I started to write up our visit to Danang yesterday, thinking it would be a short ‘n’ sweet kind of post, like the visit, but then I remembered a bunch of funny stories and things we did (some of them might not be that funny but they are at least stories) and pretty soon I was drafting several paragraphs and selecting many photographs and I think it’s going to take me a while to write up two months of travelling. There is so much to tell you. Like the pet pig I saw in a Chiang Mai food market. The time I nearly fell down a toilet in Laos. When I went to a church in Hanoi and realised why people like churches (don’t worry, I’m still a salty atheist with a complex).
I can’t quite believe it, but we go home in eight days. In fact I am writing this during the early evening, so in a week’s time I will probably be packing. Or I’ll be in one of Bangkok’s markets, bartering for a new summer wardrobe and all the souvenirs I’ve denied myself since January. I want a nice set of chopsticks, because I have finally mastered chopsticks (I can feed myself with them, anyway), another pair of elephant trousers because I will look cool and well-traveled if I wear them in Southend high street, a silk scarf or five and possibly an elephant plushie. I have even checked my airline’s hand luggage allowance to see if I can squeeze more stuff in. Our checked luggage can go up to about 30kg, and I don’t think I hit 20 on the way out, but our backpacks are only about 45 litres, so I may have to go all Marie Kondo and roll my bras into my sandals.
Then again, if living out of one bag for three months (with a fair bit of bra rolling) has taught me anything, it’s that you don’t need a lot of objects to get by. In Chiang Mai I kept nearly tripping over a couple of guests’ bags, because they left them open on the floor and holy bats they had a lot of stuff. I refused to scrimp on facial products and underwear, and my bulkiest items have been electrical (which, if I wanted to backpack like a purist, I would have left at home) but otherwise I’ve been pretty bare bones. Aside from clothes and my sleeping bag, most of my items have been things like contact lenses, notebooks (I’ve finished three and started two) and prescription sunglasses. Technically they’re all luxuries, and Maxim thought I had way too much stuff when we started – but he doesn’t need glasses and doesn’t write. He also doesn’t menstruate, and I absolutely refused to leave the UK without a supply of sanitary products, just in case South East Asia did not have pharmacies (spoiler alert: it does). I have a feeling I’m going to walk into my bedroom at home and, after crying with delight upon reunion with my bed, look at my stuff and think ‘what the fuck was I thinking when I bought this?’
To be honest, I’ve thought that a few times already… and yet I still seem to own 7865 pieces of overpriced MCR merchandise, 387 handbags when I use the same rucksack every day until it breaks and I buy a new one and 2567 dresses, most of which don’t fit because my clothing size fluctuates with my IBS.
I’ve just remembered that I have not worn a dress, jeans or a pair of boots for three months. I’m looking forward to putting on my Doc Martens almost as much as I am looking forward to the dogs. And I’m going to get a haircut, and cash a voucher I won in a raffle last October for a mani/pedi and a Thai massage (yes, really). I’ve had two massages in Thailand so far just so I can go in and say ‘Oh, a Thai massage? I was just in Thailand!’
The cafe I’m in legit just handed me my bill, because I’ve been ignoring the fact it’s been closing around me for fifteen minutes. Oops.
Before I tell you about Hoi An, I need to tell you about the journey it took to get there. Until we left Da Lat to head north, our longest night bus journey had been about six hours, from Siem Reap down to Phnom Penh in Cambodia. The bus there had basic but functional bunks, and although we were both zombies the next day, we did sleep for a bit. Cambodia to Saigon was a 15-hour or so set of day buses, but we went to bed as soon as we arrived so it was only a mildform of hell. Saigon to Mui Ne and Mui Ne to Da Lat were four-hour journeys and although they weren’t pleasant, they weren’t terrible. Da Lat to Hoi An was probably the first journey where I should have taken sleeping pills.
The first leg of the journey was down from Da Lat to Nha Trang and took about four hours. The worst bit was looking out at the mountains and realising that if the minibus hit a corner, we would all plummet to our deaths.
After a two hour stop over in Nha Trang (I did not, in the end, meet any Russians) we boarded the sleeper for Hoi An. It took 11 hours and I think I slept for three of them; the bus was overbooked so I had a local lady’s elbow in my face for a large portion of that.
We’d chosen our hostel in Hoi An on recommendation from people travelling the opposite way – they all raved about the free breakfast, and free breakfast is not something to be sniffed at. We rolled up at about 6:30am, just in time to plonk ourselves down in the dining area and give thanks for the buffet. Or I did, anyway – Maxim is not a breakfast person, so I ate enough for both of us and took a nap as soon as we could check in to our dorm.
Hoi An used to be a major international port and its Old Town, which is UNESCO certified, is a mishmash of architecture and history from Japan and China as well as Vietnam. Hoi An is also famous for its lanterns, which are so beautiful that not even my terrible photography can take from them.
I got serious sci fi film vibes from the green ones.
You can buy lanterns, but there was no way I’d get one home in one piece. I’ll just have to go back with a proper suitcase and some bubble wrap…
The Old Town is scattered with ‘community halls’ which I thought at first would be town halls like we have at home: nondescript, slightly damp buildings with stacking chairs and terrible coffee. In fact they are essentially temples. Groups of Chinese nationals settled in Hoi An in the 17th century and brought with them their architecture and culture and whatnot. I got a bit confused by all the history, which I was learning from plaques on walls as I went, so possibly you should read more than the Lonely Planet intro before you start. There’s also a ‘Japanese covered bridge’ at the entrance to the Old Town, from Hoi An’s Japanese traders. You can wander around the Old Town all day, basically (the traffic is minimal) and pay a few thousand dong to visit any five designated buildings in between coffee stops at very cute cafes on the river front. I did a few temples and a museum, which featured some local clothes and household objects and a fleet of very creepy mannequins.
I am fairly sure I’ve missed out a fun historical nugget of information – or several – but as I write I’m waiting for the ferry from Koh Tao to mainland Thailand, so I will wrap this up. After Hoi An we went to Danang, which is way better than everyone says. There’s another bridge and everything.
If my maths is right (and it probably isn’t), today marks three quarters of this trip. In honour of this significant landmark, here is a list I’ve been compiling of what I miss about home… and what I could happily never see again.
Things I don’t miss about the UK
Wearing three layers to leave the house and taking both an umbrella and sunglasses
Brexit bullshit (not that I’ve been immune out here. Completely devastated about #IndyRef2 but who can bloody blame them)
The Daily Mail
Going out for coffee and needing to sell an organ for an accompanying flapjack
Neighbours who complain that I park over their driveway, which I don’t, when they don’t even use their driveway
Bible bashers in Southend high street who should go to an Asian war museum if they actually want to see what hell looks like
Turning on the TV for two minutes and finishing Keeping Up With the Kardashians an hour later
How shit everyone thinks everything is even though they live in a country that isn’t riddled with landmines and they have free healthcare and their government hasn’t tried committing a genocide recently and their children are in school and not asking tourists for money outside a famous landmark
Having two-four jobs at any one time
Easter advertising at the end of January
Things I do miss
Leaving my clothes in my bedroom when I go into the bathroom, and leaving my toothbrush in the bathroom when I go into my bedroom
Smoking ban in public places
General public use of seatbelts and traffic lights
Staying in the same place for more than a week
Having a job
Being the only person who has a bed in my bedroom
Waking up to Jon Humphreys ripping the shit out of a politician on the Today Programme
Going down the pub, bitching about the pub, going to McDonald’s after, bitching about McDonald’s
All right children, I know it’s been four seconds since my last post and I was telling you all about southern Vietnam in January, but I’m going to fast forward you for a minute to 10th March, which was the beginning of what I am now realising was a ludicrous journey across central Thailand. I’m going to be retelling it for years to come, so I thought I may as well tell you all now while it’s fresh in my memory (and before I pass out with exhaustion and wipe the shittier bits from my memory).
Our general plan for the trip was to do Bangkok-Cambodia-Vietnam-Laos-Thailand. We both want to see the southern Thai islands, and to see Chiang Mai in the north, and we fly home from Bangkok, which is conveniently located in the middle. Or inconveniently, if you consider that we have three weeks to visit two opposing sides of the country.We got to Vientiane, the Lao capital, on Thursday (I promise I will tell you all about Laos soon) and realised that it was more practical to go to south Thailand before we went north, partly because the Maxim wants to be in the south for a party thing in the middle of March and partly because Lao public transport is generally lacking in options. Flying anywhere from Vientiane was expensive, so we booked a sleeper train to Bangkok and planned to get another train and a bus down to Phuket (pronounced ‘pooket’, for the record, not ‘fuck it’). Surprisingly, everything went to plan. Unsurprisingly, I wish someone had knocked me out on Friday afternoon and woken me up tomorrow morning.
Vientiane’s train station is about 12km south of Vientiane, so we reached there on a bus from our hostel, via about five other hostels. I had purchased two snacks for the journey, some disappointing crisps and a bar of overpriced chocolate, and I made it through most of the crisps before we reached the station. I should add that we left the hostel at about 3pm, so we’d had a full day of doing stuff in 35 degree heat and already needed a shower. When you cross from Laos to Thailand, you pay 10,000 kip to leave Laos and have your visa stamped, then get a shuttle train to Nong Khai in north-east Thailand, which takes about fifteen minutes and crosses the Friendship Bridge (nice one, politicians).
We’d booked a sleeper train from Nong Khai to Bangkok – you can also book a regular train that travels at night, and we soon learnt the difference – and paid a few thousand kip extra for lower berth beds on recommendation from everyone. We’d booked late, so we were in different carriages; my neighbours were a Lao man who snored loudly and got off a few stations before Bangkok, and a Japanese girl and her Korean boyfriend who were told off by an official for sitting on their bunks before he’d made them up (he also confiscated their beer; alcohol is prohibited on Thai railways). Until I was on the train, munching my chocolate and watching as staff transformed the bunks into beds using foldable mattresses and hospital corners, I hadn’t really thought about living in hostels for two months. I mean, I miss my bed and my privacy and my space, but as I took in the working reading light, working plug socket, curtain and folding table (complete with drinks holder – the lower berth was definitely worth it), then cleaned my teeth in a little cubicle with a lock, liquid soap and toilet paper I thought ‘this is the most privacy and the most luxury I have experienced since that beautiful yet pricey hostel in Hue, if not since London’. And then I thought, ‘I am very much ready to go home.’
The journey was from 7pm to 7am – we left on time and everything – but unlike on sleeper buses, they didn’t turn out the train lights at all (that explains the curtains) and the background noise is spectacular, so when my Lao neighbour got up for his stop at 3:30am, I did too. Staff roused the troops, and converted the bunks back into seats, around 5am, so by the time we got into Bangkok station I was starving and wished I’d taken diazepam the night before.
Kids, if you ever have to get from Bangkok to Phuket, ignore the environmentalists and the purist backpackers. Ignore your money concerns and desire for adventure. Book a flight. By 8am, we’d sussed out the ticket office, consumed various overpriced coffees, used a terrible wifi connection to Google our options, consumed various breakfast foods (a chicken leg at 7:30am was a new culinary low) and booked another train. I can’t remember if we were too tight to fly or just forgot that we could, but we wanted to get the hell out of Bangkok as soon as possible so we booked the soonest available train to Surat Thani, which is the end of the railway line, and a bus on to Phuket, which I had just learnt is an island and has no railway.
What do you do if you have twelve hours in the biggest city in South East Asia? If you’re Maxim, you find a cafe and chill out with food and/or (or and/and) a beer. If you’re me, you find a cafe, eat another breakfast then walk to the nearest market and get a Thai massage. On your return to the cafe for lunch, you discover that an American couple there is also waiting for a night train, and they’re stoned. They’re so stoned that they laugh at everything at a volume normally reserved for raging arguments and compliment your elephant trousers. ‘They’re from Luang Prabang,’ you say. ‘Laos,’ you add, because you know they’re new to Asia. They nod. Your patience extinguished, you walk to the nearby metro and pay 50p to go three stops to Lumphini Park, which is one of the places you didn’t get to visit when you came to Bangkok back in January. You get lost twice between the station and the actual park, stop at Starbucks in an air conditioned mall, pay £3 for iced coffee and hate yourself for it, then Google directions to the park, brave crossing a couple Bangkok’s roads and arrive in the park so exhausted that you have a nap on the grass until it’s time to get the metro back to the cafe, then haul your bags to the main station and eat a couple more chicken legs for dinner.
The only part of that I really recommend doing is the massage and the park; stoned tourists are to be avoided unless you’re in Vang Vieng, Laos, where many people are stoned at best (seriously can’t wait to tell you all about Laos).
As we had booked a regular train that happened to travel at night, for the journey from Bangkok to Surat Thani we were back to shitty seats (mine actually fell off its frame when I leant back too far) and the desire for a quick death. The train left about an hour and a half late and either a window was left open or someone had turned the air con on to the ‘sub zero’ setting, because I ended up digging out my hoodie, a pair of socks and the emergency foil blanket I brought from home in case we stayed in open fields. I also took a diazepam so at least if I was cold I wouldn’t be conscious to complain about it (self medicating to survive overnight journeys is not the same as smoking weed in Bangkok. I did not speak to one human post-consumption, although I did have some weird dreams).
This morning I woke up naturally about fifteen minutes before we arrived in Surat Thani, bought a coffee from the service staff and forgot to take my socks off before I put my sandals back on. I also forgot to take my eyemask off from around my neck before we left the train; I like to imagine that I sat in the cafe waiting for our transfer bus to central Surat Thani looking like a seasoned traveler… possibly I just looked like someone who’s started to rely on diazepam.
We had a half an hour wait for the transfer bus, and while we sat there it dawned on me fully that we’re back in tourist territory. When we left Vientiane, we’d virtually seen or spoken to the same twenty people since we arrived in Laos; it’s the most ‘undiscovered’ of the four countries we’ve visited, with the smallest number of westerners and the highest number of people willing to go off the beaten track. South Thailand isn’t just a backpacker’s staple, it’s a regular tourist’s staple. About fifty people crammed into two cafes, waiting for transfers to Krabi or Koh Samui or Phuket. Some had been on the road for years, with compass tattoos and authentic local jewellery made a thousand miles away; some had clean western clothes and actual suitcases. I can’t actually remember why short term travelers use suitcases. Why bother with those shitty wheels and creaky handles when you can just carry your stuff on your back and walk around like a normal person?
It is possible I am becoming a purist backpacker.
I remembered to take off my socks when we were on the transfer bus, and bought a Hershey’s while we waited for the main bus – I will at least be grateful that Thailand does chocolate better than Laos does – and passed out as soon as we were on it. Five hours and one rest stop later we pulled up in central Phuket, which turned out to be about half an hour away from our hostel. No longer interested in building our backpacker credentials and unable to read English, let alone Thai, bus maps, we hailed a taxi. By the time we stumbled up the steps to our hostel at 5pm, a full 50 hours after we left Vientiane, we were also unable to remember why we wanted to come this far south, or leave Laos, or stay alive.
It’s 9pm now; I’ve had a shower, eaten, done some laundry, messaged a few people and Facetimed my mum. I’m going to add photos to this and go to bed before I forget where my dorm is. Then I am totally going to tell every tattooed backpacker wearing authentic jewellery that I’ve done a 50 hour journey across two countries and three cities (four cities?). I might leave out the socks and sandals bit though.
We knew we wanted to go from Saigon up to Da Lat, because it was on the Top Gear Vietnam special, and originally planned to head from Da Lat up to Nha Trang. We changed our minds after mentioning it to people travelling from north Vietnam to south; out of ten people, nine of them would say ‘do not bother with Nha Trang unless you want to go to the Russian version of Ibiza. Go to Mui Ne instead.’ I have nothing against Russians – or Ibiza – but backpacking is about taking the road marginally less traveled, blah blah blah, so we went from Saigon up to Mui Ne.
Things to know about Mui Ne: as far as tourists are concerned, it consists of roughly one long coastal road, a beach, great conditions for kite surfing and some sand dunes.
On our first evening we learnt that if Nha Trang is full of Russians, Mui Ne is well stocked with them; menus are in Russian and expats run restaurants. We had dinner at a one such place, offering goulash and playing Gerry Rafferty and Wham! (pretty sure playing Edge of Heaven is against Russia’s anti-LGBT propaganda law, now I think about it). Not the most surreal dining experience I’ve had, but one does not go to Vietnam expecting to hear Gerry Rafferty.
I don’t have any other anecdotes about Mui Ne, because I didn’t get much further than the road or the beach; on our second day I made the mistake of being very hungry when we stopped at a restaurant one afternoon (also run by Russians and offering turtle and shark, which are normal dishes out here). As I won’t eat anything endangered, I played it safe with some chicken in mushroom sauce, which was tiny so I followed it with mushroom soup. Possibly I should add mushrooms to my list of foods to be avoided unless completely necessary, because I spent the next morning in the toilet block waiting for invisible forks in my stomach to stop stabbing my intestines.
Or possibly I shouldn’t have eaten two meals in half an hour.
Anyway, the most I saw of Mui Ne was the inside of the hostel bathroom block. Maxim took a trip to the sand dunes and a fishing village and one day I will go back to Vietnam so I can get better photos than he did.
He got quite good photos.
Da Lat is up in the mountains, and was popularised as a destination by the French during their occupation; it’s cooler than the coast, relatively quiet and very, very pretty, in a Disneyland-meets-European-architecture-in-the-height-of-summer kind of way. For example, the Flower Gardens:
I know a few people who would like this in their garden.
All gardens need dragons.
So cute it was almost too cute.
I got sunburn wandering the gardens… then had to by a hoodie for the freezing evenings. Da Lat’s not known for having four seasons in a day for nothing.
Datanla Waterfall, which we accessed on a two-person bobsled (I have no idea who came up with that but I salute them):
How much would it cost to put a waterfall in your garden?
The Truc Lam Pagoda, which I have just realised I have no pictures of, and and the cable car ride down:
Maxim spent most of the journey weighing up whether we’d die if we fell…
Usually the answer was ‘yes’.
I suppose at least your last view would be good.
We also went to the Hang Nga Crazy House, designed by local architect Đặng Việt Nga, who still lives there. My photos don’t do it justice; the building is a cross between Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory and the Crooked House at Adventure Island in Southend (there are crooked houses outside Southend, right?). Stairs curve; walls lean; bannisters are rare. Do not take small children or the infirm to the Crazy House; they will not come out alive.
The climb might be perilous, but the view is worth it.
Can you imagine trying to install a stairlift?!
You can stay in the Crazy House as a guest…
We’re heading back to Thailand today (I’m so behind on blogs, at this rate I’ll be telling you all about Hanoi when I’m on my next holiday). We’re taking the night train to Bangkok, then again to Phuket, and I’m so relieved to be avoiding another night bus that I’m not too bothered about not getting a shower for at least two days.
The Internet is telling me it’s ‘Louse’; I’ve only ever heard ‘L-ow’. Evening from Vang Vieng, Laos.
We left Vietnam over a week ago and since I’m hopelessly behind on blogging different places we’ve been to, I thought I’d say hi in real time before we head back into Thailand. Assuming everything goes to plan, we’ll be home in the UK in a month and I’m conflicted. On the one hand, I miss my dogs, family and showers without strangers’ hair in the plug. On the other, I’m just starting to understand how Asian traffic works.
I’m looking forward to returning to Thailand (an elephant sanctuary! A dog sanctuary! At least one beach!) but I’ll be sorry to leave Laos. It’s the poorest of the four countries we’ve visited, with the worst roads and the most squatting toilets, but it also might be the friendliest and most relaxed (which is no mean feat; South East Asians give the Greeks a run for their money in the ‘chilled out attitude’ stakes). The country’s official name is Laos People’s Democratic Republic, and one leaflet I saw joked that PDR actually stands for Please Don’t Rush. Possibly we’ve been in Asia long enough to actually get that, because in Luang Prabang we watched the sun set over the Mekong:
I took a minute from packing to leave Phonsavan to catch a bit of the sunrise:
I even appreciated the boarder crossing’s freezing, Cold War-era, horror film set ambiance at 7am and partway through a 25.5 hour bus journey…
That could have been down to the diazepam I took the night before, though.