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Published: January 3rd 2021
In this short trip we travelled through two Southeast Asian countries. We spent six days in Thailand (travelling northwards from Bangkok to Chiang Khong), and then ten days in Laos (travelling southeast from Huay Xai to Vientiane). We usually try to contain our travel adventures to a single country, as it allows us to get to know the place – the food, the people, the political atmosphere, the historic impacts and the currency. However, we’ve occasionally swayed from our one-country
travel rule, and with fantastic results. We explored Guatemala, Belize and Mexico in 2016, and Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria in 2018. Both trips were extraordinary, and with the exception of Belize, I really felt we gained a real sense of each individual country.
With this in mind, we weren’t too worried about breaking our one-country
travel rule. However, we also decided to break another of our travel rules – never return to a country you have previously visited. The planet is too big and our time on it is too short to justify returning to a place. Furthermore, there is always the risk of disappointment, because fabulous previous experiences may not play out again. Our expectations from past
times can be so debilitating in the present!
We visited Thailand in 2011 and absolutely loved the place. I remember thinking at the time that I could easily slip into Chiang Mai’s bohemian way of life. While I still feel the same after our second visit to Chiang Mai, I regret breaking our never return
travel rule. I know this is a first world problem, but life is too short to waste time revisiting old experiences.
However, Laos was a completely new adventure for us, and what an incredible adventure it was!
On our flight home at the end of this trip in January 2020, I made a few notes on our Thailand and Laos adventure. I remember wearing a face mask for the duration of the fight, because a rampant virus emanating from Wuhan in China had apparently begun to spread to other countries. Upsides
The following is a brief summary of the upsides of our adventure. While in reality there were many more, these were the ones I felt compelled to jot down on our return flight to Australia. Chiang Khong
I would love to live in a world without borders. We fight
and kill for borders, and many of us define ourselves by borders. I doubt there’ll ever be a day when borders between countries disappear. Yet despite being disillusioned about the impracticality of a borderless world, I’m actually fascinated by the concept of a country coming to an end, and another country starting, at a defined border. This is why I loved exploring the tiny village of Chiang Khong on the Thai border with Laos.
Chiang Khong is a remote river village on one of the northernmost points of Thailand, and it is a mere stone’s throw across the Mekong from Laos. Our guesthouse was set just above the river bank, and as I sat on our balcony at dusk I could hear Laotian voices drifting across the fast flowing water. I was captivated by this narrow body of water, and how it separated two very different countries.
The streets of Chiang Khong were relatively empty, as were the streets of the small Laos village on the other side of the river. I kept staring across at the small village and wondering what it must be like to live so close to a country that doesn’t share the same
language, history, currency or cuisine.
On reflection, I think I was captivated as much by the Mekong as I was by the close proximity of Laos. I’ve watched a number food-related documentaries that feature the river, and it always seems so immense and imposing on a television screen. Yet here it was small and unassuming – a river just like any other – and I really enjoyed walking, eating and writing beside it. Casting aside my conceptual reservations about borders, I fell for this river that separated Thailand from Laos. And I also fell for the tiny river village of Chiang Khong, where the daily cycle of life seemed so incredibly calm and peaceful. Slow boat on the Mekong
Chiang Khong was the end point of our Thai adventure. On leaving the remote village, we crossed the Friendship Bridge into Laos and began the absolute highlight of this trip – a two-day wooden slow boat adventure down the Mekong. We spent the first day drifting downstream from Huay Xai to Pak Beng, and the second from Pak Beng to Luang Prabang.
This would have to rate as one of the most relaxing travel experiences I’ve ever encountered.
As we drifted on the river my preoccupation with time vanished. I normally feel lost without a watch, and I continually monitor time during work days and weekends. Yet I barely checked my watch as we drifted with the current through sprawling jungles and lush forests, invigorated by the river breeze and enthralled by sporadic signs of life on the riverbank. By relinquishing all thought and becoming mesmerised by the Mekong, I experienced a state of relaxation I’ve rarely achieved before.
River travel has been a fascination of mine since reading Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and this fascination was rekindled when I read Norman Lewis’ A Dragon Apparent on the morning before we left on this trip. During his travels through Laos in the early 1950s, Lewis tried in vain to convince the owner of a motor pirogue
(long thin canoe) to transport him up the Mekong from Vientiane to Luang Prabang. In the end, Lewis had to make the 400km journey overland in a jeep – with a French official and his samoyed dog.
Ren had pre-warned me that water levels on the Mekong can be too low for boat travel in February (we were travelling
in mid-January), and that some parts of the slow boat adventure may need to be made overland by bus. I desperately didn’t want to meet the same fate as Lewis, so my fingers were firmly crossed – and luckily we managed two full days on the river. We did encounter a few sections where the water was low and rocks were exposed, but our captain skilfully navigated us through these narrow churning channels, with barely three metres either side of the boat to the shoreline. Luang Prabang
At the end of our slow boat adventure, we pulled into the riverbank and made our way to the gentle and alluring township of Luang Prabang. This remarkable place had a lifestyle I could easily slip into, reminding me a little of Chiang Mai in Thailand. Its calm bohemian atmosphere was very appealing, and when it came time to leave, I wasn’t ready. It’s the kind of place we could easily spend a couple of weeks immersing ourselves in daily routines without feeling compelled to move on to new cultural experiences.
I think we could break our never return
travel rule for Luang Prabang. It would be so easy to rent
a small apartment in this tranquil river town and dedicate some time to creative endeavours (such as writing or creating music).
There was an additional upside to Luang Prabang – the MandaLao Elephant Conservation. This sanctuary (located on the outskirts of the township) is dedicated to preserving and protecting domesticated and wild elephants, and our visit was another highlight of this trip. We walked with four elephants through the sanctuary grounds for one hour, talking to them and generally enjoying their company. Hopefully they enjoyed ours. Interacting with elephants is an amazing experience, and one we will never forgot. Dune buggies, dark caves and dusty villages
From Luang Prabang we travelled overland in a minibus to Van Vieng. We spent more than seven hours on poor roads to get to this tourist-centred town, and the difference in atmosphere when we arrived was startling. Van Vieng was certainly not a highlight of this trip, but our experiences outside the town certainly were.
With little to no knowledge of what we were doing, we managed to hire a dune buggy and set off in search of caving systems that exist under the enormous limestone karsts that surround Van Vieng.
It was a truly incredible adventure. Armed with nothing more than head torches, we managed to find (and clamber through) some dark cavernous caves on the western side of the Song River that flows through the town. Caving is something we’ve never done before, and the fascination of a new experience was exhilarating. We were also very much alone, which added to the excitement.
In addition, our bright red dune buggy offered a serious amount of fun and enjoyment, and it really capitalised on our ‘inner bogan’. Following a very basic and barely-to-scale map, we bumped along narrow bush tracks and dry riverbeds in search of caves, and we sped along dusty dirt roads on the outskirts of Van Vieng to observe and absorb as much of the local village life as we could. Our decision to hire the buggy was impulsive, and it led to a remarkable day. A little out of character for us I admit, but remarkable all the same. Bloggers in Bangkok
Within hours of flying into Bangkok at the start of our adventure, we returned to Wat Saket – one of our favourite temples in Thailand. Otherwise known as the Temple of the
Golden Mount, it affords an incredible view of Bangkok, as it sits upon a small hill that rises from the otherwise flat landscape surrounding the bustling city. While we were there we noticed a couple of blokes recording snippets of audio, including the prayer bells, gongs and pre-recorded chants that contribute so much to Wat Saket’s ambiance. We struck up a conversation and discovered they were travel bloggers. However, instead of just using words and static pictures to describe their travels, they were also using sound and vision. They had embarked on a four month tour through Southeast Asia to capture the sounds of various cultures along the way, and I promised to listen to their interpretive pieces on our return to Australia. Unfortunately the coronavirus pandemic sabotaged their tour, and they became holed up in an apartment in Bangkok, unable to leave the country. However, they did manage to interpret and upload some of the audio they had captured, and it is impressive.
A sample of their work can be accessed from soundcloud.com – just search for 'Nomadic Beats Volume 3 Asia'. I'd recommend listening to Emerald Cave (which only runs for 4:27 minutes). Downsides
many downsides to our adventure, and I certainly don’t want to dwell on them here. The following experiences are the ones I felt compelled to jot down on the plane as we returned to Australia. Temple tourism – a step too far
I have no words to describe Wat Rong Khon (the White Temple) in Chiang Rai. All I could manage in my notebook was ‘pointless, monstrous trash’. Why on earth did we bother detouring to this tacky white playground on our way to Chiang Khong? We could have spent a few more hours exploring the tiny river village on the Thai border with Laos. What a lost opportunity! Overcrowded destinations
The Kuang Sii Waterfalls are located about 30kms southwest of Luang Prabang, and their lush surrounds are beautiful and scenic. Understandably, they are popular with tourists and locals alike, and as with any popular destination, they can become crowded. Uncomfortably so. I felt they were overcrowded on the day of our visit, and on reflection, I wish we’d stayed and explored the tranquil streets of Luang Prabang rather than venturing out of the old township. The words of William Blake always come to mind at times like
these: Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but foresight is better
. If only we’d had the foresight to stay. Taking work on holiday
On the morning we flew out of Australia, a client emailed to ask if we could submit a quotation for a major project in the first half of 2020. The deadline was January 29, and we were due to return on January 30. We only had one option – to prepare and submit the quotation while we were travelling. Which we did. I spent hours in hotel rooms in Bangkok and Chang Mai preparing the quotation, and it was such a relief to submit it by email on our second last night in Thailand. Unfortunately, we didn’t get the work. Had I known the outcome, I wouldn’t have expended so much time on the preparation. Hindsight is a wonderful thing… Bullying in the animal kingdom
As we were leaving the Kuang Sii Waterfalls, we witnessed a fight between two bears at the Asiatic Black Bears Sanctuary, which is located within the waterfall precinct. It was an extremely distressing incident, and one which lingered in our conscience for the rest of the trip. The thing I couldn’t
stand (and the thing that stays with me still) was the brutish bullying of the attacker and the palpable fear of the victim. It was all too human. Concluding thoughts
Having shared the upsides and downsides of our trip, I have to conclude by saying that our adventures in Thailand and Laos were remarkable. After a difficult year, this trip proved to be an incredible elixir. I returned to Australia refreshed and relaxed, which is always a clear sign of a great holiday. We also returned to a country struggling to come to terms with a global pandemic, and we sadly realised that international travel may never be the same again. SHE SAID...
This trip was a very last minute decision. We were supposed to be going to Colombia in March 2020 but clients and contracts conspired against us, so we made a spontaneous decision to check out Laos. Those of you who know me would understand that I was very disappointed that I couldn’t indulge in my normal level of research and planning – something that gives me almost
as much pleasure as travelling. However, the decision to throw caution to the wind and squeeze
in a short trip in January turned out to be blessing in more ways than we could have ever predicted.
Our adventure started in Thailand and ended in Laos. The trip was packed to the brim with rich cultures, fiery cuisines, unique architecture, breathtaking countryside… and elephants! 😊 Overview of Thailand
We enjoyed rediscovering Bangkok and after a few days in the energetic capital we caught an overnight train to Chiang Mai. From there we journeyed to Chiang Khong (via Chiang Rai) where we crossed the border into Laos.
While it was wonderful to return to Thailand – a country we both love and which also features my most favourite cuisine – we realised that we value exploring new places much more than returning to old loves. It was helpful to have our long held suspicions confirmed beyond a doubt. We really do prefer new and different to old and familiar.
Having said that, we’d wanted to return to Chiang Mai for many years, and it was so good to finally get back there. Overview of Laos
After crossing the border into Laos, we boarded a slow boat almost immediately and floated down the Mekong
for two days (stopping for the night in Pak Beng). We started our land explorations in Luang Prabang, and then travelled to Vang Vieng and Vientiane.
We set out to discover a small landlocked country and came back having fallen totally in love with it! I think it’s fair to say that in comparison to its other south-east Asian family members, Laos is the forgotten sibling. I have to admit that we had deliberately prioritised Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia over it. However, we can happily report that it is an extremely lovely country with gracious people, interesting landscapes and fabulous food. Tourism
Even after nine years we could easily find our way through much of Bangkok and Chiang Mai. However, it was hard to ignore that both cities were more crowded and the traffic seemed impossibly heavier. The profile of tourists in Thailand had also changed, with many accounts (from locals) of feeling besieged by the constant flow of very large groups of tourists who descend on their cities.
Tourism in Laos seemed to be the polar opposite to Thailand. While there were small spikes in tourist numbers in the predictably touristy places, we never felt swamped.
We could easily turn a corner and be in very local surrounds within minutes.
Compared to the other south-east Asian countries, it was also extremely nice not to be mercilessly harassed by touts or constantly hassled by sellers of mass-produced tourist crap. And on the note of mass-produced crap, it was sad to read that small artisans in Laos were losing ground to markets flooded with factory imports – and that some of the wares aimed at tourists used traditional designs that have been blatantly stolen from the local tribes. Lowlights of trip
Group Leader… as I have mentioned throughout the blog, we had an Intrepid Travel group leader who had very little enthusiasm to share her country (Thailand) with us, and even less so when we got to Laos. She handed out platitudes and generalities, whereas we had expected stimulating and detailed local information. Given that the in-depth local knowledge and connections of the group leader is a major part of why we travel with Intrepid, we were quite disappointed. However, it says a lot about Laos and the trip structure that even with one of the least value-adding group leaders we’ve ever had with Intrepid Travel,
we still loved the trip!
Logging… it was difficult to witness the rapid degradation of Laos’ forests. While it’s not nearly as bad as other countries in Asia, if nothing is done to halt the rampant logging of primary forests, it won’t be long before environmental impacts like flooding and landslides become the norm.
Mekong… I noticed that the Mekong was a very different colour to what I’d thought it should look like. So I read up on it. The river is usually a yellowish-brown shade due to the sediment it normally carries downstream, but apparently lately it has been running clear, and therefore taking on the pretty blue-green hue we saw (a reflection of the sky). The water levels have also become unusually low, indicating a problem caused by upstream dams. Low water levels pose obvious issues for fishermen and farmers, but the experts are more worried about the decline in sediment (less sediment means less nutrients for plants and fish). The ecological balance is clearly being threatened. Also, with less sediment, the water has more energy which can result in increased erosion of the river bed and banks.
Poverty and vulnerability… It wasn’t difficult to
see the ongoing struggles of everyday Laotians, nor was it hard to grasp that Laos is one of Asia’s poorest counties. Keeping this in mind, we were very apprehensive about the massive investment in roads and rail that China was making in Laos. Having seen what has happened in Cambodia, Sri Lanka and many African countries… we can easily conclude that these projects weren’t charitable aid. Highlights of trip
Cities... some cities I fall in love with quickly and deeply, and my usual types are the immediately beautiful, slightly quirky and confident ones – and Luang Prabang was absolutely all of these things. I love other cities for their romance, joyfulness or vibrant energy – as with Chiang Mai. But I have to also acknowledge cities like Bangkok and Vientiane, where my appreciation for them was more of a slow burn. It sometimes takes me a little time to see past the brash or quiet outer layers and understand their real personalities.
Laos… yes the whole country was a highlight! Laos has many issues plaguing it: there are unexploded cluster bombs that still litter the countryside, there are a host of environmental problems, daunting issues with malnutrition and
food insecurity, and other serious concerns related to underdevelopment and poverty; and yet, you wouldn’t know of many of these issues unless you look closely. Despite their everyday hardships, we were constantly struck by how calmly and gently Laotians lived their lives. I was moved by their serenity, courteousness and resilience. In many ways Laos combines the best of many worlds – it embraces its traditional ways without seemingly being too shackled to it (although this is a relative concept); the people are clearly hard working but have the air of gracefulness; and the food and culture is undeniable Laotian but has incorporated the best influences of the many nations that have plodded through Laos over the decades.
The slow boat ride down the Mekong… this was our mode of transport from the Thailand/Laos border to Luang Prabang, and it was a fabulous experience. It not only gave us a view into the culture and geography of parts of the country that we wouldn’t see when traveling by road, but the act of doing nothing on a comfortable boat was in itself a pleasurable travel activity.
Elephants… our visit to MandaLao Elephant Conservation to hang out with rescue
elephants was absolutely the biggest highlight of the trip for me. Not only is it an ethical and socially responsible endeavour, but extremely importantly, the elephants are treated with respect. The elephants were so obviously comfortable and content that it filled my heart to bursting. It’s beyond gratifying to support such worthy causes.
The group… in an overall sense, it was probably one of the most balanced groups we’ve travelled with. There was a good mix of genders, ages and personality types. There was no boastfulness or grandstanding, no annoying or tedious personalities, and definitely no conflicts or issues (that we saw anyway). There was plenty of good humour, many great discussions and a shared sense of adventure. And most importantly, everyone was respectful of the locals and the culture.
Rats… on a related side note, we welcomed the Chinese New Year of the Rat in Vang Vieng. I was surprised and delighted to find out that there were three Rats on the trip – myself, Dave and Beth – further proving that age is irrelevant when you are hanging out with lovely open-minded adventurous people (the Year of the Rat cycles every 12 years).
my top two food picks for this trip were the khao sois
(meat and yellow egg noodles in a spicy coconut milk-based soup, served with crispy fried noodles, pickled greens and fresh lime) and larps
(minced meat salads with toasted rice powder). I loved having the Thai khao soi
in Chiang Mai (that I have loved for years), and then trying the Lao version for the first time. I also enjoyed developing a love for Lao larps
and discovering that no two were ever the same – the recipes varied by region and even by family. COVID-19 and the world
In a series of extremely strange and scary occurrences that no one could have possibly predicted or expected, the whole world has effectively come to a standstill because of the COVID-19 pandemic. We returned from Laos in late January, and by then the proverbial had hit the fan in China, with whispered hints that it had the capacity to spread like wildfire to the rest of the world. And it did.
It seems like we are now all asking the same question – what will the world and life look like on the other side of COVID-19? The
short answer is no one knows or could possibly know.
While this is probably the biggest and most shocking world event people my age and younger have personally experienced, there is a positive side to this catastrophe. We have been given the very rare gift of reshaping how we live life in the future, and we don’t have to blindly go back to how things were – where power, money, greed and selfishness ruled the world. The world has changed a great deal even just in my lifetime, and not all of it for the better. So to the people clamouring to get ‘back to normal’, I wish I could remind them that ‘normal’ wasn’t necessarily good.
We should be challenging ourselves to make better, kinder, more ethical choices on the other side of this pandemic. And we have the capacity to totally re-imagine the future of travel too. COVID-19 and travel
What will the face of future international travel look like? I would very much like for responsible and sustainable travel to be at the forefront of travel decisions made by all companies and individuals alike. And it wouldn’t hurt for us to also demand that
the travel industry prioritises our health and comfort over profits. Am I living in a dream world? Quite possibly! But we owe ourselves a try. I think we often forget that powerful people and industries only exist because we give them that power… with our joint effort, it can be taken away. We don’t have to always buy what they try to sell us. 😊
Speaking of health and comfort, I’ve always been a bit of a germophobe, but travelling to and from Hong Kong during the SARS virus absolutely changed the way I looked at germs in the world of travel! We always travel with copious amounts of hand sanitiser and antibacterial wipes, and we sanitise our hands and surrounds constantly. The first thing we do on plane, train or bus seats is clean down the tray tables, screens and other hard surface areas we’ll be touching… and we’d often get strange looks from fellow passengers. Well, now that COVID-19 has entered the arena, I predict that we are going to be social distancing and sanitising super-freaks when we start travelling again! 😄
A friend asked me if COVID-19 will make us re-think our travelling life, and
I answered with a flat and simple ‘NO’… but she wanted to know why. I’ve tried many times, but I’ve never found the right words to fully describe how much I really love travelling. It’s difficult to explain that I’m totally addicted to it, or that it has become a part of who I am.
In trying to draw a broad picture of these things, I explained that it’s an escape (from being surrounded by familiarity), a rejuvenation (which recharges my heart and soul), an exhilaration (to experience different places, people, cultures and food), and an awakening (where my boundaries are tested, and my thinking is stretched).
I also tried to explain that we need to experience destinations like Laos to understand the variety of challenges people face every day all over the world. We can get so caught up in living our own day-to-day lives that we forget all the safe and comfortable things we take for granted… like easier access to healthcare and education, drinking tap water, throwing toilet paper in the toilet, speaking freely on any subject without fear of reprisal, veterinary care that ensures a low number of distressed or stray animals etc. etc.
And I think we also sometimes forget to be grateful for what we have, and to be graceful through whatever life throws at us. We can learn a lot from Laos and many other cultures around the world.
I still find my explanations wholly inadequate, but I honestly don’t think I’m overstating the point when I say that travel makes me a better person. And I think this is really at the heart of what made me fall in love with travelling in the first place.
I’ve been gallivanting around this globe since about the age of seven (I don’t have precise dates as I was travelling on my Mum’s passport back then), and I certainly don’t intend to stop now. 😊 Our future travels
When we cancelled our trip to Colombia in March this year, it was with the promise that it would be our destination in early 2021. However COVID-19 had other plans, so we’ll now be postponing that trip indefinitely. Even when Australia’s border re-opens to international travel, we'll be making personal assessments about whether it would be right and responsible for us to travel.
While we have no desire to travel overseas
anytime soon, we’ll very likely start doing some local Tasmanian travel as soon as our work slows down. We are hoping that our travels will eventually extend to other parts of Australia when all state borders re-open. So I suppose we’ll see you at some point on the flip-side of these unusual and challenging times.
I want to end this blog on a warm and happy note. I want to reiterate (probably for the 100th time!) that I love Luang Prabang very much. It was unquestionably love at first sight… I was bewitched, captivated and enamoured all at once. Our experiences there are frequently remembered and discussed, and they always end with sighs of much love. That warm travel-glow will have to keep our travel-lust satisfied and at bay until we can travel again.
Laagorn and Lakon people, and may all your travels be safe travels! 😊 Flying ships on this trip... Virgin Airlines (Hobart– Melbourne)
; Thai Airways (Melbourne– Bangkok)
; Thai Airways (Vientiane– Bangkok– Melbourne)
; Virgin Airlines (Melbourne– Hobart)
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