Straying through Northern Thailand & Laos

The "Tom Yum" pass/route we completed with Stray

We’re now (as of 22nd May) back in Bangkok for a week after completing (plus & minus a few extra and time-constraint-related courses of action) our Stray tour through Northern Thailand & Laos. The reason for our earlier-than-anticipated arrival in the Kingdom’s capital (prior to our next stage in Amber & Royce’s Excellent Adventure – Cambodia) was to get Amber to a decent hospital (after less-than-satisfactory experiences in KL & Chiang Mai). It has since turned out that Bangkok Hospital has an exceptional International Medical Clinic and, a series of test-containing-acronyms-that-doctors-spout-and-assume-you-know later, Amber has no reason to be declared either mentally or physically “shitted”. The diagnosis – Panic Attacks/disorder. So, some simple R&R, anti-anxiety pills (to be taken as needed) has been prescribed and so far, so good.

Ams leading an exercise regime by the Stray bus - enroute from Luang Prabang to Viang Vien in central Laos.

First off, I definitely recommend Stray for those of you who want some reliable transport, the flexibility of a hop-on, hop-off service as well as the added bonus of some extra information (historically and activity-wise) from the awesome local guides.

We departed Bangkok on the train up to Sukhothai, the original capital of Thailand, where we spent the night and biked around the old city’s ruins in the morning. We did have to compete with a local fun run/half-marathon being staged around the ancient temples, but the signage directing participants provided a good route to follow and see everything. That afternoon we jumped on the train again and headed up the hills to Chiang Mai. Heaps to do here – we spent a day at Flight of the Gibbon zip-lining around some native rainforest and we even saw a family of gibbons swinging around. Then, as you MUST do when in Thailand, we joined the rest of our Stray crew for a night of Chang beer and Muay Thai boxing! Brillaint night out with one of the UK lads paying to get in the ring blind-folded with three Muay Thai boxers (all blind-folded too) for an all-out brawl. Very, very hilarious.

When I last blogged we were in Chiang Khong and ready for the border crossing the following morning. Instead, we jumped on a bus back to Chiang Mai to get Ams to a hospital after a not-very-hilarious panic attack that night. This meant two more nights in Chiang Mai, a hospital visit and a return journey – with a new Stray crew – back to Chiang Khong. This time we DID manage to cross the Mekong, get through the adventure that is Laos immigration and jump on the big orange Stray bus.

Hammocking up a storm at our bungalow in Nong Khiaw

From the Chiang Khong/Huay Xai border crossing we followed the “Tom Yum” route (as depicted above) to Luang Namtha (a small town with an awesome herbal sauna and Chinese discoteque), to Nong Khiaw (where we stayed in riverside bungalows, chilled out on the hammock on the deck and played petanque with drunken Laos guys) and then cruised down the river on a slow boat for 6 hours to Luang Prabang. There we met with the previous Stray crew (a bunch of 18yo UK lads and a few others) and celebrated one of the girls’ birthday with a few Beerlaos. Next day we headed (slightly hazy in the head) to the infamous Vang Vien. It’s here I was underwhelmed by the spread of Western tourism and the effects on local people. BUT I took it for what it is – a centre for boozed-up teens and early-20-somethings to stroll around half-naked and tube down a river amongst beautiful scenery and amongst many, many bars that ply you with cheap booze and loud music. ‘nough said. From Vang Vien we jumped back on the bus the next day to Vientienne (Laos’ capital), had lunch and a quick tour of what a friend described as the “Wanganui of Laos”, and then jumped on an over-night train back to Bangkok.

Laos was awesome. Laos is the third poorest country in South East Asia, after Cambodia and Papua New Guinea, and this was quite evident in the wariness of the older people and the naive, almost cheeky way in which the children waved and smiled to foreigners. Throughout the tour of Laos both Amber and I found the kids there to be a definite highlight. The best moment, personally, was taking a photo of three kids (after asking permission – which you MUST do) and then showing them the picture on the camera. The way their faces lit up with a smiling amazement made my year. 

Our version was quite an “express” tour, but I’m keen to go back. Laos anyone?

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