Tag Archives: boat

December Escape….Venice, Italy

The best time to visit Venice is in the winter.  Well, I don’t really know.  This was my third trip to Venice, and all have been in late November or December.  It is also the coldest time.  That I do know.  However, I am told there are less tourists in the winter and it smells better.  There were a lot more tourists this time than 9 years ago when I was last there.  And I suspect it will only get worse.  But this was our reasoning behind going to Venice now.  That and I found super cheap train tickets a few months ago (20 Euro each way).  And to top it off, Lolo, a college friend of mine joined us from the States.

Venice has been high on Riki’s list for awhile and we wanted to get there before it turned into “Disneyland” as people have been saying.  I’ve talked about these lists in the last few blogs, but they don’t actually exist.  My list really includes everywhere, just the order changes depending on the circumstances, ie war, funding, weather.  For instance, India and Sri Lanka are at the top of my list currently, but they require a longer trip and more money, so I suspect you will just see more European blogs in the next few months.  Riki’s list includes pretty much all of South America, so that may have to wait as well.  The perpetual list I guess.

We started our trip with a 7.5 hour train ride through the Gotthard Tunnel, which is the longest train tunnel in the world, and was not even officially open.  But I suspect that really has to do with the European train schedule change on December 11 and not that it wasn’t ready.  Because we also came back the same way.

Riki took something like 3000 photos in 4 days.  He gave me 747 of his “favorites”.  Here are just a few.  We mostly walked, except for one day where we went out to Burano and Murano by boat and then continued down the Grand Canal.  Thanks to Lolo’s fitness tracker, we know that one day we even hit 36,000 steps.  Lots of walking for a small city.  It really is the best way to see things.

Riki has posted more photos on his website: rbernadotte.smugmug.com

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Sunset on our first evening.  The rest of the trip was very gray.
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Me and Lo

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Rialto Bridge – the other side was covered in scaffolding
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This is my favorite pic – the water was so green and completely covering the steps
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A bit of Acqua Alta on our first day
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Basilica di San Marco and Campanile

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High tide

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A leaning tower – one of many

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Lo got asked by an old lady to help her walk down the block. It was a very slow block.
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1 hour boat trip to Burano
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Leaning tower in Burano

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Lo and I in the rain in Burano
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Murano glass
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Santa Maria church in Murano
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Back in Venice, the Rialto from the Grand Canal

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Palazzo Ducale

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Bridge of Sighs

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Inside Palazzo Grimani
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Palazzo Grimani ceiling

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Dog in boat
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Dog on boat
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Jugs of wine
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Normal delivery
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Suitcases

One of the great things about Venice is that everything is transported by boat.  It is probably what makes it so expensive as well.  Everything comes in by boat – mail, packages, beer, wine, food, clothes.  We saw so many over packed boats, with boxes looking like that would fall over into the water at any moment.

Our island trip to Burano and Murano started out gray and rainy, but the brightly painted houses were totally worth the 1 hour trip.  We stopped in Murano on the way back, which was drab in comparison and full of small, touristy glass stores.  Despite our best efforts though we could not find a free glass making demonstration and got hustled out of a large shop for trying to browse and not watch the 5 Euro, 5 minute demonstration.

I can see why people think it will be a Disneyland soon.  Maybe it already is.  The huge cruise ship port, which was luckily empty, funnels a massive amount of people into the small streets and narrow canals.  The shops are full of touristy plastic and the food was underwhelming, despite eating as far from the tourist traps as possible.  Luckily, the architecture makes up for all of that.

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Quick stops in Sarawak….Miri & Sibu, Borneo, Malaysia

Our border crossing from Brunei into Sarawak, Malaysia was as breezy as could be. Besides stopping us to ask if we had been to Korea, we were barely questioned and our luggage never even had to leave the bus. Presumably, this is because Brunei is so strict about what comes into its borders (ie our customs form for a bottle of rum) and Malaysia must assume we couldn’t possibly have gotten anything past Brunei security on the way in.

Our next two stops in Sarawak, Borneo, Malaysia were Miri and Sibu – stopovers on the journey across the island to the much larger Kuching, and our final stop in Asia. Yes, that’s it. At this point we had just two weeks left. Our plan was to slowly make our way to Kuching, but this was not to be for a few reasons. One, these towns had little to offer in the way of attractions and two, well, we’re just plain tired of moving around. And three, it just rained and rained and rained.

So our first stop, Miri was supposed to be a party city, so we booked two nights ahead of time. We probably didn’t need both. We did find some interesting handicraft stores and a bookstore with bargain books in English. Otherwise, we avoided our hostel room, which was the size of a queen bed plus three feet on one side so the door could open (not exagerating – too small to even photograph how small it was). The bed hit three walls and there was no window. We decided the party reference we had heard must refer to the two or three bars along one of the main roads that serve up expensive imported beer. We did find a “historic” area that was run down and covered in advertisements and banners.  Here are the 8 pictures Riki took.

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Yoda
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Cool patterns everywhere
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Symbol of the area – a hornbill

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This guy was the size of my hand
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Seahorse

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An 8 hour bus ride later and we arrived in Sibu, which was worse. This is a jumping off point for people going upriver a few hours by boat to some villages with traditional longhouses. But we didn’t know that was the only reason people stayed in Sibu. When we arrived in Sibu we took the public bus to the city center and walked around looking for a cheap place to stay. We had looked online for options, found little information and decided to wing it, like we have in so many other instances. The first 5 or 6 places we looked were so bare and grim that is was confusing. Not a single worthy place to stay – and we are used to basic. And then Riki figured it out – its strictly a port town for sailors. These places were meant for hourly guests – not overnighters like ourselves.  Brothels as we later read in the guide book.  So we sucked it up and walked into a much more expensive place (about $20) and found a huge room with tons of windows and a spotless floor. It even had a separate shower that didn’t spray the toilet – a rarity over here. All this walking around, we did in the pouring rain, with our big bags.

We did our usual exploratory walk around town that night and came to the conclusion that we didn’t want to stay any longer. It took some research, but we found a boat to Kuching the next day. We left in a hurry, but not before trying konpia – Sibu’s version of the bagel. Our hotel receptionist walked us a few minutes through some hectic streets to a shop where they were freshly made. Probably the best part of our stay. A great replacement for our normal fare – chicken and rice.  There are no pictures from Sibu – a first.

Our 5 hour ferry ride to Kuching was rainy the whole way, but the boat had movies and we were grateful for the change of pace from bumpy buses.

Add this to your bucket list….Komodo Island, Indonesia

We were not disappointed by our flight from Lombok to Flores (via Bali). We passed several volcanoes, with perfectly round craters and numerous gorgeous islands. The whole trip we were leaning over each other to see out the window.

When we arrived in Labuan Bajo, Flores, we joined two other couples in walking to town, which was rumored to be only 20 minutes. Well, it was a bit further, so Riki and I hurried ahead to beat the incoming rain. A friendly dump truck driver stopped and offered us a ride, so we ushered our new friends into the back of the truck and were dropped off 10 minutes later in the center of town. My second dump truck ride this trip (and in my entire life).

Well Labuan Bajo is a bit of a dump, but it is the harbor for most of the boats visiting Komodo Island. Early in our planning for Indonesia, Riki asked me if I wanted to see the Komodo dragons. I said yes, not really knowing what that entailed, but assuming it was going to be an adventure.

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And an adventure it was. We booked a package deal with a travel agent for about $50 each for a 2 day/1 night boat trip, including two islands to visit the dragons and snorkeling on the second day. The fist day started out very drearily, with pouring rain when we arrived at Rinca Island, our first stop. Worried the dragons wouldn’t be out, we waited a bit for the rain to let up and then headed onto the island in search of the dragons. We were led by a guide with a two-pronged stick as his only defense against these dragons, through almost knee deep water, from the earlier downpour. After paying our almost $20 fee to visit Rinca and Komodo Islands, we were quickly rewarded with some dragon viewing.

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You can almost make out the path down there, covered in water. Komodo dragons can swim…

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At the top of a hill near the ticket booth were two large teenage males. We were told that they are usually around here because the kitchen is nearby and they can smell the food, even though the rangers never feed them. We got pretty close in my opinion. Near the kitchen, we also spotted two more Komodo dragons, who were oblivious to the rain. We had read that recently a dragon had attacked an unsuspecting ranger in an office for no apparent reason. This put us on our toes, ready to run if need be.

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“Smelling” us with his tongue

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Then we took a short trek inland with our two guides, one of whom was a tiny 17 year old girl, who looked like she would be no match for a dragon. But she had the obligatory two-pronged stick for protection. We were on the lookout for young dragons, who had just hatched and were hiding in the trees from bigger dragons (and their mothers), who eat them. We didn’t find any, but Riki spotted a large one laying in the grass in wait of some nearby monkeys.

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We continued our boat trip, and the rain decided to cooperate for the next few hours. Arriving at Komodo Island, we hired two more guides and went into the forest, where we saw many wild boars and orchids. Cool, but not that exciting.

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Beach deer

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But then, as we were taking in a nice view, our guide spotted a small-ish (was still huge in my book) dragon on the side of the hill. We got some good pics before we annoyed him and he took off down the hill.

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At the bottom of the hill, we ran into a rare sight. A massive Komodo dragon was finishing off a deer, who looked like he had been dead for quite awhile. There wasn’t much meat left, but we watched as he picked at it and then defended it against the same smaller dragon we had seen up the hill.

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It is quite funny to see deer on a beach, but it seems like a good idea, as you can see the dragons coming better than in the forest.

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We anchored in a bay with many other boats and watched as giant fruit bats emerged from the trees and swarmed in front of the most amazing sunset we’ve seen (in awhile).

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Komodo Village where we stopped to buy a part for our generator
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Village on Komodo
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Soaked, but happy

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Day two promised to be just as amazing. Despite our boat’s generator conking out and sleeping in the stifling heat in our cabin and a rat rifling through our belongings at 3 am, the sun was out and the temperature was warm, a stark contrast from the previous day.

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Our first stop, at Pink Beach, was at 7 am, and the water was cold. The beach is pink though, as its name implies. Red coral has been ground up and washed ashore. We saw a couple of fish while snorkeling, but nothing amazing. We didn’t stay long and continued on to Manta Point for our next stop.

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Parrot fish
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Flips
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See? Pink
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Camo fish

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And we were heavily rewarded. The current is strong at Manta Point and giant mantas like to clean themselves on the rocks in relatively shallow and very clear water. We were dropped by our boat and able to drift over at least 7 giant manta rays, who were just hanging out on the bottom of the sea. They were a few meters wide and so strange. Their mouths are like small, smooth caves and they almost seem more like plants then animals, until you see them swim.

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Giant manta
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Another manta. It was tough trying to swim against the current to stay above them
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Staying on the surface
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One of our crew – see the manta beyond?
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More Riki flips

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We had thought about diving here, but my ear has been bothering me so snorkeling was the only option. It was just as well. With the snorkeling, we were able to drift over top the mantas, get picked up by the boat, brought back up-current and able to drift a second time to spot more manta rays. We even saw more sharks, but only 2 meters long this time.

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Native (and possibly endangered) sea eagle – not sea gull
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Spotted this turtle from the boat and Riki was quick enough to get a picture
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Our little boat

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Our last stop was even better. Kanawa Island has a “resort” where we had looked to stay, but it costs something like $50 for a shabby bungalow. The snorkeling here is amazing though. We hopped in the warm water and immediately saw thousands of fish and beautiful, healthy coral. I spied a blue spotted ray and Riki showed me a “baby” reef shark who was hanging around the beach. He was over a meter, but we chased him around trying to get a good picture. There’s something I never thought I would do – chase a shark.

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Tons of these sea stars
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Anemone fish
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Giant clams
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Nerds
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“Baby” shark – 4 feet at least

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What a successful trip. Completely satisfied, we headed back to shore to arrange for our bus trip the next day further east to Ruteng.

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Cloudy back in Labuan Bajo

Finding the real Myanmar….Dawei

This night bus to Dawei left Mawlamyine at 6:30 pm and was pretty promising as the seats were pretty comfortable and were camouflaged. Felt really American. The only downside to this one was arriving at 4:30 am. This of course we did not know ahead of time and were reluctant to leave the bus when it was so dark out. Luckily, we had called ahead to a hotel and after a few poundings on the door from our driver, we awakened the desk clerk who checked us in and showed us to our room. We napped a few hours but still managed to wake up in time for breakfast. Our best so far – rice soup, eggs and bread. We met an American couple from Idaho and decided to follow their plan of heading south down the peninsula to some fishing villages and a pagoda, via motorbike.

First though, we went in search of a boat company to book our ferry down to the Thai border crossing. After walking in circles, we had found three companies all offering pretty much the same thing, a $70 12-hour trip, leaving town at midnight to catch the boat at 4:30 am. Pretty crazy, but we wanted to take the boat to see the mysterious Mergui archipeligo that is incredibly expensive to visit otherwise. So boat it was (and you can’t go by bus yet – not allowed for tourists). We returned to the first company (isn’t that how it always goes) because their English was better and seemed more professional. In the process of buying the ticket, we discovered that we could pay in US dollars and since we had stocked up on these before coming to Myanmar, and had yet to use any, and we were running low on Myanmar kyat, Riki took the motorbike back to the hotel to get them. While he was gone, I started chatting to the lady and discovered that for a mere $1 (yes, one) more, we could fly, on a 45 minute flight in premier class (whatever that meant) and arrive earlier. Seemed like a no-brainer. Spare you guys the joy of reading 1,000 words about how miserably long the boat ride was too (and the next day a ferry capsized near Mrauk-U and about 40 people were killed).

Plans all changed we continued south and poked around a fishing village before running into the Americans near a pagoda out on the water.

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Now I’m not sure if it was the combination of knowing we weren’t taking a tremendously long boat ride, actually getting enough sleep after a night bus, or the shear beauty of the landscape, but I found the Myanmar I had been looking for. Sounds corny, but as we walked the length of the bridge to the almost-island (peninsula, I know, but it didn’t feel like that) pagoda, the water was clear, the people were friendly, and it just hit me. Everyone along the way had been waving and had the biggest grins to see us coming. Maybe they weren’t annoyed with tourists yet or its just the southern nature, because they get more sun and get to live along this beautiful coast.

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The girls just love Riki (though in this case it may have been his shirt)

We met up with the Americans at a beach and were joined by 5 rambunctious boys who spoke a few words of English, but were mostly interested in running and jumping in the sand and water, which was incredibly warm.

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But you can’t have all that good, and not even it out with something bad. Just my travel karma talking. On our way back to join our new friends for a cold draft beer, we popped a tire. But within minutes of stopping along the road, 6 people on bikes had stopped and a small truck. Two groups were basically fighting over who would help us. Two students won and one took the bike with Riki on it down the road a minute to a small hut, while I rode with the other one. The hut was closed but student #1 managed to find the owner and get him to fix our tire. This involved taking the whole thing off as it was beyond patching, with a three inch tear straight across. Too hot, he said. Or two big Americans it couldn’t handle the weight. Student #2 (I feel bad, but I don’t think we got their names) spoke some English and was interested to know if we were Christians (I let Riki answer that one) as he was and his friend was Buddhist. It would have been great to hear more about that, but the language barrier was too big. Student #1 took Riki next door to the shop that conveniently had spare inner tubes for $2.10. He even paid 10 cents for the tube when Riki was too slow with his money and refused to be paid back. The guy fixing the tire requested 70 cents for the 30 minutes of work he put in, but I gave his wife the change after he refused the 30 cents extra I didn’t want back. The students didn’t leave us until we were back on our bike and headed in the right direction.

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And they wanted a picture with Riki too.

It was dark by the time we left and we missed the draft beer, but had an amazing display of generosity to replace it.

The next day we once again rented a motorbike and set off on another ambitious journey, to reach a beach further down the peninsula. We got about 45 kilometers down, right around where we were supposed to be and decided to head west toward the beach. An hour through some rather treacherous terrain, with me getting off the bike occasionally so Riki could get up or down a steep hill, we ditched the bikes when we ran into some locals who told us we could go no further with them. We headed up a trail, closely followed by some men and women carrying enormous loads on their heads. We were a bit worried about getting back as the other couples’ bike had overheated just as we had stopped, and ours seemed to guzzle fuel, so when we got a good viewpoint and realized how far the beach still was, we returned to our bikes, chalking it up to just a hike in the woods, without the rewarding swim at the end.

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A bit exhausted, we finally got our cold draft Myanmar beers.

On our last day, we walked around town. Dawei is a port city, which is conveniently located near an old British beach spot.  It has only recently been opened up to tourists, hence its appeal to us.  There are not a lot of attractions, its just a town, a real town.  Not destroyed by tourists yet.  I really enjoyed just being there, not trampling through any pagodas or being harassed by touts.  It was calm and we could meander through the streets without being bothered (and hopefully not bothering anyone else).

We met up with the Americans that evening and hunted down more draft beer, as our previous joint was closed for some reason. It took awhile but we found what appeared to be a Dawei beer garden, named “Seven Zero.” A good sign when the name is in English, but that didn’t translate into the menu, and while the hand gesture for draft beer is universal, the hand gesture for chicken fried rice is not. Luckily, they actually had wifi and our new friend was able to show a picture of a chicken and some rice and gestured to mix it together. Good enough.

I probably would have tried to stay longer in Dawei if our visas weren’t running out and we weren’t sure if we could cross after they expired, Kawthong being a relatively newly opened border-crossing. It was sad to leave, but we had booked the flight and we were ready for some beach time just over the border in Thailand.

Next stop: Ranong and Koh Chang, Thailand after a luxurious premier class flight and a pain in the ass border crossing.

Floating villages….Inle Lake, Myanmar

Our night bus, which by no means was a “sleeper” bus, arrived around 7 am to the town along Inle Lake, Nyuangshwe. We shared a taxi with a British journalist living in Yangon. He initially came over for a short period of time and decided to stay. It’s been three years. Having slept very little on the very windy road, we decided to nap for a few hours before renting bikes with another girl from our bus.

Refreshed, we hopped on decent looking bikes ($1.00) and rode to the west side of the lake. The town has obviously been gearing up for more and more tourists. There is lots of construction and lots of foreigners, bus loads. On our way south, we ran into an American who has been travelling around the world for the last 8 months. She tagged along as we continued down around the lake. It is a pretty flat ride and the roads are decent. But my bike was not cooperating. I stopped along the road to put air in the tires twice on our way down. Lots of bike pumps readily available. Must be a common occurrence. Little villages and a hot springs line the lake on this side. The road is mostly shaded with a particularly scenic tree-lined section.

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Riki and I turned around a bit before the last viewpoint, as I wasn’t too keen on taking the bike any further with so little air in the tire. We stopped to eat lunch and the other two caught up to us. It wasn’t long after we left our lunch place that my tire just completely gave. Riki, the true gentleman, offered to stay behind with me as I tried to hitch a ride back to town. We walked along for quite awhile, waving at all the passing trucks. Most were already full and didn’t give us a second look. A guy who had a boat offered to take me for $8 back to town, but I declined and finally told Riki to go a bit ahead and let me see if I could flag down a ride alone. Not ten seconds later, a big red dump truck comes rumbling by. The driver and his other passenger speak no English, but he helps me hoist the bike up onto a pile of dirt in the back and I hop into the cab. I pass Riki and the other two girls and get let out on the opposite side of town from our hotel. I walk the bike back and arrive just before the others.

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Making friends
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My ride

The hotel staff swear they can fix the bike, but we opt to not risk it and hire a tuk-tuk to take us up the east side of the lake to the local winery, where they have 4 samples for $2. The view was beautiful and we watched the sun set over the lake, or at least until it disappeared behind the haze above the lake. The wine was alright, though the red was borderline undrinkable. This is not a country known for its wine and its the first wine I’ve had since Christmas, so I may not be the best judge.

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That evening we met up with the British journalist from the taxi and his girlfriend, a French journalist for dinner. They had interesting things to tell us about Myanmar and about the projects they are working on around Inle Lake. The area around the lake has been changing rapidly and the water level has dropped. We had already arranged for a boat tour the next day and were excited to see all the spots they mentioned.

Very early the next morning, our boat driver met us at the hotel and walked the four of us to the pier. We boarded a long, thin canoe with a motor on the back and set out for our “special” tour around the lake. We must have left before most people because there were many boats waiting for passengers. Our first stop was a silversmith and we watched as they made little elephant rings. The jewelry was pretty, but we weren’t really in the market for anything. Other boats of tourists were arriving as we left and we continued onto the “floating” market, which only floats in October apparently. And maybe not even then if the water level keeps going down. It was full of touristy stuff and we were unimpressed with it. The villages are a lot more built up then I had imagined. Hundreds of people live in wood huts over the water, or on land built up in the water. There are intricate walkways between the houses in some places, others are only reachable by boat. Our next stop was an umbrella shop, which we cruised through and then a cigar rolling shop, which was fascinating. Ladies sit on the floor with a flat basket of tobacco in their lap. They have stacks of leaves and a stick and they roll little cigars so, so fast. They use corn husks for filters and some are flavored like licorice and honey.  We also saw a weaving center, where they make cloth out of lotus silk, as well as imported silk and cotton.

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Boat taxi
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Weaving on the water
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Seaweed boat
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“Floating” Market
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Long neck woman
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Umbrellas, which apparently inspired the little drink umbrellas
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Village on the lake
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Silversmith
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Harvesting seaweed to use in the floating gardens
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Fishing
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Rolling cigars

Another stop was a recommendation from the French journalist, who happened to be there at the same time. The Inthra Heritage House is a complex of nicely maintained buildings, that just so happens to run a Burmese cat sanctuary of sorts. Of course we had to see that. They also have a restaurant and some other buildings that we didn’t explore. But we went to see the cats. And it was incredible. They have 35 beautiful cats that have their own island and little huts to lounge in. It felt kind of like a little kids’ playplace.

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SO excited
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Cat island

From there, we headed back towards town, through the floating gardens, also incredible. They have tiny canoes that they use to get between the rows of built up earth. We saw flowers, vegetables, and even vines growing up trellises.

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Street along floating garden
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Gourds in floating garden
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Putting the seaweed around plants in the floating garden

One of the villages we went through felt so much like a normal town. The “streets” were laid out in a grid with giant floating bamboo, just like curbs. The biggest downside to these places I think is the bathroom. Little outhouses sit just off the raised house. Not much privacy, but also, 20 feet away, the women were bathing and doing laundry in the lake water. Not much sanitation, either.

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Fishing baskets
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Street scene

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Our last day was a rest day. Time to catch up on blogging, buy our bus tickets to Mandalay and eat as much avocado salad as possible. And by avocado salad I mean guacamole. But served with rice chips. And so cheap.

Phong Nha Cavernous Caves….Vietnam

Warning: There are lots of pictures of rocks. Lots. But they are pretty cool.

We crossed into Vietnam via Cha Lo, which is not a common tourist crossing we found out.  Our bus was full of 20-something Vietnamese guys presumably returning from working in Laos or Thailand, as their wallets were stuffed full of cash.  40 guys with stinky feet and me, and absolutely no English.  It took us 2 hours to get through the border, which was full of hand gestures, confusion and shuffling bags back and forth between inspections and the bus.  The whole time, we had a glimmer of hope that they could drop us off in Phong Nha (our destination) as it was in the direct path between Thakhek and Dong Hoi.  So we kept saying Phong Nha to the driver and the ticket guy and the other guy who was in charge of something.  Eventually they started calling us Phong Nha.

But we didn’t stop in Phong Nha, though we got within 20 km or so.  We got dropped off in Dong Hoi and found out the last bus to Phong Nha had already departed and we could take a taxi for an exorbitant amount, or wait til the next morning to catch the local bus at just over $1.  So we found a nice guesthouse along the ocean and ate some delicious beef soup.

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The next morning we woke up early and went out on the main street, hoping to find a bus marked with our destination.  After 20 nerve-racking minutes, we spotted one, got on and discovered other tourists headed the same way.

We spent that afternoon researching and talking to people coming back from the caves.  The national park here has the world’s largest cave and it was only discovered in the last few years.  Hence, tourism has just started to pick up and people are flocking to the area to see the caves.  The largest cave is $3000 to visit and has a waiting list, so that was out.  We opted for a few of the other, also spectacular ones instead.
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The next morning the power was out (something we would come to discover happens quite a lot).  There are tour companies in Phong Nha who offer day trips to see multiple attractions.  We asked around, thought $60+ was too much and decided to do two caves on our own.  The roads are good and the scenery is gorgeous, so we rented a motorbike for the hour drive to Paradise Cave.

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The ride up the cave was beautiful, more karsts, little towns and lush, green foliage.  It rains quite a lot at this time of year.  We parked the motorbike and climbed about a kilometer up a mountain to reach the entrance to the cave.  This cave has been open to the public for awhile and they have sunk a lot of money into the infrastructure here.  Everything outside is paved and the whole walkway inside the cave is wooden and appears sturdy.  I was pretty impressed.  For being so remote, this cave was really well taken care of and tastefully lit up.

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We spent about two hours at Paradise Cave, walking the 1 kilometer path and back.  The stalactites and stalagmites were massive and had such character.  You could see where some had fallen thousands of years ago and more had formed on top of them.  We arrived at lunchtime and all the tour groups were gone so we were able to enjoy a few minutes of complete silence in the cave (besides the dripping water).  The pictures don’t really do it justice.  It was hard to capture the scale of the cavern with the camera.

Next stop, the Dark Cave.  This is more of an adventure cave, not as big and has no lights.  This cave is more expensive, but includes all necessary gear – headlamp, hard hat, life vest and safety harness.  We were strapped into our harnesses and ziplined across the river to the mouth of the cave.  From there, we swam into the cave, waded through chilly water and mud.  We removed our lifejackets, flipped on our headlamps and trod through mud toward our destination, slipping all the way.  By the time we reached the end of the trail, we were all covered in mud and having a grand time.  I had a mudstache – courtesy of our guide.

The finale of the tour is sitting in a thick pool of mud in complete darkness.  The mud is so thick that you can float on it, but still swim.  It was much warmer deep in the cave and the mud felt great on my skin.  We headed back the way we came, rinsed off and kayaked back to the start, where they have two small ziplines dropping you into the water.  Despite the chill of the water, this turned out to be my favorite thing in Phong Nha.  It helps that they serve you hot soup, tea and rum by a fire at the end.

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We dried off and headed back to town in time for sunset.  Driving at night is dangerous, as there are no streetlights and when we got back to the hostel, there still wasn’t any power.  So no hot showers for us, which was disappointing.  Apparently, they are working on the electric lines all the time, probably updating them to accommodate the huge influx of tourism in the area in the last few years.  It would be interesting to see the development that happens in this area in the next ten years.  The caves are really incredible and its no wonder why people are already flocking here.

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The following day we met in the lobby of our hostel to join a bunch of people to visit the cave that is closest to town.  Ten of us split the cost of a boat and we headed for Phong Nha and Tien Son caves.  The little dragon boat took us down the river about half an hour to the entrance of the caves, leaking all the way.  our wooden boat had seen better days.  At the entrance to Phong Nha cave, the boat driver switched off the motor and he and his helper removed the top of the boat, so we could look directly above our heads.  They pulled out their paddles and we spent the next hour or so moving silently through the cave.

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The dragon boat returned us to the entrance of the cave and we disembarked for the walk up to the next cave, Tien Son.  We walked up some very steep steps, with ladies selling ice cream all the way up.  In my opinion, this cave was better than Phong Nha cave.   There is wooden loop way down into the cave, lots more steps.  More beautiful formations and tasteful lighting.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We took the dragon boat back to town, where the power was out again.  Saw some interesting boat uses along the way.

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The next day we took the local bus back to Dong Hoi, where we were dropped at an intersection and told to wait for the next bus to Hue (no time table).  Luckily, one arrived about half an hour later, we flagged it down and headed south on the dustiest and bumpiest  bus/road we have encountered thus far.

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Colonel Mustard and Mr. Tabasco are a long way from home.