Island Adventures

Hello friends!

I have had the luxury of proper internet for the past days, so I have been able to post more often. Since coming to Cambodia I’ve been staying first at the party river, then at party beach, so I need a change of scene. Tomorrow morning I will take a boat to Koh Rong Samloen island, where I will spend at least 2 or 3 nights, do a few dives and what ever activities I come up with (I’m thinking a hammock and a jungle hike). No wifi on the island, so I will need to keep myself occupied other ways. When returning to mainland, I’ll jump on a night bus to Siem Reap; I decided to skip Phnom Penh altogether, it just doesn’t seem that appealing to me.

Perfect beach, once again.
Perfect beach, once again.

I can’t say I really enjoyed my time in Sihanoukville: Otres beach would have been more isolated and quiet place to stay, but I opted for staying closer to downtown. Sihanoukville is truly the party capital of Cambodia, where small children wander amongst the drunk westerners on the beach, and the locals live in poorly built shacks next to the tourist bungalows. The contrast between the truly poor and the backpackers is so big, all the restaurants near the beaches sell burgers, pizza and french fries. At night the beach turns into Pattaya: local women with strong makeup sitting next to Western old men with empty eyes. Young people drinking from plastic cups and spilling drinks all over the place.

Nature, reminds me of Japan.
Nature, reminds me of Japan.

So I’m off to the island, we’ll see how I like it! Oh, and I just googled the bus company that I’m taking to Siam Reap. Terrible reviews and warnings not to use them. Hopefully I’ll survive with all my stuff; yesterday one girl at the hostel lost all of her valuables when riding a tuk-tuk. Luckily she was traveling with a friend, so she could borrow money. Hopefully I will be luckier than her.

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Kampot’s most wanted

I left Vietnam’s turf in Ha Tien at 7am, after filling 3 forms and paying 36USD to the travel agency for my Cambodian visa. Me and a Korean guy had no idea what was going on when our passports were ushered between 2 countries at the border. Within 15 minutes we were cruising down the potentially 4 lane road in Cambodia (only 1 lane with pavement, otherwise just dusty red sand). I was surprised that it took only 2 hrs altogether to get to Kampot, “the place to be” in the south coast. I had reserved a bunk at Arcadia Backpackers, located by the river some 10km outside of town. Arcadia offers its’ guests plenty of activities fro tubing to kayaking, beer pong and all the usual fun.

Water fun.
Water fun.

 

I rented an old bicycle, and biked the long wide road to Kampot downtown, had some delicious dumplings (12pcs 2USD, highly recommended), and just cruised around until he hit me. One local guy was driving his scooter, talking on a phone, and going way too fast. Luckily I was able to stay on my bicycle so I didn’t get injured, but he fell of his bike. Luckily I had 3 Western witnesses, who stood on my side and helped me out when the police came asking for money. I managed to pinch out a few tears, though the whole situation was very ridiculous, with police spray-painting the ground and looking all serious: no questions were asked from me, however, not even my information details. It was fairly easy to just leave the scene, an Italian girl took me to “the hospital” aka my accommodation. Only the bike was left behind, I still need to figure out how to get it back from where ever it is. Welcome to Cambodia!

Touring Through Mekong Delta

After contemplating in several of Saigon’s tour offices for 2 days, I decided to go with the easier, cheaper and more convenient option to get to Cambodia: taking a 2 day 1 night tour to Mekong Delta. At first I didn’t even know which place in Cambodia I wanted to end up in, but after talking to a few fellow travellers I decided to aim first for Kampot, then move on to Sihanoukville.

River tourist boats.
River tourist boats.

 

The Mekong Delta tour package included visits to “local” this and that, often meaning watching Vietnamese people performing in a way or another while bunch of tourists take pictures of them and then buy whatever they’re selling. I knew in advance that this tour would wreck my nerves from time to time, but as I write this from the most bounciest ride of my life, sitting at the back of a local minivan from God knows which decade and being the only English-speaking person in sight, I know I am also experiencing something beyond the tourism.

2 of the almost 1000 types of bananas.
2 of the almost 1000 types of bananas.

 

Our tour group consisted of 28 people from all paths of life, different ages and countries. The tour guide’s every 3rd word (not exaggerating) was “my family”, and after staying in a “homestay” (more like a guesthouse in the middle of nowhere) with 5 other people, it actually felt a bit like “family” after all. The tour stared off well: after 15 mins from Saigon, some family realized that they’re in the wrong bus. As they left in a taxi to their Phom Penh ride, a Russian family from another bus joined ours. On the road, we had multiple stops to the “happy room” as our guide phrased it. Once in My Tho, we went on a river cruise to a few islands, including Dragon island and Unicorn island. First was coconut candy making (interesting but so obviously made just for tourists that it was disappointing). On another island, we saw and some took pictures with a snake and drank honey tea while the people were trying to sell us their products. On another island we had a horse carriage ride for 10 mins down a straight road, and ate some pieces of fruit while sad-looking women sang some traditional music…At one point we also had a cruise down the river in a small boat, which was actually rather pleasant.

Paddling in the river.
Paddling in the river.

We sat few hours on a bus until the 6 people who paid extra for a home stay were dropped in the middle of nowhere to go on a riverboat to our accommodation, where we would enjoy dinner with the locals (except that they didn’t join us or say a single word during our stay). The dinner was magnificent, but the whole “homestay” was complete bullshit. In the morning they provided us with the bill for drinks. Coffee at breakfast was good, but not included in the price. I understand the homestay workers: they have different people each night who come in after sunset and leave at dawn. It is rather hard trying to be friends with different people each night for years, so I get it. But the advertisement for this homestay was rather different from the truth.

Coffee in the floating market.
Coffee in the floating market.
Watermelons for lunar new year.
Watermelons for lunar new year.

 

Second day we left our lovely homestay around 7am, (though most of us had been awake more or less the whole night listening to the outdoors life and traffic from the river), to go see a local floating market. The floating market starts at 4am, so when we got there around 8 it was mostly just locals selling stuff to the few tourist boats around. Interesting to see for sure, but I’m not so sure about the authenticity.

And that's how you do it. Rice, tapioca and water, steam and dry.
And that’s how you do it. Rice, tapioca and water, steam and dry.
Rice papers drying out.
Rice papers drying.

 

 After the market we were taken to a rice paper and noodle making place, again one show with a gift shop. It was interesting to see how the rice papers and noodles are made, though. After that we had a walk to a fruit orchard, which was okay – I’ve never seen dragon fruit in the nature before! We could’v bought highly overpriced fruit at the garden, but no one did. That was the end of day 2 program, we took the boat back to Can Tho, the others went for lunch and I got a bike ride (with my backpack and 2 handbags) to the local bus station where I was hurried to the van, only to sit there for 1.5hrs even before we left towards the border town of Ha Tien.

Saigon

I arrived in Ho Chi Minh on Friday evening after a lot of hassle in several countries, not having eaten or drunk anything since the morning. Needless to say, I was in a bit of a shock, coming from the Island of Gods to a city with a population twice as much as Finland’s. On my first night in Saigon, I just went to walk around the (backpacker) district 1, were my hostel was conveniently located, found myself some good fresh spring rolls and read the Lonely Planet to locate myself.

Great coffee and bananas for breakfast.
Great coffee and bananas for breakfast.
Bright post office, where people mainly just take pictures. Apparently they do handle mail too.
Bright post office, where people mainly just take pictures. Apparently they do handle mail too.

On my first whole day, I went to see the sights: the colonial bright yellow post office and the famous Notre Dame church. In the afternoon I decided to join a French guy from the hostel to see the famous and popular Cu Chi tunnels, where brave people of Vietnam suffered and survived during the war. The tunnels were interesting enough, and we even had a veteran as our tour guide, but the group of 80 people was a bit too much to handle. I skipped the possibility of shooting all the real guns, but did manage to crouch 40 meter way 6m underground to get the war feeling: Not pleasant.

In the evening I went to enjoy dinner at the same place we had lunch: the magnificent Saigon Vegan restaurant, cheap and amazing food from fresh ingredients! I went there 3 times in 2 days, and if I had stayed longer, I would have definitely gone more.

Fresh spring rolls for lunch and dinner, can't complain.
Fresh spring rolls for lunch and dinner, can’t complain.

Market life.
Market life.

The second day I started walking around, trying to find Chinatown with no success. All the areas I went to seemed to look more or less the same, but I did roam through some interesting and very local markets. I visited the war museum, which made me want to puke and cry a bit, showcasing pictures of the war and of mutilated people and all that. Pretty one-sided approach to the whole subject, but it was interesting to see anyway. In the afternoon some kids stopped me to practice English, which was pretty interesting since I hardly understood a word they were saying. In the evening I had dinner with another French guy at the same vegan restaurant. Om nom.

 

Beans beans beans.
Beans beans beans.
Bars from heaven.
Bars from heaven.

On the third day I woke up early morning to wait to be picked up to a cacao farm: the plans changed a bit so instead of 7 we left at 9 to visit Marou chocolate factory outside of town. After the visit we went to Mekong area, to Treasure Island by ferry to select cacao beans for Marou’s Treasure Bar. It was so much fun, and we got 300kg of top notch cacao beans. We enjoyed dinner back in HCMC, spectacular Vietnamese cuisine country-style from local ingredients, shared at the table. This magnificent meal of several small dishes cost around 12€ per person, my most expensive meal in Vietnam. I took a motorbike taxi home, and booked a Mekong Delta tour for the next day at 10.30 pm. The best thing about big cities: they never sleep.

A Bali C

I managed to make it to Saigon, despite having problems with entry both in Singapore and in Ho Chi Minh; I was ready to buy a ticket back to Bali and skip Vietnam altogether! Some reminiscing of the Island of Gods follows (pictures still lacking due to probably the worst internet connection so far!)

Atmosphere: Smiles, flowers and offerings for Gods, everything is in harmony, even the chaotic traffic. No matter where you are, the Balinese are going about their daily rituals with a smile on their face.

Bikinis: No need to explain. You could probably survive only with bikinis, shorts and flip-flops. Yeah okay Buddhism too.

Canggu: Not a surprise, this one. I spent over a month in this upcoming hipster village, where life seems to stand still and days float by even if you just lied by the pool and listened to music in between surfs.

Diving: I overcome my doubts regarding breathing underwater. Bali hosts some amazing diving spots, and I will definitely return for more!

Environment: aka nature. Various yet always beautiful.

Fruits: Fruits are aplenty in Bali. Now in season are bananas, papaya, different sorts of mangos, mangosteen, snakefruit and jackfruit, just to name a few. You can also find guava, oranges and imported apples at the supermarket. My favorites are definitely papaya and mango, but I also like mangosteen and jackfruit a lot. I did have durian once, but I was a bit disappointed with the small amount I got for my money.

Gado Gado: Both hot and cold, sweet and savory, gado gado is one of my favorite Indonesian dishes. “Mix Mix” is often variable, but includes different steamed or blanched veggies like spinach, cabbage, carrots and beans. The mix also always has fried tempeh and/or fried tofu, and sometimes a boiled egg. It is served with rice and krupuk crackers if you’re lucky. What makes gado gado special is the peanut sauce that identifies the dish. I found instructions to make the sauce, maybe I’ll give it a go at home, since it is just so fulfilling with the light veggies.

Gado gado sauce, easy to make raw version too! 1 cup of peanut butter (or crushed peanuts), 1 tbsp grated ginger, 1 tbsp minced garlic, 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar, 3 tbsp soy sauce. Add crushed red pepper and salt to taste. Mix with 1 1/2 cups hot water and devour!

Heat: Yep, it is hot. I notice it the most when going into a shop/car that has AC and then coming out. Phew! Some days the heat really hits, but when combined with a mild breeze, it is lovely. I have not needed my long sleeved shirts at all. It most definitely doesn’t feel like Christmas is coming.

Islands: Bali is the island of gods, and it is surrounded by lots of other islands. The most popular tourist destinations are Nusa Lembongan, Lombok and the Gili’s that belong to Lombok: Meno, Trawangan and Air.

Jalan: Street. Most of them not pedestrian-friendly, and are definitely not designed for handicapped. Watch where you step and you’ll be fine.

Kuta: Party hell. You can find most tourist stuff here, and some enjoy it. I preferred a quick visit once or twice just to realize how well off I was at the tranquil hoods.

Light: The sun comes up around 5.30 and and goes down around 6.30. Solid amount of sunlight every day works like magic for me. Even if I haven’t had enough sleep, I wake up with more energy.

Massages: Everywhere. Cheap. I wanted to get pampered at least once a week, but ended up getting only like 4 massages in 2 months. I’ll regret that later! From foot reflexology to Balinese and Tai massage, you can easily get your stress washed away or just get a deep relax for 1.5 hrs.

Names: I recently discovered why everyone is called Wayan, Nyoman, Ketut or Made. People are named by their order of birth, so kid #1 is Wayan, kid #2 Nyoman etc. Kid #5 id again Wayan. There are some extra names too, and the 1st girl is called “Ilo”, coincidentally “joy” in Finnish!

Other travellers: Though I did meet some lovely local people, I spent most of my time with fellow backpackers. And what a wonderful group of people did I meet and share experiences with! Mostly from Australia, but other countries too, some surfers, some not. Great talks, great trips, great surfs and lots of good new music for me.

Paradise: May it be a beach, a mountaintop, the rice fields, a jungle or a village, unless your idea of paradise includes snow, changes are Bali has it.

Quality of life: Simple things matter. People wake up at 5 am to cook, make offerings, and to go about their day. No one complains, they enjoy the simple things and take the day as it comes.

Raw food: The raw food/organic restaurants put emphasis on local, organic ingredients that have grown in rich soil. Of course in this climate and environment it is easier to grow produce than, say, in Finland, but I wish we had more of this kinds of places back home! Week or a month is nearly not enough to taste all that just Ubud has to offer.

Sun, sea, surf: All of it. Loving it.

Traffic/taxi: Crazy. Both of em. There is a logic of driving the left side of the road, but then again you can do whatever maneuvers you want as long as you don’t hit anybody. Not nearly all death-defying scooter drivers wear helmets, and some scooters have as many as 4 or 5 people on them. Insane.

The “taxi” refers to the lack of public transportation. If you’re brave enough to drive a scooter, you’re fine. If not, you’ll hear “taxi, taxi” yells at least every 2 minutes in Ubud. I do prefer walking, but sometimes the distances are just too long. Then it’s the matter or bartering the right price. Oh, my.

Ubud: Inland village/town in the center of Bali, Ubud has become the hotspot for tourists looking for the ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ experience. Surrounded by rice fields, filled with raw foods cafes and yoga centers, Ubud is truly to place to seek for enlightenment and to relax. The town is very western, so don’t expect to see the “real Bali” here. Lots of massages and other pampering  available besides superb food.

Warung: Local food, cheap. Pick and mix your favorites. Delightful amount of veggies.

Yoga: Pretty much Finland-prices, I was a bit shocked how big thing yoga is. I went to a few classes, but could’v done way more if it had been more reasonably priced. Yoga retreats are aplenty with wealthy wallets.

Missing a few but that’s life.