27 July, 2009

Everything Good Comes to an End

For more pictures check out this album

It's now about five months (!) since we returned to Norway from our Asia trip, so I won't bore you with details about the final stage. However, despite being 'long time ago', 'old news', and all that, I feel like ending what I've started. The reason why I haven't posted anything from the last few destinations until now is simply due to the fact that the last months have been extremely hectic. Since we got back to Norway we first moved back in to our old apartment, then started looking for a new apartment, I started at my old job, working long days while I was looking for a new job, then we found a new place which meant renovating and moving, then I got a new job, and in the midst of all this we got a wedding to plan... Anyway, here are a few pictures and a very short description of the last two weeks of backpacking Asia.

The last post ended with us leaving Cambodia to put our feet on Thai soil again. After a short ferry trip we settled down on Koh Chang, a beautiful island in the eastern gulf. We spent four days relaxing on the beach, eating good food and, eh.. not much else I guess...

Idyllic Koh Chang

Katrine is enjoying the final night of dining on the beach -
next awaited a big, polluted metropolis...

The hostel/hotel we stayed at had an inviting roof-top pool.
On the ground level there was definitewly more fuzz...

Every night the pubs and restaurants send out their door touts
to attract costumers

Last time we were in Bangkok we didn't have time to do much, so this time we had planned to spend a week here. Too long you might think, but it didn't feel like that at all. Bangkok and the surrounding areas have a lot to offer, so you can easily spend a week here. We stayed in the two most popular backpacker streets, the pulsating Khao San Road and Soi Rambuttri. Most of the time was spent shopping, sightseeing, eating and sleeping. Yea, I know, it's a hardknocked life being a backpacker...

From Bangkok we went on a day trip to the world famous floating market, the Tiger Temple and River Kwai, where we stumbled accross this charming little fellow (below)

Our final stop in Thailand was the fancy new airport that was occupied by demonstrators last December

From Bangkok we flew to Hong Kong where we enjoyed three more days of big city life. Hong Kong is simply awesome. I won't tell you much more about it now, you should check it out for yourself. But, if you want to learn a bit more about why you should visit, take a look at the post from last time I was there. See Magnificent Hong Kong

Two of Hong Kong's trademarks:
colourful neon-light signs and skyscrapers

Dried lizard or gecko (or whatever it's called) is obvioulsy
a local delicacy in Hong Kong...

With backpacks crammed with cheap shoes and clothes, stomachs filled with Chinese food, and heads dizzy from pollution and impressions we left Hong Kong. After more than three moths on the road exploring South East Asia, it was now time to start a routine life in Oslo. As the bus took us out of the city and towards the airport I had a feeling of both wistfulness and excitement at the same time. It was sad to leave such a laid-back and trouble free lifestyle, but I was happy and eager to get back and get 'serious'. Although we occasionally miss the freedom and excitement of travelling we are very happy in Oslo. But, I can promise you that you that the world outside of Norway hasn't seen the last of us.


The Asian sky gave us a clear, blue farewell,
while the European sky gave us a sweet, but cloudy welcome

Not only the highway, but also the skyway is getting busier,
as this picture illustrates (flying out of London Heathrow)

26 May, 2009

Cambodia - Kingdom of Contrasts

For more pictures check out album 1 and album 2

Although it's one of the least developed countries in the region, Cambodia was a positive surprise to us, and it immediately joined the Philippines on top of our list of favorite Asian countries. Poverty and developmental problems are much more visible in Cambodia than in its neighboring countries, but the feeling of sincere hospitality and big smilies are also more apparant here. Cambodia is a land of enormous contrasts. One day you'll find yourself walking in the footsteps of the ancient kings of Angkor, taking in the breathtaking architecture and the greatness of the Khmer history. This aspect of Cambodia will fill you with veneration and pride. The next day your heart and mind is filled with disgust and sadness as you walk in the footsteps of Pol Pot and his comrades of the Khmer Rouge. Learning the awful and heartbreaking stories and witnessing the infamous S-21 (Tuol Sleng) and the Killing Fields make a lasting impression and teach you about the cruelty and atrocities of humankind. And from there it's just a short drive to white beaches, calm sea and 'no worries'.

The people of Cambodia are still struggling and suffering from the outcome of the dark era, due to underdevelopment, poverty and, not least, unexploded ordinances. Cambodia is one of the countries with the most unexploded ordinances and land mines in the world. Every year between 800 and 900 people are hurt or killed by land mines. It's so bad that guidebooks warn you against even going off the main roads to 'make water'. If you follow international news you'll also know that some of the leaders of the Khmer Rouge are facing charges in the long waited genocide tribunal, set up by the UN in Phnom Penh. Although Pol Pot, the mastermind behind the nightmare, died in 1998 many other leaders are still alive and live among it's own people or in exile. I will return to this dark period in Cambodia's history later, but first let's check out the mystical and fascinating temples of Angkor.

We arrived Siem Reap by bus from Saigon, a 12 hour journey, including a lunch break in Phnom Penh. On the way we stopped for some snack at a road side market, and I soon realized that when Khmer people talk about snack they don't always have potato chips in mind... As we got out of the bus a little girl approached us, and in her hand she held a huge black spider. As you might know, I'm not a big fan of spiders, but I'm quite fascinated by them (meaning I hate spiders, but I have to check 'em out). Anyway, I kind of forgot about the spider incident, but not for long. As we walked around the market we saw several women cooking something in big frying pans. We went over, and as we got closer we understood what they were frying; huge black spiders! On one side the women had big 20 liters buckets filled with live spiders, on the other was another bucket, filled with deep fried crispy take-away ready-to-eat spiders. So, if you feel like munching on spider meat, go to Cambodia.

Spiders before and after a hot round in the frying pan.
(Check out these videos from youtube video1; video2; if you dare...)

Still a bit flummoxed by the spider experience we arrived Siem Reap. The city is mainly a gateway to the temple complex at Angkor, but the city itself is also very nice. We only stayed for two days here, and we regret we didn't stay longer (good reason for going back I guess...). Anyway, we had a very long and interesting day exploring the temples. If you ask Katrine, she'll tell you that it was a bit too long. I, however, loved it and think it was an amazing, almost divine, experience. I felt like Indiana Jones being on tour with Lara Croft!

We rose at 4:30 in the morning, had a quick breakfast in our room (bread with liver spread! We found liver spread!) and met our tuk tuk driver at 5 a.m. sharp. We stopped only to buy a pass to the temple area before heading straight to the world famous Angkor Wat. It was pitch black when we arrived and we hadn't, of course, brought a torch. We stumbled our way through the first temple entrance and groped over to a small pound, from where we, apparently, had a good view of the main temple. As night turned to day the mystical silhouette of the majestic Angkor Wat appeared in front of us. While people were still waiting for the sun to work its way higher on the sky, Katrine and I moved gently away from the crowd and entered the past. We actually had the temple more or less to ourselves for the first half hour. The feeling of being alone and exploring this amazing structure was awesome. Hot tip, stay ahead of the crowds!

As the light changes throughout the day
Angkor Wat also changes its mood

When it got too busy we left Angkor Wat and started the rest of the adventure. The temple area is huge and you need some kind of transportation to get around, at least if you plan to spend only one day in the temples. Our tuk tuk driver took us around the whole day, but we explored on our own. I think we managed see more or less all the temples of Angkor, and were feeling very tired at the end of the day. In between all the temples we also visited a small orphanage. To meet a bunch of lively children was a welcomed break from all the monumental and dead buildings. The last temple we saw was situated on top of a hill, and together with thousands of tourists we saw the same sun that rose behind Angkor Wat set in the distance. I won't bore you with detailed descriptions of the temples, symbols, funny tourists, history etc., I'll rather let the pictures speak for themselves.

The twilight gives Angkor Wat an even more mystical
appearance than it already possesses

The temples are not only grandiose and massive, there are also
beautiful details and fascinating designs wherever you turn

Katrine is trying to get a hold on the history of the ancient Khmer era.
Were and what does this hallway lead to...?

Khmer people (Cambodians) are a smiling people. Perhaps they're inspired by these huge smiling faces

Many of the buildings have almost totally succumbed to mother nature. But since the Europeans 'discovered' the temples humans have slowly retrieved them. Massive preservation and restoration has, and is still taking place. Many of the temples still serve the purpose as spiritual meeting places and religious rituals still take place today.

From Siem Reap we took the bus back to the capital city. Despite some magnificent royal palaces, Phnom Penh is not the most attractive city in South East Asia. It's situated by a rather dirty river and large parts of the city looks a bit run down, but it still has a lot to offer, such as good food, interesting history and most important of all, friendly people. A very cool and interesting aspect of Phnom Penh is the many charity restaurants, cafés and shops. These places have been established as funding initiatives for worthy causes and as training centres for young staff, orphans and street kids in particular. They are being trained as waiters and chefs, and they're taught different arts and skills. And honestly, this is where we were served some of the best food on our trip and they definitely offered us the best service!

Two of the main 'attractions' in Phnom Penh are related to the Khmer Rouge era (1975-79); the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21) and the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. In 1975 Pol Pot's security forces turned Tuol Svay Prey High School into Security Prison 21 (S-21), which became the Auschwitz of Cambodia. Only a handful out of an estimated 20 000 inmates survived the torture and the unimaginable conditions at S-21 (read the story from a survivor of the Tuol Sleng). We spent a few hours at S-21 learning the horrible and bizarre history and ideology of Pol Pot and his communist comrades. The goal was to 'restart civilization' in 'year zero' and to create an anti-capitalist, anti-intellectual state based on collectivity and agriculture. The ideology led to systematic killings of teachers and people who, inter alia, wore glasses, spoke foreign languages, or had lived in a city. The irony is that many of the Khmer Rouge leaders represented exactly what they wanted to eliminate. For instance, Pol Pot, the great leader himself, were educated in Paris and had previously taught French litterateur at a college. Their sick attempt of social engineering led to the deaths of around 1/5 of Cambodia's population (an estimated 1,5 million people; some claim the number is much higher), through executions, torture, starvation and forced labor. After our visit at S-21 we met up with our tuk tuk friend and drove to Choeung Ek, which is known under the name Killing Fields. This was the final destination for most of the inmates of S-21 and others. Thousands of men and women, old and young, were brutally bludgeoned to death and dumped in one of the 129 mass graves. It's impossible to comprehend what actually took place at these sights. Children's laughter, the green, lush vegetation, the nice warm breeze, the singing birds, and the friendly, smiling people makes the whole scene very self-contradictory and it makes it even harder to imagine and understand what actually took place. I had the same feeling when I visited the concentration camps in Poland and Germany and some of the sights of the genocide in Rwanda.

Clockwise, starting from the large photo: Originally a high school, S21 stands as a symbol of the meaningless and systematic mass killings and torture carried out under the leadership of Pol Pot; the classrooms were used as chambers of torture; S21 was surrounded with barb wire and tall fences; one of many children kept at S21; an anonymous scull of one of thousands of innocent victims; thousands of profile photos of the 'inmates' are displayed at S21; painting showing one of the modes of torture; even babies didn't escape the cruelty of the Khmer Rouge.

Inside the monument lies hundreds of anonymous sculls that have been removed from the mass graves in the so-called Killing Fields. The excecutioners beat children against this big tree till they were dead.

Over the last couple of weeks we had learnt a lot about the Vietnam War, the old Cambodian kingdoms and the Khmer Rouge. But it was now time to check out Cambodia's beaches and engage in some serious relaxation. About four to five hours south of Phnom Penh you'll find one of the major beach side tourist hot spots in Cambodia. It's called Sihanoukville, named after an earlier king, and it's definitely more touristic and developed than we'd expected. However, it's way less touristic than most places in Thailand, and much cheaper. Having said that, don't expect to escape the big crowds of backpackers and charter tourists, especially in the main tourist areas. But if you don't feel like hanging around drunk tourists and you're on a tight budget it's definitely easier to find more quiet beaches and much cheaper accommodation and food here than in neighboring Vietnam and Thailand. So, next time you're in the region, remember that you don't have to stay in crowded Thailand to find beautiful beaches and good food.

Cambodia has a beautiful coastline; even monkies love it!

We really enjoyed Cambodia, but eventually all good things come to an end. We're certain that we'll go back one day. But for now it was time for us to cross the Thai border again and start preparing ourselves for the long flight home. However, we still had about 10 more days to work on our tan (which we did on Koh Chang) and do some sightseeing and final shopping in Bangkok. We also had three days in Hong Kong before embracing the Norwegian winter again. So, stay tuned for the last chapter of tour de Asie 2009. I promise it won't be as comprehensive as this one...

21 April, 2009

I'm not a veteran, but I've been to Nam

For more pictures click album 1, album 2 and album 3

For a lot of people the name Vietnam is automatically associated with the horrible Vietnam War in the 1960s and 70s. Many people also automatically think of the involvement of the US and the massive popular anti-war movement. As the title illustrates, I also have those associations. But, it was now time for us to broaden our knowledge and get some new perspectives and associations to the name Vietnam.

Our first meeting with, and impression of Vietnam can be summarized in two words; 'charmingly chaotic'. The chaotic part is most likely connected to the fact that Vietnam holds more than 86 million people (13th in the world), in an area smaller than Norway! However, many factors made the seeming chaos appear rather charming. For instance, the atmosphere was good and people were happy as a big holiday was about to take place. As part of the preparations for the holiday people were buying big fruit trees that they strapped onto their motorcycles, making the whole scene look even more chaotic and, yes, charming...

Chaotic and charming ;)

We arrived Hanoi in the late afternoon without a visa and no ticket out of the country. This could've caused us problems and perhaps even a night or two at the police station (at least that's what we had heard). Katrine was quite anxious and didn't enjoy the flight too much, but luckily we had no problems getting a visa upon our arrival. Together with the Chileans (seven of them by now!) we went straight for the old quarter, where we found a small hostel/hotel. For the first time in a while we felt that we got great value for our money; 12 US$ for a spacious double room with AC, cable TV, breakfast and free internet. Not bad, huh! Hanoi was pretty cold and very stressful, but it was all somehow very charming and interesting, at least for the few days we spent there. The traffic is among the worst I've ever seen. Thousands of motorcycles honking their way through the narrow streets and crowds of people, and buses that don't stop for no one. The traffic isn't controlled by robots (or traffic lights as most non-Africans would call them), so at first you feel like you're walking the green mile every time you try to cross the street. But, after a while you realize that you just have to walk, and the sea of motorbikes will pretty much treat you like the Red Sea treated Moses back in the days... (Alright, I get it, enough with the amazing anecdotes)

After some sightseeing in the capital, we were off to one of the most famous tourist attractions in Vietnam, Halong Bay. Our spirits and expectations were high and we were looking forward to see this natural wonder, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But, in the end we were quite disappointed. Not because of Halong Bay though. The bay area itself is truly stunning and unique, with thousands of small and big islands erected straight from the ocean. We were disappointed because of the way the trip was arranged, the unprofessional tour guides and the fact that we didn't get what we had paid for. In addition, it was windy, cloudy and freezing cold. We didn't have warm clothes at all, and despite us buying gloves and beanie, we were still shivering. And, believe it or not, on top of it all we had a huge rat running around our cabin eating our Orios in the middle of the night! We spent two days floating around Halong Bay, but unfortunately we didn't enjoy it too much. I'm sure, though, if you go there in the summer, when the weather is nice and warm, it should be an amazing experience. The tour company reached a new level of unprofessionalism (if that is even a word...) when the bus driver, for no obvious reason, started yelling at his costumers on the way back to Hanoi. Well, at least we can say 'been there, done that', and from there it could only get better...

Katrine was freezing and very happy;) One of the oddly shaped islands that make Halong Bay unique and beautiful

The tour also included a visit to some amazing caves (the lighting is not natural, if you wondered...), and some floating fishing villages. This is a floating house, but they also had a floating bank and a school!
Traditional boats and typical Halong Bay scenery

The same evening that we got back from Halong Bay we 'checked in' on the night train from Hanoi to Huê. This was the night when the Têt holiday started, which explains why suddenly the happiest Vietnamese guy you can imagine jumped into our cabin singing 'happy new year songs' and offering us gifts(!). For non- Vietnamese people the Têt holiday isn't too exciting as almost everything close and the prices for accommodation and transport get much higher than normal. Têt is the Vietnamese New Year and it's the most important and popular holiday in the Vietnamese calendar. Traditionally it's a celebration of the ancestral spirits that return from heaven for their annual three day visit with their family. And, the holiday goes on for days. At least the main attraction in Huê was open, the Citadel (the old city). Within the city walls of the Citadel you can see the forbidden city with the old palace and other historic monuments. Much of this is in quite bad shape as it's one of many places that suffered severe damages from American bombings during the Vietnam War. We decided not to stay in Huê for very long, and our next move was down to the charming city of Hoi An. We could easily have spent a few more days in Hoi An, but because of the Têt we figured we'd rather spend some time traveling down to the warm weather and get there by the time things opened up again.

Inside the Citadel in Huê. The picture of Ho Chi Minh (communist revolutionary and former president) is seen everywhere in Vietnam.

From the charming city of Hoi An

Nha Trang, one of Vietnam's most touristy cities, was next on our list. We arrived at sunrise and were feeling a bit stiff after a night on the sleeping bus (a bus with actual beds). We walked around looking for a place to stay, but it was pretty hard to find. Finally we managed to find a decent room at a fair price. We spent two nice days in Nha Trang; one day on the beach and one on a boat. The boat was packed with people, but since most of the Asian tourists by all means try to avoid sunlight and don't like to swim, we enjoyed a spacey roof top almost by ourselves;)

From Nha Trang we experienced a horrible and nerve wrecking bus trip. We were going to a small beach side tourist village called Mui Ne, and I have never, not even in Africa, experienced more idiotic driving. 'Maniac' is the only adjective that rightfully describes our driver. And the scary and sad part is that there are thousands of maniacs like him on the roads in Vietnam. Miraculously we arrived Mui Ne in one piece, and it was a good place to get rid of the tension created by this bus ride. Mui Ne is also a perfect place for kite surfing and wind surfing. I've never seen so many kites in the air at the same time. At the most I counted around 100 kites; an incredible sight.

Mui Ne is El Dorado for wind surfers and kite surfers
However, if you turned your head 180 degrees you would have a clearer view. The next picture is from Nha Trang where more traditional tourist activities are popular. (I had to make it bit arty to make it interesting though...)

Katrine had been singing and talking about 'Miss Saigon' for weeks already so we were quite enthusiastic when we finally got to Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City which is its official name. Saigon soon became our favorite destination in Vietnam. Cheap and central accommodation was easy to find and the city had a lot to offer. In many ways Saigon was very different from Hanoi. Overall we found that there are many differences between what used to be North and South Vietnam. If you ask us, we'd tell you that the southern part was the most enjoyable. We spent much time walking around the city, sightseeing and shopping. The most interesting was the War Remnants Museum, which gives you a rich insight into the Vietnam War. It must be a bit embarrassing to be an American visitor at this museum as the the whole exhibition was, not surprisingly, very anti American.

Another interesting war related activity that we enjoyed was the Cu Chi Tunnels. These tunnels are part of an impressive network of connecting underground tunnels that were used by the Viet Cong during the war. It was incredible to see how the Viet Cong soldiers lived and fought. Most of the tunnels are really narrow and claustrophobic, and although the ones that tourists try are widened, I still had problems, and I ain't too big... In the tunnels there's also lack of fresh air and light. Learning about the Viet Cong and seeing the tunnels was very interesting, but we also needed some non-war related fun. On our last night in Vietnam we went to a fancy live jazz club. It was cool, very western and ridiculously expensive, even for a Norwegian! That was the end of Vietnam. We have definitely gotten some new, different and nice associations to the name Vietnam, but I don't think we'll ever stop thinking about the war when we hear the name.

Saigon is a lovely mix of designer shops and communism, local snake wine and international jazz clubs

...and war history

From Saigon we headed to another country with a recent history of violence and war. Stay tuned for the next post from what came to be one of our favorite countries in the region - the amazing Kingdom of Cambodia.