Fire, Sharks, Tattoos and Stitches

Fresh off the boat from the Maya Bay Sleep Aboard Trip, I was planning for a relaxing few days on the beautiful island of Koh Phi Phi. At the time, that seemed like a perfectly reasonable plan, but I realise now that the reality is, it's pretty hard to 'relax' on Koh Phi Phi.

A quick Google Image search for 'Phi Phi' returns hundreds of peaceful looking images of crystal blue waters and the whitest of sands. I can vouch that the images are accurate - it's an absolutely stunning little island - postcard perfect. You wouldn't realise from the photos that the island is also a bit of a crazy party destination - rife with the backpackers who flock there for the fire shows, cheap alcohol and general debauchery. I, however, was there for a relaxing time, and was not going to get involved with that side of it...

After moving into my scabby twenty bed hostel dorm (which was somehow exactly five times the price of some of the more luxury four bed, air conditioned rooms I'd occasionally treated myself to elsewhere in Thailand,) I met up with Heather, a friend from home, and dragged her to come and get pizza with me, (purely so I could get a video of the size of the slice compared to my head,) before we made our way up to the Phi Phi Viewpoint.

Screenshot from said video.

Screenshot from said video.

We traversed crumbling mountainside, dodging thorns and branches, losing half of our body weight in sweat, and narrowly avoiding broken ankles as we struggled upwards in our flip flops - finally making it to the top - where we realised that we had walked the wrong way and could have simply taken the steps... We'd thought it seemed a little desolate considering it was supposedly a popular tourist attraction! The fact that there were crowds of people who had managed to successfully take the correct route up to the viewpoint meant that we had someone to take a photo of both of us together at least, because for some reason Heather has seriously got it in for my little Pound shop iPhone tripod, and I've got a feeling she would have banned me from using it.

Standard travel viewpoint pose

Standard travel viewpoint pose

The journey back down to the bottom was a lot simpler, and ended up being probably my most relaxing moment on Phi Phi...

Dinner that evening consisted of Pad Thai (five times the price of any other Pad Thai I'd had in Thailand...) and afterwards I was persuaded to have a couple of drinks as we went to watch the fire show on the beach. The problem with the drinks in Thailand is that they come in buckets, and they're so strong that even a few mouthfuls of a drink is a couple of drinks, so it didn't take long for Mrs Lightweight here to decide to get involved in the fire show, and find herself sat in front of an audience with fire spinning inches from her face.

It was full steam ahead from there, and by the time they'd brought out the limbo stick, I'd drank enough to believe I was the limbo queen. (I was at least a limbo princess to be fair...) You got a free shot every time you successfully passed under the stick, which didn't really help my intoxication situation as my new found limbo skills were surprisingly good and kept the shots coming.

Maybe the best quality photo I managed to take all night.

Maybe the best quality photo I managed to take all night.

Despite having (what I believe to have been) a fantastic night, it was almost cancelled out by the repercussions I suffered for it the next day. It was past 4pm before I was physically able to even roll over in bed, which completely ruined my chances of spending the day relaxing. (Unless you're able to consider being bedridden in a room with nineteen other hungover backpackers as relaxing...) I managed to drag myself out for a burger later that night, and almost had to crawl back to bed again after. There was definitely no way I was ever drinking again.

The following morning was a new day, and with at least 60% of the use of my body back, I made my way out for breakfast with my Kindle, ready for a day of eating, reading and recovering on the beach. I'm not entirely sure how, but before I'd even finished my food, I'd somehow agreed to go snorkeling with a lady and some sharks. There were three other backpackers that came out on the boat with us, and after our first sighting, they decided that they didn't want to be in the water with the sharks anymore, so the shark lady and I had a pleasant couple of hours snorkeling together, before a mental storm came out of nowhere and we had to rush back to shore before it got too dangerous. I didn't mind too much - going back to the room meant that I'd have more time to relax.

Fast forward to the evening, and I was still feeling ropey. If anything, I was feeling worse and worse as the hours progressed. Several promises to me that 'hair of the dog' would make everything better persuaded me to have a few sips of someone's drink, and as good as everyone's word, I suddenly felt fine. Next thing I know, somebody has bought me a bucket and we're on our way to watch a Muay Thai fight.

It's safe to say that the night escalated from this point. It's free entry to Muay Thai, but you have to buy a drink when you arrive. Now wise to the danger of the buckets, I'd managed to secretly get rid of the one that had been purchased for me, but the compulsory Muay Thai vodka and lemonade (85% vodka and 15% lemonade) was unavoidable and definitely tipped me over the edge.

Twenty four hours previously, almost on death's door, I was adamant that I would never be drinking again. Yet here I was, less than a day later,  bucket in hand, dancing on a table on the beach. Unfortunately for me, the table looked a lot longer from my viewpoint than it apparently was, and I danced my way right off the edge, smacking my head on a rock as I fell, ripping the edge of my ear in half.

The logical thing to do when you can wiggle the top half of your ear in a different direction to the bottom half is to go to the hospital. Apparently though, I'd decided that it would be better for everyone involved to take a visit to the tattoo studio with me...

I find it absolutely fascinating that if I were to walk into a tattoo studio in the UK, covered in my own blood, blatantly extremely intoxicated, I wouldn't even get as far as asking for a tattoo before they'd shown me the front door. Thailand however, is a different kettle of fish - not only did they welcome me into their studio with open arms, they actually persuaded me to get a bigger tattoo than the one I'd asked for.

Getting inked

Getting inked

The hangover I had a couple of days prior was absolutely horrendous, but at least with that one I didn't wake up in agony, caked in blood and with a crap tattoo on my ankle... It was definitely safer for me to stop trying to relax on Koh Phi Phi and move onto the next destination.

Upon arrival to Koh Lanta, I did have to go to the hospital to get patched up. Five stitches, a tetanus jab, £200 (and a selfie) later, it was time to spend a few days relaxing...

Doctor friends.

Doctor friends.

 

 

 

 

When You Want Maya Bay To Yourself So You Make Sure To Get It To Yourself...

There's so much more to Thailand than just beaches, yet prior to actually visiting myself, the only images that really ever popped into my head whilst daydreaming about my upcoming trip, were of crystal blue waters and heavenly white sands.

Koh Phi Phi

Koh Phi Phi

Despite not being the world's biggest fan of beaches, (I think that sand is pretty much the spawn of Satan,) one of the highest items on my 'Travel Bucket List' has always been to visit Maya Bay - the beach from 'The Beach.' Reading the book makes it hard to believe that such a stunning place actually exists - the movie makes it even more difficult again. It does exist though, and I couldn't wait to see it for myself - to peacefully walk along the stretches of white sand whilst taking in the views, furtively seeking out a younger Leonard DiCaprio.

Although quite predictable, I was still pretty dismayed when I actually did a little bit of research on Maya Bay, only to find hundreds, maybe thousands of photos and blog posts about how horribly crowded it gets; so crowded that a lot of people actually said not to bother visiting it at all. I realised that if I did decide to go, there was an extremely high chance that I'd arrive and spend my whole time there moaning about the sand and the people and the noise and the impossibility of being able to get any decent photos. Maybe it was just best to cross it off my list, and try to enjoy it's beauty whilst watching 'The Beach' for the four thousandth time.

Photo I nabbed off of Google of Maya Bay in the daytime. Hell on a beach.

Photo I nabbed off of Google of Maya Bay in the daytime. Hell on a beach.

You can't ever really appreciate something fully just through a TV screen though, and by the time I'd actually reached the islands of Thailand, on my trip, I knew that there had to be a way to see the bay without the masses of people. I'm fairly stubborn, and really didn't want to give up on my visit too easily. Luckily, after some more research, I stumbled upon the Maya Bay Sleep Aboard trip.

For 3500 Thai Baht (which equates to roughly 80 quid) you can buy yourself a lovely shiny space on the Maya Bay Sleep Aboard trip. The first thing I looked at was the price, and the budget backpacker part of me instantly said 'no, no, no.' There is never any harm in reading some more information though...

The Sleep Aboard Boat

The Sleep Aboard Boat

The further I researched, the more certain I was that I was going to book a space on the overnight trip - and the more confident I was that it was in fact great value. The Sleep Aboard company is the only company with a license to be on Maya Bay before and after the official opening hours, and they take full advantage of this by taking you in the evening as well as first thing the following morning. Entry to Maya Bay is 400 baht each time, (about £10) and I was quoted 600 baht for the boat to take me there. (about £15) Obviously if you go with Sleep Aboard, this is all included as part of your trip. If you were to hire your own boat to visit Maya Bay in the evening and the following morning too, (whilst all the crowds are there) then you'd be paying 2000 baht anyway! Spaces on the trip are limited to (around) 25 people each day, and because of the license, you'll literally be the only people on the beach. You get all your food included, as well as snorkeling and kayaking (both days) a free bucket when you have a BBQ on the beach, a visit to the monkey island and to top it off you get to go swimming with the luminescent plankton at night. (As a separate trip, this costs 1700 baht or £40.) I worked out that to do everything you get to do on the trip, but paying yourself for each individual activity, plus food and accommodation would cost you in excess of 6700 baht. (£155) Long story short, I was sold.

I got extremely lucky, and managed to get the last available space on the trip - it was fully booked up for the next two months aside from that one date. Along with the shining TripAdvisor reviews, I took this to be a really good sign, and I wasn't wrong.

The day finally arrived and at 3pm, along with the rest of the group I set off on the Sleep Aboard trip from Koh Phi Phi. I was initially a bit nervous about the fact I was going to be on my own on a small, overnight trip, but everyone on the boat was friendly from the word go. We visited the Viking Caves and then stopped off to kayak and snorkel. I (sort of) conquered my fear of jumping from the top of the boat a couple of times, for the purposes of a GoPro 'boat jump' shot, (compulsory in any travel video...) After a couple of hours, we made our way round to Maya Bay. It was absolutely heaving with tourists and I can't deny that as soon as I saw how busy it was, I was absolutely certain that I'd made the right choice by paying the extra to visit the bay this way! It was extremely satisfying to take a seat on the soft white sand, and watch the hordes of loud people get on their hired boats and buggar off, leaving just the 25 of us with the whole place to ourselves.

The island is nowhere near as big as they've managed to make it look in the film, but there is still enough to explore, that if you're lucky, you may at some point actually get the entire beach to yourself. I found myself completely alone for five minutes or so, as the others disappeared into the jungle behind the bay itself. It was a completely surreal moment for me, one of those moments that renders you a little speechless for a while, and will never ever leave you. 

Maya Bay.

Maya Bay.

A few of us sat on the beach and watched the sunlight disappear before we made our way into the jungle where the Sleep Aboard team had set up a little campfire and had a whole lot of BBQ food ready and waiting for us. We were allowed to eat as much as we wanted and I ate so much I felt like I would never be able to eat again! Free buckets of vodka or rum and mixer were dished out, and we all sat around the campfire to play 'Ring of Fire.'

I normally wouldn't opt into a drinking game, but after the first round, I wanted to join in as everyone was having so much fun. Suitably tipsy, I managed to get myself temporarily lost in the trees when I went on a toilet hunt halfway through the game. The sounds of laughter soon brought me back to the group, slightly disappointed that I wasn't going to have to rough it in the jungle like a proper adventurer.

At 9pm, it was time to leave Maya Bay and head back out on the boat for a bit of night time snorkeling with the luminescent plankton. I was hugely skeptical that it would look even half as good as it does in the film, but I was blown away by how amazing it was. I've since re-watched 'The Beach' and it definitely looks much better in real life! The more force you disturb the water with, the brighter the plankton shine blue. We spent ages swimming under the water, it was like a whole new, magical world under there. It's a bit of a shame that you can't capture the magic on camera, as you need an underwater camera with a really long exposure, but it also makes it even more magical in a way, as to see it, you actually have to go and physically see it.

When we eventually got back on the boat, and had dried off, the Sleep Aboard crew produced a guitar. A few people went up to the top deck of the boat to get some sleep, but the rest of us stayed downstairs and sang all night. I'd go as far as saying that it was my happiest night in Thailand. I loved how there were so many people from all over the world, coming together as a drunken international choir - not everyone spoke English, but as soon as someone busted out 'Wonderwall' we were all singing together. I eventually went up to the top deck to get some sleep, and awoke just in time to see the sunrise, which was beautiful.

Sunrise from the boat.

Sunrise from the boat.

Everyone was awake early, and we headed back towards Maya Bay so we could have a bit more time there before the crowds of people arrived. It was just as satisfying to watch the reverse of the previous night, and go from being the only ones there to seeing other people arrive to crowded scenes. We stayed for a suitable amount of time before getting back on the boat to go snorkeling and kayaking again.

Crew.

Crew.

We docked back at Koh Phi Phi just after 10am, absolutely full of smiles. I had an amazing time at the Elephant Sanctuary in Chiang Mai, but I'd say that the Sleep Aboard trip just about takes the prize for my favourite couple of days in Thailand. I urge anybody who wants to see Maya Bay, to do it with Sleep Aboard!

The trip seems to book up quickly, so I'd advise booking in advance if it's something you really want to do. I booked via the website. The link to booking is here.

That Time My Blog Got Nominated For A Liebster Award

A few weeks go, Emma, who runs the travel blog, 'Where's That To?' nominated my blog for a Libester Award. The award has been around for five or six years now, and involves bloggers nominating other blogs, which they feel deserve a little more exposure, for an award too. All nominees get given a set of eleven questions to answer in a blog post of their own. The rules of the Liebster Award can be found here.

It was an unexpected and pleasant surprise to be nominated by Emma, a fellow Bristolian travel addict. I've been following her blog since she started out, and it was great to know that she has been enjoying mine as much as I've been enjoying hers! (I particularly enjoyed this post from her trip to Costa Rica!)

I read about a million travel blogs each day, however, my nomination goes to Abi Rose Travels - the photography on the website is incredible and I love the design as a whole. Abi is currently in South America with her boyfriend, and every time I read a new post of hers, I get a tiny little bit jealous. (Yes, it is entirely possible to get jealous about travels whilst you're already travelling!) South America is already extremely high on my bucket list, but it climbs further up each week, it seems!

Abi Rose Travels

Abi Rose Travels

The questions I received when I was nominated:

 

Where did the travel bug bite you?

It's hard to pinpoint a specific destination, simply because I've always enjoyed the excitement of boarding a plane and heading off into the unknown. I vividly remember my first trip abroad, to Alcudia, Spain. I believe I would have been nine at the time, but nearly eighteen years later, I'm pretty sure I could still direct you from our hotel to my favourite restaurant there. (It was called the Jolly Roger, and they had a dog.)  I guess if I had to pick, then Morocco may have tipped me over the edge towards becoming a full blown travel addict. I visited in the summer of 2005, at age fifteen, and in the fortnight I was there, climbed Mount Toubkal, North Africa's highest mountain (13,665 ft) and Mount M'Goun, North Africa's third highest mountain (13,356 ft) as well as getting my first real experience of a completely different culture. I definitely enjoyed travel before I went to Morocco, but after that, I was hooked!


Where in the world did you find the best food you have ever tasted?

This is actually a really hard question. I think the Indians' just about take the award for best food. I absolutely LOVED the food in Thailand, but after two months, I was starting to crave some slightly different flavours... India on the other hand - I was worried before I came here that I would get fed up of eating the same thing all the time, but there is SO much variety that I'm now upset that I won't get to try it all. Back last week I discovered Dabeli - which is basically a butter toasted bread roll filled with masala flavoured mashed potato and topped with a date chutney, spicy garlic and red chilli sauce, roasted peanuts, coriander and pomegranate seeds. They cost between ten and twenty rupees each (which is less than 25p) and they are completely and totally addictive.

Dabeli

Dabeli


If you were running a competition and the winner, who has never left their country won an all expenses paid trip – where would you send them and why?

Probably Thailand. There's a completely different language and culture, of course, and the opportunity to take plenty of 'off the beaten path' adventures. The whole country is beautiful, cheap and just the right level of crazy, though a lot of it is Westernised enough that it's very easy for someone to get by, find their way around and eat 'foods from home', if they weren't enjoying the unfamiliarity.

Thailand

Thailand


What's next on your bucket list?

Everything is on my bucket list! If I could click my fingers now, and be anywhere, it would probably be South America. I already know that it'll be a couple of years (at least) before I can visit though - I would love to spend a year there and I definitely need to get saving.


Do you prefer to travel by land, sea or air?

That hugely depends on my mood. I quite enjoy the sleeper buses and trains because it means I can read for a few hours, sleep, and then read some more when I wake up. I love being out at sea though - especially when it's really hot!


If you had to live somewhere you have never been for 5 years, where would you choose and why?

South America for sure. If I need to be more specific then I'd say Bolivia, purely because there is so much I want to do there, including a great volunteer project in the jungle which I'm keen to work on. I could take holidays to other parts of South America, become fluent in Spanish and eat lots of amazing food.


If you could only see one set of wonders (ancient, modern and natural) which would you choose and why?

I'd go for the (not so standard) standard seven wonders of the world. I'll be seeing my first (The Taj Mahal) in the next few weeks and I actually can't wait! I've seen so many photos of it, but I already know that they'll never compare to the real thing!


Which animal would you love to see in the wild and how do you plan to make that happen?

I would love to see wild orangutans. I'm pretty sure there are some really cool places to volunteer in Borneo, which would give me a pretty decent chance of seeing some. I don't know when I'll get round to it, but it's on my list! (Along with absolutely everything else!)


Which destination has been most in contrast to what you expected?

Thailand was a lot different to how I thought it was going to be. I guess in my head, I just had visions of drunk Brits everywhere, drinking buckets for breakfast and being loud and British and covered in UV paint. Koh Phangan was a little like that over New Year, but I spent quite a lot of time up North and away from the drinking and parties, and I ended up falling in love with Thailand, even though I think I'd subconsciously made up my mind to not enjoy it.

Thai Cooking Class

Thai Cooking Class


Beach holiday or city break?

Easily a city break. Beaches are nice to look at and take a quick photo and maybe go for a quick swim in the sea, but I find them pretty boring overall and I HATE sand. A ten minute trip to the beach results in finding sand in your bag/bed/mouth for at least a week after. There's a lot more to do and see in the city. I know I say I'm in love with a lot of places, but I really am deeply in love with Berlin - give me Berlin over a beach any day.

Berlin

Berlin


Which home comfort do you find hardest to leave behind?

I crave Nandos and Capri Sun a lot. I wouldn't say it was hard to leave them behind though! It's not exactly a home comfort, but friends and family are definitely what I miss most about home. Even when I have a really good day or do something really cool, there's always the thought in the back of my head wishing that a certain friend or family member was with me to see it. Last week, I was sat in a rickshaw driving through the crazy streets of India and I couldn't stop thinking about how I would love my brother to be there - just to see some of the insanity that occurs here every day. (He'd hate it!)  If I ever see a particularly nice beach, I make a mental note of it because I'd love for my mum to see it. I really miss my bestie, Worm too - a FaceTime with him always cheers me up, even if I wasn't sad to start with!

Me and my bestie in Croatia.

Me and my bestie in Croatia.

I Wouldn't Make A Very Good Monk

What's the next logical step after eleven days at Circus School? It's almost definitely not a stay at a Buddhist Meditation Retreat in the forest, but since when have I ever been logical anyway?

Wat Tam Wua Forest Monastery is nestled among the mountains in Northern Thailand - an International Buddhist Practice Centre, where absolutely anybody is welcome to come and practice Vipassana or mindfulness on breathing. Intrigued by the whole concept, I decided to run away from the circus and spend some time there.

There's a 'Tam Wua' songthaew which leaves from Pai and takes you directly to the front door of the retreat for just 100 baht. Unbeknown to me, there's just one songthaew a day, leaving at 11am sharp. I walked into town with my bags, popped into the 7/11 to purchase a new set of headphones (so I could listen to All Saints on repeat for the whole journey to the monastery,)  and at precisely 11:01am, I emerged from the blissful coolness of the store, back onto the street, just in time to see the back end of the yellow truck disappear over the horizon.

Luckily for me, there are hourly minibuses heading to Mae Hong Son, and if you hop on one of those and tell the driver that you're going to Tam Wua, he'll drop you on the side of the road so you can lug your bags up the long winding path that leads to the monastery.

I would say that the journey was alright, but I was seated in the back row, inbetween a mother with her baby on one side, and a small boy of about seven on the other. The boy fell asleep on my shoulder almost instantly, which would have been cute had it not been about 400 degrees inside the bus. The baby decided to spend the whole journey grabbing fistfuls of my hair to suck on. I considered telling it off, but I figured it probably didn't speak English, and at least it wasn't screaming. I was pretty happy when we pulled over to my stop.

Tam Wua.

Tam Wua.

Slobbery hair drying in the sun, I started the trek up to the monastery. I was greeted by a cute and chubby monk who showed me where to register. He was excited that I was from England because he'd been to London once before. He started telling me the story of his visit, and had just mentioned something about Madame Tussauds when he got called away by another monk. I signed in at reception, was given some white clothes to change into and shown to my room.

I had somehow managed to acquire my own private hut with beautiful views of the mountains. I was pretty excited about having a room to myself after spending so long in hostels - I couldn't wait to sink into bed and have a nap - I had two hours of free time before I was to meet in the main hall for evening chanting and meditation.

Extremely luxurious..

Extremely luxurious..

...From the outside...

...From the outside...

I can hardly say I was expecting a memory foam mattress and feather pillows, but a solid wooden 'bed' with an extremely thin mat placed on top of it wasn't exactly what I'd been dreaming of! I did my goddamn best to try and have a nap, but in the end, I found myself heading towards the evening chanting session sore and sleepy after tossing and turning for the duration of my free time.

I'm not sure exactly what I was expecting from the evening chant, but at the same time it was exactly what I had expected - a roomful of people - all dressed in white, sat cross legged and chanting passages from a book. I actually thoroughly enjoyed it, even if it was in another language and I wasn't entirely sure what I was chanting. The 'sing song' was followed by an hour or so of meditation, which I struggled with hugely - unless something is music or travel related I can't focus for one minute, let alone one hour - but somehow I made it through my first session and then it was time to spend an entire night trying to get comfortable in my rock solid bed.

My daily schedule.

My daily schedule.

I will openly hold my hands up and admit that I was a little bit naughty with regards to the daily schedule (see above...)  It took me approximately 0.02 seconds to clock that although the first activity of each day (practicing meditation and chanting in your own hut) started at 5am, the first monitored activity (rice offerings to the monks) wasn't until 6:30am. Which gave me an entire extra hour and fifteen minutes of lying on my block of wood, trying my best to force sleep to come.

Nor surprisingly, the rice offering turned out to be exactly what it says on the tin - we would all line up and spoon bits of rice into big pots that the monks were holding - the monks are only allowed to eat each day if they have food offerings made to them. Once the offerings were done, it was time for a quick breakfast and then two hours of meditation.

Attacked

Attacked

It was right about meditation time that I discovered I'd been bitten alive by some creature or another. Yes - right about the time I was due to try and focus my mind for two hours straight, my whole body started itching like crazy. Perfect timing... Luckily for me, the first half of the meditation was a walking one, which although still impossible for me to focus, managed to take my mind off of the itching slightly, mainly because I was trying to stop myself laughing at the thought of my mum being horrified at so many people walking completely barefoot in the forest. Hearing her voice in my head, "Don't come running to me when you get a sore throat because you weren't wearing shoes!" forced me to stifle many a giggle, and I can safely say that I didn't manage to successfully get the hang of walking meditation...

Then came some lying down meditation, in which I promptly fell asleep, only awakening at the sound of the bell to signify the end of the session. Feeling ever so slightly refreshed, it was time for more rice offerings to the monks before we sat down to have our final meal of the day, lunch.

In the monastery, there is no eating past midday - a rule which I thought would kill me off. People are also actively encouraged to take a vow of silence if they so wish. Before I'd actually managed to keep my own vow of silence for a short period of time, the very thought of one made me want to explode. In the end, neither of these things tipped me over the edge as predicted - the hardest thing for me was actually to sit with my legs crossed for long periods of time, (it caused me to feel about ninety years old when pure agony struck my knees after only fifteen to twenty minutes,) and of course the trying to focus my mind for eight hours a day did nothing short of drive my busy mind insane. Every time the monks informed us that we were about to practice meditation and breathing for an hour, time would significantly slow down for me, whilst my brain would try to suddenly rethink every single thought it had ever had.

My favourite part of Tam Wua was one of the monks himself. There were several monks at the monastery and they would take it in turns to give lessons. It seems that the majority of monks dealt with these lessons in a serious manner, but my favourite monk, the one who greeted me upon arrival, he always blabbered on for ages longer than the others, making jokes about how once we'd finished meditation we were going to have a big party, with a big BBQ and lots of food. (Even though none of us were allowed to eat past midday...)

During one of his lessons, I finally got to hear the end of his story about London. It seems that he paid a visit to the city, went to Madame Tussauds and as he was leaving, a random Londoner came up to him and asked him if he was part of the skinhead movement. To which he replied "Not me sir, I am just a Buddhist monk from Thailand!" He laughed with joy at his own story for a fair amount of time, and I couldn't help but laugh too, especially at the face of another rather stern looking monk, who had quite possibly heard the same story a thousand times before (and definitely didn't even enjoy it the first time...)

My favourite monk. Photo courtesy of Stephen from Texas!

My favourite monk. Photo courtesy of Stephen from Texas!

I was supposed to stay at Tam Wua for seven days and seven nights. In the end, I managed four.  The hard bed, itchy insect bites and terrible pain from sitting cross legged got a little too much for me - I know I could have lasted the entire week, but each meditation session was becoming more unbearable. My time at the retreat was actually full of laughter though - from the monastery dog who howled enthusiastically every time the bells rang (five or six times a day,) to the secret stashing and stuffing faces full of cookies and red bull from the little shop, past midday. The man who told us we were sweeping the leaves wrong, but then walked off with no explanation as to why, and the Asian lady who actually ordered a parcel to the monastery, forcing a postman to interrupt a meditation session so he could get the monk to sign for it - we had some great laughs!

Tam Wua is completely free to stay at - food and accommodation included. There are donation boxes at the monastery, and I think it's only fair that people should donate a reasonable amount of money for their stay.

I honestly tried to adhere to every single rule whilst I was there, but it's definitely pretty tough going. Some people had been living at the monastery for months - they are certainly made of harder stuff than I am!!

The rules. (Basically no fun...)

The rules. (Basically no fun...)

Could have chosen a uniform that's harder to get dirty.

Could have chosen a uniform that's harder to get dirty.

Howling Monastery dog.

Howling Monastery dog.

Pai - The Non Juggly Bits

Pai. As I mentioned before, it's a bit of a favourite amongst backpackers in Thailand. If you say the word 'Pai'  in conversation, it's pretty much a given that you'll be met with choruses of 'Oh I loved Pai! Pai was my favourite part of Thailand!'

After hearing only good things about it, Liam and I decided that we had no choice but to brave the seven hundred and thirty six bends in the road to see what all the fuss was about. We stayed at the Circus Hostel, which is reason enough to visit the area on it's own anyway, and although we initially only booked a couple of days there, we both ended up extending our stay due to there being quite a lot more to see!

Pai Circus Hostel.

Pai Circus Hostel.

In order to see Pai properly, you really need to hire a scooter. Liam and I were 'scooter virgins' but also fully aware that having one would make our lives a hundred times cheaper, easier and probably more fun. We'd already decided on hiring some when we arrived, yet our hopes and dreams (or at least our plans) were temporarily dashed upon arrival, when it seemed every single backpacker in the hostel was bound in bandages, which were very obviously in place as a result of various scooter accidents. Not to be put off, I made a point of surveying a large number of injured patrons to find out if their injuries were a result of bad roads, bad bikes, or simply just themselves driving like a dickhead. The majority of people surveyed were good enough to confirm to me that their injuries were in fact the result of them driving like prize twats, as opposed to the roads being rubbish, and so Liam and I had no need to abort our plan.

To put it simply, if you're in Pai and are looking to rent a scooter for the very first time (or if you need to hire a scooter in Pai at all) head to a little place called Vespai. The man who works there (Tam) is extremely cheerful and patient, and true to his Tripadvisor Reviews, he has no problem with spending some/a lot of time with you to teach you how to ride a scooter if you never have done before. We were both extra happy that we chose to rent scooters from Tam - most other places in Thailand don't even bother to ask if you've ridden a scooter before - they just hand you the key and send you on your merry way. Tam actually seemed to care for our welfare, which was nice!

After a morning crash course with Tam, we were ready to go and explore Pai. The roads in Thailand are crazy in general, so I was initially a tiny bit nervous, but Pai is a little more chilled than most places, and it actually turned out to be a great place to practice - especially as there's lots to see!

Roadside treats.

Roadside treats.

There's a 'Pai Loop' which pretty much covers all the main attractions, and we stopped at every one of them. 'Coffee In Love' is a coffee shop which overlooks a pretty valley. I can't stand coffee, so we didn't go into the shop itself, but it's apparently the setting of some famous Thai movie (Pai in Love?) so we pranced around in the flowers for a bit and pretended we'd seen the film (even though we'd only just discovered that it even existed...)

Smells like fake movie fans.

Smells like fake movie fans.

There's also a big Buddha statue on top of what feels like an Everest sized mountain. There are a million steps to get to the top and in the blistering Thai sun it's a pretty sizeable effort. Once you make it though, it's completely worth it. We got lucky enough that we practically had the whole thing to ourselves, and we spent quite a lot of time up there, feeling oddly serene in the presence of the 'awakened one.' It was an actual treat to get back on the scooters after though, and have the wind blowing in our faces to cool us down.

This guy

This guy

Millions of steps

Millions of steps

It didn't really take too long to understand the reasons behind Pai being such a popular little spot with the backpackers - a town that consistently smells faintly of weed, it's super chilled out and the street food choices are second to none - you can even buy lasagne on the side of the road if you're getting a bit sick of noodles and rice!

Whizzing around on the scooters simply reinforced our affection for the sleepy little hippie town - especially when we made a stop off at the famous Pai 'Land Split.' Back in 2008, a local farmer awoke to find a giant split in the ground, right through the middle of his land. There were apparently no earthquakes or natural disasters, he just woke up and found it that way one day. (Though I do have my suspicions he might just be hiding something extravagant from his wife after a wild night with the lads...)  Instead of getting all upset about it and crying (like I would have done,) he decided to allow people to come and view the land split, and put on a FREE fantastic spread for each and every single visitor. All the food and drinks are grown and made on the farm. The farmer just keeps bringing more and more over and it's all delicious! There's a donation box and it was nice to see everyone putting in money before they left!

At the request of my mate, Chidgey, we went to visit the Piranha Fishing Park to see if his name was still on the record table after he caught a fish there in 2012. It was probably the highlight of my day when we arrived and it was actually still there - I don't think any of us were expecting it to actually still be on the board - for some reason I found the idea of Chidge holding a giant fish hilarious. As we were leaving, a cute little dog jumped onto my scooter and refused to get off because it wanted to come with me. I wanted to keep it forever but dogs are pretty expensive, and it was also probably somebody else'sdog. (It was definitely somebody else's dog....)

Fisherman Chidge

Fisherman Chidge

Scooter pup

Scooter pup

We rounded off the day at Pai Canyon for sunset. Pai Canyon is really cool - there are lots of really thin bits of rock to climb and walk across and the chance to get some really cool sunset shots. Most people left as soon as the sun had dipped below the horizon, but we stayed for a little longer and the sky went a really nice colour and we got to enjoy it with a lot less crowds, giving us the chance to attempt some more elaborate poses.

Pai Canyon

Pai Canyon

I've joined that list of backpackers who will exclaim 'Oh I love Pai!' if I hear it mentioned in a conversation. It was probably my favourite place in Thailand - an absolute must visit!

Making friends!

Making friends!

All The Fun Of The Circus

"You simply must visit Pai" I'd been hearing on a practically daily basis since arriving in Thailand. A good 50% - 60% of the time, that was followed by an enthusiastic "You absolutely HAVE to stay at Circus Hostel - It's the best."

So, that was that. I was going to Pai, and I was going to Circus School.

Liam had decided to join me on my quest to become good at spinning things and playing with fire, so we bundled into a minibus ready for the 148km journey, leaving from Chiang Mai in the morning. Three and a half hours, seven hundred and thirty six bends in the road (and two travel sickness tablets later) we finally arrived in the hippie little town of Pai, and took the short walk up to Pai Circus School and Hostel.

I fell a little bit in love as soon as I arrived - even from the reception desk, you could see that the views of the mountains were incredible. Upbeat music filled the air and for every smiling face, there was another, deep in concentration as they practiced spinning, twirling and dancing on the lawn. The hostel also boasts a gorgeous infinity pool, and I straight away decided that I would be taking a daily swim.

Practicing (Nicked from Liam)

Practicing (Nicked from Liam)

Evening practices.

Evening practices.

We were lucky enough to unknowingly have picked the best time to stay at the circus school - the exact dates of the annual 'Juggling Convention,' meaning that there were classes, shows and workshops all weekend, as well as free morning yoga classes (which the hostel provides every day anyway, regardless of whether or not there is a convention on!) It wasn't long before Liam and I had hired yoga mats for the duration of our stay, and planned which workshops we were going to give a try the following day.

Some of the workshops available.

Some of the workshops available.

Up bright and early the next morning for my first ever yoga class. Yoga, to me, has always looked really peaceful and relaxing. However, there are many different types of yoga, and 'Ashtanga' yoga, which includes a lot of dynamic movement with its postures, felt neither peaceful, nor relaxing to a completely unfit beginner, such as myself. I was surprised to find, the following day that I woke up feeling like I'd done at least seventeen rounds with Mike Tyson. I still managed to pull myself out of bed for round two though! Liam, and 99.9% of the other participants, were yoga regulars, (or at least Liam was, and the rest certainly looked like they were,) and I couldn't believe how effortless the postures seemed to look for them, whilst I was somehow managing to wobble away even with both feet on the ground!

Nicked this photo from Liam because I was too busy wobbling to take my own.

Nicked this photo from Liam because I was too busy wobbling to take my own.

The juggling convention itself was great fun. After my first contact staff workshop, I decided that I definitely wasn't destined to become the great fire spinning staff legend that I'd hoped, and made up my mind to pick another skill to practice. Initially I thought about Poi, but then I ended up joining a juggling class last minute, and becoming extremely frustrated at the fact I now knew how to juggle, yet still couldn't make my hands do what I wanted them to. My stubborn streak kicked in, and I decided that I was going to learn how to juggle by the end of the week. I ended up skipping the Poi class to stick with juggling practice.

Liam being good at everything to make up for me being crap at everything. (Pics nicked from Liam!)

Liam being good at everything to make up for me being crap at everything. (Pics nicked from Liam!)

For the next couple of days, I pretty much didn't move more than an inch from my little juggling practice spot. Armed with my very own, brand new set of juggling balls - purchased from the hostel itself - plus a huge bottle of water and a little bottle of suncream, I stood for hours on end, and relentlessly tried to get the hang of it. It was absolutely maddening - my brain was so focused on catching the first ball, that no matter what I did, I couldn't make my hand throw the third ball.  I did have a little laugh to myself though - as I was there struggling to even throw my three balls, let alone catch them,  there were people from the convention either side of me juggling sets of five or six knives, as they stood on one leg, used the other to balance a spinning plate whilst also having balanced a ball on their head. After my relentless practicing, every single person in the hostel would ask how the juggling was going - I was literally the juggling girl. (The juggling girl that couldn't juggle...)

Juggling pal

Juggling pal

You'll all be extremely glad to hear, (I'm sure,) that one morning, I woke up and headed to my juggling spot, prepared for another day of not being able to juggle, and something magical had happened overnight, my hand could throw the ball, and I could now juggle. (Very badly.) I also discovered 'Yin' yoga - a slow paced yoga, focused more on holding postures, calming the mind and stretching the body, whilst incense burned and Bob Marley softly played in the background. There was a lot more lying down in Yin yoga, and that suited me perfectly. (Although it was pretty hard to stifle the giggles when one of the hostels pet dogs came over and started licking my cheek halfway through one of the poses.)

Book life

Book life

Life at Circus was good. I ended up extending my stay by almost another week. There were fire shows and open mic nights on the evenings, which had absolutely no danger of ever getting boring, a cute little ice cream lady turned up each lunchtime and sold 5 baht ice creams, (5 baht is about 10 pence!) yoga took place every morning, and even though the juggling convention was over, circus workshops took place every evening. I actually found that there was sometimes too much to do - even though I'm usually a bit of a water baby, I didn't make it into that pool even once during my entire eleven day stay at Circus - and to me, that's the ultimate proof that I've got lots to keep me occupied!

If anybody is heading to Pai, (and you absolutely must) don't miss out on Pai Circus School and Hostel. A huge thanks to all those long lost backpackers (and Abby and Meg!) who recommended that I stay there - it really was a highlight of my trip! 

Fire shows.

Fire shows.

Circus sunset

Circus sunset

5 baht ice cream

5 baht ice cream

The pool I didn't ever use.

The pool I didn't ever use.

Circus bungalows

Circus bungalows

Elephants Aren't For Riding

When I was a lot younger, I would look at photos of people riding elephants and say "When I'm older, I'm going to do that!"

I've always loved animals, (the thousands of animal pictures I post might be a slight giveaway!) and let's face it - elephants are pretty cool. To most eyes, it looks like it would be fine to clamber onto the back of the giant creatures - they seem big enough that they might not even notice the weight of one or two people on their backs...

Now that we know more about the effects of riding elephants, not to mention the abuse that they suffer from the trainers, it's safe to say that I want nothing to do with elephant rides whatsoever - unfortunately plenty of people are still miseducated, and each day, lots of people do still climb aboard the beautiful giants - sadly more than enough people to keep the elephant ride business in Thailand going strong.

Upon arrival in Bangkok, I overheard a conversation in one of the hostels about a company called Elephant Jungle Sanctuary. The backpackers who had been talking about EJS, said that you could spend a day with the wonderful creatures, there was no riding of the elephants, and that all the animals were treated really well. Feeling a little skeptical, I decided to investigate further, and after several hours of reading articles, blog posts and Tripadvisor reviews surrounding the subject, and more importantly Elephant Jungle Sanctuary itself, I'd actually taken the decision to visit the sanctuary myself, and had booked and paid the deposit for a full day's visit.

The day came around fast, and I was excited but also strangely nervous to be up close to the big grey giants. Liam, who I met at Loy Krathong Festival had booked a day at the Sanctuary too, so I actually ended up moving my date forward so we could go together (and take on the role of each others personal photographer for the day!) I was picked up from the hostel bright and early, and bundled into the back of a truck with the other people that were booked onto the trip. As soon as the next people we picked up got into the truck, I clocked that their accents were from Bristol, and we of course got talking. We did the whole 'Facebook mutual friends swap' thing, and it turns out we knew quite a few of the same people. When you travel, you're forever being reminded how small a world we live in!

A volunteer was needed to move into the front seat of the truck, so we could fit everybody in. As I was the only solo traveler, I decided to volunteer. At first it was slightly awkward as the driver couldn't speak more than a few words of English, and there was a bit of an uncomfortable silence, until he said 'music?' To which of course I replied with a 'yes please!'

Despite the language barriers, we found common ground over a love for Elton John and The Beatles as we had a little singalong. Climbing the mountain roads, I taught him how to say the word 'steep' and he was honestly the happiest bloke in Thailand, and spent the rest of the journey repeating 'steep' every time we got to an incline in the road. By the time we arrived at the sanctuary, we were practically best friends.

Elephant Jungle Sanctuary is steadily growing in size - since opening in 2014 the company has had to increase the number of 'elephant camps' to eight! Upon arrival at 'Camp Two' we were taught about the history behind the company. Many local Karen Hill tribes own elephants which have been passed down through the families. Previously used for work, but now essentially just a burden to the families who own them, Elephant Jungle Sanctuary looks after the elephants and provides them with the food and care they need. They rely on visitors and donations to keep the sanctuary running. It was really interesting to learn about, and once the initial welcome talk was complete, it was time to go and meet the elephants!

Best mates.

Best mates.

Pockets loaded with bamboo, we got to spend the next hour or so making friends with the gentle giants. (Seems that I'm quite similar to an elephant, in the sense that I'll become a good friend of anybody who gives me food too!) It was incredibly cute that they know exactly where you keep the bamboo, so every now and then you'd look down to find a huge trunk trying to pickpocket you. Everyone knows that elephants are huge, but they really do tower over you when you're up close - they're beautiful! (And they feel EXACTLY how I imagined them to!)

Got any size 22s?

Got any size 22s?

Sadly, the bamboo soon ran out and that meant that it was time for us to eat. The sanctuary put on a lovely (all you can eat) Thai spread, and we all stuffed our faces and got to know each other. It was really cool to see the elephants themselves chilling out in the shade as we ate and chatted amongst ourselves and once we were finished, we got the chance to learn how to make 'medicine' for the elephants. (It was more like one of those little health/protein balls you can buy, the ones you're supposed to only eat one of, but are filled with peanut butter so you feel like you want to eat about twelve.)

Making medicine balls.

Making medicine balls.

Medicine balls in hand, we made our way down to the little lake to feed them to the elephants - after which they went for a little lie down in the water, waiting for us to cover them in mud. The playful staff were on hand to make sure that we got covered in mud too (which saved me 'accidentally' falling in to cover myself, and also gave me a license to start a bit of a mud fight with one of them!) The elephants loved it! It was like a proper little pamper session for them - they looked so relaxed, wallowing in the shallow water!

Spa day.

Spa day.

I thought the little lake was going to be the extent of our time in the water with the elephants, but it wasn't long before we were walking down towards a waterfall and bigger section of water! The elephants were as eager to get in as we were, and we were given bowls which we could fill with water to throw over the elephants and clean the mud off. There was a LOT of splashing, but smiles and laughter all round as we played with the elephants in the water!

Before we knew it, the day was over and it was actually incredibly sad to leave the sanctuary. I think both Liam and I considered actually paying to come back the following day, but both of our budgets decided against that idea for us! Before I overheard the backpackers in Bangkok talking about Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, I was adamant that I wasn't going to be involved in any tourism involving elephants, but you should honestly see for yourself the incredible work that these guys do - as volunteers! The elephants are happy and well looked after, and of course in an ideal world, they would be free to roam the jungles as they please - but this isn't an ideal world - there simply isn't enough jungle left in Thailand for these animals to survive without having to venture onto farm land, which unfortunately, is an invitation for local farmers to shoot them.

An incredible day, which I'll never forget. Big thanks to Elephant Jungle Sanctuary for having us! And if you happen to be visiting Thailand, don't miss out on this incredible daytrip!

Gropey baby

Gropey baby

Quite possibly the only photo in existence of Liam and I?

Quite possibly the only photo in existence of Liam and I?

Loy Krathong/Yi Peng

Pretty much the first thing I did when I arrived in Thailand, even before I got tattooed by a monk, was to book accommodation in Chiang Mai for a few days which were a whole month away. normally I don't book somewhere to stay until I've arrived, but I wanted to make sure I had a roof over my head during the Loy Krathong and Yee Peng festival period. The famous sky lantern release (Yee Peng) is an event I have wanted to attend for years, and was definitely the topmost item on my list of things I was most excited to do in Thailand.

Mere hours after I'd booked and paid upfront, the announcement of the King's death came, and it came with even more bad news - the ban of entertainment for 30 days, along with the cancellation of any festivals - including Loy Krathong and Yee Peng. I was obviously pretty upset, but it was quite moving to see how seriously the Thais took the death of their beloved King. Plus - now I had an excuse to return to Thailand again in the future!

Over the next few weeks, there were several rumours that the festival would potentially still be going ahead. The moment I got the news that it was definitely going to be on, I was on my way up to a mountain village and although I was initially ecstatic, I also had a sudden realisation that I would have to rush back the next morning to get a bus to Laos in time to sort my Indian visa in time to get back to Chiang Mai in good time for the start of the festival. I was going to be massively pushed for time, and obviously my knack for finding bad luck in certain situations meant the resulting outcome was that it didn't really go to plan...

A rushed couple of days later, safely back in Chiang Mai I made my way to Wat Arun - the temple where one of the opening ceremonies was being held. I arrived fairly early and feeling pretty pleased with myself I got a spot quite close to the front. Just half an hour later, the place was crowded, hot and sweaty. I could feel mosquitos biting me, and a sudden influx of Chinese tourists meant that most of the photos I tried to take ended up being of the back of a head, as what felt like hundreds of Chinese arms kept darting up with huge cameras and knocking everyone else's arms out of the way. I don't think my mouth has ever been as dry as it was that night, and I was on the verge of a full blown tantrum, so when one of the guys I'd been chatting to said he was making an exit to get a drink, I followed without hesitation.

Wat Arun Opening Ceremony

Wat Arun Opening Ceremony

Liam and I spent the rest of the night chatting, and arranged to meet up again the next day for the festival. It made the world of difference having a companion in the unorganised chaos that is Loy Krathong - especially when it's a companion with a great taste in music, giving you so much to talk about that you don't have time to get claustrophobic.

I have to admit, the festivals were neither the 'calm and relaxing moments' or the 'perfect photo opportunities' that I'd always imagined them to be. 'Loy Krathong' literally translates to 'floating baskets' and funnily enough, involves floating candlelit 'baskets' down the river. Whilst this sounds cute and pretty, what it actually involves is hundreds of people, laden with cameras and phones, pushing into each other on a muddy, slippery river bank, in an attempt to release their little floaty things without losing a flip flop to the mud, or a camera to the river. It's a bit of a free for all, and I was very conscious the entire time that any moment could be my last 'dry' moment, and one wrong step would ensure that I was no longer the proud owner of a phone or camera. A lot of the 'krathongs' are built with no form of wind shelter for the candles, so the flames go out almost instantly, and to be honest, it looks nothing like the photos you see...

Festival decor.

Festival decor.

'Krathongs' sent on their merry way, and our feet safely back on firm ground, it was time to release our lanterns. It was a god-given miracle that the flimsy, handmade tissue paper/wire combinations were still intact to be fair, considering we'd had to buy them hours in advance and carry them round with us all night, whilst the whole of Chiang Mai seemed to be filled with crowds of people of the barging variety...

The lack of organisation (or at least readily available information) about this event was pretty atrocious. Of course, everybody wants the 'picture perfect moment' of themselves releasing a lantern, whilst hundreds more lanterns decorate the sky behind them, and whilst we'd heard rumours of a mass lantern release at 9pm, we weren't sure if they were simply just rumours or where a mass release would even happen if there were to be one. It also seemed that the majority of people were gathering on a specific bridge to release lanterns - it can't have been an 'official' spot as it was a horrendous location, considering that it was narrow enough to be overcrowded as well as being surrounded by trees and electrical wires.

Liam and I spent a while watching (mainly Western tourists) screw up their lanterns - either by accidentally catching them on fire, or releasing them under a tree, only to get caught up in the branches. After a short time, it became apparent that even if there was supposed to be a mass release, nobody seemed to know about it and our best bet to get a half decent photo would be as soon as possible, so we found a spot that wasn't obstructed by wires or branches, and successfully set off our lanterns.

Lantern Release

Lantern Release

On my way home that night, I walked past another bridge that was filled with people releasing their lanterns. It was a lot less crowded, had hardly any tourists and as a result seemed a lot less chaotic. There was to be another lantern release the following night, so we decided to give that spot a go instead - and what a difference! If you ever intend to attend Loy Krathong or Ye Peng festivals, try and find yourself a spot that lacks tourists - the experience is much more pleasant! (And there are fewer failed lantern launchings!) There was even a lovely riverside bar with an incredible live band. They had infectious smiles and an indescribable style - it was great!

If I'm being totally honest, the festivals themselves were a slight anti-climax. The photos that you see online are actually from the Mae Jo Lantern Release, which is held at the same time as Loy Krathong/Yi Peng, but instead of being a free event, tickets sell for up to $300 a time. It was of course a magical experience, and a lot of fun - I'd definitely still recommend checking the events out. (Though if you're looking at photos of Mae Jo, and you're going to be disappointed if there aren't quite as many lanterns as that, you're maybe better off forking out the $100- $300 for a ticket to go to what I imagine is a slightly better organised affair!)

The best part for me was meeting a friend for life - If you're ever in Thailand in November, get yourself to Chiang Mai, cram yourself into an overcrowded opening ceremony, moan like crazy about absolutely everything, and find yourself a Liam!

Chased a Monk down the street just to get this shot.

Chased a Monk down the street just to get this shot.

A Holiday In Laos.

Flashback to early October in 'sort of sunny' Melbourne. I'm all set to apply for my visa for India, when a nice, kind, helpful soul tells me that I can save myself the effort and apply in Bangkok. "That would be absolutely fantastic!" I thought. "But I'd better check online first - rather be safe than sorry..."

Everything online checked out fine. "Yes, you can apply for your Indian visa in Bangkok." hundreds of blogs, websites and stories were telling me. Perfect. That gave me more time to go and support my new team, The Blue Jays, with my new Canadian friends. It was a HUGE game, (apparently) and it was my duty to go and show my support.

Go Blue Jays.

Go Blue Jays.

Anyway, skip forward a couple of weeks, and I'm stood in line at the Indian Embassy, Bangkok. It no longer really matters that the Blue Jays won, (even though in our drunk celebrations I won $100 at the casino,) because after a hot and sweaty wait, I finally reach the front of the queue to be greeted with a very short and blunt "You cannot apply from Thailand on a tourist visa. You must go to Laos. NEXT PLEASE"

Oh. Looks like I'm going on holiday then... A fairly costly mistake, it's probably time to start being more careful with planning to make sure I'm not wasting money on anything else unnecessarily...

So, back to the present...  I'm making my way down from Phu Chi Fah to Chiang Rai. It's a Thursday morning and I need to be in Vientiane, the capital city of Laos, before 4pm on Friday in time to apply for my visa before the weekend. I know that I can get a bus directly from Chiang Mai to Vientiane, but can't find any information online about Chiang Rai to Vientiane. I've definitely got enough time to get back to Chiang Mai and get on the correct bus there to make it in time, but I also might have enough time to visit the White Temple in Chiang Rai and then try and find a bus that takes me to Vientiane.

According to practically every single person I've met in Thailand, The White Temple is a must see - a do not miss. I make the snap judgement to go and see the temple, telling myself that if there are buses from Chiang Mai to Vientiane, there are sure to be buses from Chiang Rai too.

White Temple Side View

White Temple Side View

Cut a really long story short, I HATED the White Temple and there are no buses from Chiang Rai to Vientiane. The White Temple was overcrowded with tourists to the point where you were not allowed to stop in front of it for a photo, and you definitely didn't have time to look around. I pretty much had to battle a thousand Chinese tourists to even get a photo at the side of the goddamn thing, before being ushered out - and then to top it all off, the buses from Chiang Rai take you to Huay Xai - the Northern border of Laos, rather than Vientiane, which is a lot further south.

Obviously the resulting twenty six hours that I then had to spend on a bus (as opposed to the nine hours I would have spent, had I gone to Chiang Mai) meant that I didn't make it to the embassy in time to apply for my visa before it shut for the weekend, which automatically added an extra three days onto my little 'holiday.' It really was time to start being more careful with planning to make sure I wasn't wasting money on anything else unnecessarily...

The first night was eventful, to say the least! A couple of us got invited to watch a free football game - Laos vs Vietnam. I acquired a free football shirt, got right involved in the chants (even if I had to make up the words a little bit) and at the end I got to meet my (new) favourite player. Laos won and there was an incredible atmosphere.

Team Laos

Team Laos

Met my favourite

Met my favourite

On our way to the football match we gatecrashed a wedding. I felt a bit bad because I was in a football shirt, and it was someone's wedding, but they were extremely happy to have us there - it felt like we were the star attraction. Everyone wanted to dance with us, have photos with us and pour shots of Johnnie Walker down our throats. I'm not even sure how I end up in these situations. Laos is a little crazy.

Wedding fun.

Wedding fun.

As crazy as the people are, Vientiane is pretty boring. There's hardly anything to do there once the supply of free football games and weddings has run out, and it's quite expensive too, so once I'd applied for my visa at the Indian Embassy ($164 USD!!!!) I made my way up to Vang Vieng for a few days.

Vang Vieng is full of adventures. There's zip lining and kayaking and bike rides and tubing. A little summer paradise of activities and outdoor fun. Unfortunately for me, it absolutely hammered it down with rain for the entire duration of my stay, which meant that most of the activities I wanted to do were out of the question. I figured that I'd have nothing to lose by going tubing, as you end up getting wet regardless of the weather.

Tubing in Vang Vieng is a must do. I'm not really a drinker, but when you take part in an activity which involves floating down the river just to visit bars, it's sort of a given that you're going to end up drinking, so you should just embrace it. (Plus, it was US Election Day, and the result made everybody want to get drunk anyway!) At the first bar I played my first ever game of beer pong (and lost) and my first ever game of 'flip cup' (much preferable to beer pong.) The staff at the bar then told us we had to play 'musical tubes' - I wanted to opt out but they encouraged us to all play, so I decided to get purposely knocked out in the first round (In the same way I used to do as a kid, at parties whilst playing 'musical chairs.') Things didn't exactly go to plan, and when the music first stopped, somebody accidentally knocked me into a tube as they dived for one themselves.

Once I was in it, I was in it to win it, and win it I (nearly) did. A close second, but the prize was still the same as first, and I found myself with a free bucket and three of those horrible shots where they just pour the alcohol straight into your mouth from the bottle. I'm quite confident in saying that this was the point it all started to go horribly wrong, and I found myself retracting my previous statement of 'I've got nothing to lose' as I watched my GoPro fall, in what felt like slow motion, from my hand to the river and slowly sink to the bottom, never to be seen again. The iPhone took a battering too - the dry bags that you buy in town are most certainly not dry, and as a result, my phone spent the next three days in a bag of rice (and sadly didn't make a recovery...)

There are no more photos from Laos, because I was phoneless and GoProless and it was far too wet to use my camera. I returned to Vientiane on the Friday to pick up my visa - hoping they'd give it to me fairly quickly as I had a bus to catch to Chiang Mai to make sure I was back in time for Loy Krathong Festival. There was no reason for there to be any issue, but I arrived at the Embassy during my allotted time, to find that they hadn't even printed my visa. Over an hour later, visa in hand, I ran to the bus station and just about managed to make the last bus to the Thai border. Unfortunately, by the time I'd been through border control the last bus to Chiang Mai was already seven minutes gone, and the next one wasn't for 24 hours. I had two choices. Pay 300 baht for a room for the night and wait for an entire day to catch a nine hour long, 800 baht bus (which wouldn't get me to Chiang Mai on time,) or to get on the 400 baht, nine hour long bus to Bangkok, just to get straight on another 400 baht 14 hour long bus to Chiang Mai, arriving in time for Loy Krathong.

I went for the bus to Bangkok, because it worked out cheaper as well as getting me to Chiang Mai on time. I still haven't decided whether or not that was the right decision....

The green line shows the route I could have taken, the red is my chosen route.

The green line shows the route I could have taken, the red is my chosen route.

I managed to spend more money in one week in Laos, than I did in an entire month in Thailand. The moral of the story? Don't ever trust the internet....

 

Cats And Sunsets.

The bus ride from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai is a mere three and a half hours long. I actually find it fairly amusing that a year or two ago I would have considered a three and a half hour journey a long one - then Australia happened - and now I tend to consider anything less than 10 hours as short. Regardless - three and a half hours is more than enough time to become absolutely fit to burst with desperation for the toilet, and as we pulled into our destination, I practically fell off the bus into the streets of Chiang Rai.

"Toilet?" I asked every single person in sight. The reply each time was a blank stare and I ended up pushing my way through the crowds in a desperate search.

As well as eventually managing to find somewhere to relieve myself, (literally just in time,) my quest to not wet myself in the middle of the street also led me to (what I believe to be) my greatest Thai discovery yet. A cat cafe.

A cat cafe with free wifi to be precise...

One cat was not amused.

One cat was not amused.

Of course, if somebody who is destined to become a crazy cat lady needs wifi, and there happens to be free wifi available in a room filled with cats, that is exactly where said lady will remain, and also explains exactly how I came to be sat in a feline filled room, trying my hardest to make plans for the next few days.

Pals.

Pals.

Even with the distractions that come whilst you're surrounded by plenty of little noses and plenty of little paws, I managed to decide on a spontaneous trip to Phu Chi Fah, leaving the next afternoon. Phu Chi Fah is a mountain area and National Forest Park in North Eastern Thailand, and according to several online sources has an absolutely spectacular sunrise. I love a good sunrise, so had to go and check it out for myself.

The following afternoon, the bus ambled along until we reached Thoeng Station. Normally there is a bus which takes you right up to the small village of Phu Chi Fah, but of course, the day I decide to take it, it breaks down and I have to take the bus to Thoeng, and then get a much more expensive Songthaew truck (400 baht) up to the village. It was just myself and two others in the truck that wound its way up to mountain and dropped us at a guesthouse, arranging to pick us up the next day. The lady at the guesthouse greeted us enthusiastically and tried to charge us 600 baht each for a room. 600 baht is my entire daily budget and I must have recoiled in horror. The two people I'd shared the truck with also didn't seem happy with this price, and together we agreed to have a look around the village and try to find somewhere cheaper. (The guesthouse lady shouting reduced prices at us as we left!)

Turns out that luck was on my side. Mhee and Puk were from Bangkok, on holiday in Northern Thailand, and could obviously speak Thai, as well as being able to speak English. Which was handy for me as I definitely can't speak Thai, (and it turns out that practically nobody that lives on Phu Chi Fah can speak English.)  Mhee managed to find a guesthouse that would allow the three of us to share a room for 500 baht total. Result!

There's actually not too much to do in a little mountainside village, so we decided to walk up to the peak of the mountain to watch sunrise. All three of us panting and dripping with sweat, we eventually made it to the top in time for some spectacular views!

Sunset.

Sunset.

Panoramic views.

Panoramic views.

Our alarms rang at 4am the following morning and the guesthouse owner gave us a lift as far as he could up the mountain. (Thank god.) We found ourselves a good spot and eagerly awaited the sunrise.

Now, you can't always be lucky, and although the sunrise started out well, clouds from near and far soon gathered and turned the sky a dingy shade of grey. It was still well worth going to see, but I couldn't help but feel a little disappointed at having the sunrise cut short.

Sunrise at Phu Chi Fah

Sunrise at Phu Chi Fah

What made up for the disappointment, however, was the hill tribe children who were wandering the mountains. They were extremely cute, and quite possibly a better sight than any sunrise I've ever seen, as well as being more than willing to pose for photos.

This guy.

This guy.

Cute.

Cute.

We had to make our way back down Phu Chi Fah to meet the Songthaew driver who was due to pick us up for another 400 baht each. When we got back to the village, Mhee and Puk were speaking to one of the villagers who offered us a lift back down to the bus station in Thoeng for just 100 baht each. We phoned the driver to cancel our pick up and he told us that cancellations were not possible. After lots of arguing on the phone, it ended up being a mad rush down the mountain to avoid bumping into the angry driver who said he was coming to get us anyway.

My preferred travel method.

My preferred travel method.

How a quiet few days in Chiang Rai turned into an escape in the back of a truck, I'll never know....