So it appears that the efficiency of my blogging was but a short-lived thing. In my defence, I have spent the last month climbing up and down mountains in monsoon rain, trying to avoid being bled dry by leeches and getting angry at elephants for being unable to understand basic human commands. But enough of the excuses, this is what I have been doing with myself during the month of June.
The last instalment ended with me enduring the solitude and serenity of Ko Phangan, far away from the madding crowds being drawn increasingly toward Had Rin,the place famous for Full Moon Parties. As predicted, I did indeed spend my final days there as I had spent the first few, i.e. doing sod all apart from lying in a hammock on the beach reading, which isn’t really all that bad. When this finally got boring I decided to head up to Ko Tao, the self-proclaimed diving mecca of South East Asia.
Ko Tao is different to Ko Phangan in several ways. Firstly, it is a hell of a lot smaller, so more people are crammed into a smaller place. Secondly, there are no local Thais indigenous to the island itself, and any Thai people there are there running businesses catering exclusively for tourists. As a result, prices are higher, quality is lower and chances of finding the sort of budget paradise I had had to myself on Ko Phangan was next to nothing. This very much proved to the case, and I ended up paying more than I had before for a decrepid shack that was distinctively shoddy in it’s construction and home to a family of the biggest geckos alive in the world today.
Having spent an afternoon just fun diving, it became clear that it would be a far more economical use of both my time and money to just do the advanced diver course and so I enrolled- the accompanying two nights accommodation in a swanky hotel was merely the clincher. Over the next three days I woke up at 5.30 and was diving by 6.30, an attempt by my particular dive shop to beat the masses who would descend later in the morning and promptly disperse any of the more interesting sea-life that had otherwise been happily loitering unaware of our existence. As part of the advanced course I did a specialist peak-buoyancy course, a deep dive(again), a navigation course, a search and rescue mission (involving a dive boat that had sunk to 15 metres a few days before) and a night dive. Although all were great fun, swimming on the newly-sunk wreck and the night dive were undoubtedly the highlights, the latter allowing us to see stuff that usually isn’t out and about during the day and prance around in pitch black water with big torches. Although the quality of diving is nowhere near the standard of Phi Phi (certainly in terms of things to see), the nature of the dives I was doing and the group of people I was doing it with meant I got 3 fantastic days of diving and a qualification that will allow me greater freedom in my future diving.
After my diving-fuelled jaunt on Ko Tao, my few weeks of beach bumming and sports had come to an end. Via a quick visa-related jaunt into Myanmar (I was there for an hour, but it’s still going on my list of places visited. The holiday resort where I got my visa was very nice, although I’m not sure how much the military junta in charge of the country had to do with that), I caught the night train from the town of Chumpon up to Bangkok, where I had plans to stay for a few days and meet a friend who was passing by before heading further north. Unfortunately, due to something happening at home, my friend had been forced to head home early. I decided that a day extra in north Thailand would be a day better spent than being bored alone in Bangkok, and so after one night of having a look around Khao San Road et al I decided to leave and have a proper look around when I returned in a few weeks for my flight to Sydney.
My next stop was thus Chiang Mai, a very touristy place located in the mountains of north Thailand and a 15 hour train journey from Bangkok. I arrived feeling good after the relatively unusual phenomenon of a good night’s sleep aboard a train, and spent the rest of the day looking around town and planning a trek, the main reason people seem to head for Chiang Mai. The town itself is OK if a little uninspiring. Much like the rest of Thailand, it has sold a part of its soul in order to cash in on the benefits of tourism, and as a result the local night market can be found in between a McDonalds, Burger King, Subway and a couple of Starbucks. This is the impression I get from Thailand as a whole, or at least the parts of Thailand I have been to. Having spent several months in ‘real’ parts of Asia, experiencing real life as far away from the banalities of the mass tourism business as possible, there is a cosmetic side to Thailand which gives the impression of almost not being in Asia- in many places, you could just as well be sitting by a pool at a resort in Malaga than on Ko Tao Ko Phi Phi. Perhaps Thailand is then best used as a stepping-stone from the West to South East Asia, serving as a ‘Vietnam Lite’ for those trying to avoid the inevitable culture shock that comes with being dropped into the Old Quarter in Hanoi. Instead, I travelled around Thailand forever remembering somewhere comparably better in a different country that I had already been too, which is not the greatest mindset when it comes to discovering a new country.
My second day in Chiang Mai I set off on my planned 2 day, 1 night trek, apparently an ecologically run tour designed specifically to have a low impact on the surrounding environment and to stay away from as many tourists as possible. It soon became evident that this was a near impossible challenge given the sheer volumes of other groups nearby, and it soon became plainly obvious that our so called ‘eco-trek’ was being repeated at half-hourly intervals throughout most of the day, meaning that we would usually see at least 2-3 of the same groups as we departed and arrived somewhere. Having done somewhere in the region of 6 treks in every country I’d been to so far, the standard ‘5 minutes walk – waterfall – 10 minutes walk – temple – 5 minute walk – sleep’ formula that we were marched through the first day was enjoyable if not awe-inspiring. Luckily I was with a good group and a good leader, and the night we spent sat around a fire drinking beer in a jungle homestay was very enjoyable. The next day we were served with more ‘same same’ as the day before, the highlight being an hour long raft down rapids on what was essentially a large piece of bamboo, off which I was both pushed and fell during the course of the ride. Unfortunately, the whole 2 days were marred by an otherwise very likeable group that treated with disdain any attempt by the tour leader to get everyone walking for more than 30 minutes at a normal pace; a group that was instead pre-occupied and excited by the proposition that there might actually be a van available to come and pick us up to take us the last couple of miles back to base.
I returned back to Chiang Mai ready to meet the man who would be following me around for the next few weeks, Mr Jaap. Jaap is a Dutch guy who was my principal drink-parter and co-landlord during my stint of volunteering at Sihanoukville, and we had decided to initiate the first CCPP reunion with a few weeks in Laos. We ate dinner, caught up on what each of us had been doing in the few weeks since I had left CCPP, then got much drunker then 2 reasonable people really ought to for the small amount of alcohol that had been consumed. We had one whole day left in Chiang Mai designated for exploration, although it soon became clear that there really was nothing to explore. My own personal highlight was the several hours spent playing Pro Evo in a mall- I will be petitioning the Lonely Planet to insist this gets the attention it deserves.
The next morning we spent the day making the trip north towards the Lao-Thai border via succession of coaches, local buses and small boats, the last of which took just us and a monk over the small river that divides Laos and Thailand. We both resolved to try in the future ensure that all border crossings are as picturesque, paid our dues at the border and settled for the night in Huay Xai, the border-town on the Lao side. Like most border towns, Huay Xai was not precisely a hub of entertainment, catering more as it does for the weary traveller then those who wish to party. Nevertheless, the difference in leaving Thailand and heading into Laos was already palpable, even with only a small stretch of water splitting the two. Everything was more laid-back, more natural, friendlier. I no longer felt like cattle to be herded down well-worn paths and into buses, and as you begin to chat to the locals over a cold Beer Lao and a plate of barbecue food it is pretty difficult not to fall in love with the place. We again got more drunk then is really appropriate in the circumstances, enjoyed our one night in Huay Xai and resolved to head north in the morning.
Undoubtedly the best guide and judge on any trip are fellow travellers. I had already long ago decided on the 3 places I wished to visit in Laos, when a couple of girls I met diving on Ko Tao recommended a place up north where the trekking is supposed to be fantastic. Although this was a place I had never heard of, a little research and some planning Jaap meant that on the morning of Monday 15 June we were on a minibus headed for the northern town of Luang Namtha.
Given my earlier reservations with Thailand, it very quickly became clear that Laos was just the tonic. Hundreds of miles of stunning scenery, small hill-side villages untouched by tourism lined our entire route the 3-4 hours we were on the bus. We arrived to find a tiny, sleepy little town in the mountains and a place I liked instantly, especially when placed in such stark and recent contrast with what I suppose is the Thai equivalent in Chiang Mai. We spent the day relaxing, exploring and enlisting people for the trek we wanted to do (price goes down the more people there are).
We awoke early the next day ahead of Day 1 of our trek, seven of us with two tour guides, making nine in total. I had frequently been heard whingeing about how easy my trek in Chiang Mai had been, to the extent that I was now on the verge of wanting to kill myself by walking, and so was looking forward to a nice, challenging trek over a pleasant couple of days.
Having started at a completely unspoilt local village where children who had never seen a digital camera before were falling over themselves to get in a photo, we began what first seemed a pleasant enough walk alongside a small stream, up and down a few paths and through the jungle. I can’t remember exactly when the trekking went from being classifiable as ‘leisurely’ to first ‘’challenging’, ‘difficult’ and finally ‘life-threateningly dangerous’, but I think it somewhere around an hour or two in on the first day, as we were climbing up and down sheer faces of mud and rock , when the heavens opened and began a monsoon rain that would not end until that evening. In fairness to our guide, he had recommended we buy ponchos, I however was quite happy to get a little wet and avoid paying the pound or so that they cost to buy. What I hadn’t properly considered was what it might be like when climbing up and down hills of mud during such rain.
Well, having had time to both enjoy this and consider it’s merits, I can now tell you this: walking up and down hills on mud during monsoon rain is terrifying, hilarious and very, very messy. The limited grip boasted by my ‘walking trainers’ had fallen by the way side almost immediately, so I soon found myself fighting a constant battle against the elements to avoid slipping and falling to my death. Barely a single step could be placed securely as we made our way up our first mountain of the day, something which only became worse as the rain continued and indeed worsened throughout the rest of the day.
We triumphantly reached the top of mountain number 1, where we settled for lunch, and gloriously surveyed our surroundings. I had already walked in one morning on one trek more than I had walked for the entirety of some other treks I had been on in other places. We enjoyed a lunch of what looked, tasted and smelled like s*** and rice with leaves, and headed back down the other side. What we had failed to consider in our initial moment of triumph was that climbing down slippy mudslides is as hard if not harder than climbing up, as there is a much greater propensity for falling which, whilst hilarious for everyone else, rarely leaves you with anything but a sense of humiliation and a sore arse. We farcically continued slipping and sliding down the mountain until we got to the bottom, only to be directed up the side of a much taller and steeper mountain.
This was very much the general order of the day, 7 muddy foreigners falling up and down four mountains whilst trying to climb them, their Lao guides running around in flip-flops without a care in the world. The only exception was one particular route down a mountain which our guide clearly thought might have been safer, climbing down what was essentially a waterfall. Maybe he did it for his own amusement, nonetheless we emerged soaked, bruised and very well entertained.
But the biggest issue facing us brave hordes of trekkers was not the muddy paths, steep climbs or slippy descends through rocky, ankle deep water. No, it was in fact leeches. There presence had become more noticeable the wetter it had got before lunch, and several had been found on shoes or legs. However, as Jaap pulled down his pants at lunch for a cursory leech check he was faced with the sight of a leech enjoying dinner at his expense a matter of inches away from a particularly sensitive area. Screams, laughter and much blood ensued, with incriminating photos aplenty taken from creative angles as Noy (the tour guide) sought to remove the offending creature. Leech bites actually don’t stop bleeding, so what is something that is very much harmless and painless suddenly looks very bloody and quite worrying. This incident only served to put everyone else on high leech alert, and barely a moment passed for the rest of the day without hearing someone shouting ‘ah s***, there’s a f***ing leech on my leg, the greedy b******’. Despite catching several on my leg and on my shoe preparing for dinner, I managed to avoid the same outright humiliation suffered by my Dutch companion.
After a gruelling, 8 hours of trekking that had put most of us firmly on the brink of exhaustion, we arrived at our destination following a 30 minute mud slide on our arses down a path so steep that I defy any human to walk down there under any conditions, let alone rainy season. We had arrived at the village where we would spent the night, and unlike every other village I had visited on treks, they actually looked pleased to see us. The trekking ion Luang Namtha is designed to be eco and to intrude as little as possible into the lives of tribe people and the environment, and this village was rarely visited by tourists. As we arrived and bathed in the brown river running beside the camp, the whole village had soon come out to look at the foreigners, laughing and pointing at us the whole time. We were then followed and sat down by a fire, where again the whole village came to watch, before we were treated to dinner in the chief’s hut with the man himself there to join us for a few well-earned shots of Lao Lao It was a fascinating and highly surreal experience which capped off a wonderful day, terror and fear of impending doom aside.
We awoke the next day in pain from the previous day’s exploits, tired due to a lack of sleep (caused by the various animals in the village) and very apprehensive of another day like yesterday. We were allowed some semblance of a lie in (8.30) and departed around 9.30 for our journey back to town. The aches and pains from the previous day soon subsided, and the walk, much easier than the day before, turned out to be a very pleasant challenge that managed to push us a little further towards exhaustion without quite throwing us in. Relieved, tired and happy to be back on dry land, we arrived back into town around 4.30 to spend the evening eating Western food and drinking the most well-deserved beer in history.
It turned out that 5 of the trekking group (who were all great fun) would be following a similar itinerary to us down through Laos, and so at 9am the next morning we were gathered, battered and bruised, ready for the bus journey to Luang Prabang and a day of sitting-down.
Luang Prabang is a UNESCO heritage listed town south of Luang Namtha, similar in many ways to another one of my Asia favourites, Hoi An in Vietnam, and a beautiful little town in which to spend some time. After 10 hours of glorious sitting-down, the five of us arrived, got settled and set straight out into the night market, a great mix of cheap souvenirs, food and beer. The next few days we spent enjoying the town and visiting a beautiful waterfall a few kms out of town, but generally just indulging in the unbelievable of cheap food and drink in offer. Our second night there we ventured out to a renowned local night club to dance inappropriately amongst a group of petrified locals, before heading bowling, which is seemingly the only place in town to get a beer after 11.30.
After a few days in Luang Prabang we saw something that caught out eye and decided to add an extra day to our stay to allow us to do it. Elephant Village, just a few minutes out of town, is a conservation project aimed at saving elephants from the trekking camps throughout north Thailand and the rest of Asia where animals are treated badly and exploited in the name of profit, both within the tourist and logging industries. The project is funded by the animals offering tourists rides for a few hours each morning, before being taken back into the jungle just after lunch. It is great, brand spanking new place that treats the elephants superbly and is constantly looking for ways to improve their life. Me and Jaap were to visit in order to take a mahout course, to learn to ride the elephants properly and to generally look after them for 2 days and a night, something which we were very excited about.
Our first morning we were first treated to a tourist trek, on the seat on the back of an elephant. When we got back to camp, we began to learn the special commands and signals used to ride the elephant, all in Lao. Firstly, we shout ‘Seung!’, and the elephant sticks out his leg for us to climb up on, holding on to the ear as we do, before getting comfortable sat on the elephant's neck. To accelerate (ahem), you shout ‘pie!’ (go); to move left and right is ‘si’ or ‘khwa’, accompanied a kick to the opposite ear, and stop, a very important one, is ‘how!’. This last one was shouted a lot at first. After a bit of practice, the first day ended as we rode our respective elephants into the jungle where they would stay the night, before spending the rest of the day relaxing in what was an exceptionally nice place.
The next day we were awoken bright and early at 6am, ready to go collect our elephants from the jungle where we had left them the previous evening. The previous day’s practice had served us well, and we were now confidently climbing up and down elephants, sitting on their heads and barking orders at them as if we had been doing I tour whole lives.
We rode them back along the path and into the river for their early morning bath. I had already been fore-warned that my particular elephant was one of the few in the vilage who would happily fully submerge herself in the water, something that she demonstrated almost immediately upon entering the water as I clung on for dear life on the back. Matters weren’t helped by a mahout sitting behind me constantly shouting ‘map’, the command for lie down, ensuring that the elephant spent the duration of the half an hour’s bathing throwing me in and out of the water whilst I hung on desperately. I somehow managed to stay on, before directing the elephants back to camp.
After a few more hours relaxing chilling with the elephants, we were taken back to town as fully qualified and certified mahouts. I’m not sure what UK regulations say about having a pet elephant, but it is certainly something I will be looking in to. We enjoyed one last evening in Luang Prabang, and the next day caught the bus further south to the infamous Vang Vieng.
Vang Vieng is a small, formerly anonymous little town which has become famous as being a bit of a party place,the focus being on tubing, a past-time which involves lots of people floating down a river in a rubber ring and getting drunk along the way. I don’t think it is unfair for me to say that our expectations of this place were not high, expecting as we did a load of t*** sitting around doing nothing but watching Friends all day and comparing tubing stories. This is precisely what we found, and although we intensely disliked the place and the type of person it primarily attracted, we decided that a n ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ attitude would be the best approach to the 2 days we had. We promptly followed the masses by sitting around drinking shakes, watching TV and indeed floating down rivers rubber rings. It wasn’t exactly the most high-brow cultural experience I’ve enjoyed on my trip, but a fun way to pass a few days.
After these hazy days in Vang Vieng we took one last journey south to our last stop in Laos, the capital, Vientiane. As we had anticipated, Vientiane is a very laid-back, colonial place which is a great place to relax but suffers from a lack of things to do. We had a night here to soak up the atmosphere and reminisce on what had probably the most enjoyable 2 weeks of my trip, highly eventful and including several highlights (trek, elephants), in what ha so far been my favourite place, just beating Vietnam back into second place. Unfortunately time restrictions meant that I was not able to explore the south (which is supposed to be even nicer than the north), but this is something I shall be looking to do in the future.
Our time in Laos was concluded by a night train south back into Thailand and back to Bangkok in preparation of my flight to Sydney on Monday 29th July. The 2nd Sihanoukville reunion is in full swing, with myself, Jaap and Richard and Sarah (a couple we had met) enjoying the delights that the Thai capital has to offer, which has so far been Transformers 2, beer and cheap street food. Four months in Asia is at an end, and I have nothing but positive experiences and happy memories to take way. Picking a highlight would be near impossible, but the volunteering, scuba diving and two weeks in Laos would certainly be fighting for top spot. I will spend one last drinking beer at the Muay Thai boxing tonight before heading to Australia tomorrow, the next chapter of my trip and something which I’m sure will be completely different from what I have done so far. As of yet I have no idea what I will be doing when I get there, but whatever it is I will be sure to write about it in a few weeks time.