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: Emerald Glass Waters – Switzerland

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Managing to find time for one final excursion before the start of term, I held tight to my print-at-home boarding passes as I waited in the Luton airport departure zone. My chin rested on a soon to be confiscated bottle of water as I glanced intermittently up to the departures board. The last time I’d seen Alex was only a few weeks ago when she was visiting London. Almost days after I’d waved goodbye to her at Piccadilly tube station I had fixed my sights on an affordable £70 return flight to Zürich. Being the shameless nature freak I am, I sat bright-eyed and feverish at the prospect of experiencing the Swiss countryside which had been plastered and boasted about on chocolate wrappers I’d witnessed countless times growing up.

My beloved friend Alex is a Swiss humanoid of Chinese descent currently studying at the University of Zürich. We met last year in Singapore and after a few iced coffees and some waffles we decided each other was alright. We’ve experienced a lot of good times together including reaching Singapore’s laughable summit and voyaging to the idyllic Pacific Island of Pulau Tioman, this trip would be a great excuse to add to the list of memories. The only problems about our reunification would be a) that I would be reminded of the fact Alex, a non native speaker talks better English than me and b) I would need to readjust to keep up with the amount of irony in our conversations.IMG_2238

My easyjet flight was 20 minutes delayed so I hurried my way through baggage collection and border control (where I encountered a man who did not seem to like my surname) to be greeted by the familiar face I was here to see!  Within roughly 2 hours from being on UK soil I was sat in Alex’s sophisticated student kitchen devouring her pasta and juice whilst she lectured me on all the locations she wanted to go this week. (I’m sorry I wasn’t paying much attention, the pasta was really good). As the sun hid behind the horizon we met up with one of Alex’s friends who’d accompanied her to London and had a wander around central Zurich at night. From the bar at the Urania Observatory we witnessed some superior views of the slumbering city.

Following an early awakening, we dashed onto numerous trains and buses until eventually we found ourselves smittenly gazing upon the sparkling green waters that rest in the Verzasca Valley. The scenery was breathtaking as the gentle river casually meandered between the colossal mountains smothered in greenery that surrounded it. Character filled settlements made cameos outside of the bus windows frequently during our journey, By far the most prominent of these man-made creations was the staggeringly elegant Catholic church with a stone front, which along with the scenic ‘Bridge of Leaps’ marks the starting point of the trail.

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The water here is truly impressive, your eyes are left free to explore the bottom of the riverbed with only the glimmering reflections of the sunlight acting as distractions. The stone that surrounded the river bed was also of interest, the distinct layers of rock are clearly visible and the indentations of the rock alongside of the river made for peculiar places to squeeze your body into.

Our hike led us to discover more hidden gems along the river bank, the majority of our time was spent wandering in the woods that rested at the foot of the valley, occasionally stumbling into a waterfall or two along the way. We made numerous attempts to submerge ourselves the water but shamefully none were of any success. The deepest I managed to get into the water was to my knees, which within 5 seconds the glacial water proceeded to cut off my circulation as I lost the feeling in both of my feet.

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Pitying ourselves at how disappointing our cold tolerance remained, we chose a small  flat river island made of polished marble like stone as our lunch spot. The glorious surroundings made for the most breathtaking backdrop I have ever had during lunch. A definite benefit of bringing a packed lunch instead of allowing a restaurant owner to pick your lunch spot. We consumed various pieces of Swiss bread, dried meats and grapes as we sat admiring the views on our conquered piece of land. After a few hours of repeating the formula of stopping every ten minutes to admire the beauty of the same majestic mountains from a slightly different angle, we reached a bridge leading us back to the other side of the bank where a bus awaited to take us to Bellinzona.

As usual I was heartbroken to be leaving this bewitching valley with its bright emerald waters and unusual stones. There was nothing too complex about the area to discuss, it was simply a place of consistent natural beauty showcasing merely a sample great outdoor space that remain in Switzerland. Stepping out of the bus onto the attractive streets of Italian speaking Swiss town of ‘Bellinzona’ helped to comfort me slightly. The town proved to be a sophisticated little metropolis laying discreetly in the shadows of grand stone castles which peered down at the town from their position high above in the surrounding hills.

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The three castles of Bellinzona are impressive sights, all three are considered UNESCO world heritage sites and are easily reached by elevator. They offer an array of impressive views over the city, as well as the connecting castle walls are a treat to walk within. Grass has been laid between the walls making it appear as if it’s a green carpet, making the space ridiculously photogenic. The town offers plenty of cobbled streets, a healthy selection of stores to browse into and numerous eateries. As our legs ached, we were easily seduced by the prospect of a pizza cooked in a log burning oven. The pizza as predicted was delicious and I didn’t have a single shred of shame about the money I spent on it.

The Italian part of Switzerland had been good to us, welcomed by its beautiful scenery and bribed by the delicious food I could easily see this becoming a weekend favourite if I ever find myself living in Switzerland. It was a sleepy trip back to Zürich and unsurprisingly we were flat-out as soon as we hit the mattress. Well… at least Alex was. I had the beautiful melodies of her snoring to lull me to my dreams.
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Things that impressed me the most about Switzerland so far:

  • No ticket barriers
  • Double-decker trains
  • Tasty carrot juice
  • Ancient castles of Bellinzona
  • Crystal clear emerald waters of the Valle Verzasca

E: South Pacific

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Despite the unrealistic surroundings, another factor which amazed me on Pulau Tioman was how the colours shifted during different points in the day. Early evening was uniquely special. The sun peeking through the mountains left beautiful reflections across the coast. Rays of light danced behind the palms eventually finding themselves across the golden sand. The photos taken in those two days required little to no editing, Malaysia as a whole continues to be ridiculously photogenic.

We spent our time based in a small village surrounded by locals in little tin shacks. Our beach huts blended in perfectly to the rustic feel of the place. To my surprise not only were they air-conditioned the restaurants nearby even had Wi-Fi. We were in the middle of nowhere yet somehow there’s still a wireless hotspot. Is it really that hard to get off the grid in the 21st century?

Back in Singapore we’ve been facing groggy weather. Yesterday morning I woke up to the biggest thunderstorm I’d ever experienced. Was pretty exciting. Lessons are proving difficult and last years late nights stumbling around clubs have evolved into far duller late nights in the study area listening to Theme Park, Winehouse and Jessie Ware on repeat. Most of the photos of me were taken by Alex, so many thanks to her. Unfortunately she can’t return the thanks for the photos of her as she really can’t take a bad picture so no credit should be directed at me. Enjoy the photos and the last set of Tioman pictures should be up soon!

IMG_8955You getting this? IMG_8460 IMG_8633 IMG_8912Alex got so much swag I don’t know where she keeps it allIMG_8929IMG_8766One of my favourite shots from the trip
IMG_8406Swimming Buds
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