Lao did it end so soon?!

The sun sets over the Mekong, and on my tour

Rope swings and I have fallen out.

Just a couple of days after a self-induced faceplant on the surface of a Laos river, thanks to a souped-up member of the rope swing world, today I managed to damage my hand after another go on a pendulum play-thing.

This time, it was purely an old-fashioned knotted rope tied to a tree over one of the most stunningly blue waterfall lagoons I’ve ever seen.

With Dirk at the waterfalls

Ricky, Alissa and I had taken a trip to see the Kuang Sii waterfalls near Luang Prabang, a half hour ride away from the town, and after little sleep the night before from the overnight journey, a dip in the pool to wake us up was definitely needed.

The rope swing platform was a huge tree that leans over the water, and the way up was by clambering over its slippery roots and using a hooked stick to grab the rope. My first attempt was great, and like the tubing, good fun. My second attempt wasn’t so good – mainly as I accidentally wrapped the knotted rope around the wrong hand, the one that was to take my weight.

The result: having just gallantly got the rope for two good looking girls in front of me, who were now watching from the side, I stepped off the tree, the rope tightened around my hand, some knots whipped around it and took off some skin, and I clumsily dropped into the water in a heap.

Dirk was on hand with my camera to capture the unfortunate, and painful, moment. The girls had disappeared.

Pillock.

The waterfalls area is also home to a bear sanctuary, most of which were chilling out underneath the jungle canopy. A couple of them were enjoying some time out in some specially-made hammocks, the only thing I think they needed to complete the relaxed picture was a bear beer.

Bud - weis - errr

That night was our last night in a main town – the next two days will be spent on the Mekong River on a slow boat north to the Thai border. Ricky was preparing to leave the group, as he is meeting a friend in Chiang Mai, and so it was our last night all together on the tour.

Being 'chef'

We went to a fantastic barbecue restaurant, where the barbecue comes to you. It’s a typical southeast Asia way of barbecuing, where a small bucket of coals are brought to the table and topped off with a metal tray and what looks like and upside down colander. Soup is poured around the base, which is then filled with noodles and fresh vegetables, while a tray of meat is brought out to cook on the top.

A few of us shared chicken, pork and water buffalo – it’s quite a popular meat around Laos, probably because there are so many of them, and I have to say its incredibly nice. It’s like a lean beef, and the bits we had were lovely and tender, so much so that we ordered more. Our tour leader Fon was in good spirits too, possibly because she knew she wasn’t far from her native home, but probably because she knew within a few days she will be free of us!

Fon and a plant

After a walk around the night market, everyone went to bed early as it was an early start in the morning, with a short trip down to the river at 7am to catch the boat back to Thailand.

A wave from everyone. Well, almost everyone...

We piled onto a tuk tuk, and I said farewell to Ricky who was moving on to meet his friend at the airport. He’d been umming and ahhing about whether to complete the tour by taking the boat trip with us all, but decided it was cutting it too fine to get to the airport in time.

I knew Ricky would be on the boat with us!

Goodbyes done, I got onto the tuk tuk – only to turn around and see Ricky marching out of the hotel with his backpack and a smile on his face. He’d changed his mind after Fon told him about a bus service from the Thai border he could catch. I pretended to mop up my tears and told him he wouldn’t be getting another manly hug when he left us for a second time!

There are two options for getting back up the Mekong to the border point, and we’re taking the slower, safer one. The other is to take a speedboat service, but that is seen to be incredibly dangerous. The river is peppered with rocky outcrops that threaten to stand in the way of even the most careful of speedboat drivers. The fact only the driver gets a crash helmet wouldn’t fill me with confidence either.

Getting onto the slow boat

A few on the tour were not looking forward to the boat ride, seeing it as two days trapped on a vessel. I saw it as two days to relax amid incredible scenery, and in the end that was the opinion that came out on top. It sounds a lot to spend two days on a boat, but with a combination of good banter, a blog to catch up on and a great game of cards, the time soon flew by.

Poker on the boat

Our guide Fon was outed as a bit of a poker shark when we enticed her into a game. My cotton bud chips came out to play again, and we even taught the boat guide how to play a hand. The entire first afternoon was passed playing cards, gently bobbing around on the Mekong, drifting past lush green mountains, herds of wild water buffalo bathing in the waters and children waving on mounds of sand at the boat full of foreigners waving back.

Tasty...

As the sun began to set, we stopped in a small town for the night. There are no navigation lights on the boats, and I guess the river is too dangerous to sail at night due to the rocks dotted all over the surface of the Mekong, so it provided an opportunity to stock up on snacks and food for the next day.

Thailand-bound

After a very short sleep, it was 5am and time to catch the boat again before we knew it. We’d been warned it would be an early start, necessary to get us to the Thai border before it either closed or started charging more after a certain time.

Early and cold!

With sleeping bags at the ready, we piled back onto the boat in the dead of night and found a spot to make a bed.

Zzzzz

Mine was a part of the floor near a step, in the hope people wouldn’t stand on me. It was extremely chilly, and I was glad to have a nice warm sleeping bag I could curl up in, and combined with the gentle rocking of the boat and the constant noise of the engine and the water, I was soon back asleep again, as was everyone else in the group. Infact, it was a very quiet morning as people caught up on sleep, although I managed to wake up and catch up on some blogging.

Snooze boat

It was yet another fantastically hot and sunny day, perfect weather for cruising down the river. Everyone was in good spirits, although there was the knowledge that within a couple of days, the tour would be over and everyone would go their separate ways.

Beautiful

I’m already thinking about what to do afterwards, as its become clear that the tour will only be in Chiang Mai, Thailand’s second biggest city, for a grand total of four hours. Its been timed so that the group reaches the northern city at lunchtime, and is then booked onto the train back to Bangkok at 5.55pm that night. Considering so many people have told me good things about the place, Ive decided that I will leave the tour there and make my own way back south. I had planned to visit the north, and it made sense to stay there rather than finish the tour and then travel back north. Fon agreed – its something quite a few people have done, and Canadian Alissa agreed to do the same with me.

As we approached the border crossing at Chiang Kong, we were sailing up no-mans land. On our right, Laos, which had been our home for the past week. On our left, Thailand, which was to be my home for at least the next few weeks. As the river forms the border, it’s a slightly unusual procedure with the passports as when you’ve got your exit stamp from Laos, you have to get a longtail boat across the river to Thailand, where you get an entry stamp.

Speedboat border crossing

We said yet another goodbye to Ricky at the border, who this time definitely was leaving us to meet his friend. Now there were just nine of us, although the German couple had decided they didn’t want to associate with us anymore (apparently, it was to do with a couple of us being five minutes late for dinner one night) and so their end of the table was distinctly mute. Dinner was something we’d all been waiting for – a lovely Thai green curry and rice, and it had definitely been worth waiting for.

Goodbye Laos

The rest of the group had decided they wanted to leave the border town at 6am in the morning, to maximise time in Chiang Mai. For me, what time I left wasn’t an issue, but despite the early start, I wasn’t going to complain – I would probably want to do the same. I hardly slept during the night however, and when my alarm went off at 5.30am, I felt shattered. Thankfully, I managed to bag the back seat of the minibus, so I was able to stretch out and sleep a bit more.

I woke up to hear the driver saying: “Wakey wakey, temple,”

It was 8am, and having seen a fair few temples in the past few weeks, the thought of another didn’t fill me with the joys of spring. But then I saw it.

The White Temple - incredible

It was like something out of a film, a magical place from somewhere like Snow White or Narnia. The White Temple near Chiang Rai was for me, one of those places that takes your breath away. I couldn’t stop looking at the gleaming white construction, glinting away as the early morning sunshine tried to break through the clouds and reflect off the millions of tiny mirror pieces incorporated into the design

Hands reaching for help

I think the element that captured my imagination was the fact it was such a contemporary way of making a temple appeal. Its classed as a piece of art, as well as being a working place of worship.

Aliens!

Its designer and builder is someone from the village, adding to the structure as and when time and money allows. The grounds are filled with anything from gargoyles to aliens, to keep evil spirits away, while a stunning piece of art around the main walkway entrance to the temple sees dozens of hands rising up from underneath the ground, symbolising those who need help in hell. It was all very cleverly done, yet tasteful and still in keeping with the whole place of meaningful worship thing.

Just to the side was a hut selling lucky trinkets, and I saw Fon buy one and hang it on a rail. She told me it’s the luck from the Buddha, and you hang it to bring good fortunes your way. She suggested it would be nice to hang it on a Christmas tree, so I bought one to send home to my parents for their tree. I then started wondering if superstition could kick in, seeing as I’m sending something that’s supposed to bring me luck thousands of miles away. It began eating away at me – I had visions of something bad happening the moment I sent it, so I went back and bought one for myself too!

Superstition won me over

A few hours later it was time for the last group outing, a trip to Tiger Kingdom on the outskirts of Chiang Mai, a place where instead of looking at tigers through a cage, you can go inside with them. Part of me feels a bit uneasy, not just because I could very realistically get eaten, but because I worry about animal welfare in touristy places like zoos and exhibits.

Ah, little kitty!

Having satisfied myself by reading the information booklet that the animals are well cared for, we bought tickets to spend time with both the biggest tigers, and the smallest tigers.

What an incredible animal to get up close to. The handlers told us they were quite placid during the day, as like cats they spend a lot of time sleeping and relaxing during the day. Even so, stepping through a small opening into a cage with four fully grown, and potentially deadly, tigers was an amazing experience. We took it in turns to cuddle and pet the tigers, having photos taken and generally watch in amazement as the tigers enjoyed the fuss, even kicking their legs as they had their belly tickled.

There was one moment when the reality kicked in, as the huge tiger I had my head resting on suddenly moved and swung his paw for a toy one of the keepers was waving near its head. It was enough to make me move equally as quickly, and as the photo proved, I was a little worried about its next move!

Erm, a little unsure!!

The baby tigers, however, were the cutest of all the animals in the park. They were so playful and fun, we could have sat with them all day. Well, we could have done, had they not decided to fall asleep. Like human babies I guess, they have a small amount of play time and then need a large amount of sleep time.

Ahhhh!

That afternoon we had a final lunch together with Fon, the tour leader, before the time finally came to say goodbye. Fon had kindly rearranged my train for Alissa and I, and so we were to stay in Chiang Mai while the rest of the group made their way back south to the starting point of Bangkok. Booked onto the 5.55pm train, we both went with the group to wave them off at the station.

Aw. We'll all miss Fon!

After spending four weeks with Fon and the group, I was sad to be saying goodbye. It was easy to take all Fon’s help, all the pre-arranged coaches, tuk tuks and hotels, and all the good places to eat, for granted. Within minutes I would be back on my own, fending for myself, albeit with my Canadian friend for company. I bought a postcard and wrote a nice message on it for Fon, telling her she’d be welcome to stay at mine if ever she visited the UK, along with a tip from Ricky and I for all her hard work.

Then it was time for a few last photographs with the group beside the train. I knew I would be seeing some of them again on my travels, while others will be returning to their homes in all parts of the world. Considering we had been complete strangers just a few weeks ago, in a funny way it felt like we’d become a bit of a family, all looking out for each other and sharing all the fun times like we had. There were two that didn’t quite blend in – who didn’t even have the politeness to say goodbye, or at least wave goodbye – but that didn’t matter.

Goodbye group!

Would I do an organised tour again? Probably not – it was a bit too much of a rush for my liking. I would have preferred to spend a bit more time in each location, but then that was my choice to try and cram as much in before heading for New Year in Sydney. But then, without doing the tour, I would never have met some of the brilliant people that I have done – and that’s the beauty of something like a Gap Adventure. It was my back-up plan, my escape route if I had travelled for a month without meeting anyone. I knew a tour would put me with people, and there was a fair chance I’d make friends. So to that extent, I did absolutely the right thing. I met some incredibly people and saw some of the most beautiful parts of the world.

Alissa and I running alongside the train!

As Alissa and I ran alongside the train as it pulled out of Chiang Mai station, we both knew for us the tour was over. But the friendships that had been made – and the memories we all have together – will live on.

The tour disappears into the distance

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