Sunday, 3 November 2013

Phuket a no-no

Be prepared, about 70% of Thailand travel is spent on a bus
After traveling to Laos’ top cities and making the oh-so-very-long and winding journeys in between, it was time to plant our feet back on Thai soil- well sand to be exact. After weeks of soaking up the culture and, OK the bucket cocktails too, we were in need of a beachside sprawl. 

To say we’d been away for a good few weeks, we were still rather pasty and craved a bit of colour. In my case this is a shade I like to call poo brown. Bex does not go a dusty bronze, no no, for me it’s poo brown all the way. Nevertheless, I needed that cocoa dusting and so, it was time to cram into yet another MOT failed van, and chug our way from Vientiane to Phuket.

This was one hell of a long journey and involved numerous stopovers. We stopped in Nong Khai for a shifty visa check, then had one night in Bangkok before boarding another bus that would take us to those paradise sands we’d heard so much about. 

First, we actually had to get there in one piece though. The 12 hour Bangkok to Phuket journey was the one we’d been dreading. The guidebooks warned this was the dodgy one. The one where you’re stuff is more than likely going to be stolen. The one where they could gas you through the air con. The one where you’re pretty much going to die. OK, so slight exaggeration, but still this was the one that gave us the wobbles. 

Of course, me being me, gas or no gas, I was going to sleep the whole way there and leave Jenna to keep a faithful look out. Passports in one pocket, money in another and phones in our pants, we took all safety measures to ensure we survived the ride with at least our valuables. BEX FYI: On a journey never leave your valuables in your backpack. 

As it turned out, none of the above happened. Our backpacks were there when we got off the bus, we still had our passports and had only perhaps lost a bit of sanity. 

Of course this was a little too good to be true- we couldn’t complete the journey without a teeny tiny scam. Our bus stopped an hour outside of Phuket in the middle of nowhere. In order to make it on to the city we were forced to pay an extra 500 baht on top of the 1000 we had already paid. With no other option but to cough up this meant Phuket and I did not get off to a great start.

Once there, we began our usual hunt for accommodation and, having said goodbye to our American men, we  were back to fending for ourselves. As a top tourist destination prices were, not surprisingly, a lot higher and rooms were nowhere near as good value. Eventually we gave in and paid around 300baht for what I refuse to call anything other than a closet. Nevertheless, we made the most of it and began to explore.

Well, we might as well have been in Blackpool for all the neon lights glaring and the big house beats pumping. The bars were overrun with moustached men and half naked women. 

Jenna and I wondered why we just weren’t fitting in here, then we realised we were missing that vital accessory every girl needs... a 50 plus year old grease ball hanging off our arm. Phuket was every bit the cliche. Sleazy bars with western men sporting dirty facial hair chasing after little Thai delicacies. 

After one day and one night of searching for a quiet spot to catch our rays, we had to face the truth; Phuket was not for us. Whether we were too young, too tired or just too not into old men, we were not fitting in here.

And so, with the luxury that comes with backpacking, it was time to up and out. We booked our bus and boat to Koh Phi Phi and continued our search for that piece of Thai paradise...

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Recoup in the Capital

Vientiane Temple Riverside Temple
Climbing onboard yet another bus, it was time to leave Vang Vieng and chug it to the capital city, Vientiane. We jumped on the VIP bus for only 40,000 kip. I bet you're thinking 'how fancy, VIP!' Take my word for it, there is no VIP in Laos. VIP means at you get at least half a seat to perch on, perhaps an open window and maybe, if you're lucky, a bathroom stop. But VIP or not there's no stopping me drifting off. BEX FYI: Get your sleep while you can.  

When we reached Vientiane we had expected a whole lot of commotion and hubble, just like Bangkok, and the noise and shenanigans, just like Vang Vieng. Instead we arrived to a land where you could easily believe a mass exodus had take place and we had missed the memo. 

The streets were eerily quiet but lined with flowers and regal, white buildings. There were quaint restaurants and, as usual, the rows of travel agents, but in general it was totally serene , like an exotic garden meant only for observing and not for playing. Vientiane was a welcome site for a bit of recuperation after Vang Vieng’s wild ways.

Myself, Jenna and our new travel buds- so popular thank you very much- we settled ourselves in a central hotel. I know, I know, what happened to the hostels. Well after a few hours of wandering we found zero and almost every hotel we came across was full. While I would always encourage a 'just turn up approach,' in Vientiane apparently that doesn't seem to work.  

Now on more civilised ground, we stripped off the Beer Laos t-shirts that just didn't seem to cut Vientiane trend, and got out the maxi dresses. They'd been dying to make an appearance and Vientiane was certainly the most classiest place we'd hit so far... 

We heard people grumble that the city was a little too quiet with not enough of that required backpacker action. I agree that were no death slides or wild parties, but as an oldie at heart I was up for a few days of pretty walks, long lies and the odd museum. 

The History Museum topped the list and provided a bit of culture to our Laos expedition. The trip so far had mostly consisted of exploring the nightlife and wild activities. Our culture vulture heads had been somewhat abandoned so this was the perfect opportunity to put them back on and learn about Laos.

That's not to say that we didn't explore the nightlife too...well it would be rude not to. We sampled some of the finest street cuisine and slurped on the sweetest riverside smoothies. It was here that locals recommended a bar that 'we just had to go to...'

Hello Samlan, our Vientiane top hotspot. 

By this point in the trip myself and Jenna had become accustomed to the odd stares and open pointing, but in Samlan it wasn’t us attracting the looks. Girls surrounded our table and threw themselves at our male companions. Jenna and I were left to shake our stuff in peace while the boys had trouble shirking off the over-enthusiastic Laos ladies. It was only a little while later that we realised the nature of Samlan. Yep, most males here were looking for a bit of Laotian loving and we had failed to realise. This gave Jenna and I a few giggles but the boys not so much.

In Vientiane of course there are the usual temples and monuments to also see that sparkle and shine. We wandered around each and posed for some Mulan-esq photos. But really that is what Vientiane is all about- having a wander and soaking up the culture.Vientiane was a pretty haven and the perfect stepping stone before we hit the next wild zone.

Friday, 4 October 2013

It's called 'having a death wish...'

Tubing on the Nam Song River

Seven hours, torrential rain, spew-worthy roads, deathly cliff drops, a rusty van, 10 people and a whole lot of blasphemies.

Vang Vieng was designed for people who love an adrenaline kick and adventure rush. If you survive the harrowing journey up to the town, which trust me you may not, you can then launch yourself into a  a dodgy looking river. But, there is a way to make it through. BEX FYI: be safe, use your head, avoid the booze and you’ll be fine.

Vang Vieng has had a notorious reputation among backpackers as being the alternative party zone for those wanting to shun the stigma of Thai island parties- in my case I did both. 

It became the most unlikely party town hidden away in the hills of northern Laos. But it wasn’t the raving DJs or bucket cocktails that drew in the travellers,  it was the tubes... Hundreds of half naked, bronzed bodies grabbing a rubber ring and heading to the Nam Song river for a day of wet and wild fun. 

The potential 40 minute tube downstream turned into an all day activity not to be missed. Locals pulled in each rubber ring, and its occupant, from the fast flowing river and kept them entertained boogies and bucket beverages. 

The town itself is relatively small with everything you need in walking distance. This includes the many restaurants that show back to back episodes of Friends and Family Guy- a much needed home comfort. After months of no TV a little bit of Gunther is a welcome sight.

Back on the water with our boat buddies, Jen and I bobbed along listening to the R'n'B beats and avoided the electro shacks. We made our way downstream visiting the best of the watering holes as we went. Like Londoners on a bus we hopped on and off our tubes bypassing and overtaking while mingling with the locals. 

With sunshine in the sky, pumping music and a few games of volleyball (yes, I tried it again) the hours quickly tumbled away until sunset when it was time to clamber back into the tubes and float to the end of the line. 

With our new friends, the Dutch fishermen and American dudes, we linked up and bobbed down together while enjoying a game of “I have never...”(you’re never too old). The last remnants of our water adventure petered away to a backdrop of breath taking mountains and a colourful Asian sunset. Another of of those surreal “am I actually doing this moments” right there; a bunch of international strangers floating in rubber rings through a Laotian valley to a golden sunset, unreal.   

On the river there were no systems or safety measures, no lifeguards and no limits, which is probably why it is also no longer. It turns out that water slides and alcohol are a toxic combination and, after roughly 27 deaths during 2011, it was time to close down. So, two years on, the riverside bars have gone and the town's tubing industry is no more. 

Nevertheless, if a Laotian party scene is what you’re after, Vang Vieng can still be considered a hotspot. The town’s best bars, Smile and Sunset, still offer an outdoor chilling experience that’s perfect for supping on a Beer Laos

There’s also steep mountain ranges outside the town that are perfect for rock climbing, high rapids for kayaking and deep caves for exploring.

In true Asian style accommodation is cheap but only if you opt for a back alley guesthouse and avoid the main street rip offs.  A private room for two people costs on average 40,000kip (£3.25) per night. 

Van Vieng may have lost its former glory as the best outdoor party scene/best place to get some serious injuries, but it’s still got outdoor adventure to offer. After being so distracted by the tubing I may just have to go back to explore the rest...

Friday, 27 September 2013

Falling off the Grid

Taking the plunge at Kuang Si Falls
After delving into the animal kingdom it was time for us to leave the illustrious Thai mountains and say hello to Laos. Lush greenery, deep valleys and towering mountains- Laos is an Asian gem sandwiched between Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. It is the less frequented of the four countries which is why it remains unspoiled and has an almost innocent and solitary feel.

From Thailand you can fly into the capital, Vientiane, but really, for the rugged traveller there’s only one way of getting there and that is by boat down the Mekong River. Think a Rosie and Jim-esq wooden boat minus any colour or comfort. We’re talking splinter-potential benches and water sloshing in on both sides- not so glam.

Boarding the boat from Chiang Khong it takes two days to reach Luang Prabang. In the days leading up, myself and Jen dreaded the journey but little did we know it would be a trip that would hold significant memories for years to come. Yep we are still laughing at Bex’s attempt to drink jungle whisky on a see-saw boat, why do I even try? 

The boat was crammed with 20 something year olds all heaving their backpacks behind them. Within an hour we were chatting away to the Auzzies behind us, the Dutch on the left and fellow Brits on the right. 

By the time we docked the next day we had a whole new group of besties and were receiving invites to go fishing in Holland and surfing in Auz. We also had enough boat gossip to keep us chatting for days. Apparently close proximity on a barge equals romance and scandal (Jen and I were merely spectators). All this was set to a backdrop of looming valleys and riverside villages- lush.

Perhaps in part due to our newfound company, Luang Prabang immediately became a new favourite of ours. The city is in the north of central Laos and is UNESCO World Heritage Site so that pretty much says it all; beauty and history rolled into one colonial town. 

Prices remained just as cheap as Thailand, if not cheaper, and we found a rustic guesthouse offering rather plush rooms with hot water for only 37,931kip (£3) a night. There are numerous guesthouses offering homely accommodation in walking distance to the city and dock. Just be willing to check out a few places and compare prices first. 

During the day we visited the nearby Kuang Si waterfalls. With high temps the opaque waters made for a refreshing plunge and for those with a head for adrenaline, the rope swing was there for daredevils to make the jump. Kuang Si Falls are certainly a must.

There are also numerous buddhist temples and monasteries dotted around the city just in case you hadn’t soaked up enough culture quite yet. But, it was early evening when Luang Prabang became abuzz.

Luang Prabang’s night market is different to others. It is calmer and quaint offering a real taste of Laos life and tradition minus the usual tourist traps and tacky nik naks. That’s not to say you shouldn’t still be on guard for pickpockets though. Local cuisine is also offered off the side alleys for a super cheap price and a filling feed.

After the market we visited Utopia. This is the bar to visit. It holds a hum drum of travellers and, after the boat, there were a few familiar faces. With a volleyball court, wooden awnings and cute cushions to perch on we were kept amused until well...11pm. Luang Prabang has an strict curfew for all bars so it’s probably not the best place for party lovers. 

However, still buzzing from my failed attempt at being the cool volleyball chick, we all piled into a tuk tuk where locals seemed to know just where we’d want to go...a late night bowling alley. Yep, you heard me right, bowling alley. 

When we chugged up to the doors we suspected that despite the venue it would still be party party inside but no...there was actual bowling. With a bottle of whisky for a cheap 9916 kip (80p), it was bowls away until the wee hours. Who knew Luang Prabang would be my opportunity to showcase my inability to volley and bowl? Too lucky.

Luang Prabang is a charming city that is so calm and natural in its beauty. Offering natural landscapes to wade in and with local culture spouting from all angles, it was the perfect introduction to Laos. 

Aside from our boating buddies we struggled to find many tourists which is probably what makes Luang Prabang so special. With few internet cafes and nightlife options its created a haven for those wanting to fall off the grid. Luang Prabang was definitely an unexpected favourite.

Monday, 26 August 2013

Having a Tarzan moment...

Elephant trekking in Chiang Mai
After a whistle stop tour of all things spiritual, it was time to hit the road and embark on a ten hour bus ride that would take us to the heart of the north...Chiang Mai

With rolling hills and pretty temples this quaint city is far removed from the bright lights of Bangkok. And while we tried to pretend that we were here for culture and history who were we kidding? We were here for the quintesential Thai moments with the elephants and tigers. 

Most hostels offer elephant trek packages that have you picked up and driven to the a nearby sanctuary, or you can book your own through one of the many travel agents you’ll find in Chiang Mai. We were lucky enough to be staying in Green Tulip House which offered every tour to Timbuktu. We opted out of Timbuktu and paid the 1500 baht (£30) for a day of elephant antics. Bargain.

Myself and Jen were picked up by our own guide, the bizarrely named Pee, and driven high into the hills. We were given tribal clothes, because I don’t think our Primani shorts were cutting it, and then began our introductions to the baby elephants. Once we had battled with the babies to get our scarves back and were sufficiently covered in drool it was time to step it up and meet the big ones.

Lucy was regal and beautiful-we stared at her in awe (with slight papping-our-pants facial expressions). She was ours for the morning and we would get to ride, yep not sit in a basket but physically bareback ride, her through the hills and bathe her in the river. 

But first, we had to go through the rather painstaking task of getting atop Lucy...and that involved getting to know Pee in a more initmate way. With a hand on each cheek, the bottom variety, he pushed me up and I gallantly (note the sarcasm) climbed aboard. A little flustered, and sore I might add, it was time to begin my most surreal morning to date

Jenna and I navigated Lucy through the lush greenery with our legs tucked behind her heavy ears and our hands gently placed on her leathery skin. While I had expected nerves, the tickle in my tummy soon subsided and instead all I felt was excitement. We trekked to the river and surprisingly stayed put. Meanwhile I made a life decision. I was going to marry our little guide Pee and happily make myself a home and nest amongst the jungle- Pee, the elephant and me, has a ring to it don't you think?

After Jenna informed me that this was slightly unrealistic our morning with Lucy came to an end with a wild water fight. Jenna and I were left soaked to the skin but I guess that’s what happens when you take on an animal with a fairly large water pistol, aka a trunk. A morning of laughter, amazement and awe; we were two happy chicas, but the day wasn’t over yet...

After lunch Pee took us deeper into the valley to visit a hill tribe village. We watched in fascination as the women went about their daily chores covered head to toe in jewellery. They looked back at us, probably with the same fascination. 

After our afternoon of culture and basic staring, we ended on a Pocahontas-esq note and rafted back down the river. Pee soon grew tired of my rendition of “Colours of the Wind” and shut me up by splashing me head to toe. Yep, soaked again.

To mark the end of our day of surreal jungle madness myself, Jenna, Pee downed a shot of jungle whisky.I can still feel the burn...

The next day our trip of wonderment continued-it was time to go a touch wilder and brave the Tiger Kingdom. Located just outside of the city it was easy to reach by tuk tuk. The entry fee depends on the size of tiger you wanted to see though. We decided the bigger the better and booked a date with the daddy tigers. 

All pearly whites a-shining and their paws padding the legnth of their enclosure we said our prayers and entered. We needn't have worried. The beautiful creatures were docile and seemed anything but viscous  whether that’s because of possible intoxication or not who’s to say, but we were able to appreciate their beauty up close and came away without so much as a scratch. Truly an amazing experience

I don’t think any other explanation is needed for why so many people visit Chiang Mai each year. Yes there’s the spas, night life and a fabulous night market but we all know it’s all about the Tarzan moments. 

Nothing beats the feeling of being able to publicly proclaim "I spooned a tiger today" or waking up and casually saying “my legs hurt from riding that elephant yesterday..."

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

An Egg and a Golden Budda

The Golden Budda at Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon, Ayutthaya

Ayutthaya, the ancient capital of Thailand, is located in the valley of the Chao Phraya River. It is a place I had never before heard of but, after reading rave reviews in the guidebooks, we decided to make the short journey out of Bangkok. 

It is a city said to offer religious retreat and magnificent monuments which celebrate its past splendor as King U Thong’s old kingdom. And indeed it is worth the day trip.

To get there we boarded the rustic, and very rickety, train from Bangkok's Hualamphong station. Once aboard, this served as a cultural experience itself. Young people, old people, farmers, workers, children, business men, everyone crammed into the carriages not caring who were they sitting on or next to.

Despite the noise and calamity, I did a usual Bex and fell asleep in minutes. Jenna later described how people watched with intrigue as I lolled around my seat and created a wave of hilarity when finally, I dove head first into the train window. I immediately awoke with a throbbing pain in my head and embarrassment snaking up to my face as numerous little Thai faces stared back stifling their giggles. Crazy tourists.

When we arrived in Ayutthaya around 2 hours later, I was sporting an egg-sized lump in the middle of my forehead and a slight headache. 

However, we were still swarmed by a flurry of men all offering their services as our personal tuk-tuk drivers for the day. Ayutthaya was once one of the most prosperous cities in Thailand and so has numerous temples, palaces and ruins to visits. A driver can chauffeur you around your hotspots of choice and deliver you back at the train station for less than 100 baht each.

Looking back I have no recollection of our driver's real name but to us he was Enrique. His all black and extremely tight attire, combined with his sexy swagger beckoned for a more wholesome (slash sexy) name. Appearances aside, Enrique was the perfect guide. He took us to the temples he thought would interest us the most, chose a gem of a restaurant for our lunch and delivered us back to Ayutthaya's train station in time for the last train. 

We began at Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon or “The Great Monastery of Auspicious Victory”. After all the temples that followed, this one still remains my favourite. I like to think it was because of the dozens of ornate buddas that lined the temples walls, and the enchanting golden budda that lay in wait at the top of the never-ending staircase, but really it was because of the giant Mulan-styled bell I got to gong. Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon is a truly stunning and serene place to enjoy some Thai history and culture.

We then crossed the city to Wat Mahathat. These beautiful grounds are home to the ancient temple ruins but they also a harbour a hidden treasure. Embedded into the roots of a fig tree, a stone Budda's head sits peacefully at the base. This bizarre but beautiful image is certainly one to behold and enshrines the magical spirit of Thailand.

There were numerous other temples that Enrique whizzed us by, such as Viharn Phra Mongkol Bopit and Wat Thammikarat, but it was a relaxing moment when we finally collapsed back into the tuk-tuk and headed back to the station. 

The May heat makes tourist touting an exhausting and sticky affair. So, while we could have spent hours more exploring the Ayutthaya’s extensive beauty, it was time for us to board that train and nestle back against the window.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Let's begin our Thai love-in ♥

The Grand Palace, Bangkok

Awakening one cold, March morning to snowflakes trickling down my window and an icy chill seeping though my door, I had a thought. A thought so clear and so profound that I rang my friend Jenna right away and told her...“I want to go to Thailand”. “OK”, she said and two months, and £400, later we were on a plane heading for the land of smiles.

When I arrived in Bangkok I wasn’t met with the white, sandy beaches and beaming sunshine I had envisioned. The capital city was stifling and crowded, overspilling with an array of colour and smell. Such an overwhelming welcome had me questioning if Thailand would be to my liking, but all it takes is a few hours of this crazed wonder before Bangkok becomes your wild playground.  

Make-shift tables perch on each street corner selling questionable meats and multi-coloured juices. Crazed drivers dart every which way across the roads leaving trails of raucous noise behind them. This was Bangkok.

Myself and Jenna were in culture shock mode. Luckily, we quickly made the acquaintance of a young man named Michael who was staying in our hostel. He versed us in the art of bartering, told us how no tuk tuk ride should cost more than 50 baht and, most importantly, showed us how to sneak into 5 star hotels. 

It was vital we found some refuge from the heat and, with no relief in sight, it seemed the only option was to put on our rich girl facades and saunter into Hotel Marino. We took the lift to the fifth floor and dove straight into the infinity pool- yass. As good a hostel as We Bangkok was, it just didn’t offer the 5 star facilities these two girls needed. Ooh such rebels we were.

After Michael left, Jenna and I had to fend for ourselves. The Grand Palace was our first calling point alone. It is a shining, gold hub of pavilions showcasing impeccable detail. Entry was 400 baht (£8) and worth visiting as an ice breaker to Thai culture. But, be warned, in many Thai attractions it is compulsory that you cover yourself from top to toe. In scorching temperatures this is not ideal.

After we had sweated off a bucket we shed the layers and walked 20 minutes to the coolest place in town; Khao San Road

Over the last 30 years, what was once a quiet, residential area has become one of the most famous streets in the city. Restaurants and bars litter the roadside and stalls offering clothes and trinkets spill out onto the narrow street. There is a great vibe in Khao San Road day or night making it a popular hang-out for tourists. 

However, it is strongly recommended that you do not stay here. Hostel prices are steep for some of the worst accommodation and it doesn’t exactly ooze safety. Staying slightly further out means you can get cheaper and cleaner accommodation but still be in tuk tuk distance to everything you need. 

Speaking of cheap, there are many tacky stereotypes that hound any Bangkok stay. A ladyboy show, a ping pong show...yes, we did both and neither were worth it. Save yourself the time, money and rosy (facial) cheeks and avoid.

There are a few unique things that you really must do though. Visiting the Banyan Tree is one of them. This top hotel is one of the tallest buildings in Thailand and offers a view that stretches right across the city. No need to sneak into this one, they allow visitors to visit their rooftop bar as long as you don’t mind surrendering your shoes at the door and donning a pair of old man mules.

A floating market is also a vital activity, even if it is just to watch how many tipsy tourists topple overboard. It does mean an early rise and wearing a somewhat sexy hat- the thai like donning tourists in random garments. However, it is worth it to sample the crazy chaos of a Bangkok market.  

Most people travelling Thailand make Bangkok their arrival point. This means that agents are scattered throughout all competing to offer the best price to get you to your next destination. Putting Michael’s pointers to good use, we bartered our way to Chiang Mai. BEX FYI (courtesy of michael): bartering is key and the only way you’re gonna get by in Thailand is to barter the hell out of everything.

Bangkok is a stifling city that often leaves you hankering for a breath but it is colourful and exotic in every way. While it may not be to everyone’s liking, and certainly isn’t the best of Thailand, it is where every Thai love-in needs to start.