A Travellerspoint blog

Vietnam: Hà Nội and Hạ Long Bay

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Mike dropped us at Vientiane airport late morning and luckily we'd given ourselves over 2 hours because we were waiting on the check-in queue (of only 10 people) for almost an hour. While we were waiting Lauren tried to change our Laotian kip to Vietnamese dong at the two different money-shops. She was told by both of them that they'd run out of dong and could only give US dollars so, reluctantly, that's what we got. When Lauren brought the exchanged money over we quickly realised that the assistant had miscounted our kip and given us an extra $50... which was nice.

Eventually we got through check-in and security and boarded our nice little short flight on Cambodia Angkor Air to Hanoi, Vietnam. On arrival we picked a taxi and took the hour journey to GA hostel, right in the middle of Hanoi's Old Quarter. Our first impressions of Hanoi were the weather; in stark contrast to Vientiane it was overcast, misty and cold. As we approached the centre the roads became frenetic; beeping cars and motorbikes aplenty, twisting and turning around each other on huge crossroads, roundabouts and narrow little side streets, all while avoiding the hundreds of tourists and street stalls. As soon as we were in the Old Quarter the sheer volume of noise also hit us; the people, the cooking, the driving, the beeping and the distant sounds of sirens and construction. Thankfully our hostel was down a 2 foot wide, maze-like back alley (guarded by a large cockerel), which meant the noise wasn't an issue.

Our 8-bed dorm (up 3 flights of narrow stairs with very low head-hitting ceilings) was world's away from our jungle cottage but perfectly suitable. As per I took the top bunk and after some familiarisation and the usual awkward hellos to our dorm-mates, we wriggled out into the crazy, polluted space of Hanoi Old Quarter. Lunch was at a cheap (but yummy) Vietnamese greasy spoon called Noodle and Roll where we got stuck in to the traditional phở soup (hold the beef) and Lauren had her first taste of the North Vietnamese beer Halida.

We had a short walk around the Old Quarter; eyeing up the street food, counterfeit underwear and trendy T-Shirt shops. Crossing the roads took a bit of getting used to. We tried to put our India heads back on but everything was moving a bit too fast. We wrongly invested trust in the traffic lights and pedestrian crossings which were always ignored by road-users and pedestrians alike. The key seems to be a certain level of confidence coupled with a certain level of obliviousness. In fact I think we would have been better off blindfolding ourselves and just going for it; using the force to ensure the traffic goes around us.

Back at the hostel we sat for a couple of hours in the communal area, injuring our coccyxes on the wooden floor in the process. We did some forward travel planning and eavesdropped on some fellow backpackers' conversations. We particularly enjoyed the very political and historical chat between an Aussie and Swede (who were passionately agreeing with each other).

The next morning we were met outside our hostel by Xeo; a university student/tour guide who volunteers for Hanoi Kids free tours. Xeo walked us round a large portion of Hanoi, stopping at Hỏa Lò prison (originally French but later on used in the Vietnam war), the Confucius Temple of Literature and Kem Trang Tien (a popular ice cream parlour). Xeo was a very lovely, intelligent and interesting girl. She asked us as many questions as we asked her which made the half-day tour fly by. Two curious things she told us were Vietnam's policy on 'family size goals' - if a family wishes to have more than 2 children they can face benefit cuts, fines and even termination of employment. She also talked a little about Vietnamese superstitions. Although the country is generally quite secular, many middle-aged and elderly Vietnamese people believe in superstitions such as not marrying someone born in the same year as you as it will bring bad luck. Another topic Xeo touched on was dog meat; she told us how her beloved golden retriever was poisoned and that a day after they buried him, his bones were dug up and removed, likely being sold on for food. I expressed my disdain at so-called Western animal activists deploring East Asian's consumption of dog meat while chomping on bacon sandwiches and I said that as a carnivore, it would be hypocritical to turn-down dog. Xeo agreed with my stance but told me to avoid the meat because of the risk of ingesting poison.

After saying our goodbyes we chilled for a while and then head out to hipster veggie joint Hanoi Social Club. the food was pretty good but it was way overpriced and we felt a bit like we were back in Manchester's Northern Quarter. On our way out of the restaurant I discovered that my DSLR camera had decided to break. Great. In opposition to my usual knack of catastrophising, I took the breakage in my stride knowing we'd eventually get it fixed or replaced (if budget allowed).
Back at our hostel we got chatting to the Swedish guy we'd nosed at the night before who played around with my camera for a while before confirming what I knew, it was completely fucked.

The following morning we were collected by Viola Cruises and spent the next 4 hours on a mini bus with our fellow cruisers. After doing a little bit of research into Halong Bay excursions, we'd decided on a mid-range 'cruise' as opposed to the cheap ones. With over 1000 'junk' boat companies offering 1 day and 2 days trips out to Halong Bay from Hanoi it can be a bit of a minefield selecting one. We were introduced to our tour guide Lucky, who sounded more Australian than Paul Hogan (his English teacher was an Aussie) who was incredibly warm and smiley. Our cruise colleagues were made up of a 5 Brazilian guys, a German couple, a Swiss couple, a French couple, a Uruguayan couple and a large group of middle-aged Indonesian woman (approx. 10 of) and two long suffering men.

Halfway through the journey we stopped at an interesting sort of drive-through service station. The buses drive up to the side of this large open shopping mall, let you out and then drive around in a semi-circle to meet you at the other side for pick-up. So, much like an Ikea you have to walk the entire shop floor to get out. On offer are all the goods that tourists and holidaymakers lap-up; clothes, marble garden ornaments, lacquerware and imported confectionery (Toblerone, M & Ms etc.).

It became quickly apparent that the large Indonesian group of mostly ladies were, how can I put this, a bit mental; they spent most of the 4 hour journey screaming, laughing, taking photos of each other, loudly chatting (or maybe it was arguing) and playing crap pop on their phones. My sort of women.

Arriving at Halong Bay we were escorted onto a small boat that took us all to our cruise-boat. Now I've never been on a cruise, and I suppose one night's stay on a boat is hardly a cruise, but I was quite enamoured by our little floating home. Our bedroom was quite plush; comfy double bed and a very impressive bathroom with a hot and powerful shower. Plus we had our very own deck to look out onto the water and karsts; shame it was really friggin' foggy so we couldn't see shit.
After a yummy lunch in the dining hall we got on a small bamboo boat to sail around the last few remaining floating villages. The woman on the boat with us were clearly very excited by picturesque surroundings and many photo-opportunities;

We then visited an operating fresh-water pearl farm where we were educated on the pearl-cultivating process. We actually were treated to a live kill where an oyster was picked from a tank, forcibly opened and had its ovary cut open for a shiny pearl to pop out. We learned that for all of the oysters farmed, only 30% actually produce pearls. Which all seems a little unnecessary for so many to be killed and disposed of. I forgot to ask if the dud ones are sold on for food - I hope they are. Needless to say Lauren and I weren't interested in buying anything from the jewellery shop attached to the farm.

For dinner that evening we were overwhelmed with food. There was plenty already but because we had Lauren and a vegan on our table, we were treated to loads of extra dishes too. As if that wasn't enough, it was International Women's Day so the few men on the boat were instructed to serve us all cake and wine which made the Indonesian woman fall into hysterical laughter.

After a long sleep we woke up to find the sun had burned through the mist and clouds. With our new tour guide Phong we sailed over to Sun Sot caves where, filled with solar energy, Loz and I giddily clambered around the stalactites and stalagmites into nooks and crannies. The cave is known to the locals as 'Surprise' cave and the story goes that these caves and all of the karsts came into being as a result of dragons descending and spitting out jade into the water.

At the foot of the cave is a little cove were we paddling in the turquoise water and took some group photos for the Brazilian guys.
Back on the boat we checked-out and watched the head chef creating some impressive decorations out of vegetables;

That was it for Halong Bay; it was a shame about the weather but the water and islets really were a spectacular sight and the boat along with the Indonesian's provided me with much amusement. I even managed to read a whole book in the two days; which isn't like me at all.

The drive back was a little terrifying as our driver had a habit over overtaking vehicles that were in the middle of overtaking someone else. For a lot of the journey we seemed to be on the wrong side of the road. Cue lots of frantic screaming from the women.

We got back to Hanoi much too early for our 19:30 sleeper train to Hue so we hung out at a café for a few hours trying to tackle our land-sickness.

Posted by advensha 22:20 Archived in Vietnam Tagged fog beach caves cruise vietnam travellers hanoi south_east_asia halong_bay crazy_driving overtaking selfies broken_camera hanoi_kids_tour viola_cruises indonesian_tourists sun_sot_caves pearl_farm Comments (0)

Laos: Vientiane

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Our onward journey to the capital of Laos Vientiane started off somewhat higgledy piggledy. We dutifully arose at 5am to be ready for our 6am pick up to Luang Prabang bus station. On arrival we learned that the VIP bus we'd paid for and booked onto through our hostel that departed at 7am didn't actually exist. There was a 7am bus but it was the 'public' one; i.e. more of a people-carrier containing 20 locals and their animals - not what we'd paid for. After some wrangling with the ticket office we managed to secure a place on the actual VIP bus which was leaving at 8am; so we had to wait around for 90 minutes. This wouldn't have been so bad had we have not run out of kip. We tried another 2 cash machines but they still weren't coughing up so we bought some Oreos and a baguette with some American dollars we had and got ourselves comfy on the outdoor benches of the bus station. As we waited, we saw what we think was either a shooting star or some sort of comet/meteor. Unfortunately, neither of us had the speed or energy to photograph it but it certainly wasn't something either of us had ever seen before. We've since tried in vain to find something on Google to back up our sighting.

Anyway, after cooing at some babies and consuming far too many biscuits far too early in the morning we embarked the VIP monster of a double decker coach. The side of the coach was emblazoned with the words "King of Buses" and was brightly decorated with illustrations of crowns and the like. Without too much inspection you could find clever engineering hacks on and around the coach; the front bumper had been taped back on and the wheel rims were attached with cable-ties. In addition, the driver (who looked about 17) had to kick the door a number of times for it to close properly. We found our seats on the top deck and quickly discovered that mine was broken; in a permanent recline position. We had plenty of time so I went to tell one of the bus station workers. The gentleman's response to my predicament was to say yes, turn his head, then walk away from me, trying his best to ignore me completely. I tried again but evidently he'd gone deaf and blind. I then tried the driver and another guy who was putting everyone's baggage in the hold. I got the same reaction. You're not really supposed to show strong emotion in Laos, especially not anger, but I refused to be ignored and so raised my volume slightly, harnessing my German genealogy and said "I paid for VIP and my seat is broken!". Finally, the man from the ticket booth said he would come onto the bus before it left and try to sort something out for me. As the bus filled up another kerfuffle manifested; a number of passengers had been given a seat number that didn't exist (the seats ended at 48 but people had tickets up to 52). By this point I was just happy to be in a seat, permanent recline or not, so I decided not to speak up again and hoped the guy checking wouldn't mention my query - which he didn't.

The 10 hour bus ride was, as expected, rather bumpy. We were only travelling 210 miles in total; achievable in probably 4 hours on a clear-ish, straight-ish road, but this was not that. The condition of the bus coupled with the appalling state of the roads meant every lump vibrated through our bodies. This meant that any attempted snooze was brief and somewhat dangerous. It didn't matter too much though as we were travelling in the day. The bus snaked wildly around and through the Laos mountain range, steadily climbing in altitude making our ears pop. Looking out of the window was jaw-dropping; the views of the awe-inspiring Laotian landscape were truly indescribable, but they were also terrifying as we were often clutching to the edge of a sheer drop. The highway connecting Luang Prabang to Vientiane is the biggest and most important in Laos. It has no road markings and no lights (hence our daytime journey) and is very narrow. It's quite aptly called Route 13 and it connects all the way through to Cambodia. Lauren described the journey as a white knuckle ride.

During the ride we befriended a young Lao girl (approx. 4 years old) who was sat behind us. She incessantly popped her head through the gap between our seats (mine on recline and Lauren's upright) in an effort to interact with us. As much as it was mildly annoying we had little else to entertain us and so we were quite happy to act as clowns for a while. She was a great mimic; copying everything we said and did. We taught her 1-5 in English and a few funny gurns (I'm sure her parents will thank us for that on the next school photo). She was a real darling and I hope she was old enough to remember the two weird white girls on the bus. Here she is;

We had one stop for lunch at an entirely Lao truck-stop. Even though we didn't have a food-voucher Lauren managed to swindle herself a bowl of unknown soup (we think it was meat-free). I was still feeling under the weather so I stuck to a yoghurt pot. The co-driver who I'd previously moaned to about my broken seat was now kitted out with a bullet-proof vest and a large, semi-automatic gun. We had read something in one of the travel guides that there was a very small risk of American war legacy guerillas who have, a handful of times over the last decade, come out of the mountains and held up tourist-heavy coaches. Bearing this in mind we were fairly comfortable with our weapon-brandishing ally.

Bums numb and eyes heavy, we arrived at the bus station at around 7pm. After putting a taxi driver on the phone to our home-stay host to give directions, we eventually arrived (1 hour later) at Jungle House. We rolled up to our home for the next 4 days and did our best to take in the amazing palatial bamboo building set amongst a jungle garden. We entered into the massive open plan reception / dining room with mezzanine second floor and were very warmly welcomed by Mike Boddington (great-grandson of THE Mr. Henry Boddington who started the infamous Mancunian beer and brewery) and his Lao wife Xoukiet, their Chinese intern Angela along with the other guests; a French and American couple. Everyone was sat round the dining table and had just finished eating and we were immediately seated and fed with home-cooked Lao delights (with plenty of veggie options for Loz).

At first we were a little overwhelmed; tired, scruffy, dirty and ill-equipped to engage in deep and meaningfuls with the older, well-cultured dinner guests and hosts. We did however take the opportunity to lubricate ourselves with the wine on the table - which helped a little. After a few hours of first impressions we were happy to be escorted to our room; which was across from the main house, past the swimming pool, through a wooded garden and in a cottage. The cottage had bedrooms and en-suite bathrooms on each side and a large communal kitchen / dining room in the middle. The French couple Nicole and Alain were in the twin room and we were in the double (take THAT heteros). Soon enough the resident geckos appeared to introduce themselves but quickly disappeared again when they realised we hadn't brought a load of insects with us.

Our first morning in Vientiane was a sobering one. After a great sleep and a picturesque breakfast sat on the veranda overlooking the lake, Mike gave us a guided tour of the COPE (Cooperative Orthotic Prosthetic Enterprise) visitor centre. The centre was actually set up by Mike in 1997 and does amazing work for disabled people in Lao. The visitor centre brilliantly outlines the 9 year 'Secret War' that the US waged on Laos. I can't begin to express the inhumanity of America's actions - we were truly shocked and appalled when we understood the gravity of it all. But let's not dwell on the negative, here's a 15 minute video that goes some way to illustrating the good work COPE does;

Sufficiently crushed, we then went for an independent stroll around Vientiane town. After a couple of hours we were hot, bothered and lost, so we called Mike on the mobile phone he'd given us and got collected. As Mike had just picked up a new couple (Australian) from the airport, we had to climb into the back of the pick up for an open-top ride back to Jungle House. The wind in our hair and sun on our shoulders, we got plenty of looks from fellow road-users; presumably less shocked by the riding arrangement than our nationality.

For the rest of the day we flopped about the house and grounds; taking a dip in the pool, reading our books and generally enjoying a chill out. This time we felt more prepared for our dinnertime socialising - again making the most of the complementary wine... We had some great conversations; learning about each other and Laos and we really started to feel like one of the family.

On our second day we did nothing but lay around like lazy bums, and we fucking loved it. I tell a lie, we spent a few hours sorting our onward plans

The third day we went to visit one of Mike's friends; Mac and his wife La. Mac and La head up an NGO organisation called Soap4Life which teaches poor Lao women how to make soap (sustainably) to sell. La gave us a live demonstration and it's amazing how easy the process is. We have since learned that Soap4Life has won a contract with Crowne Plaza hotels in Laos for 50,000 pieces of soap which is a great start to the project.
At the house we also met Mac and La's menagerie of pets; 2 squirrels, a bamboo rat, 4 budgies, 2 pugs, 1 shitzu and one other dog. The bamboo rat was particularly cute (and pregnant).

That evening was our final communal dinner and we made the most of it; staying up until midnight waxing lyrical about all the forbidden subjects: politics, culture and religion.
We really didn't want to leave Jungle House; the stars aligned and gave us an amazingly relaxing yet stimulating stay. We both feel incredibly inspired to firstly, read more about modern history (specifically the atrocities of war), secondly, encourage others to do the same and thirdly, commit to some sort of genuinely helpful volunteering.
Ask me again in 6 months to see whether we've followed this through!

BAN THE CLUSTER BOMB!

Posted by advensha 03:08 Archived in Laos Tagged laos vientiane swimming travelling backpackers dinner_party uxo disability jungle_house cope_centre mike_boddington soap4life secret_war cluster_bombs Comments (1)

Laos: Luang Prabang

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Eventually we arrived at Sa Sa Lao; a hostel-style accommodation set right on the Nam Khan riverside and overflowing with luscious tropical foliage and vegetables. We had our very own hut (we're getting pretty accustomed to bamboo boxes by now) complete with a netted double bed, en suite bathroom, fan and plenty of geckos, ants and mozzies.

The cloudy and comparatively chilly weather we'd been introduced to on the Mekong was hanging around and so we were still wrapped up in long pants and hoodies. Still feeling like shit I was in no state to eat dinner so Lauren ate something at the hostel's little bar/cafe and not long after we went to bed.

One of the interesting things about staying in a hut is the orchestra of multifarious noises you're serenaded with of an evening. Geckos are common culprits; making sounds ranging from squeaks right up to loud high-pitched meows. Here at Sa Sa Lao, the familiar geckos were joined by the resident dogs (who were actually very cute and friendly), the occasional cat, a smattering of birds and the eternally open karaoke bar opposite. So each night at around 7pm, all of the dogs within a 10 mile radius would start shouting at each other and a Lao gentleman with a hugely inflated sense of talent would start screaming into a microphone. This was our lullaby. Although mildly annoyed by our aural experience, it didn't for the most part affect our sleep; either our tolerance is increasing or we're going deaf.

I wasn't feeling much brighter the following morning but I could still muster up the energy to do some exploring of our new destination. With the help of the French hotel manager and a badly photocopied map, we found our way to Luang Prabang centre. Getting to the centre meant crossing the bamboo bridge which, shockingly, is a walking bridge that crosses over the Nam Khan river made entirely of bamboo. This bridge is built, maintained and dismantled by a local family every year who charge 5000 kip (approx. 45p) per person for a return journey across it. It only exists in the dry season and in the wet season, it is either removed in advance or washed away. The bridge is rudimentary to say the least, but it functions perfectly well and makes the journey to town much quicker for those on the 'wrong' side of the river. Here's some moving pictures of our first bamboo bridge expedition. If you listen carefully you'll hear Lauren berating me for taking 'deep steps'...

After a crap, overpriced breakfast, we stomped about the town a bit, taking in the colonial buildings, the tourist-centric souvenir and craft shops and enjoying the mild temperature and chilled-out atmosphere. The town actually felt a little Wild Wild West in terms of its layout and aesthetic. There is a thriving tourist industry in Luang Prabang and this is very apparent. The majority of the people we walked past weren't Lao, and the streets were overrun with travel agencies, European cafés and shops. We didn't mind this too much as the demographic seemed to be older than your average backpacker (25+) and a little more middle class. Not completely our crowd but the placidity was both enjoyable and infectious.
On our way back to the hotel we stumbled past a well-reviewed little pizza restaurant owned by a Lao-American couple (called Pizza Phan Lung). It was literally in their back garden with a handful of tables around a proper outdoor stone pizza-oven. A small amount of shame washed over us for buying Italian food on our first proper day in Laos but we quickly forgave ourselves as by this point I just really couldn't stomach Asian food.

The next day, a Sunday, we had another disappointing and expensive breakfast in town, redeemed by a great visit to the Laos Ethnology Centre. We also hopped on a mini bus to KouangXi waterfall 30km away. The waterfalls were incredibly beautiful; bright turquoise water surrounded by the green of huge trees and plants, decorated with hundreds of colourful butterflies. Unfortunately we hadn't packed our swimming costumes so we couldn't jump in but we did a little bit of paddling and that was enough for us. The water was too bloody cold anyway. There were lots of tourists of all ages splashing around in the water, mostly taking selfies, and a few were back-flipping off high rocks into the pools.

At the bottom of the falls is a bear sanctuary that rescues Asian black bears and sun bears from poachers (their gall bladders are used in Chinese medicine) and animal shows. The bears were gorgeous and seemed to have been provided a brilliant habitat. We were a little irked by the fact the WIRE fence protecting us from these bears (or vice versa) was only about 5 foot high. We didn't hang around too long.

On the drive back I started to feel really dodgy again so when we got back to town Lauren had a quick (and crap) plate of fried rice in the first restaurant we found, followed by a street crepe and we hurried back so I could climb into bed. That evening I felt really ill. I couldn't regulate my temperature and I had a horrible throbbing nausea and banging head ache. Although nothing was coming out of me I had all the symptoms of a stomach bug or food poisoning. As I'd gradually gotten worse over the last week we decided it would be best if I spent a day in bed, starving and feeling incredibly sorry for myself. So nothing to report on this day except Lauren having to go out on her own for lunch only to find the bamboo bridge closed off because of fast running water - ha. Luckily there were a handful of cafés on our side of the river she could make-do with.

The day of abstinence really did help and the next morning I felt super-perky (and hungry) so we headed to town but this time had to take the long-route across the motorbike bridge as the bamboo bridge was still closed. This motorbike bridge is as described but has a narrow pedestrian walkway tacked on the side of it with only crude wooden floorboards separating walkers from the river 300 feet below. We finally had a decent (but still pricey) breakfast at Novelty Café and then burnt it off by walking the 300 steps up Phousi mountain to see all of the Buddha images, temples and, most notably, the Buddha's footprint. It turns out Buddha was an actual giant as his footprint was 7 foot long... An interesting part of being up there was that we got talking to a very charismatic 19 year old monk who was soon to be leaving the monkhood after 8 years. He was very excited at the prospect of drinking and being with women and was asking us falangs (foreigners) all about our life experiences. We didn't tell him we were a couple as we thought his head might explode. This was the first time we'd had a one-on-one conversation with a Buddhist monk and it was great. Turns out (as we suspected) they're pretty normal guys. And, contrary to what I though, they're not all vegetarians. They eat whatever they're given (with most of the time is meat).

Back down at ground level we made our way to Big Brother Mouse; a charity centre where Lao children can go (for free) to learn English from both educated Laotians and foreign volunteers. Unfortunately we arrived at the wrong time and so couldn't get involved in the storytelling session we'd hoped to. Instead we bought some books that were written by students and published at the centre and I also poked my head into a Lao sign language class and showed the deaf students some BSL signs. This amazing spontaneous interaction really made my day and also brought a little tear to my eye (I'm a wet fish I know).

Clearly a little concerned that we weren't being selfish enough we then went for a hand and foot massage at a nearby centre which apparently gives 20% of its profits to local villages. During the massage (which was very good), one of the ladies asked Lauren "do you have a baby?" and pointed to her stomach. Upon hearing that Lauren was carrying a food baby and not a human baby the girl was very apologetic but luckily neither of us are easily offended. If anything it gave me a good laugh for the rest of the evening. Later that evening, in an effort to diminish said faux-foetus, Lauren demolished a burger and french fries at a local trendy joint called Utopia. We're kings of weight loss.

High on MSG and feeling brave we walked the 30 minutes back to our hostel in the dark (but we had a torch) and tried not to get mowed down/eaten by dogs/kidnapped by guerillas. You'll be glad to hear dear reader that we made it back without even a mosquito bite and were greeted by our favourite little puppy too. The rest of the night was spent packing up our things and preparing for our early morning bus to Vientiane.

Posted by advensha 03:11 Archived in Laos Tagged monk laos luang_prabang travellers bears backpackers mekong_river utopia big_brother_mouse stomach_bug kuang_si_waterfall Comments (1)

Journey to Laos: Chiang Rai, Pak Beng & the Mekong river

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We departed Chiang Mai in style. We lugged our ever-increasing baggage down 3 flights of stairs and were greeted by a smartly dressed young man called Mr. Singh and his vehicle; a large, new Toyota with tinted windows, and 7 cream leather seats. And it was just us; our own private chauffeur for the day with segregated passenger controlled air conditioning.
After only 5 weeks of 'roughing it' (hardly) we were already practically dribbling for some flashy comforts.

It had all worked out very well considering my condition. All day I felt feverish; too hot and too cold, shaky, weak, nauseas and a constant head ache. Had we been thrown into a jam-packed mini-bus with 8 other backpackers, no air conditioning and a driver with a need for speed navigating the mountains of Northern Thailand I probably wouldn't have made it. I would have vomited and shat on something or someone.

Luckily for everyone, we were wrapped up in our own business-class style fortress where we could spread out, curl up (a bit) and get a bit of rest and enjoy the view. Mr. Singh had a penchant for Western chart music so we also got to listen to some familiar tunes à la Ellie Goulding, Adele and Demi Lovato - a fact Lauren enjoyed more than she'd like to admit.

After a couple of hours we stopped at what looked like a service station. I was glad for a toilet break but it turned out to be much more than that. In the middle of this retail-laden car park were some smalls pools of water; some with fountains in the centre. These pools were actually natural hot springs; and it wasn't fart I could smell, it was the sulphur. They are called Wiang Pa Pao springs and they were rather underwhelming. We were most impressed by the enterprising elderly Thai lady boiling baskets of eggs in the springs to sell on.

A few more hours on the road passed and our next stop was Wat Rong Khun; aka the White Temple. Our initial reaction to the sight of the temple was probably the most visceral one we've had thus far. The crisp, unblemished white of the structure shone so brightly in the midday sun it was almost blinding. It appeared almost as though it was floating as its painterly curves suggested clouds. We also so hints of the Disney Castle in there; and there certainly weren't shortages of pop-culture references as we ventured further. Encircling the contemporary temple/art installation were figures such as Hellraiser, Predator, Maleficent, Freddy Kruger, Terminator and weirdly enough; Harry Potter. In addition to these Western symbols of evil-doing (and Harry Potter), as you walk up the bridge to the temple you pass two pools of outstretched forearms grabbing upwards from whatever lies beneath. All quite hellish really; at least in a familiar Abrahamic sort of way.

We had a brief wander around the grounds of the temple and enjoyed experiencing something more contemporary after 5 weeks of all things ancient. The one thing we didn't enjoy was the onslaught of photo-obsessed Chinese tourists who repeatedly blocked our path and poked our eyes out with their flagrant flailing of selfie-sticks.

Back in our safe little Japanese carriage we sped on through the ever-mountainous province of Chiang Rai with ears popping aplenty and saw a sign for a restaurant called Cabbage and Condom. Unfortunately we didn't stop there but we did stop for lunch in a little village café where the only vegetarian dish was stir fried veggies. Lauren was happy with that, especially considering we've struggled to get in our five-a-day, but then they arrived with big juicy prawns mixed in. Ever the trooper (and not one to ever miss a meal either), Lauren commendably picked the prawns out and ate the rest of the dish. I on the other hand had zero appetite and had started to feel a little fragile and feverish, but I forced some stir fried chicken and cashew nuts knowing I wouldn't be eating again for a while, and just hoped I could keep it down.
Outside of the café was a beautiful caged mynah bird who was very good at saying 'hello' in Thai (sawadee ka), see Lauren attempting to colonise the poor thing in this video;

The next stop was Baan Si Dum; or The Black House. Again this was an art installation preoccupied with the abject and grotesque. A huge teak building painted black, as soon as you walk through you're confronted with hundreds of dead animals; their skins, their bones, their pelts - pretty much everything except their organs (although they could have been there somewhere and maybe we just didn't notice). On one very long, grand table was a complete alligator skin, topped -as you'd expect - with a much smaller wild cat skin. Then, outside of the house itself is a fairly palatial grounds with some LIVE exotic animals in very small dark cages. We saw a HUGE snake (the biggest we'd ever seen) coiled up on the floor with people gathered around trying to I suppose make eye-contact with the poor thing, and lots of unusual birds including owls. Dead animals is one thing but seeing the poor live animals on 'display' in what is only essentially a contemporary art gallery was saddening.

We quickly tired of animal carcasses and so got back in transit for our final leg of the journey to the border town of Chiang Khong. We arrived early evening at the Teak Garden hotel. This was not the hotel we'd selected (we'd picked the cheapest one on offer with the Mekong tour) but, luckily for us, we'd been bumped up as our selection was full! The Teak Garden was by far the poshest hotel either of us had stayed in (needless to say we felt a little out of place). It ha an infinity swimming pool over the Mekong, a private balcony with river-view, a mini-bar, TV, rain shower, and SPRUNG MATTRESS BEDS! Annoyingly, we were only there for one night and because I was feeling so bloody rotten all I did was sleep. Lauren found a nearby Thai-Mexican fusion restaurant (weird) and had a lonesome dinner while I decorated our fancy new bathroom.

Our included breakfast the next morning was as you'd expect extensive. So much so I cursed us for not packing Tupperware with us to rob snacks for the rest of the day. Some of the other guests at breakfast seemed a little confused by our presence with our scruffy appearance, long armpit hair and massive scraggy backpacks. In situations such as this I always make a point to talk and chew good and loud while scratching my fallulah.

We were taken to the border where we spent a good hour freezing our nips off while waiting for a bus to take us over the Friendship Bridge to Laos. Once in Laos (Huay Xai) we did a bit more waiting around for our visas to be processed and then met our tour guide for the next two days; Ka. Ka is Laotian and originally from the Hmong tribe who live in the highest villages in the mountains of Laos.

We eventually boarded our slow-boat; number 333, which had a lovely varnished walnut interior with comfy chairs, two clean toilets and endless complementary tea and coffee. We were joined by 5 other couples; two sets of Canadians, one Dutch-Lebanese, one Swedish and one Italian. And away we went along the mighty Mekong. Thankfully, the boat was very steady and didn't add to my belly bubbles.

Laos had decided to cloud over upon our entry into the country and this lack of sun coupled with being out on the open water meant for a pretty chilly ride. By the second day all of us had raided our bags for extra layers and socks. Nonetheless, the views along the Mekong were spectacular. The 8 hours of sailing flew by as simply looking out onto the hillsides, flora and fauna was mesmerising. In fact it was only after the first day on the boat that I realised we'd spent a whole day, technology-free (I'm counting my Kindle as a book - sue me), confined to one small-ish space, and we'd been perfectly content. Not a massive feat but for someone with an over-active, easily-bored brain I was fairly impressed with myself. Maybe I'm finally doing some of that 'winding down' I'd hoped for...

One our first day of sailing we stopped at a Khmu village just off from a very remote area of riverside. The Khmu people are only just getting access to electricity and a means of transport and the advent of tourism (and tours like ours) help not only financially but in bringing education and healthcare. Khmu people have their own native language that is very different to Lao and they are primarily an agricultural society. They do not practice Buddhism but instead a form of animism. It felt a little odd 'trespassing' on their land but they seemed fine and sometimes indifferent by our presence, getting on with their day to day jobs. The children were naturally a little more curious and did follow us around a bit.

By 5pm we arrived at Pak Beng; the small town were everyone (public and posh tours alike) stops for one night on their way to Luang Prabang. Our hotel was quite basic but nice and had used old US bombs as columns holding up it's balconies.

My stomach (and bottom) were gradually becoming more disobedient so after a quick nosey in the local market (where we saw live frogs, squashed chickens, eels and live tree-rats for sale to eat) and then sitting down for an Indian meal (I didn't eat), we retired to bed quite early.

Lauren took full advantage of Laos's French history and bought a selection of pastries for breakfast while I tried to understand my complete loss of appetite (a very new concept for me). Our second day of sailing was broken up with two stops; one at another village - this time the high-dwelling Hmong tribe and also the Pak Ou caves. At the Hmong village the people were much more eager to interact with us (and sell us their handicrafts). We bought some handmade bracelets from a young girl (the mother's use the cutest kids to do the selling) and I gave one of my existing bracelets back to her. She looked completely baffled when I tied it on her wrist but hopefully she'll at least be able to sell it on to someone else.

The Pak Ou caves house many hundreds of old and new Buddhist artefacts. There's very little history on the caves but they are thought to have been used by people for worship and shelter for many hundreds if not thousands of years.
Amazingly, we both survived the long and steep journey to the upper cave (Me without shitting myself and Lauren without having a heart attack) and got to marvel at the limestone formation and the proliferation of Buddhas big and small.

We arrived at Luang Prabang at around 4pm and after a bit of scrambling by our driver to find our hidden-away hotel, we made it to the little hut we were to call home for the next 5 days.

Posted by advensha 22:12 Archived in Laos Tagged thailand laos pak_beng smile_mekong_cruise chang_khong melong_river Comments (1)

Thailand: Chiang Mai

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After the 2 days of character-building in Ayutthaya we were happy to be on our way. We (excuse the pun) wolfed down some food at a café opposite the train station and after a bit of sweaty waiting around we were on our sleeper train; car 11, the 'lady' car.

We had booked two uppers (top bunks) opposite each other. As the train had started in Bangkok, the car was already pretty full and most people had got in their bunks and shut their curtains. While we were still figuring out where to stuff our bags a smiley gentleman asked if we wanted to order dinner and breakfast. Even though we had only just eaten we got carried away with the idea of being served a hot meal on a sleeper train and said yes to both. Shortly after we were served with our rather large meals (served on a nearby cubby-hole table) that neither of us could finish.

The train was very clean and well organised and the bunks were fairly roomy and comfortable. There were curtains for privacy, your own personal reading light and two weird seatbelts at both ends of the bed that we think were supposed to prevent you from rolling off. The toilets too were clean and well-equipped and without sounding too misandrist we think this might have been due to coach being women only.

The only struggle we had was actually getting into our beds. There were very narrow metal ladders at one end that were built into the side of the 'cabins' and for someone as ungainly and inelegant as I, ascending to my chamber while the train was in motion was not easy. In the end we came up with a better technique which involved using the ladders on both sides (one leg on each) and then diving in at the most opportune moment. Picture a fat starfish trying to walk up a drain.

We both managed to get some shut eye; thankfully the train wasn't very wobbly and there weren't any obvious noise pollutants. We were woken at 6am for breakfast which, like dinner the night before, was a pretty hearty meal. Lauren particularly enjoyed the teeny tiny orange juices that were included. Soon after our unnecessary feeding we rubbed the sleep from our eyes, packed up our belongings and squirmed our way through the narrow train doors onto the platform at Chiang Mai.

Faced with the familiar barrage of taxi touts we selected the only female we could see and were chucked in the back of a large open mini-van come tuk tuk with a load of other passengers. We were the last to be dropped off and, not one to miss an opportunity the taxi tout lady tried in vain to sell us some tours to the various animal sights that blight the region. All sorts of wildlife activities can be enjoyed in Chiang Mai; from the well-known elephant riding to stroking tigers to playing with monkeys. Needless to say we weren't sold on the idea.

We arrived at our hostel, as usual, early in the morning. After waiting on the front terrace for a while the host, Fern, came to our aid and told us check-in was at 1pm but we could leave our bags behind her desk. After watching us essentially use her patio as a changing room come bathroom come wardrobe, Fern offered us a room upgrade for only £4 - a room that was double the size, with an en suite bathroom, an actual bed instead of foam mattresses on the floor AND that was ready now. We gladly accepted the offer only for her to then wash all of our laundry (3 weeks worth), dry and fold it and give it back to us a few hours later. Needless to say we were the happiest little lesbians in Thailand.

For lunch we found a sweet if not trendy veggie café called Imm Aim where we lapped up a number of whole-food dishes and where I also bought some funky homemade woven thread earrings. On our way to the old town of Chiang Mai we stumbled across an amazing 70s second-hand clothes shop where I very selflessly restrained myself and only bought one dress. I then proceeded to buy my third pair of sunglasses (yes I lost my second pair).

One of the things we needed to tick off our list was booking our journey from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang in Laos. We'd done our research and knew that the trip would involve a minibus through Chiang Rai to the border, a night's stay in the border town of Chang Khong, then a boat along the Mekong for 2 days with a night's stay in Pak Beng. We got a number of quotes from travel agents for the standard, basic journey that most budget backpackers book; approx. £35 each (not including the night in Pak Beng). Being good little travellers we wanted to look into the boat company that all the travel agents were using (Aya) and sleep on the decision. To cut a long story short, after reading some awful reviews and blogs and weighing up our options we decided to 'splurge' and book a more luxury journey with a company called Smile River Cruises. For the 3 days it cost £160 each and this included a few meals, a night in Chang Khong and Pak Beng, a private chauffeur to the border that stopped at 3 sights along the way, visits to two local hill-tribe villages and the Pak Ou caves and, most importantly, included a private river-boat with proper seats and toilets and room to move around and appreciate the views.
Decision made, we felt like we'd mildly betrayed our fellow backpackers and our own imposed budget but we were excited to get the VIP experience.

That evening we checked out the Sunday walking market where, feeling newly skint we resisted buying any knick-knacks. Lauren did however find some room for 2 spring rolls an 3 samosas for her dinner. I wasn't feeling too great (slippery slope from this point) so I just had a a rather massive corn on the cob for tea.

We were up early the next day to ensure we could get booked in at Chiang Mai Women's Correctional Institution for our foot massage. We managed to get an appointment for early afternoon so to burn some time we had breakfast at an upmarket veggie hotel we'd almost stayed at (but was too expensive).

Our foot massages were very good and we both felt positive about giving our money to a space that provides an opportunity for incarcerated women to learn a skill they can then use when thy 'get out'. I spoke to one of the officers at the centre and she said (under her breath) that around 80% of the prisoners working as massage therapists were jailed as a result of drug crimes. Consider this quote from Thai Customs website; "Violators of laws related to illicit drugs, e.g., having and holding for use, or being a producer, seller, or transporter are subject to the death sentence". Yeah, it's pretty serious stuff. Although we were certainly glad the prisoners at the centre clearly weren't dead, I couldn't help but wonder whether these young, polite and intelligent women had had their lives completely fucked for the sake of a spliff, or some cocaine or, maybe even for covering for someone else. Things like this make me appreciate the UK.

That evening we walked to the Maya shopping centre; a massive fancy mall with five floors of shopping and eating adventures to be had. We ventured to the cinema floor where we saw Joy with Jennifer Lawrence in the leading role. Unfortunately the film was a load of crap, but the BBQ/caramel popcorn was amazing. Much like Myanmar, there was a short video before the film started where the audience showed their allegiance to the country and it's King. We were shown photos of the King through the years (with all of his dogs in weird poses) as well happy New Year cards. We, like the rest of the theatre, stood up to show our respect. No way I'm going to end up giving tourists massages.

The following day we thought we should probably check out some of the temples on offer; so we did. We saw a few interesting temples, one of which housed a crystal and a marble Buddha - both over 2000 years old. After walking for a few hours the heat (and period cramp in my case) got the better of us and we retired to a place called Catta-café, which, aptly so, is a café with lots of cats in it. We enjoyed a cat fur covered brownie and some cat fur covered drinks while stroking and playing with some very cute cats.

For dinner we found a Japanese veggie place called Greendays (like my favourite café on Lark Lane in Liverpool) on the other side of town. We travelled by tuk tuk and as we approached it was immediately obvious that this area (which we think is just essentially the centre) is very Westernised. It actually felt like a slightly scaled down version of Bangkok. There were strips of bars and pubs with English names and Ping Pong shows and tat shops although it definitely had a classier more metropolitan edge. The Western clientèle appeared to be older white men as opposed to 20-something boys and girls out for a good time.

The food was lovely and once again we ordered way too much and for pudding we got pedicures on one of the strips. We were a little disappointed that a dry skin scrape and scrub wasn't included but we didn't complain. At least we got to people-watch and get a feel for the disdain the Thai girls working there felt at their shitty jobs.

Back at the guesthouse we Skyped my Mum and I tended to my ever-worsening stomach bug (trips to the toilet were involved). As the sickness took it's hold, we both thanked the lord we had booked a fancier trip down the Mekong...

Posted by advensha 01:23 Archived in Thailand Tagged thailand chiang_mai travelling north_thailand pedicure cat_cafe tummy_bug upset_stomach Comments (1)

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