Welcome to Couchfish!

Just because you’re on the couch doesn’t mean you can’t travel

Use either the map above or the stories below to follow Couchfish as we travel through Southeast Asia on a fantasy trip though the region.

Couchfish is 100 percent independent and reader–supported. If you’d like to show your support (if you haven’t already!), please consider becoming a paying subscriber today for just US$7 per month. Thank you!

If you’d like to see the free to read posts available to all readers, please click here.

Day 1: Hello Bangkok
Day 1: Hello Bangkok

On car parts, coffee shops and Chinatown.

Day 2: Thonburi
Day 2: Thonburi

Squatting like a bling-coated Soyuz on the Chao Phraya’s west bank, Wat Arun basks in late light. Gazing across the river while waiting for a cross-river ferry to get there, through the shimmering humidity and express boat exhaust, it delights me. Up close, the broken ceramics embellishing the surface reflect the clouds and blue sky. Just magnificent.

Day 3: Touching the Old City
Day 3: Touching the Old City

I’m an early riser, which pays big dividends in Thailand. Leaving Bang Luang House, I walk alongside the khlong for a stretch as Bangkok still sleeps.

Day 4: On a train
Day 4: On a train

Nothing says travel like a train.

Day 5: Inside Ayutthaya
Day 5: Inside Ayutthaya

Ruins, prawns, boat races and more.

Day 6: Outside Ayutthaya
Day 6: Outside Ayutthaya

Ruins, prawns, boat races and more.

Day 7: Lopburi
Day 7: Lopburi

I think I first became terrified of macaques when I was in Pushkar, India. I was staying in a shack on the roof of a building and woke to hear someone trying to get into my room. My doors had no lock, instead held closed by a chain I had looped through the handles.

Day 8: Temple of the Buddha’s footprint
Day 8: Temple of the Buddha’s footprint

If it wasn’t for the macaques (a mammalian version of pigeons), I’d stay another night in Lopburi. Instead, I’m heading to Wat Phra Phutthabat, the “Temple of the Buddha’s Footprint”, then grabbing a train north.

Day 9: Kamphaeng Phet
Day 9: Kamphaeng Phet

When travellers think of ancient Thai ruins, Ayutthaya and Sukhothai are likely foremost in their minds. Both are outstanding sites worthy of an itinerary, but another merits inclusion: Kamphaeng Phet.

Day 10: Khlong Lan National Park
Day 10: Khlong Lan National Park

The last few days have been heavy on temples and ruins ... and food. Luckily, Thailand has plenty more to offer. Today I’m breaking out for a slice of nature—to Khlong Lan National Park.

Day 11: Mae Sot and the Burma border
Day 11: Mae Sot and the Burma border

So history, food and culture were all on my mind as I grabbed an early morning minibus from Kamphaeng Phet to Mae Sot.

Day 12: The Death Highway
Day 12: The Death Highway

Route 1090 runs south from Mae Sot to the isolated, mostly Karen, town of Umphang. The name “Death Highway” dates back to the 1980s. At that time, opium cultivation—and the security issues that come with it—was common. Opium is still grown in Tak province, but thanks to crop substitution work, has been reduced by some 80%. The days of seeing mountain ridges shimmering with poppy fields are gone.

Day 13: Umphang
Day 13: Umphang

The path taps out at a large viewing platform that is well placed to take in the wonder of Thi Lor Su. It is incredible.

Day 14: Every town is worth a night
Day 14: Every town is worth a night

It is for people like this that I return to Thailand, over and over. I just wish he would write faster.

Day 15: Tak
Day 15: Tak

A morning in Tak. I visit a museum and a historic Chinese alleyway. Plenty of eating as well of course.

Day 16: Sukhothai
Day 16: Sukhothai

I arrive in Sukhothai, sort out a good affordable bed and start eating. Tomorrow, the historical park.

Day 17: Sukhothai Historical Park
Day 17: Sukhothai Historical Park

A full day spent exploring the three zones at Sukhothai Historical Park.

Day 18: Si Satchanalai and Chaliang
Day 18: Si Satchanalai and Chaliang

A full day exploring Si Satchanalai and Chaliang along with a stay at a family-run homestay.

Day 19: Phitsanulok
Day 19: Phitsanulok

A day spent in Phitsanulok, taking in a beautiful temple and a pack

Day 20: Phu Hin Rong Kla
Day 20: Phu Hin Rong Kla

A visit to Phu Hin Rong Kla National Park

Day 21: Thailand’s Niagara Falls
Day 21: Thailand’s Niagara Falls

After yesterday’s weather blow out today it feels great to wake to crystal skies. I’ve a busy day—an early ride to “Thailand’s Niagara Falls”, Kaeng Sopha (map link)—then back to Phitsanulok for a train north.

Day 22: Phrae
Day 22: Phrae

I visit Phrae

Day 23: Around Phrae
Day 23: Around Phrae

Two temples, a sand pit, a good feed and an indigo shirt

Day 24: Nan
Day 24: Nan

A day exploring the downtown sights in Nan, Thailand.

Day 25: Nan, into the jungle and under the ground
Day 25: Nan, into the jungle and under the ground

Part one of a two day jungle and caving trek in Nan province in Northern Thailand.

Day 26: Out of the jungle
Day 26: Out of the jungle

Part two of a tale about trekking through and under the jungle in Nan province, Thailand.

Day 27: To the salt mine
Day 27: To the salt mine

As mentioned yesterday, Bamboo Hut has the coldest showers on Earth. The night in my A-frame is just as freezing, so my morning coffee, enjoyed while admiring the outlook from the guesthouse, is more than welcome.

Day 28: Into the hills
Day 28: Into the hills

I ride into remote northern Nan, give an impromptu English lesson, wave at Laos, eat, swing by a pretty temple, and eat some more.

Day 29: Nan Rocks!
Day 29: Nan Rocks!

Close readers will have noticed I’ve spent more time in Nan than any other province so far on this trip. Why? Because Nan rocks. Not only is the countryside beautiful, but the people are super friendly and the food is great. I’ll be touching on all three of these in today’s final post on the province.

Day 30: Hello Laos!
Day 30: Hello Laos!

Thirty days goes fast. My Thai visa–free stay runs out today, so I’m heading north into Laos. I’d planned to go to Pakbeng (map link), then take the slow boat to Huay Xai, but my plans are a bit up in the air at this stage. Let’s see how things shake out.

Day 31: Udomxai
Day 31: Udomxai

As I mentioned yesterday, I was in two minds about which way to head from Pakbeng. Upriver to Huay Xai and then inland from there, or north to Udomxai? I’ve gone with the latter.

Day 32: Ecotourism, Udomxai style
Day 32: Ecotourism, Udomxai style

While Udomxai is not a sightseeing hotspot, it does make for a convenient base. Today I’m heading east to an “ecotourism” resort and then onwards to Muang La for a soak.

Day 33: Phongsali
Day 33: Phongsali

Lao bus timetables are a bit like Indonesian boat timetables. The hour-age you see on the timetable board (if one exists) is an inexact science. The bus could break down. A landslide could block the road. You might hit a cow. There are no shortage of permutations—believe me.

Day 34: On the Nam Ou
Day 34: On the Nam Ou

In a country as mountainous as Laos, the rivers are the true highways. Often faster and more comfortable than the roads, for years they were a terrific way to get around. Then they started damming them—including the Nam Ou.

Day 35: On the road to Luang Nam Tha
Day 35: On the road to Luang Nam Tha

Every now and then when travelling you need to have a “travel day”. In Laos, more often than not, such days don’t take most of the day, they take all of it.

Day 36: Into Nam Ha NPA
Day 36: Into Nam Ha NPA

What better way to exorcise the demons of yesterday than with a two-day walk in the woods? I head to Luang Nam Tha

Day 37: Out of the Nam Ha
Day 37: Out of the Nam Ha

After the strenuous walking of the previous day, we sleep well. The day had finished off with a meal before we slept in a custom–built wooden house a five-minute walk from the village.

Day 38: Muang Sing
Day 38: Muang Sing

As I wrote the other day, a decade ago, the north of Laos was thought to have plenty of tourism potential. Nowhere is that missed opportunity clearer than in Muang Sing.

Day 39: Noodles and Xieng Kok
Day 39: Noodles and Xieng Kok

In a case of saving the best to last, I get up early—real early—for a bicycle ride to Ban Siliheuang. While most of yesterday’s villages were all handicrafts, I am here for something dear to me: Noodles.

Day 40: Downriver to Huay Xai
Day 40: Downriver to Huay Xai

Xieng Kok may go to bed early (save the karaoke warbling down from somewhere upriver), but it wakes early, too. Too early.

Day 41: The Gibbon Experience part 1
Day 41: The Gibbon Experience part 1

Big things often start small, and the Gibbon Experience is a great example. Trekking in what was then the Bokeo Nature Reserve in the mid-1990s, Frenchman Jef Reumaux spotted some black–crested gibbons, and snapped some photos of them.

Day 42: The Gibbon Experience part 2
Day 42: The Gibbon Experience part 2

Travelling in Southeast Asia, I’ve gotten used to the sounds of dawn. The sweeping, cocks, dogs, splashing water of a bucket shower. The scooters. Then I wake, 30m high in the canopy of Nam Kan National Park and all I can hear are gibbons. Ok and perhaps my co–travellers snoring.

Day 43: On a slow boat with a competitive traveller
Day 43: On a slow boat with a competitive traveller

Anyone who knows me knows I’m not a particularly loud speaker. I’m not a whisperer, but unless I’m really off on a rant (as has been known to happen on occasion), even if you’re at the next table you’ll struggle in your eavesdropping efforts.

Day 44: To Luang Prabang
Day 44: To Luang Prabang

Arrival at Pakbeng works something like this. Everyone gets off the boat and trying to not look like they’re running, makes a beeline for the least bad hotel.

Day 45: On tak bat and UNESCO in Luang Prabang
Day 45: On tak bat and UNESCO in Luang Prabang

Deposited at the base of Wat Xieng Thong the previous day, we climb the uneven stairs to the road.

Day 46: Two temples and a spot of gardening in Luang Prabang
Day 46: Two temples and a spot of gardening in Luang Prabang

I wake in the early hours to an enormous clap of thunder and the heavens open. The rain pours like only monsoon rains can. Impossible to sleep, I drag the sole chair in my room to the window and fling it open. The power is out but no matter, the lightning illuminates plenty enough. The rain so heavy, it’s like a waterfall, it runs off the roof, inches from my hand, quickly flooding the street below.

Day 47: Chompet
Day 47: Chompet

The previous evening I relax in a small cafe near the Nam Kham and get chatting to a Thai American couple. She’s from San Diego, he from Chumphon in Thailand’s south and it is their first time to Luang Prabang. I invite them to join me for a ride on the wild side—to explore Chompet—and they accept.

Day 48: A legacy of war
Day 48: A legacy of war

On the ride the previous day, Heather, her partner Poon (“not Porn!” he said with a laugh when introduced), and I, got chatting about Lao history. They’re both about my age yet know almost nothing about Laos’ wartime past. I suggest we meet up the next day to visit the UXO Lao Visitor Centre—they accept.

Day 49: Moon on the river
Day 49: Moon on the river

Heather opts for a cooking class at long–running (and excellent) Tamarind. Poon and I meanwhile rent scooters to explore. The plan is to reconnect in the early afternoon. Insert quip here about the best laid plans etc etc.

Day 50: Sticking rice in the ground, bears and a waterfall
Day 50: Sticking rice in the ground, bears and a waterfall

It is far easier to rise early than sleep in in Luang Prabang and today is no different. I could though, have done with a few less lao–lao the previous day and evening, seeing off Heather and Poon. Ouch.

Day 51: Dreaming of the boat to Nong Kiaow
Day 51: Dreaming of the boat to Nong Kiaow

I’ll be upfront and say the trip mentioned in the title of this story, like a number of boat trips in Laos, is no longer possible. So why write about something that is no longer practical to do? I guess, in part as this is a fantasy itinerary, I write about it because I wish we could all still do it. Who doesn’t like a bit of couch-dreaming?

Day 52: Nong Kiaow
Day 52: Nong Kiaow

As with just about everywhere in Laos, in Nong Kiaow (map link) is pays to rise early—even if the water in my shower is like ice. Still shivering, I stroll through the maze of cheap guesthouses and settle in on the deck at Ban Lao Sunset.

Day 53: DIY on the Nam Ou
Day 53: DIY on the Nam Ou

Another day, another breakfast on the deck at Ban Lao Sunset in Nong Kiaow. I’ve decided to stay another day and am weighing up my options, when a Canadian couple ask to join me.

Day 54: Muang Ngoi & the people you meet
Day 54: Muang Ngoi & the people you meet

Another day another boat ride—or so it seems in northern Laos anyways. I grab the morning public boat from Nong Kiaow to Muang Ngoi and it is, for reasons unknown, jammed with locals. Jammed. A couple of hours later I uncurl my body and head to Nicksa’s.

Day 55: Travel day + your questions answered
Day 55: Travel day + your questions answered

Today and most of tomorrow are going to be travel days as I make my way to Phonsavan and the Plain of Jars. Laos: It may be small, but the going can be slow.

Day 56: On the road to Phonsavan
Day 56: On the road to Phonsavan

My bus to Phonsavan leaves (in theory) at 8am so I grab a quick khao ji pate and head to the bus station. The trip is around 270 kilometres in total, but will take at least eight hours. As I wrote yesterday, Laos may be small, but the going is slow.

Day 57: Plain of Jars Site 1
Day 57: Plain of Jars Site 1

From Muang Ngoi it has taken me the best part of two days to reach Phonsavan. Has it been worth the effort to reach a town best known for being obliterated by US bombing? Yes. Why? The Plain of Jars.

Day 58: UXO and a cave massacre
Day 58: UXO and a cave massacre

I’ll never forget the first time I visited Tuol Sleng in Phnom Penh. There is just something about its understated presentation that makes it so haunting. So it is with UXO in Laos. The visitor centres are unassuming yet somehow make the reality all the more compelling.

Day 59: Jars, spoons and a lunatic
Day 59: Jars, spoons and a lunatic

After all the riding yesterday I end up at Cranky T’s. The cafe/bar is Phonsavan’s best nightlife option—or the best karaoke–free one anyway. It attracts what few travellers are in town on any given evening, so is a good spot to meet others.

Day 60: Sam Neua
Day 60: Sam Neua

After our dirt–throwing efforts of the previous evening, the four of us arrange to meet early at the bus station. There’s a nine am departure, but the other’s guesthouse owner said there was an earlier bus, so we meet at 6 am. There isn’t an earlier bus.

Day 61: The Blair Witch never went to Hua Phan
Day 61: The Blair Witch never went to Hua Phan

After the bus ride yesterday, the four of us start late. The guesthouse we got dropped at from the bus station was not fantastic—running water daytime only is not a feature I often recommend. So walking around and finding somewhere different to stay at midnight in Sam Neua earned us all a sleep–in.

Day 62: Night Safari
Day 62: Night Safari

We’re in Ban Son Khoua to embark on an overnight trip into Laos’ largest protected area, the Nam Et–Phou Louey. Encompassing over 400,000 hectares, it straddles three provinces, along with the Nam Et river and Laos’ third tallest peak, Phou Louey.

Day 63: The caves of Vieng Xai
Day 63: The caves of Vieng Xai

After filling out our Night Safari wildlife checklist, the four of us jump back onto the bikes and ride off. We need to make fast time as we want to get to Sam Neua, dump our bags and continue on to Vieng Xai.

Day 64: The worst day of travel. Ever.
Day 64: The worst day of travel. Ever.

After the Vieng Xai caves the four of us ride back to Sam Neua to arrange transport to Hanoi. The Namsoi Nameo crossing is notorious for scams and rip offs so we ask around. A bus guy we meet in a restaurant—always a bad sign—is insistent he can do us a through bus.

Day 65: Hello Vietnam
Day 65: Hello Vietnam

After the previous two days (or was it two years?) the four of us roll into Hanoi’s central train station in the early hours. People say travelling together can be a test of a relationship and it is clear none of us are marriage material.

Day 66: A market and a bridge in Hanoi
Day 66: A market and a bridge in Hanoi

Staying in Hanoi’s Old Quarter has always struck me as a bit of a double–edged sword. The area can be great for a wander, and there is plenty of beautiful architecture. It is also though, more often than not, jammed with tourists. This latter aspect reflects onto the food, and I tend to stray further to eat.

Day 67: A museum, a wander and a flaming cocktail
Day 67: A museum, a wander and a flaming cocktail

Hanoi is no slouch when it comes to museums. I could spend a week in the city, see a different one every day, and still have another week’s worth up my sleeve.

Day 68: Checking in on Uncle Ho
Day 68: Checking in on Uncle Ho

Dotted across the country are totems to Vietnam’s revered leader Ho Chi Minh. Museums deifying the man sit in provincial capitals. Statues of him are in almost every Vietnamese city. Framed pictures of him, everywhere.

Day 69: Hanoi to Mai Chau
Day 69: Hanoi to Mai Chau

I wake to bright blue skies in Hanoi and decide to change my plans. Instead of spending the day eating, I’m going to get out of town and ride the Dien Bien Phu Loop.

Day 70: Exploring Mai Chau
Day 70: Exploring Mai Chau

After yesterday’s ride the last thing I want to do is get back on the motorbike, so I grab one of the free bicycles at my homestay.

Day 71: Pu Luong
Day 71: Pu Luong

I’d never heard of Pu Luong until I got to Mai Chau. I’d added a rice field pic to my Instagram feed and a reader messaged me asking if I was in Pu Luong.

Day 72: A day in the life
Day 72: A day in the life

After breakfast I go for a walk in the valley—I head in a different direction and it is as pretty as yesterday. I could spend hours doing this but I’m procrastinating—I have work to do.

Day 73: Son La “Hey old man, I’ll buy you a coffee”
Day 73: Son La “Hey old man, I’ll buy you a coffee”

Did I mention there has been a bit of rain over the last few days? Today is to be no exception.

Day 74: Dien Bien Phu
Day 74: Dien Bien Phu

I linger in Son La—it is a straightforward ride from here to Dien Bien Phu and I’ve been told the road is in good condition. Plus, I’m hoping for the weather to clear. Yes, it is raining. Again.

Day 75: Muong Phang
Day 75: Muong Phang

While A1 Hill and the museum are the epicentre of Dien Bien Phu’s war sight–seeing options, today I’m off elsewhere. To Muong Phang. Where?

Day 76: To Muong Lay ... the long way
Day 76: To Muong Lay ... the long way

It is a straight run north to Muong Lay on Route QL 12 from Dien Bien Phu, but I’ve decided on taking a more roundabout way. At least the weather looks better.

Day 77: Landslides, Sin Ho and onwards
Day 77: Landslides, Sin Ho and onwards

The weather is moody and cold as I ride out of Muong Lay headed for Sin Ho. The bright blue skies replaced by thick rain clouds and plenty of mist. It is cold and the wind cuts through my many layers effortlessly. At least it isn’t snowing.

Day 78: Over the hill to Sapa
Day 78: Over the hill to Sapa

I’ve a long day of riding planned for today, so I’m down to the foyer early. The manager who showed me around the previous evening is there and again, he’s on about trying dog. I’ve eaten it before, don’t plan to again, and certainly not for breakfast, yet he continues to suggest it.

Day 79: Hello Hellhole
Day 79: Hello Hellhole

Sapa. Sitting on a ridge in the shadow of Fansipan, Vietnam’s tallest peak. I’m sure you’ve seen the photos of the valley and the mountains beyond. Terraced fields, harvest underway, and, decorative lattes with them in the background.

Day 80: On Sapa
Day 80: On Sapa

It is fair to say my initial impressions of Sapa are not great. As I mentioned yesterday, the outlook is terrific, but the town is a dump. Yet people I know wax lyrical about it—what am I doing wrong?

Day 81: Hello Fansipan
Day 81: Hello Fansipan

After my failed foray into the valley yesterday, today’s plan is to work, then try the valley in the afternoon. I wake to torrential rain—best laid plans and all that.

Day 82: Misadventures on the road to Bắc Hà
Day 82: Misadventures on the road to Bắc Hà

Around 100km to the east of Sapa lies Bắc Hà. It is mountain village that over the last few decades has been popularised as a “Sapa–alternative”. Today it has a morning market, so I brave the cold and am on the bike at 5:30 am. At least it isn’t raining.

Day 83: Misadventures on the road back from Bắc Hà
Day 83: Misadventures on the road back from Bắc Hà

Arriving so late due to my flat tire, the market at Bắc Hà is a blow out. Riding into town there are minivans everywhere and throngs of people. I know I’m here too late even before I park the bike.

Day 84: Back over the hill to Mù Cang Chải
Day 84: Back over the hill to Mù Cang Chải

I’m leaving Sapa this morning and it could be hailing stones the size of watermelons, and it wouldn’t stop me bailing. As luck would have it, it is only pouring as I jump on the bike for the ride back over Fansipan’s northern shoulder to Mù Cang Chải.

Day 85: Halfway back to Hanoi
Day 85: Halfway back to Hanoi

With more time I could idle in and around Mù Cang Chải—it is that beautiful. The owner at Do Gu Homestay took some of the group on a guided walk yesterday and they rave about it. He offers the same to me. I’m tempted, but I need to get back to Hanoi so settle for a morning wander by myself.

Day 86: Hello Hanoi
Day 86: Hello Hanoi

Even if my hotel in Tân Sơn wasn’t a dump, I’d be bailing early. Hanoi is on the horizon and I’m keen to be off the bike. Food, a real shower and a comfortable bed are all that are on my mind as I start the bike up for the final time.

Day 87: A wrap on the Dien Bien Phu loop
Day 87: A wrap on the Dien Bien Phu loop

Over the last eighteen days Couchfish has been all about the Dien Bien Phu Loop in northwest Vietnam. This loop was one of the most popular bike trips to do in the country through the 1990’s and 2000’s. More recently it has been eclipsed by the Ha Giang Loop in the country’s far north. It is still well worth doing and I hope you’ve found the last 18 days of travel interesting.

Day 88: The sweetest smell
Day 88: The sweetest smell

My plans change and I decide to linger in Hanoi for another couple of days. It is an easy decision to make as Hanoi is perfect for lingering, though for my first day of it I’m heading out of town. Where to? To a highlight for many domestic visitors to Hanoi: The Perfume Pagoda.

Day 89: Fire!
Day 89: Fire!

This is an old story, more suited to my Friday afternoon entries on mishaps and mayhem, but I figured as I’m in Hanoi, why not?

Day 90: Oops Visa! + Welcome Cindy
Day 90: Oops Visa! + Welcome Cindy

I woke up at 2am this morning (in real life, not in Couchfish), freaking out. I’d forgotten about my Visa! You’d think after the experience of the worst day of travel ever, I’d have had visa rules front and foremost in my mind. I didn’t.

Day 91: The fiery furnace
Day 91: The fiery furnace

No, this isn’t the tale of yet another guesthouse fire. Rather, a visit to Hỏa Lò—better known to visitors as the Hanoi Hilton.

Day 92: The reunification express
Day 92: The reunification express

It feels like a lifetime ago that I arrived at Ga Hanoi after the epically bad overland trip from Laos. In fact it has been less than four weeks—time flies when you’re having fun.

Day 93: Gearing up
Day 93: Gearing up

A persistent stereotype about Vietnam is that itA persistent stereotype about Vietnam is that it’s hot year round. The quip, “There’s two seasons in Vietnam: hot and hotter” applies only to the south. I’m delighted when beachwear-clad tourists arrive into Hà Nội airport in January. No doubt they spend their first day panic shopping for knock-off North Face gear that is too small and reeks of plastic.

Day 94: Footloose
Day 94: Footloose

Yesterday I made fun of unprepared travellers who arrive into Vietnam and panic shop for clothes. Now here I am in Phong Nha… panic shopping for clothes.

Day 95: Down to earth
Day 95: Down to earth

Caves top my list of least favourite sights. Sorry, but climbing into dark, damp, claustrophobic subterranean holes full of creepy things isn’t my idea of fun.

Day 96: The 17th Parallel
Day 96: The 17th Parallel

After an incredible trek into Hang Én, the rest of my week in Phong Nha is a whirlwind of cave after cave after cave. Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park joins my list of favourite places in Vietnam, but I’m ready for a change in scenery.

Day 97: Dead ends and frontiers
Day 97: Dead ends and frontiers

I’m fascinated by remote frontiers and borders. The stranger, the dodgier, the better. This makes me an ideal writer for Travelfish, who love sending me on missions into the hinterland. I’m excited because borderlands are on today’s horizon. First though, battlegrounds.

Day 98: Savannakhet
Day 98: Savannakhet

I was planning on heading south to Huế today, but a last minute change in plans has me retracing Cindy’s steps west. From Đông Hà, I’m going to head back to the border at Lao Bảo, then continue west to Savannakhet on the Mekong River.

Day 99: “Build it and they will come”
Day 99: “Build it and they will come”

Savannakhet has long been one of my favourite towns in Laos. Over the years a number of Travelfish writers have written about there, and felt the same way. Yes it has a charming old town and the riverside is lovely, but there isn’t otherwise all that much to “do”. Perhaps that is why we all love it.

Day 100: One hundred days in review
Day 100: One hundred days in review

To be honest, it feels like one hundred years since I started the daily entries for Couchfish. This being the one hundredth I thought I’d look back to highlight some of the entries I’m happy with.

Day 101: South to Pakse
Day 101: South to Pakse

I grab a bus first thing south to Pakse, getting into town just in time for lunch. Pakse is the hub of far southern Laos and most travellers find themselves here at one time or another. Luckily it is a pleasant enough spot for a night or two.

Day 102: The benefits of slowing down
Day 102: The benefits of slowing down

After the past few days of few to no travellers, meeting up with the Europeans by the river at Pakse last night is welcome. We linger by the river well past sunset. The beers flow and the food keeps coming as we swap tales—they’re good people and we hit if off. Around 11 pm the ever–patient vendors tell us to go home in the nicest possible way. We straggle off to our different digs across town and arrange to meet the next day at nine.

Day 103: Tad Lo
Day 103: Tad Lo

Mr Vieng kicks us out of bed earlier than any of us expect for a visit to his coffee plantation. He tells us the light is softer in the morning, so our photos will be better, and it won’t be too hot. None of us convinced, his scalding hot coffee helps a little.

Day 104: The Broken Bridge, Salavan
Day 104: The Broken Bridge, Salavan

We make a lazy start as our destination, Salavan, the provincial capital, is just 30 km up the road. Tad Lo is ideal for lazing and we lounge around the guesthouse foyer and garden as the sun slowly rises.

Day 105: The haunted Sekong Hotel
Day 105: The haunted Sekong Hotel

I wrote yesterday that points of interest in Salavan town are few and far between, though that isn’t true. It does have an excellent morning market and it is there we start the day.

Day 106: How long is a long time?
Day 106: How long is a long time?

We finish the previous evening at Phanthip Restaurant in Sekong. The food is typical, but they have a load of tourist information on site, including a booklet and a map on the wall. Think “The Beach” style map.

Day 107: You won the battle, but the war is not over
Day 107: You won the battle, but the war is not over

After yesterday’s blow out trying to get a boat upriver to Kalum, we write off the day and just laze around Sekong. Laundry day! There are a couple of falls a little of the south of town but we decide to leave them till, well, today.

Day 108: The missile
Day 108: The missile

After the toin coss, we ride in silence, reaching the edge of Attapeu around dusk. The German guys pull over and, ignoring the French, tell me they’ll find their own hotel. They suggest meeting at the market the next morning. We part ways.

Day 109: From good to bad to what?
Day 109: From good to bad to what?

Somewhat bleary–eyed, the French and I gather at a nearby noodle shop for a bowl and coffee. We’ve seen no sign of the Germans, and so while last evening we laughed about just riding off, now reality is sinking in.

Day 110: Parting ways and south again
Day 110: Parting ways and south again

The conversation with the bike hire guy is stilted. The French had a story ready but they hadn’t anticipated a situation where the Germans had not returned at all. The bike hire guy isn’t fussed, he still has one of the German’s passports after all, and bids us farewell. We agree to debrief in the morning.

Day 111: The worldview of a mighty empire
Day 111: The worldview of a mighty empire

Wat Phu lies ten kilometres southwest of Champasak—a pleasant early morning bicycle ride away. I leave the town behind and ride through the fields, pulling up about thirty minutes later.

Day 112: Don Daeng and Um Tomo
Day 112: Don Daeng and Um Tomo

For a land–locked nation, Laos is none too shabby when it comes to islands. The best known are Si Phan Don, the so–called 4,000 islands, but there are others. One, Don Daeng, sits straight across the river from Champasak.

Day 113: To Don Dhet
Day 113: To Don Dhet

After a day cycling around Don Daeng, I decide to blow off Don Khong, the next island down, and head straight to Don Dhet.

Day 114: Stung Treng
Day 114: Stung Treng

When the Lao Cambodia border first opened to foreign tourists, it was done by speedboat. A beautiful trip, it also rivalled the Koh Kong crossing to Thailand for its scams and rip

Day 115: Of ogres and a volcanic lake
Day 115: Of ogres and a volcanic lake

Leaving my new Polish friends behind, I grab a morning minibus east to Banlung. The capital of Ratanakiri province, this is an area once referred to as “Cambodia’s Wild East.” Logging, much of it illegal, has devastated what was once one of the most forested regions of Cambodia.

Day 116: A forest graveyard
Day 116: A forest graveyard

After a lazy afternoon at the crater lake, I decide to get a bit more active. Through my guesthouse, I arrange for a moto to take me to Voen Sai, a village on the San River 30 kilometres to the north. The town itself is a good riverside spot, though the main attraction is elsewhere. Before we get going, the staffer at Tree Top Eco-lodge warns that the road is not very good.

Day 117: The Death Highway
Day 117: The Death Highway

Matt Jacobson’s Adventure Cambodia calls it the “Death Highway”. Back before the new road went in, the trail from Sen Monorom to Banlung was legendary among dirt bikers.

Day 118: Sen Monorom
Day 118: Sen Monorom

After spending eleven hours on goat tracks by motorbike, today I resist the temptation to lay in bed and cry. I am though going to take things easy. A late start then a waterfall.

Day 119: A day with the dolphins
Day 119: A day with the dolphins

I grab an early morning van from Sen Monorom, taking me west, back to the Mekong and then north to Kratie. A somewhat charming town, it has long been on the traveller circuit thanks to its dolphins.

Day 120: Dramas on Koh Trong
Day 120: Dramas on Koh Trong

As with Don Khong and Don Daeng in Laos, Kratie’s Koh Trong offers the chance for a bit of a rural escape. Some visit on a half–day trip, while others overnight—some staying far longer than planned.

Day 121: Parroting nonsense in Kompong Cham
Day 121: Parroting nonsense in Kompong Cham

Thanks to the rice wine of the previous evening, today starts slow and sluggish. I limp back across the river to Kratie, grab a seat in a van from the market, and sleep it off on the way to Kompong Cham.

Day 122: Wat Maha Leap
Day 122: Wat Maha Leap

I hope the merit earned throwing temple soil into the Mekong yesterday will play out well today, as I’m out on the water. A river trip south to Cambodia’s largest wooden temple, Wat Maha Leap.

Day 123: What is it with Oedipus and Kompong Cham?
Day 123: What is it with Oedipus and Kompong Cham?

Oedipus is a common theme in Kompong Cham. The other day I had my fortune told by a parakeet at a site involving a tale of son marrying mum, and here again it is the case at Wat Nokor Bachay. I guess they needed Facebook back then.

Day 124: A love letter to Phnom Penh
Day 124: A love letter to Phnom Penh

There’s no Southeast Asian city that has a larger place in my heart than Phnom Penh. Over time it has played home to my highest highs and lowest lows—etched into who I have become. The city punches well above its weight for a place I only lived in for two years, and have visited a dozen or so times beside. But that’s Phnom Penh for you.

Day 125: Lets eat!
Day 125: Lets eat!

When you’re wedged between Thailand and Vietnam, home to two of Southeast Asia’s finest cuisines, the challenge is real. There are no shortage of stories on street food walks focussed on Thai and Vietnamese fare, Khmer? Not so much. Why not?

Day 126: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder
Day 126: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder

Phnom Penh, like Hanoi, Yangon and Bangkok has its fair share of dilapidated quarters. Walk a bit and you may find a weary pagoda, a colonial vestige, or a tumbledown merchants’ warehouse. Peeling plaster, tree roots on the downpipes, window frames swollen from the seasons.

Day 127: Tuol Sleng
Day 127: Tuol Sleng

When we were living in Phnom Penh, Sam was the bureau chief at an international wire agency. One day she sent a twenty–something university–educated colleague to Tuol Sleng for a story.

Day 128: Some great places to stay in Phnom Penh
Day 128: Some great places to stay in Phnom Penh

Here we are, 128 days into Couchfish and I thought today is as good a day as any to write about some great places to stay in a city I love.

Day 129: A museum, some food and a roof top bar
Day 129: A museum, some food and a roof top bar

I’m a big fan of trying to doing a single activity a day—at a stretch two—one in the morning and one in the afternoon. This is partly because it gives me more time to linger, but also because helps me deal with the heat.

Day 130: Silk and sun
Day 130: Silk and sun

A while back I wrote about Kien Svay, a diversion just out of Phnom Penh. Another spot, in the opposite direction, is Koh Dach. Today I plan to lose most of the day up that way.

Day 131: Phnom Penh, my perfect day
Day 131: Phnom Penh, my perfect day

Over the years I’ve had a few perfect days in Phnom Penh and today I’m pulling these into a single semi–cohesive piece. I wouldn’t recommend attempting to do all this in a day, but, well, Couchfish is a fantasy itinerary!

Day 132: To the riviera
Day 132: To the riviera

I wrote yesterday how Phnom Penh’s Olympic Stadium is a reminder of the heady days before the fall. After a run to the coast in a share–taxi, in seaside Kep—most famous for its fresh crab—the reminders are everywhere.

Day 133: Travel, interrupted
Day 133: Travel, interrupted

The first time I headed overseas, all the talk at the travel doctor was about malaria. There were daily, weekly and monthly pills to consider, and of course a chunk of dosh. In all my travels I could count on one hand the number of travellers I

Day 134: Crabs, an elephant, and bauk
Day 134: Crabs, an elephant, and bauk

Readers may recall a piece I wrote in July about when we offered our daughter as a bribe to an immigration officer. No? You can read it here. At the time we were on our way to Kep for a wedding, and while the wedding was the main reason, close behind was the fresh crab.

Day 135: Crab is not a first date meal
Day 135: Crab is not a first date meal

As I wrote the other day, Kep, a pimple on Cambodia’s coastline is famous for its crab. The Kep Crab Market is the epicentre of the scene, but good crab is to be had right along the coast.

Day 136: Bokor Palace over the years
Day 136: Bokor Palace over the years

When the colonialists had their eye on Kep, Bokor, seen with ease from Kep’s coastline likewise had their attention. Modelled on a similar hill station in Da Lat, Vietnam, plans for construction began in 1916.

Day 137: Kampot’s west bank
Day 137: Kampot’s west bank

I’ve always thought of Kampot as a bit of a “Battambang by the sea” kind of a place. It has a similar feel—quiet streets, small town, and plenty of beautiful period buildings. Between Kampot and Battambang I’d struggle to pick a town in Cambodia I like more.

Day 138: Salt and pepper
Day 138: Salt and pepper

Back in the 1600s the ten Banda Islands were the only place in the world where nutmeg grew. On the island of Run, it grew like wildfire, delivering three crops a year.

Day 139: To reach heaven one must pass through hell
Day 139: To reach heaven one must pass through hell

Oh Sihanoukville. To be upfront I’ve never been a fan of Cambodia’s most popular coastal strip—even before it took on its latest robes.

Day 140: Koh Rong. What could go wrong?
Day 140: Koh Rong. What could go wrong?

The best thing about Sihanoukville is leaving it and so on the morning boat to Koh Rong I am on. The largest of the cluster of islands out from the grimy port town, Koh Rong boasts the best beaches and a wild unspoilt interior. Or so the prevailing writing suggests.

Day 141: A roll around Koh Rong’s beaches—part 1
Day 141: A roll around Koh Rong’s beaches—part 1

As I mentioned the other day, Koh Rong is no slouch when it comes to beaches. A couple, notably Police Beach and Long Set are easily reached on foot from Koh Toch, but for the rest, a scooter helps.

Day 142: A roll around Koh Rong’s beaches—part 2
Day 142: A roll around Koh Rong’s beaches—part 2

In yesterday’s post I wrote about some of Koh Rong’s east coast beaches that are within walking distance of Koh Toch. Today, with the help of a scooter, I explore further afield.

Day 143: Are we there yet?
Day 143: Are we there yet?

The midday boat from Koh Rong to Koh Rong Samloem is eventful. I’m always one to ride on the highest deck possible in case the boat sinks and I clamour onto the upper deck as we pull out. I’m shortly joined by a half dozen pasted guys.

Day 144: Are you a travel writer?
Day 144: Are you a travel writer?

After my eventful ferry trip from Koh Rong, I walk the entire length of Saracen Bay to get to my hotel. The primary piers on Saracen are at the far ends of the bay, and of course my hotel is at the other end of the beach. On the upside I get a look at the entire beach on my way there.

Day 145: To the lighthouse
Day 145: To the lighthouse

After the boat trip and then a lunatic hotelier, it feels like Koh Rong Samloem is doing me no favours, so today I walk. My goal? A remote beach and a lighthouse.

Day 146: A Koh Rong Samloem sunset
Day 146: A Koh Rong Samloem sunset

As I wrote the other day when I visited Military Beach, I prefer quieter, more isolated beaches. Two other such stretches are the aptly named Lazy and Sunset beaches on the Koh Rong Samloem’s west coast.

Day 147: Boat, buses, vans, scooters, hủ tiếu
Day 147: Boat, buses, vans, scooters, hủ tiếu

Leaving an island has me wearing my sad–face. Moreso as my first mainland destination is Sihanoukville. At least I’ll only be there for a few hours.

Day 148: A slow day around Hà Tiên
Day 148: A slow day around Hà Tiên

After yesterday’s day of boats, vans and bikes, today is to be a sloth day. Not all border towns are worth a day (Poipet springs to mind), but Hà Tiên works well.

Day 149: Pirates for a day
Day 149: Pirates for a day

As I suggested yesterday, in my experience dealing with immigration can have moments.

Day 150: Time goes fast, Southeast Asia is big
Day 150: Time goes fast, Southeast Asia is big

As readers who’ve been onboard Couchfish since the beginning will know, Southeast Asia is big. In 150 days I’ve covered a bit of Thailand, a significant chunk of Laos, a third of Vietnam and the east bank of Cambodia. There is still plenty of ground to cover.

Day 151: A tattoo in Rạch Giá
Day 151: A tattoo in Rạch Giá

A morning bus takes me from Hà Tiên to Rạch Giá, both the provincial capital and the most popular spot for boats to the islands. The town itself isn’t rich in sights of interest, but sometimes it is the people you meet that make a place memorable.

Day 152: Dropped from the sky and never seen again
Day 152: Dropped from the sky and never seen again

Dave, Lauren and I bid Rạch Giá farewell and start riding southeast on Route QL61. The town drops away, and when we turn south onto QL63, we’re back into classic Delta territory.

Day 153: A bridge to nowhere
Day 153: A bridge to nowhere

I’m not one for geographical oddities. I’ve never stood on the equator nor travelled to the N/S/E/W extremity of a country—at least not intentionally. There’s always a first time for everything I guess.

Day 154: The Bạc Liêu bird park of death
Day 154: The Bạc Liêu bird park of death

After yesterday’s trip to Vietnam’s southernmost point, we get started late. There is no shortage of riverfront in Cà Mau so I start with a walk along there to stretch my legs, but then we get moving.

Day 155: Horny spears in Sóc Trăng
Day 155: Horny spears in Sóc Trăng

It is a straight run northeast to Sóc Trăng, and at only about 50 km away we could linger in Bạc Liêu, but, there is little to linger for. Sóc Trăng on the other hand, has a few linger–worthy spots.

Day 156: Trà Vinh
Day 156: Trà Vinh

There is a direct route from Sóc Trăng to Trà Vinh involving two large ferries to cross the Hau River. There is also an indirect route. For no good reason, we go with the latter.

Day 157: Ba Động—a long ride to a whole load of nothing
Day 157: Ba Động—a long ride to a whole load of nothing

Trà Vinh has a tourist office of sorts. Well it is a travel agent with a few brochures. I wander in to see if I can find some unsung secrets of the province.

Day 158: A homestay in Bến Tre
Day 158: A homestay in Bến Tre

When travellers to Vietnam decide to swing by the Mekong Delta, many hit Mỹ Tho, Can Tho or, at a stretch, Châu Đốc. There are a few reasons for this—but two of the big ones are lack of time and super–cheap tours ex–Ho Chi Minh City.

Day 159: Snakes alive in An Bình
Day 159: Snakes alive in An Bình

Like Bến Tre, Vĩnh Long town is much ado about not very much, but again, like Bến Tre, just across the river, matters improve.

Day 160: To market to market
Day 160: To market to market

Vietnam’s Mekong Delta is awash in floating markets. Some, like those around Can Tho are well established on the tourist radar, others less so. In the past, tourism was a sideline to the main deal—local traders. With growing urbanisation, proliferation of supermarkets and, better roads, this is changing.

Day 161: Eating Vĩnh Long
Day 161: Eating Vĩnh Long

I was planning on heading to Can Tho today, but I forgot how much good eating Vĩnh Long itself has. Best laid plans and all that. I check out of my homestay on An Binh and head back to the mainland for a day of eating and minor sightseeing.

Day 162: On the Mekong Delta’s floating markets
Day 162: On the Mekong Delta’s floating markets

As I wrote the other day, the Mekong Delta’s floating markets are at risk of fading, or should I say floating, away. Tourism could provide a lifeline, or should I say lifering, but how to do it right?

Day 163: Cai Rang part 1
Day 163: Cai Rang part 1

Every man and his dog in Can Tho will sell you a boat tour to Cai Rang floating market. In my experience though, the best way is to do it yourself. The only challenge is getting up early enough.

Day 164: Cai Rang part 2
Day 164: Cai Rang part 2

So where was I? That’s right, finishing up a float through Cai Rang market. This is though, only the first half of a most of the day float—by the end of the day I’ll be sun–kissed and stuffed. Here’s how.

Day 165: The road is long and hard
Day 165: The road is long and hard

It is about 200 km from Can Tho to Ho Chi Minh City, and Lauren, Dave and I decide to blow off M? Tho and hit the big smoke. We ask the hotel manager in Can Tho how long to ride to Saigon.

Day 166: First time to Saigon
Day 166: First time to Saigon

I first arrived in Ho Chi Minh City by train from the north in 1994. By then, I’d been in Vietnam two months and was well acquainted with large Vietnamese cities. Ho Chi Minh City however, took it to a whole new level.

Day 167: HCMC is not a city
Day 167: HCMC is not a city

A few weeks ago, I wrote about “Single Serving Friends,” about people you meet who you hit it off with, but never see again. When you travel for a living, you may encounter this more often than others. The night in Ho Chi Minh City mentioned in that post, fits in well today.

Day 168: Tourist for a day
Day 168: Tourist for a day

Ho Chi Minh City is a great walking city—even if the pavements are often scooter parking lots. There is more than enough shade, plenty of places to slow down and graze at, and no shortage of alleys to explore. Many of the sights are within walking distance of one another, which adds to the appeal.

Day 169: How to start Chợ Lớn
Day 169: How to start Chợ Lớn

I’m seated on a red plastic chair, on the pavement, at 6 am. My small aluminium table has a condiments holder, a strainer and a roll of toilet paper in a pale blue dispenser. Sweat is already beading up on the back of my neck, my forehead, and my arms. I haven’t even started eating yet.

Day 170: How to finish Chợ Lớn
Day 170: How to finish Chợ Lớn

So I went to write this post yesterday, but got stuck on breakfast, so today’s takes off from after I’ve finished stuffing face.

Day 171: The $3 tour
Day 171: The $3 tour

I’m sitting on a red plastic chair in a shopfront travel agent on De Tham in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City’s backpacker district. Out front is a signboard listing all the tours they offer. The prices listed are low. Way low.

Day 172: Little Russia
Day 172: Little Russia

There is a weird thing with travel. Some destinations are super popular with a single nationality. Indonesia’s Labuan Bajo with Italians, or Thailand’s Khao Lak with Scandinavians for example. Why is it so? I don’t know.

Day 173: A day trip to Mui Ne
Day 173: A day trip to Mui Ne

While Mui Ne gets most of the foreign bums of seats, I’m sticking to Phan Thiet. Instead, I’ll visit on a scooter for the day—after all, it is just up the beach.

Day 174: Meeting a returnee in Phan Rang–Tháp Chàm
Day 174: Meeting a returnee in Phan Rang–Tháp Chàm

Phan Rang–Tháp Chàm is two towns in one. Tháp Chàm to the west and Phan Rang to the east—they’re separated by the Phan Rang River. Around seven kilometres further to the east, on the beach front, lies Ninh Chữ. After jumping off the train on the Tháp Chàm side of things, it is to Ninh Chữ I direct my xe–om.

Day 175: Down the coast to Cà Ná
Day 175: Down the coast to Cà Ná

With a coastline so long and rich in coves and beaches, it is understandable that travellers don’t go everywhere. Yet for many, Vietnam’s South Central coast is nothing more than Mũi Né and Nha Trang. There is though, far more.

Day 176: Rinse and repeat
Day 176: Rinse and repeat

If it ain’t broke don’t fix it I say. Yesterday I rode a roughly 70 km loop to the south of Phan Rang–Tháp Chàm. Today, I’m going to do the same, but to the north instead.

Day 177: Slow day
Day 177: Slow day

Some days I need a holiday from a holiday. A day spent loitering around, doing not much. Dropping my fetid clothes off at a laundry, aimless eating, wandering the streets. Perhaps a minor museum or just, staying in bed. You know the drill. Today is such a day.

Day 178: Ong Nam. Does Yersin need a closer look?
Day 178: Ong Nam. Does Yersin need a closer look?

Alexandre Yersin is one of Vietnam’s favourite foreign sons. There are streets, schools and universities named after him. Who was he?

Day 179: A quick look around Nha Trang
Day 179: A quick look around Nha Trang

Large beachside cities like Nha Trang and Da Nang do not have a much real estate in my heart. I’m much more a fan of quieter smaller towns and villages by the sea.

Day 180: Into the jungle. Sort of. Not really.
Day 180: Into the jungle. Sort of. Not really.

I’m prefacing the following by stating that while everything you’re about to read is true, it happened years ago. I think we were camping somewhere near where Jungle Beach eventually appeared, but I’m not sure.

Day 181: The City of Eternal Spring
Day 181: The City of Eternal Spring

You’ve no doubt heard Bangkok called the “Venice of the east”, Phnom Penh the “Paris of the east” or Saigon “the pearl of the east”. What about the “City of the Eternal Spring”? It sounds like somewhere where Willy Wonka or Dorothy would live right?

Day 182: All the love Đà Lạt has to offer
Day 182: All the love Đà Lạt has to offer

As I mentioned the other day, Đà Lạt is a favourite among honeymooners. The climate is perfect for lovers snuggling in close in the evening—by the fireplace if you have the budget. Come morning, hang that “do not disturb” sign on the door and enjoy a late sleep–in. Perfect.

Day 183: Waterfalls or not
Day 183: Waterfalls or not

Every man and his dog in Đà Lạt runs, or can put you in touch with an “Easy Rider” tour. While they’re even more popular in the north of the country, Đà Lạt isn’t far behind.

Day 185: Pleiku
Day 185: Pleiku

Of Vietnam’s main Central Highland towns, Pleiku sees the fewest tourists. That’s not to say there are not points of interest, but matters can be a little complicated.

Day 186: Kon Tum
Day 186: Kon Tum

The northernmost of Vietnam’s Central Highland provinces, many find themselves in Kon Tum on the way elsewhere. Most often, this is on an Easy Rider style trip from Hoi An to Da Lat or something like that. There are however, plenty of reasons to slow down for a day or so.

Day 187: Back to the coast
Day 187: Back to the coast

From Kon Tum, Easy Riders offer two primary routes to the coast—north or east. The northern route is longer and generally finishes in Da Nang or Hội An. The eastern route is shorter and winds up in Quảng Ngãi.

Day 188: Madness in Mỹ Sơn
Day 188: Madness in Mỹ Sơn

The year is 1994. My long–suffering Canadian travel companion and myself catch a minibus from Da Nang. Our destination? Hội An.

Day 189: The Hội An Hoard
Day 189: The Hội An Hoard

Any guidebook worth its mettle at some stage or another describes Hội An as a “once thriving trade centre”. This is true—Hội An (known as Faifo to foreign traders of the time), was the commercial capital of the Kingdom of Champa. At the time, the Cham people controlled the lucrative spice trade, with routes stretching as far afield as Egypt.

Day 190: Two swims, two saves and a lot of squid
Day 190: Two swims, two saves and a lot of squid

My long suffering Canadian companion and I first met in Portugal. We were both hanging out on the beaches around Lagos, doing nothing productive. He was travelling with another Canadian, me with two Australian women. We all hit it off and travelled to Morocco together.

Day 191: A tale of two bowls
Day 191: A tale of two bowls

Everywhere has their dish. Hanoi has chả cá lã vọng, Hue has bún bò, the Delta has bún cá, and the entire country has phở. Hội An on the other hand, clinging to the coast of Quảng Nam province, has two—cao lầu and mì quảng.

Day 192: Border towns
Day 192: Border towns

Some days are travel days, and today is such a day. I’m heading to Thailand by way of Laos, breaking the journey at the Lao riverside town of Tha Khaek.

Day 193: The lesser Tha Khaek Loop
Day 193: The lesser Tha Khaek Loop

Ahh it is great to be back in Laos, if even for a brief time—and even if in Tha Khaek. Of the southern Lao capitals, it it wasn’t for the The Khaek Loop, nobody, well, almost nobody, would get off the bus.

Day 194: 20 km from where?
Day 194: 20 km from where?

The first day of the Tha Khaek loop typically covers what I covered the other day—the caves and Tha Falang. Once caved out, most continue on to Mahaxai or Nakai. To avoid retreading the same ground, today a tale of a trip to somewhere nearby which wasn’t where we thought it would be.

Day 195: Into the bowels of the earth
Day 195: Into the bowels of the earth

As I mentioned the other day, the Tha Khaek Loop can be as little as a long day trip by car, but most spend a few days. We go into the details of the stops on Travelfish here, but today I’m all about the main attraction—the cave itself.

Day 196: Father Chin was here
Day 196: Father Chin was here

The first time I visited Nakhon Phanom, I stopped by the tourist office to see what was what. They seemed surprised to see a foreign tourist—most only visit That Phanom, they told me. I asked after what there was to see and do in Nakhon Phanom. “Nothing,” came the reply.

Day 197: The ghosts of guesthouses past
Day 197: The ghosts of guesthouses past

Around 50 km to the south of Nakhon Phanom lies That Phanom. In many ways it is just another small Thai town on the west bank of the Mekong, but this isn’t just any small town.

Day 198: Give me the casually stabbed fish
Day 198: Give me the casually stabbed fish

Next stop south from That Phanom for most travellers on a Northeast tour is Mukdahan—don’t be shy about shortening it to “Muk”. A provincial capital by the Mekong, Muk punches above its weight on food and below on rooms. Don’t let the digs put you off though—come for the food, and the surrounds.

Day 199: Love and rockets
Day 199: Love and rockets

Yasothon (better known as Yaso) is one of those towns that are never on a traveller’s itinerary, well, except once a year. In Yaso’s case that one time is Bung Fai—the Rocket Festival.

Day 200: Push your fingers into the soil
Day 200: Push your fingers into the soil

If you’re anything like me, you may have kicked off your overseas travels with a bit of a jaunt through Europe. At every new village, town or city my guidebook (Lets Go, sorry), would stagger towards churches (if anything). Stagger seems the right word going off the ex–Lets Go authors I know. I’m not religious, and there are only so many churches I can take, before I think “God, anything but another church”. Thailand is much the same. Meet “wat fatigue”.

Day 201: Two bowls and some sausage
Day 201: Two bowls and some sausage

Northeastern Thailand is famous for its food. As heavy on meat as it is often in spice, it is a handy antidote for those looking to break out of the tourist standards. Depending on where you are in the region, influences from the neighbours can also come into play.

Day 202: Moon River
Day 202: Moon River

A hop skip and a jump to the east of Ubon Ratchathani lies Khong Chiam. The small town lies on the north bank of the Moon River, at its confluence with the Mekong. Across the Mekong, lies Laos and, visibility allowing, the Bolaven Plateau.

Day 203: So long and thanks for all the fish
Day 203: So long and thanks for all the fish

Attracted by galaxy–wide rumours of giant river fish named after cats, some 3,000 years ago, aliens landed north of Khong Chiam. While no physical evidence of their spacecraft remain, their visit was recorded on the cliffs of Pha Taem.

Day 204: Borders and bottles
Day 204: Borders and bottles

I’ve written before about arbitrary lines on maps, and there are few better examples than the watershed of the Dangrek Mountains.

Couchfish Day 205: On elephants
Couchfish Day 205: On elephants

If you look at Thai tourism promotions through the 1980s and 1990s, one of the classic images is tourists on an elephant.

Day 206: The long road to a monster
Day 206: The long road to a monster

It is early morning and I’m sitting by the garden at Pirom’s House chatting to the owner. I need to pop over to Cambodia to get another thirty days for Thailand and we’re chatting about which border to use.

Day 207: Local travel
Day 207: Local travel

Leaving behind the stark reminders of a gruesome chapter of Cambodian history, I strike west. My target is Banteay Chhmar—another of Jayavarman VII’s creations and also the site of a long running Community Based Tourism Scheme. First though, I need to get there.

Day 208: The Small Citadel
Day 208: The Small Citadel

In the late 12th to early 13th century, during the reign of Jayavarman VII, Banteay Chhmar—The Small Citadel—took shape.

Day 209: Stay Another Day
Day 209: Stay Another Day

On the roads of today, it is a straight run from Banteay Chhmar to Siem Reap in a share taxi. The centre—arguably Cambodia’s best–known was the epicentre of a million and one stories about overtourism—until Covid anyway. Today, it is a ghost town and many hotels, restaurants and other tourist facing businesses have shuttered. Just a short ride from town, Southeast Asia’s most famous set of ruins stand, utterly devoid of visitors. 2019 feels like one thousand years ago.

Day 210: Angkor on foot
Day 210: Angkor on foot

As I wrote the other day, when it comes to Angkor, much of the emphasis is on getting as much laterite for your buck as possible. This isn’t the only way though. With more time and a willingness to wander, it is possible to get an alternative and more memorable take.

Day 211: Tomb Raider
Day 211: Tomb Raider

We’re sitting around in the laid back restaurant at Two Dragon’s Guesthouse. It is early evening and we’re tossing back a few cold beers with owner Gordon talking about heading to Beng Mealea.

Day 212: A day on the water
Day 212: A day on the water

Just to the west of Siem Reap and Angkor lies the Tonle Sap—the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia. Through a quirk of river currents, in wet season when the Mekong is at full tilt, the flow reverses up the Tonle River, filling the lake. This reverse flow traditionally would see the Tonle Sap expand from around 2,500 km2 to 16,000 km2. This inflow brings with it nutrients and tonnes of fish.

Day 213: Boats, birds and rain gambling
Day 213: Boats, birds and rain gambling

The fastest way to travel between Siem Reap and Battambang is by share taxi. The run takes you halfway to the Thai frontier, then you turn south at Sisophon to reach Battambang. That may be the fastest way, but the funnest way (depending on your idea of fun), is by boat.

Day 214: A day in the countryside
Day 214: A day in the countryside

A fun town to get to, Battambang itself is an attractive town to wander, but it is the surrounds which delivers the goods. There are hill top temples, killing fields, ancient monuments and, of course, the Bamboo Train.

Day 215: Southeast Asia’s armpit
Day 215: Southeast Asia’s armpit

There are no shortage of iffy border crossings in Southeast Asia. One though, on the Thai–Cambodian border—stands out. Poipet.

Day 216: Phanom Rung
Day 216: Phanom Rung

I left off yesterday’s story standing on Sa Kaeo train station dodging beer cans, but today I’m skipping the train and heading north. The closest town of any size to Poipet is Aranyaprathet and four hours by bus from there deposits me in Nang Rong. Yes, back in the Northeast.

Day 217: Money matters
Day 217: Money matters

Leaving Nang Rong behind, Nikki and my plan is to get a bus to Buriram and then a train to Nakhon Ratchasima (better known as Khorat). That’s the plan anyway.

Day 218: Are you at the mall? I hope not.
Day 218: Are you at the mall? I hope not.

Anyone who knows me knows I am not an organised traveller. While I plan my trips semi–carefully, when it comes to packing, I’m not all there. I leave it till the last minute and near always forget something.

Couchfish Day 219: So many places, so little time
Couchfish Day 219: So many places, so little time

Leaving Khorat’s mayhem behind me I roll into Khon Kaen in the evening. As where I wanted to stay is full, I settle for an almost no–name place near the train station. There’s nothing wrong with it, but nothing much right either—no shortage of places like this.

Day 220: Sanchez’ payback
Day 220: Sanchez’ payback

Sitting in the garden at Mutmee Guesthouse I got talking to a North American, Sanchez*. I’d left Laos the previous day and had been hanging around Nong Khai since. Sanchez had been in Laos for a few years, running a restaurant and bar in Vang Vieng.

Day 221: A day out and about
Day 221: A day out and about

Given its location, and being home to the closest airport to Nong Khai, I’ve been through Udon Thani my fair share of times. Thankfully not always in hotels quite as odd as yesterday’s.

Day 222: The end of Thailand
Day 222: The end of Thailand

Before Laos re–opened to recreational travel in the early 1990s, Nong Khai was about as close as you could get. Much of the south bank of the Mekong lacked the massive promenade of today and instead was a shifting natural affair. Tall grasses and the few trees still hanging on covered the tumbledown bank. Wooden platforms floated on the mud–brown water, reached by precarious wooden stairs and slippery trails. Nestled against a long, slow, east–west bend in the Mekong, Nong Khai was one chilled out place.

Day 223: The road to Sangkhom
Day 223: The road to Sangkhom

I know I was writing the other day that Nong Khai is the kind of place that lends itself to hanging out for days, but ... I’m blowing out of town for a trip along the Mekong.

Day 224: Bye bye Mekong
Day 224: Bye bye Mekong

It is around a 90 km ride from Sangkhom to Chiang Khan, almost the entirety of which is right by the river. This is the Northeast’s last hump before the Mekong winds north back into Laos’ embrace.

Day 225: A day on the move
Day 225: A day on the move

Wherever possible I prefer to travel long distances by rail. It is more comfortable, you can get up and walk around, and, most importantly, it is safer than the bus. If there is no rail option, then I’ll take the bus, but I avoid night buses unless they’re unavoidable.

Day 226: One night in Bangkok
Day 226: One night in Bangkok

As I wrote the other day, I met a group of Thai campers who invited me out for a night on the town. Their goal? To show me the “real Bangkok”. The one bit of input I was allowed, was selecting our rendezvous.

Day 227: Don’t shoot a macaque John
Day 227: Don’t shoot a macaque John

Phetchaburi sits a couple of hours south of Bangkok by train. A compact town bisected by a north–south running river and about a dozen kilometres from the coast, the vibe is sleepy.

Day 228: Keepsakes and hornbills
Day 228: Keepsakes and hornbills

Yes, I’m back! After a longer than expected hiatus I am back in front of the keyboard. I’d planned to re–start yesterday, but still wasn’t quite up to it, and it felt better to restart with a free post for all readers. So while this is a part of the paid–for itinerary series, I hope it appeals to all. My heartfelt thanks for the kind comments over the preceding month—much appreciated.

Day 229: Highs and lows in Prachuap
Day 229: Highs and lows in Prachuap

Prachuap Khiri Khan lies around 150 km south of Phetchaburi, a straight run down on the train line. Along the way it passes by two better known tourist towns, Hua Hin and Cha–am, to my mind both are forgettable in their own way. The former is an inexplicable attraction for both European and Thai tourists, the latter for domestic students.

Day 230: Seafarers and hermits
Day 230: Seafarers and hermits

The story goes that some “hundreds” of years ago a Chinese trading junk was shipwrecked north of Prachuap Khiri Khan. The coast was a treacherous mass of peaks, wild waves smashing against their base. The 300 surviving seafarers, no doubt annoyed at each other over their navigating folly, sought refuge on separate peaks.

Day 231: The Northern Lights of Ban Krut
Day 231: The Northern Lights of Ban Krut

Thailand’s southeast coast is long, slow and varied. There’s salt plains in the north, giving way to bay after bay, the sand changing from a deep grey to an off–gold. There’s mangroves, swamps and estuaries. Jungle nestles white sand crescents that see more crab claws than human tootsies. Craggy limestone headlands break it all up. A fishing village here, a provincial capital there. The millpond Gulf waters lap all the way down, like a Thai massage, rubbing rather than bashing the coast.

Day 232: A hill top view and military men
Day 232: A hill top view and military men

As I wrote the other day a large part of the appeal of Ban Krut is that it is quiet and, aside from laying on the beach, there is little to do. That isn’t to say there is nothing to do.

Day 233: Winding back the clock in Bang Saphan
Day 233: Winding back the clock in Bang Saphan

While I’d like to think I blew out of Ban Krut on account of the English trio, to be honest as a work trip, the clock is ticking. As a travel writing friend once said, travel guide writers see everything and experience nothing. Closer to the truth than you might think. On a travel writer’s watch, somewhere like Ban Krut earns about four hours. That I give it two nights, is well, ummm, indefensible, but hey I’m the boss and I can do what I want!

Day 234: Ko Talu
Day 234: Ko Talu

After sending the annoying Brits to a tourism sinkhole, I move guesthouses and keep a low profile. Business is slow, but there’s enough spots I figure I won’t see them again—plus I’m leaving the mainland, albeit briefly.

Day 235: Fleeing bloody gaur skin beach
Day 235: Fleeing bloody gaur skin beach

Over the last week or so I’ve written of a few of the spots which dot the coastline between Bangkok and Chumphon. I’ve touched on Phetchaburi, Prachuap Khiri Khan, Khao Sam Roi Yot, Ban Krut and Bang Saphan.

Day 236: Cattle class to Ko Tao
Day 236: Cattle class to Ko Tao

I’ve written before about Ko Tao, how it has changed over the years and its less admirable traits—of which it has a few. Before Lomprayah grabbed much of the market, a gaggle of smaller operations ran to Turtle Island. Of these, the slow boat was the most memorable, mostly for the wrong reasons. Shall we start there?

Day 237: What is it about Ko Pha Ngan?
Day 237: What is it about Ko Pha Ngan?

As I mentioned yesterday, Ko Tao is far from my favourite island in Thailand. Across the water to the south though, does sit one of my favourites—Ko Pha Ngan—and it isn’t just mine. What is it about the island?

Day 238: A stroll around Ko Pha Ngan
Day 238: A stroll around Ko Pha Ngan

Some people see a mountain and have to climb it. I’ve some of that in me, but give me an island and that is something I must walk around. Few islands are higher up on the circumnavigate by foot rankings than one of my favourite Thai islands, Ko Pha Ngan.

Day 239: It seemed like a good idea
Day 239: It seemed like a good idea

Who hasn’t been there? You’re relaxing in a hammock under a couple of palms out front of your bamboo and thatch beachside hut. It is late afternoon, with a light sea breeze and the sun is getting ready to set. Someone just brought you an iced Chang beer and a plate of noname.

Day 240: Gold panning
Day 240: Gold panning

When we lived in Phnom Penh, we had a friend who had spent time on Ko Samui in the 1970s. I mentioned her in an old Couchfish piece on people harking back to the good ole days. I wrote:

Day 241: Leo and the Golden Bowl
Day 241: Leo and the Golden Bowl

If you’ve seen The Beach, you’ll know the scene where the three leads leap off a cliff, over a waterfall, and into a lagoon. To pull this off in real life would be a challenge though as, in real life, the cliff and the lagoon are not in the same place. No idea what I’m talking about? Here is an extract of the relevant part from the movie.

Day 242: Heading south
Day 242: Heading south

Leaving Ko Samui I grab a car ferry heading back to Don Sak on the mainland. While many of the travellers on the ferry are heading elsewhere, I turn south.

Day 243: Into the hills and back again
Day 243: Into the hills and back again

After yesterday’s travel plus laze around day, today I plan to earn my keep. While I wrote that most of the sights around Khanom and Sichon are excuses for distractions, that isn’t to say they’re not worth the effort. They are.

Day 244: Original cinema
Day 244: Original cinema

Leaving the coast behind, it is about an hour and a half in a van to the South’s second largest city, Nakhon Si Thammarat. Parallel north–south roads lay out the town, with the train station near the centre and temples all over. Nakhon (as it is known) is both a transport hub and a historic centre.

Day 245: A walk through history
Day 245: A walk through history

I mentioned the other day that Nakhon Si Thammarat isn’t only a provincial capital but a historical one as well. With a spare day, you can walk the lay of the land from bottom to top and make your way through the history of the town.

Day 246: Tourism done right
Day 246: Tourism done right

You don’t have to look far to see tourism done wrong in Thailand, which makes it all the more refreshing when you find somewhere doing it right. Meet Baan Khiri Wong.

Day 247: A massif day
Day 247: A massif day

Nakhon Si Thammarat sits at the terminus of a spur on the southern Thailand railway, with only the occasional train south to Phattalung. Given I only have a short jaunt south planned, I grab a minibus for the trip.

Day 248: To the small sea
Day 248: To the small sea

You’ll find a decent wet market in any fair–sized Thai town and the best time to visit is invariably early in the morning. Phattalung has a great market, and early riser that I am, it is the perfect spot to start the day.

Day 249: You’re a hobbyist
Day 249: You’re a hobbyist

Heading south from Phattalung, the obvious next stop is Hat Yai, the transport hub of the far south. A sprawling city—the largest in southern Thailand—Hat Yai is far from close to my heart, so I skip it and head to Songkhla.

Day 250: Sightseeing
Day 250: Sightseeing

I’m sure to evacuate my premises nice and early to avoid further accusations of being a hobbyist. Lucky for me, Songkhla wakes as early as I do.

Day 251: The good people of Yala
Day 251: The good people of Yala

Travelling alone, it doesn’t take long for me to get chatting with fellow passengers—even if my Thai is terrible. So I feel like I’ve struck gold when the middle-aged Thai man sitting opposite me speaks excellent English.

Day 252: Travel with not like
Day 252: Travel with not like

Travel writing is often a flurry of buzzwords. They come and go like the seasons, more often than not losing all their meaning in the process. “Travel like a local” hit the scene a few years ago, but I’ve always felt it missed the mark.

Day 253: The other tunnels
Day 253: The other tunnels

A side-benefit of yesterday’s lost day is I’ve got myself a driver for today. As reliable as he is short, he’s waiting out front at the appointed time for the drive south to Betong.

Day 254: Pretty boats and a painter
Day 254: Pretty boats and a painter

Betong lives up to its name come the morning. A wet and chilled mist envelops the city as I jump into the Mercedes for the run back to Yala. We’re running by the side of the reservoir, by the time the sun burns through.

Day 255: Falling water and bleak tales
Day 255: Falling water and bleak tales

So how does one fill a day in the least-visited province in Thailand? As I’ve often written, anywhere is worth a night, and Pattani is no exception—hell, I’m spending two here—but what to do?

Day 256: A literal interpretation
Day 256: A literal interpretation

Back many years ago, just after the dinosaurs had a rather bad day, I co-wrote a couple of guidebooks. The first was to Vietnam, published in 1995, and the second, published in 1997, covered Thailand.

Day 257: Take me to the waterfall waterfall
Day 257: Take me to the waterfall waterfall

As difficult as it can be to pry myself from the back deck of the Narathiwat Hotel, I manage it. The province isn’t in short supply of things to do and see, but today I’m hitting a simple one—a waterfall.

Day 258: The temple that protects Thailand
Day 258: The temple that protects Thailand

Sitting on the back deck of the Narathiwat Hotel, the waters of the Bang Nara River flow by. Its northern mouth sits just a few kilometres north of town, where it empties out by Narathat Beach.

Day 259: Jungle then Swamp then Jail
Day 259: Jungle then Swamp then Jail

As I wrote yesterday, the time has come to head south to Malaysia. First though, I’m going to jumble up two experiences from the province I’ve had on two separate trips. Then, and only then, will I skip over the border, with a third experience. Dizzy yet? Try writing it!

Day 260: Hello Malaysia
Day 260: Hello Malaysia

Somewhere I once wrote getting on an international flight is like changing planets. You walk past the barrier to immigration and where you were is left behind. A few hours—or days—later, you walk past another immigration barrier and you’re in a new country.

Day 261: What I just did—nobody knows it
Day 261: What I just did—nobody knows it

KB Backpacker’s Lodge has a dorm or two, but they also have private rooms. I’m so over dorms it isn’t funny, so when I checked in, I went with a private, despite me being the only guest. My room opens onto the common room and kitchen and I’m surprised to stumble out in the morning and see another guest.

Day 262: Head-desking on the Perhentians
Day 262: Head-desking on the Perhentians

While Kota Bharu is the closest capital to the Perhentian Islands, they, and the port town they’re reached via, are in the next state south—Kuala Terengganu.

Day 263: The prettiest beach in Southeast Asia
Day 263: The prettiest beach in Southeast Asia

If you read my previous piece on the Perhentians, you might have thought I wasn’t all that taken with the islands. I did finish though by saying “tomorrow will be better,” and you know what, it will be.

Day 264: A stroll
Day 264: A stroll

I am a beach person, but I am also a walking person. I can laze on the beach with the best of them, but I’m also one to climb over the headland. You know, to see if there is another beach, a better beach, out of sight.

Day 265: Buttery fingers & unlost photos
Day 265: Buttery fingers & unlost photos

Quite a few years ago I was in West Bali, hanging out at a riverside getaway near the beach, doing not much. Rather than laying in the hammock though, as one does I was sorting photos on my laptop.

Day 266: The Big Island
Day 266: The Big Island

A quick hop across the narrow straight brings me to Perhentian Besar. As the name suggests, this is the bigger of the two (besar means big) and by area is far less developed than Kecil. The entire east coast is wild jungle tumbling down to rocks and the sea, totally bereft of sand. Beautiful beaches dot the other three coasts—or used to.

Day 267: Down and out
Day 267: Down and out

As I mentioned yesterday, there is a jungle trail from PIR Beach south to Teluk Dalam, and while I could take a boat, I walk.

Day 268: Seven-metre backpacker-eating lizards
Day 268: Seven-metre backpacker-eating lizards

Given that the other day I didn’t even make it to the trailhead, today I power past the massage sala without slowing down. I will not be waylaid!

Day 269: Awi’s Yellow House
Day 269: Awi’s Yellow House

You may recall the other day I mentioned that someone had recommended I check out Empire on Teluk Dalam. It turned out to not be great advice, but it takes a few bits of bad advice to ignore all something someone has told me. This is lucky. Another tip they gave me was for Kuala Terengganu (KT among friends).

Day 270: Slow day in KT
Day 270: Slow day in KT

When you’re staying in a bamboo and wooden shack elevated above mangroves, a mosquito net is worth a lot. Most of the rooms, at Awi’s, including mine, sit over the mangroves. The mosquito nets are not worth much.

Day 271: Hits and misses
Day 271: Hits and misses

None of Peninsular Malaysia’s east coast cities have an overwhelming array of sights. There’s often a museum or three, friendly people and plenty of great food, but none are tourist hubs.

Day 272: Eating Kuantan
Day 272: Eating Kuantan

The next stop down the peninsular is Kuantan, a straightforward bus ride south. Like Kuala Terengganu, it is a riverside state capital with its roots in fishing and trade. For those coming across from Kuala Lumpur, or from Taman Negara, it is their first stop on the coast.

Day 273: A peek at Pekan
Day 273: A peek at Pekan

As I mentioned the other day, this isn’t my first time to Kuantan, and each time I revisit a town, I like to take a peak elsewhere. In Kuantan’s case, I head south to take a peek at Pekan.

Day 274: Where am I?
Day 274: Where am I?

I decide to push the crazed English guy from my mind with a morning swim. Not in the Kuantan River mind you, but a swim in the sea. Then I plan to get an afternoon bus inland, leaving the ocean behind.

Day 275: To National Park National Park
Day 275: To National Park National Park

While less than pleased to be finding myself in Kuala Lumpur by accident, I hit gold, well more like copper, with a seat on a train straight back out again. The scheduled arrival time is 04:28, which while not ideal, is better than a night for no reason in KL. The train will be late anyway, I tell myself.

Day 276: If a tree falls in a forest
Day 276: If a tree falls in a forest

The meeting point for the two-day trek into Taman Negara is one of the floating raft houses on the river. It is early enough in the morning that the sun is but a dull ball behind the mist, and the morning air is cold and wet. I know the coolness won’t last though, so it doesn’t bother me as I stroll down towards the river’s bank.

Day 277: A jungle oasis
Day 277: A jungle oasis

The superlatives come naturally to Taman Negara. It is the biggest national park in peninsular Malaysia. It is one of the oldest deciduous rainforests on earth (over 130 million years old if you’re wondering). It is home to the tallest peak on the peninsula. Big and old and tall, but more than anything, it makes me feel tiny.

Day 278: Bats, snakes and leeches
Day 278: Bats, snakes and leeches

Allow me to begin with two pieces of advice. First, if you’re sleeping on the floor of a cave with a million bats overhead, don’t sleep with your mouth open. Second, stay calm when you wake at 3 am with a centipede the size of a cricket bat in your sleeping bag.

Day 279: Cherish Cherating
Day 279: Cherish Cherating

My plans to get back to the east coast are simple. I’ll take a boat back out (rather than a hellish minibus) and then bus onwards from there back to Kuantan and then south to Malaysia’s “prime surf-spot” Cherating. First though, to eat.