Sick in (and of) Vang Vieng

Bleeeuuuuurrrrgggghhhh…..

My trip u-turned from ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ to ‘Sleep, Puke, Shit’ rapidly in the past couple of days due to a dodgy green curry. Seven hours after consumption I was lying moaning in my cheap grubby guesthouse room with full-blown food poisoning, spending far too much time in a bathroom that smelled like something had died in it, and cursing the day I ever came to Vang Vieng.

I was never too keen on visiting Vang Vieng, but it’s a logical stopping-off point to break up the endless hours on the road towards Ventiane. The bus journey there took twice as long as the booking agent had told us (not surprisingly, as there were some amazing mountain roads to scale in a bus that seemed to be made of cardboard and held together with rubber bands and gaffa tape). Still, the scenery was beautiful, and I had my two lovely German travel buddies (Rahel and Sascha) to keep me company.

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When we arrived at the guesthouse that we’d booked in advance, they had given our rooms away, but after a bit of negotiation they found us a couple of rooms in another building. They had a fantastic view of the river, but as the sun went down the music volume from the bar opposite went up, and up, and up. Vang Vieng seems to be the party capital of Laos and the main attraction here is tubing (which involves hiring an inner tube and floating down the Mekong from bar to bar, getting very drunk). Quite often people die from the experience… getting stoned and drunk is probably not the best way to avoid drowning. In the evenings, the place is swimming with half naked young tourists on their way back from the river, hanging off the back of tuk tuks singing rugby songs or stuffing kebabs in their face. By day there are numerous cafes showing endless loops of ‘Friends’ episodes for those nursing their hangovers and seeking home comforts. We decided within ten seconds of arriving that we were NOT going tubing.

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Instead, we booked a one day beginner’s rock climbing course for the following day but that night the evil stomach aliens landed and there was no way I was going anywhere more than 10 meters from the bathroom for quite some time. Luckily for me I had Rahel as my room mate / nurse, who kept running around making sure I was okay and putting up with me making revolting sounds in the bathroom all night…. and also Sascha popping in regularly to visit and making me laugh by bringing me a watermelon wrapped in a towel to hug for comfort!

As I lay in my sick bed watching a local woman wash her clothes in the peaceful river below I wondered what the hell she must think of the Westerners that she’s forced to share her home town with. Perhaps it wasn’t the food that made me sick… I have my suspicions that I’m allergic to Vang Vieng.

All’s well that ends well though. Today I’m feeling much better and can eat again. I even dragged my weak and nauseous body onto the bus and made it all the way to Ventiane this afternoon without any need for sick bags.

More about Laos’ Capital City in my next entry. In the meantime, take my advice and stay away from green curry… and inner tubes.

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Escargot and Sticky Rice in Luang Prabang

Arriving in Luang Prabang is like stumbling across a pretty French village in the middle of the jungle. The French invaded in the 18th Century and their legacy of petanque, baguettes, escargot and cafe culture remains. It’s a great place to sip coffee on chique terraces or fine-dine in classy converted colonial buildings.

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Laos culture blends seamlessly with the European style, so there’s also some great Asian cuisine (and old people in pointy hats on bicycles) to be found. We loved to eat at the Night Market and developed a regular evening routine:

1. Bag a seat on one of the wooden benches in the narrow marketway

2. Get ginger and honey tea to go

3. Run around sourcing  bags of fresh salad leaves (with amazing Laos dressing) and delicate Vietnamese spring rolls

4. Pick a fat river fish for the fat fish seller to barbeque to yummy perfection while you wait

If only you could eat this well (and so cheaply) back home!

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The best view of the city is from the 100m high Phu Si Temple, and it was lovely to climb up there at sunset one evening. Unfortunately 500 other tourists seemed to have the same idea and it was a bit of a circus taking your place amongst the multitude of snapping cameras. Luckily it didn’t ruin the moment too much, and the sunset was beautiful.

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Rahel and I hired funny little red bicycles to get round town on, complete with plastic baskets and football bells. They were a bit too small for us, and we looked like overgrown kids, but it was the perfect way to explore. It was just like being back on my oma fiets in Amsterdam, but with warm November sunshine to enjoy.

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We cycled over the passenger bridge to cross the Nam Khan River and escape the usual tourist hangouts. It was fun to weave through villages, avoiding the roosters and children. We even got invited into a game of Petanque with some local men.

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On day three I went off to Elephant Camp! The minibus route out to the home of 14 female elephants involved a drive through the pineapple plantations and about a million palm trees. I’d shopped around a bit to find somewhere that keeps the elephants happy and healthy, and this place certainly did seem to look after them. I got to go on a short trek, first sitting on a bench strapped to the elephant’s back (we were the same age so we had a nice bond!). Once we started wading through the river the Mahout (elephant trainer) invited me to climb forwards and ride on her neck, with my knees tucked behind her lovely spotty ears. She was a lovely gentle giant, and it was a far more comfortable ride than the camel trek I did in Pushkar last month. Elephants don’t like to be rushed, so you can roll along at a comfortable pace taking in the scenery.

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Next stop, Vang Vieng, with its reputation for beautiful scenery, and not-so-beautiful drunk tourists, floating down the river from bar to bar in inner tubes. From the sublime to the ridiculous….

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Taking it slow down the Mekong

As we crossed the border from Thailand into Laos at Huay Xai we had a decision to make. The fast or the slow boat down the Mekong river? The speedboat cuts the travel time in half, but they have a very dubious safety record (apparently they have a tendency to shatter upon impact when they meet floating debris at high speed). The captain of these ‘fast boats’ always seems to wear a crash helmet, but his wide-eyed passengers lack one. This made it an easy decision… the slow boat it was, and along with it a mind-set to live in the moment and enjoy the ride. An ‘are we nearly there yet?’ attitude could seriously drive you mental on a two day slow boat ride.

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It was fun. The long boat gradually filled up with all kinds of life. First there were the tourists – fighting for one of the more comfy car-style seats above the hard wooden benches (bring your own cushion). Later came various stops to pick up colourfully dressed villagers and their giant bags of rice, cages of live chickens and ducks and one large dead bamboo rat (I’m guessing he was dinner). Later a couple of tangerine-robed monks climbed on board, carrying armfuls of colourful silk flowers, candles and (bizarrely) an IP phone. Rahel and I lucked-out and got two of the comfy seats, squeezed amongst a really fun bunch of people from Germany, the US and Australia. One of the German guys (Sascha) was once a chef and had brought along bags of interesting tropical fruits, which he skilfully prepared with his swiss army knife and handed round for everyone to try. The locals joined in and passed round sweetened sticky rice, served out of a hollow piece of bamboo and the Aussies had strips of dried buffalo meat and Laos coffee.

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The beautiful scenery rolled by and time passed by lazily. Before too long the sun was dipping in the sky and it was time to clamber up the banks at Pak Beng for an overnight stop in a local guesthouse.

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The next morning we all took our seats again for another day on the river. The same cosy crowd assembled and there was more food and scenery to be enjoyed. I lent my ipod to a little ten year old boy (Paul) who was on a long-term trip around Asia with his mother and he and a little Lao boy around the same age silently played video games together. All was peaceful until the local customs police arrived with large machine guns (apparently looking for smuggled drugs!). Luckily they didn’t create too much of a fuss and we arrived in Luang Prabang by sunset, happy to stretch our legs on dry land but glad we’d had the slow boat experience.

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Getting fat, lazy and happy in Chiang Mai

I didn’t realise it was party time in Thailand when I arrived on the night train at Chiang Mai station. The streets of the town were decorated with colourful chinese-style lanterns and everyone seemed to be in a good mood, but then again, the Thai people always seem to be in a good mood. It wasn’t until someone asked me if I was visiting for the ‘Loi Krathong’ Festival that I realised that I’d chosen (by pure chance) not only the best weekend of the year to be in Chiang Mai, but also the best place in Thailand to see the festivities.

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Loi Krathong is a public holiday in Thailand which takes place during the full moon every November. During this time, everyone celebrates the end of the monsoon season. It’s also an occasion where the river goddess is appeased with floating floral offerings for a year of abuse (and I’m sure that she needs it, judging from all those excessive plastic bags they give you at the 7/11 stores that end up floating downstream).  There’s the chance to symbolically cleanse yourself of anything you want to be rid of, by releasing a burning lantern into the night sky and watching it ascend heavenwards, bringing good luck and peace of mind. Fireworks crackle and pop in the night sky and the streets are jam packed with  incredibly well-behaved locals. Even those stuck in the traffic jams seem good humoured. Ornate carnival floats with beautifully dressed people wait patiently for hours for the procession to begin, smiling serenely at everyone. Even the children sit cross-legged and calm like little gods and goddesses in their gold costumes, full make up and headresses.

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On the Saturday night the Festival got into full swing, so me and Rahel (my lovely dorm-mate from Germany) headed for the river in search of a year of good luck. There was a fantastic atmosphere in town and it was amazing to see the night sky lit up with the glowing lanterns. The stars had been replaced by a constellation of burning lamps, disappearing gracefully into space. We bought one for ourselves and sent it burning into the sky with a big cheer. We also bought two tiny birds in a wicker cage because they looked so scared and cramped in there. I’m not sure we should have been encouraging the woman selling them, but it felt good to send them flying for freedom. We had to draw the line at liberating the bags of river fish but I hope that someone else came to their rescue before the end of the evening.

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Everywhere we walked we were tempted by the fabulous street food…. noodles (add chilli, fish sauce, beansprouts, crushed peanuts and sugar to taste and scoop it all in as best you can manage with tiny wooden chopsticks as you’re walking along the street), giant fortune cookies filled with sweet cream and coconut, tiny spring rolls, fried pancakes with banana, condensed milk and chocolate sauce, snow pungs (sweet baked rolls) and bags of fresh tropical fruit, all for a few pennies. I’m going to roll home I swear.

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We sat with a beer by the river and listened to a Thai dude who looked strangely like Johnny Depp (we nicknamed him ‘Johnny Thai’) sing some classics and watched the fireworks explode in the sky. I’ve had worse evenings.

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Chiang Mai was the place to get down to some serious old-fashioned self-indulgence. On top of partying and eating (we went for a Thai cooking workshop where a delightful Thai lady taught us the art of balancing sweet / salty / sour and spicy flavours in heavenly concoctions) there was also the chance to be massaged into a comatose state for hours on end until you start drooling into the pillow. Thai massage is a blissful experience, where you are stretched and pummelled by sweet smiling women who are stronger than their delicate frames would suggest. With a sense of adventure, we decided to check out the massage facilities at Chaing Mai Women’s Prison, where they have the reputation of offering the best service in town. The women receive training in massage and/or catering as part of their vocational study, in the hope that they will be able to reintegrate into society upon their release and avoid getting back into a cycle of crime again. We had a wonderful massage there and it was hard to imagine that these lovely ladies had ever committed a crime. I had to bite my tongue to stop asking my sweet therapist (Bee) what she’d done to end up in the nick…

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To counteract all the self-indulgence we took morning yoga classes in town and long pre-breakfast swims in the beautiful big pool at our hostel. I couldn’t believe my luck when I arrived at this place. I was expecting the usual low-budget backpacker hangout (what more could you expect for 9 Euro per night?) so when the tuktuk dropped me off at a beautifully landscaped Imm Eco resort I was ready to complain that he’d brought me to the wrong place. However luckily for me he was right and I got to spend a wonderful four days at this amazing place, enjoying the jungle gardens, swimming pool, rainforest-style bathrooms, great food and immaculate dorm. Highly recommended!

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I know I keep saying this about everywhere that I visit, but it’s hard to move on from the good life in Chiang Mai, however if I stuck around too long I would risk becoming seriously fat, lazy… and blissfully happy!

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Next stop Chiang Khong…. ready to cross the border into Laos.

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Two nights in Bangkok

I shuffled off a sleeper bus in Bangkok at 5.30am, sore and grumpy from a cramped and bumpy night on the road. I really wasn’t in the mood for another big city, and certainly not the tacky Khao San Road area, a backpackers enclave full of cheap souvenirs, neon lights, beer-swilling westerners and burger joints. My frazzled brain was too tired to make a good decision about breakfast, so ended up having a soggy croissant in Burger King and wishing I was back by the sea. I had a long wait until check-in at the (grubby but cheap) hostel I’d booked,  so there was six hours of shuffling about trying to stay awake to do. Bleeeergghhhhh.

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Luckily, things got better and better.

Once I escaped the Khao San Road and ventured out into the city centre I immediately woke up to the excitement and charm of this amazing place. Bangkok is the epitome of a modern city… but with temples, shrines and monks thrown in. There was no point trying to blend in amongst the young, hip crowd who hang about the ultra-slick fashion malls sporting achingly-trendy clothes and haircuts. My tatty travellers clothes didn’t quite cut the mustard (even after a visit to the hairdressers, where a young guy in skinny jeans with a heavy metal-meets-neo-punk-Asian haircut gave me a trim). The girls all look like they’ve stepped off the pages of a fashion magazine and everyone seems to be worshipping at the temple of fashion here.

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Oh, and the temples! What an amazing site, to ride a river taxi by night and see the golden temple roof tops along the banks sparkle and glimmer with gold. They are inlaid with small pieces of glass which catch the light, giving a fairy-tale effect. I loved riding backwards and forwards along the river, leaving behind the insanity of the Bangkok traffic jams for the cost of a few Baht.

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On my second night in the city I moved to a new guesthouse, tucked just behind the Bangkok Arts and Cultural Centre, for peace and fluffy pillows. This was more like it! I could step on and off the sky train here and had a great time exploring the city and enjoying the Bangkok buzz. It’s vibrant here but at the same time it’s not at all crazy. I was surprised by the low-level of hassle I got from rickshaw touts (I felt like shouting back ‘is that all you’ve got? I’ve been in Delhi mate…’) and it seems like a perfectly safe place to wander round alone.

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Yesterday I visited ‘Jim Thompson’s House’, which was the home of an American entrepreneur / silk merchant who disappeared mysteriously in the 1960’s. During his time in Thailand he joined together several traditional wooden Thai waterside houses to make a beautiful teak home, full of antiques and surrounded by a gorgeous jungle garden. I loved this place and wanted to move in immediately!

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This morning I woke early to go in search of some of the famous Bangkok Buddhas. The stunning (and HUGE) reclining golden figure at Wat Pho was an awesome site and the temple grounds there were serenely beautiful. I’m so glad I went early as I practically had the place to myself, except for the chanting monks (making an amazing sound). I also visited the solid gold, 3 meter high, 700-year-old Buddha at Wat Traimit. He was once covered in stucco to protect him from looters and it wasn’t until he was moved and got cracked that they realised what a treasure he was.

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My ‘too-much-Indian-curry’ belly is being further enhanced by my ‘oh-my-god-the-Thais-can-cook’ obsession. As I tucked into my flat rice noodles with fresh prawns, chilli, holy basil and delicately spiced vegetables this afternoon I decided that diets are off the cards for the coming weeks and I’m just going to have to live with an extra spare tyre. The food is worth it.

I have to tear myself away from Bangkok now and catch the sleeper train north to Chang Mai. Will let you know how it goes!

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Post-dive hanging out in Khao Lak

It’s been really great hanging around in Khao Lak since I left the dive boat. Great company, lovely beaches, too many beers, beautiful surrounding countryside and some more lovely chill-out time before heading towards Bangkok.

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I could get used to a regime of morning ocean swims, beach walks, leisurely breakfasts then hanging about. If it wasn’t for the fact that the clock is ticking and I have a whole lot more of Asia to see in my final weeks here then I’d be tempted to plant my feet.

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Yesterday I hired a scooter and headed out to the ‘Chong Fa Waterfall’ about 8km out of town. It was so nice to be back on a bike, winding my way through the forests of palms with the wind in my hair (well, through my seriously-dodgy Thai helmet actually).  I arrived as the sky was starting to darken and took the 1km climb up to the falls for a dip in a pool full of ‘cleaner fish’. This was a very odd sensation. The little fish wait for you to stay still for a while, then start nibbling at your skin, eating away the dead skin cells. At first it made me jumpy, but after a while I got used to it (until one particularly big fish bit me on the bum and I decided it was time to move). I then sat under the gushing falls for a seriously-deep-tissue water massage. It was fantastic! I had the place to myself, so swum around a bit looking up at the trees and watching a rain storm roll in. Luckily I was already drenched so I didn’t mind the rain on the journey home.

I’m looking forward to returning here in December, but in the meantime I had to catch my night bus to Bangkok.

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All aboard for the Similan Islands

I’ve been back in Khao Lak for a couple of days now, but my head is still pleasantly dizzy from life on the ocean. When I close my eyes I can still feel the movement of the waves, but even though I wish I was back on the ocean it’s just a left-over sensation from a fantastic trip.  From 8th – 12th November I lived on board a dive boat which cruised the beautiful Similans, hopping about between islands and diving four times per day. We had a whale of a time.

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Most of the other 18 divers on board the Manta Queen had more dive experience than me, and during the first night’s briefing meeting I was a little nervous. What if I had forgotten everything? Worse still, what if I held the others back? Luckily the lovely team from ‘Scuba Adventures’ made sure that I was well looked after and I felt that I graduated from being a ‘baby’ diver to a ‘slightly immature adolescent diver’ throughout the three and a half days of intensive diving that we did (14 dives at 14 different sites).

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Life on the boat ticked along like clockwork. I was so impressed by how organised and safe everything was, yet still allowing for lots of laughs and a relaxed atmosphere. We soon all settled into the very pleasant ‘dive, eat, sleep’ cycle, and the food was fantastic. The only thing that the trip lacked was sunshine, as we are in the tail-end of the monsoon season and hit some pretty rough weather. The usual agenda had to be adjusted to avoid being caught in a cyclone that was threatening to hit, but once we were submerged beneath the sea the grey skies didn’t matter one bit. The diving was fantastic!

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The Similan Islands lacked much of the weird critters that I spotted back in Lembeh, but it did boast a huge range of beautiful seascapes which were great fun to explore. We got to dive through swim-throughs (underwater tunnels), coral gardens and around huge boulders housing all kinds of fish. I got to make friends with the sharks, rays and turtles and worked to improve my buoyancy control and economy of movement underwater. The rough seas made it quite a challenge to get back on the boat on some dives, and I managed to lose a flipper one day in the effort to fight the currents. I yelled ‘Fin, fin!!’ to the guy behind me, in the hope that he would see it floating past, but he thought I was warning him about the sharks. I guess if I’d yelled ‘Flipper, flipper!’ he would have started looking out for dolphins. Luckily he understood in the end and managed to catch it.

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All the daytime dives were great and it was also exciting to dive at night by torchlight, but my favourite dive was the one we did at sunset. This time of day is ‘fish rush hour’ and a marvellous time to swim through shoals of thousands of fish. I was in dive-heaven as I joined their underwater ballet and kept flipping up and down to dance with them.

I didn’t have an underwater camera, so the sea pictures you see here were borrowed from some of the other divers – some of them were amazing photographers as well as divers it seems!

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One day we moored up near a beautiful beach so I took the opportunity to snorkel over there between dives. The sand was as fine as talcum powder between my toes and there were so many creatures living in the shells that when I looked closely I noticed them shifting their way across the beach. Someone had made a rope swing and it would have been just like one of those movie desert island moments, had it not been for the torrential rain that suddenly started pouring. It was slightly surreal to be walking in a rainstorm whilst wearing a bikini, but made it all the more memorable.

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When the trip came to an end I didn’t want to stop diving. I loved the experience so much that I’ve decided to return and do the whole thing all over again in December before I head home. I’m hoping it’s going to be just as wonderful…. only with more sunshine this time!

Next stop back to Khao Lak, then on for a few days in Bangkok.

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