We're back in the Laos capital, Vientiane, after a long but beautiful drive back from Vang Vieng.
We've been to some distinctly average Chinese restaurants whilst here (largely to keep Ma-in-law happy) but the Laos meals we have had have been exceptional, especially the DIY all-u-can-eat barbecues. Laos food is similar to Thai food, but without the mouth-burning chilli dishes or the stomach-turning sour dishes.
We visited the Buddha Sculpture Park in Vientiane yesterday. I was last there was in 2006. It's a bizarre collection of sculptures, religious and fantasy, which JD thoroughly enjoyed climbing on and in! It's hot here (30ºC today) and after meandering through the park we sat by the Mekong Rover and ate ice-creams.
Jiajia and her brother "Li" haven't always seen eye-to-eye in the past, but he and his new wife have been surprisingly hospitable and generous so far. His Laos wife "San" doesn't speak English or Chinese, but has been making every effort to connect with JD. It helps that they have a pet monkey! Li works as a taxi driver, but has been transporting us around instead this week (and obviously missing out on fares).
It's been refreshing to see Jiajia and Li laughing and joking together.
Jiajia, JD, Ma-in-law and I all flew to Laos today. Jiajia's brother lives there with his "girlfriend" (we later discovered they are recently married and expecting a baby). It's a new country for everybody, except me, and Jiajia is keen to escape Kunming's recent cold snap.
Laos is only a 2½ hour flight from Kunming, and a one hour time difference. So, on arrival, Jiajia's brother "Li", whisked us straight off from the airport to 2-3 tourist sights in the Laos capital of Vientiane - "Victory Gate" and a couple of temples - before heading out of town to his house to unpack and have a rest.
Despite only having one bed in the house, Li's insisting all six of us sleep there, using sofas and floor. Frankly we'd prefer a nearby hotel, but he seems very insistent on showing his hospitality!
Our time in Phuket drew to an end yesterday. Before we left, JD was keen to say goodbye to "Vicky" [below] who runs "Pegy Club", the hotel's kids activity club which JD attended a few times. He enjoyed getting face-painted as a tiger and, later, as Spider-Man.
Our plane from Phuket left at 7.20am, which meant waking up at 3am to get a taxi for the hour's drive to the airport. Two flights and another taxi and we finally arrived back home in Kunming by 3pm. Unfortunately, my recent and excessive western food intake has led to a return of the gout which used to plague me for a decade, but from which I haven't suffered for many years. My ankle is badly swollen and I'm hobbling to get around. Hopefully the medicine, some rest and a return to a more healthy diet will see it improve within a few days.
We did an island-hopping trip today. JD loved the powerful speedboat which took us around to three local islands. The promised snorkelling was a bit of a disappointment, but JD was able to see (and try to catch!) a few shoals of brave green fish who swim near the shore to be fed. The weather was good and, apart form some overcrowding on the islands, we enjoyed the half-day adventure.
Our holiday continues to be great fun. The free buffet breakfasts are great and set us up for the day, with the promise of an evening meal out at a restaurant later in the day. We've taken a local bus for 45 minutes into Phuket Old Town for some shopping, found a Tesco superstore for western goodies to bring back to China and seen a passing festival on its way to a temple.
We had seen weather forecasts threatening rain every day, but we have had dry, sometimes pleasantly overcast, days so far. We've been making good use of the swimming pools here and JD's confidence in the water has grown rapidly. He particularly loves swimming underwater and has been on the waterslide dozens of times (occasionally with me!). The warm sea and sandy beach are also within five minutes walk and we've been there a few times too.
Ava, JD and I took two plane hops down to Phuket in Thailand today. I'd been warned that the island was a touristy, nightlife nightmare but our hotel claimed to be quiet and family-friendly, and the flights were cheap, so we decided to take a chance. And it's fantastic. Our huge room has a kitchen and walk-in wardrobe and could sleep five. The balcony opens directly onto one of the four swimming pools. Downside? It's occupied by 95% Russians - "the zombies" as we call them - never smile, never interact with others, never look where they are walking. Such a dour lot. But we are looking forward to our week here.
After our brilliant visit to Disneyland a few days ago, Hong Kong's other big theme park had a lot to live up to. "Ocean Park" opened nearly 30 years before Disney and, to be honest, it showed. We made the best of the day but there were frequent disappointments and long queues for everything. JD found that nearly all the rides required him to be older or taller. We did find one roller coaster which let him on [see bottom left - we are circled in red] but even that entailed queueing for over an hour. The shows were not a patch on Disney's epics either [though I managed to take part in a kung fu demo - see bottom right].
Heavy rain showers and large crowds didn't help the atmosphere. We finished off the trip with a cable car ride and their large aquarium, which turned out to be the highlights.
We have arrived in the UK and are spending the first few days at my parents in Sidcup. They met us at the airport with a huge hand-drawn Welcome sign and pork pies! It's really hot here, so Ava is loving their beautiful garden while JD is loving "helping" by digging up spuds and watering the vegetables. As for me,I'm relishing the prospect of all my favourite "unobtainable" dishes such as casserole, fish-n-chips, toad-in-the-hole and rhubarb crumble ...oh and a large Wetherspoons breakfast which is planned for tomrrow morning. So happy to see my old folks after 1.5 years away and 24 hours of travelling. Let the holidays begin!
We're back in Bangkok. Ava has been keen to visit the Erawan Shrine; not the largest temple in Bangkok but the most famous. She said she wanted to pray to the Buddha there (depite me pointing out that it was actually a statue of Brahma, a Hindu god!). Beside the shrine are a groups of musicians and dancers who will perform for a fee as you pray. It was fun to watch them, but they must get so bored!
I'd read that the Erawan shrine was the target of a bombing last year, killing 27 people so, when I saw an unattended backpack on a bench, I thought it wise to alert one of the guards. He rather sheepishly explained it was his bag and quickly moved it out of sight. Better safe than sorry!
JD is loving the sea, the beach and the swimming pool, usually in that order. If pushed, his favourite would be digging. The sea and pool are warm enough to swim in (just), though the beating sun limits how long you can stay out. But with our hotel room a few minutes away we can pop out and indulge whenever we like [Ava and JD below].
We've arrived in Bangkok, Thailand and settled into our nice hotel. The swimming pool is chillier than we hoped, but we've been given a free upgrade to larger rooms which is a bonus - JD and I in one, and Ava and Ma-in-law next door. We spent today at a rather touristy centre outside of Bangkok.
It was all a lot more expensive than we had been promised but, once there, we felt we had to do some of the activities on offer. So we hired a river boat to see the floating market (most of the shops were on land!) and then JD and I had a short elephant ride.
Today we visited a Tropical Forest Park. We had imagined it as fairly pristine and untouched but, this being China, it was actually a bit touristy with concrete paths guiding you past various tropical, signposted plants and trees. Animatronic elephants and monkeys screamed as you approached them - a bit sad considering this area used to boast large numbers of the real thing. We did enjoy the treetop walk though - rope bridges strung up at canopy level (50m high) to give you a new appreciation of how tall rainforest trees actually are. JD clearly has no fear of heights as he scampered between the bouncing and swaying bridges!
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