A Travellerspoint blog

Halong Bay

Karsts, Caves and Kayaking

overcast 12 °C
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We began our 3 day Halong Bay trip with a tight squeeze into a packed minivan for the 3 hour journey from Hanoi. The very chatty and friendly tour guide helped the journey go quickly though and we found out a few interesting facts about Vietnam. Apparently Hanoi has a population of 6million people and 3million motorbikes!

We thought it had been cold in Hanoi but it was far chillier when we arrived in Halong City. The locals had cottoned on to this unfortunate predicament and, ever the opportunists, had set up stalls everywhere selling warm clothes! (Dani bagged a rather fetching wooly hat!) We took a small boat out into the bay to board our larger boat, or 'junk', to take us on our cruise. The scenery around the bay is really beautiful. There are over 2000 limestone islands towering out of the sea, and we weaved between them on our way to our first stop, Surprising Cave.

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True to its name it was surprisingly large, with three enormous caverns, lit rather dramatically in various coloured lights. Our guide tried to convince us that lots of the rock formations looked like various animals ("look, a monkey!") but most of them were tenuous at best!

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After visting the cave we headed to a small floating fishing village where we got a kayak to explore the bay ourselves. Being down at water level made the karsts look even more impressive and we paddled around for about an hour exploring the different formations. Then it was back on the big boat for a not so tasty buffet style Vietnamese dinner and a chance to have a go at night-time squid fishing off the back of the boat. They shine a big light into the water to "attract" the squid which were supposedly very easy to catch, but after about 45 minutes no-one had had even a little nibble so everyone (apart from us!) called it a day. Another hour later and the best we'd managed was to excitedly hoist a juicy squid out of the water only for it to wriggle off the hook! We were pretty disappointed but to be fair I'm not sure we would have known what to do with a squid had we caught one!

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The next day we had breakfast on the boat before cruising to Cat Ba Island, the largest island in Halong Bay. First we were taken to the National Park for a very muddy and slippery climb (literally) to the top of a mountain. Unfortunately due to the weather you couldn't see very much, but our guide told us that on clear days you can see Hawaii (he didn't seem to be joking but it doesn't seem possible). After we'd washed off all the mud we were taken to our hotel, which we'd expected to be awful since it was included in the package tour. It actually turned out to be pretty nice with a TV, bath and even a minibar!

In the afternoon we got on another boat that took us to 'Monkey Island'.

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On the way we passed a fishing village, that was more town-sized, which was all floating on the water. It was amazing to think that people can actually live in tiny wooden huts floating in the middle of the sea. When we got off of the boat all the monkeys cam running down the beach looking for possible food sources. A Korean lady got out a bag of nuts and one of them jumped onto her to get them, which looked pretty scary. I was holding an empty 7up can which you wouldn't expect a monkey to be interested in, but they were. It creeped up behind me eyeing it up and (not wanting an close encounter like the Korean lady) I was more than happy to hand it over! The clever little monkey caught it and actually tipped it up to drink like a human would. It was such a funny sight!

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The third day was mainly spent getting back to Hanoi, but the trip was really good (even though it was rather touristy). Halong bay was beautiful despite the weather, unfortunately the photos don't really do it justice. It would have been 100 times better if it were sunny though!

We arrived back in Hanoi for one last night before catching the bus to China in the morning. Only problem was that the bus tickets we'd booked at our hostel 5 days ago hadn't arrived. They told us that the reason they hadn't got them was because there was a 'special promotion' that was only available if we bought the tickets at the station in the morning. What this actually meant was that they'd forgotten to buy them for us and the "special promotion" was just the normal price without the hostel's commission. We were seriously concerned this might mean we wouldn't be able to get a ticket but the receptionist assured us there would be plenty available at the station in the morning. Fingers crossed...

Posted by alexdani 02:21 Archived in Vietnam Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Hanoi

Ho Chi Minh, Haircuts and Happy New Year (again!)

semi-overcast 14 °C
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Its been a while since we were in Hanoi, but we've been rushing around in China trying to fit as much in a possible!

After a short flight from Cambodia we arrived in Vietnam's capital, Hanoi. The first thing we noticed was the traffic! We thought Phnom Penh was bad but Hanoi was in a league of its own. To get to the other side of the road you had to just make a run for it and hope that the thousands of motorbikes would either slow down or swerve around you! The second thing we noticed was the weather. It was seriously cold! In Cambodia we had been used to a toasty 32 degrees but when we got to Hanoi we had a bit of a shock - it was 12 degrees. The shorts and t-shirt went to the bottom of the bag in favour of wooly hats and gloves!

On our first night we went to see a traditional water puppet show, which was rather strange but still fairly entertaining. The stage is a pool of water, where puppets are danced around to music by puppetiers behind a curtain. All the different scenes were meant to represent traditional stories but this all went right over our heads as the commentary was all in Vietnamese.

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We hadn't realised but we had arrived the day before Chinese New Year's Eve (called Tet in Vietnam) and the whole city was buzzing with anticipation for what is their main national holiday. We took a cyclo (a seat on wheels with a bicycle attached behind) to a market selling Tet-related things. There were red lanterns and decorations everywhere and everyone seemed to be buying big trees with little oranges growing on them, which we guessed must be a bit like our Christmas trees.

The next day we went to Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum, where his body is preserved and on display. It was really odd to think that we saw a dead body, but it seemed more like a wax-work model. There were really strict rules (enforced by soldiers) in the grounds, no talking or smiling was allowed inside.

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Outside we found an old man giving people hair cuts by the side of the road. So Alex decided it was time for a trim! Alex: I thought being old would mean that he had years of experience and would do a great job but as it turned out he was so old he could barely hold the scissors still in his shaking hand! It was a very bizzare scene against a wall next to the road and lots of other tourists stopped to take pictures of me!

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Everything was shut in the afternoon due to the holiday so we just waited for all the festivities to begin. It was all based around a lake in the centre of the city, and big stages had been set up where there were lots of rather ametuer performers. While watching one act we actually feared for the acrobat's life! Then everyone took their positions to watch the firework display at midnight. The display didn't have anything on the Sydney fireworks but it was nice to be surrounded by local people celebrating.

Posted by alexdani 04:58 Archived in Vietnam Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Siem Reap

Angkor Wat

sunny 32 °C
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We opted for the cheap public bus from Phnom Penh so shared the journey with lots of locals and very loud Cambodian TV! When we stopped for a break we were bombarded with young girls crowding around us trying to sell us bags of fruit. We laughed at the toy tarantulas they had on their shoulders until we realised that they were actually REAL! The girls found it hilarious dangling them in front of us and watching us squirm! It was a cunning ploy though, as we did end up buying some mango just so they'd put the spiders away!

We'd arranged to stay in a guesthouse in Siem Reap that was recommended by our last guesthouse in Phnom Penh and on arriving at the bus station we were greeted by a very enthusiastic man waving a sign saying "Welcome Mr Alex" who took us to his guesthouse (rather optimistically named the Angkor Hilton!) It was a decent enough room though and only cost about 3 quid a night for the both of us so we couldn't complain.

Siem Reap's main tourist area was pretty cool, with lots of bars and restaurants and a buzzing atmosphere. There were lots of places around town offering "fish massages" which is basically a pool full of small fish that nibble at your feet supposedly giving you massage that removes all the dead skin! We thought we had to give it a try, and unsurprisingly it was a very strange (and tickley!) experience!

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We spent the next three days exploring the enormous complex of temples of Angkor. We had a tuk-tuk driver (Mr. Chang) who drove us around all day stopping at all the different temples and although we were knackered by the end of the last day it was a really unforgettable experience. Most of the temples are nearly 1000 years old but vary quite dramatically in condition. One of the temples, Ta Phrom, was in the middle of the forest and had trees growing all over it.

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Apparently they used this temple for the Tomb Raider films and you could definitely see why. It looked awesome.

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Some of the other temples were in amazing condition considering how old they were. The carvings in the walls were still unbelievably clear and detailed.

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We started to get the feeling that once you've seen a few temples you've seen them all but each one had something different and interesting about it. We started with the lesser visisted temples, which were a lot more peaceful, before working up to the bigger (and much busier) temples on our last day.

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On our first two afternoons we climbed 2 of the temples to watch the sunset from the top which was really beautiful. Then on our last morning we left our hotel at 5am to get to the most famous (and impressive) temple, Angkor Wat, for sunrise. It was very spooky walking over the moat and down towards the huge temple in the dark.

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We found a spot with a great view and waited as the sky slowly grew lighter behind the temple before the sun burst out from behind one of the towers. Definitely worth the early rise, it was stunning. We spent the rest of the morning looking round Angkor Wat, which is the largest religious building in the world.

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There were lots of religious stories carved in enormous reliefs along the outside walls and steep stone staircases that led up to the various towers. It was a seriously impressive place.

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The last temple we visited, Bayon, had huge stone "face towers" with faces carved on each of the four sides and made for some pretty cool photo opportunities!

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On our last day before catching our flight to Hanoi we visited an area of workshops where they do traditional stone and wood carvings and silk painting. We got given a tour of the different workshops and were shown how the different things are made.

It's amazing how much effort goes into the products that we've seen so often at the markets. Some of the wood carvings can take weeks to produce. At the end we went to the gift shop and wanted to buy eveything! Shame about the lack of space in the rucksack :(

Posted by alexdani 00:44 Archived in Cambodia Tagged backpacking Comments (2)

Phnom Penh

Monkeys, Tarantulas and The Killing Fields

sunny 34 °C
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After a really short flight from Vientiane we arrived in Phnom Penh (the capital of Cambodia). Our first impression was that it is much busier than Laos, and there were a lot more people begging and children selling things on the street. We spent the afternoon sitting in a bar watching everything go by, including an elephant and hundreds of motorbikes with whole families of people piled on the back!

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On our second day we went to see the Royal Palace, where the Cambodian King lives. It was impressive but rather similar to the other palaces and temples that we've seen in the past few weeks. There was, however, a resident family of monkeys that climbed all over the roof tops! The female one had a tiny little baby that clung to her stomach, so cute!

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We also had a look around the National Museum but it was really too hot to do anything so we made our way to the nearest bar. In the evening we went to a restaurant called 'Friends', which was set up by the same organisation as the one we went to in Vientiane, helping young Cambodians off the street and into a job. They also had a beauty salon next door, where students are taught beauty treatments rather than cooking. I had a nice manicure for $2 while Alex had a foot massage, and we came out feeling rather pampered!

The next day we visited the Killing Fields where around 17,000 Cambodians were murdered by the Khmer Rouge. We knew it wasn't going to be an enjoyable trip but wanted to go to get a better understanding of the history of Cambodia. It was just awful. There was a big monument in the middle where they placed the skulls and bones of the victims on show as a memorial. As we were guided around the field we were shown the shallow holes used as mass graves and even a tree, against which soldiers would swing babies by their legs to kill them in front of their mothers. As you walked around you could see pieces of bone and clothes emerging from the path as the dirt is washed away, the guide said that it is cleared every 3 months and still more keeps coming to the surface. We were absolutely horrified and completely speechless, unable to comprehend how people can be so evil. I think it has to be the worst thing I have ever seen in my life. Afterwards we went to look around 'Tuol Sleng' the prison used to torture victims before they were taken to the Killing Fields. This too was horrendous.

To take our minds off the horrible things we'd seen we went for dinner. We chose a restaurant that was owned by a previous student at 'Friends', who allowed the current students to practice their skills. It was in a really beautiful building and had a swimming pool. As we had arrived quite early no-one else was around and because it was so hot Alex decided to have a swim in his pants!

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Once he was done splashing around we ordered our food, which included some deep fried tarantulas!

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The waiter told us that they killed the spiders by piercing their hearts and then removed the poison before cooking. I only managed a leg which was rather crunchy but Alex ate a whole one, body and all! Urgh!

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Posted by alexdani 00:40 Archived in Cambodia Tagged backpacking Comments (2)

Vientiane

French food, Buddhas and more temples

sunny 36 °C
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We are still unsure quite how we made it to Vientiane! We'd booked a bus ticket the night before and arranged to be picked up and taken to the bus station in the morning. We waited at the planned spot until a minivan came along, which was 15 mins later than the arranged time. We walked up to the van and just as we'd reached it, it drove off! Quite confused by this, and unsure whether it was our lift or not, we decided to get a tuk-tuk to the bus station as we only had 15 mins until the bus was due to leave. As usual we didn't have much luck with the tuk-tuk choice as it was struggling to move along at a speed not much faster than you could walk! Eventually we made it to the bus station, but there were no buses (let alone our one) in sight. There was some conversation in Lao between the driver and the bus station man from which we gathered that we will not be getting the bus from here afterall. Off we struggled again, the driver seemed to find the fact that his vehicle was barely moving absolutely hilarious. We didn't see the funny side as we were now about to miss our bus. We ended up stopping in a deserted car park behind a guesthouse and after a while told that if we walk through the guesthouse, the bus will pick us up on the other side. We were rather skeptical but didn't really have much choice. A few minutes later, however, it did arrive and we climbed on rather relieved and amazed to be there! The bus itself was ridiculous! It was advertised as a 'VIP' bus, but must have been made in the 60's and had tasseled curtains and plastic chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. We mustn't complain though as we heard from our friends that the local bus that they were on was so busy that 3 people were squeezed into each pair of seats!

The actual journey was pretty comfortable and 4 hours later we'd arrived in an extremely hot Vientiane. We wandered around for ages trying to find a guesthouse that wasn't either full or disgusting. Once we'd found somewhere we headed out in search of a French restaurant as we'd heard that the French food here is excellent. Having found one, we ordered 'Steak au poivre' which was AMAZING!

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The next day we decided to visit 'Buddha Park' which is a big collection of Buddhist and Hindu statues in a field that was constructed by an eccentric man in the 50's. We didn't have very high expectations, but it turned out to be pretty good.

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On the way back to Vientiane we stopped off at Wat That Luang which is a huge gold temple and a national symbol of Laos. Its bright gold colour looked stunning against the blue sky, definitely an impressive sight.

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Before heading back to our guesthouse we tried to find the head office of 'Laos Mountain Coffee', which we only had very vague directions for. Apparently you could have tours and learn how the coffee is made (because of its climate Laos is famed for it speciality coffee), so off we went down this side street. Just as we were about to turn back we spotted it, and as we walked down the drive the smell of coffee got stronger and stronger. The place seemed deserted except for some rather friendly dogs until an American man appeared, rather surprised to see us. He then gave us a tour of the place and explained how the coffee is made, which was really interesting if a little odd!

On our second day we decided to hire some bikes to ride around the city. The first stop was a French bakery for some breakfast, then we rode out to 'Patuxai' which is supposed to be the Asian version of L'Arc de Triomphe. It isn't quite as grand but does look down a long straight road comparable to the Champs Elysees. Apparently it was built out of concrete donated by the USA to build a new airport!

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Once we'd climbed to the top and down again we headed off to the market but it was just too hot (36 degrees!) and all we wanted to do was sit in a nice air conditioned cafe! In the evening we rode down to a river front bar to watch the sun set, then went to a restaurant where they train youngsters, who were previously 'street children', to give them skills in cooking and restaurant management. All the profits go back into the organisation which is really good, and the food wasn't half bad either, bonus!!

Were now in Cambodia after an extremely short flight, and will update on Phnom Penh as soon as possible!!

P.S sorry for the lack of photos but the USB ports on these computers appear not to work!!

P.P.S Missing everyone very much and thanks you for all the comments! :) xxxx

Posted by alexdani 05:36 Archived in Laos Tagged backpacking Comments (1)

Vang Vieng

Tubing, Caving and more Tubing

sunny 33 °C
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The 5 hour minibus journey from Luang Prabang took a mere 4 1/2 hours due to the drivers lunatic tendancies, taking us round blind cliff edge corners at breakneck speeds. The road across the mountains was so windy that all overtaking of tractors/trucks etc had to be done round corners! It was terrifying! As we were driving through the small villages there were children playing in the road and the occassional cow crossing but this didnt seem to bother our horn happy driver as we went hurtling past. There was also a young boy sitting behind Alex who was throwing up the whole journey, nice! I think everyone on the minibus made a mental note never to take another minibus in Laos! We'll definitely be going for a public bus for the next leg of our trip! Apart from the terror, the journey was amazingly scenic, we drove up the lush green mountains through the clouds until we broke through them to see an fluffy white carpet below. The limestone karsts that came into view as we arrived in Vang Vieng looked almost unreal against the clear blue sky.

We found a resort of basic but clean bungalows across the river from all the other tourist places. We had our own wooden bungalow on stilts in the middle of a lush garden full of a whole world of wildlife including thousands of butterflies and some very noisy cockerells (who made sure we never got a whiff of a lay in!). The resort was owned by a local family and we had dinner in their riverside restaurant (if you can call a wall-free wooden shack a restaurant!). After serving our dinner the owner mysteriously stripped off into just a towel, and after exchanging a few very confused looks we realised he was off down to the river for his evening wash before coming back to give us the bill! Can't say that's ever happened to us at home!

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The next morning we headed into the town to rent our tubes (big inflatable tractor inner tubes) to go 'tubing' down the scenic Nam Song river. The idea is to be driven 4km upstream then float back down the river, stopping off at bars along the way where they reel you in by throwing a bottle of water attached to a rope. This seemed like a great idea until we realised that 'tubing' has become so popular over recent years that more and more bars have opened making the actual tubing part fairly pointless (as you could pretty much step over the fence into the next bar instead of getting back in the river to float to it!). Nevertheless, we had an amazing day relaxing in the sunshine and having a go on the rope swings into the river that each bar had.

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The current wasn't as strong as we'd been expecting though, so any hope of making it back to base in time seemed slim. We remained optimistic, but as it started getting dark we had to give up and hop aboard a speed boat which took us back to the town. In the evening we bumped into some friends we'd met earlier on in our trip who were tubing the next day and decided that maybe one more day of tubing might just fit into our itinerary!

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On our last day in Vang Vieng we hired a tuk-tuk for the day to take us to a local organic farm for lunch and then some caves in the afternoon. The farm restaurant was really cool. We had a delicious mulberry fruit shake and a yummy yellow curry packed full of fresh vegetables (just what we needed after the last couple of days of beer lao and cocktails!) In the afternoon we headed out to some famous caves about 15km out of town. There was hardly anyone else around but we found a young local guide to show us around, as we'd heard they were too tricky to explore alone. He gave us both a head torch and we were off to find the first cave.

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It was a pretty scary experience, as the cave was pretty much untouched (no stairs, hand rails or LIGHTS!) so a lot of precarious climbing and ducking as we explored deeper and deeper into the cave in search of a small lake buried inside! After 45 minutes of walking we finally made it to the pool where I (Alex) ventured in for a dip!

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The water was black and my imagination ran wild as to what may be swimming around with me so after a quick splash around we made a hasty exit back out of the cave! The second cave we explored wasn't as deep but not as open so it was a lot trickier squeezing through the stalagmites! On the way back to the village our guide knocked down a mystery yellow fruit from a tree which was sort of like a sweet grapefruit and really delicious.

In the evening we caught a sunset behind the mountains from a bar by the river and saw some tubers actually making it back to the start! No idea how they did it, we didnt even get close!

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Off to the capital, Vientiene tomorrow....not by minibus.

Posted by alexdani 05:29 Archived in Laos Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Luang Prabang

Elephants, Waterfalls and Jungle Trekking

sunny 30 °C
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We made it into Laos! The 2 day boat journey wasn't as terrible as we'd expected after all. Think all the horror stories gave us such low expectations we were actually pleasantly surprised. It was a bit of a slow confusing process crossing the border and we had to part with our passports a few too many times for our liking but in the end we somehow managed to get on the slowboat. Although there were only wooden benches to sit on for the 14 hour trip we bought some rather fetching pillows on the border to make things a little more comfortable. The boat was really packed though and quite a few people had to settle for the floor or at the back near the engine! The scenery of enormous limestone mountains and white sandy banks along the Mekong was breathtaking, and really helped the long journey fly by. We stopped off at the village of Pak Beng for the night after the first day where we had our first taste of Laos cuisine and tried the 'world famous' Beer Laos. Both pretty tasty but Thailand still wins it for both food and beer! The next day we arrived into Luang Prabang in the early evening and began the search for a decent guesthouse. All the nice ones were super expensive or fully booked and in the end we got fed up of lugging our rucksacks around and settled for a simple but clean room near the center of town. Luang Prabang is a beautiful city set around two rivers. Its small enough to walk anywhere easily but big enough to have lots of great places to eat and drink in the evening. We could tell we may be staying here longer than planned!

On our first day we'd planned to do a walking tour of the main temples that we'd found in our guidebook, but we ended up taking a detour to a local handicraft village and this was were we ended up spending most of the day! After spotting a tiny handmade sign pointing through some bushes we arrived at a very rickety Indiana Jones style bamboo bridge crossing the river to a local village where they produced all their own silk and paper products. We watched the women weaving on the massive and complicated looking looms and watched how they make paper from the pulp of the local mulberry trees. In the evening we went to a restaurant where they transform your table into a barbeque which you make soup in the bottom of and cook thin strips of meat on the top. It was probably the most fun meal we've had and definitely the most dangerous! The waiters had to keep throwing ice in the bucket of hot coals to stop the fire getting out of hand!

The following day we organised a trip to a local elephant sanctuary to see some Asian Elephants! The sanctuary provides a home for ex-logging elephants that would otherwise die being left in the wild. Unlike some of the elephant camps in Thailand and Laos the elephants are well looked after and only have to work for around 4 hours a day before being bathed and taken back into the jungle. Apparently logging is becoming less tollerated in Laos which means many elephants are left out on their own in the wild as they are too expensive to feed. It was sad to see some of the injuries caused to the elephants by their keepers in their logging days, many had chunks missing out of their ears or were blind. It was good to know that our money was being used to look after them and feed them lots of bananas! When we arrived we were straight up on the elephants neck trying (very unsuccessfully) to direct it around mahout (elephant keeper) style.

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On command the elephant would lift and bend its leg giving you a step up onto it's back! It was seriously high but surprisingly stable. After this short lesson we went for a 1 hour ride around the camp on the 'howdah' or elephant seat. We didn't like this so much as it looked pretty heavy and thinking about it we should have opted to just stay at the camp and watch the elephants. After our ride we fed the elephants with bunches of bananas, which they ate skins and all! They took the banana right out of your hand and you could feel the amazing strength of its trunk.

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Finally we rode the elephants sitting on their necks down to the river to wash them. Unlike the other elephants in the group, who just jumped straight in, our ones didn't fancy getting wet and wouldn't put their heads in the water so it was quite difficult to give them a scrub! At the end of the day we waved goodbye to our elephants as they were taken back to rest for the night in the jungle.

We started the next day with a visit to the former Royal Palace, where the Laos royal family lived before they were exiled in 1975 by the new communist government. In the afternoon we took a trip to Kuang Si waterfall, which was a beautiful blue-green colour and cascaded into a series of pools that you could swim in.

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The bottom of the falls was pretty full of tourists so we climbed up to a much more secluded pool near the top. We had it all to ourselves, which may well have had something to do with the precarious and slippery climb to reach it (we watched some Monks climb to check it out first and decided that it was therefore ok to follow!). Near to the waterfall there was a sanctuary for black asiatic bears that had been rescued from Chinese poachers, who use their gall bladders for traditional medicines. They were really cute for such dangerous animals and we watched them foraging for the food that the keepers had hidden.

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On day 4 we decided to hire some bikes to see more of the town. We visited a few temples before stopping for lunch at a traditional Lao restaurant to sample some of the local specialties such as dried river weed, yum!

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In the afternoon we rode to the Laos red cross where they offer traditional Lao massage and herbal sauna with the proceeds going towards the charity. I (Dani) didn't really fancy a massage so sat in the grounds of a temple opposite and ended up speaking to one of the monks. I was pretty glad I opted out when Alex emerged an hour later aching more than when he went in. It turns out the Lao massage was more vigorous than expected!

The day after we'd booked a trek through the jungle to the Pak Ou Caves, visiting some local villages on route. We started of in a small village where all the children came running out to meet us. They are all so unbelievably cute, if rather dirty from playing by the river all day.

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The 'short' trek through the jungle turned out to be pretty tiring, especially in the midday heat. It was interesting though, as the guide stopped to show us the plants they use for different herbal medicines including one he said cured his father of malaria. The route through the jungle was far from clear and at times we had to wait while the guide found the way! We emerged some hours later in another village where we ate lunch in one of the local's houses. The guide explained to us the different rituals and culture of some of the minority groups (such as Hmong) in Laos, and told us that in the village that we were in we had to leave a small piece of food on the table as an offering to the spirits. He also told us a story of when he was 8 years old and witnessed two of his friends get killed by a landmine (in much more graphic detail), of which there are still many left in Eastern Laos. Absolutely horrendous.

After lunch we kayaked across the river to the caves that were full of hundreds of Buddha statues, which didn't live up to the hype of the guidebook but still interesting to see.

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To get back to the minivan we had to kayak for an hour down the river, which was extremely hard work due to the whirlpools that kept spinning us round! It was a bit of a shame because the scenery was stunning but all we could concentrate on was paddling in a straight line and getting home before dark.

On our final day in Luang Prabang we had planned on doing another trek to see some remote villages, only accessible by a 6 hour trek. After yesterday's exertions though, we decided to give it a miss and do all the remaining things in town that we hadn't had time for. In the morning we went to volunteer at a local center which provided books and teaching for Laos children. Books are fairly scarce in Laos so the center aims to gives as many children as possible a chance to read. We volunteered to spend a couple of hours practicing English with some students, which was a really good experience for us. They were so pleased to speak with us and we were sad when they asked if we would be there tomorrow as this was our last day. For lunch we found a French cafe (Laos still has some of its pre-communist French influence) where we had one of the tastiest meals yet and enjoyed a nice change from all the Asian chillies and rice! In the afternoon we climbed Mount Phousi to see the sunset but it turned out all the tourists in Luang Prabang had the same idea and people were practically climbing over each other to get a good shot!

Phew, that really was a bit of a mammoth post! We had such a busy time in Luang Prabang and wanted to tell you all about as much of it as possible! We're getting a minibus across the mountains to Vang Vieng tomorrow morning which we've heard lots of good things about so very excited.

Posted by alexdani 05:08 Archived in Laos Tagged backpacking Comments (4)

Chiang Mai

Cooking, Tarzan-ing and White Water Rafting (for Grannies)

sunny 28 °C
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We arrived at a mystery location in Chiang Mai on our "VIP" night bus at 5.30am. Having absolutely no idea where we were we jumped in a tuk-tuk and headed for our hostel. Unfortunately though the tuk-tuk driver turned out to be almost as lost as we were and so we spent quite a while roaming the streets as the sun came up looking for our hostel. It did mean that we saw all the local monks collecting their alms from the local food stalls though which was interesting to see (the monks get all their food at dawn each morning free from the various villagers).

Eventually we found our hostel and it turned out to be our favourite one yet. For only 4 pounds each a night we got a huge spotlessly clean room with a lovely shared bathroom. The staff were also the friendliest yet, helping us choose all our activities for a reduced rate (and tirelessly putting up with our hopeless indecisiveness!). Having only just arrived in Chiang Mai we signed up for a full day cooking course. There were only 4 of us in the class (which was based in an outdoor kitchen of the teachers house) and we cooked 6 dishes each. It was amazing, definitely one of the most enjoyable things we've done in Thailand. The teacher spoke great English and made everything really easy to prepare and taste delicious! As part of the class we took a trip to the local market where we found out what all the unusual thai foods were, including a black egg fermented for 100 days in horse wee (yum!). At the end of the course we each got given a recipe book so we'll have to try out a few dishes for you when we get home (though finding most of the ingredients may be a bit tricky). We've both become big fans of thai cuisine even if it is all a bit heavy on the chilli!

On our second day we went out into the jungle to do a treetop ziplining circuit through the trees. After heading deep into the rainforest on a very bumpy dirt road we suited up into our harnesses and were soon whizzing through the trees. The guides were really entertaining, joking around about the 'safety' of the equipment and the previous 'incidents'! The longest zipline was 300m long and the highest 120m off the ground. Typically it was the highest one that I (Alex) didnt have the momentum to make it to the other side on and rolled helplessly back into the middle! Luckilly one of the guides came zipping down behind me to push me back to safety! To get between some of the platforms we also had to do a bit of abseilling which Dani was not too excited about, especially after the guides decided to send her down the first one backwards at speed, laughing away!

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We'd planned to do a hike out in the jungle to see some hill tribes on our third day, but almost every trip involved elephant trekking and we've heard a lot of bad things about the way most tourist companies treat the elephants so we didnt want to give them our money. We also found out that a lot of the hill tribe villages have been moved near the road for tourist access and are basically like theme parks for hoards of tourists to pour through every day. Not exactly the sort of thing we were looking for. So in the end we decided to go for white water rafting along a river in the nearby jungle. The journey there was an adventure in itself. 5 of us rattling around in a battered old 4x4 with 300,000 miles on the (broken!) clock! The dirt road out into the jungle had so many potholes it was a miracle we didnt bounce up out of the roof! When we did make it to the start point on the river we had an amusing practice session in the boat, on dry land inside the hut and, whilst unable to confirm this, were pretty sure a praying mantis started climbing into our boat before the guide flicked it away! This was about as scary as the day got though as due to it being the dry season in Thailand the river was far from wild. It was incredibly rocky though and shallow in parts so we did have a few hairy moments around some fast rapids but the majority of the ride was casual cruising down the extremely picturesque river. We saw it as more of an introduction to white water rafting and it definitely gave us a taste for another go in the rainy season.

In Chiang Mai we also went to lots of temples, including one buried deep in the forest with underground tunnels, which was cool. But our lasting memory of Chiang Mai will undoubtedly be our visit to 'Wat Suan Dok' where we spent nearly 2 hours having a chat with the resident monks. It was so interesting finding out about Buddhism and the life of a monk in Thailand. They were so happy to talk to us and practice their English and it was great for us to do something that was really genuine and not at all touristy.

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On the non-touristy trail we also somehow managed to attend a famous monk's funeral at another local temple! The first day that we went to it there was a huge precession of monks walking round the temple banging drums and chanting, carrying the older monks aloft on massive cushions! Next to the temple they'd built an enormous shrine (which apparently cost about 3,000,000 baht to build) that was the body of a bird with an elephants head.

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The next day when we went back there were hundreds of people all paying their respects and there were lots of free food and drink stalls to celebrate! Finally in the evening of the day after another big crowd gathered to watch the shrine be burned - a seriously impressive (and rather dangerous looking) sight!

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We heard various rumours that the king was attending the funeral but despite our efforts we didnt manage to spot the old chap!

Chiang Mai has been yet another great stop on our trip. We've learned lots about the Buddhism culture in Thailand as well as discovering that Thai food is seriously tasty (especially the sticky rice and mango which has become our favourite). We've booked a package trip to Laos today which includes a bus ride to the border, a nights stay at a guesthouse and then the 2 DAY slow boat trip down the Mekong river into Laos. Could be our most gruelling journey yet!

Posted by alexdani 06:01 Archived in Thailand Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Bangkok

Temples, Tuk-Tuks and Thai Boxing

sunny 33 °C
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We arrived back in Bangkok from Koh Chang early evening and faced our first challenge of finding our hostel. The taxi driver had no idea, and the map we had was useless, but after asking a few friendly locals (who seemed very excited to help!) we realised it was hidden down a network of alleyways not accessable by car, great! We found some signposts directing us through the alleys and over a few scary looking dogs and eventually found a lit up doorway - all very mysterious. As it turned out we'd discovered a really cool little place on the river with a stunning view of the lit up Rama VIII bridge. It was run by an arty young thai man who had furnished the rooms with various bits of abstract art.

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The next morning we discovered a much quicker way out to the main road and headed to the Grand Palace to get our fill of temples for the day. On the way we were accosted by a couple of Tuk-Tuk (thai three wheeled motorbike taxi thing) drivers who tried to convince us that the Grand Palace was closed for a special holiday and that they would take us somewhere much better. Luckily we'd heard lots about these sorts of scam and so even though they did sound pretty convincing we decided to move on! The Grand Palace was enormous, with loads of huge temples and statues covered in multi-coloured tiles that shone in the sun. It was really quite an impressive site, like nothing you'd see in Western countries. We didn't have the correct clothes on to enter (you have to have something that goes doen to your ankle and we were wearing shorts) so they had things to borrow. Alex got some rather amusing mega baggy trousers and I got a nice thai style long skirt. The extra layer of clothing made us even hotter and it wasn't long before we had to give up our temple browsing and find some shade.

We spent the afternoon relaxing in the park by a lake. We watched all the Thai people go for their afternoon jogging session, it seems they are all pretty keen on exercise even in this heat. We thought for a second that we saw a crocodile swimming in the lake, but as it turned out it was an almost as scary enormous monitor lizard! We really have seen some odd wildlife on our trip.

For the evening we had booked some ring-side seats for the Muay Thai boxing match. The tickets were pretty pricy (especially in Thai terms) but Muay Thai is the national sport in Thailand with around 60,000 boxers. The stadium in Bangkok is reputedly the best in the country where the best boxers usually fight. We saw 8 fights in total, with the headline bout being saved until the end. It was an amazing atmosphere in the stadium, with an extremely passionate thai crowd all chanting and furiously betting! We were right next to the blue corner of the ring where the boxers trainer and supporters were and it was almost as entertaining watching them as it was the fight! Its a pretty brutal sport, where almost anything goes, and we saw one fairly grizzly knock out where the boxer was whisked off on a stretcher looking in a bit of a state. Apart from that though the bouts were well matched and competitive and really exciting to watch. They have some people playing thai music (drums and pipes) during each round that seemed to get faster as the fights heated up, really adding to the atmosphere. At the end we got a chance to have a picture with the winner of the headline fight, who looked absolutely knackered but still managed to strike a pose!

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After the fight we had a look round the huge night bazzaar next to the stadium which had more stalls than you could possibly imagine. There were loads of cool things to buy but such a shame we can't fit them in our rucksack!

The next day we had a frenzied morning trying to get on a bike tour of the local countryside and visit a school but the taxi we were in 1st took us to the wrong place and then got stuck in major traffic so by the time we arrived the tour had already left. We sat down in a little restaurant to have a rethink, and after our lunch the owner asked me (Alex) if I'd like a haircut! Turns out the restaurant also had a hairdressers! It was about time for a chop rather apprehensively I let her have a go! The first thing she did was whip out the clippers which wasnt a good start. I think she was just going to shave it all off, but instead I ended up with a not so bad (though suspiciously Thai looking) combover! Luckily I was able to sort it out but Dani found the whole thing all rather entertaining, especially as the thai woman hardly spoke any english at all!

In the afternoon we headed back to the temples to see the two other ones we had on our 'must see' list. Wat Pho, the oldest and largest temple in Bangkok, has the worlds largest reclining Buddha statue (46m long and 15m high) as well as the worlds largest collection (over 1,000) of Buddha statues.

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We paid a little extra to have our own tour guide who explained all the history to us as well as doing a little fortune telling based on our birth years and days. Apparently, as well as being a very 'profound' person Dani will remain beautiful as she gets old but needs to be careful not to let her love of food ruin this! It was definitely worth while getting the guide as we were able to ask him lots of questions about Buddhism and Thai culture. After Wat Pho we crossed the river to see Wat Arun, which we were able to climb up and see some great views of the city.

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In the evening we finally made it to the famous Khao San Road to see what all the fuss was about. We enjoyed looking at all the stalls and there was a great atmosphere with all the backpackers. It was a really cool place but it didn't feel anything like the rest of Thailand we've seen with all the bars and restaurants and shops being directed at the Western people. We did see a stall selling various deep fried creepy crawlies though!

We've had a fantastic time in Bangkok. It's a bit of a frenzy but that makes it all the more exciting! We're catching the night bus to Chiang Mai tonight .

Posted by alexdani 23:41 Archived in Thailand Tagged backpacking Comments (1)

Koh Chang

Our own little island paradise

sunny 30 °C
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We arrived with a bit of shock into Bangkok as we breezed through customs with no questions asked or even any mention of a visa! Hopped straight on a nice air conditioned bus to take us to our hostel, but the journey took absolutely ages as we got our first taste of the insanely busy Bangkok traffic. Taxis, buses and motorbikes all veering in front of each other like crazy...crossing the road was definitely going to be a problem! It was a very surreal experience walking down the street to our hostel as Australia had felt a lot like home and Bangkok couldn't have been any different. We were bombarded with smells from hundreds of food stalls selling everything you can imagine mixed with the stench of rotting rubbish and car fumes, a very interesting combination! The other thing that really struck us was the heat and by the time we reached our hostel we were both sticky messes. We could already tell that Asia was going to be very different from the places we've been so far.

The next morning we took a 5 1/2 hour bus journey to Koh Chang, a mountanous island close to the Cambodian border. The bus was an experience in itself as we were served refreshments all the way and had the pleasure of watching various terrifying thai horror films on a big TV at the front! From the bus we took our first Sawngthaew (Thai style taxi, which is 2 benches in the back of a roofed flatbed truck) to the ferry and then over the short stetch of water to our island! Sadly, it was a lot more commercialised than we'd hoped for, with lots of hotels, shops and bars along the main stretches of beach. Fortunately though the bungalow that we'd booked was in a part of the island that was still reasonably minimalist, with only a couple of small thai restaurants in shacks by the side of the road. The resort we were staying in was only a year old and set in beautiful gardens among the palm trees. There wasn't a cheap fan room free so the owner gave us one of the expenisve air-con bungalows for the same price. It was nice to have a bit of luxury (we even had a TV in our bungalow) but were both a bit dissapointed we hadnt got the desert island style wooden hut we had been expecting. It was only about a 2 minute walk down to the small stretch of sandy beach, and a pefect view of the sunset.

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We spent a few days relaxing on the beach and making the most of all the cheap thai food and drinks (especially the Chang beer which Alex has grown very fond of!). It was great not to worry about doing anything for a while and just chill out.

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The day before we left we went on a boat trip around all the surrounding islands, visiting some of the more untouched beaches in the area. We also went snorkelling around a coral reef and saw some very colourful fishes and lots of scary looking spiky sea urchins. The guides we were with caught one of the urchins for us to look at closely on the boat which was cool. On the way back home we stopped close to an island where lots of wild monkeys live and they all came running down to eat the fruit which the crew threw for them!

Overall we had a really good time in Koh Chang. It was a little taste of paradise even though it wasn't quite as deserted as we'd hoped. It seems Thailand is becoming more and more developed and touristy which is a shame. We've heard that Laos is a lot less commercialised though so looking forward to heading there in a week or so.

Posted by alexdani 23:11 Archived in Thailand Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

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