Siem Reap

This is going to be a pretty long one…

Leaving Don Det we took the long boats back to the buses but this time I managed to stay dry! We boarded our buses and drove for 45 minutes to the Lao/Cambodia border. We said goodbye to our bus driver and went to get stamped out of Laos. Here we had to pay 10,000 kip (90p) to leave the country, this is an overtime fee for the police which you pay on weekends and after 4pm. We then had to walk for about 300m into Cambodia. It was probably the most surreal experience just walking through no mans land and into Cambodia.

Here we got our temperature taken which was mandatory to ensure we were fit and well to be in Cambodia. Once our temp was checked we got a yellow card to keep throughout Cambodia to prove we were fine when we arrived if we got ill. The next step was to get our Cambodian visas depending on the police officer giving you the visa you may have to pay extra as corruption is pretty high in Cambodia. After they’ve given you your visa you the join another queue to get your fingerprints and photo taken. At this point we saw a guy skip the queue, walk straight up to the counter with a wad of cash and just walked through… literally shit you see in movies. The whole process took us 2 hours and was probably the scariest visa experience I’ve had this trip.

Once we arrived we grabbed some food and boarded the next bus for our 7 hour journey to Siem Reap. I was a real moody cow on this bus journey because I couldn’t get comfortable so looking back I feel a bit sorry for everyone around me.

Arriving in Siem Reap we said goodbye to Pao our guide for the final time as we would get. Cambodian guide upon leaving Siem Reap. Our hotel in Siem Reap cost us £10 each for the 3 nights and was the most luxury we have had.

The next day started off unexpectedly. We had been told we would be picked up at 7.45am for our tour of the temples of Angkor. But at 7.30am we were walking down to grab breakfast from the bakery a guy on a tuk tuk was holding a piece of paper with our names on it so we got in. He took us to the tour company office after a 10 minute ride of complete confusion on our part. We sat for ages wondering what was happening before our tour guide finally appeared, we got in the bus and headed for the rest of our group who we knew from the bus.

Our guide was called Mari and he really liked to name drop. “I was a tour guide for the day to 007 my friend Roger Moore” or “when I was here with my friend blah blah the national geographic photographer we did this”. It was pretty funny and I’m pretty sure he was speaking shit 99% of the time. He also had a lot to say about Thai people and not in a good sense, it became pretty clear the Khmer people and the Thai’s don’t get along, he blamed Thailand for taking Khmer land saying they were thieves and cheats who had been forced out of Mongolia many years ago and the Khmer people had given them part of their land which they had expanded over the years. He told us anecdotes of when he was a teenager and would guard the temples of Angkor from looters from other countries and being given an AK-47 to do this.

He first took us to Ta Prohm “Tomb Raider temple” this is where Angelina Jolie’s tomb raider was filmed.

We went relatively early were still fighting with Chinese tour groups to get photos. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many people in a temple, you were basically climbing over people to see things.

After we were done here we headed to Angkor Wat, Mari had the bus driver drop us across the river and we walked over the bridge. Here Mari told us to watch for crocodiles, when I asked if crocodiles were naturally from Cambodia he told us no people got them as pets and released the in the river, so now they have massive crocodiles in the rivers. He then told us he had got his mother in law 98 crocodiles for around her farm.

Luckily we didn’t see any crocodiles and walked over to Angkor Wat.

Throughout the tour in Angkor there would be random points where Mari would show us bullet marks from where they had decided to “shoot for fun”. To get to the top of Angkor Wat there was a queue to get up the new UNESCO built stairs. These stairs replaced vertical thin stairs which would have required going up on all fours for me, the wooden stairs were put in after a man died falling down the originals. You can still see the original stairs and there’s no chance in hell I would be going up them!

Mari sat for ages at this point telling us about his life, he has a green bean farm where he works for all of January and most of February. He raises cockerels for cock fighting (which we have since found out is completely illegal in Cambodia) he showed us his house which he built and pictures of his 2 daughters. He told us is views on Cambodian politics (they were not good).

As we were leaving Angkor Wat for lunch we decided to stop and take some pictures

Ben managed to capture the moment someone for the billionth time tried to walk through my photo!!

After lunch we went to Wat Thom but before this we got to try and move stones the way the builders of these temples would have

Clearly I was a natural?

My pictures for the last temples got less as the heat got to us all and we were exhausted so here’s a few

After our exhausting day our second day was spent in a bakery and at the cinema seeing Black Panther.

Next we headed to our Cambodian Homestay in Battambang!

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Don Det (4000 Islands)

Our final full day in Laos began with us leaving Pakse and heading toward Don Det – an island in the Mekong River. We stopped at a place called Wat Phou first, this was a Hindu temple which had since been turned into a Buddhist temple, the most prominent religion in Laos by a mile. At this point I was still suffering from whatever bug I had picked up and decided I wouldn’t walk to the top as I was still pretty dizzy (and lazy).

After Wat Phou we hopped aboard the bus again and headed toward the 1st of our ferries for the day. This one the bus was able to board. These ferries were like none I had ever seen before, more like wooden rafts with 2 buses, 1 car and a whole bunch of people.

After this crossing we took the bus to Nakasong to catch our next ferry which truly gave me the fear. The next ferries were long narrow boats with tin roofs that wobbled when you got on them to the point of the roof falling on you. When 9 of us and our bags had got on we set off. There were 3 boats of us and the other 2 boat drivers took their boats and passengers to piers. Our driver decided he would try and beach us, it didn’t work and the boat went sideways, with us not able to get out onto dry land our driver announced right get out and we were forced to jump out the side of the boat into the sea… when it was my turn to get out one of the girls panicked and went to the other side with one leg out the boat tipped back and my other leg got stuck in the boat it’s safe to say my converse are ruined and our tour guide wasn’t happy with the boat driver…

Don Det seemed like a pretty special place. We signed up to see some rare Irrawaddy dolphins at sunset with 5 others from our group and it turned out to be pretty special. We saw the dolphins although I didn’t manage to get any pictures of them, so everyone will just need to believe me! To get to the dolphins however we had to take a tuk tuk and there are no tuk tuks on Don Det so we ordered a tuk tuk from Don Kon which is joined to Don Det via a bridge to collect us. The only road on Don Det is a single track road and is more like a land rover track in the hills back home. After our dolphin adventure we had our final meal with our friend Becky who was hopping off in Don Det to stay in a teepee for 4 nights. This was our last day in Laos which has definitely become one of my favourite countries now. The next day we crossed the border and journeyed to Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Pakse

I’ve really slacked on my blog for the past 2 weeks so I’m aiming to catch up this week! Leaving Xe Champone and the countryside we headed straight for Pakse, the biggest city in southern Laos. Once we were there we had some lunch and set off again for another hour up to the Bolaven Plataeu to see the Tad Gneuang Waterfall. This is also where the coffee plantations in Laos are as it rains often there unlike the rest of Laos in the dry season.

On our drive to the waterfall for some reason I decided to look up reviews of it on Google. All the reviews said “extremely steep stairs” or “treacherous stairs”. This made me worry a little because stairs in Asia tend to be pretty bad anyway (either stupidly high steps or stupidly steep) so when we got there and was faced with stairs that yes were pretty steep, they were also crazy uneven with fallen trees that you had to either climb over or under and railings that moved if you put too much weight on them. In the pictures below the tree with the red berries if a coffee tree with the red berries being coffee beans.

After getting to Pakse we checked into our hotel and then went to for Indian with our friend Becky. Our guide Pao told us hat Pakse was the place in Laos to get good Indian and it was pretty damn good.

The next day we headed to Don Det and our last stop in Laos!

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.

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!