Cambodia – Phnom Penh – Siem Reap and Angkor Wat

ang 3ang 10ang 14 ang 18 ang 17

Su Sdey, Hello!

After an arduous and sweaty 8 hour bus journey from Vietnam, I reached the ever suffering country of Cambodia, staying in the capital Phnom Penh. I would describe it as a typical small South East Asian city; it’s neither hectic like Bangkok or Hanoi, nor serene like Luang Prabang or Hoi An. It’s certainly the visibly poorest of the four countries I’ve visited in Indochina. I saw the handicapped begging, dogs begging and unwashed kids roaming around with no shoes on. When I removed my Western rose tinted glasses, I realised that there were child prostitutes on the streets; it felt grubby and it made me question the morals of particular tourists.

cambodia 2 camb 3 camb 12

Throughout my Indochina trip I was repeatedly told by my guide and other local guides to be respectful, to dress modestly and not to touch people. Yet people frequently touched me. I’d been poked, tapped, tickled, my face touched, my cheeks pinched and even my bum slapped by a small child! My pal Emma had her chest groped too. In Cambodia I saw lots of pervy eyes eyeing me up and local guys were taking photos of Emma and me as we walked around. It made me feel really uncomfortable and also angry that the respect I gave to them and their culture was not reciprocated. Ok, rant over. It’s just something for travellers to be aware of, especially women.

camb 13
My group had pre planned a cyclo tour of the city and the money you pay is essentially a donation to a local charity. Basically, you sit on a single seat whilst an old man cycles you around the different sites. I felt like such a lazy cow because I like to walk everywhere, but I only agreed to it because the wage gives the men a livelihood.
Another charitable cause whilst in Phnom Penh was lunch at a restaurant run by a non-profit charity that take young people off the streets and train them in hospitality. The food and service was top notch, so it’s working. It makes flashpackers like me feel philanthropic anyhow!

 aac aab

As evening drew in, I visited a tiny shrine next to the river where hundreds of people had gathered to make offerings of heady cinnamon incense, pretty pink roses, flaming coconut shells and red glowing candles. As the sunset burned over the dark silhouette of the nearby Royal Palace I happily mingled amongst the crowds and drank in the scene.

camb 7 camb 6

camb 5 camb 4

The night ended with copious lychee martinis and a hunt for the best music in town. I had to explain to tipsy Emma that the friendly girls outside of ‘Pussycat’ bar were in fact strippers ready to hustle us, haha! We found the local backpackers hostel which had a gorgeous roof terrace and enjoyed the laid back vibe.

Killing Fields
I finally learned the facts about the torture and mass genocide of 3 million innocent Cambodian people by the Khmer Rouge during the 1970s; arguably the most senseless and cruel murders in recent history. First I visited the infamous Tuol Sleng S21 prison. The exhibited photos of shackled prisoners dying were horrific.

camb 8 camb 10 camb 9

Out of 20,000 prisoners only 7 survived and I met one.. Mr Chum Mey, now 85 years old who was only allowed to live because he could mend the typewriters that his captors used to record victim’s ‘confessions’. His wife and 4 children all perished.

camb 11

One place you must visit in Cambodia is the Cheung Ek Killing Fields. Millions of people died here and to ignore it, is to ignore Cambodia’s loss and its identity. I found the Killing Fields to be a surreal place where death and thriving nature coexist. Breezy green grass covers mass graves and although the site has been excavated, rain still brings rags and bones to the surface. It’s so eerie yet chirping birds and fluttering butterflies fill the silent air.

camb 17 camb 16 camb 18

The Khmer Rouge didn’t give their victims the clean death of a bullet, they cost money.. so they beat, hacked and decapitated people instead. There is a memorial where the skulls of thousands are stacked as a stark reminder of what happened here.

 The worst thing to be found in this undignified cemetery is The Killing Tree, a large sturdy oak tree that the sick regime used to murder children by swinging them against it to smash their skulls. Newborn babies were ripped from their naked mothers who were utterly helpless to stop their babies being bludgeoned to death and thrown into a pit. The tree was found by a local man covered in blood and brains and he blew the whistle on the atrocities.
The tree is now covered in bracelets of every colour left by tourists as a mark of respect.

camb 19

I wish I’d brought a bracelet to give but instead I bought a flower and an incense stick to lay outside the memorial. It was definitely a once in a lifetime visit and I’m glad I saw it.

camb 14

Diana & I squeezed in a visit to the Royal Palace, but initially they wouldn’t let me in, even though I had a scarf to cover my cleavage. Diana lent me her hoodie to save my modesty, but the heat was unbearable.. I spent the next hour sweating like a nun on the beach! Top tip for women, scarves are not always deemed suitable cover up, take a long sleeved top.

camb 23 camb 22
That evening was spent, once again, chilling at the backpacker’s rooftop terrace with the girls, sharing stories and drinking baby Guinness mmmmm.     Our guide was Cambodian so he took us to his dad’s ‘Crocodile Farm’, which was actually a back yard swimming with huge green crocs! Standing above the man eaters on a rickety wooden platform did not fill me with confidence for my safety but it was a impressive sight to see nonetheless!

camb 15

Siem Reap and Angkor Wat
On the long journey to the next destination, my bus stopped at a place selling drinks and exotic snacks including fried ants and tarantulas. I tasted some ants (crunchy) but I drew the line at munching on a tarantula, instead opting to hold a live one. The hairy beast ran up my arm; but I never freaked out.

camb 24

Travel has this awesome way of making you push your own limits and try things you would never do back home. I experienced a lot of begging in Cambodia, or kids just follow you and ask you to buy their wares. I bought some fruit from one little girl, I paid her and walked away. She insisted that she needed my watch for school. I felt disheartened at her audacity and said that I needed my watch but she pressed on. It’s indicative of their poverty that Cambodians have to beg and harass tourists.

I was fairly glad to move on to Siem Reap, a town similar to Phnom Penh but with a more touristy vibe. Siem Reap is a party town with a whole district called ‘Pub Street’ devoted to hedonism in the form of bars and clubs.

camb 21

I had some great fun there dancing and meeting new people. There is a cool bar called Angkor What? It’s covered in neon graffiti and I met some right characters in there.

camb 20
Siem Reap is the gateway to the iconic Angkor Wat temple complex made famous by featuring in the Lara Croft – Tomb Raider films starring Hollywood actress Angelina Jolie, who shone a spotlight on Cambodia in 2002 when she adopted her first child Maddox, a Cambodian orphan.

 ang 8 ang 13 ang 6

Angkor Wat is one of the coolest places I’ve ever visited; it is the largest religious monument in the world, first Hindu but now Buddhist.

ang 11 ang 16 ang 15

It is frozen in time and it’s magical charm set me off on my own little fantasy, that I was indeed a great explorer, and I spent hours wandering around on my own, getting hopelessly lost and climbing anything that I possibly could.

ang 2ang 4ang 5

It’s so big that it took two full days there to see its wonders. Top tip: arrive at dawn to watch the sun slowly rise over the majestic silhouette of the main temple.

aad

Indochina

So, I’d done a month long whirlwind trip travelling across the four countries of the Indochina loop and lived to tell the tale!

cam 1
I had one more night in Bangkok to say sayonara to my group and part ways. I had a nice glass of wine with Emma and watched the sun set over the city.

ang 1

I was looking forward to two full weeks in Koh Tao that were to be spent fully alone, unescorted, unsupervised and full on solo yolo! I’d seen many beautiful and many thought provoking things. I’d taken every opportunity that came my way; including kayaking, abseiling, tunnelling, cycling, motorcycling, riding elephants, swimming in cold waterfalls and holding live animals including pythons, bees and tarantulas (sadly still no tigers) Koh Tao was all about scuba diving and I was about to immerse myself in that world and find some true grit along the way.

Vietnam Part 2 – Hoi An and Saigon

saigon 12 Hoi An 16 saigon 9

Vietnam part 2 – Hoi An and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

I continued my growing love affair with Vietnam. Hoi An is absolutely beautiful and it trumps Luang Prabang (in Laos) for fabulousness. It’s neatly sandwiched between the Thu Bon River and the South China Sea. They call it the town of lanterns because every inch of this town is covered in bright jewel coloured lanterns strung across streets, restaurants, shops and bridges. At night-time the river reflects the lanterns like a rainbow of stars. It’s romantic and dream like.

Hoi An 1
During the daytime, Hoi An is a plethora of ochre hued buildings framed by dark teak shutters. Every shop is a treasure trove of beautiful tailored clothes, silver jewellery, antiques and hand painted art. The tailors here are world renowned, you can show them a photo of any dress or garment and they can recreate it. I didn’t buy any clothes; instead I chose to invest in a unique piece of art by a local artist. It was a real pain to get my painting back home to the UK via Cambodia and Thailand; but well worth it as it’s something I’ll treasure forever (and thankfully can’t be bought in Ikea!)

Hoi An 5
I’d been spending a lot time with my new pal Emma, she likes to party, so we partied hard together! I’d ditched my group to a large degree, because most of them behaved like a herd of sheep and I am not a sheep, I’m a tiger! My mentality on this trip was YOLO – You Only Live Once! So I did exactly as I pleased and wandered with abandon.

Hoi An 4

Emma & I hired cute retro bicycles and cycled 5K to pretty Ang Ban beach, the route took us past fragrant shimmering paddy fields as well as crazy congested roads.

Hoi An 8
The beach was gorgeously unspoilt with golden sand and a palm fringed coastline. The South China Sea was choppy with strong waves that produced that timeless surf sound.

Hoi An 2
We relaxed on sun loungers absorbing the warm sun and read our books, then dined on whole crab and sipped on delicious fresh coconuts. I later walked past the crab tank and felt a twinge of guilt when I saw the poor little live crabbies waiting to be picked for the steam pot. I bravely stroked a couple of them and they jolted up looking at me with angry eyes unable to pinch me. I love all of Gods’ creatures… but I love meat and fish more mmmm.

Hoi An 6

Beach time was a welcome rest after so many tiring travel days. However, the return journey descended into a nightmare when we got hopelessly lost, racing to get back before the sun set (we had no lights on our bikes and no helmets) the 20 minute ride turned into an hour and a half of riding into nowhere with thundering lorries beeping at us. Fortunately Emma got us back and we ended the day partying with the international backpacker set at Tiger bar, one of the best bars in Hoi An.

Hoi An 3

One of the most exciting activities I did whilst in Hoi An was abseiling with Emma, Diana and where I met Spanish beauty Raquel; who later found me in Koh Tao. We booked this excursion through our tour guide. A minivan picked us up and took us to nearby Marble Mountains, a cluster of hills made from marble and limestone. We geared up in harnesses and helmets and began a slippery climb to see the fantastic ocean view, then to start our first descent. I volunteered to go first as I’d abseiled a few times before and I knew the potential panic that some people experienced. The drop went straight into a dark cave; there was zero visibility so it was a case of listening to the instructor and making a backwards jump into the unknown. (Not to get too philosophical but it’s very much like life itself, if you’re brave enough to take a leap of faith, you’ll reap the rewards). Next, we descended down a 25m sheer cliff face in front of gawping tourists who clapped and cheered, followed by a wee inducing 50m descent into another cave. My top tip is don’t look down when you’re at the very top! It was shit scary but I always love getting an adrenaline kick; so I was buzzing.

Hoi An 7

The most incredible Buddhist sanctuary lies in a cave underneath the Marble Mountains. When I happened upon the entrance, it took my breath away and I had some kind of spiritual experience in there. Honestly. Beams of angelic sunlight shone down from the roof casting light on the temple and it’s giant Buddha. Photos do not do it justice. I urge you to go there if you ever have the chance.

 saigon 13Hoi An 9saigon 11

My time in Hoi An was full of laughs and smiles and positive vibes. I felt so calm there and it’s a place that I hope to go back to one day.
Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon)

The city Saigon was a bit of a culture shock after peaceful Hoi An. I was met with a sprawling metropolis of endless retail and commerce, from markets selling cheap tat, to high end designer shops. In truth, I wasn’t enamoured with Saigon, our guide took us to see some buildings of note and a crappy market. I just couldn’t understand why we were staying for three whole days. As per my previous posts, the downside of joining a group tour is the lack of autonomy you have with your travel itinerary. It’s much better to wander with abandon.

I was experiencing a few low days during my stay in Saigon. My guide clearly disliked me, I had marginalised myself from the group and their disapproval was obvious. For the first time I felt lonely and badly needed a hug. I’m sharing this to keep things real, travelling solo is hard.

Hoi An 10
I learned so much about Vietnam and the war by going to see the fascinating Cu Chi tunnels, a complex underground network of narrow tunnels used by the Viet Cong to fight the South and the U.S during the war.
Our smiling guide Hai was a war veteran whose side lost. At 19 he worked as a translator for the Yanks and then rose up the ranks to become an officer.

Hoi An 13

His stories were heart-breaking, he explained that the young Americans were drafted in, they didn’t know what they were fighting for and every day they cried to him because they were scared of dying. Hai told how he’d have breakfast with his friends and within a few hours they’d all be dead. Half of our group were sobbing during his stories. He then showed us various spiked traps, such an awful way to die. He was an absolute living legend and lucky to live to tell the tale.

Hoi An 12
A few of us were given the opportunity to enter the tunnels. Now, I am massively claustrophobic, it’s my biggest fear, so this was a panic inducing challenge for me. But because I am persevering and bloody minded, I crawled through that tiny narrow stuffy hell hole on my hands and knees, breathing so quick and shallow, I conquered it though so I was proud of myself.

Hoi An 11
Another top place to visit in Saigon is the War Museum, where Chinook helicopters and imposing tanks stand next to B52s. There were harrowing photos of children disfigured by chemical warfare (agent orange) and I saw some actual preserved stillborn babies. It was sick and hard to look at, but I believe that you shouldn’t turn a blind eye on the horrors of this world. This is what Vietnam really went through and scars last lifetimes.

Hoi An 20 saigon 5 Saigon 1

Thankfully that evening was more light hearted, I spent it sipping cocktails on the roof terrace of a sky scraper.. very cosmopolitan with a fabulous view of the city below.

 saigon 2saigon 6

Emma & I went in search of the party scene to get our kicks but we ended up in a club full of Korean princesses. They looked immaculate in their designer dresses but they amusingly stand picking at fruit platters and don’t dance.. So we showed them how English princesses do it!

saigon 7 Hoi An 16
I pushed through my hangover and took a boat trip along the Mekong Delta to a scattering of river islands (Dragon, Phoenix and Unicorn). A local lady rowed four of us to Unicorn Island along a calm narrow pass covered with a canopy of ferns, it was a lovely thing to do and I’d highly recommend it.

Hoi An 15 Hoi An 19 saigon 4

We visited a few local businesses on a horse and cart, listened to some serene singers, saw sweets being made and I held a honeycomb covered in busy bees.

saigon 8

But best of all, I got to hold a big Python (insert your own joke!) which wrapped itself tightly around my leg! Awesome.

Hoi An 14 Hoi An 18

The last night in Saigon was my pal Farzana’s last on the Indochina trip so we went to watch an acrobatic show at the Saigon Opera House.

Saigon 3 Hoi An 17

My time in Vietnam had come to an end but I took with me some amazing memories that shall last a lifetime and a desire to go back one day.

Vietnam Adventure – Hanoi, Halong Bay and Hue

 

image

Xin Chao! Good Morning Vietnam!

Hanoi

So, arriving in Hanoi was a real jolt to my senses after being in sleepy Laos! The city was loud and furious, the residents drive fast, talk fast and hustle you fast too! There are a gazillion motorbikes on the roads but no proper pavements so walking anywhere involves taking your life in your hands. You have to be fearless, maintain eye contact and just strut across the road like you own it, bikers will drive around you beeping, all good fun!

image

I was staying in Hanoi’s old quarter and was pleased to find it full of character with a really sociable vibe. As darkness fell, the streets came alive with sellers,drinkers and local young people, all crowded under the neon lights and mess of cables that hung overhead.

image

Locals sell a dirt cheap beer called Bia Hoi on the street corners, it’s about 40p a pint! I sat down with some German guys who told me that they were playing a game, it they walked past a Bia Hoi stall in Hanoi, they had to sit and have one. They were only half way down the street and already quite merry! I felt pretty lucky that so many travellers spoke my native English and had a good laugh with them over some rudely mispronounced Vietnamese phrases.

image

Being a culture vulture, I visited the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum. The beloved late president died in 1969 and they have preserved his body since then. The mausoleum is guarded by formidable soldiers who make you walk in two by two. I didn’t stay in the crypt for long, Ho Chi Minh looked like a sleeping waxwork eerily lit by an orange coloured light, it’s just really creepy.

image

I also visited Ho Lak prison (aka the notorious ‘Hanoi Hilton). It details the torture that prisoners received, also really creepy. The thing is, you’ve got to visit these somewhat depressing places when you travel because they educate you about the real life history of the country that you’re in. The knowledge you gain gives you a new level of respect for the locals that you meet.

image

The evening turned into fun and frolics starting at the bizarre water puppet show (amusing but not mind blowing entertainment) followed by a Vietnamese dinner of Bun Cha where we said goodbye to five of our group and hello to two newbies. I found fellow Brit Emma to be very bubbly, sociable and she was looking to party!

image

As I like to befriend people of all nationalities, Emma and I had a few beers with some American guys who we met in a bar. It turned out they were in the Military and were such a great laugh. We chatted and eventually performed some impromptu karoke (singing loudly at our table), belting out the songs Hotel California by The Eagles and Livin on a Prayer by Bon Jovi. I was just glad to escape my group and converse with some ‘young people’.

image

It was an unexpected late night and I hadn’t packed to leave early the next day, causing a whirlwind at check out. This did not impress my group (mainly retirees) who took the opportunity to bitch about me. For me, fun and spontaneity trumps being sensible every time.

The soundtrack of my trip continued to be polluted with squawking drivel. Daily, certain members of my group avidly checked and discussed the temperature and news in their home towns and beloved provinces. It drove me INSANE!!

Personally, I believe in mindfulness and being present. I don’t care about the local news when I’m travelling or what people are doing back home. Travel should be pure escapism from the drudgery of the life you left behind.

image

Halong Bay

I was lucky enough to experience an overnight stay on a junk boat in the famously scenic Halong Bay. Friends had told me how beautiful it was and they weren’t wrong.

image

The bay is an area off the coast of Vietnam where thousands of grey limestone karsts protrude from the calm teal coloured South China sea like ancient art.  They create a serene blue grey haze everywhere you look and it’s just stunning. The boat slowly chugged around giving me ample time to take photos from the roof deck.

image

The weather was overcast but I happily boarded a smaller boat which took our group to a secluded beach. The sun broke through the clouds and so it was bikini time! I explored the surroundings by hiking up to the highest viewpoint, it was sweat inducing but awesome. Then some very naughty monkeys ‘attacked’ my fellow travellers. I just wandered off on my own (as I’m prone to do!) I climbed a big rock in my bare feet and just chilled on the beach drinking in the views.

image

I made sure I was back on the boat for the start of sunset, glass of red wine in hand and my camera in the other. And that sunset was truly unforgettable, the fiery orange sun blazed a hot trail across the shimmering water, turning the sky pink, then orange, then purple… Sigh.

image

My guide finally let me escape IJ (loud snorer) and bunk in with my soul sister Farzana (howtogreetapenguin.com)

image

We are the same age, both British, both were on a career break, both had recently visited Peru, both love photography and both addicted to Instagram. The only difference being that she is caramel and I am vanilla. Hehe! After a much needed decent night’s sleep on the boat, we headed back to Hanoi where we caught a train further South to Hue.

image

Hue Baby!

The overnight train to Hue (pronounced Way) was so much fun, four of us girls had our own cabin with bunk beds! So we put on our pjs, drank beer, ate cake and played cards. I took the time to catch up on my journal and amused myself by hanging upside down from my top bunk to scare Farzana. She got used to my ways (quiet in the day and mental at night).

image

On arrival in Hue, we spent the whole day on a magnificent motorcycle tour of the town and countryside. They wouldn’t let me drive so I had to settle for riding shotgun.

image

There are no road rules or traffic lights, so you place trust and faith in your driver, calmly balance on the back, no need to hold on and just enjoy the views. Would you believe that was my first time on a motorbike! It was so exhilarating, I loved it! The driver kept telling me to get closer, I can only assume he liked feeling my thighs on him!

image

The soundtrack looping in my head was Born to be Wild.. “get your motor running.. Head out on the highway”

image

We darted around the countryside and stopped at a number of landmarks including: the ruined Royal Palace,

image

An Emperor’s tomb

image

The Holy Lady Pagoda

image

A coliseum where tigers fought elephants, the evidence being claw marks on the walls. We also stopped at a rice milling factory and watched a tiny old Vietnamese lady mill rice. She had the biggest warmest smile on her face!

image

Lunch was at a monastery, cooked by a nun; not my average Tuesday! Whilst travelling, my standard days were generally sightseeing and being a culture vulture during the hot humid sunlight hours, but when the sun set…well, The Gremlin came out to play!

image

Night time in Hue was no exception, we went to a bar called Brown Eyes. It was rammed full of local cool kids, Aussie back packers, drunk girls and one particularly handsome blonde Canadian guy. Spot him in the pic. I got chatting to him but he disappeared, then I noticed all theses girls swarming around him. They were falling over themselves and pawing at him. I then found out that he was a young Hollywood actor called Alexander Ludvig who has starred in The Hunger Games, Lost Paradise, Vikings.

image

I told Emma who got so excited she marched right up to him and asked for a photo! I tried to be cool and nonchalant which didn’t really work. The funniest thing was that the only person he smooched was slightly clueless Farzana who only walked over to say goodbye to me. She did not stop apologising but I found the whole thing really funny.

image

Needless to say, it was another late night, I slept through my alarm and did the usual race to wash, pack and chug down some coffee! So it was Tam Biet (goodbye) to Hue and onwards to my favourite place; Hoi An.

Beautiful Laos

laos 24laos 23laos 21

Beautiful Laos
Sabidee! Hello! After a border crossing from Thailand into Laos, I boarded a slow boat on the mighty wide Mekong River. The boat was spacious and a delicious cooked lunch was provided by the crew. It was a day purely dedicated to travelling to a destination, eight hours slowly meandering, doing nothing but listen to music, casually read a book and watch the world pass by. I think travel days are what you make of them, they can be boring and tedious but it’s actually a great time to relax, to think, to read, to journal, to chat, to daydream, to snooze, whatever floats your boat (pun totally intended).

laos 18

The two days on the river had an intermission stop in Pakbeng, a quaint little town overlooking the Mekong. The evening was spent exploring a local market and capturing sunset pictures. I had a tasty pork curry dinner washed down with (award winning) beer Laos and chased by fiery banana whiskey. I love South East Asian cuisine but I did struggle with spicy dishes burning my mouth and making my nose run… very attractive!

laos 16

Sleep continued to evade me most nights (due to my roommate’s IJ’s loud snoring) but I decided it wasn’t the end of the world… I could sleep when I’m dead! I lay under my mosquito net, listening to the dawn chorus of cockerels crowing and marvelling at where I was. Finally in Laos. Finally exploring the place that I’d dreamed of going to.

Luang Prabang

It took another seven hours of boating up the Mekong to reach the magnificent town of Luang Prabang, accurately described as the jewel of the region. Before we got there we stopped the boat at the Pak Ou caves, large sacred caves situated randomly on a cliff face overlooking the river and accessed only by steps. Considered a spiritual place to local people, worshippers bring gifts of Buddhas in every shape, size and material. It’s basically a ton of statues in a cave but worth a visit nonetheless.

laos 19

I absolutely loved Luang Prabang; it’s got a very laid back vibe, real charm and character, lots of handsome French colonial architecture, and fabulous markets that stretch on for eternity. I seriously wanted to buy everything I saw, scarves in every colour, pretty lanterns, detailed embroidery, bright ceramics and handmade jewellery.. just fabulous.

laos 3 laos 6  laos 25

Although, to me the Laotian Kip currency was very confusing, 70,000 Kip for a scarf seemed like a lot but it wasn’t. I was useless at bartering down prices with the locals, mainly because haggling with poverty made me feel really uncomfortable, so I viewed being ripped off simply as a charitable donation.

I had the most memorable dinner at a gorgeous outdoor restaurant called LaoLao, covered by a canopy of trees on different levels, lit by coloured lanterns and twinkling fairy lights. It was so romantic… it was just a shame I was there with a gaggle of loud Canadians haha! Later, I was keen to make new friends so I tried chatting to some lads in the town’s Aussie bar, one Scouser and two Devon boys, but Man United and Liverpool were both playing, so it was impossible. Sadly they turned out to be total bigots, so I left. It was bizarre finding that level of ignorance in such a place as Luang Prabang.. I mean just go to Magaluf you prats.

I’d highly recommend a day trip to the breath-taking Kuang Si waterfalls; it stuns the senses in every way, with pounding water, vivid turquoise lagoons, and ice cold temperatures. I was brave and had a swim in the icy waters and climbed one of the smaller waterfalls. Randomly there are a group of big brown Moon Bears living in captivity at Kuang Si, hilariously two of them were shagging in front of all the tourists which made me giggle!

laos 1laos 4

Whilst in Luang Prebang I ticked another dream off my bucket list when I took the opportunity to ride, feed and bathe elephants. With my fellow Brit Farzana, I rode the naughty Elephant who we named Flo and she was such a diva! She ignored her trainer’s commands, she walked wherever she liked, stealing food from people’s gardens, despite being shouted at numerous times. We found it highly amusing and were secretly egging her on hehe!
Flo stood still and lifted her trunk to pose but did a giant sneeze on us; elephant snot on my face was totally gross but certainly a unique experience! As we rode, we got to see an elephant’s eye view of the local town; it was strange to see little kids nonchalantly ignoring the elephants like it was no big deal. After a nice walk, we dismounted Flo and all the elephants’ seats were taken off, we got our bikinis on and rode them bareback (chuckle) onto the beach. We then plunged into the cold murky brown Mekong River for a wash. The elephants loved it; they sprayed us and threw us off their backs. I managed to stand up on Flo and was also allowed to sit on her trunk!
Afterwards we fed them bananas and bamboo and I left feeling elated at having had such a special day.

laos 7laos 9laos 11laos 20

Evenings were spent wandering the night markets and eating delicious street food. There was so much to choose from and it smelled so aromatic and inviting.. barbecued meats, spring rolls, curries, noodles and fried rice. I was hoping to lose my Christmas chub on the trip through the process of wasting away on vegetables and rice; sadly the opposite happened because every meal was a banquet! The daily beers were also a contributing factor.

laos 10

Home Stay

Part way through a very bumpy winding 7 hour drive through mountainous roads, we stopped for an al fresco lunch at a mountain top restaurant, looking out across the infinite hazy blue mountains and deep green valley below.

laos 12laos 17

We finally arrived at our village home stay; each home takes two guests to stay over for just one night. I stayed with sweet little Luan Ki and her hubby, their house was basic but clean. It was very quiet there and I admit that I was slightly disappointed that they had no giggling children or puppies for me to cuddle. I walked around the village with my camera, the kids were out playing games and football, and they relished their freedom and each other’s company, obvious from their easy smiles and happy-go-lucky ways.
After our hosts cooked us dinner, about 40 local children came to dance for us, they were so cute. Then they dragged us up and taught us their traditional moves. My little girls took it very seriously and practised over and over so that we could do the dance perfectly. The last dance was ‘Gangnam Style’ which they went wild for! It was quite surreal watching kids from the middle of nowhere singing the lyrics “hey sexy lady”
As a parting thank you gift we gave the children pens and school books which they insisted we sign with our autographs. These Laotian kids are dirt poor and yet they are happy with the most simple things in life, it really makes you ponder.

laos 13 laos 14 laos 15

Vang Vieng

The next day, I received a bracelet blessing and shared a big hug goodbye to my lovely host. I then checked in to a hotel in Vang Vieng (widely known in the travelling world as the tubing Mecca of the universe) I spent the morning kayaking on the river with Farzana and was in charge of steering us down the low grade Rapids. I did the lady like thing and purchased a few cans of beers before we embarked, etiquette that I learned from a previous kayaking excursion in France. We stopped at some tubing bars for some more alcoholic beverages and I danced on a table feeling rather merry.
The river was a gorgeous shade of jade (unlike the Mekong) and the tall limestone karsts framed the horizon beautifully…shame the damn water splashed onto my iPhone screen which then gave up. Here’s a tip, never take your phone in a kayak.

laos 5laos 22

The afternoon was spent consuming iced lattes and getting a relaxing massage. Life is good I thought.. but the universe had other ideas.. an ATM swallowed my only debit card and then my phone completely died. I couldn’t even ring the bank; I was up shit creek without a paddle. The situation made me feel panicked and despite trying to put on a brave face, I had a good cry.  Luckily with the help of my multi lingual guide, the next day, my card was eventually retrieved. My phone was still redundant despite trying to dry it out in a cup of rice, sadly causing a ceasefire in my Instagram uploads and regular emails home. But at that difficult time, a wise person said to me:

“Louise, you are the brave discoverer that set out on the voyage. You set out prepared, be it with a positive outlook or an appropriate emergency contact. You look forward to the things you haven’t seen and you remember the happiness you have had. The world is a roller coaster, the uphill is slow and scary but fuck me..is it worth it for the way down.”

Vientiane
The capital city of Vientiane was hot, humid and slightly more cosmopolitan than the other towns in Laos, but there was no real character or charm to describe. There was a small market on the riverfront and locals congregated in the evenings for group exercise.
I wandered with abandon on my own for a few hours and ended up at a temple. I hadn’t planned to visit a temple and wasn’t dressed appropriately (with my legs and shoulders showing) so I tried to avoid the monks as I knew that it would cause them offence. However, a nice monk called Lune invited me over and we chatted for ages. It turned out that he is the same age as me and had been a monk for 10 years. He explained that it had allowed him a good education and the chance to learn English. He told me all about his family whom he missed, and pronounced his love of football.. he supports the English Premier League team Man City. He was such a happy chappy, surrounded by dogs and children, constantly smiling and giving off really good vibes. I really enjoyed talking to him and I was pleased to meet someone unique, on my own, without being introduced by a guide.

laos 8

Evenings in Vientiane were mostly spent sampling local dishes, followed by sipping drinks whilst listening to live music. To amuse myself whilst on this trip, I habitually played a game of ‘spot the prostitute/escort/ladyboy’ … usually spotted cosying up to Western male tourists in bars.

I absolutely loved my time in Laos, in my opinion; the people were the friendliest of the entire Indochina region. My next stop was Vietnam where more adventure awaited…