A Travellerspoint blog

Stupas, Tiger Balm and Suzuki Marutis

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How to describe Kathmandu? Beautiful, dirty, spiritual, crowded, colourful. A million adjectives could be used. Kathmandu was overwhelming on first arrival. This is a big, thriving, crowded Asian metropolis. The tourist district of Thamel where most foreigners start is a busy crowded place full of guesthouses, restaurants, bars, trekking shops, jewellery and clothing sellers, "holy men" who will anoint you with Tikka on the forehead and touts for anything a tourist could want: jewellery, guides, trekking tours, tiger balm, gurkha knives and of course, hash.

As I disembarked from the flight, burdened with a great tiredness and somewhat jetlagged. I was getting rather nervous about getting a visa on arrival. The guy at check in at Singapore airlines in Melbourne was sure I needed to show a return ticket to get a visa on arrival, and a guy i got talking too on the same flight who’d been to Nepal was skeptical, saying he’d never seen anyone arrive without a visa. So it was with some trepidation as we approached the departures lounge. My concerns were unfounded, with a few travelers getting visas. In fact as we were the minority and with a separate queue we beat most of the plane through immigration and the almost non-existant customs. In fact the bored officals hardly even checked the forms or passport, just stamp and go, as well as rather kindly undercharging me $60 US for the 90 day visa!

I stumbled into one of the prepaid taxis, an old decrepit suzuki. Kathmandu taxis have style. This one had one working door (the driver had to climb in over the back seat: not an easy task in a car the size of a shoebox) dangling wires where the radio should be and had a tendency to stall every time we slowed down. I followed the driver through the door and pointed to a guesthouse in the lonely planet. The driver grimaced, "Its expensive this time of year, and dirty! I take you to the Red Planet! Much Better!" Fine I thought, Red Planet was my second choice anyway, and I couldn’t really be bothered arguing. Though it was only the next day I realised that there are two Red Planets, a hotel and guesthouse, and of course I was in the other... Turned out to be pleasant, though next to a local nightclub, and some Nepali guests that apparently awoke at 1AM and talked till dawn!

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Maybe it's because I'm on my own this time, but the touts in Kathmandu seem much more determined than Vietnam, actively stalking for block and blocks. "Where you from? how long you here for? Want some Hash? Why not? Nepal is for fun, more fun stoned!" Though they still don't quite compare to the motorbike drivers in Saigon who transform into dealers and pimps after dark. "Motorbike? Marijuana? Cocaine? Ecstasy? Heroin? Massage...? Is more than just massage... Woman?"

As I'm heading back through Kathmandu later in the trip, I only spent three days there. In a way, more than enough, but there are still plenty of sites to see within the city. Kathmandu is a very spiritual city, with a long history. Many of the "sites" in the city tell the story of the interwoven Hindu and Buddhist religions. Interestingly these go hand in hand, with many sites containing temples and shrines to both religions. A walk around the old Kathmandu town reveals numerous small stupas in suburban squares. Crouching through tiny archways often reveals traditional Newari houses, complete with small stupas and shrines. These are often hundreds (or thousands!) of years old and are used as clotheslines, and play areas for the local kids. Makes me realise how young and relatively uncultured Australia is. The Durbur square is the center for the cities sites, containing a mass of temples, dating as far back as the 4th century. The square contains some impressive sites, but is also home to agressive wannabe guides and colourful saddhus, hindu holy men in outlandish attire, who often ask to take their photo, only to demand a "Baksheesh" payment for the service.

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The first arvo i was there i decided to wander through Thamel. A couple of "Uni students" started chatting to me and giving me a rundown of the history of Kathmandu, suddenly I was being ushered into a taxi to see "a rare festival, today only!" at another site. As I was knackered from the flight, I rather stupidly stumbled into the taxi and they took my to "Bodhnath" one of the largest and oldest Tibetan Budhist stupas. Blodhnath was quite impressive, but of course I was scammed, paying "western" prices for the taxis and tour. But live and learn!

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Before I left Kathmandu, I decided to take a leisurely stroll to Swayambutinath or the "Monkey temple" This took on a few kilometre walk through suburban Kathmandu. As the temple is located on a hill, I decided not to follow a route, but just go by rough sight. This took me out of the tourist trail and through the heart of poor Kathmandu. This was an area which obviously sees very little tourists. The locals were staring, and looked confused when greeted by a white guy saying "Namaste", the traditional Nepali greeting (literally means "I bless the divine in you"). As I wandered by a group of kids playing street cricket, a lofty ball was hit in my direction, reflexes took over and I took a nice one handed catch. The kids were impressed, and by local rules taking the catch meant it was my turn to bat!! Of course I was clean bowled first ball by the 10 year old Nepali Brett Lee bowling, but we did up playing for about 20 minutes.

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The Swambutinath temple complex is situated atop a hill overlooking Kathmandu. It's a predominantly a Tibetan Buddhist site, with some Hindu shrines. It is covered with Prayer flags, and Rhesus monkeys! These monkeys are famously cheeky, and hang around the entrances to the temple.

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One hapless Japanese tourist had his camera hanging out of his pocket, which was quickly nabbed by a nearby monkey who then disappeared up the nearest tree to inspect his takings. He quickly lost interest, dropping the camera causing its early demise on the stones below. The wails of the poor tourist were only outdone by the guffaws of the surrounding Nepalese!

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Today came the 200km 8 hour bus trip to Pokhara. Thats right, an average speed of 25 k's an hour on one of the major highways. It's hard to describe the chaos on that roads. From Kathmandu the road winds up and down the Himalayan foothills, packed with a huge array of brightly painted trucks, buses, cars and motorbikes. The road is very narrow and the driving is rather eratic. We passed 3 crashes, one very serious, and multiple break downs, each one reducing the highway to one lane... Amazing scenery though. As we are still in the foothills (though these hills well outdo and mountains in Tasmania) the road passes through numerous old glacial outwash valleys, with snaking aqua glacial fed rivers running through. I ended up sitting next to rather interesting old hippy from Switzerland who regularly makes year long trips to Nepal. He keyed me into a nice guesthouse, just behind the main strip of Pokhara.

Pokhara is a breath of fresh air (literally!) compared to Kathmandu. The lakeside of Pokhara is like a chilled version of Thamel, full of bars and trekking shops, but lacking the crowds and pushy touts of Thamel. Quite a nice and relaxed vibe, with some really nice chilled sections by the lake. Unfortunately the air is quite hazy and the famous mountain views are obscured. Today will be spent cruising Pokhara and organising the trekking gear and ACAP (Annapurna Conservation Project) entrance fees and TIMS (Trekking permit). Not sure exactly when I’ll start the trek as I’m suffering a mild travelers bug and might wait till it clears.

Next post most likely won't be till after the Annapurna Circuit.

Posted by nomadSteve 00:14 Archived in Nepal Comments (0)

Flashback: The art of Arriving

This post was written as I was sitting in Singapore airport, running through what may await me when I arrive in kathmandu. My mind kept drifting back to our fantastic trip to Vietnam last year and in particular our chaotically perfect introduction to Ho Chi Minh City. Certainly one of the best bits of the trip!
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After an uneventful trip, a quick money change and a breather, we braced ourselves and ventured into the waiting crowd outside Saigon airport, pelting us with offers of taxis and hotels. We picked a decent looking guy with a convincing taxi license and followed him to his taxi. He led us to the waiting line of taxis... then past the line of taxis, across the road and into the airport car park. We asked where he was going and he pointed to his taxi, saying he'd had a break. That’s ok, no problem, the taxi looked legit. After a bit of convincing he turned on his meter and he took off. Things seemed good... Only to travel 50 metres to the car park gate. The driver then asked for the 400,000 dong ($35 Australian) he "needed" to get out of the gate. "What?" A taxi should only cost 50,000 to where we were going. After much arguing we escaped the taxi (only vaguely taking in the phone call the taxi driver was making as we got out...) Another taxi stopped (still in the car park) and offered to pick us up, and after another argument about the meter we were off again. As far as the gate... "400, 000 dong!" It all made sense, the phone call, the first driver ringing his mate to come along and pull the same scam. This driver was a bit more agressive, but we escaped yet another taxi (whilst it was slowly moving...) and wandered back to the airport entrance.
After a quick breather we thought stuff it, and piled onto the waiting bus, and then sat there in the stifling heat till the bus filled up. While we waited the first echoes of thunder rolled across the sky and we had our first tropical downpour. Short but sweet.

After an awe-filled introduction to the traffic of Saigon, it dawned on us. Where do we get off? I was watching the only other western couple on the bus to see what they did, but they didn't look they were moving, so we waited till we were in what we guessed to be roughly the centre of the city, and thought we recognized an intersection from the map. We made a snap decision, grabbed our bags and jumped off the bus. As the bus pulled away i saw the panicked expressions on the other western couple, they were waiting to see what we were doing.... They were in the same boat. Though when we finally arrived at the guesthouse ghetto, they were already nicely entrenched at one of the bars with beers and no bags. So they did it a little more efficiently than us...
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As it turned out, we had the wrong intersection and really had no idea where we were, wandering around in the traffic in circles, feeling a bit overwhelmed by the humidity, the smells, the sights and the shear chaos. All the while being stalked by a cyclo driver. "You're lost! I take you straight to hotels, we go via china town!" Funny how he kept pointing us in different directions too! Silly westerners! Had a nice target on our heads that day! Every time we thought we lost him he appeared from around the next corner. Must have been 12 of him I'm sure! After a quick stop and breather in the central park we finally got our bearings and took off to the backpacker ghetto. Almost made it when the second tropical downpour hit. Finally arriving tired and soaked we finally made it to our guesthouse. We both looked at each other and said "That was the perfect start!" We threw ourselves nicely in the deep end, and came out on top! It really got us into the swing of things and at 9 the next morning were sitting on the back of motorbike in saigon traffic. One of the most action packed (and cheapest!) roller coaster rides in the world! Something I’m not sure we would have done if we had an air-conditioned taxi ride to the door of our guesthouse!
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And really, that’s why I want to travel. For these sorts of experiences. Certainly not something you can get on the good old west coast of Tasmania!

Posted by nomadSteve 23:56 Archived in Vietnam Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

The art of running away

The Adventure Begins!

Departure is approaching! This time in next month I'll be in Pokhara, Nepal, contemplating the Annapurna Circuit...

I have good intentions of regularly updating this blog and trying to make it interesting. It won't just be a trip journal. Ie) "Had breakfast, visited a temple, it was cool!" But try to include some of my thoughts and motivations along the way. Hopefully it won't bore anyone too much!

Things are slowly starting to fall into place now, I’ve bought tickets, travel insurance, quit my job and told the landlord I’m leaving the house… No turning back now! It’s all starting to sink in now, though I’ve still got plenty of those boring things to do in the next few weeks. Cleaning the house and car, selling the car and getting rid of all that crap I've collected over the last few years. I’m feeling… well… everything. Excited, scared, happy, apprehensive, ecstatic, nervous, Stoked!

The Labyrinth, hiding up in the Tasmanian Mountains

The Labyrinth, hiding up in the Tasmanian Mountains

This will be my first time travellling solo, with my only previous International travel experience being a couple of weeks in New Zealand and a month in Vietnam. My travel plans are intentionally loose, with 6-12 months as the current plan. Though I’m open to taking some overseas work if anything comes up. I’ll see how I’m enjoying the nomadic lifestyle for a while and then look for work. As a geologist, there are some opportunities in some *interesting* countries. I’ll be leaving Australia on the 30th of march flying to Kathmandu. I'll spend up to a couple of months in Nepal, including the Annapurna circuit, before flying down to bangkok and doing Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. With the possibilities of Myanmar, Malaysia and a return trip to Vietnam. Thats about the extent of the plans at this stage. Though something further afield (Morocco, Egypt and Jordan) is not impossible. I'm leaving myself open to whatever whims take me during the trip.

Smiling Faces at an orphanage we visited in Kontum, Vietnam

Smiling Faces at an orphanage we visited in Kontum, Vietnam

One thing I’ve found very interesting since I’ve decided to take off, is other peoples reactions when I tell about my plans (as flimsy as they are). The issue of travelling solo appears to be the most polarising point. To many people (particularly in the small mining town I’m currently working in) it’s a completely crazy and dangerous idea. I’ve had the full gamut of opinions, ranging from “Fantastic, I’m so jealous!” to “You’re stark raving mad!” to, as an old mate bluntly said (and this is the censored version) “What the hell are you thinking? You'll be robbed, raped and murdered, you’re a bloody idiot!” Just shows how different we all are!

Many people out there have asked the simple question of WHY? (often with an expression that can only be described as incredulous puzzlement, trying to ascertain if i should be committed to the mental ward). I’ve thought long and hard about this and I could go into some waffling self-fulfillment crap, but in reality the answer is much more simple. WHY NOT? I have no excuses not to, I’m planning to relocate anyway, I haven't got a partner, kids or a mortgage to tie me down, I do have some cash, and I have the bug... Easy choice!

A mate of mine overlooking queenstown, Tasmania, where i've been working for the last four years

A mate of mine overlooking queenstown, Tasmania, where i've been working for the last four years

Stay tuned for the first update from Nepal!

Cruising the Mekong

Cruising the Mekong

Posted by nomadSteve 01:04 Archived in Australia Tagged preparation Comments (0)

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