Thailand: start of the rainy season in Bangkok and Koh Phi Phi

I left Sihanoukville early in the morning and by lunch-time had arrived at the Thai  border.  After a few minutes was out of Cambodia and back into Thailand. I’m not a smoker but if you are then Cambodia would be a good place for you to stock up; some hawkers at the border were flogging 200 Marlboro cartons for $5!

I then caught another two buses and by 9 pm was back in Bangkok.

The weather had turned from when I was there 2 weeks earlier, as the rainy season had kicked in.  So the boiling hot sun had been replaced by tropical rain showers. This restricted my movements slightly and meant the pool where I was staying was unfortunately not required.

Rain showers kept me indoors and out of the swimming pool:

For the few days I was in Bangkok I took advantage of being in the big city by visiting various malls/shopping centres,  and taking-in the crazy backpacker district of Khao San road.  I probably think of all cities I’ve ever been Bangkok is the best for shopping.  You can get everything (of varying quality) at rock bottom prices.  And the lovely Thai people make it stress-free with their huge smiles and delightful temperaments.

A busy road in the centre of Bangkok:

After I was shopped-out and my bag was bursting at the seams I caught a night bus down to Krabi in the south of the country where I hopped on a ferry to the island paradise of Koh Phi Phi.

Leaving Krabi:

Approaching Phi Phi:

And the video of the approach:

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Phi Phi town:

Unfortunately as I found out in Fiji, island paradises are not immune to rain, and similar to Bangkok I arrived just at the start of the rainy season. This meant in the few days I stayed on Phi Phi I only got to the beach twice. Fortunately the hotel I had randomly chosen had an awesome group of Thai staff members who made my time really enjoyable. On the first night I was there they invited me for a lovely Thai BBQ and the next day when it rained all day they kindly took several hundred Thai Baht off me in an awesome card-game called Kyang.

One of the friends of the hotel brought a huge snake in a bag.  It had killed and eaten his cat so he was going to kill it back:

Rainy-day activity, losing money to wily Thais:

Over the few days I just chilled out talking to the guys at the hotel and filling my tum with delicious Thai meals and fresh-fruit-ice-smoothies (strawberry and lime became my favourite). In the evenings the island steps up the tempo and there is a bar for everybody’s taste. My personal favourite was the Rolling Stoned bar where a cover band performs top rock tunes every night, and are always happy to take requests. If you visit the beach at night you are treated to numerous fire shows with up to 15 performers all twirling fire around their bodies at the same time.

Some guy climbed a tree with no ropes and then hacks at the coconuts with a machete. Look out below!

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Quick the sun came out, get to the beach!!

And what a glorious beach it is.  This is known as the back beach:

This is the more popular beach on the other side of the town:

Here comes the rain.  This was about 30 minutes after the above photo was taken.  A huge storm ensued:

Several cats lived at the hotel.  This was the awesomest one called Milky; not only did he look like a mini snow leopard, he also killed rats:

With only 2 days until my flight from Kuala Lumpur to Tokyo I had to leave Koh Phi Phi and take the night bus into Malaysia. Once back in KL I contacted my favourite group of Malaysians: Maggie, Shirleen and Samanta, who had been beyond hospitable the last time I was there. With Samanta up in Ipoh and Maggie at work it meant it was just Shirleen and I who spent the afternoon looking for a new pair of jeans for yours truly, in one of the KL shopping malls.

Later in the evening we met up with Maggie and made our way to a Dim-Sum restaurant (the girls knew this was my favourite) where I ate until my stomach hurt. We then went to Maggie’s mum’s food court and I somehow managed to force down a fresh-fruit ais kacang.

Inside this desert is shaved ice which has absorbed the fruit juices.  Delicious and refreshing when its 35 degrees at 10pm!

With the girls, Shirleen (left) and Maggie (right):

The next morning Shirleen again extended her duties by offering me a lift to the airport for my flight to Tokyo! BANSAI!!  I hope one day I can repay all these delightful people who have gone above and beyond to make me feel welcome in their countries.

Cambodia: hitting the beach at Sihanoukville

My last stop in Cambodia was the seaside resort of Sihanoukville on the south-west coast.   This small town had a fairly strange layout with a town-centre a couple of kms inland and then several different beaches off in different directions dotted up the coast.  The biggest development was where I stayed at Serendipity beach.  I heard of this place from a couple of travellers as the place with the cheapest accommodation going: free.  One of the hostels offered free beds during low season and a negligible $1 during high season.  Despite the temptation I decided to treat myself to my own double room in a beachside hotel instead that cost $7 a night.

After my fun in Phnom Penh on the scooter I decided to hire one again in Sihanoukville so immediately got myself a Honda Click for $4 a day and rode around the windy roads to the various beaches, just having a look around.

The following day my Filipino friends who had been following me around Cambodia showed up 😉 and I spent an evening at their hotel bar playing, and getting beat at connect-4 with their very entertaining bar-tender.

The next night we went out for a meal and found a place that had a rather interesting buffet:

Doesn’t look so bad…

But when you get close-up you soon see what they’re trying to serve you:

And a few crickets for good measure:

Although they didn’t taste bad, they didn’t taste good either.  Rather like a salty piece of edible plastic or something.  I had no desire to have any more.  I also tried another local favourite, snails, which were slimy and rank.

Luckily, more edible delicious Cambodian options were available which we quickly got stuck into:

After the meal we hit the beach where we bought and set-off some fireworks that the locals were selling before hitting up one of the many beachside bars for a bit of dancing.

The beach at Sihanoukville, whilst not up to the standards I had experienced earlier in my trip, was pleasant enough with white sand and luke-warm water and so I spent a couple of afternoons chilling under the parasol and every now and then going for a dip to cool off.

The beach is that way! and that way!

Occidental Beach,  about a 20 minute ride over dodgy terrain from the main town:

One of the beaches more popular with the locals.  You might be able to make them out in the water, fully clothed, as is the culture in Cambodia.  I joined in a game of footy with the locals off the back of this beach which was the first footy I’d played in yonks:

One of the other spots I stumbled upon whilst cruising on my scooter was a place at which Cambodian youngsters would come to feed a troop of wild monkeys that lived in the forest, away from the road.  Whilst the ethics of this practice are a bit iffy I decided to join in and so bought some crisps to feed them.

Monkeys!

This cheeky little rascal saw an opportunity and went for it.

And here the rest of its mates play around:

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The next night I went to the Filipinos hotel for one last go at game-playing (getting beat at Jenga this time) before saying farewell to them.  I would be heading north-west to Thailand, and they east to Vietnam.  I’d had a really awesome time with them, they were four of the coolest travelling buddies you could hope to meet.

Cambodia: killing fields at Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh has had a crazy recent history.  Without going into too much detail, as the capital city it was the centre-piece for the Khmer Rouge disaster.  The Khmer Rouge were a disgusting extreme-left political party led by the abominable Pol Pot, responsible for the genocide of approximately one fifth of the countries then 11 million people including anyone with a university education or as a proxy, if you wore glasses!  They evacuated the cities and sent everyone to work in the rice fields and any sort of mis-behaviour resulted in your death.  This all happened between 1975 to 1979 so it’s mind-boggling as you walk around to imagine that anyone middle-aged will have been witness to these crazy, tragic events (and might have been involved with the KR).

As a result the population which was 400,000 prior to the KR era is believed to have dropped to a mere 20,000 consisting mainly KR officials and their families.  Since the Vietnamese saved the day in 1979 the city (and country for that matter) has been rebuilding and there are now around 2 million inhabitants.  The city used to be  described as the Pearl of Asia in the 1920s because of the attractive French architecture but since the French were kicked out it’s become a rather unattractive concrete jungle with the exception of the river-front which has retained the French charm.

Most people seem to travel to Phnom Penh with one thing on their agenda, to visit the killings fields and S-21 prison.   That and Angkor Wat seem to be the big draw cards for going to Cambodia which I guess is a bit of a shame because the former is quite a negative experience but one that’s hard to avoid once you’re there because of some strange intrigue that pulls everybody in….myself being no exception.

So after arriving in Phnom Penh and having a quick explore around the city I had an early night and was up the next day to rent a scooter to drive the 15km out to the killing fields of Choeng Ek.  But not before visiting a local market to get some breakfast down me.

A sea-food restaurant adjacent to the market was selling these little critters.  Some sort of turtle with a piggy-like snout but an internet search says the pig-nosed turtle can only be found in Oz and Guinea, so I don’t know what these animals actually are!

Asian fruits: from the left  durian, mangosteen and rambutan. Very common here, kind of like apples, pears and strawberries back home 🙂

Breakfast in SE Asia could easily be confused with lunch or dinner.  For this brekky in particular I tucked into a bowl of noodles with chopped up spring rolls, fried pork and various herbs and spices:

Around mid-morning I headed out to the killing fields and after paying the $3 entrance fee was given a set of head-phones and as you walk around a narrative explains the various sites.

The basic format for this place was that people suspected of being enemies of the state were first sent to the S-21 prison in Phnom Penh for processing and then shipped out to this place (which was out-of-the-way to avoid unwanted attention) and slaughtered.  As ammunition was expensive,  farming tools such as hammers, scythes and machetes were used, which led to brutal, gruesome deaths.

Around 17,000 people are believed to have been murdered and buried in mass graves here, some of which still haven’t been exhumed (so as to leave the bodies in peace).

It is quite a harrowing experience as you step over human bones and clothes that regularly re-surface  following heavy rains and are left on show.

You might want to skip these photos…..

One of the mass graves:

Clothes and bones are often washed up when rains come.  They are cleared up every month or so:

One of the more shocking parts of the museum is the killing tree.   Here Khmer Rouge henchmen would hold babies by their legs and smash their skulls on the tree.  The bodies would then be thrown in an adjacent pit with their mothers.

Watch your step.  A human jawbone lies exposed in the path:

A Buddhist Stupa filled with 5,000 human skulls:

Close-up:

Back in the city I completed quite a depressing day by visiting the S-21 prison museum.  This used to be a high school, but as schools were no longer needed under KR, it was converted into a prison to house and torture men, women and children the government didn’t like, prior to them being sent to their untimely deaths.  Again, another grim experience because now the ex-class-rooms-cum-prison-cells house thousands of pictures of those that passed through.

The rules of S-21.  Perhaps a bit lost in translation but you get the gist:

Guilty:

All guilty:

The next day was spent crusing around on my bad-ass scooter checking out some sights and trying to survice the crazy Phnom Penh trafic.  One thing you get told and you soon notice about Cambodia is it’s still recovering from the KR.  This means that corruption is rife, and the legal system is flimsy to say the least.  This results in traffic laws being flounted to the extreme.  90% of the traffic is on scooter and it appears that if you are on a scooter:

  • red lights mean: retain your current speed whilst crossing the junction without hitting anybody coming from your left/right;
  • one way streets mean: retain your current speed whilst avoiding anybody coming at you;
  • pavements mean: retain your current speed whilst avoiding other drivers and pedestrians.

Walking down the pavement can be hazardous:

To sum it up you get from A to B by the quickest means possible without hitting anybody else.  Simple really.

Now the police usually won’t stop you for any of the above unless you meet one specific criteria: you appear to be a foreigner, which could result in a bountiful bribe of $5-$10.  I was aware of this prior to commandeering my bike so was extra careful but on this particular day I had left my head-light on (definitely a bribable offence) which quickly dawned on me as two cops started flagging me down with their batons.  Slowing down my mind was racing, and I decided I didn’t want to pay the bribe so hit the gas knocking the policeman’s baton to the side and raced off into the sea of other scooters!  Slightly naughty but I knew they wouldn’t come after me as they would just wait for the next white face.

The next day or so I just spent my time chilling in the hostel pool and taking in some sights of Phnom Penh.

There is a hump in the middle of the city, atop sits an impressive temple Wat Phnom (literally Hill Temple):

Royal palace:

Garuda statue on the riverfront:

Hard morning tuk-tuking for this guy.  You might say he’s tukered out. 😀

On my last day I met up with the Filipinos I had met in Siem Reap and we checked out the national museum which housed hundreds of cool early Khmer statues and archaeological findings.

Monkey warrior.  There were loads of these involved in the mythological Khmer wars:

The national museum:

The remains of a huge thousand-year-old bronze reclining Siva:

Room full of Hindu/Buddhist statues:

Room full of Buddha statues:

No pictures allowed! Right of the picture I’m being approached by an armed guard.  “But I’m British!” I protest:

Later that evening we celebrated Shiela’s birthday again (she was having a birthday month apparently) by visiting a high-class Uruguayan owned Salsa restaurant. After a few glasses of Australian red I was showing the girls the moves I had picked up in Colombia ;).

After my few days in Phnom Penh and witnessing bag snatchings amongst other iffy things, I decided it was probably the dodgiest of places I’d been in SE Asia, and I was coming to realise that Cambodia was probably the least developed of all the places I had been on my trip so far. Definitely not a place for the faint hearted, but thoroughly enjoyable.

Cambodia: temples and massages

I caught the night train from Chiang Mai down to Bangkok, which like the train in Vietnam was thoroughly enjoyable.  The train consisted of normal sit-down seats which were converted to beds at about 11pm after they’d brought out a scrumptious Thai meal.  As I was to find out transport times are massively unreliable in Thailand and the train rolled into Bangkok two hours later than forecast but I wasn’t too concerned as it just meant a bit more time chilling on the air-conditioned train.

The panels above the passengers came down to convert into upper bunk beds and the seats below were collapsed into lower bunks:

As I planned to catch an early train to Cambodia I shacked up as near to the Bangkok train station as possible but unfortunately I could only find a fan room which meant a thoroughly uncomfortable sleep.  As there was no pool I was showering every hour or so just to cool down.

There is only one train to Cambodia a day leaving at 5.55am, and after my alarm went off at 5am I decided another day in Bangkok wouldn’t hurt so much; so I had a lie-in and then spent the day checking out some of the big malls.

That night it was the Manchester derby at 2am and so I didn’t really get much sleep beforehand as I was too excited, not to mention the 40 degree heat keeping me good and sweaty.  And after the disappointment of the loss I was too upset to sleep so didn’t really get any rest at all that night before I was boarding the train at 5.55am!

The train only had 3rd class carriages meaning no AC and bench type hard seats which was awfully uncomfortable and didn’t afford me much sleep.  On the plus side the 6 hour journey cost me just under a pound:

Arriving at the border I made my way into Cambodia, avoiding all the scams that include the immigration officials saying you need to pay an ‘administration fee’ of about £2 which goes straight in their pockets.  On the other side of the border I jumped into a shared taxi and within a couple of hours was in the temple capital of the world, Siem Reap.

Welcome to Cambodia.  The border has a miniature version of the national symbol, Angkor Wat:

Siem Reap is home to nearby world wonder Angkor Wat and the Angkor archaeological park which is home to hundreds of ancient temples dating back a thousand or so years.

After the heat in Bangkok I’d learnt my lesson so booked into a hostel with air-conditioning and a pool; the imaginatively named, Siem Reap Hostel.  After sampling some street food I discovered one of the best things about Siem Reap, $3 hour-long Khmer (meaning Cambodian) massages.  I was so taken by my first one that I walked down the street and got a second!

Seeing Angkor Wat is notoriously best seen at sunrise and after my tiring day of travelling I didn’t fancy that so spent my first-day-proper chilling around the pool and getting another massage 🙂

The next day I was up at 4.30am and negotiating with a tuk-tuk driver to take me around the ruins for the day.   I arrived at Angkor Wat with several hundred other tourists hoping for a spectacular sunrise, and after a short wait mother nature delivered.

Day pass to the archaeological park, cost $20 (or as I unhappily realised, 7 massages):

Crack of dawn with my tuk-tuk driver:

Arriving at the huge walkway over the moat/lake surrounding Angkor Wat:

Inside the walls of Angkor Wat:

Just before the sun showed its face at the main temple:

There he is!

With the help of my Lonely Planet I self-guided my way around the main temple and the bas-reliefs (wall carvings) which depict ancient Hindu/Buddhist stories (Cambodians adopted Indian religious ideas early on which were later taken over by Buddhism).  After working my way around the impressive temple I caught some monkeys clowning around.

The bas-reliefs surrounding the main temple depicting ancient stories of gods, kings and wars:

Nuns in white and monks in orange in the grounds of Angkor Wat:

Angkor Wat main temple:

An ancient library at Angkor Wat:

Monkeys having a scrap:

My next stop was Angkor Thom which is a huge walled ancient city that is believed to have once held a million people.  The centre-piece is the awesome Bayon temple with loads of smiling faces of the King who had the place made for him.

Angkor Thom, Bayon temple, with its 54 towers:

216 smiling faces adorn the 54 towers.  Supposedly a mix between Buddha and King Jayavarman VII by whom the temple was built:

More faces:

Some cool carvings:

A tourist takes in Bayon temple atop an elephant:

Just next door to Bayon in Angkor Thom is the grand Baphuon temple, built to represent Mount Meru. They wouldn’t let me in here because I was wearing a vest, spoil sports:

Sat on some ancient steps in Angkor Thom.  This was about 8am and it was sweltering hot, already high 30s:

And my last stop was Indiana-Jones-like jungle temple Ta Phrom which was my personal favourite.

Much of the temple is entwined in jungle to give the place a really cool atmosphere:

This was the location chosen for some scenes from the Tomb Raider film:

There was way more of the archaeological park I could have explored but by 10am I was so hot and dusty that I was what a lot of travellers called being templed-out so I returned to the sanctity of the air-con and pool!

The Angkor temples were really interesting and what fascinated me was the transition (which could be seen in the architecture) from Hinduism to Buddhism,  with the latter becoming prevalent in modern-day Cambodia.

After another couple of days of chilling by the pool and massages I caught the bus out of Siem Reap to Cambodia capital Phnom Penh but not before meeting five of the most splendid travel buddies ever, Filipinos: Shiela, Dingkay, Kuki, Jo-Ann and JR and celebrating Shiela’s birthday with 35 cent glasses of beer!

Cheap beer:

Celebrating Shiela’s birthday.  Anti-clockwise from the top: Seth, Jo-Ann, Dingkay, Shiela, Kuki, JR, Me:

Siem Reap town:

A local guy takes a bath in the river (bottom right):

Thailand: biking through the mountains to Pai

The  day after the bungy jump we escaped the heat of the city by visiting a local hotel which had a rooftop pool.  We spent the afternoon just soaking in the pool and enjoying the views, before inexplicably I felt the need for a sauna!

The rooftop pool in a swanky hotel in Chiang Mai:

The quintessential Asian pose, performed here sub-aqua:

The Vietnamese girls Trang and Jessie, enjoying the pool:

Sunset over Chiang Mai:

That evening we took in an awesome Thai hot pot.  This consists: a clay bowl that contains red-hot coals, and atop a bowl of steaming water which you proceed to place chunks of meat and vegetables into.  It soon turns into a tasty broth:

Sam had a flight to catch to Malaysia so we said cheerio to him but just as he left we met another yank from Washington DC called Daniel.

The next day Daniel, Eric and I hired motorbikes to make the 150km trip to a popular small town called Pai.  Despite the girls being Vietnamese and therefore being born with tiny scooters attached to them, they didn’t fancy driving because Thai’s drive on the left (ridiculous excuse, I know ;)), so Daniel and I offered our back seats to them.  Eric had rented a 650cc Kawasaki Ninja for the ride so we didn’t think it would be responsible for him to have a passenger.

The journey was epic.  Starting on wide open roads with big sweeping bends to steep-sided mountain sides where there seemed to be endless hairpin curves.  The scenery was awesome, weather perfect and there was hardly any traffic on the road.  I really got into riding that scooter on the trip, I just can’t believe it took me 28 years to get on a motorbike!

A roadside sign celebrates the hugely popular Thai king as we enter the mountains:

The camera does it no justice but we had some awesome views over the tree-covered mountains:

Dan and Trang coming up the mountain:

This might drag on so feel free to skip it!

That’s right, This Guy is buzzing because he’s just rode through the awesome Thai mountains at a million miles an hour (well, anyway, it felt like it):

Once we arrived into the small hippy town of Pai we were hot, dusty and sweaty and desperately in need of a swim. We found a rather plush hotel with a pool and decided to get a couple of rooms there despite it being one of the more expensive options.  The rest of the afternoon we soaked in the pool and later went out for some awesome Thai grub.

They sent me to test this random bridge we found whilst trying to look for hotels.  I gallantly/foolishly accepted:

View from our hotel over the river, and yonder mountains:

Going from 40 degree heat to 30-odd degree water is pure bliss and feels like you are engulfed in silky warmness whilst also being thoroughly refreshed:

The next day we retraced our tracks back to Chiang Mai where I would be spending my last night before catching the overnight sleeping train down to bonkers Bangkok.

Eric races off on his super-powered bike.  We didn’t see him again for several hours:

Thailand: up north in fun capital Chiang Mai.

I travelled back south from Laos tubing-town Vang Vieng to capital Vientiane where I needed to transfer to the international bus that would take me to the Thai city of Udon Thani where my onward coach would take me to Chiang Mai.   However, arriving in Vientiane around lunch-time I found the international bus was sold-out until 5.30pm which would be too late for me to catch onward travel to Chiang Mai.  The alternative option I was forced into taking was the international bus to the Thai side of the border, then a tuk-tuk to another bus station and a local bus to Udon Thani!   In 37 degree heat this was not that enjoyable, especially when I got on the non-air-conditioned local bus in Thailand and had to perch above a kind of bench over the boiling hot engine next to the driver.  Although after several minutes I realised I was the lucky one to have a seat as more and more passengers were crammed into the aisles until it appeared there was no more space as people were stood on the entry stairs but amazingly another 15 or so people were jammed in!

The upside of the journey was that I met 3 guys that would be good travelling buddies over the next week or so: Sam from England, and Trang and Jessie from Vietnam.  Sam was also making the trip to Chiang Mai whilst the girls were staying in Udon Thani for a while but would be travelling to Chiang Mai in a few days.

After what seemed like an eternity squished and roasting on the bus we got to the station in Udon Thani to find out that the night bus was sold-out.   A night in grotty Udon Thani was the last thing on Sam and I’s minds and after a bit of hanging around the ticket booth looking like lost puppies the lady gave us a lifeline (and an extra bit of cash for her and her co-workers!) by offering us the drivers sleeping cabin!  We checked it out and it seemed ok so we snapped up the tickets.  It wasn’t until a few minutes later when another Thai chap and a family were also stuck in there that we realised it might not be as cushty as we thought.

We travelled in the drivers cabin as the bus was sold-out:

Nevertheless we arrived in Chiang Mai the next morning having at least caught a few winks and found ourselves a cheap and cheerful hostel with air-con where we could catch up on some sleep.

The rest of the afternoon we headed out with new yank room-mate, Eric and explored the old town which is set out in a really simple grid-system and is surrounded by a very attractive wall and moat which dates back to the  13th century and was built to keep out the pesky Burmese.

Elephant monument and outer wall of the old town in Chiang Mai:

That evening we attended a Muay Thai event (Thai kick-boxing) which was good fun but pretty poor standard.  There was only one knock-out and that was in one of the earlier matches which appeared to be between two 14-year-old boys (102lbs category)!

Kick to the midriff:

The following day was mostly spent avoiding the near 40 degree heat by staying inside the mercifully air-conditioned room planning some trips for the following days.  But as it cooled slightly in the evening we were able to take-in the huge Sunday market which stretches almost 2km from one end of the old city to the other.

Chicken bottom!?  5B is about 10 pence:

Cute puppies for sale:

Furry United fan:

Capped the evening off with a £1.20 foot massage:

The next morning Eric, Sam and I headed out early and hired scooters so we could drive out of the city and up the windy mountain road for 15km to one of Northern Thailand’s most revered temples Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep which many Thai’s make pilgrimages to.  At a height of 1,073m the temple also offers cooler mountain temperatures which was a real relief coming from the hot city.

After perusing the temple grounds and viewpoints we continued up the mountain to the top to check out the views and then raced back down to the city for our afternoon activity: bungy jumping!

Bike gang, from the left, Sam, Eric and me:

The temple centre-piece:

Outside the temple:

The view from the top of the mountain:

Just as we arrived back at the hostel for lunch I got a message from the two Vietnamese girls that they were at our hostel so they joined us as we headed out to the bungy jumping spot which also had loads of other activities like dirt bikes, buggies and zorbing.

When we arrived at the bungy place I saw the tower up at 50m and the main emotion I felt was probably excitement.  I wasn’t really scared as I knew the safety record of the place and that thousands before me had completed it so after a bit of administration we walked over to the lake over which the tower loomed and Eric stepped up for his jump.  After Eric it was me and I was amazed at how quick it all went.  They strap your legs up, you hop on a lift, you go up, walk to the edge, lean forward and BAM, you hit the water!  I probably expected the impact to be less violent than it was, and even though they told me to close my eyes it happened so quick that I forgot to and lost a contact lens!  The feeling coming down is like nothing I’ve ever felt and it most certainly kept me pumped with adrenaline for the next hour or so.

I Jumped off that:

I heard of a British guy slipping out of the strapping in another part of Thailand (he survived but was badly injured) so I made the guy triple check it was good and tight:

Hopping over to the crane:

Excited:

Pretty weird feeling at that stage as you’re looking over the edge:

Ready to jump:

Very unnatural feeling as you just fall forward:

Leap of faith:

Splash down:

Was pretty disoriented for a bit because of the lost contact lens, being soaking wet and upside down:

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Certified bungy jumper:

After Sam had jumped the girls tried a spot of zorbing as the bungy was not something they fancied:

The excitement was all a bit too much for Eric:

Laos: kayaking down the Mekong at Vang Vieng

The journey from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng is coined as one of the most scenic journeys in SE Asia as you pass through mountains down into the Mekong valley and it didn’t disappoint.  I was lucky to get the front seat of the minivan and was treated to glorious views as we made the 6 hour journey.   In addition it was fairly exciting as our driver was a real Schumacher as he seemed to accelerate into the corners as we wound our way up and down the mountainsides.  He spent the time hunched over the wheel so he could get better control and go faster!

A view up the steep valley side:

First views of the Mekong:

Vang Vieng is a small town which is famous amongst young backpackers for one thing: tubing down the Mekong whilst getting drunk.  The whole town is a tourist whirlpool that seemed only to have guesthouses, restaurants,  bars and a few shops selling Beer Lao vests.  It was rather a shame because the spot is genuinely really attractive with tree-covered-steep-sided mountains jutting up and towering over the lazy brown Mekong, and it just seemed all the Lao character had been squeezed out of the place because of one of SE Asia’s main drawcards for the gap year backpacker.

Arriving in the late afternoon I had missed my chance for a trip down the river so just had a look around the town and decided that a good alternative to tubing/getting drunk would be a one-day tour.  So I bunked down early ready for my 9am start.

The next morning I was picked up and taken to a site about 17km north of the town where after crossing a bamboo bridge and some rice fields we got in some tubes and pulled ourselves into an impressive water-filled cave.  After the hour it took to get to the end and back I was pretty cold as the water didn’t have the benefit of solar heating and was rather chilly; so it was a relief to get back into the sun.

The bamboo bridge to a small rice farming community that also benefits from tourists visiting local caves:

The Water Cave:

Inside on the tubes in the chilly water:

Last glimpse of natural light:

After lunch we checked out the elephant cave which is so-called because a section of the limestone has formed in the shape of an elephant.  There’s also some cool Buddhas in there.

Spot the resemblance:

Looking out from elephant cave:

Buddha:

Next it was time to get in the kayaks, and I was partnered with a bio-medical professor called Paolo from Sardinia who had been at a conference in Hanoi before taking a short holiday in Laos.  As it was the middle of dry season the river was low and a real chocolatey brown colour but we still had some good rapids to go down and just before we got to the main tubing area, in the most turbulent, fast-flowing part we somehow managed to capsize!

Paolo and I:

A long bamboo bridge over the river used by locals, and in the foreground one of our guides prepares the kayak:

Once we arrived at the tubing area we cruised past all the riverside bars blasting out European dance music and stopped at the quieter last bar where we played with catapults and saw this cool talking bird.

The tubing area is a collection of maybe a dozen bars within about 300m of each other and tubers sit in rubber rings between stopping at as many as they want (some don’t bother with the rings).  They also have rope swings, slides and zip lines but when I passed through most were closed because of the low river level or because the police had shut them down due to the high injury rate.  Here is one such bar:

The talking bird:

After an hour or so at the bar we kayaked the final 4km before arriving in Vang Vieng.

After seeing the tubing area and hearing a few stories I decided that I wouldn’t really be missing much if I didn’t partake having already done the kayaking,  so controversially I decided against doing it and the next day made my way to Thailand instead.

Laos: 3-day water fight in Luang Prabang for Lao new year

I arrived in Luang Prabang at about 8am after the night bus from Lao capital Vientiane on the morning of the first day of Pi Mai, or Lao New Year (this year is 2,555 in the Buddhist calendar). Having heard stories from friends and other travellers I knew what was in store over the next three days:  getting soaking wet.  So I was slightly relieved to arrive at the guesthouse having avoided any water attacks and having my luggage still dry.

But from that moment on it would be a different story and donning my swimming shorts and a vest I hit the streets.  First stop was the morning market where shrewd vendors were cashing in on the holiday by selling new-year-related products such as good-luck-birds, flowers to gift to buddha and water pistols.  Even early in the morning there was a real buzz going around the streets but after getting some brekky and browsing the market stalls I returned to the guest-house to catch up on some of the sleep lost on the overnight bus.

On the left you can see lots of makeshift paper cages built to house small finch-like birds that one can purchase and release for good luck.  And I believe the rodent type creature tied by his hind legs and left to hang in the beating sun was also up for grabs.  Not sure animal activists would be best pleased with this:

Close-up of the small finches in their cages.  Bit snide really.  And throws up a tricky question: do you pay for them so you can release them or would that be supporting and therefore encouraging a pretty cruel practice?

After a few hours kip the hotelier recommended I visit a party being held on an island in the middle of the Mekong river so I hit the streets and by the time I got to the ferry crossing I was soaked to the bone, but considering it was in the mid-30s it was actually quite pleasant.

The general format for new year is that anybody that owns a shop, travel agency, restaurant, bar or even just a house blasts out music and has a barrel of water and hose pipe out front.  Then a group of people arms themselves with water pistols,, bottles, large bowls and anybody walking past gets wet.  In addition there are just people cruising the streets on foot or in vehicles who will refill their weapon of choice at these establishments and start mini-wars as they work their way around the town.  In addition to water there is also flour and coloured paints being thrown and smeared.

If you have a camera or electronic device it is assumed that you have waterproofed it, because no one os going to stop to ask if they can soak you:

Heading out to the island party on a long-boat:

The island party:

After joining the revellers at the island party for a couple of hours I headed back to the town where I jumped on the back of a pick-up truck and drove around the town with a new group of friends having water fights along the way.

My new Lao friends on the back of their pick-up:

Starting fights:

This guy is asking for trouble:

And he gets it. In your face!

There are no age restrictions:

After the sun went down it was back to the guesthouse for a shower and change of clothes before joining a group of guys from the guesthouse at the local nightclub for some dancing.

The next day was the new year procession which is kind of like a British carnival procession but Asian flavoured.

Some traditionally dressed women lead the way:

I liked the monkeys:

Apparently the woman on the bull is Miss Laos but she quite rudely only faced one direction so I only saw the back of her head:

Show us your fangs:

After the procession it was as we’d left off the day before with more street water fights and ending up in the same night club!

What’s on the menu? Pig head:

I don’t fancy pig head, do you have anything else? Chicken head:

The sun goes down over the Mekong on the second day of Pi Mai:

On the third day I decided to explore the town a bit before starting up again with the street fighting.  Of course this didn’t stop others getting me.

Luang Prabang is full of attractive temples and buildings like this, the city’s museum:

The most popular temple is at the top of a steep hill which strangely juts up in the middle of the city and therefore offers great panoramic views of the city and surrounding area.

To the West lies the mighty Mekong river which runs from Tibet to the Vietnamese coast:

To the East a tributary meanders through the mountains down to the Mekong.  In the distance you can just about see the impressive golden Wat Phol Phao:

Overlooking the city to the south:

The golden temple tower atop the hill can be seen from miles around:

After re-joining the ruckus after my cultural side-step I met up with the Lao guys I’d met on the first day.   They very kindly offered to take me out for a traditional Lao BBQ which was absolutely delicious, and then we all headed to karaoke to sing in the new year.

The sun goes down over the streets of Luang Prabang after day 3 of Pi Mai.  What an awesome 3 days:

The great thing about Pi Mai was that all social barriers are broken down.  People in Laos are friendly enough normally but at Pi Mai the whole country is on holiday and in fine spirits.  Locals and travellers all join in and just have a really good time.  It was definitely a highlight of my trip so far.

Laos: a journey to be forgotten to Lao capital Vientiane!

As soon as I arrived back from my Halong Bay trip I was whisked away to my 24 hour sleeper bus that would take me out of Vietnam and into Laos.  What ensued was a stinker of a  journey which started with the staff at the bus terminal. After refusing to give any information to anybody about when the bus would leave they then only let the Vietnamese passengers on the bus so they could pick the best seats.  When an English bloke who had been at the front of the line waiting for ages decided enough was enough and pushed his way onto the bus,  the staff started ushering the westerners to the back of the bus where instead of the usual 3 seats across there were 5 squashed together.   Luckily I managed to give the cheeky bugger the slip and got myself a pretty good bed, but when he noticed he tried to move me.  Although there was a clear language barrier I think he got the gist of what I was saying from my body language and hand movements: “No chance buddy, jog on, I ain’t moving!”

So after that the bus rolled away and every now and then would stop and they would cram a few more passengers into the aisles.   This meant it was effectively 5 across for everybody on the bottom layer (unfortunately including me) anyway.   The next morning and still in Vietnam for some reason the air-con seemed to be turned off which meant the next 10 or so hours we had to stew in the sweltering heat with outside temperatures in the mid-30s.

Entering Laos.  Temporary respite from the boiling bus:

Finally arriving in Laos capital Vientiane they unloaded the luggage and I found my bag (with a bunch of others) were soaked through including all my clothes inside!  By that stage I knew better than to waste my breath by saying anything to the guys working on the bus so I just hopped on the back of a tuk-tuk and got into Vientiane centre where I found a hotel room (a dorm bed was certainly not on my agenda) where I could dry my clothes;  except ‘ole mother nature had different plans, and  just as I had hung my stuff out on the line a huge thunder-storm rolled in!  What a day!

Anyway, despite all this I was happy as I was in a new country and the biggest party of the year was starting in a couple of days: the Lunar new year.  This is celebrated across Laos, Thailand and Cambodia with a three-day street party where it becomes ok, and in fact obligatory to soak anybody you see with water by any means possible.

I had planned on staying in the capital Vientiane for this as I expected it to be a good place for an authentic Lao experience but after speaking to another traveller I was convinced (I must have been out of my mind) to get another night bus the next day 12 hours north to Luang Prabang, which is described by some as Lao’s most romantic town.

So as I still had until the evening I decided to do some sightseeing in Vientiane, and braving the heat and beating sunshine took in several landmarks.

Patuxai (Victory Gate).  This Arc de Triomphe copy was built to commemorate the war for independence with France.  The concrete was donated by the US to build a new airport but the Lao government had different ideas:

The guide-book described ‘spectacular views of Vientiane’ from the top.  I’d be inclined to disagree, you can’t really see much at all!

Nice fountain on the other side though:

City Hall:

Pha That Luang.  This impressive  gold coloured temple is the national symbol of Laos (appears on the money) and the most important religious monument.  It looks really good in the setting sun:

From the front:

At 6pm I headed to a hotel where I was told to wait for the bus.   By coincidence it was also where exiled Thai ex-president and ex-Man City owner Thaksin Shinawatra was staying.  As I was waiting a tour bus full of his Thai supporters showed up and just as my bus came there was a frenzy as he came out of his hotel to great his fans.

Thaksin’s fans await him across from a banana stand:

He eventually came out and is somewhere in that hub-bub

When the bus showed up I was fairly relieved as it was really modern and comfortable, and the experience was generally way better than the one from Vietnam:  assigned seats;  a bottle of water and snack; a voucher for a delicious bowl of noodle soup halfway and working air-con.  My bag also came out at the other end bone dry.  The only downside was the driver felt compelled to blast out some traditional Lao music for the entire journey which he only turned down slightly between 12am and 5am. Thankyou earplugs:

Vietnam: Cruising around the karsts of Halong Bay

After finding a suitable travel agent in Hanoi (Adventure Indochina Travel – recommended) I booked on a one night trip to Halong Bay and the next day was picked up bright an early and taken the four hours by coach to Halong City.

Once there I boarded the boat which would be my home for the next 24 hours and was immediately served up a delicious and filling lunch; which comprised several courses of Asian delights.  I later found out that because I had booked so late they had double-booked my space and therefore had to upgrade me to a better cruise which explained the awesome grub!

Our cruise boat.  Affectionately called QN3348:

After lunch we set sail (metaphorically, there was no sail :)) heading for the towering limestone karsts out to sea.  I had timed it pretty well as the weather at Halong bay is notoriously hazy and misty (which can add to the mysteriousness of the place apparently) but today it was beautifully clear.

Our first stop was a cave that was pretty impressive.  They had lit up various parts of the cave with various colours, to make it look dramatic and whilst some might have thought it looked tacky and gaudy, I actually thought it looked great and brought out the features of the limestone structures way better.

As with most tours that I’ve been on with weird and wonderful stone formations, the guide was quick to point out various resemblances to elephants, humans, body parts etc….

Inside the cave:

Several elephants can be seen if you look closely:

A beautiful sun-beam enters the cave from above:

After returning to the boat we ventured further into the maze of limestone karsts where the taller and more impressive cliffs could be found.   After an hour or so we found ourselves at the floating village where we disembarked and had a quick kayak around, enabling us to get right up to the rock faces and into some cool caves.

Coming up to some of the more dramatic limestone karsts:

The sun deck on the boat:

Enjoying the cruise:

Approaching the floating village:

Amazingly there is a community of floating villagers about an hours boat ride from the main land.  I didn’t actually find out why they lived there but probably a combination of tourism and fishing.  If you enlarge the photo you should see a couple of dogs on the nearest floating house!

My kiwi room-mate and kayak buddy, Jonno coming out one of the sea caves:

When we returned to the jetty some entrepreneurial floating villagers had shown up with boats full of exotic fruits to flog to the tourists.  I tried some delicious small fruits which I never got the name of.  I noticed some Italian lads were getting through a fair few of the fruits and they were conversing with the ladies on the boats.  When I asked them how they knew Vietnamese, they said they were speaking Chinese, as they had lived there for three months.  Because we were so close to the border a lot of the locals were fluent in Vietnamese and Mandarin.

When the lads came to pay a very comical scene ensued, as they had accidentally given the fruit-sellers a 100,000 dong note instead of a 10,000; and after noticing their mistake they asked for their money back, at which point the ladies refused (only about £2.70 but a lot in those parts).  One of the Italian lads even boarded the boat to try to retrieve the dosh, but the lady that had taken the cash fled to a neighboring boat.  It was time to leave so the lads admitted defeat after mumbling what I expect were some pretty rude Chinese words at the ladies.

After all that excitement it was time to chill on the boat as we cruised to our overnight spot.  when we arrived we had a chance to jump off the top of the boat into the water before sitting down for another delicious meal and enjoying the sunset over the islands.

The evening was capped off with some onboard karaoke where I discovered a new track for my song portfolio: We Didn’t Start the Fire by Billy Joel.

Night falls over the cruise ships of Halong Bay:

The next day we had to check out at 8am at which point we had breakfast and started on the cruise back to port.  I took the time to research my next destination, Laos and when we returned it was time for lunch before getting on the bus back to Hanoi where I would be catching the night bus to the capital, Vientiane.

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The route: