Cambodia – Phnom Penh – Siem Reap and Angkor Wat

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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

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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.

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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!)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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.