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