Category Archives: Laos

11 lessons I’ve learnt whilst travelling

We’re coming towards the end of our trip (NOOOOOO) with only seven weeks left until we fly from Bangkok to Gatwick. I’ve recently become reflective and I was thinking about the things I’ve learnt and decided to write a post about it before I’m sat at home on the sofa and I’ve forgotten everything. So here it is… Eleven lessons I’ve learnt whilst travelling.

1) Trust people

99% of people are kind and helpful. As I’m writing this, nothing bad has happened to us, so TOUCH WOOD… But we’ve had so many situations where people have been like “You’re going to Hiroshima? You’re on the wrong train! Get off quick!”
There was that time where we hitch-hiked in New Zealand and we’ve stayed in people’s houses we’ve never met before. When somebody says “I need to take your passport down to road to get your boat ticket,” just give them the passport!

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2) At the same time, be sensible and look after yourself

It’s important to look after your valuables, keep your wits about you and if you end up wandering around somewhere dodgy-looking at 3am, just get a taxi!

3) If someone invites you to do something, say yes

When someone I’ve just met asks me “do you want to play a drinking game?” Or “would you like to have dinner with me and my family?” My inner introvert panics at the thought of an impeding awkward situation and my instinct is always to make some kind of excuse. But I’ve learnt that you should always say yes, and good experiences always come out of it.

You’ll meet some amazing people who are equally as poor as you, and you’ll end up having a Box/chicken party It’s cheap!

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4) You’ll have crazy highs and a couple of crazy lows
Sometimes travelling feels like you’re in a happy musical. (No really, I literally twirled around and cried with happiness in New York and screamed when we saw the Hollywood sign.) And to balance life out, you’ll spend a few hours crying on the toilet because you’re so ill, and you’ll scream “what am I doing with my life??!!” in torrential downpour wondering why you’ve found yourself at the top of a slippy ladder in a pear tree.

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5) A smile goes a long way
There are places in the world where you’ll get hassled a lot. When it’s hot and you’ve got your backpack on it’s easy to get your feathers ruffled and want to yell “bugger off, I’ve been walking for half an hour and I can’t find my hostel!!!!!!” But I’ve learnt that to smile and say “no thank you” is the best way around it, and you won’t feel as stressed.

5) Living out of a bag gives you perspective about things
I’ve never been particularly materialistic and I’ve always preferred a good book over shoes, but living out of a 65litre rucksack for ten months gives you a good perspective on the stuff you don’t need. It took me a month or so to relearn what my face looks like without make up, but think I’m actually happier with less stuff. I feel calmer and less cluttered. Okay, so I totally didn’t have a meltdown when my favourite dress got a stain on it…. But yeah. Less is more when it comes to backpacking. Oh, and Kindles are one of the BEST things in the entire world. (That’s a sentence I never thought I’d say)

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6) You’ll also get perspective on stress an it’s effect on the body
Of all the places I’ve been, the ones with the fastest pace of life and visibly stressed people are America, Japan, and the good old United Kingdom. I honestly think we all work far too hard to save money for holidays and stuff we don’t need so we can forget about the rubbish climate. (Massive generalisation…I know. Maybe I’m just a summer person.)
When we’d been travelling for around a month, I felt the muscles in my jaw loosening. My eczema that I’ve had nearly all my life has completely disappeared and those paralysing migraines I get about once every six weeks? Well guess how many I’ve had in eight months?… One.
I’m not writing this to make anyone jealous, but as a reminder to my future self that stress is terrible for me, and I need to work on staying chilled. When I’ve figured out how to do that one I’ll let you know!

7) Travelling will change you in ways you don’t expect

Those of you who know me will know that I’m fairly easy-going but I am also a big worrier. I’m a little bit more relaxed now, mainly about travel situations. For example, I no longer check my passport a million times before boarding a plane. And if someone doesn’t give me my change straight away, I can just wait, knowing they’ll get it to me. I’m a more patient now, and less easily flustered.

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8) But mostly, you’ll stay the same.
I have chronic insomnia. I thought travelling would cure me, and dorm rooms would be a kind of therapy and I’d come home with the ability to sleep anywhere. Well, the truth is I still can’t sleep anywhere! I thoroughly believe there is a special place in hell reserved for people who snore and have sex in dorm rooms. Dorm rooms are my own kind of personal hell actually. One of the main things I miss about home is that I can get up and roam the house and play with my cats and make a cup of tea at anytime any hour of the night. Plus there’s always a comfy spot for me to go with my book. Whilst we’ve been away I’ve done a lot of reading on the toilet in the early hours so that I don’t wake Tom up!

9) Always go with your gut
If a person, or a situation gives you a bad feeling in your tummy, or if you find your trying to talk yourself into doing something… DON’T DO IT.

10) You will adapt to anything
When we arrived in Asia there weren’t any knives and forks. I’d used chopsticks before but found them fiddly and they made me eat incredibly slowly. Fast forward a week and I finished a plate of food and say “Oh! I didn’t even think about the chopsticks!” When we first went to Japan, the whole nude bathing thing terrified me. A week later I was strolling around naked happy as Larry.

11) push yourself, but also know your limits.
I can jump out of a plane at 15000ft

I can bungee jump off a bridge .
I will never drive a scooter/motorbike in Asia.
I will never go scuba diving.

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Never say never though. The scary things are the best challenges.

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The slow boat to Luang Prabang

For the next section of our trip we’d decided to take a slow boat down the Mekong river from Hauy Xai to Luang Prabang. It was to take two days, with a stop over night in Pak Bang.

We’d been recommend by Luke to pay a bit extra to take a luxury boat. The cheap local boats can get very overcrowded. We looked into the luxury boats but none were running due to it being low season. So, local boat it is then! We ended up having a really great time! Our boat was a good mix of backpackers and locals, and we were with David, Daria and Anita from the Gibbon Experience. We got chatting with lots of people, drank beers until the bar was dry and enjoyed the scenery. I’ll let the photos do the talking.

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Eight hours on a slow boat is a really great way to travel! No motion sickness, you can walk around a bit, plus it was such a stunning journey. Also, it cost 20 quid each, for sixteen hours of travel! We arrived at the half way point, Pak Bang, and were shoved in the back of a truck and taken to a hostel by some locals. It was half the price of what we usually pay (tenner a night) but I must say….. It was absolutely grim. I took one look at the bathroom and said “no thank you!” And walked back out. We were then taken to somewhere really nice, so we had a good night! We enjoyed good food, more beer then conked out.

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The following day on the boat was much of the same. We arrived in Luang Prabang at around 6pm and went to find our guest house.
That evening we met our gibbon/slow boat buddies at a bar called Utopia, which is all outdoors and on the banks of the Mekong. It had loads of mats on the floor so you can be horizontal whilst you drink – definitely my kind of place.

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We spent five nights in Luang Prabang because we loved it so much! It was similar to Ubud in Bali… Really chilled and hippie! What I love about travelling is when you find somewhere you really like so you just stay. Here’s a few good memories:

– silly nights spent in Utopia. Being kicked out at 11.30pm and then being bundled into tuk tuks and taken off to the bowling alley with people riding on the roofs and hanging on the back (I was safely inside mum) … Due to the communist government there’s a 12pm curfew in Laos, but the local policeman runs the bowling alley which stays open and is full with drunk backpackers until 2.30pm. I’m crap at bowling but doing it pissed makes it much more enjoyable.

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– the best icecream I’ve ever had. Coconut icecream from heaven.

– discovering we had really posh tv channels so avoided the midday heat by lying in the air conditioning and watching The Walking Dead. (Ive reached the point where this doesn’t make me feel guilty at all.)

– a really cool book shop filled with art, where I bought a beautiful tile painted with Buddhas face, made by a local artist. Upstairs they had a cinema room where we spent two evenings watching films.

– the best waterfalls I have EVER seen. Blue water. Stunning.

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(Swimming in an infinity pool is on my bucket list. I found the natural version – swimming on the edge of a waterfall. Tick!)

– walking the streets of Luang Prabang and bumping into people you know from the boat. It gave me a sense of familiarity that made me feel like I was back home in Kendal.

– helping a local shake mangoes from a tree with a big stick.

– meeting a survivor of the 2006 Thai Boxing Day tsunami. Out of 120 people in his village, he was one of four survivors. I couldn’t stop thinking about him for days and days and days.

– walking up a lot of steps to visit the temple and watch the sunset. Got fleeced by a “monk” and couldn’t see the sunset for the people. HA

– wandering around hungover and seeing Anita and Patrick and then joining them on a very slow food crawl from cafe to cafe with more friends joining as they bumped into us.

– hot and killer walks to and from the Vietnamese Embassy to get our visas sorted.

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We left Laos with heavy hearts. Although we didn’t get to see all of the country, what we did see was beautiful, and we made some wonderful new friends. Until next time!

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The Gibbon Experience

Hello stranger!

I’m writing this in our hotel room in Hanoi, Vietnam. I didn’t actually manage to get any blog posts about Laos up, so here I find myself playing catch up! Here’s a post about the Gibbon Experience.

Following our stop in Chaing Kong, we were ready to head across the bridge over the Mekong river that takes you from Thailand to Laos. Admittedly, we both didn’t know a lot about Laos (organised as ever.) After a bit of research on the internet, I was left with a sense of foreboding. The government website explains that Laos is one of the poorest countries in South East Asia, there are lots of muggings, and one of the bus routes we were planning on taking was to be avoided at all costs. GREAT.

It’s difficult sometimes when travelling, trying to figure out what to do and remembering to trust your gut about potentially dangerous situations. For example, when we went to Bali, the government website told us not to visit unless absolutely essential due to the threat of terrorist attacks following the bombing in Jakarta. But in the end, we went, we were fine, and Bali has been one of my favourite places so far! Anyway, I digress. We decided to just go for it, and keep our wits about us, and cancel the dodgy bus route where tourists have been bombed and held at gun point. La la la!! (Singing and smiling) !!!

The bridge from Thailand was my first border crossing by land. We queued up and handed over our passports and paid for our visas (in US dollars for some unknown reason) it was easy peasy! We got a tuk tuk to our accommodation, which was deserted. When we eventually found someone, we were sent into a posh hotel across the road, which we weren’t expecting and definitely hadn’t paid for, but it worked out fine, so I’m not complaining! Houi Xay (that’s a fun one to pronounce) is a small town on the edge of the Mekong river and home to the Gibbon Experience. It’s so cool being in Laos and looking across the river to Thailand. We spent the night, and then got up early and headed to the gibbon experience centre for our briefing.

The Gibbon Experience is the top tourist attraction in Laos. It involves trekking in the Nam Kan National Park, zip lining across the canopy and staying over night in the highest tree houses in the world. Plus the added extra that you might get lucky and see gibbons in their natural habitat. We were very excited! We opted to do the “classic” tour – three days and two nights with the minimum amount of walking and maximum chance of seeing the elusive gibbons.

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(A photo of the highest treehouse in the world, to whet the appetite!)

We started off with a two and half hour ride in the back of one of my favourite trucks. The last hour was dirt road and incredibly bouncy, and involved a drive through a river, avoiding the ducks. It wasn’t too sicky, and nice to get to know the people in our group. We arrived at the village, had a warm free beer (fabulous) and then began the walk to the first zip line. The walk was a taste of things to come…. Very very hilly and very very hot and very very sweaty!! We reached a resting point where we were given our zip harnesses and split into two groups. One group of seven people, and one of six. We could choose between two tree houses, number one and number seven. Some members of the group were really pushy and said that “there’s more chance of seeing gibbons at hut seven” so we were left with treehouse one. Kind of annoying when we didn’t get a choice in the matter, plus we’d paid a lot for the trip (£200 each) so I was a bit pissed off, but in the end, dear reader, karma is a bitch…..

We fastened ourselves into our harnesses and carefully clipped ourselves onto the wire. The first zip line was really fun, a real adrenaline rush. I was panicking about being able to stop in time, so I pulled my brake early and stopped quite far away from the platform. I was left dangling mid air and thinking “hmm.” In the tutorial video, we watched a smiling lady pulling herself along the wire hand over hand. I though “okay cool, time to pull myself in.” But she made it look SO easy!! Hahaha!!! I have no core or upper body strength, so pulling myself in was really really exhausting for me. Luckily one of the guides came out and hoisted me back in. This happened many, many times over the next three days. God bless those guides!

We enjoyed more hiking in the beautiful jungle, with our guides pointing out the snakes (little ones) and jumping spiders (surprisingly a lot cuter than they sound!) we made a lunch stop, and then after a few more ziplines, we got the one that took us to our tree house. As I was zipping across, I was thinking “woah this looks so tiny!” But when we got there it was actually pretty huge, and the biggest one in the Gibbon Experience.

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(The little square at the top of the photo is the bed where Tom and I slept)
Behind a curtain on the bottom floor was our bathroom – a squat toilet (yaaaay) a sink and a shower. Then we walked up some stairs to our kitchen and social area. Up the stairs again was where Tom and I slept, and on the floor above, more sleeping space. I was dreading a dorm layout because I’m so sick of dorm rooms and I don’t sleep well surrounded by people other than Thomas, so I was really pleased with it! We had a double mattress on the floor with seriously heavy duty mosquito net covering it that gives you some privacy.
We had a cup of coffee with the guides and then they said “okay, someone will deliver your evening meal at 5pm, we will see you tomorrow at 8am!” I was laughing and like “haha yeah good one!” Then they zip lined out of the tree house. And I was like “holy shit, were 30 metres above the ground for the night, unattended!” For some reason, I’d assumed that the guides would stay with us…. The health and safety procedures are so different on this side of the world. They basically just said “don’t zip line when it’s dark and don’t light candles.” And that’s it. We later were thinking “what if someone has a heart attack or something, what do we do?!” And it was very discomforting when one of the guides told me that our tree house had actually burnt down a few years ago, when some travellers fell asleep with a candle burning and had to zip line out of the burning house in the dark. Terrifying! Anyway, I’m rambling again..

I had a shower. It was completely open air with awesome view of the jungle. I felt slightly exposed, but there is no one there to see you, just the odd gibbon, snake (!) bear (!!) or leopard (!!!)
In the shower you are stood on floorboards with gaps between them. I’m fine with big heights, but I must admit watching the water droplets from my shower snake down the thirty metre drop before hitting the ground below took my breath away and I found myself clinging onto the railing and doing some deep breaths.
There were seven of us in our treehouse; an American couple – Dani and Kevin, Anita from Switzerland, and David from Scotland with his Polish girlfriend Daria. So it was a good mix of people! We watched the sun go down over the jungle, listening to bugs that were deafening, and sounded like someone using an angle grinder, geckos singing and squeaking, an ominous humming that sounded like flies over a body, and all sorts of birds and unidentifiable animals singing. It was SO loud and fascinating!

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When it got dark we played cards by the single solar powered hanging LED light, and a few bugs came to join us. It started off with every five minutes of so, someone flinching and brushing off a mosquito or fly, then we saw small grasshoppers then bigger praying mantis, then moths, then huge moths, and then huge spiders and cockroaches. It was hilarious! We got to a point when we weren’t even scared, just waiting for the bigger and more funny bug to greet us. The grand finale was when an fucking ENORMOUS (about the size of my hand) bug descended from the ceiling in a twirl like a dramatic ballerina towards our table. It had a cape on. It had muscles. It had huge wiggling antenna and about ten wings. We were so giddy and scared and jumpy I’m certain we woke up and scared away every single sleeping gibbon in the jungle. We decided that we should probably go to bed before Godzilla or something arrived for the party.

We lifted our mosquito net to discover the mattress was absolutely crawling with ants. We brushed as many off as possible and got in. After a few minutes something huge began to flap around the net. It was absolutely pitch black but we didn’t dare put the torch on to decide if it was in the net or outside. I think it’s best not to know sometimes. I put my earplugs in and fell asleep.

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I woke up early to the sounds of the jungle and had another crazy shower. Our guides ziplined in with some coffee and rice for breakfast. It turns out the carbs would really come in handy!
The second day was just awesome. The uphill walks were incredibly hard for me. It’s a lot of very steep uphill climbs in 35 degree heat, so it felt like walking in a sauna. My chest was tightening and I very nearly cried at one point! I’m not the lithe fit hill walker I was post fruit picking (Ho Ho Ho!) we ziplined into treehouse seven (where the other group had stayed.) it was empty but we could hear the gibbons singing. It was an extremely loud, and almost mournful wailing sound that accelerated into sounding like a car alarm. There were about four or five we could hear, which helped to pinpoint the direction. We crept up to the very top of the treehouse and waited….. Then we saw them. Black and beige gibbons swinging around the trees with their long arms. They were also shaking the branches to defend their territory. It was magical.

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(This extra big gibbon keeps following me around)

Our next stop on the zipline was the tallest tree house in the world. It was mental stepping into the air and hurtling above the trees watching the beautiful view across the canopy. The national park just seems to go on forever. The treehouse came into view and I just felt like I was in Avatar or a Harry Potter film. It doesn’t look real. The treehouse gave me some vertigo, as it was so high up! It was amazing!!

 

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For the rest of the day we were hiking, jelly legged and zipping. It was ace. The guides were really kind. They made me giggle when I asked if the walking was easy for them. They were like “YES!”

That evening at our treehouse we experienced a massive thunder storm. It was awesome. At the same time I had to stop myself from thinking “a treehouse thirty metres above the ground with a metal roof is possibly the last place I want to be right now.”
There was a ridiculous moment when Dani said, “it’s fine! You can tell when a storm is serious when all the wildlife goes quiet!” And at that very moment silence descended across the jungle. It was like something off a film!
The next day we discovered that the other group had been evacuated from their treehouse due to safety. I’m glad it wasn’t us who had to zipline in pitch blackness!

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(A photo of the toilet in the tallest tree house in the world!)

Anyway, we made it through the second night and in the morning I woke up and I could hear the gibbons singing. I shook Tom awake and we looked out from underneath our mosquito net. Mist had covered the whole jungle whilst we were sleeping and it was so spooky and atmospheric. We had very little visibility, so it wasn’t possible to see the gibbons again, which was sad. But I can’t think of a better wake up call. After a couple of hours our guides showed up with breakfast, and then pointed out the langur monkeys in the trees. They were small, grey in colour monkeys that looked a bit like lemurs but without the stripes tail. They started off quite far away but then got closer and closer, until we could watch them swinging from tree to tree and having their breakfast. Occasionally one would freeze and stare at us, then almost shrug and continue eating. There was about forty of them in total. Just magic.

The gibbon experience is a truly wonderful government run scheme. Poachers were damaging the wildlife and vegetation in the national park, so the government created the gibbon experience and trained the poachers to become guides. They’re incredibly knowledgable about the jungle, they showed us all sorts of herbal medicines, and they just fucking love the zip lines. Half the time they zip across upside down with a huge smile across their faces. Our guides had grown up in the village at the start of the trail, and it was fascinating for me to imagine growing up in somewhere so cool. The money from the gibbon experience pays the guides much more than their earnings as poachers, and ploughs money back into the local community and schools. Although it’s not cheap, I’d highly recommend the Gibbon Experience to anyone visiting Laos.

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