To say I didn't have the best first experience of Vietnam would be an understatement. It was a sad goodbye I said to my friends as I waved them off in their bus from Laos to Chiang Mai for Songkran while I waited for my sleeper bus to Hanoi. After travelling with the girls for two or three weeks it had become a way of life, it was just normal to wake up with them there so it felt strange to strike out on my own again. I was excited for Vietnam and the chance to experience another culture, and to get away from the partying in Laos for a bit. But it was bittersweet, I would have loved to have gone to Songkran with all my friends but I only had two weeks left on my visa for Vietnam and I didn't want to miss out on the chance to see the country. Plus who wouldn't want to spend 24 hours on a bus to get there? Uhh... Me.
I planned to book a flight to Hanoi to save time, but when I looked into it, not only was it ridiculously expensive but also the last two seats had just sold out! I had no choice but to brave a sleeper bus for the first time. I'd heard mixed reviews of those used across Asia, and while part of me was dreading doing the long journey myself without anyone to entertain me, but the other half wasn't too bothered and just wanted to get there. Finally it was time to hop on the bus after a long drive in rush hour traffic across Vientiene in the back of a truck as a storm was about to break. We made it just in time, as we shoved our bags in the luggage hold and climbed aboard the black skies opened and lightning split the heavens. I should have taken it as an omen.
On that first evening we drove for hours in the dark, the rain and wind, finally pulling up at a rest stop for dinner and for the team of Lao/Vietnam guys to decide there was something wrong with one of the rear wheels and that they needed to remove it. We watched on, wishing we were back in the comfort of the bus instead of this damp, smelly, cockroach-filled rest stop. After 40 minutes of them staring blankly at the wheel, removing it and putting it back on again, it became clear there was a real problem but they didn't bother to communicate this to us so we hoped it would be fine until we arrived. Back on the bus, we fell straight back asleep and didn't really stir much until we arrived at the border and were rudely awakened by the driver at 7am.
After spending four hours standing around waiting in the pouring rain and cold of Vietnam, we were less than impressed at the lack of communication over why things were taking so long and why we had to unload, reload and unload all of our bags three times, check our passports about 10 times and go through five checkpoints. It was such a convoluted process and seemed highly inefficient compared to borders I had crossed previously. Finally it was over and we hopped back on the bus and were on our way, only to be stopped down the road by police twice, on both occasions half the Lao and Vietnamese people on the bus had to bride the police for some reason or another - fully endorsing all the stories I had heard about the corruption of the country.
Much later on, after we had been driving for closer to 48 hours with no explanation for why we were running so late other than assuming it was to do with the broken wheel. We were all half asleep when our driver suddenly swerved, almost tipping the bus over, then back the other way. There was a huge crash and a lorry was coming through the bus towards me, where luckily I sat near the back. Thankfully, all us tourists at the back of the bus had a split second where we saw what was going to happen before the impact where we could grab hold of something to stop us sliding forwards towards the crushed up front, otherwise we would have ended up like the guy who sliced his hand open or the other one who badly hurt his ankle.
After a second a pure confusion and panic over what had happened, people got their act together and we started to gather our things and climb out of a window at the side of the bus. The front was so crushed we couldn't even get down the stairs. Once standing out on the side of a busy highway in the dark, we could see the full extent of the damage - as you can see from the pics it wasn't good but amazingly the lorry was barely dented. We waited as the guys cleared the rubbish and broken bits of bus from the road and spoke to the lorry driver - we expected the police to turn up at any moment.
All of a sudden, the bus was driving off. We didn't know what was happening, the guys hadn't said anything to us and neither had the driver - who had clearly been drunk from the beer cans around the drivers' seat and smell of vodka in the air. Our big rucksacks were still in the luggage hold and many people had left the money, passports and valuables on the bus - thankfully anything of value I owned I had the sense to pick up up and had with me. We walked after the bus thinking it would stop further flew the road, but it carried on so we started to chase after it until some bright shark had the idea of hailing a taxi and chasing it down. Luckily the taxi driver was on our side and pinned in the bus so it couldn't drive off. After a lot of shouting and arguing, our bags were freed from the bus and another was organised to pick us up free of charge - a pretty amazing outcome considering how dire the situation seemed.
We finally made it to Hanoi around 50 hours after starting our journey, traumatised, confused and exhausted. Not great for a first sleeper bus experience. Why am I sharing my horror story with you? Because I had no idea this could ever happen to someone in real life, it wasn't even something I considered. I don't want to scare people but I want you guys to be aware that drunk and dangerous driving is a big issue in Vietnam and although you have no choice but to place your life in the hands of the driver, that you can make some checks to help you feel comfortable and safe. When travelling alone this is a must. Keep your wits about you at all times, no matter where you are travelling, and always keep hold of your passport, money and valuables.
Have you been on sleeper buses in Asia - what were your experiences like? Have you been involved in a crash abroad - what happened?
When you first pack your bags and head off into the big wide world on your travels, it's a pretty exciting time. It's been a long time coming and you've lost count of how many times you fantasised about being on that beach thousands of miles away from the stresses of home. It's easy to get swept away in the excitement and say yes to everything, to everyone who invites you for dinner, sightseeing, or just to hang out. And why shouldn't you? Hell you should grab every opportunity with both hands, make new friends at every turn and have an amazing time because you're no longer holding yourself back. I certainly did - I've now been travelling for about four months by myself and it has been a truly amazing four months spent exploring Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and now Cambodia - it's been more than I ever dreamed it would be.
Travelling by yourself means you have to give 100% every single day, you never have anyone else to pick up the slack if you're hungover or tired, so it's that much more exhausting than travelling with someone else. I know, how can laying on beaches be tiring - well consider the time that goes into travelling between places, the organising of transport, accommodation, the arguing with tuk tuk drivers, having to find new friends at every destination... The list goes on. There's a lot more to travelling than just laying on beaches - I write this after travelling through the length of Laos and Vietnam in one month - that's really not long and trust me I've barely slept for the whole time. Between late nights hanging out with friends in Laos and sleeper buses/trains throughout Vietnam, plus the constant movement, sightseeing, exploring, and all the physical activities like mountain biking and canyoning - it's bloody knackering! I've actually had to take a little holiday from travelling and am spending a few days catching up on sleep on a beach in Cambodia.
What's my point in all this? Well, it's suddenly struck me that if you are travelling for any length of time last a few months, you really need to take this into account when you plan. You need to realise that at one point or another you will hit a wall if you go full pelt every single day, you need to allow your body time to recover and to relax as well as trying to fit everything in. This is something I'm learning as I go, and to be honest I'm not great at - I just get so excited about everything that I want to do everything at once and don't want to miss any opportunity! I'm the sort of girl who does three festivals in a row and works two jobs in-between instead of allowing time to recover - and I need to learn to change my ways. I've noticed lately that I'm getting tired so much earlier in the day and it is my body telling me to rest instead of organising the next stage of my journey - so as I'm coming to the end of my time in Asia I have plenty of R&R time booked in. I've made the decision to stay on this beach for a few days before heading to a yoga and meditation retreat for a week, followed by a few days of shopping, being pampered, going to the gym and relaxing by a pool in Bangkok before heading to Australia. Then I can arrived refreshed and ready to take on a new world of travelling.
Have you got traveller burn out? My top tips for how you can beat it:
Don't be afraid to say no. Travelling solo means often you feel obliged to take up every invite extended to you but that's not always the wisest move - this can mean you're too busy to really appreciate any of what you are doing. Sometimes it's best to pick out what you really want to do instead of following the crowd on everything - after all, that's why you came away by yourself.
Spot the signs. Feeling achy or getting ill? Tired for no reason, not sleeping well, can't be bothered to socialise? All signs you're getting burnt out and need a break - listen to your body, it knows what it's talking about! Give yourself time to relax and unwind, eat properly, drink lots of water and don't feel guilty!
Know that time spent alone is time well spent. I find it hilarious that actually in the time I've been travelling I have usually had to fight to get time alone rather than being surrounded by a gang of people - Cambodia is actually the first country I have predominantly been alone! But that does mean that often you lose the fight and end up spending all your time with other people, getting locked into a pattern where you feel like time by yourself is wasted. It's not, it's very important. If you can't be happy in your own company, you never will be with others, so take time to get to know yourself and your own thoughts.
Get your priorities in order. Sightseeing is not the most important thing and if you don't end up seeing some temple because you needed a lay in, fancied a leisurely breakfast or just wanted to lay by the pool - that's okay! You don't have to see every historical landmark, every temple, every bridge and every pretty viewpoint. Pick wisely and see just what you want to see, that will give you time in-between to chill as well - often if you try to see everything you end up not enjoying anything and that is why you are there! To enjoy yourself!
Remember what you did to get there. Think back to the time you were working five jobs to find this trip, to when you cried in the toilets at work because you were so stressed out over something that just didn't matter, or to when you had spent 20 out of the past 24 hours working and we're seeing double you were so tired. Now ask yourself why you're pushing yourself so hard and demanding so much - you came here to relax and be happy. So do it and don't feel like you have to achieve all the time. You're free of that damned rat race and you need to enjoy it before you get sucked back in.
Have you had traveller burn out? How did you beat it? Any other tips for getting back on track?
It's been a while since I had the opportunity to indulge my inner mermaid, so when we heard about the huge waterfalls in Luang Prabang, we simply had to make sure we went there. Now I have to clarify that despite my initial excitement, I was taking the word "waterfall" with a good dose of cynicism. Throughout visiting waterfalls in Thailand, I became more and more aware that the word waterfall was being used to describe any drop in the water level from one centimetre to fifteen metres. The problem is that traditionally for us westerners, we expect something closer to Niagara Falls when we hear waterfall, so we get a bit underwhelmed if we head to one on the map and there is just a trickle of water with an inch drop. This happened a few times in Thailand, but don't worry there are plenty of amazing waterfalls there as well. But I have to say, none I had seen previously could even compare to Kuang Si waterfalls in Luang Prabang.I ended up travelling through the whole of Laos with two amazing sisters, Phoebe and Bridie, after meeting them originally in Chiang Mai and then again in Pai. So by this time we were pretty sure we were meant to be good friends - the universe doesn't push you together with people like that again and again without damn good reason. So with our bikinis ready and a picnic in our bags, we hopped in the tuk tuk to get there. Now we had chosen a private tuk tuk because it worked out only a tiny bit more expensive than the organised tour - we wanted to get there earlier so that we could beat the crowds and we thought it would be worth it to pay a tiny bit extra. We were wrong. The tuk tuk driver couldn't find our guest house so he was late, then he decided to pick up a random couple on holiday from their home in Vietnam, and a monk! He then told us it would take an hour to arrive - we were pretty fed up by this point. Finally we arrived and headed into the waterfalls after paying a small entry fee. There are places to buy food and drink here if you do visit, and there are toilets.To get to the waterfalls we had to walk through a black bear sanctuary run by a charity, it was pretty cute to see the black bears play fighting, swinging around on ropes and cooling off in the water. They looked well cared for and the charity was collecting money for their care and conservation work so hopefully they were honest and not just using the bears as an attraction. We arrived at the first level of the waterfalls and were overwhelmed by the stunning blue, green colour of the water in the lagoon that lay before us - apparently the colour is due to a reaction between the calcium in the rock. It was stunning to say the least and we quickly jumped into the cold water, swam around, climbed the rocks and jumped off with some guys who were doing backflips. It was so much fun that we almost forgot there were other levels and we only moved on because others were coming into what had previously been our own private pool. Amazingly, the next level was even more spectacular with more places to swim and take photos, and they all just kept getting bigger and better! We were wondering how the next could possibly beat the last but it always did.My favourite level was the one where you could swim in a huge pool - it was the busiest unfortunately - but there was also a tree you could jump off into the water. It was awesome and I was the first girl up there, obviously in true ladylike style and with all the grace I could muster, I cannonballed down. But there were so many others that were so beautiful - ones where you could stand under the waterfall, ones where you could sit on rocks, ones where you could jump in. It was such a fun day and we finished it by heading up to the main part of the waterfall where you're not allowed to swim - we wanted to climb up to the top and look down. But somehow we managed to reach the top and follow the wrong sign and ended up walking back down again and missing the lookout part - we also skipped the caves which are a bit of a walk from the waterfall and we had to get back to catch our ride back. We spent at least three or four hours there and we could have spent longer quite happily, so make sure your tuk tuk gives you enough time to really enjoy and make sure you don't miss this amazingly beautiful landmark. It looks like something out of a Disney movie it's just so perfect!
Have you been to Kuang Si Waterfalls - what was your favourite part? Are you planning a trip to Laos, or would you like to go there?
Laos proved to be a country with two very different sides to it - the drunken, touristy side you may have already heard about where we aren't exactly welcomed with open arms by the locals. And the pure beauty of this mostly untouched landscape combined with the genuine kindness of the Lao people. It's such a strange dichotomy and caused me to have mixed feelings about the country at first - I couldn't decide whether I felt I actually ever knew what Laos was really about. But I suppose travelling through in just two weeks after spending three months in Thailand - I never really would know the country beyond the immediate impression - it takes time to peel back the layers and get to know a place. But I certainly gave it my best shot. We arrived in Luang Prabang and headed straight for our guest house that I had pre-booked just to ensure we could find a place straight away - we had expected to arrive in Laos a lot later than we did and didn't fancy finding a place in the dark. We stayed at Matata Guest House and when we arrived we were given a warm welcome by the staff - all a really lovely, friendly bunch who were eager to get us settled in to the four bed dorm. We chilled out for a bit with a coffee and some play time with their gorgeous dog, who, of course, was called Hakuna.
Later that evening we headed out for food and where better to eat than the local night market? We were advised to aim for a selection of stalls that offered an all-you-can-eat deal for a few thousand kip and we went and filled our boots after a long day on the boat. The food was okay, a mixture of noodles, rice dishes, vegetables and meat - but it definitely didn't have the flavour and spice of Thai food so I was a little disappointed. A lot of the vegetables were really overcooked and many of the dishes tasted the same, but still, it was cheap and quick. Afterwards, we headed to the main bar that everyone always goes to - Utopia is hidden down a couple of backstreets near the river and is a lovely little bar with okay music, relatively cheap drinks and a great atmosphere. It was buzzing when we arrived and we spotted some friends straight away, plus a load of others we had met previously at different points on our travels through Thailand - everyone who was anyone was in Laos that week! After a few drinks, a lot of laughs and a cheeky dance, the bar was closing (don't forget those annoying curfews in Laos) and everyone was heading off to the infamous Luang Prabang bowling alley which sits in the middle of nowhere. Trust me, as you get loaded into the tuk tuks like cattle and drive off into the dark, pulling up to this ugly and neglected building - you definitely feel like you might be on the way to an execution. But as soon as you walk through the doors into the horrible fluorescent lighting and hear the rubbish speakers attempting to blast out cheesy tunes, you know you're in for a pretty strange night.Bowling is a bit expensive but it's something you only do once, a bit of a rite of passage for the backpacker in Laos. It's absolute rubbish and you have to be drunk, but if you have a good gang of people you can turn it into a really random but fun night. We had a great gang and had so much fun bowling barefoot while one of us played barmaid and doled out the bottle of whiskey. It was pretty funny, especially when one of the girls kept getting strike after strike and totally destroyed the boys' scores! One of the lads was so sure he was going to win, and he couldn't hide his disappointment when he realised he had lost so superbly. Finally we were finished and ready to leave, many of the other bowlers were still going strong but we were done for the night and headed back to town. The one great thing about Laos' curfew is that even after a big night out, you can still get a full night's sleep because everything is shut by around 2am - this was welcomed after all the partying in Pai.
Other highlights of the stay in Luang Prabang include getting my hair cut by a Laos woman who spoke not a single word of English - this was interesting and she definitely didn't do what I asked. But hey, my hair looked a damn sight healthier after all the dry bits were cut off! I also went for a fabulous massage (aiming to have one in every country I visit in Asia) which was specifically a Laos massage - which was very different to those I have had in Thailand. It was far more gentle and more relaxing than invigorating, plus the oils they used smelt amazing! I also loved walking around the markets and the town - Luang Prabang is a lovely little town, but if you have already done all the trekking and trips like that elsewhere, it leaves you with little to do. The shopping appeared good there, although I didn't buy anything. I would definitely recommend a visit to the town because it is lovely and the people are very friendly - if you do pop by, also go to the bar that holds nightly fashion and breakdancing shows out on by local children - it's very different and good fun.
Have you been to Laos - what did you think of the country? Would you consider going there in the future to test out your bowling skills?
Since travelling across Asia I've been on my fair share of buses, trains, motorbikes, tuk tuks and ferries - but one of my favourite methods of transport so far had to be the slow boat from Thailand to Laos. It was one of the most effortless, chilled out journeys I have had since first coming away all those months ago and I would really recommend it to anyone who has the time and inclination to spend two days on a boat floating down the Mekong. It's a completely different and relatively stress-free way to cross the border while combining a chance to meet fellow backpackers, travellers and locals with seeing the true beauty of the Laos landscape. Now I won't lie to you, I have heard other backpackers say they have tried this route and have had rather less fun boats - one couple spoke of a girl who decided to get the boat when she was tripping her nut off on some kind of hallucinogen. Others said the people on their boat were boring or not very friendly - I like to give a balanced view where I can but my experience was the best it could have been.
For a small price (I'm sorry I can't remember exactly how much, but it's great value) you get a bus from Pai (with a terrifying driver) to the border town where you spend a night in rooms at a guest house. Breakfast is included then you head to the border where you are pushed through like cattle, pay any fines for overstaying and get your new visa. Our group were also given a chance to swap any leftover money for dollars and to sort out our paperwork ahead of time. After a couple more buses and arriving at the port, we grabbed some food for the ride and some beers, then climbed aboard the longboat. It was made up of a long line of comfy seats and we all squeezed in up at the front, meeting some loud Australians and English along the way. That first day was a blur of singing silly songs, chatting about where we had all travelled, laughing at one of the guys who got sneezed on by a local and a few beers along the way. It was gorgeous to watch outside of the boat where the landscape was empty except for rolling hills, deserted beaches, rocky cliff faces and occasionally some naked, local children playing and giggling in the river.
I was pretty lucky with the crowd I had on my boat - I had the opportunity to spend two days with some of the most intelligent, artistic and talented individuals I have come across. I spent my time flitting between conversations about literature and plays, to playing silly games and singing along to the guitar that was constantly being played. One amazingly talented woman, who was backpacking with her daughter, sat quietly in a corner sketching and painting the scene at the front of the boat without us even realising until I spotted her hard at work. She had been doing this series of paintings along her travels and kept them as a kind of travel diary - a beautiful and original way to hold on to the memories that I wished I had the artistic talent for. It was so lovely to see how in a situation where there is no wifi, everyone reverts back to the ways we entertained ourselves as kids in the 90's - by reading, being artistic, playing games and not instantly turning away to plug ourselves into music or a TV. It was so refreshing.After we spent six hours on the boat that first day, we arrived at a tiny town where we would spend the night at another guest house (not included in the price but cheap options available just no,d on for arrival rather than taking the first one offered). It was lovely and I ended up with my own double room with private bathroom! The gang headed out for dinner which I won't lie was a pretty disappointing meal, and chose an early night - all exhausted from our time in Thailand. The next morning, our breakfast was included in the package, and we could pay extra for lunch to take with us. Heading back on to the boat, this time we had a different one with a more comfortable layout and bigger seats - this was even more chilled out than the day before and I had plenty of time to finish my book. We expected to spend around 8 hours on the boat this day but were pleasantly surprised when we had arrived after just six hours. We all parted ways for our guest houses and headed into Luang Prabang by tuk tuk.
A two day boat trip isn't everyone's idea of a good time but it does offer you a totally different perspective of Laos that you don't get otherwise - you get to see the country in its raw, natural state. A rare treat for those who stick to visiting Vang Vieng and Vientienne. For those who get sea sick, this is not an issue. The boat moves to smoothly and slowly that you would really struggle to feel ill - plus you are well distracted while on the boat. You can buy beers and snacks on the boat but go prepared with lunch and cheaper snacks, and don't worry, there is a toilet. If touchable a choice of sticking to the roads or doing the journey by boat, you're a hell of a lot safer and more comfortable by boat. Trust me, those drivers are nuts and you won't get a moment of rest or sleep on those buses. The slow boat offers you a good chance to slow down for few days, because no doubt you partied as hard as I did in Pai, and to rest before starting again in Laos.
Have you travelled by slow boat - what did you think of the journey? What is your favourite mode of transport when you travel?