Koh Tao – Diving deeper

After a heavy few days of partying we jumped on a boat to recover on Koh Phangan’s neighbouring island, Koh Tao. Like Koh Phangan is famous for its Full Moon party, Koh Tao has its own reputation as the diving capital of Southeast Asia. Thailand is known to be one of the cheapest places in the world to get your diving certifications but since we already had our open water certificate, what else could we do?

As we got off the ferry and began to hunt for somewhere to stay, it soon dawned on us that Koh Tao was just as expensive as Koh Phangan was, not to mention that most places were already booked up. We were debating whether to part with more cash or sleep on the beach when a man gave us a leaflet for a diving school. My brain suddenly switched on. I remembered someone mentioning to us that if we booked a course through pretty much any diving school, they would provide us with free accommodation. We decided to head down to the school ‘Crystal Bay’ to speak to them and get a price for an advanced course.

The advanced diving course is a three day, five dive course similar to the open water but allows you to dive up to 30 metres. As I may have told you before, the reason we decided to get our open water diving certificate was to give us knowledge and above all confidence to dive the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. However after speaking to a few people, most of them told us that it might be wise to get our advanced as well, meaning we would be able to see more of the reef by diving deeper.

After speaking to one of the instructors at Crystal dive, we decided to go for it. The price was pretty decent and included free accommodation with a discounted price for extra nights as we wanted to stay longer. My new found confidence in diving brought excitement to my eyes but my nerves also threw butterflies in my belly! We dropped our bags in our room which was right by the beach and went for a walk to see the town.

We were staying about five kilometres away from the main town which was fine by us. We tend to prefer being in a quieter area and with a lovely beach on our doorstep, we could hardly complain. Koh Tao seemed similar to Koh Phangan, just a little smaller and more relaxed. After spending the remainder of our day on the beach, we decided to rent a moto for a few days to give us the freedom to head into town.

That night we hopped on the bike and drove to town to check out the nightlife. Although Koh Tao was still scattered with boozy adolescents, it seemed to attract an older crowd as well. Couples and families filled the many restaurants and seemed to make the place feel that little bit more mature! Needless to say we were both thankful for this after the last few days we had, but still somehow managed to attend a lady boy drag show, slung a few drinks down our throats at a beach party and stumble home very late! This by the way takes a good two hours if you’re not on a bike, you’re intoxicated and you get lost!

menpete03 menpete02       menpete21 menpete17

The following day was spent on our doorstep beach sleeping off our hangover before venturing out for some food in the evening. We had heard that there was a place that did crazy golf (one of my favourite things), so thought we would spend a quiet evening participating in a bit of light-hearted fun. Well both of us knew that wasn’t going to happen! As usual the competitive streak of the both of us took over. I was leading for a good few holes but Pete eventually caught up and snatched the trophy! It was a great laugh none the less. We may be competitive but we certainly know how to have fun! After the golf we had a delicious meal followed by a banana split for desert and a few drinks with friends we had met before heading home.

menpete13menpete09

The next day we set off early on an exploration of the Island. Someone had told us that there was a small, secluded beach somewhere but you could only get to it by bike. With that we set off on the bike armed with a map. After about half an hour we found the beach. We were pointed in the direction of a hidden path leading to an enchanting little patch of sand. We spent the day there soaking up the sun and enjoying the peace with just a few others. As I lay in the warmth, I couldn’t help but wonder with apprehension how I would get on for the next two days, as tomorrow was the start of our advanced diving course!

menpete24menpete26

Day one was a bright and early start for us to meet our instructor and do a few hours of theory before jumping on the boat. To our relief our instructor was an English guy called Chris so at least we would have no language barrier this time! He had a trainee instructor with him called Shawn who would assist him and look after us while Shawn looked after the other three girls we were with who were from Ireland. We all found the theory pretty easy. It just covered things we already learnt on the first course and refreshed our memories. There was no test involved so there was no need to worry about revising.

After the theory we hopped on the boat and got kitted up with our diving gear. The course consisted of five dives that we would complete over two days. It is a relaxed and fun course compared to the open water, allowing you to enjoy the experience more freely. We even got to pick which dives we did and what we wanted to learn. We decided to do a navigation dive first followed by buoyancy control. Navigation is always good to learn because it’s hard to know where you are under the water and controlling your buoyancy is a key factor in becoming a good diver (so we’ve been told).

As we descended under the water I felt myself freeze with fear. Then I felt someone tap me on the shoulder. It was Shawn signalling me to breathe deeply and equalise my ears. Luckily the boat had a decent line for me to hold on to and slowly lower myself down. Shawn stayed with me until we reached the others on the ocean bed. My ears didn’t hurt like they normally did and I felt a lot more relaxed already.

Our navigation dive was fun and gave me something else to focus on other than being submerged underwater. We had to use our compasses to find our way around and record on our underwater boards, which direction we were going in. The visibility was awful which was perfect for the exercise as it made us realise just how important navigation is when you’re diving. After quick break we got back on the boat to head to our next diving location to cover buoyancy control.

I had no trouble descending on the next dive; I just took my time and relaxed. The buoyancy control was one of my favourite dives. We learnt how to use our breathing to keep us buoyant as well as using our vests. We had to keep ourselves in certain positions, hovering above the floor and whoever touched the sea bed lost. We also had to skim the floor one by one and kiss little markers on the ground with our regulator, making sure the rest of our body didn’t touch anything. Sounds pretty straight forward but trust me its hard! Even the slightest bit of air can make you float to the surface and the opposite can make you crash down. This showed us the importance of buoyancy under the water. If you can control your buoyancy it can prevent you from damaging coral, injuring yourself, floating to quickly to the surface and it will generally help you to manoeuvre around with a lot more poise and ease.

DCIM100GOPRO

The next day I woke up with optimism and excitement for the next half of our diving course. It wasn’t long before we were on the boat and back into the water again. We were all really excited for the next dive as we had all chosen to dive a shipwreck! There was no theory involved in this dive, just a bit of fun and exploring. When we reached the bottom I was amazed with how huge it was. It had been sunk on purpose for diving meaning everything was still intact. It was in great condition. You could see every little part of it and almost built a picture in your head of what it used to look like before it was sunk. The buoyancy control lesson came in handy when we swam inside it and manoeuvred through it.

DCIM100GOPRO

The next dive would be our most important dive yet, the deep water 30 metre dive. This would guarantee us our advanced diving certificate if we completed it. Chris explained that it would be like any other dive we’ve done, just deeper. He was right. When we reached the bottom of the ocean it felt the same as when we were diving 18 metres, just a little colder and less visibility. By this point I could defiantly say that I enjoyed diving. Even Shawn and Chris could see from my body language that I was more confident. Pete had been like a water baby the whole time and excelled in all of the lessons we covered.

menpete30

After strongly expressing from the beginning that there was no way I was going to do a night dive, there I was floating in the pitch black with Pete and our instructors. At the last minute with my new found confidence blurring my fears, I decided that I was going to do the night dive. Pete was thrilled with my decision and so was I until I was floating in the dark water wondering what was below me! As we started to descend I realised that floating in the water was much scarier than diving in it. Chris and Shawn guided us around as we shone our torches on the reef. It was like a whole different world in the dark filled with magical glowing fish of the night and nocturnal sea creatures. To my surprise, I wasn’t scared at all. I had faced two of my fears combined. Open water and the dark! I never would have thought I would do that, even after my open water course!

Our course was complete. We have now gained our advanced diving certificates meaning we can dive down to 30 metres unassisted. At one point I didn’t think I could complete my open water let alone finish my advanced course. We were so glad that we decided to dive in Koh Tao in the end. We had a fantastic time and my confidence was able to grow with the help of our awesome instructors Chris and Shawn. Thank you to the team at Crystal Dive for giving us an experience we will never forget and above all, for helping me fall in love with diving!

Next we flew to Malaysia for another boarder run before stumbling upon paradise thanks to some fellow backpackers! But not before we caught the night boat of horror to the main land!

 

Advertisements

Feeling the traveller vibe in Pai

After our stint in Chiang Mai we travelled north to a little town called Pai near the edge of the Thailand boarder. Before coming away we had never heard of the place but after telling numerous people on our travels of our plans to see Chiang Mai, we always got the same answer back. “If you’re going to Chiang Mai you have to visit Pai”. We have based nearly our entire route purely on word of mouth about which places are worth a visit and which ones we could give a miss. With every recommendation failing to disappoint and time on our hands, we decided to go there and see what all the fuss was about.

As I peered out of the bus window I noticed that this place wasn’t like other places we had seen in Asia before. It defiantly didn’t look in keeping with traditional Thai culture but nor had it been affected by the modern world. We had never seen fairy gardens, giant strawberry sculptures and houses that looked like they were from story books on our travels before.

menpete14

The bus dropped us off in the middle of town. It was a quiet place filled with quirky little shops selling handmade goods along with health food cafes serving grass shots and ginger tea. There was a colourful sprit about the town reflected in the buildings and the people. The dress code seemed to be fisherman pants and dreadlocks. At least we had one of the two.  The first word that sprung to my mind was Totnes but with better weather.

menpete05

We hadn’t booked anywhere to stay as usual so went on the search for accommodation.  We were directed by others to the riverside where there were little huts for rent. We managed to get one and made ourselves at home.

menpete04

Later that night we went into town to have a look around. The atmosphere was certainly livelier with funky music playing and a night market running through the streets. Small stalls edged the road selling handmade jewellery and crafts. There was a selection of interesting food stands selling sushi and all sorts. We came across a stall selling different sorts of tea served in a bamboo stick. I decided to try the traditional Thai ice tea and since then I have been hooked on the stuff!

menpete09menpete08

There wasn’t a whole lot to do in Pai so we decided that two days was enough to chill out and drink tea. We hired a scooter for the second day and explored the surrounding area. We first stopped off at a small canyon and took a walk along it. It was nothing like the Grand Canyon but still worth a look!

menpete10menpete11

Next we went to see the giant strawberry that we had seen on the way to Pai the day before. It turns out that it was a strawberry farm and sold everything made from strawberries! They had strawberry wine and strawberry vodka. The wine was ok but the vodka still tasted pretty strong! They also had the most delicious strawberry shakes along with sweet dried strawberries. Yummy!

menpete12

Later after we stopped from lunch we headed off a little further to see some natural hot springs. There are many hot springs in Southeast Asia but so far we hadn’t got around to actually going to see any. You were allowed to swim in all of the pools except one. The temperature in the pools started at 30 degrees and slowly went up to 37. The last pool that you couldn’t swim in was a sizzling 100 degrees hot! It was so hot you could see it bubbling and steam rising from it. Since the weather was so hot already outside of the pool, we only spent a few minutes in them at a time.

menpete15

That evening we went to a bar called ‘Edible Jazz’ where they had an open mic night on. We met up with some guys we met at the springs that day and also bumped into the British couple we were on the trip at Sapa with. There were great singers and musicians from all over the world. It’s amazing what talent you find in every neck of the woods.

As we were catching up with Steph and Eric about what they’d been up to since Sapa, we managed to rope them into trying a lesson in Muay Thai boxing with us the next morning. We had already decided to give it a try and thought it would be a laugh if they came along with us. They hesitantly accepted the invite and agreed to meet us in the morning to go.

The following day we woke up bright and early ready for action! We grabbed some fruit in the morning for a bit of energy and made our way to the office to meet our instructor and hopefully Steph and Elliot. Just as we arrived they showed up and we all made our way to the gym by foot.

Our instructors were a married couple. They guy called ‘M’ had been Muay Thai boxing for over fifteen years. He wasn’t originally from Thailand but after falling in love with his now wife, he moved to Pai with her and set up their own Thai boxing gym. His wife took up boxing five years ago when they met and she’s got a killer punch on her now!

We arrived at the outdoor gym to find three guys already there. The first was an American guy we met at the hot springs called Jeff. He had told us he was taking classes with M for a week and was the one who recommended him to us. The other was a guy from England who had been training there for a month and the third was a beast of a French man who had been training in France for over a year. So we were the four newbie’s there for just a day’s taster but that didn’t mean they went easy on us!

We had all warn what we thought would be appropriate clothes for the session but before we started we were all given brightly coloured boxing shorts to wear. I guess they wanted us to look and feel the part! After that we all warmed up by doing a few exercises and speed skipping before getting our hands wrapped with bandages and our gloves slipped on. I felt a little nervous like I was actually going into a real fight but we weren’t going to be punching anyone for real that day, just learning the moves and spotting.

1175731_10151608743021443_1934602158_n

We were then split into two groups. Pete was put in the group with the three guys that already did Muay Thai and I, Steph and Elliot were put together. I got the impression that I was placed in the easy group but as I watched Pete being pushed to his limit, literally dripping with sweat, I was pretty relieved! It was still hard work throwing punches and kicks but at least I didn’t have to drop down and do a set of push up’s and run around as well!

menpete01

Once I got the hang of the moves and relaxed, it was really good fun. We had such a good time in fact that we wished we could have stayed longer. We have already discussed coming back to Chiang Mai and staying for a month or two to learn Muay Thaiproperly as well as mountain biking and all the other activities north Thailand has to offer.

534961_10151608715526443_326320410_n

We were so tired from the boxing that we slept the rest of the day and woke up in the evening for dinner. It was a good day to catch up on some sleep as it rained for a few hours after we’d finished boxing. So far we’ve only encountered just a few days of rain in the time we’ve been away. Pretty good considering we’re meant to be travelling in the wet season. We packed in the evening to return to Chiang Mai the following day.

After one more day in Chiang Mai we headed north again to the Thailand boarder in a place called Chiang Rai. Our visa was due to run out so we did a quick boarder run to Burma and then back into Thailand to be given another fifteen day visa. This is common practice when travelling in Thailand because if you enter the country by bus (which we did from Lao) you are only given a fifteen day visa pass, where as if you enter by plane you are given a thirty day visa.

After the boarder run we took advantage of our time in Chiang Rai to see a unique temple like no other in Southeast Asia. Wat Rong Khun, also known as ‘The white temple’ was built by a Thai artist named Chalermchai Kositpipat in 1997. He wanted to create an unconventional Buddhist temple that would stand out from all others. Well he certainly succeeded at that.

P1060105

It was one of the most extraordinary and unusual temples we had ever visited and well worth a three hour trip from Chiang Mai to see. Its blinding white colour was lit up by the sun making it visible from miles away. Before you even enter the site, scattered around are elements of his unique gothic style. Hanging heads from the trees intrigued us as we approached the entry point. Even the traffic cones had scull heads on the top of them.

P1060101

Although the temple would seem to not contain any Buddhist influence, it did in fact. Most of what we saw was the artists own representation of things. For example, when you approach the entrance of the temple you must cross a bridge to reach the abode of the Buddha. The bridge represents the cycle of rebirth and the ghoulish hands reaching out below represent the pits of hell.

P1060126P1060107

It is estimated to take another ninety years for the temple to be complete. Chalermchai Kositpipat is already in the process of training people to continue his ambitious project even after his death. It was a wonder to see such an expression of personality and individuality that one man has created, especially in a place where tradition and culture dominates.

P1060110P1060104

Our time in the north of Thailand had come to an end. So far it has defiantly been the highlight of our trip. The north has a multitude of activities, culture, food and art that is almost forgotten against the boozy South Islands. Saying that, our next destination would most defiantly be a boozy one. Get your rave paint on, we’re off to the full moon party in koh phangan!

I left my heart in Chiang Mai

We arrived in the city of Chiang Mai in north Thailand after a seventeen hour night bus and it wasn’t a sleeper bus! We paid extra for a sleeper but it ended up being just a fancy coach with free food. We caught a tuk tuk from the bus station and asked the same thing we always ask, “Take us to the backpacker area please?”. By this point we had stopped booking guesthouses in advance as since we were travelling in low season there was always room available somewhere and most of them are actually cheaper than the ones online.

We were dropped off at a little road called ‘Soy six’ which seemed to be bustling with cafes, guesthouses and most importantly, backpackers. It only took a few minutes to find a place to stay for a decent price and with that we unpacked and settled in.

Walking around, we fell instantly in love with the place. There was a relaxed vibe floating through the streets, defiantly not what you’d expect of a typical city. There were no great high rise buildings like in Bangkok and everyone seemed more friendly and welcoming. Soy six was defiantly the place to be and to be honest there was no need to venture further. It had everything a backpacker would need, quirky little shops, cafes’ that sold the most delicious baked goods, a nice food market that had no dodgy smells or dead animals, just fresh fruit and vegetables and tour offices scattered about the place, with an array of activities on offer.

We had planned to stay for a few days and do some activities before heading on to a place three hours north called Pai, so we went to a tour office to see what we could do. Looking at the heaps of brochures we just didn’t know what to pick. I had planned to take a Thai massage course but the shortest one was one week so that idea was boycotted. Then we remembered chatting to a guy in Laos who told us that if we go to Chiang Mai we HAVE to go mountain biking. He needn’t have convinced Pete since he already is mountain bike crazy and actually he needn’t have convinced me as I’d wanted to try it out for ages. So with that we book a day trip mountain biking for the next day.

We woke up in the morning and put on our old clothes expecting to get muddy. We were picked up and taken to the mountain bike office to get kited out and put in our group. There were a few different tracks we could pick, easy to hard but since I’d never been mountain biking before (in fact I can’t even remember the last time I rode a bike!) we decided the easiest option would suit me best. I told Pete he could go on a harder one but he was happy enough to just be on a bike whatever the case. We were all given helmets and gloves. I was given arm and shin pads since I was a novice along with the others in our group.

A truck took the group of us all the way up to the top of the mountain. As we ascended up the winding road we could see the view of the whole city. Nestled in the middle of its mountainous surroundings was Chiang Mai, a beautiful city with a beautiful backdrop. You just don’t get that in London or Birmingham. Here it would seem that you get the best of both worlds. A city with all the amenities you would need, along with the opportunity to go trekking and mountain biking right on your doorstep.

There were four of us in our group, me and Pete and another couple from Spain. We had two tour guides who were very friendly and talked us through what the track would be like. One would lead at the front while the other would stay at the back to keep an eye if anyone falls off! They estimated that the track would take around two hours to get to the bottom. Before we started we stopped off at a little coffee shop on the hill for a quick drink. It was a sweet little place with a lovely view of all the trees.

menpete04   menpete06

When we reached the top of the mountain there was a significant drop in temperature. I started to regret not wearing a jumper but after just a few minutes into the ride, I felt pretty warm! At first I was a little nervous. We had to ride down a steep road to reach the forest track. It had rained the night before so we were warned that the surface might be slippery. I know it sounds silly but whenever I ride a bike on a wet road I always remember the time I fell off in once when I was a kid. I love riding bikes but there’s something about wet roads that always freak me out. Pete went soaring down with enthusiasm as I gentle ambled along.

We reached a muddy track where the real riding begun! It was an easier track so it was wide enough to fit a car, meaning you could pick your path and work your way past the rocks and pot holes. After noticing that Pete was clearly experienced, the instructor let him go off in front with him and stop to wait for us every so often.  You can imagine what he was like, zooming past all of us with a huge grin on his fearless face and a twinkle of madness in his eyes. Typical Pete, he was in his element but as we progressed it would seem that I was too!

menpete07

When we reached the end of the track after two hours we stopped for lunch by a lake. I had such a great day biking through the mountains; I wish I had done it sooner in England. Next time I’ll join Pete on one of his outings but I’ll have to work on keeping up with him! Pete was glad he got to let off some energy doing one of his favourite things and it was great to get some more exercise on our travels.

menpete09

The rest of our time in Chiang Mai was really a write off. I failed to mention that on the day we arrived, we came out of our hostel and noticed that next door was a tattoo shop. I have wanted to get a particular phrase tattooed on me for a while now but I’ve wanted it written in Thai language (hence why I have waited until now) so we decided to go in the shop to talk to the guy about it.

Two hours later and Pete is booked in to get a three-quarter sleeve tattoo the next day as well as my tattoo! It would seem a bit of a ‘spur of the moment thing’ but in fact Pete has wanted a sleeve tattoo going on two years now. He was originally going to wait until Australia but with tattoos being so cheap in Thailand and after seeing this guys previous work, he decided to jump in the deep end and go for it now. The only down side to that was that the tattoo ended up taking a whole lot longer than we expected, two days in fact! This prevented us from exploring the rest of Chiang Mai which was a real shame. It had been one of our favourite cities so far and we vowed to return to it again one day.

Still, we were both very happy with our new ink (even if our parents aren’t!). Pete’s sleeve was almost complete but we ran out of time and had to leave. Long story short, he had it finished in another tattoo shop in south Thailand on Koh Phangan, about a week later. He also ended up getting the same tattoo on his spine as me. The writing reads ‘The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams’. It is a saying I have always loved and lived by. It was something I told Pete when I first met him and since then we have been living our dreams together and they truly began in Thailand (hence why the Thai writing). Soppy I know!

So here are the finished products of our tattoos from the future, as Pete’s was un-finished in Chiang Mai at the time. After spending two days cooped up in a tattoo shop you could say I was a little relieved when it was finished. We then headed for a two day break three hours north of Chiang Mai  in the hippy town of Pai, the Totnes of Thailand!

menpete01menpete03menpete02

 

Laos in a nut shell – Vang Vieng

The next day we caught a three hour mini bus to our next destination, Vang vieng. It was a pretty uncomfortable journey to say the least. It may only be three hours but when half the bus suffers from motion sickness (including me) it made for a very tummy churning ride!

We were on a bit of a tight schedule to get to Thailand but it would seem although Laos is a beautiful place, there isn’t a lot in the way to see or do except admire the landscape.  That turned out t be a good thing for us as we didn’t have a lot of time to do much!

Vang vieng is famous in laos among travellers for one thing, tubing! It was an activity first created by fellow backpackers in which you rent a tube (rubber ring), are dropped upstream a river and float down it. It takes around three hours to travel down the river but on either side of the banks are riverside bars you can stop off at.

Vang vieng was once a party Mecca because of the tubing but in recent years due to many deaths, nearly all the bars have been closed and rope swings banned. Now just three bars remain but although the drink and drug fuelled partying may have vanished, the magnificent view of the surrounding mountains rising above the river still remains.

We had two days to spend in Vang vieng so we decided on rock climbing the first day and tubing the second. We had been looking to go rock climbing since we’ve been away but haven’t found anywhere decent. The upcoming craze of climbing in the area was apparent and judging on the scenery, we could tell why. The tubing may have died out but rock climbing seemed to be making its mark on the town.

The following morning we got our gear on and headed for the mountains with our climbing guide. We were spending the day with one other girl called Barmy from the States. Both Barmy and I had done a bit of indoor climbing before but never outdoor so we were a little apprehensive. Pete was rearing to get his climbing legs going as he had been out of practise for six months. We were both looking forward to some proper exercise in the great outdoors. I love travelling but once thing I hate is the fact that you become so unfit! I was eager to feel my muscles pumping and my body working again!

After a short ten minute hike we made it to the bottom of the mountain. The view was breathtaking. Vang vieng may not be the prettiest of towns but its surroundings defiantly make up for it. I looked up at the cliff face in a mixture of excitement and nerves as we set up the gear for the climb.

lao033

The routes were set up for beginners and intermediates but since Pete hadn’t climbed for so long, he decided to start easy and work his way up. The first route was pretty easy with lots of pockets in the rocks for your hands and feet. The cliff was made out of limestone, a perfect rock for climbing. It creates lots of holes in the rock for holding on to but can also be a little unpredictable; bits can crumble away at any given time.  We all climbed up it with ease. Pete took the camera up and took a picture of the view. The combination of rice paddies, the town and the mountains in the background below a blanket of clouds made for a beautiful picture.

lao023

The next climb was a little trickier and a little higher. The route was a bit deceiving to the eye. It appeared to look quite straightforward with lots of big holes and ledges to stand on but it proved difficult even for Pete. After he went first he told us it was easy, which we later found out was a lie. He claims he said that because he didn’t want us to worry but I reckon it’s because he didn’t want us to know he struggled!

lao025

I went last after Barmy. The first half was fine until I looked down. It’s funny you know, I never have a problem with heights until I look down! Being outdoors on a real cliff is defiantly scarier than indoor climbing but I guess it adds to the thrill. I ended up nearly reaching the top until I got stuck and couldn’t find a way up. The longer I stood still up there, the more scared I got and the more my arms started to hurt. I was begging to regret wanting to ‘feel the burn’. In the end I aborted the climb. I was just a few feet away but didn’t have the strength to pull myself up. ‘As soon as you get to Australia your going back to the gym and then you’re going to come back and climb this rock again missy!’ I thought to myself as I was lowered down.

lao029

The next two climbs were fine but by then, all of us were struggling. By the end of the forth climb I couldn’t feel the muscles in my arms anymore. Thank goodness we only booked half a day! We made our way back to the van dragging our jelly legs behind us. Pete and I both fell asleep as soon as we got back to our room and woke up a few hours later!

lao028

The next morning we met up with Barmy again to go tubing. We rented our tubes and were dropped off by the river. We had been pre warned that the current was a little strong so climbed into our tubes carefully in case they floated away. Once we started floating down the river we almost immediately came across the first of three bars. We were told by other backpackers that the best bar was the second so we decided to miss the first one out.  As we approached the second bar they threw out a rope for us. We all grabbed hold of it and hoisted ourselves in.

It was a nice looking place with a ping pong table, volleyball, basketball and bowls. We laughed as we looked around to find no one but us there. We were there at 10:00am which is much too early by any traveller’s standards. We decided to wait a while for more people to show up; we had the whole day after all.

lao005

Whilst we were playing volleyball I noticed a little sign for a cave. We had seen loads of caves before but since there was time to kill, we decided to go check it out. We walked through some jungle to find a hut below a long bamboo ladder leading to the cave. We had to pay 10,000 Kip to go in (which was about £1.00) and were given little flashlights. Some little boys asked us if we needed a guide but we were sure we could handle the ‘small’ cave ourselves so we told them no thank you. They giggled and followed us anyway.

lao001

The bamboo ladder seemed to go on forever until we reached the little opening for the cave. We looked down into it and shone the torch. It was a little cave like we expected but at least it was something to do. There were more bamboo ladders leading down into the darkness. Just as we were debating how to manoeuvre down the dodgy ladder, the little boys showed up and climbed down first.

We decided to follow them as they seemed to know how to get around. When we reached the bottom we shone our torches up to the ceiling. It was a small cave but it was nice to see one in the dark and in its natural form, untouched by tourism. However, what we were about to find out next would take us for a big surprise.

As we were just about to leave the little boys ran round a corner. I shone the torch to where they went and noticed the cave was bigger than we thought, a lot bigger! We thought there was water blocking our path but to the left was a small dry path to go around it. As we walked further into the cave we noticed that we couldn’t see the end of it with our torches’. ‘How big can this cave be?’ I thought to myself as I tried not to slip over on the wet, muddy floor.

lao003

The boys new the cave like the back of their hands. Every time we thought we reached the end they would walk further and further. They walked so far that we could hardly see their torches’ anymore. The cave was enormous to put it lightly and pitch black! Every now and again we would all switch our torches’ off to see just how dark it was. The only light we could see was from the opening and after an hour of walking we finally reached the end where you could no longer see the entrance. I think the cave went further but the water was too deep to wade through. The film ‘The decent’ kept creeping into my head. I was just waiting to shine my light on some creature lurking in the dark! It was so spooky but so cool and defiantly worth 10,000!

lao004

This cave was as big if not bigger than the paradise cave in Dong Hoi (30 kilometres) but it was almost better because it was just the three of us there in the pitch black. Barmy told us that the term for what we did is called ‘Spelunking’, something I’d never heard of before but I’m certainly going to add it to my bucket list! I’m so glad the kids came with us; I think we would have gotten very lost if they weren’t there. We came out of the cave so thrilled by what we saw. It’s a pity I couldn’t take a good picture but it was just too dark.

lao002

It took us a total of two hours to get to the end of the cave and back. When we got back to the bar it was packed with people. We told everyone to go check the cave out but I don’t know if anyone bothered to. We spent a few more hours there playing volleyball and relaxing. It wasn’t a crazy party filled with mushroom buckets, rope swings and stomping music like we heard it used to be but it was good fun all the same.

lao010

We made a quick stop off at the third bar then floated down the river for the next two hours. It was so relaxing. The sky was blue, the sun was shining and we were encompassed by superb scenery. It’s a great activity to do in Vang Vieng even if you don’t want to go to the bars. We drifted down the river in the warm sunshine chatting to others floating by. In the end I was kind of glad that the tubing wasn’t a massive drinking riot anymore. I can drink anytime but I can’t admire the beautiful sights Laos has to offer ever day. Listen to me, I sound so old but let’s just go with mature!

lao020lao013

We left Vang vieng the next day and made our way to the city of Vientiane. There was nothing interesting or special about Vientiane, despite it being the capital. We met some other backpackers there who agreed that there was nothing worth seeing. With that in mind we decided not to waste our time doing nothing there and instead move on to Chiang Mai in north Thailand, a city I had been dying to see since the start of my travels and it didn’t fail to disappoint!

Halong Bay – A beautiful disaster

Hello everyone! I was looking through my blog and noticed that I missed out one of my posts on the last place we visited in Vietnam before heading to Lao. Just after Sapa we boarded another bus to visit Halong Bay and this is what happened…….

After arriving back from Sapa and spending another night in Hanoi, we jumped on a bus to Halong bay the next morning. We had booked another trip again through our hotel; three days two nights. The first night would be spent on a boat and the second in a hotel on an island called Cat Ba situated in the heart of the bay.

Halong Bay is famous around the world as a great natural beauty curiosity. It covers a vast area of around 1,553 Km squared and is scattered with 2,000 limestone islets (tiny islands) raising up from the sea bed and covered in jungle greenery. These magnificent limestone features are thought to have gone through 500 million years of formation.  It really is a sight not to be missed if you’re visiting Vietnam.

We arrived in Halong city after a three hour mini bus journey. It was nice to finally take a short bus somewhere but I can’t say the journey was much more comfortable, cramped in a hot mini bus like sardines. The harbour was chock full of little boats waiting to load tourists on. We were pre-warned that Halong had been a little spoilt by tourism but that didn’t deter our curiosity to see it for ourselves.

Everyone on our bus had paid different prices for the three day trip ranging from $50 to $200 (we paid $80) but from what I could see, no boat looked better than the other. They all looked lifeless and tired, in need of a lick of paint. We didn’t care though; as long as it was clean and didn’t sink we were happy.

We were directed to a boat by our tour guide and jumped on with a few other people. The boat set off towards the bay along with about twenty others in tow. We all climbed on the roof of the boat as we were slowly surrounded by rock formations. They were incredible to look at, a true phenomenon. Beams of sunshine reflected off the water like diamonds as we sailed past the elevating cliffs within the water.

lao003  lao005

Part of our tour was to kayak around the bay so we arrived at a man made port on the water to get off the boat. We got off the boat and each climbed into a double kayak. We only had half an hour to paddle around so we set off towards a little cave in one of the rocks. It was only a small entrance that lead us into a huge cove. We were surrounded by more rocks forming a circle around us in a pool of water. There was something so enchanting about it. I wish we brought the camera but we didn’t want to risk dropping it in the water. Our half an hour was up so we paddled back and jumped back on the boat for lunch.

lao004

As we cruised through the bay we passed two famous rocks called ‘The fighting cocks’. When I say passed them, I mean they were so far away we couldn’t even take a picture! It said in our brochure next to a close up picture of them that we would ‘pass’ them, but I think they were a little deceiving about how close we would be. That is pretty much an example of how the whole tour to Halong bay was, a little deceiving!

After lunch our boat arrived at an island in the bay called Cat Ba to drop some people off that weren’t staying on board overnight. This is island we would be staying for the second night, or would we? After we dropped them off we went back into the open water and swam for a few hours.

Although by the time we got to swim was nearing five, it was still really nice to have a dip after a hot day on the boat. We jumped off the top deck a few times and swam until the sun started to go down. Later, after we checked into our rooms we had a shower and joined everyone for dinner. The food wasn’t fantastic but the crew were nice and the company of others was great. In the evening we all sat on the top deck drinking and chatting. When the beers ran out we called it a night and went to bed.

lao010lao012

After breakfast we packed up our bags again and stepped off board onto Cat Ba Island. From there we caught a bus that would take us to a mountain of which we would take a short trek up to the top. The tour so far had felt a little disorganised but that was just the start of it. We all got off the bus with our big backpacks and waited for instruction. We were then told to leave all our bags and belongings on the side of the road while we walked up the mountain. The group of us were all a little uncomfortable with this as you would imagine but we had no choice as the bus drove away. So reluctantly we left our bags (making sure they were locked) and were pointed in the direction of the path.

We were given only an hour to hike up the mountain and back down again which ended up taking longer. A small group of us hiked up together over some pretty sketchy rocky paths. We caught up with a couple who appeared to be leading a guy. It turned out that this guy was deaf therefore he struggled with balance. We all lent him a helping hand as he manoeuvred up the mountain that seemed to get steeper and steeper.

The last stretch was up some rather rusty, metal ladders on the edge of a steep drop. We were all in admiration for the guy when he made it to the top. What a brave thing to do being deaf. But what was even more incredible was the fact that he was travelling Southeast Asia all on his own for three months! I thought the people leading him knew him but turns out they had met only the day before! It just goes to show that anything is achievable, no matter who you are.

lao015lao016

The view from the top was beautiful but I was disappointed to find that is wasn’t a view of Halong bay, but a view of the national park. I was sure in the brochure is said something about a view point of the bay but it was probably a little ‘decieving’.  Never the less it was a lovely view. We sat on the top for a while and caught our breath before we started our decent back down.

lao017lao020

As we were walking back down, we bumped into our friend Issacc again! We caught up with him and arranged to meet up that night for a drink. When we got back to where our bags were there was hardly anyone around and our tour guide was nowhere to be seen. They told us we were late getting back and a bus was on its way to pick us up. Turned out pretty much everyone was late because even the fittest person couldn’t climb that mountain in an hour!

The bus turned up and we all squeezed on it to head for town. From that point we never saw our tour guide again. It seemed just one lady called Maggie had taken over the role of organising a massive group of us. We were told that we would all check into our hotels and then have lunch. Everything was included in the package with no extra cost, including food.

On the bus we got chatting to everyone about what kind of tour they had booked. We were supposed to be staying on another island called ‘Monkey Island’ in little beach huts but after being warned that the island had nothing on it and you couldn’t get to town from it, we decided to tell a white lie and say we were staying in a hotel in the main town. After all we had paid as much as the others and we didn’t want to be marooned on an empty Island with nothing to do.

It turned out that there was no specific hotel we were all meant to be staying at. Instead they put everyone in different hotels where there was space. Everyone got off at different hotels and we were left last. It was a weekend meaning there were a lot of Vietnamese tourists as well as western. To add the problem it would seem that the tour company had booked more people then there were hotel rooms! Pete and I sat on the street for two hours with our bags as Maggie franticly went searching for a hotel. I started to think we had caused a problem by saying we were meant to be staying in the town rather than the island but we weren’t the only ones without a place to stay. It was obvious the tour company had messed up and poor Maggie had to sort it out by herself.

By this time it was late afternoon and we were both getting pretty hungry. We thought we would be having lunch at our hotel but since we didn’t have one Maggie took us to the one our friends were staying in. She said we could have lunch there and then we could check in to our invisible hotel after.

We waited another hour for her to pick us up again wondering if we would be sleeping on the street. My main complaint was that so much time had been wasted already trying to find a hotel for everyone that we wouldn’t get a chance to see the Island for the one day we had. Eventually she came back having found us a place to stay. We were taken to an empty hotel a little out of town. It was a hotel that they used for the military but there was no one there but us. It was nothing special but at least we had somewhere to stay. I just felt sorry for the people who had paid more specifically for a nice hotel and ended up in whatever was available.

As soon as we checked into the hotel we grabbed our swim stuff and headed for the beach where we spent the remainder of the afternoon. At the beach we bumped into all the people from the bus and hung out with them for a while. It wasn’t the prettiest of beaches, the water was kind of murky with a bit of rubbish in it but by that point we didn’t really care what it looked like.

When 4:00pm approached we noticed a huge crowd of Vietnamese people coming to the beach. The quiet little spot that we had turned into a mass of black hair as more and more locals gathered on the beach and in the water. It was so busy we even took a picture. The bar on the beach then started playing really loud music and seemed to be setting up the beach for a game. Our peaceful day on the beach was interrupted.

lao021

By this time I had gotten used to this pattern. Every beach we’d been to in Vietnam would always be quiet until 4:00pm. When late afternoon strikes the locals flock to the beach. Why? Because the sun is going down. People in Southeast Asia (especially Vietnam) are very conscious of their skin in the sun. This is partly for looks (because all the girls want to be white) and partly for their health. You’d never catch a local on the beach at midday and if you did they would certainly not be wearing a bikini!

We considered going but Pete decided that if you can’t beat them, you may as well join them. He and another guy joined in the games as I watched from the side. We had no idea what they were saying but you could get the general gist of it. They were in two teams and did a series of funny games to win beer! It was a good laugh in the end and the locals loved the fact that foreigners were joining in. Later on that night a group of us from the tour went out for a drink in town before leaving the next day.

In the morning we sailed back through the bay to catch our bus. Although I was nursing a hangover, my eyes were still glued to my surroundings as we passed through the enchanting rocks once again. The tour wasn’t well organised and Cat Ba Island is nothing special.

If it wasn’t for Halong bay we probably wouldn’t have come but I’m glad we did all the same. We have been lucky enough to witness one of nature’s purest works of art. These marvellous rocks have seen more of the earth in their 500 million years of life than we could only dream of and they will continue to fascinate the world as long as they shall live.

lao011

Laos in a nut shell – Luang prabang

We had mentally prepared ourselves for the journey ahead of us. As we boarded the 24 hour night bus to laos from Hanoi we hoped and prayed for a safe journey with no sick involved! We had heard so many horror stories of this particular bus journey that we expected the worst. Luck must have been in our favour on that occasion as to our surprise, it was the best bus journey we’d had so far despite being the longest! We were on a brand new bus and our beds were on the bottom row with plenty of leg room. We didn’t even have to take our sleeping tablets, it was bliss!

lao001 lao002

We made it to the Lao boarder in the morning. As we got off the bus to get our visas we were shocked to find our bags that were previously under the bus, on top of the bus. All of our bags had been moved in the night and tied to the roof and the baggage storage under the bus had been jammed full of anything but luggage! It was quite amusing actually; Pete had to climb onto the roof to get our passports from the bag. I don’t think I’d have been laughing much if it had rained though, my bag is chock full of electrical stuff! It took a grand total of 30 hours on the bus to make it from Hanoi to Luang prabang.

lao005

We arrived in Luang prabang at 11:30pm with no guesthouse booked. Bad idea. We and a few others caught a tuk tuk into the centre. Everyone else had booked guesthouses so we figured we would go with them and see if they had any room for us. It would seem that all the guesthouses were full. Sleeping on the street was the last thing we wanted to do after a 30 hour bus journey! Luckily one of the guesthouse owners directed us to another place down the road that had a room available.

We both slept well that night and took our time to wake up in the morning. Our guesthouse was located right on the main street which was ideal. We hadn’t researched on what to do in Luang prabang but it didn’t seem like there was much. It was a nice looking place though with a great laid back vibe. We spent the first day just mooching around town. We bumped into our crazy Mexican friend Efren again. He told us about this bar that everyone goes to called Utopia so we went to check it out.

We walked down a series of small paths and eventually found two wooden doors with the words utopia on it. We walked in to find ourselves under a huge thatched roof with no walls. The bar was to the side and the middle the floor was covered with pillows and mats to sit on around small tables. The whole bar overlooked the river with an extra platform made out of bamboo overhanging the water. It even had a little garden around it with swirly stone paths and a volleyball court. No wonder everyone comes here, it’s the perfect chill out spot. We stayed there for hours lying down on the bamboo decking watching the sunset. When the night fell they lit lanterns on the ceiling and candles on the tables. This place was right up my street and the perfect setting to catch up on my blog in peace and comfort.

lao007lao006

The next day we got in a tuk tuk to visit a waterfall called Kuang Si Falls. We had seen so many waterfalls that we were going to give this one a miss. That was until a girl showed us pictures of it. “It’s like nothing you’ve seen before” she said and judging from the pictures, she was correct. We arrived at the entrance of the waterfalls and made our way up by foot.

Before we got there we walked through a small bear sanctuary. This was a place built to rescue and protect a specific species of bear called the Asian black bear. The Asian black bear is an endangered breed of bear due to being hunted and used for ‘bear bile farming’. I won’t go into it in detail as I could write a whole article on this vile act of cruelty but I will tell you what it is for the sake of making the world aware.

Bear bile farming is a procedure carried out where bears are kept in captivity in order to extract bile from them, a juice stored in the gall bladder. This horrifying act is carried out in the name of ‘Chinese medicine’ in countries such as China, South Korea, Laos and Vietnam. The bears here have all been rescued but the fight still continues to put a stop to this cruel and inhumane business. I was disgusted with what I read but took comfort in the fact that someone is doing something about it. Pete bought a T-shirt as a donation and we enjoyed seeing the bears at the sanctuary looking healthy and happy.

lao019

On a nicer note, when we left the sanctuary and reached the waterfall, we were amazed at what we saw. I figured the pictures that the tuk tuk drivers had been photo shopped or something but as I gazed upon the crystal blue water, I realised they weren’t. I couldn’t believe this was for real. The water that flowed shone an inviting turquoise blue colour like something from a fantasy book.

lao013

A rope swing hung above the tropical water and without hesitation we swung in Tarzan style! I was surprised to find the water colder than usual, kind of ironic due to its attractive colour. But this is Asia; in this climate cold water is a blessing! We enjoyed a swim for a short while before more tourists bustled in. I imagined what it would be like if it was just Pete and I there, truly magical! But you’re lucky to be alone for a few minutes in a tourist hotspot like this.

lao009lao011

We got changed and moved on before everyone else caught up. The waterfall went on for a good while. As we strolled up the walkway to the top we stopped and admired each pool of blue beauty. When we reached the top we looked up at the 60 metre cascade of water that rippled through each aqua pool. It was defiantly not the tallest waterfall we’d seen, but most certainly the prettiest.

lao017

We had a nice time in Luang prabang but two days seemed long enough for us. We spent the evening chilling out in Utopia again before heading south the following morning to Vang vieng for some tubing fun!

The beauty of Sapa

Another uncomfortable journey was upon us as we boarded the night bus to Sapa. It was only about 11 hours long but it was one of the worst journeys I have had. It was a new looking bus which was a plus but new doesn’t always mean comfortable! For starters it was a single seat bus meaning you were in your own little ‘pod’ and had little space to move around. Double ones are the best because you can stretch out and lie across each other, well if you’re a couple! Secondly we were placed on the top bunks meaning every time the bus went round a sharp bend (and trust me there are a lot of them!) you’d have to hang on tightly to stop you flying off the side.

We were also at the very front of the bus and had the pleasure of having the TV in front of us. That would have been lovely if we would choose what we watched but instead it was a Vietnamese song DVD and it was on repeat, all night! The screeching sounds of Vietnamese ‘singing’ pierced my ears while the bright glare of the TV kept me awake all night. Since I was awake most of the night I had the unlucky opportunity to see our driver fall asleep at the wheel several times, over take other busses on the side of a mountain and have a near crash every few kilometres! So you could say I felt a little uneasy going to sleep in the first place. When I did manage to get a bit of shut eye, Pete swears he saw the bus driver franticly turn around and drive back a little to collect bags that dropped out of the luggage compartment!

We arrived in Sapa absolutely exhausted. To add to that our bus was two hours late. It was supposed to arrive at 6:00am meaning we’d have time to get to our hotel, have breakfast and a shower before our tour started at 9:00am. But this is Southeast Asia where everything seems to work in slow motion when you don’t want it to! We got a transfer to our hotel and hurried in hoping we hadn’t missed our tour. Luckily they were still there and said they would wait 20 minutes for us to have breakfast. We quickly put our bags in our room and were instantly impressed with the amazing view of the mountains through our window. With no time to waste we ate breakfast fast and I had a cheeky shower before heading out.

We were staying in Sapa town, the Capital of Sa Pa District in northwest Vietnam. It is one of the main market towns in the area. There are several ethnic minority groups that inhabit the area and it was these small villages around Sapa that we had come there to see. Our first tour took us to one of the nearest villages by foot. As we walked the streets we were greeted by a sea of indigo dressed minority women. Surprisingly their English was quite good and they were very friendly.

sapa014

We were told that although each minority group has their own form of dress, nearly all the clothes of all groups are made with hemp and dyed with a plant called indigo then embroidered with decorations. The plant itself is green in color but is filled with an ink like substance. When picked it dyes your hands black for weeks. That answered the question as to why so many women had black hands! They always wrap their long hair up and wear a turban of their ethnic group.

sapa017

As we made our way down the path we couldn’t stop looking at the incredible panoramic view. Hundreds of mountains dominated the area and in their valleys small communities lived. Rice paddies crept up the lower part of the mountains creating an interesting contrast of humanity and nature blending together. There was so much colour and life bursting out of this scene; it really was a pleasure to be a part of it.

sapa004sapa005

As we crept further down we both got distracted by a different kind life, the small fluffy kind. First we saw kittens, then puppies, then little ducklings then a piglet. We’re both suckers for any animal, especially baby ones! We ended up at a small waterfall with a bridge across it leading to a little entertainment area. We then headed down to a village by a waterfall where we watched a show by the local children. It wasn’t spectacular but certainly had a community feel to it and it was nice to see the kids enjoying themselves.

sapa011

sapa007sapa012

After the performance was over we made our way back to the hotel through another village before having lunch. By this time our bodies were both working in over drive after not getting much sleep. The food at the hotel was delicious and the room was lovely. It was nice to finally have a bit of luxury! We spent the rest of the afternoon getting another massage (which was awful) and walking around town. It was a charming little place.

Later on we bumped into our friend Pim again who had arrived that day. We all met up for a drink later wearing trousers and long sleeved tops because the temperature dropped a little at night. As we were having a drink a familiar face walked into the pub. “Fancy seeing you here” he said as I tried to work out where we’d seen him. Then it clicked. It was Owen the guy we met in Bangkok when we were eating a locust! He had travelled to north Thailand, spent thirty five days in Laos and then entered North Vietnam to make his way south. Eleven weeks later we had met him again travelling the opposite way! He took up a chair and we introduced him to Pim.

Later on we said our goodbyes to the both of them as we probably wouldn’t see them again. Owen has since been travelling with Pim by motorbike up to the very boarder of Vietnam and China. It was a nice reunion but we were all shattered from our journeys with little sleep so we all got an early night.

The next day our scenic trek took us ten kilometres through some more villages before arriving at our home stay. That night we would be staying with a minority family in their house which we were really looking forward to. The trek took us up and down hills with tiny little mud paths. It was really fun manoeuvring through the terrain and we stopped every once and a while to rest and enjoy the view. We were joined by a lot of minority women who followed us. It was nice to have them there until we stopped for lunch and ended up being hassled to buy something from them. It happens everywhere and to be honest I don’t blame them for trying to make a living.

sapa009sapa015

After lunch we headed through a bamboo forest that ended up at the top of an interesting waterfall. The water didn’t fall directly down but instead flowed down a steep cliff face. I think by far this has got to be one of the most beautiful places I’ve seen. We walked down to the bottom of the waterfall where children played in the stream below it and a bamboo bridge joined the two sides.

sapa019sapa020

Later on we got to our home stay which was a little wooden house with beds on the second floor. Although the family spoke little to no English, they were very friendly. We we’re staying with two couples, one pair English and one pair from Israel. Both really nice people.

We’d wanted to go for a swim in the river all day since it was so hot so at 4:00pm we all decided to head down there. There were local boys swimming so we knew it would be safe. Pete and I jumped in with the English guy whilst the others watched. There was a guy on a big rock taking pictures in the river; he had walked across over a rocky path because the water level was low.

Soon after we started swimming the local boys got out of the water. After just a few minutes the water level seemed to rise rapidly. The guy on the rock became stranded with his expensive camera. Me and Pete waded over to help him but then became stuck ourselves as the current got stronger. We managed to get the camera to dry land but it was a struggle to not get swept away ourselves. The local boys and a few men came to our rescue and formed a chain across the water so we could get back. It was actually quite scary but we managed to get back safe with the help of others. Later we found out that they open the flood gates around 4:00pm causing a strong current and rise in water level. Thanks for the warning!

After a rather hair raising swim we all got changed and had dinner outside surrounded by more stunning scenery. We ate, drank and chatted away as the sun set over the mountains. It was such a peaceful evening. We woke in the morning and had pancakes for breakfast before continuing our trek.

sapa018

We finished in the afternoon and got a car back to have lunch at the hotel. We caught our night bus back later that day. I wish we could have stayed in Sapa a little longer. It really was paradise but we had another trip planned to Halong Bay the next day and needed to get back. It was so nice to experience a bit of traditional culture and learn about how people live in these remote parts of the world. I would certainly miss Sapa but was grateful for an experience that only a few in this world would be lucky enough to have.

sapa016