|02/11/2018||Fri||Sydney 10.10pm to Taipei 4.30am|
|03/11/2018||Sat||Taipei 8.25am to Hanoi 10.35am to Lao Cai (overnight train) 10pm|
|04/11/2018||Sun||Lao Cai 6.15am to Sapa (bus)|
|06/11/2018||Tues||Sapa to Dien Bien Phu (8hr bus)|
|07/11/2018||Wed||Dien Bien Phu to Muang Khua (bus 6hrs)|
|08/11/2018||Thurs||Muang Khua to Muang Noi (boat 5hrs)|
|09/11/2018||Fri||Muang Noi to Nong Kiaw (boat 1 hr) to Luang Prabang (bus 3hrs)|
|13/11/2018||Tues||Luang Prabang to Chiang Mai (Lao Aviation)|
|15/11/2018||Thurs||Chiang Mai to Bangkok (overnight train)|
|18/11/2018||Sun||Bangkok 4.25pm to Singapore 10pm|
|19/11/2018||Mon||Singapore to Sydney|
Friday 2nd November, 2018
Sydney to Taipei
A normal weekday. Abi at school (Year 2), Elkie at ‘pweskool’, Mark at work, Lauren at the gym and me getting ready for our trip. Lauren drives us to the Station for the 3.15pm train to Central where we catch the Airport train to Mascot. It’s unusual to be on a night flight but we’re flying with China Airlines for a change. We buy Bacardi, exchange dollars into Thai Baht and US dollars then ring Lauren and the Dollies as well as Jackie and Jillian.
At 9.30pm we board for our 10.10pm flight and, woohoo, we have three seats which means we can sleep – only on and off though due to lots of turbulence.
We land in Taipei, Taiwan’s capital, at 4.30am but nothing is open so we just hang out in the lounge till it’s time for our flight to Hanoi, Vietnam.
Saturday 3rd November, 2018
Taipei to Hanoi to Lao Cai
It’s been seventeen years since we were last here and we’re hoping to like it more this time. And by the way, seventeen years feels like yesterday so when I project that seventeen years from now, I’ll be fucking dead! All those years ago we had terrible weather – nothing looks nice under grey, rainy skies. The weather today is clear blue skies so we’re off to a good start.
We grab a taxi to take us to the Old City where we plan to rent a room for the day even though we won’t be staying here tonight. We’ve already bought tickets for the sleeper train to Lao Cai but it doesn’t leave till 10pm so we want to be able to have a rest this afternoon as well as have a shower before we leave for the railway station.
Already we’ve changed our opinion of Hanoi as we wind our way through the historic Old Quarter. We love the French Indochina architecture mixed with street markets, old shop houses with slanted tile roofs and how each of the seventy six streets specializes in one specific trade that gives its name to the street – Street of Sugar, Street of Bamboo, Street of Silver etc.
Getting dropped off, we find a cheap guesthouse and head straight out. I flag down a passing cyclo (rickshaw) and we’re off being pedalled through the pretty streets overhung with shady trees and lined with old French buildings, a bit worse for wear but still beautiful. We share the streets with other cyclos, motorbikes, people pushing hand carts and others balancing a bamboo pole on one shoulder with a basket at each end carrying all sorts of produce.
By now it’s time to eat so we ask to be dropped at Madam Hien, a French restaurant in an old Indochine building with a leafy courtyard where we choose a table. Mark has a beef noodle soupy thing while I order crumbed prawns and we share a Hanoi Beer. The atmosphere is perfect with great people watching – a table of tres French people next to us – and lovely Vietnamese staff. Yes we love Hanoi!
Now we wander down to Lake Hoan Kiem, a small, picturesque lake smack in the middle of the Old Quarter. Traffic is non-existent so this must be a pedestrian only area which makes it a peaceful haven from the chaos of the city. Trees line a walkway that wraps around the entire lake with lots of seating areas to chill out and watch all the activity. Families with the cutest bubbas keep us amused when they dance to the song Baby Shark which is pumping from a nearby shop.
Lots of people are heading for the18th-century Buddhist Ngoc Son temple which is situated on Jade Island reached by a small red bridge. We visited this last time and we want to see it again but there’s just too many people so we decide to check out the temple across the street then have a massage in one of the many places on offer. We’ve been waiting for this for so long and always one of the first things we` do when we arrive in South East Asia.
In a nearby café, we call in to buy a drink. On the wall in big shiny letters is this – “We made happy for your wonderful life, Wonderful modern style for communication”. What? Lost in translation? …
But now it’s time for the Water Puppets. This is a very touristy thing to do but we loved it in 2001 so we’re back for more. They say it’s a performance like no other and it really is. Established in 1969, it’s a stage filled with water where the puppeteers stand waist high in the water and hide behind a screen. They move the wooden puppets telling tales of legends and the daily life of Vietnamese fishermen and farmers. All this is accompanied by beautiful music played on traditional instruments. We’re so lucky to be in the very front row and enjoy every minute – wish our girls could see this.
In the street outside we come across a young man playing beautiful music on a stringed musical instrument – busker? – we stop to listen. Close by we notice a wonderful bar/restaurant that curves around the edge of the lake. This is full but we’re lucky to find a table right on the water. I have my first Margarita cocktail while Mark has his usual beer. We might come back tonight.
We agree that now we’ll go back to our guesthouse for a nap as we’re both feeling a bit jetlagged. We also have a shower and prepare our packs for the overnight train.
On dark we head back out into the Old City and find the Night Market near Hang Dao Street. This iconic night market sells everything from handicrafts to clothes to ceramics and every type of souvenir imaginable. But the highlight of any night market is the food and here in Hanoi, we can buy authentic Vietnamese street food originating from almost every part of the country all cooked on the spot at each little stall – sweet soup, sticky rice, porridge with dough, pho and sweets like boiled sweet potatoes, boiled sweet corn, and sticky candy.
But the market is hectic with wall to wall people and it feels a bit touristy – not like the night markets we went to in the 90’s when it was all food and the real deal – bugs, crickets etc. So we decide to just have a quick look then find somewhere amazing for dinner and drinks which means walking over to the nearby French Quarter.
This area, also adjacent to Lake Hoan Kiem, has a different feel to the rest of Hanoi, in part because of the wider streets but mainly because of all the colonial architecture from the era of French rule. France occupied Hanoi in the late 19th century and replaced many of the old Vietnamese buildings with stunning French-style houses and villas that have now been turned into wonderful cafes and restaurants.
We stop at the romantic Green Tangarine Restaurant painted white with torquoise louvred shutters then the very classy La Siesta Hotel where we spend an hour on the rooftop bar. From here we look out over Lake Hoan Kiem where the glassy waters reflect back the lights of the city. Mark has a few Hanoi Beers while I order my usual margaritas.
But now it’s time to make our way to the railway station so we pick up our packs from the guesthouse then catch a taxi at the end of the street. The station is only twenty minutes away in the small town of Gia Lam. We’ll be leaving from Gia Lam Station and not the huge Hanoi Railway Station because to get to Sapa we need to catch one of the trains to Lao Cai on the Chinese border.
Giam Lam is a much smaller and appealing station compared to the imposing communist style of the main station and we find the entrance down a small alleyway. We no longer pick up our tickets and drop our bags in the small waiting room, when we’re told that we can board now. This is good news as I’m feeling deathly tired and can’t wait to settle into my bunk.
I’d booked sleeper tickets online before we came to make sure we didn’t miss out like we did in 2001 when we had to sit up all night on the train from Hanoi to Hue. It was an experience that I’m glad we had, but ‘been there done that’, and much prefer to be able to lie down for the overnight trip to northern Vietnam.
We’re doing the journey aboard the Chapa Express which will cover the three hundred kilometres in just under eight hours. I’d seen pictures of the train but we’re both more than happy with our cute cabin that we’re sharing with a friendly young French couple. The mattress is so comfy and I’d love to sit up chatting with our new friends but I fall asleep before we even leave the station at 10.30pm.
Sunday 4th November, 2018
Lao Cai to Sapa
As usual on overnight trains, I have a great sleep and even Mark has a good night despite that the bunks are always too short for him. At 6am, we pull into Ga Lao Cai under a cloudless sky which is a nice surprise considering the rainy forecast.
We drag our bags across the tracks then into the carpark where we find a public van that will take us to Sapa for only $5 each. Of course we don’t leave till we’re completely full but still in good time at 6.30am. We cross the Nanxi and Red Rivers then drop a Chinese couple off at the border between Lao Cai and Hekou in China.
The one hour trip up the long and winding road passes quickly as we enjoy the views of misty valleys, tall pine trees, rice terraces and lots of mountains. At 7.30am we reach the outskirts of Sapa then pass by the lake situated in the middle of town before being dropped off just below the town square.
Mark checks the map on his phone to find the Fansipan Homestay where we have a room booked for tonight. This booking ahead thing is something new for us but we want to stay somewhere cheap but mainly somewhere that has local character – the Fansipan seems to be both. And it also has spectacular views of the Muong Hoa valley and Mount Fansipan which incidentally is the highest mountain in Vietnam.
The Homestay is a long skinny two story place with a restaurant at the top and rooms beneath which means no matter where you are you have a view.
Our first job is to have breakfast – chicken and corn soup for me and a local soup for Mark. We ring Lauren and the Dollies then store our bags downstairs as we can’t check in till midday.
We plan to stay in Sapa for two nights so we’ve got all day today then tomorrow as well to explore the town and the surrounds. Mark hires a motorbike from the owner of the guesthouse then we’re told we need to get over to the other side of town to fill it up with petrol. Is there only one petrol station in Sapa? And this is an experience in itself. The lineup is super long and everyone is squashed in together but there is an efficiency to the chaos and we’re soon heading back into town to the Hmong Market.
The Hmong are hill tribe people who wear clothes made from the traditional black and indigo fabric that they dye by hand and decorate with intricate embroidery. Silver coins and beads are also added to represent wealth.
This group of Hmong people have gathered in a tiny park in the town centre to sell small birds in cane cages, herbs, vegetables and home-made knives and cleavers. Most ladies though are stripping bamboo shoots and tying them into bunches which seem to be very popular with the locals. I buy a Hmong pillow case from the cutest tiny old lady who also wants her photo taken with me then sticks her hand out for payment – go girl!
Sitting almost on top of the park are a row of colourful cafes and restaurants decorated with window boxes overflowing with flowers so we sit in the sun on the little verandah of 1991 Restaurant for pineapple shakes and Mark has a shot of coffee. From here we can watch the goings on at the market and the town fountain where two little hill tribe girls are playing in their traditional clothes.
We could easily sit here all day (not really) but it’s time to get moving and find the main Sapa Market. Sapa itself is a market town where people from nearby villages converge to meet and trade. And this is where the surrounding hill tribe people come to sell their handicrafts – the Hmong, Zao, Ta Van, Lao Chai, and Y Linh Ho Zao. We check out the smelly meat section, the live fish section then our favourite fruit and vegetable area where we find all sorts of fruits that we’ve never seen before. Mark orders a bowl of pho bo while I hang out with two little hill tribe dollies about three years old wearing traditional clothes and headwear.
It’s time now to head back to our guesthouse to book in but have lunch first on the sunny rooftop terrace facing the mountains and rice terraces. It’s actually nice to sit in a sunny spot because did I say it’s quite cool here – well we are 1,500 metres above sea level after all. Sapa is nestled in the cool mountainous north making it quite different from the rest of hot, humid Vietnam.
So now we can move our bags into our room which is clean and simple but oh my God, look at the view! Our Fansipan Homestay is perched on the very edge of the plateau that Sapa sits on and so we have million dollar views of the Sapa Valley etched with the terraced green rice paddies that Sapa is famous for. I video the view only to walk straight into the glass window.
After a two hour nap (I’m still stupidly tired) Mark wakes me so we don’t waste the afternoon. The plan is to visit Cat Cat Village only four kilometres down the mountain. We pass a sight that’s become familiar to us already in Sapa. Hmong tribeswomen attach themselves to Western tourists in the hope of coaxing them to visit their village. Don’t blame them but I don’t think the experience would be too authentic so we’ll give that a miss.
Visiting Cat Cat village is one of the ‘must see’ things to do in Sapa and I’m sure it would have been wonderful twenty years ago but now it’s a bloody circus. Young Asian tourists rent traditional costumes and pose for photos – funny and tragic at the same time. We park the bike at the top of the village then walk down the hillside past local homes – now this is more like the real thing. We stop to sit with three bare bottomed toddlers and give them a toy kangaroo each. I buy an embroidered indigo bag from a pretty lady then continue down the stone path but we’re followed the whole way by ladies wanting us to buy more. Had enough and head back to the bike and home.
Just before dark we ride down the mountain to a restaurant sitting on the edge of a ridge that we can see from our room. It’s an old French villa complete with a round turret and has a wide terrace that juts out from the side of the hill with those magical views of the Sapa Valley. From here we can see the plateau where the main town sits and where newer buildings cling to the side of the mountain that drops down into the Muong Hoa valley.
After a couple of drinks we set off uphill on the bike towards the centre. Barely any traffic so it’s wonderful to ride around getting to know our way around town. We find the small and very trendy Color Bar situated in a thatched hut and owned by a Hanoi artist. More drinks here then we drive back to the guesthouse for a late dinner – a banquet to share (horrible) – then too many drinks for me. Go to bed!
Monday 5th November, 2018
We wake to misty mountain views and have a leisurely breakfast of bacon and eggs plus pineapple and strawberry shakes on the sunfilled terrace. We’re soon joined by a hill tribe lady who waits patiently till we’re finished – I buy an indigo scarf.
As much as we love the Fansipan Homestay we’re going to move to a place in the centre of town so we can walk everywhere tonight and don’t have to worry about the bike. We’ll keep it all day today, though, as we plan to explore the countryside.
We drive all around the centre and up into the hillside behind then back through the narrow streets of the oldest area. Sapa town has a lot of French influence and the buildings are all brightly painted with European style balconies and clay-tiled rooftops.
Near the newly built monstrocity that is the Sun World Fansipan Legend Station, we park the bike to check it out and return in time to find a policeman just about to write us a ticket. When he sees that we’re dumb tourists he smiles and lets us go. And after wandering through the hideous Sun World Fansipan Legend Station, we decide to forget the cable car experience to Mount Fansipan and just spend the day down in the Valley.
But before we set off, we book in for tonight at the Than Son Hotel in the sunny strip opposite the Hmong Market. Cafes and restaurants line the square so we’ll have heaps to choose from tonight.
Now with our day packs ready, we find the road that descends steeply into the Muong Hoa valley, home to many hill tribe villages. We wind our way downwards passing lots of hill tribe ladies some with babies strapped to their backs and other with circular cane baskets. At other times we pass girls sitting in groups on the side of the road sewing the hand dyed cloths. At one point we get off the bike and I buy five more indigo scarves as gifts at home. The ladies are very sweet so I buy more.
We drive around on bumpy, rock covered roads until our bums are so sore we decide to call it a day and make our way back up the mountain to move into our new guesthouse. We drop into a café next door for Mark to have a coffee then to another café in the next street for more fruit shakes. All the pavements around here are occupied by even more hill tribe people squatting on the ground with their handicrafts laid out in front of them. I don’t know how they make enough money to live.
In the same street we find a simple massage place for wonderful foot massages then spend an hour resting in our new room and getting our packs ready for our trip to Dien Bien Phu in the morning. We’d booked seats on a bus earlier today that will leave Sapa at 7.30am at a cost of 250 Dong ($15AUD) each.
At six o’clock we rug up as the temperature has really dropped then head out in search of suckling pig. This is another must-do thing in Sapa and there’s no shortage of restaurants with a poor pig being roasted on a rotisserie out the front. We choose a place on the corner and sit upstairs for a good view of the goings on in the square. For some reason we’re the only people here! The pig comes out chopped into bite sized pieces but it’s too tough so I let Mark have it all.
Meanwhile down below we can see lots of carts roasting chestnuts and sadly two young hill tribe girls still wandering around with their baby brother or sister strapped to their backs.
The mist is rolling in, creating an other-worldly atmosphere and I’m glad we got to experience this. Looking for better food, we come across a busy restaurant filled with noisy locals so this must be the place to be. That’s until we read the menu – Civet Cat, Bamboo Rat and Porcupine Stir Fry – all with photos attached in case we thought we got it wrong. We do stay for soup and rice then move on to a couple of other quieter places for beers, margaritas and spring rolls.
Tuesday 6th November, 2018
Sapa to Dien Bien Phu
Up early for showers and to sort our day packs as we’ll be spending most of the day on the road. While we wait for the bus, we have breakfast in the café downstairs – the famous Vietnamese pho (pronounced “fuh” by the way). We watch a young man prepare it in the sun outside. He slices beef into thin slices, adds noodles, bean sprouts, herbs then pours a beef broth over the top – wonderful comfort food on this chilly morning. Mist still covers the top of the mountains but the day is slowly warming up and clear blue skies mean no rain.
The bus still hasn’t turned up so we hang out in the fabulous Cong Caphe where Mark orders a coffee. I fall in love with the interior design – rustic with military-style decor and dim lights that create a mellow ambiance. The floor and walls are polished cement with a stone counter and hill tribe hangings on the walls. I take lots of photos.
At 8.15am the seven thirty bus arrives. It’s actually a small van with the back few seats piled high with sacks of vegetables. We talk to an Israeli guy called Shekad while the rest of the passengers are locals.
The distance from Sapa to Dien Bien Phu is about three hundred kilometres so we don’t imagine we’ll get there before dark. As expected in these mountainous regions, the pace is slow as we crawl our way around hairpin bends and keep climbing upwards. After two hours we pull into Lai Chau, a small town nestled in the heart of a beautiful valley carved by the Da River.
It’s a pleasant surprise to find that we’re changing to a bigger van for the rest of the trip. This is much more comfortable even though the road doesn’t improve and three local people vomit into plastic bags which they then chuck out the window. Luckily we don’t get sick but I make sure I watch the road the whole way. One strange lady has her nose literally shoved inside a bread roll – maybe to stop her feeling sick? Hill tribe people get on as well as lots of locals who sit up front laughing and chatting loudly with the driver.
The terrain is so mountainous that banana trees are planted on almost vertical slopes while we see the inevitable terraced rice paddies and mountains, mountains and mountains. Around noon, we stop for lunch in a small town. This must come with the price of the bus ticket as we all get the same thing – a tray with sectioned off bits containing tofu, rice, roast chicken and herb sausages. We always love these lunch stops even though I can never eat much. Shekad sits with us and we swap travel plans.
On the bus again, we continue up and down and round and round but I love it all. Always something interesting to see – ladies wearing conical hats working in fields, buffalo herders, wide brown rivers, cows, pigs, goats, and water buffalo.
This mountainous area is the home to many ethnic minority villages as well and we see lots of tribal people walking alongside the road. This area is also where one of the most pivotal battles took place during the Vietnam War. Google tells the story:
The Battle of Dien Bien Phu was fought in 1954 between the French and the Viet Minh. French troops were stationed in Dien Bien Phu with the intention of cutting off the Viet Minh’s path into Laos. This, however, did not succeed as the Viet Minh retaliated with a tenacity and brute force that the French were not expecting. The Viet Minh forces eventually conquered all of the French posts in Dien Bien Phu, and the decisive battle was the prelude to the Geneva Conference which saw the country divided into North and South Vietnam and eventually, France’s retreat from Vietnam.
We learn something every day!
Finally at five o’clock we’re jumping out at the Dien Bien Phu bus station, saying goodbye to Shekad and catching a taxi to the Ruby Hotel recommended by Lonely Planet. We’re only here for the night but have to spend 500 Dong ($25) for our room. Still it’s big, clean and we’re told that we get a takeaway breakfast to take on the bus trip tomorrow which we book at the desk – yes, there is a front desk – very posh. While we’re booking we talk to a lovely Dutch couple, Anna and Herman, who are also heading for Laos so we find a bar in the next street to share a few drinks with them.
Later Mark and I find ‘café street’ where some very basic restaurants remind us that this is the Asia that we love rather than the fancy places in Sapa and Hanoi. A friendly lady is cooking out the front of one of these and coaxes us inside. She points to photos of fried rice and fried noodles and we nod to one of each. We end up with mountains of food as we watch the locals tucking in to even more mountains of food.
More beers at the café but I’m too tired to stay up any longer and we’re in bed by 7.45pm.
Wednesday 7th November, 2018
Dien Bien Phu to Muang Khua
Angie’s 39th birthday. Happy birthday in heaven little one. I’ll be thinking of you all day but I always do anyway. I don’t know if being away from home will make it easier or harder. We’ll ring Lauren later to see how she’s coping.
We’re awake before the alarm goes off at 4.30am then shower and finish packing before meeting the taxi downstairs. By 5am we’re at the bus station and we actually leave on time. At the moment there are only eight passengers – seven westerners and one Vietnamese girl.
Driving through town in the dark we stop continually to pick up more passengers, bulging hessian bags and even car tyres. Leaving Dien Bien Phu we drive past rice paddies and through villages where local kids are riding their bikes to school – it’s only 6am! In small towns, village people are already setting up roadside stalls selling vegetables, fruit and meat.
Along the drive, we’ve been making friends with the other passengers. They’re all very friendly – Isla from Belgium, a sweet Polish girl, Anna and Herman plus another Dutch man called Frank – a nice trip.
We continually climb steep peaks then descend into deep valleys, sometimes crossing swift flowing streams while the north Vietnamese mountains poke through the morning fog as the sun rises.
The bus makes endless stops on the way to the border, collecting all sorts of goods to be transported to Laos. This means that the 35 kilometre trip has taken nearly two hours and we arrive at the sunny Vietnam border post at Tay Trang at 7.30am.
I’m glad I did my homework because this border won’t allow anyone through with an E-visa, that is, an online tourist visa. To exit Vietnam through this land border we had to send our passports to the Vietnamese Embassy in Australia to have the Visa stamped inside.
The little Polish girl has only just found this out and I wish we’d talked about it on the bus so she might have been able to make other arrangements earlier. What she needs to do is to return to Diem Bien Phu and travel south to a different Vietnam/Laos border crossing. But there isn’t any transport to get her back to Dien Bien and the internet just doesn’t work up here in the middle of nowhere. She’s very upset and asks if Mark and I will go with her to see the guy in charge. She bravely pushes over some notes as a bribe but he won’t be in it – must be a first!
Now we have to leave but I think she’ll be ok. She’s been travelling on her own for ages so she’ll sort it our somehow. And it’ll be just another adventure.
A short drive through the “no man’s land” section between the border crossings and we pull up at the Laos entry side. Here we hand in passports at Window 1, pay $30 US at Window 2, pay $2US for some mysterious fee at Window 3 then pay $3US to have our foreheads zapped. Funny.
Off again we’ve picked up Shekad – where the hell did he come from – and he instantly makes a beeline for the pretty Isla.
For the next three hours we cross more mountains and along valley floor alive with villages and cultivated land before crossing the bridge into Muang Khua at 10.30am.
Even though we’ve been crossing mountains the whole way we must have been gradually descending without us even realizing as it’s much warmer here and we peel off the layers. We’re all dropped in what looks like the centre of town with a dusty open area surrounded by simple cafes and shops. Muang Khua is very quiet and tiny with just a couple of streets leading away from the square, most leading down to the Nam Ou River.
Muang Khua actually sits at the confluence of two rivers, the Nam Ou and the smaller Nam Phak. The Nam Ou River will take us on a longtail boat to Muang Noi tomorrow which is the main reason for travelling overland to Luang Prabang. I’ve been planning this trip for years and so far it’s just how I’d imagined it.
Before going in search of a place to stay we sit under the awning of an open-fronted café in the sun where a lady is cooking something in a blackened pot over a wood fire. Too early for a hot meal so I settle for a bowl of chopped fruit and Mark has a coffee. Anna and Herman have already found a guesthouse but we want to stay in one of the riverside places across the picturesque suspension bridge. We leave our bags in the café while we cross the bridge with Isla to check out the Monotham Guesthouse.
We love it at first sight – just a few simple wooden cabins with a central deck overhanging the riverbank. We all book in and Shekad is here as well. Our room is lined with raw timber boards, a tiled floor and big wooden shutters opening to the view of the river and houses beyond. The opening is huge and with no glass at all we feel like we’re suspended above the water.
Mark crosses back over the bridge to drag back our big packs then we do a mini unpack which is basically making a mess then have a lie down and a read. At 1pm we walk back across the bridge to find somewhere we can get wifi.
Kids are swimming in the river which is a long way down and the bridge is very wobbly with lots of planks missing – safety? The view is too beautiful to care though – pastel coloured houses surrounded by coconut trees, starburst palms and thick vegetation with a backdrop of soaring mountains.
On the other side we walk down to the main bridge but Mark is feeling low on sugar so we seek out the market. This is a true local market – no souvenirs, just vegetables and fruit grown locally. Mark orders a soup which we watch a lady assemble in front of us. Wonderful but, oh the flies! I’ll eat later! At a roadside stall I buy a cap for the boat then we find a fabulous bamboo restaurant overlooking the Nam Ou River for more mango and pineapple shakes. The wifi is actually working here and we can even charge our phones.
Down below we can see longtail boats pulled up to the riverbank and others chugging slowly past – happiness! We’ll come back later for sunset.
Now though we want to explore the area on the other side of the Nam Phak River near our guesthouse. This is home to the Khamu people who were the indigenous inhabitants of northern Laos and still form the largest ethnic group, outnumbering even the Lao.
So crossing the suspension bridge we wander around the village houses getting lots of waves from the kids, some of who are cheering on a couple of roosters having a cock fight. We also visit the wat which is as elaborate as all Buddhist temples and makes us happy as always. We try to chat to a tiny monk but he can’t understand us. Mark has a few bangs on the big brass gong for good luck.
As the sun starts to set we head back to the restaurant on the river where we run into Hans from our bus so we all have drinks and dinner together. He’s great company and good to know that we’ll all be travelling on the boat tomorrow.
A wobbly walk home across the wobbly bridge.
Thursday 8th November, 2018
Muang Khua to Muang Noi
5am and what the hell??!! A loud speaker is bellowing from somewhere across the river. It goes on for an hour and Mark thinks it must be someone broadcasting the news. Bloody hell, what time do these people get up?
But we’ve had plenty of sleep and we want to get up as early as we can anyway. The boat is leaving at 8am and we need to have breakfast first. This means crossing the suspension bridge once more – getting the hang of this now – and finding a place for coffee, fruit salad and omelets. We’ve brought lots of snacks and water for the six hour trip ahead.
After retrieving our packs from the Monotham we walk down to the river bank of the Nam Ou where Mark buys boat tickets at the ticket office which for some reason is on a floating pontoon. We made sure to get here early so we can get our pick of the seats. Hans, Shekad, Anna and Herman turn up then six young people plus a guy who also brings his mountain bike.
All the backpacks are stacked in a large pile at the back, which ends up being a comfy backrest for Mark and Hans who have ended up in the worst spot – so much for beating the young people to the best seats!
We push off the bank at 8.30am for the start of our ‘very big adventure!’ And we couldn’t have wished for a more perfect day, calm and warm but not stiflingly hot just yet as we chug downstream.
Once we leave Muang Khua we don’t pass any other towns, just the occasional glimpse of a shack but the rest is unspoilt scenery. I’ve read that this boat journey from Muang Khua to Muang Ngoi is one of the most scenic boat trips you can take in South East Asia. The scenery gradually changes as the hours slip by and the spectacular limestone mountains that we’d expected to see suddenly appear. Both sides of the river are overgrown with dense jungle with sandy beaches now and again and we pull into one of these for a toilet stop and everyone makes a dash for the undergrowth.
Onwards now to continue for the next few hours down this pristine river but out of nowhere appears a monstrous concrete dam. We’ve read that the Chinese have plans to build seven dams along the Mekong and the Nam Ou which will change the course of both rivers – and this is one of the first. The breath-taking scenery we’ve been witnessing will be under threat as fragile eco-systems and communities are impacted by greed and politics. Bullshit!
So now how do we get around this fucking thing? Get off the bloody boat is how. And there isn’t any easy way to do this but scramble up a muddy and rocky steep embankment with Mark having to carry both the heavy big packs which we then throw into the back of a waiting songthaew. We all pile in except for the guy with the mountain bike who takes off ahead of us.
Once we’re all aboard we only have to drive about a kilometer along a bouncy dirt track along the top of the dam. Everyone cracks up when we overtake the mountain bike guy covering him in thick red dust – ha ha – he’s laughing too.
This time we have to scramble with our luggage down another steep rocky path to reach a different slow boat that’s docked on the shore. But this isn’t our boat as it’s already full so we wait for the next one. Meanwhile, we can buy cold beers in the floating waiting dock – very civilized but wonderfully basic.
We continue now for a few more hours really appreciating the trip even more as the reality dawns that this area may never be the same in a couple of years. We pass people fishing from dugout canoes, water buffalo, vegetable gardens planted right down to the water’s edge and even caves under the limestone hills. About two o’clock we see a few thatched shacks up ahead on our left and soon pull into a small jetty – we’ve arrived in Muang Noi!
A long set of concrete stairs leads from the dock to the town above. If there is a more gorgeous village we haven’t seen it. It has a narrow gravel main street, with little shops, restaurants, bars and guesthouses on either side with a Buddhist temple at one end. Directly behind us is a mountain covered in thick vegetation and in front, a pointy limestone karst so that Muang Noi feels like it’s nestled in between.
An American guy shows us his guesthouse and we book in for the night. The first thing we want to do is have a swim as we’re sweltering now that we’re off the boat.
Leaving the village behind, we follow the hand-painted signs that direct us past fantastic rustic restaurants almost hidden by trees and shrubs. This is backpacker heaven even though there doesn’t seem to be too many around besides our boatload.
We find the fast flowing stream that flows into the Nam Moi and spend a heavenly half an hour floating around – ah, the serenity! On the way back to our guesthouse we stop at a lovely restaurant set in a garden with lots of cool decorations and colourful paint work for icy fruit shakes and spring rolls.
And now that we’ve cooled down we change and wander around the tiny town watching ladies buying from shops with vegetables laid out on tables out the front, kids playing on the road, chickens and roosters scratching around and someone riding a pushbike.
Isolated Muang Noi is only accessible by water as there are no roads at all leading here which means no motorized traffic and so total peace. A few paths straggle away from the main street leading to village houses which are all neat and pretty with lots of flowers and flowering shrubs. And the number of places to eat and drink seems at odds with such a small and remote place but somehow it’s on the backtracker trail and we couldn’t be happier to have found it.
As we explore the sleepy village we love seeing the locals living a lot of their lives outside their homes – cooking, chatting with passers-by, chopping wood, sweeping – and all are friendly giving us a smile or a wave.
Later as the sun drops towards the top of the mountains we find a pretty restaurant on the river to watch the sun set behind the limestone karst mountains which rise up behind each other. Small boats bob in the water below us and we can barely hear a sound.
We decide to check out all the places to eat and find amazing restaurants that are all open despite the few patrons. Every one of these are made from local materials – bamboo, wood, thatch and decorated with tribal hangings and artefacts. We love a big place further along the riverbank and settle in for food and a few drinks.
Later we wander around the nearby houses. One thing very noticeable here is the re-purposed bomb casings used as flower pots and water troughs. Research reads that from 1964 to 1973 the United States dropped over 270 million cluster bombs on Laos. About one third of these bombs didn’t explode, which means that Laos was left with 80 million unexploded bombs littering the country. Since 1974 they’ve only been able to clear 1% of these and Laotians are still killed every year by these bombs.
Now we plan to do a restaurant crawl down the main street, for drinks not food. Our favourite is Gabrielle’s run by an old French guy and we hang out on bean bags sitting on the floor around a low table. Shekad is here with Isla and others from our boat but we don’t see our older friends, Hans, Anna and Herman.
Further down towards our guesthouse we stop at another place with an open fire pit and sit around having a few too many. Time to go to bed as we want to get up super early to watch the monks doing their alms rounds.
Friday 9th November, 2018
Muang Noi to Luang Prabang
The alarm wakes us at 5am, still dark, of course. We quickly change then walk up the deserted street to the temple. A soft mist hangs low in the air creating an other-worldly atmosphere, just perfect for this special experience. Closer to the temple a few village people are setting up stalls even at this incredibly early hour.
We sit on the steps leading up to the temple gate where we can see the goings on inside the monastery grounds. A few monks in orange robes are warming their hands in front of a wood fire and others are sweeping the compound with besom brooms. I play with the temple cats who proceed to chase the resident chickens while a rooster crows from the other side of the village. Love, love this!
About 6.30am an elderly monk beats the huge temple drum then the rest of the monks appear in the soft pre-dawn light. They walk barefoot in single file along the dirt track which is now lined with village ladies kneeling in respect and placing gifts of food, like sticky rice, into each monk’s alms bowl. Twice the young monks stop to stand in a row and chant. We’ve seen monks doing their alms rounds many times before but not in such an authentic place as this remote little village.
The monks continue their walk through the village but we leave them to have our breakfast. We head back to Gabrielle’s for fruit and muesli for me and a ham and egg baguette for Mark. Over coffee and tea, Mark rings Steve at work to sort out his jobs for the day.
Today we plan to move on to Nong Khiaw, again by public boat which will leave about 9.30am. This gives us enough time for a walk to one of the many caves around the town. We follow the trail past the wat at the northern end of town. Here we come across a village woman feeding pigs in bamboo pigsties then continue along the track to a small house where we pay a smiling old man 10,000kip to continue up to Pha Noi cave. Apparently during the US bombings, the villagers of Muang Noi lived in these caves to escape the bombs.
It’s a steep climb with wooden handrails but I’m eventually scrambling upwards on all fours – forget it! Mark continues on but the cave is still nowhere in sight so we give up and head back down into the village.
This fans out from the main street amongst tall shady trees. Dirt tracks wind between the houses with yards fenced off from each other with latticed bamboo. Turkeys, ducks, pigs and chickens run free everywhere we go and we see people going about their morning chores. Back in the main street more ladies have set up wooden tables now piled with vegetables for sale while others are cooking over hot coals – pancakes, waffles, spring rolls and fried bananas.
We’d love to stay here for a week but we’re really time poor so we have to keep moving on and plan to stay in Nong Khiaw tonight.
Almost time for the boat to arrive so we pack up and head towards the wharf stopping on the way to buy spring rolls from a lady who’s cooking them on the street. Oh, wow! They’re absolutely the best we’ve ever tasted so we buy more.
Reaching the top of the stairs leading down to the water, we hang out with a few other backpackers. The river is picture postcard, completely calm with the thick green forest on the bank opposite and limestone karsts rising up behind. The sun is shining brightly in a clear blue sky so we have another perfect day ahead.
Two boats pull up, already packed with locals but we manage to squash into the last one. The trip to Nong Khiaw is only one and a half hours so being squashed isn’t a problem and we love using local transport wherever we go. The scenery on this southern stretch of the Nam Ou is even more dramatic with lush jungle either side of the river backed with even taller jungle-clad limestone mountains. The boat is much faster today and we all get wet from the spray.
As we near Nong Khiaw there is more river traffic going in both directions and longtails tied up on the shore. It appears to be a much bigger town than either Muang Khua or Muang Noi and we decide before we even get off the boat that we’ll move on to Luang Prabang.
At Delilah’s rustic café we order salad and baguettes while we wait for the 1pm bus. About 12.30pm we set off for the bus station but soon a van pulls up beside us – this must be the Luang Prabang bus. It looks full to bursting but everyone makes room for us but we have the worst seats ever – right up the back, crammed in nursing our luggage, the seats too low to even see out the window and the suspension is fucked! Add to this the horrendous road and it’s a very long three and a half hour trip. The only upside is a friendly couple who keep us amused with their travels. They’re actually catching the fourteen hour overnight bus from Luang Prabang to Chiang Rai tonight – good luck with that!
One other downside of this trip is that about half way we come across a very disturbing sight – another fucking Chinese dam being built! It seems that changes may happen quickly so we’re very grateful have done our epic river trip before it’s destroyed forever.
Finally we reach the outskirts of Luang Prabang. It’s been seventeen years since we were last here when we caught a bus from Viang Vieng seven hours from the south and were dropped off at the bus station which was then on the outskirts of town. Now the city has spread way beyond the bus station and we’re horrified to see lots of featureless high rise hotels where there were once green fields. These have been built by the Chinese government – cunts!
We dread to think what the main part of town may now be like!
From the bus station, we jump into a songthaew with a few other travellers to head into the old city where we’ve booked a place at the Oui Guesthouse on booking.com. There was a 50% off deal so we’ll only be paying $32 for the night. The old city is located on a stunning narrow peninsular at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers and thankfully a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I say thankfully because it means that the fuck-off Chinese hotels can’t contaminate this magical place.
Oui Guesthouse is on the quieter Nam Khan side with river views from the cute front verandah where we’re told we’ll have breakfast in the morning. The owner is sweet and shows us our big, clean room with hot water, air-con and a television which we won’t bother with anyway.
After hot showers we set off in the dark to the far, pointy end of the peninsular and set up at the View Café.
We find a table on the wooden deck right on the riverbank with a view of a tiny temple lit up on the opposite bank. Mark has a Beer Lao while I have my favourite Margarita – and it’s a good one too! To order we’re given an ipad which is so, so upmarket compared to the simple restaurants in Muang Noi with their little blackboard menus. Both bloody awesome but very different!
Later we wander around to the Mekong side to see if things have changed there. So far this small, palm-fringed peninsula looks just as it had all those years ago. It seems that the Chinese tourists come into the old city during the day then hightail it back to their horrible high rise hotels at night. Thank God they’re not interested in staying in the gorgeous colonial French villas that have been turned into guesthouses but prefer their concrete monstrosities instead.
Nor do they appear to want to dine in the atmospheric and classy restaurants dotted throughout these pretty streets but back at their hotels with all-you-can-eat buffets, no doubt.
So now we’re extra happy especially when we find some of the old simple eateries we remember along the riverbank. But we also come across the luxurious new 5-star hotel, Victoria Xieng Thong Palace Hotel which was the former residence of the Lao royal family and then the Royal Palace – we’ll be back tomorrow night for happy hour.
Heading away from the river we find a table at the Bamboo Tree Restaurant where three young local girls are dancing in the traditional way accompanied by gorgeous Lao music. We’re given a red Welcome drink plus a plate of lemongrass and dried bananas. I have spring rolls while Mark has squid with coconut and chili – sounds good but it was shit and so was my Margarita! We move on.
This is just around the corner to the Gourmet Bakery opposite the Xieng Thong Temple. The street is empty – no Chinese tourists here – and we have a lovely time sitting at a table outside drinking two more Margaritas for me (excellent this time and only $5) and Beer Lao for Mark.
Back to our gorgeous guesthouse at 9pm.
Saturday 10th November, 2018
A very early start this morning at 5:15am. This is because we’re off to see the monks on their morning alms rounds. We walk up to Wat Xieng Thong at dawn to see people in the side laneway preparing sticky rice and putting it into bamboo pots. We soon hear the boom of the temple drums when the monks in their orange robes start coming towards us along the road in the dark. A few other tourists are giving alms to the monks as well as many locals. As always this is a magical experience and I plan to come back tomorrow.
It’s still too early to do anything so we head back home to bed. Mark sleeps while I research the Lonely Planet. We’re up again at 8 o’clock for breakfast on the verandah – poached eggs, baguettes, coffee and tea. I find an awesome place on the Internet where we could hopefully stay tonight and walk up the laneway to check out the Khoi Xieng Thong Boutique Villa.
It’s hard to describe how really beautiful this place is and we quickly take it for two nights for only $70. Our room is upstairs off a wide balcony. We have two huge four-poster beds, six windows overlooking the gardens and the Xieng Thong Temple, a big bathroom, a television, air conditioning, hot water and a soaring ceiling. How can this gorgeous place possibly be so very cheap?
Now it’s time to visit Wat Xieng Thong where a young Lao couple are having professional photos taken while wearing traditional clothes. At a small market inside the grounds we buy bamboo fans for the dollies then explore the temple itself.
We visited Visit Wat Xieng Thong many years ago mainly because it was on the cover photo for the Laos Lonely Planet at the time and also because it’s one of the most important temples of Laotian history and the most visited temple in Luang Prabang. Built in1560 as a royal temple, it has a low-swooping roof and richly decorated gold exterior. We wander through all the different halls and wats but now it’s time to move into our beautiful new guest house so we return to Oui to pack up then drag our bags up to Khoi Xieng Thong Villa.
After checking in, we hire a motorbike scooter from a place around the corner for $20 a day. Ladies are walking by balancing baskets on the ends of bamboo poles – this is a true local area!
With me riding pillion, we drive down to the Mekong to seek out somewhere to have a massage. We find a wonderful atmospheric place with wide windows opening onto the street. First our feet are washed in bowls then upstairs we have a full body oil massage for only 70,000 kip each.
Back on the bike the first thing to do is to find a petrol station then we set out to look for Utopia Cafe recommended by travellers’ blogs. We wind our way down narrow lane ways with houses close on either side until we reach the Nam Khánh with Utopia overlooking the river. Trendy people are hanging around on floor cushions and we find a spot for ourselves. This is backpacker food heaven with a berry smoothie, a fruit shake, satay skewers and chicken wings with a honey glaze. We could stay here all day but I’m always impatient to move on to something else.
I usually like to get my hair washed and blow dried when we’re in Asia because it’s so cheap so we look for a salon on the ride home. Can’t see any so I’ll look again tomorrow. Back in our lovely room I shower and wash my hair then we both rest and read in our comfy bed. Up at 4:30 pm to ride to the night market at the other end of the old city.
Even though it isn’t quite dark yet the market is set up in narrow alleyways with stalls on one side and tables and chairs set up opposite. We check out the strange food for sale especially the meat stalls – intestines, pigs feet, pigs heads and the rest totally unrecognosable. Other stalls sell barbequed frogs, chicken feet, whole skewered fish and fresh vegetable dishes piled high on metal trays. We find a free table where we order chicken drumsticks and sticky rice. Nearby a poor ragged man is playing a homemade stringed instrument – we put money in his bowl.
Later we decide to head back down to our quiet part of town but soon Mark realises that our bike has a flat tyre. A helpful local man tells us ‘you go down there’ presumably where we can have it repaired but we can’t see anything. So we set off with me walking and Mark pushing the bike. Later we ask a lady if she knows anywhere we can get it fixed. She says ‘follow me’ and takes us to a guy who says ‘no hab’. We ask him to pump it with air anyway hoping it will get us home. The lady says ‘go guesthouse. Go, go!’ So cute. We jump on and take off but in no time it’s flat again so I’m walking and Marks is pushing. Finally we’re home so Mark returns the bike while I dump our purchases in our room.
It’s still only early so we try to get into the nearby tiny Storytelling Theatre but it’s full tonight. Instead we walk around to the Victoria Hotel for ‘happy hour’. This place is stunning with lots of old world charm but, for some reason, with very few guests around. This means we find prized seats on the balcony facing the Mekong. Happy Hour is very ‘happy’ with two perfect margaritas for me and Beer Lao for Mark. We love hanging out in these expensive 5 star places while we stay for a fraction of the price nearby. But seriously I can’t imagine how any of the rooms here could beat our pretty villa.
About to leave, we come across a film being shown on a big screen in the garden. Quite a few people are here so we decide to stay and watch. This is a documentary filmed in 1927 called Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness’. This black and white classic is about a Lao family living in the jungles of Siam and their relationship with elephants. Brilliant, especially that it’s being shown here on this warm and starry night.
Later we wander around the little streets loving the mix of traditional Lao design and French colonial architecture – Parisian bakeries, bars, cafes, restaurants, shops, guesthouses and galleries are all housed in these stunning old European-built villas. Like Cambodia and Vietnam, Laos came under French rule during the colonial period. Although the French government gave up its protectorate status in 1946, remnants of this European legacy can be found throughout the old city of Luang Prabang.
Hungry again we wander around to the Silk Road Restaurant for a fish dinner then next door to the Motorcycle Bar for Bacardis and Beer Lao.
A brilliant day!
Sunday 11th November, 2018
I’m up at 5am again so I can watch the monks on their alms round. From one window in our room I can look down into the monastery where young monks are washing ready for their rounds. Mark decides to stay in bed so I set off in the dark on my own.
I wait just opposite the temple to see the monks walk out in single file while the faithful gain brownie points by donating food and other gifts. Meanwhile the monks stop now and again to perform their hypnotic chant. After their rounds, the monks will return to the monastery where they’ll have breakfast at 6am then have their last meal of the day around noon.
I love this so much but now I just want to go back to bed and have another quick nap before breakfast. Unbelievably this comes with the price of our room. In the leafy courtyard downstairs we’re served baguettes, omelets, chopped fresh fruit and tea and coffee.
It’s so relaxing here but we plan to hire another motor bike and head out of town. Around the corner we find another bike which hopefully won’t get a flat. Taking off through the quiet streets of the old city, we set off in the direction of Tad Sea Falls, which are about twelve miles south of town. Out here in the countryside a mist rolls in and it’s a bit cool on the bike. The road is tarred but very windy so we don’t go too fast.
After twenty minutes we turn off the main road onto an unpaved road, which after last night’s rain, is now a muddy mess. And the mud isn’t normal mud, it’s a sticky, clayey mud that builds up on the bike’s tyres which means we’re soon sliding across the road like a hovercraft. And like on a bike in Laos a couple of years ago, we’re thrown arse-over-head and both end up on the road in the mud. Neither of us is hurt because we were going so slowly but no way can we continue on the bike, so Mark pushes while I walk. But this isn’t a great idea either because the mud glues itself to the bottom of our shoes and after a few steps I’m three inches taller – ha ha. We continually stop to scrape off the mud so it’s a long, slow walk to the small village of Bak En.
It’s here that we need to catch a boat to reach Tad Sea Falls (pronounced Tatsa). Small stalls have been set up selling corn on the cob, whole river fish on bamboo skewers, sticky rice wrapped in banana leaves and drinks. Here we pay a small entrance fee which includes the boat ride. We’ve brought a bag of children’s clothes from home to give to village people so I hand it to one of the ladies sitting on a bamboo bench with her friends.
Longtail boats are pulled up on the riverbank below so we jump in one of them with a couple of local ladies. Soon we’re chugging north for only about fifteen minutes before pulling into the opposite bank. A path leads through thick trees and stands of bamboo and, wow, there are elephants!
And the falls themselves are very beautiful. These don’t attract as many tourists as Kouangsi Falls which we visited in 2001 with Julie and Steve so it’s much more relaxing. The falls aren’t very high but rather a series of wide steps that cascade towards a deep lower pool.
First we have a cup of tea in the café which is built over the water and reached by a small suspension bridge – stunning! Now we wander over to the elephants and decide to have a ride – can’t resist in this lovely setting. We’re taken along a pretty pathways and end up at the pools where our elephant wades through.
Before leaving we both have a swim in the crystal clear lower pool which luckily doesn’t have the creepy flesh eating fish we experienced at the Erawan Falls in Thailand in 2015.
Back in the boat we set off towards Bak En village but the motor conks out half way. So now Mark and the driver are paddling – love these funny experiences! A rescue boat turns up so we head for shore where we swap boats and are soon back in the village. As we walk up the bank the lady who I’d give the clothes to hands me back the bag. She thought she was just minding it for me but I say ‘children’s clothes for you’. She finally understands and the other ladies gather around and share out the clothes. By the time we leave the kids are already wearing them.
We’ve taken a while to leave because I’m too scared to get back on the bike and I’m hoping to get a lift out onto the main road. No luck so we decide to brave it but we do walk the bike through the muddiest bits. Such a relief to reach the tarred road that will take us back to Luang Prabang.
It’s time for lunch by now so we find a simple place selling bowls of noodle soup full of fresh vegetables then spend the afternoon roaming around this lovely river town. Luang Prabang is deservedly a UNESCO listed heritage town where beautifully preserved colonial architecture dates back to the days of Indo-China all set on the narrow peninsular surrounded by rivers on three sides. Stone stairways link monasteries and palaces while small ferries link both sides of the Mekong. On the Nam Khan side we see people tending tiny riverside gardens and village people are bathing in the water.
On dark we decide to head down to the markets near Mount Phousi which is the town’s highest and only hill. We’d climbed the 300 steps to the top many years ago so we opt for drinks in one of the many bars in this part of town. And, yes, ‘Country Roads’ is playing. We run into Anna and Herman who tell us of a cheap place they’re staying in nearby so we think we’ll move tomorrow to have a different experience.
Right now we’re not enjoying the touristy atmosphere here so we ride back to our quiet traditional area. Back at the Victoria Hotel we settle in for cocktails – mohitos and margaritas – then more drinks on our lovely balcony off our room at Khoi Xieng Thong Villa – go to bed!
Monday 12th November, 2018
This morning we drive down to the place that Anna and Herman recommended. It’s just off the river on the Mekong side in a cute, crooked alleyway with guesthouses facing each other, so close we can almost touch the one opposite. We reserve a room at the Soutikone 1 Guesthouse then Mark ferries our bags in a couple of trips.
The Soutikone is a tiny place completely lined with polished wood. Our room even has a tiny balcony and a view of the river so we’re more than happy.
We’ve never explored the north bank of the Mekong so we drive down to the ferry wharf. The ferry is a flat bottomed punt and is already packed with people on motor bikes. We find a spot and in no time we’re on the opposite bank. It’s a pretty place with lots of goats crazily running around like all goats do. The only problem is the muddy tracks (yes, it rained again last night) and we’re not keen on falling off again so we don’t stay too long.
Back in Luang Prabang we have one hour massages at the Red Cross on the edge of town which is in the same building as it was seventeen years ago.
On dusk we find our favourite riverside bar to watch the sun setting and the river traffic sliding past. This town is magic. Later we ride down to the Storytelling Theatre and buy tickets for tonight’s performance. This is called Garavek and is set in a tiny building a quiet leafy side street. We have front row seats in the cosy theatre which probably only holds about twenty people. A talented young man tells local Lao myths, legends, and folk tales while an ancient old man plays a traditional instrument we’ve never seen before. What an experience!
More wandering around the streets, peeking into temples where monks are chanting then a bar crawl before heading home to bed. Another great day.
Tuesday 13th November, 2018
Luang Prabang to Chiang Mai
Last night we changed our plan which had been to take a boat up the Mekong to cross into Thailand up near Chiang Rai. We’ve already experienced the boat thing and we’re running out of days so our new plan is to fly directly to Chiang Mai and catch the overnight train to Bangkok.
The flight isn’t till midday so we spend the morning along the riverbank, eat breakfast in an old French villa, visit an art gallery and I have my hair washed and dried.
At 10.30am we catch a taxi to the airport and run into Hans who’s heading for Chiang Mai as well. The airline is Lao Aviation which we flew from here to Vientienne in 2001. It was a terrifying flight on a very small plane but today’s flight is really nice.
At Chiang Mai Airport we catch a taxi into the Old City, dropping Hans off at his hotel on the way. We plan to meet him for drinks tonight.
The Old City is, of course, the original settlement of Chiang Mai built in 1296 and was surrounded by walls and moats to protect it from its nearby enemies. Our taxi passes remnants of the walls and gates, especially the main Thapae Gate, and follows the moat that still marks the edge of the Old City. It’s still the cultural heart of Chiang Mai but a thousand years ago it must have been a magical, exotic place full of temples, merchants, soldiers and even elephants.
But for now, Mark and I need to find somewhere to stay. For ages we drag our packs through the laneways and come across the incredible Baan Boo Loo.
This would have to be the most amazing Thai place we’ve ever seen! Made up of a series of old teak houses joined together and set on stilts in a lush garden. All the rooms are fitted with teak furnishings and woven Thai fabrics. The dining/kitchen/reception area has a vast beamed ceiling held up by huge tree trunks and lined with ancient latticed panelling painted a deep turquoise. I’m trying to absorb it all and take photos from every angle.
Of course, Mark loves it too and we decide we’ll stay here no matter what the price – just hope we can get a room. Things look up when we’re served iced drinks and a bowl of chopped fruit. But no, they’re full tonight – we’ll definitely book ahead next trip.
This means lugging our bags along more laneways looking for another place to stay. We come across Smile Guesthouse, a cheap place with a cute exterior but he rooms couldn’t be any plainer. No worries, we’re only here for a night. So now we’re hungry and find an atmospheric café opposite one of the many wats – there are over two hundred in Chiang Mai! The café is run by a friendly lady with buck teeth. She’s got the whole thing down pat with fresh fruit juices, curries served in clay pots and the entire cafe filled with an eclectic mix of Buddhist statues, silk hangings, paper umbrellas, potted plants and table lamps lighting up dark corners. We love it and once again I try to take it all in.
Back to our room for our usual afternoon nap then meet Hans at six o’clock at John’s Place – an old favourite. We have a few drinks on the bottom floor while three young Thai ladies perform a traditional dance. Later we all wander across the road to a narrow street lined with bars and simple restaurants. This is where old Western men come to pick up a Thai lady and there’s no shortage of either. We find a high table facing the street and have lots of laughs with the girls working here. They know that Mark is with me but, being a single man, Hans is fair game. It’s all good fun.
Hans heads back to his hotel about eleven but Mark and I have one more drink at John’s Place, this time on the rooftop bar.
Wednesday 14th November, 2018
With another hot day dawning, we’re up early for cold showers. Today we plan to spend the whole time sightseeing then catch the overnight train back to Bangkok. First is breakfast in a rustic café near our guesthouse – fruit and yoghurt for me plus muesli and yoghurt for Mark. Health freaks!
We’ve already made up our day packs so we head for the temples. The main ones in the Old City are very close to each other so we don’t have to walk too far – I hate walking! And they’re all active temples, meaning that worshippers come and go all day to pray, light candles and burn incense.
Wat Phakhao is the first one we come across on Ratchapakhinai Road. It’s a small, quiet Buddhist temple with the interior ornately decorated in red and gold, and the exterior flanked by lovely gardens at the moment decorated with colourful lanterns, paper umbrellas and tinsel hanging from the spreading trees.
Nearby is Wat Chedi Luang, one of Chiang Mai’s most important temples and built in 1391. Also called ‘Temple of the Great Stupa’, because of the massive and very impressive chedi (pagoda), it dominates the whole area. Interestingly, in 1468, the most important and revered Buddha image in Thailand, the emerald buddha, was installed here where it remained for a century before being moved to Luang Prabang then finally Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok. This is our favourite because it’s so different to all the other wats we’ve seen.
Another completely different temple is just next door. This is Wat Phan Tao, another very old temple built towards the end of the 14th century. The teak wood viharn was originally used as a palace throne hall and is one of the few remaining all wooden structures of its sort in Chiang Mai.
It’s here in the grounds that we have the wonderful experience of talking to the monks. These ‘Monk Chats’ are win-win because the monks practice their English speaking skills while we learn about their culture, beliefs and lifestyle. I love ‘my’ monk and I think Mark is jealous!
Now it’s time for a snack in a cute café called Into The Woods – a bit more upmarket than we’re used to – then a one hour Thai massage at the Women’s Massage Center By Ex-Prisoners. This was started in 2014 to help rehabilitate female prisoners, many of who leave prison with little or no financial resources at all – a great cause.
For lunch we grab a tuktuk to take us to the Rachamankha Hotel, still inside the Old City walls. This is where Janet and Raol stay when they come to Thailand – super expensive – so we want to check it out and have lunch as well. Rachamankha Hotel is one of the leading luxury boutique hotels in Chiang Mai but it sits quietly tucked away in a small laneway. The design is inspired by the 11th century B.C Chinese dwellings, from which Northern Thai architecture apparently has its roots. The interior is described as having ‘Zen-like simplicity and sophistication’ creating a calming atmosphere. We love it and feel transported back in time. The dining room has a vaulted ceiling with dark wooden beams while the floor is cool polished concrete. One wall opens up onto a pretty courtyard, garden and pond. All the tables have white linen cloths and bowls of fresh roses – very posh. The prawn dishes are expensive but amazing – so worth the splurge!
Time now for a rest in our room and final pack for our overnight train trip tonight. At five o’clock we catch a taxi to the lovely Chiang Mai Railway Station and board the train for a 6pm departure.
I don’t know how many times we’ve caught this train between Chiang Mai and Bangkok, and vice versa, but we’ve loved it ever since our first trip in 1997 – 21 years ago! We’ve learnt to avoid the air-conditioned carriages as we much prefer the open windows so we can look back to see the train snaking around the bends in this mountainous area and also feel the breeze that keeps us cool. Open windows also mean that we can see, hear and smell the countryside and the goings on at the tiny train stations we pull into every now and again. Mark falls in love with one of these little stations and we vow to come back one day to check out the area.
As night closes in, the long shadows of dusk fall across the hills and rice paddies – we never tire of this lovely scenery. About eight o’clock out bunks are made up with crisp white sheets, blankets and curtains for privacy and we turn in for an early night to be rocked to sleep by the endless swaying of the train – heaven!
Thursday 15th November, 2018
Chiang Mai to Bangkok
We’re up very early to clean our teeth and shove everything back into our big packs. At 6am we pull into Hualamphong Station in the middle of Bangkok then jump into one of the many waiting taxis and head straight for Banglamphu.
In Soi Rambutri we get dropped off to find somewhere to stay. Being this early it’s very quiet but still plenty of places open for breakfast. Now we walk around to Thanon Rambutri and come across Villa Cha Cha. We love it instantly with its very Thai Reception area which opens up onto a lovely pool and internal garden. And besides this, it’s cheap – only $25 a night for a nice room, ensuite, air-con and fridge.
All is great until Mark says ’where’s the black backpack?’ That’ll be the black backpack with all our documents, passports, medications and, worse, my makeup! It’s the pack that I carry around and I know I had it when we got in the taxi. We hope that we left it at the breakfast café so I race back around to Soi Rambutri. It’s not there!
Now the only other option is that I left it in the taxi. Do you know how many taxis there are in Bangkok? We race around to the Tourist Police Station to report it to a very bored police guy who cares less! Fucking useless.
Now Mark had the idea of going back to the Station to see if the taxi went straight back there. He actually remembers the colour of the taxi and the colour of the shirt the driver as wearing! In the meantime I’m to wait where we were dropped off in case the driver finds it and comes back to return it – as if!
So for the next hour I wait in the front of an open fronted café and research how to get to the Australian Embassy so we can apply for new passports – it will apparently take two hours to get there! FUUUCK!
Meanwhile Mark has told his taxi driver the story and he’s so lovely. When they get to Hualamphong Station he takes Mark inside to the security office which has walls of CCTV screens showing every area including the taxi stands. These guys are really helpful too and go back through the videos till they find us getting off the overnight train and then getting into the taxi. By zooming in on the number plate they get a few numbers and letters and by a process of elimination they find the exact one. The Security guy rings the taxi driver and demands that he take it to the Tourist Police Station in Banglamphu.
Here the ‘I don’t give a fuck’ cop is all gush and smiles and wants his photo taken with Mark and the backpack like he’d solved the bloody thing himself.
In the meantime I’m just waiting for Mark to come back empty handed but when the taxi pulls up in front of the café, I can’t believe it – I can see that Mark has a black strap over his shoulder! Unbelievable! We try to give the lovely taxi driver money for all his help and kindness but he won’t take a thing except some hugs. What a sweetheart!
The really weird thing is that neither Mark nor I had got ourselves too stressed over it all. If our passports were lost then they were lost and we’d just have to deal with it. And, of course, Mark never said a thing about it being my fault – my darling.
But now we’re on a huge high and after booking into Villa Cha Cha we spend the day just hanging out, swimming in the pool, eating from street stalls and having massages. Of course we have our massages at Pink, our favourite little place around here – the girls always remember us. And Mark finally gets a haircut and a shave – goodbye Kenny Rogers and hello my beautiful handsome husband – he looks 20 years younger!
On dark we wind our way through the tiny alleyways to Khao San Road where we buy a t-shirt for Steve Leonard with a weird photo of him on the front and hang it up with all the other tshirts. We post it with our other pics on Facebook to see if he notices – childish but funny!
Later we do our usual restaurant and bar hopping. We love this place!
Friday 16th November, 2018
Another gorgeous sunny day in Bangkok. Up early, we wander around the alleyways and buy bottles of fresh passionfruit juice then jump in a tuktuk to take us to Wat Mahatat where we burn incense for Angie. We’ve been here countless times to this very old temple. In fact it was built in the 18th century, even before the founding of Bangkok in 1782. Today, it’s the headquarters of the Mahanikai school of Buddhism, Thailand’s largest monastic order so there are always lots of monks hanging around.
Across the road is the Mahatat Amulet Market which is a dense network of covered market stalls which sell thousands and thousands of tiny sacred amulets that Thai people buy for all sorts of reasons – mainly for protection or to ward off evil spirits. We have lots of amulets that we’ve bought here in the past but we’ve also bought many large bronze Buddha statues and ceramic jars. Today we buy two big ginger jars to add to our collection.
As we always do, we also eat at one of the simple little restaurants that overlook the Chao Praya – the food is cooked in front of us and is incredibly cheap as this is really a locals-only area. We never see any farangs at all which is why the statues and ceramics are so cheap as well.
Another tuktuk back to Soi Rambutri we have pedicures at Pink and a massage at the lovely little place next to Madame Masur. After an afternoon nap we head back to Madame Masur for dinner of satay chicken with beers and margaritas.
We decide to check out a different area tonight so we head towards the Fort where we see a crocodile on a spit roast – no kidding – then have a lovely time at the very rustic
Thon Buri Bar run by a very handsome Bob Marley look alike complete with long dreds piled up on his head. Of course, Bob Marley music is playing as well.
Back around in Khao San Road Mark buys a scorpion to eat – I’ll pass – then we have t-shirts made for all our trivia crew with a photo of us all dressed up in Hawaiian gear one night at the Greenroof years ago. They look awesome!
Saturday 17th November, 2018
Bangkok to Singapore
Our last full day in Bangkok, we spend the early morning around Wat Chana Songkhram Ratchaworamahawihan next to Soi Rambutri. We’ve been here so many times we like to think of it as ‘our’ temple. It’s always busy with worshippers making offering of flowers and burning incense and candles. Others are sitting inside in front of the giant golden Buddha and today there is some sort of ceremony happening. In the open sided buildings around the temple we see young monks having lessons while nuns in white robes prepare food and floral offerings.
Now we set off for one of our favourite places in Bangkok – the Taling Chan floating market in Thonburi. At the Phra Athit Pier we hire a longtail boat to take us across the busy Chao Praya River then enter the klongs (canals) of Thonburi. The difference between the hustle of Bangkok and this peaceful side of the river is immediately obvious.
Thonburi was once was the capitol of Siam and for centuries was an agricultural area filled with canals and fruit orchards. Canals still wind between homes on stilts, temples, orchard farms and old wooden shops where buyers arrive in boats or canoes. There are also floating “shops” with vendors paddling up-and-down to sell souvenirs or to cook you a meal from scratch in the bottom of their tiny boat.
We love it here as we see huge monitor lizards sunbaking on the river’s edge and pass people washing in the river or waving from their balconies built over the water. It’s nice to see that the traditional Thai way of living still exists here – probably won’t last for long.
We eventually pull up at the Taling Chan floating market and jump out onto the wooden floating dock where low tables are set up and everyone sits on the floor to eat. Wooden boats are moored along the dock where ladies are cooking seafood on small barbecues and a group of Thai traditional musicians play on the riverbank.
It’s nice to know that the market sells products from farmers living close by – such as fresh vegetables, fruit, prawns, crabs and fish – and helps to preserve the way of life for the people in this area. We choose huge prawns which are cooked in garlic and sit with locals on the wooden deck.
Back to Banglamphu for our last night in Bangkok. We have the usual massages at Pink, drink beer and cocktails and do a bit of last minute shopping.
Sunday 18th November, 2018
Bangkok to Singapore to Sydney
Today we fly to Singapore on Scoot with a four hour stopover then home to Sydney