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We arrive in Guatemala City in the early evening by air, it’s a bit extravagant of us to fly – we were planning to take a bus but were less than enthusiastic to spend a whooping 60 hours on a journey by bus - our time is precious and we much prefer spending it relaxing rather than cooped up in a bus now that we’re seriously starting to feel the fatigue after countless long journeys, always on the move from place to place. We managed to book a room at Hostal La Coperacha and an airport pickup while waiting for our flight in San Jose – we had a few hours to kill as our VIP taxi-van arrived early from Montezuma. It feels very luxurious to have everything booked up and arranged for us for once – no stress is a very pleasant feeling. Our taxi driver is waiting for us as we come out but he need to go and pick his car up from the car park so we have to wait outside where we have some crazy woman (probably on crack and various other substances) shouting abuse at the world and some gibberish about government satellites and aliens. We try to just ignore her as she comes up to us but this just make her more determined to shout louder and even more abusing than before. We’re just hoping she won’t attack us with her used needles and probably deadly diseases. Our taxi driver arrives in the nick of time to rescue us from an attack by this crazed babbling woman – we’re out of here. As we get closer to the centre of town we hit crazy traffic – it’s all stand-still as many roads are closed off for the Easter holy week parades. Due to this chaos the journey that is supposed to take 10-15 minutes takes over an hour. It’s quite nice to watch the bustle of the people dressed in their funny purple church outfits as we slowly move through the traffic stand-still in our taxi. When we finally get to the hotel we get a very nice surprise - the room is huge and really nicely decorated and the hostel is in a really nice old building on a quiet road.

[caption id="attachment_2782" align="aligncenter" width="545"]Our budget room at Hostal La Coperacha, Guatemala City. Our budget room at Hostal La Coperacha, Guatemala City.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_2783" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Our budget room at Hostal La Coperacha, Guatemala City. Our budget room at Hostal La Coperacha, Guatemala City.[/caption]

Upon arrival we’re absolutely starving and quickly pop out to get something to eat. Because it’s the start of holy week and Sunday not many restaurants will be open, but we head out in good hopes. We don’t get far down the road before we can’t get any further because of the crowd of people still hanging about in the streets after the parade we saw some of from the taxi earlier. The good thing with it still being very busy is that there are many food-stalls around, so our worries about not being able to get food are unfounded. We really like the look of a stall that makes some gorgeous smelling chorizo sandwiches. With my broken Spanish I manage to order one for me without the mayo sauce and one for Hannah with all the trimmings. I’m astonished I manage to do the order without stuttering and even more surprised that the stall-holder understands me on the first try, so I don’t need to repeat myself – I’m getting better at this, whohooo. I even get a compliment on my Spanish from a bystander after he learns I’m Norwegian. Happily fed we walk back towards our hostel (or more correctly – we’re happily stuffing our faces while walking back to the hostel). It’s quite late by now and we’re looking forward to relaxing in our plush room. Our hostel has a really tranquil setting with lots of plants dotted around the place. The manager Lucien, an ex-pat Frenchman, is really nice, and in the morning cooks up a very nice traditional Guatemalan breakfast for us. He also arranges for us the transport to the bus station for our bus to Panajachel on Lake Atilan where we can catch the boat to San Marcos La Laguna.

Before we get our taxi to the bus station we need to get some cash out and head in towards the main square to find an ATM. We’re quite surprised to find there are armed guards everywhere and for everything - how bad is the situation here when they need an armed guard for the truck delivering frozen chicken and the van delivering sausages to the various small shops. We’d seen armed guards by banks and ATMs in other countries but that is sort of expected – armed guards for some frozen chicken is a sign of desperate measures due to desperate people – how poor are people here to resort to robbing a chicken or sausage van?

It’s time for us to take the bus to Panajachel and the taxi takes us to the bus company. From the outside I would never have guessed the place was a bus-station – it’s an anonymous doorway and at first we’re unsure the taxi driver was properly briefed on where we were supposed to be dropped off. He keeps saying something about one o’clock and wait, and something more about a closed office. We get our backpacks out of the car and head into the anonymous doorway hoping this is actually where we’re supposed to be. When we get inside we can breathe a sigh of release as we can see our bus with a Panajachel sign getting a proper overhaul and a good wash. The old bus is positively gleaming as if it was brand new by the time it’s ready for boarding. It’s a so-called chicken bus and in the beginning we’re a bit worried it’s going to be a bit rough and ready. It quickly fills up and we’re happy to see the passengers are a mix of families and business people, and not the crooks our guide was warning us would frequent these busses – maybe we should show our Lonely Planet books the shredder... (under pressure they might start to improve themselves...). The journey is a really fun experience with vendors coming on during the trip selling chicken in tortillas and fruits – and a few things we couldn’t understand what it is of course. Everybody on the bus are wearing big smiles, even though it’s really crammed – we’re practically sitting on top of each other – and the atmosphere is really great.

[caption id="attachment_2788" align="aligncenter" width="545"]Our chicken bus getting a good wash and overhaul before the journey from Guatemala City to Panajachel. Our chicken bus getting a good wash and overhaul before the journey from Guatemala City to Panajachel.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_2785" align="aligncenter" width="533"]The bus depot for the chicken bus to Panajachel in Guatemala city. The bus depot for the chicken bus to Panajachel in Guatemala city.[/caption]

We arrive in Panajachel around six and after a bit of walking about find the right pier for the boats towards San Marcos la Laguna. After about a 45 minutes wait for the boat to fill up we’re finally on our way across Lake Atilan.

[caption id="attachment_2787" align="aligncenter" width="545"]Our view from the pier in Panajachel while waiting for our boat to fill up and cross Lake Atilan to reach San Marcos la Laguna. Our view from the pier in Panajachel while waiting for our boat to fill up and cross Lake Atilan to reach San Marcos la Laguna.[/caption]

We arrive in Vang Vieng a little bit ahead of schedule but find we're quite far out from the centre of town where all the guest houses are located - so we share a tuc-tuc with Masuk and Jonathan with whom we'd had the pleasurable company of travelling with on the last two journeys from Luang Prabang to Phonsavan, and then from Phonsavan to Vang Vieng. More people in the tuc-tuc means we can get a little bit cheaper deal, so that's good. After a bit of walking about searching for a place we finally settle on Phoubane Guest House were we get a small bungalow for a good rate. Hannah came here several years ago and is shocked to see how it's changed - the town has expanded drastically, due to the tourist boom here over the past few years. We soon start to notice the behaviour of some of tourists here is very loutish and not in any way respective towards the locals and their culture. There are many signposts in town explaining quite clearly that certain dress-codes are not tolerated, such as guys not wearing tops and women in their bikinis. We still see guys parading around shirtless and women in skimpy bikinis wielding their bottles and cans of beer and generally being loud with vulgar language. You can see the reactions on the faces of people in the shops and stalls, and they're not positively loaded. We also have a chat with a guide from Green Discovery on our way to a bit of cave-trekking about 30 minutes drive north of Vang Vieng, and he's got some pretty shocking tales to tell about some of the extreme behaviour of tourists here in the past. It's like hearing a tale about completely brain dead Neanderthals on steroids. I think it's a blessing for the local population that the government finally intervened after many years of this awful behaviour that turned this town into a deadly circus - but it has also put many bars, restaurants and guest houses out of business. The government basically shut all the bars down along the river where people would be stopping off on the way down the river on their rubber inner-tires (tubing). They would get absolutely wasted and this resulted in the unprecedented lewd behaviour and also in many deaths by drowning, or people jumping into the river where it's not safe - with the obvious consequences that can bring. In 2012 29 people died while tubing in this river and in the late summer all the bars were closed down by the government, many by force - or by being torched - apparently. It could possibly been a better tactic to punish the unruly tourists rather than the local businesses - this could have cleaned up the dangerous and disrespectful behaviour while keeping some of the businesses running. The tubing still carries on in Vang Vieng but has now a much more relaxing atmosphere about it. Some people are still behaving badly and don't respect the laws, regulations and culture, so there is still a very present problem here, despite the closure of all the bars. In my opinion Vang vieng need to shift their focus on a different type of tourism, although the tubing can be a part of the experience they can rather emphasise on the wealth of the beautiful nature in the area, with lots of mountains and countless caves it would be perfect for adventure trekking, caving, canoeing and more. They should definitely clamp down on the behaviour of the troublemakers and fine them if they break the rules - this would discourage future troublemakers and maybe restore the relations between the local people and the people visiting the town. It's a beautiful place and I'm sure it could again be a thriving destination, but with a better type of tourism that would not upset the people living there. We're taking it a bit easy in Vang Vieng and start off with a half day trekking and caving. It's not too strenuous a hike and we get to see a few caves and I get the pleasure of a dip in the Tham Nam Water Cave - it comes at a cost though, as I manage to lose my lovely torch - c'est la vie. We also have a day of cycling around and exploring the area, and in the evening go to the Tham Poukham Cave and Blue Lagoon - about 45 minutes (if you know the way, which we didn't) cycle on the most bumpy road I've ever cycled along, and not with large bumps that you can avoid by going round, but small bumps EVERYWHERE that makes your bones ache... It's fun at the same time as it's a bit painful, and talking to each other along the road becomes comical as our vocal chords are obviously affected by the rough ride. The cave is pretty impressive, but the climb up to it is pretty steep and it really get the heart pumping. A refreshing dip in the Blue Lagoon and some sticky rice and barbecued chicken after the cave is very refreshing and prepares us well for the journey back to our guest house. The last day we test out the tubing down the river - we get dropped off four kilometres upstream from the town and slowly drift the way back to town with one stop half way at a bar (probably illegal) at a resort. The gathering at the half-way-bar was a very pleasant collection of people from around the world, so we had a good old chinwag over a couple of beers before continuing down the river. It was a very relaxing experience and we didn't see any reckless behaviour at all. There was a party by the river close to the start where some brainless kids were trying to entice us up to, but this didn't appeal to us at all - we like a good party now and then, but prefer the crowd to be a bit more mature than topless rat-arsed teenagers... [caption id="attachment_1512" align="aligncenter" width="545"]Vang Vieng. Vang Vieng.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1511" align="aligncenter" width="545"]Tham Xang (Elephant Cave), Vang Vieng. Tham Xang (Elephant Cave), Vang Vieng.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1510" align="aligncenter" width="545"]Tham Xang (Elephant Cave), Vang Vieng. Tham Xang (Elephant Cave), Vang Vieng.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1509" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Tham Xang (Elephant Cave), Vang Vieng. Tham Xang (Elephant Cave), Vang Vieng.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1508" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Tham Xang (Elephant Cave), Vang Vieng. Tham Xang (Elephant Cave), Vang Vieng.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1507" align="aligncenter" width="545"]Tham Xang (Elephant Cave), Vang Vieng. Tham Xang (Elephant Cave), Vang Vieng.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1506" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Trekking, Vang Vieng. Trekking, Vang Vieng.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1505" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Trekking, Vang Vieng. Trekking, Vang Vieng.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1504" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Tham Hoi Cave, Vang Vieng. Tham Hoi Cave, Vang Vieng.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1513" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Lovely Barbecue, Vang Vieng. Lovely Barbecue, Vang Vieng.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1531" align="aligncenter" width="545"]Vang Vieng. Vang Vieng.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1530" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Tham Poukham Cave, Vang Vieng. Tham Poukham Cave, Vang Vieng.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1529" align="aligncenter" width="545"]Tham Poukham Cave, Vang Vieng. Tham Poukham Cave, Vang Vieng.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1528" align="aligncenter" width="545"]Tham Poukham Cave, Vang Vieng. Tham Poukham Cave, Vang Vieng.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1527" align="aligncenter" width="545"]Tham Poukham Cave, Vang Vieng. Tham Poukham Cave, Vang Vieng.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1526" align="aligncenter" width="545"]Tham Poukham Cave, Vang Vieng. Tham Poukham Cave, Vang Vieng.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1525" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Tham Poukham Cave, Vang Vieng. Tham Poukham Cave, Vang Vieng.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1524" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Tham Poukham Cave, Vang Vieng. Tham Poukham Cave, Vang Vieng.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1523" align="aligncenter" width="545"]Vang Vieng. Vang Vieng.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1522" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Vang Vieng. Vang Vieng.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1521" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Vang Vieng. Vang Vieng.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1520" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Vang Vieng. Vang Vieng.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1519" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Tham Chang Cave, Vang Vieng. Tham Chang Cave, Vang Vieng.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1518" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Tham Chang Cave, Vang Vieng. Tham Chang Cave, Vang Vieng.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1517" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Tham Chang Cave, Vang Vieng. Tham Chang Cave, Vang Vieng.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1516" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Tham Chang Cave, Vang Vieng. Tham Chang Cave, Vang Vieng.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1515" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Tham Chang Cave, Vang Vieng. Tham Chang Cave, Vang Vieng.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1514" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Tham Chang Cave, Vang Vieng. Tham Chang Cave, Vang Vieng.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1532" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Tubing on the river in Vang Vieng. Tubing on the river in Vang Vieng.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1541" align="aligncenter" width="545"]Vang Vieng. Vang Vieng.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1540" align="aligncenter" width="545"]Tubing on the river in Vang Vieng. Tubing on the river in Vang Vieng.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1539" align="aligncenter" width="545"]Some local kids enjoying their food on some rocks in the middle of the river,Vang Vieng. Some local kids enjoying their food on some rocks in the middle of the river,Vang Vieng.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1538" align="aligncenter" width="545"]Tubing on the river in Vang Vieng. Tubing on the river in Vang Vieng.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1537" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Tubing on the river in Vang Vieng. Tubing on the river in Vang Vieng.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1536" align="aligncenter" width="545"]Vang Vieng. Vang Vieng.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1535" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Tubing on the river in Vang Vieng. Tubing on the river in Vang Vieng.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1534" align="aligncenter" width="545"]Canoeing on the river, Vang Vieng. Canoeing on the river, Vang Vieng.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1533" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Tubing on the river in Vang Vieng. Tubing on the river in Vang Vieng.[/caption] All in all our visit to Vang Vieng was a mixed bag of relaxing, and of annoyance with drunk and lary twats, plus the lack of sleep at times due to our neighbours staying up all night talking drug-hazed bullshit and coughing their lungs out due to smoking - not a good sign when you're only about twenty years old... We really enjoyed the nature and the caves, and wish we could have had an extra day with canoeing and even a hot air balloon trip, although the latter was very expensive. From Vang Vieng we move on towards Savannakhet, a small town close to the border with Thailand. We book a ticket with a seemingly reputable travel agency for a deluxe sleeper bus in the belief it will be a direct bus and a pleasant journey. The journey doesn’t exactly go to plan... First leg of the journey is to Vientiane on a bus that is about to fall apart LITERALLY! It's a fairly short journey so it's not too bad, but we had paid good money for these tickets and deserved a better standard. When arriving in Vientiane we’re left to wait without any instructions for what seems like ages, and when a van finally arrive to pick us up there seems to be some problems with our booking... lots of back and forth and we’re allowed onto the van to take us to the bus depot for our onward journey. Once at the depot we learn that the agency had only booked us to go to Paksan... More back and forth and we suddenly hold in our hands tickets to Savannakhet, but these as it turns out are only by local bus, and not the deluxe sleeper bus that we paid for. The driver of the van disappears and we can’t go back to him to complain. Not too impressed we just have to settle with what we got and be content with the fact that at least we’ll get there.

On the arrival to Pai I instantly felt relaxed - what a nice feeling. We had expected the journey to be much longer, but with a new and faster route since the guide was written it only took us about three and a bit hours as opposed to the five hours according to the Lonely Planet. For once we're happy that Lonely Planet got it wrong. We'd been a bit worried that there would be difficult to find accommodation on arrival due to it being high season (Christmas Eve), and our search online for places had only returned with hideously expensive resorts, or told us the guest houses were all fully booked. To our relief we find there are lots of places with spare rooms, which gives us the ability to shop around a little bit. Hannah remembers the location of one of the places she stayed when she were here last in Pai - a tranquil little place with nice bungalows called Mr. Jan's, and we find they have a reasonably priced room available. The room is originally meant for four people, but they charge per person - the good thing about this is that we can enjoy the extra space for spreading all our detritus around - feels less like living out of a backpack this way.

[caption id="attachment_1210" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Live music at the Bebop Bar in Pai. Live music at the Bebop Bar in Pai.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1234" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Beautiful countryside around Pai. Beautiful countryside around Pai.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1235" align="aligncenter" width="545"]Pinapple and chicken fried rice - nice breakfast at Ban Pai Restaurant in Pai. Pinapple and chicken fried rice - nice breakfast at Ban Pai Restaurant in Pai.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1246" align="aligncenter" width="545"]Dinner at a small local restaurant in Pai, which we couldn't see a name for. Dinner at a small local restaurant in Pai, which we couldn't see a name for.[/caption]

Hannah is initially disappointed with Pai as it has changed so drastically since she last was here, but as I have no prior expectations of the place I instantly feel home and enjoy the laid back atmosphere. Although there are many tourists flocking to this place it doesn't have the over-commercialised feeling here yet, and hopefully it will remain in such a way. There are lots of new built resorts all around the town though, where Hannah remembers it being just fields and nature, and the hippy crowd she remembers have moved out - some traces of them can still be seen and we find there are some small hippy communities further out in the countryside.

We go out on the first morning looking to hire a scooter so we can get to some of the waterfalls, temples and other sites outside of Pai. We're a bit late and most places are already out of motorbikes, but as luck would have it - as we're about to inquire in one of the shops about bicycles instead - one customer comes to return his scooter, and we're quick to grab that one. After a hearty breakfast we start our adventure of the day and go to visit some waterfalls – Pembok Waterfall, and then Mhor Phaeng Waterfall. We continue to Wat Phrathat Mae Yen, also known as the Temple On The Hill, and then the Pai Hot Springs for a good soaking in the warm pools. Finally as the sun sets (or a couple of minutes after it's gone behind the mountains) we arrive at the Pai Canyon.

[caption id="attachment_1211" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Pembok Waterfall, Pai. Pembok Waterfall, Pai.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1212" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Hannah at the Pembok Waterfall, Pai. Hannah at the Pembok Waterfall, Pai.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1213" align="aligncenter" width="533"]A bit of a rickety bridge at Pembok Waterfall, Pai. A bit of a rickety bridge at Pembok Waterfall, Pai.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1214" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Beautiful countryside around Pai. Beautiful countryside around Pai.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1215" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Hannah at the Mhor Phaeng Waterfall, Pai. Hannah at the Mhor Phaeng Waterfall, Pai.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1216" align="aligncenter" width="545"]Crazy kids jumping into a pool at Mhor Phaeng Waterfall, Pai. Crazy kids jumping into a pool at Mhor Phaeng Waterfall, Pai.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1217" align="aligncenter" width="545"]Mhor Phaeng Waterfall, Pai. Mhor Phaeng Waterfall, Pai.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1218" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Wat Phrathat Mae Yen (Temple On The Hill), Pai. Wat Phrathat Mae Yen (Temple On The Hill), Pai.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1219" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Wat Phrathat Mae Yen (Temple On The Hill), Pai. Wat Phrathat Mae Yen (Temple On The Hill), Pai.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1220" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Wat Phrathat Mae Yen (Temple On The Hill), Pai. Wat Phrathat Mae Yen (Temple On The Hill), Pai.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1221" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Wat Phrathat Mae Yen (Temple On The Hill), Pai. Wat Phrathat Mae Yen (Temple On The Hill), Pai.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1222" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Wat Phrathat Mae Yen (Temple On The Hill), Pai. Wat Phrathat Mae Yen (Temple On The Hill), Pai.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1223" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Wat Phrathat Mae Yen (Temple On The Hill), Pai. Wat Phrathat Mae Yen (Temple On The Hill), Pai.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1224" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Wat Phrathat Mae Yen (Temple On The Hill), Pai. Wat Phrathat Mae Yen (Temple On The Hill), Pai.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1225" align="aligncenter" width="545"]Wat Phrathat Mae Yen (Temple On The Hill), Pai. Wat Phrathat Mae Yen (Temple On The Hill), Pai.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1226" align="aligncenter" width="545"]Wat Phrathat Mae Yen (Temple On The Hill), Pai. Wat Phrathat Mae Yen (Temple On The Hill), Pai.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1227" align="aligncenter" width="545"]Wat Phrathat Mae Yen (Temple On The Hill), Pai. Wat Phrathat Mae Yen (Temple On The Hill), Pai.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1228" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Beautiful countryside around Pai. Beautiful countryside around Pai.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1229" align="aligncenter" width="545"]Beautiful countryside around Pai. Beautiful countryside around Pai.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1230" align="aligncenter" width="545"]Beautiful countryside around Pai. Beautiful countryside around Pai.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1231" align="aligncenter" width="545"]Pai Canyon. Pai Canyon.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1232" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Pai Canyon. Pai Canyon.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1233" align="aligncenter" width="545"]Pai Canyon. Pai Canyon.[/caption]

Every evening in Pai there is a Walking Street Market, so the main street in the centre becomes transformed with stalls lining both sides of the road and a very bustling crowd fills the street looking to do a bit of shopping, or to test out the many various food-stalls. It's a dangerous exercise to walk along the road as there are so many tempting treats on display, and even after eating a huge dinner we still can't resist having a taste of some of the many snacks on offer.

We decide to visit another waterfall and plan to do that around mid-day before going to lounge by the pool in the afternoon. The waterfall we want to go to is the Hua Chang Waterfall, and it doesn't look too far out on our little overview map of Pai. It turns out to be a bit of a mission to get there though, and even after a very long drive - along a really badly kept farm-road and crossing the river a few times without the help of bridges (poor scooter) - we still had a long trek through the jungle, again wading across the river countless of times, before we finally get to the waterfall. It's a really peaceful trek up to this waterfall and not many people seem to take the trip up to it. We met two people on the way up, who could assure us that we were on the right track thankfully, and three people as we were going back down. The scooter-ride on the very bumpy, muddy and rough path with the added bonus of dips in the river was an exhilarating experience on its own of course.

[youtube=http://youtu.be/umArNvwJI2Y]

Needless to say this adventure took much longer than we initially calculated, and by the time we came back down to civilisation it was too late for going to the pool. We did get the chance to lounge by the pool on the afternoon of our last day though, so all was not lost.

[caption id="attachment_1236" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Jungle-trekking to Hua Chang Waterfall, Pai. Jungle-trekking to Hua Chang Waterfall, Pai.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1237" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Jungle-trekking to Hua Chang Waterfall, Pai. Jungle-trekking to Hua Chang Waterfall, Pai.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1238" align="aligncenter" width="545"]Jungle-trekking to Hua Chang Waterfall, Pai. Jungle-trekking to Hua Chang Waterfall, Pai.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1239" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Hua Chang Waterfall, Pai. Hua Chang Waterfall, Pai.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1240" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Hua Chang Waterfall, Pai. Hua Chang Waterfall, Pai.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1241" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Hannah at the Hua Chang Waterfall, Pai. Hannah at the Hua Chang Waterfall, Pai.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1242" align="aligncenter" width="545"]Hua Chang Waterfall, Pai. Hua Chang Waterfall, Pai.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1243" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Hannah climbing back up from the Hua Chang Waterfall, Pai. Hannah climbing back up from the Hua Chang Waterfall, Pai.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1244" align="aligncenter" width="545"]Beautiful countryside around Pai. Hannah patiently waiting for me to finish snapping away. Beautiful countryside around Pai. Hannah patiently waiting for me to finish snapping away.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1245" align="aligncenter" width="545"]Beautiful countryside around Pai. Beautiful countryside around Pai.[/caption]

We also really wanted to do some more white-water-rafting and there were many options available for this at the various agencies in Pai, but they were quite pricy, and they only did them on certain days that didn't fit our schedule - we also didn't want a two-day combination with trekking so our options were very limited - in the end we decided for just a day's sightseeing. It was a silly-early start (as per normal) to get almost all the way to Mae Hong Son for sunrise (which we didn't make, despite the driver's desperate formula one performance) and had the first rays of sun over the misty lake at Pang Tong Royal Project. From there we headed to Mok Cham Pae, a little Chinese village in the mountains, for breakfast - we took a little walk around to a little restaurant away from the very busy one the bus dropped us off at and had some lovely soup (although strange looking with black chicken and various herbs) and crispy pork with rice - the restaurant was also a tea-shop, so we had free tasters of various gorgeous teas. The village is idyllically set next to a little lake with tea plantations around it, so we enjoy a nice view as well as good food and drink. Next stop on the tour was Pha Suea waterfall, and then not far from the waterfall the Phu Khlon hot-springs where we could soak our feet into hot mineral pools. After the hot-springs the tour continued to a Karen Long Neck hill-tribe village for a bit of souvenir-shopping (this is more than likely one of many "fake" hill-tribe villages - set up only for the milking of tourists' cash of course). Hannah get's a nice woven top and we get to feed the elephant so we're quite happy. Before breaking for lunch we visit the Temple On The Hill (Wat Phra That Doi Kong Mu) in Mae Hong Son - a blindingly bright white set of stupas high up on the hill above Mae Hong Son. We then move on to Thampla Fish Cave where we also sit down for a late lunch of excellent crispy grilled pork and sticky rice. Final stop on our journey is not on our schedule, but due to missing the sunrise in the morning the guide decides to give us a sunset instead and we stop off on a mountain viewpoint about 25 kilometres from Pai and enjoy a frrrrreeeeezzzzzing but beautiful sunset before returning back to Pai.

[caption id="attachment_1247" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Misty Lake at Pang Tong Royal Project. Misty Lake at Pang Tong Royal Project.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1248" align="aligncenter" width="545"]Misty Lake at Pang Tong Royal Project. Misty Lake at Pang Tong Royal Project.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1249" align="aligncenter" width="545"]Pang Tong Royal Project. These people kept jumping and jumping, as the photographer failed to catch the moment - quite amusing. Pang Tong Royal Project. These people kept jumping and jumping, as the photographer failed to catch the moment - quite amusing.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1250" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Pha Suea Waterfall near Mae Hong Son. Pha Suea Waterfall near Mae Hong Son.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1251" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Hannah getting a mud facemask at the Phu Khlon hot-springs near Mae Hong Son. Hannah getting a mud facemask at the Phu Khlon hot-springs near Mae Hong Son.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1252" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Karen Long Neck Hill Tribe Village near Mae Hong Son. Karen Long Neck Hill Tribe Village near Mae Hong Son.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1253" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Karen Long Neck Hill Tribe Village near Mae Hong Son. Karen Long Neck Hill Tribe Village near Mae Hong Son.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1254" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Karen Long Neck Hill Tribe Village near Mae Hong Son. Karen Long Neck Hill Tribe Village near Mae Hong Son.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1255" align="aligncenter" width="545"]Karen Long Neck Hill Tribe Village near Mae Hong Son. Karen Long Neck Hill Tribe Village near Mae Hong Son.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1256" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Hannah feeding an elephant at a Karen Long Neck Hill Tribe Village near Mae Hong Son. Hannah feeding an elephant at a Karen Long Neck Hill Tribe Village near Mae Hong Son.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1257" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Wat Phra That Doi Kong Mu (Temple on the hill) Mae Hong Son. Wat Phra That Doi Kong Mu (Temple on the hill) Mae Hong Son.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1258" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Wat Phra That Doi Kong Mu (Temple on the hill) Mae Hong Son. Wat Phra That Doi Kong Mu (Temple on the hill) Mae Hong Son.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1259" align="aligncenter" width="545"]Wat Phra That Doi Kong Mu (Temple on the hill) Mae Hong Son. Wat Phra That Doi Kong Mu (Temple on the hill) Mae Hong Son.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1260" align="aligncenter" width="545"]Wat Phra That Doi Kong Mu (Temple on the hill) Mae Hong Son. Wat Phra That Doi Kong Mu (Temple on the hill) Mae Hong Son.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1261" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Wat Phra That Doi Kong Mu (Temple on the hill) Mae Hong Son. Wat Phra That Doi Kong Mu (Temple on the hill) Mae Hong Son.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1262" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Thampla, Mae Hong Son. Thampla, Mae Hong Son.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1263" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Thampla, Mae Hong Son. Thampla, Mae Hong Son.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1264" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Just before sunset on a mountain viewpoint near Pai. Just before sunset on a mountain viewpoint near Pai.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1265" align="aligncenter" width="545"]Sunset on a mountain viewpoint near Pai. Sunset on a mountain viewpoint near Pai.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1266" align="aligncenter" width="545"]Sunset on a mountain viewpoint near Pai. Sunset on a mountain viewpoint near Pai.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1267" align="aligncenter" width="545"]Sunset on a mountain viewpoint near Pai. Sunset on a mountain viewpoint near Pai.[/caption]

From Pai we continue to Chiang Rai via minivan - another hang-on-to-your-hat experience... The driver was an absolute nutcase and in every turn in the road (and there are a lot of them on these winding mountain roads) he managed to get the wheels screeching, and at the back we could feel the suspension not keeping up and kept feeling the clunk where it had no more to give. The minivan went via Chiang Mai where we changed to another minivan with an equally crazy driver to take us on the last half of the journey to Chiang Rai. When we got to Chiang Rai we were ahead of schedule (I wonder why?) and we could consider ourselves lucky to still be alive.

The train up to Chiang Mai is fairly comfortable, although it gets a bit nippy during the night. We're prepared though with long trousers, trekking shoes, and most importantly our fleeces. The train leaves Bangkok just after the scheduled time but already before departing they inform us of a two hour delay. We find that a bit odd as we're leaving on time but guessing there might be delays because of work on the rails or something like that. In the end we're about 1h 3O min delayed arriving at Chiang Mai.

Chiang Mai Night Bazaar. Hannah trying her luck with darts at the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar.

With a tuc-tuc we head straight to a guest house called Smile, but they're full and we venture around the backstreets to find Pathara House. Very nice room, and its good value, so we're happy with that. The owner tells us they've just taken over the running of the hotel, so they have not organised themselves enough to get the restaurant running and they can't arrange any treks or tours for us- as they're yet to sort out a licence apparently (not sure anyone else has a licence - they just refer to other agencies and get a little percentage back as commission). This is quite lucky it turns out, as we wander over to the neighbouring guest house the Dixie Pig. The owner Buddy is very welcoming and his beer is nice and cold, and with his help we get two days of activity booked up straight away. First day is a day's adventure-trekking, which includes white water rafting, bamboo rafting, elephant trekking, and trekking up to a waterfall where we can jump in to cool ourselves off. In-between somewhere we also get served a very tasty lunch by the river. Crammed together in the back of the van we get to meet some fellow travellers Natasha, Brian and Reshvin - very pleasant company that makes the long journeys from and to Chiang Mai and the activities much more interesting. We get back to our hotel as the sun is setting and jump off the van and straight into Buddy's restaurant for some refreshing beer and lovely food cooked by his wife Ann.

[caption id="attachment_1123" align="aligncenter" width="545"]Orchid & Butterfly Farm, Chiang Mai. Orchid & Butterfly Farm, Chiang Mai.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1124" align="aligncenter" width="545"]Hannah at the Orchid & Butterfly Farm, Chiang Mai. Hannah at the Orchid & Butterfly Farm, Chiang Mai.[/caption]

Hannah at the Orchid & Butterfly Farm, Chiang Mai.

[caption id="attachment_1125" align="aligncenter" width="545"]Elephant trekking, Kuet Chang, Chiang Mai. Elephant trekking, Kuet Chang, Chiang Mai.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1126" align="aligncenter" width="545"]Elephant trekking, Kuet Chang, Chiang Mai. Elephant trekking, Kuet Chang, Chiang Mai.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1127" align="aligncenter" width="545"]Elephant trekking, Kuet Chang, Chiang Mai. Elephant trekking, Kuet Chang, Chiang Mai.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1128" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Elephant trekking, Kuet Chang, Chiang Mai. Elephant trekking, Kuet Chang, Chiang Mai.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1129" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Elephant trekking, Kuet Chang, Chiang Mai. Elephant trekking, Kuet Chang, Chiang Mai.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1130" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Elephant trekking, Kuet Chang, Chiang Mai. Elephant trekking, Kuet Chang, Chiang Mai.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1131" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Brian and Natasha in the zip-wire cage, Kuet Chang, Chiang Mai. Brian and Natasha in the zip-wire cage, Kuet Chang, Chiang Mai.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1132" align="aligncenter" width="545"]Lunch served in banana leaves, Kuet Chang, Chiang Mai. Lunch served in banana leaves, Kuet Chang, Chiang Mai.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1133" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Trekking up to a waterfall in Kuet Chang, Chiang Mai. Trekking up to a waterfall in Kuet Chang, Chiang Mai.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1134" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Our guide and reshvin posing with a snake found while trekking up to a waterfall in Kuet Chang, Chiang Mai. Our guide and Reshvin posing with a snake found while trekking up to a waterfall in Kuet Chang, Chiang Mai.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1135" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Our guide found a snake and felt a bit hungry after trekking up to a waterfall in Kuet Chang, Chiang Mai. Our guide found a snake and felt a bit hungry after trekking up to a waterfall in Kuet Chang, Chiang Mai.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1136" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Trekking up to a waterfall in Kuet Chang, Chiang Mai. Trekking up to a waterfall in Kuet Chang, Chiang Mai.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1137" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Trekking up to a waterfall in Kuet Chang, Chiang Mai. Trekking up to a waterfall in Kuet Chang, Chiang Mai.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1138" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Having a shower in a waterfall in Kuet Chang, Chiang Mai. Having a shower in a waterfall in Kuet Chang, Chiang Mai.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1139" align="aligncenter" width="545"]Trekking up to a waterfall in Kuet Chang, Chiang Mai. Trekking up to a waterfall in Kuet Chang, Chiang Mai.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1140" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Trekking up to a waterfall in Kuet Chang, Chiang Mai. Trekking up to a waterfall in Kuet Chang, Chiang Mai.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1141" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Our guide complementing me on my beer-belly at the Ban Chang (Hilltribe Village), Mae Taeng, Chiang Mai. Our guide complementing me on my beer-belly at the Ban Chang (Hilltribe Village), Mae Taeng, Chiang Mai.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1142" align="aligncenter" width="545"]Ban Chang (Hilltribe Village), Mae Taeng, Chiang Mai. Ban Chang (Hilltribe Village), Mae Taeng, Chiang Mai.[/caption]

For our second day's activity we're booked in for a day's cooking class at Thai Farm Cooking School. We're warned by Buddy not to have any breakfast in the morning, just a bit of coffee to wake us up - this turned out to be very good advice as we had six courses to prepare and eat during the class. We first went to a food market some 20 minutes drive out of Chiang Mai where our teacher ran us through some of the basic ingredients that make up most Thai dishes. We then drove out to the farm to start our day. Just after arrival and a cup of tea we had a walk through the garden to get familiarised with some of the herbs we were going to be using in our cooking. We then went inside the kitchen to get started with making our own curry-paste and our breakfast. We had a choice of six dishes out of a menu with 18 options and I went for Red Curry Paste, Tom Yam Soup, Red Curry with Prawns, Sweet and Sour Chicken, Phad Thai and Pumpkin in Coconut Milk. Our teacher was really good, and had a cracking sense off humour, which made the day really fun as well as educational. The result of our cooking was also surprisingly good - I couldn't believe I'd cooked it myself when tucking into it - with the result that I over-ate of course, and I think I was one of the few that cleaned my plate completely on all the courses, and didn't need a doggy-bag to take home like most people do. Needless to say, I didn't need to eat any more food that evening...

[caption id="attachment_1144" align="aligncenter" width="545"]At the food-market for fresh ingredients for the Thai Farm Cooking School, Chiang Mai. At the food-market for fresh ingredients for the Thai Farm Cooking School, Chiang Mai.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1145" align="aligncenter" width="545"]At the food-market for fresh ingredients for the Thai Farm Cooking School, Chiang Mai. At the food-market for fresh ingredients for the Thai Farm Cooking School, Chiang Mai.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1146" align="aligncenter" width="533"]At the food-market for fresh ingredients for the Thai Farm Cooking School, Chiang Mai. At the food-market for fresh ingredients for the Thai Farm Cooking School, Chiang Mai.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1147" align="aligncenter" width="545"]At the food-market for fresh ingredients for the Thai Farm Cooking School, Chiang Mai. At the food-market for fresh ingredients for the Thai Farm Cooking School, Chiang Mai.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1148" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Sourcing herbs in the garden, Thai Farm Cooking School, Chiang Mai. Sourcing herbs in the garden, Thai Farm Cooking School, Chiang Mai.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1149" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Sourcing herbs in the garden, Thai Farm Cooking School, Chiang Mai. Sourcing herbs in the garden, Thai Farm Cooking School, Chiang Mai.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1150" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Our tutor instructing us on how to make Sticky Rice. Thai Farm Cooking School, Chiang Mai. Our tutor instructing us on how to make Sticky Rice. Thai Farm Cooking School, Chiang Mai.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1151" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Ingredients for my Tom Yam Soup with shrimps. Thai Farm Cooking School, Chiang Mai. Ingredients for my Tom Yam Soup with shrimps. Thai Farm Cooking School, Chiang Mai.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1152" align="aligncenter" width="533"]My finished Tom Yam Soup with shrimps. Thai Farm Cooking School, Chiang Mai. My finished Tom Yam Soup with shrimps. Thai Farm Cooking School, Chiang Mai.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1153" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Hannah stirring her curry. Thai Farm Cooking School, Chiang Mai. Hannah stirring her curry. Thai Farm Cooking School, Chiang Mai.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1154" align="aligncenter" width="545"]My finished Red Chicken Curry. Thai Farm Cooking School, Chiang Mai. My finished Red Chicken Curry. Thai Farm Cooking School, Chiang Mai.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1155" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Introduction in how to fry quick meals in a wok. Thai Farm Cooking School, Chiang Mai. Introduction in how to fry quick meals in a wok. Thai Farm Cooking School, Chiang Mai.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1156" align="aligncenter" width="533"]My finished Sweet and Sour chicken. Thai Farm Cooking School, Chiang Mai. My finished Sweet and Sour chicken. Thai Farm Cooking School, Chiang Mai.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1157" align="aligncenter" width="545"]Sweet and Sour Chicken and Red Chicken Curry ready for eating. Thai Farm Cooking School, Chiang Mai. Sweet and Sour Chicken and Red Chicken Curry ready for eating. Thai Farm Cooking School, Chiang Mai.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1158" align="aligncenter" width="545"]The washing-up drying in the sun at Thai Farm Cooking School, Chiang Mai. The washing-up drying in the sun at Thai Farm Cooking School, Chiang Mai.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1159" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Produce from the garden at the Thai Farm Cooking School, Chiang Mai. Produce from the garden at the Thai Farm Cooking School, Chiang Mai.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1160" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Introduction in the making of Pad Thai. Thai Farm Cooking School, Chiang Mai. Introduction in the making of Pad Thai. Thai Farm Cooking School, Chiang Mai.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1161" align="aligncenter" width="533"]My finished Pad Thai. Thai Farm Cooking School, Chiang Mai. My finished Pad Thai. Thai Farm Cooking School, Chiang Mai.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1162" align="aligncenter" width="533"]My Pumkin and Coconut Milk dessert. Thai Farm Cooking School, Chiang Mai. My Pumkin and Coconut Milk dessert. Thai Farm Cooking School, Chiang Mai.[/caption]

On our last day we have a bit of a rest in the morning, so not too early a start. After a lovely breakfast at the Dixie Pig we hire a scooter from one of the neighbouring guest houses and then head up to the Doi Suthep temple high up on the hill next to Chiang Mai. Buddy recommend that we get as new a motorbike as possible, and later on we realise why - it's really steep going up the hill, and even with a brand new bike at some places it's struggling a little. The real benefit we realise when after exploring the temple we head further up the hill to a small village called Doi Pui. Here the roads are virtually vertical and our bike is really struggling now, but it makes it up all the steep winding roads in the end. Doi Pui village has a really lovely market with lot's of handcraft stores, once again we have to restrain ourselves from shopping as we don't have space in our backpacks for souvenirs - we wish we could take some stuff with us home.

[caption id="attachment_1165" align="aligncenter" width="545"]View of Chiang Mai from the road up to Doi Suthep Temple. View of Chiang Mai from the road up to Doi Suthep Temple.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1166" align="aligncenter" width="545"]View of Chiang Mai from the road up to Doi Suthep Temple. View of Chiang Mai from the road up to Doi Suthep Temple.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1167" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Wat Phra That, Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai. Wat Phra That, Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1168" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Wat Phra That, Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai. Wat Phra That, Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1169" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Wat Phra That, Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai. Wat Phra That, Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1170" align="aligncenter" width="348"]Wat Phra That, Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai. Wat Phra That, Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1171" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Wat Phra That, Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai. Wat Phra That, Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1172" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Wat Phra That, Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai. Wat Phra That, Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1173" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Wat Phra That, Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai. Wat Phra That, Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1174" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Wat Phra That, Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai. Wat Phra That, Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1175" align="aligncenter" width="538"]Wat Phra That, Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai. Wat Phra That, Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1176" align="aligncenter" width="473"]Wat Phra That, Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai. Wat Phra That, Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1177" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Wat Phra That, Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai. Wat Phra That, Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1178" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Emerald Buddha replica at Wat Phra That, Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai. Emerald Buddha replica at Wat Phra That, Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1179" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Market in the Hmong village of Doi Pui, Chiang Mai. Market in the Hmong village of Doi Pui, Chiang Mai.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1180" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Huay Keaw Waterfall, Chiang Mai. Huay Keaw Waterfall, Chiang Mai.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1181" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Huay Keaw Waterfall, Chiang Mai. Huay Keaw Waterfall, Chiang Mai.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1182" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Huay Keaw Waterfall, Chiang Mai. Huay Keaw Waterfall, Chiang Mai.[/caption]

Chiang Mai also have a daily Night Bazaar which is a big draw for tourists - we were warned not to buy anything there as it's apparently very over-priced. What the vendors tend to do is to get their stock from another market up the road and tries to flog it for three to four times as much to unsuspecting tourists. We're more interested in getting some dinner and go there for a look-around and a test of the food-stalls. The food is pretty tasty and quite cheap so no complaints. The real treat food-wise - except from the food we cooked ourselves of course - is the food from the stalls at the Sunday Walking Street night market. In the temple courtyards there are a wealth of different food-stalls and they're all the very best at what they do - I've never eaten so much in my life I think, and I just wanted more and more - good thing common sense kicked in or I would have ended up in hospital for sure.

[caption id="attachment_1183" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Sunday Night Walking Street, Chiang Mai. Sunday Night Walking Street, Chiang Mai.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1184" align="aligncenter" width="545"]Sunday Night Walking Street, Chiang Mai. Sunday Night Walking Street, Chiang Mai.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1185" align="aligncenter" width="545"]Sunday Night Walking Street, Chiang Mai. Sunday Night Walking Street, Chiang Mai.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1186" align="aligncenter" width="533"]Chiang Mai. Chiang Mai.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1163" align="aligncenter" width="545"]Quirky bar in on the corner of Ratchamanka Rd and Ratpakinai Rd, Chiang Mai. Quirky bar in on the corner of Ratchamanka Rd and Ratpakinai Rd, Chiang Mai.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1164" align="aligncenter" width="545"]Quirky bar in on the corner of Ratchamanka Rd and Ratpakinai Rd, Chiang Mai. Quirky bar in on the corner of Ratchamanka Rd and Ratpakinai Rd, Chiang Mai.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1143" align="aligncenter" width="545"]Merry Christmas from Chiang Mai. Merry Christmas from Chiang Mai.[/caption]

One thing that soon strikes me as we wander around the streets is the obvious sex-trade and tourism - go-go bars with scantily clad women and lady-boys strutting their stuff to passersby (mostly to guys of course), trying to entice them into their establishment. We notice many old westerners with their very young Thai ladies - acting as if all is normal. I had expected to see more of this in Bangkok, and although it is apparent there I was surprised it was not even more in-your-face, as I expected from what people had told me from their experiences. As we were together as a couple they didn't seem to give us much attention as we walked along the so-called Red-light District to get to the Night Bazaar, but when on our first day I needed to go to the ATM on my own I had the whole neighbourhood fighting for my attention - and this was not even in the Red-light District but just around the corner of our guest house... I was getting worried I wouldn't make it back alive...

Although we didn't stay at the Dixie Pig guest house I can warmly recommend it. The company of Buddy and the most excellent food by his wife Ann is a real treat. Many an interesting conversations with buddy, who's a great conversationalist, meant many a problem was solved over some nice cold bottles of Leo beer.

From Chiang Mai the journey continues to Pai by mini-van through some very winding roads over the mountains and I can consider myself very lucky for not easily getting travel-sickness – some people on the bus were clearly showing signs of suffering, and I was expecting someone to explode their breakfast in the back of my head at any moment... It didn't help that the driver was driving like an absolute madman. Thanks to our Formula 1 driver the journey was very quick though.

Before I start this little rant I want to ensure there are mostly positive things to be said about our time in Nepal – please bear with me…

We entered Nepal at the border-crossing at Karkarvitta, and although we were initially in good time to make the bus, we got caught up enough to miss the last bus of the day by about 10-15 minutes… We weren’t impressed… The problems started with the taxi dropping us at the Nepalese side of the border, so when we came to immigration they went “where is your exit-stamp?” We didn’t realise we had to have an exit-stamp from the Indian immigration a 15 minutes schlep back down the road. They told us to catch a rickshaw – it should only be 10 rupees they said… And so we did agree with the rickshaw drivers… To our surprise when we got to the Indian Immigration they were demanding 20 rupees each (although why we were surprised, with all our previous experiences with rickshaw drivers, I don’t know…) We’d been shaken to the edge of our life for countless of hours already in jeeps from Darjeeling and was not in the mood for being taken for a ride – even for a measly 10 rupees (12 pence) extra each – and the battle of wills started. We tried to reason with them saying we agreed 10 rupees each before we got onto the rickshaw and they said “yes 10 rupees” so that’s what we’ll pay. The drivers wouldn’t budge and claimed to never have promised this. The discussion gets heated and the drivers start to engage the border guard officers – we start to feel slightly uneasy as we’re arguing in front of a heavily armed border guard – and the officer that is handling our applications for the exit-stamps needed to leave the country (HELP! LET US OUT PLEASE) – which of us will they take sides with? We start to fill out the paperwork with all the details of our entire life – twice for some reason… and this with the drivers hanging around arguing their case with the border guards – we’re getting more and more angry and stressed, but we hide it well and stick to our guns shouting out “you agreed 10 rupees before we got on – take it or leave it!” in-between filling out the countless lines of information that I’m sure is not really needed – especially in duplicate…? At some stage the guards have had enough of these drivers bickering outside and they tell them they’ll have to honour their promise and accept the 10 rupees we’re offering them – they take the money sheepishly and FINALLY bugger off to rip off someone else (the funny thing is that they could have made a couple of other journeys in the time they were hassling us and made much more than the measly 10 rupees they were trying to con out of us…). We get our exit stamp in the end and decide to walk back to the Nepalese side instead of having more aggravation from horrible rickshaw drivers from Hell – it’s a danger it could tip us over the edge and trigger a fight at this point…  At the Nepalese immigration office more paperwork was of course needed, and a new unpleasant surprise of a quite expensive entry-visa was awaiting us. At the end of all this palava we finally got through to the other side and we were in Nepal. By this time, as luck would have it, the time was 17:10 and the last bus to Kathmandu for the day left at 17:00… We were followed around by numerous of touts as we were trying to decide of what to do, although we didn’t have much choice. The next bus would be at 04:20 in the morning and we needed a place to get some rest and some food. We were now really on edge after all the bother with the immigration scenario and the relentless touts as we arrived into the town. We started to ask around some travel agents to figure out which was a good price for tickets and accommodation. Thankfully we walked into the office of Batika Travels, and now feel sorry for the guy who turned out to be a top man – very helpful and welcoming, but being so on edge we didn’t trust anything he told us in the beginning and we ended up giving him a bit of a hard time. He didn’t have any room available in his hotel but he recommends next door – the two hotels are kind of interlinked and feels a bit like it’s the same place anyways. The room is cheap, clean and just what is needed for a bit of rest before our early morning start. We have a lovely dinner in the restaurant downstairs which funnily enough doesn’t have a menu, but they present us with a copy of a menu from some other restaurant and tell us they can try to dish up what we want from that one. We choose the traditional Nepalese equivalent of an Indian thali and a nice Nepalese beer called Everest. The food arrives with what seems endless top up of rice and sauce so there was no way we were going to leave the table hungry. After the dinner we get to use the Wi-Fi of Batika for free to see if we can check out a place to stay in Kathmandu, as we don’t have a guide for Nepal. We source one place that sounds lovely called Shree Family Guesthouse and send them an email to enquire about a room. It’s a bit late in the evening, so we don’t expect a reply before we leave on the bus in the morning. So with no idea of whether they have a room for us we decide to head there upon arrival and hope for the best. The bus journey is a gruelling 16 hours, but the fortunate thing about missing the bus in the evening before is that most of the journey is in daylight so we get to enjoy the scenery. The person in the seat in front of us is unfortunately not agreeing with the winding and bumpy road and quite frequently has to pop his head out the window to decorate the side of the bus with his breakfast and other snacks and food he tries to eat during the day… Our window gets some fancy horizontal yellow lines – thankfully we made sure it was always closed so none of the lines would continue on the inside of the bus and most important not onto us…

We finally arrive in Kathmandu around eight in the evening – a little ahead of schedule, and after getting our bearings decide to get a taxi to Shree Family Guest House. We had not been able to get access to any internet since we got onto the bus at silly o’clock in the morning, so had no idea wether or not they’d replied to the email we sent them with our enquiry the night before, and if they would have any rooms available. We were in luck though and they had received our email and reserved a room for us. We had a quick freshen up and on our way out to get some food asked the very nice gentleman at the reception about whether he could recommend some sights or activities for us. He gave us a few suggestions of what we could do. The guest house have one of their own vehicles with a driver they use for airport pick-ups and private hire and suggested a two day sightseeing tour for us. It was a good deal, but we were umming and erring a bit about it as we are on a tight budget and said we had to think about it over dinner. Hannah had spotted a nice little restaurant just down the road from the guest house so we went there for a very lovely meal. Over dinner we decided to go for the two day sightseeing tour suggested by the receptionist of our guest house – as we only had two full days in Kathmandu and arranging taxies or finding busses to take us around would limit the amount of time to spend seeing the sights, we thought it would be worth it. It turned out to be a wise decision and an excellent suggestion by our guest house receptionist.

We get a very nice driver at our disposal – quite funnily as he doesn’t speak much English, so some of the answers to our questions have some unexpected answers – not matching the question at all, but probably matching the question he though he heard. The first day of sightseeing covers some of the main sites of Kathmandu – it includes a World Heritage site spread over three different locations within the city. First site is the Pashupati Temple one of the holiest Hindu temples in the world, and with our impeccable timing in the midst of a Hindu festival so the site is ram-packed – many worshippers have made the journey over from India to come here to worship and get blessed. We also get to see the Hindu tradition of cremating their dead on large fires on the bank of the holy river that runs through the site. In the river there are remains of offerings floating about everywhere, and we see poor kids in the midst of it all sifting through all the debris looking for anything valuable or useful to sell on. Many of them have huge magnets on a string they use to dredge for coins that have been thrown as offerings into the river. It’s a sad sight to see children in such a deprived situation, and this water can’t be healthy, polluted with all the debris and rubbish from all the offerings being thrown into the river.

We move on to the next stop on the tour, Boudhanath (Boudha), which is a very important Buddhist shrine. This site is quite strikingly amazing with its white-washed dome with the golden roof and the painted eyes watching over the site. The shrine is surrounded by shops selling handicrafts, art, clothes and souvenirs, but surprisingly no tacky tourist paraphernalia really as far as I noticed. We have a walk around on the shrine, and it’s a very tranquil, peaceful place with all the prayer-flags waving in the wind. We start to notice quite a few European tourists in their “authentic” clothes you find in the shops for tourists walking about with their prayer-beads and paying respect to all the different points around the shrine, and some on mats around the periphery meditating. We find this a bit odd, and we’re not alone – the locals who walk around look at them in disbelief and sometimes point and quietly laugh to each other about the sight of these tourists. After we’ve done our circling of the shrine we have a stop for a cup of coffee at a restaurant where they have a rooftop terrace with view of the shrine. From here we can study from afar this influx of tourists that seem a bit too much into their newfound religion – some seem completely zoned out as if they’re tripping on some drugs, walking around in a daze touching all the walls and “bathing” in the prayer-flags, really touchy-feely like… We can’t help it but laugh about this and wonder if they all came in on the loony-bus, or should we call it the “tour-bus of lost souls” (I’m being very cynical, I know).

Next stop is the Durbar Square in the Patan area of Kathmandu, a part of the ancient city which is very much intact. The architecture is quite amazing with very intricate wood and stone carvings. Some of the buildings are in use as art galleries, and there is a museum in one of them as well, and some are temples that are still in use. We meander around and lose our sense of time as usual… We also get the driver to wait for a bit extra to have a look at a couple of temples outside of this World Heritage site. This site together with Pashupatinath and Boudhanath are three sites that make up one World Heritage site in the city centre of Kathmandu.

Our fourth stop on the list is the Swayambhunath (Swayambhu) where we get an excellent view of Kathmandu, and the light up at this temple is beautiful as the sun is setting on the horizon. Everywhere there are monkeys stealing food from the offerings left by the shrine – it’s quite fun to watch.

Our last stop for the day is Basantapur Durbar Square where we say goodbye to our driver for the day and make our own way to the hotel after wandering around another amazing historic site. It’s now starting to get dark and it’s really busy around the buildings with market stalls setting up for the evening. Most of these stalls are selling their fruit or vegetable produce, and range from actual stalls to someone with a couple of carrots on a carpet. It’s a very lively atmosphere along the whole way back to the guest house – the road is lined with all sorts of little shops, and wherever there is extra space there are temporary market stalls. Being a shopaholic here can be very expensive indeed.

Our second day of sightseeing has a very early start to enable us to get to the Nagakot Tower Viewpoint for the sunrise. We leave from the guest house at 05:00 and the drive to the viewpoint takes about an hour. We’re with the same driver as the day before and he’s clearly tired but very happy, enthusiastic and chatty. The journey goes by very quickly and we get to the viewpoint in good time – about 30-40 minutes wait before the sun appears. It was fairly cloudy and misty but the view was still magnificent as we got to see the sun rising over the Himalayas, right next to Mount Everest.

At first we were the only people up there, but closer to the time of the sunrise two more couples arrived – much more quiet and relaxed than the very crowded sunrise at Tiger Hill in Darjeeling, where unfortunately there wasn’t much to be seen because of the heavy fog – it was also nowhere near as cold as when we were waiting for the dawn at Tiger Hill. After witnessing the sunrise we go down towards the car and have a nice breakfast cooked for us in one of the small huts next to the parking lot. Quite nice to sit by the little fire outside of the hut warming our hands and feet, although afterwards we reeked of bonfire smoke of course. From Nagarkot the trip went back in the direction of Kathmandu with a few hours stop in the ancient city of Bhaktapur, another World Heritage site. If you go to Kathmandu you should make sure you get to visit this city, only 20-odd minutes outside of Kathmandu by car if the traffic isn’t too bad. I’m sure there are plenty of busses one can take as well, which would be a lot cheaper than a taxi. The whole city is a museum of old buildings with their very intricate carvings. It’s still very much a busy city even though it’s a World Heritage site. People still occupy the houses and live and work within the city. How good that is for the preservation of the buildings I don’t know, but they’ve obviously been taking very good care of it until now. It’s a slightly difficult place to manoeuvre even after we get our bearings on the map we get together with the entrance ticket – it’s not the most accurate map, with black-spots where they insert small pictures of monuments covering essential info about which exit to take out of a square or which alleyway to head down to get in the right direction. Even so we are able to get back to our driver at the right place and on the agreed time. From here we head back to the guest house and say good bye to our driver who well deserve the tip we give him for showing us around for the last two days, and hopefully he’s able to go back home for a well earned rest after the silly early start. We spend the rest of the day walking about the shops and market stalls and generally taking it easy as we’re a bit tired after the early morning start. Not much shopping done in the end, save some music from a lovely little music-store down the road from the hotel – a couple of CDs with relaxing music from Nepal and India.

It’s the last morning in Nepal before we fly to Bangkok, Thailand via New Delhi. We have a fairly early flight so have to get to the airport by taxi without the opportunity of having a breakfast. We arrive in good time at the Kathmandu airport, so it all looks like it’ll be a smooth journey without any stress – our dreams of a stress-free day start to crumble as we find there is security checks for what seems like every step you take and every move you make (did The Police train these security personnel?). By the time we get through to our gate. We’d had six security-checks… and it wasn’t over just yet – we have one more pat-down where they check our boarding-pass, and then yet another pat-down and bag-check down on the runway inside some strange temporary wheeled container-tunnel vehicles before the stairs up to enter the aeroplane – the flight was already delayed before all this extra time-consuming but completely pointless exercise of the “secure boarding” and our two hours of time in-between our flights at New Delhi airport was diminishing rapidly. We finally take off about two hours after schedule and hope we won’t have more hassle with the transfer. When we land at New Delhi it’s already past the time when we’re supposed to be boarding the next flight… the taxiing of the plane from the runway alone feels like an eternity… As we come to a halt there are a few people in the back who are running down the aisles to get ahead of other travellers to the exit – I’ve seen stressed and/or impatient people on flights before but this really takes the biscuit… We’re in the rear of the plane ourselves so have a long wait before we’re able to move and exit. By the time we’re out it’s only minutes before our next flight is about to take off. We scramble down trying to get past all the slow people in our way and to our surprise get a bit of priority through the transfer process and the security-check – the people working the x-ray and body-search seem to revel in their power to make the travellers suffer, so I’m fearing the worst, as unpacking and re-packing my bag with the camera-equipment is a longwinded process. We’re in luck and pass through the check without problems and get another bit of good news – our flight is a bit delayed, so we get on the plane breathing heavily after our marathon run, but very happy to be on the last leg towards Bangkok.

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Arrived in Kochi by a very comfy bus, and as a bonus had about a four hours quicker journey than what we’d been told to expect. We’d had no break on the bus (at least not that we knew of, as we were asleep for most of the journey) so we went into the first restaurant we could find that had a toilet and had a lovely – and surprisingly cheap – thali breakfast. I say surprisingly because it looked a bit posh from the outside, and we were quickly ushered into the nicer air-conditioned section on arrival.

The big breakfast came in handy as we were hell-bent on not taking an auto-rickshaw or taxi and walks the five kilometres plus to the ferry-port with our heavy backpacks. It was baking hot, so we were pretty sweaty when we finally got there. I got so hot after the walk I was completely drenched, and I just couldn’t dry up for absolute ages – I probably looked a right state – very nice…

We had a hunt around for guest houses and home-stays as we arrived at Fort Kochi, but although we were desperate to freshen up with a shower and a change of clothes we shopped around by asking at quite a few places that all seemed a bit pricy, before we finally found the very lovely Union Home Stay. This home-stay is run by Paul, and his mother Anne and they are really lovely friendly people, and Paul had some funny stories from student years and mad trip to Bangalore to share – very entertaining.

For sightseeing in Fort Kochi we did a little walk around with a map of the historical sites that we picked up at the Kerala Tourist Office in Ernakulum by the ferry-jetty. It’s not a very big place Fort Kochi so it wasn’t very far to walk the whole map, but the baking heat makes it a bit more challenging… How can they call this the winter season?

We weren’t sure where to go for dinner our first evening and thought we’d ask around for a good restaurant. We got recommended Talk Of The Town as a good option. We were keen to have some traditional fish and I opted for the Kerala fish curry. One could say this curry really warmed my cockles (must be one of the spiciest curries I’ve ever tried) – as if I weren’t warm enough after walking around in 35 degrees for the whole day – I was again sweating like a beast, and not helped by the fact the power was out so the fans in the restaurant weren’t working. It was really good food though, so can recommend that place, if your taste-buds can take it that is 🙂

When we picked up our map of Fort Kochi from the Kerala Tourist Office we also booked a day boat-trip. They picked us up from our home stay in the morning, which was rather nice – no stress with trying to get somewhere on time – and the bus then took us down to Alleppey, picking up other people on the way. We got to the boat and started our journey through the backwaters. The day was split in two parts – the first one was on a larger boat and we were about 20-odd people on this boat, the second half of the day we went through the canals of one of the many islands that makes up the region of the backwaters. These canals are very narrow so we were travelling in canoes that could seat from four to eight people. With the larger boat we also stopped off on an island for a while and had a walkabout in the village. Here we were offered to buy a little snack in the form of a mussels curry (which was very nice indeed) and a drink called Tody (fermented juice from the flower of the coconut) – both me and Hannah didn’t like the smell of the stuff and gave the drink a miss, and some of our fellow tourists were gagging while forcing themselves to drink it, so we kindly thanked no to any offer of a taste. Also included in the trip was our lunch which we had on the first boat after returning from the first half of the day – again very tasty. Second part of the day was our canoe trip through man-made canals through villages on one of the islands around the backwaters. This was such a tranquil environment that we were all almost lulled to sleep while drifting past houses and people doing their work and dally chores. We stopped off and had a demonstration of how they make twine from coconut husk, a speciality and tradition of the area, and later on a last stop for a cup of chai of course.

We manage to coordinate a little catch up with Diane, a lady we had a quick chat to at Rocky’s Guest House in Hampi. We went to one of the restaurants recommended by the Lonely Planet – and I can warmly recommend this as well – it’s called Dal Roti and it has excellent food and a very friendly and attentive host – the prices are also quite reasonable. We also caught up with Diane a second time on our last evening and ended up at Seagulls for more lovely food (although I prefer Dal Roti).

Also on our last day we had a walk down to Mattancherry and the Jewish Quarter and visited the Pardesi Synagogue, and had a look at the Dutch Palace Museum. The walk there from Fort Kochi is very interesting with the old colonial wharfs and merchant houses lining the street. Unfortunately in good Indian tradition most of these houses/warehouses are not looked after and hence in a very sad state. We can’t help thinking of the immense value these houses would have been worth had they been renovated and located in the UK…

Shame we couldn’t have more time in Kochi – there is a really friendly and relaxing atmosphere here – I suppose it’s one of those destinations one can come back to for a little holiday, and then maybe do a proper boat-trip which our budget didn’t allow for this time.

The next destination should have been Agra for the Taj Mahal, and then Varanasi for the Ganges before Darjeeling. However, we realise we’re running out of time and decides to bypass the two dusty, dirty and tout-riddled cities of Agra and Varanasi and head straight up to Darjeeling. It’s a long old journey by land, so we board a winged tin can and get there the easier and more comfortable way.

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