Monthly Archives: December 2013

An Island Christmas

Considering it felt like we had ages to spend to Asia, we ended going through Thailand and Laos at quite a pace. We had always planned on spending Christmas on a beach though, and we finally found some very cheap flights to Langkawi in Malaysia. So, we knew we had to get out of Laos by a certain date which was a shame, but we did have a nice last couple of days in Vientiane.

Vientiane's Paris-y bit

Vientiane’s Paris-y bit

It’s a very quiet capital city compared to others we’ve visited, but easy to wander around in with a few interesting places for a short stay. We visited the COPE centre, an NGO who work to make prosthetic limbs for the victims of bombs UXOs, and we climbed the fake arc d’triomphe thing in the city centre – another former French colonial influence. I also had my final cheap Beerlao for the foreseeable future.

The COPE centre

The COPE centre

On the 23rd of December, not feeling at all Christmassy yet, we spent the day in transit, flying first to KL and then on to Langkawi. I have to say, KL airport was a disappointment – I was hoping for more of a Hong Kong ultra modern experience, but we did battle through the crowds and ended up having a fast food chicken thing, still managing to avoid the Maccy D’s (haven’t had any yet on the gap yah). We finally got to Langkawi at about 9.30, and after we checked into our hotel we were pretty glad we’d splashed out over the normal budget!

Classy room

Classy room

We stayed at the Tropical Resort, on Pantai Tengah. Basically, the village we stayed in is a long strip of restaurants and hotels along the beach, and we were down at the quiet end. The room was amazing, the bed was actually comfy (an unusual thing in Asia so far) and there was a free breakfast included which we hadn’t realised. The beach was only about 2 minutes walk from our bungalow, and it was practically empty.

2 minute walk from the hotel

2 minute walk from the hotel

Lying on a white sand beach, swimming occasionally in the warm blue waters and not doing a lot else was a very surreal Christmas Eve experience. We did eventually wander into the town, having a cheap noodle soup for lunch, and then after watching the sunset into the sea we found a beachside restaurant and had a curry!

Christmas Eve

Christmas Eve


No turkeys in sight...

No turkeys in sight…

Christmas Day and Boxing Day passed in much the same way, beaching, swimming and sunbathing, punctuated by eating and drinking. On Christmas Day night we went and had an amazing seafood meal, and on Boxing Day had a huge Mexican feast. Throughout this we were speaking to home on skype and FaceTime, so watching them open presents and eat proper Christmas food whilst we were in the sun made for an amazing, albeit slightly weird Christmas. Not bad for our first as a married couple.

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In the tubing no more!

Despite having a really good time in Phonsavan, we were very happy to head south to slightly warmer climes. It took around 7 hours to Vang Vieng, including a stop to change an exploded tyre, and we arrived in the early afternoon. Annoyingly, we were dropped about 2km outside the town (damn that tuk tuk mafia), and after a quick look around and some excellent haggling from Law we had a nice hotel room for about 50 cents more than the Phonsavan ice box.

Tyres shouldn't look like this...

Tyres shouldn’t look like this…

Vang Vieng is a strange place. It became infamous as a backpacker paradise a few years ago, chiefly because you could hire a tractor tyre inner tube and float down the beautiful scenic river, which happened to be lined with bars. People would spend all day getting free shots and drinking buckets of Lao-Lao whiskey, jumping and rope-swinging into the water before stumbling back into town. With fairly low health and safety standards, quite a few people died doing this! It all changed last year though, with a government crackdown on the bars and now Vang Vieng is held up as an example of how not to develop a tourist town to the rest of Laos.

Outside the hotel

Outside the hotel

It feels a bit soulless now, with the vast majority of the buildings being guesthouses or western restaurants. An odd (and awesome for us) side affect is that a huge number of bars in town show episodes of Friends, Family Guy and South Park on endless loops! Despite being high season, the place was quiet, and it seems now to be stuck as not quite a full-blown party town and not quite a cultural site.

'Friends' on a loop in every other bar - amazing!

‘Friends’ on a loop in every other bar – amazing!

The scenery is amazing though, with huge limestone karst peaks along the river and rice paddies all over the place. On the first afternoon we went and booked a days kayaking and cave tubing for the next day, figuring we had do something like that and agreeing not to drink too much whilst on the water. We started the day with a trip an underwater cave, which was amazing experience. Sitting in a tube, we were given head torches and then we were in the freezing river, pulling ourselves into the pitch black, 300 metre long cave by ropes tied to the ceiling. Stalactites dripped from the roof, and we wound our way through until the rope stopped, before paddling on further to the end. Back outside, the sunshine was a welcome relief.

Going underground...

Going underground…

In the afternoon, we kayaked about 10km down the river toward town, admiring the countryside. After navigating a few rapids (a couple of people in our group capsized!), we joined up with where the tubing still starts. Despite all but 3 bars being closed down, the remains of the bars still dot the riverside, which mars the view a bit. We stopped at “Last Bar”, an imaginative title for the last bar of the river, and whilst I had a beer Law had a Lao-Lao and coke.

Views so amazing, I can't look where I'm going...

Views so amazing, I can’t look where I’m going…

The coolest chick at Last Bar

The coolest chick at Last Bar

By the time we got back into the town, we were pretty happy spending the evening watching episodes of Friends whilst Mrs. H felt the effects of drinking whiskey in the sun!There isn’t masses else to do in Vang Vieng, so we spent the next day wandering around, sunbathing and watching Friends in the bars, and sorting out the onward travel to our last stop in Laos, Vientiane.

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The Plain of Jars

After a few days in Luang Prabang, we headed into the centre of Laos and into the mountains. The bus to Phonsavan took 8 hours and as soon as we stepped off, we noticed the difference in temperature. We are now 1500m above sea level and the night time temperatures are around 3-4 degrees – it’s not freezing, but we’re in SE Asia, and we’re not prepared! Luckily starting in Russia means we have been carrying round useless jackets and jumpers for 4 months which finally made it out of the bags again!

Sam prepares for a chilly night in Phonsavan

Sam prepares for a chilly night in Phonsavan

Phonsavan is a bit of a strange, quiet town, only really visited by a few tourists who come to see the Plain of Jars. There are a few agents selling tours, but with limited numbers of people in town it looked like it could be an expensive day and that we’d have to get a private guide to take us. Luckily we made friends with some Germans and an Italian so managed to book a tour together for the next day, before having a nice dinner and trying to remember our A-level Deutsch (sehr gut).

The Plain of Jars is around 2,500 years old, similar in age and feel to Easter Island in Chile or Stonehenge.

The Plain of Jars

The Plain of Jars

The jars are around 5ft high and are thought to be ancient funeral urns, although not a lot is known about them. There are hundreds scattered across this part of Laos but we visited three sites. They were amazing to see, the sites are very atmospheric with beautiful views and surroundings.

Views from Site 2 of the Plain of Jars

Views from Site 2 of the Plain of Jars

They are also fascinating because they are the site of a huge amount of destruction during the 60s and 70s. The Americans dropped millions of tonnes of bombs in Laos during the “secret war” making it the most bombed country in the world and the Plain of Jars area was the most bombed part of the country. Many of the jars are damaged, fallen over and the site is full of bomb craters.

MAG have cleared the sites of UXOs

MAG have cleared the sites of UXOs

The area is also covered in unexploded bombs, and many local people still die every year. In Phonsevan we visited the MAG (Mines Advisory Service) centre who are a British charity working to help clear the area and where we watched a fascinating and sad documentary. There are so many bombs it will take decades more to make the country completely safe.

Bombs that have been collected from the local area

Bombs that have been collected from the local area

The next day we headed south to the much warmer Vang Vieng and home of the infamous backpacker sport of tubing. Although it was a bit out of the way and really cold, we were really glad we made the trip to Phonsavan.

The Plain of Jars

The Plain of Jars

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Write about Laos

We made it. The border crossing was a bit painful, but we did get across and back up the river in time for the slow boat. Leaving the guesthouse at 8.30, I was sat on top of the bags in the back of a pick up truck, with the hostel owner chatting to me and getting excited about the new border. The two towns we were going to and from are just a couple of hundred metres apart across the river, and yet we had to travel around 15km south, across the bridge and back north.

The brand new border control

The brand new border control

After paying 40 baht for the ride to the bridge (they wanted 50, but the older Dutch couple we were with, and who were doing the trip mainly to write about it on travelfish, were having none of that), we queued up and 3 people took our passport details in order to get the 25 baht bus across the new bridge. Getting stamped out of Thailand was quick and easy, and then we rode the bus through no-mans-land to the new border checkpoint on the Laos side. It was fairly disorganised, with groups piling off the bus, and then mobbing around a small office. There were no signs up, so it took a while to work out which way to go, but we finally got it right; queue for forms, go away and fill out the forms, queue back up to hand them in, wait for everyone’s passports to be passed around the small office with 5 people copying things out, then pay the $35 for the visa. Finally, we just had to deal the “tuk tuk mafia” outside, and haggle down from 80 baht per person to around 40.

How many people does it take to sell a bus ticket...

How many people does it take to sell a bus ticket…

Welcome to Laos

Welcome to Laos

A flat tyre as well... Come on Laos!

A flat tyre as well… Come on Laos!

Eventually though, we made it to the slow boat port in Huay Xai, and were actually among the first people there. The ticket office staff were pretty relaxed about the new border situation, and just laughed when I asked what time the boat would leave. It finally left around 2 hours later than normal, and we were off into Laos down the Mekong.

The slow boats

The slow boats

Home for two days

Home for two days

The slow boats are long, thin, cargo and passenger boats that float down the river at a relaxed speed, hence the name. Around 80 people were on ours, mostly tourists, and it was a mix of independent and group travellers. It seems like car or bus seats have been taken out of their original homes and placed in rows up the boat, and there isn’t a huge amount to do other than sit and watch the spectacular scenery pass by. Law described it as a cross between Lord of the Rings and Jurassic Park – she is awesome.

Jungles, mountains and bamboo villages dot the shore, and the six hours passed quite pleasantly. Just after dark on the first day the boat stops at a small village called Pakbeng, where touts practically jump aboard to get you into their guesthouse – we had a plan though, so while I waited for the bags Law zipped up the hill to get a nice room for a good price. The second day we woke up early and headed off around 9 down the river, and it was more of the same. Amazing countryside, and a good opportunity to read a lot.

Orcs patrol the eastern shore

Orcs patrol the eastern shore

Snug

Snug

We arrived almost at Luang Prabang at about 5.30, but actually stopped about 10km up river from the town. This is a fairly recent thing, where they now drop off all the passengers and then charge an extra 20,000 kip (about £1.50) for a tuk tuk into the city. It’s clearly a scam, but there is an actual ticket office and this is just what happens now. I’d read about it online so we were a bit prepared, but a lot of people were mad and tried to stick it out on the boat until it moved. We saw one couple later who’d waited another 30 mins and still ended up getting the tuk tuk.

Luang Prabang is a very nice city. It’s another odd of mix European cafe style architecture (thanks France) and temples and pagodas. It is a bit pricier here than elsewhere in Laos, but it’s a cool place to just wander round in and the market is full of great cheap street food. Beer Lao is also very cheap, and it might be my favourite beer of Asia so far. As well as visiting the various Wats and temples, we’ve also been to Kuang Si falls, an amazing set of pools and waterfalls outside the city – the water is bright turquoise and even the rain didn’t take away from it’s beauty.

Luang Prabang, a lot of temples

Luang Prabang, a lot of temples

Tiny dumplings on a stick! Night Market

Tiny dumplings on a stick! Night Market

After a couple of days chilling in LP, we made our way to the bus station to spend the day winding around the mountains to get to Phonsavan and the famous and mysterious Plain of Jars.

Kuang Si Falls

Kuang Si Falls

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Not quite in the golden triangle

After getting back into the civilisation of Chiang Mai, we had a nice last night there meeting up with a couple of fellow ex tattoo residents, Shany and Jenny. The following day, like proper backpackers, we headed off with nothing booked and made our way to Chiang Rai, nearer the Laos border. The bus was surprisingly on time, and after 3 hours we were in the town, where we found a nice guesthouse near the centre.

If Chiang Mai was a breath of fresh air compared to Bangkok, Chiang Rai is the same again to CM. Every other building in CM is a tour office or western restaurant, and while it was nice, CR feels a lot more relaxed. We went to the night bazaar on the first night, which was a much more pleasant experience compared to the miles long packed intensity of the CM night market. We had some excellent, and cheap, street food and then watched a hilariously bad show of miming and ’dancing’.

Chiang Rai Night Bazar

Chiang Rai Night Bazar

The following day we visited the (in)famous White Temple, a bizarre building apparently designed to make Buddhism more relevant to young people. It’s still being constructed, but you walk around most of it and it is really weird – bright white, with mirrored glass mosaic’d onto all the walls. There are some pretty gaudy statues outside along a bridge, and inside the walls are painted with a mix of Buddhist and modern images, including superheroes, Star Wars and 9/11. It was a few KM outside the city, but fortunately the local bus was easy to take there – worth a visit but I’m glad we didn’t pay any money for a tour!

The White Temple, Chiang Rai

The White Temple, Chiang Rai

Predator welcomes you to The White Temple

Predator welcomes you to The White Temple

Later that day we visited the Hill Tribe Museum, which was a really interesting place and gave a lot of good insights into the people who in around the jungles and mountains.

We are planning to head into Laos tomorrow, but decided to spend a last couple of nights in the jungle before leaving Thailand. Law found us an amazing place outside CR called the Bamboo Nest, and we relaxed there with no internet, electricity or roads!

Bamboo Nest, Chiang Rai

Bamboo Nest, Chiang Rai

We trekked an hour or so to a nearby waterfall, via a small village where we finally succumbed and bought some handmade bracelets (the Museum in CR told us this was okay…). It was beautiful there, and especially nice being able to hike around on our own without a guide, and to lie in a hammock overlooking rice paddies.

A waterfall in the jungle

A waterfall in the jungle

Hammock time

Hammock time

We are currently in Chiang Khong, looking over the river at Huay Xai in Laos. Tomorrow we attempt the border crossing, and possibly could have timed things better… A bridge over the river opened today (11 Dec), and apparently this is the way we now have to cross. What used to be a simple 5 minute, 40 Baht boat ride, now seems to be a 10km trip over the bridge. We will be amongst the first tourists to cross it tomorrow, so there is no set amount for Songthaews (minibus like things), with no way of knowing whether or not we will make it to the town in order to catch the slow boat down the Mekong. Exciting times (maybe) ahead!

Our last Thai dinner, overlooking the Mekong River and Laos

Our last Thai dinner, overlooking the Mekong River and Laos

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