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Month Fifty Five was an exciting one, with two new countries, and a couple of big firsts – getting up close to an elephant, and zip-lining!
I started the month with one more night in Bangkok, which we did in style – staying at the beautiful Eleven Hotel in Sukhumvit. We mostly spent our last day by the pool, but we did venture across town to Soi Rambuttri to check out the street market scene there and to meet up with one of Toby’s travel friends Ben.
And then we flew to Laos!
Laos is the second to last country in Southeast Asia that I hadn’t been to (now just Brunei!), and I was so excited to go to my first new country in two years.
We spent three and a half weeks exploring the north of Laos and there is so much to see and do in this underrated and nature-blessed country.
As we arrived on Christmas Eve, we stayed put in Vientiane for two nights so we wouldn’t be traveling on Christmas Day, which wasn’t overly exciting but it was pleasant. We visited a couple of temples, talked to our families, and watched Christmas movies.
From Vientiane, we took a bus to the former hedonistic backpacker town of Vang Vieng. Luckily the town has now rebranded itself as an adventure hub and we did a lot of adventuring during our two days there – including my first time zip-lining, tubing down the river, hiking to waterfalls and caves, and swimming in blue lagoons. Vang Vieng was a blast!
Luang Prabang was next and I fell for this charming town immediately. It may be touristy but I just loved it anyway, with its beautiful architecture, monks and temples everywhere, colorful flowers, and so many great cafes and restaurants.
Our three days in Luang Prabang were mostly spent eating and relaxing, although we did make it out to the stunning Kuang Si Falls to swim and hike, and we managed to stay awake till the midnight countdown on New Years’ Eve.
Next up was the two day slow boat to Huay Xai near the Thai border, with a night’s stop in Pak Beng. Honestly, I found it kind of boring – although the scenery was beautiful, sitting on my butt in a cramped boat seat for 8-9 hours a day just isn’t my idea of fun I guess. Not every travel experience can be amazing.
We decided a day beforehand after meeting a guy who had done it (and remembering how much my brother loved it years ago) that we would do the Gibbon Experience from Huay Xai. We only had the time and money for the two day express tour, in which it would be very unlikely to see gibbons (we didn’t), but it also has more hiking and zip-lines, and we got to sleep in a treehouse so we loved it.
After getting back from the Gibbon Experience, we took the hellish evening bus up to Luang Namtha, and then we were really off the banana pancake trail in Laos.
Our plan had been to do a two day trek to some of the many indigenous villages around Luang Namtha, but I was feeling really exhausted by this point, and I couldn’t muster the enthusiasm or energy to do it, so we decided to spend a day relaxing in town, then a day scootering up through beautiful countryside to Muang Sing near the Chinese border instead.
We did scooter through a few villages, and we walked to one close to town, but I do wish that I had felt up to trekking – next time, I guess.
Nong Khiaw was our next stop in the north of Laos, and it’s a pretty town on a river surrounded by mountains. We signed up to do a day tour that would take us up the river to another village, before trekking to a waterfall for a swim, then kayaking back.
Unfortunately after a day of resting, I got food poisoning that kept me in bed for two days, missing my tour and not getting to see anything around Nong Khiaw other than the town itself. These things happen but it was such a shame.
Luckily things started looking up once we arrived back in my favorite town, Luang Prabang. We booked to do a one day elephant trek with a reputable Elephant Sanctuary, and it was one of the best experiences of my life! More on that in the highlights below.
We also did a fantastic cooking class, and returned to all of our favorite restaurants from our first visit.
Our last full day in Laos was unfortunately spent on a long and bumpy bus ride from Luang Prabang to Vientiane, then after one more night there, we flew back to Thailand for a night, then onto Sri Lanka – my second new country of the month!
It was so exciting to land in Sri Lanka, which is different to any country I have been to before. The people here are so friendly, and we really enjoyed our first week here, although we feel like the best of the country is still to come.
Our first two nights in the country we spent in Colombo, which had enough attractions to keep us busy for our short stay – we visited the neighborhoods of Cinnamon Gardens, Fort and Pettah, the Colombo National Museum, Colombo Lighthouse, and Galle Face Green for sunset.
We took the train up to Jaffna next in the far north of the country, which is culturally different than the rest of Sri Lanka as it is home to a large number of Tamils, who originally came to Sri Lanka from Southern India. Because of this, there are Hindu temples everywhere and a lot of cows wandering around, making it feel distinctly Indian (or what I imagine India to feel like as I haven’t been there yet).
Over our three nights in Jaffna, we visited the Fort, went island hopping by scooter and ferry, and swam at Casurina Beach and Keerimalai Sacred Water Spring.
Our last night of the month we spent in Anuradhapura, mostly just relaxing at our guesthouse after a hot and bumpy train journey.
Now onto the Stats!
Countries Visited: Thailand, Laos, Sri Lanka
- Thailand: Bangkok
- Laos: Vientiane, Vang Vieng, Luang Prabang, Pak Beng, Huay Xai, Luang Namtha, Muang Sing, Nong Khiaw
- Sri Lanka: Colombo, Jaffna, Anuradhapura
National Parks and Monuments Visited: Nam Ha National Biodiversity Conservation Area in Laos
Islands Visited: Velanai, Punkudutivu and Nainativu Islands off Jaffna in Northern Sri Lanka.
Best Meal: Pastries and French bread from Le Banneton in Luang Prabang; Vanilla cruffins in Luang Prabang from Indigo Bakery Counter (I think); Margherita pizza and spinach and parmesan gnocchi from Popolo in Luang Prabang; Vegetable noodle soup all over Laos; Chicken Stuffed Lemongrass with peanut sauce that we made with Tamarind Cooking Class in Luang Prabang; The Weaver’s Lunch from Silk Road Cafe in Luang Prabang with bamboo soup, mushroom and herb sausages and deep-fried morning glory; Masala dosa from Malayan Cafe in Jaffna.
Worst Meal: The one that gave me food poisoning – old, squishy vegetable curry from Joy’s Restaurant in Nong Khiaw. Second place goes to Utopia in Luang Prabang – a beautiful place to relax but with dire food – I had the buffalo cauliflower wings and they were overly sweet, soggy and cold.
Best Craft Beer: I barely drunk any beer, or anything alcoholic this month. The best beer I had was a Mango Wheat Beer by Patitoh Brewing.
No distinct hikes this month, although we did a number of short trails to waterfalls, to and through caves, through the jungle during the Gibbon Experience, and with the elephants in Luang Prabang, but I have no idea how long the hikes were.
Reading: Another Jodi Piccoult book this month, this time it was The Storyteller. Definitely one of her better books. The story goes back and forth between the US in the present, and the ghettos and concentration camps of Poland during World War Two.
Watching: I really enjoyed watching Blinded by the Light – based on a true story about a Pakistani-English teenager who struggles with his strict upbringing, only finding hope in the lyrics of Bruce Springsteen.
Chilled Times and Amazing Food in Luang Prabang
I really, really loved Luang Prabang. It was so easy, and beautiful, and we loved the food. There are temples everywhere, and so many bright orange clad monks wandering around. The architecture reminded me a lot of Lisbon – faded European pastel glamor, and the laid back city is located on a peninsula surrounded by the river on three sides.
On our first visit we didn’t do a lot other than eat, wander around, get traditional Laos massages, go to the night market and visit a couple of temples, but it was perfect. Our second visit was busier, with elephant trekking and a cooking class, but we also returned to our favorite restaurants and spent time aimlessly wandering. I am sure we will be back again, one day.
Swimming at Kuang Si Waterfall
I like waterfalls but I am not someone to generally go crazy over them – they have to be very special for me to get overly excited – and Kuang Si was definitely that. This many tiered waterfall is so damn pretty, and I absolutely loved swimming in the cloudy turquoise water even though it was freezing. If you are going to visit one waterfall in Laos, let it be this one. Despite the crowds, it is so worth it.
Zip-lining for the First Time
I have always been afraid to zip-line, as I hate the dropping feeling you get from things like rollercoasters, and I thought I would feel that. But after much convincing that I would be fine by Toby, we signed up to do a half-day zip-lining and tubing tour in Vang Vieng.
Turns out zip-lining is really fun, and I didn’t get the dropping feeling at all, so after my first zip-line I wasn’t scared anymore and really loved the rest of them. The views of the surrounding mountains and river were spectacular from up in the trees too.
After a couple of hours of zip-lining, we spent a couple more hours floating on a quiet river out of town, just me and Toby in tubes and our guide in a kayak. It was super peaceful and very scenic, a far cry from what the tubing experience in Laos used to be about in the more hedonistic days.
Everything About The Gibbon Experience
Doing The Gibbon Experience was not in our plans. When we first arrived in Laos I was still scared of zip-lining, and that was a big part of the experience, and also I thought that it was too expensive.
Luckily after zip-lining in Vang Vieng I realised it wasn’t scary after all, then we met a guy in Pak Beng, taking the slow boat the other way, and he had just done the Gibbon Experience – he convinced us that we had to do it and I booked it that night.
Our two days hiking and zip-lining in the jungle was really fun, and we had a great guide and group of people on our tour. Some of the zip-lines were REALLY fast, like 50-60km per hour, and there were some really high ones too. I was a bit nervous as a new zip-liner, but it was all fantastic.
A definite highlight was the treehouse we stayed the night in with great views over the jungled mountains, despite there being a shit load of bees everywhere – they had built a massive hive on the side of the treehouse. We had to be reasonably quiet not to disturb them, and luckily none of us got stung.
The whole experience was pretty special, even though we didn’t see a single gibbon.
Caving and a Secret Blue Lagoon in Vang Vieng
Like waterfalls, I don’t go crazy over caves. They are nice and all, but they just aren’t my favorite I guess. We went to Jang Cave in Vang Vieng and it was nice, but a bit too developed, with concrete pathways and colorful lights. The best thing about the Jang Cave is the small blue lagoon near the entrance – we swam in the clear waters and through the cave tunnel and it was so pretty and refreshing.
Then we went to Blue Lagoon 1, the most famous of the Blue Lagoons in Vang Vieng, and it was absolutely overrun with people, so we decided to check out the cave there. It was quite a climb up there but it ended up being so worth it – the cave was massive and there were no pathways, no lights and no guard rails – real choose your own adventure stuff.
We went in there with our cellphone lights, climbing all the way to the back of the cave which took about 30 minutes. It was one of my best cave experiences.
Up Close and Personal with Elephants in Luang Prabang
I have wanted to interact with elephants for a long time, but it is so important to me that it is done in an ethical way, and with so many so-called sanctuaries actually mistreating their elephants, I knew I needed to do my research to find somewhere legit.
Luckily I found somewhere amazing in Luang Prabang: Mandalao.
We splurged on the full day tour and got to feed and trek with the elephants through the jungle. I bawled my eyes out when we first got to touch and feed them, it was a dream to be so close to these magnificent animals and I was completely overwhelmed.
As well as all the amazing elephant time, we also got to try some different local foods like banana palm, sugarcane and tamarind, and we visited a small Khymu village and waterfall. The whole day was so worth it and it was a definite highlight of our time in Asia so far.
Learning how to Cook Lao Dishes at Tamarind Cooking School
Every time I have done a cooking class when I travel, I have really enjoyed it, so after hearing about how great the cooking classes at Tamarind Cooking School are, we signed up.
The cooking class started with a market visit where we were got to try some local food and ingredients, then we went to the cooking school, located in the countryside by a river outside of Luang Prabang.
We made so many dishes including Jeow – a Lao dipping sauce, chicken stuffed in lemongrass, steamed fish in banana leaf, chicken laap and coconut sticky rice with fruit for dessert. Then we got to all sit around the table and eat our creations. Such a fun day!
A Day Exploring Offbeat Islands and Temples Around Jaffna
I love traveling to places that are off the beaten path, and I also love islands, so it was a no-brainer that we would spend a day exploring the islands off Jaffna, in the less-visited north of Sri Lanka.
We rented a scooter for two days, traveling across a couple of islands by road, then taking a ferry to Nainativu to visit the Hindu Temple there. The ferry was completely rammed and there were hardly any other tourists – I loved it. After taking the ferry back, we drove a different route and took another ferry to get to Casurina Beach, which again was mostly just frequented by locals.
It was great to see a very different and offbeat part of Sri Lanka.
Worst Hostel in Vientiane
The hostel we booked in Vientiane pretty much put us off wanting to book anymore hostels for the rest of our time in Laos: It was bad.
The room was dark and dingy, the shared bathrooms were dirty and they had some pretty disgusting and derogatory graffiti all over the walls, and worst of all – there was a group of drugged out and drunk French backpackers that thought it was a great idea to party all day and night, music blaring, with no respect for any of the other guests.
These are the kind of hostels I try to avoid like the plague and despite doing my research, we ended up at one anyway. It was not a nice place to spend Christmas Day.
Broken Phone, Toiletry Bag and Shoes
Everything seemed to break on me this month, starting with my camera when we were in Vang Vieng. As well as being very inconvenient, I was particularly annoyed because it was only a new camera – I had it for five months! I didn’t actually do anything to it for it to break either – it was just a random mechanical error that came out of nowhere.
I was told that as I didn’t buy it from a registered Canon reseller, that it wasn’t covered by warranty so I would have to pay to have it fixed, as well as paying for it to be sent to and from Canon in the US.
They ended up replacing the body and not charging me, but the shipping costs ended up being $175 (why is so expensive to ship things out of the country from the US?!) and I still haven’t got the damn thing back weeks later. Hopefully this saga will be over soon and I will have a good camera again as I have been using my phone to take photos which is not ideal.
My new leather sandals also broke when I was tubing in Vang Vieng, I guess the glue wasn’t very waterproof and the toe loop came unstuck. Luckily I got it fixed in Jaffna for cheap. Lastly, my toiletry bag zip broke so I have been using rubber bands to keep it shut – not ideal.
Suffering from Exhaustion
All the travel caught up with me when we got to Luang Namtha after the Gibbon Experience, and I just felt dog tired and hardly bothered to do anything.
This happens occasionally when you live a life of near constant travel like I do, and it does pass eventually. Luckily it only lasted about a week and then I felt like I had more energy again.
Rough Bus Journeys in Laos
Our evening bus up to Luang Namtha from Huay Xai after the Gibbon Experience ended up not being as uneventful as we had hoped. The roads were pretty bad – windy and potholed – and I wasn’t feeling too good throughout the journey. We also were running over an hour late because for some unknown reason, our driver decided to stop just out of town for an hour – I think he was trying to sell more seats off the books.
When we did finally get to the bus station, we realised it was about 10km out of town, and as the bus was over an hour late and it was around 9.30pm by this time, there was pretty much no one around. We ended up talking to a guy that owned a restaurant nearby and he agreed to take us into town – at a very inflated price.
Our all day bus from Luang Prabang to Vientiane was pretty rough too – super hot and bumpy with me feeling sick pretty much the whole time. When we finally got into Vientiane, I was utterly exhausted and sick, but happy to finally be there.
Heat Exhaustion in Nong Khiaw
During my period of feeling generally exhausted, I decided to climb a short but steep trail to see the sunset in Nong Khaiw with our new friend Martin. But I only made it halfway before having to turn around, I was so unbelievably hot and got a huge headache from the heat, and I also felt like it was harder to breathe than normal and my chest hurt.
I was embarrassed, and quite concerned, because I hike a lot usually and this wasn’t a hard hike. I didn’t know how I could be so unfit that I couldn’t make it to the top. I managed to drag myself home and drunk a ton of water and couldn’t eat anything that evening – I just rested. Turns out there was a reason that I struggled so much…
Sick with Food Poisoning
Yep, woke up the morning after the failed hike with food poisoning. I am pretty sure it was from my lunch the day before, as the vegetables in my vegetable curry were squishy and it seemed like they were old. It wasn’t the worst food poisoning I have ever had and I didn’t even throw up but I had massive stomach cramps, diarrhoea and nausea as well as feeling really weak.
I ended up in bed for two days recovering, watching Gilmore Girls and feeling sorry for myself. And I missed a day trip that I had been looking forward to and lost the deposit on it.
Phone Issues in Laos
So my phone has decided to be super weird and it now won’t let me ring any numbers that aren’t in my contacts. But it took me a while to figure this out, and when I tried to top up my phone after running out of data, we couldn’t figure out why my phone wasn’t allowing me to ring the number to top it up.
It took a couple of hours and loads of research online to finally figure out what was happening. Once we added the top up number to my contacts, finally it worked! Very frustrating but at least we got it working in the end.
Struggling with Limited Food Choices in Sri Lanka
Everyone told me how amazing Sri Lankan food is before I came here, but honestly, I haven’t been loving it. As we haven’t been in very touristy places for our first week, there haven’t been any tourist restaurants so we have been eating at local ‘hotels’ – basic restaurants serving up different curries. There are no menus so you just take what you are given, and a lot of the time that is cold or luke-warm curry. The curry itself isn’t bad tasting, but I am not a fan of eating curry for every meal, especially if it is not hot.
I think as we travel into areas that have more tourists, the range of food choices will get better, which will be great for Toby as well, as managing his onion allergy has been really rough for him so far here.
A Super Hot and Bumpy Train Journey in Sri Lanka
Our long train journey up to Jaffna from Colombo was comfortable in the air-conditioned First Class carriage, but the shorter journey down to Anuradhapura in Second Class was so much rougher than I thought it would be. It was so hot and bumpy, and we stopped so much that we were about an hour late getting in.
Not bad at all! I had a few big spends this month – the Gibbon Experience for Toby and I was my biggest splurge at $420 but was totally worth it, as was the $160 I spent for a day at a reputable Elephant Sanctuary.
I am so surprised how low my food costs were this month due to spending a large part of the month in Laos where the food is very cheap if you are eating local, which we mostly did – except for in Luang Prabang which has excellent Western food. This doesn’t include my flights between countries but they were only around $250 in total.
My paid accommodation this month consisted of one night in a fancy hotel in Bangkok, two nights in a private room in a dingy hostel in Vientiane, three nights in a fancy but very affordable hotel in Vang Vieng, four nights in a guesthouse in Luang Prabang, one night in a guesthouse in Pak Beng, one night in a hotel in Huay Xai, three nights in a hotel in Luang Namtha, four nights in a guesthouse in Nong Khiaw, three nights in a guesthouse in Luang Prabang, one night in a hotel in Vientiane, one night in a private room in a hotel in Bangkok (Don Muang), two nights in a fancy hotel in Colombo, three nights in a private room at a hostel in Jaffna, and one night in a guesthouse in Anuradhapura.
For the rest of the month, I spent one night doing the Gibbon Experience, and accommodation in a treehouse for the night was included in the tour price.
Food and Drink $367
Wow. This is so low for me that I double checked my spending on food in Laos – but it’s correct. Laos – and Sri Lanka – are both very cheap for food if you eat local, and although we did splurge on some (expensive for Laos) Western food, it was still such a cheap eating month! I also barely drunk any alcohol this month which certainly didn’t hurt either.
- Grab Taxis $12
- Bangkok Trains $4
- Taxi from Airport to Hostel in Vientiane $4
- Tuktuks in Laos $4
- Taxis in Laos $12
- Mini Van Vientiane to Vang Vieng $6
- Scooter Hire in Vang Vieng for one day with gas $5.50 (half with Toby)
- Mini Van Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang $11.50
- Two Day Slow Boat from Luang Prabang to Huay Xai $32.50
- Bus from Huay Xai to Luang Namtha $10
- Scooter Hire in Luang Namtha for one day with gas $11.50
- Mini Van Luang Namtha to Nong Khiaw $16
- Mini Van Nong Khiaw to Luang Prabang $8
- Mini Van and Bus from Luang Prabang to Vientiane $16
- Bus from Colombo Airport to city $1
- Tuktuks in Sri Lanka $3.50
- 1st Class Train from Colombo to Jaffna $9.50
- Ferries around Jaffna Islands $1
- 2nd Class Train from Jaffna to Anuradhapura $3
I don’t include International Flights in my spending recaps
- Vientiane Temple Entry Fees $2
- Jang Cave and Blue Lagoon 1 Entry Fees $5
- Half Day Tour in Vang Vieng – Ziplining and Tubing $21
- Entry to Wat Xieng Thong and Phousi Hill in Luang Prabang $5
- Traditional Laos Massages in Luang Prabang x 2 $15
- Bamboo Bridge Entrance Fee in Luang Prabang $1
- Garavek Traditional Storytelling in Luang Prabang $5.50
- Transport and Entrance Fee for Kuang Si Falls $6
- Two Day Express Gibbon Experience for two people $420 (I gifted Toby it for Christmas)
- Pha Daeng Viewpoint Hike Entry Fee in Nong Khiaw $2
- Day Tour to Muang Ngoy and Waterfall $11.50 (I didn’t get to do this as I was sick)
- Lemongrass Steam Bath in Luang Prabang $2
- One Day Elephant Feeding and Trekking with Mandalao in Luang Prabang $160
- Cooking Class in Luang Prabang with Tamarind Cooking School $33
- Colombo National Museum $5.50
- Scooter Hire for two days in Jaffna $9.50 (half with Toby)
- Toiletries $12.50
- Phone $32.50
- Laundry – 3 times $9.50
- Bird Release in Vientiane $5.50
- Bracelet $2
- Travel and Medical Insurance for one month $37
- Shipping Costs for camera $51
- Hmong Woven Bag $13.50
- Two purses made in local village in Laos $8
- Airline bag fees $50
- Sri Lanka Visa $20
- Adaptor $1.50
- Sandal fixed $1
Website Costs $12
- Monthly payment for Keysearch $12
Van Costs $0
What’s in Store for Next Month
Most of the next month will be spent exploring Sri Lanka, but the last week of the month will see us traveling to India for the first time.
After spending a day biking around the ruins of Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka, we are planning to travel onwards to Sigiriya to climb the famous rock and see the ruins, then to the cultural city of Kandy.
From Kandy we will be taking the famous Kandy to Ella train – apparently one of the most beautiful train journeys in the world, then will be spending around five nights in Ella, where we want to hike Little Adam’s Peak and Ella Rock.
Next we will be traveling to Haputale, another hill country town from where we can visit the stunning viewpoint Lipton’s Seat, then to Udawalawe National Park to see wild elephants.
The last nearly two weeks of our time in Sri Lanka will be spent on the coast, between a couple of different beach towns – we are thinking Tangalle and Mirissa – and the beautiful Galle Fort.
And then we will be flying to India!!
Our plan is to spend our first week in India exploring hectic Delhi, Agra and the Taj Mahal, then head into Rajasthan where we are going to be spending most of our time in the country.
We have heard that trains book out far in advance so we will start booking trains once our India visa is approved – there’s a good chance we may need to change around our (loosely) planned itinerary but we will see.
To read additional Monthly Round ups, you can find them here