Monday, 27 January 2014

Same, same but better...

Bangkok. First time I had this strange feeling of alienation, insignificance in Asia. Like there is a vast emptiness of cosmos around me and I'm floating without meaning and vantage point. It is a overwhelmingly giant city that resembles Europe to the highest extend from what I've in Asia so far. Public transport, wide motorways, skyscrapers and shiny, glassy shopping malls. After Cambodia and Vietnam everything is so organized and smooth that it makes you uncomfortable. I found myself staring through the window of a speeding minivan that took me to Hua Hin in 2.5h (200km!) like I was suddenly transported to the future. Thailand - great food, friendly people, fantastic weather and pretty girls ready to offer you bum, bum for very cheap, cheap... Everything is so perfect that you barely notice that you left home - unless you live in Ireland:))

Being in exotic Asia you expect to hike for 3 days in the jungle without electricity, get stuck on some remote Island with azure waters and swim with turtles and sharks, meet local tribes in the hidden villages or struggle with stomach ache after drinking tap water. You're thinking about Laos or Myanmar though. Thailand is covered in motorways, speedboats can take you to the most distant patches of land and everything is there if you only ask for it. Not really a backpacker's dream anymore but does it mean it's spoiled by years of extensive tourism or just reaching a status of respectable country in the elite club of modern economies? Chase after "real Asian experience" became exclusive and expensive.You can still find real Thailand if you pay for it but standard has a wonderful value here and it's still equally authentic and interesting.

Thailand is of course one of the main tourist destinations for a reason but it has it's peculiarities. King Bhumibol Adulyadel is a living god, pharaoh worshiped in the most remote places and the longest reigning modern head of state. His depiction is like a talisman that brings luck to any business and is usually placed in a flowered shrine. Main religion is Theravada Buddhist but there is wide spread animism in most villages in the Northern part of the country. Everything coexist in the miraculously efficient balance. If China is Asian equivalent of US, Thailand is like UK. Thai culture spreads across all South East region. Khmer, Lao and Vietnamese watch Thai soap operas or American movies with Thai subtitles. Roads are fantastic, transport smooth and cheap - foreign investments are attracted like English pensioners to Pattaya or Phuket. There is no escape from charm and smile of Thai people - emotionally drained Westerners plunge to their senselessness and just fall in love with this multidimensional paradise.  

Best way to see most places is to rent a motorbike or bicycle. Roads are safe and drivers respectful but make sure you check you vehicle beforehand to avoid any problems while returning it - smallest damage can be costly as there is no regulation in this matter and compensation depends entirely on the lessor. Even in such civilized and well organized country as Thailand economy is based on a personal contact. Bargaining is a common law. Friendly approach and smile can get you better price than shopping skills and your success depends more on the fact that somebody likes you than on the size of your wallet. It doesn't mean they all want to be your friends though - money is still a powerful driving force lurking behind sings of kindness so don't get overexcited.

Thailand is a modern, rich and fast developing country, cultural and culinary epicenter of the mind-boggling diversity of South-East Asia. 50 years ahead of Laos, 30 of Cambodia and 20 of Vietnam but still submerged in the same mental Asian infrastructure. Same, same, but somewhat better...

Saturday, 4 January 2014

Crouching Tiger, hidden Dragon

Saigon resembles Western city that has gone mad but situation changes when you travel north. History is not forgotten, you still experience two different dimensions unified into one overstretched mammoth organism. Friendliness also decreases with latitude - Hanoi is still busy and swarming with honking motorbikes but people are more reserved. It's a gravitational center of the communist bastion that swallowed entire country despite desperate American attempts and Northern Vietnamese mentality still reflects it quite clearly.

Hue is a former imperial city which completely lost it's significance and charm and turned into mostly ugly, busy medium-size town. Main tourist attraction-Citadel is under construction and won't be freed from scaffolding in the near future despite UNESCO support. You may find it surprising as it's not even century since erection but Hue has a misfortune to be in the center of DMZ, the most savagely bombarded part of Vietnam on the border of two worlds. Two things you should definitely visit while in Hue are Imperial Tombs of Khai Dinh and Minh Mang (3rd famous of Tu Duc is currently being renovated).

Hoian - Chinese/baroque Perl of the central Vietnam. It's small enough to be covered in one day and extremely charming with it's narrow, colorful streets in the Old Town. My Son, the most important architectural relic of the Champa Kingdom (apart from Po Nagar in Nha Trang - basically two small towers) lying 40km west was also badly affected during the war and seems to be important rather for historical than architectural reasons. Without Angkor bias and with a bit of imagination it's still worth visiting though as site covers lots of Hindu symbolism and location is interesting.

Main reason for coming to Hanoi is of course Sapa and Ha Long Bay, but city itself is interesting and fully reflects Vietnamese contradictions and absurdities. Bars close at 11pm - once you notice seriously looking men in green uniforms walking in, party is over. It's a secret of Polichinelle though that some places still run their business behind closed doors - wait for a sign or knock to get in and you can continue booze-cruise in a dodgy, mostly claustrophobic atmosphere with a bit of dissident adrenaline.

Ha Long means descending Dragon. Lonely rocks raising sharply and unexpectedly from the ocean are indeed like nests, cradles of majestic creatures, temporarily dormant, disabled by the winter hibernation. It's like an oceanic version of Monument Valley in Utah, unreal Pandora's scenery. Mainly limestone hills seem to be floating on a calm water surface, carved by erosion and geological time from dead marine plankton. If you want to see the best part hire a local boat from Cad Ba harbor and go on a few hours cruise along Monkey Island up to the eastern shore. Avoid organized tours.It's difficult considering aggressive marketing but not impossible-pay for one day and insist on getting dropped on Cad Ba Island. Northern part of Ha Long Bay is polluted, filled with boats as all "companies" take the same oceanic highway and you won't have much time to appreciate landscape anyway. If you like staying overnight on a boat (which is nice too), take significant surplus of food or your empty stomach won't let you enjoy your cruise, practice Vietnamese karaoke beforehand and get ready to pay for mercilessly overprices drinks - even water is not included in your meal-deal. If you're lucky (apart from having good weather) you may even have decent customer service and friendly boat crew.

One think I have also learned in Vietnam: plastic chairs and dodgy looking "restaurants" means best food. Walk away immediately if you see only men working though. It's a bad sign either considering food or customer service.This pattern seems to be a case all over Asia (maybe excluding Thailand): men are lazy, grumpy and usually involved only in social games or scams or exercise their "empty box" asylum staring into mysterious emptiness. It looks like emancipation project has gone out of control here:))

Vietnam is like a Hydra with two heads placed on the opposite sides of it's body. Saigon (or Ho Chin Minh after socialist baptism) is a Tiger - swift, agile and aggressive, ready to immerse it's claws into your fragile body and Hanoi is like a Dragon - eminent creature, still sleeping under limestone nest in Ha Long Bay. You need some patience to make the most of this country but it's worth it. It has much more character and personality than Cambodia and Thailand combined. It's like a drug - sometimes delights and sometimes drives you crazy but it's addictive and you can't stop thinking about it.