The Nervous, Jetlagged Backpacker’s Guide to Surviving Hostels

I haven’t shared a room since I was about eight, so three months of  12-people dorms with shared bathrooms was in my top five Reasons I Should Maybe Call This Off. By the end of our time in Asia I had mellowed – I even spoke to some of my roommates – but my bedroom and the space that came with it was the thing I missed most other than family. I know that a lot of people who are thinking of going backpacking are put off by the dorm situation so here is a handy guide I put together!

The Basics

If you’re nervous about sharing a dorm, or if you’re jetlagged or tired or just not feeling it, don’t share one. Maxim and I got a room to ourselves when we first arrived in Bangkok because we knew we were going to arrive and pass out. The first few days of another timezone is what I imagine hell will look like when I get there, so invest in two or three nights of not dorms while you get your sea legs. By time we went home I was happy to sleep in a 30-bed dorm with two bathrooms, but I worked up to it.

In Otres in Cambodia one of our dorms was open air with about 20 beds, and one morning I overhead and English guy book a private room because some stoners had sat out smoking with a stereo on all night and he hadn’t slept at all. If you can’t beat them and won’t join them, get a private room. I  kind of wish I’d had the budget to have a private room – or to stay in a hotel, come to that – because there are some days when the thought of sharing a toilet with 20 other butts does not appeal. I met one guy who had been on the road for two years or something like that, and all I could think was ‘do you never get tired of waking up to the morning breath of eight nationalities?’ Self care is paramount, kiddies. Speaking of self care, if you want to have sex – either with yourself or other people – book a private room. Most hostels have signs up banning sex in dorms with little reminders that they offer private rooms specifically for you to go do that. No one wants to see, hear or have any hint of you boning, ever.

Hostel Bathroom Sign Vietnam
It’s been four months and I still have no idea what the Q-Tip bag was.

Use the tools you were given

Unless you’re pretty chilled about where you sleep or pretty militant about backpacking like they did in the Stone Age, use the Internet. Hostelworld has a really good search and filter system, so when I booked ahead I never stayed anywhere that didn’t offer security lockers and/or working plumbing. If you’re short on money or don’t know how long you’ll stay somewhere, book one or two nights in advance then pay cash for extra nights once you’re there. It’s cheaper – no added fees for the booking site – and you can up and leave if you want. We stayed in a few places that other people recommended either in person or online (I’ll do another post with names of hostels in SE Asia to head for/avoid) and they were usually bang on the money. If you’re happy to rock up to a destination and mooch about until you find a hostel then ignore this, but if you’re anywhere near as neurotic as me then utilise the Internet and enjoy bedbug-free sheets.

Use your common sense

You’re in a room full of strangers. Don’t leave anything lying around that you wouldn’t want to replace. Most travellers own smartphones, portable chargers and headphones, and most of those tend to be kind of gross, not to mention really cheaper and easier to buy than they are to steal. Your stuff probably won’t get nicked, but don’t flaunt it. Use lockers and padlocks and don’t leave your bag wide open (dirty laundry probably works as a deterrent, but don’t hold me to that).

Let sleeping backpackers lie

If a person is wearing earplugs, headphones or an eye mask, has constructed a curtain on their bunk with a towel or sarong so you can’t see their face, is reading a book or appears to be asleep, leave them the hell alone. Unless there is a fire, you think they are dead or there is a general emergency, do not approach them. Ever.

 

Hanoi Hostel Vietnam
I am 90% sure that typeface is the one I use in a line of stationery. Also, don’t be the guy who throws toilet paper in the toilet.

 

Look, just don’t be a dick

Dorms are pretty nice places generally. People chat, they exchange money with travellers going to/from somewhere they’ve been, they give out their stuff if they’re going home. A guy in Hanoi who was heading back to Europe gave me bugspray I still have, when I left Bangkok I gave a spare bag to an Indian dude and in Chiang Mai I swapped some Lao kip for Thai baht with an American who was travelling the other way. I’ve got dinner with roomates, swapped destination recommendations in the lobby and lost my temper exactly zero times. I nearly lost my temper once or twice, but you are talking to someone who has thrown phones at walls and remote controls at heads in her lifetime, and it never came to that. That being said, there is some etiquette you should probably live by:

Don’t leave your stuff in the bathroom. Partly because other people will think your bar of soap is disgusting (your hair looks like hair to you and like pubes to everyone else), and partly because someone might use it and then you’ll be on the receiving end of Pube Hell.

Turn out the main light after 10pm and don’t hold loud conversations in the dorm between 10pm and 7am unless you want your roommates to accidentally tread on your phone (some fuckers in a different place in Otres came in drunk at 3am, started a fight with another guy and left the goddamn ceiling lights on as they did so and it’s the only time in my life I’ve wanted to wake up to a room full of corpses).

There is never enough room for your giant backpack, but you can do little things like not leaving it at the foot of a bunk ladder or in the middle of the floor, to improve the rooms ambience and to avoid your roommates constructing a voodoo doll of you.

Okay now I’m gonna leave you with a photograph of the canyon in Pai, Northern Thailand, and go and remind my dogs that it’s not dinner time yet so quit staring at me. I’ll compile that list – and the blog about Hue and central Vietnam – in the next few weeks. In the mean time, if you have any pressing questions about hostels (or dogs) ask away.

Pai, Northern Thailand
Look at that tranquillity. Can you tell it’s rainy and miserable in England right now.

A Tale of Many Snacks: Da Nang, Vietnam

‘Don’t stay long in Da Nang,’ they said. ‘There’s only a bridge there,’ they said.

‘It’s half an hour from Hoi An,’ we said. ‘By Asian standards that’s about fourteen seconds. We are going to Da Nang.’ There’s also a train line that runs from Da Nang to Hue, our next stop, and everyone we met who had done the journey in the opposite direction raved about the views from the train.

One day I might elaborate on the fourteen-second journey from Hoi An, but for now let’s just say that it was the longest fourteen seconds of my life. Between our hostel in Hoi An and the one in Da Nang, I got lost, found the only cafe in Vietnam without Internet access, had my first ever moped ride and ate three Snickers bars and a pack of M&Ms. When I did arrive, I couldn’t work out if the shops and streets were closed because it was Sunday or if it was because everyone was right about the city being dead, but dinner was a packet of M&Ms and more Snickers (I haven’t eaten either since).

I woke up way too early on the first morning – well, at 8am, but it was one of the few days of the trip that I turned my alarm off and it was therefore too early – courtesy of a local school. There is no way you’d get away with a hostel full of grubby adults that close to a building full of children in the UK, but we were technically in a homestay. Our hosts had converted some rooms in their house into dorms, and a few others into classrooms for local children to learn English from volunteers. In another life, I’d have the temperament to volunteer to teach English, but in this life I grew up listening to My Chemical Romance and therefore say the word ‘fuck’ twelve times a day. Also, I was on holiday.

I went out for breakfast (I don’t think I’ve mentioned this, but Maxim is rarely awake before noon when left to his own devices) and I could not find a single place selling food. We had unwittingly stumbled into the least touristy part of Vietnam; Danang’s wide roads, tarmacked highways and looming office blocks could be part of any big city anywhere.

Christmas Tree in Danang Vietnema
Or they could until you notice the Christmas trees in February, anyway.

I found several cafes and bistros in our neighbourhood, but they only offered coffee and yogurt. If I’d been less exhausted and bewildered it would have been fun, but at the time I just wandered around thinking Surely local people eat out too? I still don’t know why this was the case in Da Nang but nowhere else in Vietnam, because I wasn’t after Western food (although there was a KFC), I just wanted to get rice porridge from somewhere that wasn’t a street vendor. SOMETIMES IN LIFE YOU NEED SEATS. After I caved in and got yogurt, which was served in a glass and pronounced ‘yourt’, I bought some home-brand Pringles and on-brand Dairylea triangles. Breakfast of champions, I told myself at the homestay, and the next day I bought cornflakes and borrowed a bowl from the kitchen. I should add that our hosts offered breakfast, but it was off limits. I felt like a dick with my Kellogg’s but IBS comes before everything, and at the time I hadn’t worked out that pho (rice noodle soup for those of you who have not experienced holy grail of noodle dishes) does not contain eggs.

Yoghurt in Danang, Vietnam
It might not be a meal, but yogurt in a glass is better than yogurt in a tinny pot. It comes with a straw, for god’s sake.

It was Valentine’s Day while we were there, and one of our roommates, Alice, invited us to a coffee bar for the evening. I didn’t think ‘coffee’ and ‘evening’ went together either, BUT IT DOES. England, you are missing a trick. Stop closing your cafes at night and keep them open, with live music and some food, all night. People are sober and chilled out and very, very awake. I’m going to do an entire post on Vietnamese coffee one day – I miss it like I miss pho, the weather and not changing my own bed sheets. If you’re planning a trip to Da Nang and like to drink, relax – there’s a good Aussie bar down by the water front (which is where everything seemed to be, including non-Aussie bars and, um, restaurants. Possibly I should learn to read maps). I pushed the boat out and had a gin and tonic (I think it was my third of the trip; the other two were on Koh Rong when I hurt my foot and thought a $4 mixer was a better idea than weed), and my lasting memory of the evening is of an old white dude at the bar dancing with a local lady like he was in a sleazier version of Strictly. Now I come to think of it, I’ve seen him in Southend.

We also saw Da Nang’s crowning glory, a bridge. I know, I know, a bridge. Boring. Except this bridge is a dragon.

Da Nang Dragon Bridge from a distance
The dragon breathes fire and water every weekend. IT ACTUALLY BREATHES FIRE.
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Please, Marvel, include this beauty of engineering in a film. Have it talk. Please.

Sometime during our stay in Da Nang was the first time I walked along a street and felt normal. Backpacking is weird; staying in one place for no more than four days at a time is weird; South East Asia is weird. I love all those things, but it took until mid-February for it all to feel normal. Apparently Da Nang is considered to be one of the best places to live in Vietnam because of its infrastructure; there’s a free hospital, plenty of schools – I can attest to their productivity – and a good road system. People just get on with their normal, every day lives – which is the most comforting thing you can see when you only stay in one place for four days. Don’t pass up the chance to go.

In Which I Am HOME

Afternoon. And it really is the afternoon! Except my body thinks 4pm is 10pm so I feel like I have the flu by every dinner time… but I AM HOME. And home looks okay.

Yeah all right I'll stay for a bit.

A post shared by Francesca (@francescagotconceited) on

I gave myself a few days to chill out and finish my Christmas chocolates (one perk of leaving the country on 5th January is eating a giant chocolate Rudolph on 6th April) and from today I have been BACK AT WORK. Ish. I’ve been cleaning up my CV, looking for a job and trying to sort out things I’d forgotten about, like hair appointments and recycling and my wardrobe.

My mum took the time I was away to redesign the kitchen, do up the bathroom and install a downstairs toilet, so neither of us know where anything is and for once we’re both in complete spring cleaning mode (usually she wants me to chuck out my grungy t-shirts and I want her to leave me alone). But it turns out everyone was right when they said I’d get back and realise I have too much stuff. When I first had a shower when I got back (and couldn’t work the shower) I couldn’t decide what to wear because I own too many clothes. Way too many. Why did I have so many socks? I only have two feet. I spent three months with five pairs of socks! I have thrown out most of them since I’ve been back because they disintegrated some time between Angkor Wat and Chiang Mai, but whatever. I am a born again non-materialist. I HAVE SEEN THE LIGHT. I am giving away or selling what I hadn’t worn or used for more than six months before I left, and although my room looks like a charity shop, I feel, like, free. That being said, a lot of my clothes were falling apart anyway, and I’m a bit concerned that if I get rid of everything I secretly hated/never wore/wore out, I will have no clothes. Which brings me back to looking for a job. The good news is that I’ve been more or less constantly occupied since I left school. The bad news is that although I have discerned a great deal of responsibility in my previous roles, I can’t actually spell ‘responsibilities’.

I am not looking for anything solely concerned with proof reading.

It’s nearly five, which means I need to sit down and nurse a large glass of water if I want to stay awake long enough to eat dinner and wash my hair.

 

In Which I Am Going Home to a Foreign Country

This morning I worked out that if I did one blog per week about each place in South East Asia that I haven’t talked about yet, I would have told you about everything in… 13 weeks. That’s longer than the time I’ve spent in South East Asia. If I do two a week and devote a third post to something else – like looking for a job and being reunited with my pets and re-learning to wear jeans – I will probably have finished up by the time I’ve found a job. Or is six weeks too soon to find a job? I’ve been away from home for so long that I can’t really remember how European time (sorry, sovereign British time) works. How long will I spend in traffic getting to my nan’s? What time do shops stay open until? How long do commercial breaks run? It’s a good thing we’re finishing in Thailand, where motorists drive on the left side of the road, because I’m already fully expecting to try overtaking on a hill while going round a blind bend, tooting my horn and chatting on my mobile. And that’s wrong. Right?

I’ve been trying to think of something philosophical to write about leaving home and traveling and returning home, because isn’t the whole point of going backpacking in your twenties to find yourself but either I’m really unaware or I’m already a salty old lady, because I can’t think of a bean to say. I think the UK might actually feel more alien than Asia at this point; I keep thinking of all the things I want to do when I get home, and how I’ll approach certain parts of my life differently, but what if my new ideas are not okay in Southend? I mean, I realistically won’t drive like a Laotian minivan driver. I also probably won’t barge past people on pavements, because in Britain it’s just not done. And I’m definitely happy to be leaving a region where it’s normal to discard rubbish in the street, where a lot of children don’t go to school, where landmines are an every day occurrence, where equal marriage is literally a foreign concept. But I’m going to miss how friendly people are, how willing they are to help foreigners even if they don’t really understand you. I can hand my phone to a tuk tuk driver so he can look at my map, and I know for a fact he’ll give it back to me. I’ve been leered at once. Just once! I’m going to haggle in every market I go to, I won’t have such a problem talking to complete strangers any more and I’m probably never going to judge other people’s bathroom habits ever again.

Probably.

street food in Luang Prabang, Laos
Why, WHY isn’t street food more of a thing in Britain? (Taken in Luang Prabang, Laos)

Something I’ve become very aware of is that I can walk into a dorm that sleeps six people and hear five languages that aren’t English. Out here the locals can identify me a mile off as a backpacking white girl, and they’re kind enough to indulge my shitty pronunciation and wide-eyed stares and total ignorance. As an British person I’m one of the few foreigners who doesn’t speak two languages; English is the default language for pretty much every traveler I’ve met, from Scandinavians to Ethiopians, while I’ve understood maybe four words of other people’s languages. Again, they’ve indulged me. I’ve even picked up some new vocab, although none of it is usable in polite conversation. Unlike holidays I’ve taken with family, amongst backpackers there hasn’t been a single xenophobic comment about anyone to anyone, and no one’s spent dinner accusing a Brexiter of being a fascist or a German of being a Nazi. Trump supporters are discussed with more nuance than I’ve ever heard in a western news broadcast. The most grief I’ve experienced is when I’ve told people I’m from Essex and they’ve said ‘I’ve heard of Essex girls,’ to which I’ve replied I’m not what they’ve heard of; at home I’ve had people call me ‘exotic’ and ask where I’m from in a tone that really just means they’re asking if they can say something Islamophobic in my presence and get away with it (spoiler alert: no). I’m going back to a country in the middle of a debate about what it means to be British, and I’m not sure how I’m going to fit.

Hue, Vietnam
I was served this Pina Colada in Hue, Vietnam, and I kind of feel like if the Vietnamese can use an American flag as decoration in a shitty beverage, the Leave voters I know can make amends with the Remain voters they stopped speaking to last year.

I guess I’m going to learn a lot when I’m home, huh. By the way, how much does a coffee cost in the UK at the moment? I’m used to paying about sixty pence.

Home in T-Minus 1 Week, ft. a Small Crisis

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).

St Joseph's Cathedral, Hanoi, Vietnam
Just as a teaser, here’s the church. Officially it’s a cathedral. Possibly when I walked in I should’ve burst into flames.

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!’

Bahahaaa.

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.

Lanterns and Lite History: Hoi An, Vietnam

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 mild form 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.

Dalat to Nha Trang, Vietnam
That’s not a badly taken photo, that’s the view (well it might be slightly badly taken I THOUGHT I WAS ABOUT TO DIE).

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.

Sign in Canteen, Hoi An, Vietnam
There is definitely a story behind the urgency of this sign.

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.

South East Asia Day 79: Missing the UK… (Or Not)

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

  • Drizzle
  • 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

  • DOGS
  • My friends
  • Decent chocolate
  • Cupboards
  • Private Eye
  • 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
  • Family
  • Smoking ban in public places
  • General public use of seatbelts and traffic lights
  • Staying in the same place for more than a week
  • Good TV
  • Having a job
  • Porridge
  • 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
  • Getting my eyebrows waxed
Cat Ba, Ha Long Bay, Vietnam
There were no windows in the bathroom/dorm of our hostel in Ha Long Bay; walking there took about 30 crooked stairs and it was 30 people to a room. This was the view I woke up to. TL;DR: I can live without getting my eyebrows waxed.

 

A Tale of Two Cities… No, Three Cities. And Three Trains, Three Buses, One Unprescribed Sleeping Pill and 50 Hours of Public Transport

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).

img_7612
Children played on the tracks before the train left. I have been away from Health and Safety land for so long that all I thought was ‘that looks like a nice way to pass the time.’

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.’

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Leg room! LEG ROOM.

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.

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Once I’d sat down I didn’t even regret the Starbucks. I will be going back to Lumphini before leave Bangkok in April.

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).

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If you were wondering what a foil blanket looks like… (The white one was provided; it was more useful for blocking out light than blocking out frostbite.)

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.