Keep The Sun On Your Back!

This trip has gone so fast, but it will be etched on the memory for a very long time. It is not for everyone, but it is definitely for us. I would urge anyone to consider doing this. We have had an absolute ball, met some truly wonderful forward thinking and genuinely interesting, sometimes awe inspiring people from all walks of life.

We have made a lot of friends, while sharing the experience of seeing some of the most famous and truly breathtaking ancient historical sites and structures, all the while wandering or trekking through some pretty spectacular rural and urban scenery. In the main, this has been in glorious technicoloured sunshine. Not forgetting the most important thing, the mostly remarkable, hardworking, and happy indigenous people of South East Asia.

I can understand the pressure you would feel when contemplating doing something like this, especially if you are in that age group with maybe a career to think about or other responsibilities, such as young kids or family to look after. But even without those considerations, it is still a pretty daunting decision to contemplate and eventually make. The costs are not really that prohibitive, not if you consider what most folk would pay for an annual blowout 2 week vacation. But in order to do this within a reasonable budget, you do have to exercise some restraint, live frugally, and eat and travel as much as possible just as the local people do. This is quite a rewarding experience as it is, and you will certainly get more of a feel for how these locals live and work, eat and socialize, and generally live their lives. I will put up some indicative costs up later, but in the main, apart from your flights over there, your jabs and insurance, you can easily get around on as little as $20/day including accommodation, food, and a few beers.

You can’t live like a monk forever however, and you need to be reasonable and honest with yourself. If you like a beer(s), a smoke (I know !), require superior accommodation like Air Con and Ensuite Bathrooms, or just like to indulge in a large food banquet every now and again, you will need to make allowances accordingly.

The biggest thing that stops most folk doing this however is probably that uncertainty of returning to real life and getting back into work on their return, especially more so in these trying times of global financial problems and austerity measures. Not just finding work, but also the thought of having to start afresh in a new job, probably in a less senior position, and maybe that feeling of having to start from the bottom again – so to speak. All I can say to that personally is – you are a long time dead. I recall that great line from the now classic movie, in my opinion anyway, The Shawshank Redemption.

“You have a choice – you can either get busy dying …. or get busy Living”

You just have to have the confidence within yourself, or the complete belief that things will fall into place for you on your return. On the other hand you can just be like me, and just decide it is something you need to get it out of your system and to hell with the consequences. I just felt life was going to fast for me and I really wanted to do this now. Luckily, Michelle was up for it too. So it was now, or never. If you really are that worried, do more saving and planning, and at least have an emergency fund or a fall back plan. Just do not let it paralyze your decision making, have no regrets in life, and live that dream.

The thought of the journey itself can maybe feel a little daunting, and a year or however long you plan, will always sound like a very long time. You are venturing into unknown territory with unfamiliar surroundings, cultures and customs, living out of backpacks miles and miles from your closest friends and family. You will have none of your home comforts and very little in the way of luxury, let alone privacy, while living on a modest budget and trying to get around these foreign countries while trying to overcome any language barriers. I can assure you it is easier than it sounds, and with a little time you will suddenly be accustomed to the lifestyle of the traveller, becoming so streetwise that nothing will faze you.

Once you make that initial leap of faith however – there is no turning back, and you will have jumped straight in the deep end. You have given up the “secure” job, the steady income, the familiar surroundings of home – said “Goodbye” to all your best friends and family, and turned your back on everything you know that makes you feel safe and secure.

On landing, once you feel the heat on your feet from the tarmac, the warm humidity, the sun penetrating your marabone, you will know you are in the right place. A million miles away, and a new beginning.

You are now an Adventurer. A proper Traveller, about to engage in a period of aestheticism, with the future before you laid out on a path completely unknown.

Prior to that, on leaving your home country and as you enter the airport, check-in your outsize luggage, and make your way to the departure gate, you will be lost in your own thoughts pondering what kind of life affirming adventures you are going to have, what great people you will meet and what great stories and tales they will have to tell. You will wonder what, if any, great stories you will similarly have to tell when it’s all over.

In the meantime, that last thought can be put on hold. That future point in time will feel a million miles away, because right now, you are taking the first few steps on a big long adventure. All the negative thoughts you had will be cast aside, all the worry and anxiety long forgotten. You will feel completely overwhelmed emotionally at the thought of all the possibilities in front of you.

You will, without doubt, get this overriding sensation of complete and utter freedom.

If you are anything like me, you will feel completely alive. You will feel like a kid again during the School Summer Holidays.

Just sit back and enjoy the ride!

Next Phase?

The Plan?

The plan is …. there is No Plan!

In the meantime, just try to Keep The Sun On Your Back

Pete & Michelle xx.

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Si Phan Don, Laos

The 4000 Islands, or Si Phan Don as it is known locally, is a beautiful set of islands, set against a lazy and winding section of the Mekong.

There is not much to do in Si Phan Don, but that’s the point. The islands are laid back, with small huts mixing in with guest houses along the banks of the Mekong.

We arranged the transport with Mr Jasmine in Pakse (not his real name, but he owned the Jasmine Indian restaurant, so this was easy, and he seemed happy enough to be “The Jazz Man”), and headed out first thing in the morning. The journey took about 4 hours and was pretty relaxed, and we stopped only once to pick up a couple of German travellers. When we arrived in the village on the mainland, we handed our tickets over and were escorted to a little jetty and clambered onto a longboat. As we cut through the mighty Mekong, I noticed that the water was exceptionally fast, and the boat was struggling at times to make any distance with the force of the current. The boat was sitting in the water with only 6 inches to spare between the surface and rim of the boat. I get a little nervous with water these days, one false move and we would be out of the boat and floating to either Vietnam at great speed, or in real DEEP trouble. It was hard to relax and enjoy the stunning surroundings, but we would eventually land at the little island jetty some 10-15 minutes later – it felt more like an hour.

On arrival and with great relief we arrived at Don Det, one of the Islands renowned for it’s relaxed atmosphere, but with major support systems for the traveller in terms of bars, food and accommodation. A 5 minute walks and we were at Ricks Bar, and dumped the bags while slumping on scattered bean cushions on a raised platform with little tables. Sam and I decided it was Beer O’ Clock, and the girls opted for a fruit shake. The weather was perfect, nice and sunny, and Rick, a young English Expat gave us some great advice on places to stay on the Island. You have the choice of Sunset or Sunrise Avenue, two rural muddy paths that follow the shoreline on either side of the Island. You just have to decide if you want to waken up in a sweltering Beach Hut or awake relatively cool, and get the chance to see a nice Sunset in the evening. We plumped for the latter, obviously, and Sam and I left the bags, and the girls and went for a wander.

The River huts are pretty spartan, basic and makeshift. I’d read somewhere that some of them are so shoddily constructed, that a few had actually collapsed into the water. With his in mind, we were looking for something that looked quite safe. After a good 20 minutes, we found what we were looking for, a properly constructed block of 6 rooms, with a huge tiled terrace, with ensuite bathrooms and hot water. Exceptional, given the price was about 5 quid/night.

The place was set back from the water, but we had a string of makeshift bars directly in front of us. The sounds of Bob Marley could be heard from across the way, and so after sorting ourselves out, headed over for some more refreshments with views over the water towards Cambodia.

This place was in low season and really chilled out and relaxing. People were exceptionally friendly, and most were just lazing about, reading books, playing cards, or just chatting over a beer or ice cold fruit shake. We had been told that in about 3 or 4 weeks, the place would be teeming with travellers, with around 150 arriving every day. For such a small place, we could only try and imagine how cramped, busy and noisy this quaint little place would be. Of course, with it being low season, you could count on the rain and thunderstorms everyday at anytime, and after a few days we were getting a bit down having to walk through slippery mud, and occasionally misplacing a foot in a wet quagmire. Having said that, we really enjoyed the company we were keeping. Nicky and Sam are really great fun to be with and you get a good laugh. We had also picked up another couple, Steve from Ireland, and Katya from Russia. Both had lost there jobs in each country due to the economic situation which seems to be affecting every country, apart from Asia and Australia so far. They had saved up enough funds, and planned to keep travelling until the funds ran out, hopeful that things would eventually pick up back home and they could start again. We were left with these 2 for a few days when Sam and Nicky moved on to reach Cambodia. Although we had a great time with Steve and Katya, it was slowly dawning on us that our adventure was coming to a close, and we were both feeling slightly envious of everyone who was just beginning theirs.

Having said that, I think we were looking forward to reaching Australia, and with a sense of the unknown, feeling both anxious and excited at the same time. Each day was beginning to feel like we were just putting off the inevitable, and so we became slightly more focussed on our plans for arrival down under.

We booked the boat and bus back to Pakse, this time deciding to splash out a bit on some nice accommodation. Having a telly was great for watching the rugby, and the fridge was obviously very practical. A couple of days here then, and we were ready to get back across the border to Bangkok with only a few days to spare before our flight.

We would break up the journey with a stopover in Udon Thani, a huge city as big as Bangkok, but without the Western style amenities or attractions. We were a bit of a novelty in a town that does not see many Westerners, and we were surrounded by smiles and felt wholly welcome, chowing down for some authentic local food with the locals. Before we knew it, we were up next day, and like second nature, grabbing a TukTuk to the bus station and catching a ride that would take us 6 hours, right into the heart of Bangkok.

On arrival, we felt like we were back home, but decided that on our last few days, we would swerve Apple Guest House, and in the same vein of our thoughts go slightly upmarketagain. We had to go back to Mama’s and make out we were collecting our enormous backpacks because we were moving on again. We just didn’t have the heart to say we were staying just around the corner. It’s always a strange feeling for me coming back to someplace after a while away, and seeing your belongings sitting exactly how you had left them. I always get the same feeling when you get back home from a holiday. Just little things, knowing your home has been empty for that period, and spotting for example, an open CD case on a table, and remembering it was the last thing you had played before leaving. I don’t know if other people think as deeply about this stuff, but I just seem to do it all the time. So my mind rushed back to what we had been up to over the past 6 weeks, and the thoughts I had as we left Mama’s. They are always the same really, wondering what the new place will be like, what the food and beer will be like, and wondering who you will meet, especially when you meet some really great people and get along so well, that you can truly call them new friends – Hello Sam & Nicky xx.

And that really has been the story of this long journey, and what has made it so special.

Our last days in Bangkok would see us bump into Tippany, spending a night together playing chess, eating really nice Thai food, and obviously getting reacquainted with my 2nd favourite Asian beer – Beer Leo. Indonesian Bingtang, so far, has always been #1.

The next day, we would be flying to Melbourne, Australia.

The next phase of our lives was about to begin.

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Plain of Jars, Laos

The Plain of Jars is a megalithic archaeological landscape scattered around the plateau of Xieng Khouang. Thousands of stone jars appear in clusters, ranging from a single or a few to several hundred jars at lower foothills surrounding the central plain and upland valleys.

Excavation by archaeologists has supported the theory that these were used as some form of ancient burial practice, with the discovery of human remains, burial goods and ceramics around the jars. The Plain of Jars is dated to the Iron Age (500 BCE to 500 CE), and it seemed worthy of a visit.

The best thing about this trip however, was all the people we met on the minibus that would take us an estimated 6 hours to reach our destination. Bob, (Australia), Nicky & Sam (England, Darn Sarf), Mellor & Chris (England, Oop North), and a quiet French guy. I would say Ozzie Bob is probably in his 60’s, and he was travelling alone and was really chatty with everyone. He broke the ice for everyone almost instantly as we all sat waiting for the driver to decide if he had enough energy to hold a steering wheel.

We were ready for 8am in Luang Prebang, just as the hotel had requested, but we were eventually picked up at 9.30am and left the bus station at 10.10am. We arrived in Phonsavon, the nearest town to the Plain of Jars at 11pm. A trip which took 15 hours from threshold to threshold.

What basically happened is that we reached the same landslide area we had encountered travelling on the way up. This time however, it was massive, resulting in a laborious 5 hour wait. So we just had to relax and try to be patient again. The group were quite a friendly social bunch, and the guys all grabbed a beer while we whiled the hours away discussing everything and nothing.

Yes, we were absolutely exhausted when we arrived in Phonsavon, and were quickly set upon by touts as soon as the bus stopped. It is hard not to be rude when you are tired and weary, you just need to get a room for a quick wash or shower and then head out for food and a beer or two prior to hitting the sack for a good sleep. The last thing you need is someone trying to organise your trip for the next morning, asking question after question. Me and Sam hooked up, and finished off the days drinking session. Sam is only 21, but he’s an old head on young shoulders, full of buzz and easy to listen too – his enthusiasm for everything can be quite infectious. One has to draw a line however, and Sam unfortunately crossed that line with his enthusiasm for the over rated English National Rugby and Football teams. I am sure at one point Sam was telling me who could potentially be in the final with England, until I reminded Sam that the competition hadn’t even started yet! Hilarious! The English always get a bit carried away don’t they ? 1966 and all that 🙂

Bob appeared at my door the following morning asking if we wanted to join him to organise a trip. So all together, this team had bonded sufficiently to arrange something collectively to everyone’s mutual financial benefit. Unfortunately, this is when you discover the Laos transport cartel’s have it all sorted, and negotiation is futile. So we relented, booked the trip and were taken to the site of the Plain of Jars. Nicky, as part of the negotiations, did manage to get us all a free bottle of water. Free beer Nicky!! It’s free beer we want!! I wasn’t the first person to start to grumble about the inflated prices being charged to tourists for all these trips and other transport. It just seems so organised and transparently so, the prices just seem so apparently out of kilter, even when you compare to other Asian countries.

The Plain of Jars was such a disappointment, and to be honest everyone was saying the same thing. There are 3 sites, but there is nothing extensive, and certainly no plain. With the whole hassle of getting here, transport costs, admission costs, the standard of tour guide, it just leaves you feeling slightly cheated and robbed of a few days of your life.

Site 3 was quite picturesque however, and we had to get across a creaky wooden bridge and go cross country through bright green rice fields to get there.

It was dark when we got back to town, and we said our goodbyes to all who were leaving that night, which was everyone apart from Sam & Nicky. We organised a minibus to Van Vieng for the four of us for the next morning, and then grabbed some eats and refreshments.

We were backtracking southwards, and with Michelle’s flu getting worse, would be happy just to hole out back in Vang Vieng for a few days. Sam & Nicky would be doing the tubing, but the rest of the time, we ended up hanging out together, playing pool, drinking beer, grabbing a bite to eat, playing chess and the occasional game of cards, until one night when Michelle was thoroughly bedded. On the day of the tubing, Sam returned to the hotel alone around 7pm asking if Nicky was back yet. When I said I hadn’t seen her, panic began to set in, as Sam advised he had been told that two people had gone missing in the river. Blood drained from my face, and I think I was in shock. We kept our cool, and both headed down the road, feeling numb and secretly praying that everything was going to turn out okay. That was a fraught 10 minute walk into town, and with great relief, we spotted Nicky walking up the road. We have no idea of the outcome for the two missing people, and nobody seemed to know anything about it next day. The hotel staff didn’t really seem to be that stunned when told about it, and I actually thought they looked a bit nonplussed. Maybe this is just par for the course and not big news – but something should really be done about this. There are life jackets available, but nobody seems to wear them. I’m just so greatful that Nicky was okay – it’s strange really, it felt like we had been friends/family for years, but we had only known each other for a few days.

Sam and Nicky were keen to move on, and left a day before us, as we stayed back another night until Michelle felt better. This meant I would get to see Scotland play Georgia next day, and a very unconvincing win. We booked an overnight sleeper bus which was really comfy and quite cool, and we would arrive in Pakse around 6am for a stopover prior to heading to Si Phan Don – the 4000 Islands.

We jumped a TukTuk from the bus station to the hotel, and enroute suddenly spotted Sam & Nicky on the corner with their backpacks on, and a Lonely Planet guide in hand.  They were not supposed to be here, and by the time we had spotted each other and realised who it was, The TukTuk driver had his foot to the floor and within seconds we were halfway up the road. We wondered what to do, we didn’t know if they were arriving or leaving. The two of them appeared at our hotel some minutes later, our wee team was reunited, and after discovering that there was absolutely nothing to do in Pakse, we all went for a curry and booked our trip south for the next day.

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Luang Prabang, Laos

This city is in North Central Laos, where the Nam Khan River meets the Mekong. Built on a peninsula, it actually feels like a small island, and a large central hill dominates, crowned a top with Wat Chom Si, a large Buddhist Monastery.

The town is quite small, and you can easily walk around the main central area. The riverbanks are full of local touts offering boat trips to waterfalls and caves. Been there, done that. There are also plenty temples. Been there, done that. So, we were quite happy just to wander about and get out bearings on the place.

Michelle likes to chill out with a fruit shake and read a book, while I tend to look for a place with good coffee and WIFI. The coffee in Laos has been exceptionally good, thick, strong and full of flavour. Not surprising, as some of the best coffee comes from the Bolaven Plateau in East Central Laos, Champasak Provence, where the french introduced the production of both Robusta and Arabica coffee beans.

At night, there is large street market selling all types of arts, crafts and textiles. It is a very colourful market, and surprisingly, the stall holders are very low-key. There is virtually no hassle, and you can just browse at your leisure. We stumbled upon a great little food market, in a small lane. Here, you could chow down with the locals for any type of food that takes your fancy. All freshly made, and cheap as chips, from Vietnamese Spring Rolls, Noodle and Stir Fries, to freshly caught large Mekong Fish. The fish is mounted on skewers, stuffed with lemongrass and scarred, ready to be chargrilled on makeshift grills. We had the fish on night, it tasted it out of this world, especially with the lemongrass that permeated throughout the flesh. Whole cuts of pork, chicken and what can only be described as various animal parts were also in full view, ready to hit the grill.

Once fed, it is beer o’clock, and this usually means the chess set comes out, but this time not before scouring the Laos Lonely Planet Guide for some form of plan. I have apologise to Julien from the Mut Mee Guest House over in Nong Khai, as the book was borrowed from a shelf containing about 20 such torn and battered guidebooks. This tends to happen at guest houses close to any border, traveller’s don’t need them anymore and are loath to carry the extra weight. If the books cannot be traded anywhere, they tend to just leave them in the hope someone else will get the benefit. I had planned to borrow the book, but somehow it was still in my small rucksack after crossing the border. You want to have seen the look on Michelle’s face when she spotted it, and I felt like a wee boy who had been caught with his hand in the cookie jar. Sorry Julien. The book will go to a good home, I promise.

We moved hotels the following day. Although central, we really just wanted to chill out for a few days, and our own balcony with river views, perhaps a telly, and definitely a hot shower were the priorities. We found on quickly, about 10 minutes walk from the Old Town, and got a bargain for about $10, a huge tiled room, with everything we were looking for. The place was run by a lovely Laos family, set on the banks of the river down a small residential lane. You could tell that all the neighbours were really good friends and maybe had been for a number of years. The kids were all great friends and hung around the lane laughing and giggling and just having fun in the sunshine. We could lounge around in the comfy chairs on the porch, just watching the boats sail down the river, and across to the other bank, where children were playing on the river’s edge while women would wash the family clothes. We also had sports and movie channels, all in English, what more could you need? We stocked the fridge with goodies, beer (obviously), water, juices, a couple of baguette’s (for any late night munchie attacks), as well as crisps and nuts. We could hole out for an afternoon, avoiding the midday heat, and venture out when the temperature dropped.

We had found a cosy little bar called the Ikon Bar. It stood out from the crowd with it’s bohemian quirkiness. The walls covered in art and cool black and white photographs of iconic film stars from yesteryear. The music being played was pretty cool too. There was a nude body cast of the owner on the wall, a Hungarian girl called Lisa, and she was very warm and friendly. As we sat down and had a look at the drinks menu, we were both a bit dumbfounded to see beers at double the normal rate, and cocktails at european prices. There is quite frankly no need for this type of carry on, I just find it quite greedy and exploitative. Granted it was a nice bar, but it was empty, and it seemed other travellers were also failing to see any added value for the premium prices.

I was just about to vote with my feet, advising Lisa, that we could not pay those sort of prices, but was stopped in my tracks as we advised that there was no problem – it was Happy Hour, and all drink were half price. Time for a beer then.

There was a large Chess Set sitting on one of the tables, and we were encouraged to use it. We set it up, and Lisa would chat away with us, her only customers, while we played. Well, we all getting on famously, and Lisa would jump out from behind the bar offering another bottle with a smile, and casually placing some complimentary peanuts on our table. After about 4 beers between us, I casually asked Lisa when the Happy Hour finished, and was told it actually finished 45 minutes ago. We had only been here for about an hour, so basically, our kind hostess with the mostess had hoodwinked us into paying for the premium priced beer. Now, normally this wouldn’t be a major issue, but given we had already hesitated with the prices at the beginning, I felt it only fair that we should have been at least been given notice when the promotion had finished. I lost it, stood up and asked for the bill, threw the money on the counter and marched out. I was more than slightly wound up. Michelle thought I had overreacted, the girl was clearly upset, but I didn’t care. I just thought the whole thing was wrong and out of order.

I soon calmed down and we found somewhere else to hang out for a while. I can’t resist it sometimes, on the way back home, I bought a big bag of sweets for the kids, and happily handed them out to their obvious delight. Can you imagine doing that back home? You’d be lynched by an angry mob of parents.

Michelle went up to the room, and I grabbed on last beer and sat on the porch. Across the lane, some sort of party was going on, with really bad karaoke. One of the parents came out, looked up and signalled for me to come down. Realising it was me who had bought the kids the sweets, I was welcomed into the party like a long lost brother. Everyone smiled and gestured hello’s and welcome’s and I was brought a glass which was immediately filled with Beer Laos and a 2nd glass for a nip of whisky. A microphone was pushed into my hands while they searched for a song me to sing – anything but CelioneFookingDion please I was thinking. As the open chords of Bryan Adams’ “Everything I do” kicked off, one of my favourite songs of all time – not! I could do nothing but give it a bash. On closing to a round of whoops, cheers and applause, the young lad in charge of music selection was busy getting another song for me, while the microphone was pushed back into my hands. Salted grilled fish and other tasty nibbles were placed in front of me. I can’t remember song number two, but probably something easily as cheesy, this asian firewater was taking affect. Michelle had thought I was sitting on the porch, and we had to giggle when she told me she was reading her book, and trying to blot out the sound of the wailing karaoke, until it suddenly dawned on her who was singing. I can imagine her rolling her eyes at that specific point.

The mother of all hangovers next morning, and with the taste of that whisky still hanging about my parched mouth, I suddenly had a bad feeling. I was feeling guilty about my behaviour in the Ikon Bar. While we sat in a bar for some juice and much coffee, I suddenly spotted a large pineapple on the bar. The peace-offering I thought. I bought the pineapple, and we headed along the road. Lisa did a double take as we walked up to and into the bar. I apologised, handed over the fruit as a small token gesture, and received a massive hug. We were asked if we would like a drink. I asked when Happy Hour started, and made a point of specifically asking when it ended. We were told that from now on, every hour would be Happy Hour whenever we were here. Result! We made our excuses as we were needing food, but promised to come back later. We never did, too much beer had been consumed the night before, so we feasted in the market, and made a plan to head next day to The Plain of Jars.

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Northwards to Luang Prabang, Laos

Having spent a good few days in Vang Vieng, it all of a sudden felt like it was time to move on again. Our friendly young hotel owner, Tea, booked the transport for us and we would leave around 8.30am next morning for what was supposed to be a 6 hour journey to Luang Prabang. The mini bus was full with only the front seats remaining, which was perfect really, as we had lots of space, reclining seats, and a front seat view of what was to come ahead. We had heard that this trip was particularly stunning, and serendipity, or politeness, whatever way you look at it, had given us the prime seats. From the broken English coming from the back, I could work out that our fellow travel companions, all young, were a combination of French, German and Israeli. Being in the front made it slightly difficult to get chatty, and it seemed however that there was a real bond within this group. They had obviously been travelling together, or maybe had just come together as a result of the tubing in Vang Vieng. It was one of those mornings where I think both of us were not really up for socialising anyway, it does happen sometimes, and you kind of get bored telling your own story for the umpteenth time. Time then to kick back, relax and just take in the scenery.

The scenery seemed to get even more impressive as we progressed. We had only been travelling for an hour when the bus pulled in for a pit stop. I looked at my watch, we had been up since 7.30am, the bus didn’t actually leave Vang Vieng until 10am. It was now 11am, we had been on the road for 1 hour at approximately 40km/hour. A trip back home that would 15-20 minutes – but this is Laos – Please Don’t Rush!! After a 40 minute break for the driver, who was obviously exhausted from a whole hour of driving, we were on our way again. For the next hour, we stared in awe at beautiful green mountain scenery, covered in the most interesting cloud formations, natural beauty, a bit like a continual Glencoe.

Then we hit a really bad muddy patch of road, got around the bend, and joined the tail end of a long stationary convoy of trucks, busses, mini vans and cars. There were 2 diggers working up high trying to clear a massive landslide that looked about 7 or 8 stories high, and had completely blocked the road.

This happens almost every other day during the rainy season, and it makes things extremely dangerous. Tons of waterlogged earth can avalanche down without warning and roads collapse making for slow arduous journeys. Everyone was milling about in the sunshine wondering when the road would be cleared, and after an hour or so, bored travellers who had been resisting temptation, succumbed and were buying cool cans of Beer Lao from temporary stalls set up by the side of the road by the locals from the nearest village. The good thing was that the locals were not exploiting the situation, and were charging the usual prices for food and drinks. Quite reasonable these people from Laos, although as usual, whenever we had a break at any of the “official” pit stops, just like the Motorway Services Stations back home, the prices always seemed to be highly inflated.

The roads are also full of bone shattering potholes, which the driver would try to avoid, although all too often he would hit one which resulted in a massive crunching jolt through the cabin. Travel in Laos is slow as a result of the road conditions, but also because of the laid back nature of the people of Laos. Nothing is rushed. You really just have to chill and take it all in your stride. It’s a beautiful country to get stuck somewhere, and with the sun shining and a can of beer in your hand, you may as well make the most of it. It wasn’t long before people were breaking the ice and chatting away with other randoms to help pass the time. I was idly chatting some small talk with a guy from Ireland, when I heard our little group deciding to watch a movie on a laptop. I had to laugh when eventually they picked “Trainspotting” as their film of choice, and someone decided they wouldn’t need subtitles as they had chosen the English audio version. I had to tell them they would definitely need subtitles, although I am not sure how they took this advice. Maybe they thought I was commenting disparingly on their poor English, which was actually of a very high standard. A few minutes in and one of the girls smiled at me “I think we need subtitles”. I smiled back, and gave her a wink “I’m from Scotland – that’s how I knew you would”

Around 3 hours later, we were on the move again, and arrived in Luang Prabang in darkness around 8pm, totally shattered and exhausted. Of course, rather then take us straight to the old town city centre, first we would have to have a battle of wits haggling with the TukTuk drivers conveniently waiting for us at the Bus Station 6km out of town. Nothing is ever easy, but a few days here would allow us to recharge. Hotel room acquired, it was time for some food and cold beer. More about the Ikon Bar later.

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Vang Vieng, Laos

Vang Vieng is a wonderful little place to chill for a few days. Surrounded by beautiful mountain scenery – which are actually limestone karst’s – and vivid green rice fields, the place is really small, with a village feel.

The town is heavily geared up for young traveller’s who basically reach this destination for the “tubing”. This where you are transported 3 miles upstream and float down the river on a spare tractor tyre inner tube, stopping at bars en route back to Vang Vieng. After a night or two here, we got used to the sight of the young’uns walking up the street, soaked to the skin, loud and boisterous after sinking multiple “buckets” of local cocktails. We also saw quite a few injured, and we were told that there has been 15 deaths so far this year on the river. Mostly caused by a combination high fast water during the rainy season and people getting into difficulties due to too much booze.

We are experiencing real extremes of weather. Although always hot, sometimes just damn hot, the last of the monsoon rains have been really teaming it down. It only lasts and hour or two, but it is torrential, and seems to happen at any time of the day, which can make planning the day a bit difficult.

We decided to give the “tubing” a miss, and hire a motorbike to take ourselves out to the countryside, and visit The Blue Lagoon. As we left the main road, the terrain got progressively worse. Red muddy rough roads, covered in craters and rocks, with large pools made from the earlier monsoon rains made the ride more than a bit treacherous. Although we took our time, the 6km journey took over an hour as we passed little village communes where small kids would spot us excitingly shouting “Hello’s” with friendly smiles, and with stunning scenery all around us.

One little girl stopped us, she must have been about only 3 years old, and she was trying “high five” us as we snailed past. We stopped for a photo, and as cute as anything, she realised what was happening, and posed for the camera. In return, she seemed to be pointing at Michelle’s wristbands, most of which have been gifts from friends. We were quite happy to see her little face light up when I offered her one of mines instead.

The Blue Lagoon was nothing like we envisaged, much smaller, and more green than blue, but the setting was particularly picturesque. We decided to head back a little earlier, as we anticipated a heavy thunderstorm brewing due to the large dark clouds that were gathering in the not to far distance.

We had a ride about town to see a bit of the place before returning the bike before dark. There are endless bars/restaurants to cater for these young tourists. Each bar seems to be almost identical, with identical menus selling local dishes, western dishes with tasty baguette and full breakfasts. Each little place has raised seating areas with little low slung tables and scatter cushions, and all have free WIFI and televisions screening continual looped episodes of Friends, Family Guy, The Simpsons and Southpark. It is quite lazy, but when the rain is on, you can spend a good few hours in these places.

There are some great riverside bars, and it is great to sit and chill, watching kids strip off and jump in the river, fly down at speed with the current, then hit the banks and the small bridges to come back and do this all over again.

A few days here then before heading North to Luang Prabang – a journey that should take around 5 hours, however, we were warned by an Ozzie girl that we had met one night that landslides can create major delays. We had heard travel in Laos could be difficult, and we were to find this out for ourselves’ very soon.

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Vientiane, Laos

The border crossing was really quite easy, a TukTuk driven by Granny to the Friendship Bridge, passport photo’s obtained and stamped out of Thailand, we then hopped on the bus which took us directly to the Laos immigration point. We filled in a form, handed over the entry fees in US Dollars, and waited for 10 minutes while we were hounded by TukTuk and Taxi Drivers for a fare to Vientiane. The longer you wait and show no interest, the more likely the price of the fare falls, and it did. So we accepted a 200 Bhat fare to take us straight to our chosen Guesthouse. The whole journey from Nong Khai had taken just over an hour.

The “City” has more of a town feel, and it is easily traversed on foot. The main central area, near Mixay Wat, is a small grid of streets maybe 3 or 4 maximum – so there is really no need for 10 or so TukTuk drivers waiting for a fare at the end of each. This was reminding me of Ubud, Bali, where you are constantly hassled for business every other minute by the shouts of “TukTuk Sir?”. It really can be quite draining having to say no thanks all the time, to the point where you just start to ignore these guys.

Vientiane does sound French, and it does have a very French feel. Streets are called “Rues”, and there is an abundance of Gallic Restaurants. It would only take a day or so to get our bearings, when we stumbled upon a mini Arc de Triomphe. The French obviously had a great influence when the country became a French protectorate at the end of the 19th century, and renamed it as the capital, the original being name being “Wieng Chang”. The Architecture is Franco styled, with massive colonial style villas and we noticed some kids playing the French game pétanque in the streets.

The food here has been great, not only local dishes, but a few decent Indian Restaurants as well. We were in heaven for a couple of nights with Lamb Curry, Tandoori Chicken, Tomato Aloo and fluffy light Roti’s. Michelle opted for some green stuff from The Exorcist.

Our base was right on the Mekong, and taking a walk one afternoon, we found a huge local eatery right on the water, and sat down for Vietnamese influenced Fresh Spring Rolls, with a spicy peanut sauce dip and some pickled local vegetables while watching the sun going down as it cast spectacular luminance on the clouds.

That night we met a couple from New Zealand, Patrick and Jezz, and it ended up a wee party night in a local bar. Live music was being played, and people would get up for a wee dance. Having had a few, it was time for Johnny Cash to have a go, and I ended up with a guitar strapped to me, and belting out “Ring of Fire”. The band then went for Robbies “Angels” and I decided to give it a bash. Not one of my favourites, mainly because it is always torn apart by lagered up blokes who think they are Elvis on Karaoke back home. I think I did the same 🙂

As the night ended, we grabbed a beer from a local shop and sat at the front of the hotel just finishing off the night, when Ewan from England and Jimmy from Scotland turned up, needing more beer. There is an 11.30pm curfew in Laos, but where there’s a will and all that. A local girl appeared on a motorbike, and for a small fee, could arrange this. Ewan went with her, and turned up half an hour later with 2 large bottles of Beer Laos. By this stage, we were tired, staying up for another 15 minutes, before turning in and completely zonked at just a little past midnight.

We decided to head up North to Vang Vieng. We booked an air conditioned mini bus for 9am next morning, both up, but feeling rough, we were a bit disappointed when a large vehicle with 2 makeshift benches in the back was waiting outside. We climbed on, and after 5 minutes of picking people up from their respective guesthouses, I was beginning to wonder if either of us would manage the 4 hour journey, given our current constitution. I was ready to stop the bus and get off. Luckily I didn’t, as we stopped shortly thereafter and were told to get on the awaiting mini bus. Luxury, we got the biggest seat in the front, and could sprawl out a bit.

We stopped midway at some roadside eatery, and it was time for a wee hair of the dog, while Michelle was happy to just snooze on the bus. No sooner had I bought the beer, than I was dragged over to a bunch of locals, getting wasted with some local police on Beer Lao at 11am in the morning. Beer Lao tastes great, it is light and refreshing, with no bitter aftertaste and it is a source of national pride. Reminds me in taste and body of Beer Bintang from Indonesia. Funnily enough, it is based on an old recipe for a Czech pilsner brought to Laos by a local woman who had worked over there in a brewery. The Lao share a bottle, each person has a small glass with a large ice-cube, and they will take turns at topping each other’s glasses up. The good thing about this, notwithstanding the communal social aspect, is that your beer is always cold. The locals were quite well on, especially friendly and amiable. They spoke to me, smiling while talking in broken English, and topped up my glass repeatedly – advising me “This is the Lao way, we always share !!”.

I was beginning to really like Laos, but Michelle just rolled her eyes when I got back on the bus half cut and told her what happened. I was bursting to relieve myself about half an hour into the remainder of the trip, turning green while praying for a pitstop. When we reached Vang Vieng, we stopped at the first hotel, and I left Michelle to do the negotiations while I legged it to the WC.

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Nong Khai, North East Thailand

Very chilled out and relaxed, the Mut Mee Guest House is run by Juilan, an extremely friendly English expat. It was around 8pm and dark when we arrived at the Bus Station in Nong Khai, and we quickly negotiated a deal with a local TukTuk driver ( ie. laughed our arses off when he asked for 100 Bhat each ) who took us straight to the hotel, where we could just dump the bags, and head out into the garden for a few relaxing Beer Leo’s. The TukTuk cost us only 40 Bhat.

The garden is set right on the Mekong River, and in the morning, we could actually see across to Laos, about the same distance as back home overlooking the Tay from Dundee and over to Fife.

The garden was full of lush foliage, with lots of rustic sitting areas, covered in  bamboo and thatched roofs. There was a bit of a traveller vibe about the place, and Julian seemed to be very good at introducing everyone and breaking the ice.

Up early and fresh next morning, it was time to hire a motorbike and get out and the area. We were going to head out into the countryside, but take in the Sculpture Park first.

The sculptures were quite fantastic, and there were lakes filled with huge giant catfish breaking the surface of the water occasionally in a feeding frenzy.

Leaving the park, we trundled down the road on our little Japanese motorbike, taking in the wonderfully colourful scenery. For the first time, our visit back home was a distant memory, and it really felt like we had just picked up from where we left off. We were both quiet, enjoying the heat, the breeze, the smells, and the sights.

Skinny farmers herding water buffalo would smile and wave from a distance, their teeth glowing brilliant white against a canvas of sun weathered brown leather skin. Poor, hardworking, yet extremely happy.

Smiling children would shout out greetings, looking slightly bemused at the unusual sight of 2 gingers floating past on a motorbike.

We got back to the hotel before darkness fell. There was a party that night with a really good local Thai band. This was on the raftboat at the bottom of the garden, so we had made a loose plan to maybe head over depending on how we felt. We had a few beers then ended up drinking some blue jungle juice concoction. Good idea at the time, we had a great night, but didn’t look too healthy next morning for our trip over the border to Laos. 

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Nakhon Ratchasima,Thailand

Bangkok is really sticky, and we needed some respite from this and decided to go to the cinema to see “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”. On arriving in Siam Square, I stupidly flicked the butt of my cigarette onto the street, and was immediately confronted by a Thai Policeman. I was going to be fined 2000 Bhat (40 quid), and was led away to meet the Sergeant who would roll out the official paperwork. We were both gutted. I advised the Sergeant I would have to go to the bank, my mind was working overtime, wondering if these were real policemen. They looked official, yet had no hats, and the paperwork was like 8th generation photocopies. I asked to see official ID, and was quickly shown a laminated pass, which looked a bit DIY. I was told that if I could not pay the fine, I would be taken to the Police Station. Bummer 😦 I actually had about 600 quid in my concealed moneybelt, but was playing for time. The Sergeant then asked how much money I had on me, and when I pulled out 900 Bhat, he advised if I was to pay him 500 Bhat, then he would not file the report, and the matter would be concluded. I kept eyeing his uniform, wondering if this was a scam? I stalled again, and he could tell I was reluctant to part with any money. Time was ticking, we had spent 15 minutes with him, and then I told him I thought the fine was huge for such a minor offence. He asked me to wait a few minutes, and had a conversation with his colleague, and returned advising me that if I picked up the cigarette but, I could just go. I thanked him graciously, and we legged it as quick as we could. After the film, the two gents were still in the same position conversing with what looked like the “real” police. Turned out they were official after all, but were some form of tourist police ie. No Guns. Think we had been quite lucky there. The film was pretty good, and we had managed to avoid the hottest part of the day.

We had decided it was time to leave Bangkok again, as after 2 days, we had recovered from the last long train journey and were up for a move again. We organised our banking, we had been withdrawing daily amounts from the ATM as in Laos, the most you can withdraw is 50 quid at a time and the withdrawal fees would be horrendous. We arranged for some US Dollars for the Laos visa, picked up our laundry and packed our bags. We were just discussing the fact that it was unlikely that we would bump into some of the people we had met in the past while waiting at the Bus Stop, when Michelle spotted Tipany, the ex Bankrobbing Chess player from Finland. We chatted for a while and exchanged emails, hopeful we could meet up at some stage for a Chess tournament. Hopefully after 9/10 months of playing we can both now give him more of a challenge.

The plan was to head East, to Nakhon Ratchasima (Khorat) first, about 5 hours away, then onto Ubon Ratchthani, a further 6 hours away, which would have taken us close to the Southern part of Laos. From there, a linear journey Northwards through Laos without any doubling back. On reaching Khorat, the 2nd biggest city in Thailand, we found that we had entered an industrial type city, with heavy traffic, thick polluted air, and not much going on in the way of things to do. There were daytrips that could be undertaken, but most seemed to be quite laborious and too much trouble for what would ultimately be, for example, a temple visit. Ubon Ratchthani seemed to be more of the same, so we needed an alternative plan.

Nong Khai is right up in the far North East of Thailand, right on the border with Laos, and about 20km from the Laos capital of Vientiane. We arrived here by default really. We spent the evening reading the Lonely Planet guide, and happened across the entry for Nong Khai, described as

“an Adorable, sleepy setting beside the Mekong River, enough tourist amenities to dispel isolation and enough local attractions to fill a day with sightseeing, snacking and wandering”

This seemed ideal, a 6 hour bus journey Northwards, and right next to a border crossing for Laos. The downside would be, that we were entering Laos right slap bang in the middle of the country on the West side. This would mean some doubling back on ourselves unless we could manage some kind of loop. Some careful planning would be required.

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Kanchanaburi & Nam Tok, Thailand

There was a wee man from Nam Tok, who wouldn’t stop …. Okay, maybe just hold that thought. 🙂

Ayutthaya Bus Station was 5 minute walk from our guest house. Walking through the street, we were advised that an air-conditioned mini bus would be 380 Bhat each. The problem with this, notwithstanding the price which we knew was ludicrous, is that you kind of feel you are cheating when taking the easy option. The bus will be full of well healed travellers’, in relative terms, and you are not really experiencing transport as utilised by the locals.

There are lots of dogs in the streets, mostly lazing about in the shade. One jumped up startled as we walked up the road, and I practically shat my pants and jumped about 4 feet in the air as he barked loudly and went straight for my leg. Turned out, the dog wasn’t really being aggressive, he just got a fright, but he still managed to playfully toy bite my calf. I immediately got out of the way, and at a safe distance, checked to see if the skin was broken. It wasn’t, and I didn’t start foaming at the mouth 24 hours later either, so safe to say no rabies on this occasion. Got a bit of a fright though, and it was a good reminder to keep your wits about you.

It transpired that for 80 Bhat, a small local mini bus would take us to Suphanburi Bus Station, about half way, where we could then get the coach to Kanchanaburi for a further 50 Bhat. This represented a total saving of 10 quid for the two of us, and travelling this way was just as hassle free, albeit a slightly longer journey time of maybe an hour or so.

From the Bus Station in Kanchanburi, we took a local pick up for 10 Bhat, crammed in the back with curious friendly locals, and dropped off 10 minutes later at Dam Rak, the war cemetery. This was just around the corner from the area we wished to stay in, and we found a nice hotel for about 250 Bhat on the main drag. This street is geared for the tourists that are daytripping from Bangkok to see the River Kwai Bridge, so there was plenty eateries and bars showing the weekend football.

So we took a stroll one day along the street towards the bridge and I can just hear Dad saying “Eh’ve been there!” The bridge was a lot smaller than I thought it would be, maybe the famous film had given me this impression, and wasn’t the bridge blown up by Obi Wan Kenobi anyway?

We decided, rather than hang about Kanchanaburi, we would take the train over the bridge and head to Nam Tok. There was a wee man from Nam Tok … no, we had to stop repeating this and each time giggling like school children, wondering who would dare to come up with the next line. The train journey was quite pleasant, taking around 3 hours, and creeping over the old bridge, before gathering speed as the rural countryside flew past. All the windows were open, allowing a refreshing breeze. The train would reach the Death Valley Viaduct, and slow down to a snails pace as we crept along the creaking wooden construction, hoping it could hold the weight of the train. It was a long way down, and the huge chocolate coloured river was lurking at the bottom.

Arriving in Nam Tok, we immediately spotted a wee man … who had transport and could take us to the waterfall. How exciting! Well actually, the most exciting part was watching everyone play about in the water pools, and then Michelle spotting a big white bum. Most of Asia dresses moderately, and any books you read on etiquette, advise us Westerners to respect the local culture. This dame was wearing a G string, bending over to wash her hands and splash water on the kids. Her big glowing white bum was shining out like a lighthouse beam. Deary me! It was all bums and Nam Tok’s up here 😉

Fortunately, both Michelle and I had forgotten to pack our thong and speedo’s, so we headed down the road to find accommodation for the night. We first sat in a restaurant for something to eat and a couple of beers, taking in the view of the spectacular large green mountain range separating Thailand from Myanmar. To think we were so close to the border and both our thoughts went back to the great times we had in that wonderful part of the world.

We were at first offered a bamboo hut for 250 Bhat. We had a look, and could tell neither of us was particularly impressed. Staying the night in a shed was not very appealing, so we crossed the road and found this resort type place, where we were offered a chalet type bungalow, in a peaceful rural setting with beautiful manicured gardens. With it being low season, we more or less had the whole place to ourselves.

There was not much to do other than chill for a night. On this occasion, the journey was the attraction, and we decided that as we were paying 100 Bhat each just to get on the train, we may as well continue all the way back to Bangkok, where we could plan how we were getting to Laos. I’m now the one being slaughtered at Chess by the Lochee Grandmaster by the way.

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