Monthly Archives: April 2013

Experiencing Songkran in Chiang Mai and Bangkok

When I decided to come back to South East Asia I knew I wanted to time it around Songkran. It was an event I didn’t get to experience last time I travelled here and after a bit of reading up on the festival I regretted that I didn’t get the chance. All I really knew is that it was one big water fight – what’s not to love?

Aswell as being one big water fight it’s actually a celebration of the Thai New Year. It falls at the end of the dry season in Thailand which is their hottest time of year. The water represents washing away the old and making way for the new – a symbol of renewal. Chiang Mai is the place to be for the celebrations, where although officially it’s meant to last from 13th April – 15th April, it continues for six days or even longer. Since Jess’ flight home was booked for the 16th in Bangkok we decided we would experience half of it in Chiang Mai before travelling back to Khao San road towards the end.

Jess and I didn’t realise how early things would begin but quickly learnt from our mistake after venturing out on the 11th without our waterproof gear and getting absolutely drenched from the moment we stepped outside our hotel. We soon armed ourselves with our own water guns and joined a group at the side of the road (but not before they had attacked us several times with buckets of ice water – call it an initiation). Our first night of Songkran was spent filling our guns and attacking any passers by, moped drivers, tuk tuks or vans that drove in our path. It was like playing a computer game! I absolutely loved seeing adults band together and act like naughty little school children to attack the opposition. Every time someone would blast another it would be followed with a whole load of laughter, and it wasn’t just westerners that were involved but locals and people from all over the world – what a way to bring everyone together.

locals and westerners sharing a bucket of water and fighting for the same team

locals and westerners sharing a bucket of water and fighting for the same team

We went to bed, drenched but excited to experience a few days of Songkran madness. The next day we had our day with the elephants. We were naive enough to think we could escape a drenching but soon realised our mistake when our tuk tuk driver started purposely slowing down to stop for people at the side of the roads armed with buckets of ice water. One hour into the day and we were dripping wet! The fun continued when we stopped in the river and after bathing our elephants continued to use the buckets to have water fights with every white water raft that dared to cross our path.

White water rafters water fight

White water rafters water fight

That evening it was time to experience our first real evening of Songkran. The day before had just been a small introduction in comparison. We left our hotel room, armed with two guns and waterproof bags for our things (including my camera – hence the blurry photos), and prepared ourselves for a water fight war. You can fill your water guns up from the side of the road where there are several bins full of water – some free and some costing a small fee. Now the worst part of Songkran is that moment where you’re completely dry and someone pours an entire bucket of ice water on your head – it hurts, but it’s hilarious! When you walk out dry you might aswell have a bullseye on you as it’s common knowledge that no one should stay dry for long! So once you step onto the main street you’ll literally be so drenched with water you can barely breathe for a while. As someone who finds it quite difficult to deal with the heat, it was nice to feel cold in Thailand for once. Although, going into a 7/11 was a whole new experience – the air con hit you like needles! It was so cold everyone was in and out as fast as possible – it’s the first time I haven’t appreciated the escape from the sun.

Freezing in a 7/11

Freezing in a 7/11

For that reason, celebrations usually end in the evening when being constantly wet becomes a bit of a problem and you start to shiver. We spent two evenings in Chiang Mai and both times celebrations where at their peak in the day and coming to an end by about 8pm, leaving people retreating to their hotels or to the nearest club to carry on the party. On our second evening we joined another group having a battle with the other side of the road – again, a lot of fun.

water fight war!

water fight war!

They even bought out a foam machine at one point (I didn’t go under it after a bad experience feeling like I was going to drown last time I did that, but Jess was loving it). After a few days of Jess panicking about leaving her home of 7 months to go back to the UK, Songkran was just what she needed and she was in her element.

foam machine

foam machine

We retired at about midnight, drenched and ready to experience our first full day of Songkran the next day. It was no different except now they had stages up with water guns and music blasting out, and crowds and crowds of people dancing and spraying you with water thrown into the mix. I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect from Songkran and I guess part of me thought it’d just be a few kids with measly water guns – I was so wrong.

It is absolute chaos. Sometimes you’re being pelted from every side, ice water is being thrown on your head and you can barely see. Within about 5 minutes you won’t just be a bit wet – you’ll be soaked through. The only time I would find this particularly hard to deal with was when I was getting blasted in the eyes. I quickly learnt that wearing contact lenses puts you at a massive disadvantage during songkran! every time I was hit in the eye I had to pause and wipe them to be able to see again. I told a man this, whilst taking off my sunglasses that I was using for protection, and he thought it’d be a good idea to blast me in the eye from less than a metre away with a power water gun. It hurt like hell and for one moment I feared I might actually go blind!

It felt like I had a dagger in my eye and they were streaming. It took me a while to find my contact lens which had practically been welded to my eye with the force. Despite his apologies I couldn’t quite understand why he had felt the need to do it. He said to my friend – ‘why would you wear contact lenses to songkran?’ which really angered me. People need to spare a bit of sympathy for those amongst us who are practically blind when not wearing contacts or glasses, and something tells me glasses would not have been a safer option! That night I retreated back to the hotel with a hand over my eye and a contact lense lost (Jess had to lead me back as I could barely see). That is definitely one down side of Songkran and from then on I was extra protective of my eyes, refusing to take my sunglasses off even when the sun went down.

catching passengers unsuspecting passengers in a tuk tuk

catching passengers unsuspecting passengers in a tuk tuk

I only managed about 4 hours of Songkran in the day before I was ready to escape the chaos. So leaving Jess to it for a while I headed back to laze at the hotel pool for a while before our flight. I knew it was time for me to leave when I sat down out of the way and desperately tried to re-apply suncream. Now I wouldn’t mind if I was being blasted with water by accident, but the guy next to us was continually shooting me with water while I tried to do it, despite me asking him not to. Some people just had to ruin it! I was glad I chose to walk back at that moment as I passed a massive Songkran parade full of floats and buddha statues. The locals were walking up to them and pouring scented holy water on them. That’s where the tradition began. It’s believed that by doing that it will bring them luck and prosperity for the new year.

Parade

Parade

One of many buddha statues in the parade

One of many buddha statues in the parade

After a couple of hours it was time for us to begin a difficult task – transporting our bags from the hotel to the airport without getting everything drenched inside them. It bought up a whole load of new packing problems while I tried to squeeze everything valuable into my two small dry bags. After some careful packing and literally just as we were stepping outside the hotel lobby, the heavens opened. Yes – because we weren’t wet enough, we were now experiencing a tropical storm which weirdly only lasted from us leaving the hotel to entering the airport. And of course, we got absolutely pelted with water on our tuk tuk ride by teams at the side of the road and in trucks. We were slightly worried about our things but finding it funny more than anything. It was especially sweet to see little children loving getting in on the action – I would always squirt them back gently to make them laugh and then leave it at that, but some of them were evil little things – pooring ice water down your neck or the back of your shorts!

truck shootings

truck shootings

We turned up at the airport looking a right state. I’m not sure how but we seemed to be the only ones that had been effected by Songkran and everyone else was dry, leading to lots of strares and laughing at us before we managed to dry off and change into something more comfortable. To our amazement, Jess’ beast of a backpack was under the weight restrictions and after a Burger King feast we boarded our 1 hour flight to Bangkok (absolute luxury after so many painfully long bus journeys!).

We jumped in a taxi and reached Khao San road at around midnight, not looking forward to being drenched again and clutching our bags protectively. Luckily, Khao San seemed to be similar to Chiang Mai in that by midnight it had calmed down a bit and we miraculously made it through some back streets and to our hotel without a drop of water on us. We had a lie in the next morning and then armed ourselves for our second leg of Songkran on Khao San road.

It was much the same as Chiang Mai except in Bangkok there are a lot more locals carrying around flour and water, which they smear across your faces. I loved this tradition as they would come up to you, laughing, and touch your face so gently uttering either ‘happy new year’ or ‘sorry!’. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many people smiling and laughing in one place.

cornflour and water

cornflour and water

We met up with a new group of people (who were with my old Stray Asia tour guide who was staying at the same place as us) and made our way down Khao San after a few beers. Now the problem with Khao San that you don’t get in Chiang Mai is that it’s extremely narrow and so as a result takes a long time to get down it and can get a little claustraphobic.

An almost unrecognisable Khao San road

An almost unrecognisable Khao San road

Laughter

Laughter

It was fun nonetheless but there were moments (especially when it got dark and I was drunk and too scared to take my sunglasses off so could barely see) where I felt quite panicked trying to make my way through the crowds. We powered through until about midnight until we were exhausted and ready to pass out.

A birdesye view of Khao san by 10pm

A birdesye view of Khao san by 10pm

The next day I woke up feeling like my head was going to explode and I knew I was done with Songkran. The last thing I felt like doing with a hangover was walking down a cramped road whilst getting flour and ice water thrown in my face! I felt like the novelty had well and truly worn off. Unfortunately I didn’t have a choice and again found myself completely drenched for the entire day. Songkran is fun, but on your fifth day of it I have to admit, it starts to get a little annoying. Especially when you’re at the hotel and all you want is some chocolate from the nearby 7/11 but you know it will mean a drenching to walk there and just isn’t worth it – it’s just not practical!

As a result, I was extremely happy to get up the next day and see that the festivities had completely ended. I thought it might take a few days but I didn’t get one drop of water thrown on me. Stalls were back out on Khao San and it was starting to look like the familiar road I know it to be. It was also the quietest I have ever seen it – almost eerily so. Obviously by that point a lot of people had either left or were too hungover to come out, plus a lot of the locals still had the day as a bank holiday. I was happy to have experienced Songkran but almost as happy to see it end.

All in all I would urge anyone to try and go to Thailand (or Myanmar, Cambodia or Laos, where it’s also celebrated) for Songkran. I think of the two places I preferred Chiang Mai just because you have a bit more space and it’s not so claustrophobic, but apart from that they’re pretty similar. It is a hell of a lot of fun and the atmosphere is brilliant. Everyone is happy and in high spirits and it really brings everyone together. But maybe do one or two days and then leave before it starts to drive you crazy!

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Meeting the elephants

When I first went to South East Asia last year, visiting and riding elephants was at the top of my to-do list, and despite having a horrendous hangover at the time it was as amazing an experience as I had hoped. I’ve always been fascinated with elephants – mainly because they’re these massive, powerful creatures and yet when you’re around them you don’t feel in the slightest bit scared. They’re intelligent and gentle and just generally really amazing animals. So although I’d ridden an elephant before, and plan to do it when my boyfriend comes out (you can’t come to Asia and not do that, surely?) I was happy to also experience it with Jess in Chiang Mai.

After seeing and hearing about a lot of animals being mistreated in Asia, I was set on finding somewhere with a good reputation and no reports of cruelty. Save the elephants was recommended to us by some fellow travellers. I also knew I wanted to find somewhere to ride them bareback instead of on seats, as apparently that can be painful for the elephant.

We were picked up at 8am, unfortunately after much debate we had decided not to bring our songkran weapons. We regretted this when we soon realised we were going to spend a lot of the day getting drenched. The drivers are in on the fun and will slow down every time you pass someone with hoses/buckets/water pistols. As a result we were drenched before we even reached the park – but obviously it was all in good fun! But anyway, I’ll write more about songkran in my next post.

Fellow elephant trekkers who were clever enough to bring their weapons!

Fellow elephant trekkers who were clever enough to bring their weapons!

Before we reached the elephants we were made to change into ‘Mahoot’ clothes. As you can see it made me look more attractive than ever!

Our lovely outfits for the day

Our lovely outfits for the day

I was really rocking those rags. Then it was time to meet the elephants. I was excited to see that there was a baby amongst them – something I had been hoping for. We had a bit of time to feed them all with bananas before riding them through the jungle.

Feeding time

Feeding time

We soon realised that the baby was the naughtiest of them all and kept pushing us over to get to the toilet water!

queue pusher

queue pusher

Obviously the baby wasn’t trained as well as the adults and so acted in a more spontaneous way. At one point I had my hand on it’s head for a photo opportunity and he picked my leg up, put it in his mouth, spat it out and kicked it away!

Trying to eat my leg

Trying to eat my leg

Another highlight was when someone was riding what must have been the most intelligent of the elephants (since they used him for our first rides and for the photo poses in the river at the end) and dropped her flip flop. He picked it up with his trunk and passed it back to her! They really are amazing animals – so clever.

Learning basic words to use while on the elephant

Learning basic words to use while on the elephant

Anyway, so we had one ride before lunch, where we made our own spring rolls and ate noodles from a banana leaf, and one afterwards. The first of the two rides I went on the front and for the second and longer ride of the two I went on the back. This was a bad choice. I had realised from sitting on the front that bareback riding an elephant was not a comfortable experience, but riding on the back, right on the joints of the elephants shoulders was just pure painful! my legs were rubbing against it’s spiky hair and my arse cheeks were basically being lifted up separately every time he moved his leg to walk. So despite it being an amazing experience, by the end of the ride (which took about 30 minutes) I was dying to get off the elephant and not be in pain any more!

It’s also a pretty dangerous activity, as we discovered from what I liked to call my near death experience. At one stage our elephant was trying to undertake the one to it’s right and so my leg was getting crushed between the two. I was so focused on getting it out that I didn’t notice the approaching branches on my other side. I ducked but it was a little late and I had to hold onto the rope with one hand for dear life as I darted backwards almost falling off the elephant. That fall would have been onto rocks and would not have been good. I imagine quite a lot of people get injured that way. There is no such thing as health and safety in South East Asia!

Danger

Danger

We then had to go down quite a steep slope to get to the river. I’m not going to lie – this was pretty scary and it was pretty difficult to hold on at times. I think Jess and I both feared for our lives a little bit and this was also the most painful part of the journey! Eventually, and to our relief, we reached the river and it was time to bathe the elephants. By this point we had been getting increasingly frustrated by our lack of photos – we had paid to have them taken and yet the ‘photographer’ was barely taking any. Our suspicions were confirmed when we received the disk and saw that not only were there barely any photos of us but the ones we did have were mostly blurry, wonky or just completely cut the elephant out of the picture. They were nothing compared to the brilliant images I got from my first elephant trek last year.

Why crop out the elephant?

Why crop out the elephant?

It was lovely to watch the baby elephant, who had followed it’s mum the whole time, swimming and playing in the water – that was my favourite part, and washing the elephants was nice too as they clearly enjoy it.

posing time

posing time

After our time washing and posing with the elephants it was time to have some fun with the white water rafters who had been coming down the river. Since it was songkran they armed us with our washing buckets and we had a water fight with every boat that came through – I loved that added touch to the day!

water fight

water fight

After we left they explained that the elephants were left off chains to do their own thing, and that they also rotated them so that it wasn’t always the same ones having to do the trek. A lot of them were also rescued elephants. If there was any evidence of them being mistreated then I didn’t see it.

After a full day we made our way back to Chiang Mai at around 3pm, again getting completely drenched on the way, and made our way out to experience our first proper night of Songkran – something that would make me laugh a lot but also be very wet and uncomfortable for the next 4 days!

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Crossing the Laos/Thai border, entering Chiang Mai and visiting the Tiger Kingdom

Jess and I were happy to reach Chiang Mai after another long, 18 hour journey. Bar trying to sleep on the non-sleeper bus and completely failing, it wasn’t a bad journey. The border crossing from Laos to Thailand was the quickest and easiest yet (and consisted of a fun little boat ride across the Mekong river), and although yet again I had the horrible back, corner seat of our mini bus from the Thai border to Chiang Mai, we made a nice little group of friends who made the journey a lot more bearable. It was, however, extremely bumpy being sat on the back wheel and to get to my seat I practically had to sit on a guy’s lap! I did however, manage to preoccupy myself with a few episodes of The Hills through being thrown in the air and worrying my laptop would smash on the floor.

Mekong river crossing

Mekong river crossing

After being sick of constantly being on the move and knowing that there was a lot to see and do in Chiang Mai, we had factored in 5 or 6 days there – knowing that we wanted to wait to see Songkran there before heading back to Bangkok. I felt similarly about Chiang Mai as I did about Luang Prabang. I had visited a year previously on my last trip at a time where I was feeling too homesick to enjoy it and hadn’t had a chance to see much. I basically arrived there one afternoon, went for dinner and drinks, got horribly drunk, woke up the next morning with no memory of the night before, spent a day riding elephants with the worst hangover of my life, collapsed in bed when the day was over and then moved on the next morning. Suffice to say I didn’t see much of Chiang Mai itself and so was eager to explore the city a bit more this time, in a much better frame of mind.

Arriving in Chiang Mai I automatically knew I would like it there. I can usually tell from the first half an hour or so how I’m going to feel about a place, and this was no different. It’s the second biggest city in Thailand and yet has a totally different feel to Bangkok. The centre revolves around some Ancient walls, which make it that little bit easier to find your way around (although we did manage to get lost for about 40 minutes trying to find our hotel on the first evening – it was hidden down some alleyways). It also has a pretty good night market (not as good as Luang Prabang in my opinion but still decent) which has a bit more variety than the Khao San road area and is slightly cheaper. We spent our first full day in Chiang Mai basically chilling out by our hotel pool and then visiting the night market. I often enjoy chill out days as much as the action packed days and this was no different.

There were three things we knew we wanted to do in Chiang Mai – going to the Tiger Kingdom, riding elephants and experiencing Songkran. The first of which I was a little apprehensive of. I had heard bad reports about the Tiger Temple – that it was cruel and that the tigers were drugged, hence why I had resisted temptation on my last trip. However, a quick google search bought up good reports about the Tiger Kingdom, and Jess really wanted to go, so I thought I would give it a go and hope I would leave with my conscience in tact. Luckily I didn’t regret that decision.

So cute

So cute

When you arrive you can pay for a few different options starting from just seeing the smallest or biggest tigers, to seeing every age. Knowing we would only be there once, we paid for the most expensive package which involved seeing the smallest, 2 medium sized cages and the biggest. We would also get a photographer for two of the cages so we opted for the smallest and biggest. The whole thing cost us around £35 (probably one of the most expensive activities we’ve done in Asia) but for a once in a lifetime experience we knew it would be worth it.

The smallest tigers you can touch

The smallest tigers you can touch

We must have chosen the right time to visit as we barely had to wait to go into the cages. The longest wait was about 10 minutes to get in the smallest cage with the tigers that were a couple of months old. It was pretty frustrating watching everyone photograph the tigers while we stood at the sidelines but we got our time with them eventually. Strangely, of all the tigers, it was the babies I was most scared of because I found them a little more unpredictable – obviously they had had less training. We took a couple of pictures lying on them etc and I was a little worried they would just turn around and snap at my face when I wasn’t expecting it!

more posing!

more posing!

They tell you not to touch their heads but it’s so tempting to do that! so unfortunately you can’t stroke or play with them too much but you can watch them play with each other and the trainers playing around with them which is pretty adorable! there was absolutely no way these tigers were drugged as they had bags of energy.

playing cubs

playing cubs

Apparently tigers naturally sleep in the day and since they’re raised in captivity by humans it makes sense that they’re so tame. The older tigers were also pretty playful at times and so personally I don’t think they were sedated.

Playful tiger

Playful tiger

There were a few moments where I felt a little nervous, especially when the larger tigers would turn their heads to me unexpectedly, but most of the time I felt completely safe. The tigers were obviously well used to this. The trainers would tap them on the head/legs if they came to close or looked threatening – but only in the same way you would train a dog by tapping it – not so much that it was painful. I didn’t think they seemed mistreated and I liked that they had the tigers in a rotation so that it wasn’t always the same tigers being posed with constantly. They seemed to have plenty to spare.

my favourite photo

my favourite photo

We got to see the newborns but only from a distance. The smallest tigers hadn’t even opened their eyes yet and were so adorable! we also saw the ones that must have been a few weeks old get fed and played with. Although we really wished we could go in and play with them the same way you would with puppies or kittens it was totally understandable that we couldn’t. All in all I loved the experience and I didn’t feel guilty for having gone – it was no more cruel than a zoo.

new borns

new borns

After the Tiger Kingdom we paid a quick visit to a Longneck village, which cost us 400 baht entry fee (quite a lot here) and was basically just a way of getting tourists to their stalls to buy things. It was a complete waste of time to be honest, even if we did see one or two ‘long necks’. We returned home after that and had another chilled evening. I loved the fact that we had the luxury of doing that in Chiang Mai after intense travelling for so long – slowing down was just what we needed. We spent the day after doing something similar, before doing another trip the day after to see this elephants – and this time I would be hangover free!

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It’s official – I’m coming home

As a few of you will know, I now have a set return date for my flight home. When I booked this trip I knew it would be a case of not knowing what my next step would be or how I would feel about everything until I was actually here. I could make a prediction, but that was about it. I quit my job because I wanted the freedom to make that decision myself – to keep my options open with no pressure to come home and no commitments, and I still think that was the right thing to do.

However, one thing I’ve learnt about life is that plan things all you want but it has a way of surprising you. I spent months planning and practically obsessing over what to do with my time here – where I might want to go, if I would want to work here and how long I would spend away from home. I’m happy that I was realistic in thinking I couldn’t make a lot of those decisions until I was here. For that reason, I did a TEFL course before I left (incase I decided to teach English), told my job my reasons for leaving instead of just using holiday time and most importantly, I only booked one return flight.

That wasn’t an easy decision to make as at the time of booking I was pretty certain I would want to go to either New Zealand or Australia to work after spending time in South East Asia. If that were the case then booking an onwards flight in advance would have worked out a lot cheaper than booking it last minute. But for some reason (I call it intuition), I just knew booking that flight wasn’t the right thing to do and that I should wait until I got here to make that decision. So I stuck to a flight to Bangkok with the option to change my return date for up to a year and left it at that, thinking that I could still go anywhere else I chose to with a last minute flight, even if it cost me a lot more. That’s a decision I’m glad I made, because after coming out here and for several reasons, I will be flying home in May with the intention of once again finding a job in the UK. My reasons are complex, but I’ll give you a list.

The climate

After struggling with the heat for months, I have come to the conclusion that I could not work and live in a hot climate. It’s one thing travelling here, but, being a red head, I just don’t think I was made to do anything remotely strenuous in the heat – I just couldn’t handle it and now I’m here I don’t have much desire to try.

Homesickness

Although on this trip I’ve found it substantially easier than last time in terms of missing home, I’m more homesick than I thought I would be. After spending almost 8 weeks in South East Asia around their culture, climate and customs, I miss the UK. I miss little things like not being hassled 24/7 and basic manners that Asians don’t always possess. I don’t miss it enough not to totally appreciate my time in a different country and I love travelling here, but again, it just reinforces that I couldn’t live here. I want to leave before these things start getting to me so much that I start to hate it here, and I think after 2 and a half months I’ll be ready to do that.

Some people love immersing themselves in a different culture and becoming completely at ease with it and I think that’s brilliant, but I just don’t think it’s for me. I’ve realised that I could never feel completely at home anywhere other than the UK – mainly because it’s somewhere so far from the people that mean so much to me, but also because cultural factors make me more homesick than they might to someone else.

I think coming to this conclusion is just as valuable as deciding I would like to stay and work somewhere. Now I can go home safe in the knowledge that I’m not missing out. It’s natural to always want what you can’t have and if I was forced to come home I’d probably convince myself that working abroad was something I wanted. I tried going away – I had the option to find work on the other side of the world, I learnt that it wouldn’t suit me and made the decision not to do it. A lot of people don’t have that luxury and will always wonder ‘what if?’ – I don’t have to do that.

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The people that I’ve left behind

I have to admit that I don’t miss my friends and family as much as last time (it’s a lot easier the second time around and it helps that I’m travelling with an old friend) but when things like engagements start to be announced my desire to be at home becomes stronger. I don’t want to be out of the country for massive developments in the lives of the people I care the most about. I mean this is just one example, but after finding out I will be the maid of honour for my sister, the person I’m closest to in the world, it gives me all the more desire to be in the same country as her.

That leaves me with one last reason:

Long distance relationships are not easy

I’ll try not to go into this too much as it’s that little bit too personal to plaster all over the internet, hence why I haven’t explicitly mentioned it before now. But I’d be lying if I said this wasn’t a factor in my decision to leave. When I said life has a way of surprising you the main thing I was talking about was when you’re so adamant that you want to go travelling single and are actively pursuing not meeting anyone and not being in a relationship, that’s exactly when it happens.

So I’ve found myself in a long distance relationship for the past 2 months. Missing friends and family is one thing, but missing a boyfriend takes it to a whole new level. I admire people that claim they can do it, but I believe it is difficult to fully immerse yourself into travelling when there’s someone at home that you want to be with. Of course, although unexpected, this is a positive factor in my life and I’m lucky enough to be with someone that has made a less than ideal situation as easy as it could be. He’s also put no pressure on me to come home and it’s a decision I’ve made completely on my own. It has just ended up changing my perspective on things quite a lot, and making this a very different experience, but by no means a negative one.

So, after a hell of a lot of thinking time (that’s one luxury that travelling definitely gives you – and what I think is one of the most valuable things about it) I have followed the same gut instinct that told me not to book an onwards flight in the first place, and decided to go home on May 4th. My boyfriend will be joining me for 2 weeks before that (possibly the thing I’ve been most excited about for this whole trip) and then I will be flying home the same day as him.

From there, who knows. I’m not done with travelling yet and I’m not ruling out going again down the line. I still have a strong desire to see the world but I realise, as I did before, that it doesn’t have to be done with long-term travel. Maybe next time it will be an extended holiday or maybe for other reasons I might find somewhere other than the UK I want to work. Nothing is set in stone. But I’ve always followed my gut instinct on decisions and I’m completely happy with this one. I’m not naive enough not to realise things such as finding work again and basically sorting my life out might not be tough, but I believe things happen for a reason and I can’t see myself having any regrets.

So I’ll enjoy my last few weeks here and then I’ll see you all back in the UK from May 4th, and from there on, who knows what will happen. I might not be in an exotic country, but that doesn’t mean that all the excitement is taken out of the unknown – bring on the next chapter.

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Food and familiarity in Luang Prabang

When I did my round the world trip a year ago, Luang Prabang was one of my first stops. Unfortunately for me that meant that I was still in the phase of my trip where my homesickness was overwhelming and I felt pretty unable to appreciate anything about my surroundings. At that point, as soon as it would get dark all I would want to do was either go online and talk to someone from home or go to bed alone. I became withdrawn, unhappy and not at all myself. It was a bad time for me to be visiting somewhere that I’d previously heard brilliant things about. While I was there I got a massage, went to the night market and then for a few beers before being reluctantly dragged to the bowling alley (it’s the only place open past 11.30) whilst silently battling with the urge to cry. The first week of my trip was not at all easy.

As soon as I got over those feelings (around a week later) and started to actually enjoy myself, I regretted my time in Luang Prabang, and anywhere else up until that point. I knew I hadn’t appreciated things as I should have, and I vowed to go back and do that some day. That’s one reason I found myself back in Luang Prabang on this trip (well that, and the fact we had to cross Laos to get back to Thailand anyway so it seemed a shame not to stop there). This time it was a completely different and much more valuable experience.

By the time I left Vietnam, although I had had some brilliant times there, I was happy to leave. I had become sick of the mopeds and the chaos and was craving somewhere quieter and more chilled out. Luang Prabang was perfect. I was so happy we factored in a few days there instead of squeezing in Vang Vieng too.

We woke up on our first morning there feeling weaker than we had felt on the entire trip. It wasn’t surprising considering we hadn’t eaten anything since midday the day before (the shops had been shut by the time we arrived there the day before) and were severely dehydrated. We practically crawled down the road, praying for somewhere to serve us food! eventually we found a chilled out bar with decent prices and a vast menu. We were sold. We ordered a feast of bagels and salad and I was most happy to realise that the cheese in the bagel was actual cheese, not the standard plastic crap I’d become used to! From there on we realised we were in for a treat in Luang Prabang – the food was absolutely amazing.

One of many amazing meals

One of many amazing meals

From that first meal to cakes from the bakery (Joma) down the road, to a 4 cheese (actual, proper cheese) lasagne from an Italian round the corner and then several random items we picked up from the night market. These included mini pasties. I don’t know what they were but they were cheap and delicious. We tried a few things – some good some bad but all so cheap it didn’t matter. When I’m travelling and eating out, food is a big deal to me – it can really make or break what I think of somewhere. The lack of selection in Nha Trang, Vietnam, for example really got us down as we didn’t have a decent meal the whole time we were there, it was expensive and it was a very limited selection. After weeks of finding half decent Asian food but not much else I seemed to have regained my appetite in Luang Prabang – and it was a good place to do it!

dessert

dessert

Apart from the food, there is a lot of other things to do in Luang Prabang that I didn’t get the chance to do last time. In fact, just a few paces from the hostel I had stayed in was a brilliant view of the Mekong River. I have no idea how I missed that last time! We had our first Beer Lao at a bar overlooking it (a familiar taste from my 2 weeks spent there last year!) and then headed to the night market for some shopping.

Mekong River

Mekong River

Sunset and Beer Lao

Sunset and Beer Lao

Jess also headed to some waterfalls in the day time (you can get a tuk tuk there pretty cheaply) but I decided to pass as I still wasn’t feeling great from the day before and had seen plenty of Laos waterfalls last time visited. I knew they would be beautiful but sometimes I also know when chilling out is going to be more valuable than forcing myself to do something when I’m too tired to appreciate it.

Night market

Night market

What I love about Laos, and what I think may make it my favourite country I’ve been to in South East Asia, is that the people are friendly and polite but without pestering you. Of course you get the occasional ‘tuk tuk’ or ‘what you buy?’ but when you say no they drop it. They smile at you a lot, and they use both English and their own language to greet you (I like that, it forces you to learn how to say things their way and not just be lazy ). It’s also not too touristy and not too chaotic anywhere I’ve been. I also have a lot of good memories there (after the initial homesickness) travelling with a good group of friends I made on my Stray Asia tour.

The night market is great. Obviously, as you will find in all markets, a lot of the stalls are selling similar items. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing because it means you can shop around for the cheapest price. It’s mainly things like dresses, trousers, blankets, bags – the usual things you would expect. It’s quite difficult not to spend a fortune there but with my heavy backpack in mind I restricted myself to one new dress. After our shopping spree we headed to a bar called Utopia for a few drinks.

We had heard it was the place to be, and I had been there before, but were disappointed that it was quite quiet and chilled out for a night of drinking. Apparently it wasn’t always that way, but we had picked the wrong night. One of the attractions is a volleyball court in the centre but personally I’m bad enough at sports when I’m sober let alone when I’ve had a few Beer Laos so I wasn’t going anywhere near it!

After that closes at around 11.30 there’s basically only one option – the bowling alley. However, I had been there before and wasn’t too fussed, and was also feeling pretty tired. However, some friends we had made that night suggested a local bar their taxi driver had recommended. So we ended up in a bar full of locals. I can’t say it was my favourite experience but it was definitely an experience! Basically all eyes were on us. Men who were probably intrigued that we looked so different, and women who did not seem at all impressed with our presence there!

Due to our late night (and a few too many beer laos) we woke up feeling equally as weak as the day before. We stumbled to the same restaurant as before, booked our bus to Chang Mai (another 24 hours…great) and then went back to the guest house. We then felt so ill that we spent a few hours lying in bed before resurfacing for dinner by the night market. Again, just as I did after we went out in Hoi An, I was realising why drinking while you’re trying to travel and cover as much ground as possible in a short amount of time just isn’t worth it. We had basically written off an entire day to a hangover. Luckily we had one more day to see Luang Prabang without feeling like we were going to pass out!

Streets of Luang Prabang

Streets of Luang Prabang

So the next day we checked out and made sure we made the most of our time there before our next bus to Chiang Mai at 5pm. Although I have to be honest, the main thing we did was sample more delicious food from various restaurants! But another thing we did do, which was definitely worth it, was climb up the mountain in the centre of Luang Prabang for a view of the town. It was pretty tough in the heat but the views at the top were great. It was a shame, however, that there was a haze across the town, apparently caused by the burning of crops that happens a lot at this time of year in South East Asia. It’s also responsible for the continually rising temperatures we’ve now started to experience.

Top of the mountain

Top of the mountain

Triumphant

Triumphant

After that we decided to use the remainder of our money to get some spa treatment (I am going to miss cheap massages etc so much when I get home!). We settled on a facial and a body scrub and it came to about £6. Shame our sparkly soft new skin was wasted sitting on a bus for hours on end but it was a nice relaxing experience as always and one that I will repeat a few times before I leave South East Asia.

I left Laos after 3 short days and despite the hangover I really enjoyed my time there. The food definitely helped and this time I got on a 24 hour bus I wasn’t going to make the same mistake as last time and I loaded up with goodies for the journey. I may have been a little excessive. I had a large meal before to left and then bought 2 large cakes, 2 packs of mini pasties from the night market, a big bag of crisps, a chocolate bar, 2 cans of fanta and a vegetable and humous wrap from Joma. I did not want to spend any of the journey hungry and I wasn’t taking any risks! Next stop – Chiang Mai!

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