Holiday in Cambodia

We arrived in Pnom Penh, Cambodia early evening on the 27th March.

Before coming to Cambodia, I had read a book called ‘First they Killed my Father’ (which I would highly recommend to anyone) which was about the genocide that happened in Cambodia from 1975 until 1979. The book was truly horrific, and really opened my eyes to the realities of Cambodia. I found that the moment we crossed the border and entered the city, I was looking in to the face of every local I saw, and wondering what they had experienced. What happened during those years was big, and would have had some effect on everyone there now, whether they were born then or not. In fact, I came to learn during my time there that this was true, everyone we spoke to had some story – whether about themselves or a member of their family. During those four years, a quarter of Cambodians were either murdered, or starved to death. That’s the equivalent of about 17 million people, if that had happened in England.

So, that first hour in Pnom Penh was quite harrowing for me, I let the emotion of it all overtake me a little. When a tuk tuk driver was begging me to let him take us to a hotel, I walked away almost in tears because i’d said no to him, and he seemed to genuinely need the fare. Andrea came to the rescue a little bit, because we were a little lost, and had all our heavy bags, she installed me in to a cafe with a drink and all of our bags while she went off to find somewhere for us to stay.

On our first evening in Pnom Penh, we treated ourselves to a nice meal. We were so struck by the level of service in Cambodia, the clean restaurants and bars, the quality food, the cheap drinks, and the lovely staff. A whole world away from the cold hard Vietnamese who brashly and unashamedly take you for everything they can.

The next day we chatted with a Tuk Tuk driver about what we wanted to do, and he was happy (of course!) to Chauffeur us about and take us wherever we needed to go. First of all, we went to visit the Killing Fields. There are three hundred and something Killing Fields in Cambodia, but Choeung Ek, the one we visited was the biggest. The Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot (The Hitler of Cambodia) would arrest people for having any kind of connection outside Cambodia (whether they had received aide or even if they just knew someone) and they would also arrest anyone known to have intelligence; doctors, teachers, or even anyone with glasses. They would also arrest their entire families (including babies.) These families would be sent off for ‘re-education’ which generally just meant torture, so that they would give up the names and whereabouts of anyone else they knew, before being executed. People were executed at the killing fields in the most barbaric ways, because the regime didn’t want to waste bullets.

We couldn’t understand any of it. They say that there’s method in madness but we couldn’t see one. What was Pol Pot trying to achieve? Even talking to the locals no one seemed to know. It was entirely senseless. There were ditches everywhere, these were the pits where the bodies of the executed victims were disregarded. Some of the victims when thrown into these pits were still alive, if the blow from the butt of the rifle hadn’t worked. The guards knew this and threw some sort of chemical over the victims which would surely finish them off. The ground from some of the pits had risen over time and the bones were visible, buried just under the surface. There was a tree with a large black stain on it. The black stain was old dry blood from the babies who the guards would execute by holding them by the feet and cracking their heads against the tree. Another favourite execution method was to throw the babies in the air and then shoot them like a clay pigeon before they came crashing back to earth. A speaker playing music was hung from a near by tree so as to disguise the noise from the victims so that no one knew what was going on there. Melanie asked our guide if any of his family had been harmed during the Khmer Rouge regime, he replied rather nonchalantly that his grandfather had been murdered. The story is the same all over Cambodia.

Our depressing day continued, our next stop was S-21, an old school turned prison where the victims were kept captive before execution. The goings on here were equally as harsh. Some of the prisoners were tortured to extract information concerning the whereabouts of friends and relatives. They were kept in solitary confinement, in prison cells no more than two metres wide. The cells didn’t have doors, they weren’t needed as the prisoners were chained to the wall. The guards demanded silence, they weren’t even able to talk to their neighbours. There were still blood stains on the floor. Our guide at S-21 told us that she and her mother had escaped to Vietnam in 1976, but that her father and sister were murdered in Cambodia. Of course they don’t know where or what happened to them. They don’t even know where their bodies are, they can only presume that the remains of their loved ones are in one of the many killing fields that exist all over the country.

On the way out of S-21 we were accosted by beggars, as we usually are. We really wanted to help, but we had the same issue outside of the Killing fields earlier in the day and we can’t give money to everyone. One guy who was terrifying, (his face was severely disfigured, he had suffered horrific burns to his face, he was missing eye lids and lips) chased me back to the tuk tuk, everywhere I tried to turn he was in my face. I thought about giving him money to make him go away but before I had a chance Melanie rescued me and the tuk tuk driver gave him a bolloking. We had a chat with the tuk tuk driver, telling him we wanted to help but couldn’t give money to everyone. He told us that if we wanted to help he could take us to an orphanage. We could buy the kids toys and food and spend the day with them. Spending a day with 100 children isn’t exactly my idea of a fun but we wanted to contribute something and Melanie’s face had lit up on the very mention of it, so we agreed we’d go the next day.

That night we headed down to the river to have some dinner and were discussing the politics of Cambodia; the corruption and the poverty when a little girl approached us trying to sell us bracelets. We said no. You’re not supposed to give money to the children because it encourages the parents to send them out when they should be in school or asleep. She said it was for food and we still said no. (This is very hard to do sometimes, but the children are often taken advantage of, the money doesn’t necessarily go towards food, it’s quite likely in fact that it lines the pockets of the man who’s pimping them out!) In the end she simply said ‘Ice cream?’ Melanie and I looked at each other and thought, how can an ice cream hurt? I agreed to go with the little girl to buy an ice cream. After passing six or seven shops which I’m sure would have sold ice cream I wondered where she was taking me and how far away it was. She talked to the other street kids on the way, and before I knew it I had three kids hanging onto my arm shouting ‘ice cream, ice cream’. I told them I couldn’t buy ice cream for everyone, but they weren’t having it, In the end I reasoned that it would make their day and I gave in. That’s when I saw the expensive looking luxury ice cream parlour, all minimalist inside with different flavours and toppings that you help yourself too. I thought, hang on I didn’t agree to this.

The little girl was good at least and took the smallest tub available, I told the kids to choose one topping each, the little boy took the biggest tub he could see and filled it with all the toppings when he thought I wasn’t looking. He laughed at me when I told him he wasn’t being fair. I felt like a bit of a mug. On the way back to the pub I had maybe six or seven children following me, trying to sell me everything from post cards to bracelets, asking for money or ice cream. They surrounded the table back at the pub and I was getting pretty agitated. A different little boy told me I was stingy for not buying his postcards or buying him ice cream. He spelt out the word ‘Fuck’ and walked away in a strop. We finished our drinks and went. The little girl scolded me on the way out for not going home in the tuk tuk belonging to her friend.

I woke up the next day so excited to go to the Orphanage. The tuk tuk driver collected us in the morning, and took us to some markets to buy massive bunches of bananas, sacks of rice and some toys. When we arrived, we were quite shocked about the Orphanage – in a good way! It was quite a huge area with a play park, volley nets, goal nets for football, trees, climbing frames and all sorts. On each side were small buildings which were the bedrooms and classrooms. Most of the children were out at school, so we got a chance to sit and just talk to one or two of them – their English was perfect, and they were smiley, lovely children. Then, shortly afterwards, the rest of the kids came piling back from school for their lunch. They all said “Hello, how are you?” as they passed us.

There are 98 children in the Orphanage. We asked the guy who ran it if they have any support from the government (everything in the Orphanage seemed to have a plaque nailed to it stating it had been donated by charities and governments in Israel or France) he laughed, and explained that actually, they had to pay money to the government in order to stay open. He explained that the orphanage is kept going by donations from abroad, and tourists like us who visit with food. 68 of the children have been sponsored by tourists, so all of their schooling is paid for. I asked for a little more information about this (there are still 30 kids without sponsorship) and he just told me about how much it all costs – I was quite surprised by what he told me, for example, it only costs nine hundred US dollars (£540) a year to send a child to university, and to feed and clothe them, I don’t know any one who wouldn’t be able to manage giving up £500 of their salary per year!? I pushed for more information, feeling quite emotional that I was going to be able to do this, but it was like getting blood out of a stone. I tried talking to a couple of the other guys who worked there, and they didn’t seem to be able to give me any information either. By the time we eventually left the orphanage, I’d not been able to get any kind of solid information about how to get involved, other than that it’s possible. I’ve thought about it since, and thought about doing my own research – but somehow, I wouldn’t feel comfortable using online sources as a means of sponsoring a child on the other side of the world.

We had a really lovely day there anyway, the children really brightened up our visit to Pnom Penh, following all the other harrowing things we’d seen.

We then headed up to Siem Reap, which took about 6 hours, and arrived quite late in the evening. We were dropped in what seemed to be a car park on the side of the road, in which there were a bunch of tuk tuk drivers waiting for us. Andrea and I had our usual panic of not knowing where we were, or where we were going. We had assumed that Siem Reap was a big city, the same as Pnom Penh, but we appeared to be driving through very dark country lanes – and the tuk tuk drivers had made us nervous the way they were all surrounding us and trying to take our bags for us, speaking English to us and laughing with each other in Cambodian. Still, as this story usually goes, we got to where we needed to be with no problems!

Siem Reap was a lovely little town, really chilled with lots of nice bars with comfy sofas lining the streets and 50 cent (about 30 pence) pints! We spent a couple of days just chilling out, looking round the markets, eating the wonderful food Cambodia has to offer (I’m afraid, by this, I mean that they do western food really well!) One evening, we arranged for a tuk tuk to take us to Angkor Wat the next morning at sunrise – we later saw a couple of girls from our hotel also trying to organise a tuk tuk, and brought them on board with us, to half our costs.

We were picked up at 5am the next morning, hoping that Angkor Wat would be worth it – we’d seen enough temples to be able to call ourselves Buddhist by then! The two girls we were in the tuk tuk with told us that they’d just finished their A-Levels and were on a gap year, again, making us feel like a pair of grannies! Everyone seems to be 18 here! When they asked how old we were, I felt like telling them “Old enough to be your mother!” Yes, I don’t help matters!

We’d been told that sunrise was the best time to visit, not only for the views, but also for the lack of tourists – this didn’t seem to be true. Still, we watched sun rise behind the Angkor, which was pretty, but the clouds ruined it a bit. Angkor Wat is very old – I don’t have access to Google at this moment in time to be able to tell you exactly how old – but it was lost for many years, no-one knew it existed, until it was discovered in amongst a load of jungle some time .. in the past! (I’d not recommend using this blog as an educational tool!) We spent the morning wandering around that, and a load of other very old ‘lost’ temples, one of which was quite impressive, it had trees growing, entwined with the walls, from the buildings themselves. Tomb Raider was filmed here. Lonely Planet had told us that to try and see the Temples of Angkor in one day was a shame, and that you should try to spend a week. We were done by 11am.

Back in Siem Reap, we tried to work out our plan of action for the last 10 days or so of our trip – the plan had always been (ever since before we even left the UK) to spend the last week on the Thai Islands soaking up the sun. You may have seen recently in the news that the Thai Islands have been flooded due to unseasonal rain – the floods even taking twenty-five lives. We were going to head to Sihanoukville in the south of Cambodia, as there are some islands there which are supposed to be reminiscent of the Thai Islands before all of the nasty developers came along. BBC weather told us it was raining there. We looked at flights to Indonesia – BBC weather told us it was raining there. We looked at flights to Malaysia – BBC weather told us it was raining there. We thought about going to Dubai early and extending our stop over there (we have a 3 hour stop over there on the way home) but the hotel prices were too high. We decided, at last, to go back to Chiang Mai in the north of Thailand, where we’d already been, as it was the only place BBC Weather gave the thumbs up to. We went in to an agency to book a bus, and they told us “Chaing Mai closed, earthquake”. We were shocked, we asked when this had happened, and they told us ‘now’. We got on the phone to our travel agents, and asked how soon we could fly home – they told us that we could get on a flight in two days time, and we wondered whether to take the option, as we literally couldn’t see anywhere else we could go. We have some friends (who we met in Argentina) who we knew were in Chiang Mai at the end of their trip like us, and facebooked them to ask if everything was OK … “It’s fine, we’re sunbathing, there’s no earthquake!” they told us, so we headed, once again, through Bangkok, and up to Chiang Mai. It took us 24 hours to get there.

We found a place with a pool, and settled for some relaxation. I checked BBC Weather once again, just because I like it when it shows me 5 days of sun, and it had changed its mind, it told us that the next week would be full of storms. LIES! We had a lovely week, doing nothing but sitting by the pool, and being in bed every evening by about 9, apart from one evening when we caught up with Johanna and Evan (the guys we’d met in Argentina) and compared notes on ‘The World’ – they’ve done almost exactly the same trip as us, but we never seemed to be in the same place at the same time to catch up. It was nice being able to talk with other people who had been to all the same places as us!

We are now back in Bangkok, we have checked out of our hotel, and are waiting to go to the airport. I can’t tell you the relief that we are both currently feeling, knowing that by tomorrow afternoon, we’ll be back in Manchester, where everybody knows our names, and they’re always glad we came!

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Good Morning Vietnam

We arrived in to Diem Bien, Vietnam on 7th March – our first sight of Vietnam wasn’t too pretty. We sat and had some lunch with the Portuguese guys in this disgusting little place by the bus station while everyone tried to decide what to do. The guys wanted to go in all different directions and couldn’t make up their minds, so Andrea and I decided to go and find a hotel and get some kip, and move on the next day. Later we emerged from our room to find some food – Andrea couldn’t cope with the idea of any more rice or noodles, so we went in search of some western goodness. After 30 minutes of walking and finding nothing, we widened the goal posts and agreed to just have whatever we could find. There was nowt in this big city to eat, apart from the odd stall selling unidentifiable food. We ended up back at the same place we’d had lunch. Andrea had soup (anything but rice and noodles) which ended up just being noodle water with some leaves in it.

Back at our hotel, up until about midnight, and then again at 2am workman were either drilling, or shouting at one another outside our room – inside the hotel, not outside. We were furious and Andrea asked them to be quiet but no-one speaks a word of English, they didn’t even seem to understand the ‘fingers on lips’ international sign language for ‘shut up’, they just ignored us and carried on. This was our first impression of Vietnam.

The next morning, early, we took the bus north to Sapa. The bus was more of a mini-van, on it there was us and 2 other tourists and a bunch of Vietnamese guys. They smoked the entire journey, dropping their ash and their butts on the floor. Keeping the windows closed the entire time, because we were driving on what seemed more of a building site than a road, and they didn’t want to let the dust in. As time passed, it got colder and colder. The bus stopped for hours. No one thought to tell us why. No one ever does. The journey took 10 hours (we’d been told it would take 6) and when we arrived, at 4pm in Sapa, we were in complete thick fog – we couldn’t even see to the other side of the road. We’d been dropped on the side of a street, as opposed to a bus station or anything, and we had no clue where we were. The maps in our lonely planet were no good as we could see no street signs. We had to just take a gamble and walk. We were lucky, we chose the right direction as we hit the town soon enough. The temperature was barely above freezing – all we had on were jumpers. We found a place to stay and dived under the covers for twenty minutes to try and warm up, and then got dressed in to every single item of clothing we owned, and headed out for dinner with a guy from Holland we’d been on the bus with. We found a lovely little café which had a roaring log fire, and we plonked ourselves down in front of it, and began to peel back the layers. We drank lots of hot chocolate, and decided that 8th March 2011 was Christmas day in Vietnam! It felt like something out of a Dickens novel, with all the mist, the old fashioned street lamps of Sapa barely visible, and everyone wrapped up warm!

This is pretty much how we spent the next four days – waiting for the mist to lift, because apparently Sapa is a stunning place, with cascading rice paddies and beautiful scenery… here is what we didn’t see in Sapa …

On the fourth and final day we caught a night bus to Hanoi, which picked us up right from our hotel. We arrived in the dark at 6am. The tuk tuk drivers desperately tried to get our attention, competing with each other for the fair to the old quarter, which was quite expensive. I overhead one of the other backpackers telling a tuk tuk driver that the bus company was sending a mini bus which would take us there for free. I wondered if the tuk tuk drivers already knew this, they’d seemed keen to get us moving pretty quickly, before the mini bus arrived maybe? We were on that mini bus for over an hour, but eventually we were dropped into the centre of the old quarter, next to a huge lake. We weren’t sure about where our guest house was and so we asked a taxi driver ‘how much’. He quoted us an extortionate price and so we walked away, only to discover that our hostel was less than a five minute walk away. Cheeky.

When we arrived at about 7am, the guest house was locked but we could see, through the glass front, a man who we presumed to be one of the staff asleep on the reception floor. We sat in the café opposite waiting for him to get up. We didn’t mind so much, we were desperate to get some sleep but we were also gagging for a cup of tea. The tea was disappointing to say the least. It was made with condensed milk, which sat in a thick layer at the bottom of the glass. It was so sweet we couldn’t drink it. I was pretty bad tempered by this point and so I sat in silence staring at the man in the hotel willing him to get up!

For the next few days, Hanoi provided enough to do to keep us entertained. With our guidebook in hand, we visited all of the recommended sites and shows. We crossed over an old Japanese bridge on Hanoi lake to see a huge embalmed turtle. The most interesting part about that was the guy at the end of the bridge, his job was to take the tourists tickets which they had hopefully bought before crossing the bridge and sending them back if they hadn’t done so. What he did instead was sell the tickets he’d already collected to these tourists and pocketed the cash. Brilliant.

We visited a Women’s museum and learned all about the role of women in Vietnam in the past and present. We attended a water puppet show for which Hanoi is famous, maybe that would have been better if we spoke Vietnamese and could understand the narration, without this it reminded us of a child bobbing their toys up and down in the bath. We had some lovely meals in Hanoi, mostly western food. We sat at the top of a café with a milkshake watching the traffic on a busy junction below. Most drivers don’t have licenses here (I assume). We watched them drive around a roundabout in all different directions. Most of them didn’t even bother going around the roundabout. It amused me to think of them wondering what the roundabout was doing there, as if it was some sort of obstruction in the road.

We also organised a tour of Halong bay from Hanoi. Halong Bay was on my ‘wish list of things to do’ but the weather was bad in Hanoi and after Sapa, we were concerned it would be a bit of a waste of money. We went into a tour agency and the lady there showed us the weather forecast and it wasn’t that bad. The tour would take two days, the weather on the second day was forecast rain but the second day would be only half a day anyway and it would be spent travelling back to Hanoi. The weather on the first day of the tour was due to be cloudy without rain, so after bargaining a great price for one of the luxury boats (only $60) we decided to go. I was becoming concerned that we were allowing the weather to ruin our holiday, we’d decided not to visit the hill tribe villages in Sapa because of the weather and I had regretted it. I didn’t want to regret this as well.

Halong bay was very beautiful but it’s one of those places where you don’t get the full effect without the sunshine. Majestic limestone cliffs protrude from the water, but in the dull fog, you can’t see the crystal blue waters or the emerald green limestone. We had a nice time with the other passengers on the boat though, we even massacred a couple of classic hits on Karaoke. We were also taken to a big cave. I’m afraid I can’t tell you much about the big cave, Vietnamese and English are such different languages that when the locals talk in English, differences in pronunciation mean it sometimes doesn’t sound like English at all. The cave was nice though. Several rocks resembled turtles. Mel also tried her hand at a bit of kayaking. I opted out (I was bad tempered and knew it would be best for everyone if I took myself for a little lay down.) Melanie is very excited to tell you that she went kayaking and I didn’t, because usually it’s the other way around when it comes to these kinds of activities.

We were taken back to Hanoi on a bus, and only just made the 5:30 bus that we had previously booked from Hanoi to Ninh Binh – as always in Vietnam, the travel plans are unclear, and you just have to go with whatever they tell you to do. We got on the bus, it drove us around the corner to another agency where we had to get off and wait for an hour. We got on another bus, which then drove us to the outskirts of Hanoi and put us on another bus. No explanations – they just off load your bags and usher you off. We arrived, finally, in Ninh Binh at about 10pm, to pouring down rain. Luckily, we’d had the foresight to find out in advance where the bus would drop us, and booked ourselves into a hotel there. Ninh Binh is hardly worth mentioning; the rain never stopped, and we broke up. We did attempt to go out for a day, hiring a driver to take us to the National Park which had been the reason for stopping in Ninh Binh, to see the monkeys – but we didn’t see much, and got soaked. I’d rather just pretend that that place doesn’t exist.

After a couple of days of hibernation, we went further south to thaw out a little, in Hoi An. The bus terminated in the wrong city 4 hours from Hoi An, where we ended up having to grab a couple of motorbike taxis to take us to an agency so we could book the rest of our journey. We arrived in Hoi An 5 hours late, in a little bit of a panic that the room we’d booked would have been given away. We’d been warned in advance that Hoi An is short on rooms, and generally backpackers will be wandering around for hours before they find anything. Given the shortage of rooms, it’s expensive, most places charging $40 a night for a room. We’d managed to get one for $25, and luckily, when we arrived, they’d not resold it.

Hoi An is pretty; it’s a riverside town, used for export for the last 500 years. Most of the buildings there are original, it reminded me a bit of a little English village, with old houses (now restaurants) leaning over cobbled streets. The day we arrived was full moon, on which Hoi An has a festival. It was a little bit of a let down, they turn off all the lights in the streets, so you literally can’t see where you’re going, and they have some awful Vietnamese entertainment in the streets, in which a man and a woman squawked (not singing, actual squawking!) into a microphones for hours on end. We had no idea what it was all about – and they were disturbing our dinner!

We shopped in Hoi An. A silly thing to do, considering we are coming home early due to a lack of money, but we both reasoned that we definitely need new work clothes when we get home, and they are cheaper here, and tailored. They give you catalogues and the Internet and samples to look at, and you create whatever you want. It took a few days and several fittings before they were ready. We really enjoyed the fittings, asking them to make this a bit longer, that a bit rounder, different buttons on here, add a zip there. We’d love to be able to shop this way always.

After Hoi An, about a twelve hour bus ride away came Nha Trang, Vietnam’s beach resort. The first morning, we were a little disappointed by the weather as it was cloudy, but tired from the bus, we decided we’d take the option of sleeping on the beach, rather than cooped up in yet another room (as we seemed to have been for the entirety of Vietnam already.) We were desperate for a little bit of Vitamin D for our grey souls. We napped on the beach, despite it being a little chilly. When it got colder, we headed off back to our hotel, wondering why our skin was so sore. We were burnt, quite badly. We were both on Doxycycline Malaria tablets, which apparently make you susceptible to sunburn – not that we’d seen any evidence of this previously, we’d been on the tablets for a long while before and not got burnt. We had to spend the next day in bed due to being so sore. It was raining outside anyway. Surprise.

The next day we caught a day bus, another twelve hour journey to Saigon, which is no longer called Saigon, but Ho Chi Minh City, after the president (prime minister?) who died … some time in the past. As you can see, my interest in Vietnam diminished greatly the more time we spent there. The sun came out over the city, at least.

Over breakfast on the first morning, Andrea got chatting to a young lad from the states. He was a bit geeky and awkward, possessing very few social skills. I was mardy so didn’t join in with the pleasantries. Never the less he told us all about what he’d been up to in Saigon for the last few days and made some recommendations. He’d been to the War museum the day before, and said it was worth a visit. As we were leaving breakfast, Andrea said “We’re going to go the museum for the day, join us if you like?” not meaning it .. and he jumped on it. So, we were stuck babysitting.

The museum was really interesting, but it was very one sided which I suppose is to be expected, every artefact or photo, painted a shocking picture of the war crimes committed by the Americans against the Vietnamese people. Photos showed disfigured adults and children, their disfigurements caused by chemical weapons, specifically napol and the particularly nasty, Agent Orange. There were many stories of villagers being pillaged, women being raped and children executed. It was all very shocking. There was one sign which showed an an exert from an independent trial declaring that the Americans were guilty of genocide against the Vietnamese people, and I thought, ‘How didn’t I know this already?’

The next day we took a tour to the Cu Chi tunnels. Cu Chi is a village in the south of Vietnam which went underground during the American Vietnam war to protect its civilians from the constant bombing by American planes. The VC soldiers fought the American troops from these tunnels. The Americans tried desperately to penetrate the tunnels but the VC were pretty clever people! They set traps in the ground, which were originally used to catch animals to trap and maim the enemy soldiers. They set booby traps by the entrance at the start of the tunnels. Before 12pm the trap was in the tunnel that veered off to the left, after this time the trap was in the tunnel that veered right. As a result the Americans could never figure out the system or how to get into the tunnels. One tactic the Americans used against the VC was to use dogs to sniff out the ventilation holes which they could then block to force the VC and the villagers out, the VC overcame this by putting chilli pepper in the holes so that the dogs would sneeze and they would be alerted as to their presence. They sometimes took the clothes from dead Americans and put them by the ventilation holes so that the dogs wouldn’t detect their enemy.

As for the tunnels themselves, they were tiny. I can’t understand how anyone could live in them. There wasn’t even enough room to stand up. We thought they would be big and open, literally like an underground village but they were so small, that they reminded us of the cramped conditions in the Potosi mines in Bolivia. We both freaked out and made a pretty quick exit.

We decided to leave the next day, and head for Cambodia. We hadn’t had a great time in Vietnam and were very much looking forward to our next (and last!) country.

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A long and probably not very interesting blog about Laos

On 26th February, we crossed the river from Chiang Khong in Thailand to Huay Xai in Laos. We had heard about the ‘well trodden’ route down the Mekong river to Luang Prabang (Laos’ second capital) which would take two days, and it had come highly recommended by some other people we’d spoken to, so we thought we’d go with it. Unfortunately, we’ve not been the most sensible when it comes to research so far in Asia, as you’ve probably gathered from the previous blog, we’ve been living a little with our heads in the clouds while we try to overcome the shock to the system Asia has been.

After entering through immigration and arranging our 30 day holiday visas, we walked up a hilly street to pick up our boat tickets from the travel agency as well as some essential supplies. We’d seen other people grabbing boxes of beer and bottles of Whiskey (Laos Whiskey is not the Whiskey we know at home, it’s more of an Italian Grappa? Blows your head off, anyway) so we imagined we were headed for a party boat, although decided to just go with water and sarnies. Laos do good sarnies! They used to be a French Colony, and it seems that all the French left behind were their Baguettes, (and some old buildings!!) We were ushered towards a tuk tuk where we sat waiting for the driver for over thirty minutes, this worried us a bit because we worked out that we had about 5 minutes to board the boat and we were still no where near the river. This is where we learned about Laos time, not dissimilar to Fiji time, but very different to UK time. Eventually our tuk tuk driver emerged and off we went.

Our lack of organisation which began upon leaving Thailand continued … the tuk tuk driver drove us to a cafe not far from the boat, and offered to book us accommodation in the village where we’d be staying that night. This was when we realised the only money we had was Thai Baht! We would of course need local currency for the next two days of our boat trip. We had maybe 10 minutes before everyone would begin boarding (everybody else had the sense to take their money out at the ATM at immigration.) Melanie desperately tried to hunt down a tuk tuk driver to take her to a cash point, although I didn’t approve of her tactics which mostly involved standing in the same spot on the street observing that there were no tuk tuks. I told her to sit with the bags while I went to find the cash point instead. I walked to the next street along and shouted down a tuk tuk driver who took me to the cash machine and back. Melanie was pretty worried though as it occurred to her there was nothing stopping the tuk tuk driver disappearing and never coming back! She needn’t have worried, I made it back in one piece just before the tour agency lead everyone to the boat.

The boat was what you’d imagine a typical Asian river boat to be, made of wood, with seating for about 70. As we were getting on though (we were last on) they were passing chairs from the next boat along on to ours, as there were about 100 people on our boat. We were lucky enough to be able to grab some of the new seats and settled down. Some were on the floor.

There is little to tell of the journey – it was uneventful, like a bus on water really, which lasted two days. Maybe I’m selling it short; I guess the first few hours were pretty exciting, as we got our first glimpses of this country. Laos is one of the top 8 poorest counties in the world* and you could really see it – no towns or roads, just tiny little villages of wooden shacks dotted up on the banks once an hour or so as you float up the river. Women in the typical conical hats doing their laundry, or washing their hair on the shore, naked children jumping from boats and splashing about, delighted to see the tourist boat come past, men in boats fishing, herds of cows going for a swim. It was peaceful though, and pleasant.

Once we settled, we read the Lonely Planet and realised that we’d made a mistake in not reading up on Laos – we were headed straight in to the middle of the country, and then there were places we’d have liked to have visited both north and south of these, and then the border we wanted to cross in to Vietnam would mean coming back on ourselves whichever way we went. Oh well, we’ll learn to be a little more organised someday – hopefully before we get home.

We stopped overnight in a little village which is well equipped for the boats to stop here everyday, and for the 100 or so tourists it brings. We were a bit peeved though that we booked it earlier, the agency guy had assured us there was always a shortage of accommodation in this village but it turns out he was lying; we could have booked the same room in the same guesthouse or any other one for half the price. We were showered, fed, rested and gone in 8 hours.

On the way back to the boat in the morning, we had to try and get ourselves back down the steep bank to the boat. We had our heavy backpacks on our back, and our rucksacks on our fronts, and it was pretty hard (scrambling up is easy enough, you just do it on your hands and knees, skidding down and keeping your balance however is not as easy.) Andrea lost her footing in her flip flops and slid, and her toe hit a rock, all I could do was run to the boat to get rid of my bags and come back for her, to find her bleeding all over the place, keeping a very brave face on. She thought she’d lost half of her big toenail. We got her in to the boat, and got the wet wipes, and the savlon cream, and the plasters out (well prepared, we are!) She cleaned up her foot, and then went to clean up her flip flop which was covered in blood, only to realise the reason her shoes had failed her in the first place. One of them wasn’t hers. She was wearing one of her flip flops (a black one, size 4) and one of someone elses (a blue one, size 7). You see, you don’t enter any buildings with your shoes on here, so on our way from breakfast, she’d grabbed the wrong one from the pile outside the restaurant. (She says it was dark) Well, she managed to get the flip flop cleaned up, and found the rightful owner on the boat, who luckily had had the sense to bring down Andrea’s odd one. Andrea failed to mention to the rightful owner about her injury, and the fact that she’d bled all over this poor girls shoe!

She turned out to be OK, and kept her toe nail.

We arrived in Luang Prabang and found a guest house, it was cheap but there was no air conditioning, and our pine clad internal room felt a little bit like a sauna. As I said, Luang Prabang is Laos’ second city, so we were surprised at the size of it, it seemed a little more like a village! Very chilled, lots of nice little streets to wander down, sandwiched between the banks of two rivers, a nice night market and a temple or two. We spent four nights there and found ourselves very chilled indeed!

From there, we shared a tuk tuk to some waterfalls with a few other people we’d met on the street, an English woman and two Israelis. The waterfalls were beautiful, in the middle of some woods, and as you walk up the hill you come to one turquoise pool with some small falls, walk a bit further up and there’s another with some slightly larger falls (with a rope swing which Andrea made full use of!) and then a bit further still for some bigger falls. There was also a bear sanctuary there which was a nice surprise, an enclosure where bears hang out in hammocks, with lots to play with and climb on, they were so cute, there were two small bear cubs who were having a play like a pair of puppies, lovely to watch! We didn’t get the full story, but these bears had been rescued from somewhere(!?)

We went back in to the city and went for dinner with the same people we’d spent the day with – they took us to a food place in the market that we hadn’t yet discovered – an all you can eat buffet for about 80 pence, the food was lovely, and all vegetarian! It was just a little alley way with tables all the way down either side, you pick a table and then help yourself. They then took us to a bar called Utopia which we’d never have found ourselves, it was all left and right and right and left up alley ways, but it was possibly the nicest bar we’ve been to yet, verandas overlooking the river, cushions on the floor instead of chairs, candlelight, lanterns, good music etc.

After Luang Prabang we took a 4 hour bus to a little village that we can’t remember the name of. We’d read about this place which often gets over looked for another village called Muang Ngoi Neua about an hour away up river. We got off the bus and everyone else seemed to be heading straight for the boat to Muang Ngoi Neua, we went in search of a place to stay, and found ourselves at the boat – we asked where the accommodation was in this place (we’d already walked about half an hour, it was so hot and dusty, poor Andrea looked like her legs were going to take her no further!) and we were told it was about 2km away. So, we decided to be like sheep and follow everyone else on to the boat to Muang Ngoi Neua. We were packed ‘to the rafters’ in to this little wooden boat. After about 30 minutes we pulled over and were told to get out because the water in the next section of the river was too shallow for the heavy boat. We climbed out and scrambled over a sand dune to head back to meet the boat. What we hadn’t realised, was that we had about 45 minutes of scrambling over sand dunes and rocks, climbing through thorny bushes and sliding down hills before we were going to see the boat again. I was not pleased. It was thirty plus degrees, we had on flip flops and had no water.

Anyway … about 5 minutes after getting back in to the boat, we pulled up at Muang Ngoi Neua. We were so hot and bothered that we accepted the first accommodation we were offered at the top of the 70 or so steps up the bank to the village. We were later quite embarrassed that we had complained about the lack of air con/fans and hot water in the room, when we realised that the whole village only has 3 hours of electricity a day, between 7-10pm. Cold showers; a luxury, the locals wash in the river. Fans? Take your spoiled little arse back to England.

The village was gorgeous, literally, one dirt track/road (there are no motorised vehicles in this village) maybe about 500 meters long, along the edge of the river, on which all of the locals sit and go about their business on the side of. At meal time, they drag a little table out on to the road and have their family meal there. There are cats and dogs and chickens and roosters and ducks and pigs all calling this road their home. Most of the animals here seemed to be relatively well looked after, which was lovely to see. The dogs were all very tame, it must have been the season for it, because every dog you saw seemed to be part of a little family of Mum, Dad and puppies of just a few weeks old following on behind. We did see one dog who was too skinny and looked very poorly. We ran up to a street vendor to find something to eat for him, and found a big tin of Spam! We bought it in a hurry, worrying that this poorly dog was going to disappear, not realising that the woman had charged us £4 for it (more than we were paying for our accommodation that night, and more than triple what our own dinners would cost us. Never mind.) True enough, the dog had disappeared by the time we got back to where it had been. We opened the tin and made some friends with some of our locals (Itchy and Scratchy; Mum and Pup who were flee ridden but very cute, they hung round where our room was, and Myrtle the kitten who then became my pet for the duration of the stay there.) Andrea found the poorly dog eventually, and had to stop a fight (by throwing sand) between Itchy and Poorly for the meat. She managed to chase Itchy away and fed a very nervous Poorly through a fence. Andrea then wrapped up some of her food, every time she ate, in a napkin, and carried the food around with her in case she saw Poorly again. Just like a proper Grandma. It’s so heartbreaking to know that we can’t help every animal in need that we see (we’ve seen thousands by now) but it’s nice to be able to offer a little bit of relief for a little while to one of them.

We spent a few lovely very chilled out days there in that village. One morning, guilty at having done nothing for a while, we trekked to a nearby cave. It had been raining in the morning, so was very slippery, and we had to pull ourselves up muddy hills with branches of trees. One of us fell. Guess which one? Yep, I was covered head to toe (literally) in mud, and had a nice black and blue bum for a few days!

After a few days of complete relaxation in this lovely little village, we headed off for the border of Vietnam. This involved taking a boat (we got together with 6 German oldies who were heading the same way and we chartered our own boat rather than take the public one) to a town called Muang Khoua.

Our border crossing into Vietnam was interesting. This time we were much more organised, but it didn’t help. We arrived into Muang Khoua on the 6th March. Our Vietnam visa was valid only from 8th March, so we figured we’d have to sit tight for a day which was a shame as this town was literally just a few streets of mechanics and seamstresses – nothing for us to do. Mel took a walk and bumped in to some people we’d met previously, and later we headed off to have a drink with them in their hostel.

The people were lovely if a little hippyish. One of them was a stupid-atarian. We don’t actually know what she was but this term seemed apt; she goes beyond the realms of vegetarianism or even veganism, she doesn’t wear shoes in case she treads on bugs. She doesn’t eat root vegetables because she doesn’t want to kill the plant.

One of the guys there was going to cross the Vietnam border the next day (‘Good luck” I thought because he hadn’t bothered to get a visa! The visa is compulsory and has to be prearranged!) He suggested that we come with him. As neither of us had any idea about how to get in to Vietnam from where we were, and none of the locals spoke a word of English, we thought it was a good idea. We’d be entering the border a day before our visa started, but he said that if we couldn’t get through, we’d be able to stop in a guesthouse close to the border, and try again the next day. Sounded good to us, we always like to have a little bit of backup from a more experienced traveller when we’re not sure what we’re doing. We all eventually worked out that we’d need to be at the river for 4am in order to catch a boat ten metres to the other side, where a bus would be waiting for us.

We were also very worried about money, having not seen an ATM since Luang Prabang (3 villages ago) we were down to our last £15, and with this we’d need to buy our bus tickets, possibly bribe some border officials, or if not, find somewhere to stay until we could cross the border, and of course, try to eat. On our way out of the hostel, having said goodbye to everyone, one of the girls we’d spent the evening with followed us out and told us that when she was in India, her bag got stolen with all her money and cards in it. A local lady had taken her in to her home and fed her until her money came through. She had tried to pay her back but the lady had told her instead to pay the favour forward when she met someone in need of help. She gave us a tenner. We were so stoked at the generosity of this girl, and asked how we could contact her to pay it back, but of course, she told us instead to pay it forwards when we meet someone in need!

So the next morning we woke up at 3.30am with help from a kiddy’s alarm clock, a last minute purchase, because the alarm clock we’d bought off a street stall in Bangkok, broke! We headed down the bank and found that, aside from a few locals, we were the first people there. We sat on the ground and waited in the pitch dark for what felt like forever before a man on the other side of the river appeared and sailed the boat over to us. All of the locals and a few backpackers who’d only just rocked up, jumped straight into the canoe. Nobody queues in Asia and it drives me mad!!! So Mel and I waited for the Canoe to cross the river and come back again to pick us up. 20 of us piled into the dangerously-close-to-capsizing canoe, complete with twenty 60 or 80 litre backpacks while our driver tried to navigate us, in complete darkness, to the other side of the river. It was just after 4am. Melanie and I sat in that canoe feeling helpless, although we couldn’t but help but laugh at the ridiculousness of the whole situation.

The canoe had barely pulled into shore when the locals went sprinting off into the distance. We wondered, what was the hurry? We soon found out when we arrived at the bus, which wasn’t a bus at all, it was in fact an 18 seater mini van with about 35 people already crammed into it. We were literally pushed on to the bus and told to sit in a space on the floor by the door where we failed to make ourselves comfortable on some rice bags. My ankle was twisted below me and I lost a flip flop trying to reposition myself, there was no chance of retrieving it until we stopped because there was no room to reach down and grab it. I had the corner of someone’s briefcase in my back and a boy’s smelly breath in my face. Mel’s situation wasn’t much better. A large Vietnamese woman was sitting on her hip and had her arm around her shoulder to stop from falling off. That’s one of the first things I noticed about the Vietnamese which is so contrary to the British; they don’t mind or seem to care about personal space; physical contact with strangers is no problem for them. We sat on that bus for hours! At about 6 or 7am we stopped at a cafe and the locals grabbed some food. We were starving, but the cafe didn’t cater for westerners, neither of us fancied rice at that time in the day so we went without. We did take the opportunity, however, to grab some proper seats at the back of the mini van; the locals had pushed in front of us to get seats in the first place, and so we decided that it wouldn’t be unfair for us to do the same. Some Portugese guys saw what we were doing and joined us, and then argued with the locals when they called for us to sit back at the front. They argued that we were ladies and that we’d all paid the same fare so why should we have to sit on the floor again? I couldn’t have agreed more!

We started worrying when we approached the Laos exit point because there were no guest houses in sight. We were there a day early and there was no transport back to Muang Khoua, we feared that we’d be screwed if they didn’t let us through. Luckily the Laos officials stamped us out, and on we went to Vietnam. We drove for an hour through no man’s land before we arrived at the Vietnamese entry point. It occurred to us that if Vietnam wouldn’t let us in, we wouldn’t be able to go back to Laos because they’d stamped and declared our Laos visa to be ‘used’. While queuing to enter Vietnam, some of the people on our bus were crossing their fingers, and nervous for us as we’d told them of our predicament, but everyone sighed a very quiet sigh of relief as we got though! The Vietnamese officials didn’t seem to notice / care that our visa wasn’t valid yet!

Yey!

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This blog isn’t done with …

… I’ve just been a bit stuck as to what to say next. I have a Laos blog almost written, just some polishing to do on it, but I’ll post it soon. We’re now at the end of Vietnam – so we’ve two countries to update you on! I was determined not to get so behind when I started this blog!

The fact of the matter is, that Andrea and I have broken up – I won’t go in to gory details here, except that it all started at the beginning of February in Fiji, and ended finally (as in, ‘its final’ as opposed to ‘at last’) a few weeks ago. We decided, given that we’re going home soon (April 13th) to continue travelling on together, as the alternatives are less attractive; going home sooner than soon, or continuing separately, which neither of us wanted to do.

I wasn’t keen on ‘broadcasting’ this here, as such, but it’s the reason I’ve not been able to write/post any proper blogs, it just feels a bit odd carrying on writing and ignoring the proverbial Elephant in the Room.

Laos blog … coming soon.

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Good morning Vietnam…

This is for the nearest and dearest … we disappeared off the face of the (virtual) earth about a week ago, because we went in to northern (very rural) Laos, where of course there is no internet.  We’ve just arrived in Vietnam where apparently facebook access is blocked.  Who knew? 

I couldn’t think of any other way of getting a message to anyone who might be wondering why our facebooks are looking bare!  We’re well! 🙂

PS… We think we have a return date, although this isn’t confirmed yet … 16th April kids, get your glad rags out!

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Tuk Tuks and Ping Pongs

So we arrived in Thailand safe and sound, and excited to finally be there (unfortunately, we’re very behind on blogs, and have now left Thailand, so this will be written in the past tense!) We shared a taxi with a German guy – I was a little bit nervous about this having only recently seen the film ‘Taken’ but glad to be paying a third less in taxi fares – the airport is about an hours drive away from the city. The German guy had no idea what his plans were, he’d literally just taken himself to his local airport and looked for the cheapest flight. There’s a bit of a story there, we thought, but probably best not to probe! The traffic in Bangkok is crazy, and the motorway we took to get in to the city reminded me a little of the M25 at rush hour! Bangkok is dirty too, which didn’t really come as a surprise!

We got to the hotel at about six thirty in the evening, by which time it was already dark out. I was pleasantly surprised by the hotel – when I saw ‘The Beach’ many many years ago, I expected that that was what we were going to be up against (you know the scene at the beginning when he’s in Bangkok? Naive, I know!) Our room was lovely and sparkly clean, plus we chose a place away from the Khao San Road (where you can find 95% of Bangkok’s backpackers) on purpose, we wanted to be able to escape the hustle and bustle, but were close enough (about a five minute walk) to be able to come and go as we pleased. We dumped our bags, and headed out to explore … or should I say, have a beer or two!

Mistake number one. We were a little confused about the conversion rate, and a little naive about how cheap we expected everything to be, and so we decided, in our new found sensible budgeting heads, to only take out the equivalent of £6 each, thinking that would see us in to the night on beers. How wrong we were – beer on the Khao San Road are just over £2 each, so we only managed to have two and a half each, before succumbing to the ATM. We were having a great time though; Khao San Road is buzzing, and I think because we were there early enough (it was probably only about ten o’clock) it wasn’t as horrible and seedy as we’d heard. Although there were lots of calls of “Tuk Tuk” and “Ping Pong” coming from everywhere.

We found a lovely little bar with a balcony overlooking the street, with live music playing (a Thai guy on a guitar playing everything from Oasis to Gloria Gaynor!) and an excellent atmosphere. We’ve missed that; we found that South America was lovely for travellers always just being open to chatting to one another, and always making room for one (or two, or three) more at their table and swapping stories, New Zealand and Australia less so, and so we were pleased to be back in that kind of atmosphere. Half way through our ATM funded fourth beers, we found ourselves feeling really quite drunk – plus, we’d gotten in to some deep subjects, the kind you only have after a few beers, the tear inducing kind of chats, so we figured it was time to take a walk home. We got in to bed happy to be in Thailand, and although I don’t remember, I suspect we probably high fived “To Thailand!” before dozing off … we do shit like that when we’ve had a few!

We woke the next day with some crazy hangovers, a little confused because we knew we’d only had four beers each. We figured that that’s what’ll happen if you get off a plane and drink beer, having had no food or water. We headed out to see what Bangkok was about, and the heat was sickening. Within minutes, you’re absolutely drenched through with sweat, your clothes clinging to you and your head pounding. You’re walking past market stalls who are selling intestines and eye balls, and fish heads, the streets are filthy, there are drains everywhere with the stench of sewerage rising from them in the heat. You dive in to a café for something cold, and the Thai woman stands next to your table screaming at the passers by “Helloooo, you drink somethiiiing, we have driiiiink, we have Coffeeee” over and over again. As the sun goes down, Bangkok explodes. Khao San Road is a mesh of a million different coloured neon lights, street vendors getting in your way trying to sell you everything from noodles, to jewellery, to massages, to fish who will eat the skin off your feet, motorbikes coming up from behind, cars coming from in front, people all around, disabled people with twisted limbs laying in the middle of the street begging you for some money, their only mode of transport a skateboard and a different tuk tuk driver every few feet offering to take you to a sex show.

Bangkok is colourful to say the least. Definitely worth a visit, but unless you want to immerse yourself fully in to all that goes on there, a day is enough.

We needed to get our Visa sorted for Vietnam while we were in Bangkok, as that’s where the embassy is, and you can’t get a visa on arrival. We were trying to find a taxi to take us there, but that was going to cost 400 Baht (£8) and Tuk Tuk’s wouldn’t take us. Online it said to get a Sky Train, but we couldn’t get a Tuk Tuk to take us to the Sky Train either. We were looking at a little map on the side of the street to see how on earth to get there, and a guy asked where we trying to get to. We told him the embassy, and he told us you don’t have to go to the embassy, you can go to the Government Tourist Office (which he pointed out on the map, sure enough, there was the Government Tourist Office logo) and they would sort it out for us. He called a Tuk Tuk for us, which took us there for 5 Baht (10p). We didn’t know better at that point. Of course, the ‘Government Tourist Office’ he took us to wasn’t a Government Tourist Office at all. Here, the governing body of tourist agencies is called the TAT. All agencies have to be approved by them. What this agency had done, was put a massive TAT sign outside their office, and then the proper name of the agency in tiny letters underneath. Well, we know this now. Turns out, the guy in this agency wasn’t very helpful unless we were prepared to spend 6000 Baht on a tour with him. We walked out.

The only useful information we learned there, was that that Friday was a public holiday in Thailand, therefore nothing was open. The embassy wouldn’t reopen until Monday, and then you have to wait 3 working days for the Visa to be processed. Stay in Bangkok another 5 days? Were they kidding us? We’d barely been there 24 hours and already we were desperate to get out. We actually found another agency near our hostel the next day, where the woman was really nice, and enlightened us on how the other agency worked, and gave us a very good price for sorting out our visas for us. She also arranged a train ticket for us to Chiang Mai (which were actually sold out … but she was on the phone to the station for us every twenty minutes to see if they were going to put on another carriage that night) and then she would courier our visa’s (and passports!!!) up to Chiang Mai for us when they were ready. All in all, she was very helpful, and we got what we wanted for a good price.

We were hanging around our hostel waiting to leave to go to the train station, when we got chatting to an English couple who were doing the same. They told us that they had heard that there were protests going on in the city, and that we would need to allow two hours to make the 30 minute journey, so we shared a taxi with them to the station. Well, the taxi had to go up and down streets several times, turning round when he saw trouble ahead, we saw the Red Shirts, we saw police lined up along the roads with riot shields. It was all a little unnerving, but we got to the station OK.

We were taking the sleeper train (14 hours over night) to the north of Thailand – and it was a pretty cool train. You get a bed each, each compartment has four beds, we were sharing with a Thai lady and her little boy. There’s also a restaurant car, where you can buy beers etc, which had Thai music blaring out, and some little disco lights. It was all very bizarre! Our cabin was air conditioned, and we were all a little chilly, having to add layers, but I realised as I went down to the restaurant car, that it was worth it – the rest of the train was hot, with all the windows wide open, and the breeze coming in feeling like the heat from a hair dryer!

We arrived in Chiang Mai the next morning (Sunday). In the station, there seemed to be a wall of Thai men waiting for us, all shouting “TukTukTukTukTukTuk” like a bunch of chickens in a coop!

We got to our hostel, which was a lovely little pink house with gardens around it. We were sharing our dorm with a bunch of numpties (a creepy Russian guy who did nothing but lay on his bed all day and smirk to himself, an Australian girl with an offensive manner and an old French man who never left the hostel, and never once removed his ipod earphones) but it only cost us 100 Baht (£2) a night, so we were happy! Chiang Mai was nice. We were staying in a little side street which had an indoor market, and lots of nice cafes in which you could sit with a carrot juice and a book all day and watch the world go by. We spent the week in Chiang Mai mostly just wandering about, looking at temples and eating and drinking. We bumped in to the English couple we’d shared the taxi with to the train station in Bangkok and had a good night out with them … a good night out consisting of sitting in one of these quiet little cafes with a few beers and chatting – and again, we managed to get stonking hangovers after just a few beers. This was when we learned that the local beer here, Chang, is 7% proof. You’d never know it, it tastes light! We also had a night out with an old friend of mine from Uni, Corinne, who is living in Thailand now, and who took us to a nice restaurant and a jazz bar.

We also went to the Elephant Nature park, but we told you about that already.

On the Friday, we got a little nervous waiting for our Passports and Visas to arrive, once the postman had been and gone, and the people in the hostel told us that there was only ever one post per day. Still, they arrived later, so no worries there. We booked our ticket out of Chiang Mai straight away, as we thought we’d seen all there was to see around Chiang Mai. We decided to get ourselves straight to the border of Thailand and Laos (Chiang Khong), as we’re coming back to Thailand later (we fly out of Bangkok) so we can see some more of it then. We had originally planned to see a few little places north of Chiang Mai (Pai, which is a little laid back hippy village, and Soppong, a little town known for its beauty, and its trekking and caving) for one reason or another, we didn’t get up to these places (they were about 6 hours in the opposite direction of Chiang Khong) which we now regret a little … but I guess you have to stand by your decisions, even when they are wrong!

So, we took a night bus, which would take 6 hours, and the ticket included accommodation on arrival (at 3am) in Chiang Khong. The ‘bus’ was more of a twelve seater mini van, the most uncomfortable vehicle we’ve ever been in, and the accommodation was absolutely disgusting! We had to sleep in our own sleeping bag liners because all the bedding in there was unsavoury to say the least (thanks Shauna for those silk pillow cases, we’ve never been more pleased for them!) but tiredness took us quickly enough, so we didn’t suffer too much!

There was a knock at the door at 7:30 and a shout of “Blek-faaaaass”. Well, we thought sleep more important than food at that moment so we ignored it. There was then another knock about half an hour later. I went out to see what was going on (our room led out on to the car park, this place was similar to a motel) and there was a truck full of people with their bags, and me stood in my pyjamas with a birds nest on my head, squinting in the daylight. “Are you ready?” they called “What for?” I asked, and they all laughed and said they were going across the border. We had no idea – as far as we knew, the ticket we’d bought was only to take us as far as this motel, everyone else seemed to know what they were doing but us. I did the sensible thing. I got back in to bed and ignored the problem in favour of some more sleep.

A couple of hours later we woke up and started to panic a little. We had no idea where we were, we seemed to be in the middle of nowhere, not in a town, everyone on the bus with us had gone, and no-one spoke a word of English. Andrea tried to speak to the woman who ran the motel, and she just shouted back in Thai. Eventually, a guy came and knocked on the door who did speak English and told us if we pay him he can get us to the border now. We weren’t even sure if we wanted to go to the border, we’d heard about a cute little village not far from where we were. Still, he seemed to get us in to shape, as there was lots of money to be made from us. We had five minutes to pack, and get in to his truck. He then took us to the border, swapped some of our Baht for Dollars (at an extortionate exchange rate – probably) as the Laos border only accept dollars for entry, sold us the slow boat ticket, and put us on a little boat to cross over the Mekong River to Laos.

We were very lucky that we didn’t get ripped off (as we found out later when comparing what we’d paid with some others) … sometimes when you’re travelling you find yourself in a sticky situation, you don’t know where to go or what to do, and unfortunately, you have to just put your trust in to someone like him, who is offering to help, and who you’re going to have to hand cash over to. We’ve been pretty lucky not to get ripped off so far, but we’re not taking that for granted, we know our time is probably coming. We were incredibly disorganised in Thailand, as you can see!

I’ll leave Laos ’til the next blog – for now, that’s Thailand Part One – DONE!

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Singapore

From Perth we flew to Singapore. Getting from the airport to our hostel was easy via the MRT (the city train.) It was immediately obvious from stepping off the plane, how advanced Singapore is compared to old Blighty. The train station and platforms were in one big open room, with glass doors at either side which open when the trains arrive… it was so clean! All of Singapore is immaculate! (We’re writing this from Thailand, the polar opposite in terms of cleanliness.)

We caught the train to our hostel which was basic but nice enough. We’d arrived late in the evening and so had a quiet night before a full day of sight seeing the next day.

Melanie and I can get quite lazy when travelling, and rarely spend a whole day sight seeing, but the next day in Singapore we ‘sight saw’ our arses off! We were up and out the door by 9am and caught the train into town to see the famous (i’d never heard of it) colonial style Raffles hotel. We took lots of photos and although (as blatant backpackers) we weren’t allowed in, the concierge allowed us to look from afar, through the main entrance! I felt like a pauper.

Back at home, I was sat on the bus on the way to work one morning and I read about a swimming pool on top of a skyscraper in Singapore. On our walk into the central business district we spotted it. Over three separate skyscrapers was, what looked like a ship. We figured that this was the place. Our hostel had also told us of a large sky scraper and casino that boasts spectacular views over the city. Knowing how extravagant casinos can be, we thought this must be the same place too! We walked across the bridge to get to it, inside was a large shopping mall, it had a huge ‘ice-less’ ice rink in it, I tried to persuade Melanie to have a go with me but she opted out. Probably best, since the rink was surrounded by a food court and lots of people having their dinner, and actually neither of us can skate. Again the mall was very fancy, there was an actual mini river complete with men and their gondolas, running through the mall.

Melanie and I worked our way up through the shopping centre to the ‘sky park’ where we paid to ascend 56 floors to see astounding views over the city. Unfortunately the swimming pool was closed for a function and so we weren’t allowed in. We’d hoped to have a Singapore Sling cocktail in the restaurant too, but that was closed to us as well. It felt very exclusive. Singapore is like a playground for the rich.

As we were walking around the city, we were approached by two ‘yogi men’. They told us they were in Singapore practicising meditation, healing and fortune telling and could they talk to us for a moment. Not having anything else to do, we said yes, although I was keen to tell my yogi man that I wasn’t going to pay him any anything. He told me that ‘yogi man’ never ask for money.

He told me about my ‘three bad habits’ and if I stop doing these things, I will be happier. After a while he asked for a donation and despite what he said earlier, I gave him a fiver (about £2.50) He proceeded to tell me that ‘poor people give 100, medium give me 200, rich people give me 300’ I told him, quite irately that that’s all he was getting. I should have walked away but wanting to see where this was going, I stupidly talked to him for a few minutes more. He then asked if I had a boyfriend, I told him I had a girlfriend to which he appeared shocked before asking all sorts of intimate questions. Just before I walked away he said I should at least give him 26 dollars, because I am 26 years old, or I’ll get bad luck. What a load of tosh!!

It was after that that we decided to catch a train back to our hostel. We had only an hour of chill time, before getting ready to meet my friend LC, also from Singapore. I met LC (Lianchiu Chong) in 2005, in Wildwood, New Jersey during a working holiday. It was lovely seeing her and having a catch up. LC took us to a local food court for some dinner and ordered us some local dishes to share. The food was very different to what we’re used to at home. She brought us some kind of rice jelly, the texture was a bit strange, but it tasted alright. We had noodles, again very different to any noodles I’d seen before, they were round and thick like worms, but tasted good when I could get the image of worms out of my head and a spicy omelette which was lovely! After dinner we walked through China town, which was like old school Singapore and more traditional than the rest of the city. We then had an evening walk around the river, which looked very beautiful at night time, before discovering the most amazing chocolate shop!!! I think it’s a franchise but we’re not blessed enough to have one in the UK yet. I ordered a hot chocolate which was literally, hot liquid chocolate in a cup! I felt a bit sick afterwards but it was worth it.

And that was Singapore!

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