Archive | November, 2013

CAMBODIA – Kampot, Kep and Sihanoukville

28 Nov

KAMPOT

The charm of Kampot, a somewhat sleepy provincial capital & port town, lies in its colonial architecture and its attractive riverfront. Kampot has a retro ambience and is mostly known for its caves and pepper plantations (they produce varieties of pepper that are well sought after by chef’s worldwide- and having tasted it now first-hand, we know why!).

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Kampot’s pepper (red, green or black), sought after by chefs worldwide!

In Kampot we stayed at Les Manguiers Eco-Lodge (http://www.mangokampot.com) – a wonderful compilation of wooden huts, overlooking the Kampot River with stunning views of the mountains. The sunsets there completely draw you in!

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Our bungalow, overlooking the Kampot River at Les Manguiers Eco-Lodge

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Stunning sunsets overlooking Kampot River & surrounding mountains

Emile & Filou loved this “French place” (run by a French-Cambodian couple), as Les Manguiers attracts many Frenchies with kids so a great deal of friends were made!  This eco-lodge also had some fun things to entertain the young ones – such as a Tarzan rope that propelled the kids into the water (Emile and Filou spent hours perfecting their different jumps!), animals to pet (the sweet looking rabbits where their favorite), and many board games, table tennis, swings, hammocks etc.

They even offered a fabulous night river cruise where we saw hundreds of fireflies light up the trees like it was Christmas!!! – Going out on a boat and exploring the river by night (it was pitch black)… was priceless!

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Filou spent several hours feeding and playing with the rabbits at Les Manguiers Eco-Lodge

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Emile rope-jumping into the Kampot River

One of the highlights of staying at Les Manguiers was their Table d’Hôte menu (2 options to choose from at each meal).  The surprise of what we would get to eat each day was first a bit daunting for the kids (we don’t get to choose? What if we don’t like the food?), but this quickly turned into the wonderful surprise of the day! All the dishes offered were amazingly fresh, copious (even for the “light” meal option) and absolutely scrumptious! Eating, overlooking the river made the meals even better and the kids still can’t stop talking about them (we are starting to create some real foodies!).

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The scrumptious Table d’Hôte Menu at Les Manguiers, Kampot

On our first morning in Kampot, we took a tuktuk and ventured out to the local Phnom Chhngok Caves that house a 1200 year-old temple. The drive on the extremely muddy road, full of potholes, was half the adventure!  It was an hour-long roller coaster ride before we arrived, but it was worth it, as we were greeted once again by many warm Cambodian smiles & “hello’s” while enjoying beautiful green landscapes & rice paddies– and of course the caves. With our very young Cambodian guides (they probably shouldn’t be working yet, but were all smiles and had good English), Emile and Filou climbed very steep walls down, deep into the dark, slippery caves and loved every minute of it (mom and dad decided it was best not to risk breaking a leg)!

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Climbing the Phnom Chhngok Caves

We also learned about the local social initiative “SAMAKI” – a program supported by Solaid International that provides school support & help to the most vulnerable families by association. So to give back a little, we took our bikes and rode to the local school “Kampong Kreng” to go help with their English program.

We all had our turns in front of the class while helping the hardworking children practice sentences & improve their English pronunciations. At the end, class was divided into four, and each of us had a small group to interact with (they loved learning about the snow in Canada and wanted to know everything from our favorite colour to how old we were)!

At the end of the 1-hour class we were all sitting in the dark – as electricity is very expensive and the one light they had in the classroom was not put on (also we could hear every word of the class being taught next door as windows and doors are just holes in the walls). But even though the class had the most basic of amenities, the kids were happy with their enthusiastic English teacher and our “surprise” appearance.  After a productive class and a smiley group picture, they happily jumped on their bikes and raced back home…

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English teachers Filou & Emile  in front of the class!

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The kids we helped with their English, at Kampong Kreng School in Kampot

And after a last look at Kampot river‘s “Green Alley” via canoe, we raced to the next local town of Kep.

KEP

An idyllic coastal location, backed by hills covered with lush jungle, Kep was originally built as a retreat for the French colonialists.  For sixty years it thrived as Khmer’s favorite coastal holiday resort, with its heydays in the 50s and 60s until it fell into ruin – especially after the Khmer Rouge, when locals in need of money and food started to dismantle the old villas.  But Kep is currently experiencing a tourism revival and we got to enjoy it (thoroughly!!!).

We stayed at Kep’s Jasmine Valley Eco-Resort (www.jasminevalley.com)– where our accommodations were a large jungle tree house, complete with veranda overlooking the Cambodian Jungle! Every night we enjoyed the many sounds of nature (a chorus of vocal frogs and birds) and took in the magnificent views of the mountains, and smells of Jasmine and jungle blossom.

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Our jungle tree house at Jasmine Valley Eco-Lodge

Kep is known for its seafood, and in particular its crab dishes. We went to Kim Ly Restaurant (http://www.kep-cambodia.com/mainpages/PlacesinKep/kimly-restaurant.html), well known for having the best crab in town, and we were not disappointed. Emile is still raving about his crab dish with ginger! It was truly divine and without a doubt, the best we have ever had!

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Kep and its famous crab!

We also spent an absolutely lovely beach day on Rabbit Island, an island just of the coast of Kep, given its name mainly due to its shape. It is a true idyllic beach hideaway, with its gorgeous blue ocean water and stunning views of clouds with fishing boats on the horizon.  We took a 30-minute boat ride to get to the island (which is delightfully non-touristy) and enjoyed swinging in the hammocks, swimming in the incredibly clear blue waters and taking in a lovely massage on the beach.

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Sweet little Cambodian boy on Rabbit’s Island

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The views from Rabbit’s Island

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Rabbit’s Island, the perfect place to chill for a day!

And to end our wonderful stay in Kep, we took a 6:30 am morning walk, via the local monkey and mountain trail, to reach the mountaintop. The few enjoyable hours that we explored Kep National Park, were aided by the useful and very informative signage posted by the local Squirrel Association. The park is home to many red squirrels, as well as many snakes, birds, butterflies etc. – overall amazing flora and fauna! Filou was eager to capture it all on camera (he took pictures of every little animal, flower or leaf we saw in the park)!

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Sunset playing on the beach at Kep

SIHANOUKVILLE

A jolly Khmer taxi driver took us on our 2-hour trek from Kep to Sihanoukville.  He told us that he used to work in construction but that he had to leave his post behind due to the pain in his arm.  I did notice the many scars on both his arms! He explained that his father had been killed by the Khmer Rouge (as they thought he was a policeman), and that he – at 5 years old – was given a gun to kill someone. When he refused, they broke and cut his arms in many places. Such a sad tale, from a man that had the happiest face and seemed to be the local comic entertainment for the girls at Jasmine Valley. We were happy it was he who took us safely to Sihanoukville! 

Once there, we arrived at the Don Bosco Hotel School (http://www.donboscohotelschool.com), where we were welcomed by a large group of enthusiastic students.  The Don Bosco Hotel School, created by a foundation with the same name, is a unique concept in that it is at the same time a quality, 31-room hotel in Sihanoukville (with fantastic food and an amazing pool in a lovely, quiet location), and a professional school educating and training Cambodia’s disadvantaged youth for the hospitality industry and a better life.  A former hospitality student myself, this was totally up my alley…

One of the volunteer teachers, Thomas Lerch (specializing in Front Office Management), was kind enough to tour us around the hotel & technical school complex. Set on well-kept grounds, the school provides bright classrooms and clean, comfortable eating and sleeping quarters for the students.  Thomas explained that each year, about 1000 students from all over Cambodia, apply for the program (of which 200 get enrolled into the hospitality program and 400 into the technical one).  The selection criteria used are guided by the core principles of the Don Bosco Foundation, which is to provide the most disadvantaged children a chance of education.  Although the students are required to pay for their own school supplies; some of their English textbooks and pencils (usually a couple of dollars a year), few cannot even afford that.

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The hard-working students of the Don Bosco Hotel School in Sihanoukville

Educating and supporting these children makes a real difference in their lives (and the lives of their families as they go on to support not only themselves but the many loved ones around them!).  Thomas Lerch (pictured above) and his volunteer colleagues – educators from England, Germany, Poland – are truly committed to making these kids succeed (Thomas for example is taking a full year away from his wife in Dubai, and is totally driven to see his students land jobs at top 4 or 5 star hotels in the country – positions at local guesthouses is not what he has in mind for his protégés!)

Apparently, they do lack a volunteer French teacher, so if anyone is interested  🙂 or would like to stay at this great hotel, please contact: Thomaslerch2003@yahoo.com

We were grateful that our stay helped a little towards the education of these very friendly and hardworking students! A wonderful program and relaxing stay in Sihanoukville before heading to the jungle in Koh Kong!

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VIETNAM – Saigon, Hue, Danang, Hanoi and Cat Ba Island

14 Nov

CHI MIN CITY – SAIGON

Good Morning Vietnam! (how cool is it to say that…. arriving in the Southern Vietnamese city of Ho Chi Min City….or Saigon as the locals still call it).  The city welcomed us with an incredible heat wave….even standing still made us sweat, so we moved very slowly during our two days of exploration. Saigon is a bustling city….and another one where the motorbike is king and it is a roll of the dice if you survive crossing a simple street!

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Street scene of Saigon

We stayed in the wonderfully, lively backpacker area where it was very enjoyable just to be sitting in a café, looking at people pass by….what the Vietnamese carry on their motorbikes is just beyond incredible! At night, the cafés fill up with the numerous backpackers enjoying the incredibly cheap Saigon beer….and the creepy old, white guys with the very young, and pretty Vietnamese girls.

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Underwater Puppet Show in Saigon

Saigon was the city where we had the pleasure of meeting up with friends: Bryan Rappaport, who works for the Canadian government in Saigon, with his lovely wife Angela and their adorable newborn son Leo. We enjoyed a scrumptious lunch with them and their friends at a breezy and elegant restaurant.

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Anthony with Brian Rappaport and his adorable son Leo

And we got to meet a couple of friends, which were purely made on-line (via my Families on the Move – Facebook group). We enjoyed breakfast with Australian couple Bethany & Lee Davies and their energetic son Rueben and got together with Barbara Adam and her adorable daughter Poppy.

Barbara, a funny Australian native, married Vietnamese Vu, and together they run Saigon Street Eats (http://saigonstreeteats.com),  offering unique, behind-the-scenes, street-food tours.  Barbara met us at a fun place called Snap Café (http://www.asialifemagazine.com/vietnam/the-snap-cafe/), a favourite for families with children as this lovely courtyard restaurant has a great play park to keep little ones entertained (Filou and Emile quickly bonded with the many expat kids there).

After a nice welcome chat, Barbara showed us the ropes of Vietnamese cuisine by taking us to a local restaurant where she expertly ordered a variety of dishes that melted in our mouths. At night, she also took us to her home, showed us the nearby river (where kids come to schmooze as they have little privacy at home), and gave the boys a spin on her motorcycle!  The boys’ were sad to say good-bye to Poppy, as they truly enjoyed their evening with her and her cool mom!

HUE

From Saigon, we flew with Vietnam Airlines to Hue in Central Vietnam to spend our next 5 nights, as it was highly recommend by some other travellers.  Unfortunately, I don’t think we got to see quite the beauty of this little town as it poured rain continuously while we were there. However, we still made the best of it and did some fun things….

On the only day calling for dry weather, we engaged Hue Riders (http://www.hueriders.com), a local motorbike adventure company, to take us and our travelling friends Sonja Everson & family, on a spin to explore the local countryside.  Four riders showed up with lots of enthusiasm and rain gear in tow to provide us with a great day.

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Our rainy countryside tour of Hue, with motorbike adventure company, Hue Riders

During our ride, we saw very colourful and intricate family homes – that looked more like temples – but were Vietnamese houses built for the sole purpose of families coming together to celebrate or enjoy each other’s company.  At the beach, where we were supposed to have a seafood lunch, we saw the structures of what used to be the seafood restaurants destroyed by a recent storm (so we ended up eating under a tent at a local little place – beef ribs, duck, green garlic veggies, egg & rice – $16 worth of deliciousness for the eight of us)!

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Vietnamese Family Home

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Just the skeleton left of a beach seafood restaurant, due to a recent storm

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We also saw farmers, working the rice fields the very traditional way with yaks and had the pleasure of making a stop and interact with a local family – where we got smiles from the very young and the very old (90 years!).

We (and by that I mean Filou), also got to learn about a somewhat unpleasant/surprising habit some Vietnamese have.  The lady of the house took a particular liking to our little guy. She kept asking if he was a girl (perhaps it was not clear as he had a big helmet on at first?) and kept grabbing his private part (I thought is was to check if he was indeed a boy). Later I learned that this is a non-sexual, normal custom – that just shows affection!  Filou took it really well…. just laughed the whole thing off!

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Farmers still working the rice fields, the traditional way with Yaks

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The young (very adorable)…

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And the old (90 years to be exact!)….

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Vietnamese lady that took a “particular” liking to Filou

For the rest, we had fun playing pool at a local café (where again the boys were adored by the many sweet girls that worked there), had our first family foot massage – all four at the same time!, and ate some of the best and cheapest Pho Bo (beef noodle soup) on the street- one that came with many interesting condiments (quail eggs, samosa type bread for dipping etc.) and the most delicious vanilla/lemon frozen yogurt in a bag with straw, we’ve ever tasted!

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Best Pho Bo (Beef Noodle Soup), eaten alongside the road, in Hue, Vietnam

And one day in town, trying to dodge the rain, we sipped delicious mango smoothies while Anthony made an attempt at starting a Vietnamese rock band with the locals (unfortunately, I don’t think great success is in the cards as Anthony had to try not to laugh when one of the guys started to belt out an English song – in a tone so off key, it would make chickens cringe!)

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Anthony and his “talented” Vietnamese music friends

DA NANG

We quickly learned that Vietnam is best explored by motorbike!  Officially it is illegal  for foreigners to ride a motorcycle without a Vietnamese license but everyone does it. And so did we!  For the entire time we were in Hoi An, we had two motorbikes that would take us anywhere. So fun!

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Our first big exploration was a coastal ride from Hoi An to Da Nang, the biggest city on the South-Central coast of Vietnam – beautifully located along the water.  We rode past some gorgeous, deserted beaches all the way up to see the Lady Buddha (or Goddess of Mercy – a HUGE stark white statue, not dissimilar to Rio de Janeiro’s Christ de Redeemer), and Monkey Mountain (a rainforest type habitat that supports many Langur monkeys – although their habitat is getting more endangered with the numerous high-end resorts being build in the area). 

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The Lady Buddha or Goddess of Mercy, on top of Monkey Mountain, Da Nang

Upon our return to Hoi An, we stopped at the Sailing Club restaurant at Da Nang where Filou quickly took a dip in the water to cool down – and Anthony, Emile & I had some great laughs – jumping in the air, snapping shots!

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Jumping for Joy at our Y.O.L.O Life!

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Filou practising Kung Fu, with a bamboo stick found on the beach

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Some great laughs at Da Nang Beach

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Calm Beach scene of Da Nang

The second wonderful ride was the one to the top of Hải Vân Pass – or ocean cloud pass – referring to the mist that rises from the sea – reducing visibility.  This is the 21 km long mountain pass consisting of twisting roads and stunning scenery, between Danang and Hue (according to the BBC motoring programme Top Gear, this road is “a deserted ribbon of perfection – one of the best coastal roads in the world’).

Once we survived the hair-raising task of crossing Danang (we made it alive crossing insane traffic on streets and roundabouts in the city), we were rewarded with a stunning ride through the mountains where we enjoyed magnificent scenery, gorgeous waterfalls, mountain goats – and the thrill of a fantastic ride up, high up in the sky!

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Many pretty, small waterfalls on Hải Vân Pass

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Riding the clouds on a gorgeous mountain pass

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Hải Vân Pass, or Ocean Cloud pass (we rode through a cloud of mist!)

HANOI & CAT BA ISLAND

Anthony interjecting here, to tell about a quick jaunt to Hanoi for Emile and me. On short notice, I had the chance to attend a workshop on climate change in the nation’s capital. I decided to bring Emile with me and make a trip of it.

It was his first ever conference and he was pretty excited. He registered, got a name badge and participated fully in the “tea breaks”. After 10 minutes of formal presentations however, he tuned out preferring to focus on his homework – a good thing indeed! At lunch, he made some new friends amongst a group of Master’s students, one of whom returned later that afternoon with a small parting gift for him. The conference was very interesting and I learned a lot and made some good contacts.

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Emile at his first conference

After the event, flanked by an afternoon of walking around Hanoi’s Old Quarter and some delicious Pho, Emile and I headed to Cat Ba Island near Halong Bay for some rock climbing. As our time was limited, we had to get an early start (5am to be exact!). After 7 hours on buses, taxis and boats, we finally made it to the island.

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Hanoi’s Old Quarter

Our guide extraordinaire at Asia Outdoors Adventure Company  (http://www.asiaoutdoors.com.vn) created a custom program to do some climbing the following morning – again an early start. But was it worth it! Rather than traditional rock  climbing, we took a boat out to the many rocks in the harbour and did some “deep water soloing”. This is essentially rock climbing without a harness, using instead the water to help break your fall. Very cool!

Our guide, Matt, said it best: “Have fun guys and don’t take it too seriously. I mean, we’re climbing rocks and jumping in the water – how serious can it be?” Wise counsel!

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Enjoying a Vietnamese breakfast with Matthew, our rock climbing guide

As Typhoon Haiyan was set to hit Vietnam, Emile and I got home to An Bang Beach as quickly as possible to reunite with Rose and Filou. Upon arrival, I learnt we had been evacuated from our villa and put into a solid concrete hotel. And so the adventure continued…

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On the ferry to Cat Ba Island

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Emile & Anthony doing some deep water soloing at Cat Ba Island

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An Bang Beach; our 3 week home base in Hoi An, VIETNAM

11 Nov

Hoi An

Hoi An, a beautifully preserved port town on the coast of Central Vietnam was our chosen home-base for the next three weeks (as a bit of a rest was needed after 3 months of go-go-go!).  We were delighted to find our accommodations; Be’s Beach Bungalow – a newly built, bright, two-bedroom bungalow situated in a small fishing village, about 400 metres from the beach at An Bang (http://www.hoianbeachbungalows.com/). 

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Be’ Beach Bungalow, An Bang Beach – Hoi An

We quickly adjusted here and got to love the place, the people and our routine! Every morning between 6-7 am, we were woken up, by either the rooster, the family living behind us cleaning their dishes from breakfast, or the locals starting their workday – the villagers all wake up at 5:00 am and go to sleep when the sun goes down…(and then there were the handful of times that the Vietnamese communist propaganda and local information updates blasted through the loudspeakers and jolted us out of bed at 5:00 am!).

Then, between 7-8:30 am, we would visit the local little market to get our delicious French bread (one of the many great French influences still remaining in Vietnam), our eggs, vegetables and fruits (among them the best mangoes I have ever tasted and a large array of the most exotic fruits).  I quickly honed in on my favorite fruit & vegetable ladies at this truly local, little gathering of women and received warm greetings and acceptance (it is uncommon to see men at this market as it is a woman’s job to do the groceries – and for that reason Anthony got less favorable pricing and welcomes, when picking up things).

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My favourite “fruit lady”, at An Bang Beach’s morning market

Following the market, an early morning beach walk or run was in order.  These early morning beach visits gave us a great insight into the local life of the fishermen and hardworking women at An Bang. 

Numerous large baskets dot the shoreline on this peaceful stretch of coastline.  These baskets seem too small to be fishing boats that can handle the incredibly rough waves. However, this is exactly what they are.  For many years they were the most common Vietnamese fishing boat (called Thung Chai).  Around 7:00 am, we would see these mighty fishing boats come back from their early morning run – with the fishermen frantically making number eight’s with their paddles to stay afloat on the breaking waves (often 4-6 people were needed to launch the boat or bring it back to shore)…Once arrived, the women would quickly take the fish and bring it to the market for sale!

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Vietnamese basket boat (Thung Chai) on An Bang Beach, Hoi An

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One of the dedicated and brave fishermen

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Hardworking women on An Bang Beach

Following calm mornings of work (homework for the kids!), we would enjoy the beach or go into town in the afternoon.  We quickly got to like the “beach bum” life, with the boys turning into little “caramels” and “surfer dudes”.

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Surfer Dudes

Strolling through the picturesque, historic town centre of Hoi An, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was a real treat. This city core has distinctive traits (French, Japanese, Chinese etc.), leftover from its many rulers. Most of the city’s historic buildings are still completely in tact as during the American War, the city with the cooperation of both sides, remained undamaged.

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Street vendor in the historic old town of Hoi An 

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Vietnamese girls making colourful lanterns all day for the tourists

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The old trading hub & port of Hoi An

So, Hoi An is known for its rich history, as well as delectable cuisine (amazing street food, restaurants and cooking classes) and wide range of tailors and shoe makers (on every corner imaginable!).

So we had a little fun, and each got a funky new pair of shoes made.  And if you want a North Face jacket or bag, this is your place (apparently copied but made in the same factory as the real thing, with the same materials!)

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New funky shoes, made for all of us in a day (complete with initials – see F.W!)

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North Face (and other brand name) jackets and bags in every colour imaginable (apparently made in the same factory as the “real” thing).

As well, Filou & I indulged in taking a full day cooking class at Green Bamboo Cooking School (http://www.greenbamboo-hoian.com)Van, the instructor, was an amazing teacher and delightfully warm personality (she LOVED having Filou in her class as he charmed her and the other participants all afternoon with his jokes, stories and cooking skills!).

Van first took us to the market, where we got to buy the fresh ingredients for our chosen dishes  (And fresh it is!  We were told that they slaughter the cows at 3:00 am in the morning and have it at the market by 5:00 am – and as they do not have refrigeration, all that you see is fresh from that day).   As there were 8 participants in our class that day, we got to make a wide range of traditional Vietnamese dishes (chicken  & beef curry, seafood salad, beef noodle soup (Pho Bo traditional dish), Cau Lau – Hoi An special noodles with pork, shrimp & pork pancakes, grilled BBQ fish in banana leaf etc.) – and eat it all – for three hours straight! It was scrumptious!

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Filou, slowly adding water to fresh coconut pulp, which he then had to squeeze by hand into coconut milk for his curry dish

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And with his final creation; a delicious chicken curry in coconut milk

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And for me, a Vietnamese seafood salad with squid, shrimp, basil & chili

Our stay at An Bang Beach, was interrupted when SUPER Typhoon Haiyan (the strongest type 5 Typhoon recorded in history!!!), made its way from the Philippines directly for us. The whole village of An Bang, due to its coastline location was being evacuated.  It was amazing to see how the villagers were pulling together, helping one another to safeguard their homes by putting sandbags on the roofs (roofs made of simple tin plates that had the real risk of flying away), sturdy ropes around their houses – and taping up windows (although most villagers didn’t have any glass windows to worry about).   The owners of Be’s Bungalow (Aaron & Huong), were nice enough to put us up in a luxurious, sturdy hotel on a hill in town (the villagers were all going to government-provided cramped halls where they were ordered to sleep for the night).

Although we had nothing to complain about, there was still concern (trying to get out of the city to no avail as all trains and flights were fully booked, not being together as a family the day before the storm hit as Anthony and Emile were rock climbing in Cat Ba Island – so hoping they would make it back to us safely, not knowing how hard this super typhoon would hit us etc.).  But in the end, all worked out well for us and the people of Hoi An as the strength of this hurricane remained over sea and hit land hardest in Northern Vietnam.  All in all, an eventful ending to a spectacular stay in the wonderful village of An bang, Hoi An. 

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Villagers putting sandbags on their roofs, to protect their homes against Super Typhoon Haiyan

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Be’s Bungalow’s windows being taped up to protect rocks from shattering them

Thank you to our wonderful “landlords” Aaron & Huong who did everything in their power to give us the most enjoyable stay in their beautiful bungalow, their friend Carl who taught the boys how to surf and showed us the good places in town and to Mr. & Ms. Mai – the very sweet housekeepers who made our stay so pleasant & luxurious!

CHINA, The mountains and rivers of YANGSHUO

4 Nov

 CHINA, The mountains and rivers of YANGSHUO

Yangshuo, a small town in southern China, most known for its beautiful KARST mountain scenery (karst topography is a landscape shaped by the dissolution of layers of soluble bedrock such as limestone or dolomite.  South China is a major Karst area in the world), was our next destination in China.  The major appeal of this area is three-fold – to cycle the area, float the gorgeous Li River while taking in the breath-taking mountain and rice field scenery, and to climb the peaks (Yangshuo is one of the top 5 climbing destinations in the world and many climbers hang out here for months to perfect their skill).

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We stayed at the most perfect eco-friendly, home-style run villa called The Stonebridge Inn http://www.hostelworld.com/hosteldetails.php/The-Stone-Bridge/Yangshuo/53001?sc_sau=sfab&sc_pos=5 This super bright, clean and inviting hostel was located in the valley – just outside the busy town centre – overlooking farmers’ rice paddys, mountains and pomelo orchards (a pomelo is a type of large, delicious grapefruit).  This inn is run by the nicest and most hospitable husband and wife team you’ll ever meet.  ahLong (Australian) and his wife Jess (Chinese) know what foreigners and first-time visitors to China need; a delicious breakfast (with best Muesli ever!), some good directions on what to do in and around town (ahLong will even drop you off at the bus station or ride into the mountains to see that you are going in the right direction), help with translations and your laundry, that quickly starts to pile up, and even play “mommy” and take care of you when you are feeling a bit under the weather (Thanks a bunch Jess!)!

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Jessie and ahLong, our wonderful hosts at The Stonebridge Inn, Yangshuo

Our first day there, we were excited to take the 1.5 hour ride on a bamboo raft down the Li River. This outing did not disappoint as the scenery was gorgeous – unfortunately the kids were a little tired from travelling and the calm movement of the raft put them to sleep for most of the ride! But no sweat – this gave Anthony and me the chance to chat alone a bit, take lots of pictures and have two cuddle bunnies on our laps. The end of our raft ride was in Xing Ping, a little, historic town where we had a nice lunch by the river (the green, local vegetables with garlic sauce has quickly turned into the boys’ favorite dish!).

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Li River Bamboo Raft Ride

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Delicious green vegetables with garlic

Next it was onto cycling into the mountains. Unfortunately, we chose a slightly wrong day for this activity, as it was the first day of China’s Golden Week (a week of holiday for the Chinese where everyone travels!). It took us over an hour to get out of our small town as bikes, motorcycles and cars where whizzing by us – and coming directly at us from all directions!!!  Emile very quickly pointed out that if he could ride his bike in this kind of holiday traffic in China, he could ride it anywhere (so true!). It was a miracle we made it out unharmed– and so quickly, we needed a break to recoup. We stopped at mountain village attraction that showed the life of local aboriginals. At the dance performance finale, the boys were “attacked with kindness” by the girl performers who didn’t want to let them go until they all had a picture taken with them (much to the chagrin of the boy performers who moved Emile and Filou along once they felt they had had enough attention – too funny to watch this male dominance at work!)

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Little aboriginal Chinese children

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With Chinese gong

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Boys styling it the Chinese way

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Emile and Filou with Chinese girl performers!

Among other attractions in this cycling area were Moon Hill Mountain, a hill with a natural arch through it that Filou and I climbed (800 large steps)! Filou was convinced there was jade to be found on this mountain so in true adventurer style, we stopped several times to dig! We didn’t find anything but our reward was a motorcycle ride back home (a first and thrilling experience for Filou who had never been on one, let alone together with his mom and driver all stuck together, and without a helmet – o the things you do in other countries)! And then there was the Mud Cave & Hot Springs that I indulged in with the boys one afternoon – slightly smelly but super fun to float on mud in a beautiful cave!

I have quickly come to love and appreciate the members of a Facebook group called, Families on the Move – a group of avid travellers that take their families on the road for 6 months or more and provide advice to one another about travel in various countries (some have sold all of their belongings and travel continuously – and because of it, are the best travel guides you’ll ever find!).  Through this group, I got to meet Sonja and her lovely family from Vancouver who, like us, set out to travel for a year with their children.  When Sonja, her husband Mike and their children Emma and Jacob arrived in Yangshuo we were all very excited to meet them (the kids were keen to have some English playmates) – and we all clicked instantly. Sonja invited me to a Chinese cooking class she was taking and of course I was game.

We met a sweet, 20-year old girl Chinese girl called Mona in the heart of town. She first took us to Yanghuo’s local farmers market to guide us through the many varieties of Chinese vegetables, fruits, fish and meats. And that is not all you see –if you dare to go to the end of the market, you see all kind of animals being killed on the spot – and when I was pointing to an skinned animal that hung up side down – thinking it was a small pig, I was explained it was a dog.  So, yes indeed the Chinese eat dogs and cats – and even the local water rats.  ahLong explained to me that he lost three of his pet dogs in three weeks! – as poachers were targeting the area and would come over lunch time – when the Chinese sleep –  to scout for dogs to kill and sell at the market!  We were told that people are hungry here so that this is indeed a reality (ps: I will spare you the picture of the dog)!

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Yanshuo’s farmers market

So we quickly moved on from the market and drove 20 minutes out of town. In the beautiful countryside, the Yangshuo Cooking school had a lovely set-up in a farmhouse where we learned to cook the most delicious dishes; bok choy in garlic sauce, spicy cashew chicken, beer fish (a local speciality), stuffed mushroom caps and tofu balls, eggplant in oyster sauce and some delicious pork stuffed dumplings!  So much food we made in a very short time (as cooking in a wok is all about timing, temperature and speed!).  So with very full bellies, recipes in hand and a great satisfaction, we went home that night!

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Chinese cooking class creations

During our days in Yangshuo, Anthony went to a rock climbing café, where he met the real nice owner called aBond. It turned out that aBond is the number one rock climber in China, sponsored by Adidas to climb all over the world (with his girlfriend Ting – also a force to be reckoned with and sponsored by the same brand).  This goal-driven 25 year old has the big mission to turn China into the number 1 rock climbing destination in the world (something that one day is achievable as the country has fabulous mountains and a growing interest in this sport – with still so many potential local followers).  Abond is building a great community with his rock climbing café, rock climbing hostel and adventure company & gear.  Needless to say, Anthony chose him and his girlfriend to take us on our first rock climbing expedition.

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Filou at the RockAbond climbing wall

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Picture of Anthony with rising climbing superstar Abond

Our beginner mountain was called Swiss Cheese – you can probably imagine why – the many holes make it easier for beginners.  After the initial explanations and equipment checks (ABCDEFG – A:    B: belt, C:  D, E:   F: Friends, G: Go) Emile was eager to be the first to try, and with little effort reached the first mountain top. Filou needed a little more encouragement and Ting proved to be a brilliant coach – she just wouldn’t take no for an answer or bring him down.  After several “I can NOT do this”, he also reached the mountaintop – and was flying with pride (and a high five and candy from Ting). Now, he cannot stop talking about climbing and wants to do it more!  While I was quite happy to be the official photographer, Anthony also really loved his first experience and climbed three different climbs at the hands of aBond….There is now talk about more climbing in Vietnam (where we are as I write) and in Thailand over Christmas!

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Filou with Ting, his fabulous climbing coach

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So with this great experience we say good-bye to the lovely little town of Yangshuo.

We will remember you for:

– Your most amazing scenery of mountains, rivers, rice fields and yaks.

– Your wonderful markets where you sell many delicious snacks (especially vegetable dumplings) and beautiful things (the best were your scarves and $7 RayBan glasses) and the craziness and charm of West Street where we savored many a coconut drink, smoothie and passion fruit.

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–  Café China where enjoyed wonderful food and made great friends (the daughter of the café owner was crazy about Emile!  Note to Marsha: Emile gave her one of your Canadian penny necklaces and she is still jumping for joy!)

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 –  Your killer $12, one-hour massages that brought such relaxation and comfort

–  Your people that seem to be able to sleep anytime and anywhere (see the guy spread out on his motorcycle sleeping by the road at rush hour – sound asleep!)

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– Your insane traffic that comes from everywhere – but somehow everyone knows how to share the road!

–  Your squatting toilets, some without doors and almost all of them without toilet paper

–  Your (to us), crazy eating habits of dogs, cats and water rats!  We are sorry you are so hungry.

–  Your gorgeous karst mountains that we had the pleasure of climbing (hard to find a second climbing spot more beautiful!)

–  Your beautiful Li River that we loved cooling down in, after a 33C day!

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–  The kindness of your people – we thank you for making us feel so safe, welcomed and treated like stars! (our Chinese cooking instructor told me that children that major in English get the mandate to practice the language with foreigners, and are instructed to take a total of 100 photographs of those they chatted with!).

And with Yangshuo, we say good-bye to a wonderful month in China. Via bus, train and 2 planes, we will arrive soon in Vietnam!