[Current Jenny – I’m combining days 9 and 10 because we were sailing down the Mekong River so there’s not too much to say]
-Saturday 28th November-
This morning we got up and headed down to the local mooring point to get on our river boat. This involved walking down a fairly steep slope, embarking one long-boat, walking across it then climbing onto the boat next to it. Not hard – unless you’re carrying your bulky 11kg backpack and day sack and the two boats are floating a good foot or two apart. Then, once you’ve clambered aboard, it’s shoes off instantly. We spent the next eight hours cruising down the river in the sunshine, looking out for dolphins (only to find out the next afternoon that the pink Mekong dolphins are down in Cambodia nearer the sea rather than near the north of Laos), tigers (none), elephants (none) and dinosaurs (didn’t expect to see them but the scenery was so reminiscent of Jurassic Park that it wouldn’t have been entirely a surprise to see one or two). The rest of the time was filled with napping, reading and playing a LOT of card games – including a very intense game of Cheat that lasted over an hour.
At 5pm we docked on a sandbank (I have no idea what the boat was moored to but it was still there in the morning so it was fine) and walked up the hill to a village where we stayed the night. To be honest, I had mixed emotions about the home stay. We did a tour of the village and learnt about the communities and their ‘simple’ lives – a community of farmers, children don’t start school until 8 years old so they can help their families on the farms. It all felt a bit ‘poverty tourism’ and I wasn’t super comfortable, We then sat down and were served a delicious meal cooked by the local people with fresh local produce – the garlic chicken was phenomenal, we were fighting over the last mouthful. Then we played with the local children, again something I wasn’t happy with.
This is mostly because children scare the crap out of me and I have no idea what to do. But then I made a friend with two girls who loved clapping and playing with my watch. Channy called us together and surprised us with a pile of workbooks to hand out to the children, this bit I liked. The kids were SO excited to get the workbooks it was incredible. Growing up in England it is very easy to take things like that for granted, but they were so grateful, it was so nice to see.
At this point it was around 8:30pm and we all went to our different houses. Sleeping under mosquito nets, on the floor, surrounded by the sounds of crickets, lizards cattle, chickens, pigs, goats and who knows what else! As it was
so dark we all fell asleep pretty early – which was a good thing as we were up at 5am on Sunday morning to get back on the boat.
-Sunday 29th November-
Our final day in Laos, again spent cruising up the Mekong river. Sunday passed in much the same way Saturday did, with the exception that when we disembarked the boat we were taken to the Laos border, left Laos, drove to the Thai border and entered Thailand – yay to more passport stamps! Note: this was all done whilst carrying our big bags again. [Current Jenny – whilst I did love my bag, the second I emptied it in my flat in Brighton I was glad to be rid of it!] A bit later we reached our guest house in Chiang Khong – to get to my bathroom I had to go out onto my balcony and through a second door. A late dinner and straight to bed for me – I hadn’t slept super well in the home stay or on the boat so I was a big fan of my comfy double bed.
Today was awesome. We got up early and spent the morning at an elephant sanctuary. I have mixed feelings about the place – it was incredible and I love elephants more than anything and I got to be up close to the and feed them and stroke them and it was a great day. However. When we arrived, a HUGE group of tourists were already with the elephants so we went down to a little enclosure and fed a mother and baby. All nice and good except the mother was chained to a tree.
The keepers said this was to ensure we could see and pet the calf and to stop them walking off – which I understand but I’m still not ok with the
Then we got to go ride them. Again, the mahout said all the blankets protected their backs (and obviously elephants are strong) but I felt a bit funny a bit it. With Christian on the neck ‘guiding’ it and myself and Sarah on the bench on the back. The elephants were obviously well-trained and knew the route as most of them didn’t need guiding – although Ping Pong had other ideas and had a little wander off into the trees. The mahouts were pretty funny, stealing our cameras and taking loads of photos and pointing out spiders – I shit you not we saw two that were the size of our faces which caused great amusement when people started screaming and hiding in their hoodies.
After riding them we went down to the Mekong to give them a little bath and a scrub. One final load of bamboo and we headed back to the vans and went to Phu Si Falls. A natural waterfall ending in a pool to swim in. We all dipped in, some better than others. Personally, I inched my way in to the freezing cold water, to then be nibbled by fish. Safe to say I got out fairly promptly.
After a busy day, we went for street food and wandered around the night markets. The street food was basically massive stands full of stir-fried vegetables, rice, noodles and skewers of meat. One bowl for 15,000 kip aka £1.20. So good. [current Jenny: I think that meal was my favourite from the whole trip]. All really fresh and tasty. Plus Beerlao, obviously. The night market in Luang Prabang is better than in Hanoi. In Hanoi it was mostly tourist stuff and plastic rubbish, but here it was jewellery and clothing and bags and paintings. I wanted all of it! I bought a few presents for people and a Beerlao t-shirt and a patterned dress for myself. After wandering up and down twice, we called it quits and headed home.
This morning we loaded ourselves into our mini vans and headed off through the mountains to Luang Prabang. Whilst the roads were in pretty good shape, we spent seven hours twisting and turning every second, looking down the edges of mountains and across beautiful scenery. I only thought I was going to die a few (hundred) times. Speeding round blind corners whilst looking out the window down the edge into the abyss. Terrifying. Anyway, we survived – minus some
people stopping for mini-vomits due to motion sickness. With a “happy stop” at the most incredible service station high in the mountains and toilets with a view and lunch in the clouds, I quite enjoyed the drive (once I stopped looking out the window!).
Finally we arrived in Luang Prabang. After checking in we headed out for an orientation walk. Our little group got
about a third of the way up the epic hill before we decided it was far too hot and we were far too tired for that shit.
Dinner at Lao Lao Garden! for the twins’ birthdays was a treat – they had reserved us the top section of the garden and decorated it with balloons and lanterns. All 20 of us – 18 tourists, the lovely Channy and our local Laos guide Seng – gathered for Beerlao (the beer of Laos), fruit wine (which some enjoyed more than others at 25%) and great food. Sadly mine arrived third to last so I was pretty hammered from my two giant beers and the free shots we got – no idea what it was but it tasted like an alcoholic lemon and honey. I quite liked it, no-one else did.
I’m getting worse at filling in my diary. It’s too hot. Today was nice and quiet which is just what I needed. I woke up this morning feeling good – probably because I’d had more than three hours sleep! Less good when we realised we had slept through breakfast, so instead we went to a cafe a few doors down from our guest house for french toast and pancakes. With full bellies, and hangovers for some, we jumped into our tuk tuk for a bone shattering 20 minute drive to the lagoon.
It was lovely. Swimming in the natural pool (with some massive fish), chilling in a wooden hut and climbing up the side of a mountain to see a cave [current Jenny: in hindsight, we didn’t realise how high we were climbing, and we might have at least taken a bottle of water if we had known]. Minus the 40 minute round climb, it was a really nice relaxing day before tomorrow’s seven hour drive through the mountains to Luang Prabang. Seven more hours of bumpy, uneven, potholed roads. Joy. Already looking forward to getting a massage in Bangkok in a week!
After surviving the tuk tuk home, we headed down to the river to watch the sun set over the mountains. Sadly it was a bit cloudy but it was still spectacular. Another couple of Beerlaos later (and some pizza), we somehow ended up back in the night club playing beer pong. Turns out Korean boys are pretty good. But they also like drinking the beer they paid for so aren’t too unhappy when you turn down their leftover cups.
Vang Vieng is lovely. It is a tiny town in a mountain in Laos but it is buzzing and full of young people – locals and tourists a like. It lacks a beach but has a happy, laid back beach feel to it. Whilst I admit getting there is hell due to the roads, it’s worth the journey.
This morning (after no more grasshoppers appeared in my room) we went out in a tuk tuk and visited Wat Si Saket, the oldest temple in Vientiane dedicated to the war veterans; Patuxal, the victory memorial aka the Laos Arc De Triomphe; Pha That Luang, a gold temple and a rehabilitation centre with a small exhibition dedicated to Laos people that have lost limbs due to unexploded bombs and how the charity helps people with fitting prosthetics. Then we did the Western things and found a bakery and had milkshakes and cheesecake. So good. Totally worth it.
-Vang Vieng, 12.30am-
Wow Laos is beautiful. After our snacks in Vientiane we got into our buses and spent four hours driving to Vang Vieng. The first two hours were fairly uninspiring – suburbs of the city, some fields and a bumpy road. The second two hours continued with the bumpy road but we started to wind our way up into the mountains and through thick forests. Occasionally there were some houses and farms, but mostly some breath taking scenery of the mountains.
We arrived into Vang Vieng just after sunset so off we went to arrange activities for the next day. Half the group wanted to go boozy tubing down the river. Whilst I was interested, it was pointed out to us that two people had died doing it THIS WEEK! So, instead, a group of us hired a tuk tuk to take us to a lagoon.
Activities booked, we headed to a really cool restaurant/bar for larb (traditional Laos cuisine). Then we decided to go for another drink and Channy took us to an ‘Irish’ bar. Great music, beer and a pool table. We then, for some unknown reason, headed across the road to a club/bar. I’ve never been in anywhere that sells balloons of laughing gas at the bar. After an hour of awkward dancing, we were told to leave at 12am. Turns out that in a communist country, the fun stops at midnight. We convinced a barman to let us play a quick game of beer pong (obviously). With that, we headed to bed [current Jenny: that was the first night I slept straight through until morning since being away].
On the bus heading for the airport to fly into Laos. Final thoughts on Hanoi:
Lack of road rules and safety
Walking out in front of cars and scooters is the only way to cross the road – scooters will either stop or go around you
The city is crazy busy
It is well hot and smoggy
It’s been fun. Great culture and food, people are lovely and welcoming and I’ve never felt unsafe (I thought in a city this busy I’d be constantly wary of pickpockets but I felt really safe).
Meeting my group that have all travelled up through Vietnam has made me jealous. Obviously going to have to come back and see the rest of it. Oh what a shame.
Phew, getting in Laos is a bit of a faff. After a short flight and a landing that swayed to the left before getting back on track, we all went through to immigration with our completed entry passes. Then a massive group of Asian men pushed in front and we queued for over an hour. Once you get to the front you hand a stern looking man your passport, your visa form and a passport photo, slide along the counter past a man hidden behind some posters and along to a glaring woman who shows you your passport, takes $35 (for a UK citizen) and hands you back your passport with the visa inside. Note: you have to fill in your departure card before the man will let you through to baggage.
After a quick ride to our hotel, we headed out for dinner (via finding myself a new grasshopper friend on my bed as I got out my shower). Luckily Laos understands real size chairs so whilst we sat on the street (it was rather warm), at least we were more than an inch from the floor. For £5,70 I had a HUGE plate of fried beef with garlic and rice, two 630ml bottles of Beerlao (best beer ever, and did you know it is called Beerlao as it is the beer from Laos…this took me four days to work out) and two large bottles of water. Bloody love Laos.
So last night was fun. After repacking my entire bag to put it in a slightly more logical order, we headed out for dinner. Jason wasn’t a big fan of us going anywhere with ‘real’ seats, but two girls in skirts persuaded him and we ended up in a little place with great food [current Jenny: I completely failed at taking food photos or writing down where I ate for this entire trip so expect some vague descriptions]. And we had a lot of food. No photos because I was too excited but: spring rolls, morning glory with garlic, chicken with cashews, beef with lemongrass and chili. All the food plus beers came to about £4 each.
Later, in an art gallery that opened up to a little bar on the street, we had three beers for 75,000 VND. This is about £2.30. Ridiculous. [Current Jenny: if only I knew it would get cheaper]. We also walked through the night markets and laughed a LOT at Jason’s Vietnamese haggling (which never really worked).
Busy day! Up early to visit Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum. Literally his
dead, embalmed body is on display. Kinda creepy. Discovered the Vietnamese really love him. Huge queues and crowds everywhere of tourists and locals. Then we walked a pretty long way around Hồ Tây (West Lake) and blagged our way into a swanky hotel to sunbathe and chill by the pool. Which was lovely until it started to piss it down. Finding cover in a westernised restaurant, I had a Magners (sweet sugary cider heaven) and crab and artichoke ravioli. Then I headed back ready to meet my group.
At 6pm I met Channy, our CEO (Chief Experience Officer) [current Jenny: I LOVE Channy. This will be obvious in the coming posts]. As he started talking through our itinerary, I was worried I was the only one doing my trip. But
instead it turns out I was joining a group of 17 people who had already been travelling together for three weeks. That terrifies me even more. Luckily at dinner, they all welcomed me to the family. Small issue that most of them were hungover so most seemed subdued but nice. Guess I’ll find out more in the next two weeks – although there is another Brightoner on the trip (well, Peacehaven…). Tomorrow we fly to Laos and are joined by a local tour guide as that’s part of their communist law.
God that flight was LONG! Turns out that I get bored on a 10.5 hour flight on my own. But I survived! Hurrah! I was met by my lovely driver who led me to his air-conditioned car (yeh, Hanoi is hot event at 6am) and handed me a bottle of water. Big fan. In the 30 minute journey I learnt two things: 1 – the people of Hanoi take their waterproofing very seriously and 2 – the people of Hanoi don’t take road safety very seriously. Scooters all over the place. Utter chaos. I spent a lot of my ride hoping we weren’t going to kill anyone. Safely arrived at my hotel – Church Boutique Lan Ong – which is very narrow and very warm [current Jenny – the warm thing isn’t going to go away]. Having lost all concept of time, I didn’t realise it is breakfast time and while I sit and write and wait for Jo I am surrounded by a tour group all chattering
away. I have just realised that this could well be my group, although they seem to have a lot of pre-planned activities so I am less sure. All I want to do is shower and sleep, but alas into the rain I must venture. Presuming I can ditch my beast of a backpack somewhere secure. Who knows what I’ll come back to! My bag survived the plane ride, I’m sure it will survive a morning in my hotel.
Wow. Hanoi is a bit crazy isn’t it? After an early start with Jo we walked down to Hoàn Kiếm Lake, home of a giant turtle that we sadly didn’t see. But we did walk all the way around it and have a look at the temple – legend has it a mighty sword is hidden in the depths and guarded by the turtle. After a stroll to the Catholic cathedral and another trip round the lake (we really like that lake) we got a taxi to the Temple of Literature (and gatecrashed some graduation photos oh well).
Dedicated to Confucius, the temples gave out exams in various subjects , and today is a beautiful, peaceful haven – if you ignore the constant beeping from moped and car horns! At this point, my body more or less gave up so I checked into my hotel and badly napped and rehydrated. My long day of travelling and eating funny things at funny times left my body sore and queasy. Plus I’ve started taking my malaria tablets in preparation for Laos and a common side effect is feeling sick. But power on I shall. I have two weeks ahead of me and I refuse to be ill!
I woke up this morning freakishly early thanks to ridiculous dreams of going to the wrong hotel. 5am early to be precise, but due to my 6am taxi it actually worked out alright. Do you know how hard it is to decide what to wear when England is cold and raining, but the forecast for your two week holiday is 33 degrees and sunny?
So, wearing ALL THE LAYERS (not enough, I was still cold), I headed to Heathrow T4. I forgot how dull it is flying on your own. Who do you drink prosecco with? As I write this, I’ve been on the plane for 4 hours, with 7 still to go (delayed flight yay). I’ve had an alright chicken curry, two glasses of prosecco and watched Kingsman: The Secret Service. As we’re forced into Hanoi time (2:40pm London, 9:40pm Hanoi) they’ve turned all the lights off. This is where I should be trying to sleep but it is hard when everyone keeps walking past to go to the toilet. I’d like another drink but feel it’s rude to ask again on Vietnam Airways. On the plus side, I don’t feel scared any more (yay prosecco!). We’ve hit pretty bad turbulence twice and now I feel I can do this.
I’ve felt pretty sick for the last few days with nerves – what was I thinking booking a trip to Asia on my own? It seemed like a good idea at the time. Oh well, too late to turn back since we’re flying over Eastern Europe now! This feels strange to be writing things down but I don’t trust myself not to break my iPad. Already dreading getting back and having to type this up [current Jenny: at least I identified this early on!]. I also can’t work out how to turn on my overhead light, but luckily Catriona suggested I buy a clip on light for my Kindle which is currently clipped to my tray table.
It’s pretty incredible that in 7.5 more hours I will be on the other side of the world. Now seems like a good time to re-watch Avengers – Age of Ultron. When in doubt, watch two of my favourite Chris’ – Hemsworth and Evans (Pratt makes it in the top three). I still can’t quite believe I’m doing this. This is uncharacteristically brave of me.
[Current Jenny: This seems to be all I was able to write on the flight. I was alternating between being FINE and freaking out. And watching films. Then thanks to time difference we lost a day]
I wrote this blog when I was in Berlin in mid-September, let’s look back at my adventure…
On the Thursday I woke up early (6am for the second time in one week) and jumped on a train to Gatwick to meet my mum at the airport. Is it lame to go on holiday with your mum when you’re 3 weeks away from turning 26? No. We went to Prague last year and had a hoot. We like going to party cities and not really partying. Although last year it took us a while to find each other at Gatwick, this time I got through the train barriers and there she was. Off we fly thanks to Norweigan Airways (showing Mum how to use self service bag drop in the process) and wine and Prosecco (our flight was at 10am so perfectly acceptable, especially once you put your clock ahead an hour for German time…). By 3pm we had navigated the train system and checked into Melia Hotel Berlin. Right next to Friedrichstraß, our hotel lies on the Spree and perfectly located for our three day trip. After a quick wander, we collapse fairly exhausted into our hotel room with mini bar wine (booking through lastminute.com we got a €15 Voucher per night at the hotel aka all the minibar wine!)
Being lazy and exhausted we headed to Block House, a total of 20 feet from out hotel. I order a beer and a steak – medium rare – and Mum orders a burger. My steak arrives beautifully pink and Mum’s burger was, and I quote, “no onion, plain meat, but tasty it didn’t need the onion” – I should note here the ‘burger’ came with no bun and was purely a round piece of mince meat instead of a steak. This is a not a suitable place for vegetarians (so me circa 7 years ago). Served with a baked potato loaded with sour cream and a mountain of coleslaw, that combined with my Pilsner was the pick me up I needed after a long day of travelling. A steak, a burger, a wine, a beer and some water came to €40 including tip (£29.64 at the time of publishing). Bargain. In bed by 8.30pm, my mother and I shared a wonderful evening of silence, kindles and headphones before collapsing asleep.
The next morning we awoke at 8.30am with no concept of the time thanks to our great blackout curtains. Heading downstairs to our included breakfast we spied some champagne. “Surely not for us” we said as we loaded our plates high with all of the necessary components for a fry up/heart attack. I tentatively asked our waitress about the champagne who instantly offered to bring me some. Best. Hotel. Ever. “Don’t worry” I replied as I ran to get some. When my mum saw this she laughed, I mentioned it was free and she grabbed a glass. Definitely related.
We headed off for a walking tour that was mentioned in our guidebook my boss Kate had given me for the trip (published in 2007). Down the road from our hotel to Checkpoint Charlie (fake, a reconstruction thanks to tourism) along with the “You are now leaving the American sector” sign (also a reconstruction). Note: the two men in fancy dress offering to stamp your passport for €2 are also fake. We turned right along Zimmerstrasse to the remnants to the wall. I’ve been to Auswitcz and Birkenau and they are harrowing experiences, but seeing the wall (all 200 metres of it) is different. This is the wall that separated families and a nation. People on the south side woke up to it right in their doorways. The wall came down when I was one month old so growing up I didn’t really get the significance of it, but the Topographie of Terror memorial along the wall really drove home that this was something humans did. Then once ‘we won’, a wall was built between ‘us’ and the Russians. When they finally couldn’t hold back the crowds, the wall came down, and Hasselhoff sang a song (a month later but still).
Now the remnants of the wall are filled with holes from tourists and keepsakers wishing to own part of history for themselves. After this, our tour cheered up a bit as we walked up to Potsdamer Platz for some lunch and up to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (I admit this doesn’t sound very cheerful). The guidebook says that “it is spooky in places especially on overcast days and near the middle, where many feel a sense of confinement”. We joked as we walked through the undulating alleys of pillars of different heights, but you can’t help but feel a sense of unease. This is created because hundreds of thousands of people died. And much like the ‘stone for every person that died in Auswitcz and Birkenau’ memorial, this will never leave me. Whilst it is smaller at just 2,711 stones, it makes you feel fairly alone. The echoes of other tourists shoot around you, even when you can’t seen anyone. In my mind, this is a beautiful memorial. It is something that will stick with you for a long time.
By this point it was only 3pm so we strolled up to the Brandenburg Gate and along Strasse Des 17 Juli to the Siegessäule, basically big F you to the French from the Russians. This is where normally I would have climbed the 285 steps to the top, but by this point we had already walked around 5 miles in the sunshine and I gave up because I wanted a beer (’tis the British way). So that’s what we did. We visited a cafe opposite the Bundestag (Parliament buildings) where a young waiter lectured me on “we don’t do pints in Europe we do litres” then apologised for having no lime for my my Corona and explained how in South America (where he was from) that no one drank Corona and how I should go to Mexico and drink real Mexican beer. Screw you kid. I like lager.
Dinner On Friday was courtesy of a Italian restaurant just over the bridge where we dined on a pepperoni pizza, a vegetable risotto and a litre of Pinot Gringo for €40 again (this seems to be our magic number). Thanks to the Spar Express in Fridrichstrß station, we had beer, wine and Pringles for €11 for pudding. I love Europe outside of England.
Saturday. Our last day. Having spent 30 minutes queuing on Friday afternoon to get a (free) ticket to go up into the glass dome on the Bundestag – heads up, you need some form of photo ID to do this – we headed over there in the morning sunshine. After some airport style security we were escorted to a lift which whisked us up to the fourth floor which opened on to an incredible roof terrace. No bar though. With 360degree views across Berlin, the roof terrace alone is a great sight. In the dome, a curled ramp leads you to the top as the audio guide (sounding freakishly like Bill Nighy) guides you towards points of interest and explains some of the history behind the structure and buildings around you. I think this was my favourite thing in Berlin. And it was free. I admit there was lots of queuing, but hey, I’m British and I enjoy a good queue.
The afternoon was spent in a gin haze as we took a river tour along the Spree, which ended the other side of the city and the boat home the man had assured us would be there was, but wasn’t leaving for 30 minutes. So we got a taxi home like good adventurers do. Dinner came from La Parrilla, an Argentinian steak house around the corner from our hotel. Mum had a turkey steak with cheese and pineapple – something that just sounded wrong to me – and I had a grilled salmon steak with potatoes and spinach. The salmon was beautifully cooked, the rest of the meal was so so.
It was with full bellies that we headed back to the hotel to sleep off our day of adventures, and after one final lazy champagne breakfast we headed home. I really enjoyed Berlin, although much like Prague I didn’t see any of the nightlife, but the city was certainly buzzing and had a really nice atmosphere. Whilst it was quite busy, I never felt unsafe or crowded and I like that. If I wanted to be pushed around all day I’d just move to London (or indeed visit the Lanes on a sunny Saturday afternoon!)
For a load of photos from Berlin you can check out my Instagram and for random thoughts, I also have Twitter.