Vientiane – Amazing food and infinite Buddhas

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I’m happy to report that we have safely completed our last van trip in Laos. After another bumpy and windy ride, we arrived four hours later in the Vientiane, the capital of Laos.

For the record, the roads in Laos are absolutely terrible. You’re either nearly losing a tire due to deep pot holes, or about to fall off the side of a mountain. Not to mention the many offenders on the Laos roadways:

Worst of Laos road offenders (in order):

  1. Cows – Crossing the road, just hanging out and staring at you in the middle of the road, or giving you the stink eye as they walk straight down the middle of the road – they really are the true owners of Laos roads.
  2. Goats – A step below cows, we’ve actually seen them nonchalantly napping in the middle of the road. Our van changed lanes, they didn’t blink.
  3. Dogs – They happily jog along the side of the road, and make calculated dodges across/through traffic. Frogger would be proud.
  4. Toddlers – New walkers, these children have yet to learn how to use their peripheral vision. A quick honk can usually do the trick to guide them back to safety.
  5. We have a general tie for last place: potbellied pigs, roosters, drunks, and anything else not bolted down.

It was interesting to get back into city life after spending so much time hanging out in the smaller towns. Vientiane reminded us a lot of Montreal, Canada. Lots of French bakeries, architecture, and tactfulness. The cost of living in Vientiane was the highest of anywhere on our trip. Sleeping, eating, and getting around was double the price we’ve spent anywhere else in Laos and most of Thailand.

A highlight of our trip was the food. We quickly made ourselves at home at Noy’s Fruit Heaven. She’s an absolute sweetheart and I don’t think I’ve seen anyone smile so big all the time. If you have the chance, stop in for a fruit smoothie. They’re delicious.

We had a date night at Lao Kitchen as well, which hands down had some of the best food we’ve had on our trip. It’s a local restaurant that served all of the authentic Laos dishes with a tourist twist. For example, if a normal Laos dish includes fermented fish and ‘organ meat’, they thoughtfully leave that out for you. One night, we went back late for mango sticky rice (mango, sticky rice, coconut milk … yummmm) and they stayed open just to make us some for take out. Yes, we were ‘those people’. We were extremely grateful, though.

To top off the date night, we went for a two hour full body sugar scrub and massage at Mandarina Massage. It was a splurge for us, at $20 (USD) for the two hours, but it was well worth it. The spa was classy, relaxing, and the service was excellent.

Buddha Park

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The pumpkin’s charming entrance

One of the things I was extremely excited about was the Buddha Park just outside of Vientiane. Also known as Xieng Khuan, the park is a strange blend of religion, sculpture, insanity, and lots of concrete. Bunleua Sulilat, the creator, was a priest-shaman who fused Buddhism and Hinduism in a way the conservative Laos government was not overly fond of. He eventually fled the country, leaving behind a garden filled with grotesque demons, gods, and animals. There were many buddhas, as well as a massive pumpkin. The pumpkin, three stories in height, represented heaven, earth and hell (the three floors). Each floor was filled with small statues and scenes, and was entered through the mouth of a 10′ tall gorilla-demon head (picture an Indiana Jones movie).

We rented a motorbike ($10 CAD) and hit the road to drive 25 km to the park. Entry was 10,000 kip ($1.50 CAD) each to get in, and a bit for parking too.

The statues were fascinating and well designed. It’s crazy to think someone put so much time and effort into making these all happen. We can go into describing each one, but we figured some pictures would best do the job. For more pictures, check out our photo stream.

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Vang Vieng’s Blue Lagoon and Tham Phu Kham Cave

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Luke gearing up for a flip in the Blue Lagoon.

Coming to Laos, the one thing we were most excited for was finding the tranquil blue lagoons pictured by so many travellers before us. When we planned our trip, we didn’t even know where they were. Upon arriving in Vang Vieng, we discovered that it was home to the simply named Blue Lagoon.

The road to the Blue Lagoon is bumpy, so we were told by some friends that either riding a bicycle or taking a tuk tuk ride was the best way to go. It’s hot enough in Laos to fry an egg on your back — I swear — so we opted for the tuk tuk. Tuk tuks were charging 150,000 ($21 CAD) kip for the trip, since they take you all the way there and wait as long as you want before taking you home. We rounded up a total of 6 friends, and haggled it down to only 20,000 kip ($3) each.

To say the ride was bumpy is the understatement of the year. It was a knock your head on the roof, feel your organs slosh together, be thankful you’re still alive at the end kinda bumpy. The ride even includes a “are we going to make it through this?” puddle partway through. Just don’t eat lunch before you go, or you may need to eat again once you get there.

Once there, it took a few minutes for the beauty of the lagoon to set in.

This. Place. Was. GORGEOUS.

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Me and Jane, enjoying the day.

The water was a thick aqua blue that I’ve never seen in my life. There were these shiny fish swimming in such a way as to make the water look magical. There was a perfectly placed tree with rope swings, ladders, and a high and low branch perfect for diving. There were places to lounge, tubes to float in, and venders selling food.

People were doing backflips, front flips, and dives off the tallest branch. There were people (like me), scared out of their minds to jump, but were encouraged by everyone with clapping, countdowns, and cheers. With some encouragement, I got over my fear of jumping and made it off the lower branch twice. Luke, on the other hand, was jumping and flipping all day off the highest branch.

Tham Phu Kham cave

Another great part about the Blue Lagoon was that you could trek about 10 minutes (200m up) to the Tham Phu Kham cave. Definitely bring some good hiking sandals for this part, since the walk up was pretty steep and rocky. There were some bamboo railings to help, but it can be a bit nerve-wracking at times.

At the cave, we needed our phones’ flashlights to see. If you have head lanterns or more powerful flashlights, try and remember them! You’ll need your hands to brace yourself against rocks as you go. Slowly but surely, we made our way down into the cave on some slippery rocks. Once deep inside, the depth and height of the cave left us speechless.

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The air was damp but fresh, and there was a bronze reclining Buddha fittingly basking in the sunlight that shone through an opening. I stopped and let Luke carry on further inside of the cave. He said that as he went through some more tunnels, he popped up into another chamber about the size of a small stadium. The size of these caverns made us realize how small and fragile we really are compared to nature. And on a side-note, it also made Luke want to go camping inside a cave system some day.

We uploaded a whole bunch of pictures on our Flickr, so make sure to check them out here.

Tubing in Vang Vieng – what it looks like today

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The tube launch – where the fun begins

This past week we visited the lovely town of Vang Vieng, halfway between Luang Prabang and Vientiane. The town was nestled among a picturesque range of limestone karsts, the Nam Song river, and colourful buildings.

The incredible scenery nearby has turned this small community into a backpacker’s haven, and you can see the effects everywhere. With bars lining the roads, shops selling neon shorts and tank tops, and restaurants playing endless reruns of Friends, South Park and Family Guy, it was a little disheartening to see. The town was still lively with local culture, but you definitely had to look past the drunk westerners to see it.

We had heard that Vang Vieng was famous for its parties and tubing. In 2011, the hospital recorded 27 tourist deaths and countless injuries that occurred in the river. People would tube down the river, stopping at each bar along the way to get drunk on free shots of whiskey, try a magic mushroom shake, or swing into the water on ropes. There were no safety standards, and the fluctuating river levels hid logs and rocks from view.

Nowadays, most of the bars are shut down and the ropes and swings are no where to be seen along the river. Despite the dark past of tubing, it’s still an extremely popular and fun thing to do. There are only three bars open on the water now (six total, but they alternate days). We decided to give it a try when some of our friends we’d met encouraged us to come with (and yes, after much reading and researching on the safety nowadays).

After renting a tube and signing a waiver, we were dropped off at the tube launch. This was also the location of the first bar, and the party was in full swing by the time we arrived. Electronic music was blasting, and people were playing drinking games like flip cup, beer pong, and shotgunning beers. Whiskey shots are free and plentiful in Vang Vieng, since it’s a cheap local product.

We decided to skip the first party and head right to the second bar. We got in our tubes and floated about two minutes down river until we were thrown a rope and pulled in by some locals. The bar was really fun. There was a basketball court with water blasting out of the backboard, hammocks aplenty, and the obligatory soundtrack that included every Western hit from 1990-2010. We played beach volleyball with a bunch of Canadians teaching English in Malaysia, which was a lot of fun. Most were from Toronto, and on was from Halifax. The sun was scorching hot, so when it was time for a break, we decided to trek to the Lom Cave.

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Partway in – eroded limestone caverns

After walking several hundred feet up bamboo stairs, we got to a rather unimpressive entrance.
The opening was about the size of a double door, and there was a set of stairs descending down into the wet limestone. Using the flashlights we had been given, we explored onwards. After about 200 feet, the cave tunnel suddenly opened up into a room that would easily fit the average high school gym. The locals had built a small Buddhist shrine here, and apparently the cave kept going much further, had we had the time the explore.

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Bar #2 – volleyball, flipcup and water-basketball

Once we got back down, the party was in full swing as everyone from the first bar had now made their way here. Our friends from the hostel had also arrived, and we joined them for some lunch. We spent a total of $3 CAD for a plate of sautéed vegetables and a sandwich. Girls were dancing on tables in bikinis and taking selfies. Buckets of booze flowed freely and everyone was in high spirits. It felt like a freshman spring break, in the middle of the jungle.

The whole tubing trip takes a total of two hours to get downriver, and since we were only five minutes in and the sun was moving behind the mountains, we decided to hop back into the water.

The last bar was a bit dead, probably because the rest of the party was still behind us. So, decided to finish out our tubing journey. The view from the river is stunning and drifting slowly in a tube has got to be the best way to take it all in. We saw men working in rice fields, kids throwing fishing nets, and a cow swim across the river to join his family.

At one point we came upon little local boys jumping off a small bridge into the water. As we got closer, they spotted me and raced towards my tube. Luke pushed me closer to them, and once they caught me, they hung on for dear life as I floated towards the bridge. Laughing and splashing, they were ecstatic until they eventually hopped off to climb back up on the bridge. I guess in Laos it’s the little things, like commandeering a stranger’s tube for a few minutes!

Finally our journey came to an end, and the last stop had a gorgeous bar with hammocks and cabanas situated to watch the sun set over the mountains. Snagging a cabana with two hammocks, we dried off and watched the view while drinking smoothies. At $1.25 for a banana chocolate smoothie, with relaxing music playing in the background, we were finally at a venue where we fit in.

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Sun View Bar – this is how we party 🙂

 

Sunset yoga and cascading waterfalls in Luang Prabang

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After arriving in Laos, we weren’t quite sure what to expect. Despite it being close neighbours to Thailand, we still experienced a bit of culture shock yet again.

We touched down from the slow boat and slugged it from guesthouse to guesthouse until we found one that was up to par. Lately, this has been our go-to method for finding a lodging, as booking online has proved to be more expensive and crappy. Going door to door is simple in most places, since most hostels are often clumped together. Owners are used to backpackers asking to see the rooms and haggling prices is not uncommon.

On our first day, Luke wasn’t feeling the best due to our malaria medication so I went solo to sunset yoga. Ock Pop Tok offered sunset yoga right on the Mekong River for 60,000 kip ($8.50 CAD). Jenn was my teacher and she was incredible. The hour and a half class was challenging, but the best part was being able to glance up and see the sun setting over the water. Being a huge yoga fan, it was a surreal moment — I never dreamed I’d be doing yoga on a river in Laos. I’d highly recommend yoga in the great outdoors, wherever you can experience it.

The next day, we headed to Tad Sae Waterfall. Brian and Jane caught back up to us sooner than we expected, which was awesome. We all split the cost of a tuk tuk to the waterfall, costing us about $2 each. He drove us 30 minutes to the falls and waited three hours for us to get back and drive us home.

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Tad Sae Waterfalls – well worth the trek!

The waterfalls were stunning. The aqua blue water was like nothing we’ve seen, and the way the water cascaded through the trees made it look like the jungle was flooded. We trekked up the falls until we found the perfect place to go swimming. There was a peaceful patch of water right after a bunch of falls that was refreshing as it was beautiful. We had brought Laos sandwiches (baguette with cucumber, carrot, lots of onion, tomato, and Laughing Cow cheese) for lunch.

There were elephant rides at the falls as well. We felt pretty bad for the animals, since they were chained up and had big wooden chairs on top of them so they could offer rides all day. It’s frustrating to see them abused for profit so often here in South East Asia. Nonetheless, getting a chance to see the herd swimming and walking through the falls was pretty fascinating.

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$1.75 = soup for two

The night market in town proved to be the best place to grab food. Luke and I bought a soup for $1.50 CAD and she split it into two filling bowls for us. The food is so fresh, you actually pick your veggies and they fry it right in front of you. There was also a buffet where you filled your plate for $1.75 CAD and the cook would fry everything together with some seasoning. In the morning, you can get smoothies, sandwiches, and crepes all for $1.50 CAD each. It’s insanely delicious and cheap.

We stayed for four nights in Luang Prabang. Overall, the city was definitely underwhelming. While the travel books glamorized the Luang Prabang as a world heritage site, the quaint city was overrun by Westerners both backpacking and on vacation. So, if you want to get a true taste of Laos, Luang Prabang isn’t the place to seek it. Also, it wasn’t very easy to get around. Tuk tuk’s were the priciest we’ve seen, and scooters cost five times the usual Thai rate to rent. There were a lot of packaged tours available, but the value seemed lacking.

If we did it again, we would have cut our trip in half. Regardless, we can’t wait to see what Laos has to offer.

– S & L

P.S The wifi is terrible in Laos. Sorry for the sporadic updates. We’re safe and loving life in Vang Vieng, so don’t worry!

How to: Two day slow boat from Thailand to Laos

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(An assortment of slow boats just like the one we took)

Reading online about the journey from Pai (or Chiang Mai), Thailand to Luang Prabang, Laos was quite daunting. We had read many horror stories and began to dread our prospects. There were several options, and each had a long list of complaints and critiques. At the end of the day we chose the path most traveled, and we bought a ticket for the 3-day slow boat.

On Saturday, we headed down to aYa travel agency in Pai and grabbed a packaged journey to Luang Prabang. For a five hour bus ride to Chiang Khong, one night’s stay (breakfast included), and two days on the slow boat, it cost us 1750 baht ($61 CAD) each. On the second night, we would have to spend a night in Pak Bang on our own dime, which was not included in the price.

Sunday evening we left at 6:30 PM for our second round at the 762 curve drive to get out of Pai. It was pitch black and Samie was struggling a bit with the curves this time around (she hates night driving, let alone speeding around twists and turns). After about two hours, we finally mastered the hardest part and were on a straight away to Chiang Khong.

We got into Chiang Khong late at around 2 AM and checked into a less-than-ideal hotel. We were exhausted, so it didn’t matter that much to us. A lot of reviews online complained about the hotel but really, for a few hours it’s not bad at all. We had our own room with an en suite bathroom. It wasn’t entirely cleanly, but we closed our eyes and pretended we were at the Hard Rock Hotel and drifted off.

The Laos border

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(The shuttle bus at the Laos border)

In the morning at 7 AM, we got free scrambled eggs and toast and took some passport photos for 100 baht ($3.50 CAD) before jumping into the back of a truck and heading to the border. At the border, we needed to pay 20 baht for the shuttle to cross the friendship bridge into Laos.

Once at the border, it was pretty painless. Again, we’ve heard that the visa process can be a nightmare but luckily it wasn’t busy at all when we arrived at 8:30 am. We had to go to a counter, get our visa ($42 USD for Canadians — we’re the only country that had to pay that much!), and give them our passport. After about 10 minutes, they called our name and we got our passports back. I can see how easily this could be a big mess, but again we were lucky.

The slow boat – Day one

After we had our visas, we headed to the slow boats 10 minutes away. Once there, we grabbed some sandwiches from a local café and boarded the slow boat. The guy running the tour told a few fibs, such as ‘the boat wasn’t even at the dock yet’ (when it was, and already almost full 20 minutes prior), and that he had booked reserved seats for us at the front of the boat (it’s actually impossible to reserve seats). Thanks to him, we were all pushed to the back of the boat right next to the engine, which was extremely loud.

Luckily, there was a lot of floor space at the front of the boat, and we went up for fresh air and sat on the floor with a bunch of other travellers. The view was spectacular and the breeze was perfect. The locals on board had cute toddlers playing with everyone and the captain let some people sit at the bow of the boat outside.

The boat had old van/bus seats throughout for passengers to sit on, which was nicer than other boats which have wooden seats. We heard most of them are being upgraded to these sort of seats.

For a five hour journey, it was a really nice way to go. The views were unbeatable, and we got to see water buffalo, stray dogs, goats, and locals clear-cutting and farming the mountainous hillside. The Mekong River winds through some incredibly lush, dense jungle forest – the kind of stuff you expect to only see while watching Jurassic Park.

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(Sitting on the bow – the view was alright…)

Pakbang

When we arrived in Pakbang, we stuck with some travellers we met and walked up to the town. Avoid the tuk tuk offers — you won’t need them! It’s a short 5-10 minute walk into the city where there are tons of guest houses to choose from, ranging from about 30,000-50,000 kip/person ($4.25-6.25 CAD).

We found a private room for 50,000 kip called Vassana. It was clean with wifi and cold showers. For the price and location, we were happy. The power went out a few times (but we heard this is normal for Laos), only lasting for about 20 minutes. We went to dinner with some American friends we made and went to bed early since the boat was leaving at 9 AM.

Slow boat – Day two

The boat was scheduled to leave at 9 am, but it didn’t leave till 10 am (but, we’re on Laos time, so this is to be expected). We got to the pier at 8:30 am to get a nice seat right up front. Once we got moving, it was an eight hour trip to Luang Prabang.

A note to anyone thinking of taking the slow boat: bring food! We only brought a few sandwiches and were pretty hungry by the end of it. They sell ramen noodles, beer, pop, and chips on board, but nothing of substance.

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(A village on the Mekong River)

We arrived in Luang Prabang around 5 PM, and the boat didn’t take us to the proper pier. We had heard this was a common scam happening these days. There is a pier downtown, but the boat instead takes you to a shoreline 10km outside of the city claiming that the downtown pier doesn’t allow for passenger boats to dock. A woman on our boat was getting pretty mad with the captain, but he didn’t seem to care.

This part sucked a bit, but we had expected it. We walked up a huge sandbank to the road where the tuk tuk’s were offering obscene prices (20,000 kip/person, or $2.50 CAD) for a ride into town. Considering tuk tuks usually charged no more than $1.50 total for a ride, and these tuk tuks were filling up with 6 people at a time, it was a pretty clear cash grab. Some friends and us decided to walk a few minutes before we finally found one we were comfortable paying. We payed about 10,000 kip each, 60,000 total ($7.50 CAD) to get into town. We wouldn’t advise walking all the way into town, since it was definitely a hike.

Overall, we really enjoyed the experience. If you come into it with no expectations, it’s really not that bad. Yes, the sleeping arrangements weren’t five star, but who cares? On a shoestring budget, the slow boat provided the best views, time to relax, and opportunity to meet some new friends.

– L & S

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