Phong Nha Cavernous Caves….Vietnam

Warning: There are lots of pictures of rocks. Lots. But they are pretty cool.

We crossed into Vietnam via Cha Lo, which is not a common tourist crossing we found out.  Our bus was full of 20-something Vietnamese guys presumably returning from working in Laos or Thailand, as their wallets were stuffed full of cash.  40 guys with stinky feet and me, and absolutely no English.  It took us 2 hours to get through the border, which was full of hand gestures, confusion and shuffling bags back and forth between inspections and the bus.  The whole time, we had a glimmer of hope that they could drop us off in Phong Nha (our destination) as it was in the direct path between Thakhek and Dong Hoi.  So we kept saying Phong Nha to the driver and the ticket guy and the other guy who was in charge of something.  Eventually they started calling us Phong Nha.

But we didn’t stop in Phong Nha, though we got within 20 km or so.  We got dropped off in Dong Hoi and found out the last bus to Phong Nha had already departed and we could take a taxi for an exorbitant amount, or wait til the next morning to catch the local bus at just over $1.  So we found a nice guesthouse along the ocean and ate some delicious beef soup.

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The next morning we woke up early and went out on the main street, hoping to find a bus marked with our destination.  After 20 nerve-racking minutes, we spotted one, got on and discovered other tourists headed the same way.

We spent that afternoon researching and talking to people coming back from the caves.  The national park here has the world’s largest cave and it was only discovered in the last few years.  Hence, tourism has just started to pick up and people are flocking to the area to see the caves.  The largest cave is $3000 to visit and has a waiting list, so that was out.  We opted for a few of the other, also spectacular ones instead.
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The next morning the power was out (something we would come to discover happens quite a lot).  There are tour companies in Phong Nha who offer day trips to see multiple attractions.  We asked around, thought $60+ was too much and decided to do two caves on our own.  The roads are good and the scenery is gorgeous, so we rented a motorbike for the hour drive to Paradise Cave.

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The ride up the cave was beautiful, more karsts, little towns and lush, green foliage.  It rains quite a lot at this time of year.  We parked the motorbike and climbed about a kilometer up a mountain to reach the entrance to the cave.  This cave has been open to the public for awhile and they have sunk a lot of money into the infrastructure here.  Everything outside is paved and the whole walkway inside the cave is wooden and appears sturdy.  I was pretty impressed.  For being so remote, this cave was really well taken care of and tastefully lit up.

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We spent about two hours at Paradise Cave, walking the 1 kilometer path and back.  The stalactites and stalagmites were massive and had such character.  You could see where some had fallen thousands of years ago and more had formed on top of them.  We arrived at lunchtime and all the tour groups were gone so we were able to enjoy a few minutes of complete silence in the cave (besides the dripping water).  The pictures don’t really do it justice.  It was hard to capture the scale of the cavern with the camera.

Next stop, the Dark Cave.  This is more of an adventure cave, not as big and has no lights.  This cave is more expensive, but includes all necessary gear – headlamp, hard hat, life vest and safety harness.  We were strapped into our harnesses and ziplined across the river to the mouth of the cave.  From there, we swam into the cave, waded through chilly water and mud.  We removed our lifejackets, flipped on our headlamps and trod through mud toward our destination, slipping all the way.  By the time we reached the end of the trail, we were all covered in mud and having a grand time.  I had a mudstache – courtesy of our guide.

The finale of the tour is sitting in a thick pool of mud in complete darkness.  The mud is so thick that you can float on it, but still swim.  It was much warmer deep in the cave and the mud felt great on my skin.  We headed back the way we came, rinsed off and kayaked back to the start, where they have two small ziplines dropping you into the water.  Despite the chill of the water, this turned out to be my favorite thing in Phong Nha.  It helps that they serve you hot soup, tea and rum by a fire at the end.

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We dried off and headed back to town in time for sunset.  Driving at night is dangerous, as there are no streetlights and when we got back to the hostel, there still wasn’t any power.  So no hot showers for us, which was disappointing.  Apparently, they are working on the electric lines all the time, probably updating them to accommodate the huge influx of tourism in the area in the last few years.  It would be interesting to see the development that happens in this area in the next ten years.  The caves are really incredible and its no wonder why people are already flocking here.

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The following day we met in the lobby of our hostel to join a bunch of people to visit the cave that is closest to town.  Ten of us split the cost of a boat and we headed for Phong Nha and Tien Son caves.  The little dragon boat took us down the river about half an hour to the entrance of the caves, leaking all the way.  our wooden boat had seen better days.  At the entrance to Phong Nha cave, the boat driver switched off the motor and he and his helper removed the top of the boat, so we could look directly above our heads.  They pulled out their paddles and we spent the next hour or so moving silently through the cave.

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The dragon boat returned us to the entrance of the cave and we disembarked for the walk up to the next cave, Tien Son.  We walked up some very steep steps, with ladies selling ice cream all the way up.  In my opinion, this cave was better than Phong Nha cave.   There is wooden loop way down into the cave, lots more steps.  More beautiful formations and tasteful lighting.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We took the dragon boat back to town, where the power was out again.  Saw some interesting boat uses along the way.

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The next day we took the local bus back to Dong Hoi, where we were dropped at an intersection and told to wait for the next bus to Hue (no time table).  Luckily, one arrived about half an hour later, we flagged it down and headed south on the dustiest and bumpiest  bus/road we have encountered thus far.

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Colonel Mustard and Mr. Tabasco are a long way from home.

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Take a road just to see where it goes….Thakhek Loop, Laos

Thakhek is a small town on the Mekong River with a border crossing to Thailand.  There’s not much going on here, but it seems to be a base for people doing the ‘Thakhek Loop,’ like us, and for a large cave.  Our plan included the loop, a 400+ km (250+ miles) tour through incredible karsts with stops along the way with breathtaking scenery and caves.

We arrived by bus from Vientiane (about 5 hours) and wandered town to find a hostel.  Slim pickings here as there are only a few roads and many of the guesthouses don’t really look open.  We spent the next day walking the town.  The whole town.  Which wasn’t tough.  Only took a few hours.  There’s a small market and a riverfront.  We reserved our motorbikes that evening and packed our small bags with just enough stuff for our four day trip.

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Day 1:

We set out around 10 am, after running some errands around town and eating breakfast.  First stop, Xieng Liab cave.  Only about ten minutes outside of town, we pulled over at a sign pointing down a tiny dirt path.  A local tried to offer his guidance, but we declined and walked about 10 minutes into the woods.  A huge opening in the vertical karst greeted us and we spent the next ten minutes climbing over rocks to get a good view of the inside.

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Then we headed a bit down the road and found the Falang watering hole (means foreigner).  The water was beautiful and enticing, but a bit cold for our taste.

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As the road turned more rural, we came across incredible flooded forests, as this area was purposely flooded for a hydropower project.  Sixteen villages were relocated.  The locals were given bigger and “better” houses and moved just out of the flooded area.  95% of the power is sold to Thailand.  All this we learned when we encountered the dam’s visitor center and a man working there who has the best English we’d found in awhile.  He was very pleased to meet some Americans, as his English teacher when he was a monk was American.

We ended our first day at a guesthouse that caters to most of the people doing the motorbike loop.  They had a bonfire all evening, a cute puppy and a delicious BBQ buffet for the ten or so guests.

 

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Day 2:

This is the day we had heard was a bit difficult.  The road turns to dirt about 20 km from where we stayed (though they are working on paving it, so this number is ever increasing).  We stocked up on gas, which is kept in liter bottles and topped off by the  local women, occasionally with a child or two on hip or in tow.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA The road wasn’t as bad as we had thought, but we went pretty slow.  We had seen some rough cases of road rash back in town and a motorbike that came back rather wrecked with its passenger still in the hospital.  The scenery was breathtaking as we descended the hills.

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Unexploded ordnances are still a problem in this area as well.

Having passed the worst part of the road, we made our way through a larger town and onto an area of the map where there was supposed to be a cool spring.  This cool spring eluded us (and most people we spoke to as well), but we found some amazing views off little dirt roads in the same general vicinity.

We tried almost every promising road off the main road to find these cool springs.  It was at the end of one of these little dirt roads that I vowed to change this blog name to “The cow came out of nowhere” when, well, the cow came out of nowhere.  A little road rash, some bruises and a lot of dust later, I was back on the bike, but done looking for cool springs.  The cow looked at me like she’d never seen such a pale person on a motorbike before, and maybe she hadn’t.

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Day 3:

This was my favorite day of the loop.  We had stayed in a town at the end of a 40 km road to Konglor Cave.  We could probably have made it all the way to the cave on day 2, but after the cow incident, I was ready to be off the bike.  The 40 km to the cave is completely flat with karsts on either side.  People were farming the land on either side of the road and there was hardly any traffic.  We passed through quite a few little villages, where the children yelled and waved hello.

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We stopped for brunch right outside the cave and Riki changed his camera lens to the fish eye. Hence, these two gems.

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At Konglor cave, you hire a boat (max three people), are given a headlamp and then head for the entrance.  We had a driver and a guy in the front with a paddle and a cup.  His job was the avoid the rocks and scoop water out of the ever flooded boat.  We had to get out at one point and walk over the rocks because it was very shallow.  During the wet season, this must be a very different place and we heard some days you can’t even go in because the water is too high.

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7 kilometers later, you emerge at the end of a dirt road (presumably there is a village 4 km up the road).  We spent 20 minutes walking around the area, though it was mostly just women hawking their scarves.  Then we returned the way we had come.

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We hopped back on our bikes and went the 40 kms back to the town we had stayed in the night before.  Some people do the loop in 3 days, but with all the flat tires we heard about and the fear of driving at night with no streetlights, four days was definitely the way to go.  There’s not much to do in Kuon Kham, but we found a viewpoint above the town with a great view of the mountains.

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8 kms west of the town is a great spot to rest between all the curves and hills.

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These cows were on their way home, but made a pit stop at the pharmacy and market to check out the goods in the trash cans.

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Day 4:

This is the ‘boring’ day, or so we had heard.  It’s 140 kms of mostly highway, which is flat and there is more traffic.  Highway is a loose term though.  We were passed by only a few cars and the scenery was still really nice.  Lots of little towns and tons of children yelling and waving at you.  We arrived back in Thakhek in time for a late lunch and checked back into our hotel.

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We managed to be about 75% sure of the bus schedule to Vietnam, so we had one extra day to wait until we could catch the bus.  Lucky for me, as I became very sick and was in no shape to get on a 9 hour bus that day.

But I didn’t hit the cow.

Next stop: Central  Vietnam and more caves!

Tubing & Birthday Visas….Vang Vieng to Vientiane, Laos

We were incredibly lucky this week. It didn’t seem like it at the time, but looking back, we were. I was reluctant to leave Luang Prabang. We met so many interesting people and we really liked the atmosphere of the town. But it was time to go and we boarded a VIP bus for Vang Vieng (this just means they may stop and give you a snack along the way). The trip was rather nauseating but the scenery as we approached Vang Vieng was incredible. Huge limestone karsts jut out of the flat landscape and tower over their surroundings. We have seen karsts in Vietnam and a few in Thailand, but these were far more impressive.

Arriving in Vang Vieng, we checked into a hostel that had been recommended to us and then found a new Mexican place around the corner. The infamous happy hour scenes were in full force, but we elected to forgo that night as Riki was a bit under the weather. The next morning, I woke up and reached down to pick up my new Scottish thriller from the floor, but the pages were soaked and the 500 page book was incredibly heavy. Thinking the neighboring water bottle must have leaked, I got up and immeditately stepped in half an inch of water, which had formed a large pool on our tile floor. I woke Riki and we started picking up bags and books and papers and shoes. But to no avail, because everything had been soaking in water for 5 hours and was already thoroughly drenched. This is where we got lucky. Most of the electronics were on a table, except for the Ipad which has a case that we have found is very absorbant, keeping the tablet dry but saturating the fabric and padding. With the help of the hostel staff, we moved to another room and sent everything worth saving to the laundry or the porch to dry in the sun. Unfortunately, this meant I lost another sock along the way, but at least it was one of the knock-off ones I got in Nepal. We also had to dispose of some papers, books and maps we had accumulated. Turns out at 2 am the room next door had a problem with the ‘bidet’ (essentially a hose with a sprayer next to the toilet) and it sprayed water everywhere. They didn’t bother to wake us up to check and see if the water went through the walls, so the water accumulated and saturated everything.

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Our bags on the line
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Riki’s Journal 😦

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With the morning pretty much shot trying to salvage things with a hair dryer, we had a lazy day and meandered around the small town and ate lunch at one of the many restaurants that show ‘Friends’ reruns all day long. Vang Vieng is famous for crazy parties and even crazier tubing. However, after too many backpackers have died while drinking on the river doing crazy stunts off rope swings and ziplines, the government has cracked down and closed many of the attractions along the water. There are still some great ‘happy hours’ in town and we partook in a few of the free whiskey drink options that evening. This part of our trip is a very popular trail for backpackers and we keep running into people we have met in the past few weeks at other destinations.

The next day we headed out to met up with some of these people and go tubing. In many hostels here, you remove your shoes before entering. Standard procedure. And there may be a rack to store your flip flops until you leave again. Well this morning, I had left my flip flops downstairs for about an hour and returned when we were ready for tubing. My shoes, however, were gone. My flip flops are bright green with zebra stripes. They are not easy to mistake as your own. So we told the hotel staff to be on the lookout and I borrowed Riki’s extra pair. Not half a block from our hostel I see my shoes. Some man (just imagine the worst kind of tourist you can think of) had commandeered my shoes and was having lunch in them down the street. So I went up to him and yelled things he couldn’t understand and took my shoes. He pointed at the ones I was wearing, probably asking for those in return, but I said, no, those were also mine and left him shoeless. I huffed back to the hostel to drop off Riki’s extra pair and off we went. Hopefully, he has learned a lesson and won’t steal peoples’ shoes anymore. But probably not. I no longer leave my shoes unattended.

Tubing is different here than what we are used to. There is not actually much tubing. You hop in a tuk tuk and get taken 3 km up the river. After you get in the water, you tube about 50 meters to the first bar, where a guy working there throws a rope with a water bottle to you and pulls you in. This bar has games and free whiskey shots. They also have brightly colored bracelets they hand out. We played bocci and watched some people try to chicken fight on a log over a very shallow pool of muddy water. There was also mud volleyball and basketball with the backboard shooting a steady stream of water down at the players. After awhile the whole crowd slowly meanders back into the water and heads to the second bar across the river, 200 meters away. You do about the same thing as the first bar. I think this one had a musical-tube game though. The third and fourth bars were pretty much the same, so we set out with a group to tube the remaining hour back to town. Most people seemed to stay at the bars and just take a tuk tuk back to town in time (or not) to get your tube deposit back. It took us more like an hour and a half to get back to town and by the end we were paddling vigorously with our hands to get there before dark (and because it was getting chilly).

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On Saturday we rented mountain bikes for about $2 and headed 7km out to the Blue Lagoon. I am not going to recommend this. While the scenery was gorgeous along the way, full of huge karsts, little villages and rice fields, the road was awful. We were told it was a dirt road, but really it was more rocks than dirt. Not fun on a mediocre mountain bike with rock hard seat. But we arrived at the Blue Lagoon, where we stuck our feet in the water and watched the Chinese tourists in lifejackets jump off a tall tree. The water was a very fresh, bright shade of blue, but we didn’t go in. For one thing, I was a bit self concious about being the only one in a bikini. All the Laotian women wear shirts and long shorts in the water. Also, it was a bit cold. Right behind the Blue Lagoon is a cave some 200 meters UP. We climbed to the entrance and discovered a rather small opening. But when you step into the cave, you are confronted with a vast room, which is pretty well lit from other small openings. It was really incredible to climb down and explore the illuminated areas. We didn’t bring a light, so we stuck to the first cavern, which was huge.

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We left the Blue Lagoon and got back on our horrendous bikes, stopping about halfway back to do an easy 20 minute walk 500 meters from the village or so the sign said. Sounded like a great break from the bikes.

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Right.
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This is me not having fun.

This was actually my favorite part of the day. But it wasn’t until we had reached the top that I decided that. The hike up the mountain was maybe 500 meters vertical and definitely took more than 20 minutes. At one point, we were walking up a wood ladder rather precariously attached to the side of the rock. But there was a section of chain link fence between us and many meters below, so it worked out. At the top, we were rewarded with an amazing view. We sat in a wood hut for probably an hour with some fellow Americans and admired the landscape.

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Much happier.

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The next day we hopped on a bus for the capital of Laos, Vientiane. A quick four hour trip, not too windy and relatively scenic. We had heard there was not much to do here and people only come to catch flights, renew visas and to cross the border to Thailand. However, we were pleasantly surprised and within hours of arriving, Riki had already said he could live here. We wandered that evening through the night market, which was crowded with clothes, electronics, souvenirs and scarves. Normal stuff. We even found a hot pot place right on the Mekong for dinner.

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Monday being my 29th birthday, we planned an extra special trip to the Vietnamese Embassy. On the way, we climbed the Laos version of the Arc de Triumph in France. The story goes that the Americans gave Laos a bunch of concrete to build a new airport. However, Laos thought of a better use and built this arch, which is a few feet taller than its sister in Paris. Hence, it is often called the vertical runway. It is really strange and the sign at the entrance calls it a concrete monster. But the view from the top was nice.

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After we handed over our passports to the Vietnamese and an incredible amount of US dollars, we walked back toward the river. We stopped at the morning market and found me some real birthday cake. Most of the desserts here are a cross between jello and custard. Not really my thing. The morning market is a bizarre place. The second floor is entirely gold jewelry vendors, and practically no customers. The other sections sell anything from pens to refrigerators. And everything in between.

Laos has a troubled past, mostly because of the Americans. Laos had more bombs dropped on it during the Vietnam War than all the bombs combined dropped during WWII. Our next stop was the COPE visitor’s center, which is an organization that helps people still affected by these bombs. Every year 100 people in Laos die because they come across a “bombie” as they call them. Many more are injured. These are fist sized bombs that were dropped by the millions along the Ho Chi Minh trail and all over Laos. Many of them didn’t explode on impact and lay in wait for their next victim. The center helps people who have lost limbs, mostly by giving them custom prothestics. Many of their patients are children. The scrap metal from the shrapnel is a huge draw for people in the rural areas. They come across bombs and just see the money they could make from them. They don’t necessarily know they can be dangerous. Many children collect the metal to sell to help feed their families. But when they come across a live bomb, it can be devastating. The visitor’s center is a really informative place. We watched a couple of their documentaries that show what they are doing to help and how people are trying to educate others about the dangers. They still find bombs all over. They find them in the streets when rain shifts dirt around. They find them in the rivers during the dry season. I could rant some more, but will spare you. Basically, what was done here was horrible and not really well known, especially at the time.

We ended my birthday on a higher note, with naan at a Pakistani restaurant and then some bowling with new friends. I bowled a 154 (my second highest ever), but that was after starting out with an 89 on a different lane. The lanes were crooked, the balls were chipped, but the beer was cheap and we had a good time.

Our last day in Vientiene was spent wandering the city, picking up our Vietnamese visas and planning our trip to Thakhek and the four day motorbike loop there.

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Slow boat along Banana Pancake Trail….Northern Laos

There’s not much to do in Huay Xie, but it is the start of the very popular slow boat to Luang Prabang. We have heard good and bad things about the slow boat, but worse things about the other options. The bus ride is bumpy and curvy. The fast boat is very dangerous and uncomfortable. So we found ourselves with 150 other tourists, mostly backpackers for a two day journey down the Mekong River.  Though we were very tightly packed, sitting on modified car seats, the scenery was great and we passed the time reading, playing cards with other travelers, and swapping stories.  Our general conversations go something like this:

Where are you from?

How long are you travelling?

Are going to insert common destination?

Have you been to our next destination?

What’s your name? (this is sometimes hours after you “met”)

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Typical boats
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Riverside village
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Boat stop
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River scenery
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Laos Locals (Laotians just doesn’t sound right)
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River scenery
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River scenery
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Pretty tightly packed

After about 2 hours, we were over the whole boat thing and ready to disembark.  Luckily, they had told us it would be 8 hours and we arrived in just under 6.  We saw a lot of riverside wildlife (goats and water buffalo mostly) and the occasional village.  We arrived in a small town, Pak Beng, which is pretty much just catering to slow boat passengers.  Knowing this ahead of time and not having booked anywhere to stay, I left Riki to collect our bags amid the masses and high-tailed it up the riverbank, past the hostel representatives trying to entice me to go with them.  I found a cheap and pretty clean place at the top of the hill, dropped my bags and went to collect Riki at the boat.  We ate dinner at an OK Indian restaurant, the highlight being the small black cat who wanted to sit on my lap the whole time (that shouldn’t tell you much about the food – animals win every time with me).

The next morning, Riki dragged me out of bed incredibly early to head back to the boat.  We were first in line so Riki went off in search of sandwiches for lunch.  Luckily, our 150 people were split onto two smaller boats and we had much more space the second day of our journey.

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Pak Beng
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Elephant’s morning bath
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Our boat and seats
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River scenery
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The fast boat – our other option – notice the driver is wearing a helmet – not a good sign

We arrived earlier than expected to Luang Prabang, but encountered more Laotian scamming.  Instead of dropping us off near the town, as they used to, the slow boats park about 10 km north of the town.  At the top of a very steep and dangerous bank, there is a hut with a man behind a desk.  He demands 20,000 Kip (about 8000 Kip to $1) per person to share a tuk tuk to town.  This is a lot of money here, but your other option is to mutiny, as we saw one group do, and convince a tuk tuk driver to take you without getting tickets at the counter.  You may end up paying the same price but at least the driver gets the money, not an unknown entity.  You can also walk about 20 minutes down the road to the main road and try to hail a tuk tuk from there.

We arrived at our hostel, a great place called Kounsavan Guesthouse.  I don’t usually put hostel names in here, but this place was great.  the beds were the most comfortable we’ve encountered and we met so many great people while we were here.  Also, by far the best banana pancakes I have had this trip.  Unfortunately, there was a girl who was very sick in our 8-bed room, so we ended up spending as little time in the room as possible.

The next day we went to the Kuang Si waterfalls.  Now I’ve seen a lot of waterfalls, but people the night before had told me these were the most beautiful falls they had ever seen.  I was skeptical, but we hopped in a minivan with some people from the hostel and went to check them out.

And they were right.  So sorry about all the pictures, but there are at least ten times more than this.

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There was a bear rescue center at the bottom of the falls.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA   OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe water was such a cool color (and a bit cool).  Instead of a rocky falls, like most, this was all clay and smooth stones.  We walked to the top, which was pretty rough in flip flops, but were rewarded with a great view and a rather unstable fence keeping people from going over the edge.  It didn’t stop the guy next to me from losing a flip flop and then promptly just throwing the other one over as well.

That evening we went to a sidewalk noodle place and then to  bar where probably every tourist in town was.  We sat on the floor around a low table and drank Beer Lao until they closed (which was around 11).  On our walk back, we ran into a festival where a game that is a cross between volleyball and hackey sack was taking place.  It was incredible to watch these guys swing their feet over their heads and kick a ball the size of a cantaloupe back and forth over the net.

The next two days we explored Luang Prabang and the village across the river.  It is an old French town, so there is an interesting mix of European and Asian architecture (including rickety bamboo bridges).

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We found a really neat canvas-printing studio.  The scarves and bags were too expensive for us, but we really liked the patterns and even tried to buy some scraps (they didn’t have any – they recycle all the excess).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere is a small hill with a stupa at the top where many people go for sunset.  We skipped sunset and climbed the hill for a great view of the area.  On the way down, I acquired  a canine guide who  proceeded to join us for the walk down the stairs and for ten minutes to our lunch place, where he was chased off by some other street dogs (I didn’t initiate any of this, I promise).

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Our canine guide
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Not petting the animals is very difficult for me, especially when they are so friendly.

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We begrudgingly booked our VIP bus ticket to Vang Vieng.  Luang Prabang is more than just a tourist center for backpackers.  The landscape is incredible and it has the same laid back atmosphere that we have encountered everywhere we have been in Laos.  But it is time to head south, as we are trying to be at the beach in Vietnam for Christmas.

Wait what? White Wat….Chiang Rai, Thailand to Laos

We arrived early afternoon in Chiang Rai and checked into a hotel very close to the bus station. Chiang Rai is a small city, with not much to do. Two notable (and free!) attractions are the White Temple and the Black House. We dropped our stuff and immediately went back to the bus station to catch a public bus about 20 minutes south the way we had come. Arriving at the White Temple, we joined dozens of other tourists to tour the most unique Wat we have seen in Thailand. The entire thing is white, hence the name, and includes some contemporary icons, including Batman and Despicable Me. Arms coming out of the ground greet you at the entrance and small mirrors adorn almost every available space.

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Lots of the tops are a bit off.
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Just a bit off.

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Riki abandoned me for awhile to photograph the glittering structures and I sat in the shade under a canopy of prayers written on thin metal sheets hung with beads and bells. We took the 20 baht bus back to town and explored the city on foot. We found a few more wats, two clocktowers and a supermarket to stock up for our Laos boat trip. That evening, we did something Riki is still talking about. We set out for the night market, conveniently right near the bus station and our hotel, and discovered a ring of food stalls. A bit confusing at first, as most of the stalls just had baskets of raw vegetables and eggs. Didn’t look so great, until we realized they were for hot pots! Having never had one, we timidly ordered chicken and beef and waiting patiently as the server showed up how to set it up and cook it. We are now hoping to encounter hot pots again on our trip so we can partake.

 

 

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We got up early and headed back to the bus station. Riki tracked down a bus headed north and we got on just as it was leaving. The buses have ticket takers who are in charge of taking money and telling the bus driver where everyone is going and when to stop. We told our lady twice Black House and she seemed to understand, as she nodded and told us the fare. However, 40 minutes passed, and we started getting nervous (well Riki was nervous earlier but I confidently told him “Don’t worry, she will tell us when to get off”). So I asked the ticket taker Black House? when we stopped next. She looked at me, said Black House! to the driver and pointed to the other side of the road. Obviously, she had forgotten and we were going to have to backtrack. There were only about 10 people on the bus and we were right up front by her the whole time. Rather frustrated, I insisted on getting my money back, as we were now going to have to catch another bus. She would only give me half back, but we crossed the highway and hailed a songtheuw back the way we came.

The driver of the songtheuw (which is a modified pickup with covered benches in the back) seemed to know where we wanted to go, but when we were dropped off on the side of the highway, we weren’t so sure. But we spotted a small sign across the road pointing down a thin trail crossing some wet areas with wood plank “bridges.” The Black House is an estate of 40 odd buildings, all very darkly painted, that a Thai artist worked on for years. This is not a place for animal lovers. The place is adorned with all sorts of animal hides, horns and carvings. A bear skin covered the bed in the first building we saw (head and all) and the next few buildings were similarly furnished. There’s an entire elephant skeleton laid out under one building and some incredible huge one-plank tables. We even spotted some wildlife. A bird sounding much like a small child speaking sits next to a cage with two enormous snakes and another cage with a large owl.

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We made it back in time for the 11:30 bus to the Laos border, but only barely.  We took some of the last seats on the bus, which happened to be in the rear.  I sat behind the open door the whole 3 hour trip.  The door was bungee corded open and we rested our feet in the boxes of circuit breakers in front of us.  Not the least comfortable I’ve ever been on a bus and there weren’t any animal passengers. The scenery was beautiful though and we got some glimpses of karsts much like we saw in northern Vietnam.

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Here is where we encountered the first of the Laotian bureaucracy at its finest.  What used to be a simple boat crossing now involves quite a few steps and quite a bit more money.  First, the bus drops you off conveniently in front of a row of tuk tuks who graciously offer to take you the next 2 km to the Thai immigration station.  This costs 50 baht per person.  They even have an official looking sign.  So the 6 people going that way got on a tuk tuk and begrudgingly paid the money rather than walk with our bags.  Once you arrive at the immigration station you return your departure card and then pay another 20 baht per person plus 10 baht per bag to get on a bus to take you across the border.  We waited half an hour for the bus to leave even though we had a lot of people waiting.

When you arrive at the Laos immigration station, you grab your bags from the bus and then try to figure out what to do next. There are no signs, but we followed some people to fill out some papers and then pushed them through a window. We waited for the officer to get off his cell phone, scratch his belly some and generally look bored. Then he requested our $35 US, put a sticker in our passports and waved us away. Then we walked to another counter, where normally they would check your visa but were waved along again and then once more at a table near the exit. No one actually cared to confirm we got the visa. Then you get scammed again, as there is a took took (new spelling here) driver waiting to take you to town for 100 baht each, which is insane. We had read that you could just take a boat for 30 baht across the river and the whole process took only 5 minutes. Since they built the bridge, this is no longer the case. We spent almost an hour just trying to get through. But we eventually arrived in Huay Xie, found a decent room and a decent restaurant (where our food/beer runner was 6 years old and our waitress was 10, no one else around).

We liked the vibe of Laos almost as soon as we got done with the bureaucratic stuff. It is very relaxed, slow and friendly. Can’t wait to see what the rest of the country has to offer.