Why visit Lyon?

My dear friend Mies, author of ACoupleStepsForward.com, asked me to write a guestpost about Lyon, where I lived for half a year.

Being busy publishing my Southeast Asia journals here first, I haven’t at all gotten around to editing the stuff I was writing there for myself. But writing about it again was very inspiring and reminded me what a great city it is.
I didn’t even manage to fit in all the must-see’s in this guestpost. I’ll get back on all that in a while. But for now, please go ahead and check out why I think you should visit Lyon.

South of France? Not really the first destination that comes to mind when the days start growing cold and dreary.

But there is one reason to book your flight immediately: in the weekend of December 8, Lyon will be magically lit and buzzing with travelers, crowding the streets to witness the spectacle called Fête de Lumière, which turns the entire city into an interactive stage where artists invite you to play in their show.

All you need to join in is accommodation (be quick, hotels and guesthouses tend to fill up pretty quickly, making it a difficult task to find something last-minute!) and two feet to carry you. Just walk out on the street to feast your eyes and belly on the countless stands with local specialties: sweet breads, meat pies and of course some vin chaud to keep warm.

I prefer summer though, and here’s why:

I’ve always been going on holiday to the South of France with my parents, passing Lyon on our way. From the car, the many gray banlieues that surround Lyon are pretty much all you can see, so when I first came here to work in June 2011 I was pleasantly surprised to find a beautiful ancient village, hidden away in the city center.

The public transport system in Lyon is superb. Get a TCL-card for the entirety of your stay. With this, you can log in to bus, metro, trolley and funiculaire.

Another great way to get around is by bike, another superb system. With any worldwide bankcard you can rent a bike from the Vélo’V ports you’ll find all over the city. Rent a bike for 24 hours or 3 days. You can return and take it out again anywhere during this period.

Bellecour is one of the central squares, where almost all metro lines connect.

From there it’s a small walk to the next metro station Vieux Lyon, where you can take the funiculaire up to the beautiful Cathédrale St-Just, as much worth a look inside as the view it gives you over the entire city.

Not far you’ll find the Théatres Romains, that feature some great open-air shows in summertime.

Walk back down through the park and take your time to stroll through the beautiful quarter of Vieux Lyon, go see the Musée des Miniatures et Décors de Cinéma, grab a drink at popular pub Saint James, and indulge in some ice-cream at the very best shop in town across from it that boasts over a 100 stunning flavors.

For a nice walk I have to insist: take the metro out to Gare de Vaise and spend an hour walking back to the center alongside the Saône.

Another square to visit is Place Terraux, next to the Musée des Beaux-Arts.

During summer l’Opéra features jazz concerts nearly daily, often free or otherwise easy to listen in on from the square.

From here you can walk up to Croix Rousse, another beautiful quarter with many little bars and livingroom-style hangouts.

Don’t forget to take Metro C up and spend a night roaming the artistic bars on Boulevard de la Croix Rousse.

Or go more in the direction of Cordeliers, find one of the many lovely bars in Rue Pizay or Rue du Garet. I’ve enjoyed many a night of live swinging in Le Bariton, tunes in Fée Verte and drinks around the tree on the terrace of 203.

For a late night dance out go to the quai du Rhône and get on one of the party boats. Ayers Rock is crowded any night.

 

I’m getting carried away. Back to daytime activities:

Spend at least a day in Parc de la Tête d’Or, with the jardin botanique, the palace of glass housing a bit of jungle, it’s deer camp, the zoo. Yes, it has giraffes, water buffalo’s, many monkeys and even a panther and elephants!

And don’t stop walking there, but go around the water to see if the Île du Souvenirs is open.

Don’t forget to bring a picnic basket to sit down on the field with the Lyonais, enjoying a warm summer’s day and playing frisbee.

For a cooldown, spend a day by the side of La Piscine du Rhône.

More culture is to be found in the 2ième. La Sucrière is always an important part of the Biennale de Lyon, which is usually held from September to December.

As the old industrial part of town it makes for a nice city tour.

Wine and dine with the locals in one of the many and all very delicious restaurants on Rue Mercière. Whilst sitting there on a crowded terrace sipping a nice robust côte du Rhône, the maître d’hotel is shouting something in French to one of his garçons as a busker is playing his accordion on the corner. As a little breeze plays through the small street to cool the city after another hot day, you’ll realize that this is definitely a town to come back to.

God, I miss Lyon.

Just another day in the jungle

Day XI – March 29

I wake up at 6am in my little penthouse – I got the one bed upstairs, on the tiny platform just above the roof, and I’m not even going to attempt a description of what it felt like when I opened my net. It was a little lonely up there though, and the smell of coffee was luring me downstairs, where together we sat at the railing, holding our breath as not to disturb anyone out there, taking in the wonder of just another day in the jungle.

At 7am it starts, suddenly, and so loud!
Dett told us a little bit about the Gibbons and their way of life, last night. How they live in families of 5 to 8, and that there are about 4 families in the area, so we’re bound to see and hear at least one, during their active hour, early in the day.
But when they actually do start singing this morning it sounds like there’re more than 30 of them! And it sounds nothing like you’d expect of monkeys. We all sit, captured by this wall of noise, focusing on the trees ahead, trying to spot any movement.
As suddenly as it begun it’s over just 5 minutes later.
Only after that is it that we see the trees swinging. They‘re too far to actually make them out, but it’s still exhilarating to know they’re there!

A short while later our breakfast is zipped in; about the same as we had for dinner last night; a big basket of rice, some omelets, a pan of tomato-peanut mash and two pans of different cabbage stews.
As soon as we have that down we put our harnasses back on and zip out for a morning swing and some heavy hiking as the sun steadily climbs over the hills.
Oh jungle how I love you so. You wear me out until every pore drips with sweat, my lungs are about to cave in and just at the point where I think I can’t take one more step up, I see a flat bit up ahead where I can level, where I can breathe your pure air and vicinity and all pain is forgiven and forgotten.

We do the full round today, zip the longest and highest and scariest of the 17 lines that are included in the Classic Experience – in total there are 25 lines, Waterfall Experience just uses 11 – and go all the way to the end where there is a treehouse that is entirely in the open and which you enter and leave through the window. Going in is not very different or especially scary exciting compared to the rest, but the drop out; just letting yourself glide out with a 50m freefall at your feet; this one is definitely unique.
Treehouse n°4 has a really nice view as well. We’re all staring ahead at the vastness of a megacosm we couldn’t have imagined before, when Dett points out what is right in front of us; it’s camouflage working perfectly so we didn’t even notice it in that tree no meter away from us, a bright green rattail snake slithers along. It didn’t notice us – or doesn’t care, and just keeps on moving tardily through the tree, making it’s way up to the roof.
We get a while to catch our breath and digest our lunch before we set out again. I’m feeling comfortable enough to bring my camera this time and will make a brave attempt at visualizing this intense experience. No promises they’ll be better shots than the ones that are already on youtube though.*

We spend our night sitting around the table playing this really fun cardgame golf and chatting.
Dett comes over again – guides stay in a different accommodation than the participants – and this time even brings a few friends who want to practice their English. They’re a bit to shy to actually talk to us, especially to the girls.
Dett more than makes up for them and tells us all sorts of stories, like the one of how he got lost in Thailand for two years, and the horrors of bandits beheading inocent travelers in the night by spanning a rope over the road, and about his tribe and his mums tribe and his dads tribe and how he speaks 15 (!) different languages – just a few sentences in most though. Eitherway, again a man who loves to play silly little jokes on us.
We’re having so much fun we don’t even notice the clock striking midnight before we go to bed.

* And I might say I failed. My cam’s too big to handle swifly enough when swinging from a cable. You’ll just have to go see for yourself… I still didn’t get around to editing

[this was day two of the amazing Gibbon Classic Experience, expensive at €220 for 3 days and 2 nights. But after careful consideration (believe me, I’ve had the question if it’s worth it asked so often, I am absolutely sure) I do have to recommand it to anyone who has the opportunity!]

Into the wild: the beautiful Bokeo Nam Kha National Park

Day X – March 28

After 1½ hour on a very steady and newly paved road, we just started offroading for the second half of the journey into the wild; the beautiful Bokeo Nam Kha National Park.

A first awkward situation occurred this morning at the Gibbon Experience office, when some loud American dude tried to get in to today’s Experience but was told off. However, he could join the one leaving tomorrow. But he had to make a scene about it; loser.
On their site they tell you to book at least two weeks in advance, so that we could get Dan a spot yesterday was already pretty exceptional.
A second was when a random local and his daughter ask for a ride. Our driver said ‘no’ as this is a tour thing, but the guy pushed his girl and himself in next to us anyway. After half an hour or so the driver stopped at his request, and the good man tried to pay for the ride. The driver wouldn’t take the money, but the man wouldn’t close the door without giving it. Tension’s rising… The man ended up throwing the money through the window just before we drove off. Anything-goes Asia?

The languages spoken in this car: Lao (between the driver, the guy next to him and another guy on the back seat – I suppose they’re our guides) French (between the couple in the front seat – yes, next to the other guy and the driver) Dutch (between that Dutch dude that persists on speaking Dutch to me and, well, me) and English in general conversation.

We arrive at the last village with 22 people, say ‘hi’ to the local kids, take our pictures, and start our hike up into the much greener and denser jungle. Very different from the trekking in Thailand, not just because the enviroment seems so much livelier but because of the huge number we walk with. And the conversation; instead of hushed words about all the beauty we see around us, it’s about how legendairy Barney Stinson is. I very much enjoy HIMYM, but it’s not on my mind when I’m in the freakin’ jungle?!
After half an hour we stop for a breath and a sandwich that the guides hand out to us. Benches are actually build at this spot, but of course – we’re in the jungle, people – they’re covered with ants etc. That makes a few girls and one or two guys scream a bit…
I’m starting to think I looked forward to this one way too much and haven’t enjoy the trek with Sit nearly enough.

Another half an hour and we get to the first kitchen, a small building on groundlevel, belonging to treehouse n°1. Here we get our zipping sets and are divided into smaller groups. Dan and I end up with the French couple, two Dutch girls, and a couple that looks german to me because of the moustache, but turn out to be Canadians.
Our guides Dett and Kamping take us up first. Detts English is quite good, Kamping not so much – or he’s just very very shy.
When we get to the platform Dett explains to us clearly, simply but quickly how to clip on and how to break “but you won’t really need that,” concluding with “OK, see you on the other side!” and he’s gone, disappeared though the trees.
That first one; I hate to admit it, but I was a little scared. And the second one; I didn’t make it all the way till the other end, so I had to haul myself in for more than 20 meters. And it’s about 50 meters to the ground, and I’m hanging from a 1-centimeter thick cable, with just two little cords to secure me to it. Yes, I almost panicked.
But it’s all so worth it!
Imagine this: You walk through an amazing jungle, all sorts and forms of life shouting in enthousiasm all around you. And then you see a wooden ramp, kind of shabby build, but it holds, so it’s absolutely charming. You climb up, clip on your safety and your roller to a thick cable, take a breath, and jump. A second later you swoosh through a bambooplant or something of the sort, and a valley opens up before you. Five layers of hill up far, every shade of green imaginable beneath you as far as the eye goes and even the highest tree can’t touch your feet. And you just hang there, taking it all in, as you glide to a platform in the highest tree on the side of the next hill, where you change line and let yourself fall into the next valley. No words can describe this!

Now that was the best shower ever! No, seriously! It’s at the back of the downstairs platform of our treehouse, and open so you have a view over the entire valley, facing west, which is perfect since these parts of the world ask for an afternoonshower rather than a morning shower. You hear the water clattering down on leaves about 30 meters underneath you – plus of course the never ending rumble of the jungle; birds, crickets, monkeys… I don’t know what else but they don’t call it rumble for nothing.
Treehouse n°7, remember that one.

We all get settled in around our little table on our little chairs sniffing in the fumes of what promises to be an amazing dinner of… can’t really tell what it is yet but it smells great, so I’ma dig in!

Anything-goes Asia: Where a platform 40 meter above groundlevel doesn’t need a railing or a net; you’ve got your safety clipped on most of the time anyway…

[this was day one of the amazing Gibbon Classic Experience, expensive at €220 for 3 days and 2 nights. But after careful consideration (believe me, I’ve had the question if it’s worth it asked so often, I am absolutely sure) I do have to recommand it to anyone who has the opportunity!]

Crossing the mighty Mekong

Laos
entering through Huay Xai
visa requirements: $35, 1 photo for a one-month tourist visa
population: ± 6.5 million
capital: Vientiane
language: Lao
slogan: Simply beautiful
currency: Kip, €1 = 10.000k

Day IX – March 27

The alarm rings at 6:30am. We get into a red tuxi – the tuktuk-cabs you see driving around Chiang Mai, that should take you anywhere in the city for 20b per person – at 7.30am, and the driver takes his sweet time picking up some more customers along the way to the busstation, to fill his entire ride. But we’re still well in time.
At 8.30am we board a simple but cool bus, with many but not all locals. There is an unannounced stop at a bus station after a few hours; I guess it might be Chiang Rai? As we near Chiang Khong there are several random stops where random passenger jump of without any obvious pressing of a button or asking the driver… Just the way they do I guess? *

And then suddenly we’re there? Everyone is ‘told’ – with a bark and heavily waving hands – to get of the bus, the luggage is thrown out, and many tuktukdrivers are waiting outside, signing they’ll take you ‘there’. Everything happens so fast and it’s all so unclear, but at a good guess we sit down with several other travelers on their way to the ferry. And indeed, 10 minutes later we’re dropped near a pier and are asked to pay the 40b fee. For the tuktuk that is. Leaving Thailand is free and goes without hassle.
Then the ferry is another 40b for the 3 minute ride to the other side of the Mekong. Another set of fences and military uniforms await us. There is some paperwork to fill in and a $35 visa-fee for Dutch. Aussie Dan only pays $30.
All together this went pretty smoothly, and it’s over before you can actually realize or question what’s happening.
Right around the corner we find the Friendship Guesthouse, where we get a twin room for 70.000k, and at the Gibbon Experience office we book Dan a spot for tomorrow as well, no hassle whatsoever.

Time to chill!
It’s not yet 5pm when we get a few mangos, check out the rooftop terrace at Friendship and take a last look at Thailand as the sun slowly sets behind it’s fog and take a deep breath of Laos air.
This border town, Huay Xai, doesn’t seem very happening and a bit grey and dull, but more easygoing than Thailand. The tuktuks are prettier too, more refined in their decorations, not the gruff trucks from Chiang Mai but fragile little Nissan vans.

More and more people show up on the roof and turn out to be on the Gibbon Experience leaving tomorrow as well: the French couple Alex & Audrey, the Canadian couple Veronica & Devon and a Dutch guy who’s been having trouble with his ATM card all though Laos.
For dinner we all set out to find the local nightmarket together. We walk for a good hour, ask around a bit, but have to conclude in the end there is no nightmarket, not tonight, not in Huay Xai. Unless you’d count the lane of lottery booths we’d past.
It was a nice walk though. I like to explore my new surroundings.
And when we all felt horribly lost there for a second, when we reached the end of town in utter darkness… well, we share an adventure now.
So dinner next to the pier after all, at a somewhat chique place, with a lovely view of the Mekong and the campfire going on on the other side in Thailand, with the wind every now and then bringing us a note of their song. And an English-speaking waiter, which seems to be much more rare here in Laos.
I top it of with a 4th beer on the roof of the hostel, catching geckos with Alex. I didn’t manage, and he only caught one because he made it loose it’s tail so that’s cheat.
All adds up to very pleasant evening!

* First time on a bus, so I didn’t know. But they indeed do this ALL the time. Still, never did I hear anyone ask the driver to stop at a certain point or see them signing, so how it works is a mystery to me.

Chiang Mai captured

Before heading over to Laos I spend a day in Chiang Mai, temple hopping and market shopping. Of course I brought my camera. For more go to flickr.

Just another day in Chiang Mai

Day VIII – March 26

I wake up at 7am sharp. Today was going to be sleep in day. Well damn it.

We went out for drinks last night and looked for a pool table, but ended up just barhopping until midnight when all bars closed; apparently Chiang Mai does ‘Sunday’.
This first place we were, named Freedom, is ran by an English bloke and looked like he build it with his own bare hands. It had a really nice vibe! It was just another one of those shacks that are so surreal to us who come from a land where rules and regulations decide how a building should look. But here you see them everywhere and I feel like I’m in a fairytale; this is anything-goes Asia.
We sat at the rooftop/balcony on the 1½th floor in and open sort of veranda, I had a very good long island iced tea, and we talked of brothers and sisters while a gecko quietly listened in under a starry sky.
A little later we walked by that same backpacker central we’d been the night before and it looked like I’d expected it to be now; mellow, a reggae band playing some live tunes, and a couple of hippies on the couch with their kids running around, playing in the dirt and whatever. The fullmoon craze of the other night had died down completely. There weren’t even any fire dancers.

I try snoozing for a while but with just a fan it’s too hot for that and my sticky body disgusts me.* And it does feel like a waist; trying to spend more time in bed while Asia is right there being my oyster.

Today we’re having an easy day. After breakfast –a pineapple pancake and a mangoshake- we walk around the quarter for a bit, check out some temples, yet after three hours we’re both templed out. It’s all beautiful, but has this touristy feel about it that takes away a lot of the magic.

We spend a little time online. Or so it feels. Yet when I log out I’m charged for one and a half hour and they’re not ripping me off… Time flies, ey.

Before we have dinner at the nightmarket again, we go by the park. A nice place where one can relax. But it’s more to be used as a gym. The one path going around is the well-used running course, and at 6pm sharp the music starts banging from the speakers, a body-pump instructor steps forward and leads the crowd that has gathered. Very amusing to watch!

At the market I score my first RaiBans, to replace the shades I broke the other day. First asking price: 380b, bargained for: 160b.

We finally find that pooltable, in the free-show-alley. One game and one beer Leo and off to bed we are. Tomorrow’s going to be an early morning.

* It’ll take little over two weeks for your body to adjust to the heat and for you to get used to that sweaty feeling.

Lesson learned: Look for the fans and then pick your table.

Have you been to Chiang Mai? Any tips on what I should do next time I’m there?