People say it’s the trip of a life time, that it changes you completely,but I feel like it’s just the beginning. I spent a month in East Asia for my honeymoon and I just want more.
We visited Thailand, Laos and Vietnam and missed out on Cambodia. So what to expect? What went wrong? Why do I want more?
A lot happened in a month and I was so caught up with it, I did not even realise. So no, back in London, with the cold seasons slowly creeping back, I have finally some time to look back and digest my experience.
What to expect?
It’s hot. Like nothing you’ve ever experienced before, unless, of course, you have already visited a country this hot. So no matter how excited you are, take some time off, spend couple of days slowly adjusting to the weather and to the hours when you arrive at your first destination, by doing as little and as late as possible during the day and turning the air conditioning to as hot as you can bear.A very dangerous cocktail of jet lag and extreme temperature made sure I was vomiting at the side of a temple in the Grand Palace Complex in Bangkok. Not cool.
Big cities are big. The traffic is mind blowing. The amount of people, too, especially as they speak another language. The writing is crazy too in Thailand, all of this made me feel quite spaced out at first.
Night trains in Thailand are the coolest way of transport ever. Ok, maybe not as cool as private luxury jets, but they are cheap (a 12 hour ride from Bangkok to Chiang Mai is maybe around £30); they are clean (compared to anything else in Thailand really), really very safe (everyone is just interested in getting to the destination and there are lots of staff members walking up and down all the time cleaning) and comfortable. I actually had one of the best night ever.
Temples are everywhere. But don’t be banal and say you got bored after visiting the first few temples. And not, they are not all the same. One of my favourite moments was in the big Temple inside the Grand Palace in Bangkok. I was feeling sick (this is about 30 minutes before I vomited, so still some energy left in me), it was boiling hot and there were masses of shouty tourists all around me. I thought I was going to go mad, but when I got to the top of the 3 steps to the temple, nothing else mattered: the wind was blowing lots of little bells; it cooled me down and silenced all those voices. The peace that transpired from the inside of the temple while I was kneeling down (don’t point your feet towards the Buddha!) in front of the Buddha made sure I could resist another 30 minutes before vomiting and it was just me and this magical moment I will never forget.
When we got to Chiang Mai temples architecture had already changed and by the time we got to Vietnam we really missed the Thai temples and their minimalistic but yet majestic beauty: Vietnamese ones were so similar to Chinese ones, it felt like Vietnam’s Buddhist identity got lost somewhere there…which is exactly the reality right now.
What went wrong.
Book in advance. Ok we did it the fun way and only had the first 3 nights booked in a month. Then it all went wrong: we stopped in a place in Thailand that only deserved 30 minutes (Lopburi, the monkey town, to be precise. Don’t do our mistake: if you really want to see the monkeys get off the train wander around for a bit then get back on the train to Chiang Mai) and had to stay there 3 days because there were no places on the night train and we booked too late.
In Vietnam we could not find ANY night trains in the whole of almost two weeks and had to fly everywhere. Unless you have plenty of time, you’ll waste a day travelling each time and the tickets get quite pricey (up to £130 per person one way!) from 3 days to the departure date. So we had to skip Cambodia, but Ayutthaya in Thailand is a mini version of Angor Wat, so if you can’t get to Cambodia, make sure you stop at Ayutthaya.
Trains are awesome, they are really the best way to get around (I’ve heard such horrible stories about buses organised to steal people’s belongings while they’re asleep and dump them at the side of the road, etc) so do your best to book in advance. You won’t regret it.
Too many malaria tablets. I am still not sure if it was the malaria tablets (I was taking Malarone), but on my third week I started to feel very nauseous. This put me off any food. We realised we really should have taken them when visiting rural areas ONLY. Cities were fine really.
Read up as much as you can on your baggage allowance. We didn’t so we wasted £50 an a slow boat shipping, for stuff that may or may not arrive, when we had 2 x 23kg each in our allowance, because we flew business class (again, no normal tickets available) from Saigon to Bangkok and the same on our Premium Economy Qantas flight back.
Vietnam is dirty, dirty, dirty. We landed in Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, literally in the middle of the Old Quarter. Crazier than Soho, it was all about street drinking on tiny stools on the pavement while snacking on street food that was cooked “at the back of the ground floor room”. Washing up happened on the floor, rinsing crockery happened on the floor, communal meals (cool but yuk) also happened on the floor. I am surprised I did not see people having sex on the floor. 3 weeks in my stay in Asia, I finally got my culture shock and could not for the next week touch any Vietnamese food. In fact this is where my food poisoning slowly escalated day by day. I am so not going back to Vietnam. Oh wait, I have not yet mentioned Hoi An…
Why do I want more?
The clothes in Hoi An & Bangkok. I was never so desperate to board a plane (I hate flying) as I was in Hanoi. The airport was MAYHEM, I am even surprised we made it to the flight. But our stay in Hoi An was much more pleasant – finally, the beach! – if it was not for the fact that in Hoi An beeping is like breathing. We spent 3 days here going back and forward to the tailors, because this is where the quickest ones are (can’t say best ones but if we compare quality, cost and delivery time then…). I spent £250 and got a suit with a skirt and 2 trousers, 3 shirts, an evening dress and a summer dress which is an exact copy of a dress I already have (that was magic!). Don’t go to a shoe maker though, they have not quite mastered FASHIONABLE shoes yet :S
The Siam night market in Bangkok, instead is so trendy, I bought so many clothes there I never found anywhere else.
Thongbay Guesthouse, Luang Prabang, Laos. I should just say Luang Prabang, but I should stress it’s in Thongbay guesthouse that I spent the best moments I have of my holiday: the ones on the balcony over the Mekong river of our bungalow. We relaxed and lived in peace in Luang Prabagan. No hard selling, no rush to drive like crazy, just genuine happy people. This is how Asia should be. With our money and our fuss we have spoilt Asia, I am sure. And I am worried I will going back to Laos one day and find it as fake and as dirty as Vietnam. Laos is one of the poorest country in the area, and even remote tiny village families live in cleanness (hence my cultural shock when I arrived in Hanoi). Luang Prabang is just there, a peninsula stretched with no effort, in a mystic yoga pose, to just let you enjoy yourself in your own time. No beeping, no shouting, no rushing and French Colonial architecture is a key player I think for the relaxed atmosphere. And do go and teach English at the local library on Saturday (might even be every day) afternoon 1pm to 3pm. I went there and my student was a Novice Monk. One afternoon I will never forget.
Wait, did I really ride an elephant? Indeed. And I can use the commands to mount one and make it walk (and a few more). Well, at least if the elephant is Korean. That was scary (I am scared of everything) but riding an elephant holding on a very loose rope is definitely one of the highlights of this trip and of my life. To the point when it felt natural: my elephant was enjoying the walk himself, he put his trunk on the back of his mate who was walking ahead of him and so we strode in peace and at one with nature. Until I had to cross a river ON TOP of the elephant (I can’t swim!) while hugging a very small but smelly Korean Elephant trainer. I survived and will definitely do it again (well, not the river bit maybe).
So what would be my revised itinerary be?
If staying just for a week I’d go straight to Hoi An, arranged for some more clothes to be made, then go back to Luang Parabang for couple days or maybe visit Ventiane and then visit the beaches we have missed in Nha Trang (Doclet for example), while stay a few days at Mia, the amazing 5 star resort (paradise I call it).
If I could stay another 2-3 weeks, I would also add Chiang Mai in the mix, maybe Sapa, then I would definitely visit Angor Wat and some beaches in Thailand.
Mu ultimate advice: book in advance and try and do at least couple connecting flights on one day (that’s another reason why we lost time, by only doing a flight a day then wait at least another day in between).