Slow boat cruising – Chiang Rai to Luang Prabang

The end of our month long adventure through Thailand was bittersweet. Bitter because we’d had such a good time we didn’t want to leave, sweet because we were pretty stoked to be heading to the second country of our trip, Laos. We knew before we left home that we definitely wanted to do the two day slow boat into Laos, so we’d planned to round out our Thailand stay in Chiang Rai in the country’s north, making it easy to get to the Thai – Laos border crossing in Houy-Xai, and from here catch the slow boat south to Luang Prabang.

Slow boats at the ready

Slow boats at the ready

Before we left we read loads of blog posts and reviews about the slow boat experience. Some offered dire warnings, many offered conflicting information and the degree between the good and truly awful were vast. We were prepared for the worst but hoping for the best. Honestly though, we couldn’t have had a more chilled trip down the Mekong. The whole process was easy and the experience of cruising the Mekong for two days was so unforgettable I’m going to go ahead and call it a must do.

definitely must see views

definitely must see views

First thing first. You can pay someone to arrange your entire slow boat experience for you. We saw tour operatorators offering slow boat packages out of Chiang Mai, Pai and Chiang Rai. If you want to let someone else do the work you can, it’ll be more expensive but if you’re the kind of person who prefers to have things organised and you’re not too worried about the $, this option will allow you to do nothing much except show up. We decided to go it alone. Our philosophy is that half the fun of travelling is the journey, plus we’re on the road for a while so saving those $ where ever we can helps extend our travels.

The first leg of our trip was to actually get from Chiang Rai to the border town of Chiang Kong/Huay-Xai. After all the horror stories online we decided to do the border crossing the day before catching the slow boat allowing us plenty of time to figure things out and since we’re never overly organised, account for any stuff ups along the way. #eventplannergoesrogueplansnothing

We stayed at a guesthouse run by possibly the most nicest and most helpful guy in Thailand who advised us to take one of the cheaper local buses. The local buses leave every hour and cost just 65BHT, you can pay on the bus and don’t need to book in advance. We took his word for it, packed our backpacks and walked to the old bus station. We arrived at the bus station and saw a bus with a sign to Chiang Khong, paid our 65BHT and we were on our way, easy as that. You do need to set your expectations up front, it’s far from a luxury ride. It’s a dusty old bus with no aircon so the windows and doors are thrown wide open the entire trip. The fresh air and breeze cool you while you get lost in the rolling mountains and small villages along the way. They stop along the way to drop off and pick up locals and might even stop to let someone run into the bushes for a pee #BYOtoiletpaper. The whole trip took 2 hours and made for a colourful, pleasant and authentic experience. If your opting for total comfort though and want to pay around 240BHT you can book an air-conditioned bus.

a rickety old bus, that's the door thrown wide open for our entire 2 hour journey coz #safety

a rickety old bus, that’s the door thrown wide open for our entire 2 hour journey coz #safety

Tip – The bus is scheduled to go to Chiang Kong but you will want to go to the Thai Immigration which is a few kilometres away. The bus operators are well aware of this and will offer you to pay an extra 35BHT to be dropped off at Immigration so the total trip will cost 100BHT.

Going through immigration at a land crossing is generally less painful and more relaxed than at airports around South east Asia. Exiting Thai immigration took about five minutes. It was a pretty slow day at the border, so much so that the guy at the customs booth was having a little nap! After we made a few discrete noises he woke with a big grin, we all had a chuckle, then he took our passport for the exit stamp and just like that we were through Thai Immigration.

Tip- When you get to Laos Immigration you will need to pay the visa in USD, you can pay in Thai Baht but they will charge you more. The Thai Immigration Officer said he was giving us a deal and we exchanged 2400BHT for 60USD which he pulled out of his top pocket. We knew we weren’t getting a good deal but didn’t have any USD and I guess he needs to earn his weekend overtime somehow.

Once through Thai Immigration you’ll need to get a ticket for the shuttle bus to take you across the border to the Laos immigration, the shuttle bus is 25BHT pp and you can also exchange Baht for Kip. Being unorganised we didn’t have any kip so once again took a ‘good’ deal to exchange our left over Baht to Kip. We waited for about 10 mins and then boarded the bus for the 2 min ride over the bridge to Laos Immigration.

a bridge between two nations literally. That's Laos to the right and Thailand on your left

a bridge between two nations literally. That’s Laos to the right and Thailand on your left

We hadn’t organised a visa previously so we went straight to the Visa on arrival office where you simply fill in two forms and hand them over with your passport. After a 10 minute wait we were called over to collect our passports and pay the 30USD visa fee. The fees seemed slightly different for each country but it’s 30USD for Aussies. We also got hit up for a 10,000 Kip weekend overtime fee. We don’t know if this is really legit but after reading horror stories of travellers made to pay exorbitant ádmin’ fees we were cool with paying $1USD extra! The staff were very friendly and were joking around trying to pronounce English names. Ironically they’re ok with Estelle but struggle with Shane, he’s known as Shine in Laos. Passports in hand, we headed through customs for another stamp and that was that. We weren’t asked any questions, our bags weren’t checked and we didn’t walk through any metal detectors. It was very laid back, quick and painless.

doing all the paperwork

doing all the paperwork and looking very happy about it

We were now in Houy-Xai, Laos! Houy-Xai is the border town on the Laos side of the river, it’s about a 15 mins drive from the immigration office so you’ll need to jump in a Songthaw, there’s always one around though and they’ll charge you anywhere from 60 – 100k kip depending on how good your negotiating skills are.

We booked our ticket for the slow boat the day prior. We did this through our guesthouse for 240k Kip which included a tuk tuk to the pier. You can easily walk down to the pier and do it yourself and the price for the boat alone will be 220k Kip. The tickets had a seat number so the earlier you book the closer to the front you’ll be. Ideally you want to be closer to the front than the back. The back is noisy with the motor and busy with people walking back and forth for the toilets and bar. There are a few places at the pier where you board which offer a decent breakfast and lots of shops to buy drinks and snacks. Food and drinks are pricey and limited on the boat so definitely try to bring your own.

allllll the slow boats

allllll the slow boats

Tip- Once everyone is on board a guy will stand up and say something along the lines of ‘there’s so many people and not enough rooms in Pakbeng! If you don’t have a room I will give you a room for special price 120k kip’. Don’t fall for this. Pakbeng is full of guesthouses catering to the slow boat, they will not run out of rooms. When you arrive loads of locals will be waiting at the pier trying to sell rooms in their guesthouse again at inflated prices, but just walk up the hill a bit and you can take a look and find one much cheaper. We found a perfectly decent one for 60k Kip and about 7 other people who hadn’t booked anything also got rooms here, trust us, there are plenty!

All up we cruised on day one for about 5 ½ hours until we reached Pakbeng where we stopped for the night. We were up and on the boat again by 9am for day two and spent about 6 ½ hours floating our way into Luang Prabang. The scenery is equally impressive the entire way and Davis’ only complaint was that there were no fishing rods (I did not mind this at all).

Pakbeng village

Pakbeng village

Tip- On day two we arrived at the pier at 8:45am for a 9am departure. #rookiemistake. We were almost the last to arrive and consequently had to sit at the back of the boat. Your seat number does not carry over to the second day, it’s a free, for all we didn’t mind too much but be aware that it is first in best dressed so don’t sleep in and insist you need a coffee, instead arrive early if you want a good seat. #stellasnotamorningperson

passing villages

passing villages

fisherman

fisherman

Mekong scenes

Mekong scenes

The boat arrives at Luang Prabang at a pier a little out of town and you will have to pay 20k kip for a tuk-tuk which drops you in the centre of town, there’s no point bartering with these drivers, unless you want to walk you just pay the 20k kip, realistically it’s only about $3 AUD. Side note- our driver tried to drop us off god knows where but luckily we had a young couple with us who knew the area and argued with him until he took us somewhere a little more central, we found this was a pretty common occurrence in Laos, so be prepared to stand your ground and ensure the driver takes you to where you want to go.

Overall the slow boat was an amazing way to not only get to Luang Prabang but to see Laos. To see the way that people live on and depend on the river for their livelihood. From washing, bathing and cooking to fishing and transport, we saw that the Mekong really is the lifeline of Laos for so many. I’ll admit that I was a little worried about spending two whole days on a boat, but I loved the lazy trawl of cruising down the Mekong, reading a book, sipping a beer and just taking some time out to really appreciate what’s around you – because I don’t know about you but I certainly don’t do that enough.

Mekong sunsets

Mekong sunsets

luang prabang magic

Luang Prabang makes a great first impression. It has all the ingredients to satisfy visitors– a bustling but not crazy street scene, a lively night market, a variety of restaurants, those magical Mekong sunsets and a romantic fusion of east meets west architecture. The old town is UNESCO heritage listed boasting beautiful street scapes combining a strong French colonial influence mixed with traditional Lanna temples whose secrets are guarded by ornately carved dragons. Add in the mystical sound of banging drums calling the monks to prayer and you have one of Asia most charming towns.

Luang Prabang has a large and lively night market every evening

Luang Prabang has a large and lively night market every evening

After two days on the slow boat from Chiang Rai we finally arrived in Luang Prabang. The slow boat dropped us about 15km out of town and from there you have basically no choice but to take a tuk tuk into town. The only thing I remember about that ride into town was that school was out for the day and it seemed every child in Laos were riding their bicycles, sometimes 3 on one bike, home. These kids must do this every day but we were astonished, this was no quite country lane, this was a very busy, very crazy main road and these kids were sharing the road with trucks, motorbikes and cars – we experienced one of those ‘oh my god, kids would never be allowed to do this in back home’ moments, but that’s Asia for you and no one bats an eye. We arrived in town, thankfully without witnessing any accidents, said our goodbyes to our travel companions and set off to find home for the next few days. Side note- our driver tried to drop us off god knows where but luckily we had a young couple with us who knew the area and argued with him until he took us somewhere a little more central, we found this was a pretty common occurrence in Laos, so be prepared to stand your ground and ensure drivers take you to where you want to go.

strolling along these streets never gets old

strolling along these streets never gets old

One of the first things we learnt was that Laos is more expensive than neighbouring Thailand and Vietnam. This was something we weren’t expecting, if anything we expected it to be on the cheaper scale. But while we found accommodation to be relatively on par things like food, transport and tours were definitely pricier. There’s also not as much room to haggle, I don’t know if they just don’t have that culture yet but I bought a few things at the markets and came ready to test my haggling skills, skills I’d spent the previous month honing in Thailand, only to find that they didn’t really get it. I still managed to get a slightly cheaper price but it was nothing like the fun, fast paced bargaining I’d encountered in other SE Asian countries. Laos is still cheap though and if you head off the tourist strip away from restaurants that serve western food you’ll be able to find some cheap eats. We should also remember that Laos is a developing country, one that is 20 odd years behind its neighbours in this tourism thing, and while we say more expensive, realistically it’s still ridiculously cheap.

We started and ended our time in Laos in Luang Prabang, this wasn’t really planned it was just the way things worked out. We spent eight days’ total here and honestly, I think it was a few days too many, you could easily round out the highlights in two or three days. We saw a lot of incredible things in and around Luang Prabang and enjoyed our time in the city touted as the ‘most romantic city in Asia. I’m a bit behind on the blog so I honestly can’t remember everything we did while we were there but have pulled together some of our highlights-

Waterfalls

Luang Prabang tuk tuk drivers are relentless. I swear I started dreaming of tuk tuk drivers chasing me asking over and over ‘waterfall?’ ‘waterfall?’ ‘waterfall?’. Regardless, if you do nothing else, at least go to Kuang Si Waterfall and if you have time you should try and squeeze in Tad Sae as well. You may have guessed that waterfalls are big business in Luang Prabang so of course there are numerous ways to get there. You can hire a moto and make your own way, book a private tour, book a minivan transfer or go with a tuk tuk driver. You can do the tuk tuk either privately or if there are a few people you can split the cost so it’s cheaper. After getting the biggest bruise on my butt (I bruise like a peach on a regular day but this was epic) from bouncing around the back of a tuk tuk in Thailand, I suggested we go for a minivan transfer. This was a great decision as roads in Laos are rough, like crazy rough, sometimes you’ll be driving along and then one side of the road is just gone – #cray.

The incredible turquoise pools at the bottom of Kuang Si waterfall

The incredible turquoise pools at the bottom of Kuang Si waterfall

We paid 45,000 kip for the ride there and back. It took about an hour to drive there, an hour to drive back and we had 3 hours at the waterfall itself. When you arrive you’ll have to pay the entrance fee of 20,000 kip pp before starting the short walk up to the waterfall. Along the way you’ll go past the Free the bears project, an organisation that rescues bears from poachers and traffickers. You can view the bears in their enclosures and read about their plight and the fantastic work being done to help them and if you feel so inclined you can support them by buying a t-shirt or simply leaving a small donation in the boxes provided.

Keep walking along the easy, flat path and you’ll come to Kuang Si’s lower pools. You will stop. You will gape in wonder. The view is so indescribably beautiful and the water such an inviting shade of turquoise that you won’t believe it is real. While it’s tempting to stop and get lost in these never ending pools, trust us and keep walking up the path. Keep walking for about 800m, past more cascading pools and you will be rewarding at the end with a stunning waterfall gushing water, creating a hazy mist with the sun just peeking through. If you’re feeling energetic and have brought along appropriate footwear you can climb to the top of the falls, or you can simply head back down to one of the alluring pools for a swim. We opted for the later, or at least Shane did, I got in awkwardly fell over, decided it was too cold and promptly got out. Shane insists it was lovely, though I’m not so sure.

The cascading waterfall at the end of the trail

The cascading waterfall at the end of the trail

The Living Land

nom-nom who knew so many yummy things could be made from rice!

nom-nom who knew so many yummy things could be made from rice!

Anyone who has spent any length of time in South East Asia will no doubt have memories of rice fields stretching far and wide. We realised though we had seen what felt like hundreds of rice fields and eaten more rice than we could remember, we really didn’t know much about how rice farming worked. This seemed like a pretty big oversight for people spending so much time in Asia so we booked ourselves into a day at The Living Land Farm. The tour was slightly pricier than those we’d normally book but the experience was well worth it. We went through all of the stages of rice farming, from ploughing with a reticent water buffalo named Rudolph, to planting, harvesting and milling, right through to husking and grinding the rice to make rice flour. The whole thing was interactive so you could try your hand at each step or not if squishing through the mud freaked you out and best of all they brought out a whole host of yummy rice products for tasting at the end!

Shane and Rudolph, hard at it

Shane and Rudolph, hard at it

Mekong

Luang Prabang is at the confluence of two rivers, the Mekong and the Nam Khan. There are a multitude of tour operators offering boat tours to the caves and whisky village both of which we avoided as it just sounded like too much of a tourist trap. We also felt like after two days on the slow boat, we’d seen enough of the Mekong for now but if you wander down to the river near Wat Xieng Thong you’ll find various boat operators, if you’re keen on a boat trip try to take one at sunset, few things I’ve seen in life compare to those Mekong sunsets.

just wow

just wow

If Boats aren’t you’re thing and you still want to catch a sunset over the Mekong there are loads of restaurants along the water front. All of them are more than happy to let you sit for a few hours sipping a beer Lao and taking in the views. We did this one night and met some of the friendliest locals who invited us to join them for a few drinks, absolutely gorgeous people and one of my fav memories of Luang Prabang.

Mekong and beers- yes please!

Mekong and beers- yes please!

Temples

Apparently there are 34 temples in Luang Prabang. By the time we arrived we felt complete temple exhaustion. We did see a couple and honestly I was a little more intrigued by the Laos temples than the one’s I’d seen in Thailand. Wat Xieng Thong seems to be the must see and I can certainly see why. Considered one of the most import Wat’s it was built in the 1559 and was the site for many import historical events in Laos history including coronations and religious events. The detailed mosaics scenes, gold stencil design and tiered red roof make this temple a standout and one of the most beautiful I’ve seen so far.

The incredible mosaics at Wat Xieng Thong

The incredible mosaics at Wat Xieng Thong

Mt Phousi

At the top of some 300 odd steps sits the temple on top of Mount Phousi. After a hot and crowded walk to the top we joined about a hundred other people who all had the same idea. The temple itself is nothing special, what people pay their 20,000 kip entrance fee for is the view. Come at sunrise or sunset and you’ll be jostling with crowds of tourists, but when the light hits at just the right moment you’ll be glad you came. A panoramic view over Luang Prabang on one side and a stunning view of the Mekong on the other at sunset is hard to beat, so despite the crowds I’d recommend this one.

View from the top, def worth battling the crowds

View from the top, def worth battling the crowds

Royal Palace & Museum

Shane is not that keen on museums so I took myself to this one for a few hours to feed my inner nerd. I love museums and history, I love learning about something I know nothing about and Laos is a country I really didn’t know much about, so naturally I jumped at the chance to visit the museum. What made it all the more interesting is that it wasn’t that long ago that the monarchy was over thrown, with the last King being booted out in just 1975, there’s something I find fascinating about the way these communist governments and monarchies existed until the inevitable overthrow. I wandered through the museum viewing royal life as it was in the 70’s, looking through reception halls, the throne room and royal sleeping chambers. There is a reception room which features murals depicting everyday Laos life and a really intriguing series of works depicting Laos folk stories which were brilliant.

Royal Palace Museum

Royal Palace Museum

Tak Bat- Alms giving ceremony

We got up before the dawn to see the traditional alms giving ceremony on our last day in Luang Prabang. It was somewhere in the 5am’s and Shane kept trying to chat to me, clearly forgetting that I do not function at all before 7am. After a few grumbled responses, he got the hint and led me down to Wat Mai to sit and wait quietly for the monks to arrive. We waited for about 15 minutes and then the barefoot, brilliant saffron robe clad monks began their silent walk with baskets to collect the days’ offerings. This is a religious ceremony that takes place each day at around 6am, it’s a beautiful ceremony to witness as the sun slowly blankets the still sleeping town and was very much worth the early start. Unfortunately, it’s no longer as special as it should be, as Luang Prabang becomes a more popular destination, people are forgetting that it is a very meaningful experience for those involved, not just an opportunity for a photo for your Instagram page. As such they’ve had to develop some guidelines on how people should behave when attending Tak Bat which you can see here – these guidelines are up at every hotel and while most people are respectful there are still quite a few numpty’s around, honestly people there’s a time and place for your selfie stick!

Tak bat

Tak bat

Overall, we had really liked Luang Prabang. It is a gorgeous place to spend a few days, it’s easy, nice, and there is much to entertain but Luang Prabang is not real Laos. Maybe 10 years ago it was but these days? – it’s basically the glossy travel brochure version. Luang Prabang does not offer a true depiction of Laos and the lifestyle of typical Laos people, it basically shows you what happens when tourists come to town so while we definitely recommend going, don’t be surprised by a somewhat less than authentic experience in the tourist centre. Go there, enjoy it for what it is, a shiny version of Laos, but then get out and explore the rest of the country! Real Laos is just as lovely if not quite as shiny.

 

 

Chiang Mai - we didn't love it

Chiang Mai – we didn’t love it

Not every travel experience is amazing.

I know that we are incredibly lucky to be able to travel like we are. Taking a year off from our real lives, stuffing a backpack with the essentials and going where ever the wind takes us is a privilege and a very humbling experience. We know that loads of people back home who read this blog and see our pictures on FB, wish they had the opportunity to do what we’re doing. Knowing all this makes you feel almost guilty when you have a bad day on the road. When you have a runny nose so you lay in bed all day watching Netflix, when you can’t be bothered to try and find yet another ‘great’ place to eat so you go back to the same stall at the markets you’ve been to the last 2 nights or when you visit a new place and you don’t love it.

We didn’t love Chiang Mai. I didn’t even like it very much. I know that will be an unpopular statement since everyone else seems to love it. The city gives a great first impression, after being immersed in the crazy that is Bangkok for a week, Chiang Mai’s clean streets and slower pace were a refreshing and welcome change.

On the surface it was great. An old city hidden behind a crumbling wall, an abundance of quality Thai and western eateries, amazing walking street markets, good internet, and a cooler climate than the south. Still it just wasn’t for us.

Thapae Gate into the old city

Thapae Gate into the old city

Our first day in a new city we always try to get the feel of the place by walking the streets and seeing what we can find. We did this in Chiang Mai and apart from a few temples, which granted were nice the only other note worthy thing we found was a nice park. Everything in Chiang Mai was nice, but nothing was amazing. It felt like a curry without the spice, bland and a little boring.

We kept trying to love it, and I’m not saying that everything in Chiang Mai is awful. There are a lot of things to see and do so we tried a few to see if we just missed that ingredient to discover the universal Chiang Mai lovefest we’d read so much about.

We went out to Doi Suthep which is a temple on the mountain 15km outside Chiang Mai. The Songthaw ride up there was exhilarating if a little terrifying and when we got to the temple it was nice. You walk up some 300 odd steps to the top of the temple and you are rewarded with an incredible view across Chiang Mai.

View from Doi Suthep

View from Doi Suthep

Night markets in Chiang Mai are awesome. The street food is tasty and cheap and the stuff on display is varied unlike other markets we’ve visited where every other stall is selling the same products. If you happen to be there over the weekend there is a Saturday walking street and a Sunday walking street. Sunday is where it’s at, with vibrant stalls, hundreds of vendors and loads of visitors both locals and tourists alike there’s something for everyone.

Chiang Mai is filled with cooking classes, by day 3 we were starting to feel like we’d go crazy from boredom so we decided we may as well book a cooking class, little did we know this would turn out to be one of the best things we did in Thailand. We got picked up by the staff at Basil Cooking school early enough to go to the markets where they explained all of the produce and ingredients we were buying to us, this was really useful as many of them were unfamiliar to our western palettes. We then went back to the school and spent to day with a fabulous teacher and learnt how to make about 7 different dishes all of which were amazing. We were pretty chuffed with our efforts and in our inflated opinions now fancy ourselves Thai cooking experts – Thai party at ours when we eventually make it back to oz!

checking the produce at the markets

checking the produce at the markets

There are a lot of expats in Chiang Mai, so there are a lot of western amenities and services, this is great for convenience, bad because you sort of feel like you’re in this weird hybrid world where you can get a bowl of noodle soup for breakfast or venture to the café next door for smashed avo and poached eggs on gluten free toast. There’s a very evident juxtaposition which is probably great for a lot of people, but to me it just made the city feel unauthentic. The yoga classes are great though!

Chiang Mai is home to some fantastic festivals, the biggest Loi Kratong and Yipeng lantern festivals are held in Chiang Mai and it is definitely worth a visit to the city just to see the moment thousands of lanterns fill the night sky.

Yipeng Lantern Festival

Yipeng Lantern Festival

There are some great things about Chiang Mai and I can understand the appeal. But I realised I need something with a little more edge, the whole time I was there a voice in my head kept screaming it’s Canberra, it’s Canberra! It’s nice, it’s pleasant, it’s easy, but you know what I mean – it’s nice for a weekend but bloody boring otherwise – sorry Canberra friends but I feel like I can say this after my 4 year sentence in our nation’s capital!

Wat Phra Doi Suthep

Wat Phra Doi Suthep

Besides a few temples everything in Chiang Mai was outside the city. There is a beautiful National Park, Doi Inthanon, but it requires a day trip and a 2 hour drive to get there. You can go trekking or visit hill tribe villages but since we were on our way to the mountains we decided to save this for there.

The other thing that was really evident in Chiang Mai? Creepy old white guys with very young Thai girls. Yes, you see this all over Thailand and so long as everyone is a consenting adult live and let live I say. But in Chiang Mai it was uncomfortable, it was everywhere, in every bar with not just old but really old white guys and not just young but really young Thai girls, maybe it’s just me but it made me sad and the feminist in me was really pissed off that these poor girls have to put up with this crap to make a living.

Truth is I’m still a little confused by Chiang Mai. Am I an expert in all things Chiang Mai- absolutely not, is it possible that I just didn’t see the Chiang Mai everyone raves about- sure maybe, but would I go back? Only if I was passing through on my way to Pai!

 

The third class train to Ayutthaya

Hot, crowded, sweaty, uncomfortable. That’s how our journey to Ayutthaya started.

We left Bangkok at around 11am to catch the train from Hualamphong Station, Bangkok’s main station for intercountry travel. We’d decided since we were doing this backpacker thing we’d commit to the experience and get the 3rd class train for a grand total of 15 baht each* rationalising that it was only a 1.5 hour trip so how bad could it be?

*for those of you at home that’s not even $1 AUD.

The train was an experience to say the least. The 3rd class train is old and rickety, the seats are hard plastic and because there’s no air conditioning all the windows are thrown wide open. What’s more, there doesn’t seem to be any concept of the train being sold out, as we stop at each station more and more people cram on, standing where ever they can find space.

Ladies walk up and down the train carrying picnic baskets, shrieking loudly their offerings of bottled water, sandwiches and snacks. There is no space for anyone to move but these ladies persevere, pushing their way through the crowded aisle, intent on selling their wares.

My favourite part of a journey is always the people watching and being trapped in a hot and sweaty train carriage offers plenty of opportunity. It reiterates that even though you don’t speak the same language and come from vastly different backgrounds, fundamentally everyone is the same. The old man dozing against the window, the lady trying to wrangle the 3 small boys, the teenager exasperatingly rolling their eyes at something their mother has said and the young girl who catches my eye as we both laugh at the snoring erupting from that old man at the window.

The train journey itself takes you through Bangkok offering a diverse look at the city. Travelling past high rise buildings, along the canals and behind houses ingeniously built out of whatever people can find. Tin, wood, old canvas’ advertising pizza and cardboard- if you can imagine it people here are using it to build their homes.

Once you get past the city you see the countryside. From what we seen it was very flat, very green and very wet with people out working in the fields, tending their crops and animals.

There are a number of stops along the way, most stations only have the name of the station written in Thai, but for the main ones and the ones that attract a lot of tourists the name will also be in English, local people are more than happy to help you if you need it though. Several people warned us when the Ayutthaya station was coming up, but honestly you can’t miss it. It’s pretty big compared to the other stations and pretty much every foreigner on the train gets off there.

There are a number of other ways you can get to Ayutthaya from Bangkok, including first and second class trains, buses or mini vans but if you really want to experience a country you should travel like the locals do, so whilst admittedly it wasn’t the most comfortable journey, it was an experience one I don’t think I’ll forget in a hurry.

Train to Ayutthaya

Train to Ayutthaya

Bangkok

Fresh from a week seeing the best of Bangkok, here are our top must sees if you’re planning a visit-

What Pho

What Pho

Grand Palace, Wat Pho and Wat Arun

These are the three main temples at the top of every Bangkok vistors must see list. You can see them all comfortably in one day as they are all conveniently within walking distance of each other. The Grand Palace and Wat Pho are right next to each other but you’ll need to catch the boat across the Chao Prao River to visit Wat Arun. The boat leaves from Pier 8 and costs 7BHT one way. The boat trip only takes about 1-2 mins and arrives right out the front of Wat Arun.

The Grand Palace is the largest of the three and the most expensive to visit at 500 BHT per person, it’s big though so you will spend considerable time here viewing the King’s residence. Unfortunately we were unable to visit the Grand Palace with the King recently passing away, thousands of Thai residents were queuing up everyday to pay their respects with only ten thousand visitors permitted each day. We plan to fly out of Bangkok in a few months time so hope to be able to visit the Grand Palace then.

We did manage to fit in Wat Pho and Wat Arun though which were surprisingly quiet in

Wat Arun

Wat Arun

comparison. The stand out for us was definitely Wat Pho. One of the oldest and largest temple complexs in Bangkok, it boasts the 46m reclining Buddah and the impressive 42m high Chedis which were built to honour the Chakri Kings. Get there early to avoid the crowds and cover up, no short shorts or bare shoulders allowed.

Wat Arun also known as The Temple of the Dawn whilst spectactular and worth a visit was unfortunately under renovation and ¾ covered in scaffolding when we visited. Regardless it is still an impressive site and whilst you can’t get up to the top you can still climb up to the first tier. Wat Arun is best viewed at sunset for those iconic Bangkok pictures.

Depending on where you are staying to get to the temples you can catch a tuk tuk, taxi, boat or walk. We stayed near Khoa San Rd and walked to the temples, which was was only about a 20 min walk.

Chao Prao River

The Chao Prao River is the main artery for transport and travel by boat through Bangkok. The river itself is not pretty but it is definitely worth experiencing a ride up and down the river to see some sights. There are many stops along the river and you can either spend 40BHT per stop or 150BHT for unlimited stops. If you only want to experience a ride along the river then you could get a ticket to the end of the river and hop off and back on to come back. We chose to go with unlimited stops and make a day of it by visiting may sights along the river.

Khao San Rd

Khao San Rd is touted as the backpackers mecca of Bangkok and it is! Everything a traveller could want can be found along Khao San Rd, cheap massages, fish spas, bars, street food and street vendors selling everything from custom made suits to friendship bracelets with inappropriate slogans on them. Khao San is noisy though so if you want to stay in the area I recommend staying on Soi Rambutri which is one street over, still close and lively but much quieter if you’re not 18 and clubbing every night.

Hire a Tuk Tuk driver to see the sites

Tuk Tuks are a Bangkok institution. Make sure you jump in a yellow tuk tuk as the reds ones have a reputation for taking tourists to off the track shops who give them kick backs for delivering naïve tourists! The best thing about tuk tuks is that they are cheap but you need to barter and be prepared to walk away if you think they’re ripping you off. We offered a tuk tuk driver 40BHT to spend a couple of hours driving us around to see the Lucky Buddha, Marble Temple, Golden Mountain and Giant Buddha.

tuk-tuks-are-fun

tuk tuk fun- until they ditch you!

We started at the Lucky Buddha, named such as you go there to pray for good luck, whilst a nice temple after seeing so many other temples this one was nothing special. From here we went to Wat Intharawihan, home to the Giant Buddha which is the tallest buddha in Bangkok standing at 32 m high. Whilst the height of this one is pretty cool, it’s not the nicest buddha statue, he looks a bit flat.

From there we went onto Wat Benchamabophit also known as the Marble Temple. This one is definitely a standout and worth a visit, the grounds and the temple itself were stunning. Once you’re done with the temple see if you can spot the epic catfish in the canals!

The beautiful Marble Temple

The beautiful Marble Temple

After we had finished at the Marble Temple we walked outside to find that our tuk tuk driver had ditched is. Luckily we had not paid any money upfront. We could have easily flagged down another driver but instead we walked to the Golden Mountain and Giant Swing then back to our guesthouse. Golden Mountain is a temple which takes some climbing up 400 stairs but is worth the views when you reach the top. The Giant Swing is nothing spectacular but since it was on our way back we walked past for a quick photo opportunity.

Lumphini Park

Since Bangkok is such a hot and humid place walking around takes it out of you, it’s also not the nicest smelling city which makes Lumphini Park the perfect place to go for some fresh air and tranquillity. We visited this park twice in our stay and I am currently writing this post while Estelle takes some time out in the shade to read a book. The park has a running and bike track and a public gym if you are looking to fit in a quick fitness session. The park also has a few lakes and you can hire a Swan Boat for a paddle which cost 40BHT for 30 mins. Keep an eye out for the enormous monitor lizards. They look threatening but will not harm you although Estelle thought every one of them wanted to eat her.

Lumphini Park

Lumphini Park

Chinatown

We decided to break up our week by staying half the time in Chinatown. I felt like Chinatown Bangkok was not quite as exciting or vibrant as Chinatown’s in other Asian cities I’ve seen, in saying that though it’s still worth a visit. It’s got your typical street food vendors selling a mix of thai and Chinese cuisines and the crazy Sompreng Market that you could easily get lost in for hours. From Chinatown it’s not too far into downtown Bangkok where you can visit some of the biggest and most epic shopping centres I’ve ever seen as well as a number of museums. One

chinatown

Chinatown

particular favourite was the Jim Thompson House, Jim Thompson was an American who came to live in Thailand and was instrumental in revitalising world demand for Thai silk, he built a house in the traditional Thai style and filled it with thai artifacts and artworks, his story is made all the more fascinating by the fact that he disappeared in the Malaysian jungle whilst on holidays thus leaving his house and collection to the Thai government who have turned it into a museum. It’s pretty cool to see what a traditional Thai house looks like and some of the artefacts on display are hundreds of years old, worth a visit if you have time.

Street Food

Eat all the street food! Bangkok is filled with an abundance of street food vendors selling just about everything from traditional tom yam soups to fried scorpions and crickets for the more adventurous (we’re not that adventurous!) Not only is the street food some of the best Thai food I’ve ever tasted it’s also ridiculously cheap, we were able to get a full meal for around 50 BHT each making dinner time very affordable. Don’t be put off by the dodgy looking décor and plastic chairs we learnt pretty quickly that the ‘nicer’ looking places definitely did not equal the tastiest food!

*side note Estelle has a pretty severe peanut allergy she needs to carry an epipen around for, we worried this would be a problem throughout Asia but she got staff at our first guest house to write it on a piece of paper in Thai and has just shown it to the staff everywhere we’ve eaten, I get the feeling allergies are becoming more well known in Asia as a lot of places we have eaten at have tried to reiterate that they really do understand the problem and we’ve had no issues so far with one street vendor even making us Pad Thai no peanuts- legend!

Got a Bangkok favourite we haven’t covered? Let us know in the comments-

 

 

 

 

One week in Paris

Paris will always hold a special place in my heart, from the sidewalk cafés, to the art galleries and architecture that literally makes you gasp in wonder, there is much to love in the city of love.

We spent 5 days meandering along Parisian streets and seeing the best of what this city has to offer. As soon as we arrived I knew no measure of time would ever be enough and so made it my mission that we see as much as possible in a short amount of time here are some of my ‘must see’ tips-

The Eiffel Tower

It goes without saying that when in Paris you must visit the Eiffel Tower. Get there early as the lines can get very long especially in peak season, a ticket to the summit will set you back €17 but the views are well worth it. If your budget allows, I recommend booking dinner at one of the restaurants on the Tower. Great food and absolutely stunning views! Paris

A Cruise along the Seine

Does it get any more romantic than a river cruise along the Seine? With many of the city’s famous landmarks dotted along the banks of the Seine, a river cruise offers a look at Paris and her landmarks from a different vantage point. There are loads of companies offering tours and whilst it’s beautiful at any time, the twilight tours have my vote with many famous landmarks lit at night producing remarkable views.

A day at Musee du Louvre

Yes you read that correctly, you need a full day to do this museum justice, if fact I could have  stared at those ceilings for days on end! Paris is a city full of incredible museums and art galleries but it is the Louvre that is on most people’s ‘must see’ list and for good reason. It is the world’s largest museum and is housed in the Louvre Palace. Whilst da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is a highlight there is much more on offer with eight collections including everything from Egyptian Antiquities to Decorative Arts and everything in between. Open every day except Tuesdays admission is just €15.

Louvre Palace

Louvre Palace

Champs-Elysee

Touted as the most famous avenue in Paris and for that matter the world, the Champs-Elysee is bordered at one end by the Arc de Triomphe and at the other by the Grand Palais. Known for its theatres, cafes and high end boutiques a strolls along Champs-Elysee is a must do for any visitor.

Notre Dame de Paris

Not only is the beautiful cathedral a stunning testament to French Gothic architecture, entry to this  famed building is free! That’s right you can visit the cathedral itself for free, if to want to climb the towers there is a small fee. Whilst we didn’t get a chance to do it I’m told a walk up the North Tower is well worth the fee offering amazing views and bringing you close to the famous gargoyles!

Notre Dame

the impressive Notre Dame de Paris

Arc de Triomphe

At the western end of the Champs-Elysee stands one of Paris’ most famous monuments the Arc de Triomphe. Inaugurated in 1836, visitors can buy a ticket to go up to the viewing platform which offers an impressive panoramic view of the city below.

Tuileries 

A stroll through the Jardin des Tuileries on a sunny day is a perfect way to round out a visit in Paris. Located next to the Louvre the Tuileries is an expansive public garden covering some 54 odd acres with ponds, gardens and sculpture. I recommend taking a picnic and enjoying the sunshine as you watch the world go by.

Tuileries gardens

a perfect Parisian scene @ the Tuileries

Everything you need to know about getting hitched in Vegas

ShaneandStella Vegas

So you’ve decided to get married in Vegas- congratulations!

After the initial excitement you’ll probably find yourself trying to figure out the in’s and out’s of a Vegas wedding and coming up with more questions than answers, but don’t worry we’ve got you covered. From a couple who’ve been there here a few tips and things we found out along the way to help you with your plans.

 

So if you’re married in Vegas are you married everywhere?!

Umm yes. Contrary to what goes on in the movies, Vegas weddings are real and they are legal. You don’t have to have another ceremony when you get home to make it real and in our case we didn’t even have to register the marriage once we were back in Australia. This was true for us and we know it is for some other countries, but as always we suggest double checking the requirements in your home country to be sure.

I heard I need to be in Vegas for a week before we can get married is that true?

Nope. You don’t have to be in Las Vegas or even in the US for a set period of time before saying you’re I do’s. You will both have to go to a Clark County Marriage Bureau and get your marriage licence, but if you really wanted to you could do this in the morning and get married in the afternoon! There’s no blood tests involved you both just have to 18 years old, show your passport and not be closely related – this is actually stipulated on the website… whaaat?! Your marriage licence will set you back USD $77 and is valid for 12 months. You can save time by filling in the form online here up to 60 days before you go in.

You have to be married by Elvis

Elvis has left the building. We did not get married by an Elvis impersonator, it wasn’t our thing and my only throw back to that era was my vintage inspired dress. If you do want the King to preside over your nuptials though you’re in the right place, there are literally hundreds of venue options with many offering Elvis to officiate, walk you down the aisle or even serenade you.

We chose A Little White Wedding Chapel, mostly because it was the one where Ross married Rachael #sorrynotsorry. At this chapel you can even  get married in a Pink Cadillac in a drive through titled the ‘Tunnel of Love’ – I couldn’t make this stuff up.

Spend a bit of extra cash on a photographer

Photo by Bentley & Wilson Photography @ Paris, Paris Hotel

Sure the chapel we booked had a ‘photo package’ but that was just for pics at the chapel and during the ceremony. But we really wanted to capture a few of those ‘vegas-esque’ shots so we decided to hire a local photographer. This was the best decision of our whole wedding. We hired a stretch hummer, bought some drinks and bundled up our mates and awesome photographer Todd who took charge and directed the driver where to go so we could get the pics we were after, def worth the $.

How do you find a good photographer? Hairdresser? Make-up?

Weddings are a big business in Vegas so naturally there are a million suppliers that cater to the wedding market. I found my photographer, hair and make-up people on Instagram after searching a few hashtags such as #vegaswedding. We booked all our suppliers via email and while deposits were asked for up front the bulk of payments were made on the day making us feel more secure if something did go wrong. In the end we booked an amazing  photographer, make-up artist and hairdresser. One caveat – make sure you look up tipping etiquette for the types of services you’re booking, I had no idea you were meant to tip people like photographers etc but that’s the states for you!

Once it’s all over how do I get official documents?

If you get married overseas you’ll need proof of it when you get back home for official purposes like if you want to change your name. You’ll get a commemorative certificate at the chapel once you say I do but for the official docs you’ll need to order a certified copy of your marriage certificate online from Clark County Nevada. It costs about USD $15 and they post it to you in a few weeks, all in all it’s a pretty stress free process and you get a marriage certificate from  the State of Nevada which is pretty awesome.

how we saved for a 12 month trip

So you want to travel the world? The first thing you need to get real about is finances- I can feel you cringe!  Let’s face it no one wants to worry about the $, you just want to magically be able to afford amazeballs trips forever- me too! Unfortunately this probably isn’t going to magically happen but with a little bit of forward planning your goals can easily become a reality.

When we first decided we wanted to quit our jobs and take off on a 12 month adventure, we worked out how much we had to save subtracted that from our sad savings account and got scared. Our initial reactions included ‘OMG’ and ‘no way can we do this’. After the initial shock wore off we changed our mindset and started asking each other ‘how CAN we do this?’.

We’re now about 3 months pre-departure and we’re pretty on track with our savings goal. It hasn’t been easy but we’ve done it and to help you out we’ve pulled together a few tips which helped us boost our savings in preparation for our trip. The earlier you can implement these money savings tips the quicker you will see your bank balance increase and ultimately get you to your dream trip!

Tip 1 – Sweat the small stuff

Find your nearest dollar store and invest a couple of dollars in a money tin- you know the kind you can’t open unless you hack at it with a knife. At the end of each day empty your wallet and put your spare change in – it’s that simple! You’d be surprised at how much this little habit will add up -we filled a medium money tin in about 6 months and had roughly $1,000 saved which went straight towards our trip.

Tip 2 – Budgeting

Boring we know but if you want to get serious about saving money it is important to do a budget. The easiest way to work it out is match everything up with your income. You need to be honest with yourself and record all of your current outgoing such as bills, food, rent, fuel, entertainment, loan repayments and so on. If you get paid fortnightly or monthly then calculate your current outgoings on the same basis.  The difference between your take home pay and your outgoings is what you should be able to save. The key to sticking to a budget is transferring your savings on pay day and only spending what is left over. You’ll fail a few times and that’s ok, it will take a while to get into the habit but once you do sit back and watch your savings grow.

Tip 3 – Cut back on eating out

We sacrificed coffee and this instantly saved us $50 per week. Now I know this doesn’t seem like much but if you start doing the sums $50 a week is on average $200 a month and that adds up to $2600 a year. Imagine what an extra $2600 in your trip kitty could get you? For us that basically covers an extra month or so in Asia. We also started taking lunch to work everyday and cut back on eating out and take away. I parked 10 mins away from work where I could park for free instead of paying for parking. These small things can add up to big figures so check your habits and see what you can sacrifice.

Tip 4 – Save on bills

After you have finished your budget have a look at your current bills and see where you can save some money. Review your insurance, phone, internet and electricity providers – basically anyone who sends you a bill. Call to see if you can get a better deal and if not shop around.  We managed to get better deals on insurances just by asking for one- it pays to ask!

Tip 5 – Reduce and consolidate your debts

If you are planning to quit your job and travel the world you will travel longer if you leave minimal personal debt behind. Work on getting that car loan or credit card paid off before your trip. Look to refinance or consolidate debts onto a cheaper interest rate to help pay them off sooner. If you have a mortgage contact your bank to make sure you are on the best deal. Consider switching your home loan repayments to interest only to redirect the difference to your savings or towards paying off smaller personal debt.

Tip 6 – Sell unused items

Now is a good time to sell any unwanted items you have accumulated over the years. When was the last time you used those golf clubs. Do you have a large DVD collection you no longer need. If you only have a few items to sell you could easily list them on eBay. If you have a lot of items to sell then you could consider a garage sale. We have two cars and have decided to sell one of them to boost our savings. The other car we will leave with family to use so we do not incur any running costs while we are away.