Welcome Eric! – Vivir es aventurarse … divertirse Eric!

I want to give a warm welcome to Ericwho has just joined the Traveller’s Playground team. Over the next few weeks his experiences and images will start appearing from his trip through Asia… his next destination, South America! He also writes at Taggart In Asia Here is his transition post… let the travel’s begin!

We’ve gone WAY beyond

It’s been awesome that you’ve followed my travels, and I will continue to awe you with stories of passion, danger, and grand adventure. Most of you probably know that I left Asia and headed back home for the cold and snow. It didn’t last very long. Spending the holiday season with friends and family was a much needed and served as a lovely respite from Thai cuisine. Yet I felt as though I wasn’t quite done out in the world.

I decided that instead of returning to the cubical farm to graze upon spreadsheets and cold calls, I would continue this trip for a little bit longer. So I booked myself a one way ticket to Lima, Peru and intend to spend the next few months exploring a new continent!

So yes, we’ve gone beyond Bangkok. We’ve gone beyond Asia. This will be a new chapter in my backpacking life and hopefully it will bring the noise. I’ll be covering diverse terrain, going from the Pacific to the Atlantic, and then turning south to Patagonia. I’m in exceptionally medium shape, so hopefully I can handle it.


Bali

Bali is in right now. It’s hip. It’s cool. You can’t scroll through a travel feed on Instagram without seeing ten shots of Bali. I can understand the hype. It’s a tropical paradise in a foreign land with a unique culture and absolutely stunning beaches. But I have a hot take; I didn’t love it there. Don’t get me wrong, I had a good time, but I didn’t love it. I spent about ten days total on the Island, and I’ll sum up the good and the bad for you.

The Good:

Ubud- This hub in the center of the island is actually awesome. Tucked away in a lush jungle, Ubud has a lot to offer. From a bustling modern downtown to a community of wild monkeys, there’s something for everyone in Ubud. One highlight is the Sacred Monkey Forest. This ecological reserve is home to more than 600 long tail macaques. It’s not a huge space so the animals are extremely interactive with the guests. They will jump on you and they will absolutely try to steal your things. I found one little guy elbow deep in my pocket at one point trying to rob me blind. It’s not uncommon for Abu and his pals to run off with someones sun glasses or water bottle.

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Mt Batur- Another awesome part of Bali (and Ubud especially) is it’s plethora of outdoor adventures. One of the highlights of my time on the island was the sunrise trek up the volcano, Mr Batur. After a 2am breakfast I caught a jeep ride to the base of the mountain. From here I was led by my 17 year old local guide up the steep mountain path. I arrived at the summit after about 2 hours of trekking, the last 30min of which is spent trudging up a steep grade of volcanic sands. The reward at the top was worth the early wake up. After enjoying a beautiful sunrise the group trekked back down, avoiding some thieving monkeys along the way. We stopped off at the famous Tegalalang rice fields on the way back to the hostel. The green terraced hillsides really are strikingly beautiful. The trip ended at a local coffee plantation where we were given some much needed samples. The most famous coffee is the Luwak java. The beans are digested by these little animals and then are plucked from the stool. It sounds and looks gross, but the coffee is an island specialty and extremely expensive. Overall Bali is filled with beauty. From hidden waterfalls, to secret beaches, to the green rice terraces, you’re sure to find something to please the eye.

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The bad:

It’s not really an issue of Bali being ‘bad’. It just happens to be very westernized. Bali is an extremely popular vacation destination for Australians, Europeans, and Americans alike who are looking for a unique experience. There’s been rapid growth, which is good for the people of Bali and its economy. I just wonder if that growth has been great for the identity of the island. The areas of Kuta and Seminyak feature plenty of pubs, clubs, and outlet malls. There are beach clubs and resorts that rival those in the Caribbean. The western tourists are certainly catered to, and it wasn’t something I loved. That doesn’t mean Bali didn’t have plenty to offer. Its the only predominantly Hindu island in the Muslim dominant Indonesia. The locals are extremely spiritual and this energy can be felt almost everywhere. Before hiking Batur the guides will fall to their knees to light incense and pray to their gods. They’re also extremely friendly and welcoming. I guess what I didn’t like about Bali was that it felt too close to home. It was as though people are bringing Western culture to the island more and more rather than experiencing the beauty of what is already is there. It’s a personal preference for me. I had a nice time, but the next 2 islands I visited in Indonesia had a larger impact on me…


Saigon

After 4 weeks, I finally arrived in the giant metropolis of Ho Chi Minh City. This city is big, loud, and busy! The streets are packed with thousands of motorbikes. I’m not sure why, but the Vietnamese seem to love their motorbikes more than the other nation in the region. I think every human being might own one in the country, babies included. Colleen took off to Bali after a day so I had a few days alone in the big city. I spent my days wandering the streets and alleyways, enjoying egg drop coffees and cheap pho. Its a good way to live. I didn’t do anything too interesting in the city, but instead spent my time watching the people go about their daily lives and soaking in the Vietnamese culture.

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However, one site that was worth the price of entry was The War Remnants Museum. I’m a huge history buff, so I can literally spend days in museums. Twentieth century US Foreign policy is something I’m always keen to learn more about, and a museum dedicated to a war the US effectively lost, created by the victor was particularly interesting. I obviously expected the museum to have a bias. When it was first opened it was actually called The Exhibition House for US and Puppet Crimes (as in puppet governments, not an army of Pinocchio’s). And while it certainly did not paint the American GIs in the prettiest of lights, I found the information to be relatively fair. While it featured the typical museum material junk such as old weaponry, uniforms, and stories of bravery (N Vietnamese bravery of course), it also had some beautiful exhibits. One of the more powerful sections featured the photography of journalists who had lost their lives during the conflict. These journalist came from all over the world, and their photography was haunting. They also featured a large area that extensively discussed the chemical warfare carried out by the USA. It’s no secret that the Americans used an unfathomable amount of defoliant throughout the country, but the lasting impact of these chemicals is rarely discussed (why would it be in the West). The impact this chemical warfare has had on the land, water, and the innocent populations continues to be seen today. The walls are lined with photographs of deformed adults and children who continue to suffer today for the sins of American actions years ago.

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I hate to go on a tangent in this blog, but I didn’t do much is Saigon so I might as well rant. In my years as a student of international relations and history I learned quite a bit about the actions of the United States in SE Asia. Foreign policy that was implemented during the height of the Cold War is rarely discussed in the West. In high school history classes, the 60’s and 70’s are portrayed as a period of radical social progress in the States. It’s seen as a period marked by protest, fights for civil rights, and anti war rhetoric. Rarely do teachers address the other realities of these years; the years in which US foreign policy led to the deaths of millions around the world. I’m not trying to channel my inner Noam Chomsky, but I think being thousands of miles away from the countries which we terrorize helps Americans normalize the actions of the government. When you spend time in Vietnam and Cambodia, you see that the scars still exist. You see the people who’ve been born with deformities, you see the amputees, you see the impact of the wars which your country waged in the name of ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’. When you listen to the horror stories of the Khmer Rouge, from a man with one leg who lived those years, it makes you think about Nixon and Kissinger’s gleeful and illegal bombing of the non-belligerent country. When you’re face to face with the consequences of your countries dark past, it shines a new perspective on things. It makes you wonder what price that we, as a country, were willing to pay for our hegemony 40 years ago? What price are we willing to pay now? According to our leaders of yesterday and today we’ll pay with the lives of millions, as long as they’re not American. End rant…


Waterfalls in Dalat

Leaving Hoi An was tough. It was beautiful, relaxing, and had decent nightlife. I could have spent a few more days meandering through the streets and checking out all the different shops. Alas, there’s a big world out there and it was time to move South. Up next was the mountain town of Dalat. The journey there was one of the longest on the trip, almost 17 hours on two separate buses. We jumped off the night bus in Nha Trang and had a few hours to kill until our next leg. Luckily we didn’t stay in that city because it had a very strange vibe. The Russian mafia awkwardly has control over few SE Asian cities (ex. Pattaya in Thailand) and Nha Trang is apparently one of these strong holds. The resort city caters tot Russian tourists and most menus are written in both Vietnamese and Russian. Very unusual to see and I found it worthy of a note. Luckily after a few hours, we were on our way to the south central highlands.

Dalat was developed by the French during the late 19th century as a colonial resort town. Situated high up in the mountains, its temperate climate serves as a respite from the brutal tropical heat. It was a pretty drive up into the mountains and the landscape was unique to others in the country. There was a plethora of strawberry patches, fields of flowers, and forests of tall pine. Without the tropical humidity and no palms in sight, the weather was quite agreeable.

Martin decided to hang back for a few more days in Hoi An, so Colleen and I spent our first day exploring the town on our own. We actually had a pretty good plan. There was a large cable car that traveled from the highest point in the town to the valley below. We intended to explore the village, ride the cable car to the waterfalls in the valley, and then take a cab back to our hostel. It was a tough climb up the winding streets to the cable car, but the views were worth it. The mountains and valley were both spectacular to behold.

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At the bottom we visited the Buddhist temples that sat on the shores of a sizable lake. They were situated in a nice little garden and were quite peaceful. A mile walk further down the road we arrived at the most popular attraction in Dalat, the waterfall park. I’m not sure how to describe the area. They’ve created a large outdoor-adventure recreation center around some of the more stunning cascades. There are large ropes courses and rock climbing options. The site is primarily known for its canyoning adventures. On these tours you travel down the canyon on a special course that allows you to abseil, climb, and swim through the waterfalls. There is also a roller coaster that seems very out of place. Its a fun way to descend to the falls without taking the 500 stairs, but resembles something that could have been made in someones back yard. You actually control the braking and speed yourself which seems alarmingly dangerous but…. that’s Asia. After taking the coaster down to the falls and snapping some nice pictures we decided to head back to where we were staying. Unfortunately, there were no cabs available and we ended up walking about 2+ miles back up the valley. So in reality we spent the entire day going uphill. Admittedly, that part sucked and we did not plan well. Oh well.

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Another very cool attraction in Dalat was the Crazy House. Built by Dang Viet Nga in the 1990s, this building looks like something out of Antoni Gaudi’s sketch book. Much like the eccentric architecture scattered about Barcelona, the Crazy House is a rather shocking site to behold. The structure is filled with passages, stair cases, and bridges that seem better suited for a Disney park than for a Vietnamese mountain escape. It’s tough to describe, so instead I took a bunch of pictures.

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To coincide the Crazy House the center of Dalat also features the 100 Roofs Cafe. Unfortunately, due to bad lighting and the fact I was drinking, I was unable to catch any pictures here. However, if you are a nerd and have seen Lord of the Rings or the Hobbit, the bar was designed like the inside one of those elvish tree cities. Much like the Crazy House, there were secret passages leading to nowhere and cool little nooks and crannies to explore. It’s massive and features a rooftop garden that is reminiscent of the Parc de Guell. The bizarre architecture and massive scale made for one of the more unique drinking experiences of my life. Overall, Dalat was very interesting spot to check out in Southern Vietnam.


Hoi An

Hoi An is a small coastal city in Central Vietnam that served as a trading port between the 15th and 19th century. The preservation of its historic downtown makes it a popular destination for tourists (and a UNESCO world heritage site). Both the layout and the architectural designs reflect the impact foreign trade had on the area. The blend of cultures is both apparent and appealing. Its most iconic monument is the 400 year old Japanese covered bridge.The city also sports a decent beach that was a quick bike ride from downtown.

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There isn’t too much to write about this city. There were no grand adventures or wild stories. We all spent our time strolling the quaint downtown, lying on the beach, and grabbing drinks by the river. The evening of the full moon, all electric lights were shut off and the city was instead lit by Japanese lanterns. Thousands of small candles were sent floating down the river on tiny paper boats. It was a beautiful sight to behold.

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It was a relaxing few days, and it truly was a charming city. Bright colors and flowers adorned the buildings of the small alleyways. Red shutters, blue doors, and yellow walls seemed to be a staple. It was almost perfect.

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Escape to the Hai Van Pass

Martin and I escaped the floods of the central Highlands and I was ecstatic to get out. I needed some sunshine ASAP. We hopped on the night bus south and ended up in the coastal city of Da Nang. Upon first glance, the city seemed exceptionally bright. There were neon lights lining the roads, the buildings, the boats, and the bridges. Furthermore, it was strikingly modern and exceptionally clean. The only downside was that Trump was elected president of the United States of America  the morning I arrived, so it was going to take a lot to shift the mood. Actually it took 1 beer, and then I was over it.

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We spent the first day exploring the city and walking the beach. The sky was blue and the sun was finally shining bright. It was a much needed respite from the constant rain and gray. As the sun began to set we headed towards the main city attraction, the Dragon Bridge. Cau Rong bridge is one of the staple sites of the city. The bridge is nearly a mile long and accommodates six lanes of traffic. A  giant serpent made from hundreds of light bulbs crawls down the middle, splitting traffic. Its glowing bulbs continuously change colors, illuminating the city skyline. On the weekends its massive jaws open wide and it spews actual fire into the darkness. Unfortunately on Thursday nights it does no such thing. It was still a site to behold and a cool tourist attraction for the city. We spent the remainder of the evening grabbing cocktails at a tall rooftop bar and a few local joints.

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The next day we rented motorbikes and decided to explore the Hai Van Pass. This 15 mile mountain pass was made famous by the show Top Gear. It’s situated on a winding coastal road that connects the city of Hue to Hoi An, with Da Nang sitting in the middle. Instead of chancing the weather and doing the full trip, we thought it’d make more sense to rent the bikes in Da Nang and drive up to the most scenic areas. This way we could also see the white Lady Buddha monument just outside the city. Luckily the the weather cooperated, and the views were spectacular. The highway winds its way up into the mountains and then hugs the cliffs closely with the ocean hundreds of feet below to the east. The roads are surprisingly well kept and the scenery is truly gorgeous. We spent a few hours winding our way along the coast before heading back to the outskirts of Da Nang. We were able to drive into the Marble Mountains to see the 200 ft statue of the Bodhisattva of Mercy, known as Lady Buddha. Perched atop a hill, the white figure looks across the Bay into the East Sea. As the tallest statue in all of Vietnam, she dominates the landscape and can be seen from just about anywhere in the city below. After snapping a few pictures, we headed back to the city to rest up.

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One of the best parts of Da Nang was the hostel we decided to stay at, Barney’s. It was one of the best I’d experienced in any country. It had big comfortable beds, clean modern bathrooms, and great vibes. Most importantly, it was How I Met Your Mother themed. All of the rooms were named after characters from the show and there were photos and memorabilia of scattered throughout. It was a fun theme and they pulled it off quite well. After a long day we got some rest and hit the bar for a few drinks. The next day we grabbed a bus headed for Hoi An, only 20 miles South…