My final thoughts on Indochina

It’s genuinely difficult to digest the past 30 days. You lose track of time and every day becomes a Saturday.

We have seen so much and met so many different people from a number of different countries it’s been an incredible experience.

When I first booked these tours I was actually looking forward to the Indochina one the most. I booked India as a gamble. I mentioned before that after completing the India tour I was amazed at how good it was and that Indochina has a lot of work to do to beat India. Well, with all things considered I still think India was a better tour overall.

Both were very different and we got to see a range of things that are unique to the individual countries. The people from all the countries were very accommodating and our group in the tour became very close and all got along. This is something that is easily taken for granted. I’ve got a lot of memories that will stay with me for life so I cannot say any of it was an overwhelmingly bad experience.

However, the things that made Indochina slightly less fulfilling can be narrowed down to a few points.

First of all, the group size was too big. I thought having more people would be great fun and to a point it is because you have a lot of different people to mix with and get to know. But it also causes problems because you have more people with slightly different interests and it becomes impossible to please everyone. As the tour went on this became more of a problem because as people became more comfortable and friendly with eachother then everyone became more honest. And with honesty came quite a bit of moaning or complaining about activities or where to eat for dinner or where to go for drinks etc. I ignored a lot of it and tried to focus on enjoying myself but it’s impossible to block it all out.

The second thing that I struggled with was the volume of travelling. Nearly every day we were moving around. It was great to see a range of places and we have genuinely seen a lot of towns but it takes its toll. The lack of sleep is one thing but being constantly stuck in a bus gives you cabin fever and if you also throw in the fact the majority of the roads in Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos were pretty bumpy and ridden with potholes it makes for an uncomfortable bus journey. At times, it felt like the buses were moving washing machines and id just been for a 4 hour wash cycle. You come off the buses feeling beaten up.

The third point is linked to the second and I felt we were moving around so often that we never got to enjoy the towns. It takes a day or two for people to get their bearings and understand what’s good and what key areas you should visit. By the time this happened we were always back on the bus and off to somewhere new which was a bit disappointing. There were a couple of towns where I would have preferred to have spent more time. Hindsight is a great thing though and I guess this is what it’s all about – learning as you go.

It’s hard to narrow down the trip to a few highlights or best bits but if I was pushed I would say the following:

– seeing Angkor Wat at sunrise was nothing short of incredible. Your brain can’t quite process what’s happening in front of you.

– Hoi An was probably my favourite town, closely followed by Hanoi as a city. It had a lot of variety but it was spectacular at night. It’s no wonder they label it as the Venice of Asia

– Ticking off my bucket list – this tour enabled me to tick off a lot of my bucket list items. There were a lot of things I managed to do that I felt would not be possible and for that I’m grateful to not only the tour for providing the opportunity but also the fact we had an incredible group of people in our group who would “live for the moment”. Many people say they live by this motto but very few actually do.

A few of us are staying together now to go to Patong (in Phuket) and then onto Koh Phi Phi And Krabi. It says everything when after the tour finishes you have a large number of people still sticking together.

Another life experience which I don’t regret at all. I’ve learnt a lot, met a huge number of cool people and have a lot of life experiences to share.

Time to take a break from the group tours until New Zealand and work my way around.

Back to where it all began… Bangkok

One final sleeper train back to Bangkok. We are heading back to where it all began.

I wasn’t a massive fan of Bangkok. It was just a big city and I didn’t feel like it had the same atmosphere to it that other places did. However, I guess it was nice to spend another day and evening back there so we have a chance to see stuff we may have missed.

A small group of us went to the Lebua hotel (used in the Hangover 2 film) which was cool. It was expensive there! A bottle water of water cost around £12 which was crazy. Not sure what their water is made from but should it really be that expensive?

We went to Asiatique afterwards which was an outside market. This place was pretty cool and there were amazing views of the waterfront where the river runs through Bangkok.

So here we are. The tour is over! What a couple of weeks it has been. I’ll try and summarise my thoughts in another post.

Chiang Mai – our final stop before the tour ended

Once we got back into Thailand we had a quick one night stop in Chiang Kong. It actually felt like bit of a wasted stop. I would have preferred to have gone straight to Chiang Mai and then get another full day there. Anyways, it didn’t work out like that so it is what it is.

Chiang Kong was pretty uneventful. Once we got there we had enough time to shower before we went for a Christmas dinner together at a restaurant down the road. It was a fun evening and we had Christmas music, played pool and just had a laugh.

In the morning we set off to Chiang Mai. The highlight here that I was looking forward to was the elephant sanctuary and getting to spend time with them. I’ve only seen elephants in India and whilst they are huge and intimidating creatures they are incredible too. They seem very docile and friendly animals.

Chiang Mai as a town was pretty cool. It had a lot of restaurants and bars and was also pretty spread out so it didn’t feel like another huge city. It would have been much better to have the extra night here instead of going to Chiang Kong.

We got to go to the elephant sanctuary on Christmas Day which was amazing. I was gutted to miss all the Christmas festivities back at home but this was not a bad substitute. We took a private vehicle to the sanctuary which took around 1 hour and 45 minutes. Once we were there we had a private tour of the area and got to take some food over to the elephants. There were 6 elephants here, 2 Male and 4 female. One of the elephants was very young (2 years old) and called Dumbo – of course he was… For a 2 year old elephant he was still big! And you could tell he was young because he was mischievous.

At one point he lost his Mum and was making this really loud noise to call to her. I’ve never known what noise elephants make but this was a strange one!

The way elephants take their food is interesting too. They use the trunk to gather the food and put it into their mouths. But if the food is too big or needs to be broken the elephant will put their foot on the food and break it. They can eat a lot of food in one go! The trunk was interesting. It was like a pipe on a hoover where they would use it to grab the food and bring things closer to them but they also use it as a way of sensing and working you out.

Once we had fed the elephants we were then taken to the river where we got to wash two of them. These were two of the adult elephants. It was really cold water but one hell of an experience. One of the elephants kept inhaling water in their trunk and spraying it in our faces. I never thought I would see it but you could see how happy elephant was doing it – it actually smiled to the point of looking like a laugh.

Incredible day, incredible animals and a highlight of my trip.

In the evening we were out for our final meal and drinks as a group. After so long it had finally come to an end. It had to eventually I guess.

Homestay in Laos on the Mekong River

The homestays I have been lucky to do so far have been amazing and on paper this homestay had the potential to be incredible too. However, after the 10 hour slow boat we were all feeling pretty broken and tired so lost the enthusiasm for the homestay a bit.

When we got to the island we were given a short tour around the village where we were greeted by a lot of locals. The village was very traditional and still upheld many beliefs and traditions from centuries before that are no longer in existence in the more populated areas of Laos or the bigger cities.

One of these traditions are that guys and women must sleep separately outside of wedlock. Therefore, our group was completely split into different houses and accommodation. I was staying with a group of the guys in one of the family homes. The house was effectively on stilts with toilet underneath at ground level. Another tradition for these locals is that the toilet should be outside of the main house because it is seen as an unclean part of the home. That’s why the toilets were always outside in small sheds.

The bedroom itself was a combined lounge and bedroom. They had electricity for lights but there was no television, computers or games consoles that we are so used to back home. The beds were essentially a thin mattress placed on the floor with a pillow and thin sheet. There was a giant Mosquito net covering each bed because we were in the wilderness. By this point I had been taking my anti-Malaria tablets for a while so I wasn’t as nervous about the number of potential mosquitos.

We had about 5 hours sleep before having to wake up at 4.30am and get back onto the slow boat to head towards Thailand. Another early start…

It was an interesting experience but from all the homestays I’ve been fortunate enough to do, this was my least favourite.

Slow boat from Luang Prabang to our Laos homestay

It was a very early start to get the slow boat. We set off at around 8am and it definitely lived up to its name… it was slow… very slow! Just to add to the experience it was absolutely freezing as well!

Between all of us we had bought a ton of drinks and snacks to keep us all feed and to try and stop anyone becoming hangry. The snacks actually helped a lot!

I also managed to download a couple of films onto my phone and so this helped pass a few hours. It’s fair to say the slow boat consisted of a lot of eating and drinking hot drinks. There was also a lot of people watching movies or tv series on their tablets and the amount of card games we played was ridiculous. I lost count! It was a very long and tiring day.

On the positive side, the views out of the slow boat were pretty amazing! We saw all sorts of animals roaming around the banks of the river – including wild elephants which was cool.

Not much else to say about this part of the tour to be honest! We made it as fun as it could be but it was just a very long day all round.

Looking forward to the homestay though. The ones I’ve done so far have been very good experiences!

Waterfall Park, into town and then the Phousi Mountain

Luang Prabang was a really cool town. We booked to go to the waterfall park nearby in the morning and early afternoon and then we would come back to the town to go up the mini mountain for a sunset view.

The waterfall park was even more important after the disappointment of the Ba Vi National Park. After a short 30 minute bus journey we arrived at the Waterfall Park and began walking through the park.

They had a bear sanctuary there where a number of wild bears had been rescued and cared for. I can’t remember ever seeing any bears in real life so I can only go on pictures but these bears seemed much smaller than how i imagined. They weren’t grizzly bears but they were still small. There were 4-5 in the sanctuary just chilling on some platforms, washing themselves or in a makeshift hammock just relaxing. Not a bad life!

After spending a bit of time at the bear sanctuary we walked further to find the waterfalls. It lived up to expectation… the waterfalls were incredible! It made up for the disappointment a week before.

I got too many photos to count of the waterfalls. It was an awesome start to the day and we got in the minivans to head back to the hotel just after 2pm.

In the afternoon we were all heading to the Phousi Mountain which is in the middle of Luang Prabang. We were told you could get a pretty good sunset view of Luang Prabang and the surrounding areas of Laos from up the top. To be completely honest, from the ground it didn’t look like the mountain was that high up.

We started the walk up and it reminded me in parts of the Inca Trail. Walking on cobbled paths with loose stones and rocks under your feet and being surrounded by old structures, trees and forest. It was actually a really enjoyable walk up to the top of the mountain.

We managed to get some amazing sunset photos from the top of the mountain.

The evening was pretty chilled in preparation for the long boat journey to the homestay the next day. 10 hours stuck on a slow boat does not sound like my idea of fun!

7hr bus trip to Luang Prabang

This post will be short.

The majority of the day was spent in the bus going from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang. It was a really long day and pretty tiring.

Again, one of the negatives about this tour is the amount of travelling. Just when you start to enjoy a place you end up having to pack your bags and move on. Only a week left of the tour though so it’s important to enjoy the remainder.

The majority of the drive consisted of driving up hills and mountainside roads which were really cool. We stopped at a place called Pho Peng Fa on route which was a peak overlooking large areas of the land. The views from this peak were incredible. I managed to get some really cool panoramic shots on my camera.

Whilst we were there we met a lot of monks who I think were also on a trip somewhere. I have never seen so many monks in the orange and burgundy robes in one single place. It was like being in a movie.

We arrived at Luang Prabang at around 5pm and had some time to relax before going to dinner. The rest of the day is self explanatory… dinner and an orientation walk. Feeling pretty tired now so I’ll write more on the next few days.

Probably the best day of the tour so far – plenty of activities!

For various reasons we decided to organise our own thing in Viên Viang. There were a number of companies offering essentially the same tour but for varying prices and so we opted to try and save some money.

Most of us signed up to do a day tour of the elephant cave, water cave (via tubing), kayaking and then go to the blue lagoon. Some of the other lads chose to also do the zip lining which looked cool!

We set off at 9am in a truck which had kayaks strapped to the roof. It was very cold! Considering only a few weeks ago we were in Cambodia which was extremely warm… here it was really cold, especially in the early morning and evenings.

Once we arrived at the place we had to walk about 10 minutes to reach the water caves. The elephant cave was on route but I’ll be honest it was pretty underwhelming. It was just a mini cave in the rock with a few statues and monuments in. I was expecting something much more grand.

We reached the watercaves and began getting into the rubber rings for tubing. The water was absolutely freezing but the experience looked cool so we all had to man up and get on with it. You entered a really small cave and had to use the ropes laid out through the cave to pull you through. I’m not sure how big the cave was but it was anywhere between 500-1,000 metres. It seemed to go on for ages but I’m not sure if that’s due to the distance or the fact it was absolutely freezing and it made it a much tougher experience. All good fun though and I managed to get some cool GoPro videos (although most of it is in pitch black darkness).

After finishing tubing through the water cave our guides cooked us lunch. We took about 45mins to 1 hour for lunch and then went to do kayaking afterwards. It was a short 20 minute journey in the car to the place we start kayaking. The weather was amazing and even though the views in Halong Bay were spectacular, this had the potential to beat that for a kayaking experience.

It didn’t fail to deliver. We were kayaking down a river with incredible views. On the right we had hilltops which looked amazing in the sun and on the left we had local villages and huts on the river. The water was a really clear blue colour and we spent about 2 hours in the kayaks. It was my favourite experience of kayaking not just on this trip but so far in my life.

Our final stop was a small bus journey away to a blue lagoon. This was a small pond which had places you could dive in. There were shops near by so people used it as a popular chill out spot. By this point I’d had enough of getting wet and cold so I decided to just chill in the sun. Some of the group went into the water and said it was warm and a lot of fun.

Considering we had taken bit of a gamble by doing our thing it had paid off incredibly. I think most of us agreed this was probably one of our favourite days on this tour. It was a lot of fun, the weather was amazing and everyone had a great time.

Another good day all round. Probably the best one of our Indochina tour!

Welcome to Laos – the final country on this tour!

We were all nursing a hangover and sore head. The morning and early afternoon was time to recover from the night before.

We set off from the hotel at around 1pm to head to the airport and catch a flight to the capital of Laos, Vientiane. After our final goodbyes we were on the bus.

Once we got to Laos, we were taking to an amazing hotel. It felt like a 5 star hotel and was definitely more luxurious than what we had become used to on the trip so far. It was a nice way to start off the next leg to our trip.

After a quick chill out and shower our CEO took us to a local restaurant for dinner. The food was really nice but I think a lot of were struggling with the hangover.

I’ll keep this post short. Tomorrow morning we have a 4 hour bus journey to Viên Viang. Back on to the bus again!

We all hate goodbyes… but it has to happen eventually

We had to say bye to 4 of the group. Maxime, a girl from Belgium, had been with the group since the beginning so we were losing one of the originals. Fabian, Alena and Mateo had joined us in Ho Chi Minh and had quickly become a big part of the group. They were all great fun!

It’ll be sad to see them go but it always happens eventually.

The night started with dinner at a local restaurant which was good. We then went to a few bars, one including a backpacker hostel, which played amazing music and had drinking games. This gave me a taste of what was to come in NZ and Australia if I’m staying at backpacker hostels. The only downside to this place is that the music was turned off at 11.30/12 midnight which was disappointing. It felt like the night had only just got going before we had to move on.

After this we went to a few more bars, had a few too many drinks and my credit card made an infamous appearance but not to buy jaegerbombs… this time it was Mai Tai’s. I don’t know why I do it sometimes – it never ends up working out well.

We got home around 2.30am and went to bed. It was a heavy night of drinking and it felt like a good way to say bye to 4 great people.

Not looking forward to the hangover tomorrow.