And This....Is South East Asia!

Trip Start Nov 23, 2009
1
9
Trip End Jun 10, 2010


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Flag of India  , Madhya Pradesh,
Tuesday, March 16, 2010

80k's an hour down a dirty, crowded back country highway in the middle of the Vietnam landscape of rolling mountains and rice paddies, I'm letting loose this 4 stroke motorbike underneath me as Austin and I chase the hired local guide through heart attack traffic, the rain stinging our faces, and the loud slapping noises from our ponchos doing little to drown out the horns of the passenger buses behind us.  The "No Rules Just Right" mentality has never been taken more serious.  We bank sharply to the right up a mountain road as the highway twists skyward, everyone of the locals and us in formation as we gear down and give the throttle everything they have.  We make the pass around another motorbike carrying a massive 300 pound live pig, strapped to the backseat.  Thats right a pig was riding shotgun! Austin pulls us beside me with a grin to match mine and we both tear off down the blacktop laughing and thinking, yea...this is South East Asia!

We arrived in Bangkok, Thailand having only one thing set in stone, we had 6 weeks. As we stepped outside our cab in front of the hostel, a wave of Bangkok air hit us, muggy, warm, polluted big city air fills the lungs replacing the clean, fresh mountain air of New Zealand.  Wide eyed and anxious we took the next couple of days to adjust, exploring every facet of the city from sipping traditional Thai whiskey at the top of the tallest skyscraper overlooking the city to sitting ringside surrounded by screaming locals at a Muay Thai fight.  We watched a Cobra snake show, ate street vendor food, rode in a tuk-tuk, basically a motorcycle chariot, and explored the underside of Bangkok via a boat ride through the canals zig zagging the city.  

We soon took a short flight to the Northern Thai city of Chang Mai for a 3 day trek into the mountains featuring elephant riding, hiking to waterfalls, bamboo rafting, and staying the night in a tribal village.  Swaying back and forth, clutching the bamboo seat perched high up on the elephants back, we rode through an amazing, hazy bamboo forest.  After wards, we piled into the bed of a covered pickup truck, some of our group riding on the roof, toward the drop off point to begin our hike to the village.  Such a simple but peaceful way of life these villagers seem to have.  Austin and I found ourselves sitting with some tribesman on the bamboo floor of the elevated cooking hut discussing their way of life and ours as well.  It really is amazing that people from completely different backgrounds can still share the same sense of humor.

From Thailand we headed into Lao via a 2 day slow boat journey along the mighty Mekong River.  I'll never forget the sheer beauty of the landscape gently flowing by as villagers fished and washed clothing along the river banks.  In an attempt to outrun the approaching thunderstorm, our captain decided to throttle up, jeopardizing the stability of our already overcrowded and unsteady vessel.  We began to gently list from side to side, the swaying exponentially getting worse around every bend in the river.  Finally, around one sharp turn the whole boat listed sharply to one side, throwing everyone on board port side, water pouring on board, and the 8 passengers sitting on the roof found themselves swimming through the rapids of the Mekong awaiting our rescue as the boat finally came back to neutral.  You really appreciate Western safety standards when after 5 minutes of searching for life saving equipment, for a boat filled with 100 people, you come up with only 3 life jackets!  Thank God everyone was rescued safe and sound and we made it to the dock that day before the storm arrived.  Austin and I found ourselves relaxing peacefully under the canopy of an outdoor restaurant, watching the amazing rain and lightning show in a town without power.  

From crazy boat rides we decided to travel by land through the rest of Laos, making it to great towns such as Luang Prabang and Vientiane, but most memorably, Vang Vieng or as I like to call it....Laos Vegas. This town is known for its incredible river tubing, which even before arriving in the part of the world, we had heard stories about.  Some places we've been to haven't lived up to the hype but this place was everything and much more! Renting inflatable tubes, you take a tuk-tuk to the river drop off point to where you find yourself in complete amazement.  On the way from the sleepy town to this river, the universe some how shifts and your left looking in awe at a river lined with giant rope swings, zip lines, diving platforms, and bars, each of which have there own elevated dance floor with people enjoying the wild music blasting forth from over head concert sized speakers!  As you recline in your tube, its such an amazing spectacle seeing people flying through the air all around you with music creating a soundtrack to the river adventure.  Such an absolute blast swinging from these rope swings, sending you nearly 40 feet into the air, and since we made some friends through the Mekong boat fiasco, we had a huge group all taking part.      
    Another highlight of this town is the pancakes! Lady's behind small food carts, perched along the street, whip up stuffed pancakes that are deep fried in pure butter.  Filled with anything from chocolate to bananas to bacon and eggs or even a combination of all of them. Some people can go way overboard, in fact one person from our group ordered bacon, chocolate, mayonnaise, and tuna and it turned out to be the most disgusting thing I've ever tried. Ha-ha yea i know, as horrible as that combination sounds I still had to try, you never know!  The calorie count of these treats has got to be astronomical, I seriously felt my heart rate increase for a half an hour after eating one of these treats.  Not only are they the most delicious and fatty foods on the planet, but they only cost a little more than a dollar!  In fact, another highlight of the town is that everything is so darn cheap. The room Austin and I shared had two double beds, a TV, a small sitting area with table and chairs, and our own private bathroom, costing us only 5 dollars each per night! Our meals ran about 4 dollars and the drinks they serve at the night clubs literally come in buckets. 

Taking a small van we arrived in Vientiane and having saved so much on the accommodation budget we decided to splurge for a hotel boasting free WiFi, Air Conditioning, and HBO! Such luxury being able to catch up on some emails, while lying in bed watching a movie in an air conditioned room.  There were two things that happened in Vientiane that were completely unexpected, one was being able to watch the fantastic movie Forrest Gump and the other dining on authentic French cuisine.  Austin enjoyed a peppered New York Strip and I had the Beef Bourguignon, following a delicious french onion soup to start.  Of course to conclude the French meal we finished with a creme brulee and chocolate mousse for dessert! 


Upon arriving in the North Vietnamese city of Hanoi, our hostel travel agent helped us plan a trip to Sapa, a small town found high in remote mountains, and also to Ha Long Bay, located along the eastern coastline.  In Sapa, we trekked alongside villagers who guided us through dirt trails to their communities scattered throughout a massive valley.  To farm such rough, steep terrain, these people had to painstakingly, carve terraces out of the mountainside, these works of art absolutely filling the entire valley.  Truly a mind blowing sight!  The villagers leading us through the trails easily befriended us and didn't let us forget this when all of a sudden then began whipping out handicrafts and trinkets for sale. "Buy from Meeee" "Buy from Meeee" Basically singing this to us for half of the journey, but traveling through the areas you pick up an amazing skill for ignoring people trying to sell you stuff constantly.  If you don't acquire this, it can drive you absolutely crazy especially with how persistent many can be.  In fact, the moment we arrived in Sapa and made it to our hotel, we looked behind us to find 30 ladies behind the hotel glass doors patiently waiting for us.  Not only do you have to acquire the skill of ignoring the "Buy from Me" but also be able to turn the situation around, transforming it into some sort of game.  Some methods consist of asking them question after question, telling jokes, simple magic tricks or even getting them to try on your sunglasses or hat.  Very soon they have completely forgotten their attempt to sell you something and the pestering salesman 5 minutes ago has now turned into your friend wearing you sunglasses and hat, laughing, and taking pictures with you.  These little techniques make all the difference.  

After exploring Sapa we took the night train back to Hanoi before a 3 hour bus ride to Ha long Bay, boarding a junk boat.  For 2 days we traveled among mountains, exploding forth from the sea so unique and out of place, as if God had lowered his hand from the heavens and sprinkled them into the ocean below.  Our boat then motored to a National preserve, allowing us to hop off and venture through the hillsides via motorbikes.  Exploring the area we stumbled upon one of the most picturesque scenes we've ever witnessed.  Set inside a valley bordered by huge mountains, lies a village where that ancient, beautiful image of south east asia, we had in our heads, resides.  We found ourselves saying "It does exist!" Oxen pulling plows through thick mud, churning the earth, and villagers meticulously planting and harvesting crops by hand, shading themselves from the sun with straw cone hats.  

Traveling again by train we headed south to Hoi An, made famous for its handmade clothing.  Dozens of tailor and seamstress shops line the streets, and even though most were closed due to the Chinese New Year holiday, we managed to find one still open.  Scanning the walls of fabric, choosing a style from catalogs, and getting fully measured, they went to work creating custom suits for us. Finished in only 2 days, we had a blast trying them on, attempting to look sophisticated as we sported our grizzly beards.  It was in this town we met Xien, a local who offered to guide us through the back country of Vietnam, each of us riding on our own motorcycles.  Instantly we jumped at the opportunity! The next day we walked outside to find two brand new bikes, and Xien on his own saying "Lets go!"  2 rookies and 1 veteran cruising on the highway along a beautiful pristine beach, both of us trying to imagine the scene here some years back.  China Beach was the first place American troops landed during the war, yet not a shred of evidence remains on this beach. Turning our backs, in the distance lie ghostly airplane hangars and fencing allowing your mind to wander, creating wartime images of old. Hard to imagine an area so beautiful hosted an event so ugly.  
    The traffic in much of this area of the world is simply a wild circus, but somehow Vietnam takes it to a whole new level.  In order to cross the street, especially in Hanoi, you need 2 parts bravery for every 1 part blind faith and after baking you spread a little of crazy on top, this ensuring a recipe for success.  Watching an intersection unfold was like watching the inner workings of a bee hive on the Discovering Channel.  There is no obvious order to anything, but somehow it works and for the next 3 days we decided to join the wild circus and see the underside of this fascinating country.
    Our journey took us through 1 1/2 days of pouring rain, toughing it out with our over sized ponchos.  We toured cities, villages, and open countryside dodging and veering around everything from giant passenger buses to chickens, stopping along the road at small huts for a thick, black coffee of champions energy boost to get us back in the race.  An area that impacted us the most arrived the 2nd day of the trip.  During the war, to escape the intense bombing raids from the sky, many Vietnamese towns dug entire networks of underground tunnels to live in, and occupied these for 6 years! For how advanced these 3 level, 60 feet deep tunnels were, we still found ourselves crouching down walking through these nauseating, stale air filled, clay lined, dark tunnels.  Very claustrophobic even without the hundreds of people who had lived there all those years.  You simply cannot imagine the circumstances these people lived through.  You exit the tunnels so thankful. 

Before leaving the mainland we stopped briefly in Siem Reap, Cambodia for two days, exploring the legendary ancient temples surrounding this area.  All day we visited ruins from past civilizations under a scorching Cambodian sun and arrived finally at the largest and most famous temple, Angkor Wat.  A massive 4 spired dark stone structure, Angkor Wat lies behind a moat 60 yards wide, preparing you for the enormity that is to come.  Upon passing through a gate house you step out to a stone walkway, stretching forth hundreds of yards, and look up to the site before you wide eyed and in disbelief.  Such a feeling of power and grandeur reverberates through the walls of stone and the silence around this landmark is deafening.  You could spend 3 weeks among these temples, but we had other plans already in stone, with Singapore calling our names!

While traveling in New Zealand we made friends with a Singaporean named, Uzair, or Uzzie and after traveling with him for 2 weeks we promised to visit him on his home turf.  After a couple days of giving us the tour, we three would head off, traveling somewhere for his spring break.  Arriving at the Singapore International Airport after leaving Cambodia was nothing short of out of this world. This airport is the cleanest, most modern, and architectually impressive we've ever seen, you feel like you need to shower and put on a nice shirt just to enter, its that good.  The city itself is amazing too and we had a blast wake boarding at the cable park, racing down the luge track, exploring the ultra modern malls, and sampling cuisine from all of the globe, from Egyptian to Iranian to Malaysian to Japanese.  To commemorate our 3 months of traveling, we decided to unpack our suits, we saved from Hoi An for the occasion, and celebrate at the top of the Swiss Hotel in the swanky New Asia Club, which offers a, 70 stories up, panoramic view of the Singaporean skyline.  Once we had enough, we decided to cruise the streets and ended up finding life size statues to befriend. Uzzie was out for spring break on a Wednesday and on Thursday we had plane tickets heading to the Philippines in search of the legendary Whale Shark.

The huge network of Philippine Islands lays claim to a unique migration of giant whale sharks and the second we read that you can swim alongside these creatures, our tickets were booked!  We arrived in Manila and stayed at the hostel "Our Melting Pot" whose owners graciously took us out for a traditional dinner and even desert, giving us a tour of the city.  To get to Donsol, home of the Whale Shark experience, you either fly or take the budget overnight bus.  Arriving at the station we loaded up on food rations of delicious donuts and prepared for the long 12 hour bus ride ahead of us. Absolutely exhausted, we stumbled into our Donsol hotel at 5AM the next morning and crashed for a few hours, pure excitement being the only motivator and fuel for the day ahead.  We walked through the tiny town and on our way to the beach, some local kids joined our hike, eager to test out their English skills.  Since they only knew 2 phrases, we must have told them our names and where we came from, a million times, but every time, they got such a kick out of it.  Great company and such animated, funny kids.  We watched the sunset behind a perfectly still ocean and wondered what thrills it would show us the next day.  
    Waking at 7am, we quickly collected our snorkel gear and caught a tuk-tuk ride, stopping at a small bakery along the way for some fuel in the tank.  We arrived at the visitor center, signed the papers, met some people to split the boat fee with, and before you know it we were motoring our way through the Philippine waters aboard a single hulled vessel with bamboo stabilizers on each side. We had a crew of four, one deck master giving us instructions, two whale shark spotters, and one helmsman.  The instructions were as follows "Ok, I see whale shark, grab your snorkel gear, put on, jump in water, follow me!" "Oh and don't jump in before I say because propeller eat you up!" Minutes after the intense safety briefing a cry from the crows nest came down "Shark!"  We scramble to put on our gear, as the engine winds down, and we get the signal to enter the water as the adrenaline starts pumping through our veins.  One by one we plunged into the sea not knowing what to expect, except for the fact that a great beast lay waiting for us in the depths below.  As the bubbles from the entry slowly cleared, we quickly looked back and forth, up and down, searching and searching, but nothing appeared. We surfaced and found our leader waving us over so we swam some more through the misty blue water and then wham! All of a sudden your entire visual spectrum is taken up by the massive white spotted shark that appears so quickly you gasp and retreat a few yards.  You literally get to swim alongside, only feet from its massive body moving so methodically back and forth, its tail moving walls of water behind it.  The scene is so silent and so moving it feels like a dream. The shark completely pays you no mind, moving for no one, which turned pretty scary when at one point he changed course and headed straight for us! All you see is this huge, slightly open mouth and two beady eyes coming quickly straight for you, and all you're thinking is of the news headline for the evening "Whale Shark Eats Two!"  After visiting for about 10 minutes we said goodbye and piled back on board in search of others, and throughout the rest of the day found 6 more each bigger than the next, almost 40 feet long.  

On special assignment for our Granny we had one final stop to make.  In a small chapel in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, our Great Grandparents were married many years ago and to honor all three we decided to track it down.  It took some sweet talking to the old lady working the church office, but soon enough we found ourselves pouring through old marriage records, being offered chocolate cookies and a glass of cold water. Afterwards, she gave us a great tour of the beautiful, quaint chapel and sent us on our way. The rest of our stay was spent in awe of the giant Petronas Towers, watching the fountain show nearby, and wandering the high class malls surrounding the two skyscrapers.  

South East Asia was more than we ever thought it could be and after having mastered chopsticks, death trap traffic, and 7 different currencies we brace ourselves for India!


-End Note- I know this was incredibly long but I refuse to summarize it anymore than this.  Thank very much for reading, whether in its entirety or just a piece!   


Brayden and Austin Pitcairn
 





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Comments

Aunt Nancy on

Thank you so much for sharing your adventures with us. It has been so much fun reading about your amazing journey. I'm glad you don't summarize! In fact I think you should write a book about your trip when you get back. Rick Steves watch out!!

trudypitcairn
trudypitcairn on

Wow, what a trip! I feel like I have just been to SE Asia by the wonderful description and fabulous photos without having my passport stamped! Fantastic job and worth the wait! Glad to see you both wearing helmets on those bikes! Good boys! And I second the nomination for a book!

Dora Phillips on

Wow! My tongue was wagging by the time I finished reading about all that you and Austin have done and what you have seen! What an incredible world in which we live!! Your descriptions are awesome! Such a God-given gift!! Look forward to "hearing" and seeing more. Thank you for taking time to write to us!! Happy travels.
Psalm 98:7-9
7 Let the sea resound, and everything in it,
the world, and all who live in it.
8 Let the rivers clap their hands,
Let the mountains sing together for joy; 9 let them sing before the LORD,

Chris Williams on

I have just caught up with reading your tales of daring do and high adventure, great stuff and fantastic to see you have a go at anything, that's the spirit. Sorry I'm a little late adding a note to your excellent blog. Liked the photo of Reg and Alice wedding chapel/church, and all the other photos were great to see as well although tricky at work, it looked like I was trying to book a holiday!! A fantastic journey, so many memories, very jealous. Take care, Chris

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