Laos

Laos

Vientiane

A small & relaxed capital city, main reason for our visit was to get our Thai visas sorted. An easy enough process but you have to wait a while just to put your application in at one counter, then wait again to pay at a different one before coming back the next day to pick up your passport!

The city itself is nice enough set on the bank of the Mekong over looking Thailand. A great place to get a meal, shop in the night market and watch the sun set.

Vieng vang

A stop we almost missed out on due to its reputation as a drug & alcohol fuel led party town popular with backpackers.

We decided to stop over to break the long bus ride to Luang prahbang. Which is a long & windy road through the mountains. The first part of the journey isn’t even on bitumen the whole way!

Vieng vang is small ( and deserted town while we were there) set in a beautiful valley. Apparently the authorities have cracked down on partying which was nice for us, but bad for local business there were more empty seats in countless restaurants than people I saw in the town!

The thing to do here is float down the river in a tyre tube. It is the most fun, cooling, relaxing way to appreciate the beauty of the mountains & river. We only saw a few places to stop and have a beer ( the banks use to be lined with bars apparently) the best one we almost missed had it not been for a fellow tuber up ahead. Two young guys had “set up” a rogue bar in the roots of a tree that hang out over the river. All they had was a small esky perched in between the roots. It has got to be one of the best bars I’ve ever been in!

Luang prabang

What a bus ride, endless hairpin turns through stunning terrain! We had a couple of close calls on some blind corners with rather large trucks, I’m glad I wasn’t sitting up front!

This is a beautiful town set between two rivers ; Mekong and ………
Very relaxing, some great food & friendly people. A large population of monks & we woke early one morning to see the monks begging for alms ( where they get their food for the day from the locals).

They have a large night market with a great little lane of food including bbqs which was fun to eat at.

The highlight of course was meeting an elephant. We did a 2 day mahot training trip to elephant village. They have elephants they have rescued from logging as well as elephants they rent from the owners so they won’t send them logging. Each elephant has her own mahot that is rescued / rented with her. They had a good reputation & as far as we could tell they were doing a good job. ( though I think it would be better if the elephants & mahots could have a day off!)

The first day we learnt how to get up on the neck of the elephant by holding onto her ear and stepping up on her leg, it is a long way up! We then did a little loop to practice the commands we had learnt ( like we were ever going to remember, with the exception of stop!)

We then went in our pairs and had a ride in the howda (the elephant seat) with the mahout on their necks. When we got on our’s I noticed what looked like a dermatitis on her head & some minor scratching/bleeding behind her ears & then she started swaying side to side like she didn’t want us on. I thought my fears had been realized. But once she got going she was ok and actually seemed happier when her mahout was out in front where she could see him. It turned out that she had only been in the village a couple of months & had been rescued from logging which was the cause of her skin problems. She was still settling in and was kept separate from the other elephants to adjust slowly.

After lunch we crossed the river to a group of elephants. Here we were given one each to ride back into the jungle to their resting place for the night. We got to ride on their necks, it was such an amazing experience, and my mahout was great he spoke quite good English and had a fantastic relationship with his elephant. Her name was miecar meaning mother of gold. She was 37 and had been rescued from logging she had been his fathers elephant also.

We walked back out of the jungle and spent the afternoon cooling off in the waterfall down river!

The next morning we rose early & were back across the river walking through the jungle to meet our elephants were we had left them. We got there first standing on a small track amongst the trees waiting for our new friends. We heard them before we saw them, a slow rhythmical sound of a dragging chain ( the chain them at night for protection with a 50m chain). Then you see huge dark shadows emerge from the jungle. Next thing you know your a few feet away from them looking them in the face, incredible! The elephants then proceeded to pile the chain length the way a human would! It was serial, intimidating, humbling and absolutely amazing to be surrounded by 8 elephants in the jungle!

We all jumped on and head back down to the river. I rode solo the whole way, I couldn’t believe it. I was a bit nervous at first but she was so good & gentle I loved it. I’d like to think I got her back on track once or twice by using my knees as taught, but I’m sure she just got bored of what she had been looking at!

We got to the river & it was bath time, my mahout got back on and we headed into the water. It was so great seeing all the elephants in the river I think they enjoyed it as much as we did. We had been given a scrubbing brush and set about giving our girls a good scrub. My mahout got her to shower me with her trunk, I was soaked & happy!

We were then very lucky to ride our elephants across the river & up a very steep bank back to the village. (we’d asked our guide the night before if we could).

Everyone was so happy & couldn’t stop smiling. We all knew it was an experience of a lifetime and one we would never forget.

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Cambodia

What a beautiful country, my favorite so far!

Phnom Phen

We had a boat trip along the Mekong to get here, it was a long way. But great to be on the river, it is such a large mass of water as far as the eye could see in some parts. Seeing small villages along the way was great.

The Cambodian border was a bit funny. Some planks of wood roughly put together for the pontoon & a single width plank up to the bank.

We’d been in phnom for about half an hour when we decided we loved it. It had a really nice atmosphere to it being along the river was nice though very hot on the riverside.

We were starving by the time we got there, the boat journey took a lot longer than stated ( the norm in Vietnam). We went to the first place we saw and tried the local dish amok….. Yum! Nice flavours creamy filling comforting kinda food.

We visited the central market, the market for everything; jewelry, clothes, souvenirs, groceries. I think it could be the market the guy in the QUT ad is walking through at the end. The grocery section is nuts, full of everything fish, poultry, meat, veg, spices etc & it is crowded with narrow walkways produce waste spilling over. Lots to look at, the smell was a bit full on though!

The grand palace & silver pagoda were nice, though not as amazing as the one in Bangkok. The silver pagoda is so named because of the silver floor tiles each weighing about 1 kg. unfortunately they only have a small amount of the floor uncovered which is in need of a good polish, and I can’t help but think if they removed the gunk from old sticky tape they would be even more impressive!

The killing fields & S21 was a pretty tough day. Although I really enjoyed the tuk tuk ride through the city & down the high street of an area on the outskirts of the city. It was busy with activity massive trucks, cars, mopeds, tuk tuks, bikes & people. As well as busy shops along the sides. The road itself was more pot hole than bitumen making navigation interesting. Our driver was great getting around the holes that some car wheels disappeared in!

Those in charge of the killing fields have done a superb job. Everyone gets an audio guide & follows the trail around the site stopping at each marker. It’s not only that you get to hear info about the site but because everyone is wearing headphones you are lost in your own thoughts & feelings & experience of the place. Something I think that is invaluable.

The whole Khmer Rouge is disturbing, unimaginable & disgusting but I believe it’s a story that needs to be told, seen & listened too. Being at the site there were a few things that made the story. Visual, one of the main things for me, was the amount of holes the dug up mass graves, the little pieces of bone or teeth or cloth that were on the walkways between the graves. ( each year as soil is erodes piece come to the surface, workers will collect these a few times a year) listening to the story of the killing tree while standing in front of it. “soldiers” would smash babies heads against the tree to kill them before throwing them in the pit. They found bits of bone, blood & brain on the trunk. They also played you the music & sound of Diesel engine running this is what the prisoners heard at night as they awaited their deaths, chilling.

They have a large monument (may also be a stupa, not exactly sure on that) that had 17 levels of sculls & larger bones from the graves. Each year they have a ceremony there.

When we left & were headed it S21 our driver asked if we wanted to go and fire a riffle. Thanks but no way could we do that after what we just experienced.

S21 was different to the killing fields, no audio guides & very little signage. But we knew the story. It was a high school that was turned into a torture chamber. They had left the metal framed beds they used for torture ( victims were found chained to them after it was all over). With photos of the victims found, I’ve never seen anything like it.
There was one building they had divided the rooms into smaller cells & put a grid of barbed wire on the walkways so prisoners couldn’t commit suicide, even though it was a death sentence to be there. We got to the point about halfway through that we just didn’t want to / couldn’t look at any more, it was awful!

I think for me one of the worst things was that the instigators / leaders were actually educated people, some even internationally educated. Yet it was the educated they feared most. The guy responsible for the killing fields & S21 is the only one that has confessed & shown remorse.

On a lighter note,

The bus ride to Siem Reap was amazing!!!
We drove through fantastic little villages, everyone has a cow tied to their letter box as the road is the most solid part. At one point it became a long straight dirt track with water on both sides. We tried crickets from the road side vendor & they were nice!

Siem Reap is a fantastic town, very much about tourism due to the temples of Angkor. It has a great atmosphere all kinds of bars, restaurants, markets etc. all the locals are fantastic & so friendly.

The temples are of course amazing, spectacular, insane, beautiful, ridiculous! And it was great riding in our tuk tuk around the area, it was beautiful with the motes & massive green trees. We did have a little crash on our tuk tuk ended up in a small ditch on the side of the road but all ok. A bit funny really. But we got a bit nervous whenever we hit road works after that!

My favorite temple was Tarprom the temple that the jungle is trying to take over.

We took a boat from Siem reap to Battambang. It was incredible, lots of floating villages, kids waving, paddling in boats, we collected their post! Brilliant! At some points there was so much foliage the boat could only just fit through. We all had to duck out of the way of rogue branches.

We hired a tuk tuk to drive as around the country side which was beautiful, we road the bamboo train, a square of bamboo matting on train wheels with a small motor started with a shoelace! When you come across one in the opposite direction, the one with the lighter load dismantles and let’s the other one through! It was like a crazy fairground ride. The ones that travel around so always feel a little dodgier!

We got to try the hard boiled baby duck egg which actually tastes ok. As long as you don’t think about it. Not sure if I would do it again for that reason, but I did enjoy the bite I tasted.

Cambodia really was a fantastic place, the people ate amazing, you wouldn’t know their recent history just to look at the place, I’m amazed as how do you rebuild when all the professionals, educated are gone! Everyone should say hi to Cambodia!

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Saigon / Ho Chi Minh City

Love Saigon. We’d heard from others that it was more crazy than Hanoi. It is a bigger city but far more chilled out. The people are fantastic & have a good sense of humor. Even though we were still the walking dollar it didn’t feel that way so much.

We visited the war remnants museum were we got to see some of the effects of agent orange – very scary!

We had a beer at the hotel continental, were foreign correspondence reporters drank during the war.

One of the most amazing experiences was the cu chi tunnels. They showed examples of the traps the VC used – very scary! But it was the 40m crawl through a remaining tunnel which truly blew your mind. They have widened it for foreigners to fit, but we only just do. We were all on our hands & knees. It was so claustrophobic, hot, dark, intense. It was difficult to breath & I did have a moment of panic when I realized a couldn’t go back to get out (the rest of the group behind us) & I had 20 m before I could get out. But I managed 40. It really was an amazing experience, like nothing else. I don’t know how they did it. The longest one guy stayed down without coming out was 6years! No way!

We also had a really fun random night out in a bar called cheeky monkey. We happened across a guy we’d met in Nah Trang. He was drinking with the owner & invited us over. Turns out the guy who owns it is an Aussie. He came out a few months ago, separated from his wife, moved to Saigon, bought the bar, his 18 yr old daughter soon followed. All really nice & had a live band. The random part was he had just bought an orphan monkey who was chained under the table, and would scurry across your feet with his little hands. He even sat on the support bar under the table swinging his legs. Very cute, I just hope he treats him well. Also the owners wife had flown in for a holiday that day, & got very excited when one of the top contestants for Vietnam idol dropped by and gave a performance! He was actually really good!

Such a fun, random night!

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Nha Trang

This is Vietnam on the beach. Complete with high rises. We met some people that described it as Vietnams gold coast, which I can kind of get especially in the backpacker area.

We had a days snorkeling which was actually really good. There were loads of fish & coral to see. It was great.

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Hoi An

What a fantastic little town full of charm & character. The old quarter is closed to motorized vehicles which makes it nice to walk around. The river area comes alive at night with lanterns, lights & music. We floated a candle down the river.

Hoi An had the best food we’d eaten in Vietnam.

I had my birthday here. We rented some bikes & rode around in the rain visiting some temples & small museums it was a lot of fun.

We visited My Son which are now ruins since the US bombed them during the war. Not much remains of the Cham temples built between the 8th & 10th centuries. But what is left is amazing. They still don’t know how they used / made the bricks. There is no mortar between them & there is no discolouration.

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Not the best pic, but you get the idea

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Hue

Our next stop was Hue. A small town with some lovely people. We had a tour along the river stopping at temples & tombs. It was a nice way to travel. And the tombs were rather large set in beautiful jungle.

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Sapa

We caught the night train from Hanoi & arrived in Lao Cai (near the chinese boarder) early morning. From there it was a minivan ( thankfully better than the previous experience) up the mountain. It was absolutely stunning. The mountains were terraced with rice paddies almost ready for harvest. It added to the landscape giving the hillside another texture. I can’t imagine how long it would take to build the terraces.

That afternoon we met May our guide for the next two days. Our first walk was a short walk down to a waterfall. Were they had some traditional dancers. The walk was of course full of amazing views. The rain & mist adding to the atmosphere.

Day 2 was a longer walk, about 12 or so kilometers. We got a little nervous when May turned up in gumboots ( you could rent them from the hotel, but after the first day we didn’t think we needed them, not that they had them in G’s size!)

We walked through the village & on the otherside we picked up a group of ladies from May’s village. You could see on everyone’s face they were thinking the same thing, no I don’t want to buy anything. However it took about 3 steps off the road to work out why they were there. It was sooooo slippery & all messed up from the rain and people walking on it the day before. The ladies were so small and moved around with such ease. They literally pulled as all through. We were all covered in mud & would not have made it without them! At one point we were walking along the edge of a rice paddy that was narrower than G’s feet & extremely slippery . It was so much fun, we must have looked so funny. We were all glad to get a bus back to the village to wash off!

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The mist rolling in in Sapa, magical!

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Halong bay

We took a minibus to the halong city harbor, both of us wedged into the small seats. Driving in Vietnam is like nothing else. It took 4 hours to get to the harbor & after an hour we vowed never to travel by bus again! It was so bumpy and noisy with the continual horn honking & we all had whiplash by the end of it for all the last minute breaking! But we made it! The harbor was not quiet as I had imagined, the government decided a couple years ago that all the boats had to be white ( instead of the dark timber they were) and so they all looked quite tired & grotty. there was also so many boats that I thought it was going to be really crowded on the water.

We bored our boat & set off in to the bay.
WOW! What an absolutely stunning place. We were soon amongst the islands, cruising past them slowly leaving the rest of the world behind!

We rented kayaks from a floating village & made our way around some of the islands, it was such an amazing way to see them, we were able to get closer, and appreciate their size even more. It was like we had stumbled on a secret prehistoric world. Stunning.

We didn’t see another boat til we made our mooring for the night. We spent the afternoon swimming in halong bay & jumping off the sundeck of the boat (5ish meters).

We spent the night on the boat & attempted squid fishing. One of the group actually caught 4!

Day 2 we changed to a smaller boat & headed in the opposite direction, spent they day cruising past islands. We had another kayaking break, were we went through caves & lagoons, a lot of fun & we all felt very lucky to be there.

Night 2 was spent on a different boat same company, but we were upgraded which was nice. Just as everyone was going to bed, there was a lot of commotion, the crew were running around everywhere, then we heard a bit of a bump. We found out the next day that another boat had lost it’s anchoring & it’s smaller support boat got tangled in our anchor rope & with the current they collided. It was only a small bump, nobody hurt but listening to some of the other passengers talk about it, you would have thought we were on the titanic! ( it had stormed at night so I think that freaked a few people out).

All in all it was a fantastic few days, and I’m so glad we got to see it.

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These don’t do it justice, hopefully ones on the camera do!

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Hanoi

Hanoi

What can I say other than wow! What an amazing busy, crazy, busy, atmospheric, busy place!

The traffic is crazy, nobody stops unless they REALLY REALLY have to. They don’t use indicators just honk when they want to get past, which means there is a constant symphony of horns. When the roads get too busy and the mopeds can’t get through, they just drive on the footpaths!

Hanoi had provided the biggest culture shock in terms of the traffic. It has also proved the most challenging when it comes to skin tax or the walking dollar as it is known. That is paying double what the locals pay. To the point that I’ve been told one price but the guy collecting the money charged me double what I was quoted before walking off with the rest of my change. At which point I was just thankful to have my change. When I paid him initially he walked off without giving me change!

Hanoi’s architecture is still really european, even the new buildings are tall and narrow colonial style, even if it’s in the middle of no where without any neighbors. There are still lovely old buildings that have lasted, but could use some maintenance. The embassies are good examples.

Ho chi Minh mausoleum is one very big brutal looking piece of architecture, with a large open space out in front where I could imagine rally’s being held. It’s just of a lovely green avenue lined with embassies, you turn a corner & it’s like hello communism!

We visited the old jail that was nick named the Hanoi Hilton. (It had been turned into a museum. ) It had a very long & gruesome past before than, thanks to the French. It was quite creepy walking around.

I found it interesting as you moved through the history of the jail the emotions that I felt. From feeling sad reading about the French & amazed that they have kept anything French in their culture to almost annoyed at how they portrayed themselves regarding the Vietnam war. Mainly the section where they showed images from around the world of people donating to hep after the war. After reading ” the girl in the picture” it made me wonder how much of that money/ care etc the people of Vietnam actually saw. They also portrayed an image of the US prisoners as if it was like a holiday for them. ( it would be interesting to hear the other side). It was really different & interesting to read it from the other side & made me wonder how biased the other museums I’ve been to are.

One of our favorite things was sitting on the tiny plastic stools having 25 cent bia hoi watching Hanoi pass by. Mopeds, cyclos, pedestrians, people selling food etc. it truly is a city where old meets new. I loved it, but I would not like to live there! Phew!

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Hanoi, where old meets new!

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Bangkok

Bangkok

We had a great time in Bangkok. We arrived at about 8pm by bus that was to drop us on khao San Road. It didn’t. There were so many taxis & tuk tuks wanting your business, we just had to get out of there & try and find a street sign to figure out where we were.

It turned out the bus had stopped near the street we had wanted to stay on, just behind khao San road. What a great time to arrive, the street was buzzing with activity, street food, bars, restaurants, live music ( some of which was really good) & people. We found a room in the first place we came across, dumped our stuff headed out amongst it!

If we thought our road ( Rambrutri) was buzzing, khao San was nuts! People, noise, food, cloths, bags, belts, bars, tailors & more.

We took the river to get around, great way to see the place. The boats only just stop when they get to the pier so you have to be quick, and if you are on the boat you can be lucky enough to get a bit of a soaking like I did when it pulls in. ( luckily I had my mouth closed! ). The deck hands communicate with the driver by the loudest high pitched whistle, the only thing louder is the lady on the boat yelling to get inside / buy tickets.

We saw the gold Buddha extremely big & shiny. And in a nice building.

The Grand Palace & Emerald Buddha were spectacular. Multiple buildings, each as ornate, intricate, and colorful as the next. We took a hundred photos, but couldn’t do it justice. The Emerald Buddha is actually quite small, but is in a large room on a large & intricate stupa esk display. He has 3 different outfits that change depending on the season. The walls of the Wat he was in had murals on all walls depicting various stages of Buddha. It was like walking into the sisten chapel.

Jim Thompson house was interesting to walk around to see how he joined multiple old traditional Thai teak houses together, complete with chandelier, burmese drums as table lamps & various antiques. He bought the houses together from all over Thailand, had the disassembled & then reassembled using traditional methods. Jim was responsible for bringing Thai silk to the world.

We checked out the Erwan shrine, a bigish shrine in the middle of the city underneath an octopus arm of overpasses outside the Hyatt. It’s very busy with lots of incense burning & people pay for traditional Thai dancers to give their thanks when they have had success. All very odd given it’s location.

All in all we had a great time and look forward to going back.

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Emerald Buddha & Khao San from above.

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