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Green Frogs, Green Snakes, Green Andrew

Sightseeing in Luang Prabang then biking in Vang Vieng

sunny 35 °C
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After two days boating we were ready to leave our river legs behind and explore the beautiful town of Luang Prabang with it's French provincial architecture and multi-ethnic inhabitants. I was struck by the relative prosperity of this place due to the modern shops tailored for Western tastes, but the lovely Laos culture is still found in the smiley, friendly folk serving 'Italian' Ice-Cream, or 'Swedish' bread! We sort out more locals at the colourful fresh produce market, stocking up on leafy greens or dried shrimp. Once again we were amazed at the wonderful specimens on offer, both dead an alive; a giant, butchered catfish lay slumped on the stall while his smaller mates were squirming in a shallow bowl on the floor. One woman had a handful of plump, speckled frogs ready for the pot, looks like I was a bit late to kiss one and get my handsome prince... will just have to make due with Andrew the toad. :)

Climbing the 100m high slope of 'Phu Si' we got an excellent view of the town with the Mekong on one side and Nam Kan on the other. Standing at the summit is the majestic 'That Chomsi' stupa where a lady sells the little caged birds, but before I got a chance to set them all free Andy spotted a Russian anti-aircraft cannon on a nearby crest - which kids (and myself) used as a merry-go-round. Whoo Hoo! To end the day we got engrossed in the Handicraft Market selling dozens of similiar snazzy souvenirs - beautiful applique blankets, silk scarves, bamboo lamps. Shopping is not Andy's favourite pastime and unfortunately for him all the umbrellas and canopes sheltering the sellers were set at the average Laos height, so his enjoyment was somewhat severed by backache. A Beer-Loo by the river soon consoled him and we watched the fisherman coming home with their catch as the sun set.

I was really keen to get up at athe crack of dawn the next day to observe the sunrise procession of monks receiving alms. There seem to be so many monks here in Luang Prabang and their bright orange attire can be spotted everywhere, but I particularly wanted to see the large group together. However, I couldn't quite muster the energy after having a restless night from nearby noises - sometimes its feels like all sorts of animals gravitate towards our bedroom for a party, those gheckos certainly like us and make a loud "Whah-Urgh" noise over and over, a bit like a huge hiccup. If I didn't like them so much there would be a lot more squished gheckos in the world.

Andy was feeling a bit green from all the Beer-Loo, or maybe it was the frogs, and he became even greener on the zig-zagging roads to Vang Vieng. The usual top-class VIP buses slightly slumped in standard and we were back to the rickety dust buckets bumping along windy pot-holed tracks. Despite the nausea its hard not to be impressed by the dramatic landscape in Laos, huge undulating limestone hills, the kind you'd draw as a child.... mounds up to the top of the sky and valleys down to the earth... the stuff of fairytales.

Vang Vieng is essentially a backpackers party town where bikini-clad revellers drink their way down the river on tyre inner tubes, or spend their days chilling in a bar watching Friends. We're way too old for that.... well, not really, but due to Andy's aversion to alcohol (I know! Shocking!), we took a more sedate trip on a bike round the local villages. The roads are quite basic and our little 4-gear moped could just about manage 15mph on the stoney surface, zoooooommmm! Even at that speed Andy nearly crashed, but in his defence that was because a 6ft red and green reptile came slithering into our path. Snakes are a delicacy here but I didn't even have a chance to take a picture of him let alone bash him over the head. We kinda missed having the quadbike but we still reached some fantastic spots in the peaceful hills, although the locals are certainly cashing in with every point of interest there with lots of kids ready and waiting to show you around in return for a few dollars. Two little eager boys were keen to guide us to a secluded lagoon, and showed us the delights of swinging on a rope before plunging into the murky depths. When we were sure crocodiles didn't lurk nearby we too launched in with arms flailing, screaming with joy. Another small chap with a head torch showed us to a nearby cave and pursuaded us to follow him into the dark hole, which was amazing. There is supposed to be some fabulous caves to explore here so if we were more prepared we may have gone further, but as soon as Andy felt something on his neck we were outta there!.

So much to explore and such little time, we're off to the capital tomorrow.

Posted by AndyGem 17:38 Archived in Laos Tagged backpacking Comments (1)

The 'slow boat' along the mighty Mekong

sunny 28 °C
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The slow boat is a two day cruise down the Mekong River with an overnight stop. Many of the people we have spoken to about Laos have had conflicting views about this trip so before we booked we walked to the pier to check out the boats and decided to sign up for the VIP seats.

The next morning loaded with our packed lunch we departed from Huay Xai (the Thai - Laos border crossing point) and were very glad to have the good seats as the others were just wooden boards and for 10 hours that would definitely dampen the experience! The views through the first half of the day were good but spoilt somewhat by the smog caused from the Laos peoples desire to slash and burn seemingly endless acres of forest. As the day wore on the Beerlao (Laos only major export) started to flow very freely for some members of the boat which only seemed to make the Americans louder. So with ipods to hand we settled back and watched the scenery pass us by.
Along the banks of the river were several very small settlements, the only way in and out of his area is by river and the captain dropped off several bags of rice to the locals. There was a large number of fishing nets cast into the water along the sides held there by lengths of bamboo. Sadly we didn't see any nets been hauled in. SOme of the locals have made there own very primitive, fast and dangerous speed boats that consisted of a wooden dinghy with a car engine and propeller fitted on the back. These scary boats passed regularly with crsh helmet wearing tourists but we had definitely made the right option with our slow cruise.

We arrived in the evening into a place called Pak Beng which has grown tremendously over several years into a real tourist hub with the locals making good livings off the regular influx of tourists. After a relaxing day we found a quiet curry house and reminisced about the Indian cuisine. Sadly the locals seem to have a disproportionately high number of cockerills that seem to think its dawn all night long and were constantly squawking.
The Laos way of life is very relaxed, apparently they only work if its fun and enjoyable (can't see that sentiment transferring to the UK any time soon!) so when we asked what time the boat departed in the morning we were met with blank stares, in fact no one really new so to make sure we got decent seats we arrived early.
We had a roadside breakfast on the way down, no bacon and eggs here just buffalo skewers and tough sticky rice. To say we got the cheap cuts of buffalo was an understatement!
The second day was more spectacular view wise with the visibility increasing and many more interesting limestone formations to view.

In the evening we arrived into Luang Prang the end of our boat trip which was definitely worth doing. Met some interesting people and some that sadly thought they were but fell well short! Luang Prang was a very pleasant riverside town that has also grown due to tourism but in a much more controlled way so as not to damage its original features.

Posted by AndyGem 05:54 Archived in Laos Tagged boating Comments (0)

Food Glorious Food!

Chiang Mai sightseeing then off to the Loas border

semi-overcast 28 °C
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It became apparent just how merry Andrew had been last night by his inability to open his bloodshot eyes more than a tiny slit. I left him clutching his head, downing a pint of water, while I merrily, skipped off to my Thai cooking course - which was a bit of a show because I too felt a little queasy. The school was only around the corner and I was the first to arrive, keeno, so I got to sip Thai tea while my fellow classmates joined the party: Chris and Sarah, a reserved English couple from Stoke, and Jasper and Nan, an unreserved Dutch couple from Amsterdam. I explained the other half of my couple preferred the end result of cooking rather than the preparation bit, but we all agreed by the end of the day that anyone would enjoy this!!

Our teacher was a typical, smiley, bubbly, Thai lady with the cute name of 'Oi', needless to say no-one in the group forgot that. She took us around the local, fresh food market to show us and explain some of the ingredients we would be using, then it was straight to the chopping boards to conjure up a spicy, lemongrassy, garlicy feast! We pounded the pestle and mortar, smelt the fragrant aromas and only after a few moments of wok time a sensational snack was ready and waiting... and if I do say so myself, they were delicious! Although we each prepared our own 7 dishes we got to learn all the other choices available and after every course we got to sit down and enjoy our creation. It was amazing how quick and easy it was to make such great Thai food like Tom Yum soup (sweet and sour), Green Thai Curry and Fresh spring rolls. The majority of Thai food is fresh and healthy and the small portions make it ideal for snacking throughout the day! Heaven! Andrew would indeed have loved it!

I went back to the hotel beaming, with my belly about to burst, and found the hungover hippo wallowing in bed - He had also been on a blow-out, but English style - a massive full fry-up and, I'm shamed to say, a Burger King. We spent the rest of the day lounging like Buddha's. In contrast to our gluttony we decided to detox the next day, starting with a sweat-inducing gym session at a plush hotel, then a quick dip in the chilly pool, finished with a snooze on the sun lounger. Proud of our new toxins levels we went for a sushi dinner where we kinda counteracted all our goodness - All You Can Eat sushi for 6pounds with drinks and pudding included - the pressure was on with only one hour and 15 mins to shovel it in. As I went to get the drinks Andy had already tucked into his first plate of prawns before realising the correct procedure.. We were given a bowl of bubbly soup in front of us and like a Swiss meat fondue you were expected to boil the beef in it! So Andy had just eaten three RAW prawns and was happily munching away without a care. Luckily, it was the only 3 raw ones he ate, and undeterred we just carried on piling in the chicken, veg and seafood, with plates piling up everywhere. At any moment I expected Andy to make a mad dash to the toilet, but he managed a further 25 cooked prawns plus about 10 tempura prawns without any pains. All You Can Eat is a bit pressurizing, and I did force the second bowl of icecream down much to my belly moaning. Hopefully we won't need to eat for another week now.

Acutely aware we are rapidly running out of time we had no choice but to head to the Loas border. With only 2 more weeks left we have decided to cut short Thailand and miss out Cambodia, on the proviso that we will return. So, we got another VIP bus to Chiang Kong, which was 6 hours of bumpety bump on the back seat. The scenery was becoming more mountainous and undeveloped but our vision didn't go far due to the thick, low clouds covering the countryside. Again, out overland crossing was swift and uneventful, we just caught a little ferry across the water, got a few stamps and we were through... Loas here we come!

Once across to border we found a cheap guest house and booked our slow boat for the next day to take us down the Mekong river. For dinner we decided to just go downstairs in our hotel, where the loopy landlady didn't feel it was necessary to collect our drinks for us, she just instructed me to the fridge where I gathered my choice of beverages and served them to Andy - he was delighted as you can imagine. I gladly reminded him the consequences of drinking too much beer as he tucked into his second bottle of Beerloa, which I have dubbed Beer-Loo due to it's effect on Andy's bowels. He collected the next round of drinks! :) Early to bed for our early rise tomorrow!

Posted by AndyGem 22:59 Archived in Thailand Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

'Wat' a day!

From Samui to Bangkok to Chiang Mai

sunny 35 °C
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As we bid farewell to Samui on a boat to the mainland we were serenaded by a group of frollicking dolphins, who were so slippery and swift that every picture I took turned out to be a splash of water as opposed to a flipping fin. Hhmph! Back onto a VIP bus to Bangkok which smelt of shrimps, and we re-traced our steps up the country. This time around we weren't going to stop in the capital just a few hours wait in the bus terminal for another long-haul up to the northern province.

After all this seated numbness and starring at a large expanse of not much but green we were delighted with the almost quaint, moated and walled Chiang Mai. It is in fact a busy, dynamic, modern city which cleverly combines its history, traditions with a nice laid-back, relaxed, vibe. To embrace the older culture we did a tour of the most historical parts starting off with the oldest temple in the city, Wat Chiang Man; which inhabits a stone slab bearing an inscription engraved in 1581. We hovered outside for a while because I had mistakenly put my shorts on that day and didn't want to offend the monks with my knobbly knees. An Amercian couple in even more revealing attire sauntered straight past us in to the gates, so we followed suit and I tried not to do any high kicks. Before we went inside I got to purg my leg-baring sins and set two grey, spotted-necked, doves free from a cosy, wicker cage. Setting the birds free is a sign of good luck and I am sure it was good for the birds to be let out of their tiny confined space.

Approximately 95% of Thai people are Buddhists and the teachings (dhamma) are chanted every morning and evening in every wat. One of the greatest charms of Chiang Mai is that these beautiful, striking temples are interspersed all over the city, mixing old buildings with new. There is an excess of 300 temples here, almost as many as in Bangkok, each one varying in size but similiar in structure with the tiered, pointing roof and little gold dragons and bells on every point. The patterns, motifs, symbols are exquisetly crafted with gold leaf adorning most of the structure. Inside Wat Chiang Man there are red and gold stencilled murals on the walls and a large seated Buddha at the end of the room. 'Wat' a marvellous sight!

Our next stop was a bronze sculpture of 3 Northern Thai-Lao Kings most associated with Lanna history and representing the centre of the city. The statuary has become a shrine to local residents who leave offerings in return for blessings. Right behind these figures is the Chiang Mai City Arts & Cultural Centre which contains all sorts of interactive exhibits and historical displays, of which I made Andy walk around all 15 rooms pressing every button. It was particulary good to listen to the slow, drawl of an American man explain about the artifacts, often knowingly mis-pronoucing words, but instead of re-recording he just paused and repeated. With aching feet we walked to the Chiang Mai Women's Prison for a relaxing foot massage. Yes, you did read that right. I realise 'spa' and 'prison' are not usually conducive words but to help rehabilitate these criminals they offer treatments to tourists for a small fee, which is saved until their release. I was a little weary that some of these ladies may not have seen, let alone touched, a hairy male like Andy in a while and take him into a side room to corrupt him, but we weren't given a choice because the spa was so popular that they couldn't fit us in. Dissappointed and relieved we went off for some more wat spotting, Wat to see next eh? Wat to do for dinner? Wat a never-ending amount of wonderful jokes I can come up with! :) Hahahaha!

And if our day wasn't jammed packed enough we headed down to the Night Bazaar which is a maze of vibrant stalls selling Thai trinkets. We settled down in the centre of the hubbub for some seafood, where I selected my own Red Snapper for a roasting. I later realised why Andy had insisted on this restaurant which had gorgeous waitresses in tiny, tight, blue Tiger-Beer dresses! I drank Chang in protest! Great fish though and huge portions. As if that wasn't enought on the way home we got lured by a ladyboy into watching some Thai Boxing, which rounded off the day spectacularly! The small ring is surrounded by Go-Go bars with music blaring and 'ladies' dancing topless around the chairs. Andy didn't know where to look and got so excited that he started betting on the fights with a local Mr.Miagi. Thankfully, he didnt bet on all 8 fights because his selection only came up trumps once. It is hard to judge really, all the contenstants looked so small and young, but once they get going they were mighty fiesty and fast. In time with the music they almost seemed to dance around the arena with their legs bobbing and arms swaying, it reminded a bit of Karate Kid, 'wax on, wax off'. Jenna, our wild waitress was such a character and kept encouraging the flow of beer while flaunting around posing for photos, I think she took a shine to Andy because she kept plying him with bottles.

By far the best fight was the 4 blind-folded fighters, all aimlessly punching the air until they came across a body and wholloped them as hard as they could. The referee often pushed then together and sometimes got caught with a left hook for getting close. Once 2 of the fighters were down the final 2 got to take off their masks and end the fight. An amazingly agile, tattooed boxer won overall in spectactular style, doing a kung-fu high kick to the head 'whahhh chaaaa!'.

We had hoped to see an English guy fight but we were told he was injured, I had to restrain Andy from volunteering to take his place realising at this point he had had too many Chang's. I had to do a few karate moves to get Andy to come home. We were both asleep before our heads touched the pillow. As the title suggests... wat a day!

Posted by AndyGem 03:14 Archived in Thailand Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

The island tour continues

sunny 34 °C
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Having had such a great time in Ko Tao we found it hard to leave and hoped that Ko Phang Nang (KPN) our next island stop would be just as good. Arriving into the Thong Sala pier of KPN we shared a taxi with a young German couple. Nothing unusual in that except that this German couple were happy and smiled! They had just come from 11 months in Australia and had plenty of advice and positive things to say about it. We headed for a developed area called Hat Rin from where we could go off and explore. Struggling to find our bearings and a cheap hotel we stumbled (literally with all the bags) upon a great hotel with AC rooms and a swimming pool. It is so easy to slip out of the traveling mode and into 7 day beach holiday mode, but dangerous though really as start to drink and eat a lot more!

To counter this found a thai boxing gym to go to which was interesting, there were plenty of fight nights but we decided to wait until Chaing Mai hoping it would be more authentic and not just for tourists.
To explore the island we hunted down another quad bike and as is now usual with these things the brakes didn’t work but undeterred we zoomed off around the island. Being much bigger than Ko Tao we had plenty to explore and with Gem’s map reading it was going to take a long time, we never did find the right turn the other half of the island!

In total we visited 6 different beaches throughout the day, stocking up on fruit shakes and green thai curries along the way. These beaches are relatively untouched and only access is by 4x4’s or bikes. Had a few hairy moments, Gem had to jump off the back as the slope we tried to go up was so steep it looked as though we were going to flip it over. We saw a thai girl fall off her bike going down a hill and helped her back to her feet and to the bottom of the slope.

KPN according to a thai lady only gets busy for a few days each month when people flock to the island for the full moon party and as we missed this the place was quiet. We did enjoy the island and would definitely return.

Moving on to Ko Samui, only for one night as our original travel program has now gone out of the window and so much still to see we chose a quiet strip of beach to explore. Ko Samui is much more expensive and developed, mainly due the airport on the island. We even got to see our first live sport event in 10 weeks, the Melbourne GP in an English bar surrounded by old drunk men – just like England!
Eat some chicken for lunch from a street vendor for the first time and after half an hour void that it would be the last time – didn’t agree to well. In the evening we decided to hit the big town for a night out which was an eye opener! Full of Go Go bars, lady boys and old men with young thai girls. We found a nice restaurant and watched the world go by and what a weird world we were watching!

Posted by AndyGem 01:48 Archived in Thailand Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

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