Bali

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After 4 months of travel, we finally set foot in Bali, Indonesia, were we signed-up to volunteer with WINS (http://www.winsfoundation.com) to provide the disadvantaged Balinese children with education to improve their chances for a brighter future. Before we started our volunteering mission in Tianyar, we stayed a few days in beautiful Ubud to get prepared and to get to enjoy the balinese spirit and some of its best sights such as the Tegalalang rice terraces and an early trek on the MT Batur to enjoy the sunrise over Bali. The beautiful small alley’s and rice paddies makes you easily wonder around for hours and the religious and spiritual traditions are present everywhere which makes it a very special and unique place. The small home stay owned by a Balinese family was a perfect way to fully immerse with the locals and the learn the ins and outs about the culture and its traditions. I truly felt at home when I ordered my first ‘kipsate’ ;) (chicken sate), something I’ve been eating in my childhood as well as many other Indonesian dishes that are very popular in the Netherlands due to the fact that Indonesia was a Dutch colony. After celebrating new year’s eve and sleeping off our margarithas, it was time to leave for Tianyar and to start our mission. A six hours drive through flooded roads later, we arrived at the Yayasan in Tianyar, which is a very remote and one of the poorest area’s in Bali. The next day we had a detailed introduction from Ketut, the manager, who explained us all about the children, the program, our schedules and classes, but mainly about life in Bali. We stayed at the Yayasan guesthouse with a few other volunteers as well as the manager and his family with whom we shared diner and day-to-day life. Like everyone, we rented a scooter to tour around the island during the weekends and to be able to go to the nearest village (30 min.) where we signed up for our ‘PADI’ (open water scuba diving license) that we both successfully earned after a week of diving courses, enjoying some of the best marine life and shipwrecks worldwide known. 24h after arrival and more or less ready to be standing in front of the class, it was time to meet the kids !! We were assigned to the two youngest groups, all aged between 9 and 10 years old with very basic english skills and understanding. Our welcome was overwhelming and I had never seen such enthusiastic kids in a school class. They are so eager to learn – can’t recall that of myself when I was that age ! – and they seemed to be disappointed when class was over – idem!! It was quite a challenge in the beginning to adapt to the different levels in the class (some kids don’t come on a regular basis) and wauw those kids have energy ! But with lollipop treasure hunts and other class game breaks, we pretty well managed to make them learn, enjoy and play at the same time which seemed to be a good recipe for success. It’s funny how quickly we got attached to the kids and knew all their names by heart (something I could not imagine reading their name tags the very first day ;)) but it’s impossible to not love these kids, especially when you know their difficult backgrounds. By the time we entered our last days of class, all kids wanted to sit in the front row and were more than ever motivated to have another ‘smile’ drawn in their homework books. Then there was time to say goodbye…. Obviously not without any emotion, but to leave the kids in a rather smiling and cheerful way, we filled the class with balloons and turned it into a fun goodbye party. We were overloaded with drawings, presents and hugs in return, but most important, a very valuable and unique experience and a souvenir for a lifetime…(we would have liked to sneak a few back home in our suitcases though ;) ) Talking about a lifetime, by the time we entered our last week of volunteering, we felt both quite sick but initially thought it was the food. My condition however did got worse over the days and when consulting a doctor in Ubud a few days later, I was diagnosed with Dengue Fever. The idea of being another few weeks hospitalised was quite a downer, so instead of sending me to the hospital, I agreed with the doctor to stay under his supervision and daily blood tests to determine the improvement of my health condition. Fortunately, it seemed I had passed my worst fever peak, but the other phases of the virus are pretty violent too which basically nailed me to my hotel bed for over two weeks and forced us to cancel our plans to go to Lombok and The Gili Islands. Pretty frustrating when you are that close, but I was lucky to be back on my feet and allowed to travel by plane by the time we had to take-off for Australia, cause 6 weeks in Oz has shown to be far too short already…

Last but not least, lots of the kids shown in the pictures are still in the need of a sponsor to be able to go to public school and provide in their basic educational needs. For more information on sponsoring please see the link; http://www.volunteerinbali.org/child-sponsoring/

Oh and yes, MUCH respect for teachers (..if only we would have known when we were still in high school ;))

J&C

Thailand – Part 2

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Another train from Vientiane, in Laos, made us cross the thai border for the third time. This time we were heading south to the paradisiac islands of the east coast kho samui and kho phangan as I was too “afraid” to run into leonardo di caprio (I don’t really like this actor..) in the west islands where the movie “the beach” has been shot (even though, running into virginie ledoyen would have been less worse). You must again deserve those places as it was a rough mix of train, bus, boat and tuk-tuk before we reached our hotel. But eh, we were not disappointed as we were almost alone upon arrival to find a nice swimming-pool all for ourselves in which we relaxed a lot to recover from our hardeous journey. As usual, clear blue skies and great weather (what a great idea to follow summer around the globe, I’m telling you!!). We had great evenings using the local fishing boats as our private dinner table on the beach (until we got caught once..), fortunately we had a wonderful scenery as the dinner in itself was basically made of crisps, local crêpes and beer, we are on a budget after all.. The city center is pretty crowded with pubs but also with all sorts of massage institutes which helped forget about this very touristic aspect of the city.
Kho phangan then, the city of the very original full-moon parties. I stop you right now, no we didn’t do it, first of all I discovered it was this specific island once we were there and secondly the moon was not full when we were there… They know how to ride a wave of success on it as they actually organize a “moon” party every few days (half-moon, quarter-moon, jungle-moon (don’t ask..), etc…). But instead we did our diving initiation, which in the end was not marvellous at all as there has been a hurricane a few days before and the visibility was almost null, but at least we got acquainted with carrying heavy diving gear and breathing unnaturally with our mouth only. The place we stayed was just like a dream, the best bar view ever, it was on a little pontoon, 2 meters away from a very very calm sea, palm trees, white sand, very few people, hammocks and a pool table (we did improve our pool technique during our stays in Asia!).
The way back to Bangkok was the time where we’ve celebrated Christmas in front of our train food in the sleeping wagon. Once in the capital, we managed to see one more thing : one of the floating markets, of course we took the furthest away so we’ve almost missed our flight to Bali, but we don’t look for the easy way out here :-) ! (In the end, this trip to Thailand was particular to me as it was related to the almost most exotic trip that my parents took when I was a teenager and it left its mark on me. And now I’ve done it too, so everything is possible :-) !). See you in Bali.

J&C

Laos flashback

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After 2 days on the slow boat, we docked safe in the non-existant harbor of Luang Prabang (LP). An overly crowded and packed tuk-tuk took us to the heart of LP where we found a great hostel with lots of fellow backpackers and slow boat survivers. As everywhere in Asia, the night market is where the local and non-locals meet up after sunset to enjoy a fresh ‘bintang’ and good local food. Some additional beers imply at the Utopia to enjoy the beautiful view over the Mekong and to meet the international crowd traveling or residing in LP. After midnight the range of possibilities is cut back to one place – LP Bowling Centre ^^ fun guaranteed!While wondering in the city you can clearly see the French influences; baguettes and crêpes sold on every corner (very positive point for Julien’s appetite !!) and ‘pétanque’ is played by the locals at any occasion. Do not make the mistake to underestimate them; some locals invited us to play along which resulted in spending our entire beer budget in paying rounds for the winners… The locals are extremely friendly and easy going and it looks like the country hasn’t been overwhelmed yet by mass tourism which is a pretty unique thing.
One of my best memories of this city lies within the alms-giving ceremony of the monks that we attended in the early morning. A 5 AM wake-up was required to buy the best quality rice from the locals and to find a spot to admire the dozens of monks passing by to collect food before sunrise in their traditional orange robes.
LP is surrounded by lots of beautiful nature and is known for its beautiful lagoons and waterfalls. Thanks to our french habit of arriving ‘late’ (upon closing time) we had the chance to find the lagoon all for ourselves – pretty amazing for such an incredible and popular spot.
Our second stop in Laos was in Vang Vieng (VV) – of which you may have heard in the news. This beautiful village in a scenic landscape of limestone mountains has become quite popular in the past years because of its party scene, and river tubing. The main attraction called ‘tubing’, consists of going down the river in a tube (big inflated rubber ring) and stop (crawl out of your tube) at every river bar to get another few beers down the hatch. As alcohol and tubing do not quite go well together, many people got injured which explains the bad reputation this village has suffered from. If you don’t have your mind all set on drinking though, the surroundings offer some great climbing possibilities with a great view on the river. The town is full of bars and restaurants and a typical thing here is that all of them stream friends episodes all day, every day with confortable lounge tables to not miss a single second while eating. The road to VV was an adventure itself, passing through miles of beautiful landscapes and sky-high mountains with incredible views. Definitely not recommended though for those that hate riding on a roller coaster as this ride seems never-ending…
Fortunately, the road to the capital, Vientiane was less rough, although the city itself is also much less spectacular. Besides the numerous temples and the boulevard that serves as a get-together for yoga and danse lessons, the city itself has less charm and could not compete with the beautiful sights of its neighbour cities.

J&C

Thai massage

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Yes, one of the reasons we went travelling was to get loads of massages, and when speaking of massages, Thailand had to be part of our itinerary!
So here we are, after a 15 hours chaotic mini-bus trip from Siem-Reap in Cambodia, we arrive we don’t know where in Bangkok and still have to take a tuk-tuk to get to our hostel. We understand right away that driving isn’t going to be any safer in this country. On top of that, we are going through the big demonstrations that earlier took our mini-bus out of its usual itinerary and we understand why : only the fearless (reckless? crazy?…) tuk-tuk drivers manage to advance in the middle of the packed small streets, between cars and persons. We didn’t stay too long there because we knew that we would be back before flying to Bali, but we took the time to see majestic Wat Pho temple, home to the world’s largest reclining Buddha, to walk along the busy floating markets of Amphawa, to walk and eat in the little streets of PatPong in Silom area where we stayed, which we also discovered was quite famous for its “dancing” girls..
We have decided to head over the north in order to reach Laos, do the northern part of it and go back in Thailand to reach some of its nice islands, like a nice little loop! In order to do so, we had to take a train that was unexpectedly preceded by a game-like moto race in the streets of bangkok due to arriving too late at the train station but still being able to catch the train 2 stations further, that was epic and I mean it! Chiang-Mai was then our next stop. Claudia fell in love with the impressive large night market (yes, asia IS loaded with street markets EVERYWHERE), and I fell in love with the 3-euros-for-one-hour massages, even though I could have avoided the one where a gecko fell from the ceiling right on my face, a bit hard to relax after that.. And I had to be relaxed for that day where we went to visit tigers, not behind the bars but actually WITH them, great day!
Chiang-Rai was after that the start of the most exotic way of transportation so far : a 2 days trip with a slow-boat on the Mekong River. We were like a hundred of passengers on a barely stable low boat, all with our big backpacks on our small seats, so the comfort was not at stake here but who cares, the view of the small villages where we picked a few persons here and there and the thick jungle along the way was just breath-taking. We also met other backpackers on board whom we did a bit of a travel with afterwards. During this trip I had the confirmation that I am not so much done for solo trips as I enjoy so much the company of Claudia. Having someone whom you can rely on and tell your thoughts is brilliant. And sometimes the more the merrier, so it was very nice to meet new persons as well, we were then more on a party-mood. Anyway, that’s how we crossed the border to find ourselves in Laos, which you will hear a lot of good things about very soon hopefully.
Regarding the pictures, well… I’m afraid it is not yet possible to upload them :-(
J&C

Cambodia

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After weeks of intense travel, we have finally found a moment to write things down to update you on the past two months that we have spend in Cambodia, Laos and Thailand. In one word, AMAZING!

From our final destination in Vietnam, we set course to Phonm Penh (Cambodia) to discover as they say ‘the pearl of Asia’. The capital is nothing really amazing, although visiting the city, its monuments and the S21 (a school that was turned into a prison during the Cambodia genocide) taught us much about the country’s (terrible) history. It’s hard to imagine that this only happened a few decades ago and it is in such a contrast with the people we have met that are ever so friendly, positive and of extreme hospitality – even with us ‘tourists’. But according to the locals, the tourist industry allows them to rebuild the country and to send their kids off to school – a generation on which all hopes and eyes are focussed for a more promising future.
From Phonm Phen we travelled east to Sen Monorom, only kilometres away from the Vietnam border and the damages from the typhoon. One must know that the way of travelling in Cambodia is quite different than from its neighbour countries as there are no trains – nor barely roads btw – and when you leave the main cities you clearly see why Cambodia still belongs to one of the poorest countries in Asia. The first trip by minivan was quite an experience and one should not be surprised to find twice the number of people inside than the number of seats available. Not to mention the scooters and other merchandise attached to the back and on top of the bus which makes it miraculous that these buses even move forward. But this post proves we are still alive, although the roads are tough and most chauffeurs drive like maniacs in a country where you think that arriving on time is not much of an issue… Sen Monorom was definitely worth the shaky ride and staying in a beautiful nature lodge was a perfect way to come back to a calm state of mind – except for the exotic insects that could be found in and around our tree cabin! The province is known for its jungle and beautiful waterfalls and we chose to explore the sites by elephant. This was a perfect way to also meet the locals and to contribute to their elephant program. Although we really enjoyed the ride, we learned later on from a volunteer at one of these elephant programs that sadly, these funds are often not spend on the elephants well-being. Unfortunately there’s not much information available on the different programs but accidents do seem to happen often so you may want to think twice before taking a ride on your next holidays…
Next stop in Cambodia was Kratie, a small town next to the riverbanks of the Mekong where we stayed two nights to break the long trip from east to west Cambodia. We explored a little island across from the river by bike which was a perfect way to blend in with the locals and get around to see the nice sites of the Isle. For the water festival we were surprised to see an enormous techno party organized around the temples and we had no choice other than joining the crowd and learn some Cambodian “tectonique”!
Two days later, we had another “adventurous” ride by minibus to Siem Reap. This city definitely belongs to our favorites – with the temples of Angkor at your doorstep and the city that is lively but has kept a certain charm (except for pub street that is). Not to forget the delicious food (Khmer BBQ) and a foot massage for less than 3 dollars – which is a must after strolling around Angkor for three days. You would think we were templed out by the end of those 3 days, but we could have spend another week discovering the smaller sites. There are so many details carved in each stone that it dazzles me when I think about the amount of time spent on building all these temples and the endless patience they must have had to puzzle this all together. We stayed in a great hostel (except for our drunk room mate that fell out of his upper bed and broke a rib in the middle of the night but that was far too drunk to notice), so between the temple visits and early sunrises, we were able to cool down at the swimming pool. “Cherry on the cake”, the Angkor Photo festival took place during the same week showcasing the work of talented artists and which offered a variety of activities and workshops around it. Unfortunately, we did not get to enjoy much of it as Julien suffered from a severe “red eye” infection that had a major outbreak in Cambodia at the time of our stay. It did not last long before it got me too, so you know why there may be some blur effects on the photos ;)

After 6 unforgettable days in Siem Reap, and 3 weeks in this beautiful country, it was already time to move on to our next destination: Bangkok > A bus trip that normally takes 6 hours, but instead took twice as much time because of the demonstrations in Bangkok.

More news & pictures will follow soon if the wifi will let us (which we doubt)

J&C