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

E: Island Hopping around Railay Beach

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After a speedily eaten Pad Thai we reluctantly boarded our boat to leave the Phi Phi’s. Our next point of call was Railay Beach, a coastal resort in close proximity to Krabi town. Our initial plan incorporated a short stay in Krabi town, but after hearing from multiple sources that Krabi was in fact a shipping town we decided follow up Kate’s friends recommendation that Railay was her favourite place in Thailand.

The Railay beach area is made up of three stretches of coast, one pristine white sand beach tucked away by limestone cliffs (above, Phra Nang Beach), another perfectly nice beach lined with hotels (West Railay) and one small stretch of coast comprised of rocks and concrete promenade (East Railay Beach). Upon arrival we set eyes on the latter during low tide where all the rocks and mud was visible and I turned to Kate, “You made us leave paradise for this!?”

The other two coasts of Railay Beach however are the perfect place to set your worries aside and relax. The only way to get in or out is by boat and transport can be arranged at various travel agencies dotted along the sea front. Prices for drinks and food at most of the restaurants are noticeably a lot higher than the rest of the places we visited in Thailand. I’d recommend sticking to the east coast for more reasonably priced dining options. My favourite activity of Railay Beach aside from the actual shore was hiking to an enchanting viewpoint and a gorgeous green lagoon tucked away behind some forest.

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The hike entrance is located between Railay east beach and Phra Nang Beach is quite challenging and for the majority of it you find yourself climbing vertically holding on to patches of red mud and tree trunks on your way up. The distinctive red mud in Railay later proved that it was ridiculously hard to remove from clothes, since that day I have still not managed to remove a few marks on my swimming trunks. They make nice if not slightly odd reminder of our time in Railay.

At the viewpoint we met a very friendly Austrian couple where we discussed the Bangkok protests, holidays and Austria’s recent victory in Eurovision. Regrettably although getting close, we struggled with the downhill climb to reach the lagoon. It was difficult to see how we would get back up once down, a rock climbing instructor later comforted us by letting us know she didn’t get to the bottom the first time she attempted the hike either.

Finishing the hike and turning to the opposite direction of the route we came, we exited from under the cliffs and found ourselves shrouded in a large group of Asian tourists, walking a little further along away from the cliffs you discover the full beauty of Phra Nang Beach, often voted as one of the top 10 beaches in the world. It’s so easy to see why. Beyond the soft chalky sands and turquoise waters the views consisted of limestone islets laced in greenery, distant cliffs and longboats scurrying across the sea.

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Some longboats even offer fresh juice and snacks, what more could you ask for in paradise? The crowds in area  weren’t too plentiful either, probably due to the limited options for reaching the peninsula. We spent the majority of the day going for dips in the water under the isolated limestone islet and listening to music whilst drifting in and out of sleep under the shade of the local flora. It was a truly brilliant day rounded off with some delicious green curry, morning glory (the vegetable) and ridiculously overpriced mango sticky rice.

Following a visit to the enchantingly noisy bats located in Diamond Cave, we opted for a small island hopping boat tour to Chicken island, Poda island and Tup island as a way of keeping us busy for the second day. The trip provided numerous opportunities for some brilliant snorkelling where we witnessed all sorts of coral and an interesting array of tropical fish. We had booked this through the restaurant which doubled as a travel agency that we had eaten breakfast at.

All the staff on the boat were extremely friendly and welcoming, seeming very proud of the place where they call home.  As the sun set over the peninsula of Railay we sat down on the sand and devoured a delicious Thai barbecue. Just before delivering us back home the boat tour ended with a visit to see some photosynthetic plankton which lit up when disturbed by movement underwater.

The time to depart from Railay arrived the next day, once again very reluctantly we arranged our transport to Bangkok before heading back to our favourite beach for a final few hours of bliss. It was there we accidentally encountered our friend from NUS Jan! In disbelief I sighted him on Phra Nang Beach and ran over to him. Both of us where pretty shocked, I mean what were the chances of us accidentally running into each other on a coast in Thailand? He decided to join us for the next leg of our journey, to the mighty Bangkok!

Railay beach was indeed one of the most special parts of our journey.

Favourite things to see/do:

  • Hike to Viewpoint/Lagoon (free)
  • Phra Nang Beach (free)
  • Four Islands boat trip
  • Diamond Cave to see the bats
  • Fluorescent Plankton

Tips:

  • East coast Railay is much cheaper for both food and accommodation
  • It might be advisable to take some climbing gear for the descent to the Lagoon
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