26 January 2007

Burma, Laos, Cambodia & Vietnam

Just got back from my travels around Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Burma - quite a packed itinery, but made easier by taking (and surviving) 7 regional flights. I had a great trip, particularly in Burma which is like stepping back in time 100 years. They don’t use credit cards at all and only accept US dollars in cash for everything. Luckily I found that out a few hours before I arrived as I almost landed with only $10 in my wallet... There are hardly any tourists, the men all walk around in skirt sarongs and the women and kids all wear bright yellow tree-bark makeup.

The country is under tight control of the Burmese military government - most websites (including email) are banned and International phone calls are over US$6 per minute, so you're really cut off from the world. There are regular power outages, the roads are awful (had a very bumpy time on a 17hour bus journey..) and most people live in wooden huts. In spite of all that, the culture is fascinating, with a mix of Burmese, Chinese and Indian people living there. I travelled up to Bagan, which has over 2000 beautiful temples and pagodas in a valley the size of Manhattan island, which was stunning. I highly recommend a trip to Burma!

Laos was fun too. I went kayaking with a friend over rapids and we managed to overturn it over some rocks. I had to float down the river quite a distance before being able to catch up with it but luckily i didn’t swim into any rocks. I came pretty close to sinking though, since I was wearing a full set of clothes and wasn’t wearing my lifejacket (I really should be more careful). Unfortunately my camera didn’t survive that experience, so my photo taking was limited. I took 2 flights with Lao Airlines, which I later found out all western organisations forbid their staff to fly on due to it's poor safety record. The British Foreign Office says on its website: "Travel by Lao Airlines is strongly discouraged except on the ATR 72 aircraft and the Airbus 320. Since 2000, there have been several deaths as a result of domestic air accidents in Laos." Unfortunately I did not travel on the 2 'safe' aircraft mentioned.

Vietnam was much more developed that the other countries. In Hanoi, the capital, everyone rides on motorcycles, which is pretty intense when you're on the back of one and there are a hundred others around you weaving in and out. I was amazed at what people would carry on their motorbikes with them. My top 7 were:

  1. One fridge
  2. Family of 4 (husband, wife and 2 kids)
  3. 10 piglets (alive and bounded together)
  4. 10x5ft mirror
  5. One bathtub
  6. One sheep (alive and tied around the bike)
  7. One widescreen TV.

I had a very bizarre New Years Eve experience in Hanoi. We arrived in the afternoon and took a taxi to the center. The taxi driver tried to rip us off half way through so we decided to get out, which happened to be in the middle of nowhere. So then we decided to each get on the back of a motorbike and finish the journey, after a few volunteers emerged to help us. But then the 3 motorbike drivers dropped us off on the edge of town and told us we were in the center - which we later realised was still 20mins away! So finally we walked around and got another taxi after getting lost for a while - hardly anyone spoke english and the signs are pretty bad. After that 3 hour ordeal we were ready to hit the town! We ended up at a bizarre large nightclub where there were security guards monitoring the dancefloor like vultures for anyone drinking, looking too drunk or dancing too vigorously! The locals were also acting very strange, either groping us randomly, trying to start a fight or just staring at us! Luckily I made it out safely and ready for my next adventure…