A Travellerspoint blog

Chiang Mai, Thailand

days 122-130

semi-overcast 35 °C

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The bus from Chiang Kong dropped us about half a mile away from the old city gates, outside a hotel. We had heard that pretty much all hotels in Chiang Mai also offer treks, and can be pretty frosty towards people who aren't interested in booking their treks with them, or people that just don't want to do treks, and this hotel was no different. Before we had even got our bags, 'Annabelle', the energetic and charming salesgirl from the hotel was busy trying to get everybody who had got off the bus to stay there. She was offering a double room with a fan for 4 quid or with A/C for 6 quid, and if we booked 2 nights we got the third for free... but only if we booked a trek through her. The rooms were clean and spacious, and everybody from the bus was keen to do a trek so the majority of us checked in and booked the trek. By the way we went mad and paid the extra 2 quid to have A/C.

We booked the trek for two days time, so we had a chance to have a look around the shops the next day and even found a 'Boots', which made Lou far more excited than a shop selling moisterisor and posh soap should. I also decided that as I'd been in Thailand for a full day it was time for a Thai massage. After initially putting the pyjamas that I was given for the massage on the wrong way around – to the great amusement of the masseuse, I was instructed to lie on my back. The next hour was a mixture of twisting, elbowing, kneeing, pulling, pushing and contorting, but my whole body felt brilliant after it. I'd had oil massages in Laos and Vietnam but this was by far the best.

The next day we got picked up early for the 2 day trek which was to have an overnight stay beside a hill-top tribe village. From the boat, the girls from South Africa and Germany had booked, as had the Norwegian couple, and a German couple and two friends from Iran made up 10 people in total for the trek. What Annabelle had told us, was that we would be doing a trek and on the second day we would be doing some white water rafting and an elephant ride. What she hadn't told us was that the first day we would be visiting a botanical garden – which as quite pretty but not really what everybody wanted to do, a snake house – where a snake-teasing show was put on for our benefit, but we would all have rather it had not, and a "long neck tribe" village – which was the most interesting. From an early age the girls put rings around their neck in order to stretch them (hence "long neck tribe"), and the older members have up to 25 steel rings around their necks. Apparently they stay on 24 hours a day, evey day, and if they took them off they would not be able to support their heads as after some time the muscles waste away, but as interesting as it was to see the tribe, it was just a village selling trinkets. Anyhow the point is that these trips should really be more transparent.

When we finally got trekking, it was worth the wait – the scenery was spectacular. Our guide – 'Wat', told us that it would take between 3 and 4 hours and was quite testing in parts. The trek was mostly uphill and was indeed quite testing in parts, especially as I was wearing sandals. And even more so for one of the Iranian girls who hadn't wanted to leave any baggage behind in Chaing Mai and so had an extra 20kg on her back. After hearing enough of her moaning, Wat took her backpack as well as his own and the speed picked up, and after a total of 4 hours or so we arrived at the hill-top village in time for sunset.

It was to everybody's great pleasure that a colleague of Wat's was waiting for us at the top with an ice-box full of cans of Chang. Whilst everybody else got freezing cold showers (albeit quite pleasant in the humidity of the jungle), Wat and his colleague went about preparing a yellow curry for us all. The cooking instruments and utensils were rudimentary; the only heat he had at his disposal was from a wood fire, but the food he served up was brilliant. Along with the yellow curry there was rice a plenty and a spicy cabbage salad. After we had finished dinner everybody went back outside where a campfire had been built and lit, although from that point on the Norwegian guy took the job of keeping it stoked solely his own, which was fine by everybody else but I was concerned that such an avid interest in matters relating to flames would eventually lead to some kind of eye-brow injury.

There was yet more to come from Wat, who after doubling up as a tour guide and chef, surprised us all with another skill – he was half decent on the guitar. He wasn't so great at singing, though he gave it a good go with a mixture of classic western 3-cord numbers and traditional Thai songs. Another member of the group – the German girl, also said she could play a bit so after half an hour or so Wat passed the guitar and we had some Pinkfloyd, Oasis, Eagles and that vastly talented musician and all round good egg... Robbie Williams. After everybody had had enough of guitar sing alongs we had a couple of solo numbers. The Norwegian guy gave us two or three comedy songs (in Norwegian, but his girlfriend was laughing along), and then we all felt lucky to be serenaded with 20 minutes of beautiful Iranian songs that completely melted your heart. Earlier during dinner the Iranians had been telling us of how tough life in Iran could be – they were involved in the 2009 anti-government protests, and punished accordingly, and you could really hear the deep melancholy in their voices.

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The next day we started early to walk to a waterfall an hour or so from the camp. However as we set off the heavens opened and torrential rain fell for the next half an hour, making the route to the waterfall dangerous. Wat took a vote and 9 people voted to not to go to the waterfall, leaving me as the sole yes-voter, but when somebody mentioned the leaches it was suddenly 10-0.

Having given the waterfall a miss we got to the elephant sanctuary earlier than planned. I am not generally a fan of these kinds of activities – you can never be sure of how the animals are treated when you're not there, and even if they are treated well, I'm not sure they would be roaming around with a big box with 2 people on their backs given the choice. But alas, it was part of the tour and apparently the place where we were visiting was a sanctuary for elephants who had been used for logging but were no longer required, and without them bringing in some kind of income there would be no way to look after them. So anyway, the hour or so long elephant ride was quite fun; we fed them sugar cane, they took a bath and one of them had their almost new-born with them who was pretty cute. I still have reservations about this kind of activity but from what I could make it the elephants were not maltreated which I suppose is one thing.

To finish the 2 days of activities off, we white water rafted down the river. I've been white water rafting in faster water before, but this was still fun. Half way down the river, we swapped to a bamboo raft and meandered the rest of the way to where the land rover was waiting to pick us up. The bamboo rafting was pretty low-octane stuff, but not a bad way to finish what had been a really good 2 day “trek”. If they just dropped the activities on day 1 before the walking begun it would have been so much better, but the impression I got was that every trek company does the same so perhaps its a requirement for the licence.

We had a couple of days after the trek until we were due to leave Chiang Mai, so Lou decided to do a cooking class. I was looking forward to seeing her at the end of the day to taste what she had made but alas everything was so nice that she had eaten it all. She got a comprehensive cook-book with ingredients and instructions for how to make all of the dishes that she, and the other 8 people had made, so when we get home there will be plenty of tom yam soup with prawns, pad thai, panang curry (with paste made from scratch), spring rolls and for pudding sticky rice with mango and coconut milk, and deep-fried banana with coconut and cream battered toast.

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After spending a week in Chiang Mai we only had 1 week left until our flight from Bangkok to Sydney. We decided to split that week between Koh Phangan – one of the Island in the South East of the country, and finally finishing in Bangkok. The cheapest way to do it was to get an overnight train from Chiang Mai to Bangkok, and from Bangkok take an overnight bus to Southern Thailand to catch a ferry over to the Island. A long, and very tiring journey, but from what we had heard about Koh Phangan, definitely worth it.

Posted by Kan_Kan_Can 16:59 Archived in Thailand Tagged trek thailand chiang mai cooking class Comments (0)

Slow boat from Luang Prabang to Huay Xai (via Pakbeng)

days 121-122

sunny 34 °C

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Our next intended destination after Luang Prabang was Northern Thailand. The transport options to get there were either a really long bus ride or a slow boat up the Mekong river. The idea of travelling by boat is often better than the reality of it – the boats we had been on in Asia had tended to be rickety, poorly equipped, lacking toilets and worst of all so noisy you couldn't hear yourself think, never mind have a conversation. But as we were in no particular rush we went with the slow boat in the hope that it would be one of the better ones, and we had been assured by travellers going the opposite direction to us that it was worthwhile.

They weren't joking when they called it slow – we left Luang Prabang on Wednesday morning at 7am and finally reached Chiang Khong in Thailand at 10am on the Friday with a night's stay each at Pakbeng and Huay Xai, on the Laos/Thai border.

There was nothing remarkable about Pakbeng, in fact if you had any more than 5 hours to kill there you would be very bored indeed, but Lou and I had met a German girl and a South African girl while getting off the boat and as they were staying at the same place as us, we arranged to meet for food and a few beers later on. The South African girl was going to India the next month, the German girl really liked Indian food and Lou and I never shut up about India so it was a pretty easy decision to go for a curry. The curry was pretty mundane but passable enough and I thought nothing more of it – until the next day.

We got back on the boat about 8am and by 9am my stomach was feeling seriously upset. The next few hours were mostly spent tooing and froing from the toilet at the back. Mercifully, the toilet was “ok”; the door locked, the toilet was 'western-style' (i.e. you could sit on it), and most importantly nobody else was suffering from the same issues as me so I had exclusive access. As I sat there I did find it rather amusing that I had survived 2 and a half months of Indian food in India itself, including street food every day, the spiciest food I've ever had, and a even a meal from Varanasi (where almost everybody gets sick), but a mild and mundane curry from Laos had done for me.

There was one source of amusement in between my visits to the bog, and that was a guy sat in front of us who was sat with his t-shirt on his head, sweating profusely, and swapping his sitting position from a normal seated position to upside down. We talked to him later and he told us he had decided to swallow some opium to make the journey go by either more quickly, or more interestingly, but took too much and was in hell for the whole 9 hour journey. As you do...!

Huay Xai was only marginally more interesting than Pakbeng, but as it was our last night in Laos we arranged to meet the German and South African girls later on. As I had been in digestive turmoil all day, I said to Lou that I would come out but only have plain rice to eat, and just drink some green tea or similar. Before I had a chance to sit down, a beer had been ordered for me, and I realised it would be my last opportunity to eat 'laab' (minced chicken salad with A LOT of chilli) so I thought I would risk it and ordered it. When it came, it was by far the spiciest laab I'd had, and the whole table was sweating. Everybody knows the best remedy to spice is beer, so we drank more, and more, and more. Just before the bar kicked us out so we didn't miss the local curfew, I had the chance to try one of their home-brewed Laos-Laos whiskies and went for a kiwi whisky. I don't think it will be going mainstream any time soon, but it wasn't the worst night cap I've had.

So the next morning we had a short 3 minute boat ride across the mekong river and into Thailand. Just before we boarded the boat I got the first grumbles of discontent from my bowels. Thankfully in our first aid kit we had a few different remedies to stop the kind of problems that you don't want on a boat that is 10 feet long and 4 feet wide, and so I took as much as it is recommended you take... and a bit more. But alas either the bug was too powerful or I took the drugs too late, as just before the boat got to the Thai side of the river the grumbles of discontent became roars of anger and I knew that I needed to get to the toilet... quickly. We disembarked the boat immediately I saw a huge sign that said “TOILET”, but agonisingly it was on the other side of the immigration station. My options were limited – on one hand I didn't want to break the law and enter the country illegally; I doubt the Thai police would have sympathised much with my situation, and I've seen too many “Brits Banged Up Abroad” type shows, but on the other hand there was no way I could wait in the queue for my turn. I quickly filled in my immigration card, explained the situation to the English people in the queue, and explained to the non-English speaking people by... well they could just tell from the look on my face and the hopping up and down I was doing. Thankfully the entire queue were more than happy to let me bunk to the front – as much for their own sakes as mine I suppose and a minor disaster was averted.

Posted by Kan_Kan_Can 15:50 Archived in Laos Tagged boat laos chiang khong pakbeng slow prabang luang huay xai Comments (0)

Luang Prabang, Laos

days 114-120

sunny 35 °C

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The journey from Vientiane to Luang Prabang is not very far as the crow flies, but takes all day as the bus has to wind up and down through mountains and valleys. The views looking down on cloud-tipped hills below is spectacular, but the ride is very rough due to the poor road quality and erratic driving. The journey would have also been significantly shorter had the bus not broken down 5 times. Each time it did break down, every male on the bus got out to inspect the engine and wonder if we would get going again. The problem each time was that one of the belts kept snapping, and it was obviously a frequent problem for the bus as the driver had a stash of about 20 of them. Although quite a simple job mechanically, it was quite fidly and took half an hour each time. The other thing is that in Laos, absolutely nobody is in a rush, ever, and you need to either accept that pace of life and go along with it, or you're going to spend a lot of time with a face like a slapped arse.

Set on the banks of the Mekong river in Northern Laos, Luang Prabang is a picturesque and romantic city. The hotels and restaurants ranged from budget to up-market, and the crowd matched that contrast ranging from scruffy backpackers to well-heeled French and Americans. By far the best mode of transport to get around the place was a bicycle, and we hired one for our full 6 days there.

Night activity revolves around the night market which occupies the main street in the middle of town from 6pm each evening, and closes it to traffic. On sale alongside the usual items of clothing and trinkets are what appear to be genuine artefacts from bygone years, including axe-heads and coins. As there are the more monied travellers alongside the backpackers the prices aren't cheap, but if you are a collector of such things then the market is a bit of an aladdin’s cave. Just off the market is a 20 metre long street lined exclusively with food stalls offering as much food as you can fit on your plate for next to nothing. The food was similar in quality on each of the stalls – that is to say pretty average, but for the equivalent of 1 English pound you could fill a plate with noodles, rice, spring rolls and vegetables, swill it down with a Beer Laos and leave a happy person.

After the night market, where we invariably met the New Zealand couple, we would head to one of the many small bars in the town for a couple of evening refreshments. On one such night, we walked past a cosy wine bar and as none of us had had a decent glass of red since we started travelling, we didn't have to work too hard to persuade ourselves to nip in for a bottle, or 2. At 10 quid a bottle, it was outrageously over-budget (Beer Laos is near enough a quid) but after nearly 4 months on the road one or two home comforts are allowed every now and again.

Although Luang Prabang has many small and cosy bars, the best we went in by far was the Ikon club – a cocktail bar run by a lovely Hungarian girl, Elizabeth. We had a lovely evening sat at the bar talking to Elizabeth and various other people who came and went, including 3 girls from Dublin who swore like troopers and a couple of English lads who described themselves as “flashpackers”, and drank like fish.

An hour or so drive from the town are some waterfalls that are a must-see whilst staying in Luang Prabang. What South East Asians class as a waterfall, especially when trying to entice tourists to see them, can sometimes be little more than an overflowing puddle, but this one is the genuine article. The main waterfall is a couple of hundred feet high and although it wasn't the wet season while we were there, it still had enough water flowing to make it worth seeing. But the real highlight lay downstream, where clear water and several ledges led to a lagoon where you could escape the heat and humidity and swim with fish.

A recurring theme for us during our stay was an old-ish man that would walk up and down the main street all day long, going into every restaurant and holding his hand out begging for change. Clad only in a pair of swimming shorts, as he approached our table we'd be presented with a huge toothless smile that was so warm it would melt your heart. We had assumed he was mentally ill and was not in full possession of his senses, which was right to a certain extent, but he quickly became one of our favourite people in Laos when Elizabeth, who runs the Ikon club, told us that recently he had taken to dressing up in full military uniform (I think he had previously served in the army), hiding in bushes and jumping out at tourists with a plastic machine gun, scaring the living daylights out of them.

Posted by Kan_Kan_Can 15:05 Archived in Laos Tagged beer laos prabang luang Comments (1)

Vientiane, Laos

days 112-114

sunny 23 °C

Vientiane stands in stark contrast to the Laos we had seen so far, and the Laos you imagine before you get there. The streets are laid out in grids, there are 5 star hotels, SUV's being driven around and half of the white faces you see are not fellow travellers but business men in suits. There is obviously money there and it obviously doesn't get much further than there. But its a capital city, and even in the poorest countries in the world, the capital city usually has some organisation to it.

We found a really cheap and clean hotel and ended up staying for 2 nights but most people tend to stay in the capital for just 1 night, using it as a stop-off to break up journeys from North to South or visa versa. The highlight of the city was probably the night market, although invariably the markets appeal more to Lou than me.

In a rather eventful-less 2 days, the highlights were an Indian restaurant on the first night, and a Thai restaurant on the second night. Other than serving nice food, I couldn't find anything else to recommend in this bland and characterless city.

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Posted by Kan_Kan_Can 15:02 Archived in Laos Tagged city laos vientiane capital Comments (0)

Raining on Tha Kaek Loop, Laos

storm 33 °C

Posted by Kan_Kan_Can 14:59 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

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