Laos part 2 – the one with all the festivals

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.

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Hmong traditional dress

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 can do 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.

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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).

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Vang Vieng is stunning

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.

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Isaac asleep on one of our many buses

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.

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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! 

Love Ella & Isaac xxx

Laos P.D.R (Please Don’t Rush)

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!”

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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.926c80c9-70ea-4382-a316-2821030dd911

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…

Love Ella and Isaac xxx

Northern Thailand

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.

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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!)

Love Ella & Isaac

Sri Lanka!

We arrived in Sri Lanka, naively believing it would be the same (or similar) to India, it’s often described as the “light” version of the two countries, but we found that they are worlds apart. Sri Lanka is less crowded and much smaller, people are just as, if not more, friendly. The curries are completely different, less rich with a passion for dried fish that we really didn’t share. There was nowhere near as much vegetarian option as in India, despite the 75% Buddhist population. The beaches are cleaner, the transport is just as mad!

Our route around the country was: 

Colombo > Kandy (where we caught an England vs Sri Lanka cricket match) > Dambulla > Polonnaruwa > Sigiriya > Kandy > Ella (the “most beautiful train ride in the world” or the “most crowded train we’ve ever been on”?) > The coast (Unawatuna and Hikkaduwa) > Negombo. 

Top tip: the 7 hour train journey from Kandy to Ella has become extremely famous and rammed full of tourists, if you’re desperate for a reserved seat, tickets sell fast when they are released a month before travel (mostly by agents who they resell these at inflated prices). If you miss out of reserved like we did, you have a few options, you can buy one through an agent, just accepting that you’re paying up to 10x the price of the ticket, you can go to the station before Kandy to secure a seat, or we would suggest buying third class unreserved, instead of second class, we ended up moving down to third anyway where there was more room and after a few hours we got ourselves a seat. Sit on the right hand side before Nuwara Eliya and left hand side afterwards for the best views! 

Sri Lanka has seen a huge increase in tourism in the last 5-10 years, but it’s clear that no one is bending backwards to cater for your western needs – which we like (excluding a few fancy resorts on the coast which we did not manage to squeeze in!) For example, to travel from tea country to the coast, you either live like a local and take a 6 hour bumpy bus for 300 rupees (£1.40) with no guarantee of a seat or you pay 15,000 rupees (£70) to be taken the same journey by air conditioned taxi, there’s no in-between. We took the former, the bus time table is kept in a hand written note in the Curd shop on Ella high street, it’s not well publicised (probably to help the taxi drivers out). We got a seat no problem, but it was not peak season so a lot less busy than normal. 

One thing is for certain, Sri Lanka is beautiful. Everything is green and luscious, so every train and bus ride has amazing views, if a little (read: very) bumpy/crowded. We saw elephants, buffalo, peacocks, sea turtles, tropical fish, monitor lizards (and cockroaches, but we won’t dwell on that). We climbed Pidurangala, Little Adams Peak, up to Uva Halpwette tea factory, and Ella’s Rock. All had spectacular views and best done at dawn, before the crazy heat. Our favourite was Pidurangala, which is not the famous Lions rock in Sigiriya, but the one opposite. It was 500 rupees entry instead of 5000 and we would argue even more beautiful. It is less crowded, we had the entire top to ourselves, whereas we saw a queue of about 100 people for Lion’s rock, although apparently the climb is a little more difficult on Pidurangala, the paths completely disappears at the end and there’s some rock climbing required.

Another amazing day was when we cycled round Polonnaruwa in central Sri Lanka, which contain the restored ruins of what was once the capital of Sri Lanka in around 800 AD, before being deserted by 1200. 

Once we got to the coast you can see it is being built up, in most seaside towns there is a parade of shops and bars along the beach, practically touching the ocean, we learnt that it was a lot more built up prior to the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami that devastated the country. We stayed in a great hostel in Unawatuna with a family and their adorable 2 year old son Leo, who quickly enlisted Isaac to build Lego guns with him. In Hikkaduwa, Isaac managed to bag a serious offseason gem and get a beautiful hotel and swimming pool at a fraction of its peak season price. 

1 blog really isn’t enough to do Sri Lanka justice, but hopefully this video Isaac made will show you why we loved it here. 

Shoulder season in south Goa

After moving almost every day or two for a month we were excited at the prospect of relaxing on a beach in the sun. We planned to start off in Agonda, a peaceful village in the South of Goa.

October is shoulder season in Goa, with monsoon nearly over and high season not until November, Agonda was just waking up again after a summer asleep. In the week we were there beach huts were uncovered from their monsoon protection, bars and restaurants started to open up and whole resorts were being built. 

A pro of visiting in shoulder season is that you still get off season prices and nowhere is full, after staying a night in a very budget and pretty grim room in the north of Agonda we wandered down the Main Street and everyone was keen to show us their spare rooms. We ended up with a beach view room at “Red Villa” in the centre of town with a guy called Marseille and his family, they were so nice bringing us a coffee and biscuits during a storm and a candle for the blackouts. The mum made us a huge bowl of chicken biryani that went down very well with Isaac! We even came back at the end of our 2 weeks in Goa for a few extra nights stay. We bagged a deal at 800 rupees (~£8.50) a night, whereas most of the resorts in Agonda are averaging 3,000 rupees a night. This was good news as we had gone a little over budget in the first month of our trip!

The weather might be seen as a con of shoulder season, and we were definitely a bit deflated on our first night when we were sitting in our room in the dark after the 4th power cut and forecast said we were in for 2 weeks of the same thunderstorms. However, the forecasts changed by the hour, and we ended up with only 1 day in 2 weeks where it rained torrentially and mostly the rain came at night. On average Goa only experiences 5 rainy days in October. Even the storms were pretty incredible, lightening lit up the entire sky and thunder was the loudest we’d ever heard. The towns were plunged into darkness and candles were lit, a lot of chai drunk and card games!

Sitting on a beach in Goa you could be on any beach in a hot country, the sand is golden and the sea warm and blue, until something undoubtedly Indian reminds you where you are: the smell of fish curry from a beach-front hut, a herd of cows wandering along the beach, or a woman emptying the contents of her outhouse into the sea(!) 

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Whilst in Agonda we walked to the secluded Butterfly beach. We read up a lot about this and the prognosis was that you should get a boat there as the trek was “difficult” however, it was about 1500 rupees each and we both wanted to save that money for some delicious Portuguese-inspired Goan seafood! So we went for the walk, which it turned out was incredibly easy. It took us an hour from Agonda through the jungle, we met two other people on the way and the path was clear cut, although you could imagine parts getting muddy during rainy season. The beach is beautiful and full of butterflies, but quite sadly now polluted with plastic and litter. From here we attempted the trek to the next beach “Honeymoon bay”, which was the opposite to the easy walk to Butterfly beach! It was a treacherous hike over a cliff and there was hardly any path, the beach itself was pretty underwhelming and we decided that these names were only given as tourist traps! 

After Agonda we hired a moped (Isaac was in charge) and drove around to find a working ATM (the one in Agonda was sill under construction) and we drove to the nearest town Chaudi, and to see a few other beaches; Palolem, Putnam and Colomb. We then spent 4 days in Palolem which is bigger than Agonda and had slightly more going on. We found some beautiful beach huts right on the beach to stay in (again for discounted off-peak price) and believe we achieved the relaxation we had arrived in Goa looking for! 

From Goa it was a series of night trains to Bangalore and then to Madurai. We couldn’t believe our time in India was over, still so much to see and explore, we will definitely be back. Next stop: Sri Lanka…

Love Ella and Isaac xxxx

Treacherous Trekking (& a proposal!)

Whilst we were in Kashmir we went on a trek into the mountains to see one of the Great Alpine Lakes. We set off to the Naranag base camp with another guy, Ben, who had also been staying on the houseboat. We had signed up for a 3 day trek but this really turned out to be: 1 day small walk and set up camp, 2nd day 34km huge climb up the vertical side of a mountain (increased elevation of around 1200m) and back down, last day pack up and walk to base camp!

We were guided by Arfaz and Israd, a young man and teenager from the village. We set up camp on the first day near the river, which Isaac and Ben swam in; it was icy cold as the water flowing straight was from the glaciers at the top of the mountains. In the evening we ate the most delicious curry, we were stunned at how good it was seeing as there was just 1 gas stove in the middle of nowhere, we had fresh trout from the river as well.

One thing we haven’t mentioned so far is the amount of people who we have met who want photos of/with us, being asked “selfie?” is quite common in Asian countries but nothing quite compared to Naranag. We were stared at, a lot, and we were told that for quite a few people we were the first white Europeans they had ever seen, except on TV.

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One of the photo shoot pit-stops

We set off on day 2, not really knowing what we had let ourselves in for. The first 3 hours of the trek were the steepest and most difficult, when we reached a tiny hut which sold tea and snacks, we filled up on sugary chai and were able to fill our bottles with fresh water straight from the mountain. The incline eased off a little after that but we still had a long way to go!

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Scary dog at an Indian military base

After another 4 hours walk, and a brief encounter with the Indian military (and their adorable puppies), we reached the stunning Gangabal Lake. The view of the glacier and of The Indian Himalayas was breathtaking. Isaac asked the guide to take a photo of us and as we were posing he got down on one knee!!!

Top tip: if you want someone to secretly take a photo of you proposing to your girlfriend in the mountains, first ensure they know how to use a camera (!)

So no photo evidence of the moment was captured, but it was incredible, and we will 100% remember that moment forever.

After the high of the proposal wore off, reality hit and we realised we had the return half to do and only 3 and half hours until nightfall. The guide did not seem too concerned about this at any point, but then again there’s a very relaxed atmosphere in Kashmir, weed grows freely at the side of the road and people don’t seem too stressed about anything!

Down was a lot quicker than up, but a lot more terrifying. As it got to about 7pm it was pretty much pitch black, luckily Isaac’s mum Jane had insisted we pack the brightest torch known to man, which I think we can safely say saved our lives! Once we eventually made it down (13 hours after leaving camp) we were treated to another amazing curry and quickly fell asleep like babies.

Ella & Isaac xxx