Experiencing the Naadam Festival Without Joining a Tour

Naadam, also known as “the three games of men”, is the biggest traditional festival held in Ulaanbaatar, the Mongolian capital. Each July, men compete in Mongolian jaw-dropping wrestling, spine-tingling horse racing and unbelievably accurate archery in the city’s multipurpose National Sports Stadium. Today, women also participate in the archery games and girls in the horse racing. Through this event, the Mongols prove that they’re man (or woman) enough to be the descendants of their notorious and illustrious hero Genghis Khan. 

Naadam is like Christmas to the Mongolian people. Days before the festival, Ulaanbaatar was buzzing with Naadam fever and reached a bewildering climax. It was a sight to witness everyone dressed in their finest deel (traditional clothing of Mongol tribes), prepares lots of food and arak (fermented mare’s milk) and spends the days out in the sun with friends and family. I am lucky to be able to experience the main event in Ulaanbaatar and a more local one in Kharkhorin.

When is Naadam Festival?

The Festival which held in Ulaanbaator is on the 11th and 12th of July each year. Most businesses in the city close from the 11th to 13th of July, and there will be 5-days of national holiday (11th-15th July) for the locals. The outskirts of Mongolia will be holding their own Naadam Festival events throughout July, although the exact dates usually aren’t confirmed until mid-June or early July.

The regional festivals are usually free of charge, and enable you to get much closer to the action. Different towns and regions will hold their festivals on different dates, so it is advisable to do your homework before travelling out of the Capital. I cam across this website which provides a detailed and updated information on Naadam (and other popular festivals) every year. 

This is peak tourist season in Mongolia so be sure to book your accommodation (especially in Ulaanbaator) well in advance. Some of the most popular guesthouses are fully booked for the whole month of July.

How to get Naadam Tickets

There are a few ways to get the tickets in Ulaanbaatar. Due to the popularity among the tourists and locals, be prepared to pay for a hefty price.

The official price for Naadam. Tourists price is USD25 if you are able to get it yourself

Buying your own tickets

There are 3 places where you can queue up for the tickets: Central Stadium, National Wrestling Palace and Central Cultural Palace box offices. Tickets sale usually start about one-week before the festival (6th and 7th July). If you think you can start queuing from early morning, you are so so so wrong! I started to queue at 9.30pm the previous night before, and yet I still can’t get the tickets (even though it is said that 1 person can only buy 4 tickets)!

I wonder what time did these people come??!!

Totally not dressed for the cold night~~

The queue got longer and longer

Cold, hungry and sleepy~~

The queue got longer from the front ’cause other family members all coming in to “join” the queue

I’m just getting further and further away from the box office )=

The moment when the box office opens, and by then it’s noon!

When we thought it’s reaching us soon……..

With less than 5 people in front and us getting so excited, the policeman suddenly announced that the Naadam tickets were all sold out! After queuing for 17-hours under 15 degrees, this is not what I’ve expected. It has been a long time since I felt such disappointment. Nevertheless, we hurried walked off as other Mongols were raging towards the policemen. 

Buying tickets from a Guesthouse

Most of the guesthouses sell Naadam tickets with a tour package (costs around USD120 – USD180 with transportation and meals). Some of the guesthouses which do sell the tickets only that I known of are: Golden Gobi Guesthouse, Taiga Guesthouse and Sunpath Guesthouse. However, they usually charge a premium price, but it shouldn’t cost more than USD60 per person for a 2-day ticket. You may email a few guesthouses before arriving in Mongolia as there are other travelers who pre-booked the tickets at least a month ahead.   

Buying tickets from Tourist Information Offices

There are a lot of Tourist Information offices in Ulaanbaatar. Similar to guesthouses, they do charge a higher price instead of selling the official ticket price. One of the traveler I met bought her Naadam ticket at post office for USD48 but they only issued her a ticket for opening ceremony. 

Buying tickets from a Scalper

I did not try this but I did hear from locals who mentioned that there are ticket scalpers outside Wrestling Palace before the day of the festival start. The price may vary from USD30 to USD100. However, there is always a risk with buying tickets from scalpers that they may turn out to be fakes, so please beware!

After spending days of asking around for Naadam tickets, my Couchsurfing host managed to get me those tickets from some forum for USD50 just the night before the festival! 

Ta-daaaa!

How to attend for free

You can still enjoy the Naadam Festival without buying a ticket! Only the opening and closing ceremonies, and the wrestling need tickets to enter the stadium. You can watch the archery and horse racing for free! The wrestling finals are aired on a big screen in Chinggis Square, which is fun to watch with the locals. There are also free concerts and fireworks every night at the Square.

Horse parade

There are always something going on for 3 full-day!

Traditional songs & dances

Where to watch

The opening and closing ceremonies, and the wrestling matches are held at the Naadam Stadium. The archery is held just next door to the stadium. The horse racing is located at “khui Doloon Khudag (Хүй долоон худаг) racing field, approximately 40km from Ulaanbaatar. There are free shuttle buses that transport people from the city to the racetrack from Misheel EXPO (Мишээл EXPO) and Dunjingarav (Дүнжингарав) parking lots – check with your hostel or the ‘student police’ for directions. 

What to Expect

Expect to be pushed around and find yourself surrounded with true-mongol-attitudes! The stadium will be absolutely packed and it is basically impossible to move once the ceremony begins. I was sandwiched at the gate for 15-minutes with the policemen stopping entry, and the people from behind keep on pushing. It was quite an experience!

We got different seats so we can’t watch the ceremony together )=

Many of the seats do not have shade, so bring plenty of water and sunscreen if it’s hot. The opening ceremony is spectacular, and features impressive war reenactments, singing and dancing. Unfortunately, the central stage was blocked by a monkey float from where I’m sitting.

It isn’t a good seat after all

I’m amazed by how little time they took to build a ger

Mark from Thailand

The opening ceremony took about one and a half hours, with all the different tribes and community parading around the Stadium. This was my favorite part of the ceremony ’cause the entry and exit points were just next to me! 

After the ceremony is over, the wrestling match began. By then, the stadium will be quite empty (probably it was too hot and people were getting hungry) and security became slack. I managed to walk to photographers’ area and get a good view of the match.

One of the photographers offered to help me took a picture!

Outside the Stadium was a super huge fair with tonnes of food, games, and basically you can find anything to buy. You can even try out traditional costumes and take pictures with nice backdrop for 10,000MNT (USD4)

Less than USD1

A storm is coming but I don’t care!

3,000MNT (USD1) for 5 tries

The archery can be easily found next to the Stadium. There isn’t much seats to watch the archery. Even if you get a seat, you can’t really see the target unless you brought a binoculars.

Found a spot to stand and watched for awhile

Things to Take Note

  • Beware of pickpockets! Make sure to always carry your belongings in front of you as it will be very crowded and people are always pushing around.
  • Look out for drunkards, especially if you are a female and travelling alone.
  • The event is held during the hottest month of the year, so remember to drink up, apply sunscreen and bring a cap/hat/sunglasses
  • Whether you attend the festival in Ulaanbaatar or other provinces, commentary will only be in Mongolian.
  • Wear comfy walking shoes. Traffic in Ulaanbaatar will be chaotic during the festival, so it is best to travel by foot. The Stadium is about 20-minutes walk from Chinggis Square.
  • It is okay to ask locals to move away if you want to take a photo (without them inside your picture), or if they trying to cut in before you.
  • The locals are always happy to pose for your photos in their traditional costumes.
  • Once you are out of the city, there are no road signs directing you to the exact location of the Naadam celebration fields, your driver will have to ask around.

Dates of Naadam festival at different province (2017)

Hope this guide will help to get you prepared and save some money for the upcoming Naadam Festival! 

Northern Mongolia: Lake Khövsgöl

Lake Khövsgöl (Хөвсгөл нуур) is located northwest of Mongolia near the Russian Border. Famously known as “Blue Pearl of Asia “, it is the second-most voluminous freshwater lake in Asia, and holds almost 70% of Mongolia’s fresh water and 0.4% of all the fresh water in the world. Untouched by industry and modern urban life, Lake Khövsgöl’s water is unbelievably clean. This area is paradise for outdoor travelers and there are plenty of room for activities like hiking, birding, fishing, horseback travel and kayaking.

Getting There

The comfort way: There are flights twice a week from Ulaanbaatar to Mörön for about USD100 per way. The journey takes about 90-minutes.

The budget way:  There are buses leaving daily at 0800hrs, 1500hrs and 1800hrs to Mörön (Мөрөн) from Dragon Bus Terminal. The journey will take about 18-hours on paved road and costs 32,000MNT (USD13).

Do note that there is no sleeper bus in Mongolia, so it would be really nice to have someone you comfortable with sitting next to you for such long journey. And there will not be proper toilets along the way! The driver will just stop along the roadside when someone requested to. Also, be prepared for overloaded bus as the driver will pick up random locals along the way and you may find people sitting next to you on the aisle. 

Ice cream!

To get to Lake Khövsgöl, you can share a taxi/van at Mörön to go to Khatgal town where the lake is. The cost is about 15,000~20,000MNT (USD6-USD8) for 2-hours+ drive. I would recommend taking the 1800hrs as it will be the last bus to arrive at Mörön and the drivers waiting they may be more willing to lower their price.

Arriving at Mörön

Quite a dead town

We arrived at about 6am and haggled for about 30-minutes for a good price up to Toilogt Camp. Initially, we were asked to wait till 8am when the next bus will be arriving if not we will have to pay another 10,000MNT (USD4) more. We were okay to pay extra as we were exhausted from the long bus ride. Less than 10-minutes out of Mörön, the driver decided to charge us more because he said going to Toilogt Camp is dirt road hence more petrol will be used. And so, we ended up in the middle of the road for another 45-minutes before someone willing to drive us for 25,000MNT (USD10).

Not sure if it’s a good decision but I definitely not going to overpay my transport

no car passed by at all~

Time for some road shots

After about 3-hours+, we are finally here!

Toilogt Tourist Camp

Accommodation

Upon reaching at Khatgal, you can either stay at the guesthouses in the village or you can ask the driver to bring you all the way to the national park where you are able to see the whole lake. We chose a luxury option of staying at Toilogt Tourist Camp to pamper ourselves. 

It costs us 60,000MNT (USD25) each for one ger by ourselves for one night. If you google online searching for ger camps in Lake Khövsgöl, you will only find a few established ones and this is one of them. In fact, there are actually a few more smaller camps along the lake and they cost much cheaper. So, the next day we moved to another camp which cost us USD10 per night. 

Eat

Most of the tourist camps has their own restaurant whereby you can choose to include meals with the accommodation. I would suggest to stock up your own food to last you long enough because this area is a perfect picnic spot! We made a mistake for not doing that and we ended hiking 6-kilometers to Khatgal town and 6-kilometers back to camp.


Nevertheless, the hike is totally worth it!!

View of Khatgal Town from the top

Activities

You may do fishing (need to get a permit from tourist office in Khatgal) or kayaking (rent from the bigger camps) on the lake. We chose to do horseback riding instead. An hour of horseback riding cost 10,000MNT (USD4) with guide. 

And everywhere here is soooo nice to take pictures with!!

On our way back, guess what we saw??

I am definitely coming back to the North and spend some time with the Tsaatan Tribe!! 

 

A day trip to Gorkhi-Terelj National Park

Gorkhi-Terelj National Park (Горхи-Тэрэлж) is the third largest protected area in Mongolia, and the nearest national park from Ulannbaatar. Located about 80-kilometers northeast of Capital, Terelj National Park is a popular attraction for both locals and tourists.

Bus number XO:4 leaves daily at 1600-hours from the bus stop opposite Narantuul Hotel, and take two and a half hours to get to Terelj Village, next to Turtle Rock. Coming back, the bus leave Terelj Village at 0800-hours and 1900-hours. The bus costs 2,500MNT (USD1) per way.

Turtle Rock

If you prefer to do a day trip, it is possible to do it as well. Day trip tour will be charged at about USD150-USD180 for single traveller. It will be much cheaper (USD50-USD80 per pax) if you can ask another 2 or 3 travellers to join you! 

I happened to meet another solo traveller, Tammy, along the street and we both agreed to go on this day trip together. Instead of joining a tour, we hired a driver (recommended by a staff from the hotel Tammy was staying) whom charged us USD10 per hour. It was considered quite a good deal as we are more flexible with the itinerary and we can take our own time to explore. 

We did our day trip to Terelj National Park on the second day of Naadam. Mongolians are given a week public holiday for this festival. From the driver we then found out that most locals from the capital were likely to drive up to Terelj National Park to spend their holiday! We were glad that we didn’t plan to stay overnight as it will be so crowded.

As this is the first trip out of Ulaanbaatar, I was awed by the countryside’s scenery. 

We stopped by along the road for a mandatory eagle photo-taking!

And we continued our journey to the famous Genghis Khan Statue Complex.

According to legend, this is the place where he found a golden whip. The statue is symbolically pointed east towards his birthplace.

The Genghis Khan Statue Complex comprises of a visitor center which showcases the largest boot in Guinness World Record.

It also has 2 small museums which exhibit the archaeological cultures during Bronze age and another during the Great Khan period. 

And now is the highlight of this complex! 

yes, in reality its very crowded up there

Our last itinerary for the day is to the legendary turtle rock!

Expenditures break-down:

Driver: USD70 for 7-hours (USD35 per person)

Fees for eagle photo-taking: 4,000MNT (USD1.50)

Entry fee to Genghis Khan Statue Complex: 8,500 MNT (USD3.50)

Food & drinks: Prepare snacks from supermarket before embark on the trip

Guide to backpacking Mongolia

Known as “the land of blue sky”, Mongolia is an undiscovered backpacker’s paradise. It is not a very touristic country, thanks to its vast and boundless territory and the many unspoiled corners that are beginning to whet the fantasies of travelers who wish to go beyond the now conventional travel and the usual beaten tracks. This is the country ideal for those in search of adventure and who love nature. 

Getting In and Out

Flight schedule in and out of Ulaabaatar

By Plane: There are only few flights into Ulaanbaatar from Tokyo, Beijing, Seoul, Hong Kong, Berlin, Moscow, Istanbul and Erlian. 

I flew from Singapore to Beijing, from Beijing to Erlian and then from Erlian into Ulaanbaatar. The whole journey took me about 25-hours, cost about USD330 for one way.

Always pack light for small plane like this!

By Train: Ulaanbaatar is a major stop on one of the World’s Great train journeys, the Trans-Siberian Railway. There are also other local trains to get you over the borders to and from Russia and China. While the scenery on this journey is breathtaking, buses will only cost about 1/3 of the price.

Train schedule in and out of Ulaabaatar

By Bus: The bus from Beijing to Erlian (Mongolian border town in China) costs RMB180 (USD27)  and takes about 12 hours. Once in Erlian you can take the Trans-Mongolian train or a local train into Mongolia. There are also buses from Erlian to the border, where you will then need to change buses to Ulaabaatar. If you’re leaving Mongolia for Russia by bus, it’s easiest to go from Ulaabaatar to Ulan-Ude in Russia where you can hop on another train or bus to Irkutsk.

Visa

Check out mongoliavisa.com to find out if you can enter Mongolia visa-free!

Getting Around

Getting around in Mongolia is not always easy but it is not impossible. With a little more patience and effort to ask around, you can certainly travel like a local. In the capital, it’s easy to walk around from one place to another. Alternative, you can take a bus or trolleybus to almost everywhere! Just check with the staff which bus number you need to take from hostel as there are no English written on the bus stop. It will be more convenient to buy a bus card “U money” if you are going to travel by bus/trolleybus frequently, otherwise you will have to pay exact amount (T300-T500) as no change will be given. (Tip: If you ask for how much in English, you may be lucky enough to get free ride!) Flagging down a taxi will be a standard rate of T800 per kilometre.

Trolleybus runs on overhead wires

Normal bus

Getting out of the capital is a bit more challenging. No matter which part of the country you plan to go, you will have to go through Ulaabaatar. Be sure to have a local from hostel or your couchsurfer to help you write the destinations in Cyrillic to avoid buying wrong ticket.

Central:

  • Gorkhi-Terelj National Park (Горхи-Тэрэлж) —> Take Bus XO: 4 from Peace Avenue, opposite Narantuul Hotel. Bus leaves daily at 1600hrs and take 2.5-hours to Terelj Village. The bus will stop last at the Turtle Rock. The bus costs 2,500MNT (USD1). 
  • Kharahorin (Хархорин) —> Take Bus from Dragon Bus Terminal. Bus leaves at 1100hrs and 1400hrs. The journey takes about 6-hours and cost 17,000MNT (USD7).
  • Tsetserleg (Цэцэрлэг) —> Take Bus from Dragon Bus Terminal. Bus leaves daily at 0800hrs, 1400hrs and 1900hrs. The journey takes about 8-hours and costs 23,000MNT (USD10).

North

  • Mörön (Мөрөн) —> To get to Lake Khövsgöl (Хөвсгөл нуур), take a bus to Mörön from Dragon Bus Terminal. Bus leaves daily at 0800hrs, 1500hrs and 1800hrs. The journey will take about 18-hours and costs 32,000MNT (USD13). After reaching Mörön, you can share a taxi/van to go to Khatgal village (15,000~20,000MNT for 2-hours) where the lake is.

South

  • Dalanzadgad (Даланзадгад) —> To get to South Gobi, you need to take a 10-hours bus ride to Dalanzadgad. The bus will cost 22,500MNT (USD9) and leave at 0800hrs daily from Bayanzurkh Bus Terminal. From Dalanzadgad, you will have to hire a jeep to bring you to popular destinations. I have two contacts here recommended to me by others travelers whom I met along the way:
  1. Yu. Altanchimeg —> Mobile: 976-99055366 (chimeg_yu@yahoo.com) 
  2. Munkhdualga (Duke) —> Mobile: 976-88812052 (Ikhbogd.travel@gmail.com)        

West

  • Olgii (Өлгий) —> If you want to save on expensive flight and do not mind a 48-hours (or can be 4-5 days) bumpy bus ride. The west side of Mongolia is where Atlai Mountains are and where the Muslims community (Kazakhs) can be seen. Bus leaves daily at 1500hrs from Dragon Terminal and cost 80,000MNT (USD32). Flight will cost about USD250-USD300 for 2.5-hours.

Accommodation

You can’t say you had experienced nomad life if you don’t stay in gers (Mongolian Yurts)! Mongolians are quite active in couchsurfing if you are looking into free accommodations in Ulaanbaatar. If you are planning to stay longer to experience how the locals live in the countryside, try workaway! There are a lot of hostels in the capital which ranges about USD7-USD10 per night. Sometimes, you may even be offered to stay with a family for free, but a small offering or donation is recommended for such generosity.

Ger by Lake Khövsgöl

Food

Most hostels provide free breakfast which comes with bread, biscuits and tea/coffee. Food are generally range about USD3-5 for a meal in Ulaanbaatar, and much cheaper if out of the city. Most backpackers like myself will buy fruits vegetables from local grocery stores or pop-up stalls along the street which will cost less than USD2 (Did I forgot to mention most hostels are equipped with small kitchen for usage too!). If you are not a fan of meat (especially mutton) like me, it is pretty easy to find vegetarian food (цагаан хоолтон) in Ulaabaantar or request it from the nomad families! 

Vegan food with drink: USD4

Ramen: less than USD2

Western food: 11,000MNT (USD4.50)

Shopping

When you visit the middle east, you shop for carpets. When you visit Mongolia, you shop for cashmere! Cashmere stores can be seen around the central of Ulaanbaatar.

Before cashmere is made…

The most famous market among the backpackers is the Narantuul Market (aka Black Market). Here, you can shop for almost everything from food to counterfeit designer goods to traditional ger furniture. You can even buy a horse! However, do take note of pickpockets and rough drunkards while doing your shopping.

If you are looking for authentic international brands and souvenirs, head to State Department Store. Conveniently located in the heart of Ulaanbaatar, State Department Store is the largest and most luxurious store in Mongolia. You can basically find all products and services under one roof! (Tip: You may get your SIM card here as all telecommunication companies are next to each other for easy comparisons plus the staff can speak English)  

Looking for handcrafted gift? Try shopping at Mary &  Martha, the only WFTO (World Fair Trade Organisation) registered store in Mongolia. Their products are real nice but prices are kind of steep.

Cost of Attractions and Activities

Unlike most countries, Mongolia has not implemented higher fee for tourists into national parks, museums and monasteries. However, they do charge for photography (which is usually higher than the entrance fee) but you can always take pictures in discreet. The best thing is students from all over the world can flash their student card for more than half the price less! Typical entrance fee for adult is around USD1-3, so imagine how little I’ve spent with my student pass!

Horse trekking is one of the most expensive activity I paid for. A day of horse trekking will cost about 25,000MNT (USD10) and another USD10 for your guide. Therefore, it is always nice to make friends from hostel to share guide’s cost and maybe to get a better bargain.

Toilet

While you can easily find proper toilets in restaurants, big malls and parks in Ulaanbaatar, but once you are out, you will have to settle your nature call out in the wild. If you are travelling to other cities by local buses, either you learn to control your bladder or learn from the local and do your “business” in nomadic style. The only “proper” toilet you will come across is when the driver stop for food. And by “proper” means a deep hole covered with a few wooden planks. It is advisable to prepare toilet paper, wet wipes / sanitizers when on the road.

Money

The Mongolian unit of currency is tögrög or tugrik (T). It comes in T5, T10, T50, T100, T500, T1000, T5000, T10,000 and T20,000. The highest-value note is worth less than about USD10.

Only in major stores, restaurants and hotels in Ulaanbaatar accept common credit cards. Once you are out of the capital, only cash will be accepted. USD and Euro are widely accepted even at the countryside, however do take note that dollar bills older than 10-years will be rejected.

ATMs works well for most credit cards, but do carry enough cash to last if you are travelling out of Ulaanbaatar. Even though smaller city like Kharahorin and Mörön do have ATMs, they often run out of cash.  

Banks are available everywhere in Ulaanbaatar for money exchange. But I do recommend the money changer in State Department Store as they give better rates than the banks. However, they only accept certain currencies such as USD, Euro, Chinese Renminbi , Russian Ruble and Korean Won. 

Bear in mind change or spend all your tögrög before leaving the country as it’s worthless elsewhere.

Weather

The best time to visit Mongolia is during the warmer, drier months between May and October with spring and fall being the absolute best. Ulaanbaatar is the World’s coldest capital, and across the country winter temperatures regularly drop to -40°C and below. Only the southern Gobi Desert is truly hot in the summer months, though this is also when some rainfall is most likely. July and August are the warmest months but you may need to have a sweater or wind breaker at night.

People and Culture

Approximately 30% of Mongolians are nomads to this day! In Mongolia, the people are always interested in you and try to help you out any way they can. You will find that they are welcoming, kind and extremely generous. They are always curious of travellers and love to try to connect with you, even if they can’t communicate. They are intriguing and inspiring people and you can learn a lot from their hospitality and earthly wisdom.

So how much did I actually spent? For a month in Mongolia, I spent no more than USD450. This budget inclusive of food, transportation around the country, accommodations, all the attractions and activities I had done (inclusive of Naadam) plus some souvenirs! 

Laos: A real taste of laid-back lifestyle

Laos (pronounced as Lao), is one of the poorest country in Southeast Asia. A mountainous and landlocked country, Laos shares borders with Vietnam to the east, Cambodia to the south, Thailand to the west, and Myanmar and China to the north. 

Communist Laos flung open its doors to tourism in the early 1990s and the decades since have witnessed a steady growth in traveller numbers. The country is changing fast, but the lifestyle of the people remains the same, revealing that the true meaning of “Lao PDR” is Lao – Please Don’t Rush.

I took the longest route to travel from Chaing Rai to Luang Prabang, Northern Laos. The whole journey took about 2-days, mainly on the boat. I would recommend to book through an agency to help you arrange the necessary transportation. I had calculated the cost and the difference is about 200-300Baht, better than risking taking unreliable public transport and missing the boat or without a seat. (They have overloaded the boat due to overselling of tickets and I kinda feared the boat might sink!) 😨😨😨

Price breakdown from the hostel. I paid 1450Baht from a tour agency at night market

Van pick-up to Chiang Kong at 0545hrs

Chiang Khong Border

Bus to cross over to Laos Immigration

Show this to board the right tuk-tuk

Being the only Asians who don’t need visa, need to wait for others 😔😔😔

Grab food for boat ride

First leg of the journey: to Pakbang Village

Nope! Not gonna let my backpack squashed underneath

Boat only leave after 2-hours later…. 😥😥😥

Looks empty ’cause travellers start to form groups either at the front or back smoking and singing

Prepare to meet some locals ’cause the boat gonna stop at small villages along the Mekong river

If you are not prepared, there’s food and drinks selling triple the price

From Huay Xai to Pakbang village is about 8-hours. Once you reached the village, you will be approached by the villages selling their accommodations for the night stay. Most guesthouses offer twin bed-room which cost about 500Baht (USD15). If you are travelling solo like me, it will be a wise choice to make friends on the boat so you have someone to share a room with.

Once you decided when you stay, you board the van and they will send you to the guesthouse

My roomie, Laura, from Netherlands

The eldest traveller met on the boat. She spent Winter in S.E.A ’cause she’s so sick of the cold in France

A different but smaller boat for next leg of the journey: Luang Prabang

Pure boredom 😐😐😐

After 7-hours, finally I am here!!! 😊😊😊

Getting a ticket for a ride to town

Luang Prabang

Declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995, the town was described by the global body as “an outstanding example of the fusion of traditional architecture and Lao urban structures with those built by the European colonial authorities in the 19th and 20th centuries. Its unique, remarkably well-preserved townscape illustrates a key stage in the blending of these two distinct cultural traditions.”

50,000kip (USD6) per night

Most guesthouses provide breakfast like this!

There are only 2 purposes for me to visit this touristic town on this trip: Kwang Si Waterfall and Tak Bat. 

About halfway between the park entrance and the waterfall is the Asiatic Black Bear rescue centre, which houses a couple of dozen animals rescued from the hands of poachers and traffickers. The bears are in large enclosures with trees and some simple toys like tire swings. An elevated viewing platform has been built near the enclosure so visitors can observe these endangered animals 🐻🐻🐻

After exiting the rescue centre, continue to head upwards the trail and you will see the waterfall.

While I had not decided where to go next, most days I am just wandering around. Most of the temples need to pay entrance fee so I just take pictures from outside.  

 

There is a daily night market in town and the most popular hidden bar where all backpackers chill every night. You will always see familiar faces and quite a nice place to meet other backpackers to exchange information. 

Not easy to find this place even though you are using google map.

5 solo female travellers

On my last day in Luang Prabang I went for Tak Bat with the other girls I met on previous day. Known as Alms Giving Ceremony, Tak Bat is a daily tradition which gives you an opportunity to experience an ancient Lao tradition. However, as more and more travellers discover Laos, the Buddhist tradition has turned into a circus show with disruptive and disrespectful behavior from tourists. As such, more and more locals stopped participating the ceremony to avoid being part of the show.

Locals will prepare their own food for the monk, whereas they are vendors selling for tourists who wishes to take part in the ceremony

Nong Kiaow

A small town 3-hours away from Luang Prabang on the banks of the Nam Ou River, Nong Kiaow boasts a gorgeous backdrop of imposing limestone mountains, picturesque river views and genuine local colour. This is the place where I can fully connect with nature and enjoyed me-time without interactions with other travellers after 3-weeks.

What I did in Nong Kiaow were mainly hiking and kayaking.

50,000 kip (USD6) for a room all by myself

Instead of heading to Vang Vieng, the party-town, I decided to go Vientiane instead. As Nong Kiaow is a small town with limited buses in and out, I had experience my worst sleeper-bus ride. 

22,000kip (USD3), 13-hours ride

The bus is divided into 2-rows of double-deck beds. Bad news is, it’s a sharing bed. Therefore, I shared mine with a plump local lady who took up 3/4 of the space the moment she laid down. The bus smelled of leek and onions (locals bringing it to the city to sell), and a girl opposite me kept vomiting non-stop. There was no proper toilet stop, you simply have to pee along the road the driver stopped for you. By the time I have reached Vientiane, I was in a very foul mood. 

Vientiane

For many years a sleepy backwater capital of an equally backwater state, as Laos has slowly opened up to foreign investment and tourism Vientiane has undergone vast changes and continues to expand. With a population of only 850,000, this is likely to be the smallest capital city you will find in Southeast Asia.

50,000kip (USD6) per night

This hostel serves very nice food!

Days spent in Vientiane was as slow as I spent in Nong Kiaow. Coming to the end of the trip, money is running low so I walked from one place to another most of the time. I made friends with the cook of the hostel and often get free food.  

Once under French colony, most street names are still very frenchy

Patuxai Victory Monument

It’s not the local Lao cuisine you must try in Vientiane, it’s FRENCH cuisine! I had tried in a restaurant near my hostel. A 3-course set meal cost me 120,000kip (USD15). Totally worth it!!

Between 1964 and 1973 the US army dropped over two million tons of ordnance on Laos, making it the most heavily bombed country per capita in history. The Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise (COPE) is a non-profit based in Vientiane that runs rehabilitation centres aiming to provide care and support to UXO survivors, including orthotic and prosthetic devices and physiotherapy.

Buddha Park is a combination of Buddhism and Hinduism depicting various deities and scenes from both religions. The park provides no context for the various myths it depicts, except for the giant concrete pumpkin that is supposed to represent hell, earth and heaven. 

Instead of taking a shared tuk-tuk which cost 70,000kip (USD9), try taking a local bus which cost only 6,000kip (less than USD1). From Central Bus Station from Talat Sao, take Bus route 14, an air-conditioned green and white bus that runs regularly to/from the Friendship Bridge. Buddha Park is a few kilometers past Friendship Bridge.

Opposite Buddha Park there’s a bus stop to return back Talat Sao

Last but not least, don’t forget to catch sunset at Mekong Riverfront. This is also where the local night market is.

Watching sunset and doing manicure at the same time

I’m already looking forward to my next trip back to Laos, exploring other hidden gems!!

Bangkok: Off the Beaten Path

“If man has no knowledge of the past, he is nothing but a vessel without a rudder on the high seas” 

Bangkok, probably the most popular destination in Asia with its chaotic streets and crazy nightlife. Been in this bustling city several times with all the eat-and-shop-till-you-drop experiences, so this time I’ve decided to explore a little out of the city. No Chatuchak, no night markets, no fanciful cafes nor those “must-visit” temples 😎😎😎

Erawan Museum

Just outside South of Bangkok in Samut Prakan province stand a 250-tons, 44-meters tall three-headed copper elephant. That is the massive icon of Erawan Museum which houses one of the most exquisite art and religious collections in Thailand. 

I was wowed by the impressive rounded stained-glass roof the moment I stepped into the shrine 😱😱😱

A world map blending into the Zodiac and galaxies beyond 😍

A small statue of Mahayana Buddhist Bodhisattva of Compassion

As you continue to head up through a long spiraling staircases, you feel cooler and somehow reached a “fantasy world”.

Standing Gold Buddha surrounded by moons, sun, clouds and constellations

If it’s not too hot, you can take a walk along the tropical garden outside the shrine.

How I get there: BTS Skytrain to Bearing Station and then use Uber Bike to Erawan Museum (130Baht; USD4)

Admission Fee: Foreigner price is 400Baht (USD12).  I used Klook apps to book online which cost me SGD11 (USD7) 

The Ancient City

Taking up 320 acres of land, roughly in the shape of Thailand, Ancient City is the largest open-air museum in the world. This huge park reproduces over 100 important monuments from around Thailand. Some of them are reconstructions of buildings that no longer exist. Other buildings are examples of traditional architecture that were scheduled to be demolished and instead were purchased by the Ancient City, dismantled and reconstructed in the park. 

Entrance to the museum

Map of the museum

Opening Hours: 0900-1900hrs

Tourist pass is 700Baht (USD20), but if you go after 1600hrs, the fee will be halved (USD10)

Bicycle rental is inclusive! Trust me, you wouldn’t want to walk in this museum

Spending a day here taking pictures with all the architectures is as good as going around Thailand visiting different temples and monuments!! A great place for instagramable photographs 📷📷📷

How I get there: Taking Uber Car from Erawan Museum to Ancient City: 200Baht (USD5.50)

“Death Railway” in Kanchanaburi 

One of the major projects during World War II was to construct a 250-miles railway from Ban Pong, Thailand to Thanbuyuzayat, Burma. Originally called the Thailand-Burma Railway, it earned the nickname “Death Railway” because over one hundred thousand laborers died during its 16 month construction between 1942 and 1943. Today, part of the railway is still in use daily for visitors to pay remembrance to the horrific history of the Death Railway.

100Baht one-way, about 3-hours journey

Only 3rd class train available

Thai-Burma Railway starting station

River Kwai Bridge where usually tourists will get off here

But I continued on to pass this bridge by train

High-5 to tourists along the wayy

Most locals will get off here……

To pray inside this cave, a cave used to keep the POWs

You can walk along this railway before the train returned from another side

I’m definitely going to get fined for doing this if in my own country! 😋

Just walk back to the previous station (20-minutes) and wait for train back to BKK!

When you board the train from an under-utilized station, you pay your fare to the train captain

How I get there: Took Uber Car from hostel to Thonburi Station 150Baht (USD4) to catch a 0745hrs train. Returned on a 1330hrs train.

*Take note of the return train timetable if you planning for a day-trip only.

Maeklong Railway Market

Apart from floating markets, street markets and night markets, Maeklong Railway market is one unique experience you should try when visiting Thailand. One minute there is a bustling market under umbrellas with stalls scattered everywhere. The next minute a train passes right through the middle of it all, only to turn back into a market a few minutes later. How cool is that?! 

13Baht bus ride

Mini-van from Sai Tai Mai (Southern Bus Terminal) 70Baht (USD2)

Waiting for 1110hrs train to arrive

Here it comes~

So near I can touch it

Catch you later~~

I chose an easier way to get to Maeklong Market by taking mini-van from Southern Bus Terminal, 90-minutes journey. Do not go to Victory Monument, services do not run from there as of 2016.

Train arrival times: 8.30 a.m., 11.10 a.m., 2.30 p.m. and 5.40 p.m.

Train departure times: 6.20 a.m., 9.00 a.m., 11.30 a.m. and 3.30 p.m.

And now, I’m going to catch the 1130hrs train back to Bangkok, which will take me about 3-hours 😴😴😴

Managed to get a ticket 5-minutes the train leaves for Ban Laem: 10Baht 

After 1-hour, reached Ban Laem Station

From Ban Laem Station, walk about 10-minutes along the street you will see ferry crossing pier

Ferry: 3Baht

Once reach to the opposite side at Mahachai, walk along the seafood market and will reach a train station

Another 1-hour train ride: 10Baht

Once arrive at WongWian Yai Station, walk about 15-minutes to the nearest BTS station.

Ayutthaya

Used to be second capital of the Siamese Kingdom, Ayutthaya was attacked and razed by the Burmese army in 1767 who burned the city to the ground and forced the inhabitants to abandon the city. Today, Ayutthaya is an archaeological ruin, characterized by the remains of tall prang (reliquary towers) and Buddhist monasteries of monumental proportions, which give an idea of the city’s past size and the splendor of its architecture. 

15Baht, 3-hours from Bangkok

260baht (USD7) per night

Renting a bicycle is one of the best ways to explore the city

A more luxury option is to go by tour tram

It’s my lucky day!! All attractions are free!!! 😇

Wat Phra Si Sanphet

Wat Maha That

Wat Lokkaya Sutharam

River crossing to floating market

200Baht to floating market

yummy but so spicy~

Boat ride along the river

2 days in Ayutthaya is not enough at all…I will definitely come back again and stay longer next time! 

Spending 24-hours in Hat Yai, Thailand

After travelling for almost 24-hours from Johor Bahru, I have finally reached Hat Yai, the closest city in Thailand from Malaysia’s border 🤗

Train hotel inside train station

I checked into Hat Yai Youth Hostel which is about 20-minutes of walking from train station and 5-minutes from Lee Garden Plaza. 

Owner of the hostel

Boss of the owner 🐱

Wisdom words from the late King 🤴🏽

How many of these people can you recognized??

187baht (USD5) per night for 6-beds dorm

Lee Garden Plaza is the centre of Hatyai surrounded by shopping centers and restaurants. As Hat Yai is a highly popular city among the Malaysians and Singaporeans, most of the locals are able to speak Mandarin and Hokkien instead of English. 

First cooked meal: 50baht (USD1.50)

SIM Card: 599baht (USD17)

Next morning, i woke up looking forward to what surprises this under-rated city can offer me! 

Vegetarian noodle: 50baht (USD1.50)

Over the breakfast, I chatted with a songthaew driver and showed him a list of places I wanted to visit. I bargained from 1500baht (USD45) to 800baht (USD23) for a day of his service. I’m happy with the deal considering that I’ve chartered the whole car by myself 😇

Wat Hai Yai Nai

Measuring 35-meters long, 15-meters tall and 10-meters wide, Phra Phuttha Hattha Mongkhon is the third largest reclining Buddha in the world. This open-air temple is free of charge!

epic failure picture taken by the driver…🙄

selfie is still a better choice

another failed picture….where’s my pretty roof top?? 😑

 

Municipal Park

Located 6-kilometers outside of central Hat Yai is a park that covered from hills to a lake. In the park there is White Jade Guan Yin (Goddess of Mercy), Laughing Buddha and a standing Golden Buddha. Newly addition of cable car brings you to Kor Hong Mountain where the four-faced Brahma Shrine is located. The park admission is FREE!

Guan Yin with Jade Girl and Golden Boy

Kwan Kung, God of Business

Grand entrance to Laughing Buddha

Wishing bells

Laughing Buddha

Standing at 20-meters, Phra Buddha Mongkol Maharaj was built to mark King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s 72nd birthday

200baht for one-way ride

As I did not want to spend anymore money on transportation, the driver was kind enough to send me to see the Four-Faced Brahma Shrine on the opposite mountain. 

Didn’t want to take cable car but still must take a selfie

Erawan: Three-headed Elephant

So many miniature elephants

View of Hat Yai City

Samila Beach

About 30-kilometers away from Hat Yai lies the neighboring city of Songkhla. Famously known as “the great city on two seas” this city is surrounded by beaches such as Samila and Son Awn. 

Road block…but would he really stop suspicious car?? 🤔

This probably the only beach in Thailand not populated among foreigners 😉

Am I the only human here?? 👻

Such an empty beach!!

The most iconic statue: The Golden Mermaid

On the far end of the beach, you can see this Great Serpent “Nag”. Locals believe that he sprays divine water to make people feel happy and purified their minds.

Tang Kuan Hill

About less than 5-minutes from Samila Beach, Tang Kuan Hill is not only a place for 360-degree breathtaking views of Songkhla City but also housed the sacred pagoda Dvaravati Chedi built to contains the Lord Buddha’s relics.

Admission is free but you have to pay 30baht if you choose to take a 3-minutes, 170-meters inclined-lift ride up

Lift operator 😴😴😴

The Lighthouse

Phra Chedi Luang

Love locks 💝

Accidentally came across this house which used to belong to King Rama V

By the time I reached back Hat Yai, I have 3-hours to get prepared and catch the evening train heading to BANGKOK! 

Hat Yai to BKK: 755Baht (USD22)

Alternative Travel: From Singapore to Thailand on Land

“Little by Little,

One Travels Far”

Apart from flying, another alternative and fun way is to travel by train! Not only you can get off at any city/town you would like to explore, you also get to catch beautiful scenery of the countryside. Unlike airfares, train prices are quite standard and you do not need to worry about your over-sized backpack at all!

On my most recent trip, I had decided to travel to Thailand from Malaysia by train and fell in love with it. I ended up commuting around Thailand via railways for two weeks 🚂🚂🚂

There are actually a few ways to cross Malaysia-Thailand border by train raging from luxurious price to backpacker price:

  1. Eastern and Oriental Express: runs twice a month from Singapore to Bangkok for 3-days 2-night. Price ranges from £2,792 (~USD3,500) for solo traveller 😱
  2. Johor Bahru —> Gemas —> Kuala Lumpur —> Penang —> Padang Besar —> Hatyai: about 19-hours (excluding transferring and waiting), total cost SGD48 (~USD35)
  3. Johor Bahru —> Gemas —> Padang Besar —> Hatyai: about 19-hours (excluding transferring and waiting), total cost SGD48 (~USD35)
  4. Johor Bahru —> Pasir Mas —> Rantau Panjang —> Sungei Kolok —> Hatyai: almost 24hrs, total cost SGD28 (~USD20)

And needless to say, I chose the cheapest way to start my adventure!😅

My initial plan was to take the shuttle bus from Woodlands Train Checkpoint to Johor Bahru. However, due to weekends, the tickets were sold out completely even though I was 3-hours early to get a ticket (’cause they don’t sell it online anymore🙄). The queues for public buses entering JB were horrendous! 😫 and so decided to squeeze into a blue bus meant for factory workers. This helped me skipped the horrible long queue and only cost me RM2.

look out for this blue bus if you ever want to get out of checkpoint during peak period

After clearing in JB checkpoint, just follow signage towards JB Sentral to get train ticket to Pasir Mas!

Note that there is only one train leaving daily at 1900hrs from JB to Pasir Mas.

Train ticket: RM55 (USD12)