Chiang Mai, Laos and some Cambodia
Trip Start Sep 17, 2009
21Trip End May 05, 2010
Map your own trip!
Show trip route
Where I stayed
Occasionally when travelling in Asia, particularly south-east Asia, you come across a strange subset of town called the 'tourist town' where the only industry is catering for tourists. These towns have...
a) a massive selection of western style restaurants selling roast dinners
b) far too many tour companies (half-heartedly disguising themselves as tourist information centres) selling almost exactly the same tours
and c) a disproportionately large number of tourists compared to the size of the town
As soon as we arrived in Chiang Mai it was obvious that this was one of those towns but, to be honest, having been travelling for five months it was a fairly welcome change
Our first day in Chiang Mai we breifly had a look at the major temple of the city but quickly realised that the sights were fairly unspectacular and instead did exactly what we should be doing in a town like this - eating jacket potatoes and burgers! A leaflet caught our eye in town though, advertising a "real", "authentic", "not show fight" Thai boxing match that was by chance happening that night. We'd wanted to see some in Bangkok but the tickets were over 40 pounds and here was our chance to see it for under a tenner, excellent!
As we expected having read the suspicious wording of the leaflet, the fights were just for tourists but it really didn't matter too much - we could hardly have told the difference between that a real championship fight. The interesting thing was that it wasn't really as brutal as I thought it would be - there's a lot more tactics than I'd imagined and also a lot of strange half-dancing ceremonies. The other strange thing is that it's all set to a kind of soundtrack of bongo drumming jungle rhythms which makes it all seem weirdly harmless
The other major attraction at Chiang Mai is the treks going out into the surrounding jungle to stay overnight with some of the local hill-tribes. We booked ourselves on a quick two day trek complete with white water rafting and a very touristy elephant ride! It was fairly hard going at first, going up and down some very steep hills in some seriously sweaty heat but it was nice to see a bit of the country having been in towns for so long and some of the scenery was pretty special. I even heard Sarah say that she enjoyed the trek. At the end of the first day we ended up at a tiny village in one of the valleys which i think they were trying to pass off as a traditional hill tribe but that was nonsense really. The were really nice people though and we drank lots of lao whiskey with them and tried one their huge straw hats. Sarah made good friends with slightly mad and drunk Thai women called Aya who wanted to take her away to something in the next village (our trek guide told Sarah very seriously that she shouldn't go!).
The next day was a pure tourist town tour stuff. A quick but fun ride on an elephant in the morning followed by a quick walk to a nearby Lisu hill tribe village. You could tell that this one was more genuinely a hill tribe because there was a big sign in English saying "Welcome to the Lisu hill-tribe village". There were also lots of women hassling all the fat tourists with huge cameras around their necks (who'd appeared out of nowhere in big tour groups) to buy their "traditional" handicrafts
Slow Boat to Luang Prubang
The following day day we made our way slowly to the Laos border where we stayed the night before hopping on to the "slow boat" which takes around 90 passengers down the Mekong River, arriving at Luang Prubang two days later. It was pretty much all tourists (one of the weird things about travelling in southeast asia is that you hardly ever seem to get the same transport as the locals which is a shame) but, even so, it was a nice way to travel. The scenery on the Mekong banks is very impressive - its all dense jungle clinging to sharp cliff faces and the occassional rural community of bamboo huts - so it seemed to go very quickly.
The boat was full of the drunk australian travellers ("Go hard or go home!") that we'd been trying to avoid though, so it was a relief to get to Luang Prubang after two consecutive eight hour days in a boat with them!
The town itself is a sort of drowsy old Lao town that's been perfectly preserved for hundreds of years. The main centre of it is dominated by a group of buddhist temples and on every street corner you'll find monks dressed in bright orange robes - in Laos every boy has to spend a year after school as a practising monk, a sort of spiritual national service.
The following day after our arrival was Sarah's birthday so we got up early and went to a Lao cooking course that we'd booked in the day before
It all tasted amazing but, unfortunately, it gave us both our second round of food poisoning in the trip! But we refused to stop this from getting in the way of our packed birthday schedule, so after a bit of sicking we headed out to get a Lao massage. It was very painful to be honest but it was my first ever massage so i think i just wasn't used to it, but a good experience all the same. Sarah was about three booths down from me and was giggling every five minutes from awkward rubs and tickles but enjoyed it more than me. We met up with two Chilean girls in the evening for drinks and that was pretty much the last thing we did in Luang Prubang. The rest of the time we just stayed in bed recovering!
Tubing and Family Guy
Next stop was Vang Viang, one of the oddest places we've been for a while. It's a sort of traveller's playground in the middle of the laos mountains where there are probably three times as many tourists as locals
The town, like any tourist town, has far too many western food restaurants but the difference is that here they were all characterised by different American TV shows - one had a huge crowd watching Friends, another The Simpsons, another King of the Hill. We decided eventually on the Family Guy restaurant, ate a burger and watch Family Guy for a couple of hours. The next day we left Vang Viang a bit bemused, thinking we could be pretty much anywhere in the world
We'd heard a friend of ours was going to be in Vientiane at the same time as us thanks to the world of facebook. Richard, who we'd met in Japan and who has featured before on this blog (I'm sure the most avid readers amongst you, if there are any (!), will remember him) had worked his way through Taiwan, china and Vietnam and was now in Laos at the same time as us. Small world.
So really the only things we did in the capital were having lunch with Richard, drinking with Richard and even bowling with Richard which was all very nice and it was good to see him again. The city itself is a typically lazy lao place which hardly seems like a capital but there's enough bars and restaurants to pass the time. The highlight of our time there though was seeing Crystal Palace (who's games are hardly ever on even at home) live in the FA Cup in some random bar!
After a fairly horrible night bus we arrived 10 hours later in Sai Pha Don or Four Thousand Islands which is right in the deep south of the country next to the Cambodian border
After a miserable days of travelling on buses from 8am to 12pm we arrived in Siem Reap in northwest Cambodia ready to see Angkor Wat, the largest and most famous temple complex in south east asia. Siem Reap itself is the ultimate tourist town, the only difference is that its more upmarket and has a lot of obviously very wealthy holiday makers. Here you could find Lavazza, posh bars with immaculate wicker furniture and even order champagne! This wasn't the Cambodia we were expecting, nor is it typical of a country that ranks amongst the poorest in the world.
Unfortunately on the first night I came down with a fever which meant I couldn't go to Angkor Wat the next day
Yesterday we got to the capital, Phnom Penh, and it seems like a really charming city. There are some really nice french colonial buildings and the people all seem really nice. In fact the people in Cambodia are all reallly nice. Considering the stuff that happened here as little as thirty years ago it's incredible that they are so friendly, so happy and have such a good sense of humour.
We;ve been trying to plan our trip in a lot more detail recently and I think its going to look a bit like this if you're interested....
We're going to Kampot today, perhaps with a quick detour to Kep and the tropical Rabbit Island, before heading back to Phnom Penh to pick up our Chinese visas. We'll head off into the south of Vietnam, through Siagon, up to Hoi An and Hanoi. Then we're going to do a big loop inside China, from Guilin to Yunnan, Sichuan and then towards Beijing and Tianjin. We'll then hop on a boat to Korea have maybe a week there before flying back from Seoul. We're looking at a few flights in between April 20th and May 3rd. We'll let you know...