12 Months of Simple Living: End of Year Thoughts

It’s been a year of this transformation journey and as January 2018 arrived, I thought this would be a good opportunity to reflect on each month and what impact, if any, it has had on the way I live my life now.

1. | January – Vegetarian |

Navigate: Part One | Part Two | Vegetarian Recipes

If there was ever going to be a controversial challenge it was this one. With opinions and beliefs splitting people world wide on the subject, it was always going to be harder for a previously strict carnivore to “try out” being Vegetarian for a month and then blog about the short lived and not hugely successful experience. But this journey is my own and now I can see this short lived month really did have an effect on my view, and now my lifestyle choices. However insignificant they might seem, they are still small steps toward a healthier life and a better world.

Since January, I’ve found myself increasingly choosing the vegetarian options whether it is in my work canteen, at home or out to eat with friends. I put this down to a change in my attitude towards meat as a result of understanding the vast amounts of waste, the damage to the environment and the inhumane treatment of animals all for the sake of corporate greed.

From a health point of view, I am so much more aware of the fats and greasiness of meat and how much heavier it sits in my stomach, I do tend to feel a little odd when I eat some types of meat now. It does make me wonder what sort of diseases we are potentially exposed to by eating meat.  That’s not to say I don’t crave the odd steak now and then but I am so much more aware of  trying to choose organic, free range, grass fed meat.

Having said that, I do want to aim to be even more veggie and I have concluded that being a full time vegetarian would be the ideal lifestyle choice and probably is how we were once meant to be. Not that any of my life choices are ideal- we’ll see!

Note: Spiralizers interest me now more than ever before!

 

2. | February – Forgiving |

Navigate: Part One | Part Two | Part Three
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This one has to be the hardest of all as it’s a continuous battle and a continuous cycle. Choosing to let people off the hook when they have wronged you seems unnatural to our human instincts and makes us feel like a doormat sometimes. But this doesn’t have to be so. I am continually reminding myself that forgiveness does not mean reconciliation; if you are continually wronged, don’t let them wrong you again. But love them and show them kindness anyway.

I can definitely see improvements with the way I handle disagreements, knowing that just because we have differences of opinion doesn’t make us bad people, just unique individuals who handle things in different ways. I try to respect another’s perspective even if I disagree.

I still struggle with letting things go quickly, but I can usually get over it after taking a breather. And with my long term grievances, it will always be a battle to maintain forgiveness but I will keep trying.

 

3. | March – Positivity & Thankfulness |

Navigate: Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four
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This challenge is one that went beyond my natural disposition. I’ve grown up in an environment of complaining, from my family to the culture of the UK, so trying not to was a real difficulty. Being thankful for everything, including the bad times, just opens your eyes to how blessed you really are. Blessed you have arms and legs, and eyes and ears, blessed you are able to use them, blessed you have food, shelter and a job. There’s actually a lot to be thankful for!

I really struggle, still, to see the glass half full rather than half empty but I am working on it. A good way to start thinking a bit more positively is by writing a diary of your week noting, at various points of the day, how you felt – happy, sad, angry – and to what degree out of 100% you felt those emotions. When you look back, you will likely realise you have a much happier life than you initially thought. This is because our minds get conditioned just to remember the negative and not the positive.

Try it out and let me know how it works for you!

 

4. | April – Stick at It |

Navigate: Part One | Part Two | Part Three
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This challenge  actually made me realise that my problem wasn’t so much giving up on things, as feeling like giving up every time something gets tough. Also it was about believing in my ability to achieve what I set out to do.

Through going travelling, something I needed to do for myself but was afraid to, it helped me build confidence in myself. I’m trying to maintain this confidence now that I am back; it’s actually the mundane things in life that knock the confidence out of you.

I have found myself being a little braver and taking those risks even if I might fail, but there’s still work to be done!

 

5. | May – Exercise |

Navigate: Part One| Part Two | Part Three

This one’s gone out the window! Seriously, I don’t like doing any of it – classes annoy me, I don’t even know where to start in the gym, I HATE running, going for walks in the cold British weather is not up there on my fun list… so what can I do?!

I know I have to exercise, I know it’s very important for mental and physical health, but I just need to find something I actually enjoy doing.

I am working on it!!! The only classes I do quite enjoy are yoga classes, so I will try to keep those up at least. Any suggestions? Let me know!

 

6. | June – Meditation |

Navigate: Part One | Part Two

A very interesting challenge, in that, I thought this would be the easiest, but it turned out to be much harder than I thought.

I enjoyed it when I did it, but I found that I had to make time for it, rather than try to fit it in my day.

I haven’t kept it up on a daily basis but have naturally found myself meditating on life, faith and positive thoughts when on my own and spending time enjoying the beauty of Nature.

“Beauty is the purest feeling of the soul. Beauty arises when soul is satisfied.”
― Amit Ray

 

7. | July – Water |

Navigate: Part One | Part Two
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A challenge that you either understood completely or didn’t get at all. Fellow water haters, I confess, I was doing so well and then I reverted… But I have a plan to get me back on track!

Drinking water has always been at the bottom of my to do list, and something happened when I realised, in my sugar free month, that (some) wines only had naturally occurring sugars; I started drinking more wine… And more… Not like an alcoholic, but just like with my dinner and in replacement for water…

Okay jokes aside (sort of), I just struggle in this already damp and wet, cold English weather to feel thirsty. I feel somehow I’m absorbing so much water just through breathing damp air. And even when thirsty, I’m so cold I opt for a dehydrating cup of tea (that’s right, tea is a diuretic so you ultimately lose more water than you take in).

But the plan? I bought this from Kikki.K and I intend to use it.
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New Year, new pee… I mean me.

8. | August – Say Yes |

Navigate: Part One | Part Two
Climb every mountain

This challenge was certainly the most adventurous and the most rewarding, delivering me to exciting new places, giving me more out of life and connecting me with the best people the world has to offer!

It’s an attitude that takes courage and takes self-belief. You need to be a risk taker, taking chances when there may be disappointment. Worst, you need to be prepared to be disappointed.

I have definitely carried on with this type of attitude, but I have to remind myself. I am naturally cautious and if left to my instincts, I would let opportunities pass me by. I struggle with disappointment and so when I am let down it hurts, a lot! But life is not going to get more interesting, fun or exciting if you don’t take risks.

I hope 2018 will be a year that I don’t hold myself back with my own self-doubt, but a year which I open my eyes to opportunities and take them with both hands!

 

9. | September – Slow Down |

Navigate: Part One | Part Two

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Image Credit: ryangoggin.com

This one is harder to keep up when life just gives you busy schedules week on week. Certainly, my technology diet assisted with this and I naturally slowed down in most aspects of my life.

I have since had to remind myself to enjoy beautiful moments, the first full moon of 2018 for example, and a stunning sunrise the following morning.

Slowing down ties in with meditation, with reducing social media and other time fillers and many other parts of my yearly challenges.

I hope to carry on a slightly slower, more purposeful pace into 2018.

 

10. | October – Sugar Free |

Navigate: Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Breakfast | Lunch | Dinner | Dessert
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This is the challenge I am most proud of. It was complex and required a lot of effort; cooking, reading ALL labels, turning down tasty office junk food etc. But I smashed it!

I honestly saw the health benefits (especially when I returned to sugar), I realised the effect that sugar had on my asthma!

Sadly, the return to sugar has been a full submersion due to the time of year, but I would like that to change in the new year and I’d like to greatly reduce my intake. If not for my overall health, for my asthma (which has suffered greatly due to the return to sugar and all the other factors that trigger it).

I will proudly say though, that I have not returned to putting sugar in my tea!

 

11. | November – Technology Diet |

Navigate: Part One | Part Two
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Being cut off from the world of social media came with mixed feelings… It was strangely freeing but at the same time isolating.

Yes, I missed out on social events, life updates from all my 900+ facebook “friends” (ha! I have more than you! JK) and ultra-hilarious memes, BUT I gained an independence, learned a new language (slash carried on learning Spanish from all my years of dabbling) and met people in more organic ways.

Being back on social media, I actually am not as bothered anymore… It’s sort of an effort to post so I’m doing it less. And I’m only really scrolling through facebook for the “12 times you failed at life” style posts, because … they make me giggle.

So, although I won’t keep off social media, I think I have struck a balance along the way.

 

12. | December – Volunteer |

Navigate: Part One | Part Two
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What a feel-good way to end the year; by volunteering! I honestly got such a sense of achievement by helping these charities in the skills that I had to offer. I really cannot urge you enough, if you have any spare time, to give some of it to a charity of your choice. You will form new friendships, new connections and it can even help you gain more skills.

One thing that is overlooked when people are looking for jobs but lack the experience, is volunteering. The way I gained my administrative experience was by volunteering for the Lifetrain Trust. So if this is where you find yourself, just go for it – if not to help, then to look better on your CV. But you will feel good when you see the contribution you have made to these charities.

Charities do amazing work, and I will be more than happy to give more of my time to volunteer during 2018!

 

So that’s it, my end of year update! Let me know how you have found my challenges and if you have a resolution for 2018!

Thanks for reading!

Ciao!

X


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December Month 12: Volunteering (Part Two)


Challenge: Volunteer
Charities: The British Red CrossThe Natasha’s ProjectBe@titudes
Total Hours completed: 23
Thoughts: “Doing nothing for others is the undoing of ourselves.”
― Horace Mann


The Final Challenge: To Volunteer

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Getting myself started with volunteering wasn’t as simple, quick and easy as I thought. The thing with volunteering is, the opportunities to do so are there but you do have to look for them. Most charities really need long term commitments and not one off days here and there. But I found this site useful in finding opportunities nearby that fits my skillset and availability.

Thankfully I have some good connections and so it wasn’t long before I had booked myself up for a few days. My workplace pay for up to 5 days a year of volunteering leave so I can volunteer without fear of losing out on a day’s work. I was able to take advantage with 2 of those days.
Tip: If you are thinking of volunteering, why not ask if your work place would be open to doing the  same? Charity has become a very important part of our society, especially to businesses and you will be surprised at how supportive your place of work can be towards you volunteering.

 

How did it go?

As promised, I gave time to Be@titudes, giving two of my Saturday mornings to hang out with Rosemary and be that extra pair of hands. It was there that I found out how much of a help it has been that the Duke of Edinburgh awards have included voluntary work as a mandatory. Two lovely girls were also giving up their Saturday mornings to help in the shop and really seemed to be enjoying it!

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Image Credit: http://www.facebook.com/DorkingBeatitudes

If you have a spare Saturday and want to do something good for the local Dorking community, consider volunteering here!

I was also lucky that Val (my partner in crime for all of my challenges) volunteers regularly at the The British Red Cross and so was able to contact the manager directly and arrange a time for me to come along.
I was given free reign to arrange the Bridal window as I please and organise the bridal room. I was also able to bring in my pre-loved wedding dress and donate it. I hope you think I did a good job:

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If you are getting married, try popping in to the Red Cross, you will be surprised at the quality of the Wedding dresses in stock; some are even brand new!

Even if you aren’t getting married, pop in anyway – I put out some (otherwise) expensive designer bags and shoes yesterday; Ugg, Cos, Ted Baker and more! I may have nabbed a cheeky deal myself… shopping and working, what could go wrong?!

Sadly, I couldn’t volunteer at The LifeTrain Trust this time, but I will be doing so in the new year which I am looking forward to!

I was, however, able to volunteer my time from home by doing some admin work for The Natasha’s Project! This has been particularly good because it means I can fit it around my job and social life so it doesn’t feel as if I’m giving up an entire day. If you have any skills around fundraising, social media, general admin or even if you have some connections that will help this amazing charity to get some secure funding then get in touch!

 

The Conclusion


Success rate: 100%
Hours given: 23



Will I carry on volunteering?
 Definitely! I already am looking at doing some hours with the LifeTrain Trust in January and I will continue to support Be@titudes, the Red Cross and the Natasha’s Project.

What can we do? Get involved! Give some time to any of the charities that I have supported this year, or any causes that are close to your heart. Whatever you do, whether it is giving a sandwich to a stranger, or lending a hand to a friend in need, the reward is the same; a little light of kindness in a broken world.

If you can’t give time, you can always give dolla $$. Many companies are starting to do charity matching, whether they match a certain monthly contribution you decide to make to a charity of choice or they may match an amount that you raise for a charity through an event up to a set limit. Ask your employer about this!

Or if, as the new year looms, you are feeling super inspired by my 12 months of simple living, why not give yourself monthly challenges and wager your time/money to a charity for when you (inevitably) balls up!

I hope you have enjoyed following my year! Here’s to an amazing 2018!

X

 

13 Weeks of Wandering – Vang Vieng

Bangkok | Cambodia | Vietnam | Laos
New York >> Miami | Portland >> Vancouver


Where To? Laos
How long? 5 Days
Thoughts: Accidentally climbing mountains again…


13 WoW – Laos: Vang Vieng

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The journey was stunning, just looking out of the window gave you anomalous mountain sights in their peculiarly jagged silhouettes. There was something alien about the way the forested mountains seemed to have been placed randomly onto the otherwise flat terrain.

The Hostel

The bus dropped me off outside one of the largest and busiest party hostels in Vang Vieng.

Staying true to my “wing it” attitude, I walked the main street comparing the prices and atmospheres of each hostel, homestay and guest house. Finally, I settled in at the Rock Backpacker Hostel.

Sharing a bare, under-decorated girl’s room of 6 beds, I was surprised at the level of dirt that the last girl had accumulated beneath my new bed. I worried about ants, and even worse, cockroaches! It didn’t help also having a leak in my backpack due to a broken bottle of sweet-smelling rice wine bought from the Whiskey Village in Luang Prabang; everything needed to be hand-washed and hung up to dry.

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I can’t say I came out of the showers feeling that much cleaner but it was certainly refreshing and by the time I was out, I could hear the party goers getting rowdy.

The good thing about this hostel was that you could book tours from the front desk and sign up to group activities such as tubing (more on that later), although I’m sure I was ripped off massively price-wise. The bad thing was, well, it was one of the more rowdy hostels I’d stayed in, and why wouldn’t it be? Vang Vieng is known for being a party destination!

 

The Adventures

Tubing

How can I describe this? Imagine throwing yourself onto a choppy, brown river and hoping for the best. Now imagine doing that whilst drinking, a LOT! Okay, so you have tubing – a tradition that nearly had to be banned due to the number of deaths that were occurring. Did I do it? Of course!

Going Tubing  - Vang Vieng

Now tubing started as a method of transportation for the locals of this area, and other parts of Laos, but as with all sacred and non-sacred traditions in SE Asia, it’s been taken over by monetisation and has become a tourist attraction. And what do tourists like to do? Drink!

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So as you are being pulled down the dirty river waters in this tube, bars along the river side will throw you ropes in the hopes that you will grab on, pull yourself in, have a drink and carry on. This will happen all the way down the river until you reach the large “TUBING STOPS HERE” sign where you then (hopefully) catch the last line thrown your way and pull yourself in. How smooth your journey is, is determined by how drunk you get and whether or not you are me and despite not drinking, still get stuck in a bush

Tubing - Would you do it?

Would you do it? Tell me in the comments below!

 

Pha Negun

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How many times in a week do you recommend accidentally climbing mountains with nothing but flip flops on your feet? If it’s less than 3 times a week, stop reading. If it’s less than 2 times in 1 day, give up on my blog completely (not really, subscribe below, it’s about to get funny).

SO… I think you get the idea. How? You may ask, does a person accidentally climb a mountain, in flip flops, twice, in one day? Well, my dear readers, it is a lot easier than you think and I am here to warn you of the dangers of not researching your tours before you embark on them!

I booked a 3 stop tour with my hostel, was totally ripped off on price but being short on time I wanted to make the most of my trip. Soon, I was picked up by a private taxi and taken on a solo tour to these 3 spots; Pha Negun, Tham Phu Kham Cave & The Blue Lagoon. “I don’t really want to hike” I had told my hostel receptionist, “I only have flip flops on”. He’d waved off my concerns and assured me that flip flops were fineee!!


Well, they were not.

I was dropped at the bottom of this (yes fairly small) mountain and the taxi driver pointed up and ushered me forward. What was I to do? I started climbing.

There were many points I questioned my existence, I felt like giving up, lost the will to live etc. But for some reason, even after my flip flops threatened to fly off my feet, and after flies swarmed me, after ants bit my ankles and after nearly falling off one or two rocks I was climbing up, I still persisted.

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And. it. was. worth. it!

 

Tham Phu Kham cave

So I mentioned the mountain climbing thing happened not once, but twice in one day… And here’s the second time.

It took me a while to recover in the well-received air conditioned vehicle as we drove to the next destination, but I was ready for less hike and more cave-exploration. I didn’t expect to be presented with both at the same time!

Arriving at the second destination, also the location of the Blue Lagoon, I followed the signs that directed me to the cave. It began with a few steps. It carried on and the steps sort of just became a vague pathway. Then it got really steep. Then a snake showed up out of nowhere and I had no idea whether or not to be scared so I wasn’t.

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To cut a long walk short, it was another mountain to climb part-way to reach the cave and I was not too pleased at the unexpected exercise.

After reaching the mouth of the cave, I read a crude sign that stated the cave would be best explored with a guide and not alone, and a powerful torch was required. Well I had my phone and google maps so I hopped in.

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The cave was very dark with water running across some pathways. The darkness nearly echoed as an eerie feel submerged me, but it was exciting. Immediately inside the cave you could see a “resting Buddha” shrine set up in the only light part of the cave, but beyond that it was dark. Arrows had been painted on some rocks to give you a vague idea of what direction to head in but I was soon lost.

My phone torch wasn’t much use and the arrows weren’t around anymore, the cave was very vast and so much to explore. I heard voices echoed in the distance and I called out, shining my torch in their direction. Thankfully it was a guide, with a gentleman from New Zealand, who had retired at the age of 35 to come and live in Asia.

Needless to say, I followed them out, my lesson learned; do the same thing again, it was fun.

 

Blue Lagoon 

The Blue Lagoon

After all of that hiking and climbing and cave exploring, I was ready for the cool refreshing waters of the Blue Lagoon.

It didn’t take much convincing for me to join the queue of tourists climbing the overhanging tree and jumping down into the crystal waters. One girl was at the top trying to convince herself to jump but nearly crying with fear. It was actually a lot higher than I realised and I would have been more scared had I given myself enough time to think about it.

I recorded myself, my phone in a waterproof case, and just… jumped!

There was something to get my heart pumping and my body refreshed, I don’t know what shocked me more, the jump or the cold water!

 

Moving On

I booked my travel on to Vientiane through the first party hostel that I was dropped at to save some kip. And because it was leaving at the time I wanted to set off.

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But before I left that day, I was up early to enjoy a delicious Matcha Latte and Almond Pastry whilst I watched the world go by at this delightful cafe.

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Vang Vieng had so many places to enjoy a Laotian nibble, but the tastiest Pho I had come across was served to me in a humble outside “restaurant” next door to the Chillao party hostel where I would soon be catching my bus.

The best tasting Pho in all of Laos.

It was just gorgeous, perfectly balanced flavours with a zesty twist to it. I still remember those satisfying first mouthfuls as I placed my chopsticks in my bowl for more. Mmm…

But saying good-bye to that, I was soon on my way to Vientiane!

 

 


 

13 Weeks of Wandering – Laos

Bangkok | Cambodia | Vietnam | Laos
New York >> Miami | Portland >> Vancouver


Where To? Laos
How long? 5 Days
Thoughts: “Don’t listen to what they say, go see” ~ Chinese Proverb


13 WoW – Laos

On my quest to get to Luang Prabang, only will power could speed the slow boat on from Muang Khua. A tiring and long journey left my patience in the red when I eventually arrived.

Arriving in Nong Kiaw
Laos Boat

The boat arrived around 4pm in Nong Kiaw and the boat driver was quick to hail me a tuk tuk by pointing at me and yelling “Luang Prabang” to some man. This man helped me into the back of his tuktuk and I  tried to get assurance that I had not missed the bus to Luang Prabang. He waved off my concerns, tried to gather more folk into the tuk tuk but failing that, he took me on a surprisingly long journey.

First Stop; the Monastery. We waited there for around 5 minutes and a monk emerged after this time. He climbed into the back with me and nodded, relaxed, adjusting the “blinds” that supposedly protected us from the downpour of rain.

Next Stop; the ATM. At my request, he dropped me at the ATM and left (with my luggage) to drop off his other passenger, our monk friend. I prayed fervently, remembering my woes in Sa Pa, and inserted my card. When my money was dispersed and my card returned, my heart celebrated despite my being nearly ankle-deep in rain water. To top it off, the tuk tuk returned, with my bag! Huzzah!

Third Stop; The Bus Stop. Couldn’t tell you the name of it, couldn’t tell you how to get there. But can tell you what it looks like:

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Cheerful and happy, I arrived, ready to continue my journey to Luang Prabang. The bus stop seemed rather quiet; nobody was around. I approached the window cautiously and asked to get on the next bus to Luang Prabang. “8am tomorrow!” I was told, to my surprise. He then explained that there are only two buses, one departs at 8am and the other departs at 2pm, unless I wanted to charter my own bus for a much larger sum (I vaguely remember 500,000 kip). I did not wish to do this, so I returned to my tuk tuk dismayed with the instructions to take me back nearer the river where I could stay the night at one of the guesthouses.

The cogs in my head were turning as I was ferried by this tuk tuk driver, he must have known the last bus left at 2pm yet he still took me for this long ride.
My patience was on even thinner ground than before as he came to a stop. I asked if there was any other way of me getting to Luang Prabang, he pointed at a building that seemed to be advertising tours.

The man inside spoke very good English, but he only repeated what the man at the bus station had said, “there are only two buses and they leave at 8am and the last one at 2pm”. I knew the answer already but I asked “do all the tuk tuk drivers know that the final bus departs at 2pm?” The answer, “yes”. My patience was gone by now, “So why did this tuk tuk driver take me with false promises of a bus to Luang Prabang?”. He shrugged his shoulders and translated to the driver… Maybe my sass was a little extra, maybe he had been found out and I struck a guilt chord, either way he walked to his tuk tuk, grabbed my bag, dumped it in my arms and then drove off. Thanks for nothing I guess!

Nong Kiaw

Bag in arms, dust cloud where tuk tuk used to be, torrential rain, lost look on face. I did a 360 degree on my surroundings and was pleasantly surprised to spot some friendly faces; the German families from my boat trip lunching beneath the shelter of a veranda. The kids were already smiling and waving, and I was ushered in to join them for lunch.

We chatted over Pho and a mango smoothie about their travel plans and that’s when I found out how they came to be here. The four of them, as youth, had travelled the world themselves backpacking. Now, years later with their children of the same ages; 9 and 11, they wanted to re-live their travel experience with their children and open their eyes to backpacking. As a family, they all decided on Laos for the same reason I had, it was a less-travelled country with many unexplored corners.

The families had been all travelling together with their backpacks, staying in hostels and travelling cheaply by bus, train and tuk tuk. They were now deciding whether to head back to Luang Prabang or to go to Vientianne. Their accommodation that night had not yet been decided, and neither had mine!

When we parted ways, I headed to the river to book a cheap room.
The double bed was dressed with well used sheets and a duvet decorated with a children’s design. There was a DIY mosquito net that was a riddle to set up with wires to attach to two walls. The wifi was a luxury that neither worked, nor did I expect it to work. In short, it was what I would describe back home as a dive, but what was most probably the most luxurious hotel in the small village/town area. Hashtag “First World Problems”.

 

A Long & Dark Night

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The rain continued to beat down, and it got late, but I knew I needed to get something to eat if I was going to take my doxycycline (anti-maleria tablet) so I worked myself up to venture out in the dark, wet night.

I don’t remember which way I walked, or how far, but eventually I came to a restaurant which was surprisingly full. Not keen to sit in the rain, I looked for a table in the balcony upstairs, and who was I to come across but my German friends! I joined them again and we spun stories of our travel adventures until we finished our meals. After paying, and as if on queue to us about to depart, the electricity in the town went out.
We wove our way through the inside of the building, which seemed to double up as a hostel, and lingered at the door where the rain seemed to furiously beat down, with more intensity than earlier that evening.

My pathetic excuse for a mac/anorak was already soaked through from earlier, so I didn’t hesitate. Tightening my hood’s strings and zipping my cold and damp jacket, I secured my flip flops on my feet and stepped into the rain, bidding my friends good night. Thinking myself clever, I fished out the mini torch that I’d brought along and headed confidently in the direction I thought I’d came.

I’d never seen the darkness quite so… dark. Buildings were barely a shadow as they blended into the blackness and my torch did nothing in the torrential rain to guide my path, weak as the light already was due to the fading batteries. Ten minutes must have passed and I still did not recognise anything, there was a turn somewhere, I was sure of it but I couldn’t remember where. I cursed myself for not thinking more carefully about the route I was taking earlier. Other than the rain, all was silent and not even the moon was out to light my path. My imagination started to get the better of me as time continued to pass and I couldn’t recognise anything. I thought about where I would take shelter if I could not find my way back, fearfully I shone my torch over the buildings either side of the road and imagined scary men lurking in the shadows. I was in full panic mode now, it was fight or flight… or apparently freeze, which is what I did when I saw a motorbike’s lights go on and then shortly after breeze by me. I didn’t know whether I was relieved that I hadn’t been abducted by this motorbike man or annoyed that I hadn’t taken the opportunity to ask where I was. I no longer cared that I was entirely soaked through and I accepted that my torch did nothing for my vision, but kept it on as a security blanket to hold onto – I was very aware by now that my rape alarm wouldn’t compete with the powerful sound of the rain.

There was only one thing to be done, return to the restaurant and try to ask for help. They would probably be closed by now but perhaps someone would be there to help me find my way. That’s what I tried to do, but in the blinding rain and the pitch blackness, it was hard to tell after an undisclosed period of time whether I had passed the restaurant, taken a wrong turning somewhere or if I needed to keep going.

The sound of German singing battling with the rain was never a more delightful sound to my ears. I saw flashlights coming my way and praised the heavens for them all! I must have seemed like a crazy person shouting at them from a distance but they soon figured it was me. They knew exactly where they were, and exactly where I should have been… 10 minutes in the opposite direction to where I had originally set off!

Feeling foolish, I headed back cautiously and couldn’t have been happier to finally stumble into my little “hotel” room. Sadly, not only was the electricity off, but the water was also, so I improvised with the last 500ml bottle of water I had, brushing my teeth, washing myself and taking my anti-maleria tablet. #Winning!

 

One for the Road

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I was grateful to wake up the next morning to working water and electricity, I was packed and ready to get my tuk tuk taxi, courtesy of the guesthouse owner, with a new 1l bottle of water for July’s Challenge!

Happy to see that sign indicating the bus station again, I head straight to the window to pay for and secure my spot in the Luang Prabang bus. It was a long wait before we finally filled the bus, although each time I thought it was full, they always seemed to fit one more in. Until one American lady.

She was clearly a backpacker, and she was a fairly large lady with a fairly large bag who seemed to be arguing with the man at the window. The whole bus was curious but it became obvious why she was so furious as the level of her voice kept rising. “I’ve heard about you, you know!” She was yelling, “You are famous on the internet you know that?”
I leaned my head out of the window further, curious as to what on earth she was on about, “Yes, you’re famous for all the wrong reasons! They told me about you, saying the bus is full when it’s clearly not full! Trying to extort us tourists!”

I looked behind me and in front of me and it seemed pretty damn full.

“Fine! If you won’t take my money then I’m going directly to the bus driver then, because that bus clearly is not full!”

We all braced ourselves as she head our way. “You,” she addressed the bus driver, “Here, Luang Prabang, will you take me?” She waved money at him as he smiled awkwardly. One of the boys on the bus was pretty much (annoyingly) narrating exactly what was happening in my ear as it unfolded before us, throwing in his opinion “the bus is clearly full, I don’t know what she wants?” I shook my head but listened on as the bus driver tried to convince her that the bus was full and she would have to wait until 2pm for the next bus. “But it’s clearly not full! Look, I can fit right there!” She pointed to a space just under half the size of the rest of the seats which also happened to be right next to me and I cringed slightly. The argument carried on for longer than we were interested, and the boy narrating in my ear decided to get involved and re-iterate what the driver had just said to her. “He says the bus is full, that the law only allows for a maximum of 16 people on this size bus and you will have to wait for the next bus at 2pm.” She brushed him off, “That’s nonsense! He’s lying!” The whole bus sighed.

Eventually, after threatening to further damage their reputation on youtube by filming them and telling the internet about them she left with a resolve to hitch-hike there. The bus left and we drove past her as she walked on down the road to Luang Prabang.

Now, the funniest part of the story was… she turned out to be absolutely right! Around 20 minutes into our journey, the bus driver stopped and waited in a location. A young woman appeared with luggage which she slung on top of the bus and she sat on that half-sized seat next to me the entire way to Luang Prabang!

What do you think about this? Was the American lady mistreated? Who was this mystery woman and how come she was allowed to sit on the half seat? Chuck your opinions in the comments below!

See what happens when I arrive in Luang Prabang in my next post!

13 Weeks of Wandering – Destination: Laos

Bangkok | Cambodia | Vietnam | Laos
New York >> Miami | Portland >> Vancouver


Where To? Laos
How long? 5 Days
Thoughts: The slow routes are always the authentic routes.


Laos

13 WoW – Destination: Laos

Before I had made any plans to get to Laos, I had already been warned off going there by land by multiple people who advised me that flying to Laos was the best way. I was also told that there was no way to go into Laos from Sa Pa, that I would have to return to Hanoi before I could get to Laos. Well, I didn’t listen to any of them and thank God I didn’t because I saved time as well as money.

 

How to get to Laos from Sa Pa

In Sa Pa there are a number of tourist agents and you will see a few shops advertising tours or coaches to certain destinations. In addition to that, most hotels will also have information on tours and may even have the facility to book you onto a coach to your desired destination. I went to the Anh Nhi hotel to book my bus to Laos and the manager presented me with a couple of options on how to get there. I could either do a 24 hour bus directly to Luang Prabang, or I could break it up and head to Muang Khua then hop on a boat the rest of the way.

Now, it didn’t turn out to be quite as simple as that (especially with the drama I had before I even left), but it was cheap (just over 200 VND) and it was an adventure; in the end that’s all we really want!

 

The Journey

Sleeper Bus
Single Sleeper Beds

At first, it all started well. I’m not a complete newbie to sleeper buses having taken several to get to where I was, so it all seemed pretty dreamy when I realised I’d been booked onto a double bed sleeper bus! So much room!

My first mini drama happened when I spotted, very near my head, a large spider. After pointing it out to the driver, he gave me a look that literally said “bitch please”, rolled his eyes and then walked away. I then had to deal with the situation myself, by using my cap to flick the spider to an unknown location (a.k.a probably somebody’s bed – SO sorry!).

The rest of the journey continued to be relatively uneventful as I took full advantage of the free wifi aboard and dozed in and out of sleep.

The major problem I had with my journey was the language barrier meaning that I had literally no idea where I was supposed to be getting off and how long for etc. So, I decided that Laos is pretty far away, the border is going to be a while to get to and at that stage I would probably need my passport, so I made a plan. The plan was simply to not get off the bus at any point until I saw people getting their passports out. Pretty good plan, I thought. Until…

 

Left Behind

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I needed to pee, pretty desperately. By this point the bus had made several stops in which I shot up, groggy eyed, and looked for people with their passports. Some stops people went to buy food, others had been bathroom stops and even drop offs. At all of these stops, the driver had shouted something in Vietnamese and everyone but I had understood. This time seemed no different, so when the bus stopped, I thought I’d make communication with the driver to see how long the stop would be for. I interpreted it to be, 15 minutes.

I dashed to the bathroom which was hidden around the back of the “petrol station” and it was nearly pitch black behind there. I found the lights and paid my dues, rushing to get away from the dark eerie area round back. As I made my way back to the bus, I could hear the rumbling sound of the engine running, and to my horror the bus had begun to move off.

I legged it as fast as I could waving frantically, my heart rate up a million, my mind flashing images of me being stuck in the middle of nowhere with all my belongings on this coach. Luckily for me, the driver spotted me and stopped. As did my heart. And when I was finally let back on, he was laughing guiltily as I tried to laugh back. It was not funny. I did not get off that coach for anything after that.

So, my night was pretty sleepless as I sought for signs as to when I was supposed to get off the coach. When the coach finally came to a rather elongated stop, the driver yelled a few times in Vietnamese and one by one people began to exit the coach. I was not moving, not after what had happened. A good 15 – 20 minutes must have passed before I and some other foreigners started to get suspicious as more people started to get up and exit. I finally tried to ask my fellow passengers, two Japanese boys, who in broken English told me that they think we need to get off. So I approached the driver repeatedly saying “Muang Khua?”

It took a few repeats before he registered what I was saying and then nodded enthusiastically pointing to the hold. I think that meant, “get your bags”. After a while standing by the bus with my bags, the driver yelled “Muang Khua” and another man popped up out of nowhere. It was 5am by this point, my eyesight was questionable. The second man pointed to some seats where I waited with my bags unsure of where I was or what I was doing. Then I was joined by two others, a couple from Barcelona, also going to Muang Khua!

 

The Local Bus

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An hour later, post brushing my teeth in the “bathrooms” that were holes in the ground with “sinks” that smelled more like urinals (deffo used bottled water to rinse). Myself and my two new Catalan buddies were ushered to a minibus with more seats than there should be inside. The bus was soon filled to overloading with locals, parcels, strange smelling packages, food and even chickens. This Spanish couple and I were the only tourists on the entire bus. The bus made many a stop after leaving Dien Bien and each time I thought “we couldn’t get any more in this bus”, and each time we did. One huge roll of plastic tubes atop the minivan here, and one chicken in a box under your feet. But aside from the odoriferous cargo and the stridency of the animals, the most uncomfortable element of this leg of the journey was the spitting.

Asians spit, a lot! Especially in Vietnam. I figure that this is due to the over-population which has lead to severe air pollution in some areas. Heck, I even wanted to spit at times! Ladies and men, boys and girls, young and old all do it, and not just a delicate projection of saliva in discreet intervals. Sorry to describe this, but they give it 100 with their spitting; a long, drawn out snort to clear the throat before launching saliva (and whatever else) far distances.

This may be why the window seats are so desirable, but it didn’t seem to bother the locals if they hadn’t managed to plonk their behinds on the sought after window seat. I learned this after witnessing an elderly lady, most probably in her 80’s, tap a young man on his shoulder, snort, lean over him and spit out of the window!

Feeling rather squeamish, I prayed a silent prayer that nobody beside me would get such a notion. Thank God, they didn’t.

 

Crossing the Border

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This little local bus was the bus I used to cross the Laotian border. What you should expect at the border is A. Completing a fair share of paperwork and B. Going to a number of windows to pay through your ears for various whims (one window took my temperature and then charged me for it). Have a good amount of US dollars on you, and you will want to change cash to Laotian Kip if you have the chance as the likelihood of you coming across a working ATM in Muang Khua is minimal. I had $90 and just managed to get the visa, pay for one night shared room with the only two other tourists on my bus and get the boat in the morning. The visa was close to $45 in the end but I’m sure that could vary.

*Hint: Choose to pay in Kip if given an option or they will try rounding up in their conversion.

 

Muang Khua

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The local bus stops by the river where the slow boat departs every day, but the two tourists and I decided to jump out early hoping to get some money out from a cash machine. I had lent them $2 at the border as they also were caught off guard with the excessive charges.

We headed to the first cash machine in the village and found that it was not working and had been out of service for some time. After speaking with locals, we found the second cash machine and the third, but none of them worked! They were the only cash machines in the village, none of them worked, and nobody cared – they didn’t need it!

Hopeful that the banks may be open early the following day, we decided to put our money together and all share one room for the night. Dinner that night would be packet noodles that we shared with some coffee (tea for me) and biscuits. But before we settled in, we had time to explore the little village and see what it had to offer.

*Hint: If, like me, you find yourself stuck without an ATM, but you have foreign currency to exchange, try local shops. I was able to change my dollars (albeit at a bad rate) in the local electrical shop.

Muang Khua is very small and two rivers meet right by this village; Nam Phak which comes off the much larger Nam Ou. The highlight of the area was the suspension bridge where we could enjoy lovely views of the Nam Phak river. We also enjoyed playing a bit of football with the local children who got very competitive, and, following our walk across the suspension bridge, we enjoyed some super fun Karaoke at a local pub where we instantly made new friends.

muang khuoa suspension bridge

I really recommend stopping by a Karaoke bar in this neck of the woods, it’s so warming to see the locals giving it their all, laughing, joking and having a good time!

 

The Slow Boat from Muang Khua to Nong Kiaw

The next day, the banks were not able to help us get any money out, so we headed straight to the dock in the hopes that we could get the cheapest tickets.

The way the slow boat works is that it only departs once a day and the time it departs depends on the number of people, as does the price you pay. The time it leaves is between 9am and 10am ish, so I recommend getting there at 9 and waiting. You can charter the boat yourself if you miss the regular daily trip but you will pay heavily for it.

muang khuoa dock

As it turned out, we waited from 9am until around 9.30/10 when we had enough people to leave. The good news was that two German families who were backpacking with their 9 and 11 year old kids, topped up the numbers meaning that we could pay lower rates (I paid around 200 kip).

I’ll be frank, the boat journey is not a comfortable one and if it’s raining, you will be wet and cold. But it is definitely worth it for the unique experience and incredible views. Expect it to be a slow journey, taking over 6 hours, with many stops to pick up or drop off cargo and people.

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*Hint: Be prepared to pee on a beach somewhere along the way if you need to go!

muang khuoa break

There are small beautiful villages on the way which you could stop at for the night if you have the time to, I recommend stopping in Muang Ngoi. I said good-bye to my friends here as they took 3 days to relax in this stunning location, but I carried on to Nong Kiaw hoping to get there in time to catch the bus to Luang Prabang. My original plans of getting the slow boat all the way to Luang Prabang were dismantled when I was told that the Chinese had built dams that now made that journey impossible.

muang khuoa dam

See if I ever make it to Luang Prabang, and what challenges I face when I arrive in Nong Kiaw with no money, in my next post!