Back to Nature In Borneo – Bako National Park

If your a city slicker like me whose wanting to trade your leather converse for a pair of hiking boots and take a walk on something other then concrete or are a mud-lovin soul who is searching for an off the beaten path adventure destination where you can become one with nature and get lost in the magic of the great outdoors, then its time you packed. Ive found the place for you. We’re travelling to Borneo!

Growing in popularity more and more adventure seeking travellers are visiting Kuching or “Cat City” in Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo to take advantage of the regions surrounding national parks that are bursting with amazing flora and fauna, breathtakingly raw coastlines and lush jungles. There’s so much to see and do in Borneo that even the most seasoned travelers will be in awe. Borneo is home to 44 mammals, 37 birds and over 6000 plants that are not found anywhere else in the world making it one of the most diverse islands on the planet. Some of the animals are so uniquely gorgeous they will force a squeal from even the most masculine men (I’m talking bearded pig cute)

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Remember they are cute but wild.

There are a multitude of National Parks in Malaysian Borneo which can cost you a pretty penny to explore if you visit as part of a tour. However, if money’s a little thin or your a budget backpacker like me don’t give up on your Borneo adventure! Here a quick guide on how you can independently visit (my personal favourite) Bako National Park on a budget.

Bako National Park was established in 1957 and is the oldest national park in the Sarawak region. The park covers 27 square kilometers making it one of the smallest national parks in the region, and with 16 well marked walking trails of different lengths and difficulties, its a great place to ditch the guide and indulge in independent trekking.

I had so much fun walking across the old wooden bridge.
I had so much fun walking across the old wooden bridge.

Though small in size Bako features multiple biomes including rich dense rainforest and classic lowland rainforest within its center. While the coast of the peninsular features secluded beaches hidden amongst towering limestone cliffs and mangrove swamp filled with curious Macaque monkeys foraging for dinner. The parks diverse ecosystem is a haven for an array of animals and insects making it one of  best places in Sarawak to see wild rainforest animals in their natural habitat such as the hilarious looking Proboscis Monkey, which is endemic to Borneo.

That belly is definitely a highlight.
That belly is definitely a highlight.

TRAVEL HINT: Don’t let Sarawaks annual average rainfall of 4,000mm stop your from exploring Bako – the boat ride will resemble a roller-coaster and the paths may turn into gushing streams before your very eyes but this wont stop the animals from introducing themselves! Just pack a rain jacket.

The plants are so colorful.
The plants are so colorful.

PUBLIC BUS TO BAKO:

Getting there is half the fun, especially when you’re using public transport in one of the wildest islands in the world. Bako is 37km northeast of downtown Kuching so catching the local bus is an easy and cost effective way to visit and explore the park at your own pace. From the centre of Kuching (Sarawak river side heading right), get the Rapid Kuching bus (#1) and tell the conductor you want to go to the Bako Jetty.  The bus costs 3.5 ringgit pp and takes approximately 45 minutes.

Your arrival at the Bako Jetty isn’t the end of your journey! There are no roads leading into the national park so the only way in and out is by motorboat up the Tabo River. The boat costs 97 ringgit pp return and is an amazing introduction to the magic and beauty of Bako.

GETTING TO BORNEO:
Kuching is located in Eastern Malaysia on the island of Borneo and is a two hour flight from Kuala Lumpur. There are 191 flights a week from Kuala Lumpur to Kuching. Direct flights cost between $270 – $430 NZD *Fares may change due to availability at time of booking.

Aleisha xx.

Explore The Magic of Marble Mountain

Located nine kilometers from Da Nang city center in South East Vietnam, The Marble Mountains or Ngu Hand Son in Vietnamese are a group of five marble and limestone outcrops topped with pagodas. Each Mountain is named after one of the five natural elements it is said to represent: Kim (metal), Thuy (water), Moc (wood), Hoa (fire) and Tho (earth).

Thuy Son (mountain of water) is the largest of the five outcrops and the only one accessible to tourists. Entrance to Thuy Son costs 15,000 dong and takes approximately five minutes to summit.  At the top of the stone staircase stands the Ong Chon gates which are scared with bullet holes from the American War. Through the gates stand several pagodas, remnants of the Champa civilization and a number of natural caves to explore which housed Hindu and later Buddhist sanctuaries, making the mountain a popular place for pilgrimage and spiritual retreat.

TRAVEL HINT: At the ticket counter they will try to sell you a map for 15,000 dong but you do not need to purchase this as there is plenty of signage and a big map as you walk in.

Entrance to the Monastery.
Entrance to the Monastery.
Tom Thai Pagoda
Tom Thai Pagoda

If you feel as though you have seen enough pagodas and spiritual sites while travelling around Vietnam I would still recommend a trip to the Marble Mountains, as the Thuy Son summit has two viewpoints that offer spectacular panorama views of Da Nang city and the other four outcrops that make up the Marble Mountains and the coast with the China Sea in the background.

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View of Danang and the Marble Mountain Outcrops.

Opening Hours : 7am – 5pm Daily

Public transport is an excellent way to gain personal experience, talk to locals and get direct insight in the daily routines of the local Vietnamese people, it’s also 80% cheaper than other means of transport (taxi, scooter).  To get the most out of your time in Vietnam and save money use public transport when its available.

Marble Mountains via Bus: The number one (yellow bus) runs between Da Nang and Hoi An departing every 30 minutes. The bus stops directly in front of The Marble Mountains and it’s a 2 minutes walk to the base of Thuy Son. The public bus costs 20.000 dong per person, make sure you have the correct amount of money as it’s not uncommon for the driver to try and overcharge foreigners or not give change (Overcharged price is about 10000 dong so don’t let this discourage you from taking public transport if you are unwilling to negotiate).

TRAVEL HINT: To find your closest bus stop in Da Nang use Google Maps and search your Guesthouse location to ‘Marble Mountains’ via bus.

Aleisha xx

A Guide to Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat is an ancient city in Cambodia, the “capital temple” was built in the first half of the 12th century by King Suryavarman II, and saw the Khmer people flourish into the most prominent military, religious and social civilization in Southeast Asia.
In the 15th Century C.E. the Khmer Empire fell and the grand structures within the Angkor Wat complex were reclaimed by the jungle for several centuries. With impressive monuments, massive water reservoirs and unique stone carvings that exhibit a range of Khmer art from the 9th to the 14th centuries, it’s no surprise the West have been captivated by the ancient city since the mid-1800. Although the archaeological park is packed with tourists year round it’s a must see for anyone visiting Cambodia. This travel guide to Angkor Wat archaeological park has information about the must see temples, how to get around Angkor Wat and the cost.

Top Things to See

Angkor Wat – or “Capital Temple” is the largest and best preserved in the Angkor complex and is where the historic site gets its name. Originally constructed as a Hindu temple it was dedicated to the god Vishnu, the ‘preserver of the world’. Angkor Wat combines two types of Khmer temple architecture: the temple-mountain and the later galleried temple. The central temple complex has 2,600 feet of bas-reliefs carved in sandstone on the outer wall, depicting famous battles and Buddhist scenes. The level of detail in the reliefs is amazing, it’s very easy to get lost in the beauty of the carvings and spend hours studying their stories. Angkor Wat is the most famous temple in Cambodia, with its image displayed on everything from restaurant walls to beer, it differently draws a lot of attention. Starting at 5:30am with the sunrise, thousands of people flock to the temple to admire it’s beauty as the sun jets out from behind the temple mountains. Although you have to become a Sardine to visit Angkor Wat it’s walls are literally masterpieces and the experience of visiting a wander of the world is definitely worth the tight squeeze.

 

Sunrise Over Angkor Wat.
Sunrise Over Angkor Wat.
Angkor Wat outer Wall.
Angkor Wat outer Wall.

Prasat Bayon – Built by King Jayavarman VII around 1190 AD, this temple stands in the center of Angkor Thom. Don’t be surprised if you get the feeling of being watched when you explore the ruins, as Bayon is protected by over 2000 stone faces of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara carved on the 54 towers. It’s my second favourite complex to explore behind Ta Phnom, as it’s built like a maze with dim lighting, low crumbling ceilings and  narrow passageways that are connected in a way that make each of the three levels imperceptible.

Stone Faces of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara.
Stone Faces of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara.
Bas-reliefs Carved in Sandstone on the Outer Wall of Prasat Bayon.
Bas-reliefs Carved in Sandstone on the Outer Wall of Prasat Bayon.

Ta Phnom – has been left in much the same condition in which it was re-discovered in the 19th century. Ancient trees tower over the ruins their leaves filtering the sunlight away from the moss filled walls that are slowly being smothered by the muscular embrace of the root system creating a dynamic relationship between nature and art. The Ta Phnom ruins are the ultimate Tomb Raider fantasy as you can explore numerous towers with close courtyards and narrow corridors, so come early to avoid the mid-day crowds.

Tomb Raider Was Filmed here.
Tomb Raider Was Filmed here.
Nature reclaiming the Ancient Ruins.
Nature reclaiming the Ancient Ruins.

Admission Cost

The Angkor Archaeological Park (A World Heritage site) offers three types of tickets: a one day pass – $20USD, a three day pass – $40 USD (valid for a week) and a seven day pass – $60 USD (valid for one month).

TRAVEL HINT: When you buy your Angkor day pass the ticket counter will take a photo of you, brush your hair before arriving and smile for the best photo result. Haha!

Best way to get Around

Unfortunately admission cost isn’t the last time you’ll part with Jackson’s while visiting the park. Angkor Wat archaeological Park occupies over 162.6 hectares and is home to more than 45 temples, if you want to explore more than one temple you should forget the leisurely stroll you had in mind, even the trek from Siem Reap is 7km. To get the most out of your day pass your going to have to hire a set of wheels!

Tuk-tuk: Tuk-tuks and hired drivers are one of the most popular means of transport for getting around Angkor Wat as it allows you to see more temples in a day. The drivers charge by the kilometer, so the park has been separated into two routes:  The small circuit and the big circuit.

The Small Circuit includes several major and minor temples. The circuit runs for seventeen kilometers, starting as Angkor Wat. The small circuit visits three major temples: Angkor Thom, Ta Phnom (temple from tomb raider), and Bayon, and some of minor and less crowded temples such as the Baphoun, The Terrace of the Leper King, the Twelve Prasats, and Spean Thma  before returning back to Siem Reap. This circuit generally costs around $15 USD for two people, or $17 USD to watch the sunrise which can be best viewed from the Angkor Wat moat (pickup 5am).

The big Circuit is a twenty-six kilometer extension of the shorter Small Circuit loop, taking in a few more sites such as Preah Khan, Neak Pean, Ta Som and the East Mebon and numerous monuments. The big circuit is highly recommended for anyone spending three or more days in the archaeological park. The big Circuit generally costs around $25 USD for two people.

Electric Bike: If your looking for an Eco-friendly way to explore Angkor Wat than an electric bike or E-bike is the way to go! Electric bikes can be rented from Green E-bike in Siem Reap for $10 USD for 24 hours.
The E-bikes run on batteries and there are free charging points around town so you don’t need to worry about running out of petrol. The E-bike is the perfect way to travel independently around Angkor Wat and explore the archaeological park slowly and thoroughly in your own time.

TRAVEL HINT: If you plan on visiting the park for two days hire a tuk-tuk for the first day and do the “big loop” as this loop has a larger distance to travel. On your second day rent an electric scooter for the small loop as this is closer to the main entrance.

Aleisha xx.

Flying High – Hot Air Balloon in Vang Vieng

“Come fly with me, let’s fly, let’s fly away”. Okay okay maybe you wont ‘fly away’ per se… BUT you will fly high! Vang Vieng is a small has-been farming town come tourist party destination that definitely lives up to its name as the adventure capital of Laos! If limestone mountains with cliff faces that fall hundreds of feet into the Nam Song river will get your blood rushing, then wake up before dawn and drift thousands of feet in a hot air balloon for the best view in town.

Morning mist covering Vang Vieng’s limestone mountains.

At 5:30 in the morning I squeezed into the back of an over crowded truck filled with sleepy tourists sluggish from drunken tubing and to many happy-shakes the previous day and headed through the back streets of Vang Vieng. My destination after a few more hotel pickups, an old rice field where rainbow fabric lay lifeless on the dried maze with a single lonesome pilot standing guard. As I emerged from the confinement of the truck I felt  confused and a tingle of fear washed over me as I noticed the lack of activity and staff. Just my luck if it’s canceled! My running mind was quickly stopped by laughter when the 20 strong crew rolled out from under the envelopes in perfect secrecy sporting show hands and humorous grins and like clockwork they began to blow hot air into the rainbow fabric bringing it to life. Within minutes the fan-heaters were swapped for a flame thrower that rumbled as it shot fire into the expanding balloon which billowed as it took over the sky.

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During the high season Balloons over Vang Vieng operates three hot air balloons, two that carry eight people and one that takes nine. I was placed in the biggest balloon with a young Chinese pilot that spends eight months of the year flying balloons in Vang Vieng. Without realizing my ascent had began and I was flying without wings through the morning mist that hugged the earth below and into the crisp clear sky, with only a wickerwork gondola holding me from the river below.

Let’s be honest the dusty Vang Vieng isn’t much to look at from eye level, but from above the faded candy colored tin roofs look less makeshift and more like a landscape painted by Eugene von Gérard. With a single pull on the chain, flames wooshed upwards, my ears popped and the balloon floated with gentle speed into view of the sunrise that coruscated orange hues over the limestone mountains and colored the clouds beneath my feet with endless rays of pink creating a dreamscape of natural beauty.

Sunrise from the clouds.
Sunrise from the clouds.

If your a tad bit weary when it comes to flying or heights in general (I freaked every time the air pressure gauge beeped :?) then like me you will be thinking “How safe are hot air balloons?” and “Is Laos the safest country to try this in?”  Hot air balloons are considered one of the “safest means of flying” (every activity has some level of risk involved) as it is essentially a giant parachute and when piloted by a trained professional you will float through the air like a feather and land with ease (I had a textbook landing in a vacant parking lot in town). REMEMBER when your up in the air and vertigo takes over your mind Balloons Over Vang Vieng, has 8 years experience. Their pilot and ground crew are professionals and are in constant contact with each other which leaves very little to chance. ENJOY YOU WILL BE FINE!

TRAVEL HINT: Check the weather conditions before booking your trip to ensure you go on a sunny day with little wind.

You can book your hot air balloon trip through any travel agency in Vang Vieng a day in advance. As there is only one company who runs the hot air balloons in town the price is a non-negotiable $80 USD for a 35 to 45 minute flight, but being the cheapest worldwide the set price really isn’t worth complaining about.

There are three different times you can go up in the balloon: In the early morning at 6.15am (Sunrise tour), late morning at 7am and afternoon tour at 4.30pm (Sunset tour). These times are  dependent on the number of people who have booked and the weather conditions on the day of flight.

Hot air ballooning over Vang Vieng has been the highlight of my world trip so far. The experience is exhilarating, romantic and truly the best way to see the valleys, peaks and landscape Laos is famous for, so if your in Vang Vieng “Come fly with me, let’s fly, let’s fly away”.

Aleisha xx.

Baan Dam – The Black House

The Black House or “Baan Dam”  in Thai, is a contemporary art museum comprised of artist Thawan Dunchanee’s lives work. Unlike conventional galleries where artwork is displayed inside methodical buildings, Baan Dams 15 galleries are displayed within architectural masterpieces that transform the museum grounds into a single piece of work that speaks of the darkness in humanity (My own interpretation).

Thawans art is eerie and dark in composition, with displays being commissioned out of various animal parts.Walking around you’ll find long carved dining tables set with buffalo horns and table runners made from the skin of snakes and crocodiles,  enormous drums made from animal rawhide, wolf and bear fur with taxidermy heads spread across beds, antique weapons lining dusty wooden walls and much more obscure items that reference to death and decay.

I’m a massive animal lover and seeing the remains of so many beautiful creatures was  unnerving, but at the same time it’s hard not to appreciate the beauty and mystery hidden within each display.

Baan Dam is definitely one of the most alluring places I’ve visited in Thailand and is worth visiting if you are in Chiang Rai.  BUT only if your not opposed or repelled by the sight of animal remains.

One of the amazing structures at Baan Dam.
One of the amazing structures at Baan Dam.
Table runner made from snake and crocodile skin and bone.
Table runner made from snake and crocodile skin and bone.
A throne made from buffalo horns.
A throne made from buffalo horns.

Hours:                                                                                                                                Open from 9am to 12pm and then 1pm to 5pm everyday.

Cost:
Free (my favourite kinda museum)

How To Get There:
Baan Dam Museum is a little off the beaten track, but by no means impossible or even hard to visit. It is located 12km from Chiang Rai city center and an approximate 20 minute drive. As this is Thailand there is a muiltitude of transport options to get you to and from Baan Dam, but if you are travelling on a budget like me then either Songthaew or the public bus are your best option.

Black House via Songthaew – When taking a Songthaew to Baan Dam you have two options:
1- Privately rent out a Songthaew and driver for the day which costs approximately 500 baht depending on your negotiation skills. The driver will take you Directly to Baan Dam and wait for you while you look around.
2- Find a songthaew driver willing to take you there and negotiate a fair price (I payed 20baht per person). Though this option is cheaper than renting a songthaew for the day the driver will not wait for you and you will need to find your own way back to the city. Songthaews can be found in a waiting area on Prasopsook Rd in the city centre opposite the market and 7 eleven.

Songthaew in Chiang Rai
Songthaew in Chiang Rai

Black House via Public Bus – If you are looking for the most humble means of transport (A/C is an open window) then the local bus is for you. The local bus to Baan Dam departs regularly throughout the day from platform 5 at the old Chang Rai bus terminal (terminal #1). Once on board the bus tell the conductor you are going to Baan Dam or the Black House as the signs for the Museum are small and easily missed. The bus costs 20baht per person and is payed for on board.

The bus takes 20-25 minutes to reach  Moo 13 (highway), the bus will stop in front of a small dirt road with a sign saying “Cultural Art Museum”  pointing down the road. Following this road and the art museum signs for 800m and you will reach the museums main gate.

Public bus to Baan Dam
Public bus to Baan Dam

Repeat in reverse to get the bus home.

Aleisha xx.

Thailand to Laos – Overland

The amazing thing about traveling in Thailand is that it’s located somewhat in the middle of Southeast Asia and neighbors almost half a dozen other countries, making it incredibly easy to get a few extra stamps in your passport (let’s be honest everyone loves stamps!!) and explore and experience more of what Asia has to offer.

Bordering most of central and Northern Thailand, Laos is a popular destination for people traveling from Thailand. If you’re like me and have followed the ‘tourist trail’ you will now be standing in the middle of the Chiang Rai market wondering “where to venture next?” To save you time pondering this question, the answer is to cross the Mekong river in to Laos.

When traveling from Thailand’s Chiang Rai to the French Streets of Luang Prabang Laos there are three options – by bus (18 hours), speed boat (7 hours), or slow boat (3 days 2 nights).

If you sighed half as much as I did at the thought of another night train or bus ride and want a more uncharted way of getting to Luang Prabang. An expedition where you can indulge in the breathtaking views of rural Laos from the mighty Mekong river and experience a new mode of transport, then keep reading my pocket sized guide on traveling from Chiang Rai to Luang Prabang via slow boat.

There are three legs to the journey:

Day 1: Chiang Rai to Chiang Khong by local bus (2 and 1/2 hours)
DAY 2: Chiang Khong over the border to Pakbeng by slow boat (6 hours)
Day 3: Pakbeng to Luang Prabang by slow boat (7 hours).

DAY ONE

Chiang Rai local Bus
Chiang Rai local Bus

The first leg of the journey starts at the old Chiang Rai city bus terminal (terminal #1) where you board the local bus from Chiang Rai to Chiang Khong (Check out my blog on Baan Dam a must see when in Chiang Rai). The bus departs every hours and costs 65baht per person. The local bus takes 2.5 hours and is nothing fancy, there isn’t A/C but on a hot day all the bus windows are opened so there’s a refreshing breeze running through making the ride bearable.

When the bus arrives in Chiang Kong there are two drop-off options: either being dropped off on the main highway opposite the Friendship Bridge, where tuk-tuks are waiting to shuttle tourists to the Thai immigration office, or if your like me and can’t stand the thought of waiting in a crowded line in immigration after a 2.5 hour bus trip, then depart the bus in Chiang Kong town center and spend one last night in The land of smiles.

Although Chiang Khong is a small town it has a multitude of reasonably priced guest houses for the hundreds of travelers making their way to Laos, so there is no need to book accommodation online before you arrive. I made the mistake of booking online and ended up with a room that looked like a woodshed with the added features of an unmade bed and dirty wet towels on the floor from the previous occupants. YUCK!

TRAVEL HINT – Laos is a lot more  primitive than Thailand and has less Western conveniences. While in Chiang Khong take advantage of the local 7-11 store before departing and stock up on snacks and bottled water for the journey as prices almost double for food over the border.

DAY TWO

Today is where the excitement begins!  Hazy from our one-nighter on a bed that’s slept a hundred before us,  we hustled down to the guest house reception where a prearranged tuk-tuk was waiting to take us to immigration (most guest house’s offer this service which costs approximately 50 baht per person). Once at the immigration office we were stamped out of Thailand and pushed towards the shuttle bus that was waiting to take people across the friendship bridge and into Laos. Tickets for the shuttle cost 25 baht and are purchased from the women with her hand out blocking the exit door leading to the bus. Once seated on the bus I saw a Thai women walk straight out the exit and on to the bus without paying which is kinda annoying, but I guess it’s just one of those things you have to deal with when traveling.

TRAVEL HINT – To beat the crowds through immigration arrive before 7:45am as people arrive by the bus load after 8:00am.

Once we arrive in Huay Xai immigration (Laos side of the friendship bridge) we had to fill out an arrival and departure card and also a Visa on Arrival application. All three forms contain the exact same information which is copied straight from your passport. Additionally for the visa on arrival one passport photo is required,  I was told you can pay $1USD to waive that requirement and immigration will just photocopy your passport, but it all seems a bit dodgy and it’s easier to just pack the extra passport prints before you start traveling.

Processing the visa application took about 5-10 minutes (this is dependent on how busy it is), when yours is ready immigration calls out your name or holds up your passport and you go to the counter to pay. For me as a New Zealand citizen the Visa cost $30USD which is the lowest price all other nationalities are somewhere in between $30-45USD (Laos immigration only accepts USD for visa on arrival).

After clearing immigration we walked outside where a single tuk-tuk was waiting. Having read online that the pier was 12kms we offered the driver 10,000Kip per person for the journey thinking this was a fair price. WRONG!!!  The tuk-tuk mafia was strong in force and demanded a non negotiable 20,000kip for the ride.

When we arrived at the pier we brought our boat tickets to Pakbeng which cost 110,000 Kip per person. There where two boats traveling to Pakbeng, the first boat was almost full at 10am when we boarded so we were pushed to the second where we got first choice of the recycled car seats.

By 11am the boat was completely full with no more than half a dozen spare seats, but in the eyes of the operators the boat was by no means at maximum capacity yet. After another hour of waiting the last group of people boarded, they had booked the trip at a travel agency and where told they had reserved seats on the boat. There are no assigned seats and way more passengers than seats so it’s not hard to imagine their rage when they realized they would be spending the next 6 hours on the floor.

TRAVEL HINT –  Board the boat at least an hour before departure, as more tickets are sold than seats are available. The last people to board end up sitting on the floor.

Around 12pm the boat engines started to choke out fumes and we slowly began our voyage down the Mekong. The bar scene on board is easily ignored (if chain smoking and doing shots of Laos whiskey isn’t your thing) by simply looking out of the boat, the scenery is astonishing and forever changing as the boat drifted down stream. We passed small riverside villages, fishermen in traditional carved out wooden boats, lush jungle and a mahout walking his elephant to work.

 

Local kids playing in the Mekong.
Local kids playing in the Mekong.
House boat on the river.
House boat on the river.
Small fishing village.
Small fishing village.
View from the slow boat to Luang Prabang.
View from the slow boat to Luang Prabang.

I can’t lie and say that the trip was opulence or by any means comfortable, hours of having no leg room to stretch and sitting in the direct sun takes its toll on even the most hardened backpacker. The 6pm arrival at Pakbeng couldn’t come soon enough and the comfort of a hot shower and soft bed was well worth the 130,000 kip for our room.

TRAVEL HINT –  When you arrive in Pakbeng there will be people waiting at the pier selling rooms for the night. Ignore them as you can get a lower price by walking up the hill and going directly to the guest houses.

DAY THREE

Slow boats docked at the Pakbeng pier.
Slow boats docked at the Pakbeng pier.

There isn’t much to do in Pakbeng, it reminded me of the streets in old western movies where all the buildings are adjoining on a single cracked road. The majority of travelers only stay one night before continuing onto Luang Prabang. After our one night stay it was time to start the final leg of the journey. The boat tickets from Pakbeng to Luang Prabang are payed for on board the boat and cost 110,00 Kip per person.

As this is the Lao People’s Democratic Republic or ‘Please Don’t Rush’  the 8am boat didn’t leave until 10:30am. Today’s boat trip was no different from the previous day, the last to board sat on the floor, and the shots of whiskey were flowing.

The final stop and end of the journey was at the ‘new’ Luang Prabang pier,  which is 10kms from the city. Once everyone disembarks and walks up the hill they are herded like sheep into a line of about 100 people to pay 20,000 Kip for a tuk-tuk to town. Not willing to pay 20,000 we walked up the road till we found a driver willing to take us for 10,000 Kip per person.

TRAVEL HINT –  To avoid paying the 20,000 Kip join forces with other like minded travelers and walk up the road, the tuk-tuk mafia will see you and offer a lower price. The further you walk the lower the price gets.

Sunset arrival in Luang Prabang.
Sunset arrival in Luang Prabang.

The slow boat trip from Chiang Rai to Luang Prabang was by far one of my most memorable and exhilarating journeys in South East Asia. In my opinion lazily cruising down the Mekong is a ‘must do’ for the adventurous who isn’t fussed by comfort levels.

BREAKDOWN OF COSTS

Public Bus – Chiang Rai to Chiang Khong 65 Baht pp
Accommodation in Chiang Kong – 1 night 450 Baht for two
Tuk-tuk to Thai immigration 50 Baht pp
Shuttle Bus across the Friendship Bridge 25 Baht pp
Laos Visa on Arrival 30 USD pp
Tuk-tuk to Slow Boat 20,000 Kip pp
Slow boat ticket to Pakbeng 110,000 Kip pp
Accommodation in Pakbeng – 1 night 130,000 Kip for two
Slow boat ticket to Luang Prabang 110,000 Kip pp
Tuk-tuk from pier to Luang Prabang 10,000 Kip pp

Aleisha xx.

Ayutthaya – A Train Ride to Thailand’s Past

If you want to explore ancient Wat (temple) ruins of a Kingdom that once ruled most of Thailand, then it’s time you left the hustle and bustle of Bangkok and hop aboard a train that will take you back 665 years! It’s time to visit Ayutthaya.

Ayutthaya was founded in 1350 by King U-Thong following a smallpox outbreak and ravaged the neighboring city of Lopburi. For hundreds of years Ayutthaya was one of Asia’s biggest trading ports and developed into one of the world’s most sophisticated and wealthiest cities. During the 417 years the city was inhabited it was ruled by 35 kings and repelled 23 Burmese Invasions. In 1767 the Burmese successfully breached the island city destroying the beautiful structures and subsequently ending it’s golden age.

Today the ruins offer a glimpse into the extravagant past of Thailand, and with much of the ancient city having been partially restored and deemed a World Heritage Site it’s not hard to imagine the glittering and splendid city it would have been in its prime.

HOW TO GET THERE

Ayutthaya is located 81km North of Bangkok city, and is a two hour train ride away. From Hua Lamphong station you can purchase a third class train ticket for 15baht on the day of departure.

TRAVEL HINT: Third class doesn’t have assigned seating or air conditioning so try board the train at least 15 minutes before departure to secure a seat by the window.

Train Station via Tuktuk: If you are staying near the popular Khao San Road then a tuktuk ride to the train station should cost no more than 100baht, remember to haggle if the driver tries charging more, it’s all part of the fun!
Train station via bus: If you’ve had enough of tuktuks weaving through the traffic and are feeling more adventurous then you can walk to Ratchadamnoen Klang Road and catch the #35 bus for 6.5baht to the station, it will take approximately 30 minutes.

Once you arrive at Ayutthaya you need to walk for 5 minutes down the street directly opposite the train stations main exit until you reach the canal. As the ancient city is located on an island  you will need to get a boat across. If you want to save money turn left at the canal and for 5baht you can board a public boat at the pier that will ferry you directly to the island.

WHERE TO EXPLORE

The most magical thing about Ayutthaya is that its an island bursting with Ancient and modern Wats, pagodas and canals. Once on the island your free to wonder and get lost in the allure of the past. My personal favourite is Wat Mahathat as its grounds contains the most captivating icon: A Buddha’s head entangled within the roots of a Banyan tree. The whole complex at Wat Mahathat is breathtaking, the crumbling stupas and prangs pitched behind headless Buddha’s create an eerie quality that makes you realize your walking through a sacked Kingdom that was home to a million souls.

Stolen Buddha head – Wat Mahathat
Stolen Buddha head – Wat Mahathat
Wat Ratchaburana features a crypt built by Chao Sam Phraya to honor his two brothers who fought and died on elephant back trying to become king.
Wat Ratchaburana features a crypt built by Chao Sam Phraya to honor his two brothers who fought and died on elephant back trying to become king.
The last intact Buddha in the grounds of Wat Mahathat sits proudly at the front of the complex.
The last intact Buddha in the grounds of Wat Mahathat sits proudly at the front of the complex.
Wat Mahathat was the most important temple in the kingdom
Wat Mahathat was the most important temple in the kingdom

TRAVEL HINT: The island is 4km wide and the ruins are scattered everywhere making it almost impossible to see and explore everything in one day so pick your top three must sees and start by visiting them first.

HOW TO GET AROUND

Rental bicycles – 50 Baht for the day.
Rental bicycles – 50 Baht for the day.

There are a multitude of ways offered by the locals to explore the ancient city,  the most popular being tuktuk hire, boat tours and bicycle rentals. If your not excited by the sound of a guided tour and can’t or won’t ride a bike don’t stress Wat Phra Ram, Wat Mahathat and Wat Ratchaburana are a 15 minute walk from the canal.

Tuktuk Hire- Costs approximately 200baht per hour,  though you can bargain for a lower price (i.e. 3 hours for 500baht). Drivers will usually use a standard sightseeing circuit, or alternatively you can point out places of interest on a map.
Boat Tour- A long tail boat (traditional Thai boat)  can be chartered at the pier in front of Chanthara Kasem National Museum, Wat Phananchoeng and Pom Phet Pier. The price depends on the route, destinations and how many people are in the group. This is a relaxing way to enjoy the scenery.
Bicycle Rental- Costs 50baht for one day, and can be hired on the island (if you hire a bike on the mainland it will cost you 5baht to ferry it across). Biking is by far the most enjoyable way to explore the ancient city as it allows you to choose your own route and stop and explore the Wats at your own leisure.

Aleisha xx

5 Reasons Thailand is a Must See Destination

NEW YEARS …. I don’t know about you, but where I come from the transition from last year to new year is an excuse to party and drink away all the silly mistakes made by the old you (and i guess make some new ones). Tired of the same old beach camping trip, Rhythm and vines, night on the town (insert other typical New Zealand New Years celebrations here!) myself and a few friends decided to make 2013-2014 New Years a night to remember. As we were at the time all POOR UNIVERSITY STUDENTS we decided to head to the one country we know we could afford…THAILAND!!!

My expectation before departure was that my Thai trip would be full of long nights out drinking cheap alcohol, dancing in bars, gawking at lady boys, and attending the unforgettable and infamous Full Moon Party. Little did I realize that Thailand had so much more to offer.

When people talk to me about traveling to Thailand their expectations of what the country has to offer is almost identical to mine. Lets together break these predetermined expectations of what Thailand has to offer and what the Thai culture is. So count with me the TOP FIVE things that make Thailand a cultural awakening, and a must destination to travel.

THE MOUTHWATERING FOOD

I don’t know about you but when I think about travel the first thing that comes to mind is food. I honesty believe the best way to experience a culture is through your taste buds, and the food in Thailand will take yours on the ride of their life!! Who doesn’t like variety, flavors and a little kick in the mouth? The Thai food in Thailand is like an art form the flavors are intricate and each bite is full of unique textures and tastes that dance around in your mouth, and this exceptional cuisine is found all over the streets for an unbelievable low price (A Thai Green Curry cost about 75 Baht), and best of all the food stalls never seem to close, as long as there’s hungry people wanting amazing food there will be a Thai master chef ready to cook up a storm.

Pad Thai from a street market in Krabi.
Pad Thai from a street market in Krabi.

Hey, and if savory’s not what you crave, and your anything like me you will die and go to heaven when you see the array of fresh fruit available in Thailand. Did you know Thailand grows 20 different types of bananas… the country is literally the “kingdom of a hundred fruits ” blessed with a tropical climate and fertile soil the fruit in Thailand grows in abundance, is diverse, delicious, and best of all utterly inexpensive. The month I travelled Thailand i gorged myself on Watermelons  (taeng-mo),  Papaya (malako), Coconuts (ma-phrao), and Pomelo (som-o) eating the healthiest i probably ever have in my whole life, and how can you not eat healthy when exotic fruit receives you at every corner with a charming Thai person ready to cut them open for your convenience.

 

THE PICTURE PERFECT TROPICAL ISLANDS

Being born and raised in New Zealand I love salt water, sand and surf and am quite hard to please when it comes to beaches, but Thailand tropical islands are top contenders. The south of Thailand is blessed with an abundance of white sand beaches from the party crazy Koh Phi Phi to the quiet Koh Jum all the beaches Ive visited can only be described as postcard perfect! One of my absolute favorites is Koh Jum. With luxurious white sand and warm blue water from the Andaman sea its the perfect hidden getaway but you don’t need to travel far to visit it as its only 25 kilometers south of Krabi. Koh Jum is so peaceful you will forget you’re in Thailand. If a quiet secluded island isn’t quite what your looking for and you want to be closer to the hustle of city life, then take a day trip to the beautiful white sand on Railay beach. Surrounded by lush jungle and limestone cliffs Railay can only be accessed by boat from Krabi or Ao Nang, giving the beach a secluded island feel.

Long-tail Boats in Koh Phi Phi.
Long-tail Boats in Koh Phi Phi.
Crystal Blue Water.
Crystal Blue Water.

 

THE BREATHTAKING CAVES

If your after a cliff hanging adventure Thailand is the place to go, as the south is full of ancient limestone caves carved out by the sea just waiting to be explored. What could be more thrilling than silently paddling through mangrove forests and entering caves and lagoons  or “hongs”  (Thai for room) that emerge from within vast limestone sea mountains. It’s truly a surreal feeling to be sitting in a kayak surrounded by 100 foot limestone mountains that emerge seamlessly from the sea.  This sight will make you realize just how amazing Mother Earth truly is.

Kayaking Through Hongs in Krabi.
Kayaking Through Hongs in Krabi.

 

THE HISTORIC BUILDINGS

The kingdom of Thailand has a rich and long history, with several empires rising to power over the course of thousands of years. The collapse of the many reigning empires has left Thailand dotted with impressive historical sites and landmarks. Words can not describe how beautiful it is to see thousand year old temples like Wat Arun sharing the skyline with a modern structure. The pure contrast between old and new is not only astonishing,  but the close proximity allows you to visualise the ways in which ancient architectural techniques have influenced modern buildings.

Doi Suthep Chiang Mai.
Doi Suthep Chiang Mai.
Temple Ruins at Ayutthaya Historic Park.
Temple Ruins at Ayutthaya Historic Park.

THE SUCCULENT JUNGLES 

As fun as it is to sunbathe on white sand strips in the middle of the Gulf of Thailand I find there is nothing more rewarding than putting on your walking shoes (in my case my trusty but smelly Nike’s) and hiking through the lush Thai jungle. Thailand has some amazing walks, from the famous hill tribe trek near Chang-Mai (which takes between two and three days), to the random off the beaten path short cut walks in Krabi and Koh Sumui. No matter what level of adventure your after you can get your nature fix here. Aside from the breathtaking forestry and lush plant life the Thai jungle has an array of unique animals and insects just waiting to be discovered.

Khlong Chak Waterfall Koh Lanta.
Khlong Chak Waterfall Koh Lanta.
Wild Frog
Wild Frog

Now that you’ve read my 5 reasons Thailand is a must travel destination, it’s time you pack your bag and discover for yourself what makes Thailand so special!!!

Aleisha xx.