Laos Part 2 – Caves, Freaky Turtles and a Dodgey Sunset Cruise

I left off with my Stray group and I relaxing at the lovely River Front Resort, taking a much needed break before our last few days in Laos. Here is how we spent them…

Day 103
– The main reason for stoping off here, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, was the Kong Lor caves. This 7km long cave system is more like a tunnel and was supposedly discovered by a guy whose ducks kept disappearing everyday and when he became curious and followed them he found this incredible cave. 

With three of us to a long boat each we felt like twats sitting in clumpy life jackets with very attractive head torches to complete the look, but that didn’t matter so much when we started off into the blackness. Our light flickered over the cavernous roof, catching the swells of rock like we were on the inside of a pitch black wave. We stopped at one point to admire the stalactites and stalecmites, some like thick pillars and others more like blobs and still more slowly developing, no more than spindly icicles for now. The only other time we hopped out was when our little boat and our fat asses couldn’t make it over the shallow little rapids and our driver had to pull the boat through without us in it. Or, as Team Norway found out, when you crash land into another boat and end up basically on top of someone, the two boats like a cross. Luckily no one was hurt but it made for an adventure. Eventually we emerged back into the sunlight on the other side and had a little while to warm up its rays before heading back, this time powering through the little rapids.


Just outside the caves was a big lake that fed into them and the perfect rock for jumping off of. I clambered up to the top, prepared to do an epic and graceful swan dive, only to have my legs decide they were going to try and race my head into the water and bend me at an awkward angle so I jarred my back. I wasn’t that badly hurt though and after a while I went for attempt number two only this time I failed before I even made it on to the rock. Slipping just when I was almost up, I tumbled down, roly poly style back into the water. Luckily no one saw but deciding I would obviously better of watching the pros (aka the Family) doing it, I sheepishly swam back round to join the others without jumping. But still, with mountains shielding us from the outside world and the sun shining, it wasn’t a bad place to cool off and enjoy a nice swim.

Day 104
– I woke in the morning and took one of the boats out to explore upriver a bit more. It was one of the most peaceful moments of my trip. There was no noise except that of my paddle gently propelling me through the water and a few birds twittering in the trees. The water was so clear I could see the rocks, crumbling logs and silver darting fish below the surface as if it were glass. Unfortunatly I couldn’t stay there all day as I had a bus to catch.

We were on our way to Thakek. It was mostly another bus journey day but we were rewarded by an excellent sunset when we arrived. Sipping on some cold beers, the sun became a golden glow across the Mekong, silhouetting Thailand on the other side. It never ceased to amaze me that I could look across the water and see a whole different country.



Day 105
– From not having much to report to having another full on day. We made a few stops today, seeing a temple ruined by the bombing in Laos. Then seeing a temple still in use where they keep the stories written by Monks in a kind of library. Here we all had to put on long skirts to show respect and we walked over a little bridge to the room on stilts that is the library. All of the monk’s stories are written on bamboo and carefully rolled in fabric to be kept safe. 


Our next stop was an odd one. In a lake lives a special kind of turtle called a soft shelled turtle. The Laos people believe they are their ancestors and take good care of them, feeding them sticky rice and other tit bits. They are one of the oddest creatures I’ve ever seen though. To begin with they didn’t look too bad. Their curious heads poked above the water and I could see a slightly weird looking turtle head with a pointy nose but not much more. As a local enticed one to the waters edge with a treat their full strangeness was revealed. They looked exactly as their name suggests. They look like naked turtles. What’s even weirder is the way they try to hide, since they can’t disappear into a shell they simply roll their heads heads back ino their neck flab. Suddenly I could see where the term “turtle neck jumper” had come from.


The final stop had us carting the huge bags of bananas we had bought earlier that morning and had been stinking out the bus all day, into the forest where furtive, quick and hungry monkeys came and took the fruit right out of our hands. To begin with they loved it but soon they were full and no matter how much I coaxed they refused to take a banana from me. The greedy cows who interrupted us though were more than happy to finish them off.


Still a bit creeped out we went on our way and finally arrived in Xi Champhogn. We opted to have BBQ for dinner but this was a BBQ with a difference. Each table had a hole in it to fit a pot of coals, over this was placed a dome with a moat around it. The moat was filled with broth to cook noodles and vegetables in while the top had some melted fat on it to stop the meat from sticking and simply cooked the thin slices of pork with the heat from the coals beneath. The flavour was amazing and it was fun to cook it all ourselves. The place itself was great too. We ate outside and on the walls they projected YouTube videos and it wasn’t long before we were making requests. Our guide broke out the whiskey and when we found out it cost only 10,000 kip, that’s just £1 for a full bottle of whiskey, Rachel and Caitlin went in search for more. There were no traffic cones this night but plenty of singing and dancing to new tunes and old classics. This was definitely one of my favourite nights of the trip.


Day 106 – Feeling a little worse for wear it was back on the bus and on to the next place – Pakse. Pakse is known for the coffee plantations there and we got to sample some at a coffee and tea plantation. I got to try white tea, a new experience, and it was actually really nice. A little like green tea but maybe a bit milder, sweeter. 

Before that we went to another waterfall, this one quite different from the ones in Luang Prubang. This was a mighty thing, rushing out from what seemed like a calm little stream at the top and becoming a magnificent cascade. I had been looking forward to a swim to cure my hangover but the air was colder here and the spray off the waterfall made it even less inviting, so while the unflappable Harry, Ella, Pete and Ellie jumped in, the rest of us admired from a distance. 

For dinner we had another Indian, this one possibly even better than the last and I’m kicking myself that I can’t remember the name of it. Safe to say after loading up on my lentil Dahl it was an early night for me.


Day 107 – Today would be our last full day in Laos. We were going to Don Det and the 4,000 islands. I wonder if anyone has actually ever counted them or if it is just a rough estimate? Getting there was not as easy as you would think though.

Firstly though, we stopped off at yet another temple, this one was one of the biggest we had seen so far, called Site de Vat Phu. At the top of the crumbling stone steps, carpeted by falling flowers, lies a fountain which is considering to be Siwa’s pee. In other words: God’s piss. As gross as this sounds it is considered good luck to climb to the top and splash some of the water (or Hindu God pee) onto yourself. 


Once we had come back down I had another first time experience when Pao, our guide, produced a stick of skewered grilled frogs for us to try. Well, if its good enough for the French and the Laos, its good enough for me. Actually it tastes a lot like chicken. But then what doesn’t?! Slightly more appetising were the little coconut puffs that tasted like pancake…except with sweet corn in the middle. They were a little strange but sweet and tasty. 7 out of 10, would eat again.


On we went towards the ferry to Don Det. I’m pretty sure we all had in mind a big boat, with maybe some benches to sit on, a place to safely park our bus, possibly a little more rustic than what we might be used to in our countries but something along that vein. When we saw what we would actually make the crossing on I think none of us believed it until we, and the bus, were on it and sailing to the other side. The ferry was no more than a wooden platform built on top of three boats, the one in the middle used for steering. That is not an exaggeration. They even have mini versions for motorbikes. It was a relief to reach dry land again intact.


After surviving the ferry crossing Rachel, Caitlin and I had an Indian for lunch, as if eating Indian food twice in Laos already wasn’t enough, before booking ourselves on to do a sunset cruise and see a handful of these 4,000 islands. NOT our best idea. It took ages before we got on the boat and the whole time we had no idea what was going on. We were joined by a random guy who was already very drunk and proceeded to pass us his beer, sit too close and try to make conversation with us. We had just survived the ferry and now it seemed we might be left for dead on some island by the driver and this drunk guy. He even started trying to take photos of me and wouldn’t take no for an answer. The second he moved away Caitlin saved me, taking his seat on the bench next to me. When we did stop at a little island we didn’t see the point of getting out to stand and watch on the shore when we could sit comfortably in the boat so much to the drivers confusion we stayed put while he tried to convince us to get out. He gave up and took us on to a different spot and this time we did hop out, only to have our worst fear realised. Well…. almost. As we swam in the Mekong, the sun slowly spreading across the horizon behind us like spilled paint, the drunk guy and our driver decided to take a nap in the boat, only they hadn’t moored us to the island. Luckily they hadn’t drifted far but it was Caitlin who came to the rescue again, swimming after the boat and dragging it back. When we got back to the main island it was the second time that day we were glad to be on dry land again!


Our time in Laos seemed to fly by but I loved every minute of it. It is denitely somewhere I would come back to and spend more time there. I think it has been overshadowed by Cambodia and Vietnam but little Laos should not be underestimated. It is a beautiful place with kind and fun loving people. I knew that when I crossed the boarder to Cambodia the next day, I would miss it.

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Thailand Week 4 – Stray, the Golden Templ and The White Temple

The last stretch of my adventure was just beginning and yet I still had three more countries to visit. I had met my tour group for Stray, the flexible tour that would allow me to hop on and off at any point during my travels with them while including some activities along the way, and they seemed like a great bunch so I was excited to se off with them.
Day 93 – An excellent way to start the first day of your tour is throwing up constantly all morning. As soon as I woke up I felt a bit queasy but it quickly became so much worse. Despite this I knew I didn’t have a choice but to get on the bus, the countdown to my visa running out imminent. I dragged myself out of the hostel and down the road to the Stray office. As soon as Caitlin, a girl on the tour I met the night before, saw me she said “Are you okay? You look sad”. Sad was one way to put it, death warmed up was another. I almost made it to our first stop of Ayyuthaya without spilling my cookies but not quite. Instead of exploring the old capital I hunkered down on a make shift bed at the guesthouse we were storing our bags at and hoped the sickness would pass.

Luckily by the evening I was getting some of my strength back. In fact I actually counted myself lucky that the first time I had really had tummy problems the whole way through Asia was three months into my trip. I was even more grateful that I had improved before we caught the night train to Chiang Mai. I had already taken a night train in India but this one was quite different and actually more comfortable. Instead of beds being three high there was only two, meaning you got more room. They also seemed wider and had ports to charge your devices on. The only complaint was that they kept the light on all night so its worth bringing an eye mask.


Day 94 – I had heard about the zip lining in Chiang Mai and since it was one thing I didn’t do last time I was there I was keen to do it this time around. I was less keen when I found out the price was over £90! Luckily I wrangled a deal with a girl on the tour who didn’t want to use her included ticket and paid for one of her activities instead, essentially meaning I got it half price. In the end I had a brilliant time but it was barely worth it at half price and I wouldn’t say it was worth the full price at all.

A mini bus picked us up from the hostel and took us to the Gibbon Experience where we spent a rainy afternoon getting soaked to the skin and not even caring as we whizzed over the treetops. Although it wasn’t worth the price the 800m zip line made it almost so. Your heart in your mouth as you step off the platform and fly above the canopy, the rain whipping at your face. It was a lot of fun and as an added bonus we got to see a gibbon sitting in a tree, shaking raindrops off his fur, just as soggy as us.
Day 95 – The day started off with a quiet breakfast at Le Kaa cafe round the corner from Deejai Backpackers hostel where we stayed. I made a plan to visit some temples that day and decided that if I could I would make the trip to Doi Suthep, a beautiful hill temple overlooking stunning views of Chaing Mai below. The guy at the hostel made it sound simple and cheap to get there… I should be so lucky. An hour later I was still on the sidewalk trying to persuade a tuk tuk driver to take me for a fair price. Eventually I gave in and paid for one to take me up and wait for me so he could take me down as well, costing me much more than I had planned but saving myself a huge amount of frustration. The tuk tuks in Thailand have been a new experience. Just as I was getting used to bartering for them in other countries where they will happily talk up and down until a price has agreed upon, I found the drivers in Thailand would shake their heads in disgust at what I suggested and driving away before we could come to an agreement. To be honest it was making me look forward to leaving Thailand. I was told it was the land of smiles but so far I was yet to see many.

All this briefly melted away though when I reached Doi Suthep. The views were just as stunning as promised; you could see the whole of Chiang Mai stretched out below, this vast and bustling city. The temple itself held a greater variety of Buddhas than I had ever seen before, small, big, emerald, gold – all sorts! Behind them the golden stupa glittered in the dying sunlight. I could see why everyone came to see it.


I finished my evening back at Roen Pludee, the food market Joey and I stumbled across and had some of the best food in Thailand. However, it wasn’t quite the same by myself and after a long day I headed back for an early night.
Day 96 – Today we headed towards the border and into Laos but first we made a stop along the way. I had seen photos of the White Temple and was really pleased to find out we would stop there along the way. This incredible temple is so different from any other I have seen on my travels. It is completely white edged with silver mirrors and has a modern influence, with spider man painted on the walls and masks of recent film characters hanging in the trees outside. If that isn’t strange enough the entrance features an expanse of reaching hands and contorted faces. It was bizarre and beautiful. Unfortunately I didn’t get to appreciate it as much as I would have liked though since our local guide rushed us through, a problem that would crop up several times on Stray, so it wasn’t long before we were back on the bus.


In the late afternoon we passed through border control and as the sun was setting we jostled down the bumpy road in the back of a tuk tuk towards our guest house. All of us were amazed at how pretty Laos was. I think everyone was a bit sick of Thailand by then and ready for a change. We ate dinner next to the Mekong river, gazing across it towards Thailand on the other side, excited about the adventures we had ahead of us in Laos.

Thailand Week 3 – monsoons, temple ruins and goodbyes

Joey’s last week in Thailand was just beginning but for me I would have some extra time, passing back through Chiang Mai on my Stray tour I would be starting after Joey left. With just one week left together we wanted to make the most of it. Our days off from diving had mostly been spent relaxing so we were looking forward to doing some exploring and fun activities. We planned to go to Koh Lanta, maybe fit in another fun dive now we were both qualified and do some kayaking and paddle boarding too. Alas it was not meant to be though as they had sold out of ferry tickets on the day we wanted to go and we felt a ten hour night journey by boat and bus would not be fun. Instead we settled on going to the much closer Koh Samui, which still had interesting temples, grandfather and grandmother rocks to see and kayaking too. We booked our ticket and prepared to leave Koh Tao.

Day 86
– Today should have been our warning as to what was to come. Between eating breakfast and spending ten minutes packing up the last of our stuff, the heavens opened. We legged it to the taxi and tried desperately to keep our stuff dry. When we got to the ferry port we had to wade through the flooded street only to be packed in amongst tonnes of other tourists, our raincoats rustling as we jostled to get our tickets and then get on the ferry. This time we weren’t taking any chances, especially with the weather, and we took some travel sickness tablets and managed to squeeze into a space near the railings on a couple of plastic stools. This trip seemed so much easier than the last one, mostly due to the fact that the tablets seemed to totally knock me out. Even when we eventually arrived at our lovely hotel I still couldn’t keep my eyes open and both Joey and I drifted off to the pitter patter of rain on the roof.



Day 87
– We also woke up to the pitter patter of rain on the roof. The weather wasn’t looking much better but we were determined not to let it get to us. It wasn’t a good day for exploring but it was a good day for movies! Seeing as Joey and I are cinema fanatics and both miss the time we had unlimited cinema passes and used to go to see a new film about once a week (at least) we couldn’t resist spending a rainy day eating popcorn and watching movies. We went to the mall and first we saw Assissins Creed, which we both agreed was pretty good except for the last thirty minutes where there were a few flaws with the plot. It is always interesting to go to the cinema abroad too and see how different it is, like the much comfiest seats, the option to sit in double seats with cushions and blankets at the back and at the moment there is also a slideshow of photos of the King where you stand throughout to pay respect. 

After the movie we did a bit of shopping and I got a much needed haircut! Then we couldn’t resist fitting in a second movie and we went back to watch Passengers. For some reason this ticket was even cheaper than the first and we paid about £3-4 for lovely comfy seats and bought in some of our own snacks to make it even cheaper. Passengers was also a good film, if a little predictable, but we enjoyed it. Basically it was our perfect way to spend a rainy day.

Day 88
– Still, we wanted to do some exploring and see what Koh Samui had to offer so when we got back from the cinema we booked to do a tour off the island the next day. However, when we woke up the rain was even worse than the day before. We packed up our stuff in Joey’s dry bag and wrapped up in raincoats but we weren’t holding out a lot of hope of going on this tour and sure enough as soon as we went downstairs we were told the tour was cancelled. We rescheduled for the next day but as the hours stretched on and there was no break in the rain we started to doubt it would happen then either. With no chance of even getting out to the cinema it was a very lazy day of Netflix, napping and beating Joey at cards games (he’ll try to tell you it was the other way around but don’t believe him). 


Day 89 – Rain, rain and more rain. It became a bit of a joke to go to the window every hour and say “guess what? It’s still raining!” We looked up other people’s experiences on social media and saw that everyone was as trapped in crazy floods as we were. Luckily, being on a hill, we didn’t see the worst of it but it was still constant with rivers of water running down the incline behind our room and pouring from pipes. The driveway became a water slide and when we ventured to the end of it there was a huge puddle waiting there. 

Though we had made the best of it the day before, the rain was getting tedious now. Our plans to finally get out and see more of the islands had been ruined. We stayed upbeat though; I continued to beat Joey at our favourite card game, speed, and we watched more movies on Netflix but hiding out in your hotel room is not exactly what you have in mind when you book a trip to Thailand. I was just thankful it happened while Joey was with me as being together we could keep each other laughing and having a good time despite the weather being against us. 


Day 90 – It was a shame that by this time we were looking forward to leaving the drowned rock that was Koh Samui but even that was looking dodgey. When we arrived at the airport it was packed. We spoke to people who had been trying to get a flight out for the last 4 days! Both Joey and I had a limited amount of time left in Thailand as our visas would run out soon so I was starting to get worried. We both thought we would be there for the longhaul when suddenly the man we had been speaking to earlier about the delays scurried past, telling me on the way that our flight was being called. Typically Joey had gone to the bathroom and I tapped my foot, listening to the announcements for our flight and waiting for him to come back. When he did, we grabbed our bags and battled our way to the front desks. One minute we weren’t sure when we would be leaving and the next we were on the shuttle bus heading to the plane. We held our breath until the wheels left the runway though, convinced at any moment we would be turned back, but in the end we left only an hour behind schedule and arrived in Bangkok with no further hiccups. Tired but happy to be somewhere it wasn’t raining we grabbed a bite to eat, Khaosan road beginning to feel like home now it was so familiar to us.

Day 91 – Determined to finally get some exploring in we booked a tour to Ayutthaya, the old capital of Siam until it was burned to the ground by the Burmese. The ruins still remain though and a mini bus picked us up and took us 80km outside Bangkok to see what was left. We started at Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon, a temple that is still in use today and is home to a reclining Buddha on whose feet you can stick coins for good luck.


 Next was Wat Mahathat, which used to house Buddha relics but is now still full of strange beauty with its crumbling walls and half-destroyed sitting Buddha statues. It is also home to the famous Buddha head embraced by tree roots as they have grown around the serene face over the years. It is quite a sight to see, though ruined slightly by the unavoidable tourist queue to get a photo with it.


After visiting Wat Lokaya Sutha, a 42m long reclining Buddha, this one without coins on the bottom of his feet, we went on to see two others sites. One with a huge pyramid-like temple that almost reminded me of Mexican sites like Chichin Itza and another with three smaller, yet still huge and stunning, stupas in a row. Unfortunatly between the guides quiet voice and thick accent I couldn’t keep track of all the information and googling these places has only left me more confused as they seem to also go by the name Wat Lokaya Sutha (I do apologise for my awful research skills) but what I do know is they were beautiful. We perched on stone steps listening to birds whistling and trying to imagine what these structures might have looked like when they were first built. 


When the day was over we both agreed it wasn’t the best tour in the world, with a unintelligible guide and a rather cold and tasteless lunch it wasn’t what we had hoped for, but it was still one hundred times better than being stuck in a hotel room all day. 

It was Joey’s last night so after a nice meal we did some last minute souvineer shopping and tried to pretend that our adventure together wasn’t coming to an end. Our last souvineer was one for ourselves, and perhaps something that will become a tradition for us one day, we got a cute little caricature drawn together to commemorate such an amazing trip. A very enthusiastic tourist who was waiting to have his drawn next took this very awkward photo of us once it was finished!


Day 92 – The alarm went off at 5:30 am and there was no more avoiding the wake up call; Joey was going home today.Travelling with someone had been a very different experience for me and it was hard not only to say goodbye to my boyfriend but also my travelling companion and also a little piece of home. It seemed incredibly lonely to go back to think of going back to setting up my camera for selfies, for writing my thoughts in my journal instead of sharing them with someone and having to carry my own bag around. I have enjoyed solo travel immensely but at that moment I wasn’t ready to go back there. And I wasn’t ready to let go of someone who knew me before this trip, who could give me news on friends and family and share memories that happened longer than a few weeks ago. 

It was hard for Joey too, knowing that he would be going back to a daily routine without me, that there was still another seven weeks stretching out before we would see each other again. Yet he was excited too, and so was I really, because those seven weeks still held so much in store for me. That evening I headed over to the Stray Asia office and met a whole bunch of people who would be my new travel companions for the next few weeks. The next day I would be starting the Stray bus tour that will take me through Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, the end of my trip. The pass allows me to hop on and off the bus when it suits me, staying somewhere longer and catching up later if I want to or following the group. Some activities are included and they will help to book accomodation, though the cost isn’t included in the pass, and this seemed like the perfect mix between independent travel and tour group travel for me. The people I met were lovely too and I tried to forget all about goodbyes and think of it instead as a see you later.