Buffalo Run part 2: Explosions, hot springs, and Top Gear

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On Day four of the Buffalo Run, it was time for us to do some serious reflection on the Vietnam War (or the American War, as it’s named here). We arrived at Vinh Moc, a deep tunnel complex in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). The tunnels were dug right at the edge of the Pacific Ocean and the waves crashing onto the shore created an eery feel. Looking around, it was surprisingly easy to imagine thousands of bombs being dropped as families hid inside the tunnel system during the war. There were still craters left in the ground and black on mountain sides to remind you where the missiles and bombs had hit.

The cramped, damp, dark tunnels were home to over 600 people, and 17 babies were welcomed into the world down there between 1965 and 1972. Barely able to stand up inside, families lived in cramped alcoves that left you wondering how they could even lie down to sleep. When the Americans found out about the tunnels, they created bombs designed to penetrate deeper. The Vietnamese’ response was to simply tunnel deeper. At its deepest point, the colony was living about 30 meters below the surface. Talk about resilience.

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The explosives we detonated.

After lunch, we visited the Mine Action Visitors Centre in Dong Ha, which housed Project RENEW. This was a nonprofit organization dedicated to clearing up explosives from the American War days that still remain scattered around the countryside. During the war, the US barraged Vietnam with an estimated 15 million pounds of explosives, and roughly 10% of it never exploded. That 1.5 million pounds has been killing farmers, livestock and children ever since.

We were able to join them on a bomb disposal run, as there had been a report of explosives found in a farmer’s field the night before. When we arrived, the team had unearthed two M33 grenades, two 61mm mortar shells, and two 37mm anti-air projectiles. All of this had been lying in the farmer’s field since the war, buried deep in the mud. Cows roamed all around, farmers were working, and children were in the schoolyard next door laughing. It was an unsettling sight to see.

The reason these bombs didn’t go off forty years ago is not that they were duds. Rather, their trigger mechanisms didn’t activate properly. Bombs that needed to spin a certain amount of times before detonating landed several spins shy. When a child finds it and tosses it to a friend, they can end up dead. Or a bomb that needed impact to detonate might be waiting for a farmer’s plow.

While the realities of the post-war plight are sad, the act of disposing of the explosives can be a little fun. After the team herded the cows away and signalled an alarm for the children, Luke was given instructions and the detonator switch. Rather than describing what happened next, see for yourself (spoiler – the look on his face after is the BEST):

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Day five

We arrived in the lovely town of Hue (pronounced hway) with storm clouds that really didn’t want to let up. Luckily, we stayed at Hue Backpackers. It was a busy party hostel with lots of things to do. We got to fight off the rain with a trivia night and a two-for-one pizza special. Ourselves and our Scottish friends (with a little bit of cheater’s luck) won trivia night! Woohoo.

IMG_20141104_144309Since it was still cloudy and rainy long after arrival, we changed plans from the original beach activity to zip-lining and the natural hot springs at Alba Thanh Tan. While the zip-lining was a tad anti-climactic (but, still fun) and the rope course was geared more towards teenagers, the hot springs were perfect. We floated around all day, even in the rain, in pools up to 45 degrees Celsius. They had built a lazy river leading away from the source, and each segment was progressively cooler.

Day six

It was the moment Luke had most been waiting for: the Top Gear motorbike journey through the Hoi Van Pass from Hue to Hoi An. If you haven’t seen the episode, you should! It perfectly describes our new life here in Vietnam and shows the beautiful scenery and crazy roads we travelled.

We biked through fishing villages, mountains, farmland, cityscape, and beaches; the journey was much more than we expected. Children waved at us as we drove by and dogs moved out of our way. We even had to swerve around massive water buffalo that wandered across the middle of the road! They’re beautiful creatures, to say the least. And in spite of their size, they seem quite unthreatening to be around.

Overall, the bike trip took us about six hours. It started with a cruise down to Cua Tu Hien first thing in the morning, followed by the Phuoc Tuong Pass for 20km before hitting the Phu Gia Pass. Then, after driving through Lang Co we stopped for some lunch (if all the names are confusing, don’t worry – we didn’t get it either… we just followed our tour guide down the coast). Our tour guide had heard tell of a waterfall/swimming spot that the locals went to, so he asked our waiter.

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Fifteen minutes back up the road, followed by ten minutes of navigating a dirt path through the thick forest, we reached a
house with an old lady who waved us in. We stepped out onto a stunning series of waterfalls that originated from way, way upin the mountains. The water was crystal clear and crisp, and the views incredible. It’s gems like these that make hiring a tour guide worth every penny! The group swam and explored for an hour or so before it was time to hit the road again.

Getting to the Hai Van Pass was simply icing on the cake at this point. The views just kept getting better. Swerving back and forth across the mountain roads, you could look down and see beaches and a skyline the seemed endless. We pretty much had the road to ourselves as well, so we could take all the time we needed before finally cruising into Da Nang.

Finally, with sore bums and a slight sunburn, we reached DK’s House in Hoi An and settled in for some BBQ burgers. Saying goodbye to our tour guide, we were happy to have made some new friends and see some things we definitely wouldn’t have been able to on our own.

– Samie & Luke

P.S – Photos from the trip can be all be seen right here. 

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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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Playing with Elephants in Chiang Mai

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It’s not every day that you get to feed, bathe, and play with a herd of elephants. In Thailand though, there are tons of opportunities. We knew that hanging out with some massive, grey teddy bears was on our Asia bucket list, and when we found an elephant retirement home in Chiang Mai, we knew we were in the right place.

It was important to us that we find a place where we felt comfortable with how the elephants were treated, as unethical tourist traps are everywhere here. It’s quite common for the companies to use abusive training or to sell endless rides (which is hard on them) at the animals’ expense.

We had heard nothing but good things about the Elephant Retirement Park, so we signed up.

At 9 AM, we met our guide Yui. We drove in a van with eight other people to the market where we grabbed bananas and sugar cane to feed the herd. It was an hour out of the city, but we had Yui to crack jokes, sing, and tell his life stories in broken English to pass time.

Once we got to the park, we hopped into the back of a pick-up truck and went out to meet the six elephants. As we drove up, we could hear them trumpeting out to each other. It was quite surreal. As we rounded the final jungle hill, we saw all six of them eagerly waiting to be fed.IMG_0750

The herd consisted of two matriarchs, one older male, two adolescent girls (6 years old), and a six month old baby girl. The first command we learned was “bon” – which was what we said to make them open wide for treats. It was important for us to feed each elephant individually, as they had to learn our scent before we joined their play time.

The baby by far was the cutest. She acted like a rambunctious puppy dog, ignoring commands and horsing around. She would constantly head butt people, trying to get them to push back as hard as possible.

The whole group was incredibly playful. Each elephant had their own owner (mahut), who lived and played with them.

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(Luke wrestling with the 6 month old baby girl)

A girl volunteering at the park told us that elephants in Thailand are no longer for sale (unless by black market), so all of these magical animals had been passed down within their respective families, always going to the eldest son. The bond between the mahut and elephant was fascinating to see. You could really see the love between them all as they tugged on the elephants ears, wrestled, and worked with them.

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(Luke before he got stepped on!)

After lunch, we went back to give the elephants a mud bath. The mahuts quickly escalated things to an all out mud-war (which was understandable… they probably didn’t get out much) and the elephants happily flopped around, getting covered in clay and cooling down.

Luke was a bit too eager and got underfoot one of the biggest elephants as she slipped in the mud. The result was a pretty big scratch and bruise, which made any more muddy horseplay off limits. I happily sat on the sidelines watching with him, since I’m not a “get muddy” kind of person anyway.

Overall, it was a great experience hanging out with elephants all day. The guys running the place were so friendly and loving, and the opportunity to spend a day with the gentle giants was priceless. We would highly recommend picking their elephant home if you’re considering something like this in Thailand.