Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Luang Prabang, Phonsavan and Vang Vieng

We had been told by many people on our travels that we would love Luang Prabang, that we would splurge on food and be very spoilt! They were so right! We knew we were going to have a nice time when we upgraded to a suite in our guesthouse!

The food was so lush, we had delicious buffalo steak and fries, it was loads better than any food I've had in France and a quarter of the price!!

As well as stuffing our faces we also managed to fit in a visit to the living land farm. We had seen it on TripAdvisor as the top rated activity and thought we'd give it a whirl. The living land farm was set up as co operative by several families in a village to grow rice to feed themselves. They also grow fruit and vegetables to sell to local restaurants. They open their doors to tourists and teach you about how rice is grown and all the stages of production. We were joined by 2 Aussies who were farmers, we definitely felt inexperienced!!

We had an amazing day and got to pick, plant and plough. We also met Susan the buffalo and fed her salt, which she loved to lick from your hand! After being shown all the steps of rice production we were also shown the garden, in it they also grow tobacco so we picked, dried and smoked some!!!

We ended the day with a feast of rice for lunch, with sugar cane juice and rice wine! We also stopped at a local's house so Adam and the Aussie guy could buy some traditional Laos garb.

Whilst in Luang Prabang we participated a couple of times with a charity called Big Brother mouse. This charity was set up to help local children learn to read and write and as they get older to learn to read, write and speak English. We attended their centre to talk to those students learning English to help them with their pronunciation. They could question us about our lives and we could do the same. It was absolutely fascinating to hear about their lives and their views on the world! It was also great to help them understand English words and pronunciation.

Our night time adventures included drinking yummy wine at one of the very French influenced wine cellars and visiting the night market. I loved this night market as there was loads of  really. Interesting bits to buy such as bomb jewellery as well as the usual traveller bits.

We were very sad to leave Luang Prabang but for the sake of the weight loss plan felt it was for the best. Our next stop was to the infamous Vang Vieng but we got there via a very long, bumpy diversion to Phosovan and the Plain of Jars.The roads there and back were horrendous, a mixture of bad roads and the fact that we were driving over massive mountains. Sunrise up in the mountains whilst munching on breakfast was pretty special though!
Phonsovan was heavily bombed during the Vietnam war and has unexploded bombs everywhere. There are hundreds of plain of jars sights but only 3 have been cleared of these horrendous devices.Whilst walking to the sights and around we had to stay within markers as outside of these the land had not been properly cleared.As well as the jars the plains were marked by many craters, scars of the bombs dropped by the US.
Nobody is entirely sure why the jars are there but experts think they are ancient funeral urns. The jarsvreminered us of stone henge and probably come from a similar period. They were pretty impressive and it was lovely to be off the beaten track a bit.

We eventually made it to Vang  Vieng about 11pm and just crashed. Our days there were pretty uneventful as we didn't fancy tubing or drinking ourselves silly. The food was also pretty grim compared to Luang Prabang. Our next stop was the capital city Vientiane

Friday, 19 July 2013

Chiang Mai

We got an overnight train to Chiang Mai from Bangkok. This was an adventure in itself, holding on for dear life as trying to wee in a squat toilet on a clackety train is something I'll put down as a "necessary" travel experience.

 After an OK night sleep we reached Chiang mai around lunchtime and went to our very friendly yet slightly crazy hostel with its owner, Stella.

The next day we had chosen to go on a 2 night 3 day trek so we took it easy. Chiang Mai is a bit of a hippy retreat and there are tonnes of yoga classes etc offering to help you find yourself. As adam had some prayer beads and I had some hippy trousers we felt we didn't need any further enlightenment and settled to enjoy the yummy vegetarian food instead.

In the evening we headed to the local boxing ring to watch and bet on the Must Thai boxers. With our Singha beers in hand and our free that whiskey and cokes we settled down to an enjoyable evening.
There was a variety of fights ranging from 13 year old boys, lady fighters, adults, 5 in a ring and an international contender. Our favourite 2 had to be the 5 in a ring and the international. The 5 in a ring was hilarious as they were blindfolded and had no idea where each other was to box, this was accompanied to the beautiful tune of gangnam style! At one point one of the guys kept trying to box the referee, after trying to defend himself and simply block the referee completely floored him! The international fight was between a massive French man and a not so massive Thai guy.Before they came on we had already bet on the Thai guy and were very pleasantly surprised when we won! It made a great end to a really fun evening.

The next day we were picked up early so we could head out for our trek. It was about an hour's drive from Chiang Mai in a bumpy truck. We started the trip with a bamboo raft trip,This involved floating down the river on a few sticks of bamboo lashed together and was definitely not my favourite way to travel! We then embarked on a 4 hour trek up a mountain which was pretty painful! The heat wasn't too bad but this was simply because it was constantly raining ! The highlights were a pretty impressive waterfall and being able to pick fresh mangoes from the tree. They were delicious! We arrived at the hill tribe at around 5,extremely soggy and not in the best of moods! After a nice dinner and a couple of beers we were feeling quite mellow, our mood further improved with a bonfire! We slept in a traditional hill tribe shack on bamboo mats. Although this sounds cool it is bloody uncomfortable especially when Adam developed a fever and was absolutely boiling.

Due to the development of this fever we decided to opt for the 2 day trek instead. The trek back was a lot more enjoyable as it wasn't as wet and the scenery was fantastic. Apart from a fever and my infected toe, we were raring to go! We walked for about 4 hours with only one stop so were pretty pleased to reach the bottom. Then we had the highlight of our Chiang Mai trip, we met, fed and rode the elephants! My favourite part was when the baby elephant tried to eat my shorts! On the way back home we knew we had made the right decision to cut the trek as Adam started to throw up and his fever to rage! Needless to say our remaining time in Chiang mai was mainly spent in our hotel room!

Before we left we did manage to visit the night market and a lovely teak house which contained a yummy cafe. Due to Adam's illness and our delay in Chiang Mai we opted to be cheeky and take an hour flight to Laos rather than the 3 day boat trip!!

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Phnom Penh and Battambang

Phnom Penh is. like any capital city, noisy,busy and smelly.We stayed in a bit of a flashpacker hostel which had it's own bar and swimming pool. This was great for a refreshing dip and the dollar beer was very welcome!

Cambodia has been a country full of horrors and has suffered terribly from the rise of Pol pot and the Khmer rouge in the 1970s. Although I knew that there had been a massacre in Cambodia I didn't realise that at least 1 in 4 of the population were killed.

In Phnom Penh there is a Khmer Rouge prison (before the revolution it had been used as a school)which housed many of the Khmer rouge themselves (no one was safe) before they met their deaths. When the liberating Vietnamese entered the prison only 7 of the 20,000 inhabitants had survived. The prison is famous as it contains detailed records of the men,women and children held there and their crimes against the Khmer rouge. This was also where a few foreigners met their end as well.

On the outskirts of the city is one of hundreds of killing Fields where people were killed then dumped in mass graves. This one was mainly for the Khmer rouge and their families. Most citizens had been forced out of the capital and forced to work on farms with little food and no healthcare. Education was abolished and it was dangerous for you if you could read. If you were found out to have been a doctor, lawyer, teacher or other professional they would torture you and kill you. Others were for normal civilians who may have been educated, worn glasses or had been well off. The killing field we visited has become a monument to all those that died. You can see the dips in the soil where the mass graves were. Also as it was still recent there are bits of clothing and bone from the victims which have risen up from the ground. They collect them regularly but there is still so much constantly coming to earth. For me the worst sight was a tree which they used to kill babies and young children by bashing their heads against it.

In the centre was a pagoda full of skulls of the victims to remember them. What struck us was the brutality of the deaths of the victims. They were killed by being hacked at with farming tools etc, very horrific.

The next day we decided to visit a wildlife park with beetle nut tours.It was a great day and we learnt loads of facts about the animals. The animals have all been rescued and are unable to go back into the wild due to injury or as they were born in captivity and held as pets. We got to get really close to the animals and fed the deer, the otters ( Adam was in seventh heaven as they are his favorite animals) and the elephant. We also watched the elephant having a bath which was very funny. The gibbons were my favourite especially as one loved having her back scratched!!She also had a gorgeous baby who I gave a stroke to.
We had a delicious lunch which the guy who showed us round wife had cooked!It was a great day and I highly recommend it if you ever go.The next day we headed to Battambang

Battambang is Cambodia's second city and slightly less touristy than Siam Reap. It was a very relaxed place and great to wonder around. We spent one day pottering around the town visiting charity cafes and the river. The second day we had a full day tour with a tuk Tuk driver named Tong. He was a fountain of knowledge and we learn loads about Battambang and Cambodia in general.
Our first stop was the bamboo trains which make Battambang famous. They are literally a bamboo sheet with a motor on the back that runs on rails. It was really fun, slightly scary and very bumpy!

Our next stop was a temple on top of a hill (we had to climb a looooot of steps) it was a great view and a fun temple to explore. We then headed to a village that has 2 massive trees full of fruit bats!!The bats were absolutely huge!

We then headed to another big hill which had on the top a temple and a killing cave. To get up we went on the back of a motorcycle which was really scary! The cave was estimated to have been the last destination for about 10,000 people.

Our last stop was at the bottom of the hill to watch thousands of bats leave to go hunting. It was pretty spectacular.

 We both had an amazing time in Cambodia and spoke with some interesting people. I am glad that we were able to learn about the tragedy that took place there. I also hope that the democracy and human rights there are able to improve. There is only really 1 political party (as they have all the money) and this is headed by  ex Khmer rouge. There is very little freedom of press ( an outspoken journalist was recently killed) and people have little access to the internet. The country is still incredibly poor, many children have aids,there are many landmine victims and sadly the sex industry and human trafficking are prevalent. Last year over 60,000 children died as they didn't have access to clean water.