Luang Prabang, Laos

T.S. Eliot wrote: “The journey, not the arrival, matters.”

In this instance I will have to agree with Mr. Eliot. Our journey to, and through, Luang Prabang is the story worth telling.

Since we arrived on the mainland in Phuket, Thailand we had decided we’d rely on trains, boats and buses as much as possible in order to save money on airfare. We further determined that taking overnight trains and buses would save on an evening’s accommodation and we wouldn’t waste anytime during the day, when we could be out and about, in transit.

The french influenced streets of Luang Prabang

This seems logical, and in some cases it was, but in others we faced excruciating and nauseating trips, and our journey to Luang Prabang was no exception.

Therese and I booked an overnight bus ticket from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang. We were set to leave at 9 p.m. so we checked out of our guesthouse in the afternoon, left our bags with the family running the business and used the remaining time to explore, send some emails and eat laap (a fresh salad with cooked chicken or fish, lime and a ton of mint) at our new favourite Laotian restaurant.

At 8:45 p.m. we made our way to the pick up spot. At 11:30 p.m. we finally got picked up. Our tuk-tuk driver explained the bus had been delayed, caught in one of the treacherous pot holes that rule the roads in Laos. We were frustrated but thought nothing of it as we headed off into the night. That is until I realized we were heading south, out of town when the bus station was to the north, as was Luang Prabang. We thought perhaps we had misunderstood the location of the bus station until, 30 minutes later we were still heading south in the tuk-tuk.

A tuk-tuk parked on the street in Laos.

Just as I figured we were on our way back to Vientiane we came to a lurching stop on the side of the road. On either side were rice fields. It was pitch black. I was concerned.

As our driver started to drag our oversize backpacks off the back of the tuk-tuk my worries were somewhat quieted as in the distance I could see the lights of a bus heading toward us.

Sure enough, it pulled over to the side of the road and we were ushered on. No tickets, no explanation.

Like the outdoors it was blindingly dark on the bus. With our hands guiding us we realized this bus was yet another bunk bed bus and it was full. I asked the driver if there was an open bed. “For two people,”  I insisted, worried we’d be split up, set to share a single bed with one of the shadow covered strangers. Sure enough there was a space, a bed at the back of the bus.

We climbed up the ladder to the top bunk only to find it was in fact a double-sized bed, already occupied with two local men. But as there are two people to each single this was technically a spot for four so we squeezed in, our heads grazing the ceiling as we sat up discussing the evenings events.

The peninsula where the Nam Song and the Mekong rivers meet.

I’ve mentioned the bumpy roads in Laos. And we all know the back of the bus feels the bumps the most. So imagine riding on the top bunk of a bunk bed in the back of a bus. We were winding through the mountains at 60/km and hour being launched into the air and crashing back down for 9 hours, bumping into our neighbours and getting no sleep at all.

When we finally arrived, and the sun began to pour in through the windows we finally caught a glimpse of the surroundings. This was not like the first bed bus we had ridden. This wasn’t a tourist bus. This was a bus mostly packed with locals, in disrepair and needed a serious clean and we were both covered in a rash.

The journey was our story.

A women weaves silk in a village near Luang Prabang.

Still, it was all worth it when we walked down a winding side street on the Luang Prabang peninsula, stumbled across a beautiful cottage-style guesthouse and caught our first sight of the Mekong that we had followed all the way from the Four Thousand Islands.

Luang Prabang, as a whole, was my favourite town of the entire trip. It had a stunning night market every evening, the peninsula boasted more temples than hotels and you could walk across the rivers, both the Mekong and the Nam Song (the peninsula is where the two meet) on hand made bamboo bridges to visit rural villages known for farming, fishing and silk weaving.

Caught wandering through the hospital looking for a washroom.

Unfortunately while we were in Luang Prabang travelers sickness caught up with me. After spending two days in bed with a fever, headache and a rash, running to the washroom every ten minutes I thought some positive thinking would help. I livened up and booked a hiking/biking/kayaking tour to an elephant sanctuary for the next day and hoped for the best. But my luck had been used up and after vomiting three times on a 35km bike ride I knew I had reached my limit. I was driven to the hospital that day and spent four hours on an IV, replenishing fluid I think, although I was given a few shots and we had difficulty communicating as no one spoken English. My Laotian is limited to hello and thank-you.

Monks collect alms, walking the streets as the sun rises.

Still, Luang Prabang was a highlight, the people were kind, our accommodation was comfortable and cheap and I managed to purchase most of my gifts (a lot hand woven silk was stacked in my backpack) in the colourful town. I also was able to witness the monks collecting alms for the first time, a morning ritual where the 308 monks who live in Luang Prabang process down the street each morning at 5:30 a.m. collecting donations of sticky rice from all of the locals. It is a beautiful and meditative sight, although tainted by the number of tourists wanting to get involved, still manages to give a moment for pause.

As we wrapped up our time in Laos both Therese and I were sad to leave. We were headed for Vietnam to meet up with some friends and though excited for the next adventure, were reluctant to leave the peaceful, picturesque country.

Vang Vieng, Laos

Vang Vieng, a small town deep in the heart of Laos, has a reputation. Much like Koh Phangan and the full moon parties in Thailand, Vang Vieng is known for its party culture, but it wasn’t always this way.

The natural beauty of Vang Vieng.

Years ago Vang Vieng was a destination because of its natural landscape: majestic limestone cliffs, pristine lagoons and winding caves. The scenery drew backpackers along the bumpy roads from Luang Prabang to the North and Vientiane to the South.

Today the main attraction is the carefree, and often dangerous, activity of tubing. Locals have created a co-op that rents out tractor tire inner-tubes to tourists which they use to create a lazy river experience floating along the Nam Song. It sounds innocent enough until you realize the river is lined on either side with ramshackle bamboo bars, hooking passing patrons on fishing lines and drawing them into the chaos. Tubing is largely excess, excess for 18 year-olds from Europe or Australia on a gap year to find themselves through travel.

With our British pals, trying our hand at the tubing experience.

Still, Therese and I were curious and Vang Vieng was the logical stop on our journey north to Luang Prabang so we decided to experience the chaos for ourselves.We had done our research and spoken to a number of friends and fellow travelers who had been. We knew the beauty of Vang Vieng still existed only minutes away from the main stretch of river and we wanted to go caving and hike the limestone mountains. We also thought we would try tubing, for one afternoon.

We arrived and quickly found a beautiful room in a bungalow-style guesthouse. The accommodation was just south of the the main drag, far enough away from the noise but still walking distance to the post office and restaurants. It overlooked the Nam Song river with the mountains reaching serenely toward the sky.We had met a group of girls from England who had become fast friends so we made a plan to rendezvous at 2 o’clock to rent tubes and check out the river.

Therese crawls into a cave.

Now, after being there, and doing that, I can say the rumours are true. Tubing in Vang Vieng is often appalling, but only for those who make it so. Like visiting any bar or club there are always people who don’t know their limits and behave badly, but there are also those who are there to sing along to the songs, play some games and have some decent conversation. Therese and I swam in the river, floated down stream and played beach volleyball with some new found friends.

The majority of the crowds are under the age of 20, unsure of what they want or who they want to be. I stood on the dock of one of the riverside bars with our friend Benoit from Switzerland who was on a 3 week vacation from his job as a computer engineer, and we discussed how we felt old. Still we joked around and laughed and had a lot of fun in the sunshine that afternoon.

Our motorbikes – trying to keep the black leather seats in the shade!

After a delicious dinner of local Laos fare (a rarity believe it or not in this Westernized town) we made a plan, Therese, Benoit and I, to meet at 9 a.m. for breakfast and to spend the day caving.

This was one of the highlights of the entire trip.

Beyond the fun of learning to drive a manual motorbike (albeit garnering a few bruises in the process) we spent hours in the cool air of the mountains squeezing between rocks and swimming in fresh water pools deep within the heart of the caves. It was both beautiful and scary, often coming face to face with massive spiders or hoping the battery on your headlamp wouldn’t die.

Inside a cave in the limestone mountains.

We also rode to a local lagoon with sapphire blue water and locals jumping from tree tops into the pools below. These are the things that put Vang Vieng on the map, and it’s what makes stopping in the new-found party town worth it.

Vientiane, Laos

After an adventure of a bus ride (12 hours, sharing our single bed bunk bed!) Therese and I arrived in Vientiane – the capital of Laos.

Vientiane exemplifies the French influence in Laos.

This city is characterized by the fusion between french and Laos culture. Street signs are mostly posted in french, bakeries line the street and vendors sell baguettes on the side of the road. But there is a saying in Asia: same same, but different. Vientiane has an Arc de Triomphe, it has the french cuisine and the white washed buildings we associate with Nice, but it is certainly different. The baguettes, for example, are made with coconut milk and rice flour. Sure, they look the same, but boy, do they taste different.

Laos 1960’s version of the Arc de Triomphe.

We only spent one night in Vientiane, but had two full days – plenty of time to walk around the entire city. Despite the outrageous heat (40C) we spent the day exploring, visiting a local shrine and temple, mailing postcards and seeing some of the sights. We even happened upon the filming of a music video, rows of women dressed in traditional wrap skirts in beautiful silks and men in linen shirts dancing in rows, almost bollywood-esque to playback blaring over a  PA system.It’s moments like this that I am grateful for – the unexpected that comes only with little planning and an open mind.

As the sun set we stumbled upon a night market on the city’s waterfront, well, what is a waterfront during rainy season. During dry season (which we were in) it is more or less like a massive desert riverbed.

Night market in Vientiane.

We spent a lot of time wandering up and down the rows of wares at the night market, stopping for smoothies and banana crepes (my new favourite snack) and purchasing some local crafts to take home.

When we had gotten our fill we headed back to our questionable room, had cold showers and managed to get some sleep before the winding uphill journey to Vang Vieng the next day.

Don Det, 4000 Islands, Laos

After spending two days in Phnom Pehn hanging around the Laos’ and Vietnamese’ embassies, Therese and I climbed onto a bus heading across the Cambodian border to Laos.

We’ve been looking forward to the Laos portion of our trip  since we decided to add the country to our itinerary in January. When you mention Laos to any backpacker in Southeast Asia only positive stories and anecdotes are shared. It is also known for being somewhat less touristy (and less traveled) allowing some of the natural destinations (caves, islands, mountains etc.) to have a more authentic feel.

Islands emerge in the Mekong in Southern Laos.

The border crossing into Laos was much smoother than Cambodia and we arrived in a small town on the edge of the Mekong river around 5:30 p.m. as the sun was starting to sink low into the sky. We were herded, along with maybe 15 other backpackers, into long narrow flat bottom boat with propellers extended way out along a pole of the stern so it could accommodate the shallow water. With the backpacks and people filling the boat to the gills we set off across the river, catching our first glimpse of the countless islands that won the region the name The 4000 Islands.

The islands are a river archipelago and only about half of them are exposed when the Mekong floods each rainy season. Right now we’re experiencing the dry season in Laos though, so the water is low allowing the tufts of grass and trees to appear as if floating along with the current of the river.

As our boat pulled up to a little beach on one of the main islands, Don Det, and we unloaded our gear, the sun started to set, colour painting the way down the small dirt road that we would search for somewhere to stay.

Our home in Don Det for three lovely nights.

After checking out a few spots we settled on a rustic bungalow perched on stilts at the river’s edge. Although there were no screens in the windows and you could peer outside through cracks in the walls, the little wooden room felt so cottage-y we couldn’t resist. Plus there were two hammocks hanging on a private deck out our front door. A shared bathroom and mosquito net was worth the other perks!

After our first breezy sleep in weeks Therese and I woke up refreshed. We had met a lovely girl from California the night before at dinner and agreed to meet up in the morning for an adventure so we headed to the beach where we rented some bicycles and took off cycling along the river.

Local fishermen stretch nets across the rapids of one of Don Khon's waterfalls.

Don Det is the smaller of two islands that have accommodation in the 4000 Islands. The larger island is Don Khon which Don Det is joined to by a bridge. We rode to the end of Don Det making our way across the bumpy bridge to Don Khon to see some of the larger island’s waterfalls and hire a boat out onto the river in the hopes of spotting the fresh water dolphins the area is known for.

I think we all had low expectations for dolphin sightings as we set out in our little boat with an elderly Laos driver. As we maneuvered around the trees and ferns growing out of the river we all sat quietly, scanning the churning water.

An Irrawaddy dolphin surfaces in the Mekong river.

When we spotted our first Irrawaddy dolphin the cries of excitement made our driver burst into a smile, laughing as we all shouted and pointed at the distant grey blurs. As we grew closer (or rather, the dolphins came closer to us) we saw some kick up their tails, clear their blow holes and one even rolled over waving a fin and exposing his slightly pink belly. The Irrawaddy dolphins are a critically endangered species and only few still exist in Southeast Asia, particularly in this area. We spent an hour coasting with the current, turning our heads in circles to watch the dolphins play before heading back to land with massive smiles plastered on our faces.

The next day we booked transportation to visit  Khone Phapheng Falls on the Mekong river. Known as the largest waterfall in Southeast Asia this waterfall isn’t tall or tropical – it’s a massive wall of water stretching across a section of the Mekong where the river’s power and volume is exposed.

Spot the fisherman.

Therese and I had watched some of the BBC series Human Planet while in Korea and this particular waterfall was featured in the episode on people that rely on rivers, highlighting the dare devil fishermen who walk on wires across the falls to catch catfish. After watching the story of this community unfold we had to see the sight for ourselves and we weren’t disappointed. As we arrived fishermen were inching along the wire as the water pounded into the rapids below.

Khone Phapheng Falls

When I skyped with my parents and told them about the falls my Dad asked how the size of the falls compared to Niagra. It’s hard to say as Niagra Falls is truly massive so nothing quite compares, but the sight of the Khone Phapheng falls seemed to really express the power of nature. The statistics are that the falls reach 21 meters high and the rapid stretch for nearly 10 kilometers.

The area is not particularly touristy and so you feel like you are in the wild, witnessing this incredible sight. There are no restrictions on where you can go so we crawled along the scorching rock above the rapids breathing in the fresh water spray.

The rest of the day we spent lounging in our hammocks, reading and catching up on postcards, really enjoying the serenity of the 4000 islands.

Quite cozy on the bus to Laos' capital city.

We’re now in Vang Vieng after a night in Vientienne and a thrilling overnight bus ride where the two of us shared a single bed bunk bed for the 12 hour ride.

Yes, there were bunk beds on the bus.

Our trip is starting to wind down now and we’re both quite giddy. The moments where we stop to appreciate the things we’re seeing and experiencing are occurring more often, as are our discussions of flights and first things to eat when we get home. Only Luang Prabang, a homestay in Northern Laos and Southern Vietnam left and then it’s back to Canada for the both of us.

xo,

A

Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, Cambodia

After a rather frustrating trip across the border Therese and I arrived in Cambodia in Siem Reap. It took longer than we planned and cost more than we wanted but we made it, found a great little guest house on the river, ate some food and went to sleep.

This rather uneventful day prepared us for our early morning the next day and our visit to the ancient temples of Angkor Wat.

The Angkor Wat complex is made up of multiple temples, some located near the main temple in Angkor Thom and some in the surrounding area up to 100km away. For our first day we decided to keep it local and save the temple further afield for another day.

We rented bikes from our hostel and rode from Siem Reap’s downtown core to the archeological park, riding from temple to temple, (the complex is massive, sometimes we’d pedal for 20 minutes through the jungle before we stumbled across more ruins) hopping of to explore and guzzling water along the way.

We each took about 200 photos but I’ve uploaded a selection for you to flip through. My favourite temple was the Bayon Temple in Angkor Thom. This temple is made up of 54 crumbling towers each topped with 4 massive stone carving of faces staring down at you. A close second was Ta Prohm, or what Therese and I refered to as the “jungle temple.” This one was located deep in the forest and trees grew out of the walls. It was also the site for some of the filming for Tomb Raider.

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Tomorrow Therese and I will travel further from Siem Reap to what we are calling the river temple, 50 km from the city.

xo,

A

Bangkok, Thailand

After spending two days in Khao Sok National Park (I’ll write about that another day) Therese and I walked out to the road to catch our bus to Surat Thani where we would take a night train to Bangkok.

Rain started to drizzle as we walked along the road to the bus stop an hour early. We had a train to catch at 9:30 p.m. and wanted to make sure we caught the last bus into town.

After 1.5 hours it became clear the bus wasn’t going to show up. To be honest I was a little panicked and we sat on the side of the road weighing our options. We could wait another hour for a minibus ride at 5 times the cost of the local bus we were going to take or we could try to hitch-hike the 2 hour drive into town.

They took photos on their cellphones so we took some as well! Our new friends: Thai Navy Seahawks Sq.2

It didn’t take long for Therese and I to agree we may as well try hitching a ride.After a few tries a minivan pulled over and we walked up to the window to see the faces of 7 Thai Navy men staring back at us. One of them spoke English and said they would take us an hour toward’s town where we could catch a different local bus to take us the rest of the way, so we climbed it.

It was a pretty surreal experience. I sat next to the fellow who spoke English and discovered this was the Seahawk Squadron II, a helicopter squadron that flies off of a air-craft carrier (apparently the smallest ship of its kind in the world). They were on their way back to the base after spending five days delivering doctors, dentists and supplies to a remote tribal village.

When we got to our destination we discovered no buses were running – it was already 7:30 by this time and I started to think maybe we should have just taken a minibus. Luckily we had become quite chummy with our new Navy friends and they were determined to get us to our train in time. Calling up a friend they managed to get us another ride the rest of the way into tow. Their kindness still astounds me – we were quite lucky the situation worked out.

When we arrived in Surat Thani we found out our train had been delayed an hour so at 9:30 we found our way to a little street food stall with folding tables setup in an alley way and sat down to one of the best meals we had in Thailand. Tom Yum soup, Pad Thai, vegetables with ginger! Delicious.

The train ride to Bangkok was pretty terrible – our cheap pocketbooks convinced us to get second class seat tickets instead of sleepers for the 13 hour ride and we regretted it instantly.

We arrived in Bangkok eventually and took a city bus downtown to a backpacker neighborhood near some of the city’s main sites. That night we ate some street food and wandered around the neighborhood agreeing to split up the next day to take on Bangkok.

Monks arriving at Wat Phrakaew in Bangkok.

I woke up at 7 a.m. and got dressed in pants, a tank top and light sweater. I was going to tackle some of the city’s famous temples and needed to be covered up. I walked along the canal to the Grand Palace and its accompanying temple Wat Phrakaew. I arrived as it opened at 8:30 a.m. and quickly discovered some sort of ceremony or event was happening as groups of school children, monks and the royal guard processed through the grounds.

Gilded buildings of Wat Phrakaew, home to the emerald buddha.

The temples in Thailand are unlike any others I have seen so far on my travels. Unlike the ornate carved wood style of Korean and Chinese temples or the intricate stonework in Malaysia, Thai temples are towers of gilded mosaic. White stucco adorned with jewel-toned glass and gold-plated spires. In the sun everything sparkles, forcing you to blink as you try to take in the sights.

The Grand Palace.

The Grand Palace is part of the Wat Phrakaew complex. Although it is not the official royal residence anymore the site is still used for special occasions and ceremonies and the grounds are meticulously cared for. My favourite part of wandering the complex was seeing the maintenance staff painting the white stucco and watering the elaborate gardens, all with smiles on their faces.

Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho.

After spending a couple of hours I made my way along the canal to Wat Pho – another main temple in Bangkok known for being home to a massive reclining Buddha. I am realizing now that pretty much every city has some sort of giant Buddha it is known for. Wat Pho kept up with the glitzy nature of Thai temples, each surface covered in blue, green, red and gold tile work and ornate roof lines. The reclining Buddha was covered in gold leaf, its giant feet inlaid with mother of pearl.

View of Bangkok (and Wat Pho) from the canal.

The rest of the day I spent riding a boat along the canal and wandering the streets trying to take in as many sites as I could. A lot of walking, wondering where I was and stumbling across a great site or picture of daily life in the city made for a great day.

Now I have crossed the border into Cambodia and am staying in Siem Reap. I will update on our visit to Angkor Wat soon.

xo,

A

 

Koh Mok, Trang Islands, Thailand

UPDATE: Managed to add some photos – March 19, 2012

We arrived in Thailand on March 7, flying into the country’s southern airport in Phuket. We spent only a night in the city (gushing over our first authentic Thai meal) before taking a 5 hour minibus ride to Nakhon Si Thammarat to spend some time with my good friend Kaitlyn and her boyfriend Stu who have been living in the city for the past two years.

Reunited and it feels so good! Kait and Stu - our gracious hosts.

We arrived in Nakhon and Stu and Kait met us with their motorbikes to drive us back to their neighboorhood. It was so exciting to see a familiar (and long-missed) face in the middle of this adventure and it was great fun to experience a part of their life in Thailand. Nakhon is a very Thai city, not often a stop on people’s tours of the country, though it should be.

The food is INCREDIBLE, I have the happiest belly in all the world after eating different types of curry, fried catfish, tom yum soup, pad thai, mangoes, coconuts and oranges off the street, smoothies, and papya salads. Staying in Nakhon solidified the fact that I LOVE thai food.

One of Thailand's protected waterfalls near Kait and Stu's home.

While in Nakhon Kait and Stu took us on a half-hour motorbike ride to a local waterfall and national park. It was the perfect way to spend the day swimming in the fresh water pools of the waterfall and taking in the jungle surroundings.

We also were able to join in on the celebration of Stu’s birthday – meeting most of their fellow teachers and friends and eating some great food along the way.

Currently I am on Koh Mok, one of the Trang Islands in Thailand. Therese and I arrived here on the March 10 and, after experiencing the incredible beauty of the island’s crystal clear water and peachy sunsets, we decided to stay for three nights.

We’re staying in a little room in a rubber tree forest, geckos and frogs climbing over the walls and (occasionally) into our bed. Our room is about a 2 minute walk to the white sands of Farang beach where we spent the greater part of the afternoon yesterday.

Therese in her kayak near the opening to the emerald cave -tour boats float around her.

We spent the morning on an adventure to Koh Mok’s famous sight – the Emerald Cave.

We awoke around 8 a.m. and had a quick breakfast before heading to the beach where we rented kayaks and a dry sac. We each brought our cameras, our headlamps, some water and sunscreen as we paddled off into the ocean.

The opening to the Emerald Cave from the lagoon.

Using a map Therese had found in one of the hotels we navigated our way around two points arriving at the opening to the emerald cave. This is where things got interesting as we slide off our kayaks, strapped on our headlamps and began the 80 metre swim through the pitch-black cave to a little beach.

Many tours are run to this sight with guides leading the way, so Therese and I were feeling pretty good about ourselves as we emerged from the darkness towing our kayaks behind us into the green waters of the Emerald cave.

Dinner at sunset on Koh Mok.

Following this adventure we kayaked along the island’s coast, exploring some of the amazing limestone rock formations and coves along the way. Although we tried our best re-applying sunscreen constantly the salt water got the best of us and we both have rather ridiculous patches of burn in splotches on our legs and arms.

Tomorrow we’re leaving for Khao Sok National Park where we’ll spend a night and two days before taking a night train from Surat Thani to Bangkok.

I’ll try to add some photos soon.

xo,

A