Brendon Kearns

photoweblog

Author: Brendon & Katie

Phnom Penh, Kampot and Kep

We flew into Phnom Penh on the evening of 10 April, just before the Khmer New Year kicked off on the 13th. The airport was like a ghost town and after quickly obtaining our visas we hunted around for Customs to lodge our forms. Eventually we spotted the officers chilling out on a bench, shoes off, chatting. Katie waved her form to them from across the hall – ‘Put in the box!’ an officer shouted, flopping his hand dismissively.

Welcome to Cambodia!

The Royal Palace

In town festivities were already starting up. On our first night we heard singing and music coming from the National Museum so we walked over and stood in the shadow of the gate with a few tuk tuk drivers and an old lady holding a sleeping baby. Inside, drunk young guys in office attire danced awkwardly with their partners as someone played ‘Guantanamera’ (a.k.a. The One Ton Tomato song) on a keyboard.

Statue of King Norodom Sihanouk

Wat Ounalom decorated for New Year

We spent four days in Phnom Penh, which was pretty sobering. Vietnam and Laos have also dealt with war and tragedy in recent decades, but peace only came to Cambodia in the late ’90s, and you can see the effects everywhere. In the city there are orphans on the streets, people missing limbs from landmines, people begging, sex tourists with local women in tow. Amongst all this are lavish palaces and government buildings. On our second day we hired a tuk tuk and visited the Killing Fields, where we learnt that during the Khmer Rouge years one in four people here were killed. The bodies were dumped in huge unmarked pits. Pieces of clothing, bone and teeth still rise to the surface when it rains. Boia, our driver, also took us to see temples, monuments, markets and the huge developments on Diamond Island, where workers and their families live in sheds made of corrugated metal sheets while building multi-million dollar malls and condos that will house wealthy Westerners and East Asians (so the billboards say). We drove past a theatre and saw junkies sitting in circles or passed out in the slivers of shade behind the complex.

A little further up, Boia stopped in the middle of a bridge to point out a dusty village across the river. His eyes went moist as he told us it was a poor village full of workers who have to take the ferry into the city each day as most Cambodians can’t afford to live in Phnom Penh anymore. Looking around at the empty streets of new buildings baking in the sun, investment dollars never seemed so pointless.

When we asked if he has a wife and kids he responded “I have many girlfriend, but no wife,” he smiled, and repeated the old regional adage – “no money, no honey.”

At the end of the afternoon he dropped us back at the Riverfront, waved goodbye and shouted “Happy New Year” in Khmer – “Su-Sdei Ch’nam Th’mey!”

Monks in a pickup truck on their way home for the New Year

For us, Phnom Penh was a necessary stopover rather than a destination in itself. Kampot, a quiet old French outpost town a few hours’ drive away, was where we really wanted to be.

Kampot feels a little like a delapidated Luang Prabang – crumbling old buildings, piles of rubble in the street, cows grazing on empty lots, packs of hungry dogs roaming at night. It has a bit of that Wild West vibe that we came to expect from Cambodia – whether it was old guys sitting at the bar smoking hash or the ‘karaoke bars’ that double as brothels sprinkled through the side streets – but without the largescale urban grime and desperation that characterized Phnom Penh, the overall effect was much more charming.

There are a fair number of expats, or ‘Potpats’, in town. They’ve even put together a handy Survival Guide for tourists, although ‘survival’ might be an exaggeration for a sleepy town where everyone seems to get along well with both local and foreign-owned businesses sharing the benefits of increased tourism.

Kampot streets

Room at Pepper Guesthouse

Oh Neil’s Irish Pub

When we arrived we grabbed a tuk tuk to Guesthouse Street and found a $7 room at Pepper Guesthouse, run by a Khmer family. Our room was on the ground level, attached to the family’s home, and fairly basic but clean and comfortable. After settling in we walked a few blocks to the bar and restaurant strip – happy pizza places, hotel bars, Khmer restaurants and even an Irish pub serving Cambodian-brewed cider.

The horror

The following night we decided to try staying at Blissful Guesthouse next door. The room seemed a bargain at $5. However, sweating like animals under the whirring fans, listening to the buzz of exotic insects and the bad Brit-pop coming from the bar downstairs, the vibe was more Apocalypse Now than blissful.

We went to drown our sorrows at the Magic Sponge, the most popular hostel in town. After chatting to Gordon, the ageing Scottish bartender who was channelling Iggy Pop and J Mascis, we booked ourselves a room for the following night and a tour of Kampot, Kep and Rabbit Island for the following day.

Our guide, a small Khmer guy who loved to talk but never told us his name, arrived half an hour late the next morning. He explained that he would be both guide and driver as the actual driver hadn’t been seen for three days due to some wild New Year celebrations. We jumped into his mosquito-infested van and took off.

First stop was the salt mine – it looked something like the rice paddies of Vietnam but instead of being a lush green all the plots were a dirty brown, full of sea water which yields salt crystals once evaporated. The guide explained how originally workers were paid $4-6 per paddy mined but this led to parents bringing along their children to try and maximize the number of paddies they could clear. Eventually, an NGO stepped in and the pay structure was changed to one uniform rate for all workers so that children could be sent back to school.

Gone fishin’

Next we stopped in at a fishing village (which was also deserted due to the New Year) and drove on to Phnom Sorsia, a temple complex that includes two caves – Ruhng Dhumrey Saw (White Elephant Cave, named for a rock formation) and Leahng Bpodjioh (Bat Cave, named for its inhabitants). Two teenagers from a neighbouring village came along for the cave tour, one shyly practicing his English with us while the other shouted ‘Gangnam style!’, howled and eyed off the girls in the group.

New Year decorations

Big ant nest

Temple at Phnom Sorsia

View from the top

Next we drove to a pepper plantation, where the grounds had been cleared of landmines years prior so they could be put to use for farming. As we climbed out of the van we heard a crash and a child screaming after a lunging dog had knocked him out of his walker over the edge of a verandah. The mother tried to soothe the bleeding baby as we tried red and green pepper straight from the tree.

Fresh peppercorns

Our guide explained that Kampot pepper is some of the best in the world, and the most highly prized pepper is white pepper, also known as bird pepper, which has been through a bird’s digestive system before being collected, cleaned and packaged up.

On the way out of the plantation he pointed out an old train line. This was where the Khmer Rouge kidnapped three backpackers – Australian David Wilson, Briton Mark Slater and Frenchman Jean-Michel Braquet – in 1994. They were sent to work in a labour camp and then murdered when the respective governments refused to pay a ransom to the KR.

El capitan

We drove out to the pier at Kep and caught a boat over to beautiful Rabbit Island (Koh Thonsay).

Our lunch spot

The island is very undeveloped, just a short stretch of beach restaurants and simple bungalows, surrounded by jungle. We ordered some Kampot pepper squid from one of the beachside huts and spent the afternoon lazing on sunbeds, dipping in the water and drinking tabbed cans of Angkor beer. Khmer families picnicked alongside the tourists, and little kids floated happily in big rubber rings. The water only came up to waist height at 15 metres out, was a near waveless clear blue, and so warm it felt like a bath.

After a few hours we sailed back to the mainland. Our boatload included a British woman and her dog, which the Khmer kids giggled at and called ‘Kekilu’. Apparently this refers to a Khmer comedian’s song about about a dog named Kekilu and doubles as an endearing insult to anyone whining like a dog.

We drove through some side streets and past a series of burnt out and long-abandoned mansions to a beach filled with locals. Our last stop was the Kep Crab Market which, ironically, was sold out of its famous crab on account of the Khmer New Year.

Crab baskets

With no crab to be had we browsed some of the seashell-themed tchotchkes.

Brendon spotted a woman grilling rolled up palm leaves over a flame, and picked up a batch of four for 1500 riel (~40 cents). Inside was a dessert called ‘sweet cake’ made from coconut, sugar and black sesame seeds.

Fish amok from Veronica’s

Cambodian food doesn’t have the same international reputation as Thai or Vietnamese food but there are some cool national dishes. Its main claims to fame are amok, a mild curry; lok lak, pepper steak strips with eggs and potato; and stirfries using fresh strings of Kampot peppercorns. Back in town Veronica’s Kitchen near the old market did a mean fish amok, and The Rusty Keyhole’s squid with Kampot peppercorns was also excellent.

The old market, currently being restored

Fresh noodles

$2 dumpling noodle soup from Ecran

But our most exciting food discovery in Kampot wasn’t Cambodian – it was the handmade Chinese noodles and dumplings from Ecran. On top of the noodle house is a cinema where you can rent out a private room for a few dollars, choose any film you want, grab a beer and sit back and enjoy the air con.

The whole town seems hooked on Pastis, an aniseed liqueur that you mix with water and ice to create a milky looking drink. It’s a carry-over from the French presence and you can get a glass for $1.50 pretty much everywhere. We tried to embrace it but all it was really good for was getting us to drink less. We quickly switched back to 75 cent beers – old habits die hard.

Katie sneaking a beer in the shade

We spent another five days poking around town and enjoying the local shops, eateries and drinking holes. Our favourite place to stay was Kampot Pie and Ice Cream Palace – our room was $6 a night, nicer than any of the barang-owned places we stayed and located right above the bakery so we got to smell fresh-baked bread each morning.

We saw quite a few wedding tents set up in the streets around town – we figured everyone was trying to squeeze their nuptials in before the rainy season hit.

We also saw a few ‘swallow houses’, little sheds with a small opening for birds to fly in (see the green square with the black hole in the middle of the photo above). This is big business in town – the swallows build nests inside, which are then cut down and sold to Thailand, Malaysia and China for around $4000 per kilo. The swallows’ saliva is extracted and used in drinks and health tonics – it’s supposed to be good for asthma, skin diseases and virility. Recorded swallow calls are pumped out all day and into the night to attract the birds. Neighbours are less enthusiastic about this new business opportunity.

As the days rolled on the town filled back up with locals returning from spending the New Year with family. Dust-covered vans packed with 20+ people, roofs strapped with food, furniture, clothing, motorbikes and household goods and the back door tied closed with rope were a common sight.

We felt it was time to pack up ourselves, so we crammed into a minivan full of backpackers with a roped down back of its own and headed out towards Otres Beach.

 

Ninh Bình and Đồng Hới

We wanted to get out of the city and see more of rural Vietnam so we made a side-trip from Hanoi to Ninh Bình with a guide, Mu, and a local driver, Vuong, to show us around. We drove two hours south and stopped in Vân Long (one of the many places in Vietnam that is referred to as 'Halong Bay on land') where we took a boat trip around some limestone cliffs and through a small cave. We could hear birds and gibbons in the forest, but they stayed hidden as it was a cool drizzly day.

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Mu brought us out here to show us a site we might not otherwise see – Vân Long is less popular with westerners (who mostly do trips out to Tam Cốc) but quite popular with Chinese tourists, who come to visit the nearby temple.

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Looking up from inside a limestone cave

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Rower taking us around

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We stopped at a local restaurant for a massive lunch. We read later that in Vietnam you should always leave some food on your plate to show that you are full and satisfied with what your host has provided – perhaps ordering a few extra dishes is the only way to ensure this when eating with westerners! Mu and Vuong joked about serving us dog – which they claimed tasted like goat – another regional delicacy. We passed numerous places advertising thịt chó and thịt mèo (“meat meow”) on the drive.

 

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Next we walked through Thung Nắng village, which is located among some very impressive rock formations. We saw a guy with a cage on his bike actually buying a dog for a wedding banquet, which gave a new meaning to the phrase “Going to see a man about a dog”… Being an animal-lover in Vietnam is hard.

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Our next stop was Yên Mô village, where we'd be staying for the night. Mu took us to see a woman making rice noodles – she soaks the grains of rice, runs them through a hand-operated machine and then drains them overnight to sell at market early the next morning. She makes about 100,000 dong per day, which adds up to less than $2000 a year. But that's a pretty decent income in this village, where people grow nearly all their own food.

After that we went to the local market. Brendon had to keep his head low to stay under the tarp that covered the walkways. We received a lot of stares from locals, along with some obligatory “Hello!”s. One man started shouting at us and Mu translated it as “I would like to say a lot of things to you, but I don't know how!”

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The next day Mu took us for a walk through the fields of peanuts, rice, cabbage, lettuce and morning glory.

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Workers were out tending their crops in the rain among the graves of their ancestors.

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We visited Bích Động Pagoda, which is built on a cliff filled with caverns and caves used as hideouts during wars with China and America. We saw some deep chasms covered in nets into which people had thrown money. We asked Mu what it meant and she explained that during the wars there were so many casualties that the dead could not all be buried. Bodies had to be thrown down into the chasms, and people leave money so that these dead soldiers can have a good life in the spirit world.

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We stopped in for tea with an older man who works at the pagoda as a guide and musician. He offered Brendon a hit of tobacco from a porcelain jar that acted like a water pipe and showed us some traditional instruments – the Vietnamese cello, the Vietnamese violin and the Vietnamese electric guitar, complete with whammy bar. A large group of drunk guys joined us and took turns singing while the old man played and everyone clapped.

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Brendon eating cơm cháy

We took a rowboat around the lake, snacked on cơm cháy chà bông (big puffed rice crackers with pork floss) and chatted to Mu. She's an ethnic Hmong from Sapa, but moved to Hanoi and now works 28 days out of the month. The rest of her family still lives in the remote village she was born in and it sounded like she was the main income earner.

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Mu on her phone

She explained how back in her village girls are often married off early through a “kidnapping” tradition whereby during the Tet celebration a boy will kidnap a girl and bring her to live with his family. That night, the girl's family receives a water buffalo horn full of rice whiskey, which they drink if they approve of the proposed marriage or hold off on drinking if they want to give the girl a chance to turn down the offer. A bride price is eventually worked out and, once married, the girl lives with and works for the husband's family.

Mu explained how she artfully dodged all of this by staying home during the New Year celebrations, learning both English and Vietnamese, training to be a guide in her early teens and moving away from home, although she still has some concerns about losing autonomy if she gets married.

It was interesting hearing how she is trying to reconcile her lifestyle with the older generation's ideas and expectations. She tried giving her parents a mobile phone to stay in touch but only her little sister knows how to use it, she has a 90-year-old grandmother who loves to complain about the food, and a father who has health issues but won't stop drinking his rice whiskey – yep, people are people wherever we go.

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We saw a few different methods for catching fish and marine life – this was a trap Mu pulled up for us to take a look. There were also guys who used electricity to stun the fish under the weeds then scoop them into the boat.

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Roadside coconut debris

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Country roads

We jumped ashore in Tràng An village and stopped for lunch at a fisherman's house. Then Mu pulled out three rusty mountain bikes and we set off down some bumpy country roads for a ride in the rain. After about 20 minutes of Katie's granny-style riding, locked gears and seats that fell down, we checked to see if Mu wouldn't mind cutting down the three hours she'd set aside for the ride to maybe an hour and a half. As a shortcut, she took us down the side of a four lane highway. The trick was to not venture too far to the right because it was all slick mud on top of the pavement but at the same time you didn't want to drift too far left into the wild Vietnamese traffic. To add to the fun, we rode past a very popular temple where we had to navigate through crowds of pedestrians shouting “Hello!” and “Tây! Tây! Tây!” Once out of the fray we biked past a few more families parking their vehicles – parents stopped and pointed us out to the children, who gave us wide-eyed stares and waves.

We finally got off the highway and rounded a corner when a group of roadside workers erupted in laughter. Mu said they wanted to know if Brendon would like to take over some shoveling. A lady drove by on a scooter, pointing and shouting. Mu's translation: “Isn't your other leg cold?” Admittedly we may have looked a little ridiculous – we had both rolled up our right pant legs to avoid getting them caught in the gears.

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Fisherman's backyard

We biked back to the fisherman's house for a cup of tea before piling back into the car for the ride home.

Once back in Hanoi we celebrated our last night in town with a few glasses of wine and a pizza – so Vietnamese!

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The next night we boarded the train to Đồng Hới. We'd booked two bunks in a four-bunk sleeper for a journey of about 11 hours.

When we got to our cabin there were eight people already sitting on the two lower bunks. We looked at each other, confused, until a railway employee walked over and spoke to the people harshly in Vietnamese. Four people moved off Brendon's bed and all eight now squeezed onto the one unclaimed lower bunk. Katie climbed onto the top bunk and Brendon sat below trying to motion to the Vietnamese passengers that it was okay if they wanted to go back to sitting on the edge of his bed.

A minute later the railway guy popped back into the cabin and looked at us, rubbing his fingers together. Uhhh? 'Money!' exclaimed the man. 'Money? How much?' '50,000.' Brendon pulled out his cash and handed it over. The man looked up at Katie and pointed. 'Her too? Ối giời ơi!' The man smacked Brendon in the shoulder while the other passengers giggled. Katie fumbled around for her 50,000. Just then the owners of the other two bunks walked in – the man evicted the eight people from the cabin and the process repeated.

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The owners of the other two bunks were Brendan and Tiffany, long-term travellers (and bloggers) from Canada and Switzerland respectively. We chatted for a while then curled up in our comfy bunks and passed out.

We arrived in Đồng Hới at around 7am and got a lift to Phong Nha Farmstay. It's not actually a farm, but it's out in the country and surrounded by rice paddy fields. The farmstay runs a lot of different tours and it's a good base from which to explore the local national parks and cave networks, if you're into that sort of thing.

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On Day 3 we did the most popular tour out to Kẻ Bàng National Park. The day started with a walk through Paradise Cave, a large cave equipped with walkways, good lighting, handrails and rubbish bins.

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Next we stopped for lunch, put on our swimmers and kayaked across a beautiful blue lake to another cave, where we'd been told we could swim.

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This cave was somewhat more rustic than Paradise Cave – the pebbly floor soon turned to mud as our guide Hung led us further and further in. The path became so muddy that you had to hold onto the walls to keep from slipping in the knee-deep muck – unfortunately the walls were also made of mud. Huge boulders had to be clambered over, at great risk to the almost bare arses of all the girls in the group. We were all filthy and sweating profusely by the time we got to a clearing. Was this the swimming hole? No. It was a big puddle of mud. Hung laughed. Some of the younger, more enthusiastic members of the group gleefully threw themselves into the puddle, while the older, crabbier contingent looked at Hung like we were ready to drown him in it.

We turned back the way we had come, sliding down mounds of mud like they were slippery dips. Eventually we turned down a passageway and came out at a big pool of clear water. We waded in and floated around, cooling and cleaning ourselves off. Afterwards we kayaked back, had a few shots of Vietnamese rum and headed back to the farmstay.

That was about enough excitement for us!

Click the sound button to hear a rendition of “In Tall Buildings”

We spent some time chilling with Heidi and Isaac, a couple from Washington State who were playing hostels and guesthouses to cover their accommodation.

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The rest of our time at the farmstay was spent unwinding from Hanoi with a little reading, writing and relaxing among the rice paddies.

 

Hanoi

Hanoi reminded us of the futuristic dystopian Los Angeles of Blade Runner, but without the robots. The city felt loud and aggressive. Though we knew it would be winter we were unprepared for the constant drizzle and gloom. And being so in love with Luang Prabang only heightened the comedown. We spent most of our time eating, drinking and scurrying between hideouts.

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Hanoi by night

Hanoi by Day

Hanoi by day

We landed late on the evening of Feb 8, grabbed a cab and got to our hotel to check in. Welcome to Hanoi! Would we be going to Halong Bay during our stay?, the desk clerk enquired. Probably… Would we like to take a minute to look through a book of brochures? Er, not really, we’re pretty tired… Maybe tomorrow? Maybe.

The next morning my aunt’s friend Robbie and his wife Thu, who is Vietnamese, picked us up and took us for coffee. Stepping out of the hotel we noticed that the footpaths had been commandeered by shop-owners along with parked motorbikes and scooters. The gutter was where pedestrians walked and it was clear from the drivers’ countenances that it was where they felt we belonged.

What Footpath?
What footpath?

Traffic conditions in Hanoi can be summed up by a slogan we saw on a t-shirt: ‘Green: I can go. Orange: I can go. Red: I still can go.’ Pedestrian crossings and street lights have been installed in many places, but the drivers pay them no mind as they speed onward to their destination. Instead of road rules, Hanoians use their horns whenever one driver wants to pass another – which is constantly. Each driver seems responsible only for what is in front of them with minimal regard for what is going on behind or on either side. This applies to valets backing bikes off the sidewalk and into you as you walk through the gutter or drivers pulling out into traffic without looking. To add, the driving appeared to lack the flow of Thailand as not everyone went the same speed or exhibited the same patience but instead gunned past or weaved around one another.

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This sign didn’t seem to be working

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Transporting a festive peach blossom across town

Crossing the road requires a leap of faith. At the sign of a small break in traffic you have to step out and progress at a perfectly even pace so the drivers can weave around you. Robbie guided us across the road like little children. Over coffee he and Thu gave us some tips and ideas for places to visit. Thu is a travel agent so was a great help as our itinerary had no more detail than ‘Get to Hanoi. Head south.’ Robbie taught us key Vietnamese phrases like ‘Cảm ơn’ (thank you) and ‘Tôi không phải là gà!’ (‘I am not a chicken!’, to be said with hands on hips and a head waggle when quoted an inflated westerner price). Learning any Vietnamese is proving very difficult as it’s a tonal language – all words are one or two syllables and your inflection changes the meaning of the word. There are six different tones or accents so each word could have up to six meanings depending on how you say it and what the context is. Say ‘gà’ (chicken) slightly wrong and you could be saying ‘railway station’ or any number of other things that make it almost impossible for the listener to work out what you’re trying to communicate.

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Cyclo drivers and passengers

After coffee Brendon and I grabbed lunch at Phơ 24 and walked around Hoan Kiem Lake (no sign of the famous turtle). Cyclo drivers circled, shouting ‘HELLO!’. We headed back to our hotel till it was time to go to Robbie and Thu’s for dinner.

Thu cooked a huge meal for us and two French friends, Geoff and Natalie, who live in a village 20km away. They asked about our initial impressions of Hanoi. Chaos! we responded. It’s so intense compared to anywhere else we’ve been. They nodded. ‘Here, everything is forbidden but everything is possible,’ Geoff explained. Robbie noted that the concept of precautions (like safe driving and helmets) didn’t really fit with the Vietnamese way of looking at things – most people don’t understand why you would waste time worrying about something that hasn’t happened.

The next day we were on our own. On our way out of the hotel a different desk clerk asked how we were liking Hanoi. We tried to think of something nice to say. Yes, he cooed. And would we be going to Halong Bay during our visit? Not sure yet, we replied, and exited hastily. We had identified a cafe round the corner where we wanted to go for breakfast but getting there involved dodging not only speeding motorbikes but also ladies selling doughnuts, guys selling knockoff Zippos, women selling fruit and, worst of all, the sneaker shine guy. He could, I believe, sense our fear and, before I knew it, one of my All Stars had been wrested from my foot and he was applying super glue to the sides, scrubbing it with a soapy toothbrush and reheeling it with half a tyre. And where are you from? he chatted away happily. Can I please have my shoe back? I replied. But I’m fixing it for you, see? I have put some tyre here. And how much will that cost? I asked. 150,000 dong, he replied (about $7.50). For both? No, each. I yanked the shoe back and we handed over the cash. This chicken is now walking around with one ‘fixed’ sneaker and one normal one.

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We arrived at the Hanoi Social Club, a cafe/bar run by a guy from Melbourne, and ended up staying all day. We tried egg coffee (cà phê trứng), which was delicious, like a combination of coffee and eggnog. I can’t explain how excited I was to have a plate of lentil bolognaise after months in Asia. And of course we had a few Halidas! The cab driver who took us back to the hotel was awesome and taught us how to say ‘Oh my God!!’ (‘Oi troi oi!’, pronounced ‘Oi zoi oi’ in the north and ‘Oi joy oi’ down south), which Brendo has been using on a daily basis, much to everyone’s amusement.

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Mixed vermicelli, no meat (miến trộn không thịt)

On day three we toughened up and sought out some local street food. The first place we went is still my favourite. It was a small shop at 15 Ngõ Tràng Tiến, an alley in the French Quarter that fills with stalls from the morning till about 2pm. We ordered by showing the guy at the stall the words I’d typed into my phone, and received two huge bowls of miến trộn không thịt – vermicelli noodles with tofu, morning glory, lettuce leaves, shallots, herbs, bean sprouts, peanuts, fried garlic and a sauce involving fish sauce, sugar and chili. Usually this dish would also have beef but ‘không thịt’ means ‘no meat’ – asking for dishes this way is the only practical way to get vegetarian-friendly street food in Hanoi. It was 20,000 dong (~$1) per bowl and absolutely outstanding.

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After lunch we roamed around the French Quarter, which is the ritzy end of town where you’ll find luxury shopping malls, European restaurants and an Opera House built by the French in the early 1900s. Even in nice areas like this it was always easy to find cheap food and drink – we stopped down the road for Vietnamese coffees at Argento that were still only 22,000 dong each.

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In the afternoon Brendon went to get fitted for a suit for his friend Bilal’s upcoming wedding. The tailors laughed as they reached up to measure the tall American. The suit took about 4 days all up, and we were sort of stuck in Hanoi till it was complete, but the end product was definitely worth it.

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Strung out and ready for bún

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Shrimp pancakes

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Perhaps this sauce is an acquired taste…

Food highlights in Hanoi included bún bò nam bộ – beef, vermicelli, garlic, ginger, peanuts, herbs, lettuce and fish sauce, 55,000 dong (~$2.75) a bowl – from a well-known place at 67 Hàng Điếu, and a visit to Quán ăn Ngon, which is an outdoor food court with a huge menu of regional specialties. I got crispy shrimp pancakes and noodles with fried tofu in shrimp paste sauce – the dipping sauce smelt like the devil’s bungholio. Eventually a kind waiter took pity on me and brought me an alternative sauce to try! Brendon got fresh spring rolls with pork and prawn and a wild duck phơ. We weren’t blown away considering the cheaper and more flavourful street food we had already tried, but they have a huge range of dishes so maybe we just didn’t choose the right stuff. It ended up being 232,000 dong (~$11.50) for two entrees, two mains and two cokes.

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The best thing we tried, though, was the Mexican coffee buns from Anh Tú Bakery. (As far as we know these are not actually Mexican.) These huge, warm, doughy, sweet, crispy buns filled with runny chocolate became an integral part of our morning routine.

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Atrium at Cafe Phỏ Cổ

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Cashing out

These were generally chased with an intense Vietnamese coffee from Cafe Phỏ Cổ, which is like stepping into another world (or about three due to the number of terraces). You enter by walking between a t-shirt shop and a silk shop, then you come out into a big atrium. You order from the girl, head up one flight of stairs past the family altar, then up a spiral staircase to the verandah that looks out over the city and Hoan Kiem Lake.

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Many combinations of chicken and noodles on offer

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Brendon took a liking to our local chicken shack which served sliced chicken over sticky rice, chicken pho, chicken spring rolls and chicken miến trộn. All of these came with a dish of tasty pickled cucumbers.

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Bùn chả with pork patties and crab spring rolls from 67 Đường Thành Street

He went off on a solo mission to investigate a lead on crab spring rolls and pork bùn. He also made repeat visits to one food vendor on Lý Quốc Sư that sold a variety of deep-fried nibbles, including a vegetarian dumpling that, while containing no meat, also contained no vegetables and was really just a ball of fried dough.

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Detail from Thái Nguyên iron and steel complex (1962) by Búi Trang Chước

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Detail from Uncle Ho on a military campaign (1985) by Nguyễn Nghĩa Duyện

We didn’t visit many of Hanoi’s cultural venues (unless coffee shops count) but we did go to the Fine Art Museum. There was some interesting art with the coolest being the lacquer engravings.

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Once Brendon’s suit was finished we headed out to the post office to send it home. We stopped at the place with a big neon sign that read ‘Post Office’ out the front of it. It looked pretty small – one desk and a rack of postcards. ‘This must be it,’ I said trustingly. Brendon looked skeptical. ‘Is this the post office?’ he asked the woman inside. She looked at the big bag of stuff we wanted to post and then said, ‘Next building!’. Calling your knockoff business the name of the other, more popular business next door seems to be pretty standard practice here.

Bygone Days Before Motorbikes

Bygone days before motorbikes

With the suit finished and mailed off we were keen to get out of Hanoi. We wanted to go to a farmstay in Dong Hoi next, but they were booked up so we ended up sticking around town a few more days. When the staff at our hotel realised we wouldn’t be booking a Halong Bay tour with them they moved on to something different. As we came downstairs one morning the boss lady and one of the regular clerks asked how we were enjoying our stay. We nodded and said it was good. Boss Lady opened a drawer under the desk and pulled out an envelope. Would we write a positive review for the hotel on Trip Advisor? she asked, waving the envelope. Sure, we said. She smiled and handed the envelope to Brendon. It contained an ingratiating handwritten card wishing Mr Kearns a happy and prosperous new year. We headed out for the day. When we returned drunk hours later the desk clerk stopped us on our way up to our room. Have you written the review? he asked. We explained we’d do it later. You can use the computer right here! he exclaimed. You can do it now! We made our excuses and went up to bed. The following morning on our way out he asked again about the review. Then again when came home. Then again the next morning. And again when we got home. We flip-flopped between feeling annoyed and feeling bad – they were obviously doing what they thought was necessary to run a good business but they came off as so transparently insincere. And we still haven’t written the bloody review!

On our last day in Hanoi we went down to the train station to book our tickets to Dong Hoi (with a little help from The Man in Seat 61). We took a number and waited to be called to the ticketing window. The system was like what you’d see at an RTA or DMV office – press 1 for ticket purchase; press 2 for refund or exchange, etc. Hanoians, however, had their own systems, which involved either crowding around the ticket windows and talking over the person currently being served, or taking one ticket from each category and seeing which came up first. But, with a little time and patience, we successfully booked two bunks on the sleeper train outta town.

I don’t mean to sound like there was nothing enjoyable about Hanoi. If you have a strong constitution, you love shopping and bargaining, you visit at a different time of year and you stay no more than a week it could be a pretty fun place. But it just wasn’t for us.

Tạm biệt Hanoi! I don’t think we’ll see each other again soon.

Our search for a real bar ends… and then begins again

Posted by Katie

After looking all over Thailand for a bar that wasn’t full of seedy old men or backpackers drinking buckets we were very excited when, on our second night in Luang Prabang, we noticed a place called Icon Klub.

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We walked in, sat at the bar, ordered a couple of Cuba Libres (a.k.a. rum and cokes) and got talking to Lisa, the owner, manager and barkeep. She loves quotes and runs her bar in accordance with one from WB Yeats: ‘There are no strangers here; only friends you haven’t met yet’.

Generally I think of talking to strangers as something best avoided, but through hanging out at Icon we met a lot of interesting people from all over the place at all different stages in their travels and their lives.

We drank too much Beerlao with Sal from Jersey and his Roman wife, who had been on a world trip for about six months. We talked about trying to learn bits and pieces of the language in each country, and Sal explained that his foreign language skills still consisted of understanding just enough Italian to know when his wife and mother were talking about him.

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Absinthe martini: ‘Like an icy lake’

It’s great how open people are when they’re never going to see each other again. The conversation can take any number of turns. On my birthday Lisa bought me a piece of cake and we drank absinthe martinis and talked to Simeon, a civil rights lawyer from Albany, and his daughter Elisabeth. Simeon knew Willimantic well and shot me a sympathetic look when we said we’d just spent three months there. Elisabeth had just graduated with a degree in biological anthropology and we ended up discussing the connection between AIDS and chimps.

On subsequent visits we met Nathalie from France, a filmmaker working for a NGO in Laos. We met Matthew, a British expat working on a book called The Logic of Self-Destruction. We met Costa (from Greece, of course!) and spent the best part of an hour talking about how much haloumi we were going to eat when we got home. We met Stephen from the UK, who told us about his time working as a VP in Japan and New York. We met Mike from San Diego and discussed country music and the weird history of Mormonism.

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At quiet times we’d talk with Lisa and smoke her skinny menthol cigarettes. Everyone would pick a card from the quote box (redraws allowed if you didn’t like what you got) and read it out. I would prattle on happily about songs she was playing. I heard the Smashing Pumpkins’ cover of Fleetwood Mac’s Landslide for the first time in years – it was a B-side on the CD single of Disarm, played to death by 13-year-old me. I got a little carried away when Depeche Mode’s Enjoy the Silence came on. There was a morose drunken singalong to Famous Blue Raincoat, a quiet moment while Tom Waits sang Postcard From a Hooker in Minneapolis, and a night rounded out with Massive Attack’s Unfinished Sympathy. But my favourite musical moment came one night when Lisa was running around serving a large group of people. A second big group walked in and stood at the bar waiting to order when Oh Yeah by Yello came on. I looked across a row of blank faces as the music pumped. It was so perfectly incongruous.

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Our place at the bar

Lisa’s friend Florien was making a short film about her and Icon Klub and she asked if we would come by one afternoon to be in the background of a few scenes. We arrived at 4 and met Florien along with Jasper, who runs a program where volunteers build bungalows in Lao villages, and Aaron from Oklahoma, who was about to move to Bangkok with his fiancé. Florien set up his camera, Lisa made cocktails and we all helped by drinking them.

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Lisa, Aaron and Florien at work

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Bloody Mary

Once the filming wrapped up we hung out talking to Aaron. Mike from San Diego walked in, took one look at him and shouted ‘Holy shit!!’. Turns out they both used to work together as pedicab drivers in Washington, DC.

By this stage our Laos visas were close to expiring so we booked tickets to Hanoi. What we didn’t realise was that the Vietnamese consulate was closed for Tet from the 28th of Jan to the 5th of Feb, so there was no way to get visas. During this week of uncertainty we stopped into Icon Klub for numerous ‘Goodbye’ drinks. A small cadre of other travellers in the same position formed, all of us waiting on the consulate and running into each other at the bar. Rumours flew – some said the consulate wouldn’t open till the 6th of Feb; others said it might be closed for a fortnight. Each evening we would leave and say, ‘Well, we’ll probably see you back here tomorrow…’

On one of these nights Lisa asked if we wanted to go for soup on her day off. We ended up hanging out all day eating, playing Bananagrams and drinking XXXL whiskey and cokes. We had dinner with Lisa and her friend Julie, who had relocated from Boston to LP with her husband about 18 months before. Talking to these two made living in Luang Prabang seem like it could actually be more than just a daydream. We were ready to move in. We didn’t want our Vietnamese visas to come through after all.

But on the 6th of Feb the consulate reopened. Our paperwork was processed and we stopped in on our way home to say a real goodbye to Icon Klub and Lisa. She made us farewell Cuba Libres and we all hugged. As we walked out a little tear came to my eye.

Luang Prabang

As soon as we got off our tuk tuk from the pier we could tell Luang Prabang was different to other places in Southeast Asia. The motorbikes cruised by slowly. The street markets contained beautiful well-made things you might actually consider buying. The sellers were doing their job, but in a gentle, good-natured way. We had planned to stay in Luang Prabang for about a week but ended up staying over a month.

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The town is built around a number of impressive temples (wats), which are tended by a large number of Buddhist monks and novices. Monks are part of everyday life there and you see them everywhere – walking down the street on their way to school, crossing the bamboo bridges across the Rivers, at the pharmacy visiting a family member, at the local English literacy centre. The monkhood is a way for boys from poor families to get an education and many of the young guys we spoke to in Luang Prabang were ex-monks.

Each wat has its own large hanging drum, which is used to wake the monks each morning at 4am and often is struck again at 4pm for about 15 or 20 minutes. Locals get up early and walk down to the main street to give alms (food they have prepared at home) to the monks – the food they collect here is taken back, divided up, and will be the monks’ only food for the day.

Because Buddhism plays such a central role in life in Luang Prabang, modesty and respect are also very important. We noticed that Lao people always dressed well – the men wore collared shirts and long pants; the women wore long skirts with traditional embroidery at the hem. We found the modesty factor to be a welcome change from Thailand and started to enjoy covering up as it made it easy to pop in and out of temples whenever we saw one that looked interesting.

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Monks about town

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Signage at the ATMs is often ignored by westerners going for a morning jog

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Even the street crossing signs showed a nice well-dressed lady

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Lao dudes looking sharp

As nice as the city was, it still had a strong tourist presence, especially on the main drag through the old city which is lined with places that either crank out crap food at slightly inflated prices or offer more high end options priced closer to what you might pay at home.

We found that Luang Prabang drew in a fairly diverse crowd of tourists – it wasn’t unusual to see a geriatric daredevil wading out on a bicycle into the mass of motor scooters or to overhear a group of backpackers piecing together the night prior where one of them got bitten on the hand after tackling a purse snatcher in an alley at some hour of the morning beyond the town’s general curfew. It can even become visually surreal at times, like when we saw a girl in a bikini lay out her towel on the muddy bank of the Nam Khan next to a weathered old Lao man fixing a boat by hand.

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Luang Prabang’s main drag

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Local breakfast place after the morning rush

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Wat Sop Sickharam

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Lady on motor scooter

At dinner time the alley beside The Ancient Luang Prabang Hotel fills with food vendors selling anything from Mekong weed, dumplings and noodles to grilled fish and rodents. There are a couple of big vege buffets where you can load your plate for 10,000 kip (~$1.30) – it won’t be the most amazing meal you’ve ever had (we worked out that one item was deep-fried battered white bread) but it’s the most bang you’ll get for your buck. You can also grab a cheap beer and chat with other tourists at the tables, but don’t even think about hanging around once your plate is empty or you’ll be shooed away by the stall owners.

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Dig in you fat falang

The food culture in Luang Prabang is heavily French influenced, so there are excellent breads, cakes and pate as well as noodle soups, curries, stews and grilled meats.

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First bagel egg and cheese in two months

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Citron tart from La Banetton

In the centre of town is Phousi Hill (referred to as ‘Mount Pousi’ by the locals, which elicited a few snickers). The hill can be climbed via one of two long staircases. Two-thirds of the way up is a series of shrines and a small cave containing one of the Buddha’s footprints. In this area you can meet some of the young monks, who like to chill out here and practice their English with the tourists. We were really impressed by how good the monks’ English was – we spent quite a while talking to a 17-year-old called Jasmine who had fairly extensive knowledge of U.S. geography and made fun of us for not being married. If you climb all the way to the top you get a beautiful panoramic view of the town. On the way down is a big Bodhi tree in the middle of a quiet garden.

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Novice monks at the Buddha’s footprint

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Path up Phousi Hill

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View from the top

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Bodhi tree

We spent a lot of time playing rummy outside an Internet cafe that served cheap beers on the main drag. Afterwards we would go a few doors over to sit at Opera Bar as their wine was relatively cheap and it was a good central spot for people-watching. Apart from the joy of listening to the one CD of covers they played on repeat (Fields of Gold, anyone?), I loved looking out over the street and watching the antics of Mr Tok Tok, the angriest pug on earth. He lives in the travel agency and, when the mood takes him, likes to attack the legs of customers and staff. He went through a number of different outfits during our stay – from a regal red Chinese number to some pink and white Minnie Mouse pajamas.

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Tourist central

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Hating life

After a stint at Opera Bar we often ended up across the road at the Indian restaurant. It gets pretty busy in there and sometimes we needed to share a table. Sometimes this was fun, like when we were seated with a wasted New Zealand-American who jokingly called everyone ‘brew’ and told us stories about his time working as a labourer in Shitsville, Western Australia. Sometimes it was just bizarre, like the time we sat with an old Muslim Chinese man whose ancestors came from Tatarstan. He couldn’t speak a word of English, but this didn’t stop his vigorous attempts to communicate with Brendon about religion, food, his role as a torchbearer in the Beijing Olympics, and the fact that I should have my hair covered up. He communicated with the restaurant owners in sign language, made fun of them for being Hindus (despite them being Muslim), spat on their floor and then gave Brendon a big kiss on the head when he left.

The other main thing to do in town is visit the wats. The biggest and most impressive wat in town is Wat Xienthong, which is lavishly decorated with stencils, mosaics and wooden relief carvings.

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Stencilling at Wat Xiengthong

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Mosaic mural

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Luang Prabang is flanked by two rivers, the Khan and the Mekong. During the dry season local villagers build bamboo bridges between the banks to enable easy crossing. In the rainy season you have to use a boat to get across.

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Bamboo bridge from the point across the Nam Khan

We wanted to see where the locals did their shopping so we grabbed a tuk tuk out to Phosy Market, about 10 minutes out of town. Here you can buy everything – meat, clothing, snacks, homewares, shoes, beauty products, fabric – except underwear that fit a western man.

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Food in Laos is more expensive than elsewhere in Southeast Asia because most of it has to be imported from Thailand and Vietnam. But you can find cheap breakfast at the stalls along Sisavangvong which serve crepes, baguettes, fruit shakes and Lao coffee. The coffee is super-strong, dark and potent, with condensed milk in the bottom to sweeten it and it goes for as little as 5000 kip a cup (~65 cents). Our favourite breakfast here was a vege version of the Lao style baguette – tofu slices, cucumber, hard-boiled egg, onion and sweet chilli sauce for 10,000 kip. The meat version includes sliced chicken and pork floss and costs the same.

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Lao style sandwich

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Lao coffee

At first we found Lao food a bit bland after coming from Thailand. But over time we found lots of cool local dishes. Luang Prabang is very foreigner-friendly so it was also quite easy to find vegetarian food. You can even find vegetarian versions of some of the more popular Lao dishes like orlahm (buffalo stew). But Lao people don’t really understand why you’d bother. In Laos vegetarianism is associated with the Buddhist monks, who are all vegan. Being vego for non-religious reasons probably seems like another falang eccentricity.

Some of the best Lao food we had was from Dyen Sabai, an outdoor restaurant that you get to by crossing the second bamboo bridge across the Nam Khan.

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View front the bridge

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Jungle laundry

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Animals in the road by the restaurant

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When we ordered the tofu fondue the guy who served us asked if I was vego. I said yes, and he said, ‘No one from my village is vegetarian. They eat any animal – chicken, cow, rat, dog – they will kill it and cook it. Some even eat cat. I don’t ever want to eat cat.’

The tofu fondue was one of my favourite Lao dishes – they set up a stone pot of hot coals with a grill/pan on top at your table. You get a teapot of coconut broth, deep-fried battered eggplant, a basket of veges, noodles, herbs and eggs and a plate of tofu to grill. By the end you will be sweating like a bastard but it’s totally worth it, and for 70,000 kip (~ 9 bucks) it feeds two people. Brendon loved the orlahm (water buffalo stew) which contained a spicy bark native to the region. Lao Lao Garden offered a tofu version but it didn’t really compare in flavor.

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Basket of veggies ready to cook

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Orlahm soup at Dyen Sabai

A favourite Lao snack was meow mak keua – sort of like the Lao version of baba ghanoush, made with roasted eggplant and dill, which you eat with balls of sticky rice. Brendon liked L’etranger’s version best since it was a bit spicier than anywhere else we tried.

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Jeow mak keua at L’etranger

Larp is another Lao food we loved. Lao larp is something like Thai laab/larb, but in LP you can get it with chicken, fish, pork or tofu. The ground meat or cubed tofu is marinated in lime and fish sauce, fried and mixed with lemongrass and herbs. The best larp we found was the tofu larp at a small place called Cafe Toui. They also have a few banquet options, and their 80,000 kip (~$10 ) vege banquet includes fresh spring rolls, coconut curry, eggplant and mushroom steamed in a banana leaf (a veg version of Mok Pa, fish steamed in banana leaf) and the excellent tofu larp.

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Tofu larp from Cafe Toui

Luang Prabang sausage is a regional pork sausage variety that includes rice, lime, garlic, pepper, salt and lemongrass. It appears everywhere from on your breakfast bagel at Pilgrim Cafe to the Luang Prabang pizza at Biblio Bar, as well as on tasting platters at all the good restaurants. During the day you can see it drying on racks in the street.

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Luang Prabang sausage pizza with pineapple and peppers

We had read about an interesting hike across the Mekong river in the Chomphet District. After a late start we headed straight out to Wat Chomphet and from there cruised through the series of wats and shrines, climbed up inside a cave to make an offering, managed to get lost a few times in the jungle, dodged a few mean dogs, met some village kids and then walked it all over again when we realized that there isn’t necessarily a boat at the end at takes you back.

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Wat Chomphet

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Vat Nong Sakeo

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Shrines up the hill behind Vat Had Siaw

The wat we liked the most was in the town centre at the bottom of Phousi Hill. It’s not listed on the Hobo map of Luang Prabang that we relied on, and is falling into disrepair. Wat Pa Huak or “Monastery of the Bamboo Forest” was built in 1861 and its interior is covered in delicate murals.

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Detail from mural inside Wat Pa Huak

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When it became clear that we really didn’t want to leave Luang Prabang we decided to go to the immigration office to extend our visas – this only costs $2 per extra day. The immigration office is in the less touristy part of town and, as seems to be the custom in Laos, closes between 11:30 and 1:30 so its employees can have lunch. We arrived at the ‘Foreigner processing office’ just after 12, so spent a bit of time checking the area out.

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Watermelon stupa at Wat Visoun

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Laotian art gallery

We had a cheap lunch at Atsalin restaurant, where 40,000 kip (~$5) got lunch and drinks for two. We tried the vege sukiyaki soup and the veges with macaroni, which was surprisingly good. In Laos pasta is on a lot of the menus and is just treated like another type of stir fry noodle – which it is, I guess.

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Macaroni stir fry at Atsalin

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Less touristy end of town

Our accommodation was a mixed bag. Our first place – Nittaya Guesthouse @ 130,000 kip (~$16) – was nice but we knew we could find cheaper. Next we found a place that offered rooms for 80,000 kip (~$10) per night. The only drawbacks were: it was next door to a workaholic silversmith; at night strange vomiting sounds could be heard coming from the family who lived in the front half of the house; one of the girls appeared one morning with a mysterious black eye; I found blood drops outside our door; we had to walk through the family’s living room to get to our room; our room was never cleaned in the week we stayed there. I got a 5-day bout of food poisoning (probably from eating at the attached restaurant) and threw a tantrum, and we moved to the lovely Nam Sok 3 Guesthouse on Xotikhoumman Rd for the rest of our time in LP. This place is run by three women who know what they’re doing and also costs only 80,000 kip a night. Highly recommended.

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Ten dollar a night room at Nam Sok 3 Guest House

There were a couple of short blackouts in Luang Prabang while we were there. I had to override Brendon’s American impulse to deadbolt the door and stay inside in case of looters. Instead we sat on the verandah with a Beerlao and one of the women who ran the guesthouse brought us some candles.

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Romance

During the last week of our stay our friend Lisa took us to the Xiengthong Noodle Soup shop, up the end of Sakkaline across from Wat Xiengthong. This place has been there for over ten years and one woman makes all of the food. Lao people tend to go there for breakfast so she opens early and closes when the soup runs out, at about 2pm. The soup contains fat rice noodles, bok choy, chopped green onions and fried garlic. You can get it with pork and/or a poached egg. Then you add your own bean sprouts, lime, chili flakes, soy or fish sauce and ginger. Apparently it’s especially good if you get it with homemade rice crackers, but they had sold out both days due to a high volume of weddings in town after the Lunar New Year. The soup is made with pork stock but being a strict vegetarian out here is a losing game. It was so great we had to go back again the following day.

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Xiengthong Noodle Soup

Afterwards we adjourned to Halolao, the cafe next door, for a coffee and then a whiskey and coke. The guy who works there doesn’t speak English terribly well and when he can’t understand you he whispers, ‘What?’ as though you have said something offensive. In response to Lisa’s request for three whiskey and cokes he brought out three wine glasses full of whiskey and one can of coke. Lisa said in Lao that the glasses were too big – he took them inside and decanted the whiskey into highball glasses instead. Only one round was necessary!

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Playing Bananagrams with Lisa at Halolao

On the 7th of February we left Luang Prabang and took a minibus to Vientiane so we could fly to Hanoi. The 11-hour trip took us through winding mountain ranges and dry dusty highways. When we were driving to Pai in Thailand we had thought it funny when the driver stopped to pick up eggplants from a roadside stall; on the way to Vientiane the driver took things to another level when he pulled over and bought a large rodent from a woman in one of the mountain villages. The poor animal spent the rest of the journey in a sack at the feet of two Lao women who were riding shotgun, unphased.

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View of the scenery on the bus ride from Luang Prabang to Vientiane

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A large bamboo rat for dinner

Christmas and the New Year in Pai

Posted by Katie

The one firm plan we had in place before leaving the states was to spend Christmas and the New Year in Pai, in the north of Thailand. Neither of us are into Christmas so we wanted somewhere we could relax, read books, play cards, drink beer, go for walks and lie around in a hammock. Pai was perfect for all of these things.

We got into town on the 23rd of December after a long and winding minibus trip from Chiang Mai. The road to Pai has 472 hairpin curves so we chose the minivan option as apparently at least one person per coach trip will puke. We all made it intact. We weren’t sure where our accommodation was but a crafty songthaew driver snapped us up and drove us there for 150 baht. When we arrived 3 minutes down the road the owner of our guesthouse laughed and told us that was the highest price he’d ever heard of someone paying. But, as the driver explained to us in his otherwise broken English, ‘Gasoline is expensive.’ Indeed.

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First impressions of Ing Doi House

Jake, who owns Ing Doi House with his wife Mink, showed us to our bungalow, which sat at the edge of a duck pond filled with lotuses. Its front door looked out over the mountains and palms. On the veranda was a hammock and a comfy chair for reading.

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Sunset from the verandah

The guesthouse had a common area where you could meet other people and get food and drinks. For Christmas, Jake and Mink organised a pot luck. Everyone brought some food or booze from town and Mink cooked up more food for everyone to share. We contributed a bottle of Bacardi – nothing says Christmas like hard liquor. We spent the day hanging out and getting to know the other guests. There was Ian from Birmingham, an avid traveller who was revisiting Pai after an absence of 12 years. There was Max, a young mustachioed guy from Colorado who had been living in Hollywood before running away to Thailand to live with a hill tribe for a month to get over it. There was David, a witty west coast American looking for love. There were Lisa and Rob, young professionals from San Francisco who were excited about their two-week vacation until they heard how long everyone else was travelling for. There was Julie from Chicago, who had been hanging out in Pai for a few weeks already. (I was surprised by how many Americans we met actually, given that when Brendon and I told people in America about our plans most of them looked at us like we were crazy.) We ate and drank and then headed to the night market with David, Lisa and Rob for more eating. In a way it was like any other Christmas, but with strangers and palm trees.

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Christmas festivities

Ing Doi House is a ten-minute walk from the town centre so we were away from traffic and other people but close enough to walk in any time we felt inclined. We loved the night markets, which sold loads of food, souvenirs, clothing and tea in bamboo cups. We loved the all the different places to eat, especially Good Life and The Thai Kebab (see food post). We also loved the bars, which at last were completely free of sleazy white dudes! We checked out a western bar with David and new arrival Derrick, a quiet Austrian who was working on a book. All the staff wore cowboy hats and checked shirts and we drank far too many happy hour gin fizzes.

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Night markets

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Inside Good Life tea house

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Fire pit at Ting Tong Bar

We spent the week between Christmas and the New Year chilling out, with nothing more pressing to worry about than what we would eat, where we would go for a beer, and whose turn it was in Gin Rummy.

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On the 30th of December things started hotting up – Thai reggae star T-Bone was coming to Pai. There were traffic jams as Toyota Hiluxes piled high with young Thais pulled into town. The fields by the river became crowded with tents. Stalls selling fireworks popped up along the streets. We listened to T-Bone’s performance from the safety of our bungalow – his set consisted of lots of Bob Marley covers and shouts of ‘Rub-a-dub style!’.

New Year’s Eve was even crazier. Excited young people couldn’t wait for the festivities to begin and started setting off fireworks around 10am. Brendon and I decided to hike up a mountain to escape and see the white Buddha. We passed farms where families were haying the fields, we saw buffalo with birds sitting on their backs.

Our walk

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We walked along the road to the temple and then climbed the gigantic staircase up the mountain to the Buddha. He was still under construction – apparently the white is just an undercoat and he’ll eventually be painted gold. I liked him white – at night you could see him shining softly among the trees.

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View over Pai

Back at Ing Doi, Jake and Mink had organised a New Year’s Eve party. There was a pot luck, and each person was to bring a 100 baht gift – in exchange they would receive a gift. Brendon and I found a ‘mountain village version’ Rubik’s cube and wrapped it up to go into the draw. The party began at 5:33. We chilled with fellow ‘Strayans Martha and Rees. In the back of the common area a series of mosquito nets had been tied together and filled with balloons. Mink jumped onto a makeshift stage and started shouting and excitedly waving a large stick around like a sword. She called out each of our names and sent us into the net with the stick to pop a balloon. Inside each balloon was a number that corresponded to the gift we were to receive. Jake and Mink’s son Pansa got the Rubik’s cube.

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Mink

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Ian goes in; Pansa in front testing out Rees’s gift

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In the net

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David and his gift

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The unwrapping! I got a scarf, which has been pretty handy since it’s been freezing in Luang Prabang

From about 9pm the skies were filled with hundreds of lanterns (khom loi) made of rice paper, with a candle and sometimes a firework burning in the bottom. It was amazing to see – it looked both festive and ominous, like a meteor shower or alien invasion. I could see why the local farmers had been so keen to hay their fields that day – a smoldering lantern falling on your dry grass could undo a lot of hard work. We hung out by the campfire for the midnight fireworks then crashed out.

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Revellers getting ready to launch a lantern

Getting into the spirit

The next morning we ventured out to survey the damage. The fields, streets and river were littered with the burnt out remains of the lanterns. The tents by the river were packed up, the Hiluxes were heading out of town. We went for dinner with Martha and Rees at a seriously local place where the waitstaff ignored us in the hope that we’d go away. We got a couple of serves of khao soi and green papaya salad by pointing vigorously at the chef, then managed to nab a menu and ordered ‘noodles with tomato sauce’ as I figured it would be vego. When the noodles came they contained dark red wobbly cubes of… congealed blood. Mm. Call me crazy, but I probably would have put that in the description.

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Rees & Martha

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The streets were quiet again

We kicked around the night markets one last time. Brendon and I stopped in for a goodbye beer at our favourite place ‘purple bar’ (it didn’t have a name that we could see). The lady there knew us and always said hi whenever we walked by. On this particular evening she was super excited because T-Bone had stopped in for a bevvy with his entourage. She shyly pointed him out to us and grabbed a photo with him before he sped off on his motorbike with a pretty lady on the back.

Thai food wrap-up

Posted by Katie

We tried so much amazing Thai food – mostly vegetarian or ‘mang-sow-ee-rat’, with occasional seafood and accidental meat thrown in – that a post of observations and highlights seems appropriate. If looking at Instagram pix of people’s food pisses you off… you know what to do.

My favourite discovery was khao soi – a rich soup made with coconut milk, tomato, onion, chili and spices, rice noodles, potato pieces, sometimes tofu or sometimes gluten balls or mock meat, garnished with deep-fried egg noodles, fresh shallots and coconut cream. The meat version usually has chicken or pork. On the side, if you’re lucky, you’ll get a plate of kimchi, lime, chilli paste and red shallots. This dish originally comes from Burma but it’s also spread into northern Thailand and Laos. I’m totally hooked and try it everywhere. #1 place goes to Aum Vegetarian Restaurant in Chiang Mai, where I had my first. These women know how to garnish.

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The guy at the Curry Shack in Pai also makes a good one (and it’s very cheap – 50 baht), though he uses pre-packaged fried noodles for the topping. But he gains points for being a lone dude running a food stand – a total rarity in Thailand as far as we’ve seen – and serving his food with brown rice grown by the local hill tribes.

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The khao soi salad with tofu from Om Garden in Pai is also excellent.

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We learnt to make khao soi in our cooking class at Bamboo Bee so hopefully I’ll be serving this up at home in a few months. This is all the stuff we made – clockwise from left are spicy Isaan salad, healthy fried rice, khao soi, spicy mushrooms with cashews, and tofu with kimchi.

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We’ve been really impressed by the vegetarian and vegetarian-friendly restaurants in Thailand. In Chiang Mai we kept going back to Aum and Bamboo Bee, both of which serve a huge range of vege food from around the world – Thai soups, stir fries and curries, fresh Japanese sushi and gyoza, Chinese wonton soups and spring rolls, Mexican guacamole and American-style burgers with ‘french fried’.

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Wonton soup from Aum

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Fivespice vegetarian duck from Bamboo Bee

On the more gourmet end of the spectrum is Anchan Vegetarian Restaurant in Nimmin, Chiang Mai. We went for dinner with Jeanne and Joey and ordered pretty much everything on the menu. Stand-outs were the banana flower salad, eggplant miso stir fry and the massamun curry with mushrooms. We ate too quickly to get a pic.

We generally eat street food for dinner – it’s cheap, fresh and delicious. Each night the streets are lined with food stands selling amazing stuff for as little as 10 baht (~30c) or as much as 100 baht (~3 bucks).

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Thais will set up food stands absolutely anywhere – this was in front of a shopping centre in Chiang Mai

Finding vegetarian street food was a bit of a struggle at first, especially when we were shy about busting out our shithouse broken Thai. Our first major success came when we stumbled on the opening night of the Ayutthaya World Heritage Fair, which included a farang-friendly food market showcasing regional dishes, complete with English signage. This was a great way to get acquainted with different street foods and we tried some of the more unusual stuff like a dessert made from corn, coconut, rice, gluten balls, an egg and god knows what else – surprisingly tasty. I tried grilled fermented fish, which is about 500 times better than it sounds – crispy on the outside, juicy and vinegary on the inside, served with cabbage leaves and whole green chilies. Brendon’s favourite was the som tam (green papaya salad), though he felt a little disappointed when the cook, on seeing that he was a foreigner, pulled a bunch of chillis out of the dish. He’s since learnt how to ask for things ‘normal spicy’ – ‘phet tamadaa’.

Ayutthaya’s Pa Thon Road market also had some good stuff to eat. A stall down the end sells fresh mushroom soup made from all sorts of exotic mushrooms that would probably be too expensive to buy in Sydney if you could even find them. They throw big handfuls into a dark broth with some greens and herbs and mouth-numbing amounts of chilli. The lady selling the Thai fish cakes with cucumber and spicy sauce is also a winner, as is the squid on a stick.

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Things on sticks are very popular. Grilled sausages, mushrooms, bananas, squid, pork and chicken are just a few of the options on offer pretty much everywhere. Experienced eaters simply walk over and grab the exact skewer they want. Brendon is an enthusiastic sampler of all the Thai sausage varieties, which can be smelt sizzling away by the side of the road at any time of day. He learnt how to ask for them well-done – ‘suk-suk’ (said like ‘look-look’). The best was a chicken sausage with lemongrass, chilli and vermicelli from a stall outside the 7-Eleven in Sukhothai. The soi dogs hanging around the grill obviously couldn’t resist the aroma either.

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The street food in Pai was our favourite – as it’s a hippyish town with a small Muslim population there are lots of vege options, heaps of variety and everything is pretty well signposted. Each night we wandered down to the ‘walking street’ and grabbed whatever looked good.

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Coconut and shallot cakes (15 baht) and grilled mushrooms (25 baht, though available down the road for 10 as we found out a few minutes later)

On Christmas night, half-bagged, we discovered Yunnan fresh noodle soup (30 baht). We asked if it was ‘mang-sow-ee-rat’ (vegetarian) and the lady said yes. Brendon asked for it ‘kin phet’ (spicy) and we were very pleased with the result. The next day we went back and forgot to ask for it vegetarian and realised that the soup had chicken in it all along – I guess they just fished out the meat last time. Oops!

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When street stalls are looking a bit too meaty there are always the desserts. The best yet was a stall we found in Sukhothai where you get a bag (everything here comes in a plastic bag) of sticky rice, a bag of peeled jackfruit and a little bag of coconut and condensed milk sauce. You put the rice in the jackfruit, cover it in sauce and shove it in your mouth before it all falls apart. Roti stands run by Muslim Thais are also common – I recommend the banana and Nutella roti.

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Young stall-owners in Chiang Mai

In Pai I can vouch for the mini pancakes with chocolate (also available plain or with banana) that an Israeli kid on the street was evangelising about – a big helping will only set you back 20 baht if I remember right.

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Although Thai food is amazing, sometimes all you want is starchy, cheesy, doughy, comforting western food. Thai renditions of western dishes can be pretty hit or miss but we found some hits. Sham Poo’s baked potatoes from the night markets in Pai – kind of expensive at 100 baht but delicious and big enough to share – are one example. There are about 6 filling combinations to choose from. I went for a mix of pesto, corn, sprouts, cabbage, cheese and other veges.

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Honorable mentions go to Boutique della Pasta and Dada Cafe in Chiang Mai. BdP serves reasonable pizza and chilled red wine (just the way our dads like it); Dada serves juices, healthy breakfasts and the never-before-seen stuffed omelette. They also do avocado on toast, our breakfast staple back in Sydney.

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In Pai we were visiting Good Life and The Thai Kebab on the regular. TTK is a felafel and sabich joint owned by a Jewish American guy. Everything there is amazing and they give you free reign of the tahini sauce.

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In addition to all the food, there are plenty of great drinks to try in Thailand (apart from the obligatory Leos). Good Life is a tea house and cafe in Pai. It has a 90s doof herbal vibe and serves weird stuff like kombucha and kava tea as well as breakfast, sandwiches and snacks. The mint oolong tea and the orange-coloured Thai tea served hot with condensed milk were my favourites. Brendon was more adventurous and tried the kava kava (his favourite – it had a mild sedative effect that took away any anxiety without making you feel dumb) and the Lingzhi (‘medicine of kings, spiritual vegetable meal’ as it was listed in the menu). This arrived at the table with a weird piece of something sticking out of the cup – our server referred to it as ‘the dragon’s tongue’. Later research revealed that this was a slice of lingzhi mushroom. This tea is supposed to have medicinal properties like reducing body fat, increasing white blood cells and relieving pain. It tasted sooooo disgustingly bitter though – it must be really good for you…

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Lingzhi tea

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Thai milk tea

Fruit lassis (fruit, yoghurt/coconut milk and crushed ice) and fruit shakes (fruit and crushed ice) are also available everywhere in Thailand. The coconut lassi is another new discovery that I hold close to my heart.

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Dragonfruit lassi from The House Restaurant, Pai

There were a few key Thai foods we missed trying before we crossed the Laotian border on the 4th of January. These are on the list for next visit. One is ‘joke’, a rice porridge with ginger, shallots and optional pork that locals eat for breakfast. We had it recommended to us by a few people but I never seemed to drag myself out of bed early enough to get it before the stall-owners had packed up. Brendon also wanted to try ‘khao ka moo’ (pork shoulder with rice).

A summary of places we liked in each city…
Bangkok
Baan E-San Muang Yos, Sukhumvit Soi 31. Our favourite restaurant in Bangkok (see Bangkok post for photos). Get the grilled stuffed salted fish.
May Veggie Home, moving to Asok for 2014. Run by an older lady who might forget you’re there after a while, but the food is so good who cares?
Som Tam Nam, Siam Square, Soi 5. Looks to be the most popular som tam place in BKK. If you want vego make sure you check with the staff that there’s no meat in what you ordered to avoid ‘pork surprise’.
Full Stop Cafe, Soi 55. Great coffee and possibly the cleanest toilet in Thailand.
Imchan food stall, on Sukhumvit Rd near Phrom Phong station, and on Soi 55 and a few other places. Their slogan is ‘Good Thaifood, very cheap’. Sums it up really. Home of the 40 baht pad thai.

Ayutthaya
Pa Thon Road market. Good variety of fresh food options, as well as clothes, gifts and furniture.
Coffee Old City. Situated across from Wat Mahathat. Good for those mornings when you need a western breakfast. Also good for a cheap bevvy in the afternoon.

Sukkhothai
Pai Restaurant (part of the Pai Sukhothai Resort), Pravetnakorn Rd. Good quality Thai food including Sukkhothai noodle soup.
Poo Restaurant, 24/3 Th Jarot Withithong. Offers a surprising selection of European beers like Kwak and Delerium Tremens. Also serves a vego version of Sukhothai noodle soup (though it wasn’t as good as the 30 baht version I got from a food cart at the historical park).
Local Market, cross the bridge (walking away from Old Sukhothai) and take your second right. You’ll find a bunch of food stands with communal seating in the middle. Super-cheap, plenty of places with English menus and quite a few vego dishes on offer. I thought the selection here was actually better than the more popular Night Market.
Night Market, around the outside of Wat Rachathani. Popular with tourists and Thais – after work people will pull their motorbike up to a stall, grab a plastic bag of curry or noodles for dinner and drive away. Home of the jackfruit sticky rice guy.
Chopper Bar, Pravetnakorn Rd. Seemed to be the only bar in town. Pros: vege tempura, decent music, dogs dressed in bikinis. Cons: expensive drinks, dogs dressed in bikinis were not quite toilet-trained.

Chiang Mai
Aum Vegetarian Restaurant, 65 Th Moon Muang. Best khao soi in Thailand! Don’t miss it.
Bamboo Bee, 177 Ratchaphakhinai Rd. Fantastic range of vegetarian food. We tried a lot of the dishes and all were delicious. Also the best mango sticky rice I’ve had. The owner does everything herself and will tell you to go away and come back later if things are getting too hectic. Definitely come back.
Anchan Vegetarian Restaurant, Nimmanahaeminda Rd, between Lane 6 and 10, opposite Soi 13. One of the more upmarket vego places we tried in Chiang Mai but still very affordable. A little hard to find and out of the city centre in the uni area, which is great to hang out in. Their menu changes regularly.
Dada Cafe, Ratmakka Rd. Good breakfast spot with a lot of vego options.
Boutique della Pasta, 14 Rachadamnoen Rd, Soi 5. For your gluten and cheese fix. Run by an Italian dude who imports cheese from Italy, according to the menu. It’s no Gigi but it’ll do! The pastas also looked decent.
Sticky Rice Cafe, 33 Moonmuang Rd, Tae Pae Gate. The cheapest beers we found in Chiang Mai – 80 baht for large Leos.

Pai
Night markets, Chaisongkram Rd and Rangsiyanon Rd. A bit of everything – noodles, icecream, soups, Indian food, Islamic food, teas, stirfries, pancakes, mango sticky rice, meat skewers… We ate there almost every night and never got sick of it.
The Thai Kebab (TTK), Ratchadamrong Rd. Went here pretty much every second day. Felafel plate, sabich plate, shakshukah eggs all highly recommended.
Charlie & Lek, Rangsiyanon Rd. Went here for lunch on New Year’s Day and ended up having a feast. They serve all the usual Thai foods – stirfries, pad thais etc – but the ingredients are top quality and the execution is perfect. The prawn pad thai was killer.
Om Garden Cafe, walk along Ratchadamrong Rd past the high school towards town and take your second left (just after Na’s Kitchen). Lots of vego food and a few vegan things too from memory. Seems to be run by an English guy so the curries weren’t as spicy as we had grown used to, but food was still tasty. Try the home-made ginger ale and the khao soi salad with tofu. Cakes also looked fantastic.
Pai Country House, 83 Moo 1, Rangsayanon Rd. Restaurant attached to a hotel. Had the cheapest beers in town (large Leos for 60 baht) and the stirfries and fruit shakes were cheap and good. They also have decent wifi, which is a rarity.
The Curry Shack, Thedsaban Soi 2 (off Chaisongkram Rd). Cheap and tasty. He makes five types of curry – green, red, khao soi, massaman and coconut – with meat or tofu and brown rice.
Good Life, Teseban 1 Rd. Work your way through the exotic tea list.
The House Restaurant, Chaisongkram Rd opposite Wat Pha Kham. Great lassis and vege breakfast.

Ayutthaya, Sukhothai and Chiang Mai

We left Bangkok 25 days ago and have made our way north through Ayutthaya, Sukhothai, Chiang Mai and to Pai. From there we double backed to Chiang Mai and went east to Chiang Khong where Thailand borders with Laos. We crossed the border into Houay Xia and the took a slow boat to Luang Prabang with a short night’s stop over in Pak Beng. For the sake of keeping this entry brief, I’ll only go as far as our first stay in Chiang Mai.

While Bangkok felt much more like a Sydney or New York, with a large scale infrastructure- Chiang Mai (at least the old city) felt much more like a Melbourne without many sky scrapers but lots of soi alleyways that are full of cafés, bars, restaurants and guest houses. It also seems to have a much more concentrated population of western tourists than I’ve seen previous.

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Soccer field between Ayutthaya and Phitsanulok

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Sunflower fields between Ayutthaya and Phitsanulok

Arriving in Chiang Mai felt like a big change from both Ayutthaya and Sukhothai which were smaller towns built around specific historical sites full of temple wats and Buddha statues. Likewise, the western populations were smaller with less bars and establishments catering to the tourist trade. The prices were noticibly cheaper- beers in both places were around 60 baht (~$2) for a large bottle of beer (~21oz or 630ml) at a bar while in Chiang Mai it can be as high as 120 baht (~$4). I’m assuming this is due to more bars in Chiang Mai that cater specifically to westerners with money while bars in smaller towns might serve both Thais and westerners but then again whenever Katie and I tried to find a bar specifically aimed at Thais we were unable in either Ayutthaya or Sukhothai, leaving me wondering if most Thais drink at home with family and friends.

We found one exception the other night when we met up with a couple from Portland, Oregon named Joey and Jeanne who we had met previously at our guesthouse back in Sukhothai. We had run into them on the street in Chiang Mai and that evening, hailed a songthaew to head out to Anchan, a vegetarian restaurant out of the old city on Nimmanheiman Road.

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Joey

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Jeanne

After dinner we went to a bar called The Beer Box. We chose it because it was an open air bar with Katie’s favorite beer, Hitachino Nest White Ale, on tap. We sat out on their patio while Joey told us stories about his 3 months living in Cambodia where he was installing water filters as part of his grad work and gave us general travel advice over a bowl of prawn chips. Our server was Thai but spoke fluent English- she turned out to be a co-owner who grew up in Colorado and moved back two years ago. As we wandered around the area the change from the old city felt drastic- the younger Thais looked like they could be any college kid in the states, there was a distinct lack of sexpats and I momentarily felt like I could have been back in Allston or Cambridge on a summer night.

Being back in a city had its ups and downs- it’s nice to get a decent cup of coffee, stock up on travel supplies at a modern mall, eat at vegetarian restaurants or get a craft beer on tap at half the price of back home. At the same time, cities come with a higher concentration of westerners and everything that comes with it- I’m convinced that the greatest danger to my health in Chiang Mai were westerners on motorbikes who don’t seem to be able to fall into the rhythm of traffic the way in which Thais do, it’s as if they can’t tell when to speed up versus when to be patient- or that they lack jai yen (“cool heart”) as it was described to me by another traveller.

The more I talk to other travelers the more apparent it is that our experience contains a lot of the common annoyances of hanging out in Thailand. In Chiang Mai, we had been staying near Loi Khro Road. Up and down the street there are bars, cafés and massage parlors- one of the hardest things we found when looking for a bar was trying to find one that didn’t have Thai prostitutes inside. It’s a surreal experience to walk down a street where you have entire families with kids going out for a French meal or on their way to the night markets right alongside theme bars where white dudes are picking up Thai girls often half their age and a third of their size.

When I was back in Bangkok I saw a sign on Soi 55 off Sukhumvit for Thai language intensives and I’ve been kicking myself since for not taking them up on it as the most difficult aspect of the trip is my lack of language skills- it makes it hard to have an interaction with a person that isn’t strictly transactional.

While we didn’t do any language courses, we did manage to schedule in a cooking class at a single room restaurant named Bamboo Bee that specializes in vegetarian food. The place is ran by one woman named Pantip Dalajan who does both the waiting and cooking on demand. We had heard of it from Joey and Jeanne earlier in the week and after eating a spicy Isan style salad there I was sold on taking the class.

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Pantip in front of the Bamboo Bee

We showed up around 10am and she did a quick run through of the ingredients, we picked out about five meals to cook and she got us started on chopping and prepping. About a half hour later we got to cooking and 20 minutes after that sat down to eat a substantial amount of food. It was before noon so there weren’t any customers yet and we spent awhile talking about where we were from, why she started a restaurant, thoughts on food and specifics of cooking. We were still in the process of producing fake meat from gluten when customers began to show up and we got see more of how she ran the restaurant. Since she was cooking for a group she showed us how to make the additional items she was preparing, explained why she makes them the way she does and possible variations. We ended up sticking around another couple hours and in the end felt like I was legitimately getting to know someone Thai for the first time since I’ve been here.

That said, we have met plenty of cool westerners. Back in Ayutthaya we met a Swiss girl named Claudia and a Dutchman named Mark while staying at our guesthouse, we joined up with them the following day to cruise around in a tuk tuk with a driver Claudia had booked prior. We saw some fairly impressive wats outside of the main park, had some beers at the floating markets, and I’m fairly sure the place we ate dinner that night was actually a brothel on account of a constant buzzing noise coming from the back and the anxious attitude of the waitress.

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Wat Phra Ram – Ayutthaya

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Wat Phra Si Sanphet – Ayutthaya

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Reclining Buddha – Ayutthaya

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Wat Mahathat – Ayutthaya

We also hung out at Sukhothai Historical Park with a New Zealander of Chinese descent named Andrew- he had work for the NZ department of immigration before leaving to pursue long term travel. He gave us plenty of advice on visiting other places in Southeast Asia, showed us some photos of a couple kids whose education he’s sponsoring in Cambodia and generally shot the shit with us about anything and everything.

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Wat Mahathat – Sukhothai Historical Park

Between the two, I think I preferred Ayutthaya to Sukhothai. Many of the wats in Ayutthaya were walkable as they were dispersed throughout the town itself and walking to them was interesting as we went through long stretches of markets that line the street selling everything from furniture to clothes, hardware to food- we even ran into a small carnival area. Out of chance, the World Heritage Fair was taking place during our time there so we were able to see more than we normally would have in terms of entertainment.

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Crowd at the World Heritage Festival

I plan on trying to update the blog on a more regular basis but it’s taken some time to get down a decent mobile workflow- the WordPress iOS app that we are using is buggy, counter intuitive and soaks up plenty of unnecessary time by requiring manual changes to coding for things at could be automated, I’ll be trying out other apps (and even the web interface directly) in the coming weeks.

In the meantime, I’m also trying to figure out the best way to use social media. Originally, I envisioned running it all through twitter and pushing the tweets out to Facebook as this would allow me to continue to avoid the relative complexity of Facebook while still keeping the majority of friends and family updated but then a substantial amount of my tweets were excuses to post photos that were better placed on Instagram direct as they didn’t really provide information about what we were doing.

The main issue is that I need to settle on the purpose of each service- right now I’m leaning toward twitter for updates on when and where, Instagram for a visual representation of what with Facebook for basic communication (hopefully I’ll even be able to reduce this down to Messenger alone). I’d like to use both Vine and Bubbli more than I currently am but both of these will be exceptions to the rule as they’ll have to run through the twitter feed.

I thought it might be useful to starting keeping track of some basic information about each location we had been for future travelers or our own reference. Below I’ve listed out our accommodation and useful notes on each area as follows:

Ayutthaya

Accommodation: Moradokthai Guesthouse standard double room at about 300 baht per night (~$10); food and drink on premises although the beer is Chang and you can only get food if you can catch one of the staff to cook it for you; good location near to a 7-Eleven, food carts, markets and the main park.

Transport: Third class train costs 15 baht (~50 cents); trip takes about an hour and a half, seats are a little hard but fine for the length of the ride.

Notes:

Fresh Vegetarian Mushroom Soup in the markets along Pa Thon Road near the park.

Wat Pha Ram was the first wat we saw and our favorite to visit during the stay although Wat Chaiwatthanaram was the most impressive.

If you’re adverse to getting scammed a few bucks, watch out if you go to the reclining Buddha- upon arrival one lady will come up and push on you to buy an offering of flowers, incense and candles for 20 baht. If you do this, another woman will come over and show you how to make the offering and then pressure you to buy a few good luck charms in return for a couple hundred baht.

World Heritage Fair is held each December- check the dates on their website and plan accordingly if you can.

Coffee Old City is in a central location across from Wat Mahathat and can supply you with a decent western breakfast, coffee or afternoon beer.

Sukhothai

Accommodation: TR Guesthouse bungalow at 600 baht per night (~$20); room was really nice. Standard rooms looked decent as well, staff spoke alright English and I would recommend them to anyone looking for a decent mid range place- also close to a 7-Eleven and the night markets.

Transport: We took a second class seat on a non-DRC train to Phitsanulok for baht; watch the stops as you get close as they may forget to let you know when you’re near the stop. Train was old but functional and seating was fairly padded- slightly more comfortable than a United Airlines flight. Vendors on the train will sell you water, plastic bags of soda, pre-made meals or hot soup. Non-DRC train has a squat toilet with asshose so you may want to hold it unless you have to go. You can read more about Thai train travel at Man in Seat 61.

Once you get to Phitsanulok you can get a tuk tuk driver from the train station to the bus station for 60 baht (~$2) minimum, he’ll likely try to get you to let him drive you to Sukhothai for 1,000 baht (~$33) but don’t do it- the cost of a bus ride on a decent coach out to New Sukhothai is only 43 baht (~$1.45) and about one hour.

When you get to Sukhothai, there will be more tuk tuk drivers who will take you to whatever guesthouse you are staying at for about 50 baht (~$1.65) only after they have taken you to whatever guesthouse sponsors them. This is colloquially known as the “Sukhothai Tuk Tuk Mafia” whereby each driver is bought off by a different guesthouse, you’ll most likely be riding out with another guy who stands on the back bumper with laminated photos of the rooms at the given guesthouse and talks it up to you.

Notes:

Night markets a worth a walk through and get fairly crowded when local Thais get out of work- most people pull up within arms reach of stalls or carts on their motorbikes to get food or groceries so make sure you’re not in the way. Good cheap meals can be had at around 30-40 baht.

Pai Sukhothai, Chopper Bar and Poo Restaurant are all along the same stretch of street in New Sukhothai- Pai Sukhothai is slightly more expensive but has a notch better food than Poo Reaturant; Chopper Bar is the only bar catering to westerners in town. In the end, we spent most of our time drinking at the guesthouse as the beers were cheaper and atmosphere better- you can also get beers at the markets.

Chiang Mai

Accommodation: SDT Home standard double fan room for 300 baht (~$10) per night; it’s mainly a tour company (Something Different Tours) but they also have a few bunker-like unsealed rooms with open air en suite bathroom and heating unit on the wall for the shower. The door to the bathroom didn’t actually close but we were able to rig it to stay closed with a series of elastic bands looped around a light switch on one side and the bathroom door handle on the other. The bed comes with a mosquito net so even if bugs can get in the room easily you are fairly protected- during our stay it was cooler than normal (around 12-14C/55F) so they weren’t much of an issue. Location was close to Loi Khro Road, night markets, Pha Tha Gate and the lower southeast quadrant of the old city.

Transportation: Bus from New Sukhothai cost 239 baht (~$8) and takes about five to six hours depending on your driver- ours was cautious when things got tight but floored it on the straight aways and cut his partner’s smoke breaks short at stops on the way by starting to drive off without him- we were dead on five hours.

Notes:

The area we went into along Nimmanheiman Road is known as Nimman for short- it’s a hipper, less touristy area but priced closer to home.

Cheapest beers we found were at Stick Rice Cafe where a large Leo costs 80 baht (~$2.70)

Chiang Mai is a big city so make a later update on that city alone

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