Exploring in Vang Vieng, Laos

Heading to Vang Vieng from Luang Prabang

Heading to Vang Vieng from Luang Prabang

It’s about 100 miles from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng. Most of it is through rugged mountains, looping back and forth along high ridge lines and around immense limestone karsts. So the 100 miles takes about 6 hours.

View along the route from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng. This was probably our most harrowing bus ride yet.

View along the route from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng. This was probably our most harrowing bus ride yet.

bathroom break on our bus ride from LP to VV

Bathroom break on our bus ride from LP to VV

Vang Vieng sits on the Nam Song river, a beautiful stretch of clean, cool water that flows at the feet of large karst mountains. Rock climbing is becoming a major business and there are quite a number of caves to explore. It also has a reputation for being a party town. If you’ve heard of bars where episodes of Friends or Family Guy play on endless loops and dazed backpackers stare on inebriated – this is that town. Or at least it was. Over the last decade tubing down the Nam Song river has become one of the main draws of the backpacker set. Run by a collective representing each of the towns in the area, a good deal of the money actually goes back to locals. It starts about 7km outside of town and up until this summer, most of the route was lined with bars, dancing platforms, rickety zip lines, rope swings, and “water” slides. Mix in a liberal drug policy and you can see why one of the largest concrete slides was nicknamed, “the slide of death.” But after 20 deaths in under a year (and perhaps the untimely death of an official’s niece), in September 2012 the government came in and literally tore down all the bars along the river.

The town’s reputation was enough to keep it off our list but after talking with some fellow travelers and hearing about the changes, we decided to give it a try. Tubing down the river on our first day was the perfect combination of laziness and sightseeing. On our second day, we decided to go slightly farther afield and rented motor bikes to go explore the caves dotting the surrounding area.

sunset over the Nam Song river the night we arrived

Sunset over the Nam Song river the night we arrived

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One of the bridges on the Nam Song river crossing over to a small island that had a few bungalows/guest houses

One of the bridges on the Nam Song river crossing over to a small island that had a few bungalows/guest houses

Getting ready to go tubing down the river on old tractor inner tubes

Getting ready to go tubing down the the Nam Song river on old tractor tire inner tubes

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DCIM100GOPRO

DCIM100GOPRO

 getting ready to climb lots of steps to see the Xang Cave, just on the edge of town

Getting ready to climb lots of steps to see Xang Cave, just on the edge of town

view from the top of the steps at Xang Cave

View from the top of the steps at Xang Cave

area at the  base of the stairs to Xang cave

At the base of the stairs to Xang cave

in the middle of a MUCH more strenuous climb to the second cave, Tham Phoukam

In the middle of a MUCH more strenuous climb to the second cave outside of town, Tham Phoukam

At the mouth of Tham Phoukam

At the mouth of Tham Phoukam

decked out in the headlamp

Decked out in the headlamp

inside Tham Phoukam

Inside Tham Phoukam

large Buddha altar inside Tham Phoukam

Large Buddha altar inside Tham Phoukam

taking a break on our motorbike ride back into town

Taking a photo break on our motorbike ride back into town

 Sharing the road.

Sharing the road

Don't worry Mom, I was very careful when taking photos while driving!

Don’t worry Mom, I was very careful when taking photos while driving!

A few more scenes of the river, in the morning

A few more scenes of the river, in the morning

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Skipping up the Eastern gulf coast

Koh Tao -> Chumpon -> Hua Hin -> Bangkok; ferry -> bus -> train -> mini-van; over a week we leisurely made our way up the East coast of the Gulf of Thailand, skipping like a rock over water. A night in Chumpon and a screwed up reservation worked in our advantage, as we not only got a better room but a better hotel. There’s not much to Chumpon, a working town that for tourists is mainly a transfer point from the islands to the mainland, the next day we quickly moved on. A quiet train ride in a surprisingly small train – only two cars in total – took us from Chumpon to Hua Hin and gave us beautiful views of a bucolic Thai country side. Pineapple and coconut farms, coast line and hillocks rising out of flat lush coastal flood plains.

Our car in a little tour car train traveling from Chumpon to Hua Hin.

Our car in a little tour car train traveling from Chumpon to Hua Hin.

Thai country side streams past as we make our way by train from Chumpon to Hua Hin.

Thai country side streams past as we make our way by train from Chumpon to Hua Hin.

With a few whistle blasts to announce our arrival to all the people randomly crossing the tracks (which was happening quite frequently), we pulled into the preserved 1940s station house in Hua Hin. Hua Hin is the original Thai beach vacation spot – the Thai royal family started coming here in the 1920s. Just a few hours car ride from Bangkok, it is the Hamptons for the metropolitan Bangkok Thais. Although it reminded me a bit of Miami, sometimes Atlantic City.

Lori from Chopstick Mountain with a view of Hua Hin in the background. Very windy, Hua Hin is also becoming known as a kite boarding center.

Lori from Chopstick Mountain with a view of Hua Hin in the background. Very windy, Hua Hin is also becoming known as a kite boarding center.

We had an odd accommodation. Actually, we had an odd room in a fairly straight forward accommodation. The Donkeys Rest is a suite of rooms above four store fronts owned by a British bloke with the last name Ogier, who also happened to look a lot like Shrek. A bit far from but within walking distance to the beach, we had chosen it for it’s cheap cost and access to a pool. (When you don’t want to regularly shell out a ton of money on excursions or beach front, a few extra dollars a night for a pool is a good compromise.) The four store fronts were hotel bar and reception, massage parlor (not that kind), a convenience store, and our room. Yup, we were staying in a cleared out store. A sofa, coffee table, TV, refrigerator, and king sized bed, all dwarfed inside a white-tiled, glass-enclosed, cavernous space that at one time had probably housed racks of surrongs, bikinis, t-shirts that read “Same Same”, and sunglasses. And that’s not even counting the separate back room and bathroom.

The beach along most of Hua Hin was tiny but like the Hamptons, people go there on the weekends for the scene, to see and be seen, rather than lazy days on the beach and quiet nights. We explored the natural sites, paying $.20 a ride to the jump aboard roving sungathews that followed a regular circuit along the coast highway. We climbed “chopstick” mountain to the south and roamed the frenetic, bustling night market in the center of town, crowded on a Friday night with both tourists and Bangkok’s young hoypoloy. What would become SOP for our night market excursions throughout the trip, Lori shopped, I sampled food stalls and drank cold cans of Chang. Restaurants moved their kitchens outside and lined the streets with large fire breathing grills, each overflowing with fresh caught fish, steaks, squid, and some of the biggest lobsters I have ever seen. Old ladies sold pork meatballs on skewers and grilled corn. A guy on the corner pulled set after set of BBQ short ribs out of a barrel. I ate there twice. On the same night.

Hua Hin night market

I have to admit, we also stopped at Starbucks and explored an actual mall. We considered it preparation for our return to Bangkok.

After a few short days in Hua Hin and with three and a half months of loosely planned trips to northern Thailand, Lao, Vietnam, and Cambodia in our future, we decided it was best to head back through Bangkok for New Year’s Eve, reassess, research, and maybe buy a guide book or two.

With our last full day in Hua Hin drawing to a close, I headed off to the bus station south of town to buy tickets. From there I was sent to the bus station north of town to buy tickets. The bus station North of town no longer existed and most people I asked insisted that I go to the bus station south of town. Fun game. Turning to the two equally crappy maps I had, I discovered hints about a satellite bus station in town, so I went off looking for that. After a few circuits of the center of town and with the help of a few unhelpful locals (and two beers), I finally bought tickets for the bus. Which the next day turned out to be tickets for a private mini-bus and not the bus – which I kind of suspected but at the time but with heat exhaustion setting in, I could no longer care about the distinction. In the end, as the t-shirts here read, Same Same, and the mini-bus got us into Bangkok just fine.

Our hotel in Bangkok turned out to be a bit out of town at the Bang Na stop on the BTS. But this was ok as it was very nice, cheap, had a beautiful view of the Bangkok skyline, and the walk from the BTS station was not as scary as the reviews made it sound. The view was nice enough that we decided to watch the New Year’s Eve fireworks from there (after we video chatted with our friends Alex and Camille about their upcoming trip to South East Asia). Since this was more a reconnaissance mission than a trip to Bangkok, we hit the malls looking for English language bookstores and planned our route north. And had another adventure finding the bus station – they’re usually in neither convenient nor nice parts of town. Just like home.

As we made another run into town for books and other supplies, I splurged and had a Guinness and a burger.  $6 for the Guinness, nearly 5x the cost of a local beer.

As we made another run into town for books and other supplies, I splurged and had a Guinness and a burger. $6 for the Guinness, nearly 5x the cost of a local beer.

Riding Scooters on Koh Pha Gnan

Stalls selling bottles of gasoline dot the roads around Koh Pha Gnan (the ‘P’ is silent, the ‘G’ might be). There are no gas stations and there are thousands of motor scooters. Every roadside hut and lean-to either rents scooters or sells pale yellow gasoline in repurposed liquor bottles. Imagine the abundance of Starbucks in your average US city. Then double that and imagine the coffee is flammable.

John and scooter

John and scooter

The ratio of bikes to tourists is at least 2:1 but the ratio of helmets to riders is more like 1:4. Those without helmets look cooler than those with but the people who look the most ridiculous are those with one side of their body covered in cheap gauze and road rash. During our few days on the islands, we had seen enough of these sad creatures to realize that accidents were more a question of when, not if, so we opted for the helmets. I went a step further and attached a GoPro to mine, so with helmet and camera I looked like the Urkel of the Koh Pha Gnan scooter crowd.

We rented scooters twice on Koh Pha Gnan, fairly cheap at 200 baht a day (about $6). The island is made up of steep hills and ridgelines, so every stretch of road is a series of sharp, high parabolas, with beautiful vistas of sea and beach on one side, and quick, rocky drops into lush tropical jungle on the other.

Lori and scooter

Lori and scooter

View of fisherman's village and cove below

View of fisherman’s village and cove below

On our first day we headed north up the west side of the island and across the top until the road came to an end. Koh Pha Gnan is circled by a ring road but it doesn’t make it all the way around and some parts of the island are only accessible by 4×4, foot, or, for the even more remote, water taxi. A beautiful ride during the hot part of the day, we stopped for lunch at a restaurant perched at the top of one of the steeper hills. Dark mahogany wood and shade, it provided a much-needed escape from the sun and a great view of the small fisherman’s village below.

Overlooking fisherman's village, Ko PhaGnan

Overlooking fisherman’s village, Ko PhaGnan

A quick consultation with the map – thankfully not in Russian – and we were off to the islet Ko Ma, a small outcropping of rock, trees and an abandoned set of bungalows, attached to land by a 3 meter wide, 100 meter long stretch of sandbar. Beautiful but the damage done by too many tourists was easy to see, with plastic water bottles and other detritus almost everywhere we looked. With the wind gusting stronger and storm clouds moving in, we finished our waters, tossed the plastic bottles on the ground, and headed for our bikes.

John with Ko Ma in background

John with Ko Ma in background

We made the main road before the storm clouds caught us. To borrow a phrase from a great American poet, the cement road would be “slippery when wet” but the rutted dirt road from the beach with it’s seventy-degree slope would have been impassable just a few minutes into the storm. Attempts were made to stay conservative in the rain but you can only let so many 11 year-olds riding three to a scooter pass you, so with the water soaking deeper into our clothes and day bags, we sped back to our hotel with the hope for some late afternoon beach time.

Our second day out took us to Haad Rin beach, of the infamous Full Moon Parties. Incredibly, the roads were steeper and the peaks higher. Which made it all the more fun. We made Haad Rin in about two hours, with an hour and fifteen minute shopping trip in the middle. The beach itself was impressive, the widest we had seen in Thailand – necessary to accommodate the regular crowd of partiers that number near ten thousand every full moon. A week earlier, on Koh Samui, a 45 minute ferry ride away, we had been able to hear the bass of the last party, from early evening to late morning. It had rained like a bastard that night and during breakfast I raised a glass of coffee towards the horizon in respect to the partiers’ stamina. But we only stayed at Haad Rin long enough for a few sips of water and a quick duck into a few of the clothing stores. Then a quick check of our breaks, yup still quite spongy, and back on the bikes to race back home and catch a late afternoon swim and sunset watching. John KoPhagnan

We thoroughly enjoyed our time our Koh Pha Gnan and would think fondly back to it during our time inland as we explored the north. But now it was onto Koh Tao, an even more remote island and a slip further back in time, to a more undiscovered Thailand.
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A bit off shore we found a small set of rocks to take a break from kayaking.

A bit off shore we found a small set of rocks to take a break from kayaking.

That beach…

Fishing boats from ferry to Koh Phagnan

Fishing boats from ferry to Koh Phagnan

I was pretty proud of myself, having talked the taxi driver down from 200 baht a person to 50 baht. Koh Pha Gnan is smaller than Koh Samui and I was fairly sure our hotel wasn’t far from town. I felt differently once I realized that he was a motorcycle taxi. Although me, him, and my 15 kilo pack on the back of his little bike would make for an amusing picture, it would also make for a painful death – or at least a long recovery. Discretion being the better part of living to see another day, we waved him off and walked down the long cement pier in search of safer transportation.

“Safer” is a relative term and in Thailand the baseline for measurement is much lower than back at home. In the parking lot at the start of the pier we would be introduced to the song-a-thew. A converted pick-up truck, with a roof, open-to-the-air sides, and an open back doorway, these would become our regular means of transport in Thailand. (And sometimes they are just pick-ups with two wooden benches, “secured” in-place with a bit of weathered twine. But more about that in Koh Tao).

After figuring out where we were going, with few words, a Thai man directed us into the back of one of the many song-a-thews lining the parking lot. Two other passengers scooted down a bit and, pushing up our luggage before us, we climbed into the back for an undefined wait.

DSC02723Our fellow travellers looked even less sure than us and asked if we thought this would actually get us to our hotels. Knowing there were no other options – no other sane options – we feigned confidence, and assured them that it would all work out. At this point we were all ordered out of the truck, split-up, mixed-up, and put into different pick-up trucks. Our luggage was quickly thrown up on the roof, as there were 4 fairly large Brits already in the back with an even larger baby carriage. No baby though. I assumed it was on the roof with our unsecured luggage.

A shutter, a kick and we were off. Two turns left and we were already out of the small, dusty town, driving through tropical island jungle, following a cement road up into the hills of Koh Pha Gnan. Air streamed through the sides of our songathew, as we caught glimpses of beach and ocean, washed out roads, hidden resorts, and ubiquitous road side stands selling gasoline in repurposed liquor bottles at 40 baht a liter.

15 minutes later we were on the side of the road with our bags in hand … well, on backs, looking down a shaded, rutted, sandy road with signs assuring us that Blue Ocean Garden Resort – our home for the next few days – laid not far beyond.

DSC02778Two stray dogs and a small, burning pile of trash later, we came on to our resort. And this was the Thai beach we had been looking for. A long, shallow, crescent of fine, almost white sand stretched north from our resort for almost 500 meters, dotted with overhung palm trees and few people. Protected by a reef not far off shore, the water was calm, turquoise, and beckoning us to take a dip.

Chao Phao beach at sunset, Koh Phagnan

On the West facing side of the island, Blue Ocean Garden sits at the southern end of Chao Phao beach, snug up against a steep forested hill, the front of which marked the end of the beach with a stone cliff that ran into the water (and sheltered a hidden bar). Reception and the bungalows formed an enclosing horseshoe, with the beach and the Gulf of Thailand at the opening and in the center a well-kept, gently sloping lawn. We were staying in a small room, part of a row of 5 at the top of resort. The cheapest option, it came with bed, air con, bath and not much else. But who could care, did I tell you about the beach?

It was dad's birthday while we were in Koh Phagnan. Since I couldn't be there, I sent him  this pic instead

It was dad’s birthday while we were in Koh Phagnan. Since I couldn’t be there, I sent him this pic instead

Amy, a young Thai woman, self-consciously walked us through check-in, explaining it was her first time checking-in guests. We waited patiently as she ticked off the points, happy to watch her transition to management and thinking only of changing into swimsuits.

Food and drink on room, check.

Wi-fi password, check.

Beach towels at reception, check.

Toilet paper goes in bin next to toilet, check.

Wait, what? Whatever, let’s just get through this so we can go swimming.

Which we did shortly thereafter, in time to catch a beautiful sunset which we followed with an equally tasty dinner at the Italian restaurant that was part of the resort. Gnochi, vodka tonics, tiramisu, lemoncello – an expensive meal, an indulgence we would avoid for the rest of the stay, often opting for the cheaper but just as delicious Thai food from the Belgian Beer Bar next door.

Lori with Singha, Koh Phagnan

The next morning we extended our stay by 5 days.

Sunset Chao Phao beach, Koh Phagnan

Sunset Chao Phao beach, Koh Phagnan

Hidden bar at the south end of the Chao Phao beach on Koh Phagnan. Follow the rickety walkway and you come to a small inlet with a nine foot wall of speakers and raised deck over the water.

Hidden bar at the south end of the Chao Phao beach on Koh Phagnan. Follow the rickety walkway and you come to a small inlet with a nine foot wall of speakers and raised deck over the water.

Sky at sunset, Chao Phao beach, Koh Phangnan

Four Nights in Bangkok…

Bangkok, city on the move.

Most of the time. Occasionally there are traffic issues, usually from about 4:00am in the morning until 5:30am the next day. At other times, it is slow but steady.

So how do the Thais get around? By any means necessary and often the most unsafe available. In order of decreasing safety, here are your options:

BTS & MRT: the BTS “Sky Train” is an elevated light rail, the MRT an underground light rail. Both clean, cheap, and reliable. As a tourist, don’t expect there to be stops near the places you’ll want to go.

BTS Sky Train stop at Mo Chit

BTS Sky Train stop at Mo Chit

Metered cab: these worked out fine for us from and to the airports. Just make sure they turn the meter on before they start driving. If not, your mileage may vary.

Warning sticker in Bangkok taxi. No knives, guns, or...Pilates?

Warning sticker in Bangkok taxi. No knives, guns, or…Pilates?

Tuk-tuk: riding lawn mower body with supped up engine, back bench for passengers, and a colorful roof. Did you know it was safe to take these on a highway? No? Me neither but they do and it’s a surprisingly smooth ride. Although I think the passing of cars was just showing off.

Tuk-Tuk Bangkok

Khlong boat: skinny, long, needle-like boats with Mack truck engines strapped on the back. You can get a ride on one of these for about $1. Thanks to a helpful tuk-tuk driver who took us to a pier in the middle of nowhere, we opted to pay $20. Never let the driver suggest where you should go. The drive will be cheap, the destination something different.

Khlong Boats Bangkok

Khlong Boat Trip

View of the houses along the canal during Khlong boat trip, Bangkok

Motorcycle taxi: this is pretty much what it sounds like, a death wish. On the plus side, if the traffic is really bad they have no problem driving on the sidewalk. This also makes walking on the sidewalk adventurous.

_DSC1013For our first few nights in country, we choose a quiet business hotel, Oakwood Suites. A small studio with kitchenette and rooftop pool. At the very high end of our budget range, we felt a few nights of assured sleep was a priority to overcome the 12 hour time shift. Located in the expat neighborhood of Sukhumvit and at the crossroads of MRT and BTS lines, this was the perfect setup to see a bit of Bangkok, while also getting the rest we needed. (It would be over a week before both of us stopped waking up at 3am, no matter what time we went to sleep or how much beer I mixed with Ambien.)

marketlightsjohnOn our first full day we took the BTS to the Chatuchak weekend market, a 27 acre maze of over 2,000 covered stalls, with vendors selling clothes, furniture, lights, silverware, fake fruit…anything you could imagine and more being sold to the 200,000 shoppers who come here on any given weekend. Impressive and easy to get lost in; which is part of the reason to go. It was well worth the price of admission (free) and if we’re back in Bangkok the weekend before we leave, this is most likely where your trinket will come from.

Chatuchak Market Inside

Chatuchak Market

Oakwood Rooftop Pool

Oakwood Rooftop Pool

Other than that we took a couple of tuk-tuk rides, a river boat cruise, ate street food at a night market, got scammed once (see khlong boat above), maybe twice, toured a wat (temple), did laundry and spent a lot of time in the rooftop pool as we rested and planned our next stop, Koh Samui and island hopping in the Gulf of Thialand.

Smaller Buddha at Wat Pho

Smaller Buddha at Wat Pho

Night market food stalls along Sukhumvit Soi 38

Night market food stalls along Sukhumvit Soi 38

Set of Buddhas at Wat Pho, Lori.

Set of Buddhas at Wat Pho, Lori.

Bangkok is a big city and we were happy to see a little portion of it but I don’t think we would ever have enough time to get to know it.

Riding off into the sunset, JFK -> BKK

leavingNYSeen through the windows of Gate 10, Terminal 1, of JFK airport, the sunset was beautiful. A bright orange ball, igniting the sky over Jamaica Bay. The USA bidding us a fond farewell and seeming to say, forget me not. A sight we could remember as we flew West over the Pacific, locked in a can for 15 hrs with 440 other poor souls and no seat-back entertainment. You get what you pay for – and with at least four months of travel ahead of us, we had decided to pay for very little.

Of course the sun sets at 4:30pm and we were scheduled to depart at 3:30pm. But the woman at the desk assured us there would be no problem with our connection in Shanghai. A least I think that’s what she said, her English being marginally better than my Chinese. With a lay over of more than two hours at Pu Dong airport before our connecting flight to Bangkok, we weren’t too worried. Some time later we boarded, saying goodbye and good luck to the US and each other, as we marched down separate aisles to seats that were relatively close to each other. You try doing online check-in through China Eastern’s website. I could not find it, but like I said, my Chinese is a bit rusty.

Lori took this photo of the [quite good] Chinese airplane food and we have nothing better to put here.

Lori took this photo of the [quite good] Chinese airplane food and we have nothing better to put here.

The flight was uneventful – absolutely nothing of interest happened for 15 hours. We landed at 9:40pm local time, about the same time our flight for Bangkok was taxiing into take-off position. The helpful flight attendants pointed up the ramp and said, “Yes, yes. Go, go.” and we bemusedly entered an empty Shanghia airport, eyes searching hopefully for a China Eastern rep with a sign reading “Bangkok.”

With no such person appearing, we followed everyone else towards customs so as not to be left completely alone in what could be one of the larger airports I’ve been in. With no other options and never having planned to officially enter China, we fumbled our way through customs with 14 other confused Americans and one helpful Australian.

Eventually an airline rep, with few words and many gestures, put us all on a bus for a 30 minute mystery ride through a deserted industrial zone, the only vehicle on an eight lane highway, visibility limited to a few hundred feet on each side of us thanks to the night and the smog. Supposedly we were headed to a hotel and not a reeducation camp, but charades is neither an efficient nor complete form of communication.

Arriving at what could only have been a modern hotel hotel just a few weeks shy of it’s grand opening, we snatched up the first room key on offer and high-tailed it to the elevator. Leaving behind our rag-tag group of laid-over fellow travelers, just as screams of, “Share a room! I don’t know any of these people!”, began.

The room was fine and we especially appreciated the floor-to-ceiling, four-foot wide window looking from the room into the bathroom. We pulled the shade down, showered, and collapsed into bed.

The next morning we were put on a bus for another 30 minute ride to the airport, with more visibility but not much more to see. We boarded the 8:30 am flight to Suvarnabhumi airport, Bangkok, with little fan fair or trouble.

Waiting for a shuttle bus in the Shanghai airport after being dropped off at the wrong terminal for our flight

Waiting for a shuttle bus in the Shanghai airport after being dropped off at the wrong terminal


Although it was a confused evening, we would be getting into BKK just after noon, a little rested and our internal clocks on local time. An accidental but better alternative to arriving at 3am after 24hrs of straight traveling. Not an inappropriate way to start a trip that was sure to have it’s fair share of delays, bemusement, and mimed communication. If you want to learn how swim, sometimes it’s best to just jump in the deep end of the pool.