28 hours

CURRENT LOCATION: Yangon (Rangoon), Myanmar (Burma)

Sam:

From Vang Vieng's beautiful caves and lazy river, we boarded a bus for a short four hour ride to the capital of Laos, Vientiane. Everyone we'd met on the road had warned us that Vientiane was rubbish, just another city, and told us that they couldn't wait to get out of there to see "real Laos". Right...

Not expecting much, the bus dropped us off (not at the bus station of course, but about 1km away from it, at a conveniently located cluster of tuk tuk drivers), and we started walking to our guesthouse. We may have mentioned this before, but it was hot. Again. And we were pretty peckish by this stage. After checking in at our guesthouse (which I was delighted to find was also home to at least 3 cats. They also had five dogs, but an unknowable number of them (they all looked exactly the same) barked and growled at me, so they got no pats), we went in search of lunch. At the end of the street, we discovered Ice Cream Garden. Sadly, we opted not to take them up on their specialty, instead enjoying a rare treat of rice and noodles. We spent the rest of the afternoon catching up on admin and making some plans, and enjoying a sneaky bit of air conditioning and some cheeky Wimbledon action.

The next morning we struck out in search of breakfast, and ended up at some crappy chain store style coffee store, eating decidedly average pastries and drinking iced mochas, thanking god it wasn't eggs. From there, we embarked on a walking tour. One of our favourite things to do in South East Asia has been to google walking tours, either created by other travellers, or sometimes local cultural or heritage groups. Often, you can find a great map and a walking outline for a day of pounding the pavements and seeing the sights. It saves us the effort of plotting a course that makes the most sense!

This walking tour began at Nam Phu Square, the main square in the city, surrounded by cheesy tourist restaurants. The fountain is only on at night, when it's lit up, so it wasn't much of a stop. From there we continued walking to the Presidential Palace, which looked stunning from the street, but isn't open to the public. Close to the palace was Haw Pha Kaew, a wat that contains a wonderful cultural museum, but as is becoming usual on our travels, it was under construction and covered in scaffolding. Luckily, our next stop was just around the corner - Wat Si Saket. It was here we discovered that everything in Vientiane closes between 12 and 1. We arrived at 12.03. Things were not shaping up well for our walking tour.

 Vientiane, Laos
 Vientiane, Laos

On the way to our next stop, we refuelled with some icy cold drinks. We found our way (eventually, after getting lost) to That Dam, a stupa set in the middle of a roundabout. We found ourselves some shade and hid from the incredible heat for a bit. I realise I'm not really selling Vientiane here, but the truth is, despite our tour not going as planned, it was a really enjoyable place to be. Sure, there wasn't really much to 'do', but it was super laid back, a pretty quiet city, and it was full of great architecture and interesting people. We were really enjoying waking around and soaking in the atmosphere.

 Vientiane, Laos

After our brief respite from the scorching hot sun, we headed to our next spot, the COPE Visitor's Centre. This not-for-profit organisation is dedicated to supporting victims of unexploded ordnance, providing clinical mentoring and training programs for local staff in the manufacture of artificial limbs and related rehabilitation activities. It was yet another grim reminder of the realities of these incredibly destructive and indiscriminate weapons, which sadly, mostly affect children.

 Vientiane, Laos

We found ourselves close to home, and as it was mid-afternoon and we were feeling a little dehydrated, we hid out in the air conditioning a little while before heading out to dinner. That night, we found ourselves getting very swept up in the excitement of Wimbledon, watching Dustin Brown take on Rafael Nadal and win! Well.... Zev watched it. I watched the first set, and then the insides of my eyelids. But it's the thought that counts. We were very sad to hear that our new favourite tennis player lost his next match, and won't be there to provide any more fireworks for the rest of the tournament - I guess Roger better wow us instead.

With our big plans for an early start thwarted by a tennis match finishing at 2am, we sluggishly dragged ourselves out of bed a little later than anticipated. Our first stop was to book our onward tickets from Vientiane. This was a rather complicated affair, involving overland travel from Vientiane to Bangkok, in order to make a flight from Bangkok to Yangon. More on that later.

 Friendly local grafitti

Friendly local grafitti

From there, after a quick breakfast of course, we headed to the bus station to go to Buddha Park. This was our first public transport experience in Laos, and it was awesome! All the locals were very friendly and helpful (although many suggested we'd be more comfortable hiring a tuk tuk or a taxi - clearly they didn't see the moths fly out when we opened our wallets). The bus had air conditioning (thank god), and we grabbed some seats and settled in for the ride. The 45 minute, 17km ride took us to the border, where about 2/3 of the bus got off. We thought we were getting a sneak peek of what was to come, but as it turns out, we went to a different border. Again, more on that later.

 Vientiane

Soon enough, we pulled up outside Buddha Park, and gratefully got ourselves a cold drink at the admission gate. Designed and built in 1958 by Luang Pu, a yogi-priest-shaman, Buddha Park contains sculptures he carved, merging Hindu and Buddhist philosophy and iconography. The result is unusual to say the least. The jewel in the Buddha Park crown is a massive sculpture at one end of the park, which (we're told) represents hell, earth, and heaven. The sculpture is about 15-20m tall, and shaped like an enormous pumpkin. You enter through a carved mouth, and the inside is split into three levels, each representing one of the levels of 'life' (ie hell, earth and heaven). The inside was covered in dust and full of cobwebs, with perilous staircases littered throughout. The centre of the pumpkin contained sculptures to let you know which level you were on. Once you made it to 'heaven', you could climb out on to the roof of the pumpkin for a panoramic view of the park.

 You really shouldn't pull on his leg like that...

You really shouldn't pull on his leg like that...

 Entering the mouth of the pumpkin

Entering the mouth of the pumpkin

 Pumpkin-top selfie!

Pumpkin-top selfie!

Having had our fill of bizarre sculptures for the day, we piled back on to the bus to head back into town. We jumped off, made a pit stop at Ice Cream Garden (Zev stuck with rice, but this time I decided to sample the caramel toast bites with ice cream - amazing), and again took advantage of the air conditioning and Wimbledon coverage for the afternoon, before heading out for a decidedly average dinner.

Our last day in Vientiane started reasonably early - we needed to check out of our guest house, and head to the travel agency to store our bags until 3pm, when we were due to head to Thailand. With that accomplished, we set off to finish the walking tour we began on day 1. We started with the National Museum, which was slightly dated, but contained some interesting information about the various sites of archaeological significance in Laos. There was a large exhibit about the a Plain of Jars, so it was nice to see something familiar. Of course, the museum (like everything else) closed between 12 and 1, so we were unceremoniously kicked out at lunch time.

Luckily, we were very close to Patuxai, Vientiane's answer to the Arc de Triomphe. Officially called the Victory Monument, it was built in 1969 using cement donated by the U.S. intended for construction of a new airport. A plaque on the side explains it was never finished, and describes it as an eyesore. We thought it was very nice, and enjoyed the views from both the bottom and the top, after climbing up to look out over the city.

 Vientiane, Laos
 Desperately trying to hide from the sun!

Desperately trying to hide from the sun!

 Vientiane, Laos

We then headed back to Wat Si Saket, knowing that it would be open this time. It is believed to be Vientiane's oldest surviving temple, built between 1819-1824. The temple itself is very beautiful, if a little run down. The walls are filled with little recesses, each one containing a Buddha figure. Sadly, they're all dusty and covered in cobwebs, but it's pretty remarkable either way.

 Vientiane, Laos

We wandered back to the travel agency via the Laos National Culture Hall, a large and striking building whose purpose we couldn't determine. Gratefully, we arrived at the agency, found ourselves a fan, and enjoyed an ice cold lime soda while we waited for our epic journey to begin.

Our original plan had been to fly from Vientiane to Yangon. We looked at flights, and they were about $140NZD each. When we went to book them however, the total cost for our flight was going to be ~$700NZD!! Hello airline and airport taxes!! After some quick thinking on Zev's part, he figured out we could catch a shuttle from Vientiane to the border, then a train from the Laos border to the Thai border, and then an overnight train from the Thai border to Bangkok. From there, we could fly to Yangon for much cheaper. It sounds more complicated than it really is - the ticket we bought from the agent covered everything from Vientiane to Bangkok, and we booked our flights online. The only issue was that it was going to take us 28 hours of travel to get there!

Shortly after 3pm, our songthaew turned up. We all climbed in, and after a couple of stops, we started heading to the border. Quickly. And often on the wrong side of the road. The journey that took 35 minutes on the bus took 15 in the songthaew, and that's only because we hit roadworks. 

As I said earlier, we didn't actually end up at the same border as the one we went to on the bus. A little further past it, we turned off the main road, and eventually pulled up at a train station. As our songthaew driver went off to sort out our train tickets, we dealt with 'immigration' - a booth that looked exactly like a train ticket booth, and was by far the least official looking thing I've ever seen. After paying our departure fee, and having 'USED' stamped over our visas, our songthaew driver found us and gave us our train tickets. This included both our ticket from the Thai border to the Laos border (which takes about 15 minutes), and our overnight ticket.

Our border to border train didn't leave for another hour and a half, so we made ourselves comfortable (or as comfortable as you can be when its 35° outside and there's no air movement and you know you're going to be wearing the same clothes for 36 hours) and waited. Happily, a kitten came around, so that kept me entertained for most of the time.

Bang on schedule we loaded onto the train and set off. A friendly train conductor came around and handed out the paperwork for Thai visa waivers, and we filled them out, realising this was our fourth time going into Thailand on this trip. Hopefully we weren't starting to look suspicious. 

15 minutes later, we disembarked, cleared immigration, and Zev went off in search of dinner while I watched the bags. We still had another hour until our sleeper train left, but by the time Zev got back with the food, we were allowed to board the train. We decided to head in and get settled.

It was not at all like I was expecting. In Vietnam, our sleeper train had rooms, each with two sets of bunks. There was a door to the room, and if you wanted to sit, you had to sit on your bed.

This train looked like a normal train, except the seats were in pairs, two on each side of the aisle, facing each other. These two seats folded down to make the bottom bunk, and a hatch opened up above to create the top bunk. We scoffed our dinner in the seats, and eventually we started rattling away. Soon after we started moving, the train attendant came through and started making the seats into bunks with ruthless efficiency. Each bed had a topper pad which he covered with a new sheet, a pillow with a fresh pillow case, and a blanket sealed in a plastic bag. Zev and I said goodnight and climbed up into our top bunks. Just as we did, our two lower neighbours got on, so we were just in the nick of time.

 Train, Thailand

Our bunks had curtains, so I took the opportunity to change into my pyjamas. Even after 5 months on the road, my hygiene standards haven't slipped so far that I could spend 36 hours in the same clothes, INCLUDING sleeping in them. We had been warned that the top bunk could get pretty nippy, so I had my silk sleeping bag liner, which I slipped into under my blanket. I was toasty and warm, even having to remove my socks shortly after. We spent a few minutes pulling faces at each other over the curtains, before snuggling in for dream time.

 Train, Thailand

It was actually really cool, and felt a bit like camping. The motion of the train and the clacking of the rails was very relaxing. I put in my headphones and put on a podcast (I've been listening to Undisclosed for those of you who have listened to Serial. It's not as well made as Serial, and certainly has some biases, but the information they uncover is fascinating. Definitely worth a listen). The only downside was that they left the light on in the carriage. Luckily, I have my scarf/sarong thing, which I put over my eyes and was out like a light.

I woke up a few times during the night, usually as my podcast finished and the noise of the train woke me. Once I cued up the next one, I dropped right back off to sleep.

I woke up at 5.30am to the sounds of bunks being disassembled, and a quick look at the map told me we were nearly in Bangkok. I quickly changed (although I must still have been half asleep, because I put my shorts on over my pyjama shorts, and then spent 5 minutes frantically searching for my lost pyjama shorts, checking in my bag twice, in my sleeping bag liner twice, on the floor twice... I even checked that I wasn't still wearing them once, and thought I wasn't.), woke Zev, and vacated the bunk so the train attendant could fold it away again.

40 or so minutes later, we rumbled into Hualumphong Train Station.

Breakfast was an underwhelming assortment of pastries, and then we were back on the train going an hour back in the direction we'd just come from, to get to the airport. We didn't realise our train went straight past it, and we could have got off there. Sadly, we slept through the stop. Never to mind - it was 8.20am, and our flight wasn't until 4.20pm, so we had a bit of time up our sleeves.

Once we arrived at the airport, we had a 4 hour wait until check in opened, so we strategically parked ourselves next to a power point and made use of the free wifi. I now fear that my NZ passport might get revoked, because I went in search of lunch a bought a chicken pie. Then I dropped it. Here's hoping they let me back in.

Eventually we were able to check in, and go through immigration. Where we got to wait for another 3 hours. We managed to find time to sneak in some cheeseburgers though, phew.

The flight was a quick one, only an hour and 10 minutes, and we had finally made it to Myanmar. Our bags came out quickly, we exchanged some cash, and grabbed a cab. It should have been a 15-20 minute ride to the hostel. Sadly, the weather and traffic made us think that maybe the flight had taken a wrong turn and delivered us to Auckland. We were so close, but SO FAR! 

The drivers over here are mental. They speed, drive down the wrong side of the road, cut each other off... None of that is new of course, but unlike in the rest of South East Asia, Myanmar seems a little road-ragey... So we'll see how that goes. One other bizzare thing is that all the cars are right hand drives, but they drive on the right hand side of the road. Even the buses have doors that open on the left, depositing passengers into traffic. Apparently, as a British colony, Myanmar drove on the left until 1970, when the ruler of the country at the time, General Ne Win, ordered everyone to start driving on the right hand side of the road, on the advice of a wizard. I have no idea how true that is, but a fantastic story regardless.

An hour later, we pulled up outside our guest house. I excitedly grabbed my bag and ran inside, mostly to get out of the way. Zev walked in. "I don't think this is where we're staying.". This was beginning to get ridiculous. 

Yep. There were four branches of the hostel we were staying at, and we were at a different one, two blocks away. Luckily, the super helpful young guy there grabbed a couple of umbrellas (the rain was torrential), and walked us the two blocks to the right one.

We were finally FINALLY here!! We checked in, dropped our bags, and headed out for dinner, knowing once we showered we would be too lazy to move. We ventured out in the downpour with our raincoats on, big smiles on our faces, matching the faces of all the locals that we walked past. We popped into a small roadside restaurant and had a delicious dinner for $2.60. Amazing. If this is how Myanmar starts, I can't wait to see what's next!

As an aside, we'll get into the Burma/Myanmar debate, and the history of the country in a later blog post. Right now, it's bed time.

Lots of love,
S & Z
xxx

(Original post date: 6th July 2015)

Tubing or not tubing? That is the question...

CURRENT LOCATION: Vientiane, Laos

Zev:

 Vang Vieng, Laos

Upon arriving in Vang Vieng we dumped our gear in our room and hit the streets to wander around and get a feel for the town. Despite its seemingly sleepy small­-town feel, it was surprisingly occupied and busy. There were a ton of people out and about; coming home from work, getting dinner, tourists like us wandering around, having drinks. It was a nice place to be. One thing that stood out for us was how stunningly beautiful Vang Vieng was. It's situated right on a river and surrounded by huge limestone cliffs. The river itself was clear and flanked by quintessential SE Asian stilt housing. There were a number of children swimming and playing in the river, while adults came to clean their motorbikes, fish and go for a dip. 

 Vang Vieng, Laos
 Vang Vieng, Laos


For dinner we stopped at a row of women with food carts. All selling the same thing. Six of them. Screaming out for our business... To avoid a punch up Sam and I decided to split our business between two of them. We both ordered the same thing just to be on the safe side: beef, bacon, cheeseburgers. The ladies got to work making our burgers and almost immediately gave us a free sample of their famous battered chicken. Holy moly, this was some of the best chicken we've ever eaten. We very rapidly asked if we could add some of that to each of our burgers and they obliged. Surprisingly, they added this free of charge! We found an abounded picnic table and tucked into some of the best snack burgers you can buy for $2.50! We were not alone -­ within about 30 seconds all the neighbourhood dogs were cuddling up to us in the hopes of getting some scraps. No luck doggies, these burgers were just too good! We continued to walk through most of Vang Vieng after dinner as the sun was setting, excited to hit the ground running the next day. 

 Vang Vieng, Laos
 Vang Vieng, Laos


On our first full day in Vang Vieng we were going to do the much anticipated, incredible so hyped, constantly talked about tubing adventure. A bit of background to this... In 1999 the occupants discovered that there was some serious tourism cash to be made by hiring out tractor tyre inner tubes to adventurous 19 and 20 year olds, setting up an endless row of pubs, bars and clubs on the riverbanks, and encouraging them to stop at each one along the river. This very quickly became a big draw card for young backpackers in South East Asia and the attraction blew up! Thousands upon thousands of excitable partiers were turning up each year. Naturally the bars and clubs along the river banks needed something in order to stand out from the rest of the bars. They started to build water slides, zip lines, Tarzan swings, diving platforms as well as dance floors, mini golf courses and designated drinking game areas. This was a drunken Valhala, a must­do for everyone coming to Laos. As in all good biological systems though, it didn't take long for natural selection to kick in. Copious amounts of booze + drugs + testosterone fuelled boys + girls in bikinis + zip lines, waterslides and cliff jumps + water, aka the potential for drowning, makes for a super sized recipe for disaster. And disaster there was. By 2009 the bars were fully developed with their rivalling attractions and the chaos resulted in an average of 20 tourist deaths per year! Not surprising, but still shocking. This was not a deterrent for the tourists and they continued to turn up, get wasted and kill themselves in horrible ways. In 2012 the Laos government stepped in and couldn't turn their back/accept any more bribes and the whole operation (virtually) was shut down. The bars were closed and the extreme activities were destroyed. In the months following the government intervention the river was virtually uninhabited by tourists, but the bars have been slowly creeping back one by one. They aren't allowed to have the huge slides, swings and zip lines but they can serve booze. So in true 'if you build it, they will come' fashion, the tourists have again started to flock to Vang Vieng. The insane, out of control party of old is well and truly gone, but the beat and bass line have started up again and it's picking up tempo. 


Now our experience was rather different to all that. As mature, tea­-drinking adults we were not in the market for the inevitable 72 hour hangover that would result from drinking all day in the sun, so we took it easy. We were mostly interested in the cruising down the river, looking at all the villages, and marvelling at the skeletons of the attractions that were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of people. All this situated in the breathtakingly beautiful setting that is Vang Vieng. And float we did. You hire the tube from in town, then they drive you about 4km up river and you jump in and start your float. Within about 2 minutes of entering the water we were bombarded by a man and younger boy throwing filled water bottles attached to ropes at our heads from the banks. They were yelling, "Come in, first bar! Free whiskey!" 


Oh for god's sake. 1. It's eleven thirty. 2. We've been in the water for like 2 minutes. 3. Really, whiskey? That's what you're going to try and entice me with? Needless to say we continued on down the river. A few hundred metres farther downstream and more water bottle line projectiles. It was at this point the 6 younger tourists who arrived with us could not resist the offers of cheap beer and free whiskey and they parted ways from Sam and I. 

Now this was serene. We were literally the only ones on the river. The setting was stunning. The water was cool. The sun was shining. This is the life. *doof doof* ....*doof doof*....*doof doof doof doof doof doof doof DOOF DOOF DOOF OF DOOF DOOF OOF DOOF DOOF!!!!!* From upstream came a group of about 40 kayakers, one of which had a giant 1m tall speaker strapped to his kayak and it was blasting the hippest, hottest, raddest, baddest beats! They cruised past us, a few cheekier ones splashing us as they paddled past. And with that they faded off down river. 
We decided we should probably stop at the next bar and have a beer. To really embrace the experience. So about 40 minutes into our tubing cruise we guided ourselves into Fluid Bar. It was a pretty cool set up. A big bar, dance floor and the remains of mini golf course they had made by poured concrete, fake grass and beer bottles. Unfortunately it was out of order as they had built a building over the top of it. But we could imagine what it was like in the glory days. We bought a couple of beers and played some rounds of pool. The music was blaring and we made up 66% of the patrons in the bar. Hmmm. Ah well, we had fun. After a few drinks we hit the river again. 

 Vang Vieng, Laos


The temperature was really heating up and the black, rubber inner-tubes were excellent conductors of heat. Within seconds of being in direct sunlight the rubber would heat up to like a billion degrees and scald you should you be audacious enough to try and reposition yourself on the tube. Mastering a sort of 1/2 arm paddle­-splash to cover your tube in cool, third­-degree-­burn preventing river water was an essential skill. An alternative was the press-­yourself-­up and bounce-­up-­and-­down-­to­-submerge-­your-­tube technique. Both efficient burn prevention strategies. We carried on down river encountering more playful kayakers, some local fishermen, and some friendly local children. It seems after Fluid Bar there were no more bars. It took us about 2 more hours to reach the end of our tubing journey where there was a man with a megaphone and a big sign that read, "Tubing end here". The man shouted something incomprehensible at us as we awkwardly splashed ourselves towards shore. However, the end point was situated at one of the fastest spots on the river, the current was seriously strong. This made for a hilarious and ungraceful exit by both Sam and I. It was pleasing to watch the next wave of tubers also struggle and make a bigger mess of their tubing termination than us. One girl almost lost her tube, hat and sandals! We returned our tubes and waked a block into town to get some more of those delicious burgers we had the night before! And yes, we went to two new food stalls to ensure everyone got our business. Sunburnt and exhausted from our relaxing day on the river we called it a day. 

 Vang Vieng, Laos



The next day we hired some cruiser bicycles to head to the blue lagoon and Tham Phu cave. It was to be a 7km ride and we had received intel that it was easily doable on bikes. To save money (about $2.50NZ) we hired the cruisers in place of the kitted out mountain bikes with full suspension... Bad move. The road out to the cave/lagoon was more pothole than road. And it was pretty busy. Groups of people constantly riding past on their ATVs, quad bikes, motorbikes, dirtbikes all having a great time. The worst people were the ones who had hired dune buggies! They looked like they were having sooooo much fun! And they were barely sweating. Here we were, in 39°C heat, peddling away on our shitty second hand bicycles. The brakes were more for show than anything, in order to slow down you had to kung fu grip them so tightly that your blood pressure would spike. The gears shifters, as it turned out weren't even attached to anything. So forget about gears. This was especially useless when attempting to go up an unpaved hill... Sam's rear wheel was so badly bent that even when she was riding straight it appeared as though she was completed drunk. I found this whole scenario to be particularly adventurous and amusing. Sam, not so much. A bumpy, quiet, hot 45 minutes later (with one meltdown thrown in for good measure, I won't say who from. SAM ADDIT: my bike fell over, that's all. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.), we arrived at the lagoon/cave. It was teeming with people and it looked pretty cool. Worth the effort we would find out. 

 Vang Vieng, Laos


We decided to improve our moods and blood sugar levels with some soft drinks, explore the cave and then treat ourselves to a nice, refreshing swim in the lagoon. The cave was a steep 250m climb that nearly claimed Sam, but we soldiered on and made it to the top, where I promptly smashed my head on the cave entrance. Now we were both pissed off. Great. This grumpy slump was rapidly cured by the awesomeness of the cave. We bouldered over some slippery rocks in order to gain access deeper into the cave. Armed with our flashlights we ventured further and further into the dark. We were surrounded by vast caverns, huge stalagmite and stalagmite formations and the cave resonated with every drip of mineral rich water. As we got further into the cave we heard some bats squeaking n the ceiling. It was awesome to walk through a narrow corridor that would open up into a huge cavern. We were rather brave and explored a good 400­500m into the cave. Very cool! Oh, and all those people swimming in the lagoon, they stayed there. It was just us! Very cool indeed. The frowns were turning upside down. 

 Cave selfie

Cave selfie


We headed back down to the lagoon, which was full of people. Mostly tourists and mostly Korean. About 150 of them. There was a big tree that you could climb and jump into the green/blue water of the lagoon and crowds of life jacket-­wearing Koreans hooted and cheered as their friend and countrymen/women made the plunge from the top tier of the jumping tree. Some acrobatic individuals were even brave enough to flip off the branch to the extreme amazement and joy of the gathering crowds. The water was inhabited by hundreds of medium sized carp who were very friendly. They were not hesitant to come and check out if you had any food for them/nibble your toes... A little creepy but kinda hilarious at the same time. The water was refreshing and cool. We watched the excitable crowd, had a couple of swims and then went for lunch at the local restaurant which doubled as a karaoke bar, as so many establishments do in SE Asia. The ride back to our guesthouse that afternoon was much more pleasant and without incident. 

 Vang Vieng, Laos


On our last day on Vang Vieng we visited another cave that was much more touristy and set up but equally as impressive, went for a swim with an obnoxious local boy, and had a bit of lazy day to sort out our depleting finances, future travel plans and make some tough decisions. Now, I don't want to go on about this too much as it places a somewhat negative light on our situation, and by no means is that what you are reading this blog for. However, we have been honest the whole time whilst writing this and I don't intend to stop now! Traveling for a long time is not always easy. Don't get me wrong we have had and are having the trip of a lifetime. We have done soooo many amazing things that we will remember for the rest of our lives. We have experienced so much and we both have talked about how, during this trip we have been affected and even changed. But some days, it's just difficult. With our money running out, we've had change our plans a number of times, and this was one of those times where we needed to be realistic. There's so much to consider and there are tons of questions and things that run through your head: we've come all this way, it would be a shame not to... We don't want to be completely broke so we can't do anything fun when we get home.... What if? How can we make it work? We would regret it if we didn't do it... All of these things make it extremely difficult to know what the best decision is. The list of pros and cons are equally long and can be stressful. Again, I want to reiterate, I'm not complaining, I feel for all of you who have been at work for the last 5 months while we have be travelling, fancy free! I'm just being honest. So rather than go on and on, I'll just sum up what we decided. We are going to Myanmar. It might not always be open to tourists (especially with upcoming election later this year). We are here. We have our visas. We're doing it! 

 Vang Vieng, Laos


This decision got us thinking about how well and how much we've done. I'll share some of that with you now. Today marks day 140 away from NZ. We have been married for 151 days. Of the 140 days away we have only been apart from one another for about 10 hours. We did some rough calculating... Since getting married we have spent 97.5% of our married life in each other's company! Wow! And guess what... We're still married! This has been such an affirmation of our relationship (and marriage) as well as a true privilege to experience so intimately the countries we have visited. It is a luxury not many people are afforded and we are grateful for all the support we have received from our friends and especially our family! So thanks! At the risk of this tuning into another groom's speech (sorry about that everyone who was at the wedding) I think I'll wrap it up. 

Lots of love,
Z & S
xxx 

(Original post date: 3rd July 2015)

Phonsavan and the Plain of Jars

CURRENT LOCATION: Vang Vieng, Laos

Sam:

We had chosen to go to Phonsavan rather last minute, as it was the home to the Plain of Jars, which is something of a mystery. The plains are a huge area scattered with thousands of limestone jars of undetermined age. While it's not confirmed, it's thought they might have been used as funerary urns - dead bodies were placed inside to decompose until all that remained were bones, which were the either cremated or buried nearby. There were three sites which were easy to access from Phonsavan, aptly named site 1 (15kms from town), site 2 (25kms from town), and site 3 (35kms from town). Tuk Tuks aren't allowed to go there (although we never found out why), so our choices were hiring a driver, joining a group tour, hiring a car, or hiring a scooter/motorbike. Our guesthouse quoted us 600,000 kip (~$75NZD) for a driver, which was too rich for our blood. To join a group tour was 150,000 kip each, hiring a car was 400,000 kip, and to hire a trusty motorbike was 100,000 kip. Our pockets answered this dilemma for us. We asked around, and found that nowhere had scooters, only motorbikes. Unfortunately, the only had semi-automatic motorbikes - gears, but no clutch. How hard could it be? We headed out for dinner, and retired for the night, confident that we'd have no trouble the next morning.

After breakfast, we returned to the motorbike hire shop, filled out the requisite forms, left a passport, and collected the keys to a single motorbike. We had decided that this way, we had double the chance of one of us being able to drive it, and we'd save ourselves 100,000 kip. As we stood outside the shop, holding our helmets, staring uselessly at the unfamiliar bike, I began to think we'd made a mistake. I'd never ridden anything with gears, and I'd never ridden with a passenger. I began to panic a little. The owner came out and showed us how it worked (while she laughed at us). Gears up and down with your left foot, back brake with your right foot, front brake with your right hand. Surely it couldn't be too hard? Zev suggested I take it for a drive passengerless to see how it was. Gingerly, I climbed on, put the bike in gear, and rode off. First to second gear nearly threw me off the bike, and second the third wasn't much better. I figured I better turn around and head back, but changing down gears was proving difficult because I couldn't find the pedal. Plus I kept squeezing the left hand grip to try to find a brake, only to grab air, then panic, grabbing the right hand brake, which was the front brake, nearly throwing me over the handlebars. I'm sure those of you who ride motorbikes are laughing at me, and I don't blame you. I must've been a hell of a sight. The ride back was a little more successful, although if I'm honest, not much!

Zev (very bravely in my opinion) climbed on the back, and we hit the road. Very slowly, and VERY far to the right. As we rode on, I figured out that you need to stop accelerating when you change gear (seems pretty obvious now), and I forced myself to remember to brake with my right foot, and not my left hand. Nonetheless, gear changes and braking had me alternating between smashing the front of Zev's helmet into the back of mine, and nearly throwing him off the back of the bike. After about 10 minutes, we were into a pretty good rhythm. Okay fine, I was in 4th gear and we were cruising, so that made me feel better. I looked down. Shit! I forgot the 'take it empty, bring it back empty' strategy they employ over here! We needed to find a petrol station quickly! Luckily one came up, so we pulled in, and painstakingly explained that we wanted the tank filled - not an easy task with a language barrier.

Soon enough, we were back on the road and cruising. I felt like I was getting better (Zev may disagree), but already my shoulders were aching from gripping the handlebars for dear life. Thinking it was strange that we hadn't seen any signs, we pulled over to the side of the road to check our map. "Sabai dee!!", we hear from the other side of the road. "Where you go?". A man and his two kids are smiling from inside their house. "Plain of Jars?" No good, they had no idea what we were saying. We gave them the brochure and they promptly told us we were going in the exact wrong direction - whoops! We thanked them profusely, and turned around.

After a long ride through town, including a detour on a pretty crappy patch of road, we arrived to site 1. By this stage, I was feeling a little better about riding, although changing down gears was proving to be difficult. We parked in the carpark, and got off. I quickly stretched out and massaged my poor aching hands and shoulders, and allowed the blood to return to my fingers. We went into the visitors centre and did some reading about the sites, where we found out that the excavation and development of the sites was funded and organised in conjunction with the New Zealand Agency for International Development! Woo, go NZ! After a quick cold drink, we jumped in a little electric shuttle, which took us down to the site.

A five minute walk from the drop off point had us at the first cluster of jars. They were amazing. It was a strange and eerie place. Even though there were quite a few people there (although I'd hardly describe it as busy), it was very peaceful. It was a stunning day, with bright blue skies, and the whole countryside was an amazing bright green colour. The first cluster contained the largest jar, with a diameter of 2.5m.

 Plain of Jars, Phonsavan, Laos

From there, we went to a cave, which was believed to either have served as the crematorium for the bones, or (as some believe), a kiln for firing the jars. While those who discovered the site seem to believe the jars were carved, locals reported that the jars were cast. As far as we could tell, the mystery hadn't been solved. The cave also contained a shrine, and had been used as a shelter during the Vietnam war.

 Plain of Jars, Phonsavan, Laos

In addition to the jars, site 1 was littered with bomb craters. Between 1964 and 1973, the USA conducted one of the largest aerial bombardments in history, flying over 580,344 missions over Laos and dropping over two million tonnes of bombs, costing around $2.2 million USD per day, in an attempt to intercept supply routes to North Vietnam.  That's equal to a plane load of bombs every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day, for 9 years, making Laos the most heavily bombed country per capita in history. Around 30% of the bombs dropped on Laos failed to detonate, and, like Vietnam and Cambodia, the country is littered with unexploded ordnance (UXO). See our Cambodia post for more information about the devastation caused by UXOs.  Close to 60% of accidents are fatal, and over 40% of the victims are children. Each year there are over 100 casualties in Laos resulting from UXOs.

 Plain of Jars, Phonsavan, Laos

We continued on to the next cluster of jars, before winding our way up a hill to another, smaller cluster under some trees. After a detour to walk over the top of the cave, we made our way back to our trusty bike, to carry on to site 2.

I definitely felt like my riding improved. I think I'd nailed changing up gears without getting head butted, and changing down gears was.... Getting better. I was even starting to enjoy myself! Just like in Thailand, it was pretty surreal to be cruising along on a beautiful sunny day, with rice paddies and green tree covered mountains flashing past, having to swerve constantly to avoid huge potholes and wandering cows. The only sad thing was that we couldn't really take photos - I was definitely concentrating on not killing us, and Zev was holding on for dear life. At one point, we were going up a hill and I needed to change down a gear, couldn't find the pedal, stomped on Zev's foot, and we started rolling backwards. Eventually poor fatty had to get off and walk up the hill.

 Plain of Jars, Phonsavan, Laos

Not too long after, we pulled into the carpark of site 2, and paid our entry fee. As we went to walk down the driveway, the guy told us to drive down. Great! Save us a walk. We got back on and started down the driveway.

Driveway is a very generous description for this particular strip of dirt. It was more pothole than road, and had roughly the same texture as an acne riddled face. We bounced along, terrified we were going to break the bike. Eventually I decided we should just stop and park, which was lucky, because it turned out we'd arrived anyway.

Site 2 contained two clusters of jars, one on each side of the driveway. We were the only people at this site, and while smaller than site one, the trees covering the first cluster were incredibly atmospheric. Across the driveway, the second cluster afforded a panoramic view out over he mountains on one side, and a view out over farmland and countryside on the other.

 Plain of Jars, Phonsavan, Laos

Back on the bike, we bumped back to the ticket booth, grabbed some lunch, and hung out with a couple of friendly kitties, before heading off to site 3.

By now, I was a pro on the bike, if I do say so myself. I'm thinking of taking it up professionally. We puttered along to site 3, enjoying more stunning vistas and some incredible scenes of rural Laos. We parked the bike at the gate, and wandered down to the site. The ticket booth was empty - we read that most people don't bother coming to this site, so I guess they realised it wasn't worth paying somebody to sit there.

 Plain of Jars, Phonsavan, Laos

We walked across a bamboo bridge, and found ourselves in a rice farm. We meandered through the rice paddies, and followed the path through the farm and over some fences to the jars. While small, this was probably the most atmospheric of the sites. Trees were growing through some of the jars, and we really felt like we were in the middle of nowhere. Again, we were the only people there.

 Plain of Jars, Phonsavan, Laos

Back on the bike, we headed back into town to return it to its rightful owner. Sad to say goodbye, we dropped it off and scurried away, before they looked to closely at the underside and saw all the clay on the bottom for our accidental off road adventure...

We spent one last quiet evening in Phonsavan (not that you have a choice, Phonsavan is very quiet!), mentally preparing ourselves for another mammoth minivan ride to our next destination: Vang Vieng!

Lots of love,
S & Z
xxx

(Origina post date: 28th June 2015)

Lovely Luang Prabang

CURRENT LOCATION: Phonsavan, Laos

Sam:

Luang Prabang was a great introduction to this stunning country. A sleepy, laid back town, with little to do, we enjoyed a seriously relaxing few days here. Our first day was spent lounging by the pool and catching up with family via FaceTime. In the evening, we ventured out via the free shuttle from our hotel to the city centre, and enjoyed a delicious meal looking out over the river for sunset. As we wandered back through town, we had a nosy through the night market - which we would come to know well over the coming nights! Each night, two long rows of stalls take over the main street, and you have no choice but to walk through them to get anywhere. That would be fine if the pathway wasn't half a metre across. Meandering shoppers turned a 5 minute walk from one end of the night market to the other into a 15 minute walk - a total nightmare for a power walker like me! The stalls were selling all the usual stuff: paintings, handbags, wallets, scarves, clothing, handmade paper products; all made and sold by locals. The atmosphere was great, and very laid back. Despite the inconvenience of being slowed down, we did actually enjoy our meander through the night markets twice each night over the following 6 nights.

 Luang Prabang, Laos

The following day we had big plans: head to the information centre to get a map of town. And spend the day checking out the museum, and the wats on offer in the centre of town. Our plan was thwarted first when the information centre didn't have a map of town. Not a great information centre then. We decided to wander down to the museum, since it was on the main street and we knew where it was, so we didn't need a map. Our plan was thwarted a second time when we were denied entry into the museum because of my clothing. I was wearing shorts that covered my knees, and a tee shirt, but I was told that my tee shirt didn't cover enough of my shoulders, so I couldn't come in unless I had something to cover myself up. I was fuming. I had to leave so that I didn't rip the woman's head off. I had deliberately dressed 'modestly', knowing we were planning to spend the day visiting temples. Short of wearing a ski suit, I didn't feel I could have done much else. We spent the next hour or so wandering around aimlessly, looking at the outside of some temples (I didn't think I was likely to be welcome, since I couldn't even get into the museum), with steam coming out of my ears, and Zev generally trying to avoid eye contact. Eventually, we figured out that the fact I was hungry might be contributing to my rage levels, and scoffed a delicious lunch of nachos for me, and pita bread and hummus for Zev. Strangely I felt much better after.

 Luang Prabang, Laos

Feeling more human after lunch, we decided to head to the Ethnology Museum, in the hopes that their dress code would be a little more lax. When we turned up to find it was closed on Mondays, we decided the day was a write off, and headed back to enjoy a little more pool time. That evening we had another nice dinner - Zev had steak, and I ate a baked round of Camembert. Wonderful.

On Tuesday, we moved from our fancy hotel to a guest house. It turned out the guest house was equally fancy, and they were even in the process of building a pool! We were shown into our huge room, and 2 minutes later, a knock at the door brought us iced lemon squash. Pretty outstanding service if you ask me! We ventured out for lunch, discovering what was to fuel us for the next few days - sandwiches. We both ordered chicken, bacon and avocado sandwiches, which were delicious, and a nice change from hot lunches. This time, prepared with pants and a shawl/wrap, we retried the museum. Of course, this time, they didn't care about my tee shirt, so I sweated away for no good reason. The temple and palace that housed the museum were beautiful buildings, but much like many South East Asian royal museums, the collections were largely, "Look at all our stuff!", and I found it a little underwhelming. 

 Luang Prabang, Laos

From there we ventured to Wat Xieng Thong, which was stunning. The roof was tiled blue and gold, and the whole place was decorated to resemble a peacock. We spent about half an hour wandering around, soaking in the atmosphere. After a quick stop back to the hotel to top up our air conditioning levels, we headed to the night market to find food for dinner. We ended up having BBQ pork and dumplings, plus fruit shakes, before picking up some delicious baked goods for dessert on the way home.

 Luang Prabang, Laos

The one thing that everyone says you must do in Luang Prabang is visit Kuang Si waterfalls, so sure enough, the next day, that was where we headed. At 11.30am, a minivan picked us up from our guesthouse, and we hit the road. After a very confusing half hour to driving round the town, u turning, frantic phone calls, stops to pick up more passengers and more u turns, we REALLY hit the road. After about half an hour of revolting driving later, we fell out of the van at our destination. We were told to be back at the van in just over two and a half hours, and sent on our way. We paid our entry fee and followed the signs to the waterfalls.

 Luang Prabang, Laos

About a two minute walk past the ticket booth, we found ourselves in a bear sanctuary! We hadn't realised that this had been included in our entry fee. As well as our old friends, the sun bears, whom we met in Sepilok, this sanctuary was also home to their larger cousin, the moon bears. These bears had all been rescued from being pets, tourist attractions, or bear bile farms by Free the Bears. It was a really pleasant surprise.

 Luang Prabang, Laos

We carried on walking, and soon enough we reached the bottom tier of the falls. The water was amazingly blue and clear due to the limestone in the rocks, and the trees surrounding it made the whole place look like a postcard. We wandered up past a few more tiers, each with its own pools and rock formations. The last tier was about 30m high, and just stunning. We headed back down to a middle tier for a swim, as you couldn't swim nearer the top. I chickened out mid-thigh. The water was freezing, and the fish were a little over friendly (think fish pedicure, but not just on your feet...). Zev was brave and swam over to the falls,  which he said you could climb because the limestone made the rocks super sticky. We had our lunch (more sandwiches - this time I had peanut butter and bacon, YUM!), and went further down. We found some people jumping out of a tree into one of the pools, and I knew the only way I would be getting in was all at once. We climbed the tree, and both jumped. I was right, it was icy, so I think I got out even faster than I got in. We dried off and got changed, and walked down the road to check out the Butterfly Park.

 Luang Prabang, Laos

The Butterfly Park was started by a European couple (I can't remember now exactly where they were from, I think France or Germany) for local school children. The park is free for school kids, and they have a bus which they send out to pick up school groups. They use the park to educate kids not just about butterflies, but conservation in general. The aviary itself (or whatever the butterfly equivalent of an aviary is) was super cool, and full of loads of different types of butterflies. Sadly we weren't able to spend much time there, as we had to get back to our minivan, so we hoofed it up the hill and made it just in the nick of time.

Back at the hostel, we had time for some quick showers before heading to Wat Phousi, on the top of Mt Phousi, for sunset. 300-odd steps above Luang Prabang, we soaked in the 360° views out across the countryside. We found a spot with a good view of the sunset and settled in. After about 20 minutes, it became pretty clear that the cloud cover was going to make for a pretty disappointing sunset, so we abandoned our posts and went in search of food.

We made a beeline for the much recommended Tamarind Restaurant, famous for its authentic Laos cuisine. Keen to try a range of local delicacies, we shared a tasting platter for our mains (containing chicken curry, vegetarian curry, pork sausage, river weed crisps and sticky rice), and a dessert degustation platter (purple sticky rice, sticky rice cake, rice pancakes, rice biscuits - you may notice a theme). The food was all incredible, the staff were incredible, and two hours later we rolled out, fat and happy.

Our last day in Luang Prabang had rolled around. We headed straight to the Ethnology Museum, knowing for sure that it was open. We spent about an hour checking out exhibits on the customs and cultures of the local tribes, and a particularly great exhibit about the role of women in both traditional and modern Laos society.

From there, we wandered the waterfront in search of the Bamboo Bridge, re-built each year by a local family to allow access between Luang Prabang and a village on the other side of the river. Each wet season, the current becomes too strong, so the bridge comes down, and each dry season, they put it back up. It's pretty impressive - I couldn't build a bridge!!

 Luang Prabang, Laos

We spent the rest of the day meandering through town, soaking in the atmosphere. We stopped in various little shops, checking out the local handicrafts, and went to the library, where we donated some children's books to the Library Boat. The Library Boat cruises between villages, giving books to the kids, which seemed like a great idea to us!

 Luang Prabang, Laos

That evening, we set out to see a traditional storytelling show, with live music, which we'd both been looking forward to. Imagine our disappointment when we got there to find a note stuck to the door saying, 'Sorry, closed til August', despite still having all their signs out on the main road, the information centre and other stores giving out their brochure, and a review on TripAdvisor from the week before!! Yet again disappointed, we found solace in pizza on the way home.

We had an early night in preparation for our road trip from hell the next day. Everything we read suggested that the 7 hour minivan ride between Luang Prabang and our next destination, Phonsavan, would be the worst experience of our lives. The road is incredibly windy, and goes up and over a mountain range. Naturally we were delighted when the drunk girls down the hall woke us up at 2.30am, mostly just saying, "Shhhhhhhh!!!!" really loudly and giggling, interspersed with the odd, "WOOOOOOOOOO", and some door slamming. Luckily Grandpa Zev was there to tell the kids to keep it down. It only took them an hour or so to pass out.

At 7am when our alarm went off, I fought the urge to go down to their room and spend a bit of time shhhhing, wooooing and door slamming right outside their window. Luckily I was too busy packing and eating breakfast. A big group of us picked in a songthaew to the minivan station and off we went.

We threw our bags on the roof of the already well-laden minivan, and snagged ourselves a couple of seats that weren't in the back row. It was 8.45, and we were due to leave at 9. So we waited. And waited. And waited. At 9.45, with every piece of luggage in the greater Luang Prabang region strapped to the roof, and what felt like every person in the great Luang Prabang region crammed into the van. We were finally off! To the front gate, where we stopped so the driver could talk to his mate. But then we were off for real! To the gas station down the road, because apparently the driver didn't think to do that before loading everyone in. But then we were really REALLY off! It had started to rain, but luckily the road was so windy that we couldn't pick up any speed. Despite the warnings, the drive wasn't too bad. The countryside passing outside the window was absolutely beautiful - I think some of the best we've seen. Lush green hills, rice paddies, clouded mountain tops... It was all there.

 Luang Prabang, Laos
 Laos

Soon enough, we found ourselves at the top of the mountain pass, and we stopped for lunch. I'd been snacking on my leftover pizza during the drive, but fatty ate all of his the night before, so got himself some chicken noodle soup. It was freezing because we were so high up, and the view out the window was a total white out. It was amazing. After about half an hour (and an unfortunate encounter with a jar of pickled paws from an unknown source :( ) we piled back into the van and hit the road again.

 Laos

Several hours, and several cigarette stops for our driver, later we finally made it to Phonsavan. We had driven past our guesthouse on the way in, so we knew it was about 100m to walk back there, and we couldn't wait to check in and have showers. As we climbed out of the van, a smiling man was holding a sign with our names on it. The owner of the guesthouse had come to pick us up! No 100m walk for us! Welcome to Phonsavan!!

Lots of love,

S & Z

xxx

(Original post date: 27th June 2015)

The slow boat to Laos

CURRENT LOCATION: Luang Prabang, Laos

Sam:

At 5.50pm, I looked at my watch and thought, we should head down to the bus station soon. Of course, as I was thinking this, the heavens opened. Every time I thought it couldn't rain any harder, it did. We retrieved our bags and dug out our raincoats and pack covers. Then, we made a break for it. We dashed down the street, and arrived soaking wet. We dropped our bags in the van, ran to get some provisions for the journey, and climbed in the van. We were very excited to hear there were only 7 of us in the 12 seater van - usually there are around 15 people in a 12 seater van. And so began our three day trip to Laos.

We got to chatting with the other people in the van as we wound back through the mountains towards Chiang Mai. Remember how smug I was about the windy road on the way to Pai? Well that wore off pretty quickly. The next 3 hours were some of the longest of my life. The driver was actually doing a great job, but the road was wet, and as we wound through the mountains, no amount of anti-nausea medication was helping. I ended up spending about 2 of the hours clutching a plastic bag, unable to open my mouth for fear I would put the bag to good use. I kept thinking, "We have to stop for a break soon, surely.". Eventually, I was right. We pulled into a gas station to fill up, and the driver told us we'd be stopping for 10 minutes. I took the opportunity to lie on the concrete and recover. 

10 minutes later, we climbed back into the van. As it turns out, we had picked up 5 more folks at the gas station. They had come from Chiang Mai, and were joining us on our journey to Laos. By this stage, it was 9pm. We were due to arrive at our next destination of Chiang Khong, the town closest to the Thai border with Laos, at around midnight. The next few hours were more cramped, but less windy, so I was pretty pleased. I tried to get some sleep, but it was difficult in a crowded van on bumpy roads.

Each town we drove through, I thought excitedly must be Chiang Khong. Midnight came and went. As did 12.30am. At around 1am, we finally pulled up outside a guesthouse. A woman led us to a room, and in we went. The room was huge, with a fan and a bathroom, but honestly, I was too tired to care. We both basically passed out, knowing we were due to be on the road again at 8.30am.

At 7.15am, a knock on our door told us it was time to get up. We got dressed and headed out to find breakfast. The owner explained she would drive us to breakfast, on the way to the border. The 12 of us, plus all our luggage, piled into her ute. About 1km down the road, we piled back out, and went into another guest house for breakfast. Everyone visibly blanched when we were brought scrambled eggs on toast. Still, we choked them down. Just.

Soon enough, we were told that our taxi had arrived. Again, we all squeezed in. It was like a clown car. We had two more people now, so there were 14 of us, plus everyone's bags, shoved in the back of the shared taxi. We headed off, and puttered along the few kms to the border.

Out we climbed. Here, we cleared Thai customs, paid for a bus ticket, and jumped on the bus to the Laos border. At the Laos border, we did some quick money exchanging (Thai baht to Laos Kipp), filled out our forms, and got our visas. We very excitedly picked up our passports with a shiny new one page visa, and a new stamp. Yippee!

We had to hang around a while at the border to wait for our bus to the boat. There were about 50 of us, and it was a really interesting bunch of people - but we'll get to that later. Eventually the guide explained the programme for the next couple of days, we booked some accommodation for that night in Pakbeng, and we all jumped on the bus to the dock. While on the bus, they collected our passports to issue us tickets. Once at the other end, we waited to collect them back, then headed down to climb on board the boat.

There weren't many seats left on the boat when we got on, but we weren't worried, since we had seat numbers. This is probably a good time to mention that the seats were simple old van seats placed in the boat: not tied or strapped down, just placed into neat rows. Except it quickly became clear that our seat numbers didn't exist. The boat captain told us to sit wherever there were seats, so we grabbed two of the last remaining seats. From then, it devolved into a free for all. People were scrambling for seats, and they brought more on from outside. Eventually, there were about 5 people left without seats, so they were given cushions and buckets, and made themselves comfortable on the stairs.

 Boat, Laos, Thailand

About 45 minutes later than scheduled, at 11.45am, we started cruising. It was then that we got a chance to really check out the people who would be our boat mates for the next two days. There were now about 70 of us on the boat, plus about 20 locals. We could have played some serious traveller cliche bingo on this boat. Among my favourite idiots: anyone wearing a singlet with a local beer on it; white people with dreadlocks; people with friendship brackets, necklaces and rings clearly bought from local markets hanging off any available body part; girls with hair wraps or braids; anyone wearing hippie clothing, especially with elephant prints on them; the guy travelling with his guitar; the guy travelling with his skateboard; and, top of the list, the guy wearing skinny jeans, a button up shirt, a dense, scraggly hipster beard, and to top it off, literally, a beanie, while it was 35°c. After about 15 minutes of cruising, a fair majority of the people on the boat decided it was time to hit the beer/rum/weed (especially one guy with a tattoo of a cross on one achilles, a Jesus fish in the other, and a tattoo of a crucifix on his arm - feels a bit like having your cake and eating it too? Hedonistic fun with the the promise of salvation!!). As the boat trip went on, the people watching got even more interesting. Most of the people on the boat would have been under 25, and there was some serious 'trying to be cool' going on. It made me realise a few things, but mainly, 1) I would have thought this was a lot more fun when I was 20, and 2) I was a dick when I was 20.

Zev and I settled in with our iPods and books, sat back and watched the scenery. The Laos countryside was stunning. Lots of lush green trees and hills, and cute little villages as we puttered down the river. At 6pm, we arrived in Pakbeng. Which was lucky, because one guy threw up his last 2 litres of beer immediately after getting off the boat, so I think the trip would have taken a serious downhill turn had we gone on much longer. For the record, he was Australian...

 Boat, Laos, Thailand

We climbed off the boat, collected our bags, and jumped in yet another shared taxi to the hostel. I wasn't overly excited when we were all crammed in, and old drunky puker climbed in. I hoped he could last the ride to the hostel without another cheeky spew. Luckily we all made it unscathed, climbed out and check in. To the crappiest place we have stayed to date. The walls were basically made of paper, it was dirty (although not the sheets or anything), and the bathroom sucked. That said, I was so tired and desperate for a shower that I really couldn't have cared less. We headed down to the restaurant for dinner (where we were asked if we wanted any weed with our meal), where I enjoyed a delicious bacon pizza (clearly their menu was skewed to the stoner market). We hit the sack pretty early, still tired from the night before, and knowing we were off early again in the morning.

Another 7.15am knock woke us, so we headed down for breakfast and restocked our snacks. We opted to walk down to the wharf to avoid another shared taxi squeeze. Much to our delight, we were greeted by a bigger boat, which was only about 3/4 full when we arrived. We dropped our bags at the back of the boat and snagged a couple of seats. Slowly the rest of the travellers trickled on board, some looking a little worse for wear. Finally we puttered off at about 10am.

The second day was a much more sedate affair, perhaps down to some hangovers, although as the afternoon wore on, a few brave souls hit the sauce again. The atmosphere was still good though, with people playing cards and listening to music, sleeping and chatting to their neighbours.

 Boat, Laos, Thailand

The scenery was still stunning, and at about 4.30pm we pulled up to the dock, about 10kms from Luang Prabang. We grabbed, you guessed it, yet another shared taxi into the city. I can't say I was too sorry to say goodbye to any of the folks from the boat. Luang Prabang city looked beautiful, but we were keen to get to the hotel and relax. From the city we managed to convince a friendly tuk tuk driver to take us the extra 1km to our hotel - for a fee, of course!

 Boat, Laos, Thailand

We checked in, had long, enjoyable showers, grabbed some dinner at the hotel restaurant and went to bed, hoping to catch up on the sleep lost over the last few nights. We were very excited to check out what Laos has to offer!

Lots of love,
S & Z
xxx

(Original post date: 21st June 2015)