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Thursday, 30 September 2010

Day 159: Hello! from Thailand

Hello indeed -apologies for the rushed nature of this post - after quite the ordeal (I promise to explain this at a later date) we have made it into Thailand! Hurrah!

Now the reason I cannot stay and chat longer is that Team 365 is taking itself on a 3-day action-packed trek into Chang Mai's glorious hillsides - as ever, we will endeavor to keep you informed of all that ensues.

Must dash! x

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Food For Thought

Well Laos has been, as predicted, a culinary delight to say the least; and so with the help of 365's honorary member - here are our all-star menus for Laos.

Rob's Menu
3 fried eggs and a loaf of bread (Ban Na Him)
Chocolate &banana doughnut (Si Phan Don)
Fried noodles with pork (Mama Pap's Si Phan Don)
Omlette & bacon baguette (Vang Vieng)
Elephant Camp Dinner: Cucumber soup with fried mixed veg,chicken curry with steamed rice & fried spring rolls (Elephant Camp &Si Phan Don)
Banana pancake (Jasmin's Pakse)
Lemon juice (Buddha park, Vien Tien)

Kat's Menu
Mixay Guesthouse buffet; fried egg, toast, coffee, unlimited salad buffet (Vien Tien)
Cinnamon whirl (Si Phan Don)
Creamy coconut curry with potato & veg (Si Phan Don)
Cappuccino shake with haribo-sweets in (Tha Kaek)
Khua maak kheua gap moo (aubergine fry with tofu) & a Luang Probang Salad (Cooking course, Luang Probang)
Banana Pancake (Jasmin's Pakse)
Glass of Red Wine (I know, I know...yes it was Chilian but as my first in 5 months it was indeed my favourite drink)

Jeff's Menu
MixayGuesthouse Buffet (as above)
Cashew nuts (before the ants got to them) with an Oreo Shake (Vien Tien & Tha Kaek)
Feu Khua (deep fried noodles with egg and veg) with a Luang Probang Salad (Cooking course, Luang Probang)
Duck & Vegetable kebab (Vang Vien)
Po's Dinner; Vegetable curry with grilled fish, pork cutlets, chips, sticky rice & fresh spring rolls (Tat Lo)
Lemon & sugar crepe (Luang Probang)
Mint & Lemon Shake (Vien Tien)

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Day 153 - 155: The Elephant Whisperer

For the last three days I have been staying at the Elephant Lodge, just outside Luang Prubang, learning what it is to be a mahout. I have succesfully learnt that a mahout is someone who keeps, trains and looks after elephants, and my three days mostly consisted of walking, washing and feeding elephants. Sounds like a short list to fill three days out with, but I had an unforgetable time and wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to anyone.

On my first day I spent a short amount of time learning how to 'drive' an elephant with my other trainee-mahouts. We got the chance to put into practice what we had just learnt almost instantly by taking the elephants out for a walk. We yelled (or at least not whispered) commands - walk, turn left, turn right, spray water etc - to our elephant from atop their neck with mixed results.

My elephant was named Thong Khun, which loosely translates into diamond or precious stone, but was known as TK as there was no way I could properly pronounce it.

Riding the elephants through thick jungle was incredible, and although TK did show some response to the commands I gave, I felt pretty sure that she knew the route well enough to not have to rely on me. Probably for the best.

Our walk was nearly constantly interrupted by at least one elephant wanting to snack on a tasty looking tree or two before we moved on. Considering that the mahouts give each elephant 250kg of food a day, and that elephants spend most of the night eating more food on top of that (they only sleep 2-3 hours a night) it did seem extravagant. Still, it added even more excitement to the journey and I was surprised and amazed to see how dexterous elephants are. They're able to snap trees and bamboo into bite sized chunks with their feet and trunk, and can strip a branch of its leaves and bark.

As well as walking and feeding the elephants twice a day, every morning the elephants were collected from where they sleep - about 2km from the lodge in dense jungle with plenty of food and space - and taken down to the river to be washed; which is probably even more fun than the pictures would have you believe - check them out here.

It was altogether an amazing experience and we're all looking forward for more elephant based adventures in northern Thailand.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Day 155: A day at the races

It was ladies' day at the races - but not quite as you may know it. There were no hats, no handbags and no horses - we were in Pak Ou for the provincial boat races.

The boat races themselves involve two teams of between 20 and 30 men in brightly coloured shirts rowing vigerously in longboats (very long boats) down a strech of the Mekong past the crowded banks of locals cheering, banging drums and drinking beer lao. But that is just the reason for the parties that were breaking out along the water.

Jeff and I, on thinking we'd found a bar set up on the river side - there was a large number of beer crates, a spit-roast pig, a huge ice bucket and chairs and tables under a gazebo - enquired after a beer. We were invited to sit down and thus joined the work-day-out of the local electicity board who did not thereafter allow our glasses to be empty; apart from, that is, after cheers-ing and shouting 'muut!' which means just that; empty.

We spent the day meeting the friends and families of our hosts and through one man that spoke the best English we were introduced to wives, daughters, sons, a friend that worked in construction ("he build that bridge!"), a man that made furniture ("you want chair?"), and a lady that ran a guest house in Luang Probang ("you stay with me now, na?").

It was such a show of the famous Laos friendliness. I think this will be the main thing I miss about travelling in Asia. Imagine turning up to the Thames on the Cambridge/Oxford boatrace day and spending the whole day eating and drinking with perfect strangers who insisted on not accepting any money ("your our friends, your with us, now you pay nothing") and even going on to drive us home and invite us to stay in their luxury guest houses. It just wouldn't happen, which is a shame.

We managed to drag ourselves away for just long enough to buy cakes for the children as a thank you and by the time it was dark and we were driving home it is safe to say we were pretty drunk - it was a truely unexpected and wonderful day.

Day 154: Cooking Laos, and lots thereof

So while Rob was off whispering to elephants (more to come on that, shorty) Jeff and I took ourselves off to a one-day food extravaganza of a cooking course. Laotion domestic goddesses we became - and very full ones at that!

The day began with a trip to the market with our two chefs, Leng and Phia - luckily we were the only ones on the course that day and so could fire all our cooking questions directly to our knowledgable hosts. After the market it was back to the kitchen to have a cup of tea - very important in the cooking process, don't you know?

Then we got stuck in with the first course! First we made a Luang Probang Salad (right) - basically lots of veg with a homemade (and very easy to make) mayonaise; prepare to see this again at every BBQ I attend in the future. You lucky things. Also a Feu Khua which involves frying noodles with egg and green asian veg in a delicous chili sauce. Then we ate!

Then Leng and Phia demonstrated 3 dishes and we were able to make 2 each - the best thing about this was that I got to try every dish in vegetarian, even dishes that I'd seen over and over again in restaurants but hadn't been able to order because they always came with meat.

Between Jeff and I we made a chicken and a tofu Larp - which is a traditional cold salad that come chopped up with all sorts of awesome herbs and spices, and a Kheua sen lon - which was all about throwing aubergine, soft, rubbery mushrooms (called woodear fungus) and noodles and lots of garlic into a wok.
Our last dish (for this round) was an Oh paedak - traditionally this is a soupy dish made with a particular fish sauce (paedak) that is made from fermenting the whole dead bodies of fish in an urn. For weeks. And then crushing it - bones and all - down with oil. The smell is pungent and even the Laos admit that you have to be Laos to really love it, we saw it in the market and honestly it looks like dead fish in a bucket of mud. Luckily nowadays most Laos use shrimp paste and thanks to my herbivorian tendancies we made ours with soy and mushroom oyster sauce. Yum!

You'd be forgiven for thinking that this was more than enough food to keep two travellers happy but the cooking did not stop there. Next up we made (Jeff's favourite dish) Khua maak kheua gap moo - it's as fun to say as it is to eat, an aubergine fry with tofu and a spicy oyster sauce. And our final dish was Geng phet, a creamy curry that was light relief from all the above frying.

I say final dish because even then there was more cooking to be done and we are now masters of sticky rice (which anyone who has been to Thailand will already know and love) and Jeowbong - a chili sauce that we served alongside ALL of the above and tucked in.

Just look at that happy face behind that mountain of food - what a glorious day!

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Night 147: A near theft experience

Close followers of our humble 365 will remember the tale of a midnight intruder from our time in Goa - without giving it away, it was not what we expected. On this occassion, in Vang Vien, it most definitely was.

I'll start from the beginning; it's about 2:30AM and Jeff, Rob and I are all asleep in our room. I'm awoken by Jeff saying "What are you doing down there?" and hazily look around. By the time I've come to my senses Jeff is out of bed and the figure that was standing at the foot of our beds has ran out of the open door and into the night.

Jeff had thought it was Rob rooting around my bags (left closest to the door) and asked him what he was doing, then she'd realised that both Rob and I were still in our beds, and the man crouching by my stuff looked distinctly local, and as she got up - he made a dash for it.

We checked our things; nothing had been taken but the question remains how he got through a locked door? We don't know but this story could have ended a lot worse, for sure.

We'd heard from other travellers that locals robbing westerners while they slept deeply in drunken stupors was common in town - a more than weekly occurrence in some specific hostels. So we stayed away from them. From then on we used our own padlocks to double-lock the door while we were both inside and out.

It's a horrible thing to wake up to so this is just a warning for anyone who is going to Vang Vieng, apart from the obvious good times to be had; only stay in a room that you can double lock and however drunk you get, make sure you do.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Day 145-150: River + Tyre = Good Times

Apologies for the delay in posting; for 5 days now we've been in Vang Vieng; where the internet is outrageously expensive and the booze is far far too cheap.
It is, admittedly, not the culture capital of Laos but there is much partying to be done so we figured it'd be rude not to get stuck in...the name of the game here is tubing and the rules are as follows;

1) Get a vest with the word 'tubing' printed on it at least twice
2) Take this vest and a tube - an inflated inner-tyre (massive rubber ring) - north up the Mekong River to the aptly-named 'Bar 1'
3) Receive your first free Lao Lao whiskey shot of the day (note with shock that there are wasps in the bottle from which you are drinking....this will cease to matter later on)
4) Buy your first bucket / beer of the day
5) Mingle on the decking in the sunshine with some newly acquired friends
6) Slide down a flume with your tube (drink is optional here - but recommended) into the river and sail onto the equally-inspired-named 'Bar 2'
7) Receive another free Lao Lao whiskey shot...or three
8) Swing off a trapeze into the river, get hauled back in by grabbing onto a rope thrown out to you
9) Drink more, dance more vigorously
10) Sitting in your tube, float down've guessed it 'Bar 3'
11) Receive more free shots, better still; just cut the sting off one of the afore mentioned wasps and eat the wasp [equivalent to 2 buckets of alcohol, so we hear...]
12) Play drinking games with your new best friends
13) Drink more, jump of more trapezes and dance with less and less regard for the rhythm of the music
14) Locate your tube and set sail to 'Bar 4'
15) Eagerly receive another free shot of Lao Lao...
16) You get the picture
Try to make it back to the finish point (Bar 10) by 6pm to return your tube and continue the party well into the night

That's right dear readers; tubing is a day time activity but the fun does not stop there! When we weren't too hungover to party (roughly every other day) we were out and about meeting all sorts of wonderful people - Rob even bumped into a course mate from uni! - and dancing to what could have easily been a Saturday night in Bournemouth.

We were really lucky with the weather too and had glorious sunshine and blue skies all day, every day. Team 365 is happy to have left with everything (if not our livers) intact* and to have avoided the dreaded pink eye (conjunctivitis) which spreads through backpackers here faster than the Mekong does through the town.

All in all - it was awesome; everyone should tube!

*due to the responsible and safety-conscious matter in which we tubed, Mums, this was not a surprise

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Day 138: The Loop [day 3]

The last stop on our almost- Motorcycle Diaries adventure was a 7km long cave called Kong Lo and it was even more spectacular than we had imagined a cave that was 7km long would be.

We had opted for the more cost-effective method of sharing a car with some other travellers also staying at our hostel and so after a big breakfast (look how happy Rob is with his eggs and half-a-loaf of bread) we arrived in style and ambled our way to the river down a lovely wooded path.

At the rivers' edge the guys in the 'Boat Committee' (so the sign on the wooden hut read) sprang into action and armed with head torches and super stylish life jackets (Jeff, below, proving that day-glo is still very much en vogue) we sailed in longboats to the mouth of the cave where we climbed off and ventured inside.

Just inside the cave there were more boats waiting; engines were quickly carried into the boats by our two drivers, both with really bright head torches wired up to battery packs at the waist (safety first.) We climbed in and departed at full speed into the darkness.

The cave is incredible; you could barely see where the stony walls ended and the murky waters began. Stalactites hung from the ceiling while water dripped and bats flapped and squeaked overhead - just as I was wondering how on earth these guys navigated through the blackness we turned a corner and saw daylight, we also saw that some rapids had formed and we were heading straight for them. When you think about it; one little bump into the slimy walls isn't too bad. The boat tipped left and right and we took in some water but the engine powered through and we were back on course in no time. Actually; I think it was my favourite bit of the ride.

Stopping on the river bank we waded to shore and had a wander around the local village; which was a quaint and muddy experience - my boots had been well and truly broken into that kind of thing on day 1 and it was nice to squelch around again, really.

We were returned the same way again, still marveling at nature, and all-in-all the round trip was about 3 hours and well worth the visit. We were smoothly deposited back at our hostel; slightly cleaner and much drier than we had started our Laos-based motorcycling adventures, but we've definitely got a taste for it so expect plenty more two-wheeled trips from 365.

Day 137: The Loop [day 2]

Okay. We admit it. We cheated; The Loop is for hardened cyclists, the kind of people that want to burn rubber, come out caked in mud and have a thousand bugs die on their chiseled cheekbones as they roar through the country side at 100 mph on two screeching wheels.

We got the bus.

Actually we got two buses, and in true local fashion we made our way to Ban Na Him in jumbos (open-back truck with two benches along the side) travelling with a motorbike, a puppy, a ladyboy and - at it's peak - 19 other people. It was cosy and, as we discovered later, not actually the cheapest or quickest way to do it...ah well!

In Ban Na Him we found a hostel and dined with the owner and her extended friends and family over alot of Beer Lao and brushed up on our language skills; dun beer lao (drink beer) and jun jar (cheers) are now well and truely in our vocabularory.

We also arranged to visit the local attraction, Kong Lo Cave, with a Korean/French group that were also staying at the hostel; this meant going in the luxury of a car rather than on motorbikes as we had originally intended - but it was cheaper and easier and I was well on my way to being pretty hungover in the morning.

Saturday, 11 September 2010

Day 136: The Loop [day 1]

'The Loop' is a off the beaten track route around the Bolikhamsai & Khammuan provinces. Most travellers will spend 3-4 days on a motorbike to complete the whole loop but after being rained-in and most definitely rained on while at the Bolavan Plateau we decided to adjust the itinerary a little.

We set off bright and early from Tha Khaek with Steve and Jeff and after an initial detour (which was literally taking the scenic route in this case) we found our way on the smooth roads of Route 12 to our first stop; Tham Pha Fa; a remote cave filled with Buddha statues. The amazing thing about this cave, apart from how so many stone statues got there when it was discovered by a local farmer in 2004, is that in the dry season it is accessible by foot. When we arrived kids were throwing themselves off a bridge into the swollen river and we had to access the cave by boat; we sailed above bars and tables and benches and scrambled up the rock face into the cave.

Our next stop meant some more boating and we sailed out of the glorious sunshine and into the darkened Xieng Liap; a stalactite-filled cave where a monk and a beautiful young lady were meant to have secretly met. The name literally means monk (xieng) and sneaking around (liap).

But the bike tour needed to go on and our third and penultimate stop was to be the most adventurous yet. We'd heard that the dirt track to The Falang could get a little hairy in the wet season so when we rolled off the tarmac and into thick sticky mud we quickly disguarded the motorbikes and took off on foot. The path that we hoped lead to the shady swimming spot went from muddy to very muddy and we eventually ended up wading through a puddle that was waist height - it was awesome. Luckily our navigation had been accurate and we found the cool spot and slid down the muddy bank into the cool waters of the Nam Don river for a swim.

The sun was out in force (hurray!) so the river was a welcomed break - and a good chance to confuse some bemused locals that were either telling us with hand actions that the path was impassible because the water was shoulder height, or they were happily telling us that they'd slit our throats. Thankfully neither occurred.

Our last and final stop in this, the southern section of The Loop, was at Tham Aen; a huge cave that we had to wade over a river to get to. As the sun set we made our way round the gloomy interior by incredibly useful, if a little un-aesthetically pleasing, staircases that had been built in.

Under a starry sky we sped back to Tha Khaek to enjoy a beer and dinner at one of our favourite spots on the Mekong; a place where you can in fact see Thailand. Which is pretty special really.

Day 1 on The Loop had been a outrageous success; and there was plenty more to come...

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

The Southern Swing; by Kat's Mum

This is the exact and unmodified version of an email my Ma sent to me after seeing the photos (right) but before we'd got round to the post below. It's amazing.
Please read-and-view along with the tells the story of our trip much better than I ever could.

"Kat en Rob - I love the photos!!! The waterfalls are spectacular. eeing Rob on the rock I am thinking, don't jump in
next photo - oh good he's not jumping in - where is he going
next photos - don't tell me he's going to jump into tht from there
oh no, what he's going under the waterfal - ok, what ill tyhat look like
Oh my word he has jumped in
what they're all swimming in it - isn't that a bit stricky, does not the ater go a bit fast
ok they're alright. My goodness is that mud, it is, is that rain, it is, dear me that's heavy....
So the water is obviusly expected to reach these levels, all the houses are on stilts. Good
and what a muddy waterfall now...............glad you saw it cleartish as well...

paddy field I presume and good picture of Rob going off again, where is he going? no-where....?
very good pictures but what are those two of buildings? Looks a bit like a prison....

groetjes..... mum"

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Day 132 - 134: Waterfalling / Water falling

It was a soggy morning in the south of Laos that the newly-extended Team 365 set out on motorbikes to the Bolaven Plateau. 'The southern swing', as it is perhaps only known to tourists, is the loop that circles this beautiful landscape of waterfalls and coffee plantations.

Dressed in suitably ridiculous ponchos we headed off into the light drizzle and fortunately by the time we reached Tat Champee the sun had come out (a bit) and in true British spirit we dipped ourselves into the cold water for a dip in the pool below the gorgeous falls. Rob even went for an expedition around the back of the waterfall that ended in a few tense moments of cross-current swimming back to our side of the bank - you can follow his jaunt on the photos scrolling on the right >>

On we rode, opting to walk through the bits that were too muddy, to see Tat Yuang and Tat E-Tu - which were (we believe) all the more beautiful for seeing in the wet season when the greenery was more lush and the water falling even stronger than usual. Our deep-seated appreciation of the wet season was not to last long.

Riding on to Tat Lo, a small village that had been recommended to us by a few fellow travellers and appeared on neither the Lonely Planet map of the area or any of the photocopies we had been given, it began to rain. Then the sun set. Then we rode for a further hour in the cold, dark rain until almost all hope was lost and then we found Palamei; a haven of a guesthouse ran by a lovely man called Po who cooked us a wonderful dinner and gave us a bed for the night for next to nothing.

The following morning we enjoyed a lie-in and a leisurely breakfast in the searing sun before gathering the necessaries and revving off into the distance to the spectacular Tat Hang that boasts a huge 140m of falling water. But before we reached it; vast amounts of water falling out of the sky forced us to turn back. And at the hostel we remained all day, playing cards and taking bets on when the torrential rain would stop. At 6pm (Jeff won the bet), when the sun had set and everyone's hands were red-raw from many-a-round of Chinese Snap, the rain did stop. Rain had stopped play for the day but it was a relaxing and fun day even when the water falling wasn't exactly as we had planned.

We rose early the following morning hoping to 'beat the monsoon'; weather in Asia is not that predictable. Again it rained and after a few more slippery encounters with local falls we admitted defeat and started out on the 86km back to Pakse.

This trip, we hope, will be the perfect precursor to "The Loop"; a longer and more challenging bike ride to add to our Motorcycle Diaries collection. Hopefully we've ran our bad luck out on the rain front but only time will tell...needless to say, you'll hear all about it here - thanks for reading.

Friday, 3 September 2010

Not another Top 5 List; How to survive a night bus

1. Don't be tall
Only children, dwarfs and/or double-leg amputees should expect any level of comfort from these tiny "beds"

2. Spoon a stranger
If there is a better way to become quickly acquainted with the person next to you, we haven't found it yet. Short, narrow reclining seats with just an arm-rest separating you ensures the necessity to adopt this intimate sleeping position.

3. Lights on, lights off

Thought you'd bring a book along to pass the hours? No; your driver has turned the lights out. Bring a head torch. Thought you'd sleep since it's all dark in the bus now? No; your driver is making another commission-earning pit stop - sorry, toilet stop for everyone's comfort and enjoyment - and you will wake up for it. We're sorry; the head torch won't help you now

4. Don't expect to sleep
We've called it a 'night bus' here because surely the word 'sleeper' was only ever a wild miss-translation...brace yourself for a long night and seriously consider investing in some valium. Readers will be happy to hear rhohipnal is also widely available in Asia (and, when not dropped into your bacardi breezer unannounced, actually very effective) but please see #5

5. Don't buy sleeping pills with a Vietnamese girl called Flower
Team 365 has it on good authority that those who do may well end up with a 12-hour erection instead (please see #2 and picture the scene yourself.) that's why the pharmacist cast a knowing glance at your pretty Vietnamese companion and said "yes, you sleep real good tonight" when you inquired about the strength of the pills (thanks to our man-in-the-field, Steve Barker, for that one)