Helena and I appear to have been drafting a similar blog, so we decided to intersperse the two to bring you the first part of our Thailand story. Sorry for the slight overlaps…shoot the editor!
Where one adventure ends, another one is sure to start. After a bit of downtime in Hanoi, we were eyeing up Laos. Luang Prabang is apparently a cultural hit, Vang Vieng one long river party, and Vientiane the sleepy but pleasant capital. On paper, the bus ride from Hanoi to Luang Prabang looks like a straightforward enough trip, but the 36hour advertised journey time wasn’t quite to our liking so we opted for the slightly less painful 24hour trip to Vientiane instead, with a view to travelling north after a couple of days.
The bus was one of the more comfortable we have been on for a long trip, although we were lucky. Having boarded, got a pair of sleeper seats and got settled, the bus didn’t depart. We were wondering what the delay might be; the bus was full, there were drivers, the luggage was packed and stored, what could be the problem? Well, as it happened, the bus wasn’t full – apparently – as the Vietnamese staff ushered another group of seven or eight people onto the bus and nonchalantly indicated the aisle as a viable sleeping option. Not ideal, and yet, not altogether surprising.
So, with the bus loaded to (and above) capacity, we were on our way out of Vietnam and into Laos, a country that Hels and I knew even less about than any of the others in the region. By the time we reached Vientiane, quite a few friendships had been formed over the food stops, visa queues and toilet break emergencies that characterised the endurance event that is a 24 hour bus ride. A good bunch of us from the bus were all heading to the same hostel, and so an instantaneous little community was formed on the foundations of the shared ride and it felt good to keep seeing familiar faces for more than a few days at a time. We went for dinner on the first night, and then for a little adventure to see what Vientiane had on offer in the way of night life…
Very little, as it turns out! A group of us headed out from the hostel around 11:30 and proceeded to wander deserted streets for about an hour. I’ve never known a quieter capital city! In the end, we resorted to flagging a large tuk-tuk, (a larger version of the Indian tuk-tuks, capable of holding ten) and Justin, who was a hostel rep from Vietnam on a planned 72hr visa run into Laos, said in his slightly drunken and heavily Canadian drawl, ‘Hey man, can you take us to the party?’ The driver nodded and so we all clambered in and were whisked off through the streets to an unknown location… As it turns out, there are hidden pockets of nightlife in Vientiane and we turned up at one of them; a club full of Laotians dancing to 90s trance. Awesome! It was a great night but we had no idea where we were, so when we left, we all barrelled into another tuk-tuk to take us back to the hostel, knowing we would probably not be able to describe the location of the place to anyone.
As it happens, we didn’t learn an awful lot about Laos, I’m sorry to say, although our time in Vientiane was a lot of fun – and incredibly hot, which was a pleasant change from northern Vietnam. We wandered around the quiet streets, sampled the local food, visited a few of the monuments in the city, went to the night markets on the river, went mountain biking and kayaking for a day and chilled out in the hostel playing pool and drinking games (not at the same time).
Although we once had vague plans to go north to Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang, we were keen to take the opportunity to meet up with our friends Gav and Eleanor who had been travelling in the same region for a month too but our paths had yet to cross. So we planned a meet up in Koh Samui and our route became almost a bee-line for the South of Thailand, with a return visit to Bangkok en route.
We love Bangkok! The whole place just fizzes with energy and spark the whole time. We checked in to a cheap but not particularly pleasant guest house and spent four days exploring the Thai capital, navigating our way around using mainly a combination of the river taxi and the sky train. These two methods of transport couldn’t be more different: the sky train is very clean, efficient, modern, and high tech whereas the river taxi is akin to a thrill ride at a water based theme park.
The river taxi is a large boat, long but relatively thin, equipped with a huge engine and an insane driver. Well, it is actually a fleet of boats and drivers that all fit this description, that race along the city’s canals from dock to dock, tearing up the water in the process. We got to the closest stop to our guest house on the canal route after a short walk, and found a boat waiting. To get on, you have to clamber over the side and climb down to find a perch on the rows of wooden slat benches inside. And then you hang on for dear life as the driver guns the throttle from idle straight to full, launching the boat forwards in a roar of noise and smoke. The taxi charges down the canals, skimming under low slung bridges and dodging other canal traffic, not least other taxis running in the opposite direction also at full tilt. The boats all have an ingenious roof design too, where the driver can wind a handle at the front to pivot the entire roof forwards on hinges thereby reducing its height for the super low bridges. He does this without slowing down and without flinching either! Importantly though, you mustn’t forget to pull up the splash guards – long sheets of tarpaulin running the length of the boat along its sides, attached to pieces of rope – because although you may think you want to take in the view of Bangkok from the canal as it flashes past your eyes, you definitely do NOT want a face full of the black rancid stinking canal water. Perhaps the most insane person on the boat is not the driver but the ticket collector. This guy spends the entire journey walking along the outside edges of the boat, (the gunnels?) constantly bent at the waist, selling tickets and fishing change out of his bag, all the while ducking bridges that would literally decapitate him if his timing was off by any more than half a second.
Now, I had a love/hate relationship with this river taxi. Loved the excitement of it, loved the unbridled engine power, loved the un-chastened, unadulterated, un-watered-down (is that a word) attitude to safety… Hated that it took us to the shopping centre. Well, not really, but any gentleman readers out there will have shared the sense of trepidation you get when your other half says, ‘You know, I’d really like to go shopping today…’
At this point, I think it’s time to introduce said other half – it’s about time she contributed something to this blog…!
I’d been excited to return to Thailand having spent some time volunteering there in 2007. Our brief stay in Bangkok after leaving India had further whetted my appetite, literally, in light of the amazing food on offer. And the country is beautiful in so many respects; lush green jungles, chilled out islands and super friendly inhabitants. Despite continued, and in many areas, intense development, it remains a country with so much to offer.
Leaving Laos by overnight train (a particularly pleasant experience where a friendly chap comes round and makes your bed for you), we initially returned to Bangkok to see the sights we ignored on our first visit. Small, quiet Wat Pho with its gigantic reclining Buddha was a highlight, providing contrast to the heaving crowds we found (and added to) at the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew. We also visited the famous Chatuchak weekend market where I managed to finally find a good quality pair of ‘traveller trousers’ in a design I’d spotted a month earlier, and (with Chris showing tremendous endurance) the massive, seven-storey MBK shopping centre.
An unplanned highlight on our final night in Bangkok was a visit to Brick Bar, a live music venue tucked below and behind a hotel on the Koh San Road that is a favourite of the Thai locals. The guide book said it had great bands on including the resident band ‘Teddy Ska’. Enticed by the possibility of dancing to some reggae/ska, we went down to check it out. The bar as a whole is pretty ordinary, but one thing does strike you about the actual bar- it’s almost exclusively stacked with whisky, specifically Johnny Walker Red Label – they love it! Basically, what you do is, you club together with a few mates, grab a bottle of whisky, a bucket of ice and a load of mixers and then just … work your way through them. But the best bit is this… if you don’t finish your whisky, you take it back to the bar where they stick a label with your name on it and keep it until your next visit. Flippin’ genius if you ask me. We were tempted to join the whisky experience but since neither of us are particularly fond of it, and unfortunately weren’t likely to return any time soon, we had beer instead.
There were two bands playing that night (neither of which were Teddy Ska incidentally) and the reception they got from the locals was exceptional. I was so happy to see a sax/trumpet/trombone combo walk on with the first band and they went on to play a great set of mostly well known tunes in varying styles – a few ballads and some cracking ska. But they were only the warm up it seemed… By the time the second band came on, the bar was stacked, the whisky was flowing, the people were dancing on the benches, the tables, and they all seemed to know all of the same moves! The second band played a lot more fast ska-style Thai music (none of which we knew but all of which we liked) but I have to admit I did leap onto my stool when the brass played the opening to Beyoncé’s Crazy in Love. An absolutely brilliant night – and all the better for the fact that it was live!
Leaving the capital (on another overnight train), we travelled to meet Gav and El on the island of Ko Samui. As you venture out across the Gulf of Thailand from the mainland, the views of the landscape are just as the pictures suggest: glorious sunshine, an array of small, tree-covered islands, limestone karst rising up towards the sky, and beaches made of soft white sand.
As Gav and El had travelled ahead of us, they had found a brilliant budget resort and on greeting us urged us to take on the steep (seriously steep) climb to the pool. ‘It’s worth it,’ said Gav, and he was right. Our efforts were rewarded with an infinity pool looking out over Chaweng Beach – we could definitely get used to this, especially after our dodgy guest house in Bangkok. Chaweng Beach itself has beautiful sand underfoot and we explored it on our first night as Gav and El introduced us to beach side cocktails.
In the days that followed, we spent most of our time chilling out by the pool, checking out various restaurants and bars, and wandering the markets of Chaweng. (Chris and Gav also taught ‘the girls’ to play poker which was instantly embarrassing for them as they lost and were left proclaiming ‘beginner’s luck’!) One of our favourite places to eat was a small restaurant called Callumpi, run by some slightly zany but super friendly women. Gav and El had eaten there once already and explained that if you wanted your curry authentically spicy, you have to ask for it ‘Thai spicy’. So Chris and Gav did just that, and their meals came with fresh, hot and spicy flavours. Now, this was repeated a day or so later when we popped in a second time. Having remembered us, the lady asked the boys if the curry was ok last time, ‘A little bit spicy? No? It was ok? Ok, this one I make you real Thai spicy,’ and off she went into her kitchen. Needless to say, they got the full treatment this time and the lady was looking pretty happy with herself!
But…we can’t pretend that our journey to Samui was simply to enjoy the cuisine and the scenery.
The neighbouring island, Ko Pha Ngan, is renowned for its monthly celebrations of all things Luna – and the March 5th Full Moon Party coincided conveniently with our visit. As we’d never been before, and were unlikely to go again, we decided to embrace the revelry and get over to the island for the party. Now, we all agree that the full details of what happens on a full moon night should probably stay firmly on Haad Rin beach, but what an experience! It started with the shopping for neon outfits and the donning of copious amounts of neon paint and continued with adding flowers to one’s hair, sharing the famous Thai bucket (or it may have been ‘buckets’ actually) and dancing on the beach with literally thousands of others.
We got boats back after the sunrise, the rest we will leave to your imagination. The following day was mainly spent recovering and all too soon we were waving Gav and El off as they headed on to Singapore and then Australia.
So once again it was back to two, and we decided to have a little explore of Ko Samui on mopeds. It’s a big island and we only made it half way around but the waterfalls were fab and some of the views across the sea were amazing. Looking forwards, we were planning to visit the smaller Ko Tao, but also felt that we wanted to see a little more of Ko Pha Ngan. It has a reputation for hedonism that can be off-putting to many, but we had heard that it was a beautiful place despite the monthly carnage, so we went back (it’s also on route to Ko Tao so it made sense). Arriving back on the same dock, and walking the same streets through Haad Rin town to sunrise beach, it seemed strange to imagine the quiet streets being packed with crowds as we had last seen them only a couple of days earlier. Only the occasional neon t-shirt shop remained optimistically open, with the street stalls of paints, hats and bucket-sellers only left in our hazy memories. Instead, we found peaceful streets, local people carrying out they’re normal day-to-day business and a pervading quiet that seemed almost ghostly. Reaching the beach, we were expecting to see ruination: piles of rubbish, dirty sand, litter strewn everywhere…yet there was nothing. Haad Rin, I am very happy to say, is up there with the cleanest beaches we have ever seen. There is a monumental clean up job happening there after the parties, and pretty much every other day, financed by an extra ‘entry fee’ which you have to pay on arrival at the party. We were very happy to see that the natural beauty of the place was being looked after. So we stayed for two nights, relaxing in the peace and quiet of Ko Pha Ngan, who would have thought it…!