A Travellerspoint blog

Beijing and a wall

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Hello again! Well its been a little while since I got home and I've delayed writing a piece on Beijing as I haven't found a couple of hours of time when I'm in a writing mood to reflect on our time there properly.

After flying to Beijing and checking ourselves into a nice hotel in the centre (an end of travelling/ birthday treat), we had nearly 5 whole days to see the city and get out to a couple of sections of the wall, which are a few hours outside. 5 days seemed like a long time to be spending in one place, but Beijing is just so large and with so much to do that the time really did just fly by. Accompany that with some time lying on a bed with a comfortable mattress and a large TV in front of us (it’s been a while) and time really does get short!

The absolute must for us to see, along with anyone else that travels to China, was the Great Wall. In fact, the trip into China was almost exclusively because Letha decided she wanted to see it at some point and we were so close in Vietnam (actually we were 3000km away), that we had to go and see it! The wall has several parts within a daytrip of the city and we decided to go to one restored and very touristy place, Badaling, and to one unrestored and much more authentic section, Jingshaling.

Badaling was as ridiculously touristy as we'd hoped for and after elbowing a few queue-jumping locals out of the way to board a bus to the bottom, we set about climbing a reasonably steep section in order to try and actually see the wall through the hoards of people. After about a 45 minute climb a lot of people give up and therefore we got to a few watchtowers that were less hectic. As the wall has all been restored I assumed I wouldn't like it, but it has been done fantastically well, and was certainly worth seeing.

Jingshaling, on the other hand, was the opposite. It had next to no tourists there and we spent a couple of hours clambering over collapsed sections of the wall, up some makeshift staircases made of loose stones and enjoying some really amazing views of the wall winding off over the hills in the distance. Just as you'd imagine it to be, but even more breathtakingly scenic! We'd actually hoped to walk some 10km and gotten to another nice part, but the second part was closed off for some work and it wasn't possible. It was definitely one of the best things I've done on any of my travels.

The only downside to our Great Wall visits was that the view was slightly ruined by the polluted smog that gathers in the area from Beijing. At some points in the actual city you could barely make out a building just a couple of hundred metres away, and there is certainly no way of telling if it will rain as the sky is constantly hazy!

Inside Beijing we spent the rest of our time seeing some of the main attractions. The Forbidden City was reasonably interesting but rather empty apart from the crowds of people. Tiananmen Square was impressive and sort of an up scaled and Chinese version of Trafalgar Square with museums set around it. We also got to the Zoo in order to see some of China's pandas. Touristy maybe, but certainly easier to find there than in the wild!

The rest of the time was really spent eating noodles from the local food court, laughing at the Chinese guys who carry their girlfriend's handbags everywhere and occasional get forced into wearing matching outfits (!), and reflecting on the time we have been away. I'll add a final post soon that will be the close of this fine blog... it’s nearly 3 years old now!

Posted by pullboy 05:02 Archived in China Comments (0)

China: smooth roads, pointy mountains and (lots of) tourists

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(Welcome to China) the sign read as we crossed the border, a warning perhaps that we were moving from the very well worn backpacking circuit of South-East Asia and into a whole new world which is remarkably unfamilar to us.

As we left Hanoi last Tuesday and headed North, there was time for Letha to say a final 'Good Morning Vietnam' (as she did almost every morning for 4 weeks...!) and we set on a epic travel day including 3 buses, 4 taxis and a strange electronic minibus that would get us to Nanning, a medium-sized city in the South of China. As the border approaches the flat lanscape turns beautifully mountainess and China really begins there. We got lucky at the border as we were the penultimate people through before they shut for the day, we were so late that the money-changing lady gave us a ride to the nearest town on her way home and saved us some of the taxi fare.

Straight away we were onto what looked like a brand new dual carridgeway, a bit of a shock for us as we'd got used to the pothole ridden roads elsewhere. We stayed overnight in Nanning, where we really disccovered 90% of Chinese speak no English at all, a few percent of the males like to shout 'hello' at Letha (its the blonde hair) and know nothing else. Fortunately the small numbers that do speak some English are likely to approach you and make sure you're okay and not lost!

Having previously been warned by my Dad about China's rapid development we should have really been prepared for the moderness of the cities here. Everywhere is so brightly lit by advertising displays, shopping streets and fashionable little cafes selling coffee, ice cream and desserts. We though Vietnam was developed when coming over from Laos!

A developed country should have provided us with an efficient train ride to Guilin the next day (my birthday) but disappointed. I spent several hours of my birthday sat on a train next to an annoyingly energetic Chinese boy going nowhere. There were plenty of announcements in Chinese but nothing in English, we arrived in Guilin after almost 8 hours on a train. At least we had a seat.

Guilin and the area around has hundreds of beautiful mountains and the landscapes here were really all we'd really hoped to see in Southern China. Near to Guilin is the 'town' of Yangshuo which has been a bit of a backpackers haven in Southern China for decades. The backpackers have now been joined by tens of thousands of, strangely overweight, Chinese tourists which take the boat trips down the Li River past some spectacular pointy karst mountains. We opted for the cheaper and less crowded option of a bamboo raft, the trip was shorter but still got us a good view of the mountains, when the other boats and rafts were away from us anyway!

The original plan for our time in China was to travel on to Shanghai via train but apparently the train is being fully booked out up to 10 days before at the moment, making that option just too expensive. We opted instead to spend longer relaxing in Yangshuo (we found a sociable backpackers hostel and just fly straight to Beijing.

After spending days relaxing by the riverside and biking around Yangshuo and Guilin, we'll be leaving for Beijing tomorrow morning with plenty of great photos. Just five days and I'll be heading home, there is still hundreds of years of Chinese history to see in Beijing though; and apparently there's a wall nearby too.

Posted by pullboy 06:33 Archived in China Comments (0)

Vietnam: The Top!

Our travels in Vietnam are now over as we’ve crossed over the border into Southern China, our last week there was spent in and around Hanoi’s Chinese Embassy and on a party cruise of Halong Bay, Vietnam’s most famed tourist attraction and one of the most beautiful places I’ve has the chance to visit (twice!)

We sluggishly departed our sleeper bus in Hanoi which we’d been on for the best part of 15 hours and dropped our bags off at Hanoi Backpackers Hostel, the backdrop to many fun times the last time I was in Hanoi. It’s a big modern Australian-style backpacker’s hostel with air-con dormitories and lovely clean bathrooms. A fair change to what we’ve been used to in Asia- our accommodation has ranged from ant infested bungalows on the beach to box-rooms with very bad smelling drains in cities with a couple of nicer places in-between!

Straight away we finished our paperwork for our Chinese Visas and headed to the embassy through Hanoi’s very hot and very busy streets. At the desk the Chinese official gave us a list of ‘requirements’ that we’d have to meet, the first being that we’d need to be a Vietnamese resident to gain a Chinese visa here. She politely advised us that we should fly to Hong Kong to get a visa.

I suspected this would be the response and showed her our flight details, contact people and planned itinerary. This convinced her enough to pass the paperwork up to her boss and she claimed it was up to him/her if we’d be granted a visa. Leaving our passports in the hands of the Chinese we saw some of the old quarter of Hanoi before backtracking to the pool table, comfy sofas and movies of the hostel.

Ever since showing Letha pictures and sending her a postcard of Halong Bay, she’s wanted to go and visit. This we did the same way I did last time, through the very rowdy tour organised by Hanoi Backpackers. The alcohol consumption wasn’t our only reason for choosing them from the many other options, you hear some nightmare stories about other tours and at least going with a western company the organisation, accommodation and food is likely to be better.

The tour was great fun, Jan (still with us though Vietnam) was on the same trip and we joined a huge group of around 50 others. The boat trip takes you through hundreds of beautiful mountains rising out of the sea, with opportunities for kayaking to caves and jumping from the boat along the way. We spent the second day/night on a private beach and had a chance to go high-speed tubing which basically involved grabbing a large inflatable attached to a speedboat and attempting to hang on as long as possible. Very painful when you finally let go!

In the sea there is a special type of plankton that glows in the dark, which is great fun to discover at about midnight when you’ve had too many drinks!

Exhausted from early-morning wake ups and late-night swims, we retreated to Hanoi to end our trip in Vietnam. The next morning we hoped to pick up our visas and leave, the embassy’s computer network had other ideas though and stopped working, meaning our labels couldn’t be printed and we’d have to wait another day. On top of this annoyance we had to pay for the visas in US dollars at a branch of a bank several miles away! We took a very sweaty walk but got to the bank at 11.35am to discover there is a lunch break between 11.30am and 1pm! Luckily we sorted it all out and our passports were returned with shiny Chinese visas in the next day.

This ended my second stint in Vietnam (and Letha’s first), we really enjoyed our 4 weeks. Vietnam is such an interesting country to travel as you can learn so much about the history and take a break from it all by basking in its awesome scenery whilst enjoying a tasty bowl of noodle soup. Many travellers seem to miss Vietnam and chose to spend more time in Thailand but it’s a huge mistake, I’d have it as my favourite country in South-East Asia now.

I’ll update very soon on the begins of our trip in China, stay tuned!

Posted by pullboy 00:09 Comments (0)

Vietnam: The Middle

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It’s been a week or so of stopping off at beachside locations in Vietnam, enjoying the sunshine (and less rain), filling our backpacks to near-bursting point and seeing some of Vietnam's cultural sights. We've well and truly been on the well-worn backpacking route, but we've really enjoyed it all. I last updated when we arrived in Nha Trang, since then we have been to the ancient town of Hoi An, and the ancient but almost flattened Hue in the centre of the country. We've now arrived in my favourite city in South-East Asia, Hanoi.

There isn't a whole lot to write about Nha Trang, it's a small city on the coast. Everything on the beachside is dedicated to tourism with plenty of choices of guesthouses, restaurants, bars and souvenir shops. It’s the kind of place that you'd go to on a nice week-long holiday when not hugely bothered about anything except the beach and a book. We took it as (yet another) holiday within a holiday and enjoyed time just relaxing, and enjoying a few drinks in the evening with Jan, a great Dutch guy we seem to have seen everywhere since Laos!

Our travel from Saigon to Hanoi has been via bus, which allow you to 'hop' on and off along the route at set destinations. This is what I mean by being on the well-worn trail of travellers. There are several bus companies but they all do the same 5 or 6 stops. There are a few bad stories about bus companies being unsafe and very uncomfortable at times but after a bit of research we picked one (Sinh Tourist) that has been fantastic. To save time we completed two legs overnight on a 'sleeper bus' which after a couple of sleeping tablets aren't too bad at all!

The next stop after Nha Trang was Hoi An, a stunning riverside town with lovely cobbled streets and historic buildings in the old town, you could spent a couple of days just walking through and sitting relaxing on a bench by the riverside. Hoi An has gained a reputation as a town of tailors. Every other shop, house or market stall will custom make suits, shirts, coats, shoes or whatever you like a rock bottom prices. We picked a couple of places that looked good quality and I ended up walking away with 3 shirts, a fitted business suit and an overcoat (think Jose Mourinho...) all for about £140! Letha also got some work trousers and a coat made. The only problem is that it has added about 10kg to our luggage; it'll be worth it though!

After Hoi An, we moved onto Hue (my lazy way of spelling Huế), which we had spent a night in when first getting to Vietnam from Laos but didn't see anything except a bed and a bus station. This time we spent a couple of days there seeing the 200 year old citadel- the old walled city surrounded by a moat, and also cycled around the surrounding countryside to a royal tomb of a previous dynasty here. As it is very central, Hue was once the capital of Vietnam and this is obvious by the extravagance of some parts of it. Unfortunately a lot of the buildings inside were destroyed by American and French during the wars here.

As well as some sweaty cycling to the tombs, I also got Letha and Jan to cycle to the other side of the Citadel insisting I wanted to see the 'fortress' marked on the map. Upon arriving we discovered the fortress was not the several hundred year old building with old cannons that I'd expected but an out of bounds military area! We moved on pretty quickly...

So another couple of sleeping tablets and 15 hours overnight on a bus has landed us in Hanoi, Vietnam's capital and a colourful, loud and beautiful mix of everything that is so addictive about Vietnam. Our Chinese Visas are being processed unwillingly by the embassy here which gives us a few days to cruise Halong Bay and for me to continually tell Letha how much I love Hanoi!

Posted by pullboy 20:19 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Vietnam: The bottom

sunny 34 °C

Our month long visas in Vietnam are ticking along nicely and we've spent about a week between Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City); Vietnam's largest city, and Mui Ne; a small beachside town with a lot of wind and sand dunes.

A quick word on the name for those that don't fully know Vietnam's history. Post world-war 2 the communist North Vietnamese under the direction of President Ho Chi Minh (translation: bringer of the light) attempted to reunite with the south. First the French and then the Americans butted in, supporting the South. With the result of the 'American War' still in question he died in 1969, 6 years before Saigon was captured and Vietnam reunited. The old capital of the South was officially renamed in 'Uncle Ho's' honour, but is still referred to as Saigon by the locals.

Anyway, the city is a motorbike-filled, tout-ridden mess on the whole. The North Vietnamese say the South is obsesses with money and they're right if HCMC is anything to go by. We timed ourselves walking out of our guesthouse to see how long it took for someone to try and sell us a book, a pair of sunglasses a hammock... I don't think we ever made 2 minutes. There are enough interesting things to see from the war there though which kept us interested for a couple of days, plus the backpacker area has a pretty decent bar/restaurant scene! We took a trip out to the very interesting Chu Chi Tunnels about 60km outside of the city. Despite being stuck behind a group of Malaysians that seemed to want to photograph everything possible, we really enjoyed the history lesson.

The area had a few villages in that were used to shelter Viet Cong (North Vietnamese 'freedom' fighters) during the war. To avoid airstrikes/solider attacks from the Americans, they dug out an elaborate network of tunnels in the hillside which meant they could live for days or weeks underground. Some of the original tunnels have been restored and widened for big western bottoms to crawl through. Perfect if you like crawling in the dark! We also learnt about their homemade booby-traps which caught out a good few American soldiers. Also at the tunnels there is an area you can fire all kinds of guns, with live ammunition! Too good of an opportunity for me to miss, so I picked up an AK-47 and fired my 10 bullets... very loud!

8DSCF2402.jpgDSCF2415.jpg Chu Chi tunnels

We also visited the 'War Remnants Museum' in the city which contains an impressive collection of American planes and tanks that were left over. It was formed called 'The Museum of American War Crimes'. This was obviously changed for diplomatic reasons, but some of things that the Americans got up to are beyond shocking. We also learn about the problems normal people in Vietnam have faced with deformed births because of the chemicals used during the war.

DSCF2425.jpg Letha intrigued by the American fighter jets

After our history lessons Mui Ne up the coast seemed to be a good place to relax for a few days. It had a nice beach but it was almost impossible to get to because of the huge line of resorts that block off the beach from the main road. The government here seem intent on selling every inch of land in a decent spot! The other problem with the beach was the wind; perfect for the groups of windsurfers that call the place home, but not so good for sunbathing! Just outside of the town there are several nice sand dunes of differing colours that made a great day-trip in an old jeep. Oh and the fresh barbequed fish was amazing too!


We've now found a non-windy beach about 5 hours further up the coast, in Nha Trang. It’s Vietnams most popular beach holiday destination and not just for foreigners either- school holidays have started here so there are plenty of families and wannabe spring breakers up from Saigon too! I'll write about here next time.

As a footnote, for those that haven't seen on Facebook I'll be flying home on August 8th from Beijing. Just 5000km of bus/train rides and I'll be there... it’s a long way north!

Posted by pullboy 07:14 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Getting going in Vietnam (at last)

Its taken us a little while to get going in Vietnam, there were a couple of terrible days of waiting and travelling in order to get over the border and then we spent a couple of nights on the central coast, in Danang. Since then we’ve flown down to Ho Chi Minh City to really start our travel from the south up.

It was never going to be a fun trip from Pakse in Laos to Hue in Vietnam, there are several warnings about buses being missold on this route and taking longer than expected. There was no warning in any guidebook we read that they would just cancel our bus at 6am after we’d gotten up, packed and checked out though. Apparently only 6 people had booked the bus for that day, it wasn’t profitable, and therefore it was just cancelled!

We trotted back and checked back into our room for another night in dull Pakse (we’d already spent a day doing nothing waiting for our Vietnam visas to start) having being told the bus would certainly run the next morning, another 6am wake up! I’d been feeling a little bit off for a couple of days but having eaten a bit of breakfast my stomach suddenly felt terrible, a mixture of cramps, holding back from being sick and sweats/shivers followed for the rest of the day. Perhaps the missed bus was a blessing in disguise.

We went to bed not knowing whether I’d be well enough to even get up the next day as I’d barely moved for the past 12 hours. I’d discovered through trial and error that even a handful of nuts or a few swigs too much water could make my stomach feel ten times worse, so I laid off the food and tried my hardest to get some sleep.

Having gotten up for the bus the next day we waited a short time before being told the bus was running (I’d have much preferred another days rest, but the tickets were non-refundable). The ‘VIP’ bus we were loaded onto, and paid extra for, didn’t possess any aircon and was filthy. We were the only foreigners on the bus, most were Vietnamese and no one could speak any English so we were pretty alone for the entire trip. The trip was typical for Laos bus travel, the driver didn’t lay off the horn for more than 10 seconds, we kept stopping to load rice and boxes and the lack of air con meant windows were kept open meaning dust constantly sweeping through.

It was a battle with my stomach the entire way, but a mixture of paracetamol, rehydration sachets, other pills and no food held that off but completing a bumpy 12 hour trip whilst feeling so rough certainly isn’t advised to anyone. Especially when there isn’t even a stop at a proper squat toilet on the way, let alone a sit-down western toilet!

We stayed a night in Hue, a very historic city, but didn’t get to see any of it this time as we moved straight on to Danang where we had a flight booked out of. This would give us a couple of days in Danang and would leave Hue to explore when we pass back through on the way north in a couple of weeks.

Danang may ring a bell with some of you became of its role in the Vietnam War (or the American War as it referred to here), it was where the first Americans came onshore and many important battles were fought around here. We passed many lines of gravestones by the road proving this. We spent our time here viewing some of the museams and just outside the city around China Beach.

DSCF2391.jpg China Beach, slowly being taken over by resorts

Taking an internal flight was the compromise with missing out Cambodia; as Vietnam is so long and thin with its two biggest cities in the far north and far south, its best to start at one and head to the other. Danang is about halfway between the two so we’d be doing a lot of backtracking in order to complete it overland.

This is just the start of about 4 weeks we’ll spend in Vietnam. After passing through Singapore Malaysia, Thailand and Laos quite quickly it will be nice to spend some time just in one country. This will give us a chance to really feel like we know somewhere, learn a bit more of the language than ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’, and also have the chance to stay somewhere a little while longer if we really like it. Because of the rain last time I was here, I barely saw anything outside of Hanoi, so most of it will be new to me too.

Already we’ve found time passing very quickly here and we’ve filled up our plans for our entire visas. How some people come through Vietnam for just a couple of weeks is beyond me. Although much of the architecture was destroyed during the wars there is still so much to see here: ancient ruins, world-class beaches, fascinatingly busy cities, interesting food and landscapes that at times are just breathtaking. I’m very pleased to be back…

Vietnam. Spot Danang/Hue in the centre and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in the south. We'll be hopping on/off a bus from here to Hanoi in the north.

Posted by pullboy 19:26 Comments (0)

Too chilled to write...

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So a 30 degree day at home?! I can’t remember the last time it was 30 degrees here; it’s always so much warmer! Aside from in our current room in Laos that is, the air-con (we splashed out) is either on full or off, so our options are sweating or shivering…

This isn’t the only place that has been chilled (excuse the word-play), as Laos is still as slow-paced and relaxing as I remember it being last time I was here. Although the main tourist places we first visited have cottoned-on to their being big ‘Kip’ to be made by overcharging tourists, however it’s easy to find your way away from this; something we have been doing on Don Det and now in Pakse, in the south of Laos.

I last updated from Vientiane, which was just really another city to us. A couple of days probably would have been sufficient but we arrived on a weekend and had to stay to sort out onward visas (it’s hard to do this outside of the capital). We have now made the decision not to travel south through Cambodia and just move straight on to Vietnam instead as my passport is lacking the space needed. This is a shame for Letha who was looking forward to it, but the hassle and expense of trying to get me a new passport would be just too much. Luckily the Vietnamese agreed to place my visa label on a previous page so I still have enough room for a Chinese visa later on.

In Vientiane we saw the obligatory sights, the French styled buildings, the riverfront overlooking Thailand, a couple of temples and their main road based on the Champs D’Elysees with a Laos style Arc De Triomphe at the top. We considered getting a couple of baguettes and berets to pose for a photo but decided against it…

Since the north of Laos we have been following the Mekong River south, we continued this with our next stop of Si Phan Don- translated as Four Thousand Islands. By this stage of it journey the Mekong is very wide (it starts in China) and supports several inhabited islands in the middle of it which the river forks around. When all the small ones are included and in dry season when the river is lower they number, you guessed it, around four thousand. We stayed on Don Det, one of the larger islands at about 6km long and 1 km wide. It is one of the most relaxed places I’ve ever been, apart from hiring a bicycle to see the rice paddies and waterfalls there’s not a lot to do other than string up a hammock or relax in a restaurant enjoying an ice-cold Beer Lao chatting to like-minded travellers.

After a few sleepy days here we have moved up to Pakse, a ‘transport hub’ which allows travel to other sights nearby. Yesterday we took a trip to Wat Phu Champasak, a historic temple which has been a place of worship since the 5th Century. I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with the modern Buddhist temples here as they feel a bit tacky sometimes, but the old temples built during the Angkor period here I find fascinating. It was also good for Letha to see Angkor-era ruins as she’ll miss the temples in Cambodia. This was a lot less-crowded and more authentic ruin anyway!

Tomorrow we cross the border into Vietnam to the central coast. Hué will be our first stop followed by Danang (the landing point of Americans during the war). I’ll update from there.

Enjoy the sun!

Posted by pullboy 05:18 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

Retracing a bumpy road

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It has been over a week since I last updated on here, that’s mainly because I have been revisiting places I’ve previously described and motivation is pretty low, but also because we’ve spent a lot of times on very tedious, tiring Laos buses!

When I was in Laos last year I took quite a sensible route, arriving from the north and working my way south along the main (or only) highway to the capital Vientiane before leaving for Vietnam. This time we were intent on getting to Vang Vieng for Letha’s birthday so have ended up travelling about 11 hours into the mountains only to turn around and backtrack to where we first entered!

We spent a few days each in Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang, which seemed to have changed slightly from when I was last here. I’m currently writing from a rooftop bar in Vientiane, the capital of Laos.

Vang Vieng is often described (as I did last time) as a stunningly beautiful valley but overrun by backpackers intent on destroying their livers. Jagged mountains set the backdrop against rivers and rice paddies and hiring a bike as we did one day to ride around the local villages and visiting caves makes a fun if bumpy daytrip. The real draw for us though was the tubing, where drinks are served and loud music played on makeshift platforms over the river. ‘Tubers’ float down the river on tractor inner tubes having a rowdy and sociable time, stopping as they go. Perfect for Letha’s 25th!

After two days on the river and a couple of days relaxing/recovering between them, we moved onto Luang Prabang, a very French city in the middle of Laos. This country’s French colonial past is evident from the first time you ride down the right-hand side of the road. When you see winebars and can order amazing crossiants, baguettes and coffee in the middle of such as undeveloped country, it’s a very strange feeling! Luang Prabang is the perfect example of this, but its mixed with Lao too, the city has many nice Buddhist temples and architecture. We visited and also probably the best set of waterfalls I have seen anywhere on my travels (you may remember the pictures from last time).

From Luang Prabang we took the bus the full 11 hours back to Vientiane where we entered from Thailand 8 days ago. It would have been a lot quicker, but the driver seemed to be unable to actually control a bus, we took detours to pick up rice and vegetables and the bus kept stalling (and maybe hit a dog/cat too). We made it eventually though, 210 miles in 11 hours… the maths just makes it more depressing!

The main reason we’ll be stopping here is so I can pre-arrange a Cambodian visa (and try to allocate it a spot in my very full passport), however I forgot that weekends exist and the embassy isn’t open until Monday morning! It’s hard keeping track of what day it is out here…!
I’ll update fully with what we’ve been up to in Vientiane next time, when I’ll hopefully be in procession of a visa! We’ve still got a little time in Laos though as we’re planning a couple of stops in the south when we leave here.

We spent our first day today at a Buddhist temple with a difference. Its set in a forest and offers a traditional lemongrass sauna and massages. We followed this by an hour of meditation with a couple of the monks. If you have seen how bumpy and windy the roads are out here, you’ll know we earned it!

Posted by pullboy 05:36 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

Buddhas in Bangkok

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I'm now writing from Laos, where we arrived a few hours ago having travelled up to Bangkok from the Southern Thai islands, spending a few days there, and then caught a train last night. It’s a been a busy and tiring few days, mainly due to two lengthy journeys, but also because we tried to cram in a lot in a short space of time in Bangkok

It was my fifth time passing through the city so you’d think I’d seen everything here, but to be honest I have never really left the Ko San Road (‘backpacker ghetto’) area. We arrived very early on Monday morning as annoyingly our bus decided to arrive before its scheduled time of 5am (a first). I was half unconscious due to slipping a couple of valiums to help with my sleep on the bus journey, which really didn't help navigating a city at that time.

Having secured ourselves a box-room in a guesthouse and got a few more hours sleep, we had two real goals for our time in Bangkok, to actually see a few of the main sights, and to meet up with two Australians that I lived with in London for 5 months last year. After some problems with mobile phones we eventually met up in the evening for a good catch-up and a few Singhas and Changs (Thailand’s most famous beers). It's great seeing friends on the road, especially when they had been travelling across Europe and had stories to tell too- it’s such an important part of travel for me.

On our only real full day we set out to see the Royal Palace and a couple of famous Buddhist temples. After dodging scamming tuk-tuk drivers and touts we got to see the Palace, an impressive and extravagant complex of buildings and temples. Each is beautifully decorated by stone-work, images of the Buddha and bright glasswork. It’s similar to the Royal Palace in Cambodia that I saw at the start of last year, but still worthwhile for me seeing (and obviously more so for Letha who is enjoying her first time in Asia).

We saw two of Thailand’s most treasured items, the Emerald Buddha- a statue actually made of Jade which has a history of being captured and then reclaimed from Laos. Also a huge 40m reclining Buddha which takes up a whole temple building to itself and is just unnecessarily big!

Being in a city we’ve also been out eating at all the street stalls that are so common in Asia. Top of the menu is always the backpacker favourite dish of Phad Thai (chicken, vegetables, peanuts and noodles in tamarind sauce), but we’ve also been trying other dishes which mostly are based around rice and noodles. The dishes tend to be altered to fit the sweet tooths of Westerners when in very touristy areas but more authentic food can always be found in cities.

Food is one area of coming to a new country that I love experiencing, and is a real part of learning a new culture and country. Wherever I end up I’ll always attempt to try a few of the speciality dishes of the region and carefully study what the locals around me are eating (and sometimes more interestingly, how they eat it). Thai food, whilst it can be very hot, is now nearing Indian as my favourite world cuisine!

As I’ve previously mentioned, this part of Asia is in its quiet period (despite the school/university breaks in Europe and the States), this is due to the wet season arriving. We’ve dodged most rain so far with a typical day consisting of nice open patches of sunshine, gradually getting taken over by cloud/mugginess, resulting in some spectacular downpours in the evenings. The humidity is fine when just relaxing on a nice beach but in the cities and when moving around with a backpack it can definitely be uncomfortable (especially when little Letha needs help with her bag too!)

We decided on splashing out an extra 200baht (4 pounds) for an aircon carriage for the 13 hour train ride up to Laos last night, a worthwhile investment! Crossing the border at around 10am we then caught a mini-bus up to Vang Vieng, a backpacker haven where we'll celebrate Letha's birthday tomorrow.

Posted by pullboy 04:54 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

Thai beach and island-hopping

As the title suggests, the past week of my travels in South-East Asia have been spent on the beautiful islands of Thailand. This is somewhere I have always felt I can come back to at any time and enjoy myself without feeling like I’ve done it all before. If a beach gets boring, there’s always another pristine white one a couple of bays away, if a new island is what you’re after there are others just a short boat ride away with a different vibe and a different feel.

The two islands for our mini-break in paradise have been Koh Phangan and Koh Tao, both on the Eastern side of Thailand’s south and close to the more familiar and upmarket Ko Samui.

I’d visited Koh Phangan before for the popular and rather cramped backpacker Full Moon Party, this was last March on my way home the first time. Arriving at the end of May and the start of the wet season, and with all the revellers from the previous Full Moon a week ago having departed, the party centre of Haad Rin was strangely quiet. We picked up a room at the most infamous guesthouse ‘Coral Bungalows’ for a third of their maximum rates.

The quietness is, of course, relative. We still managed to find a small crowd of Irish and English to have a few Chang Beers and a short dance on the beach with! A few days was enough though and we decided to aim to move to a beach further north, Than Sadet.

DSCF2197.jpg Dancing and buckets on Koh Phangan

Koh Phangan is quite a large island, about 30km from north to south, and moving around in the quiet season when there isn’t too many share taxis available can be expensive. We scored a free ride up to a turning to the quieter beach but got rather stuck as the taxis trucks I waved down wanted too much money for the rest of the journey. Luckily however, an Australian lady, her friend and their 2 kids allowed us to squeeze in with them to Thong Nai Pan Yai, just north and within walking distance of where we wanted to be.

We liked the beach so much that we stayed on Thong Nai Pan Yai and visited Than Sadet the next day via a walking track. The walk was easy enough to follow but quite hilly and difficult in the heat, taking over an hour in total. The hunt for the waterfalls we wanted to see took even longer! We ended up missing the turning, walking down a slope to the river and following the river back to the waterfalls, it was great fun jumping over the river, between rocks, slipping on slopes and falling in though! We saw all the layers of the waterfall and even got in for a cooling-off dip. We ended up crashing a day-tour boat and getting a reduced rate on a longtail boat home rather than walking again!

DSCF2322.jpgDSCF2308.jpgDSCF1993.jpg Waterfall hunting and views of beaches

Having never been to the next island of Koh Tao and hearing great things about it, it was naturally our next stop on the way back to the mainland. I love it here! Of all the Thai Islands I have visited (6 and counting) it is definitely my favourite. The island is based around its huge Scuba Diving industry but even without diving we’ve loved our time here and feel we could stay for weeks.

We visited a few of the beaches today and some of them are just breathtaking. I think because it is so less developed than its sister islands, it feels so such more relaxed and the friendly locals feel more authentic than the ‘Oh you’re from England, lovely jubbly mate’ guys of elsewhere. On our nearer beach each bar has mats on the floor just to chill out on and rope swings hanging from the palm trees overhead. Perfect!

DSCF2056.jpgDSCF2024.jpgDSCF2016.jpg Postcard perfect Koh Tao

The bustling (read: busy, loud, stressful) city of Bangkok is certainly going to be a slap in the face after this and we start to venture there via a 15-hour boat and bus package overnight. I have ex-housemates to catch up with and then our all-too-short Thai Visas will be close to expiration.

Posted by pullboy 07:06 Comments (0)

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