Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Laos: A Slice of Heaven

Greetings once again, dear friends and family! And Happy New Year!!!!

Alas, many, many days have elapsed since my last post. But not to worry.... I have taken tons of fabulous pics so that you may read about (and see) the things I have done and the wondrous places I have visited. So I will begin immediately to bring you up to date with fabulous detail. And here we go....

I'm now in Luang Prabang, Laos, and I'm truly in love with this (small) city. It's gorgeous and wonderful, I love the vibe, I love the architecture, I love the people!!

But I'm already getting ahead of myself. Before I talk more about Luang Prabang, I must tell you about my travels here.....

I left CM on Wed Dec 19th. I had bought a tour package to get me up to LP, so that I'd not be doing the whole journey alone. I was picked up at my guesthouse (stayed in the center of CM in a wonderful guesthouse for my last night) at 10:00am for the minivan ride up to the border town, Chiang Khong. The van was full of people from many different countries .... France, Australia (always many, many Aussies), Mexico, Norway, Russia, UK.... twelve of us in all. I sat between a couple people from France (who didn't know one another) and we chatted on and off the whole way (6 hrs). The van stopped for lunch at a great little restaurant/store and then stopped again at a place called the White Temple (aptly named, as you'll see below).












While this temple is quite impressive, I find that these very touristy temples feel a bit Disneyland-like to me. Everywhere you look are people snapping photos and vendors trying to sell you something. It was great to stop and stretch our legs for a bit, but I was glad it was only 20mins.

We arrived in Chiang Khong around 4:00 and were put up in a nice hotel, owned by the tour company. It is at this hotel that they process our exit (Thailand) and entry (to Laos) visas, so that they're ready for us in the morning. It's makes things very easy. Here's the hotel, including a shot of the inside of my room (that's a mosquito net hanging over my bed)....





That afternoon I took a walk through sweet little town of Chiang Khong, watching the local people live their lives. Even though nearly everyone (all expats) who go on the slow boat pass through this town, I didn't see many of them... mostly locals.




Below is a shot looking across the Mekong to Laos.....


And, below, perched up above the riverbank, was a darling little outdoor "gym"!



The next morning, after breakfast (eggs, toast, instant coffee -- can be quite common here), we headed to the small boats that took us across the Mekong to Laos, where we stood in line to have our passports stamped (as noted, we already had our visas). 



Below, people standing in line at immigration.



We then piled onto the big boats for the first day of our 2-day journey to Luang Prabang. I had been slightly nervous about this trip, as I had heard many stories.... "the boats are overcrowded, the seats hard and uncomfortable (unless you get a boat that has been retrofitted with comfy [car] bucket seats -- which ours was), they are filled with young backpackers who want to party the whole time" yada, yada. But it was none of that! It was really a super wonderful trip. 







I sat toward the back, near several of the people who'd been on my van (and many others, of course). The bunch of us chatted much of the way, changing our seats from time to time in order to talk with one another. I read a bunch, listened to some music, and watched the scenery go by. Even though it was fairly repetitive... it was beautiful! They sold drinks and snacks (chips, etc) on the boat, but most of us had brought water and other snacks. So the time went by fairly quickly and in about 7 hours, we were at our first stop: Pak Beng. 

Eleven of us split up between two side-by-side guesthouses, dropped off our stuff, met up and went out for dinner. Lots of delicious and cheap restaurants lined the only street in town (a town that exists purely for the slow boat overnight). We found a great place and had a wonderful dinner.

For some reason, I took very few pics of the town Pak Beng (I guess because we arrived after dark?), but captured some great pics of a few elephants, along with their mahouts (trainers) the next morning, from my guesthouse balcony. They were on the other side of the river, being bathed. So cool.... (thank goodness for my zoom).





Next day we made our way down to the dock for the last day of our journey. Some photos departing Pak Beng .... (the monk was waiting until everyone boarded before he got on),





Not sure why -- perhaps because the boat the previous day was rather crowded? -- they provided two boats. Meaning that there were several empty seats on our boat..... meaning that I had two to myself ... meaning it was super great. The day went much like the first.... talking, sharing stories, reading, listening to music, taking photos, resting, etc.

 Above, my new Norwegian friends, Hege & David.

For the first part of the ride, there was a sweet Lao woman and her darling daughter sitting in front of me. Her daughter kept wanting to look back at me and then, at one point, reached for me, so I held her for a bit.




And around 5:00pm on Dec 21, we reached Luang Prabang. As soon as I walked up the hill from the boat and had my first look at the (edge of) town, I was charmed. Even though this town is, arguably, full of tourists, it still has a very relaxed, authentic, and yet almost sophisticated feel. As I mentioned earlier, it has a very European feel to it, both in the architecture and even the sensibility, somehow. As I strolled around the next day, I simply could not stop taking photos. It is truly so picturesque with it's quaint little alley ways, connecting different avenues, so many beautiful flowers and trees, sweet shops and restaurants. I'll try to select only a subset of photos to show you here...












 









My friend, Merryl, from Boulder, had recommended that I stay in the guesthouse where she stayed a few years ago, so I had emailed them from CM and reserved a room for 5 nights (Thank you, Merryl!!!). The Manichan Guesthouse is wonderful!! In order to keep costs down, I chose to stay in a room with a shared bathroom (shared with 3 other rooms). The cost is $18, including a most magnificent breakfast. Each morning guests may have any and all of: (tropical) fruit, homemade yogurt, muesli, eggs any way, several different kinds of bread and croissants, banana-filled crepe, coffee, tea (!!!!). Large tables are set up in the courtyard, so everyone sits together, giving us all the opportunity to meet, share our stories/experiences, and often plan dinners and/or side trips together.



Above: the terrace just outside my window.

I spent those first several days in LP exploring around and having most meals with some or all of the group from the boat (we were all staying in different guesthouses). As seems to be the case in most SE Asian towns, there is a night market here and, connected to that, a most amazing "buffet" meal that you can buy for 10,000 kip (about $1.25). There were several "stands" set up, each with about 20 different bowls of various foods on them. You'd pick the stand you wanted to eat from, pay them the money and they'd hand you a plate. We could then fill up the plate with as much food as we wanted -- one time. Then, if you want to buy some grilled chicken, fish, or sausage with that, it would cost an additional 10,000 kip(!). So an amazing dinner for under $300! (what a rip off! ;). 





The second full day in LP 8 of us hired a tuk tuk (approx. $3.00ea) and headed out to one of the waterfall areas. Gorgeous....








... and here's me (below)



... and Hege & David


We found the path to climb up to the top of the falls (very steep!), then cross over and go down on the other side. These pics cannot do it justice, but trust me when I tell you it was seriously breathtaking.



 


Check out the base of this tree (below) ....
 looks like some sort of dinosaur (or something)....



 
A great day....



On Christmas Eve, I took a big walk around the town again, climbing up to the temple on top of Mount Phousi. From there I was able to get some great birds-eye views of the town. Simply gorgeous. 





  
Looking to the east, the Mekong River.
  
And looking to the west....


   


Then heading down on the other side....










On my way down, I met some young "novice" monks, who wanted to talk and practice their English. All were about 14-17 years old. Sweet....



That evening, the bunch of us (12 in all) met for Christmas Eve dinner at a restaurant -- Lao Lao Garden -- and had a wonderful time together. I've especially grown close to the Norwegian couple, Hege & David, and look forward to staying in touch with them. I also laughed a ton with two other guys -- Simon from Germany and Ben from the UK -- who I met for dinner the next night as well, after Hege & David had left town.






 


 Daria (from Russia) and Vicente (from Spain)... both now living in Germany.



 


Ben (left) and Simon.


  
... drinking a "bucket" of "lao lao"...
 (not me, though.... I wasn't gonna get near that stuff :)



This was the first year -- in my whole life! -- that I didn't spend Christmas with my family. Although it didn't really feel like Christmas per se, I had a fabulous time with my new friends.

At breakfast on Christmas morning I met a few others who were staying at Manichan and we decided to leave the following day for a side trip up north to some towns about 3-4 hours away. The group of us were Christiane from Munich, Zsolti (pronounced "Jolty") and his mom, Marica from Hungary (but Zsolti now lives in Zurich). Even though all 4 of us went up, Zsolti's mom did not venture out with us much, instead choosing to stay in the town at the guesthouse. So many of the photos you'll see below will have only 3 of us in them.

We traveled by minivan (along with several others) for the 3 hour trip up to Nung Khiaw ("kee-ow"), having made a reservation for a place to stay by email beforehand. The town itself was absolutely charming and stunningly beautiful ... quaint town, lovely people, huge mountains in every direction, and a river running through it. 











Unfortunately, our guesthouse (below) was not so great and the owner was a bit of a scammer. I won't go into great detail about our experience (no need), but suffice it to say that we spent more money than necessary -- on the guesthouse and the slightly bogus tours he arranged. But, in the end, it was really only a $30-40 mistake/lesson... AND, despite all that, we had a fabulous time.

 Below: guesthouse (as seen from the river) in the morning fog, in the afternoon sun, 
and sitting on the balcony.

 


After dropping off our stuff and having a bite to eat, Zsolti, Chris, & I took a walk through and beyond the town, out to some caves we'd heard about....

Here, we passed a weaver in her studio.



As we walked the long, dirt road out to the caves, we marveled at the mountains surrounding us. But, again, nearly impossible to capture in photos (with my point & shoot digital).










When we arrived at the caves, there was actually someone sitting at a "booth" to collect the fee for entering them (10,000 kip = $1.25). We then crossed the river and climbed up the huge staircase into the first cave.





 


That evening we found a great restaurant and had a most delicious dinner together.....



On day 2, we had breakfast at the same restaurant (super delish) then headed up to the next town, Mung Ngoi (pronounced "noi"), an hour away by boat (the only way to get there, as there are no roads). Btw, fog would roll in every evening, having the temps drop down quite a bit (in the low 50's, maybe?) and it would be very foggy every morning. Generally, by 10:00, it would burn off, yielding crystal clear blue skies and nice warm temps (80's?).









After an hour, we arrived in Mung Ngoi.... and what a  truly charming little town it was....





 

It was in the below cafe -- where we grabbed a yummy cup of coffee -- that we met the owner, a very nice man,  who drew us a map of where to go on a hike -- to a hill tribe town -- that would be about 3 hours.




After coffee, we set out on our hike. It was absolutely incredible! Some was on dirt road, some on trail, spectacular scenery in every direction. We passed many locals, walking into town to go to the market, lots of children, walking (or riding) to or from school, and plenty of wildlife. I mean, seriously, it is ridiculously gorgeous!!!

 














 



 We arrived at a fairly remote hill tribe village, that happened to have a rudimentary "restaurant", so we stopped for a drink and, of course, also took lots of pics.










Someone had a monkey as a pet (tied up, though... not so nice) and there were some puppies there. I couldn't resist....



After having a drink and eating some of the (local, homemade) rice cakes we packed, we headed back, going a slightly different route, passing through some rice fields, forests. Basically, the usual: phenomenal scenery. Blah, blah, blah  ;)












There was (yet another) cave on the way back, so we stopped there briefly to have a peek. (notice how small Zsolti looks, compared to the size of the cave, in the first pic).






We arrived back in the town of Mung Ngoi, stopped at the same little cafe to have a yummy smoothie (they're ubiquitous in these countries), then found our boat and headed back to Nong Khiaw. 

On day 3 we had arranged a "tour" with our not-so-honest guesthouse and tour company proprietor, Mang (don't get me started). It was to be a 6-hour trek through the mountains to 3 hill tribe villages, led by an "English-speaking guide." I will say now that the day was gorgeous and incredible, the hiking was spectacular, and the hill tribe villages (only 2) were amazing. But we could have done the whole thing by ourselves, without spending any money, as it turns out. Our "guides" were two 18-year old boys who spoke virtually NO English and, in fact, could hardly keep up with the pace we were going (which wasn't crazy.... just steady). They needed to stop and rest numerous times and could not give us a lick of info about the villages we were visiting. But, despite the fact that we spent money unnecessarily (and felt deceived by Mang), we had a magnificent day!




Above, the man on the far left in the red shirt, is Boris (from France but 
now lives in Australia), who joined us on our trek.
 
E

We arrived at the first hill tribe town, where the kids were in school, learning/reciting a story from the chalkboard. A few preschool-aged children were outside the school and were very excited to have their photos taken....






After the school, we proceeded into the village ....








 





We moved on toward the next village, seeing some children along the way....













.... and then arrived at the next hilltribe (Hmong) village, where we stopped and had lunch. Despite the fairly primitive conditions, this village was remarkably clean and tidy and seemed extremely well-organized. And unbelievably sweet people...





















As we sat and ate our lunch, this little guy sat quietly at my feet.... I ended up feeding him a bunch of the leftover rice.....


After lunch we headed through the rest of the town and onward toward the river, where we were to be picked up by boat and taken back to Nong Khiaw (this did happen, but we had to wait for about 1/2 hour by the riferbank, as I think we arrived there much faster than they'd predicted)...



 







But, at last, we were picked up and taken back to our guesthouse. We had one last dinner in NK and went to bed early, so that we could arise early, have breakfast, and meet the boat for our 6-hr journey back to Luang Prabang (approx. 6 hours). Some scenes along the way...






 



The boat stopped once for a pee break and then another time for some cave-temples very near to LP....

 
 
 






The rest of the boat ride back to LP was just more of same: stupendously stunning scene after stupendously stunning scene. It just gets old after a while (NOT ;).....







 We arrived back in LP around 4:00 that afternoon (Dec 29th, btw), unpacked our stuff, then the 4 of us met for dinner at a restaurant on the (Mekong) river. I continue to be astounded at the amazingly delicious food that costs almost nothing. Dinner that night for me was green papaya salad (very spicy & garlic-y) and yellow curry with veggies & chicken (and steamed rice).... all for approx. $3.00. Crazy... but true!

The last couple days have been all about walking all around the city, stopping at places I find interesting, eating wonderful food, visiting temples, etc.

Yesterday I went to a morning yoga class at a place called Utopia, which is a (mostly expat) bar at night, but they have yoga on one of the decks (right on the river) in the morning and early evening.


 (above) The deck on which we did yoga (forgot to take pics DURING class)

After yoga I stopped by one of my favorite cafes in LP, Joma.


 Later that day I stumbled upon a very quiet (not at all touristy) wat that had the most incredible paintings -- albeit, many quite violent and graphic.


 











Later, I walked through the streets and wandered through the more local markets





And I came across a common scene of very FRESH fish and chicken being "processed" (don't look at these pics if you get squeamish).





Finally, last night -- New Year's Eve! -- we ended up having a wonderful dinner right here at Manichan Guesthouse. I was planning to have dinner at one of the nearby restaurants with Zsolti, his mom (Chris had already left town). Then Peter (who owns the guesthouse, along with his wife, "Manichan") said he was going to make a large dinner and invited us to join them. So we went out and bought a couple bottles of wine and all met on the guesthouse patio (where breakfast is served every day). We sipped wine and talked for an hour or so then had a most fabulous dinner together. (we found out later that Peter worked as a chef for many years in France & Belgium). Such a nice way to conclude the year.

 Below: Peter, Manichan, and Marica (Zsolti's mom)


And now, my friends, here I sit in my guesthouse in Luang Prabang on the first morning of 2013. 

HAPPY NEW YEAR!! 

This is my last day in Luang Prabang, so I am going to head out and really make the best of it. I think I'll rent a bike and cruise all over town and out into the outskirts. Tomorrow I take a 6-hour bus to a town south of here, Vang Vieng. I'll stay there overnight, then on the 3rd I'll take a 3-hour bus ride down to Vientiane (the capital of Laos). I'll be there only for about 8 hours (just looking around the town, then will travel by overnight bus to a town all the way down in southern Laos, Pakse (arriving on the 4th). I plan to spend several days down there, exploring an area called the 4,000 islands -- which are (yes, a LOT of) islands in the Mekong. Supposed to be gorgeous. From there, I'll be traveling overland into Cambodia, heading first to Siem Reap to see the vast temples of Anghor Wat.

And that is how I'm beginning this fine year of 2013. :)

I'm excited for the day, for the upcoming months of travel, and very excited for the coming year. I feel so, so very fortunate. Being on the road out in the world -- by myself but not really by myself -- has been one of the best things I've ever done. Ever.

And you, my dear friends and family, are a constant source of joy in my life -- even though you are not here with me. Knowing that you are there, supporting me, reading my blog, caring for me (and receiving my care of you) brings me a sense of warmth and love and comfort. Thank you for your presence in my life. Really, thank you SO much.

I recently read a quote that said something like, "It is important to be in love with your life". I wholeheartedly agree with that. And I am... in love with my life :) 

Until next time..... 




8 comments:

  1. Hi Nan,

    I just wanted to thank you for sharing these beautiful, inspiring adventures. I came across your posting while searching for blog experiences on Laotian travels for an upcoming trip of my own, and it was a lovely read, and I'm sure an even more wonderful experience for you.

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