A Travellerspoint blog

Some more Thai islands, back to Bangkok and over and out.

Our final few weeks, including a full moon.

sunny 30 °C

And so to our final blog entry on our round the world trip. It makes me a little sad to write this but we've had a ball and can't be anything less than chuffed about getting the chance to do it.

Where were we? Oh yea, Phi Phi.

The ferry we got to Koh Phi Phi was a bit shabby and the weather was horrendous. We actually couldn't see 10ft from the boat at one stage, it was beginning to turn into another transport nightmare but luckily we arrived there shortly after we entered the worst of the weather. That day was a bit of a wash-out thanks to my still not-right back and the horrible weather but initial impressions of Phi Phi were 100 times better than Patong.

The next day we were up and ready for sun. My back felt much better and we decided to start the day with a jog/hike up to the view point. Yes, I know – exercise besides trekking – shocking! Unfortunately our great endeavour was cut short when Stuart took a turn for the worse. We made it to the first viewpoint, but there's actually 3. We ended up having to go home. Shortly after we went to get some food in case it was that he hadn't eaten enough, he nearly passed out so it was bed for him for the rest of the day – ironically the first day the sun had shone since we got to the islands. Thankfully there were some English language channels on to keep us entertained.

The following day Stu was back in better fettle, a 24 hour bug we believe or potentially a dodgy mussel in his spaghetti the night before. We headed for the beach at long last. There we spent the day happily chatting to people and reading whilst soaking up the rays. That night we hit the town and had some lovely food at Paddy's restaurant before going to the Irish bar which is a bit yucky. There we bumped into Bram and Taryn that had been on our trekking expedition in Chiang Mai. We all headed off to see some Muay Thai (or Thai boxing to you and me). This place was gas, a huge, barn-like bar with a ring in the middle. They advertise free buckets(alcohol) for foreigners willing to fight. And there was quite a few surprisingly. Some of the fights weren't bad but one particular one with two girls, who were mates, was rubbish. When the professionals got in the ring it was a different story though, they kicked each other black and blue and up and down. We maybe saw about 5 fights before hitting the road, the good thing about this place is it's free in; the bad is the drinks are REALLY expensive so watch out.

Thanks to a mini hangover I didn't get up 'til silly o'clock the next morning, much to Stuart's frustration. When I did surface we took a cruise to get lunch, the beach was out of the question thanks to some sunburn for both of us from the day before. We went out and booked a trip for the next day and arranged to stay a couple more nights as we were falling in lurve with Phi Phi.

An attempt to conquer the viewpoint scramble again was made the following morning. To much more success this time and it was well worth it for the beautiful scenery. We got some okay pics but lament the fact we don't have a better camera, particularly in these settings. A big tip for anyone thinking on setting out – go wild and get the big expensive camera, you'll never get a chance to get those pics again most likely!

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Later that day we boarded our Sunset Tour – The Original – we had many stops on our journey that day, the first was Monkey Island. Although, it's actually not an island, it's just out on the peninsula. Here we were with about 80 other people ogling these monkeys on about 30 square ft of land. They were cute and cheeky but I thought, if the rest of the day is gonna be like this we might as well be sat back on the busy beach. However, thankfully it wasn't. Next stop was the Viking Cave where 150 years ago some Chinese sailors had held up during a monsoon, they painted some interesting pictures on the walls in there and whilst you used to be able to enter it now it's the reserve of nest hunters due to too many tourists going there and causing damage.

The nest hunters must be crazy; if you were to see the scaffolding and the ropes they use to climb around in these caves and on the faces of the cliffs. They are searching for swallow's nests. In China they are cooked in Bird's Nest soup which you may have heard before. They believe it keeps you youthful. You can actually buy drinks here in local shops which have birds next in the them, a bit yucky if you ask me. These guys earn a fortune doing this, about 100,000 baht per kilo or £2000 – a heck of a lot of money out here. About 6 or 7 of them live in the caves on a four year contract after which time someone else gets the contract. I wonder how they make it sustainable – they probably don't I guess.

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Here we had our first snorkelling dip. I thought I'd hop in to try it but didn't stay long as there were quite a lot of schools of little fish which didn't seem to mind swimming straight at you. After I'd seen a few tropical fish I thought I had enough and bailed out. Stu persevered and said it was amazing. He saw more fish than he did in the Great Barrier Reef, less coral though. Next stop was near a lagoon, out came the kayaks and we took off for a paddle around. I wish we could have had the camera here as this place was stunning, as beautiful if not more so than Halong Bay and definitely cleaner. More snorkelling for Stuart which was hilarious as I could actually see all the fish around him, they were so people-hungry – I am so glad I didn't get in the water there.

Thereafter we went to another part of Phi Phi Le – which is the south island – no-one lives there. This is where The Beach was filmed, on Maya Beach and that was where we were headed. It was a bit hairy for a minute actually, as you get turfed out in the sea and told to clamber up this wooden ropey thing while the tide is beating you. Everyone struggled slightly but we got there eventually. And, oh my, what a beach it is. We spent about an hour there enjoying the scenery, the sea and the sand and in fact, a game of tennis for me and Stu. Stunning.

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Back on board and we headed around the bay and stopped, again, to my surprise. Here it was turtle time and a chance to snorkel and see the sea turtle. I didn't get in fast enough unfortunately and missed Mr Turtle, luckily Stu did see him, remarking he was small and slow, kinda like the dudes in Finding Nemo. I tried in vain for a good 20mins to spot one – and suspended all fear of the other fish but to no avail. I still hope to see one before we get home, but sadly, it's beginning to look unlikely. Back on board and it was fried rice for supper whilst watching the sunset, a perfect end to a perfect day spent with my lovely boyfriend.

I should mention we ate in this fantastic restaurant a couple of nights when we were on Phi Phi. Papaya has awesome, awesome Thai food with huge portions so bring an appetite. They are so nice in there and they love cats. One cat likes to sit in the bottom of the fridge washing himself, another likes to play dead on one of their tables. Apologies to non-cat-lovers but they were immensely cute.

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So, that was Phi Phi, a fabulous place. We saw some pictures of the damage done during the Tsunami and couldn't hardly believe it was the same place. We couldn't help but think about the tsunami quite a bit, there are signs pointing toward higher ground and the evacuation route should it happen again. Around 2000 people died there as a result, now you would hardly know it happened. I can't recommend this place highly enough but be sure and spend more time on Phi Phi Le than we did if possible.

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That's basically where the culture and education stops and the sunbathing, reading, drinking and lying about begins(in ernst).

Crossing the country to Koh Samui was our next leg; a boat, a truck, a bus, another bus, a boat and a car got us to where we were going eventually. It was a bit epic to say the least, even though in total it probably only took about 8 or 9 hours. Once we got off the first long bus trip we were told to sit conveniently enough in the bus company ticket office. We were there for about half an hour while they tried to convince people they were the only taxi company on the islands and try to sell them overpriced accommodation. Anyway, then they put us on this bus that must have been 60 years old. We were stuffed in like sardines, back packs galore. I thought we were only about 10mins from the port, turned out it was more like an hour and whaddya know but the ancient bus final broke down after coughing and spluttering smoke for 40 mins. So with half an hour left to our ferry time I was thinking oh great here we go again....fortunately enough this time they had the good sense to get someone to pick us up and as the port was only 10mins from where we broke down we managed to get there; the ferry delayed about 20mins but it was “plain sailing” after that thankfully.

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Our guesthouse owner picked us up at the Port. Steve, an English guy who had been living there for the last 10 years or so. As it turned out we got upgraded to his best room which for about £18 a night was very nice and included a private sun deck and kitchen. His breakfasts were also glorious having imported all his produce, it was the best Wiltshire sausage I ever had!

We were staying about a 10 minute walk into Lamai beach which is your fairly run of the mill resort. And I hate to admit it folks but this is where things slow down and become really pretty boring for the reader. We basically spent 5 nights there and we ate, drank, slept, read and sunbathed. That was about it. We did spend 3 of the 5 nights in the pub watching sport due to the European Qualifiers and the all-Ireland hurling final. One night we also went to see more Muay Thai which was much better than our previous experience. We saw about 3 fights in this huge arena where there must have been 1000 locals and tourists crammed in. The fights were very professional; and there was money on the line for the winners so it was pretty entertaining. Some of the girls were so tough you wouldn't want to meet them down a dark lane, if you know what I mean.

The beach in Lamai is quite nice and they have the best street food we came across in all SE Asia. It's one 'street' of vendors that runs along side the thai boxing stadium. I cannot recommend this place highly enough and it's so, so cheap. Fresh meat and chicken skewers, curries, pad thai, pancakes, corn, indian food, pizza, you name it they had it. Awesome.

We saw many, many misspelled signs or just examples of very poor english translations, this one kept us entertained for a while, check no.28 on the menu.

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In the space of about 10 minutes one night when we were walking home we saw 3 frogs, a big lizard, a rat and a dead snake at the side of the road. Pretty exciting stuff eh?

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We shipped out of Chaulty Towers and got the boat to Koh Phangan, a straight forward 20mins thankfully. We were staying not far from the port at Thongsala at a place called Lime 'n' Soda. It was a great little place actually. Think holiday resort but budget so pool, restaurant, bar, beachside but cheap. It was really clean and the staff were very friendly and helpful so a good choice if you don't mind not being in the thick of the action.

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There's not an awful lot to do in Thongsala; they do have another great street food market, where I think we actually ate every day.

One of the reasons we had made out way to Koh Phangan was of course to see ourselves off our road trip in style and have a bit of a blow-out at the Full Moon Party. The first 3 days we arrived it was pretty overcast so on the Sunday we headed for the pub to watch the rugby. 9 hours, 6 new friends and way too many drinks later we stumbled home. Stuart nursed the mother of all hangovers the following day; but felt somewhat better when we got back on it at about 7pm for our pre-full moon drinks.

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We ended up meeting up with some of the gang we'd met the day before. We left the resort around 10.30pm and got a taxi the 7 or 8 km to Haad Rin. We were pretty well on the booze at this stage so after a good ol' sing song in the truck, the first purchase for everyone was body paint followed by a bucket. Some merriment followed which involved smearing of paint and attempts at elegance, which was never achieved as far as I can recall. Unfortunately, Stuart got a little over zealous and was actually steaming by 1am. This would echo a similar situation he found himself in 8 years earlier when he attended the Full Moon with his mates. However, I'm happy to say there was no medical issues this time he managed to just drink water for a few hours and sort himself out. So we danced and partied like the best of them.

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I wasn't blown away by it to be honest, it's pretty commercial and some of the Djs weren't great. In fact I would say there were better Djs on earlier in the night. We finally dragged ourselves away at 5am, pretty early compared to some tales we heard the next day. No time for a hangover; the sun was splitting the stones and we were fast running out of sunbathing time. And that was pretty much Koh Phangan.

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We got a return ferry to Koh Samui and headed to the airport, which by the way is the coolest little airport I've ever seen. Most of it is outside and it's very chic. A tip to fellow travellers, as there are so many flights to Bangkok you can actually go on standy-by for an earlier flight if you happened to get there with plenty of time to spare. We were unlucky but I think that was because it was still immediately post a full moon but worth bearing in mind to save yourself a few hours, just go to see the ladies at the Customer Service desk.

We flew to Bangkok and got a taxi to Rambuttri road, which is parallel to Khao San Road, we stayed in Sakul House, which is a great little hotel with a very good breakfast. It was a bit more expensive than where we had been staying but as it was our last couple of nights Stu decided as a birthday treat for my impending 30 we'd splash out a little. We were pretty much straight out the door and headed to Pat Pong night market. A very worthwhile venture as we managed to do quite a bit of our shopping.

That night we met up with Luke and Niamh, our buddies from tubing a few weeks back. A few drinks basically descended into a street party somehow. It was a good ole night but we were a bit worse for aware AGAIN on Thursday. Poor Luke and Niamh were actually flying that night, hope it was too bad lads!

When we finally dragged ourselves out of our nice air conditioned room the next day, we headed to shopping mall central around Sukumvit. We spent a few hours there picking up a few more bits and pieces and then collapsed into a tuk-tuk for the return journey. The tuk-tuk drivers are as mad as ever but thankfully none have ripped us off this time. We had some nice street food and spent the evening packing and chilling, a nice final night away.

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Our last day consisted of an hour in the sun, some more shopping and some of the rugby. Our final port of call was a really good massage/beauty salon on Rambuttri road called Shewa Salon. We both had a massage and I got my nails done and a super job by all, we had all parts cracked thai style which I think will be advantageous on the long haul flight tonight.

As I write we're sitting in our hotel lobby before our impending departure. It's so strange, as it's just been to two of us for so long and from tomorrow we'll start seeing friends and family again. However, we did meet some really great people along the road, so here's to you guys and thanks for sharing some of the fun of our trip with us.

I should also say thanks to everyone at home who helped us get away, thank you, we couldn't have done it without you all. Also, thanks to everyone who read this blog, we're really glad we decided to write it, God knows I'm forgetting little bits and pieces from the start of the trip already so it will be invaluable to have it in years to come. Plus it was the only discipline we had for the whole trip.

I'm not sure what else to say, hopefully we'll be home safe and sound tomorrow. I don't know if there's another huge trip in us but maybe we'll have little ones we can tell you about too in the future.

Travelling isn't necessarily for everyone, however if the opportunity presents itself we say go for it. Its hard to explain how it affects you, but for us, most of all it gives you the leg room to think about things more. Whether that's all the new and interesting things you are encountering or just about life in general which, we think, in turn shapes your thoughts. You get away from the daily grind which we so easily get bogged down by(and usually don't even realise it). It's yoga for me when we go home I think – and no, I haven't turned into a hippy!

Travelling can be testing sometimes, when you on your 15th dodgy bus of the week, you've said goodbye to yet another new friend and the skype isn't working so no chatting to home for a few days...and don't get us started on the wild animals, murderous insects, delhi bellys and the toilets.

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But y'know what it was worth every discomfort and I would do it all again tomorrow.

We don't really know specifically what we went in search of but for sure we found more than we could ever have dreamed of.

Love
Kelly and Stuart

p.s we've been home 2 weeks now and all is well, our first day back at work tomorrow. We'll try not to day dream too much.

Koh Phi Phi
Natacha Hotel - 9/10 - small with no facilities but lovely staff and right neat the pier.
Sunset Tour - The Original - 9.5/10 - a fantastic day out that would benefit from skipping Monkey Island and spending more time on 'The Beach'
Papaya - 10/10 - delicious, huge portions and kitty carry-on.
Paddy's - 9/10 - a very tasty menu with free salad bar and a huge selection of cocktails.
Cosmic - 8/10 - another good food joint.
Lomprayah Ferry/Bus - 6/10 - okay and cheap but be prepared for a rubbish latter bus journey.

Koh Samui
Chaulty Towers - 8/10 - a great wee spot, a bit of a walk from town but you can get a lift when you need, awesome breakfast.
The Shamrock - 8/10 - a nice bar but a little pricey when the music was on(drinks are more expensive then) and the band played the same set every night which got extremely tedious.
Street Food - 10/10 - can't beat it.
Muay Thai night at the girlie bars - 9/10 - good atmosphere.

Koh Phangan
Lime 'n' Soda - 8/10 - a great wee spot but the rooms are small and we encountered a few cockroaches, also the food was pretty poor.
My Wok and Me - 10/10 an awesome restaurant around the corner from Lime 'n' Soda, so tasty and so cheap, they also run a cookery school on site.
Food Factory - 10/10 - the best place in town for watching sport and the owner is a ticket, ask to see his tattoos, very original.
Street Food - 9/10 not as good as Koh Samui but still dang good.

Bangkok
Sakul House, Rambuttri Rd - 9/10 a great little place, they even accomodated us with a late breakfast one morning and let us use the shower facilities after we had checked out, worth the few extra bucks for the location and rooftop terrace.
Khao San Rd - you have to check this place out, we went to a few different bars, none of which I remember the name of but it's all crazy and you'll meet loads of people, once or twice is probably enough.
Patong Market - 8/10 - great for t-shirts, souvenirs and bags - loads of bags.

Posted by kelandstu 14:01 Archived in Thailand Tagged thailand bangkok tsunami muay_thai koh_phangan buckets koh_samui full_moon_party kickboxing chaulty_towers koh_phi_phi phi_phi_don phi_phi_le the_beach_the_film lime_n_soda thongsala haad_rin Comments (0)

Returning to Thailand, Chiang Mai and Phuket

Cooking, trekking, tattooing, raining and thankfully leaving.

sunny 32 °C

And so it was, we were back in Thailand, the final leg of our journey had commenced. We booked into M.D House, a sort hostel-vibe hotel. It had a pool, which was a bonus but as it turned out we never made it in for a paddle. The night we arrived we basically collapsed into bed after three days of travelling. The first full day we were there consisted of the obligatory 'stroll about' or orientation process followed by a trip to the tattoo parlour. I had been playing with the idea of getting my tattoo(small chinese symbol for courage or chicken fried rice) removed when I hit upon the fantastic idea of covering it up instead (thank you Amy Dollery). So we arranged a time for me to come back in the afternoon and so it was I had a black star placed over my 16 year old tatt, it's still a part of me after all. Poon, my tattoist at Magic Tattoo, was very nice, he told me 85% of his customers are falang(Westerners) and it was a very easy and clean (if a little sore process). He had a lovely dog whose back legs didn't work through some unfortunate turn of fate. She was a bloomin great little guard dog though, so pretty in her pink bow-tie and nappy!

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I was minding my new tattoo after that so I had to stay out of the sun and water. So, what to do? Well, we went to a pub quiz, potentially the most difficult and serious pub quiz we have entered. We came 4th last in a field of 16 – which completed wiped out our excellent pub quiz world tour record to date. That was at the U.N Irish pub, be warned if you dare venture, swat up on your German Chancellors since time immemorial.

That Saturday we headed to the countryside. We had booked a cookery course with Smart Cookery which first involved going to a market in the city.

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Then we hopped on a train for about half an hour and disembarked to have a tour of the local train station. This was followed by a nice bike ride to the organic farm we were to spend the day on. Our teacher Mai was so funny, she had great English, well enough to kinda poke funny at people in a sarcastic way. Unfortunately the day got off to a rocky start as she is allergic to insect repellent and all of us foreigners were lathered up to the eyeballs so she kept having to run to the loo to be sick(quite noisily). We spent the next 5 or 6 hours picking our herbs and vegetables, preparing our meals and cooking them, oh and the best part of course, eating them! We were eating all day. I made spring rolls, hot and sour prawn soup, a green curry, red curry paste and deep fried banana. Stuart made a spicy beef salad, chicken in coconut soup(v.good), Khao Sok curry and a banana in coconut milk desert (also lush).

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When we were all finished up we got back on our bikes and cycled around the village which lives off the farm. It was really beautiful and we stopped to talk to some of the families working there. It was pretty heartbreaking actually, we met some women who were peeling huge bags of garlic. They were getting paid 2 baht per kilo – that's the equivalent of about 4p. Our teacher said if they were fast they could earn about 150 baht per day – about £3. They were so nice and smiley and pleased to talk to us though. We don't know how good we've got it sometimes, it's good to have these reminders now and again. All in all a fantastic day and we didn't eat again for the rest of the day we were so stuffed, actually that's a slight lie as I think we got a burger at the 7/11 on the way home from the pub that night. We had gone down to watch the Liverpool vs. Arsenal game with some people we met that day and ended up meeting some folk from Donegal and had a good ole night.

The following day we headed to the shops, fairly unsuccessfully. We're beginning to get a bit panicked about presents for taking home as we've only a bare 24 hours in Bangkok before our flight. We went to a huge shopping centre but it was really more geared for everyday stuff, we also called into about 5 computer shops as the notebook has been playing up, the battery is dying. Little were we to know it would get worse that very evening and stop working completely. Luckily later in the week Stuart found a guy who figured it was the memory causing havoc so we bought more memory. It's working fine now but has to be plugged in the whole time when it's being used. As I write this I'm sitting on a ferry which luckily had a power point we could access otherwise I would be oversleeping.

That evening we went to the Sunday Walking Street Market. This has got to be one of the best street markets we were ever at and to be fair we've been at quite a few on this trip. It seemed to go on forever though and we eventually had to give up, having made a few quirky purchases. It was time to head to the pub for the Kerry vs. Mayo football match. We watched with our new Donegal friends Aideen and John-Paul. They were hoping for a Mayo victory in case Donegal would manage to beat Dublin the following week, but alas Kerry won the day, and as it turns out we'll have a Kerry, Dublin final – sorry lads.

Up bright and early for our trekking expedition. Chiang Mai is famed for it's trekking but unfortunately it's quite difficult to decide what you want to do as so many places run the trekking tours and they're all kinda similar and no-one talks about level of difficulty really. So we ended up booking with a company that were recommended to us by friends who'd already been there. BPM apparently have an infamous guide, O, so we hoped to secure his services but alas he was off the day we wanted to leave so we took the risk and went with them anyway.

There was a Canadian couple and two English girls in our group so nice and small and social. Our guide Sai was a tiny little guy who appeared to be made of bendy steel. On the way to the mountain we stopped at an Orchid/Butterfly Farm. I'm sorry to say this was extremely boring, not many butterflies and you can only swoon over so many orchids.

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Next stop was the 'long-neck' village. This was interesting but is basically a tourist trap. The Karen tribes are actually Burmese in origin. The family groups that stay in this area have moved there specifically to take advantage of the tourism passing through. Our guide explained to us why and how they use the rings. It was amazing to see just how far there necks stretch. Apparently they remove them one day every year, new years day I think, and they have trouble holding their heads up without the support. You can read more about them here.

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Then the heavens opened; it had pretty much rained for some time ever day we were in Chiang Mai but my fear was it wouldn't stop raining on our trek. We got to the foot of the mountain where we were to have an elephant ride. We weren't too keen on this as we'd already spent our time with the elephants and these guys used hooks to control the elephants. When we got on our tower you could tell it wasn't attached tightly so we spent the next 10 minutes terrified we were going to fall about 20ft to the ground. Plus we had a very grumpy(understandably) elephant, who only wanted to eat. We were happy to disembark that day. Funnily enough as we did, the Canadian couple, Taryn and Bram were trying to get a picture of them on their elephant before they got off. The mahout kept goading the elephant to move in a particular way and next thing he just charged the wooden scaffolding he was on and let out a roar. He obviously had enough of having people on his back and being poked in all directions. It was a distinct reminder of the power of these beautiful beasts. We smothered our elephant in bananas and then headed for the hills.

Thankfully the rain had gone off by the time we were 5 minutes into our walk. We walked 12 kms that day uphill, through muck, rivers, streams and jungle. It was tough. We didn't take our first break for maybe an hour and a half when we came upon one of the most remote 7-11 shops ever!

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After that we must have had a break every 10 or 15 minutes as it was so steep. It was hot too. Hard conditions for trekking, mucky, slippery ground thanks to all the rain we'd been seeing and lots and lots of heat. We made it eventually and seemed to be the only group on the mountain that hadn't either lost some of their number or their guide. We met one girl who'd been completely abandoned and was sitting with a random guy who was working on the land.

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We were shown to our accommodation which is supposed to be with a local hill tribe family but it's more in a hut owned by a local hill tribe family. The hut is on stilts and made of bamboo, there's one room with blankets on the ground and mosquito nets and there's another smaller one for cooking, where the guide sleeps. We sat around and enjoyed the spectacular view, chatted and played with the kids from the family.

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The older girl who was about 9, had some English as she spent time around trekking folk like us. The babies were so cute, honestly no older than 2, knocking around, up and down these steep steps on sheer platforms, scary. It reminds you of how independent these kids are and how quickly they learn skills – or have to learn skills. It makes you wonder do we molly coddle our kids too much or do they steal their childhood from them? Debatable.

Sai made us a beautiful dinner, which comprised of three different dishes and rice as well as melon for desert. We washed this down with a few beers – there is an ice-box with beers, soft drinks and water that you basically help your self to and then pay one of the kids in the morning- and sat around the fire.

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It was actually pretty late when we hit the hay in the pitch black, noisy, bug infested jungle hut.

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By this point we had also acquired a very scrawny kitten, whom I named Curry, who wouldn't shut up meowing unless he was being petted, he didn't even really eat anything which made we think he wasn't long for this world. Surprisingly, we slept okay that night, the decibels from the crickets stopped at some stage and actually the only real upset we had was Curry coming in squawking to be let into the mossie net – no chance, allergy heaven for me, he did get some cuddles in the morning before a thorough wash for me.

Breakfast the next morning was a hearty feast of bread and eggs and we bid adieu to our little jungle family and set out.

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Downhill (literally) all the way that day. It was pretty slow going thanks to the state of the track and the steepness of some points. However, Stu and Bram showed off their jungle skills and did some slightly dangerous standing mud slides down the hill (boys will be boys!). We were also back in river crossing mode which generally meant getting at least one foot wet every crossing. We did stop a gorgeous waterfall on the way down that day which was lovely and refreshing.

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We had good fun at different stops on the way down too trying to hit targets that had been tied to trees with sling shots, I was better than Stuart generally but he did manage to hit one so I guess we're about even(he'll kill me for saying that). The last 45 minutes of our trek turned into a total nightmare. Our guide, misguidedly, took us onto a hill path which he thought would be easier than using the mucky road, he could not have been more wrong. We spent all that time ploughing through 2ft deep muck on the side of a steep hill. It's basically a track where they bring the elephants up into the jungle to feed so it was muck with huge elephant foot sized holes. We slipped, slided, braced, fell, tumbled, got stuck and eventually made it. I lost my sense of humour when I went over on my side into some bushes on the cliffside...thank god for shrubbery.

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We were covered in crap when we got to the bottom and really hungry and tired, but our day was not to end there. White water rafting was the next stop. We got in our boat and went down maybe some grade 2s and 3s for about 5 minutes, then we were told to pull in – I thought 'did we just pay to do that?' - thankfully they were just avoiding a rather swollen and dangerous waterfall. We were back in the water 10mins later and saw a lot more action for the following 10mins, including a very exciting near capsize. Then we bobbed along the river for another 10mins, Stuart and Bram had a swim and then, at last, it was time for lunch and the journey home. All in all a great couple of days, but similar to the Inca Trail at points, you can't help but think 'to hell with this'. It's getting to the end and feeling healthy and achy that makes it great as well as the fantastic scenery you see and people you meet along the way. We slept well that night.

The next day my calves and thighs were ruined, so we weren't going to be getting up to much. Following breakfast I went for a pedicure and a manicure, then I met Stu for some lunch and we went for a massage. It's a tough life! This was followed by dinner at the very, very nice Lemongrass, which is near the night market for those of you heading in that direction. We did a bit of haggling and managed to obtain a few things we wanted in the market that night. Also a good market with lots of entertainment in the forms of the local lady boys/drag queens trying to get you to come to their shows.

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The next day I woke up crippled, I think the fall on the mountain had wrenched my back so I was walking around like I had lost my horse. We couldn't really do much as a result and so sat around for most of the day waiting on our flight to Phuket that night.

Chiang Mai airport is the most central airport in a city I've ever seen, it's literally in the city. It was quite an easy check-in and boarding with Air Asia but the fun stopped there. This was categorically the scariest moment of my life. We had a bit of turbulence on the ascent, there had been bad weather all over Thailand so sorta to be expected. Then about 10 minutes later the plane started shaking pretty bad from side to side. Then there was a huge drop, where we were thrown up in the air, people were screaming, I didn't know what was going to happen. I was so scared. Stuart was pretty calm thankfully, but the guy on the other side of me was petrified. The turbulence kept on but we didn't have any huge jolt again I'm glad to say. I'm not religious but all I did was pray for the next hour and 20mins. I was so happy when we made it to solid ground. I have never been a nervous flyer but I will board planes with trepidation in future after that experience, absolutely horrifying.

We had arranged for a taxi to pick us up and as it was 1am I was glad he was there waiting for us. We spoke to some other passengers from the plane while we waited for him to bring the car around and they too were just thankful to be on the ground also saying it was the worst flight they had ever been on. The thing that annoyed me the most was the captain never said at the start of the flight there is going to be turbulence but don't worry. It was well into the flight before he asserted there would probably be turbulence all the way and it was best to stay belted up. Anyway, I'm not sure about flying Air Asia again.

We were staying in Patong so it took about 40mins to get there, despite being really tired and still nursing a bad back I didn't get to sleep for ages that night, the fear factor I suppose.

It rained and rained and rained when we were in Patong. I'm not going to say an awful lot about it because basically it's not a very nice place. Think Magaluf on acid with lots of prostitutes.

We had some nice food and one good night out there but other than that it's bars and shops. And god help you if it's raining as it was the whole time we were there so you can't even lie on the beach. We saw more of the inside of our hotel room than we did the whole rest of the trip. We did amuse ourselves recording a birthday message for my friend Catriona in the style of a Zig and Zag birthday rap but that was about as entertaining as it got those few days. I went for a rather fancy facial in the giant shopping mall there which was nice and relaxing but otherwise we were glad to get on the boat to Koh Phi Phi when we did. I should say we didn't venture out of Patong because of the bad weather so the rest of the island might have more to offer – general consensus is that some of the other islands are nicer. And this was to prove evident when we set foot on Koh Phi Phi for the first time despite continuing bad weather.

Chiang Mai
MD Guesthouse, 8/10 - nice, large hotel come hostel with pool, ask for a rate if you're staying more than a couple of days.
Smart Cookery, 10/10 - couldn't recommend them highly enough and you get a wee recipe book to take home.
BMP House 2d 1nt Trekking Tour, 8/10 - this was a great trek the only gripes we had would be you should be flexible as they don't stick rigidly to a plan, also everyone we met that did 2 nights said the 2nd night was a total waste so 1 nt is better. Also watch what you're paying, we paid 1800baht each and some people on our tour only paid 1300!
U.N Irish bar, 6/10 - no atmosphere, expensive small portions, with a non-fun pub quiz, only good for the sports on tv.
Reggae Bar, 9/10 - a great wee spot with excellent live bands every night.
Moonlight Massage - 8/10 - a very good oil and herb massage.
Christina Beauty Salon, 9/10 - Pedi/Mani very professional and good massage.
Kafe, 9/10 - delicious Thai food.
Mike's Fastfood, 7/10 - probably best after a few beers.
Lemongrass, 10/10 - excellent, near the nightmarket on a side street near MacDonalds
Magic Tattoo, 10/10 - Poon is a great tattooist who will spend time with you and helping with your designs, also very clean.

Patong, Phuket
Atlas Hotel, 9/10 - a nice, clean spacious hotel that's a few streets back from the beach which is good as it is quieter.
Food Have Foodcourt, Jungceylon Shopping Centre - 9/10 - go to the Thai Foodcourt it's much better than the overpriced Western Restaurants upstairs.
Aussie Bar, 7/10 - fine for watching sports but don't expect any commentary and there will be 8 other sporting events on the tv at the same time.
Scruffy Murphy's, 7/10 - only showed on one tv with no commentary on an Ireland rugby game, huh?
Molly Malone's, 9/10 - a fantastic band play here, otherwise standard American/Irish bar.
Lek Murphy's 6/10 - bar girls and dust.

Posted by kelandstu 02:53 Archived in Thailand Tagged trekking thailand waterfall phuket hill_tribe farming patong long-neck smart_cookery md_house bmp_house karan_tribe un_irish_pub magic_tattoo sunday_night_market sunday_walking_street_market atlas_hotel_patong air_asia Comments (0)

A Little of Laos

Vientiane, Vang Vieng, Luang Prabang and a slow boat to the border.

sunny 32 °C

We had treated ourselves to a flight rather than take up a whole day getting from Hanoi to Vientiane. The flight with Laos Airlines was smooth and we checked into Aroon Residence in the evening. Unfortunately for us the put us in a room beside reception/the breakfast room so we were rudely awakened the next day. However, after we checked in we decided to give a quick cruise down town to get some food. The Lonely Planet recommended a French Restaurant, Le Provencal. We were on an Italian buzz though so Stuart had pizza and I had pasta, both of which were delicious...the reason I mention this specific meal was the restaurant was actually really nice, it had good music on, albeit Christmas tunes at points but the outstanding moment of the meal was when a rather large brown rat scurried across the floor. It only freaked me a little, maybe a 2 on a scale of 1 to 5...just shows what travelling does to your perception of things. I'd still recommend the restaurant.

First impressions of Laos were good. No major pushiness from hotel staff or tuk tuk drivers. The streets are cleaner than the other SE Asian countries we've been to and the silence is almost deafening – no horn blowing bonanza going on. Just generally more chilled, which is good. Our first day in Vientiane was filled with Stuart getting a hair cut in a place that, to name but a few services; rents motor bikes, sells books, books tours and transport, does massage and hair removal. I nearly cracked up laughing when I saw the matriarch bouncing between the house where she was cutting Stu's hair (evident from the off-white bib she was wearing) and next door to sell cigarettes to people. This was only topped off by Dad or grandad or whoever it was, lying about in the back of the shop letting out a roar every few mins. Ahh, Asia.

We visited the National Museum that day, a mixed up kinda place which for us would have benefitted from some more English information on the exhibits but it was worth a gander. They had some actual dinosaur bones and other bits and bobs that had been dug up in excavations around the country. They also had an example of one of the 'jars' from the Plain of Jars – a sight in Laos that we weren't going to get to so that was good. It included lots of other historical items and spent quite some time looking at the struggle for independence. It also dealt briefly with the issue of unexploded bombs which were dropped by America during 'The Secret War' but more on that later.

That evening we went to a charity event we had seen advertised. It was being run by the local university to raise funds to open a legal advice clinic for people who couldn't afford their own. We sat through a rather drawn out presentation and then listened to a Chilean guy play guitar averagely for an hour – it was okay but not exactly the night of 'music and fun' we were promised. Oh well, onto the pub; Bor Pen Nyang, which was pretty cool actually and really busy, only problem is everything closes around 11.30pm so that was us.

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We had managed to move rooms so got a sleep in that Sunday which was needed after quite a few Beer Laos the night before. Beer Laos by the way is our favourite beer in SEA, it costs between 80p and £1.60 for a 660ml bottle so cheap as chips really. The Swedish Bakery was our port of call for lunch, a must for anyone visiting Vientiane. The smell of quality coffee hits you when you get in the door and their salads and subs are fabulous, check it out.

We had planned to stay in Vientiane for 3 nights but we realised as we were going to be in Thailand for more than 30 days and we were travelling over a land border (where they only issue 15 day visas) we would have to go to the embassy and apply for a 60 day one. This meant we had to stay another night, possible 2 depending on whether we got back from the embassy on time to get a bus to Vang Vieng. So Monday morning we headed to the embassy, it's a fairly hectic place when we arrived we got ticket number 184 and they were on something like 54. Luckily someone who had to leave handed us his ticket, 94, things were looking better. We were probably only there an hour and a half in total, sent away and told to come back between 1 and 3pm the next day. On the way home we took a detour by the Arc De Triomphe of Vientiane, Patuxai, it was built to commemorate those who died in prerevolutionary wars. Funnily it was built with cement sent by the USA for the building of an airport and ex-pats call it the 'vertical runway'.

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That afternoon we went to see Wat Si Saket, it's quite a nice Wat. There's tons of buddha statues on show here including damaged ones which are interesting in their own right. It's a pretty little place worth a visit if you're in town.

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After that we headed to COPE, a charity foundation set up to help people who have been injured by bombs and mines left over from the Secret War. For more information on this war you can read here.

Shockingly, Laos is the most aerial bombed country, in relation to it's land mass, in the world – this happened when they were neutral – doesn't sound right does it? Did you know that or ever hear of it? It made me think if someone dropped more than 2 million tons of bombs on Ireland 40 years ago would we have heard of that? Damn right, the whole world would. Anyway, it's estimated a third of these bombs never exploded on impact, for whatever reason. Now, daily people get blown up by simply treading on them or hitting them with some farming instrument. What's more devastating is some people seek them out to earn a living. They actually hire or buy metal detectors to find these items so they can sell them as scrap metal. It beggars belief. We heard one story of a boy who snuck out with his mates after a group of men who were on one such trip. The older men recognised that some of the bombs were still armed and placed them aside. However, the kids didn't know this and one of them picked one up, it blew up. The kid in question was badly injured but didn't die instantly, he was transported to no less than 3 different hospitals, none of which could offer him blood or oxygen. The family took him home because the truck driver they hired to transport him to hospital didn't want him to die in his truck. He died later at home. It's mad. Anyway, that is just one horrific story. There's a facility at the centre where you can watch documentaries from around the world on the subject, we watched a BBC short which we think might have been made for Children in Need and followed this with an Australian documentary which followed the work of Liath, a bomb disposal expert. He's living in Laos permanently disposing of these bombs and trying to train individuals from the different provinces in bomb disposal. It was really interesting if you can get your hands on it and this guy was just a credit to his country. His patience was remarkable. In one clip he was trying to remove a bomb from about 50m outside a village, there was a funeral in the village that day and, as per their custom, the only thing that could be carried was the body of the deceased. They had to drag the live bomb instead of carry it because of village custom. Remarkable.

Back to COPE; the main work they do is helping those who have lost limbs and need rehabilitation and most often a prosthetic limb or limbs. They tailor make the limbs and help with the training and rehabilitation of the people who come to them. It costs them only about £30 to build a prosthetic leg which can change a life. It is really inspiring stuff they are doing. The actual exhibition is really interactive and interesting and there isn't any entrance fee, they simply ask you to donate some money to their cause; admittedly an extremely worthy one. You can donate to the website if you do a bit more reading and feel affected, I know we were.

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We had to move hotels that day and scaled down to the budget option of Mixay Guesthouse which is a clean, central place for 100,000kip a night. Our final day we packed our bags and dropped them to the office of the bus company we were travelling with. Our problem was we couldn't pick up our passports until 1 at the earliest (Laos time this could be 1.30...indeed systems generally don't work in a linear fashion here either), so we decided to get up their early and hope to be at the top of the queue. On route we visited Pha That Luang, the pagoda itself is said to house a bone from buddha. We're not 100% about that but the surrounding building and temples were beautiful, we also saw our biggest reclining Buddha to date, I think it's pretty new.

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We got to the Thai Consular around 11.30, we were first in the queue but only for about 10mins, before we knew it their must have been 60 people there. Very surprisingly it all went smoothly, we had ticket number one for when the counter opened at 1.20 btw...however, when it did it started at 3...I nearly had a nervous breakdown but instead leapt to my feet and ran to the counter before no.3 – we got our passports and our visas and made it back just in the nick of time to catch the bus. Pressure over for another while.

We arrived in Vang Vieng that evening. We checked into our hotel Inthira, which is a short walk from the bus stop. The place was fine, if a little damp. We headed out to get some food when we were accosted by an Aussie guy who insisted on showing us the town and taking us to the best bar in town. Okey dokey, off we went with him, surprise, surprise, the 'best' bar in town was an Aussie bar. It was actually fine and as it turned out he was a tour guide with GAP, and some of his tour group turned up. Then the heavens opened, as only they can in Asia and it poured and poured and poured until we realised we were on our 5th beer. We were happily being regaled with stories from the river's tubing that day. Tubing in case you haven't heard of it, is what Vang Vieng is famous for. Rather simply, you hop on an old tyre tube and float down the river, stopping at the bars along the way that haul you in via adapted ropes. Some said it was great, all said it was scary and most were drunk so that gives you a small idea of what it's like. We eventually made it home that night after a few more stops and thought, if it keeps raining like this we won't be getting on any river in the morning as it will be really swollen and fast flowing. Oh, how foolish was I?

The next day it had dried off a bit and we figured, it's wet season, we won't be able to avoid the rain or wait for the river to return to normality so we better just bite the bullet. Off we went. By the time we got to the river, a full blown tropical storm seemed to be raging, which included thunder and lighting. I actually couldn't believe the width of the river when we saw it first, about 20 metres I think maybe. First stop is a bar at the other side which you and your tube are taken to via boat. This place was hopping, there were at least 100 people there and the minute you stepped up you got a bottle of whiskey thrust in your mouth, and then another, OMG. It was good craic there though, just basically a shack with pumpin' tunes, cheap beer and buckets (buckets for those of you unfamiliar are basically made up of either vodka or whiskey with really strong red bull and god-only-knows what else and oh yea, they're in a beach bucket).

We had being hanging around with an Aussie couple who were right gung-ho and decided after our second drink we should hit the river. I was pretty nervous, Stuart was okay. It was still raining but nothing like it had when we arrived. So off we went, I lost a bracelet the minute I stepped in the water, Stu nearly lost a shoe but managed to grab it somehow. We pushed ourselves off and hung onto each other. When it seemed we were not traversing the river – the next 3 bars were on the other side – we decided to let go so we might paddle across, this didn't work. The river was moving way too fast and we seemed to be right in the current. After we passed the third bar I began to panic, the guys had thrown out the ropes but never got as far as us. I was having visions of us floating off down river never to be seen again(people die on this river every year btw). Stuart saw I was bit panicked and managed to get to me, just then as we were 'sailing' past the fourth bar a guy managed to get the rope to us – HALLELUJAH, I would live. We hauled ourselves out of the water, I was swearing I wouldn't get back in. We met up with our mates again there and proceeded to have the most pointless game of water-logged volleyball of all time, followed by a huge tug of war over a giant muddy water pit. Great fun accompanied by a nice vodka bucket. When the time came to move on I had sufficiently plucked up the courage to get back in the water – I was about to bribe a guy to take me in his boat to the next pub but the gang wouldn't let me. So we had gone about 20metres I reckon when I freaked out again and got out. I could see where the current was taking off again and because we'd have to get across it to the next bar I wasn't having any of it. I forced poor Stuart out of the water, he just wanted to make sure I was okay anyway so we walked to the next bridge and back to the bar. Not an easy task as your basically drenched walking in your bare feet on the top of a ditch which is like a mud bath while carry your huge tube. Anyway, the next bar was good fun too, where we met more randoms. At this stage we had picked up Luke and Niamh from Dublin who were first time tubers too but doing a bit better than I was. We headed off with them to the next bar, they too had decided to walk at this stage. This was the last bar we went to and you could see just about everyone was pretty drunk at this stage. I think it might have been about the 2nd last bar, apparently if you miss the last bar guys dive in after you but we weren't going to take that chance. We stayed for a few more there and met more people and eventually headed home to get a shower before the after-party. That night we had a great night out with all the folk we met that day. I think we stumbled home around 4am, only 14 hours boozing!

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We were as sick as a small hospital the next day, so spent much of it lying around watching people going by with tubing injuries: cuts, bruises, lots of wrapped feet etc. We were lucky, only a few scrapes. Our friends Luke and Niamh went that day again and said the river got the better of them too, nearly losing their tubes over their heads. Yep, this is supposed to be fun. Actually, you can't deny it is fun but I imagine a lot more when the weather is nice and the river is running slowly not post torrential day-long downpours. I guess we'll have to go back in dry season to see!

We lay about in one of the bars in town that night where we watched Hot Tub Time Machine..which is really silly but good hangover viewing. I think we may have got bitten by bugs there though, so watch when you're in the bars there, they can be lethal. The bars in Vang Vieng are worthy of a mention as they basically cater for hungover people, they have bed/tables in all of them where you can lie back all day, order food and drink and mostly watch repeats of Friends. These places are cleverly know as 'Friends Bars'...some have moved on a bit and show Family Guy or American Dad but generally its Friends on repeat. There's a really decent Irish bar there called Gary's. It's actually owned by a young guy from Killorglin bizarrely. We were in there every day we were there so I gave him a present of my Irish flag as they didn't have one. I hope it's hanging with pride!

Vang Vieng is a strange place as it is abundantly clear it's major commerce are drunken tourists. A slight shame as it is a remarkably beautiful area with huge karsts surrounding the river. We didn't take our camera with us when we went tubing unfortunately as absolutely everything gets drenched; so we don't have proof of the amazing views, but here's one we took from the town.

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We left Vang Vieng early the next day. We had heard about what a horrendous mountainous road it was to Luang Prabang so we booked a slightly more expensive mini-van rather than a bus. The potholes are the first issue, then comes the landslides and then comes the crash remains you have to navigate. We passed a truck that had gone over the side of the road the day before, the driver was killed. It was pretty ropey but we made it eventually. The scenery was pretty amazing at parts too when it cleared up.

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Luang Prabang was very different to both Vang Vieng(not difficult) and Vientiane. We found a place to stay pretty easy which was right near the main street and night market. We had some food that night and hit the hay early after a hard day of travelling.

Our first full day in Luang Prabang we decided to get our onward travel sorted before settling in to the local sights. We booked our slow boat to Pak Beng and organised a trip to an elephant sanctuary for the next day. Following this we hiked up the 6,759 steps of Wat Phu Si...okay that's a slight exaggeration but it was a steep hill. It was pretty up there, with lots of little structures and temples as well as an amazing view of the surrounding city and countryside. They also had an underground temple, essentially a cave with an altar and a giant Buddha footprint, supposedly...see what you think.

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After that we headed to the R oyal Palace Museum which happened to be across the road from where we were staying; this was quite a relief actually as I had to put on extra clothes to be 'respectful' here and the heat nearly killed me.

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This place was kinda interesting, it was where the ex-King lived and was basically maintained as it was left in the late70s. There's some interesting artwork in there. The also had a funny little exhibition of his cars; mostly gifts from America, car enthusiasts would love it I think. There was also a photographic exhibition running on the grounds called 'The Floating Buddha' – this was the product of photographer Hans Georg Berger who lived near a monastery close to Luang Prabang for a few months chronicling their daily lives. Very soothing and thought provoking pictures.

That night we treated ourselves to Tum Tum Cheng Restaurant. This place was a little walk from the main street and is actually incorrectly marked in the Lonely Planet map but it is worth the excursion. The food was really fantastic and they had a live show on with music and dancing.

The following day was a great adventure for us. We headed out quite early to Elephant village, about 20km outside the city. This is a centre where elephants who have been bought from the logging industry can live and be looked after. In return they put up with tourists coming to spend time with them each day and fund their eating habits. As with any animal captivity we have to ask ourselves what's best for the animal. In this situation we ultimately felt the elephants were better off where they were. If they hadn't been bought for the sanctuary they could have either been sold for their skin or meat or indeed used for giving elephant rides in inner city attractions in between being tied to a tree for the rest of the day.

On arrival each person in our 6 people group got a chance to climb aboard an elephant a have a little trek around the park. This was a sort of familiarising thing and was easier said than done. These creatures are massive. As they were ex-logging elephants they know around 150 commands, which is incredible in itself. So when the Mahout shouts something the elephant will bend it's leg so you can try and clamber aboard. This first experience was scary and amazing.

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Later we headed across the river to where more of the elephants hang out. From there we got an ride on a tower(the seat that goes on their back). Again I felt a bit uneasy about this but the mahout told me I could go down on her neck and I was much happier there. It was spectacular getting so up close to these colossal animals.

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Following this we had a break and got to go and swim in an amazing pool that overlooked the river and the elephants as they ate.

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Afterwards if was back across the river again for bath time when we each got aboard an elephant to take them into the river to give them a good scrub. This was great fun too, they encourage you to try and stand up on your elephant but I wasn't too keen on that it was much more fun just scrubbing them and splashing about.

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Once our time with the elephants was done we took a long boat done the river to Tad Sae waterfall. I was expecting a Kodak moment and to head off again but low and behold it was as if we arrived at the Laos equivalent of a water slide park. There were loads of people there as it was a local holiday. This place was sort of weirdly unnatural for a natural setting, I don't know this for sure but I think they must have redirected the waterfall as it is huge and the trees and stones within parts of it don't look like they should be there. Anyway, it was pretty good fun, there was tubing and zip lines, none of which we bothered with as they both looked slightly suicidal. We did take a dip though and it was FREEZING, not an experience we have very often these days.

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All in all a great day. We are pleased to say also that we felt the elephants were well looked after, there are 11 there I believe and 2 or 3 don't work at all as they are a bit older and cranky. You are always aware that they are a dangerous animal when you are with them, their shear size won't let you forget. We learned some amazing things about them that day too, particularly and astonishingly that they cry like we do, that is, if they feel lonely, stressed or isolated they cry. I couldn't believe that. I'm also pleased to say the Mahouts that worked with us didn't use 'the hook' which is basically a hook on the end of a pole that gets shoved in the animals face/eye if they aren't cooperating.

We were pooped after our day so we didn't get up to much that night and it was all aboard the slow-boat express the next morning. We didn't know quite what to expect from the boat as there are quite a few horror stories online but we were pleasantly surprised to find a covered long boat with tables and chairs not unsimilar to a train. We whiled away the day listening to our ipods, taking in the scenery and reading.

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We reached Pak Beng, our overnight stop around 5.30pm. There's not much to Pak Beng. We checked into a guesthouse, had some food overlooking the river and went for a couple of beers. We did get offered opium once by a barman that looked off his game completely and also again on the street walking home. I reckon this must be a hot-bed for trafficking it as the river connects with Thailand...where we were headed.

The next morning we were pleased again to find a similar boat and pretty much enjoyed the day as we had the day before. Tips for other travellers include- bring food, a charged ipod and lots of books. The boats that were going in the opposite direction were busier and more boozy. We reached Huay Xai about 5.30 and checked into a pretty basic hotel which cost something silly like £6 for both of us. We tried to book our onward travel for the morning but alas the only minibus that leaves for Chiang Mai was booked up – seemed a bit silly they didn't have more than one.

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Anyway, we had to hang around that day until 3.00 when we went through Laos Immigration, hopped on a little speed boat across the river, strolled through Thai immigration and grabbed our mini-van to Chiang Mai.

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Our driver seemed like a bit of a lunatic at first but funnily enough when the weather got bad he calmed right down and drove very sensibly thankfully. We made it to Chiang Mai that night, thankful to be safe and sound at our last country and looking forward to the spoils of Thailand for our last few weeks.

Vientiane
Aroon Residence, 8/10 – it's a bit out of town, breakfasts are hearty though.
Full Moon Cafe, 7/10 – standard.
Japanese Restaurant near Mixay Guesthouse, 8/10 sorry dunno the name, tasty.
Mixay Guesthouse, 8/10 – good cheap accomodation.
Swedish Bakery, 9/10 – fab coffee and huge rolls.
Le Provencal, 8/10 – nice but for the rat.
Cope, 10/10 – absolutely a must, very educational and eye-opening.
Wat Si Saket – 7/10 - worth a shuffty.
National History Museum – 7/10 – it will kill an hour and kinda educaional.
Pha That Luang – 8/10 – nice reclining Buddha.

Vang Vieng
Intherin Hotel, 7/10 – very damp.
Aussie Bar, 7/10 – standard.
Gary's Bar - 10/10 - the closest to an actual Irish bar we've seen on our travels.
Q Bar - 8/10 - where the party's at but closes at around 11.30 bizarrely.

Luang Prabang
Phousi I Guesthouse, 7/10 – small rooms but great location near night market and pier.
Swedish Bakery, 7/10 – nowhere near as good as it's Vientiane sister.
Tum Tum Cheng Restaurant, 10/10 – awesome if a little more expensive, does cookery courses too.
Elephant Village, 9/10 – a fantastic day but some waiting around.
Wat Pho Si, 8/10 – worth the hike up the road for the view and Buddha footprint.
Royal Palace Museum, 7/10 – the Floating Buddha is a nice exhibition.

Pak Beng
Monsovanh Guesthouse, 7/10 – a bit damp but only 40m from the pier.

Huay Xai
Gateway Villa Hotel, 7/10 – like a cross between a hotel in the 1880s and now.
Riverside Restaurant, 8/10 – tasty food.

Posted by kelandstu 04:56 Archived in Laos Tagged elephant vientiane luang_prabang tubing patuxai wat_si_saket cope night_market vang_vieng uxo huay_xai pak_beng laos_national_museum pha_that_luang unexploded_ordance_program swedish_bakery friends_bars wat_pho_si royal_palace_museum elephant_village gary's_bar Comments (0)

Visiting Vietnam, part 2; Hoi An, Hue, Hanoi, Halong & Sapa

Stunning scenery, adventure on the high seas and the highways for that matter...

sunny 35 °C

First a word on our means of transport in Vietnam. When we were in Ho Chi Minh we bought an open bus ticket which would take us all the way to Hue, hopping on and off where we liked. Up to Nha Trang the buses were fine, if a bit chaotic. The bus company we were travelling with was Tam Hahn (we bought the ticket through Vietsea travel) and they seemed okay. However, we organised to take the night bus from Nha Trang to Hoi An – this was with a different bus company, Asia Smile I think. We were picked up late and spent a good 2 hours faffing around picking people and parcels up everywhere. These night buses are also much different to the sheer luxury we experienced in South America. I like to call them coffin buses; there were so many people squeezed into them, you would need to be a gymnast to get out.

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Anyway, at about 1am we hit something in the road, hard – and then we stopped. Thankfully the only damage seemed to be the bus. We stayed dozing for another hour or two but by then the coffin bus had turned into an oven bus – it must have been 35 degrees in there – so we bailed out despite the bus staff objecting to it. We then proceeded to sit on the side of the road for the majority of the next 7 hours, watching the driver and his posse take the engine apart on the side of the road.

Another couple of tourists got sick of waiting and the complete lack of information (no English speakers here I'm afraid!), so they spoke to the 'Director' of the bus company by phone who assured them a bus would be there at 8am – it didn't arrive. He then assured them it would be there at 10am – when they questioned the reliability of this statement he hung up on them. It was time to leave. A couple of people managed to hitch a ride to the next town. A couple of other buses on the way to Hoi An stopped, let a couple of Westerners on and then shoved the rest of us out of the way to let the Vietnamese on. Eventually and rather bizarrely a taxi came by. Stu, 2 English girls and I managed to squeeze ourselves into a matchbox car with all our packs etc and he took us the 30 or so kilometres to the next town.

When we got to the next town we managed to find a minivan that was going the 5 hours to Hoi An – yipee. We rocked up to what appeared to be the bus station cafe – grabbed some bread rolls and drinks and piled into the van. It was then we discovered the ants on the rolls – boo. There were about 9 people including us in the van when we left the station; by the time we were on the high way there were 24 people, a baby and a motorbike in the van, plus luggage and boxes, always loads of boxes. It was crazy. And they didn't take us to Hoi An, they took us Danang – the big city nearby, so to add insult to injury we then had to take another bus which took an hour and a half to go 25km – yep you guessed it, picking up peoples and parcels all over the city...

24 hours to go 350km...I am buying a car when we go home.

Hoi An is beautiful. As tired as we were when we arrived we strolled down into the old town and had dinner by the river which gets lit-up every night with lovely lanterns. Hoi An is famous for its tailors. People go there to shop and hang about in the sun, it's quite close to the area known as China Beach – the main r'n'r destination for American soldiers during the war.

The first day we were there we spent pretty much the whole time trying to establish which tailor we should do our shopping at and then getting measured up. It was really good fun actually, particularly for me as I got to design exactly what I wanted. In the end we went with a Tailors called Wall St for most of our stuff. They did a great job, even with the cape I ordered which they had never actually made before. They were a little more expensive than Mr Xe who we probably would have gone with but for Kieuw at Wall St – her English was really good and we just felt it would mean less chance of confusion etc. I did have a dress made by Mr Xe and it was lovely. Both tailors insist on fittings until the garment is perfect but in reality you could have something made in 24hrs – we just dragged it out over a few days. We also had some shoes made, winter boots mainly – which I am very excited about wearing with my new winter clobber. The shop we went to was Everybody's Fashion. They're a little pushy but will make just about anything for you, just bring a pic. When one of the pairs of boots I ordered came back with an orange lapel instead of the red one I requested, he took it back and fixed it straight away – all made to measure too so great stuff. We packed it all up and sent it home by seamail so I'm hoping it will get there safe and sound, supposedly it will take 1 to 3 months; it cost us about $50 which is a steal really for 11kgs. Note to other travellers – some of the tailors will post your stuff for you and they're cheaper than the post office – but remember to get a tracking number from them.

After a hard days shopping we headed for nature and joined Gareth and Angela once again for a day trip on a boat. It was a scorching day so we spent much of it trying to find shade on the islands we visited. It was good fun, we did some snorkelling with some ancient masks and saw some nice fish and coral – the lunch we got was a feast too and very tasty. I don't know the names of the islands as there was a definate language barrier with our guide, but we had fun all the same.

That night we finished off the day with a few beers, a few cocktails, an epic search for a karaoke bar that took us half way across Hoi An and back followed by a walk through the deserted streets – oh, except for the cow we bumped into.

The next day we had our final fittings and took it pretty easy otherwise. Onward travel was organised (we did mention to the bus company about the disaster on the previous journey – their response was to crack up laughing – yea, we didn't think we'd get much satisfaction there) and we did a bit of bargaining at the local market to pick up some gifts to include in the parcel which was to be home bound.

One absolute must in Hoi An is the fresh beer, it's so good and so cheap about 5000 dong or about 20p for a glass. A lot of restaurants do it so treat yourself.

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The bus to Hue was fine I am glad to say – it was actually a sleeping bus too but we got a seat up the front on the ground which made a difference and it wasn't too overcrowded. Hue is really different again. We've been really pleasantly surprised at just how different each of the stops in Vietnam has been. Hue is pretty much a city but it's steeped in ancient history as it once was the Capital. We took a day tour there which was fantastic value at only $12 which our hotel, Hue Holiday Hotel organised. We were picked up early and first driven out to see some mausoleums of Kings. These are huge elaborate tombs which were built to house the body of a king. They're are situated alongside the river mostly and in really beautiful surroundings – the pics speak for themselves. It's worth mentioning that these mausoleums took years upon years to build and the people of Vietnam often had extortionate taxes imposed upon them to pay for them. Ironically, the last King went into exile in France once Vietnam become independent; his grandchildren, who are technically heirs to the throne have visited these mausoleums and have to pay in like all the other punters. I'm sure they're rolling in their tombs.

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From here we stopped off at a Vietnamese Martial Arts college – this place was mind blowing. I didn't even realise it was part of the tour. We spent about 40mins there being entertained by displays from the students. They were excellent, proper ninjas. There was one unfortunate incident where a girl let a blunt spear she was using slip from her hand – it flew across the room and landed on an audience members foot – but I think she was ok. We were treated to displays with different weapons and then one on one combat as well as 3 on one combat – one of the most amazing things was when one of the guys did some Kung Fu, smashing a load of tiles with his head – and they followed this up with a guy driving a spear into his throat without breaking the skin – it was sick. Really entertaining.

We stopped at a little place nearby where they make conical hats and incense (incense is everywhere here as they burn it on alters for their deceased at every corner). The reason I mention this place though is there are lots of little artists shops there too and the artwork is amazing. If we'd had a bit more time there and money I would have picked up some stuff. They weren't particularly expensive but carrying stuff around is a no-no for us so hopefully we'll make it back there sometime in the future.

We headed back to the city for some lunch and then went to the famous Citadel. This was an ancient city which had basically been destroyed through the different wars that have taken place. It's still a pretty cool thing to see, in one of the main buildings they have a video of what it looked like and indeed what they plan for it to look like once again in the future. It was so hot here, again we spent much of our time jumping from shade to shade. We then went to Thien Mu Pagoda, which was nice; there was lots of mini-monks running around there. They wear what looks like little grey pyjamas and have their heads shaven but for two tufts normally like pigtails at the back of their heads...we believe that once you become a full monk these get the chop. From there we hopped on a river boat to get back to the city. Don't do this if you are in a rush, they are insanely slow, but kinda cool looking with their dragons out front.

Our second and last day in Hue we pretty much got the rest of our major travel plans organised. Namely a few flights we need to take before we head home. With heavy heart we decided we wouldn't be lucky enough to add the potential stops of Hong Kong or Malaysia the bucks and the time just wouldn't stretch that far.

We were killing time before we caught our night flight so Stu had a massage and I had a manicure. Poor Stuart had a rather uncomfortable experience with oil and hair pulling but I'll let him tell you about that one another time. The flight from Hue to Hanoi was a dream – 1 hour in the air compared to 12 or more on a bus. Our driver was even there to meet us when we got in(courtesy of the hotel we were checked into) so all in all not a bad journey.

Hanoi is a snarling beast of a city and unfortunately I think our least favourite location in Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh is a much nicer city stop. The first day we arrived we hit the town trying to organise our trip to Halong Bay which we had hoped to do the following day. As it transpired a cyclone that had hit the Phillipines was causing bad weather in the bay and therefore the departure of boats was looking dodgy for the following few days. A quick change of plans and we were booked on an overnight train leaving that night for Sapa; where we had also hoped to go to do some trekking.

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The cabins on the train were fine, clean and once the air con kicked in fairly comfortable – however, we had 3 more people in our cabin rather than the standard 2 as per bed space. Two Vietnamese guys had decided to top and tail in the one bunk which meant one of them had his feet stuck up on the little table near my face for most of the night – rank. Although, more frustratingly, one guy decided to take a phonecall after we had all fallen asleep and proceed to yak for an hour. When he went to sleep his mate started snoring, like an elephant. Needless to say that wasn't the best nights sleep we've ever had. After hanging about at the train station for an hour in the morning we were finally on our way to Sapa – which takes about another hour up hill. We had a nice pancake breakfast once we arrived at our hotel; the hotel itself was pretty basic but okay if a little damp. We were delighted to hear we had free time 'til lunch so we went to sleep. Our trek that afternoon took us on about a 5km round trip to a nearby village with 2 American girls who couldn't manage to shake a local H'Mong woman who decided to follow them around. We were later to find out this is common practice but more on that in a while.

We got to see how they make their clothes and the items they sell to tourists, its all done painstakingly by hand. Pretty much everything is indigo as a base colour and you see many women walking around with what looks like navy gloves but its the dye that's seemed to have perma-dyed their skin. You'll see their rather interesting outfits, its their traditional gear which was suited to being in the jungle with all sorts of things that bite and stick. I particularly liked the velvet leg warmers but I think you need tiny calves to really pull them off.

We also saw Cat Cat waterfall that day, two beautiful things that made it extra nice were the huge butterflies that were all over the place and the rainbow that appeared when the sun came out – serene.

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We also saw where they grind up the rice that comes from the paddy fields that surround the villages and cling to the sides of the mountains in all directions. We also saw a forgery in operation where they make much sought after knives. I had never seen a forgery before, Stuart even had a go fanning the flames of the fire that heats the iron.

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That night we had a feast of a dinner at our hotel – similar to the feast of a lunch we had. Very tasty and aptly their Pumpkin soup was the best I've ever tasted. We took a wander around the market there too, there are some bargains to be had by the way of fake North Face gear and other locally produced souvenirs.

The following day and we set off on a longer hike of about 12km. The weather was okay and straight away we were pretty much on earthen tracks along with a Spanish couple, our guide and 3 H'Mong women I like to call the hangers-on. They were actually really nice. Sou, who I got talking to (after she presented me with a present of little horse made out of grass) told me about her family and how they live and work, it was really interesting. She wondered why Stuart and I aren't married which we get a bit out here, but she was a good sport and had a giggle with us. As will happen to everyone who meets these women there comes a point where they will say something like 'okay you buy something'....and you feel like you have to. They have, after all, walked all the way from their village in the morning into Sapa and then back all the way with you – for what? Well, for your Dong via purchases you make from them. We picked up some nice bits and pieces from them and it was pretty cool to know they had hand made them themselves.

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On our trek that day we saw some of the most beautiful countryside, I cannot emphasise enough how worth it a trip to Sapa is if you've been clinging to the coast in Vietnam. It's stunning, even when the heavens opened it was still pretty beautiful – well what we could see of it.

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We visited a number of villages that day, where we visited a Catholic Church surprisingly (about 6% of H'Mong are Catholic – a hangover from Colonial times) and we even got to witness some kids being taught music, it was lovely. We also met some gorgeous little kids who spend their days playing around the paddy fields and in the rivers. They also like to get treats from the tourists and no one could resist these kids, especially the pants-less (I believe as they can't afford nappies) little boys with the snotty noses – angels.

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One little girl walked with us for a good few kilometers with a basket of herbs on her back. She was dead cute too, we gave her some cookies that made her face light up. We also came upon a group of kids eating sugar cane. You need a big sharp knife to strip the sugar cane before you can eat it – check this little girl who seemed to have the monopoly of stripping the sugar cane.

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A wonderful day I have to say, bad weather and all. It did get slightly tedious when a group of teenage girls stated hassling us to buy more stuff for about the 10th time that day but they gave up eventually. You can't say something like 'I don't have any more money' because they know you do otherwise how could you come all the way from a rich country to be there? There's no easy way of saying no.

Back on the sleeper train that night and a much better nights sleep thanks to the standard two other people in the cabin. We rocked up to Hanoi at 5am, silly o'clock the next morning – we went back to our hotel and sat there until 9am when they told us there wasn't a room for us. :( However, the booked us into another place around the corner that was perfectly acceptable. That day we went out for a wander around the city. The one big problem with Hanoi is the layout. There are so many streets and back alleys you can't go 40ft without having to cross the crazy roads so every venture out is fraught. We were also trying to book our trip to Halong Bay and paid a visit to a few travel agents but it was a really difficult task as they all quote you way above the asking and you have to try and bargain them down. Eventually we had got a tip about a place called the Hanoi Tourist Information Service- it was actually just a kiosk on Le Thach near the lake. They sold us a 3day 2nt trip for $80 but had cheaper ones for $52 but apparently the food wasn't as ample and it was a smaller boat. It was a bargain considering we were being quoted anything from $120 to $260.

That night we had a few beers and a nice meal before heading to see some water puppetry. This is a real marmite kinda thing – I really liked it – because I found it cute I think other people just thought it was rubbish. Don't go expecting too much but the music is really excellent so well worth a gander.

We headed off to Halong early the next day, having checked the weather forecast things seemed to be looking better. It took us about 4 hours to get there and get on the boat, which was actually pretty nice, a classic Junk boat with a huge restaurant and sun deck up on top. We had a seafood lunch which was pretty tasty and then headed out amongst the other-worldy rock formations that make up Halong Bay.

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There are in fact 1,960 of these formations, many of which have never been explored or named for that matter. They cover 1,553 sq kms and really are a sight to behold. After about an hour we got to Sung Sot cave, also known as the Amazing Cave.

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This place was pretty cool if for its sheer scale alone, it's huge. Afterward it was time for kayaking – a 40min sprint around a few islands and back to the boat totally pooped. It was quite good fun and I'm pleased to say Stuart and I didn't fall out over directions again. We anchored in a quiet bay that evening and had a very long and deep chat with our guide Thouc that touched on everything from wildlife to war over to politics and back to ghost stories. Dinner was followed by a sort of sing song/salsa night. One guy in particular, an Argentinian native who had been living in France for the last 20 years was relentless in his pursuit of dance partners, I even gave him a whirl. I reckon salsa might be the way forward, we were sweating buckets after a few minutes. Stu and I slipped away once the Italian contingent started in on Italian power ballads...

The next morning we headed for Cat Ba Island where we were to spend the next day and night. Once we got to the island we were faced with an hour and a half up hill trek. Ok, we said we'll give it a go. However, about 5mins in it started pouring and I have NEVER seen anything like the mosquitoes in this place, they were like horses. Another 20mins of scrambling over very unsecured cobbles that had been placed on mashed up clay we came to a series of ladders, this was breaking point – potentially literally. Some of these old ladders had rotted and broken in parts. There was a backlog of people here too as only one person could go up or come down the ladder at any one time. As we stood soaked, covered in mud and being massacred by mozzies I thought of my little brothers invaluable advice, if it doesn't feel right, don't do it. We turned on our heels and took a good few of the group with us too who agreed a view of the island tree tops wasn't worth a broken ankle or malaria for that matter. We enjoyed seeing a number of people hop themselves on the way back down and we even saw a real-life stick insect – he was very cool and about 8 inches long.

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When we got to the bottom we saw an unusual stripey dog – see if you think the markings are real or fake!

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The minute we got to the bottom the rain stopped but we didn't have any regrets about turning back, it was insane. We spent about another 45mins on the bus to get to our hotel, and when we got there we were pleasantly surprised to see we had been well upgraded. A quick shower and a change and it was back out for lunch and a trip to Monkey Island. This is a cool little place where we just chilled for a couple of hours, we did in fact see some wild monkeys too. They are infamous for biting people so we stayed well back but they were cool little dudes, Momma and two inquisitive babies.

That night we returned to the same restaurant we had lunched in. It was pretty standard Vietnamese fair but filled us up nicely. Every couple of minutes while we were there we would get a fright because their was loads of groups of Vietnamese men and they would allow jump up and shout something three times before throwing back shots of rice alcohol. Think rowdy rugby team outing. Mad.

We slept well in our fancy hotel that night and hit the road early the next day to get back to the boat, the harbour and then Hanoi. Sadly and shockingly we saw a pretty horrific road accident on the way back. A woman was lying on the side of the road with a lot of blood around here, she had come off her bike. No-one was around her but there were people examining her bike. We heard that in Vietnam there's some legalities around helping people who've been in accidents and basically you're not supposed to in case something goes wrong. We wondered was this the case here. However I have to say it might have been too late for her anyway.

That night we were pretty pooped so had something to eat and chilled out. The next day we were flying to Laos and out of Vietnam after nearly 4 fantastic weeks. We got up early and went to see the Temple of Literature which is a really picturesque little place which used to be the main University in Vietnam, its well worth a look. We had hoped to go to see Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum but unfortunately it's only open in the morning and it was closed Monday and Friday – the only two mornings we were actually in Hanoi.

Vietnam will be a big recommendation from us to friends and family thinking of an adventurous holiday. 3 weeks here is ample time to educate yourself, see some really cool stuff, bask in the sun and buy some tailor made clobber. Chalk it down.

The next stop is our last stop on our new country list – Laos.

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Hoi An
Tahn Vahn 1 - 8/10 - a nice little hotel with ok brekkie and a swimming pool.
Bo Bo Cafe – 10/10 – this place doesn't look like much but the food is fabulous and the man that runs the place is lovely.
Lame Restaurant – 7/10 – despite the name this place is okay, but if its busy avoid like the plague.
76 Restaurant – 8/10 – yummy Vietnamese fair.
Above and Beyond – 7/10 – okay cocktails but closes around 11pm.
Wall Street Tailors – 9/10 – they did a great job, but are a little more pricey than some.
Mr Xe Tailors – 10/10 – did exactly what I wanted and Mr Xe himself fitted me twice.
Everybody's Fashion – 8/10 – a bit pushy but they'll make you anything.

Hue
Hue Holiday Hotel – 9/10 – helpful guys and good air-con, the city tour is really good.
Little Italy – 8/10 – pretty tasty but a massive menu that is nearly too much.
DMZ – 9/10 – same menu as Little Italy in a moody bar setting.
Shiva Shakti – 9/10 fabulous, big portions of curry.

Hanoi
Est Pumpkin Travel – 8/10 – not up for bargaining, the Sapa tour we booked with them was good but the hotel was a bit damp also why was there an extra person in our cabin the first night on the sleeper?
Little Hanoi Hotel – 8/10 - the staff here were so nice except for one woman who was pretty nasty.
Lucky Star Hotel – 8/10 – our room had no window but it was cheap, breakfast ain't really western friendly.
Tourist Information Office – 10/10 – these guys were great, although their opening hours are weird about 11.30am to 6 we think but not Sunday. They knock a nice bit of money off the brochure prices for tours.
Water Pupperty near Hoam Kiem lake – 7/10 a few drinks before this might help but worth a look.
Gecko Restaurant – 8/10 good western grub.
Hanoi Backpacker Hostel bar – 7/10 a lively spot, nice beer/bad pizza.
Ladybird Restaurant – 9/10 – very tasty.
Temple of Literature – 8/10 – a pretty little place to visit with a good gift shop.
Quan Bia Minh – 9/10 - nice beer and lovely food.

Sapa
Est Pumpkin Hotel – 8/10 – a really nice family run this place and the food was great, the rooms need more attention.

Halong Bay
Christina Deluxe with A.S.T travel – 9/10 – Thouc was a great guide and we did the standard tour with a nice upgrade in out hotel on Cat Ba.
Harbour Hotel – 8/10 – a nice hotel with stunning views, there was a giant cockroach in our room when we woke up though – think small baby size.
Neptunes Restaurant – 7/10 - tonnes of standard fair.

Posted by kelandstu 06:49 Archived in Vietnam Tagged pagoda sapa terraces hanoi karaoke hue hoi_an danang citadel halong_bay temple_of_literature cat_ba tailors amazing_cave wall_st_tailors mr._xe_tailors h'mong est_pumpkin cat_cat_waterfall water_puppetry china_beach christina_deluxe_junk hue_mausoleums vietnamese_martial_arts Comments (0)

Visiting Vietnam part 1; Ho Chi Minh, Mui Ne & Nha Trang

Bikes, bikes and more bikes. Remembering the war and beautiful coastlines.

sunny 36 °C

And so onto Vietnam, Stuart will be your blogging guide for this part of the trip.

We had to get the bus back up to Phnom Penh and then another bus from there to Ho Chi Minh City. This all went relatively smoothly compared to our previous travel. The bus we booked, Mekong Express, took us all the way, stopping at the border for our paper work to be done and bags checked, all of which only took about an hour altogether; we arrived into Ho Chi Minh in the evening. Our hotel was very central in District 1 which is the main tourist area. We got something to eat and had a quiet night in.

Ho Chi Minh City was formerly known as Saigon (the locals still call the downtown area Saigon), but when the outer areas joined on, the city was renamed. There are about 9 million people living there who, amazingly, own about 5 million motor bikes. It is a sight to behold when you see the streets packed with bikes and the only way you can get from one side of the road to the other is by stepping out and walking slowly across hoping that the bikes will avoid you (thankfully for us they did). Check this out...

On our first day we decided to have a walk around the city and visit some of the sights. So, firstly we went to the Reunification Palace (formerly know as the Independence Palace). This was the home and workplace of the President of South Vietnam during the Vietnam War. It was also the site of the end of the Vietnam War during the Fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975, when a North Vietnamese Army tank crashed through its gates (2 of the tanks still stand just inside the main gate - or replicas – there's debate about this). You can walk around pretty much the whole of the palace looking into a number of large reception rooms that include banquet halls, conference rooms, a cinema and a casino. A good number of these rooms haven't been used since 1975 with no change to the décor so it's like walking through a museum. On the roof there was a helicopter next to the two spots where the bombs were dropped by a rebel South Vietnamese fighter pilot in his failed attempt to kill Diem, the first president of South Vietnam. The most interesting part was below ground level where you can see the war command rooms that included giant war maps and old communications equipment. It's a strange feeling walking through this area knowing how important this was to the modern history of Vietnam.

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After this, we headed to the War Remnants Museum which covers some of the atrocities of the Vietnam War and contains artifacts, photographs and exhibits used during the conflict. It was opened in 1975 and was originally known as “The House for Displaying War Crimes of American Imperialism and the Puppet Government (of South Vietnam)”. Since 1993 and the improvement of relations with America, it is now known as the War Remnants Museum. However, there is still a very anti-American feel about the place and the majority of the stories are from the perspective of the Vietnamese people.

The main courtyard has a number of planes, helicopters, missiles and other weapons of war. Until you're right up beside them, you don't really get the true feeling of how massive they are. We then went into an area that had a reproduction of the tiger cages used by the South Vietnamese government to house political prisoners on Con Son Island. The prisoners were put into these cages in direct sunlight with little food or water with a view to breaking them to obtain information.

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The main building's exhibits illustrate the killing of civilians, spreading of chemicals (a program called Agent Orange that is still affecting people – American and Vietnamese - as it has caused birth deformities), torturing of prisoners and the effects of the war on North Vietnam. There are a lot of propaganda posters and some very graphic images. This can be hard going at times but still very interesting.

On the top floor there is the Requiem photography exhibition in memory of all the photographers who died in the Vietnam War. I have a massive amount of respect for these people who put themselves on the front line to document what was going on during the conflict. Some of the images are taken from the very last rolls of camera before they were killed. Very moving.

On leaving the museum, the heavens opened so we hopped in a taxi back to the hotel that had the fastest moving meter of all time; and for his second trick the taxi driver switched some notes on us - nice! It hardly stopped from then on so we only ventured out later to get some food at Kim's Cafe, which was OK, before heading back to our room.

The next day we were up early to go on a trip to the Cu Chi tunnels. They are a large complex of tunnels that span 250 kilometers which were used by the Vietnamese guerrillas for their military campaigns during the Vietnam War. They used them for hiding during combat, communication and supply routes, hospitals, food and weapon caches and living quarters for numerous guerrilla fighters. Kids were even schooled underground and there was a number of marriages as well as a few births take place there. It is a truly immense network. Some of our group took the opportunity to try and lower themselves into a mock-up trap door entrance which was very small (we decided against this). We were then shown a number of the booby traps that were used to capture enemy soldiers and the injuries that they caused (not for the faint hearted!).

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They had American tanks that had been destroyed and a number of deactivated unexploded bombs on show.

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There was a shooting range that had every weapon from a handgun right up to what they called the “Rambo Gun” which I think was a Browning Machine Gun. Being a bit anti-gun, we decided against trying this and had an ice-cream instead. Peace man.

We were then taken to some mock-up tunnels. These were made slightly larger than what they were originally as Westerners have slightly bigger frames than the Vietnamese(!). Kelly had a look then decided against it when a woman came out saying there was no way she was going to do it, she figured if someone stopped in front of her she might freak. I headed in and let me tell you, it wasn't the most comfortable thing I've ever done. The tunnel was only high enough to allow you to crouch and the temperature was about 10 degrees higher inside. I managed to go about 20 metres before deciding to take the next exit out of there.

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We went on to see places where the American B52 planes had dropped bombs on.

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Finally, we were shown a scale model of how the tunnel system worked and a film that was shot in the late 60s about the Cu Chi tunnel system, although it was a tad biased and may offend some Americans, e.g. they do references the 'American devils descending from the sky..'.

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On arriving back into the city our guide recommended a restaurant called Pho 24 where we could try the popular Vietnamese dish, Pho; this is a noodle soup based dish that you can have with chicken, beef or seafood (or a mix of all of them which I went for). It's delicious and we've been eating it ever since.

We did a bit of shopping later on, Kelly picked up some knock-off perfume in the local market and I got a very cheap pair of Asics (they have a factory in Vietnam so the cost is about 1/3 of back home). We ate at a Restaurant called Margaritas and the food was awesome. So much so, we went back the next night.

The next day we went on a day trip to the Mekong River Delta. The River is the 10th longest in the world stretching from Tibet all the way down to the South China Sea. When we arrived, we boarded a traditional wooden boat and headed across to one of the islands. To be honest, this whole day was very touristy. We were given samples of honey, coconut sweets, pancakes and other foodstuffs with the option to buy the product. We were seated and given free fruit while a truly awful band played traditional music then asked us for a donation at the end (we actually put in some money hoping that they wouldn't play any more!). We were taken on a canoe along the river and were asked to make a donation at the end (do you see how this is going!). We had a spot of lunch at a restaurant which was OK. The best part of the day happened by accident. After lunch, we were offered the chance to ride bicycles a short distance around the area we were at. We were told that all we had to do was turn left, left and left again and we'd be back. We headed off, turned left and started cycling down the road. It was all very nice as we passed through a number of small villages with locals waving and smiling at us. However, 10 minutes later we still hadn't found the next left turn. There were a couple of girls up ahead of us so we thought we must be on the right track. As another 10 minutes passed still no left turn. This is when we decided that maybe we'd missed the turn and we should head back. We arrived back at the meeting place 10 minutes late and had to cycle past the rest of our party on our way in who weren't looking too happy. As it turns out, we should only have taken a short route around the restaurant and not onto the main road. Oops!! It was very pleasant though and got us away from the tourist traps.

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Later on we met up for some food and drinks with Kelly's work friend, Gareth, and his girlfriend, Angela, who were on holiday in Vietnam. It was really good to catch up and find out how things were back home. We didn't have too late a night though as we had to get up early the next day to go to Mui Ne which is further up the east coast.

Now, when we booked our bus to Mui Ne the journey time was noted to be 3 hours. I can only imagine this is if you took all the other traffic off of the roads and had a clear route through; I should mention buses here do approx 35-40km an hour on a good day. We didn't get out of the city for at least 2 hours and it took another 3 hours to get to our destination.

Mui Ne is a lovely place right on the sea so there's a lot of kite-surfing, jet-skiing etc. However, we were there to recharge the batteries so didn't have any plans to do anything too energetic. We stayed at the Vietnam-Austria house which is owned by an Aussie guy called John. It was very nice, more like a hotel complex with spacious rooms and sunbeds facing right out onto the sea. On our first night, we went to a restaurant called 'Good Morning Vietnam' an Italian chain would you believe. The food was pretty good but it was a good walk away from where we were staying. For the rest of our time there, we didn't venture much further than a few doors down for food but it was cheap and very nice.

We did go on a trip to the sand dunes on the 2nd day. The first stop was at a place called the Fairy Stream which wasn't really much to write home about. We walked along the stream a bit and up a small dune where the view was OK. One thing to mention though was our first experience of the (in)famous fish sauce of Mui Ne. It's less to do with the taste and more to do with the very strong smell that will turn your stomach (fortunately, the accommodation was upwind so it was OK back at the hotel) think dry dog biscuits x 1,000,000.. We then stopped up near the main town where there are lots of traditional fishing boats and a great view of the coastline. On we went to the white dunes which is about 20km out of town. It was actually very impressive. You had the feeling of stepping out into the Sahara desert but if you turned round there was sprawling countryside. I had a wee jump off a dune and we headed back down to the jeep.

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Our final stop was at a red dune nearer the town for sunset and a slide down the dunes if you wanted. It was not much to write home about as there were over a thousand people there, the slides were rubbish and the sun went behind a cloud before it set.

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That night we headed along to a place called Joe's Bar. Joe is friends with the hotel owner John and we had briefly met him the night before so decided to try his place out. It was actually one of the highlights of our Vietnam trip so far. The drink was plentiful and cheap. The band were something else. Two guys from the Philippines singing pop ballads, everything from U2 to Richard Marx across to the Beatles and back to Whitney Houston! They had right old banter with the crowd too. At one point, one of the punters got up and did a Kings of Leon song on the keyboard which was excellent. We met an Irish couple later on and finished the night off with a few more drinks and a boogie along at the local nightclub. We got a lift on some scooters back to the hotel in the wee hours. Cue the hangover for the next day. We did very little other than laze about waiting for our bus to leave at 2pm.

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Nha Trang is a coastal city in South Central Vietnam. We arrived at about 7pm and hopped in a taxi along to our hotel. We stayed centrally again at Suisse Hotel which was very nice with helpful (but excitable) staff. We ate at the burger joint across the road with the burgers fresh made and rather tasty.

We hit the beach the next day. It was very hot and I think we only managed about an hour before we had to head for the shelter of the town. We met up with Gareth and Angela again and had a bit of a night out sampling the Shisha pipe for the first time (a tobacco-less pipe substituted with a fruit flavour, in our case). To be honest it looks more exciting than it is really.

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The next day we headed out to meet our childhood selves and ventured to Vinpearlland. This is a big resort on Hon Tre Island just off the mainland. For the princely sum of about £12 you get a trip on the longest over-sea cable car (3.3 kilometres), with amazing views over the bay, to Vinpearl Amusement Park.

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There are some fun-fair rides (not really that great), indoor video games (much better with stuff from our childhood right up to the present day), a nice aquarium and the most fun part, the water slide park. Kelly managed most of the water slides, only declining to do the Kamikaze, Tsunami and the Superbowl (though I called it the toilet bowl as you got thrown around all the way down then landed in this big bowl before being “flushed” out the bottom).

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We had a really good few days in Nha Trang just relaxing and enjoying ourselves which was just what we needed before heading off to the clothes-making capital of Vietnam, Hoi An which will be in the next thrilling installment of our blog......

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Here's Kelly's usual summary for fellow travellers;
Ho Chi Minh (Saigon)
Seventy Hotel - 8/10 - the room was a bit small but pretty good otherwise and nice staff.
Vietsea Travel - 8/10 - we booked our Mekong Delta and Cu Chi Tunnels trip with these guys, they're very chep an efficient. We also booked an open bus ticket with them which you will hear more about in the next blog installment.
Kim's Cafe - 7/10 - standard Vietnamese grub
Margheritas - 9/10 - perfect the first night but not as good the second.
Eden - 8/10 - nice (but pricey for vietnam) cocktails
Pho 24 - 9/10 - local noodle chain you can't go wrong with

Mui Ne
Austria-Vietnam House - 9/10 - a lovely place, run by the cheery Aussie John.
Joe's Cafe - 10/10 - open 24hrs serving huge frozen margheritas with excellent entertainment - get thee there.
Good Morning Vietnam - 7/10 - fairly standard Italian fair at this popular Vietnamese chain.
Lam Tong - 8/10 - this was a crazy place, really bad on western food, really excellent on Vietnamese food - and service is slow but worth it.
Jibes - 9/10 - very tasty and served a very good attempt at a hangover-busting fry up.

Nha Trang
Suisse Hotel - 9/10 - very big room which was very clean, not much on site but no problem.
Fast Food Nation - 8/10 - good burgers.
Why Not? - 7/10 - apparently the only bar in town after a certain hour - free mojito when you order a cocktail - can't knock it.
Louisiane Brewhouse - 8/10 - we ate on the beach here a bit more upmarket, the hot pot is good - if very hot.
Lanterns - 9/10 - very tasty.

Posted by kelandstu 04:48 Archived in Vietnam Tagged saigon cable_car mui_ne mekong_delta ho_chi_minh nha_trang cu_chi_tunnels vinpearl_land kim's_cafe margheritas vietsea_travel open_bus austria_vietnam_house joe's_cafe red_dunnes white_dunnes fairy_stream suisse_hotel Comments (0)

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