E: Vang Vien to Luang Prabang – LAOS

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Vang Vien

After surviving endless hours of being flung from bus to coach and back again, Kate and I despite being somewhat languorous, were eager and ready for all the adventure the infamous Vang Vien had to offer. Our bus shifted relentlessly from left to right eventually emerging from the dust which had fanned out from the worn out dirt road below us. We arrived at an ordinary looking street brimming with the usual bars and restaurants, behind us however lay a very distracting yet seemingly recent landmark. The characterless yellow beast of a building, the ‘Roung Nakhone’ Hotel dominates the local skyline and was a clear indication that we were not the first foreigners to have set foot in Vang Vien.

‘Tubing’ the most prized pass time in Vang Vien, consists of drifting down a fairly tame river which lays surrounded by stunning Laotian countryside and making stops at  bars placed alongside the river. In the past few years ‘Tubing’ has become relatively infamous in south-east Asia, with sources stating up to one tourist dies a month whilst on the river. Clutching firmly onto our rented tubes we plodded fearlessly towards the first station to see what all the fuss was about.

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Instantaneously we were bombarded with a party atmosphere, although exciting it was fairly confusing given the time of day. The short red skinned bar representative hopped about the place beaming with excitement, we grabbed a beer each whilst glancing at each other nervously. A lively bar in the heat at 2pm felt more than a little peculiar. Feeling slightly intimidated by the overly enthusiastic bar rep we allowed little time to be spared before escaping to the nearby lake.

Crisp and refreshing, the water enveloped all the folds in our skin. Above us there was nothing but sky and more jaw dropping examples of the serene mountainous scenery Laos had to offer. Perching back and peering upwards to the clouds as the tranquil river manoeuvred us downstream was such a memorable moment from the trip. You feel like a kid again, but this time there’s no pre-assembled plastic tunnel in a water-park to ride your tube down, instead you have the whole untouched outdoors literally on your fingertips. In the middle of this animated picture frame floating over a pebble floored, surrounded by peeking cliffs and no one else to be seen for a mile or so, I felt oddly at ease even though at the same time I was vulnerable to my surroundings.
IMG_9918Interspersed cliffs continued to cast their shadows onto us while we progressed further into the river and my brief but beautiful moment of blissful isolation was over sooner than expected. Greeted by the faint murmurings of Miley Cyrus we arrived at bar number two! Here we finally decided to stop being such killjoys and up our game a little. We became friends with a German couple and ordered a few drinks. I shot back a local Lao whisky followed by a few beers. This bar definitely had a better atmosphere than the previous one, there was a volleyball court and plenty of space to sit back and bask in the sun.

Two more bars followed, here the atmosphere was a little lacklustre and the only highlight to report was watching an old bearded man dance around to no music with this strange giggling girl latched onto him. Even further downstream from the bars, it felt like we had escaped the backpacker party scene and were free to explore at our own pace. Unfortunately the thunderstorm which approached us from behind sadly had other ideas. We ended up scurrying out of the river and hiring a ridiculously overpriced tuk tuk to get back to the town and towel off the damp rain whilst eating warm bowls of rice and water spinach.
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To reach the blue lagoon (pictured above) we rented out scooters and navigated our way through even more exotic farmland. This place was really special, the lagoon itself is beautiful but what made this day so significant to us was the atmosphere surrounding the little blue pool. Local families and visitors from every corner of the globe sat together laughing at the fools (including us) who flung themselves from the trees into the water.

The water was freezing but despite this taking regular dips quickly became very addictive. Sat laughing and people-watching we made friends with a Colombian couple and a Vietnamese guy who shared our good mood, we ended up chatting for a good while about the area and our home countries. Occasionally in-between we’d spur each other on to jump from the highest tree branch we could find into the water. The leaf obstructed view down at the chilly water would have been enough to make a Lion’s heart rate rise. Although reluctantly, I did end up making the plunge and despite pains all over my body, the adrenaline was a great kick and I was silly with laughter for the rest of the day.

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Luang Prabang

Sipping on our Mango shakes at the bean bag filled bars along the main strip, the time for us to journey to our final destination of the trip rapidly approached. Squeezing in beside a strangely over affectionate middle-aged Russian couple and a group of late 20 somethings we managed to slot into a comfortable-ish position with our bags piled onto our laps. I can easily say that the ride that followed was the most visually breath-taking drive I have ever experienced. Separated from us only by a thin sheet of glass, lush hills of numerous shades of green seamlessly blended into one another. Clouds fearlessly scraped the peaks of the mountains that overshadowed our feeble path shared with us only by the locals.

The unmapped villages we passed were full of souls going about their daily business, cleaning themselves, moving livestock, fixing roofs and children playing games. What an escape this was from the confinement of mindlessly rewriting notes for the past four months in the medicine library. These people were alive, surviving amongst this fairytale backdrop. I was fully aware of the perspective that these people living in this environment may feel restricted and face difficulty in meeting their basic needs but aside from that there was something very enchanting about witnessing these communities survive together in small settlements from behind my window. I mentioned to Kate if I ever end up passing my driving test I would love to come back and revisit the places we passed on that drive.     IMG_0046

If I also ever happen to live in Singapore again, and by some magical occurrence I stumble into a lot of money, I would buy my holiday home in Luang Prabang. The UNESCO world heritage city is a handsome oasis of peace which made a welcome change from all the fast paced chaotic urban environments we had seen throughout our travels. Everyone seems so laid back in Luang Prabang, the atmosphere is reminiscent of a sleepy beach town, although there’s no sea nearby for miles. We found ourselves joyful to roam random streets looking at French influenced buildings and enjoyed gift shopping in the glowing night market filled with local crafts. Even when making your way past market stalls it was impossible to feel any pressure to buy things. It was brilliant!

Late in the afternoon of that day me and Kate embarked uphill to get a good view of the sunset, from our hostel it was hard to miss Mount Phousi (Photo above). Locating a rather lonesome staircase we began our ascent, half way up is where we encountered a young novice who was attending school at the nearby temple (Photo at top of post). He approached us requesting if we could assist him by allowing him to practice his English, considering he had only been learning the language for a few months we were really impressed at how well he could communicate to us. After asking him a few questions about his home and how life was at the temple we ended up getting a surprise tour of where he prayed. We were really lucky to have found him along our way and he was so kind to us, and learning a little about the life of a novice was a really nice addition to our evening, especially after all of those stairs.     IMG_0110

Considering how little time it took to get to the peak it offered some graciously beautiful views of the surrounding hills and buildings. When we visited, the site was a bit crowded. I feel a lot of people would be off-put by this but I found it to be a great spot for people watching and for the first time I didn’t mind the crowds that much. The sun elegantly descended behind the peaks of the distant mountains while it’s light was dimly illuminated the reflections of the Mekong river below.

The Kuang Si waterfalls are the major natural attraction in the north of Laos. We had such a good time at the Blue Lagoon but if we had visited it after the Kuang Si waterfalls I’m certain we would have found it underwhelming. These waterfalls seem as if they are a fragment of heaven which escaped from the skies and landed amidst some of Earth’s most beautiful greenery. Thankfully there was no need to pinch myself in disbelief as there were plenty of freshwater fish swimming alongside us to do that for me. The lagoons dotted underneath the main falls are nature’s answer to man’s dreams of infinity pools. We wasted the whole day blissfully floating in the tranquil waters under the shade of the vibrant surrounding foliage. It was the best possible way to end this chapter of our adventures in South-east Asia.

Tips:

  • If looking for elephant rides in Luang Prabang, we really recommend you go to the Elephant sanctuary, it’s pricier than the other options but the elephants get treated so much better
  • Visit the Blue Lagoon before you make your way to Kuang Si Waterfalls
  • If you’re curious have a chat with the monks and novices, in most cases they’re really friendly and you’ll most likely learn something new

Favourite things to do:

  • Blue Lagoon
  • Tubing
  • Bars showing friends on endless repeat
  • Luang Prabang town
  • Visit the surrounding countryside to catch a glimpse of wild elephants
  • Night Market of Luang Prabang
  • Elephants at sanctuary
  • Kuang Si waterfalls
  • Mount Phousi for sunset
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E: Lost amongst a thousand islands – Laos

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To our surprise we discovered that buses from Bangkok to Pakse were quite a rarity. After tedious negotiations with various local travel agencies we succeeded in securing two seats on a local bus. Our exit point, Mo Chit is by far the largest bus terminal in Bangkok, and as we descended from our tuk-tuk we found ourselves surrounded by swarms of people. For the first time in Thailand we were even subject to a few glances from the locals as we walked past. The atmosphere was exciting, the air was thick and humid, the sky outside was a dark navy and although weary, our eyes were veiled with the glimmering reflections of the fridge lights in the surrounding kiosks.

Settling down at a food court somewhat reminiscent of a Singaporean hawker centre, we observed numerous interesting characters. Two women frantically discussed various make-up brands, a solo traveller sat a few benches in front of us discretely gazed at his smartphone and during my navigation to the restroom my attention was diverted by a women sat in a phone stall who proceeded to shriek as I walked past, hyperventilating in excitement. Although flattered as I was, I remained a little uncertain on what to do so I swiftly returned to the safety of our table.
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Finally commencing the journey to Pakse, I was reminded of the certain lustre that comes with being hidden behind a moving window at night. The direction of your passage withdrawn from your control, but inside you’re left free to gaze outs at the different individuals wandering random streets you’ll likely never pass again.The picture outside illuminated by the odd flickering street lamp portraying a constantly evolving cityscape as you progress towards your destination. It’s undoubtedly romantic.

Kate on the other hand almost instantly was engulfed by her exhaustion from the busy day and was fast asleep next to me with her mouth open. I’m not too sure how pleased she’d feel if I shared the photographs. Upon awakening after the Thai-Lao border crossing, the scenery outside was no longer composed of concrete highways and people scurrying like rats under the moon. We were in the countryside, exceptionally beautiful countryside. Paddy fields lined the roads with cattle carelessly roaming freely between them. The coach crossed a grand metal bridge over the Mekong to Pakse, one of the larger towns in the south of Laos. From here we boarded an exhaustingly sweaty local bus crammed full of people in thirty-seven degree heat followed by a small wooden boat to reach the Mekong river island of Don Det (Part of the 4,000 islands).

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Upon our arrival that evening we were depleted of energy and eager to get some proper sleep, we managed to fit in a short walk in the nearby countryside, dinner with some German girls we met aboard the bus and a night-time dip in the Mekong. Our undersized cabin was beautiful despite the rough edges and recurring evening invasions by river bugs who flocked in their thousands to ensure our light had company. Our front porch possessed a view of the Mekong and some hammocks suitable for helping to appreciate the view.  A good few hours were wasted here writing post cards and listening to music while the water passed by us.

As the sun rose that next day, we waded out into the countryside in search for breakfast. Approaching a humble looking cabin we hopped inside, ordering some fried eggs and tomato coupled with some baguettes. Similar to the Vietnamese the Lao people accepted bread into their culinary culture during their time as part of the French colony. This was undoubtedly the best breakfast we had during all of our travels, cooked in plenty of oil it was a brilliant start to the day.

IMG_9616Our chosen partners in our expedition for the remainder of the day were some rental bikes picked up at a local shop. Our tyres rotated endlessly onto the uneven dirt track as the heat of the sun pierced our skin, only comforted by the cool breeze created by the vast open space. Herds of cattle and water buffalo became recurring obstacles in our path. Ancient Palms and modest village shacks lay scattered across the horizon in the watch of the ground and sky, which intermingled via the reflections created by the flooded fields.

Once emerged from the countryside and reunited with the banks of the mighty Mekong river, we chartered a small wooden vessel to reach the Cambodia – Lao border in search of the rare freshwater irrawaddy dolphins. The irrawady dolphins are few in numbers and were difficult to spot, the main give-away of their location being the magnificent sound made through their blow-holes when rising up for air. Sighting the dolphins peacefully floating downstream during the mid-day heat was one of my favourite moments from all of my travels so far, especially considering how rushed and full on our days seemed to be, it was pleasant feeling calm and content as our boat softly drifted around them in the peace of the open water.

Conservation of these animals has only recently been brought to the attention of the locals and you can read more about the efforts being made here

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All this peace and natural beauty led me to develop quite an appetite, reluctantly we pushed onto our pedals for a little while longer until some tables and chairs became visible between the trees. We pulled up and parked our bikes beside what looked like someone’s kitchen. The place was empty, a local woman sat patiently weaving a fishing net saw us from afar and greeted us, her children played blissfully around her, play fighting with each other and their pet dogs. We lounged as if dead on the plastic chairs, her husband emerged from the kitchen and greeted us whilst handing us some menus. It was low season and we were probably their only customers the whole day, this made most of the food in the 4,000 islands take a while to be prepared, we ordered the local speciality of fish larp served traditionally with sticky rice and raw vegetables.

After replenishing our reserves I attempted to make conversation with the man, we exchanged a good number of smiles whilst I hopelessly experimented pronouncing various Lao phrases and he would reply using his hands and the odd word of English he spoke. On the whole we didn’t fare too badly, he managed to inform us the fish we had eaten was caught from the river nearby and pointed to the field where our rice was grown. After me asking about his family he later he introduced us to them. He mentioned different westerners who had come to his restaurant before us, showing us pictures photographers had taken of his wife in the past.

I was successful in asking him when tourists first started coming, he recalled his first encounter with a western tourist was from as recent as ten years ago. The family was so kind to us and were very patient whilst we asked them question after question, we were sad to leave them but the sun drew closer to the horizon and the journey back to Don Det would be difficult at night due to a lack of street lights.

IMG_0219Our final sight was the belittlingly named ‘small’ waterfalls. The sun peeked at us beyond the stones and the hills as we followed the waterfalls down to the so-called beach. Here I witnessed the most memorable sunset of my life so far. I desperately attempted to capture the magic of the moment through my lens yet failed to be entirely successful. The beauty of the moment lay within the distinctly coloured layers of the scenery. The sand lay together within the creases of the weathered limestone, both of them leading into the river overlooked upon by the hills and forests in the distance. However long we stayed and gazed at the landscape, it was simply impossible to tire of the view.

My experience in the 4,000 islands of the Mekong in Laos was truly unforgettable, I would enjoy saying one day I would return, but my time there has left me with such special untainted memories I cannot help but fear of it developing and changing in any way. I can only hope future visitors will be respectful of the natural beauty and the lifestyle of the people who live there.

Tips:

  • Bring a Lao phrasebook, the local people are very friendly and up for some conversation
  • The ‘small’ waterfalls are much more beautiful when seen in the evening near sunset (less people)
  • Take your time while cycling, the scenes in the countryside changes throughout the day
  • Bikes can be rented really easily from almost any shop in Don Det

Favourite things to do:

  • Cycle through the countryside
  • See the ‘Small’ and ‘Big’ waterfalls
  • Watch sunset at the ‘Beach’ located by the small waterfalls
  • Eat some locally sourced produce
  • See the river dolphins
  • Swim in the Mekong River at night (free)
  • Watch the wild water buffalo bathe  (free)

Feature: StreetPeek Singapore

Fashion blogs can be undeniably dull on many occasions, it’s been a few years now that fashion blogging and street photography have taken the internet by storm. Due to the sheer amount of all this similar content, it can be easy to lose interest in this type of work.

Street fashion photography highlights the everyday person from around the globe’s influence to trends and what retailers want to sell us. A good photographer can produce fascinating exhibitions of numerous people’s ways of self-expression.

My good friend turned Instagram celebrity John Tan doesn’t have the word mediocre in his vocabulary. He is talented enough to produce instantly iconic photographs of impeccably stylish people he encounters on the streets of Singapore. His work has been featured in various exhibitions and websites including internet giant Buzzfeed.

His blog ‘Streetpeek’ hasn’t been updated in a while partially due to Asian study problems but his Instgram feed is alive and kicking. His work is definitely a cut above the rest and I would really recommend checking it out. While the world may know him as a savvy lens genius, I have a collection of beautiful but perhaps, slightly less glamorous memories with him. *Distressed animal noise*

Photographs not by me, all photographs in this post taken by John Tan 

E: Paddy Fields and the Indigo People of Sapa, Vietnam

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Of the places I visited during the winter break one of the most touching locations I had the pleasure of witnessing was the Sapa district in northern Vietnam. Although weather wise the coldest of all my destinations, I was pleasantly warmed by the scenes throughout Sapa town and the surrounding villages.

People here are poor, and although I have witnessed poverty before I’d never seen people living off log fires and mainly consuming food they’d produced themselves. Various ethnic minorities inhabit the area including the Black Hmong, Dao and Phu Lo people. Many of these speak languages other than Vietnamese. The changes brought by tourism are noticeable, but no so prominent to ruin the area’s authenticity. Many families have converted from farming to selling souvenirs with examples including, indigo scarves and various carved stone objects. It was refreshing to see the majority of what was being sold out of houses and on the street, were products produced by the people themselves.

Exceedingly obvious is the ethnic minorities cheekily ripping tourists off, our guide gave us an indication of what we should be paying. Unfortunately I found it difficult to stop the woman selling me an indigo scarf, purchased as a gift, from overcharging me by two pounds while she was sat smiling bleakly underneath a tin roof, without heating in the middle of winter. I didn’t have it in me to refuse, especially when I thought about how little two pounds is to me, compared to what this woman could use it for.

If you plan to visit be wary not to buy from the local village kids, as although they’ll give you cheaper prices than the adults, this encourages them to skip school and continue attempting to make money from western tourists doing no good for their future. Besides any money lost whilst buying gifts I definitely made back on the food, where else can you get 73p beer? Apart from the eerily lit church located centrally in Sapa town it seems due to the French’s presence in Vietnam they left some cultural characteristics such as aspects of religion behind, our guide told us that many of the villagers refused to use contraception as they were supposedly catholic, yet still maintained some Buddhist beliefs.

Breathtaking scenery in the nearby mountains means the majority of our trip was hiking and admiring the views, with the occasional stop at some of the local villagers’ homes where our guide allowed us to ask questions, try some local tobacco and test our skill of using various farming utensils. I’d like to return to Sapa, 2 days wasn’t enough. If returning I would visit again in September during the harvest season, where apparently all the rice fields evolve into a glowing gradient of yellow. The trip ended with a farewell to our guide and boarding the night train (which one day I’m sure will become my permanent type of accommodation) back to Vietnam’s capital Hanoi.

 

E: Streets of Hanoi

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Hanoi is an undeniably beautiful city. Some people may fail to see that initially due to the noise, pollution and litter but having come face to face with those issues everyday at home meant those factors were easily to looked over.

Let me explain why Hanoi is such a great city, firstly and most importantly, crossing the street has never been more fun or dangerous anywhere else in the world. You don’t wait or follow instructions from crossing lights to cross a street in Hanoi, even looking isn’t exactly essential. Just start walking and the oncoming vehicles as if by some magic force, manoeuvre around you. Leaving you feeling a little like Moses.

Another of my favourite aspects of Hanoi is just how much time the locals spend on the street, during walks it wasn’t uncommon to pass people going about their daily business such as cooking, eating and washing themselves on the streets. It’s genuinley nice to see people spending time outdoors even if it’s not too far away from their homes. Get used to the little stools around town as they are your best and only friend when it comes to sitting down in Vietnam and are a standard features of most of the best restaurants for local street-food.

It was interesting to visit the Hoi Chi Min Mausoleum, (for those of you who don’t know what that is like me initially, it’s where the body of Hoi Chi Min (An important Vietnamese political figure) has been preserved and is stored in a glass chamber.) Another interesting cultural thing to see was the planes on display captured from the Americans by the Vietnamese. The number of planes and way they have been arranged indicated the persistence and strength of the people during the vietnam war.

The cafe culture and warm bustling streets make Hanoi one of my favourite places so far. Currently I think it has a tenancy of being overlooked due to the mass tourism funnelled into the bigger city located to the south (Hoi Chi Min City) yet I think in the future, with the right sort of growth, it could attract a lot of attention as a more ‘trendy’ type of destination, it brings so much of the Vietnamese people’s culture to surface and the city feels ‘lived in’ and ‘real’. I have no doubts I’ll be returning to Hanoi relatively soon.

Thanks again to my brilliant pen pals for guiding us almost everywhere! (Minh and Khanh)

 

E: Just got back from HK!

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Saying the last few weeks have consisted of regular ups and downs wouldn’t quite cover it. The last few weeks have been a heavy, energy depleting and demanding test of who I think I am a person and more spiritual bullshit continued…  within this recent time period I have undergone the hardest examination weeks of my life, (thanks again to Singapore’s education system for the joy that was), witnessed some of the most beautiful landscapes I will ever have the privilege of seeing and shamelessly devoured platefuls of dirt cheap, heavenly, world class foods.

Does the stress I endured during university time equal the enjoyment from travelling afterwards? I think I can just fold that page corner and add it to my binder of all of life’s complications that I cannot, will not and will never be able to solve. Hopefully however in the near future, just like what my hopeless memory has retained of my first year of studying in York, my mind will be vacant of everything but the pictures left behind and the simply the best memories. The only problem being as time stands is, I’m doubtful as to whether I can handle another semester in this strange bubble of a campus.

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What to say now about Hong Kong? The alpha+ city which first introduced the world to the concept of east meets west? The city is a loud, vertical, Cantonese speaking mess stuck in the 80’s, that makes it a rather fun mess too. The old housing blocks have aged beautifully into these captivating towers of unevenly shaded decaying paint jobs.

The contrast between the clean business towers and the slums, homes of everyday ‘rats’ caught in this city race cannot be see in any more clarity in the places I’ve been than in Hong Kong. The bustling night markets live up to everything they appear to be in photos and videos I witnessed as a child and the skyline with its gorgeous mountainous backdrop deserves every number 1 position it continues to earn in numerous rankings within prestigious publications.

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For a Londoner who now lives in Singapore unfortunately there isn’t much new to experience as Hong Kong. To me HK feels like a mashup of  Paris, London, New York and Singapore. Every corner I turned I couldn’t escape the Chanel, Marks and Sparks, Louis Vuitton, Pret a Manger, Apple Store, McDonalds, Starbucks and I could go on. So although not an en-lighting new place for me a pleasant weekend of interesting remotely familiar sights instead. If you’ve never been to the cities listed above Hong Kong is a great place to explore, for me, for now however the weekend was enough. Met up with some friends while I was there and really enjoyed some company and good food, Hong Kong has left me with little questions about the space unfortunately. If I ever visit again I’ll try to look at the place with a fresh pair of eyes.

Keep your eyes peeled on this space, I have a ridiculous amount of posting to catch up on. I’ll schedule the posts  for the next few weeks, sorry I haven’t been posting directly which would probably have been the best thing to do but as you can probably imagine I’ve been a bit caught up in living it haha! New posts soon!
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IMG_2438Weather was miserable the whole time I was there!
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IMG_2331Rooftops

IMG_2413The Nunnery and gardens, my favourite place in HK

IMG_2398The view from the front door of my hostel building

IMG_2443Kasper, Gustav, Sharon, Joacim and Me. I will never forget the street karaoke in the rain!

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E: Tiramisu Hero – Singapore

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Tiramisu Hero is a small place a little out of the way near the Farrer Road and Little India area. Had a good night out with friends and plenty of good food, the only thing missing was a couple of £1 Jaeger bombs here and there but I think I can tolerate that. Passers by should definitely try out the lava cake and get a photograph with the giant cat head (Just go). Walls are illustrated with quirky cats and the toilet mirror even has a moustache on it ready for whole load of instagram pictures.
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