Archive for June, 2010


We enjoyed the taste of luxury in Chiang Mai so much there could be no looking back. We booked ourselves in Hotel J Pattaya for some R&R, alas the backpacker budget was blown wide open. We enjoyed 3 nights there before heading back to Bangkok for one last visit. This time only 5 stars would do (so Gem said anyway…), so the Banyan Tree was to be our home for the final 2 nights. Here we enjoyed stunning views of the city from our 46th floor room, not to mention the swimming pool on the 22nd floor. A thoroughly enjoyable experience topped off with an England win…at last eh!!

So after….6 Months, 25 weeks, 173 days, 16 flights, 9 overnight buses, 6 overnight trains, 5 boats, 56 rooms, 3 home-stays and 1 earthquake


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After a few days in crazy hectic Bangkok we made a plan to escape for a while. Originally we were to head straight to Chiang Mai before being convinced to take a couple of stops on the way up. The first was an overnight stop in the old royal city of Ayutthaya. Essentially this is a poor mans Angkor, sorry Thailand but it’s true. So as you can probably guess it’s a city filled with temples. The beauty about them being you can quite easily cycle around the vast majority in a couple of hours. Although we’ve seen our fair share of temples already we decided to hire bikes anyway and explore the town.

Temples of Ayutthaya

Buddha in the tree!

After a night in Ayutthaya we headed a couple of hours north to Lop Buri, commonly known as Monkey Town. It’s not hard to see why it got this name, there are literally hundreds, maybe thousands of monkeys all over the town. No place is safe from these little creatures. The locals love them and feed them so the town is now overrun with them. It’s quite a sight to see. We stayed here for just a few hours to witness this and grab a bite to eat whilst watching the opening game of the World Cup.

Monkey on a wire


Fourteen hours later we arrived in Chiang Mai by the overnight train . We took it easy during the day, watching World Cup fever building in Thailand. We managed to search out a bar showing the England game with English commentary. Kick-off was 1:30am local time so it was closer to 4am by the time we got back to our hotel. Needless to say we were not impressed by the drab performance. It was quite amusing watching the game with commentary coming from Radio 5 live via the internet and the picture from whatever Thai channel was on. At no point were the 2 things in synch, often the commentary was 2-3 secs ahead of the picture. Lets hope we do better tonight! Argentina looked very good last night so Gem’s already placed her bet on them to win, where’s her loyalty honestly!

After 3 hours of sleep we departed Chiang Mai for a 2 day jungle trek. Afterall it was our wedding anniversary and I could see nothing more romantic than a night in a bamboo hut with a mozzies for company! After this Gem expressed her need for some luxury so we sought out a nice hotel with a pool for a few days of R&R. We’ve pretty much spent the last 3 days doing nothing but lying by the pool and contemplating life back in the real world. It’s hard to believe we have just shy of a week left now! Where has 6 months gone….

Well before you all start feeling sorry for us (yeh right, eh)…today we head back to Bangkok again on the overnight train. We won’t be spending any time in Bangkok though because we’re heading to Pattaya for 1 night and then on to Ko Samet. This will be our last stop before we return to Bangkok for 1 last blow out night on the town.

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Sabai-dee Laos!

We arrived in beautiful Laos a few days ago (actually it was way longer but we haven’t had a decent internet connection to upload this blog post!). Our first stop was Luang Prabang. The pace of life is a far cry from the chaos of Hanoi. Luang Prabang is a charming little city on the banks of the Mekong. The architecture is a mixture of French colonial and traditional Laoatian (wooden houses made from teak). There are numerous “Wat” temples dotted around and a correspondingly high number of monks, more than any other place we’ve visited.

Monks at the temple

Rice stalls on the streets of Luang Prabang

The first thing that struck us when we arrived in Laos is how nice the people are. They are very gentle and friendly people and the whole place has a very different feel than any other Asian country we’ve visited. Unlike Vietnam they don’t seem to have any propaganda or museums dedicated to the Vietnam war – despite Laos being the most bombed country per capita in the world. They have transformed the bomb casings into flower pots and the craters into fish ponds. We read that more bombs were dropped on Laos than were dropped during the entire second world war – the equivalent of a plane load of bombs every eight minutes around the clock for 9 years! A frightening statistic. Most of this occurred during secret bombing missions.

We got up at daybreak yesterday to watch the daily ritual of alms giving to the monks that live in Luang Prabang. Each monk carries a gold topped wooden box in which they collect the offerings from the local people. They give ‘alms’ of sticky rice as an offering to feed the dead spirits of their past relatives. It was quite a spectacle to see the long line of monks, dressed in their traditional orange robes, silently walking barefoot through the streets of the city collecting the alms.

Alms Giving

Monks with alms

Later on we hired a tuk tuk with four other travellers and took a trip to the Kwang Si Falls. After our superb experience in Iguazu we weren’t expecting anything to match the magnificence of Argentina…. but we were very pleasantly surprised. The beautiful cascades run into turquoise pools which you can swim in! There is also a bear sanctuary as you enter the National Park. This was the first time either of us had seen real bears in the flesh!

On the way back into Luang Prabang we stopped off at a local Hmong Village and saw a very basic existence – houses made of bamboo with straw roofs but with very little furniture inside. The children of this Hmong village have a very tough life. You really feel for them and realise just how lucky we all are.

Please buy from me

Village Life

Gathering wood

We have also taken to sampling the many local delicacies Luang Prabang has to offer. The food is quite different to Vietnamese but we have loved tasting the different specialities Laos has to offer! The most famous delicacy is something called Khai Penh which is a dried river weed. It is fried with sesame seeds and served with a delicious spicy dip. Divine! We also fell in love with the Luang Prabang sausage. It’s very coarse in texture but has the most amazing flavour. In the evening there is a wonderful night market with many stalls selling everything from silk scarves and slippers to banana and coconut cakes. The sellers are much quieter here. There is no pressure or hassle to buy unlike other Asian countries we’ve been to. Neil was also very brave and decided to sample the best local culinary experience by grabbing some night market food. It was barbequed fish on a stick. It tasted superb and was a bargain $1.50!

Khai Penh

After a lovely few days of relaxing in Luang Prabang we set off on a long bus ride to Vientiane. We opted to take the VIP bus… but the bus wasn’t quite the VIP service we imagined. The bus journey was expected to take around 9 hours but after three breakdowns… yes THREE breakdowns we arrived at the Capital city 11 hours after leaving Luang Prabang. The bus driver must have anticipated that the bus would breakdown as there were about four mechanics travelling with us. It was quite remarkable to see them in action. And just when you are in the middle of nowhere and the bus is showing no sign of starting up, suddenly a moped with two passengers pulls up carrying two barrrels of fuel! The driver and his mechanics worked on the bus for a whole other hour, trying various things. Eventually the bus started again… releasing a big black cloud and then 30 tense minutes later we arrived at Vientiane bus station. Phew!

Vientiane is described as Asia’s nicest capital city. It’s so different from the frantic cities of Bangkok and Hanoi. It’s very compact and easy to get around on foot. Being so small you can see all the sights in one day. It has a big French influence here. In fact there maybe more French restaurants than Laos restaurants! We’re off to sample our last taste of Laos cuisine before we set off on another long journey to Thailand. We are booked on the overnight train to Bangkok so no doubt another travel adventure awaits…..

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We’re not sure where the time has gone but we’re already leaving Vietnam. Tonight we’re on a plane to Laos, specifically Luang Prabang.

After Hanoi we took an overnight train to Sapa in the very north of Vietnam, only about 3km from the Chinese border. The train journey was not the smoothest ride because our carriage developed a high pitched squeak after a few hours, needless to say we got very little sleep. We shared our sleeper cabin with 2 chaps from South Korea. One of them had a handful of Korean snacks with him so we had ourselves a little feast to pass the time. It turned out he was in the business of making dried noodles. He was visiting Sapa to meet with a farmer who will grow shitake mushrooms for him! His friend owned a company that manufactured zips and was along for the ride. You do meet the most random people travelling.

Sapa was probably the highlight of Vietnam for us. In order to trek in Sapa you need a guide, I’m not sure if this is local law or just advisable because there are no marked trails as such. Most of the time we felt like we were walking through peoples farms. We decided to pay a little extra and get a private guide rather than join a group tour, this turned out to be a good decision. Our guide took us through a number of local villages to get a feel for the life people lead. No doubt it is a tough life for the people of this area. In many ways it reminded us of South America with the locals belonging to various ethnic tribes, each with their own special clothing and strange rituals, for example only those women that are married can wear earrings. On our first night we did a home stay with a local family. It wasn’t anything near as primitive as previous home stays in South America but it was a lot of fun. In the end we got drunk on rice wine during dinner. Afterwards they unleashed the karaoke on us along with a few beers! It was a great night, Gem looked like a natural up there belting out the notes!

black hmong woman

Deep in thought

The next day a huge thunderstorm rolled in. Luckily it gave us a chance to recover from the rice wine before we headed out trekking again. We went through a huge bamboo forest before reaching a number of small villages and an impressive waterfall. The scenery along the way was spectacular.

Trekking in Sapa

It was a great time to visit Sapa because they are busy planting rice at the moment. Unlike the lower regions of Vietnam they can only plant rice one time per year in Sapa. The first step in the process is to get the terraces in order. These are the flat plains of land they create on the steep hills to plant rice. This is incredibly hard work for both the farmer and the buffalo, see the picture below. The terraces do create a beautiful landscape unlike anything else we’ve seen in Vietnam.

Rice terraces from afar

Buffalo in a rice paddy

Planting Rice

After 3 days of trekking we headed back to Hanoi on the overnight train again. This time there was no squeak so we managed to get some sleep at least.

Today is our last day in Hanoi so we headed out in search of our final Vietnamese meal. We weren’t disappointed with our choice either, it was probably the best meal we’ve had in Vietnam. We enjoyed a green papaya salad, BBQ pork ribs and grilled fish with noodles cooked on a hot plate in front of us. All this was washed down with a couple of drinks for the princely sum of $8.5! We grabbed a couple of fresh pineapples on the way back from one of the many street hawkers. They cut and peel them for you, the price for 2 of the freshest tastiest pineapples you’ll ever eat, 30p! We will definitely miss the food in Vietnam, although Laos promises to be good too.

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