Thailand and Laos

Trip Start Nov 18, 2013
1
11
15
Trip End Jul 01, 2014


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Friday, February 7, 2014

Do I have any friends that haven't been to Thailand at some point and not come back raving about it? Probably not. Like Japan, the country of good food, amazing beaches and partying has long been on the list and in Feb 2014 I finally started the much trodden South East Asia "banana pancake" trail.

I started off in Bangkok, where a sweltering humid 33 degrees welcomed me after a 7 hour flight from a wintry Tokyo. I spent four days there visiting a couple of temples and palaces (they all start to look the same after a while), travelling on the river boat, eating food, thai massages, haircut and basically acclimatising. Truth be told I was a little disappointed as I was expecting a grittier "third world" experience (Bangkok really is just like any other modern Asian city, clean and well connected) but mostly I think this was down to the fact I'd been to India and seen the worst. Plenty of people warned me to expect "dirt" and "chaos" in Bangkok but my impression was more like "what? Have you seen New Delhi?"

After Bangkok I headed north to the city of Chiang Mai on the overnight train. Thai trains are similar to Indian longhaul trains but much cleaner, less crowded and safer! Chiang Mai is a pretty city, with a historic old city square area bound by walls and gates. I stayed in Spicy Thai backpackers hostel and spent a few relaxing days visiting temples, shopping at markets, visiting nearby parks and lakes with the ultimate highlight being a one day Thai cooking course where we visited a market to buy fresh ingredients before preparing 5 amazing dishes over the course of the day including green curry and mango sticky rice.

After Chiang Mai and feeling very "templed out" I headed to Pai, probably my favourite part of Thailand, a small rural town surrounded by mountains, rice fields and a refreshing sense of peace and calm. As most people do in this part of Thailand I hired a scooter (first time, pretty scary but survived) and spent the days riding around to lakes, temples and waterfalls or simply relaxing in a hammock in my hostel Spicypai which was a beautiful collection of wood and straw buildings, open to the elements and overlooking the nearby mountains and rice fields, it really couldn't have been a nicer setting. Evenings were spent boozing and partying away with the other (mostly British) guys from the hostel. Like Goa, it was one of those addictive places that is extremely easy to settle in to and hard to leave (and indeed i extended my stay like most others) but after 5 days I finally dragged myself away and headed to Chiang Rai on a 8 hour van journey.

Chiang Rai is a pretty compact place with little to do however it does have a fantastic modern White Temple, which is built out of white plaster with inlaid mirrors giving it a very bling but nonetheless stunning appearance compared to your usual red and gold Thai wat and some surprising robocop, batman and other action hero murals on the walls instead of the standard religious imagery.

Laos

From Chiang Rai I embarked on the two day slow boat journey to Luang Prabang in Laos. After being picked up at 6.30, we were taken to Chiang Kong to cross the border to Huay Xhi where immigration took a painful 90mins. We were then taken to buy food before taking the first 6 hour boat leg to Pak Beng where we stayed overnight before the second eight hour leg to Luang Prabang the next day. The journey was indeed long but reasonably comfortable on long tail boats which had been fitted out with old car seats. I was fortunate to have the company of a few Brit and Dutch travellers during this journey and also the iPad to help time go by!

On arrival in LP we headed to SpicyLaos (I always end up at this chain) for one night and we immediately hit town for the night market followed by a bar and weirdly the bowling alley which is the ONLY late night drinking spot in LP after 11.30!! Much fun was had however waking up the next day I decided to get my own room and away from the mad hostel scene to be able to sleep and appreciate LP fully. For 8 I got a great room in the centre of town with balcony and AC, dark wood furniture and floors ....and my own bathroom.

LP is a beautiful town reminiscent of old Pondicherry in India and that's of course down to its French legacy which has been beautifully preserved and the town is a pleasing mix of colonial buildings, great cafes and restaurants. Despite temple fatigue I have to admit Wat Xieng Thong was stunning as was another perched on a hill with the most amazing sunset views. On another day I booked into a one day tour which included a whiskey village stop (Lao-Lao, the potent "illegal" rice whiskey you get everywhere in Laos) followed by a trip to a small elephant farm by the river Mekong. Now so far, I had purposely held back from any elephant trips in Thailand as most of them treat the animals very cruelly and I was rather shocked to see that our trip included a ride on the elephants on these wooden chairs and in some cases I saw three fully grown heavy (fat) men on their backs. Naturally I refused to join in, to the surprise of the guide. After the unwanted elephant trip we visited Pak Ou caves which is a "graveyard" of Buddha statues across the Mekong and in the afternoon we headed to the stunning Khung Si waterfalls for a much needed cool off, I think Laos can be actually hotter than Bangkok sometimes.

Vang Vieng was next, a beautiful village set right in the middle of the Laos countryside dotted with limestone "karst" mountains, a river and farms everywhere. Amid the partying every night, I did a rock climbing course for a day, something which I haven't done since university and I certainly felt 10 years older as I struggled up the rocks in the intense 35 deg+ heat, it was amazing fun all the same. On the last day I hired a bike and went to visit some scary caves (as in you can get lost easily in them) and the Blue lagoon. The road was 7km of rocky unsealed track which thankfully the mountain bike tackled.... well after making a million gear changes or so inexperienced biker that I am.

I did one night in Vientiane after but as I expected the capital city was pretty much a tick the box "been there" visit. It was an ugly place and painfully hot even for Laos and I didn't feel like doing anything apart from buy food and drink! The hostel (Sihome) had the worst beds i had ever slept on, mattresses like slabs of rock. From here I immediately booked my trip to the 4000 islands for the next day.

After a 12 hour overnight coach journey in a cramped berth next to some other (thankfully Japanese and small build) guy we arrived in Pakse in southern Laos. I actually think this bus was worse than the ones in India. From here we transferred to a smaller bus bound for Nakasang port from where we got the river boat across to Don Det. The 4000 islands is actually inland and situated in the south of Laos/Cambodia borders where the river Mekong bursts its banks which has resulted in a beautiful collection of small and large islands which are still pretty primitive in terms of the communities that live there. Electricity only arrived there 5 years ago but already you can see the locals have taken full advantage of setting up facilities for tourists but thankfully it retains a lot of charm as its not a popular stop for most backpackers. There isn't much to do there apart from eat, cycle round and lie in a hammock but no complaints from me. After seeing so many disappointing waterfalls (basically drizzles and puddles) so far I was blown away by the impressive Somphamit waterfalls on neighbouring Don Khone island which is on a similar scale to many of the world greats however with shorter drops, in fact it is the largest waterfall by volume in South East Asia!

Return to Thailand

Breaking from the traditional passage from 4000 I to Cambodia at this point I headed back into Thailand for my first full moon party! The journey involved several buses, boats and 2 overnight trains with a day in Bangkok to burn in the middle of it (I spent most of the day in an air conditioned mall!) but finally I reached Koh Phangan, the legendary party island in the Gulf of Thailand. I checked into Nomad House which is probably one of the best hostels I have stayed in (like Prison Hostel in Goa!) with clean rooms, nice beds, amazingly awesome and helpful staff but most importantly a good crowd of people from all over the world to party with for 5 days...and party we did...ahead of the full moon itself there were three big nights of beer pong, drinking games, waterfall parties and the jungle experience whilst the days (starting at midday usually!) were spent crusing on scooters around the Island to secluded beaches. Full Moon party day arrived and in the evening we merrily got ready in our logo shirts and painted/splattered fluorescent body paint all over each other as is the tradition.

Now, the full moon party itself....lets just say I'm glad I went and ticked it off the must do lifetime experiences list but was it the best party I've been to? No way. The beach was rammed full of 30,000+ people across 10+ different sound stages most playing  tame cheesy commercial music (Bon Jovi, YMCA, Carly Rae Jepsen...though the latter i only mention given the time i write this not that its a classic yet) not quite the cutting edge dance music the party was supposedly renowned for and nothing I wouldn't get in your average Clapham nightclub...I guess I missed that edginess many years ago, now its all about money, drunken crowds mating with each other and please-all student disco music. Fortunately I had heard about the legendary after party a boat ride away on another beach and I had an amazing time there until 11am with great tech and electro music and like minded people who I chatted to for hours. Getting home at near 1pm I collapsed into bed!! :)

A much needed detox was in order so I booked into a midrange bungalow on the gorgeous Thong Nai Pain beach in the north of the island for 3 nights. Different crowd, more expensive, mainly older couples and saggy ageing Germans in much too revealing swimwear but you don't get closer to paradise than this. I sit here now finishing this on the beach, toes in the sand, emerald waters ahead of me and I leave for Bangkok tomorrow afternoon where I plan to stay before heading to Cambodia. Signing off!!!
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