As you cannot cross the Chinese border unless you travel with a group, I had to go get a visa in Vientiane or in Chiang Mai (North Thailand). I decided to go for the second option as I had never been in North Thailand. From the border I travelled down to Luang Namtha, and then down to the Mekong river, crossed the river and took a mini bus to Chiang Mai, a bit of a longer trip then I expected, but totally worth it. Chiang Mai is a very pleasant town to spend some time while waiting for a visa 🙂

Pretty strange. Near the border with China there is a Chinese community with  an empty village nearby. It consists of big hotels, which are all completely empty. I slept in one of them and there must have been around 300 rooms, which were never used. The doors of the rooms were all open and everything was still in plastic… It was not new though, it was obviously built a few years ago, just never put into use…

After having seen the little elephant baby in Thailand I was certain to want to get closer to elephants again at some point, but only in a ‘natural’ way, no torture, no typical horrifying-huge-carry-on-seats.

In Laos I had made clear to the tourist officer that I wanted to swim with them, but not ride them like a tourist. To my great disappointment I got set up (and therefore contributed to the use of animals as tourist attractions) and I was told to get onto one of those huge seats, which I of course (like any normal human being) refused. Eventually I got them so far to take the seat of the elephant and wash them in the impressive pool with waterfalls. The only thing was that I hoped the elephants would be in for a swim, instead of forcing them to swim…

Their ‘training-tools’ were not particularly animal friendly… Looking up I saw all the other tourists passing by on their huge and painful thrones. They probably think they are doing a ‘fun’ thing of which they will show pictures to many, many people, who then might come to do the same thing. With the result that they consider this event as even more ‘normal’, as their friends or family did it to… Open your eyes people, this is NO fun for the elephants, not even the forced swimming. Animals are not an acceptable way of generating income.

After the visit to the cave and surrounding villages we took the bus to Vientiane and then a night bus to Luang Prabang – where we stayed two day’s. Luang Prabang is located next to the Mekong river and is unfortunately – though beautiful – converted into a tourist resort… What I enjoyed the most was the lively night market, the food, and tasty fruit cocktails.

At the time I left Ban Na Hin I think I had no idea that the most exciting part of my tour was going to start on that day. Basically I toured to the Kong Lor Caves, went through the 7km long cave by long-tail boat and stayed in one of the villages on the other side of the cave. I had never travelled to anything like this! I was welcomed by many ducks, chicken and swine’s, and hosted by a local family, with whom I prepared the meals – their way. After the stay I went back the same way as that is the only way to get there.

Some of the images are property of Karin Schouwenburg.

After a never ending bus ride along the Mekong river, I arrived late at night at Vieng Kham, and decided to take a ride to Ban Na Hin, as it was too late to catch a bus and I didn’t feel like staying in a village next to the main road. And I was glad I did, after a lovely night sleeping outside, an amazing sunrise woke me up. I had not realised how beautiful it was there as it was all dark when I arrived, and with dark, I mean dark. Anyway, I was in a lovely village and from there it was the plan to go find the Kong Lor caves.

 

Some of the images are property of Karin Schouwenburg.

My next destination was Laos, well actually it was some cave in the middle of Laos (Near Ban Na Hin), which I did not know how to find yet… I got up early because I prepared for a 2 day local bus ride, which was an amazing experience. It was hot and humid, I was sitting on top of fruit and seriously, we stopped every 10 minutes because someone or something had to go on or off the bus. If you needed to go to the restroom you would just scream and jump into the bushes LOL.

Some of the images are property of Karin Schouwenburg.

Of course I did not wanted to miss the sun set at the Angkor Wat, and also did not want to miss the sun rise the next morning so I decided to spend two days there. There is a lot to see, including the Ta Khep temples where Tomb Raider was filmed, the elephant terrace, and many many more temples covered by jungle, its impressive!

Some of the images are property of Karin Schouwenburg.

* I also taught an English class on Angkor Wat.

I was so happy to have arrived to Siem Reap as everything went according to plan and the boat trip was great, but actually the scenery at my destination was quite shocking as it had rained too much and all the houses were under water… These people already have so little… I was wearing a shirt saying ‘lucky’ and I remember someone saying that I brought the luck and that the rain stopped.

The most beautiful boat tour I have made so far. In dry seasons it can take up to 11 hours to arrive, but it was not, so it took around 7 hours. Imagine a boat with a roof – fitting about 20 people, or 30-35? Me sitting on top of the roof in the sun, amazed by the villages and temples built on top of the water. The most interesting of this form of transportation is that it is also used as some sort of mail system. No, not for mail, I mean for rice, baguettes, and meat.

Some of the images are property of Karin Schouwenburg.

I travelled from Bangkok all the way to Battambang – Cambodia, crossing border at Arran. I thought Bangkok was hectic, but add: humidity, horn beeping, buffalo’s pulling wagons, many families on bikes, garbage and no electricity to that picture…

Some of the images are property of Karin Schouwenburg.

After visiting the floating market I paid a visit to the famous Death Railway, know for being one of the most difficult railways ever constructed, during which over 100.000 prisoner died because of the bad circumstances… I took the old train for about two hours, which offers views of the River Kwai and Thai villages, and I have to say that it was a special experience…

When on my way to Damoen Saduak (A floating market near Bangkok) I visited a market famous for being situated right on a train-track (in use!). My big surprise was not the train passing right through the market, but a tiny little elephant that greeted me. My first reaction was to adore him while being 20120929Azie61 kopieoverwhelmed, yes, I had seen elephants in the Zoo like many of us, but that is not the same!

When I looked twice, I realized the little thing was all by himself (no mother, no family), something that must be terrifying for a baby, and saw that he was shyly bouncing from his right foot to his left and back, being so nervous…

Then the other horrifying details I noticed were his many round scars, and when I looked at the tool his owner was carrying I knew exactly where those where from… He was obviously held as a tourist attraction, but please everyone, do not contribute to anything that comes close to this kind of tourism, so no elephant riding, no “lion-hugging” while they lay chained to the floor, no pictures with a lonely camel right in the middle of where they don’t belong. Thank you!

Quite a special thing I saw about half an hour drive from the city of Bangkok: The MaeKlong Railway Market. This market is, which is against the law in many countries, build right on the train track, and this track is still in use! So basically all market vendors take away their things right before the train passes right through the middle of the market. This was a strange experience…

Some of  the images are property of Karin Schouwenburg.