Tubing in Vang Vieng, Laos - does the phrase conjure up images of drunken young backpackers partying on riverbanks under the sun and throwing themselves off rope swings into the water? Well, it certainly did for me before we visited Laos. I’d heard too much about intoxicated or perhaps just plain-stupid travellers injuring and even killing themselves during tubing trips in Vang Vieng to ever want to visit the place myself - it seemed the very epitome of bad tourism.
Causally throwing a banana chip into my mouth I leaned out of the stationary tuk-tuk and craned my neck up towards the cave above, waiting for the million-strong swarm of bats to flood out of its entrance into the gathering dusk. A boy of about eight or nine, bare-foot and messy-haired, wandered past our vehicle and I smiled as our eyes met. My banana chips captured his attention and for a moment I began to stretch my arm out to offer him some before remembering: we’re not supposed to give things to kids, especially not here in Cambodia where child-begging is such a problem.
Always get to the bus station early if you’re travelling in Laos; if not you’ll end up squashed into a fold-out isle seat amongst bags of rice, backpacks and live chickens. On the nine-hour bus journey to Luang Prabang I found myself wedged into a single seat above the wheel, my legs cramped into an uncomfortably raised position while the giant German man next to me kept falling asleep, his head periodically whacking my shoulder. Despite the fact that I was sore, headachey and extremely fed-up by the time we finally arrived in Luang Prabang, I felt a huge smile spread across my face as I took in my first views of the city.
Our second stop in Laos was the typically sleepy little town of Luang Namtha, which lies about four hours east of the border crossing at Huay Xai. For us, those four hours were spent on and off a brightly-coloured and temperamental bus that we shared with some fellow falangs (western tourists) and locals alike. The fact that our bus needed a push-start didn't fill us with confidence so it wasn’t that surprising that we broke down half-way through the journey. The driver spent a few minutes fiddling about underneath the vehicle as if this kind of thing happened on a daily basis. He obviously knew what he was doing though since, with the help of a local who pulled over to offer his tools, we were on the move again after about 45 minutes - without the need for a push-start either.
After our three-month stay in Thailand we were itching to strap on our backpacks and journey onwards to a brand new country: Laos. Although it’s only a short hop, skip and a boat ride across the Mekong we saw an almost immediate difference between the two countries; in stark contrast to the industrious buzz of Thailand we were totally charmed by the laid-back vibe in Laos and we learned to finally relax for the first time on our trip.
After four years we finally made it back to the country that started it all off for us: Thailand. In August 2009 we spent a month backpacking around the country – it was what got us hooked on travelling. This time around we stayed for three months; the longest we’ve spent in one country since beginning our trip. Not only that but we managed to persuade some of our friends and family to come for a visit too!
For me, first impressions really count and I often know within minutes of arriving in a new place whether I’m going to love or hate it. Take Melbourne for instance, Sagada or Luang Prabang - I fell for them all instantly, whereas I had an immediate and profound dislike for Jakarta. Usually it’s hard to shake my initial feelings about a place so after a wobbly start I was surprised to find that Chiang Rai in Thailand really grew on me.
After a month of work in our beloved Chiang Mai apartment it was time to say goodbye and head south to one of the largest of the Thai islands; Koh Samui, for a holiday with my parents. My mum and dad had spent a few days experiencing hectic Thai cities, now it was time for some rest and relaxation in the sun – here’s what we got up to on our Koh Samui holiday.
After six months of travel from New Zealand to Thailand we were ready for a bit of a rest and needed time to catch up on work and the blog. Although it has become a bit of a backpacker cliché, we decided that Chiang Mai, Thailand, was the perfect place to settle down for a month and rest up. After finding a great apartment, we settled into a comfortable routine and found living in Chiang Mai to be pretty affordable – here’s how much it cost us for one month.
This time last year I celebrated the holidays with my family in England knowing that there were just a few weeks left till my departure date and a new life on the road – I had no idea where I'd be in a year’s time. Now, here we are in Vietnam after our first Christmas on the road. As we prepare to see in the New Year we also reflect on how far we’ve travelled this year and how much we’ve learned in the process.