Published: March 26th 2009March 26th 2009
Just a quick note before we get down to business - we've noticed this website has been pretty temperamental of late, so if it doesn't let you look at our blogs the first time you click the link, wait a few hours, or until the next day, and it should work again. Apologies for this, if you missed our last monster blog, you can still find it by searching our blog history. It is a rather long one so, combined with this entry, you make have to take a whole day off work to read them both. But, why not? Everyone loves a day off!
Straight back with another installment - hopefully we'll get right up to date this time!
We arrived in Vientiane late on the 7th of March, with just enough time to find a hotel that wasn't full, before crashing out to recover from our nightmare journey. After a long lie-in and lazy breakfast the next morning, we followed our standard formula and hired bicycles to pedal around the main sights in this tiny capital. The attractions consisted mostly of various Buddhist monasteries, but also featured a scaled-down version of Paris' Arc de Triomphe (The French were the old colonial masters here, and, as such, have a big influence). The Mekong River acts as a natural boundary between Laos and Thailand, and we had our first proper Laotian dinner at a riverside restaurant overlooking Thailand on the opposite bank.
The pushbikes were traded in for something more powerful the next day, and we 'motorbiked it' to Pha That Luang (the most important Buddhist temple in Laos) and then to Buddha Park, 25km out of town. This park only covers a small area (about 200x200m) but it's absolutely jam-packed with giant sculptures, featuring a fusion of Buddhist and Hindu deities. It is the brainchild of a local holy man; a truly unique place that makes a great picnic spot. This was our last activity of note in Vientiane (there's not a huge amount to do here) and we left on the bus to Vang Vieng the following morning.
Vang Vieng is only a few hours North of the capital and widely-renowned for the water sports and other active pastimes it has to offer. As a result, it has become a hugely popular tourist spot. However, this has come at a cost, and (in our opinion) had a very negative effect on the local culture and surrounding area. Much of the beautiful, mountainous scenery is now obscured by high-rise guesthouses and the multitude of 'TV bars' - showing Friends on a constant loop at high volume, and serving 'fish & chips' or 'steak & kidney pie' for customers too scared to try something new. The town itself is now awash with skimpily dressed (or undressed) Westerners who think they're still on the Khao San Road, and who've enjoyed too much of the cheap booze and readily-available drugs on offer. Laos is a small, conservative, Buddhist country, so its not OK to stumble down the main street in just your bra. It may sound like we've prematurely aged into grumpy old bores, but it really is a shame when you realise the effect this mindless behaviour has on the country, its traditions, and its people. Anyway, we resisted the temptation of a 'happy pizza' or a 'special shake' to find a nice, local bakery for lunch instead, and then spent the rest of the day using a posh hotel's gorgeous infinity pool, overlooking the river and the sun setting behind the mountains - maybe its not all so bad here!
Next day we set out to sample some of the energetic activities available. After a short drive out of town we began walking; first to a nearby holy cave, and then through a questionably traditional hill-tribe village to the infamous 'Water Cave'. As it says on the tin, this is a cave, but with water in it; everyone gets an inflatable tube and a flashlight, and then you follow a guide rope through the caves interior - actually quite good fun but, again, teeming with tourists. The days last task was an 8km kayak back to Vang Vieng. We've both become big kayaking fans over the last few months, so this part was definitely the highlight for us. The journey was halted for an hours frivolity at one of the many 'jumping bars' along the river - you can basically get drunk, score some more drugs, and jump in the water, before continuing on your way. Boringly, we only participated in the latter option (or, rather, James did) and, despite himself, he actually had a whale of a time using the giant zip-line and slide to crash into the water. Unfortunately, the glazy-eyed girl attempting to pole dance and grinding against anything sturdy enough to support her was a bit too much, and we set off down the river again. Back in town, we shunned the 'Friends Bars' again (a truly depressing sight to see everyone sitting in lines, facing the same way and glued to the TV, with no question of conversation) in favour of a cafe owned by the local organic mulberry farm. More delicious food, and drinks on our hotel terrace before bed.
As has become tradition, we hired a motorbike on our final day in Vang Vieng so we could get out of town and explore the surronding area. First stop was a gorgeous blue lagoon; the water was beautifully clear and refreshing on such a hot day. We had lunch with a couple of nice Dutch girls we'd met earlier, and then continued on our way. We were soon very lost (inevitable without a proper map and our little 110cc moped - wholly unsuitable for the terrain!) but the scenery was still fantastic, and some very kind locals helped us to get back on track. We eventually returned to Vang Vieng and, exceedingly sticky and dusty, headed back to the posh pool from the first night to enjoy another great sunset.
Most of the next day was spent in transit, on a bus to Luang Prabang. Widely regarded as the jewel in Laos' crown, the entire city is a UNESCO listed world heritage site (thankfully preventing any Vang Vieng-style 'development') and full of charming old buildings, tiny alleyways and ancient Wats. As it turned out, our visit coincided with the yearly 'slash and burn' of all the vegetation surrounding the city. This creates an awful lot of smoke, causing terrible air quality and very low visibility. Despite this, we were still very happy to be in such a beautiful place. Our first full day in town was spent not doing an awful lot - mostly wandering around and getting a feel for the place; visiting little coffee shops and handicraft stores, and building up a tolerance to the air! In the evening we visited the wonderful night market: late every afternoon the main street is closed to traffic and the night market takes over. Scores of vendors set up their ambiently-lit stalls, and it is remarkably relaxing to walk through. Everything is very cheap and there's no high-pressure selling - this may be our favourite Asian market so far! Another day of wandering followed, this time with the aid of the Lonely Planet's very useful walking tour. We visited some of the town's main temples, and climbed to the top of Phousi Hill for a badly-impaired view over the city. More bargains were sought, and thousands of 'Kip' spent at the night market before bed.
Guess what? We hired a motorbike the next day (!) and followed a great, winding, mountain road to a waterfall 30km out of town. Just before the waterfall we found a suitably large enclosure housing a number of black bears rescued from poachers. They all seemed very happy in their new home, and it was nice to watch them bounding around playfully. The waterfall itself was also very impressive; we managed to climb up to the source, as well as viewing it from below, and it was great to appreciate its beauty from both points. The numerous pools and lagoons created by the 'fall were just as beautiful, and we enjoyed a very refreshing swim in the icy waters. Back on 'The Hog' (as James refers to any bike we hire...) we took out time along the mountain road back to Luang Prabang, and then headed 10km out of town, in the opposite direction, to visit Henri Mouhut's tomb. A famous French explorer, Mouhut 'discovered' Angkor Wat in the mid-19th Century, before catching Malaria in his early 30's and perishing just outside Luang Prabang. His burial site is very sparse, but tasteful, and in a pleasant, secluded location next to the river. That evening we made some more 'essential' purchases at the night market (James is still insistent that his new slingshot is a vital piece of equipment) before hitting the hay.
Next morning we decided to resort back to pedal power, and headed to some more waterfalls - this time only 15km away. Being under half the distance of the previous days aquatic attraction, we assumed bicycles would be appropriate...... not so. To say the terrain was extremely hilly would be an understatement. Just as we were seriously considering giving up, we finally arrived at our destination. The waterfalls were actually a little disappointing, but mostly due to our high standards from the previous day. Not exactly relishing the prospect of cycling over the mountains again, we shamefully cheated, and took a tuk-tuk back instead. Still very sore on arrival back in LP, we decided to treat ourselves to an hour long massage each, and a steam room for Han. The fact that we used a Red Cross massage parlour makes it a completely unselfish act - we're trying to save lives here, people! With our well-being restored, both physically and mentally, we settled down for our last night in Laos, safe in the knowledge that we'd done our bit for the needy....
There was just enough time the next day to visit the National Royal Museum, and get more than our moneys worth on refillable coffees, before boarding the night bus to the Thai border. En route we made friends with a couple (Tim & Karen) who were also heading to Chang Mai. After a little conversation we discovered that we'd all been at Uni in Manchester during exactly the same period, and we actually had some mutual friends (facebook official!). To use an incredibly overused phrase - it's a small world! We arrived at the Laos/Thailand border early in the morning and, after an incredibly painless transition (take note, Vietnam/Laos border people!), we were back in Thailand. From here it was another 6 hour minibus ride until we finally reached Chang Mai. The four of us found a very cheap hotel (run by a very crazy lady), before enjoying a big meal, with plenty of alcohol, and then gratefully fell into bed.
After convincing Tim & Karen to join us in the hiring of motorbikes the next day, we drove 5km south to the ancient city of Wieng Kum Kam. Nowadays the place is no more than a collection of ruins gradually being engulfed by the spreading sprawl of Chang Mai. However, we found a novel way to explore the area - via horse and cart - which gave the whole excursion a sense of charm, and allowed us to escape from the worst of the searing midday sun. After a late lunch back in CM, we put the bikes to good use and rode up Doi Suthep - a huge hill just outside the city. It was another great ride, on a constantly winding road; you could actually feel the air getting colder the higher you climbed. Atop the summit is a beautifully ornate Wat, offering astounding views over Chang Mai. We soaked up the atmosphere for a while, then headed back down before the sun set. Thus began a spectacular thunderstorm - torrential rain, huge claps of thunder and great flashes of lightning. Considering we've only seen a little rain in Vietnam since we left last November, it was quite an event! Luckily, the rain subsided in time for our evening out at the local Muay Thai Boxing arena; we'd booked ringside tickets earlier in the day, and weren't disapointed. It was a great night, featuring 8 fights in total (3 knockouts!) with the participants ranging in age from about 8-30, including 1 American guy (hopelessly outclassed by his Thai opponent). We really enjoyed it, and the rowdy locals created a great atmosphere that gave us a completely new insight into Thai culture.
Tim & Karen left for a day of elephant training the next morning, leaving us two alone again. We still had the motorbike for a couple of hours, so took advantage of the free transport to visit a couple more Wats, just out of town. Hannah also wandered around the University Art Gallery for an hour, featuring some very impressive work by final-year students. We then swapped back to bicycles for even more Wat-hopping around some centrally-located temples - slight Wat-overload, but enjoyable nonetheless. The other two returned just in time for James & Time to have a night of live football and 6 Nations viewing (come on England!) while the girls did that mysterious womanly pastime called 'chatting'!?
Up early the next day, the two of us attended a great 2-hour yoga class (for the first time since India!). It wasn't really aimed at beginners, so we had a couple of awkward moments, but it was brilliant all the same - definitely something we both hope to carry on. We met Tim & Karen for a late breakfast, and then spent the rest of the day soothing our well-stretched muscles at another posh hotel's pool (something that's becoming quite a habit!). That night we waved goodbye to Tim & Karen as they headed down to Bangkok, before enjoying some more night market action. We arose bright and early the next morning, in time for our 9am Kuala Lumpur flight check-in. On arrival we discovered the flight had been delayed by 2 hours, so we had a lazy breakfast and hung around until we could check in about 11am. It was only then that a puzzled airport employee inquired exactly why we were at the airport a full 24 hours before our plane was due to leave! For some unknown reason, we'd got it into our heads that we were flying on the 23rd, not the 24th. With nervous giggles and sheepish grins, we made a rather swift exit, jumped in a taxi to the city center, and checked back in to our hotel (to the utter bemusement of the landlady). Fortunately, we hadn't wasted the entire day and decided to make the most of our extra unexpected time in Chang Mai by hiring another motorbike and heading to the Zoo. We've avoided Zoo's so far on this trip, mostly because many are notorious for their poor treatment of the animals. Chang Mai Zoo, however, is highly regarded and, generally speaking, this is a well deserved reputation. We wandered around for a good 3 hours - hard work in the heat - enjoying all the exotic flora and fauna on display. We then rode back up Doi Suthep hill to visit the palace gardens, just beyond the summit. Unfortunately (for Hannah) the palace was already closed, but James was just happy he got to drive along the incredible mountain road again. Another thunderstorm in the evening was a great accompaniment to our (second) final tasty Thai meal.
There was just enough time for us to squeeze in another early morning yoga session before heading to the airport (again), on what was most definitely the correct day. The flight went smoothly (despite a slight delay) and we arrived in KL late in the afternoon. Our flight to Manila didn't depart until 7am the next morning, so we had a little excursion into the city for some lovely Lebanese food, before settling down for a totally sleepless night in the airport departure lounge. We groggily boarded our second flight early yesterday morning, and touched down in the Philippines about 11am. We're currently in the capital, Manila, and will be staying around here until our next esteemed visitor - Hannah's sister, Lou (Dr.Swan to her friends) - arrives on the 29th. We'll try to provide our eager audience with a Filipino blog in the next 3 weeks or so. In the meantime, you'll have to make do with some kisses - xxx