Mexico City

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Last but not least, the capital itself. It was quite a contrast going from an island with 16,000 inhabitants, to a city with a population at least five times as great as my home country.  I wasn’t sure what to expect; like most people, mention the nation’s capital and I conjured up thoughts of pollution and traffic. My flatmate in Italy, Hector, was from Mexico City, and I was so excited to see him again and to be shown around this gigantic city with a local’s perspective.

A fascinating piece of history is that Mexico City has been colloquially dubbed the ‘sinking city’. It was built in a valley many years ago, and since it has been slowly sinking. This is really highlighted in some of the cathedrals; you actually have to walk down stairs to enter the cathedral, and the floors are definitely on slants. Mexico City is split up into a number of districts, each distinct with its own reputation. Hector worked in the Federal District, which was hustling, bustling and full of important looking people wearing suits. Our first meal took place here, and we were pretty excited to have a local ordering for us. At Oaxaca Bistro we launched ourselves into the thick of delicious, authentic Mexican food; and this was just the beginning. We ordered from a set lunch menu, which apparently is the done thing. Also nearby is La Casa de los Abuelos, basically an institution when it comes to classic Mexican food.

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Not far from Hector’s office is La Reforma, the equivalent to Barcelona’s Las Ramblas: it is an incredible boulevard that stretches for 12 kilometres, and is lined with hotels, greenery, office buildings, protests and the famous Latinoamericana Tower (once the tallest building in the city). It terminates in the Centro Historico; cobblestone pedestrian streets crammed with taco carts, street vendors and extremely cheap clothing stores. One of the prettier buildings is the Palacio de bellas artes; an art gallery/opera house that is white with a gold roof. Running parallel to Reforma is Alamadas – the oldest public park in the city, and if you need food Café de Tacuba is not too far away (Mexico City’s longest established café). If I had to recommend somewhere to stay, I would suggest somewhere close to the Reforma (although the closer you get, I expect the more expensive it would be), or in the bohemian Condesa neighbourhood; wide boulevards lined with trees and littered with funky bars and cafes, it was described as Mexico’s East Village (New York), or Notting Hill (London).

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The most obvious downfall to a city with so many people is the traffic problems it causes. It took so incredibly long to get anywhere. Thankfully Uber was were cheap, as I couldn’t imagine having to bus everywhere. As all of the people in Hector’s suburb have their own cars, there is no need for the subway to extend out that far. The taxis around the city are all either pink and white, or red and gold. A great way to see the most impressive sights of the extensive city, without having to drive or taxi everywhere is to buy a ticket for the “Hop on, Hop off” bus. Through this means we saw the Castillo de Chapultepec; a once royal residence, that transformed into a presidential dwelling, and now a museum (65 peso entry, unfortunately everything is written only in Spanish), the Monument of Independence, the Revolution Monument, and of course, the Anthropology Museum. This is Mexico’s most popular museum, and I loved it just as much as the next person. The history of the Mayan’s and Aztecs is absolutely fascinating, and you could lose yourself in the incredibly displayed warren of artefacts. We were fortunate in that a man at the help-desk gave us a ‘highlights’ tour, so we got to see the best of it in about 2 hours.

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On our last day in Mexico City we took a day trip from the Audacio to the Pyramids of the Sun and Moon. We left at about 8am, and made a few stops on the way. First up was Basilica de Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe, Mexico’s most important religious site.  We drove through Tlalnepantla City, which consisted of hundreds of concrete houses covering the hill-side, all painted bold block colours; orange, green, yellow, purple, pink – you name it! At the pyramids we learnt how the Mayans used to obtain pigments to colour their paintings. Climbing up the pyramids was no mean feat; the steps were almost vertical, and there was a fair few of them. The souvenirs sold here were all pretty unique; various ornaments made from obelisk (the mineral that used to be mined in the area), as well as whistles that sounded like wild animals and birds. From here we visited a workshop where we learnt the various uses of the agave plant: soap, paper, needles and thread are just a few of the many uses. We were then given shots of mezcal and tequila, before taken to a buffet lunch where we were entranced by performances of miriacha and cultural Aztec dancers. We then got taught how to play Aztec ball – the throwing up of a round ball and hitting it back and forth to each other through a hoop, using the back-side of ones biceps as a bat.

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Isla Mujeres

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IMG_4747Literally translating to “Island of Women”, this colourful fishing village was my favourite stop on our journey through Mexico.  Just a short ferry ride from the mainland, it contrasts immensely to the fast-paced
chaotic tourism that comprises Cancun and I think is an absolute must-visit for everyone. For a set fare (about 80 pesos) the ferry terminal is just a short taxi ride away from the bus station. A return ticket to Isla costs about 136 pesos (with the brightly coloured ferry company Manaja) and the trip takes 25 minutes. For us, getting back to Cancun proved a little more difficult – for some reason (not sure if it is always like this) but the ferry queue was enormous. We were in line and there wasn’t enough space on the ferry, so we had to sit in the queue for another hour until the next ferry arrived.

One of the coolest hostels I have ever experienced is Poc Na. Recommended to us by friends, it was located right on the beach, with a dive school attached, as well as offering free yoga, Spanish lessons, massages, beach volleyball and live music (to name just a few of the options) on a regular basis. It also offers various day trips and has a beach bar, a café, and spacious, clean rooms. The hostel is only a few blocks from Playa Norte. With warm blue water that is shallow for ages and heavenly cabanas (which get snapped up quickly!) it is definitely one of the best beaches on the island for swimming and sunning yourself.
The island itself is tiny, and extremely walkable. There is only about 16,000 permanent residents, basically all of whom which are involved in tourism in some way. IMG_4836The town is condensed at the northern end of the island (where the ferry drops you off) and is packed with bars, restaurants, and shops full of cute trinkets. Isla Mujeres is only about 8km long, and at its thinnest point it is possible to see from one side to the other.

I would definitely recommend hiring a golf cart as a fun and convenient way to see the island, visiting the far spots that you mayn’t otherwise reach, and viewing where the craggy cliffs meet the warm blue tones of the Caribbean. We hired one for 650 pesos (Poc Na has them available for hire, but they were sold out for the day already when we went) and attempted to cover every nook and cranny of the island. We passed Dolphin Discovery, the Turtle farm, explored the ruins at the southernmost point of the island, and stopped for a drink at a bar that overlooked the water (with beer “so cold it’ll make your teeth hurt!”).

Other places we ate at include Velazquez, which had simplistic décor (plastic tables and chairs) that was just perfect for this cute little place, overlooking the pier, boats and setting sun. For some reason, ordering a whole fresh fish felt like a necessity as we sat under the beachfront palapa (thatch roof). It was so delicious. The margaritas were enormous, and also delicious. Another spot overlooking the water is Bally Hoo. This place was a lot more formal in comparison (and its prices reflected that to some extent). The service was incredible – the waiter noted both of our names, and used them generously throughout the night. I had steak fajitas and a large mojito – it didn’t take us long to learn that the drinks in Isla were far bigger and stronger than anywhere else we had been. For dessert, I would definitely suggest indulging in the Spanish classic: Churros. At nham nham churros, a family owned and operated business; I splurged on a Nutella filled churro, and momentarily went to heavy. The place itself is cute too; a little food cart within the shop itself, and you can watch the churros being made from scratch. If your body is craving some vitamins and minerals I would head to Green Verde. Admittedly we didn’t make it here, but it was recommended to us a million times. It was a decent walk from the town centre and when we ventured there with the golf cart it was closed for the hour. I was pretty disappointed not to eat here, but c’est la vie.

I was ridiculously excited (and nervous) to get back into the water and do some diving. It had been almost been a year since I last went, and getting my equipment ready was quite a bit harder than I expected (increasing my nerves ten-fold). The boat was pretty small compared to other boats that I have been on (a few of us felt pretty sea sick), and running on Mexico time we were late in leaving. Isla is famous for whale sharks, however it was the wrong season for these gentle giants, and instead I got offered (if I was adventurous enough) to dive with some more ferocious bull sharks (I was nervous enough about the diving itself so I passed on that one!).

First we visited Musa (aka the Underwater Museum). Put in place by the people of Cancun, the museum was full of statues, grenades, cars and would have been incredibly awesome had there just been a few more fish/wild-life. This was my first experience where some of the members of my group had terrible dive etiquette (which must have been bad, for an amateur like myself to notice), for example pushing past each other (and me) underwater, swimming off without their buddies, and not knowing how to effectively communicate with the team. It was a little frustrating, and made me a bit panicky! Our second dive was along a reef at the south of the island. Again the sea-life was pretty disappointing, although we did spot some lionfish and barracuda. We were encouraged to swim through a long, dark, low cave; and although I almost self-induced claustrophobia, I was proud to say that I did it.

Take home message from this blog post: if you are in the vicinity, visit Isla Mujeres.

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Tulum

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A $7 bus ride and approximately an hour from Playa del Carmen lies Tulum. If you are after a holiday destination that incorporates a pristine beach, a laid-back atmosphere, ancient Mayan ruins (Tulum means “wall” in Mayan) and of course, authentic Mexican food, then Tulum will probably fit the bill. Better still, it’s warm all year around (although rainiest in June, September, and October).

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We stayed at the Lobo Inn, which was about 200m from the entrance to the ruins. The hostel has the potential to be awesome – however it was quite a way out of town, lacked power-points and lights in general (which reflects Tulum’s lack of a community power supply), and the bathrooms were sub-par. It did offer a delicious free breakfast, as well as the opportunity to borrow bikes – we claimed two straight away and used them to ‘xplore the ‘burbs.

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La Coqueta = top notch. Near the supermarkets (Charmani is the better quality of the two), we were told to expect a wait but that it would be worth it. We crept in to get the last available table. Here I experienced my first Mexican Coca-Cola (they use palm sugar instead of the artificial stuff that America puts in) and a delicious vegetarian wrap. It was so good, had there been time we definitely would have come back.

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Move

Cycling: Unlike New Zealand, helmets are considered a mere accessory – therefore no one wears them. Cycling round the ‘burbs are an inexpensive, fun way of seeing the area and gives you freedom an ability to explore in a way walking and taxi’s do not. The houses in the area were minimalistic, with cheaply constructed washing lines and beaten-up cars outside, often guarded by a dog – probably a stray.

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Beach: Tulum’s biggest draw card. White sand that stretches for miles, clean blue water, and for once, more palm trees than people – it was a stereotypical beach-lovers paradise. Cabanas dot the dunes, and occasionally vendors wander past with fresh fruit for sale (to my dismay no-one seemed be selling mango).

Ruins: Dating from the thirteenth century, it doesn’t take long to see why the Mayan’s chose this picturesque spot for their temples. Big grassy spaces dotted with palm trees (it reminded me of a golf course), private beaches (but open to the public within the ruins) and lots of stone ruins. The ruins cost 650 pesos, and are an afternoon well spent.

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Cenotes: A must-do whilst in Mexico. Natural freshwater pools in caves, there are two main ones near to Tulum; Gran Cenote and Dos Ojos. We opted for the latter and for 400 pesos caught a collectivo (about a 25 minute drive from the entrance to the ruins) where we got dropped at the entrance, with a piece of paper that had someone’s name on it. It was all very confusing, but in the end, a driver collected us, drove us through the entrance to the cenote where we got given snorkels, flippers and directions to the ‘baby’ cave. We thought it was strange to be offered wetsuits in Mexico, but after jumping into the water we soon realised why: it was ICY cold. We snorkelled through the cave until we were comfortable, then we headed back up to the equipment area, where we were taken to the more advanced cave. A guide led us through a long cave – it was really dark (we had underwater torches) with stalactites, bats, and lots of beautiful scenery.

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Akumal: A collectivo ride later we found ourselves dropped off at an exit point on the side of the highway. We were unsure where to go, so we thought logically and walked back along the road to the entrance of the Akumal Resort, only to be denied entry, and told to walk back where we came from. Feeling very uncertain we walked along the highway exit, but thankfully it evolved into a commercial boulevard (for the general public). It is about a ten minute walk. A Mexican man latched onto us as we walked and miraculously convinced us into signing up for his snorkelling tour.

Seventy minutes and 300 pesos later we had our own private guide who pointed out eel rays, fish, squid and sea turtles. And not just one sea turtle, we saw several. They were enormous, and were not at all afraid of humans. Every so often they need to come up for air, and when they mission it to the surface, you almost feel that if you don’t get out of their way they will swim straight through you. It was fascinating, and the water was so warm I could have stayed in there forever.  We left all of our clothes and valuables in plastic containers on the beach, and although they were ‘supervised’ we were still pretty relieved to see everything there upon our return.

After returning our snorkel gear, and being given a sea urchin as a gift from our guide, Hailee and I went and found a spot in the sun. It started raining and Hailee went for lunch; I accidentally fell asleep and somehow got really sunburnt (which sure makes carrying a backpack painful). My day was made when I found a man selling fresh mango on sticks with chilli and lime for just $3.

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MEXICO

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There is something about the Spanish culture that I absolutely adored when I was in Europe. A combination of the weather, the language, the food, people and music; a sense of happiness encompassed me in Spain, and I was hoping for the same in Mexico. I hadn’t been to Mexico since a childhood visit to Tijuana, so I was definitely excited to explore the unknown. I had been learning Spanish for the few months leading up to this trip, and I was enthused by the prospect of practicing these skills. It was also a cheap, chilled way to end my trip; a cheeky stop through the Riviera Maya, who wouldn’t say no to a swim in the Caribbean?!

Here’s where I visited: (click on each title to read more)

 

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10 useful tips to know before you travel to Mexico:

  1. The water is mostly undrinkable. Ask at your accommodation though, because sometimes they will have a filter.
  2. US dollars are a second unofficial currency. Most places will accept US dollars or pesos, and frequently both prices will be advertised. It pays to always carry some cash, as most places won’t accept cards.
  3. Mexico’s own aperitif – corn chips with various sauces. Whenever you go out for a meal, complimentary chips are brought out to start you off; I had to develop some serious self-control, and quickly – otherwise I never actually wanted to eat my dinner.
  4. Haggling is a thing. In department stores, grocery stores, pharmacies and the like, prices will be as advertised. However, if it is a flea-market type shop, then feel free to negotiate towards what you believe is a fair price.
  5. Getting around – welcome to the collectivo. Looks like a shuttle, effectively a group taxi; you wave them down and should pay about 25 pesos regardless of where you are going. We got ripped off a few times, but didn’t waste our time arguing over a few dollars.
  6. Obviously the places I visited were more touristy than a lot of other places in Mexico, but I was astonished at how well everyone spoke English and how willing everyone is to help.
  7. Mexican toilets and loo paper don’t mix well. Don’t risk it, save yourself a potentially awkward situation and when instructed, just put your loo paper in the rubbish bin provided.
  8. Being young, female and blonde meant I attracted a lot of unwanted attention. I soon learnt that the Mexicans thrive off banter, and if you are willing to move past their nonsensical chat, they are indeed great sources of local information, and unlike other countries, are absolutely stoked to have you practice your amateur Spanish-speaking skills on them.
  9. Mexico’s version of the Seven Eleven, OXXO stores are virtually everywhere, and sell virtually everything.
  10. Museums are often closed on Mondays, so check that first.

 

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  • Everything incorporates tortillas one way or another. Whether it be fresh in a taco, toasted in a tostada, or grilled into a quesadilla, I suddenly found myself eating them on a regular basis.
  • Margarita. Tequila + triple sec + lime juice, served on the rocks. Nowadays, they are served in many different ways – flavoured, iced and all very delicious.
  • Paloma. Tequila mixed with sparkling lemon, what Mexican’s tend to think of when they picture drinks involving tequila.
  • Horchata. A traditional drink made with rice, almonds, cinnamon and sugar. To me it tasted like a chilled chai latte.
  • Tropical fruit. Usually in abundance in any tropical country, we saw mango, banana, coconut, pineapple, papaya… convenient, delicious, healthy snacks!
  • Tacos al pastor. One of the most famous dishes, ‘al pastor’ translates to ‘in the style of the shepherd’. To serve, think strips of meat are sliced off a spit, placed on a tortilla and topped with onion, coriander and fresh pineapple. My mouth is watering at the memory.
  • IMG_4522Tostadas. Simple yet delicious, basically they are baked/fried tortillas, served either plain or topped with cheese, meet, beans and anything else that tickles your fancy. Kind of like a pizza base, it is a great way to utilise slightly stale tortillas!
  • Chicharron. Unlike in New Zealand, where you only see pork crackling if someone successfully makes it when they cook a roast, you can find bags of crackling here, in amongst where you buy the potato chips. It is frequently found as a topping on salads, tacos, and of course, tostadas.
  • Enchiladas. An ancient dish evolved from when the Mayans used to wrap corn tortillas around small fish. Nowadays are enchiladas are filled with anything from meat to seafood, beans and vegetables, layered with cheese and chilli and baked until cooked through.
  • Quasedillas. Pronounced ‘kasss – aaaa- deeee- yaaah’.
  • Guacamole. Something I cannot get enough of, especially when tacos are in abundance. Combine avocado, onion, tomato, lemon juice, chilli, garlic and if you are feeling adventurous, a dash of tequila and devour with tortilla chips – one of my favourite foods in the world.
  • Frijoles. Translates to beans, I saw how popular these are with the Mexican people when I lived with Hector. They are usually cooked with water and onion very slowly, until they are soft. Sometimes they are mashed and recooked (ie. Re-fried beans).
  • Empanada. South America’s answer to the meat pie, it is a meat filled pastry.

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Hooray for Ho Chi Minh City

Vietnam was the country that the majority of our group had been most excited for, and it was not likely to disappoint. We knew relatively little, but had heard so much about the enchanting land where we would spend the better part of the next two weeks – and we could not wait.

After AirAsia delivered us safely from Bangkok, but first we had to collect our visas. Thanks to Vietnam-visa.com we already had our approval letters and completed entry forms – all we needed to include was a passport photo and US $45. As you arrive at the immigration hall (before going through customs and collecting your baggage) to the left is a “Landing Visa” window where you submit your documentation along with your passport and then take a seat until your name is called. The officials will then call your name out once your visa has been processed. It pays to have a look at the faces of the people before you in the queue, because if my experience was anything to go by, they will pronounce your name almost 100% wrong – I wouldn’t actually have known that my name was called had it not been for my friends laughing at my lack of response when my name was (apparently) called and my unconscious recognition of those in the queue before me.

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We had been repetitively warned to only use Mai Linh taxis (coloured green and white) as they were one of the few reputable companies around town. So after leaving the international terminal (currently/conveniently suffering a green taxi famine) we headed along to the domestic terminal – not surprisingly, we were far more successful. Our taxi dropped us at our hostel Vietnam Inn Saigon in District One – which had reasonably spacious rooms, adequate facilities, and to our delight, a rooftop bar.

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Early the next morning Kelsey and I got picked up to begin a tour of the Cu Chi Tunnels through the Saigon River Express. It was pretty expensive, however I would happily pay it again for the experience we had. From our hostel we got taken down to the waterfront where we climbed aboard a speedboat and began our journey down river. We boated for about an hour, enjoying the scenery (lots of trees and reeds floating in the water) as well as an on-board breakfast before eventually arriving at the tunnels. The tour was predominantly above ground, and was so incredibly interesting. I’m pleased we arrived early because it was inundated with tourists by the time we’d finished exploring. We were given the opportunity to squeeze ourselves into what used to be one of the tunnel entrances; as my claustrophobia grew, so did my respect for what the Vietnamese endured.  We then travelled 40m underground through a reconstructed tunnel: the darkness combined with the stale smell and the uncomfortable half-squat/half-stooped over position we were forced to adopt meant that 40m was more than enough – and to think that these tunnels were three times larger than what they had been back in war time. It was a relief to see daylight, and after trying taro with peanut and sugar, and having the chance to shoot a real machine gun I was pleased to finally sit down with our tour group for an unexpected feast on the waterfront. There were spring rolls, morning glory, sweet and sour vegetables, marinated pork soup – and that was just the beginning. Needless to say, we were all sleepy characters on the boat trip back.

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The tour company kindly dropped us at the War Remembrance Museum, but because it was lunchtime we had to wait for it to reopen. The wait was definitely worth it; it was probably one of the more memorable museums I have ever been to. Start at the top of the building and make your way down; it’s actually arranged in chronological order, but poorly signposted so most people don’t actually know where to begin, and end up just drifting. The highlight for me was the photo exhibition – the saying couldn’t be truer that a picture speaks a thousand words. To read some of the captions of the photos (for example, one photograph depicted a family in a row about to be shot, and as the photographer walked away from the scene he heard the gunshots fire – but didn’t (couldn’t) look back) was absolutely heart-wrenching, and then to go on and learn all about Agent Orange and the far-reaching damage it has caused was enough to numb all of us for the rest of the day.

With the size of our party growing (Jimmy had arrived the night before) the following morning saw us set out on a self-guided walking tour (thanks to Lonely Planet), whilst Cam attended a cooking school. We visited the Ben Thanh market – which was huge, crazy and overwhelming at times. We had some delicious food, got into some terrific arguments and collected some great bargains that we were expected to somehow squeeze into our already overflowing backpacks. Before our departure that night we popped up to the 48th floor of the Bitexco Financial Tower – panoramic views of Ho Chi Minh, which were made all the more spectacular by it being night time. We made our way back to the hostel where we climbed aboard our first overnight bus. Set out like bunk beds, we had all been allocated top row beds. I was relieved to be by a window, and after knocking back a sleeping pill I slept pretty darn well. Good night Ho Chi Minh, good morning Nha Trang.

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Onwards and Upwards, to say nothing of Bangkok

Getting to Bangkok from Laos involved a bit of a commute. First we bussed from Vang Vieng to Vientiane, where we stayed the night and then caught a bus the following afternoon to Udon Thani. This involved staying another night, before catching a flight early the next morning to Bangkok. This was a pretty cheap way to do it – as flights from Udon Thani were not only a bargain; but we also thought it would be a good opportunity to check out Laos’ capital and some other sights along the way.

We didn’t know much about Laos before we arrived, and in some ways this was great – no expectations usually means you will be pleasantly surprised. Vientiane was a bit of a let down however; for a capital city, it was pretty darn boring. We checked into our hostel at about 7pm, and despite it being a Saturday night, the majority of our room was already in bed. We wandered the night market, which was pretty cute, before us girls headed out for a game of bowling (#wheninlaos). The next morning we eyed up one of the main tourist attractions, Patuxai, which is essentially the Arc de Triomphe of Laos. Well, that’s what they claim anyway; and they definitely have their similarities. After paying Noy’s Fruit Heaven a visit (quality food and drink) we met up with the boys who had located a rather heavily chlorinated pool for us to lounge by before our next bus ride.

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When we arrived in Udon Thani we scouted out the mall looking for somewhere authentic to eat; paradoxically ending up at McDonalds (mainly because the free wifi allowed us to hostel hunt). Not too far away we found a place with brothel style showers, dirty linen and the walls a shade of yellow that could only have slotted in somewhere between mustard and puke on the colour shading chart. Our conclusion: it had once been, and hopefully no longer was, a brothel. After the hostel owner took a photo of us (?!) we opted for an early night before our early morning flight to Bangkok.

Some serious indecisiveness about our best way to get into Bangkok from the airport was only the beginning of a day of transport nightmares. We decided the bus and Skytrain combination would be cheaper than two taxis (due to there being five of us) and it probably was, although we will always wonder whether a taxi may have prevented what was to follow. We had all splashed out for a beauty of an Air BnB apartment, and we were all very excited for some luxurious accommodation. Following the directions from the Skytrain, we braved a 1.8km walk in humidity like I’d never experienced, to where we thought our apartment should be. It wasn’t there, and upon rechecking the address we realised there was in fact, two addresses in our directions. We asked for directions many a time, and were continually pointed in the direction of wherever we’d just come from. We eventually gave up and got in a taxi, only to be seriously ripped off (we were past the point of caring), but he frustratingly dropped us off exactly where we’d got in, because he couldn’t find it either. At borderline breaking point we got through to Air BnB who gave us accurate directions.

Thankfully, the quality of the apartment completely compensated for the difficulty we’d had in finding it. A room each, a pool, gym and steam room, unlimited DVDs, and a fully self catered kitchen made us feel like A list celebrities, at least temporarily. A quick stop to the supermarket almost turned into a day trip – it was like a theme park in there! It was massive, absolutely fascinating and the steady stream of cold air coming from the roof certainly wasn’t unwelcome. That night we had a few drinks over a delicious home cooked dinner (curry of course) before heading out to Soi Cowboy, for a night at Suzie Wongs. It was, ahem, enlightening. We decided we didn’t want to taxi across town to Khao San Road for a ping-pong show, and had heard that, conveniently, there was a similar area relatively close to our house. I’m pleased we didn’t travel. And I’m also pleased we didn’t pay. We’d read about a fair few scams that go on at these ping pong shows, and while the show itself was something we were all intrigued by, I don’t think any of our group would have wanted to empty their pockets over what we saw.

The next morning was a case of dropping like flies. We had all wanted to visit Khao San Road. Cam was too hungover to get out of bed, Summer almost vomited in the taxi and had to politely evacuate herself, the taxi driver claimed he’d never heard of Khao San Road so  2 hours later James also had to remove himself in order to start his transit to the airport (to fly home to NZ) leaving just Kels and I in the taxi. 2.5 hours later (17km) we pulled up at our final destination. We refused to pay the meter amount, so just gave him what we thought was fair before making a hasty departure. Whether it be our moods (hungover combined with the long morning spent in traffic) or the extreme heat, we were very unimpressed with Khao San Road, and after a quick self guided tour down the street and along to the Royal Palace we just wanted to go home. It took awhile to negotiate a reasonably priced taxi fare home, but we made it in record time, and spent the rest of the afternoon recovering by the pool and/or in front of the AC airflow. That night we were joined by the Brits again (our friends from Kohphangan + Vang Vieng) for a fun night of food, games and booze, before they flew out to Hanoi the next morning and we were joined by James’ replacement, Abby. After briefly exploring the mall and food court around Siam, we headed off to the airport – this time bound for Vietnam.

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Vang Vieng: the adventure capital

The jury is still out on whether the road from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng could get any worse. Lonely Planet had informed us the journey would take 9 hours; our only consolation was that it took seven. The road is broken, holey, narrow and windy; not helped by the fact our driver was clearly half crazy – it was a miracle we made it in one piece. In our minivan we only had one person vomit, which they say is an outcome to be proud of. James, Summer, Kelsey and I were mushed into the backseat, with barely enough space for our hips to align side by side, and some of the bigger potholes saw our heads meet the roof. Similarly to Pai, I took two travel sickness pills, and apparently my likeness to a rag-doll became awfully annoying, as I kept sleepily falling into whoever was next to me. The jury also remains out on taking the bus vs. minivan – whilst we opted for a minivan (as it is faster) I remain of the view that a bus would be the better option for light-stomached travellers.

We had intended on staying at Chez Mango, but weren’t so keen to pay the toll to walk across the bridge every time we went to town, so we ended up staying at Molina Bungalows. Whilst not the most social place, the quality was fine, and we were soon joined by Emma & co, including some of the boys we had befriended at the Full Moon Party. The restaurant across the road from Molina Bungalows was to become one of our favourite Asian eats; we ate there for almost every meal. The Pad Thai was so good, one day I actually ate it for every meal, and it was hardly a challenge. Unfortunately the actual name of the restaurant (in English) is unbeknownst to both me and Google Maps – not surprisingly the internet isn’t too concerned with this wee riverside town tucked away in the middle of Laos. However, it was directly across the road from our accommodation, and I would highly, highly recommend.

In Vang Vieng, I did three of the most worthwhile things I have ever done:

1. Ziplining. Literally gliding through the tree tops at speed, attached merely by a harness, metres from the ground. We caught a tuk-tuk out to the course, and found ourselves grouped with a bunch of hilarious Koreans (Cam had the extra bonus of basically meeting PSY’s doppelganger) who weren’t so good at stopping at the end of each zipline. Cam and I were pumped, wedgies and all, Summer and Kels both a little more hesitant. We began by doing a lower course, before advancing way up high (70m) – it was such an adrenaline rush. At the end you had to jump off a platform to reach the ground – ’twas the icing on the cake for those afraid of heights!   We booked our ziplining experience through a little travel agency in town – these agencies are absolutely everywhere, and we basically just walked around for a bit hunting for which package suited us the best.

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2. Tubing. Well, we’ve all heard the stories (good and bad) – notoriously dangerous, but one hell of a day. Things have changed somewhat though – after so many deaths occurred a few years back, the Laos government really cracked down and pretty much abolished the entire concept of tubing, and consequently, the town’s tourism. However, the activity is slowly starting to redeem itself, and these days is a lot more safe. Many (pretty  much all) of the shops stock tourist gear – the traditional tubing singlets are great, as are the waterproof bags for around your neck, although I would still advise to take the bare minimum with you tubing. Items of debate include shoes (I wore jandals, which I just hooked through my bag strap whilst on the river) and sunglasses – I opted to leave mine behind. We had a waterproof camera and a GoPro which we had a blast with, however there are stories of such items being lost and/or stolen. By all accounts, leave phones and passports behind!

Tubes can be hired from downtown, and a tuk-tuk then takes you out to Bar #1. We spent awhile here, as the weather was superb, and the bar had a great set-up (beach volleyball court included) with fantastic music. Eventually the call was made to hit Bar #2. This turned out to be about 50m down the river – so much for a day of tubing! Here Metin took on a monkey man in a fighting pit, unfortunately losing, and ending up in the murky water below. There was a basketball court with water fountains, and a volleyball court (ahem, mud pit) which a fair few of us took a tumble in. We got friendship bracelets, lost the volleyball and decided it was time to move on. Bar #3 meant food time – I absolutely devoured a baguette, and from here the memory fades. Bar #4 was a no-show, we decided that we would boost back and ensure the return of our deposit (an apparent conspiracy exists between the tuk-tuk drivers and tube hirers – if they don’t return us on time to collect the deposit then they take a share of the money).

A fantastic day out though, and a lot of fun to be had by all. Different options are available for people with less of an emphasis on partying. Two of the more popular bars in town are Sakura and Kangaroo Sunset, containing not just enthusiastic post-tube partygoers, but also many other tourists – both are bound to provide you with a night full of entertainment – from pool to music and dancing to shots and happy balloons to food – you name it. If, however, nothing on the menu tickles your fancy, there is a ridiculous amount of vendors colouring the streets on the way home.

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3. Hot Air Ballooning. A lone soldier on this one, I got picked up at 5am by a group taxi, where our group drove out of town to a large paddock (which is really only about 2 km from the town’s centre) where I got into a teeny tiny basket, only a teeny tiny ounce fearful for my life. It was a little rocky taking off, but once off the ground it was so smooth, that not even my drink bottle fell over. There was 8 of us, plus the pilot, which definitely kept us cosy in the early hours of the morning. It was surreal. Words cannot describe how peaceful it was up there, no sound except for the occasional roar of the balloon as it released bursts of hot air. The crisp, cool air of the morning, and the smoky mountains and dotted houses below, I was entranced. We ballooned for probably about an  hour, and I really did not want it to end. At this point in time, it would have been the coolest thing I’d ever done in my life.

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