Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Tubing, Laos Style

Dec. 15th – Dec. 18th, by Jason

After all the cultural and archaeological fun of Phonsavan and the Plain of Jars, it was time to leave for Vang Vieng, to check out the backpacker tubing destination and also celebrate our traveling companion Caroline’s 28th Birthday! We woke up and were boarding a tuk tuk to the bus station around 6.45am and had tickets for the 7.30am bus in hand just before 7am (80,000 LAK for the local bus, 6.5 hours.)  It was a local bus, we were the only westerners on it and it was interesting to see the mix of people on board, from a man in business casual attire and a scarf to a young woman in tattered clothes with two children, eating beans off the floor that had fallen out of one of the bags of food they had placed in the aisle and broke open. The attendant left us alone the entire journey as he knew our destination, skipping us as he went around to check tickets a second time and also when he handed out the plastic bags to use in case you get nauseous (the man behind me made good use of them) as it was a windy ride for the first 3 hours or so. I think he left us alone mainly because his English was likely not very good, not because he was being rude to us. We arrived in Vang Vieng a little after 2pm. We found the main area of guest houses and checked into a place for a night as it was cheap, somewhat clean and had had enough of traveling. We had a late lunch then walked around to find a better place to stay for our two remaining nights. On the walk we ran into the girls (Sally, Caroline, and Trudy) and made plans for dinner and also got Caroline’s new Laos cell phone number (she lost her phone on the trek in Luang Prabang and had to get a new one, oops!) We found what seemed to be some nicer places along the river but they were full and therefore we could not take a look at a room. We then found a place, Doubkha Guest House, just up the road from the girls with nice, clean rooms, a huge bathroom and amazingly new and comfortable mattresses, all for 70,000 LAK/night (about USD 8.) In addition the owner was a middle aged Lao man who went to University of Tennessee for school and lived in TN for a total of 6 years (I believe) and loves American Football, it seems he’s always happy to welcome Americans to his place (we are the minority nationality on the backpacker circuit.)

Now, what they say in the guidebooks and on the internet is true, all the restaurants really do play Friends and Family Guy here. We headed to a restaurant playing Family Guy for dinner that was relatively crowded. The meal wasn’t horrible but also not great, something else you learn about Vang Vieng…they have great baguettes but otherwise the food is really just so so. Swiss retired in order to get his sleep for tubing while I joined the ladies for 1 drink at the Bamboo Bar down by the river (we walked across a super rickety bridge that I was certain would collapse and later saw three Lao guys riding their scooters across the damn thing.)

Wednesday morning (Caroline’s 28th Birthday…and for us, 4 months on the road!) we met up for breakfast and headed to the tube rental place. As of July 2009 they’ve now formed one tubing community “collective” that is sanctioned by the local police and tourism office and the only group you are allowed to rent a tube from for floating down the river. (You can, though, just hire a tuk tuk to the first bar and then swim down the river instead of renting a tube.) Now, if you’re planning to go, it’s (as of 17-Dec-2009) 55,000 LAK to rent a tube (includes one way ride to the start of the tubing area) and a 60,000 LAK deposit on the tube (which you get back if you return the tube before 6pm, only 40,000 LAK back if you return after 6pm and I saw the office closed at 8pm.) A dry bag can be rented for 20,000 LAK, but there seem to be some cheaper options for that. We took the tube up to the start and enjoyed an afternoon of bars catering to westerners, ropes, zip lines and slides for going into the water and of course a few beverages. A few select pictures follow:

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We made it back to the office about 5.45pm and returned all of our equipment and headed to our respective places to get cleaned up. Sally and Swiss stayed in to sleep and after a long search I eventually found Trudy and Caroline and delivered a birthday chocolate muffin to Caroline. Everyone was pretty exhausted (the combination of sun and drinks had taken it out of us) and so we headed to bed.

Thursday was a slow start for me, but I was up by 9am. Swiss was apparently inspired, though, and out at 7am to go write blog stuff, have breakfast, and eventually check email. I met Sally and Caroline for a late breakfast (at a Friends restaurant, where we watched 5 episodes. I can now check both of those off my list, although as a side commentary, it’s amazing to see some people spend ENTIRE DAYS in these places just mindlessly watching Friends or Family Guy!!) I spent the afternoon relaxing and catching up on a journal, organizing pictures, etc. We booked a bus ticket to Vientiane through our guest house and then spent the early evening at Sakura enjoying the free wifi and their delicious coffee/Baileys drinks. We had dinner and called it an evening. The next morning was spent at the wifi cafe getting caught up online, Swiss and Sally watched a movie (Jarhead), and we eventually jumped on our bus down to Vientiane around 1pm! A relaxing stop in the backpacker party capital of Vang Vieng!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Plain of Jars and UXOs

Phonsavan - Dec 13 to 15, 2009 (by Swiss)

With our pizza cravings satisfied the previous two nights, it was time to say good bye to Luang Prabang and head to Phonsavan, a windy 6-8 hour drive south west of LP. Jason wanted to see the “Plain of Jars”, and frankly, I did also. Besides the plain of jars, Phonsavan doesn't have all that much to offer, so our plan was to just spend one day there before heading onwards to Vang Vieng.

♫♪Rolla coasta, of Laaaooos ♫♪
After briefly consuming a breakfast sandwich with, um, strange ingredients but a long line (good sign), we were picked up from our guesthouse at 8am on Sunday morning. We were then promptly transported to the local “minivan station”, think bus station with about 15 minivans. Passengers and bags were unloaded and distributed among 3 different minivans depending on the final destination, with large bags wrapped in tarps and loaded on top of the vehicles. Our van included a French couple, a couple of Lao folks (incl a kid), and a British lady. The first act of said lady involved the killing of a couple of gnats by use of bug spray in our stationary van, i.e., an enclosed, non-ventilated space. After my 10 minute coughing spree as a result of the gnats chilling in my general direction, she had successfully managed to earn a top spot on my shit list.

I already alluded to the ride being six to eight hours long. As most of us know, for a fixed distance, time is usually a function of speed. Travelers get to enjoy the eight hour ride if they opt for the public bus option, whereas minivan riders get the six hour treatment. It became very apparent why the van is 25% faster – we booked it through the very, and I mean very, windy roads up and down the mountains towards our destination. When we weren't busy holding on for dear life, the passengers got to enjoy absolutely gorgeous scenery along the way. Some pictures below.


We had two stops along the way, the second being a random smoke and bio-break on the side of the road. It was during break #2 when I sarcastically asked Jason “Are we here?”, to which my favorite British lady just had to chime in and say “Of course we're here. 'Here' is where you always are. We're just not in Phonsavan.” Thanks lady, although you are technically correct, I could really have done without that commentary. On the flip side, congrats, you now have solidified that #1 spot on my list. We finally arrived in town at 15:45 and were off to seek some lodging.

Phonsavan, UXOs, and an oft-not-discussed topic in the US
For guesthouses, Lonley Planet only listed one “interesting” option, Kong Keo, where we decided to book a bungalow. This was a budgetary decision in lieu of the “Nice” guesthouse. In hind sight, although it had character, we would have been better off forking over 10,000 kip extra to stay at the much nicer “Nice.” The reason for this is that the beds were the hardest we've encountered thus far, the room became freezing cold at night, and we had a special guest, Mickey, who tried (unsuccessfully, initially) to help himself to Jason's granola bars in the middle of the night. In all fairness, it could have been Minnie, we didn't have a chance to check. The mouse was more successful the next day, when we found two of the three bars missing. Bad Lonely Planet, bad.

Goal #2 after checking in was to book a tour at the plain of jars (or jar of plains as I kept calling them to the amusement of the folks around me.) We started out at the tour booking place next to “Nice" guesthouse, where they quoted us 160,000 kip to view all three main sites, an whiskey village, an old Russian tank, including a free lunch. Being the stinking capitalists we are, some price checking was in order, and we quickly found better deals offering the same tour for as low as 120,000 kip (~USD 15) . We booked with a place diagonally from the first tour company, and satisfied with the price (they asked us not to tell other people on the tour what we paid), headed off to dinner. I had some beef with Latang rice, whereas Jason chowed down on bacon wrapped chicken with sticky rice.

With food cravings satisfied, we decided to drop in at the UXO (UneXploded Ordinances) info center, where they have information on UXOs and show three different documentaries at 16:30, 17:45, and 18:30, the last of which we managed to catch.

Unbeknown to some Americans, UXOs are a huge problem in northern and southern Laos, crippling and claiming lives of many locals around this area. They are predominately leftover bombs from the Vietnam and Secret war era (60's and 70's), where the US tried to halt the spread of communism by bombing the crap out of northern (keep Chinese out) and southern (cut off the Ho Chi Minh trail) Laos. According to Lonely Planet, we spent somewhere around USD 2.2 million a day to bombard these areas with over 2 million pounds of bombs. The problem is, some did not explode, and thus pose a significant hazard to people now trying to cultivate the land. Exacerbating the problem is that the folks here are very poor, and risk their lives harvesting the bombs to sell to scrap metal dealers in exchange for roughly USD 2 per kilo of metal. Kids are a good percentage of victims, in part due to the harvesting for scrap metal, in another part because the roughly tennis ball sized cluster bombs, called bombies, are fun to play with. For more info, check out the 2001 documentary Bombies. There are currently efforts under way by organizations like the Mines Advisory Group, MAG, to clear the area of these threats.

We spent one hour watching the documentary, "Bomb Harvest" on how MAG is currently working on clearing UXOs and the challenges involved in training locals to disarm and destroy them. Jason would re-visit the center the next day to watch "Bombies" (showing at 16:30), while I was out playing soccer (er, football) with some local kids. It was a very enlightening visit.

Jars of Plain
After an absolutely freezing night interrupted by Mickey/Minnie, dogs constantly barking, and a rooster driven awakening at around 5am, we groggily hopped in the shower (one by one, not together) around 6:45 am before dressing as warmly as we could to head into town. It was a fog filled morning, and our breaths were steaming in the cold morning air.

We headed to the local internet cafe for a quick email check, where I learned that Comcast now has sent a collection agency after me for owing $95, despite me having two documented chat sessions with customer service dating back to September concluding that I owe nothing. My Mom is currently dealing with them (Thanks Mom!), and she informed me that Comcast outsources their customer service and apparently the link between customer service and their accounting department is a giant FAIL. So note to all readers: Avoid Comcast like the plague. They SUCK and are completely incompetent. /Rant over.

After our little email check we headed next door to have some breakfast. It is there that we ran into the French couple (Natasha and Bertrand) from our minivan ride to Phonsavan, and Jason promptly busted out his French language skills to converse with them. I think they were quite impressed that an American could speak French that well. I gathered about 30-50% of the conversation, courtesy of my 4 painful years of French lessons back in Switzerland. They were super nice, and since they ended up on the same tour as us, we (well, Jason) would be chatting with them for the majority of the day.

Next up was a quick 30 second walk (the town is very small) to our tour company, where we boarded a minivan and met our tour guide. The van did a couple more pickups, where to my delight the British lady from the previous ride managed to board our vehicle. Great.

We also met a nice girl from Holland, Anne, as well as a couple of middle-aged guys from Finland who were on a 13 month journey. We learned from them that the government in Finland has a program that allows people who have worked for a company for 10 years or more to take a full year sabbatical. The company is required to keep their position open for their return, and during their absence, an unemployed person is brought in to make up for the head count. A pretty interesting system, and quite awesome for folks who can take advantage of it, especially since a fraction of their former salary is paid out monthly to the people on the sabbatical. But on to the plain of jars...

There are three main (out of over 400) sites, aptly labeled site 1, 2, and 3, where visitors can check out the jars and UXOs have been cleared. The purpose and source of these jars (some weighing up to 13 tonnes [wiki]) is somewhat of a mystery, as our tour guide Wong, explained. The most scientific study was done back in the 1930's by a French archaeologist, Madeleine Colani, who, after studying the samples for something like three years, decided that they likely were used as funeral urns as part of a caravan route from northern India. She estimated the age of the jars to be somewhere around 2000 years, but confirmation of age is tricky due to the lack of organic material. They are literally carved out of rock (sandstone and granite), and they are massive. One of the jars also has a faint image of a person carved into it.

Wong informed us that there are various Lao legends, one of which is that the jars were made for rice wine brewing purposes during Khun Cheung's reign to celebrate his victories. This version isn't generally accepted; for one, because they claim the jars were molded of clay and other organic materials, which doesn't jive with the evidence found today. But it's a nifty story.

Throughout the day, we managed to visit all three sites, so enjoy the pics below. Site 1 also had a cave, which we checked out in the morning. It was found to have remains of smoke and bones, which Ms. Colani speculates may have been used as a crematorium.


During our tour, we were constantly reminded of the bombings that happened here during the 60's and 70's. All sites were marked with brick MAG markers indicating which areas were cleared of UXOs. Bomb craters were witnessed on a couple of the sites, one of which was close enough to shatter one of the jars.


♫♪Whiskey River, take my mind♫♪ 

In between the visit of site 1 and 2, we stopped by whiskey village, a community that specializes in the production of Lao Lao, a local rice based spirit they affectionately call whiskey. We stopped by one house, where the lady pictured below produces gallons of the stuff. She was also accompanied by a cute little puppy dog (this one's for you, Selah):

Our guide explained to us the fermentation process, filtering, and eventual distillation resulting in the final product.


For you geek and process folks out there, check out how they go about distilling this stuff. They first start by putting the product in a barrel, which is fired from the outside. A concave bowl, which is filled with cool water from a nearby well, seals the top of the barrel. This provides a cooling/condensing surface.

Inside the barrel, located at the circumferential center, is a drip pan and spigot that allows the condensed alcohol to leave the barrel and be captured by the producers.

Crude, but hey, it works.

After walking us through the process, we were invited to sample the local fare. Two free shots served out of an old glass Pepsi bottle, the second being for good luck according to Wong, were consumed. The stuff actually wasn't half bad, although it did burn a tad.

...and the Leftovers
Besides the jars and whiskey village, we were treated to a very filling lunch of Lao chicken noodle soup, where conversation was had in English and French. We were quizzed about various things in America, and somehow ended up on the subject of Las Vegas. It was at that time that we learned that there apparently is a gambling town/casino in the south (nick)named Lao Vegas. Brilliant.

The tour wrapped up in mid-afternoon with a visit to an old soviet tank disabled during the war. Nothing impressive, to be honest, but pictures were taken nonetheless.

Upon return to Phonsavan, Jason joined team Holland to go watch Bombies, while I noticed kids playing football on a very dusty field outside our guesthouse. I therefore decided to see if I could join the action. ~90 minutes later I returned looking like this:

We met back up with Anne for dinner before heading for bed. Plan was to catch the public bus the next morning, which required us to catch a tuk tuk around 7am.

Off to Vang Vieng
We managed to pack and catch a tuk tuk to the bus station, 10,000 kip each, at 6:35am. This got us to the bus station at around 6:45 am, where we bought public bus tickets for 80,000 kip. Interestingly enough, we could have booked a minivan with in-town pickup for 100,000 kip, so the savings were pretty minimal. The upside, however, was more space and a slightly less hectic ride. The bus was loaded with passengers and goods...

… and off we were for a 7 hour ride to Vang Vieng.
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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Over the river and through the woods…to Laos we go!

14-Dec-2009 by Jason

Alright, after a gluttonous day waiting in Pai, our minivan to Chiang Khong, Thailand, started boarding around 8pm. By boarding I mean we walked about a half km through the random alleys of Pai, set our big bags on the ground behind the van and watched as 2 Thai guys attempted to load all that luggage in a little slot in the back next to the seats. We were all loaded then we proceeded to sit there for another half hour before we finally took off, don’t ask me why. We finally got on the road around 8.45pm and were quickly whipping around the curves on 1095 (the road that links Pai with 107, a major north south road in Thailand) for about three hours. At our first stop (there were 2 vans traveling as a caravan) the passengers in the 2nd van were yelling at their driver to “Please slow down!!” Apparently that 2nd van left Pai about 45 minutes after our van left, but arrived at the first pit stop a few moments before us…woooh! I bet that was one hell of a fun ride! A few more pit stops later and around 4am we pulled up to a random hotel, were told to take a room and that we’d need to be ready by 7am! Ouch…not so much sleep. We took off from there and headed to this guesthouse where we had a complimentary (or should I say included in the ticket price) breakfast (scrambled eggs and toast) and then were taken to the pier where we exited Thailand through immigration and proceeded to hop on a ferry boat to cross the Mekong River and enter Laos.

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We arrived to a large mass of people and 2 pieces of paperwork (entry/exit cards and visa purchase paperwork.) We filled out all our stuff, waited in a very long line (of all the words we’ve picked up I refuse to switch to “queue”) and finally purchased our visa for USD $35! (We’ve entered a part of the world where the US Dollar is king, it seems, and most large prices here are quoted in US Dollars, for airline tickets, etc. Interestingly, visa prices into Laos vary by your country of origin, with the US @ $35, Afghanistan @ $40 and Canada @ $42! Why are Canada and Afghanistan paying more than us?!?!) So we proceeded up the hill after entering the country, while wearing the stickers we were given back on the other side, we were stopped at a table where they collected our passports (why, we didn’t know at the time) and got into a pickup truck where we were taken to a restaurant/convenience store.


After about 20 minutes of sitting around there we were informed that they were using our passports to go buy our boat tickets at the dock and that we’d be leaving around 11.30. In addition, this guy offered to allow us to book and pay for a hotel room for our overnight stop in Pakbeng, Laos. At this point we were all a little put off by all the routing and dramatics, the stops without much information…and the lack of sleep didn’t help. We went ahead and booked the room and paid the man in Huay Xai, assuming that the hotel down the river would accept the little slip (not a receipt) that he offered us as proof of having booked and paid for a room. Bought a few drinks/snacks for the boat and they returned with our passports and a boat ticket for each of us at 11am. We walked down the hill and boarded the boat and we were off. Now, I didn’t know exactly what to expect and had heard these horror stories of packed/cramped boats and loud, deafening noises from the engine in the rear, so I was expecting the worst. It turned out to be a really nice boat (in my opinion) with plenty of space. Our bags piled in the rear near the engine room, most people were pretty far away from the engine, and while some who arrived late and had to sit in the back had hard wooden benches, we arrived early enough to get some seats up front that were nice padded seats (think seats ripped out of a mini-van) The rest of the day was a nice 6.5 hour day down the Mekong River with some absolutely gorgeous scenery!

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We arrived in Pakbeng, the half way town down the river, around 6pm. Getting off the boat was amusing because we stopped along a jagged, rocky shore that was pretty steep to climb up and very uneven. Loaded down with two back packs I know I was a sight to see climbing up those rocks and I’m not sure how I didn’t fall on the way up!


At this point we’re a group of 5. In addition to Team England (remember the lovely nurses from London?) we met Trudy on our van ride from Pai and she got a room with the girls for the night in Pakbeng. We checked in (uneventful) and the room was actually pretty nice (even with a natural gas water heater in the shower so we could get a warm shower when the power is off.) One interesting thing about Pakbeng is that it doesn’t actually have municipal electricity service, so every shop, restaurant and guest house runs on a generator and electricity is generally only available from 6pm – 11.30pm or so. We headed to dinner, eating at a little Indian restaurant recommended by Eddie at our guest house in Pai and had a pretty nice little meal there. Including Swiss’s first Beer Lao…which he had to get a picture of…


Day 2 down the Mekong River

It’s now Wednesday morning and we’re ready for our second and final day on the slow boat down the Mekong River to Luang Prabang, Laos. [A quick word on the “speed boat” option from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang. We did see a few of them going down the river on our journey, and it is a one day trip instead of two, but you’re on a tiny boat (6 people is the most I saw on board) and constantly in a life jacket and a crash helmet! Hopefully with ear plugs because those things are loud. At this time of year, early December, the river appeared fairly low to me (based upon water lines you could see on rocks at the shore.) I, personally, would not be taking one of those in the cool, dry season, on a low river and they didn’t look to safe to me. Take at your own risk!] The second day was also nice, we set off around 9am, with the only downside that we arrived a little too late and while we had seats up front (right up front) they were on a hard wooden bench, a downgrade from our minivan seats, but with our cushions it was doable.

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It was also a little more crowded since they had 2 boats worth of people in just a single boat making the final leg of the journey today. I was a little hungry late morning and ready for a snack and they had Mama Cup in the back (think Ramen Cup of Soup back home) for 10,000 kip (roughly a little over USD 1.) Now I asked to pay in Thai baht as I was out of Laos kip at this point and she punched some numbers on her calculator and asked me for 500 Thai baht (roughly USD 17.50!!) I was most certainly not paying that and figured it was a minor error. The girl asked her mother to come back and do the conversion and she then asked me for 450 Thai baht…still a no go. I finally took the calculator and showed them how I arrived at 40 Thai baht, or just over 1 US Dollar, that I would be. They were agreeable and off I was with my spicy pork soup, but still amazed at how the whole thing went down. We later made a stop (there were several random stops) where we picked up some goods: 3 dead mountain lions or cats of some sort and a very large fish…see below:


While children sold smoked fish and scarves to us on the boat while hanging off the rocks:


The rest of the trip was uneventful and we passed the last third of the trip playing cards with 4 other people. We arrived in Luang Prabang (to a proper pier of sorts) around 4.30pm. We took some brochures from a few people handing out info on guest houses and settled on Chitlatda Guesthouse, at least for the night. The room was only 60,000 kip/night (about 240 Thai baht or USD 7) and included a hot shower, fan (which you don’t need in these cool temperatures) and seemed well located near many restaurants and only a 5 minute walk to the main street in town, so we ended up staying here our entire time in Luang Prabang. At this point Swiss’s ATM card hadn’t been working for 3 days now, so he headed off to make some calls home from a bar that had free Wifi while I went to exchange from Thai baht into Laos Kip to at least use for dinner and a definitely needed beer after that long journey was finally over!

I joined him for a beer after he’d discovered what had happened to his ATM card (long story) and I’d gotten into the currency exchange place right as they closed at 6pm. The girls joined us and we watched the opening ceremonies of the 25th SEAgames, going on just down the road in Vientiane, the capital city of Laos. It was interesting to watch (think small scale Olympic games) and you could tell that Laos people were very proud to be hosting these games (every place in town had in on their TV and we got a few unhappy stares when a few people at our table were talking a bit too loud.) Afterwards we headed to a little place down the road for dinner, the girls choice because this place advertised red wine and I think they’d had enough beer and were longing for something else. I had a delicious plate of chicken stir fried with chilis – Lao Style with sticky rice and three others at our table had Lao Style BBQ (eerily similar to Thai style BBQ we had in Pai)

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After dinner Swiss headed back to use the Wifi in order to try and make a Skype call to his bank while I joined the girls at Lao Lao Garden, a great little restaurant/bar built into the side of a hill (think walking up campus at UC Berkeley) with small bonfires and tables spread throughout. Now, a strange aspect of night life in Laos…they have a national curfew of midnight. This means that foreigners and locals alike should be at home and not roaming the streets after that time. So at 11.15pm it was last call, the bar was shuttered at 11.30pm (with bar staff cleaning all around us) and after finishing our last drink we were walking home at 11.40pm, just as bar staff was leaving about the same time to head home too. I really wasn’t complaining, though, as after such a long journey I was ready for bed!

Exploring Luang Prabang by foot

We spent Thursday morning sleeping in, taking in a very late breakfast and then walking around Luang Prabang by foot for about 2 hours. It’s not a very large town and we saw most of it by 2.30pm.

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We headed home to gather our things and set back out around 4pm to grab a snack with the goal of watching the first half of the Laos vs Singapore soccer match (part of those SEAgames) The game was actually later than we thought, so we instead headed to the Laos Red Cross where they had an herbal sauna for just 10,000 kip (just over USD 1) with the money collected going to support the local red cross…a good use of money we thought.


The sauna was…small to say the least…but fragrant and very herbal (lots of lemongrass and galenica if I had to guess.) We spent about an hour there then headed to the sports bar to watch the game and split an order of barbecued water buffalo skewers (lean but tasty!) The girls joined us right at the end of the match and we then headed to The Hive, a highly recommended restaurant and bar across the street as they had a special, order a pizza get a free beer with your order. The free beer was a nice touch, but I must say that their pizza was absolutely amazing. Cooked in a wood fired oven and prepared when you order (trust us, we waited) it was by far the best pizza we’ve had in Asia thus far! In addition, they had a fashion show of clothing from local hill tribes (the Hive, along with the book store next door donate a portion of their profits to support the creation of native handicrafts by local tribes which the tribes sell for much needed income) making me feel just a little bit better about that pizza I consumed while in Asia :)

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We ran to a little bakery up the road that had all food available for half off after 9.30pm (the lemon tart was delicious!!) and headed to bed as we were getting up early the next morning.

Please get out of that monk’s face…a picture of me instead!?!

So I was up at 5.30am on Friday morning in order to see the monks in Luang Prabang collect alms from locals on one of the main roads. We had seen signs to be respectful of the monks, to not get in their faces, and for women to always be at a lesser height than any given monk, most certainly when addressing them. We of course arrived and took a seat on the street across from where the Lao people were assembled to give their offerings, surrounded by gawking European/Western tourists and Asian tourists (mainly Thai and Chinese if I had to guess.) Amazingly these people were right up getting FLASH photographs of the monks as they proceeded down the street collecting these offerings. I found it to be incredibly rude and disrespectful for people to be doing that (some might argue, rightfully so, that I was also part of the problem by even being there and intruding on a local tradition. I certainly can’t argue with that but at least felt that I was respectful by keeping my distance and staying near the ground, but of course that’s just my opinion.) While I don’t fully understand the purpose of this daily ritual (I assume locals earn some karma points by making offerings to these monks) it was great to see this local tradition take place.

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We then had a little breakfast, got everyone organized and headed out in a sawngthaew to the Kuangsi Waterfall. Let me start by saying best waterfall of the trip so far! It was 35,000 kip/each (5 people) for the ride out there (about 25-30 km, so worth the price in my opinion) and the scenery along the way was gorgeous!

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Upon arrival we each paid 20,000 kip as an entrance fee and hiked about 5-7 minutes up a slight hill to the base of the main waterfall.

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These pictures don’t do justice to how amazing this sight was and how pristine the water is! We then took a small path to the left back down and encountered a series of natural pools along the way. Swiss, Caroline and Trudy took a dip in the first pool (freezing cold, of course) and pretty content after that swim, we were ready to leave until we were informed that there was a rope swing in the next pool down.

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Swiss was pretty certain he was gonna go off of it so we headed down to the next pool where he proceeded to swing off into the pool twice (there’s video but I’ll need a better internet connection before I can include it!)

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A quick afternoon nap (hey, I was tired after getting up that early ;-) and we woke up and headed to the night market for dinner. Down a small side alley was a road full of food vendors with delicious options (noodles, curries, vegetables, grilled chicken, grilled fish, other random grilled bits and parts, and soups.) We stopped at “Sum Soup” for a bowl of Pork Noodle Soup and a beer. It was delicious!! Afterwards we tried some spring rolls and lettuce wraps from a vendor up the road and ran into the girls, so we took them back to Sum Soup where they had dinner while we enjoyed another beer and split a delicious piece of cake from a local bakery. While at the soup place our second time I was seated next to three vacationing Thai people and struck up a conversation. It was great talking to a Thai person in fluent English and talking about various things (their history with coups, Hillary Clinton’s take on Thai politics, how he doesn’t see that many Americans that are backpackers, etc.) Afterwards we headed to Utopia, a bar down by the river, for a few drinks. We met Anna, a nice girl from North London who was left sitting there by herself (she’d been waiting a while for some friends to maybe show up) so we invited her over and the contingent of British grew even more. Later on two British guys joined us and squeezed into the end of our table and the amount of incorrectly spoken English continued to grow. :) A couple of people headed down to the bonfire while I, though, headed back to get some rest.

A random day of activities

This morning the girls took off on a 2 day trek (we’ll join up with them again in Vang Vieng for Caroline’s birthday on 12/16.) I got up and grabbed breakfast/checked e-mail while Swiss slept in a little later. I walked around to get a sense of prices for bus tickets to Phonsavan, our next destination, in order to see the Plain of Jars. We went back out together to check in with the lowest price option I found, which did not include a transfer out to the bus station. The owner of our guest house came down 10,000 kip each, so we decided to book with him, in a minibus, rather than pay the same price for the public bus (minibus service is usually a little more comfortable and a little faster, although we’ll see if that holds true in Laos.) We grabbed a quick baguette sandwich on our walk back from the other travel agency (the chicken and cheese was tasty!) and then I headed to the Royal Museum while Swiss went in search for a pickup soccer game. The museum (the King’s home converted into a museum) is nice although small, and quite recently built, most of the work done between 1900-1975. (There’s no longer a King in Laos since 1975 when they became a “democratic republic.” I say that in quotes only because it’s a country that now has a constitution although with communist roots and certainly does not allow the personal freedoms of expression, association or the press.) The building itself is very nice, along with checking out a small garage with the King’s former vehicles and a photo exhibit entitled “Floating Buddha” in which a German photographer chronicled through mainly B&W photos a meditation course taught to young and novice monks in the woods of Laos about 4-5 years ago. The pictures were amazing and an incredible snapshot of life and training as a Buddhist monk in Laos.


Swiss’s search for a pickup game was somewhat successful. He walked out to a sports field we’d seen a day earlier on our ride out to the waterfall and found some young kids (9-12 years old) playing soccer. He talked to a few of them, showed a young girl how his digital camera works and gave his water bottle to a group of boys that had just finished playing and were thirsty. The boys started talking to Swiss and he kicked the ball around with them for a little while then headed back to our guest house.

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We then headed out to climb up That Phu Si & Wat Tham Phu Si, all on a great hill above Luang Prabang. The pictures don’t do it justice, again, but the views up here of Luang Prabang, the Mekong River and the surrounding mountains are just amazing. DEFINITELY worth the hike up. Swiss got a some pictures of the sun going down and got a little bored waiting for sunset so he headed back while I waited up there with throngs of people until the sun finally set behind the mountains west of Luang Prabang.

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We grabbed dinner at the Hive again (yes, it’s a repeat but it was good music, nice atmosphere, free beer with a pizza order and really damn good pizza…so YES, we went there again) and ate pizza and used the wifi to upload our post on Pai. We leave at 8.30am on Sunday for our journey to Phonsovan and the Plain of Jars, but more on that in the next post!