A New Year, and a new country

Trip Start Jun 13, 2008
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Trip End Jun 12, 2009


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Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Hello

So the last time i wrote here, which seems like a long time ago for some reason...maybe because I'm tired, i was just about to jump on a bus to Vang Vieng...welll i have been there now and I'm just about to tell you about it.

Vang Vieng.. a picturesque town in the north of Laos.  The town is surrounded by gorgeous mountains, clear rivers and a load of pissed up tourists.  On arrival we met back up with Tom Mills who we had said goodbye to in Vietnam, and headed to the bungalow he had booked us into.  What is great about the town, is that even though it is full of pissed up tourists, it doesn't allow them to ruin it.  The drinking is done on the river, all the bars in town close around 10:30 leaving all of the drunkards to party on a small island that stops the music at midnight.  It may sound a bit rubbish for partying but it is exactly the opposite.  The early closing doesn't make a difference because the partying starts at 10:00 am every day and by midnight everyone is ready to knock it on the head anyway.

The day time drinking conducted on the river surrounded by gorgeous mountains is complimented by tubing.  You start your day with a scrummy baguette (chunks of tender battered chicken and sauce in a perfect bread roll) from a street vendor at a super cheap price... we were slightly addicted to the sarnies by the time we left.....buuut as i was saying, after some munch you pick up the inner tube of a tractor tyre and grab a Tuk Tuk.  The Tuk Tuk drops you off at the start of the river tubing experience and after floating for around 5 minutes you get pulled into the first bar.  When i say pulled in i mean they trough a weighted rope out to you and drag you in.  The bars are basically wooden decks on the side of the river serving up a plethora of alcoholic and non alcoholic beverages, with a few swings and slides thrown in.  So the rest of your day or until the sun disappears behind the mountain at 4:00pm is spent tubing from bar to bar, chatting, drinking and pissing about on the river.

I just want to explain the river activities to you a second.  The main bars have them and i think there were only five bars that receive most tubers during the day mainly because of the extra activities offered.  A couple of them have rope swings... not just small swings that you played on as a kid, these swings are accessed by climbing up a ladder attached to a tree at quite a height, when climbing up to the top there is always a lot of banter (mainly nervous energy) before getting to the front of the Que, but as i noticed over and over again, as you get nearer to your turn on the swing and higher up the ladder everyone goes a bit quiet and grip's onto the side a bit harder.... I'm not gonna lie, i was always a bit nervous... but for some reason it seems to get easier during the day ;).  Anyways the swings are the same ones you see in a circus..ummm trapeze i think its called, basically a bar you hold onto jump off of a platform and your swinging high above the river, the key to not hurting your self to much ...let go at the right time.  We were hanging around with a bunch of lads, me, Mike, Tom Mills, Zoe, couple of Kiwi Lads, and an American guy...so naturally there was a lot of banter and it was decided that if you did not let go of the swing at the highest point you were a wimp.  I did it second attempt and it hurt, but the adrenaline rush from cycling in empty air waiting to hit the water made it worth it :)  I did enjoy watching mike's first attempt at the swing, i was just before him and still in the river sorting myself out after a semi hard landing i heard a groaning noise flying through the sky....Mike, he decided it wouldn't hurt so much if he let go at the lowest point, so instead of hanging onto the trapeze letting himself swing back and forth for a while to slow the momentum, on the first swing he let go at the lowest point effectively hitting the water as hard as you possibly could (similar to just jumping off of the platform but with the added forward motion of the swing).....so there was a groan and a splash and a hurt looking Mike appearing from the water... he says his ribs are still hurting now and at the time said he made contact with the water in the following order.... knees, balls, ribs :)  I laughed so hard and if i could be bothered would draw a diagram to put on here so you can picture the scene better ...but i think i have explained it well enough...maybe.  The other bars had similarly painful activities, such as a bigger swing, zip lines that wrench your back when you reach the end, a slide that catapults you a fair height above the river (my most painful experience when my first contact with the river was my face), and a mud pit.  The mud pit was hilarious, but also where i managed to cut up my knee and feet...on the second day we decided not to go into the mud pit until beastie boys came on the stereo, so a nervous 10 minutes was spent eying each other up until the key song came on and we started wrestling, throwing, ducking and generally assaulting each other in the mud.

Vang Vieng also showed me that you can barter for beer in bars.. it started on the river when they were trying to charge me 12,000 kip for a large beer (1 quid), and i told them it should be 10,000 kip, there was no argument made and they said 10,000 would be fine, so i have been doing the same ever since :)  After a days tubing, you have the option of floating all the way down the river back into town or grabbing a tuk tuk to return you....one day we decided to attempt floating all the way down the river but halfway home realised we were freezing and gave up.  Once back in town the festival like atmosphere of the day does not stop and you head onto the island (a small island, overlooked by the bungalow we were staying in).  The island was lots of fun, we tended to stay in the same bar... called smile bar, it had two large fires in the middle of the field, hammocks, benches, free shots of whiskey, and an amazing atmosphere.  Smile bar is where we celebrated NYE with at least 500 people...maybe more, I'm not too good at judging crowd sizes... but more importantly it was where me Zoe, mike , Tom Mills and a load of other peeps we had met on the way celebrated it together.... a very good NYE.

Other than the babble i have just typed up about Vang Vieng..... we stayed in a lovely bungalow over looking the river.  We spent a couple of recovery days (we went tubing 3 times) hanging around in the "Friends" or more often the "Family Guy" bars....really comfy bars, where you can lie surrounded in pillows watching the TV, ordering snacks and fruit shakes.  One little Gem offering a taste from home was the Aussie bar, the taste from home being a fry up and HP sauce! I was so happy and probably managed to get through a whole bottle myself in the time we spent in Bang Vieng.  One unfortunate accident involved the butscartcher Zoe had bought me for Christmas, just after the bottom of my feet had recovered from a couple of coconut shell incidents i manged to tread on the butscrather with my full weight, putting a couple of very painful puncture holes in the bottom of my foot, which have just about healed up now :)

Feeling a little broken we headed from Vang Vieng to Luang Probang, we said good bye to Tom Mills as he was heading south and on to Bangkok to meet a friend and jumped on a bus.  I was glad to leave Vang Vieng and ready for a long while without beer.  The bus ride was super scary, it was a small mini van and lasted about 6 hours.  The ride involved winding roads with sheer drops off the side, a driver constantly looking at things other than the road including his mobile phone, overtaking around blind corners, and general occurrences that made us hold our breath.  The best thing about the drive though was the beautiful view of the mountains.... and i have recently heard that 85% of Laos is made up of mountains.... most of them being lush and green.

Arriving in Luang Probang we decided to treat ourselves to plush accommodation with hot water and a TV.  We bought DVD's, pizza, trays of vegetable treats and enjoyed an evening of movies after hooking our DVD player up to the TV.  Pizza being the biggest treat as no matter where we seem to go it is really really expensive compared to everyhting else... I'm not sure if its the cheese, or the fact that the locals know how much westerners love their pizzas, but whatever it is their expensive.  We spent a couple of days in Luang Probang and i loved it, its a very chilled out town, again surrounded by beautiful scenery.  One of the days we climbed to the top of the hill in the center of town for a good birds eye view of the city, and also checked out the "Buddha's Footprint" which he once left in the city... I'm not too clued up on Buddha but if he is the size of a giant and has a footprint similar to that of a dinosaur then i believe it truly was Buddhas footprint we were looking at.

On the night we enjoyed an amazing vegetarian buffet, amazing because it was supper tasty but also because it was super cheap, after the buffet headed into the night market for some of the best bartering i have ever experienced.  They were either pricing their items at a ridiculously high price to start with or i was at my haggling peak, as i was managing to walk away with items at a quarter of the asking price sometimes less.  I was pulling out walk away maneuvers, the "Thats my final price" face and hand signals, key phrases and felt like i was on haggling fire with the results i was achieving.... so I'm going to put it down to my haggling but there is a small chance they had over priced the items in the first place.  We also found the best bookstore in the world, or at least the best one i have ever been to.  I managed to offload a couple of my books and pick up a new one with their book swap, but the shop also offered an amazing reading area filled with pillows, and pure comfort while they offer you cake and drinks from a selection of over 25 teas and coffee....oooo and they also had movie nights.  If were not in a rush to leave town due to our visa nearing its end i would have spent a whole day in that bookshop.  We also spent an afternoon browsing a Chinese market just outside of town, more my type of market full of crap but none of the touristy crap and selling at local prices.

We were in a bit of a rush to leave Luang Probang... only for good reasons though, 1. We had managed to book a place on the "Gibbon Trail" and 2. our visa was running out.  The bus heading to HuayXay was one of the worst yet.  We were the only tourists on the bus, which is not a bad thing but it just meant we had difficulty finding out how long we were stopping for etc, the road was super windy and super bumpy which led to about 40-60% of the bus throwing up....loudly, one lady right next to us.  The bus was freezing as it stank of sick so we had to have the windows open, and as all the seats were taken people were sitting in the isle and Zoe ended up with a kid sleeping over her feet.  They also played really loud music the whole way, which was not too much fun on a 16 hour bus ride, especially when it was still going on at 3:00 in the morning, and not just the music from the stereo but also people playing songs on their mobile phones all night long. Sooo it was a really bad bus, but thats travel and i love it :)

We arrived in HuayXay, a small town with one main road and not much going on.  Had a few issues getting payment to the "Gibbon Trail" and few nail biting moments where we thought we would not get to go, mainly because paypal blocked Zoe's account, due to suspicious activity ie. the use of it in Laos, but it worked out and we were booked and ready to leave in the morning.  

The gibbon trail or "Gibbon Experience" is an Eco tourism forest conservation project. Through the money they get from customers such as us they fund forest protection and community projects in Bokeo Nature Reserve, Northern Laos, plus there are a load of gibbons hanging around the area that if your lucky you get to see.  We jumped in the bus with ten others for the three hour drive to the nature reserve, after a bit of time on the road, and a long bumpy track we were at the edge of the jungle, surrounded by a small village made up of bamboo huts.  We trekked for an hour through some beautiful scenery and ended up at the gibbon experience main base within the reserve.  After a briefing on how to use the harness to whizz through the trees and above the canopy on a zip line we were divided up into three tree houses.  One contained three boys, another contained a couple and our tree house the biggest of the lot contained me, Zoe and 5 other girls.  We trekked a little further and after our first zip (the only way to enter the tree house) we had some time to get accustomed to our new home..... A three tiered tree house 45 meters from the ground, it was a stunning piece of craftsmanship, and truly amazing how they completed a build so high in the tree.  The top level contained a double bed (mine and Zoe's), the second level contained a sink, gas cooker, and chill out area, the bottom level consisted of a shower connected to a spring (bloody freezing but super invigorating) and two triple beds for the other girls to share.



After some time to catch our breaths and take in the view of the forest, our guide led us on a 2 hour zip through the jungle.  You basically wear your harness as you would with rock climbing / abseiling gear, first you attach your safety rope to the zip line, then you attach a device made up of rollers to whizz you down the line and a piece of tyre to use as a brake if your anywhere near to crashing into a tree at the other end.  It was one of the many highlights of our trip so far, a little nerve racking at first, especially when you look down and you realise how high you are (some of the lines were stupidly high).  The feeling you get when zipping along past the tops of trees that have taken hundreds of years to grow, is amazing and difficult to explain.  The longest line was 340 meters and the shortest 60 meters.



After our introduction to zip lining with the guide we were pretty much left on our own to explore the jungle via tracks and zip lines for the next 3 days...a special experience and one i will always remember.... i think i would like to do it again, maybe in a few years time.  One of the night me and the 6 girls were playing cards and i decided i wanted to do a night zip, we were told this was not allowed, but seeing as we were on our own and no one was around i wanted to experience the thrill of the Zip but at night.  After suggesting it to the girls they decided to make it a little more interesting and the added the idea that the loser of the card game we were playing had to zip in just their underpants... not to bad for me, a little worse for them.  Well anyways one of the girls lost and fair play to her, stripped down to just her pants and night zipped through the trees topless, there was a no photograph rule but everyone seemed to ignore that and got snap happy.  I also had a night zip and it was as good as i expected, the only scary part was getting to the other end of the line and finding yourself in the dead of night in the middle of the jungle...oh and i zipped fully clothed.



Gibbons wise, the only people to see gibbons out of all 12 of us was me and Zoe :)  well Zoe definitely seen a gibbon, i seen a black shape whizz up a tree...I'm telling myself it was a gibbon, and I'm pretty sure it was.  Falling asleep in the tree house was a little scary, mainly because on the first day the boys had a massive bright green snake in their tree house.... i saw the pictures and it was huge...randomly their guide hit it over the head with a bamboo pole and threw it out of the tree!  not very Eco- friendly but he said he was scared of it and it was dangerous!  So the night time routine included scouting for snakes and spiders (apparently they get pretty big ones in the tree house) and then tucking the white tarpaulin/mosquito net around our bed.  Woke up a few times on the first night to the sound of scratching and scurrying... we discovered it was rats or mice as they had chewed holes into both mine and Zoe's bags....not sure what they were after in my bag but in Zoe's they ate through a sun cream bottle.  The second night after a long while trying to get to sleep i slept like a log, prob because i had been running around all day like a loony trying to get as many zipps in as possible.  It took me a while to get to sleep because the wind had picked up and when your 45 feet in the air, you can feel your bed rocking and creaking it gets a little nerve racking.  The best part of the whole tree house experience was waking up in the morning, i set my alarm for 5:45am on the third day and woke to a near silent forest, but as the sun came up you could hear all of the birds and animals waking up around you aswell as the jungle came alive.....wildlife wise other than the gibbons there are bears, birds, squirrels, and one afternoon exploring the jungle we heard the weirdest and very scary barking noise, it didn't sound like a dog and it was getting louder... i freaked out a little as it was getting dark also so we just zipped ourselves to the safety of our tree house :)



I think i have babbled on long enough about the whole gibbon thing, if you want to know anymore you can e-mail me.... ooohhh one more thing though, the last night a mouse/rat managed to chew its way into our tarpaulin and eat a chunk out of Zoe's book that was led next to her head....cheeky bastardo!  And we also did a tandem zip (once again we were told not to, but it was worth it :P)



Back in town we met up with Mike again who we have now been traveling with since the start of Laos (over 1 month).  He had left us to do the gibbon thing on our own and then booked us a guest house in town for our return... this was our last night in Laos and was spent with one of their amazing baguettes a Laos beer and view of Thailand.  The view from the roof of the guest house was gorgeous, in the foreground the sleepy border town of Huay Xai, in the background a small river crossing and Thailand :)  I also had some good news to find out that the Christmas presents i had sent home to my family had arrived....yey!



So it was the end of Laos, a beautiful country, that will definitely make it into my top five.... we took the small boat ride across the river and entered Thailand.  A 7 hour bus ride later we found ourselves in the north west of a country that to me feels like the land of opportunity... i will explain.  First i will let you know the town we ended up at is Chiang Mai... which i believe is the second biggest or at least the second most visited city in Thailand and is where i am writing this blog from now.  I called it the land of opportunity because of the amount of courses and activities available to a traveler here.  I may be repeating myself from other blogs but I'm too tired (read lazy) to check back to see if i am... . but i just wanted to write a little bit about the plans i have made for Thailand...or at least some of the activities i may be participating in:



 - Scuba diving course: Ever since my first dive in Australia i have been looking forward to an opportunity to get qualified, i hear Thailand is the place to do it, price and dive site wise
 - Cooking course: love Thai food, love to cook, time to learn
 - Meditation course: I have been told that such a course can be very rewarding, and i think that this will be one of the only opportunities i will have to try it....i mean can you see yourself using up a week of your yearly holiday to sit in silence?  I have booked this already and will be taking a 5-6 day course on the 26th of January...take a read about the Buddhism center here: http://www.fivethousandyears.org/mos/ 
 - ATV and white water rafting day: Love quads, love rafting
 - Organic farm stay: A fellow traveler passed on the details of this place that can be found in the north of Thailand... basically an organic farm, where you can stay for free or near to nothing if you help out picking cotton or building huts etc..... i fancy a bit of labor and i plan to be there within the next few days for a few days stay you can check it out here: http://www.tacomepai.com/en/
- Muay Thai Boxing course: When in Rome...and i should prob learn how to defend myself :P
- 1 day trip to Burma: Hap Harrently it is possible to take a 1 day trip from a border town in the south ...no visa necessary :)

So from the above you can see why I'm calling it the land of opportunity...and fingers crossed you should be hearing about all of those activities in future blogs :)



Bloody hell Jim, its turning out to be a bloody long ol blog... for those of you who have made it this far (not many people left I'm sure) i will just tell you about our first couple of days in Thailand.  They have been spent in Chiang Mai, we have pretty much just been getting ourselves organised AKA planning activities, getting a bit of a schedule together as you have to book in advance for most.  We did spend some time in the night market... which had some amazing snacks (pork sausages padded out with rice, fried quails eggs, spring rolls, dumplings), plus we have had some time to sample some of Thailand's tastiest dishes, yum.  



The main point of interest on our Thailand adventure so far was a night of Muay Thai Boxing (kick boxing).  We picked up some cheap tickets at our hostel and at 8:15 headed to the arena early (Thaphae boxing arena - next to the eastern gate of the inner city walls).  The atmosphere was amazing, it almost felt like i was in a Guy Ritchie film.  We had a ringside table...literally ring side, during the fights i sometimes lent on the ring to get some good photos we were that close.  It was a bit grubby, the room stank of vaporub and sweat, everything seemed a bit rough and dirty and it all added to the atmosphere.  We watched 9 matches, complimented by whiskey and coke served to the table, along with some bar snacks.  The first couple of fights were a little disturbing as the fighters couldn't have been older than 12 or thirteen, and they didn't hold back.... it was properly brutal fighting.  There were a couple of lady fights and then the rest were blokes.  We saw 2 knockouts, both with brutal power and speed, one left the poor guy stumbling around the ring when he tried to stand up.  In fact it was a very surreal experience for me, i don't think i have ever been to a fight before, and fighting is definitely not in my nature so seeing two guys (or girls) putting their full energy into fighting each other so close to me was strange.... i definitely enjoyed the night,  especially getting involved with the cheers and the crowd,  but i think that was an interest in the techniques and skill displayed as opposed to watching someone get the crap beaten out of them.  The boxing was topped off with some cabaret, by cabaret i mean lady boys miming to Celine Dion..... we left.



So that s been Thailand so far, and the almost the end of this blog....we are off to Pai tomorrow, a very chilled out town further north.

Books read:

Janet Evanovich - Three to get deadly.... didn't like it... did not think it was written very well, obviously better than anything i could do buuut there was a lot of he said, she said then he said, then she said.... boring.



Ben Mezrich - Ugly American$...Very very very good read, a true story about Americans (along with Brits) trading in Japan, involves the Yakuza, and exposes a little of the Japanese underworld...very seedy, very gritty, and a very good read.

Annnnd as always check out the rest of our photos here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/discozo/sets/  if you got the time there are bloody loads of em!

Annnnd one more little comment, Zoe's blog has been featured on travelpod for the last couple of weeks...it has just moved down to the second spot, but if you want to take a gander you can find it on the home page of travelpod... or go here: http://www.travelpod.com/travel-blog-entries/you_know_zo/2/1213380000/tpod.html

Till next time

Tom
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