Under the Radar: Laos


Laos is often used as a stopover between Thailand and Vietnam. The majority of the travellers that I met whilst there confessed that they were merely there for visa purposes for one of the adjoining countries and didn’t particularly have much admiration for it. Contrary to popular opinion, we loved Laos! I thought it was an amazing country in its own right, and definitely deserving more than stop over status. However, it is enchanting in more subtle ways and doesn’t have the WOW factor that other Asian countries might have so it’s easy to see why it goes under appreciated.

THE BASICS

Currency: Lao Kip
Language: Lao
Time Zone: UTC +7
Visa: Purchase on arrival (for U.K. passport holders)

For Debauchery..

VANG VIENG

As a seasoned backpackers haunt, Vang Vieng is arguably the place in Laos that needs the least advertisement. We met several travellers who headed straight for Vang Vieng and neglected anything else that Laos could offer. This is because it is party central. While it is definitely not as wild as it used to be, it is still a hedonistic escape. It became infamous when in 2011, there was a record number of 27 tourists who died mostly due to drowning or colliding with rocks. This was caused by the phenomenon of tubing: an activity where you float down the river in a rubber tube and are pulled in to various bars by ropes. The combination of excessive drugs, alcohol and tubing was often fatal. With my complete lack of coordination, I found it hard enough to go tubing sober, let alone wasted. The currents are deceivingly strong, there are rocks everywhere and there is no one to supervise you or intervene if anything goes wrong. After the chaos, many of the bars on the river were shut down, but there are still a few that live on, albeit more chill. With conditions improved, it remains a huge tourist pasttime, especially as the river is coupled with the beautiful scenery of the karst formations.

Games in a bar on the tubing course

TUBING TOP TIPS
1) Don’t take any valuables with you. There’s nowhere to put them and people always ended up losing cameras or other precious things.
2) Make sure you are aware of the time. Going around the whole course takes at least a couple of hours and you need to return the tubes back by a certain time to get your deposit back. Tubing in the dark also isn’t fun (not to mention, dangerous), which we discovered after we spending too long at the bar!
3) Try to stick together as much as possible! Tie your tubes together or something. Make sure no-one is left to find their way back alone.
4) Take clothes in a waterproof bag. It is disrespectful to wear swimwear with nothing else in public and annoys locals for cultural and religious reasons.

Other than tubing, Vang Vieng offers many options for outdoors activities. You can go caving, swim in the lagoons or ride in a hot air balloon (we never got to do this, but apparently it’s among one of the cheapest places to do it, so I wish we had). If you are going simply for the party side of things, there is a main ‘strip’ type thing in town which contains the main bars. They rotate happy hours, so you can if you like whisky then you can drink for free. If you hate whisky, try a whisky & pineapple and you’ll be surprised by how much it tastes like juice! We spent around five days here, but you could make the most of it within three.

It’s super cheap, but be wary of being ripped off when you’re drunk. One night I was buying a sandwich and gave the vendor a large bill and he didn’t give me my change. He probably thought I was a typical drunk western girl who wouldn’t notice (which to be fair, usually I am), and when I demanded it, he ended up coming at me with a chair. Luckily the situation was diffused quickly, but safe to say, I didn’t get my change.

The Blue Lagoon

For a UNESCO world heritage town..

LUANG PRABANG

We never made it to Luang Prabang as we were on a tight schedule, but I feel that I’d be doing it a disservice if I didn’t include it here. The city has the status of a UNESCO world heritage site (there are two in total in Laos, the other is Vat Phou, a ruined Khmer Hindu temple complex in the south). It looks stunning. It is home to the Royal Palace museum and gorgeous waterfalls, with temples at every turn. It seems the perfect place to retreat and detox after losing sense of time in Vang Vieng.

Another place that I really wanted to visit in Laos is the Plain of Jars, an ancient historical site containing mysterious giant stone jars of unknown origin in Phonsavan. This is why I’d advice anyone to spend at least a week in Laos rather than the few days that it is usually allotted! It has so much to offer, I will definitely be making a trip back here when I get the chance.

For History & Culture..

VIENTIANE

Pha That Luang

Vientiane is the capital city, but one of the more sparse capitals that I’ve visited. It is a very calm, tranquil city, yet still full of temples, night markets and some cute bars. It’s great if you’re getting fed up of overwhelming cities like Hong Kong and Bangkok. People sometimes complain that there isn’t a lot to do, but there is. There’s not a huge checklist of tourist attractions to run through, but it provides access to Laotian culture and history. COPE Visitor Centre should be number one on your list. COPE stands for Cooperative Orthotic & Prosthetic Enterprise and they provide most of the artificial limbs, wheelchairs and walking aids in Laos.


It’s free to enter the exhibit which will teach you about the issues in Laos surrounding undetonated ordnance. Between 1964-1973, more than 2 million tons of ordnance was dropped on Laos. This is more than was dropped in Europe during WWII and has earned Laos the titled of the most bombed country per capita in history. 30% of them have yet to explode, and civilians are still dying or becoming seriously injured from encountering them.

The Lao National Museum is located in Vientiane and Pha That Luang is one of the best temples to go to see. If you can handle a trip to the outskirts of the city then the Buddha Park is fascinating. The sculpture park was established in 1958 and contains over 200 statues from Hindu and Buddhist tradition. Tuk tuks are extremely cheap, so just barter for a good price with one who will take you there, wait for you while you look around and then take you back. You can see pretty much everything here in 2-3 days.

Rosie enjoying the Tuk Tuk
Buddha Park

**SOMETHING TO BE AWARE OF IF GOING ON TO VIETNAM**

If you are a UK passport holder, then you are allowed into the country for up to 14 days without pre-purchasing a visa. We were wrongly advised by our hostel and told that we needed one, and subsequently wasted a lot of money. Don’t make the same mistake!

Happy Planning!

Essential China: Everything You Need to Know

One of the best things about studying in Shanghai is the easy access it gives you to the rest of China. China is so well-connected, and a great jumping off point for going further afield and exploring Asia. Obviously, it’s huge, but the transport network ensures that you can get to anywhere in the country in a few hours. This series, ‘Essential China’ will focus on the how to travel around China and places to add to your itinerary. We will cover places such as Shanghai, Beijing, Xi’an, Chengdu, Taiwan, Hangzhou, Hong Kong, Suzhou and Nanjing.

Panda in Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding

So, why should you go to China? More importantly, why wouldn’t you? As the fourth biggest country in the world, it is diverse. No matter what kind of traveler you are, China has something to offer you. It has one of the most interesting histories on Earth, is brimming with natural beauty, is famous for its unique food, and is rapidly changing and developing all the time. It has the second most UNESCO world heritage sites in the world (34),  surpassed only by Italy. China is both massively underrated and misunderstood. It often gets such a bad press in foreign media that people subconsciously dismiss it or harbour negative conceptions about it.

Street food in Suzhou
East Nanjing Road, Shanghai

Go to a hostel in Asian countries like Thailand, Indonesia, Japan or Vietnam, and you’re bound to be surrounded by foreigners. China, not so much. Perhaps it’s because getting a visa is more difficult, or that it’s not perceived to be as affordable as other Asian countries. People that I’ve spoken to, just don’t seem to be that interested in China, or if they are, they think that a few days in Beijing and/or Shanghai will suffice. It won’t. If you neglect China, you are missing out big time.

View of Qinianmen from the Temple of Heaven, Beijing

THE BASICS

Getting there
Fly direct from London to Shanghai in roughly 11 hours or from London to Beijing in around 10.

Currency
¥ (RMB/CNY)

Time Difference
+7

Language
The official language of the country is Mandarin, but each province has its own dialect. Even Shanghai has its own dialect: Shanghainese. China is divided into 34 areas. The dialects spoken in them can vary as much as from English to Dutch, but the standard script of the written language remains the same. Due to its pictorial language, China is one of very few places where you can speak the language but also be illiterate.

The art of calligraphy in Chengdu
Tea City, Shanghai

Visa
You will definitely need a visa, unless you are planning on just visiting Hong Kong/Macau. Don’t let this put you off though, the process is simple and quick! Depending on whether you are simply traveling, studying or planning to work here, your visa will differ. All information regarding the process including step-by-step guidelines can be found here. Remember that if you’re planning to go to autonomous regions like Tibet, you’ll need to get a separate visa. Due to the political situation there, foreigners aren’t permitted to travel there solo and must go with a tour group which can be expensive. The best offer I’ve found is here.

Map of China. Image credit: Travel China Guide

Getting around
Something that I’ve found, is that there are many people traveling around China with tour companies. This is so unnecessary. Granted, China is more difficult for the average traveler, but if anything, this ensures that it’s more of an adventure. Do it alone. I believe in you. If you want to attempt to explore the entire country, it may be necessary for you to occasionally take internal flights between your destinations. However, the train network is also huge and continually expanding and developing. There are bullet trains connecting most major cities, for example, you can get from Shanghai to Beijing in less than five hours.

If you’re not in a rush and you wish to save money, you could also opt for the sleeper trains. They have four different types of accommodation: hard seats, soft seats, hard sleeper and soft sleeper which vary in price. By western standards, they are very inexpensive. I’ve taken the sleeper train from Xi’an to Chengdu in winter and it was not uncomfortable in the slightest. There are four beds in each room (two bunk beds). Most cities have efficient metro networks and pretty much everywhere has buses.

Hectic subway scenes in Shanghai
Soft sleeper bed from Xi’an – Chengdu

Political Situation
China is run by the CPC (Communist Party of China). It’s not quite a communist country, they adhere to ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics.’ In the past thirty years, there has been an unprecedented amount of rapid development and privatisation leading to China emerging as one of the global economic superpowers. As the focus has arguably been on economic development rather than social, censorship still plays a role in keeping the peace. Therefore, you will need to download a VPN if you wish to use your phone/laptop to access most social media in China (whatsapp, youtube, facebook, snapchat, gmail, Instagram, skype, BBC news, etc). There are many free options but the best ones are constantly changing, so do some research closer to the time of your trip.

Resources for before you go
If you’re planning to spend a prolonged amount of time there, or if you’re just simply interested in getting to know the culture more, then I’d highly recommend having a look at the following resources. Many are books/films that I’ve studied in my Chinese culture and history classes over the course of my year at STA, and others are simply things I’ve found interesting. This is by no means an exhaustive list, just an introduction. If you want any more, then feel free to ask!

Books: The Rape of Nanking, China: A Modern History, China in Ten Words, Factory Girls: Voices From The Heart of Modern China, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, The Art of War, The Peony Pavilion
Films: Raise the Red Lantern, Farewell My Concubine, To Live
Ted Talks: Behind the Great Firewall of China; Are China and the US doomed to conflict; Learn to Read Chinese With Ease; Understanding the Rise of China

The Great Wall of China

Interrailing: Rite of Passage or Waste of Time?

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Let’s all take a moment to thank the old Gods and the new that interrail.eu have confirmed that Brexit will not affect our eligibility to obtain an InterRail pass. For many teenagers, European and otherwise, InterRailing (or for the latter group, EurRail) will be their first experience traveling without their parents. For me, it was at least the first extended period of travel that I’d taken without my family. I’d been to Paris for a week, but that didn’t seem like such a big deal. I just had to take the Eurostar, and everything was pretty easy. With InterRailing, you’re thrown into taking flights, planning an itinerary and booking multiple places to stay.

For those who don’t know what it actually is, an InterRail pass is one ticket which gives you access to Europe’s largest network of trains and ferries for up to one month. You can either opt to buy a pass which covers transport in one European country, or the global pass which covers 30 countries. This is arguably the biggest perk of InterRailing – being able to see so many places in such a short amount of time.

Take our route for example:
We flew from LONDON, ENGLAND →

MADRID, SPAIN (two nights in The Hat Hostel, our favourite hostel of the trip – spacious, clean and complete with a rooftop bar)

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The Hat Hostel
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Plaza Mayor, Madrid

BARCELONA, SPAIN (three nights in Hostel Tierra Azul)

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Tierra Azul
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Parc Güell, Barcelona

From which we spent over 24 hours on various trains →

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY (four nights – one in a random hostel we stumbled into on the night we arrived earlier than expected and then three in Infinity Party Hostels)

St Stephen's Basilica
St Stephen’s Basilica

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VIENNA, AUSTRIA (one night in Hostel Ruthensteiner)

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Schönbrunn Palace

PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC (two nights in Miss Sophie’s)

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View of Charles Bridge and Prague Castle

BERLIN, GERMANY (two nights in Lett’em Sleep Hostel – they really do let you sleep, not recommended for those looking for a more sociable experience)

Berlin Wall
Berlin Wall
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The Reichstag building

AMSTERDAM, THE NETHERLANDS (two nights in the White Tulip Hostel)

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One of many pretty bicycle strewn bridges

From where we flew back → LONDON.

Due to chaotic nature of InterRailing, it is unlikely that you’ll get bored. How can the novelty of a place wear off when you’re only there for a few days before being whisked off to somewhere new? Of course, this has its downsides. It’s unrealistic to expect to achieve anything more than a basic understanding of a location if you’ve only got a couple of days to spare. This is fine if you just want to sample a variety of places and then plan your future travels based on which ones you found most appealing. If you don’t particularly like a place, then you’re free to simply move on. However, it won’t appeal to you if you’re the kind of person who likes to take their time with getting to know a place and doesn’t like to be rushed around.

Another positive aspect is that you’ll probably be able to cover most of the touristic sightseeing in any given European city in a few days. You should do your research though as some places require longer than others. For example, two nights in Amsterdam was just about manageable, where as two nights in Prague was nowhere near enough. We went out both nights and were pretty exhausted during the day. This caused us to do the majority of our sightseeing at 5am on the last morning, guilt stricken, having just come out of Karlovy Lazne and realizing just how scenic Prague is. The streets were empty and the sunrise was magical, but I didn’t feel like I had gotten as much out of my time there as I could’ve done, leading me to go back to Prague last December.

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Charles Bridge
Prague at sunrise
Prague at sunrise

It is also important to establish what you want to get out of the trip especially if you’re going with someone else. Europe has so much to offer so it is essential to ensure that you’re on the same page. It’s not going to work out if you want a cultural few weeks peppered with art galleries and exhibitions while they are planning to focus on Europe’s nightlife. It is hard to get the sightseeing-partying balance right, especially if you’re only in a place for a couple of days, but it’s not impossible. Since my InterRail experience, I’ve learned to try to get the majority of the more physically demanding sightseeing completed on the first day so you can go out in the evening and not worry about an early start. Then, the next day it’ll be easier to cope with a hangover if you’re not doing anything too strenuous.

Most importantly, DO YOUR RESEARCH. We wandered aimlessly around Vienna in the completely wrong district, assuming Schönbrunn Palace was all it had to offer and writing it off as rather boring. We didn’t even notice that the public can enter the palace! It wasn’t until I revisited Vienna with my family that I realized just how dynamic it is, making it one of my current favourite European cities. It’s always good to go with the flow and be spontaneous, but have a rough idea of what the place has to offer, and if you can learn a few phrases in the local lingo, even better.

Visit InterRail.eu to view example itineraries and plan your trip

How To: Prepare For Your First Solo Travel Trip

Although I have spent a great deal of my life traveling, the prospect of doing it alone was a daunting one. During my time in sixth form, I started branching out with my best friend: we went to Paris, and then the following summer we traveled around Europe. It was during this interrail trip that I considered the possibility of a solo trip for the first time. After all, the two of us were managing fine booking hostels, catching flights, and organizing ourselves – why would it be any different if I was on my own? These days anyway when you are traveling alone, you are never really alone. The hostel culture which now exists worldwide means that you can mix with like minded travelers and essentially have ready made friends waiting for you. Gone are the days when hostels were dingy, dirty and looked down on. Now, if you choose wisely you can go somewhere with free wifi, a quirky roof top bar, and clean, spacious rooms. Of course, you still get what you pay for and quality is varied, but that’s what the review section of hostelworld.com is for!

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The view from the Rooftop Bar in the Hat Hostel

I was set up to spend last summer in Rome as an au-pair when my host family told me that for two weeks they’d be going on holiday. It was a few weeks before my planned arrival. I thought, I could remain in my apartment in Rome, await their return and explore the city but I had my entire placement to do this. Croatia kept popping in to my mind. It was on my list of places to go and earlier that year, I had unsuccessfully tried to persuade friends to travel around it with me. Before I could change my mind, I’d booked myself a flight to Split and started looking at hostels.

1) Start small
I’d already had some experience in navigating around Europe, and Croatia was only a short flight away from Rome so it didn’t feel as overwhelming as it would’ve done if I’d decided to whisk myself off to Australia for a fortnight. If you try smaller trips away nearer to home, then eventually you’ll have the confidence to go further afield. After a few solo trips, I’m now quite happy at the prospect of my year abroad in China in which I plan to travel as much of the surrounding countries as possible.

2) Choose your hostel wisely
As a solo-traveler, it is so important to look at the reviews and try to gauge what kind of accommodation you’re considering. I always go for hostels closest to the centre, but now I was also looking at how they were rated for atmosphere and social life. If you’re by yourself, you don’t want to go to a hostel which has more emphasis on peace and quiet. Good websites to peruse include: hostelbookers.com, hostelworld.com, and other travel blogs. Try to go for the ones with later check out times, you don’t want to get kicked out at 9am after only getting in a few hours before and scrambling to round up your stuff while you can barely function.

3) Get involved
A great way to make friends is to stay in the largest dorm they offer (which is also the cheapest) and start chatting to your roommates on arrival. It’s all too easy to slink off by yourself and go sightseeing alone (which, as I’ll come to, is fine on occasion) but you could be missing out on making friends for life. I’ve stayed in touch with so many people that I’ve met in hostels, some of whom are included in this post. In fact, I found it easier to make friends when I did finally take the plunge into traveling solo. When you are with someone, not only are you complacent because have them to cling onto, but others do not feel as strong an urge to talk to you as you are already occupied. Chat to everyone, explore the hostel, hang out in the common room and enquire at the reception to see if there are any organized activities. If you do go to a hostel renowned for it’s social atmosphere then try to go to the group gatherings. Most party hostels, for example, will organize pre-drinks for everyone before leading you off out to the local bars. There are also usually fun daytime activities too. For example, in Carpe Noctem in Budapest they organized an underground tunnel trip among other things, or if we didn’t fancy the event on a particular day we would explore by ourselves.

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Sightseeing with Sammie, my soul sister I met in Carpe Noctem

4) Don’t be afraid to be alone
By the same merit, don’t be afraid to have a bit of down time, especially if you’re traveling for a more prolonged period. After a few days of being constantly surrounded by people, it is nice to take yourself out for lunch or have a wander around. We live in a society where quite often people feel embarrassed to be seen in a restaurant on their own. There is nothing wrong with spending time by yourself and it’s not at all an indication of your popularity. If you feel intimidated, then take a book with you to occupy yourself or write in a journal (I would recommend everyone to keep a travel journal, they are fascinating to look back on). People who are confident to spend time (and travel) alone are more self assured and more in tune with their instincts – they need to be as there is no one else looking out for them.

5) Go with the flow
The good thing about traveling alone is that you can do exactly what you want, when you want without having to compromise with anyone. A lot of the time people get to a place and end up extending their stay a lot longer than planned. Allow for this. That’s one of the best parts about traveling, and meeting people, joining them temporarily then going off in a different direction when the time is right. I wish I’d done more of this. While I was in Zadar, I met a great group of people from Liverpool who invited me to go along with them to Soundwave (a music festival). I didn’t go and it was probably a good thing because it would’ve taken up quite a lot of my budget, but I still regret it.

6) Keep organized and stay safe
Make sure you’re organized at all times. I am probably the most disorganized person I know, so I made sure to keep several copies of my flight and hostel itineraries on me, both on my phone, and hard copies. The majority of hostels – in Europe anyway – have lockers (and you can usually confirm this on their website/review sites), so you don’t need to worry about your valuables although I would keep the ones you bring with you on your trip to a minimum. I’m prone to losing things so I always leave my passport at the reception desk. Obviously, use your common sense while traveling. The same rules apply to traveling alone as traveling in general. Trust your intuition. It’s probably not a good idea to get completely wasted on your own unless you’re with people who you’ve come to trust, but even then try to be more cautious than usual. Always have the name of your hostel written down in a couple of places (some of them have wristbands so you can just show a taxi driver where to take you if needs be). When you first arrive, familiarize yourself with the area and any major monuments you can use as pointers in case you get lost.

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Sophia and I in Split

Above all, have fun! These are just things I’ve learned from my own experiences, I’m by no means an expert as the few solo trips I’ve taken have been short term. Even so, they taught me a lot about myself. Not in the sense of ‘finding myself’, but in the practical sense of how I react to certain situations, how I organize myself, and how I handle being on my own and the feelings that accompany this.