Saturday, 12 September 2015


Before we knew it we were in the Thai capital of Bangkok. Known as the city that never sleeps I had read and heard so many stories that I was excitedly keen to experience it for myself. Tragically only a week before we arrived there had been a bomb planted at the Erawan Temple in one of the more touristic areas, killing many people so naturally that played on my mind.
Our time in the capital was to be a short one before we went south to the islands so on our first day there I hopped on the battered, hot public bus and after what felt like a lifetime in traffic, eventually arrived at the legendary Jatujak weekend market which has over 8000 stalls covering 35 acres! Here I spent a few hours browsing the stalls selling a menagerie of wares from clothes and jewellery, fake flowers and candles to live animals!! Like the frugal backpacker I am, I only bought a fridge magnet before picking up some food and retreating to the shade in the neighbouring park to read my book and, my favourite pastime, people-watch. All in all a pleasantly relaxing day in the midst of the buzzing city of Bangkok. The next day I spent cooped up in the Indian embassy applying for my visa, and then it was time for the night bus which would mark the start of the island hopping chapter of our story. 

Luang Namtha

The last place we were to visit in Laos was Luang Namtha, a small town close to the Chinese border. We came here to break the long journey into Thailand up, and also to experience some of rural Laotian way of life.
On our first day we hired some bicycles and set off on a 25km route that would take us around the perimeter of the town. On the way we cycled through tiny villages comprised of bamboo huts found down dusty pot-holed roads, past innumerable rice terraces with tall green shoots growing under the sun, and all with the backdrop of the towering mountains surrounding the area. Along the way we also stopped off at some religious stupas, or small temples, which even in their simplicity were interesting to see. We got back to the hotel a little sunburnt and with aching muscles but happy with our adventures of the day. 
We had arranged to do a trek the following day so at 7.30am the next morning we were in a tuk-tuk en route to the starting point, a village home to the ethnic Lanten people. This is a small riverside village which we walked around and learnt about the traditional lifestyle of the native people, including their animistic beliefs which explained the farmyard style set up with pigs, cows, goats, dogs and chickens all running around, each of whom are used to appease the animal spirits that they believe in. 
From here we nipped across the river in long wooden boats to begin the walk through the Namha National Park. The first part of the climb was practically vertical and challengingly slippery after a night of constant rain. After it levelled out a little we could take in our surroundings of dense forest, mainly consisting of clusters of huge bamboo trees. In the rain, many had fallen across our path so we really had to be on guard watching our footing. During the walk we learnt about certain plants and their uses, how to set traps and ate some weird and wonderful things including red ants which are actually quite nice and sweet - providing you bite them before they bite you! After a few hours we stopped for a typical Laos lunch of sticky rice and noodle dishes. All this was served on leaves on the forest floor which we sat around shovelling the food into our mouths with dirty fingers, being bitten constantly by mosquitos and sharing our plates with ants intent on stealing the food. At first I was a little hesitant as the set up was so far removed from what we're used to at home but the food was tasty and enjoyable (if you try not to think about health and hygiene!). 
We continued to walk for a few more hours before coming to a farm with rice terraces and corn crops. The water for the rice is siphoned off from the river and flows through the cultivated tiered terraces keeping the crop under an inch or so of water at all times. From here we went back across the river in the dubious looking wooden boats and we're back on the way to Luang Namtha, desperately in need of a shower but happy with our day of exploring and learning. The town of Luang Namtha doesn't have much to offer but the surrounding areas are definitely worth a visit if you want to get off the well-travelled tourist trail for a while. 

Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang is the jewel in Laos' crown. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is a cultural haven with the copious amounts of temples and religious monuments. It is also a gateway town, being positioned on the mighty Mekong river with many boats making the daily trip into Thailand. 

On our first full day, along with some new friends we hollered a tuk-tuk to take us to the famous Kuang Si waterfalls. When we arrived we were greeted with a bear sanctuary; I didn't know it was here but it was a nice surprise to see the hulking creatures lolling in the midday heat. They are all rescue bears taken from a life of cruelty within the bile extraction industry. The bear's bile is sought after in China as, wrongly, it is believed to have medicinal purposes. From the sanctuary we went to the waterfall which has many swimming pools due to its tiered formation. The cascade itself is actually around 60m high so after we had jumping into the chilly water and climbing the rocks we took the hike to the top. Im not exaggerating by using the word hike; some parts were almost vertical and very slippery from the spray of water. The views from the top were shrouded by the surrounding trees and it was eerily silent to say only 10 metres away the water would cascade hundreds of feet below us! The whole area was exceptionally popular and it seemed that families used this area for a day out, bringing their picnics along and enjoying the natural beauty. 

The next morning I was up at 5.30am to watch some 200 monks on their morning alms giving ceremony, which dates back to the 14th century. This is where they walk the streets collecting food for breakfast, their only meal of the day. This is not charity though - this ceremony is highly revered for locals and only recently have tourists been allowed to become respectfully involved. It was a peaceful start to the day and a wonderful opportunity to experience ancient Laos tradition. Later that day I enjoyed a relaxed afternoon perusing the many stalls in the popular central market. One stall poignantly had jewellery made from old ordnance, sold by amputee war veterans. Luang Prabang is a yoga haven and so at sunset I went to take part in a class by the riverside, giving it a very special feel. I hadn't thought much about the details of the class but it turns out that even at sunset, it's very warm to be doing yoga! 90 minutes later, we were oh so sweaty but incredibly relaxed and satisfactorily stretched out. Im always pleasantly surprised when I enjoy a place more than I thought I would and Luang Prabang ticked all the right boxes for me. 

Vientiane and Vang Vieng

24 hours after leaving Hanoi we arrived in Vientiane, the capital of Laos. The term 'capital' really only refers to its administrative powers as the city has a small town feel to it without the madness of other capitals we have visited making it an attractive place to stay. 
There are a several attractions to see including Patuxai, the 'Arc de Triomphe' of Laos, and the important Buddhist stupa of Pha That Luang. To wander around the city taking in these sights is a nice way to spend the day before getting a bite to eat and heading to the Mekong River to watch the watery world float by. 

The following day we were en route to Vang Vieng via a scenic route where shallow, crop and forest covered mountains roll as far as the eye can see, lending to a patchwork vista. Vang Vieng is a controversial tourist destination and is coined as the world's most unlikely party town. In the last ten years, floating down the Nam Song river in tractor inner-tyres has become a popular pastime that recently took a dark twist as the scene exploded and alcohol and drugs were thrown into the mix. In 2011, 27 tourists died from drowning or diving head first into rocks, completely justifying my apprehension. The river is quite fast-flowing so kitted out in life jackets we hopped in the tubes and set off and were pulled ashore to visit the first bar which surpassed all expectations, minus the signs advertising 'happy pizza,' made with marijuana or magic mushrooms. We lounged on sun beds with a cheap beer in hand listening to music in the sunshine whilst other visitors played table football or basketball. Apparently later in the day it can get quite rowdy but following the tragedies that have occurred here, the tone has been considerably lowered and some bars closed down. 

We visited a few more bars then meandered down the river for the rest of the journey, with limestone rocks towering in the background, offering shade to the village kids playing in the water. Apart from their squeals of delight and the calls of wildlife, there is a serenity to the silence of the river. We arrived back at the tubing office, de-robed and headed back to the hostel totally shocked at just how fun an afternoon this infamous activity had provided. It's clear to see how it can get out of hand very fast, being unregulated as it is but if you go with even an ounce of common sense then it's nothing but a bit of fun in the sun. 


The last place we would visit in Vietnam was the energetic capital of Hanoi. We stayed in the Old Quarter which is absolutely alive with all manner of comings and goings. It's actually quite daunting trying to manoeuvre through such a chaotic place and I was quite certain we'd atleast get our toes squashed by one of the many motorbikes carelessly whizzing around! In line with a running theme, all the buildings and museums we wanted to visit were closed on the Monday we were there but we went out to explore and experience the city anyway. Chaotic as it first seemed, upon further inspection there seems to be an orderliness to life in Hanoi that just works. 
The next day we were on the way to Halong Bay, the main reason for our stop in Hanoi. Halong Bay, translating to "where the dragon descends into the sea" is a collection of over 2000 mystical limestone islets that rise immediately out of the glittering emerald water, plunging incredible heights back down sheer faces into the depths of the bay. After setting off we cruised to Dau Go cave which is the biggest grotto in Halong Bay, full with stalactites and stalagmites all with their own story and legend according to the local people and their history. It was packed full of tour groups but even so, the strength in the beauty of the rock formations shone through and it was very impressive. Back on the boat we had lunch and set sail through the archipelago of islands towering majestically around us. 

A few hours later and we were at our resting place for the night. As the golden sun was setting over the wall of limestone cliffs we were gently paddling through the calm water in kayaks and I really had a "I can't believe I'm here" moment; it was a very special way to end a great day. The next morning our tour guide took us to a pearl farm which makes the sustainable Akoya cultured pearl. 

We saw the process from start to finish, even witnessing the insemination of oysters with small artificially made pearls, which the oyster then coats with a natural pearl covering. This was done by hand and one worker can get through 100 oysters per day - I was starting to understand just why pearls are so expensive! We saw the beautiful final product in a shop floating next to the buoys bobbing in the water signifying the cultivated oysters below the water, topping off an very interesting and educational morning. Before lunch, en route back to the port, we made Vietnamese pork spring rolls with vermicelli noodles, contributing to the buffet we later tucked into. I can confirm the spring rolls were delicious! Our Halong Bay cruise was visually stimulating, interesting, relaxing and refreshing; a really good way to end our Vietnamese adventure!  

Thursday, 13 August 2015

Nha Trang and Hoi An

From Ho Chi Minh City we began our journey north up the coast of Vietnam. We have taken lots of overnight buses in the seven months of globe-trotting so far but these ones are the strangest. Actual beds are lined up in rows of three the length of the bus with tiny corridors inbetween. When I first saw these I thought they'd be great but unfortunately they just arent quite right. With a alcove for your feet and bag (which is too small) and a strange shaped contour to the bed (which is also too small) it makes for a rough nights sleep. BUT I cant complain as it saves money on hostels and gets us from A to B safely! So after a 10 hour journey we arrived in Nha Trang which is popular for it's claim of being Vietnam's beach capital.

As with any top beach destination there will always be lots of tourists but we were pleased to find that in between the high rise resorts there was still the hustle and bustle of normal local life which gave the place a bit of substance for us to take in. 
By day we spent our time on the beach which was incredibly beautiful and powerfully hot. Through the wavering haze over the horizon several tropical islands can be seen surrounding the crescent shaped bay. Because Nha Trang has its own micro-climate, the mercury was hovering around 35 degrees with a weather report claiming it felt more like 42, so after a few hours under the rays, we retreated to the safety of the shade to munch on steaming corn on the cob sold by ladies walking the sands wearing the typical Asian conical hats. 

Every place we go to becomes part of our culinary journey and Nha Trang will be remembered as the place we first had Banh Mi which is so much more than just a sandwich. Harking back to the French colonialism and the introduction of crusty bread, the Vietnamese have taken that European staple and made it their own by stuffing it with almost anything and everything. A combination of meat, greens, pickled items, herby sauces and fiery chilies make for a mouthwatering quick bite which can be found, without exaggeration, everywhere! 
A few days of good food and sunny relaxation later and we were in Hoi An, one of the nation's wealthiest towns not only in monetary terms but also by the richness and abundance of heritage and culture. An old port town, Hoi An is now also on the map for the abundance of tailoring shops creating anything and everything that the mind could conjure up. On our first day we walked to the old town which in itself is absolutely gorgeous with yellow-washed walls covered in creeping fuschia bougainvillea with lanterns swinging from the trees shading the pedestrianised area. 

Here is where the master craftsmen - and woman - can be found deftly pulling needle and thread with usually no pattern at all; their skill has been passed down the line from generation to generation. We browsed in many shops before settling on one which was able to cater for my friends eccentric tastes (leopard print shirt anyone?). Before I knew it i had been swept along in the excitement and was being measured for a full-length fitted jumpsuit. The process was a swift, easy one which only made us more excited to return later that night to make any adjustments.

We whiled away the afternoon wandering around the graceful and atmospheric old town, seeing the intricately carved Japanese Covered Bridge, chinese temples of worship and many lovingly preserved ethnic houses. At 6pm we went back to the clothes shop to see our custom made garments for the first time and we were blown away by the detail and skill that had been put into making exactly what we asked for. A few alterations were penned down and we were to collect our items the next morning. Whilst not cheap, by no means were they expensive for the quality of the fabric and the skill involved and ultimately, a great experience. 

We ate out that night and tasted Cao Lau for the first time. This is Hoi An's signature dish and is made from chewy noodles, Char Sui smoky pork, crisp greens, crunchy croutons and refreshing bean sprouts; resulting in a cornucopia of flavours hitting the tastebuds. Paired with an iced Vietnam tea, this dish is perfect for a witheringly hot afternoon and is a top favourite, not only with visitors and locals, but internationally too as famous chefs have descended on the town to try, and fail, to get their hands on the recipe. Hoi An is a concentrated mecca for foodies with an abundance of cooking classes and schools, and markets teeming with fresh produce and regional favourites.

The next day we hired a couple of bicycles as our means of transport to the beach, located a short 4km out of town. The roads are a frantic mess of cyclos, cars, motorbikes and cyclists, coming from all directions with no care for road etiquette but somehow it just works, as if the drivers are working on a communal inner GPS, so we had no problem gliding down the roads, tinkling our bell as we went. (You know what they say, do as the locals do!). We reached Cua Dai beach after cycling alongside the tributary rivers, part cultivated for crop growing, part emptying out into the ocean. This area will no doubt become the new 'It' place to go in years to come and hotel complexes were being thrown up all around us. I can understand why as the place is incredibly beautiful, I just hope that the tranquility is not forgotten in the race to conquer the area. The beach was wonderful; it was peaceful enough to really relax without being pestered by hawkers flogging souvenirs and the sand and water were that rich idyllic shade captured in the stereotypical beach photo.We spent the day here swimming in the tropical sea and hiding under the shade, reading our books. The perfect beach day!

That night we ate Ca Kho To, or fish in caramel sauce, which came served bubbling away in a claypot served with sticky aromatic rice. The sweetness of the caramel complimented the sour hit of the baked pineapple and among this flavour battle, the fish flaked and fell apart in my mouth. The best way to my heart is usually through my stomach and Hoi An did just that. It is my favourite place so far and definitely worth the international accolade and listing as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Ho Chi Minh City

Our Vietnamese adventures were due to begin so after a bus from Phnom Penh we arrived in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnams biggest city and centre of commerce. Still known as Saigon to its eight million inhabitants, the name change came in 1975 with the communist takeover of North Vietnam, and the city being named after their late leader. 
The city is split up into districts and we stayed in District 1 in the centre. I have to admit there wasn't a great deal in HCMC that took our fancy for one reason or another but it is far from a dull lifeless city; it is now a contender to other thriving metropolises such as Singapore and Bangkok. But none the less we took to the streets to explore the Central Market, the City Hall, the Notre Dame cathedral - so called due to the likeness with its Parisian counterpart - and the Opera House. There are some quaint sidestreets to be found even in the busy centre where you can find airy bookshops, stylish boutiques and shops offering souvenirs that aren't tacky; a complete novelty! Here we found a restaurant for lunch where we could marvel at the distinct dishes that are typically Vietnamese. With 54 recognised ethnic groups in the country it is no wonder that the fare is so diverse, appealing to all.
I ordered Pho which is a staple dish throughout the country, although it varies from region to region. Southern style Pho is a slightly murky broth with various meats (sometimes unidentifiable, my top tip is not to look but just taste as usually the appearance of the floating chunks of meat aren't so appealing!), beansprouts and the essential greens which usually are a mix of basil, mint, onions etc. And just to finish it off, there's usually a bit of a kick in the aftertaste thanks to the chili chunks thrown in there for good measure! The simplicity of this dish is why it is so popular and cheap; it is the perfect quick fix to stave off the hunger but will leave you craving more. I was looking for something a little sweet to finish off my dinner so forgot my hesistation and delved (not literally) into the fruit section of the Central Market. I had been a little hesitant up until now about trying the fruits as 1) they're exotic and abit daunting as I have no idea how to eat them and 2) they're kept a little too alfresco with the flies for my liking. However I bought a handfull of Rambutan which is possibly as far away from the standard apple as you can get! The fruit, coming from the Malay word meaning 'hairy', is small, round and red in colour with a covering of soft hairy spines. Peel back this covering, as one would like an orange, and inside is a translucent white fleshy fruit which is the perfect refreshment in the 34 degree heat we have been experiencing. Needless to say I will definitely be having these again.