Crossing the Thai border into Laos, and onto Pakbeng

Next day’s expected hangover was actually not too bad, (for some of us anyway, plastic bags were required for others) mainly because in this climate you tend to just sweat it out. Saying that though, everyone still looked pretty worse for wear as we sat cross legged on the floor of the hallway at immigration, waiting an hour for our visas to be issued. What do you do when you have time to kill and sketchy internet connection? (Aside from swapping your currency and marvelling at the exchange rate) Do much like they did in the sixteenth century and play another round of cards, of course. 
No sooner had we crossed the border, been driven a short distance by Tuk Tuk and deposited at the Mekong rivers’ edge, then it seemed as if there was an almost immediate rise in heat. Thailand was hot, Laos was about to get a whole lot hotter. And I’m talking roughly 37 degree wet heat, which, as many people I’m sure would probably agree, is worse than 45 dry. I think I had my hair up in a bun for the entirety of the trip.  

Yet I totally fell for Laos – it is hands down one of my favourite countries. Absolutely stunning natural scenery, a laid back vibe, not to mention friendly people with such a grateful outlook on life despite their obvious poverty. I think it was a firm favourite for many others on tour too. 

We were due to spend the next two days cruising along the Mekong delta, in a traditional boat. Our route ran from the border at Huay Xai and continued all the way to Luang Prabang. There was something really special about that time that nobody can put their finger on, but we all felt so happy, in that environment. 

That day we were introduced to the lovely Douaxong – who was to be something of our local guide for the next few days – a young, very gentle man with a wife, small children and an elaborate butterfly garden that was his pride and joy. But more on him in the next entry. 

Onboard and the card games were back out and a game of ‘Higher, lower’ was underway. Tom, Justin and I proceeded to trick Joe when he wasn’t looking by sneakily stacking them in a way that meant whatever he guessed, he always got the wrong answer. Poor kid, sorry about that. Meanwhile the captain at one stage turned our boat around suddenly and darted off in the opposite direction to catch a huge Mekong river fish for lunch. Judging by his excitement, I think they must be considered quite a rarity. It was served up onboard with rice and salad, which some of us were dubious about eating as the Mekong isn’t exactly the cleanest water in the world. 

For the first night we moored up in Pakbeng, a small village that sits on the Mekong river, staying in a local guesthouse. Kids from the village waved as our boat pulled in, running down the streets to greet us. 

This was the view from our hotel. 

Having disembarked, we then had the fun prospect of getting all our luggage off the vessel. Considering that basic movement here is exertion, afterwards we were dying to try the cold coffee in bags that they specialise in. You can buy them from street stalls for something ridiculous like 25p and the recipe is simply a decent sized plastic sandwich bag filled with many small ice cubes, a large cup of strong black coffee and some condensed milk. Pour this over the ice cubes, then throw in the rest of the can of milk, seal and shake the bag. Finally poke a straw in the top. 

After dumping the luggage in our rooms we decided to walk around the village a little to get a feel for the place. We found a small temple with many statues of Buddha outside and all the locals grinned and waved at us as we walked past. There were a few bars dotted around where some people went later, while most of us had food at the hotel and Justin and I stayed up late drinking (what a surprise).

An excellent first day in Laos, and tomorrow we would arrive in Luang Prabang. 

Chang Mai to Chang Rai (and back again) 

Standing dazed on the platform at Chang Mai station, we tried to remember what was next on the list. As it turned out, after paying a visit to Wat Phra and the seven Buddhas of the week, receiving our fortune and a string bracelet that had been blessed by a monk, we all had a fairly free day to do as we pleased. Some of us decided we needed to shift ourselves to the 3D art museum, ‘Art in Paradise’ in Chang Mai, conveniently not too far from our hotel. Simply put, it was amazing as you actually have to interact with the artwork, placing yourself amongst each one so it looks like you’re part of the scene. Luckily there are many photos to demonstrate. 

We had some lunch. “I feel like crap” someone said, “Is it time to sleep yet?”
No, was the answer to that, as most of us had a cooking class to attend that evening along with a visit to the markets to pick up produce first. Afterwards, our tour leader Nikki had arranged for us to go to a ladyboy show. (Part one of a two part series, as it turned out) 
The cooking class was mainly successful for everyone and based at a beautiful spot in the middle of nowhere, amongst reed beds and marshland. We drank beer as we cooked in the open plan barn-on-stilts and watched the instructor set something on fire (on purpose) 

Later, our night on the town went to plan and the boys got treated to the Thai ladyboys attention. Us girls were ignored for a change and given a night off as the show started, the music pounded, the lights cascaded around and the cheap drinks flowed while certain guys in our group were picked out as their favourites. Nudge nudge wink. They actually ended up on the stage wearing wigs and dancing away with the ladyboys, while *claiming* to not remember how it happened 😉 We just sat there, laughing and filming. 

The next day saw us take a day trip to Chang Rai (via a pit stop on the road side named “Cabbages and Condoms”) before returning to Chang Mai in the evening. 

Cabbages and Condoms was an interesting one. Literally consisting of a restaurant/cafe, a gift shop and general space to distribute condoms and spread the awareness of safe sex. Penises/condoms were obviously everywhere, from key rings, to statues outside the car park, to baskets of help yourselves at check out, all with smiley faces on. 

The slightly more cultured Chang Rai contained the eerily stunning art exhibit in the style of a Buddhist temple – Wat Rong Khun. A very white piece of architecture, dripping in decorative skulls and other dark themes, with messages about judgment of souls upon death and the destructive nature of human beings. Light hearted stuff. 

In true Contiki style, we managed to find the time after to visit the Akha, Yao, Lahu and Karen hill tribes, the latter famously recognised by the women wearing multiple metal rings around their necks for many years to elongate them. It was a privilege having the opportunity to walk around the village, briefly experiencing their way of life – particularly as James was able to do when the elders coerced him into performing in a traditional song and dance. 

Back in Chang Mai later, and shopping mainly consisted of going to the night markets for food then buying girly outfits and accessories for the boys, who were pretending not to love the fact that they were about to switch genders for the evening (again). 

We glanced at the tiny fish in the tanks beckoning a foot ‘cleanse’, and wincingly promised each other we would try it for a minute before the trip was over. I’ve heard since that it has become banned, or at least in certain parts of the world. 

At the hotel we helped the boys get ready, although to be honest they did amazingly well at applying their own make up/hairpieces/lingerie/revealing outfits themselves, and posing suggestively in doorways/on coffee tables, with one leg up and no encouragement needed whatsoever. 
The night was messy. Much drink was obliterated and a certain boy/girl ended up dancing on top of the bar…I have a vague recollection that most of us stampeded through the streets, being too far gone to remember room numbers, someone thinking they’d lost a passport and collapsing on unmade beds/dark ends of corridors. But who knows. 

Oh the next day was fun, and just in time to cross the border over into Laos…;) 

Bangkok to Chang Mai 

This was the first official day when our group really got going on sight seeing and the getting to know you process. It also turned out to be something of a memorable night as we rode the overnight train to Chang Mai, and I made firm friends with the old lady wandering up and down the aisles selling orange juice (not). 
Jet lag waning but heat adjustment still slightly dragging its feet, we set off for the Grand Palace, AKA the Disneyland of Thailand, where we met our local guide. Wat Po, just directly south of the Grand Palace, with its famous reclining Buddha, art and other colourful statues, was also ticked off our list whilst in the city. 

Contained within the magnificent palace complex are the Royal Reception Halls and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, which, due to being so popular, only let a certain amount of people in at a time. Glittering gold surrounded us and I was glad I’d left this attraction till last, to see with the group. It was very busy and something of a challenge to snap photos without people’s heads getting in the way, but it is definitely worth a visit. In-fact, it would be something of a crime to visit Bangkok and NOT see it. 

Afterwards we hopped on a Khlong boat cruise to see the Bangkok canals whilst chucking large pieces of bread overboard at the rabid fish, who had gathered in a feeding frenzy. Once back at the hotel, we showered and hung out by the pool before saying goodbye to our lovely accommodation and hopping on the coach to the train station where our overnight adventure was awaiting. 

No sooner had we rushed onto the train, shoved our luggage underneath the seats, and plonked ourselves down, then someone said ‘Eww, what’s that smell?’ Our group was spread out over two carriages which quickly became one as everyone squeezed in together to avoid the odour. 
Eventually settled, we set to chatting and playing card games. When it got dark, our beds were pulled down and set up by staff. It was roughly around this point that the old orange juice lady trundled past and asked us if we wanted to buy any. I asked if there was any water instead, to which she shot me a look of disgust and wandered off. 
Twenty minutes later and she was back, so I politely tried again. Shaking her head and muttering to herself, she took off and ignored my request. 
“That went well” I said to Alicia, who was laughing like a hyena. The third time I saw her approaching she had a face of thunder, so I hid under my blanket. I didn’t even dare ask for orange juice. 
Meanwhile, some people had visited the bathrooms and came to report back on the situation. They were cramped, there was a ‘bum gun’ by the loo – (a hose replacement for toilet paper, common in these parts of the world) – the windows rattled and were set low into the wall, which any passengers on platforms could potentially peer through as you pulled slowly into stations.
It was time to sleep as we had an early start, but many of us were still wide awake, excited no doubt by the novelty of riding an overnighter for the first time in our lives. We bundled Justin into his top bunk, six foot something James squeezed into his, while Alicia cheerfully offered to sleep on the top bunk, where she didn’t remain cheerful for long after having had an entire night of blasting air con and full beam ceiling lights in her face. Those of us on the bottom bunk, despite faring better, still felt the effects of a night of being tossed around by the rickety train. 

We emerged into Chang Mai, bleary eyed and relieved to be standing on solid ground again. 
A dog and a cockerel were standing on the train tracks, as you do. 

Bangkok ctnd…

The next day, or should I say, the next evening, I was due to meet some of the new group of travellers. I had already met one the previous evening at the hotel – another Brit, named Tom, who seemed cheerful and up for larks despite being a bit jet lagged. We had decided to go for dinner and drinks and a general get-to-know-you chat, followed by an exploration of the legendary Khao San road at night and also the road running next to it.
It didn’t disappoint. I got asked numerous times if I wanted to watch a game of ‘ping pong’, while Tom was repeatedly asked if he wanted to buy a new suit. Then there were the fried insects on sticks being sold and cheap as chips bars with signs like these –

During the day I visited a couple more attractions in the Phra Nakhon district, the Bangkok National Museum, followed by Wat Chanasongkhram. The walk there seemed fairly long, even though it wasn’t, from where we were staying. Heat clung to my back and under the fringe, but Thailand was just the warm up. A few things caught my eye along the way.

The museum was split into numbered sections and housed an impressive collection, although some of the interiors seemed a bit dusty and haphazard, with plastic sheeting covering a number of the windows. I remember just shrugging and thinking this was probably standard, but they’ve apparently had a spruce up since I was there. A few monks were also having a potter around the place.

Some of the gold carriages used for Royal cremations displayed in the funeral chariot hall, were particularly eye catching. They were interspersed with many fans, dotted around the place, to try and keep us cool.

Not forgetting hedge animals and amusing translated signs

Afterwards, it was time for a stop at Wat Chana, a beautiful Wat with different temples, a garden and a very old tree wrapped in coloured ribbon.

That night – after I’d moved rooms back at the hotel and met my new Aussie ‘roomie’ Alicia, (who I left to sleep after a brief introduction and her tale about the nightmare cab journey there) – Tom and I went out for food and drinks with a few of the new group; some American girls, Lauren, Maxime and Diana, Andrew, a sweetheart, and Tom’s friend Justin from a previous tour they had been on together. Justin, an animated and amusing Australian with a penchant for beer, was to also become a firm friend by the end of our trip.

Having been to the Kao Sahn road the night before, we were naturally already experts on the area, smugly informing the others of our previous nights antics and discoveries.
We were back in the bar with no ID when suddenly all the music stopped as the police crawled by. Checking to see that the parties had stopped past curfew, apparently. They evidently weren’t too worried as the music blasted back on even louder when the police had barely rounded the corner.
Our tour hadn’t yet officially begun but it already felt as if things had kicked off to a flying start.

The next day we had our official group meet up where everyone met everyone else, including our tour guide, Nikki. I don’t remember much from this day except that it was lazy; in the morning a few of us jumped into a tuk tuk to go and explore a market for a couple hours, then we returned, swam in the hotel pool, chatted, popped in and out of the 7/11 and Alicia and I booked our first Thai massage, which is less of a massage and more like being chopped, cracked and whacked around. Effective, however, for sure.

By evening time we were ready for more nightlife adventures, which involved a walkabout dinner at My Darling, continuing to get to know people, another round of cocktail buckets and several people trying the crunchy fried insects, reported to be on the list of ‘Things to do before you die’. I passed.

The Great SE Asia squad – Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam 

It was six months after Japan that I had my next big adventure, in SE Asia. A month away in this mystical, still developing part of the world was an incredible, eye opening experience. When I returned home after, it felt as if every brain cell had been activated. I’d figured it made sense to continue exploring Asia, and even though it might share the Buddhist religion (or should I say, teaching) with Japan, my goodness, it was a world away from it in difference. 

All four countries are each additionally unique, although there are parallels between them. For example, while Thailand and Vietnam, notably Thailand, are the richer pair (neither being rich at all by our standards) Laos and Cambodia are the poorest, Cambodia probably the most. In terms of beauty and natural scenery I personally rated Laos and Vietnam as the superior two. However Vietnam seemed to exist in its own world, separate from the other three, but we’ll come to why later in another entry. 

Thailand was first on the map, starting with the much visited city of Bangkok. I’d only ever been through in transit before, so actually getting to see it finally was exciting. The country has had (unfairly, I think) a bad reputation for tourists being kidnapped and/or killed, so I turned up quite nervous, what with being on my own for a bit. There exists some sort of daredevil streak in me, which seems to almost enjoy putting myself out of my comfort zone, but I’m also suspicious, so it balances out 🙂 

I need not have worried. Not once did I feel threatened, followed, stared at or anything else in Bangkok. It was largely like Japan in this respect, the vast majority of the general public ignored me as if I wasn’t there (unless I looked like I wanted to buy something) and the few that did strike up a conversation were very friendly and relaxed. Sometimes I wonder if the news deliberately installs fear in people to keep them scared and separated from each other. I strongly suspect so, especially now 😉 To be honest, the only way you are qualified to have a genuine opinion or judgement on a country is if you go and experience it for yourself. 

Upon arriving I jumped in a cab to the hotel and stared, boggle eyed, at the scenery. Again, nothing like I’d seen before. It was grey and muggy, with the city’s fairly generous foliage lending a tropical feel to the endless shrines and wats that popped up. Ooh what’s that, I thought. A small vehicle with a caged outer area zoomed past us. In it sat two tourists and their many suitcases. A variation on the tuk tuk, of which I was, at that point, largely unaware of. There were to be many adventures coming up on THOSE things. 

It took a little while to check in at the hotel but I was really pleased with my room for a few nights. Dirt cheap, it even had a separate squared partition for the bathroom.

The view from the room and the bridge just outside the hotel were also pleasant. There were many jumping fish, of which I took a small video, but unfortunately can’t put on this blog. 

After unpacking a tiny bit I got a map from reception and walked around to get a feel for the immediate area and pick up some provisions. The tuk tuks were there, waiting. I shook my head and carried on. 

There were some birds in a cage hanging up from a lamppost in the middle of the street, quite sad somehow, I thought, and some cool graffiti. Overall, I was thrilled. Completely new scenery after being stuck in the UK for what felt like an eternity, was what I needed. 

I rounded a corner. For a moment I could’ve sworn I was back in Japan. 

Dinner that night was just the hotel Pad Thai, as I had some jet lag. It was damn good, and the equivalent of about 1 or 2 quid. Bargain. 

I could definitely get used to this. 

Early next morning, after tossing and turning for several hours and eventually giving up as my brain was evidently stimulated more than jet lagged and wanted to explore properly, I got up. Breakfast was fruit, including pineapple angels, with some black coffee. 

Then it was time to hit the city, deliberately avoiding the places I knew we would soon be covering on our tour. Unfortunately trying to remember the names of what Wat I was in on that day is a tricky business off the top of my head, so I’ll stick with pictures from the main first one. 

It looked as if I had arrived on a large ceremonial day, as the first Wat I went to, Wat Bowonniwet, alongside its lavish gold spires, ornate carvings and decorative statues, were monks, the general public and even military members preparing for an event to commemorate the memory of a prestigious figure. I felt as if I was intruding on a private event, but once again, they didn’t seem to care that I was there snapping photos, and just carried on arranging flowers, putting out seating and touching up costumes. 

A monk even encouraged me to explore the gardens and surrounding grounds. ‘Lots and flowers!’ he beamed, in broken English. I hadn’t been here 24 hours and already felt like a VIP guest at a backstage party. He was right. Alleyways and tents were taken up with dozens of people sitting on the floor in small groups, arranging and selling flowers, and this was just the start of the event. 

I paused at a bridge and looked down at some tortoises eating a huge stash of vegetables from raised platforms on a stretch of river. An old man who had been sitting on his mat by the bridge with his flowers got up, asked me where I was from and then started telling me a bit about the event and all about the tortoises, how long they had been there and their names. He then suggested other places for me to visit next, so I did. It was amazing how friendly and helpful everyone seemed to be.

As recommended, I went to the somewhat weathered Phra Sumen Fort. 

In the park of which I took my first Thai selfie. Why I got that thick fringe cut in before I left for that weather, is anyone’s guess. But I had survived the first day and was more than happy…

Wakayama to Osaka 

They say all good things must come to an end, and that was certainly the case today as it was to be our last day of the trip. Tomorrow we would all fly our separate ways home; happy, sad and suitably hungover. The best journeys always finish like this, in my opinion 🙂 
We awoke at the sparrows fart to witness a traditional Shingon Buddhist ceremony, where the golden robed monks prepare food for Kobo Daishi. The ritual then involves blessing the food which has been placed inside a wooden box. It was so cold you couldn’t feel your fingers or toes, and as we huddled into the spiritual room and kneeled on the floor the room filled with chanting. Various gongs were gently struck and some incense was lit, which mingled with our clouds of breath in the air. We must’ve stayed there for a good twenty minutes with our heads bowed and then we walked around a hallway and into another room before returning, in a sort of slow procession. The monks finished by carrying the wooden box up the temple steps to the mausoleum. 
After this we had breakfast and green tea. Some of us needed something stronger so we went on a hunt around the small town for coffee. I seem to remember we didn’t have much luck, either because they didn’t have it or shops were closed, and ending up buying some from a vending machine. It was decent enough. What I do remember clearly is nearly getting whacked in the face with a stick by an elderly man also walking along the road, whose marbles clearly weren’t all there, and swiftly ducking just in time to avoid a sore collision. 

It started to snow again as we stood outside our accommodation waiting to leave. 

We packed up and left, continuing our last leg to Osaka.

Matt warned us in advance that our arrival into Osaka was pretty much the last chance to pick up our costumes for that night. The plan after our farewell Okonomiyaki dinner was to head straight into party central and another raucous round of karaoke. 
Four of us dumped our stuff in the rooms and found our way to the renowned department store that sold everything fun, bold and colourful. I picked up a Kawaii style maid outfit, complete with black wig, headband, bow tie, apron, stockings and red lipstick. 

Later on we dressed up and made our way to the hotel bar. Our ensemble included power rangers, maids outfits, trannies, Minnie Mouse ears, sailors outfits, cats, samurai warriors… and a donkey’s head. 

We were ready for action, and to hit the bright lights of Osaka. 

As we cascaded down the streets, a gaggle of twenty-somethings laughing away like we were still at school, what a reception we received from the Japanese, who were giggling and pointing at the silly tourists and asking to have their photo taken with us. The power rangers proved especially popular. 

Then it was time to eat. Pom Tom sat down to dinner bare chested, because why not. 

Karaoke later was immense fun, messy and a celebration of what had been, for all of us, one of the most legendary holidays and best bunch of people we’d ever met to share it with. 

Not to mention our simply awesome tour guide, Matt, and one-of-a-kind local guide, Naito-San. I even made a special photo compilation in his honour. 

Japan, I’ll never forget you, and nearly two years on I still remember everything like it was yesterday. I hope I always will. And you’ll be pleased to know that our group are still in touch, sometimes even meet up when we can. The world is fast changing, but this is the good side of life that burns bright. This, this is why I travel. 

Kyoto to Mt Koya, Wakayama 

Our trip was regrettably hurtling towards an end now as we had just two places remaining left to visit – Wakayama and Osaka. Another train ride took us towards Mt Koya in the Wakayama region followed by a short cable car trip. The small town of Koyasan is a beautiful – and largely unheard of – retreat up in an 800m high valley amongst one of the eight peaks of the mountain, where we would be staying in a traditional Buddhist guesthouse overnight and participating in a dawn ceremony. It was naturally freezing, with temperatures plummeting to the minuses, and quite a shock after the relatively mild Kyoto. It reminded me of the temperature change from when we drove to the Hida Folk village earlier on in our trip. 

Originally, the town was a monastery and now features a university containing 117 temples, many of which offer lodging to pilgrims and travellers. We were just so lucky to be a group of them. The largest graveyard in Japan is also here, which a few people had a tour of the following morning after the ceremony. 

When we arrived the intensity of the quietness struck me straight away – if you stood still you could almost hear the snow, which was in very rare light bursts, falling and landing. 
I don’t think I’ve ever been in another place like it on earth. They say that everyone in Japan wants to visit here. 

We had a little wander around the accommodation and the town, taking it all in before it got dark. 

Naito-San also showed us Banryutei, the country’s largest rock garden which is in the inner courtyard of the Kongobuji temple. It honours Kobo-Daishi’s climb to eternal meditation. 

Later, after being ushered into a large hall in the temple and urged to replace our shoes with slippers, we padded into a welcoming room where a couple dozen places had been set up for dinner. We were all shivering away so the first thing they offered us was a herbal tea while they uttered a thanks to Buddha. Then there was the feast. Multiple courses, expertly arranged, devastatingly neat. 

“What are these, money bags?” Jacob asked me, holding up one of the courses. We opened the string to find several different round coloured squishy foodstuffs, and, once more having no idea what they were, consumed them. Everything tasted really nice, regardless. 
Our bedding for the night had already been set up and any furniture in the room was minimalist and mostly ankle height, with sliding doors to enter the rooms. With not much else to do we all played group card games again. The monks showed us in advance how to find our way back to our individual lodgings, as it would be practically pitch black when lights went out.
However when the time arrived it was extremely difficult as they had hung black sheets over all the windows and I still laugh when I remember the slight panic of getting lost amongst the eerie silence of long black sheets and seemingly endless corridors of wooden floors inside a temple in the mountains in the middle of nowhere. 

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