I am currently half way down through Vietnam, and yet the next post I am due to produce covers Bangkok, a place I was in several weeks ago. I don’t want to be constantly playing catch up, so I’ll condense the last few weeks in to a single post. So, Bangkok.
Sleaze, corruption and dirt all spring to mind when talking about Bangkok and yet my own personal experience of the place was not quite as extreme. The infamous Khaosan Road is more a street of overpriced bars than the hustler run red light district it seems to want to be. Good Phad Thai can be found for pennies from the street carts all along the road. I went out for a few drinks with an English guy who was in my hostel and he wanted to know if I was interested in seeing the “real Bangkok”. Given I think I was sure what he was insinuating, I declined. Of course, several Changs later and we were in a taxi to the seedier parts of the city, namely Soi Cowboy. At this point I was entirely curious about what these bars would be like. It’s not quite ping pong show territory, but not far off it. Girls in thongs gyrate in about as bored a manner as it is possible to do so on poles and behind glass partitions while sweaty western men line the bar accompanied by a giggling girl half their age or less. A braver man than I might sample further, but that was enough for me. We went to a couple of other but similar bars where all the girls were far more interested in checking their phones than dancing around. Too much seediness for me, and I’d lost my English companion, so I jumped in a taxi to head back to the cleaner climes of Khaosan.
Sightseeing in Bangkok mostly involves a couple of temples, the grand palace and wandering around the alleyways that make up the old part of the city. It’s very atmospheric but I don’t understand the appeal in general. I only had two nights here, and thank God for that. Then it was on to a cheap over night bus to Chiang Mai, all the while thinking about the dwindling amounts of time I had left on my visa. [Aside: I had the misfortune of losing my camera in Laos before taking the pictures from the card. Subsequently I have no pictures of Bangkok and very few of Chiang Mai.]
For as long as I’d been planning on visiting Thailand, people have been telling me “get to the north!”, but the pull of the beaches was too strong. Of course they were all right, and north Thailand is dripping in charm and Chiang Mai epitomises it. A beautiful walled city, the old town is awash with atmospheric alleyways, high class restaurants and bars, and cafes line the streets. There are markets everyday and just outside the city, trekking opportunities abound. Live music and art shows are everywhere – in short, it is a very different beast to the south where culture is more likely to be found in a pot of yoghurt than in any of the places tourists visit.
Chiang Mai is full of expats, and it’s no wonder. This gives the city a very different feel to the rest of Thailand, but also makes it very liveable and a great place to chill out in a different style than one might on a beach on an island elsewhere. There’s a lot of fun to be had as well with the small number of bars that open late attracting the large backpacker crowd that is otherwise lost in the herds of older tourists. Now I will be one of those pesky people who tell others “go north! go quickly before you run out of time!”
Time was always on my mind by this point. I was less than a week away from overstaying my Thai visa, but I had one more place to visit. Pai isn’t on many people’s itinerary but once you meet people who have been, they won’t shut up about it. I am one of these people. The drive from Chiang Mai is an hour of noisy traffic followed by two hours of blissful road switch backing up and over beautiful rolling hills until finally, it levels out along the valley floor and leads all the way in to the little town of Pai.
For years, this place has been a hippy hangout that was at risk of being inundated by the drug scene that often followed the hippy invasion of a place. It was turned around a fair bit so now it is a touristy, but still very pleasant place to spend a few days. More than one person has arrived wanting to stay a couple of nights and ended up lounging around for weeks or months at a time. It’s easy to do, and life is easy in Pai. Sometimes a lack of activities is just what makes a place so appealing, so hiring a scooter and tearing around the genuine countryside with your new friends that you will inevitably make, is a pleasure you can’t pay for. I adore the people I met in Pai, and it was here more than anywhere else that I realised that South East Asian travel contains two very different sets of people. Meeting nice people is perfectly possible in the south, but here everyone you meet is a smiling bundle of loveliness.
With a day to spare, my Thai visa was finally extinguished so I headed to Laos to take the slow boat. The tours here are fairly cookie cutter: a bus to a border town to stay in the worst hotel in the world (actually kind of hilarious), a border crossing and then a boat to Luang Prabang, stopping at Pakbeng half way there. Cruising along the often turbulent Mekong river is a delightful way to proceed, and if the care free Australian girl you are sitting with offers you half her joint, then who are you to deny that? There surely isn’t a better way to see the country side sliding by than with a light smile and a lighter head. Elephants lope along the river banks and native village children stop playing to wave to the passing westerners. The beer you brought along has long since warmed up, but has never been so welcome. You talk, you sleep, you read and you pass the time. It’s lovely.
Luang Prabang is the premier tourist destination in Laos, and is a hit with French tourists in the region. The average age of the LP visitor is probably 50+, and as such the accommodation options are geared towards fancy spa hotels and the like, as are the restaurants. This is Laos however, so even the most exclusive dining destination is unlikely to break the bank. If you are over £10 per head, you are doing something wrong. Or ordering imported wines. Probably the same thing.
The town is a beautifully preserved colonial masterpiece that has as much Laotian influence as it does French. There are Buddhist temples everywhere and the old home of the Laotian royal family. That the King and his family were exiled to hard labour and re-education somewhere in north rural Laos after the revolution is not mentioned. Soon after they were sent to the countryside, they were never heard of again. Officially all of them died of malaria, but no one has provided any proof. All that remains are the palace buildings and his old car collection out the back which consists of a handful of obscenely oversized American saloon cars from the 1950s. Next to the palace is the temple that holds the solid Golden Buddha, the Pha Bang after which the city is named. Nearby you can visit the local waterfalls which are stunningly beautiful and probably the single best thing you can do when in the area. Make sure you bring your swimming gear and plunge in to the icy blue waters. You’d be mad not to!
There is a curfew in Laos of around eleven in the evening, which is flouted by no-one in Luang Prabang, but there is some kind of loop hole whereby the local bowling alley is allowed to stay open and sell alcohol until three or four in the morning. Needless to say, backpackers all flock there in the evening to strike some pins and drink some beer. It’s a unique experience and an absolute “must do” if you visit the town.
Vang Vieng is an infamous town among the back packing crowd and has been for many years. Nestled below stunning limestone karst scenery, this dusty ugly little town occupied a very specific niche among travellers until recently. Hiring a tractor inner tube and floating down the Nam Song river while stopping at the various bars was long a right of passage in Laos. Imagine hundreds of completely drunk young people throwing themselves in to the river – often from rope swings and slides – while simultaneously off their gourds on mushroom shakes and grass, and it’s a wonder that no one was hurt. Oh wait, yes they were. At a rate of one every two weeks. That’s a dead tourist every two weeks, mind. Some people would say it was pressure from the Chinese who are investing in the town; others would say it was due to to an expose on Australian TV but whatever the case, in 2012 the Laos Government stepped in and put a stop to the tubing. Government troops entered the town and burnt down all the bars along the river and put a stop to it for good… or so they thought. Today, the locals still rent out the tubes and young people wanting to get drunk and float down the Nam Song can still do so, but it’s worlds apart from the old days. There are few if any drugs to be seen at the four bars that are allowed to operate and you can be sure that these bars are owned by high ranking local police officers.
That said, Vang Vieng is still still an extremely seedy place. On the first night, my phone was stolen from my dorm room; my friend had her bag snatched from her hands; a girl was reportedly robbed and raped… Boorish drunks (mostly British you’ll be glad to hear) roam the town after dark chanting stupid shit like “where are all the fit birds at?” at the top of their voices like a rugby team on the piss. It’s deeply embarrassing. There are bars where you can still get mushroom shakes (I’m not going to deny I partook…) and “happy” pizzas and the like, though this is by no means unique to VV. I saw it all over southern Thailand for example. The scenery here is beautiful, but equally or more gorgeous views can be found in a host of different places. VV is slowly changing, with the balance shifting towards Chinese and Korean tourists – something that the locals are surely grateful for, if only because they spend more money than westerners. What I am trying to say is that unless you really, really want to go tubing, feel free to skip Vang Vieng.
My only other stop in Laos was in a sleep little village called Nong Khiaow. Situated to the north east of Luang Prabang, there are a handful of Bungalow resorts, cheap restaurants and activities ranging from kayaking to mountain biking. I intended to trek and bike and boat, but really spent the best part of a week lounging in a hammock, eating irrationally excellent Indian food and reading copious amounts of Game Of Thrones. The most exciting thing to happen was a forest fire that took half the mountainside behind the town. No property damaged and it was beautiful to watch at night. Nong Khiaow is a gorgeous place to relax, but not too social. After six days I was more than ready to get moving, so it was off to Hanoi. Things couldn’t be more different there.