Thailand, Laos, Cambodia & Hong Kong by Lesley Reeves

Typical, the one day when needed nice easy travel to Heathrow, amber snow warnings! 6 pm decision and a lift to the surprisingly comfortable Cottage B&B, at Heathrow, meant we had a leisurely morning before our flight. Cathay Pacific had kindly arranged lounge passes for us, so we’re nicely relaxed (Prosecco helped) for our flight!

One long but comfortable flight later, and only 30mins from landing in Thailand, we were on a domestic flight to Chiang Mai. Friends John and Thip were waiting for us, which was a lovely welcome and drove us straight to the Akara Boutique hotel. Lovely layout, Lanna Thai in style, wooden floors, two pools and a gym. The watermelon juices are delicious! The room was comfortable with nice big beds. The balcony overlooking the lap pool. The evening we went out for a stroll down to the night market, revisiting old roads that I used to know well in the late 80s, not much had changed, just bigger and busier than before.

Chang Mai blog

Next morning it was Breakfast on the restaurant balcony, mango, watermelon, papaya, pineapple and a boiled egg, I just love the local fruit for breakfast.

John came and met us in the afternoon and we caught a Songthaew (open back van with bench seating) up to Doi Suthep, the hill temple about a half-hour outside of Chiang Mai. More than usual police presence as it turned out one of the Thai princesses was visiting. Very nice of her to make an appearance for us, as we got stopped and made to stand respectfully quiet as she passed! Not that she noticed, as didn’t look up or engage with anyone as she passed. Doi Suthep is one of my favourite places, peaceful, stunning and great views over the city and countryside.

That evening we headed down to the Saturday walking street, which is when they pedestrianize a street with lots of stalls, food sellers and handicrafts. It was so busy, both Thai and tourists, almost too busy to be enjoyable. Did visited the Hedgehog and Guinea pig cafe, which was a bit odd with cages of baby Hedgehog and Guinea pigs! They appeared well looked after, but a bit of a strange idea very typical of Asia. We got tickets for a bus to Chiang Mai the next morning and said farewell to John and Thip.

Chiang Mai bus station hadn’t changed much, bus services run smoothly and ours at 10 am was fine. Expected it to stop, but it didn’t, duh there was a loo onboard! A quick tuk-tuk ride took us to The Nak Nakara hotel after which we headed straight to The White Temple, 10km outside town. Stunning, gleaming in the sunshine, very pretty, but with slightly sinister statues of hands and skulls around the moat.

Back to the pool for a dip, then headed out to the Chiang Rai Sunday walking street, taking in the clock tower sound and light show at 7 pm. The clock tower changes colour, set to music. The walking street was similar to the one in Chiang Mai, but nowhere as busy. Street music, dancers, massages, then found the square with a stage and food stalls around. A band was playing and what only can be described as Thai line dancing was being enjoyed by hundreds of Thais, of all ages, all having a fabulous time! Sat with a couple of Thai girls who were enjoying the dancing and snacking on their deep-fried locusts with their beers!

6.30 am start for us the next day, as being picked up for our cruise to Luang Prabang. All very efficient again and we were whisked through immigration by the team from Luang Say cruises, then a bus to board the boat. A converted barge, we sat on the deck enjoying the sun, views and refreshments onboard.

We stopped at a hill tribe village for a stroll around, whilst learning about how the villagers lives had been improved by the government moving them down from the high hills and stopping them growing opium. To be fair, they at least now have electricity and clean running water, but not sure how the satellite TV and western influences are going to keep the community together. However, it was good to make a donation to the village, rather than having children begging.

We arrived at Luang Say Lodge, Pak Beng, to find it a lovely wooden Lodge, facing the river with lots of wooden bungalows. Very clean and comfortable room, mosquito net and fan. They’d arranged a small traditional Laos dance show by local children and musicians, and of course getting the tourists to join in! Dinner was good local food before heading off to bed by 10 pm for a decent, long sleep.

Breakfast was at 7.30 before departing by boat at 8.30. After a couple of hours watching the scenery, we stopped at another village. Women and girls lined the streets selling scarves made from silk and cotton of various colours. Wandering around, we came across a lady working on a loom, so stayed to watch her work. We both bought a scarf from her, only 4 dollars and at least it was going directly to her, rather than to some middle man. A wedding was going on, villagers all sitting at trestle tables, just about to start the festivities. The bride and groom seemed unperturbed that we were intruding, happy to receive our tokens of good luck, but both very solemn, so wondered if it was an arranged marriage.

Lunch onboard was a nice mixture of curries and rice, with fresh fruit & we even had a civilised glass of wine. Later, just before arriving at Luang Prabang, we visited the Pak Ou caves. Only accessible from the river, the caves are home to thousands of Buddha images that have been left there for good luck, once their original homes get filled. There were two levels, the first easy access, but the second (original) cave was up 264 steep steps. Linda and I managed it, to find a cavernous cave, dimly lit, but with buddhas everywhere, all varying sizes and ages. Back on the boat for another hour and we arrived at Luang Prabang. Our bags were carried up to the road, then loaded on a tuk-tuk to take us to Maison Dalabua, our home for the next three days. The hotel was set over 3 huge, stunning, lily ponds, that actually had UNESCO protection. We settled in, then went for a stroll to get our bearings.

The night market was in full swing, some of the usual tourist essentials such as baggy trousers and t-shirts, but also some local Laos traditional handicrafts. Everything was priced in dollars, though we did have some local currency, millionaires the both of us! We wandered along until found a nice looking restaurant opposite Villa Santi, which was a lovely colonial old building. Dinner was lovely, as were the Laos Mojitos! We got back to the hotel and decided to carry-on with the cocktails, serenaded by the extremely loud frog chorus.

The next morning we arose at 5 am to get bikes and cycle around to see the monks almsgiving. We cycled to a side street, there were more locals doing the same. We then cycled to the next village, to visit the local market, a fantastic array of colours and smells. Luckily neither Linda nor I am squeamish, skinned pigs heads, trotters, tripe and buffalo parts were common! The mass of vegetables and colourful fruits, all very high quality, beautifully laid out.

We cycled back to town, then around the peninsula, stopping for the most delicious lunch of fresh spring rolls at the lovely riverside restaurant overlooking one of the two bamboo bridges. We then cycled back for a lounge by the chilly pool for a well-earned rest. We went out to the night market again that evening and stumbled across a small restaurant selling local food, a real gem of a find, but wouldn’t be able to find it again, as was down one of the back streets.

The next morning, we treated ourselves to a lie-in, then walked around the peninsula. We had wanted to go to the red cross centre as it was supposed to be the best place for a massage, but it was world women’s day and was closed. Never mind, we took a cautious stroll over the rickety bamboo bridge to a restaurant on the other side. There was a jewellery shop opposite, offering classes and some unusual jewellery made from silk and paper. Sadly, the heavens opened and a thunderstorm was upon us, so we had to stay in the shop until it passed and it would have been rude not to have bought something, so came away with several pairs of earrings & necklaces!

Another evening, another local restaurant, but many were closed due to the bank holiday. Walking leisurely back to the hotel, slightly lost, we came upon Bar 525. We fancied a cocktail, but the outdoor was empty due to the rain and we didn’t like the look of the busy bar inside, it was small and quite hot. As we left, a chap ran out to us, offering to turn up the a/c and jovially persuaded us back in. Andrew, the English owner was a right character and good salesman and soon we were nattering to the locals and tourists. A mother and daughter who had been on the cruise also turned up. The cocktails were great and Linda tried the Smoked Negroni, which was gin, Campari and sweet martini, then put in a bottle to be Smoked for a few minutes, then poured over a branded lump of ice. All very entertaining and turned out Andrew’s mum lives in Felpham, so knew Chi and Southsea, small world.

We had an afternoon flight from Luang Prabang, sad to leave and could easily have a few more days there. Very quiet, laid back and friendly. Our flight was short and we arrived in Siem Reap to be welcomed by a tuk-tuk driver to take us to Suorkear Boutique hotel, about half an hour away. The tuk-tuks were different as were motorbike driven with a carriage attached. After the peace of Luang Prabang, Some Reap was frenetic and noisy. The hotel offered free trips into town, so after a quick unpack we headed into the centre. We were dropped off at the night market area, a huge maze of narrow lanes of stalls, all selling the usual clothes, fake watches and tourist stuff. There was a lot more hassle here, so headed back towards where we thought we were staying. We’d remembered seeing some nice restaurants on the way, but unfortunately took the wrong way! However, found a nice local restaurant with a very chatty lad as a waiter who was keen to practice his English. We managed to order way too much food, but it was lovely. Our tuk-tuk driver got a bit lost, but eventually found the hotel.

We’d got a number of a tuk-tuk driver from one of Linda’s friends, so at 8 am were picked up by Khorn and taken off to visit Angkor Wat and the other temples. The area is vast and Khorn was a good and entertaining driver. We got to hear about how he had hoped to get married this year, but that his girlfriend had finished with him. Obviously still very raw with him, he nearly burst into tears every time we passed a wedding. He had plans to go to university, but needs 500 dollars a year to do so. He took us to the visitors centre to buy our 3 day passes, 62 dollars and long queues of tourists, but eventually got our passes & headed off towards the temples.

Arriving at the east gate of Angkor Wat, quieter than the main gate and a short stroll brought us to the temple. I hadn’t appreciated the sheer size of the area and structures. Simply stunning, so ornate and amazing how it was built over a thousand years ago. We bought a book (paid too much, were offered the same for a dollar away from the centre), which was useful to guide us around and explain everything. The crowds were pretty awful and fairly quickly got fed up with the sheer volume of people and the Chinese making the most of their photo opportunities, always posing! However, nothing can reduce the beauty of the temples, especially looking at it from the far side of the lake. We then met up with Khorn and went to the next temples. All stunning, but it was the power of the jungle that had the most impact, huge tree roots engulfing the stonework and growing up out of the temples. There was a lot of walking done, scrambling up and down steps and walks through the jungle. It’s wise not to stray too far off the paths, as land mines left by the Khmer Rouge are still about apparently. When asked about the old days, Khorn told of how his grandfather had been executed as was a doctor and his parents had been displaced from their families.

We ate at the hotel that night, as we’re getting up for sunrise again. Khorn picked us up at 5 am and drove us out to one of the few hills in the area. 295 steps and the long upward walk brought us up to a small temple and stunning views over the area towards Tonle Sap lake, one of the largest in Asia. We watched dawn, then drove to the floating village. It’s a tourist rip off sadly, 20 dollars each for a bench on a dilapidated old boat. We headed out to the lake and saw the start of the village, but they then tried to take us to a crocodile farm, which we refused. They then took us to the market, which consisted of one man selling 50kg sacks of rice for 50 dollars or noodles for 30 dollars, which we were encouraged to buy and donate to the orphanage school. We refused, but still visited the school, which was a very uninspiring place, but duly gave a donation to the one teacher we met. We asked if they could take us more towards the village, but were told no, as too narrow, so went back a bit miffed at being ripped off. We visited Bayon temple, which was stunning with its 49 stupors and definitely a favourite, despite still being very busy.

We’d arranged to be dropped off by about 2 pm, giving us a bit of time by the pool, before our lovely pedicure and pamper. It’s amazing how quickly our feet recovered after! Last evening in Siem Reap and we headed back into town for dinner at Khmer kitchen, followed by some last-minute haggling, as had 30 dollars left and was quite pleased with everything got, especially as managed to squeeze it all into my rucksack!

Final morning and the hotel arranged a free tuk-tuk to the airport for our flight to Hong Kong. All went smoothly on the short flight to Hong Kong. Bags turned up quickly and we got tickets for 85hkd each on the airport express train to central. Only 21 minutes and it was a further 9hkd for the ticket on to Sheung Wan, where we were staying at the Holiday Inn Express for our brief one night stay. A quick change as it was gone 5 pm and headed to The Peak tram to take us up Victoria Peak.

The queues were horrible, but seemed to be moving, but it still took until gone 7 pm until we boarded the tram. It was worth it though, the views were fabulous! However, there’s now a huge shopping and dining centre and Madam Tussaud’s up there, so nothing like the old leisurely gardens and parkland. The queues to go back down were equally awful, so being two batty British girls, decided to walk down Tramway path and back down the whole Peak. We’d found the most peaceful area of Hong Kong, great views, the occasional dog walker and most surprisingly, a couple of wild pigs! We got down to the bottom and hailed a cab to take us to the Star Ferry, determined that Linda would see as much as possible! We slummed it on lower deck 2.20hkd out and went on the more luxurious top deck for a whole 70 cents more on the way back. We’d not eaten and by this time it was ten pm, but luckily found a tapas bar that did light snacks and a £9 glass of wine, oh well it was our last night!

Last morning & it was a leisurely breakfast at the Holiday Inn Express (HKD68), then a stroll back down to Central station for the train back to Hong Kong International airport. We’d been given lounge passes again, so did a bit of duty-free shopping & then headed there for our last bit of relaxing before the flight home, which was made more comfortable by having 3 seats between the two of us, so a bit of space to stretch out & 5 films later, we’re back at Heathrow.

All in all, it was a fabulous trip & prices although higher than they used to be, are still much lower than the UK. I would recommend people take dollars for Cambodia & Laos & not worry about the local currency, but have lots of very small denomination $ notes. Taking money out in Cambodia was more expensive (£4 per transaction), though the exchange rate I got on my debit card was good, so better to pay for things on card wherever possible.

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