A Travellerspoint blog

Slow boat to Laos

sunny 30 °C

The coaches I've been on so far have been surprisingly comfortable; reclining seats, air con and sufficient legroom. Even so it is always just a means to an end - getting from A to B.

When I saw the opportunity to go from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang by slow boat I nearly baulked at the price but I'm so glad I didn't. Considering the ticket incudes food and accommodation it really isn't much more than the bus. The (huge) advantage is being able to lap up the beautiful Laos landscape as you cruise downstream.

The whole journey is 3 days/2 nights. The first day was on a coach and we stopped at definitely the most bizarre temple I've seen so far. Dazzlingly white and decorated in a way to give kids nightmares for weeks.

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Journeying down the Mekong River was a brilliant way to travel. I met a great bunch of people who I would later spend my time in Luang Prabang with. The boat journey was a combination of chatting, reading, dozing and admiring the view. It was really fascinating to see the people of the tiny riverside villages as our boat dropped off supplies, I can't imagine living in such a remote place.

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Being a bit further north and with the added river breeze I got out my hoodie for the first time since packing my bag back in the UK. It was also the last time as I managed to leave it on the first boat and then couldn't find it again!

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It was a strange experience staying in Bak Beng village, really just a stop-over village for the slow boaters. Before the boat ride our guide gave us a 10 minute talk on what to expect from the village and problems we might have with finding accommodation. Thankfully he just so happened to have a contact who owns an apparantly average price guesthouse. Not knowing any better you really don't have much else to go on and we were happy with the price so why not? At the guesthouse we met a true salesman. Someone who plays the friendly host to a new crowd of people on a daily basis but must also get us to spend as much as possible. It was easy to see the determination under the surface but he was enough entertainment in itself to be excused. You have to consider how many people are being supported by this work in a society where there is little social welfare and you can't just sit in cruise control, picking up a paycheck at the end of the month.

Posted by oli.heeley 06:29 Archived in Laos

Reflections on Thailand

sunny 32 °C

With the intention of seeing in the New Year in Laos I decided to wave goodbye to Thailand and move onto the 5th country of my journey so far.

I've really enjoyed my time in Thailand. While it's easy to argue that many places have become over-touristy (always a slightly hypocritical remark) there are plenty of locations and experiences on offer from the very south to the very north (I'm sure the east is the same too). In most destinations it is simply the case of carefully choosing where you stay and what you do.

My two clear highlights have been scuba diving on Phi Phi island and the elephant centre near Lampang. So different from anything else I've experienced in my life they were totally unforgettable.

At no point have I felt particularly hassled by market traders although taxi/tuk tuk drivers were an annoyance in the larger places where many are just looking to fleece tourists who don't know any better. I guess my experience has been more pleasant than the usual horror stories you hear about scams, etc. Never leave your wits at home and get streetwise quick.

Now for the obligatory beer photo. Nothing adds to a beautiful moment quite like a large bottle of cheap lager. Bliss...

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Posted by oli.heeley 20:22 Archived in Thailand

Chiang Mai

sunny 32 °C

After the elephant adventure I was waiting on the nearby motorway for a bus with a German friend I'd met at the centre. After a short while he waved down a passing minibus containing a group of early 20s Thai guys heading north for a party and 2 free seats. Their offer of a free ride to Chiang Mai was typical of the friendly and generous attitude I've encounted often on my travels through Malaysia and Thailand. It was a 1.5 hour journey involving loud dub-step interrupted by quick stops at Buddhist temples.

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I'd heard many good things about Chiang Mai - how it was a big city but had a chilled out vibe unlike Bangkok. Maybe with these high expectations I found myself disappointed with the city. It had nowhere near the size, attractions and infrastructure of Bangkok and fell short of a small, beautiful town of the kind you would want in a relaxed location. The only place I found with busy nightlife was a square of bars with far too many drunk white people. I've started to shun restaurants and bars that look full of tourists. When did I get so fussy??

Chiang Mai's best features are it's location for undertaking treks to the north and availability of Thai cookery classes. Unfortunately I somehow didn't manage to fit in a cookery class and feel that treks are a bit overpriced for what they are. I certainly wouldn't mind coming back to Chiang Mai to give it another chance, do a cookery class and drive a bike north to the Golden Triangle.

During my stay here was my first experience of Christmas away from home. With hot weather and the lack of Coca-Cola 'Holidays are coming' adverts it was no surprise that it didn't really feel like Christmas. I did keep one tradition though - stuffing my face with food. German friend and I found a good cluster of street food stalls to the north of the city and ordered vast quantities of dishes costing about a pound each and better quality than you'll find in nearly all restaurants. I think going from my usual 1 dish to 4 gave me an elephant sized stomach that demanded such levels for the next few weeks. Back in Bangkok it was commented that I don't eat much at all but the next town after Chiang Mai I was the man with a bottomless stomach. With such good food available for small change, why not?

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Other Christmas day activities included visiting a Buddhist temple (so I did visit one place of worship that day, just the wrong one). Also my first Christmas day massage, probably my last as well!

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Sent a parcel of gifts/keepsakes back home in order to keep my bag light. Delivery estimate is 2 months for the sea freight service. As long as it gets home it doesn't really matter.

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Posted by oli.heeley 20:06 Archived in Thailand

Thai Elephant Conservation Centre

sunny 26 °C

Travelling through Thailand there are many opportunities to ride an elephant. While it can be argued that any form of close interaction with elephants could constitute exploitation I was hopeful of finding a place that treated the animals well and tourist money could be justified in being able to provide a better life for elephants.

In the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre I found just that. I was really happy with how the elephants were treated and I could tell the mahouts (trainers) had a close relationship with their animals. Each elephant has a dedicated mahout so in many cases the partnership has existed for decades.

I decided to go to the centre without booking in advance and I was really lucky to get on the 2 day mahout course. The homestay village had no vacancies of rooms with beds but I was more than happy with a cushion mattress on the floor, I just considered it more authentic...I was in a group of 6 people doing the 2 day course so obviously the homestay capacity is quite small and it wasn't the fact that there were lots of people. It was really fun sharing the experience with an intimate group of others.

My elephant for the course was called Pungkod. It was pretty terrifying at first, clambering onto such a huge animal who then insisted on walking over to the feeding area before obeying any more of the mahout's commands. With this instinct in common I knew that we would get on well. I learnt a range of commands to get Pungkod to do as I wanted but it was hard to confirm whether it was me or the mahout shouting the same commands that had the effect.

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The centre put on shows throughout the day and as a trainee mahout we were directly involved with them. After no more than half an hour with the elephants we were taking part in our first show! Part one involves bathing the elephants were staying dry is out of the question. Especially when you are near the mischievous JoJo - star of the show and centre. He knew to squirt water all over trainee mahouts leaving the professionals nicely dry. Fun was had by all.

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Then came part two of the show where elephants performed tasks that they traditionally undertook when working in the logging industry. No silly tourist gimmicks here. The trainees also had to demonstrate some of their newly learnt commands in front of a crowd of 100 plus. It's not easy when all eyes were on my back as I was mounting Pungkod by leaping over her ducked down head.

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Another bath and show followed later that day before riding the elephants out into the forest where they stay the night. 6:30am the following day we walked back out to collect them. Then another bath and show.

It was a fantastic experience and spending a good amount of time with the elephants gave me a real appreciation of the intelligence and characters under the thick grey skin.

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Posted by oli.heeley 02:44 Archived in Thailand

Lampang

sunny 23 °C

With a generous amount of time in each country of my trip I'm able to visit some of the smaller towns along the way. After Sukhothai I decided to make a stop at Lampang for 2 nights just to check it out.

There wasn't a great deal to do in Lampang but it provided me with the first really comfortable bed in a few weeks. Very welcome after my Sukhothai guesthouse where the mattress was all springs and no padding.

I visited the night market, which seemed to have a reputation for being quite special, but found it to be very similar to most other markets I've seen so far. When travelling Asia you have no choice but to become an expert in temples and night markets. You start to have very high standards and can feel underwhelmed at what is ordinarily a fascinating spectacle. This is perhaps an indication of just how many and how rich the experiences can be when travelling in this part of the world.

The architecture of the old buildings along the night market street was really interesting. Being mostly wooden and with verandas along the front it had a very wild west feel in my eyes. Without doing any research I'm not sure if certain styles are traditional or an influence from the old colonial powers. I think I took photos on my phone so I might get them transferred and uploaded here if I remember.

Two nights was enough in Lampang and I wanted to make one more stop before having Christmas in Chiang Mai. A stop involving something big and grey with a long trunk...guess what.

Posted by oli.heeley 01:59 Archived in Thailand

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