Hey Everyone,

I left Ireland exactly 1 year ago today. Therefore I have been traveling almost 11 months now and still have another 3 to go.

I am currently back in Thailand getting my visa and plane ticket for Burma. I will backtrack quickly and let you know what I got up to in the northern foothills of Vietnam and Laos.

My friend Simon (who I originally met in Borneo) and two Canadians (Julie and Ali) and I headed for SAPA, kind of the capital for the minority people in Northern Vietnam. It is in Sapa that the hill tribes come down from their villages and rice terraces to trade and pick up supplies. It is also where backpackers arrange and start their treks through the mountains.

We decided on the last 4 days of a more expensive 6 day hike. This would get us away from Sapa and hopefully expose us to some authentic hill tribe culture and as all backpackers long for - "to get off the beaten track". Well it sure did and we won't regret it. We trekked between 10-15 KM per day through Minority villages, miles of rice paddies and expanses of terraces.

Both nights we came into a village and randomly selected a family to stay with. Nothing had been prior arranged as our guide would just negotiate with the family on the spot. We brought along all of our own provisions and would cook it on the open fire in (if you could call it that) the kitchen. Usually it was just a fire pit. However our guide was a good cook and therefore we didn't suffer.

We were the center of attention in the middle of the house. Only the father and mother would eat with us. All the other 20 or so family members including aging grandmothers and young children would sit off in the corners and cautiously watch our every move. One family had never had westerners stay with them before.

Since it is the official rainy season here, much of our trek was made in the pouring rain. It didn't dampen our spirits but it sure dampened our clothes. We were glad to finally get back to Sapa and have a warm shower. First one since Nepal. (First WARM one not first one!)

Instead of taking a 20 hour bus from Hanoi to Vientiane on roads similar to those in Cambodia, Simon and I opted to shell out the $100 for a one way ticket on Lao Aviation. I was thinking it could be a one-way ticket to somewhere higher but in actuality, the aircraft was pretty new and in good shape. (unlike some of the other ones we saw on the tarmac.)

Wow! - what a change Laos is compared to Vietnam and Cambodia. No more blowing horns, people bugging you with "postcard mister?", lying, cheating and other disagreeable acts. The Lao people are friendly, smile, honest and most of all - the most laid back people I have met on my journey.

VIENTIANE, the capital doesn't have much to offer itself but it was just so relaxing that we ended up staying a few days. We spent a lot of time just down by the Mekong drinking beer and watching boats go by.

Later in VANG VIENG, Simon and I went inner tubing down the Ha Song river and explored a cave where we had to float on our tubes with a flashlight on our stomachs down a dark passageway until we reached a ledge and a ladder. The limestone cave then opened to a larger cavern with smaller side rooms and alleyways.

Next was a 8 hour journey on a bus to LUANG PRABANG. Despite it being a local bus, most of the passengers were backpackers making their way north. Along the way we picked up more and more locals and just when you thought the bus couldn't hold anymore, they would stop the bus and one or two more would get on. They carried everything from caged birds to sacks of rice to satalite dishes. Space was always found.

The town of Luang Prabang is a sleepy little town and the locals have the most relaxed laid back way of life. One could compare it as Sunday everyday.

About an hour out of town was the Khouang Sy waterfall which is a 4 tiered cascade of water. At each level, there was a pool big enough to swim and sit in, catch the sights and just perfect to drink a refreshing beer. The only problem - there was no beer sellers.

Back in L.P., we met some Aussies and decided to take our first boat trip up the Mekong River to visit some caves. Despite the caves not being very interesting, the scenery on the river was spectacular. All around, kids frolicked in the water to escape the heat, fisherman fixed their nets and women bathed and washed clothes.

Not having enough of the hill tribes, Simon and I took off for OUDOMYXAI and then LUANG NAM THA just south of the Chinese border. We had hoped to rent motorbikes and just tour around the countryside but none were to be had. Instead we had to settle for push bikes which was hard in the heat (and on the butt).

We were hoping to catch a boat to the Thai border but soon found out the 2 day slow boat would cost us $100. We were left once again to take a 12 hour ride with 13 people in the back of a pickup truck. I bet Simon a buck that we would have at some point get out and push us out of the mud. I ended up winning that bet 5 times over.

Not wanting to get on another bus so quickly, we opted to take another boat up the Mekong river to the town of CHANG SAEN just short of the Golden Triangle where 70% of the world's Opium (and heroin) comes from. Thailand, Burma, and Laos make up the triangle where the Sai River joins the Mekong.

One night after a few beers Simon and I sat with the locals on the sidewalk outside our guesthouse to have one more. For over 1 hour, we talked and communicated despite the only common words we/they knew were Cheers!, Michael Jackson, & OK. We talked and laughed not knowing a word each were saying. I don't know why I mention it here but it was just one of those memorable moments of my trip.

Before making our way back to Bangkok, we stopped off in CHANG RAI to do an elephant trek and hike up in the mountains with the Thai hill tribes. As we were riding one of the elephants, we heard a tremendous roar and looked thinking it was a ferocious beast of some sort. Instead, it was just our elephant passing gas.

After 5 months on the road, Simon flew back home to England today. He has been a great travel companion for almost 2 months and I will miss the laughs and the conversations as I continue my journey to Burma and China. Thanks Simon!

Before Burma however, I plan to go again to the beaches of Thailand and do some diving near PATTAYA. There is a dive there called the Vertical wreck. It is so called because when the ship sank in 100 feet of water, the stern of the boat sank straight into the mud with the bow just 10 feet below the surface of the water. It makes for a great dive as one can start off going deep and end up doing your safety stop right on the top of the bow.

Since I am back in the land of faster Internet connections, I have been able to upload pictures on my Yahoo site. New pictures were added to Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand 2. The address again is: http://photos.yahoo.com/gatech90

Let me know what you think.

I will sign off for now. Hope to hear from you.

All the best, MIKE


copyright © 2003 by Michael E. Hopkins - all rights reserved
revised NOVEMBER 2008