Runs around the world #14

Sihanoukville, Cambodia

IMG_8167

I hadn’t run since Laos. I didn’t run in Vietnam, and I was there for 3 weeks. So it had been about 4 weeks since I’d last run. Various reasons for it – no ideal places to run, bad weather, flooding, too much drinking and eating, too hot. You name it, it happened. I’m gutted actually, because it’s the only country so far where I’ve not ran. I did do a small sprint down the street but I’m not sure I can count that. No, I definitely can’t.

So, I ran in Cambodia. In a place called Sihanoukville, the only real coastal resort in the country. We ended up being there for 10 days, and I ran 3 times. I got into a bit of a routine and it was lovely. I felt like I had got back to normal a bit with my running. Back in the groove. I loved it, I really did. Felt like I was back to being me.

So, I’ll write about the first run I did there. It was hard. But I was expecting that. No running for a month? Of course it was going to be hard. I think my legs thought I had given up.

It didn’t help that it was hot and humid as hell. Over 30 degrees, even at 8.30am. As I didn’t know how I’d feel, I just decided to run as far as I could, which ended up being 3 miles. I totally wasn’t expecting THAT. I reckoned two at a push. Because, I feel like I’m starting again with my running. Which I hate. But, I managed 3. Which I certainly didn’t when I first started running. So maybe all is not lost! As long as I can do 5K, I reckon I’m good to go and start upping it when I can.

I find running in humidity is hard. I might have mentioned it before. Yes, yes, like a broken record. A sticky sweaty broken record.

Imagine running with a hot wet tea towel over your mouth and breathing through that. Or in a steam room. Or when you’ve got your head over a steaming bowl of water if you have a cold. For me it just makes it harder work; I’m slower and the air I’m breathing doesn’t feel clean and fresh.

But, all that gets forgotten. Kind of. It’s there in the background, along with the burning legs muscles, but the happiness of running again took over. I got to take in the new scenery; the fields, the lake and the people as I ran past. People here didn’t really stare, or even look bemused. I didn’t feel awkward. This is a new thing. I liked it.

IMG_8166

The scenery was lovely. And Flat. Huzzah! But, as I’ve found with Cambodia, there’s a lot of reminders that you’re in a very poor country, and a country with a divide between rich and poor. I ran past fields and grass that could be stunning, but they were covered in litter. I ran past grand hotels next door to families living in shacks. But, that’s what’s out there to see. I’m not on holiday, staying in a complex. Running while travelling helps me see the real stuff, the Real World. Real Life. Helps me understand more about the world we all live in.

IMG_8168

IMG_8169

Here, I felt I had time to run. To enjoy it. Every bit of it. A lovely early morning run in the sunshine, then a leisurely walk afterwards to stretch out my muscles and just enjoy the post run high. After that I did some more exercises and had a long shower, and a lolloping stroll down to the beach where I had a post run breakfast of a massive fresh fruit salad. 

 

I’m chuffed. I’m chuffed that I can still run for that long. I’m chuffed that I was able to get out there and do it. It was lovely to get back into a routine. I’m chuffed that the passion for running is still there. I felt alive.

I can’t wait for Australia, where I think there will be even more chance to run. Where it won’t be so humid. Where there’s races I want to take part in. Where there’s running groups and people I’ve arranged to run with. Where I want to get properly fit again.

It’s going to be EPIC.

Advertisements

Vietnam vagabond adventures.

The second bit of my Vietnam adventure took in the cities of Hue (pronounced h-way, not huey, like the guy from Yorkshire on our sleeper bus insisted it was), Hoi An and Ho Chi Minh City (and a lot of loooooong bus journeys in between each one). We’d already booked our sleeper bus tickets in Ninh Binh before we saw on the news that the super typhoon was due to hit Vietnam right on the central coast – right on Hue, the next day – exactly the time we were due to get there. Hmm, not exactly ideal. Luckily for us, it decided to change it’s course and ended up missing the coast completely, although the first day we got there it was very rainy and windy all day (some remnants from the typhoon) so we could do nothing more but have a chill out day. Part of a rainy day in Hue for us resulted in an Indian FEAST because the local Indian restaurant was only a few doors down. Exactly what we did on the first day in Luang Prabang in Laos so we decided to make a tradition. I felt more stuffed than a shop full of teddy bears afterwards but, damn, it was worth it. After weeks of noodles and the like it was bloody lovely to have a change, and reminded me when I was in India back in July.

Hue is an old city with a lot of history, and an imperial city that’s not dissimilar to the Forbidden City in Beijing (although nowhere near as big). Over the couple of [dry] days we had there, we just spent a fair bit of time wandering around the city and hired bikes to get out into some small villages out in the countryside. It was one of my favourite places, mainly because I just had so much fun. My Hue Highlights:

  • Hiring bikes and getting out into the villages. We didn’t have a set route, we just set off down one of the roads out of the city with no map, just a vague sense of direction. We ended up biking through some really small little villages, where I guessed they don’t see many Westerners. Or indeed any at all, judging by the amount of children shouting hello, waving and running after us or taking photos of us and the adults who would nudge the people they were stood next to, and point and stare, mouths almost wide open. Which soon changed into big massive grins when we shouted “hello” to them in Vietnamese. Add to that pretty incredible scenery, the best hire bikes we’ve had so far, and you’ve got one of my most special memories of Vietnam. The real Vietnam.

  • The baguette lady just down the street from our hotel. She did the BEST egg baguettes for breakfast which were cheap as chips, and she was lovely and happy and smiley too. I don’t know what she did to the eggs to make them taste so good but I think it was all in the salt and pepper. We went there every day, and I might have even had two some days, they were that good.

  • The little cafe just down the street from our hotel. We managed to strike a deal with them to get cheap Bia Saigon. They even moved one of their tables and chairs for us so we could sit on the pavement and watch the world go by. We might have just gone there both afternoons for lazy afternoon drinking in the sun.

  • The hotel. We stayed in a really nice place. We managed to bargain the price down making it super cheap (around £2.30 each a night) but it felt like we had splashed out and treated ourselves. It was nice and clean, had air conditioning, the best shower yet, and they even came in every day to make the beds and give us fresh towels! The luxury!

  • The architecture and history. The city, especially the old citadel, is very pretty, in a bit of an old run down kind of way. Lots of old buildings and stuff to look at and photograph. Lots of flowers and green stuff too.

SONY DSC

SONY DSC

SONY DSC

SONY DSC

After Hue, Hoi An was a completely different kettle of fish. Old and historic, but in a completely different way. Very French-colonial and quaint, with lots of old wooden and coloured buildings along the river covered in lanterns swaying in the breeze. It’s an UNESCO world heritage site, just like Luang Prabang in Laos, and it reminded me of LP too. Even down to how touristy it was, Yep, the few old streets near to the river were just full to the brim of tourists strolling round, and all the shops were either art galleries, tailors, handicrafts or bars and restaurants. Vendors from pretty much every shop would shout out as we walked past. When we sat down to have a beer or some food, people would try to sell you stuff while you were sat there, or even eating. I found it a pain in the arse, and I’m even more patient nowadays. Luckily we had learnt the Vietnamese for ‘No thank you’ and ‘I’m not interested’ so once you trotted that out they soon disappeared, but imagine saying it 50 times a day over and over again (and I’m not even exaggerating). Arrghhhh. That aside, it’s a very pretty place, but I couldn’t help but have the feeling that it wasn’t the real Hoi An. Those pretty 3 streets down near the river just all seemed to be geared towards the visitors. The real Hoi An was away from the river, which we managed to explore a little bit before the floods. We found lovely baguette sellers (the Vietnamese like their sandwiches), a smashing little cafe with the friendliest people and the cheapest beers (only about 15p each and buy 2 get 1 free) and the best food stalls for dinner. We never got to explore the beaches because of the floods which is a shame, but all in all I enjoyed my time here, and in fact those few days ended up being a proper little adventure, that I couldn’t have predicted, and that’s what makes Hoi An memorable for me.

SONY DSC

SONY DSC

SONY DSC

Heard of Saigon? Or Ho Chi Minh City? It’s the same place, a big sprawling city in South Vietnam. It was renamed HCMC in 1976 but it’s still commonly referred to as Saigon (which I think I like better). It’s a 24 hour bus journey from Hoi An. Yep, that’s right, 24 hours. Honestly, it’s not as bad as it sounds. Really. It was actually two 12 hour journeys, split with an hours wait in the middle to change buses. After all my travelling this year, long journeys are now the norm. It’s short journeys that are out of the ordinary. My next flight, from Cambodia to Singapore, is only 2 hours. How exciting, I can’t wait! It’s going to seem like a bit of a treat, haha. I then have a 6 hour wait in Singapore before a 7 hour flight, but hey, that’s not the point.

HCMC is big, loud, brash, noisy, hot, dirty, a bit seedy and IN YOUR FACE. Just how I like a city to be. Well, maybe not the seedy part. The traffic is a nightmare, there’s thousands of scooters and trying to cross the road is like running the gauntlet. Moto drivers and bar owners constantly shout at you to get your business, and the usual baguette and noodle stands line every corner. I have to admit, I was getting a bit ‘city-ed’ out by the time we arrived here. Still, in true travelling style there was a big city out there to be explored, so we spent a few days walking lots, eating, finding cheap beers (naturally) and visiting a museum and war tunnel or two.

In no particular order, my favourite things about Saigon:

  • The scooters. Thousands of them. I love just stepping out into the road and crossing, having them all weave their way around you. I love watching as people transport everything under the sun on them, as well as trying to eat, drink, talk or text all at the same time. I love the scooter helmets and all the different designs.
  • The food. Oh the food. We found some places that were so good we didn’t really go anywhere else. I had one of the best chicken noodle soups I’ve had, only 50p for a huge bowlful, in a little local cafe that would show films opposite a glass factory and a place that sold ice. We spent a few afternoons just sitting, eating and watching Vietnamese life go on. We saw a woman delivering a massive pane of glass on the back of a scooter (at first glance you couldn’t see the glass and we just thought she was throwing her hands in the air like she just didn’t care). We saw the young guy delivering ice on the back of his scooter, dripping water and soaking from where he’d been sat up against the bags. We watched a bit of Terminator 3 and drank iced tea after our soup. We found a little family run egg baguette place where we’d go every morning; they’d bring stools out for us to sit on, give us water to drink, and sometimes a bit of fruit. While eating some of the tastiest egg sandwiches I’ve had we’d try and have conversations with them but none of us spoke much in the other’s language.
  • The war remnants museum. It was heavily propaganda-ised, however there was an excellent display of press photographs from the war and some related articles, which helped balance it all out a bit. After this last trip here I finally felt like I’d learnt what I wanted to learn about the war.
  • Cheap beer. We found a great little cafe on one of the main streets where they served cheap beer and we could sit and people watch from the tables outside on the street. We went here a few times; the first night resulted in many beers here, then to a lively bar where we drank loads of rum buckets, met some strange people and had a 5am bedtime. Another time we had to move from the front tables on the street because the police came round and were enforcing the pavement space rules (which seemed slightly strange, as the bar was opposite the police station and they saw the tables there every day, and then saw us get up and move the tables away while they were watching. A bit of a bizarre practice.).
  • The people. The local people in Vietnam are cheeky, spirited and generous to a tee. I very much enjoyed the interactions I had with them, especially some of the street hawkers that would come and pester us when we were sat outside drinking beer.
  • City wandering. We had a good old wander and saw parks, cathedral, the post office (we scoffed at people taking photographs inside until we went in ourselves and did the same thing – beautiful building!), statues, skyscrapers, Christmas decorations, posh hotels, the river and other general city stuff. Saigon has a lot of old and new architecture, and quite often both are side by side, and make quite a stunning view.
  • The Cu Chi tunnels. You can go and visit the tunnels made by the Vietnamese during the war, where many people lived underground for years. They were incredible. They’ve been widened by 35% and lights added but blimey, how people lived and used them is beyond me. They are really hot and humid, claustrophobic and even just going about 100m through them was enough for most of us. Seeing the booby traps they used to maim and kill American soldiers was pretty sobering too. A lot of people died in those tunnels. Hugely saddening.
  • Meeting people. We met some interesting people in Saigon; people who were travelling or just on holiday, and people who were living and working there. We also bumped into a few people we’d met in Laos previously. It’s a small travelling world, especially the North>South Vietnam trail so it’s not really surprising, and a wonderful bonus. I love meeting all different kinds of people when travelling; the conversations to be had can be anything from light hearted and fun, to serious, challenging and in depth. I get to find out about how people live in other countries, how they travel, what their beliefs are, what their viewpoints are and it just keeps on opening my eyes even wider to understand all the things that make the world go round.

SONY DSC

 

SONY DSC

 

 

SONY DSC

 

SONY DSC

 

I loved Vietnam. I really, really did. I’ve wanted to visit for years, and I’m well chuffed that I now have. I learnt loads, had lots of fun, met some great people, saw some beautiful scenery and had a brill adventure. It’s been my most favourite SE Asian country so far but I can’t quite put my finger on why. Just a feeling. I think I’ll be back someday. There’s so much more of the country to explore, and maybe next time I’ll make it even more of an adventure. And get me one of those scooters.

The flood.

So after missing the super typhoon in Hue, we ended up getting rained on a lot in Hoi An. You might remember because I wrote about it. What I didn’t mention in that blog post is how I wondered where all the rain would go. Because it rained all day and didn’t stop that night, at which point it had been raining A Long Time, and me and Nick did have a brief conversation about where the hell all the rain goes. Well, come the morning, we found out.

It doesn’t go anywhere.

Or, more accurately, it rains into the river, the river bursts its banks and floods parts of the town. More precisely, floods the part of the town that our hotel was in. This was the lobby of the hotel in the morning.

photo 1 (2)

 

And the street outside the hotel.

photo 2 (2)

 

photo 3 (3)

 

And it just wouldn’t stop raining for most of the day. The water got to the top of my legs in the end, just below my bum.

 

photo 5 (1) photo 4 (1)

 

To get in or out of of hotel meant wading through this brown, murky flood water. It was an interesting experience – seeing dead cockroaches, rats and rubbish floating past, and seeing live rats swimming for safety. Wading through (in the hotel’s bathroom flip flops – top tip) the water, feeling stuff brushing past your legs and feet and not knowing what it is. Luckily only a couple of streets away was higher than our road and we reached dry land, cheap beer and cafes and settled in for the day to eat, have a few jars and people watch.

We bumped into a few people we’d met travelling over the last month or so and ended up having quite a jolly day. We were careful to limit the cheap beers to a fairly sensible amount though; I didn’t fancy falling over in that flood water when we had to walk back to the hotel. I was successful. Huzzah!

In a way it was quite exciting, all part of the adventure and definitely something new to experience, although at the same time one of those things you kind of hope doesn’t happen in the first place – I wouldn’t wish it to happen just so I could experience it. It was like something you see on TV, and these were people’s lives, homes and businesses that were affected. But in true South East Asian style it was all taken in their stride. No panic, no hysteria, no moaning. Just a get-on-and-deal-with-it attitude. Still smiling, still happy.

We did wonder when the hell the water would go down though, especially with it being so high. How long would we have to wade in and out of our hotel? When would the buses be running again so we could make our way to Ho Chi Minh City? Surely it would be days, if not weeks?

Not so. Amazingly, this was the view from the hotel the next morning.

photo 4

 

All that water. Gone. Overnight.

Flood Day:

photo 2 (1)

 

The next day (same spot):

photo 5

 

Incredible huh?

We later heard that there had been flooding over much of central Vietnam, and also landslides in which people had died. It just makes you realise how much we are at the mercy of nature, and that actually, we’re pretty insignificant in the grand scheme of things.

We were lucky; no damage to us or our stuff. Just memories of a new experience, a different adventure and a reminder to be thankful for life, safety and health.

Lights, leeches and lolloping in Laos.

Laos. Pronounced Lao. Unless you’re French, then it’s got an S on the end. I’m not sure which one is right. In my head it’s Lao, so we’ll go with that.

This is a country that’s sandwiched between Thailand and Vietnam to the West and East, And China and Cambodia to the North and South. A small, unassuming country, as much as I’d heard. One that was bombed relentlessly throughout the Vietnam-America war, unfortunately getting stuck in the middle of something that was nothing to do with them.

Before visiting, I heard nothing but good things about Lao. People I’ve spoken to that have visited have loved it. Loved it’s chilled out vibe and it’s welcoming and friendly people. I’ve heard many times it’s a place that people wished they had spent more time in. A place where time seems to stand still, and an aura so laid back you feel positively horizontal. A country so breathtakingly beautiful you’d wonder where you were and whether it was real.

So it kind of had a lot to live up to, although I’d purposely kept an open mind. I’d not known really what to expect, and deliberately not done much reading too far in advance. I really try not to have too many expectations of places, I don’t want to build something up, or have unrealistic expectations, or want to end up being disappointed. Things are all different to everyone. The same experience for two people even at the same time can be, and usually is, completely different. So, and I think I’ve said this before, you can’t predict travel, and you wouldn’t want to.

I wasn’t disappointed. All those people were right. Laos IS amazing. It’s scenery is some of the most beautifully stunning I’ve ever seen, it feels unique, the pace of life is so laid back I’ve never felt so relaxed, and each place we visited was filled with lovely, smiley happy people. We were here for just over 2 weeks, in 6 different places, and each place just kept getting better and better. Was it long enough? Yes and no. Yes, in that no place felt rushed and I’ve felt I’ve seen and experienced what I wanted to, without feeling like I’ve missed anything. No, in that I’m sure I could spend longer here, visiting more amazing places and continuing to be wowed after every turn in the road or bend in the river. Next time maybe.

I guess we started as we meant to go on. Crossing the river (and the border) from Northern Thailand we landed in a small border town called Houayxai to spend a night before getting on a slowboat for two days to meander down the Mekong River to Laos’ second city, Luang Prabang, a UNESCO world heritage site. We’d decided in Thailand to skip booking on a convenient package deal that got us to and across the border, as well as on the slow boat, in favour for making it across ourselves. This wasn’t really as difficult as it might sound, and means that for that first night we stayed in Laos rather than in a small border town called Chiang Khong in Thailand. As towns go, Houayxai is pretty uninspiring; there’s not a lot there apart from some guesthouses, restaurants and a few small shops because it’s mainly used as a stopover. Nevertheless, we decided it’s all about what you make of it. After finding a place to stay, we dumped our bags and went in search of local facilities*. A sparky young couple had a shop near to the ferry landing where they kept holding a sign up exclaiming they “have everything you want”, so feeling the need to challenge this, I asked them if they had an elephant. They didn’t. Which was disappointing. However, somewhat more reasonably, we did tell them that they actually probably didn’t have what we really wanted, which was somewhere to sit and have a cheap cold beer. Within seconds, we had two little chairs out on the pavement in front of the shop (blue for Nick, pink for me), a beer crate on it’s side as a table and two cold BeerLao plonked in our hands. OK, we had to hand it to them, they were pretty good. Within the hour, we’d been given bar snacks (some kind of fruit/vegetable thing called Magdelen – no idea on spelling) and had attracted a little group of Westerners to join us. Our little pavement bar had increased ten fold, and we managed to triple their sandwich orders for the next day’s slowboat. We made some new friends, enjoyed some cheap beers and got to know King Kong, Tom and their little daughter Manny, our new shopkeeper buddies. For what could have been an unremarkable stopover in a border town it turned out to be an unforgettable evening, and the most unexpected yet perfect introduction to Laos.

photo 1

Ever been on a slowboat? I hadn’t. So I’m not sure what I expected, but perhaps what we got wasn’t quite it. A small, narrow boat filled with seats, some of which were wooden, some which looked like they had just-been-lifted-from-a-1970’s-bus. There were numbers, but they were on scraps of paper. Originally our seats were the wooden ones, but after sitting down for a few seconds we realised that two days of that would not be A Good Thing. So, in the true sense of “you snooze, you lose” we swapped around like some others and bagged a 1970’s bus seat. I’m not proud of myself, but, it’s a dog-eat-dog world out there. First rule of travelling: get there early.

So, what followed were two days of [relative] comfort, stunning (I’ll use that word a lot about Lao, so I’ll apologise now; sorry) scenery, a jovial, party atmosphere and new friends, interspersed with a night’s stay in a very small town called Pakbeng, which, if it were in England it would probably be described as a very small hamlet. Two days on a boat, gliding down the Mekong River, watching Lao life go by was just serene. Nowhere else to be and nothing else to do but to just sit and watch, to wonder and daydream. You might be thinking all those empty hours, a bit boring, not filled with anything. But they are, every second is really. It just depends on your perception. They’re filled to the brim with smells, sounds, conversations, food, and things to look at. Waterfalls, goats, cows, trees, houses, boats, mountains, people, fishing nets, rocks, speedboats, water buffalos, whirlpools. You name it, we saw it. Including a man who looked just like the dad in Modern Family. I might have stared at him quite a bit. Then it reminded me of being in Zambia, so I spent a bit of time remembering my time there. Peanut butter, modern family, stars, cocktails, pictionary and awesome, awesome people. Seems so long ago now. A wonderful, wonderful month.  Oh, and another thing I learnt on this trip. Do not eat Ice Cream flavour Oreo’s. They sound nice, but they really, really bloody well aren’t. Trust me on this one.

SONY DSC

Pakbeng was a bit non descript. It really is just a stopover place, filled with guesthouses and restaurants, but on the banks of the Mekong with lovely views. The most exciting thing that happened here was a huge spider (and I mean huge, the size of a hand) that was in the room opposite us. We were sat out on the balcony at night putting the world to rights when the two girls from the room shot out into the corridor. They pointed to inside the room, and there it was, Spidey stuck on one of the walls. The guys in another room came to join in and have a look, and then ran to get a biologist who was in another room. So, about 8 of us were standing there watching Biologist Man arm himself with a carrier bag to take down the offending creature. He succeeded, but not before Spidey made a mad, very fast, dash for freedom (and some squealing from the girls). Luckily, he was no match for Biologist Man’s almost superhuman reactions and soon Spidey was let loose, free to live another day.

The next morning in Pakbeng was an early start because we’d been told the elephants in a conservation park across the river are brought down to the Mekong at about 6:30am, so, alarms set, up we got and were rewarded with a small herd of elephants playing in the river for about 20 minutes. Priceless. So many people on the boat missed this, as they were gone by the time a lot of people started to arrive. It also meant we got good comfy seats again. Bonus. Although, this was kind of negated when, with about 4 hours left to go on the second day, I gave my seat up to a Lao lady who I’m sure was about 109 years who got on half way. I just couldn’t let her sit on the floor.

SONY DSC SONY DSC

Arriving in Luang Prabang at tea time, the usual ritual was carried out. Find guest house, negotiate cheap price, dump stuff, go out and find cheap beers, sit, toast new location and relax. Found somewhere ran by a lovely old chap, which was the cheapest place yet (around £1.66 each a night), and had an excellent Indian with cheap beers two doors down which was handy seeing as though about 15 minutes after we got there the heavens opened to some of the heaviest monsoon rain I’ve seen for a while.

Luang Prabang is one of the prettiest places I’ve been to. It’s a UNESCO world heritage site because of it’s well-preserved fusion of traditional Lao and European colonial architecture. It’s very laid back. Not sure why, couldn’t give you an exact reason. But, it’s the kind of place for wandering around at a slow pace, sitting in a cafe or restaurant for long breakfasts, brunches, lunches and dinners and generally not doing a lot else. Most people stay here longer than they intended. It’s quite a small place too, and was a bit strange bumping into lots of people we ‘knew’ and recognised from the slowboat.

We were really lucky that the annual full moon festival of lights (Lai Heua Fai) was happening the day after we arrived. This is where all the neighbourhoods build large floats, covered in lights, to be paraded down the main street to be then set sail down the Mekong. The whole town was covered in lanterns and lights, with music and drum beats sounding out. The atmosphere was just magical, the sky lit up with thousands of sky lanterns and the Mekong full of floating flower decorations with flickering candles. We walked with float number one all the way down the street and to the temple at the end, then found a spot down by the river to watch them all sail past. It was an amazing, unforgettable night, and I’m hugely chuffed that we were lucky enough to be a part of it.

SONY DSC

We hired bikes and did a fair bit of walking, but we also took a bit of time to have a good old rest too, staying here six days in the end before tearing ourselves away to take the bumpiest minibus journey In The World to a place called Nong Khiaw. You might have read about Nong Khiaw in my 13th Runs around the world post. Hugely, hugely scenic place. Scenery to blow you away. A very pleasant few days were spent here, with lots of walking, cave visits, sandwiches, interactions with local families, especially the cute little kids in the villages. We stayed in a noisy guest house and got a bit ill for a day but it didn’t really dampen any spirits, and we still managed to do at least something every day. The last day we got up really early to climb to the top of the viewpoint which is normally a 1.5 hour climb. We did it in 45 minutes, which I’m going to claim as a bloody good achievement, seeing as though I was still ill, it was early, hot and sweaty. Worth every step for the beautiful views from the top; of the morning clouds wrapped around the top of the mountains where it really did feel like I was on top of the world.

SONY DSC

Soon after clambering down the mountain, we left Nong Khiaw to go to a place called Muang Ngoi, a small town on the banks of the Nam Ou river, only accessible by boat. Jammed in a tiny narrowboat with over 20 other people and their backpacks, sacks of rice, boxes of crisps and other food stuffs, we set off over an hour after we were supposed to. This could be said we left on time. Over here you see, there’s no real rules. Sometimes you leave on time, sometimes you go early, sometimes you go late. It all depends on what you’re in, and whether there’s enough people. That’s just the way it is. A good way to learn more patience. Like the time we waited 5 hours on the side of the road since 5:15am for the bus to Vietnam. But that’s another story.

photo 2

Muang Ngoi I think is classed as a town. But it’s tiny. Teeny tiny. Like Pakbeng, you’d probably class it as a hamlet. One main road, filled with guest houses, restaurants and local houses. Lots of chickens. Lots of tractor contraptions moving things about. A few scooters but not many. Children running and playing. Usual ritual was followed. Cheapest place yet, I think about £1.20 each a night, a bungalow in a set of 5 ran by a guy called Saylon, the cheeriest, funniest and cheekiest chap in town. We had great banter with him for the few days we were there. While enjoying our new location beer, I got jumped on by a gecko. T’was a bit startling, but there’s a first time for everything. I just had to have another beer to get over the shock.

Muang Ngoi is surrounded by even better scenery that Nong Khiaw. Which I didn’t think was possible, but the whole area is so damn stunning I can’t say I’m that surprised. We spent a morning climbing up to another cave and viewpoint and then decided that was far too much exertion for one day, and so spent the afternoon in a lovely cafe lounging on their very comfy seats drinking beer, listening to jazz, watching the sun set over the mountains and eating lovely food. We talked about the real world. What is the real world? The real world to us that day, that Wednesday afternoon, was right there, right then. And what a perfect real world that is too.

photo 3

The next day we decided to get out and about and do a trek to one of the outlying villages. We took a route that involved lots of butterflies, fields, sunshine, more absolutely stunning scenery, crops, mosquitos and leeches. To carry on at one bit meant crossing a small river with no bridge. Shoes off, wade through. Then inspect feet and legs for leeches. Pull leeches off that have latched on. Or, in my case, don’t inspect feet, put socks and shoes back on and find leech later on once it’s had a bit of a fill of my blood.

The village we ended up in was amazing. A proper rural village, not a tourist place. Real Lao life. Wooden bamboo houses on stilts. No roads. Chickens and cockerels everywhere. People bathing and washing clothes in the river. I did feel very much like an intruder, though, in their obvious close community and I do wonder what the Lao people think of people like us coming to visit. It was very humbling, something I will remember forever, and an experience that I feel blessed to have had.

SONY DSC

Leaving Muang Ngoi was a mixed bag. It signalled the end of our time in Laos; our next place to stay was Muang Khua but this was only a stopover to get the bus to Vietnam the next day (after that 5 hour wait). But I was excited to move on, to know that a new country was just around the corner. But not before another blissful 4 hour narrowboat journey through more stunning scenery. This one had however had the added excitement of a stop off by our drivers to gut a dead deer and sling it in the back with our backpacks. Just a usual thing out here. And that’s a weird thing. Is that it didn’t seem weird. Because that kind of thing happens. We go past a chap in a boat who shouts something, our drivers shout something back, we stop, take innards out of a deer, chuck it back in the boat, off we go. Stuff like seeing chickens on the back of mopeds. Or boxes of frogs at markets. Or dead dogs hung up. Travel, it broadens the mind. Because all this stuff is real life. Just not quite the same as real life back in the UK.

SONY DSC

We spent just over two weeks in Laos, but it seemed more. It was a special two weeks, and Laos is the kind of country that I feel thankful to have been a visitor. Thankful that the Lao people allowed me to have a glimpse at their beautiful, laid back country.

*somewhere to get cheap beer

Runs around the world #13

Nong Khiaw, Laos

IMG_7452

Today’s run was in Laos, which is possibly the most laid back country I have been to. This maybe explains why I’ve been here about a week and a half now and this is my first run here. It’s a place that when you arrive, you instantly chill out. I’m not sure exactly why; I can’t quite choose one thing, or put my finger on it. It’s just one of those feelings.

I arrived in Laos by a two day slowboat trip down the Mekong River. Clearly no chance for running on those two days. I had no choice but to sit back, put my feet up and enjoy the ride. Arriving in Luang Prabang, we spent nearly a week there but I just couldn’t bring myself to be bothered to run. We walked and cycled lots, so it’s not like I wasn’t active. And I even saw other people jogging. But, I just didn’t fancy it most of the time. Only two times did I think about it; the first day I decided to go for food instead, and the other day it was heavy rain ALL day. Now I don’t mind running in the rain but this was monsoon-type downpours so there was no chance I was getting out in that. Luang Prabang was one of those places where you couldn’t walk fast; no one hurried, everything was at a leisurely pace. Everyone just loped around slowly with big fat smiles on their faces and nothing more pressing to do than wander around temples, climb Phousi Hill to see the town from up above or just saunter from restaurant to restaurant sampling all the different food. Pretty much every person that goes there that we either spoke to or read about ended up extending their stay but at least a day or so, if not longer.

Eventually, we managed to tear ourselves away from LP (as it’s affectionately known) and hopped on a very bouncy local minibus to get to a place called Nong Khiaw, about 2 1/2 hours north of Luang Prabang. It’s a small, dusty town that’s a bit off the beaten track, and is (according to my Rough Guide) smack bang in the middle of some of the most dramatic scenery in the whole of Indochina. They weren’t wrong. Every corner, everywhere you look, each side of the bridge and far into the distance there’s another stunning view. Another mountain, a river, a quaint village or a cliff face. Let’s face it, Laos is truly stunning. Every morning when I get up and look out the window I’m reminded and blown away by just how beautiful it is. So, I was determined to run here. Plus, the roads were fairly flat and the temperature is a bit cooler than the other places I’ve come to, which would be a first for months, and something I’d very much welcome.

IMG_7450 IMG_7454 IMG_7455

My first plan to run was scuppered by managing to either get a bug or food poisoning. Whichever one it was meant I felt a bit crappy for a couple of days, and although I managed to get out and about for a few walks, I had very little energy as I’d eaten no food and so [probably sensibly] decided a run wouldn’t be the best idea. So, feeling a bit better, this morning was the morning. Before I had chance to wake up properly, I jumped (not literally but I like the idea) out of bed and into my running gear (sadly not with any help from an automatic Wallace-and-Gromit style machine – although that would be good).

First thought? Oooh, it’s cool. Temperature wise. This is a big change. For all the time I’ve been travelling I’ve been running in really hot and often extremely humid temperatures. Here, it’s a bit cooler in the mornings and at night, and so this would be a different run. I maybe don’t have to say how pleased I was at this, as you might have already guessed that although I don’t like being cold, I don’t like being too hot with high humidity more. So this was like a breath of fresh air literally. Because the first thing I noticed was that my lungs hurt. You know, that kind of first-run-in-England-when-the-weather-starts-to-turn kind of cold. Hurts your lungs until to get used to it, or after you’ve run in the cold a few times. I didn’t think it was that cold (it was probably in the low 20’s) but it just shows how my body has got used to the different temperatures.

Second thought? Shit, I have no energy. I’m not really surprised, seeing as though the only things I’ve eaten in two days is an white bread egg baguette and half a can of Pepsi, which pretty much came back up a short while later.

Third thought? Get a grip, get on with it and just do a couple of miles.

So I did. And it wasn’t too bad. It was hard work, yes, my legs were weary, my lungs hurt, but I got into a rhythm, enjoyed some tunes, gazed at the mist covered mountains, chuckled to myself at the odd looks I was getting from the Lao schoolkids going to school, avoided the chickens that constantly run across the roads here, waved at the little kids peeking out the doors of the houses lining the main road and smashed a [slightly pathetic] two miles out. Only two miles, but it’s better than nothing. It was a faster two miles than I’d done in months, which hopefully proves I’m slower in the heat/humidity and not just horrifically unfit. And I can’t forget I’m still a bit ill. I know I’m not 100% yet. So I felt better for going, and am looking forward to my next run. It won’t be here in Nong Khiaw, because we’re moving on tomorrow. We’re only in Laos for a few more days, so I’m probably not going to be able to run again in this beautiful country I feel humbled to be visiting, however once is once enough to have it forever in my memory.

IMG_7457

I <3 Hong Kong.

Yes I liked it. Actually I loved it. A lot. There’s lots of reasons why (apart from the humidity. Let’s skip over that bit).

#1. It’s so pretty. During the day but especially at night. All the buildings, the parks, the mountains and that harbour view. Especially from the top of the Peak. Awesome.

#2. Awesome food. There are so many places to eat. Like most big cities, there is pretty much every kind of food you can imagine.

#3. It has beaches. Just over the hill from the main part of Hong Kong island or on the islands.

#4. The running scene. I saw a glimpse of the Hong Kong running scene and I liked what I saw. There are running groups, lots of people out and about running. It has trails, and pavements and running tracks to run round.

#5. There are islands. 263 of them to be precise. All of them different, all of them easy to get to and explore. Some have trails, some have buddhas, some have beaches, some have fishing villages but all have their own character.

#6. The people are lovely. Well, the ones I met are anyway. And, generally people seem to be very polite; they wait at pedestrian crossings if it’s read, even if there isn’t anything coming. No jaywalking here.

#7. There’s so much to do. Again, like any big city there’s always something going on, something to see, places to do, things to keep you occupied. And a lot of them are free! Top tip: Hong Kong History Museum is free on Wednesdays, and is really interesting. If you’re there, you should go.

#8. It’s a fairly clean city. My hostel was kept super clean, there were bins everywhere and public toilets I used were nice and decent. I even saw a dog walker pick up their dog’s crap, go and put it in the bin, then wipe the dogs bottom. Now that’s clean.

#9. Everything else. I’ve probably missed loads of things. The vibe. The atmosphere. The things you can’t describe but you know they are there. The things you can’t put your finger on but make you happy.

It’s the first place I’ve been so far that I could see myself living. Apart from the humidity. I’m not sure I could cope with that.

I was there for a week. That seemed like a long time, and was longer than I’d planned on staying there; it’s just the way the dates with the China trip had worked out. And there’s no getting away from it, Hong Kong is expensive. Especially for a backpacker on a round the world trip with a limited budget. But, I managed to find a really good hostel that was fairly cheap (just under £20 a night), in a great location and nice and clean with brilliant wifi. However, I didn’t end up staying here for the whole week. Nope, for two nights I lived it up in a 5 star hotel suite with harbour view. No, I hadn’t won the lottery or blown my budget. The Stride family who were on my China tour found out they had a spare bed in their suite and kindly invited me to stay. They treated me like one of the family and I had a wonderful couple of days with them before they went back to the UK and I stayed in Hong Kong. And a week wasn’t too long in HK. In fact, it probably wasn’t long enough. There was still so much more I could have done.

A quick recap on my Hong Kong adventures (by no means an exhaustive list, just some things I remembered to note down – there are more):

  • Going for dim sum breakfast with pensioners. It was a strange experience: 7am, a full-to-the-rafters restaurant and we were the only westerners, and the youngest by miles.  The order book was like a bingo card (perhaps we had stumbled into a breakfast bingo hall by mistake?) and some of the things we ended up eating were not what I’d class as breakfast. I’m not sure I’d eat some of them at lunch or dinner either (slimy slug-type roll thing anyone?). An experience; but one not to be repeated.
  • Seeing the light show on the harbour. At 8pm, some of the skyscrapers have a synchronised light show to music. So, not only do you get to gaze at that fabulous harbour view, but there’s some pretty lights. It’s all free, and on every night, so worth a look.
  • Running down The Peak with a headtorch. One of my favourite runs to date, with the lovely Nic and Rachel. Read more about it here.
  • Strolling around Stanley. I had a lovely day with the Stride visiting Stanley beach on Hong Kong island. We had a very British day; we took sandwiches which we ate on the pier, paddled in the sea and had a beer on the promenade.
  • Running the wrong way up an escalator. I’d never done this, but always wanted to. Forced to Egged on by Robin, I gave it a go, and pretty much got to the top. It’s harder than you think. A travelling achievement.
  • Visiting Cheung Chau. Reached only by ferry, we had a nice little walk around this little higgledy-piggledy island that is quite up and down with lots of buildings seemingly perched on top of one another, all in the same place.
  • Staring out at that view from The Peak. This was my favourite place in HK. I loved it up there. From getting the little #1 green minibus bus up (I never got the tram in the end), to looking out at that view, to walking the Peak Circle walk (more of those views), to walking down to Pok Fu Lam Reservoir and back up (to then walk back down to Central – I did a lot of walking that day), to walking up to a deserted Victoria Peak Garden, to running down the Hong Kong trail, to going back up there at night with Mike the friendly NZ guy (and meeting the odd posing Korean girl) to look at that view just one last time, I loved every single minute I spent there.
  • Getting my Thai tourist visa. I’m going to stay in Thailand longer than the 30 days you get with a standard visa-on-arrival visa, so I had to go and get a visa from the Thai Consulate in Central. It was fairly easy to figure out the address; however, it was smack bang in the middle of skyscraper city. No big deal, apart from the fact that all the buildings seem to be connected by walkways, shops, bridges and you can’t cross any of the roads on the pavements. Yep, I got a bit lost, walking through the maze that is Corporate Hong Kong. Even though they’re pretty good at signposting there, it still took me a while to figure out which walkways I needed to take to get to the right building.
  • Exploring Lantau Island. Ok, so I didn’t run up to the 85 foot high Tian Tan Buddha like The Marine suggested I did (it’s very steep; he’s a machine) but I did walk the 240 steps after getting the bus to Ngong Ping, which, in that humidity, was a challenge in itself. Photos taken and view absorbed, I hopped on another bus to a little historic fishing town called Tai O which has been there more than three centuries. This was a little gem of a place. Really teeny tiny houses, houses on stilts, lots of fish hanging up to dry and a general smell of seafood. Despite it being a busy little place, it was actually very peaceful and I walked up to a view point where you have the chance of seeing Chinese white dolphins (which can be pink or white). And see them I did; beautiful sight! Really pleased I did, and it made the trek up there (up yet more steps) worth it. Sat at the top, in the shade of the pagoda with no sounds apart from the odd bird chirping, I had a bit of a giggle out loud to myself, as I had a bit of a realisation that I’m really travelling. I’m really doing it. And that the world, Hong Kong, and everywhere is actually pretty amazing, isn’t it? How lucky I am to be seeing all these places, to be experiencing all these things. Not quite sure what I thought I’d been doing for the last 3 months but I finally got it.
  • Hanging around Hong Kong park. This little oasis, in the heart of Central Hong Kong, isn’t a big, open park, rather it’s quite small, on different levels with lots of paths, trees, plants and a small lake. It’s somewhere to go to walk or sit. There’s an aviary, vantage point and a tai chi garden. In the tai chi garden there was a memorial to healthcare workers that had died helping others in the 2003 SARS outbreak. I vaguely remembered hearing something about this in the news back then, but didn’t realise it was as epidemic and devastating as it was. And of course, it’s one of those things that is happening in another country so it’s easy to disregard. I found I was actually quite moved by the memorial. The park seemed to be the place where office workers in corporate HK go at lunchtime. I was strolling around half listening to conversations about breakdowns, spreadsheets, contacts and networking. Bleurgh. Dull. At this point I decided it was time to leave.
  • Making my own sandwiches. I got to the point of being fed up of going out to eat all the time. I know, it sounds amazing to do that but in reality it gets a bit wearing. Sometimes it’s nice to get your own food. So, as the hostel had a fridge I bought bread, ham, cucumber, museli, milk and fruit and so could make my own breakfast and sandwiches. Oh, lovely multi grain ham and cucumber sandwiches. I swear, they were the best sandwiches I had ever made. For sure.
  • Visiting the Hong Kong museum. I have to admit, this wasn’t on my itinerary. Museums aren’t usually my kind of thing. But, on my last day, a Wednesday, it was raining, I didn’t want to go too far and Mike asked me if I’d like to go along with him. Oh, and it was also free on Wednesdays. So, I did. And I’m actually really pleased I did. I learnt all about Hong Kong’s history, from the very beginning to the present day, including the 3 year Japanese occupation which I had no idea about. Always something new to learn in life.
  • Swishing about with my Octopus card. Like the oyster card in London, this is a travel card for Hong Kong which you load up with cash and can then use at on the metro, buses and trams. But, here, you can also use the card in some shops and other places. Which is very handy if you go to a supermarket and buy food and find you don’t have enough money to pay for everything. Not that that happened to me, though, oh no…
  • Not feeling so much like a tourist. This was a working city. Yes of course there were tourists, of which I was one, but there weren’t hoards of people trying to sell you shit. There were swathes of British ex-pats living here. I could have been one of them. I did live a bit of a Hong Kong life for a little bit. And I liked it.

I saw everything I wanted to see and experienced everything I wanted to. I met some great people and eventually, when it was time to move on, I found I was sad to leave. I completely underestimated Hong Kong. It’s beauty, it’s diversity, the vibe, the differences, the people. I was blown away and it’s left a imprint. A permanent one.

I only wish now I’d bought the I ❤ HK t-shirt. Because I do.

SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSC