Xe Champone

Before leaving Thakhek in the morning we got up early to go to the bakery for breakfast. I got a croissant that for once actually tasted like a croissant and Ben got real British chocolate digestives. I think my mouth died and went to heaven. I’m having a bit of a battle with dizziness and feeling really sick which I’m hoping is just down to my anti-malarials and today this was pretty bad.

We headed to Xe Champone in the countryside. On route we stopped at several places. First to buy bananas, this was important for later in the day. After this we stopped at the Buddhist library. This is a temple with the teachings of Buddha written on palm leaves from the 16th century. These are written in Bali sanscript and only one monk at the temple is able to read and write in this.

In this particular temple they were very strict. Normally as long as your knees and shoulders are covered and you take your shoes off woman are fine to enter. In this temple woman had to wear skirts even if wearing full length trousers as it is believed to be more respectable.

After viewing the teachings we had to walk round the hut 3 times for good luck. Sometimes I wonder if they make these things up so they can laugh at tourists but when you see locals doing it you know it’s not the case. The hut was high above the water on stilts, the floor physically bent when you walked on the floorboards and we had to go round 3 times!

After the Buddhist library we went to feed monkeys! I stayed well back on this one after the monkey in India growled at me and bared it’s teeth, I’m just a small bit terrified of them… In Lao monkeys are called Ling and in this particular area when you shout ling ling and you have bananas, monkeys will come running. Along with monkeys that want bananas there are cows that will chase you till you feed them a banana and goats.

After the monkeys we drove to our guesthouse and as it had the only restaurant for miles we ate lunch there before going to visit turtles – Asiatic Softshell turtles. Someone mentioned these are rare but this could be total bullsh*t. They were more like crocodiles than any turtle I had ever seen but we enjoyed feeding them sticky rice. The village surrounding the turtle lake have to feed the turtles otherwise the turtles come to the village to be fed and won’t leave until they do.

Our final stop on the days adventure was Old Wat Talaeo. This ruined temple had been bombed by the US and a new temple had been built at the other side of town. Ben and I took this as a good time to take album artwork style photos…

After this we headed back to the guesthouse, I skipped dinner and was in bed by 6 to try and make myself feel better. Only 2 days left in Laos now before going into Cambodia.

Tomorrow is Pakse, where I’m told the Indian food is great.

Kong Lor

Our journey from Vientiane started at 8am, we were heading for a small village near Kong Lor Cave. First off we stopped at Buddha’s footprint temple. This has a giant footprint which lao people believe is the real buddhas.

After the temple we drove for a couple more hours and stopped for lunch. This was a small local place where there were 3 options: fried rice, fried noodles or noodle soup. All for 15,000kip which is just over £1.

Once we were finished with lunch we drove for another hour to the viewpoint. The view showed the beautiful limestone mountains that surrounded us.

On our final leg of the journey toward the village, Pao mentioned that for the remaining 45 minutes we would have to take a Tuk Tuk due to a bridge being broken and the bus not being able to cross, but a tuk tuk with all our luggage and still us could…

When we finally arrived at the village we were shown to our bungalows, they cost us £2 each for the night and came complete with hammock and amazing view! We were surrounded by tobacco fields and when we sat out at night there was definitely a faint tobacco smell.

Everyone then decided to go for a swim at Kong Lor so we walked the 1.5km to the Cave entrance and had a swim!

After our swim we headed back to the bungalow, had dinner at the local restaurant and then hung out outside on our balcony for a couple of hours

This morning we got up bright and early to go boating through Kong Lor Cave and at our meeting place there was the world’s most chilled sleepy pup.

We had a small walk to our boat, when we arrived it wasn’t quite what I was expecting and I regret not taking a photo of the empty boat. It was a long narrow boat with small beams just off the ground for seats and a small motor at the back. We first stopped to see stalagmites about 5 mins in but when I got off the boat I freaked out. There were cave bugs the size of my hand crawling all over and in the sand! I was too busy running away from them that I didn’t take pictures of the bugs so here’s some stalagmites

We continued through the Cave until the other end (the Cave goes directly through a mountain) once we were there we were able to buy snacks and girl was hungry. In the restaurant were the smallest kittens I’ve ever seen.

We got back in the boat and went back through to the otherside and got on our way to Thakhek!

We stopped briefly to see the wall of Thakhek but honestly it had started to rain and there was thunder and lightning so I wasn’t totally listening.

Tonight we’re in Thakhek but tomorrow we head back to the countryside in Xe Champone.

Vang Vieng and Vientiane

We dragged our feet to Joma Bakery for 7am to meet the bus. After a short tuk tuk to our bus we headed off with our new tour group with a few familiar faces and our new tour leader Pao. We were given two choices to get to Vang Vieng: the old road which takes 7 hours, extremely bumpy and very twisty or the new road: takes 4 hours, still pretty twisty and still bumpy. It was unanimously decided we would take the new road.

We stopped twice on the way, once for a viewpoint and the second time for the view of the nam song river and the limestone mountains both beautiful.

What wasn’t beautiful in my eyes was Vang Vieng. So far, this has been my least favourite place we visited. It reminded me of Malia in Crete or Kavos in Corfu. Vang Vieng is a party town for backpackers and koreans. While the atmosphere at night was great during the day it wasn’t a place I wanted to be especially for 2 nights.

I think what didn’t help was the fact that I had booked a sh*t guesthouse. The springs in the beds were poking through the bed, the bathroom door wasn’t whole and the air con was mouldy and spitting out water. Our time in vang vieng was spent either sleeping or eating. It’s kind of felt like a waste of the 2 days we spent there.

Yesterday morning we gleefully jumped aboard our bus to Vientiane – the capital of Laos. We stopped at the Tam Chang caves, the COPE centre – organisation which provides prosthesis for lao people which have been injured by the extensive amount of unexploded bombs left by the US many years ago and the Patuxay Monument which was modelled like the Arc D’Triumphe in Paris. By the time we arrived at the guesthouse it was around 6.30 so we were ready for dinner. I’m now at the stage that I’m ready for western food again so we headed for pizza at the pizza company.

Right now, we’re currently an hour into our 7 hour bus journey to Kong Lor in the Lao countryside our guesthouse tonight will be surrounded by limestone mountains, rice paddys and tobacco plants.

Luang Prabang

Our first night in Luang Prabang was a chilled dinner where we had the best lava cake ever and a walk round the night market which was luckily on the same street as our first guesthouse.

The following day we woke up early for our trip to the “rice experience” this was where we went to learn how rice is farmed from the ploughing of the fields right through to eating it. Our guide explained that there was 14 steps to making rice. The organisation who run the farm are called Living Land Lao. It’s a working farm, but through the tours it supports children from poor families to go to high school and university if they wish, for free. They also run English classes that the local children go to for free. Our guide Den, had just finished high school with them. He spoke with fluent English from the classes and was teaching them and working the tours when he could to pay them back for their generosity.

The tour started with showing us which of the rice from the plants is planted for food. There are no waste parts to the process, the seeds not planted are fed to chickens. After we were shown how the seeds were germinated and then using Rudolph the water buffalo we ploughed the fields. During the experience we planted the rice, harvested it, helped to sort the seeds out, prepared it using a large pestle and mortar and most importantly we ate it. The dry season is not the prime season for rice as you get very little grains from the plants and due to he fact no other farmers will be farming at this time the birds and mice will get most of the products as they flock to the one farm.

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After the rice experience we took a bus to Kuang Si Waterfall. The way the path works is you walk through the bear sanctuary at the base and walk upwards through the pools of the falls until you reach the main falls. At the first pool we jumped in the water. In the western world I feel like the pools would have been overly busy but here everyone stood round the edges not going in. The water was pretty cold but the temperatures are mid to late 30’s so cold water was welcome. Haven’t got much more to say on the waterfall so here’s some pictures.

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ue to the bus being full we had to spend a further 4 nights here, after changing Hotel we spent the next four days exploring the city and buying plenty in the night market.

After Luang Prabang we headed to the party town of Vang Vieng.

Houay Xai – Luang Prabang

After crossing the border and having to pay an overtime fee to get our visas we got a tuk tuk into the town of Houay Xai in Laos. It was a flying visit there, we ate dinner by the Mekong and then went to sleep.

In the morning we got up early and got our tuk tuks to the boats. We were going to be taking a slow boat down the Mekong with the final destination being Luang Prabang with an overnight stop in a tiny village called Bane Thanoune (which apparently doesn’t even have a postal address).

After about half an hour on the boat we needed to stop because the mist was so thick it wasn’t safe to continue until it had cleared. So clearly we had to get our picture taken with the boat!

Chao – our tour leader – told us that the boat can hold 100 people. The back of the boat is the owners home. After sailing for 9 hours we finally reached the village. We had our dinner on the beach before heading toward the village.

When we arrived at the village it was pitch black but almost immediately we were surrounded by dogs and their puppies and families with children coming to say hi. The kids were all intent on getting plenty high fives in! After Chao told us about the village we were invited into a hut where the elders of the village performed the Baci Ceremony on us. The Baci involves several chants and then each elder individually comes to each person and ties home spun cotton onto our wrists whilst saying a blessing for us. Normally they bless you for safe travelling, a happy love life and good health. One of the men said that I looked like his daughter and he missed her. So he gave me an extra blessing and told me I was welcome back any time. After the blessings are completed you are offered shots of “happy water” – rice whisky. Each shot symbolises good health for one part of your body. They believe that if you have 1 shot you must have 2 as you have 2 legs, 2 arms etc. I was going to say no to any but Ben who doesn’t drink at all said no and the woman looked like she had been mortally offended! So I obliged and the 2nd shot was definitely nicer than the 1st. You then have to eat sticky rice and a banana. After this they sang us some local songs where Ben and I were taught local dance moves by one of the ladies and in turn we sang if you’re happy and you know it and Take me home, country roads. Where we taught her moves like big fish, little fish and the macarena.

After the ceremony we were shown our homes for the night.

The next morning we were woken up by roosters at 3.46am. I’m still a little bitter as we didn’t need to be up till 6am. We took a slow walk back to the boat (Ben got everyone lost) and then we started our final journey to Luang Prabang.

Before we got there we stopped off at the Pak Ou caves. These are holy caves that are filled with over 1000 Buddha’s.

After 6 hours of sailing we finally reached Luang Prabang. The stairs from the boat to the bus almost killed me with all my bags!

Thailand

We arrived at Bangkok Airport on the 2nd of February, which now seems like a lifetime ago. We had our Stray welcome meeting that evening where we met our first group, it was the largest of our tour groups so far with a starting number of 17.

The difference with this tour is that you decide how long you want to spend at each stop, you can either go with the bus or you can ‘hop off’ this means that the group will change regularly.

We didn’t see that much of Bangkok to be honest, so even though I’ve been there I couldn’t tell you anything about it.

9am the next morning we set off to Ayutthaya. It took around 2 hours where we then had time to visit Pagodas and explore the town before catching the overnight train to Chiang Mai.

I had my reservations about the overnight train but a few people had assured me that it was nice. We caught the train around 9.30pm and our seats had already been turned into beds. Ben took the top bunk whilst I got the bottom. I definitely got the better deal. My bunk was spacious and felt like a little room, the first time I had my own room for almost a month.

Before sleeping, I plucked up the courage to use the train bathroom. There was the option of a squat toilet or a western toilet. Both had no plumbing – everything just went straight onto the tracks below. I managed to sleep off and on all night and woke to “Hi hi get up get up”. Ben had not had the same sleep quality as me, the AC and the lights were directly above the top bunks and the neither were turned off during the night.

Once we had got off the train we were piled into big red tuk tuks, we were dropped off at the Stray accommodation and this is where Ben and I said goodbye to our first group. We decided to hop off in Chiang Mai for 5 nights.

I really enjoyed our time in Chiang Mai, it’s probably one of the most touristy destinations we’ve been to on this trip and everything was much more expensive but the atmosphere made up for it.

On our second night there we took a cooking class with some of the girls from our tour group. We made a total of 11 dishes and we both loved it. We came away with a free apron, spice paste for curry and a cookbook of all the dishes we made.

We then had a day of no plans which felt wrong after having something to do for a month. We had a lazy morning and explored the city.

The following day was my favourite day of the trip so far. We visited a families elephants with Elephant Nature Park. These elephants used to be used in the tourist industry so that the food for them could be afforded but elephant nature park now pay the family for people to visit them so they no longer have to be treated badly. There were 6 adult elephants and 1 baby which was around 2 months old.

To begin with we helped chop sticks and wash bananas for their snacks which we then fed to them. This was an experience, the elephants knew when you had more than one of their snacks in your hand and would just stick their trunks closer to you till you gave it to them. After the snacks were finished we took the elephants for a walk through the jungle where they could forage for their own food. For some reason I never expected elephants to climb so high but they did it with ease. The baby elephant was filled with mischief. Constantly chasing someone or trying to knock us over. He got under one of bens legs and I thought that Bens time had come. Once he had got us down on the ground he would try to lie on us as this is how baby elephants play with each other. Our guides strongly advised we did not sit on the ground with him near as he was over 100kgs. Once back from our walk it was our turn to eat. After this we took the elephants to the river and everyone got in the water with them. It started with everyone throwing water over the elephants and ended in a water fight.

We left the elephants here and we were driven back in an open top truck where we were standing up in the back.

Our final day was also a lazy day in recovery from our big day with the elephants.

Our time in Chiang Mai and Thailand was at an end. Yesterday we drove to Chiang Rai to see the white temple which was beautiful. Potentially the nicest one I have seen so far. After Chiang Rai we continued our drive up to the Laos border.

Singapore

Our journey to Singapore wasn’t exactly smooth. We had booked an airport transfer for 6am but had failed to mention German time not Asian time so our driver showed up 15 minutes late, he then decided to stop for petrol and then he stopped for breakfast! Our experience at Mandalay Airport was smooth until we arrived at our stopover in Yangon. We ended up in the wrong terminal and through security. Turns out, once you’re through security it’s quite hard to get out again!!

After our 6 hours in Yangon we finally caught our flight to Singapore.

When you first step out the airport in Singapore you immediately notice the humidity. After we arrived at our hotel we decided to treat ourselves to a dominos. We arrived pretty late and had no energy to do anything else.

The next morning we had a lie in and set off toward the Marina via suntec city (massive shopping centre). Long story short, we never made it to the Marina we spent all day in suntec. That night we began looking at our next move after our next tour ends in Vietnam. After thinking long and hard, I made the decision to book my flight home in May whilst Ben continues on to New Zealand and Australia.

The next day we did make it to the Marina, after our morning swim! We visited the Gardens at the Marina which were absolutely stunning. I’d add pictures but my internet isn’t good enough! After we had done the flower dome and the cloud forest we went to the top of the Marina sands hotel for panoramic views of the city. This was gorgeous and Singapore might be one of my favourite cities.

Today, we headed to the airport for our flight to Bangkok. Singapore airport is like something out of the future. It’s incredible. On the way to the airport I discovered that my card had been cloned and completely emptied from cash points in Indonesia.

This afternoon we arrived in Bangkok where we start our final tour tomorrow morning!