Birthday Bowling in Luang Prabang, Laos

GO SHAWTY IT’S YA BIRTHDAY

WE GONNA PARTY LIKE IT’S YA BIRTHDAY

WE GON’ SIP BACARDI LIKE IT’S YA BIRTHDAY

Okay okay so it was my birthday, the big one-nine in fact, and I was lucky enough to celebrate over two Tiger Whiskey fuelled nights in Luang Prabang with the fantastic company of new friends.

I liked Luang Prabang a lot. There’s a really impressive night market, cheap and delicious food ($1 buffet anyone?), and no shortage of charming Lao hospitality.

Temple and tents of the night market in Luang Prabang
Temple and tents of the night market in Luang Prabang

The celebrations began on the day before my birthday, when I was re-united with Amelia and Chloe from The Gibbon Experience, and met the final third of their travelling trio, Alice. Now, I know that nobody likes to hear about other peoples’ “funniest thing EVER but you had to be there” night-out stories or see their totally #lol #yolo drunken photos, but I’m going to subject you to them anyway. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. It is my birthday after all. 

After picking up some very cheap and very delicious watermelon vodka from the bottle-o down the street, we began our night of festivities in the hostel common room with a game of drinking Uno. After a few rounds, we were in high spirits, and running along the road screaming complete nonsense in an attempt to hail a tuk-tuk. How is it that tuk-tuk drivers seem to be everywhere you look until you actually need a ride?!

Like most backpackers, our first stop was Utopia, a chilled out bar complete with floor cushions, shisha and crazy cheap drinks to get the night really started. It was packed to the bamboo rafters and we had a really good time. We made some new friends, had some Lao Lao shots (never again), and failed to pick up some hot German guys before the bar closed at the strike of midnight. Cya Utopia, it’s off to bowling.

Bowling? Yes, bowling. Believe it or not, every night hundreds of backpackers converge on Luang Prabang’s back-to-the-80’s bowling alley for more alcohol and a game of the ol’ ten pin. It’s absolutely hilarious, and so much fun. Bowling shoes optional, bumpers not allowed.

It’s at this point my memory gets a little blurred. I have a video on my phone of everyone singing “Happy Birthday” to me at one point, which I wish I could upload, but it’s probably best that I can’t. We met some cool Canadian guys who were totally wowed by my Canadian accent and me a bottle of vodka as a birthday present. I don’t remember how the night ended, but I do remember walking back to the hostel with a chicken baguette in my hands.

Amelia, Chloe and two Canadian heroes.
Amelia, Chloe and two Canadian heroes.
Alice and I
Alice and I
The ridiculousness of it all.
The ridiculousness of it all.

We awoke the next day with hangovers. Or should I say, LUANG PRABANG-OVERS ?! (Am I right?!) I treated myself to a birthday brownie for breakfast with Amelia, Chloe and Alice, before they headed south to Vang Vieng where I would see them again in a couple of days. I told myself that I’d had my birthday fun now, and that that night would be a nice, quiet, relaxing one. 

Oh how wrong I was. Someone had let slip to the adorable Lao girl who runs the hostel that it was my birthday and the words nice, quiet and relaxing don’t seem to be in her English vocabulary. She threw me a legit birthday party. She bought me a cake, decorated the hostel with a big “Happy Birthday Maddison” sign and provided eight bottles of whiskey! Eight freaking bottles.

It wasn’t what I had in mind for that night, but regardless, I was totally overwhelmed and amazed by her kindness and generosity! I didn’t know what her name was, and I felt terrible about it. Nobody else knew what her name was either, so after a few drinks, I took matters into my own hands and named her myself. I started calling her Kitty, and told everybody else to do the same! I wish I had a photo with her, she was the sweetest thing. If you’re heading to Luang Prabang, I whole-heartedly recommend the hostel Khammany Inn. tell Kitty that birthday girl Maddi says hey!

That night progressed very similarly to the night prior, although quite a bit faster due to the vast quantities of free-flowing alcohol. Due to the fact that my Nan reads this blog, I won’t go into too much detail about the state I was in, but you can be sure that I embraced the Y O L O mentality very enthusiastically. What else are birthdays for? Shout out to Liam for holding my hair back when I threw up in the squat toilet of the bowling alley and for making sure I was alright when I cried my eyes out over nothing in particular. Soz ’bout it.

Kitty you are THE BEST!
Kitty you are THE BEST!
Before things got out of hand...
Before things got out of hand…
Cake cake cake cake cake cake cake
Cake cake cake cake cake cake cake. (Kitty also made me wear this flower crown)
Tuk Tuk party pals!
Tuk Tuk party pals!
At least I was doing better than John.
At least I was doing better than John.

I felt horrendous the next day, but I braved the bumpy tuk-tuk ride to Luang Prabang’s famous Kuang Si Waterfalls. They’re beautiful and freezing cold, so a great place to cool off from the heat and attempt to wash away my sins of the night before.

Giving Niagra a run for it's money.
Giving Niagra a run for it’s money.
New friends: Dan, myself, Caitlin, Hayley, Samar and joe
New friends: Dan, myself, Caitlin, Hayley, Samar and joe
See that branch above that guy's head? It doesn't look very high but I can assure you it is terrifyingly tall. I jumped off it because that's how wild I am these days guys. CRAY-ZY.
See that branch above that guy’s head? It doesn’t look very high but I can assure you it is terrifyingly tall. I jumped off it because that’s how wild I am these days guys. CRAY-ZY.

Next stop, Vang Vieng! Can I get a “TUUUUU-BERRRRRRS!” ?!

Scenes from the Slow Boat

The “Slow Boat” (“slow” being the key word here) to Luang Prabang leaves from Huay Xai, the border town on the Laos side of Thailand’s Chiang Khong border in the far North. Most people find themselves plonked straight onto this boat after a long bus journey from Chiang Mai or even Pai, but I had just spent two tummy-troubling days in the dire town of Huay Xai and was very eager to leave.

The journey takes a total of 14 hours, with 6 on the first day, and 8 on the second. I SURVIVED. The first hour or so was actually quite pleasant. The gentle rock of the boat, the breeze against my face and the beautiful scenery made for an enjoyable beginning of the trip. Ahh the serenity.

After that, I was bored and numb-bummed. 

The night of day one is spent in a tiny town called Pakse that’s only reason for existing seems to be to cater for travellers on this particular journey. There’s nothing but guesthouses and restaurants, and I heard there’s even a bar or two. I saw none of these though. I spent the night hidden away in my room which had a wifi connection strong enough to stream Seinfeld. YAAAAASSSS.

The second day’s perfect weather and amazing scenery totally made the entire boat journey worth it. Floating past huge jungle covered mountains and tiny little villages made up of nothing but a collection of bamboo huts was pretty damn cool.

IMG_3067 IMG_3069 IMG_3070IMG_3073 IMG_3077 IMG_3084 IMG_3091 IMG_3098 IMG_3104 IMG_3107 IMG_3112Next stop Luang Prabang. Time to party like it’s ma birthday.

 

The Gibbon Experience, Laos

After crossing the border from Thailand to Laos, I was forced to spend a night in the absolute hovel that is Huay Xai (sorry Huay Xai) before being whisked away in the back of a rusty old pick-up truck to The Gibbon Experience. It took three hours of speeding down the bumpiest, most winding dirt road I have ever been on (seriously bouncing around back there was like being on a rollercoaster it was so fun) to finally get us to the Gibbon Experience site.

Essentially, The Gibbon Experience is an eco-tourism forest conservation project that aims to protect the Bokeo Nature Reserve from illegal logging and poaching. The funds generated from tourists are reinvested to protect the forest, and as the project grows, so too does the employment of the local people and by extension, the development of the local area.

The project does this by selling their programs: multi-day adventures into the nature reserve which involving trekking through the jungle, zip-lining above the tree-tops and sleeping overnight in a tree house, all with the hope of spotting one of the famously elusive black gibbons that call the reserve home.

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Tree house views

I had signed up for what’s called The Classic Experience, three days and two nights in the jungle, with lots of zip-lining and supposedly only one hour of essential walking at a relaxed pace.

How wonderful, I had thought upon making my booking. It will surely be a nice gentle stroll across a flat plain of lush green grass, followed by a short, non-strenuous ascent to our tree house.

NOPE.

We trekked for at least three hours uphill through the wild overgrown Lao jungle in the blistering heat of the midday sun. My T-shirt was literally saturated in my sweat and tears (okay so I didn’t cry but it was close). At one point we even had to take our shoes off and walk through a river. Thank goodness I made fast friends with two awesome English girls (shout-out to Amelia and Chloe) and we were able to struggle along together.

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By far the best part of the entire Gibbon Experience is the zip-lining. I don’t remember exactly how many zip-lines there were, but we went on a few each day. They act as the transport between the kitchens, staff camps and tree houses, and connect different parts of the jungle to break up the trekking.

Remember going on the flying fox at the playground when you were a kid? Awesome, right? Now multiply that feeling by, like, one hundred million and add a view of tree tops for miles and stunning mountain scenery. So. Freaking. Amazing.

Coolest thing ever.

After finally making it to the tree house on day one, we were all exhausted. I think our whole group of five went straight for a nap and didn’t wake up until dinnertime. The food was delicious home cooked Lao food, delivered from base camp kitchen directly to our tree house. That evening the group relaxed, played cards and got to know each other while trying not to get malaria.

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On the second day we were woken at 6am by our guide (who was creepily flirty and weird with all of us btw but that’s a story for another time), who helped us to spot gibbons in the surrounding trees. We did actually see a couple of them, wayyyyy off in the distance. Apparently it’s super rare to seem them at all though, so that was pretty neat. 

The second day was full of more trekking and zip-lining. We were able to visit all of the tree houses and use the highest zip-line. The guide told me it was 500m high. Now that I’m typing this, I’ve realised that that figure is probably ridiculous, but I can’t find anything online that says how high the highest line really is, so for now, I’m just going with it. Humour me.

The second evening played out much the same as the first. Food, talk, sleep.

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A tree house in the middle of the Lao jungle is probably one of the worst places on Earth to have explosive diarrhoea. (TMI? Sorry) Hello day three.

The main activities on this day were packing up all our stuff, saying goodbye to the jungle, and making the three-hour trek back to base. For obvious digestive reasons, this was an absolute shit-storm (as Kevin Rudd would say) for me. However, I am proud to say that I made it to base camp without pooing my pants (yay!) and after three hours in the truck heading back down that bumpy road; we made it to Huay Xai, where I was reunited with air-conditioning, the Internet and a sit-down toilet.

And so the wait began for my two day boat journey to Luang Prabang.

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Pai is like, really, really great. Really.

After cooking and tiger patting and elephant bathing my way through Chaing Mai, I jumped on a painfully packed mini-van with five massive British guys, three gap year girls, a hippy, a very uncomfortable looking elderly couple and all of our huge backpacks, to the laid-back mountain surrounded paradise that is Pai.

Three and a half hours of the most winding road I’ve ever been on (762 curves to be exact, there are T-shirts to prove it), led me to be dropped off in the middle of the tiny town, from where I had to get a taxi that was literally just a motorbike with a massive cage bolted to the side of it, to get me five minutes back up the road to my hostel, Spicy Pai. Without a doubt the coolest hostel I have stayed in so far. Forget abut the fact that I slept in a 26 bed mixed dorm with no air-conditioning, a ripped mosquito net and no security. It was a giant bamboo hut for goodness sake! Coolest thing ever or what?

While it’s a chilled-out little hippie town by day, Pai goes mental at night. The whole town seems to be driven purely by the tourism industry, and by midnight, its crawling with drunken backpackers, hopping from one reggae bar to the next.

It’s quite a strange place in that there’s really no reason to go there other than to party. There’s really not a lot to see or do, so drinking is quite a popular activity. It’s sort of like the partying beach-bum life without the beautiful beach. I mean, yes the mountain scenery is gorgeous, but I wasn’t gazing open mouthed into the distance with “What a Wonderful World” softly playing in my head. Pai does have a pool though, and a few waterfalls, and a giant Buddha, and a strawberry farm, and a canyon. 

I was feeling pretty down in the dumps when I arrived in Pai, missing the comforts and familiarity of home. Which for me, is a feeling that comes and goes quite frequently. So I was super happy to meet three totally lovely British girls; Alice, Alex and Emma, and was reunited with Melissa (who I met in Chiang Mai) and her friend Brinn.

The six of us became instant best friends, and had such an awesome time together. We spent the mornings stuffing ourselves with amazing brekkies at Boomalicious, and the afternoons riding around town on our scooters getting lost in the countryside with the wind in our hair and the sun slowly etching signs of premature ageing into our backs. We would then spend the evenings sipping on some Sangsom (the local poison of choice) and find ourselves walking back from who knows where at four o’clock in the morning. It was a really fun time and I already miss those girls to pieces. 

Moral of this very short story? Get your ass to Pai.

Alice, Brinn, Emma, Me, Melissa
Alice, Brinn, Emma, Me, Melissa
Night out at Don't Cry Bar. Alex, Me, Emma.
Night out at Don’t Cry Bar. There was a Thai heavy metal band playing live while this photo was taken and it was probably one of the weirdest nights out I’ve ever had. Alex, Me, Emma.
Nature's water slide.
Nature’s water slide.
I felt like such a bad ass srsly.
I felt like such a bad ass srsly.
Big Buddha!
Big Buddha!
View from Spicy Pai hostel. Doesn't get much better than that.
View from Spicy Pai hostel. Doesn’t get much better than that.
Pai Canyon.
Pai Canyon.
Already missing you millions, Pai !
Already missing you millions, Pai !

Making Elephant Pals in Chiang Mai

I feel as though I should preface this by suggesting that if you’re uncomfortable with or wholly against the concept of elephant tourism, this post probably isn’t for you. 

I thought about turning this post into a long, heartfelt, intelligent discussion of the moral dilemmas behind elephant tourism and animal tourism in general. However, I decided I wasn’t comfortable throwing around my opinions about such a controversial issue that, to be honest, I don’t really know much about. Especially given that there are so many people out there with very strong opinions in regards to the massive issue of animal rights. Perhaps one day I’ll have the time to research the issue properly, and discuss its related ethical concerns a little further. But for now, I’ll be keeping my big, fat, uneducated mouth shut, thanks very much.

I will say though, that when I chose to do this elephant experience, I did not choose lightly. I researched the hell out of at least half a dozen companies to make sure I wasn’t just handing my money over to some dodgy little Thai man with a pack of elephants chained up in his backyard. I decided on Baan Chang Elephant Park, who are regarded as the second most morally conscious elephant experience provider in Chiang Mai. I wasn’t able to go with the number one company because a) they were hopeless at getting back to me and b) they were well out of my price range. Baan Chang definitely didn’t come cheap, mind you. 

The day began in a minivan as I was whisked away from my hostel and off to the Baan Chang site, about an hour up into the gorgeous lush green hills surrounding Chiang Mai. Upon arriving, we saw about two dozen elephants all just standing around in a field, swinging their tails and swishing their trunks around, having a great old time. My first thoughts echoed around the minivan as others said the same thing out loud: they looked SO HAPPY. Honestly, they looked so at peace with their surroundings and just happy to be around all their elephant mates with nothing to worry about.

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We were soon changing into our special elephant trainer clothes provided by Baan Chang (real cute btw) and hearing lots of important and interesting information from our guide about what the day ahead would involve. 

Next, we were each given a huge basket of bananas and sugar cane to feed the elephants straight off the palms of our own hands. Skin and all, the elephants scoffed down entire hands of bananas at once, along with great big bundles of sugar cane.

Taking those 'nanas like a champ.
Taking those ‘nanas like a champ.

Before this day, I’d never seen or even imagined the way an elephant looked and behaved up close. Everything about them is overwhelmingly large. I was struck by how big the soles of their feet were, bigger than dinner plates.

Their entire bodies are constantly in motion. Always flapping their giant ears and swinging their trunks and shuffling their feet from side to side. Their skin is wrinkled and leathery as if from a life-time of tanning while lathered in coconut oil. The little hairs on top of their head are short and spiky and hard, like the bristles of a harsh scrubbing brush. They honestly are very, very cool.

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IMG_2828After another pep talk from our guide we were up and learning how to ride them. There are no little wooden seats strapped to these babies’ backs though. We were riding bare-back, right on the elephants neck, which is actually the best way for the elephant, and the traditional way that mahouts (human trainers/ companions that partner with one elephant for life) have been riding elephants for hundreds of years.

Sorry for super dodgy photo. But look I'm riding an elephant!
Sorry for super dodgy photo. But look I’m riding an elephant!

We rode the elephants for about an hour, and honestly that was enough. My bum was so sore by the end of it I was almost begging to get down. With us on their backs, the elephants trekked through a jungle path that surrounds the Baan Chang site, and lead us to a river, where we got to bathe them. 

Truth be told, this was gross. All the elephants shat in the water, and their huge grassy mounds of poo bobbed up to the surface for us all to dodge wildly while we splashed water on the elephants and scrubbed them clean. It didn’t smell bad or anything, but the whole time I was painfully aware of how squishy the river floor felt beneath my feet. And I’ll never forget that tiny drop of water that made its way into my mouth.

Looking happy despite being covered in elephant shit water.
Looking happy despite being covered in elephant shit water.

After that, it was time to shower, change and head on back to Chiang Mai. This was really a great day, and I think writing about it has actually helped me to realise that. I mean, there’s not many people who can say they’ve hung out with elephants like this.

ALSO, CUTE:

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