This post was first drafted at the beginning of the New Year 2016, with a two month backlog of experiences and images to relate (and two months on we have finally sifted through the images). We begin in Luang Prabang in mid-November, where they were BBQing frogs, and building bamboo bridges.
We had grown used to the sleepy pace of the city, and were comfortable in Villa Mahasok. Nick and Justin, a Canadian father and son travel team had proved to be good company, and they had shown us the card game uker (seemingly straight forward, but full of intrigue). They left to spend a couple of weeks in Thailand. Then Nick would head back to Canada, and Justin would head off to meet his girlfriend in New Zealand, where he planned to propose. We were very excited to hear that she accepted a few weeks later.
A ride up to Tad Thong Waterfall, helped to learn that the rocky roads which were en route were more than a little challenging for the city bikes (complete with basket) that we had hired for the job. The situation was not aided by the fact that we missed the turn, and spent more time than was needed reaching our goal (this was due to a faulty map, and had nothing to do with my navigation skills). The waterfall itself was not that spectacular, but we found out later that the local kids would spend ‘quality time’ together around the pool that it flowed into.
Sunset from Mount Phousi is a big draw for the touist, though I was more interested in a insect that was sunbathing on a tree trunk.
We also spent time on the other side of the river, which felt very different (the ferry was 40p each way). We looked round the night market, enjoyed the religious architecture, and the Royal Palace. However, our abiding memory of Luang Prabang was walking through the streets as dusk was giving way to night with the sounds of monks’ prayer recitals filling the air. One chant would give way to another as we walked past one Wat and onto the next.
We had decided to travel by boat from Luange Prabang to Chiang Mai in Thailand – it was cheaper than flying, and more interesting than getting the bus. A tuk-tuk picked us up from our hotel, and took us to the port. The trip comes in three parts. Day one we got a long boat from Luang Prabang to Pakbeng. There, you can get lodgings for the night, and there are places where you can eat and meet other people doing a similar journey either up or down the Mekong. On the second day we got back on the boat and rode up to Houay Sai, which is on the Lao side of the Thai boarder. The pilot has a lot of work to do guiding the boat up the river, but the feeling for the passengers is of lying back while the world slides by.
On the third day we made the land crossing of the Thai boarder, and then took a bus from Chiang Khong to Chiang Mai. Having relaxed to the horizontal in Luang Pragang, we were expecting more of the same, but as the tuk-tuk carried us from the bus station to our hotel, we realised that Chiang Mai is a much bigger city, with a lot more going on.
Our hotel provided us with a map, and we walked round the the old city linking up the Wats. It is tradition for golden painted statues of previous abbots to decorate the temples. In more modern times the statues have been given lifelike skin tones, to the extent that we were doing double takes to check which ones were living! It was a little disconcerting.
Next day we stopped by a tailor, and got measured up for my first ever fitted suit. Further on were the night markets, and from there we found ourselves walking down a bar street with local girls sat in rows at the front of the bars. We had no desire to linger in the seedier side of the city, so kept walking until we found a different bar street where we could sit down and get something to eat – our favourite place in Chiang Mai was Sheryle’s on Ratchawithi Road.
Our hotel manager had recommended that we see Soi Sothep Temple, which is a few miles out of town up on a hill. We walked to the university from where we were loaded on to one of the red cars (this is the cheapest way). The golden pagoda was dazzling, and the views were very clear, though (unsurprisingly) the place is thronged with tourists. Young girls in ethnic dress were there for photo opportunities in exchange for a few baht.
Feeling the need to get into the local countryside, we booked a two day trek which started two hours drive to the west of the city. The party was typically eclectic – a young Dutch, two Spanish, Swiss and Malaysian ladies, a German couple, three French fireman, four friends from New Zealand, our softly spoken guide, and us. As always seems to be the case, conversations flowed easily, as we made our way through forests, woodland, farmland, caves, and eventually to where we would be stopping for the night – high up with a great view of the setting sun.
Beer was available and the guides had devised a daft game, which resulted in everyone’s faces getting covered in soot rubbed off from the bottom of an old pan. I won’t bother explaining the rules, but for something so puerile, it managed to keep us entertained for several hours.
The morning revealed once more the beauty of the place. The farmland had been converted from opium to cabbage production, which was perhaps better all round. This day we would be trekking mostly downhill. Having stopped off at a waterfall for a refreshing dip, we walked on to the pick-up point for some food, before the ride back to Chiang Mai.
The city was gearing up for Loy Krathong (Yee Peng) – Festival of Lights. Over the course of the weekend thousands of Chinese lanterns would be released into the sky, a procession of people and floats featuring traditional themes and dress, as well as the Mr and Miss Thailand beauty pageant, all taking place on the streets of Chiang Mai.
We found our spot on a bench by the moat that runs round the old town. There was a bridge across it from where people were releasing their lanterns. There is a technique to it, the first part being lighting the flame, the second waiting long enough for the heated air inside the lantern to lift the structure up into the sky. Some released too early, and the lantern would float down from the bridge before landing in the moat where the light within would ultimately be extinguished. Sometimes the lantern would get very close to the water before finding just enough lift to rise up into the sky to join the others – this would draw quite a big cheer from the people around. With occasional trips to the 7/11 for beer, we were entertained.
On our last day in Chaing Mai we treated ourselves to a foot massage in Somphet (200Baht – £4) before catching the four hour bus ride up north. Pai had a very laid back feel. There were plenty of bars, restaurants and street stalls in the town’s walking street to cater for the predominantly backpacker crowd that seemed to love passing through the place, but the real highlight was the countryside all around.
There is a 17km loop around the area, which most people go round on scooters. We chose decent mountain bikes, and rode south past the White Buddha, which served as a re-assuring landmark visible from across the valley. Further down the road were some elephant camps. We overtook some elephants for the first and only time so far in our lives, went past the hot springs, and then up what seemed like a very big hill in the heat of the afternoon, until we reached Pai Canyon. We spent an hour or so walking and climbing around this place, with narrow paths and steep drops, and by chanced bumped into two people (traveling separately) who had been with us on the slow boat. Having gone as far as we dare into the canyon, we took on some much needed water and headed back to our digs.
Next day we rose early with the intention of catching the sunrise. The morning was cool and too misty to see the sun, so we headed for a place that Nikki had read about called Land Split, which was a 10km bike ride away. Basically, it’s a cafe built on some farmland where geological activity has caused ravines to open up on the terrain. The ravines made the farmland unprofitable, so the farmer (a guy called Long) opened up the cafe, in order to sustain him and his family. You can walk around the land, where you see the ravines and crops, which mainly consist of roselle plants. Long was a little surprised to see us there so early (7am), but he served us up breakfast of roselle juice, roselle wine, roselle jam with banana chips, bananas and papaya. There are no prices – you just give what you can or what you feel is right. Randomly, one of the New Zealanders from the Chiang Mai trek showed up. She explained how she had tried one of the mushroom shakes that Pai is famous for two days previous. She had gone through some ego loss, got in touch with her internal Buddha, and then returned back to her normal self. We gave our donations for the food, and went our separate ways.
We also bumped into Jordan, a guy we had met in Luang Prabang at the anti-aircraft gun turret near the Phousi Temple. He told us that he was on his way home. The next we heard of him was in a BBC news story. After reading the headline, we were relieved to know he was okay.
Probably the highlight of our trip to Pai was our walk to the Mae Yen Waterfall. The map indicated that it was 7km away from our guesthouse, so we thought that we would be there and back within three hours. However, the terrain was a little more challenging than we anticipated. At first we were walking along a track with local farmers in the process of gathering the rice harvest on either side of us. A little further on the track wound into the forest, and then onto the bed of the river which flowed from the waterfall up stream.
Initially, we were pleased that we had Gore-tex lined footwear, but once the water had gone in the top, our footsteps were squelchy in tone. The trail zigzagged across the river joining up with faintly defined routes on each side. We joined up with a group of four Germans and single Belgian at various stages along the way. We kept our shoes on, as did some of the Germans. The Belgian looked like he had never used shoes, and was making easy work of the difficult trail. We made a joke about how the trail reminded us of The Blair Witch Project, except for the fact that we valued the river as an important geographical feature to be kept close to at all times, rather than something to be crossed and then walked away from into the arms of evil. The Belgian told us that the film had had a profound impact on his younger self. Needless to say, after three hours we made it to the waterfall, which was all the more beautiful for our relief at having made it.
At 3 o’ clock we headed back in order to get home before darkness fell. We were a bit quicker on the return, though I did fall into the river trying to keep up with the bare footed Belgian. Nikki was trying to look concerned, but was laughing inwardly, and then outwardly. I let the Belgian go, but before too long we were walking past the farmers, who were completing their day’s work on the harvest in golden glow of the early evening sun.
On our final morning in Pai, we had breakfast at Dung (best place to eat in Pai), which was on the way towards walking street, and took our bags to the bus station. We would be stopping off in Chiang Mai, then Bangkok, where we had a look around Wat Pho and the Palace (they do love the King).
Next day we caught a flight to Siem Reap – the gateway to Cambodia’s Angkor Wat temple complex. From the airport, we were picked up by Poun (like Pound but without the ‘d’), who ended up being our tuk-tuk driver for our stay, and he took us to the Hang Tep Hotel, where we had a beautiful view of the sunset from the roof. We also had a good view of the 2 acre crocodile farm at the back of our accommodation. Cambodia had a different feel to Thailand with less well developed infrastructure, which in light of it’s recent historical challenges is perhaps not surprising. However, the heights to which the Khmer civilization had risen nine centuries previous, were indeed staggering.
On the first day we went around Angkor Wat (the most famous of the Wats) and Angkor Tom (our personal favourite because of the Budhha heads calved into the four sides of the towers). The first thing that hits you is the scale – for example, the moat around Angkor Wat seems too vast to be anything other than natural, but it was in fact dug out by humans according to King Suryavarman II’s decree nine hundred years ago. The second is the detail – along the corridors that stretch for hundreds of meters on each of the four sides of the complex are detailed stone carvings depicting famous battles, and Hindu mythology.
On the second day Poun took us to see the sunrise over Angkor Wat, which was a serene and peaceful experience, in spite of hundreds of tourists doing likewise. He then drove us further into the landscapes of Siem Reep District to the Kbal Spean Waterfall. This was distinctive because the iconic designs were carved into stones over which the river flowed.
On the way back we stopped off at Ta Prohm, which is famous because is was used as the set for the Tomb Raider movie. To us it was striking because there were ancient trees growing through and out from the even more ancient architecture.
There were several other Wats that we visited, and a vast array that we did not. I also took a trip to the Angkor National Museum to help me make sense of it all. Our week in Siem Reap exploring the temple complex was a highlight that will live long in the memory.
Poun had also invited us to a party to celebrate the fact that one of his friends had won a brand new scooter from one of the bottle tops of Angkor Beer. From the amount of beer being consumed, they were well on there way to finding the second scooter winning ring pull. As seems to be the way in this part of the world, the get together was an all male affair (with the exception of Nikki) including their friends and piers, as well as an off duty policeman (part of the friend circle) and/ or a government official. Without these kinds of networks, it’s hard for anyone to run their business. They were all very friendly, and we had a good night.
After a week in Siem Reep, it was time for us to leave. Two tips: firstly, Pub Street is okay, but there are cheaper and better places just off it; secondly, don’t go to the floating village – it’s overpriced, rubbish, and you will probably get involved in a scam where you buy an expensive bag of rice for ‘the orphanage’; and finally, if you see an American guy called Kevin playing in any of the bars or clubs in the town, get talking to him – he’s a sweet guy, and he even let me play a couple of numbers (before my Long Island Ice Tea count rendered me non-musical).
Having booked a ‘VIP’ bus to take us to Phnom Penh, we were slightly disappointed with the chincy rustbucket that took us to Cambodia’s capital city along the dusty highway. However, arrive we did, and we were soon settled in to our hotel for the evening.
We had one full day in the city, but it was a full day. In the morning we went to The Killing Fields. This was an intense experience. You walk around the Choeung Ek site where mass executions occurred, with a haunting commentary given by someone who lived through that history coming from the headsets provided. The way that the place is laid out brought the whole thing to life in a harrowing and thought provoking way. We came away more determined than ever to turn away from the darkness that lurks within humanity’s soul.
That afternoon we took a walk around the city. Nikki bought a very nice pair of ‘Levi’ jeans in the Central Market. We then headed for the waterfront, down past the Royal Palace then onto the memorial statues, and back to our hotel. The following day, we would be heading for the coast.
Kep is a charming little fishing town. There is a small but perfectly adequate beach, a crab market where you can buy deliciously fresh and cheap seafood, and a national park where you can wonder through nature. If you go to the park, be sure to stop off at the Led Zep Cafe. There is great view from there, and you can get a map detailing the various trails that have laid out through the park.
We stayed at Botanica Guesthouse, which was run by a mixed French and Cambodian couple. It was very laid back with excellent and reasonably priced food available, as well as a slightly lob-sided pool table, which suited Nikki’s playing style better than mine (she thrashed me every time). We hired a moped from here and had a scoot round the countryside.
From Kep, we made our way to Otres Beach, which is near, but very different from Sihanoukville. It’s a beautiful long, chilled beach, and a great place to spend Christmas Skyping Mum and Dad from our beach bar with gin and tonics in the afternoon was a highlight. On Chris and Zillah’s recommendation, we also caught sight of the International Space Station as it traversed the sky over our heads – the most expensive structure ever constructed by humans – once seen never forgotten.
Having done Christmas our next challenge was to reach Koh Samui in Thailand, and meet up with our friend Oggie for New Year. This was the most complicated travel that we had attempted – tuk-tuk into Sihanoukville, minivan back to Phnom Penh where we stayed overnight, plane to Bangkok, taxi to the 12go office where we picked up our train and ferry tickets, overnight train to Surat Thani, bus transfer to the ferry port, ferry to Koh Samui, and a taxi to our hotel. We gave Oggie a big hug when we saw him.
Next day we had a whiz round the island, where we found the best sea food that we’d ever had in a rustic seaside restaurant, as well as the the most overpriced gin and tonics on the island in the swanky Nikki Beach resort – the pricing was a social filter. We had a drink and filtered off to find the sunset. Our pre New Year night ended up being a little heavier than expected (dawn finish), but we rationalised it by saying that we were adjusting our body clocks ‘efficiently’ for the Koh Phangan New Year’s Eve Full Moon Party, which lay ahead.
There was some tension in the cue for the speedboats that would be taking us across to the island. Some people had bought VIP tickets, which allowed them to push into the cue, and make them instantly unpopular. We had befriended some Essex folk on the way, so we were keeping it light (and orange). It reminded me of some the nightclubs that I’d waited outside in the early 90s, where only the lucky ones would get through the door. In the end, we all made it onto the island along with thirty thousand other revellers.
We girded our loins with some pad thai and a beer before heading to the beach. It was great. There was music everywhere, and everyone was dancing. The Australian men were generally topless (showing off their steroid induced physiques), but most other people were clothed. My dance moves were not particularly sophisticated – there was the morris dancing (my default), hopping around on one foot and then the other, aerobics hands in the air, and pogoing. We met up with Johnny who we had got to know in the sleeper train, watched the midnight fireworks, gave everyone a hug, did some more dancing, and then it was time go home.
We decided that we would need a drink to help us through the boredom and possible tension of the cue. We found a drink called Golden Stag, which, according to the label, was a blend of the finest scotch whisky mixed with sherry (I think the sherry was there to mask the chemical aftertaste). Thus prepared, we headed for the harbour, where by chance we met up with our Essex friends. Due to a mix up in the cue and some impatience on our part, we ended up hiring a fishing boat to take us back to Koh Samui. This was more open than the boat that we had come on, and we felt more in touch with (threatened by) the choppy seas that the boat was riding through. We calmed our nerves with the aid of Golden Stag and a good old sing song, so in the end it all seemed hilarious.
We made dry land and the New Year in one piece. We had experienced many levels, but had we found the next level, and had we climbed or fallen to find it?