Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Kuala Lumpur

After abandoning my original plan of getting an overnight bus or train from Singapore I got up early and got a bus to the border, before getting on another bus to KL from the Malaysian side (where it's much cheaper). By the time I'd checked into the hostel there wasn't much time in the day and I was left cursing Lonely Planet as the museum I tried shut earlier than they said, and they got the location of the post office well wrong. I did eventually manage to post my package that I'd been waiting to post since Chaing Mai, but that was all I did before meeting up with some people.

Both the Czech couple I'd met in deepest Laos and Paul and Maureen the Scots of Ko Lanta fame happened to be in the city and I'd arranged to meet them all for dinner. Who should I also meet in the hostel I was in but the Dutch guy from Melaka, who said the Dutch girl was arriving the next day (the next day I also met another Dutch guy in the hostel, who I'd met in the hide in the Taman Negara AND bumped into again in Melaka, talk about a small world!). We went for some noodles before returning to the rooftop bar of our hostel where the drinks were cheap (for Malaysia) and they were showing the Man U Chelsea game. It was a very friendly atmosphere there and we also ended up meeting a St Johnstone fan from Perth (Tory voting bastard though).

The next day I set out ridiculously early despite the late night as you have to get there at 830 am to get a ticket to go up the Petronas Tower (worlds second tallest building, or tallest twin towers as they like to bill it). I bumped into Floor (the Dutch guy) again there and stole his place in the queue and we got tickets for going up to the "skybridge" at 1115, which gave me time to go and see the KL tower, which is a communications tower which is actually even taller, and you can go much further up, as the skybridge linking the two towers of the Petronas is less than halfway up. I enjoyed these both, thought the Petronas towers was more of a case of just to say you've been there. Attached to the twin towers is a huge mall, where I wandered for a while looking at gadgets and salivating, before having lunch and getting the subway south where I visited the half empty National Museum, whose patriotic displays were really more aimed at locals, before passing through some very pedestrian unfriendly parkland to get to the Islamic Art museum, which had a very nice collection in a nice building. I then walked back to the hostel passing by the central mosque and through the central market (where I conveniently sheltered from some rain).

In the evening I'd agreed to meet Paul and Maureen to try to watch the old firm game. I got the monorail out to an Irish pub where we'd heard they show a lot of sport, but they didn't have it, and after much searching (including finding a British pub with Irn Bru) we found it was not on in Malaysia. After a Chinese dinner we walked back to Chinatown where the hostels were. The only real bar around was the 'Reggae Bar' (complete with picture of the queen and suspected ladyboy barperson (don't get too excited dad!)) and there we bumped into Floor and Wendy (the Dutch) again along with a Swedish girl. We had one drink in there before heading back to the hostel's rooftop bar (the reggae bar was more expensive than Britain!) where a few more beers were had along with a slightly later night than befitted my 8am bus booking.

Main square in KL.
Petronas towers from the KL tower.

In a the Reggae Pub.


Well Singapore should really get it's own country post so here goes:

Time spent: 2 nights
Mosquito bites: not that I know of
On budget/time: It's expensive there but I expected that
Lost/stolen: I think I left one of my nice beer Lao T-shirts in the Hostel when waking up in the dark
Sound of Singapore: Well the hostel played really lame music, Real Radio style
Taste of Singapore: I had a very nice pizza with real Gorganzola on it
Drink of Singapore: Couldn't afford beer, but all the tea you can drink included with the hostel. Result.
Highlights of Singapore: The Merlion statue and the battle box, see below.

The bus there was comfy bus there was a lot of waiting around at the border post (Singapore side) and I was worried they were going to arrest me when they found my Thai whisky I still hadn't managed to get rid of!

Found a nice hostel in little India, paying more for a dorm than I usually pay for an en-suite room. First evening I just had time to eat and do some interneting and tried to get some sleep before an early start to do the city all in the next day. Make your own breakfast was included at the hostel then I walked into the centre, wandering through the old colonial district before visiting the Merlion statue by the mouth of the Singapore river. This is obviously a creature with the head of a lion and tail of a fish that spouts water from its mouth, an emblem for the Lion city dreamed up years ago. It's certainly different. I then wandered to the Asian Civilisations museum, which was very well presented but didn't enthrall me too much as I've now seen many of these civilisations and their own museums first hand. For lunch I had a very nice cheap Indian meal before wandering along the Singapore river past the very swish Clarke Quay, home to many trendy bars in the evening, including the Highlander bar, replete with bekilted staff.

Next up was more wandering through Canning Park, including to the Battle Box, an underground bunker used as a base by the British in WWII which now has an excellent audio-visual exhibition on the surrender of Singapore to the Japanese. Afterwards I pushed on to Orchard Road, home to many oppulent shopping malls. All I got was an orange juice and a postcard but it was fun watching the fashion victims (it was noticeable in Malaysia that it had lots of fat people, unlike the rest of SE Asia, whereas Singapore had lots of Painfully thin women and Victoria Beckham wannabes).

I wandered the city a bit more and killed some time before 6pm when I could get into the art gallery for free! I enjoyed the exhibitions here, including the worl of a Chinese artist, Xe Bingheng or something like that, who was great in a number of diverse styles. Then dinner and back to the hostel. I must say that the hostel here was unlike anywhere else I stayed: when I went to the bathroom to do my teeth before going to bed it was full of girls putting on their make-up and straightening their hair before hitting the town! Certainly not what you get in Laos, and in the Cameron Highlands the dorm had a definite reading before early lights out vibe. Singapore seemed to have a younger crowd, many of them just on stopovers on there way back/to Australia.

Anyway, Singapore was clean and modern, and I'm sure you could spent a long time there and have a lot of fun, spending a lot of money in the process!

Me, by the Merlion statue.

The Singapore river.

Sir Stamford Raffles, founder of the city.


An early morning start from Jerantut got me to Melaka at about 230pm, or rather to the massive out of town bus station where I ate before getting the local bus into town. Had a slight problem finding accommodation, but ended up pretty happy at Tony's place, where I met a nice Dutch guy and girl and agreed to meet up later for dinner. It was getting on when I headed to see the old town, built in a Dutch style, with a (recently added) windmill. Near by there was a strip with around 15 different museums. I chose not to go to another history museum, not the democracy, stamp, architecture or Islamic museums, but instead to the beauty museum. This had very interesting displays on the various tortures people put themselves through to look attractive. While there were many items on tribal practices, such as scarification, lip plates and (the one I couldn't cope with) tooth filing, there were also other more modern items, such as Chinese foot binding, corsetry and, of course, tattooing. After this the other museums were closing so I visited the ruined church on the hill and went to view a reconstructed ship in harbour. Then, rather more importantly, I bought a dashing hat to replace the one I'd lost in Bangkok.

After meeting up with with the two Dutchies, we also met up by chance with another Dutchie and an English girl (the Dutch guy having cyled 20000kms to get here) and we all went for dinner at a great tandoori place before going for a few beers (my vows of abstinence in heavily taxed Malaysia shattered) before it degenerated into One hen couple of ducks three etc etc.

The next morning after a leisurely breakfast (where I first discovered baked beans are plentiful in Malaysia) there was only time for us to visit the vast Stadhuys (townhall) with museum (where much was learned about admiral Cheng Ho) before I had to head off to the bus station, having a quick lunch there before catching my 130pm bus to Singapore.

Old Square.

Ship in harbour (now a museum).

Street lit at night.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Taman Negara

Taman Negara is Malaysian for national park, and it is a huge swathe of ancient rainforest the middle of the Malay Penninsula. After arriving from Jerantut in the evening I stayed the night in a dorm (actually the first dorm of my trip so far, though since I have often dormed, they're quite common in Malaysia). My plan was to spend the next night in the Kumbang Bumbun hide, a 6 hour 11km trek through the jungle, see some animals, and trek back the next day. I took over 4 litres of fluids and some food to get me through and set off from the park headquarters. On the way I went on the Canopy walk, the longest canopy walk in the world apparently (it's a walkway suspended between the trees at canopy level). I was the first on it that day, and thought this might afford me a better opportunity to see some animals, but all I got was the opportunity to walk through all the spiders webs from the night before. I then continued on my trek, passing a sign telling me I'd gone 3.5 km very quickly. At this rate I'll be there in no time, I thought, so I decided to take a diverision up a hill. This was not a wise idea as lugging my 4 litres of water and other stuff up the hill proved draining, as the hear and humidity were starting to get overpowering. Back on the main path for a bit I came to another sign that said I'd gone 3.5 kms. I was not pleased. By this time I was really soaking in my own sweat, and it seemed an age before I got to the 4 kms marker. By this point I was really starting to go through my water.

Well on with the trek, I got a bit slower, and hadn't seen any animals except perhaps a big squirrel and lots of ants and leeches. I did then meet a huge lizard, just sitting in the middle of the road, which wouldn't budge so I had to go around. It didn't seem to move, so it may have been stuffed for all I know. By 6 kms I was soaked with sweat, including the entire contents of my bag, and I'd drunk nearly half my water for the two days. My thoughts turned just to getting to the village marked on the map at 9kms, where I could maybe get a drink, or the boat back if it came to that (I was also was feeling a bit funny in my innards and had to rush of trail and bare my bum to the leeches!!). Eventually I settled in to a sustainable slower pace and made it to the village about 3 in the afternoon. Turns out the village was really just an abandoned resort with not a soul in it. I did however find Kat, my dorm mate, who I'd passed a few times on the trail waiting on the Jetty for a boat as she had walked one way and planned to just get the boat back to town, as the guide book listed one at 330pm. I felt pretty shitty at this point and was inclined to go back myself, especially as I only had about a litre of fluids left. Come 330 no boat stopped, indeed, a few boats passed later in the afternoon, but none stopped despite our waves and shouts! about 6pm it was clear that if we wanted to goto the hide before dark we'd have to leave soon. I managed to persuade Kat that it was not a good idea to risk spending the night alone on the jetty, or to swim down the river through the rapids and she'd be better of coming to the hide as well. I'd also found a burst pipe during a foray into the neighbouring native village (full of naked children and bare breasted women and men giving us very funny looks) to look for another jetty) and had refilled my bottles, though didn't know how trustworthy the water was. We got to the hide in time and found quite a few people already there. Darkness came and some people spent time watching out the window towards the salt-licks and watering hole where the animals should appear, though I was surprises that quite a few of us (there were 7 in the hide I think) just slept the whole night without really looking. I did a few long shifts watching and so no animals at all, nor did anyone in out hide, though everyone else I've met who'd been saw something. I did enjoy it though, watching the fireflies, the moon rising and seeing the tricks the brain plays in constantly convincing me that I could see something. I slept more than I thought I wood on the hard wooden bunk, and the next morning we returned to the jetty to try again for the boat (though the water seemed okay, I hadn't enjoyed the second half of the trek the day before, and the 2km trek to the jetty reminded me of the heat and humidity though it was still early then, so I'd be damned if I was going to walk back, especially with such a paucity of animals, except leeches and web-spinning spiders). A few boats passed without stopping, and we feared the worst, but about 11am one stopped and took us back for only 10 Rinngit apiece (less than 2 quid, I'd have paid much much more!). We'd never been so glad to see a boat pull up in our lives. Back at the town it was to the shower and a cold drink as soon as humanly possible!In the afternoon I got the boat to Jerantut, since I'd only got the minibus on the way. I Had the whole boat to myself, which was nice . It was around two hours downstream and there was a thunderstorm and downpour most of the way (the boat was covered, and I was even more glad I was not still trekking through the jungle then as the paths would have been treacherous!). I got to Jerantut early evening and checked into a guest house. It had certainly been an experience, but the lack of animal, and even exotic insect life was disappointing. I won't be doing any more jungle trekking as as after Laos I was worn out. Those paths in a cooler climate would be fine though!


On the canopy walk.

Best not to grab the guide rope!

This guy wouldn't get out our way.

Thursday, April 24, 2008


Time spent: 12 days
Mosquito bites: more than I'd hoped, + bed bugs!
On budget/time: made up some time but spent far too much!
Lost/stolen: Lost my hat in Bangkok
Sound of Thailand: Eh, Job2do's Lantan reggae, especially the match of the day song!
Taste of Thailand: Phad Thai and Green Curry
Drink of Thailand: Beer Chiang, watch out for the Chiangover
Highlights of Thailand: Grand palace in Bangkok, Songkran and Chilling on Ko Lanta

Thailand was a bit of a let down to me. It was quite expensive and everyone goes there - backpackers, package tourists, divers, sex tourists and so on! Wasn't that bad though! It was good to have a holiday in Ko Lanta and then I was ready to go a bit more off the beaten track.

From Ko Lanta to The Taman Negara

Leaving Ko Lanta I was heading for the Jungle in the middle of Malaysia. This meant quite a journey as it was not easy to get to. On the first day I set off from Ko Lanta with Mike for Trang, where he was going to stay, and I would go on to Hat Yai. When we got to Trang after much delay waiting for ferries to get of Ko Lanta we happened to bump in to Paul and Maureen again, who'd gone there the day before to get there camera fixed.. small world as ever. We all had lunch and I satisfied my Feta and Olive cravings with a Greek Salad. I really enjoyed it! I then headed off to Hat Yai on another 4 hour bus run and stayed the night there. It was a bit of a sleaze hole, catering to Malaysian tourists escaping the countries strict Muslim laws. There was definitely an overabundance of "massage parlours" with pictures of the masseuses posted on shopfront so you could see before hand!

Next day I got a train from Hat Yai to the border (6 hours) where it was relatively simple to cross into Malaysia and then get a local bus for one hour to Khota Baru, the local state capital where I spent an afternoon and a night as I wanted to catch the Jungle Railway to Jerantut at 6am the next day. In the afternoon I went to free cultural show, which was enjoyable and not something I'd seen before on this trip. First up was local music with an oboe like instrument and various kinds of drum. Some boys then performed a dance that was part martial art, and culminated with them trying to wrestle each other. Then there was another drum group, this time with just a selection of large standing drums, which the visitors were also invited to take a turn at. There was also a demonstration of spinning tops, where men launch a heavy top from a wound glued up rope to see who can get it to spin for longest (usually a few hours). Though I enjoyed the show I got very annoyed by tourists taking photos non-bloody-stop, not actually listening or watching, going right up in peoples daces with their cameras. At one point the compere said here is a guy making kites, and there was an old guy tying some pieces of cane together with string. Well some people thought this was the most amazing thing ever and took photo after photo! I couldn't understand it! It turns out that at the cultural centre I'd already missed the "Royal Go-kart tournament" and was to early for the " Monkey-plucking coconut competition" (their hyphenation not mine) and the "ASEAN Bantam Chicken Beauty contest". Can't be helped.

Next day I was extremely early for the Jungle train to Jerantut (especially since I'd lost another hours sleep coming over the border). The train was cheap, but hot and sweaty and the jungle views didn't impress me much. When I got to Jerantut I found I could still get a minibus transfer so I wouldn't have to spend another day on the journey to the Jungle. I got to Kuala Tahan, the base for trips to the jungle that evening and checked into a small hostel, my first dorm accommodation of the trip so far, but I'm going to have to get used to it before Australia which'll be expensive!

Dancers at the culture show.

And drummers, i had a go!

Chucking the top thingies.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Ko Lanta (and Phi Phi)

Oh great, I get to start by adding to the litany of heinous bus journeys. The first part wasn't too bad, despite the Mark Wahlberg double bill on the TV. Once safely on the bus it was nice to watch the soggy celebrations ensuing outside. The bus charged through to Surat Thani, where people were to go separate ways depending on which Island they were going to. The worst thing was the frequent changes of transport and waiting around. Not to labour the point, after the big bus came a Sangthiew (susceptible to water attacks!) a minbus, two ferries (one of them the slowest ever, must have had about 1hp, I could have swam faster) and a tuk-tuk (extremely vulnerable to water attacks) before getting to Lanta over 20 hours after I left, just as soaked as when I got on the bus, and my passport doused again.

But why Lanta? Well I was traveling to the islands when I saw a message on the Partick Thistle message boards from a fan asking if there would be any other jags around in Thailand trying to watch the game against Rangers in the Cup Quarter final on the 13th April. Turns out he was 2 years below me in the same school, so I though why not head for Lanta where he was, with his girlfriend. Turned out to be a very good decision as even though we lost the football, we got on great and they were in a lovely place. We'd soon discovered various connections and mutual friends, and I got the chance to wield my Glasgow accent and phrases again.

Lanta seemed cheap among the islands (not that cheap!) and the accommodation was fine, the water lovely but the beach a little rocky and the beer flowing. There were some other nice people at the same place, including Mike who was traveling despite having lost and arm and a leg years previously and Richard from Switzerland. I stayed 5 nights in the end and suffice to say I didn't do much. There was drinking, chatting, swimming, eating and little else. It was nice to have a holiday from traveling - no evil bus journeys!

On my last day I went on a Snorkeling trip to the neighbouring island Ko Phi Phi, supposedly the most beautiful of the Thai Islands (some say the most beautiful place in the world). With a build up like that it was no surprise I was a little underwhelmed, but the snorkeling was excellent, I met some nice monkeys, and the main town has recovered well from the Tsunami and to me seemed more expensive with an older crowd than Lanta. I really enjoyed our beach at Lanta, which was laid back with a nice atmosphere I didn't really find in Goa.

I also managed not to get hit on the head by a falling coconut, supposedly the second biggest killer of tourists. I'd write a little more about my time here but it might just make y'all jealous, and I've waffled on enough already tonight - I have to get up at 515am for a bus tomorrow morning, and that's on top of losing an hour crossing the border today.


Sunset from the resort.

The gang.

Our boat and monkeys at Ko Phi Phi.

Clear waters at Phi Phi.


Everybody in South East Asia passes through Bangkok, sometimes many times. I got the train from Ayuthya, which was nice because I'd not been on one for a while and it was quiet and cheap as chips. I decided to stay on or near Khao San road, the imfamous backpacker ghetto. I found it not bad at all, with a nice atmosphere, but I think that was due to Songkran (Thai New-year/waterfight) which was happening at the time. Anyway, after a few full up or pricey Guest houses I found a cheap one, looked a bit shabby, but it's only to sleep in one night right? Afterwards I remembered a warning someone said about a hostel in Bangkok where they had to leave in middle of the night as the bedbugs were so bad. I then met some people I'd met earlier on my travels again (Another nice Canadian couple, and not one I've mentioned before!) who said they'd stayed one night there and checked out and gone elsewhere. Needless to say the next morning I was bitten all over. I did save 50p though.

Having arrived just before lunch the first day I set out to see the Grand palace and neighbouring temples. After one of my frequent hikes in the midday sun they would let me in shorts (contrary to what lonely-f'n-planet said) which left me a bit peeved, but found I could pay some money and borrow some funky trousers (more peeved) but lo and behold because it was Songkran it was free to get in, saving me few quid (about the only time I saved money in Thailand). And I really liked the grand palace, it was a real unexpected one for me, with a real wow factor (no-one I've spoken to really agrees!). Its got some very large temples, very richly decorated with gold and coloured mirrors, as well as a long mural which I really liked the style of. I'd give it a definite recommendation, especially if you get it on the free day! Another nearby temple complex (huge) had a ss reclining Buddha, and 37 billion other Buddhas, but my Buddha limit was passed.

In the evening I headed out to see what the atmosphere on Khao San road was like, got talking to a Swedishh guy and ended up having too many beers and getting involved in the massive waterfighting that was going on. We'd been sitting next to a group of Aussies who had taken up positions in a streetside bar with some snipers and heavy artillery. After being caught in the cross-fire a little we decided to arm ourselves and join in. I thought we were well behaved, in the main hitting only other people with waterguns, or people who spent to long on their hair. We didn't hit people with food or rucksack etc... we were nice (I say that all because the next few days people were not so kind when I had my bags, camera etc). Anyway, we soon became a target for every marauding gang of water-warriors and ended up soaked to the skin (when I got home I discovered I was still wearing my moneybelt with my passport etc... oh dear). I wasn't helped by the fact that my cheapo Thai water gun leaked half it's load back over me.

Anyway, I'm sure I've said enough about that, the next day I'd booked an evening bus down to Ko Lanta and since Bangkok isn't overly blessed with tourist attractions (I thought I'd give the ladyboys etc a miss!) I tried the museum, but it turned out everything was closed for Songkran. I was directed to see a big standing Buddha, which was reasonably impressive, but turned out that it was the start of an attempt by the entire population of Bangkok to get me to go to tailors and gem shops. After getting wise I did see the quite pleasant Golden Mount, despite a guy trying to tell me foreigners weren't allowed and attempting to send me back to the standing Buddha.

At this point I realised I'd lost my hat and thought the Khao San Rd might be the replace to get a new one. Turns out this wasn't an option, as the waterfighting that had seen sporadic outbursts throughout the city earlier in the day was in full flow there and I had to run through and still got pretty much soaked again, despite carrying my bag with my camera in it! I took refuge for the remainder of the afternoon in the restaurant/cafe next door to by scabby guest house where I could watch the water carnage going on outside safely (some people were set up with a bucket or two on one of the balconies above). By this time all the Thais were getting involved as it was Songkran proper (the previous night had been mainly foreigners. The dash from the guest house to the bus saw me get half soaked again, despite my rucksack. I wasn't enamored by the prospect of a 20 hour bus journey in wet clothes!

Garuda figures in the palace.

Part of a very large fresco.
Huge reclining Budha.

Songkran revelers!

Friday, April 11, 2008


Ayuthya was the capital of Thailand from 1300 odd for 400 years until it was sacked by the Burmese. It is at a confluence of rivers and the main town in on an island, with many old ruins of places and temples. The bus from Chiang Mai dropped us off at the motorway sliproad at 330am, rather than take us direct to the town or bus station. We did all manage to squeeze into the one Tuk-tuk around but of course the guest houses were shut. One kindly let people sleep in the restaurant, so I made to with a hammock ( a bit exposed to insects). The next day I hired a bike and set off fairly early to see the ruins. It was baking, but I saw quite a lot, and they were different than what I'd seen before, but not so different from each other after a while. They were quite ruined with towers and stupas sloping at angles. What was quite impressive was the scale and number of ruins. I also saw a coupleof museums before returning to the guesthouse mid afternoon where I ended up trying to sleep in a pool of sweat, nice.

In the evening I'd booked on a 'night tour', a small group consisting of an american girl (much rarer than Canadians out here) and an older Canadian-Fijian-Indian gentleman, who was generous to all but the Canadian homeless and bought us a beer. The first stop was the old elephant krall, where I didn't expect any new elephants, but indeed there were some, and we got to plan with a baby one! (usually anything with elephants involved costs big bucks). Then it was on to a big stupa you could climb to see the sunset, before viewing a recling Buddha, and many of the ruins I'd seen during the day illuminated for the night.

Chiang Mai

From Laos I crossed the border and headed for Chiang Mai by local bus, via Chiang Rai. I was pretty knackered after the Gibbon experience so I didn't do much there, spending a lot of time updating this blog. On the second day I went to some of the many temples the city has, getting saturated after about 5 again. On the first night I also visited the Night Market and spent too much money (and made my pack too heavy). In Chiang Mai you begin to notice seedy old westerners with young Thai women around, and the guys seem to be mostly british at that.

It was a pleasant enough town to spend some time in, the main attraction is tours to surrounding hills and villages, but I found these overprices considering I'd done similar things in Vietnam and just been trekking in Laos.

Monday, April 7, 2008


Time spent: 15 days
Mosquito bites: in the region of 5, plus leeches!
On budget/time: didn't plan to come here at all originally so time to make up in Thailand
Lost/stolen: chucked stinky T-shirts!
Sound of Laos: Pink Floyd and the Scorpions
Taste of Laos: Noodle soup ad nauseum
Drink of Laos: Laos Beer is excellent, lao lao whisky not bad too!
Highlights of Laos: Gibbon experience, experience of bus journeys, tubing was different, lots of good things!

Laos is a very green country. I enjoyed the scenery, passing through towns and villages. Going to less touristy places and also relaxing in some more tourists places. Went to plenty of sights which are different to all that went before: tubing, jars, war caves, gibbon experience. Also found it much easier to meet people here, counterintuitively in the more remote places! Would definitely recommend if you're feeling adventurous!

The Gibbon Experience

The Gibbon Experience is deep in the jungle in Bokeo province in Laos. For three days and two nights you trek through the jungle, shoot through the canopy on zip-lines and sleep in tree houses, and it really is a special experience.

After setting of from Huay Xai it's about 3 hours drive, the last up a dirt road and through a river, to the village where we disembark. We were doing the "waterfall" experience and a group of 8 of us set out trekking for a couple of hours into the jungle, including through some quite strong rivers, before we were introduced to our harnesses and started zipping through the trees. The zip lines are higher and longer than I expected, and I'm sure wouldn't get passed health and safety in the uk! I got a wire burn behind my ear from trying to avoid an encounter with a tree but that was the worst of it! The accommodation was in treehouses a hundred feet up in the trees. Who wouldn't be excited about zipping in to your treehouse?!? You will probably understand more when I put up some photos and maybe a video!

Our group consisted of Kelly and Bret (another nice Canadian couple), Kate with brother Charlie and boyfriend Andy and also Adonis (from North London) and Simon (from Liverpool).

On the first afternoon after some zipping and close encounters with leeches we reached the eponymous waterfall and had a much needed and very refreshing swim. Then we headed to our treehouse where we had some fruit and tea (including the extremely popular pineapple) before dinner proper came later on. The treehouse was quite comfy, with running water (potable) and a bathroom on a lower level. The sides were open but each bed came with a mosquito net (more of a tent really). Dark soon came and paranoia about insects and other creatures set in. Simon had kindly brought some Thai whisky, though the organisers were not providing any beer lao, which was quite wise given the height of the treehouse. Despite the occasional insect attack everyone eventually slept, and the next day it was back on the trail again where we were to swap treehouses with another group. It took all morning, a few zip slides and many leeches to reach the other treehouse. The afternoon was free to do what we wanted, including use all the zips, but we were getting pretty tired by this point and most contented themselves with playing cards riotously and trying to chase the wasps out of the bathroom.

The second treehouse seemed to have a bit more of a problem with insects, and as soon as it got dark and we lit some candles flying beetles were flinging themselves into the flames. As the pile of immolated beetles grew someone noticed a massive spider underneath someones chair. After mass panic and two gentlemen who will remain unnamed cowering on top of stools like schoolgirls attempts were made to sweep the spider off. It ran under a shelf and appeared again rather too quickly, which was when we discovered there were two. One disappeared, reassuringly, into the bathroom, the other to the kitchen, we found a third still hanging from the roof. At this point people decided to retreat to there mosquito nets. I was up on the top level through a trap door with Simon. Unfortunately that night I was sick, having to run down and hurl over the edge, spiders be damned. However, I was nowhere near as sick as Charlie who was up puking half the night. Kelly was later sick on the bus out so it was probably something we ate. The next morning after very little sleep we rose in the dark, to go on a wild Gibbon chase. Charlie and I had to take it pretty slow and I was too busy thinking about surviving the zips rather than enjoying them. We did hear the Gibbons though, and those who went on ahead had their guide run off with a camera to try to get a photo - he came back with a shot of an indistinct black smudge in the distance. The idea however, is not that you experience gibbons, but that you experience living like a gibbon!

By lunchtime we got to the village again, and our group were completely worn out by the trekking (with luggage), early start and bad sleep. By the time we got back to Huay Xai we had certainly had an experience, with every muscle hurting and me still a bit sick. I found a Guest House and checked in and went straight to the shower and then to bed. A very enjoyable trip but hard work and I need a few days to recover! The next morning It was a very quick and easy border crossing over the river to Thailand and out of Laos.

Me on a zip line.

Zipping to a tree house.

Crossing a river.

Slow Boat via Pak Beng

To get to Huay Xai, requires a 2 day trip on the slow boat. Other options include 2 days on a bus, which is not wise (see previous post) or the speed boat, which is extremely cramped and takes 6 hours, but allegedly comes with a not inconsiderable fatality risk! I like being on, in or near water however, so 2 days on the fairly scenic slowboat it was. On the first leg there were comfy seats, and the scenery was good, but the journey was punctuated by occasional downpours. The Mekong at this point is not a very treacherous seeming river with rocks breaking the surface andmany currents and eddies showing the presence of more underwater. I have great respect for the drivers because it was certainly not just a case of steering up the center of the stream (though I did hear the bottom scrape once or twice!). On the first day we passed a fire on the shore where they were burning the foliage. I found it amazing the heat coming off it - though we were 100 yards away I felt as if I was cooking!

The night was spent in Pak Beng, not much of a town - mainly a selection of guesthouses catering to this boat route. I stayed in a fairly cruddy but cheap place and ate in a restaurant with nice views of the river.

On the second day the boat was different and gone were the comfy airline style seats and in were the spartan wooden benches. The rain had cleared and the scenery wasn't so good. I read a lot and tried to unnumb my bum. That evening we got into Huay Xai which lies on the riverside with Thailand on the other bank. Again the town has no sight of its own but is a bit of a travel hub. At 830 am the next morning it was off on the Gibbon Experience, of which the next post will tell all!

This is the boat.

A similar boat we passed.

Pak Beng where the night was spent.

Luang Prabhang

To get to Luang Prabhang involved a quite heinous bus journey. While Sam Neua to Luang Prabhang is only about 150km as the crow flies, it is over 400 by road, and it took 17 hours. While I previously had a 24 hour bus journey, that was on a half empty air-conditioned sleeper bus, this was a different ball game entirely! (You know by now I like nothing better than moaning about a bad journey!).

Packed in into seats clearly designed for 5ft Lao people there were two possible seating positions depending on which diagonal I squeezed my legs into. The aisle was piled with luggage and about half an hour after we set off (on what was an exceptionally windy and hilly road) the woman beside me was sick on the floor at my feet. She then proceeded to puke at roughly hourly intervals, having by this time gained some (transparent) plastic bags which she tied up and heaved over my shoulder and out the window (it is sad that the Lao people just chuck rubbish out the window of the bus without a thought). In lao they also have the habit I previously met in china of loudly clearing the throat and spitting out the window. The bus got more and more packed so that there was a column of people sitting on top of the luggage going up the aisle. There was a lunch and wee stop at 130pm, but strangely the dinner stop was not till 930pm! On this journey you pass through lots of little villages with no electicity, people washing in streams and lots of naked children running around. The houses are wooden huts on stilts and it does seem very undeveloped and rustic without ever having the squalor that you see in India. I got to LP at 130 or so and checked into a guest house, despite a tout's offer to take me to the infamous all night bowling alley.

Next morning and a made a quick shift to a cheaper guest house. Then I started bumping into people I had met in Vang Vieng, in fact I bumped into one person 3 times that day and thus found a group of people to hang out with, which was nice! I went to the palace museum, which had a lovely mosaic made from coloured glass on a red background in the throne room, had lunch and then retired for a nap! In the evening I climbed a small hill covered with temples for the sunset and then checked out the night market, where I replaced a couple of worn out T-shirts that I had to chuck with new shiny ones, but couldn't haggle my way low enough on anything else. Luang Prabhang seems quite an easy town to do nothing in, but the next day I went to see some more of the town's many (Buddhist) temples. I saw four before I couldn't face another one. In the afternoon I took a short trip to see the nearby waterfall. This was a very nice one, with a large drop at the top and many smaller ones over some distance below. There was opportunity for swimming but there was a downpour just as I was descending the other side of the falls, so although I was already soaked to the skin I only had the briefest of swims as I had my camera in my bag and needed to shelter it more than me. They also had some rescued bears and a tiger at the site and when the rains came he became a very grumpy tiger indeed.

That evening I had some street food with Jenny, who had been in Vang Vieng, and a guy called Ian who had bought this weird devil baby which I might just have to include a picture of. Somehow I wish I had bought one too. The next day was time to get the slow boat to Huay Xai, a 2 day trip.

7 headed Naga at temple in Luang Prabhang.

View from Phou Si hill at Sunset.

Pools at the waterfall.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Sam Neua and Vieng Xai

I headed further east to close to the Vietnamese border to see the caves at Vieng Xai. This was where the Pathet Laos (communist) leadership hid during the war to avoid the constant American bombardment, intended to bomb them "back to the stone-age". They had a whole town in different caves, caves for each of the Politbureau as well as a theatre cave, bakery cave, hospital caves and so on.

To visit the caves I stayed in Sam Neua, perhaps an hour away from Vieng Xai. It was an 8 hour bus trip over amazingly winding roads to get there (with breakdowns) but the views were very good. On this bus I met a Czech couple who got on an hour in as they had cycled that leg the day before on their folding bikes. They were amazing spendthrifts and hagglers and made me feel ostentatious for spending 50p on a meal or 2.50 on a hotel. The next day they set off for Sam Vieng Xai on their bikes and I hiked to the bus station (or rather, the small town has two bus stations at opposite ends, one of them on a mountain, the other out beyond the airport. These recently replaced the one central bus station, and must have been built with bribes from the town's Tuk-tuk drivers. After heading towards the eastern one I asked directions and was told I actually needed to to the mountain one. After climbing up to it I was told no, actually it was the other one after all, so I walked for an hour to get there!) where I waited for a Sangthiaw (like a pick-up truck with benches along the sides in the back). Here I met a Dutch girl and the 4 of us did the tour together in Vieng Xai.

Here is our guide demonstrating the Russian made oxygen pumps that were installed in case of a gas attack.

Here we are in one of the caves (there wasn't much inside most of them).

And here's Sam Neua at sunset, I stayed in the hotel front-right by the river. This really was getting off the tourist trail and there were few other westerners in the town. We had a few beer Laos in the evening, but I didn't have too many, as it was up at 0630 for a 15 hour bus ride to Luang Prabang!