Archive | August, 2011

Three days in Bankok

11 Aug

As I arrive to Bangkok at 10 pm I recall the four misadventures that had happened to Alex (the guy I met in Luang Nam Tha and Don Det) in his first days of traveling in Bangkok.

1. He was robbed at the hotel while he was out

2. A tuk tuk brought him to a shop, where two big guys didn’t let him out until they “convinced” him to buy a 12000 dollar suit. Yes, 12000 dollars.

3. A “friend” brought him to a pub and made him pay a 70 dollar bill for two beers. Calling the police meant “trouble for him”.

4. In a bus from bangkok to the south the drivers put sleeping gas in the air-con and robbed everyone.

I have been hearing that Bangkok is, in a sense, the bad boy of south east asia, but Alex awful experience had just to be very bad luck. And probably a little bit of innocence, too. After landing in suvarnabhumi airport, bangkok, I feel optimistic and take my first tuk tuk to the touristy area.

Khao San and the streets next to it are a kind of cheap NYC times square. Neon lights on top of each other and loud music from every bar and shop mix in a cacophony that, in just a few minutes, turns your brains in chilly jelly. It is also, unfortunately, my best option to find a hotel past 10 pm at night. In the one I choose, completely deaf cats get scared as I walk into my room. The room has only one bed and a fan in the seiling, and I get to learn something from it in the first night. I can sleep well sharing bedroom with geckos, ants, spiders and mosquitos; but I do have panic of ticks. I explode four of them between folds of my sheets and run out for another room, as far from the cats and the old room as possible. I don’t get robbed, but the next day I look for another hotel.

When going to the mall in the morning, with two other guys, we bargain a tuk tuk for 40 baths, but we get to see a shop. This is, the tuk tuk makes a stop in a store before our final destination, he gets the comission and we only pay 40 baths instead of 240. In this case is a jewelry factory, with a suspiciously high number of tuk tuks parked outside and many tourists wandering inside. All of the employers are very well dressed in black suites, and probably all the jewellry is fake.

Out of the six floors the mall has, five and a half are for women fashion clothes and only half for men, which also includes some ladyboys shops. The most interesting thing in the mall is meeting Mike, from Melbourne. The purpose of his five day trip in bangkok is only shopping. He shows me how, for a family of seven, it is cheaper to fly to bangkok and buy clothes than shop in Melbourne. In his input and output amounts of dollars he writes for me, the account balances, but no salary for buying clothes during five days in a row is included.

When coming back from the mall, now alone, I feel that spending a few more minutes in another store is worth saving five euros, so now it’s me who asks first for a ride with one stop. This time is a suit shop! I put myself two rules: don’t drink anything and get out in five minutes. I am surprised they don’t have any suites but just catalogues and exposed fabrics. The five minutes go forever as some men ask me questions.

Back in khao san I obviate all the proposals of bum bum, marihuana, pubs, tattoes and girls massage and go for the healthy fruit shakes and funny t-shirts. Apart from the impressive royal district I don’t visit much of the city. It’s day 35 and it’s not about seeing one more place.

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Three days in Saigon

8 Aug

I have spent my three days in saygon trying to buy two things: a winter jacket and banh kong, a fryed batter cup cake topped with shrimps, typical from can tho.

The touristy streets in district 1 have been the environment for my first pursuit. They are packed with restaurants, shops and street vendors, girls pubs and hotels on top of tourist offices; all of them trying to glow its neon sign more than its neighbors. The streets are narrow, noisy and dirty, and the hotels cheap and tattered, in case you were already thinking in las vegas.

I don’t mind spending a lot of money and time for good food, but shopping, and specifically, clothes, are just not my thing. I bought my black quechua and two layers jacket seven years ago. I have used it dayly when riding my bike to university. It has protected me from summer rains in mexico and cold winter days in sweden. It has covered my unglamorous t-shirts when passing through bodygards in barcelona discos. It has been ripped in a couple of places, and resuscitated by grandma. It hasn’t died yet, but I can see its near end. This is why I haven’t walked away when seeing the cheap and good looking north face jackets in saigon. But, if one of these had to replace my old beloved one, I had to be sure it was good value. After visting all the shops for the best price and reading many blogs I buy the best model for thirty euros.
They are, indeed, fake. The easiest way to recognise them is by the stitches between the logo letters. One clerk even tells me the factory and company adresses, and that he has customers that buy him bulk quantities to export them to their countries. The materials seem to be good, the imitations almost perfect.

My other quest has ended in total failure, but it has made me visit a good part of the real city. After googling “bánh kóng in saigon” and making the receptionist translate the pages for me I get a map with three hot spots to find my favorite vietnamese food. I don’t succeed in any of the three in any of the times I go, but people keep trying to help and showing me new possible places, which also end in disappointment. It has been three days like this. Riding motorbikes in this mad eight-million people city is not a pleasant way of being transported, so I really have walked a lot. In one of the walks a couple of women have accompanied me for a few blocks, encouraging me to try many other things (as for example the delicious fryed banana with coconut milk, which I hadn’t tryed yet). In my third day I got very close to my final destination, degustating the bánh tôm, similar to bánh kóng but flat, with bigger shrimps and not so much fritter.

Apart from these two adventures I have also visited the war museum and the cu chi tunnels. Everyone knows what this country has had to suffer because of others. As for the cu chi tunnels I expected them to be only a means of moving around for the viet cong in the vietnamese war. They are in fact a city underground. There are three levels, the first one with rooms and kitchens that let the smoke come out slowly and unnoticably. There are about two hundred km of tunnels only in the cu chi district, with many traps and entrances, some below the saigon river! They are quite amazing.

Flying from saigon to bangkok is already pretty sad. I am already missing vietnam and thinking about vietnamese restaurants in my city, though I know that food street stalls cannot be replaced. Food and people make a place. I love their food and, either I have had some traveling karma with the vietnamese people I have met, or they are outstandingly nice.

Maybe both?

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Homestaying in vinh long and relaxing in dalat.

4 Aug

In these countries, hotels, transport and tours find you before you find them. Remember only three things when traveling: your name, where you come from, and how many days you are traveling for. Answer these three questions when approached by the locals and… the game is on. You will have accomodation, a booked tour and a bus ticket before you know where you are.

I am still with the helmet, from the motorbike ride from the bus station, and a woman asks me if I want to stay with her family for twelve and a half dollars, in the mekong island next to town. This is why I have come to vinh long, and I like the woman, so I go for it. The house is partly surrounded by water, with clean rooms and comfortable hammocs in the porch. There are four other young couples that, as usual, are traveling for months. The family is happy all the time, which makes the homestay very pleasant. We clean some vegetables and elephant fishes together and make our own spring rolls for dinner. In the morning I learn some vietnamese phrases and ride a bike around the island. It’s a great way to end my mekong journey.

A combination of lonely planet overviews, internet and traveler talks makes my next stop to be dalat, a city in the central highlands of vietnam. In a three hours transfer in Saigon I get out of the bus station and walk the streets, counting blocks to the right and to the left, since I don’t know where I am. It’s not long before a vietnamese couple gives me a map and shows me around. I enter a cute neighborhood, with narrow but well lit streets, with plenty of food stalls and kids playing around. I try to ask for the vietnamese name of what I am eating in one of the stalls. The woman makes a call, receives a message and shows it to me: “fried bread with shrimps”. I knew it in english, but I thank her very much. In the next food stand I have a very complete noodle soup. The man next to me orders a melon juice for me, tapping his chest and pointing his finger at it. This only in exchange of the four magic words “spain”, “axel” and “35 days”. Or maybe it’s very funny hearing me say the three or four phrases I know in vietnamese? “càm ơn!” I tell him. When paying I discover he also invited me to the soup. Going back to the bus station I think, have I ever had a better bus transfer?

Dalat is different from the rest of the cities I have visited in this trip. Its elevation of more than a thousand meters makes it very cool. It’s surrounded by small green hills, lakes and waterfalls. No rice fields. A market, good bakeries and cafes and some french architecture make the town a relaxing place. A group of men with big motorbikes and uniform t-shirts call themselves the easy riders. I meet budha the easy rider at nine in the morning. He shows up with a car and a couple instead of alone and with a motorbike. Not wanting to perturbate their honeymoon tour I make him call his grandson, who comes thirty minutes later. In the first street light his motorbike breaks. He calls a friend. After feeling like cheap mercancy being passed around I have a great tour with Hong. We ride small hills and see the countryside at 40 km/h, through coffee plantations, paradise lake, datanla waterfalls and to a monastery. I can feel his seventeen years in the buisness from his knowledge about catalonia, gaudi and the different english accents that tourists have.

At night I am alone in the hotel (probably the worst in the city), but the owner and the receptionist are nice women that insist in inviting me to tea. I enjoy spinning and zooming in the world in my ipad, showing them where I am from, where I have been and where I am going in vietnam. The old owner enjoys showing me pictures of herself from thirty years ago, when she was young and splendid in the city where she grew up. I wish I could tell her to hike up one of the beautiful hills nearby and take a picture of herself there. That (kung fu panda dixit) yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift. That this is why it is called the present. But maybe I would be wrong, and most probably she wouldn’t listen. We smile good night at each other.

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