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I <3 HK

Hong Kong was a great break from the less developed countries that we’ve been in for several months now.   It is like Manhattan plopped onto Hawaii, with New York prices to match.  For that reason, we were very lucky to be hosted by the generous Ray and Sally Helfer, friends of Jon’s parents in Massachusetts.   He works in finance and has been working in Hong Kong for the past four years.   It was fascinating to hear about life and politics from someone who has been living there, including how much money there is, who has it, and how.

It’s amazing that 7 million people live together in such a small area.  Hong Kong is made up of several islands, two major ones, and almost all of the population lives along the coasts.  There are so many people, but unlike the large Southeast Asian cities like Bangkok, Hanoi and Saigon, there is much more structure – as Ray put it, “ordered chaos”.   There are stoplights and traffic rules, and people and vehicles actually obey them.  At least in non-tourist areas…

On the tram up to Victoria Peak for views of the city, we experienced our first Chinese pushing incident: right in front of us, people started aggressively pushing each other (and us) to get onto the tram.  We stayed back, but a fight almost broke out, and people were blocking anyone from entering that door of the tram!

Inland from the coasts are beautiful mountains and meadows, which Hong Kong has developed into some great recreational trails.  We hiked “Dragon’s Back”, one of the more scenic hikes.  It was gorgeous.   Best yet, the 3.5 hour hike ends at a beach.

Interestingly, while we were in Hong Kong, the “Occupy Hong Kong” conflict was gaining steam.  When Hong Kong was transferred to China in 1997, China promised elections in Hong Kong, but apparently the details of the promised elections are vague.  While Hong Kong is getting to vote in elections, the Communist Party in Beijing has decided that they will pick the candidates.  Protesters in Hong Kong, lead by students and professors, demand meaningful elections through their “Occupy” movement, promising to obstruct business as usual in Hong Kong. We didn’t directly see a protest, but we saw signs around town and articles in the newspaper. We will definitely monitor the outcome of this situation.

Overall, we loved the combination of city life, hiking and beaches that Hong Kong offers.  We hope to be back!  Now onto actual chaos…mainland China.

[NOTE:  still unable to add captions and order the pictures - will do that and update posts when we leave China]

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Northern Vietnam

From Nga Trang, we headed up the coast on overnight buses, first to Hoi An, then to Hanoi.   The bus was a sleeper bus, meaning no seats, just “beds” (big enough, but not very big – pretty much fully reclined, thin recliner bunk beds lining the sides of the bus, then one row down the middle) .

Hanoi is very similar to the hustle and bustle, crowds and whizzing motorbikes of Saigon, but boasts a “touristy” area that is much more beautiful and pleasant to spend time in.   The center of this area is a beautiful lake, with interwoven streets lined with shops, restaurants, and street vendos.   Just next door is The French Quarter, where most French lived during the colonial period before (the much revered) Ho Chi Minh lead the Vietnamese to run them out in the 50’s.   We enjoyed the fanciest meal of our trip there, in a nice French-Vietnamese restaurant, in celebration of our 2 year anniversary.

We were lucky to celebrate again on our Halong Bay overnight boat cruise, where apparently our hotel concierge had informed the boat company of our special day, and surprised us with a cake!  It was fun to celebrate again, especially with our eight boat mates.

We also had a fun night on the town the following night in Hanoi with a Kiwi couple living in Australia.  We are looking forward to seeing them again in Melbourne!

Hoi An was a much more quiet, quaint town in comparison to Hanoi and Saigon.   The main part of town was clearly built and centered around tourism, and seemed to have some good money pumping in, as all the buildings and streets were very pretty, well built and maintained. In addition to getting tailored suits made there, we took a day trip to a nearby island, enjoyed some incredible snorkeling and time relaxing on a beautiful white, sandy, remote island beach.

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Good Morning, Vietnam!

Ah Vietnam. We wish we had more time with you. A mere 12 days was not enough. Due to flights for China visas and some playing around with our schedule, we ended up with far too little time in this fascinating and delicious country.
We started in Saigon, where we had to stay a few days to obtain our visas to China. (Saigon is officially Ho Chi Minh City, but everyone in Saigon calls it Saigon. So we will too.) After appeasing the powers that be in the local consulate to the People’s Republic of China with incredible minutiae, including our bank statements, we enjoyed soaking up the food, and the food, and a few sights.

[SORRY NO CAPTIONS AND DO REALIZE SOME NEED ONE - CANNOT GET INTERNET CONNECTION TO COOPERATE, WILL INCLUDE THEM IN THIS AND CAMBODIA POSTS ASAP]

In Saigon, we also had to face some ugly truths of the Vietnam War, or the American War, as they call it. We visited the Chu Chi tunnels, an incredible system of tunnels dug by the Viet Cong during the war. Although we had been advised not to admit our American nationality at the tunnels, we took a chance and admitted our heritage. Luckily for us, our tour guide had fought with the Americans during the war, and we became his favorite tourists. Between expletives, he explained his story: he had fought alongside the American GIs, where he learned the curse words first and forgot them last. After the Americans abandoned the Southern Vietnamese, he had been thrown in a prison camp for three years. Once he was released, he was not a favorite of the Communist Regime, and life was not easy. Eventually, after Vietnam opened more to tourists in the 90’s, he became a tour guide. “I love American people. But I hate your government. Makes f#@&ing war everywhere.”

The War Remnants Museum was an even tougher pill to swallow. While the museum was partially filled with propaganda, it also had a powerful exhibit on victims of Agent Orange. The entire bottom floor of the museum was a multi-room argument OF “no one in the world supported your invasion in the first place” with photos of Vietnam War protests from almost every country in the world (including the U.S.A.). A notable plaque included donated metals of honor including a Purple Heart from a U.S. veteran with an inscription, “I WAS WRONG. I AM SORRY.”

The most heart-wrenching part of the museum was the exhibit on victims of Agent Orange. Entire rooms of photos of children through adults with horrible disfigured bodies. It was clear that the effects of Agent Orange reverberate in the lives of many Vietnamese, as they do for American Veterans and their families. We were caught in the rain with some American veterans of the war, and they explained to a curious Spanish teen that they had no idea at the time that Agent Orange was so toxic; they were lifting water into their canteens after it was sprayed. One veteran’s daughter had a disfigured limb as well. Like any regrettable decision, most Americans would rather forget and ignore our history in Vietnam; for many in Vietnam, that is not an option.

We still had good food and cheap local beer as a solace to our sad reminders, and so we continued to stuff ourselves with delicious food. We learned how to cook some simple Vietnamese dishes in a cooking class. (Yes, you are invited over for dinner!) Our chef, The, even invited us out for food and drinks the next day!

We took an overnight bus to Nga Trang, a gorgeous beach town up the coast. We were surprised that the town was filled with Russian tourists; even the signs were all in Russian rather than Vietnamese or English. An enjoyable beach pastime was to watch Russians do elaborate photo shoots with their beach babes. We spent two days in Nga Trang for beach time, pool time, seafood, and a few craft beers (heaven!), including one that really did have the aroma of passion fruit, as promised.

Angkor Thom

Cambodia

After a relatively hassle-free border crossing from Thailand into Cambodia, we stepped off our bus in Siem Reap and were pleased to see a smiling Tuk-Tuk driver holding a sign, “Le Malika d’Angkor Welcomes Jon Vohlers!”  Siem Reap is the gateway to Angkor, the epicenter of the Khmer Empire, which lasted from 802 – 1432.   At its peak in the 12th century, the city surrounding Angkor Wat had a population of over 1 million (vs. 50,000 in London  at that same time).

Jen had visited Cambodia and Angkor seven years before, and instantly she remarked how more developed Siem Reap was – roads were nicer, buildings bigger, shops more extravagant – it was cool to see the progress made.   But since Jen had visited Angkor before, she decided to only join Jon for one of the three days planned to visit the temples – the other two were used to stay back at the hotel in Siem Reap and do much needed travel planning for future legs of our trip.

It would be fair to say Jon got WAY into Angkor and the Khmer Empire.   Jon spent over 27 hours in three days visiting 25 temples, all via Tuk-Tuk, driven by Sokea (our now Facebook friend, hi Sokea!)  Over the three days, at and in-between Temples, Jon would read the guide book he purchased cover-to-cover, which explained the Khmer Empire history, the drivers of their Buddhist and Hindu religions, and each of the Angkor temples in detail.   It was really fun, and definitely a highlight of the trip – it’s easy to see why Angkor, and its main attraction Angkor Wat, is considered to be “the 8th Wonder of the World”

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We spent our last night in Siem Reap going to the Cambodian Circus, based on the recommendation of our friends we met in Thailand.   It was a great show, a great cause – the acrobatics were amazing.

The next day we took the bus to Phnom Penh, the capital and largest city in Cambodia.   We enjoyed our two days there, seeing the National Palace and exploring some of the bars and restaurants scattered throughout the busy streets and alleys.  We were especially pleased to explore the cocktail culture in Cambodia – somehow, creative cocktails have caught on, and we even enjoyed a gin and tonic spiced with young (green) black pepper!  Delicious.

Since Jen had visited it already, Jon also went to S-21, a high school built in the 1960s, then turned into one of hundreds of prisons used across the country when the Khmer Rouge communist party took power in the mid-70s and 80s.  It was one of the most secret detention facilities, and one of the cruelest, torturing their detainees into admitting “crimes” against the Khmer Rouge state many often did not commit.  As soon as they admitted guilt, they were bused to the killing fields a few kilometers outside of the city – thus how over 20,000 people from S-21 were killed.  Over 2 million people were killed in total, a quarter of the population, most from the cities where the educated or those “corrupted” by the West lived.  The museum was moving, and it makes you think and reflect on what anyone over the age of 40 must have lived through in Cambodia…  it’s awesome to see the country bounce-back, and meet and visit with the friendly, warm, present-day Cambodians.

More Bangkok

From Koh Tao, we took a ferry to a small town called Chumphon, then a bus up the coast back to Bangkok.  We spent two nights in Bangkok to recharge with some big city food and drinks, and to meet up for a day with Nuwan and his wife Antje – we hadn’t met Antje yet, and we needed to get our camera back!

Nuwan and Antje took us to a recently re-developed riverfront area called Asianique.  We walked around the markets, cafes and restaurants, took a ferris wheel ride, and enjoyed some very tasty (albeit expensive) Western beer.

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Scenic Ferris Wheel ride over Bangkok Riverfront!
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Jen coveting her first non-Asian beer in a month…

We admired the sunset, the lights set up for the queen’s birthday, and headed for our first Western dinner in awhile.

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Wat Arun from our sunset river taxi ride
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Bangkok decked-up for the Queen’s Birthday celebration

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We ended up back towards Nuwan and Antje’s neighborhood, first having dinner at one of their favorite restaurants, a super yummy Lebanese place, then to one of the few breweries and tap rooms in Bangkok.

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Enjoying a Lebanese feast with Antje and Nuwan

It was fun to hang out with Nuwan again and meet Antje, and a great re-charge to be in Bangkok and indulge on some big city treats.  The next day we caught our bus and headed to our next stop:  Cambodia!

Sunset on Koh Lanta

Thai Island Hopping 4: Koh Lanta, Samui, and Tao

KOH LANTA

Koh Lanta lacks the stunning karst scenery of the aforementioned islands, but it makes up for it with long, sandy beaches and a laid back vibe.  We stayed at a beautiful resort on Koh Lanta, continued to recover from our bout of illness, and rented a motorbike to visit the National Park at the south end of the island.  We really enjoyed Koh Lanta, but it was time to move on.

We crossed the peninsula and went to the Gulf of Thailand side, where it was high season and supposedly better weather.  On the Andaman Coast, we had wonderful weather, little to no crowds, and cheap accommodation, during its shoulder season.  In contrast, we found rain, massive crowds, and booked and expensive accommodation on the Gulf of Thailand side.  We decided to spend very little time on the Gulf side of the Thai peninsula.

KOH SAMUI

We stopped here just for a night on our way to Koh Tao.  We disliked the rain and the loads of people walking through the strip malls near the beach.  (I am sure there are nice quiet beaches on this island, but we didn’t stay long enough to discover them, due to bad weather.)

KOH TAO

We had planned to take a scuba dive course in Koh Tao, but we were met with more bad luck.  Our chosen dive operator, known for their safety, refused to take Jen diving due to her asthma without a note from a doctor in the US.  We were unable to speak to our doctor in the US on the phone, and later found out that no note of good health could be signed unless Jen had a physical within the past year.  Which she hadn’t.  We were bummed out about missing the SCUBA certification, but did manage a bit of snorkeling, so all was not completely lost.

We will be back for our final doses of Thailand in Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai (where Jen taught English seven years ago) after China, but excited now for the next legs of our trip in Cambodia and Vietnam.

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Thai Island Hopping 3: Koh Phi Phi

We had been warned that Koh Phi Phi’s paradise had met its demise due to overdevelopment, so we searched for our own quieter beach on the island.  We managed to find a stretch of white sand beach with Phi Phi’s famed spectacular turquoise water, with only a few sleepy resorts nearby.   Unfortunately, we encountered trouble in paradise after eating dinner in the main tourist hub:  Jon and I contracted a nasty case of food poisoning at the “Four Seasons” hotel Phi Phi.  Definitely not the real Four Seasons, but an (apparently dirty) Thai knockoff.  We were laid up in our cabana for 36 hours, only venturing out briefly for rice at one point.  We made it through and moved on to Koh Lanta.

Jon & Jen's Excellent Adventures

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