Sunday, 23 February 2014

Luang Prabang

So, that didn't work out so well...

The trip was fairly uneventful. The road seems to have improved a lot in the last 5 years – the 6 -8 hour journey on potholed dirt described in my guidebook was achieved in 4 hours. They seem still to be improving much of the road, mind – it's a work in progress.

Having heard from a fellow traveller in Vientiane that LPB had only one hostel and was very expensive otherwise for accommodation, I was concerned when the first few guesthouses I tried wanted $10 a night for a bed. However, after asking a random stranger at the coffee shop to watch my things while I went to top up my phone, he directed me to his guesthouse, that had a dorm for $5 a night. I gave them 4 nights' money, and went to explore this apparent utopia.

And was singularly unenamoured.
Set on a peninsula between two rivers, it's a pretty enough setting, but after the dramatic scenery of Vang Vieng, it was almost disappointing. The town is attractive, but it's extremely gentrified, and every building on the main street is either a coffee shop or sells very expensive souvenirs.
Cheap food can be found, though, in the form of street buffets where you pay 10,000kip (about $1.50) for a plate, and then put as much food on it as you can. The food is good, which is useful.

Out for breakfast the next morning, I bumped into Tina and Sebastien from Bangkok, who'd arrived in LPB on a three-day kayak trip from Nong Kaiew (There are may spellings of that place. I think I use all of them. I have no clue which is the official one). They'd loved the town, and given that I was already disappointed with LPB, I decided to have a look at going there the next day, as an extra step between LPB and China.

Between that and the hostel, it could have been an unexpectedly cheap stay in LPB, except that $150 was stolen from my bag while I was out for breakfast. It's not catastrophic to the trip, but it's annoying and inconvenient as it's a fair proportion of the money I've been saving in southeast asia to compensate for how expensive Japan will be. I should have had the money with me, I know, but I try to spread the risks by not having everything in one place, and there's a limit to what you can do when you're on your own. Carrying absolutely everything all the time just isn't possible.

I'll have to have a rethink on how I handle that.

Fortunately, they hadn't taken Jessica's camera, which she'd left in Leila's bag in Vang Vieng and which I was returning to her as Leila's gone to the Plain of Jars.
I met Jessica and Hana for lunch, returned her camera, and then tried to get to the waterfalls outside town with Hana.
To further the comedy of errors, we tried to find more people to share the tuktuk so it wouldn't be so expensive, and then an argument ensued over which falls people wanted to visit. We ended up not going, and wandered around the town taking photos of Wats instead.

The next task for me was to try to pursuade the hostel to refund me the two nights I was not going to use, and book a bus to Nong Keiw.

Having done that (they were reluctant, but I was determined, and poor), I checked my email, and found one saying a card balance was now £0.00.
This was not the balance it had been in the morning.
I spent the next two hours trying to contact the card provider to check what was going on, and working out how much shorter I'd have to make my trip if the money was gone.
I didn't manage it before dinner, and was very bad company for poor Hana! I abandoned her about an hour later to go and continue trying to sort it out – she headed to a bar to meet up with Jessica again, so I didn't feel too awful about it.

Eventually, I managed to ascertain the balance issue was unrelated gremlins, so there's no lasting damage from the LPB Episode.

Still, it was a relief to get on the bus and head away from the city to Nong Kiew.

Saturday, 22 February 2014

Laap Two

Vang Vieng is not what it once was.
Which is just as well, or I never would have gone there.
5 years ago or so, Vang Vieng was where everyone went to get trashed and throw themselves in the river in a tyre inner tube. Bars lined the length of the river, and competed for custom by setting up rickety water slides and fraying swings, and giving out a lot of free beer.

In the dry season, when the weather is hot and the river is low, this is a very bad combination. There were frequent serious injuries, a not insignificant number of deaths, and the Lao government clamped down.

These days, there are just four bars on the 'tubing' route along the river, and tour agencies have sprung up offering trekking and kayaking, climbing, and hot air balloon flights instead.

It makes for a rather odd place.
While everyone knows things have changed, the town is full of people desperately wishing it hadn't. It feels a bit like walking through a mass hallucination, being hosted by the minds of a thousand 22yr-olds who wish they'd made it here just a little sooner.

The bars in town play Friends and How I Met Your Mother on a loop, all day long, to people lounging around on cushions and drinking banana shakes by the gallon. I admit that I was quite often one of those people.

Of the four days I was in Vang Vieng, I spent two of them watching Friends, drinking banana shakes and eating mango sticky rice, which is basically rice pudding. Of the other two days, one was a rather surreal piece of caving-by-inner-tube: hundreds of bikini and board-short clad tourists pulling themselves along a rope through a cave in a shallow (dry season) river while sitting in an inner tube. It's not an experience I expect to repeat, but it was oddly enjoyable.

Afterwards was some kayaking on a very shallow river (notice the theme here), and then some messing about in a cave.

The other day, I climbed.

I was a bit nervous of going for a whole day, as I've mainly found limestone quite tricky to climb, but this was great. I don't know why the rock had weathered so differently to the ones I've climbed before, but this was grippy, with good footholds and lots of handholds, whether you like pockets, laybacks or big secure edges. I had a really good day, and while I didn't try any leading, being able to make it up 6as on limestone made me feel a lot better about the world. Especially after not having climbed much for three months!

 Anka clambs!

 Just hangin'

I've spent one more day in Vang Vieng than I intended, mainly through indecision. Whether to head east to Phonsavan and the Plain of Jars (an area scattered with stone jars, probably Mesolithic, which no-one knows the origin or purpose of); or to go straight to Luang Prabang.
Eventually, hesitation made the decision for me. It would be a day's travel each way for the Plain of Jars, and I'm running out of time in Laos.

Given the reputation of Luang Prabang as one of the highlights of Laos and it's status as a world heritage city, I've opted to have more time there before heading north.
At least the bus is at 9am rather than stupid o'clock. 
Hangover-land has it's benefits!

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Laap One

Vientiane is perhaps the most maligned of the Southeast Asia capital cities. It does not have the charm of Hanoi, the gravitas of Phnom Penh, the magnetism of Bangkok. It loses out even to the second cities: the scale of Saigon, the majesty of Angkor, the zen of Chiang Mai and the charm of Luang Prabang are all valued over Vientiane as places to stay a while.

If I hadn't needed to go there – my last chance saloon for a Chinese visa – I may not have visited at all.
I'm very glad I needed to go there. I spent nearly a week there in all, and it's a great place.

That may have something to do with the hostel I stayed at.

My first morning there, a Thursday, I headed out to the Chinese consulate, handed over my passport, and was told to come back to collect it on Tuesday. And to go to the bank at some point in between to pay for the visa, as this could no longer be done at the consulate.

This done, and having extended my stay at the hostel, I must confess to spending the majority of my time in Vientiane in a place called the Scandinavian Bakery, trying to catch up on my maths course and eating cinnamon rolls. They were good cinnamon rolls. I cannot say as much for the maths.

I did get out a bit though.
 V and M at the Golden Stupa. National symbol of Lao, and generally shiny thing.

 Me. Dragons. It's a theme...

 I think Spandau Ballet wrote about this thing once.

 Do you like my hair?



 Guys? This is a bit heavy...

 Nonsense! I'm helping, look! And your hair is fabulous, by the way.

 No French influence here. Nope. Move along...

 Leila being eaten by a giant pumpkin thing.


 Inside the giant pumpkin thing.

 View of the Buddha Park from the top of Giant Pumpkin Thing. Freaky surrealist statue parks are fun.

 I think this one might be heaven...?

 Hell. Definitely Hell. Or Bathgate.

 Perfect place for an impromptu English lesson. This is Leila trying to explain when to use 'on' rather than 'in' for public transport methods; and the difference between 'gone' and 'been'.

On Tuesday morning, I went to collect my passport, and then spent an hour running around Vientiane paying additional visa fees to get it amended to a dual entry visa from the single entry that had been issued. The guy at the consulate was very apologetic, and managed to get it amended the same morning, so that I could still get my bus to Vang Vieng at 1pm. I could have left it at single entry, but I don't have enough time to get another visa in Hong Kong, so I'd have to miss going there without the dual entry visa. This would not be the end of the world, but it would probably annoy me a bit not to be able to go as I'll be so close by. I may still have to skip it if I decide to spend longer in certain places in China, but at least I have the option. I like options.

Friday, 14 February 2014

The Short Straw

When I landed in Kampot, I decided to dedicate a month to Cambodia, instead of the two weeks it was originally going to have.
That time had to come from somewhere, and as it turns out, it's come from Thailand.

Partly, this is logistical. I need a visa for China, still. My options were Bangkok, Chiang Mai, or Vientiane.
I didn't want to hang around in Bangkok for the election, which meant I didn't have time to get the visa there.
Next port of call, Chiang Mai...

Aside: Anyone reading this who doesn't know me may nevertheless be noticing a theme. Especially if you're here looking for travel tips. You may have noticed there is no post for Vietnam about Na Trang or Mui Ne. From Cambodia, there is a distinct lack of Sihanoukville or any of the islands. Similarly with Thailand. From Bangkok I headed north. The beaches aren't for me.

I took the night train, choosing to go for a reclining seat rather than a sleeper berth. Leaving Bangkok at 10pm, I spent the first couple of hours of the journey watching from the window, as progressively more isolated suburbs of Bangkok passed by, providing passengers who became steadily fewer and more tired-looking. I finally slept at about 1am, with 12 hours of the journey still to go.
The seats recline a reasonable amount, there is good leg room, and I slept until about 7am.

We got to Chiang Mai on time, and together with two other Brits and a couple of Canadians I caught a share-bus in to the city. The driver seemed to be a newcomer to the trade or the town or both, however, as he struggled with the idea we weren't all going to the same place, and he needed to ask directions three times once we got to the city. All in all, it took about an hour before I was finally deposited at the end of the lane leading to my hostel. It was still a 5 minute walk from there, but at least it was in the vicinity.

My plans for Chiang Mai were fairly simple - get a visa for China, and learn Thai massage. I'd seen a 5-day course, but asked about other options at the hostel anyway as it seemed to be one that actively tried to find cheaper and unusual options to the standard tours available in the area. Kai - the irascible, mercurial, and wonderful manager/owner of ThailandWow! (good name for a hostel, no?) was able to recommend a three-day option - better for the budget, and leaving me time to try to obtain a visa.
I arrived in Chiang Mai on the Sunday, the massage course started on the Wednesday.
Sadly, the Chinese consulate would be closed on Monday and Tuesday for Chinese New Year.
I would not have time to get the visa there, leaving me only Vientiane as an option.

In contrast to Bangkok, I didn't feel comfortable in Chiang Mai at all. Whenever I went out to look around or explore, I usually turned back to the hostel after an hour or so. I spent most of Monday and Tuesday catching up with this blog, and with the maths course I'm trying to do. Wednesday - Friday I had my massage class from 9 - 4.

Very bad photo of me, with Max and Nok, my lovely instructors.

This, I enjoyed very much (I do need to practice, though, or I may as well have not done it. I'll have to find volunteers in my hostels), and afterwards I would walk back to my hostel through the town. It was quite far, and I covered a lot of ground, but I still never really found anywhere there that made the odd discomfort go away.

A week spent in Chiang Mai left me with two options. Go to Lao as soon as possible and get my visa sorted; or go further north to Pai and Chaing Rai before heading to Lao, leaving me with less time in Lao before heading to China.
I booked a bus to Pai.

And then I cancelled it.

I would have liked to go - before getting to Thailand, many people that I'd met who'd already been waxed lyrical about Pai. The almost universal consensus was that it is a wonderful place. The new Chiang Mai. The new heart of the hippy trail. I was curious.
I was also a little short of time.
Going to Pai entailed spending a day getting there, then having only two days there before spending 5 of the next 7 days travelling to get to Vientiane. The alternative would give me longer in Vientiane waiting for my visa (weekends are strange impedances when you've been travelling a while) , but also longer after that to travel through Lao.

The decision was made by listening to travellers who'd just been to Pai and returned to Chiang Mai talking about it. Already, there seem to be more guesthouses in Pai than houses in the original town. There wasn't much to do in the town (although I have no aversion to sitting around and relaxing per se) - the best thing to do in the area is go trekking.
I would like to do that, too, but I didn't have the time. And while I could have made the time by trading off with another country, I didn't want to for several reasons - not least that I wasn't settling well in Thailand, but also because the options for trekking in China seem much more exciting. Which all seemed to make the trip a bad investment.
I decided to head to Lao early instead.

On Saturday, I got the bus to Sukhothai.
Sukhothai is really two cities, 15km apart. Old Sukhothai is the ancient Thai capital. The new city is where most of the guesthouses can be found. I was staying in the new city, directly opposite the bus station. Due to the vagaries of buses, after a couple of hours wait, I gave up on going to the Old City at all and instead cycled in to the New City. I'd be leaving the next day on a 7 hour bus journey to Khon Kaen - the next stop on the journey to Vientiane.

The New City, perhaps unsurprisingly, is like a ghost town during the day. The Old City historical park locks it's gates at 5pm, and until that time the New City was empty.

All in all, it was a rather odd place.

I didn't even spend a day in Khon Kaen. Although I did spend the night there. The last bus from Khon Kaen to Nong Khai (on the Lao border) leaves at 3pm. I have a suspicion this is designed entirely so that tourists will have to stay in Khon Kaen for at least one night, but I may be being cynical.

I would go into more detail, but I've really been moving too fast.
My feeling of discomfort continued as well. The towns all seemed nice enough, as did the people, but I slowly came to put my finger on what I think it is about Thailand that makes me uncomfortable.
It's a bit too familiar.

I mean, when do you not see JCBs driving through the night market? Come on!

I think it's a combination of how modern Thailand is, and how long I've been in Asia.
Vietnam is modern also - but it was my first stop. Everything was new, and the unfamiliar aspects of it caught my eye over and above the underlying similarities.
I'm more used to those, now. Street vendors are normal. Motorbikes driving on the pavement to avoid heavy traffic is a routine (if mercifully infrequent) peril. Tuk-tuks and share-buses are taxis. If you like, the novelty is wearing off. I'm noticing the similarities more.

In itself, that's not a problem. I don't demand exoticism. I'm happy enough walking through it and absorbing the atmosphere. Feeling the differences, even if they aren't always visible.

Thailand felt similar.
And I think that was the problem. If I'm going to be somewhere familiar, then I want my friends there. I want to go climbing with them, and go to the pub. I want to be able to go out for a hillwalk for the day, and go home afterwards.
It was frustrating not to be able to. To be somewhere so familiar and yet so far away from everyone and everything that turned that familiarity into home.
I won't go so far as to say Thailand made me homesick.
Actually, thinking about it, perhaps it did. It certainly made me question whether I want or need to keep travelling.
So I thought about that for a while. I haven't made a decision, really. Except that I want to keep travelling for now. I'm excited by the thought of the countries I have coming up - China and Japan. I'm excited to see my friends in Australia - it's been too long.
So after a final bus journey, and a night in Nong Khai (which is a nice wee town - I quite liked it there!), I left Thailand and I came to Lao.

 Nook Coffee shop in Nong Khai. Written on the window is "Life is not about waiting for the storm to pass... it's about learning to dance in the rain..."

Rear view of Thailand border checkpoint

Vientiane I'll give it's own post in a couple of days. Suffice to say for the time being that I feel better already.

I have no idea what the real issue was with Thailand. Whether I tried to do it too fast; or if I was concentrating on next steps too much and unable to relax there; whether I'm correct in my supposition that it's a disconcerting balance of familiarities old and new; or whether I just didn't do enough exploring there, didn't find the right places or the right things that would have made me love it. There is a certain amount of luck in travelling, in that respect.

My luck was out in Thailand. Perhaps that's all there is to it.