I'm relieved, and a little amused, to find that "the old tour agency game" that I played so many times back in South America, can be played here in Thailand as well. And the rules are virtually identical, too. Here in Chiang Mai, it's the usual setup: there are a hundred different agencies, all offering similar activities, and all quoting slightly different prices. But in the end, they all ring up exactly the same people who actually run the tours, and they all send you on exactly the same tour; and really, it's all exactly the same thing. So you may as well just visit 5 or 10 of them, pick the one that quotes the cheapest price, bargain them down further still, and go for it — because the price and the agency doesn't matter in the slightest, it's all the same tour. Thailand also operates by the standard "book when you get there" rule: it's cheaper to book things when you arrive in Chiang Mai, than to book them from Bangkok (same as booking in Cusco vs Lima), as more cities away only means more middlemen, each of whom will take a cut as they call the next friend down the chain. C'mon, Thailand: you think I started backpacking yesterday, or something? I know this game, you don't fool me!
It's been a while since I last took a cooking class on this trip; but today, the great tradition was finally revived. And revived Thai style, no less. This morning I was picked up from my new guesthouse (Yourhouse — better than the original dump that I stayed in), and taken to meet my 10 fellow classmates for today's lesson. The cooking school that I signed up with is run by two brothers: I was picked up by one brother; but he's taking a break today, and the lesson was conducted by his bigger, funnier second brother. We commenced with an eyebrow-raising tour of one of Chiang Mai's food markets, and then drove over to the school's private kitchen for the main event.
Follow every strudel, don't resist the lure. When you visit Salzburg, you're visiting the home of "The Sound of Music", one of the most famous movies of all time. And whether you caper, cringe or cry out at the thought of doing anything so cheesy as the official SoM tour (I still haven't decided which I should do), the fact remains: you know you wanna do it, and you know you gotta do it. Today, Lisa and I fulfilled our solemn duty, and hopped along for the ride. It certainly was cheesy, as well as more than a little lame; but it was also a fun, colourful and song-filled day.
Perched high atop a hill, the Hohensalzburg fortress has — for well over 1,000 years — watched over the city of Salzburg below it, both visually and militarily. The Hohensalzburg is one of the highlights of the town, and at least ½ a day is required to do it justice. After our morning stroll through Salzburg, today Thierry and I embarked on the trek up the mountain, and went to see this grand edifice both inside and out.
This morning I hopped on the U-bahn (i.e. metro) from the Westbahnhof (central station) to Stephansplatz (city central square), and embarked on a walking tour of Vienna. It was rather freezing here — so chilly that the ground was covered in frost and ice in many places — but that did nothing to mar the Imperial glory of this, one of Europe's most charming cities. Vienna is a city of soaring churches, imposing palaces, and grand town squares — and of all those I saw plenty.
Did you know that the word "Aussie" has 4 different meanings, here in Germany? First, it refers to Austrians — Germans have been calling their southern brethren "Aussies" for yonks. Second, it refers to Australians — naturally, who the hell doesn't know our affectionate national nickname? Third, it refers to East Germans, whom their Western brethren sometimes like to joke about. And finally, it refers to Ozzie! At least, that's according to Ozzie himself (yep, that's his name): the (allegedly) quarter-native Bavarian, 100% black, 110% crazy tourguide who took half of Wombat's on a tour of Munich this morning.
For my first day here in Berlin, my mate John and I embarked upon an epic exploratory tour of the city. We began in the city's east, and gradually worked our way west, towards the old wall. Berlin is a fascinating city to walk around in — especially if you're aware of the troubled history behind its sparkling new façades.
Today I finished my quick tour of tiny Belgium, by popping into the nation's capital, Brussels. I was originally planning to spend last night in Brussels, but I instead ended up staying in Liège with Christian. This morning, I got the train from Liège to Brussels, bright 'n' early with Christian, who's going there today anyway (for a training seminar). We caught the 6:45am train, and it was only an hour to the big city: when I got there, it was still dark (and stayed so until about 9am — dreary European winter). Too dark to begin exploring: so I checked my e-mail, and found a café for hanging out and having some coffee and waffle, before commencing my tour of the city. By 2pm, I was done with Brussels, and on my way to Amsterdam.
For today's main activity, my friends Stef and Annick took myself (and little Karlijn) on a drive out of their home town of Turnhout, and over to the big city of Antwerp. Antwerp is only 50km's away from Turnhout, so it was a quick drive of less than an hour to get there. Antwerp is the heart of Flemish Belgium, and I soaked in as much of it as I could, as Stef dragged me around in the dreary December weather to see the sights and sounds. Annick and Karlijn, however, had better things to do than get soaking wet while wandering the streets: they stayed warm and dry in Antwerp's central mall, where they embarked on that greatest of all female pastimes: window shopping.
After last night's relaxing, beer-filled introduction to Belgium, this morning Stef continued the intro, with a tour of his humble town of Turnhout. Actually, Stef grew up in an even smaller town several km's away (almost touching the Dutch border) — but he's basically living in Turnhout now. It's a typical little Flemish town: filled with the things you'd expect from a town anywhere in Europe, such as shops, bars, and plenty of history. As well as seeing the more important landmarks, I also got to sample a bit of the local cuisine, and to hear a little about the town's developments over the years. Plus, of course, we had a bit more beer.