Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Vang Vieng

Our journey from Luang Prabang turned out to be seven hours, rather than the four we were quoted! For a 268 km trip, that works out at an average speed of 38 km per hour, which describes perfectly how mountainous and bendy the roads for the entire journey. I later found out that there’s an old road and a new road. The new road is steeper and scales just one mountain, however, the old road scales three, so I guess we must have taken the old route! The overcrowded minibus that we took was pretty old, so perhaps the steep new road was more than it could have managed! It was, however, a very scenic journey – absolutely stunning mountains clad with dense jungle.

Vang Vieng is party central – full of western backpackers celebrating Christmas, but even more Koreans in town for a music festival, which just so happens to coincide with the Christmas holidays. There are so many bars, all with loud music blaring out and competing against each other, resulting in a total sound clash. It’s loud, brash and full of twenty-something-year-old backpackers. We did feel a little old and out of place at times, not being big into the dance or K-pop scenes, but the town had a good laid-back atmosphere and was good fun.

Vang Vieng riverside
Fortunately for us, we stayed just outside the centre, in a more peaceful area so we couldn’t hear the pumping music as we went off to sleep. We did, however, have to put up with a very confused rooster on the property next door, who only crowed between midnight and seven in the morning. I’m not sure why he slept all day and woke up in the middle of the night, but it made for a terrible night’s sleep! 

There’s quite a lot of nature in the area – lots of chickens, ducks, pigs and cows wandering around on the road, so we had to be careful when walking back to our accommodation at night – there were no street lights and I almost walked into a cow at one point! 

Vang Vieng is most famous for ‘tubing’ – floating down the Namsong river in a big inner tube and stopping at riverside bars along the way. As the river is quite fast-flowing in places, some of the bars throw you a rope, then reel you in. Others, you just paddle to the bank.

The tubing scene has apparently calmed down quite a lot in recent years as it was getting too loud and people were getting too drunk and having accidents – but it’s still a must-do activity if you’re visiting Vang Vieng. We had a lot of fun and enjoyed taking in the mountain scenery as much as the occasional beer on the way downstream. We did avoid the ‘buckets’ of locally brewed ‘Lao Lao’ whisky, though I dare say they claimed a few casualties throughout the day!

Keeping on the theme of alcohol, every evening, our host, Nouth, would bring out one of four bottles of her mother’s home-brewed spirits and invite everyone in her restaurant to do a shot with her. It was pretty potent stuff – apparently made by fermenting sticky rice – and tasted a bit like homemade plum brandy. For added decoration, each bottle had a creature in it: the four we tried over the duration of our stay had a scorpion, a giant centipede, a snake and ants in them! Not terribly appetising, but also rude to refuse our host!

Can you spot the scorpion in the bottle?
Following our day of tubing on Christmas day, we booked in for a traditional Christmas dinner at the Irish Bar in the town. As much as we enjoy spending the odd Christmas in the sunshine, we always miss the big family dinner, so it was a real treat to have a proper roast with all the trimmings and to celebrate with other homesick westerners.

On our last day in town, we hired a scooter and visited two of the Blue Lagoons (there are three in the area) and Tham Phu Kham Cave. It was tough going on the scooter as most of the way was on unpaved dirt tracks, but worth the effort as the lagoons were beautiful, deep turquoise water pools, with platforms to jump off and a series of rope swings going into the water. I couldn’t resist doing a few acrobatics whilst I was there!

Kev's leap!
Tham Phu Kham Cave involved a climb up a steep cliff, which lead us into an enormous chamber. Inside the cave is a large Buddha shrine as you enter, then with a head torch you can descend further into another deeper, big chamber. I must admit we got a bit creeped out and we only had one torch between us, so we decided not to venture too far inside. Apparently, the cave goes in quite a long way and down to a maximum depth of five hundred metres, so we didn’t want to venture too far in, in case we got lost and couldn’t find out way back out!

Tham Phu Kham Cave
Next up, we’re back on the minibus and heading south to Laos’ capital city, Vientiane for a couple of days before we go back to Thailand in time for new year. I’ll write again soon! 

Saturday, 24 December 2016

Luang Prabang

We had a really easy border crossing from Thailand into Laos, the officials were friendly and the border police even asked the bus driver to take a selfie with us after asking where we’re from! 

With some time to kill at the bus station, we stopped for some food on the Laos side of the border – we had a choice of noodle soup or noodle soup: presumably it’s the only dish on the menu that the staff know how to say in English (and our Laos language is limited to three words at present) – so two noodle soups it was, with a can of the local Beer Lao. The soup itself was a lot like Vietnamese pho: a thin broth with thin rice noodles, beansprouts, spring onions, meatballs, tripe (or at least I think that’s what it was – I didn’t eat that bit!) and a wedge of lime to squeeze over the top.

On the whole, Laos is a bit more expensive than Thailand, despite being poorer and less developed. The currency (Kip) is 10,000 to the Pound, so we are enjoying being millionaires every time we go to the cash point!

From the border, we took an overnight bus into Luang Prabang, which took fourteen hours. Believe it or not this was the quickest option, with most tourists opting for the two-day slow boat up the Mekong. With hindsight, we wish we had also taken this option as the entire fourteen hours was on winding, pot-holed, mountainous roads. We had bunks on the bus, so lying down it felt even more precarious! 

If I thought the journey to Pai in Thailand was bad, it turns out most of Laos’ roads are like an extreme version of this – with sections of unpaved road, lots of pot-holes for good measure and many trucks driving through the night.

Night buses in Asia are also famous for having freezing cold air conditioning blasting out all night – we had on all our clothes, including fleeces, scarves and woolly hats and we were still cold! Arriving into Luang Prabang at five am, we were certainly pleased to get off, but we then had to wait until we could check in at our guesthouse. The cafés didn’t even open until 6.30 so it was a long and tired wait, but it is at least the only night bus we have planned to take on this trip. 

Luang Prabang has a big French influence. There are bilingual schools and all the cafes serve baguettes and crepes. After our time in Thailand, it was lovely to have fresh baguettes again, instead of the usual sliced, white loaf.
It’s a beautiful, well-preserved city. All the shop fronts have the same style wooden signs with lettering and there are lots of golden temples, but the buildings also have a colonial French style to them.

The coffee here is also excellent, grown locally and served Vietnamese-style with condensed milk in the bottom of the cup. It’s very sweet but very strong and delicious. 

The local-style cafes light two fires in the morning and keep them burning all day. On one fire, there’s a big pot for brewing the coffee and on the other is the stock for the noodle soup. In contrast, there are also lots of more western-style restaurants and cafes – all charging western prices.

One day we took a minivan to Keung Si waterfall, twenty kilometres out of town and which apparently, cannot be missed. The main waterfall is spectacular and cascades from a great height.

The water then continues downstream into turquoise pools and further falls. We started with a walk to the top of the falls and ended the day with a swim in one of the pools at the bottom.

Another afternoon we did a boat trip on the Mekong – a local man took us out in his boat (something like a house boat, but adapted with additional seats to take out passengers and living quarters at the back).

We cruised upstream for thirty minutes, then he cut the engines and let the current take us back downstream, whilst he did some fishing. We were lucky enough to have the boat to ourselves – it does seem to be really quiet here at the moment, despite being peak season.

On our last day, we took a walk up the steps to Mount Phousi – a mountain viewpoint with a temple at the top and great views out over the city, the river and the mountains beyond. If I thought before that it was quiet on the river, then it must be because all the tourists were at the top of Mount Phousi – all there to see the sunset! It was so busy it was almost impossible to take a photo without someone’s selfie stick in the way, so we decided not to stay for the sunset and to head somewhere a little quieter…

Luang Prabang is a small, but picturesque city and after three days here we feel like we’ve got a good feel for it. Our next stop will be Vang Vieng, where we’ll be for Christmas. I’ll write again once there.

Happy Christmas everyone!

Monday, 19 December 2016

Chiang Rai and Chiang Khong

After a couple more days in Chiang Mai, we headed north to Chiang Rai. The bus felt like it had no suspension at all on the mountain roads and duly broke down half way. Fortunately for us it was a rest stop and all buses on their way to Chiang Rai also stop here, so after an hour’s wait or so, we were able to get two seats on a bus to complete the journey. It meant we lost most of the day to travel but we at least arrived in one piece!

Chiang Rai itself is a small city but with a lot of traffic. The main features of the city are the clock tower – which I’ll get on to later – and the night bazaar. The rest of the sights are a few kilometres outside the city centre.

The most stunning – and perhaps the main reason to visit Chiang Rai – is the White Temple (Wat Rong Khun). 

The White Temple

At the end of the twentieth century the temple was incredibly run down and in need of renovation, but with no funds available to do so, so local artist Chalermchai took it upon himself to raise the funds and completely renovate the temple. His vision is to not be influenced – neither artistically, or through others’ monetary contributions – and he wants his temple to be as famous as the Taj Mahal, or Angkor Wat. 

Chalermchai is on site every day continuing his works and expects the project to be completed around 2070, ongoing even after his death. He has apparently raised and spent nearly £900,000 of his own money on the project so far!

Unlike other temples Wat Rong Khun has a much more modern feel. The idea is that you enter Hell as you approach and enter the temple, then once you have passed through the main building, you leave into Heaven. The ‘Hell’ section features sculptures of severed heads hanging from the trees, strange monsters and a moat of hands reaching up towards you!

Moat of hands

'Hell' at the White Temple

The same artist also designed the clock tower in central Chiang Rai – you can certainly see the similarities to the White Temple.

The clock tower

We also took the time to visit another modern temple, known as the Blue Temple. The building itself is in a similar style to other temples in the region, but painted in shades of blue and gold and is quite beautiful. Unfortunately, on the day we visited the Blue and White temples it was quite overcast so my photos don’t really do them justice!

Inside the Blue Temple

We also did a cooking class whilst we were in Chaing Rai, making four Thai dishes, including making the red curry paste from scratch. The day started with a visit to the market with the teacher to buy all the ingredients we’d need for our chosen dishes. Everything was really fresh and locally grown and sourced. 

Market visit

The teacher – a local lady – also gave us a tasting tour of the market, giving us the opportunity to try some of the weird and wonderful looking snacks for sale in the market, that we otherwise wouldn’t know how to eat! We tried sticky rice mixed with mung beans and sugar then barbecued in a banana leaf; sweet doughnuts with a savoury bean filling, coconut pancakes, more sticky rice baked inside a bamboo with sugar; and an appetite stimulating pepper leaf made into a parcel and filled with fresh ginger, chilli and lime – it was fiery but, gave us an appetite for our lunch after a morning of tastings.

Our shopping complete, we headed back to our host’s kitchen and were each allocated our own cooking station to make the four dishes under her supervision. 

Making the red curry paste

Busy in the kitchen!
First up was Pad Thai, followed by hot and sour prawn soup, Thai red curry with chicken and then bananas in coconut milk.

Pad Thai

Hot and sour prawn soup

Thai red curry with chicken
We were absolutely stuffed after we’d eaten all that, but proud of ourselves. We hope we can now replicate this when we’re back home! 

As an aside, the Thais find it quite amusing that us Westerners can’t handle our chilli like they can. When you order a dish in a restaurant they always ask how spicy you’d like it. Now, I’m a fan of spicy food, but apparently, what I call hot, they call ‘medium-low’!

Leaving Chaing Rai, we headed to Chiang Khong, on the Thai-Laos border. It’s a small town, popular on the backpacker trail for tourists crossing the border on land. It’s right on the banks of the fast-flowing Mekong River and it’s Laos on the other side of the river. 

Our first view of Laos, across the Mekong River
We’ll cross the border later today then get on a bus to Luang Prabang, our next stop. I’ll blog again once we’re there.

Wednesday, 14 December 2016


There are 762 curves on the 135km road from Chiang Mai to Pai – except ‘curves’ doesn’t really do the journey description justice. What this really means is three hours of sharp hairpin bends and steep mountain roads – a journey for the strongest stomachs only – made in a minivan by a driver who thinks he’s on a race track! (The minivan drivers here have a reputation for speeding and blindly overtaking on these mountain roads – perhaps because they want to get there quicker and squeeze in another journey, or perhaps they drive the route every day and know the roads well – but it’s not for the faint-hearted! For those who are familiar with the hairpin bends between Penberth and St Buryan in Cornwall, this is a fair description of the majority of the journey, without exaggeration!

Everyone in Pai hires a scooter when they arrive. All the main sights are a few kilometres outside of the centre – too far to walk, but easily accessible by moped – and at a cost of just £2 a day to hire one we decided to take advantage. Our accommodation was also up a steep mountain road and at night there were a lot of barking dogs – they probably meant no harm but it was hard to hold our nerve when the dogs ran up to (greet?) us – so the scooter also meant we didn’t have to run the gauntlet after dinner every night and we got back unscathed. 

We stayed in a hut/bungalow in the aptly-named Mountain View Guest House – and what a view it was! Every morning we woke up in the clouds and watched the mountains appear during breakfast as the sun burnedt though the morning mist. I could get used to waking up like that every morning! Some days we awoke to thick fog – and it was really cold – other days we were above the clouds, looking down on them like we were flying above the mountains in an aeroplane. By 10.30 everyday, however, the sun had won out and we had a week of perfect, sunny weather.

Our breakfast view
There is a downside, however, to living up a mountain in an area of dense jungle – that’s being closer to nature. Our bathroom at night kept on surprising us – one night we went in to find a scorpion (who on closer inspection put its sting up – eek!) We came back another night to find a large frog in the toilet (which we gladly flushed back down!) and pretty much every other night 2 large slugs came to visit – but always disappeared by morning. I’m not sure how they got in, or where they went but we always made sure we put flip flops on to go to the toilet in the night!

Our bungalow
So off on our scooter we went, visiting Mhor Pheng and Pembok waterfalls, Pai Canyon and the Land Split.

Pai Canyon
Mor Pheng waterfall
The Land Split is just that – where the land has split following earthquakes in 2008 and 2011. It’s not hugely impressive to look at in itself, but the enterprising farmer (who can no longer use the land for farming) turned it into a tourist attraction by giving all visitors a picnic of fruits grown on the land, including passion fruit, papaya, banana and roselle (which is in the hibiscus family) juice and jam – all for a small voluntary donation.

Roselle flowers drying in the sun
Pai is very beautiful and consequently, it’s almost impossible to do it justice on camera. The impressive mountain panoramas, ever changing as the sun and shade moves throughout the day, and picturesque natural wonders. There’s always the smell of wood smoke in the air (due to controlled burning in farming) and a humid, verdant smell which adds to its beauty.

The Land Split
The town itself is a small square, of which three streets are pedestrianised every night and as the sun goes down they turn into the night market – or walking streets, as they are known here. The stalls sell a combination of street food and drinks, clothes and souvenirs and are a great way to spend the evening, soaking up the atmosphere. 

Walking Street (market)
Pai is hugely popular with Chinese tourists and western backpackers and as the evening progresses the streets get busier as everyone heads into town for dinner. When we’d had our fill of beautiful scenery for the day, we enjoyed just hanging out in the town over a fruit shake and noodles in a street café, or a beer by the river.

If you’re ever in Northern Thailand I would highly recommend a visit to Pai – assuming you can stomach the minivan ride there, it’s definitely worth the effort.

Next up we’re continuing on to Chiang Rai (back via Chiang Mai for a couple of nights), then over the border into Laos. I’ll blog again next week.

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Margaret River, Bangkok and Chiang Mai

For our final few days in Australia we decided to head south to Margaret River, another region of Western Australia famous for its wines. Apparently in terms of weather, climate and soil conditions the area is very similar to the South of France – Bordeaux Region – and so will be able to produce similar style wines.

Compared to Perth, the first thing you notice about Margaret River is that the temperature is a few degrees cooler and the wind has dropped considerably, so it was much easier to pitch the tent!

We arrived on Kev’s birthday so we headed straight out to start celebrating. The wineries were all a short drive away so we decided to stay in the town instead and visited a new brewery that has recently opened and sample some of their craft beers.

The next day we booked on to a wine tour so we’d both get to taste the wines and neither one of us have to drive. Gemma recommended us a company called Bushtucker Tours, which took us to four vineyards, a chocolate factory, a dairy (to sample some of the local cheeses) and a brewery – with a big lunch thrown in to soak up some of the alcohol! 

We were treated to a gourmet buffet of local delicacies including kangaroo, crocodile, quondong (a fibrous desert fruit) and ‘bush limes’ – it was our first time to eat kangaroo and crocodile and both were lovely – lean and flavoursome and not really like anything else I’ve tried.

The weather began to turn on our last day, so we decided to head back to Perth before the rain started and pack our bags ready for our flight to Bangkok and the next leg of the trip.

We’ve been to Bangkok once before – at the start of our last trip – so we decided to spend just one night there before flying up to Chiang Mai for the start of our travels around Northern Thailand. 

Still, it was good to be back. Bangkok is a huge and crazy city so we booked a place to stay on the Khaosan road – it’s really touristy but good fun for one night and has plenty of entertainment and things to do. 

One of the first thing we noticed when we arrived was the humidity compared to Australia – given that the temperatures are pretty similar, it’s a lot more humid here, even though it’s dry season (or Thailand’s winter)

After a quick nap and dip in the pool, we popped out for a wander around. Despite being in a tourist hot spot, the bars and restaurants are so cheap (especially compared to Australian prices!) There’s excellent street food, all cooked fresh and we really were spoiled for choice. Amongst the various street food stalls was a cart of (cooked) insects, ranging from tarantulas, crickets, cockroaches, beetles, scorpions, snakes and mealworms – but neither of us fancied taking our chances with them!

As the evening progressed, the city really began to wake up. More and more people flooded the streets and there were hawkers everywhere, selling their wares. It was really vibrant and great for people watching...

Amongst the many bars, restaurants and market stalls there are also loads of massage places, with a Thai massage costing just £2 or £3 for half an hour – this was a welcome sight and we opted for a foot rub, but soon went back later on for a shoulder, neck and head massage – to undo the damage done by carrying around a heavy rucksack. I think we’ll be having regular massage during our time in Thailand! The only slight drawback is the language barrier so Kev found it hard tell his massage therapist if the pressure was a bit too firm – the standard was otherwise pretty good!

Chiang Mai is the capital of Northern  Thailand and is much less hectic and smaller than Bangkok. 

We've been staying in a hostel a short walk away from the night market and a short tuk-tuk ride from the temples of the old town/city centre. We enjoyed taking in the temples by day and shopping, eating and soaking up the atmosphere at the night market in the evening

We spent a day wandering around the old town's many temples, filled with golden Buddhas and monks in their orange robes. 

We felt like we'd hardly scratched the surface - there are so many of them!

We wanted to see some elephants in the wild whilst in Chiang Mai. There has been a recent shift in elephant tourism with people historically wanting to ride the elephants, but now prefer to see them enjoying their natural environment and not being asked to perform circus tricks or take people on treks. Tripadvisor has even stopped advertising any tours that contains any such animal cruelty, so it was important for us that we picked a tour with the elephants’ welfare in mind.

At the Dumbo Elephant Spa (so called because you get to give the elephants a mud bath then wash them off in the river afterwards) there are six elephants, of which five have been rescued and one baby who has never known any ‘circus life’ or any cruelty.

We spent time with all the elephants, who all have very different personalities. Elephants have a similar life span to humans, living up to a hundred years old and have similar levels of maturity so a three-year-old elephant will be like a naughty toddler! One such elephant has even been given the name ‘Naughty Boy’ and he was always misbehaving, trying to get more food by stealing our lunch, or by acting boisterously in the mud, so we had to keep our distance.

We started off by feeding all the elephants some fruit for breakfast then followed them up the mountain path to watch them digging and feeding on tree roots. The highlight of the day however was the mud spa (both for the elephant and for us!) The elephants were absolutely delighted to roll around in the mud and have mud splashed all over them. The sanctuary staff were also very keen to splash mud all over us, making sure we got stuck in.

It was thrilling to get so close to these massive animals and also to see such strong personalities and such a sense of fun, despite only spending a few hours with them – but also a little bit scary – and therefore wise to be cautious around them!

Tomorrow we’re off to our next destintion, Pai. I’ll write again from there.