We decided to skip the capital of Laos, Vientiane, as we had not heard great things about it. The plan was to go straight from Veng Vieng to Hanoi, Vietnam. Now, upon researching how to get there, we came across numerous blogs and articles online that have dubbed this trip as "the journey from hell" for various reasons that included machete attacks, dodgy cargo and unsafe driving. This didn't deter us as it was the cheapest way to get there by far and we thought we could have some stories to tell by the end of it.
So here we were thinking that we were skipping Vientiane. The journey began by being shuttled on a mini van through the winding village roads of stilt houses made of woven bamboo from Vang Vieng to none other than Vientiane. It was a nice scenic way to see the village life of Laos. The mini van dropped us off at the bus station in the capital where we awaited about an hour for the bus to Hanoi. There were numerous busses parked in the station and we were trying to guess which one we would go on...low and behold, when the bus arrived, it wasn't even a bus, but a tuk tuk which all the backpackers were piled into. We had no idea what was going on but we followed the herd. The tuk tuk was rammed and Perry and I were last to get on, with no room left for us to sit, we stood on the external back step directly above the rear bumper of the tuk tuk and hung on for dear life as the driver sped through Vientiane to get us to where we had no clue.
Driving through Vientiane, trying not to fall off the tuk tuk, we were so glad we were not actually staying here. It was filthy with dirt flying everywhere and just really polluted. There didn't seem to be anything worth visiting. We must have been driving for at least half an hour (which felt like an eternity hanging off the back of the tuk tuk) when we arrived at another massive bus station and were directed to a bus. We tried to get on so we could get good seats before the rest of the backpackers got there (we were first off the tuk tuk so first to reach the bus) but there seemed to be some chaos ensuing what with chickens in cages in the luggage compartments and nobody speaking English. They wouldn't let us on for some reason and once everybody arrived there, they made us exchange our tickets for little pieces of scrap paper. They finally began letting us on but gave us no choice as to where we could sit. They shuffled all of the backpackers to the back of the bus near the toilets and pointed to the seat they wanted us to sit in.
I need to mention that this was a sleeper bus, the first of its kind that we had encountered. The seats are almost completely reclined and the rows have 1 to 3 beds neighboring each other (some attached). There are two levels: top and bottom. The top is a bit more spacious and the bottom a bit more claustrophobic: both equally narrow with a little cubby hole that you place your fit in and no space to put backpacks or hand luggage.
So we were all pushed to the back and made to sit in seats they allocated. Luckily, Perry and I both scored top bunks. Unluckily for others, they had no choice but to squeeze into the bottom, even though there were plenty of empty spaces in the front section, which were reserved for the locals and which allowed them to spread out and relax. A couple of the backpackers confronted the staff member that was directing us to the back and demanded a top seat as there were plenty near the front to which the bus staff replied with a very childish and comical "NO"! I wish I got it on video. All that was missing was a stamping of his feet on the floor! It was very entertaining to watch as one of the backpackers called him an asshole to which the staff member had no clue what he was saying. We were all quite shocked though as to how they had treated all the foreigners and shoved us to the back.
We tried to settle into our "beds". As the bus took off for what was scheduled to be a very long journey, the TV screens turned on and the speakers started blaring some loud dance music. And when I say loud, I mean like nightclub loud. We were all just looking at each other and laughing at first but after a while we were just annoyed and confused as to why it was so necessary to have the music so loud. We figured it was either to annoy us backpackers or to keep the driver awake. Instead of showing a TV show or movie, the screens were showing something called "Beauty Leg" which was just a bunch of lingerie models strutting the catwalk. We thought maybe this was also to keep the driver awake. Eventually the music on the loudspeakers and the "Beauty Leg" turned off and the music videos went on: Gangnam Style and other K-pop favorites. It did have us giggling and I did find some songs to add to my iPod. I forgot to mention that the bus had some crazy neon/disco lights as well which added to the bizarreness of the whole experience.
At 2am, after sleeping on an off on the swaying bus, we arrived at the Laos/Vietnam border (one of them anyway)…we arrived at 2am, and it didn’t open til 6am. We had prepared ourselves for this as we knew this would happen from the research we had done. Many complained why wouldn’t we just depart 4 hours later rather than stay put for 4 hours. We figured it was a chance for the driver to sleep…and also for us to sleep because it is not easy to sleep on a moving sleeper bus with the swaying and often fast speeds that make you feel like you will fall off the top bed. We tried to get some sleep but with the bus parked and engine off, this meant no air conditioning so it was just too stuffy to sleep comfortably (in an already uncomfortable environment). The border was due to open at 6am. We stood waiting and around 7am, the border opened. Our group from our bus were the first in line but that didn’t seem to matter as hoards of bus “leaders” would come up and shove a stack of 20-30 passports through the border official’s little window. This got me furious and after a couple of “leaders” doing this and the official not seem to care that we were stood directly in front of him, I blocked others from cutting in and if they did stick their stack of passports through the window, I would reach in, grab them and give them back to them and, with bulging eyes, say “NO, WAIT YOUR TURN”. Yeah that’s right! Don’t mess with me! I should have really been a bit more careful seeing as I don’t know these people and what they are capable of doing and seeing as I was at a border, but the whole process was just ridiculous.
After what seemed like forever, we got our passports back and exited Laos. Now all we had to do was cross into Vietnam! We had to go by foot as the buses had to be searched and so on. So when we exited Laos, we walked…and walked…and walked…and walked and finally after about 20 minutes (with heavy backpacks and walking uphill, this seemed much longer), we reached the Vietnam border. Now we just had to hand over our passports and enter…but of course, those damn bus “leaders” were back with their stacks of passports and this time, bills stuck inside each one to bribe the border officer with. Not again! I did get furious at one point but luckily the officer already had our passports so there was nothing much we could do. Just wait and wait and wait. We finally all got our passports back and then we had to wait for the bus to return. This seemed to take ages as well! Eventually it arrived and eventually we were able to board and continue on to Hanoi. The entire border crossing process took 3 hours! It was quite ridiculous but it was nice to get some “fresh” air.
We still had many hours to go until we reached Hanoi. It was about 10am once the border crossing process was complete. Perry and I had no Vietnamese currency so we couldn’t buy food. We had packed a bunch of snacks that we bought in Laos but really wanted something more substantial. We had to just try and sleep to keep our minds off the hunger. At around 7pm we reached Hanoi - about 30 hours after starting the journey in Veng Vieng. Not going to lie, we did want to scream by the end of it, but it was time to explore Vietnam and most importantly: EAT!
I don’t know if I would recommend this journey to others. Yes it is a big money saver but also a time waster and maybe more hassle than it is worth. If you book a flight in advance, you can get a really good deal but if you would rather go the bus route, at least you will have some stories to tell by the end of it!
A Bit of Thailand and Laos
The moment we touched down in Bangkok, it was like a breath of fresh air. Seeing a nice clean airport with clean toilets was just a huge relief from the uncleanliness that was Kolkata airport. And just a huge relief from the toilet situation in India in general.
We were meant to couchsurf in Bangkok but unfortunately we were let down and ended up staying in a hostel instead. We had a private room and it was super modern and clean, and most importantly air conditioned because the bottom line is: Bangkok felt like a sauna!
We did not want to venture far because it was just uncomfortably hot so our short time in Bangkok consisted of shopping, eating, shopping, eating, more shopping and more eating (we are returning in a couple of weeks so will get to see more). The malls are all air conditioned and the items for sale are so cute and relatively cheap and the food is just so cheap and tasty! And by food, I mean the street food (which is primarily street meat). They seem to be quite inventive with some of the street food and the way they cook the food as well. We really fell in love with the fruit stands. They are everywhere and you select what fruit you want and they chop it up for you and prepare it to consume immediately. Very refreshing and very filling! They serve it with a packet of...well we haven't completely figured out what it is, but it tastes like sugar mixed with salt and the locals dip their fruit in it. We aren't huge fans of that though!
The Thais are super obsessed with the royalty. And apparently you can even be imprisoned for making any insulting remarks against the royal family. In fact, they are so obsessed that they play the national anthem prior to movies at the cinema in which you have to stand up for. One day, we went on the sky train and were fidgeting around with money trying to find the correct change for our fare when we suddenly looked up and everyone was frozen in their place and staring at us. It felt like a flash mob but then when we heard the music, we put the two together and realized they were playing the national anthem and people had stopped dead in their tracks. It was the weirdest thing. There are also photos of the royal family enlarged and placed all over the city. The king is in poor health and in the hospital at the moment. Next in line is his son but apparently the Thais aren't too fond of him.
So we spent one night in Bangkok (and the world's your oyster) and then took a night bus to Chiang Mai. Now this was a total VIP bus. The seats reclined almost fully and we were provided with blankets, snacks and some drinks (of the non alcoholic variety)! If only Greyhound and National Express coaches were this great, bus travel would be so pleasant! We were looking forward to Chiang Mai but also to retuning to Bangkok!
We arrived in Chiang Mai in the really early hours (6am) and our poor host, Teera, stayed up and waited for us so he could pick us up from the bus station! It's a good thing he is a night owl! We went for a traditional Thai breakfast which was like a creamy rice porridge with whole eggs and ginger...and pork balls! It tasted quite good once I scooped out the pork balls and gave them to Perry!
To us, Chiang Mai seemed like a beach town, only without the beach. It has lots of streets with cafes, bars, restaurants, pedestrians, and massage parlors and it is VERY laid back! The activities on the other hand are quite pricy, with the minimum you pay for an activity around £50. That is for things like zip-lining, which we already did in India, and elephant riding which we decided against doing as we have read how bad it is for the elephants. So we decided to rent bicycles for 24 hours (for the price of £1 each) and ride around the city. We rode everywhere, to the river, through the streets and so on. It is such a cycle friendly city as it is super flat. It was nice to avoid the tuk tuk drivers for the day and not have to continuously haggle or get ripped off. Many tourists decide to rent scooters but neither of us were too comfortable riding one. Those that know me know that I don't even have a drivers license and hate even riding a bike on the street and always ride on sidewalks as often as possible. Well, riding on the sidewalk is not an option in Chiang Mai because there is no gradual "on ramp" that sidewalks tend to have in many places and they had a massive ledge instead. This meant that I had to ride on the street with all the cars and mopeds and tuk tuks, oh my! I was super uncomfortable at first but over the 2 days of cycling, I became super confident and can now say that I am thinking of FINALLY getting my drivers license (mainly so that I can get a hot pink polka-dotted moped/scooter and ride around in style!)
We enjoyed an abundance of Pad Thai, Chang beer, rotees (similar to a crepe/pancakes), and fruit from the fruit stands. Oh, I should also mention that Thailand is FULL of 7-11s. Way more than in North America. Every street has at least one or two. This is great cause it means we can cool off with SLURPEES! Although they are pure sugar, they are very refreshing and a guilty pleasure! And those that know us know that Perry and I had our very own slurpee encounter before we started dating, so this highly caloric concoction holds a dear place in our hearts!
We ended off the day by going to the Night Bazaar and wishing we (this is more me wishing rathe than Perry wishing) had five empty suitcases to bring stuff back with us. We will have to make another trip to Thailand and bring 5 empty suitcases each.
The next day we decided to splurge £2.80 and get hour long foot massages. It was very suitable as we had just returned our bikes and unfortunately we didn't think to ask if they offered butt massages (which I'm sure they would if we asked) but the foot massages were the next best thing. They even gave us a bit of a back, neck and shoulder massage! Following the massages and some more Pad Thai, we made our way to the most popular temple in Chiang Mai: Doi Suthep.
Doi Suthep was very beautiful. It is high up so gives a view of Chiang Mai and it is very ornamental with lots of gold decor. Now, I have read on many occasions that Thai people consider feet to be the dirtiest/filthiest part of the body and you are not supposed to point your feet towards anybody/touch anybody with your feet/sit with your feet in the direction of another person and so on. Most places require you to remove your shoes before entering as well. Not just temples, but also hotels and even some shops. So when we were walking around the temple and I pointed at a photo album that was leaning on the floor with my foot (without even thinking- it was just an impulse), I got my first lesson as to how offended the locals get when it comes to feet. The man whom the album belonged to picked it up faster than you can say "oops" and pointed his finger at me and said "BAD!" multiple times. Oops!!! I am now super careful when it comes to feet and although I had read up on this offensive act multiple times, it's still not something to easily remember when you are not used to it. Oh and it is also very bad and offensive to touch or pat people's heads. At one point there was this sweet little girl and I reached my hand out towards her head and at the last second I remembered that its a big no no. It was like a slow motion scene cause Perry and I both realized and it was like a huge sigh of relief when I pulled my hand away quicker than lightning! Phewf! I dread to think the punishment I would have received for actually patting her head. It's hard to get used to an idea or an action that you don't usually think twice about doing but I think I have become paranoid enough now as to avoid the feet and head situation.
On our final evening in Chiang Mai, our host took us to a local favorite for a feast of frogs (for Perry and Teera), papaya salad, prawns amongst other things. We then went out to his weekly activity of salsa dancing. I have been trying to get Perry to go salsa dancing with me for YEARS so Teera gets bonus points for convincing Perry to go within 5 minutes of meeting him. And I think he secretly loved it as well. He was actually really good and a complete natural so I look forward to dragging him to some salsa classes when we return to England :-)
The journey to Laos
The following day we began our lengthy 3-day journey to Luang Prabang, Laos. This consisted of a mini-van from Chiang Mai to the border in Chiang Khong where we overnighted after a stop at the beautiful White Temple in Chiang Rai, and then a 2 day slow boat ride down the Mekong River with an overnight stop in the village of Pakbeng.
The slow boat is quite an experience as it is a form of transport used by both locals and tourists so we pass by many small villages along the Mekong and drop off and pick people up. However, the comfort level is definitely at a low. The seats consist of car seats that are not fixed to the boat, so they can move around slightly. Like when someone sits in their seat, more often than not, the seat moves back a bit (especially when they fall heavily in it rather than sit gently) which minimizes the already minimal leg room! Although there was a massive lack in comfort, the views and sunset made up for it! Not much to say for the village of Pakbeng either. It seems to be full of crooks and drug dealers. We were glad to be there for just a night!
Luang Prabang was a very quaint little town. Again, very laid back and similar to a beach town like Chiang Mai. There is also a night bazaar which made me wish I had another 5 empty suitcases!!
There happen to be a number of food stalls that act as a buffet. There is a long stretch of bowls filled with a variety of food like noodles, spring rolls, pumpkin, potatoes, fruits etc. You pay 10,000 Kip (the equivalent to £.90 or $1.30) for a plate that you can fill as much as you want. You can then get it heated up (which a lot of the tourists didn't realize so we were lucky). I should mention that the food isn't covered and doesn't sit on hot plates. Because of these reasons, we were heavily advised not to eat at these joints by the travel guides so we were planning on avoiding them but it was so easy on the wallet and we saw so many people eating at these stalls that the turnover was quite high (meaning the food was being replenished often) so we decided to just go for it! Not going to lie, we didn't feel super great after it. We had to just suck it up because we were warned after all!
The next morning we strolled around town and visited a couple of temples. We climbed up Phousi Hill (try asking the locals how to get to Phousi Hill with a straight face...the "Ph" makes a "P" sound, not an "f") for a view of the city and to visit another temple. It was super hot so the climb up the hill did not help matters. We were drenched in sweat. We returned to the guest house and got ready to go visit some waterfalls. As we were waiting for the shuttle bus, there was a girl sat down outside that looked very familiar. I asked her if she was from Vancouver and surely enough she was so I was certain that I must know her. After discussing where we went to school and which neighborhoods we lived in to try and figure out where we may know each other from, we came to the conclusion that she was the hairstylist that chopped off my hair during a hair competition and gave me an amazing hair cut a couple of years ago! And here we both were at the same guest house in Laos. What a small small world!
Our shuttle eventually arrived and off we were to the Kuang Si waterfalls. This place was unreal and felt like paradise. The waterfall was layered with several tiers feeding into one another so there were many different areas you could swim in. The water was cold and super refreshing and it looked like blue kool-aid. We put the waterproof camera to the test and got some fun photos. There was a rope tied to a tree that you could swing off of into the water but we decided to just spectate rather than test it out! We spent about two hours here but could have spent much more. It was so relaxing and serene and as mentioned, paradise!
The following day we headed to the town of Veng Vieng. This town used to be a big party town. There is a river that people used to tube down and all along the river used to be little shacks selling beer so you would spend the day floating down and getting really drunk. Unfortunately, this resulted in quite a few deaths as some would do stupid things like jump from ropes etc and crack their heads. Most of the accidents were fueled by drugs and alcohol so less than a year ago, the government came in and knocked down all the shacks selling beer and banned the tubing for a short while. The tubing is now open again and there are a select few shacks selling beverages including beer but it is nothing like it used to be. It's been referred to as a ghost town now and many don't like it but we found it quite relaxing.
When we arrived, we headed to a local park that had a massive cave (called Tham Jang) and a small swimming hole/pool to cool off. It was intensely hot in the cave and we were drenched because of the humidity and dampness so the swimming in the little pool was super refreshing. There is a suspension bridge leading to the park which does not feel like the sturdiest thing known to man. The annoying thing is that riders of scooters and motorbikes insist on riding over this bridge even though it already feels like it is going to collapse and has lose pieces of planks and even though there is a sign forbidding it. How lazy are they that they can't park their bikes and walk across the bridge rather than ultimately destroy the bridge which means more of their own money will be spent repairing the bridge in the future!
Following the visit to the cave, we headed to the centre which is basically just restaurants and bars that play South Park and Friends episodes all day long on big screens and with the volume really loud.
The next day we decided to try out the tubing..when we left the guest house, it was like a ghost town. It was about 10am and there was nobody out except the shop owners and us. We felt bad for the businesses as they depend on the tourists but it is so quiet now. Even when we went tubing, we only saw a few others on the river...apparently there used to be hundreds. It was supposed to take us about 3 hours to float down but in the end it took about 5.5 as there was absolutely no current and the water was completely still except for a few short segments of tiny rapids. It was fun but super long. By the end we were ready to get out. The novelty only lasted so long. The rest of our time in Laos was spent sitting in the restaurants and watching Friends episodes while drinking cheap Laobeer...and then came the 30 hour long journey to Vietnam...