pig in a sack

Our bungalow kids in Don Det, LáoAfter two days in transit we are finally in Vietnam and without the border crossing rip-offs that we’d heard so much about. We spent our final day in Don Det in the four thousand islands doing the best thing possible, very little. You wake up, stumble out onto the balcony in the morning and sit reading in the hammock whilst contemplating breakfast. Eventually you put on a t-shirt and wander up to a riverside restaurant for some pancakes and coffee before a morning stroll and then it’s back to the hammock to lie, sway and read. Mid afternoon the kids of your bungalow owner pop their heads round to say hello and have a play with your digital camera (which they are surprisingly adept with, the two attached are ones that they took) and spend the next half hour photogrpahing other travellers walking by! And if you are really lucky the farang with the bakery will stop by your bungalows mid afternoon with buns and carrot cake for sale. Actually we did manage to go and hire ourselves a boat to motor out into the islands and watch the sunset on our last day. Don Det, LáoWe rode out past the inhabited islands, the wooden bunglalows framed with palm trees and continued weaving between sandbanks and green bushy islets until we reached a wide area of the Mekong with the hills of Cambodia in the distance. Just us and the fishermen and the sun reflected in the still waters as the day came to an end. I tell you, this travelling life is incredibly hard work.

Our next two days were slightly less relaxing. To get from Si Phan Don to Savannakhet took one boat, one minivan and one incredibly slow local bus that stopped for everything; piling on cargo, bags of rice, quick stop for the driver and his friend to have a beer, you name it, we stopped. Plus, and I never thought anything would surpass having to watch the ‘Perfect Storm’ three times on buses in Mexico, we were subjected to Thai Karoke videos for about six hours. For those of you that have never had the delight it is the worst ear-bleeding music you have ever heard accompanied by the kind of videos that make your brain cells voluntarily start committing suicide out of your nostrils. So it was 9pm, with a heavily impaired IQ and sense of sound, that we arrived, found a guest house and then discovered all the restaurants were closed. We managed to find somewhere for some noodles and a Pepsi before collapsing into bed. Then 5.30am we were up again and back to the bus station to get the local buFisherman, Láos to the border. Now I like to think of myself as a veteran of the Asian local bus, I’ve been on the good, the bad and the ugly and I’ve seen livestock on plenty of buses, but seeing pigs wrapped up in sacks with just their snouts sticking out and put squealing in the luggage hold under the bus, is a new one! Still, we got to the border and after convincing the Vietnam official that I was the person in the passport (the new haircut doesn’t help) we were in Vietnam. We managed to get a minivan straight to Hue at a pretty reasonable price and found a guest house before realising that nobody had tried to rip us of or exhort money out of us along the way. Ah well, there’s still time!

Hue is a chilled out but bustling (if the two things are possible) city on the river opposite a huge citadel we are visiting tomorrow. We checked in and headed straight to tourist central, the DMZ bar, and sat in the restaurant above it drinking beer and eating burgers and pizza, okay so not very local but hey, we’ve been on a bus for two days. Definitely time for a little guilty backpacking RnR!

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forty metre buddhas and four thousand islands

Sunset over Vientiane, LaosI left Vang Vieng with a hangover so it was just as well that it was only a short bus ride of four hours or so to reach the capital of Laos Vientiane. One of the things that amazes me about Laos is just how many people are backpacking here. So much so that for a while it looked like we would be sleeping on the streets of the capital. Guest house after guest house had signs up saying FULL as Bron, James and I trundled along with all our stuff. Finally we ended up sauntering into the rather smart lobby of the Intercity hotel on the river front on the off chance they had a vacancy that wasn’t too overpriced. It was the only room we could find. So for US$20 each (really expensive by Laos standards) we ended up in the deluxe room on the top floor with all the trimmings and a balcony overlooking the sunset on the far side of the river. This kind of inconvenience I can occasionally handle.

Buddha Park, Vientiane

Vientiane is a fairly relaxed Asian capital city and feels more like a large town. Most of the river is a dried sandbank at this time of year providing a huge area for evening strolls and kids playing football. Tiny food stalls and market stalls line the pavement and give rise to the unmistakable smell of an Asian city, the fragrance of noodles, chicken and chilli sauce in the evenings. We decided not to visit the usual temples in the city and instead hopped on a tuktuk out of town and went to visit Buddha Park, 25km away. Buddha park is a kind of theme park full of the most unusual and bizarre Hindu and Buddhist sculptures I’ve seen in Asia so far. It is the brainchild of a priest-shaman called Luang Pu built in 1958 and runs amok around the traditional religious style of Hindu gods and symbolism. A giant reclining Buddha lies across one side of the park in a vaguely familiar pose, around him are multiarmed serpent gods, giant crocodiles, Grecian styled women carrying flowers, skulls, winged men, horse-bound warriors and a giant pumpkin you can climb up inside. What more could you want from an afternoon in the park? Our side kick, Bron, left us to head back to Thailand and James and myself caught a rather swanky sleeper bus complete with duvets and bad Laos karoke TV down south overnight to Pakse, breakfast, one minibus and one rickety wooden boat ride later we arrived on the island of Don Det in Si Phan Don, otherwise known as the four thousand islands.

Si Phan Don, Don Det, LaosAt the very southern point of Laos by the Cambodian border the Mekong river fans out creating a series of tiny to large islands, sandbanks and waterfalls. Most of the islands are deserted and the others populated by farmers and fishermen, chicken and buffalos. The farmers on Don Det have cheerfully jumped on the backpacker buck and just about all of them have built a few simple wooden bungalows on the water’s edge, and set up tiny restaurants and even two internet cafes to keep us travelling bums happy. It took a while to find somewhere to stay but our walking was rewarded by finding a place on the emptier west side of the island with the perfect viewpoint for sunset.

Don Det SunsetLife on Don Det is very, very laid back. In the afternoon we hired a couple of very girly looking bikes and cycled down the length of the island passing through dry fields, grazing herds of uninterested buffalo and theoccasional local game of pétanque. At the end of the island we pushed our bikes over the rocky obstacle course that serves as a bridge with the neighbouring island of Don Khon and visited a tumbling white water fall disappearing into a narrow gorge and then on to the tip of Si Phan Don where a sandy area of beach led down to the water. By now I was desperate for a swim and dived into the cool green water, I let some American guys go first, just to be sure it was safe!

Don Det, Laos

The evening is when this area really becomes its most captivating. On the terrace of our bungalow the heavy clouds were reflected in the still waters as the sun gradually disappeared behind them. A few fishermen started up their narrow boats and began disappearing between the floating clumps of bushes and the cicadas started up a deafening chorus in the trees.

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the slow seduction of the backpacking cliche

Vang Vieng viewsI can’t help but love Vang Vieng depsite the fact that it is one big backpacking cliche from the ‘happy’ pizzas, internet cafes, bars showing friends episodes and bonfire parties on the island. It is, however, stunning beautiful, a shallow swift flowing river runs through the town in front of a backdrop of huge limestone hills, bamboo bungalows and palm trees, at sunset the setting rays twinkle over the ripples as the river flows beneath a series of rickety wooden bridges and local kids play around in the shallows. we’ve also run into a bizarre number of people here, because everyone tends to travel the same way through Laos you run into people from your slow boat trip, or from Luang Prabang, and it’s actually quite nice to bump into everyone along the way!

Tubing in Vang ViengAlso in Vang Vieng there is a lot of going out, drinking bucket cocktails with Lao whisky and partying around fires in the bars on the island in the lake. Me on the tubing day, Vang ViengThen yesterday James, Bronnie, our new Aussie sidekick, and I all went tubing which is the thing to do in Vang Vieng. We got dropped off north of town with our rubber tubes and set off drifting down the river. We hadn’t got 50 metres when we got pulled in to the first riverside bar. Then a group of guys with Spider Bar written on their chest virtually kidnapped us into the next one…well what could we do? In total the two hour trip took us seven hours to do and the sun had set by the time we washed up on the banks of town. There may have been a significant amount of drinking stops going on but it was so much fun! Let’s just say my dry weeks of alcohol freedom in North India are long since passed! Today however, after a relatively chilled evening in the sunset bar with some friends last night which ended about 4am, I am feeling slightly worse for the wear. Am I getting to old for all of this?

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stone jars and secret wars

James and I left Luang Prabang on a local bus to reach the eastern town of Phonsavan about 10 hours away. The day was overcast and surprisingly cold and torrential downpours and thick fog made the journey over winding hills through stunning, but cloud shrouded scenery, a little hairy. We nearly broke down leaving the town and a mechanic had to disappear under the bus to investigate some clouds of black smoke before we could leave. We passed two accidents on the hill roads and almost got stuck as we approached a jack knifed lorry across the road between the cliff face and the drop down the other side. We all got off the bus which managed to just squeeze round the side without toppling over and we were on our way once again.

Plain of JarsPhonsavan is a small, frontier style town nestled among low lying fields and farmlands in the East of Laos and is the closet place to the Plain of Jars, a series of sites that hold hundreds of giant sandstone jars believed to be anything from 2000 to 3000 years old. There are two current theories about the use of the jars, some believe they were used to store Lao rice wine and others believe they were used for cremating the dead whose urns were buried beneath the jars. This is hard to prove as hundreds of years ago Chinese invaders dug under the jars looking for loot and toppled many of them over. Others were blown up during the secret war but I’ll come back to that in a moment.  James in a JarWe spent a day on a tour with many of the tourists we’d met on the bus down from Luang Prabang visiting three sites of jars surrounded by gentle rolling hills, small villages and rice fields. The jars themselves are not spectacular in themselves but the large numbers of them strewn around beneath the trees on the hill tops and the history surrounding them, not to mention the comedy photo opportunities made for a good day trip. We also got to visit a village where they make the rice wine which we all had to sample. As local paint stripper goes, not bad. And we stopped by a rusted Russian tank next to a local village as well.

UXO in PhonsavanIn the town after we came back from the jars we went to visit a small display shop set up by MAG, the Mines Advisory Group. I was quite horrified to realise that up until now I was completely unaware that the most bombed country per capita in the world is Laos. In 1962 at the start of the Vietnam war, America signed a Geneva treaty to state that Laos was neutral territory and would not be targeted as part of the war. Then between 1964 and 1973 they dropped 2 million tonnes of bombs at a cost of $2.2million per day on southern and eastern Laos in an effort to prevent supplies reaching the Viet Kong and to cripple the burgeoning communism in the country. 2 million tonnes of bombs, the vast majority in the form of cluster bombs which break open in mid air showering down hundreds, thousands and millions of tiny fruit-like explosive devices called Bombies that fall onto the countryside like rain. They weren’t aimed at military targets, these were aimed at killing civilians; women, farmers, children. Thirty percent of the bombs that fell didn’t explode and have killed 20,000 people in the ensuing decades. Every time the country wants to build a new road, schools, hospitals the ground has to be checked and cleared of unexploded ordanance, UXO.  Bus ride to Vang Vieng from PhonsavanWhen farmers need to till their land, stake in Buffalo ropes or look to expand their farms they risk striking and exploding bombies and other UXO.  A third of deaths and casualties are children than come across the bombies and pick them up thinking they are toys or fruit. A group of ten of us watched a 50minute documentary about the war and the work that MAG is doing in Laos and were all very moved by the experience, more so for actually being in the country where it occurred. All the restaurants and guest houses in Phonsavan are filled with bomb casings as ornaments and bombies as ashtrays. It’s very bizarre. What is crazy is that Laos was never even declared war on, it is such a beautiful country and full of more warm and welcoming people than anywhere else that I have travelled. And yet they are still living through this terrible legacy. Even at a rate of clearing 100,000 UXO a year, the grandchildren of today’s generation will still be farming land where they run the risk of coming across unexploded bombs.  I consider myself a reasonably well read and well educated individual and in constantly horrifies and humbles me just how little I know about the world.

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the march of the monks

MonksI left a rather grumpy James in bed to get up at 6am and go and see the Luang Prabang monks do their daily walk down the main street collecting alms (rice and food) from the local towns people. Of course this religious ritual has become somewhat of a tourist parade but it is hugely captivating to watch the huge long line of brightly orange garbed monks, mainly the younger ones, in a long chain winding their way down the road.

Streets of Luang PrabangFor the rest of the day James and I decided to get involved with some adventure sports in the countryside around Luang Prabang. So we spent two hours in the morning mountain biking up and down some very rough roads out of the town past small villages, buffalo and coconut tree fields and ended up on the banks of the River Nam Kaun where our guide transferred us into a cute little two seater kayak and off we went down the river past some stunning scenery. In fact it was the scenery that proved to be my undoing. The river in the dry season is very flat and calm so the kayaking is fairly leisurely with no real rapids to speak of. Lured into a false sense of security and desperately wanting to photograph the scenery I pulled out my camera from the dry bag and took lots of photos. River scenes, Luang Prabang After a picnic lunch on the banks I decided to keep the camera out, hooked onto my life jacket. Then we hit our first rapids. These were the smallest, rippling rapids known to man but somehow they managed to hit our kayak side on and we capsized and along with myself and James my beloved camera tumbled into the water. Game Over. To my amazement two days later the camera is completely fine apart from the fact that the flash doesn’t work, long live the canon!

Night Market, Luang PrabangLuang Prabang has been the loveliest place to spend a few days. The old town is completely set up for tourists but it feels so laid back and is so picturesque it’s hard not to love. Our guest house was right opposite the Mekong and it was great just spending a day wandering around the temples, the roads, seeing the beautiful small colonial houses and the river peeking through the palm trees surrounding the peninsula. The town also has a small, colourful and embarrassingly cheap night market, even James didn’t bother bargaining. We spent our evening playing cribbage in the Lao Lao beer garden eating Buffalo steaks and drinking Beerlao (probably the best beer in SE Asia) and drinking two for one Lao whisky cocktails, this is definitely the life!

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messing about on the Mekong

Flight of the Gibbon
Descending down between platforms, ThailandJames and I saw a slightly recovered, but still weak Mum off at Chiang Mai airport for her flight home and then went about planning our escape to Laos, but before leaving Thailand we found out about a zip-line tour through the forest canopy which both of us had previously done in Costa Rica but had never heard about being able to do in Thailand. The reason for this transpired to be the fact the activity only opened in January this year.

“We have had two months and no accidents or deaths!” Our grinning guides proudly announced.

Huge trees in the forest, ThailandWe started off visiting a nearby waterfall in the middle of some lush green forest with views out across the valley. It would have been a very peaceful morning had not the guy on our trip (a Hawaiian in Thailand with his wife for dental treatment!) said he’d seen James going further up to the top. So I waited for James to reappear and after a while as the others started walking back down became a little concerned so I went to check he was okay. I walked a good 20 minutes steeply up the steps, scrambling up over some slippery earth and so far up that I got turned back by a bloke with a large knife! And still no James. By now I’m convinced he’s fallen down unconscious somewhere. Of course I ran into him looking for me as I was going down, he’d been back at the start all along. Oh well, I was just glad to find him in one piece!

James incoming!After lunch we headed out to our starting platform, one of fifteen, for the zip-lining. For three hours the eight of us in the group got harnessed up to long lines from platforms suspended up in huge thick trees in the forest and went zooming along them or dropped down between platforms. Our guides were hugely entertaining, even when my bamboo stick ‘break’ that was tucked into my side strap nutted one of them in the crotch as I came into land! James spent most of the afternoon taking very amusing videos of himself zooming down the lines. It was huge amounts of fun especially flying over parts of the valley and seeing the canopy below you as you whiz along and finally stop, or in my case forget to use the break and half crash, into the guide waiting for you at the next platform. 

Chiang Mai Walking Market, ThailandWe got back to Chiang Mai with enough time to take a stroll through the walking night market, I gazed hungry eyed at all the stalls and crafts on sale but managed to restrain myself by just buying some fisherman pants and a banana waffle. Then we came back for a final farewell to the wonderful luxury of the Tri Yaan Na Ros and got picked up by minibus to take us to Chiang Kong and the Laos border.

Cows on the Mekong, LaosCrossing into Laos was one of those bizarre exercises in Asian chaotic organisation which seems, somehow, to work surprisingly well. We’d booked a kind of arranged trip to get us to Luang Prabang. Five hours to get to the Boom house Guest House on the border where instead of arriving for breakfast at 6am we arrived at 3am but got given a really cheap and fairly nice room so I managed to get a welcome four hours sleep. After breakfast we were taken down to the Thai immigration, got stamped out of the country, then across the river in a tiny boat to the somewhat chaotic immigration for Laos on the far shores. Despite the numbers of tourists milling around and filling in forms, changing currencies and crowding around the booths it was only about 35 minutes to get a visa and the entry passport stamped before a few of us were relaxing in a cafe up the road before the slow boat was due to leave.

Views down the Mekong, LaosThere are two ways to get from this border at Huay Xai to Luang Prabang, a speed boat or a slow boat and I am pretty glad we opted for the slow one. The speed boats zoom down the river dodging huge rocky outcrops and the occupants, beside getting sprayed, have to wear crash helmets, apparently when they do crash it tends to be the kind of head on collision with a rock or another speed boat where the survivors number 0, crash helmets or not! Our slow boat was a long brightly coloured wooden boat with bench seats, a well stocked bar at the back and it was carrying about 80 passengers, so fairly crowded, and pretty much all farang(tourists). The Mekong is a beautiful river, a wide flowing silty river that cut through scenery of forested limestone hills, high white sandy banks with jagged outcrops of rock protruding from the edges of the river banks. We saw the occasional herds of black and pink (!) buffalo grazing on the shores, fishermen drifting by in long thin wooden boats, their nets suspended from the rocks, and small groups of children playing in the water by the banks of tiny bamboo villages on stilts tucked away within the trees. We sat with bottles of very drinkable BeerLao and watched the scenery roll past.

James boarding our boat at Pak Beng, LaosWe spent the night in a little rustic stop over village, full of guest houses,  called Pak Beng and were thankful that our guide had got us to pre book a room back at the border crossing, as a small group of us were taken out of the throng of locals, farang and rucksacks and went up the hill to the Boun Mee Guest House which was basic but nice with a wide wooden terrace over looking the now darkening Mekong. Ben and Ronnie, an English couple we’d been chatting to on the boat came down and Ben’s usual blond afro was considerably larger than it had been during the day. In trying to get the lights to work in their room he’d flicked a breaker and been thrown across the room by an electric shock. Luckily he didn’t seem to worse for the wear and the owners found them a less deadly room for the night. Locals on the Mekong, LaosThe next day we continued for about 7 hours down the river, by now my bottom was getting a little sore, despite the cushions and I was hugely thankful when we finally arrived in Luang Prabang. I also realised that I am getting old. A small group of 21 year old Brits, Aussies and Americans were rowdily doing beer bongs at the back of the boat and having the most inane conversations I have ever heard. There is a limit to how often the word ‘like’ should be used in a sentence, certainly not as every other word! James’s all time favourite quote from one of the American guys to one of the British guys was:

“Didn’t you guys like just have a war with Argentina?”

Enough said! I am too old to be hanging out with 21 year old travelling piss heads anymore. James says I am turning into a travelling snob. Well with 46 countries, 4 months in India and having been away for 11 months I think I have earned the right to take the backpacking high ground. However, I think he maybe right!

Port sunset in Luang Prabang, LaosLuang Prabang is lovely, relaxed, picturesque, friendly and really laid back. The buildings are small and wooden with sloping roofs, potted plants and small balconies and the whole old part of the town is just ridiculously, charmingly cute. We wondered around a little last night after finding a cute guest house opposite the banks of the Mekong. We had a really cheap and really gorgeous dinner (I had Laos aubergine, chicken and bean noodle soup, James had a cheese burger!) along the main street of restaurants before having a few beers in a small bar and heading home to bed. This morning we’ve just been wondering around the streets, long the river side and visiting a beautiful old Buddhist temple called Wat Xieng Thong. There are brightly robed monks walking about everywhere, in fact they are even in the internet cafes checking their emails!

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ups and downs in the hill tribes of Chiang Dao

Mum and her elephantDay one – Elephants, bamboo rafts and bartering
We started our three day journey in Chiang Dao, about two hours north of Chiang Mai where we met Dan and Amber, a really lovely couple from the gold coast in Australia who were also on our trip. Just as well really, three days with just us Linneys and who knows what could have happened. The first day was mainly a lot of the more fun activities and not so much trekking which was cool. Limestone hills, Chiang Dao areaWe had a very funny guide called Tory who laughed at absolutely everything he told us, whether it was serious or not and sang us the cutest kids song about elephants in English and Thai! We started off with a quick visit to the local market which was a mishmash of cheap clothing, herbs, large bush knives and retro US army t-shirts. Then we headed off by jeep to where three large Asian Elephants were waiting to take us the one hour journey to the first hill tribe village, Palaung.

Lisu KidThe hill tribes live generally around 1000m in Thailand and originally came from China, Tibet, Laos or Burma in the 19th and 20th centuries. They are being discouraged from their slash-and-burn agriculture and now much of the area is protected or being planted. The government also stopped their very lucrative trade in opium so now their main income is via tourism, hosting trekking groups and selling handicrafts.

Mum managed to get the biggest elephant all to herself and it spent most of the scenic leisurely ride trying to overtake Dan and Amber’s in front. On the final steep path down to the Palaung village James and I nearly slid off the front of ours and gripped onto the seat for dear life as we teetered down the path. Lisu Tribe WomanThe villages are a group of bamboo houses on stilts, most with solar panels outside and lots of squealing piglets, chickens and half fox/half dog breeds running around. The women were all waiting for us round in a circle on the ground in traditional colourful dress displaying their handicrafts to buy. I’m sure they go and change into jeans the minute the tourists leave. They were really lovely though and every time they smiled you got a sight of red and black stained teeth from all the betel they chew.

Mum barginning!After a tasty lunch we took the jeep onto visit a few more villages seeing on the way lots of bamboo houses, banana plants, a baby monkey riding on the back of a local dog, the men in their very kitsch blue velvet baggy pants, pigs and roosters. Mum brought a bag from one Lisu tribe woman and I don’t think the woman was quite prepared for the bargaining technique. Mum just kept leaning her head on one side and hugging her around the shoulders saying, “Go on, 120 Baht!” To the amazement of us all it worked far better than our bartering! When we reached the Akka tribe the women were waiting for us and practically jumped us with hats, bags and jewellery. It was surprisingly good natured though and they keep laughing and smiling even when we didn’t buy anything. James simply said,

“Look this is all women’s stuff. There are only two women in my life, and they are both over there.”

Raft hitchhikersWe finished the day with a long relaxing bamboo rafting trip down the river on literally sticks of bamboo bound together. We each had a go pushing the rafts through the shallow water with the long bamboo poles before letting the guide take over whilst we enjoyed the scenery. At one point three local boys in their underpants hijacked Dan and Amber’s raft and spent the next twenty minutes jumping and somersaulting off the back before finally disappearing up the banks. The Thai people really do seem to be laughing and smiling pretty much all the time! It was just before dark when we reached our bamboo hut in the Lisu village we were sleeping in. An almost full moon was shining above the limestone hills, we had a gorgeous dinner of sausage and chicken curries with rice and were all in bed by 9 o’clock.

Mum in the cavesDay Two – Extreme caving, claustrophobia and Thai whisky
The village roosters were rather over-enthusiastic and had two rather loud rehearsals in the middle of the night before finally timing their vocal announcements with actual daylight. As a result we were all awake fairly early and sat outside our hut watching small male piglets running after the larger females and trying unsuccessfully to mount them until breakfast was ready! For the day we had our very own velvet-trousered guide, who spoke no English but who none-the-less turned out to be a bit of a joker, to take us first caving and then to a local waterfall. The caving was fantastic, we spent about 90 minutes crawling, walking and scrambling through passageways to different chambers with immense stalactite and stalagmite formations. I’d forgotten, however, that James is considerably more claustrophobic than I am and when we finally got outside he was a good deal more relieved than the rest of us to be once more in the fresh air. Chiang Dao Mountain from Lisu NalaoWe trekked along the river side over some Indiana Jones-Style bridges to a small waterfall before making our way back up over the hill sides until about 4pm we came to our second Lisu village for the night. This time our bamboo hut had a terrace overlooking the whole valley to Chiang Dao mountain on the other side. Dan and the whisky man, Lisu NalaoThe villagers were a lot more friendly, within 10 minutes of arriving we all had a large bottle of Chang beer in hand and shortly afterwards the village drunk (?) arrived with a large bottle of home brewed whisky and a few small glasses and insisted that we spend the next hour drinking with him. The whisky was pretty strong, actually you could probably have got drunk just inhaling the stuff. After a few whiskies, beers and the luxury of a sit down toilet we were all feeling very relaxed as we sat down for a Thai dinner and watched the sky darken over the mountains.

Local ShamenDay three – Shaman, Blind caves and Mum is pushed to the limit
Our final day was the toughest hiking but some beautiful scenery and our guide for this day, a fifty-nine year old Lisu man with clipped words in English, a very peculiar sense of humour and a huge beaming smile. He was hugely surprised that Mum was old enough to have had James and I, he spent the rest of the day calling her Mama to our amusement! We stopped for lunch in a small village and were given some strange tea to drink by the local shaman in the cut off stems of bamboo trunks. We all then had to take a brightly coloured woven wrist band for luck. Dan and James were slightly horrified at the un-manliness of the orange ones they picked and announced they were taking them off the minute we got back to Chiang Dao! Village pigletWe trekked down steep paths through teak and bamboo forests, the earth changing colour from sand, to yellow-orange, to deep red clays. Huge brown fallen leaves lined the track and crunched underfoot and the sunlight filtered through the yellow and orange ones still on the trees. Our guide kept merrily kicking huge Buffalo turds out of the path and frequently hopped off to hack down bamboo shoots with his huge knife to make us walking sticks. He also cut down a huge stem which his assistant guide-in-training later made into long bowls for our lunch!

Cutting Bamboo for lunch bowlsBefore lunch we explored one more cave that cut right across the rock-face in front of the path. Even though this one had no crawling James wisely elected to stay outside. It was then we realised all our torches were in our packs which we’d left to be driven to our pick-up point. So we went in with the guide’s not-very-bright torch and Dan’s even-less-bright torch. The chambers in the cave were huge and though it wasn’t nearly as hard going as the previous cave it was more unsettling as we could hardly see where we were going. It was like the blind leading the blind. Lunch was rice and vegetable with chilli tuna in our very cool bamboo bowls. By now Mum was starting to have a dodgy stomach, probably from the Thai whisky the night before. Unfortunately we still had over two hours of particularly steep uphill trekking to do to reach our pick up. Mum made it but only just with a little help from James and I along the way. Then our truck broke down taking us to Chiang Dao to pick up the rest of our stuff so we had to wait another hour to get rescued.

“See this is the real travelling,” I joked to Mum, “food poisoning and transport breaking down when you least expect it.” She didn’t look amused!

Tri Yaan Na Ros, Colonial House, Chiang MaiTwo hours later we were back in Chiang Mai, dropped Dan and Amber off at their hotel and then we headed to the Tri Yaan Na Ros. To say this place is beautiful is the understatement of the year. It’s small, cosy, gorgeous, lovely, picturesque and amusingly costs about the same as a travel lodge in the UK! James disappeared immediately into his room and found the sports channel and Mum and I collapsed onto two huge dark wood four poster beds draped with maroon silk and white mosquito nets. Our room opens onto a balcony that overlooks a turquoise green swimming pool lined with white columns and palm trees. Sadly Mum is still in bed recovering from traveller’s diarrhea today but at least it’s a pretty fantastic bed to be ill in. This wasn’t quite what I had in mind when planning a lovely holiday for her with James and I in Thailand!

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the Linneys at large

Reclining Buddha, BangkokWell the Linneys are out in force in Thailand, the brother, the mother and me. James arrived on Thursday, failed to notice I’d chopped off all my hair and then went and got his cut much shorter, honestly, he is always stealing my thunder. By all accounts he had a wicked time in South Africa, Nambia and Botswana! Then Mum arrived on Saturday, James and I went to meet her at the new swanky airport in Bangkok with balloons (well they were my idea, James was slowly drifting away from me in the arrivals hall)! On Sunday James went off to see tigers and the Bridge of the River Kwai and Mum and I went for a day’s sightseeing with Hester and Tuli, two girls from the guesthouse.

Mum getting friendly at Wat Po, BangkokWe went back to Jim Thompson house and had a gorgeous lunch in the restaurant, they have a huge pond there that randomly has a large ray inside…bizarre. Afterwards we caught one of the local taxi boats up the Klong, one of Bangkoks original canals and amde our way over to the Grand Palace. Sadly my anal organisation had failied to take into account that the palace shut at 3.30pm and it was 3pm. Oops. So we went across to Wat Po instead and saw the huge, and I mean huge reclining gold-guilded, reclining buddha. It is housed in this beautiful temple with red painted wood on the ceiling, intricate paintings of the buddha’s life around the outside and the back is dominated by his feet, huge soles of black stone decorated with inlaid mother of pearl. Back down the river and into the heart of shopping wonderland that is Siam, Mum and I did some credit card massaging in the department stores before heading back to Suk11. We sent Mum off for a foot and shoulder massage and James reappeared having had his photo taken with some huge (apparently tame?) tigers and went straight off to update his facebook profile picture, good to know I’m not the only geek in the family then!

Chiang Mai monksNow we are up in Chiang Mai and heading off on our three day trekking tour into the hill tribes of Northern Thailand…see you in three days!

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making the cut

Buddas in Wat Arun, Bangkok Amazing how the time passes when you are doing nothing. I am thoroughly enjoying have a sabbatical from my sabbatical in Bangkok. The hostel I am staying in Suk11 is lovely, the kind of place where you only have to been there for about 2 days and every time you come downstairs for a beer, cup of coffee or breakfast there are people to chat to. There’s quite an interesting mix of people here as well, everyone from couples with young children from Korea and Japan, first time fresh faced 18 year olds enjoying their first trip abroad to long term residents, the old white bearded guys who randomly work their ways around Asia and I’ve met a French chef, a Canadian Liquid dancer and an English life painter!

Wat Arun moasaics, BangkokI have done some very light sight-seeing though. Wat Arun Bangkok I went to visit Jim Thompsons house, an American born in 1906 who came to Thailand at the end of the war and is responsible for bringing Thai silk to the international design stage. He built this beautiful traditional style house on the banks of Bangkok’s canals and you have a cute half hour guided tour before going to drool over silk scarves in the shop afterwards. Then yesterday before picking my brother up from the airport I got a boat up the river to Wat Arun, the dawn temple which looks unimpressive from a distance but is fascinating close up.Every inch is covered in ceramic mosaics of all colours shapes and sizes. A little like someone has smashed up their mother’s china sets and used them to decorate a Buddist stupa! Having seenBuddist temples in Sri Lanka, Nepal and India it’s interesting to see the differences in the Thai architecture. There is more detail, and a lot more curves and points sticking out everywhere. The monks are also back in orange (as in Sri Lanka) rather than the deep maroons and reds of Nepal and India.

New hair in Suk11On Wednesday I went to pick up my Vietnam visa, the easiest visa I have ever had to get. Virtually no queue and very efficient, after the Indian Embassy debacle I am permanently visa paranoid! I came out of the embassy and walked past a hairdressers, stopped and stood contemplating an idea for a good five minutes in the middle of the pavement before turning around, walking through the door and asking them to cut off all my hair! My hair has been driving me mad for ages, ten months without a hairdresser and no heat styling within range is not a good combination. I think the stylist found the whole experience fairly traumatic, the average Asian head of hair is definitely a world away from my psuedo afro mop! It is now pretty much as short as when I was 18, although curly and once the initial shock wore off I’ve decided kind of like it, plus it’s so much easier to deal with. I went to the market to buy some hair bands, and decided I don’t look too much like a boy! Anyway, in a month or so it’ll be longer and then the fro will finally be back in force!

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Clara comes out of the rabbit hole

I’m in Thailand, a new country for the first time in months which is quite exciting. The thing is, and this is going to sound a little strange, I’m experiencing a very bizarre kind of culture shock. Ever since I got here I’m wondering around with a look of stupefied amazement on my face and wandering what on earth happened to all the chaos. I’ve been in India for four months, Nepal and Sri Lanka before that and I suddenly feel like I’ve abruptly arrived back into the western world. Let me explain.

  1. Thailand is clean – compared to India it is super spotless, I-would-eat-my-dinner-off-these-pavements, clean.
  2. There is hardly any rubbish, anywhere around.
  3. There are actual pavements, that people actually use to walk on.
  4. The traffic makes barely any attempt to kill you, the nearest I had was a motorbike using the pavement my first night, but it swerved far too early to actually pose a threat!
  5. There are no cows in the city, or monkeys, or buffalo and the street dogs look plump and glossy coated.
  6. There is no shit, anywhere, I’ve seen nobody spit and nobody pissing in public.
  7. The electrics look like there is actually a system involved in their wiring.
  8. Nobody is trying to sell me anything! Even the taxi drivers don’t seem especially eager to get a fare.
  9. Nobody stares at me if I walk down the street.
  10. The one beggar woman near my hostel looks cleaner, better groomed and dressed than I do, and sits with her hands clasped as if she is meditating rather than asking for money.
  11. Locals are walking around in skin tight clothing and half the girls have their legs out. I was shocked. I look positively conservative in my Indian tops and jeans now!
  12. The cars don’t use their horns, ever!
  13. They have lots of Tescos, and Boots!

PattayaDon’t get me wrong, it’s wonderful, everything is shiny, clean and very organised. It’s great, but part of me misses the crazy-ass chaos and colourfulness of India. I feel like Alice coming back out of the rabbit hole or returning through the looking glass to her own side. It’s very odd.

I arrived on Friday night and went to a guest house near the airport, just for the night. I had one beer around 6pm and had to go and lie down for an hour. The liver is sorely out of practice. The next day I had fun in the sub zero air conditioned sky train and then took the bus 2 hours to Pattaya on the coast to visit my godfather Nick who has lived here since the late eighties.

It was really nice to spend the weekend in a house. Nick has two gorgeous dogs, a barrel-bellied Doberman called Sadie and a white puff-ball called Tommy. I relaxed with a cup of Earl Grey tea outside, reading the papers while he was playing his weekend bridge. Just what I needed to unwind. That evening I put on the one dress I have with me as the two of us had been invited for a six course, farewell dinner for a friend of Nick’s in a beautiful penthouse apartment overlooking the city. This is the crazy contrast of my life now, one minute I’m washing street filth from my feet in a cold shower of a grotty guest house room in Kolkata, and the next I’m drinking Kir Royal in penthouse apartments in Thailand. My Godfather, Nick Fun eh! As much as I could have happily spent the rest of the week drinking tea, playing with the dogs, listening to Opera and reading The Spectator in the garden at my godfather’s, I had to sort visas and the like, so this afternoon I came back to Bangkok. I’m staying in the newer part of town, the idea of staying in Khaosan road was just too much of a cliche, although I can’t possibly leave SE Asia without visiting and finding out just what a Thai girl can do with a ping pong ball! So I’m planning on sweet talking the embassies and doing a spot of shopping before the Linney madness, in the shape of my brother and Mum arrive at the end of the week. I’ve managed to roll up my curry stained combats to show 4 inches of leg and I’m sporting my Save Tibet T-shirt, but honestly I still look overdressed. With my newly accquired mosquito bites and India-city-pollution spots, not to mention what the humidity here is doing to my hair, quite frankly, I’ve looked better! Ah well, time for my daily liver workout, beer anyone?

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