Kunming has made me rethink my expectations of China, and maybe even made me fall in love a little. Kunming, the city, known as the ‘city of eternal spring’ is full of parks, lakes and greenery and is remarkably clean. I dont say this often about a city, but it’s a place I could live.
My expectations of a Chinese city of 10 million people where that it would polluted, a little chaotic and not very green. Kunming changed that perception in just under a day. Kunming city, is peaceful filled with lakes, parks and a few historic temples. The public transport is cheap and efficient and even the taxis use the meter. I think this is the first place on my trip I haven’t had to worry about haggling over taxi fares
So what to do in Kunming?
Visit the beautiful and historic Yuantong temple, which is not only beautiful, but the most important Buddhist temple in Yunnan.
Spend the day wandering around Kunmings Guandu Old town district. It’s beautiful old Pagodas, lake area with pop up Chinese Opera performances and locals and tourists just sitting around taking in the pleasant atmosphere was one of the more peaceful days I’ve spent in a while.
I found my favourite thing to do was just to wander around the town itself. Dotted with parks and lakes, it seems like there is someone singing or dancing or practicing Tai Chi around every corner.
If your looking further afield, there a day trips available to the Shillin karst rock formations just out of town, and the kitsch chinese theme park ‘Kingdom of the little people’.
How to get there and around
Kunming is easily accessed by plane, train and bus and is probably better explained by wikitravel. Getting around on the bus system is surprisingly easy, the buses are numbered with English numbering so if your hotel can tell you which number you need it’s just a matter of hopping on and depositing your 2 yuan fair at the front of the bus.
Taxi fares are also quite reasonable and always metered. There is a 2.50 yuan fuel surcharge, this is legitimate and is marked in the front of most of Kunmings taxis. You are probably not going to find a single taxi driver who speaks English, so be sure to either have some kind of translator application with you or have your hotel/hostel write down where your going in Chinese characters, you will get quite stuck without this.
I feel like I’m gushing in my praise of the city, and no, this is not attempt to suck up to the Chinese government because I know people don’t like blogging about them, I genuinely fell a little bit in love with Kunming.
There were frustrations, which I’m sure I’m going to experience all over China – mainly the lack of spoken English vs my complete lack of Chinese. Despite this, I found most people happy to try and help. Kunming felt like a genuinely happy peaceful city and I’m glad I began my Chinese journey here
Well the time had finally come. I sat down tentatively on the plastic blue stool at what looked like a nice street side place to eat and prepared to face the two biggest things I’d been worried about in coming to China. How am I going to communicate I’m vegetarian in China and how to eat with chopsticks.
My first impressions of China where how incredibly friendly the people were. The Laos/China border crossing was the smoothest land border crossing I’ve ever completed, the customs officers practically did everything for me bar sign my name.
My good luck continued on arriving in the town of Mengla, the first major stop after the Laos border. I decided to stop here a night and get my Chinese bearings before heading on to Kunming. Between the customs officials and the incredibly helpful English speaking cafe owner I met when I got off the bus I started to think all my concerns may have been for nothing. I got a great Chinese vegetarian meal easily and they gave me a spoon, putting off the inevitable ‘how to eat with chopsticks’ moment. This was however the end of that illusion.
After putting me on the local bus into town, I said goodbye to my English speaking friend – and there where no more. I struggled to locate any hotel, let alone the one I was looking for, but then, I remembered. I prepared for this!
I pulled out my trusty iPad and typed in youth hostel into the Chinese translator app I had downloaded for just this type of problem, and voila – someone understood what I wanted and I was there within 5 minutes.
The bargaining for the price of the hotel presented another Chinese/English communication problem. This one was resolved with the use of fingers. She held up 7 and I held up 5. She held up 6 and I shook my head and continued with 5 and she relented. Another hurdle crossed.
On heading out for dinner I was determined not to be scared off by the fact that I don’t know the protocols here, I have no idea how difficult it is going to be to be vegetarian in China or what a lot of the food is, or how to speak Chinese. It turns out, even if I had wanted to cave and eat at a western style place, there wasn’t one anyway.
On sitting down at the restaurant, I was again struck by how incredibly friendly everyone was. ’Hello, hello’ rang out from the surrounding tables and the waitress bought me some Chinese tea – so far so good. The same people made up point of coming to my table and saying goodbye when they left, the only two words they seemed to know in English.
I got out my iPad and showed them the Chinese characters for vegeterian. They all came and looked and discussed amongst themselves and then took me to the counter where all the ingredients where stocked. They pointed at corn, I nodded ok, at mushrooms, again ok, and I pointed at tofu and then just generally waved ok at all the green things.
I expected some kind mix of all these things cooked together. I was mistaken. Each ingredient was cooked up in a separate dish, each big enough for a meal in itself with enough rice for a family of four. So now I know how it comes. I’ll be more prepared next time and bring friends. The good news was was I’d managed my first vegetarian meal in China!
The moment of truth with the chopsticks also came. I’d been practicing in Laos, but there was always a backup with the spoon there. Here, there where only chopsticks – and I had rice and corn kernels to deal with. I may have eaten like a child, but I did manage to get through the meal without the use of a spoon. I predict I will ascend to expert levels by the end of my time here!
So, in summary, so far, Chinese people are incredibly friendly. With the help of my trusty iPad I think being vegetarian in China will be a lot easier than I expected and I will master how to eat with chopsticks.
N.B. Apologies for the lack of pictures with this post, I’ve had the first major loss of my trip in my camera somewhere between Mengla and Kunming. You where to get a view of the massive feast prepared for me and the smiling chef cooking it.
Where have you had interesting challenges communicating what you want to eat?
Vang Vieng, the town renowned for partying and the infamous ‘Vang Vieng tubing’ can still throw a party, and you can still go tubing. These days, it also has a lot to offer in the way of outdoor activities, kayaking, caving. Vang Vieng appears to me a town in transition.
Gone are (most) of the wild parties Vang Vieng is reputed for and in its place appears a town, trying to create a new identity as an outdoor activity hotspot. The tubing is still there, but kayaking and caving and climbing appear to be the focus now. I found it a nice town, with a few unusual quirks, like the inordinate amount of restuarants showing endless re runs of friends.
The scenery around the town is spectacular, with massive Karst limestone cliffs rising up from all sides. Kayaking down the Nam Song river is a pleasant experience. Being flatwater, I have to admit the paddling part was a little underwhelming for me, but the scenery was beautiful. The kayak trip takes the same path as the tubing trip and there is the opportunity to stop for a beer along the way.
I haven’t been to Vang Vieng before, but of course I have heard of its reputation. While you can still have a drink and some fun tubing down the river, it appeared incredibly toned down compared to the stories I’ve heard.
A trip out to the blue lagoon (pictured at top) by tuk tuk/bicycle or motorbike is almost a must, this idyllic little spot is beautiful and great place to refresh.
As far as the parties go, there still there, there just not everywhere. It may be because it’s the low season, but it appeared to me that Vang Viengs crazy days are over. We did head out one night to a jungle party, and yes it was a good party, it’s not all over, but it’s not the focus anymore.
There are hundreds of accommodation options in Vang Vieng for all budgets. I would like to particularly call out Champa Lao the Villa as being one of the best budget places I’ve ever stayed in. At $10 for a double and $6-7 for a single, the rooms where immaculate and the hammocks hung amongst the jungly outdoor area made for a divine place to relax.
Vang Vieng can be reached by bus from all major cities and towns in Laos. It’s approximately 6-8 hours from Luang Prabang and 4-5 to Vientiane.
If your looking for the famous party town you probably won’t find it. You will still find a party, but it’s not every night and with the shutting down of a lot of the bars along the river Vang Vieng tubing appears to have become a much more sedate, but still fun affair.
The mysterious and ancient plain of jars, Americas secret war and a small incident involving a motor scooter, lots of mud and a few small scratches
Stepping carefully between the white markers that signify where the ‘bombies’ – unexploded bomblets left over from Americas secret war in Laos have been cleared from, we approach the Plain of Jars site 3 confronted with eerily big giant sized stone jars scattered amongst the trees. This is the third of the three main open sites and we had it all to ourselves, and so where able to stare and wonder for while at exactly what they where used for.
The Plain of Jars is located just outside the Laotian town of Phonsavan. Phonsavan itself, is to be honest not the most exciting town in the world and the jars and the remnants left over from the war really are the only reason to visit.
The jars have been here from around 500 BC and there usage is still speculated about. Human remains around the site indicate they could have been burial sites, local tales say they where used by giants to store rice. I prefer the giant theory.
The other interesting thing about Phonsavan is its location relatively close to where the CIA built its airport and base. I didn’t know much at all about the war that went on here before visiting, but most of the cafes in town screen documentaries every evening which helps give you a good sense of what actually did go on here.
The leftover situations is that the whole area is completely scattered with bombshells and other war artefacts which people now use as scrap metal to make tools, spoons and bracelets and bombshells decorate homes and cafes. The more darker side is the amount of unexploded bomblets that still litter the area, making farming the fields a life threatening experience.
There are organisations working with the Laotian people to clear these up, but many areas remain uncleared. The photograph below was taken on the pathway to the Plain of Jars. I’m normally one that likes to wander off the track, but here I stayed firmly between the white markers, which as you can see can be quite narrow in places.
The rains have come early to Laos this year, and as me and my current travel buddy elected to rent a scooter rather than take the tour bus, this ended up posing a bit of a problem for us when we got caught in a downpour. We skidded and fell in the wet mud twice, luckily ending up with only minor scraped and bruises to show for it, as well as a fair bit of mud.
Getting there and costs
Phonsavan itself can be reached by bus from Luang Prabang (8 hours), Vang Vieng (6 hours) or Vientianne (10-12 hours). The cost of the bus if booked through the tourist agencies in town will range from 120,000 to 150,000 kip. You can just show up at the bus station and purchase a ticket for 95,000.
The plain of jars sites are approximately 15kms from Phonsavan and can be reached via an organised tour for around 150,000 kip or by renting a motorbike/scooter that will set you back between 90,000 to 120,000 kip. Entrance to each site is 10,000 kip.
100,000 kip is about $12 US.
Phonsavan is a little out of the way and off the normal tourist trail, and to be honest it’s not the nicest town I’ve visited. That said, the plain of jars sites are interesting and surrounding stories and history of the war educational.
If you are tight on time it’s probably not worth the bus journey for a 1 day visit, however if you have time and mysterious historical sites interest you, you are probably going to find it worthwhile.
Be cautious in the rainy season on motorbikes and scooters. Every other traveler I spoke to who had rented one had also come off there’s. We where all uninjured and ended up with nothing more than a few bruises and travel war stories but thats just luck.
I liked the Plain of Jars because historical sites always fascinate me, particularly ones where there is some mystery around them. What’s your favourite historical or mysterious site that you’ve visited – or would like to?
It’s 5am and the alarm has gone off in my dorm room. It’s ok though as there are only three of us and we all agreed the night before we would get up and go down to watch a little piece of history that takes place every day here.
Every morning, the monks of Luang Prabang make there way down the main street, receiving alms from pilgrims that line the road. Most of the offerings made are sticky rice, but money and other forms of food are also given. It was a beautiful ceremony to watch. There has been some things written recently about tourists behaviour being disrespectful to the ceremony. I think this blog post by So Many Miles sums up the situation well so I won’t re-write it.
To be respectful, and because I was unsure how to perform the offering, I stayed on the other side of the road, quietly as the monks passed, taking photos and observing from a distance. A lovely group of Thai ladies then invited me over to join there group and instructed me on the correct way to give. I was privileged to sit with them through the rest of the procession and give alms. It is one of the beautiful things about Luang Prabang, but I think it’s important that we always remember to behave with respect when religion and tradition is involved.
Luang Prabang is small ancient, Unesco world heritage listed town, nestled on the Mekong. It is full of stunning views and beautiful old temples.
It is also quite close to the Kuang Si waterfalls, which I have to honestly say are some of the most beautiful I’ve seen in my life.
You’ll have no trouble getting out there, tuk tuks line the streets all day offering you a ride. We opted to rent a scooter and have a nice drive through the local villages.
I’ve enjoyed Luang Prabang, it is a little touristy, and unusual in the fact that everything except the bowling alley shuts at 11pm – resulting in every backpacker in town taking a sudden interest in bowling, but it’s been a nice introduction to Laos. I’m liking it here so far.
You can travel and coordinate the whole trip yourself relatively easily, but the packages from Chiang Mai where so cheap, I decided to take the easy route for once and purchase one.
The first day consists of just a bus ride to the border, with a quick stop off at Chiang Rai’s bizarre White Temple. Gleamingly beautiful from a distance, closer inspection reveals elements of death and suffering, all mostly unexplained by the artist who is leaving everyone to make there own interpretation.
The next two days involve drifting slowly down the Mekong, sipping Beer Lao and getting to know all the new and interesting people taking the journey with you. For me, this was a delightful experience, with views like this to keep you occupied and lively banter between countries about sporting prowess (Australians are obviously better at everything), the time passed quickly.
There where some of my fellow passengers that where less impressed and I’d like to take a moment to talk about some of the realities of travelling in less developed countries. Firstly there where complaints about the cramped conditions. The inside of the boat looks something like the below.
Local people take this boat, there are not assigned seats and sometimes people will be sitting on the floor, it will be cramped. If this bothers you, pay extra money for a private boat – or go to Europe.
Secondly, NO – you will not be able to charge your electronic devices on board.
Thirdly, and this really disappointed me the most. It is not a door to door service. When our boat pulled into stop, we where told we would need to get a tuk tuk to the village, this would cost about $2. What proceeded from here was sheer madness. Several people started insisting that they had paid to go to Luang Prabang, and they where not getting off the boat until it took them further around.
The boat was at the boat port, I don’t care what Lonely Planet says, it is a guide and sometimes things change. This may not have been the exact location of the port when your guide book was published, but it is where the port is now. If you want smooth door to door service transitions, you are in the wrong country.
Myself and several other people got off the boat. From what I understand some people sat on the boat for upto 2 hours in protest. Not only this, but they yelled at myself and others for getting off and not banding together. If you chose to stage a foolish sit in because you can’t cope with something not going exactly the way the guide book says, that is your business, but do not presume to tell me how to travel. I was in a hotel, showered and in a restaurant by the Mekong while you where still sitting on a sweaty cramped boat.
Travelling in developing countries such as Laos can be an amazing experience, if you let go and let it be. Your food is often going to take a long time to be delivered, and a 7am pick up probably means the bus will be there sometime before 9. People won’t speak English and the number 15 will sound like 50 and cause many miscommunications.
You can accept this and enjoy yourself, or rail against it and spend your whole trip in a worked up state of agitation. The choice is yours, but my recommendation is you take the first option, go with the flow, let life happen at the pace it happens here. It’s a beautiful experience, if you just embrace it.
Armed with my butterfly wings water pistol and Hello Kitty water tight purse, I believe I made a fearsome sight as I set out to do battle for Songkran – Thai New Year. The celebration was absolute madness!! In Chiang Mai, it is a 5 day, city wide water fight. Load your guns up with ice chilled water and attack anything you come across!
I don’t have any photos of Songkran (due to the water) other than the one above I stole of from a friend.
We arrived in Chiang Mai on the 12th of April, foolishly thinking things didn’t start until the next day. We decided to take a trip out to Tiger Kingdom. Three Westerners in an open sided tuk tuk where a prime target and we where pelted and drenched from all sides on our way both there and back.
The next few days where spent having an absolute childlike ball, a waterfight with every person you came across. The shouts of ‘dry people’ would ring down the street from time to time, and no one escaped then. Day turned into all night dance marathons. This has to be one of the funnest festivals in the world!
Tiger Kingdom was a fantastic experience getting up close and personal with these magnificent animals. The babies where adorable and the adults, pretty friendly. It was one of those things that definitely put me over my daily budget, but was well worth the experience.
My first post from my first trip to Thailand. Bangkok so far as I’ve seen it so far covered in history, Buddhist ruins, multitudes of tourists and millions of bars. Being Australian, it’s actually quite ridiculous that I haven’t been here before. But I’ve finally made it and I’m starting to see why so many people like it.
The beginning was overwhelming. India is busy, but I haven’t seen so many tourists and so many bars as in Khao San Road in a very long time. I spent some time getting acquainted with Bangkoks bars, including and excursion to Soi Cowboy (Cowboy St) pictured below, which is full of lady boy and dancing bars. The unusual thing I’ve noticed is that the lady boy phenomena is not just a tourist attraction, Thailand genuinely seems to have a third sex and they are part of every day life, not just the night scene.
I’ve also enjoyed the more historical and respectable side of the city. Just an hour and half by train out of town is the historic site of Ayutthya, the seat of an ancient Thai kingdom and Unesco world heritage site. Cycling around the ruins was enjoyable, even if it was nearly 40 degrees, and I always find the most amusing things here, like for some inexplicable reason, you can buy boiled eggs – write out the front of the giant Buddha.
My days in Bangkok finish today. We’re heading north to Chiang Mai on the overnight bus in preparation for Thai NY. From what I understand Thai NY or Songkran is celebrated by a giant 3 day country wide water fight. After all the fun I had at Holi I’m really looking forward to experiencing another famous world party!
I should also not finish this post without mentioning the massages and Pad Thai and shopping. All three cheap and amazing!
Holi has to be one of the most fun festivals going. Like a lot of festivals worldwide that have been celebrated for many centuries, thousands even a lot of different meanings and explanations for the festival exist. The main one is that it is a celebration of the coming Spring. In reality is a chance for everybody to let there hair down and play like children, which makes for an incredibly fun and fresh atmosphere.
The pictures are in order of progression of how my look developed throughout the day. The first one was taken after less than 5 minutes of being on the street, between my hotel and breakfast.
This was taken after my crew above returned from a street walk. The best way to go about the day is find a group of people and walk up and down the street finding other groups of people to put colour on – or just put it on each other, there really aren’t any rules.
This policeman even let me give him tikka (the stripe down the head)!
The end of the day was just a horrible mess. The colour did come off – although I do still have pink streaks in my hair, I’m sure they’ll come out in a few washes!
It is a day full of laughter and childlike fun.
What is your favourite world festival – so far this is definitely mine!
I’ve just recently spent 4 days on the Trisuli river in Nepal, reacquainting myself with my white water kayaking skills. When I was in Nepal over 3 years ago I was doing quite a bit of kayaking, and I continued with it from time to time back home in Australia, but it has been quite a while since I’ve paddled and I was concerned I might be right back at the beginning again.
A lot of people mostly think of trekking when they think of Nepal, but Nepal actually has some of the best white water in the world, and can cater for Kayak clinics for complete newbies, to grade 5+ expedition trips for pros as well as 1-10 day rafting trips. There are plenty of companies to chose from, so shop around. I chose to go with Adrenaline Rush. They have a beautiful fixed camp site on the Trisuli and are a professional and incredibly friendly bunch of people.
I was happy to discover my skills hadn’t completely deserted me, which meant I was able to enjoy the rush of tackling the rapids without worrying about embarrassing myself and having to be rescued.
Like any outdoor sport, I find your always feeling that bit happier and brighter at the end of the day, just from spending time in nature. So I encourage anyone coming to Nepal to give the rafting or kayaking a go, and anyone anywhere to make an effort to get out into nature somehow. I promise you’ll feel the better for it!
‘The first river you paddle runs through the rest of your life. It bubbles up in pools and eddies to remind you who you are.’
- Lynn Noel, Voyages: Canada’s Heritage Rivers