Archive for the 'Laos' Category

20
Feb
10

Feb 7-13: Vang Vieng to Chiang Mai

Leaving beautiful Vang Vieng

Finally, I’ve come to the last post of our 40 days on tour! Hooray! Perhaps now I can keep up with the blog a bit better, and I hope to write smaller, shorter posts on a daily basis. And perhaps now, the photos that I have been talking about posting for over a month will actually materialize!

So on February 7 we departed Vang Vieng (*sniff*) and headed to Luang Prabang. The journey took roughly 7 hours, although the two towns are less than 200 km apart, because Laos is quite mountainous and to drive anywhere requires hours of switchbacking along curvy, sometimes badly paved roads.

Luang Prabang is the antithesis of Vang Vieng, being a culturally rich and lazy little town. It’s claim to fame is the sunset view from Mount Phousi (pronouced like a part of the female anatomy… and no, it’s not Mulva… LOL for all you Seinfeld fans out there 🙂 and it’s night market, which features beautiful handicrafts made by the local Hmong people.

In Luang Prabang, our group began to split up and do things in smaller groups, which thrilled me to no end. As a group we got along freakishly

One of the blue pools at Kuangsi Falls

well, and had eaten most of our meals together for over a month, but I think people relished the idea of being able to have a bit more autonomy, as our two full days were left entirely to explore the city at our leisure.

On February 9, the group went to Kuangsi Falls, which is a spectacular set of waterfalls about an hour Jumbo ride from Luang Prabang (a jumbo is a motorized truck with benches in the back, not an elephant 🙂 The water was freezing but after much coaxing I managed to get in and paddle around for a while before jumping out. Carpe Diem!!

That evening a few of us went to a Lao disco (read: nightclub) where we were taught to dance by some locals! The way Laos club is like this: the dance floor is empty, until the deejay plays one song that everyone knows, then the entire club gets up and does this pre-fabricated line dance that everyone seems to know, and then when the song is over everyone goes back to their seats. It was so weird. I couldn’t understand why no one was just dancing like normal, so when a song I knew came on, I pulled one of the guys in our group onto the dance floor and started dancing. And whaddaya know – all of a sudden all these locals started getting up and dancing as well! Apparently they are just too shy to dance if they don’t know the moves! Have I mentioned I love Laos!?

Since bars and discos (along with pretty much every other business) close around 11PM, the bowling alley is the place to be after everyone is kicked out. So we jumped in a Jumbo and went bowling and the place was packed! This is another curious Lao “thing” that I don’t quite understand (why is the bowling alley the only place that is open late??) so I asked on of the guys at the club why there is this restriction, but he had no idea! Laos are by nature very calm and relaxed people, and it probably never even occurred to them to question it, so we just went with it.

Locals giving Alms to the Monks

On February 10 we got up at 6AM to participate in the giving of the alms to the monks of Luang Prabang, which was a really cool and unique experience. Monks only eat two meals per day, breakfast and lunch, and the food they eat comes from the local community, supplemented with food bought by the temple. Each day the locals kneel at the side of the road with dry food such as sticky rice (a Lao staple), bananas, and mince pork wrapped in banana leaves. Each monk holds their copper pot to receive a ball of rice or other dry good, and the giver places the food item in the pot, keeping their head lower than the monk who is receiving it. Although I ran out of rice after about ten monks, it was really cool to be able to observe this ritual, and I even got a couple photos of it. Unfortunately, it has become a bit of a tourist spectacle, with tourists setting up tripods in the middle of the road We were informed that without giving any alms to the monks, this is disrepectful and irresponsible as a traveller.

After giving the alms and having a quick breakfast, we departed for the 10-hour slow boat trip down the Mekong River. The trip takes two days,

View down the Mekong from the slowboat

and we would be staying overnight in Pakbeng, a tiny village on a cliff overlooking the river. Our boat looked comfier than the public boats, with plush seats, a large table and chairs, and a bathroom. The people who own the boat live on the boat, so there was also a large area at the rear of the boat which housed their living quarters. There wasn’t much to do on the boat, so most of us read our books (lots of people trying to finish their books so they can ditch them before the market in Chiang Mai!), played games, chatted to one another, or listened to music.

The next day, February 11, was much of the same, although the morning was brutally cold (for Laos) as we had been warned. I wrapped myself in pants, two shirts, a sweater, my towel, a sarong, and my sleep sheet, and managed to stay pretty toasty, but the ride was definitely more enjoyable once the sun came up completely. The boat arrived in Houy Xai in the afternoon, just in time for us to stamp out of Laos (*sniff*), board a boat to cross the Mekong, stamp into Thailand (yay) and get to our hotel in Chiang Kong for dinner.

February 12 marked the 39th day of the tour, but for our group it was the final day we would be together, as many people were departing on the last day of the tour to go home, or onward to other destinations. This final day together was bittersweet for me (see my post “One Chapter Ends, Another Begins…”), as I was both sad to see the friends I had made leave, but also happy to be starting a new journey, and being able to experience Thailand with just my sister and I.

Rong Khun Temple between Chiangkong and Chiang Mai. So different and so BEAUTIFUL!

The bus ride to Chiang Mai took about 6 hours, which got us to our hotel just in time for a change of clothes before our final group excursion, to Wat Doi Suthep, high above the city. The temple afforded us beautiful views of the city of Chiang Mai, and our tour leader, Ae, gave us a tour of the temple, as well as special information about our colour, and our Buddha image. In Thai culture, everyone has a birth year (mine is 1983=year of the pig) a birth day (Monday) which relates to a lucky colour (yellow) and a Buddha image (Buddha with his hand raised, which means for peace).

After Doi Suthep, Court and I went to the train station to arrange our overnight train ticket to Bangkok on February 18, and then met up with our group for the last group dinner we would ever have. The meal cost more than anything I have eaten so far in Southeast Asia, but the food was fantastic, the setting was perfect, and the company could hardly have been any better. It was the perfect way to end an exciting, adventurous journey through four countries.

Since Chiang Mai requires a blog post all it’s own, this is where this story ends. I hope I can remember everything that happened in the five days immediately following the end of the tour! Thanks for reading!

Lex

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20
Feb
10

I LOVE LAOS! I Love Laos.

I love Laos!

This is my new mantra. In fact, I think I should just get it tattooed someplace on my body. Seriously, Laos is awesome, and this warm and welcoming country is continually surprising me at every turn.

***********************************************************

The four sentences above was how this post began, sixteen days ago. Can you believe it’s taken me sixteen days to write a blog post!? Well, I can, and you would too if you had just spent the last six days in Chiang Mai before coming to Bangkok! Anyway, I’m going to start referring to days by their actual dates, instead of just the days of the week, because the days are quickly becoming a blur, especially when it takes me more than a week to post on the activities of late.

Nam Song River in Vang Vieng

Anyway, I think it’s about time I continued the story of our trip through Laos. When I left off, it was February 4, and the group (still on tour at this point) had just arrived in Vang Vieng, which is party town of Laos. We had free time in the afternoon, and then a group dinner at one of the many movie bars in town. Many people spend weeks in Vang Vieng because of the relaxed atmosphere and it was really nice to be able to watch a movie after dinner and hang out with some real backpackers.

February 5 was a big day, as we had our tubing trip booked! Tubing down the Nam Song River is an institution in Vang Vieng, and we were all super excited for our excursion. We began by packing into a truck and picking up our inner tubes (piled 16 high on the roof!) on the way to the drop off. The Nam Song is unique because it is quite possibly the only river in the world lined with tens of bamboo bars featuring zip lines, swings, and slides over the water. Look out below!!

Me with my bucket and my tag

We had three guides with us, who were there to look out for us in case of emergency. What emergency, you ask, can possibly happen on a lazyriver ride with 16 people!? Well, seeing as each bar has it’s own “happy” menu, consisting of teas and shakes made of mushrooms, hash, and opium, as well as various “pastries”, it goes without saying that the guides were a comfort to have around! Don’t worry, parental units, our guides were trained in CPR and First Aid (yeah right) and wrote the name of their tour company on each of our wrists, so in case of any of us getting lost, the unfortunate soul who happened to find us would know where to return us. HAHA!!

The first bar we stopped at had a swing and a mud volleyball court. After grabbing a bucket of Malibu and Coke at only $8 a pop (7 shots – what a steal!) we headed to the swing and for a game of mud volleyball, before moving on to our next bar. Here’s where things got ugly.

Me getting ready for the swing

About ten metres down the river I spotted a sign: “Super Happy Brownies”. Well. I’m super. I like being happy. I love brownies! What a match! It goes without saying I had to have one. I hopped off my tube, (“Alexis, are you ACTUALLY going to get off of your tube and get one of those brownies!?!”), grabbed a brownie ($5) and jumped back on my tube, brownie and all. I had that entire piece of chocolate-hashy goodness downed by the time we reached the next bar. At this bar, there was a zip line and a slide. I tried the zip line twice, and watched as my friends tried the slide – with disastrous results. The slide was so slippery that it literally caused those riding it to be shot out in the air, about ten metres over the water, and landing with a hard splash on whatever part of their body was unfortunate enough to hit the water first. There were quite a few bruised thighs when we finally left the bar after lunch, and even one ripped pair of shorts! HA HA!

Tubing! (You can see the offending slide in the background)

It took us a while to get from the second bar to the third bar, I don’t want to hazard a guess as to how long, as in my brownie-induced cloud of happiness I had absolutely no concept of time. An hour? Maybe two? Anyway, by the time we got  to the last bar (literally, the last bar on the river, if you don’t count the bar that’s actually CALLED Last Bar – HaHa, we’re onto you!) the sun was already behind the trees, and we had already consumed 7 mushroom shakes (I won’t say who :), 1 hash brownie (you all know who ;), two opium teas, and countless buckets of liquor.

That evening, we were all pretty much exhausted and partied out, so it was a pretty early night. A bunch of us had booked our first activities that were not going to be performed as one huge group, so we hit the sack to be well rested for the day ahead.

Wow! I look SMALL! I think this wall looks bigger than it actually was...

As I mentioned before, Vang Vieng is a playground for adventure seekers as well as being a party town. The whole place is asleep until about noon, then people start coming out to start their day of tubing, or hiking, or rock climbing, or bike riding. My chosen activity for the morning of February 6 was rock climbing some of the limestone karsts surrounding Vang Vieng. I went rock climbing last year and enjoyed it, so I thought I would try a half-day course to see if I want to take a full-day course in Krabi. I LOVED it! The climbs were made for beginners, but we did a couple challenging climbs, and it felt really good to be working up a sweat, while using my brain and my muscles. I think it’s looking good for Krabi!

During the afternoon I had a lazy day, hanging out in an open-air hut by the river with friends, writing postcards, and eating mango sticky rice. After dinner it was time to pack up and head to bed before our long drive to Luang Prabang on February 7.

04
Feb
10

Jan 31- Feb 4: Hanoi to Vang Vieng

Sabaidee! Hello from Laos!

Oh boy, I’m already getting ahead of myself! Right now I am sitting in an internet cafe in downtown Vang Vieng, Laos, where it is hot and humid. I, for one, am happy to have left the cooler weather of northern Vietnam behind, although I had a great time. I have a lot to say about my experience in Vietnam, but little time to write a new post, so it will have to wait until after tomorrow’s tubing excursion down the Nam Song river…

Our tour leader, Dat, and I on Australia Day

On Saturday we said goodbye to two members of our tour and our leader, Dat. It was really sad, because we all got along really well with Dat, and he was an awesome leader. I don’t think anyone could have been more welcoming and knowledgeable about their own country as he was, and he made our trip a true experience. If it wasn’t for his expertise and calm under pressure, we surely would have been lost on many an occasion. Dat managed to locate a lost camera, an impounded motorbike, and retrive one motorbike from a police station. Certainly, ours was a tour group he will not soon forget! And nor will we soon forget him. Thanks, Dat, for making our trip to Vietnam unforgettable!

Sunday we met our new tour leader and the new members of the Laos leg of our tour.

Our Laos group at Patuxey, the Victory Monument in Vientiane

Our leader is Thai, and her name is Ae (pronounced “Eh”, which makes it very confusing for her, as anyone who knows me knows I say “eh” like a real Canadian, which is to say ALL THE TIME). In addition, we have five Australians who joined the tour, one family of four and Kim, a mother of two who loves to party!

In all, there have been eleven of us from the start: Courtney, myself, Emina, Christina, Genevieve, Lisa, Adam, J.Y., Bonnie, Drew, and Dan. Hannah, Emma, Hailey, and Eloise left us in Saigon, where Allie and Eugenie joined us, and we picked up Kim, Mila, Andrei, Polina, and Alina in Hanoi. It’s been a great group, and I’ll be sad to see us part ways next Saturday.

Anyway, back to the point of this post…

On Monday, after a leisurely morning breakfast and a mad dash around the old quarter of Hanoi looking for the perfect baguette for our lunch on the bus, we departed Vietnam’s capital city for Vinh. There is NOTHING in Vinh, except for it being a stopping over point for the border crossing between Laos and Vietnam. There is a crossing further north, but it would have taken us far north of our destination, Vientiane. The drive took close to seven hours, and by the time we got there, all anyone had energy for was dinner and bed.

Lao jungle scenery

Tuesday we left the hotel around 630AM (Asian time, of course) and began the three-hour journey to the border. Laos requires all tour groups going through Laos to have a local Lao guide, so we picked up Salee, our local guide until Vang Vieng. The border crossing was relatively quick and painless (once the paperwork was done and fees had been paid) and then we were off on a painful 8 hour drive to Vientiane, the capital of Laos. I say it was painful, because there is no other way to describe sitting in a bus for 8 hours, despite three stops and a lot of snacks. Because Laos is largely mountainous, and the roads are not the greatest, the drive takes a lot longer than it would in Canada, or even in Vietnam.

Wednesday I discovered two things which are essential to travel in Laos: a traditional Lao massage, and the Scandinavian Bakery. Since I plan on writing a post to compare the merits of the regional massages I have had since being on tour once I get a Thai massage, all I’ll say for now is that it involves a lot of bending. The bakery is another story: the secret to being Asians being thin, is that Asians eat a lot of rice, veggies, and lean meat, and that they don’t put sugar in ANYTHING. A banana is sugary enough over here, and it’s been an ordeal trying to find a decent brownie or cake over here, what with the lack of baking with sugar. The Scandinavian Bakery, however, had the most amazing cakes, croissants, and iced coffee I have had since crossing the Pacific. Amazing. Anyone who knows me knows I like to have dessert after every meal (dinner, lunch, and breakfast, if possible 🙂 so I was in pure sugary heaven!

Wednesday morning we did an orientation walk through Vientiane, including a visit to the national Temple, the market, and the Lao version of

Me in a "Jumbo"

Paris’ Arc de Triomphe, called Patuxay. We also had our first ride in a “Jumbo” which is like a tuk tuk, but with the benches positioned so that you are riding sideways, instead of front/back. I’ll post photos for comparison soon. I adore how every southeast asian country has it’s own “national” mode of transportation. It’s hilarious every time we get on something new.

Today we rode a bus full of tourists for only 4 hours, to arrive in Vang Vieng, party town of Laos. The town is filled with more white people than Asians, and more drunk people than sober. The streets are studded with bars, internet cafes, convenience stores, and clothing shops, and reminds me a lot of the backpacker towns along the east coast of Australia. There isn’t much to do here but drink, and do some of the extreme activities available from most guesthouses.

Tomorrow we will do a tubing trip down the Nam Song river, which is a necessity of a visit to Vang Vieng. I will report back later (hopefully tanned and slightly tipsy) but I’ve heard that it is a lazy, two-hour glide down a river lined with bars, and finishes with a zip line over the river. Should be fun 🙂 On Saturday a few of us have signed up for a rock climbing course, which I think will be awesome, because we will be climbing one of Vang Vieng’s limestone karsts. Since I’ve only climbed indoors before, I’m looking forward to my first taste of real climbing!

Anyway, the party is raging on next door, and I’ve got some buckets of vodka, redbull and coke waiting for me.

So long, and Kop Jai Lai Lai for reading!

Lex




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