During our past 2 and a half years in Asia, we have done our best to avoid Bangkok and pretty much all other big cities, so it was a bit unexpected that we decided to spend a day in Bangkok on our way back from Koh Lanta. We had decided earlier that we were keen to give 1st class train travel in Thailand a try, (before having only been on the Chiang Mai – Bangkok Train) but after the journey from Surat Thani to Bangkok we decided that was quite enough train travel and so once we arrived in Bangkok we booked a flight for the evening to get back up north.
So we spent the day wandering some streets, visiting a couple of temples, and then finally relenting and deciding that Bangkok really isn’t our favoured destination.
We did have a pleasant time seeing some different sights, and were very ready to get out of there after several hours in the heat. Back to the north we go, where it’s so much more relaxed!
Our time on Lanta didn’t consist of much more than seeing beautiful sunsets, a bit of motorbiking around, visitng the gym every day (a huge luxury for us these days when there is no gym nearby! We’re gonna have to make our own in LNT!) and just generally relaxing and enjoying our time.
Food was a particular highlight this time – we found some amazing new restaurants, including a Greek place run by a lovely Greek couple, an Belgian place and also good pizza.
The one thing missing was Ben and Fafa, who were in France and who we managed to miss by only about a week, so we’ll have to go back to hang out with them.
We also found a new awesome place to stay, saw some cool birds, and spent time on the beautiful deserted beaches. All in all we can’t wait to get back to Lanta at some point in the not too distant future.
Our first night back on Koh Lanta we felt very lucky to be here. We realised why we loved it so much last time and ended up staying almost 3 months. The special vibe here is just different to anywhere else we’ve been in Thailand, or Asia for that matter. Koh Lanta put on a special show for us for our first night with this stunning sunset. We love Lanta!
Kawthaung at the southernmost tip of Myanmar (Burma) provided us with an awesome brief insight into this amazing country. Since we were so close to the border of Myanmar we decided to take the opportunity to pay a visit.
We had imagined that being a border town it might not meet our high expectations of Burma, though we were prepared to give it a go. To our delight, Kawthaung thoroughly exceeded any preconceptions we had about Burma and we had a fantastic time.
We jumped on a boat from Ranong in Thailand and within about half an hour were treated to our most laid back immigration yet – the Burmese were just happy we were there and several immigration officers actually accompanied us out of the port and helped us with orientation of the town and told us what prices we should pay for various things.
Our first surprise was how amazing Burmese food is! We were totally unprepared for the exotic mix of spices, a blend of Indian and Thai, but so much better than anything we’ve tasted from either cuisine. Every single dish we ate was so distinctly different, with spices being so interesting rather than hot or really spicy. We couldn’t find anything we weren’t in love with eating so ended up eating a far bit. We were also really impressed with the impeccable service we received, it seems like a blend between modern western society and an old world steeped in tradition and respect. Staff were aways on hand to prompty and courteously cater for your every whim, and yet also discreetly in the distance leaving you to your own space, ready to jump if you looked as though you might have a question or need anything.
Dre also tried a couple of Myanmar beers, which he loved, and set out in search of the famous flavoured Cheroot cigars to try. As testament to the astoundingly friendliness in this town, when he did find some Cheroots he explained to the guy (who we soon learned didn’t have much English) that he didn’t want a whole packet, he just wanted one to try. An immigration guy came up to us and helped out with the transalation, and after the brief conversation the Cheroot vendor wanted Dre to have three, for free, as a gift from his country. Wow. We totally didn’t expect a border town to be so welcoming and user friendly.
We spent the rest of our time seeing the standard things of the town; the King’s statue which overlooked a stunning vista of ocean, islands and mountains, a couple of temples, which were so different in style from any others we’d been inside, and basically just watching the world go by.
The outside of the temples looked fairly similar to some temples you see in Thailand and Laos, but the insides were vastly different. Completely mirrored with small tiles and broken up into many small rooms or compartments each with a buddha image inside. It was really interesting.
We were also amazed at how much English so many people had; thinking about it, it does seem logical since Burma was colonised by Britain for some time, and it was so nice to be able to communicate with the people.
The Burmese people we met were such a striking mix of modern and traditional… most of the men still wear Longyi – sarong type garments and also speak impeccable English; women paint their faces with Thanaka and carry large loads balance on their heads and still want to stop in the street and ask you where you’re from; everything seemed like such a contrast. You see two people conversing in the street, one with a modern business suit and the other with traditional clothing and everyone seems completely at ease with each other.
We also saw yet another giant wasp! This one was very shiny with an irridescent blue and green body that changed colour in the light.
All in all our burmese adventure was so much more than we hoped it would be and has left us in eager anticipation to return and see this country properly – we can’t wait!
Our stay on the island of Koh Payam was a relaxing one. We arrived not really knowing what to expect – we came here on a whim after a recommendation from a guy who DJ’ed in our shop one night. What we did know was that supposedly not many tourists went to Koh Payam, that it was supposedly peaceful and had lots of jungle and national park, and there were no cars or roads wide enough for cars on the island, all of which sounded pretty good.
From the very first day we were treated to seeing hornbills within just a few metres from us, golden lizards, singing frogs, a rare white bulbie and many crabs!
As we settled into the slow pace of life here, every day we saw more and more wildlife – a big dragon climbing in the trees, a golden frog, the biggest lizard we’ve ever seen (about 30cm) catch a moth, many, many hornbills and a cool highlight was a group of about 6-7 sea otters that ran down from the river running through our property and out into the ocean. The largest one would have been a bit over a metre and this group was magnificent to see.
As always we struck it super lucky with our accommodation, the first place we stumbled upon turned out to be a huge privately owned nature reserve with it’s own private beach, a beach that was all ours to enjoy as we were the only guests at this stunning place. Hooray for low season! Rainy season also meant that we got to see many cool dramatic skies and some beautiful sunrises and sunsets.
We spent many hours lounging on the beach, or our balcony overlooking the beach, or playing pool in the upstairs of the restaurant building that was surrounded 360 degrees by jungle and birdlife. We never managed a game of pool without stopping many times to watch the birds flying around and seeing what new species we could see.
A couple of our days were spent exploring around the island, although this soon lost it’s appeal when we realised that although the island is very beautiful, we were already staying in the most pristine section of the entire island and we had the most abundant wildlife and jungle right outside our bungalow.
Koh Payam was perfect and utterly serene. Every noise we heard was either the ocean, or birds or insects, and each night we could fall asleep to the sound of monks chanting across the ocean. The island temple was near to us at the next bay and so the full moon drumming and chanting as well as the nightly chanting could be heard by us over the water. The past week of swimming in the ocean and being surrounded by abundant wildlife and jungle has been an excellent way for us to relax in the serenity of nature.
The past few weeks we’ve spent a lot of time exploring new areas of Luang Namtha we haven’t been to before, as well as visiting a few tried and tested favourites.
It has involved finding many insects we haven’t seen before, and many days contemplating the beauty that is so easy to find here.
We started out by finishing off the pizza oven, which has now pretty much just been sitting and waiting for it’s new chimney to arrive for a few weeks now. Once we’ve got the chimney and the new bench beside it to make pizzas on, we’re good to go!
After our last trip to Thailand we decided it was time to spend a lot more time exploring LNT again, and so almost every day in the past few weeks we’ve gone and done something new or something that we know is fun.
We’ve spent many days out in the rice fields, including many fields which we didn’t know were there before, watching the thousands of dragonflies which are now here in Luang Namtha.
Here is a video of not-great quality that shows the huge numbers of dragonflies:
One of the days we followed a new road we drove along through a tiny village, past their extensive rice fields until a river crossed the road.
We got off the bike and walked down to the river, and after 5 minutes or so a guy drove up, also jumped off his bike and asked why we weren’t going to drive through the river and keep going. Ummm, well because we are quite happy here playing in the cold water of the river and have no real desire to cross a reasonably deep river on motorbike. He encouraged us to go across, and then demonstrated by walking across himself and beckoning us to follow. We managed to convince him that we really were happy staying at the river and so he eventually left, telling us if we changed our minds we could find him further up the road. We settled down to have a quick swim in the cold water which was so nice on the steaming hot day. A group of kids came down to see what we were up to and played in the river next to us for a while until we decided it was time to leave and headed back to town.
Another day we spent on the Nam Tha riverbank watching river life go by. It’s been amazing this month how much the river has filled up, both with rain flowing down from China and also the rains that have fallen here.
One morning Dre suggested a day out in the jungle at one of our favourite waterfalls, during which time we saw a huge number of awesome insects including a giant wasp drag a spider back to it’s underground burrow. You can read a detailed account of that here.
And we also spent some just wandering around, finding more cool insects and admiring the beautiful abundance that is everywhere.
Now it’s time for us to head back to Thailand, this time we’re missing the ocean, so we’ve decided to head down south to spend a few weeks at the beach again.
As you probably know, when we travelled to NZ, Australia, Malaysia and Thailand for 2 months recently we told our staff that as their reward for successfully running the shop while we were gone that we’d take them on their first trip outside of Laos.
So 3 of the staff that worked during this time took the challenge; Korlee, On and Toc had never left Luang Namtha province before, and Korlee had never even left the town of Luang Namtha.
The adventure to the ‘big city’ of Chiang Rai started with the girls having to wait 2 hours for the Lao immigration office (the section that stamps Lao people in and out of Lao) to re-open after lunch. During this time though, they managed to make friends with the tourist police, have lunch with them and exchange phone numbers ;) .
Once they crossed the Mekhong they were into a new world; the forbidden Thailand and needed us to pretty much look after their every move.
The first night we took them to the night bazaar, and they were in heaven shopping in the Thai market with so much more selection than anywhere in Laos.
The second day was full of adventures for them: we went to their first supermarket, Makro, and bought all the supplies for the shop. They were amazed and awed that such a big building could exist and have so much selection in it.
This was followed by even more amazement – the mall. Toc was petrified to ride on the escalator, none of them having ever seen one before or known of the existence of one. We eventually convinced her that it was fine, and took them to see their first movie.
We saw more supermarkets, actual clothes stores, computer stores, TV stores, and so many other things that don’t exist in Laos. The second night they wanted to go back to the night bazaar for more shopping.
We had hoped to take them to the white temple also, but it ended up raining a fair bit and so the final morning was just chill out time before the return to the safety of Luang Namtha.
Our journey to our secluded hideaway to celebrate our 14th anniversary since we met started off interestingly.
We went to our normal Chiang Rai guesthouse and dropped off some of our luggage and computers, and decided to make a ‘quick trip’ to the mall to give the computer fix-it shop Dre’s computer so that it could be there a few days getting fixed while we were away. The quick trip turned into a few hours and so when we finally set out to our holiday location on our motorbike in the pouring rain, it was already dark.
We laughed about it and Dre made the comment that it’s awesome that our lives are never boring here! We followed the directions on the map to the hideaway, our bike laden with our luggage and our clothes soaked through to the skin. After about half an hour, we realised that although we were following our saturated map, it didn’t seem to be leading to where we wanted to go. This was confirmed when the road finished and turned to mud, and we literally couldn’t keep driving because it was too muddy.
We turned around and headed back to the nearest main road, in the countryside somewhere north of Chiang Rai. We found a shop that was still open and used our limited Thai language skills to ask if we were going the right way, or which way to go. They pointed us back in the direction we’d come from so we thought that we’d just head back down the road and stop at the nearest hotel we found for the night.
As it turned out, it was all meant to be… after another 20 minutes or so in the now-torrential rain, we found what looked to be an extremely upmarket resort set on the mountainside. We pulled up and the wide-eyed receptionist looked in bewilderment at 2 soaked-to-the-skin-foreigners pulling up on a motorbike in the dark in the middle of nowhere to their resort.
They showed us to their holiday house, complete with jacuzzi, kitchen, several huge balconies, an entire private rooftop with hammocks and daybeds, completely secluded from any other dwelling by extensive tropical gardens and views to mountain ranges out the front and back. (Of course we couldn’t see the gardens or views until the next morning). It had a kitchen, 2 bedrooms, a huge lounge and lot of extras. So we figured that this was where we were meant to be and there was good reason we didn’t find the place we’d booked. We still do want to find the place we booked, in future, because it looked awesome too, but this place would definitely be awesome to stay at for the few days we planned to spend there.
So we spent the following days lazing on the rooftop, stretched out on the couches, and admiring the gardens and mountains. The staff were so excited we had come to stay (normally only Thai people stayed there) and in the mornings when we’d go for breakfast they would attempt to practise their limited English and we would spend time teaching them some new words.
It was a good way to spend some time and we returned to Chiang Rai recharged and ready for the next adventure: taking some of our staff on their first trip outside of Laos.
During the entire process we’ve had perfect people arrive at the perfect time to help us, as well as learning lots of news skills ourselves along the way. It’s been so much fun to do! Ella and Grant, Mark and Sarah, Gra and Rinat have been great friends to us and we will always remember the help they gave us here. We hope to be able to return the favour to them in future.
We also spent quite a few afternoons out in the rice paddies, watching many sunsets, and generally enjoying life.
Our friends Anic and Manylin had their baby boy by caesarean which was really interesting for us to hear about. It seems that the doctors made a mistake with Manylins due date and because the baby was breach had to do a caesarean. They told her they couldn’t perform the caesarean until she went into labour….. and then at our insistence Anic made the doctors proceed. When the baby came out they realised her placenta had already been used up and the baby wouldn’t have survived much longer if they hadn’t taken it out. They ended up in hospital for a couple of weeks and the baby on a drip, luckily though all went well and they are now home as a family and the baby is doing well. They also told Manlyin that her diet had to consist of only rice, and a small amount of meant, and hot water. She couldn’t eat any fruit or vegetables until she finished breastfeeding. We also cleared this up and thankfully the American doctor Leila who lives in Muang Sing came to visit them and verified our wild ‘theory’ that Manylin really should be eating fruit and vegetables in her diet.
We also celebrated our chef Toc’s birthday, which mean typical Lao style drinking and music so loud your ears almost bleed.
Other than that we have pretty much just been doing the pizza oven, training new staff in preparation for high season, and enjoying the thousands of insects that we’ve found because they’ve come out for rainy season. This year rainy season so far has been great – we’ve had the cool animals and only about half an hour of rain every day, with many days of no rain at all and only a few with more than that.
Our return to Luang Namtha was, as expected, awesome. We spent our first day riding around and catching up on the local news. We visited Anic and Moneylins new restaurant out of town with a lovely view, the temple to see the new Buddha being built, and the rice fields for a lovely sunset over the paddies.
After spending a few days around town and getting to know everything that had happened at the shop while we were away, (during which time a berry tree got cut down just beside Forest Retreat Laos and we scored hundreds of sweet red berries), we headed up to the old Stupa and saw all the awesomeness of wet season staring to happen – so many different insects everywhere we turned. We ended up seeing 15 different insects in about an hour, and then went back down the stairs and found some kids who proudly showed us their find of the day, a large black water beetle.
We spent some time setting up another website Living In Laos where you can read about daily antics involved in living here, and also continue to write more information on Luang Namtha Guide for people coming to the area.
We then decided to head up to Muang Sing for a few days for another mini-holiday while getting back into life here. We ended up mostly just chilling out up there, and didn’t visit any villages or any of our usual places. Even the restaurants in Muang Sing seemed to be on holiday with almost everything closed for low season, so we ended up eating mainly at the market and the Chinese supermarket. We headed up to the Muang Sing Stupa, which is the most important stupa in Luang Namtha province, and spent most of our time up there not admiring the stupa but the abundance of wildlife that we once again found. We found awesome spiders, beetles, lots of different kinds of ants, butterflies, dragonflies, grasshoppers and other insects. We also found a little hut to hang out in surrounded by huge old trees so we decided that this is a good hang out spot for wet season.
Wet season so far has actually been awesome, we’ve only had rain a few times per week and then for an hour or half an hour a day usually. So it’s enough to bring out all the cool animals but not yet enough to put a damper on daily activities.
On the way back to Luang Namtha we decided to stop at the Nam Ha NPA at the river that borders the Natinal Park. It was awesome to just relax and hear sounds of nature and nothing else.
Then it was time to drive back through the National Park, dodging the usual traffic of cows, goats and water buffalo. The drive is so stunning and we’re probably said it a hundred times but it’s so hard not to stop and take in the beauty of the National Protected Area. When we returned to Luang Namtha town, we got back into the swing of things and got the progress for Forest Retreat underway.
Our pizza oven has been planned for over a year and with one delay and another, and then being so busy during high season that we couldn’t really use our precious courtyard space to build it (with the building materials and process taking up so much space we had far too much foot traffic and customers to even think about starting in high season), it has taken us until now to see a window of opportunity to actually make it reality. It began with taking the time to learn exactly how to build it, and a couple of phone calls to Karen’s dad later, we were ready to go. We met 2 Canadians who said they were really excited to help us, so we thought we’d get started right away. As it turned out, the next day they changed their minds, in a lot of ways though it was good because it meant that we were mentally ready to forge ahead. We bought the materials and started fumbling around making attempts to lay the base of the oven, when we met Ella and Grant.
This was a hugely fortunate meeting, because Grant helped us in so many ways to understand the building process, even little things that were super important like how wide to make the base to be strong enough to support the concrete slab on top, cementing the bottom layer of bricks to the ground (OK so now this really does seem like common sense, we still didn’t think of doing it until Grant suggested it though!) and just knowledge on how to make cement, and make it stick to the bricks. He even rigged up his iphone as a make-shift spirit level when we couldn’t find one in town.
So day by day we managed to increase the height of the oven base. In between all of that, we managed to have a day out for Karen’s birthday. We had planned to go to Muang Noi for a few days, but with all the pizza oven progress Karen didn’t want to leave the shop for that long. So we spent a day out in the rice paddies soaking in the beauty.
Being surrounded by mountains in the huge valley of newly planted rice was definitely an awesome way to spend the day, and the sunset was stunning.
During this time we also had the privelege to meet Lincy, a lovely Dutch girl who we really hope to meet again in the future. She ended up staying in Luang Namtha a lot longer than she originally expected when she broke her leg.
Lincy’s daily visits to our shop were great, with her cheering us along with our pizza oven progress and generally being great company. When her insurance company finally figured out that she was in Luang Namtha, and not Vientiane (even though she had never mentioned Vientiane to them, they just assumed that since she was in Laos, she must be in the capital!), they decided to transfer her to Bangkok to receive proper medical attention. We were stunned to hear from Lincy the next day telling us that her x-ray in Bangkok had revealed not a broken leg but in fact a broken ankle, and the cast that had been put on in Luang Namtha had probably hindered her healing process. So she how has a proper cast and has returned home to Holland to heal for the next month before continuing her Asian travels which will hopefully include eating some awesome pizza in Luang Namtha!
We are so lucky to constantly meet so many new friends here. Definitely a percentage of the people we meet at Forest Retreat will remain friends in one way or another, whether by email or by future meetings somewhere in the world. We are now in Chiang Rai, taking a few days out, buying more stuff for the shop and mainly taking the opportunity to relax and see some English movies. On our return back to Luang Namtha we will continue on the pizza oven, and hopefully get to hang out with Grant and Ella a bit more. Here are some more photos of the past month’s antics.