Sunday, 16 March 2014

On the move: Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia

We've been on the road much more these last few weeks since Koh Lao Liang compared with our time in Tonsai. This was always what we intended, a long stay climbing around Tonsai and getting to know the area for the first half of our travels, before sightseeing around other areas of south east Asia in the second. This means less climbing, but our plans do include a few days around Halong Bay in Vietnam and some climbing in Laos and northern Thailand.


After leaving Lao Liang we were off to Bangkok, a short stop of just a couple of days to see the city, before continuing up to Hanoi to meet up with Ellie (my sister) and Son (her boyfriend). We enjoyed our short stop in Bangkok, one day was spent in the city centre visiting the massive market of IT stalls so that we could get Cat's laptop screen repaired. Afterwards we found some good streetfood and also caught a glimpse of the protests that have been taking place in the city for the last few months at least. Other activities included getting scammed by a smartly dressed man claiming to work at the museum who told us that the Buddhist temple we wanted to visit was closed. A random tuk-tuk then turned the corner (his accomplice) and he proceeded to barter for us to obtain a unbelievably cheap price (which we believed) for a tour of everything worth seeing in the city. What this really entailed was being driven around to various places to pretend to be interested in tours or in buying suits, so that our driver could get 'free gasoline!'. When we realised what massive suckers we are we got dropped off back at our guesthouse, after only one more 'free gasoline' stop where we pretended to be interested in tours around Chang Mai. We then had a fun evening mooching around the tourist quarter and eating scorpions. I remember reading about that exact scam in the lonely planet that morning before heading out and thinking, 'pah, I would never be so stupid'.

Going mad eating streetfood


The weather in Hanoi was pretty miserable while we there, I'd even say British, everyday it was chilly and drizzly. We had a few days there and it was great to catch up with Ellie and Son. Ellie's got a nice flat in the city and has been teaching English there for about the last year. Me and Cat didn't really take to Hanoi too much, perhaps this was partly because of the weather, but it's also smelly, has terrible traffic, few parks that we saw and being on foot is a nightmare. However, El and Son did take us for some amazing food while we were there. After a few days we got the bus across to Halong Bay and then the boat over the Cat Ba island, the biggest island in the bay.

El and Cat cruising around Hanoi

Cat Ba

Getting the bus to the main town on Cat Ba the island looked very beautiful. I gather that it is a popular destination for all types of tourists as well as being known for it's climbing. There have been a few climbing movies made about the deep water soloing in Halong Bay, so it's somewhere that I've known about a long time and was excited to finally climb there. Our first couple of days we headed over to the main area of inland climbing on the island, a place called Butterfly Valley. To do this required scooters, neither of us had ever ridden scooters/motorbikes so we were both a bit nervous. Luckily the roads there are fairly quiet and it is not a bad place to try and work it out, compared with say Hanoi for example. The scootering went really well and we loved our rides to and from the crag. The crag itself was pretty good and is in a lovely setting in a secluded valley. There are maybe about 50 routes, single pitches and grades ranging from about 6a – 8b. We thought Elephant Man (6c) and Dreamweaver (7c+) were two good routes that we did there, but there were many we didn't have time to try.

The Butterfly Valley
Exploring the hospital cave

On our final day there I was desperate to check out the deep water soloing and we booked a trip with Asia Outdoors. We were unlucky in that this day had the worst weather of all, non-stop drizzle and poor visibility, not ideal for climbing or for being in the sea. Surprised the day was still going ahead, Asia Outdoors took us out on their junk-boat that all the kayakers, climbers and dwsers are on before splitting up. This boat, which you come back to at lunch, is very spacious and comfortable. We then took a long-tail boat to reach the climbing. The first crag, which serves as an intro/warm-up area, was ok. But just after three of us pulled on the long-tail engine broke and the boat drifted off in the currents! So I and two others were left hanging on, not having been in the sea yet, in the drizzle, getting cold in the middle of the bay somewhere. I managed to traverse the crag far enough to find the boat jump in and catch them up. After about half an hour another, much smaller boat – more a few planks with an engine – came to pick us up. We then went and rescued the others and went back for lunch. Fortunately lunch was on the comfy boat and was very tasty. Time to head to the next area arrives, but nothing happens, it turns out that the engine on the big boat has broken – ah.

Cat scooting around
Me happy to have mastered the scooter

We head out again on the planks with an engine to get to the next area, while Cat wisely opts to stay aboard the comfy boat and fall asleep. The boat ride takes about an hour and by the time we get there, I and the other dwsers are cold and wet and not much in the mood for soloing. Luckily Antoine, one of the Swiss climbers, mans-up and does some soloing. I'm inspired and decide to follow and we both manage to fall off a few good routes. This second crag is much better than the first and were the weather warm and sunny, would have been amazing fun. Throughout the day we was disappointed by the state of the sea around Cat Ba, the area is beautiful but the water is disgusting. We spied many things such as bags of rotting tissues, rubber gloves and cigarette packets. I'm sorry to be down on Halong Bay, on the whole our day was only marred by bad luck with the weather and with engines.
Cat climbing at Butterfly valley
Dreary but beautiful Halong Bay
Climbing after the broken long-tail
Engine trouble...
Taking flight
Feet together...

Siem Reap

We were both keen to visit Cambodia, but had only allowed for a short visit. Our main aims were to visit the temples outside Siem Reap and to go to Phnom Pehn to visit the S-21 detention centre used in the 70's by Pol Pot. We decided to fly to Saigon and then get a bus to Phnom Pehn followed by another bus to Siem Reap, as this looked like the cheapest option. We spent a nice day in Phnom Pehn, which had a nice feel to it, and briefly visited the museum at S-21 which was very interesting but also quite depressing.

S-21 museum in Phnom Pehn

Upon arriving in Siem Reap we took a tuk-tuk to the guesthouse where we planned to stay but found that it was full. Ambling around looking for an alternative, very tired and dirty after an unpleasant journey in an overfull minibus we were becoming quite grumpy. We eventually settled from the Bayon Shadow guesthouse round the corner which seemed reasonable. It turned out that this guesthouse was attached to quite a nice hotel, the Bayon Boutique, which had a really nice restaurant (where we didn't eat) and a cool and refreshing pool. I'd recommend this place to anyone stopping in Siem Reap looking for a nice room from around $10-15 (with breakfast).

We had arranged to meet our tuk-tuk driver at 4:30am so that we could watch the sunrise from Angkor Wat. We started to panic when he didn't show up, but luckily a nearby guesthouse were happy to help find us another. There was still plenty of time to watch the sunrise over Angkor Wat with the other hundreds of people doing the same. Unfortunately, on this day, it was not the spectacular sunrise that we'd seen on postcards. Instead, the sky went through several different shades of grey until finding a light shade that it maintained all day.
Monks at Angkor Wat
Grey sunrise over Angkor Wat

The temples are incredible and they cover such a large area, that it never really felt crowded. It would take a long time to explore all the different temples and their complexities. We did, however, experience some temple fatigue after about 5 hours, and although we had the tuk-tuk booked for the whole day we asked if we could head back to the hotel at about 11:30! After all the bus journeys of the last few days and the early start that day we were in desperate need of some rest, and spent the rest of the day by the pool.

Making faces at statues
A very splendid temple, I can't remember the name

Checking for any on-line check in for our flight the next day I noticed that the date was a actually a day later. The mistake was actually a big relief and we were really glad for the extra day of comfort and relaxation to be had in Siem Reap. This was spent mainly by the pool or mooching around the town markets and eating tasty food. We both thought Siem Reap was one of the nicest towns we had visited on our travels. Next it's Loas and the Bolaven Plateau.

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