels strange to
cross a street... like wading through a sea of motorbikes around you.
The American war is predictable big business here, and we have duly
visited the Cu Chi tunnel system north-west of Sai Gon as well as a
few museums dealing with the war. These things are often laced with a
surprisingly crude anti-americanism and language right out of the 1960
cold war textbooks. However, one thing becomes clear very quickly: the
Americans should have taken a leaf out of the Frenchs' book and should
have left the country to its own devices instead of bombing it, Lao
and half of Cambodia into the ground.
We have just visited the War Remnants Museum and how easily Iraq comes
to mind... it all looks like a ghastly replay. We can only say that we
do not understand how Messrs Bush and Blair can sleep well at night.
Well, they probably have extraordinary powers of self-delusion...
While Cambodia feels much like a very poor relation to Thailand
(similar culture, temples, architectural styles...) Vietnam is a
completely different story. This place is not like its neighbours. In
fact, there is a distinct feeling of being in an isolated and
isolationist place. For example, there are absolutely no foreign
flags, not even on the embassies. To compensate, there are many
posters and billboards praising "hero mothers" or the workers or Uncle
Ho, pretty much in the usual socialist style. However, the people show
a pride and defiance that is clearly born out of decades of war and
strife and a sort of we-can-do-whatever attitude.
The Vietnamese are very quick (and quick-witted), sometimes bordering
on the hectic. This, together with their Donald-Duckesque voices, at
times produces a strangely comical effect. They can be rude, not just
to foreigners, but in general, and it took us a while to realise that
this is just their normal mode of dealing with each other. Some are
extremely hostile to strangers and clearly think that we capitalists
should keep away. But given what the Vietnamese went through since WW
II we found most of them remarkably open and friendly.
They really like kitsch here: all the various temples (Chinese, Cao
Dai, a home-grown religion, Buddhist etc) are extremely colourful and
the colours do not always match very well... And the structures are
all overladen with figurines, symbols, eyes, globes, horses, sea
dragons and other monsters, crosses, fat buddhas, geometrical forms...
It's a kitsch collectors dream come true. Well, it makes certainly for
very colourful photos.
Later today, we will leave Sai Gon by train and should arrive tomorrow
at noon in Hoi An. We will stay there and in Hue for about a week or
so and then take another night train to Hanoi (Ha Noi). Next mail will
come from there. So we wish you nice New Year celebrations and a Happy
New Year!
Vero and Thomas

Subject: Hoi An, My Son, Hue

Date: Wed, 3 Jan 2007 12:59:54 +0700

Dear all,
after a long (20 hr) journey on the night train from Saigon to Da Nang
and a short bus ride we ended up in Hoi An, one of the supposed
highlights of Vietnam. Well, it's a sort of highlight... if you're
keen on tourist traps. We have rarely seen so many tourists and so few
locals in a town. The place is filled with souvenir shops, "art"
galleries, restaurants, hotels, tailor shops (about one tailor per
tourist we sometimes felt)... you name it. In all this melee there are
some nice old merchant houses, a few Chinese assembly halls and
temples and some rather badly presented museums, not to forget the
Japanese covered bridge.
Hoi An was probably a nice place some ten or 15 years ago but as
happens so often tourism devours its own children...
We also did a day trip to My Son from Hoi An, to the best preserved
Cham ruins in all of Vietnam. Before you get too excited, the ruins
may be the best preserved but that doesn't mean they are well
preserved. They are about ten to 13 centuries old, but time and
(lately) many American bombs have taken their toll. And of course it
was packed with tour groups... all in all it nicely fits the pattern
set by Hoi An.
Next we drove up to Hue, the old imperial capital, and it started to
rain. That was entirely to be expected as the rainy season in the
center of Vietnam lasts until February or so: we were prepared (coming
from the UK helps anyway). On the first day, still with a drizzle in
the air, we bravely rented two bikes and did two of the magnificent
tombs of the emperors (those of Tu Duc and Minh Mang, for those who've
been there) as well as a couple of temples and pagodas in the
vicinity. Much nicer than Hoi An, though there are still hordes of
tour groups around (interestingly, here we see more Western groups as
compared to Angkor Wat/Cambodia).
Yesterday, with a hazy sun and an incredible dampness in the air (but
who's complaining?) we visited the rest of Hue proper (more assembly
halls and temples) and the huge citadel of Hue with the Forbidden City
inside. The latter is modelled after the Forbidden City in Bejing but
unfortunately, fires and wars have seen to it that not many of the
original 148 buildings are left standing. A few are brilliantly
restored, though, and well worth a prolonged visit. The whole ambience
in the Forbidden City is of course Chinese, but in stark contrast to
Cambodian and Thai religious edifices almost all temples and pagodas
in Vietnam show a very strong Chinese influence.
Later today we'll board another night train to Hanoi. These trains are
a pretty boring affair, no comparison to the lively and interesting
experiences we had with Indian and Iranian night trains and
travellers. The locals here are non-communicative (even with each
other) and everybody goes horizontal and snoring at 8pm (no kidding).
It's still much better than doing those long journeys squeezed into a
bus seat.
A few more remarks about the Vietnamese: on the whole, we find them
pretty grim people, they do not smile often (as to laughing... perish
the thought). There's no music at all on the streets (like in Iran)
and the atmosphere is hectic but not happy.
Another sad observation is that with only one exception (a student in
My Tho) literally everybody who starts a conversation with us turns to
be a tout or hawker and wants to sell something or has a shop or a
taxi or a hotel... US-Dollars are the only thing they are interested
in as far as tourists are concerned. Fair enough and some even told us
"if you don't like that don't come to Vietnam", but perhaps a bit
short-sighted in the long run. Well, it's their place.
Having said that, there are still many pleasant people around who,
even if they do not speak a single word of English, make us feel
welcome. Vietnam, very much like India, is one of those places which
you can hate and love within the space of 60 seconds.
Another thing that is similar to India is the amazing number of
regulations. There are signs and posters and boards in every park,
every office, every monument, in busses, temples... almost everywhere.
Nobody cares, of course. On the other hand, whenever an officer or
another busybody wants to tell a tourist not to do this or that, the
argument always is "It's the law." However stupid... "it's the law".
Well, we will see how Hanoi feels. Another report will come in about a
week or so, depending whether and how we get the trains to Sa Pa and
the visit to Ha Long Bay sorted out.
Otherwise all is well; we just hope that Hanoi is less damp than Hue
which is a bit cooler but even more humid than Saigon.
Take care
Vero + Thomas

Subject: Sa Pa, Ha Long Bay, Ha Noi

Date: Mon, 15 Jan 2007 11:07:04 +0700

Dear all,
after a long pause, here we go again. After having taken the night
train from Hue to Hanoi (17 hrs) we tried to get tickets for the
following night's train to Lao Cai, for the mountains and the market
town of Sapa. To our amazement, we got them and so we spent another
boring night on the rails (the coach was a real hard "hard sleeper"
though... not very comfortable and utterly noisy).
Anyway, we somehow arrived in Sapa and it was foggy and a drizzle hung
in the air. And yes, it was really, really cold (it was so cold that
Vero actually took a nice portable cold all the way back to Hanoi).
Well, we knew that the winter has to be somewhere:-)
Fortunately, the cloud cover started just at Sapa (1600m elev.) so by
walking down, to a few tribal villages, we had two relatively good and
demanding days. Another day we spent in Bac Ha, another market town
about 110km east of Sapa: very colourful and warmer because it's lower
on the slopes. The tribal people there are a completely different
bunch to the Vietnamese: even more tiny (some are really almost
dwarfs) but very chatty and amazingly friendly, especially given the
number of tourists they see. As a matter of fact, up there, even the
Vietnamese are friendly:-)
We also found out that the organised "trekking to hill tribes" tours
mean a jeep or even minibus to one of the outlying villages, a quick
stroll through its muddy dirt lanes and presto on to the next village.
Sapa was packed with package tourists, but we never once saw anyone
else actually walking a distance over a kilometre or so. A bit sad and
perhaps a warning for the Thai trekking-to-hill-tribes business about
which we have heard some strange stories as well...
We took back the day train to Hanoi, for the scenery along the Red
River; the trip took 11 hours for 294km... including a one hour delay
because of an engine failure.
In Hanoi, we immediately booked the Halong Bay tour, 3 days/2 nights:
one night on the boat and one on Cat Ba island. For a change, the
weather was pretty good, first day, while sailing through the bay we
had hazy but warm sunshine and lots of nice views. The bay is indeed a
natural wonder with all the isles and islets in all imaginable shapes
and sizes. Very definitely a thing to do!
Cat Ba island is just a bigger version of the 1000s of smaller isles,
with dragon-back rocks popping up everywhere. We did a short trek to
the highest point (a mere 240m high) and also visited the local
beaches... Thomas had an idea to have a swim (Vero was still too busy
fighting her cold for that) but upon testing the waters he had second
thoughts...
Now we're in Hanoi and we really like the city. Much more interesting
and characterful (and also more colourful) than Saigon, its bustling
Old Quarter is an endlessly diverting spectacle. And the French
colonial area is much better preserved than the small vestiges left in
Saigon: there are dozens, if not 100s of old villas, palaces,
mansions, all in gingerbread colours... and all looking very French
indeed.
We also visited Uncle Ho in his mausoleum (along with countless
Vietnamese); the old pal looks a bit pale and rather waxen (Thomas has
speculated that he is actually just an old Madam Tussaud exhibit).
A lot of Hanoi feels like a modern city, many young people with
mobiles and motorbikes, flashy neon signs etc. On the other hand,
there are all the socialist overtones: grand soviet-style buildings;
big posters showing heroic men, women, children with power plants and
air planes in the background; there's even a real Lenin statue
around...
In fact, in Hanoi almost everybody and everything is heroic, at least
if we can trust the captions in the various History and Military
museums. The Vietnamese have every right to be proud of their
achievements in obtaining independence and fighting back the
Americans... but more than 30 years after the end of the war, the
language, their whole approach to this time and the world as a whole
might perhaps be a bit less crude and a little more thoughtful.
Still, Hanoi is the real thing: a nice, relaxed capital full of
character and also dignity.
All is well, though Vero is still coughing a little. We will stay
another 2 days in Hanoi, to see, among other things, the famous water
puppets and more of the temples and pagodas (which, by the way, seem
less flamboyant (not to say kitschy) than in the south). Then we'll
catch yet another night train to Dong Ha and a local bus to the Lao
border at Lao Bao. So the next mail might come from either Savannakhet
or Vientiane.
Take care
Vero + Thomas

Subject: Savannakhet, Pakxe, Champasak, Vientiane

Date: Fri, 26 Jan 2007 14:02:33 +0700

Dear all,
so we have indeed changed countries as planned: we are now in Lao PDR,
in the capital Vientiane to be exact. We are in Laos since about a
week, but the country still has us scratching our heads. Coming here
from Vietnam's 24-hour hustle and bustle was a definite culture shock:
the Lao are a people who likes to watch paint dry... but they can only
stand the dramatic, high-paced nature of this spectacle in super
slow-motion. In other words, this is a VERY VERY sleepy country.
Yes, we're exaggerating a bit and having been through 31 days of
Vietnamese high-speed life doesn't help either, but it is still
amazing that such a place like Laos exists on earth. Well, perhaps the
Lao are all aliens?
Well, the colonial French had a saying: "The Vietnamese plant the
rice; the Cambodians watch it grow and the Lao listen it grow." Hm...
sounds about right:-)
As to actual sights, they are thin on the ground as well. We have, so
far, only seen the southern part (which is supposed to be even
sleepier than the north, so there's still some hope) but Savannakhet
and Pakxe, two towns on the Mekong, are really bland. There's some
crumbling colonial shophouse architecture (but Cambodia was more
interesting in that respect) but especially Savannakhet felt more like
a ghost town than anything else. The most thrilling thing we did there
was watching the old men play their rounds of Petanque on the Mekong
River bank (at least they downed a decent amount of Beerlao, the
national beverage, in the process).
Champasak, south of Pakxe, is a nice sleepy village, near to THE Khmer
temple to see in Laos. Wat Phou was built between the 6th and 12th
centuries and what is left looks impressive enough, though it's mostly
in ruins. In fact, Wat Phou was the only "real" sight to be had during
the last week.
As to the bus drives, we still try to find out why a modern bus on a
fully-tarmaced, flat and straight two-lane road would need 6 hours for
230 km. Well, one reason is that the bus often stops at the roadside
and just waits. Just like that. At some point, the driver obviously
has a divine inspiration and off we go again, thundering along with
the breath-taking speed of 45 km/h.
Or another spectacle we've seen often enough: a farmer with a big,
heavy-looking rice sack stands at the roadside; the bus approaches and
stops. The farmer, instead of boarding, intently stares at his sack...
seemingly trying to get the thing to levitate to the roof. The sack,
big and heavy as it is, naturally does nothing of the sort. So, after
30, 40, 50 seconds the farmer reluctantly (and slowly:-)) starts to
move towards the culprit, all the while staring at the blasted thing
(there's always hope it might move...). Finally, he takes the sack and
one way or another, manages to get it on top of all the other rice
sacks already there. All that in a sluggish manner, typically Lao,
that is funny first time round but less funny after five hours on the
road and with yet another farmer and his sack waiting 100m down the
road.
We can't say much about Vientiane, having arrived yesterday afternoon.
One thing we can say is that this is not a city, it's a building site.
With the possible exception of Beirut (where the building activity
entirely understandable), we have never seen a place that is in such a
mess. Open sewers and half-finished buildings abound, small heaps of
sand and gravel are everywhere, most side roads are severely
pot-holed... The whole place exudes an atmosphere of neglect and a
don't-care attitude.
And yes, this is perhaps the overriding feeling we have about the Lao:
they are a lethargic, we-do-not-really-care-what-happens sort of
people (of course, that's a generalisation). All is karma anyway, so
why do something about it right now? Because at any rate, tomorrow is
another day... They are certainly a friendly bunch, but not in the
cheerful way the Cambodians were.
We still hope that the southern half is indeed more sleepy than the
north, which we will visit during the next two or three weeks. We
still have the highlight of Luang Prabang and the mountains of the
north (the south is mostly flat country), so we'll see.
And perhaps it is us, after all: most other tourists seem to be happy
enough with the slow pace and the generally lethargic way things move
or rather don't move. Possibly we are the hyper-active aliens and the
Lao are completely normal?
Anyway, one thing we definitely enjoy here is the weather: we hadn't
seen the sun since we arrived in Hanoi and coming to Laos meant
returning to blue skies and a scorchingly hot sun. Otherwise all is
well, no health or other problems.
We will try to get in touch after Luang Prabang, however, Internet
access in the smaller towns is not a given, so we'll see.
Take care
Vero + Thomas

Subject: Vientiane, Vang Vieng, north-eastern loop

Date: Tue, 6 Feb 2007 10:38:41 +0700

Dear all,
we have a strong feeling that we have to apologize to all Beirutis for
comparing their city to Vientiane. This place is really one big mess,
a hole of dust and dirt. It is difficult to convey how neglected,
desolate and run-down the city looks and feels: there are holes in the
ground and heaps of rubble everywhere. Not to talk about the dangers
of open sewers of which there are many. There are two or three nice
wats but that's about it. A complete disappointment.
Contrary, we found Vang Vieng, 150 km north, very good. The town
itself is not great though by no means as bad as some of the
guidebooks make it. But the surrounding countryside is very beautiful
indeed: steep, wooded karst mountains with many caves, bubbling rivers
with kayaking and "tubing"... and relaxing silence once you're away
from the main strip with the TV bars.
From Vang Vieng we started a small adventure, the north-eastern loop:
Phonsavan, Nam Noen, Vieng Thong and Nong Khiaw. Parts of this route
are a little off the beaten track and transport can be erratic.
However, the mountains and villages (we were stuck in one because of
no onward transport which had no electricity, guesthouse or
restaurant... thankfully the locals helped out) are more than a fair
compensation and it was an altogether satisfying detour. Many of the
views we had and things we saw reminded us of Nepal (it was also very
cold up there) though we have the feeling that rural Lao are even
poorer than the Nepalese, if that is possible.
Now we are in rich and warm Luang Prabang and this city is definitely
worth the trip. Though it begins to feel a little like a tourist trap
a la Hoi An (in Vietnam) at least here are many things to see and to
do. So far we have seen the Royal palace, nowadays a museum, and the
main wats. We will stay another three days here, so there will be more
to come...
A few general remarks about the Lao: we find them still very relaxed,
not to say lethargic. They are very definitely not the same sort of
people as the other nations we've seen: there is no "Asian
industriousness" at all; they seem to think that maintaining buildings
or roads or wats is a complete waste of effort (the roads hereabouts
are mostly "rehabilitated" with foreign aid: of 32 projects in the
country 30 are foreign and only two are paid for by the Lao
government). It is difficult to convey their strange attitude to
life...
However, we ourselves are starting to succumb to this lethargy... as
most French colonials did many decades ago: as observed by some
visitors from the homeland, they "dissipated", once posted to the
country.
So our feelings are very mixed: Cambodia was a rather positive
surprise but Laos may turn out to be the disappointment of this trip.
Well, we'll see.
Otherwise, all is well. Next mail will probably come from northern
Thailand in about ten days.
Take care
Vero + Thomas

Subject: Luang Prabang, Mekong, north-western loop, Thailand

Date: Wed, 14 Feb 2007 21:41:22 -1200

Dear all,
we are now in Chiang Rai, in northern Thailand, having just crossed
the border (and the mighty Mekong for the last time) from Laos. What
can we say? After Laos, Thailand gives us a mild culture shock... what
we have come to call the "Van effect" (after last year's crossing from
dark and sombre Iran to gay and cheerful Van (lake and city) in
Turkey).
Luang Prabang with its many wats and temples and the unbeatable river
location was the definite highlight of a 4-week stay in Laos with not
many highlights. In fact, we now think we should have toured the
country in 15 days as there's really not that much to see; what's
more, we and the Lao people simply don't work. Which is strange as
most other tourists are perfectly happy there... but there is also a
certain "minority voice", people like us, who just didn't fall totally
in love with the slow and relaxed pace (and interestingly, those
mostly had done long Vietnam trips before).
Though a nice place, Luang Prabang may at some point suffer the fate
of Hoi An: a huge tourist trap. Even today, it's not anymore a real
town to live in: locals can't afford the renovated, chic houses in the
centre (NGOs and tourist businesses can, however) and so the town
starts to feel like a museum. Real life, as far as the locals are
concerned, happens mostly in the western suburbs with its shops and
the market.
We took the slow boat from Luang Prabang up the Mekong to a dreary,
dusty place called Pakbeng. The river journey took the whole day, from
8.30 to 17.45, and was another endurance test for our bums.But we
enjoyed the scenery very much, especially after the river made a sharp
turn to the west: sandy beaches, rocky spurs, small villages, tropical
jungle... everything. The Mekong can be a surprising wild and fast
river in parts; there are pretty big eddies and the boat was sometimes
struggling a little to get past them.
From Pakbeng we did another loop through the countryside: to Udomxai
(a nicer place than the guidebooks make it sound), Luang Nam Tha, a
side trip to Muang Sing and the Chinese border and finally down to the
Mekong and Houayxai, the border town with Thailand.
The loop was interesting, though this part of the country is less
"wild", much flatter and also more deforestated (thanks to the
Chinese) than the north east. We did a few nice walks to local stupas
and temples, through rice paddies and "hill-tribe" villages. Hill
tribe trekking is a pretty big business here, but it doesn't exhibit
the same perversions as in northern Thailand.
The so-called road from Luang Nam Tha down to Houayxai was the worst
road we have ever seen and the bus trip was probably the worst trip we
ever had. It's only six hours, nothing compared to the 10, 12 or even
more hours we sometimes had in India or Nepal... but the amount of
dust we ate was phenomenal. (Eric Clapton should do this trip a few
times: afterwards he could write the definite Dusteaters' Blues.)
Well, Thailand is cleaner, much less dusty, more lively and colourful,
so we like it:-). But we don't want to end this mail on a sour note,
so here are a few things we liked about Laos:
* Sticky rice (called "khao niaw" in Lao). This is rice that literally
"glues" together and is eaten with the hands. It's coarser than
Iranian or Indian rice but very tasty and filling. The latter fact may
explain why surprisingly many Lao, both men and women, are overweight
or even obese (plus they hate walking or any other sort of avoidable
physical effort).
* Laos is a country for dog lovers and also for young dogs. We have
never seen a place with so many happy, playful, fat puppies.
* There are also many happy piglets, sniffing their way down the
village lanes, and coexisting peacefully with the dogs.
* The Lao have very nice baskets made from bamboo: one type is used to
steam-cook sticky rice, another to serve it; we would have loved to
take them home. Alas, they are too fragile for four weeks on the road.
We hope that we will find some in Bangkok's Chatuchak market.
Later today we will visit the Chiang Rai night market (first decent
night market since a long time and we very much look forward to the
steaming, sizzling food!). Tomorrow we will explore Chiang Rai, before
we head to Chiang Mai and the north-western mountains.
All is well, we are feeling great. The next mail might come either
from Mae Hong Son or from Sukothai -- we have no fixed plans as yet.
Take care
Vero and Thomas

Subject: Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai, Mae Hong Son, Mae Sariang, Mae Sot

Date: Sat, 24 Feb 2007 16:01:41 -1200

Dear all,
we are now in Mae Sot, a provincial town 6km off the Burmese border
and will take a songthaew (a sort of pick-up with two rows for
seating) to the actual border where there is a thriving market. It
would even be possible to sneak into Burma for a day, but we think
doing this would be cheating, sort of.
Chiang Rai, the first town we visited in Thailand, was quite
untouristy and though there were no really unmissable sights we did
enjoy the relaxed atmosphere. Not to talk of the night market with all
the Thai food... these markets must be the single best thing about
Thailand!
The next 4 days we spent in Chiang Mai, the centre of the north. Well,
the place is big (1.6m inhabitants) and overrun by tourists, though
they tend to be not too visible during the day: most disappear into
massage or cooking or meditation or Thai language courses or do some
trekking.
The city itself is pretty ugly and not at all the hyped-up wonder we
were expecting. Still, there are some nice wats around; one of the
good things was their diversity: often one wat looks just like the
next, but in CM the four or five we visited all had their own distinct
atmosphere and feel.
We also walked the moat that surrounds the Old City (of which not much
beside the wats is old) and it would have been nice if the traffic
would be less of a nuisance. Thailand is a rich country, compared with
the other 3 we visited, and the obvious give-away are the incredible
number of cars in all shapes and sizes.
From CM we did the north-western loop, to Pai and Mae Hong Son. We
gave Pai a miss, mostly because almost every traveller we met during
the last 2 months told us that this place is Thailand's best-kept
secret: if so many people visit the "best-kept secret" it must be
either unmissable or crap. When our bus passed, we got the feeling
it's crap: only guest houses, backpacker restaurants, old-style
hippies and a VERY chilled-out atmosphere... not our cup of tea.
However, the next town, Mae Hong Son, was a nice surprise. Lying in a
deep valley, with mountains everywhere, it is a genuine mountain town
with a nice lake in the middle of town. The Thais bill MHS and its
valley as the "Switzerland of Thailand" and they have a point: the
scenery definitely is there and there are even many wooden houses that
could easily stand in as a Swiss chalet. We stayed two days and as it
was not really filled to the brim with other tourists it was a very
enjoyable stay.
One thing we found amazing in this border region is the architectural
style of the wats: completely different to the rest of Thailand, they
much more resemble Burmese style temples which in their turn share
some similarities with Indian and Nepalese temples.
From MHS we went to Mae Sariang, a small, unassuming town and a
relaxed stopover on the way to Mae Sot. The latter town has, once
again, a completely different feel to it: there is a significant
population of Indians and Sri Lankans and many of them are Muslims.
The scenes here sometimes remind us more of India than of Thailand!
Next on the list are the ruins of Sukothai before we slowly weave our
way down to Bangkok from where we will do one or two excursions. More
about that in the next mail which should come in about a week.
We are still in good shape though the heat is taking its toll: all of
a sudden we are in the high thirties, even touching 40C, although the
mornings are still pretty cold.
One thing we found astonishing here is the number of portraits of King
Bhumibol on the streets and everywhere else. We thought Turkey with
its millions of Atatuerk displays is unbeatable but Thailand wins this
contest hands down: often, you can not walk ten metres without running
into five kings. Well, he certainly is THE most respected figure in
the country and many people wear yellow shirts and bracelets in his
honour. Also, every day at 6pm they play the National Anthem and
everybody has to stop what they are doing, stand up and listen in
reverence and complete silence. This was certainly a surreal
experience for us when it happened the first time!
Well, more will come next week! Until then take care
Vero + Thomas

Subject: Sukhothai, Ayutthaya, BKK, Phetchaburi, Kanchanaburi, BKK

Date: Tue, 6 Mar 2007 18:04:20 -1200

Dear all,
we left you in Mae Sot, on the Burmese border. From there we went to
the much famed ancient ruins of Old Sukhothai (many wats and a few big
brick buddhas but nothing much else: most secular buildings were made
of timber and they are all gone nowadays). New Sukhothai is a lively
provincial capital though nothing special.
Next stop was Ayutthaya, a city we had already visited almost 4 months
ago. The good thing was that now we could compare the Sukhothai ruins
with their Ayutthaya counterparts. Most people seem to prefer
Sukhothai but we think Ayutthaya wins hands down: there's much more
stylistic variety and a few walls are in fact still standing! It was
nice to come back to this place and its very inviting night market.
Then we went for three days to Bangkok, to do some sightseeing in the
modern part of town: this is one huge, vast, immense shopping centre.
London or Paris are nothing compared to this. Sounds difficult to
believe but it's a fact. There are so many really big shopping malls
that we actually wonder how they all get filled... with shops,
merchandise, and actual shoppers. Fact is they're all bursting. We
enjoyed downtown more than we thought: it has a peculiar character, an
amazing mixture of old and new, of poor and rich, of slum and
high-rises.
Then we went to Phetchaburi and Kanchanaburi: the first is an old
historic town about 120 km south of Bangkok with, you guessed it, many
old wats and an old Royal residence on top of a nearby hill with
tremendous views. Quiet, unassuming place, not many tourists and we
liked it, though we are developing a certain wat lassitude.
By contrast, Kanchanaburi was chock-a-block with farangs (that's how
Thais call Westerners). In case the name "Kanchanaburi" doesn't ring a
bell: this is the town where a certain bridge crosses a certain
river... the famous River Kwai. The original steel bridge (repaired
after some bomb damage) is still there but it looks rather tiny (well,
the river it crosses is pretty tiny as well) and not at all as
imposing and hard to construct as David Lean's film suggests.
There are also two war cemeteries and a few museums dealing with the
construction of the bridge, the whole railway (a 414 km snake between
Thailand and Burma) and of course the workers, a mix of locals, Malays
and Indians as well as PoWs. Interesting history, but altogether too
crowded.
Now we're back in Bangkok for the last 2 days: Royal Palace, more wats
(there are some really nice wats here in Bangkok, among the best we
saw during the whole trip) and a few other loose ends. And Friday
night, we' ll try hard to catch our plane to London via Amman:-)
Folks, that was that. We will send our usual wrapping-up mail once
we're in Bstoke and have all systems up and running.
Oh yes, one final word: BKK is really hot and humid in March (more so
than in November), but we support this much better than four months
ago. Still, Thailand is not a place we could live year-round though an
incredible number of foreigners do exactly that.
All the best and we'll be in touch in a few days!
Vero + Thomas

Subject: Wrapping up, part I

Date: Fri, 6 Apr 2007 10:48:13 +0100

Dear all:
Yes, we know we're a quite a bit late with this mail. Well, after the
slow pace of everything in south-east Asia we can't really cope with
the hectic demands of life in the West:-). (We also note that it's
effing cold here in England..., so as to familiarise ourselves with
the prevailing temperatures we'll go camping to west England
tomorrow.)
Seriously: all systems are up and running, all is in the green; we're
settled back. With some of you we have already been in touch and a few
have mentioned that somehow our mails this time round didn't seem to
be as enthusiastic as, say, those from last year.
Very true. The four countries and the whole region were interesting to
visit and we're glad we did so. There are fascinating similarities and
even more intriguing differences between the people in those
countries, not to talk about the way these places are soaked in
history, both ancient and modern.
So how come that we were not as enchanted by all that as we were in
the Middle East? Hm... because we're the proverbial jaded travellers?
Perhaps: the more one travels and sees, the more difficult it gets to
see something with that "WOW" effect. However, we think there's more
to it than that.
First of all, the region is tame, a veritable "beaten track". We have
not realised how many tourists go there, how many Western actually
live there. Even individual travellers are more akin to package
tourists, especially in Vietnam: everything is so sanitised, so
convenient and so inexpensive that most succumb to the siren songs of
local tour operators and book this side trip and that thing and the
other bit as well. (We did once in Vietnam, for Ha Long Bay, exactly
because it was much more convenient than organising everything on our
own.)
The net effect of all that is that many individual travellers (and
especially the vast sub-30 crowd) end up in "convoys" of like-minded
people. The completely independent, self-sufficient tourist is a rare
sight (relatively speaking!).
Second, there's not much left on the ground in the way of sights.
Temple ruins and wats and Buddhas abound, for sure, and Angkor Wat is
a definite must-see. But other than that, it's pretty thin: most
secular houses and mansions were built of timber and in the climate
down there they'd rots faster than you can drink a Beer Lao.
Third, Laos, in a way, broke it for us. The trip was just not the same
after we entered Laos. Mind you, our pace in Thailand and Cambodia and
Vietnam had been relatively slow (some friends have remarked that for
us work in the UK is a holiday from holidays and that's not entirely
wrong). But Laos was just too much. This was more than we could handle
(or perhaps it would be more correct to say it was *less*). We spent
four weeks in the country and that was way too long.
Then again, one thing we've learned over the years is to never say
"Never again". Still, we're pretty sure that we will not go back to
Laos anytime soon. But please don't take that as an indictment: the
majority of other travellers really liked Laos and its relaxed apathy.
Last but not least, there is our cultural orientation which has deep,
deep roots in "Western civilisation". We know a lot about European
history, architecture, religion, art etc. We see a church, a castle or
even a battle field and, almost subconsciously, we have all the
context at our fingertips. If we had known just half as much about
Thai or Vietnam culture we would certainly have enjoyed the trip in a
much deeper way.
One traveller's description of Old Sukhothai was: "Well, it's just
more wats." And that's in a sense true for us as well: we simply don't
have enough background (historical, architectural, artistical) to
thoroughly appreciate all the different styles of temples, Buddhas and
stupas. Well, perhaps next time round... because we will certainly go
back to Angkor Wat and to Vietnam.
What else? Here's the customary list of highlights, once again in
strict chronological order:
 1. The night market in Ayutthaya (as stand-in for all Thai
    night markets)
 2. Angkor Wat
 3. Tonle Sap
 4. Mekong delta
 5. Hue
 6. Hanoi
 7. The north-western mountains of Vietnam
 8. Ha Long Bay
 9. The sticky rice in Laos and northern Thailand
10. The boat trip on the Mekong
11. Mae Hong Son
Hm.. it's a rather short short-list but there you are. We will also do
some more statistics but this will have to wait for Wrapping up, part
II :-) which will come one of these days. The rest of this Easter we
will spend somewhere at the Dorset/Devon border, not far from Lyme
Regis and its amazing fossil remains.
We wish you all a nice and relaxing Easter!
Vero + Thomas


$updated from: TINDO 2007 Mails English.htxt Sat 18 Jan 2014 13:14:23 thomasl (By Thomas Lauer)$