Koh Chang “Elephant Island”

After weeks of moving on every few days, we decided a whole 7 nights should be spent on, or near the beach. We chose Koh Chang (translates as “Elephant Island”) in Thailand for this and, after a rather long and tiring journey (including a bus breaking down and missing the last ferry), we arrived at Lonely Beach on the island just before midnight. A couple of nights later, we finally found some accommodation that was clean and cheap enough for us and settle there for the remaining 5 nights. It also came with a pretty nice view of sunset over the sea – for free!

Broken minibus Sunset from Sai Kaew Inn

We spent 5 days on the beach, working our way through the books we’re carrying, building our tans and swimming in the sea. The remaining day we went scuba diving and snorkeling. The scuba diving was infinitely better than Phu Quoc where we last dived, both in terms of visibility and interesting things to see (this time the new things we saw were a Lion Fish and a puffer fish – last time it was just nudibranchs which aren’t so amazing). We took the underwater camera snorkelling after our dives…

Snorkelling in Koh Chang Snorkelling in Koh Chang

We have a flight from Bangkok to Bali on Christmas Eve, so we leave Koh Chang on the 23rd and travel for 10 hours back to Bangkok, ready for our flight the next morning. Koh Chang is a lovely place – here’s some more photos so you can see for yourselves:

White Sand Beach, Koh Chang Sunset at Koh Chang

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Ho Chi Minh City / Saigon sauntering

We made a whistle-stop tour of Ho Chi Minh City (a.k.a. HCMC or Saigon) – a one day trip on foot around as many sights as we could squeeze in. We saw a couple of museums, a palace, a few markets and various other significant landmarks – all thanks to the Lonely Planet’s walking tour that we followed.

However, before all that, the night we arrived 2 interesting things happened. Firstly, Vietnam had won a football match that night against Malaysia in the SEA (South East Asia) Games in Vientiane. This meant that pretty much the whole city was on the streets riding their motorbikes and waving Vietnamese flags – mad & noisy! They’re obviously big football fans here! Secondly, I almost got into a fight with our taxi driver, who, after getting lost, wanted extra money. The exchange ended with him throwing some stuff on the ground and storming off. Not a great start.

Mad traffic in HCMC / Saigon

However the rest of HCMC was actually really nice – less manic than Hanoi and with more friendly people (from what we experienced anyway). The place we spent most time was Reunification Palace, where we took advantage of one of the free tours, which very much helped in having an appreciation of the history of the palace and also the country. The two are rather intertwined – the North Vietnamese army stormed the palace to relieve the American-supported South Vietnamese president from power (“The American puppet regime” as they like to call it). My favourite quote from that day goes something like this: Southern President “I have been waiting to hand over power since morning”, Northern Commander “You can’t hand over, what you don’t have, but we’ll accept your unconditional surrender.” – CRUNCH! 🙂

Reunification Palace, HCMC The roof of Reunification Palace, HCMC

After a few other stops, we headed, along with a hoard of other backpackers (there must have been at least 20 other people doing the same – just on one day) to the bar at the top of the Sheraton hotel, floor 23. The view was lovely as we watched the sun descend over the city, sipping expensive-but-worth-it cocktails, nibbling the free snacks and giving our tired feet a rest.

(Expensive) cocktails atop the Sheraton, HCMC The view from the bar atop the Sheraton, HCMC

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Halong Bay: A load of junks!

Once Lizzy had recovered, we set out on a three-day tour of Halong Bay on a junk (a Vietnamese boat – hence the title of this entry). First stop was the “Amazing Cave”, which was pretty amazing 🙂 Views were stunning most of the time from the boat, from the cave entrance and from pretty much anywhere!

Halong Bay

Later, we kayaked near one of the 2,000 islands that are dotted around Halong Bay (they’ve only got as far as naming 928 of them apparently!). The best bits were gliding underneath a rock archway into an almost-entirely-enclosed expanse of water – very impressive but no photo would do it justice – and watching the sun begin to set – hopefully this photo gives an idea:

Kayaking at sunset

After a quick swim (for me, but not Lizzy), it was time for dinner and the evening entertainment – KARAOKE! Generally, Asians take their karaoke VERY seriously and they don’t care at all how they sound. Our guides belted out lots of “tunes” with absolute sincerity & commitment and required us to follow suit. Lizzy & I ended up being volunteered to sing “Heal the world”, which we only knew the chorus to, but with a couple of drinks inside us, we did our best to pick it up as we went along! Some other westerners put in more committed performances than us with numbers such as “Ice ice baby” and “Back for good” 🙂

After a good night’s sleep on the boat and a simple breakfast, we headed to Cat Ba island and to the national park of the same name. After a strenuous and hot 1-hour ascent we reached the top of one of the highest points on the island with a panoramic view. Not satisfied with this, I climbed up the 20-metre rather rickety observation tower to get a better look. Fortunately it didn’t collapse under my weight and I got a few extra photos and feelings of vertigo for my effort.

Lizzy at the bottom of the viewing station at the top of Cat Ba Island (if you look closely!) View from the top of Cat Ba Island

Once we’d made our way back down and cooled off with an ice cream (which has some kind of seeds in it – rather weird) it was off to our various hotels for lunch. We’d opted for a nicer-than-standard hotel as part of the ongoing celebrations for the start of my 4th decade and were amazed at what the extra money bought us – a 4* resort with 3 pools, several bars, a private beach and stunning views of the sunrise! Also the resort was all but deserted which was rather eerie, but we certainly didn’t have to worry about crowds of karaoke-singing locals keeping us awake at night. (For this part of north Vietnam December is the low season, the opposite is true in the south).

We were disappointed the water slides weren’t open and that we had to negotiate not to have yet another complete seafood platter for our evening meal (there’s only so much of it we can take), but we had a lovely stay, albeit for only 1 night… and the sunrise in the morning was breath-taking:

Sunrise over our resort on Cat Ba Island Sunrise on Cat Ba Island

The third day we sailed back to Halong City and caught the bus back to Hanoi… fortunately in enough time to get to the airport for our flight to Danang, from where we’d go to Hoi An.

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Hanoi: Mixed bags

We arrived in Hanoi at the ungodly hour of 4.20am and had to find ways to pass the time until somewhere opened for breakfast (at about 6am in the end). Saw lots of people out exercising, doing individual and group tai chi in the semi-darkness, which was rather surreal.

Tom & Jules & Us by the lake in Hanoi

Tom & Jules were still with us, and after quick showers in our hostel, they took us on a little exploration of Hanoi. The most striking part was walking through the markets where they were selling all kinds of very fresh animals for eating. We saw bags of frogs very much still jumping and sliding over each other. We saw buckets of worms and eels in slithering masses. Then we saw a fish being cut up and skinned whilst still flapping and moving its mouth. Needless to say we all chose a “safe” vegetarian lunch.

Sleeping trader Street scene

Unfortunately the lunch may not have been so “safe” after all – as Lizzy spent the rest of the day emitting the previous few days’ food and I had to have dinner on my own…

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Turning 30 in Laos – The Prince of Bel Air

After returning from Vang Vieng, it was time to start celebrating my 30th birthday! We’d booked in to a lovely hotel (called “Le Bel Air” – hence the title)for 2 nights for some R&R and as a treat for my becoming an old man.  It was about 10 times more expensive than our normal nightly budget on this trip – but still about the price of a Travellodge in the UK! Here’s some photos:

Le Bel Air Hotel, Luang Prabang, Laos Le Bel Air Hotel, Luang Prabang, Laos

It’s so posh, they collected us from our guest house, give us free bikes to ride around, carried our bags to our room, give free trips into town and will drop us (in about 30 mins from now) at the airport. It’s not at all what we’ve been used to – and a very nice way to celebrate my birthday.

The first evening we sat and watched the sun set from our balcony, had a HUGE bath (took 30 mins to fill!) and headed into town for some shopping and eating.

Sunset at Luang Prabang

Then it was off to bed for the last time as a 29-year-old and to wake up as a 30-year-old! The next morning, whilst I was at breakfast, Lizzy decorated the room with balloons and when I came back, I opened the cards that Lizzy had carried half way around the world with her (thanks if one of them was from you!) and the presents she’d bought me (although I’d already had loads in the UK before I left).

We got up slowly and then headed into town again by bike to do more shopping and eating! Had lunch at a lovely french café and bought a few pictures before heading back late afternoon to chill out at the hotel and make friends with what I think was a sloth (the animal perhaps I’m most like!).

Princess of Le Bel Air I think it's a Sloth

Then after a few phone / Skype calls to family, we headed back into town once more for a rather posh meal at the Aspara (again, posh for here – still only the price of a meal for 2 at Pizza Express in the UK probably!). The meal was magnificent! It was all very well flavoured and interesting combinations -I had buffalo sausages with chilli jam, followed by duck curry with a refreshing cucumber & ginger dipping sauce – YUM YUM YUM! All washed down with a bottle of rosé and we were both rather happy. A perfect meal for my birthday.

Cheers - for my 30th!

Once we were done with our upper-class meal, we headed to a bar where we met the 4 Scots from Vang Vieng for a few more drinks. (Lizzy had tried to arrange their being there as a surprise for me, but then I waded in and arranged it myself anyway, so that took the wind out of her sails – oops!).

On returning to the hotel room, there was a big surprise – A CAKE! In fact it was a surprise for Lizzy too really since she’d mentioned that it was my birthday to the hotel, but wasn’t sure they were going to do anything.

My birthday cake!

We were too full to eat much of it, so it’s now in our rucksack awaiting a convenient time for us to demolish it. Will they let it through customs? We hope so, because now it’s off to Hanoi, Vietnam!

Goodbye Thailand – Hello Laos!

We’d be travelling a whole month and were yet to change countries, so we figured it was time to correct that. For our last night in Thailand we stayed in a lovely guesthouse on the banks of the Mekong (Baanrimtaling Home Stay) with friendly and well-informed hosts.  They gave us good advice about crossing the next day and shared plenty of stories. After a lot of discussing and changing of minds (one 5 minutes before we were due to leave!) we opted for the 2-day slow boat trip down the Mekong from Huay Xai (the Lao town opposite Thailand’s Chaing Khong) to Luang Prabang, which ended up being rather eventful!

We’d been warned that transport in Laos is somewhat unreliable, but were still taken a little aback when our slow boat broke down after just 1 hour on the move. An hour or so later another boat came along and we all had to step across onto that one whilst moored in the middle of the mighty Mekong:

Being rescued - switching boats

The second boat was, unfortunately, rather smaller than the first, so there was a bit of a fight for seats and we spent the next 7 hours packed in like hot, sweaty sardines, but still enjoying the amazing scenery and weather as we glided down the river.

View from the boat on the Mekong

The overnight was spent at a rather grubby town called Pak Beng, which seems to only exist to provide basic mafia-run accommodation to slow-boaters. Next morning we were on the boat at 7.20am to get ourselves a seat (we were in the first 10 to do so, so got nice ones!). It was only later it became apparent that 2 boats would do the second leg, so there was actually plenty of space. This day took everyone by surprise as it was actually COLD! People ended up in sleeping bags, cowering behind umbrellas etc. Lizzy had her normal clothes, pyjamas, my shirt and a poncho on to keep her warm. Very annoying that our main packs were stowed below deck, so we couldn’t access our really warm stuff! Anyway, we arrived in Luang Prabang ahead of schedule to begin getting to know Laos.

Learning to massage, Sunday market and leaving Chiang Mai

On our last day in Chiang Mai, we did a 5-hour Thai massage course. It was very interesting, but rather tiring on the thumbs! So, we may offer free massages to friends & family 😀

Then we went on to the Chiang Mai Sunday night market, which is immense! We walked around it for about 2 hours (I stopped for a 30 min foot massage whilst Lizzy carried on shopping) and still we didn’t see half of it! It’s a shame we’re going to so many lovely markets, selling very nice things, but having to resist the urge to buy much since we have no space in our bags for it!

And then the next morning we got up early to leave Chiang Mai to get to Chiang Khong which is on the Thailand / Laos border…

Ban Chang to Chiang Mai

As we prepared to leave, Lucy took us to Pattaya train station to get tickets for the sleeper train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, only to find out that it was completely sold out. (Note: we had tried to book tickets over the internet, but it had failed 🙁 ). We were about to make a plan B, when a Thai lady who spoke very good english came up to us and explained that she had 2 tickets that she was about to return for that same train. WOW! Great! Even better was that for returning tickets you only get 50% back, so we agreed we’d pay 70% so we all walked away happy. EVEN BETTER STILL: they were both lower births in the train, so we had more space and less light, so we both slept rather well as we trundled along for 14 hours to Chiang Mai, where we are writing this.

Things to do here: cookery course, massage course?, trekking, riding elephants, visiting hill tribes, day & night markets… should keep us busy!