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)

E: Nikoklia Village Retreat – Cyprus

IMG_1149It’s good to go back to your roots every now and then. That’s what I’ve been doing for the past 19 years of my life. Every summer I’ve been spoilt rotten by being granted the privilege to escape the murky English summer and return to a place where I feel very much at home. I have a huge adoration for my little island homeland in the Mediterranean sea and that’s why often when discussing Cyprus I can be very critical about the mentality of some of the locals, the government and the ignorant tourists who blissfully ignore the 1974 invasion in exchange for a cheap illegal holiday home in the north of the island. It’s safe to say my little island has had more than its fair share of problems and issues even prior to gaining it’s independence.

Yet if you get the chance to take some time out and are willing enough to do a little exploration, you’ll understand why so many people, past and present hold a fond place in their hearts for my little island. Somewhere beyond the financial crisis, swarms of Brits flocking to Ayia Napa and the often tasteless new architecture, there lies an untainted charming sun bronzed landscape painted with golden hills covered by olive trees and ancient relics waiting to be discovered.

IMG_1234On this particular occasion I was not alone with my extended family. I was accompanied by my girlfriend who had no prior experience of a proper beach holiday. This I obviously had to correct. For two nights however I thought it would be nice to get away from the hustle of my beloved Limassol and give Emma a small peek at the more old fashioned Cypriot way of life. When browsing for accommodation I stumbled across various alluring hillside apartments and classical hotels. The typical beach-front hotels in Cyprus were too expensive for us to afford and knowing most of them I didn’t particularly feel the majority offered good value for money.

My father then forwarded me a link of an attractive old building conversion into an inn. The  price was very reasonable (roughly 50€ a night including breakfast) and they still had availability so we went ahead and booked it. Nikoklia Village is a tiny village and I had not previous knowledge about the area it was located. My grandpa proudly recollected some old memories telling us he used to know of two policemen he worked with from Nikoklia and how there was an abandoned Turkish village nearby. Without much idea of what to expect we set off just as the sun started to dim and in about 40 minutes we arrived at our location, the Vasilias Nikoklis Inn.

IMG_0949First impressions were good, the staff were friendly and the Inn was furnished in Cypriot antique furniture. The conversion of the building has been done very tastefully and we were lucky to have a beautiful balcony overlooking the countryside. A few minutes after arrival we embarked on a small wander around the village itself. The village is definitely on the smaller side, people were very friendly and greeted you as you made your way down the street. A beautiful little church which broadcasts the service to the village via speaker phone can be found near the bottom of the village. Various abandoned buildings are also dotted in the nearby countryside. Unfortunately we didn’t have time to make it to the abandoned Turkish village just north of Nikoklia, we did however manage to catch a glimpse of it from afar and it looked very eerie. I’m sure it would make a brilliant subject to photograph, hopefully I’ll return another year to have a go at capturing the scene.

In terms of food the village doesn’t offer many options and we had all our meals at the Inn. Food is available from the tavern which opens in the evenings, the menu is full of traditional dishes and the prices are quite reasonable too. I would really recommend the ‘Mixed Grill’ option which consisted of some lamb, sheftalia (a type of sausage), chicken and pork souvlaki served alongside local fried potatoes, all the meat was cooked to perfection and currently writing about it is waking up my appetite.

IMG_1085Aside from the village you can also get some relaxation done by the pool and there’s also a rather tiring walk to the nearby dam. The walk is ok at best, I recommend heading there much later in the day as even departing at six, the weather was too hot to make the walk very enjoyable. Em spent a lot of time reading and I enjoyed a lot of sleeping under the shade of the Inn’s greenery. We had a really restful time and the inn sets a prime example of how alternative types of tourism can be very successful. I’m not saying spend all your time within a small village but as you can see from the photographs it can be really rewarding to do a bit of research and incorporate a village stay into your time in Cyprus. Unfortunately due to work I had to cut my ‘home time’ short this year but I’m sure I’ll be back again before I know it. (After all that abandoned village needs photographing!)

Favourite things to do/see :

  • Explore the nearby countryside
  • Walk through the village
  • Hike to the dam (Probably better during the winter months)

E: Jaw Dropping Sri Lanka

IMG_7001On my trip over to the other side of the world where I optionally decided to banish myself to for a year, I got the option to get a stop over at a country along the way. My Dad suggested Sri Lanka and this suggestion I liked. I hadn’t heard much on Sri Lanka apart from the stories on the civil war and the odd picture of a beautiful palm forest in the travel brochures.

Since I was going to be there it made sense to get off and see the place. From the moment the plane started descending I could tell Sri Lanka was a beautiful country. From the window I could see dense forest, endless palms and beautiful rivers embedded within the countryside. Being my first time in a Tropical climate my mouth felt like it had literally fallen to the floor and would not close. It was astonishingly beautiful.

Due to the short nature of the stay (16 hours to be exact) there wasn’t many options on where to go. So we went to the closest place of notable interest to the airport, which was the capital ‘Colombo’. Now initially the capital didn’t strike me as the place to be as from what I had just previewed in the plane I wanted to be out in the countryside. The taxi drive to the city proved to me there was a lot to see cultural wise in the capital. (My mouth had still not closed at this point).

The thing about Colombo is, although it may function like a city it feels a lot more like a town. The people on the streets don’t seem like city folk, they appeared much more practical. I liked the vibes from the people in Sri Lanka. The people did seem very friendly, obviously my time there was short but generally walking around I felt quite safe.

What I was surprised was that the food was very good. Some things were very spicy, but others were a lot milder than expected. Even the ‘sri lankan’ food provided by sri lankan airlines was really tasty. What we’re really missing out on in the UK is all these Indian influenced breads they have available. The short trip has definitely been enough to entice me to come back one day. My next stop though would definitely be the countryside.

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The building above is a gift from China, that’s all I’ll say
IMG_6908 IMG_6960 IMG_7022Nice and drenched by the Ocean mist
IMG_6821IMG_6835It’s crazy the Orchids just grow on the trees
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S: So We Freeze

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A few years ago I went to a friend’s baptism. The ‘pastor’ made a variety of comments I didn’t approve of. One of which was “We must have control over our emotions.” I thought to myself surely a person is at their peak when their emotions overwhelm and inspire them. You only understand when looking back across past experiences why you change and harden as a person. You ‘freeze’ to avoid reliving anything close to those negative experiences. Yet when those emotions somehow find you even for a second, it strikes you throughout, damages your trail of thoughts, claims your breath and tugs on your insides.

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Not to forget it’s important not to freeze all emotion. I know I have a tendency to over freeze my emotions. So I’m guessing a little rein on your emotions must be a good thing for a relatively stable set of mind.

That concludes another segment of ‘deep’ by yours truly, now I hope you enjoy the photographs of a beautifully frosty morning. I took these while still under the influence of alcohol and surprisingly enough I think I’m going to drink more often before taking photographs. It definitely helped me ignore the strange looks by passers by I was getting~

P.S. I hope you are all enjoying the end of the world

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Village Life part 2

No clue what this village is called, apparently my great grandfather was born in one of the small houses I visited. Was very quiet and calm. Can imagine it must be beautiful in the spring and winter. The drive there was magical, true cypriot hilly countryside. Next time will have to explore the surrounding area.  

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