Raileigh Beach, Southern Thailand
Raileigh Beach, Southern Thailand
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.
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!)
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.
One 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!
I took what was supposedly supposed to be a 12 hour night bus from Hoi An to Dalat. It in fact turned out to be a ten hour night bus with a stopover in Nha Trang (also known as Little Russia… direct flight from Moscow apparently) for FOUR hours, from 4am to 8am. Eventually however, I did make it to Da Lat with an awful sore throat and lost voice, meaning that I was hauled up as an invalid for the rest of the day and night.
The next day, when I had partially recovered and ignored the scooter renter’s comments about how it would be safer if I had a boyfriend who was driving (not the first sexist comment in my solo travels, admittedly), I took my scooter to Dalanta Waterfalls about 4km. A strange and very touristy place, it was necessary for me to take a mini “rollercoaster” down a hill to see the falls. This “rollercoaster” consisted of 1-2 person carts which could be accelerated and braked at your will, and seemed to rely mostly on gravity to get to the falls.
After that and a quick look at the suitably picturesque lake, I boarded yet another night bus to Ho Chi Minh City (otherwise known as Saigon).
My bad luck with night buses continued and the service miraculously arrived 2 hours earlier than I was quoted – ordinarily a good situation, expect this was 4am on a Saturday morning and I had nowhere to stay. I eventually found a hostel to stay in and got some suitable sleep.
Ho Chi Minh City is a chaotic, but strangely likable city. It feels as though I might die or catch a disease every time, I walk out into the street, but once I got over this slightly rational feeling, I quite enjoyed my stay.
A trip to the War Remnants Museum is a must, but visitors should perhaps be warned a little more thoroughly than I was about the distressing content on display. Indeed, I think that it is right that people like me are able to understand the atrocities and true horrors that occurred in the Vietnam war, but some pictures were extremely harrowing and saddening.
Other landmarks include the Reunification Palace, the post office (where I was pleased to satisfy my geeky side and get some stamps), and also various pagodas and the city museum.
Ho Chi Minh is also situated in a good place for some interesting tours, including the Cu Chi tunnels and Mekong delta.
I have to say that, although it was slightly far at 2 hours travelling time, I enjoyed Cu Chi a lot, and found the whole place very interesting. You have a chance to go down into one of the wartime tunnels yourself and crawl through – a claustrophobic, but also interesting experience. I managed to get to 100m, and was very dusty and sweaty as a result!
The Mekong delta tour was a more sober affair, but still interesting in itself. I enjoyed taking the row boats and sampling coconut candy. I only spent one day there, and it is advisable to spend more if you can – to visit the floating markets and get a feel for the place.
Overall, Ho Chi Minh City has been a fascinating place to visit and topped off my time in Vietnam nicely. On to Cambodia next, this time on a day bus…
I got a night bus down from Hanoi and was meant to stop at Phong Nha, but overslept on the bus and so ended up in Hue. But it wasn’t all that bad. A day in Hue sampling the sights of the Citadel, but the place wasn’t all too special.
What was very enjoyable was the trip down the coast from Hue to Hoi An. A Top Gear special goes along this road and the views are spectacular. Beautiful oceans, fishing villages, all very beautiful. I would definitely recommend taking a motorbike this way, whether by yourself or with a driver. I also made a stop and swim in Elephant Springs and the crazily overcrowded Marble Mountain. The latter was a bit strange and too full of coloured artificial lights.
In any case, I made it to Hoi An, which comfortably tops the list as my favourite place so far. With it’s laterned lined streets and beautifully lit river, the place felt like I had been dropped into a mystic fairytale. There is a nightmarket, street food and plenty of good bars to enjoy yourself in.
Hoi An was also the first place I tried a scooter on my own. I, like may others, have heard horror stories involving tourists and scooters, but Hoi An, though slightly busy, was a good place to learn. Within 15 mins I was off on my own around the town. That very day I made the 40km ride to My Son, a small temple complex nearby. It turns out the fact that nobody follows road rules can work to your advantage; everyone is expecting you to fuck up, so it doesn’t matter if you end up on the wrong side of the road…
But anyway, I made it there, and then the following day I made a similarly long drive to Ba Na Hills (on a hangover I might add).
Now Ba Na Hills is not the best place to go for a backpacker on a budget, and indeed the whole complex was not a particularly attractive one for my tastes. But I went here specifically to see the Golden Bridge, or as I more affectionately called it the “Bridge with Hands” to make my friends at home jealous. It is spectacular, and like something out of Lord of the Rings, but it took a hell of a lot of energy and money to get there.
Anyway, after hanging out on the beach, browsing cloth shops (Hoi An is a major place to get relatively cheap tailored clothing – if you were in need of a suit), being torrentially rained on, getting a token bracelet at the Night Market and getting too drunk out with other people from the hostel, I boarded what turned out to be a horrendous night bus to Da Lat. More on that later…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…