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Travel Blog: Week 31
Thailand and Laos
Week 31: 10.06.2013 – 16.06.2013
The late night meant a late morning. First things first. I wanted to pay the deposit for the room. It turned out that I would need to pay 8000 for the room and 5000 deposit, which I would get back less costs such as electricity. It’s still a really good deal. A room for a month for around £180. I signed up.
Now for breakfast which was a Louise combo special. Breakfast bar and goats milk yog from Blue, Diamond and fruit at Addy’s. I also found a new water dispenser and filled up – I worked out that these machines only take the old 1THB coins not the new ones. Another little quirk to keep in mind.
I spent the rest of morning and most of afternoon using the, now fixed, wifi at the hotel. Sitting out the front at a little cafe table watching the world go by whilst listening to music.
A quick change and out. We caught a red bus to Central Airport Plaza. A swanky shopping mall with air con. We bought tickets to the movie, after checking it was in english, stocked up on mixed salt and sweet popcorn and took our seats. Another standing tribute to the King – I hadn’t realised how old he was, most of the posters of him are well out of date. He certainly had lived quite a life though and was well respected. The movie was fantastic and allowed me to escape into the world of fiction. I would highly recommend – ‘Now you see me’. Oh, how I miss the flicks.
We browsed the plaza and spent some time in the big Robinsons store. It was dark by now and we caught a red bus back. We jumped out at an earlier stop when we saw a new food area. I treated myself to fried chicken. Oh so good!! Washed down with a mango smoothie. Life sure is good.
The street party which was still going on for the temple celebration, as we wandered back – it must be on day 4 by now! By the time we’d got to the hotel we’d gained a friend. A black dog. No idea to whom it belonged.
The morning started with my best meditation session to date. Then the rocking music came on and Nicole and I jumped out of our beds and danced ourselves awake – woo hooooo.
Nicole was having a massage around noon so no food for her this morning. I was starving so went to the market and bought bread, avocado, tomatoes , yoghurt and a mango. I made THE best sandwich followed by sweet mango.
The hotels wifi had been fixed and so I took the chance to sit outside, it was actually a little overcast and cool today -bliss, and update my blog. I was about 2 weeks behind. The photo uploads whizzed along which made me very happy.
Nicole had lunch at Blue Diamond after her massage and although I wasn’t eating I joined her. I bought some cereal bars for tomorrow’s travel day. My lunch was later and just the leftovers from breakfast.
Next stop the Arcade Bus Station. After negotiating with a few drivers we struck a good deal and jumped in a Song Tao (the red buses) . An interesting journey through rush hour. We bought our tickets to the Thailand/Lao border and headed back to the hotel. We would just wing the rest of the journey from the border to Luang Prabang.
We stopped at the shops to browse. Nicole managed to unwittingly shop lift a bracelet which she only noticed when it fell off her and landed on the floor in front of her feet. We went back to the shop and surreptitiously put it back – phew, good karma realigned.
Back to pack, passing the cockroach fumigation truck – the fumes rising from the pavements was pretty potent and the cockroaches were everywhere running for their lives. As I had a temporary home here now I only took a small bag. The rest I packed up in my big bag and took round to store at my new place – appropriately called ‘Dream House’.
Our last meal together in Chiang Mai could only be in one place. Addy’s new, second, restaurant. Dodging the millions of cockroach corpses which now littered the streets we found her place. She made us Pad Thai which was amazing for 70p and we said our goodbyes for now – photo session followed.
Final packing, shower and bed.
Early start today. Alarm set for 6 as we would need to leave by 7. Well the alarm went off at 6 we didn’t get up until half past. Final bits to pack, check out (forgetting we would get our room key deposit back – don’t mind if I do).
After dismissing an expensive tuk tuk we caught a reasonable Song Tao and entered the flow of the rush hour, or should I say the stationary rush hour. There were 2 people needing drop offs before us so we ended up taking rather a long route to the bus station. After the first guy got off I realised he’d left his shoes in the bus so I stopped the bus, legged it off the bus and dashed up the street (still wearing my backpack) waving his shoes in the air and trying to get his attention. I called out ‘HEY’ a few times realising that I had never actually heard anyone here raise their voice for any reason. Should I be shouting up the street??? I caught up with him and handed over the shoes with much bowing and thank yous.
We eventually arrived at the bus station, queuing for what felt like forever for the ladies toilets. Flooded squat toilets – ummmmm, lovely. And 3THB for the privilege? Just before the bus arrived the obligatory tribute to the king. The music blasted out and everyone rose from their seat and stood in silence. We’d experienced this here at the bus station last night and so knew the score – unlike yesterday when we carried on walking and talking until someone explained what was going on and that we had to stand in silence.
The bus arrived and was spacious and comfy. Bargain! Glad we booked yesterday as it was full. All aboard! Mostly locals, a few tourists, a monk, and a soldier. It was raining again but it made the lush countryside look even more vivid. The farmers were out tending their fields mostly by hand. I can’t imagine what work they must have put in to clear these hillside areas for cultivation. It looked like everything was being done by hand. There were a few stops along the way for food and toilet. I’d bought a tonne of snacks so was set for the journey.
The bus was spacious, comfy and air conditioned. It was full but gradually as we passed through towns along the way more people got out and we were able to have a seat each. The landscape changed between quite modern looking homes, wooden huts in the rural areas and the rice paddy fields. I like to travel my bus and today I was filled with the excitement of travel as I looked out of the window listening to my iPod.
We arrived at the border bus stop pretty much on time. Around 3:30. After a quick toilet stop we hopped on a tuk tuk, possibly the slowest one ever, and were taken the 3km to the actual border crossing point.
For some reason, which I’m yet to find, the Laos visa fee is charged in US dollars. Neither country use this currency! Anyway, as is customary at borders a helpful man is there to exchange your THB for US dollars. It’s an extortionate exchange rate. We skipped this and decided to take our chances. We queued at the Thai departure gate, which was very easy, and then on to the long boats to take us across the Mekong river to Laos. We passed a tiny store selling magnums (and surprisingly at the usual 40THB price) and couldn’t resist. We were last on the boat which meant no waiting around and within 10 minutes we were stepping onto the soil of a new country. The arrival visa process was quick and easy. We could pay in THB – also an extortionate exchange rate. Whether we’d paid in dollars or baht we ended up paying $10 more than the actual fee. $35 for British citizens became $45, and the $42 for Canadians became $52!!
We trudged up the hill in the hot sun passing our spanking new visa stamped passports to passport control – 2 friendly guys in a wooden kiosk – we were through. We found a lovely hotel – cheap room which included breakfast and had the most wonderful balcony.
After a few moments putting our feet up and collecting our thoughts we went on recon. I liked it here – the place had a charm about it and the people were friendly with a sense of humour. We’d decided to book the Gibbon Experience. Rather pricey but the write up sounded amazing. We found the office 10 minutes before closing and booked in for the next day.
Now for food. We’d eaten nothing but bananas, cereal bars, nuts, and roasted beans on the bus and wanted some proper food. We were passed a restaurant flier by someone on the street and so agreed to give it a go, stopping on the way to stock up on essentials. Water, rain poncho, playing cards and socks – we would pick them up in the morning together with the free baguette and fruit we were offered. The couple running this store were a scream.
We found the restaurant up an ornate step of stairs leading to a temple and down a side street. We would never have found it without the flier. It was amazing and sold craft products made by the local tribes people. We ordered and were soon joined by Oliver (British) and Armah (German), both fresh out of school (how young!!!!!). We all sat on the floor round a low table made from a thick slice of a large tree. The 3 dishes Nicole and I ordered to share between us turned out to be 3 dishes each. More food than we could eat so we shared with the other 2. It was a fun evening of sharing travel stories past and future. Around 11 we called it a night and went back to pack a small bag for our next 2 days of ziplining.
Up and out by 8. We stopped for the breakfast that came with the room. I have to say it was good. 2 fried eyes, a hot dog sausage, tomato and cucumber, and toast with jam. All for free and rustled up in under 10 minutes. On to collect our goodies from the crazy couple and on to the tour office. There were well over a dozen of us at the tour film and safety briefing. Then we were split into the 2 groups – 1 or 2 nighters – packed into the relevant trucks and shipped out.
There were 6 in our group. A couple from Mexico and 2 guys from the States. After about an hour we reached the drop off point and started our trek into the forest.
We cut through a small village, waving at the children and dodging the pigs and chickens. We were soon at the first zip line to take us over a river. Two hours of trekking with our backpacks in the heat and mostly up hill. It was a challenge and a true indicator of my need for regular exercise again. We had regular stops for water which with the amount I was sweating was well needed. We stopped for lunch, the fresh baguette made by the crazy couple and the fruit. Then onwards again. As we got nearer to our final destination, the tree house, we needed more and more ziplines to get us around in the national park. I lost count how many but confidence grew with each one and we were soon trying out different hands free techniques. The longest line was 600 meters and we were way up above the canopy in the valley below. I lost my camera along the way somewhere but miraculously one of the tour guys found it!
At last the final line and straight into the treehouse. Shoes off and up to the upper level. We would eat and sleep here – the bathroom was below. We had solar power, not that we used it, and running drinkable water.
At the treehouse we were served a fruit snack together with these chewy glutinous rice and coconut sweets wrapped in palm leaves. They were back and looked digesting but were delicious.
We had a little snooze and another hour or so of zipping around and seeing the surrounding forest. This included a huge tree which had been blessed by the monks. We managed to complete a hug ring around the tree but it too 7 of us. Back to the house to find the beds had been laid out and the table set for dinner.
We had a big tub of sticky rice and a tiffin with 4 dishes. I had rice with the main meal and then again, mixed with sugar for dessert. By now the sun had set and the bugs were moving in. Time to retire to the mosquito covered beds and sleep. It was 7:45!!!! I updated by blog offline before turning in listening to the night sounds of the insects and the far away calls of the gibbons.
It wasn’t the best nights sleep but I really enjoyed the night sounds including listening to the bats circle the tree house. The stars were amazing too. I lifted the mosquito net around 6:30 and just looked out over the trees.
We had a small snack before heading out for a 7am zip line session. It was cool and the birds were out in full force. My hat flew off in the middle of one zipline and fell the 200m to the trees. I loved that hat!
Back to the treehouse for breakfast – rice, beans, squash, fries and eggs. Very tasty! Just enough time to gather up our things before heading out for the day.
With our backpacks fully secured to our backs we whizzed away from our home for the last night. It was the start of our journey back. 2 hours of trekking back down the hills, the steps actually making down worse than the up on our knees. We had more zip lines including two 700 meter ones. The end of these lines turned up slightly so it was important to get up some speed. I constantly twisted in my harness and correcting it to straighten up tended to be a bit like applying the brake. Needless to say I only occasionally got to the other side without having to travel the last few meters hand over hand. Mike, on the other hand (nicknamed the bullet) had it all down to a fine art. It was his downfall on one of the long lines when he came in like a rocket and couldn’t brake hard enough. He came crashing in hitting a tree and sending Alan flying. Both fortunately survived, almost unscathed, and lived to tell the tale. It was a sad day though – I lost my hat!!!! Half way over a ravine it flew off never to be seen again. Not so lucky as my camera. So long little hat, its been a blast (boo hoo).
Too soon it was the last line and we were arriving at a tiny little hut teaming with dogs, puppies, chickens and chicks, pigs and a number of locals. A bowl of rice was served up out f nowhere while we waited for the truck back. It eventually arrived and we piled in. This time I sat in the back with the boys. We got shaken around on the rough track back to the main road but once we were back on Tarmac we flew. Along the way we took on a box of provisions for the town – I’m sure they wouldn’t mind if I just ‘borrowed’ a little lemongrass for tea making purposes.
We reached the tour office, collected our stuff, said our goodbyes and went back to the hotel we’d used a few days before. We even got the same room. It
Was whilst we were unpacking when we realised we both had money missing. Me 100,000 KIP and Nicole 3 times that. We showered, changed and went back to the office. I wanted to make sure they were aware that money had been taken. It could only have been before dinner last night or before breakfast this morning when we’d left our stuff at the treehouse to zip line. Mon, who we spoke to, was very gracious and grateful but nothing was done. We suggested we would go back the next day once they’d had a chance to look into it.
We wandered around the town and grabbed a smoothy (not the standard of thailand) It was a grubby place with building work going on at every turn. We decided to go to the temple. We met a guy coming down the steps as we were on the way up. Apparently there was a very chatty monk up there would was exchanging emails and talking footie. We had to see this. Sadly, there was no such monk when we got there. We just got strange looks – maybe it was because we were females.
We bumped into a Brit who worked in Bangkok but was taking a holiday here. He told us of his plans to go further north. It sounded great and as we couldn’t decide what to do next, it was as good an option as any.
Tonight I had a pizza. A freshly made, greasy, cheesy, meaty bloody gorgeous pizza. It was expensive but was worth every single penny. Bliss!!
It was a very warm night so we did some laundry hoping it would dry over night. We slept with both doors open keeping fingers crossed all would be safe and well.
We survived the night with doors open and slept so well. So much so that it was a bit of a sluggish morning.
Eventually we raised our bodies and went for our freebie brekkie. It was good and we had a audience of a little cat. I gave it a bit of food under the table – o oh I’ve started something, it began meowing to everyone at each table. Time to vamos.
We went to book our next journey although neither of us knew where to. We went to our friendly store keeper Tom who pointed us next door to a travel office. How quickly things can change. The tour office provided a service to obtain a 60 day Thai visa for 3000THB. It seemed expensive but it would mean I wouldn’t need to go to Vientiane which would not only be costly but time consuming. I just was not in the mood for travelling. All I wanted to do was go back to Chiang Mai and rest awhile. This option would allow me to do that more or less. I’d have to give up my passport and entrust it to someone else but this tour operator was pretty professional. I decided to go for it. This meant we didn’t need to go to Vientiane so would looked at going north.
We booked the local bus which left at 12:30 – pickup at 12. This gave us time to pop next door to order fruit for the journey and go to the Gibbon Experience office to sort out reclaiming some of our money. We didn’t have success at the Gibbon Experience but everything else had slotted together.
The pickup to the bus station wanted to leave early and luckily we were ready so about 11:50 we climbed aboard and headed to the bus station. Or so we thought!!! The first stop, which we thought was the bus stop, turned out to be a quick shopping trip for the driver’s wife who was sitting in the passenger seat. We waited and waited and tried to find out when the bus would be going. No reply! After 10 minutes or so we were off again. After another 10 minutes and a fair distance out of town I began to think that maybe this was the local bus. It was! This was the vehicle we would travel all the way to Namtha in. What a trip!
We stopped for fruit a number of times – the bus drivers wife, a ferocious women I would not want to meet in a dark alley or a well lit one for that matter, drove a hard bargain. Then we stopped to pick up more of the drivers family and take them to their home where we parked up and sat in the bus while they had a little family bonding session with the grandchild. We used their outside toilet which was next to the pig pen and Nicole experienced family life when she saw the man hit the woman! Eventually after more fruit was loaded into the bus we were off again. The landscape was so interesting and forever changing. We munched our way through the fruit we bought whilst the couple up front noisily ate sticky rice and sausage they’d picked up from home. Loads of hacking and spitting accompanied the eating. And that was the wife. Another stop in the middle of nowhere to pick up a small dirty looking boy with a bag bigger than his body and by the looks if it heavier. He sat in the back in silence but managed a perfect ‘thank you’ when we shared our bananas and cashews.
We dropped the little boy off at a bus station. Despite Nicole and I paying enough to keep them in fuel for several journeys the drivers wife still charged the little boy. He looked a bit lost in the bus station and very vulnerable. I guess this is the reality of life here.
At last we arrived at the town. Took our bags and went in search of accommodation. We found the perfect place within a hundred yards. Zuela. A beautiful wooden guest house set back from the road with a garden, and a very reasonable price. We settled in and went for a walk around the town which was just one long road. Very little to do here apart from 1, 2 or 3 day activity trips.
We had dinner at the hotel. Freshly made soups and a local dish called Jeow. A kind of spicy, smoky, eggplant dip. We decided to book a one day kayak trip and there were 3 others also booked on it. 3 guys staying at the same guest house. We wandered the night market, which was mostly food. We’d eaten well so would have food from here another night. Nicole did buy a magnum from one of the local stores before we turned back to the hotel and called it a night.
It was a very civilised pick up time for the kayaking – 9am. We were up and out just after 8 and had breakfast at Zuela. The other 3 guys on the tour joined us at our table and breakfast turned into quite a food feast. It was after 9:30 before we finished eating at met our tour guide for the day – Si.
We loaded up the truck and clambered in. We arrived at the river bank 40 ish minutes later. We’re given our natty helmets, life jackets and the all important water. Dry bags were also handed out to keep our belongings out of the water. Two per kayak so there were three. Me and Nicole, Toby and Maurice (from Switzerland) , and T (from Australia) pairing up with Si.
The first 6ks were hard going as the water was still with no current to help push us along. It was so hot and no shade of either side of the river. What wonderful scenery though!!! After our 6ks we stopped at a village and ran the gauntlet of naked children swimming in the river. Some climbed onto the kayak with screams of delight. A truly authentic experience. I had heard that on other tours the village rings a bell to alert everyone that the tourists are on their way and to give them time to change into costume and take their places – not really what you want!
The women here spun there own cotton and made shoes and bags. I bought one from one of the ladies. In this village there were about 200 people. When a couple get married it’s customary for the women to shave off their eyebrows. As is usual in these villages the chickens, pigs and dogs run around freely. It’s very dusty and it hadn’t rained for several days. It was rice planting time and the villagers were getting worried about their crop.
Back in the kayaks to tackle the next 14ks. It was still hard going but we had the occasional fast water and rapids to quicken the pace. The water levels were low and so we frequently got stuck floating over some of the rocks. The kayaks were made from sturdy rubber and could take us wiggling and shifting to move the boat forward. W stopped for lunch which Si had bought with him. We found a shady spot set back a little way from the water and set up camp. We had banana leaves to sit on and to set out the food. There were no plates, knives, forks or spoons. It was dig in and help yourself. Sticky rice, of course, noodles with bamboo shoots, jeow (the spicy dip like dish we’d had the night before), squash leaves, and fish. It was all delicious and there were only scraps left. Everything was biodegradable us was just pushed under the bamboo plants to rot.
Onwards to the next village. Stopping at a place in the middle of nowhere where the locals were eating and blasting out Britney Spears!!! More children in the river – some being cheeky and ducking down under the water and holding the kayak so we couldn’t move.
This village had a very different feel. It was bigger and the villages were more chatty – probably more used to tourists. They were not in traditional clothes but dressed in mo western styles.
They showed us how they processed the rice, crushing it then sifting out the chaff which they fed to the chickens and pigs. There were so many children here and all around 4 – 6 years old. We were made to feel very welcome and were even introduced the the village leader – a position gained by vote.
Only 3 more km to go. We were all tired by now and so the extra push through the shallow rocky water was quite an effort but we made it. Helped, I must say, by the cooler temperatures.
We heaved the kayaks out if the water and carried the equipment up to the road to load onto the truck. Our empty plastic water bottles were left at the side of the road for the locals. They have their own spring and use the bottles to collect it. This feels like a form of recycling.
We were invited to this village and joined in with the rice prep. We left with smiles and waves and happy memories.
Weary we got in the truck and headed back to the hotel in clouds of dust – I was covered by the time we got back.
Quick shower (what bliss), change and back out for a celebratory drink with he group. We were given the local Lao Lao (50% alcohol a little like clear whiskey) which could be mixed with lemon and honey. I had a few cups of it – very smooth and warming. Then across the road to the night food market. We bought various dishes from various stalls and all sat round a concrete table to eat. It was a really good night. Our hotels 11:30 curfew came round and we called it a night. Just as I got to the room I realised I’d left my water flask on the table. After negotiating with the security guard to let me out and back again I go to the market to find my flask had gone. After a bit of pleading it mysteriously turned up. Very happy about that!
Off to bed. I was going to sleep well tonight – exercise and booze is a winning combination for that.
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