From Laos we returned to Thailand to meet Ella’s family in Bangkok on Boxing Day. There was a brief meltdown when Gatwick was closed for 48hours (thanksdrones) but they were allowed to fly eventually!
We spent Christmas itself in a place called Hua Hin, about 3 hours drive from Bangkok this was the nearest beach we could get to. We would compare it with Marbella, built up and full of bright pink Europeans but had a huge beach we could enjoy and the novelty of our own kitchen, which we hadn’t had for months.
Once we met up with Ella’s family we spent two days in Bangkok, a few days jungle trekking in Khao Sok and then moved to the island of Koh Tao. We had a great time, chilling out by the pool, exploring the island on mopeds and finding the best Thai food to eat each night! We saw in 2019 (or year 2562 as it is in Thailand) on the beach.
Unfortunately, the rest of the family were speedily removed from the island on 3rd January when Tropical Storm Pabuk approached. Koh Tao went into lock down and there was absolutely nothing left on the 7/11 shelves! We were left to shelter in the hotel as all boats to and from the islands were cancelled for 3 days.
Thankfully, the cyclone which was predicted to flatten the island, ended up missing it completely, so all we saw was pretty heavy rain.
We spent the next 10 days on Koh Tao, getting our scuba diving licences and enjoying the better weather!
Isaac made this video of clips of both times we were in Thailand, enjoy!
After our U-turn at the Laos-Vietnam border, we headed to Phonsavan to see the famous Plain of Jars site. This is the Laos equivalent to Stone Henge, there’s a lot of mystery and speculation around why these Jars exist and how they were made / moved to their location.
We had read online that Phonsavan was barely visited and once we stepped of the bus guesthouse owners would swarm us with offers of accommodation. This may have been the case on any other week of the year, but we had arrived in the middle of Hmong new year festival (the first of 5 New Years celebrated in Laos) the Hmong people are the local villages in the region and so the town was inundated with people who had travelled from far and wide to congregate in Phonsavan in traditional dress, to celebrate, watch bull fighting and arrange suitable marriages for their children.
Thankfully, we were warned about this by another traveller on our bus and she texted her guesthouse for us, the owner Kong had one spare room and kindly came to meet us from the bus stop. As we walked back to the hostel we saw “no room” signs in practically every window.
We cycled to the first Plain of Jars the next day, which you technically cando but we would not recommend it. The bikes we hired were made for 12 year olds and we struggled up the hills of a main road in 30 degree heat. We eventually made it but our lungs felt coated in fumes and dust.
The Plains are normally empty apart from a few tourists but due to the festival they were full of people in lovely dresses and we of course featured in a few family photos.
A few days later we arrived in Vang Vieng, previously notorious party haven there has been a serious crack down on drinking and other activities here, what remains is quite a calm, beautiful riverside town (picture above is the view from our hostel). Little did we know on arrival it was hosting Laos’ biggest music festival of the year that weekend! Again everywhere was full, so we had pre-booked one night in a hostel and begged the owner to let us extend. She was so nice and took a group of us out to the festival. We paid our 70,000kip (~£7) and went to the festival, we presumed this would be quite traditional music, but not at all, as we arrived there was heavy drum and base and EDM being played from huge stages, rock and guitar music from others. Young Laos people had travelled from the whole country to be there, we had basically accidentally stumbled upon Laos’ Glastonbury. It was the complete opposite of the traditional Hmong new year festival we had just left, but it was great to see this completely different side to Laos culture (even if we were the only group of people dancing at the front!)
The day after we just had to go tubing, this is what Vang Vieng is infamous for. Although the once 30+ bars in now restricted by police to 3 or 4. You can also kayak down the river as an alternative. It was a hilarious day floating down the river and in the evening the hostel was full again of people getting ready to go to the festival. Which is when we briefly adopted the Hostel owner’s nephew (pictured above).
From here we took a bus down to Vietenne and on to the 4000 islands. The buses in Laos are unlike anything else we have experienced, it’s not so much the buses themselves (which can vary a lot – you never know whether your booking an old school bus or a VIP bus with beds for your next 12 hours!) but the roads which make travelling in Laos extremely slow and uncomfortable. The roads are rarely tarmac-ed, and sometimes the main road is barely more than a dirt track, when driving in the north you are often in or above the clouds with not much more than 5ft of visibility, which does not stop the drivers attempting 80kmph through the mountains! On our first journey in Laos we saw two accidents, and when we took the bus to the 4000 islands the driver actually hit a cow in the road, crushing the door so no one could get out. One bus journey a lorry in front of us got stuck in a mud slide and we had to get out and walk down the slippery mountain road with all our bags to get into another bus, which then in turn got stuck in the mud! In total we spent 59 hours out of 23 days on buses, they were extremely bumpy and uncomfortable but there is no real alternative to reach a lot of places in Laos. Ella’s super-power of being able to sleep anywhere was really put to the test during our stay, as we flew through the mountain roads swerving corners and bouncing over pot holes.
Top tip: put your rain cover on your bag even if it goes in the boot because people sitting at the back tend to be sick (including Ella on one sleeper double decker bus!)🤢
There’s no coastline to Laos, but we headed to the 4000 islands which are actually where the Mekong river stretches to 14kms wide and there are islands within it. Close to the Cambodian border the weather was beautiful and we enjoyed cycling around Don Det and neighbouring Don Khon. There are no cars, no ATMs, but oddly 5 Indian restaurants. The islands have only had electricity since 2010 and we wished we could have stayed longer, it had some of the most incredible sunsets we’ve seen.
It was sadly time to leave the islands and Laos, but we were excited to fly to Thailand to meet Ella’s family for Christmas. We got the tiny Pakse airport which services 2 or 3 flights a day, in British fashion 2 and half hours early to find the airport wasn’t even open! The cleaners gave us strange looks as we unloaded our bags from the Tuk Tuk.
Top tip: We made the mistake of leaving Laos with 1 million Lao Kip which we thought we could exchange once we got to Bangkok, the woman at the money exchange was actually laughing when we asked to change it up. The currency is basically worthless outside of Laos and so make sure you don’t leave with any! It took us almost 2 months to find someone to take it from us and got nowhere near as much as it was worth!
We originally planned to only spend 9 or 10 days in Laos before crossing into Vietnam, but this plan changed when we felt we hadn’t got to see enough of the country. Before visiting we have to admit we knew nothing about Laos, it turned out we think it’s amazing. The landscape is ridiculously photogenic and the people are so friendly and laid back but unfortunately the tourism here is depleting. Laos P.D.R officially stands for People’s Democratic Republic, but the locals will tell you it means “Please Don’t Rush”.
We arrived to Laos by 2-day slow boat from Thailand, the first day it was a novelty and some drinks were consumed, making the second (much longer 8 hour) day a little more painful. The boat was furnished with a mix of old car and plane seats that were in no way attached to the boat itself, holding about 200 locals and tourists it slowly made its way along the Mekong river.
Eventually we arrived in Luang Prabang, a picturesque French-influenced town; shuttered chateaux and patisseries fill the Main Street. We spent a few days here with some great friends we had met on the boat, exploring waterfalls and going bowling (this is the late night activity that tourists take part in as it’s the only place open in town after the 11pm curfew).
One morning in the pouring rain, we made our way out before sunrise to see the Collecting of Alms, a sacred tradition where the monks come from every temple in the town to receive an offering from the local people, it was competely silent, a surreal event to witness but definitely worth the early wake up call, and monks walk a lot quicker than you would think!
From Luang Prabang we said goodbye to the tourist trail (which heads south) and got on our first Laos bus to Nong Kiaow, a stunning mountain town where the children high fived us as they rode by on bikes, always keen to say “Sabadee!”
After the beautiful mountainous views of Nong Khiaw it was quite a shock to move on to our next grey, concrete town of Sam Neau which borders Vietnam. Here we were the only tourists and no one spoke English, which resulted in Ella ordering both a beef soup for lunch and pork rice for dinner. It is a surreal government ghost town with communist monuments, concrete buildings and neon lighting.
It ended up being worth the visit as from here we visited neighbouring Viang Xai which was fascinating; a set of caves that had housed 20,000 people during the “secret war” where America dropped 20 million tonnes of bombs on Laos over 9 years. Inside there were bedrooms, bomb shelters, a school, and even a hospital. People lived and worked there, couples got married and the communist revolutionary leaders held their meetings within the caves that were all linked by narrow halls (hence the bust of Lenin pictured below). We knew nothing about this Laos history and it was really interesting but upsetting to learn how the country is still devastated by this war 40 years later. Only 0.05% of the undetonated cluster bombs (UXOs) have been removed so they litter Laos countryside, meaning a lot of the people are trapped in poverty as they are unable to farm on their own land for fear of bombs exploding. When you are exploring in the mountains there are strict signs explained to stick to the paths explaining that there are “unexploded bombs in this area”. There are many UXO centres explaining about the bombs and what devastating injuries they have caused to UXO survivors, many of whom are only children as the bombs have exploded whilst they are playing nearby.
As we said, our plan here was to cross into Vietnam but we changed our minds (the eeriness of Sam Neau had not put us off!) we wanted to see more of Laos and what the country had to offer, so we did a major U-turn and headed south…
We arrived in Chiang Mai after a 10 hour night bus from Bangkok. We had read some horror stories about this journey but it was completely fine, we managed to sleep ok despite everyone being woken up at midnight for “FOOD” *cue dramatic miming of eating and us returning our eyemasks and ear plugs*. The worst thing was the cold because the air con was on full blast!
Chang Mai is a beautiful small city surrounded by mountains, the central ‘old city’ is 1.5km squared and as you walk down each road going east to west or north to south you can see the mountains not far away. It is the capital of the north but less than 150,000 residents. It felt busy whilst we were there as there was the annual Yi Peng festival, world renowned for its sky lanterns, at the same time as the Loi Krathong festival where people release floating lanterns onto the river (to symbolise letting go of the previous years’ worries and problems).
We kept coming and going from the city using it as our base as we took a scooter up to Chiang Dao, a bus to Pai, a trek out to Pha Deng national park. It worked out that we were in the city for two different Sunday’s so got to go to the Sunday market twice which we loved, full of stalls for trinkets and food.
We spent a day at Elephant Rescue Park, recommended by Ella’s Aunt, Uncle and cousins who visited last summer. It was a truly, once-in-a-life-time, incredible experience.
Top tip: we would urge anyone visiting elephant “sanctuaries” in Thailand to do research on how they are treated, we were shocked at how many camps still offer riding and openly use chains and stick hooks, and even more surprised at the amount of tourists who still endorse this behaviour which we thought was “out of fashion” now… Many elephants are rented by parks in the high season and then returned to their logging, riding or circus jobs once the tourist have left. To our knowledge the Elephant Rescue Park owns all the elephants it cares for and treats them medically for injuries and illnesses they’ve received in their old jobs.
We spent one night in Chiang Dao, 70km north of Chiang-Mai. This tiny town has only a few restaurants and two beautiful temples, one a kilometre deep into the caves where a guide lead Isaac in by oil lamp (Ella opted out!) and the other is a working monastery in the mountain, we climbed up just after sunrise and the monks were eating breakfast, it was amazingly peaceful and the first “silence” we had heard since arriving in Thailand! On the way back on the scooter we took a detour to see the “sticky waterfalls” where, due to the limestone, it’s not slippery and you can grip and climb the face of the Waterfall.
A few days later we took a speedy minibus the “762 turns” up the mountain to Pai, and although we didn’t count the hair pin corners ourselves, once someone had been sick at the back of the bus it felt like double that! We booked into a hostel in Pai which doubled as a skate park, full of the nicest people and plenty of Bristolians and Londoners so it felt like a slice of home. The local kids come by to use the park as well! Pai has been given the unfair comparison to Koh San Road (a road in Bangkok renowned for partying and tourists) and although you can get an avocado on toast on the high street, the town is in a beautiful mountain setting with friendly people and a lot to explored in the surrounding countryside. We only had a few days to stay there but the views are stunning and Sunset at Pai Canyon is a must see.
We then went on a 3 day trek from Chiang Mai and stayed in two different Karen villages, the trek had amazing mountain views and lots of stops to swim in waterfalls. Pau, the trek leader, made us cups and chopsticks from bamboo in the jungle and in the evening we cooked up curries with our hosts and shared games and stories. One night was completely clear and we could see amazing stars, although the temperature felt close to freezing at night as we were quite high up we were wrapped up under mosquito nets in bamboo huts and were grateful to see a western toilet when we returned to Chiang Mai!
After the trek was finished we headed on a bus towards the border with Laos. We made a brief stop in Chiang Rai to see the White Temple and spent our last night in Thailand in a left-a-lot-to-be-desired Guest house in Chiang Kong before crossing Friendship bridge into Laos on 1st December (cutting it fine as our visa exemption ran out that day!)