EBC and Island Peak Trek – Day 11

Dingboche(4343m) to Island Peak Base Camp (5050m)

I woke up feeling much better and we had both slept well at the lower altitude, so we set out around 9am for Island Peak base camp.

We stopped for lunch in Chukkung (4700m) about 2.5 hrs hike up the valley. We also picked up my plastic mountaineering boots, as the ones I tries out in Kathmandu were too old, with broken inner binding. Chukkung is a very small settlement of 8 or 10 buildings that appears entirely dependent on Island Peak – lodges, climbing guides and rental equipment.

After lunch we left around 1pm for the 3 hr hike to base camp. It started snowing soon after we left, and hasn’t stopped since. Luckily the wind was behind us, and we pushed on to base camp to arrive shortly before 4pm. Facilities here are extremely basic – we have a two-man dome tent with some thin mattresses. There’s a rock underneath mine on one side so i need to sleep around it! There is a kitchen tent where we sit for our meals (surprisingly good food considering) – good to get warm from the gas cooking equipment. Normally for larger groups there would be a dining tent, but we’re glad for the warmth of the cooking tent. Then there’s a hole-in-the-ground toilet (but men just pee around the camp whereever they want), and that’s it.

I reckon it’s about -10C outside and could be -15C overnight. We have some good down sleeping bags and an extra blanket, but staying warm is always a challenge – the mattresses are thin so cold is transmitted from the ground, and going outside for anything involves alot of effort getting out of the sleeping bag and into our down jackets and boots.

So, let’s hope we sleep OK – climbing training tomorrow then early sleep for a 1am or 2am start on the summit.. Weather permitting of course, which doesn’t look good right now!

EBC and Island Peak Trek – Day 10

Kala Patar climb (5550m) and hike back to Dingboche (4343m)

Today was pretty tough – we woke up at 5.30 and set out shortly before 6.30 to climb Kala Patar. It had snowed during the night and it was very cold before the sun got high enough to warm us up. Stef in particular was suffering from the altitude, and it was a very slow ascent. But the views from the top were spectacular – particularly the Khumbu glacier and Everest Base Camp, frame by the vast bulk of Everest behind the even more impressive looking Nuptse. The climb down was much quicker and we were back in Gorak Shep for breakfast around 0930. We took our time and set out on the long hike down to Dingboche (which took 2 days on the way up) around 1100. Stef was having a bad headache again, and it took us over 3 hrs down to Thukla for a late lunch. I started feeling really nauseous there, which made the remaining 1.5 hrs to Dingboche in the freezing cold wind really uncomfortable.. Stopping occasionally to dry-heave but never successfully throwing up.

Now back in Dingboche, we are both extremely exhausted from the days of trekking, the altitude and the cold. I’m still feeling like I might get sick, and while Stef is fine now, she is worried about how she’ll feel going back up to high altitude and the cold.

We’re supposed to hike to Island Peak Base Camp tomorrow.. I’m really not sure if we’re going to be up for it, probably I will be the limiting factor if I get sick in the night. We’ll discuss with our guide in the morning – we also have concerns about staying warm enough sleeping there when we’ve already needed to use the extra blankets supplied by the lodges up here, in addition to our sleeping bags.

I’m really keen on doing everything possible to complete the climb, but I need to be healthy and I’m not currently feeling it!

EBC and Island Peak Trek – Day 9

Lobuche (4900m) to Gorak Shep (5180m). Excursion to Everest Base Camp (5364m)

Made it to Gorak Shep at 5180m! There is supposed to be a 3G base station here, but it’s broken so we still have no mobile reception. So we’re using the (very expensive) wifi here for 10 mins to get these posts uploaded. It probably means that we won’t be able to upload posts again until we are back at Pangboche in 6 days time, with a tale of success or failure on Island Peak!

The hike from Lobuche today only took 2hrs 10 mins but it was quite tough due to the altitude and the terrain – we climbed onto the Khumbu Glacier, which is covered in rocks and boulders, with some streams running through the glacier underneath the rock cover. At one point we climbed onto the top of a ridge in the glacier and got an incredible view up the remainder of the Khumbu valley to Everest Base Camp and the base of the mountain they climb from there. Everest Summit isn’t visible from here – we’ll have to climb Kala Patar (5550m) tomorrow morning for that view.

We’ll feeling pretty good, but I’ve still got a very slight headache and Stef has lost her appetite.. Both to be expected. If we can get a good night’s sleep here – probably the highest altitude night’s sleep of our lives – then we should have cracked the acclimitisation needed for Island Peak.

Our hike to Everest base camp was a little tough but very interesting terrain.. Mainly we were on the glacier, which poked through the rocks in places.. There were a few narrow and slippery points. As it is early in the season there were only about 40 tents.. Apparently it expands to hundreds in the peak season. It was interesting to see the route climbers would take across and up the icefall towards the higher camps. I definitely have alot of respect for anyone prepared to live in this place for months and undergo the physical and psychological suffering necessary to climb Everest. I would never want to do it though, not just because of the suffering and the significant risk of death – but it is such an industry now, with so much support from so many other people – the achievement belongs as much or more to the porters and the sherpas (and the yaks!) who make it possible for the average person to attempt it.

We both have headaches after our hike to EBC, but at least we are back early enough to spend some time getting properly rehydrated and rest.

Tomorrow after our Kala Patar climb, we hike all the way back to Dingboche.The day after we hike to Island Peak base camp to spend 3-4 nights in tents there for our climbing attempt. Probably my next updates won’t be until after that.

EBC and Island Peak Trek – Day 8

Day 8 – Dingboche (4343m) to Lobuche (4950m)

Today was our first really tough day altitude-wise, and we’ve got two more tougher ones to come.

We set out at around 9.15am, climbing out of the valley onto a bleak looking plateau that leads towards the Khumbu valley. After only climbing 200m or so, the headache from the altitude started again. Plus we’re now at altitudes where the breathing rate required to sustain forward motion is significant, and any amount of climb causes extremely fast and deep breathing. It’s like doing 7 minute mile pace at home, but from all this effort you’re only creeping forward up the hill. These days are like running a marathon every day from a breathing-effort perspective – quite a contrast to the first few days of the trek where leg strength/muscles were the limiting factor – now we don’t even notice any leg tiredness as we are limited by the rate at which we can get oxygen on board. We started taking Diamox this morning – it helps prevent some of the symptoms of altitude sickness, but of course it’s not a miracle worker and won’t reduce the effort it takes to move around up here.

We stopped for lunch at a place called Thukla, just at the foot of the 400m rocky moraine climb up into the Khumbu valley. By the time we got there I was feeling pretty rough, with a headache and “fuzzy head” feeling. We had only taken our first Diamox 3 hrs before, and this evening I’m feeling much better, so I think it just took a while to kick in. Stef handled the altitude change much better than me today.

After lunch we made the climb very slowly, taking our time to admire the stunning scenery. In many ways it is bleak – nothing grows up here (grass can hardly maintain a hold here, and we passed the last of the scrubby small bushes on our way up today). It’s also stunningly beautiful, with the scale of the peaks around us and the flow of the landcape carved out by glaciers. At the top of the climb – the entrance to the Khumbu valley – we looked around at the memorials to climbers who died on Everest. Then we completed a relatively flat section along the valley to Lobuche – a tiny settlement which appeared out of nowhere from behind a ridge, in an environment of rock and ice where you would never expect to find a village.

Our challenge tonight is to get a good night’s sleep to set us up for the hike up to Gorak Shep and Everest Base Camp tomorrow. Our highest altitude night’s sleep will be spent at Gorak Shep, so hopefully after that we will have broken the back of the altitude issues and have set ourselves up for solid acclimitisation for our Island Peak climb.

EBC and Island Peak Trek – Day 7

Day 7 – Rest/Acclimitization Day in Dingboche (4343m)

And we sure needed it! By yesterday evening I had a mild-moderate headache which continued this morning. Stef slept very badly due to shortness of breath causing a feeling of claustrophobia. We were supposed to do an acclimitisation hike 200-400m above this altitude, but as we were feeling so bad all we managed was some napping and a walk through the village to the bakery for a brownie and tea. This evening we’re feeling better, although Stef is apprehensive about the night to come.

We still haven’t taken any diamox, which is regularly used to treat altitude sickness – and indeed many trekkers take it prophylactically even as early as their arrival in Kathmandu. It’s supposed to speed up acclimitisation, but some people disagree on taking it prophylactically due to the side effects (mainly, increased probability of dehydration) and the possibility that it may mask the onset of AMS symptoms. We are following the advice of our guide, Netra, in all things on this trek. He has medical training and many years experience leading groups and treating trekkers at high altitudes, and his advice has been not to take Diamox so far. Because we’ve had some mild symptoms possibly caused by the altitude during the last 24 hrs, then he says he may recommend we take it if the symptoms recur as we ascend tomorrow.

Tomorrow will be a tough day – gaining ~500m up to Lobuche (4930m). We are nervous more about how we will react to being there (and how we will sleep) than for the actual hike up, which shouldn’t be too bad as the distance is relatively short ~(6km) so we can take it as slowly as we need. Lobuche is close to the maximum altitude that we will sleep at (the highest will be at Gorak Shep the night after -5140m – Island Peak Base Camp is slightly lower than this) so being able to tolerate it will be a key achievement to get us as far as Island Peak.

So, it’s crunch time for us now, with the most difficult, but most exciting, 6 days of the trek ahead of us!

EBC and Island Peak Trek – Day 6

Phortse (3935m) to Dingboche (4343m) via Pangboche and Somare

No phone signal at Dingboche! We’ll continue to write posts but the opportunities to upload them might be inconsistent in the next 7-8 days.

We started a bit earlier today as we had a long day ahead of us- 6:30am tea and on the trail at 7:40am. It was a chilly start but the sun warmed our faces as the 5 of us trudged up the mountain side behind Phortse village. We made it to Somare for lunch ahead of schedule and ate our potatoes/veg and noodle veg soup before midday. Until this point, we had the trail pretty much to ourselves (aside from the occassional yak) as we were off the main trail. The trail was “nepali flat” witha few steep sections, but they didn’t last long.

After lunch, it was only another 1 1/2 hrs to our lodge – we arrived around 1.30pm which is pretty good going as we had budgeted until 4pm. The scenery now is even more beautiful than before- panoramic mountains and clouds which appear to be at the same altitude as us. It really does look like proper high himalaya now. It was easy to track our progress as we hiked alongside Ama Dablam mountain approaching the base of Everest and Lhotse – which look much closer now, although EBC is still 2 days hike away.

The hike felt pretty good and we maintained a reasonably quick pace without problems. Definitely the biggest challenge is maintaining body temperature! In the sun without wind its hot but a minute later, in the shade with a breeze its freezing! We’re now passing the ends of small glaciers and there is frozen ground and water in the shady spots, so it’s beginning to feel really chilly.

Our lodge is OK for the remoteness of the location. I was happy to see the hole-in-the-ground toilet because at least it was of the sit-down variety – what a luxury! But the “hot shower” turned out to be a bucket of hot water served in a freezing cold outhouse – but at least we had the chance to wash properly for the first time in days. Now were warming up in our down jackets and sleeping bags!

We have a rest day tomorrow to solidify our acclimitization before 3 tough days ahead of us – hiking up the Khumbu valley onto the glacier, making it to everest base camp, sleeping at 5100m and climbing Kala Pattar (5535m). Very excited, but I hope our resilience to the altitude holds out and that we can stay warm enough!

EBC and Island Peak Trek – Day 5

Day 5 – Khumjung (3840m) to Phortse (3935m) via Mongla (3980m) and Phortse Thanga (3675m)

We set out at a reasonable 8.45am to make the climb up to Mongla, where we rested at just under 4000m. After our rest we descended to Phortse Thanga for lunch. It was quite a steep descent and Stef didn’t really appreciate the value of this and the subsequent ascent as training for the following tougher days. Lunch was really nice by the blue mountain river. We left around 1pm for the 260m climb to Phortse, arriving at our lodge around 2pm – plenty of chillout time – we are now huddled around the stove in the middle of the dining room.

Lodge conditions have lowered during the last two nights – no running water and squat toilets, this time little more than a well-framed hole in the ground. However the hiking has been nice on this route, as it isn’t the main route to EBC so it’s been quiet (we only saw two or three other groups of trekkers). Maybe it will be better tomorrow when we rejoin the main route in Dingboche (or maybe worse as is the trend for the more remote you go).

Tonight we sleep only 100m above last night so again we expect no problems from the altitude. I was feeling alot better and stronger in the legs today and took 8+ kg on my back with no problems. That’s not saying much though, considering our porters joined us at the same pace, carrying ~30kg each!

Tomorrow will be a tough day with around a 10km hike to Dingboche, up to 4410m – but the day after we have a rest day before proceeding on to the really tough altitudes!

View of Phortse Village (our lodge is on the top right

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The valley between Mongla and Phortse with river:

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EBC and Island Peak Trek – Day 4

Day 4 – Namche (3440) to Khumjung (3840)

Today was another relatively easy day with a 2.5hr hike up to Khumjung via Khunde. We said goodbye to our travel companions this far – Roy and Lenson and their guide Ngima – as they are taking a different route to EBC via Gokyo lakes and Chola pass which takes 3 days longer.

We stopped at Khunde to see the hospital (set up by donations) and then walked down into Khumjung to our lodge for lunch. After lunch we had some relaxation time and then went to visit the monastery – a small local one which had a “yeti skull” which we were able to look at after making a small donation.

We continued walking around the village and looked at the school and a statue of Sir Edmund Hillary, who originally set the school up. Then back to the lodge by 5pm, playing some cards and then some dinner. And easy day but I’m still quite tired!

Tomorrow should be an easy day too – the hike to Phortse tops out at 3990m, so we will have to wait until the day after to break 4000m. These focus now is on good acclimitisation – and it seems to be working as we’ve still has no adverse effects from the altitude.


Our lodge in Khumjung – very quiet here!

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View of Khumjung village from our lodge

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EBC and Island Peak Trek – Day 3

Day 3 – Acclimitization Day in Namche (3440m) – morning hike to Everest View Hotel (3880m)

Today we hiked up to the Everest View Hotel, which is a 1.5hr 440m climb from Namche. We did this without day packs today (we usually carry about 5-7kg) and it felt much easier on our legs. On the way up the hill we got to see a large helictopter come in to land at Syangboche airfield, just a few feet above our heads! We got blasted by the downdraft which threw lots of dusty all over us (and we are getting dusty enough already without that!)

The views from the hotel were stunning and we enjoyed a (rather expensive) hot chocolate in the outdoor cafe. The temperature out of the wind and in the sun was very pleasant. The weather was fantastic with clear views of Everest, Lhotse and surrounding mountains. I was a bit cold on the way back so I went fast to keep warm, and did the descent back to Namche in 34 mins. Overall we are happy with acclimitisation so far with no bad effects of the altitude, although of course it’s much harder work to hike uphill with much more breathing needed for the ascent rate.

After lunch back at our lodge, we went shopping for the remaining equipment we need for the higher elevations and Island Peak climbing that won’t be provided by Mountain Monarch. We bought windproof overtrousers, thermal base layers, gloves and and an extra hat for Stef – all came to about $85 – obviously all chinese rip-offs, but OK for use on a single trip.

Then we found some real Illy coffee and toblerone and went to watch a movie about Everest and Tenzing Norgay/Peter Hilary called “Touching my father’s soul” that was showing in a bar nearby. Unfortunately it is strongly recommended not to drink any alcohol while on the ascent phase of a trek and/or at high altitude, so we had to skip the beer and have some lemon tea (and popcorn). The movie was very interesting but reinforced my opinion that I’m not interested in climbing Everest!

First view of Everest on the way up

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Hot chocolate at Everest View – Everest is in the background on the left. Lhotse is to the right, and the sharp peak further forwards on the right is Ama Dablam

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EBC and Island Peak Trek – Day 2

Day 2 – Phakding (2650m) to Namche Bazar (3440m)

Our day started with a wake-up call at 7am – quite civilised given that we went to bed by 9pm last night. Breakfast was good and filling, I had omelette and Stef had apple pancake. We set off on the trail at 0815, heading alongside the river on relatively gentle gradients (the term “nepalese flat” is used to describe the undulating trails, which are never really flat for any more than one pace). We crossed the river on one of the many steel cable bridges to Jorsale (2700m) for lunch around 10.45, in time to have a leisurely long lunch for about 1.5 hrs. Then we set out on the hardest part of our day – the 700m+ climb up to Namche. After about 30 mins and two more river crossings we hit the steep gradient and it was really tough with the altitude – particularly the last hour where leg-burn and breathlessness really kicked in. But we arrived in Namche by 2.15pm and found our lodge another 15 mins up the hill at the back of the village.

Again the facilities here are good.. We have a corner room that was nicely catching the afternoon sun and so was even warm when we got here. And the dining room is warm all afternoon too. And I even took a shower (costs 300 rupees – around $4). So again we are glad for the relaxation time.

We spend two nights here because tomorrow is an acclimitisation day (required as we ascended to sleep more than 300m above our previous sleeping altitude). We also need to buy various items such as gloves, windproof overtrousers and other clothing that we will need as we get to higher altitudes (our guide told us in Kathmandu to leave these items until Namche as they are cheaper here as they bring them over the border from China). In addition there is a planned acclimitisation hike to the Everest View Hotel, around 400m elevation above Namche.

Our first view towards Namche village

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View from Namche.. The snow-capped mountain in the background is arouns the same height as Island Peak!

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Namche Bazaar see from the trail at the bottom of town:

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Our lodge overlooking Namche Village – the white streak down the mountain is a frozen waterfall:

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The dining room has lots of windows with a great view over the village and the mountains beyond:

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Made it to Lukla

In one piece!

The flight was uneventful and with beautiful views of the mountains. The landing at Lukla is a bit scary – unless you’re at the front of the plane you can’t see what the pilots are flying at.. Ecept you see the slope rapidly rising towards you with houses and brick walls flying by closer and closer.. And just when you think you’re going to hit the mountain, the runway appears and you hit the ground with a heavy landing immediately – touchdown maybe 5-10m from the end, and stoppes about 50m short of the wall at the end of the 480m runway.

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EBC and Island Peak Trek – Day 1

Lukla (2860m) to Phakding (2650m) – 6km

The day started fairly early with a 5.30am wakeup call for a 6am departure to Kathmandu airport. The usual chaos and waiting around followed, we’re quite used to that now, so we just waited patiently and ate our packed breakfast. A little before 9am we boarded the smallest commercial flight I’ve ever been on – I think it was a twin otter seating 14 in a 1-1 formation! We were lucky to get seats on the left hand side of the plane, so we had great views of the mountains (particularly thanks to the high-wing design).

The flight only took about 40 mins, cruising at around 150 knots/12000 ft before a modest descent to Lukla (2860m/9380 ft). There was no “ladies and gentlemen please prepare for landing” – just noticing the mountain rising up towards before a surge and bump of a sudden landing. The landing point was so close to the end of the runway that there wasn’t even time to see it before we hit the ground – just houses, stone walls and a fence flashing by a few feet below us, then bump, we’re down! The ground run is very short (it needs to be as the runway is only 460m long) and assisted by the fact that the runway has a 12 degree slope (but it looks like more!) so gravity helps slow the aircraft down (in fact it seems like usually they have to put power back on to taxi off the runway in order to stop rolling backwards down the runway!). So, no wonder this place features top of “world’s most extreme airports”.

Because we had a short trek today, we didn’t have to rush anywhere so we stopped at a hotel/lodge in Lukla to sort our bags out and have an early lunch around 11am. Some of the Everest Base Camp (EBC) treks go right through to Namche Bazaar on the first day – an extra 6-7hrs and an 800m climb beyond our gentle 3hr walk this afternoon to Phakding. So we were glad of the easy pace set by our trekking company (Mountain Monarch) and our guides, particularly as Stef still has a cold (she’s taking a nap right now since we checked in to our lodge early). The easy pace is one of the reasons we chose Mountain Monarch – not just for comfort, but for safety, as correctly planned acclimitisation is essential minimise the chances of Acute Mountain Sickness (= severe altitude sickness – which can and does kill people every year in Everest region). It also gives us the best possible chances of reaching our goal – Island Peak Summit at 6189m/20,305ft.

So far the scenery has been very nice, but it’s been more built-up and populated than I expected, with lodges/buildings every few hundred metres along the trail. I expect that to be the case at least until we get beyond Namche. The trail here is very easy to walk, and our guide says it will stay that way until EBC.

The lodge we’re staying at is fine – and better than I expected – flushing sit-down toilet, wooden twin rooms with firm but useable mattress (on which we sleep in sleeping bags). Of course no hot water, but we didn’t expect that. Probably further up the trail the quality will go down (and then we also have the camping around Island Peak). It sounds like all of them are always freezing cold – the only heating is a stove in the communal area in the evenings for dinner, so the rooms are freezing cold – and we’ve not experienced anything yet, with temperatures of -10 to -20C possible at night towards EBC. We have very warm sleeping bags (currently we’re in them, keeping warm before dinner time), but otherwise I think it’s going to be a constant challenge to stay warm in the lodges. I can’t help thinking that a wood-fired central heating system couldn’t add a huge amount to the cost of these places, but it would add to the comfort so much.

Stef is a bit unhappy with this given her cold, hopefully she will cheer up once she’s better. We have a rest day on Thursday in Namche so hopefully that will help!

Approaching Phakding:

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Crossing the bridge towards our lodge:

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View from the lodge dining room:

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Our room:

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Leaving for Lukla

We are about to get on Agni Airlines flight 303 here at Kathmandu Airport. It’ll be one of the most interesting commercial flights we’ll ever do, but also the most nervous! The safety record on this route isn’t great, partly because of the unpredictable mountain weather and partly because the landing at Lukla is challenging – a 480m strip with a mountain at the other end of the runway.

But the weather seems OK today – at least here in Kathmandu it’s fine, and forecast only “partly cloudy” at Lukla – although the forecasts are very unreliable in the mountains.

Our first couple of days trekking should be relatively easy – only 6km with a 230m descent today to Phakding, followed by 5km/800m ascent into Namche Bazaar (3440m). And then a rest/acclimitization day. All this in the first 3 days is at altitudes similar to what we dealt with fine in Bhutan. We’re particularly glad of the easy schedule for the first 3 days as Stef still hasn’t fully recovered from her cold and I woke up with a slight sore throat this morning (hoping it won’t develop into a cold).

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Kathmandu, ready for everest region trekking, phone number update

We still owe posts on Japan and Bhutan, hopefully we will complete them in the next couple of days. We’re in now in Kathmandu after a fantastic trip to Bhutan (Bhutan was AMAZING). Unfortunately Kathmandu is impressing us much less – our first instance of theft from a bag stored “securely” at our Kathmandu hotel while we were in Bhutan – a dive computer which was quite expensive (and essential to replace before I dive next), so we had to make two visits to the tourist police station already to get an investigation and report, so we can claim on insurance.. and the investigation still won’t be resolved until 7th April. At least the tourist police appeared to do their jobs with some element of fairness, and the hotel managers seemed genuinely concerned about the impact to them if the report gets filed (maybe they can “find” the item before the 7th). Plus it is extremely noisy, smelly and polluted here, which is not offset enough by particularly cheap prices (as far as asia goes anyway) or incredible cultural sights, as far as we have seen to date.

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On Tuesday we fly to Lukla and begin our trek. We should be able to keep in touch most of the way to Everest Base Camp via our mobile phones. Our international SIMs are expensive here even to receive calls, so I’ve got a local SIM on the following number:

+977 9818308712

So feel free to call! If you call with SkypeOut it would be the cheapest way. We are (bizarrely) 5hrs 45 mins ahead of London (the only country in the world that keeps a 15 minute offset – it was weird setting our watches 15 mins forward/back when going to/from Bhutan).

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The SIM card also has a cheap internet package so I hope to be able to post blog updates (but maybe not good enough for pictures) while on the trail. I’ll endeavour to do this every day as a trek log, although sometimes it may be a few days before we can upload (e.g. when we go off the main route towards Island Peak).

Vietnam – a week was more than enough

We probably won’t go back to Vietnam (Stef says – definitely won’t!) – not because there isn’t anything interesting to see there, but because of the overall unpleasant travel experience caused by the way that tourists are treated. Before we went I had read that the Vietnamese generally regard tourists just as walking ATMs – but this didn’t really prepare me for how unpleasant it would be to travel in a country where the people really care absolutely nothing about you except to take your money – leading to constant and incessant attempts to rip you off or scam you for as much money as possible.

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The streets of Hanoi

Because we had read about this attitude, we were well prepared – we knew that the first thing that would happen on arrival is an attempt to rip us off 2x or 3x the price for a taxi to the city from the airport. So we managed to deflect attempts from the first three scammers/rip-off merchants and get in a proper meter taxi that charged the correct going rate (315,000 Dong or 15 USD) to get us to our hotel (although I wasn’t prepared for seeing a woman dying on the side of the road and her friend picking herself up off the opposite carriageway, less than a minute after their motorbike had hit the central concrete barrier – with noone stopping to help or caring about it, just driving around them). And so we proceeded, working hard to avoid most of the rip-offs and scams from hotel owners, travel agents, street merchants and random people, and managed to limit our financial loss to just one scam by the travel agent who booked our train tickets from Hanoi to Sapa – he promised us a better sleeper cabin in a private carriage that we asked for specifically called “Sapaly Express” (which I had already researched prior to arriving) – but when the tickets arrived they were for the standard Vietnam Railways carriages, which we could have just bought at the station for less money (we had been there earlier in the day to check anyway) – our loss over this was only really $16 (and a lost night’s sleep on the return journey from Sapa due to very noisy Vietnamese people). This doesn’t sound like much, but that’s a night in a hotel in Vietnam – and the point is not just the financial damage – but it’s the feeling of having had someone dishonestly take your money – effectively it’s stealing from you – and how tiring it is to have to constantly work to avoid that from happening.

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The view from the hill in Sapa after an overnight sleeper train from Hanoi

And yes, we see some of the same behaviour in Thailand, Indonesia and Cambodia, we’re familiar with it now. But in those countries, it’s occasional and probably just around the main travel hubs or biggest tourist attractions. In Vietnam it’s CONSTANT, and at least in the places we went to around Hanoi, Halong Bay and Sapa, it’s everywhere. In Thailand, the government has put in place some protections for tourists in order to safeguard the country’s reputation and a tourism revenues for the future – e.g. train tickets are just bought direct from the train company (available online via their website in English so no agent is needed, and they make sure that their train conductors look after tourists well), English-speaking Tourist Police are available to give foreigners a fair chance in the event of a problem, meter taxi’s are available throughout Bangkok etc.. in Vietnam no protections exist at all as far as I could tell. If anything happens, I feel like you would be more at risk by calling the police than anything else. If you confront someone who has just ripped you off, there is no way you will get any money back – all they have to do is start getting aggressive and they know that 99% of tourists with good sense are going to just walk away – because it doesn’t matter who was in the wrong, all that matters at that point is that one guy is Vietnamese and that the police at best would simply side with their country-man, and at worst (most likely) are totally corrupt and will just do whatever the guy bribes him to do.

So, our conclusion is, it’s not worth the hassle. There are already many other places on our list to go back to, and I’m sure many more to come, that will be higher priority. Regardless, here are our impressions of the 3 main areas we visited:

1) Hanoi. A big ugly city. The “old quarter”, whilst it has narrow streets indicating some historic origin, does not appear particularly old and does not have any redeeming qualities for us. The only thing we enjoyed in the city was stopping for beer at “Bia Hoi Corner” – sitting on small plastic chairs on the street, drinking fresh Bia Hoi for 25 cents each – the cheapest beer of our trip so far.

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Me and “Z” who wouldn’t take no for an answer! This is me promising that we would stay with her and her family next time we were in Vietnam. This will not be a hard promise to keep- truly, if we ever did go again, I would!

2) Sapa. Once the fog cleared on the third day, we could finally see how beautiful the setting of this mountain town really is, set in the far north of Vietnam close to the Chinese border. Late February is definitely not the best time to visit (cold and damp), but I could see that spending a week trekking in the mountains here and exploring the villages could be fantastic. In fact, we would probably even consider coming back here, if we didn’t have to deal with any other part of Vietnam first.
3) Halong Bay. Yes, it is an area of exceptional natural beauty. But, it’s ruined by the volume and method of tourism here. There are hundreds of boats beating the same track every day and night. Joining one of them, you get rushed round the standard loop, visiting standard attractions such as the caves which are developed like Disney World, you see garbage in the water and any feeling of this being a “natural” place slip away. On the bus to and from the boat you get hustled through pottery, artwork and pearl shops on your “rest break” in a further attempt to take more money off you.

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Halong Bay

Cambodia – Incredible Temples of Angkor

Cambodia and Vietnam are similar in both geographic location and in the fact that both countries suffered terribly during the 20th century from war and violence. However, whereas in Vietnam we found people aggressively and self-righteously clawing as much money out of foreigners as possible whilst on their path to catching back up with the rest of the world, in Cambodia we had a much more pleasant experience of people who pursue their goals for financial survival and wealth with much more dignity but just as much enthusiasm.

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The tourist industry is of course centred around the Temple of Angkor, which draw millions of visitors every year and have spurred the development of Siem Reap into a tourist city, packed with accommodation from hostels and 1-star guesthouses to 5-star hotels. Value-for-money wise, I think Cambodia is the best place we’ve visited so far (and beats Vietnam, as there you must factor in quite a large “rip-off” factor). We stayed in a nice guesthouse called “Tanei”, which offered large, modern air-conditioned rooms similar in standard to what you would expect from a 3-star hotel in UK for $20-$24 per night, it had a restaurant and a small pool and offered free pick-up and drop-off from/to the airport. Our 6 nights/5 days was disrupted by a cold we had on arrival from Singapore (I had a fever of 102F the first night), so two of our 5 days we basically just rested. The other 3 days we hired our own tuk-tuk & driver for the day (arranged via our hotel, $15 per day base rate for local temples at Angkor) which was overall the most cost-effective way of seeing many different temples (probably the only cheaper way would have been hiring pedal bikes, but the distances involved are quite large and it is HOT – 35C when we were there).

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Our days templing took us to:
Day 1) – Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom (Gate, Elephant Terrace, Bayon), Thommanon, Chao Say Tevoda, Ta Prohm
Day 2) – Banteay Kdei, Sras Srang, Pre Rup, Banteay Srei, East Mebon, Ta Som, Neak Poan, Preah Khan
Day 3) – Angkor Wat at Sunrise, Beng Melea, Lolei, Bakong

The highlights for us in ascending order were Ta Prohm, Preah Khan, and Beng Melea. These were the more overgrown, less restored, less manicured temples (usually with fewer visitors). They just had a so much better atmosphere about them – more Indiana Jones/Tomb Raider feel than Disney World! Beng Melea is a long way to travel by Tuk Tuk – normally two hours, but we got lost (our driver had never been there before) and it took us 3 hours to get there, including some use of unsurfaced dirt roads.. but it was worth it.. we took a guide (paid him $5 at the end) and he took us the non-boardwalk route of scrambling around over the rocks, only to roofs, through the tunnels, pictures on hanging tree-roots.. it was a great temple exploration!

When in town we ate either on the main “pub street” strip, where you could get 50 cent beers (proper beer, not fresh brew like the Bia Hoi in Vietnam.. I think Cambodia has the cheapest proper beer of our trip so far), and buy western and Khmer food (we ate some pizza, which was expensive relative to other options at around 8 USD for a big pizza to share).. or we ate at “Fathers Restaurant” by the central market – which served excellent Khmer food at very good prices (around $3 for main meals such as Khmer curry with rice, plus great fruit smoothies for $1).

Whilst some other countries in Asia use US Dollars as a back-up currency, in Cambodia it is like their main currency. When you go to an ATM, it gives you USD – on my first visit a single fresh, new 100 USD bill. I checked with my fee-free MetroBank mastercard, that it costs me exactly the same to draw USD in Cambodia as it does in the US! – no local ATM fees like you get in Thailand or Vietnam – a nice perk. So they seem to just use their own currency – Cambodian Riel – for small change if something is not priced as a multiple of 1 USD. The riel are all notes, so it’s nice not to have to deal with coins at all.

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Indonesia – Raja Ampat – Absolute Paradise on Earth

…for a price!

We had very high expectations for Raja Ampat- we had done a lot of research and made the decision to do a 12 day liveaboard dive boat in order to see some of the less explored islands and areas around “The 4 Kings”. We selected the Dewi Nusantara boat (previously Paradise Dancer) which was the single biggest expediture of the 10 month trip – as much as our round-the-world ticket. And it was worth it- our expectations were exceeded all around and this makes the list of things we would like to do again.

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Getting to the best parts of Raja Ampat is not easy- you have to fly into the tiny airport of Sorong which until recently was just a tin roof building. International flights into Sorong come from only 2 places: Manado and Jakarta via Makassar. And Sorong itself is no gem. We arrived 1 day early in order not to miss the boat and spent the night in a nice hotel recommended by the boat. There was nothing around us so we just stayed in. The day of departure we were picked up and delivered to the harbor where our tender boat brought us to the Dewi Nusantara- our home for the next 12 days. We could see this beautiful blue, triple masted boat from the plane the previous day and were delighted to finally arrive. We were greeted by the whole crew (of which there were 20), briefed and showed to our room. The boat was meticulous and spacious- 2 things you usually don’t find on boats:). We settlled into our room and later that evening, set sail and headed north.

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The next 11 days found a similar routine:
7am first light breakfast and dive- after dives we got a warm towel and a neck massage 8:30am breakfast made to order
10:30am- second dive
noon- lunch
3:00pm- third dive
5:30- Marine biologist Dr. RIchard Smith presents information about the area and his research on pygmy seahorses
6:45pm- night dive- or for us, beer on the top deck
7:30pm- 3-course dinner
10pm- bed!

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The diving is breathtaking and probably the best in the world for the variety of marine life and corals. For us, hands down the best diving we’ve had so far. In general, on every dive, there were more things to look at than we could possibly take in- the coral is so beautiful and plentiful- this is what diving in some other areas of the world must have been like 30 years ago. I felt a sense of great responsibility to ensure that I didn’t bump or touch anything because we were seeing it in its natural and perfect state. And you can tell by the way the fish and aquatic life are not afraid- mantas came right up to us and fish actually touched our masks!

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This is diving in its purest form- and the only place I’ve experienced it (so far).

On the entire trip we saw only one or two other boats, no other tourists, divers, or people- aside from the villagers who live there. Wayag was my favourite place for above the water scenery. We woke up on the 4th morning to 25-30 little karst islands with bright green jungle on top the bright blue water. After the afternoon dive, we took the tender boats around to explore around them. We stopped at 3 beaches with absolutely nothing on them. I felt like an explorerer, discovering these places for the first time. After running around for a bit, we would all pile back in and head on to discover another beach. On the 3rd beach, we hiked to the top of the mountain for one of the best views I’ve ever seen. A 360 degree view of Wayag- little islands dotted around the green/blue crystal clear water. It was a tough but short hike but about half of us went. I think we took 50 photos:) After the hike down, we swam in the water to cool off and enjoy the view. Guido (one of the owners of the boat who was on the trip with us) had the crew bring us beer, wine and snacks from the boat whilst we swam around. Eventually (after 90 minutes and 3 glasses of wine) we had to get out and go to dinner.

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We managed 2 visits to land to see some of the villages. On the third day, we got up at 4:30am and headed to a village where we trekked an hour in the dark in an attempt to see Wilson’s Birds of Paradise (a very rare, beautiful bird) but in the end, a few of us only saw the bird briefly and we didn’t see it at all. Oh well, nice(?! = hot, sweaty and pointless) morning walk in the jungle!

Here are some of the things we saw while diving:
Oceanic mantas- 4m long black and white. We saw 8 in one dive and stayed in one place while they swam in patterns around us. Also saw them on 3 other dives
Green turtles
White tipped and black tipped sharks- 1-2m long
pgymy seahorses
seahorses
sea snake
eel
bump headed parrot fish – 1m very large, bright blue, we could hear them eating the coral!
nudibraches
octopus
glass fish- hundreds of them
fusiliers- schools of several hundred
barracuda
sweetlips fish
bat fish
huge fan coral (bigger than John)
table coral
bommies with loads of beautiful coral and fish
wobbegong shark

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The diving was fairly challenging for us (we were doing our 40th to approx 75th dives on the boat, I think the most inexperienced divers on board), with light or moderate currents on nearly every dive, and a few dives with some very strong currents. Only once did we get blown off into the blue, which was not a big issue, as lots of safety equipment (safety sausage, whistle etc) was provided, and we were well looked after by our dive guide, Wendy (who was also the expedition manager). The most challenging dive we had was when a drift along a wall went crazy with a very strong down-current, and it was necessary to nearly fully inflate our BCD’s to overcome it.. it was crazy to see the cloud of bubbles flowing downwards and the fish at the wall swimming frantically vertically upwards in order to stay in the same place! and then it was necessary to be very careful as we ascended out of it to avoid over-buoyancy as we were ascending up underneath an overhang.. of course we ended the dive after that which was a shame, but one of only two dives on the trip that ended prematurely due to the current conditions.

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Overall, the thing I appreciated most about Raja Ampat aside from the natural beauty, was the prestine state of it. It’s one of only a few places that isn’t ruined by people. In fact, there are a number of great initiatives in place to help ensure that it stays that way, so I suppose it could be that the small amount of impact people have had, is actually postiive! We were very lucky to have seen such a beautiful place on such a beautiful boat. We also lucked out with the weather. While the rest of Indonesia is on the “off” season, Raja Ampat weather is perfect. We had only 1 day of rain and temperatures consistently 30-32 degrees. I really hope Raja Ampat stays as beautiful and remote as it is today- and I cannot wait to go back soon and see what else we can discover.

Singapore – the nicest city in SE Asia!

We only spent 3 days in Singapore as it is expensive to stay there relative to other destinations in SE Asia. We stopped over for one day on our way to Manado (Indonesia), which we mostly spent shopping for important items that we had either overlooked or run out of during our first month travelling (in particular, I needed a replacement pair of sandals – I bought Keens in Singapore which have worked out much better than the cheaper version I got in London). We also spent two days on our way back from Manado, which was particularly useful as we needed to find somewhere to pick up a Japan Rail Pass (which needs to be bought outside of Japan). That time we also visited Marina Bay Sands (mainly the mall and the observation deck on the roof), but didn’t have time for much more as we got sick from something we picked up during our last day or two in Indonesia. So, mostly we saw shopping malls and the very modern, well-ordered, western-looking parts of the city – although the area of our hotel near Paya Lebar station was a little more colourful.

Some people, often those from Singapore, describe it as “sterile”, although I think that in some ways this is wrong and in others it could actually be a compliment! After travelling nearly a month in Thailand, it was nice to turn up somewhere that was clean, orderly, well looked after and with all the facilities you expect in a western city. Efficient trains from the airport and a metro/subway service to get around. Practically crime-free and it doesn’t stink! So, we sort of craved somewhere a bit more sterile and a bit less… infected! Also, I think there are areas around the city with much variety and a more asian flavour, such as Little India and Chinatown. Unfortunately we didn’t have time to visit these places, but they would be on the list next time we go back (as would a stay at the Marina Bay Sands hotel – if we can afford it!). The only disadvantage is that it’s relatively expensive (maybe a little cheaper than London, perhaps a similar cost to US cities outside of New York), but I think for a short stopover that the extra is worth paying.

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To top it off, Changi Airport is the most efficient and well-run airport we have ever used. We never had to wait in line for anything for more than 1-2 minutes. This takes so much hassle out of flying, if we had to do a stopover in Asia, we would always choose Singapore now – and for certain if the choice was Singapore vs Bangkok we would always take Singapore for a connection or stopover.