After the interconnecting flight from Hue to Ho Chi Minh City then reclaim of bags to recheck back in to get to Bangkok we arrive at our hotel.
Really nice place and only £25 per person per night with a lovely roof top pool, bar and good location.
It’s just a couple of nights before to make sure we made our connecting flight to Myanmar. We spend the next day in the markets exploring the biggest wholesale/retail market in Asia. Strangest place, you can’t try anything on, not even just pop it over the top of your clothes and there are no refunds. Needless to say we didn’t buy anything.
What we also didn’t realise was that it was Makha Bucha Day. This meant that on this Saturday night in Bangkok that no one could serve alcohol, so no roof top bar for us. After going out we return to our room to raid the minibar of the sad 2 cans of beer and end up paying nearly £10.00!
Next morning we treat ourselves to the luxury of a hotel buffet breakfast and over stuff on western food to the point we both feel like we are going to explode, then off to the airport to depart to Yangon.
Nikki our daughter is ready and waiting to greet us in arrivals in a lovely new airport and getting through immigration with our e-visa was a breeze! The immigration officers were just so pleasant too. We head off in a random taxi with a space saver wheel and a driver chewing away at a betel leaf and spitting red saliva out the window.
Betel is a leaf that a lot of people chew. When you chew it your mouth goes red and produces lots of saliva, it’s got something in it that keeps you awake. Taxi drivers all seem to use it and you can see the big red spit spats all over the pavements.
We spend the evening at the Green Elephant eating a couple of delicious currys, coconut rice, lentil rice and soya crackers.
Next day Nikki is at work and we go and explore the Shwedagon Pagoda. We flag a taxi and for a sum of £1.20 we are dropped off at the north entrance. This pagoda is huge, you have to take your shoes off at the entrance and put them in a bag or pay for a locker, luckily we had a bag! It’s not cheap to get in currently $5 each but so worth it. You learn so much about the place and the Myanmar way of life. They even have 8 days in a week, Wednesday becomes Wednesday AM until 18:00 then it’s PM until midnight.
After a very hot few hours we then go and meet Nikki at the international school she works in and have a look around before wandering off into rush hour for a Burmese cooking course that was recommended to us.
We walk around and eventually find a rather spurious tower block in what we thought was an”interesting” area, ask some locals if we are in the right location and then up in a very dodgy lift to the 12th floor. Eventually we find the flat which has an amazing view of the Shwedagon Pagoda. The moral of the story, never judge a book by it’s cover!
We spend the evening being shown a select of meals to cook and learning about how life has changed in the last 17 years in Yangon. We sit around a table in the kitchen trying them all. In true standard fashion Steve scoffs the lot, smiling away and Deb has to pick through and force it down. Deb really is not an Asian food fan and it may even seem to now have turned into a bit of a food phobia.
Deep fried anything from spider, sparrow to chicken head is fine, put a bowl of mixed up noodle floating in liquid and Deb really can’t do it!
Time to get to bed ready for an early start to get ourselves over to Inle Lake.
We choose to take a car and drive on route to Hue and make a day of it. You can get there various ways.
Train – Cheap and slow and you miss the views and stopping where you fancy.
Bus – Misses most of the beautiful pass and bay and to be frank, we had them pass us along some of the route. They drive fast with no care, like they have a death wish. The poor motorbikes get pushed off the road into the dirt all the time and the bus will play with the traffic, not slowing down until you do to let them through. Then 5 mins later they are at the side of the road having broken down or over heated and all the passengers are sweating in the heat.
Motorbike – For the mentally insane westerner who wants the standard right of passage leg scar and knee injury. 😉
After you pass the mass development of jumbo sized new resort hotels being built on the beach front pretty much all the way from Hoi An to Danang the 1st stop is a place called Marble Mountains. It looks just like 5 pieces of rock poking out from the earth and not much to see but as soon as you get on them you see why people like them and also why during the Vietnam war they built a hospital in them. It was right next to the US army base hidden in plain site and never found! The views are great and you could spend half a day here easily, exploring the temples, tunnels and caves inside. We were so glad it wasn’t raining as you would really struggle to get about as the marble is slippy enough in the dry.
Then we took the slow road to Hue to be able to go through the Hải Vân Pass as seen on Top Gear. The views are lovely on the day we drove although it can be extremely foggy sometimes.
Final stop is Lang Co Bay, apparently one of the 30 best bays in the world?
We arrive at our hotel, Hue Villa Hotel which is part of a tourism training college teaching the young how to run hotels and part funded by Luxembourg. Rooms are big and it’s a cheap place to stay as long as you don’t eat there as the food was expensive.
We spend the evening watching the sunset over perfume river and the dragon boats shuffling tourists back and forth.
Next day we bake ourselves in the sun whilst looking around the imperial city. It’s currently being restored as it was, as you can most probably guess, bombed by the Americans in the war!
It’s an impressive place and the restored parts are beautiful. Deb finally runs out of memory cards which gives us a good opportunity to look through our photos and realise just how much we have seen and done and just how quickly it has gone by. Can’t believe we will be on our way home soon.
This starts the whole, what are we going to do conversations again and then on to what destinations we fancy next?
The sun is still shining so we book a car and driver for the afternoon for £15 and head off to the tomb of Khan Dinh. It’s a pretty stunning place but again, if you look at how poor the people were verses the tomb it’s pretty sad. It was know as the place you never return from when it was being built and so many died in it’s making. The imperial king also put the taxes of the village up by 30% just to pay for it!
Then we are off to the abandoned water park down the road to pay a villager 70p who is making himself an extra bit of cash on the side to let you through the gate. This place was opened back in 2004 although not complete and closed in 2006, for a reason no one is quite sure of. Up until 2014 there were plans to turn it into an eco holiday park but this has since failed. The park is now just in decay and a cool place to visit since the crocodiles have been re-homed.
The scariest thing is that you can walk up to the top of the dragons head and look over the edge. Some have even climbed on to the top of the head. The place only has a few people wandering around. Mainly younger bloggers/vloggers trying to be super cool. No health and safety here, sure it won’t be long until some crazy vlogger or blogger falls off and then the access stairs will get smashed up to stop you going up.
The night is spent on the riverbank watching the locals cooking up spurious bowls of stuff on stalls under a bridge and trying to sell some rather tatty souvenirs to the over dreamy tourists.
Then it’s off to have maybe the second best curry Deb has ever had at Shiva-Shakti Indian Restaurant complete with the locally brewed beer.
Over night the rain arrives and the power come and goes, just as well we are packing up and moving on to Bangkok to catch our flight over to Myanmar.
Debs and Steve
P.S. This is what happens when you have a Korean wanting to help take your photos and shows you how to pose!
We arrive in Hoi An in the rain and decide to get the umbrellas out and go for a wander. 5 mins later we are back as it turns into an absolute down pour.
The rain doesn’t stop so it’s dinner in the hotel and an early night with the hope for a better day tomorrow.
Next day the rain has subsided but the clouds still look dark, so we go to explore and find a place to sit and people watch.
We have arrived in the middle of the lunar new year celebrations so the 2017 light festival is in full flow. The river is lit by big dragons and other creatures and there is a stage with a singer, who sounded a bit like Asian Lulu and seemed to be stuck on a continuous loop. You could also find stalls with games like coconut shies and target shooting.
Hoi An is well known for it’s lanterns. We missed the one night a month that they turn the lights off and everything is lit by lanterns, but we’d imagine this must be so nice.
For the price of about 30p you can buy a little floating lantern with a candle in it from the old ladies then you can float it down the river. As it floats off be prepared for the eco friendly recycling as the women collect them down stream put fresh candles in and then off to market they go for resell.
It’s a pretty village just full of colourful lanterns, more coffee shops than you will ever need, some lovely local markets and so many places to eat. Then the rain comes again and an umbrella isn’t going to save us this time so we duck into the clothes market. The stall holders are happy to have a captive audience. There are also many tailors here but most are not real tailors.
They all sell similar designs and are just windows to the same factory who makes them. If you really want to get clothes made here you will need to check out tripadvisor for reviews. Deb liked the idea of having something made but being a seamstress, looking at quality and price soon put her off. Fabric is very very over priced and costs of making it just too expensive for what you get. The shop keepers get 10/10 for persistence. One guy was particularly persuasive and had about 4 sets of people on the go. Unfortunately it seems to be the younger set that get suckered in and end up not being able to say no. The chatter on the street is full of people comparing what they paid and people concerned they have wasted money buying something they will never wear. Meanwhile Deb and Steve were content with the $1 t-shirts from Cambodia that surprisingly washed up really well.
Rain stopped and we make a swift escape, back to the hotel ready for a spruce up and to discover Hoi An at night.
Hoi An at night is really pretty. All the bars and streets light up with lanterns and reflect on the water, it’s a beautiful site. We can now see why it seems to be everyone’s favourite place in Vietnam. We did the usual, wandered up and down looking to choose a place to have a cheap drink and then wander around again unable to decide.
We walk to the end of the bars and find a nice stop on a roof terrace called Purple Rain. This place is NOT recommended! Yes, we have been watching ourselves in Vietnam to avoid scams only to nearly get done but a western run bar! Everywhere you go everyone is working hard to provide a good clean service, open kitchen so you can see your food being cooked and until now we hadn’t even given it a thought that they always open your beer bottles at the table, until that day that they don’t! Our beer came not only already open but in a beer cooler, nice touch we thought. Steve has a taste and said this is not Saigon beer? We pull the bottle out and it has no labels. When challenged the waiter laughs with one of those, yes you caught us moments, the owner does the, I told you not to take beer from there and we don’t pay for the beer and wave goodbye.
Next day, time to go find a Banh Mi. Everyone raves about them and there is a shop in Hoi An that are supposed to do the best one ever! Off we trott, you won’t miss it they said, you will see the queue. We find the queue, see that it’s only 70p if you sit in to eat it, find a table and beat the queues. Not sure what was in the baguettes but they tasted ok.
Finally on the last day in Hoi An the sun comes out and we get to see the place looking beautiful. Amazing just how different it looks.
Time to pack and off we go again. This time by car to Hue.
It’s so busy, hang on to your stuff. Everyone you meet has had something stolen there. So we are ready for this place that even the Vietnamese seem to be afraid of this big sprawling metropolis.
We get on the very empty Qatar flight. Steve looks like billy no mates again and off we go. We couldn’t go by land as we didn’t have a visa to cross the border.
There are so few people on the flight that when we go to collect our luggage we can’t find the carousel until we realise they didn’t bother and had just chucked the luggage on the floor. Good Morning Vietnam!!
The free hotel transfer was waiting and off we went through the empty streets. We knew that some things would be closed and some people leave the city for Vietnamese New Year or as it’s called here Tet but really weren’t expecting it to be so quite?
The hotel is in a good location in District 1 and the things we came to see are within easy reach. After a bit of a “negotiation” with the hotel we get an up grade. We had made double sure that we had a room with a window as Deb and her hotel claustrophobia would not have coped without a window out. This is where we learnt our next lesson. Don’t think just because you have double checked your room has a window, as many hotels in Asia don’t, that this “window” may just be a pane of glass that looks into the hotel air vent!
From now on it’s another special request on the booking form. Special requests followed by emailing the hotel to confirm go something like this.
Window with view to the outside.
Whether you want a city, beach, mountain or garden view. Quiet room, not near stairs, lifts, next to fire doors or near the hotel entrance/exit or over conference/ballrooms.
High floor, especially if in a city.
Something else we have found handy in Asia is to make sure that on arrival you have a screen shot of the photo of the room you booked online. This is how we got our upgrade as the room was not the room in the description. Naughty Naughty!
Our new room even has a jacuzzi bath, or as it later became known as, the washing machine!
We enjoy the evening on the roof top bar of the hotel we had booked as we were concerned about just how busy it was going to be down on the street. The hotel was better than we expected for the price we paid.
Next day after a very asian breakfast of chicken and chips? We go off to find the war museum and find it closed until 13:30, luckily for us we decided to do it today as the next day is a bank holiday and all goverment buildings are closed but the Cu Chi Tunnels will still be open. It’s an interesting place, a lot of words and some very graphic photos. Bit of an information overload on agent orange and after so many upsetting graphic pictures and some very upset locals it’s time to leave and go wander.
As it’s Tet, the streets are full of bright lights and as it’s the year of the rooster, a lot of large rooster statues. We even come across some chinese dragon performances in the streets and find a flower festival that we will visit next day. As not much was open we wander through the huge mall near our hotel to find something to eat before heading back up to the bar in the hotel to watch the city lights.
Bright and early we hop into the minibus to go to the Cu Chi Tunnels with a bunch of middle aged Lithuanians, one who just can’t seem to live without a beer in his hand! We are with Kim travel on a small tour of only 8 people and our guide for the day is a war veteran who can tell you 1st hand as he was there and at 69 years old you can still see the emotion in his eyes. He was by far the best guide so far, funny, interesting, engaging and not to forget rather cheeky! And yes, Deb did want to climb in the hole but would the butt fit? Nope!
Whilst at the tunnels you realise that although we paid about 10% over the average tour price, what we got was so much better service. Our guide knew everyone, understood when to hang back and wait for the big coach tours and young tour guides to rush past. He would then give us a really personal account of the area we were in, unlike the young guides who just repeated the daily words to a group of about 30.
Worth every extra penny. He even managed to get Steve trying the local snake rice wine.
After we return it’s off to the flower festival that stays open until 23:00. It was a beautiful display of orchids, dragons made from vegetables, the most amazing bonsai trees we had ever seen and more people taking selfies than you can imagine.
Soon we have had enough of flowers and fighting off selfie sticks in our path and we head back to get ready for our next flight to Hoi An. If there’s a time to go to Ho Chi Minh City it must be Tet as we found the city completely comfortable, no crowds and no traffic and it appeared the pickpockets had gone home to the countryside to show off their new found wealth.
Time to hop in our taxi transfer from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh. You can go various ways and prices, from flying, taxi or the Giant ibis which looks surprisingly good for $10.
We are taking one of the staff with us too, so she can visit her family for the day or should we say a few hours, as the journey is 6hrs there and another 6hrs back but about the only time she can visit due to work. Generally the staff all work away from home and only get back to see family once a year.
On route along the only main road, you see so many sites. A man on a motorbike with two live pigs tied on, various people going the wrong way up the road, lorries over flowing with people and last but not least kids of about 6 to 8 years old riding motorbikes along the main carriage ways. It’s an interesting ride and we choose to stop for lunch at Skuon, aka Spider town. We have a good look around but can’t bring ourselves to buy spiders or any of the other insect snacks and instead buy pineapple and sweet potato crisps. Little do we know that someone in the car has……. So once on route we get to try Tarantulas, Steve manages a leg and Deb eats legs and a bit of body but can’t manage any more!
We say goodbye to the guys and settle into our hotel. Phnom Penh is hot, sticky and rather smelly.. Our reason for coming is to visit S21 and the Killing Fields and learn what went on 1st hand during the Khmer Rouge Rule.
You soon notice how poor Cambodia is, if you stop and take a look around. 70% of the population are under 36 and hardly any wear glasses as they can’t afford them. Deb noticed this early on as drivers seem to drive slow and over careful, thankfully our 6hr taxi driver did wear glasses.
Something that very much surprised us in Phnom Penh was the amount of older white men and young Cambodian women, far far higher than we have seen anywhere in our travels, along with a huge red light area. Get your accommodation wrong here and you will know about it! We spend a few nights feeling like odd ones out in restaurants, the only couple amongst a load of old fat single guys with big ears!
Everyone else has these romantic dreams of sitting by the Mekong or going on a cruise along it.. In Phnom Penh you can pay the $18 each and do just that through the rubbish and dirty water whilst sucking in fumes from the boat engine. The people are busy fishing, foraging and using the water to make a living.
Advice is to do the museum 1st, we hire a tuk tuk for the afternoon and go off to the museum called S21, previously a school, where the Khmer Rouge over took and used as a secret prison and torture centre. The story of the Khmer Rouge is truly horrific. Make sure you buy the audio tour as it will enhance your visit.
The museum has real photos of real people who never made it through the camp and some photographs of the horrid torture they went through. During the rule of the Khmer Rouge, over 3 million died, this equates to 1 in 4 people and anyone with an education were the 1st to die. Of the 20,000 people that are recorded as going through S21 only 7 survived.
As we walked out to the exit there were two of the survivors selling their stories in a paperback and art work. This was such a hard thing to see, really puts a lump in your throat.
Next up was the killing fields, an execution centre and mass grave site was found. After seeing S21 then going to here to see the final destination of the poor people and hearing further awful stories that we won’t go into.
Time in Phnom Penh was short as we only stayed 3 days, luckily for us we had a nice small hotel to disappear back to 5 mins walk from the noise and mucky river but also close enough to everything. We struggled to find it on arrival as it was up an alley but once inside it really was a little oasis of calm and had only been open 3 months.
You have to watch yourself in Phnom Penh, there are so many little barefoot dirty kids running around smiling with big eyes asking everyone for 1 dollar. Don’t give in to it, here is a thought to leave you with, everytime you part with a dollar it’s another day that the kids parents don’t wash or cloth these children. The average hospitality worker who brings you your meal and beer earns on average $3 a day, a modern new build one bedroom apartment in the very best part of town costs $6300 to buy. If you have money to give away, make sure you give it to the right places.
Cambodia has a long journey ahead and so much help is needed there, the aftermath of war and genocide really has taken a toll on the country. If you are in the area, put it on the list to really understand what we mean.
As we walk back to our hotel to pack up, Steve spots a UK plated van and we start to wonder how it managed to get here? Lo and behold the owners arrive and we start chatting. Turns out these guys retired early, sold their home and bought the van to drive around the world but were currently unable to get into Thailand as the rules had changed again meaning the van was not allowed to cross the border.
Also time for Steve to say bye bye to the Cambodian Crocodiles and move on to our next stop, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
We arrive at the airport in Siem Reap, Cambodia and are picked up free of charge by some more smiley people as part of the hotel package.
It’s not far from the airport and slightly outside of the town but close enough to be in town in 10 minutes by the hotel free shuttle.
The Flourishing Spa is our base for the week to explore the temples of Angkor Wat and have a relaxing bit of down time from the constant moving around from place to place.The hotel is perfect and the room lovely. How did we end up here? Having spent much time googling places to stay we have come to realise that although Trip Advisor is a good guide to look at hotel reviews, it is far from the best at supporting the new and up and coming businesses due to the way it seems to work out the scores and ranking.
You can be a great new hotel but fall very low on the rankings as you don’t have enough reviews, so we have started to look at accommodation differently to ensure something good doesn’t get missed just because it’s new. The room was beautiful and so well designed, we even have a private little garden and our bathroom looks on to it. The pool was gorgeous too and just lovely to come back to after a dusty day in temples and town, we can thoroughly recommend it.
Deb starts by planning our days out to ensure Steve doesn’t get completely bored looking at temple after temple. There are more than 1000 temples, built between the 9th and 13th centuries, so where do you start? Deb starts by reading a lot of blogs on the subject and starts a list to see what comes out the most appealing and comes out with a plan.
You can pick up lots of tours of the temples but end up doing certain circuits and with herds of people meaning you miss so much and see just the usual stuff.
We opt for a 3 day pass, valid over a week. Our tickets cost $40 each but we didn’t realise just how lucky we were as the private company has just been taken over by the government and ticket prices rise in Feb 2017.
Starting February 1, 2017, the cost of the one day pass will increase to $37, from the current $20 and a three day pass to $62, from the current $40.
That’s a lot of cash when you think that in 2016 2.2 million visitors came through the gates and in 1993 only 7650 were recorded.
Our hotel arranged us a tuk tuk for the day or half day and we chose the “Bespoke Millies Tour” as below. We may not have seen all 1000 temples but it’s a cross section of different types and styles without getting bored.
Day 1 Tuk Tuk
04.30am pickup, go and buy your 3 day pass.
Sunrise at Angkor Wat, it was OK, but it is so busy with people. Soon as you have seen enough, head to the back of the temple and go backwards to everyone else, it’s then much quieter and you get photos without people in them and the monkeys haven’t woken up yet. If you’re not an early morning person you could skip it and see it later in the morning once the wave of sunrisers have left.
Then straight to a couple of temples with a jungle book feel, Prah Kha and Ta Prohm, roots of trees growing through them, as it’s still early and you are ahead of the bus groups you get a better look around then back to your hotel early afternoon.
Day 2 Tuk Tuk
12.00pm pick up from hotel and go straight to Banteay Srei, it’s a way out from the rest of the temples but worth seeing, the carvings are amazing and so detailed and the journey there is interesting as you get to see a bit of real life. Sad that many of the people out here are just so poor when you think of the amount of money flowing into Angkor Wat.
Transfer to Ta Som, a nice place to take a photo of a tree through a gateway and super quite. You won’t spot it at 1st just keeping walking and turn around.
Then off to Pre Rup, good views from up high but get your head for heights on. The stone steps are very steep, Deb is not one for heights so didn’t look back or go close to the unbarried edges up top and couldn’t go back down the same way as she got a bit stuck looking downwards but don’t worry, there is a set of wooden steps with hand rails at the back of the temple..Much better. Then it’s time to return for the evening and off on the free shuttle to town for dinner in Pub Street with beer at just 50 cents.
Day 3 Tuk Tuk
If you fancy another early morning you can see sunrise at Prasat Kravan, we were going to do this but forecast was not so good so had a lay in instead in our super cosy bed.
14:30 off to Terrace of Elephants and Terrace of the Leper king, take your time here. So many people skip through with a quick look, make sure you go into the terrace as inside are some amazing well preserved carvings. As you keep walking you arrive at Banyon, you should get there just as the sun casts some lovely light on the many faces of the towers, in fact there are over 2000 large faces carved on the 54 towers and also some superb carvings too.
If the weather is good then take yourself to Bakheng for sunset before return to hotel.
Steve’s favourite temple was Banyon for the faces and Debs was the amazing carvings of Banteay Srei.
The rest of the days are spent chilling, eating and people watching in town. Our biggest surprise was the amount of middle aged travellers over here.
Time to now head off to Phnom Penh to visit S21 and the Killing Fields.
We are met by our second guide, San, in Vientiane airport and start straight on a tour at 08:00 as our hotel check in is not until 14:00.
Our guide is an ex monk.. Although we learn alot from him, Deb and Steve quickly get bored of his bossiness and the lines that started with “Buddha says” and “sit here and listen, then you can take photos”
He then goes on to tell us about not being able to have children but by the end of our 2 days, Steve enjoys having great fun with him. Turns out day one was a rushed tour because he and his wife are trying for a baby and he had to rush home because it “was time” By day two Steve has taught him new English words, revolving around ovulation. San was going home to tell his wife she was ovulating and that they are trying to conceive.
We found ourselves in Vientiane as Deb wanted to see the Buddha Park. It’s about 45 mins from the centre and was built by a man in 1958. It’s an interesting place and even Steve liked it as he had already over loaded on Buddhist temples and really didn’t want to see more, although this one is different and interesting.
Upon returning to the hotel we chill out as we’ve been up since 5am to catch the flight down south. In the evening we wander to the night market, very busy and just full of the usual tourist rubbish, street food was limited so we walked back and had dinner in our hotel.
Happy Birthday Deb, 16th Jan and what do you do on your birthday in Laos? Well you start by checking your guide had a “good night” Wink, Wink.
Then you pop off to a lovely temple and get to make a wish and bong the gong inside a big temple. Rather intimidating having people and monks watching you.
Next you go to COPE (Cooperative Orthotic & Prosthetic Enterprise) which is the main source of artificial limbs, walking aids and wheelchairs in Laos. Unexploded weapons still litter the countryside as a result of the Vietnam War and continues to injure and maim thousands of people in Laos. Well worth a visit, free and it’s very interesting to see and read about.
Last stop is lunch at Makphet, a restaurant run to help Street kids get a career in the hospitality industry. Food service is a bit hit and miss, well they are in training. Steve enjoys his lunch and then about half an hour later Deb enjoys hers, our guide jumps about behind Deb and Steve hasn’t a clue what he’s on about but says yes.
Soon the guide returns and all the staff come out of the kitchen singing happy birthday with a great big creamy cake. We have a piece and then let the staff share the rest, so sweet.
We go back to the hotel and relax, then start planning the next part of our journey when there is a knock on the door and the staff of the hotel are all at the door singing happy birthday with another big creamy birthday cake. Traveling is never going to make us thinner, cakes, beer because it’s cheap than water, me thinks we need to join a gym when we get home. Vientiane is really only a one day stop as there’s not much to do, so if you don’t have time you could easily give it a miss.
Next morning it’s up at five again to catch the next flight to Pakse, we arrive in the airport and meet guide number three, surprisingly he also says just call me San. This time we have a guide who practices Animism and Hinduism so get another perspective of the temples and religion. Just two temples here as we have come to visit 4000 islands and the nature.
As we arrive super early again, the tour starts at a local market, the smell…… Not something easily forgotten. You name it you can get it, fermented fish, dry fish, half live fish, fried fish stomach, raw fish complete with flys. Apparently chewing a stick of raw dried buffalo skin is rather nice too! We could go on but won’t. Then it’s a quick temple stop to re-hear another version of the story of Buddha, amazing just how many different interpretations there are?
Then we trundle off to Muang Champasak to go and see a temple ruin Vat Phou, believed to be earlier than Angkor Wat. It has very few tourists and has a rather interesting tale to tell, right down to the pre-Angkorian human virgin sacrifices. This place was so warm, there was no breeze. Now we know why our guide has a girly umbrella with him. If you look around carefully you can see carvings found no where else in Angkor depicting Krishna ripping someone called Kamsa apart.
Ask Steve about carvings in South Laos, he can tell you all about the Hermits and Indra riding an elephant. It had become the standing joke between Deb and Steve, our guide would spend most of the day saying “Steven, look at the hermit, Steven look at Indra riding the elephant” He seemed to be stuck on repeat.
We look at the time and realise why we are flagging and feeling a bit shabby, it is 14:00. We go off to find lunch at a restaurant over looking the river and then back to the hotel for a snooze. There aren’t many hotels around here, our room is huge and rustic, we have an outside shower and no hot water, what we think are bats in the roof, bed was very very small and last but not least the fastest WiFi yet, how does that happen?
Next day we have recovered and are up and ready for a day on the Mekong exploring the 4000 Islands, where the river becomes 14 kilometers wide. Opposite the hotel is our boat driver waiting to take us to meet our guide on the other side of the river bank. As we drift across you see the river in full use. Where else do you see a lorry crossing like this?
Once we land we transfer to a mini bus for a 2 hour drive to Ban Nakasang to take a boat to Don Knone. About half an hour in, the van has a blow out, the remolded tyre completely comes apart. Luckily we are all safe and have a replacement, another bus stops to help put out the eco friendly warning triangle which consists of 3 piles of branches laid along the road. Eventually the wheel is off, the herd of cows has gone by and we set off again, then we stop again to push the bumper back up, go again, stop again to screw the spare tyre bracket back in, then finally are on route!
We arrive at the next boat and hop on and down river to Don Knone, passing loads of tiny islands and grazing buffalo on route.
We arrive at a lovely island with stilted houses and locals in abundance, our tuk tuk driver is waiting and off we go down a bumpy track to take yet another boat to go and seek the Mekong river dolphin or Irrawaddy dolphin, which in Oct 2016 has been classified “functionally extinct” in Laos as there are only 3 left and no breeding pairs.
Are we lucky enough to see one? Of course we are, feeling very privilaged and not going too close, we do see one and get a picture of a hump, more that most people will ever do. Local word is that the dolphins have been killed by the illegal fishing technique of electrocution of the water to get lots of fish but this in turn just kills everything.
On our return we have lunch at a riverside restaurant and enjoy watching the locals going about their business, kids practicing for the local dragon boat races and everyone using the disused railway track as a crossing over the river. Our guide, keen to learn new English words takes a few more lessons from Steven the teacher, wanting to know the word for the big lorries of gravel that are being used to make new roads. “Hardcore?” This english word has many meanings, yes? Says San..Next new English word he learns from us is “impressive” Then everything we visit he says, “this is impressive,yes” 10/10 for wanting to learn English. Next question from him was, don’t you BBQ crows in England? We had some intresting chats as the journey continues.
Back out into nature we go and off to visit Lippi Falls, interesting place that holds a sort of mysticism for the Lao people who believe the falls capture evil spirits. There is also a tree that used to sit on a rock in the waterfall, the country saw this tree as sacred and when it finally fell into the water the Laos goverment brought a helicopter and rescue team to pull it out and it now sits in a temple by the falls so people can still come and worship it.
The falls are beautiful and rather mesmerising and if your crazy enough you can always have a go at canoeing the rapids? When we were there, we watch the guys shooting down and bobbing back up somewhere else.
Soon we are back on the mainland and off to see another waterfall, The Khone Falls are the largest in SE Asia and are the main reason that the Mekong is not fully navigable into China. There are thousands of small islands and countless waterways as far as you can see, hence the name ‘The 4,000 islands’.
To end our beautiful day out Deb slips on the boat and slides a lovely old nail into her knee and peels off a bit of skin and cuts and grazes another bit. Dr Debs 1st Aid kit to the rescue again. After a rinse in freshly opened clean bottled water, sterilisation of a pair of tweezers then unpick the skin that’s rolled inside the cut, a squeeze of anti bacteria cream, a couple of butterfly stitches, a non stick sterilised pad we are all sorted and ready to go to dinner. That’s one all now due to Steve slipping on mud in The Philippines whilst avoiding bikes and super pickup trucks and leaving a tasty bit of finger in a dirty puddle for the bugs.
We land at Luang Prabang after a very surprising flight experience with Lao Airlines. The flight was only 45 mins but the service was brilliant, we got a drink and a snack on route and it was better than a normal british airways flight and the flight was almost empty too.
We had arranged a guide for part of our stay in Laos and San was ready and waiting to collect us and take us to our 1st hotel over looking the night market.
Little did we know that “San” seems to be the name of all our tour guides in Laos?
Our room is lovely albeit a bit noisy but we are only in the hotel for 2 nights and over look the night market, before heading to a quieter area just down the road.
We unpack and go off to explore.
The market is full of a mix of stuff, some you see everywhere in Asia and others are things made by the locals and tribes people. Many restaurants seem to have a lot of french influence, there are alot of French patisseries and French wines, even gluten free options, if you are prepared to spend the money.
Steve and Deb thought better of this and went off to find the little alleyways of street food. Crammed into a little tiny alley were loads of meat and fish all waiting to be bought, then reheated by barbecue and consumed at small benches next to huge stalls of salad bowls of assorted vegetables we didn’t recognise.
After a chat about do we risk it, Steve and Deb go for it. 2 big bottles of Laos beer, Deb goes for a whole chicken and we mean whole, head, feet and all. Yes she even tried chicken brain, whilst Steve went for a sensible chicken breast. Yes we survived but next day after seeing it in daylight we would most probably not have taken the risk…..
After a very noisy night of ladies who cook coconut pancakes near our hotel, singing badly whilst packing up in the early hours of the morning and the street cleaners coming along to get everything cleaned up before 06:00 am. We wake up and see where we are. Deb just loves arriving places when it’s dark so you get a nice surprise in the morning, good or bad. Today is a good morning, the area is lovely and 1st impressions of Luang Prabang are good.
After breakfast it’s a wander around the streets. We are close to the old town and people are busy doing what they do. The monks are nothing like Thailand, they appear to be very local and much more natural in the way they live. If you want to photograph monks going about their day to day business this is the place to come.
BUT if there is one thing to say about this, it has to be PLEASE DON’T get up early to see the Monks Alms via a tour. Deb got up to go and have a peep at the daily ceremony when the monks get given food by the locals and get a blessing and was truly horrified by the lack of respect by tourists.
All standing close up, in the way, grabing Monks to take selfies with them, flashing in the faces of everyone, big video cameras.. Awful, people be respectful, this is not a tourist show, it’s real life!! If you want to see this, walk away and view from other parts of the village. Alms goes on from many temples all around Luang Prabang, you can stand on the other side of the road and just quietly watch it take place and take photos without a flash.. Rant over! You only need to ask nicely and monks are happy to smile for a photo.
Lunch is in a local resturant everyone raves about called Tamarind, personally Deb really wasn’t fussed apart from the Luang Prabang Sausage, traditional Laos food was not so tasty. Steve being a man, soon munched his way through everything.
We soon find ourselves at the spot that becomes “our local” with a lovely view over a river that flows into the Mekong. Coffee is cheap and the Laos coffee is extremely good and the service nice and friendly. Laos is full of surprises, Luang Prabang is a super place. Not sure what we expected but it has no one hassling you to buy anything, people are lovely, it’s clean and tidy, chilled and even has a very french feel. Definitely recommend.
We transfer to our new colonial style hotel in the old town, that sits just opposite a beautiful temple and go off to visit some temples with our guide who is from a local tribe called the hmong hill people. Temples here are just so much nicer, not so gold and just small donation boxes asking for donations to help with electricity for lighting. We visit Wat Xieng Thong which is one of the most important of Lao monasteries.
At 16:00 the gong sounds for ten minutes to call the monks to prayer. This is a great photo opportunity as you can see the monks popping out from everywhere to go pray, our favourite spot was down by the river where, if your lucky you can see the monks crossing the river.
Next day we travel into the jungle to The Kuang Si Falls, a bear sanctuary and a butterfly farm.
Picnics don’t get much better than this! Best view for a lunch time stop, the waterfall is so so blue, nature can make some great things.
We take a hike to the top, Deb and Steve now look like they have been swimming fully clothed, it’s so so hot and humid. It’s dry season now but as soon as the rain starts most is pretty impassable and the leeches come out. Once you get to the top the view is amazing and the water source is a natural spring that just flows and tips over the edge like an infinity pool. If you fancy it you can walk into the water and look over the edge by standing on a bamboo platform and looking down… It’s a long long way down…
On route back to the car park you walk through the bear sanctuary, the bears look so happy and healthy. Most have been rescued from the Chinese as they want them for their bile to make medicine and then it’s off to the butterfly farm.
Deb has a natural fish foot spa in a free flowing river whilst the butterflies flutter around her head all for the handsome price of nothing.
On our final day in Luang Prabang we take the boat up to another respected holy site, Pak Ou Caves, dating back thousands of years it’s a cave in the rocks packed with over 4,000 Buddha icons and a shrine to the river spirit.
Whilst the cave is small and very busy the boat trip up the Mekong is beautiful and a relaxing ride. We stop at the local whisky making village and check out bottles of pickled snakes, bear paws, scorpions and insects all used by shamans to help cure ailments of everything from headaches to infertility.
We decline some dodgy snake wine and instead sample some local black rice wine, then Deb is a sucker for a scarf hand weaved by a young girl in the village, well it was only a few dollars. We notice that wildlife along the bank is pretty sparse and after further investigation this turns out to be because the locals have pretty much eaten anything that moves, rats, birds, insects so the food pyramid has disappeared.
Final stop is a climb up to the view point over the town before packing up to go visit, what we are told is one of the smallest capitals in the world, Vientiane.