The weeks seem to be passing quickly at the moment, and this one was quality – though really really full of travel. We crossed the border between Cambodia and Thailand, had two long train trips, and headed into Laos, which so far is amazing.
8/11 Monday Somehow we managed to lose a day over the weekend, and today was our last chance to get to Bangkok in time for our Stray tour. We’d heard that the trip from Bangkok to Siem Reap is fraught with scams, but we had no problems in the opposite direction; just had to take a taxi to a petrol station, then a small bus to the border, where we were accompanied across and piled into a ute, which took us to a restaurant where we finally met the coach which took us to Bangkok. And all for $8 each: not bad.
We wandered around a bit with our friendly bus-mates, trying to find the Stray office, and ran into Chom (the manager of the Bangkok shop) and Holly (a friend of mine from school who works for Stray NZ and is here to train up the team). After sorting out stuff in the office, we booked into the nearest guesthouse we found, then headed out for an indifferent dinner on Khao San Road.
9/11 Tuesday We had to make an early start to get to the Stray office at 6:45 for the start of the tour, but had a long wait at the train station when the train was delayed. We had a 75-minute trip in a jumbo tuktuk, which took us to Sukhothai, where we hired bikes and went to see some awesome Buddhist temples.
10/11 Wednesday We had the luxury of a later start today, since we were catching the same train we’d taken the day before, and it wasn’t scheduled to leave until 1:20. On the way to the station, we stopped to see another incredible temple, then visited the markets to buy far too much tasty food for lunch.
The train journey seemed interminable, though we had a trivia quiz partway through to spice things up a bit. We arrived in the dark and headed out to a rooftop bar for a drink. Along the way, we saw the decorations for the lantern festival which is coming up, and Franziska, a member of our tour, bought each of us a lantern to release. It was awesome.
11/11 Thursday Today was a scheduled free day on the Stray route, so we slept in then had lunch with Dave Dean and Christine, Drew and Cole, who are all in town at the moment. After a failed shopping expedition we had dinner with Team Chiang Mai, a group of expats who just can’t leave.
12/11 Friday One of the things I really wanted to do this year was to ride an elephant, and 45 minutes out of Chiang Mai is an elephant camp, so we thought we’d take the chance and go for it. We sat in a palanquin and were taken around the camp, then watched most of the elephant show – it included a demonstration of elephants painting, and some of the paintings were really amazing.
The minibus left at 12ish and took us to Chiang Kong, a town on the Thai-Laos border, with just one stop along the way at Chiang Rai, where we saw an intricate white temple.
Not all of the group was staying together, so Craig and I headed out with Franziska and Simon (who were staying at the same guesthouse as us) for an incredible Thai barbecue. The server put a brazier of hot coals in the centre of our table, then a hat-shaped grill on top of that. We filled the brim with water to cook noodles and veggies, and stuck meat on the crown to barbecue. We could take as much as we wanted from the raw-meat table, and we all ate a bit too much – but it was so good!
13/11 Saturday The four of us piled into a tuktuk at 7:40am to go to the border, which opened at 8 and where we met the others on the tour. We took a small motorboat across the Mekong to the Lao immigration centre, which was a scrum. We all got through after a fair bit of jostling, waiting, and paying $31 for a visa, then met the Stray bus and three more members of the Stray crew.
Our first jaunt in the bus went well, and we arrived in Luang Namtha in mid-afternoon. We changed some money then headed out in the bus to see a waterfall. In the evening, we tried all the delicacies the night market had to offer, including maggots, though I enjoyed the dessert the best. Then, a whole group of us tried to find a place called “Happy Beer” up the road, but failed and had to settle for “just-okay beer” at our guesthouse.
14/11 Sunday Getting up early put me in a bad mood at the start of the day, but things improved as we drove through the misty Lao countryside. We stopped a couple of times, for lunch and a village visit, and arrived in Nong Khiaw at about 3pm. The rooms were basic but in an incredible location – on stilts over the river. Craig and I went for a walk then had a drink in the guesthouse restaurant – and I discovered my new favourite thing in the world: mint-lemon crushed-ice drink. Yum.
Dinner was Indian food, and afterwards we went to the most hilarious disco ever. The small basement room housed three tiny tables, around one of which were seated two older Lao men, who were watching a TV which was playing a DVD of Thai dancers. Later they put on some terrible hiphop music and everyone got up to dance – personally I preferred the Thai dancing!