A Travellerspoint blog

Luang Prabang, Laos

View Route Map on gregandissy's travel map.

We were told the slow boat from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang departed at 10:30am daily so the goal that morning was to catch a taxi from our hotel in Chiang Khong, cross the border and get on another taxi or tuk-tuk to Huay Xai in time to get a good seat on the boat - our research indicated this was very important because arriving late could mean getting stuck in the back breathing toxic exhaust fumes for 6-7 hours.

We exited Thailand with 20-25 other backpackers who were presumably on the same mission. We all got on the mandatory shuttle bus to the Laos side of the border, paid for our visas including the additional dollar charged on weekends and public holidays for overtime which we even got a separate receipt for (?), and made our own way to Huay Xai as the backpackers seemed to have booked their transfer through an agency. The tuk-tuk driver didn't want to leave with just two passengers but I was eager to keep going to avoid getting there last. I looked around and noticed that a family had just been dropped off in a pick-up truck so I asked one of the ladies if it would be possible to get a lift to the city for the same price the tuk-tuk driver was charging us. With a big smile, she responded "no problem, he take you for free", pointing at the man who had dropped them off. Brilliant! We got in the car and just as we were about to pull out our tuk-tuk driver started making a scene and our new friend was left with no choice but to ask us to go in the tuk-tuk. We were held hostage! I had flashbacks of our Srinagar experience and if I could have slapped him I would have. But losing our temper was not the answer (it never is!) so we just waited somewhat patiently (we may have let out a few huffs and puffs). Luckily a couple hopped on the tuk-tuk and we were on our way before the group of backpackers.

Tuk-tuk ride to Huay Xai:

The departure time was actually 11am so we arrived in Huay Xai with plenty of time to spare. The 2-day journey to Luang Prabang includes an overnight stay in Pak Beng, a small village on the banks of the Mekong River, so we grabbed some fruit smoothies and ordered take-away sandwiches for lunch knowing we would arrive in Pak Beng in time for dinner.

A welcome break from the heat:

The slow boat docking area:

Our fellow passengers:

A relaxing and scenic journey:

We arrived in Pak Beng shortly after 6pm and were met by many touts offering "discounts" on accommodation. We were used to this by now and did not feel overwhelmed. One of the touts was offering rooms at a riverside lodge we had noticed on arrival for $12.50.

Arriving in Pak Beng - hmmm, that lodge looks nice....

Mass exodus:

The room:

The view:

We tried to negotiate but she wouldn't budge. She said that the normal price was about $35 so she couldn't discount it any further. At that price, we weren't going to try much harder. Sold!

We bumped into a French couple we had met on the boat whilst looking for a restaurant and ended up having a very nice dinner with them. Our host was very gracious and seemed to be in a great mood...or drunk...or high. Turns out he was both. He offered us a shot of banana whiskey to welcome us and came back with more when we were done eating. He then proceeded to sit at one of the tables next to ours to smoke some opium, as you do, and ever the good host, asked if we wanted to try some. Tempting but no, thanks.

The second leg of the journey went very smoothly and we safely arrived in Luang Prabang at around 4pm. We shared a tuk-tuk into town with our fellow travelers and walked around in search of accommodation. We settled for a hotel on a great little street near the old city. Nothing amazing but it had the essentials, AC and en-suite bathroom. Plus it was steaming hot and we didn't feel like walking any further at that stage.

Picking up a few more passengers along the way:

Our hotel street:

Feeling renewed after a cold shower we headed for the night market just a couple of blocks from our hotel. But first, we had to appease our bellies. Two days of bland sandwiches had them begging for flavor.

We found this food stall just at the entrance of the night market and went for it.


So simple yet absolutely delicious: spicy minced pork, rice noodles, broth, green beans, spring onions, soy sprouts, as well as chilli, lime, fish sauce and a variety of fresh herbs to add to taste. Yum!

You know it - mango for dessert:

The night market had the usual tourist souvenirs, t-shirts and food vendors but something about this market was different though. Maybe it was the absence of motorcycles beeping their way through or the surrounding temples and street cafes; there was just something very charming and magical about this city that got to us from the moment we set foot in it.

Haw Pha Bang temple on the grounds of the Royal Palace Museum and below it, the street market:

Luang Prabang is built on a peninsula formed by the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers and it is surrounded by mountains covered with lush green vegetation. As if this wasn't enough to entice visitors to this ancient capital, it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site because of "its exceptional architectural and artistic heritage that reflects the fusion of Lao traditional urban architecture with that of the French colonial era". It's no wonder all the articles we read online had nothing but praise for Luang Prabang's beauty and charm.

The next day, we hit the main sights including the Royal Palace Museum and Wat Xieng Thong monastery but were literally roasting from the moment we left the hotel. By 12pm we were drenched in sweat, dehydrated and certain we would pass out if we didn't find shelter immediately. We were saved by Tamarind Restaurant. Laos doesn't have the culinary reputation of Thailand or Vietnam but this riverside restaurant certainly makes a good case for it.

Haw Pha Bang:

Wat Xieng Thong

The streets of Luang Prabang:

Our delicious meal at Tamarind Restaurant - the freshest ingredients and most amazing flavors:

Parked outside a boutique hotel:

Snake whiskey - yes, it's a real snake and they threw in a scorpion for good measure:

Beautiful colors found at the night market:

We had read that the sunset views from Phu Si hill were great so we saved that for last.


and a few games of backgammon later:


Our sweaty selfie at the bottom of the hill:

That evening, we strolled through the night market again, found a decent restaurant for dinner and went to a great riverside bar for drinks and a sheesha. Utopia is tucked away at the end of a labyrinth of small alleys and is obviously doing something right because the place was packed. They were playing random YouTube videos on a big screen which we watched from the comfort of our floor loungers. A great way to end the day.

We rented a scooter the next day to check out the waterfalls we had read about when we first started planning for this trip. Greg had learned about a scooter rental scam in Luang Prabang whereby the rental companies arrange for the scooters to be stolen with a spare key and then demand payment of about $2,500 to replace the bike or withhold your passport. We decided to rent one anyway since we were not staying in the city where most of the scams happen.

Kuang Si and Tad Sae are the most famous waterfalls in the area. We headed 20km southeast of Luang Prabang to the smaller Tad Sae falls first where we were hoping to bathe with the elephants from the nearby camp.

10-minute boat ride to Tad Sae:

As luck would have it, we were informed on arrival that "no water in the falls, not enough rain, July better".


What they are supposed to look like - borrowed from Trip Advisor.


Ok - "What about the elephants? Can we still swim with them?" "Yes, in the river ok". We had come all that way, we were going to do this.

And it was so much fun!


Kuang Si waterfalls are located 29km southwest of Luang Prabang so it took us about 45-55 min to get here from Tad Sae. The ride was very scenic and quite similar to the countryside we had seen around Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai with lush forests and winding mountain roads.

This cutie laid under our table while we had lunch just outside Kuang Si Waterfall park:
Missing Bella....

A visit of the Kuang Si Falls begins with a stroll through the Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue Centre, established in 2003 by Free The Bears Fund Inc., an Australian based non- profit organization.


Asiatic black bears are an endangered species targeted by illegal hunters for use in the traditional medicine trade, restaurant trade (e.g. as bear paw soup) or as exotic pets. The bears at Tat Kuang Si usually arrive as very young cubs taken by hunters after the mother has been killed because they are easier to transport and conceal. Learning about these bears was simply heartbreaking. We'd already heard so many horrible stories about illegal poaching in almost every country we visited that we couldn't help but wonder about their future. There is just so much ignorance, greed and corruption in this world, it's hard to feel optimistic despite the inspiring efforts of the many NGO's like The Bears Fund Inc.

On a lighter note, the falls were amazing, one of the most beautiful we've seen. The water collects in stunning turquoise blue pools as it flows downstream making them incredibly inviting for a refreshing dip...that is, if you don't mind fish nibbling on your feet unexpectedly ;).


View from the top:

Why not?

Helmet malfunction:

Just a few kilometers outside Luang Prabang:

A quick stop at a local market:

We crashed early so had no excuse not to wake up early to witness one of the most sacred Lao traditions, the Buddhist Alms Giving ceremony at 5:30am. As the sun rises, Buddhist monks depart from their various temples to gather their daily meal prepared by locals who wait quietly by the roadside to give their gifts.


It was 6:15am and I was wide awake, a very rare occurrence, but as much as I would have liked to join the 7am riverside yoga class, the thought of a fresh toasted baguette with butter and jam dipped in a steaming latte won me over (to Greg's tremendous relief!). We went to Le Banneton Cafe, the best French bakery in town. Childhood memories of family summer holidays in France came rushing in and I was in heaven. Greg's amused look as I dipped my baguette into my coffee, milk dripping everywhere, said something along the lines of: "I love you but why are you such a goof?". I feel so misunderstood ;)

We jumped back on the bicycles we rented from the hotel for the day and explored the charming city further.


Bamboo bridge that is rebuilt every year after the rainy season:

Later that afternoon, we joined some locals for a game of petanque - the French equivalent of bocce. Same same but different. We were allowed a brief warm-up but no briefing on the rules due to the language barrier. With ice-cold beers at stake, the tension was palpable at 5-0 in favor of the tourist duo but we somehow managed to squander our lead and lose 5-7 to the local pros. A crushing defeat. Greg blamed our lack of knowledge and experience so we played one more game. And lost again 2-7. If I hadn't stopped him we would have played again as we had finally figured out the tactics. Instead, we picked up the beer tab for the winners and a few local fans, and sipped ours while watching the pros battle it out.

Trying to ask questions about the game but all we managed to understand was that we needed 7 points to win or we would pay for beers:

Watching the pros with a few Vietnamese fans:

We got back on the bikes and headed in the direction of our spicy pork noodle soup stall for dinner. Soon after we took off, a group of 10 kids or so suddenly appeared beside Greg and chanted the usual "hello, how are you?". I was slightly ahead and thought it would be fun to race them for a few hundred meters. I yelled "race!" and it was on. But I turned around 5 seconds later and couldn't see the group anywhere. "What on earth is going on??" I back-tracked and found them all huddled around Greg's bike behind one of the parked vehicles, some of the kids having a good laugh. Greg informed me that his chain had derailed under his pure power (ie weight) and one of the kids was busy fixing it. A few minutes later, we were all back on our bikes and in our slightly buzzed state, decided it would be a great idea to resume the race. Exemplary mature behavior from two thirty somethings. Sure enough, 3 seconds in, I turned around to find Greg on his back with the bike on top of him. The chain again but this time, apparently with more "power" and without the balancing effect of the alternate pedal stroke he was thrown to the tarmac. Luckily, it looked worse than it was and he bounced back with just a few scrapes and bruises. He even looked disappointed claiming he was ahead of the lead kid by a wheel. He says he slid for about two meters, but I'm not so sure, although his shirt did have a few holes around the shoulder, his knee was bleeding a bit and the leather belt now has some character after saving his back from a roasting. The kids went to work on the chain again and we all had a laugh at the situation.


Showing his battle wounds:

We were now starving and couldn't wait for the delicious spicy pork soup. No such luck, it was the ladie's day off. Things were taking a turn for the worse.

We biked in search of another local soup vendor and found one near the hotel, however it wasn't quite the same and we overloaded our soups with chili paste thinking it was some of that spicy pork sauce. We struggled through it blowing our noses every 5 seconds and somehow managed to finish while laughing at a fellow local customer who had obviously made the same mistake and was trying to cool his open mouth in front of the fan. Our faces and stomachs on fire, we cycled back to the hotel to return the bikes and walked to the fruit stalls nearby for a mango shake to appease the burning. So a great day that ended with defeat in petanque, a bike crash, a bloody knee, torn clothes and chilli burns.

Sweating it out:

Back at the hotel, I nursed Greg's wounds and although he wasn't suffering from manflu, it sure sounded similar: "love, won't you please pack my things? I can't bend down and my left side is dying...". Aaahhhh, the things we put up with for love ;)

Our flight to Hanoi, Vietnam was scheduled for 4pm so we used our last few hours in Luang Prabang to get lost in some of the areas we hadn't been to yet. We stopped for snacks and lunch along the way and had just enough Kips (Laos currency) left to buy a few spring rolls and a mango shake on our way to the airport. We were sad to leave one of our favorite cities of the trip but excited for our next adventure in Vietnam.

Another beatiful street, coconut lady and watching a world cup football game over lunch:

On the way to the aiport:

Vietnam, here we come!

We have just arrived in Bangkok from Siem Reap, Cambodia and will be posting the first of three updates on our Vietnam adventure next.

Greg and Issy

Posted by gregandissy 11:01 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

Northern Thailand

View Route Map on gregandissy's travel map.

Ok I'm back and doubt I'll ever hear the end of my need of blogging assistance from Greg who's busy planning the next stage of our trip (read: shopping online for a restored Vespa he could ship to Cayman from Saigon!)

From our initial trip planning, making our way clockwise through Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand seemed like the most logical route based on what we wanted to see and do before heading further south. We had heard so much about the slow boat to Luang Prabang from Huay Xai, which is just across the border from Chiang Khong, a town in the north of Thailand, that we decided to start a few hours further south in Chiang Mai, despite us planning to be in Thailand again at the end of the loop.

Chiang Mai is located 700 km north of Bangkok, among the highest mountains in the country. It is the second largest city in Thailand, yet only has a population of around 200,000 (compared to Bangkok which has about 9 million!). We had read there were plenty of things to see and do, amazing food to try and that it was a shopper's paradise. Sold!

Our flight to Chiang Mai connected through Bangkok and we were scheduled to arrive at approximately 11pm, which was after the 10pm curfew imposed by the military government (or so we thought). Naturally there was a little bit of apprehension and uncertainty as to what we might have to deal with on arrival.

To our surprise, everything seemed so organized and clean compared to Nepal, India, and Africa ..... so basically our whole trip to date. Other than the curfew, there was no other indication that the country was in a state of martial law and we quickly felt very at ease. We also found out that the curfew imposed on Chiang Mai had been relaxed to 4 hours a night, from 12am to 4am. Things were looking great.

Feeling rested after a good night's sleep, we started with a quick local breakfast just a few steps from our hotel in a small restaurant with pictures of every dish on the walls. Very overwhelming selection but luckily the breakfast items were few and we weren't interested in curry or soup at that hour. They happened to have our favorite so I ordered mango and Greg tried the mango with sticky rice, which we later found out was more of a snack/dessert than a breakfast - regardless, we were off to a great start.


Chiang Mai was built in 1296 as a walled city surrounded by a moat and is currently made up of the old city (within the walled area) and the new city which has grown up around it. The city is also full of ancient temples (Wats) still in use today by Buddhist monks. Our hotel was conveniently located within the old city and walking distance from most of the sights. But first, I sweet-talked Greg into booking a full-day cooking course for the next day before setting off on the mandatory tour of the city.


I almost felt disrespectful stepping inside the temple when I saw the meditating monks. I tried to be as polite as I could with my hands in prayer and a few nods of the head. As I got closer, I realized they were wax sculptures! Was anyone watching me??



After walking a few miles, we took a break and got our feet massaged by fish, as you do.


The signs advertising 60 min Thai massages for $6 were everywhere and after covering a few more miles on foot, we decided it would be a crime not to try one considering how expensive they are back home. We almost felt like we had been beaten and robbed of the $6 rather than having paid it but thankfully, the relaxing effect kicked in soon after we left - aaahhhhh, so that's what all the fuss was about!

In the evening, we hurried through the night market just east of the old city, as we had heard of a procession of monks taking place at 8pm in the old city which we didn't want to miss. I knew I was in trouble when I found myself stopping at every stall. Greg pretended not to notice and kept walking in the hope I would give up and follow him. Instead I chased him down, brought him back to the stall I was interested in, asked for his opinion and the money to pay for the item (although not necessarily in that order).


Decorative hand-carved soaps:

Between two souvenir stalls - why not?

Greg managed to drag me out in time but unfortunately, someone had sold us a dummy as there were no monks in sight. So we headed back to the night market for a little more before they packed up.

One happy customer:
The process was actually fun to watch. The creamy liquid is first spread on the dry-ice pan, mixed with the chunky ingredients (oreo cookies in this case) and rolled into small ice cream tubes which are then topped with whipped cream.

The next morning, we went for the same mango breakfast before meeting our cooking gurus. To start, we stopped at the local market and were each given a shopping list of items to gather (with some assistance, of course).


We were then shown some of the many amazing (and weird) local fruits, herbs and vegetables and then left to do our own little wander around. Naturally our first thought was: how on earth are we going to find these ingredients back home??? Everything looked so fresh and the cooked food smelled so delicious we were almost tempted to skip the rest of the course!


Pink century eggs:
The eggs are preserved for several weeks or months in a special concoction of clay, salt, ash, lime and rice hulls, which turns the inside dark brown/green. The shell is then painted pink. It actually tasted pretty good!

We then drove about 20 minutes outside the city into a gated community or suburb with some really nice houses, apparently the more expensive in Chiang Mai, before arriving at the cooking school. The format was simple: watch the expert first, then go to your station and give it a shot. They made it easy for us as all we had to do was chop a few vegetables and cook. The more complicated ingredients were either prepared during the demo or made available. They didn't leave much room for error and we were very grateful for that.


It was great fun and surprisingly, our dishes were actually quite good! We each prepared 5 dishes so were completely stuffed and in need of a snooze by the time we got in the bus back to the city. I packed a doggy bag but obviously didn't think it through as it was left in the hotel mini-fridge, untouched. In hindsight I should have left it behind for the house cats who seemed quite happy to eat the leftovers from the other students, including the spicy curry!


Back at the hotel, I went for another 60 min Thai massage while Greg surrendered to a food induced coma.

Planning to do a tour of the mountains around the city the next day, we hired an orange Honda scooter for 24 hours and spent the evening zooming around the city. Beep beep!

Us and the photo-bomber:

We followed our friends' recommendation and stopped at the 3D Illusion Art Museum for a visit. We had fun goofing around, it was brilliant!


Our tour the next day consisted of a 100km loop around Chiang Mai full of winding roads, beautiful mountain landscapes and a few cool diversions, too, including Tiger Kingdom and Mae Sa waterfalls.

Tiger Kingdom is essentially a tiger farm but unlike other tiger farms in Thailand, the tigers at Tiger Kingdom are treated with great care and the facilities are extremely clean. It was truly a memorable experience. From the moment we arrived, the staff were very professional and organized. They presented the various packages which depend on the age of the tigers one wants to see so we chose "Smallest" (2-3 months), "Medium" (9-12 months) and "Big" (13-30 months). They don't take chances with tigers older than 30 months as they can become dangerous and unpredictable. Other tiger places in Thailand do and have to sedate them to minimize the risk and of course, accidents have happened. If you are ever in Thailand, please avoid Tiger Temple in Kanchanaburi near Bangkok.


Cheesy but fun nonetheless:

Working the camera:


Mae Sa waterfalls:

Learning in the parking lot - not quite ready for the street chaos:

We stopped at an outdoor market as we were approaching Chiang Mai - who's ordering frog?

We arrived back in Chiang Mai just in time to catch our bus to Chiang Rai, about 3 hours further north. We had read that Chiang Rai was a quieter and less touristy version of Chiang Mai - not that we were that bothered in Chiang Mai coming from India and Nepal but we decided to include it in our itinerary as we were heading north anyway.

The bus station in Chiang Rai was just next to the night market and only a couple of blocks from our hotel so we quickly dropped our bags off and went exploring.

Loving the street food - spicy papaya salad, yum!

and nerver missing an opportunity to order mango juice:

We booked a countryside/elephant camp tour the next day and were promptly picked up at 10am by our guide. The less touristy comment proved true as we were the only ones on the tour.

We went upstream on the Mae Kok River (a tributary of the Mekong river) for about an hour on a small long-tail wooden boat with a tiny propeller attached to an extended pole that made it look like a weed eater:


Our private tour:


We realized some sections of the river were actually quite shallow and dangerous, which explained the weed eater, but we decided to trust our captain who looked like he knew his way around. I think it's fair to say that our ability to trust complete strangers with our lives has been tested way too often on this trip!

We safely arrived at the elephant camp in Ruammit Village where we were given a dozen bananas each to feed the elis. Sweet! I love feeding elephants :)


Then came the rather awkward mounting of said elephant and the subsequent hour and a half ride to a minority village in the hills. The look on our faces when the elephant started walking must have said something along the lines of: "what have we gotten ourselves into?!!"


Any more bananas up there?

To say the ride was initially uncomfortable is an understatement. Luckily, the intensity of the side-to-side swaying diminished as we got deeper into the countryside. Or maybe we just got used to it? There's no denying the scenery was very beautiful and our eli worked very hard for us going up some very hills, across streams and through some very narrows paths. We were actually very impressed given the size of the animal! Other than my ponytail getting caught in a branch and almost being pulled off the eli in the process, the ride was quite enjoyable in the end. Yes, it's funny now.


Lunch at the minority village:

Huay Mae Sai waterfalls: last stop of the tour where Greg was taught some climbing skills by a few teenagers (you'll remember from our Manali post that he struggled a bit with "technique").

To his credit, the rocks were very slippery.

Songtau ride back to the city - form of public transportation that literally means "two benches" in Thai:

Back at the night market we were treated to an amateur cabaret show - not exactly "Thailand's Got Talent" material unfortunately:

So we decided to entertain ourselves at Monsieur Retro Studio:

The next morning, we realized the beast was about to stage a comeback and decided it was time to enlist the help of a pro for the bargain price of $1.20 - cheaper than razor blades and Greg had used his last one in Manali.


For the same price he could have gotten his ears cleaned as well. I watched this done on the guy next to him and I was impressed by the surgical precision of the procedure. I tried my best to convince Greg but he chickened out - one traumatizing experience was enough for the day.

The rest of the rainy day was spent strolling in the market, relaxing in cafes and catching up on the blog, oh and stopping Greg from buying a scooter! I swear I'll turn around one of these days and we'll have some form of motorized vehicle to ship home.

Everything to suit your needs - live turtles and snakes, fresh produce, spices, clothes and even a salon!

The foodcourt:

Chiang Mai's clock tower:

A bit uncertain about the border crossing into Laos the next day, we decided to play it safe and spend to night in Chiang Khong just an hour further north instead of staying in Chiang Rai and trying to get it all done the next day at the crack of the dawn. Greg was probably worried I wouldn't get out of bed in time!

And this, my friends, is where chilli defeated us for the second time. I ordered a spicy papaya salad and and spicy seafood salad but they didn't tone it down for us tourists. Actually, I think they fired them up on purpose given the number of chillis I saw in both plates. Greg buckled after the first bite and very nearly cried. I patiently picked out all the chilli peppers and powered through the important seafood bits. One of my proudest achievements of the trip ;)

The location was actually great, we were right on the banks for the Mekong river and could see Huay Xai on the other side.


One last beer and a few games of backgammon before bed - for the record, I'm currently in the lead by 9 games but Greg refuses to acknowledge this fact:

Our next post about Laos coming soon...ish. Although the pressure is really on this time. Our friends James and Natalie Drury, who have just arrived in Chiang Mai from Luang Prabang, are much more gifted at this blogging thing than we are and could potentially post their Luang Prabang update before we do which would be slightly embarrassing seeing as we were there almost 3 weeks ago now! Check out their blog on marriedtoourbackpacks.wordpress.com. It's very good!

We are still in Vietnam but leaving Ho Chi Minh city tomorrow evening on a flight to Siem Rep, Cambodia.

Greg and Issy

Posted by gregandissy 09:59 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)


View Route Map on gregandissy's travel map.

I'm back on blogging duty (the writing at least) to help Issy catch up because she's been:

a- busy enjoying the trip
b- tired
c- lazy
d- reading
e- all of the above

d...wait....maybe b....wait wait c....no....must be e then. I say e.

So, after the chaos that was India, we were keen to move on and were looking forward to a few days in Nepal.

With no real agenda except a flight to Kathmandu, the capital, we went about planning our trek to the top of Mount Everest. To our complete surprise we discovered that 5 days wasn't enough to reach the summit, so we had to call off that idea! Just as well, as I hadn't packed a beanie ;)

We had heard that Pokhara was a great lakeside city near the Annapurna mountain range and a good place for various activities, particularly paragliding which we had missed on the account of the weather in Manali.

We spent a day in Kathmandu taking in the regular tourist sights and were impressed with the sheer number of temples in the city:


Famous Durbar Square:


City streets - a subdued version of India:

We had toyed with the idea of driving the route to Pokhara by motorcycle the following day, but apparently this can take anywhere from 5 to 7 hours, despite it being only 160km, so to make the most of our time we took the overpriced 25 minute flight instead.


Pokhara lies north west of Kathmandu, so with seats on the right side of the plane, we had hoped to catch a glimpse of the Himalayas from 12,000 ft but once again, the weather refused to cooperate.

Based on a recommendation from Jess, who we met in Manali, we arranged to stay at Anadu House in Anadu village across the lake from Pokhara and away from any touristy areas. The village has no roads and is only accessible by row boat or canoe, which made it an adventure getting across with our luggage but also meant it was very peaceful once on the other side. Although costing slightly more than budgeted, we had the whole house to ourselves with amazing views of the lake. We knew the Himalayas were somewhere behind the fog and were hoping the skies would eventually clear for us...

Phewa Lake:

On a small canoe that almost tipped over when we tried to get in with our backpacks:

The other canoe being emptied after heavy rains the night before - is this the one we're meant to use to get back and forth??

The perfect place to chill and read (note the Kindle):

That first relaxing day pretty much set the tone for our time in Pokhara. We briefly contemplated going for a multi-day hike but were in desperate need of some r&r after India so we decided to take it easy.

We (the royal we) managed to row ourselves across the lake to see what Pokhara was all about and plan some activities for the next few days.

Working up a sweat before breakfast:

The candy selection process - not to be taken lightly:

Issy far too busy to work on the blog:

Trying to make it back to Anadu before the daily downpour:

Sunset after the rain - not bad:

On day 3 we hired a motorcycle to explore the surrounding villages and hopefully get closer to mountains to catch a glimpse of Annapurna. As in Zanzibar, they rent them without fuel, so having learnt from our episode there, we made sure to fill the tank, not knowing how far we might be going. We headed into the mountains on some steep dirt roads, until they became too muddy and slippery to continue. It was a rainy day and it didn't look like the clouds and fog would lift so we just toured the surrounding area with a quick stop for lunch.


Our view from Sarangkot village - I'm told the Himalayas are behind there somewhere:

What it's supposed to look like (found on TripAdvisor):

Back to the Phewa Lake:


Issy: "me too, me too!" - Greg: "uh...you look like a bumble bee, not sure it was the look you were going for ;)"

Having to cut the riding short, we returned to Pokhara with more than half a tank of petrol. We were hoping we could recoup some of the petrol cost from the rental agent but were quickly shot down and told "not how we work, customer decide how far to go and put enough petrol". Clearly a system that works to their benefit, so out of principle, we got back on the bike to see if we could sell it (the petrol not the bike). So many people use motorcycles or scooters, we were sure we would find a buyer. After some "shopping around" we found a motorcycle mechanic perfectly located next to a bar where we found a taker who agreed to pay 100 Nepalese Rupees (just 20 Rupees below retail) after some negotiating with Issy (yes, Issy does the dirty work). I figured there were probably 5 liters in the tank, so was quite chuffed when the helpful mechanic easily drained out 6 liters and was then amazed by his commitment when he got under the seat, disconnected the fuel line and claimed another 2 liters via a trickle from the reserve tank.

I think he's done this before:

I was a little concerned that we wouldn't make it back to the rental shop, but luckily it was downhill so made it without incident. Having succeeded in our quest, the agent even asked if there was any petrol left in the motorcycle, which I wasn't too sure of myself, but gave a confident yes and luckily it started up on testing, as if that was conclusive evidence. We took that as a win and left with some extra beer money.

We had scheduled paragliding for our last day, but woke up to find the paragliding peak covered by clouds, so once again we missed out on the opportunity and were beginning to accept the fact that we simply wouldn't see the Himalayas on this trip. We spent the extra time relaxing even further.

Can you speed this thing up please?

Another nice sunset despite the weather:

Why don't they have stand-up paddleboards around here??

A perfect last evening in Nepal:

The next day was spent traveling to Chiang Mai, a city in northern Thailand which will feature in our next post. We are now in Phong Nha - Ke Bang National Park in central Vietnam, a UNESCO world heritage site known of its amazing cave and grotto systems.

Greg and Issy

Posted by gregandissy 07:52 Archived in Nepal Comments (5)

Delhi, Leh, Srinagar and Manali, India

View Route Map on gregandissy's travel map.

The train ride from Agra to Delhi is an easy 3 hours but finding a seat proved to be more difficult than expected. We had unreserved tickets again and walked through 8-10 train cars to finally find a spot on a bench wide enough to fit our expanding waistlines and backsides (all the naans and butter curries were beginning to show on the scale!). The people who had reserved seats on the benches were very nice to let us squeeze in so we tried to take as little space as possible, which meant we would be drenched in seconds from the heat and lack of air. Thankfully, we had Kindle to keep us distracted. I think it is fair to say that it is my most valuable possession because I would not be able to endure all the long train/bus/car journeys without it.

The advice we received from friends who had traveled to India was to avoid Delhi if possible or only transit through if need be. There are some nice sights to see in the city but we had seen enough palaces, temples, forts and mosques and were keen to be in more natural environments again. So the plan was to apply for a Vietnam visa which we would need a month later, book our next train and get out. Things didn't exactly go according to plan.

First, the Vietnam Embassy didn't accept visa applications after 12pm (it was 3pm when we arrived) and second, by the time we had lunch, checked into our hotel and arrived at Connaught Place (popular city center spot with many shops and services), the tourist information bureau had closed for the day. We would have a busy morning the next day!

The inevitable tuk-tuk ride & selfie:

The visa application process went smoothly and our passports would be waiting for us upon our return to Delhi 10 days later. Things took a dramatically different turn when we attempted to book a train to Rishikesh, a spiritual city on the banks of the Ganges also known as the yoga capital of the world. In an effort not to relive the unpleasant experience, I'll just say that we fell into a tour agency trap (yes, despite the many warnings online and in the Lonely Planet) and even though a service was provided (we read horror stories of people who paid and got nothing in return), it was well below expectation for the price we paid. Luckily the destinations we picked for our 10-day tour of northern India were incredibly beautiful but we found ourselves constantly thinking about the kind of hotel we would end up in at the next stop or worse, if there would even be a reservation. That definitely put a a bit of a damper on our experience but I guess it could have been much worse.

To avoid if you are ever in Delhi:

H-47 Inner Circle, Connaught Place, New Delhi

The reason we fell into the trap is the misleading sign which says it is part of the Department of Tourism and even has a smaller sign that says DTTDC which stands for Delhi Tourism and Transportation Development Corporation. It's all a fraud. It's not until we looked at the carbon copy receipt that we realized we had just signed a contract with Diamond Tours because the original didn't mention anything about Diamond Tours, it just said Department of Tourism. Yes, we should have known better but it's simply exhausting to suspect absolutely everyone, especially when they go through so much effort to deceive. This was just one of the million tourist scams in Delhi and another good reason to avoid this city.

So on with the good stuff. We flew to Leh early the next morning which is in Ladakh or "land of high passes" in Ladakhi. It is a region of India in the state of Jammu and Kashmir that lies between the Kunlun mountain range in the north and the main Great Himalayas to the south. The few roads that lead to Leh are actually closed during the winter months and were just starting to open up. Having heard about the suicidal bus drivers and the perilous mountain roads, we decided not to take any chances and fly.

What a view!


The sudden drop in temperature was absolute bliss and we quickly realized as we drove through the city to get to our hotel, that the pace in Leh was much more laid back. Ladakh is one of the most sparsely populated regions in Jammu and Kashmir and its culture and history are closely related to that of Tibet. Many Tibetan refugees settled in Ladakh to escape Chinese oppression and persecution and almost half the Ladakhis are Tibetan Buddhist. The rest are mainly Shia Muslims.

We really enjoyed walking around the city despite the lack of oxygen at an altitude of 3,500m. The view was simply breathtaking!

The streets of Leh:

Leh Palace:

View from the Palace:

Novice monks:

We booked a mountain bike tour for the next day which consisted of going to the top of Mount Khardung-la in a 4x4 and cycling down the mountain back to Leh.


Youtube video of Greg

Youtube video of Issy

What an amazing experience. It was fun, exhilarating and the views were nothing short of spectacular.

We rented a cool Royal Enfield motorcycle the next day to explore the area further and we loved every minute of it.


Issy lost among thousands of prayer flags - can you see me?


We were back in Leh in time for our transfer to Srinagar, the State's capital near the border with Pakistan. Most people get around in "shared jeeps" due to the road conditions which often require a 4x4. So off we went, cramped with 7 other people for the next 11 hours. The only redeeming factor to both the crazy driving and tight quarters was the scenery.


Desperate need to stretch our legs - first of only 3 stops during the 9-hour ride to Srinagar:

Missing Belsy:

3rd and final stop before starting the roughest part of the journey:

It was getting dark and the pictures didn't come out well but past those gates were blocks of ice 10-15 feet high through which a narrow road was carved. One way traffic only and luckily, on that day, it was open for East to West traffic :

Our travel agent in Delhi who calls himself John for the tourists, had arranged for another agent (presumably a good friend/connection in Srinagar where he is from) to pick us up and take us to the Rose Inn hotel (per our voucher). We arrived late and he apparently didn't expect us until the following day so he took us to someone's house where we spent the night. Feeling very uncomfortable with the set-up, we woke up early the next day and asked when we would be taken to the Rose Inn. "After breakfast" he said. Ok good, at least we weren't staying there another night. When we had researched the Rose Inn online, it looked decent enough with views of the city's famous Dal lake, wifi and walking distance to some of the sights. Instead we pulled into another "homestay" and were greeted by the agent's younger brother, Ali. There were no signs that showed we had arrived at the Rose Inn and it didn't look anything like what we had seen on the website. When I asked Ali what the name of the guesthouse was, he responded: "the Rose Inn". After explaining to them that it wasn't exactly what we were expecting and that we thought we would be closer to the lake, we were told that the family owns a chain of Rose Inn hotels and the one we saw online was mainly used for "domestic tourists". Ali said that the house we were in was reserved for foreigners. Not happy with that bogus answer and basically feeling manipulated and deceived from the moment we arrived, we decided to cut short our stay in Srinagar and leave the next day on the overnight bus to Manali which the agent agreed to arrange. So we decided to spend the day on a Shikara, a type of wooden boat found in Jammu and Kashmir. Despite the uncomfortable start to the day, we managed to relax and enjoy the tour.

Our Shikara:


Dal Lake house boats:


The happiness was short-lived as we found these babies hidden at the back of the house when we got back.


Sure enough, a quick Google search of Asif Guesthouse returned a picture of the house we were in. Not exactly the Rose Inn or any mention of a chain. When asked for an explanation for all the lies, Ali (who was passed out on the floor in front of the tv wearing his sunglasses) lost his temper, told us we were bad tourists (Marie, sound familiar??), always questioning everything and ordered us to pack our stuff because he was taking us to the Rose Inn. This was turning into a very bad day.

When we arrived at the Rose Inn, we learned that it was indeed owned by the family but was fully booked. I just kept wondering why they had felt the need to lie and deceive. We explained our point of view and the manager of the third family hotel offered to take us in. He gave us lift to his hotel which was 20km outside the city and tried to lighten the mood on the way. He succeeded with me but Greg was having none of it. Fair enough. The hotel was being renovated and it didn't look like there was anyone else there but the manager and his staff were very hospitable. Although when we asked when we would be picked up the next day to catch the shared jeep to Jammu where we would then hop on an overnight bus to Manali, he answered 7, 7:30, 8 or 8:30. Hmmmm...ok, thanks I guess? Naturally, we went to bed quite upset with the turn of events and hoping we would be able to get out of there the next day.

We were surprised when Ali picked us up the next morning at 8am. Whatever his motivation for being there, probably fearing a horrible review on Trip Advisor, we were just thankful we were one step closer to being on our way to Manali.

Once, again we were crammed into an SUV with little or no wiggle room for 11 hours. We only covered 350km but a massive traffic jam half way through the journey delayed us by about 3 hours. The progress is fairly slow to begin with because of the winding moutain roads, but the traffic jam just about killed our spirits.

The usual Indian road chaos - surely there's no good reason for all these vehicles to be stopped, there must be a way through this empty lane - uh...it's the oncoming traffic lane and the reason it's empty is because geniuses like you are blocking it and making the traffic jam even worse! Breathe Issy, breathe.


We arrived in Jammu just in time to catch our overnight bus to Manali. No rest for the wicked. Another exhausting journey and 18 hours later, we finally arrived in Manali. Aaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhh. One last hurdle and we would be completely free of Diamond Tours - John had booked a hotel that was a bit far from Old Manali, where we wanted to be but after some yelling on the phone, more blatant lies from John and some trickery on our side (we had to!) he reluctantly agreed to book us into the hotel of our choice. The relief was tremendous and we spent the next 5 days relaxing, enjoying the scenery and doing some of the many fun activities around Manali.


The beautiful mountain yak:

Our 13km trek to Solang Nala, north of Manali:

We thought we had arrived at an amusement park - people and animals everywhere, food stalls, games, zorbing balls and paragliders trying to land without crashing into anyone or anything:

Cable car up the mountain to check out the paragliders:

After watching them for a while we decided it looked like way too much fun to miss. We booked it as soon as we got back but were unlucky with the weather and got rained out 2 days later:

The 13km trek back:

Canyoning and rock climbing were great fun 2 days later:

Greg somehow thought it might be easier to climb with his back to the wall...

Greg keeping himself entertained through the bad weather:

Our tour had come to an end and we slowly made our way to the bus station through the woods:

Back to Delhi we went on another overnight bus, picked up our passports at the Vietnam embassy, and took a taxi to Cyber City just outside New Delhi to meet our friend Vikash who recently left Cayman to work for KPMG in the outskirts of Delhi. It was great to catch up with Vikash who treated us to an amazing lunch and kindly offered to drive us to the airport for our flight to Kathmandu, Nepal.

We are back in Hanoi after 2 days of trekking in Sapa (northeastern Vietnam) and about to take an overnight bus to Dong Hoi near Phong Nha - Ke Bang National Park. Our next update will be on Nepal.

Greg and Issy

Posted by gregandissy 06:46 Archived in India Comments (3)

Rajasthan and Agra, India

View Route Map on gregandissy's travel map.

Before we left Cayman, we sat down with our friend Angel, who had been to India many times for extended periods, to piece together a possible itinerary for the 3 weeks we planned to spend in India. We established that Rajasthan, Agra (home of the Taj Mahal), and the northern mountainous states were worth the visit and would work well for our purposes.

So we began our tour of Rajasthan with its capital, Jaipur also known as the Pink City for its reddish-painted walls that extend throughout the central core. In Jaipur and throughout the State, the many palaces and forts are evidence of a rich royal past that spanned over a thousand years. We were in for an architectural treat.

The hotel organized our airport transfer and after chatting to our driver we agreed to let him take us on a tour of the city. The prospect of walking everywhere in the scorching heat was just not enticing enough. Our tour covered the main sights within the fortified city and some other attractions in the outskirts of the city.

Hawa Mahal or Palace of Winds which forms part of the City Palace:

Political road show speech had voters attention just outside the palace (the Presidential election was scheduled just 10 days later on May 25th):

Two of the many forms of local transportation:

Amber Fort just 10km outside the city:

The poor cobra had its fangs removed so quite harmless but we still didn't feel comfortable getting too close:

Jal Mahal or Water Palace:

This kid's parents didn't even give me a chance to respond when they asked if they could take a picture of me with their son - they simply handed me the kid (who did not look very impressed) and hoped I wouldn't drop him...I guess:

This happened to us a lot in India - couples, friends, families, you name it. They asked and we obliged. It seemed to make them happy so we didn't mind although we sometimes wondered where our pictures would end up!

On our way back to the hotel, we asked the driver to stop at the train station as we needed to check the train schedule and possibly buy tickets for our next destination (which to be honest we were still unsure of). I quickly understood why the Lonely Planet guide has a whole section dedicated to train travel with links to useful resources. The process is far from straightforward and just getting to the right booth took a while. We realized we first had to go to the information booth to get the train numbers and departure times of the trains we might be interested in and then go to the reservation booth to check the availability on each train and make a booking. We also learned about the Indian queuing system. There is none. Everyone ignores the few fools in the queue and goes straight to the front through the sides pushing and shoving their way in. So we did the same and eventually made it to the information booth. With our reservation sheets filled out, we tackled the reservation booth but misunderstood the two foreigners ahead of us who implied we needed our passports to make a booking. They were right but only when booking "foreign quota" seats which are available on some trains for tourists who make last minutes reservations because, as we later found out, the comfortable seats get booked months in advance and most trains in India travel full. Not that surprising considering the population of 1.5 billion! So we turned around and went back to the hotel to do some research.

After some digging around online and going through a lengthy signing up process, I was finally about to book our tickets on the official IRCTC (India Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation) website. Boom, I could already picture us in our comfy seats enjoying the wonders of air-conditioning. Alas, it was not to be, the system failed to process my credit card three times. I was beginning to think we would have to take the dreaded bus. I went down to reception and was grateful to find a very helpful clerk. He recommended we purchase unreserved tickets for second seating class (lowest class possible and of course, the cheapest) and try to find a seat in a better class once on the train. We had read somewhere that it is sometimes possible to upgrade with the ticket controller. Game on!


We decided to go to Udaipur for a few days and stop in Pushkar for a few hours on the way to split up the train ride. With its holy lake and numerous ghats (series of steps leading down to a body of water) and temples, Pushkar is one of the most sacred Hindu towns in India and we were keen to check it out.

We managed to upgrade to sleeper class (7th of 8 possible classes just above second seating) and were quite proud of our achievement. I just wish I had taken some pictures!We were on our own at first but our benches were qucikly filled by 6 or 7 men who stared at us relentlessly (more me than Greg) and took pictures of us with their phones when they thought we weren't looking. Nice try. I was reading a good book and managed to ignore them after a while but it was difficult not to feel a bit uncomfortable.

The train doesn't actually go all the way to Pushkar but it's just a short bus ride away from Ajmer, one of the many stops on the Jaipur-Udaipur route. We had read that there were buses every 20 min or so in front of the Ajmer railway station. Problem was we couldn't read the signs on the buses and had to ask every bus that stopped: Pushkar? 4 buses later we were still on the street. We noticed the Indian family next to us was also going to Pushkar so we decided to follow their every move. A tuk-tuk driver stopped, gabbled something to them in Hindi and within seconds, we were on the back of the tuk-tuk facing the traffic behind us hoping we wouldn't have to sit like that the whole way to Pushkar. We were greatly relieved when he stopped in front of the bus terminal where we finally got on the right bus. Suddenly the private taxi ride didn't seem like such a bad idea as this bus thing was more complicated than expected, even if it only cost 24 rupees for the two of us ($0.50).

Our nice restaurant with a good view of the lake:

The streets of Pushkar:

It was soon time to head back to Ajmer and catch our train to Udaipur. We actually had reserved seats on this train and managed to find our cabin, which was packed. We were in second seating class again but our reserved seats ensured we wouldn't have to stand for the 5 hours it would take to get to Udaipur. We also had window seats, which saved us from passing out from the heat, and our neighbors were very friendly. Although I still remember feeling slightly outraged when one of them threw all of his garbage out the window, something that sadly, seems standard in India.

Busy Ajmer platform:

Catching a glimpse of the sunset from our window:

Our hotel had organized a tuk-tuk pick-up for us which was greatly appreciated. The less haggling we had to do, the better. Although Greg and I exchanged semi-panicked looks when we thought/imagined our driver had whispered something to a stranger who then stared at us suspiciously. It was dark and Greg's phone GPS wasn't working at that precise moment (of course) so we couldn't verify our location or if we were going in the right direction. Panic over when we finally pulled up to our hotel. I think we've seen too many movies!

Our plan of attack for the next day was to book a cooking course with Meenu (recommended by LP) and explore the city and its famous palace.

The view from our hotel rooftop terrace (Dream Heaven):

We were now used to sharing the streets with members of the blessed bovine species:

The City Palace:

The streets were full of souvenir shops and we enjoyed walking around and doing some shopping: some silver jewelry for Issy and more mangoes for Greg. Seems fair enough ;)


Adjusting my silver ring to size:

There are apparently thousands of mango species so this was just a small selection:

Enjoying a nice sunset from our hotel:

And we weren't the only ones, our neighbors seemed to enjoy it as well:

I was eager to get going the next day as we were meeting Meenu at 8:30am just down the street from our hotel.

We made massala chai (Indian spicy tea with sugar and milk served absolutely everywhere), pokaras (deep fried veggie snacks), two different curries and breads including chapatti and paratha:


We had a great time with Meenu and her family. The delicious food was just a bonus.

Hardly able to move after so much food, we decided to walk it off and explore the city further.

Dog and cow smooching in the middle of the street - why not?

We made some more purchases making it necessary to ship our first package home. We found the post office near the city palace but the clerk informed us we would have to pay for the packaging service separately. Cha Cha showed up a few minutes later and led us to his tailor shop a few blocks from the post office.

I watched Cha Cha as he carefully sowed the wrapping for our cardboard box and sealed the stitching with wax. He did this with such care, I couldn't help but feel the need to give him more than the $5 he had quoted:


We then proceeded to a beauty parlor next door for foot massages and pedicures, which Greg got swindled into just a few minutes earlier, while I watched Cha Cha and he made photocopies of our passports for the post office. One look at the place and we knew it would be an "interesting" experience. The foot massages were OK but I'm not exaggerating when I say a 5 year-old could have done better with the pedicures. Greg had never had one and thought it was OK. I had to explain that there's usually more to it than washing feet and cutting toe nails unevenly! The lady who was doing my feet didn't even know how to remove nail polish properly. With crooked toe nails and bits of nail polish everywhere, I left needing a pedicure just to fix the one I had just had. I guess you get what you pay for: can't expect much from $5 dolla' pedi. I bought some nail polish for $1 to camouflage the damage.

The hotel helped us secure tickets for the overnight train to Agra in a shared air-conditioned cabin which left Udaipur at 10pm that night. We went back to Meenu's for dinner to try her famous pumpkin curry (notoriety well deserved!) before catching a tuk-tuk to the train station.

AC 2-Tier cabin - what a luxury!

We woke-up at 6am the next day in Jaipur where some passengers got off the train and others took their place. I chatted with nice young man named Prateek who described what it was like to work as a marketing consultant for Honda, explained some of the cultural differences within India and shared some funny personal stories about arranged marriages. I could have listened to him for hours but we had to say goodbye when the train pulled into to Agra Cantonment station.

Our hotel had organized a tuk-tuk transfer from the train station and we once again agreed to let our driver show us around after checking into our hotel. We visited Agra Fort, Tomb of I'timād-ud-Daulah (also known as baby Taj-Mahal) and Greg got to drive our tuk-tuk on the way to Moonlight Garden (Mehtab Bagh) where we watched Big Taj from across the river until sunset.

View from our hotel's rooftop terrace - couldn't wait to get closer!

On the way to Agra Fort:

Agra Fort:

Another great view of the Taj-Mahal from the Fort:

The streets of Agra:

Baby Taj:

Contemplating a career change...

The magnificent Taj-Mahal - crazy to think that this white marble architectural masterpiece was built for just 2 tombs:

Goofing around with some local kids:

We parked right in front of a cow who was about to call it a night - I think we woke her up:

We had read that the best time to visit the Taj-Mahal was at sunrise to avoid the massive crowds. We made it just before 6am and it was even more impressive than the previous day.


We left later that morning on a train bound for Delhi. We are now in Hanoi, Vietnam and the next update will be on our Delhi and Northern India adventure, followed by Nepal, Northern Thailand and Laos - yes, way behind, but we're on holiday ;)

Greg and Issy

Posted by gregandissy 03:03 Archived in India Comments (2)

(Entries 6 - 10 of 22) « Page 1 [2] 3 4 5 »