We’ve Finished our RTW, so What Were Our Favorite…. Drinking Experiences?!

We’ve finished our RTW trip. We get a lot of questions about our favorite things on the trip. We’ve decided to start a new series called “So, What Was Our Favorite…” We visited 29 countries on our RTW: Egypt (just 1 day), South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe (just 1 day), Namibia, Germany (just 1 day), Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia Herzegovina, Montenegro, Albania, Greece, Turkey, Ireland, USA, Myanmar, Singapore, Indonesia (just Bali), Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Macau, and Nepal.

As many of you know, we are not really big partiers- but we definitely like a good drink/drinking experience. As we traveled around the world, we tried as much of the local alcohol as we could, but there were a few “drinking experiences” that really stood out. These were times that we remembered best for being somewhat alcohol centered, however, we think you’ll notice that often it wasn’t just the alcohol that made the experience so memorable.

This edition looks at our top 10 favorite “drinking experiences” around the world. These are not in order from best to worst. They are just our top 10 favorite in the order in which we visited them.

Chobe Safari Lodge, Kasane, Botswana

For three nights on our self-drive safari, we stayed at Chobe Safari Lodge in Botswana. The campsite itself was a little substandard. But the benefit was that we were less than 100 feet from a bar overlooking the river, where we spent multiple afternoons drinking beers and watching elephants graze. The sunsets were gorgeous and we enjoyed some local beer. The beers themselves weren’t wonderful, mostly pretty boring lagers, but the setting and sights were awesome!

Groot Constantia Wine Estate, Cape Town, South Africa

We visited here during our city sight-seeing tour in Cape Town, and we wish we could have spent the whole day there! It is the oldest wine estate in South Africa. It was started in the late 1600s by members of the Dutch East India Company. It took awhile but it then began to compete with all the fine wines in Europe and has continued to make excellent wine since then. We took the cellar tour and participated in a delicious wine tasting. We then wandered the vineyard and explored the historical buildings. The location was lovely and historic and we felt like we had a nice connection because we had just read James Michener’s Covenant which was about the history of the Cape and we had learned about a similar winery in the story. Definitely an enjoyable day!

Valley of Beautiful Women, Eger, Hungary

Just over the hill, about a 25 min walk from the Old Town of Eger, is the Valley of Beautiful Women. We’re not sure why the name, especially because we saw almost no one in our time in the valley. It was a miserably rainy day. But, the bad weather didn’t deter us from our reason for visiting Eger: the ~ 50 wine cellars all right next to each other, clustered in the valley. Tastes are free and glasses were as reasonable as 100 forint (about $0.50)! We really enjoyed striking up a conversation with a bored Hungarian working in the first cellar. We chatted about wine, Hungary, language, and her life. We also enjoyed trying the Eger special wine: Egri Bikaver or Bull’s Blood. The wine gets its name because in 1552, the people of Eger withstood a siege by the Ottoman Empire for a month. 2000 men from Eger against 100,000. They held! The king Istvan Dobo helped his troops by giving them wine which stained their beards red. This lead to rumors through the Turkish army that the men of Eger were so strong and vicious because they were drinking the blood of bulls! Every cellar has their own variant of this famous Eger wine. They also will fill up a plastic bottle of wine for cheap prices. We filled our 1 liter nalgene bottle of our favorite wine for only 500 forint (a little over $2.00!!) There are many cellars to try, but the rain and the alcohol caused us to only get to 3. We wish we lived close by cause we would go back regularly!

Buza Bar, Dubrovnik, Croatia

Buza means hole in the old Dubrovnik dialect. That’s just what this bar was – a hole in the wall. Literally, you walk through a hole in the city walls of Dubrovnik. The bar was quite crowded, but it was still an absolutely beautiful view out over the ocean. We had a few drinks there at sunset, enjoying our last evening in Croatia. Gorgeous!

Literary Pub Crawl, Dublin, Ireland

This was a new adventure for us! Dublin has a very rich literary history- writers such as WB Yeats, Jonathan Swift, Oscar Wilde, and and James Joyce made Dublin their home. Neither of us knew much about any of these authors, nor had read anything by them. But, Della thought that maybe this would be the perfect way to learn more about them, especially as we were in Dublin… and it couldn’t hurt that beer was involved. We really enjoyed the pub crawl! We went to 4 different pubs throughout the evening. At each one, we enjoyed our guides. They made sure to tell us stories either about the history of Dublin or about one of the many authors that contributed to that history. They also sprinkled in several small performances, either scenes from different plays or books, or from letters from the authors. It was an entertaining way to spend an evening exploring Dublin’s past and Dublin’s beer!

Red Mountain Winery, Inle Lake, Myanmar/Burma

On our first full day in Inle, we rented bikes and headed out of town toward a winery! The Red Mountain Winery is about 5 miles outside of Nyuang Shwe (the main town for Inle which we were staying in). It was a glorious day and we really enjoyed the ride. It was quite a push up the hill to get to the winery, but it was so worth it. You can get a taste of 4 wines for about $2. The wine was OK though not fabulous. We each found one we liked well enough to enjoy a glass of while we nibbled on an appetizer and took in the view. We waited around for the free tour and ended up being the only 2 on it for a little while. It was a short tour and we learned how the winery is quite new, imports most of its plants from France, and has mostly broken machines so they do things like label by hand. The glorious views and lovely day make this a fantastic place for a drink!

A Riverside Bar, Vang Vieng, Laos

Many people talk about the joys of tubing down the river and stopping for crazy party drinking at the riverside bars in Vang Vieng. We weren’t really into that, but on our last day in town, we headed down to the river where there were a few small riverside huts and a small bar with music playing. It was past the crazy, tubing part of the river so it was really quite calm. It also helped that we hung out there during sunset. It definitely felt like spending a day at the beach (without the icky sand and salt!) We had nice shade and shelter from the sun in our bungalow. 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 also enjoyed watching the huge air balloons floating above us as the sun sank down to the horizon.

Beachfront Restaurants, Ko Lanta, Thailand

We had a short time on the beach during our trip to Thailand. (Short was just the right amount of time for us!) We stayed near Khlong Nin beach, which was quiet and restful. There were lots of beachfront restaurants where you could sit and enjoy a drink. We ate many lunches, using the restaurants as sun blocks while we enjoyed our beer and looking out on the beach. Many of the beachfront restaurants offered happy hour deals on beer, which was great since the beach faces west. We took advantage and made sure to find a good seat to watch the sun fade below the horizon.

Sampling Fresh Beer, Hoi An, Vietnam

In Hoi An we had our first chance to sample “fresh beer,” a classic beverage that is unique to the country. The beer is called fresh because it has just recently been brewed and is served without preservatives. It has less alcohol than normal beer and less carbonation, but is very cheap. We paid only 3000 dong (about 15 cents) per glass! It was also extremely hot during our time in Hoi An. Stopping in at a restaurant or stand to enjoy a cheap, quick, and refreshing fresh beer was a great way to cool down and rest out of the heat!

Wine in Our Own Lodging, Anywhere Around the World

In several countries (though most notably: Croatia, Montenegro, Greece, and Hong Kong), the most affordable option for drinks was to buy a bottle of wine (or retsina) and take it home for an evening in. There were many a bottle that we enjoyed while lounging on a balcony of our hotel or in the sunroom of an airbnb that bring back some wonderful memories. There is something special about spending time together, remembering the new and exciting experiences of the day, planning our next moves, and relaxing – with no stress of job (or calories). It’s a freedom we will try to remember often as we restarted our jobs this last week.

 

 

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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)