September 2011

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Cambodia

Flying in to Siem Reap Int. airport (e-visa requested to buy in advance for Austrians, whereas Laos visa could be obtained upon arrival on the airport) from Luang Prabang was fun. The airport there is super-modern in comparison to the tiny one in LP. That obviously derives from the main tourist-attraction just a short Tuk-Tuk ride out of town: the temples of Angkor. We’ve seen a lot of UNESCO world heritage places so far, but Angkor Wat undoubtedly counts to my personal favs.

Besides all the tourist-buzz, like pub street with hookers (and/or/including ladyboys), annoying tuk-tuk drivers and the every now and then well performed tourist-scam, this place is the second poorest we visited this summer (after Laos) with a GDP (PPP, not nominal) of around 2.500 $/capita yearly. This is slightly better than Laos, but not much. On the other hand Laos did not seem as impoverished as their neighbors. Furthermore they obtain high infrastructure investments from big brother China, as capitalist China wants to close a certain trade gap between the people’s republic and Laos.

We saw poverty in Laos (we spent one afternoon in the floating villages) as well, but it was not as shocking or obvious as in Cambodia, where you could spend tons of USD on postcards or souvenirs that are offered by perfectly trained little kids.

Nevertheless, Cambodia has more economic support by rising construction, textiles, tourism and recent natural resource occurrence that could trigger further foreign direct investment and thus bring in money. Agriculture, on the other hand, is still the paramount industry for Laos, accounting for more than half of the GDP.

However, Cambodia’s economic growth is comparable to the one of China within the last 10 years which leaves hope for the further development of the country and the potential creation of a solid middle-class to easy up the social gap.

Don’t really know why I’m writing about the economic stuff rather than touristy stuff. Ups, yeah I forget to tell – I’m fed up with sight seeing already.

A little overnight bus-ride from Siem Reap took us to Phnom Penh, the political, economic and cultural capital of Cambodia and home to countless NGOs trying to fight poverty and bad education. It’s definitely a charming city (besides one grim afternoon in the s21 genocide museum and the killing fields), as a group of friends there we knew through other people made our stay there so much more worthwhile.

Thanks again to Anna, Caroline, Sweetie and Phirum, for introducing us to the excessive nightlife of PP – we had a blast and we’ll never forget our experiences there. Anytime you have the chance to visit the equally charming city Vienna – we’ll be your hosts 😉

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Laos

Next stop: Luang Prabang

Going there by plane (Lao Airlines) was fairly convenient. We got picked up from the airport by our host, Mr Samor, who seemed to be a quite influential politician and guesthouse/hotel-owner in Luang Prabang. The Merry Guesthouse III was just amazing. It’s located besides Khan river, we had a balcony and a cozy room. Staff was incredibly kind and breakfast delicious. Mr Samor could speak German very well, because he lived in Berlin for a few years.

Why should you go to Laos?
1. People are extremely laid back and kind
2. Scenery-wise probably the most untouched country I’ve ever visited
3. Tubing – that’s what we heard, but we didn’t try it 😉 The city where tubing is most famous was a little too far south for us and thus not manageable in our tight schedule.

Five days are easily spent in the country of the 1.000 elephants. You go to the major waterfalls around LP, I’d recommend taking a Tuk Tuk. You stroll through the quiet and dozy city, have a glimpse on the countless Wats (buddhist temples) and have a beer Lao in Lao Lao garden, a very typical and scenic beer garden in the heart of LP.

It was interesting to see the pace decreasing coming from busy Hanoi. No hurry, just relax, life’s short anyways 😉 We took that opportunity in order to slow down a little from the experiences we already had and the constant commotion on this long track.

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Vietnam

After a tiring transition from South-West China to North-Vietnam and several bus break-downs on the way from the border to Hanoi, we arrived in the lively city with estimated more scooters than cockroaches. The transition was challenging… We were on the sleeping train (hard sleeper) from Guilin to Nanning (capital of Guangxi province) ~ 7 hours, then changed to a bus to the Chinese-vietnamese border ~ 3,5 hours, waiting at the customs in total another 1,5 hours. We departed from the customs on the Vietnamese border at around 12 o’clock and arrived in Hanoi 5 hours later. The distance was only a little bit more than 170 km, so you can easily imagine how tiring this ride was with a fully packed bus.

To be continued…

In Hanoi we booked a ‘booze cruise’ to Halong Bay, where we spent one excessive night on the Jolly Roger and the two following nights on Castaway Bay in a basic hut with mattresses and mosquito nets. Our main incentive was to go wake-boarding there. Incentives seemed to differ quite obviously with the tour guide’s, as their job was to get the group hammered all day 😉 so we ended up wake-boarding for like 10 minutes per afternoon, some kayaking on the first day (Clemens and I saved some UK guys after capsizing with their Kayak), playing some beach volley and chillaxing. The rest of the time…yeah…you can imagine. After those three nights we were more exhausted then before, returning to Hanoi to spend another night before going to Laos.

All in all what we got to see from Vietnam was really beautiful. Hanoi is a quite busy city with 3.5m inhabitants. The French colonial influence is still there somehow (although I heard it should be stronger in former Saigon – Ho Chi Minh), architecture is interesting, markets add up to basically the same annoyment-level as in China, but people behave differently. I have to admit that the Old Quartier (the very city center) was super-touristy. No place operating without at least an English-speaking person. The cruise around UNESCO world heritage Halong Bay was just marvelous landscape-wise. Wake-boarding was fun and we got to know a bunch of new (party-)people and also Hanoi-locals who enjoyed a wonderful traditional Vietnamese sidewalk-dinner with us and showed us around a little.

Downturns:
– Clemens’ mobile stolen in Hanoi
– Clemens’ digital camera got wet during Kayaking and doesn’t work anymore
– Clemens’ suffered from a blood infection on Castaway Bay and is on antibiotics still
– Clemens’ digital reader was destroyed by the x-rays in the airport
– Philip’s sweater and fake-sunglasses are gone
– I caught a cold while visiting the waterfalls around Luang Prabang (stay tuned for the Laos-story in my next post) , I’m still on painkillers

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Checking out in HK on the 1st of September, heading through the customs to arrive in Shenzhen, hopping on the nightbus to Guilin – in GDP-wise poor, image-rich Guangxi Province – the hub to a backpacker paradise… Life’s good, but always busy somehow 😉

We had a good time in HK meeting up with Yvonne (I know her from 2010 Chinese summer language program in Shanghai) and Sasha (a kind guy, who’s doing his master in HK – we met up in Taipei in August this year during ICLP in National Taiwan University). We experienced delicious Dim Sum, went to Stanley Market on HK island, Temple Street in Kowloon with another culinary experience of great seafood, had drinks in Ozone on the 118th floor – highest bar in the world so far – visited Bubba Gump Shrimps on Victoria peak and the infamous Lan Kwai Fong, where the British influence should become quite obvious, shouldn’t you have noticed already that HK is super-western. We wasted one day for wannabe Las Vegas – it was more interesting when I went to Macao the first time. Wanted to accompany the boys though. Enough of concrete, skyscrapers and smog, let’s inhale some of what mother has to offer – that’s what occurred to us after visiting probably THE metropolitan spot of the whole world.

And we weren’t disappointed. Guilin had to offer a nice hostel and a bus to Yangshuo. That’s a little commercialized city giving way to great expeditions to the marvelous scenery in the province – and some rooftop parties for mainly foreigners. Put briefly: it’s quite touristy there. You get Weisswurst, Continental breakfast and surprisingly delicious authentic italian pizza, on top nearly everyone speaks at least basic English there. A little knowledge of mandarin is never in vain though!

On the first evening in Yangshuo at Mojo rooftop bar, we got to know a local girl while playing beer pong (quite popular even outside of the States obviouly). Her name was Sue and she works in a climbing shop. We rented a scooter and she guided us to some remote places and nice little villages around Yangshuo. The day after we had an exhausting Kayak tour on Li Jiang (Li River). The weather was perfect for it, we probably should have put on some more sun screen 😉 Heading back to Guilin the same night we booked a tour to the Longji Rice Terasses, on the so-called dragon backbone – a place I wanted to visit badly after my first longer stay in China in 2008. It paid off, the place would have been even nicer in Spring though, when the terasses are flooded. At this time of the year harvest is about to happen, actually.

Following that trip to the scenic rice terasses of Longji, we’re now lying on a hard sleeper bunk heading to Nanning and then Hanoi. It’s the 7th of September and we only have one more month left for basically whole South-East-Asia – nothing is impossible, just keep on running and never look back. It’s my shift to watch our belongings, so I’d better be attentive – it doesn’t really seem dangerous, neither does it feel very safe though – Transsiberian railway-feeling comes up again.

Stay tuned for some oakilicious stories from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia!

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