I've been gone for nearly 2 weeks now - it feels both longer and shorter at the same time. It's been an overwhelming experience so far - there have been highs and lows - but now, in lovely, sleepy Luang Prabang, I am beginning to to do what I haven't been able to do since I left London: relax and reflect.
My first stop was Bangkok, where I spent 3 days and which was absolutely manic. As an introduction to Asia, this was completely overwhelming. I was staying in a mid-range hotel on Khao San Road, the city's backpacker hub, which is full of bars, shops and cafes. I'm glad I experienced it, but I didn't really dig this part of town, I have to say - noisy, busy, dirty and full of huge groups of young backpackers. The Thais have obviously worked out that catering to the Western taste for underage binge drinking is a good way to make a quick buck, as tired, bored Thai men stand outside the bars holding signs that say 'VERY STRONG COCKTAILS HERE' and 'WE DON'T CHECK ID'. It wasn't all bad, though and my personal Bangkok highlights were taking the river ferry to the Grand Palace where I got chatting to an American woman, also travelling on her own, a couple of nice meals I had at a little food stall on Rambuttri Road (parallel to Khao San) where I also talked to some fellow travellers and a lovely foot massage on one of the squares near the river, while I watched the rain.
You get hassled relentlessly in Bangkok. It's something that nearly everybody I've met has complained about and the Lonely Planet is full of warnings about scams, tuk tuks that take you to the wrong place, and overcharging taxi drivers. As soon as you walk onto the Khao San you are confronted by about 20 people asking you where you're going, there are people trying to sell you tat everywhere and there are men on the street constantly trying to tell you you're going in the wrong direction and you should be going somewhere else. These things are annoying, yes, but I found that once I sussed out what was going on, it's fairly easy to just smile, say 'No thanks' and carry on walking. These people are trying to make money and, at the end of the day, as a relatively wealthy westerner, I am fair game in their eyes. I don't really have a problem with this and don't see the point in endlessly complaining about it. The Lonely Planet tells you that you should only take taxis that run on the meter but when going to the station to catch my train, the guy charged me a flat rate of 100 baht. Apparently this is about 20 baht over the going rate, but I really cannot be bothered to negotiate over what amounts to about 30 pence. That guy needed the money more than me. (I also got to talk to him about football and introduce him to the concept of Leyton Orient).
From Bangkok I took the sleeper train to Chiang Mai, which was great - very comfy and safe. I didn't really do much in Chiang Mai, aside from a cooking course, but it helped me to get a bit more into the rhythm of travelling on my own. It's known for its trekking tours there, where you can visit hill tribe villages and ride elephants, but it was chucking with rain pretty much every day I was in Chiang Mai so I decided to give this a miss ( I am a very lazy traveller and not really that into being wet and uncomfortable). I spent some time wandering round the various soi in the city, where there are cafes, bars, markets and food stalls and I discovered a nice cafe really near my guesthouse, which was run by a very friendly Thai woman and where it was really easy to meet other people. My one token gesture of proper tourism in Chiang Mai was to go up to one of the temples on a nearby mountain. (I found that the temples in Thailand, incidentally, were a little bling for me - all gold and jewels wherever you look)
After 4 nights in Chiang Mai I took the bus from Chiang Mai to the Thai-Laos border, and this was where I was properly jolted out of my western complacency. I was taken across the border on a boat across the Mekong - a pretty basic boat at that - and once there, a van took me to the bus station, where I got on the bus that would be taking us to Luang Prabang. I've been trying to keep a little journal every day of what I've been doing and thinking but my entry for this day is one sentence "This is the most uncomfortable bus I have ever been on." This was at the beginning of the journey and quite frankly i was too terrified for the rest of the journey to write anything else. The roads we took went through the mountains and were narrow and there was a heavy rain storm which caused landslides on the road. We didn't get caught by any of them, but one of the roads was blocked by mud and huge bamboo branches, which some people from the bus had to cut through with machetes so that we could continue. Looking back, I can see that when I booked this bus journey I didn't even contemplate what it would involve and it didn't even enter my head that I was taking a bus through a developing country, where the roads would be a quite a bit more basic than what I'm used to. I knew it'd be long, yes, but I think that sub-consciously I just somehow had in my head all the long National Express coach journeys I've been on in my life. Lesson learned.
But I arrived safely in Luang Prabang (eventually) and have been here for 4 days now. This is definitely the highlight so far. It's a really relaxing city, full of nice cafes and bars, old temples and French colonial architecture. The landscape round here is absolutely stunning. At sunset yesterday I climbed up to see Wat Phusi, a temple at the top of a hill in the city and got an incredible view of the Mekong and the surrounding mountains. I've made friends with 2 women, one from Australia and the other from France, and we've been having nice times, wandering the fantastic night market, cycling out to nearby villages and sitting and chatting. Things are finally falling into place and I had a moment the other day, as I wandered by the Mekong by myself, where i thought, 'Yes, this is fucking cool'.
Being a solo female traveler does, of course, have its pitfalls and it's something that you can never really forget about. I do feel safe but there are things that you must be constantly aware of and it is making me think about myself in ways that I haven't really had to before. But THIS is another blog entry in itself, which I will be posting up very soon...