A Travellerspoint blog

Saigon By Night

overcast 28 °C

So I thought Saigon was a hectic city in the day....well tonight I went for a wander around at 6pm (when it's already dark and I suspect rush hour).

I can honestly say I've never been anywhere in the world so chaotic. The sheer number of mopeds on the roads at night is just unbelievable...I mean really unbelievable...I can't even put it in words. They drive on the right here (sometimes!)...and at major junctions with lights, hundreds (no joke) of mopeds turning right will just hop up on the sidewalk/pavement to get round the corner...just walking down the sidewalk is a nightmare, let alone crossing the road. At one point I just stopped and started laughing....I was completely surrounded by hundreds of mopeds moving all around me...I don't know whether I was on the road or the sidewalk, I couldn't see my feet. I just started shuffling as gaps opened up in front of me and eventually reached an open area. It's just insane. You mustn't change your mind about where you're going, you just have to keep heading in the same direction...if you hesitate or change course, you'll get hit. Surprisingly I've only seen 4 accidents since I got back here, but I noticed tonight, that people are bumping there mopeds into each other the whole time...glancing taps, rather than full on collisions.

I was heading nowhere in particular, but stumbled across a big night market. Kind of reminded me of Marrakech, Morocco on a smaller scale. There was an interesting variety of foods for sale some of which I have to say looked pretty tasty (although I didn't partake....maybe at some point this week)...there were obviously the usual "squidito on stickito" (dried squid on a stick) and steamed pork buns etc, but there were also hundreds of fish tanks containing various species of live sea creatures, lots of fresh looking fruit and veg, and what I'm pretty sure was squirrel on a stick (a whole, skinned, uncooked animal with a skewer stuck up its butt and coming out of its mouth...if it wasn't a squirrel then other possibilities are rat, cat or small puppy).

From there I headed to the expensive part of town...posh shops and hotels. Seems Christmas has reach Saigon...there were many window displays and outside the Saigon Shopping Center, there were throngs of Vietnamese people taking their pictures alongside model snowmen and santas set amidst a big snowy xmas scene as an asian version of Jingle Bells rang out.

Seems at night you no longer get hassled by motorcycle riders (well not as much anyway), but you get offered a massage every 5 steps by a young lady, dressed in traditional garb, with a bunch of leaflets in her hand. At first I thought it was fairly legit (and am sure it was), but the further I got towards the river the seedier it got as the traditional dress seemed to disappear and they weren't just offering massages. I made it in one piece to the river where I cut back towards to the hotel. The river at night is full of dinner cruise ships it seems with bright lights and load music....seems a bit of a nightmare to me. I did actually have a purpose in that I'd read about a small restaurant, down a side road, that serves (and I quote) "the best burgers in world"...this was from a number of (supposedly) independent reviews, and whilst I am skeptical I thought I'd see if it was indeed there. I did find it and it looked reasonable but the place was empty tonight and I didn't fancy sitting in there on my own. I think I'll head back there in daylight tomorrow for lunch.

I returned to the "backpacker neighborhood" where the hotel is, and stopped at a little italian place for pasta...it was not bad, although Kim will be glad she's not here as they went a bit heavy on the garlic. I'm feeling very uninspired with food at the moment and am looking forward, I hope, to a change in the Philippines next week.

Posted by msmitheman 05:43 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Final Days in Vietnam

sunny -28 °C

I am down to my last week in Vietnam before moving onto the Philippines. Last night Kim & I arrived back in Saigon and she headed off to the airport this morning for a quick trip back to the USA for med school interviews. Today has been feeling a bit strange...I realized that in fact it's probably the first day in 6 months I've been on my own...I'm not quite sure how she's survived that time with moi, but suspect she's enjoying some "alone time" despite having a hectic schedule for the next 2 weeks! I look forward to meeting back up with her in Boracay in 2 weeks.

After a month in Mui Ne, we were read to move on. It was a fun time, but there really is nothing to do there. The wind was good but very inconsistent, I was hoping for much more kiting, although the days we did get were good. Kim is improving all the time, although has her frustrations now and again, as we all do when progressing at something. I have to say she throws herself in with great gusto. We took to doing big long runs down the beach together which was great fun (despite the hike back)...I would go from seeing her doing great long runs one minute to huge, splashing, spectacular crashes the next! She also has a habit of whacking herself in the legs with the board during these crashes...I was horrified to see the bruises she's got from it. My only solution was to wrap her or the board in bubble wrap...but that didn't go down too well. Her only problem really is controlling the speed without getting out of control...we all went through it, but you've just got to get a feel for it which she will soon (any tips Benjamin/Peter????).

I went out on a couple of extremely windy days on our little 7m. It was really gusty with huge seas...challenging? yes...enjoyable? juries still out. My best outing was on the last day we were there. Solid 12m conditions...probably 50+ other kites out...I rode for ages and got a little sunburnt in the process.

We were ready to leave yesterday and endured the 5 hour bus ride back to Saigon to our home away from home at Madam Cucs guest house. As I've mentioned before, the bus ride has never been the same since our first trip to the beach. We were on the sleeping bus again, but it was crowded, smelly, noisy and uncomfortable. In true style about 5 minutes before we arrived the heavens opened with a thunderstorm and we were dumped in a puddle with our 2 kite bags, 2 backpacks and newly received travel guitar (Kim's B'day present to me, I'm so happy to have it as something to play with during the quiet times...well I guess not quiet but you know what I mean). We managed to get said luggage into a little 4 door saloon with Kim, me and the driver who then drove us the 200 yards to the hotel (it really was raining though!).

We got another warm welcome at Madam Cucs, where we were given our usual room on the 5th floor which is actually the 95th floor (or so it seems!). After our meal of noodles and spring rolls (included in price) we went up to bed as Kim had to be up at 6am for her flight back to the US. I've probably mentioned before that it's a very friendly little guesthouse...I am getting the feeling that because I'm here 7 nights I'm a long term resident...the turnover seems to be very high with people just staying for a night or 2 before moving on. All the employees here seem to speak a little English (some very good) and have all come up and introduced themselves this morning. I feel a little bad as they all now remember my name but I can't remember or pronounce any of theirs!

I went back to bed for a bit after Kim left this morning and then, deciding to have a quiet day, I went for a wander around town (and a tour of coffee shops). I really do like the vibe of the city...it doesn't feel dangerous or threatening at all, unlike some big cities in this part of the world. Having said that, I am clearly the main attraction for the locals. I even got recognized today...when Candy, Kim and I were here a month ago, we took a walk down to a supermarket about 15 minutes from the hotel. I took the same stroll today, and a little old lady came running out of her shop shouting "oh you're back!...you here before". I smiled, we talked for a few minutes (no idea about what...probably the usual, oh you're tall, yes I am, you're short...basketball blah blah) and then I carried on my way!

Having said that, I do have a few annoyances (you have to right?)

1. Mops & Brushes - everywhere I walk and especially everytime I sit down down for a coffee (happens a lot here) a person with a mop or brush will appear out of nowhere and start cleaning around my feet. Means you can't enjoy a coffee without also dancing an irish jig at the same time.

2. Motorbike Riders - I am going to have to agree with Candy's observations on this. Something that wasn't evident when we were walking around as a group of 2 or 3 in Saigon, but that is VERY evident when you're on your own, is that you literally (and I'm not exaggerating here) can't walk more than about 10 paces without someone offering you a ride somewhere on the back of a moped. They don't hassle you (or at least not me) but you end up getting in a rhythm of saying "No Thanks" after every 5th or 6th step.

3. Google (and websites in general) - this may seem an odd one, but everytime I go to google (or certain other websites), why do they immediately assume I'm vietnamese just because I happen to be here and take me to the Vietnamese version of their website, with no obvious link to the non Vietnamese version!

...and really that's about it.

No real plans for my week yet. I'm determined to get out and see something though as it would be very easy to chill for a week, drinking coffee and watching the world go by! I was going to go to the Cu Chi tunnels, the vast tunnel network where the Viet Cong hid out during the war, but on learning that at their biggest the tunnels are 4 feet high I'm having second thoughts...I'm not sure it would be good for my posture. I think I'll find something else to do.

Posted by msmitheman 21:41 Archived in Vietnam Comments (1)

Jeep Tour...

...number 2

sunny 35 °C

Despite it’s quirks I’ve decided I really like Vietnam, or at least the little I’ve seen of it…I’d definitely like to return one day to tour the north of the country…just different priorities this trip with the kitesurfing!

Having said that, we have definitely got out and about more this time. Yesterday we went on a jeep tour (yes, another one…see previous entry!) to a few different sites. Our jeep picked us up at 7:30am (yes that’s in the morning 7:30!). Sleepily we jumped in and set off for a 5 hour tour of…dragon fruit farm, market, Ca Tu Mountain and the Cham Towers!

First the Jeep…there are an abundance of ex USA army jeeps still in operation here, left on the side of the road and reclaimed by local Vietnamese at a later date. As you can imagine they are extremely well used and it’s unbelievable how they keep them running. Observations I made about this particular one…steering wheel was from a Toyota Corrola, welded onto what looked like the original steering column…gear stick looked like it was from a Honda and I’m suspecting so was the gear box itself as when the chap changed gear the layout seemed to be completely upside down, which suggested to me that they installed something else and had to “fit” it in any which way they could….none of the instruments were wired to anything (they are minimal in such a vehicle anyway)….the jeeps are open air with a roll cage and a bit of fabric stretched over it, our roll cage appeared to be made out of plumbing pipes, evident by the screw type corner joints that had “extra” corners and holes...there was no back to the jeep it seemed, and the spare wheel was tied on to something behind our seat, meaning anytime we went over a bump it thumped into our backs…pulling away from a standing stop involved the driver reaching down below the gas/accelerator peddle and pulling on the throttle cable to get enough revs to dump the clutch, which made for an interesting spectacle when he had to pay at the toll road booths as he was reluctant to come to a stand still (missing at least one lot of change)…starting the jeep after it had stood for about 30 minutes involved a lot of work under the hood/bonnet, I’m not really sure what.

I mentioned this before, but I’ll say it again…the driving is crazy here…pick a side of the road and go for it whilst trying to avoid thousands of bikes and mopeds…I can’t believe there aren’t more deaths on the road (maybe there are!). In fact as a side note we have just come back from the supermarket and witnessed the aftermath of an “incident” between a couple of mopeds and a cart pulled by 2 buffalo. All parties seemed to be ok…but the buffalo were loose with their wooden harness type thing (do they call it a yolk??) all smashed up.

Anyway first stop was the dragon fruit farm. A dragon fruit is a bright vibrant pinky red fruit with spikes a bit bigger than a mango but smaller than a melon. The flesh is white with tiny black seeds in (that you eat). Kind of the texture of a papaya, a little mushy. At first I wasn’t a fan, but they are growing on me. Anyway you get served them quite often here and seems that’s because if you drive 30 minutes up the road there are acres and acres of the things growing. The tree/bush they grow on is about head high with what looks like cactus leaves sprouting out the top…the fruits grow on the leaves themselves. Weird looking plants and fruits. Well the visit to the farm was actually just a stop on the side of the road to snap a few photos before heading on to the market.

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We stopped at a market just outside Phan Tiet. It was quite big with the usual food and wares stalls. I have to say it seemed a lot more hygienic than some I’ve been to over the years based on the lack of nauseating smells from the food section. We were definitely the attraction of the morning…2 tall, 1 very tall, blonde people…it did strike me how short the people are while we were there. The market is mainly made up of stalls with canvas roofs and awnings although there is an indoor bit too…I spent a lot of time walking round with my head out of the market looking down on the top of the stalls. I definitely felt a little like a tourist attraction myself. One stall had a bunch of live chickens and geese on who seemed to be shaking quite a lot. It was then that I noticed the 2 hanging by their feet, blood dripping from their necks (Kim tells me this is the best way…I don’t want to know how or why she knows this), and the completely plucked pair in a bowl on the same table, which probably explained the nervousness of the others. The only thing we bought were 2 deep friend bananas…I thought mine was pretty good, but Kim wasn’t impressed with the hair she found in hers. On to Ca Tu mountain.

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Ta Cu mountain is 20 miles or so from where we are on the beach. It is the site of (and I quote from the guide book) “…a pagoda constructed in 1861 during the Nguyen Dynasty, an important pilgrimage center for Buddhists and the site of Vietnams (…note I’ve only just read this in the guide book while writing this, I was thinking it was the worlds….damn) largest reclining Buddha at 49m/160ft long”.

We arrived at what looked like a very deserted, but pretty entrance to the mountain complex (for mountain, read pretty big hill!). We were told we had to buy a 65,000 Dong return ticket for the cable car (about 5 bucks each…Mike’s “I’m getting conned” alarm starts ringing!) and ushered onto a little electric wagon (kinda like a stretched golf cart) with a young Chinese couple for a ride to the cable car to get up the mountain.

I think the ride on the wagon was possibly the highlight of the trip…it won’t come over well in writing but we have video…the trip was about a quarter of a mile down a little path that wound its why around bends and over a significant hump back bridge. Well the driver slams his foot down at the start and we proceeded to take this journey at about 20 to 30 miles an hour…as we approached the hump back bridge Kim and I both looked at each other thinking “he will slow down right?”…but no, we flew over the thing and through the s-bend/chicane on the other side before coming to standstill at the bottom of the cable car.

A little exhilarated the four of us walked up to the non-operational cable car where there was one car with a guy asleep inside and the control room with 2 other guys smoking, staring at us and generally not doing much. Seemed quite a modern contraption, much like the one at the ski resort of Sunshine Village in Canada with about a tenth of the amount of cars on it (…not many). The Chinese girl went up and asked if they would start it, and with a grunt one guy sauntered over and took all our tickets. There wasn’t much action for the next few minutes, but then once he’d finished his cigarette, he hit the “GO” button and the thing buzzed into action (much to the surprise of the chap asleep in the one cart I imagine…I’m not sure whether he woke up or not!). The four of us jumped in and headed up the mountain.

I’m guessing it was a 10 minute ride up and over the jungle. It seemed extremely dense and green jungle with lots of birds and I’m guessing animals with all the noises we heard. We did spot a few monkeys playing in the trees.

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On arrival at the top my heart sank a little bit as I heard the banging of hammers and the general buzz of a construction site. I may have mentioned in a previous entry that this is the general sound of Mui Ne where we are staying. Construction everywhere, including the house they’re building next to the hotel. Well firstly the good, the views were amazing from the top, and the jungle setting spectacular. The ancient Nguyen Dynasty Pagoda, an important pilgrimage site…well that’s been knocked down and is in the early stages of being replaced by, what I can only assume, is an even more important Pagoda of the 2008 Dynasty! Currently a construction site. We climbed about 10,000 steep steps to see this construction site, and when we got there I began to think that the site was also big enough to once house a 49m reclining Buddha! Surely the tour company (or the chap who sold me 2 65,000 Dong tickets, or the jeep driver) would have mentioned if the Buddha had been removed…wouldn’t they? As I caught my breath and scanned the horizon, there was no sign of any Buddha or indeed of any people…other than the Chinese couple (who to me seemed to be having similar suspicions), a Russian family (Russian mafia, they’re everywhere here), and some random locals.

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At this point they’re were 2 options, back down or more steps leading up (why they couldn’t have extended the cable car a few more feet I don’t know!). Well we kept climbing and eventually I caught glimpse of said reclining Buddha through the trees. It was indeed large, pretty run down, covered in graffiti, but impressive non the less. It would have been quite a peaceful spot as well, with the spectacular views and jungle setting, but the noise of the construction, jack hammers, drills etc, meant we only spent about 15 minutes hanging around before heading back to the cable car.

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Once again it was non-operational when we got there and on asking the guy in the control room whether he could start it, I received a reply in Vietnamese followed by much laughing, so wandered off to wait (I suspect I may now know the Vietnamese for “Sorry you’ll have to walk down”!). 15 minutes later it started up, we were whisked down and rode the “kamikaze cart” back to the front gate.

Our final stop was at the ancient site of the Cham Towers…three 9th Century temples. They were impressive, but by this point it was the middle of the day, 35 degrees C, and we were a bit done in, so we didn’t spend long there. After summarizing there were no ancient pubs in the vicinity (see UK entry), we jumped in the jeep and drove back to the hotel.

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A fun and interesting outing…just driving around in this country is fascinating even if the sites when you get there are not quite as impressive as maybe you’d hoped!

Posted by msmitheman 08:17 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

We’ve Got Wind!!

...but no we didn't eat something bad!

storm 28 °C

Firstly I’m going to have to eat my words somewhat about food in Vietnam. Seems if you let a flock of tourists descend on a place it’s only a matter of time before someone has to cook something edible, otherwise they won’t stay long.

The solution seems to be, don’t order off of the menu. Look for the places that offer fresh BBQ and then turn up about 6pm. You can get a good sized snapper, the biggest prawns I have ever seen, rice and veggies…cooked over a metal bucket with charcoal in…for a very reasonable price. In fact forgo the prawns and you can get the fish (big enough for 2) and trimmings with a couple of beers for about 7 dollars (the prawns triple the price…but they are worth it!!!).

We have scouted out a few fairly decent places now. Breakfast is typically at a place called “Mellow”…a small hostel run by a British guy and his Vietnamese wife. The food isn’t great (we haven’t found a good breakfast anywhere), but they will scramble an egg for you with some toast…actually they’ll scramble the thing beyond recognition, but at least it’s still better than the usual partially fried egg you find elsewhere. The real reason we go here is that you can also pick up free wireless internet from the posh hotel over the street, so it’s a chance to check emails over breakfast (which I also have to admit has been occurring at what most would usually consider the luncheon hour…oh well, did I mentioned we don’t work these days!!!).

Talking of checking internet, there are another couple of options. “Snow”, is a very trendy sushi restaurant/bar/nightclub a couple of doors down from where we’re staying. Cocktails are good but very expensive, food is not good and overpriced…beer and wireless internet are reasonably priced and free respectively. I have my suspicions that the place is run by the Russian mafia so just something to keep in mind if you’re ever there!

WAX is a bar/restaurant across the street from where we are (actually the place we stayed last time). It’s overpriced, the food is bad, but the atmosphere is good and they also have free wireless.

“Before & Now” is a restaurant a few doors down providing “Italian & Vietnamese Food with Real Italian Chef”. I am some what suspicious about the claim “Real Italian Chef”…personally I was expecting to see some big, red faced, Italian pizza chef, however in reality it’s a small Vietnamese chap who to be fair makes up some very fresh pasta and doesn’t over cook it. It’s managed by a very sweet Vietnamese lady who makes you feel welcome without bugging you.

And whilst we’re on bugging…there is a restaurant over the street that serves good BBQ but the woman in there is possibly the most irritating person we’ve met on our travels (or maybe a close second to the woman from the Spirit Café in Bali…see previous posts!). She will stake you out from anywhere up to a mile away to try and get you into the restaurant…at which point she will proceed to read the menu to you and then tell you how you should come back there for 3 meals a day for your whole stay…continuously throughout your dining experience. At first I thought, oh she’s just trying hard, but now I’ve decided she’s just extremely annoying. I’ve noticed she sets up her employees at strategic places along the “strip” (the whole town of Mui Ne stretches along about a 10 mile stretch of road) to try and poach customers from other restaurants. Luckily there is a place next door, “Mango”, which serves even better BBQ in a very relaxed and friendly atmosphere. I can also say that they serve the biggest prawns/shrimps that I have ever seen…I’ve seen smaller lobsters in the past. I am considering volunteering my services to Mango a few evenings a week, to sit outside the annoying woman’s place and tell people they should eat next door.

Other services in Mui Ne…there’s a liquor store 2 doors down from where we’re staying…cheaper than everywhere else, and maybe I’m going in there too much or something, but they’ve started to give me “frequent shopper” discounts and free bottles of water with my purchases. And there's a grocery store up the road where you can get out of date UHT milk that doesn't smell bad and doesn't seem to make you sick!

…and finally if you’re really stuck for stuff, jump in a cab for the 15 minute ride to Phan Tiet, the town south of here. Ask your cab driver for the “Co-op Mart” and you’ll be deposited at a big supermarket type place, that lacks in the fresh food department, but that serves up most supplies that you might need (They even have bread…not Bahn Mie…see previous post).

And so to the wind…there was a definite buzz about town a couple of days ago when we went for breakfast (at 11:30am)…I was semi confident the forecast was coming together and that we were going to get wind, and everyone else seemed to be in agreement. By the time we got down there at 12:30 it was indeed blowing and there were lots of kiters out and lots of lessons going on. We are pretty much in the dead center of a beach that stretches a few miles each way around the Mui Ne bay. Most places where people kite in the USA seem to have people congregating in a bit of water 50ft by 50ft…I’ve never understood why…so it was nice to see kites spread out along the whole stretch of beach. It wasn’t overcrowded though, Kim tells me she counted 40 at one point, which in an area that size seems quite sparse.

I put up my 12m and went for a few runs, and was nicely powered up in very consistent winds…not gusty at all. The water is very choppy and there is a little bit of swell, but not really clean enough to wave ride.

I came in to spot Kim on her first day back on the water (with new harness). The wind direction here is totally opposite to anywhere else she’s kited, so this also meant starting off on her so called weak side which she’s had very little practice on. To add to that, we were lucky enough in Bali to have the water to ourselves, so it was also the first time she’s kited in “traffic”. I sensed a little apprehension, but before I knew it she launched her 9m and was up and away, tacking back and forth and getting used to the choppy conditions. I suspect looking back on it, urging her into cold, 10ft swells to body drag without the board at Pismo Beach in California a few weeks before we left on our travels, is starting to pay off!
We both got a good few sessions on the water, and the wind actually picked up throughout the day, before we eventually threw in the towel at about 4:30pm when the sun was starting to go down.

I have to admit, we were both in a pretty embarrassing state, physically, after the first day on the water…both suffering from aches and pains in muscles we didn’t no we had.

Yesterday was a hot hot day…possibly the hottest day since we set off on our travels…there was wind, but it wasn’t quite as strong as the day before. We didn’t need many excuses to just lie on the beach, but even that only lasted an hour in the sweltering heat.

This morning we woke up to see Obama getting elected, it seems much to everyone’s relief. Strikes me people are more interested in the fact that he’s the first African American president than anything he has to say about politics or running the country (although I suspect the cab driver we had in Manila a few months ago, who insisted that there’d been a black president in the past, is still sticking to his story!).

Anyway, the wind was blowing hard when we went for an early lunch (at Before & Now…see above)…while we ate it really started howling. We headed down to the beach and proceeded to get sand blasted by the wind so went back to the room to get the gear but by the time we got back it had dropped a little. I went out on the 9m and found that the conditions were stupidly gusty…one minute struggling to keep the kite in the air, the next getting picked up out the water. I came in and Kim rightly decided not to go out for a bit. It was carnage out there, people struggling with their kites out at sea, whilst learners were being thrown in the water near the beach only to see their kites fall out the sky. As I was kiting I saw boards floating about everywhere in the water! I do have to say though, that everything looked very safe, there were no people getting dragged along the beach or anything…people were staying out of control in the water!

As I came in on my third outing on the 9m I managed to somehow whack myself where it hurts with the board, which was a little unpleasant…that was enough for me to call it a day. Kim decided to give it a go, but as I walked into the shallows I managed to stub my toe on a rock and rip the toe nail off…that definitely convinced me I should quit for the day! I rinsed off my bloody stump and then blew up the 7m for Kim. She went out and made a valiant effort, but the lulls in the wind were so weak that she couldn’t get going, so she came in and swapped onto the 9m. When she tried to launch it was so gusty that even keeping the kite in the air was a challenge…I also tried one more launch and decided it just wasn’t worth it, so we packed up.

It was still fun day. Seems we might actually have to get up a bit earlier tomorrow and catch the more steady winds before the storms start to blow through.

Posted by msmitheman 06:52 Archived in Vietnam Comments (2)

Vietnam...

..day 5

semi-overcast 27 °C

…and I’m beginning to think it’s a myth…there is no wind here…despite all the locals telling me “unusual for this time of year”!. Thankfully, whilst it is raining, it’s no where near as wet as last time we were here, and if I read the forecast right, the weekend onwards looks dry and windy. We will see I guess.

Despite no kiting, the first few days have been fun. It seems to be an altogether different experience being here this time. For one, there are actually other people here…although it’s not what I would call busy. On our arrival we booked into the Hoang Kim Golden resort, which we found online before arrival. It was really nice, with a semi-decent restaurant (despite breakfast, see previous post) and pool. However in true style, the building work woke us up at 6am, and it was only in the daylight that we were able to see the place was only half finished.

After an afternoon lying by the pool…while construction workers layed bricks, mixed concrete, randomly hammered things very loudly, all around us…we decided on a move.

We found a place right opposite where we stayed on our first trip here…the Nam Khai Resort…which has a clean room with AC, hot water, cable TV, for 10 bucks a night….perfect for what we need. Perfect that is until 6am the first morning…seems someone is building a house about a foot from our room window. There is construction going on everywhere though, so I figure finding somewhere quiet is going to be impossible. Ear plugs will be put to good use I feel.

As I mentioned in a previous post, Kim’s friend Candy joined us for a few days on her way north to Hanoi. On the first day she suggested we rent bicycles and go check out the local fishing village. Seems everywhere rents bikes here, but we were lucky enough to find the ones with rock hard seats and 21 gears of which 2 were functioning if you twisted really hard on the gear knob and held it there. This gave you 2 very useful options of either having your legs spinning at 200 rpm whilst going nowhere, or having to stand up and force all your weight through one pedal just to get the thing moving, whilst praying that the chain didn’t give way and you’d land with a thud on the aforementioned rock hard seat (only happened once to me).

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Despite the equipment challenges it was fun. We rode what I felt was about 5 miles (although if you believe the signposts 10 miles) down to the fishing village of Mui Ne. There wasn’t much going on there, however the sight of hundreds of local fishing boats moored in the harbor was impressive.

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We stopped for the obligatory coffee, noodles and spring rolls on the way and at the fishing village Kim & Candy managed to get accosted by 3 young local girls selling jewelry and postcards and are now 2 bracelets and 10 postcards better off.

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The roads here seem treacherous to me. It is actually illegal for non-Vietnamese to drive (although it doesn’t seem to stop tourists riding around on mopeds) which is good as I have no desire to be behind the wheel or on the seat of something motorized! The drivers, particularly of the large trucks and buses, have no fear…they’ll just put their foot down and not take it up again until they reach their destination…god help anyone who gets in the way.

We were all pretty whacked after our jaunt, but managed to find the energy to hit the local bar where we stayed last time, WAX, for a few drinks and food that night.

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Yesterday we booked onto a “Jeep tour to the Sand Dunes”…I was not really sure what I was expecting , but I can now tell you that a “Jeep tour to the Sand Dunes” is exactly that…you pay $9 each, get in a Jeep, drive 30km to some sand dunes and then get in the Jeep and drive 30km back again!

It was fun though. We loaded into the back of the Jeep with our driver and a local Saigon girl, Yang, who was herself traveling around SE Asia and who spoke excellent English. We first went to the “Fairy Streams” which from what I could gather is a canyon that runs up into the hills. We walked a little way up the streams which passed through some amazing scenery. I actually found this to be the best bit of the trip.

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From there, we drove to the “White Sand Dunes”…I guess if you’ve never seen a sand dune before it would be more interesting, however I think the drive there was more spectacular. We stopped for a while and then headed to the “Red Sand Dunes” which to me looked no different to the “White Sand Dunes”…and I think everyone else was in agreement…so we drove back to Mui Ne.

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Candy left for Delat this morning, a town in the hills about 200km north west of here. Kim is going to meet up with her again in Saigon on her departure in 3 weeks, although if the traveling gets to much we may see her back at the beach again before then!

Kim and I had a day on the beach today…sun was out and we managed to top up our tans.

The food is not quite as bad as I remember it…but it’s not great either. We did have some nice shrimp and fish the other night and I’ve had a couple of ok stir fries…I don’t think we’re going to starve, but I’m guessing after 4 or 5 weeks I’ll be happy to never see a noodle again. Breakfast is a real struggle especially if you want an egg…they will cook it “anyway you want” as long as it’s slighty under-fried. Seems the Vietnamese breakfast options are Pho (spicy noodle soup) or Bahn Mi…a curious invention…basically a baguette that is all crust and no bread…usually served with butter and jam…you tear it apart and watch it disintegrate as the crusty crumbs fall onto your plate…at which point you’re left with a small pot of butter and jam for breakfast.

Posted by msmitheman 07:20 Archived in Vietnam Comments (1)

UK...

...and back to Vietnam

rain 12 °C

On the 25th October we left Illinois for a few weeks in the UK…Kim’s first trip…and I have to say we had a great time visiting Mum & Dad, Mel & Paul, Grandma and seeing Peter, Kathy, Karen & Francois (probably spelt wrong!) for a few days.

I’ve stolen some of Kim’s writing for my blog entry as I think an American’s perspective is probably a little more interesting than mine!!

Mike and I spent the last 3 weeks in England, the mother land. I was very excited to have the opportunity to learn to speak English, as opposed to American English, and to have cream teas. I think I learned more English slang than ‘proper’ English, but that was fun too! If you aren’t privy, cream tea consists of 2 warm scones, a pot of jam, a pot of clotted cream, and of course tea. My initial reaction: “clotted” cream? …my only association to the word clot is through science courses – as in blood clot. Eeeek! Clotted cream has nothing to do with blood, thankfully. It’s a sticky and slightly sweet, thick cream. Put that on your warm scone along with the jam and voila, a very tasty snack! Wash down with hot tea (with milk) and repeat as often as possible for maximum weight gain! I’ve packed on a few lbs in this fashion – but I think the fish & chips, sausages and real ale have something to do with that, too. No bother, a waist is a terrible thing to mind, especially when faced with 5 weeks of Vietnam’s nauseating culinary offerings.

We were hosted most graciously by Mike’s family – the first week with Jim and Sandra, his parents, the second week with Melanie and Paul, his sister and brother-in-law, and a few days at Grandma Jean’s followed by a few days in London. I think benevolence and hospitality are in the water in the UK – I felt so at home everywhere we went! Mike’s mom hand-made a bag for my yoga mat during the week we were yachting and touring ancient sites (and ancient PUBS!) with Mel and Paul.

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Tour of Ancient Sites...
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...and Ancient Pubs!!!!
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Yachting!

Everyone cooked for us, which was really fantastic, and they even put up with my egg-eating. =) …for those who don’t know, I eat eggs probably 5 breakfasts per week. Especially since traveling over the last 5 months – seems you can always find eggs for breakie, though you may not want to eat them (see Koh Samet entry!). I thought a Christmas Cracker was something you eat, or maybe slang for Santa Claus, but Mike’s mom put me wise to the English custom over Christmas dinner, which we ate on October 18th. A cracker looks like a huge piece of taffy, twisted paper at both ends, except it’s wrapped in foil papers of all different Christmas-y colors. Everyone at the table has a cracker in front of their dinner plate. You hold one end in your right hand like you’re passing a baton to the person at your left, and they grab the other end with their left hand. You grab the other end of the person’s to your right, and so on around the table. Then everyone pulls them apart at the same time and they explode. Not like with dynamite or C4, just a little pop and you open it up. Inside, you get a paper crown, which everyone instantly dons, a joke on a little piece of paper, and a small trinket or toy – mine was a fingernail brush! That’ll come in handy for sand removal (the war on sand continues!). It was so much fun! I hear the previous year was a bit more fun – the fire department came and everything…someone lit the dining room carpet and hallway on fire with an out-of-control candle. Our families are going to get along great, I have a feeling!

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Christmas Dinner

It was, of course raining a bit during our stay. Seems like every time we tried to leave whatever house we were in, it would rain. Insert standard response here: Cuppa tea then? Seriously, I love all the tea drinking that goes on. ….and all the ale drinking for that matter (thanks Mel and Paul!). Anyway, we ate like kings, drank like sailors, and slept like it was going out of style.

While in London, we saw all the sights, and for Mike’s birthday, his parents treated us to a show. We saw Wicked last Wednesday night, and it was superb. If you like the story of the Wizard of Oz, you’ll probably like this. The production was incredible as was the singing, dancing and costumes.

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"London Sites"

It was indeed a welcome break relaxing down in Devon with Mum & Dad after the calamities of San Francisco. I guess the stereotypical views of bad weather and tea drinking in England are true, but I would debate the view of the food being terrible compared to America…I think Kim agrees that it is, in general, much better over the pond in the UK (assuming chicken nuggets and big mac’s aren’t your thing!!!)

The yachting with Mel & Paul was great fun (despite the abrupt end and injuries that Paul and I obtained in the process), and sparked an interest with both Kim and I that we may pursue wherever we end up next…and I guess I was secretly relieved as a tour of the ancient sites turned into a tour of the ancient pubs when for once the English weather came to my aid.

And so we end up back in Vietnam…the flight was uneventful…and we arrived to find our friend Candy waiting for us in Saigon. The joys of Vietnam have come flooding back very quickly!!! I was excited to be back in Saigon…in a warped sort of way I enjoy the city a lot, despite the craziness of the place. We took the bus to the beach again yesterday…seems the nice sleeping bus that we took the first time has disappeared, never to be seen again…I took a big gulp when I saw the one that turned up this time…let’s just say it made it as far as the first corner before it stalled. Thankfully it was fairly empty so we had plenty of space, and after going through the usual “ooooo 2 people with big bags, a chance to scam them for more money” routine we actually enjoyed a relatively comfortable journey.

I was lulled into a false sense of security last night when we ordered dinner at the hotel (see previous entry on food in Vietnam). It was actually fairly edible…chicken with chilli and lemon grass…but I was bought back down to earth this morning with breakfast. Candy and I suffered uncooked greasy pancakes with banana, whilst being secretly relieved that we hadn’t ordered the same as Kim…on the menu it read, “Baguette, eggs, bean and bacon”. We were all hoping that it would indeed turn up with one bean, but alas it was plate containing 2 uncooked eggs, white beans drenched in tomato ketchup (yes out of the bottle) and some fatty substance that resembled no meat from a pig that I’ve ever seen!

Ahhh Vietnam….joy….the wind had better @#$%^ blow hard!!!!

Posted by msmitheman 06:51 Archived in United Kingdom Comments (0)

Illinois

...middle america

15 °C

I was glad to leave for Illinois after the unexpected hassles of San Francisco. It was fun to see our friends and get back on the motorbikes, but I was ready to get out of there after 2 weeks.

After arriving in Chicago, we picked up a rental for the drive out to Kim’s homeland. If you ever want to visit, start driving south west from O’Hare airport, and keep going until you can’t go anymore…and then go about 5 more miles…and then you’ll get there. But don’t blink, or you’ll miss it and be driving through corn fields for eternity!

I jest, but it is sort of out there in the middle of nowhere! We checked into our hotel and went round to the family home where Kim’s dad still is…an idyllic spot of fields, trees and a pond. He cooked us up some amazing steaks from last years hunting exploits…I only wish we could’ve eaten there more over the week we were back rather than the culinary delights that can be found in the restaurants of the surrounding area (let’s just say if it ain’t deep fried you won’t find it!).

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"welcome home cake!"

We spent much of the week hanging out with her Dad, but her sister, Marcy’s family also came down for a few days. She has 2 adorable kids, Grace (2) and Emma (1) so I had at least 2 people on my level for the week, although seems I will be forever known as Mite in those circles as the “K” just isn’t in the vocab yet! (I have to say though, as with any kids, I was glad we could return them after a couple of days...nothing personal!!!)

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"Emma & Jeff"
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"Grace & Kim"
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"Grace & Pony!"

On the Saturday night (I think) that we were there, her Dad hosted a party at his place, where the rest of the family (Grandma, Kim’s mum) came out along with a whole load of friends from the area…it was great to meet/catch up with them all until the early hours of the morning. They are a real motorcycle/hunting/hippy crowd though and I have to say some of the conversations lost me, but Kim was able to keep up the translations for most of the time!

I managed to catch up with my friend and old work colleague, Kelli, who had a meeting an hour up the road, whilst I was there. It was great to catch up, I miss hanging out with a number of people from the old company…I have to say though I have no regrets about leaving…(who would! It’s a tough life swanning around the globe!!!)

The visit seemed to fly by…I felt a bit bad that we’d only scheduled in a week there and we had 3 weeks scheduled back in the UK…we will have to make up for it next time.

Onto England…

Posted by msmitheman 06:40 Archived in USA Comments (0)

Back Home...

semi-overcast 25 °C

The first leg of our trip ended with a few nights in Bangkok staying at the Hilton on the river front (I never thought I'd find a use for hotel points!!). It was a fun few days in a very busy city.

The flight back to San Francisco took us via Tokyo on United. I managed to get us upgraded to business class which I thought was going to make for a comfortable flight back, until Kim ate the eggs they served for breakfast just after we boarded and then proceeded to throw up for 14 hours. I always did have a problem with eggs on planes...a smell that I remember hasn’t changed since the flights of my childhood to Oman…it still makes me nauseous whenever they serve breakfast.

Anyway we arrived back in San Francisco on time although with some trepidation as we hadn’t heard from our elusive house sitter for a number of weeks.

Thankfully our good friends Peter & Brent had agreed to put us up for a couple of weeks in their palace of an apartment in the city, so as Kim was unwell and I wasn’t sure what to expect at our apartment we headed there and built our nest in their spare room. It is a beautiful apartment and I think seeing it only heightened my disgust when I finally walked into our place later that day.

Backing up a little, we had rented our place out to a “friend” whilst we were away. I use rented loosely as I basically asked for next to no money in return for the place being looked after…you know, difficult stuff like water the plants, start the car, vacuum the carpet.

Well after the first couple of weeks of being away we never heard from her again, and never received any of the little rent I’d asked for. I fully expected to return and find the place empty.

I should be so lucky…I’ll give you the highlights…

...when I walked in, there were boxes stacked all over the place (seems 3 months was actually too short to move her stuff in), our furniture had been stacked in the corner. I then suddenly realized that the place resembled a pet store…She’d moved a cat in, there was cat paraphernalia everywhere and the place stank, cat hair everywhere, and I don’t think the litter tray had been emptied in 3 months. Said cat also managed to scratch up the sofas in the living room and cupboards in the kitchen.

She had managed to break off the shower taps which were lying on the bathroom floor and had been replaced by a wrench…the smoke alarm was dangling off the wall…seems the battery was needed for something else…probably a toy for the cat. Stains on the carpet that I’m trying to convince myself were red wine and not cat related.

…the list goes on and on and we kept finding new surprises as we spent the next 3 days cleaning up. (If anyone can explain the purpose of a 2 inch crust of hardened, greasy baking soda in the bottom of the oven I’d be interested to hear it!).

I tell you, I can put up with quite a lot, but the place was disgusting and she didn’t seem to think anything was wrong so needless to say we booted her out there and then (the most enjoyable part of the whole proceeding!)

As I’ve mentioned we spent the next 3 days cleaning the place up which was pretty unpleasant. Kim convinced me to advertise the place again, which we did and were inundated with responses. We have since moved a girl our age into the place, who is a school teacher, who has house sat before and provided a pile of references, so fingers crossed this one will work out!

In addition to that I also had my truck broken into and the stereo stolen and a flat tire. Wasn’t a good week!

Thankfully staying with our friends gave us someone to laugh it all off with…well that and a few good bottles of wine and a few hours of home improvement TV (long story!!).

Peter and Brent also invited us up to their house in the Russian River, complete with hot tub, for the weekend, which was an amazing retreat and made for a much pleasanter end to our visit. We ate and drank well, including a batch of “red velvet” cup cakes baked by Kim…I do believe that I’m owed one though…I thought the deal was 5 each and I don’t believe Leo (the dog) ate my last one…Peter!

Posted by msmitheman 18:57 Archived in USA Comments (0)

Ko Samet...

...Land Of Beaches & Bugs

sunny 35 °C

On the morning of the 27th, we left our hotel in Ko Samui (I never did work out what the place was called) for the airport at about 8am for our 9:45am flight. The little outdoor airport was pretty busy, but once again we managed to check in our overweight bags without any trouble. I've pretty much got it nailed now...if it's a sloping scale/conveyer belt you make sure it's hanging off the end and all the weight is transfered through the end of the bag and not down onto the scales (this was how we made our bags weigh 6kg instead of 25kg on this particular flight!)...if it's a flat scale, a deftly placed foot/leg supporting the back of the bag takes a good 5 or 6 kilo's off. Our Bangkok airways flight took off on time and we were landing in Bangkok within the hour.

Ko Samet is an island off of what they call the Eastern Seaboard of Thailand. Ban Phe is the port about a 3 hour drive east of Bangkok where the boats go from. When we got to Bangkok, we didn't really have a plan as to how we were going to get there. Whilst I stayed with the bags Kim did a deft job of finding out that there was a free shuttle bus that could take us the 45 minutes to the bus station in the middle of Bangkok, where we could then get a bus for the 3 hour journey out to Ban Phe for about 10 bucks each...whilst holding the heavy kite bags in 32 degree (92 Farhenheit) heat, I thought about this for precisely half a second before sheepishly pointing out the limousine service desk and hinting that she might like to go haggle for a car, which she managed to secure for a good price! I guess some first class travel habits never wear off! We loaded the bags into a nice air conditioned car and set off on what turned out to be about a 2 hour ride....I think we were both relieved to be doing it in comfort.

West Coast of Ko Samet
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Ban Phe is a mucky little port town spread out about half a mile along the main high street. The taxi driver dumped us at the port there. We had a tentative plan to find the local office of a hotel on the south of Ko Samet island. I left Kim with the bags and on my second attempt found the place and despite the woman there not speaking English managed to negotiate our planned 10 nights on the island plus boat trip for a reasonable price. I then just prayed that it was going to be a decent place!

We got a speed boat over to the island which dumped us right on the beach outside the hotel. Well Ko Samet Ville resort is, how shall I put it, remote! Ko Samet island is a T shape about 5 miles long and at the top a couple of miles across. Our resort is about 3 quarters of the way down the east coast. There is one main dirt track that runs north south through the middle of the island. At the top it is fairly densely populated with resorts, especially the north east. Once you get halfway down, there's really only 3 or 4 places to stay. Where we are the next nearest place is about a 15 to 20 minute walk north.

Our Room
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The accommodation is pretty new from what I can gather, at least the building we're in....there's a not very good restaurant, and a very nice beach...and, well, that's it. If I were to say it's quiet, that would be an understatement! It is actually very nice and relaxing though and as I said it is only about a 15 minute stroll to some decent places to eat and drink.

I think when we first got here we were a little shell shocked...I suspect there were maybe half a dozen other people staying here...and whilst it is a beautiful spot, I know I was wondering what the hell we were going to do for 10 days! However 3 days have passed already and it hasn't been a problem and I'm quite enjoying it!!!

The first day we explored the coastline north...it is typically nice sandy beaches in little coves, separated by rocky headlands...you can scramble between the beaches the length of the island I imagine, or you can cut inland through the jungle (yes jungle) and take the dirt road. Places have clearly been over developed, but certainly not where we are!

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We rented an ATV for a day (little quad bike) to explore the island. Kim rode whilst I navigated. The roads, well tracks, are terrible....huge holes and ruts, and you really can't get over a few miles an hour. There are no cars really (a couple of taxis that are actually pick up trucks) but the main mode of transport seems to once again be mopeds....this just seems treacherous to me....trying to stay on 2 wheels...and indeed we saw a couple of people take spills, but nothing serious as no one is moving very fast.

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Oh, and it's hot....really hot...it got above 100 degrees today with what felt like 100% humidity...and the bugs are a little irritating....well a lot irritating actually....but so far we are mostly keeping them at bay. The frogs are just unbelievable. We walked down to the beach one night and Kim said, "no way listen to the frogs!". I was convinced that there was no way they could be frogs, it sounded so loud. But she was right, a small pond full creating a noise slightly louder than a freight train. I've never heard anything like it. And then there's the snakes...they are everywhere....well I've only actually seen two, but I know they're out there! The first I think was a cobra...brown about 4 foot long....Kim disagrees and reckons it was a harmless grass snake. In hindsight I'm probably in agreement with her that the second one was an earth worm, but it was dark at the time.

PS. Have reached the upload limit for the month on photos for this site, so you'll have to wait for more!

Posted by msmitheman 20:52 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

Ang Thong National Marine Park

sunny 30 °C

The carving course finished with a very intense afternoon and evening working on vegetable garnishes! The teacher got pretty serious on the final day for some reason and whilst I still really enjoyed it, I'd had enough by the end...my fingers wouldn't move anymore. She insisted we work holding the vegetables in one hand and the knife in the other rather than working on the cutting board as we had been for the first 2 days. I failed (and still fail) to see why this is necessary, but I struggled a bit. Not having the steadiest (or smallest) hands in the world made it tough. Anyway I still managed to turn out some decent leaves and shapes from cucumbers, chilli's, tomatoes and spring onions!

Kim & I joined the teacher for dinner that evening, and enjoyed a nice Thai meal inclusive of deep fried fish tails....a first for us, but not terrible (although I wouldn't jump at ordering them if I saw them on a menu!).

Yesterday we booked a tour to the Ang Thong National Marine Park about a 45 minute speed boat journey west of here. We were picked up from our hotel at 8am and driven to a pier about 15 minutes up the coast where we joined about 100 other people (ok, I don't know how many but there were a lot!). We were split up into speed boats of about 20 people each. The trip over was via another island called Ko Phan Ngan where we picked up a couple more, and we arrived in the marine park at about 10:30am.

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The area is an archipelago stretching north south. I don't know how many islands exactly, but a lot...a beautiful area, but I have to say it looks like tourism is spoiling it rapidly. We pulled around into a cove for the first activity of the day snorkeling. Let me just say there were that many boats there it took some time finding a bit of water where you could lay flat without hitting someone else! The snorkeling was pretty bad...poor visibility and not much marine life (probably due to the large number of boats and tourists). We were there about an hour, before being whisked off to another island.

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Kim and I were sat on the front of the speed boat with a couple of others and one of the boat crew...suddenly I heard the guy shouting "Crocodilly, crocodilly"...on closer inspection I saw a group of people snorkeling by a small rocky island and a small salt water crocodile heading there way...maybe 3 or 4 foot. I was glad at this point that our snorkeling was done for the day as I assumed its 12 foot mother was around somewhere! As we pulled away the group in the water were non the wiser and as Kim observed, no one seemed particularly concerned about pointing it out to them.

On arriving at the 2nd island we were ushered onto the beach by the guide and told "we now climb mountain!". There were a few panicked looks around the boat, but on a quick scan of the horizon it became clear that we were going to be okay as there were no mountains evident! What we did in fact do was climb an extremely steep set of staircases up and over a hill and down the other side to a lake in the middle of the island. The views and scenery were pretty spectacular.

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On arriving back at the boat we were then taken to a third island for lunch...a green curry, vegetables, rice and spaghetti?? (obviously!!!) picnic on the beach. It wasn't bad food, accompanied by the obligatory pineapple and watermelon afterwards. After lunch it was back on the boat to our third and final island where we were thrown life jackets and told to get in 2 person kayaks. We paddled in a group around a nearby island and although it seemed like we were trying to break some sort of speed record in order to get back, it was good fun. On getting back, we then laid around for about an hour before taken back to Ko Samui (hence not understanding the need to paddle like the wind in the kayaks!!!).

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It was a fun trip although it would have been nice to be rich and be able to charter a boat to do it at our leisure!

Posted by msmitheman 20:49 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

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