Saturday, 25 February 2012

Friends & Elephants in Northern Thailand

Although we were really sad to leave, our last few days in Laos weren't quite as care-free or relaxed as the rest of our visit. After a few days in beautiful Luang Prabang, a small city full of European-esk buildings and decked out in colourful fairy lights, we headed off on the 'slow boat' - a two day trek up the Mekong River to the Thai border. The journey itself was beautiful, cruising slowly through fields, forests and small villages. Luck wasn't on our side however. Firstly we'd totally misjudged how much money we had left & managed to run out with pennies in our pocket and not an ATM for miles around. Thankfully we had just enough money to pay a cheap hotel for the overnight stay & for both days of the boat journey, but not enough for food so spent 2 days sharing cups of plain, cold noodles. Thank goodness for our electric water heater.

When heading out for day number 2 on the boat it became apparent that my flip-flops had been nicked from outside our hotel room, not a nice find when your other shoes are at the bottom of your bag & you're going to be late for the boat. Bare foot it was for me then. All this time we were presuming that a boat to the border crossing would arrive in time to actually cross the border – that makes sense, right? Well we were wrong, which was unfortunate considering it was the last day of our visa and meant we would be overstaying our time in Laos. Luckily this particular town had a surplus of ATM's all more than willing to give us the 200,000 kip we had to pay in fines the next morning.

All was made well when we arrived in Thailand and were greeted by some kind of colourful procession. It turned out it was the first ever 'peace walk' for the Mekong – a 9 day, 119km trek alongside the river being made by nearly 100 monks and nuns. Seeing them happily stroll bare-footed along the roadside made my loss of flip-flops seem very insignificant. We walked the 1km to our bus stop with them and the streets were lined with locals donating food & drinks to the monks and nuns - it was all very beautiful and most definitely peaceful.


Our next stop was Chiang Mai where we were meeting our friend Natalie and her uni friend Rishi. We had a couple of days to find our way round the city before they arrived (ie locate the knitting shops) and managed to buy ourselves a new camera after being without one for a couple of weeks. Hurrah! Chiang Mai is a delightful city and a very easy place to the old part of town there are endless amounts of narrow back streets lined with cute cafes, cheap restaurants, English bookshops, and cheap but nice guest houses. There's also plenty to do & we soon learned that a week would pass easily without us getting itchy feet.

Camper van coffee shop!

With the arrival of guests who were only staying a week we'd decided to allow ourselves a bit of a 'treat week' – a holiday inside our holiday. Basically it meant we were allowed to pay to go in buildings rather than just looking at them from the outside, and that we had a beer each in the evening rather than one to share. Oh what luxury! We also wanted to make the week as fun as possible for Nat & Rishi and so found lots of exciting things for us to see and do. Our first priority was to have a Thai Massage, which wasn't difficult to find and very good value at £3 for an hour. Next on our list was a cookery course, where we learnt to make a number of classic dishes including spring rolls, Pad Thai and curry.

Isn't that scrambled eggs Rishi?!
My Pad Thai

My friend Natalie has written a wonderful and inspiring list of 100 things she'd like to do in her lifetime, one of which is to see elephants (outside of a zoo). There's no better place than Northern Thailand, as once upon a time they were used regularly here as working animals in the logging industry. Unfortunately with the increased use of machinery, the majority of these elephants (who can live up to aged 70) have found themselves redundant but unable to return to the wild. A number of centres have been set up around the north to rehouse the animals & provide work (mainly in the tourist industry) for them and their Mahouts (trainers). We were slightly sceptical about how ethical these places would be, but after a lot of deliberating found one that seemed to fit the bill. 

I don't think I'd quite realised what we'd signed ourselves up for until the next day when I was being hauled 2 ½ metres up onto the neck of a huge elephant (although apparently he was just a teenager). I'd like to pretend that I took to it naturally but I'm not going to lie, I was terrified. It was amazing to be in their presence but I was so much more content being on the ground, a good few metres away just in case one decided to roll over & squash me underneath.

Contemplating the down hill

Rishi was a natural

As the morning went on, we learnt the tricks of being a Mahout – how to ride the animal with a few simple commands and gentle taps behind their ears. I was still pretty scared by lunch time & not really looking forward to the hours trek we had planned that afternoon. Thankfully one of the mahouts was on the elephant with me (I think he found my fear very amusing) and after a few minutes on the flat I finally felt comfortable. It was also reassuring seeing the others on elephants around me, not that they could have done much had my elephant decided to stampede through the forest. Luckily that didn't happen and we strolled peacefully through the jungle and down into the river where we swam & bathed the elephants. 

By that point me & my elephant (Son Chai) had an understanding & the worst that happened was he sprayed me with water. As the trek came to an end I was sad to say goodbye to Son Chai and was really grateful for the experience I'd had.  I can't get over what beautiful, graceful animals they are, especially considering how enormous they can be. 

The next day Rishi headed off to Malaysia and we went northward to the riverside town of Pai – a laid back place even more easy going than Chiang Mai. It was great to be in the countryside & it didn't take long for us to hire bikes and head off into the hills. Me & John have quite a major bike ride planned a few months down the line & so I saw this as a bit of training & chance to show him what I'm made of...turns out I need a lot, lot more practice if I'm going to make it home in one piece. Our journey to a local waterfall took us about 3 hours to get just 10km as it was up hill all the way & many rests were needed.   It was worth it when we arrived though & for the downhill journey back to camp.

Unfortunately our weeks 'holiday' has come to an end & Natalie is heading home, but its been great fun and we've felt like proper tourists for the first time in ages. More of our pics can be found here.

We've got a couple of rest days before heading up to Chiang Rai where we'll be volunteering for a month at the New Life Foundation, a rehabilitation centre for people recovering from addictions and stress. We're really looking forward to it and to being fixed in one place for a while. First things first though, I'm off to write my list of 100 things to do before I die...


Friday, 10 February 2012

North by North North

We're working our way north through Laos, doing a bit of unavoidable but enjoyable backtracking.  It seems as though there's only really one (?)  major north/south road with any surface that is fit for traffic (no trains here no no), running up the western edge of the country to the mid-section and capital.  And so when I say our enjoyable backtracking, I mean epic rolling voyages of local chicken-buses flinstone'ing along at a supremely leisurely pace to avoid being shaken apart by the road.  We notched up a serene 11 hours for a 368km trip-  stop off’s to load and unload a LOT of cabbages, chickens, rice, and 2 motorbikes were partly to blame. 21mph average.  Seems freight and passengers are combined..

pity the passengers on this one

Our destination was Tha Khek, a stop off point to get some sleep.  Arriving in the dark (journey was timetabled 6 hours, was 11, see above) we found a nice place, with probably definitely the best room we've had in months. And cable telly (I watched Universal Soldier: The Return – rubbish).  So we stayed in, watched that for 2 days and made some new plans.

There's a 450km motorbike circuit, known as The Loop, done by a lot of travellers coming through this area. It takes in several smallish caves, a lake, dirt tracks, small villages, jungle, more off road dirt roads, an absolutely giant cave, highway riding and then home.  We'd not planned doing anything like this, and had never done anything on proper bikes before, but it sounded great, quite easy and you get a free map clearly drawn by a child to follow! What could go wrong? Its a 4 day / 3 night route- all we needed was a Bike and some glasses.  I ducked into a market and came out with this pair.

Laura: “hey cool! Just like the A-Team!”
“Yeah! like Murdoch?”
“yeah! Oh No.. not the a-team, Village People”
“that is a very different thing.”

We soon met a nice group who were on the same route, and we had ourselves a learner bike gang.  Petrol is sold from the usual stations in towns, as well as from glass whiskey bottles on road side stands by children for a small profit, and has an attractive reddish colour, like strawberry Fanta.

The bikes took an absolute and thorough beating, but held up.  Korean 100cc manual's are where its at, according to the locals who all seem to ride them too.  I think a dirt bike would have been a lot more suitable though.  Id hate to rent these bikes out to grinning tourists and set them loose on the roads we were on, with a quick 2 minute driving lesson (“he fine! No problem!”).  But as always I love the refreshing (non-european) 'lets just work it out', confident approach here.  A lot like my  cycle trip through Mexico 5 years ago. Our electrics did blow out on the first day though, after making it sing a bit loud on a short solo ride without Laura on the back ;)  It had a kick start on it too so we were OK for the rest of the trip.  It was a really fun time, and well worth the effort.  Here's some pictures...

The cave itself (on our day 3) is 7km long, and explored in boats of 3 people, plus 2 guides who push and pull the boat over the shallow parts.  I’ve been in several caves before, but this is by far the biggest.  Parts of it are cathedral sized spaces, and is a real mind blower.  We rented a good torch to fire around in the unlit  gloom.

Unfortunately our second camera is now broken as well.  I’ve had it into 6 pieces and back together again, but it still doesn’t work.  So that’s something we need to sort out asap.  Not really an expense we wanted :( Neither of us have worked since April last year, which is a funny thought, and hard on the ever decreasing finances.

We had a brief stay in the capital Vientiane, mostly occupied by arranging our Thai visa, so we can re-enter into the north with a full 60 day permit, instead of the walk-in 15.  Anyway, that went quite smoothly (just a lot of queueing) -  all in order officer.  We're presently in a little bamboo bungalow in Vang Vienne, 4 hours north of Vientiane, home of the notorious booze fuelled river tubing set-ups.  We are mainly getting our kicks from our hammock and eating nice food instead.  Too old for that now! It's a young man's game ;)

'Beer Laos' holds something like a 90% market share here apparently, and is an omnipresent Laos feature.  I think you could drink it in school and it would be OK.  Nice too :) “Drink of the wholehearted people” is the innocent tag line.  

I’ve never been in a country where everyone seems to get up uniformly at 5 or 6am and start banging and playing and motoring around.  Truly living on the sun's schedule.  It is the land of a thousand cockerels, and is a rude but natural soundtrack to each morning.

Laos is treating us very well indeed.

Next up, Luang Prabang - a long bus ride, do think of us...