We’re back in Pai now, having sold our guide book for petrol money and dumping our big backpacks in Chiang Mai. The first time we came here was last week with two friends, on the first leg of the Mae Hong Son loop, a 600km tour around northwestern Thailand very popular with bikers. From the 3-4 hour drive up to Pai it was easy to see why; it was a challenge keeping an eye on the road when surrounded on all sides by stunning mountain views.
Category Archives: Travel
This was my most bizarre Christmas to date. It started horrendously…
At 6.15am on Christmas Eve we got off the night train from Bangkok at Chumphon, on the coast. Failing to get a sleeper we had to sit in seats for 7 hours, which wasn’t too bad- although Matt only got half an hour’s sleep. At the station torrential rain was lashing down, and luckily a woman from the ferry company was running around herding people up to get on the bus to the pier because we had no idea where to go. Continue reading
This is what it looks like when an elephant treads on your foot:
Fortunately Matt was spared a more dramatic injury since we were in a river an hour outside of Chiang Mai washing said elephants at the time, and his foot sank into the sand below. Still, its massive toenail left an impressive mark. I was unaware of these developments as I was trying to tame my elephant at the time: being a young one it became overly excited when we reached the water and dived in head first. Whilst the others were sitting nicely letting their owners for the day give them a nice scrub, ours was rolling around with its legs in the air. This took place once we had learnt the basic Mahout commands necessary to ride the elephants, then fed them a gargantuan amount of bananas to sweeten them up to us doing so. Continue reading
The Nha Trang effect has struck again- 4 or 5 days in Siem Reap has turned into a mammoth 11-night stint. Our original plans to head up to Laos once our parents left from their two week holiday were immediately thrown out when we saw the horrendous journey we’d have to take: 10 or 11 hours on multiple buses just to get to the border, far away from where we needed to be. Instead, we decided to wait it out here until our Thai visas started…
There are some places which act as the traveller’s Bermuda Triangle, places which you can never seem to leave, and Nha Trang is one of them.
We’re finally out of the capital! We ended up staying in Hanoi for various reasons- illness, poor organisation, extended beerpong-induced hangovers.. but the silver lining was that by chatting to one of the guys at the hostel we heard about the Phong Nha Farmstay. Since it’s only two years old it’s not in our slightly outdated Lonely Planet, and the combination of cool cave tours and a laid-back lifestyle sounded perfect. We booked in for four nights.
Within half a day I never wanted to leave. Rainy days were spent reading in a hammock, cuddling the puppies that run around, enjoying the view of rice paddies and mountains, and working on my pool game. The highlight of the second day was taking a bike tour through the neighbouring villages just as kids were coming out of school in the morning- their screams of “hello!! HELLO!!” and high-fives made us feel like celebrities. At one point a motorbike with one adult and no less than 4 kids whizzed past, the children just going mental at the sight of us. The tour led us to one side of Phong Nha Ke-Bang national park and into Dragon’s Breath cave, which was pretty cool. But that was simply a warm-up for the next day: an incredible tour through the national park and to Paradise cave.
Hanoi from Hong Kong was a shock. We got a hint of how mental it is here when the cab to our hotel came to an abrupt stop in front of a truckload of chickens parked across the motorway; from then on it was in at the deep end. The heat whacks you in the face, there is no discernible way to cross the heaving streets, and the language barrier made it nearly impossible to order that crucial beer on our first night.
If I’m honest, I hated it- and missed the order and cleanliness of Hong Kong. It probably had a lot to do with staying in a hotel away from people our own age, and we spent most evenings hanging out at the backpacker hostel down the road. The turning point came on the third day: tired and hungover from the hostel bar crawl the night before, we avoided the midday heat in Tamarind, a veggie cafe in the Old Quarter. We emerged after a good meal and a couple of mango lassis (and agreeing to come back and speak English with the friendly staff in exchange for our dinner) completely relaxed- suddenly walking in the path of oncoming traffic came naturally. It also helps a great deal that the staff, like most of the people we’ve met so far, are constantly smiling and keen to talk to you to improve their English.
A disproportionate amount of our time here has been spent seeking out Hanoi’s gastronomic delights, and we have two favourites. At Bún bò nam bộ you can get a plate of delicious crab spring rolls, noodles and a beer for around £1.50. For a DIY barbecue of beef and vegetables cooked with a mix of lime juice, sugar and pepper, 47 Ma May is the place to go.
The one thing I was looking forward to most was touring Halong Bay, and it didn’t disappoint. Kayaking, cave exploring, swimming and sunbathing in the afternoon, squid-fishing (unsuccessfully), karaoke and drinking at night- and that was just the first day. I’m pleased we decided to stay for 2 nights because next on the agenda was a trip to an oyster farm, more swimming and beach-bumming, plus a bike ride and jungle trek on Cat Ba island, where we stayed in a hotel. Our guide was brilliant and showed a couple of us round Cat Ba town after dinner, where we drank green tea watching kids beat drums and do the dragon dance in preparation for the Mid-Autumn festival that weekend. All of this set against a backdrop of looming rock formations making it impossible to stop taking pictures.
Now we’re in the downtown Hanoi Backpackers Hostel, and we’re taking full advantage of the chilled atmosphere and great nightlife. The one bad thing about staying in such a great place is that we never want to leave!
Next up is Sapa, where we’ll be heading, walking boots in hand, on a sleeper train tomorrow night. Fingers crossed for minimal mozzie bites in the mountains…
Overslept yesterday morning. Oops! Probably for the best because by the time we made it over to Lantau Island it was a sweltering afternoon. We took a 25 minute cable car over the island’s rolling hills to Ngong Ping village, a Disneyland-like row of restaurants and souvenir shops- not to mention the International Cable Car Gallery, featuring ‘several cabins sourced from overseas to broaden visitors’ understanding of cable cars’.
Once we’d caught our breath after the walk up to Big Buddha, a 34m high statue drawing a large crowd, we wandered over to sit in the shade of Po Lin monastery. Very peaceful; incense was burnt outside the temple so it wasn’t overpowering inside. Only managed to spot one monk from far away – must try harder.
The bus from Ngong Ping across the island gave us great view of Lantau. It careered up and down jungle-clad hills and swerved along the glittering coast – unfortunately it was going too fast for us to make out the stop for the beach, so carried on all the way to the ferry port. Didn’t want to go anyway. And why step off an air-conditioned bus into the afternoon heat?!
The day before we went to Stanley, a beach town described by the guide book as ‘a crowd-pleaser’. Easy to see why when offered the culinary delights of Pizza Express, fish and chips, and burgers – with the option of snails for those Gallic tourists really missing their cuisine. A bit touristy for us. We spent a pleasant afternoon on the beach and walking around Ma Hang park, before heading back home to Kowloon to drink a £1 litre of beer in the bustling Temple Street night market.
We’re about to check out before flying to Hanoi this evening, very exciting! We’re both looking forward to being on the backpacker trail – so far we haven’t met many people our own age, the crowd seems to be mostly families, expat businesspeople and retired couples. (The bus to Stanley summed it up pretty well – a lovely Australian couple who saved us the two front seats on the top deck for the views, and an Australian businessmen swearing loudly into his phone the whole way there). Although the jet lag’s made the city overwhelming at times, it’s been a great five nights here. Highlights include wandering around the history museum, eating delicious food for less than £3, seeing flamingos in Kowloon Park, enjoying the cheesiness of the Symphony of Lights and being asked by a waiter when eating our noodles, if we were tourists, how come we knew how to use chopsticks?
Next post from Hanoi!
We made it in one piece! After an 11-hour flight with great entertainment (watched Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and would definitely recommend!) and as much drink as we wanted, we got our pre-booked transfer to the hotel. So pleased we had this sorted beforehand- would not have wanted to negotiate Hong Kong transport on the two hours sleep I managed on the plane. By the time we unpacked and headed out for dinner we were pretty much shaking with tiredness. First impressions of HK- neon, warm, busy, enormous high-rise buildings, but the landscapes are greener than I expected.
We set off for Central and Shueng Wan, getting to grips with the easy peasy subway system on the way. In the packed Maxim’s we went to for lunch we were seated at the same table as a French girl and her mum; any awkwardness dissolved when Matt was served a large ball of unidentified meat which he didn’t order, but ate anyway. They told us they were working here for Elle Gourmet and recommended a few great places to eat and explore, which was greatly appreciated by us clueless tourists!
We took the Central-Mid-levels escalator up the steep hill towards Hollywood road- the longest escalator in the world. On either side there are stylish boutique windows making it seem as if you’re at ground level, until you look down and see they’re two or three floors up. Man Mo temple was fantastic; various cavernous rooms filled with heady sandalwood from the many incense coils burning overhead.
A couple of beers and a good night’s sleep later and we’re starting to feel like humans again. Plans for the coming days include hopefully joining in with morning Tai Chi in the parks, seeing the skyline light show at night and heading to the beach. Watch this space!