LAZY DAYS ON KAMPOT RIVER

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Kampot, on the south coast of Cambodia, was the breath of fresh air and relaxation we needed after the stinking hot encounters with Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam followed by Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital.

It is slightly up river from the coast and the beach town called Kep. On arrival in Kampot we tuk tukked our way out of town and up the other side of the river bank to accommodation called Naga, where we found a chilled out backpacker vibe and Blair, our Canadian friend, who we first met in Laos. Unfortunately Blair was leaving that afternoon so we just had enough time to catch up and for Blair to inform us about the various creatures living in our bamboo hut – the same one he had just checked out of.

We never got to meet the friendly frog that lived in the window frame but did become very well acquainted with the family of rats living in the wall cavity. On day one they chewed through our small backpack to finish off a pack of Oreos. The rest of the time we could hear and see them scuttling through the walls. The lack of hut-frog was more than compensated for by the variety of frogs that lived in the shared bathroom and had a particular penchant for the toilet seat and bowl.

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The toilet frog.

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The view from our guesthouse.

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Friendly neighbours.

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The start of one of the most amazing sunsets we’ve ever seen.

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We call this one ‘Maura at Sunset’

The main appeal for me was relaxing in our riverside bar and jumping into the water to cool off whenever the heat got too much. Another highlight was the amazing crab lunch at Kep market. We sat next to the shore watching people haul in crab pots while we got our hands dirty breaking into the sweetness covered in the famous Kampot pepper sauce.

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Kep Beach. Notice the Cambodian guy in the background going for a swim fully clothed.

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Catching our crab lunch.

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The famous Kampot pepper.

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Crab fingers.

The furthest we ventured was up a nearby hill on scooters to see an abandoned monstrosity of a French built casino and the even eerier newly built casino by the Cambodians, namely due to its enormous proportions and complete lack of guests. The hour long drive up the hill was along a winding road with sweeping curves and hairpin bends and as per normal the ride was the most exhilarating part, closely followed by being immersed in clouds that rolled in out of nowhere.

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Accurate road sign.

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One of the many abandoned buildings from the French colonial era.

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They had all that space and they built…..this….

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Once abandoned now hosting Easter mass.

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Before the clouds…

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…and after.

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Inside the old casino.

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In the clouds.

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The lone monk.

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On the road back down.

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WE ALREADY MISS SAIGON

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After numerous travellers told us that Saigon is a ‘get in and get out’ kind of city, our expectations for Vietnam’s largest city were very low.

It is over run by mopeds, cramped, loud and stinky, and…. we loved it! There is an air to the city that feels very unique, it has a distinctly Vietnamese feel, which is accompanied by the soundtrack of 4 million scooters. Somehow, despite it being a thousand times busier than Hanoi, it is much more enjoyable to wander through.

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Not sure what they were protesting, but definitely brave to stand in five lanes of traffic.

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The absolute highlight was our visit to the War Remnants Museum. Though highlight really isn’t the right word for it, shocking and traumatic would be a more fitting description. Focusing almost entirely on what the Vietnamese call the American War, it was mostly made up of photographic exhibitions of the different impacts of the war on the Vietnamese, including the hardest to see and comprehend: the use of Agent Orange.

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In other war-related tourist activities, we took a trip to the Chu Chi tunnels, on the outskirts of Saigon, which is a section of the maze of tunnels the Viet Cong used for communication, supply routes, defence and living quarters. The main reason to visit is to walk through the insanely tiny tunnels, which, alarmingly, have been widened for us giant westerners. I’m not claustrophobic, but as we took our first steps into the tunnel, it was very hard not to panic and I had to really concentrate on staying calm. We only walked 20 metres of the network –  and that was 15 metres too far!

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Our first stop on the tour: a workshop which employs those with disabilities, many of these a direct result of Agent Orange.

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The look of panic.

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Where’s Angela?

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There she is!

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One of the tunnel entrances, which has already been widened.

We said our goodbyes to Saigon, and to Vietnam, and, looking out over the beautiful mess of lights and traffic, we felt genuinely sad to be leaving. Our time in Vietnam has felt more like an extended holiday than strenuous backpacking, due to the spotlessly clean accommodation, easy transport and high-levels of seafood in-take. It was definitely a stark difference between the more rough and ready days of Laos. Though the touristy experience has meant that we don’t feel like we really got under the skin of the country, it has been an amazing few weeks.

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SEAFOOD & SUNBURN

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After the cool hills of Dalat we hot-footed it down to the ocean-side resort of Mui Ne for some extra chill time.

We stayed in a beautiful backpackers hostel, called Backpackers Village, which had a lush pool and pretty bar and restaurant. Naturally the first thing we did was order a beer then jump into the pool, followed by a bit more beer and hanging out by the pool.

Of the 4 days there 3 were spent doing pretty much nothing – which Maura has observed, is probably my favourite thing to do and I have to concur; the more horizontal I am the happier I seem to be.

However, on one of our days we hired a moped – me in the driver seat and M Bricks clinging on for dear life in the pillion position –  to explore the nearby fishing village and find the best bit of beach. We kind of failed on both counts: although we could see all the moored boats from a high part of the road we couldn’t actually find a way in to the village. Every time we got near the water side we were sent packing by villagers – I guess they’re not too keen on tourists oogling them with romantic notions of fishing life whilst they slog their guts out. Weirdly the beach was equally as difficult to access as every inch is ‘owned’ by a resort, hence all the pool time.

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One thing that Mui Ne has in abundance, which is very easy to get your hands on, is seafood; probably more seafood than I have ever seen in one place and in more shapes and varieties than I had ever imagined. Amongst the strangest options for dinner were snake, terrapin and alligator. We opted for the safer bets of lobster, mussels, clams, oysters, calamari and a few snails for good measure, all for a ridiculously cheap price, much to our delight. Our new found friend – Liam from Leeds – was not a seafood fan, but he was game for a bit of lobster and even managed to keep down an oyster, but looked on in awe/disbelief/disgust as we greedily ate a tables-worth of sea critters.

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Thankfully we left without dodgy stomachs but a tad sunburnt from blazing a trail on the moped.

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COFFEE MADE FROM WEASEL POOP & FRIED CRICKETS

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We had high expectations for Dalat, a town tucked up in the central highlands with a cooler climate and a supposed colonial ‘vibe’. It used to be a get-away for the French back in the day, but these days it’s the rich Saigon-ers that come to get-away and, well, we didn’t get much of a ‘vibe’ at all.

However, as soon as we got out into the surrounding hills we begun to understand Dalat’s attraction. We took a motorbike tour with Yang and his mate (let’s call him Bob), who drove us around to see: massive Buddhas, available in gold and green; flower farms; a cricket ‘factory’, which actually farmed crickets rather than manufactured them; waterfalls, because no tour is complete without waterfalls; and a silk farm where we watched ladies boil the little silk worms out of their cocoons and spin out the silk. I don’t know how I thought silk was made, but it certainly wasn’t like that. Still, we ate the silkworms, poor things, oh AND we had coffee made from beans which had been ingested and then later pooped out by a fox/weasel type thing. It was actually pretty good. I thought it was going to be shit…(sorry, couldn’t resist).

As per usual our favourite thing was the motorbike. Even though we weren’t actually driving the things, the sense of freedom is always a winner.

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Dalat city centre: pretty colonial town? Not sure about that.

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However, great cacti.

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Not so great on fish welfare though.

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Look how happy they both are!

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Our ‘rides’ for the day.

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Ah the Gerbera, my least favourite flower.

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The coffee beans go in (and out) of these cute things.

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This is the after photo. Yes, that probably is poop.

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Mmmmm.

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Silk cocoon with LIVE silk worm inside.

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Not so live now.

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Just before she ate the silk worm.

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There’s Bob. Bob was great. Bob was our favourite. Just wish we could remember his name.

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Inside the waterfall.

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Cricket ‘Factory’.

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Fried crickets with a side of chilli sauce.

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HOI AN, WHAT A BEAUTY!

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Oh Hoi An, Hoi An, Hoi An, HOI AN. We spent six very happy days in the beautiful-picture-perfect-Disney-style-exactly-how-you-imagine-Vietnam-to-be town of Hoi An and could have easily spent another six.

Famous for the four million tailors that can knock you up a suit in 24 hours for $100 and the four million lanterns lining the wiggly old streets, our main activities included wandering the small streets, continuing our exploration of the weird, wonderful and insanely delicious food and tweaking the tailored clothing and shoes we had commissioned.

It is true, it is incredibly touristy with way too many tailors. However, you can easily ignore the crowds when the place is as quaint and pretty as Hoi An.

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Wedding photo shoot.

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The Japanese Bridge. Never not busy. Tourists, eh?!

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A light street snack of tiny baby clams. Unsurprisingly, we felt a little ‘peaky’ the next day.

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Cycling to the beach. That’s right: Hoi An also has a beach. Could it BE anymore perfect?! No.

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Local dish of Cau Lau: pork, pork cracking, thick noodles, dash of broth, salad and herbs.

Getting clothes tailored was an adventure in itself, especially as the coat I had in mind was really only in my mind and the poor tailor only had some bad sketches from me to go on. Angela opted for a sharp navy suit and it turned out really well, perfect fit and gorgeous silk lining. As well as the wool winter coat, a snip at £57, I also managed to get my dream blazer for the bargainous price of £43 and my worn-out and much loved leather sandals copied (with a few tweaks from me) in real leather for £20.

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We also went on a bicycle day tour with some local students. The tour was free in return for the students being able to practise their English on us. We crossed the river to pedal around a small village famous for it’s boat making and we also stopped to visit a lady who makes sleeping mats from grass, a man who carves up wood into amazing things and the sweetest family who run a very small rice noodle factory out of their home.

It was lovely to see even the tiniest slither of ‘real’ Vietnamese life and ride through the brilliant green rice fields with our very friendly hosts. However, the most interesting part of the day was learning a little bit from the students of what life in Vietnam is like, especially for those studying hard for degrees with little to no job prospects awaiting them when their studies finish. Their future will probably involve leaving Vietnam to work elsewhere, somewhere like Japan or Korea. Though they all clearly loved their country, there was a palpable sense of frustration and unrest about the difficulty to find work. Tough times.

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The expert.

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Clueless.

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That’s a rice cracker/noodle sandwich.

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I’d love to go back again one day, if only to buy all the lanterns and get more clothes made. Oh and the Banh Mi sandwiches from Phuong’s, which were famously featured on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations documentary for a very good reason. Best sandwich ever.

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Five different types of Pork in one sandwich. FIVE.

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The production line. Note the use of chopsticks.

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HANOI TO HOI AN (VIA HALONG, HUE & THE HAI VAN PASS)

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We arrived in Hanoi late at night and shell-shocked after 16 hours in a 25 seater mini-van loaded with 45 people, bags of rice, assorted boxes of vegetables, a bird in a cage and snake in a bag. We had left the wilds of northern Laos, crossed the border and held on for dear life as the van zoomed along dusty twisting roads. In short, we were very glad to see Hanoi.

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Good morning Vietnam.

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Managed to find some pickled onions, which kept Angela happy.

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We had also gained new friends, fellow van survivors, Rikke and Thomas, with whom we spent evenings trying a variety of cheap and delicious street food, and, even cheaper beer. 15p for a glass of cold beer? Don’t mind if I do. We spent the daylight hours wandering the streets, avoiding the gazillion motorbikes zipping through the old town, getting lost and exploring the hundreds of shops and stalls. The weather almost dampened our spirits: it was grey and drizzly, almost raining but not quite. In fact, very similar to London skies. However, the electric atmosphere and near chaos of Hanoi’s streets was exhilarating.

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Grill your own. Delicious.

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The aforementioned grey weather meant that our trip to the world famous Halong Bay was equally grey. We certainly didn’t see it in it’s best light. Despite that, the scenery of emerald water cut with huge limestone karsts was mesmirising and we even got back in the kayaking saddle to get up close to the rocky giants.

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Keen to head out of the grey cloud we took a night train to Hue and spent a scorching day pootling about the citadel. After the temples and palaces of India we were left a little unfazed, which is very unfair on Hue and clearly a case of first world travelling problems. ‘Oh dahhhhling, we much preferred the palaces of Rajasthan…’

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We fed the fish. It was terrifying.

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From Hue we rented mopeds to tackle the Hai Van Pass (made famous by Top Gear’s Vietnam special) and transported ourselves to Hoi An, some 145kms away, taking us along beach roads and then up and over a mountain range hugging the seemingly endless coastline. It was absolutely spectacular. Even before we had reached the mountain road we had passed through tiny fishing villages, whizzed around bicycling students and avoided wandering cows. The Hai Van Pass itself was absolutely amazing, so many hair-pin bends, it was a brilliant mix of terrifying and exhilarating. Thankfully we only had a few fellow motorbikes for company, as the highway traffic of lorries, cars and screeching horns take the easier option of a tunnel.

We arrived in Hoi An high on the Hai Van Pass, but completely exhausted. 145kms had taken us 7.5 hours, which gives an idea of just how slowly I was taking those bends….!

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Elbow and knee pads? Yep, we are the coolest.

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See those hills in the background? We only went and drove up and over them.

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Angela managed to co-ordinate with our lunch stop.

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The top of the Hai Van Pass and also the perfect place for your wedding photos apparently.

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See that, we drove that.

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And that.

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Back on level ground.

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Massive Mary.

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Once again, the coolest.

TREKKING TO TRIBES (PART ONE)

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We headed out from Luang Prabang and hit the road to explore a bit of northern Laos. We were joined by our new travelling buddy, Chris, with shared plans to see the sights, do a bit of light trekking and kayaking and generally chill out – what could possibly go wrong?

The 3 hour minibus journey on the back seat felt more like 15 hours due to the horrible bumpy roads and lack of air circulation, but we were handsomely rewarded in all respects upon arrival in Nong Khiaw – a tiny town straddling a crystal clear river with huge shear rock faces towering in the background. We found cheap rooms with big balconies and (slightly obscured) views of the river.

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Nong Khiaw has a slow pace that eases away the guilt of spending a couple of days of sitting on a balcony in between finding the best places to eat and drink. On night two we hooked up with Amy, a mutual travelling buddy and part of the Luang Prabang crew, who inevitably had found all the cool people to hang out with, namely a trio of super cute and talented Canadians who played guitar and sang their souls out for our entertainment, two equally cute English girls, Jess and Maisie, and a very rich and hilarious Laos-born American dude. We ended the evening on a bridge, under the stars, drinking beers and generally feeling like 20 year olds again.

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After the laziness we planned to go on a 2 day trek that would end with us staying 2 nights in the next riverside destination, called Mong Noi, and then returning downstream in kayaks to Nong Khiaw.

Day one of the trek took us through minority villages, countryside and jungle. It was hot and hard work, but with no other tourists in sight and stumbling across tiny dwellings with just one family and their livestock hidden amongst the trees, it was well worth it. We spent the night in a remote village and were hosted by the chief and his wife. Dinner was served on the floor of their hut and was delicious – with the minor exception of the chicken head I accidentally popped into my mouth; only realising my mistake when the eyeball burst out of its socket. The highlight of this village was undoubtedly the hordes of children wanting to play with us and bestow us with gifts of flower bracelets and hand picked herbs.

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Can you spot the lady?

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The amazing grass lady’s home.

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Our guide, Put, relaxing amongst the bamboo.

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After a long day of trekking, Chris really enjoyed having these small children hanging off him.

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The boys played running around hitting each other & the girls played with a skipping rope. Just like home.

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We bought a beautiful scarf from this tiny lady. Angela sized person for scale.

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Learning about the solar system.

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Dinner with the chief’s wife.

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River weed, morning glory, fish laap, chicken and sticky rice. Delicious.

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The time Angela ate a chicken’s head.

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The huts are raised on stilts to provide shade from the hot sun and extra storage space. Oh and to avoid snakes.

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Our hosts: the village chief, Bounlit, and his wife.

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Read more about day 2 of the trek and our ‘amazing’ kayaking skills in part 2.

TREKKING TO TRIBES (PART DEUX)

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Day two of the trek took us out of the hills, through watermelon fields, to a village school where we dropped off some children’s books we had brought with us and to a “weaving village” in the most insanely beautiful location. We also had some much needed boat time before being dropped at Mong Noi, our final destination, which did not disappoint in the visuals.

Over the next day we regained our energy by lazing in hammocks at our waterside huts, ready for the 4 hour kayak back to our starting point. We were joined by a new guide with minimal English, but we managed to relay to him that Maura and I had no kayaking experience. He insisted that all 3 of us wear our life jackets but had no other advice to impart.

The first hour on the water was placid and peaceful….and then we hit rapids!! Chris had a little dunking, but kept his cool despite losing his Go-Pro camera. Then it was our turn in our double kayak. The waves quickly filled the kayak and then we fell in. We miraculously managed to keep hold of our hats, glasses and paddles whilst rushing down the rapid and clinging to the upturned kayak. We used all our strength to swim ashore and drag the kayak with us whilst our guide nonchalantly watched on from a distance. We rested on the rocky riverbank to catch our breath and try and regain some strength until our guide came over to encourage us to get back in the saddle. His advice for the next rapid was to power through it.

The next rapid was bigger and scarier than the last. Once again the kayak quickly filled with water and Maura fell in, whilst I managed to stay in the useless piece of plastic. As I saw my panic stricken fiancé being dragged off to certain death I shoved my paddle out for her to hold on to whilst trying to bail out with my spare hand and not tip over.

I screamed out for help and our guide came over to take Maura to safety. I frantically paddled to the side. Once everyone was out of the water Chris and I shouted at the guide to get a boat to come and collect us, which it promptly did. In hindsight I realise, because of our life jackets, we weren’t in much danger, but at the time I thought we were in Hollywood movie where someone had to die. Thankfully no one else was around to see the melodramatics.

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Aforementioned Hollywood movie.

Back in Nong Khiaw we celebrated being alive then spent a couple more days taking a well deserved break, exploring the surrounding hills on mopeds.

Despite being convinced that we were headed for a watery grave, I now realise we were actually in paradise.

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Morning mist.

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Maura the Explorer.

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We gave this school some books and pens. An alarmingly high number of children in Laos have never seen a book or, if they have, it is an old textbook. This pioneering publishing company is working to rectify this and get kids excited about reading. You can read the story about how Big Brother Mouse has begun to have a big impact on literacy rates here.

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Drinking with the locals from a petrol can.

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Watermelon farm

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River weed drying in the sun.

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These two were brilliant – they asked to have their picture taken and cried with laughter when they saw it.

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She wanted to try some of Maura’s Sprite. The fizz went up her nose and made her eyes water.

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The weaving village.

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Mung Noi

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Due to the tragic and sad loss of Chris’s GoPro camera we have no images from that dramatic day, but this is a pretty accurate representation.

Our last meal with the lovely Chris. Or Adam Levine, depends who you ask.

Our last meal with the lovely Chris. Or Adam Levine, depends who you ask.

Some photographs from our mopeding through the villages:

MEKONG DAYS

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The journey into Laos started with a two day slow boat ride on the mighty Mekong river. Our party of two had become three after bumping into Jane, an entertaining long-legged redhead, who we first met in Cartagena way back in September. Getting to spend extra time with her and hear more of her hilarious stories was definitely the highlight of the boat ride, which is saying something as the scenery was pretty stunning.

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Jane!

Even before we got on the boat, Laos had won our hearts. The border town of Huay Xai was full of crazy (and drunk) people. It made for an eventful first evening as we joined/were forced to join two very screechy women as they did shots of beer, fell over a lot and told us they loved us… again and again and again.

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Genius sales technique. It worked on us.

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Our new best friends.

The boat spluttered along past villages tucked into forests as we chatted to fellow passengers and gathered a bit of a gang, so by the time we arrived at our destination, Luang Prabang, we were rolling ten deep.

The week we spent in Luang Prabang was fantastic, we slowly explored the gorgeous colonial town and the surrounding area with our new friends. I was really excited to return to this town – it had been my highlight of Laos on my last visit all those ten years ago. Of course it has changed, though not too dramatically, it is still disneyland cute with lots of orange-robed monks roaming the streets.

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Girl band.

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The cook at our favourite restaurant – she even cooked for us in the middle of a rain storm. What a woman.

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Two seconds later this joker tried to bite me.

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The highlight was definitely the waterfalls, which were almost too stunning to be real. They looked like a screensaver from Windows97, with the colours turned up bright and somehow smudged around the edges. We climbed up to the top and swum in a natural pool of icy cold water, which was refreshing at first and then teeth chatteringly cold after a while. There was also a Moon Bear sanctuary at the bottom of the falls, which was interesting, if a bit odd.

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This is real. Promise.

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The view from the top.

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Da Crew: (L-R) Jane, Jon, Richard, Chris, Eric, Debbie, Jess, Emily, Me, Angela (obvs)

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This is a Moon Bear.

As the days went on our gang members dwindled and finally we had to say goodbye to Jane, which was sad, but brilliantly she lives in East London so we will be catching up in not too distant future. In losing Jane, we did gain a Chris though, and he was to be our third member for next part of our journey: the north. More of that soon…

 

OH MY, CHANG MAI!

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After the mean(ish) streets of Mandalay, Chang Mai with all it’s charm and endless delicious Thai food was a very welcome change. We ended up staying for nine days and loved exploring the pagoda-lined streets and the surrounding endless hills.

For me, the obvious highlight was seeing an actual real-life panda at the Chang Mai zoo, however, the 3D museum/gallery, incredible street food and our day moped-ing around the hills were all amazing too. We were also there during the annual flower festival, which was pretty impressive.

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 DSCF2976  DSCF2988

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This is not a real monk.

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DSCF2515 DSCF2526

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This man makes the best Papaya Salad in the world.

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Cha Nom: the hostel dog.

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