E: Lost amongst a thousand islands – Laos

IMG_9668

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.
IMG_9714
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 The direction of your passage withdrawn from your control, but inside you’re left free to gaze outs at the different individuals wandering random streets you’ll likely never pass again.The picture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).

IMG_9685

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

IMG_0149

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)
Advertisements

E: Island Hopping around Railay Beach

IMG_8526

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.

IMG_8513

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.

IMG_8645

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: It’s Better in Bangkok – Thailand

Expectations were grand for the world famous Bangkok. Stories which had previously caught my ear included scenes where drunken backpackers were mugged by ladyboys and tales that violent stray dogs roamed wild between the city streets. Through word of mouth Bangkok had compiled a reputation as a place of danger, a place where things went wrong, where the people were troubled and trapped in a frantic malfunctioning metropolis. Certain films like the Hangover sequel and a few stories from my flatmates may have been to blame for this distressed image I had painted in my mind. The time we visited was also the time of the 2014 protests. Now travelling with the addition of our friend Jan the three of us had no clue as to what awaited us after liberation from the confinement of the night bus.IMG_9019

Around 3 AM we were flung out to the roads no longer the bus driver’s responsibility.  The usual gathering of tuk tuk drivers amassed around us attempting to convince us our desired location was a good hour away and any journey there would be expensive. Disputes and difficulties aside we arrived at ‘Amazing House’ where we rented a private room for £2.58 a night, by far the best deal on accommodation on our trip so far. (Compliments to Kate) The lady at the desk was very kind considering we had woken her from her sleep and our check in time was around 2pm. She gave us the password for the wi-fi and let us leave our bags behind the desk while we ventured into the city in search for breakfast.

Following some parents with school children, they led us to a modest shop producing scents of warm food. The school children didn’t seem much bothered when we sat down amongst them. The waitress proceeded to approach us concerning our order, gesturing for food for three people with an added thumbs up, we sat in anticipation of what she would present us. ↓ Below you can see what she brought us, I found it a little heavy but served it’s purpose, keeping us satisfied for a good while through the busy day that followed. Surrounded by images of hungry groups of school children laughing and busy parents swiping screens on their smartphones my first impressions of Bangkok severely distorted my previous frame of mind on the city.

IMG_9080

Upon thanking our cooks and the waitress we continued along the road to accidentally stumble into the heart of the Bangkok protests. It’s hard to explain what it feels like when within three minutes walk of being in a normal everyday environment you can turn a corner and be surrounded by a protest camp. We strolled through the site and to our surprise, the atmosphere was very different to how the situation was being portrayed by the international media, things were relatively peaceful. Families lay together in temporary tent fixtures surrounding the Democracy Monument and people smiled at us as we tried to find our way through them. The atmosphere did seem a little uneasy but we saw no form of violence or anger while we were there. However later that night, upon returning to our hostel we heard people had been killed that morning, just after we had left the site. No information was released at the time on who the killers were. You can read more concerning  the protests we saw throughout in Bangkok here.

IMG_9163

After deciding we had seen enough of the protest camp to get an idea of the situation we headed towards the Grand Palace. After sighting a large temple we decided to take a short break. There we met ‘Vis’, a very friendly local lass who spotted us as confused tourists and offered us a hand when we requested some route information. “I can take you there, I’m heading there later anyway”. Vis guided us through some streets and after picking up some (I think it was robes) for some monks she got us there safely. It was very kind of her to show us the whole road and once entering the temple she let us get on with our sightseeing while she went off to finish what she had to do.

The Grand Palace was a feast for the eyes. All the temples we had seen up until now had been very beautiful but the Grand Palace was  different as many of the intricate decorations were still in pristine form. There are a large number of tourists at this site however for some reason they didn’t seem to detract as much from the atmosphere as the tourists in Angkor Watt. An interesting museum on the history of Thailand’s textile industry is located right next to the grand palace. It contains a lot of information about the local clothing industry and how it contributed to improving the livelihoods of many villagers, as well as strengthening the country’s external trade.

Jan had to leave us early the next day so we decided it would be a good idea to locate the train station for him. We walked down random streets and past various apartment blocks. On our way meeting numerous giggly locals and unintentionally finding China town. One market nearby stood out to us in particular, not only due to the delicious noodle soup which a very cheerful lady made for us but because every working Thai in the market was more than willing to take a photograph when setting eyes on a camera. Kate went ahead and sampled some Thai iced tea which is ridiculously sweet and a peculiar orange colour. These vibrant people again completely shattering my pre-conceived image.IMG_9199

Night fell and we hopped onto a local bus to take us back to where we were staying. A night in Bangkok awaited! There we found the most probable route of the infamous stories we had heard. One particular road was lined with the classic backpacking night-life entertainment, the phone cases, the fake beats headphones and of course the rowdy bars run by westerners. One stall even offered fake ID’s, I was very tempted to purchase an Australian driver’s licence. The strip wasn’t that much different from Phuket so we didn’t feel the need to stick around. The following day we visited the Museum of Siam which was fairly large and surprisingly interesting, all the dots of what we had learned about Thailand seemed to connect.

Bangkok is a stunning city. In a place like this, it’s fair to say you see what you want to see. It could be perhaps a lot of visitors have been missing out on some of the lesser known aspects of the Bangkok lifestyle. I’m sure if we had more time we could have explored more of the night scene aside from markets and the typical tourist bar strips, yet Bangkok can offer a whole extra range of things to explore, even if you’re slightly hungover from the night before.

Favourite Sites To See / Things To Do:

  • The Siam Museum
  • The Grand Palace
  • Floating Markets (We didn’t get a chance to go but heard many good things)
  • Walk around! Bangkok has endless lively hidden street corners
  • China-Town
  • Night markets, (Tourist and Flower markets)

E: Phi Phi Islands – Thailand, Still Paradise?

IMG_7717When the final exam paper came to a close on that glorious date the 28th of May I swiftly exited the exam hall, hit the button to the 21st floor and arrived back in the comfort of my 10 month orange walled apartment. I then began to fill my rather modestly small bag which would accompany me through the next 3295 miles or so of my final chapter of adventures in south-east Asia. The following two weeks would be the well deserved light at the end of the tunnel that everyone who studies at NUS should be entitled to. (Apart from those on pass/fail they deserve to sit some real exams)

Although excited I was slightly dubious about what my time in Thailand would be like. The comments me and Kate (my travel partner) had heard about the land formerly known as Siam formed a very mixed bag of speculations in our minds. Remarks stretched from ‘It’s the most beautiful coast you’ll ever see” to “It’s really cheap and tacky”. Expectations aside we arrived fresh and excited into Phuket International Airport. Phuket and Koh Phi Phi are often seen as the heart of the Thai tourism love story which went wrong. Phuket’s streets are messy and distasteful, cluttered with badly built bars and shops catering for a surprisingly older crowd. Lines of middle aged men desperately selling tickets to Thai Ping Pong shows prove quite the task to be overcome whilst making your way down the infamous Soi Bangla road.IMG_8220After escaping from the bombardment of people begging us to use their taxis, we were quietly approached by a duo of thai men offering us a ride. Before leaving we approached the tourist reception in hope for an estimate of a fair price for a taxi, the Thai women were not too keen to help and seemed to give us the first number that came to their head. We reluctantly agreed to take the duo’s taxi and were guided towards a shady car in an unlit parking lot. With no clue he gave us a price we got it down to half and after a few stops for food (for our driver) along the road we arrived at our hostel Sea Blue Guest House. The guy on reception was very friendly and helped us sort out transport for the next couple of days as well as kindly informing us that we had been ripped off. The room we had was clean and comfortable. Phuket gives off the vibe at one point it was a truly exciting town with a vivid night-life. Disappointingly it now carries a European package holiday vibe due to the many fast food chain restaurants that are scattered across the town. We were most surprised by the fact the main clientèle seemed to be an older crowd. We had a few beers at this one bar and a wandered around. There are still some decent street food stalls to be found for reasonable prices but quite simply we weren’t big on the feel of the place.

Boarding the boat to the Phi Phi Islands the next day, the limestone rocks which come into view near the end of the journey are truly captivating as you slowly approach them. I feel the limestone formations appear so majestic to us are because they less commonly appear in this form around Europe. Koh Phi Phi Don is the largest island of the Phi Phi’s and also houses the central ‘town’. The settlement has evolved over years into this intriguing, busy and complex backpackers maze. It is noticeable travellers have been coming here for a long period of time yet there is a definite remarkable difference between the tourists that come to Phi Phi and Phuket. Due to heavy rainfall during the first night, many of the streets flooded and this made for entertaining scenes of both tourists and locals overcoming obstacles throughout the following day. Despite that the area is slightly dated and a little uncared for, there’s a great deal of charm not only about the area but about the locals that live and work there. Many of whom have left their villages in search for a more prosperous life.IMG_8270

The town was actually badly damaged by a Tsunami that struck in 2004 but there has been rapid reconstruction work on the town and on the more badly damaged coasts. We managed to get a very decent price for a boat trip around Phi Phi Let and although bearing some resemblance to Ha Long Bay the smaller islands have a completely different atmosphere surrounding them. As we were there in low season it didn’t feel as touristy as we had prepared ourselves for. It was quiet and there was plenty of space to roam around Maya Bay without much disturbance. I think it’s wrong to look at the Phi Phi’s in the same way as Phuket, ruined by mass tourism, the islands have changed from the untouched heaven they once were, yet in it’s place there’s an incredibly exciting, fun and vibrant forum to meet other travellers and let your hair down. Paradise doesn’t have the same definition in every person’s book.

Favourite Sites to see:

  • Phi Phi Don viewpoint – A beautiful spot overlooking the two main coasts of the island. Requires climbing up a large number of stairs and a small entrance fee is charged (20 Baht)
  • A secret tucked away shore on the east of the island. Accessible on foot via a forested trail from the viewpoint. Hardly any tourists to be seen
  • The famous Phi Phi fire dancers available on the north facing coast of the main strip during most nights
  • The Lagoons around Phi Phi Let
  • The famous ‘Maya Bay’ (The beach)

Beware of:

  • Being ripped off by Taxi men at Phuket airport, even the tourist information office is on their side!

 

No more posts.