Hello ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to the final rendition of ‘what the hell did we do on that day, oh god, I can’t remember, I wish I’d written this sooner like Megan said I should have’! You’ve (hopefully) followed us all the way through our epic adventure, starting with our first exciting steps in America and (hopefully again) you’ve enjoyed reading about them. This last instalment will take you through our final countries, Laos and Thailand, and you’ll have to forgive me if at points this description feels a little vague. I’ll make no excuses – I write this after being back in the country for over four months, on the eve of the 365th day since we first began this adventure.
The Slow Boat to Where, Again?
Laos is a wonderful country, nestled between Vietnam and Thailand. It’s a lot bigger than it seems as it follows most of Vietnam south until it runs into one of our previous stops, Cambodia. We only had six days in Laos – the shortest stop we’ve had in any country so far – and we had just two destinations in mind: the capital Vientianne, and the more touristy town of Luang Prabang.
By this point we’d had our fill of night trains and long bus rides, and having consulted the spreadsheet we decided to splash out a little and fly to our first destination. After the shuttle ride to the hotel and checking into another windowless room we took stock, did some admin and hit the hay. We were staying a little outside of the centre of town but even so, there was a lot of activity from the mall across the road during the daytime. And at night, as we ventured forth to find a pizzeria (of all things), we happened to stumble through the largest night market we’d been to so far. Sadly, the night market wasn’t all trinkets and souvenirs and felt more like a discount outlet mall made of tents as each shop had your generic sports clothing and accessories for a little cheaper than usual.
We hadn’t come into Laos with a lot of knowledge of what we wanted to see but after a quick Google, I had a shortlist that should be easily fulfilled.
Firstly, the presidential palace. It happened to be placed right on the main road junction two streets down from our hotel, so that was checked off basically every time we went anywhere. A little lacklustre for the name but enough flags and, strangely, neon lights to give an impression of its importance.
Next, Sisaket Temple. A small temple full to the brim of Buddha Statues. This, too, was located right on the road directly next to the presidential palace, so that’s 2 for 2 on the sightseeing front. For something a little older and more mysterious, That Dam (which is a name, not an exclamation) – an ancient Stuppa with a varying origin story and guarded by a giant 7-headed water serpent – what’s not to like!
Finally, Buddha Park. This one took a little more effort, as we had to get a bus about 45 minutes outside of town where we would be deposited in what could otherwise be described as a large cemetery if it WASN’T FOR ALL OF THE GIANT BUDDHAS. Reclining buddhas, laughing buddhas, angry buddhas, giant buddha heads with loads of buddhas inside, you name it, the park had it (M: as long as what you name includes ‘buddha’). Hopefully you’ve seen at least a few of our pictures from Buddha Park, but if not, believe me, there. Are. A. Ton. Of. Them.
With all of the sightseeing out of the way, two long bumpy bus rides and some pizza found and devoured, it was time to head to our next destination of Luang Prabang.
Nestled on the side of a hill next to the mighty Mekong River, Luang Prabang is tiny. We stayed in a lovely little hostel that gave us our own private room and G&T and beer whenever we asked. Our main goal here was a brief stop before we got on the slow boat all the way back to Thailand.
There’s not a whole lot to do in Luang Prabang, the main attraction being Mount Phusi – a hill/mountain in the middle of town with a few temples and statues on the hike up to the top. It’s quite a well-known spot to watch the sunset if you’re in the area, something I hadn’t quite grasped the magnitude of until we hit the summit and could barely even stand for all of the Instagramming tourists. We decided that (even if we did take a few snaps for Insta ourselves) we were not as dedicated as these people and made our way down the other side of the hill to find some dinner. We took in the sunset from a much lower level as we pulled up a pew in the market street running parallel to the river.
The next morning we had to get up early as we had asked the hostel to book us two tickets on the slow boat to Thailand and it was finally time to indulge. For those of you who don’t know, the slow boat takes two solid 8-hour chunks of sailing to get all the way up the Mekong and into Chiang Rai Province in Thailand. At this point I’ll also mention that Megan was coming down with a heavy cold, so once we boarded we found a couple of seats at the back (M: seat which had been taken directly out of the front of a Ford Transit), put in some headphones to dull the somewhat deafening motor and basically just napped the whole way. A couple of things to note though:
- The slow boat isn’t just a tourist thing and is used heavily by the locals, a few of whom live en route. This meant the boat made a few seemingly random stops for someone to just hop off and walk into the brush to their front door.
- At points, the river technically has rapids. The boat we were on was very low slung, very long and quite narrow, and feeling/seeing/hearing it go quite sideways at points as the skipper navigated the vessel through some fast waters was a little terrifying.
- As the name would suggest, this was the slow option for this route. You can opt for a speedboat that gets you there in half the time, but as we weren’t in a hurry we went with the more relaxing slow boat. I can certainly thank whatever deity presides over my decisions, because the speedboats looked absolutely terrifying as they’re essentially a giant outboard motor stuck on the back of what I would call a canoe. The boat looked barely big enough for 4 people to comfortably sit in and they rocketed down the river past us a number of times. We saw one containing at least 11 people, and I’m almost 100% certain those passengers are dead now. There’s no conceivable reality in which they all survived to get the destination – ONLY ONE OF THEM HAD A HELMET ON. From what we gathered on the adverts, those boats down take any stops either, and they still take about 8 hours to get where they’re going. So imagine literally hurtling toward death for 8 hours. Those people are insane.
- Halfway through the journey, after the first full day of boating, you get dropped off in a little town called Pakbeng. This town seems to only exist as a stopping place for the boat and as such, it’s comprised almost completely of B’n’B’s and restaurants. We had read online that there was no reason to book in advance as you are accosted by a gaggle of people as you disembark, all of whom are trying to sell you a bed. We didn’t really have much energy for haggling at this stage and just said yes to the first person we spoke to. Luckily for us, it seemed they were the only accommodation without some sort of motorised transport so we had a ten minute walk uphill to get there, with Megan falling far behind given how she was feeling (M: the asthma attack didn’t help).
- The upside of the town being built around the boat was that you can order breakfast/lunch to go for the morning, so we again headed off at the crack of dawn with a warm container of rice to keep us company (and each other, I suppose).
Another hard 8 hours of relaxing in the sun/breeze and taking in the surrounding sights/death-defying speed boats and we finally arrived at Chiang Rai. It was then time to check out of the country (something that costs a few bob as we arrived outside normal business hours), hop on the bus to cross the ‘Friendship Bridge’ and then check into our last country, albeit for the second time on this journey.
Where The Buffalo Pachyderms Roam
As some of you may remember, Megan has been to Thailand before. And more specifically, she’s been to Chiang Mai before, the province in which you now find your intrepid travellers. She had been to this exact city about two years prior with her friend Lindsey and it was here that she played an outstanding cupid by completely ignoring her friend in favour of the elephants until Lindsey found someone else to talk to (her now-fiancé).
Megan had wanted to show me the elephants of Chiang Mai for a long time, and for someone who was a little uncertain around large cattle, this was going to be an interesting experience for everyone involved. I was, at least, excited to finally get this chance.
The Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai is maybe one of the greatest places on earth if you want to not only get up close and personal with some of these incredible creatures but also learn about the threats to their wellbeing, the mistreatment that so many of them sadly still suffer and what the Park is doing to help.
We had an almost-2-hour trip in a minivan to get to the park and we were entertained on the way by what is now an aged video explaining the do’s and don’ts of the park and of elephant handling itself (M: narrated by celeb guest Lou from Neighbours).
Once we arrived we were each gifted a set of traditional elephant-rearing clothes which would serve to help keep any stray pieces of food or debris off us as we tailed our new friends for the day. We then headed over to a wooden table, divvyed out some machetes and took some subtle anger issues out on a bunch of watermelons. These, along with a whole basket full of small bananas were all washed, chucked into a couple of large bins and then dragged over to where we would be feeding the mighty creatures.
This was it now, the closest I’d ever come to the largest animal I’d ever seen. Holding out food for them to scoop up in their alien appendages and devour as quickly as possible, I loved every second of it, beaming from ear to ear as I tried to be fair with the distribution (or as fair as I could be when they can just reach out and take the food from you).
After feeding time, it was hiking time! I’m glad I had my hiking boots on for this one as it was a little more off the beaten path than we’re used to. The goal was simple, with each of our group having a shoulder bag full of bananas, we were to make it up the mountain to our lunch spot whilst treating the elephants on the way. This went without hitch mostly, although I will admit now that I was a little uneasy a couple of times when I couldn’t see an easy way to get out of their way. And Megan will attest that I did slightly panic once we’d reached the top and one the elephants wasn’t very happy about something (M: yeah, he basically pushed me out of the way so that he could move further from the elephants). Turns out that the aggrieved elephant could simply hear some whiney noises from a much younger elephant back in the park and once they had stopped crying, our buddy calmed down again (as did I).
Lunch was a simple yet tasty buffet-style meal taken in some man-made shade overlooking the park, and we got to know some of the other guests better, including the only ‘Facebook friends’ we made on this whole trip, Sophie and Jo (hi guys!).
After everyone was well-fed and the elephants had become a little restless we headed on back down the path toward the Nature Park. It was time for a wash! Changing out of the rental gear and into my swimming trunks we waded into the cool river next to where we had fed the bunch this morning. Each of us were handed a bucket of some sort and were encouraged to just have at the large frames who had plonked themselves down to cool off. This was amazing. We had the handlers taking some photos for us on our phones so hopefully you’ve seen those, but being in a river, in the middle of Thailand, throwing cool water over a few gigantic creatures was utterly incredible. I still had a little anxiety about their size, their ability to crush me and my ability to move out of the way if they wanted me to, but it had been one of the best days of our entire adventure (M: best Valentine’s ever).
After we’d hopped out of the stream and dried almost instantly in the sun, it was time for a tour around the rest of the park. There were a whole lot more of the mighty mammals milling around here, ether chilling in the shade, playing with the dirt, or having a chat with a friend. We were introduced to a few of our guide’s favourites as we walked around and all too soon it was time to exit via the gift shop. After spending a little to help the cause (and because I wanted to) we were bundled back onto the van and driven back to our hotel. We bid our new friends adieu, found dinner and then it was almost time for some friends to arrive…
Finishing It Off With A Flourish
It was here in Chiang Mai, after we had changed from our flashy hotel to a smaller hostel with a 4-person dorm room, that two of our friends turned up: Fred and Peter. I’ll explain now that this other Pete is normally referred to as P2, being the second person to be called Peter in the office in which he met Megan (no I was not the first Peter, apparently there are loads of us around) (M: common as muck). And Fred, (just Fred for this one) I’ve known since the first year of secondary school, when we were both 11 years old and full of wonder/childish anxiety. Now we’ve both finally aged to 26, but still full to the brim with anxiety.
We had 3 stops with our little retinue, the first being where they met us – Chiang Mai. Even though we moved location within the city, we actually had another day with elephants lined up so we weren’t going anywhere soon. Then it would be onto Phuket for some beach relaxing and finally, Bangkok, where P2 would leave us as he’d ‘seen it before’ and the three of us would explore one of the largest cities I’ve ever seen.
Our second day with the elephants went much like our first except this time I could sit back and watch the amazement on someone else’s face as Fred and P2 went through the same almost-panic and incredible wonder of seeing and touching and hearing these amazing animals for the first time. It was different from our first day only in the fact that it was actually at a nearby habitat for the elephants and not in the Nature Park itself. Also, there was mud. A LOT of mud. A big 20’ by 20’ mud dugout came up to our knees in the wrong places was situated right in the middle of the camp and here we were encouraged to up close and dirty with the pachyderms, massaging their thick hides and covering them in mud. I had elected not to bring a spare t-shirt for some reason and so spent most of this time trying to avoid the incoming missiles of fist sized mudballs. This wasn’t 100% successful, but, if you’ve seen the pictures, you’ve seen Fred.
After the mud it was into the river just like last time and again, the only difference here was that we had two additional people to laugh with as we all got completely soaked. Once the elephants had had enough, we walked a little bit up the hill for their proper feeding time – bamboo shoots this time, which was great until I got slapped in the face by a rogue branch as the younger of the three creatures was waaaay to eager to take it out of my hand. Laughs all around.
We then had a short internal flight to Phuket, a beach tourist town which was curiously full of Russian people. There’s not much to say here if I’m completely honest. Our two additions were still pretty jetlagged so we spent a lot of time laying down, then going for some food and then more laying down and then maybe a swim in the sea and then, yep, more laying down. I didn’t have a problem with this at all as I’m always content to spend a lot of time in the water (even if there were tiny stingers in it adding a bit of spice all the way).
One thing of note here is that I almost lost my Stax Records hat, the hat I’d picked up on this very adventure from Stax Records, Memphis. I placed it on Megan’s head to be annoying, and as we rectified that situation it fell sadly into a pool of stagnant water in the middle of a dinosaur-themed crazy golf course (oh yeah, we were at a dinosaur-themed crazy golf course at the time, forgot to mention that). I was ready to say goodbye to the only thing that had kept my balding head from turning completely red in the sun but Megan was adamant that I should keep this souvenir. This meant that after our game was done, she filmed me walking up to my waist into this pool of green/brown water to retrieve the hat and then spent the afternoon laughing at me. I can see the appeal to be honest.
While we in Phuket we had found a few vendors of that fried ice-cream that I loved so much in Hoi An. And, cholesterol be damned, it became a frequent occurrence to have a bunch of Oreo cookies mashed into a fine paste and covered with chocolate sauce and sprinkles. It’s the simple things.
From Phuket it was time to get back up to Bangkok for the third and final time (the other two being for connecting flights). We had an afternoon as a four-person party until P2 went off in search of his flight. The three remainders then checked into a nice little hostel and again fell asleep until the next day, when it was time for our cookery class.
We had enjoyed the food a lot whilst in South East Asia, particularly the varieties of fried rice you can get from anywhere. We decided to join a one-day course and try out some bits for ourselves. There wasn’t anything about fried rice unfortunately, but we did make a fruit salad to start, a classic Thai green curry for mains and a pumpkin egg custard tart for desert. With 10 people in a small room and with just as many gas burners, it got ridiculously hot, but it was still an excellent experience with friendly and helpful staff guiding us through these tasty yet simple dishes. I am sad to say that I have not tried any of these recipes since being back in the UK (M: yet – we were reassured several times that we could find the necessary ingredients in a 7-11 if we didn’t happen to have a Thai market nearby).
The next day we headed to the main market for our final round of souvenir shopping. This was made all the more interesting by the absolute rainstorm that hit as we were walking around. Most of the market was inside but I use that term loosely as most parts of the roof just didn’t exist. And it was then time for our last dinner as travellers. With a couple of beers longer than our arms, and some good food that someone else had made, we toasted to ourselves, to what we had achieved, to everything we had seen and felt and experienced over these last 8 months (Fred was still there at this stage but he could enjoy the sentiment all the same).
With not enough alcohol in our system, we were taken (and by ‘we’ I mean Fred and I, Megan leading the way) down one of the streets of the red light district of Bangkok. We didn’t actually stop anywhere because, as I mentioned, there was not enough alcohol and I am very British, but it was amazing to see anyway.
(M: I see here that Pete’s neglected to mention the BRILLIANT evening we spent watching England lose in the Six Nations, much to the joy of everyone except the 10 Englishmen in the pub. This followed an Uber driver who took great pains to mention that the area we were going to was very touristy, and then proceeded to point out every tourist as if he didn’t have three extremely non-SE Asian people in the car. A brilliant night.)
There’s not much to say about our last day either. Frederick was booked on an early flight and we were booked on an evening one, so he left myself and my long-time travelling companion with a few hours to kill. We packed and repacked and repacked and made sure we had absolutely everything (apart from the few things we had lost along the way) and then took the quick way home, which meant two loooong flights.
We were given a very British welcome by the weather, having left 32-degree Bangkok and, in less than 24 hours, landed during a snowstorm which had plummeted the country to about -4. Luckily we were granted extra blankets and hoodies from our saviours (my mother and uncle) just to add to the grief-stricken refugee look.
I can’t tell you at all how amazing this whole experience has been. It’s indescribable with mortal words and nothing I can think of has compared or will compare for a very long time (until we do this again). We travelled through 11 countries over 8 months, saw all manner of incredible sights and took in all the experiences that go with it. No doubt, if you’ve seen me since I’ve been back you’ve asked me what favourite part was and I’ve, at a push, told you ‘Fiji’. But know that no one place can top that list and though Fiji might have been the most relaxing that doesn’t mean it was the categorical best. My answer to that question will most likely change a few times throughout my life, depending on what mood you catch me in. But for now, take it from someone who has now settled back into 9-5 London working life, this adventure has been the best thing I’ve ever done and I can’t think of a single way I would have preferred to spend my time.
Thank you so much to everyone who has been reading along with our adventure. I wanted a record of what was done throughout the journey and I think I’ve got that one in the bag. I’m going to leave this a little open ended as I might need a break from being a responsible adult later in the year and could use this to vent.
But for now, thank you and goodbye.