30 November 2015

A road trip through the US of A - Part I: Los Angeles CA - Austin TX

Gran Canyon selfie
After more than 18 months in South East Asia, it was time to leave. With a lot of good memories, we boarded our flight to China and onwards to Los Angeles. A long trip, an even longer flight across the Pacific Ocean and the date line, back into the Western world.

We tried for a few weeks before flying to the US, but finding a couch to surf seems to be a very difficult thing in Los Angeles. Finally, on our last day in Kuala Lumpur, we gave in and booked our first stay with AirBnb. As we booked last second, we had to take what we could get (most of the other potential hosts didn't reply within 24 hours). We were not really thrilled to pay to sleep in someones living room, but still better than sleeping on Hollywood boulevard. We were happy to arrive at our hosts place in West Los Angeles, just off Santa Monica boulevard. The hosts were nice, the appartment as well and soon we were off to a well deserved night of sleep.

25 September 2015

Indonesia Sayang - Beloved Indonesia

Fishermen at work
Even though my year in Indonesia was not always easy, it was one of the happiest years of my life. The people are unique, and the adventures are real. Even though we had no real purpose to go back, I felt that I was not finished yet. Well, I still feel the same, even though we went back there once more. My host family really became family to me, and my friends are wonderful. Even though we haven't seen each other for half a year, it felt as if we just went for another visa run to Kuala Lumpur or something like that.

14 August 2015

Road trip Australia: Whyalla-Melbourne

On the Murray river
We left Whyalla and it's friendly people, knowing that we had less than two weeks left in Australia. Time to make the best of our last ten days of road tripping. We drove to Alford, about a 150km out of Adelaide, slept there and went into the city the next morning. Luckily, we heard that you can park for free for a couple of hours next to the Adelaide Entertainment Centre and take the free tram to visit the city center. Australian cities are notoriously difficult with cheap parking options.

After more than two weeks in rural areas or even more remote landscapes, seeing and experiencing a city was nice. Even just buildings with more than one story were exciting. And the sheer amount of people and population density was overwhelming at first. We visited Adelaide Central Market first and then walked through smaller streets over to Rundle Mall, the city's pedestrian shopping area. As an art festival was happening that weekend as well, we could enjoy some nice performances before heading out of the city again.

7 August 2015

Road trip Australia: Esperance-Whyalla

Nullarbor
After a good two weeks in the more or less densely populated south-western corner of Western Australia, we got ready for a big adventure. Crossing the roughly 1500 kilometers of bushland and a whole lot of nothing that is called the Nullarbor. From Esperance, where we bought all our supplies for the next four days, we first drove two hours north to Norseman. Norseman is a sleepy and hot little town, but once you leave it, you will crave it's amenities.

As a Swiss person, you grow up thinking 200 kilometers is a huge distance and four hours driving is a lot for one day. Travelling in Australia you learn to adjust your perspective a bit. Upon leaving Norseman, you come across a sign telling you that Adelaide, the next big city, is more than 1800 kilometers away. This is what we enjoy about travelling: experience things we can't experience at home. And a 1800 km drive would bring us from Switzerland all the way to Minsk, Bielorussia.

31 July 2015

Road trip Australia Perth - Esperance

Lucky Bay
Leaving Perth was not easy, not at all. Emotionally, leaving our dear friends Daniel and Crystal who hosted us and spoiled us thoroughly was hard. But what made us coming back after a few kilometers was really our camper van. We booked a normal van from Wicked Campers, one of the hundreds of van rental companies in Australia.

Wicked were the most affordable ones, especially as we discovered their special offer: 30 days for 2900 AUD (1900 EUR) including insurance and outback fees. But when we wanted to use the fifth gear for the first time on the highway, it made weird noises, I shifted back down immediately. After Fabs tried to use it too we decided that this would not work for the next 6500 kilometers and that we better turned around. So we went back to the garage and office of Wicked. When we arrived there again, they checked the car and admitted that it won't work out for our plans to drive to Melbourne. So they asked us wheather we'd want a brand new car. Sure we said yes and a bit later we stuffed all our luggage into a white, clean, brand new van.

27 July 2015

Australia reloaded: Perth

Perth
After more than a year in Asia, we were craving for a change. We love Asia, its constantly puzzling cultures and friendly people, but we were looking forward to a quick escape to the Western world. So we flew to Australia. I had been down under the year before, travelling to Sydney, up the coast to Brisbane and finally to Melbourne. We chose a different part of this huge country for a five week road trip.

We found cheap flights with AirAsiaX into Perth and out of Adelaide, but as the later route got cancelled, we finally flew out of Melbourne. Including luggage, we paid less than 500 EUR for both flights for the two of us. Leaving Kuala Lumpur, we were excited for our first long haul flight with a low cost airline. The journey to Perth took us six hours and the flight was reasonably comfortable. Soon, we landed in one of the remotest cities in the world.

7 June 2015

Alona beach, Panglao and Bohol

Alona beach, Panglao
After Puerto Princesa, we needed a proper goodbye from the Philippines. People say this country has the most beautiful beaches in the world. We saw some spectacular ones, but the sand was never as white as it can possibly get and the water never as turquoise as we were hoping for. So we went to Alona Beach, because the pictures online looked nice.

And the sand was whiter than the one on the beaches we have seen before, and the water was perfectly see through and a little turquoise. That perfect place had its price though and we were not the only guests there. Hotel rooms on the first two streets from the beach cost a fortune, food is extremely expensive in most of the places for the Philippines and every five meters there is a guy waiting, trying to sell dolphin boat tours or whale shark tours. We went from hotel to hotel to ask about their availability and prices. The first four hotels were full. Then there were some not pretty places that cost way too much. We got pretty disappointed. Then we saw the sign with a blue elephant that said "950 PHP (19 EUR) per night". That was a little more than we planned to pay but a good price for the area. We decided to bargain for a little discount as we'd stay for eight nights.

19 May 2015

Puerto Princesa - where princesses "rock 'n' roll"

The living room of  Dallas Hostel, Puerto Princesa
After all these spectacular beaches, we were back in a city. Not too big, nothing special at first sight. We arrived by minivan from Port Barton. We extra booked a minivan ride because it seemed quite a bit faster and more luxurious for the little extra money. Well, it wasn't really worth it. Even though Port Barton consists of about three streets crossing four streets, it took the drivers (team of three) a good hour to pick up the ten passengers.

When we finally started the bumpy ride, we were looking forward to a short direct ride. But as the drivers already arrived too late in Port Barton, they had to stop for lunch and a couple of times for the toilet. All in all we might have had a quieter ride and more space in a Jeepney, they squeezed in too many people, the drivers were sitting together in the front plus passengers and the back was stuffed too.

5 May 2015

Port Barton – the jewel of Palawan

Enjoying the beachfront in Port Barton
If you're looking for a quiet retreat, where the world is still a little bit perfect, go to Port Barton. We spontaneously decided to spend a couple of days there between El Nido and Puerto Princesa. The trip to this fantastic place is not too convenient yet, probably that is what helps to keep mass tourism off. We had to tell the driver in El Nido to please kick us out of the mini van at the junction in Roxas. From there, we took a jeepney to Port Barton. Sure there is no timetable for jeepneys in Roxas and the tricycle guys want you to take a ride with them. But the mini van from El Nido to Roxas costs 350 PHP (7 EUR), the jeepney to Port Barton costs 150 PHP (3 EUR). Why would I pay minimum 500 PHP (10 EUR) for two people, when it is incredibly uncomfortable, stinky and you are not faster at all? We waited for the next jeepney to come and had a perfect open air ride to paradise.

28 April 2015

El Nido - paradise, lost?

Between Coron and El Nido
After the beautiful Busuanga archipelago, we wanted to discover more islands of the Philippines. Palawan, the biggest island of the same province, is advertized as one of the most beautiful islands on the planet and quite close to Coron. As there are only expensive charter flights between Coron and El Nido, we took a boat. Our fabulous host at Coron Backpackers organized us tickets for the standard fare of 1400 PHP (28 EUR) and even changed them for another boat as the boat we wanted first had engine problems.

19 April 2015

Coron and Busuanga - what the Philippines are best at

Arriving on Busuanga island
After Manila, things could only get better. And they did. Already the flight from Manila to Busuanga made us forget the horrors of the capital quickly. Once we left Metro Manila behind, all we saw from the plane window were green islands in turquoise waters and the deep blue sea. After a short hour, the plane landed at Busuanga airport. Though airport is quite an overstatement. A landing field, an arrival hangar, a parking lot. But what more do you need to accomodate two daily flights?

If you haven't booked any expensive resort, your only choice to get to Coron town (about 25 km from the airport) are minibuses for 300 PHP per person (6 EUR). Not exactly a bargain, but not a rip off either. There is a surprising shortage of cheap accommodation in Coron town and Busuanga in general. If you're not willing to spend over 1000 PHP (20 EUR) per night for a simple double room, you're limited to three options. We got dropped directly next to Coron Backpackers, where we had made a reservation for six nights. This proved to be an excellent choice. For 500 PHP (10 EUR), we got a simple but nice room in a cozy house with free drinking water and a kitchen we could use freely. After several months without cooking ourselves, this was heaven.

12 April 2015

Manila

Intramuros - the nicest part of Manila
Everybody warned us of Phnom Penh and Saigon. People were really great in giving warnings about places we really fell in love with. Sure, SEA cities are special, but they can be very charming and we had great times. Not in Manila. Nobody warned us from what we encountered there. Some of my friends just told me they'd not know the city too well because it's dirty. Dirty is very relative.

When we came out of the airport we wanted to try the cheaper taxi version, which was to take one of the city taxis that bring guests to the departure part of the airport. The fifth driver finally said he'd know where we wanted to go and he promised to turn on the meter. When we were in the taxi he immediately started to talk non stop and ask us questions. We still focused and asked him to turn on the meter as we agreed on that. After a couple of minutes driving and talking we started to really not answer any question but to tell him over and over to turn on the meter.

9 April 2015

Ho-Chi-Minh-City or Saigon?

Pho rolls
To be honest from the beginning: we haven't found a definitive answer to the question raised in the title. While Ho-Chi-Minh-City is the official name since the revolution/unification, most locals and at least Southern Vietnamese prefer to call it Saigon, also among each other.

We arrived in Saigon on the second of January and for once the bus was almost as fast as promised. A good start. Also, the bus dropped us less than 500 meters walk away from our hotel, in the middle of the busy Hong Bang district. We had booked a hotel in advance as this had proved to be the best strategy in Vietnam. And this time was no different. Our room was on the fifth floor with no elevator, but this helps us keeping fit and in shape despite the delicious Vietnamese food. Also, the higher up means more light, a better view and, last but not least, less noise. To call our home for the next five days a room would be quite deceptive. For 20 USD (16 EUR) per night we got a spacious apartment with a huge bed, a couch, a dining table and even a bathtub.

4 April 2015

Mui Ne - where Russia goes for a holiday

Boats in Mui Ne harbour
Pelmeni, Shashlyk or Pirozhki for breakfast? You can get it all in Mui Ne. Everything is written in Russian, sometimes in Vietnamese too. And if you're lucky, you get an English translation. Most of the waiters in restaurants seem to speak Russian, English speaking staff was hard to find. I guess that says enough about the culture and prices in Mui Ne.

We arrived after a 22 hour instead of 17 hour bus ride on Christmas. When we spotted our hotel we asked the driver to stop, that was possible everywhere else so far. We rather had to fight to stay on the bus until we arrived at our destination on former trips. This time it was different. The driver didn't stop until we passed our hotel by nearly four kilometers. Well, all the hotels were behind us, but a lot of taxis waiting outside the bus already. Guess what, as usual they had a deal to make all the tourists pay for extremely high rates and the bus driver gets a share of the huge profit. What could you do? Nothing. It is part of traveling in SEA, in Vietnam it is your main experience pretty much...

30 March 2015

Hoi An – merchant Vietnam

Caged monkey
In Hué, we discovered the remaining traces of the old imperial Vietnam. Hoi An, our next destination, has much more profane origins. While it's probably older, Hoi An was always rather a commercial center, a city of merchants.

Thanks to the wonderful guys of the Stay Hotel in Hué, we got the right contact and stayed in a beautiful guesthouse called Strawberry Garden, where we paid 20 USD (16 EUR) for a spacious double with a huge breakfast and, wait for it, a bathtub! The guesthouse was a bit outside the busy tourist center of Hoi An but because of this, it had space for a colorful garden and the owners give you bicycles for free so you reach all attractions in less than 10 minutes.

26 March 2015

Vinh and Hue - the less touristy part of Vietnam

Imperial palace - Hue
We really didn't like to leave Laos, this beautiful country with spectacular nature. But the hostel was full of mid term stranded travelers, and that was definitely not what we wanted to end up like. Also, when ever we left a wonderful place, there was something at least equally great coming up - sooner or later.

As we felt cold most of the day already in Luang Prabang, we decided to skip Hanoi and directly go to Vinh, a big city in the center of Vietnam, to continue to Hue as soon as possible. The ticket sellers in Luang Prabang did not sell any tickets directly to Hue and we were not unhappy about a little break on this long ride. So we bought our ticket for Vinh.

18 March 2015

Luang Prabang: our favorite city in South East Asia

Luang Prabang temple
Our van from Vang Vieng was faster than expected and, tracking our arrival on google maps, we managed to get dropped off almost in front of our hostel. Khammany Inn in Luang Prabang is a real hostel, in the most positive sense of the word. It became our home for the next six days. Most of the staff are travelers who extend their stay by working here (or getting stuck, how others might call it). They organize a lot of common activities like movie&pizza night, wine&cheese, trips to nearby waterfalls and are generally good sources of information about the city and its environment. We got an nice and comfortable double room for 17 USD (14 EUR).

5 March 2015

Vang Vieng: no tubing, no drugs, but beautiful moutains

View from our guesthouse in Vang Vieng
We heard about Vang Vieng long before arriving there. The town has a reputation as wild South East Asian party place. Or better, used to have. In the early 2000s, between 30 and 60 backpackers died there each year. The combination of tubing in a shallow river, cheap booze and drugs, and young, careless backpackers proofed often fatal. The absence of medical facilities worth their name (the closest hospital with Western standards is in Bangkok) doesn't help either.

Luckily for us, the whole tubing and partying is much more low key today. The Lao government issued some regulations and cracked down on the local drug trade. Only three of the previously over 20 bars along the river are still operating. It is still possible to get all kinds of drugs, including mushroom and opium shakes, but nowadays you have to actively seek them. They're not openly on the menu any more.

23 February 2015

Vientiane - small but nice

Time was running out and the street between Phnom Phen and Laos apparently was under construction, so we decided to take a flight from Phnom Phen to Vientiane. That means that we skipped the 4000 Islands, but it also saved us a good 30 hours of bus rides.

The arrival in Laos was smooth, as Swiss people get two weeks in Laos without visa. We resisted to jump into an official Taxi that would have cost us quite a bit and so we walked towards the gate of the airport. Half way out suddenly a Taxi that we refused to take before approached us and asked what we would like to pay. We named the price Fabs and I agreed on before and the guy immediately said yes. In a hurry he put our backpacks into the trunk, hid the Taxi sign from the roof and we drove off. Not really legal but a lot cheaper and maybe the last chance for him to get customers that day, as it was already rather late.

15 February 2015

Phnom Phen - the underestimated capital of Cambodia

Phnom Penh riverside
"You will get mugged!", "It's a very ugly place", "I hate Phnom Phen"! - these are just a few quotes of what we heard about Cambodia's capital before we arrived there. But after our jungle adventure we were just hoping for a nice hotel room with a real shower and no bugs all over our stuff.

What we found, at first sight, was not too inspiring. A typical SEA big city, it took us quite a while to get to the hotel from the bus terminal, through narrow, dark, smelly streets. The hotel room was small but clean, however the bathroom was huge with a real shower, warm water and enough water pressure. The perfect relaxation and cleaning for us.

10 February 2015

Areng Valley: modernization, the Cambodian way?

The Areng Valley from above
After visiting some tourist hot-spots like Bagan and Angkor Wat, I wanted to go a little bit more off the beaten track. By accident, I stumbled upon a short mention of the Wild KK Project on wikitravel. I checked out their well made homepage. The project has been founded by a Cambodian NGO named Mother Nature to support the communities living in the remote Areng Valley in their struggle against a Chinese conglomerate intending to flood the whole valley to generate hydroelectric power.


3 February 2015

Sihanoukville or the Côte de Cambodia

Beach restaurant in Sihanoukville
When we were in Siem Reap, a „hotel bus“ where you can actually lie flat for the twelfe hour journey to Sihanoukville sounded really nice. So we booked it for 17 USD (14 EUR) each. The double bunk (if you're travelling alone you might prefer a reclining seat instead of sleeping next to a stranger) was too short for my limbs, but still quite comfortable, expecially if you like cuddling tight with your (travelling) partner and your hand luggage. The 14 hours on the bus were truly bone rattling. Most of the road between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh is a construction site and the bumpyness wont let you get much sleep.

2 February 2015

Siem Reap - Angkor What?

Angkor Wat
A tourist's paradise. Siem Reap consists mostly of hotels. It looked a bit like Las Vegas to me at first sight when we drove into town. The mass tourism of Angkor Wat has positive but also negative aspects, that is nothing new.

When we landed in Siem Reap we were a bit concerned how the visa process is going to work out, but that was unnecessary. I have never seen a more efficient immigration process. Everybody stands in line, you can calculate abot five to ten seconds per person to hand the passport to the officer and pay. This one takes it, hands it to the next officer who does something with it and hands it over to the next one and so on, until you get it back about five minutes later, everything done.

26 January 2015

Balloons over Bagan

Sunrise over Bagan
There's no way around Bagan if you're going to Myanmar. Well, of course you could avoid it, but you'd seriously miss something. Hundreds and thousands of ancient pagodas and stupas dotting brighly red a lush green landscape. Having spent four days there, we can only say it's absolutely worth it.

We arrived by minibus from Mandalay which took, surpisingly, only four and a half instead of the advertised six hours. Including a lunch break and a loop around Bagan to drop of all the other passengers. After a short search and a bit of negotating, we found a nice room for 25 USD (24 EUR) – yes, that's the price you pay if you want a decent room – in a guesthouse on the main road in Nyaung U. 

14 January 2015

One city, one market - Mandalay

Mandalay hill pagoda
After our fist impressions of Myanmar in Yangon we boarded a bus to Mandalay. We didn't know what to expect as already Yangon was very different to what we tought it would be like. Hopping off the bus at the terminal in Mandalay, immediately ten taxi drivers gathered around us to make business. As usual we insisted on getting our luggage first and then to deal with bargaining about the price. We heard the offer or 10'000 MMK (8 EUR), so we set our goal to 6'000 MMK (5 EUR), as the distance on the map looked about the same or a little shorter than from central Yangon to the bus terminal.

11 January 2015

Yangon - or the speed of change

Beautiful temples (part of Shwe Dagon pagoda)
Who would have thought that Lisa and I would go to Myanmar? This country wasn't really on our radar until short before we booked a flight there in early October. Even when boarding our flight in Bangkok, we didn't have the slightest idea what to expect.

While the plane descended into Yangon airport we gazed at miles upon miles of rice fields, with no city in sight. Immigration went far smoother than the visa application process let us imagine. In the arrivals hall, we experienced another positive surprise: the ATM gave us 300'000 MMK (kyatt/250 EUR) without any problem. No need to change money any more. We took a taxi to the Indonesian International School (IISY) as that's where our friend Ei May Zin told us to meet her.

3 January 2015

Ko Lanta: A Scandinavian island in Thailand

Beach in the south of Koh Lanta
We were extremely happy when we found out that our new friends continued their journey from Koh Pha Ngan to Koh Lanta, just like us. We found a nice hotel that looked like an American residental street so we decided to call it Holiday Alley instead of its real name Lanta Manda. It was a little walk from the beach but perfect as a homebase. The trip fom Koh Pha Ngan to Koh Lanta was quite long, by pickup truck, ferry, another ferry, bus and minibus, but the scenery is worthwhile and we even found a nice restaurant for lunch in Krabi.