Saturday, 12 September 2015


Before we knew it we were in the Thai capital of Bangkok. Known as the city that never sleeps I had read and heard so many stories that I was excitedly keen to experience it for myself. Tragically only a week before we arrived there had been a bomb planted at the Erawan Temple in one of the more touristic areas, killing many people so naturally that played on my mind.
Our time in the capital was to be a short one before we went south to the islands so on our first day there I hopped on the battered, hot public bus and after what felt like a lifetime in traffic, eventually arrived at the legendary Jatujak weekend market which has over 8000 stalls covering 35 acres! Here I spent a few hours browsing the stalls selling a menagerie of wares from clothes and jewellery, fake flowers and candles to live animals!! Like the frugal backpacker I am, I only bought a fridge magnet before picking up some food and retreating to the shade in the neighbouring park to read my book and, my favourite pastime, people-watch. All in all a pleasantly relaxing day in the midst of the buzzing city of Bangkok. The next day I spent cooped up in the Indian embassy applying for my visa, and then it was time for the night bus which would mark the start of the island hopping chapter of our story. 

Luang Namtha

The last place we were to visit in Laos was Luang Namtha, a small town close to the Chinese border. We came here to break the long journey into Thailand up, and also to experience some of rural Laotian way of life.
On our first day we hired some bicycles and set off on a 25km route that would take us around the perimeter of the town. On the way we cycled through tiny villages comprised of bamboo huts found down dusty pot-holed roads, past innumerable rice terraces with tall green shoots growing under the sun, and all with the backdrop of the towering mountains surrounding the area. Along the way we also stopped off at some religious stupas, or small temples, which even in their simplicity were interesting to see. We got back to the hotel a little sunburnt and with aching muscles but happy with our adventures of the day. 
We had arranged to do a trek the following day so at 7.30am the next morning we were in a tuk-tuk en route to the starting point, a village home to the ethnic Lanten people. This is a small riverside village which we walked around and learnt about the traditional lifestyle of the native people, including their animistic beliefs which explained the farmyard style set up with pigs, cows, goats, dogs and chickens all running around, each of whom are used to appease the animal spirits that they believe in. 
From here we nipped across the river in long wooden boats to begin the walk through the Namha National Park. The first part of the climb was practically vertical and challengingly slippery after a night of constant rain. After it levelled out a little we could take in our surroundings of dense forest, mainly consisting of clusters of huge bamboo trees. In the rain, many had fallen across our path so we really had to be on guard watching our footing. During the walk we learnt about certain plants and their uses, how to set traps and ate some weird and wonderful things including red ants which are actually quite nice and sweet - providing you bite them before they bite you! After a few hours we stopped for a typical Laos lunch of sticky rice and noodle dishes. All this was served on leaves on the forest floor which we sat around shovelling the food into our mouths with dirty fingers, being bitten constantly by mosquitos and sharing our plates with ants intent on stealing the food. At first I was a little hesitant as the set up was so far removed from what we're used to at home but the food was tasty and enjoyable (if you try not to think about health and hygiene!). 
We continued to walk for a few more hours before coming to a farm with rice terraces and corn crops. The water for the rice is siphoned off from the river and flows through the cultivated tiered terraces keeping the crop under an inch or so of water at all times. From here we went back across the river in the dubious looking wooden boats and we're back on the way to Luang Namtha, desperately in need of a shower but happy with our day of exploring and learning. The town of Luang Namtha doesn't have much to offer but the surrounding areas are definitely worth a visit if you want to get off the well-travelled tourist trail for a while. 

Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang is the jewel in Laos' crown. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is a cultural haven with the copious amounts of temples and religious monuments. It is also a gateway town, being positioned on the mighty Mekong river with many boats making the daily trip into Thailand. 

On our first full day, along with some new friends we hollered a tuk-tuk to take us to the famous Kuang Si waterfalls. When we arrived we were greeted with a bear sanctuary; I didn't know it was here but it was a nice surprise to see the hulking creatures lolling in the midday heat. They are all rescue bears taken from a life of cruelty within the bile extraction industry. The bear's bile is sought after in China as, wrongly, it is believed to have medicinal purposes. From the sanctuary we went to the waterfall which has many swimming pools due to its tiered formation. The cascade itself is actually around 60m high so after we had jumping into the chilly water and climbing the rocks we took the hike to the top. Im not exaggerating by using the word hike; some parts were almost vertical and very slippery from the spray of water. The views from the top were shrouded by the surrounding trees and it was eerily silent to say only 10 metres away the water would cascade hundreds of feet below us! The whole area was exceptionally popular and it seemed that families used this area for a day out, bringing their picnics along and enjoying the natural beauty. 

The next morning I was up at 5.30am to watch some 200 monks on their morning alms giving ceremony, which dates back to the 14th century. This is where they walk the streets collecting food for breakfast, their only meal of the day. This is not charity though - this ceremony is highly revered for locals and only recently have tourists been allowed to become respectfully involved. It was a peaceful start to the day and a wonderful opportunity to experience ancient Laos tradition. Later that day I enjoyed a relaxed afternoon perusing the many stalls in the popular central market. One stall poignantly had jewellery made from old ordnance, sold by amputee war veterans. Luang Prabang is a yoga haven and so at sunset I went to take part in a class by the riverside, giving it a very special feel. I hadn't thought much about the details of the class but it turns out that even at sunset, it's very warm to be doing yoga! 90 minutes later, we were oh so sweaty but incredibly relaxed and satisfactorily stretched out. Im always pleasantly surprised when I enjoy a place more than I thought I would and Luang Prabang ticked all the right boxes for me. 

Vientiane and Vang Vieng

24 hours after leaving Hanoi we arrived in Vientiane, the capital of Laos. The term 'capital' really only refers to its administrative powers as the city has a small town feel to it without the madness of other capitals we have visited making it an attractive place to stay. 
There are a several attractions to see including Patuxai, the 'Arc de Triomphe' of Laos, and the important Buddhist stupa of Pha That Luang. To wander around the city taking in these sights is a nice way to spend the day before getting a bite to eat and heading to the Mekong River to watch the watery world float by. 

The following day we were en route to Vang Vieng via a scenic route where shallow, crop and forest covered mountains roll as far as the eye can see, lending to a patchwork vista. Vang Vieng is a controversial tourist destination and is coined as the world's most unlikely party town. In the last ten years, floating down the Nam Song river in tractor inner-tyres has become a popular pastime that recently took a dark twist as the scene exploded and alcohol and drugs were thrown into the mix. In 2011, 27 tourists died from drowning or diving head first into rocks, completely justifying my apprehension. The river is quite fast-flowing so kitted out in life jackets we hopped in the tubes and set off and were pulled ashore to visit the first bar which surpassed all expectations, minus the signs advertising 'happy pizza,' made with marijuana or magic mushrooms. We lounged on sun beds with a cheap beer in hand listening to music in the sunshine whilst other visitors played table football or basketball. Apparently later in the day it can get quite rowdy but following the tragedies that have occurred here, the tone has been considerably lowered and some bars closed down. 

We visited a few more bars then meandered down the river for the rest of the journey, with limestone rocks towering in the background, offering shade to the village kids playing in the water. Apart from their squeals of delight and the calls of wildlife, there is a serenity to the silence of the river. We arrived back at the tubing office, de-robed and headed back to the hostel totally shocked at just how fun an afternoon this infamous activity had provided. It's clear to see how it can get out of hand very fast, being unregulated as it is but if you go with even an ounce of common sense then it's nothing but a bit of fun in the sun. 


The last place we would visit in Vietnam was the energetic capital of Hanoi. We stayed in the Old Quarter which is absolutely alive with all manner of comings and goings. It's actually quite daunting trying to manoeuvre through such a chaotic place and I was quite certain we'd atleast get our toes squashed by one of the many motorbikes carelessly whizzing around! In line with a running theme, all the buildings and museums we wanted to visit were closed on the Monday we were there but we went out to explore and experience the city anyway. Chaotic as it first seemed, upon further inspection there seems to be an orderliness to life in Hanoi that just works. 
The next day we were on the way to Halong Bay, the main reason for our stop in Hanoi. Halong Bay, translating to "where the dragon descends into the sea" is a collection of over 2000 mystical limestone islets that rise immediately out of the glittering emerald water, plunging incredible heights back down sheer faces into the depths of the bay. After setting off we cruised to Dau Go cave which is the biggest grotto in Halong Bay, full with stalactites and stalagmites all with their own story and legend according to the local people and their history. It was packed full of tour groups but even so, the strength in the beauty of the rock formations shone through and it was very impressive. Back on the boat we had lunch and set sail through the archipelago of islands towering majestically around us. 

A few hours later and we were at our resting place for the night. As the golden sun was setting over the wall of limestone cliffs we were gently paddling through the calm water in kayaks and I really had a "I can't believe I'm here" moment; it was a very special way to end a great day. The next morning our tour guide took us to a pearl farm which makes the sustainable Akoya cultured pearl. 

We saw the process from start to finish, even witnessing the insemination of oysters with small artificially made pearls, which the oyster then coats with a natural pearl covering. This was done by hand and one worker can get through 100 oysters per day - I was starting to understand just why pearls are so expensive! We saw the beautiful final product in a shop floating next to the buoys bobbing in the water signifying the cultivated oysters below the water, topping off an very interesting and educational morning. Before lunch, en route back to the port, we made Vietnamese pork spring rolls with vermicelli noodles, contributing to the buffet we later tucked into. I can confirm the spring rolls were delicious! Our Halong Bay cruise was visually stimulating, interesting, relaxing and refreshing; a really good way to end our Vietnamese adventure!