Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Day 48 - 49: Sam Neua, and onward to Vietnam

Sam Neua really didn't have much going on. We wandered up the main street and got to the temple (accompanied by 6-7 curious kids who kept saying "Sabaidee" [hello] in order to see what we'd do), had a look around, then wandered back again via a fresh food market. There appeared to be only one internet cafe in town so we tried to find some more information on Thanh Hoa online, failed, and left after ten minutes.

There also only appears to be 2 restaurants with English menus. If Laos didn't have a completely different script for their alphabet, it wouldn't be so difficult; as it is, our eating options are limited to what we can read, unless we planned to take some risks. Going by yesterday's English language breakdown, and the fact that the guidebook suggests some of the other Laos restaurants are for "adventurous types" and include intestines, we decided to play it safe. More rice and noodles, yum.

Today we checked out of the guesthouse at 7am, having said our goodbyes to Carolyn and Brian last night, as they are staying around to visit the Viengxay caves (something we might have done if we'd had more time). After a hike up to the bus station, we got on the bus only for it to come back down to the centre and stop for an hour whilst the driver had breakfast. Great.

The drive to Thanh Hoa wasn't that eventful. We went through passport control and baggage checking at the border, whilst a Vietnamese official offered to buy our remaining kip at a rate of 2 dong to 1 kip. The current rate is 2.6 dong to 1 kip. I suggested he offered more. He politely refused. I politely refused. We hung on to our kip. Shortly after, we stopped at a little Vietname restaurant where we had our first taste of Vietnamese food. It was steamed rice, steamed spinach, and a couple of pork skewers. The pork was excellent, and the rest was as you'd expect - filling, but bland. Still, I managed to pay in kip - take that, Mr. Unreasonable Exchange Rate Man.

After we crossed the border, the bus journey got more unpleasant. Lots of Vietnamese people crammed in, and many of them decided to light up during the journey. Now, my parents both smoked all through my childhood and teens. I hated it; it's a vile, toxic habit which even to this day makes me feel ill when I'm around cigarettes. It was even worse on car journeys, and may have been the cause of my car sickness when I was younger. Today was the first time I'd been in a moving vehicle whilst around someone actively smoking for well over a decade, and it did not make me feel good. I'm not sure what the smoking laws are on buses, but I suspect even if there are any, the police probably wouldn't be too bothered. In any case, the journey was fairly miserable for both of us.

On arrival in Thanh Hoa, we were pretty much surrounded by groups of motorbike taxi guys, all speaking Vietnamese at us, miming "sleep" and asking us if we wanted to go with them to a guesthouse which they'd undoubtedly get commission from. At that point, we had no Vietnamese dong, and only a vague idea of where we were. One of them suggested that I got on his bike whilst he took me to an ATM; leaving Gilly with our luggage and six unfamiliar men didn't appeal, so I declined and we decided to head up the street on our own, leaving the locals laughing at our backs. Luckily we didn't have to walk far - a hotel about 50m from the bus station looked fairly inviting (the Minh Hotel, I believe), and after inquiring we found it was 200,000 dong or $10. We decided to check out the room, and it looked reasonable. That is, until I decided to use the bathroom, closed the glass fronted door behind me, and then realised that I couldn't open it again. The handle turned but the door wouldn't open. I asked Gilly to open it from her end. There was no handle on her side. I was literally stuck in the bathroom, and unable to get out. After a couple of minutes trying to lever the door open, we gave up and Gilly went down to get some help. I wondered if this was what a contestant on The Crystal Maze felt like.

The guy came back, fiddled with the handle for a minute or so, and managed to get it open. Then, inexplicably, he decided to go into the bathroom himself, close the door behind him and check if the same problem occurred. Naturally, it did. He was now stuck in the bathroom in the same way I was, with the difference being that he knew what he did to open the door, I didn't, and neither of us could communicate about it. In the end I used the tried and tested method of swiping a credit card down the door frame, which worked a treat. The guy sheepishly directed us to another room.

After moving all our stuff in, we went to find an ATM (result - one was just 200m away, and let us withdraw 4 million dong, in a mixture of large and small bills) and a restaurant. Fortunately we were lucky in that respect too: a nice looking restaurant was just a couple of doors down. It seemed a bit too nice though, and when we were ushered into a private room and handed a menu with both English and Vietnamese languages and no prices, alarm bells started to ring. We needn't have worried though: we got a decent sized portion of noodles with beef(even though we'd ordered chicken), a MASSIVE portion of fried rice with seafood, a can of orange juice and a Hanoi Beer for around a fiver. Probably expensive by Vietnamese standards, but we were hungry and tired and it hit the spot.

To be honest, Vietnam hadn't appealed up until that point. The toilet breaks we had basically consisted of going on the floor behind a brick wall. The other occupants of the bus, when not smoking, spent their time clearing their throat in the most noisy, disgusting way possible. I've heard more hacking, spluttering, gargling and snorting than I'd ever want to hear again in a lifetime. They'd make Guybrush Threepwood look like an amateur. The villages and towns we stopped off at were grim, dirty places with rubbish strewn in the roads and gutters, people urinating wherever they fancied it, and almost every road vehicle hammering the horn as if it was the only way to keep the engine from stalling.

We crashed out at about 9pm (well, Gilly did - muggins here decided to stay up and blog). Fortunately, the hotel reception said there was a bus to Hanoi at 10am which gets in at 2pm tomorrow. 4 hours won't be so bad after two 10-hour bus journeys in 4 days.

Hanoi awaits!

Monday, November 28, 2011

Day 47: Arrival in Sam Neua

We got picked up at 7:30, an ungodly time of the morning when it was still fleece and trousers weather. On the plus side, it could be worse: our friends Paul and Fi who are also travelling have just left Russia, which is considerably colder. Too cold for my liking. I'm definitely a sun bunny.

We didn't actually need to get up so early as it happened, since the bus took us to the station to pick up more people, and then back again...right past our guesthouse. That's an hour's sleep missed. Ah well. The promised 9 hour drive took 10 hours but we're used to Laos time now, and it didn't come as a surprise. We had a stop for lunch and fried fish was once again on the menu, but unfortunately not spicy. It filled a gap, however, and with the fruit, Pringles and chocolate wafers we'd brought, we didn't go hungry. The road to Sam Neua was much less winding than the road to Phonsavan, and whilst the seats weren't as comfortable I found the drive more bearable for reading.


On Rob's Bookshelf

Since starting out on our trip I have ploughed through a few books:

- A Clash of Kings, George R R Martin:The second book in Martin's excellent series "A Song of Ice and Fire". The first book, A Game of Thrones was adapted for TV earlier this year, whilst the second is coming out in 2012. Any fantasy fan worth their salt should read Martin's work, he is utterly peerless. This was my second read through and was as rewarding as the first. He's up to book 5 of a proposed 7 book set, and I've only read the first 4 previously so I'm looking forward to getting on to the fifth in due course.

- The Damage Done, Peter Woolf: Bought at Orn's Bookshop in Chiang Rai, this is a true story of a professional London criminal and drug addict who turns his life around after trying a new type of rehabilitation. Gilly bought this and I wasn't particularly keen on reading it at first, but it was actually very interesting and not the kind of "misery memoir" it may have been if the author had been more sentimental and less matter-of-fact.

- The Accidental Time Machine, Joe Haldeman:A straightforward and enjoyable time travel tale from the author of the excellent "The Forever War", this was my choice at Orn's Bookshop. Both of us read it, and both enjoyed it. It isn't hard sci-fi by any stretch, and is a quick, fun read.

- The Simulacra (S.F. Masterworks), Philip K Dick:I'm a big fan of Dick's work, but this was a little disappointing compared to some of his other offerings. All of the author's staples are in place: political commentary, satire, fascination with smoking, oppressed alien race, WWII anachronisms. However, the underlying story itself isn't particularly coherent, and the governmental structure isn't explained well enough for the denouement to be satisfying.

- Breakdown at Tiffany's and other stories, David Braga: This is a collection of short stories by my good friend Dave. With an eye for making the everyday interesting, a great sense of humour, and a consistently enjoyable knack of turning a normal story on its head in the closing paragraphs ("Shadows", "Death in the Village", and "Shopping" immediately spring to mind), this e-book is well worth 69p of anybody's money.


We arrived at Sam Neua, took a sawngthaew to the centre and checked into what we thought was a guesthouse recommended in the guidebook: Khaemxam. It turns out that we'd actually gone to Sa Ne Khaemxam and the guesthouse we were looking for was just around the corner. We took a look at this first one anyway, and were pleasantly surprised: comfortable bed, en suite, and even a TV. It looks to be run by a husband and wife team, and seemed pretty empty. Carolyn and Brian, two Canadians who we'd got to know on the bus were with us, and Carolyn bargained the completely nutty wife down to 60,000 kip per night, which was a complete steal. After dumping our bags, we wandered around the very small town and came across some sort of telecom-sponsored event happening in the town hall. It looked like a pop concert of sorts from the cardboard cut-outs, posters and stands selling CDs and DVDs - we asked at the door and they told us that we could go in for free, despite Laos people having to pay. I guess being a farang has its benefits occasionally. Inside we were treated to a packed auditorium of around 400-500 people, mostly kids, with more cut-outs of Laos or possibly Thai pop pin-ups on stage with funky haircuts and names like "Tan" and "Fresh". We couldn't tell if it was an ensemble of different artists, or a Laos version of S Club 7. We stayed to hear a girl and then a guy sing, with mixed ability, whilst the kids in the audience screamed and pleaded to be given free merchandise from the two MCs who couldn't have been older than 20. It was certainly a surreal experience.

Afterwards we ended up at Chittavanh restaurant. Gilly ordered "Pork noodle soup with roll" which turned out to be noodle soup with balls of ("rolled") pork meat. At least, that's what we assume - it was grey and fairly unappetising. I ordered fried rice with chicken which came, inexplicably, with a fried egg on top, as well as Fried Noodle Roll which I expected to be spring rolls but were delivered as the spring roll filling without the corn paper wrapping. Language translations aside, it wasn't a bad meal.

We have a day to kill tomorrow before we can cross into Vietnam, so we will likely mooch around, check out the tourist information centre, and catch up on some reading. There doesn't appear to be any places with wi-fi in the town, and my Kindle can't pick up any sort of mobile 2G or 3G signal, so it looks like internet cafes are our only option for trying to book ahead for accommodation.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Day 45 - 46: Phonsavan and the Plain of Jars

In the morning we moved from Dok Khoun Hotel to Dok Khoun Guesthouse. Possibly owned by the same people, but the room was cheaper, the bed was more comfortable and they did banana pancakes for breakfast, so it was a no-brainer. We spent the day mooching around the town. Phonsavan reminds me of what a Wild West town would look like if they stuck guesthouses up on either side. A wide main road with a few shops either side, some hotels, and little else. We ate lunch at Sanga and I once again went for fried fish, and once again wasn't disappointed.

There is a Mines Advisory Group (MAG) office here which explains - in excellent detail - the horrors inflicted upon Laos by the US air force. A popular trivia question is "Which country is the most heavily bombed in history?" The answer is Laos. Between 1964 and 1973, the US dropped almost 2 million tons of bombs on the country in order to disrupt Communist Laotian groups and the Vietnamese, without the knowledge of the American Congress or the people. The atrocities that the US committed would have them hauled in front of a war tribunal for war crimes today, but back then the CIA was running the show in the so-called Secret War and was accountable to no-one...mainly because they prevented anyone finding out about it. The aftermath of the devastating and relentless attacks mean that 40 years on, 30% of those bombs which didn't explode are still littered around the country. We watched, shocked, at the videos explaining how civilians digging up bombs for scrap would frequently be killed or maimed, how children would mistake "bombies" (unexploded bomblet contained within a cluster bomb) for tennis balls and inadvertently set them off, and how the US has refused to sign up to a treaty to ban the use of cluster bombs to this day.

MAG works to detect and clear villages, roads, schools and other areas of unexploded ordnance (UXO). They train the local people, have many teams of all-female technicians to promote equality within the country and challenge traditional conventions, and have made safe hundreds of thousands of bombs littering the country. Given the scope of the bomb dispersion, however, it will take decades to clear, and the US has given a relatively paltry sum of money to help clear the mess it made. Farmers cannot increase their crop for fear of digging and hitting UXO, and villagers risk their lives each day cutting into bombs that they have found in order to sell on the scrap metal to subsidise their living.

Needless to say, our visit to the MAG centre was eye-opening, as were the videos we saw there. MAG hopes that clearing enough of the ordnance will allow UNESCO to grant Xieng Khouang World Heritage status, which would increase tourism, funding, and ultimately allow more and more of the UXO to be cleared. One of the benefits of the clearance project was the Plain of Jars, which was made accessible thanks to MAG assistance. This was where we planned to visit the next day.

That evening we ate at Nisha restaurant, an Indian run by a husband and wife with assistance from their two young daughters (who couldn't have been more than 9 and 6). The food - when it came - was excellent. Unfortunately the popularity of the place meant that it took over an hour to get it to our table; they would definitely benefit from an extra pair of hands.

We had found out that - quite by accident - we'd arrived for the Hmong new year festival. A fairground of sorts had been set up just around the corner from where we ate, so we wandered up. It was great, and a little surreal. They had rows and rows of stalls where you had to throw 3 darts and burst balloons, a bumper car arena, a karaoke/nightclub venue, a ferris wheel, a fashion show, and all manner of other stalls and activities going on. I had two blasts on the dodgems and felt like I was 15 again. Fantastic.

This morning we booked a tour of the Plain of Jars which also took in a trip to a Hmong village, and in the afternoon a visit to a Russian tank and a spoon village.

There are 3 main sites most visited by tourists in the Plain of Jars, and we went to all three. the "jars" are actually funerary urns left by an ancient Lao civilisation, which when discovered, contained bones and personal items. They litter the landscape but have only been accessible in the last few years thanks to UXO clearance. To be honest, I wasn't blown away by them. They are stone jars on a hill...and after we saw one site, the other 2 were probably overkill. Having said that if you could pick and choose for your tour, I would suggest visiting site 1 and 3, and leaving 2 as it's probably the least interesting. Our genial guide, Lien, was a great help though and gave us plenty of information, made some awful jokes, and generally improved for me what was a fairly dull excursion.

The Hmong village we passed had loads of children wearing full clan dress, all weaved locally by their parents or grandparents, and it was quite the sight. The Russian tank was a rusted, graffiti-ridden shell, and not worth a visit at all. The spoon village gave me a slightly polarised opinion. Essentially, the villagers there melt down aluminium purchased from scrap dealers and convert it in to spoons which they then sell back to villages, restaurants, and so on. It's a fairly simple but repetitive process which allows them to smelt and make around 500 spoons a day. I was allowed to have a go myself at making one; it involves pouring molten aluminium into wood-carved moulds, and then removing the cooled result from them about 60 seconds later. Only two of the three moulds I poured metal into turned into spoons, but I considered that a result for my first go and purchased one of them as proof of my blacksmithing prowess.

That was probably the highlight of the tour for me. The flip side was earlier on, where a few of the people on our tour expressed their disappointment - quite vocally to Lien - that the weavers were not in their hut weaving, and allowing us to photograph them. This was because they were at the various Hmong festivals around the area, but hey, why should that get in the way of tourist demands? As a result, they told Lien they wanted to visit one of the village houses and see the people living there. An obviously embarrassed Lien then asked a lady of over 80 years if it was OK for a bunch of comparatively rich tourists to tramp around their house. Being Laotian and not wanting to offend, she consented. Her entire family were in the house, and as I waited near the steps considering whether I should go in or not, Willem - a retired Dutch man - said to me: "Rob, come in; it's why you're here."

That struck me - what right did we have to go into these people's homes? We'd paid a relative pittance for a day's tour (about £10) and still we expected more from them? I wandered in, and managed about a couple of minutes of watching our group shoving cameras in the faces of the old lady, her kids and grandkids, and had to leave. I felt sick, as if I'd violated the privacy of the locals' lives. Festivals are one thing: they are an obvious outlet for exuberance and sharing with anyone in the area. Invading someone's ome for a couple of digital photos of what a "poor person's house" looks like was too much for me.

When we got back to the tour office, the owner - whose grandfather was a spokesman for the Pathet Lao, the Communist rebel group the US was trying to crush - showed us a video of the Secret War with interviews from CIA agents, US journalists and his own father. It's well worth watching if you have the chance - click here (5 parts). After the film was over, the owner of the tour office, who still supports the Communist rebels, told us that the film took 6 years to make and he took some of the film crew out on location, but the version we saw was the unedited version and different versions are shown around the world. Willem refused to believe this was the case, and despite us trying to explain how propaganda, country-specific agendas and censorship worked, wouldn't have any of it. We left fairly sharpish before I decided to say something I regretted. The naïveté of some westerners defies belief. A meal at Simmalay followed, and was even better than the one we had on our first night.

Tomorrow we head to Sam Neua, a small town en route to the Laos/Vietnam border. It's another 8-9 hour bus ride, joy of joys, and from there we will have to work out the best way to get into Vietnam. We can't actually enter until the 29th November as that's when our visa starts, so we'll have a day to kill.

Day 42 - 44: Vientiane, and onward to Phonsavan

Buddha Park was well worth a visit. There were hundreds of statues, from fairly small to monumental (excuse the pun) in size. One reclining Buddha was a good 20m long if not more and tall to boot. For size comparison, my lovely assistant Gilly demonstrates below:

It wasn't all Buddhas though, a few other religions made an appearance as well - Ganesha, the Hindu Elephant god, for one - as well as some other oddities such as mermaids, monkeys and a huge stone building almost conical in shape which had been hollowed out and split into 3 tiers containing more statues within:

We had lunch there and headed back to the city. We found a computer shop and decided to splurge on an Acer D257 netbook. Great, we thought, now we can get stuck in to uploading photos and doing other internetty-related activities. After unpacking the box we realised that the shop hadn't packed a power cable for the netbook. Fantastic. I dropped them an email via the Kindle that we would pick it up the next day.

Our guesthouse gave us cake and tea in the afternoon, wonderful. In the evening we ate at Dok Champa; I had spicy fish and loved it, whilst Gilly wasn't that impressed with her curry. If in doubt, go for spicy fried fish - a lesson we learned after the meal in Houay Xai (which hasn't been topped yet in terms of deliciousness). Our mealtime entertainment was provided by two kittens in the restaurant garden fighting and learning to climb a tree.

The following day we crammed in most of the main Vientiane sights. A visit to the Laos National Museum was first, which was interesting when describing the archaeological digs taking place around Laos, but unfortunately moved on to a not very good description of the "Secret War" waged by the Americans in Laos, which was heavy on anti-American propaganda and light on a decent explanation of the events around the war. Laos is the most bombed country in history thanks to 9 years of US airstrikes, but it would have been good to have a bit of detail about the "American imperialists" rather than just a series of photos of the main players in Laos and the US. It's a bit of a missed opportunity really.

We headed off to pick up our Vietnam visa from the embassy, the netbook cable and then went on to That Luang, supposedly the most important stupor in Laos. It was golden from a distance but fairly dirty up close, and probably wasn't worth the trek up to get to it. Patouxai - Laos' version of the Arc de Triomph - was next, no doubt inspired by the French colonial occupation. Apparently a lot of money meant for aid to the Laos people was instead ploughed into this monument...who needs food when you can have a big arch, right?

In the evening we wandered over to Jazzy Brick, a funky cocktail bar which oozed so much cool you'd expect the door to be made of ice. I'm a sucker for cocktail bars and when they're done right, as this one was, I could happily stay there all night. Some pics:

Carefully placed uplighting and retro German appliances aside though, it's not much cop if the drinks are rubbish and the music is terrible. Luckily, neither of these things affect Jazzy Brick, making it possibly my favourite cocktail bar since Dry Martini in Barcelona. A Serpentine, Immaculate, Mint Julep and Aquarius later, we were feeling a bit peckish so ate at Aria Italian Culinary Arts as it was on our road. We had a magnificent pizza, the best we've eaten on our trip so far, so much so that I can forgive them their incredibly pretentious name and £250 wine list.

The next day we left Vientiane on a 9am bus to Phonsavan. The tourist office told us that only 2 buses ran in the morning, that it was 95,000 kip per person, and that it would take 10 hours. It turned out that they had buses running throughout the day (negating our rush in the morning to get to the bus station), it was 110,000 kip per person, and the ride took about 11.5 hours. None out of 3 ain't bad, I guess. The bus journey itself? Well, I've tried to scrub it from my mind. 11+ hours of listening to a mix of Thai soft rock and Lao karaoke pop pelting full blast from an overhead speaker, whilst the bus weaves in and out of its lane on a mountain road honking indiscriminately might be someone's idea of a fun ride but it certainly wasn't mine. The songs weren't even catchy, not even on the eighth listen. I think the bus driver only had 2 CDs and there's only so much synth accordion one person can take before thoughts of how to "accidentally" smash the CD player with a nearby water cooler start creeping in. To make things even more fun, when the driver got tired of the music, a girl to our right decided she'd become the DJ and started pounding out the exact same drivel from her iPhone for all to hear, and then accompanied her music with some delightful karaoke. Deep breaths, Rob.

We arrived traumatised at Phonsavan bus station, stubbornly refused to get ripped off by tuk-tuk drivers and waited until one of them caved and took us to the hotel strip for a reasonable price, then checked into the Dok Khoun Hotel. This was the biggest room we'd had on our trip, but it was also the dullest. The shower resembled a school gym shower room, and the hotel itself still appeared to be under construction. The bed was barely comfortable, but it sufficed for one night. We wandered out to get our first proper food of the day; we'd munched through 2 bags of crisps, a chicken on a stick bought during a rest break, a few bits of fruit and some praline wafer things, so were still fairly peckish. A stop at Simmilay set us right, with huge portions of chicken noodles and a BeerLao to wash it down. We were so tired, even the bed didn't stop us sleeping well. However, Phonsavan was cold in comparison to the rest of Laos - it's the first time I've worn a fleece in the country - and the size of the room didn't help, so we decided to check out the next day and find something a bit cosier and hopefully cheaper.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Day 38 - 41: Rock Climbing, Caving and Kayaking to Vientiane

We had never done rock climbing before. So when we found out we could do a full day for less than thirteen quid each, we thought "Why not?". We weren't disappointed. In the morning we did four climbs ranging from 4a to 5c. Unfortunately the first one was 5b and was a baptism of fire. Nothing like easing you in gently. On the plus side, the three subsequent climbs were a relative doddle. After a lunch of rice and a baguette, we tackled three more climbs all at grade 6: two at 6a and one at 6a+. I was only able to get to the top of one of the 6a climbs; I was completely knackered after that and the 6a+ climb was crazily tough. However, I really enjoyed the day and will certainly consider climbing when we get back as an activity.

The next day we took a half day trip out to 3 caves - Elephant Cave (basically a hole in a cliff, completely uninteresting), Snail Cave (more like it - a decent trek underground), and Water Cave (as it sounds - we got on a tube and pulled ourselves under and into the cave which was pretty much flooded). I'd not been in a cave since a schooltrip to Wales, and forgotten how much I enjoyed it. In the afternoon we grabbed a surprisingly good chicken burger at Gary's Irish Pub back in Vang Vieng and in the evening ate a fantastic meal at Arena, a restaurant that looked upmarket but had excellent Thai food at reasonable prices. The evening soured a little when two English guys wearing just swimming shorts staggered in, completely pissed, and went straight to the toilet...together. Clearly from the way they were looking around, their plan was to take some drugs. The owner was understandably furious and hammered on the door. They came out swearing at him, and he stood his ground and ordered them to leave. I thought it might get violent but thankfully they managed to get back out without falling over or punching anything, whilst the owner shouted at them telling them they were an embarrassment to English people, which was completely true and I felt embarrassed for my nation. Vang Vieng, we realised, was not a place we wanted to hang around in for any length of time.

Yesterday we took a trip to Vientiane by kayak. At least, that's how the package was sold, in reality it was about 1.5 hours kayaking, a hearty lunch by the river of freshly cooked skewers of chicken and vegetables with the obligatory baguette, then another 30 minutes of kayaking, then a stupidly uncomfortable truck ride to Vientiane. I envy fat people sometimes, they won't experience the lack of "natural padding" which makes a ride in a rattlebucket with zero suspension so utterly miserable for me. The kayaking itself was fun though, even if I did have a slightly scary moment whe we capsized going through a rapid and I didn't manage to hang on to the kayak so got washed downstream in a surprisingly quick current, clutching my oar and bobbing around helplessly. Fortunately the guides knew what they were doing and kayaked over to grab me whilst Gilly (who sensibly held on) was helped by the other guide.

To call Vientiane a quiet city would be an understatement. It's more like a business capital, with government buildings taking up most roads, and guesthouses and restaurants in the minority. We wandered around and found Youth Inn - one of the few budget places with spaces left - and got a room before heading out. We ate at Taj Mahal, an Indian recommended in the guidebook which was actually pretty good and cheap to boot. I watched the first half of the Liverpool match before the Laos curfew kicked in, then went back to the room. Whilst not quite as bad as Green House in Bangkok, it stank of sewage in the bathroom which permeated throughout the room, the bed was barely comfortable and the reception couldn't provide an extra pillow. Still, we managed to just about get a night's sleep thanks to being completely knackered and this morning checked out, happy to leave the place behind.

We moved next door, literally, to Mixay Paradise. This was twice the price (£10 a night) but included breakfast, and had a lovely soft bed and a clean, nice-smelling room. Considering some of the dives on offer for similar prices, it was a steal. It also made us realise that as we are coming into the high season, we may have to start booking ahead. This has been an alien concept to us so far, as we've been able to just turn up in a town and get somewhere. I think as we approach Christmas, that will be increasingly unlikely.

We wandered around the city today, looked at a couple more wats and the main shopping mall, and found a place we may be able to get a netbook from depending on price. We also put our passports into the Vietnamese embassy to get a visa for November 29th which means that if we stay a full 30 days we will have Christmas in Vietnam, most likely Ho Chi Minh city. Not sure if we want to do that or move to Cambodia. Might have to look into it a bit and also get some accommodation booked in. In the afternoon we both went for an hour-long aromatherapy massage which was fantastic and helped sort out the ache from yesterday's trip. We also went to the night market and I picked up the obligatory BeerLao t-shirt for £1.60. It's a win-win-win, the beer company gets free advertising, the seller makes a profit and smelly backpackers get dirt cheap clothing. Might get a couple more as a few of my t-shirts are looking somewhat frayed.

We went to La Terrasse for dinner and had a great steak, which was followed by a trip to Swensen's for some ice cream dessert. It would never take off in the UK; we just don't have the climate for it.

Tomorrow we are going to get a bus to Buddha Park (it's a park full of Buddhas. No, really) and I am going to attempt to get my haircut at a place recommended by the massage parlour owner. Hopefully I will still have some hair at the end of it.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Day 35 - 37: Tubing in Vang Vieng

The minibus to Vang Vieng from Luang Prabang was six hours of increasingly windy roads. I don't get as travel sick as I used to when I was younger but this trip still took it out of us and by the time we rocked up to the main strip at almost 5pm we were ready to drop. Central Backpackers had been recommended to us by other travellers but was full. Our fallback, Pan's Place, was uncomfortable and expensive for what you got - certainly not deserving of the number one spot on tripadvisor. We wandered across the road to Khamphone and stayed there for two nights, until this morning when we noticed the whole room was infested with tiny ants which got into literally everything. Clothes, bags, you name it. We left sharpish and are now in Central Backpackers as a room opened up. It is luxury in comparison.

Vang Vieng is a fabricated tourist hole, purpose built to appeal to westerners who want to get pissed, stay in bars late drinking cheap buckets of mixed spirits (weak by western standards) and wander around half naked. However, the main draw of the town is tubing. This involves hiring a rubber ring, sitting in a river and floating down past rows of bars built on the banks at either side, pumping out identikit playlists of music which I hate and Gilly loves. The general route would be thus: get in the ring, float past a bar, get a rope chucked to you by the bar staff who drag you and your tube in, get given a free shot, buy a drink if you are so inclined, do an activity (beer pong, huge swing over the water, huge slide into the water, etc), get back into the ring, float past aother bar, rinse and repeat.

I wasn't expecting to enjoy it as much as I did, but as a social event it takes some beating. Mutual inebriation leads to meeting some interesting people and we formed a group of about 7 from the start who floated down together. None of us got too drunk (not a good idea to be wasted in a moving river) and we had a great time. Things started getting cold from about 4:30 when the sun went behind the mountain, and it became clear we weren't going to reach the end of the 4km stretch to get our tubes back to the tubing centre in order to get our deposit back by 6pm so we jumped in a sawngthaew and managed to get there for 6:05 and luckily no questions were asked. I would definitely recommend the experience, if not the town itself. Gilly managed to continue her trend of losing sunglasses in rivers by promptly dropping her new pair in the water after the second bar. That's two countries for two so far. I hope the eyewear gods are well pleased with her offerings. Can't wait to see what she does with her yet-to-be-purchased replacement shades in Vietnam.

The first night we ate at a western restaurant which did a surprisngly good pizza. Last night we ate at the Aussie Bar which did a cracking burger - the first I'd eaten since leaving the UK - and tonight we went to Peeping Som's where we had some Lao food. It was the most disappointing meal since arriving in the town. It had a "buffet" of three different Lao plates, none of which were terribly exciting, especially as two of them appeared to be vegetable only - contrary to the menu. I need meat, dammit. Vang Vieng is definitely geared towards western cuisine, which is a shame. On the plus side I haven't had any issues eating since the last hiccup.

We've booked a day's rock climbing tomorrow. It was so cheap as to make us wonder if we may actually end up cracking our skulls open after our equipment fails, but I guess we will see if it turns out to be OK. The day after we are likely to take a tour out to see a few caves in the area, and the day after that we are going to kayak all the way from Vang Vieng to Vientiane. Well, it beats being stuck in a minibus, right?

I think we are going to try and buy a netbook in Vientiane. The Kindle is great but there are so many free wi-fi places around that it would be more convenient and cost effective, especially for uploading photos. We would probably spend the price of a netbook in the various internet cafes over a year so we may as well get one and make the most of it. There's a very real risk of ending up with a hooky rig or one that has an operating system which is entirely in Laotian but I know enough about computers to hopefully know what to look for and then the rest is about haggling on price.

I need a haircut. The afro is growing at a dramatic rate and the weather is just too damn hot to put up with so much hair. I may wait until we get to the capital though, I've only seen one place in Vang Ving and they had a sign saying "Baber". With that level of Engrish I'm not entirely sure whether they are a hairdresser or an enthusiastic Justin Bieber fan.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Day 31 - 34: Lazy Luang Prabang Days

I love Luang Prabang. The pace of life isn't so much sedentary as almost completely stopped. Things trundle on as they like, everyone is very relaxed, and wandering around in the sunshine up and down French-styled streets doing a fat lot of nothing is a joy unto itself.

Having said that, Big Brother Mouse was very rewarding. We got to speak to two young students: Longneeher who is a 19 year old wanting to become a doctor, and Year who is 17 and wants to be either an English guide or teacher. Both of them were genuinely nice guys and very keen to learn. I helped Longneeher with the entire set of English irregular verbs, including some I hadn't seen outside of the world of fantasy ("smite", anyone? For those who are interested, the past tense and past participle are both "smote"). We spent a good two hours with them, and were very impressed with their grasp of English. I've had some comments when I speak a bit of Laotian to the locals; it goes down well with them. Some people seem to think that saying things slowly and loudly in English will help get the message across. I don't understand why people can't make a bit of effort to learn "hello", "please" and "thank you" - it'll take 5 minutes, and endear you a lot more.

We went to Wat Phousi in the evening which is a temple on a hill up about 300 steps. Very picturesque, but I'm beginning to get a little bit templed out. There's only so many times you can make a joke out of the word "Wat", and only so many identikit wats you can visit before you get wat fatigue.

Having eaten the night before at Dyen Sabai - an excellent and atmospheric restaurant on the other side of the Nam Khon where the staff operate a row boat across the river to get you in there - we had high hopes for Tamarind. However, we were a little disappointed. We were given fried seaweed and dips and sticky rice to start with, then two whole fish stuffed with lemongrass which you ate by making a wrap with lettuce leaves, various other fillings such as peanut, mint, coriander, and other veggies and herbs. This was covered in a rather nice sauce and ate with your fingers. This was followed by a dessert of fruits and some tamarind-soaked sticky rice. It was called their Pun Paa menu, but we paid 90,000 kip per person and we shared it with 4 other people; we came away feeling still slightly hungry and a little miffed - it wasn't a patch on Dyen Sabai. On the plus side, we made good friends with two Australian couples: Richard and Jenny, and Dave and Trish. Both couples were a delight, incredibly friendly, and both of them offered us a place to stay in Coffs Harbour when we get to Australia. We will certainly be taking them up on that! We also learned that you can get bottles of wine for $4 (about 2.50 GBP) in Oz, whilst beer goes for about 4 quid a pint. I think I know what we'll be choosing as our tipple of choice. The wine in Laos isn't completely sour, but let's just say that it's not something you'd choose to drink if you didn't have a meal to take away the taste...

The following day we decided to head indoors and visited the Royal Palace Museum in the morning, and the Ethnology Centre in the afternoon. The former also hosted a very interesting exhibition called Stories of the Mekong which described the life of the local rural Lao, Vietnam and Cambodian people. The latter was an introduction to various hilltribes in Lao (many of which are present in Thailand) and in particular the way they court and marry. Again, very interesting and highly recommended. In the evening we joined Lev and Julie for some food and drinks at Lao Lao Garden, which was very good. Well, food-wise anyway - I'm not convinced by the European travelling band and singer who managed to kill a good number of songs during the night. As a comparison, some of the night-time cover singers in Tunisia were better than this bunch.

Yesterday we decided to head out to Kouang Si waterfall with Julie and Lev. It was breathtakingly beautiful, the nicest waterfall of the 3 we've visited since leaving the UK. It had a bonus of also having an endangered animals rescue centre attached which contained a number of bears who had been saved from appalling conditions and who were chilling out in hammocks (seriously!) and a pool in the lower level along with a Tarzan swing which was cracking fun. 3.5 hours probably wasn't long enough.

In late afternoon we went to a wat in which a monk had approached me a couple of days previous and invited us to come and listen to their chanting at 5:30pm. We couldn't the previous days but were free then, so went along. It was interesting and seemed to be a couple of huge verses which some of the monks knew by rote, whilst others had books to refer to. A few other tourists also stopped by and we all sat at the back of the main temple (sin). I can't say it was particularly moving - perhaps I'm spiritually bankrupt - but it was a worthwhile experience nonetheless. Monks also walk the main street each morning at about 6am collecting alms from the locals but we've decided not to go and see that. It sounds like it had turned into a tourist "event" and we didn't want to intrude uninvited into what is effectively a religious ceremony just to take a few photos.

At night we decided to try an Indian restaurant. The food looked really nice but unfortunately only Gilly got to eat it. I had a samosa and then my fundoplication wrap from March decided it wasn't going to let me get any more food down. A fun hour and a half to and from the bathroom ensued. This morning I had the same issue at breakfast, and that was mainly just fruit. I've had to make do with eating ice cream and fruit shakes today. I've got no idea if this is going to continue but it really isn't enjoyable, and I am perpetually hungry, for obvious reasons!

Tonight we decided to get a couple of tickets to the Royal Luang Prabang Theatre to watch an excerpt from the Laos version of the Ramayana along with some custom dancing and other bits. The whole thing lasts an hour so shouldn't outstay its welcome if it really isn't our thing. We're fairly hopeful, though.

Tomorrow we're leaving Luang Prabang behind, and getting a minibus to Vang Vieng. This is the home of "tubing": sitting in a rubber ring, floating down the river and getting pulled into various bars en route and given free shots, playing bar games and generally joining other rowdy backpackers. Could either be a lot of fun, or a big mess. I guess we will see.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Day 28 - 30: Slow boat to Luang Prabang

We arrived in Luang Prabang yesterday afternoon after a 2 day journey in a slow boat up the Mekong. The alternative was either a bus or a speedboat. Having been on plenty of buses, and having both read horror stories about the speedboats and also seen them in action (incredibly noisy, passengers wearing helmets, cramped space for 8 people...) we chose the slow boat option.

We ate breakfast at the slow boat pier and had a bit of a giggle at some of the English translations on the "Free Stye" menu. These included "Friced noodle on the face" and "Friced Tiger Cry". Both of which sound pretty rare, and possibly tasty and/or painful:

There were plenty of people on the boat, but it wasn't too cramped and was relatively comfortable. Thankfully I brought a travel pillow after reading the guidebook; even though the seats were well padded, my arse is mainly bone and so after about 3 hours I was glad of the extra padding. The views up the Mekong are mainly jungle on either side, but we got a few shots on the first day.

We stopped at Pekbang in the evening, as the slow boats don't travel the river in the evening. This is a tiny little town which has developed mainly because of the slow boat stop and consequently has a decent array of competitively-priced places to eat and stay. We picked Vatsana courtesy of Trip Advisor, and were thankful - they had the softest, largest, most comfortable bed we'd slept in since starting our trip. We ate at a restaurant two doors down; nothing special, but I did get to try fried buffalo which was pretty good.

The second day we trundled back onto the boat for 8:30am and the weather was appalling with rain all day long. The boat was different to the first day, only had one toilet instead of two, and had a leaky roof. Lev and I put our joint IT skills together to craft a makeshift gutter using duct tape and plastic bags:

Perhaps we should have stuck to IT.

Some more shots from the second day:

Luckily, things had cleared up by the time we hit the Luang Prabang pier at about 4pm so we had a wander around the city, scouting for accommodation. The first thing we noticed was the price difference between Laos and Thailand. We were used to most guesthouses charging between 200 and 400 baht (4 - 8 GBP) but in Laos there is a lot of competition - much undeserved - between boutique guesthouses which charge in US dollars, where prices start at about $25 (17 GBP) and rise to anything up to $50 per night. We managed to track down one in our budget called Sokdee Guesthouse, for 70,000 kip (~ 5.60 GBP) and it was a fairly comfortable, very quiet place with free internet access chucked in. Julie and Lev joined us there and at night we all wandered over to the night market, a huge handicraft market which stretched on for what seemed like a good mile. Just off the market was a decent sized food court, where you could load up a plate of various veg, noodles, rice, crackers and other gubbins for about 60p, and then stick a freshly BBQ'd half chicken on for an extra 90p or a rack of pork ribs for 60p. Suffice to say, we were completely stuffed last night after the meal. Having said that, we managed to find room for an orange sponge cake on the way back to the guesthouse.

Today we went two doors down for breakfast at Saffron which was excellent, and then had a wander along the Mekong to the coast. Luang Prabang is surrounded by water on 3 sides, and is a pretty small city. You could comfortably walk the entire length of the old town in an hour. We stopped in a few wats (you can never get enough of wats, right?) including the city's heritage site - Wat Xieng Thong.

We ate at Morning Glory cafe for lunch, a lovely little spot with views over the Nam Khan river. A couple of fruit shakes and a shared large chicken, bacon and salad baguette, and we were ready to carry on. After some further scouting around, I found a new guesthouse (Soutikone) for 4.80 GBP per night which has massive, nicely furnished rooms, and is in an area we will be exploring over the next couple of days. We also booked a meal for tomorrow at Tamarind which is supposed to be one of the nicest restaurants in the city. Cheap accommodation means we can spend more on lovely food!

Tomorrow we will be visiting Big Brother Mouse. This is an education establishment that helps promote literacy amongst Lao people, and they have sessions at 9am - 11am where English-speaking volunteers can come in and help Lao students improve their English, both reading and speaking. This will be a great way for us to give something to the community, coming from a comparatively privileged western background, and also allow us to interact with local people and improve our own language skills. I'm really looking forward to it!

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Day 25 - 27: The Gibbon Experience

At 9am we piled into the Gibbon Experience office for the pre-event safety briefing. There were about 16 people in total, but we would eventually split into 3 groups: the people doing one-day treks, and two other groups of 5 and 6 people doing the 2 night/3 day treks. We were in a group with 2 Russians (Inessa and Orla) and two Russian-Americans (Lev and Julie). All 4 of them were great fun for the entire trip, and we were pretty lucky to get a good group.

The first day started with a 3 hour drive to the base camp/village and then a 1.5 hour hike, mostly uphill, to our treehouse. We had lunch (chicken baguettes - yum) and did a couple of ziplines before we got there, and the views were superb. Gilly managed to acquire the first leech of the trip on her foot. Leeches turned out to be a common occurrence throughout the 3 days, and they are disgusting, slimy things but pretty harmless (other than the blood "donation" you provide). Spraying DEET on them soon sorts them out.

We'd heard that Treehouse 1 was the best in terms of "luxury" so we'd requested that - we weren't disappointed. Rosewood floors, clean running water, spotless mattresses and linen...it was superb. There was also a cold water shower which was refreshing after a hard day's slog and the view from the bathroom is probably one of the best you'll find in the world. Each couple had a floor to themselves so we weren't cramped for space, and the dining area was equally fantastic. It took 10 people 8 months to build this treehouse, and then they had to rebuild it once after some berk left a candle lit when they went to bed, and managed to burn half of it down - hence why it was newer and nicer than the rest.

Once we'd arrived, that was pretty much it for the first day. It was pushing 4pm, and at about 5pm a canopying old Lao lady ziplined over with our dinner, which was a tiffin filled with pork curry, rice and various vegetables. Considering this is all cooked in the jungle, it tasted great. We also got given a bottle of wine to share between the 6 of us. I can't vouch for the vintage as it was Laos-made, but it tasted vaguely winey and we think it may have been plum. Gilly and I taught the two Russian girls (with help from Lev and Julie) how to play Uno, the other 4 taught us how to play Durak (translates as "fool") which apparently all Russian people know how to play, and we hit the sack at about 9:30pm.

Let me be clear - although it is called the Gibbon Experience, we didn't expect to see any gibbons. This was prevalent in all of the reviews we read beforehand. If we got to hear gibbons singing to each other, that was apparently rare too, so our expectations were realistic. As it turned out we didn't see any gibbons for the whole time we were out there, but we did hear them singing both mornings. It was an eerie, beautiful sound, and when coupled with the mist that spread over the jungle after dawn and until about 9am, it made for an ethereal experience.

The next day the canopying granny brought over breakfast - rice, vegetables and omelette. Those privy to my food habits will know I am not partial to eggs, actively avoiding them where possible. However, I have now been converted to omelettes and will consider myself an omelette eater should anyone wish to put it on record. This was down to a number of things: sheer hunger, a lack of choice, and desperation to eat something other than the ubiquitous rice that accompanied every meal. Boiled eggs, scrambled eggs and fried eggs are all still off the table though, and will remain so.

Breakfast was followed by a long trek to the various other treehouses around the jungle. They were all comfortably laid out, but none of them were as nice as ours - I was glad we had settled on Treehouse 1. We got around by alternate 20-30 minute walks followed by 1 or 2 ziplines. They were excellent fun, and if the treks between them were smaller, I would be happy ziplining all day. I took a couple of videos of the journey across one; I will probably upload them at some point when I find an internet cafe with a decent upload speed. At present I'm happy to find a computer that actually works.

We got back to the treehouse at 4pm, when we had "lunch" of vegetables, rice and some more vegetables, and supergran arrived an hour later with dinner (basically the same thing we had for breakfast - omelette et al). A bit of forethought from the organisers would have us take lunch in one of the treehouses we stopped at rather than leave it so late and then overwhelm us with two meals in an hour.

Something that the organisers also need to address more urgently is the total lack of medical supplies. We knew we had to pack our own mosquito repellant and sun cream but we assumed - wrongly - that there would be a first aid kit for scrapes, etc. This is not the case. If you injure yourself out there, you have nothing available to help you. It's a case of physician, heal thyself. And when this particular physician was only packing plasters (and these, only courtesy of his wonderful girlfriend), taking the top layer off the heel of my hand whilst ziplining was probably not a good idea. I just had to wash it and hope not to get it infected. Similarly, Julie fell down the stairs in the evening on the way to the bathroom and luckily only bruised her coccyx...if she had broken anything, it was 10pm at night and the guide didn't stay anywhere near the treehouse. There are no procedures for emergencies, and upon questioning I was told by the guide (Noushon) that their boss did have some medical kit in the treehouses a couple of months ago but didn't buy any more for whatever reason. This seems incredible to me, especially as there is a pharmacy attached to the Gibbon Experience tour shop. If you are considering doing this trip, pack everything you think you will need medically, and hope that you don't get anything more than aching legs.

As it happened, I also managed to get two leeches in the day, both of which munched on the skin between my toes before getting full and falling off. Cheeky gits. The problem is, they have an anti-coagulant which stops the blood from clotting, so I spent a good two hours with blood seeping into my sandals. Thankfully, and I'm thankful pretty much every day for them, my Keen sandals are waterproof so I just chucked them under the shower when I got back. Newport H2 sandals are amazing. They have all the benefits of hiking shoes but don't smell, are breathable, and are comfortable enough to wear all day.

That night we were woken up by the sound of tree rats fighting outside our bedroom. We'd seen one of them in the rubbish bag in the kitchen, but they are fairly skittish and didn't bother us. If I'd been more awake I would have got up and thrown something at them but as it turned out they shut up after about 5 minutes of squealing.

The next day we left after more omelette for breakfast and took our last few ziplines back to the village, then took a truck to a restaurant for lunch (after a brief stop to pull the second truck out of a mud road ditch) before heading back to Houay Xai.

I can definitely recommend the experience but with the caveats mentioned above regarding medical supplies. The company would also benefit from investing in English lessons for their guides. They could speak basic English, but this was all self-taught; on guide whose English was very good had learned it from speaking to tourists and reading a dictionary. Proviing lessons will allow them to explain more about the different plants and animals in the jungle; they were keen to do so but simply didn't have the vocabulary.

We went to eat at My Laos restaurant at night again (our third visit) and I had the excellent fried fish with chilli which Gilly had on our first night. Our guesthouse was Arimid but I couldn't recommend it. The owner is called Mr. Singhkam and is a retired French professor, and is one of the nicest Lao you'll meet. However, the room was a cramped basic affair with hard beds and dodgy wiring. Consequently, sleep was fitful.

Tomorrow we are catching a slow boat to Luang Prabang which takes two days with a stop at night in Pekbang. 5 hours on a cramped boat will be hot and unpleasant but will offer great views and the chance to meet more people.

Friday, November 04, 2011

The Experience in Photos: Yeepeng Lantern Festival

A few pics from the lantern festival on October 29th, 2011 in Chiang Mai:

Day 23 - 24: Arrival in Houay Xai, Laos

We took a bus from Chiang Rai to Chiang Kong and then crossed the border to Houay Xai yesterday. We're now officially in Laos. Houay Xai is a very quiet town. It maks Kanchanaburi look like Soho. This is probably because few people actually stay here; it's more of a dropping off point before they jump on a slow boat to Luang Prabang.

We decided to stay and book onto the Gibbon Experience. This looks great fun - like Go Ape, but actually sleeping in treehouses, and ziplining for a large part of the day between areas. We decided to go for the Classic trek (1.5 hours walking per day) rather than the Waterfall trek (4 - 5 hours walking per day). We'd already had our fill of walking in Chiang Mai so wanted to spend the time doing ziplining instead. We are setting off tomorrow for a 3 night/2 day excursion, and can't wait. We have no illusions about seeing any gibbons - the chances are remote - but we're just going for the ride and the scenery. If we see some primates, so much the better. There are tales of spiders in the treehouses as big as your fist, and people waking up to find rats sleeping on their face, so this promises to be quite exciting. Gilly in particular cannot wait for the chance to have a siesta with added vermin.

There is really not much else going on here. There are a handful of bars, a couple of decent eateries ("My Laos" is excellent), and the place we're staying (Sabaydee guesthouse) is spotless, huge, and has excellent views. I will hopefully have more to talk about when we return on the 7th, but for now I leave you with a couple of snaps from the area:

View over Huay Xai (Thailand in the background):

View from our room 1:

View from our room 2:

Last night's moon from the bar:

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Day 20 - 22: Chiang Rai Hilltribe Museum, White Temple and Black House

It's been a busy but enjoyable three days. Chiang Rai was our destination after Chiang Mai, and it's an odd little city which mixes the western bar vibe of Kanchanaburi with more traditional Thai aspects. The centre is quite small and we soon became familiar with the layout, unlike Chiang Mai which boasted a dizzying number of sois (side treets) and where you could quickly lose your bearings.

The first place we hit was a small museum dedicated to the hilltribes of Thailand, and which also provided some insight into the opium trade over the centuries. For instance, I didn't realise that we took control of Hong Kong becase Britain defeated China in a war over opium (we wanted to keep trading it, they wanted to ban trade of it as they considered it dangerous). Similarly, we learned that the longneck Karen people (Paduang) you may have seen with elongated necks covered in rings are actually Burmese refugees who have been presented with the choie of deportation back to Burma, or working in tourist zoos for people to stare at and take pictures. It's both shocking and saddening, and like the Death Railway museums we saw, makes you wonder about our humanity. Unlike the railway though, this is still happening to the Paduang and all I can say is that under no circumstances should you encourage this kind of barbarism by visiting their "camp" on a tour - it would only cause their masters to exploit them further.

We ate at a roadside cafe the first night for the princely sum of 60 baht (£1.20). I had a green chicken curry with which I was also offered some small dark cubes of something the server described as "but". I thought it was tofu of some variant, but when I cut into a cube, it looked suspiciously like liver. Then I realised that she was actually offering me "blood". Yummy. I gave it a try regardless, it didn't really taste of anything - possibly because I was trying to swallow it as fast as possible to avoid any potential nastiness. I didn't die, so I guess it was OK. Gilly went for a fish curry but forgot to ask about the spice level and consequently spent the meal suffering from heat sweats. She won't be making that mistake again. to make up for it, we decided to try out Swensen's ice cream parlour. We'd seen a couple of these in Thailand but didn't want to get too "westernised" when we first arrived so never ate there. This was a mistake. They do unbelievable good ice creams and desserts; I went for a stcky chocolate sundae, whilst Gilly opted for a waffle filld with banana and three different types of ice cream. Sadly we didn't have our cameras to take photos, so we may have to visit again to rectify the situation...

The next day we went to the White Temple, a phenomenally impressive work of art set in immaculate grounds. All sweeping Gothic spires and pristine white carvings of the grotesque and fantastical, it looked like a twisted version of a Gaudi building, covered in icing. The photos don't do it justice, but there a few at the bottom of the post to give you an idea.

The whole place is the brainchild of Chalermchai Khositpipat an incredibly prolific artist and sculptor who at his peak was churning out 200 works a year. A little eccentric by all accounts, he has the plan for the finished grounds completed and expects his masterpiece to be ready in 2070, long after his death. He has about 60 acolytes working who he is training in his unique style. And I do mean unique - where else can you find art that mixes Buddhist iconography and modern-day characters such as Superman, Harry Potter, Spiderman and the Predator within its murals? If you see one sight in Chiang Rai, make sure it's the White Temple.

We ate last night at da Vinci's after getting another craving for some western food. We shared a huge pizza from their wood-fired pizza oven, and a massive mixed salad that came with a mountain of bread, all enjoyable. I would suggest if you want something different, go down the street to Aye's; they are part of the same chain and we saw people ordering food from da Vinci's having it delivered by a guy from Aye's, presumbly after it was cooked there. Very odd.

Today we went to the polar opposite of the White Temple: the Black House. Created by another famous Thai artist Thawan Duchanee, the contrast to to the first location couldn't have been starker. Here, everything was horns, skulls, pelts and dark teak. Stone carvings were weathered, and the teak buildings were strewn haphazardly over the grounds. It had a more organic feel than the White Temple, but I still preferred the clean lines and more intricate attention to detail of the former site. That's not to say the Black House isn't worth visiting, far from it. A tuk tuk there will cost about 250 baht, but go after 1pm as they close for lunch between 12 and 1.

And this almost concludes travels around our first country. Tomorrow we are getting a bus to Chiang Kong and then crossing the border to Huay Xai in Laos. Our first stint in Thailand has been very, very enjoyable. The people, food, sights....all fantastic. I can only hope the rest of SE Asia is as fun!

White Temple:

Black House:

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Day 19 - Chiang Mai Thai Cooking Class

We decided to learn how to cook Thai food, following a recommendation from Hayley. This was a fortuitous decision as the day was overcast and then started to rain later on, whilst we were a good half hour away from Chiang Mai on the Thai Farm. Before that though, our amiable teacher, Turian (don't snigger, Mass Effect fans) had taken us tp the local market and explained the various rices and sauces we will be using in the class. We then drove to the farm itself, and were given a tour of the well-stocked garden, as Turian showed us all of the organic vegetables and herbs used in the dishes we would be preparing. The menus we selected were:

- Tom Yam soup with shrimp
- Green chicken curry
- Stir-fry chicken with basil
- Spring rolls
- Bananas in coconut milk

- Thai vegetable soup
- Yellow chicken curry
- Stir-fry chicken with cashew nuts
- Pad Thai
- Mango with sticky rice

We picked a few things from the garden, but the majority of the ingredients were ready for us to start chopping and using courtesy of the frighteningly efficient farm staff.

It turns out that Thai food is very easy to make. Stir-fry chicken with basil literally took 5 minutes to chop the stuff and about 3 minutes to cook. The soup was even quicker, and the bananas were literally a minute. The only thing that took me any time was the curry - I had to make my own green curry paste by smashing stuff up with a pestle and mortar, mix it with the chicken, then chuck the whole lot in a pan with veg and water. Dead simple really. It tasted far, far better than the stuff we get in jars back home. Also, people who know me will know that I hate soup. Hate it. Today was no exception, even though I made it myself. I dislike pretty much any food you have to drink. Soup, custard...no thanks. Hopefully this will put to rest any badgering to try more soup from Gilly - if I don't like the stuff I make myself, there's no hope.

Anyway, here's some before and after shots for posterity:

Soup (before and after)

Green curry (before and after)

Stir-fry chicken with basil (before and after)

It turns out that I'm not very good at making spring rolls despite my best efforts. The cornpaper simply wouldn't stick, no matter how much egg I used. Turian kept saying "spring roll FAIL" which was amusing, if hurtful. I jest, she was fantastic and incredibly patient with us all.

Of course, we ate pretty much everything we made so by the time the course finished at 4pm, we were completely stuffed and still had some Pad Thai and spring rolls left over to snack on in the evening.

We had a fantastic time, and I can highly recommend Thai Farm to anyone visiting Chiang Mai!