To my surprise it seemed I had subconsciously gotten inspiration from these drink mats on the table.
A spur of the moment thing. I want to try get my creativity flowing again. It might or might not have something to do with the book ‘Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear’ by Elizabeth Gilbert (thanks Maggie) that I am reading at the moment. I’m excited to see if I’ll actually complete this task.
A doodle a day for 30 days. Let’s see.
(My first Whisper)
I closed my eyes, held the pen to paper and wrote what ever came into my head (while my eyes were still closed). I think the result, in a visual sense, is beautiful. The words are echoing truth.
‘As I wander along
these paths untouched
I ask myself, why me?
Why did I choose this
I venture in alone,
not taking a glance
backwards…I go full
speed ahead, drinking up everything
I see. I’m amazed, awed, scared
and insecure. I save myself from
myself and carry on. Nothing stops.’
1. Where not to miss:
PHONG NHA NATIONAL PARK
Travelling in Vietnam is pretty easy. Since the country is quite narrow, you either go from North to South or vice versa. Many a traveller misses out on Phong Nha National Park as it is off the main thoroughfare and the train ticket route. Even if you didn’t think you liked caves, you’ll be pleasantly surprised. How to get there? You can get a night bus from Hanoi, DaNang or practically any major stop off in Vietnam. Expect there to be loud Asian karaoke all night long and the chair beds to be slightly too small (for a 170cm person). Where to stay? Easy Tiger is a backpacker haven. There are also farm stays for those wishing for something quieter and away from the backpacker scene. What to do? Explore caves and cycle around.
2. Where I wish I went:
I was in Northern Vietnam in early December, their winter. My thin leggings and hoodie were hardly cutting the 16 degrees celcius dull weather in Hanoi and Halong Bay, never mind going further north into the mountains of 4 degrees. It’s supposed to be glorious and enchanting on a good day though, which are hit and miss at that time of year. What to do? Get your own private local guide to bring you on hikes with amazing views over tea plantations.
3. Where I didn’t mind missing:
The main attraction to the Cuchi Tunnels is getting to squeeze into the tiny tunnels that were used during wartimes. As a verging claustrophobic, I was happy enough to see other friends photos and read up about them online.
4. Where I wouldn’t go again:
An unusual displaced city where all signs are also in Russian and you’ll be sure to eat in a Russian restaurant. The market wasn’t anything to write home about with cheap looking knock off sports gear.
5. Where one day is plenty:
Go to Mui Ne for the sand dunes and the fishing village and nothing else, unless you want to peruse the resort lifestyle where a man-made beach is erected above the beach as the tide is too close. What to do? Go on a half-day tour, take fabulous photos on the sand dunes and be done.
6. Where to get custom clothes made:
It’s pretty self-explanatory. Streets and streets are lined with shops ready to make clothes to fit only you! Where to stay? If you want to meet backpackers stay at DK’s House Backpackers. If you just happen to be there for Christmas (like I was), stay somewhere fancy and then book in for the Christmas dinner to make lots of new friends. What to do? Rent bikes to check out the beach, visit the island over the walk bridge, check out the markets and eat some great food.
7. Where to spend New Year’s Eve:
A bustling city with lots of nightlife and motorbike-filled roads. Where to stay? The multistory Vietnam Inn Saigon has it’s own rooftop bar so you’ll be sure to make lots of friends and see the new years fireworks from a height. What to do? Wander the streets seeing the sights, visit the War Remnants Museum, and check out the indoor market.
8. Where to challenge yourself:
If you see photos of someone in Vietnam with a hard hat and harnesses on then they are sure to be in Dalat. It is the must-go place to try out canyoning, ie. Abseiling down and jumping off cliffs. Even those with fears of heights, myself included, are able to muster up the courage for a day in your swimsuit. Where to stay? Dalat Family Hostel. A bit weird and cosy but you get used to it.
9: Where to find paradise:
A tranquil island off the southern end of Vietnam. What to do? Rent scooters and explore the island visiting the beaches of turquoise water, the pearl farms, and eat a fresh fish dinner at the market.
10. Where to find a Natural Wonder:
The best option is to just book a cruise trip and let them take it from there guiding you through the karst limestone island landscape. You can be lucky enough to book a cheaper trip in the winter and end up on a more expensive one because there weren’t enough people for yours (this totally happened to us).
11. Where to drink 19 cent beer on a tiny plastic stool and get an amazing Banh Me from a food cart:
A city full of wonder. Fully grown men alike sit on those plastic chairs. Where to stay? There’s lots to choose from. Just read up the reviews to find the one that best suits you. Sometimes the backpacker ones are too party party! What to do? There is so much to do. (Another blog post coming about the wonders of Hanoi.).
12. Where to see the “real” Vietnam:
MEKONG DELTA (CAN THO)
We took the long way back to Saigon from Phu Quoc, via the Mekong Delta. The bus was squishy and the view out the window echoed the poverty of Vietnam. Rubbish lined the streets and the tin shacks (houses) lined the river. The people at a bus stop were desperate for our custom. What to do? Go to the floating markets where boats line up beside you selling their wares by holding them out on a stick. They’ll cut the pineapple up on the spot with artistic precision. Many of them live on the boats year-round, moving with the weather.
13. Where to have a unique experience:
HUE TO HOI AN MOTORBIKE TRIP
If you want to have a taste of the scooter/motorbike craze then book a motorbike with a company in Hue or vice versa. They allow a rental one-way and take your luggage for you and deposit at your destination. If you want to live by the rules or are too nervous to drive, get an Easy Driver to drive you instead. Be prepared to see wonderful sights, but to also drive through a day of rain (if it’s winter), lose your travel mates after the first hour, and breakdown on top of mountains thus relying on the generosity of non-English speaking locals to help you out (yes, this happened…TWICE!).
*HANDY INFO ABOUT VIETNAM*
It was in DaNang that I found out about the strict hostel rules in Vietnam. In every hostel you hand in your passport and don’t receive it back until you leave. At first it seems daunting as it is your gateway to the rest of the world but you gently become accustomed to it and are glad you don’t need to worry about where it is at all times. All that will happen is you will leave the country with a passport cover full of small stickers with all the dorm room numbers you stayed in. The reason they take your passport is that they need to have all foreigners accounted for and send a list to the police every night.
You will also find Vietnamese hostels stricter in their rules about guests only allowed on the premises. There are hefty fines (5,000,000 vdn) so best to stay where your friends are staying if you want to chill at your hostel.
If you go to the North of Vietnam in winter you are going to be cold. That’s if you’ve come from hot sunny climes and don’t have appropriate clothing. There are always cheap Northface knock-offs you can buy in Hanoi but not ideal if you’re on a budget and don’t want to drag winter clothes around with you in your rucksack for another few months.
Where to start your trip from
Vietnam is pretty easy to travel around. You either go from North to South or vice versa. North to South suited me better as Cambodia would be my next stop. A rare flight while backpacking is perfectly acceptable, especially if it will save time. Vietnam Airlines was a glorious, roomy, clean experience and at 60 euro one-way from DaNang in central Vietnam to Hanoi in the North, it wasn’t bad.
Be prepared for Western hostel workers to plug every package trip going and dodge as many as you can. Though you’ll find Halong Bay can be a whole lot easier if you book with an agency. Still avoid booking with your pushy hostel unless booze cruises are you thing and you don’t want the full experience of backpacking because they organise everything for you.
All information as of 8 January 2015.
Hanoi is somewhat a gateway to other parts of Northern Vietnam, namely Halong Bay and Sapa. So we spent five nights there in total, more than I’d hoped but it was also a place to regain momentum.
1. Wander the streets and watch the locals. You might see some ballroom dancing, men smoking from large pieces of bamboo, fish being sorted, and old men sitting on tiny plastic stools playing board games.
2. Walk around the lake and visit the temple. You might also find some local boys will join you for a chat while you walk as they want to improve their English.
3. Go to Beer Hoi for a cheap (19 cent) beer while sitting on a tiny plastic chair eating snacks and watching the locals go by. The beer is brewed and must be drank on the same day.
4. The Water Puppet Show is worth a view for something different and some local live music.
5. Visit the Temple of Literature and get a haircut from the barber sitting on a stool outside (I can’t vouch for this).
6. Drink a coffee with an egg inside.
7. Go on the free walking tour from your hostel. I know, I had you at free.
8. Learn some history at the Hoi Lo Gaol. The History Museum can be a lot to take in and doesn’t really give you the information you need.
9. Eat as many Banh Mis from the street as possible, including the orange-type sauce that comes out of a plastic container.
10. Cross the road by walking slowly in between moving motorbikes carrying the world and it’s mother and arrive home exhausted. Those afraid of roads need not apply–you might as well stay in your hostel/hotel and order a taxi to cross from one side of the road to the other.
11. Give in and go on your hostel pub crawl and end up in a random warehouse club god knows where.
12. Browse the shops for trinkets.
13. Let the old man sketch you on the street and then let the second guy do it too and afterwards realise you can draw better.
14. Stock up on ‘North Face’ gear. The shops housing it are in their plenty so you can even shop around for the best price.
15. Feel amused when the locals say ‘Hello Banana” or “Hello Beer” while trying to sell their wares.
16. Buy from the ladies on the street. They have lumps on their shoulders from carrying their goods in baskets at the end of a stick for so long.
So you might have gathered that this was a list of all the random things I partook in…just go with it. I’d love to hear if you had any!
(Also known as “The Trip of a Lifetime!”)
Getting to Tha Khaek
It was a hot daytime ride from the capital, Vientiane, to Tha Khaek in central Laos. Myself and Orna were joined by Ecuadorian Janeth, and Englishman Charlie on the seven hour journey that isn’t on the main tourist trail. Aboard the local bus one would never fear hunger as at numerous points along the road locals hopped on and sold their wares of chewing gum, fruit in plastic bags, water and pastries. It felt like a human zoo as everyone shouted and hung goods in my face. The toilet break didn’t even bring us to a dingy restaurant with squatters. We stopped by the side of the road, men on one side, women in the bushes on the other. It was open air squatting among mountains of tissue from previous users!
When we eventually arrived at the bus station it seemed as if the tuk tuk drivers weren’t bothered getting any work. It was bizarre. Eventually eight of us squashed into one tuk tuk, big rucksacks and all. We stayed in the Tha Khaek Travel Lodge, read of past experiences of previous Loopers in the log book and sang songs over an open campfire.
Day 1 – The Road to Hello (Sabaidee)
After trying to source ourselves some automatic motorbikes, we eventually set off with small school bags of provisions for our four-day adventure. The views were just glorious, travelling through karst mountains with the wind blowing through our hair (beneath our helmets of course). There was little traffic so we had the road to ourselves with Charlie taking the lead on the semi-automatic bike. We did the 10km dusty, bumpy ride to and from the Buddah Cave. Despite having trousers on, Janeth was forced to rent a wrap skirt. Charlie tried frog on a stick afterwards as we sat down and drank coconut water (in a carton!). As the sun began to set, we arrived at the small village of Sabaidee. It was just magical as we watched the sun fall below the horizon across a lake. The colours were a spectacular end to a long day of wondrous driving. We had a dorm to ourselves and fell asleep to the sound of a fan so big it seemed about to take off!
Day 2 – The Dusty Way
Face masks in tow, we set off on what was to be the most challenging day – 20km of red dirt road. As we bumped along I couldn’t help but laugh to myself about how the red, rocky, narrow (at times) road was the main road around that part of the loop. The earth cast off a brilliant orange/red glow full of life and energy, and was paired perfectly with the odd occurrence of green foliage as a backdrop. I loved bumping and maneuvering over the challenging landscape, much more than going 70km down a main road. By the time we stopped for lunch in Lak Sao (where everyone says not to stay overnight), I had a fantastic tan of orange dust.
It was beautiful and heart-warming to travel through small, dusty villages and have children shout “Sabaidee” in delight at the tourists that they hardly ever see. We took a few wrong turns but eventually made it to the village of Kuon Kharn and stayed in a luxurious room with two double beds for 2.50 euro each. Disaster struck when I couldn’t work the shower and got locked outside of our room for about an hour. Covered in dust and dirt, a hot shower was all I needed. Meanwhile the three others were content to remain manky for a while longer. The concentration of the day had me exhausted and I balled like a baby until I got help!
Day 3 – Konglor Cave
We made the easy, calming, glorious secluded ride to Konglor Cave. We passed small clutterings of ramshackle houses along a road surrounded by fields. The pure serenity and enjoyment as we glided along was astounding. Each of us in our own world as we took in the sights, sounds, and smells.
The cave itself was an experience. One hour one way in the dark on a little canoe with head torches was how it happened. The boat trip was exciting, scary and anxiety-wrenching, especially as we had to evacuate the canoe momentarily so that it could be sent up the current. Later a foreign man looked at me in disbelief as I made myself a crisp sandwich! We ended the journey with a dip in the river, fooling around like children let out for their summer holidays!
That evening we went in search of a homestay. We followed a man who got us to follow another man. He led us up a stairs to his wooden house on stilts that was to be home for the night. The four travellers sat cross-legged on the floor around a tiny round metal table to a dinner of sticky rice in a wooden basket with green vegetables and egg. Afterwards we were joined by the man of the house (grandfather), his wife and two daughters and their five children combined. The evening of sitting on the wooden floor with thin mats was a complete Laotian experience. The grandmother, whose back was so bent, probably from years on the rice fields, helped the girls with their homework and was able to chat a little with us. We tried our best to communicate with the few words we were given on the back of our hand-drawn map but used universal gestures as well as games to communicate with the glowing, smiling children. “Eeny Meeny Miney Mo” went down a treat, as did “Down By the River” and other clapping games. I felt humbled to be welcomed into their home. That night we went to bed at 10pm on thin mattresses laid side by side on the floor, with small hard pillows and one mosquito net over us all. We went to sleep to the sounds of cocks beneath us and were woken up the same way.
Day 4 – The Road Home (The Last Leg)
Breakfast at 6.30am was the same as dinner the night before. We said our goodbyes and hit the road at 7.40am. We retraced our steps down the beautiful barren road. At times we stumbled upon children walking, cycling, motorbiking or on buses on their way to school. Some waved and giggled while others were too cool to salute! Some grannies waved us on our way while a young boy of about four was work-bound with his mother and a shovel in tow. The long highway home was more about testing our speed skills rather than seeing many sights but our stop off for a noodle soup was delicious. There was only one or two choices for food so not hard to pick!
We made it back to Tha Khaek and the Travel Lodge. As the dust began to settle we devoured all food in sight and talked about the amazing adventure we had just completed, the one that made a big stamp in our hearts.
Our Travel Entry
Vang Vieng = tubing
It’s true that eight years ago when my brother went to Vang Vieng, tubing was in it’s prime. It was a Rite of Passage and to be honest I’d say the main reason people went to Laos was for that and the slow boat (I wouldn’t recommend this approach. The rest of Laos is also amazing. Blog posts to come). Back in the late 2000s the tubing experience was fuelled by buckets of alcohol from the vast number of bars that lined the Nam Song river. There were zip lines and slides cohersing the alcohol-soaked party people into the river in unsafe circumstances. Unfortunately every year many young people were passing away from either a mixture of alcohol, a concoction of drugs, lack of caution on the river or a mixture of all three. In 2012, the government ordered all of the bars to be torn down and thus stop the madness.
Over the past year or two some of the bars have begun to reappear but the result is a much calmer vibe with about one hundred and fifty people per day. There are no dangerous apparatuses in which to fling ones drunken body into the water and no buckets of alcohol, thus making Bucket Bar somewhat of a confusing name.
Off we go!
So onto the important part. What is tubing like these days? It’s floating down the Nam Song river in a rubber tube, wearing nothing but your swimming trunks and wearing a waterproof bag around your neck with a handful of money and a photo-taking device inside.
When I was there in mid-November 2014 there were four bars open on one side of the river. Apparently the day before four bars on the other side were open. Myself and a gang of friends paid 55,000 Kip (approximately 6 euro) and a deposit of 60,000 Kip that we wouldn’t get back if we arrived back after 6pm, to rent a large rubber tube.
We were driven down to the river, tubes and all, and let free into the slowly
flowing water. As I set off I was given an eager push from a few local children as they wanted to see me race down the river. We got to enjoy the good weather, relish at the beautiful scenery, and have chats with friends while floating along the Nam Song with not a care in the world. The first bar was only a few hundred metres from our starting point so we hopped out to join the crowd that had gathered at only 12pm. At this bar we chatted, had some beers, danced a little in the sun, and walked under the shower of cold water. Each bar had a different selling point. One had a narrow tree trunk cast across a three metre hole with a metre full of mucky water at the bottom. Eager tourists donned boxing gloves and slid themselves into the middle to face a worthy apponent, usually with both of them ending face down in the water below. We also played flip cup and happily downed our drinks to refresh us on the hot day. I played musical tubes at Bucket Bar and decided not to dash for a tube as the competition got fiercer and resulted in a girl getting a bloody nose after a guy clearly wanted the tube more than her! At the last bar we chilled and danced in the open air.
There was the option to follow the river for another forty minutes or so to the end of the tubing experience but I’m not sure that happens much. Too much fun is to be had dancing in little more than your birthday suit! We hopped in a taxi to bring us back to the town and return the tubes.
Another attraction in Vang Vieng is the blue lagoon. Some people weren’t impressed with it as they said it wasn’t a lagoon but I loved it there. What’s not to like about crystal clear water on a roasting hot day? It has a huge tree to jump off into the water. I managed to jump from the higher branch at about seven metres high. My friends below gave up on filming as I took quite a while to build up the courage. Let’s just say I don’t need to do it again! Swings hang low to the water so you can relax and kick your feet while watching the other brave jumpers. A rope dangles off a tree so you can fling your body into the water in oh-so-graceful leaps and there’s grass and mats a plenty to lie on.
If you go to the blue lagoon, don’t dare to cycle in the blistering heat if you’re not a regular cyclist. We had to pick up a dehydrated, sweaty, exhausted girl on the dirt track on the way there.
In general Vang Vieng town is pretty cute. It’s nice and small and chilled. Sakura bar is a top spot for party goers and you can sample an array of cheap, Asian cuisine in the many restaurants (with cushions for chairs) that play box sets of Friends on repeat.
Where I stayed:
As myself and Orna preferred not to book accommodation before arriving, we found that the popular Central Backpackers was full. A short walk next door to Sisavang was perfect. We paid a mere seven euro altogether for a large private room with double bed, single bed, ensuite, and balcony. Had we chosen a smaller room with one double bed it would have cost five euro total a night. Not bad even if you wanted to stay there alone. The Internet was non existent in the bedrooms but they did a cheap and cheerful laundry service.
The capital of Laos was our next stop. It’s not much to talk about. It’s more expensive than the rest of Laos and hasn’t got many attractions. I wouldn’t recommend stopping here unless you had to get a Vietnamese visa at the embassy like we did. But if you found yourself wanting to break up your trip then I’d recommend staying at Sihome Backpackers. The rooms have air con and there’s a movie room.
As soon as I sat down on our minibus, I knew that the journey would be like no other.
At a glance the journey from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng (northern Laos) looks like it should take a few hours. Google maps says it can be done in a car in two hours twenty-eight minutes…It took seven hours.
Lets twist again…
This route is one of the windiest I have ever come across, and that’s after being in the Cameron Highlands in Peninsular Malaysia and Pai in Northern Thailand. We veered around corner after corner after corner. The driver had his foot glued to the breaks as he dodged random potholes, rocketed over landslides, and manoeuvred the minibus over dirt tracks of red dust. I think we spent most of the journey over the other side of the road avoiding enormous crevices. God bless his eye sight.
The route took us higher and higher into the mountains as the light started to fade.
A Different Life
It was up in these mountains that I began to see what I thought I would see everywhere in Asia. The minibus sailed by tiny poverty-stricken villages that hung off the mountain’s edge. Young children carried babies, others played in the dirt outside the wooden shacks they call home. Doors lay wide open as people sat cross-legged on the ground. Others had curtains up to divide the one room into numerous bedrooms and living areas. Grey, concrete houses with no windows and doors, only holes where they should be, were lit up by a solo television screen. Shops were illuminated by single fluorescent light bulbs, casting an eerie glow on the produce.
Grown men stood in their underwear by the roadside as they washed in the town’s water source. Others crouched by taps at the side of the road over a gully to wash their clothes, dishes, hands, and bodies with only a hand torch to warn passersby of their presence. Pyramids of lemons lay underneath tents and fluorescent lights on deserted, dark roads.
It was like a different world to me. I felt as if we were intruding on these people’s lives as our minibus thundered through their remote villages.
At one point our driver pulled over to guzzle down an energy drink. It made us feel extremely safe! Obviously the concentration had taken it’s toll. The Russian guy beside him guided him the rest of the way to Vang Vieng on his iPad. We did actually make it, aside from us all thinking differently a few times along the way. And in true Asian fashion, (you always bump into the same people) we were dropped outside the restaurant that our friends were hanging out at. Score!
Luang Prabang definitely shows off it’s French influences. The quaint Laotian town is a UNESCO World Heritage site, so it has a certain look to obtain. Most of the restaurant and guesthouse signs have yellow-gold raised wooden lettering on a brown wooden background. There is a never ending supply of cute restaurants and cafes to tickle your fancy.
Luang Prabang Night Market
Having come from eye-level markets in Thailand with each vendor having their own upright stall space, the low tents with produce displayed on the ground at Luang Prabang were a new, somewhat unusual sight for my eyes. At first glance it seemed quite a drab place but once I entered the long tunnel of tents, I was emersed. Clothes and bags were in their plenty, as well as jewellery made out of used bullets. It was easier to bargain for a good price here than in Thailand. So much so that I had bargained and agreed a good price for a bag for my friend before she’d even seen it. Thank goodness she liked it and bought it!
A few alleys filled with street vendors lay just off the night market. There was barbecued meat on sticks, and veggies galore. I filled a bowl full of vegetarian delights–noodles, rice, spring rolls, and prawn crackers. It cost 1 euro 50 cent. Definitely worth it!
Kuang Si Falls
Kuang Si waterfall was a spectacular sight of clear turquoise water. It’s about a forty-five minute tuk tuk/sawngteaw ride outside of Luang Prabang. The price we paid included the driver waiting for us until we returned at a premeditated time. Perfectly clean turquoise pools sit at the bottom of the waterfall with thick branches to jump off. A bridge at the bottom was the perfect spot for photo opportunities and to see the water cascading down the cliff face. Myself and a slew of others followed two Irish friends who had been at the falls a few days previous. We trekked up the left side of the waterfall and when we reached the top we began to make our ascent down it (yes, down the actual watery waterfall, full of it’s rocks and water). At first a little gate led the way, then as we went further down, short metal rods stuck out of the rocks to guide us down to a private pool where we jumped off rocks a few metres high. Of course we had great fun and many GoPro videos of energetic jumps were shot.
Hilltop view at Wat Com Si Temple
We climbed a couple of hundred steps up to the banjaxed-looking temple in the centre of Luang Prabang to get a view of the city and Mekong river. It was a few kip to get up there. The view was nice, but probably better to go at sunset. We bought little doll keyrings off two girls at the bottom. They told us we were beautiful with gorgeous smiles. Sometimes I’m not sure if they actually mean it or are just reaming off something they have been thought or thought to believe.
I didn’t quite make it up at the crack of dawn to watch the daily Alms Giving Ceremony where monks get donations of food from the public. Monks rely on getting food from the local people and Luang Prabang has become famous for tourists to ogle them in their daily activity. Part of me was glad I didn’t go to watch.
A night on the town
A few of us decided to do as the tourists do and go to Utopia bar. It’s a cool, chilled venue with good music to dance to. Which I did. It also has a beach volleyball court. That I didn’t do. After a dance and a few gin and tonics, we went on the Luang Prabang Rite of Passage–the bowling alley. It’s the only place that stays open after 12pm in the town so it was an absolute must. A bunch of drunk tourists bowling and drinking more beer was exactly what it was, with those more intoxicated playing atrociously!
Relax, Relax, Relax
One day I only left our room to eat dinner downstairs. I was feeling a little ‘off’ and probably getting worn out from the hectic travel plans. My lovely, dear friend Orna was kind enough to bring me breakfast in bed, snacks for our movie afternoon, and a takeaway dinner. It was definitely a much-needed pyjama day. I think when you’re travelling you can get caught up in the adventure of it all and forget that a day of rest can be just as good.
For quite a small town I found it difficult to find my way around. If it wasn’t for the three others I was with I would have been constantly lost. My confusion was a combination of water bordering three sides of the town and the identical signage. Thanks guys!
If in Laos, this town is definitely worth a trip.
Where I stayed:
We wandered around to try find somewhere with a reasonable price. We eventually followed a guy on a motorbike that had two beds in a room for 5 euro each so we went with it. I wouldn’t recommend it though. The toilets were smelly and we had to scale the gates when we got back from our late night out.
Starting the journey through Laos
Getting the slow boat from the Thai/Laos border to Luang Prabang is a popular choice. I had no idea what I was expecting. Something along the lines of a ferry that we would spend the night on. It turns out it was more like a bigger version of a long tail boat. The one we had on the first day was one of the better ones as there were tables between four. Usually the owners of the boats live on them with their families.
Myself and Orna were joined by Dutch Antoon and Cho who were travelling solo. I’d heard tell that the slow boats can be great craic, that everyone drinks together and the entire boat becomes best friends by the second day. It wasn’t quite like that. It was more about having chats along the quiet, brown Mekong river watching green hills and time pass by. There wasn’t much else to it. The Mekong flows in weird, mysterious ways. It appears to swirl in many places that the captain tries to avoid. I imagined been sucked down a whirl pool never to be seen again. The odd time I saw a water buffalo or some local people unloading a boat. It was pleasant to have a few beers and share stories with others on the five hour journey to Pakbeng, where we spent the first night.
Pakbeng–The sleepy riverside village
The sun was starting to set as we docked in Pakbeng. There was a collection of locals and kids there to greet us. They had pictures of guesthouses and rooms to rent to us. It seemed that the small town was only there for the daily arrival of tourists from the slow boat and the kids seemed to be there out of curiosity and boredom. Myself and a slew of others followed a lady up a hill at dusk (our rucksacks had gone up in a pick up truck–I was slightly wary of this but I’d nothing to worry about). It turned out to be the best accommodation in town as two ladies had checked out a few places before settling on our choice. We walked back down the dark, unlit hill to go up another to the village for dinner. It seems we joined most of our slow boat in a nice Indian restaurant.
Shockingly, I had my first hot shower in about a month in this random town. Asia never ceases to amaze!
Day two didn’t go that differently than day one. A lot of people got up earlier to try get a good seat or onto a boat with tables etc. Turns out there were no tables this time and I sat beside a Scottish guy while Orna sat beside an unsociable girl with headphones in the entire way. The other two were down the back close to the engine so they could hardly hear what the other was saying. Getting there a little earlier would have helped it seems.
Foreigners get scammed
The boat docked at a point a kilometre or two from Luang Prabang. Apparently at one time they used to stop at the town centre but it seems they’ve devised a scam for tourists to be forced to pay a few euro extra in a tuk tuk to get to the final destination even though it’s the slow boat to Luang Prabang and not the ‘slow boat to a few kilometres down the Mekong from Luang Prabang’.
Paying a euro or two for a tuk tuk wouldn’t be the problem (if it was included in the slow boat price we wouldn’t even know about it) but paying for one that is blatantly created to scam tourists was pretty annoying.
Yes, it’s not fun to be scammed (especially when there are a few scenarios like this devised when you first enter Laos) but in the end these people are just trying to make a living. The boat will continue to stop a few kilometres away (too far to walk in my opinion with a heavy rucksack like some others did) so the tuk tuk journey needs to be factored into costs too.
I ended up loving Laos and it’s people so these tiny first impressions were thrown to the wayside.
I made the decision for myself and my travel buddy that we wouldn’t use the cushy way to get into Laos. We could have paid 1550 baht (41.86 euro) to a travel agent who would collect us from our hotel and organise all our transport along the way, including helping fill out our visa forms and handing in all our documents at the border. Basically being spoon fed.
Instead, I got talking to a older Australian man at our guesthouse, accompanied by Thai girlfriend of course, and decided to join them on their journey. I figured a Thai-speaker and a man who’d been to Laos many times were just as good as a tourist organised operation. I wanted the challenge rather than the easy option.
This is how the journey to the slow boat panned out:
Local bus from Chiang Rai to border town Chiang Khong – 65 baht (1.76 euro)
We were told at our guesthouse that we needed to catch the first local bus at 6 am to be sure that we’d make the slow boat at 10 am in Huay Xai. It was a five minute walk in the dark with odd sounds coming from buildings around us. In the words of my friend, the bus was quite ‘Roll of Thunder Hear my Cry’. It was a rackety old thing with no leg room and enough space for 1.5 people on the bench type seats.
It took two hours to get to Chiang Khong, the border town.
Tuk tuk to border control – 50 baht (1.35 euro)
We got dropped off on the middle of a highway where a line of tuk tuks were waiting to bring us to the border to get stamped out of Thailand. We saw a Tuk tuk handing some money to the bus driver (probably as a way of thank you for dropping us off at their Tuk tuk establishment).
It was a few minutes journey and not worth the money but it’s how it’s done.
Bus over bridge into Laos – 25 baht (0.68 euro)
After border control there were buses waiting outside to bring us across the bridge that divides Thailand and Laos. Apparently it used to be easier a few years ago when you crossed by boat over the border further north.
Apply for Laos visa – 35 US dollars (30.80 euro)
We got into the building, rushed to get a form to fill out the ‘Arrivals’ section along with about two other similar forms and handed them into a guy at a hatch. We waited as our visas were processed by a person who never saw our faces. We had to wait for our names to be called with a fresh visa inside. It can be the luck of the draw if your passport gets to the top or bottom of the pile to process.
As far as I saw visas cost either 30 or 35 euro depending on nationality. They only took one passport photo, not two. But I’m sure this could change from day to day. I think scamming can also happen at times but I’ve found being there early in the morning helps rather than late afternoon.
Tuk tuk to slow boat – 100 baht (2.70 euro)
The tuk tuks were lined up and waiting to take us to where we wanted. We waited a few minutes to let it fill up. We heard him quote us something different until some locals got in and the price went up.
Slow boat ticket – 950 baht (25.70 euro)
As it’s a well-used border area, bahts are still used and accepted. We thought the time for the slow boat was 10 am. It had a sign up stating 11 am and we left after 12 pm.
1190 baht = 32.18 euro
360 baht = 9.83 euro
These transportation prices in baht were true as of 19 November 2014 and the euro exchange prices were correct as of 27 February 2015. The visa price was for an Irish individual travelling by land from Thailand into Laos on 19 November 2014.
I can’t tell you much about Chiang Rai. We used it as a stop off point between Chiang Mai in North West Thailand and Northern Laos. We visited just so we could see the White Temple.
‘Known as the White Temple, Wat Rong Khun…is the artistic vision of noted Thai painter-turned-architect Chalermchai Kositpipat. The temple has a stunning whitewashed facade and several avant-garde sculpture installations representing Buddhist principals. Contemporary historic scenes as well as pop culture references have replaced the typical images of village life and Buddha figures found in temple murals.’ (Lonely Planet: South East Asia on a Shoestring, 2014)
The temple as a whole is striking. The white walls are dappled with small square mirrors. The bridge up to the temple is wrought with scary, torturous images but shortly after you progress through to imagery of calmness and tranquility. Inside the actual temple there were men painting over some images. It was bright, colourful and modern. On one wall minions, superman, rocket ships and other modern images were painted discreetly.
The toilet blocks were the fanciest I’ve ever seen in my life. The temple is definitely worth a trip if in North Thailand. A sawngteaw might cost about twenty baht per person one way from the town centre.
In the town it’s worth a trip to the clock tower as it emits music and lights up in varying colours every evening. I was also given a free fresh coconut water for good luck after my friend bought one off a lady in the market.
Apparently there’s a few hundred corners on the route up to Pai (a small town in North West Thailand) from Chiang Mai. You get advised by others to take stomach-settling tablets for the three hour journey. We didn’t bother. We were grand. Stomachs of steel. But it can depend on how crazy your mini bus driver is!
As a backpacker you constantly get tips on what to do and what not to, where to stay, and good food places. We listened to some people and booked into Spicy Pai ‘hostel’. It’s not so much a hostel but a rustic bamboo hut with leaf roof and bamboo-made bunk beds. It’s pretty cool. Twenty six people in the open dorm with mosquito nets to keep the outdoors off you, it doesn’t keep the cats away though.
Friends of mine from home had been in Pai a few months before and had both thought of me when they were there. They thought I’d love the small, artsy town in the mountains. They were right.
Being part of the backpacker community makes you lose your inhibitions and make friends so quickly. An hour after arriving to Spicy Pai I saw a gang about to set off somewhere and asked them what they were doing. They were going to the canyon to watch the sunset. We were invited along so myself and Orna hopped on the back of some motorbikes and off we set. It was a beautiful location with the sun setting behind the mountains. We headed back to the town to the night market. The street food was amazing…some deep fried vegetables in pastry and an Indian kebab. We treated ourselves to a few purchases also as the prices are so good–€2.50 for a pair of cut off denim shorts!
That night we socialised in the common room–up a bamboo ladder and into the open-air room with cushions on the ground and leaf roof. We made three Irish friends–Lawrence (Larry, Big Lucky), Sean, and Donal. It was a breath of fresh air to hear their Irish accents. I was actually beginning to miss it! It ended with a night of drinking games, dancing in Sunset bar until the small hours, and running home along the dark road back to the hostel.
The next day was spent wandering around aimlessly, visiting a waterfall that wasn’t good to swim in, and scheming a swim in the pool at the Circus School hostel which was a bit too cool for school for our liking!
We rented scooters on our third day to go see some sights. It was our first time to drive them. We went to hot springs (not a great idea on a scorching day when all you want to do is jump into a cold pool), a waterfall, the white Buddha on the hill, and the Memorial bridge. The best part about biking around is the freedom–stopping when you want, the breeze in your hair, and the scenery.
We headed back Chiang Mai for one more night and were welcomed ‘home’ by our hostel owner!
Chiang Mai was one of the first places we went to that we had a big itinerary in mind so we did quite a lot.
The best thing we did was choose The Living Place 1 (in between Tha Phae gate and the night bazaar) as our accommodation. The owner, Aree, was friendly, fun, welcoming, and helpful. The downstairs common area was relaxed, chilled, and sociable, so much so that as soon as we arrived we were going out to lunch with fellow backpackers. The icing on the cake? Three tiny cute chihuahuas.
Siam Rice Cookery School
We went with recommendations from our hostel and paid twenty two euro and fifty cent for a day of cooking at Siam Rice. Our group included three Belgians, two Americans, and one South African. They collected us from our hostel and stopped off at a market so we could see where all the goods are bought. We made a few guesses as to what some of the vegetables were. The Thais have such a big variety of fresh produce! Among the broccoli and cucumbers there was also chunks of animal blood and meat drying out on a table in the sun.
The kitchen was an open air room. We made seven dishes each. I made spicy basil soup, spring rolls, stir fried chicken and vegetables with cashew nuts, penang curry paste and penang curry, pad thai, and mango with sticky rice.
We stood around the prep area, each with a tree trunk chopping board and huge knife. We also had our own gas hob. The teacher was great. He has been a chef for many years. He added humour to the day along with adding extra spice and dashes of soya sauce to our meals. My favourite dishes were the penang curry, spring rolls, and pad thai as I had never made them before and can see myself making them in the future. The curry paste took a lot of bashing under the pestel and mortar but was extremely worth it. I was delighted with how my spring rolls looked and even the sticky rice and mango was a nice combination. The sticky rice was prepared the night before as it needs to be soaked in water overnight but the addition of coconut milk and a few other things made it really tasty. I found out that sticky rice is actually made from a different grain than the rice we eat in Ireland. We were sent home happy and full with a doggy bag, certificate, and cook book of what we made. Amazing day.
Elephant Jungle Sanctuary
We spent two days in the jungle, one and a half hours from Chiang Mai. We did a little bit of research into elephant parks as we didn’t want to ride the elephants. The Elephant Nature Park was booked out so we went with the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary. We also wanted to experience some proper Thai culture but were advised by our amazing hostel owner that the trips to hill tribes were put on for tourists. Our trip included a stay in proper hill tribes with local people so it won us over.
As it turned out, only four of us in total were going to stay the night in the jungle. Myself and Orna, and our pals for the next few days–Kristina and Anna from North Carolina. We actually got extra special treatment. While the twenty odd people went to see two of the elephants together, us four got to go to the other in what felt like a private tour. In total there are three elephants in the very new jungle sanctuary. There’s Mambusi, the fifty four year old pregnant female, and a one year old boy and his fourteen year old mother. They are all allowed to roam free in the jungle with just a bell that tells the elephant workers that they have gone too far. Rather than using whips and riding on the elephants, they use words to get the elephants to do what they want, such as move away from the tourists or go down for a bath.
We fed the elephants bananas. Lots and lots of bananas. Some we handed to their trunks and others we put straight into their mouths. Mambusi exuded calmness. The baby was playful and happy. A elephant trainer pushed and messed with him as another child would. Next year he will have his own friend when the two year pregnancy of Mambusi finishes. The babies’ mother was feistier than Mambusi and happily ate away at tree plants, ignoring the rest of us. After a huge lunch we gave them a mud bath. I was in my element. It was gloriously refreshing rubbing mud on the elephants. I could tell that they loved it. After wards we went down to the river and washed them off. The baby loved it and dunk himself under water. After their bath, we each showered in the waterfall. Throughout the bathing experience a local Thai man had my phone taking pictures. When I got my phone back I saw that he also took a few scenic shots. Obviously he was in his element too.
That afternoon, the four overnighters followed our guide, twenty six year old Tim, to his village. We walked on paths through fields and up and down hills in the wilderness. We took a tour of the village that inhabits forty nine people. We were joined by Tim’s nephews–two ‘boy’ boys who climbed up trees, hit us with berries, ran up hills, hit each other, and took fruit from the trees. We got to blow bubbles through a leaf and stem. No need for plastic containers of bubbles in the jungle, they come naturally.
For dinner we sat cross legged on the floor made out of reeds and chopped vegetables into our hands. We cooked on a fire inside in a pit in the ground. Cooked cucumber mixed with egg, water and flavourings is actually very nice. We were joined by German Ben who lasted one day on the rice fields where the heat is overwhelming while carting rice up slippy ground. We ate, had a few Chang beers, saw millions of stars and slept on thin mattresses on the ground with shoddy blankets and mosquito nets. The wooden houses are on stilts with the underneath being used as a common sitting area. The toilets are separate huts and most of them are flushed by scooping water from a bucket into the bowl.
On the second day we took it easy. A few of us had a go on Tim’s sister’s homemade loom which was attached to a piece of wood on the house. She was making a scarf. I bought a scarf and bag from her. We visited a rice field and hung out with the workers as they took their break in a stilted shack while eating rice from banana leaves and chicken feet. A granny had a good laugh as Kristina was able to reach her water on the roof when she was about to climb up to get it. Eventually we joined the new elephant recruits but skipped the mud bath and showered in the waterfall again.
It was a successful jungle and elephant experience.
Myself, Orna, and our new American friends dedicated a day to visit temples. We were a little hungover so it was a bit hard. We made it to two. At the first we ended up doing ‘monk chat’. We talked to the twenty year old about his life and then he asked us about our studies. It was interesting. We learned about his daily routine. Here are some facts I picked up:
– Monks get fed from donations from the public.
– They also chant in a language that only the monks know
– Each buddist male must become a monk at some point in his life.
– Monks are no longer novices by the time they reach twenty one and so must abide by the much larger set of rules from then on
– Monks cannot drive but can keep up their studies
– Women should not touch or sit beside a monk or in the same carriage
– Monks should not talk to women in private
The second temple, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, was up on a hill. We made the journey by sawngteaw up the ever winding road and then walked up the three hundred and six steps. There was a grand view of the city from there, with the square wall of the old city visible.
Other activities we did in Chiang Mai:
- Went to the Sunday night market
It is different than any other market we had seen. There were lots of well made handicrafts. It was so big that our feet got tired and we needed to get a foot massage to help us get through it.
- Went to a lady boy cabaret show
We joined a group from our hostel. We sat at the side of the stage and made sure that the birthday boy Andy got up on stage. He got a racy lap dance that we all got a good laugh out of. It was pretty cool. Some of the ladies oozed sex appeal. Being so close to the action, I could see how petite the male back up dancers were and how some of the costumes needed a bit of a repair job done to them. Numerous ladies also had braces on, which is apparently a cool thing in Asia!?!
- Browsed the night bazaar
Bought stuff, ate artisan ice cream, and drank the infamous fruit shakes all the while watching a rat eat the holy offerings from a religious stand beside a restaurant full of fish tanks.
– Had lovely, cheap meals.
– Had a bongo and singsong session with our fellow backpackers before a late night out on the town.
– Met up with a guy from my hometown who has been living in Chiang Mai for five years.
– Bought and posted my Christmas presents which actually arrived much quicker than expected.