I believe I left you in Bangkok on the eve of the start of my new tour.
The following day I took a taxi across town to my new hotel, which was very posh with 24 floors, and a great view of the city. There is very little to report for that night, as I just met my new group. Nearly all British and quite mixed ages, they all seemed to be ok. My room mate, Katherine, is lovely, so I breathed a sigh of relief about that.
The next day we set out for our miniature tour of Bangkok. The official name of the city is actually the longest place name in the world: Krungthep mahanakhon amon ratanakosin mahintara ayuthaya mahadilok popnopparat ratchathani burirom udomratchaniwet mahasathan amonpiman avatansathit sakkathattiya witsanukamprasit. I won't bother to tell you the meaning but it's just a load of stuff about it being a great city. Bangkok is also very polluted, and on hot days the carbon monoxide levels can reach the international danger level. If you saw the traffic you would understand.
We took a longtail boat down the Khlongs (canals) of Bangkok, past all the families living in houses on stilts. Some of them looked decidedly rickety and I wouldn't want to live there - especially not in monsoon season. We got off the boat near Wat Pho - Bangkok's oldest monastery, which houses a giant reclining Buddha - the biggest in Bangkok and the third largest in Thailand. Buddhism is more a way of life than a religion in Thailand. It focuses on the teachings of the Buddha who was a guy who spent his life finding enlightenment, and teaches the individual to seek and attain nirvana.
Thai people are very keen on their monarchy, and there are pictures of the king literally everywhere, all over the streets and on roundabouts. If you ask any Thai person about the king they go off into a rant about what a great king he is. I haven't bothered to mention to them that the English monarchy is widely despised - I'm not sure they'd understand.
That night we climbed aboard a sleeper train (mercifully much cleaner and nicer than the ones in India) bound for Chiang Mai in north Thailand. I spent a lot of the journey trying to explain the lives of stars in OK Magazine to a Thai woman who spoke very little English. Hilariously when she saw a picture of Amy Winehouse she looked at me questioningly and asked "ladyboy?"
We arrived very early on the morning of Day 3 in Chiang Mai, but luckily our hotel rooms were ready and we were able to have a shower before heading out again. The landscape is very different in northern Thailand - lots of lush exotic foliage and rolling hills with low clouds. We spent the morning at an adventure centre where some of our group rode on elephants, before we went on a very tame white water rafting experience on the lethargic river.
During the early evening we drove through the ancient city (702 years old) to the base of the Doi Suthep temple. After climbing up over 300 steps we were greeted by the most stunning views over the city, and fresh air that I haven't smelt anywhere in South East Asia (the intense humidity generally means that the air smells of sweat or mould). The golden towers of the temple shone in the evening sunlight, and we were able to sit and watch the Buddhist monks chanting the teachings of the Buddha as the sun went down. A very peaceful experience.
Exhausted though we were, we were unable to pass up an opportunity to go and see some Thai boxing. Most of my energy was summoned from the bottle of Red Bull I drank, which is apparently eight times as strong as the Red Bull at home and is banned in Europe. The Thai boxing was very exciting, but also brutal. Particularly disturbing were the two boys fighting - they didn't look older than twelve. Every punch was accompanied by a loud shout from the very enthusiastic and drunk audience of Thai men.
Another early start on Day 4 saw us on the bus to the border town of Chiang Kong. We amused ourselves greatly by singing along loudly to various Disney tunes on our ipods.
At lunch time we stopped at a modern temple called the White Temple - which was built by a Thai artist entriely from his own money. It is absolutely stunning, and is a work in progress as the artist intends to keep adding to it until his death. The modern artistry on the walls inside includes a picture of Keanu Reeves in the Matrix. I'm not certain how this relates to Buddhism - it wasn't explained.
We arrived late at our beautiful wooden hotel overlooking the giant Mekong River, with Laos on the other bank. The town was sleepy and absolutely beautiful, and we spent the evening exploring and walking along the banks of the river. This was so much more rural than anything I had seen for weeks that it came as a real surprise, but I felt that at last I was coming into the real Indochina.
We were up early again the following morning to take the boat across the river into Laos. Laos is a small and very mountainous country with a population of around 8 million. It has been very little in the news since the 1975 Pathet Lao takeover, with which is became communist and closed its borders to the west. This policy has now been relaxed, but Laos' economy is weak and it relies on international aid and the tourism industry. Crossing the river was like going back in time, and once we had had our visas stamped into our passports, we went through passport control which was a picnic table with an umbrella over it.
We climbed aboard our transport for the next two days, a small private boat which we would use to sail down the Mekong River to our next destination. The river is 950km long and travels through China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia before it meets the sea. The scenery around it is mountainous and sleepy, with low brooding clouds hanging about midway up the hills. Every view was picture perfect, but you might need to wait a few weeks until I'm back in Bangkok to see the photos.
Laos became involved in the Vietnam war because its Ho Chi Minh trail connected North and South Vietnam. It s estimated that the USA dropped more bombs on Laos during that war than were used in the whole of the second world war - the equivalent of one bombing run every eight minutes for nine years. Despite this, the landscape is relatively untouched. After a few hours cruising we had the chance to stop at a tiny village, which is extremely rural and is not connected to anywhere by road. It's hard to imagine how these people live, but this is the lifetyle of many of the Laos people.
We stopped for the night in a tiny town called Pakbeng. There is very little to tell about this town, as it is just a remote town with a tourism industry built around boat passengers. Pakbeng used to have electricty until five years ago, when the dam burst. It is being rebuilt but will take another two years. Until then the town must survive on a generator which runs from 6pm until 10pm every night. A bit of shock to them I'm sure.
Day 6 saw us back on the boat en route to Luang Prabang. We stopped on the journey at the Pak Ou caves, which contain thousands of Buddha statues, and used to be inhabited by monks. Very beautiful and eery, lit only by the sky outside which was dark from one of the frequent rainstorms we sailed through.
We arrived at Luang Prabang just before sunset, and took a tuk tuk to our hotel. We were delighted with this hotel - it consisted of a group of wooden huts with mosaic tiled bathrooms, around a pristine garden and next to the river, with breakfast eaten on cushions on the veranda of each hut - and you could stay there for a mere 13 pounds per room per night. After settling in we climbed aboard another tuk tuk in the rapidly escalating rainstorm down to the town for dinner. On the way I noticed to my amusement that the many motorcylists on Luang Prabang's streets were managing to drive whilst holding an umbrella over their heads. (This also applies to sunny weather as Asian people like to stay pale skinned, and makes for a very amusing scene when there are lots of them at the same time. I am thinking of buying a motorbike and a pink parasol and riding them up the M1.)
The nightlife in Luang Prabang was extremely limited due to there being an 11.30 curfew, so after only a very few hours drinking the highly delicious and cheap Beerlao, we were back and tucked up in our beds.
This was probably for the best though, as the next day we jumped into a tuk tuk and headed out to the Laos countryside. The 28km journey was fascinating, as we drove past locals on bicycles, rain soaked paddy fields and rolling hills swathed in low cloud. There were even a few buffalo making their slow way along the side of the road. After an hour we arrived at the Kung Si waterfalls. After a quick stop at a rescue centre for black bears, we headed to the falls, which have a number of tiers and are stunning, just like a pre-made windows desktop background. We all had a swim in the crystal clear waters, although I'm not sure it was wise as they were absolutely freezing!
The afternoon was spent relaxing, before a trip into town for dinner and a look at the night markets. These markets sold the most beautiful array of locally made jewellery, textiles and pictures, and using my (now formidable) bargaining skills, I purchased myself a number of souvenirs.
Day 8 was our final full day in Luang Prabang. After a very welcome lie in and a leisurely breakfast, we headed back down into the town. Despite being Laos' second largest city, Luang Prabang has a population of only 60,000 and feels much smaller. The pace of life is relaxed and very slow. We stopped on our way into town to experience the amazing massages at the Red Cross centre (proceeds go to charity). Despite being punched, slapped and kicked to within an inch of my life, the massage was fantastic and I felt very relaxed afterwards.
I hired bikes with a couple of the girls and we went for a ride around the town. This didn't take very long as it's so small, but it was a great way to see the place and nice to do some exercise. The architecture in the town is French colonial, as Laos was a French colony until the 1950s. To see European architecture so far from home was very strange!
We then had a meal beside the river, before a final look around the night markets, and a 60p glass of wine (extremely rare in this part of the world). We went to bed preparing for our flight to the capital, Vientiane, the next day.