Beautiful Laos

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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).

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

Exploring Northern Thailand

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So I spontaneously decided to go to South East Asia, although it was a last minute decision, the idea had been burning in my mind for a number of years. There were various reasons why I hadn’t gone previously and those reasons had recently disappeared, giving me the freedom to finally embark on my longed for trip.

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The Indochina loop is a well-travelled backpacking route and I knew plenty of people that had already done it and absolutely loved it. I had no travel buddy available to accompany me so I booked onto an organised trip. There are some notable pros and cons of doing this.

 

The pros were that I felt safe with a group; the mountain of itinerary admin was already done for me, and I was travelling with an English speaking guide who made sure that we visited only really remarkable places. The downside was having no flexibility to stay longer in any particular place, being confined to a group of people for one month and not being able to branch off and be independent. If I’m truly honest I was disappointed with the group that I found myself in, mainly retirees who liked regimented structure and needed their hand held every step of the way.

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I soon learned that I like to wander with abandon! There were only two girls who were my age that I could relate to and I lucked out with my trip long roomie. I’ll try to be polite.. she was a 68 year old hypochondriac battle-axe who we shall refer to as ‘I.J’. She was grumpy, short tempered, talked at me rather than to me and her loud snoring kept me permanently sleep deprived. Consequently, I had to practise Zen like tolerance which inevitably waned as the trip progressed.

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Travelling is an amazing, wonderful thing to do and if you get the opportunity to see the world then take it… but what other blogs don’t tell you is that loneliness can hit you at any time, especially if travelling solo. It makes you question your choices but ultimately makes you a stronger, more resilient, more confident person.

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Bangkok

Bangkok was just as crazy as I’d anticipated, crossing the road was a like running the gauntlet and hoping not to get mowed down by a tuk tuk! I was based near China Town and went exploring on my own, but I got lost and ended up roaming the urine soaked back streets like a homeless mongrel. I met the group and took a klong boat along the river to Wat Pho temple. Along the river way I saw so many ramshackle huts where families lived in very basic conditions, some watched as our boat motored by, others slowly hung their washing out to dry and ignored our curious foreign eyes. Others approached the boat sold their wares from their own boats.

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The temple visit was my first introduction to Buddhism, a fascinating religion and way of living which instantly grabbed my interest. I then took the opportunity to visit the spectacular Grand Palace with my fellow Brit Farzana. Tip: The dress code is strict so be prepared. We struggled our way through the pulsating crowds in the searing midday sun. The grounds and the many temples were striking and beautiful, but annoyingly tainted by tourists boisterously pointing their large DSLR cameras.

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The other well known place that I visited was the infamous Khao San Road, a stretch of Bangkok dominated by international backpackers. The strip consists of neon bars and open air restaurants where the young backpacker set mix with tourists, all sipping on cold drinks and enjoying fragrant Thai food. It’s worth a visit just to mingle, to people watch and to sense the atmosphere. I would say that a few days in Bangkok is enough, it’s the gateway to Thailand and there is so much more to see of this wonderful country.

Chiang Mai

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The next leg of the trip took place overnight on a sleeper train to Chiang Mai, a real novelty to me and I got way too excited about climbing up into the top bunk and swinging like a monkey. It was hard to fall asleep on a moving train but I got some shut eye before breakfast was served.

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Chiang Mai was refreshing compared to Bangkok; clean and scenic and less busy. I took an awesome cooking class with a local lady, first buying fresh produce from the market where I saw an array of delights; live fish, buckets of frogs, colourful exotic fruits and vibrant spices. Vannee was a good teacher and under her supervision I cooked like a total boss; green curry, pad Thai, shrimp and cashew stir fry followed by mango sticky rice mmmm!

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A major highlight of Chiang Mai was Doi Suthep temple, situated high on the hill overlooking the town. As the pink orange sun set, candles glowed and monks chanted to Buddha. It was a real privilege to watch. I received a blessing and a bracelet from a monk which felt pretty special.

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Another more hedonistic cultural pursuit (to say the least) was when we went to watch a Ladyboy show! Wow, it was seriously rather raunchy in parts but I witnessed some top quality lip syncing, hehe. At one point I was serenaded by a curvaceous performer under the spotlight… certainly a first for me haha!

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A really good way to explore any rural town is to hire a bike and have a wander. I enjoyed a relaxed four hour bike ride along the Chiang Mai countryside; you get to see how local people live, as well as drink in the scenery.

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Our group stopped outside a school to say hello and laugh with the kids, they were so happy to see us! Later, the coolest thing that I witnessed was a monk being tattooed right on his belly. The artist was using sharp bamboo dipped in black ink whilst the monk was held down by others.. Totally awesome sight!

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Chiang Rai
As I proceeded further North towards the vast Mekong River, I paid a flying visit to the town of Chiang Rai. There sits the majestic White Temple (Wat Rong Khun) a stunning dazzling white temple. It’s new and it’s unconventional but just so bedazzling to the eyes, a must see for anyone travelling in that area. Make sure you make a wish at the wishing well, it might just come true!

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Koh Tao – Wait and see… Koh Tao shall have its own separate post.