China in review

So, after tons of posts and even more time, I am actually getting round to wrapping up our time in China. To start, here is a post with the facts and figures and what not. 🙂

Note: The following dates and overview excludes the weeks we spent in Hong Kong. While technically a part of China, for me the city and our time there are separate entities from what we discovered during our travels in mainland China. In case you are unclear about the relationship between HK and China, as I was, here is a quick blurb from Wikipedia:

Under the principle of “one country, two systems”, Hong Kong has a different political system from mainland China. Hong Kong’s independent judiciary functions under the common law framework. Hong Kong Basic Law, its constitutional document, which stipulates that Hong Kong shall have a “high degree of autonomy” in all matters except foreign relations and military defence, governs its political system.

So without further ado…

Our time in mainland China was just a bit short of two full months. 54 days to be exact.

Still a far cry from the nearly four months we spent in India, but the second longest consecutive amount of time we’ve traveled in a single country.

In those busy weeks, we made 18 stops in 16 different locations, visiting 7 different provinces/municipalities (municipalities of Beijing & Shanghai). Not bad – although there is PLENTY more to visit! 🙂 (From Wikipedia again, China “currently administers 33 such divisions, classified as 22 provinces, four municipalities, five autonomous regions and two special administrative regions.”)

I’ve put the markers in this map (thank you for the image!) by hand so they may not be entirely accurate, but this gives you an idea anyhow of the ground we’ve covered:

Check Roman’s Everlater page for more details and a significantly more accurate map! 🙂

I’ve also added the first update to my “travel tops”page in ages: check it out if you want recommendations or are just curious about my most favoritest places, hotels and food experiences in China. Sorry but you’ll have to scroll to the bottom of the page for the China section.

And last but not least, here is the final itinerary.

Sept 15 Kashgar, Xinjiang Seman Binguan Hotel
Sept 16 Karakul Lake, Xinjiang Yurt homestay
Sept 17 Tashkurgan, Xinjiang Pamir Hotel
Sept 18 Kashgar, Xinjiang Seman Binguan Hotel
Sept 19 Yarkant, Xinjiang Desert camping
Sept 20 Kashgar, Xinjiang Seman Binguan Hotel
Sept 22 Urumqi, Xinjiang Yilisha Hotel
Sept 24 Yangshuo, Guangxi Omeida Chinese Academy housing/ River View Hotel
Oct 15 Dazhai, Guangxi Wisdom Inn
Oct 18 Guilin, Guangxi Jinjiang Inn
Oct 19 Lijiang/Shuhe, Yunnan The Bruce Chalet
Oct 21 Tiger Leaping Gorge, Yunnan Tea-Horse Guesthouse
Oct 22 Zhongdian, Yunnan N’s Kitchen & Guesthouse
Oct 24 Lijiang/Shuhe, Yunnan The Bruce Chalet
Oct 26 Beijing Airb’n’b studio apartment
Nov 3 Pingyao, Shanxi Yide Hotel
Nov 5 Xi’an, Shaanxi Xi’an Century Landscape Hotel
Nov 8 Shanghai Jinjiang Inn

Getting back to China: an intro to Yunnan

It’s our last night in Melbourne. Tomorrow we start a new chapter in Australia as we get away from city life and start exploring a bit of the great outdoors in a camper van! I’ve never traveled by RV before and I’m ridiculously excited about it. I have had romantic notions about gypsy life since I was a girl, and this is probably as close as I’ll ever come to living out of the brightly painted, horse-drawn caravan.

Before we switch travel gears though, I want to get back on track with this blog and pick up where I left off ages ago with China.

Last China post, we were experiencing golden fall afternoons in the mountain village of Dazhai. The fact that the weather here in Melbourne has turned down right cold the past couple of days is making the little bit of Spring we experienced in the States, not to mention those lovely Autumn days in China, feel even further away than normal.

Our next stop in China, after Dazhai, was the Yunnan Province. Wikitravel has a blurb that does an so-so job summarizing a province that is as multi-faceted as it is beautiful (in my humble opinion anyhow :-)):

Its name literally means south of the clouds. The province is one of the most diverse in China… The province is famed for its multitude of ethnic groups, whose diverse customs can still be seen today. Of China’s fifty-five officially recognized ethnic minorities, twenty-five can be found in Yunnan: about one-third of the population is not ethnic Han-Chinese.

Certainly one of my favorite aspects of all of China and definitely Yunnan IS the diversity of its people. Yunnan has that and more going for it. Its landscapes and climates are multifarious and gorgeous (pun intended…).

The dramatic Tiger Leaping Gorge

Lonely Planet give this overview:

Then there’s the hugely varied splendor of the land… In one week you can sweat in the tropics and freeze in the Himalayas, and in between check out ancient towns… However long you’ve given yourself in Yunnan, double it.

Unfortunately, due to our visa situation and how much we wanted to see, we really had to be thrifty with our days in China.

Lantern-lit village pathways at Shuhe

In the West and South, Yunnan is bordered by Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam. It even is dissected by the Mekong River, which we got plenty familiar with in Laos. Since we’d spent loads of time in those three countries, we didn’t feel too bad skipping tropical Yunnan and heading instead into its mountains.

Tibetan prayer flags and a stupa lit up at night in Zhongdian

We only had one week in this amazing place, but we managed to pack in a lot. Here’s our itinerary:

Day 1: Arrive late at night in Lijiang/Shuhe
Day 2: One full day in Lijiang/Shuhe
Day 3: Early morning van to Tiger Leaping Gorge. Day one of hiking and an overnight in the mountains
Day 4: Second half of the gorge hike and another van ride to Zhongdian, also known as Shangri-la
Day 5: One full day in Zhongdian
Day 6: A morning in Zhongdian, a long bus ride back to Lijiang/Shuhe
Day 7: A morning’s recovery and then an afternoon/evening checking out Shuhe
Day 8: One final breakfast in Shuhe and then it was already time to fly on to Beijing

Details of these days to come in future posts. Watch this space! 🙂

Xinjiang: Getting there, getting around

A bit more background – this time on the logistics front – before I get into the “meat and potatoes” of Xinjiang.

Why an organized tour?

Knowing our time in China is limited (we were able to get a one month visa in Hong Kong; we are banking on receiving an additional, month-long extension while in Guangxi province), that the country is HUGE and that there will more that we want to see than there will be time for us to be able to see, we decided to ask for a bit of help for Xinjiang.

We heard good things about Abdul Wahab Tours and we’re so glad we were able to explore a bit of the region with their help. (I’ll write a full review about them later on.)

We booked a tour with them focusing on Kashgar and other points of interest in western Xinjiang, all accessible by car. It was a private tour for just Roman and me. We were provided with both a guide and a driver. The itinerary was very full and allowed us to see as much as possible in our limited time. In the end, we spent a little over a week in Xinjiang; the tour was five days.

I was totally captivated by the province and feel like I only was fed an “appetizer”. At the same time, it was pretty demanding travel and there was SO much to take in that staying longer (if we continued to travel at that clip) would probably have been too much; I think it would have left me utterly exhausted.

As it was, I do feel like we had a wonderful and satisfactory introduction to the place, thanks to Abdul and his team. I left Xinjiang feeling totally spellbound by it, amazed by its unexpected and fascinating sights, sounds, tastes, textures, knowing that for me, this is one of the big highlights of our big trip. What more could I want? 🙂

Our days in Xinjiang

Click the image for a detailed view. Thanks to for the map images!

The itinerary was as follows:

Day 0: Arrive at Kashgar late Friday night.
Day 1: The tour began the next day, early. Departing the city to drive along the Karakoram highway to Karakul Lake, where we would spend the night.
Day 2: Up early again the next morning, driving from Karakul Lake to the mountain town of Tashkurgan where we would spend the night.
Day 3: Leave before sunrise the next day to return to Kashgar in time for the action at the livestock Market (which only takes place on Sunday). Sightseeing in and around Kashgar.
Day 4: Next morning drive to Yarkant where we would take camels out into the Taklimakan desert, overnighting in a tent.
Day 5: Return to Kashgar for the completion of the tour
Day 6: One full day in Kashgar on our own
Day 7: Flying to Urumqi.
Day 8: One full day in Urumqi on our own
Day 9: Depart for Yangshuo mid-day.

Why Xinjiang first?

Roman pointed out that we traveled from Hong Kong to Kashgar (check out the distance on the map), only to return to Yangshuo, which is, relatively speaking, a stone’s throw from Hong Kong and no doubt a MUCH more pleasant journey. So, travel isn’t always logical…! 🙂

Xinjiang is about as far north as we expect to travel in China; it’s probably also the roughest terrain we’ll be seeing here. We wanted to have our Chinese course at the beginning of our trip (that at least makes sense!), but we’ve turned soft with all these months in tropical Southeast Asia and the days are getting shorter now… Basically we didn’t want to end our time in China miserably freezing our butts off up in the mountains so it was either start with Xinjiang or forget it. As it was, even in September things get pretty frosty up in those mountains!

Getting to Kashgar

What this meant for us was one extremely long day of travel. It wasn’t as many hours as my trip from Thailand to the States but it sure felt nearly as long (and it was nearly as expensive!).

I don’t think Xinjiang/Kashgar is particularly easy to get to from most places. If you are considering it, I’d encourage you to try to break up the journey for yourself if you have the means/time to do so.

We had three stop-overs on the way from Hong Kong to Kashgar – Wuhan, Xi’an and Urumqi. It was an interesting first experience of Mainland China, flying domestic and being literally the only westerners hanging out in the departure lounges!

The airports became simpler and smaller with each subsequent destination on our itinerary. There were delays in Xi’an and we were anticipating having to do a mad dash to get our luggage and check-in at Urumqi (China is like the US – you have to pick up and re-check your luggage at each stop).

Amazingly there was someone waiting with our names on a sign as we got off the plane. She walked us onto the tarmac where we got to peer into the under-belly of the plane to identify our bags for quick transfer, then whisked us efficiently through the nearly empty airport. We had our own private security check – the fastest I’ve ever experienced, and then were escorted directly to our plane. Total VIP treatment when we had been bracing for possibly missing our flight. Roman and I got such a kick out of it! 🙂

The plane views from Hong Kong to Urumqi had been non-existent – all of China seemed to be covered in a drab, obfuscating haze that day. From the runway we had seen that things looked clearer in Urumqi, but as we took off into the dark night sky and headed west towards Kashgar, there was nothing to see below. Every once in a LONG while, there would be a small clutch of lights clustered together, but mostly the land was a vast, mysterious expanse of black underneath us. My imagination percolated, wondering what exactly we were flying over. Our flight back nearly a week later would prove that there really wasn’t much in the way of civilization under the airspace between Kashgar and Urumqi – mostly just tracts of desert and color-infused mountains. Simply gorgeous!

I love how the clouds are just skimming the mountain tops! 🙂

Hanoi travel notes and last thoughts on Vietnam

Just a couple of recommendations on Hanoi before I wrap up.

We stayed at the Hanoi Serenity Hotel. The rooms were good enough, the staff was very friendly and happy to help out in any way they could. The building doesn’t have an elevator, so you’ll get some extra exercise if you’re staying on one of the higher floors. What was great about the place was the location, with the old quarter opening up on the hotel’s doorstep.

We didn’t find any place amazing to eat in Hanoi although we tried recommendations from both Lonely Planet and Tripadvisor.

One epicurean pleasure was eating at Mediterraneo. It’s an Italian restaurant in the old quarter. The food is quite decent and I really liked the wine (although I am not too hard to please on this front).

What made it wonderful for me though was sitting on the restaurant’s balcony as the sun began to set. St. Joseph’s Cathedral is just at the end of the street, and if you go for an earlier dinner, you’ll be there during the mass. Sitting in the warm, golden, evening air, sipping red wine and listening to the deep peal of the church’s bells (one of my favorite sounds in the world), I could almost imagine I was back in Europe. It was amazing to watch the great number of people who were attending mass; so many that they spilled out into the courtyard in front of the church’s entrance.

I also managed to find another up-scale hotel not too far from the Serenity where I could pay to use their simple gym. Working out so helps my head space – I’m intent on doing this as often as possible.

Grains of salt

Looking back over our time in (and my posts on) Vietnam, I recognize that this was clearly the most challenging country for us (on our travels so far at least!). I’ve mentioned it before but I want to make sure I’m clear about it once more for anyone who might be considering traveling to Vietnam.

I believe that travel is a very subjective, luck (or fate?) based thing. Like life, it’s a mystery but fundamentally I do believe that we attract the experiences we need to have, even if we can’t understand or see clearly why we may need them at the time of their occurrence.

So I don’t (yet?) know why we had hard luck and a tougher time in Vietnam, but I do know that just because that was our experience of the place doesn’t mean that it should be written off. We’ve run into people who were turned off by India, the country that took our hearts by such storm that we are still, nearly a year later, entirely under her spell.

So if you’re feeling drawn to Vietnam, I totally encourage you to go check it out and see what kind of experience YOU have there. I’m sure it will be different from mine, and I’d love to hear about it. 🙂


Here’s the run down of where we went:

July 22 Saigon Lac Vien Hotel
July 31 Dalat Hotel Chau Au – Europa
August 2 Hoi An Hai Au Hotel
August 5 Hue Hue Holiday Hotel and Huenino
August 10 Cu Nam Phong Nha Farm Stay
August 14 Hanoi Hanoi Serenity Hotel
August 18 Halong Bay A Class Cruise
Aug 19 – 22 Hanoi Hanoi Serenity Hotel

Last notes on Cambodia

Writing this from Hong Kong, our time in Cambodia already feels very distant. I’d thought I would have written my farewell post to Cambodia by now, but actually maybe it’s better this way.

“Good luck for you”

Our visit to Cambodia was intense for me. I’d done more pre-arrival research for it than for any of the other places we’ve been so far and thus came in with a lot on my mind to begin with. For reasons still not clear to me, I had bigger emotional reactions to things we experienced in Cambodia. The country seemed to contain more extremes than the other places we’d been – extreme poverty and extreme power, the presence of deep, jagged tragedy s well as incredible and pure beauty.

(By way of contrast, I’d describe India as having extremes too, but it has a much fuller spectrum: there is so much filling the space between light and dark there.)

After the likes of Myanmar, Thailand and Laos, Cambodia and Cambodians definitely had a tougher edge.

I witnessed a lot more rough housing between kids and even adults. Play seemed to involved a lot more hitting, pushing and pulling than we’d seen anywhere and I even got hit – with a good amount of force but without any malice – by one boy in Battambang who was exuberant about the photos I took of him and his friends and wanted me to take more. It didn’t bother me at all, but it was something I could never imagine happening in the countries we’d been to before Cambodia.

One’s overall impression of a place is subject in part to completely random encounters and occurences. While we were in Cambodia, we happened upon four different funerals. These take place every day all over the world but it was striking to me that we kept crossing paths with funeral processions and ceremonies. The last place we had witnessed anything like this had been in Varanasi, where it’s simply a part of being in that city.

It didn’t feel like a morbid or depressing thing, but it left me with the feeling that death is very much present in Cambodia. While the reign of the Khmer Rouge is over, that recent history and all that happened off the back of that regime’s time in power remains a tangible presence in the country and its people.

It was rare for us to speak to people who had been adults during that time, but we did have more opportunity to talk to people from our generation. Each had a substantial list of relatives who had been lost during that dark period. When they would share this information with us, it pretty consistently had an air of deep, inherited grief combined with total matter-of-factness and acceptance – an interesting combination.

I felt currents of this sort of energy – deep passion as well as fatigued resignation – in other interactions we had. For example with drivers and guides who would have the chance to make really good money for a week or two – if they were the lucky one that a tourist would pick to hire out of the dozens of men all jostling to offer the same service.

Something small that I noticed everywhere we went in the country was that to close an interaction with us, people wouldn’t say “Thank you” or “Have a nice day” but “Good luck for you!”.

In a country where death, poverty and lack of opportunity are accepted and expected, perhaps the best one can hope for is the rare and good fortune to escape these circumstances – or just the luck to be that one tuk tuk driver that bags the generous tourist who tips so well that he and his family can eat for a month.

Emotional hindsight

If I’d written this a month ago, that might be the note that I’d have ended on. Time and contrast can be useful things though and getting some distance from the intensity of Cambodia plus some perspective thanks to our experiences in Vietnam, the strong reactions and emotions I felt while in Cambodia are softening into a more steady gratitude and affection for the country and its people.

Though I went in with far fewer expectations and pre-conceptions about Vietnam, I had a much harder time to connect with people and places there. I’ll write more about that in a separate post, but that experience has certainly tempered the way I’m thinking about our time in Cambodia.

The beauty of the place and of the people we had the chance to meet runs deep. The interactions we had with people – once the business side was agreed upon – were open and heartfelt. When I was first living in Switzerland, I read somewhere that the Swiss are like coconuts – tough to crack but sweet once you get on the inside. Maybe Cambodians are like rambutan fruit; a bit spiky and rough but also beautiful and colorful and soft on the inside. 🙂

Travel notes

On a slightly different subject, the list of locations visited in Cambodia is relatively short, compared to other places we’ve been. We’re conscious that, as much as we’d often love to, we can’t spend infinite amounts of time in each country we visit. We decided to experiment, choosing fewer stops in Cambodia but hoping that having a bit of time in each would still allow us to get a good feel for the country. In the end the balance of our time got tipped towards Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. Both places were fascinating, thought-provoking and clearly essential to any visit to Cambodia.

But I feel strongly that getting off the typical tourist spots and seeing Kratie, Kampong Chhnang and Battambang was equally vital. If I had to do it all over again, I’d probably try to spend even more time exploring towns and villages – although I’d also allow myself more than four days for Angkor as well. 🙂

Over all though, I think we managed to get a good mix into our month and a bit in Cambodia and I’m grateful for the chance to see all we did – even the less comfortable, more challenging parts.

One more random note – I stumbled upon a great blogger whose different perspectives on Cambodia were really interesting and helpful for me while were traveling there. Check her out if you want another perspective on the country. 🙂

Our Cambodia itinerary

June 20 Kratie Morhautdom Hotel
June 24 Phnom Penh Golden Gate Hotel
July 3 Kampong Chhnang Sovannphum Hotel
July 6 Battambang Royal Hotel
July 9 – 22 Siem Reap Angkor Pearl Hotel

Looking back on Laos

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A design in concrete made of Beerlao bottlecaps

Compare and contrast

We’ve been in Cambodia for nearly two weeks now. There’s still lots to see and absorb in this country and we’re still getting a feel for the culture, food, people etc. Coming from Laos, comparisons and analysis of this “new” country gives us lots of food for thought. Roman and I spend time chatting about it pretty much every day.

The backdrop of Cambodia throws into relief not only many of the experiences we had in Laos but the overall energy and atmosphere of that gentle country.

It may not have the obvious wow factor of its neighbors – no coastline to speak of, unlike Thailand with it’s idyllic beaches, no ruins as world-renowned as Cambodia’s, few pagodas as ancient and spectacular as Myanmar’s.


For Roman and I, the great treasure of Laos is its people. The genuine welcome we received there as well as the laid back, easy-going vibe made our time there so special.

This is going to sound cheesy but I’ll write it anyhow. The slogan of the country’s infamous Beerlao (quite possibly the country’s second national treasure!! 😉 None of the Cambodian beer I’ve tried so far can compete.) is “Beer of the wholehearted people”. I don’t know if all Laotians consider the nation’s beer to be their drink of choice, but certainly most of the people we met in Laos were whole, warm and open-hearted.

Having the opportunity to compare and contrast our experiences there and in Cambodia so far only further strengthens those impressions. Laos is not much better off than Cambodia in many ways. The villages and even many of the cities we saw there made it clear that most of the people are living pretty simple lives, as is the case in Cambodia.

Hearing people in Laos talk about some of the issues in the country – limited opportunities (and limited perspective too, as described by Sone the monk) and corruption (the first week we were staying in Pakse, Mama Tan had to pay bribes on three different occasions!) just for starters and seeing clear evidence of poverty, one could expect the atmosphere to be much more negative.

Instead, what stands out in my memory are things like:

  • How the villages we passed felt simple instead of poor. Houses were basic but well cared for and clean.
  • How much adults seemed to cherish the young children
  • How people went out of their way to help us or welcome us and make us feel at home
  • The laughter-filled conversations groups of friends would have as they rode in a pack of mopeds down the street
  • How straight forward things felt – like using someone’s porch as a place to wait out the rain or getting help starting our bike – without feeling invasive or obliged
  • The tons of “Saibadees”, smiles and waves we exchanged with people in passing (interestingly, since in Cambodia, we’ve rarely been greeted with the Khmer greeting “Sua s’die” – pretty much everyone just says “Hello”)

Here is the overview of where I was during our visit to Laos. For me, it was only eight different locations through only one half of the country (Roman did the North without me while I was home having a love fest with my new nephew. 🙂 ), but we managed to pack a lot in and have some really magical experiences, and all I can say is “khawp jai” Laos!!

May 22 Vientiane Vayakorn Inn
May 28 Savannakhet Phonevilay Hotel
May 31 Ban Phon Sim Home stay
June 1 Savannakhet Phonevilay Hotel
June 2 Pakse Sang Aroun Hotel
June 11 Tat Lo Siphaseth Guesthouse
June 12 Attapeu Dokchampa Hotel
June 14 Paksong Paksong Phuthavada
June 15 Pakse Sang Aroun Hotel
June 17 Muang Khong Phoukhong Guesthouse

Southern Swing: Specs and Travel Notes

This is the basics of the bike trip we did – the where and how. Photos and highlights to follow in the next post. 🙂


Lonely Planet’s book on Laos (LP) divides the country into four sections. The chapter on the southern most part of the country (covering Saravan, Sekong, Champasak and Attapeu) suggests a motorbike route as a nice way to see a bit of all four provinces: the “Southern Swing”.

LP provides one page with a suggested itinerary and points of interest along the way. They suggest it’s possible to do in a minimum of three days or much longer, depending on how often you stop for photo ops and if you spend multiple days at each destination.

We ended up doing a slightly modified version of the route in four days. It was not without challenges – primarily weather and driving condition related. But despite, or maybe even because, those, it was totally great – so much fun and definitely worth doing.

The stops LP suggests vary from absolutely lovely to more just a place to rest your head, but the two things that made the trip amazing were simply taking in the gradually changing, always stunning landscape from the bike (not limited to but including lots of rice paddy filled vistas, a gorgeous sight I seem unable to get enough of! :-)), and the unexpected experiences. More on those later. 😉


We rented one of the numerous little 100cc Hondas on offer in Pakse. It strained a bit during some of the most challenging bits of road which was fair – imagine trying to get any vehicle up slippery inches-thick mud. Mostly though it was perfectly good for our purposes; although we did tend to have pretty sore posteriors by the end of each day!

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Our noble steed

We left most of our stuff at the hotel in Pakse, managing to fit all our gear into my Fin back pack, with some spill over into the seat compartment and basket of the bike. Basic clothes and toiletries, our rain jackets (VERY essential!), flip flops (good to have in general but especially after our sneakers got soaked through on the wettest day), sun glasses, money, phones, cameras (which I didn’t end up using a soften as I expected, given the rainy weather, but I was still glad to have along), and some food and water for the road.

I felt slightly unprepared for how cold it got up on the Bolaven Plateau, and given the amount of rain we encountered, a full body diving dry suit probably would have been more appropriate than just a rain jacket 😉 , but mostly the stuff we had with us was exactly what we needed.

The route and accommodation notes

Here’s the overview of where we went and where we stayed while there.

Day 1 – Pakse to Tat Lo

Very easy driving, stayed at Siphaseth Guesthouse. Basic rooms that could have been cleaner, but the price was right and the water view from the balcony was lovely.

Day 2 – Tat Lo to Attapeu

Lonely Planet suggested a side trip and possible stay to Salavan before heading to Attapeu, but we skipped it. It was a long day of driving but mostly decent roads until we got to Attapea, which seemed to be largely under construction. Our first two LP hotel picks were closed (Saise Guesthouse and Attapeu Palace, in case you’re planning your own trip); we ended up at Dokchampa Hotel which LP calls “slightly pricey” for what you get – accurate as we should have been able to split the cost with the large colony of ants living in our room! 😉

Day 3 – Attapeu to Paksong

Driving up through amazing forests to get to the top of the Bolaven Plateua – a.k.a. coffee land! Very challenging driving during the wet season, but also lots of fun if you have the right attitude. We stayed at Paksong Phuthavada. “Hot” water was luke warm at best which is not ideal when you arrive soaked and freezing but aside from that it was a lovely place.

Day 4

Back to Pakse and the comforts of the Sang Aroun Hotel and Mama Tan’s food! 😉

Thai Island Dream: Part 2 (Phuket Boat Charter continued)

Time line 4

The three days on the Aquila passed like a dream. Hours melted leisurely from one to the other until the moments felt timeless. The scenery changed around us continually but gradually and, whether a gently rippling ocean marked by distant islands on a hazy horizon, towering cumulus clouds ablaze in a fiery sunset, peaceful strips of white beach on seemingly deserted islands or chunks of limestone the size of buildings covered in green foliage and appearing to hover over the water, it was always absolutely spectacular.

I lost track of time and the names of all the places we dropped anchor pretty quickly. Roman was more organized than me however, so thanks to him, here is the laundry list of places we apparently stopped to visit or spent the night anchored off of.

Koh Racha
Koh Mai Ton
Koh Phi Phi Don
Ko Yung
Ko Lanta

A lot of time was spent just chatting and enjoying the scenery and relaxed vibe on deck, napping in the sun, listening to music on the boat’s great sound system, snacking on coffee awesome fresh banana bread. When we weren’t doing that, there was plenty of other fun to be had.

Markus is a certified PADI instructor and gave us a basic intro to diving. The first morning we stopped at a resort beach where he took us through the beginner diver exercises in the clear waters just off shore. We spent the night by the shores of another island that had a great spot to do some easy diving. After a leisurely breakfast and getting warm in the sun, we got geared up, hopped into the dinghy, and got underwater to check out the underwater action.

I’d done a couple of hotel dive courses years ago, but it was Roman’s first dive. We both totally enjoyed it – except for the big patches of stinging particles we encountered. I got one big bunch right in the mouth – so painful! Luckily when you’re underwater no one can hear you curse! 😉  Aside from that though it was great – I love the feeling of moving in three dimensions under water like you’re flying, and the fish and other animals we got to see around the reef were fascinating and fun to see. It was enough to whet our appetite for more… 🙂

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View from the ship of the beach where we learned diving basics the first morning

Another thing I loved was swimming and kayaking right off the edge of the boat.

We went to the island where scenes from the movie “The Beach” were filmed. You can get there by the main beach but then you have to pay an entrance fee. We went via the back end of the island. Markus parked, and Roman, Narita and I hopped off and swam through deep, jewel-colored waters to a rickety ladder attached to sharp, craggy limestone. After clambering up the ropes and boards, we made it to a jungle path that led to the main beach. This was packed with tourists, but beautiful none-the-less, and we enjoyed a leisurely swim in light aquamarine waters book-ended by towering lime-stone cliffs before returning the way we came and swimming back to the Aquila.

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View from the ship of the ladder (top right corner) we swam to and climbed to get to the island from “The Beach”

We went kayaking at a couple of places. First within a lagoon created by another set of limestone cliffs. Apparently the place was usually full of tourist-packed motor-boats but we went late enough in the day that we had it nearly to ourselves. Roman and I were in one kayak and Markus and Narita in the other; it was surreal and fun to hear Markus’ perfect Swiss yodel echoing across the water and limestone walls. 😉 Roman and I did a solo kayak run the next day, exploring the edges of some massive limestone boulders off the shore of an island, where we got sprayed as the surf got sucked through small caves, watched beautiful crabs scale the vertical walls of rock and dare-devil swallows wing wildly from their cliff-side nests.

Snorkeling was also amazing. I’d never done that before and once I got the hang of it, I loved it and was totally mesmerized by the amazing world to be seen and experienced under the water.

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A school of sergeant major fish come to greet Roman (and beg for food) as he descends for some snorkelling

The food was also a major highlight – Uan is a phenomenal cook and the meals we got on board were hands down the best Thai food we had while in Thailand. The ingredients were fresh and the cooking was inspired – Uan didn’t plan ahead but let the ingredients and his mood lead the way. Breakfast was western – and even Swiss on occassion. 🙂 Sunday morning Markus was thoughtful enough to serve us Zopf with Nutella – the classic Sunday breakfast treat in Switzerland.

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Fresh tuna just pulled out of the ocean. It may be small but it still made blazin’ good sashimi!

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Fish in an incredible orange sauce with yellow peppers. I wish I had this recipe!!!

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The crew knew I am crazy about asparagus – so, asparagus with shrimp in a simply but delicious sauce

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Another incredible fish dish – tons of garlic and green onion = heaven for me and Roman

I really can’t rave enough about our time on board with Markus, Narita, Uan and (if I remember correctly!) Mai – so I’ll end the post here and let just some of the photos of the beautiful things we saw do the rest of the talking for me.

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Sunset, the first night on board

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The ship’s anchor, with marigold garlands

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Islands on the horizon

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Afternoon coffee on deck

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View from the deck during afternoon coffee…

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Long tail boat in front of limestone karst

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There was heat lightning each night we were on board. This photo is from the second night, docked off of Monkey Beach, when it was particularly beautiful. I tried for ages to capture it; in the dark on a moving ship with my camera, this shot (slightly altered in iPhoto) is the closest I got. The red dot on the water is a ship close by, the green dots on the horizon to the right are the neon lights from squid ships further afield.

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Our neighbor, morning at Monkey Beach

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Morning view

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Uan, Narita and Mai eating food they picked up on shore at Ko Lanta – way too hot for us farangs

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Sunset, the last night on board, off shore from Ko Lanta

Orienting in time

There’s so much I want to capture from the past months in this blog; I have been and I supsect I will continue to be a bit all-over-the-place until I well and truly catch up with the present.

For anyone who may be confused by my sloppiness, I’ve put together a simple timeline of where I’ve been when since India. I’ll use it to sign post when I’m writing about until all the back-filling is complete.

(should be clickable for a closer view)

Where we are now

Time line2

For starters, I just want to mention that since Sunday I’ve been in our fourth country of trip (I know, we have been moving VERY slowly): Laos. I flew into it’s capitol, Vientiane, on Sunday night, where I was gallantly picked up at the airport by Roman.

I’ll spend more time on Vientiane later on, but I can say that for a capitol city it is sure a change after the urban hussle and bustle of Bangkok. Tropical and steamy, simple, quiet, provencial, and very charming so far.

Accommodation notes

We are staying at a lovely hotel, Vayakorn Inn (pictures to follow), which Roman assures me is much fancier and sophisticated than anything on offer in the smaller towns he visited while I was in the US.

It’s in the heart of the city, with plenty of good places to eat or enjoy a cup of Lao coffee within easy walking distance. Highly polished wooden stairs lead away from the big, bright foyer to a highly polished wood-floor hallway. Our room is spacious, pristinely clean, with dark wood furniture and some simple but elegant decorative accents. The wide balcony windows face lush palm leaves. It’s up there with some of my other favorites on the trip so far and I can definitely recommend it if you are looking for a place to stay in Vientiane. We paid USD 33 per night.

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Entrance to the hotel at night

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Lovely big windows

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Where have I been?

Well, not blogging, clearly. I hope to remedy that though and back fill the events of the past couple of months before they slip through the fingers of my memory. After all, the point of this electronic journal is to help me capture those small details and fleeting impressions that time and each subsequent new country we visit will most likely begin to wear away.

So, what’s happened since my last entry? Details to come, but here is the basic overview.

After leaving the Spa, Roman and I had about two weeks’ down time in Chiang Mai, really enjoying the temporary home we had in the rented studio apartment. It was a great place to regroup after India.

Our next destination was Myanmar (Burma). We flew to Yangon (Rangoon) via Bangkok (fun to see the building that features in my former employer’s branding 🙂 ). We weren’t sure what to expect, but decided to stay for three weeks (the visa was only valid for 28 days). We ended up planning out a full itinerary from Yangon. With the help of our wonderful hostess at the Classique Inn hotel (more on that later – it’s probably my favorite hotel of the whole trip so far!), we managed to fit a lot into the time we had.

It was really a rich, wonderful, and wonderfully exhausting trip and I’m so glad that we decided to include Myanmar in our big trip. I have tons of pictures and details to record, but just to give an overview from a logistics point of view, here is where we traveled (click to open the image. Thanks to this site for the map).

From Yangon, we flew back to Bangkok and that’s where we still are today.

I’m writing this from our hotel and the view out the window in front of me: the parking lot and lit up billboards of a largish shopping center housing a massive Tesco (not unlike a Walmart in the States), a Pizza Hut, KFC and McDonalds, among other things. A construction site where work is (actually and punctually) carried out daily. The terminal station of the Sky Train’s Sukhumvit Line, part of Bangkok’s relatively young public transport system that comes across as glitteringly clean, cool and slick compared to the subways and metros I’ve used in Western cities.

In a couple of day it’ll be six months that I’ve been on the road (!!!), and this view presents a pretty stark contrast to where we’ve been and what we’ve seen for most of the trip so far. Although I can’t say that I’ve been particularly missing things like Micky D’s and Starbucks, we seem to have rapidly and happily eased into the comfort and convenience of a modern and international city. 🙂 We plan to move on next week and I’m curious to see how the rest of Thailand will compare, but in the mean time, I will enjoy every iced latte, flashy shopping mall, air conditioned subway car and authentic western meal I encounter. 😉