Archive for December, 2007

There’s no place like A home

Monday, December 31st, 2007

While the trip we have taken so far (and will continue on) has been nothing short of spectacular, the toll of inanimate hotel rooms quickly begins to wear. They have ranged wildly from the very basic to rather deluxe, ($18-$280 per night). We have had some amazing exceptions on this trip of being invited to friends homes to stay for a few days. The first in Costa Rica at Maricela’s which we had paid for as part of our Spanish lesson’s. In Australia we met up with Robert & Leesa-Maree who graciously invited us to veg out in their spare room a few times for almost a week. Now in Beijing we stayed at Jim & Letty Gerber’s place a few days before heading to Shanghai. There we stayed at Gerber’s friends who were back home in North America for the holidays. This was simply wonderful to be able to buy some groceries and relax in a true home. Never mind that they had left their Christmas tree and decorations up all around the house. This was a wonderfully warm environment to spend our first Christmas away from home in and we really appreciated their hospitality. Especially since they had never met us and were just going off of Jim’s word. Jim and Letty’s apartment is great too, even more so now that He’s back and she’ll be joining us in a couple of days. All in all, there’s nothing quite like a big old couch to stretch out on a recuperate from a few days of travel and sightseeing!

Thanks Everyone!!!!

PS: HAPPY NEW YEARS!!!

Figure Skating, The bestest sport in the world!!!!

Thursday, December 27th, 2007

I bet you guessed already, but if you didn’t I tell you. We got to go figure skating yesterday! First the bad parts;
-the ice was bad
-the skates weren’t, making it even harder to skate
-they weren’t the type of skate I’m used to, no ankle support
-the ice was melting
So all in all I couldn’t do much because of those factors. Pretty much skate forward, sorta a spread eagle, a drag and a cross cut every 20 mins or so.
Good parts;
-It was way fun!!!!!!
-I got some pratice
-It reminded me of home, which is equal to no homesickness whatsoever for about 3 months
-I was the only one who didn’t fall!
-I just had the funnest time for a while!
Thats all the goods I can think of currently.

Ok I exaggerated, Dad didn’t fall. I was the only one who didn’t deserve to fall. Luke and mom fell which disqualifies them and dad did a running jump onto then ice. Therefore I was the only one who didn’t deserve to fall. 🙂

Now a few days later I really gotta say….

HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!!!!!
Really miss you guys!!!!

Miss you alll!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Alex

Christmas in China

Tuesday, December 25th, 2007

It was a pretty subdued affair for us. Santa had to make two trips since our presents were misdirected to the Canada Bag, so he returned to China after delivering to the Great White North. While there were decorations and carols playing in the public spaces, it was still a regular workday for the proletarian masses. This naturally involved an early awakening for Claudette and I due to the 7:00 AM pounding and sawing construction noises outside our window.

I’d forgotten to mention in the previous China post how it seems MOSTLY like a regular capitalist pig society here, and there are not strong undertones of the oppressive communist rule that we expected. The shopping malls are packed with people spending lots of money, traffic is very abundant with lotsa new vehicles and fashion clothing is on everyone. I’m sure that if there was a gathering of more than twenty people in any public area the police would come out of the woodwork to quash it, but on the surface things seem very “normal” and semi-democratic. Another odd thing I’d forgotten to specifically point out previously was the almost absolute lack of motor scooters & motorbikes around. There’s even less here than in Edmonton in the Summer! Very different considering that they seemed to make up 90% of all vehicles on the road in the rest of Southeast Asia.

M e r r y . . C h r i s t m a s ! ! !

Tuesday, December 25th, 2007

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Four Days in China

Monday, December 24th, 2007

We’d heard from many other travelers and some friends that Beijing was the city with the most smog & pollution that they had encountered. No ones comments prepared us for the heavy set haze and absolute lack of view that we encountered. The ride from the airport to Jim & Letty’s apartment was pretty quick though, only about twenty minutes or so. Major roads along the route had side lanes for bicycles and animal carts. We know this of course from the pictures signs indicating such. Jim had helped us book a flight to Shaing Hei (sp???) for a week over Christmas starting two days after we arrived in China. So we had a complete Veg day, and watched a whole bunch of movies at their place (along with a quick spurt of grocery shopping across the street). We arranged with the same driver that picked us up from the airport to take us back early (5:30 AM) in two days. Their apartment has a spectacular view! It is nicely done up as well, but Claudette and I both noticed the lack of Mexican or Spanish adornments.

At the airport we had trouble figuring out which domestic airline counter to go to as their were about fifty of them. When I was at the cell phone counter for a minute, Claudette started receiving help discerning our tickets from a couple Chinese ladies who seemed to know English fairly well. They took us to the counter to check us in, and verbally accosted me for trying to help with baggage or trying to communicate with the ticket counter lady. They had name tags, but only from some hotel. I tried to get ahold of my tickets again after we had checked in to no avail. Instead they led us to the correct entry gate, which was helpful but still something we could have stumbled through ourselves. After I got my ticket back her shrill arrogant voice could be heard demanding a “Tip?”. Instead of making a scene in front of my darling wife at being held hostage by this petty criminal, I sent her to Claudette to get some cash for being “helpful”. Of course I kicked myself afterwards for not remembering the hotel name so I could vehemently complain to the management about her behavior when we returned to Beijing. Luckily Claudette sternly negotiated her down from the $30 tip she originally wanted to a little over $10. The flight was a larger plane packed full, but pretty uneventful. It was raining in Shang Hei when we arrived, but that still didn’t dampen our spirits cause we were about to ride the FLANE! The airport here is about 30km from the edge of the city proper and we were gonna be taking the MagLev train (or “floating Train” as Luke called it). It is supported and propelled by electromagnetic currents along the track at a top speed of 341 km/hr we soon found out. To say that the scenery absolutely flew by is rather an understatement… It was amazing! The ride only took a few minutes and when we started slowing down to approach the end station it seemed as though we were crawling along at a human running pace even though the digital speed readout still said 95kph!

It was still late morning when we had arrived so we leisurely made our way by Taxi from the MagLev station to Jim’s friend Neil’s home. They had taught together previously and Jim made (Awesome!) arrangements for us to stay in their vacant apartment while they were home visiting for the holidays. Luckily there was another huge grocery store just across the street and this home was incredibly nice as well. I’d love to ask about the cost of rent just for curiosity sake. They have a tonne of movies and a maid who visits every day to do dishes, laundry and cleaning ‘n stuff. What a way to go! Jim has one too, (a maid) and I mentioned to Claudette that we gotta look into this phenomena as well! This family has a beautiful Christmas tree set up unlike the infidel Gerber’s…

After a (yet another!) day of relaxing we went touring a bit yesterday and visited the Oriental Pearl Tower. It is such a cool design for towers that makes it still worth visiting even though it’s small than the CN tower in Toronto. We had a pretty good buffet lunch up in the rotating restaurant before heading up even higher to check out the even better view from the Space Pod deck. While the pollution wasn’t as bad as it was in Beijing, it was still fairly dense here in Shang Hei. Luckily, the day we chose to go up the tower was not too bad for smog (plus it had stopped raining!). We could see “city” as far as the eye reached in all directions, which was only about 15+ km I would think. Still a pretty cool experience.

After the tower we went across the street to a ten story high shopping mall and got pushed and shoved around by the crowds there for a couple of hours. We didn’t really buy anything, just checking the place out. They did have a skating rink on one of the upper floors which looked pretty cool. We’re gonna go back on boxing day for a skate. Other than that we don’t seem to have any other major plans here. Once we get back to Beijing it’ll be gangbusters tours again though.

Merry Christmas!

Sunday, December 23rd, 2007

I can’t believe it’s the 24th already! I think we have about 13 countries left. The trip is pretty much half over. It’s not a good thing or a bad thing, we are just missing home. Alot! The first thing I noticed when we got to Bejjing was the smog! You can practically taste it. It is very sad because it will be the middle of the day it is a cloudless sky but the sun is very blocked. But it is still a very beautiful city! I recommend every one who hasn’t seen the pictures should just stop reading right at this very moment and go look at the Santa Claus clan I made of plasticine. There is Mrs Claus, Mr Claus (Santa Claus), Baby Claus, Rudolf, two identicalish looking elves, four beautifully colored presents, a heart that says thank U and Santa’s sleigh (It is multi colored due to the fact that I was really running out of clay). It took me a while but I think it qualifies me to be an arteest (not an artist they are pros)! We aren’t in Bejjing right now though, we are in Shaing Hai. Here we are going to see the Oriental Pearl Tower. It is one of the tallest towers in the world and it is the tallest tower in Asia. To get to the place we are at we at we had to take a maglev. It kinda stands for magnetic train. What it is a train that kinda levitates using magnetics which allows it to reach very high speeds. When we were on the maglev it went 450 km! That is it for now, bye!
AJ

TECHNOLOGY SPENDING SPREE!

Friday, December 21st, 2007

In the ritzier hotel in Hong Kong, I went out shopping alone one evening and came back with the new Sanyo waterproof digital video (640×480 only) and 6MP digital still camera for Alex that we had been eying up for awhile. We first saw he Olympus one in Fiji back in Sept for almost $500. That included a lot of extras, but I still didn’t care for the fact that it used an XD card, since we already had various devices with SD and Sony Memory stick cards on the go. The thought of having another format of card to carry around all manner of accessories for just made my head spin. Luckily the Sanyo one uses SD, and the price on it had been slowly decreasing as we made our way North up through Asia. Prices on electronics in Hong King were generally OK, but not near as spectacular as I had expected. MP3 players specifically were no better, and in fact were often higher than North American or Australian prices. Ipods of every color, size and derrivation filled up huge amounts of every store. I had no interest in a genuine ipod due to the highly restrictive software and their poor price/feature index compared to almost every other brand available. Anyways, I digress… At the same place I bought Alex’s camera I also grabbed a 120GB hard drive small size media player. The brand is not one I had heard of in North America before, but that hardly means anything. It is a Vosonic 8360 and includes integrated video and audio recording. It’s not near a large and bulky as the Archos model I intended on buying, but the Archos was slightly more money and on top of that it still requires a separate cradle for about $120 to hook up to a larger sound system or to record. Another bonus on this one is that it includes a SD and CF cardreader into the chassis for PALM or Alex’s Sanyo camera backups. Very cool and handy! Our intention when we get back home is to have this adjacent and hooked up to the living room stereo system for playback of any of our entire music collection, without needing CD’s ever again. We concluded that this was maybe a better option rather than streaming them by WIFI from a server computer downstairs. We will probably still buy one video/audio streaming receiver when we get home for playback on the TV and audio system downstairs though. Lastly I managed to grab a CREATIVE brand MP3 player speaker set that’s specifically designed for the Zen V we have. It docks right in the front of the speakers and they provide incredible portable (or plug-in) sound while charging the player. Since the Zen V model is discontinued the speakers were about 1/3 of the original price! Well, they were half but since I bought them with the camera and 120Gig portable player the total price got drastically reduced. That cost a good hour investment of my life, but it was pretty worth it considering what I ended up paying for everything.

A few days later we all went about ten blocks North to another shopping district known to be not quite as ritzy as the one by our first hotel. This one area had all similar stores focussed in an area, so the consumer didn’t really have to go far to compare. The prices here were actually stickered (marked) on most items and were cheaper than the fancier area at the very South end of Kowloon. At the South end the stickers just had cost codes that the clerk would look at and then look at the consumer to size up how much he thought he could get away with before reciting a price. So while the Northern area prices were all cheaper, there was very little (if even none at all!) room for negotiating. In this area we were slightly looking for a new, larger, MP3 player for Alex and I was checking prices on a bluetooth microphone for our video camera. This would allow the person to wear a mike and transmit the audio up to 30m away to the cameraman. It was pretty cool, and something I had been looking at since we left home (at $400!). In Malaysia the price was about $300, (but that’s also possibly mainly due to the decreasing price over time) and in Vietnam I saw it for $250. In a couple places in Hong Kong I saw it for $175, and then $151 that day. My target price had always been $150, but I held off to try and get it with other things for a combined reduced rate. At one place we saw a new mini computer from Asus, called the EeePC 1701 that had a 7″ screen, was ultra portable with a battery, ran Linux or Windoze XP, had WIFI, a built in web cam and was only $385. This was a brand new item and NO STORE would go down on price, (as we eventually found out from repeated asking). So, finally at one store (we were running out of time before a booked space show at the science center that evening) I arbitrarily asked for a price on the 16GB flash MP4 player Alex had been eying up. The attendant made a mistake of $74 less on her verbal quote to me. I immediately agreed to buy it and also inquired if the had the Sony bluetooth mike. It turns out that they did, and better yet it was the best price I had ever seen at $138!!! I didn’t even bother trying to negotiate and just whipped out my VISA urging her to ring it up before some manager came along and knocked her to her senses.

We had been having quite a bit of difficulty connecting to the internet lately, (since half way through Thailand). It was becoming increasingly expensive, and the hotel “business centers” were almost cost prohibitive! The funny part was, most hotels we had stayed at in the latter part of Thailand, Laos, Vietnam & Hong Kong, all provided wired internet access for free in the rooms. This must have twigged Claudette’s nerves, because she was actively pursuing this little Asus ultra-light laptop, (with my approval of course!). We went back to the original place we hahd seen it and grabbed one before rushing off to the show on Black Holes. So, we spent a poopload of cash, but got some pretty good deals on “stuff” that we were planning on buying anyways or would be quite useful to us. I’m still typing this on the Palm, but no one else seems to like using it due to the keyboard occasionally acting up. For two thirds of the rest of the family, it has become a very expensive portable solitaire game…

Hong Kong

Friday, December 21st, 2007

This “Administratively distinct” region of China was really fun and interesting. Well, except for our feeble attempts at finding a reasonable hotel of course! We expected that before arriving, but we were still shocked to be paying CAN $300/night for only three beds, but downtown. Crazy! We stayed on the Kowloon side, across Victoria Harbor from Hong King Island. It was pretty cool, but we later discovered that we were in the slightly ritzier district for shops and hotels. Traffic was solidly busy everywhere we could see as well, so NOBODY jaywalked here. Hong Kong reminded both Claudette and I of Singapore in a lot of ways. After watching the discovery channel Extreme Engineering show on building the Hong Kong airport, tunnels, bridges and high speed train system it was pretty cool to see it all and ride it.

Sadly, a few days before while looking up activities to do in HK we found out about the gondola car dropping from the cable thus closing down the entire ride to the big Buhda that we had also watched an episode about on Extreme Engineering. We had seen quite enough Buhda’s in all shapes, sizes and mannerisms (believe me!) in Thailand and Laos, but we had been looking forward to this billion dollar gondola ride. We still managed to take the street cable car up the side of very steep hills on Hong Kong Island though. That was certainly a big highlight, even with heavy smaug obscuring the other side of the harbor, (At least, I thought I saw a dragon flying around???). Madam Tusseau (sp?) had a wax museum up there too, but we didn’t bother buying tickets since Claudette only wants to see the original (apparently?) in France. From the top we could see down to the ocean on both sides of the mountain. There were some pretty spectacular homes up here too! I can’t even imagine the price…

We looked for a venue to watch the (Guinness Book of of World records approved) world’s largest permanent light show, and caught most of it for fifteen minutes at 8:00 PM. It was OK, but not near as spectacular as we had heard and read about from so many different sources. We assumed that there was music, but it wasn’t played at our location and we didn’t have a radio. The next night though, after watching a great show on Black holes at the Science Center, we watched the light show from the opposite side. The whole area alongside the harbor was developed and had speakers to play music matching the light show. This was clearly the place to be to see it, and we went to the second floor balcony of the Art Museum to get an uncrowded view. There were scads of people crowding and elbowing in the other areas, but apparently none had thought hard enough to look for the obscured stairway coming up where we were, with only five or six other people along a huge 200m long deck area. On some of the video we captured, it can clearly be heard two and a half of us saying:

“WOW!!! Halifax doesn’t have ANYTHING like this!”

SOUTHEAST ASIA TRAFFIC

Thursday, December 20th, 2007

The motor scooters in Vietnam were so amazingly plentiful, that it was simply a remarkable sight to watch a continuous wave of them driving in traffic. There seemed far fewer four wheeled vehicles here than anywhere else we had been, including Thailand and Laos. We at at one restaurant on the fourth floor balcony and looked out over a fairly major “X” shaped intersection, compounded by having a traffic circle off to one side of one of the arms, and by the middle section being elongated, (with only two lanes for about 50 meters, before splitting off again). It was a completely astounding sight to see, and we found it worthy of several minutes of videotape. There were so many near misses it seemed, but not a single accident. As a matter of fact, with traffic as amazingly crazy as it seemed all around here (less so in Laos, where there’s not quite as many vehicles as Thailand, Malaysia or Vietnam, and certainly less so than Singapore where everything is so strictly orderly), we only saw three accidents. One actually involved Luke and I in a taxi that was following WAY too close in Thailand. The bus in front of us came to a screeching halt, and a few seconds later so did we, barely a few decimeters from the bus I’m sure. Then, to add to our loudly screeching tires, the taxi behind us came to a stop only a few centimeters from us. As would be expected then, the car driver behind him wasn’t so quick on her brakes and caused a three vehicle domino collision. We barely felt it, since the sudden stop a few seconds earlier had been far more abrupt. Our driver however was very distraught, and got out in the center lane of four lanes of traffic whizzing by to check things out. I was worried about the delays and was looking to see if Luke and I could safely exit to the curb and flag down an alternate taxi. Not a chance! Inside the vehicle was by far the safest place for us! Our driver and the other, and the woman chattered for about ten minutes, and then he returned to the car. I insisted we get out immediately without paying when he said we were just going to stop off at the police station, (we were only six minutes away from the hotel after a half hour ride). He quickly radioed the other taxi driver and said he was gonna drop us off first and meet them at the police station to file a report. He was pretty upset, mainly at the woman because she had only caused just under CAN $1000 of damage to the two taxis, yet she was insisting on going through insurance. This created (as it does in Canada) mounds of paperwork and governmental red tape that no one else wanted to deal with. Our taxi only had a small dent in the bumper, and yet he was practically in tears regarding the damage to his baby. At least he looked after it I guess.

Claudette and Luke had also witnessed a motorbike getting hit by a taxi at slow speeds in Bangkok. It caused damage to his bike, but he got up immediately with barely a bruise by the looks of it. The third one we just barely saw in Vientiane, (the Capital city of Laos). It was at an intersection, and we were behind a bus and a couple other cars. A dump truck swerved abruptly to avoid crushing a crazy motorbike driver trying to scoot across in front, but miscalculating the speed of the dump truck. The truck swerved and rode up on a high median ripping apart it’s undercarriage as well as a fuel and hydraulic oil tank. The driver scurried out of the cab and away from the truck in a huge hurry, and went to check on the motorcyclist. When we finally got up to and through the intersection a few minutes later, the bike driver was being attended to and looked like he had some ripped clothing, road-rashed face, and a compound fracture of the lower leg. As we continued driving away we didn’t hear any explosions, so the dump truck’s ignition sources must have been turned off.

All in all though, I would still say that traffic in Latin America is slightly worse, in that there seemed to be way more disorderly conduct, and people constantly and very inconsiderately pushing there way in this way and that. Southeast Asia is still pretty wicked of course, just not quite as bad as what I remember from Latin America, and especially Peru. Our guide in Laos had disdainfully told us how all the nation’s roads had previously been filled with bicycles, but people started buying more and more scooters. Then the Chinese started making and selling really cheap scooters in Laos and sudden no one but kids under ten years old used scooters anymore.

Motor-scooter and motorbike drivers are simply suicidal, or they collectively have the combined fore thinking brain power of a pea. The cutting in and out of traffic, and speeding along in between lanes of cars, (while stopped at lights, or at 80KPH, it don’t matter!) is just nuts. I suppose such crazy behavior is offset lightly by the expanded awareness of the drivers, but they still make me shake my head in horrified wonderment. The car and truck driver’s inherently (generally) know and prepare for the crazy sudden turns and budding in front by the bikes, and drive accordingly. Most Westerners who get behind a wheel in Aisia or Latin America would be very likely to quickly wipe out several bikes since they would not be anticipating the two-wheeler movements without observing for awhile first. On the other hand, if a bike were to take up the center of a lane (as is propper and safe to do) most four wheel vehicle drivers would be cussing and swearing since the motor scooters are quite underpowered compared to even a four cylendar car or lorry.

Sadly, this myopically selfish viewpoint of cutting in wherever one can, generally seems to carry over into pedestrian traffic as well. None of the reading in various guidebooks prepared us for the disdainful stepping on our toes, pushing out of the way, budding in front of us, ect, that we constantly seem to be experiencing in Asia so far. China is supposed to be the worst even, but I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

The one cool thing about entering Laos was that the sides of the road that everyone drove on were switched again. This I had mentioned in a previous post I believe. It was still refreshing to see the steering wheels back on the left side of the vehicle again though. We all easily adapted to getting into mini vans on the right side again. This was short lived of course, only in Laos and Vietnam did vehicles use the “right” side of the road again. As soon as we hit Hong Kong, the grand old former British Colony, everything was switched back to the “wrong” side, and we kept going to the “incorrect side to get into taxi’s. That should be short lived again though, since as soon as we get to Beijing in a couple days it will be back to the left side with steering wheels, and to the right side of the road with vehicles themselves.

One other cool thing we’ve noticed in many Southeast Asia countries so far is an extra, smaller sized lanes on the “ditch” side of traffic. These are not wide enough (safely) for a car to travel, and are generally meant for animal carts, bicycles, motorbikes and pedestrians. In Thailand they are almost exclusively used by motor scooters. In Laos there weren’t many except in towns, and they were most often used for parking, or as motor scooter lanes when clear. In Vietnam we actually did see a couple ox-carts and bicyclists using them, even along the side of an 8 lane raised highway. That was certainly quite the contrast!

Vietnam

Tuesday, December 18th, 2007

Our flight leaving Laos to Vietnam was slightly delayed and we didn’t get in until later in the evening, almost bedtime. We explored a little bit before eating a late supper upstairs at this nice but very narrow little new boutique hotel.

(Mary Jo, Caleb or Connor, if you’re reading before getting to Hanoi on Dec 20 pay attention for some tips! And make sure to see the puppet show!)

Food near the hotel was difficult to find. We could go about 5 blocks one way (South I think it was, but the maps were not oriented to the “standard” North, so it’s difficult to be sure) near West Lake were a bunch, (as well as the nummiest chocolate/pastry shop I had encounered since Cusco in Peru!). Heading East from the hotel a few blocks took us through a major shopping district and various daily markets. A few blcks frther East was a much larger lake, some geat restaurants and the highlight of our trip to Vietnam, the wateer puppet how. I show preface such a grandioise comment with the explanation that we only had tyhe smallest amount of time in Hanoi and in fact all of Vietnam. We flew in late one afterrnoon, got to the hotel in Hanoi in time to have a meal, unpack a bit, walk up and down one road and then pretty much go to bed. With only one free day in the capital city before flying to Hong Kong we weren’t really sure what we would be able to accomplish.

The half day or full day city, countryside, or ocean bay tours all started no later than 8:00 AM! Not our cup of tea at the best of times. Never mind the extremely heavy emphasis towards Ho Chi Min! Good gawd! There was his mauseleum where the body is on display with twice yearly fesh changes of embalming fluid and skin moisturizer. After that was his statue (and park) errected (constructed) to celebrate his life, then there’s another Ho Chi Min monument to celebrate the commie victory in the war, the Ho Chi Min this, and the Ho Chi Min that… The current government is clearly hanging on to him as a strong focal point while letting go of most of his ideals. There was also a visit to “Lennin Park” (and statue) on a tour. We opted for none, and instead I wandered out mid morning and eventually worked my way to the water puppet show box office only able to get tickets for the 9:15 PM show! (There were five shows per day.) The puppets all had elongated horizontal sticks controlling them which were hidden by the water. There was a six piece band adjacent to the water stage as well that were excellent! The puppet show was in 11 stages, or scenes. There were obviously elaborate wires and trigger mechanisms threaded through the sticks and up into the puppets that controlled extra lateral movements, mouth, arms, tails and whatever other apendage individual puppets may have had. It started off with fire breating dragons, complete with lit up sparklers, coming up from under the water and completely captivated us for the rest of the show. (Except for Luke a bit who struggled heavily three-quarters the way through to keep his poor tired little eyes open.) I got some spectacular pictures and video throughout.

After that, we grabbed a taxi home to rest before heading to the airport first thing in the morning. Our hotel was very newly built, and very boutiqeish without being outrageously expensive. This was the last of our second GAP tour, and the booked accomodations were way more extravegant than we would have stayed when booking on our own. This hotel was very narrow, (along with most all buildings we saw in Hanoi) but was 11 stories tall. It only had six to three suites on each floor but was very nice. The restaurant at the top was also amazing, with corespondingly high prices. Gone were the days of ordering a full plate meal (from Thailand & Laos) for $3-$5. Instead we were back to paying $14 for a burger and upwards of $30 for a steak. The view was nice at least!

The remainder of Tranquil Laos

Tuesday, December 18th, 2007

The rest of Laos was very enjoyable. We started seeing the same other caucaision tourists at different temples and museums, and then again in the next day or two in different towns. It was as if there was a standard itinerary that all tour companies followed. The capital city of Laos, Vientien, has less people than Red Deer, at around 100,000. That province (one of seventeen provinces in Laos) has the highest population of all provinjces in the country at just barely over one million. I think that the total population of Laos is just around six million. WIth few people in the cities this means that there is an unnatural amount of rural population still living along waterways, in the abundant backcountry, and all stretched along the highways and roads. Urbanism has yet to explode here.

One very cool thing we saw throughout Laos (but no other Southeast Asian country, including our future visit to Vietnam) were the tractors. They were not traditional ride-em tractors as we are used to. Instead they are a direct replacement for oxen or water buffalo. I have a couple of pictures on our web gallery already. Essentially, they are a big engine, with a visible, open clurtch, on top of two larger, fat drive wheels. Extending out the back is a long arm with two handles that house the controls. Think of a large rotertiller with two big wheels at the front instead of the tines, and then extend the control handles to an overall length of about 2.5 meters. This allows the “driver” to still sit at the front of a wagon and hold the handles just as if he were almost still controlling water buffalo by reigns. We saw lots of these things plodding along the side of highways, or going through town. Most had families riding in the four-wheeled wagons, but some had huge piles of cargo. This could be crops, to huge bundles of bamboo or wood, or even furniature and other goods going to stiores to be sold. For crop work I suppose that the farmers would merely replace the wagon with wahtever field implement they needed at that time.

Our guide told us that several years ago the goveernment decided to subsidize these mechanical animal replacement beasts, and pretty much every one in the country jumped at the opportunity. Originally they just offered a little money for villiagers to help them build fences for their animals OR a little more money in exchange for the animals in order to get a tractor. Our guides strong impression was that the people thought that the building of fences (even with a little monetary help) was just WAY too much like work and they opted en mass to get modernized instead. I asked how these subsistence farmers (about half of the people that have these walk behind tractors) could possibly afford gas!!! The guide said that they just adapted and learned to make or grow more goods to buy fuel. He said that there are barely any beasts of burden in the country at all anymore. To partially substantiate this, none of the five of us saw an oxen or water buffalo anywhere along our route. This naturally leads me to be highly suspicious of restaurants that have water buffalo on their menue’s. I can only presume that they were really offering dog meat from the abundance of local strays…

In Vientien (the Capital City of Laos) we met and visited over two days with a family from Sydney, Australia. The two boys were almost exactly the same age as Alex and Luke and they had a blast visiting and swimming in the hotel pool. On the second day, us three parents even consented to the four kids having a “sleepover” in our kids room. Us adults also shared a few bottles of wine and many great stories during and after supper. The next morning we had a leisurely schedule of sleeping in and packing up before needing to leave just after lunch.

The night before we were to fly out, we went by ourselves to a Lao Traditional Dance show. It was pretty inexpensive and very cool. The restaurant at the hotel we stayed at in Phalong Pabang also had a nightly show of Lao Traditioanl dance, but it was free and slightly more ametuerish. Before going to the airport, we had time for one last tour about a half hour away to the “Buhddist Park”. It was really nice with all sorts of Buhda & friends statutes and sculptures in a grassy park area. At the opposite end from the parking lot was a restaurant beside the Mekong River overlooking Thailand on the other side. There was some sort of large (about three stories high) round concrete climbable sculpture with a wild concrete tree at the top that I took pics of Claudette, Alex & Luke on from below. We’ll get those uploaded to the gallery as soon as we find a computer with DVD to extract them from…

Music

Saturday, December 15th, 2007

Malaysia and Singapore had been like a direct time warp to the 70’s! The Bee-Gee’s were fresh in my mind every night before going to bed, and I heard Barry Manilou’s MANDY more times in that past week than all of my previous life combined I’m pretty sure. Even greats like Chicago and ELO were wearing thin those days… and I really LOVE both of them!

Southern Thailand was seemingly slightly more modern. The North of Thailand had a lot of 80’s pop stuff though. Very weird…. (since not all of it was actually “good” 80’s music).

In Laos at the hotel rest. for breakfast every morning they played instrumentals (mostly pan flute) of old rock/pop songs. Imagine my divine prowdness when Luke and Alex were constantly recognizing the songs, (though not always the artist). The best moment came when after only about four seconds (or ten notes) Alex blurted out the name of the newly playing song and immediately after announced that it was by the Beatles! Luke was only a second behind her. It was especially pleasing to see another tourist a few tables away cock his eyebrows, slightly impressed by the musical prowess of my darling children.

In the more populated (and later visited) areas of Laos we began to hear much more local flavor of music rather than imported old Western stuff. This was nice, but we still didn’t buy any since the disks were pretty high priced (about $4-$5) for bootleg copies. I brought our entire MP3 music collection along on one 2.5″ portable drive. So in Hong Kong the kids and I are looking forward to buying newer, fancier and larger MP3 players for an abundance of musical choices.

Enjoyed Laos and very fast visit to Vietnam

Friday, December 14th, 2007

Hi all, I know I’m not as prolific a writer as Rick is but here goes anyway. I really enjoyed our time in Laos. The descriptions of the tour books is accurate when they describe the pace of life as slow. No one or thing moves fast, especially the transportation, but this was nice as we had a lot of time to watch the people and the countryside go by. Firstly I really enjoyed the 2 day slow boat ride down the Mekong river, the city of Luang Prabang, which is a UNESCO world heritage site, was nice with it’s very old temples, the king’s former palace, and the great waterfalls we saw just outside the city. The 5-6 hour drive to Vien Vieng was a little more stomach moving as we had to cross the top of several mountain ranges, back and forth around the corners (you get the picture I’m sure). But once in the valley near Vien Vieng and into the capital, Vientiane, it was much better. The hotels we’ve stayed at have been great. Our tour guide, Phanh, was really good as he had many stories to tell us as he had spent 12 years (11-23) as a novice monk.

At the hotel in Vientiane, Luke introduced himself to another family, mother, Mary Jo and 2 boys, Kaleb (13) and Conner (11) from Sydney, Australia. The kids had a blast together swimming in the hotel pool and we even let them have a sleepover, as all 4 kids stayed in Alex and Luke’s room for 1 night. Unfortunately they are also coming to Hanoi, and funny enough booked to stay at the same hotel as us but we leave a day before they arrive.

As it turned out with the tour package we booked, we are only staying 2 nights in Vietnam, and since we flew in late last night and have spent the morning on the internet I’m not sure we are going to get a chance to see a whole lot. We are planning to walk around the Old Quarter and take in a water puppetry show today, and then we are off for 4 nights in Hong Kong.

Have to run, take care for now. Claudette

First Impressions of Laos

Monday, December 10th, 2007

After a night at a small Inn in Chaing Khong right on the Mekong River we took a long tail boat Ferry ride accross to Laos. Communism is the rule of law here, and it was not overtly noticeable, (not like I expect it to be in China anyways…). People can easily go from one country to the next accross the river and walk right past (or around) the immigration office to spend as much time as they want doing whatever in the other country. The only (minimal) catch is that all hotels on both sides require registration of your passport and in Laos they also take careful note of your VISA number. The injustice of the VISA for us was extroirdinary and hurtful. Most all Aisian, European and South sea countries were charged US$30 for a tourist VISA. Americans are charged US$35, and Canadians are charged US$42. Ogh! the injustice… The first thing we noticed after clearing all that stuff up was a left hand side drive vehicle! Way cool! Back to the side we are used to from home, even though it took some getting used to again, getting into a vehicle from the opposite side as Australia, Singapore, Malaysia & Thailand.

On our first night in Laos, luke was playing with a pet monkey. It crawled on his head and the owner took it off. When it satrted climbing up Luke’s leg again, the owner pulled it’s tail to prevent uit from climbing up onto his head again. Not enjoying being pulled off, the monkey held on to Luke even more, and then eventually bit Luke’s leg to get a better grip. So, we added a new Top four list entry to account for all of these “encounter’s” we seem to be having. It is available from the links at the top left of any blog page, or directly from:
http://weblog.jamesworld.ca/top-4-lists/

As soon as we got VISA’s and passports straightened out, we took a ride to a steel hull long boat on the Mekong River. We were going to another town, about 14 hours drive down the river. It was broken up into two days of travel on the boat by ourselves with four relaxing reclining chairs and amazing vies out the sides of the boat. Pictures of our boat (and some other larger tourist transport boats) probably won’t show up in the online gallery for a another week or two yet, once the camera DVD is finalized. It was quite nice and relaxing though at six hours one day, and eight hours the next. In between we stayed at a pretty delux hotel in the middle of freak’in no where.

Once we got to Luangprabang, (where we’re still at now) we did several tours of various temples which sadly being to blend together. The cool part of our tours here however is the guide. He grew up about a four hour drive from here in a small farming villiage, but left home at age 11 to join a temple as a buddist Monk Novice. Apparently the learning and lifestyle prospects in his villiage were pretty slim, so he decided to enter into the “novicehood”. It would typically take a boy about 20 years as a novice before becomming a monk. He spent his first six years here at a temple in Luangprabang, and then went to the capital city of Laos for another six years learning pretty decent English along the way. So, when we toured his old temple where he lived as a child (and another where he walked to school each day) the insights and stories were incredible and much more interesting than the standard tourist explanations given to everyone else. We had several others at different times leaning in to our small group of five to overhear his recollections before they were admonished by their own tour guides for falling behind.

Tomorrow we have a five hour (150km) bumpy bus ride to the next town on our tour stop. In the end we won’t be going through Vietnam much at all other than flying directly to Hanoi from Vientiane (the Laos capital city) and staying there for two nights before our Dec 16 scheduled flight to Hong Kong.

hopping along the ……

Monday, December 10th, 2007

bunny trail going to Laus and vietnam,china,india ,kenya,egypt,jordan too Italy,germany,france and U.K were gonna end up in canada Hhhhurray ya . anyway Dad said I had to a Blog so I came up with some things Like the song .(change of subject) We got into laus on december 6 (I,m not big on date,s so consder this lucky) we took a boat to a village/town where the chilldren had wooden tops that you needed string to wind up .the older chilldren were selling things to us. the next day we went to another village/town where all the chilldren where selling things there were many dogs one kept coming up to me so I desided to pet him he took tis as a conpelment and let me rub his stomache . we left shortly after. The money is interesting 5000 kip is 50 cents.
( what I think is amazing is that alex did not write this ) Missing you (espesialy my friends)

P.S notice I was Bitten By all the anamals (even the jellyfish dad forgot to put me on that)

P.S This is in top 4 Things

Laos (Le country de Francais thats not France)

Monday, December 10th, 2007

We are now in Laos (I was spelling it louse ) It’s really a nice place. 5000 kip ( kip is their currency) is about 50 cents. Here I’m a multi- billoinare :). I think I’m adding this to places I want to come back to. Now I really wish I was in Mary Poppins, (our Fort Smith skating carnival theme show). Oh well the carnaval might be better next year :). Miss you all!
Alex

Goodbye to Thailand.

Thursday, December 6th, 2007

For her last week with us we went to the North of Thailand with Grandma Vi. We flew up to a city cmalled Chaing Mei. We had planned on taking the train up and back with her, but it was a 14 hour trip for 12,500 baht (1,000 Baht = $30) for a first class sleeper bed, (two beds with it’s own cabin). Sadly, a sixty-five minute flight with a discount airline was only 17,500 Baht which made it far more worthwhile, but lacking in that cultural experience category. We made up for it by taking Grandma on a whitewater river rafting trip though! It was over two hours drive just to get to the start point, wheer we had lunch before launching down the river. It wasn’t near as hairy as the trip we took in Costa Rica, but still pretty good for Grandma’s first time EVER. (Never mind her general lifelong aversion to water.) We all got good and wet while having a fantastic time. This one didn’t have still camera pictures available, but they videotaped everyone who went rafting that day and sold the DVD for a very reasonable price (just under $10). Funny part is though, that we didn’t get the video that night or before we flew back to Bangkok the next morning. Instead, I went back to this hotel in a few days once we returned to Chaing Mai on our official GAP tour and picked up the DVD. I finally got a chance to watch it the next day and it was great! Fantastic video of the five of us in some tricky sections and going through chutes and over shelves. All were smailing and laughing throughout though, (even Grandma Vi).

The day previous to river rafting we had take a tour to the Thailand Elephant Conservation Center. There are several elephant camps with a 30-60 minute drive people can get to for a show and a ride for pretty cheap. We had read about the work of the Thai Government sponsored Conservation center though, and opted to pay a little more, (and drive a little further) to see it. They also had a hospital there which was sad and heartening to see at the same time. We were pretty sure that this was the place the Reader’s Digest featured Cowtown “Voluntouring” family had gone to. There was an option to stay there and learn about elephant training (in fact, you star in the shows!) and to care for the anuimals for one or three days. All meals and lodging are included for $80/day, which I thought was pretty reasonable considering the experience one would get. If I had known more beforehand I certainly would have arranged it for us all after Grandma left, (can you guys who know her imaging GV shovelling elephant poop, or riding one all by herself around the neck while it pulls logs and paints pictures in the show???). The show included showing different ways elphants pull, move & manipulate huge logs for the forestry industry, painting pictures with a watercolor brush, and doing various physical tricks, (such as walking along a 7m log as a balance beam, turning around on it and walking back!). We really enjoyed being there, except of course for learning about all of the injured elephants who have portions of their feet blown off by land mines from the war.

Once we returned to Bangkok, it was Grandma’s last night for shopping (like we could fit any more in her bags!!) and relaxing before the 26= hour journey home. Luke bag was just a little bit too small, so we packed all our stuff (inc. an abundance of heavy DVD’s) in Luke’s small MEC bag for Grandma to take back as her second piece of luggage. Then we stole Grandma’s MEC larger bag (the same as Claudette’s and mine) and bought her a cheap rolling duffel to get home with. We looked up Cathay Pacific’s luggage weight guidlines on the net and discovered that her two bags were more than double the allowable economy ticket weight. Very nervously we approached the desk and the ever so friendly agent just shuffeled the bags on through without a second glance! One obstacle down one to go… The only other concern we had was her getting the bags througfh customs in Vancouver. Luckily, she claimed $680 of the allowable $750 amount and the “nice little old (but semi spry) grandma” card palyed out well as she waltzed right on through with a few hundred pirated DVD’s and computer software worth about $30,000! (But “Shhhhhhhh”, don’t tell anyone.)

After she left we began our second GAP tour with an immediate upgrade in hotels from a $18/night ultra basic one that we were willing to pay for to a $150/night one with a huge pool, crisp nice sheets and gorgeous decor and furnishings. The internet prices also jumped from about 28 cents/hr to a little over $10.00/hour! Needless to say we checked e-mails and did picture backups down the street at $1/hour. The next day we spent wiuth a great tour guide going through various markets and sights of Bangkok. One of the coolest things was going through a six day a week morning wholesale flower market. The smells and colors were tremendous and beautiful! A few of these pictures are in our on-line gallery. We also toured some well irrigated farms between Bangkok and the Ocean (about a 12km streatch) and then flew to Chaing Mei again the next day. Back in the North we spent the afternoon touring some more Buddist Temples and sights before driving five hours the next day through the town of Chaing Rai and up to the tiown of Chaing Khong on the Meekong River, adjacent to the Laos border. There wasn’t much to see in this sleepy little villiage, but the kids and I found an internet place with blistering fast speeds that we hadn’t experienced for uploading pictures since Australia!

Missing home but Thailand’s great

Thursday, December 6th, 2007

Hi everybody Just Thought I’d Let you Know that I am missing home but thailand is Great all though It pretty COLD +35 and it ain’t geten warmer Brrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr. Another thing please don’t remind me of Christmas it makes me sad : (

Allmost Vietnam: Airball Jungle Warefare

Wednesday, December 5th, 2007

Back at the end of Novemeber, (when we were still in Phuket) a bunch of staff from Phil’s company were planning a friendly airball game. Luckily I was invited along and graciously accepted. Airball is a less expensive alternative to paintball, (and the little solid plastic balls hurt less too!). There are some inherrant problems with airball comparred to paintball though. Mainly, bad players with a little bit of pain tollerance can cheat really easily. Over longer distances the smaller airballs lose quite a bit more of their velocity (and hence trajectory) over paintballs. Thus if you shoot an opponent at a distance of more than 15m they can easily shrug off the shot, bite their tongue from exclaiming out loud and tuck in behind cover a little more. This helps them pretend that they were never hit, and that the shot was really “close” and nothing more.

We arrived after a half hour drive to find about 5 Thai guys, 6 American and Canadian expats and 2 Thai kids (around 11) waiting to play. There were two fancy guns which could shoot incrediby rapidly and had accurate scopes attached. When any of us “new” guys tried to get those guns we were quickly told that they were privately owned by two of the guys and we could only use the heavy, slower (and way less “attractive”) rental guns. When it came time to dividing the teams, it somehow went with Thai versus Caucaision except for Phil. This made the teams rather uneven at 6 to 7 but they claimed the kids only counted as healf each. I should clarify here that the kids were in full body armour (heavy padding like an umpire wears) and looked VERY comfortable handling their weapons. I wondered if they slept with them perhaps….

So, here we were about to seemingly recreate the Vietnam war from the 1970’s. Complete with several big burly (or more easily targeted) beer bellied white guys all over or close to six feet high, and several little “Charlie’s” that were tiny, hard to track targets and could scramble around as quietly and as efffortlessly as the most deadly jungle cat. These enemies had guns though. Rapid fire, sleek, lightweight chinese manufactured guns… In the end we did fairly well. At the beginning of the first game Phil was duly sacrificed by his Charlie teammates. He suggested it was miscommunication afterwards, but they told him to go one way where three of us shot the snot out of him very quickly. Meanwhile his teammates all stealthily went the other way once we were all distraced with the high of our first kill. I didn’t make it to the end of that first game, but I was proud in getting a great surprise kill in before I was taken out later. We somehow won that first game and we started to consider that perhaps we had a chance. Then in the second game their overrall plan began to take hold. Our batteries that provided the “Oomph!” in the propulsion system were getting low. I had the key “lookout” position and my rental gun jammed at a very important moment. Naturally I was allowed to go off the course unharmed and perform any nessesary repairs. By the time I returned however our position was severely compromised by an influx of enemy sneaking up along the side that I was supposed to be protecting. We lost that next game, but still did incredibly well considering that our batteries barely seemed to be pushing those plastic beads out at all.

We insisted on charging up the batteries after that in preparation for the second game. Then we enacted our sure-fire stategy. It wasn’t so sure faire we quickly discovered. This is where the rampant cheating came to light in our minds. We had two guys surrounded o twosides and were firing like cazywith no apparent effect. He just didn’t flinch and adjusted his body so that he was just barely protected a little more. We could see each other shooting at him abrely 4m away but he was just taking the shots and pretending he wasn’t hit. (I made a point of lookig at his back when he changed shirts at the end of the games and he was riddled with welts. That gave us a minimal smug satisfaction…)

Thailand – last day for me in Paradise

Sunday, December 2nd, 2007

This trip has been fantastic – it’s over all too quickly. We lucked out on the beaches of Phuket – not at all crowded where we were staying and it’s awesome how many fantastic eating places there were right on the beach. The swimming was second to none. After Phuket we went to Phi Phi Island and that was an experience in itself – absolutey no vehicles – just bicycles and carts with very narrow roadways and a b-zillion little shops every which way – I only wish I had more room in my luggage to do the shopping that I would like. Rick will probably post a picture of one of the carts when he gets a chance. The hotels don’t even lock up their front when they all go home for the evening. This is where we went snorkeling – actually it was in the same bay where “The Beach” was filmed – that was a lot of fun even though I was very nervous – but of course, it turned out to be not as scary as I had imagined – it’s all in the mind. We then moved on the Chiang Mai – from here we went to an Elephant Conservation Centre and they put on quite a good show – we also went on an elephant ride – that was an experience that I’ll always remember. The next day we went whitewater rafting – of course I didn’t want to go because I was totally PETRIFIED but anything to please my grandchildren. Luke reminded me how his dad had to force him the first time they went so, in his way (he said) he was forcing me. Once I got over the initial shock, it was quite a lot of fun!!! We’re in Bangkok now – the last leg of my journey. I can’t even imagine the word “snow” but sooner or later reality will set in.