Monday, 19 January 2015

The Rocky Road Rollercoaster

Guest blog from number 1 daughter which goes to prove two things: firstly, 
that she is a much better writer than me, and secondly, that I may not be 
having the best fun in the world but she certainly is! Love it! 
After six weeks of cetacean stranding in the sun, rubbing well-oiled and rotund 
bellies with Machiavellian glee whilst our brain cells dehydrated one by one, I 
woke up by the pool one day and could not remember my name. It was time to 

(Our time in Phuket was not quite like this, more on this in the next blog).

Armed with a backpack and a rucksack (no points for figuring out who carried 
what), we flew domestic with Air Asia from Phuket to Chiang Mai, taking all 
aviation tips learnt during the Christmas break - resisting texting our families 
"Goodbye forever" or asking for a plate with our nuts.

Too soon? Sorry.

When we arrived in Chiang Mai, we flagged down a tuk-tuk for 200 baht. This 
was Alex's virgin ride with a tuk-tuk which required him to pull roller-coaster 
selfies and inspect the mechanics of our vehicle at length - largely in our mate 
Tully's honour. Surprisingly, this was the smoothest and best behaved ride I 
have taken on a tuk-tuk which leaves me feeling uneasy about our trip to India 
in the coming months.

Bypassing the centre of town we arrived on the outskirts of Chiang Mai at the 
Swiss-Lanna lodge - a wooden chalet building owned by yes, a Swedish-Thai 
couple. Our room consisted of two single beds, at opposite ends of a long room 
so we opted to communicate via buddy sign language developed during our 
Open Water diving course in Phuket. Mature.

Hiring a hot pink motorbike and wearing matching helmets (there was no 
alternative), we rode into the centre and lunched on enchiladas at the Cat Cafe, 
which had no feline decor, no pets and the chicken tasted decidedly of, well 
chicken. We then took a walk within the old walls of the city. It has been 7 years 
since I last stepped foot in Chiang Mai (with the previous boyfriend) and it feels 
larger and more modern than I remember. Whilst the green leafy streets (or 
sois) remain narrow and guesthouses and bookshops nestle together, small 
modern coffee shops and art galleries now pop up on each corner. Traffic has 
become much more four-wheeled and I got turned away for a second time from 
the largest Wat in the city - for wearing shorts. After a brief stop for some supper,
 we retired to bed early - the room thankfully too dark for us to resume our 

Saving much of Chiang Mai and its sights until our next visit, we got into a 
minibus provided by 'Travel Hub' the next day which was jam packed with 
Chinese tourists. They have an unfortunate reputation for being as loud as a 
foghorn and this was only proven right for our eight hour trip to Chiang Kong 
which rests on the Thai-Laos border. We stopped several times on this trip, 
once at the 'Full-House Guesthouse' which sat precisely half-way between 
Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai in the middle of nowhere. Here was an orange PVC 
swimming pool and shocking pink bungalows, surrounded by farmers working on 
paddy fields. Its name was somewhat inaccurate, given that we saw nobody else 
excepting the tourists that decamped from the minibus to buy snacks before we 
jumped back in to continue our journey.

Our next stop found us outside a glistening white palace, 'Wat Rong Khun', 
where one could walk over the 'Bridge of Rebirth' up to the 'Gates of Heaven' 
and a temple interior which has murals depicting the Terminator, Freddy Kruger,
 Michael Jackson enflamed in orange amongst other devil faces. Other images 
there were Harry Potter and Hello Kitty, which added to the whole confusion 

The border crossing was thankfully relatively pain free and we were happy to see 
the majority of tourists leave at this point, choosing to stay overnight in Chiang 
Kong before crossing the border in the morning. The reason for this is that the 
most popular route to Luang Prabang is a two day, one night slow boat, which we 
agonised over doing and eventually rejected - in part due to a horror story in a 
blog I found online. Once in Huay Xai in Laos, we climbed into a large VIP bus 
shared by only six Lao passengers and travelled to Luang Nam Tha - our first 
destination in Laos. Using a torch, I read my book whilst Alex muttered in Lao to 
the karaoke television under his breath.

The road winded through the Luang Nam Ha NPA (national park) smoothly and 
after four hours we arrived in dark in what looked like a deserted town. Only 
eight degrees and wearing shorts and t-shirts, we huddled into the nearest 
guesthouse and booked the last room available - the double VIP suite for 
100,000 kip (around 9 pounds). We then took our starved selves into the only 
open restaurant at this hour, a garish flashing fastfood diner and listened to, 
bizarrely, Eiffel 65 "I'm blue, da ba di, da ba die" on repeat whilst munching on 
noodles and pizza.

Luang Nam Tha is certainly what one would call "off the beaten path" as we 
discovered in the morning - a sleepy town with one main street surrounded by 
the mountainous forests of the national park. Mists swirl in the morning and 
evening and rise to a blazing heat and blue skies at around noon. Ramshackle 
corrugated iron garages sit next to cement block houses and wooden shacks 
with thin strips of bamboo covering the exterior walls. We hired mountain bikes 
and rode up the hills past a wat overlooking the town, nodding to orange-robed 
monks and passing tiny villages and construction sites before reaching another 
wat - and climbing 175 steps to the top. A narrow track to the left took us past 
the airport strip and to the Boat Landing Guesthouse where we feasted on 
Kaeng Sen Lon (soup) and a noodle dish Mee Haeng.

The afternoon found us on the tiniest and bumpiest of tracks I have had the 
fortune to ride on, past acres of fields with huts on stalks provided for shade. 
The few locals we passed stared unapologetically, but all with a smile and 
the greeting "Sa Ba Dee" - hello. I caused a traffic jam by refusing adamantly 
to ride over a precarious bridge crossing made of only nine thin rows of 
bamboo and where gaps showed a rushing river below. This was only made 
worse by two motorcycles following behind me making the bridge more 
concave than convex. By the time we reached the sadly unremarkable Bam 
Nam Dee waterfall, after over 30 kilometres of cycling, our buttocks were on 
fire which could be observed by the wider strides we took for several days 

Tourists here are unmistakably older than usual, retired couples and nomadic 
gangs whom all - and I mean all - have dreadlocks and those disgusting baggy 
pants with elephants on them. We steered clear of them by taking a kayaking 
trip down the Nam Ha river the next day. Dining on a breakfast at our new 
guesthouse - Zuela, scrambled egg with tomato and onion and the lightest hot 
baguettes I have ever had the fortune to eat, we bundled up warm and walked 
along the main street to "Jungle Eco-Tour Adventures", paying 280, 000 kip for 
the day's experience.

Kong, our guide was like us - 29 years old, spoke pretty good English and bore 
no likeness to the famous primate. Around 5"3 tall, bundled up in a black puffa 
jacket, football shorts and a Liverpool FC baseball cap, him and Alex could have 
been brothers from another. He also has 9 siblings which apparently is 

We jumped into an open backed truck and went to the morning market where 
Kong bought some dubious looking food that was mashed together in plastic 
bags. He also bought sticky rice and oranges, so I knew I wouldn't starve. 
Following this, we shivered our cacks off heading south past the airport strip to 
a derelict looking guesthouse where a kayak, an inflatable kayak, helmets and 
life jackets of a murky pooey brown/grey sick pallor were thrown in.

A few kilometres down and we vacated our handsome ride and bravely 
shed our warmest clothing in the chill and stood by our inflatable kayak 
whilst Kong gave us a 30 second instrumental talk on the use of paddles. 
I gave up with my broken lifejacket and we both climbed into our kayaks.

As you remember, Alex and I are not the best of kayaking partners and 
we had a considerable number of rapids and rocks to avoid with all the 
knowledge that Kong had imparted to us. The first part was relatively 
peaceful but the inflatable left little wriggle room and freezing water was 
splashing on bare legs leaving for hot bouts of temper and a consistent 
bellicose repartee back and forth.

Luckily, five kilometres down the sun came out and we stopped at a Lancen 
tribe village where we saw carpenters building wooden joints for a house, palm 
being knitted together for the roof and a well provided by a German funded 
water project. We also met the wife of the tribal chief who had ruled for over 
twenty years - unusual as a new one was usually voted in every three.

For dedicated birdwatcher and father, Sean O'Hara

Back in the kayak, we hit some steamy rapids where I did not steer the back 
of the kayak to Alex's satisfaction and left him soaked with water and the boat 
semi-submerged. It was glorious! Trees soared above us and Alex clicked away 
with the camera, documenting kingfishers and other sights. As the river curved 
around, we parked the kayaks on a sandy bank of stones whilst Kong climbed 
up a banana tree and hacked down some leaves which would serve for plates 
for our lunch. The dubious plastic bags were emptied onto the palm leaves 
alongside some river seaweed (dried and bought at the market of course) and 
sticky rice was dumped in front of us. I waited patiently for the chopsticks but 
apparently the Lao eat with their fingers and so we dug in. The questionable 
food in front of us turned out to be minced meat, some noodle vegetable 
mixture and this creamy green vomit which tasted better than it looked. Drinking 
water, eating satsumas in the sun - it was a gorgeous moment.

The final section of rapids done with rather full bellies would definitely be 
considered 'white-water' and Alex who has never done white-water rapids before 
sniffed his nose at the hungry river and sharp pointed rocks whilst having a 
complete paddy. At one point, we completely misangled the kayak and went 
plunging into the banks ducking branches and plants before the river finally 
subsided. Such an incident did not go corrected by Kong, rather he just waited 
patiently as we pulled twigs out of our hair and we were left praying that we 
would not make the same mistake.

The evening found us dining on BeerLao and more pizza (they seem to love their 
pizza here) before jumping in another truck to the bus station outside of town and 
climbing into a VIP bus with numerous Israeli (?) and Chinese tourists for the 
overnight trip to Luang Prabang. This was the hairiest ride either of us have ever 
taken in our lives, where the driver saw no cause to slow down for potholes or 
avoid any narrow crevice as we descended down the mountains. Getting any 
sleep, between the Israeli tourists playing musical chairs and the bus teetering 
on every curve was nigh impossible but I managed to catch a few nods before 
we all had a hair-raising moment with a jolt that left us suspended in mid-air for 
several seconds. Alex spent the whole night after this, with his back ramrod poker 
straight praying for our lives whilst I, hearing aids off, buried under my sarong and 
tried to pretend the whole thing wasn't happening.

So at 4am in the middle of no where, knock-kneed, we climbed out of the bus and 
entered Luang Prabang by tuk-tuk. Every place was closed and an unearthly 
silence greeted us as we walked down past closed guesthouses by the river 
under street lights. At 5.30am, we peered round the open door of a bakery, 
where the owner took pity on us and served us early with hot coffee and Pan Au 
Chocolat. We cried big hot salty tears over our breakfast, incredibly luxuriant and 
delicious whilst thanking the heavens that we were alive.

Next time, we may well have to choose the slowboat route. But all in the life of a 

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