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 The direction of your passage withdrawn from your control, but inside you’re left free to gaze outs at the different individuals wandering random streets you’ll likely never pass again.The picture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)
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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

E: Cambodia, the real life temple run!

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Phnom Penh

Our journey in Cambodia spring bolted into action instantly upon arrival at Phnom Penh International Airport. After obtaining our visa and having our all of our fingerprints scanned and saved by the government, we hurried into a tuk tuk and within minutes were free to roam amongst the Khmer people. ‘Phnom Penh’ usually isn’t regarded as being the most interesting, beautiful or fascinating spot in the country, yet due to it’s capital status it tends to be much cheaper to fly into as opposed to Siam Reap. Upon setting foot into our first tuk tuk the first thing out driver did was warn us not to hold our phones out for photographs due to snatching theft, a great welcome.

The roads were somewhat reminiscent of Vietnam, crowded, messy and alive. The noise is always such a refreshment when visiting any town in south-east Asia that’s not Singapore. The locals on the street consistently seem to be happier in the poorer Asian countries. Unfortunately due to the lack of time, a quick walk and some lunch was all we could manage before proceeding to board our night bus.

The window frame beside me throughout the bus journey exhibited a soothing image of transition from city to countryside masked in the colours radiating from the sunset over the Mekong River. The underlying excitement of the atmosphere may have been slightly dampened by the Swedish girl two seats behind us violently throwing up. Thankfully she dozed off after a couple of hours had passed, allowing us to do the same once night fell. A few random stops later and allowing some questionable faces aboard our bus, we seemed to stop moving. Upon exiting the bus we were greeted with the information that we were apparently at Siam Reap, when all that was visible were some motor vehicles and a shabby building dimly lit by the street-lights.   After a rather unnecessary (and scammy) 10 minute drive to our hostel (The Mad Monkey) we checked in and got a good nights rest.

Siam Reap – Floating Villages and Angkor Watt

The following day we decided to let the anticipation of the temples build a little, so instead we opted to go see the nearby floating villages. It was an eye-opening day and a good thing to see but the whole thing seems like a bit of a scam. Firstly the government collects a huge amount of the money produced from selling the boat tickets to see the village and it doesn’t seem to benefit the local people at all. Secondly we got scammed into buying ‘rice for the orphanage’ only to find out later online that the rice we bought was simply shipped back to the store to fool more tourists. Everyone you speak to seems to be a volunteer or do gooder, but then it makes you think, why don’t they just give all the food they have in the store to the kids if it’s there?

Right around 4am the next day was when we woke to go catch a glimpse of the sunrise over Angkor Watt. Our next tuk tuk driver was named Mr.Roth (kruta.roth@yahoo.com) he was around twenty-two years old and definitely my favourite driver we had the pleasure of meeting from all of my trips. We met him the day before on a random street where we agreed on around 20 USD  for one day around the temples and that all seven of us (stingy students) would fit into one tuk tuk. As we all climbed into the back it was apparent that our combined weight was causing a bit of a strain on the tuk tuk and difficulty for Mr Roth driving. We made a quick stop to call for support which arrived in the form of Mr.Roth’s brother on a motorbike, two of us would take turns to ride on the motorbike. They were very kind as they didn’t charge us any extra for Mr.Roth’s brother to help out. I remember that morning quite clearly despite my brain being almost entirely non functional. Despite the head the air felt fresh and although the atmosphere seemed quiet at first, tuk tuks and cars would flash by intermittently all heading towards the same direction. Passing the outlines of buildings and trees carved by the moon to get to the legendary archaeological site was quite magical in itself. (Probably would have been even more magical if I didn’t have Lola and Philicia’s legs crammed into mine).

Upon finally arriving, in the dark Mr Roth pointed us towards the temple and we passed under silhouette after silhouette of ancient entry gates. The moat around the temples emitted a mesmerizing faint glow and whispers of the excited tourists occupied your ears . After fleeing from a man dressed in a starbucks T-shirt begging us to have breakfast at his stall we squeezed into place alongside numerous other Brits, Germans and Americans and lingered. We waited for a good half hour or so before we began to see the distinct figure of Angkor Watt. It was a beautiful moment, while bizarre to witness all the photographs being taken constantly by the tourists. We joked that if aliens were to study humans this would be a scene that would probably be used in a documentary on human behaviour. The sun rose and due to my stomach’s ability to override my brain for the majority of the daylight hours we gave in to breakfast served by the man in the starbucks shirt. All of the temples we got to see were incredible, especially since I had never laid eyes on anything like them.

Ta Prohm and Bayon were my two favourites of the larger temples. Unfortunately though the sad truth is that the mystical vibe is completely extinguished by the masses of tourists at these larger temples. I would recommend attempting to see them during early post sunrise hours when there is a good probability there will be less people. I’d definitely recommend the second larger temple route suggested by drivers for a second day of temple seeing as it takes you around the smaller temples which are equally as impressive in terms of detail. The key difference is they just feel so much more special due to the reduced crowds and you were pretty much free to adventure inside them at your own pace undisturbed. The main sunset spot was also a bit of a disappointment, again due to the mass tourists and I’d strongly advise finding your own spot for sunset, I imagine that the ‘Pre Rup’ temple would be a nice non crowded environment to see the sunset from. The people working in all of the restaurants and shop stalls at the temples were the friendliest I had met in Asia at this point, there was very little pressure to buy which felt quite nice and I was comfortable taking a look around. One of my favourite moments from the trip was sitting down for lunch with out tuk tuk drivers and attempting a bit of communication.

When the night falls on Siam Reap you can spend your time along Pub street and the market located right next to it, regrettably we ran out of time and energy to spend enough time here to write about it but the atmosphere seemed quite fun! (Much better than Phuket for example)

Sihanoukville and Koh Rong

One of my travel partners Kate, the most organised and efficient person I have ever met did some research previously on bus routes from Siam Reap to Sihanoukville. The majority of comments she found were horror stories on delays, stolen property and break downs and these were all related to the only bus company doing the route we wanted to undertake (Virak Buntham Bus Co). Collectively we agreed on getting tickets from our hostel instead of booking this ‘nightmare’ bus. As we exchanged our money for the tickets we opened the envelope to find that the tickets were from the same bus company. Keeping calm we reassured each other all would be fine and ultimately the road was not too bad. Apart from being in very close uncomfortable proximity to a sweaty Cambodian man for the duration of the trip we eventually arrived well. Be careful however as we had friends who took the same bus company the week after and there were stories of stolen phones and tablets from the front row passengers, it turns out we were simply lucky.

We enjoyed breakfast by the beach and took a small ferry over to Koh Rong which had been recommended to me by some Bulgarians back in Singapore. We stayed at the White Rose Guest House which was basic but filled with friendly western faces. We really enjoyed ourselves during breakfast there, completely disobeying our malaria pills instructions to avoid dairy and gorging on muesli smothered in fresh fruit and yoghurt. (Always follow the instructions provided on medication!). Howie left his glasses at the restaurant back in Sihanoukville meaning our group had to split up as him and Lola went back in an attempt to find them. The remainder of us began our hike up through a mountain/hill covered in dense tropical forest.

Usually when hearing about beaches in Asia, ‘Cambodia’ usually isn’t the first country that gets mentioned. After seeing the coast at Sihanoukville I wasn’t expecting anything special to appear past the dense foliage. Thankfully to my surprise as the sound of the waves came closer and gaps between the branches became larger we discovered the most superb five kilometres of the most beautiful pristine and untouched coastline that I had ever seen in my life. This beach was far better than the screen savers I gazed endlessly at as a child. Being there presented a task in itself, to actually process and believe the image in front of us. Even until now the memory seems to perfect to have been real. The water was so clear and glimmered bright turquoise. The best thing was, we only had to share it with roughly another thirty people!. Howie and Lola made it back from Sihanoukville in time for the most breathtaking sunset I’d witnessed in my life. It was confusing not being able to decide which direction was more beautiful to look to.

As the night fell we departed in pitch black on a hike through a patch of forest in an attempt to find a dark spot to observe luminescent plankton that we were told existed in waters nearby. This was a complete failure, firstly because all the way through I was terrified we would be attacked by snakes as we couldn’t see and being at the front of the line I would clearly get attacked first, and secondly because we didn’t know that we were required to swim in the plankton for it to fluoresce. It was fun nevertheless and we proceeded to eat at a small barbecue place which was a little overpriced and the food was slightly disappointing. Our time in Cambodia essentially came to a close with a very fun boozy night across the 4 bars on the beach and playing some drinking games with my beloved ‘herd’. As we came back to our room I passed out on the bed, Kate cut herself somehow and searched in the dark for a plaster and a mysterious puppy decided it wanted to sleep with us. I had some of the best times in my life on this trip and these memories will hopefully stay with me for a long time, thanks to my beautiful ‘herd’ who accompanied me, this trip would not have been the same without them!

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