Thursday, May 29, 2008


So I finally started pulling pictures from my camera and adding captions yesterday after some delay. Starting naturally with the first part of the trip. By mid afternoon I was partway done and headed off for a conditioning hike (and ski down) of Granite mountain. Of course I brought my camera because I wanted to get my own set of shots like Scott got of our last trip.

Unfortunately I was skiing down instead of snowboarding which meant a) walking was harder because ski boots have little traction and less ankle flex and b) I kept having to futz with my attached gear to keep it from banging on the trees and rocks as I went up. After taking a couple of great shots above the tree line of Duncan in his board shorts in the snow we made a big push to the summit before dark. Just as we were getting to the top, I reached down for a summit shot and discovered an empty camera holder!

I headed back down the mountain to look for it but the last 1000 feet or so had been rock hopping. I was hoping it was at our last rest stop where I'd done significant gear futzing but no luck. I'll head back tomorrow and hope to get lucky. The camera wasn't cheap, but the pictures from the second half of New Zealand are irreplaceable. Guess I'll just have to make another trip. Glad I posted some to the blog at least.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Pass on Vietnam

Alright, I'm a bit behind on any blogging, so a bit of catching up: Vietnam. I only spent five days in Vietnam, all in the North and without even getting a chance to see Hanoi (except for a bus station, which I'd describe as hectic), so perhaps I don't have the most complete perspective, but so far my take away from it is: don't bother going there! I understand perfectly well that, even as unpemployed backpackers, the tourists in South East Asia are phenominally rich compared to most of the locals, but I'm not about to understand getting ripped off quite as much as the Vietnamese have been trying to do!
- First there was the rather rude introduction at the border: no bus, a mini-bus to the next town, 40kn away, for $15 each (we could've had a deal for only $10... each), then the little mini-van that could take us most of the way to Hanoi for about a dollar a km - that would be $300! And finally, our truck driver, who either expected to get $25 from each of us for a ride in the open back of the truck, or just decided to ask for money upon arrival than we had agreed on initially...
- then, in Halong Bay, I arranged for an overnight boat cruise on the bay. Cost: $55, a bit expensive, but fine. On the boat, I learned that some people had paid as little as $45, and one guys was charged $200 (for two nights)! Not to mention the food/service/accomodation on the boat weren't exactly top notch - there were more along the lines of save every penny you possibly can.
- and finally back in Halong City, I had a ferry try to charge me 50% more than the girl had quoted me over the phone (and had just charged a local woman right as I was waiting in line behind her). The explanation was 'our prices had changed'... At that point, I decided she deserved neither $15, nor $25 (for the 3 hour boat ride), so a motorcycle ride to the bus station, where (naturally) my driver was absolutely outraged that the money I was giving him was only what we had agreed upon ahead of time...
Between all this, the people not being particularly friendly, and the never-ending barrage of 'massage boom-boom, sir?' on the street didn't give me all that positive of an impression of the country. In fact, I think the two nicest locals I met here were two Chinese businessmen on my bus to the Chinese border, who were very friendly, spoke a fair bit of English, and expressed being pleased to leave Vietnam behind after a week there! Or maybe, it was all just a hangover from Laos, which had the nicest, friendliest people I've met anywhere on the trip so far, and the prices were the lowest I've seen! Most of the other travelers I'd spoken to do tend to enjoy visiting Vietnam... of course, everyone does like the Southern parts best.

So, actually being back home in the US for a brief week-long break from traveling, and having finished waltzing through all of SE Asia, it seems an appropriate time for another list (we all love lists!): the countries I've been to so far, in order from my most to least favorite (score in parenthesis is achieved via a complex, albeit arbirtrary formula, and are really only there to indicate how relatively close the countries are):

#1. Thailand (95 pts) - perfect combination of friendly people, amazing sites, best food, and a countrly sufficiently advanced that getting around is cheap, easy and comfortable. Plus an unbeatable combination of beaches and great dive sites; hills, mountains, and a bamboo jungle in the North; and beautiful, fascinating, and yet always different, culture everywhere! Most memorable site/experience: elephant riding in Chiang Mai (in spite of being overly touristy)

#2. Laos (93) - surprisingly close, considering how much fun Thailand was, but the friendliest, more relaxing country in the region. If it had the full variety of sites that Thailand has it would take over as #1, but as it is, I'll leave as a close #2. Most memorable site/experience: tubing in Vang Vieng.

#3. Indonesia (85) - maybe it was just surprising because I knew next to nothing about it going in ans wasn't even planning on going originally, but the amazing variety, the helpful people, and the relative lack of tourists gets Indonesia high on the list. Bali has gorgeous beaches (with perfect surf breaks), Yogyakarta's temples rival any you'd see any place else in the region, and Java, Sumatra, and others I only got to read about have some amazing mountains, gorges, and smoking volcanic craters. Oh, and there's also an equator monument... Most memorable site/experience: the smoking Bromo volcano (and the surrounding Cemoro Lawang village)

#4. Cambodia (80)- 1 day in Cambodia. But I went to see Angkor Wat on that day. And Angkor Wat is, without competition, the most amazing [man-made] structure I've seen so far. The Taj Mahal is the only one that can even be in the conversation, and yet it doesn't come all that close! Most memorable site/experience: uhmm, let me think... Oh yeah, Angkor Wat was amazing!

#5. Nepal (77) - it'd be even higher if I'd spent less time in Kathmandu! The Himalays are simply incomparable! Yes, the hike up to Everest Base Camp was tough, but the sites were simply stunning. Kathmandu had some things to see too, but there were just too many people busy trying to sell pot, hash, cocaine, or anything else you can think of as soon as you stop out of your hotel. And the blackouts... I'd have put Nepal above Cambodia if it wasn't for the blackouts! Most memorable site/experience: Amu Dablam. Everest and Lohtse may be taller and more massive, but AMu Dablam was the prettiest peak!

#6. New Zealand (75) - not much culture here, but oh, the mountains! Getting to see Mt Cook lighting up as the sun was rising over the ridge behind us was probably the most spectacular experience so far. Not to mention the 'Moon surface' volcanic terrain at Tongariro, the amazing variety you see up North in the Bay of Islands, and, oh bungy jumping 134 at Nevis, in Queenstown. But on the down side, it's expensive, and if you don't have your own car, getting around is much too hard! Most memorable site/experience: did I mention the watching the sun rise over Mt. Cook?

#7. Fiji (70) - there's not all that much to do here, but the two things that Fiji does have may be the best of their kind in the world: beaches and diving! Not to mention that everyone (locals and tourists) are constantly relaxed: it's Fiji time! Most memorable site/experience: diving at Robinson Crusoe island. Sharks, turtles, rays, corals, all in crystal clear waters!

#8. Malaysia (66) - There's just something missing... I'm not quite sure what though. The fresh sea food is great, the people are ready to help (even the ones trying to sell you something will gladly answer your questions even if you don't buy anything) and Sipidan island may be the only dive site better than Fiji. But it's also fairly expensive for a SE Asia country and Kuala Lumpur rather symbolizes the country: there's a few things to see here (the Petronas towers), but not all that much. Most memorable site/experience: diving at Sipidan!

#9. Australia (65) - if I had to choose a place to live of the ones I'd seen so far, Melbourne is the choice, hands down! But for visiting? Maybe it's just because I've been here before, but it just doesn't seem quite as interesting as most of the places in SE Asia, and the nature can be amazing (Ayer's Rock, 12 Apostles, 3 Sisters in the BLue Mountains), but if you want nature, you've got to go to New Zealand! Most memorable site/experience: off-road driving in the Northern Territory.

#10. China, incl. Macau (incomplete) - I've been in China for all of two days so far, and one of those days was in Macau, which isn't even technically part of China. And I've learned that nobody speaks English here... But, I don't know, I found it to be an exciting experience when I went about 24 hours without seeing another foreigner and only managed to order dinner by making a motion to indicate that I wanted a bowl of something... (noodle soup to be exact). Plus the girl at that restaurant didn't speak a word of English, but was very amused/impressed by my heavy backpack. Oh, and here, I got to bungy jump off a 233m tower - eat your heart out Nevis! Most memorable site/experience: bungy jumping in Macau.

#11. Singapore (55) - it's just tiny... which limits how much you can do in Singapore. And it's expensive - not Europe-expensive, but sort of an Australia-sort of expensive, which is a lot for SE Asia! And it's not as clean as I had been led to expect! Most memorable site/experience: playing frisbee with the locals

#12. Sri Lanka (50) - I'll call it 'blah'... It was really interesting to see a temple that the people were actually using (not just another tourist attraction in Thailand), but overall, I was there for only day, in the capital of Colombo. And there's very little to see or do in Colombo, unless you are fascinated by the military being all over the streets. Of course I've heard (and read) that the best parts of Sri Lanka are outside of Colombo, so I would be happy to go back some time. Most memorable site/experience: the temple

#13. India (35) - have I mentioned that the people are important yet? The Taj Mahal is simply brilliant, but it's an oasis of brilliance in a dirty, ugly city of Agra. It's a bit of a michocosm for the country - it has some of the most amazing places to witness in the whole world, but the people who live there just don't seem to care enough to take care of these places. The people? They just don't seem to care... about much of anything. Which makes talking to them, sharing a road with them, talking to Dell's India-based customer service is incredibly, unnecessarily difficult! Food's good though... Most memorable site/experience: the Taj Mahal (as long as you try not to look at the surrounding city)

#14. Vietnam (10) - oh, Halong Bay is pretty enough, and the rice paddies in the countryside are beautiful as well, but overall? Overall, it's the one and only country I'm not particularly anxious to go back to! Most memorable site/experience: the ride in the back of the truck.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Round the North Island with Pictures

Slightly later than I had planned, but as promised - pictures of my last couple days in New Zealand running around the coast on the North Island. First up the surfing town of Mt. Maunganui and it's new 250m artificial reef: The picture above was taken from on top of the mountain for which the town is named. In addition to being a popular morning walk for the older retired set - actual quote: "You get kind of sick of the view when you walk up here every day," it's also a launch point for hang gliders and paragliders. Those are both on my life todo list, but I guess it was too early for the adrenaline junkies to be up as I didn't get to see anyone actually take off.
Next up was the Cormandel Peninsula and an overnight hike to Pinnacles Hut. I reserved the last bunk for the night at 3:40 and the ranger told me I should hurry up before dark. After a short but bumpy drive to the trail head and some repacking to drop weight, I was headed up by 4:20. The hut warden was shocked to see me roll in at 5:50 since the walk up is supposed to take 3 hours. But after Tongariro it was a piece of cake! I mean there are several flat sections even. I hung out that night with some lawyers from Auckland and in the morning scampered up the Pinnacles. They have a nice viewing platform with guard rails that I promptly climbed above to get to the tippy top. Pretty impressive to see all the work they did to put a virtual staircase in to the top, but unfortunately it didn't look like the fog was going to lift so I headed down the mountain.
A couple hours later I'd reached Paihia in the Bay of Islands. A beach town that was pretty dead in early fall except for open mic night at the local bar which was a lot of fun. In the morning I boarded the Gungha II for a day sail. The weather forecast was mixed, but it did give us a nice rainbow on the way out of port:
And we spent the rest of the day dodging the showers, including a long stop on Robeson Island. Apparently it's about half privately owned and boy do those houses look nice - that little white dot at the top of the grassy area.
Next I headed to the west coast where you could see big sand dunes and the wind was whipping up the waves. The captain of the sail boat was telling us about the Beaufort Scale of wind speed. This looks about a 7 - some foam in streaks and walking was tough.
I headed further down the coast to the shelter of the Kauri trees - a native New Zealand species prized for it's amazing wood and slowly recovering from extensive logging in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They're similar to redwoods in size - this picture below is somewhat deceptive as you have to stay 20m from the tree on the path. This tree, Tane Mahuta, is the largest living Kauri tree and I couldn't come close to actually spanning its 13.8m trunk girth.
Afterwards I stopped by the Kauri museum where they have the relative sizes of several large trees on a side wall. Tane Mahuta is the second innermost ring:
Finally I reached Auckland and met back up with the lawyers for drinks. Afterwards Jacqui and I headed to Devonport to check out the night skyline.
The next day I poked around Auckland a bit and discovered the train station is nice and shiny and new and makes good abstract pictures
All too soon I headed for the airport, turned in my rental car, and hopped onto the 12 hour flight to SFO. There I got a double double animal style and caught up with Gary before finally making it home about an hour after I took off from Auckland!

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Halong Bay

My plan for Vietnam had initially been to spend a day in Hanoi, then head over to Halong Bay for a couple of days before moving up North into China. Unfortunately, the 'scarce' transportation options at the Laos border conspired to prevent me from spending any time at all in Hanoi, but I did arrive in Halong Bay Thursday night just as I had planned. Staying in the city on the bay didn't make a whole lot of sense (even though it is a much, much nicer place to be than the Lonely Planet gives it a credit for!), so I was off on an overnight cruise on the bay.

The ridiculous coincidence happened right as I was getting shepherded towards my boat at the dock where it turned out that out of the 100's of boats cruising the bay that day I was on the same one as Peter and Natalie - the two French travelers, with whom I'd shared a truck ride just a day earlier. They had apparently decided to cut their stay in Hanoi short as well and came down to Halong Bay. Along the way, they'd met a bunch of their friends from France, also by a completely accidental coincidence, so now we had a sizeable French delegation on our boat.
Am I looking French yet?

The first stop on our cruise was the Dong Thien Cung limstone cave, which was a prety amazing site... probably could've been even more amazing if the Vietnamese hadn't made quite so many artificial enhancements to it in the form of lights, walkways, ladders, fountain...

And just to reaffirm the impression that all French travelers are naturally drawn to France's former colony, Vietnam, I ran into another French guy I'd previously met on the trip (in Vang Vieng, Laos) while at the cave.

After spending a peaceful night on the bay, parked near Cat Ba island, I returned back to the mainland in the afternoon the next day and headed over to a local scuba diving shop. Now, the fact that a popular tourist (both local and foreign) destination like Halong Bay had exactly one dive shop only served to confirm my suspicions that the diving here might not be all that great, but I picked up an underwater camera in Bangkok, but may not have another chance to go diving until Mexico or Costa Rica in the winter, so I was determined to go while I had a chance, just to try out the underwater housing, if nothing else! The verdict? Well, the housing works just fine:

The diving? I'd recommend Halong Bay for a lot of things, but not for diving... The brochures claimed visibility of about 8-10m, which I thought was already pretty low. Instead, when we jumped in (and it was just me and the dive master), it was barely 1-2m. Which led to me losing site of him a couple of times during the <30 minute dive and having to surface to reconvene. Once you do get to the bottom, there's some mildly interesting things here, but nothing remotely comparable to places like Fiji, Borneo, or Thailand's Phi Phi. The dive outfit is also just a bit less than well organized as they'd forgotten to bring weight belts, so instead I was diving with a bnch of wrenches and assorted pieces of metal in the BCD, while the dive master with me was just carrying around a big rock! Of the two BCD's, one was leaking a little bit of air, and the other only had 150 Bar of air, instead of the customary 200... Considering that we were diving to all of 10m, I wasn't worried about any of it really, but all in all, I'm not inspired to have a whole lot of confidence in the successful and continued survival of scuba diving operations in Halong Bay, but, for now, I got to go an play with my underwater camera for 30 minutes, so I got what I wanted out of it! I also got $10 back at the end for the assorted problems we experienced...

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Nous sommes dans un camion vietnamien

That's my broken French for 'We are in a Vietnamese truck'... More specifically, we are in the back of a Vietnamese truck taking a six hour ride from the border to the town of Thanh Hoa, which is not quite Hanoi I'd been aiming for, but is better than the remote border crossing outpost of Na Maew.

This may have actually been more comfortable than some of the buses I've been on! Or maybe I just didn't get much sleep the night before

Rewinding just a bit... The 'we' was me and a pair of French travelers, Peter and Natalie, whom I had met that morning at the Sam Neua bus station, back in Laos. Both wearing rather matching, fairly amusing, and thoroughly French pairs of pantalounes. Being the only foreigners on the 3 hour mini-bus ride to the Vietnamese border (through areas that I termed 'the most middle of nowhere I've been to so far on the trip') we made quick friends. The border crossing was trivial (the Lonely Planet had mentioned that this wasn't a crossing frequented by foreigners... or anyone, really) as the guys on the Laos side seemed politely bored, while the Vietnamese authorities seemed genuinely excited just to have someone to talk to.

Welcome to Vietnam!

Now, on the Vietnam side, our definitive (and only) source of information, the Lonely Planet, once again warned that transport options were 'scarce'. Well, scarce is better than none, so we'll find something, right? As it turned out, the options were limited to a Minibus to Guonson (the next town over, about 60km away) for $10 each, to catch a bus to Haoni from there and a bus arriving here at 1PM and leaving for Hanoi... sometime. Naturally, we waited for the bus, which arrived... and the driver promptly declared that he'd be going to Hanoi tomorrow at noon. The minibus was now out too as the bus from Guonson also leaves at 1. So we sat around, having lunch and playing cards in the afternoon sun waiting to either spend the night at this 'frontier outpost; or for another transport option to turn up. Eventually one turned up in the form of a minivan who could take us to Ninh Binh (~100km away from Hanoi) for $300 - I countered with $45, they declined, we went back to playing cards.

And an hour later, our truck showed up from the Laos side - after a bit of negotiating and explaining that we were, in fact, willing to just ride in the back, we had a ride! For $25 too (well, as it later turned out, the driver had expected $25 each, but that wasn't in the cards for him). The ride was pretty bumpy - the roads in Vietnam are narrow, windy, and beat up all the way till you get to the bigger cities near the coast. The only other vehicles you see on the road are other trucks, jeeps (a lot of both being older Soviet models), and a constant stream of motorcycles. The road is also quite scenic, as you get a succession of limestone karsts and cliffs on all sides, with peaceful green rice paddies all around, rivers flowing through, and huts, perched high on stilts to avoid being flooded during the rainy season. Considering that I did have plenty of space to stretch out, the ride was arguably more comfortable than several of the buses (and airplanes) I'd been on so far on the trip. And about 7 hours later, we arrived in Thanh Hoa and actually ended up staying in a rather nice hotel room for our troubles!

Going back a bit further still, a few images from Laos:

Tat Kuang Si waterfalls near Luang Prabang

Wat Xieng Thong Temple

A boy at a hill-top temple in Luang Prabang and a Buddhist statue overlooking the Meukong river

The plain of jars in Phonsavan, Laos - nobody really knows how long these jars have been here, what they were used for, or why there aren't any anywhere else

The fields are also well known for being littered with bombs and craters from the Vietnam war when the US spent a lot of time and effort bombing the Ho Chi Minh trail, running through Laos. An astounding 25% of the bombs dropped failed to detonate!

Bus travel in Laos: not quite the super-luxury bus I'd had in Malaysia! Me, Henrik, and Jaap on the way from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang and another bus we passed along the way, that had clearly seen better days!

This afternoon, off to beautiful Haulong Bay for a couple of days of sight-seeing, and, perhaps, scuba diving!

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Round the North Island

From White Island, I headed to surf city - Mt. Maunganui - to the Pinnacles in the Coromandel Peninsula to Paihia in the Bay of Islands then over the the West Coast to check out some Kauri trees before finally making it to Auckland late tonight. Tomorrow I'll poke around for the day then get on Air New Zealand flight 8 for the trip back to SFO, some In n Out with Gary and finally home. With luck I'll get some pictures up on Thursday...

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Laos, Laos

I've spent almost a week in Laos now, but honestly the days are starting to blend together a bit - Laos is not so much about seeing and exploring the sights (even though there are a few), Laos is much more about relaxing, enjoying yourself (and enjoying some cheap, yet excellent Beer Lao), and, normally, floating down a river... in a tube or a kayak.

To wit, only spent a day in the capital, Vientiane, seeing some sights and getting my visa to Vietnam (an astonishingly straightforward process btw), met a couple of other guys traveling there - Jaap, from Holland, and Henrik, from Germany, and the three of us headed down to Vang Vieng in fairly short order, which is all about floating down (or jumping into) the river that flows lazily past the town. Tomorrow, catching a 'local bus' (not the VIP bus, so it's liable to be an experience) and heading up to Luang Prabang, that entire city (town?) has been deemed a World Heritage Site, so expect a little more culture/sight seeing there... In the mean time, the best of the lazy times in Vang Vieng:

Upon arrival in Vang Vieng, the three of us were able to secure an almost brand new, triple bungalow, for about $6 a night... not per person, total! And then moved on to enjoying some Beer Lao...

Next day, a short mini-bus ride to go kayaking down the river

The bridge across the Nam Song river - we'd float down under many a bridge like this

The mountains here are incredibly green... and the river slowly and effortlessly carries the kayaks by

Paddles, away!

The mountains, the river, some bungalows on the side, and the kayaks

By the 2nd day, we had dispensed with such formalities as kayaks and guides, and just went tubing down the river... sometimes stopping for a drink, sometimes just floating down the river with one (or, in this case, two)

And conveniently enough, whenever you stop at a river-side bar, they also have rope swings set up into the river - great fun. This one is me, flying into the great wide open! Havea few good videos from here as well, hopefully will get to upload those at some point

Thursday, May 15, 2008

White Island

So I got up early this morning and got my second New Zealand rental car. This one is from Budget, and only has 18k km on it (compared to my other rental which had 200k). Almost brand new! It is however a stick. And let's just say that stick + right hand drive + hiking boots + only a rough idea how to get to Whakatane is quite a combo. Also interesting side note: Whakatane is pronounced fuc-a-tawny. Anyway, I then boarded a boat for the 90 minute trip out to White Island - New Zealand's most active volcano. The seas were also a bit rough: But they gave us some protective gear for our trek on the island:
And after a quick attempt to land in Shark Bay (tide was too low):
We headed for the main wharf where the zodiac tried to time it's trips in between the big sets of breakers and the crew hung onto the railings for dear life:
Once safely on dry land, we got to see a lot of sulphur formations up close. They're all brilliant yellow. Note also the hot spring bubbling on the middle left of the picture:
And there were some big mud pots too:
Some of the formations were huge - this one was 20m at least - and constantly covered by steam:

This is a lake in the crater at the heart of the volcano. It's about 50 C and has a negative PH! Also lots of steam coming off it:
The fumarole in the upper left is about 3 m, the biggest one on the island and conveniently situated near all this scenic yellow foreground:
Finally we wrapped up the day looking at the old sulphur mine and processing factory. The abandoned machinery weathering away is quite scenic:
Doh - this is why I need an SLR - I thought the gear was in focus, not the stupid wall. Oh well.
Uhh and apparently these wharf railings aren't the original - they're only 5 years old. Scary stuff all these volcanic gasses!