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Pi Mai – Luang Prabang

Stepping out of our guest house in to the midday sun, we were struck by the humidity. The thermometer already read 36 degrees and we were in need of refreshment. We moved slowly, cautiously across the pavement on to the main road. Today was Pi Mai -Buddhist New Year – which meant a lot of different things to different people: cleansing, purification, new beginnings, a fresh start. But to every Laos person, regardless of age or social background, it meant water fight. Lining both sides of the road were Laos and Falang (foreigner) alike, armed with their proudly procured weapons. These included water guns, buckets, jugs, pressure washers, washing up bowls and hoses to name but a few. Nobody was safe today and little did we know that the Laos people had a few other surprises up their already soggy sleeves.

Attitude - Luang Prabang Party truck - Luang Prabang

To reach the Mekong river and our chosen cafe we ducked behind pick-up trucks. Luckily for us this is the vehicle of choice for many Laos people (If we had been in India, the Suzuki Altos wouldn’t have provided much cover). We then headed for Dara market. The plan was to move stealthily through the indoor market and try to reach the main market street untouched. We made it through and paused for a breather to assess our next moves.

Standing on the raised corner behind us was a little Laos girl armed with a super-soaker. We waited on the pavement plotting our route. The little girl didn’t register our arrival; water gun poised and her eyes fixed steadily on a target on the opposite pavement. Confidently, we strode forward only to be soaked from behind by the grinning, little girl making the most of her vantage point. Pi Mai had begun. Dodging attacks from left and right, we arrived at the main intersection relatively unscathed until another young girl appeared with a bucket and emptied it over my head with a giggle.

Trouble - Luang Prabang Trouble in action - Luang Prabang

Relaxing by the Mekong we ate fried rice and regrouped. Clint arrived and he planned to go with Hugh over the river and watch a stupa being built on the river bank. My plan was to stay on this side of the river and soak up the atmosphere. We parted ways and I wouldn’t see Hugh again for another three hours.

I headed left out of the cafe on to the road and this time there were no pick-up trucks or covered markets to provide shelter. Just kerb to kerb soaking and music playing so loud it felt as though the ground was shaking. The charcoal smell of grilled vegetables and barbecued chicken filled the air. The whole city was out to celebrate. Many of the Laos people were apologetic when tipping bowls of water over me but were safe in the knowledge they had cleansed another person ready for the year ahead whilst the children’s actions were ruthless; clearly their strategies had been honed from previous years. Cars and flat bed trucks filled the road, crawling along slowly; the suspension being tested by a boot full of people bouncing up and down in time to several different beats.

Party truck - Luang Prabang Pink Hair - Luang Prabang

Further along the river bank the cars thinned out revealing a shimmering road and a view filled with droplets of water. Taking in all the sights, I dropped my guard for a second and missed a boy sneaking up on my right. He jumped in front of me and slapped two floury hands on my face. “Sok dee Pi Mai!” He shouted and ran off to find his next victim. Further along the road I was greeted with sprays of coloured water and when I stopped to get my bearings I saw a riverside bar that wasn’t taking any chances that people would stay dry. It has a makeshift sprinkler system rigged up – drinkers and dancers alike were revelling in the cooling spray. The ultimate refreshment.

Sprinkler party - Luang Prabang

I went to turn right and witnessed a street-wide water fight. Left and right kerbs were hurling water at each other. I wasn’t brave enough to run the gauntlet. Instead I continued on to find a stage erected outside a house. On it were two men dressed in traditional female outfits performing a traditional looking dance in a slightly comedic way. One child took full advantage of his height and position at the corner of the stage and each time one of the men got close enough to him, his ankles were thoroughly sprayed from a water gun. I watched this charade for about ten minutes and walked on, taking the next right back on to the market street.

Luang Prabang - Pi Mai Celebrations

Carnage still ensued despite several hours having elapsed since Hugh and I had initially passed by. Water fighters, rainbow coloured from the grease paint ambushes, were beginning to look slightly weary. Headed back towards the guest house, I bumped into a damp and floury looking Hugh. We both decided a pot of tea was needed before we could head back for showers . We faced the grid lock of pick-ups and flat beds on the enforced one way system and ran for it. Surprisingly we made it to the safety of the tea shop relatively un-soaked (well, anymore than we were already) and chose a vantage point to watch over the proceedings.

You've been tango'd - Luang Prabang Had enough - Luang Prababng

The traffic had started to move slowly down the road and we saw renewed vigour in the eyes of those who had been forced to stop next to a young boy with a pressure washer. Water flinging resumed and we saw one girl on the back of a pick-up who embodied exactly how we felt – she had climbed inside a dust bin (presumably once full of water) and pulled the lid over her head. Our sentiments exactly. After five days of random water fights and guerilla style water bomb attacks we were tired, damp and surprisingly chilly. T-shirt wringing was futile, no amount of tea was warming us up and the flour/water mixture had solidified on our arms and face. We called it quits and slunk back to our room for hot showers.

Battle's end - Luang Prabang

Laos definitely won this round of Pi Mai and I would gladly come back for a rematch.

Kouangxi Waterfall

Just outside of Luang Prabang lie the Kouangxi Waterfalls, which reside inside a nature park thick with jungle.

We caught a rickshaw to the site and asked the driver to wait while we explored the area. The path took us alongside the river, stopping first at a beautiful, smaller set of falls which poured into a plunge pool. A thick canopy cast light down in beams and I was filled with awe as to just how tranquil the area was.

Kouangxi Plungepool Kouangxi Jungle Stream Kouangxi Stream Kouangxi Plungepool

After stopping to soak up the atmosphere and rest from the tropical heat, we carried on up the path to the main falls. Water cascaded down from a stepped cliff and sent a fine mist into the air.

Kouangxi Falls

To the side of the falls was a steep ascent which led almost vertically up to the top of the falls. Feeling adventurous we began the climb and were heavily rewarded by another stunning scene at the top, where we could see for miles, out over the park.

Kouangxi Falls Top Kouangxi Falls View

The slow boat to Laos and our arrival in Luang Prabang

We decided to journey into Laos down the Mekong River. Previously we had journeyed by train, bus and plane, and the idea of floating slowly into the heart of Laos held certain appeal.

From the quick processing at the border, we were herded onto a bus which ran us down to the long boats which lined up along the north side of the river. These boats held about one hundred car seats, all lined up in rows down either side of the vessel, and luckily we were able to secure a good spot at the front of the boat, away from the noisy engine at the rear.

As we set off, the boat slipped smoothly out into the river, the front swinging round in a large arc to face down-stream before the engines roared to life and the banks began to slip past more quickly than I would have imagined.

The river was fast and wide. Large islands of rocks jutted up from the turbulent waters and many whirlpools formed nearby, some were small and precise, others wide – sucking water low beneath the river level. Our captain expertly navigated around these as they formed, and we seldom felt more than a gentle rock of the boat as a result.

Whirlpool on the Mekong

In Laos, traditional farming methods have the tribes slash and burn fields after the harvest before sowing elsewhere for the following year. The burned fields lie fallow for a decade and are then finally replanted. Unfortunately the burning season was upon us, and the air was thick with a low hanging smog. Even the banks of the river would, at times, seem indistinct through the haze, and the sun would cast a dirty, yellow cast on the landscape. At the end of the day when the sun would set, it appeared as a fiery red orb that hung ponderously on the horizon. This wasn’t quite the backdrop we imagined when setting off, but the uncanny scene was set and so we relaxed into the long journey as we delved further into the eerie countryside.

Slash and Burn on the Mekong Rocks in the Mekong

That evening the boat came to a landing at a single road village named Pak Beng. We found a small and comfortable guesthouse with unadorned rooms and low ceilings before taking a walk to find a restaurant. We ended up eating at an Indian restaurant where we met up with two siblings- Monica and Clint, whom we had been chatting to at the border earlier that day. The evening was grand, with good food that inspired nostalgia about India, and pleasant company to share the stories with. The evening came to a close with a primordial thunderstorm which lit up the sky and rattled the roof with its booming thunder. A nearby lightning strike plunged the village into darkness and the muggy heat of the night hung heavily as our fan wound down in the absence of electricity.

Waking with the strangled cry of dawn roosters, we rose and had tea before walking back down to the boat. We arrived hours before departure in order to get another good seat. It was just as well that we did, for there were less boats around this day, and a sudden influx of people meant many were forced to sit in the actual engine compartment at the back of the boat!

Nicole aboard the slow boat

Our journey took us onward past several villages with rows of sharpened bamboo forming fortification around the perimeter. Presumably this either kept livestock in, or wild animals out, and again provided stark reminder that we were now in a county with roots firmly set in the past. On the banks of the Mekong we saw locals carrying bundles of sticks, or herding elephants slowly yet surely down river. The dress was tired and plain, lampshade hats sat atop weathered faces, and for the large part we were ignored by the villagers we passed. Occasionally a fisherman, standing waist-deep with a line, would look up and grant a nonchalant wave and then they too were gone and we found ourselves bordered by thick jungle which crawled and massed over the nearby hills, occasionally allowing for a small sandy beach or cove.

Jungle Banks of the Mekong Elephant Herding on the Mekong

Some people had chosen to take a faster speed boat down the river. These craft completed the two-day journey in just six hours, tearing past us at breakneck speed. The tourists aboard had to wear motorcycle helmets due to the inherent danger, and the boats were nicknamed suicide machines. A furtive look around as one passed, confirmed that we were not the only people glad to be aboard the more languid slow boat.

Speed Boat on the Mekong

As the sun set that day a landing appeared ahead of us and the boat swung around to rest. We climbed off the boat and stretched out. We had been dropped five kilometres from Luang Prabang and a local taxi racket ran shuttle to and from the town. Burdened with heavy bags we resigned to the ride and were soon on our way into the middle of the small city.

From Chiang Mai to the White Temple

In Chiang Mai we stayed in the old city, which is to say, within the ancient walls; these are only intact in a few places, but a large moat still demarks where they should run. Within this boundary the roads run one-way traffic up and down at a leisurely pace, and pretty much every business is there to cater to the tourist. Cafés and restaurants serve up vibrant dishes of almost every type of food, and Nicole and I devoured tacos and burritos when we discovered a Mexican restaurant – something we had missed for the last six months.

Chiang Mai has plenty of activities on offer and every guest house will present a portfolio of potential options. You can bungee jump, attend cooking classes, fire weapons, hurtle down zip lines or go on a leisurely float along the river in a tractor’s inner tube – a tradition called tubing.

Nicole and I took the chance to visit tigers at a nearby zoo and then in the evening attend a Muay Thai fight. Muay Thai is the national martial art, and adds both feet and knees to the traditional British boxing we are more familiar with. The show started with a couple of teens going at each other, and progressed through some women’s fights before working up the men’s weight ranges. The final fight was a showdown between a Frenchman and a Thai man, both fairly well-built men. The Thai man ended up winning the match on points after the full five rounds, but in our view the Frenchman gave more in the fight and probably deserved to win. The cynic in me says that the tourists usually bet on the foreigner to win!

Mauy Thai Fight - Chiang Mai

Our time in Chiang Mai was short as we needed to leave for Laos, so we booked ourselves onto a bus which took us to Chiang Kong on the border. This bus stopped at a very unusual temple called the White Temple, or Wat Rong Khun. This stunning, modern temple was built by a celebrated national artist who had a desire to see the battle of good and evil played out with modern cultural characters. This meant that arriving at the temple we were greeted by the torso of Predator bursting out from the grass lawn, the heads of Hell-boy, Freddy Kruger, Batman and Hellraiser hanging from a tree, and a mural of Spiderman and the Minions from Despicable Me painted on the inner wall of the actual temple. ‘Weird’ barely describes it.

Chiang Rai - White Temple Foot of Bridge - Chiang Rai White Temple Chiang Rai White Temple

Chiang Rai White Temple Predator

Chiang Mai – Tiger Kingdom

Nicole and I took a leap of faith and visited the hand-reared tigers in Chiang Mai’s Tiger Kingdom the other day.

The zoo was adamant that they did not drug the animals, and backed up by a good reputation we decided to venture into the cages. Tigers are massive! Pure muscle ripples along their flanks as they walk and jump about.

We found the tigers to be fairly playful, although the ones in the following video were mostly sleepy in the afternoon sun.

Koh Samui

We boarded a ferry for Koh Samui. The wind was up and the sea was choppy, so our ride across the water lurched backwards and forwards on the waves. After what felt like an eternity, we stopped at Koh Pha-ngan and swapped ferries for the short stretch to Koh Samui.

The word Koh (or sometimes Ko) literally means island in Thai, which is why you will see it on so many place names.

Arriving ashore feeling a bit peaky, we found some German men headed to the same beach as us, on the far side of the island. This was fortuitous as taxis on these islands are outrageously expensive. To give a little context, a ten kilometre journey in Bangkok would cost £2, whereas a similar journey on the island would cost £12 and that’s after finding a better deal. Some unscrupulous drivers will try and charge upwards of £30!

Koh Samui was a totally different beast from the last island. The small coves and jungle-set resorts of Koh Tao were replaced with white beaches which stretched for miles up the coast. Large resorts and nightclubs spilled out onto the sands, and a much older and varied crowd of tourists wandered up and down the streets which were filled with shops selling more than just the basic conveniences. Art galleries gave way to gift-shops which adjoined electrical shops. Up and down the road that we were staying on, open-sided restaurants grilled fish and meat on large barbeques, and whole hogs turned on spits as the waiters called for you to come in and sit down. As the sun set, the clubs opened and the distant thunder of trance and house echoed in the warm night.

Koh Samui Coastline Koh Samui - Beach Trader Koh Samui - Beach at Dusk Koh Samui - Sunset

Our first night was spent in a mosquito infested dorm which had no glass in the windows! After a fruitless attempt at sleep that night we checked out early in the morning and found ourselves a much nicer room with AC for the same price! This one luckily had windows and so we booked in for a few days and set off to explore the island.

A local bus company was doing mini-van tours and we booked onto one for £6 each. The tour took us around most of the island, stopping off for ten or twenty minutes at various sites so that we could look around and take photos. We stopped at Buddhist wats (monastic temple complexes) which glittered in the sun. Nearby large Buddhas were sitting on small islands surrounded by a lake filled with enormous carp. Whereas in Nepal the Buddhist holy places were usually clad in gold with either bare stone work or washed in white paint, here in Thailand every wat and temple is inlaid with coloured, mirrored glass which glimmers as you pass. Decorative dragons snake along the roofs and the massive Buddhas are kept clean and freshly painted at all times. The effect is outstanding and it’s impossible to not stop and marvel as you pass.

Koh Samui - Buddha Koh Samui - Temple Koh Samui - Idol



The feel of these places is very different to holy places in other religions. I find Christian places of worship give an almost painfully strained silence, and the rough-hewn stonework, stark decoration and dim lighting of old churches weigh heavily in the air. Hindu temples, similarly, are also close, stone caverns; but colourful deities and a constant hubbub from the congregation make the experience much less austere. Buddhist temples on the other-hand are airy despite the heavy teak wood that lofts overhead. People come in and sit, or kneel on the red carpets, commit a prayer to one of the many assembled Buddhas, perhaps take a photo then move on. Some people sit in quiet contemplation, and others lay down looking at the colourful mandalas that are painted onto the walls. From the ceiling hang prayer flags which flap gently as the breeze comes in from the large open doorway, and a gentle feeling of ease permeates the building. Nearby, you will occasionally hear the dim reverberation of a gong or the distant echo of a mantra sung by an orange-robed monk and his circle of acolytes. All in all, Buddhism comes across as a much less severe religion. Fervent piety has no place here, just calm, collected meditation and an air of relaxation which fills the mind.

The tour stopped at an elephant park for a while, and whilst the mahouts took care of their charges, washing them down with hosepipes and walking them across the well-trod trails, Nicole and I opted to walk up to the waterfall that the site is famous for. The prevalence of the dry season meant that the waterfall was subdued, but arriving at its base, people were still happy to swim in the plunge pool, sheltered from the scorching heat of the day by a small patch of jungle that surrounded the bottom of the cliff.

Koh Samui - Plunge Pool

The next stop was a little different. Dropped near a small pagoda, we climbed its stairs to see what was inside. Encased in glass was a golden throne, atop of which sat a mummified monk in orange robes. The mummy had a large pair of black sunglasses on, resulting in a slightly comical look. Local legend has it that this Abbott – Dang Piyasilo, was able to foresee his own death. When he died at the allotted time his fellow monks found a note explaining that he would not decompose and should be left upright for future generations to behold. True to the words in the note, the body began to mummify and was taken to the pagoda to inspire future generations of would-be Buddhists.

Koh Samui - Mummified Monk

Next we were taken to an infamous rock situated on the coast. Named the grandfather rock, it was supposedly near another formation called the grandmother rock which we couldn’t see as the tide was in.

Koh Samui - Grandfather Rock

Our journey continues up in the north of the country, in the city of Chiang Mai. Here we look forward to a more affordable take on Thailand, without some of the gratuitous commercialism that grips the southern islands so tightly.

SSI Open Water Qualification

Our first day started in a coffee shop where we met our instructor, a Spaniard named Sergio. Now in his thirties he has been diving for many years, clocking up thousands of dives. In the summer he runs his own school in Spain and in the off-season comes to Koh Tao to teach.

To begin with we went over the first few chapters in our text book, focussing on equipment, dive physics and primary dangers along with the techniques required to avoid them. Our small class size of three had plenty of questions, and after an extensive Q&A we collected our gear and headed out to the beach where a longtail was waiting to take us over to the dive boat.

Other students and recreational divers were already there with their own instructors. And soon a good fifteen people were speeding out with us, toward the ancient dive boat that rocked gently in the west bay of the island. Climbing on to the boat, we were introduced to the deckhand Ow, and the captain whose name remained a mystery – I asked, but the surly man either didn’t understand or chose to ignore me. The boat started up its engines in a cloud of black smoke and Nicole and I both grimaced as the smoke hung like a blot on the landscape of the bay.

Soon we had arrived at our first dive site, the ‘twins’. Swimming away from the boat into shallow chest-high water, we started practising the use of the buoyancy vest and the regulator which provides the air. Sitting on the bottom of this shallow sandbank was brilliant. The water was a balmy thirty degrees, visibility was good up to fifteen meters, and the crystal clear waters hosted hundreds of small fish which swam around us, occasionally letting curiosity drive them closer towards us for a better look.

Nicole didn’t feel so comfortable with the diving and so bowed out after our initial day under water, this left me swimming on subsequent days with one English chap named Joe and some other already-qualified divers along for fun-dives.

I found some of the safety exercises to be fairly challenging. One of these had me take my weight belt off whilst on the sea-bed. I was supposed to then hold it out in front of me before strapping it back on. As I held the belt out, I developed an incredible cramp in my leg. Kicking out my leg to ease the pain I was suddenly upside down, legs in the air, with my mask letting in water. The belt to which I was still clinging, was anchoring me to the floor!

Over the next few days I dove three other sites which featured fantastic arrangements of coral. One site was a giant submerged rock with a tunnel through the middle of it, which we then swam through. All around us pieces of coral grew out from the rock and spectacular fish swam in the dull light which filtered down from eighteen metres above us. We emerged from the tunnel and Sergio turned to us and tipped his hand like a gun, forefinger and thumb extended. This was the signal to indicate the titan trigger fish was in the area. Following his gesture I saw four of these fish a few metres out. As instructed we all turned onto our backs and started swimming away from these volatile fish. As the distance increased a sudden flurry of movement broke out amongst the trigger fish and they started fighting amongst themselves, smashing and biting at each other before swimming (thankfully) further away.

I saw many other types of fish on these four dives, including blue ringed angel fish, stone fish (which are well camouflaged and very difficult to spot), beaked coral fish, chevron barracuda, butterfly fish and parrot fish. There were many others that I was unable to identify, along with sea cucumbers and sea urchins. I found the variety of life to be the most amazing part of diving and can’t wait to use my newly-acquired ‘open water qualification’ to explore more sites; hopefully in the future with an underwater camera.

Koh Tao and the Dive School Dilemma

Koh Tao really is something. Nestled in the Gulf of Thailand, this gem of an island hosts a vibrant community of mostly western backpackers, a lot of whom are there for the diving.

We arrived aboard the Songserm boat and alighted at the island’s main pier. Getting off the boat involved a mighty leap onto the old wooden decking, some helpful Thai hands steadying us as we landed, backpacks weighing us down.

Around the pier, azure waters contained shoals of small fish which gathered around the hull of the boat once it came to rest. Ashore, a mad flurry of locals vied for our business, offering rooms and taxi rides across the island. Settling for a resort called the Asia Divers Hostel, Nicole and I managed to book into a shared dorm for six pounds each per night. There we met a group of English lads enjoying some well-earned holiday time. James, Jack, George and Niall became sound room-mates for the next few days and going out to explore the nightlife was great fun with some new company.

Koh Tao - Beach

In the evenings, this tropical paradise transforms from a tranquil beach into a hedonistic night scene; out come the buckets and the lasers, and the Thai men arrive with their fire staffs, poi and flaming skipping ropes, and start routines that outmatched anything I was ever able to learn when I used to play around with the kerosene back in university.

Koh Tao - Fire Limbo Koh Tao - Fire Rope Koh Tao - Fire Rope Jumping Koh Tao - Fire Ring Koh Tao - Wire Wool Explosion

A few days in, Eiji came down from Bangkok to join us on the beaches for a while before heading on to Koh Phi-Phi where the film ‘The Beach’ was shot. Although looking forward to visiting this for ourselves, Nicole and I will probably wait until July when we revisit the country and meet up with my brother.

After a few days of research, Nicole and I decided to book our ‘open water’ dive qualification. This will let us dive all around the fantastic islands in Asia and further afield, up to a depth of 18 metres. Koh Tao has around fifty dive schools, so competition is fierce and it took us some time to shop around before we finally settled on a good deal. A four day course with two extra fun dives, and four nights of accommodation would run at £150 each, which is significantly cheaper than anywhere else in the world. We start on Monday and both Nicole and I are very excited. In the mean-time we have been out in the bay with some snorkels that we bought, looking at the shallow coral and varied marine life. On the main beach the coral is just brown but we saw some awesome little fish. Some of the larger ones would swim up, kiss me on the arm and swim off. I was a little freaked out to begin with, thinking they would bite but soon got used to the inquisitive behaviour. One fish I have to keep an eye open for though is the Titan Trigger fish, which tends to get angry at the site of tourists. When threatened, it will raise a small fin on its head as a way of telling you ‘clear out of the way’.

Koh Tao - Sunset

Today we found a much quieter cove which was full of white coral. Feeding amongst this alien field were hundreds of the most beautiful marine fish. Some were pearlescent, whilst others glowed with neon brightness. I saw some which were decidedly two-tone, and others which had zebra-like patterns. In amongst the coral lay long cucumber like creatures and also what looked like black mines, floating above the sea-bed.

As we returned to our room tonight, a large ‘THWAK’ sounded near our feet. Shining out torches into the gloom, we found that a giant lizard had fallen from the roof of our hostel, two floors, to the concrete floor. Whilst it was stunned I was able to get in close and snap a photo before it regained its senses and ran for the cover of a nearby bush.

Koh Tao - Lizard