Category Archives: Laos

Seeing What Time Will Allow in Laos, Part II: Living the Good Life in Luang Prabang

We took the slow boat from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang – two days cruising down the Mekong with an overnight stop in the small town of Pak Beng.  We opted for the mid-range boat option, which was actually quite nice.  We were fed, had a few tourist stops and got plenty of time to catch up on reading, journaling, and planning.  We were told the boat could fit up to 100 people (although we weren’t sure how that would be possible looking at it), and there were only 15 of us making the trip.  It was mostly Aussies and everyone was very friendly.  I even got some good travel tips for Cambodia and Vietnam – I spent some time putting together a rough itinerary for Vietnam, so I don’t have to concern myself with it for a while. 

Our boat for the two-day trip.
Our boat for the two-day trip.
Catching up on journaling.  I read a whole book and put together a rough itinerary for Vietnam...productive trip!
Catching up on journaling. I read a whole book and put together a rough itinerary for Vietnam…productive trip!
The speedboat route.  They warn you not to take these since they're dangerous.  It looks pretty miserable regardless.
The speedboat route. They warn you not to take these since they’re dangerous. It looks pretty miserable regardless.

On the first day we stopped at a small village on the tourist circuit.  The kids were expert sales girl and we both ended up with a bracelet from them.  But since I had lost the bracelet I bought in Chiang Mai for $0.30 in the jungle (it was colorful, woven bamboo, made by a very old woman), I was happy to get one of the brightly-colored embroidered cloth bracelet these little girls made (and they were only about $0.50).  I probably should have bought more of them, since these kids are hard workers.  But as you have to learn in Asia, you simply can’t buy from everyone.      

The village girls making sure Ilene has seen every one of the bracelet options.
The village girls making sure Ilene has seen every one of the bracelet options.
Getting the stare down from Mr. Brown Cow.
Getting the stare down from Mr. Brown Cow.

We passed lots of farm land along the Mekong.  This is the dry season, and it’s field-burning time, so our last few hours the first day were spent in a thick cloud of smoke.  The smoke was so bad I covered my mouth with a bandana (like an old fashioned bandit!) and wore my sunglasses to try to protect my eyes from the ash blowing about.  I have not seen blue sky too much in the last few weeks, and these farming practices are a lot of the reason why. 

Super smoky.  Not fun to be passing through.
Super smoky. Not fun to be passing through.
Slash and burn.
Slash and burn.
Hazy Sunrise.  The morning at Pak Beng (where we stayed for the night).
Hazy Sunrise. The morning at Pak Beng (where we stayed for the night).
Mango makes any day better!
Mango makes any day better!
Kids swimming in the Mekong.
Kids swimming in the Mekong.

The second day we stopped at Pak Ou Caves – two caves where many Buddha statutes have seemingly been discarded for lack of anywhere else to put them.  It has the feel of a hoarder’s hiding place, although some of the statutes are hidden in nooks and crannies that gives the place a bit of whimsy. 

 

Peak-a-Buddha!
Peak-a-Buddha!

 

The view from the lower cave.
The view from the lower cave.

 

So many Buddhas! The lower cave at the Pak Ou Caves.
So many Buddhas! The lower cave at the Pak Ou Caves.

We opted to hike up the stairs to the upper cave as well.  Although it was a hot hike, it made us feel slightly better about having lazed about for two days.  And after that stop, it was just a short ride to our final destination.

Entry to the upper cave.
Entry to the upper cave.
The upper cave is pretty dark in parts - glad I brought my flashlight.
The upper cave is pretty dark in parts – glad I brought my flashlight.
Worth the climb!
Worth the climb!

Laos

It struck me that Luang Prabang is a city best shared in pictures, and I took my fair share.  But I had a hard time capturing the quaintness of it all – French colonial architecture with a decidedly Asian influence.  The town is on a peninsula, flanked by the Mekong and the Nam Khan rivers, and both waterfronts are lined with lush tropical trees (including every kind of fruit tree imaginable and tons of epiphytes like orchids) and laid back restaurants that make you want to linger.  The old town has so many small side streets (that only pedestrians and two-wheeled vehicles can use) it makes you want to spend all day wandering and exploring. 

When in Asia, do the Asians do (throw up the peace sign in every photo).
When in Asia, do the Asians do (throw up the peace sign in every photo).
Strolling around the old town.
Strolling around the old town.

Laos

Scenes around town. So many epiphytes on the trees here.
Scenes around town. So many epiphytes on the trees here.
Taking a sabbatical during the hottest month...smart, very smart!
Taking a sabbatical during the hottest month…smart, very smart!
One of the many side streets around town.
One of the many side streets around town.
A fun mix of colonial and modern architecture.
A fun mix of colonial and modern architecture.
Those are some big necklaces!
Those are some big necklaces!
Tuk Tuks all in a row.
Tuk Tuks all in a row.

In addition to wandering about, we saw many of the main attractions – the Royal Palace museum, the TEAC (Traditional Art & Ethnology Center), the handicraft night market, many wats (of course), the UXO (Unexploaded Ordnance) Information Center (which will make you feel bad to be an American since we dropped all those bombs during the Vietnam war – Laos is the most bombed country per capita thanks to our attempts to cut off the Ho Chi Mihn Trail), Kuang Si falls (where we swam with monks!) – and made sure to take plenty of breaks for cold drinks and good food. 

What seems to be a restoration workshop at one of the many wats.
What seems to be a restoration workshop at one of the many wats.
They had equal numbers of crosswalk signs depicting women as men.  Apparently it takes Communism to start thinking about gender equality on this level!
They had equal numbers of crosswalk signs depicting women as men. Apparently it takes Communism to start thinking about gender equality on this level!
Getting to the good stuff (heat break for iced coffee and coconuts).
Getting to the good stuff (heat break for iced coffee and coconuts).
Those are some big necklaces!
Those are some big necklaces!
The wat at the Royal Palace.
The wat at the Royal Palace.
Don't you stick your tongue out at me!
Don’t you stick your tongue out at me!
Fun chandeliers.
Fun chandeliers.
Along the Nam Khan River.
Along the Nam Khan River.
Asians know how to be efficient with their transport (I have yet to capture one of the many heavily-loaded motorbikes).
Asians know how to be efficient with their transport (I have yet to capture one of the many heavily-loaded motorbikes).
A noodle soup vendor looking for customers -- soup at your doorstep, now that's convenience!
A noodle soup vendor looking for customers — soup at your doorstep, now that’s convenience!
Lots of boombies in one bomb (this is how carpet bombing is done).
Lots of boombies in one bomb (this is how carpet bombing is done).

Laos

Pedestrians get a special lane on this bridge
Pedestrians get a special lane on this bridge
Another questionable bridge.
I’ve now walked over many a questionable bridge.
Well, hello!
Well, hello!
Monk-watching at lunch.
Monk-watching at lunch.
Crossing the bamboo bridge - yes, it's rickety...it is temporary (rebuilt every year), after all.
Crossing the bamboo bridge – yes, it’s rickety…it is temporary (rebuilt every year), after all.
Time to climb!  Heading up Phousi Hill.
Time to climb! Heading up Phousi Hill.
Hilltop selfie.
Hilltop selfie.
And this is why we do it -- the view is worth the climb!
And this is why we do it — the view is worth the climb!
This rock is hot, but it's a great view!
This rock is hot, but it’s a great view!
Saw some cute bears - bonus!  At Kuang Si Waterfall.
Saw some cute bears – bonus! At Kuang Si Waterfall.
Ready for a swim! At Kuang Si Waterfall.
Ready for a swim! At Kuang Si Waterfall.
Some of the many layers of pools at the falls
Some of the many layers of pools at the falls
The upper falls
The upper falls
Monks, jumping off rocks!
Monks, jumping off rocks!
It's not everyday you get to swim with monks!
It’s not everyday you get to swim with monks!
Sitting on the edge of the upper falls
Sitting on the edge of the upper falls
Our scooters are calling out for another adventure!
Our scooters are calling out for another adventure!
Winding our way through backstreets to find the famed Utopia
Winding our way through backstreets to find the famed Utopia
Trying dark Beerlao at Utopia.  Honestly I couldn't taste much difference from the regular version.
Trying dark Beerlao at Utopia. Honestly I couldn’t taste much difference from the regular version.
We were able to ride right up to this hilltop wat! @ Wat Taohai
We were able to ride right up to this hilltop wat! @ Wat Taohai
Seeking counsel @ Wat Taohai
Seeking counsel @ Wat Taohai
The view from Wat Taohai
The view from Wat Taohai
Climbing to the top @ Wat Taohai
Climbing to the top @ Wat Taohai
One of the many creepy frescos at Wat Taohai
One of the many creepy frescos at Wat Taohai

I have to say that Laos food is awesome!  I’m trying to note the distinctions between the cuisines here, so I’ve been making an effort to take a cooking class (at least one) in each country I visit.  We went to a cooking class at Tamarind.  Like in our Thai cooking class, we again used a mortar and pestle to make almost everything.  But we cooked everything in or on a small ceramic hibachi-type charcoal grill – unlike the gas flame used elsewhere.  It was all so deceptively simple.  While some of the spices used are the same as in Thai cooking, in Laos the chilies are a bit different and we used spices like coriander, dill, and mint in amounts and combinations I hadn’t seen before.  While in Laos there is Laap, which is similar to the Thai dish (spiced ground meat, basically), the Laos version has more mint, no basil, and is spicier. The Laos also love their sticky rice (they eat it with every meal and use their hands) and make some great sausage (buffalo is common). Laos food feels a bit lighter, since they don’t really use a lot of coconut milk (I can’t believe I didn’t feed my curry addiction but still loved the food) and even their “stews” are more like soups (with clear broth).  I wasn’t sure what to expect in Laos, honestly, and the food we got in the jungle was so bland I was a bit worried.  But after eating my way through Luang Prabang, I must say that Laos food is right up there with Thai as my favorite.  I just hope I can do it justice when I make it at home! 

Time to cook!  At Tamarind cooking school.
Time to cook! At Tamarind cooking school.
Banana leaf wrapping success!
Banana leaf wrapping success!
And this is how you can stuff lemongrass.
And this is how you can stuff lemongrass.
And now we feast!
And now we feast!
Breakfast on the Nam Khan river (the little river) at our hotel
Breakfast on the Nam Khan river (the little river) at our hotel
No rice goes to waste - making rice cakes out of left-over sticky rice
No rice goes to waste – making rice cakes out of left-over sticky rice

 

Seeing What Time Will Allow in Laos, Part I: Welcome to the Jungle!

I’m now fitting in the highlights of Laos and Cambodia to give myself about a month in Vietnam before I have to head back home.  It feels a bit rushed but it’s been great so far! 

We crossed into Laos on the Freedom Bridge between Chiang Khang in Thailand and Huay Xai in Laos.  We took a local bus from Chiang Rai which was a fun experience since it was only a few hours and I got a seat right behind the driver.  It was still Songkran so most of the windows and doors were closed against the revelers throwing buckets of water at the passing cars.  So it was warm.  The window by me didn’t close all the way, so the local sitting next to it rested her arm over the open sliver of window to keep up mostly dry.  I honestly didn’t mind the water that did get to me, since it was hot and the mother and child who were basically sitting in my lap for half the ride didn’t help.

The local bus from Chiang Rai - not too crowded yet.
The local bus from Chiang Rai – not too crowded yet. (Me and Ilene are reflected in the mirror and the driver has an awesome Hawaiian shirt).
So dorkily excited for my first real local bus experience.
So dorkily excited for my first real local bus experience.

After getting through the border the only option to get to Huay Xai was by open-backed truck (the Laos version of a tuk tuk).  Apparently they also celebrate Songkran with water in Laos, as both we and our bags were drenched by the time we got close to our hotel.  Of course with our luck, our hotel was again in the middle of the party zone.  The street was actually closed, so we had to walk the last couple of blocks.  Already wet from the ride across town, we were again doused with buckets of water and slapped with talc paste (orange this time) as we walked the final stretch.  Thankfully we had a balcony and our things dried by morning before we set off for the jungle. 

After getting drenched and smacked with talc, we needed a beer!
After getting drenched and smacked with talc, we needed a beer!
You can tell what country you're in by the beer -- our first Beerlao, on the Mekong (terrace behind the hotel).
You can tell what country you’re in by the beer — our first Beerlao, on the Mekong (terrace behind the hotel).
Drying all my stuff - thank goodness for the balcony!
Drying all my stuff – thank goodness for the balcony!

Bright and early the next morning we headed off for The Gibbon Experience.  While we didn’t see many gibbons (I only happened to catch one swinging between trees one morning near the tree house) we ourselves experienced the gibbon lifestyle of zipping between trees and sleeping in the jungle canopy.  For the two-hour drive in the open back of the truck I was prepared to get soaked, but it was too early in the day to get much more than a few sprays with a water gun (where was this treatment the day before?).  One hour was on winding, paved roads, but the second hour was on a very bumpy dirt road – what a fun surprise!  That part made me realize that the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland does a very realistic job imitating a ride through jungle conditions. 

The winding road to The Gibbon Experience (it was too bumpy on the dirt portion to snap a photo).
The winding road to The Gibbon Experience (it was too bumpy on the dirt portion to snap a photo).
Go ahead and try to soak me!
Go ahead and try to soak me!

Hands a bit numb from bracing ourselves during the ride, we arrived in a small village where the twelve of us on this adventure were broken into two groups and sent hiking to our respective tree houses. Me and Ilene were in the larger group of seven.  A good group that was a mix of nationalities and good fun.  About half way into our three-hour hike, we were given harnesses for the zip lines on our route.  We had watched a short instructional video before leaving Huay Xai, which was a good thing since neither of our two guides spoke much English.  And once they figured out that one member of our group (Andrew) spoke Lao (since he’s taught in Vientiane for two years) he became our designated translator and they didn’t really even try to speak to anyone else.  After a very sweaty hike and some fun zipping high above the jungle canopy, we made it to our tree house (only accessible by zip line). 

This is just the beginning of the trek, before we were drenched with sweat.
This is just the beginning of the trek, before we were drenched with sweat.
Hiking through the jungle - that's some big bamboo!
Hiking through the jungle – that’s some big bamboo!
Some of the zip lines.
Some of the zip lines.

The tree house was a good size, round and open to the jungle under a thatched roof. It included a small bathroom and a penthouse level big enough for one tent/bed combo.  Tired from our long hike and the heat, we decided to relax before dinner (which was delivered to us on zip line of course).  We quickly discovered that although the tap with drinking water ran, there was not enough water pressure to shower or do much else.  There was also apparently a bee hive in the same tree, as there were bees everywhere.  I was sure not to make any quick movements for fear of pissing off a bee and getting stung.  The worst part was that the bees always hung out in groups of ten or more in the bathroom, especially in and around the toilet.  So you basically had to squat over bees to do your business and also make sure not to step on any getting there (of course the tree house was a no-shoe zone).  At first I didn’t think I could handle it, but I channeled my best zen-like calm and worked it out. Thankfully Andrew donated a bottle of Jack Daniels so we were all happy enough to forget about the bees for the night. 

The next day we hiked to a (rather small) waterfall and had a good swim in the cool pool before making our way to a different tree house for the night (the two groups switch for the second night).  This one is all one level, with the bathroom downstairs – and although I saw a few bees in there the bathroom and the tree house was relatively bee-free…phew!!  And – huge bonus – the water pressure allowed for showering.  And this shower was even better than in the other tree house – set in the corner of the bathroom it gave a 260 degree view of the jungle.  And since the bathroom floor was just two-inch-wide wood planks with about an inch gap in between them, I could see the shower water falling down to the jungle floor under my feet.  It was an amazing feeling to be showering literally surrounded by the jungle.  That goes in my book as the best shower ever! 

After a swim I'm refreshed and ready for more zip lining!
After a swim I’m refreshed and ready for more zip lining!
This jungle is dense.
This jungle is dense.
Jungle stupa
Jungle stupa
Crazy vine!
Crazy vine!

That day we did some more hiking without our packs after getting to the tree house – doing the zip line circuit a few times, including the one line that is 500 meter long.  We even made time for another swim at the waterfall.  Of course it was after this rigorous day that we were only given a small vegetarian dinner.  By this point in our trip we were all tired of the same bland food we’d been eating for days – mostly rice and cabbage, with literally no seasoning (apparently they think white folks can’t handle it) and no more alcohol around to distract us from this sorry fare – so we had a long conversation about our favorite foods which made us all miss civilization just a little bit.  But sleeping about 40 meters above the jungle floor made up for it.  And we were even treated to a very impressive thunder storm during the night.  Overall the experience was amazing and I’d do it again.  But next time I’m packing in more whiskey! 

Time to zip!  The last line of our time there...at least it was the 500 meter one!
Time to zip! The last line of our time there…at least it was the 500 meter one!
And away I go!
And away I go!
Hiking through the fields, almost back to the village.
Hiking through the fields, almost back to the village.