A Travellerspoint blog

Laos

Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng

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Before leaving Chiang Mai, we meet my friend Dan and his two friends Rob and Tristan who are out here for 3 weeks. Together we make the journey to Luang Prabang. It's a 2 day boat journey along the Mekong River. Buses, waiting, border checks, more waiting and then we're sent to a boat. The boat though, is very full and we refuse to get on. They insist, saying there's plenty of space. There's around 40 of us waiting and we're by about 20 other boats doing very little, so stay firm. This is a case of making as much money in one swoop as possible and we're not playing.

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After 10 minutes or so they give in and put another boat on, so we're treated to a comfortable 6 hour boat ride instead of squatting on the floor, potentially sinking.

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This takes us to Pak Beng, which is the halfway point of the journey. The whole place works on generators that switch off at 10.30. Second day on a boat and we're ushered onto a larger, less comfortable boat. It's amazing how you can keep yourselves amused on these journeys though. Beer Lao, chatting, cards and books help, but the scenery is the winner. It is spectacular, the Mekong carves its way through impressive jungle covered hills and mountains, with rocks jutting out of the water and occasional small bamboo villages by the river.

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Our journey ends in Luang Prabang, Laos' old capital that sits on the Mekong. It's a Unesco World Heritage site and very beautiful. Temples are dotted around it, with orange robed monks a common sight in the streets.

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Laos PDR stands for the People's Democratic Republic, but it's often said it stands for Please Don't Rush. This is certainly a country where people like to take it easy. Luang Prabang being no exception, it's a lovely place to spend some days over Christmas.

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Other than exploring the town on bikes we spend our days relaxing and eating and drinking plenty in true Christmas style. A group of seven of us do a Secret Santa, so we all get something to open on Christmas Day! That and the Cadbury's I got from my old housemates, perfect!

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On Boxing Day we get a minibus to Vang Vieng, further south in Laos. It's a journey through the mountains and very windy. Each village we pass seems to full of only children. Laos feels like Neverland, kids everywhere. And puppies, kittens, calves, chicks, piglets...

Vang Vieng is a small town by a river and very touristy. That's mainly due to the tubing. Tubing's when you hire a large tube and float down the river on it. There are bars dotted along the river that will pull your tube in and all the bars have swings and slides into the water. It's kind of like a theme park ride for grownups. It is a lot of fun, but I have no photos as it doesn't really mix well with cameras. When we first go, we float on our tubes all the way back to town, which turns out to be a cold, rocky journey by the end!

The town's full of bars playing Friends and Family Guy on repeat. It's very odd, people seem to get hypnotised by the rolling American shows. With such a charmless town, it's great to escape. The boys hire motorbikes and we all go out into the hills one day. Far from Vang Vieng and people stare at you again, being a Westerner is more of a rarity out here.

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We hire bicycles too and go to a blue lagoon. Midday sun, a gravel road and no gears make for an uncomfortable ride, but the lagoon at the other end is worth it. It really is blue and incredibly deep.

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We spend New Years Eve day tubing, not something you get to do every year, and then continue on into the night in the town under the full moon. Laos has an 11.30pm curfew normally, but luckily this doesn't seem to in action at least here, on New Years. Leaving on New Years Day we head south to Vientiane, the Laos Capital. We're only here for a day before heading back into Thailand to catch an overnight train to Bangkok. Laos is another Communist country we've visited that's fast learning how to make money out of tourists. We're a little disappointed how often we feel people have tried to rip us off, and had hoped to meet more of the very friendly Lao people we'd heard about.

Posted by EllenM 01:01 Archived in Laos Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Ko Chang & Pai

Islands, mountains and elephants

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With some time on our hands and exhaustion kicking in, from Cambodia we decide to make a detour to Ko Chang. Ko Chang (Elephant Island) is a Thai island near to the Cambodian border. We stay at Lonely Beach for 4 nights. A white sandy beach, blue waters and a laid back vibe. Even the cats seemed to be doing yoga.

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After that we head to Bangkok for one night in the sweaty city before heading up to Chiang Mai, a Northern Thai city. People often come to Chiang Mai as a base for trekking, as it is surrounded by mountains. When in Rome and all, we decide what we need is another trek. Having a look round at the options though, they all seem to have the same itineraries, not very off the beaten track. So we decide to head up to Pai instead. Pai is a small town up in the mountains, used by Westerners and Thais alike as somewhere to get away from it all. It's another of these hippy type places, with cafes and arty shops abound. They have an odd obsession with postboxes: the town and its souvenirs are covered in them.

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It's in Pai that we find a trek to go on. With less people trekking here than in Chiang Mai it's easier to find treks to remoter places and ours doesn't disappoint. Myself, Alex, 3 Swedes and our guide Toi go for 2 days. We get a local bus an hour into the mountains and then walk through tribal villages, fields, across streams, through long grass. We have lunch at the Karen tribe village where there are two options - veg fried rice, or rat curry. I opt for the fried rice. The rats are a big pest here, but it would seem also something to eat.

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From this village a dog joins us, who follows us all the way to the Farm house where we stay the night. The dog is very loyal and protective over us, staying despite the farm dogs being very territorial. He even accompanies you to the toilet. The toilet being the bushes.

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This is a very basic place, no loo, no running water, no electricity. They look after us well though, even if it is a little hard to witness a chicken being shot for dinner. It gets incredibly cold at night, but there's a fire to sit round and enjoy watching the farmer dance around with his harmonica. Surreal. When we go to bed, it's mats on the floor, but we're each provided with numerous blankets, although even they can't keep the cold away. The next morning, with dog in tow we continue our trek. By the time we reach the road that afternoon to hitch a lift back into town we're shattered. It's far more walking than I'm used to, but, having been on so many tours and such, it was really refreshing to go on one where nobody tried to sell us anything, we saw no other westerners and we stayed over in someone's home in the middle of nowhere.

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After a much needed sleep back in Pai, the following morning we go on an elephant ride! I'm very excited, having been looking forward to meeting some Thai elephants for a while. We go to Noi's elephant camp where they have 3 elephants. Our elephant is 42. Along with her Mahout (trainer) we are taken on a two hour ride without any seats. Sitting on her neck is quite difficult as she moves about a fair bit. Although well behaved, she did go off course a bit to get herself some bamboo stalks. That was fine, it was when a young banana tree took her fancy and she pulled the whole thing out of the ground. It was quite a challenge for her, I really don't know how I didn't fall off!

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We end up in the river where she enjoys throwing us off her back. I loved getting to be so close to one of these amazing animals and I'd like to think they are treated well. It's quiet there, so they are not constantly being worked and they seem to be well looked after, even if they are constantly hungry!

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After getting grubby with the elphant we go to Pai's hot springs. Naturally hot waters and they really were very hot! Some of the pools were too hot to even go on, you could boil an egg in them. We're back in Chiang Mai now, with Dan and his friends joining us here tomorrow from a very snowy England by all accounts!

Posted by EllenM 04:04 Archived in Thailand Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Cambodia

Phnom Penh and the Temples of Angkor

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Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, is a city with a troubled past. When the Khmer Rouge party were in power, led by Pol Pot from 1975 to 1979, they committed one of the worst acts of genocide known in recent times. An estimated 1.47 million people were killed, some 20% of the population. It's a brutal past for a country to live with, but despite it being only 30 years ago, they seem to be doing well, the people are some of the friendliest we've come across and there's a really good buzz to Phnom Penh. It feels modern and cultured, with outdoor photographic screenings and art installations in rundown mansions.

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While we're in Phnom Penh, we do go and see the 'main attractions', the Killing Fields and the S-21 prison. The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek were one of many areas where men, women and children were taken to be killed and then thrown into mass graves. After the Khmer Rouge were thrown out of power, these graves were discovered. A grim discovery indeed, the skulls of those found here are now displayed there in a stupa, a Buddhist monument. The place is eerily quiet, and while wandering between the dug out holes where mass grave after mass grave was discovered, it is hard not to be moved.

The S-21 prison was used by the Khmer Rouge whiel tehy were in power. Pol Pot wanted to create an Agrian, peasant dominated society and tried to rid Cambodia of educated people, killing and torturing those with educations including doctors and foreign language speakers. Even those that wore glasses were picked out. The prison was formerly a school, with the classrooms divided into small cells to hold people while they were tortured and interrogated and before they were sent to be killed. Walking around, you can hardly believe it all happened so recently.

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On our first night in Phnom Penh myself, Alex and a group from the boat find ourselves in a bar. There, we meet its owners David and Isaac. David is from England and Isaac is a Cambodian who has spent most of his life in the USA after becoming a refugee as a baby in the late 70s. Together they run a scheme where they take food to feed families in the Phnom Penh dump. We show interest and it's arranged we'll go. We all give some dollars that goes directly to paying for a truck, 400 loaves of bread and loads of bananas, apples, pineapples and sweet potatoes. We arrive at the dump, where as you'd expect, there are mountains of rubbish. The dump is also home to hundreds of Cambodian families who use it scavenge for things to sell.

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Children run up and form queues straight away. They're each given a bundle of food, with double for pregnant women. While we hand out food, Isaac has set up a medical stand. He's a trained medic and looks out for the kids that need attention. The food quickly goes and the kids float off. Although it's difficult to see so many families in a desperate situation, they seem happy despite it all and certainly grateful for a bit of free food. It's only one day, but I'm glad I've been able to help out, even if it is in such a small way.

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After the troubled past and struggling future of Phnom Penh, we head over to Siem Reap, home to Cambodia's proudest sights. The Temples of Angkor are the must see thing of South East Asia and deservedly so. The hundreds of temples scattered about are all that remains of the vast Khmer Empire that stretched from Burma to Vietnam. Angkor was a city of 1,000,000 people at one time, but as most buildings were built of wood that has since decayed, all that remains are the stone temples. They recommend you spend a week exploring all the temples, but with little time and tight budgets we opt to squeeze in as much as we can in one day. Sharing a tuktuk with some friends, we hurtle around the temples, taking in around six (of possible hundreds).

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They range from Angkor Wat, the most famed temple that even holds pride of place on the Cambodian flag, to the temple used in the filming of Lara Croft, Tomb Raider. Angkor Wat is still in pretty good nick, while some of the others have a charming crumbling feel to them, with trees growing through them. I like these ones, there's something nice about the way nature has pushed through these monuments. It's an exhausting day and we take in a lot, but it's well worth it, they are a magnificent glimpse into a past Empire.

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Although we only stay in Cambodia for 5 nights, it is not for any dislike. I see it as quality not quantity. We've taken in a lot in a few days and felt welcomed by the Cambodian people, but it's a small country and there's a Thai Island over the border enticing us!

Posted by EllenM 03:39 Archived in Cambodia Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Ho Chi Minh City & the Mekong Delta

Cruising outta 'Nam

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We leave a gloriously sunny Mui Ne and head south for Ho Chi Minh City. HCMC was formerly called Saigon, until it was renamed after the communist leader Ho Chi Minh, who they seem to adore in Vietnam. He's everywhere, on the money, sculptures, in framed pictures. It's a newer city than Hanoi and is bigger and more manic. We thought Hanoi had a lot of motorbikes, but it was nothing compared with here. Crossing the road can be quite a challenge. There aren't really any pedestrian crossings and the bikes never stop, so you just have to trust your instinct, walk out and assume they'll move around you. It does work, but it takes some getting used to. There are wide pavements, that start out as a luxury, until rush hour, when all the motorbikes use it as a shortcut.

While in HCMC we go to see the War Museum, which is both informative and incredibly sobering. It's good to get some more information on both when Vietnam fought with the French and then later the war that America got involved in. There are some truly shocking photos taken from the fighting, the ruthless killing and the effects of Agent Orange. Agent Orange was a chemical that America used in the war. It was very strong and left people with deformed bodies. It's particularly sad as it's still affecting people today. Those that were exposed to it are giving birth to malformed children. We also head out of the city to see the Cu Chi tunnels. These were a network of tunnels used by the Vietnamese in the war. They were very narrow, but have been widened a little for visitors. It's still incredibly claustrophobic crawling through them and I'm happy to see light at the end!

We leave Ho Chi Minh City, bound for Cambodia, via the Mekong Delta. We go on a 3 day tour of where the Mekong reaches the sea in southern Vietnam. It's an odd tour and we manage to see and try a whole host of things. We find ourselves aboard a variety of boats, including canoe boats down narrow backwaters. We see them make rice noodles, try coconut candy, tropical fruits and resist the offer of grilled iguana and squirrel. At one point, there's a huge python put round our necks! It feels odd, like plastic.

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We go to a floating market, where there are boats selling fruit like a whole market. Each boat has their fruit on a stick as a little flag to say what they're selling. Then smaller boats move round picking up the different fruits they want. We go to a crocodile farm, which feels much like a zoo, but with a much higher density of crocodiles. They farm them for their skins and meat. We see minority villages, Buddhist pagodas and fish farms... it really is a whirlwind tour.

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On the third day our boat chugs on up to the Cambodian border, where after a bit of a wait, we enter Cambodia by boat! Certainly the most interesting way I've entered a country so far, although we did have to get off to get our passports stamped at a little office by the water. Back on the boat some of us sit on the roof for the 3 hour boat ride up to Phnom Penh. It's such a nice way to enter a country, instead of the industrial road from an airport, we are greeted by families living and working along the riverside. Everyone wants a wave from us as we pass and it's mainly children, which should be no surprise, I've read that 40% of Cambodia's population are under 15. We're now in Phnom Penh, which is a whole other blog update, having experienced such a huge amount here in just a few days.

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Posted by EllenM 05:40 Archived in Vietnam Tagged backpacking Comments (1)

Hoi An & Mui Ne

getting hotter...

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We continue south down the Vietnam coast, with the next stop being Hoi An. Hoi An is a lovely little town, best known for its tailoring. Pretty much every single shop is a tailors and most people seem to get something made while they're here, suits, dresses, winter coats. Not us though, we're too cheap for that. Although, I do get some sandals made for a little taster of the Hoi An tailoring.

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Hoi An is an old town, with pretty little streets next to a river. It has a great little market selling food, raw and prepared for you. It is here that our love affair with the Vietnamese food continues. Not only do we find our best egg baguettes yet, but there's enough to keep us going for lunch and dinner too. They have these pancake type things, that are actually crispier and filled with beansprouts and shrimps. They then fill them with salad leaves, wrap them in rice paper and you dip them in peanut sauce. So good. We also ate a lot of Cao Lau, which is a Hoi An speciality. Big fat noodles, with salad leaves, beansprouts, slices of pork and croutons, with a sauce poured over. I was more than happy to eat it repeatedly.

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From Hoi An, we travel further south, skipping Nha Trang in search of the sunshine in Mui Ne. Ah, Mui Ne, the driest place in Vietnam thanks to a micro climate created by the sand dunes that surround it. It has a lovely long beach that we make use of. We hire bikes one day and head toward the fishing village. There are plenty of those iconic round boats in the water here. I don't know how they manage to work, nor why they thought circular was the best shape to make them, but they must work as they're still in use! There's a little girl there selling sea shells to tourists who chats to us with good English. Alex and I teach her "she sells sea shells on the sea shore", we hope it'll get her a few more sales from the tourists! We keep cycling further into town where we try and get some food. This proves pretty difficult, away from the tourist areas they don't know much English and with the ever present fear of unknowingly eating dog, we're a little nervous, but a find a stall with some nice noodley soup dish.

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We take a jeep tour to explore the sand dunes. The jeep is ancient, I wouldn't be surprised if it was used in the war and it proves its age by failing to start numerous times. We stop at the Fairy Stream first, where we walk barefoot along the sandy stream. It's surrounded by sandy cliffs that are a deep orange colour and provide dramatic and beautiful surroundings to the stream.

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Then a long drive out of town gets us to the white sand dunes. These are huge and we can hardly believe we're still in Vietnam, it feels more like the Sahara, with dunes heading off for miles. Look closely at thephoto below and you'll see Alex with some of our Oz friends at the top! We also see the red sand dunes, that are meant to eerily change colour as the sun sets, but with no sun set to speak of, there's little chance of that!

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We're still in Mui Ne and enjoying the sunshine and beach, heading to Ho Chi Minh (or Saigon as everyone still calls it) tomorrow night.

Posted by EllenM 05:02 Archived in Vietnam Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

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