Before Christmas we trekked in Myanmar’s Shan state, from Kalaw to Inle Lake over 3 days. Starting in the small mountain town of Kalaw, the temperature was a bit colder than we’d been experiencing on the beach!
We explored rural Myanmar through villages and fields of chillis, walking around 15 to 20 km per day.
The first night we stayed in a village home stay and the second night in a Monastery.
We had amazing locally made food and some questionable home-made rice wine.
We had 2 lovely local guides Kayla and Nana from the local Pa-oh tribe, who taught us so much about local life, took us to meet their family and made sure we had ‘Thanaka’ on (the signature Burmese yellow face paint made from bark to protect from the sun and mosquitoes).
We were lucky to be trekking with the best group of people, who made each other laugh and got on very well (even when people were tired with blistered feet!) We both agreed this was one of the highlights of our Myanmar trip…
We had read about Nay Pyi Taw (NYT) the capital of Myanmar; how it was built in secret and declared the capital in 2005, how it is 4 times the size of London with a population of less than 1 million. We had heard about the empty hotels, museums and roads, and got mixed reviews from other travellers; so we decided we had to see it for ourselves.
We arrived in NPT at around 9pm, after driving on a motorway for hours through fields and not much else, suddenly large neon-lit roundabouts appeared, followed by massive hotels. The bus station was pretty empty but there were a few motortaxis hanging around, we showed them the name of our hotel and we were ushered into a cab which drove miles back the way we had come to the “hotel zone”.
The hotel looked practically asleep when the taxi driver beeped his horn and a tiny Burmese lady came out to take us to reception. There are no hostels in NPT, but 60+ hotels which, due to the lack of visitors, have extremely reasonable rates; you can get a 3 or 4 star hotel for $30 a night. The large foyer was silent, filled with carved wooden statues and chandeliers, we didn’t see another guest as we were shown to our room on the 3rd floor.
We decided some of our favourite querks from the hotel were the fact that the lifts had random days of the week on the carpet, and that there was a large window between the bathroom and the bedroom!
Breakfast was a large buffet affair, with 5 staff waiting attentively on the 5 guests eating. The manager came to recommend some things to do in town. We hired a motorbike for the day (this cost 25,000 kyat (~£12.50) which is very overpriced, but we guess that’s the hotel cashing in on the fact you are literally miles from anything).
We visited the Uppatasanti Pagoda, a beautiful gold plated dome on the horizon. It was silent walking round this huge monument with just a handful of other people, very different to the experience we’d had in Yangon walking around a replica pagoda a few weeks earlier. The pagoda is free but women cannot wear trousers, so there are women dutifully waiting at the entrance to lend you a longee (traditional wrap for men and women), in exchange for a donation. The pagoda was stunning, with white marble floors that stayed cold in 32 degree heat, and carvings told stories of Buddah’s life (with neon lighting, it wouldn’t be Myanmar without some neon lights!)
There are also albino elephants at the right hand side of the temple, but they are sadly kept chained in awful conditions so we didn’t stay to look at them as we really didn’t want to encourage this.
Following this we rode on the famous 20 lane highway, which is what it says on the tin, what’s bizzare is that you are sharing this monster motorway with 1 or 2 other vehicles. Rumour has it that it’s built so wide so that it can be utilised as a military runway at short notice.
Next up we drove to the National Museum: an extremely grand building full of displays about the ASEAN alliance, traditional artifacts from Myanmar and a display showing fossils found in Myanmar of our primate ancestors from 40 million years ago. The museum was, again, empty; we felt like we were waking the guards up from their naps as we walked through the exhibits, and we were the only people who had signed into the foreign visitors book that day.
For lunch we tried “Café Flight”, a disused plane that had been turned into a restaurant. In true NPT style, as we entered the plane and saw no one there, we turned around assuming it was closed, staff ran from the building and Ella asked “Open?” Which was met with lots of nods and smiles and they basically opened the cafe Just for us, a good iced coffee and lunch on our private jet!
Driving from one place to another in NPT took up a large part of the day, the city is more like multiple “zones” connected by clean, well kept highways. An accidental detour through the suburbs revealed NPT in a different light; as the sun went down people appeared, teenagers playing football, families eating street food, school buses drove past and night markets appeared. We returned to the Pagoda to see it lit up (featuring more neon lights) and there was quite a bit of rush hour traffic on the roads. Maybe Nay Pyi Taw is not so much of a soulless ghost town but a vastly spread mega city in the making…
At the end of March we were in South Vietnam looking to cross the border into Cambodia. We had heard good things about tours of the Mekong Delta, which is where the Mekong river (which starts in China, goes through Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia) eventually ends through Vietnam and into the South China Sea.
We managed to combine a tour with crossing the border, so this worked out well for us.
The first day the tour drove from Ho Chi Min City to the Mekong. We were taken by boat to the islands that sit in the Vietnamese Mekong. Here we visited a large sitting Buddah, a honey bee farm, we’re taken in tiny banana boats to lunch at a crocodile farm (crocodile menu optional) before the group split.
One group went to the hotel and 6 of us were taken on a tiny motor boat (so tiny we didn’t think it would take us + our bags!) along the river at dusk to a lovely home-stay. It was amazing to see how the local people live on or right by the river, their houses only have 3 walls – completely open to people passing by on the water.
Top Tip: Really shop around for your Mekong Delta tour, this is an extremely popular tourist activity, and we didn’t visit anywhere that wasn’t busy with other groups. When in Ho Chi Min we were quoted from 400 thousand up to 3 million Dong (~£14 to £100) for pretty much the same itinerary, and might be even run by the same company! The home-stay option is normally more but was so worth it! We chose our tour because the agent offered us the option of going straight from the Mekong to the border, instead of coming back to Ho Chi Min city, which was perfect for us.
After our home-stay we woke up early the next morning to go out of the tiny boat again, we were taken up to the floating market. Unlike the popular floating markets in Thailand which mainly exist now as a tourist attraction, the Mekong Markets are fully functional wholesale markets used by locals who come down from the cities. It was incredible to see boats full of pineapples, watermelons and coconuts and the people approach the stalls by boat to purchase large quantities (often 10 kilos minimum ) of fruits and veg; watermelons flying through the air as they were thrown to the next boat. Boats hang up what they sell from high masts above the river, so you can see what seller you are aiming for! After this we went to see rice noodles being made, walked round a beautiful fruit farm and visited a candy factory, where we saw how the coconut candy is still hand made by the Vietnamese people in the Mekong.
Following this we actually missed our bus to the border (the bus was running uncharacteristically early) which ended up with us taking a high speed taxi to chase down the bus which kindly pulled over for us in a motorway gas station! The tour agents here will do anything to help you out as a tourist, our agent from Ho Chi Min even contacted the bus driver when we didn’t reply to her WhatsApp and he confirmed we were on the bus by sending the photos below!
With that excitement over, we were on our way to the border town of Ha Tien and over into Cambodia the next day.
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…