Monthly Recap: Month 9

Another great month! We’re really starting to feel like the end of the trip is coming and we’re feeling more and more rushed to get through everything that we wanted to do. It’s funny how you can plan to be traveling for almost a year, but still end up feeling like you don’t have enough time =) However, we did take time this month to meet up with Della’s parents again a couple of times. They decided to have a big trip for themselves and as we write this update, they’ve been out for about 5 weeks and plan about 2 more. We haven’t stayed together the whole time, but have sort of met up and parted as our schedules allowed. We saw a lot of great things and explored a lot of new places this month. Our only complaint is that it is hot season here in SE Asia and we are REALLY hot all the time. We only have about 2 more weeks in this part of the world before we fly again to explore different parts of Asia.

Here are our stats for this month.

Countries visited:  3 (Laos, Thailand, Vietnam)

Beds Slept In: 13 (We only stayed one night in two towns on the slow boat journey to Thailand and then we went quickly through a couple of places: Sukhothai and Ayuthaya)

UNESCO Heritage Sights Visited:  3 (Historic Town of Sukhothai and Associated Historic TownsHistoric City of AyutthayaHoi An Ancient Town) Total on RTW: 40

We traveled by 3 planes this month.

We traveled by 2 boats this month.

We traveled 5 long distance buses/minibuses.

We traveled by 2 trains this month.

Top Moments:

~ We had an amazing time interacting with elephants at the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary outside of Chiang Mai!

CAM00533

Runners Up for Top Moments:

We had a bit of a hard time coming up with this list, because for the first time we had slightly different opinions of what to choose!

~ At Kuang Si Waterfalls outside of Luang Prabang, we took in some amazing scenery, got to watch some cute moon bears play, and took a refreshing swim.

Eric's jump

~ Also in Chiang Mai, we took an excellent cooking class in which we learned all about how to each the different yummy Thai dishes that we love!

IMG_6137

~ In Mae Sot, we meandered through a lively market which brought back great memories of our time in Myanmar.

Lively colorful market

~ We struggled for a long time to choose a Thai beach to go to. We had seen some really neat pictures of white sand beaches with large limestone karsts in the distance and longtail boats near the shoreline, and hoped that we could find a scene like that. The island we chose, Ko Lanta, doesn’t have those characteristics, which was a bit disappointing… but some nearby islands do! The last stop of our snorkeling tour was at Ko Ngai, and when we pulled up to the white sand beach we realized we had found just what we were looking for!

IMG_1061_edt

Items Missing, Broken, Discarded, or Added:

Discarded/Broken:

  1. Old toothbrushes
  2. Our large bottle of sunscreen that was new in January
  3. Our large bottle of bugspray that was new in January

Added:

  1. New toothbrushes
  2. New insect repellent

Packing Update:

We feel like we’re a bit of a broken record here: we’re still happy with the contents of our bags. In the hot, humid weather it would be nice to have more shirts, but it wouldn’t be worth carrying them. We’ve also found that we probably could live with fewer socks and underwear because it is quite tempting to rinse them out in the shower or sink often (almost every night). Still carrying unused cold weather gear, but it’s still in hold for Nepal. We haven’t used our tupperware very much here in Asia. We find we don’t pack our lunches very often as food is plentiful and cheap (and really good!)

Books Read: (Have you read any of these??)

Della has read UnSouled by Neal Shusterman (4), A Place Called Freedom by Ken Follett (3), The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood (3)

Eric has read All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy (4), Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (4)

Eric and Della have BOTH read The House We Grew Up In by Lisa Jewell (4), Saigon by Anthony Grey (5/4.5)

The rating system is for Della’s mom who is refusing to look at Goodreads. It is 1 to 5, 5 being the highest.

Make sure to catch up on all our monthly recaps: Monthly Recap 1, Monthly Recap 2, Monthly Recap 3,Monthly Recap 4, Monthly Recap 5, Monthly Recap 6, Monthly Recap 7, Monthly Recap 8

Budget: Laos

This is one of our Budget series of posts to give you an idea of how much we spent traveling around the world. Here we will look at Laos. Check our posts to see what kind of activities we did and where we stayed!

In Laos we used the Laotian Kip. We converted to US dollars using the current conversion rates at the time of our visit. It was approximately 8,000 Kip to $1.00.

IMG_5895_edt

Total Spent (12 days): $890.56

Accommodation: $311.48

We stayed in several places in Laos – 3 hotels, 2 guesthouses, and 1 hostel. The guesthouse we stayed at in Luang Prabang was beautiful and probably a little bit pricier than we would have stayed if we had not been with family.

Activities: $116.33

This included entrance fees for museums and wats, as well as a fee to cross a bamboo bridge in Luang Prabang. The majority comes from a day tour we did in Vang Vieng.

Alcohol: $11.78

We only count alcohol costs when it is not purchased with other food. This included several afternoon beers.

Food: $199.14

We ate out one to two times per day. A few of our guesthouses included breakfast, but not all.

Miscellaneous: $42.38

This included several souvenirs… More than we’ve bought almost anywhere in Asia. (A secret: It included some gifts for some special people in our lives!) Eric also got his hair cut!

Transportation: $137.44

We took buses between major cities, including one of the worst bus rides we’ve had in a long time, as well as two days on a slow boat to get to Thailand.

Visas: $72

It should have only been $70, but we stupidly forgot our passport pictures in our checked luggage and had to purchase them for $2.

This divides out to $74.21/day which is under $100/day budget! Still a little bit higher than we were hoping for countries in Asia. However, we stayed in mostly the biggest tourist cities and bought more souvenirs than is our norm.

Meandering up the Mekong on the Slow Boat to Thailand

After Luang Prabang, our next major stop was to be Chiang Rai in Thailand. One can get there a variety of ways, including a long bus ride or a plane trip, but instead we decided to take the “slow boat” up the Mekong River. It is so named because the journey takes two fairly long days of travel just to get up to the Thai border. But, we figured that it might be more scenic and more of a unique adventure.

Day One: Luang Prabang to Pak Beng (Laos)

The Lonely Planet says that the boat dock is in town, but luckily we had done some extra research and discovered that the boats now leave from a dock 11 km north of town. We made sure to get a sŏrngtăaou (pickup taxi) to get us there in plenty of time so we could make sure to get good seats. We were the first people to get our tickets at the ticket office, but then panicked because a large group beat us down the hill to the dock. Luckily, they ended up heading to a different boat and we were able to choose good seats.

Waiting for the ticket office to open

Waiting for the ticket office to open

The boat looked as expected, a long narrow configuration with a roof. The seats seem like they should be in passenger vans and are mounted on bases which are moveable. When it became apparent that the boat was not going to be full, we spread out so each of us had a set of two chairs. A good number of locals got on board but all sat in the forward cabin. We also had to wait while some motorbikes and roofing tiles were loaded up front. They asked us to take off our shoes as well, like we were in their house.

As we cruised along the river, life moved pretty slowly. At first it was a little chilly with a cool breeze coming off the water. We managed to stay in the shade as well. We all read our various books – Eric even finished one! The only food on sale on the boat was chips and instant noodles, but we had planned ahead and had some snack foods to eat for lunch.

The scenery outside was pretty nice. Lots of wooded hills on either side. Plenty of water buffalo lounging by the water. A few fisherman using large nets in the river. Not too many other people except for at a village where we stopped and unloaded the roofing tiles.

The river moves quite fast, especially when going through some of the narrow rocky stretches. Since we were moving upstream, it was kind of fun and bumpy in these stretches.

We arrived at Pak Beng, our stop for the night, at around 4:45. There were already a lot of boats tied up at the pier, so getting off was a challenge. We first waited for them to get two motorbikes off the front, then we went off the front and had to scramble up some rocks and sand before finding steps.

As we walked through town there were plenty of guesthouses offering rooms for about the same rate. We had expected this and didn’t even book ahead, which is a first for us in a long time! Wayne had read about one called Monsovanh and zeroed in on that. They got a room with AC for 130,000 kip ($16). Eric wanted to negotiate more so we headed on further. We ended up with a room with a fan at a place called Vassana for 80,000 kip ($10). The room was pretty nice and clean actually.

As the sun set, we found a nice wat in town which gave a good vantage point over the river. Restaurant options were not very exciting in town, so we just chose one that seemed cheap and had a nice terrace looking out over the river. The food was ok, but took quite a while since there just seemed to be one person working there.

We picked up some snacks at a mini-mart in town in preparation for the next day. It was also pretty interesting to walk down to the docks and see all of the boats tied up for the night.

WP_20150303_20_19_11_Pro

Even though we didn’t have AC, it got cool in the evening and we didn’t even use the fan. Overnight we had to hush a loud cat outside our window but other than that it was a pleasant sleep.

Day Two: Pak Beng to Houay Xai (Laos)

We got up early to make sure to get to the pier in plenty of time to get a good seat… and to confirm that the seat was on the right boat, since it wouldn’t necessarily be the same one!

Even with our early arrival, we weren’t the first ones there. Most of the other people from the previous day were already on board, so we only got ok seats. (And it was a different boat with a different crew.) This time we got four seats in a group from the start. There were even less locals on board, and it seemed a few people had stayed longer in Pak Beng, so the boat felt maybe only a third full. The boat was a little less nice as well – it felt a little narrower and the railing was higher so it felt like you saw less.

IMG_5938

As we got going, we realized that the motor also seemed louder. We tried to have some conversations but realized that reading would just be easier. As the morning went along we all read and relaxed. The scenery was a little less impressive but the time still went by quickly. We read and relaxed – Eric finished another book – and chatted with some fellow passengers (Wayne especially).

At one point in the late afternoon, we noticed two of the passengers helping bandage the hand of a local guy on the boat. Then we realized he was missing a finger! Apparently he had just lost it in an accident – although not on the boat. Wayne dug out some extra painkiller to give to him. What was amazing was that the patient was just smiling the whole time!

We knew we were close when we went under the big cross-border bridge. After that it still took about 30 minutes to get to the jetty in Houay Xai.

Tuk-tuk drivers were waiting there to take us into town, but it seemed like it was just a kilometer so we decided to get some exercise and walk. A few other passengers from the boat had the same idea so we walked into town together. We formed a group and went door to door to a few guesthouses in the “center.” In the end we went back to the first one we had tried since it was 10,000 kip cheaper and got rooms for 70,000 kip – about 9 dollars.

IMG_5954

We found another basic restaurant for dinner along with our new travel friends. We were a little sad that our last meal in Laos wasn’t at a fancier place, but we were still able to get one last laab.

We returned to the room and got ready for bed. While Della was showering the power went out! We looked out in the hallway and all the lights seemed off, so we figured the whole place had lost power. But the Internet was still working, which seemed odd… We opened up the windows to let the cool night air in and headed to bed.

IMG_5951

Day Three: Houay Xai to Chiang Rai (Thailand)

When we woke up in the morning to roosters crowing and a loudspeaker blaring, we noticed our power was still out. Preparing to write a scathing TripAdvisor review, we then noticed that the pwer was back on in the hallway. This seemed odd… we finally went down to the front desk to ask and they saw that the circuit breaker for our room had tripped! So the whole time it was just our power and no one else’s that was out. Della is afraid that it was because her hot shower caused the breaker to flip. Oops!

The shower that might have caused the whole problem...

The shower that might have caused the whole problem…

The previous night we went ahead and booked a combination ticket through an agent in town that would get us to Chiang Rai, our first stop in Thailand. Some of our friends from the boat also booked the same thing, so we were happy to have some nice travel companions along as well.

Buying our tickets

Buying our tickets

Step one was a 15-minute sŏrngtăaou ride to the Laos immigration office, where we got stamped out of the country. Step two was then to ride a shuttle bus (included in the ticket price) over the Friendship Bridge and onto the Thailand side of the river. Getting stamped into Thailand went quite smoothly. We were especially happy because we got a 30-day visa – everything we had read suggested that land crossings would only give us 15 days, and we weren’t sure that gave us enough time in the country. But 30 days should be plenty!

Unloading from the souengthaw

Unloading from the sŏrngtăaou

The final step was a minivan transfer from the border to Chiang Rai. This seemed the most dubious step because no one accompanied us over the border. Instead, we were just given stickers with the name of some guesthouse and were told that someone in Thailand would come pick us up using the stickers to identify us. No one was waiting when we got over, so we were a little nervous. After about 30 minutes they finally showed up and turned out to be legit, so we got our ride into Chiang Rai.

The ride was pretty nice, although we were annoyed that the driver asked us for an extra payment to take us to our guesthouse in Chiang Rai. He claimed that otherwise he would have to drop us off at a bus station way outside of town! This seemed somewhat silly to us, but he was only asking about $1 a person ultimately so we just decided to pay it anyway.

Final Thoughts

We are happy that we used the slow boat to get to Thailand from Luang Prabang. It helped us see some parts of Laos that we wouldn’t have otherwise, and also to get more of a feel for the rural areas in general. The ride was very comfortable and relaxing, and allowed us plenty of time to catch up on reading and just enjoy the serenity of watching the scenery go by.

Lovely, Laid-back Luang Prabang, Laos

We had heard wonderful things about the northern Lao town of Luang Prabang. Della’s sister Dana had visited here a few years back and she said it was one of her favorite places! We were quite excited to experience this UNESCO World Heritage-designated town for ourselves.

Getting There

It was pretty straight forward, but definitely not a pleasant bus trip! Once we arrived, we decided to walk the 1 to 2 km into town to our guesthouse.

Where We Stayed

We ended up staying a two different places in Luang Prabang. We were excited because we were planning to meet Della’s parents (again), but we would arrive one day before they did. We booked a place called Liberty Guesthouse online, but when we arrived there, the owner was waiting for us to let us know that there had been a computer error of some sort (we never quite understood) and that there was no room at his place. But, he had booked us a room at his cousin’s hostel called Central Backpackers for the same price. He took us there and we smoothly transitioned to our new guesthouse. Our room was OK, but it felt like a slightly rundown, very backpackery, kind of place. We enjoyed the included breakfast though!

The second day we moved to a much nicer (pricier) place that had been booked by Della’s parents called the Manichan Guesthouse. We stayed there the remaining nights in Luang Prabang. It was a lovely guesthouse with a very good included breakfast. It was also a bit more centrally located in old town Luang Prabang.

What We Did

Walked Around Old Town Luang Prabang and River Fronts – The UNESCO listed old town is the closest thing we’ve experienced in Asia to some of the lovely old towns in Europe. We very much enjoyed strolling the streets of this quaint and laid back town.

We spent many an afternoon and evening just walking. Luang Prabang is situated on a small finger of land sticking out at the confluence of two rivers. Eric and Della spent the day before Della’s parents (Wayne and Peggy) arrived just exploring, enjoying the sights over both the Mekong and Nam Khun waterfronts. The following day, we did a similar walk with Wayne and Peggy and we headed over to the Nam Khun side and saw a cute bamboo bridge and decided to cross it (5,000 kip – $0.60 – toll per person). There wasn’t too much to see on the other side, but it felt like a more “real” part of town, so we walked a little bit but then decided to turn around and cross back over, then walked down the riverfront to the confluence. We sat and enjoyed the view. We then walked back down the Mekong riverfront, pausing to enjoy some young coconuts on the way.

Still another day, we walked down to the confluence again and Peggy decided to soak her feet where the two rivers met before we walked down the beach-side of the Mekong.

Another thing we enjoyed while walking was the amazing markets.  There is a local morning market full of colorful, unique foods. We saw live fish, bare chickens, fried crickets, roasted rat, and more! In addition, there is a night market more geared to tourists. Both were quite pleasant to meander through.

Hiked Up Phu Si – Our first morning with Wayne and Peggy, we headed out for a hike up Phu Si, the hill in the center of town. The walk up was 358 stairs according to the guidebook. At the top is a bright gold stupa and a small wat. We enjoyed the 360-degree views even though the day was a little hazy. We took the eastern route down and ended up in a monastery where we saw a small cave with some statues and a large natural Buddha footprint.

Visit the Royal Palace – We took a visit to the Royal Palace, the former residence of the king and now a national museum. This building was actually built fairly recently – in the early 20th century – and is not very ostentatious on the outside. The entrance is framed by trees and gives a pleasant impression, blending Lao and French beaux-arts styles (according to Lonely Planet!)

The first building we encountered was a fancy white temple housing the famous Pha Bang Buddha image which gives the town of Luang Prabang its name. We were able to get a glimpse of the image which is reportedly from the 1st century.

We then took a tour of the palace itself (after removing shoes and checking bags). This including reception rooms, the throne room, and then bedrooms. The reception rooms and especially the throne room were decorated in the lavish style you would expect, but the bedrooms were surprisingly sparse.

The only other main exhibit was behind the palace – the royal car exhibit. This contained some of their old Lincoln Continentals for ferrying the royalty and their guests around.

Visit the TAEC Ethnographic Museum – We enjoyed our short visit to TAEC, a tiny ethnographic museum focusing on the smaller ethnic groups in Laos. It had small but interesting exhibits on four different groups: Akha, (H)mong, Khmu and Tai, describing their traditional dress and crafts such as weaving. There was a separate room with exhibits on all of the hard work that women in these cultures have to do: child rearing plus healing and crafts, etc.

Visit Kuang Si Waterfalls!

Click the link for more

Click the link for more

Observed the Alms Giving to the Monks – We woke up before dawn one morning so that we could catch the “tak bat,” the daily ceremony where monks go through the streets of town and receive food as an offering. We weren’t sure what to expect because we had heard that the scene could get quite touristy. Lonely Planet warns that sometimes the tourists actually outnumber the participants and despite signs and warnings everywhere, the tourists can’t seem to be completely respectful of the ceremony. Generally, tourists are asked to stay across the road from the procession and not to thrust cameras in the faces of the monks. We had experienced this a bit in Myanmar, and were not anxious to be part of the tourist throng.

The owner of our guesthouse gave Wayne and Peggy some general tips of where we could go to observe without being in main tourist area, so we first headed down by the river. Only a couple of people were there so we walked on to see if we could see anything else.

Outside one monastery we saw a group of about 15 monks emerge. A few townspeople and also a few tourists knelt and gave them sticky rice to put in their baskets. Some people took inappropriate pictures but it wasn’t too bad. It was over so fast that we felt a little underwhelmed. Because we hadn’t seen much of anything, we headed back toward the main street of town where we expected both the main groups of monks (and tourists) to be, but we never really found it. We saw just a few more groups of monks, but never found the large collection that we had been envisioning.

Visiting Wats – We spent one day exploring the multitude of beautiful wats (Buddhist temples) in town. Our main target was the big one, Wat Xieng Thong. We walked down the main street and stopped at a few others on the way first. Wat Sensoukaram had a nice red temple that made for good pictures. Wat Souvannakhilli had a small free exhibit about meditation in its main building.

Wat Xieng Thong was the only one that required admission, but it was pretty impressive. It is most known for being one of only two temples that was spared when the city was invaded by a Chinese tribe. The main building, built in 1560, was beautiful, with expansive gold murals inside. There were also a few buildings covered in glass mosaic similar to the throne room at the Royal palace. Another large building housed a big carriage used in processions and some other artifacts.

What We Ate

We had quite a few memorable meals in Luang Prabang.

Our first evening, we had arrived pretty late and were quite hungry. We just wanted something quick so we headed to the main part of town where Eric had read that there was a market. There was a huge market, but we didn’t see a lot of food until we got to the food street! This was a narrow alley-like road that was packed with food stalls. There was meats of all kinds being barbecued, spring rolls, crepes, and lots of soups. But we ended up eating from a buffet like table. For about $2 (15,000 kip) you could fill a bowl with as much as you wanted. Then you gave it to the stall owner and she fried it for you in a big wok, making sure it was nice and warm (and hopefully all the germs killed). It was delicious!

We ate two nice meals on the banks of the Mekong River. For one lunch, we were looking for something quick, easy, and cheap. We saw a food stall with some nice tables overlooking the river with good prices. We were a little disappointed in the quickness aspect, but the taste was nice! The second meal was with Peggy and Wayne. We headed to the riverfront at sunset and enjoyed a lovely view while we ate!

Our guesthouse had some good eats as well. One afternoon we all got a special Lao soup called Khao Soi from the guesthouse.

IMG_5857

Some of the most exciting meals were actually when we got to renew a connection from the past! Remember the Belgian bikers we originally met in Albania, and then met again in Greece?? Well, lucky for us, our paths crossed once more in Luang Prabang. We met them for two evening meals. The first was at Café Toui which is known for its Lao set menu. Unfortunately, when we arrived they said we couldn’t have that. =/ However, we had some other Luang Prabang specialties including a Luang Prabang special sausage and pumpkin curry. The food was good and company was great! We met them for a second evening where we again visited the food street at the market, and it was delicious a second time around!

WP_20150301_20_06_19_Pro

Another Lao favorite is a sandwich! This comes as a legacy of the French and there are many stalls that will serve you up a nice baguette with a variety of fillings. We enjoyed one such lunch.

IMG_5893

On our first evening with Peggy and Wayne, we headed to Khaiphaen Restaurant, which Eric had seen as highly recommended on TripAdvisor, both for the local style food and for its mission, which is to be a training restaurant for disadvantaged youth. The servers, students supervised by a teacher, were definitely very eager to help. We got an appetizer of khaiphaen (fried river weed) to share, then for dinner Eric got Mekong fish and prawn laksa, Wayne got orlap (a local soup with pork, eggplant and mushrooms) and Peggy and Della both got larb. The flavors on the soups were good but more subtle than we were expecting.

Final Thoughts

We enjoyed the laid-back atmosphere and the chance to experience a nice old town. For some reason, we didn’t completely fall in love though. We think this might have to do with expectations as so many people had sung praises of this place. It was really nice, but when you expect to love something, somehow it sets a really high bar that is hard to meet. In any case, Luang Prabang is a lovely place and we did enjoy our time there. It was also nice to see Della’s parents again and to meet up with new friends halfway across the globe!

 

Cute Bears and Crystal Clear Waters at Kuang Si, Laos

We were quite excited for our final city, Luang Prabang, in part because of the Kuang Si Waterfalls, a site outside of town. We had been looking forward to seeing them for a long time, expecting them to remind us of our visit to Rio Celeste in Costa Rica and our cloudy-turned-lovely day at Plitvice Lakes last fall.

Almost every travel agent in town will sell you a ride to the waterfalls. We decided to have our guesthouse, Manichan, organize the trip for us. They have a normal driver that they use for trips like this. Our ride to the waterfall was via “songteauw,” which is kind of like a tuk-tuk but instead you are riding in the bed of a pickup truck on a bench (with a covering).

Riding in the songteauw

Riding in the songtheaw

The road out to the waterfall was about 30 km, and a little steep and windy. It definitely took longer than we thought to make it out to the falls. We were driving for about 45 min and kept thinking about Della’s sister Dana and her friend Emma who somehow did this trip on bikes when they were here! Phew! Impressive!

Our first stop in the park was at a rescue center for the moon bears, named after the white crest on their chest. There were quite a few of them scattered through the various enclosures, and many were up and being playful.

We then headed up and found the first of the lower pools of the waterfall. The water was crystal clear and going down some traventines- like Plitvice Lakes in many ways. Except this time we had great weather all the way through! Wayne did a few swims as we went up but the rest of us decided to wait.

 

At the base of the large falls we decided to follow advice from our guesthouse and take the stairs to the left side to reach the top – which seemed very far away! The more used path goes to the right of the falls. We were worried that we had heard wrong. Even this trail, which was supposedly better than other other according our guesthouse host, was pretty steep in places. But, when we reached the top and talked to other travelers who had come up the other way, it sounded like ours was better! At the top there wasn’t too much to do except wade out to somewhat close to the edge and admire the view.

Back at the bottom, we went to one of the pools and then all got in the water. It was pretty cold but ok once you got moving. Other people jumped off this tree into a deep spot, so we were inspired to do the same. Eric went first, then Wayne, and finally Della.

We were only supposed to stay for five hours (based on the price we paid for transport), so then we headed back out to find our ride home. The ride back seemed to go faster!

Kuang Si is beautiful and we think it is a must on your trip to Luang Prabang. We’re not sure we recommend taking a bike though!

Moments of Misery: The “VIP” bus from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang

Most of our posts on this blog will be happy recollections of some moments of our trip. But life on the road won’t always be fun. We feel like we’d like to share some of these moments of misery too. (OK, and vent a little about them too…)

Our knees were being crushed by the large recline of the seats in front of us, the large incline of our own seats meant we were leaning far back , our butts almost sliding off our seats, the air conditioning was blowing the tiniest wisp of air in 95 degree heat, and the curvy, steep road seemed to stretch on past the horizon. Thirty minutes into the eight hour bus ride, and we were wondering just exactly what we had gotten ourselves into.

We had heard that the stretch of road traveling from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang, Laos was not easy. We had heard it was rough, and curvy, and that you might just get sick. We had even heard that there were zero good ways to avoid this and you had to be prepared. So, we were trying to psych ourselves up for a difficult trip. Even so, the reality was pretty miserable.

We booked the “VIP” bus, and even confirmed that it would have AC. We arrived at the bus station 20 minutes before departure and the bus was already mostly full. Our assigned seats were taken, and rather than argue with the German couple that already looked like they weren’t having a great day, we just took two nearby available seats. These seats were most likely available because of two major flaws: the two seats in front of them were stuck in a reclining position, so there wasn’t much legroom, and the seats themselves were also stuck in a reclining position, so you were forced to sit up straight with no neck support or lean far back the whole time. We apologized to the couple sitting behind us for crushing their knees, but they realized there was nothing we could do.

The temperature outside was hot but not unbearably so, but when we first boarded the bus it was 10 degrees warmer on there since the bus wasn’t on and there was no breeze. When the bus started up, we breathed a sigh of relief as it sounded like the AC kicked in…. but then we realized that there was barely any air blowing. You could see people up and down the aisles fiddling with the vents, but the effect was very minimal.

The road from Vang Vieng to Vientiane mostly went over narrow mountain roads, which meant that most of the trip was spent with the hulking bus swaying back and forth. This made it a bit hard to read for long stretches of time without getting car sick, especially since there wasn’t much airflow going.

We heard multiple people make the same remark we were thinking to ourselves: If this is the VIP bus, I’d hate to see what the regular bus is like! We haven’t been as upset about a bus ride since our adventures with the buses in the Peloponnese in Greece.

For all the complaining we have done in this post though, it could have been a lot worse. The bus made it without getting in an accident, and we didn’t actually get sick. The arrival was basically on time, and none of our possessions were lost. Still, we hope it’s a while before we have such a bus ride again!

Visiting Changing Vang Vieng, Laos

When planning our time through Laos, we waffled a bit on whether or not to go to Vang Vieng. On one hand, the town is situated on a crystal clear river in the middle of limestone mountains riddled with caves, making for a scenic and adventuresome way to break up the long bus ride to our next stop (Luang Prabang). On the other hand, Vang Vieng is known as the backpacker party central in Laos, with wild river parties and a downtown filled with cheap, uninspiring restaurants. Although, in 2012 they started to clean up the town a bit and supposedly the area is moving towards a calmer, more eco-tourism scene. So, with these factors in mind, we decided to spend a few days in town and reach our own conclusions.

Getting There

We signed up for the “VIP” bus from Vientiane through of hotel there. The process of getting on board in the morning was certainly not “VIP” though. Our hotel insisted that we didn’t need a ticket, which seemed strange. It included minivan pickup for transport to the station, and when we were picked up the driver seemed to want some sort of proof. After some conversation they gave us a scribbled note that must have said 2 to Vang Vieng.

We piled into the minivan with some other travelers and settled in for the ride to the bus station. Then, in about two minutes, we reached a side street where we were told to get off and get on the buses that were parked there. After all the trouble squeezing in, we could have just walked there!

The “VIP” bus was much less fancy than the one in Myanmar. No assigned seats, so we just picked a couple out from some of the drab ones available. Luckily the person checking our “ticket” was the same one that picked us up in the minivan.

IMG_5656

The ride itself turned out to not be too bad. It took about 4 hours with a break at a service station halfway. The road for the last part was a little curvy but not too bad. They dropped us off a little outside of the main town, but there was a free shuttle that took us into the heart of the city.

Where We Stayed

We stayed at the KL Guesthouse, which we found on Agoda and chose because it was the best-reviewed cheap option that had a private bathroom and included breakfast. The downside was that it was a ways out of the main part of town, but we thought that might be a hidden upside if we wanted to avoid loud music from bars late into the night.

Our room ended up being one half of a bungalow and was quite spacious. The staff at the reception was a little too laid-back, and the breakfast was basic, but ultimately we enjoyed our stay. The walk into town took about 20 minutes, which was maybe a little long, but we only did it once a day.

What We Did

Green Discovery “Discover Vang Vieng” Tour – We wanted to see some of the caves around the area, and thought it would be easiest to go on a guided tour. The “Discover Vang Vieng” tour included multiple caves, a small trek and kayaking over a day, and was a little cheaper than advertised since multiple people had already signed up.

The first part of our tour was to visit various caves. We first did the “Elephant Cave” which was really more of an alcove with a Buddha statue and a formation that vaguely looks like an elephant. It was here that we really started to realize that we had a hard time understanding our main guide. He would interject a word that sounded like “lassa” throughout his sentences almost like an “um” or “you know,” and he had a somewhat thick accent, so we had to concentrate to get what he was trying to say.

We next walked for about 10 minutes to another area and got ready to enter some serious caves, which meant we needed to put on head lamps. We first went into Tham Loup, which had some neat formations. We explored past a few large ones and then made a loop back. At one point our guide made the two of us do a tight squeeze and then told the others they could do the easy bypass!

We next went to the “Snail Cave,” Tham Hoi. There was a large Buddha statue at the entrance, and then for the most part it felt like a since long hallway with not as many interesting formations. We went pretty deep but then decided to turn around when we would have had to crawl through water.

When we emerged one of the other guides had cooked us a nice lunch: fried rice wrapped in a banana leaf, meat and veggie skewers, a baguette and bananas.

After finishing the meal, we walked to the next cave, Tham Nam. This one is unique because water is running out of the mouth, so to get in it we got into tubes and then pulled ourselves along a rope strung along the cave for that purpose. We headed in for about 15 minutes, then headed back. On the way back we ran into large Korean tour groups which were making quite the racket.

IMG_5691

We then did the “trekking” part of the tour, which was really just walking along an irrigation canal. This did provide nice views of the surrounding karsts and also lots of cute cows. There was also a dog leading the way that gave some nice entertainment. The walk ended through a Hmong village and then over a bridge where our truck was waiting.

We rode for about 10 minutes to a drop off spot where we began our kayak journey. The two of us shared a kayak, with Eric in the front and Della in the back. The water was pretty shallow in places so we had to be careful not to hit rocks. The first stretch didn’t have many other on it. There was one rapid that we navigated successfully.

IMG_5713

Our kayaks. We didn’t take any pics on the water… oops!

Then we hit the stretch where the party tubers were. The big thing for the party crowd is to rent a tube and spend the day going from bar to bar along the river. Again, this was supposedly much wilder before they started cracking down. Still, there was a stretch where there were drunk tubers all over the place. Definitely did not look like our scene. We tried to keep a wide berth so they wouldn’t splash us.

IMG_5715

We didn’t actually take any pictures on the water… oops. But, we saw this sign where we got out. It shows a bit of what a party destination this place can be

The rest of the river was more filled with tubes and also many other kayakers. There were a few riffles but no major rapids. We both began to get sore from paddling, making us feel out of shape. We reached the take out at the south end of town, pulled our kayaks out of the water, and said goodbye.

Hang Out By the River – We spent the first part of our second day in Vang Vieng debating what to do. We could do the tubing thing, but we didn’t feel like the drunken parties would appeal to us. There was another recommended cave, but to get there would be via an expensive tuk-tuk or on rented bikes over a hot, dusty road. Inertia won out, and we ultimately settled on just hanging out by the river at a bar we had seen the previous day.

IMG_5721_edt

Crossing the bridge to the other side of the river where we plan to hangout in the huts

It definitely felt like spending a day at the beach. The seating at the bar was just different bungalows that provided relief from the sun. We took turns going for a quick dip – the water was pretty cold – and relaxed and read our books while sharing a Beerlao. The bar also had some speakers playing Western pop music, many of which we recognized and had fun singing along to. We hung around until just after sunset.

Where We Ate

There are a lot of restaurants in town, but we had been warned that none of them really stood out. The first night we ate at one of Lonely Planet’s recommendations, a place called Kitchen that was affiliated with a boutique hotel. The most interesting dish here was some local sausage that Eric tried. (We have noticed that the different towns in Laos all seem to have their own sausage. For example, there is a well-known Luang Prabang sausage).

IMG_5661

One holdover from the crazy backpacker party era is a very unique type of restaurant: a “Friends bar.” These places have lounge style seating all facing large TVs which are constantly playing reruns of the Friends tv show. There are multiple options in town, plus some that play Family Guy or South Park. We loved the show when it was on, so we decided that even though it might seem cliché we had to do it one night. The bar we chose was showing episodes from Season 7. We ended up staying through two and a half episodes.

IMG_5716

Our final night we wanted a nice view of sunset, so we went to a restaurant with a nice terrace view. Again the food choices were pretty standard, but we did enjoy the fading sunset colors.

Final Thoughts

We still aren’t completely sure how we felt about the Vang Vieng experience. On one hand, we enjoyed the natural beauty and our cave explorations. On the other hand, it still seemed like the town was not quite our scene, with a lot of people just there to get drunk. Service in shops and restaurants was also pretty gruff and disinterested, which is probably a byproduct of their typical clientele. Still, we think we are glad we stopped for a little while, and especially glad we broke up the bus ride… (to be continued)

We’ve Been in Vientiane, Laos

After Cambodia, we headed to its northern neighbor Laos. We debated going overland through the southern part of the country, but after doing some research we decided that our top highlights were all in the northern part. The most convenient place to start our journey through the country was therefore its capital, Vientiane.

Getting There

Getting from Siem Reap in Cambodia to Vientiane was not as easy as we had hoped. We could have done a bus, but it would have been a 28-hour journey which we were not inclined to do. The fastest and most convenient option seemed to be to fly. Unfortunately, flights out of Siem Reap were pretty expensive. From Phnom Penh, it was cheaper, so we took a bus from Siem Reap back to Phnom Penh and spent one night back at Envoy Hostel.

The flight from Phnom Penh wasn’t as cheap as we hoped – the cheapest we could find was $175, and we couldn’t figure out how to do it on miles. But, it was direct so it would save us a lot of time. We flew on Vietnam Airlines, which turned out to be quite nice, not a low-cost carrier like the other flights we have done so far in Asia. We even got a small meal during the 1.5 hour flight!

Where We Stayed

Through Agoda we found the Nanynu Mini Hotel. As the name implies, it was a hotel, not a guesthouse, so there wasn’t really a common area to meet fellow travelers. On the other hand, our small room was comfortable and nicely furnished. The location was just a few minutes walk from the main street with restaurants. The staff didn’t speak a lot of English but were very friendly.

What We Did

Vientiane has a reputation of being a “sleepy” city with not much to do. It is definitely smaller than the capitals of its neighbors, and the roads are much less crowded. There aren’t many attractions, but they are pretty easy to get to by bicycle or on foot.

One day we rented bicycles from a hostel in town to tour around the city. This was actually a little tough because they wanted our passports as a deposit, but we had left them back in our room. They then wanted $50 instead, but we only had $30 on us and finally convinced them that the bikes were probably not worth more than that.

We followed a route suggested by the Lonely Planet guide, which took us past such sights as the old Presidential Palace (used by the French colonial governor when Laos was a French colony), the French embassy and US embassies, an old uncovered stupa and numerous small wats (temples).

We got off the bikes at Patuxai, which is Vientiane’s version of Paris’s Arc de Triomphe. We paid a small fee and climbed inside for nice views of the area. Strangely, you have to pass through a bunch of gift shops as you ascent upwards. There is also a slightly hidden interior staircase in the giftshop at the main level that allows you to go all the way to the top.

We deviated from the recommended path a little bit and rode out to Pha That Luang, a temple and monastery complex that is very treasured by the Lao people as a symbol of independence. The main attraction is the large golden stupa.

On our second day we walked to visit the COPE Visitor Center. COPE is an organization that helps provide prosthetic limbs to those who can’t afford them all across the country. The visitor center describes their work in making the prosthetics, but also talks in detail about one of the main reasons so many are needed: the problem of the tons of unexploded ordinance (UXO) that remains in the country as a result of the many bombs the US dropped on the country during the “secret war” as part of the Vietnam war. We also watched a couple of short documentaries about the efforts to go in the countryside and defuse the found items before someone is hurt by them. The problem is especially tough because scrap metal can bring in a significant amount of money, so people will risk harm and handle items that they shouldn’t.

We also visited the National Museum, which we had read was a little underwhelming. It did turn out to be pretty small – we only spent an hour which is quite a feat for us. The exhibits were pretty well signed through the prehistoric and ancient history sections, but once it got to the Lao kingdoms in the 15th century it started to be harder to figure out what was going on. Then, in the section on the colonial period and the rise of the Pathet Lao (communist revolution), the signs were minimal and definitely felt a bit one-sided.

IMG_5637

The exterior of the National Museum – no pictures allowed inside

 

We heard that, like Phnom Penh, there were aerobics classes in the evening, this time in a large park down by the Mekong River. Unfortunately, when we tried to go the first time it started to rain and the class seemed to be cancelled. The second night it was also cancelled, this time because an afternoon storm had knocked out power and they couldn’t run their speakers. We did still enjoy seeing the other evening activities in the area though, with many people exercising and a large night market.

 

One upside of the aerobics being cancelled was that it gave us time to do something we had been putting off: getting Eric’s hair cut! There was a salon next door to the hotel which had an English sign, so we figured it would be ok. We pointed at a picture of the most basic cut on the wall and they said they could do it. First they gave him a shampoo – not usually something he has done so it was fun. The cut was about the same as at home, except they didn’t use the standard guards on the clippers; instead, the stylist just used a comb to control the length of the cut. The total cost was 50,000 kip – about $6.

IMG_5653

Where We Ate

Since this was our first stop in Laos, we were excited to try the Lao cuisine. The food at Lao Kitchen was an excellent introduction. We especially enjoyed the laab, which is minced meat mixed with fresh herbs such as cilantro and mint, usually with sticky rice on the side. Khop Chai Deu also had a good laab, and a grilled chicken with nice flavors.

IMG_5577

The part of Vientiane that we were in is very tourist-oriented, so it wasn’t hard to find other types of food as well. For example, one dinner we just ate Indian food. Also, the French influence is still quite strong, and you see cafes and bakeries all over. For breakfast every morning we would get different types of pastries from the Parisien Bakery, and after our bike ride we got some homemade ice cream from Le Banneton.

Final Thoughts

Compared to Phnom Penh, Vientiane was a lot quieter and more laid back. We actually enjoyed this, because it meant that we could ease into understanding the Lao culture and history, and also that it was easy for us to get around between the various sights. The amount of time we allocated to see the city was just about right: there were nice things to see, but we certainly didn’t feel like we missed out on anything big.