Blink of an Eye

I can’t believe it’s September already. Time really does fly with the blink of an eye.

The last month has been a little of a whirlwind, with a quick exit out of Vietnam to see family and then back to Vietnam and starting three weeks of travel. Back to it!

We first made our way towards the South of Vietnam, I’m glad I made time to finally do so since I didn’t really get to whilst I was working at Asia Outdoors. We did an overnight train to Hue, biked from there to Hoi An, flew from Da Nang to Ho Chi Minh city and then bussed from HCM to Phnom Penh in Cambodia. The bike route from Hue to Hoi An was definitely one of the highlights with some really cheap options to get there. 450,000 VND (~£15) for bike hire for the one way journey and they transfer any big bags you don’t want to take to your hotel for you. For a day of riding around on a 135cc automatic scooter, it was totally worth it!

Hoi An was definitely very beautiful with all its signature lanterns glowing at night, painting the old streets in a gorgeous soft lighting. It is very touristy though teaming with visitors both western and Asian (there were a lot of Koreans when we were there).

In HCM we took an evening to have dinner and then go to the cinema. It’s the first time I’ve been since travelling and it was really good fun to do a coupley thing that was more familiar territory with both our backgrounds. Mission Possible was an excellent choice for it.

Phnom Penh was largely spent inside as I was ill (how I managed to contract a cold in ~30 degree heat, I’m not sure). We did manage to visit the genocide museum (S21) which was pretty harrowing, I had no idea Cambodia had such a violent, heartbreaking recent history.

Generally the city seemed like a pretty uninspiring sprawl. It definitely wasn’t very pedestrian friendly, particularly around where we stayed. I also nearly got robbed by some guys on a motorbike which was fun. Otherwise, Cambodians seem really nice and friendly.

We are currently in Siem Reap. Yes, we will be going to see the Angkor National Park tomorrow but I can’t believe it’s $37 to get in just for one day. I do really want to go see Beng Mealea too but we won’t have time.

One of the things that’s changed this time travelling is that I’m not longer solely travelling, I am also remote working. It’s bizarre, and it’s definitely taking getting used to but it’s an interesting new lifestyle. I certainly don’t earn enough to sustain a life in London but if I were to stay in SE Asia, it would provide a good amount of income. It is tiring though moving around, travelling and working as well. It’s a lot to juggle to then make sure you make quality time for your boyfriend which is the reason you went on this three week trip in the first place. You gotta do what you gotta do. Hopefully I can get this set up and rolling so that it can sustain me in future.

The Corner of Lost Souls

I’m sitting on the bus on my way off Cat Ba and out of Vietnam after 90 days in this country. It feels so weird. It’s the longest I’ve spent continuously in any country after UK and HK. I certainly would’ve never envisaged that I would be doing that here and certainly not that long in a small town on a small island. I remember arriving here in May (which feels like a lifetime ago) and thinking “shit, I’m going to spend three months here”?. It’s funny how quickly that seems to have passed.

Usually Asia Outdoors only give out six month contracts, but as luck would have it, through disorganisation of outgoing and incoming hiring people and their needing staff quickly I managed to negotiate a three month contract. I don’t regret my decision to leave after three and I’m glad I didn’t impulsively extend. Some people have been here over a year and I don’t quite understand how. Being here during the progression into rainy season probably doesn’t help much as it has made it such an effort to go climbing on days off. I can’t remember the last time I went to Butterfly Valley on my personal time. Climbing out in the bay is stunning but also expensive as you need to hire boats for the day. And going out DWS with the company on days off is something I didn’t enjoy too much. The fear of falling and jumping into water from high up severely hampers my enjoyment of the activity. So for me, my time here has felt like a time of being lost and trying to experience more, whilst lacking any real direction. And perhaps that’s where I come from so I’m projecting but I see a lot of people in the same boat as me – particularly those who have been here for over six months. The Corner of Lost Souls as I called it in a conversation with one of my past colleagues.

It’s been an interesting social experiment to see how people react to me. The locals and even westerners would often think I was local or could speak the language. Even this morning on my last office shift I had four people try to speak to me in Vietnamese and one westerner ask me if I can ask the Vietnamese staff of the neighbouring tea stand for some ice. It’s often quite amusing, particularly the embarrassment of the westerners sometimes. There would’ve been a time where it particularly bothered me – a time when my sense of identity was more fragile. Nowadays, I can shrug it off pretty easily. Of course I don’t expect you to know that I’m not local, I am Chinese after all.

I have missed long travel times alone like this when I usually default to escaping into my thoughts. There has definitely been a lot of distractions in Cat Ba. But also, the idea of sitting in a room by myself never seemed that appealing and neither did I find anywhere external to the hotel that I felt comfortable enough to relax.

The butterflies here are exquisite. That’s been a pleasant surprise that I’ve really enjoyed. I remember there was a particular week period around the end of May when Butterfly Valley really lived up to its name. I got distracted regularly whilst belaying by the variety and how many butterflies there were. Even now, there are still some beautiful and vibrant ones around.

Halfway Through

If you don’t know where you want to go, then it doesn’t matter which path you take.

– Lewis Carroll

I’m about halfway through my time here on Cat Ba and it has been a quite a ride so far. The work continues to throw up interesting challenges daily and there is continual staffing shifts which changes the dynamic of the group frequently. As July approaches I become more and more acutely aware that a decision on what I want to do after will have to be made soon. A friend/colleague introduced me to the quote above a couple of days ago which really stuck with me. There’s been so much anxiety over picking THE thing I need to be doing next but there’s no grounding for it. I have no aim and no real preference for what I want to do so there’s no need for the anxiety.

Cat Ba is an interesting mix of environments. The town itself is a horrible over packed seaside town which the Vietnamese come to invade during June and July. But going out into Lan Ha Bay for work provides some sort reprieve from the hustle and bustle that is this neon town. It’s a funny lifestyle living here as an adventure guide. Going out onto the bay for work and escaping deep into the island on days off to climb. We work and play as a unit which makes it all very intense, particularly if you strike up a romantic relationship with someone or have a disagreement with another.

I love driving out of Cat Ba Town; I even own a scooter now. My first moving vehicle! Heading out from the busy town onto quieter roads always feels a bit cathartic, especially when you’re turning up the gas so that you pelt along at some speeds.

I’m interested to see what the next half of my time here will bring. If it brings anymore clarity to my future plans, that would be most welcome.

My Temporary Abode

So after being on the road consistently since January, it got to the point where I felt quite tired of moving around. So I’m now on Cat Ba island in Vietnam for a couple of months working here as an Adventure Guide for Asia Outdoors. It’s pretty cool. I would have never imagined myself working outdoors like this in a foreign country. The bay is beautiful although it does make me really sad how much rubbish is floating around. The locals litter a lot as do the big tourist cruise ships which is heartbreaking. The education in Asia really needs to be improved to make the locals aware of how delicate the environment is.

The work is cool, I work with a really good bunch of people who all love the outdoors and are really good fun. The days are long and tiring, it’s proper honest work though which does give you a sense of satisfaction at the end of the day. Cat Ba seemed like a good place as there’s plenty of climbing here to go to do on days off. So far, I haven’t quite had as many sport climbing days as I’d like but I’m hoping that will change.

Deep water solo is also an awesome activity that is on offer here that’s perfect now that we’re heading into the hot and humid summer.

This whole travel adventure has thrown up a lot of questions about what I want from life. It’s caused me a fair amount of stress from not having even a rough plan of what I want to do. But one epiphany I had from climbing the other day is that life is like climbing. As you move through the different foot and hand holds, you’ll come across different options but you won’t know until you get there. It was a nice summary of where I was at. It doesn’t matter if I don’t end up living the cookie cutter lifestyle I always thought I had to live. I don’t want that and it’s in accepting that there are other ways to live that will give me the freedom I’m seeking.

Indonesia: Water, green and wilderness

That will be my memory of Indonesia. In the not-quite three weeks we were there, we ended up splitting the time between Nusa Lembongan, Labuan Bajo/Komodo and Bali. What we saw was beautiful.

Despite being quite touristy in some places, there are still lots of wilderness around, particularly underwater. The diving here is phenomenal and definitely some of the best that I’ve experienced. The variety and size of coral and fish in Komodo was astounding. It was easy to feel dwarfed by the monstrously sized marine creatures swimming in those waters. We were lucky enough to come across a lot of mantas at a dive site called Mawan. These mantas were easily 5m wide and much bigger than the ones we saw at Nusa Penida. They are amazing, just so graceful and calm as they swim playfully past you.

I was a bit sceptical about spending too much time on Bali knowing how popular with tourists it is. We spent a couple of days in Amed, which had a great relaxed pace. It was fun to hire scooters and zip around seeing the beautiful coastal scenery.

Here we also got to see an example of a freediver, Joan Capdevila, in action. Snorkeling at the Japanese Wreck, he manages to dive down and stay to inspect the wreck in detail for three, four minutes at a time with ease. It was mind boggling enough to see that knowing he is managing it all with one single breathe. To then extend that thought to trying to comprehend his deep dives to the depths of 70/80m is something my brain instinctively shuts down. It’s amazing what human beings can achieve and it’s another stark reminder that our biggest limitations are the mental walls which we box ourselves into. I doubt that freediving is something that I will be pursuing obsessively any time soon, but the learnings are just as applicable to my love of climbing.

After Amed, I spent our last few days in Canggu. Going from sleepy Amed to Canggu was a bit overwhelming initially. The traffic for one, is much more intense. But Canggu is pretty cool. Kind of like Hipsters on Holiday vibes. Surfers and skaters revel here as do digital nomads. The main streets are decorated with shiny shops, shiny cafes and shiny signs. As much I liked the pseudo westernised environment to soothe my cravings for home comforts, the place still has too much of a sheen for me to feel completely comfortable. It was also nice to see the rice paddies that still existed just off the main streets, but also sobering to consider that they will probably no longer exist in a decade or so to make way for more perfectly curated shops and cafes.

Indonesia has been an interesting experience. Personally, it threw up a lot of questions about what I want to do with my life, particularly after I call it quits with travelling (the number one reason why anyone travels right?). But the country is beautiful, and I would love to revisit to explore more.

Indonesia So Far: Lembongan, Bali

It’s been an eventful week and a bit since we arrived in Indonesia. When we first arrived, I have to admit I really wasn’t sure whether I’d enjoy my time here. The idea of being somewhere where it was the Australia’s answer to Benidorm really didn’t seem appealing to me. I also wasn’t quite ready to be back amongst the normal holidaymakers having been amongst climbers for nearly a month.

We stayed in Sanur for two nights whilst we waited for my dad to join us for a week. Unless you are heading to catch a ferry, I would avoid Sanur. There’s nothing outstanding about it and it’s festering with locals who pester you to offer their services. Once we landed on Nusa Lembongan, it got much better with the island providing a much more relaxed atmosphere. We originally booked for four nights and ended up staying seven as Ed wanted to do his advanced course as well as his open water. The island (and the neighbouring two islands) are beautiful and are so good for watersports. If you like diving, surfing or just beaches under a blazing sun, this is the place to go.

The islands are stunning, I would highly recommend renting a scooter to explore the island as well as crossing over to the smaller but no less spectacular Cennigan. Although I would not recommend what my dad did which is drive his scooter off the edge of a 2.5m drop… If you do have any mishaps, the East Medical Centre on Lembongan is very good. The treatment rooms are clean, they have good equipment and it’s sterile. Luckily my dad only escaped with scrapes and the need for a couple of stitches for a particularly bad cut. Do take care! Some of the roads on Cennigan are particularly steep and in bad condition and certainly not for the faint-hearted.

Having already done my Advanced PADI, I spent my days mainly surfing and doing admin bits. I’m a complete noob at surfing so it was quite amusing to take on the beginner surf lessons with Thabu Surfing and get absolutely spanked by the waves. The lessons were really good and in my last session I could stand up on most of the waves I caught. At 450k IDR a lesson it’s almost worth doing the lesson just to catch Thabu and his instructors catch waves themselves. The names for the surf spots did make me chuckle though, they were Razors, Lacerations and Playground with the last one being the least friendly so I’m told.

The highlight of our stay on Lembongan was definitely the day of fun dives I did. We went out with Blue Corner Diving who were super great from day one. I saved my day of fun diving for a day with less swell so we could go out to Manta Point. We went out early at 8am and saw dolphins playing in the water as the boat left the reef. The boat trip was fantastic to showcase the beauty of the Nusa Lembongan, Nusa Cennigan and Nusa Penida. We arrived at Manta Point being one of the first boats there and got in the water without delay. Within less than a minute of descending, we saw mantas. Not just one, but about eight to ten of them all together feeding. Throughout the dive, every so often a manta would just zip past you nonchalantly, it did not get old! Considering they were between 3-5m wide, it was definitely a little intimidating at first! What a thrilling first dive of the day. After that we dived at Crystal Bay where I finally saw my first turtle and then at Sen Tal where I had my first proper experience of drift diving. It was a fantastic day.

Thakhek: Green Climbers Home

We’re currently on our way to moving on having spent 25 days at Green Climbers Home in Thakhek. Having only planned to stay for 16 days, when it came to the leaving on our original end date, neither Ed or I felt ready to leave. The climbing was good, but so was Kalymnos and Tonsai. What really makes Green Climbers Home special is the people who turn up there. It felt like an adult summer camp where the days are spent throwing your efforts at the wall and nights are late hanging out with your friends you’ve made. Out of the people we met, I don’t think there was a single person who actually left on the day they had planned to leave which is real testament to the way the place is run. If you go, you will find that you have an entire valley to play with – a climber’s paradise. What was also really surprising was the proportion of people who arrived having never climbed and were there to learn.

I do think some of the grading at the crags are a bit off. Even the 5s and 6as proved to be challenging, more so than at other places we’ve climbed. Also, since I’d travelled for the prior two months with no training or climbing, it really whooped me the better half of the first week we were there. The climbing didn’t get easier, but I did get more comfortable and could climb harder.

My sport climbing goal for 2018 was to do my first 7a. I managed 6c+ in Tonsai in January before running out of time to project a 7a route there. Knowing how relatively weak and out of shape I was when I arrived, I didn’t really have any expectations of being able to climb hard. But after throwing myself continuously at a climb called Schwitzerland, on the eleventh attempt I finally made it. It’s a route with lots of lovely flowy technical moves, something I’d normally be really into but for some reason the climb was very intimidating to me. I’d managed to get to the last few moves about five times before I managed to send it. And even on my send try, I still didn’t quite believe that I could do it. My biggest weakness is currently and has been for quite some time a mental hurdle. Physically the moves actually never gave me too much trouble, my endurance was perhaps lacking a little but I could perform all the moves without trouble. I never felt quite comfortable on it to fully commit though. Whereas on a 6c route I’d projected a week earlier I could happily go for moves and fall without holding back. The emotions when I finally clipped the anchor was undeniable. Nothing else puts me in such a state as climbing does. What made it even better was that the friends I had made were climbing at the crag right next door so some could see me and cheers accompanied my pathetic sobbing. It was the best way to repay their belief in me throughout the days I projected the climb. Now I have the evidence to prove to myself I can do this, hopefully I can climb more confidently in future.

It’s only been two days since we left and already I miss the place, the lifestyle and most of all the people. Every single person who left before we did, I missed them and now I miss everyone like cattle misses their herd when they’re lost. I would definitely like to go back, although it’d be incredibly hard to replicate the time we had. Nevertheless, the 25 days has made my life and memories infinitely richer.

Inle Lake – A Calming Contrast from The Dirt and Dust

Whilst most of the people I met say that Inle Lake was much more touristic than Bagan, I have to say I thought it was more the other way round. Yes there is a tourist town that caters towards tourists and also the boat tours take you to places that no local would dream of going, it all didn’t feel too contrived. The cigar making places, the weaving places they were all trades and practices that do exist in Myanmar and are very much still used by the local people. I also enjoyed the rotating market where you could experience a real marketplace experience.

We ended up extending by an extra night and stayed in Inle Lake a total of three nights. We arrived in the afternoon and had to take a whole day to recover from the exertion and previous sleep deprivation. We did however go on the free cycle tour to a local winery for the sunset. Burmese wine, is not a thing. The sunset view however was very nice.

The third day we rented a private boat for the day (25,000 mkk for up to 5 people) and went around Inle Lake. We bought some very nice flavoured Burmese cigars and various items of clothing. The floating gardens were beautiful and the Indein village was definitely worth the diversion for.

Overall, I had a cracking day going around Inle with some good friends. We stayed out long enough to have watch sunset on the lake which was spectacular.

We stayed at the Ostello Bello and ended up meeting a really good bunch of people. The happy hour here is also cheaper than their Bagan and Mandalay counterparts thus fueling some very fun nights.

Shan noodles are a must try here as there were some really good renditions of the dish. The little “night market” near the Ostello Bello was good for Shan noodle soups. There is also a very tasty Indian called Dosa King that we tried.

From Inle Lake we took a day bus up north to Hsipaw. The day minibus took 8/9 hours compared with the night bus which goes to Mandalay before heading to Hsipaw for a total of 15 hours. The road, as we found out, gave the overall ride something of a roller-coaster feel. We even caught several cms of air at certain points! More on Hsipaw in the next post.

Escape the dust to Inle

So we got a night bus from Bagan to Kalaw which was scheduled to arrive at 4am and we organised a two day trek that started at 8am. Now that we’ve done it, I wouldn’t recommend it haha. Our bus ended up arriving at 2.30am to Kalaw which does not have much facilities open at that time in the morning apart from a makeshift cafe. The only places which seem to have toilets are hotels (genuinely, the cafe had no loo and they didn’t seem to know what a public toilet was). The temperature at night also plummeted to 4 degrees which we were a little ill prepared for. So with very little sleep we started our two day trek walking 16-17km a day with a company called Jungle Kings. The first day we were little more than zombies ambling through the dry fields and valleys. Our guide Simon was not the most talkative, although he did show us a few plants like garlic leaf and wild coriander (if you’re one of those weird people who doesn’t like coriander, Myanmar might prove a little troubling for you). Despite the low energy, we still saw some incredible sights.

It made me really curious as to what the countryside would look like in rainy season.

One thing that kind of really put a negative spin on the trip was that there was a French woman with her three year old son. I have to start by saying that I am all for female empowerment. I do not think that women should be limited and prohibited from things like travelling just because biologically they’re able to reproduce. However, if you do choose to travel with a child, you have to make sure you’re able to show them boundaries as well as all the amazing sights. This little boy of three was an absolute nightmare. He was aggressive and violent at every possible opportunity. For example he threw a rock at me, and then at lunch threw a small wooden at me whilst I was dozing. He also throttled another guide at dinner as well as hitting people on numerous occasions. And what did the mum do? Little more than calling his name when she sensed that people were looking at her wondering why she wasn’t disciplining him. Single mums who travel, go you. And I can only imagine how hard it is to look after a child on your own particularly if you’re travelling but it’s no excuse to let them run wild and not learn when they do something wrong. Rant over.

So overnight we stayed at a monastery. A few people we’d met travelling opted to go with a homestay instead as there were rumours of bed bugs but we didn’t seem to be bitten by any on our stay. The food was delicious and a definite highlight of these trips. The Burmese people are very generous with the food and on events like these they will more often than not refill the dishes for you to eat to your heart’s content. The worst thing about staying in that monastery was the toilets. Full of spiders and just full in general, if you catch my drift. Squat toilets aren’t the most pleasant thing but even out in rural Myanmar I’ve come across some that, despite being quite rudimentary, are clean and don’t smell. Overall though it’s an experience, just not necessarily one that I would repeat.

One advantage of starting the hike on very little sleep was that I managed to a great sleep in the monastery despite monks running around on the wooden floorboards. The second day was done with a lot more zeal from our group. The activity highlight of the trek was the boat ride at the end from lusciously green farmlands up across Inle Lake to the town at the top. The lake looks small on the map but is so vast that I could almost believe it was an ocean.

Inle is a very nice respite from the dry and dusty climate we’ve come to associate with Myanmar.

Bagan – the city of Temples

Arriving at 5am on a night bus is disorientating. The bus journey, despite every effort being made to ensure you get some sleep, is very hard to get any meaningful shut eye on. So by the time you arrive, it’s still dark and you’re tired from the journey. The first thing that will happen when you get off the bus is that you’ll be swarmed by taxi drivers. You’ll try and negotiate and realise how extortionate taxis in Bagan were compared to Yangon. Using Grab we paid ~9,000 mkk to get to the bus station from Scott’s @31st St which was an hour and a half ride whereas in Bagan the taxi drivers had formed a syndicate so they offered you a ten minute ride to new Bagan for no less than 5,000 mkk per person. They hold a monopoly particularly for that time in the morning as Grab and Uber doesn’t cover Bagan and there certainly no buses at that time in the morning (I’m not sure about later on) and it’s a bit too far to walk. Once you’re in the taxi, they make a stop at a checkpoint going into Bagan for you to pay the mandatory tourism fee of 22,500 mkk per person. By the time we arrived at the hostel I was already less than impressed with Bagan, it all seemed like a giant tourist trap to me.

In Bagan we stayed in the Ostello Bello Bagan, there is also Ostello Bello Pool down the road which as its name suggests has a small pool. The Bagan one has a bar though which opens until 11pm whereas the pool one does not. The chain also has a hostel in Inle Lake and also in Mandalay so if you end up staying at those you will inevitably bump into people you met earlier on in your journey. Most travellers tend to end up along roughly the same route and with the pool of tourists still relatively small, it’s very easy and quite nice to bump into familiar faces.

Bagan in general is more pricey than other parts of Myanmar like Yangon or Inle Lake. Expect to pay a minimum of 3,000 mkk for a main dish. The food is very delicious everywhere we went though. In particular a vegetarian restaurant called The Moon stood out. Their aubergine salad and glass noodle salads were super tasty and their mango lassi was perfect during the peak heat of the day.

Whilst in Bagan we did tours organised by the hostel. We did the sunrise boat tour which yielded some beautiful photos, we did the mount popa visit (which was climbing up stairs to a temple rather than any actual hiking like we had hoped) and the free Bagan tour which you zipped around Bagan on e-bikes that you rent separately. Our tour guide Christopher was definitely one of the best guides I’ve ever had. He was friendly, open, fiercely intelligent and passionate about what he was talking about.

One of the best things was zipping around on the ebikes. For 3,000 mkk a day you can have the freedom to go explore the area and get lost visiting pagodas.

From Bagan we booked another night bus to Kalaw as well as a 2 day 1 night trek to Inle Lake. We booked this all through the hostel easily for 50,000 mkk in total. The bus was scheduled to arrive at 4am and the trek was scheduled to start at 8.30am… I’ll let you know in the next post how that went.