Monday, December 28, 2015

North Vietnam

Vietnam – a country that is best known for its war.  What a great claim to fame!  Vietnam was part of China for the first millennium CE but gained independence (for the most part) after that.  The Vietnamese fought and conquered the Champa kingdom which controlled all of South Vietnam a few hundred years later, and were then invaded themselves by the French.  Japan took over during World War II, and after the war was over, the Vietnamese fought against the French when they tried to re-colonize.  When the French were expelled in 1954, communist guerrillas had gained control of the north while loyalists maintained control of the south – splitting the country into two.  Basically, a bunch of shit went down and the communists attacked the south prompting the Vietnam War, which turned out to be a complete shit show.  We all know that.

The problem with all of this is that the north (communists) won the war.  And despite the fact that we all know that, this fact is constantly reiterated to visitors at every opportunity.  In any conflict, each side tells their story and the truth lies somewhere in the middle.  In this situation, however, the propaganda machine is strong.  So strong, in fact, that it really causes visitors to lose all belief in what they are saying.  According to every museum in Vietnam, everyone loved communism but then the USA invaded South Vietnam so North Vietnam had to fight to liberate the south and everyone was happy to be reunified.  Not so fucking fast, Vietnam.  That is not what happened.  Not even close.  Vietnam – you didn’t mention how one million North Vietnamese fled to the south to escape communism.  And you failed to mention the two million refugees who fled South Vietnam after communism was forced upon them.  And what about all those people that you killed?  While I appreciate that the US and its allies did a lot of shitty things with a lot of stupid motives, the way the Vietnamese government describes it is so far from reality that it actually ruined a lot of the museum experiences I had in Vietnam.  It was not the “liberation of Saigon”.  It was the fall of Saigon.  And this is the problem with communist governments:  they control everything.  Even today, the Vietnamese government controls all media and censors the internet.  Political dissent is not allowed (because heaven forbid someone speaks their mind or speaks the truth).  Because of this, everything is very one-sided and none of it is believable after a while.

After the communists won, they pretty much shut themselves off from the world for the next decade and a half, but slowly opened up to foreign investment in the 1990’s.  Since then, the economy has soared and tourism has boomed.  The old South Vietnam has leaped well ahead of the old North Vietnam, mainly because the South Vietnamese diaspora that fled when the communists took over is now pumping money back into the south.  Saigon is growing way faster and has a lot more money than its northern counterpart, the national capital of Hanoi.  And it makes me wonder:  what would have happened had the communists lost?  Would South Vietnam be as prosperous as a Thailand or Malaysia?  Or maybe even as prosperous as a Taiwan or South Korea?  We will never know.  What I do know is this:  this place has a ton of potential, and travelling in Vietnam – despite the bullshit – was actually rather easy and very enjoyable.  Yes, there were a lot of dodgy characters (I’m looking at you taxi drivers), but as with the other countries, if you’re smart about it, you’ll avoid any major mishaps.  Just make sure to check your pockets.  Constantly.

I spent sixteen days in Vietnam and can’t possibly fit that all into one blog so I’m going to divide it up into two blogs based on the old division between North Vietnam and South Vietnam.

A few highlights of my time in North Vietnam:

Hanoi is the national capital of Vietnam but only its second biggest city.  The biggest city is the much larger and much more modern Saigon in the south.  Despite that, Hanoi is still a huge city with quite a lot of sights to see, though none of them were all too interesting.  I only had two full days there, so I had to cram in a lot and cram it in quickly.  I started with temples – because that’s the big thing to do in Southeast Asia as I’ve mentioned before.  I saw a handful of temples in Hanoi but the most interesting was the Temple of Literature, which was overrun with graduates taking photos.  It was definitely one of the more interesting temple experiences because of that, but the actual temple itself was… not that different from other temples, despite the educational theme.  I’m a bit over temples.  Then there were museums.  The National Museum of Vietnamese History talked a lot about how the Mongols were never able to conquer Vietnam and about how terrible the French were.  The Vietnamese Women’s Museum talked about the role of women in Vietnamese society including their part in the war.  The Hoa Lo Prison Museum (also called the Hanoi Hilton by the American POWs that were kept there) talked about how the French were so terrible to Vietnamese inmates but how the Vietnamese treated the American inmates so nicely.  Right.  All three of these museums had a ton of propaganda (and, let’s be honest, some outright lies) about the Vietnam War, so I’m going to have to rate them low on the museum scale.  Even the Fine Arts Museum had paintings glorifying reunification of the north and south.  I decided to skip the Ho Chi Minh Museum as I was fearful that the propaganda machine there would be enough make my head explode.  The only museum that seemed void of any noticeable propaganda was the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology where I learned about some of the smaller ethnic groups that inhabit the country.

Aside from that, Hanoi was full of dodgy taxi drivers, lots of touts, some scammers, and of course the thing that Hanoi is best known for: crazy traffic.  I must brag that I pretty quickly mastered the art of crossing the street in front of thousands of oncoming motorbikes (and a few cars).

Halong Bay:
I reunited with a fellow traveller that I had met in Laos and we booked a 3 day, 2 night tour of Halong Bay – one of my 103 Things.  The bay is famous for its limestone rock formations and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We arrived to meet twelve other travellers – Germans and Scandinavians – who would share our boat for the first night.  We cruised around the gorgeous bay, explored some caves, did some kayaking, and took a short hike.  The second half of the tour was on land at Cat Ba Island – the biggest island in Halong Bay.  There we did a longer hike, had some beach time, and enjoyed a few beers by the water.  This was a nice escape from the hustle of Hanoi and I only wish I had more time on the relaxing boat.

Phong Nha:
After Hanoi and Halong Bay, I took an overnight bus south to Phong Nha – home of the largest cave system in the world.  This backpacker experience was just a bit too real for me.  After a few days with lovely German and Nordic travellers, I was thrust onto a long bus ride with about a million 18 – 22 year old Brits.  “Would you rather pull out six teeth with pliers or cut out an eyeball with scissors?”  These people are stupid and probably all have scabies.  The chain-smoking driver didn’t help the situation, and the wake-up music sounded like a Vietnamese Kermit the Frog struggling to sing bad karaoke.  Then I had a loud hostel.  I’m too old for this shit.

But it was all worth it:  Phong Nha National Park is gorgeous and the caves are incredible.  Paradise Cave is over 31 kilometres long, though tourists can only go in the first kilometre or so.  Dark Cave, however, was the highlight of the area.  After zip-lining across the river, our group swam into the cave.  Once inside, we proceeded further into the cave where the water became browner and browner, finally turning into mud.  Pure mud.  I was submerged up to my neck in mud.  It was the strangest feeling:  a weird combination of floating in space and not being able to move.  And the reason it’s called Dark Cave:  it is pitch black inside.  While you’re in the mud.  It’s trippy.  After a rinse, we kayaked out of the cave.  The whole experience was awesome.

The scenery in North Vietnam was beautiful, but I had heard South Vietnam was nicer.  I was excited to go!  But first, let me take a selfie.

To see more photos of my time in North Vietnam, follow this link:

Friday, December 25, 2015


Just across the Mekong River from Thailand lies Laos – a poor, less populous, communist version of Thailand.  The two are culturally similar.  The languages are related, the food is similar, and both have way too many temples.  For a long time the territory that is Laos fell under the control of Siam (Thailand), but the histories diverged at one point.  Thailand was never colonized by Europeans while Laos (much to their resentment) became a part of French Indochina.  Despite coup after coup, Thailand has been a relatively stable, peaceful, and prosperous democratic state (relatively is the key word here).  Laos was taken over by communists and suffered greatly during both the Indochina War (against the French) and the Vietnam War (when the North Vietnamese ran their supply lines through Laos prompting the USA to bomb the shit out of the country).  Despite all of the bad history, Laos was a pleasant country to visit.  The people were mostly friendly (though there were still plenty of shady characters – this is Southeast Asia after all), it was pretty easy to get around, and we had no major mishaps along the way.  Woohoo!  I travelled with my mate Guy from university.  We crossed the border from Thailand – my only land border crossing in Southeast Asia – and proceeded to have three main stops along the way.

A few highlights of my time in Laos:

Slow boat down the Mekong River:
The morning after we crossed the Thai-Lao border we hopped aboard a slow boat down the Mekong River.  My friends Della and Eric had done this a few months ago and recommended it.  It was two full days of travelling – three if you count the bus from Chiang Mai to get to the Lao border the day before – but I’m glad we worked in the time to sit back and enjoy it.  The boats are long with well over a hundred seats (maybe 200 actually?) and – as the name implies – go slowly down the Mekong River allowing you to take in the jungle and village scenery.  We started in the town of Huay Xai just across from the Thai border, travelled to the town of Pakbeng on day 1, and then finished the journey to Luang Prabang on day 2.  It’s a much cheaper way of traveling than a flight, and much less bumpy and nauseating than a bus (as we later experienced on our bus rides from Luang Prabang to Vang Viang and from Vang Vieng to Vientiane).

Luang Prabang:
If you only have time to visit one place in Laos, Luang Prabang is it.  It’s a pleasant little city which reminded me very much of Chiang Mai.  Just like in Chiang Mai, we visited a lot of temples in Luang Prabang.  We also visited three small museums – one in the old royal palace, a small ethnological museum, and the UXO Visitor Centre.  The UXO Visitor Centre was the most interesting and by far the saddest museum we visited.  UXO stands for “unexploded ordnance” – remains of bombs that were dropped by the USA but failed to detonate on impact.  Laos is the most heavily bombed country in the history of the world thanks to the North Vietnamese running their supply line targets through here, and millions of these leftover bombs remain across the country.  We learned that on average one person per day is still killed by unexploded ordnance – which is ridiculous when you think that the Vietnam War ended forty years ago.  The UXO Visitor Centre is run by a non-profit which helps to survey the land and remove UXO.  Given the amount of UXO left in the country, they sadly have a very, very long road ahead.

Outside of Luang Prabang, we took a day trip to the Kouang Si Waterfall for a nice hike and a dip in the clear (and ridiculously cold) water.  The waterfall park also had a bear rescue centre where we learned a bit about the poaching problem that exists in Laos.  Back in town, we climbed up Mount Phu Si (right in the centre of town) to watch sunset, but it was overrun with tourists (stupid tourists!) so we aborted and went down to the night market instead.  The night market in Luang Prabang is fabulous – it goes on for ages down the main drag in town and sells all sorts of souvenirs.  An offshoot down a little alley is the food street with lots of options including the super cheap vegetarian buffets – where you fill up a bowl with as much food as you can possibly choke down for a very reasonable set price.  They also have lots of sweets like cakes and coconut pancakes!  During the day, the adjacent square has a row of stalls selling baguette sandwiches – also for next to nothing.  Luang Prabang gets a gold star for good, cheap eats!

We stayed at the Golden Lotus Guesthouse which was in a prime location and ended up being my favourite guesthouse in Southeast Asia.  The guy who ran the place – Bill (but surely that wasn’t his real name!) – was super friendly and super helpful and he even took me to the morning bat (alms ceremony) and set me up with some rice to give to the monks.  The breakfast there was also delicious and I highly recommend this place to anyone traveling to Luang Prabang.

Vang Vieng:
A seven hour nauseating bus ride from Luang Prabang lies the little town of Vang Vieng.  This town is home to the Nam Song river, famous (or infamous) for its party scene that involves tubing down the river.  The area used to be overrun with lots of bars, lots of drugs, and dirty backpackers doing stupid things.  After a few too many tourists died, the government decided to put an end to the madness in 2012.  The backpacker vibe still remains, but it’s not unpleasant like I’m sure it used to be.  Guy and I went tubing down the river.  We had such a nice time that we decided to do it twice!  We stopped at three different bars for beer along the way – the only three that were open that day (the government limits how many can be open at once) – then slowly floated down the rest of the river back to town.  The tubing makes a nice stop to break up the journey between Luang Prabang and Vientiane.  Aside from this, there is nothing to see or do in Vang Vieng.

The bustling capital of Laos, Vientiane is… not so bustling.  It’s the smallest capital city in Southeast Asia, but despite this, the city has a few nice attractions.  The Lao National Museum went through the history of Laos (albeit rather poorly) and reiterated just how much the Lao people hated the Thai imperialists, then the French imperialists, and later the American imperialists.  The COPE Visitor Centre complemented the UXO one in Luang Prabang.  COPE is a non-profit that helps make prostheses for those who have lost limbs (mainly because of UXO).  It was another heartbreaking visit.  We saw our fair share of temples in Vientiane – as you do in Southeast Asia – and climbed to the top of the Patuxay Monument (or “victory gate”).  The monument is Laos’ Arc de Triomphe and is also called the “vertical runway” because it was constructed with concrete that was donated by the USA to build a runway at the airport.  We visited Laos’ first modern shopping mall (which was anything but impressive especially when compared to the malls in Thailand), watched a sunset on the Mekong River, and got told that our feet weren’t beautiful by a lady who would not stop hounding us to get a dodgy pedicure from her.  The highlight of Vientiane, however, was a bit outside the city.  The Xieng Khuan Buddha Park is a sculpture park full of random Buddhas – some small, some big – which was great for a photo shoot.  It isn’t huge, but the park is super interesting and well worth the forty minute journey out of the city to get there.

The food:
Laos food is very similar to Thai food and also has a lot of influence from Vietnam and the French.  I won’t elaborate too much, but I will say that a restaurant called Makphet (part of a non-profit which trains street kids to run the restaurant) was by far our favourite meal in the country.  The restaurant is in Vientiane but they have a sister restaurant in Luang Prabang and several in Cambodia.  The food was divine and we ate a LOT.  Like, a lot a lot.  We had eggplant dip, green mango salad, Mekong fish rolls, and a curry made with mushroom, coconut, peanut, and bean curd, and we had fancy fried bananas for dessert.  Superb.  Aside from that, Vientiane had a lot of great western restaurants (which was a super exciting surprise) and Vang Vieng had a pretty terrible Mexican restaurant (but decent pizza, surprisingly!)

I was quite happy with the amount of time we spent in Laos.  It was just right.  Onward to the other communist country in Southeast Asia:  Vietnam.  But first, let me take a selfie.

To see more photos of my time in Laos, follow this link:

Tuesday, December 22, 2015


After Kuala Lumpur, I flew up to Chiang Mai – the biggest city in northern Thailand – to meet up with my friend Guy from university.  We spent a few days there and then hopped over the border to Laos.  Then, a month later, after visiting Laos and Vietnam, I came back to Thailand to explore Bangkok (Thailand’s big capital city) and Koh Phangan (one of Thailand’s tropical islands).  I was joined in Bangkok by Kathleen (a fellow traveller from my India/Nepal tour) and my mate Dave from Seattle, who also came to Koh Phangan with me.  I have combined all segments of my Thailand trip into one blog… because I can.  I’m in charge here.

I was expecting Thailand to be a lot dodgier than it actually was, but it turned out to be super pleasant – well, at least Chiang Mai and Bangkok were super pleasant.  Then again, after visiting India, anything seems pleasant.  While Thailand has more than its fair share of scams and potentially bad tourist situations, the government has put up signs everywhere encouraging tourists to be vigilant about falling victim to scams and other dodgy deeds.  This really seemed to work in both Chiang Mai and Bangkok as I don’t recall seeing any scammers or other sketchy characters, though I did have one taxi driver try to pull a fast one on me.  He failed miserably.

A few highlights of my time in Thailand:

Chiang Mai:
The gateway to northern Thailand, Chiang Mai didn’t have any major tourist sites that stood out, but the city itself was just very pleasant.  The people were super friendly, it was easy to get around (the traffic wasn’t terrible), and there were some great eats and night markets to occupy our evenings.  Guy and I explored three small local museums (all of which were short, sweet, and quite informative) and many temples (as one does in Thailand).  All of the temples were conveniently located in the city with the exception of Wat Doi Suthep, which was located in the hills just outside the city.  Aside from being a large, impressive complex, Wat Doi Suthep offered great views of the city from its high perch.

Bangkok was a super cool city, though I could live without the excessively hot and humid weather.  It’s also massive and I wish I had a lot more than my four days there to explore this metropolis.  But, as with all places, I did as much as I could without exhausting myself too much.  I had to visit some temples (because you have to in Thailand) and I chose the three most important ones:  Wat Pho  (with its massive reclining Buddha), Wat Phra Kaew (attached to the Grand Palace), and Wat Arun (which required a nice little ferry across the river).  I also hit up two very interesting museums.  The first, the Museum of Siam, tells the history of Thailand from ancient times up to the modern day.  Unlike most museums in this part of Asia, the Museum of Siam was well-curated, very informative, and made many of the exhibits very interesting.  It was definitely a highlight of my time in Bangkok.  The Jim Thompson House Museum is the quirky home of an American expat who used to be in the silk business.  He mysteriously disappeared several decades ago – some theorize that the CIA killed him due to his anti-American views – and his house was turned into a museum.  Like the Museum of Siam, this was super well-done and another major highlight of my time in Bangkok.

Shopping is another massive part of the Bangkok experience.  While there are many, many malls in Bangkok, I didn’t really shop in any of them (but I did take advantage of their cheap and delicious food courts!)  The market, however, was fucking insane.  I had read that Chatuchak Weekend Market was one of the largest markets in the world and I wanted to check it out.  Coincidentally, some Thai friends that I had met on the Trans Siberian Railroad two years ago were planning to head to the market the Saturday that I was in town and they invited me along.  Yes, please!  The market was huge and PHENOMENAL.  I had a lot of food there – especially thanks to my mates taking me to some places I would not have considered eating on my own – and just wandered around for hours.  The market sold everything (like, everything), but my favourite part was the area of cheap, designer-type clothing.  This stuff was so much nicer (and trendier) than what you can get in department stores in either Australia or the USA, and it was a fraction of the price.  I bought one pair of shorts but I had to refrain from going overboard.  I will go back to Bangkok one day (when I have a job and money again) and will spend an entire weekend just shopping, shopping, shopping for clothes.

Koh Phangan:
Koh Phangan was the opposite experience to the rest of Thailand.  It was not pleasant and enjoyable like Chiang Mai, nor was it cool and exciting like Bangkok.  It just sort of sucked.  The big draw to Koh Phangan is the infamous Full Moon Party.  I sort of knew that this wouldn’t be my cup of tea but I was curious to see it anyway.  My guide book said that the island also had things to do for people who don’t like the party scene so I thought it would be fun.  I was wrong.  While the Thai people on the mainland were nothing but super nice, the locals in Koh Phangan seemed a bit spoiled by the tourism and their mission was to take advantage of tourists every chance they got.  The other tourists (mainly drunken backpackers) were also pretty terrible.  The weather didn’t cooperate for any hiking and we only had one swim at the beach.  The Full Moon Party was cool for a little while, but as people got drunker, it got more and more unpleasant.  The only redeeming quality of the trip was that we got three massages three days in a row (a Thai massage, foot reflexology, and a deep tissue oil massage).  Koh Phangan was really the first place I felt uncomfortable (in a different way to India) and I was super happy when we left.

Put it in my mouth:
Thai food:  the national food of Australia.  I ate Thai food at least once or twice a week in Australia and I was SUPER EXCITED to eat some real Thai food in Thailand.  And let me tell you: there was no disappointed at all.  Fresh fruits – like bananas and dragonfruit and mangoes – were everywhere.  Noodles – OH THE NOODLES!  I had pad Thai and pad see ew, and then I had more pad see ew and some more pad see ew.  And I had an iced milk tea with every meal and mango sticky rice with coconut cream after every meal.  I had lots of spicy foods including khao sai (a spicy soup) and green curry with chicken.  I had chicken in coconut soup milk and fresh spring rolls.  And fried spring rolls.  And then some more fried spring rolls.  And maybe a few more fresh spring rolls.  When I decided to switch dessert up a bit, I would forego the mango sticky rice and have coconut ice cream served in an actual coconut shell.  And it would be topped with peanuts and sweet corn.  And happiness.  One of the highlights of the food in Thailand was taking a cooking class at Tomyumthai Cooking School in Chiang Mai – recommend by my friends Della and Eric who went there on their gap year earlier this year.  After we visited the local market to pick up ingredients, our little group cooked four courses (appetizers, noodles, curry, and soup!) and ended with… wait for it… more mango sticky rice!  Jizztastic!

And, of course, like with all places, I got some Mexican food from a pretty good place in Chiang Mai called Miguel’s.  It wasn’t the best, but it was above average for Mexican food when compared to its peers in other non-Mexican/non-American countries.

And that was Thailand.  I would be super keen to head back to Bangkok one day for more eating and shopping.  As for the islands, well, I’ll give any future trips to other Thai islands a hard miss, though I would definitely be keen to check out some other places on the Thai mainland.  In the meantime, I still have three other countries in Southeast Asia to explore, so I’ll head over the border to Laos.  But first, let me take a selfie.

To see more photos of my time in Thailand, follow this link:

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Kuala Lumpur

This post was supposed to be titled “Malaysia” instead of just “Kuala Lumpur”.  My plan was to spend three days each in Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia’s big capital city), Penang (a historic British settlement with an amazing food scene), and Langkawi (an island known for its beaches).  But, shortly after landing in Malaysia, I fell ill with a case of food poisoning or something similar.  After four days in the bathroom, I cancelled my plans for Penang and Langkawi.  Most people say you only need a day for KL – including my taxi driver when I arrived – but I think that’s wrong.  You need two days.  I had over four full days not counting my days stuck inside near a bathroom.  It was a lot.

A few highlights of my time in KL:

Petronas Towers & KL Tower:
The tallest buildings in the world from 1998 – 2004, the Petronas Towers are one of the main draws of KL and one of the most famous places in all of Malaysia.  The tour was a bit strange though.  I was ushered up to the Skybridge that connects the two towers on level 41.  The group was given ten minutes for pictures.  Then we were ushered up to the observation deck on level 86.  We had more time here, but it still seemed rushed, and there weren’t really any informational displays on the buildings like the ones you get in nearly every other tall tower in the world.  I actually learned more about the Petronas Towers engineering from displays in Taipei 101 than I did from their own displays.  Take notes, Petronas.  I also visited the KL Tower which is just a few blocks away from the Petronas Towers.  Situated on the hill, I think the KL Tower has much better views than the Petronas Towers.  It also has a super high up open-air observation deck which is quite neat (except for the fact that it was hazy when I was there so the views were obscured… bah!)

KL doesn’t have the museum scene that a lot of other cities have (even other cities in Southeast Asia), but I chose two that looked promising and both were pretty good.  The National Museum quickly goes through the history of Malaysia in four displays in four rooms, each corresponding to a different time period: prehistoric, ancient Malay kingdoms, British colonial era, and independence.  The independence section had a small display on their flag which conveniently didn’t mention that they basically stole the design from the USA.  But I’ll let it slide for now.  I also visited the Islamic Arts Museum which had all of the usual art-type stuff (ceramics, weaving, etc.) but also had displays on architecture and tent-making, which proved to be my two favourite sections of the museum.

Batu Caves:
In the northern suburbs of the city lie the Batu Caves.  These caves have been converted into a series of Hindu cave temples.  I went because, you know, I hadn’t seen enough Hindu temples in Mauritius, India, or Nepal… These were quite cool, though the massive staircase to the top was exhausting and the bandit monkeys were scary.  One of the caves, the Ramayana Cave, had a bunch of creepy displays of giants and midgets and one big rock linga (penis).  I giggled.

The famous shopping street in Chinatown, Jalan Petaling, was typically Asian and typically dodgy with stall after stall of crappy wares and hawkers trying to get your attention.  As an alternative, KL has some pretty good upscale malls that I wandered around for quite a long time.  The malls, however, weren’t remotely as good as the malls in Dubai.  I think I’m ruined forever.

KL Bird Park:
Listen:  I don’t like birds.  They are unnatural creatures that must be stopped.  What’s worse than birds?  People who feed the birds (I’m looking at you, Chinese tourists in Sydney).  But, the KL Bird Park touts itself as having the largest aviary in the world so I had to go check it out.  The verdict: skip it.  It was fine I guess, but it really is just a bunch of stupid birds and the aviary really isn’t all that impressive.  Did I mention that there were tons of birds there?  It was like an Alfred Hitchcock movie.

The food:
This is where Malaysia shines:  cuisine!  I love Malaysian food.  Malaysian cuisine has elements of Malay, Chinese, and Indian food in it due to the various ethnic populations in the country.  Sadly, I had to take it easy because of my stomach woes but I still managed to get the staples:  nasi lemak, satay skewers, iced milk tea, laksa (yessss!), and some good local desserts.  I ate at the famous Madam Kwan’s twice, and of course, I got Mexican food once (though my stomach wasn’t quite ready for it… but whatever…)

So, the food poisoning took its toll on my plans for Malaysia, but I rather enjoyed the slow pace I could move at (which was as fast as I could go) during my excessive days in KL.  Overall, KL isn’t an exciting city.  It’s a good stopover, but it’s not a destination itself.  It’s pleasant enough but it doesn’t stand out like Bangkok, Singapore, or some of the other cities in Southeast Asia.  I’ve done all that I want to do there, but I still definitely want to go back to Malaysia to check out Penang and Langkawi.  Maybe on my next gap year.  I can start planning the one later.  But first, let me take a selfie.

To see more photos of my time in KL, follow this link:

Saturday, December 5, 2015


Nestled between India and China lies the long, skinny country of Nepal – the one country in the world that sounds the most like nipple.  After being in India for eight disgusting days, I was apprehensive about Nepal.  The country is poorer than India and fairly similar culturally, and I didn’t know if that was going to translate into the same experience.  Luckily for me, it didn’t.

My trip to Nepal was at an awkward time:  less than six months after a massive earthquake devastated the country and right in the beginning of a constitutional crisis.  Signs of the earthquake were all around – lots of damaged and destroyed buildings (we mainly saw these in and around Kathmandu) – but the people seemed to be back in the habit of going about their daily business.   The constitutional crisis was much newer – only days old.  Basically, Nepal has been struggling for years to put together a new democratic constitution.  Finally, they did it and their provisional Parliament approved it by a very wide margin – yay!  But one small group near the Indian border didn’t like it, so India decided to apply some pressure to have it changed.  India closed their border to shipments of fuel and other supplies – just when Nepal is getting back on its feet and needs it the most.  This wouldn’t normally be a problem for a lot of countries, but Nepal has nowhere else to turn.  India is their longest border and all roads out of Nepal along their other border (China) have been closed since the earthquake.  So, basically, India is being a big fat bitch.

There were a few direct consequences for my little tour group.  We were unable to visit Lumbini – the birthplace of Buddha – because the area was experiencing protests.  There was very little petrol (gas) available and tourist vehicles got priority for gas (as this is a major part of their economy).  This meant that there was very little traffic on the roads which made our travel times much quicker than they would have normally been.  We saw lots of long queues at gas stations, and because fewer buses were running, locals (and some tourists) were riding on top of buses as the insides were jam-packed.  My flight out of Nepal also had to land to refuel in Calcutta because the Kathmandu Airport had no fuel.

Despite the recent earthquake and the constitutional crisis, my (short) time in Nepal was lovely.  The change from India was immediate.  Everything looked greener and cleaner across the border.  The people were friendlier – and by friendlier, I mean genuinely friendlier (they would talk to you and offer to help you without expecting money in return.)  The whole experience felt safer and more comfortable.  It took a few days to adjust to being surrounded by nice people, and I’m pretty sure I was quite rude to people in the first few days as my guard was still up from India.  But it didn’t take too long to settle in and really start enjoying this beautiful country.

A few highlights of my time in Nepal:

Chitwan National Park:
The wildlife in this part of Asia is similar to what I saw in Africa.  Unfortunately, our game drive through Chitwan National Park turned up next to nothing.  The better experience in that area, however, was our accommodation at the Barauli Community Homestay.  Specially built by my tour company, this little community homestay has brought tourism to the little village area of Barauli – just outside of Chitwan National Park.  The homestay provided some food and entertainment for us during our two nights there.  From the homestay, we were able to walk around the village where we went to the local market, visited the museum of the Tharu people (the local ethnic group), saw many rice paddies, and even joined in with some kids on the street playing a gambling game called Langurburza.  We saw some captive elephants nearby, but they looked sad.  One of the highlights of our stay was the chance to drink some masala chai while watching the sunset over the Narayani River.

Pokhara, Nepal’s second largest city, was definitely the highlight for me.  We started our time in Pokhara with dinner at SASANE – a non-profit that our tour company sponsors.  The non-profit helps victims of human trafficking and it was sad to learn about a lot of the crimes that go unnoticed by tourists in Nepal.

Our day started early the next morning with a sunrise viewing from Sarangkot – a high hill overlooking Pokhara and the Himalayan Mountains.  After that, most of our group went off to go paragliding, but one girl and I decided to go for a long walk to various tourists sites in the city.  We visited a waterfall, a temple in a cave, a peace pagoda, and a Tibetan refugee settlement, but these weren’t really anything too exciting.  The best part was walking through the villages and rice paddies to get there.  People would say “hello” – particularly kids on their way to school – and people were just super smiley and super friendly in general.  We looked lost at one point and some random local came out of a restaurant to give us directions.  It was such a nice change of pace from India – I was a bit shocked!  Our walk concluded atop a high hill (where the peace pagoda sits) overlooking the city and the lake.  It was hot and disgusting that day, but despite that, it was really enjoyable overall.  I’m going to need to come back here one day and explore more.

Our tour cut a day out of Kathmandu.  It was unfortunate because I would have loved to explore this city more.  We basically had time for three activities.  The first was Swayambhunath aka the Monkey Temple.  This Buddhist temple sits atop a hill overlooking the city.  There were visible signs of damage from the earthquake but the whole thing was still standing.  We also did a walking tour of our neighbourhood – Thamel – and visited the Garden of Dreams – a small garden in the city where locals and tourists come for some peace and quiet.  Like Swayambhunath, many of the structures at the Garden of Dreams showed visible signs of damage.

This was all we had time for in Kathmandu.  I definitely think another Nepal trip is in order one day.

The food in Nepal was actually not a highlight.  Nepal is basically a blend of Indian and Tibetan food, so while the food was good, it didn’t really stand out after being in India.  I ate many thalis – plates with small portions of various (usually vegetarian) items on them – and lots of momos – steamed or fried Tibetan dumplings.  Aside from this, my diet consisted of a lot of Indian food, and of course, one Mexican meal on my last night.

Had I not gone to India first, and had the constitutional crisis not improved traffic conditions, I don’t know if I would have been so enthusiastic about my time in Nepal.  But there’s only one way to find out if those factors really influenced me:  go back one day.  This one is at the top of my list of countries to visit again.  As I write this, I’ve just spent eight weeks in Southeast Asia (I’m just a bit behind on the blog!) and I can now say that of all of the countries that I’ve visited in Asia thus far, Nepal is definitely one of the most pleasant.

Onward to Southeast Asia.  But first, let me take a selfie.

To see more photos of my time in Nepal, follow this link: