Category Archives: Laos

The Best and Worst of Southeast Asia (and Nepal)

People are always asking what our favorite part of the trip was.  That is an impossible question and I usually follow it up with asking for a category, like best nature, or best cave, or best food.  We’ve seen too many amazing things to narrow it down to one.

We started this list somewhere along the way and have updated it as we go.  There is a story behind every one, many of which are somewhere in our blog.  For the most part, Riki and I agree on these – but I’ve noted where we don’t.  There are a lot of ties.  This is by no means exhaustive as we could find a best and worst of all 275 days, but I’ll spare you.  Here are the highlights, and lowlights:

Best Meal: Hanoi, Vietnam – sautéed pork with thick strips of coconut

Worst Meal: Luang Prabang, Laos – fishy papaya salad

Best sunrise: Poon Hill – over the Himalayas & Bagan – with its hot air balloons

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From Poon Hill – some of the tallest mountains in the world.  Annapurna region, Nepal
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Prayer flags on Poon Hill
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Morning mist in Bagan, Myanmar
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Balloons over Bagan, Myanmar

Best sunset: Koh Ta Kiev, Cambodia – from the beach over calm water

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Koh Ta Kiev, Cambodia

Best snack: Fried fish powder & Broad beans

Weirdest food: Wood meat balls in Myanmar, Hue clams in Vietnam & tarantulas

Best coffee: Vietnam

Friendliest locals: Myanmar, but if you want just kids, then Laos                              

Most annoying tourists: Chinese in tour groups

Best outfits: Men – Monks with umbrellas in Laos & Myanmar (longyi – skirts), Women in Vietnam with their day pajamas

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Monks with umbrellas in Laos
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“Formal” Longyi (skirts)
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Tough to ride a bike in a skirt
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Even tougher to work construction in one

Best hairstyles: Men in Vietnam & Myanmar (slick & fashionable), Women in Nepal with dyed red hair

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Barber in Hanoi, Vietnam

Cheapest meal: Pho in Vietnam

Best new vegetable: Morning glory

Best beer: Bia Hoi in Hanoi

Worst tuktuks: Phnom Penh, Cambodia – all just scams

Most painful moment: Sun/wind burn on my hands while motobiking the Thakek Loop in Laos

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Not even ice and beer could dull the pain – I was red for a month

Worst sleep: Train from Sapa, Vietnam with snoring man

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And we were only 7 hours late on the way up to Sapa, Vietnam

Worst road: Motorcycling on the Thakek Loop, Laos

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Miles and miles like this

Worst bus ride: Getting to and from Mrauk-U, Myanmar

Coolest museum: Jakarta’s National Museum

Coolest building: White Temple in Chiang Rai, Thailand

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White Temple, Chiang Rai, Thailand

Coolest non-religious building: Marina Bay Sands (Boat Skyscraper), Singapore

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Marina Bay Sands & Lotus inspired museum, Singapore

Coolest Houses: Bajawa, Indonesia & Ubud, Bali

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Bajawa mountain village, Flores, Indonesia
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Ubud house entrance, Bali, Indonesia
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Ubud house courtyard, Bali, Indonesia
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Another courtyard in Ubud, Bali, Indonesia

Ugliest building: Government view tower in Bagan, Myanmar (so ugly it’s not pictured)

Best attraction: The Himalayas & Orangutans

Best Rice Terraces: Annapurna, Nepal (most impressive) & Ubud, Bali (most beautiful)

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Rice terraces outside Ubud, Bali, Indonesia

Friendliest kids: Laos, where they all wave and yell Saibaidee

Worst internet: Myanmar – non-existent in many places

Best caves: Phong Nha, Vietnam

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Phong Nha caves, Vietnam

Best Collection of Buddhas: Sukhothai, Thailand & Mrauk-U, Myanmar

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Sukhothai, Thailand
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90,000 Buddha Temple, Mrauk-U, Myanmar
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80,000 Buddha Temple, Mrauk-U, Myanmar

Worst dogs: Kathmandu’s gangs who bark all night

Most touristy thing we did: Canyoning in Dalat, Vietnam & the bamboo train in Battambong, Cambodia

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Canyoning in Dalat, Vietnam
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Bamboo train tracks, Battambong, Cambodia
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Bamboo train, Battambong, Cambodia

Most kitschy: James Bond Island, Thailand

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James Bond Island, Thailand

Best ancient city: Angkor, Cambodia

Best Ancient Structures: Prambanan & Borobudur, Indonesia

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Borodubur, Indonesia
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Prambanan, Indonesia

Best bike ride: Vang Vieng, Laos (though our butts hurt for a week later) & Lonely Planet city tour of Mandalay, Myanmar

Worst bike ride: Julie’s flat tires at Inle Lake, Myanmar (though I got to ride in a dump truck)

Dirtiest place: The river in Kathmandu, Nepal

Cleanest place: Downtown Singapore

Only place with a shopping mall on their currency: Brunei (also the strangest city we’ve been to)

Best skyline: Singapore because its variegated

Best land-based wildlife: Chitwan National Park in Nepal & Sukau in Borneo, Malaysia

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This was one of my all time favorite moments. Rhinos in Chitwan, Nepal
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Scary macaque in Sukau, Borneo, Malaysia
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Elephant in Sukau, Borneo, Malaysia

Best ocean wildlife: Sipadan Island, Borneo, Malaysia

Sipadan (1)
Look left, see Riki
Sipadan (4)
Look right, see me.
Sipadan (3)
Look left again, see (sea) turtle.
Sipadan (2)
Look right again, see shark. Repeat.

Most interesting city: Kathmandu

Coolest school uniforms: Girls’ skirts in Laos (I even got one made for myself)

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School girl in Laos

Best propaganda: Vietnam

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Propaganda in Hanoi, Vietnam
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More propaganda in Hanoi, Vietnam

Coolest flag: Nepal

Safest street food: Thailand

Best night markets: Thailand

Best music: Nepal

Best dancing: Pokhara, Nepal during Tihar festival

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Spontaneous street dancing, Pokhara, Nepal
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More dancing, Pokhara, Nepal

Worst laundry: Pokhara, Nepal (sock disaster)

Worst utensils: Laos’ chopsticks would splinter just looking at them

Tallest trees: Angkor, Cambodia

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Not just tall – they grew out of stone

Best public buses: Bangkok (and cheapest)

Biggest mistake: To be determined (though we are out of the incubation period for malaria so not taking those pills long enough is off the list)

Best decision: Halong Bay, Vietnam timing (going in October instead of December)

Biggest regret: Phu Quoc, Vietnam (over-priced)

Best Street Art: Yogyakarta, Indonesia

Street art, Yogyakarta, Indonesia
Street art, Yogyakarta, Indonesia
The world, Yogyakarta, Indonesia
The world, Yogyakarta, Indonesia
Street art, Yogyakarta, Indonesia
Street art, Yogyakarta, Indonesia
Street art, Yogyakarta, Indonesia
Street art, Yogyakarta, Indonesia

Best art purchase: Nepalese & Balinese paintings

Most useful purchase: sink stopper for laundry

Most useful item acquired: free wet wipes on buses

Best local quirk: Kissing noise in Myanmar(when ordering at bar/restaurant) & kids waving (all over)

Worst local quirk: Betel nut chewing and spitting noises

Hardest thing to find: sunscreen without whitening

Most used items: Travel pillow & electronics

Best item b(r)ought: Riki pants, tablet, umbrella

Most useless item: umbrella

Wish we had: Swiss army knife & variety of shirts

Best new game/time passer: Jenga & podcasts

Crazy things we are used to now:

trash in streets, long bus rides, motorbikes without helmets, bottled water, using a fork & spoon to eat, being stared at, being generally unclean, carrying tissues, crossing the street amidst hectic scenarios, walking on the left side of the sidewalk/escalator, never understanding the language

Things we missed:

Food – bread with flavor, Clothing – variety, Culture – western toilets & real showers

I still catch myself hesitating before using tap water to brush my teeth.  I am tempted to head left when approaching people, walking up stairs,  and standing on an escalator.  Luckily, we aren’t driving anywhere, so the awkwardness is just that, not dangerous.  I can’t shake the feeling that I should be out walking around all day.  I want to eat chicken and noodles, not sausage and pretzels.  I can’t buy food from a stall and I can’t get anyone to smile back at me on the street.  But Zurich’s not all that bad.  It has all you can drink water in fountains on every block and there’s no chance of finding a critter in the toilet bowl.

Money, money, money…Backpacking Southeast Asia

According to our Travel Map, we’ve traveled over 38,000 miles (61,000+ km) since we left New Orleans.  And while we didn’t actually make it around the world, the circumference of the earth is only 25,000 miles (40,000 km), we went pretty far.  We can’t abbreviate it as an ATW (Around the World) trip, which would be disappointing, except that I’ve just finished our budget and discovered we spent almost exactly the maximum we had intended to spend.  Considering we stayed many months longer than we initially intended, this is exciting news.  We were not as organized in our budget as some people, so my numbers are rough and are strictly based on ATM withdrawals in each country and credit card purchases.  I can’t provide daily eating or transportation expenses, but accommodation I tracked throughout the trip. There are a few variables that could swing figures from one country to another, but overall, this is a pretty good guess of our expenditures.  For example, we took some US dollars with us as emergency money in case ATMs weren’t working or our debit card was lost or stolen.  This was a few hundred dollars, and we used most of it in Cambodia and Myanmar, where dollars are accepted.  We also exchanged money from one country to the next, but usually tried to use it up rather than waste it on exchange commissions.  These figures were undocumented, but since we did this almost every time we crossed a border, I am going to say its probably a wash.  The extra Thai Baht we had converted to Singapore dollars we used in Brunei, and it wasn’t very much in the grand scheme of our trip.  We had some very generous gifts of hotel and flight points, which I have excluded from my averages.  For instance, the 5 days we spent at the Hyatt in Danang, Vietnam for Christmas and ate only the free food provided have not been factored into days spent in Vietnam (except for the tailoring we had done in Hoi An at that time, which has to, as its something everyone should do when there).

First, the average accommodation prices.  Keep in mind these are double occupancy.  Dorms tended to be about half what a double room cost.  Check out our Hotels List for specific prices and reviews.

Thailand: $13.89

Vietnam: $15.05

Nepal: $17.14

Laos: $9.96

Cambodia: $13.12

Myanmar: $20.61

Indonesia: $14.33

Malaysia: $15.76

Singapore: $22

Brunei: $26

We often went for the cheapest accommodation we could find that still offered wifi and hot water (we achieved this about 80% of the time), so you could probably spend less than this if your willing to go a bit more rustic.

Street food is often the most economical way to eat in most of these countries.  However, in Nepal and most of Cambodia & Myanmar, we did not partake in the street food as we were very wary of the cleanliness of the vendors we saw.  In Singapore and Brunei, we had trouble finding street food, so we spent considerably more there on food.  Cheap meals could usually be found for $1-2, on the street and in the plastic chaired restaurants.  Our criteria for restaurants was: lots of locals, plastic chairs, and a picture menu.  These three factors pretty much guaranteed a good, cheap meal.  Some of our favorite meals were eating $1 pho for breakfast in Hanoi sitting on tiny plastic chairs at tiny plastic tables, amidst dozens of other people, slurping away at hot soup in the hot air (mostly Riki’s favorite – I prefer soup when its cold and not in the morning).  My new favorite street food became $1 mango and sticky rice, when we crossed into Thailand for the last time.  Why I didn’t discover this earlier is something I still regret.

Indonesia, Nepal and Malaysia topped out our most expensive countries.  This is mostly due to the necessity of flights to get there and in between the islands (Indonesia), as well as some more expensive activities, such as diving and trekking.  Laos was by far the least expensive country, with food being dirt cheap and accommodation far cheaper than any of the other countries.

Some tips for planning:

We started with the cheapest countries (Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia).  These countries are heavily backpacked already and thus are set up for budget-minded travelers.  It is easy to get around, cheaply and mostly efficiently.  Flights are not required unless you have a time constraint, and even these flights can be inexpensive.  We generally paid about $1 per hour for buses and found them long, but manageable (my earlier ramblings may contradict this, but by now the agony of these trips has subsided).  Meals along the banana pancake trail are cheap and can be had for $1-2+.  We had a water purifier that cost about $90 with us.  It paid for itself and we didn’t have to buy an endless supply of plastic water bottles.  For a long trip like this, it was worth it.  For a few weeks or even a few months, it may not be cost effective, but will certainly reduce your waste.

Nepal is a tough one to write.  We were there in October, after a blizzard in the Annapurna region and about 40 people died.  It is a small tragedy compared to what they have more recently gone through, and all of my advice for Nepal is probably obsolete.  However, we are still in touch with our great guide in Pokhara, who is itching for more clients. His name is Raju and he speaks English better than he responds in emails (deuchatri56@hotmail.com).  It would be great if I could get him more business, especially following the earthquake.

In Myanmar, we found the street food, covered in grease, unappetizing and ate more expensively than we would have liked.  The buses were also a lot more than we had anticipated, often twice what we would have paid in Vietnam for half the comfort.  Attractions as well seemed closer to American prices.

Due to thousands of islands, Indonesia was harder to traverse and thus, more expensive.  While we could have taken more boats, we had heard these were not always safe and can take many hours.  We opted for cheap planes to island hop through Indonesia.  Bali is surprisingly affordable, with so much competition, that most of the places we saw were clean and even provided big breakfasts.

As our trip was winding down, we lost the budget-minded sensibility regarding food and went all out in Malaysia.  For this was the place to do it.  By this I mean, we spent $3-4 per meal.  And it was so worth it.  Spectacular arrays of Indian food and piles of noodles, we gorged ourselves during our last month.  You could certainly spend a little less, but its not the cheap eats you find in Vietnam.  Meals were generally at least $2, but you would get a lot of food.

In Singapore and Brunei, the food budget went out the window and we paid western prices for almost everything.  Don’t avoid Singapore because you hear its expensive.  There are still plenty of budget attractions and cheap food can be found in Little India and as always, look for plastic chairs.

MONEY.  Contrary to guides we read, ATMs are available everywhere (even Myanmar).  We opened a checking account before we left with no withdrawal fees and estimate that it saved us hundreds in transaction costs.  Local ATMs generally charge a small fee, but you learn which banks are less and which ones give smaller bills.  Otherwise, we used a credit card with travel rewards.  We never used it in Cambodia or Myanmar, but it was helpful for paying the small service fees for online hostel booking, as well as booking flights and larger purchases (trekking and diving).  Keep in mind, many small businesses still charge a 2-3% fee to use credit cards.  With our credit card, we received 2% back anyway, so for large purchases, it was often cheaper to use the credit card rather than accumulate ATM fees as they usually have low withdrawal maximums.

To sum it all up and to generalize a lot, I will put it simply.  Estimate accommodation according to above numbers.  Spend $3-8 on food per day.  Buses for $4-10 depending on length and excluding outliers like Myanmar.  Planes can cost as little as $8 (Kota Kinabalu to Tawau) and up to about $70 per way – mostly we paid around $40.  We found great last minute deals on AirAsia and were happy with the service.  Walking is the cheapest transportation, but city buses are a great alternative and we found locals to be very helpful in guiding us to the right stop.  For instance, Bangkok has a very confusing bus system, but once we figured it out and got a map, we saved a lot of money rather than hiring a crooked tuktuk or an expensive cab.  Attractions vary a lot, but search online for top free activities in each city and you may come across some great alternatives, like we did.

Talking to other travelers proved to be the best way to research a destination.  They have the inside scoop and can often recommend places that you won’t find on Tripadvisor or in Lonely Planet.  If you must resort to guide books, we found that the places right next door to the ones in the books are often cheaper and better than the listed ones, as they must compete and don’t rest on their laurels as many places in Lonely Planet do.  Although I overflow with more advice, I will quit here.  Some of our best (and worst) memories are just relying on information we received along the way.  Our recommendations will be in the next post.

Final thoughts since they have wifi at the airport….Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

275 days. 10 countries. 15 flights. 7 trains. Countless buses. Over 100 different beds/floors in 92 lodgings (not including night buses). Meals with bugs in them: 1, that we know of.

So overall, a pretty good trip. We think. We certainly didn’t know a year ago what this trip to Asia would entail. We did significantly less research ahead of time than some travelers we met. But we also did a lot more research on the road than many too. We weren’t ones to show up in a new city without an inkling of an idea of where to go. We may not have had a hostel reservation, but we usually had a street or neighborhood in mind when we alighted in a new place. And we were certainly prepared in a toiletries/medicine sense. We had way more Immodium and Benedryl than needed, but the rest of the toiletries we slowly used up and our bag now is a fraction of the size as when we started. FYI – they do have all the necessities in Asia, especially Cambodia, where you can buy almost any medicine over the counter for almost nothing.

Some things we didn’t need, most of which we returned with my parents when we met them in Nepal: full size tripod (replaced with mini tripod in Bangkok), nice flats (flip flops are universal here), extra long sleeve shirt (too warm most of the time), carabiners, extra shoelaces

Some things we lost/broke/replaced along the way: 11 socks (lost), 2 combination locks (lost), sunglasses (broke), running shoes (worn out), rain jacket (turns out it leaked), 2 of Julie’s large backpacks (each knockoff lasted about 3-4 months)

Some things we wished we had: real Swiss army knife, better rain jacket (see above), quality sunscreen (we brought 6 bottles, but had a tough time finding replacements)

Some things we acquired: incredible art from all over SE Asia, custom suit/dresses from Vietnam, friends from all over the world, ability to say “hello” and “thank you” and “chicken” in a number of languages, insight to people and cultures we knew little or nothing about

Some things we will miss (not to say we will never experience these again): access to some of the best food we’ve ever had, abundant amount of friendly & helpful locals (besides New Orleans, we’ve never experienced this outside Asia), frequently meeting new people with incredible stories, the thrill of a new and exotic city, having no set schedule

Some things we will not miss: smell of dried fish, squat and trough toilets (especially for ladies), people throwing trash out windows

The best advice I can give to people attempting something similar to us is not to overplan (and travel light). Some of the best things we did were found through word of mouth. Not having a set schedule gave us a chance to determine once we arrived how long we would spend there. It is a luxury not many people have, but even if you only have a few weeks, it is easy enough to plan a few days at a time, rather than be tied to a strict schedule. For us, because we had so much time, we usually found we were cutting days off of places we didn’t find as exciting, rather than adding days, though we tacked on a rest day when needed. I think the only time we felt really rushed was in Indonesia, when it was more difficult to get around and we only had a 30 day visa. We would have liked to visit more of the islands, but flying more and getting a visa extension would have proved cost prohibitive.

Speaking of costs, we didn’t have an overall budget for this trip. We saved for a number of years and travelled as cheaply as possible, without overly inconveniencing ourselves. Some of the cheap alternatives we took were grueling bus rides and eating street food. We walked everywhere we could, saving money on taxis and public transit. We didn’t buy many souvenirs and we spent very little on added luxuries. We avoided restaurants with table cloths, settling for plastic chairs most of the time, which turned out to have some of the best food anyway. We also stayed in hostels most of the trip, sometimes dorms, but usually double rooms with shared bathrooms were cheaper. We haggled everywhere, when appropriate, and saved a lot of money by being smart about our purchases and hardly partying. It wasn’t easy and sometimes it was very stressful, but having the luxury of no real budget let us experience a lot of things we may have forgone had we been on a strict budget. When we get back to a secure internet connection, I hope to compile our bank statements and figure out how much we spent in each country. It may be more difficult than it sounds, but I think it will be a good precedent for any future trips we take and a helpful thing to share with other backpackers.

We have been incredibly humbled by the generosity we have been privy to over the last few months. So many people have made our trip a truly unique and genuine experience. And while the food and sights were amazing and beautiful, it was ultimately the people we met along the way and the support we got from friends and family that influenced us the most.

It is bittersweet as we are waiting at the airport to leave Asia. We are excited to see familiar faces, but sad to leave behind the fabulous new things we have discovered. So thanks for reading, and sorry there are no pictures this time.

Stay tuned for more post trip conclusions and our struggle with reverse culture shock.

last day packs

Better Late than Never….Laos thoughts by Riki

(Photo slideshow at the bottom)

First beer in Laos – Little boy across the street just drops trow and pees on the street facing us (perfectly good fence behind him to pee on) – same age as the kids driving the scooters here.

Julie – first couple of hours in Lao – “I really like the feel of this place”

My thought @ our first dinner – this girl is 10 and is serving everbody at the restaurant (quicker than anybody ever did in Nepal), also her little sister is the one bringing the beer out to everybody (the bottles are about a third of her size and she is wearing a Cinderella tshirt)… no child labor laws?

Luang Prabang – gorgeous french colonial architecture, loads of tourists (a lot of families), cool hostel, delicious soup that get spicier each night you visit, and the most amazing waterfalls I have ever seen!

Sooo many nice Lao people everywhere!

Vang Vieng:

The roosters are extremely loud and annoying here, but they are also some of the most beautiful I have ever seen

There was a lizard, about the size of a late 90’s cell phone, behind our door in Vang Vieng, and when I tried to move the door to take a picture, he barked at me…. We would later hear him barking at other people throughout the hostel

“Friends” (the old tv show) is on all the time at almost every restaurant/bar here… its really odd

The tubing here is also odd (compared to S. Louisiana tubing of course), as soon as you get in, you get out to go to a bar where you get bracelets with every drink and the bartender takes free shots with you, everybody proceeds to get plastered (there was a dancing musical tubes and I learned so many sweeet moves from this one guy with a rat tail…), and I’m pretty sure our group was the only one that finished the whole route to the town (there are three or four or five bars along the river that you get off at – apparently the gov’t cracked down because there used to be 20)

Actually met a couple of those people that said “came for 4 days, ended up staying a year” now they work at bars helping drunk tourists get drunker

Vientiene

Everybody has a new, fancy, white SUVs/trucks…. No old cars in town, maybe a couple of sedans, but all white and new

They have sidewalks here!! That you can use (that aren’t motorcycle parking lots)!!!

Vientiene is quite a fancy city, at least the central distrcit, and especially compared to the rest of Laos

I am now ok with putting Ice in my beer… because they bring you a big tub of it when they bring you your beer and because its hot and because everybody does it, please don’t judge me if I do this forever (with certain beer and at certain temperatures of course)

Surprisingly expenive (compared to surrounding places we have been) – one Italian we met said that it cost him just as much to live there as it did in italy… but they still had cheap beer

The sandwiches here are great (and at the beginning of our travels we were apprehensive to eat sandwiches because we heard you don’t want to eat the lettuce inside them, but we were totally ok)

Every tourist here is travelling the same route, so we have seen many of the same people we have befriended here on multiple occasions in multiple cities/towns

We saw star fruit… on a tree! (we were pretty excited because we had never seen that before, and never thought about where the fruit might come from…. The stars?)

The bus companies and tuktuks are all in on a scam together, in every town or city! The bus will always drop you off well outside the city (even though there may be a bus station in the center) where everybody is forced to get off and you have to hire one of the tuktuk drivers to get you in town (who are of course friends with the bus drivers). We would just start walking towards the street and they usually dropped their price in half, but still….

I’m pretty sure the Beer Lao company is also in charge of all the storefront signs in this country, b/c everyplace has their name with the beerlao logo right next to it, even if they don’t obviously sell the beer

On Julie’s bday we went bowling – and besides eating seaweed flavored chips and putting ice in my beer – we bowled like the Lao do… which involves all the regular bowling techniques, except you hold on to the ball longer, throw it real high, and I guess try to make it bounce a couple of times before it hits the pins…

Julie is a happy camper when she gets banana pancakes!

Malaria medication sucks (for the side effects…)

Hands down the worst chopsticks in Asia! They are always splintering and falling apart, no matter where you are eating

The animals in Laos don’t particularly like white people (or maybe just us)… we had a couple of experiences… But the people were amazing and the kids super cute! They would always try to outdo one another when saying Sabaidee(hello) to us.

 

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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.

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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).

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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.