Tag Archives: South East Asia

Chiang Mai and Pai

After Luang Prabang, it was only a 23 hour bus trip to Chiang Mai, Thailand. Indeed, although the sleeper buses in Laos are truly terrible (there is a single size bed which they make two people share – I am travelling alone and had to share with a stranger. I am just so thankful it was a girl…), a lot of the time was spent waiting – waiting for a bus connection, waiting at the border etc. The important thing is that I got there in the end.

Chiang Mai’s old city is walled into a neat square. Inside the wall, there are some interesting temples and restaurants, but this town is undeniably sleepy and most of the activities are to be done away in the surrounding countryside.

One of the highlights of the trip so far was visiting an elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai. I was a little wary of this, given that a lot of elephants have been mistreated for entertainment in the past. However, the tour that I went with Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, had good reviews.

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About an hour and a half drive out of Chiang Mai and down a particularly steep dirt track, there was a beautiful value where different families of elephants lived. We got to feed them and have mud baths and then bathe with them in the river. These animals are beautiful, docile and extremely precious and intelligent. It was a wonderful privilege to be able to get so close to them.

I also did a cooking class in Chiang Mai, which I loved. I did this with Grandma’s Home Cooking School, which I recommend as it is slightly cheaper than the rest when booked online, provided me with vegetarian options and was also done in the most beautiful setting; a farm outside the city. We got a tour around the farm and shown different herbs, and then we were given a class for soup, pad thai and a curry (I chose Thai Green Curry and it was delicious!)

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I then moved on to Pai, a 3-4 hour drive north from Chiang Mai on the windiest road in existence. Pai is a beautifully serene little town and I had fun renting a motorbike and seeing waterfalls, a bamboo bridge the Pai canyon and hot springs.

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45483037_349341725840033_442991731592396800_n45560774_292113298069984_100147689471082496_n45479887_511901945956476_797204766894587904_nOne of my favourite parts of the town was the night market on walking street where you can get great food at very reasonable prices. I got a veggie wrap and some coconut pancakes and was very satisfied!

From here, I head down to the Thai islands!

A Detour to Laos – Vientiane, Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang

After spending a few days in Bangkok (more on this later), I treated myself by taking the overnight sleeper train to Nang Chai, a border town between Thailand and Laos. However, it turned out not to be the comfortable journey that I imagined and the spotlight bright lights were on the entire night, meaning the little sleep I got was of no good quality.

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Vientiane, Laos

Anyway, to stop complaining, I arrived in Vientiane (you have to pay $35 for the visa and the capital city is around a 20 min tuk tuk ride from the border) on the 25th October, which, as it so happens, was the day of a boat race festival to mark the end of Buddhist lent. Except there was no boat race, as far as me and the other people from my hostel could tell. The only boats on the Mekong were the usual rickety old motorboats. There was indeed some large street market, but if this was the festival, then it is the strangest festival I have ever attended.

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The “Boat Racing Festival”, Vientiane

I moved on from Vientiane quickly via a 4 hour minivan ride to Vang Vieng.

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Road just outside of Vang Vieng

I had not known what to expect of Vang Vieng. A quick google is enough to give one a sense of the history of the place as a backpacker destination: it was known for it’s partying, drug-taking and ominous “tubing” (where you sit in a rubber ring, float down a river, and stop off at bars along the way, inevitably getting shitfaced).

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People getting ready for Cave Tubing, Vang Vieng

However, nowadays the place is a little changed. There is still a small backpacker community, and tubing along the river is still offered by hostels, but the majority of activities revolve around outdoors and adventure, which, I must say, Vang Vieng is spectacularly placed far.

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Countryside in Vang Vieng

Just coming into Vang Vieng and going down to the riverside is breathtaking. There are huge, green mountains rising out of nowhere from lush, green fields, and they seem to stretch on for miles.

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Preparing the kayaks along the river

There is plenty to do here, and I was happy to go on a $13 tour for tubing through a cave (a bit of an odd experience where you sit in a rubber ring and pull yourself along by a rope with a headtorch through a dark, cavernous cave, and also for kayaking, which I enjoyed greatly.

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Blue Lagoon 3

A spent another day exploring the exquisite countryside on a scooter, hiking up to a spectacular viewpoint and going to Blue Lagoons 1 and 3, both of which have things to jump off and both of which I recommend.

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Me at the viewpoint

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Hot air balloon above Vang Vieng

An overnight bus, and I arrive at 4am in Luang Prabang, luckily being taken in by my hostel. I, again, wasn’t sure what to expect of Luang Prabang, but what greeted me was a quiet town along the Mekong. There is a hilltop temple, a busy place to go and see the sunset, and a night market with good “fill your plate with veggie food” buffets for 15.000 kip (~$2), but overall there isn’t much else to do, unless it’s through excursions.

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Blue Lagoon 1, Vang Vieng

But for me, there is no more room in my budget for more excursions in Laos, so it’s onwards and eastwards to the next destination.

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Stairs up to viewpoint, Luang Prabang

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View of the sunset over the Mekong river, Luang Prabang

Cambodia – Phnom Penh and Siem Reap

Moving on from Ho Chi Minh, I made it across the border with relative ease and only having to cough up $35 for a Cambodian visa.

My first stop was Phnom Penh, the capital city, which in all honesty I wasn’t too enthralled by. The most interesting part was visiting the S21 visit museum, detailing a prison of the Cambodian genocide. The exhibits are again emotive, but it is an important part to understand what went on in the region.

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The Grand Palace, Phnom Penh

There is also the Grand Palace (remember to cover shoulders and knees! UnlikeĀ  did and I had to return to the Guest House to get a scarf and change…), which is ok as palaces go and one of the things to see in town.

I moved on to the famed Siem Reap pretty quickly. The difference in the tourism scale between the two cities is immediately obvious, with the market, bars and street advertisments all geared towards the hoardes of tourists who visit here each year, all, seemingly, with a common purpose – Angkor Wat.

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Sunrise over Angkor Wat

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Another sunrise image

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Me, tiredly enjoying the sunrise

Following the crowd as is so usual of me, I went to Angkor Wat for the sunrise, which was quite spectacular in itself. Though I would impress here that a day pass ticket to the temple park costs $37! There was a good walk around the temples, carved beautifully and with interesting architecture. In the park, there are many temples to visit, including Angkor Thom – remnants of the ancient city that used to be there – and a temple with trees growing through it, giving it a weird, natural feel.

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Entrance to Angkor Thom

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Window at Angkor Thom

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Buddha figurine peaking out of an overgrown tree

I was excited also to see that there are monkeys in the park! But be careful though, they looked a little vicious when approaching tourists…

 

Despite the many, many tourists, this place is worth a visit. I even managed (after a quick nap back at the hostel – the 4am start had tired me out!) to get back for sunset on the hill temple. A bit before sunset, there was a bit of rain, but also an amazing rainbow which we could see in its entirety from our high viewpoint.

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Rainbow from the sunset spot

Beautiful sight, but somehow, like many places, the magic is dulled a little due to the booming tourism. I am part of the problem though, so can’t really complain…

Starting in Asia – Hanoi, Sa Pa and Ha Long Bay

After a lengthy flight with a changeover from Tokyo, I finally arrived in Hanoi, Vietnam to start my long awaited travels in South East Asia.

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Vietnam immediately appears very different from Japan or South Korea. Catching a bus from the airport (probably the best way – it only cost about $0.50, and there are many warnings about being ripped off by airport taxis), I arrived at the bus stop nearest to the Old Quarter and made my way through the sometimes terrifyingly busy streets to my hostel.

Hanoi, as I had been warned, but never truly appreciated, has nightmarish traffic. The scooters and motorbikes seem to adhere to no rules and crossing the road each time felt as if I was parrying with death. But hey, I survived. My best advice about this is probably just to go – don’t second thought and dawdle because that just confuses them and will lead to even more ferocious tooting.

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Lake in Hanoi, best visited at night-time during the weekend for lively and eclectic entertainment

Hanoi is a lively and bustling town. A lot of good places to eat and drink lie in the Old Quarter, and I even managed to find a good vegan restaurant by chance here. There is also the lake Hoan Kiem, which is perfect for a stroll around and pedestrianised a weekends. I was very proud with the henna tattoo I got here one evening, and a lot of the locals are friendly and vying to practise their English.

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Military Museum, Hanoi

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Plane wreckage in the Military Museum

Hanoi has a number of museums too. I visited both the Military Museum and the old prison (or Hanoi Hilton as it is otherwise known). Although the military museum is perhaps a bit sparse on information, both were worth having a look at for historical purposes.

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Maison Centrale – a prison first used for revolutionist against the French colonists, then otherwise known as the “Hanoi Hilton” when used as a POW prison during the Vietnam War

After a few days in Hanoi, I made the 6 hour journey up to Sa Pa, which strikingly reminded me of some places I had been in Peru and Guatemala. I spent three days trekking here through the countryside with a local guide. The scenery is beautiful, though I would recommend going earlier in the year than I did as most of the famous rice paddies had been harvested.

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Rice fields and buffalo in Sa Pa

Next was to another famous site, three hours away from Hanoi; Ha Long Bay. Made famous for its appearances in films and the Top Gear special one year, Ha Long Bay is a stunning area of natural scenery where towering sheer rock faces emerge strikingly from the sea. I was told that “Ha Long” translates as “Landing Dragon”, as apparently this was a place chosen by a dragon to settle some years ago when they still roamed the Earth.

As it was my birthday, I chose a mid-range cruise to go on which included activities such as visiting caves, walking up one of the sheer faces, swimming, making spring rolls, visiting a pearl farm and kayaking. The staff were nice and I even got my own special birthday cocktail.

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Me on the cruise boat – a very happy 24th birthday

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Sunset over Ha Long Bay

Overall, though the start to this long-travelling session has been a bit hectic, it has also been enjoyable. Completely different from other areas of the world I have visited, I am sure Vietnam and the rest of South East Asia has a lot to offer…