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A real taste of Laos in Luang Nam Tha

Laos’s reputation for being the most chilled country in South East Asia was cemented by our border crossing experience; just a short boat ride over the river from Thailand, a hassle free visa-on-arrival purchase, and a stop at the it-could-have-been-a-lemonade-stand passport control kiosk (where the offical had a booming side-trade selling ciggies), and we were in. The border town of Huay Xai was a surprisingly good spot to spend a night, and it was made even better by our first bottles of the cheap and legendary Beer Lao, and the delectable veggie curries served up at Bar How.

Most people go directly to Luang Prabang by slow boat from Huay Xai, but we really wanted to see more of the North before heading down, so we caught the bus to the trekking centre of Luang Nam Tha. While the town of Luang Nam Tha is nothing to rave about, it was a great base for organising our trek and we felt right at home in our beautiful room at Zuela’s. After a bit of walking around, we booked a three day, two night kayaking trek into the Nam Ha National Protected Area with Forest Retreat Laos – a vibrant young outfit with some very passionate individuals at the helm.
The following morning, after meeting our friendly guides and the other two couples we would be spending the next three days with, we set off on a bumpy tuk-tuk ride upriver and launched into the warm water in our very comfortable, banana-looking, inflatable yellow kayaks. Although we started outside of the NPA, we were soon coccooned by the lush green of Laos’ Protected forest, and our surroundings became increasingly breathtaking as we paddled on.

The river conditions were perfect and there was a good amount of water to rocket us through some thrillingly turbulent rapids. However, it didn’t take long to realise that teaming up in a kayak with (supposedly) one person in charge of steering, when there are jagged rocks, fallen trees, strong currents and hairpin bends to navigate, is the ultimate relationship-tester. Luckily, whatever silent power-sharing agreement we made worked, and we made it through without tipping, or puncturing our banana, or causing eachother any grievous bodily harm. In between these little adrenalin shots, we stopped at a couple of villages on the way, and were greeted with very mixed reactions.

Many of the older villagers seemed either indifferent or amused by our presence as our guides walked us through, explaining the different cultural practices, the histories of the people, and how they came to settle in Laos. Many of the children were petrified of us, but also intrigued, so they would follow at a distance, whispering and giggling as they pushed one another closer to our group. Every time one of us turned around to address them, it triggered off fits of hysteria and they would scatter in all directions, laughing and screaming. Our stop at the Khmu village was particularly memorable, as we arrived just as the local school was finishing for the day, and as soon as the children saw us, they were lining up on the banks, pointing and giggling nervously, watching our every move. Once again, they followed us at distance through the village until we reached their school, where Libby and Eric (two of our fellow trekkers) got permission from the headmaster to play some games to break the ice. All other attempts had failed – largely because our guide had jokingly spread the rumour that we had come to take some children away with us – and we were caught in a bit of a we-watch-you-watch-us kind of stand off. So after a very well received rendition of ‘head, shoulders, kneees and toes’, an almighty game of stop-go errupted on their field. The impression we got was that for adults to ‘play’ like children, or behave childishly was something they were not used to, so they found the fact that we were willing to do strange actions and voices endlessly amusing. Still somewhat reluctant to get too close, they followed us down to the river at a distance again, but promptly started a water fight as soon we were getting back into the bananas. Some games are truly universal.

The water fight continued as we paddled down river and around the corner into our next set of rapids, the biggest of the day; a real gushing vortex of whitewater that lasted for at least 300metres. By the end of our day we had covered about 28km, and although the rapids and the currents had made go quite quickly, we were happy to reach our first night’s camp, a forest ‘retreat’ at the river confluence, that was built and rented out by the villagers up the river. It was very simple large bamboo hut on stilts, but the villagers went out of their way to make it comfortable by supplying mattresses, blankets and mozzie nets. We were joined that evening by the village chief and some of his fishing partners, who had set up camp near the river.

They welcomed us to join them around their fire and let us sample some of their fish, smoked to perfection in banana leaves with lemongrass, and eaten with the ubiquitous Lao staples of sticky rice and roasted chillies. But with the fish came our first encounter with Lao-Lao, the infamous Loatian home-brewed rice whiskey. There’s really no explaining it – it takes your breathe away like vodka, makes your chest burn like tequila, makes your eyes water like stroh rum, and tastes only mildly whiskey-ish, with a bit of a heartier nutty aftertaste. This batch also had a minty green tinge, which made us think there may have been some petrol in the mix too – it certainly tasted like it! The thing is, no matter how vile the stuff is, saying no to it is incredibly difficult because they don’t really take no for an answer. The only way to successfully refuse is to say something to the effect of, “I’m am drunk and about to lose face,” but all attempts to learn these phrases failed dismally.
Whether it was the Lao-Lao or the full day of paddling, we had a great night’s sleep at the forest retreat, and woke up to a substantial breakfast of sticky rice, Laotian omellete and tomatoes – just what we needed for another day of paddling. The second day pushed us further into the jungle and we saw fewer and fewer villages as we continued. Instead we were surrounded by enormous mountains of every shade of green imaginable, with trees hanging right out over the river, offering much needed patches of shade in the blaring sun. With the rapids thinning out, we had to put in a little more affort with the paddling, but we hardly noticed, and before we knew it, we were at our next stop, a large Khmu village between the river and the Park’s service road.

On our way up to the chief’s house, we gained our usual tail of children, who would dare eachother to get closer, but run away screaming as soon as one of us turned and advanced in their direction. This quickly became a game that kept us busy until our guide had negotiated the terms of our stay with the Chief. We were invited to stay with him and his family and became his official guests for the evening, which meant his wife and mother (-in-law?) prepared the meal and we ate with him. At first it was a little uncomfortable, as we were sitting around his table with him, but none of the other people or family members were allowed to join us. They simply sat against the walls, or outside the door, and watched what was going on. Our guide explained that it was simply their custom, and it should not make us feel awkward, as they would all eat when we were done. And then the Lao-Lao came out, so after a couple of rounds we were all feeling much more relaxed. And after a few more rounds, we were onto a second bottle, and although this brew was much more palatable than the previous nights’, there were some very green looking faces at the table. Eventually, after the rest of us managed to convince our merry host that we could not posssibly have had any more without seriously jeopardising the good names of our families, he picked Joff as his last man standing and insisted that they finish the bottle. Let’s just say that Joff didn’t have any trouble getting to bed that evening, and woke up with the taste of Lao-Lao imprinted on his tastebuds, and it’s burn searing his chest. The following morning, we had some drama when we tried to leave, as the chief’s eight-year-old son had been under the impression that we were going to leave one of our kayaks as a gift for him. His realisation that this was not the case triggered a kick-up of epic proportions, and the result was that he was allowed to skip school and do the last leg with us.
Our final day involved much more paddling, and the 18km we covered actually felt something like it, so we kept ourselves going by taking regular dips in the gently flowing river, trying out different combinations and paddling techniques, and drenching eachother in sporadic water battles. Our stowaway found this all very unnerving at first, but quickly got into the spirit of things and was soon devising ways of luring us closer to his (our guide’s) boat so that he could splash us. As we were nearing our final stretch, we rounded the corner to see a long boat packed with about twenty oarswomen, all dressed in blue, and all paddling like machines in perfect unison, to the rythm of a cox’s whistle. It was only when they drew up next to us and challenged us to a race that we realised how very   rapid they actually were. They must have dropped us in about two seconds flat. Our guides explained that the women were training for the famous annual dragon boat races, which were happening in two days time. Excited to see this, we decided to stay a couple more days. Imagine our delight, then, when we turned the next corner to see some monks assembling a large ornamental boat, decorated with flowers and money, and learned that this was in preparation for the annual lantern festival, which was happening the following day! So with a full agenda of festivals planned for the following days, we pulled our bananas up for the last time, exhausted, but incredibly chuffed with our incredible trekking experience.
After doing a little research, we found out that the Awk Phansa festival is held to mark the end of Buddhist lent and the end of the rainy season. The custom is to build ornate boats and rafts, in which candles are lit and then floated down stream – these are representative of one’s bad luck and wrongdoings, so sending them downstream is a cleansing ritual of sorts.Following this, many people light lanterns with their wishes and hopes for the future inscribed upon them, letting them float up to the heavens where they will hopefully be gracefully received. The river was a hub of festivity when we arrived, with people on both banks setting their little rafts afloat, and letting their lanterns off. The lanterns really do take on amystical quality when released and we really enjoyed watching families and couples letting their wishes go.

A little later, the mood became more energetic, as villagers from all the surrounding areas arrived with their floats, and accompanied them to the water with chanting, drumming, bells, cheering and singing. Some overzealous villagers actually managed to burn their boat before even making it to water, much to the merriment of the onlookers. The celebrations ended with a literal bang, as an enormous firework sent a volcano of sparks up into the air (and down again on some unsuspecting bystanders), and we all made our way back to town, thrilled at having taken part in such a magical evening.

The next day we were back at the river,  just a little out of town, for the famous Dragon Boat Races, or Bun Nam, the River Festival. Teams from all over the province were competing and the racing was fierce. The river banks were jam-packed with stalls and excited spectators, but due to the heat, all we saw on arrival was a sea of umbreallas. After a bit of exploring, we found a good vantage point on the bank and watched the races begin, and the drama unfold. If we had any doubt that this was a serious undertaking for the teams involved, we were quickly set straight, as boats capsized around corners, bad loosers threw their paddles into the river, and spectators went crazy on the banks. Even though we did not know anything about the teams or how the races were actually set up, it was great watching the different styles of racing and the really good teams were truly impressive.

Eventually, the sun just got the better of us and we retreated to the shady cool of one of the many great restaurants in town. We were really lucky with our timing in Luang Nam Tha, as we had no idea that all these events were on, but even if that hadn’t been the case, we would have loved it just the same. It’s everything that is good about leaving the well-trodden backpacker trail; welcoming, quiet, cheap, friendly and totally surprising. We really loved our time there.


Pieces of Pai and Chiang Rai

After being bewitched by the charms of Chiang Mai, we were excited to see more of Northern Thailand. Pai had been touted as a mystical chillout town, nestled in the Northern mountains, but we had also heard reports of its transformation into a mini Khao-San-Rd-style site of Western debauchery. However, on arrival we saw no evidence of this, as it really just comprised a few quiet, dusty streets, some beautiful mountain views and a handful of quirky cafes and bars. Our little bungalow at Mr Jan’s was set back in a picturesque and tranquil garden, and for the price of 200 baht a night we were ecstatic with it.

There are plenty of adventure companies offering different kayaking and rafting treks, but after only a couple of hours in this pretty little town, our desire to do anything more demanding than stroll around melted into the refreshingly cool atmosphere. Pai is really a wonderful place to go to take a holiday from travelling. We spent three seriously chilled days just walking and biking around the stunning countryside, and sampling the fare at a number of charming and afordable bakeries and cafes. Our one adventure to find the Hot Springs ended in surprise when we were shown to an outdoor jacuzzi-style bath, just big enough for the two of us.

After leaving Pai seriously relaxed, we made our way to Chiang Rai, the last stop before our border crossing into Laos. Chiang Rai is a well established cultural trekking base, so that was our main reason for putting it on the itinerary, but after researching our options, we decided against any Hill Tribe visits. Like the Thai Elephant situation, the Hill Tribes are also an ethically contentious tourist drawcard, as many are forced to wear traditional clothing and behave in uncharacteristic ways in order give tourists the ‘authentic’ experience they desire. In the case of the Long Neck Karen Tribe, women and young girls are payed small sums (upon which they depend) to continue the harmful neck-stretching tradition that is no longer practiced by the greater Karen people. Unfortunately, we simply could not afford to do a trek with the companies that work constructively with the communities, battling against the ‘human zoo’ factors that seem to characterize much of Thailand’s cultural tourism. Instead, we decided to do a bit of a D.I.Y heritage tour, which gave us a great opportunity to get familiar with Thailand’s surprisingly efficient public bus services (which we hadn’t used since Bangkok).
First on the list was Wat Rong Khun, or The White Temple, a mesmerizing construction on the outskirts of Chiang Rai. Completed relatively recently, it was designed to be one of the most beautiful and unique temples in Thailand, and it is certainly a contender in this regard. Compared to all the other temples we’d seen already, what it lacked in history, it made up for in bizarre unconventionality.  The entrance was lined with replicas from the Predator film and tree branches dripping with decapitated heads, while the main bridge lead us over an hauntingly conceived pit of damned souls. All of this stood in a strange juxtaposition with the purity and brilliance of the temple, itself. The bright white facade is almost blinding to look at, thanks to the addition of several mosiac mirrors, and the detail of even the most minute elements make it a wonder to behold. We happily explored all its little nooks and crannies, making sure we didn’t miss anything.

From there, it was another couple of busses to Chiang Saen, the ancient city of the North. Dotted in amongst the rather oridnary buildings of this sleepy riverside town, are remnants of a city that was once the lifeblood of the Lanna Kingdom. Tall mossy stupas, crumbling red brick walls, and eerily quiet ruins punctuate the main roads, making the surrounding modern structures look quite out of place. Once we had taken in the bigger historical sites, it was back on a tuk-tuk for the twenty minute drive to the golden triangle, where one can stand in Thailand and look out overthe river confluence at  both Myanmar and Laos. It remains famous because of the area’s significance in the frontier days of the poppy trade. Apparently all that is in the past now. We appreciated an overpriced beer at the oddly swanky hotel while watching the boat traffic between the tree countries and then, on the way back, happened to run across a drug smuggling boat that had been brought down in a hail of gunfire by the Thai police.

Getting back to Chiang Rai was a breeze on yet another rickety, but reliable, public bus, and by the time we sat down to have dinner at the night bazaar, we calculated that we had saved ourselves at least 700Baht each by deciding to do the sights ourselves rather than booking a tour; not a bad day’s work fora couple of budgeteers. After a month and half in Thailand, we knew there was still so much to do and see, but Laos was beckoning us and we couldn’t wait to experience it.


Chiang Mai Highs

Chiang Mai was one of those cities that had receieved so many rave reviews from fellow travellers that, while we were really excited to get there, we were also worried that it would not live up to our expectations. These concerns were quickly blighted by our first stroll around this gorgeous city. Our guesthouse (Green Tulip) was well situated within the crumbling walls of the old city, and this menat that most sights and fantastic restaurants were within easy walking distance. However, even if they weren’t, walking around this part of Chiang Mai was such a pleasure that we still made the trek on foot. It felt as if we could not walk 10m without stumbling across a grand old temple, or a mesmerising stupa, and often we would just find ourselves strolling along until we reached the imposing city gates or the grassy banks of the mote, which were perfect for enjoying afternoon ice creams.

Of course, no big city in SEA is complete without its bustling markets, and Chiang Mai was more than complete in this regard with markets-a-plenty. The stand-out contender here was definitely the Sunday Walking Street Market, when the main road running through the city centre is closed to traffic, and vendors of all types set up shop for the evening. Unlike many of the samey markets we’d seen in most of the cities up until this point, Chiang Mai’s Sunday market offered a more eclectic mix of artsy stalls selling a wonderful array of interesting things. Our favourite by far was the artisan cupcake stall, where we spent a good deal of the evening’s budget. We spent hours wandering up and down, soaking up the atmosphere and getting our haggling skills back up to scratch.

All marketed out, and full of cake, we happily returned to our guesthouse, only to find our door latched from the inside. Confused at how we could have managed something that daft, we peered through the little space and saw our room in disarray on the other side. The realisation that someone had broken in was sickening, as our passports and travel documents, both laptops, and the hard-drives with all our photos on them had been left inside (stupid, we know). Panicked, Joff managed to jump from the landing onto our balcony and get in through the balcony door which the thieves had left open. Our first look around confirmed that my laptop had been taken, along with my shoulder bag and the dearly beloved Ipod. At least Joff had had some sense and slid his backpack with the computer and hard-drives in it under the bed before we left – a classic keys-and-wallet-in-the-shoe-at-the-beach-style backpacker move.

Amazingly, our robbers had not thought to look there, and we were at least left with the more important electronics. It also turned out that we had thieves with a bit of a conscience, as lifting one sleeping bag revealed a neat little pile of both passports and all our important travel documents, which they must have actively sought out as I had carefully stowed them in a discreet little pocket in the shoulder bag. Despite the losses, and the discomfort of having our space invaded, we sat on the stairs and waited for the police feeling very relieved that it had not been worse. Dealing with the Thai police was a pleasure and they were very thorough and apologetic. With the help of our wonderful guesthouse proprietresses (the sisters Nine and Stella), who were probably the most traumatised by the ordeal, we got through all the formalities easily, and were constantly assured that this was ‘not what Thai culture condoned.’
I had booked a cooking course for the following day, and had half a mind to cancel, but, having lost quite a lot already, I was not that ready to say goodbye to another 700baht. Thank goodnes for that. The day long course at Siam Rice Cooking School will remain one of the highlights of this trip. It started with a visit to the market where we learned about all the different herbs and the processing of coconut milk and cream, and then moved on to the tranquil garden setting of the family run school. Throughout the day we made seven dishes. Apparently one is supposed to eat them all too, but that’s just crazy talk, so we were all sent on our merry way with bags of take-aways in addition to our certificates, recipe books and bursting stomachs.

While I was thus occupied, Joff was a man on a mission as he walked the city looking for the perfect travel guitar, which he finally found. So by the end of the day we were both on top of the world again thanks to our favourite things: good food and music. And it only got better…
The following day was Joff’s Birthday and we’d decided to do something special and splash out on a trip to The Elephant Nature Park. Up until then, we’d avoided all elephant-related activities in South East Asia (especially Thailand) because of how badly the animals are apparently treated. Our visit to Elephant Nature Park shed more light on this for us, and revealed a far more complex situation than what we had previously written off as simple inhumane brutality. The short version is this: For a long time, Elephants were used as working animals in Thailand’s logging industry, so when logging was banned in 1989, an estimated 3000 animals were left without work and purpose. Sadly, while wild elephants are heavily protected by Thai law, ‘working’ elephants (the animals that have either been left behind after the logging ban, or those that are born into ownership and brutally ‘domesticated’ at a young age) have less protection than livestock, so many of these animals have now crossed over into the tourism industry, where the regulations for their care are hardly stringent. But (and this is the BIG ‘but’ we had not previously considered) without the steady influx of tourists who are dying to ride these magnificent animals, there would be little place for them in Thai society, so by boycotting the elephant camps, one runs the risk of inadvertantly worsening their situation.

But this is where the Elephant Nature Park and the inspiring ‘Lek’ (Little) Chailert come in. Lek has been a champion for elephants’ protection in Thailand since the nineties. After some time travelling through the villages near her home, dispensing medicine and training to elephants and their mahuts (something she still does on an alarmingly large scale), she ended up adopting her first elephant calf and raising him by hand. From then on, she has slowly built up capital and acquired enough land to buy and care for almost 40 elephants from some truly disturbing backgrounds. Possibly the most famous is Jokia, and old ex-logging female who was forced to work while giving birth. After the baby fell to its death she refused to carry on, and was then blinded by her mahout as punishment. We also saw a female whose hind legs were caved in at a very uncomfortable angle under her big body, and were told that this was the result of having her hip broken by a large male in a forced mating set-up. With these violent histories in mind, it was all the more sublime to have close contact with  Lek’s gentle giants.


We started off with a great feeding session, and were totally amazed by the sheer quantity of food they could eat. We then moved on to a close contact session with Jokia and her best friend, another female who ‘adopted’ her within hours of Jokia’s arrival, and leads her all over the sanctuary by tapping her with her trunk. From here we moved to a close herd feeding session, which would have been very intimidating were it not for the ever-watchful and expert presence of the mahouts. Once the ellies were full, we were treated to a delicious buffet lunch, followed by a very moving documentary viewing. Usually visitors get to bathe the herd in the river in the afternoon, but unfortunately our visit coinsided with the beginning of the floods, so the river was out of bounds. Instead we got a tour of the grounds, and were given time to hang out with some of the herd a little more before giving them some early dinner.
Lek is determined to show that domestic elephants can be trained by love and positive reinforcement, rather than the torturous process of violently enforced submission which is still the common practice. As a result, visitors are not permitted to ride any of the elephants at her sanctuary, but what she offers is so much more; a really interactive experience with the herd, and a chance to see these majestic animals in a natural, happy and healthy environment.
We left the Elephant Nature Park invigorated, inspired and ecstatic. It was such a phenomenal place and it will remain etched in our memories forever.

Back in Chiang Mai for one more day, we did the only logical thing and hired a scooter so we could see another temple. Doi Suthep is perched on a mountain and overlooks the whole city, so it was definately worth the trip. The temple complex is really impressive, and the views of Chiang Mai were beautiful. As it happens every time we really feel a connection with a place, deciding to leave Chiang Mai was difficult, but the time to move on had come.

On our way out, we saw the first signs that the flooding that had started in the outlying areas had just begun its assault on the city.  There was no way of knowing that the conditions would escalate to the dreadful levels they did, and over the following days and weeks we watched the flooding reports with very heavy hearts.


The Jungle Railway

From the Perhentians we had to make our way back to Kuala Lumpur in order to fly out to Northern Thailand, a trip that would take us from the North Eastern corner of Malaysia all the way back down to the south of the peninsula. One option was to get an overnight train direct from Kota Bharu and arrive in KL early the following morning, which would have been perfectly simple. But since the start of the trip we’d been hearing about the Jungle Railway, a slow train that snakes its way through the Taman Negara (the largest tract of protected forest on the Malaysian Peninsula), offering beautiful scenery and a more rewarding experience.

After a boat from the islands, a bus to Kota Bharu (the next big town), and another bus to Wakaf Baru (the train station just outside of town), we were happy to learn that, yes, the Jungle Railway would be running the following day, but that we would have to be back at the station by 3:30am, as the train chugs through anytime between then and 4am. Looking for somehwere to camper down for the next few hours and hopefully get some rest before the long journey ahead, we walked around the town looking for a guesthouse or hostel. After many hand-signalled enquiries we were directed to a closed junk shop with dusty windows. Our knocks brought a nervous face to the windown upstairs, and when we said ‘guesthouse?’ she showed us to wait and then disappeared. Ten minutes later, a tall stern man came stalking past and led us through the many security gates and decidedly creepy store to a door at the back, through which he then disappeared. Already a bit hesitant, we stood around listening to some shouting behind the door until our tall host returned and beckoned us to follow him up a small, dark staircase, where he showed us a room that looked as if it had come straight out of Norman Bates’ home in Psycho. We were both waiting for an old woman to jump out of the cupbourd and attack us. I think the host could see the consternation on our faces, as his stern countenance suddenly melted as he jumped onto the bed with a goofy grin, like a groom on his first night of honeymoon, and started patting the duvet next to him saying “hmmm, very comfortable!” In the end, we could not justify spending 50 Ringgit each (an extortionate price, even by KL standards) on a room that was actually too creepy to sleep in, so we thanked him and left. Relieved to get out with all our vital organs, we walked briskly to the bus station and made a little deal with fate; if the public bus heading into Kota Bharu (the big town) hadn’t arrived by 18:30, we would simply go and sleep in the station. Luckily, we were spared a night at the deserted station and got the bus into town where we easily found a completely uncreepy (but also unremarkable) hostel for the night.

Our "uncreepy spot" where we got a valuble 3hours sleep before the journey ahead.

After a 2:30am wake-up, we were back at the platform just after 3, waiting and watching as our fellow passengers filed in slowly. They were mostly middle-aged women carrying large bundles and packages whose contents will remain a mystery. Smiles were exchanged as people unloaded their parcels and took up waiting with the rest of us, and there was quite a bustling little crowd by the time the train rolled in. We took our seats and got comfy as there were still about three hours of darkness in which we could catch up on some sleep as our carriage slowy rocked through stop after stop. Soon the women with bundles were replaced by boisterous young schoolkids, and the carriage was filled with their lively chatter and the heady smells of their fried rice (with chilli and anchovies) breakfasts. They were deposited at the school stop shortly after it started getting light, and in their place we were joined by young mothers and a good mix of regular daily commuters.

As the morning became lighter, we were surrounded by increasingly dense forest, which broke only for each little village and their stations. Through our windows we watched a wonderful kaleidescope of people and snippets of their lives pass us by. Market bound old ladies shouted to one another under the burdens of their heavy loads, families gave happy welcomes, or said sad goodbyes and people of all ages sat around in the nearby noodle shops, waiting or simply passing the time.

The further we continued the more vivid the forest views became, as we chugged in and out of green canopies and marvelled at the enormous limestone formations that suddenly jumped out of the dense vegetation. Railway bridges ferried us across rushing rivers, and long dark tunnels helped us through  the mountains, and back into the verdent greens of the Taman Negara. Then all of a sudden it ended, and we were surrounded by barren orange hills covered with burned tree stumps and mounds of cleared vegetation. These soon became the vast palm and rubber plantations that were to flank us for the rest of the way to Kuala Lipis. It was a stark and alarming reminder of the rampant deforestation that has transformed the Malaysian Peninsula. It was a sobering reality check at the end of a magically beautiful journey.

In Kuala Lipis we had to walk about 2km to the bus station, where it was quite easy to get the bus KL, and then it was the monorail and another bus to the airport. We booked our Air Asia (terrible service, but cheap-ish) flight to Chiang Mai for 7am the following morning, and since the airport is so far out of town, we decided to sleep there until we could check in at 5am. Our plan was to restuarant jump between all the places with wi-fi (McDonald’s, Starbucks, Old Town Coffee co.) and take it in turns to rest. But luck was not on our side, as this was the night that all the restaurants were undergoing a mandatory pest control activity. So at midnight, all of us restauarant hoppers were suddenly homeless, and within minutes, the area surrounding the terminals came to resemble a bomb shelter, with people occupying every available bit of floor/wall space.

Bleary eyed and exhausted, we finally boarded our plane the following morning. After three days of travelling we arrived in Chiang Mai, having taken a total of one boat, five busses, two taxis, two trains and one plane to get there.


The Perhentians

It felt like we were leaving Sumatra too soon, but the flights were booked, so we had no choice but to spend a regrettable night in Medan (blood-stained sheets, broken windows, manic traffic, 4am calls to prayer) before making our way back to Malaysia, where Georgetown received us once more. We had already spent about a week there before our Sumatran journey, so it was comforting to get back to a familiar city for once. Georgetown is actually deserving of a post on its own – the heritage, the atmosphere and the food are all amazing and it is the kind of city where you imagine living, rather than just visiting. But, on our first night there (the first time), we bumped into some friends from home — absolutely by chance – and the next days were spent eating delicious food and catching up. So despite having a whale of a time eating waffles at a massive open air food court called Red Garden, trying all the local specialties, and spending long evenings at the deservingly famous Indian restaurants along Lebuh Chulia (Kapitan being a stand-out), we were not very good ‘tourists.’

We eventually got around to going up Penang Hill, which was a little disappointing, and visiting the Peranakan Mansion, which was beautiful and very interesting. However, the allure of Georgetown is more in merely being there; walking down the busy streets, marvelling at the restored heritage buildings, enjoying the gorgeous French toast breakfasts at quirky little galleries/eateries, and the prospect of more phenomenal food experiences throughout the day. It was a pleasure to soak it up in the company of good friends, but that’s about all we have to share. Our second visit was a quick transit as we got ourselves onto the first available night bus across country to Kuala Besut, the jumping off point for all travels to Malaysia’s Perhentian Islands. We made it just in time to catch the 7am high-speed ferry and were grateful to arrive on the smaller, more backpacker-friendly Island of Kecil in what was left of the relative cool of the morning 45minutes later.

Our friends had recommended a really good value place just off of Coral Beach (the quieter of the island’s two main beaches), but true to form, we had forgotten the name and couldn’t find where we had written it down. Luckily there is only one path that connects Coral Beach to the busier, party-oriented Long Beach, so we managed to find Ewan’s Place quite quickly. You really can’t beat this spot for value. Ewan (who started off as a painter with dreams of owning his own place) and his family are wonderful – so friendly and obliging – and our bungalow was immaculate! We happily got settled and headed off to explore our surrounds. Within minutes we’d had our first close encounter with one of the island’s many large monitor lizards and these enormous reptiles paid us a daily visit from then on. Walking over to Long beach, we realised why we’d heard some Phi Phi comparisons from other travellers. The bay was overrun by gung-ho motorboat drivers, the water was murky and the sand was littered with the remnants of the previous night’s party. But Coral Beach was much quieter, with a row of restaurants whose seating spilled out onto the sand, giving diners a great view of the aquamarine waters and the spectacular sunsets.

The following day we rented a kayak and paddled ourselves over to the next little bay, known to the locals as ‘Romantic Beach’ and it took one glance to understand why. It was paradise. There was not a soul on the gleaming white sand and the crystalline waters house some extensive shallow reef which provides for a great day’s snorkelling. During our breaks from the water, we found shelter from the midday sun under a beautiful old tree that had coral and driftwood mobiles hanging off all its branches, and a rope swing to complete picture. Throughout the day we were joined by a total of six other people but, for the most part, we had it all to ourselves. It felt incredibly surreal to be in such a beautiful place without hordes of other people jostling to get a look.


After our wonderful day at romantic beach, we just had to see more, and so we signed up for a full day snorkelling tour around the islands. The one thing that separates the Perhentians from their unfortunate Thai counterparts like Phi Phi, is that a concerted effort has been made to reduce the damage done by visitors and boat traffic. So even though the damage of the past is still evident, simple practices such as respecting the ‘no boat zones’ and drifting, rather than anchoring on the coral, have allowed many of the reefs (outside of the two main bays) a chance to regenerate. We stopped at six different spots, and with amazing visibility, we were treated to the best snorkelling we’ve done so far. By the end of the day we’d seen a couple of black-tip reef sharks, a giant sea turtle, plenty of vibrant fish and some truly wondrous rehabilitated coral gardens.


Happy, exhausted, and burned to a crisp, we took our seats at one of the beach front cafes and sipped our iced milos, watching the local waterbabies splash around in the shallows until the sun bowed out in its usual ceremony of red, pink, and orange. The rest of our stay was spent in much the same way; blissful days of snorkelling around the nearby bays, and long, restful evenings lapping up the beauty of these extraordinary islands.


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