A Travellerspoint blog

Lovely Lovely LOVELY Laos

Activities all round!

Well, after placing our bets on how long the bus would take, getting hold of some Valium, and making immediate friends due to the fact we'd been allocated the back corner top bunks of the bus, we were on our way to Laos! The bus took a whopping 27 hours however I managed to stay passed out for almost the entirety of the journey , only waking when we were off loaded at the border and made to walk up hill through the mist between countries at 5.30am. It was interesting.

We had turned up at the border with only Vietnamese Dong on us and crossing countries - one of which is Vietnam, you'd think you could buy a visa in this currency right? Wrong. Don't be so silly. You can only use Laos Kip, which incidentally you can only get once inside of Laos itself. Of course! This IS Asia. Luckily you could also pay in US Dollar. Only problem being the currency exchange isn't open at that time in the morning. This is where much waiting around happens while everyone tries to pay in whatever currency they happen to have - one fantastic English girl even asked if they took Brazilian. Worth a try, however for everyone's future reference the answer was no.

Maybe this was why the bus took so long? Anyway, we eventually arrived in the Laos capital of Vientiane and everyone was exhausted. We were dropped off in a pretty random place so a group of about 12 of us looked at each other and pretty much without a word decided pub was the only answer. No one had a clue of the time, the day, anything, it was just unanimously decided that beer was needed.

After this we all managed to get rooms and hung around in Vientiane a couple of days just getting our bearings, making plans, and visiting Buddha Park! I LOVED this place it was fantastic! Okay so it was kind of like a garden centre gone wrong, but there were hundreds of statues of different forms of Buddha and various Indian gods too, in all shapes and sizes. Some were so big you could climb up (health and safety would definitely not like this place) and others were teeny and sat within the larger sculptures. It was cool. Tacky and funny, but cool. And we got to chat to some real life monks who wanted to practise their English. That was cool too.

We headed north from Vientiane to Vang Vieng - a place known amongst the backpackers of the world as THE place to go tubing. There were once countless bars along the banks so everyone made it into a huge party while floating along the river however after numerous injuries and deaths of travellers these were all torn down in the summer of 2012. And to be honest, although I didn't see it before, it was still fantastic. We went as quite a big group (told you we made immediate friends on that long old bus) had a few drinks each, and had a great time floating along. The scenery was beautiful, you could still take beer, it just meant there wasn't awful music as we went along. We then of course had a big night out so it all worked out well!

The next day we went climbing which was such good fun. The mountains and rock faces of Vang Vieng are limestone so the climbing possibilities are awesome. It was in fact so much fun that me and Olivia, one of the girls we met on the bus, went back a second day to learn lead climbing which was terrifying but fantastic. And better than the first day in so much as there were only us two, not ten people.

I would love to go back to Vang Vieng and spend more time climbing and maybe doing some kayaking too. It was such a beautiful place with so much more to it than the reputation it has as a boozy backpacker town. Sadly due to the tubing bars being closed down, tourism here has fallen drastically. I just hope people continue to visit for the many other reasons.

From here we were heading north again, up to Luang Prabang in the mountains, so of course we had another big night of dancing in a fantastically awful club, Star Bar or Moon Bar or something just to prepare us for the journey....

Posted by kbenfield 00:50 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

The 4 H's of Vietnam

Hoi An - Hue - Hanoi - Halong Bay

After all our Vietnam relaxing beach time we made it to beautiful Hoi An, halfway up the coast of the country. Hoi An was absolutely beautiful and is possibly my favourite place in the whole of Vietnam. I know I say this about everywhere but this place was gorgeous! There were plants and flowers everywhere on the streets, vines and greenery growing from every balcony, it was really very lovely. And the sandwiches were AMAZING.

The weather was beautiful too so this along with the shuttered yellow stone buildings of the old city which sits alongside the river just made it thoroughly enjoyable. It had a very French feel to it although at the same time very Chinese with lots of dragon style lanterns hanging all over the place. We spent some time in the old city although annoyingly didn't get to the ancient ruins which are a few hours away - next time!

We had a lot of ground to cover and were starting to get a little worried about the fact Christmas was racing up on us so after just a couple of days jumped on a bus for a couple of hours to Hue, the old imperial capital of Vietnam.

Most people tend to just spend an afternoon in this city but we wanted to spend a bit longer and I'm so glad we did. We visited the ancient citadel which was fascinating. Again a huge Chinese influence as seems to be the case the further north we go, with pagodas, fish ponds, dragon statues, mini trees - it's like a completely different country up here compared to the South. It was about a million degrees (because being English we typically went out during the peak heat of the day) and of course the citadel was shut on our arrival so we spent an hour wilting before being able to get in but it was worth the wait. There was hardly anyone there, it was as if Lauren and I owned the place.

We had to continue further north on yet another sleeper bus to reach Hanoi WHICH WAS CRAZY. Definitely the Saigon of the north but maybe even more mental. Tiny alleyways crammed with motorbikes, little old ladies carrying those stick things across their shoulders with things hanging, conical hats EVERYWHERE, it was awesome! It was pretty chilly, freezing in fact compared to further south, we had to actually get the jeans and scarves out again.

We had come to Hanoi as the gateway to Halong Bay, one of the modern natural wonders of the world. We splashed out a bit for a nicer boat than usual backpacker budget allows and had a gorgeous boat to spend two nights/three days sailing on an old junk ship meandering our way through the thousands of beautiful islands which emerge from the turquoise water. Unfortunately the weather was cool and a bit grey, but this didn't stop us kayaking through caves and swimming in the lagoons between the mountainous islands. It was stunning.

After three days as sea-dogs we made our way back to Hanoi for one final night before leaving for Laos. We had some tasty noodle soup at a tiny street food place and some corn cooked on a makeshift BBQ outside our hotel and settled for one last sleep in a bed before the epic journey. Some say it takes 18 hours, some say 24, some say 30. We'll soon find out...!

Posted by kbenfield 00:46 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Phnom Penh & Southern Vietnam

From Cities to Beaches!

We only spent a couple of days in Phnom Penh where we visited the horrific site of S-21, a former school in the capital of Cambodia which was turned into a torturous prison during the reign of the Khmer Rouge. I'd been before however a second visit was just as haunting. To think it was less than 40 years ago so many people died at the hands of Pol Pot, and right there too. It's a chilling place.

Lauren and Jeroen also visited the killing fields where hundreds of thousands were brutally executed and were tossed aside. Having done this before as well I gave it a miss, the school was definitely enough to remind you of what the Cambodians have been through. They really are amazing people to come back from this with such warmth and genuine good feeling to visitors. 

Having to sadly separate from Jeroen who was heading to Malaysia, we took a bus across the border into Vietnam and onto Saigon. I was a bit apprehensive about revisiting this city as last time I was there I stayed too long and it drove me a bit crazy! This time however I needn't have worried as I fell in love with the noisy hectic traffic filled in your face place instantly!

Having become two female travellers by ourselves again with no boys around we were a bit naughty and spent a couple of days and nights being total girls. We bypassed the sites and instead sat in cafes, ate chocolate and cake, read, visited the shops (there was a French Connection!!) watched movies in a little cafe cinema, slept late, it was fantastic. It was so nice to have total downtime, I hadn't realised how full on Cambodia had been until we stopped. 

The weather was looking good and having enjoyed our relaxing time so much we thought we'd have a bit more and head to the beach. And what a beach it was!! Mui Ne is about 4 hours out of Saigon and is gorgeous! It was SO exciting to lay on a beach in the sun, swim in the ocean, drink cocktails in the evening, eat fresh seafood. It felt like pure luxury at a fraction of the cost! It was the most relaxed I think we've been in four months so we definitely deserved it. We spent three nights enjoying this luxury and easily could've spent longer, it was definitely a place to get trapped. And being able to have a hot stone massage for £6 was a bonus too - although to be fair I'm pretty certain they weren't actually qualified masseuses with some of the massage techniques that were being used - especially the hitting of the head at the end??

We arrived in Dalat in the central highlands a couple of days ago and have spent our time here continuing the relaxing theme of eating, wandering, sleeping late. I tell you, I could definitely get used to this! There was even a kettle in our room so we bought tea bags and chocolate, amazing! Oh, and a hot shower!!! We went on a tour of the local countryside yesterday on the back of a couple of motorbikes which was fun. It's SO beautiful up here, so green, such a cool fresh climate. I would love to stay longer however we are once again on the move in about half hour - on to Nha Trang for just a little more beach time!!

Posted by kbenfield 21:43 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Eastern Cambodia

Into the unknown

We left Siem Reap at a ridiculously early hour to get to Kompong Cham which is supposedly the third largest 'city' in Cambodia after Phnom Penh and Battambang, although it definitely felt decidedly smaller than Siem Reap. It turned out to be rather quaint situated on the banks of the Mekong with a couple of smaller islands dotted in the river.

We decided to spend an extra night not only due to the fact we were knackered after a long bus journey and couldn't face another one straight the following day, but we landed a HUGE room with an even bigger terrace overlooking the river for the price of $10 between the four of us. This place was ridiculous, I definitely could've fit my whole London flat on the terrace alone. Amazing. Up went the hammock, out came the book, in came the beers, perfect.

We wandered along the river and saw a gorgeous sunset from an old lighthouse which had extremely steep ladders to climb and made a plan to visit one of the islands the following day.

This turned out to be one of my favourite things we've done in Cambodia. The islands are car-less (although there are some motorbikes) and we hired pushbikes which I think were made many MANY years before we were born. To get to the island we had to take the 'ferry'. This was an interesting part of the day first trying to find the ferry port then discovering what the actual ferry was - some planks on floating empty canisters on which maybe 40 motorbikes and pushbikes pile and the obligatory livestock as standard. Of course we were the talk of the ferry but we've come to realise we're more often than not the main talking point amongst locals so just laugh and smile and agree with whatever's said. It usually works and if not Lauren's drama skills come into play to converse.

The island was beautiful, it was like going back in time. It was so lush, the houses on stilts were amazing, the people were so friendly - I've never shouted hello so many times in a three hour period - we ate some great sticky rice cooked in banana leaf from a lady along a pathway, it was a lovely lovely day. I think I'd spend longer in Kompong Cham maybe. It was so chilled which is what we needed after Siem Reap and Angkor.

But onwards we went, reaching the little town of Ban Lung in the far northeast of the country late in the afternoon. We found a nice enough hotel and set about organising to set off on a jungle trek the following day. It was so much fun to trek again, and so wildly different to Nepal, I don't think anything could have been further. And Russell had normal shoes this time!!

We trekked for one day through the thick overgrown jungle - there wasn't really a path as such. Luckily our ranger was armed with a machete which came in handy when at one point THE BIGGEST SNAKE I'VE EVER SEEN was right in front of us!!!!! He hadn't seen it and almost trod on it (in flip flops of course) thinking it was a branch until it moved when the machete was then thrown, we all screamed, he was doing that nervous laugh people do when they're scared but have to be brave, it was all very exciting. That was when we realised that not only had all but one of us forgotten a torch, but none of us had brought any first aid stuff....

I think we'd underestimated how 'jungle' like the jungle would be after our Chitwan experience in Nepal! And it was only going to be one night, we'd done eleven on Annapurna, this was supposed to be a walk in the park! It was great though that 'untouched' really means just that here.

Camp was next to a beautiful swimming hole where we swung from vines into the water and set up the hammocks. Dinner was cooked inside a large piece of bamboo and was some of the best food I've eaten. It was just fish and vegetable curry with spices but so so tasty. And so clever! Our ranger was amazing.

The following day was just three hours more through the trees then another tasty lunch before an afternoon swim in the volcanic crater lake which was gorgeous. The water was warm and a lovely blue, it was surrounded by trees, there were local kids running all over, it was great. Another unspoilt spot a bit off the beaten track. 

This was Jeroens birthday so after starting the day being woken in his hammock in the jungle by me and Lauren singing happy birthday and presenting him with cakes chocolate and a birthday hat, the day ended with some dancing in a slightly surreal Cambodian nightclub. They only sold beer, there were two large screens - one with football one with a movie, the DJ kept switching from what tended to sound like one very long song played at deafening volume to Whitney Houston and the like which emptied the floor, there was a LOT of staring, there were interesting dance moves being thrown, it was fantastic. We danced till 2am and had to be up at 5.45 for a bus to Phnom Penh where we're headed to now. It was hard getting up today, I'm feeling decidedly ropey, but all in a good way! We've been on this bus for almost seven hours now so I hope to god we're nearly there!!

Posted by kbenfield 02:46 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

Northern Cambodia

Beautiful Battambang & Amazing Angkor

So north we went. On the longest bus ride since the start of my travels in India! We were headed to Battambang which is a lovely little town to the West of the great Tonlé Sap lake. It had some beautiful French influenced buildings and streets all set along the river with a promenade. It had a totally different feel to where we'd come from, in a good way! 

We hadn't really planned to come here as such but due to the bad beach times we were able to and I'm so glad we did. We were lucky enough to meet a fantastic tuk tuk driver, Lize, who spoke very good English and wasn't overly pushy (for a change) who took us out on excursions the following two days. We went to some temples (of course, no visit to a place is complete without seeing at least 8 temples!!!!) and saw the bamboo train which is pretty cool. Basically it's what it says on the tin - a train made out of bamboo. There's only one line however so if two meet going in opposite directions, the one with the least goods & people on has to be dismantled and rebuilt when the other has passed. Crazy! We also ate some great sticky rice from a stall where a lady cooked it within the bamboo and fried bananas mmm!

Later in the day we went to 'boat mountain' which looked NOTHING like a boat but had a temple (!!) on top of it and was definitely NOT a mountain. Amazingly as we were pulled over getting some photos who was to whizz past in another tuk tuk but dearest Russell who we trekked Annapurna with! We knew he was around but to bump into each other in tuk tuks on a random road outside Battambang Cambodia, what are the chances!

We all climbed the 'mountain' together which was all of 100metres high (our driver was impressed when we said we'd climbed 5400 a few weeks back) and had a good catch up. It turned our Russell was in the same hotel as us so we all planned to meet the following day so now we are a group of four :)

The drive we'd been on to the temples and the 'mountain' was absolutely beautiful. Tuk tuk is a great way to get around, see the countryside, get a breeze to dry the sweat! Cambodia is so lush and green. It's very wet near to Battambang, mainly I expect due to the huge lake which I think almost doubles during the wet season, so there's huge amounts of rice paddies, tall leafy trees, waterlilies and lotus flowers. It's gorgeous. 

We did some more sightseeing with Lize the next day and ended our visit to this lovely town by going to the circus! Cambodia is full of NGO projects and organisations and this was one of them. It takes underprivileged children and orphans and teaches them art, drama, circus skills, design, music. It's a fantastic initiative and the show the kids put on was fantastic. It was a great way to end the trip.

We could've stuck around for a while longer, it was nice to be away from westerners again and to see more of the real Cambodia, but alas Siem Reap and the majestic temples of Angkor were calling!

We decided to get the boat from Battambang to Siem Reap. God knows why, I guess we thought it'd be a nice change from the bus and is very scenic. But my god it was hell. It was a million degrees, there were double the amount of people there should've been (of course, this we were expecting) it was uncomfortable, and it went on forever!!!! I read the entire Great Gatsby on the journey though, in one sitting, so I at least gained something from it! But never ever again!!!!!!

Siem Reap was a LOT more built up than when I was last here. Unfortunately now complete with 'Pub Street' yikes. Beer drinking Brit alert!!! We were luckily only here as a base to get the amazing temples at ancient Angkor Wat for the next two days however and it was so worth it. I think it's one of those sites that you can go to again and again and still be amazed and awed. It really is such a beautiful place. The first day we went to the outer temples including Thom Prah which are crumbling ruins with trees growing throughout. The photo opportunities are amazing!!!!! It was so exciting to be back there. 

We visited the big one, Angkor Wat itself, for sunrise the second day, and it was just as impressive this time round as five years ago. Walking amongst these relics of the past is something else. You start to imagine how it must've been. And what it would've been like to discover them! But to live in this place, when there were no roads between the temples, no tuk tuks whizzing around, no women calling 'hey lady you wan' cold waterrrrrrr' you can't even imagine. We visited Bayon this second day too and to look at these reliefs that have been carved into every stone, to see the huge faces staring out at you, it really is incredible.

I'm as in love with Angkor Wat as the first time round. It's getting busier and busier with stairways now installed in areas and a lot of scaffolding up on areas which are having work done, but it's just as impressive. Two days is not enough, I'll just have to come back I guess...!

We planned to head even further north to the border of Cambodia and Thailand but unfortunately there are no buses which go this way yet. So we're heading south again, but this time to turn east, into the parts of Cambodia I didn't even realise you could get to. Into the depths of the jungle, to volcanic craters you can swim in, to the areas Apocalypse Now was filmed. The middle of nowhere I do believe!!

Posted by kbenfield 00:50 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

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