Chiang Rai (Thailand) - Vang Viang (Laos)

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December 21st 2008
Published: December 23rd 2008
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'Now we feel like we are travelling! Dirty, bruised, tired and still a little soggy; the year ahead seems to be opening up ahead of us like a huge leather bound book.'

Chiang Rai

We arrive in Chiang Rai by bus (The northern Thai rail network ends in Chiang Mai.) For the three hour journey we were squashed in the back row of seats with two Monks and a middle aged Thai gent. All of them seemed pleasant enough but we were glad when we could jump off. We arrive with the plan of finding a quiet guesthouse in which to relax for a few days before heading to the Thai/Laos border.
May finds suitable option in our guide-book so we hop in a tuk-tuk and point the driver in the right direction. The hostel has hammocks, a garden and turns out to be very, very cheap. We dump our bags and settle into our newest digs.

Chiang Rai is a lively little town with a great night market, inside which is the most amazing food court. Each side is lined with various food outlets selling all kinds of Thai food. The centre is filled with tables and chairs and at one end is a huge stage where live music and dance performances happen everynight. May and I spend the best part of a week just relaxing, pottering around the city and the surrounding area. One such day took us to the White Temple. The Temple is a brand new, modern affair built by a Buddist Thai artist. The entire building is painted pure white and covered in mirror. A stunning sight in the blazing sun. At first the Temple is just beautiful but quickly you start to see the darker side of the architecture. There are gremlin like creatures guarding the gateway behind a sea of grasping hands all still painted white. Inside it becomes even stranger with Buddist style paintings mingled with AK47's, Starwars ships, bombs and even Superman.
With the White Temple done and some time on our hands we headed off to a local waterfall. We arrived at the National Park where the waterfall is located only to find that:

A. We were the only people there.
B. We have to travel over another 1km on foot to reach the falls.
C. There was only an hour of daylight left!

Unfazed by any of this we start walking. Within ten mins we find ourselves deep in the jungle and within twenty mins we come face to face with the raging waterfall. With little time to fully appreciate it's beauty we beat a hasty retreat.

The Golden Triangle

Chaing Rai is within easy reach of the golden triangle region so we decide to arrange a day trip to explore the triangle and surrounding area. First off we stopped at the Queen's gardens. As it turns out she is a bit of a horticuluralist and her garden's pay tribute to her love of the natural world. Next we arrived at a Thai Military Guardpost on the Burmese boarder where we are advised by our friendly guide not to take photos of Burma. There is a Burmese Military Guardpost within sight and we dont want to be mistaken as spies for obvious reasons. With a few more 'intresting' stops under our belt we finally arrive at the Golden Triangle. This is the area where the Mekong river divides Thailand, Burma and Laos leaving all three shores visable from our viewing point.

Having exhausted all that Chaing Rai has to offer we head to the border town of Chiang Khong , seperated from Lao only by the Mekong River. Here we spent our last Thai evening dinning at the waters edge and staring at the next chapter, Laos!

Entering Laos

The high spirits gained from the easiest boarder crossing we could have imagined (Stamp passport out, Two minute boat ride, Stamp passport in!) were dashed moments after passing through Lao imagration. We were kindly informed by the official on duty that we had picked a good day to arrive as Dec 2nd is a Laos national holiday. This was indeed good news, or at least it would have been had we not quickly realized the slight dilema this had left us in.
We were now in a country that was in the throughs of one of it's biggist yearly celebrations, everything except bars and guesthouses is closed and we had a lot of money, Thai money!
The next few minites fly by in blind panic as it sinks in that all the banks are shut and we could very well be stuck without any dinner or anywhere to stay. Thankfully our worries were short lived as it became clear that Houay Xai (being a boarder town) was more than happy to relive us of our Thai baht in exchange for goods and services.

The Gibbon Experience - 3 days in the jungle

Trying to explain the Gibbon Experience to someone who hasn't been is tough, trying to explain it to someone who has never heard of it is near on impossible! With that said let's try and give you a brief overview of our adventures in the deepest, darkest Bokeo jungle.
The Gibbon experince exists primarily as a project to provide a sustainable income to local villagers within the reserve. The theory is that instead of cutting down the trees, the villagers are able to earn a wage protecting them.
This is where things get very entertaining. In short,12 large tree houses have been erected some 20 to 30 meters high in the canopy (Young children's dream type treehouses). As if that was not enough (After all most of these things have multiple floors, Toilets and showers) the houses are miles apart and only accessable by zip line, very, very long/high zip lines. In fact we quickly learnt that zip lines are the only way to travel in the jungle, well except for the odd 2 hour trek!
Our experience was simply unbelievable, breathtaking, exilerating..... we could go on forever and still not do it justice.
A word to the wise, if you plan on actually seeing any gibbons we suggest you don't play the worlds loudest game of Uno late into the night with a bunch of roudy westerners. No matter how amazing a group of people they might be.

Luang Prabang and the slow boat that gets you there

The slow boat is exactly that, very, very slow. Thats not to say we didn't enjoy it but the journey from Houay Xai takes two days.
Luang Prabang is a fusion of mordern Laos life and it's french collonial history. The town and it's people are incredibly laid back. As a result we fall under it's spell and do very little for a week except eat banana cake, drink Lao coffee with our friends made in the jungle and haggle at the night market.
It is here that a week later our group all go their seperate ways and the two of us jump on a bus for Phonsavan.

The Plain of Jars

Bus rides in this part of the world are kind of scary for all manor of reasons, none of which we're going to go into until we return. You'll just worry. Needless to say we arrived in Phonsavan after an entertaining eight hour ride.
The only real reason most people visit the town is to take a trip to the Plain of jars and I'm sorry to say that on this occation we were no different. We stayed at a hostel who's owner is..... well unique is probably the best word to use, but he does organise the best trips in town as we found out the next day.
The jars at the jar sites are huge. Thousands of years old, carved from limestone (of which there is no local source) some weigh up to 6 tonnes and are 3 meters across. On top of all this no-one knows how they got where they are, who made them or even what they were used for. It's all very odd and even after seeing them for ourselves, we're still no wiser than you.

Vang Viang

Vang Viang is a crazy town situated next to the Nam Xong river. The scenery is incredibly beautiful but the town has been overtaken by westerners looking for alcohol and water sports, not really a good combination! The main activity on offer is Tubing. Basically you hire a tractor inner tube and a tuk-tuk drops you 4km upstream, whereapon you jump in the river. For the next couple of hours you peacefully float along - that is unless you get hooked in (literally) by one of the many bars along the way. These bars boast all manor of huge swings and slides to amuse you while the bar staff fill you with alcohol. As i'm sure you can imagine things get pretty messy and we found it was best to leave the bars as the loud westerners arrive!
It is from Vang Viang that we head to Vientiene, Laos capital city. With another bus journey looming we discovered that it was possible to make the trip by Kayak (with a small amount of 4 wheeled assistance.)
After a day getting soaked in the rapids, having a barbaque on the Nam Xong banks and a 15m cliff jump we arrived safely in Vientiene.

Additional photos below
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23rd December 2008

Happy Christmas
Happy Christmas to you both, have a great time. Love Nic
25th December 2008

Merry Christmas
Wow, soooo jealous looks like you are having an amazing time guys! Anyway just to say happy Xmas, thinking of you both and miss you loads xxx
28th December 2008

So it seems you're having an amazing time! The nearest I got to a Thai experience was going for one with Scotty, Derek, Hoopy and Alistair just before Xmas. I want to do the tractor tyre thing, anything slow and involving alchohol sounds great to me : ) happy christmas and have a fantastic new year, love xxx
10th January 2009

Yeah! I loved UNO! And the zipping, zipzipzip! Yesterday I met Michael and Hang in Sydney, was really nice to see them again. Hope to see you two somedays as wel! Keep yourself safe while travelling and enjoy every single bit you see and do!! xx

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