Luang Prabang, Laos

Laos is a weird one for me. On the one side there’s this awe inspiring untouched beauty surrounding you, and on the other hand it seems everyone is trying to rip you off or sell you drugs.

That’s a broad statement and it’s unfair of me to say that. The locals are actually really nice and to watch them interact is humbling. It’s the few that have come out of themselves to be pushy and annoying that give the rest a bad name as most of the time, they’re the ones you’ll experience the most because they go out of their way to get something out of you.

This mainly takes place on the street though (or by government officials) — the small business owners, like guesthouse, cafés, street food vendors — all beautifully helpful with no other motives that to hope you have a good time in their country.

We ended up staying in Luang Prabang for 8 days before choosing the 1 hour flight to Hanoi I’m Vietnam. The other transport option was the 24-30 hour bus journey but after the slow boat I think we learned our lesson.

Walking about was nice and my favourite part was (as usual) the food. The street buffets were filling and the various bakeries were a well missed treat. Lao coffee is also very very nice.

Actually, my most favourite part was visiting Elephant Village Sanctuary where Charlotte and I had a day of Mahout training where we learned to ride and bathe the elephants.

Beautiful creatures.

The worst part (aside from being seen as a walking dollar sign) was that the internet in Laos is just abysmal. I don’t usually mind as exploring is far more enlightening — but unfortunately Charlotte was a bit poorly for a few days and it would have been nice to watch some shows or something while she got better. Also it made blogging a bit trickier as far as uploading photos was concerned.

We decided not to see any more of Laos for a few reasons but the main two were because we had a finite number of days (limited malaria tablets) and Vietnam was just too appealing so we decided to spend more time there than in a place that we were still undecided if we liked or not.

Would I recommend Laos? Definitely. It’s one of, if not the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen. As it’s still widely undeveloped you get a sense of what life was like before technology and industry (protip: it’s all about family and food). The only downside is you have to be a bit more aware of how much you should be spending and to just ignore the fast talking tricksters. It was the only place where I’ve seen a local get visibly aggressive at being politely declined.

Another thing to note is that it’s a good place to get a Visa for Vietnam. There’s the Vietnamese Consulate which if you turn up (2pm seemed the quietest) you can just apply, pay and wait for it to be done with a choice of wait times ranging from the same day to 3 days depending how much you want to pay.

Buying plane tickets from the local tour shops is really easy and they charge the same as the website direct so save the hassle and pop in if you’re planning to fly out of Luang Prabang. The airport is small and quiet, the planes are powered by propellers, you get a snack included an it only takes about an hour to get to Hanoi (Lao Airlines). It’s a nice experience.

Two-Day Slow Boat: Chiang Rai, Thailand > Luang Prabang, Laos

[images for imageless posts coming soon. It turns out the internet in Laos is not too hot]

A note to people in Chiang Rai who book any tours or trips with ‘So Good Travel’… Don’t. Everything we did we were late for (that means shitty leftover buffet food) and the driver was openly and proudly hungover as he was driving us from place to place, though he was a nice guy.

Anyway, waking up for the 6am minibus to the border we were left hanging about until 7 worrying if it was gonna come or not at all. Eventually it did and we were off on a 2 hour death ride to the Thailand/Laos border. The driver at one point — thinking everyone was asleep — put his palms together and prayed before slowing down round a curling mountain road. Probably praying nothing was driving on the other side of the road as over here it seems road markings are more of a suggestion than a rule.

We get to the border and do the passport process at the first border control section, then get on a coach that takes us to the Visa section, wait for a bit before being ushered onto a Tuk Tuk that takes us to a pointless stopover just past the border in Laos for an hour or so, seemingly just so we can buy snacks and drinks before the boat as they said there wouldn’t be any on there… they lied.

They waited for everyone to stop spending money and put us on the Tuk Tuk again to take us to the boat which because of all their shenanigans meant that the boat was already full and everyone was waiting for our group — because of this, our first 6 hour boat journey we had to sit at the back.

AKA the engine room.

This space wouldn’t be legal for cattle. Sitting in the same room as an old diesel engine pumping fumes right into the boat (also the most contained area on the boat) which probably did 40 years of lung damage and on top of this the engine let out a constant deafening noise all encapsulated in the only section walled off with only a couple of windows for ventilation.

I wouldn’t wish this on anyone.

The icing on the cake? All these fucking people came to the back (moving away from their well ventilated area) to smoke, so now we’re sitting in a people sized ashtray as well.

The whole experience was terrible.

Finally deaf and hard of breathing we arrive at the stop-over village Pakbeng, where no one really cares about anyone because they know people are only there for one night. The restaurants had nothing on their menu and took an age to bring is anything, if at all (we ordered a dessert which never arrived).

A small stroll getting off of the boat and we book accommodation — not bad but the least comfortable place of the trip so far.

Ready for bed and an early alarm prepared to get good seats I nod off with my game face on for the morning.

Day Two

6am the alarm goes off. I get up, get ready — we’re off. Walking down the street we grab some boat snacks (Double filled Oreos, banana chocolate muffin and banana cashew cake. Awww yeeaah!).

We did it! We get to the boat way before everyone else and have a choice of seats, so we get some in the middle. Not at the front where it gets crowded and not at the back where satan himself lives. We set sail with perfect open views of the Mekong River and it’s exhilarating mountainous glory.

Day two was much better, enhanced only by the pain of the day before. Luckily this was the longer leg of the journey, about 7/8 hours, so we travelled in relative comfort, and despite getting a tan on one half of my body, the journey was nice. Give me a window seat and a good view and I’m a happy guy (or a dog).

Off the boat and about 5 minutes later we get ripped off by officials short-changing for a ride into the city. Finally we make it to Luang Prabang are dropped off at the Night Market.

We scope a few hotels and happen to find one a with a balcony and a bath… do we? Hells yea we do. Just one night. Okay, maybe two. We stay for three before finding another local hotel (Vietnam Visa issues — possibly a later post).

At the night market for a bite to eat it’s noticeably different from Thailand’s markets and a nice gimmick here is the 1 plate, 1 time buffet. For about a quid you get a bowl that you fill up with whatever noodles, rice, veg, spring rolls, tofu, etc, etc that you want which they’ll fry up for you.

Our hotel is really close to the Night Market so no need for a Tuk Tuk but that still doesn’t stop them from trying though.

“Tuk Tuk?”

“No thanks, just walking”

“Weed?”

“It’s good weed!” He says shuffling his eyebrows up and down as he puts a hand in his pocket.

“Ah… No thanks”.

Getting lost in Chiang Rai

We stayed 5 nights in Chiang Rai at a hotel called Na-Rak-O — pronounced locally as Nalak-a which we were told is like “cute with an ‘a’ added to make it cuter”. This made a lot of sense as there were random cuddly bears hanging around behind the curtains.

The hotel was nice. A big double bed on a concrete slab, a shower room with a toilet and as we found out on the last day — an awesome spot to watch the sunrise.

Chiang Rai seems fairly new to the tourism boom. Initially it seems like a hotspot for tourists but spend a few minutes walking in any direction and it’s happy smiles, waves and curious stares again from the locals. I’m not sure many visitors venture too far out from the centre.

We arrived by bus and when we got off we had an ordeal finding the hotel. The tourism officer told us to go left as we leave the bus station following the road to the traffic lights where we turn left, but there were only traffic lights to the right. We walked a bit and returned to her to confirm that it’s definitely not right as that’s where the only traffic lights are. She got a bit moody that we questioned her and insisted we go left.

We did. This is where the story begins.

We follow this road for about 10-15 minutes hoping to come across some traffic lights, we finally did and from here were told to go left, so now we’re walking along a highway… this can’t be right but she was insistent so we continue and take the next left again. Walking down a dimly lit street a pair of dogs come charging at us aggressively barking their faces off. Luckily there was a chain fence separating us! Dogs are usually quite relaxed around people here so maybe not many people come to this part. We carry on and hit another main road. This definitely isn’t right. We see a Seven Eleven so pop in for directions.

Not a word of English to be spoken or understood.

We were lost in Chiang Rai with a language barrier and no internet. We show them the map but they’re confused and of no help. We leave and stumble on a hostel. Thank you Lord! We go in and they upgrade our shitty black and white printout map that we were given at Tourist Information to a colour leaflet that they draw directions to our hotel on. They were confident so we were happy and left smiling.

They didn’t have a clue.

An hour and a half pass and I hate Chiang Rai.

Further into unknown territory with no one on the streets we see a buffet restaurant. We chance it.

“English?”

“Little bit!”

That’ll do. We show the map, we explain we’re lost. The waitress gets the manager. The manager gets the waiter. The waiter gets the cook and there’s another waiter hanging around. There’s like 5 of them — two on Google Maps and three looking at the leaflet.

There’s a lot of talking. Luckily the place wasn’t that busy and they were more than happy to help. 20 minutes / half an hour of running about they figure something out. They’ve pinned the hotel down and know how to get there. They try to explain the road we’re on but quickly give up, opting for a more fail-safe solution…

Mopeds.

The cook and the waiter are ushered outside and given directions. They get on their scooters and the manager looks at us all like “This is happening. Get on”. We’re standing there with all our travelling gear and are like “Yeah. It’s happening”. I thank him and the waitress, offering a tip and they profusely decline so instead we shake hands.

With no helmets and no hesitation we jump on.

Okay okay. Some hesitation. Shit was getting real.

Charlotte and the waiter on the scooter behind, me and the cook leading the pack. Weaving in and out of traffic, holding onto the bike and our bags simultaneously; we turn up at the first set of traffic lights the Tourist Officer told us was the wrong way! Two minutes later — literally two minutes — we’re there. Only accepting a handshake before their departure they leave us and we check in with a relieved smile on our faces.

I love Chiang Rai.

The 14:45 Green Bus from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai

We arrive at Chang Mai’s Arcade Bus Depot, hang out in Dunkin’ Donuts until it’s time to board.

Fortunately for us, our bags are small enough the fit in the overhead so we didn’t have to risk them going under. As we climb aboard and take to our seats, we settle in. We opted for the VIP bus with AC because why not? This is luxury on wheels. Massive reclining seats — kind of like the bus equivalent of a La-Z-Boy. Small TV on the seat in front, free honey-based bread snack thingy and a bottle of water.

The TVs never turned on which I was gutted about because they were connected to gaming controllers but I didn’t mind — once we set off the views had me in awe for most of the journey.

We ascend the mountainous landscape we constantly admired from Chiang Mai. The views far superior to that of the sleeper train from Bangkok. We’re inside the forest, the real forest where small local communities are farming all sorts of animals and vegetation. We saw Ox being herded, streams, rivers and all sorts of trees/plant-life and the most beautiful landscape I have ever seen in my life. Words can’t describe it (and I was too in the moment to take a photo!). Inspired by such beauty I look over to Charlotte sitting there with a look on her face far from what you’d expect of someone seeing this… “I left our swimming stuff at the hotel!”.

Oh.

Isn’t it time you follow me on Instagram?

Sleeping Baby, Working Mother by Marcus as seen on Instagram

Go on, follow me on Instagram

Firstly – I’ll be super grateful and secondly, I’ve been posting some awesome shots recently. Well, I think so anyway… I decided to get away from shooting and uploading everything I see.

I did this by adding an extra step to uploading an image, something as simple as changing the aspect ratio from square to landscape makes for a ball-ache to throw anything and everything up so I take a bit more consideration about what I share now.

People seem to like it, so I guess I’ll carry it on. Why not join in on the fun, it’s insterrific!

The 19:35 from Bangkok to Chiang Mai

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There are two sleeper trains from Bangkok to Chiang Mai that depart every evening. We chose the later one — as do many others — purely for it’s slower service.

Slower service?!

That’s right. In an air conditioned carriage with our seats-that-transform-into-bunk-beds beds (and after eating a suspicious looking Sweet & Sour Chicken and Thai Red Curry with an unidentified meat) we settled down for the 14 hour train journey. It may seem counter productive to go for a slower train, but the beauty of those extra hours means that rolling into Chiang Mai we were greeted with views of northern Thailand’s rural residents and vast forestry doused in the morning sunshine.

The train ride itself was an experience not soon forgotten. We arrived at Bangkok train station — a hotbed for all the scam artists you read about everywhere. We’ve been lucky so far. We sat down for an iced tea at the station’s Black Canyon coffee shop while we waited to board. Nothing to report except for an old frail Thai man that kept staring at Charlotte and hocking spit into a cup. He also had a long white beard that made him look like a wizard.

We finally boarded the train I was surprised at the size of the seats you get, like mini leather sofas that convert into beds. The first part of the trip while the seats are still seats you’re offered food from servers walking up and down the aisle, whom we realised afterwards weren’t actually working with the train’s food carriage. It made sense of the luke-warm cling filmed dishes we were served, still, it tasted alright.

Charlotte and I were saying before the trip that the best case scenario of our seat neighbours were a similar aged travelling couple and the worst case scenario would basically resemble the coffee shop wizard… well we must have done something right as we were seated next to a similar aged Canadian couple — really nice people and the first lengthy English-spoken conversation we’ve had since we arrived.

Everyone had settled in, eaten and the guy who converts seats to beds (let’s call him the Bunk Master) was coming round converting the seats to beds.

If you ever get this train — pay the extra for the lower bunk and also bring a hoody or something because the AC is on overdrive.

I shared the bottom bunk with Charlotte for a bit while we hung out. The lower bunk, once the curtain is closed is well shaded from the light and AC — I later moved up to the top bunk for some shut eye and it was like sleeping in an open-top igloo during the day; freezing cold and really bright. The curtains aren’t placed high enough so it felt like the light that lights the train was in my bunk space.

The conditions generally sound nice but I’ve got to mention — this is a Diesel chugging beast of a train with holes as toilets, bangs and snaps, chug chug chugging noises all night long. You get used to the noise, the bits that woke me up though was being thrown side to side, planning the escape route in my head for when the train topples over. Luckily that was at night and the too bunk doesn’t have a window because when we hit sunlight and I moved to the bottom bunk which does have a window, along with the beautiful sights of the locals farming, building and cleaning when we got into the forest we were riding high, like, the tips of some massive trees weren’t as high as us. The thought of toppling is bad, but the thought of toppling into a bottomless descent is worse.

Those thoughts soon departed as the sights filled my vision. The surroundings gave a sense of calmness, I could already tell it was going to be nicer than Bangkok, but maybe being in Bangkok will make us appreciate Chiang Mai more.

Drowse Exhibition, Bangkok

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The malls in Thailand are surprisingly tourist-free. It wasn’t until half-an-hour of strolling around the place we realised we were the only western faces there! There seems to be a pattern forming with this happening. Anyway, this post isn’t about the mall but the walk to it.

We passed this yellow building which we didn’t initially notice but instead noticed the sign with a roughly written ‘Drowse Exhibition’ on it. We stare at it for a few moments before this guy walks out with an enviable moustache and all around cool-person persona. He invited us in to look at the gallery. We oblige and enter the building. He takes us through a door and up a set of stairs… the place looks abandoned – uh oh. We go up another flight of steps and here we are, at this really intimately sized exhibition. Some really nice work on display and talking to our moustached mate (his work on display behind us in the selfie), find out he’s actually an art teacher for the lessons taking place on the ground floor. He takes some photos of us, we get a selfie with him and we all leave best of friends, well, Facebook friends. And we liked the Facebook Page.

Wat Pho: The Temple of the Reclining Buddha

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In Bangkok (well, Thailand in general) there are temples EVERYWHERE. Temples to the left, temples to the right, temples where you’d expect them, temples where you wouldn’t expect them… they’re everywhere and if you walk anywhere you’ll likely encounter a few of them. The thing with temples, as a traveller, is that they can get kind of samey samey (“same same”).

However…

There are a few temples that stand out – like Wat Pho (pronounced What P-oooh) – Temple of the Reclining Buddha. Yes it’s full of tourists but for good reason. There’s an incredibly huge Buddha just kicking back in this building!

We arrive not really knowing how big this “big buddha” was. Charlotte had to cover up in one of their fashion highlights (by highlights, I mean like the pens. It was neon green.), a surprisingly slimming dressing gown. As we entered we saw the sheer size of this thing. My photos don’t do it justice. Almost 50 feet high, over 150 feet long and covered entirely in gold leaf except for the base of its feet which is mother-of-pearl has intricate toe-prints(?) and ‘laksanas’ illustrations.

After walking the length of the Buddha, we had to walk back up the other side but hiding behind the statue were 108 pots where the idea is to put one coin in each pot as you walk back up, making a wish for each pot. 108 symbolises the 108 positive actions which lead to Buddha perfection. I’m not sure if covering yourself in gold leaf and laying on your side all day is apart of the Buddha perfection ladder, but it definitely should be.

Still in awe at the size of this thing and donating 20baht for the coins necessary to complete the wishing pot coin dropping strip (which I made it to the end with the exact amount of coins needed – a lot of people seemed to fall short or have too many. I think that makes me pretty special. Maybe I should hang out with this guy more often), we head outside to discover that Wat Pho isn’t just about the reclining Buddha. Outside was the home to beautiful buildings, monuments and statues. We walked around for a couple of hours, constantly discovering new areas in places we thought we’d already explored. It’s a lot of fun and a lot to look at so worth taking a camera.

The most surreal part – seeing the quiet, spiritual and often reserved Monks getting super smiley and school-boy excited over taking selfies on their iPhones with the Buddha in the background.

Worth the 100baht entrance fee and includes a free bottle of water.

Chatuchak Market, Bangkok

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Covering over 35 acres with more than 15,000 stalls — I’ve just stepped into the biggest market in Thailand.

If you’re in Bangkok when the weekend market is on, visit it. It’s awesome. It’s so big that every time you visit you’ll get lost in another section you didn’t know about before. The scale of this place is huge and I didn’t quite realise it until it came time to leave.

Dropped off by taxi outside a few stalls I’m thinking, this is a nice market, just like most of the others I’ve seen. A few minutes later after walking past those initial roadside stalls I realise it’s bigger than I thought, but still not as big as I eventually found it out to be.

Anything you need to buy, this place has it at a price you can haggle. Leatherwork sections, bag sections, clothing sections, food sections, illegal animal sections, furniture sections, section sections, every section you can think of and we also saw a magician.

It’s the kind of market where you can come to Thailand with nothing but a passport and a bit of Baht and buy everything you need to stay here for as long as you want.

It’s a nice concept.

To the holiday goer with an empty suitcase, I say to you, go crazy. Myself — as a man with a single hand-luggage sized backpack I had to show more restraint, buying only a T-Shirt, small day bag that holds a camera, passport and sunglasses (The North Face, faux style), a smaller sack on a string (for carrying just my camera and some money), a couple of leather bits and some super airy, lightweight shorts.

Walking through this market, I think we circled the same set of stalls a few times. Every direction seemed to take us to the same place. After navigating our way finally out into the main strip we had our first taste of pork on a stick (so. freaking. great) and Mango with Sticky Rice (also great).

Fed and ready to head out we start walking in thee direction we think is right. We start to see a whole bunch of new stalls and a guy selling the cutest puppies out of a box. This wasn’t the way we came in? We continue walking, hoping to reach an edge so we can find our bearings. There are signs that tell you section numbers but as the Internet has destroyed my long term memory, I’d forgotten our starting point.

An hour later and after seeing a man spinning around while pouring a drink from one container held as high as his head into another by his hip we finally found an edge to cling on to. We were saved!

Half an hour later we finally hit the road we came in on and with no taxis willing to charge on the meter we decide to walk a stretch of it.

Getting lost on the highway we give in to a Tuk Tuk driver who takes us home.

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