Around the Traps in S.E. Asia – Part 11
In my last submission – Part 10 – I mentioned I was planning an extended jaunt through the north of Vietnam, and then coming back to the LOS through Laos and Isarn. Unfortunately, due to visa issues, (which I’ll explain in more detail later in this submission) I could only complete the Vietnam part of the trip. I ended up traveling back to Phuket via Singapore.
A BIT ON THE NOSE:
One of the great things about travel around the region is you get to meet a diverse cross-section of people from all parts of the world. With my focus on adventure activities these days, and less on sitting around in the girlie bars of the region’s fleshpots, this generally means meeting the more independently minded traveller. Often, I’m rubbing shoulders with the younger set from Europe, Australia, and the USA and I make a point of interacting with them to see what the latest attitudes and mindsets are, coming out of the West. Most people I meet on the road leave positive experiences, and it’s an occasional thing when I encounter something which is a bit off. During a caving tour, on my latest Vietnam sojourn, a situation arose where I began to consider the issue of personal hygiene. The caving tour involved a good degree of physical exertion (including 5 km of kayaking and 5 km trekking over difficult terrain) and by extension, copious amounts of sweat. A few minutes into the tour and one of the team members, a large German lass, was emitting what could only be described as a horrendously pungent odour. Luckily, the cave had a large internal volume, so I was able to keep well clear of her sweaty armpits. Unfortunately, after the tour, and in the close confines of the mini-bus, the smell was at gag level on the way back to the hotel.
That got me thinking that when it comes to the issue of personal hygiene I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a Thai lady (including the much maligned bar-girl) with a bad case of B.O. Say what you like about the Thai pooying – and there’s often many a disparaging comments on here – when it comes to cleanliness, and smelling like roses, they are second to none. They take their appearance very seriously and such things as clean hair, skin, and teeth are a high priority.
I think most guys on here will agree on the fact the first thing a Thai gal wants to do when you arrive back in your room to do the business, is to jump in the shower and freshen up. Generally, most of their orifices will be smelling clean and sweet, and it’s only on the rare occasion when I’ve encountered one with a smelly vagina. A few years ago, I picked up a Thai freelancer at Orchard Towers in Singapore. I took her back to the hotel room and as soon as she got her knickers off I could smell it from 3 meters away. Remembering what a buddy had told me years earlier, “If it smells, there’s a good bet there’s something wrong with it such as infection or disease,” I said, “Thanks but no thanks.” The poor thing broke down and started crying – I guess she was having a hard time getting customers – so in sympathy I handed her 50 SGD and told her to “see a doctor ASAP.” But that was a rare occasion and for the most part, Thai ladies take good care of their nether parts.
One might be forgiven for thinking that maintaining a good level of personal hygiene is a standard for ladies throughout S.E. Asia. While in Thailand it’s generally true, this doesn’t necessarily translate to other places such as Vietnam. Maybe it’s just my bad luck but I’ve had three Viet ladies in a row with smelly quims. The last one was so bad I cut short my holiday to get away from it. Remember, if it’s on the nose then there’s probably something wrong with it.
GOOD MORNING DA NANG:
Da Nang, which sits smack bang in the middle of the Vietnamese land mass is fast becoming a favourite getaway of mine. With direct flights from Suwarnabhumi on Bangkok Airways, you can be walking into the arrivals hall within 90 minutes of departing Bangkok. On this occasion I took a one-way flight from Phuket (two hour stop-over in Bangers) and was in my hotel in Da Nang by 1.30 PM. I’d been in Da Nang 3 years previously and keen to get back for a more extended look around. I booked 5 nights at the Mimosa 2 Hotel (a beachside budget place) with the idea of taking a bit more time to visit the sightseeing attractions I’d missed on the last visit.
In no particular order, these sightseeing attractions included:
- Marble Mountains
- Hai Van Pass
- Ba Na Hills (Sun World Resort)
- Hoi An
If you’re staying at the Mimosa 2 Hotel, the staff there can arrange a motorbike rental for as little as 6 USD per day. Even though Vietnam is a right hand drive country, getting around Da Nang is breeze as the main thoroughfares around the city are all 3 lanes on each side.
The MARBLE MOUNTAINS (DONG THUY SON):
Situated just nine kilometres south of the city, the Marble Mountains are an easy half day trip for those wanting to experience a rather unique Vietnamese religious site. According to readily available sources (Wikipedia) providing information about The Marble Mountains, the site comprises of five peaks of varying sizes. While this might be true it is just one, Thuy Son (mountain of water), which is worth spending time at. Thuy Son is the largest peak and as such has several interesting small caves, and grottos, developed for sightseeing.
Follow this link for a more in-depth trip report on Thuy Son Mountain: http://www.megaworldasia.com/vietnam/marble-mountains/
THE HAI VAN PASS:
Situated 31 km (60 minutes travel time) from the Mimosa 2 Hotel, the HAI VAN PASS gives spectacular views up and down the coastline. Something to keep in mind is that although it’s a great scenic spot, it can be adversely affected by crappy weather. Its elevation is approx. 600 meters (1500 ft) above sea level so it’s pointless going up there when it’s overcast or raining. For good views north and south, only go on a clear day. This is a historical site which marks the border between north and south Vietnam. There are some old structures near the bus parking area which is where the historical road would pass through a gate. The cobbled track is very narrow and obviously designed for horses and foot traffic, back in the days before motorised vehicles. For great views, do the 500-meter hike (distance not elevation) up to the American bunker and lookout post. From there you can see both directions (north and south) simultaneously and it gives you an indication of the historical, strategic importance of the location. From on top of the bunker it’s possible to have a clear view of the pass, to the north and south. During the Vietnam War this location marked the delineation between the two states of Vietnam. It was, essentially, the border and divide between the two parts of Vietnam. Going back further in Vietnam’s history this was also the only coastal road and the old gate (check point) would provide clear views in both directions, of approaching traffic. The drive up on a motorbike is quite exhilarating and roadside stops can be made to check out the pristine beaches far below or, as was my want, chat with some friendly local ladies.
THE BA NA HILLS (SUN WORLD RESORT):
BA NA HILLS CABLE CAR VIDEO https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YGngHhF7XaU
The Sun World Resort (aka Ba Na Hills) is approx. 29 km (45 minutes travel time) due east of Da Nang. It is definitely a mainstream sightseeing attraction with hundreds of tourists turning up every day to ride the cable cars to the top of the mountain. It is also an expensive place to visit with everything, including the entrance fee, food, and drink, incredibly overpriced compared with most other places in Vietnam. It’s definitely a tourist trap so it’s a considered decision if you are willing to pay 650,000 VND (approx. 30 USD) as an adult to go up to the top. From my own perspective, the price for the cable car ride is worth it. It’s quite spectacular. There are actually three cable cars in operation but the farthest one from the entrance, cable car number 9, has the longest uninterrupted span. Unlike the other two, it goes all the way to the top without passing through any intermediate terminals. It’s 1.5 km span from top to bottom is reportedly the world’s longest. The boarding point for cable car number 9 is the furthest from the main entrance and as such does not have the long queues waiting to board, seen at the two nearer terminals. As an added bonus, it also passes over some very picturesque waterfalls.
The ride to the top of the mountain is approx. 20 minutes and passes entirely over dense jungle. At the top is a European style mountain village, which looks like something out of a Disneyland set with its castles, brass bands, and Ukrainian dancing girls.
HOI AN ANCIENT TOWN VIDEO: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NrYmaYQYucA
This popular tourist location is approx. 25 km from the beach side hotel area in DA NANG. It’s easily doable as a day trip from Da Nang but for those who want to soak up the atmosphere of the ancient town, there’s plenty of budget priced accommodation in Hoi An. The old town seems to be where most tourists head to, particularly in the early evenings when all the street-side markets open and the myriad of coloured lanterns are turned on. TBH I don’t think there’s all that much to do in Hoi An apart from hanging out in cafés and restaurants, and shop in the street side markets. After one short visit I saw very quickly the place is over-rated, over-hyped and over-priced. If you want to go to a crowded tourist trap, and sit around in cafes and restaurants, then this is the place. I don’t really get why so many people go down to Hoi An when just up the road in Da Nang there’s just so much more to do and see. Gotta be something to do with the chic crowd who just wanna hang out in cafes and absorb the culture, I guess. If you are planning a visit, the ancient town is where everyone gravitates to in the evenings to get their fill of the crowded little streets and lanes. To the credit of the local authorities, they’ve been smart enough to turn the central area into a walking area from 6 PM every evening to keep a separation between the crowds of sightseers and local motorbike riders in the crowded laneways. With all the coloured lanterns on, the tourist knick-knack shops, and the cafés with their tasty treats, and coffees, it’s not a bad spot to spend 2 – 3 hours in. Tick it off the bucket list and move on because, as mentioned, there’s a lot more to do in Da Nang.
DA NANG CITY:
One of the added bonuses of going to Da Nang in March, particularly if you are residing in Thailand, is that it’s early spring at that time in Vietnam and the weather is still relatively cool. Day time temperatures are only about 25 deg C maximum. At night it’s cool enough to sleep with the A/C turned off. There is no girlie bar scene as one would find in Thailand, but I was told there is a number of night clubs in town where local freelancers ply their trade. The Mimosa Hotel sits near a developing foreigner / expat area where bars and restaurants are springing up with the continued influx of tourists and foreigners taking up residence. If you look on GOOGLE MAPS, you will see the MIMOSA 2 HOTEL and this burgeoning foreigner area (as the Viets like to call it) is relatively close to MY KHE BEACH. It also happens to be right in amongst a suburban Vietnamese area where prices for local coffees and BANH MEE’S (local baguettes) are ridiculously inexpensive. My breakfast every morning consisted of a hot, local coffee (sweetened with condensed milk) and a baguette with two fried eggs. Total price = 1.5 USD (try getting that in Thailand). The fact is that prices in Da Nang at the moment for most things are way cheaper than in Thailand. I met an American Expat living just down the road from the Mimosa 2 Hotel and he told me his rent for a large, two-bedroom apartment was just 500 USD per month. To live there of course would involve some trade-offs if one was to move from Thailand, namely access to relatively easy and inexpensive sex. However, I did some research and was told most of the massage shops around town will take care of a man’s needs. One near the Mimosa 2 Hotel – PARADISE MASSAGE – provided a one hour oil massage and hand relief for 40 USD. Admittedly more expensive than the same service offered in Thailand, but if you shop around you’ll probably find less expensive offers.
Follow this link for a more in-depth report on sightseeing in and around DA NANG: http://www.megaworldasia.com/latest-trip-report/da-nang/
GETTING OFF THE BEATEN TRACK IN PHUKET:
Residing in PHUKET it would easy enough to fall into the trap of living like a perpetual tourist. Which ultimately means spending too much time hanging out in the myriad of bars in the beach areas. While I don’t mind the odd beer or two, being a daily barfly isn’t something which will have a long-term positive effect for one’s health and well-being. In an effort to maintain a reasonable level of health and fitness, I’ve been exploring around the island to locate the hiking trails which run up some of the peaks which dot the landscape. Some of them, such as the 2.4 km jungle track which winds its way to the top of MONKEY HILL, are quite challenging. When one arrives at the TV towers at the top, soaked in sweat and breathing hard, you know you’ve had a decent 45-minute workout.
MONKEY HILL VIDEO: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xRhOIv1YUIw
Keeping to a regular routine, I try to do a hike every second day and just so it doesn’t get boring I vary the locations. Another challenging hike is the 1.5 km jungle track which runs from the far end of Soi 12 in Karon, to the Big Buddha at the top. The jungle track actually meets the road approx. 400 meters short of the Big Buddha. So, there’s an extra hike if you want to join the throngs of sightseers which mill about up there. For me, I’m quite content to chill out over a coffee at the STAR MOUNTAIN CAFÉ and enjoy the nice view over the coastline, before heading back down.
Another place which is off the beaten track is BLACK ROCK VIEW POINT (aka locally as HIN PA DUM). It is what I consider to be the best view-point on Phuket Island, which is rather ironic considering it looks out over Phuket’s most well-known, and most crowded, sunset viewing spot; Promthep Cape (aka locally as Laem Promthep). While the masses gather far below, a handful of adventurous souls can be perched at BLACK ROCK VIEW POINT getting uninterrupted views to the east, south, and west of the southern tip of Phuket Island. For those who are interested, find your way to the KARON VIEW POINT (which actually over looks KATA NOI BEACH) and then continue south for approx. 200 meters, turning right onto a dirt road which heads out to NUI BEACH. At the Nui Beach parking area, another dirt road veers to the left and up a hill. Follow that for approx. 300 meters until you see a large rock with the words HIN PA DUM painted on it. There’s a jungle track directly opposite, with a 200 meter hike up to the view point.
The bottom line is there’s plenty to do and see in Phuket, if one make’s the effort to seek it out. I made a conscious decision when I moved down from Bangkok to stay away from Soi Bangla and the girlie bars. Aside from the ridiculous drink prices (I mean seriously, a beer down there is 6 USD) I’m just past all that nonsense with lady drinks, bar fines, and paying Thai hookers stupid money. I think most guys who live here long-term eventually see the local bar scene for exactly what it is and make the decision to remove themselves from it. And it’s not a case of being jaded, it’s just reality showing you there’s nothing which is beneficial to you from hanging out in the twilight zone. If a couple of mates drop into town, then yeah, I’ll probably hook up with them for a stroll down Soi Bangla, a beer or two, and a laugh. But I’ll never go down there on my own. From my own perspective, I think what makes guys feel jaded is they can’t remove themselves from the scene even though they’re developing a lot of negativity about the girls. The only way to stop feeling jaded is to remove yourself from the bar scene completely <That is a great quote and oh so true – Stick>. When you dissociate yourself from bargirls, the negative aspects of what they do, say, and practice isn’t an issue any more because you’re not mixing with them. And to be fair to them, most I’ve ever met always said they were in the bars to make money, that they were working, and they were doing a job. It’s just common sense that if they say they’re doing a job, then you the customer are the job. It’s your fault if you read more into the association or get some kind of romantic notion with them. I’ll say it again, for a Thai bargirl/hooker/prostitute, a “farang” is a job. The problem is that when you hang out in the bars a lot, the lines get blurred and you begin to read more into the situation, than what it really is. Most bargirls originally are not bad people, but they get themselves into a bad situation which eventually leads to the alcoholism, drugs, lies, and dishonesty. To avoid those kinds of negative aspects having any kind of influence on your life, it’s simply a matter of staying away from it.
CAVING CENTRAL, VIETNAM:
The town of Phong Nha in Northern Vietnam is fast becoming the world’s hot spot for caving and jungle trekking. It’s a bit like base camp on Everest where it’s become the start point for the caving and adventure tours in the area. On my first visit in 2013 there were just 4 hotels on the strip. There are now more than 20 and judging by the amount of travellers in town on my most recent visit, that number is set to increase. The township of Phong Nha sits on the edge of the Phong Nha Ke-Bang National Park, a huge, jungle enshrouded, karst region with more than 300 caves (and counting). Of the 300, only 16 are currently being used for caving tours with one – Son Doong Cave – currently listed as the world’s largest (it has areas where the internal space is 200 meters high).
Having completed four trips to Phong Nha at various times of the year it’s safe to say there are extremes of temperature in this region of northern Vietnam. If you go in January take a jacket and woollen hat because night-time temps can hover around just 5 deg C, or less. In the summer months of June to August it’s blistering with the mercury often being over 40 deg C. In March it’s almost the perfect weather with day time temperatures no more than 25 deg C, ideal conditions for a bit of spelunking.
On my latest trip – March 2018 – I had two caving trips in mind during my five days at Phong Nha. The first was a kayaking and caving tour through one of Phong Nha’s primary tourism caves, simply known as PHONG NHA CAVE. This site attracts a lot of sightseers as the first 1 km has been set up with lighting and cement trails for safe access. The kayak tour goes beyond the first 1 km and into the dark zone which no mainstream tourism gets access to. The second cave tour was a long trek into one of the areas more spectacular caves – PARADISE CAVE – in which the initial 1 km has also been developed for mainstream tourist. The extended adventure tour goes 7 km beyond the initial developed 1 km and ends at the second opening (a large hole in the cave ceiling), after which you retrace your steps back to the original entry point. Total trek distance = 14 km.
PHONG NHA CAVE KAYAK TOUR VIDEO: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QBzcN1v6TRc&t=9s
PARADISE CAVE 7 KM ADVENTURE TOUR: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WyyadhQ81uE
As previously mentioned, my original plan was to complete my caving tours in Phong Nha and then catch a bus across the border to LAOS, and then entering Thailand at the land crossing at Nakhon Phanom. Unfortunately, of all the Vietnam/Laos border crossings, the one nearest Phong Nha – CHA LO – doesn’t issue entry visas for foreigners coming into Laos. If you are coming from Laos into Vietnam, then entry isn’t a problem. You can get a one month visa at the CHA LO BORDER GATE.
Something else to keep in mind if you are planning on flying from Vietnam to Bangkok, is the Viet counter staff’s insistence you have an onward ticket from Thailand. They will not check you in if you cannot show an onward flight from Thailand. To get around this nonsense, I decided to fly back to Phuket via Singapore. In that regard, a one way flight from Da Nang to Singapore was cheap enough with JETSTAR, at just 90 USD. In the end it worked out quite well as I got to spend the weekend watching the rugby and having a few beers with a work buddy who lives there. I was also able to top up my supplies of MANUKA HONEY & VEGEMITE (yes, I know they have Vegemite in Thailand but in Singapore you can get the large jars at the COLD STORAGE SUPERMARKET).
Anyone who’s spent a bit of time in the Lion City often remarks the place has an extreme array of laws and regulations, compared with Thailand. There was a T-shirt which tourists could buy a few years ago – Singapore, a Fine City – showing all the offences, which could cop you a 500 SGD fine. The following, painted on the side-walks on Orchard Road, is the latest offering from the authorities to keep the local population regimented.
THE ROAD CARNAGE CONTINUES IN PHUKET:
The relative lawlessness of Thailand, compared with being in Singapore, is quite stark but there’s no doubt you have a greater sense of freedom in the Kingdom. Unfortunately, the trade-off for the relative lawlessness is a general lack of regard for rules and regulations, particularly on the nations roads. The following pic was taken on the road over the hill to Patong. The locals have a habit of “gunning it” on the downhill sections and will often try to overtake near treacherous corners. In the rainy season this stretch of road is quite possibly one of the most dangerous in the nation. On a number of occasions, I’ve seen buses spin out of control on a slippery downhill section, often coming to a halt on the opposite side of the road. Something else I’ve picked up on here is the accident traffic jam. You can be driving along a stretch of road and, for no apparent reason, the traffic flow slows and begins backing up. On a bike it’s not a real issue because you just weave your way in and out of the traffic and keep moving. But sure enough you’ll eventually see a crowd gathered around a prone body on the road. And the prone body always has the same characteristics; it’s surrounded by smashed motorcycle debris, it’s a mid-twenties male, it has no helmet, and it’s wearing flip flops. If the prone body is face down, then it’s a safe bet its brown bread (dead). If the prone body is on it’s back, and the paramedics are in attendance and feverishly working on it, there’s a possibility of survival.
The bottom line for being on the road in Thailand, or anywhere in S.E. Asia (except Singapore and possibly Malaysia) is there’s only one rule the locals have any regard for: THE BIGGEST THING HAS THE RIGHT OF WAY. Cars give way to buses and lorries; motorcycles give way to cars, buses, and lorries; and pedestrians give way to everything. Pedestrians (in complete contrast to the west) have no right of way. In most parts of S.E. Asia, when a pedestrian tries to cross at a busy intersection, you are literally taking your life into your own hands. In Thailand, many tourists get the shock of their lives when trying to negotiate a pedestrian crossing. Thinking they have right of way, they step off the pavement only to find the locals will just keep whizzing through on their motorbikes, and in their vehicles. It makes one realise the idea of the sanctity of life, has little meaning in the LOS.
Stay safe and keep your wits about you at all times.
Your roving reporter in S.E. Asia
The author can be contacted at : [email protected]