Thailand Times – Trip 6

Hello again from Thailand! I’m doing a lot of stuff here aren’t I?

My next adventure took me to the island of Koh Tao. I made the trip down there over a grueling two days. I first of all took a bus from Chiang Mai to Bangkok overnight. The concept of a ‘sleeper’ bus doesn’t exist in Thailand like it does in Vietnam. It was a sitting bus. I could have cried (I didn’t though). I was a trooper and arrived in Bangkok having not had a wink of sleep and feeling awful. What was useful though was that the bus dropped me off right by Kaoh San Road. I not only knew the area around Kaoh San Road but it was also where I needed to get my connecting transport from so, silver lining and all that. Unfortunately the overnight bus got me to Bangkok at 5:45 which meant I would miss the 6am onward bus. The next bus was 9:30pm. Woe is me, I had to spend the whole day bumming around Bangkok. I considered many things. I thought about going to the movies, I thought about going shopping, I thought about going for a massage, I thought about all kinds of things. What I ended up doing was:

1) Buying my bus & boat combo ticket from Lompraya (1050 Baht) to get to Koh Tao.
2) Sitting in Starbucks (napping occasionally).

I consumed my weight in tea and half price frappuccinos and then got on the 9:30pm bus headed for Chumphon. At about 9am (I really can’t remember) I arrived at the Lompraya catamaran jetty thing having spent another sleepless night on a sitting bus. The catamaran was on time and sped me towards Koh Tao in good time. I arrived on Koh Tao at about 3pm. It was a horrible journey so why did I do it? Well, in order to learn to SCUBA dive of course!

Koh Tao is renowned as one of the best and cheapest places to dive in the world. The waters are warm, the industry is well established on the islands and the fish are colourful. I had always intended to learn to dive on Koh Tao and I had always expected it to be one of the highlights of my trip. I was not disappointed.

I embarked upon my SSI Open Water Diver course with Big Blue Diving at Sairee Beach on the island. Big Blue is one of the larger dive schools on Koh Tao and has two sites, Big Blue 1 and Big Blue 2. Whilst you are diving with them, you are entitled to free accommodation at their resorts which is good because the diving courses on Koh Tao may be the cheapest in the world but they still ain’t that cheap. My open water cost 9000 baht. It’s not a bad view for breakfast though is it:

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The open water course involves both theory, pool work and actual diving. When you’ve passed, you’re qualified to dive to 18m. The theory is as you’d expect, dull. The pool work gets you used to the very alien sensation of breathing underwater and familiarises you with the equipment that is, literally, your lifeline underwater. Then you get to dive.

We did 4 dives as part of our open water and they covered the basics of controlling buoyancy and just generally diving safely (i.e. checking gauges, emergency ascents, mask clearing, the buddy system and so on). The first 2 dives went without a hitch but then, that night, the vomiting started. It was nothing diving related but I ended up unwell, in bed, for 2 days. I completed my open water with a different group when I was feeling better. Hoorah!

After my first 4 dives, I knew I wouldn’t be able to stop so, I signed up for a PADI Advanced Diving course which would mean I was certified to dive to 30m. As I had completed my Open Water with Big Blue, I was entitled to a discounted price on my advanced so I paid 7650 Baht. Money well spent.

Your advanced is a shorter course than the open water as you are building on the basics you already know so there’s less theory. The theory of your advanced focuses more on the physiological issues of diving to 30m. You look at lung expansion injuries and nitrogen saturation quite carefully. You do a total of 5 dives for your advanced. I was quite lucky that, during my advanced course, a monthly trip to Chumphon Marine Park was happening so I got to do 3 dives on brand new (for me) dive sites. Woo Hoo! The five dives I completed were a deep dive to 30m (where you get tested for nitrogen narcosis), a buoyancy skills dive (where you basically do an assault course underwater), a wreck dive (where you swim around a ship wreck), a navigation dive (where you are told to be back at the boat in 40 minutes and given a compass) and a fish ID dive (where you have to identify as many of the fish you see as possible). I loved ALL of them. I really did but my favourite was probably fish ID. It’s amazing how many more fish you see when you are actually looking. We saw:
Baby yellow box fish, Cobia, Banner fish, Angel fish, Cleaner Wrasse, Blue Spotted Sting Ray, Trigger fish, Parrot fish, Bat fish, anemone fish, barracuda and so many more that I can’t remember the names of. There was also coral, anemones and weird looking plants. It was ACE.

I would highly recommend Big Blue as a dive school. I actually don’t have a bad word to say about them. I mean, even the sunset view form their bar is incredible:

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They have fire dancers on the weekend too:

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So, yes, diving. It’s awesome and I cannot wait to get back in the water again.

I had planned to do some fun dives on Koh Tao, I even did a Visa run so I would have time (see different blog for details), but I got Dengue fever. So instead of diving, I was laid in bed for a week. Let me tell you, Dengue fever is not fun. The only way to get it is to get bitten by a mosquito which is carrying the virus. It is not contagious.

It started with what I had thought was food poisoning (see above). I’d felt pretty shoddy since then and hadn’t really eaten but, when the vomiting had stopped, I’d got back in the water. The night I finished my advanced course, I was crippled by a headache. It was horrendous. I retreated to my pit with excuses of ‘I’ve been doing a lot’, ‘I wasn’t well’ and ‘it’s too bloody hot’.

The next day, I really was too bloody hot. I had a fever and my muscles and joints felt like someone had screwed them too tight during the night. I creaked and wailed whenever I moved. This continued for 3 days whilst I still protested that I was just tired etc etc.

At the end of Day 5 of feeling awful, I googled my symptoms. This is normally a big mistake and I thought it was when all my symptoms matched Dengue fever. I remember thinking ‘that’s just ridiculous, there’s no way I’ve got that, I don’t have the rash’.

Day 6 of feeling horrid dawned and brought a rash. A rash that looked suspiciously, no exactly, like the dengue fever rash. All over my chest arms and legs. Bother.

Day 7, I felt better but went to the doctor who confirmed dengue and packed me off with paracetamol and water which is the only treatment.

After 9 days of feeling actually terrible, I only felt pretty rubbish.

By day 12 all of my symptoms had gone but I was left being tired after even the shortest walk or bout of activity.

Day 15 after the high fever struck is when I didn’t have to have a nap half way through the day anymore so I think that’s classed as recovery.

Thailand Times – Trip 5

My friends are well aware that I enjoy cooking very much. I’m normally pretty happy to feed anyone who comes to visit. I’ve been lucky enough to learn how to cook Indian food courtesy of a friend so I thought, on my travels, why not expand my cooking skills some more?

I undertook a full day course with Thai Kitchen Cookery Centre in Chiang Mai for 850 baht.

You start your cooking day by being collected from your accommodation. You then make a brief stop at the cookery school to choose which dishes you will make. Once you have chosen, you go off to the local market for ingredients!

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One of our teachers, Asmee, explained differences between coconut cream and coconut milk, types of basil, tofu spices, herbs and all kinds of others to things. We were shown around some of the market but were given free time to wander around alone too. The array of things for sale that I did not recognise made me feel a little ashamed. Anyway, the shopping was all done and we piled back into the van with our baskets.

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Back at the school, we cracked straight on with cooking our first dish. You cook independently at one of the wok stations you can see below:

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You’re never without a teacher. They’re on hand to advise on preparing ingredients, wok temperatures and how much of what to use for spicing or salting up your dishes. You can see Aûm here explaining how to prepare sticky rice:

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This is Asmee supervising the pounding of ingredients into a green curry paste:

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Anyway, back to what we cooked. My first dish was Tom Yum soup. The soup is coconut milk based with decent amounts of lemongrass, garlic and ginger added. There’s also shrimp in there and special Tom Yum paste. It’s actually a really simple dish to make once you have sources the ingredients. Here’s the finished thing.

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On the whole day course you cook five savoury dishes and one dessert. I chose to cook green curry paste, green curry, chicken and basil leaves and Pad Thai as my savoury dishes. The method to make green curry was very similar to Tom Yum soup except that you leave it to simmer for much longer and the ingredients are different. Thai green curry is not supposed to be a spicy affair as you would expect a normal curry to be. It’s very mild and quite fragrant. After having a taste of some of the others though, I distinctly prefer massaman curry to green curry.

My absolute favourite dish of the day was the chicken with basil leaves. It was so simple but amazingly tasty! If you see it on the menu at a Thai restaurant, it’s worth ordering! Here’s my green curry and chicken ready for testing/devouring.

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No picture of my Pad Thai exists as I ate it at great speed. Again, it was surprisingly fast and easy to cook. Pad Thai is another dish which is not spicy, you add your own spice to it when it is served in the form of chili oil and flakes so it suits a wide variety of palates.

Lastly there was dessert. I had chosen mango and sticky rice. I adore sticky rice. It is one of the most glorious things you can eat. You have to put in a bit of extra time to prepare it but it’s time well invested. Once the rice has been washed, soaked and cooked (steamed in a cotton bag), you add it to a mix of coconut cream, sugar and a little salt that you’ve had on the boil. You give it a good mash around until it’s properly mixed in and then you serve. Easy peasy!

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It was an incredibly yummy day and to top it off, you get a recipe book containing all food cooked during the day and a certificate to say you did the course. The teachers were friendly and efficient but more importantly they were knowledgeable, they didn’t get stumped by any of our questions.

I really enjoyed the day and, as someone who loves to cook, think it was worth the money. If you’re not a keen cook, there are cheaper  courses you can do in just a half day or few hours in an evening that would probably be a better choice.

Thailand Times – Trip 4

Whilst in Chiang Mai, I saw a market, shops, a few temples and got a massage.

Chiang Mai is not all that big. I walked around the inner ‘old city’ part quite happily without feeling flustered. Things of note are the second hand bookshops and the Boots. Yes, that’s right, an actual Boots with real Boots products. The second hand book shops can be found at the eastern end of Ratchmankha Road. There’s a few next door to one another (Gecko Books and the Lost Book Shop). Not only do they have lots volumes for sale but they will buy yours off you which is brilliant. I loved these book shops,

My massage was from the Chiang Mai Women’s Prison work training centre. For 180 baht, I was thoroughly massaged. The only odd bit of the experience was the reception desk being staffed by prison wardens otherwise, you would not have known that the women were inmates on a work training programme. You can find the centre on Ratwithi Road just north east of Wat Phra Singh. It works on a first come first served basis so you might have to wait an hour or so before your time slot if they’re busy.

That brings me nicely to the temples I saw. First and foremost, these little statues made me feel very happy.

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There are three temples within about one kilometre of each other that I saw. I went to Wat Thung Yu, Wat Si Koet and Wat Phra Singh. First of all was Wat Si Koet, a fairly small temple but quite pretty none the less. It was definitely the least grand of the three.

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Wat Si Koet and Wat Thung Yu are on opposite sides of Ratchadamnoan Road to one another so they are not hard to find. They’re found at the more western end of the road. Wat Thung Yu has a main temple, a chedi and a second smaller shrine building so definitely more grand then it’s over the road neighbour. Work was being done to the main building when I went so you can see the scaffolding in my picture below.

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The largest of the three is Wat Phra Singh. There is an entrance fee to go inside but I didn’t go in because, honesty, I’m not interested in temples anymore. I’ve seen so many and they’re all looking distinctly the same now. Walking around the outside of the temple is free though and that’s how I took this picture.

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Also on Ratchadamnoan Road on a Sunday night is a rather brilliant market. There’s tonnes of souvenir shopping you can do and street food to eat. It is huge, actually huge. It starts practically at Wat Phra Singh and continues sprawling down Ratchadamnoan Road and the side streets for a couple of kilometres, maybe more. Set aside plenty of time to walk around it if you want to go.

Chiang Mai is a relaxing city to be in. I enjoyed my few days walking around aimlessly.

Thailand Times – Trip 3

Once I’d arrived in Chiang Mai, I took a big red shared taxi to my hostel for 30 baht. I spent the rest of the day trying to change my kip to baht. It seems the only exchange kiosks which will take kip are the Bangkok bank ones (I found one opposite Boots on the north east corner of the canal) and even then, they only take notes of 10000 kip and larger. First day in Chiang Mai was admin. The second day was more fun.

I’d booked myself onto a full day tour at the Elephant Nature Park outside of Chiang Mai. After researching into the various different elephant parks around Chiang Mai, I decided on the Elephant Nature Park as there were no gimmicks. There’s no shows where elephants paint or play music and there’s no riding the elephants. It’s just elephants getting to be elephants which is how it should be.

The Elephant Nature Park focusses on rescuing elephants who would otherwise be left to die. They may be injured and unable to work, orphaned or just plain mistreated. The Elephant Nature Park takes them in and cares for them. I paid 2500 baht for a full day which included collection and return to my hostel, elephant feeding, elephant washing and lunch. I’m not sure the guide we had was a particularly good one but it was worth the money but only because I got to be so close to the elephants.

The park is about an hour’s drive from Chiang Mai but we watched a documentary featuring the parks founder (Lek) in the minivan on the way so it didn’t feel tedious at all.

Once you get there, the first thing you do is feed the elephants. The mahouts bring their elephants to the raised walkway area and you begin feeding. We had an elephant called Lucky. Here she is.

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Lucky was badly treated and as a result is now blind. This makes feeding her slightly tricky. She can smell the food and is eager to eat but she can’t see so she waves her trunk around in front of her to try and locate her meal. This results in the feeders having to dodge powerful trunk swipes whilst attempting to place food in it. We all took more than one hit to the shins but Lucky was successfully fed eventually.

After morning feed, we took a walk to meet the newest elephant at the park. This little calf is only 7 weeks old and was a complete surprise. No one knew that Mum was pregnant. One morning, her mahout came to fetch her and there was the baby!

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A baby elephant is still very large. The calf wanted to play with the mahout whilst we were watching and I can assure you that, as cute as the calf is, he is waist high on a man and more than a handful.

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Another elephant we met along our walk was Bua Loi. She’s a very chilled out elephant and was probably my favourite for the day. Bua Loi was rescued from a forced breeding programme that left her with a broken hip.

Bua Loi is actually a Thai dessert of taro balls (taro is probably my favourite thing in Asia) in young coconut milk (young coconuts are probably my second favourite thing in Asia) so the elephant is actually named after a pudding (dessert to the Americans/Canadians). Pudding is my favourite thing ever. Therefore, Bua Loi and I were destined to get along.

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Another elephant who had been rescued from abuse is Jokia. When Jokia refused to work after her baby died, her mahout shot at her eyes with catapults until she went blind. She was rescued by the Elephant Nature Park. We met her as we were walking down to the river so I strolled alongside her for a while.

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At the river you get to wade in and wash the elephants using buckets of water. It’s quite hard work actually and the mahouts certainly enjoy making fun of you if you can’t quite get your water onto the elephants back. It’s much easier if your elephant decides to sit down like this one.

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Lunch is provided at the park and is a huge buffet. Very tasty too.

After bath time, there is more videos to watch featuring Lek. The videos cover the ongoing problems surrounding elephant mistreatment in Thailand. Some of it is quite graphic especially with regard to the more traditional methods of elephant training. Before being trained to work, the elephants are put into a contraption called a crush where they are basically tortured for days until they submit to the will of the mahout. There doesn’t seem to be any real need for it but it’s tradition so it continues.

After seeing the videos, it was all the more lovely to return and feed the elephants again because I had a new appreciation of just how these elephants really had been rescued.

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I had brilliant time at the elephant Nature Park and would recommend it for a day trip. The main thing I learned about elephants that day is that, the do not divert around you. You clear a path. Also, elephants are actually pretty quiet when they’re walking so keep your eyes peeled!

Border Bureaucracy – Laos to Thailand

When the time to leave Laos came, I had several options. I could fly from Luang Prabang to Chiang Mai in Thailand, I could get a bus or I could get a slow boat. The cost of a flight struck that one off my option list so it was between a boat or a bus. I opted for the bus but I would strongly advise others to take a boat. Here’s why.

The bus to Chiang Mai cost me 280,000 kip which is about what the boat would cost you. It was an overnight bus and took 12 hours to get to the border. Unfortunately, it was not a sleeper bus, it was a normal sitting bus. I cannot sleep when upright so this was a problem for me but the bigger problem was actually the state of the roads we went on. They were twisting mountain roads in varying states of repair. Sometimes the bus hurtled around corners with such force that my head smacked against the window. Other times, the bus hit potholes so big that I was catapulted out of my seat and into the ceiling. It was an incredibly unpleasant experience that I would not want to repeat. At one point, I actually laid out in the floor as it felt more stable than sitting in a chair. I wasn’t the only one doing it either. That’s why I would recommend you take a boat. The sail down the Mekong will be much more peaceful. My nerves were fried at the end of 12 hours on that bus.

Anyway, we arrived safely at Laos immigration and got stamped out of the Country after paying a $1 overtime fee because it was the weekend (fee also charged if you leave after 4:30pm). Once stamped out, we were ushered onto a boat in order to cross into Thailand via the Mekong river.

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It felt very authentically unstable but it carried the passengers and our luggage across into Thailand without any problems.

On the Thai side, it was the standard form filling in and photo handing over procedure except this time, no fee. UK passport holders are part of Thailand’s visa waiver agreement so you get 15 days for free when you cross over a land border (30 days if you arrive by air). Once stamped in, it was onto another bus for the 7 hours to Chiang Mai.

Yet another utterly uneventful border crossing report and I hope they continue to be this dull. Approx 20 hours in total for this particular journey.

My lesson learned here though is, TAKE THE BOAT!

Lapping up Laos

I was illness for most of my time in Laos so I did not do a great deal. I started in Vientiane, travelled to Vang Vieng and ended in Luang Prabang. I can tell you how I got to each place and what I did, if I did anything.

In Vientiane I did nothing other than find a pharmacy, buy many cold remedies, do laundry and sleep. I basically sucked at being in Vientiane. I stayed one night before I headed on. I stayed at Siholme Backpackers which is actually a really decent hostel. Good air con dorms, best showers I’ve ever seen in a hostel, movie room, good communal bar area and friendly staff. Very comfortable and 40,000 kip (ish) a night.

I booked my minibus to Vang Vieng through the hostel and paid 50,000 kip. I sat in a minibus for about 5 hours and was safely deposited in Vang Vieng. I’d booked into a hostel there called Easy Go Hostel. It was 25,000 kip a night but it was horrid. I should have paid more and stayed somewhere nice. No air con. Dirty rooms. Foul showers and toilets. No WiFi. Crap communal areas which flood when it rains and leaky ceiling in my dorm. I spent slim to no time in the hostel. I sat in bars that had WiFi and air con instead.

There were some fairly impressive thunder storms whilst I was in Vang Vieng. It felt very ominous before the storms hit. You can see in the snap below that rain is cascading down onto the hills in the distance.

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When there were no rain storms, I was in bars. The bars in Vang Vieng vary quite dramatically in their USPs. A couple of them play episodes of ‘Friends’ back to back, all day. There’s also a South Park/Family Guy bar. There’s bars with jazz, bars with rock, Irish bars and bars with no special talents at all. I preferred the ‘Friends, bars because the WiFi was good, the good was cheap and the seating was pillows that you can stretch out on. They also sat right on the river so you could have a really lovely view if you wanted one.

There are things you can do in Vang Vieng it’s just that I didn’t do any of them. There is a blue lagoon you can visit. You can still go tubing although I’m told it’s much more civilised/less fun now as there’s only 2 or 3 bars to stop at. There’s also temples you can go and see etc etc. I didn’t do anything other than medicate myself heavily and sit around.

I left Vang Vieng on a minibus bound for Luang Prabang. It cost me 90,000 kip and took about 7 hours. The drive winds through mountains so get ready for twisting and turning in the extreme. It wasn’t a comfortable ride as I had slim to no leg space and still did not feel well. We stopped a few times too which was, I assume, was to rest the drivers arms. It wasn’t all bad though, I got to play with the panorama mode on many camera phone for one and the view wasn’t bad.

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I hadn’t prebooked accommodation in Luang Prabang as there wasn’t an inspiring range available on the internet. Instead, I walked around until I settled on Xayana Guesthouse for 40,000 kip a night. The dorm was clean and the separate toilet and showers made me feel happy. There was no WiFi in the dorms but it was accessible from the communal area out the front. Not ideal. The water went off one night during a rain storm and and the roof leaked in the dorm (but not on my bed) so, really, not all that great for 40,000 a night. You could probably find cheaper very nearby but I was not in the mood, I just wanted sleep.

I spent time in JoMa Bakery in Luang Prabang as they will sell you a mug of tea with fresh milk (not condensed) for 10,000 kip. They also have yummy salads to eat. I liked the cake from Ancient Bakery just down the road (they do special 50% off on cakes daily). The 10,000 kip per plate vegetarian buffet at the night market saw some action from me to. You pile your plate up with the cold food then a nice man stir fries it all back to hot. For 10,000 kip it’s a very good feed. There’s a lady on the corner across the road from the buffet who will sell you noodle soup for 10,000 kip too. Plenty of cheap eating opportunities. The cafés and eating places in town were pretty expensive so I ate mostly the night market food.

I ventured into the watering holes too. My favourite bar was Utopia. Set on the river, you can chill out and chat or be energetic with a game of volleyball if you fancy it. I went for chilling and chatting. I visited Lao Lao Garden which was fun. Not as atmospheric as Utopia but still a decent spot. Then there was Hive bar which was dull and forgettable. I also went bowling. Strange as it seems, everywhere in town closes at 11:30pm. The bowling alley stays open until 2am so you find the bar crowd migrating a few km out of town to the bowling alley come closing time. It’s legitimate 10 pin bowling costing 20,000 kip per person per game. My havianas got stolen. The flip flopper strikes again.

I was feeling better by the time my last day in Laos arrived so, I did my first and only touristy thing. I visited Kuang Si waterfall. It’s about 30 km away from Luang Prabang but you should be able to get a round trip spot in a tuk tuk for 30,000-40,000 kip. Entrance to the waterfall is 20,000 kip and included in this is seeing some bears. Real ones.

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They are cute and you can watch them being fed (at the regular feeding time) if you want to.

The main attraction is the waterfall. There’s two routes you can take to get to the waterfall, the trekking way or the regular way. We got confused and accidentally took the trekking way in flip flops and skirts. It wasn’t ideal but we didn’t get injured so it’s all good. Some of the pools you pass on the way up to the main falls are just stunning.

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The main waterfall is gorgeous.

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One of the best bits is that you are allowed to swim in a few of the pools. There’s even a rope swing at the biggest one.

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We had great fun at the main pool. Do take your swimming stuff if you go. There’s changing cubicles and everything. The fish in the water will try to nibble your dead skin though. I didn’t like that at all and shrieked like a massive girl whenever I felt one.

The waterfall is well worth the investment of time and kip. I had a lovely time.

All in all, Laos is a relaxing place to visit. No one is in a hurry. No one hassles you and, if you just want to sit around and maybe see some temples or nature if you feel so inclined, Laos is a good pick. I enjoyed myself and almost got rid of my cold.