A Travellerspoint blog

March 2012

Vientiane, Laos

COPEing with reality

90 °F

We didn’t expect much from Lao’s capital, Vientiane, however to our surprise we found a bunch of adventures to be had. After settling into our room we scooted out to Wat Sok Pa Luang (a Buddhist temple) for a meditation session that was open to foreigners. We learned and practiced both sitting and walking meditation however we struggled a bit with trying to work through the pains of sitting cross-legged for any length of time. Speaking with the monk after, he admitted that his legs hurt like hell too but the point of meditation is to take those feelings and ‘let go’ :) Kevin is now having mixed feelings about the silent retreat he was thinking about, if we do end up doing it, it’ll have to be at elevation so that the bugs won’t buzz in our ears the whole day!

We took our scooter to an outdoor sculpture garden called ‘Buddha Park’ which was filled with a mash-up of gigantic Hindu and Buddhist sculptures including a 50 meter long reclining Buddha. Although well done, the art had a consistent theme of weapons, death and fighting demons in the name of peace.
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Our two favorites were a three story ‘pumpkin’ that contained several levels inside to crawl through; each level depicting the journey from the bottom of hell through the top of heaven with cement sculptures …
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…and the other favorite was a heavily armed multi headed elephant that we used to recreate the scene in LotR where Legolas jumps up an elephant from his moving horse.
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Of course our adventure out to Buddha Park was enhanced by the top two things you want to avoid as a tourist.
1. running out of gas
2. getting stopped and held by the police for no apparent reason other than to try to get us to fork out some lunch money for them.
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We also explored the city with bicycles finding the Patuxai Victory Gate up to the Pha That Luang Stupa and around the Palace quite empty in the early morning. We also stumbled across a jam packed outdoor fitness class filled with 50 year old ladies that looked like some glorified version of a Richard Simmons video… Robin of course was eager to join.
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As we were searching out a place to watch a cultural dance show, we heard about a hotel that had a nightly show around dinner time. We gave it a shot and met up with some friends at the show. Turns out that we were the only ones there and so had the 6 piece band, duo of singers, 4 dancers and a master bird caller and MC all to ourselves. The city is littered with big fancy hotels like this that must have shined in their hay day, but are now aged and empty of any tourists.
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Our favorite place in Vientiane was C.O.P.E. (Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise). This center for wounded people has a prosthetic and wheelchair workshop with an amazing informative display on the impact of cluster bombs in Laos. Laos had more cluster bombs dropped on it than any other country in the Vietnam War and because about 30% of the bombs dropped did not detonate, these live “bombies” make the countryside of Laos a very dangerous place for children and for farmers. This center is very sad, yet very educational, including a theater for documentaries and hands on examples of different types of bombs and prosthetics. If you pay COPE a visit, try to find a 17 year old boy named Peter and tell him we say ‘sa bai dee’, he is now completely blind and missing both of his hands, yet his spirits are high and he has a great stories to share.
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Oddly enough, it was while we were looking for the C.O.P.E. center when Robin felt a sharp pain in her left knee. We weren’t jogging very fast when she felt the pop. We will have to let the swelling fade before we can get a clear diagnosis so Robin will have to cope with the ice and rest.

Posted by Robin-and-Kevin 03:41 Archived in Laos Comments (2)

Vang Vieng, Laos

In the Tubing

sunny 90 °F

This once quiet river town is now THE tubing capital of the world (minus the actual tubing). Now a top destination in Laos for young travelers, the river is lined with a hodgepodge of bars with massive water features designed to lure people in for a drink… rope swings, slides, zip lines, jumping platforms, trapezes, you name it. Just think college spring break with $1.20 bucket drinks after the first free one. So we rented our inflated truck sized inner tube, and took a jumbo (tuk tuk) 4 km up the river to tube back down. As we entered the water we were thrown lines and urged to visit the numerous bars, talk about fresh meat! Some bars even have children wading in the water with life jackets on who will push you towards their parents’ bar… a little disheartening. It turns out that most people only actually tube for a few hundred meters of the intended 4k stretch of river because they get stuck partying at the first few bars. In fact, some people we spoke with didn’t even bother with renting a tube at all… they just took the tuk tuk up to the first bars and hung out there all day.
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We were determined to make the entire trip down the river, which is in fact, A LOT harder than it sounds during the dry season. Apparently, during the wet season, the trip takes just one hour. However, during the dry season, the trip takes upwards of 3 hours (and that is if you don’t stop at any of the bars)! We took our time to try out some of the water attractions and ended up with more than a workout trying to paddle downstream in time to return the tubes before we lost our deposit. Of course Robin visited the Slide Bar (home of the Death Slide) that killed a few Australians a few weeks earlier. We didn’t have our camera, but this is what the ‘Death Slide’ looks like:
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We found a guesthouse set in a beautiful garden on the other side of the main strip and although many say that the city has been destroyed by the tubing folks, we had a relaxing stay in the Maylyn Guesthouse:
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Contrary to popular believe there is more than tubing in Vang Vieng! There are numerous trails to hike and mountain bike, a small rock climbing community and a bunch of caves to explore. There is a cute organic farm with goats that is set up for volunteers (morning goat milking and farming with an afternoon of helping kids and monks with their English). The roads are dusty and littered with potholes, but make a great time with mountain bikes through the quiet countryside. With our bikes we visited the Than Phu Kham cave and a blue lagoon. These were definitely fun and worth the time exploring. The lagoon even had rope swings and a perfectly placed tree for jumping off of 
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Posted by Robin-and-Kevin 20:07 Archived in Laos Tagged vang vieng tubbing Comments (1)

Luang Prabang, Laos

Monk I win!

sunny 90 °F

We woke just before 06:00 to the echoing of deep gong pounds from what sounded like it was a story tall in diameter. We headed out to the street in our PJs and our amazement there were masses of people lined up on the sides of the streets. Women were kneeling in front of weaved rice bowls, old men were shuffling into place, and tourists were poised with their massive SLR cameras in hand. This town is known for the huge population of monks that flood the streets at dawn for their alms ceremony... and here they came… a long ant line of monks weaving around a corner headed straight for us. They came in waves, as we saw each monastery’s monks come for their share of sticky rice. It is custom for the town to support the monks with food and in turn the monks support the town with prayers. After the excitement died down we headed out on a running adventure to the top of Mt. Pu Si. It is not as glorious of a climb as Mt Si near Seattle, but was still a great place for stair climbing since there are two sides of the hill to go up and down from the stupa on the top. During our run we decided to change the ‘cow I win’ supplementary game from ‘sheep I win’ into ‘monk I win’.
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Because of its UNESCO cultural site status, Luang Prabang is a top tourist destination in Laos with many 5 star resorts and spas mixed into the guesthouse scene. The city is nestled between the Kham and the Mekong rivers; we found the side of town that borders the Kham a bit more peaceful and there are plenty of great bars along the riverside with music and board games… just mind the gap since there aren’t any guard rails on the decks for the 20ft drop to the river!
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Posted by Robin-and-Kevin 20:04 Archived in Laos Tagged prabang luang Comments (0)

Trekking in "Northern" Laos

Bike, Village, Hike, Village, Hike, Village, Boat

sunny 85 °F

After exploring Luang Prabang, we met Daniel and Sam from Holland and decided to do a two day trek to a hill tribe village. There are numerous two day treks that you can take, and obviously Kevin selected the one with the steepest, longest elevation gain. Our guides, Chou and Lea had great English and tons of historical knowledge and stories they told us along the way. We started from the heart of the city on mountain bikes and rode to the river bank where we shuttled across to the other side of the Mekong.
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We then rode for 2 hours on an obstacle filled tractor road past numerous rice paddies, water buffalos and through a stream. We stopped at Ban Som (a Lao Loum village) for lunch and some Lao history from Chou.
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We ditched the bikes here and filled up our bags with as much water as we could carry. We then started our four hour trek up the mountain. We thought the estimation was a scare tactic… but it wasn’t. We hiked for a solid 4 hours, almost all of which was uphill and along a ridge line with stunning views.
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Eventually, we arrived at Ban Phuluang Tai, a Hmong village at the very top of the mountain.
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The whole village was filled with kids playing next to chicks, piglets and puppies, but when we arrived they all went to fetch jugs of water to fill our guesthouse barrel, for a modest fee of 2,000 kips (25 cents) each. The games they played seemed to always require throwing or skipping flip flops at a target or watching our every move with wondering eyes; it didn’t matter if we were changing clothes or having dinner.
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We spent the night in a traditional Hmong style guesthouse with beautiful night views of the lights of Luang Prabang in the distance. The guesthouse was a large wooden building with one big room sectioned into two sleeping areas and a place to build a cooking fire. The village has no running water or electricity and all of the water for the village is collected from a spring that is a 5 minute walk down a steep trail. Women and men shower here at the same time, but they keep their clothes (or sarong) on. We attempted to shower as the locals did, trying not to look as the forest filled with giggles. Lea cooked dinner while Chou gave us a culture lesson on the tribe and their way of life as we took a stroll around the village for the sunset.
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The next day we trekked down the other side of the mountain into the Chomphet district. The views once again were stunning.
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After 3.5 hours we stopped for lunch at Ban Houaypong (a Khamu Rok village) for some noodle soup and watched the local children riding the water buffalos. After trekking for another couple hours, we reached a river side village called Ban Moungkham where the locals specialized in making edible dried river weed paper (just like seaweed paper you would see wrapped around a roll of sushi).
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It was an amazing trek and inside experience as to what it is like to live so remotely. The Lao countryside is stunning and we were lucky to have met Daniel and Sam to share it with.
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Posted by Robin-and-Kevin 02:42 Archived in Laos Comments (1)

Taking the Slow Boat to Luang Prabang

Boat trip along the mighty Mekong River

sunny 85 °F

Summary:

Although the banks of the Mekong are about 30ft lower because we are in the dry season, this mighty river still flows strong. It creates part of the border between Laos and Thailand and is an excellent alternative to a bumpy bus road. We floated smoothly down the Mekong River from Chiang Khong Thailand into Luang Prabang Laos on what is commonly known as the “slow boat.” The trip takes two days with a stopover in Pakbeng for the night and has become a popular party boat with the backpackers drinking Beer Lao hours before our 10:30am schedule departure. The trip is beautiful and filled with exceptional scenery. Most people just hung out on the bow or off the sides of the boat, played cards, read books, or joined the mini party in the back with rice whiskey and Beer Lao.
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Notes to prospective travelers:

In Chiang Rai there are numerous tour agents that will sell you a tour package that includes minibus transport to the Lao border, a river crossing, and a ticket + transportation to the slow boat dock for a cost of $3,000 baht ($100 USD) for both of us. In true DYI spirit we decided that we would do better on our own; we took the local bus, a tuk-tuk, the river ferry, and walked the 200m to the slow boat dock. In total, we paid only $2,060 ($68 USD) and easily beat all the tour groups through immigration. This may not seem like that much of a savings, but in Southeast Asia a few dollars can pay for full days’ worth of meals (in this case we saved enough for 17 large bottles of Beer Lao). Before you take the slow boat, we’d recommend looking into an elephant festival (sometime in February each year) somewhere between Pakbeng and Luang Prabang. We met a couple who were dropped off in a remote village and it seemed like it would be a great adventure.
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Details:

We boarded the boat about 9am for our 10:30 scheduled departure… there are numerous horror stories online about how they over sell the tickets and how some people end up without a seat and have to sit on the hard wooden floor in the boiling hot engine room. To set the record straight, all of these rumors are true! Securing some good seats towards the front of the boat was well worth getting up a bit early.
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Once 10:30am rolled around, half the boat was still empty. After assessing the situation, we determined that because we are in the off season there was only one boat leaving today and sticking true to Asian standards, the transport wouldn’t leave until the aisles were completely packed with passengers. It turned out that all of the tour groups were up the riverbank having some breakfast (one point for the tour groups). We quickly meet some fellow travelers from Seattle, Florida, New York, England, and Canada and cracked open a few bottles of Beer Laos while we waited for our boat to fill up.
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At noon the tour groups flooded onto the boat, so many people were boarding that we exceeded the seat capacity by at least 20 passengers! This didn’t seem to phase the boat operators; for the next half hour they grabbed chairs from other boats and started filling the isles with more seats, finally departing around 1pm.
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We arrived at Pakbeng at around 6pm, only to realize that we were at the front of the boat, and our backpacks were at the bottom of a huge pile at the very back of the boat. Imagine sitting in first class on an airplane yet storing your luggage behind row 46 and there’s only one exit at the front of the plane…. not easy. So began the awfully inefficient process of all 160 passengers trying to recover their luggage. After getting our bags we found a cute place to stay and dug into a well awaited meal.

We were told that the boat would leave at 9am the next day so not to be late. We showed up early again and scored a table and benches around it for us to play cards and work on the computer with our friends Elle (England) and Geneviève (Quebec). Note that on day one we were assigned seats, day 2 was a different boat without assigned seats.
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Then the waiting began! At 9:30am, the captain and crew were drinking Beer Laos, without a sign of a departure nearing and of course with the language barrier we had no idea what was going on. Finally, at 12:00, a minivan drove down to the dock, and the mystery was solved; an additional 10 passengers with huge suitcases boarded the already full boat. We pushed off by 12:30 and those poor people had to sit in the engine room as we were already over capacity, but we certainly didn’t feel bad about it since we had been waiting for them for over three hours!
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The second day on the river was even more beautiful than the first; we saw lots of cute villages, children playing in the water along the banks of the Mekong River, concluding the day with another beautiful sunset. All in all, we highly recommend this trip to anyone, just make sure to go with the flow and remember that you really don’t have any place to be.
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Posted by Robin-and-Kevin 02:00 Archived in Laos Tagged boat thailand river laos trip mekong Comments (1)

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