LAOS | THAILAND

Crossing borders: from Thailand to Laos

By on 23rd April 2015

 

 

After two days in Chiang Rai the time had come to pack our bags and make our way to the Thai-Lao border. When entering Thailand we received a 30 day visa on arrival and as hard as that was to believe our time in Thailand had now almost come to an end. 

While staying in our guesthouse in Chiang Rai we discovered a lovely family owned restaurant just a few minutes down the road. We returned here for our last meal in Thailand and once more enjoyed the amazing food and the hospitality of the owners. I wish I knew what the name of their restaurant is, they served us the best pad Thai in the whole of Thailand!!!
With our backpacks weighing us down in the hot midday sun we decided that this time we will try and travel by a nice air conditioned VIP minibus to the border town of Chiang Khong. However when we asked about this at the bus station’s tourist information desk we were directed to a local bus. I am not actually sure whether private buses travel between Chiang Rai and Chiang Khong, previous experiences in Thailand would have suggested yes, as they have a tendency to offer the more expensive minibus option to tourists over the cheap local buses. Not this time.

Oh well. We got on the bus and sat ourselves down at the back row of seats. The driver planted our backpacks firmly in the corner, all seemed ok, ready to go. The bus started filling up slowly, mainly with locals and another backpacking couple, who got the seats next to us, their backpacks in front of them. By now the bus was so full, a couple of locals casually sat down on the steps of the bus in the open door which was to remain open for the duration of the journey. Some more boxes and bags were handed up into the bus for delivery and were stacked on top of our backpacks and in the aisles. It seems that locals use bus services for quick and cheap delivery of goods. The bus stopped along the way every now and then where someone was waiting to receive a box or a bag.


The journey took about two hours and cost 60 Bahts each (£1.25).

Nearby Chiang Khong we stopped at a crossroads where a couple of armed policemen got on and took photos on a phone of the passengers, one of the front of the bus and one of the back. Adam said they looked like they were photographing each other… I’m pretty sure they were photographing the passengers. This close to the border, I wouldn’t be surprised.

Another 5-10 minutes’ ride and the bus pulled up on the side of a busy main road along a line of waiting tuktuks. I had read upon the border crossing procedures the night before and knew we had to get off the bus here and get one of the tuktuks to border control. The German couple sitting next to us weren’t so sure and wanted to go all the way to Chiang Khong. We explained to them what was happening and that they needed to get off the bus if they wanted to go to Laos. They eventually got off the bus and into a tuktuk, but they didn’t look too convinced. We got to talking later and they told us they had an out of date guide book 🙂
We got on our tuktuks and they took us to border control for 100 Bahts (£2). At border control we filled in the departure cards that we were handed when we first arrived and got stamped out of Thailand. 
The next stage of crossing the border was to get tickets (25 Bahts, £0.50) to the coach that was to transfer us over the Thailand-Laos Friendship Bridge over the Mekong. Bags in the bus, tickets shown, seats taken, off we go. This journey took approximately two minutes. Off the bus, bags out of the hold and into the Laos immigration building. Now the real fun starts.

In order to get into Laos we both had to apply for a single entry visa on arrival, which is similarly to Thailand given for 30 days. But in Laos after filling in the visa application form and then the arrival card you have to hand over a passport photograph and $35 visa fee (actually it was only $30 for me as a Hungarian citizen. One of the very few times my Hungarian citizenship trumps over Adam’s British citizenship :-))
Once all was done and the immigration officials were happy, the visas were glued into our passports and we were free to walk through the  doors into Laos. We got some local currency out the wall and for the first time in our lives we were millionaires!!! One million Lao kips is the equivalent of about £83.
Oh but no, this still isn’t the end of our border crossing journey. We now had to arrange a trip into the Laos border town if Huay Xai, a 10 minute tuktuk ride away. We shared a tuktuk with the German couple and the guy bargained hard and negotiated our fares down from 50000 kips to 40000 kips per person, a saving of £0.70 per person!!! Now I know you are meant to barter with the locals, but aggressive haggling for a £0.70 gain – I usually don’t bother myself and neither does Adam. We just pay up like good little tourists. 

Despite our shared border crossing adventures and having a nice chat into Huay Xai in the tuktuk, the German couple disappeared as soon as we got off the tuktuk taking our new friendship no further. This is still something I have to get used to, a lot of travellers we have met along the road are nowhere near as forthcoming as I was hoping. Of course many of them are, this is just an observation, a topic for another blog post perhaps.
So just to summarize the journey from Chiang Rai to Huay Xai:

  • Bus from Chiang Rai to the outskirts of Chiang Khong
  • Tuktuk to Thai border control
  • Leave Thailand
  • Coach transfer over the Friendship Bridge
  • Enter Laos
  • Tuktuk from Lao border control to Huay Xai town

And that’s it.

We had now well and truly arrived in Laos!! We literally walked into the very first guesthouse we set our eyes on as we got off the tuktuk in the centre of Huay Xai and took a room – the first room so far we hadn’t had prebooked, what an achievement for the neurotic over-organiser in me!! 🙂
We went out for a safe dinner of Thai green curry right by the mighty Mekong and plotted our next move: the famous two-day slow-boat journey down the river!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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THAILAND

The White Temple

By on 22nd April 2015

 

 

After Adam had put his foot down and we went off-roading on our first day in Chiang Rai, I insisted we go and see the city’s most famous tourist attraction, The White Temple on our second day. 

Before we made our way to get the bus we took all our clothes, shoes and bags that we had been wearing on our ATV adventure the previous day to a laundry service. The ladies were slightly baffled by the state of our clothing which were completely covered in thick orange dust. We desperately needed everything washed though as we were planning to leave Thailand the next day.
After a spot of lunch in a lovely little family owned restaurant near our guesthouse we made our way to the central bus station. The White Temple is a half hour bus ride away from the centre of Chiang Rai on a local bus. We asked the tourist information desk to point us to the right platform and also to write down the name of the temple for us in beautifully drawn Thai letters so that we could hand it to the bus driver. We had found that when asking for directions the Latin letters can be just as incomprehensible to Thais then the Thai alphabet to us. 

We handed the note to the driver, paid 20 Bahts (£0.40) each for the fare and enjoyed the local bus ride through town to the temple. The heat on the crammed bus was stifling, helped only a little by all windows and doors being open while moving. Be careful of tuktuk drivers offering you a ride to the temple for an inflated price! They will tell you not to take the bus because it’s a very long walk from the bus stop to the temple. Actually we only had to cross a busy road.

Also known as Wat Rong Khun, The White Temple is actually a privately owned Buddhist temple, and you guessed it, it’s completely white! It’s beautiful and very unique amidst the dozens of wats we have already seen and the thousands in Thailand. Interestingly this temple is owned by an artist called Chalermchai Kositpipat, who also designed and built it!

The white temple is a very popular tourist attraction, and you can see why:


It’s beautiful! Slightly resembles a wedding cake… 

Just with any other Buddhist temples you have to be respectful when entering the grounds and the temple itself and must wear modest clothing. At the entrance white sarongs are given to ladies with short skirts and shorts. 

When you enter the grounds the artist’s works are showcased all around, which can make this visit to a Buddhist temple a bit surreal; like this fella climbing out of the ground, who eerily resembles The Predator…:
The temple is approached via a bridge over a lake. In front of the bridge are hundreds of hands reaching up apparently symbolising desire, greed and temptation. According to Buddhist teaching we have to overcome these to reach happiness. Once the bridge is crossed you walk through ‘The Gate of Heaven’ which is guarded by two creatures who decide who can enter through the gates.

A lot of the building is covered in mirrored glass, reflecting the rays of the sun.

Apart from the temple there are 5 or 6 other buildings on the grounds, including a meditation centre, a house for monks, a gallery of the vast collection of the artist’s previous works and a very ornate gold building that serve as the toilets…

To return to Chiang Rai we decided to get a taxi back as the sun had started to go down and we weren’t quite sure where the bus stop actually was… For 150 Bahts (£3.15) we got a quick ride back to town. 

We collected our freshly laundered clothes and took them back to our guesthouse only to realise that most items still had a definite orange dust coating where the dirt ate its way into the fabric :-S
We decided to have dinner at the same place we had lunch at: the lovely family owned restaurant by our guesthouse. The food was delicious, the family who lived here were so so lovely and this time the father and the son as well as some of the son’s friends were watching the Liverpool – Manchaster game to Adam’s great delight! Once we finished dinner Adam asked them to join in the viewing and I left them to it. 

I walked back to the guesthouse to get ready for our big journey tomorrow.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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THAILAND

ATV mountain adventure

By on 18th April 2015

 

 

When we arrived in Chiang Rai we were kindly presented with a book of organised tours in our guesthouse. I carefully looked through them, trying to decide which will offer us the best value for our money and the most things to see around the city.

And then Adam took one look at Tripadvisor and decided he wanted to do the ATV tour, which is currently the number 1 activity to participate in in Chiang Rai based on the reviews.

Adam didn’t want to budge.

So despite my careful considerations over what to see in the city and for how much, we signed up for a full day of off-roading an hour outside of the city for 5 times the price then any of the city tours and did no sightseeing.

But boy, did we have a good time… 🙂

In case you didn’t know, because I certainly didn’t, ATV stands for All Terrain Vehicle. And despite signing up for this pretty last minute, there were no other people signed up for the full day adventure, like us. There were another couple to join us for the afternoon but for the morning we were to have the guides completely to ourselves.

My main concern was that at 5500 Bahts per person (£115) this would be by far our most expensive day out since starting our travels. Activities like this are a bit too pricey for your usual budget traveller, perhaps which is why in this off-peak season no one else was signed up for it. Adam was pretty confident however that the price was going to be worth it, so I went along with it.

We got picked up from our guesthouse at 9am on the dot and driven 45 minutes outside of Chiang Rai. First we drove along rice paddies after rice paddies, then the car turned unto a road leading way up into the mountain. About 2/3 of the way up we stopped in a clearing where our 3 guides for the day and our vehicles had been waiting for us. We all introduced ourselves to each other and straight away we got shown, seated and strapped into our ATVs.

I had never been in one if these before, and neither had Adam. I had done some off-roading before in a 4×4, but the track was relatively mild with a couple of big dips and I wasn’t driving. We had the option of sitting in the same vehicle for today as well, but given that we are both taller than your average we decided against it. I also thought it would be better for my sanity if I was in control of my own vehicle – sitting behind Adam on a scooter in Koh Tao taught me that I am a much worse passenger than a driver, Adam can contest to that…

So we got into our ATVs which were basically metal frames with seats and chunky wheels attached and a roll-cage in case you end up tumbling down the side of the hill.

We were explained the controls of the cars, basically an automatic system, forward, reverse, break and gas and the ignition key. Our guides allowed us to get used to driving them around as we circled around in the clearing. Then two of them got into a a bigger 4×4 before us and the third guy into a car like ours behind us and our procession began unto the dirt roads of the Northern Thai mountains.

The main guy out of our three guides spoke excellent English and was incredibly knowledgable about the area. He grew up in these mountains in a tiny village (to which he would later take us), these mountains were his playground where he was running around as a little boy. The other two didn’t speak any English, but were very friendly and we found out a lot about them during the day. They were all cousins and this was a family business. 

We spent about 2 and a half hours in the morning just driving around the mountain roads, all dusty, steep and xx, every now and then coming incredibly close to the edges, driving through wooden planks mascarading as bridges over creeks. Every now and then we would stop on a clearing to take in the view. These were the only times I dared take out my camera as the drive was so dusty that it would have killed my camera in no time.

We all got covered in a thick orange coat of dust, the sand was everywhere! In our mouths, ears, eyes, all over our hair, our clothes, our skin, no escaping from it! Thank god we both had sunglasses! I also had my contact lenses in, which by the end of the day were hardened and stuck to my eyeballs with the glue of the dust.

The landscape here too was charred. I wasn’t expecting anymore as we are in the middle of the dry season and we had already seen the effect of slash and burn farming by this point. We could only imagine how lush the vegetation would be here a few months later in the wet season. But then again I’m not sure if driving in the mud would have been as enjoyable and it certainly would have been a lot less safe. Needless to say safety precautions were non-existent apart from some seat-belts to secure us into the vehicles, but no helmets or goggles were handed out and there was no safety briefing as to what would happen if either one of us ended up in a ditch or worse still down a rock… I had a near miss at one point as my steering wheel span out of my white-knuckle grip and my ATV careered off the dust road toward a mountain drop – luckily I found my break pedal just in time. I also run straight into Adam’s rear as his ATV cut out just after a corner and I was coming round at full speed. No harm was done though.

A couple of times I didn’t see in time a steep hill climb and didn’t manage to gather enough speed to get up them and other times the dips were so steep I was scared I would topple over coming down them, but luckily the little car always managed. Adam didn’t have such problems, he was down the steep roads without a second thought… There was only one hill I didn’t dare drive down on, so one of the guides did it for me and on the way back they had to tow all three ATVs up it with the 4×4.

Our guides took us through a couple of hillside villages and we stopped at a small homestead in the middle of a rubber tree forest where we had amazing fresh honey out of a beehive still heaving with bees.

At lunchtime we took a long break on top of the mountain where just like an oasis stood what we came to realise was our main guide’s house, or more like his villa! Wow. Beautiful place with infinity pool in tow – the house that ATV built by the looks of it. His whole family was there and we received a big lunch from the ladies in the house and watched the kids play in the pool.

In the afternoon we were joined by another couple, Dave and Carol from the US who had experience in these kind of tours as they regularly go off-roading back home and they took one ATV in-between them.

We carried on on the mountain tracks and stopped in the jungle where we all got out and trekked through the dense vegetation to arrive at a waterfall where loads of locals congregated, playing in the water, barbecuing marshmallows and singing and playing guitar around the fire. I also had a dip, the water was lovely but the whole basin was surrounded by large sharp rocks underwater; I had to be really careful not to jab my feet. The locals were just jumping in and out of the pool, clearly they knew this place very well. We were both offered coffee out of a bamboo stick! 🙂

Back unto the dirt racks for a few more runs in the ATV and the finished our afternoon back at the house with some refreshments.

 

So there we go, our day of off-road adventures, definitely a not-to-be-missed experience! What I think really made our the day so unforgettable and authentic was the local knowledge of our guides who could shows us a glimpse of local life.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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THAILAND

Next stop: Chiang Rai

By on 16th April 2015

 

 

After a few days in Chiang Mai and a couple of activity filled excursions around the area (Elephant Nature Park and Thai Farm Cookery School) we made our way to the bus station to get the coach to our next destination: Chiang Rai. By now we really have got used to Chiang Mai – it seems that on our travels so far we always stay for long enough to learn our way through a town or city and navigate quite easily, but just as it gets easy and effortless it is time to move on… It would be nice to be able to stay in one place for longer than a week, I wonder when that time will come for us on our travels. For now there is too many places to go to, too much to see, no time to stop.

We decided to put Chiang Rai on our itinerary as it is the last big city in Northern Thailand before reaching the Thai-Lao border. Originally we thought that if we didn’t have time to visit a hill tribe from Chiang Mai then we would still have the opportunity in Chiang Rai. However while researching the different tours in Chiang Mai we decided that visiting a hill tribe may not be for us. I know that this is on most backpackers’ list if things to see, but I personally got slightly put off by the commercialisation of the experience. It all seemed too touristy, not at all authentic and I didn’t like the idea of going into a village with the sole purpose of gawking at people and taking their picture, etc. something about that doesn’t feel right to me. I might be a little too idealistic and have too romanticised view of the world, but if I see a hill tribe I want to see one because we happened upon them and not because we paid to be taken there as part of a tourist group. This might give them an income, etc. as tourist tend to buy their handicrafts, but in my eye this also destroys their way of life. So for now we were happy with the decision we made of not seeing these tribes. If you have visited these tribes, do share your experience, I’d love to know what you thought, maybe I got it completely wrong.

To get to Chiang Rai from Chiang Mai we decided to get on a so called Green VIP bus.

Luckily for a small commission the tickets could be bought in a ticket office in the old town of Chiang Mai, otherwise the bus station is quite a way out if the old city. In total it cost us 600 Bahts (£12.50) for the two of us for the 3 hours bus journey. The next day we arrived at the bus station, found our bus, got on, took the seats allocated to us on the tickets, rejoiced at the large size of the seats, were handed snacks and drinks and were thankful for getting on the VIP bus rather than just a normal bus.  

That was until the bus pulled out of the bus station and the steward decided to switch the overhead televisions on and play ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ dubbed in Thai and blaring at about 2million decibels…! The sound was so ridiculously loud for about 2 hours out of the 3 hour journey that I could still hear the movie through my earphones in my ear on top volume! Conversation was out of the question, so was snoozing. None of our fellow passengers said a word about the loudness though and we couldn’t decide if it was blaring just above our heads and wasn’t bothering anyone else, so we just put up with it as part of the experience. The ride was quite nice though along roads curving round hills for most of the way.

A lot of the landscape was charred from the slash and burn farming, ie. the ground having been cleared by burning and the air was hazy with the remnant if smoke, but this is something we had got used to in this part of Thailand.

As the bus approached Chiang Rai centre we had a moment of doubt about the place as it didn’t look very promising… Should we have stayed in Chiang Mai as that is such a lovely town and skip Chiang Rai altogether? It was too late to have doubts about that now – so we made our way with some trepidation from the bus station to our guesthouse.

Luckily that evening we ventured out into town and found it to be perfectly pleasant. We had our favourite dinner by the roadside: cheap and delicious pad thai! I also had a taste of a weird orange concoction that was thick with sweetener, and turned out to be cold thick milky tea… Not my favourite… We sat by Chiang Rai town’s biggest landmark: an ornate golden clock-tower which entertained us on the hour with a light show 🙂 

After dinner we discovered the local Walking Market, where we found the handy craft to be much influenced by Burmese traditions as the town is so close to the border of Myanmar and was actually part of then Burma for several hundreds of years. It only officially became a part of Thailand in 1933.

We sat down for drinks and was entertained by traditional dance and music. By the end of the day we were quite happy to be in Chiang Rai and looked forward to what excitements the following day would bring!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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THAILAND

Thai Farm Cooking School

By on 10th April 2015

 

 

For our second activity in Chiang Mai we chose to do a day in a cookery school. Adam and I both love Thai food, but we never cook it fresh at home. Usually we buy a sauce in a jar, add some chicken, vegetables and noodles or rice and voila! But even though the jar sauces always have the right list of ingredients, they never taste authentic. We thought it would actually be nice to know how the different ingredients come together, how they are added and cooked in all our favourite Thai dishes. 

When signing up for a cookery school in Chiang Mai you have a lot of options available, many different cookery school to choose from. When we first arrived in Chiang Mai we picked up some brochures at the train station, read through all of them and chose a couple we liked the sound of. We then checked online for reviews and decided to go for the Thai Farm Cookery School. This school advertised themselves as having their own farm and that we would be picking our own ingredients from the farm. This sounded pretty cool and something different from all the other cookery schools.

Luckily their main office was only about a 5 minute walk from our guesthouse, so we walked there to sign up and walked there again the next morning. We climbed unto the back of the truck, which had been converted to transport around 8 people with seats on both sides, picked up the rest of our group from their respective hotels and we were on our way! These trucks (while not the most comfortable mode of transport) are a good way to throw some strangers together who will be spending the day together, but don’t know anything about each other. Our forced proximity meant that everyone got to talking and got to know each other by the time we got off the truck at the farm! In our group we had 2 other people from the UK, a girl from Germany,  a guy from Switzerland and two ladies from France.

The farm was about half an hour outside of Chiang Mai, but en-route we stopped at the local market. This is also where we met with our teacher for the day, Benny.

Benny was fantastic! Full of fun, energy, great one-liners, a person of a charming disposition who kept up the energy all day long, remained enthusiastic and forged a team out of the eight of us while we slowly learnt the basics of a Thai cooking. 

At the local market Benny took us around and introduced us go different kinds of rice, curry pastes, fish oils and soy, oyster and mushroom sauces. She showed us how coconut milk is extracted from the coconuts and introduced us to the spices and seeds that are necessary for most dishes. She then did her shopping for the day ahead while we were left to roam the isles, soaking up the atmosphere of the morning market.

Once we arrived at the farm we all got our hats and aprons on and Benny lead us around the fruit, herb and vegetable garden attached to the school. We were encouraged to smell and taste the different herbs and leaves. 

Adam and I were really impressed by the quality of the whole day! Once we got into the kitchen it was clear that this was carefully thought out process: we all had our workstations in the big open kitchen and Benny was very good at explaining what to do how and when and at no point did I feel her teaching to be too fast or too slow. There were a couple of super lovely ladies who washed up after us and prepared the ingredients for the next dishes with military precision. 

In total we each learnt to make a curry, a soup, a chicken dish, a noodle dish and a dessert. But we had a choice of two or three dishes in each category, so Adam and I always chose to make something different to have as many dishes in our repertoire as possible!

Here is what we made during our day at Thai Farm Cookery School:

Adam:

  • Green curry with chicken
  • Tom Yam soup with chicken
  • Fried chicken with basil leaves
  • Spring rolls
  • Mango with sticky rice

 

Andrea:

  • Yellow curry with tofu
  • Chicken and Galangal Coconut Soup
  • Fried chicken with cashew nuts
  • Pad Thai
  • Bananas in Coconut milk

That’s a lot of food! And the best thing was we got to eat all of it!! 🙂

My absolute favourite of the day (and a big revelation I might add) was the mango with sticky rice. I had seen this on Thai menus offered as a dessert option but somehow I just couldn’t imagine that as a dessert… Mango as a fruit is ok, a bit meh, and rice as dessert, I only know it as rice pudding, which is again a bit meh…

But mango sticky rice!!!! It’s amazing. For the rest of our stay in Thailand I went on to ask for it in restaurants almost every time I had the opportunity and I cannot wait to make it at home 🙂

I think so far in Thailand this was one of my favourite days. Some cooking skills was learnt, lots of fun was had AND loads of food was eaten, what’s not to like? 🙂

Thai Farm Cooking School:

http://www.thaifarmcooking.net/home/#.VSfTH9kayc0

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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THAILAND

Elephant Nature Park

By on 6th April 2015

It is realistic to say that as a traveller you could stay in Chiang Mai for a whole month and have something different to do each day. When you walk along the old quarter there are so many tourist offices and agencies selling various tours, activities and experiences, the range of options available can be quite overwhelming!! You can sign up for trekking, elephant riding, waterfalls, hill-tribe homestays, massage, cooking, mountain biking, bungee jumping, rock climbing, river cruising and many many many many more! When you have a limited amount of time and finances, you really have to decide early on on the activities you definitely want to do while you are in Chiang Mai, book them and then try not to get upset about missing out on all the other things you would love to try but you won’t have time or money for. 

We only had a few days in Chiang Mai this time round and we decided to book a day at Elephant Nature Park and a day at a Thai cooking school. This left us with a couple of days of walking around Chiang Mai and enjoying the city as well.

There are many elephant parks in the area surrounding Chiang Mai, most of them offer similar packages: feeding, bathing, riding all in one day, these are the simplest and cheapest options. You can also sign up for a more hands on experience, which will of course be a lot more expensive, you can also volunteer for a week or two and help out in the parks while living there and paying for your accommodation.

We took our time to do our research on the various elephant parks and reserves. We wanted to make sure that the park we went to treated the elephants with kindness and any kind of enforcements used on the animals were ruled out. We checked reviews after reviews and even though some parks had good overall scores, individual reviews still revealed less than satisfactory practices. For examples one of the most popular parks in the area still use bull-hooks and chains. We also heard about the chains first hand from one of the couples we got to chatting while in Chiang Mai – when it came to visitors feeding the elephants the animals were chained up. Of course the use of chains and bull-hooks are fiercely defended by these parks saying these are only used to protect visitors from the elephants.

Hearing about these stories there was only one park we were comfortable signing up with: Elephant Nature Park. On Tripadvisor this park has almost 3 and a half thousand reviews and almost 90% of those have given it a rating of excellent. Also everyone we know that have been to Chiang Mai recommended them to us.

So we signed up.

 

We went for a single day visit, which was 2500 Bahts per person (£52). There was another option, when you get a bit more involved with the elephants and help care for them, that costs 6000 Bahts per person (£125). Now that is quite a big difference in price, especially that you spend pretty much the same amount if time in the park. £125 for a backpacker / long-term traveller can be quite a stretch. However this IS a once-in-a-lifetime experience and if it has been your lifelong dream to get up close and personal with these gentle giants than you should go for the more expensive, but more rewarding day package.

I love elephants, but what we wanted to get out of the day we could get through the cheaper option. We wanted to get close enough to them to see them in their natural habitat and we wanted to learn about the conservation work of the park and the general state of affairs when it comes to the wellbeing of Thailand’s elephants.

The day started off at 8am when we got a pick up from our hotel in a minibus. We collected all members if our group, a total of twelve people. The park is about an hour from Chiang Mai. While travelling to the park a documentary was shown to introduce us to the conservation work of Lek Chailert, who is the founder of the park.

Elephant Nature Park takes a new approach to animal conservation and allow their elephants to live in a more natural environment, rather than being ridden every day.  They have completely done away with riding baskets and if they offer any kind of elephant riding it is only bareback. Our day package did not include elephant riding, but that was actually one of the reasons we chose this day package. We learnt that although riding the elephants gives them work and ‘earn their keep’ it is still a distressing activity for them. 

We got to feed them big basket-loads of fresh fruit, which was great. They were led to the feeding area only by their mahut’s gentle persuasion and they were not chained up. 

We also got to bathe them (ie. throw water over them in a river), which was also a lot of fun – although it was a bit odd watching hoards of tourists chucking buckets of water over one elephant, but the elephant seemed happy enough, he got to feast on a bucketful of fruit all the while… 

Most of the day the elephants were left to roam the expense of the park and we were walked up to wherever they were. At no point were the elephants made to do anything they did not want to do themselves. We also learnt some of the individual elephants’ histories, some of them quite shocking 🙁

If you are in Chiang Mai please support the amazing work of this park and chose them for your elephant adventure! 

 

Read an excellent article about the park here:

http://www.samaritanmag.com/508/thai-lady-rescues-abused-neglected-elephants

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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FEATURED | THAILAND

Discovering Chiang Mai

By on 4th April 2015

 

 

Previously I wrote about our first sleeper train journey in Thailand between Bangkok and Chumpong on-route to Koh Tao. That first trip was kind of OK and since we were about to travel from Bangkok to Chiang Mai in the north, we decided to get on a sleeper train again. This saved us a lot of money, not only because the train tickets were that much cheaper (1700 Bahts for the two of us, about £36), but also because we saved on a night’s accommodation. The train journey was 14 hours long, but because we were travelling overnight it meant that when we arrived in Chiang Mai the next morning we were fairly well rested and had a whole day ahead of us to explore the city. This time the train was much more comfortable as well, we managed to get two lower bunks across from each other, so the air-con was less of a problem for me.

From the train station we got in a taxi which took us straight to our hotel in the old town of Chiang Mai. Yet another guesthouse booked last minute through Booking.com, which so far has proved to be an invaluable resource for us in our planning on the road.

Chiang Mai is Thailand’s second largest city and the capital of the north, but it doesn’t feel like it, especially in the historic centre, where you get the distant feeling of being in a small town. The old quarter is set within a 2 square km moat and had a very laid-back vibe. Most of the tourist sights are situated within this moat.

We spent our first couple of days walking around town, exploring its markets, wats, cafès as well as booking ahead for our activities and doing some general housekeeping like our laundry and deciding our route from here all the way to Laos. 

Before I go on to talk about the Wats of Chiang Mai let me tell you how appreciative I am of the laundry services kindly locals have set up in all the major tourist, traveller and backpacker destinations in Thailand. Now 3 weeks into our journey this is a service we are making good use of for sure, especially now that we have exhausted our collection of clean clothes. In Chiang Mai there was a laundry service right across our guesthouse, so we walked over with a big plastic bag of our washing and handed it over to two very lovely smiley ladies. They put the bag on the scales, told us it was 3.5 kg and at 35 Bahts a kilo that cost us a rounded up figure of 125 Bahts (around £2.60). We paid and than that was it – we left our clothes in their very capable hands. We returned the next morning by which time our clothes had been washed, dried and folded into a bag. Easy. It’s funny how as you go along the side streets of Chiang Mai and other towns there are several of these laundry services with people’s clothes and smalls hanging out in front of the shop, flapping in the breeze and drying in the hot midday sun 🙂

You cannot visit Chiang Mai without setting foot in one of its many many Wats – it is inevitable, they are everywhere. And they are beautiful.

I think Adam had a fill of them by day 2, but I just love them. They are all pretty much the same, but different (:-D). They are stunningly intricate on the outside and quiet and humbling on the inside. I must confess I don’t know all that much about Buddhism, but Wats sure make me want to read about this peaceful religion more in detail.

Here are some of the most notable Wats we visited while in Chiang Mai:

Wat Phra Singh

Wat Phantao

Wat Chedi Luang

Wat Chiang Man

 

When visiting temples and other holy sites in Thailand (and even some cafès or shops) you have to watch what you wear. No one is allowed in wearing footwear, so you leave your shoes outside by the door, or bigger Wats provide shoe-racks. As a general rule you cannot expose your shoulders, cleavage and tummies and should not wear short skirts and shorts. Days however get incredibly hot in Chiang Mai so you will be forgiven for not wanting to wear long sleeves and long trousers all day. I usually carried a big scarf that could double up as a sarong to cover my shoulders or legs as necessary.

 

On the evening of our first day here we managed to catch the Sunday Walking Market. This is a must do in Chiang Mai, it’s fantastic and huge! The stall holders start setting up at about 5pm. By sunset, so about an hour later the market is bustling, there is no square meter left unused on the pavements and visitors are shoppers quickly make up a huge crowd. The quality if goods here is really impressive, I found it much better than goods in Bangkok’s night markets and almost every stall we walked past I wanted to buy something from! 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Back to Bangkok and a visit to Ayutthaya

By on 3rd April 2015

 

 

Our one week on Koh Tao had now come to an end. I enjoyed the island so much! I was quite sad to leave and already made plans for our return.

We decided to go back and stop off in Bangkok for a couple of days on route to Chiang Mai. We didn’t take the sleeper train this time but spent a whole day travelling by boat and bus courtesy of Lomprayah. It was a relatively easy journey, just over 10 hours in total. 

I was glad to be back in Bangkok, the land of amazing streetfood and we made sure we had it every mealtime. Streetfood in Bangkok is astonishing – we got amazing noodle / noodle soup for 40 Bahts (about £0.8) each and ate it by the roadside. It is such a cool, novel experience, I much prefer it over sit down restaurants where you are paying much more to be waited on and for the roof over your head, when the food served to you on the street is just as good if not even better!

We went on a daytrip out of Bangkok to Ayutthaya. This ancient city was the capital of the old Thai Kingdom of Siam. It was at point the trading capital of Asia and even the world.

As it isn’t too far from Bangkok it is a really popular day trip for tourists.

At first we tried to hop on a local bus from the bus station, but that proved to be an impossible task. I don’t know if our experience was unique, or if other travellers also had similar experiences, but we took the Skytrain to Mo Chit stop, which is where the bus station is supposed to be, and we walked around quite a bit but did not find a bus station. There were buses departing regularly from one side of the road, so we walked there and asked an official looking fellow which bus we needed to take and where we had to pay for the ticket, he told us bus number 77 and we had to pay in the Skytrain ticket office. So back up the stairs to the Skytrain and the officer in there asked us if we wanted to go by VIP bus or local bus. We said local bus, but she didn’t look like she wanted to give us tickets for that, she just said go back down and a taxi will take us to the VIP bus. Down again. We asked a couple of guys and no one knew which VIP bus went to Ayutthaya. At this point we looked at each other and decided this was ridiculous. We walked back up the Skytrain -again – but this time got on and went all the way to the end of the line to Hua Lumphong train station. This little excursion cost us an hour and a half.

(Since then I have found out you have to get a 10 minute taxi ride from Mo Chit to the bus station, but the only taxis available when we went were scooter taxis..More info on how to get there can be found on this website: http://www.1stopbangkok.com/getting_here/bus)

At the train station we super quickly got our ticket for 20 Bahts (!!) each for the 90 minute journey to Ayutthaya. The train was quite the local experience and it ran with a 30 minute delay, but for 20 Bahts (£0.4) it was excellent value for money.

Apparently by the 18th century with its population of 1 million Ayutthaya had become the largest city in the world. But when the Burmese invaded the city they almost completely burnt it down.

The ruins of Ayutthaya is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the historic centre is very impressive.

When you first arrive in Ayutthaya by train you have to make your way to the ferry which is about a 5 minute walk away. The ferry costs 10 Bahts (£0.20)  per person and only takes a couple of minutes to go across the river and they go back and forth all day. 

Then what most people do is hire a tuktuk driver to take them around all the sites, as there are quite a few and the distances are too big to walk. Tuktuk charge 200 Bahts (£4) per hour. You can also hire bikes or scooters.

We didn’t actually want to hire a tuktuk, but we came across a driver that was so charming, we just had to climb in and go for a ride. He didn’t speak any English at all, but he had a selection of postcards of each of the sites and we just pointed to the ones we wanted to go to. He also had a book of recommendations that he showed us, which was basically a small notebook where tourists that hired him left messages of thanks. 

Very clever idea.

So he hooked us in and we visited some of the sites of Ayutthaya. Wwe went to the Grand Palace, the Temple of the Reclining Buddha (Wat Lokayasutharam) and Wat Chaiwatthanaram, but could have spent hours and hours visiting a half a dozen other sites as well. Next time I would maybe hire a bicycle, which is what a lot of people did.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

   

 

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Beach days

By on 30th March 2015

 

 

After our busy hiking and snorkelling days we decided to take a couple of beach days and visit some of the beautiful bays nearby.

We got on our scooter from which by now we had become inseparable. We decided to ride a bit further and find Aow Leuk. But when we found it we weren’t too impressed with the beach itself – there were no trees, i.e. no shade, it wasn’t the cleanest or prettiest beach, and the sand was quite stony, so despite the hard ride to get here, we decided to move on.

I’m glad we did, because we spent too blissful days on a secluded part of Chalok and then on a beach we had visited before on our hike, but didn’t stop for a swim: June Juea.

The water is so lovely and warm here and yet still so refreshing. At the shore it’s lovely and shallow, so you can sit in it and let it wash over you, but it gets deep quickly so you can go for a nice swim as well.

 

It gets incredibly hot on Koh Tao by about midday, so it’s worth getting settled on a beach by nine, when the heat is still manageable and the beach is quiet – most people start coming to the beach at around 11am.

Let me tell you something though: we got to June Juea on two separate routes. First time on foot, hiking from Chalok Beach, find the route here. It’s quite an easy walk and if you don’t like hairy rides on a scooter, take this route. There is a road for the scooter that is asphalt almost all the way, just a small section of dirt track, but this road is not for the faint-hearted. Incredibly steep with long rises and drops and sharp bends, only attempt it if you’ve got at least a 125cc scooter for two and if you are sitting at the back, don’t look and hold on! 😉

I haven’t mentioned Koh Tao nightlife so far – we went down to Chalok village on one of our first nights of the island, but found it incredibly quiet. This wasn’t too surprising to us as all the guidebooks tell you this is the quieter end of the island. There are a few really nice local restaurants here further up from the beach in the village center. These get filled up each night from around 7 pm onwards. We found that the restaurant closest to the beach fills up quickest but this isn’t necessarily because it has the best food. We had dinner here once as well as in the restaurant furthest out and both had really good food.

There are some good bars down by the beach, we stopped at Easy bar and had a drink with Til, our new friend from the train.

We also checked out Sairee for nightlife and the first time we turned up there a bit late as everything was closing! It was only about ten pm, so if you want a late dinner, don’t leave it later than 9pm. Luckily we still found a lady who was selling pad thai. We sat in a bar with really good dance music and chairs on the beach and watch the crazy fire-throwing guys do their thing.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Snorkelling on Koh Tao and exploring Koh Nang Yuan

By on 28th March 2015

 

 

As we only had about a week on Koh Tao we decided that diving will not be on our list of things to do on the island on this short visit. As soon as we made this decision we booked ourselves on a whole day snorkelling trip around the island.

I had only ever snorkelled once before and it was not a great experience, so I was nervous about it, but I wanted to rise above that, especially if in the near future I wanted to try scuba diving.

When I first tried snorkelling in Cuba there were about 50 people all dropped in the same shallow bay with badly fitting scuba masks. The bottom of the bay was full of sharp rocks and the water wasn’t deep enough to splash around in, so we all got cuts and bruises. My mask kept getting full of water and while there were lots of fish around we couldn’t see them as the water was too disturbed and dusty because of all the catamarans and just the sheer number of people! Since then I haven’t been in a rush to snorkel again I have to say.

So I was awaiting our Tao snorkelling adventure with trepidation, but I tried putting that at the back of my mind.

When you are on Koh Tao it is really easy to sign up for these kind of organised days out. There is a tourist office on every corner of Mae Haad, Sairee and Chalok village. They have posters that detail various options for a whole days adventure – you just pick, pay, and then wait for the day to come.

Our chosen package day included a morning pick-up from our hotel, a day spent being skippered from bay to bay around the whole island on a diving boat and stopping at various bays for snorkelling. 

In total we stopped at 4 bays and an island and snorkelled in each bay for half an hour before moving unto the next bay.

This was our snorkelling route:

Shark bay

Aow leuk

Hinwong bay

Mongo bay

Koh Nang Yuan

There was a group of around 20 people on our diving boat, Americans, French, Germans and Spanish mainly, only us from the UK. I found that most people just kept to their own travelling groups, maybe this was just our boat. The boat itself was small enough to mingle and get to know other people, I think it just depends on who is on your boat. 

I actually really loved snorkelling! Adam found it very easy of course as he had already done a lot of diving, so he could help me getting used to my snorkel mask and helped me learn how to breathe through it. In our first bay I struggled a little bit and panicked – the water was quite choppy (it was around full moon, which made the waters a bit rougher than usual) my mask was filling up with water and I found it hard to overcome my natural reflexes of avoiding breathing under water at all cost! At first every time I tried to go under water my head just bobbed right up as if on a spring, it was having none of it! It took a real conscious effort to get over that, but when I did it, it paid off! I calmly tried to regulate my breathing, not panic if a little water got in. Once I learned how to do this, I happily dived under water to explore the fish and corals below. All this only took 20 minutes, so by towards the end of the first bay I was confident enough and looked forward to the next bay 🙂

Each bay presented different marine life and different waters. As the day went along the bays got less and less choppy and fish numbers grew. My favourite was Mango Bay. It was really good fun swimming around in the warm water. I didn’t take an underwater camera, I just wanted to enjoy snorkelling, which I did, so next time I’m going armed with a camera!!

We were given lunch on the boat and various snacks and tea and coffee throughout the day – the crew really looked after us. At around 2 o’clock we stopped at Koh Nang Yuan, which is a small collection of beautiful islands and the clearest waters you will ever see! We stopped here for 2 hours and were left to explore on our own. Koh Nang Yuan is a national park and you have to pay 100 Baht to set foot on it, it’s well worth the small fee though. You can walk across the island on a narrow strip of sandy beach or just in the water. You can also hike up to a viewing point on top of one of the hills, do this as well if you are here, the view is amazing. But be careful, the last stretch of climb is not an easy one, better wear proper shoes rather than just flip flops, and definitely don’t go barefoot like some people did when we climbed! 

At 4 pm we got back on our boat and headed back to Koh Tao. We even got a ride from Mae Haad pier back to our hotel. The day went quickly and it was a lot of fun! Together with our entry to Koh Nang Yuan it cost the two of us 1700 Bahts (around £35) and it was well worth it! I learnt to snorkel and I got over my initial Cuban snorkelling experiences, so now I am ready for any future snorkelling and diving 🙂