A Travellerspoint blog

Luang Prabang

Laos

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The road to Luang Prabang used to be considered unsafe, due to rebel activities, however, it has been over three years since the last bus was hijacked and a few tourists killed. Plus, the road is now heavily patrolled by machine gun-touting Laos Army men. Now, the only risk one can expect on this stretch of highway is loosing their lunch, as the road is ridiculously curvy, but luckily for us (kind of), our driver averaged a snail’s pace of 30 km/hr (~20 mph), so we just ended up with sore butts and a two hour longer than expected bus ride. However, who can really complain when the scenery is this beautiful!

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Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang is a UNESCO World Heritage site selected for it's outstanding traditional architecture, still intact, which is rare in SE Asia with all the wars and bombs that have been dropped over the decades.

The town is exceptionally charming with brick-lined footpaths that criss-cross small alleyways. It is located on the banks of the Mekong River and we got to see some nice sunsets over the waters of the mighty Mekong (although it's pretty low now during the dry season).

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There are over 30 temples in the small town and everywhere you turn novice monks are crossing the street or inviting you into their temple in order to practice their English. Luang Prabang strongly upholds the tradition of giving daily alms to the monks and every morning at 6:30 am, people line the streets to hand rice, fruit, etc to passing by monks. Amber managed to get out of bed for this, not only to take some photos, but also to participate.

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While in Laos, we have accepted the slow-paced attitude and decided to go with the "less is more" mentality, so we ended up spending 5 nights in Luang Prabang. Some people we met said, "What are you going to do in Luang Prabang for 5 days?", well, we ended up filling the time easily with walks around the town, many stops in cafés and temples, and a couple of really good massages. There are also some great markets where you can pass your time (and money).

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A great vegetarian buffet, you could fill your plate for 50 cents! We enjoyed this place several nights!

We hooked up with a few other travelers one day and headed to a beautiful waterfalls, Kwang Sy, about an hour outside of town, where we killed a day hiking to the different falls and swimming in several pools (well Amber didn't venture in the crisp water, but I couldn't resist).

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The waterfall even had a tiger onsite. We had heard of sites in Asia where they use animals as mere tourist attractions, and have seen a few, but we were very pleasantly surprised to find "Phet" in a huge "natural" caged area, complete with a small creek and many large trees. Apparently she had been rescued from poachers when she was a baby and has been taken care of ever since. We were there for feeding time, where Amber got to pet Phet, while she chowed on some buffalo meat.

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Posted by rebmamber 03:13 Archived in Laos Comments (10)

Lovely Laos

Back to the world of Buddhas, tuk-tuks and flip-flops!

32 °C

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We heard several hellish stories about the overland trip from Hanoi to Vientiane, involving people relieving themselves on toilet-less buses; buses not departing until every square inch of space is filled with a person, an animal, or thing; getting to your destination days behind scheduled arrival, and the ever common puking Asians. So, we opted for the 1.5-hour flight. But, in true Vietnamese-style, Vietnam wished us a fond farewell which goes a little something like this...

We decided to fly with Vietnam Airlines, even though it is a little more expensive than Lao Airlines, as every guide book and travel agency does not recommend flying Lao Airlines (they don't release their safety records and some of their planes have a fond attraction to the ground). So, we dropped a little more cash at the VIETNAM AIRLINES office, booked our flight, and headed to the airport. At the airport, we checked in at the VIETNAM AIRLINES desk, went to the VIETNAM AIRLINES gate, were led by VIETNAM AIRLINES staff to a LAO AIRLINE plane! I (Justin) being the semi-nervous flier, kindly asked the VIETNAM AIRLINES women at the stairs to the plane, what was going on. She said, "We sold the flight to Lao Airlines a couple of hours ago". No need to rant and rave anymore, we made it unscaved, but we were treated to a nice 180-degree turn at a 45-angle as we approached the airport in Vientiane.

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VIENTIANE

We stepped off the plane to be smacked in the face with a blast of hot, humid air, something we haven't felt in awhile. We arrived in the capital of Laos, Vientiane, which could easily be described as the most laid-back capital in the world (we were soon to learn this was true of the entire country). Maybe we had actually gotten used to the incessant honking of horns, risking your life to cross a street, and being asked constantly to purchase things or go somewhere. We found none of these in Laos, a very relaxing change of pace. There is a saying in SE Asia that the Vietnamese grow rice, the Cambodians watch rice grow, and the Laotians listen to rice grow. We believe it and we like it.

Even though Laos is one of the poorest countries in Asia, this town seemed to be booming (more new cars and trucks than all of Vietnam). We later learned that the City is a magnet for foreign aid workers (NGO projects seem to have nice vehicles).

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Sticky Rice baskets, a Laos staple.

Given that it was ridiculously hot in Vientiane, we thought riding bicycles around town would alleviate some of the heat. We checked out the Putaxai Arch, sometimes known as the Vertical Runway because this concrete monster was built with US concrete that was supposed to be used to enhance the local runway for our big planes. During the war in Vietnam, the US secretly had airbases in Laos (which went against the Geneva Accord, but so did the Vietnamese) and performed secret bombing missions in North Vietnam and in Laos. In fact, to this day, the CIA's presence in Laos is the largest and most expensive paramilitary operation in US history (as far as we know that is!). Also, the US dropped so many bombs on Laos in the 9-year-period, that per capita, Laos is the most heavily bombed nation in the history of warfare. I never learned that in history class, damn Largo High!

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Vertical Runway.

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DSC00328.JPGView from the top.

There are numerous temples in this primarily Buddhist country, so we wandered about town checking them out. One of them even had a sauna and massage, and for $3, who can pass that up!

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Wat Pha That Luang, the most revered temple in Laos and also their national symbol.

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Temple kitten. ''Dad, can I have it!!''

VANG VIENG

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The winding bus ride up to the town of Vang Vieng was a lot better than we had anticipated, although it did leave 2 hours late and took two hours longer than expected (231 km in 8 hours). Limestone mountains border Vang Vieng to the west providing magnificent views along the Nam Song river. We splurged on a $10 room with a view of the river and the mountains. Every night we "listened to the river sing sweet songs to rock our souls", literally! Anyways, it was amazing.

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Interesting warning.

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We decided to accept the Laos’ laid-back lifestyle and pretty much just wandered the town for a couple of days doing pretty much nothing, but loving it all along the way. The town is pretty much set up for backpackers, and unfortunately, it lacked a lot (or any) Laos culture (unless I’m unaware of the ancient Laos version of Friends, which plays incessantly in half of the restaurants). Also, the town was currently getting a sewer system installed, so it was a bit torn apart (though I deemed that the construction was not up to code). We did rent bicycles one day where we rode them outside of town to have lunch at an organic farm by the river.

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Getting a button sewed back on by the side of the road.

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We did hop on a kayak/tubing/caving tour one day, which turned out to be a good time. We visited Elephant Cave, where there is a stalagmite-like structure shaped as a, you guessed it, an Elephant and Buddha's "footprint". Unfortunately, not all of us made it as the cave was guarded by the rabbit of Caerbannog, but it was worth the casualties.

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Next we headed to a water cave, where we tubed in the darkness for about 45 minutes to the source of a fresh water spring. Amber needed a little bit of persuasion to get into the freezing water, to say the least.

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Don't look directly at Justin's chest without protective eyewear!

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The rest of the day was spent kayaking approximately 15 km back to town, despite a much dreaded stop at one of the ubiquitous river bars as we made our way back to Vang Vieng by kayak in the afternoon. These bars should be stopped, or at least no more allowed, as they will surely get out-of-hand in a few years. Picture kayaking a crystal clear river, with limestone cliffs hovering over you and a few swift moving rapids, after a pleasant hour or so, you turn a bend and you hear Shaggy and Maroon 5 songs performed by some cover band being blared from huge speakers. Ahhhhh, nature.

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We ended most days as they should be ended, watching the sunset, drinking a beer, and hanging out with some new friends. We may not return!

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Posted by rebmamber 20:55 Archived in Laos Comments (9)

The De-evolution of Justin

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Hey, what's going on????

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How long will it last...

Posted by rebmamber 07:25 Comments (16)

Sapa

Clouds and Rocks galore!

sunny 23 °C

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Like being woken from an afternoon nap by puppies licking your toes, Sapa greeted us with that warm fuzzy feeling that can only come from sunshine and beautiful scenery especially after 3 weeks in the busy and loud city of Hanoi.

We took an overnight train from Hanoi to Lao Cai, a town about 35 km from Sapa and 5km from the Chinese border. The train bounced around a bit, but was pretty comfortable (as long as you don't mind peeing in a hole on a moving machine). We were able to sleep some in our soft sleeper cabin, which was a huge advantage compared to the overnight bus rides we've taken.

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Our 4-bunk cabin

From Lao Cai we hopped a ride to Sapa, which took about an hour as we were heading uphill the whole way on super curvy roads. I managed to score the passenger seat, Amber was not so lucky and was a couple of rows back with no view of the road to speak of. Luckily for her, and everyone else in the van, John, Paul, Ringo, & George sang to her from the i-pod and no chunks flew. Most of the drive was overcast and misty, but suddenly we broke through the clouds near Sapa and we were smacked in the face with blue skies and bright sunshine.

Our guidebook gave one of those "travelers secret" tips to visit Sapa during the week as the town is empty and prices are way cheaper. Our experience with those great tips usually goes something like this...

Lonely Planet: Coome's Coffee Shop is a terrific place to have a fine cup of joe where the prices are disgustingly inexpensive, great jazz is played, and the friendly staff is always there to top your cup off.

Then, you go there and find a packed coffee shop with high prices, lousy service, and Britney Spears blaring.

So when we got out of the van in Sapa Monday morning and noticed very few westerners and tons of hotel owners offering big hotel discounts, we were delightfully surprised. Don't ask me why tourists stay away on the weekdays, but they seemed to. Sapa is how a mountain town should be, with just the right number of places to grab a coffee or a beer, not an absorbent amount of tacky souvenir shops, and a good mix of mountain bikes and pickup trucks occasionally making their way along the small streets.

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The saleswomen of Sapa.

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We settled on a nice room above the town with a panoramic view of the valley and mountains and a fireplace for all of 10 USD

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Our room is the one sporting the towel on the balcony.

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Morning cloud cover over the valley south of Sapa.

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Mount Fansipan in the distant, the highest peak in Vietnam.

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Figuring that it was a gorgeous day and we couldn’t spend all our time looking off our balcony, we headed out to a village about 13 km from town. The slow downward walk through the open valley to Ta Phin village was spectacular. Along the way we passed several small "homesteads" with the Mom & Pop working in the fields and the children playing around the house. The rice fields are currently between seasons, but the views were still amazing.

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Recently cultivated rice terraces.

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A friendly water buffalo.

The different tribes in this region dress in varying traditional clothes. It sounds a bit Disney, but it didn't feel like a tourist attraction, as men and women far from the tourist areas worked in the colorful handmade clothes without attempting to sell anything to us, unlike the villagers who travel the town of Sapa, who surround you trying to sell all kinds of textiles.

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Amber showing the kids how to operate a camera, but with a subject like me it's a breeze...

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About the coolest kid in Sapa.

Once in the village of Ta Phin, we wandered around a bit, then were invited into a home of a Xao tribal woman, where we got a no-pressure viewing of some blankets, bags, etc, that she has embroidered.

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After walking for most of the morning/afternoon, we opted for a motorbike back to Sapa where we relaxed in a nice café with a hot chocolate. Later that evening, we watched the fog roll back into the valley like a slow-moving body of water. It was breathtaking!

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Better than TV!

Pleased with our navigation abilities and quite sick of being told where to go, how long you have, and when to come back; we decided to venture out on a more ambitious trek the following day. We bought what later turned out to be a horrible map of the area (no operator error, of course) and headed down into the valley south of Sapa, with a few villages to see along the way and a 3 pm pick up by our trusty moto-driver, Lum.

The scenery was amazing and even more spectacular was that we saw virtually no westerners, and for several hours of the hike, I can safely say we saw none. So, long story short, we ended up way west of where we intended to go, although on wonderful trails through terracing rice paddies and small villages where we got puzzling smiles from the locals and a few encouraging jesters helping us snake through the village.

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An amazing trail that we had all to ourselves.

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The salon.

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This little guy whizzed passed us on his bamboo stilts.

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Beautiful scenery and the mountains and rice terraces ain't too bad either.

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Yes, we're bringing her home with us.

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Our internal compasses got aligned and we made it back to the main trail and managed to cross paths with a couple of guided tours. We were excited to get a local to tell us (in English) exactly where we were, but were quite disappointed when he told us that we were a 10-hour walk from where we were supposed to be in less than 3-hours. This seemed ridiculous, an even though we knew the map was bad, there was no way it was that far off. So, we continued on assuming we were correct and the local guide wrong, we "stayed the course" and made it to meet Lum 15-minutes early.

Our last day in Sapa we decided to hit the road on our own, and we rented a scooter. Our destination was Tram Ton Pass, elevation 6,200 feet and the highest mountain pass in Vietnam. It is a place where two climates collide, the cool, wet east (towards Sapa) and hot, dry west. We made our way to the west ascending in elevation while the temperature continually decreased. But once we made it to the top of the pass, we were smacked with warm breezes coming towards us from the valley below.

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The road into the warm valley west of Sapa.

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Thank you for all the comments and Justin will keep the stach a bit longer as it seems to be getting warm receptions.

Anyone know a good spot to watch the SEC final in Laos??

Posted by rebmamber 06:33 Archived in Vietnam Comments (4)

Volunteering: Week Two

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Week two proved to be a little less hectic than week one, partially because we pushed the starting time back about an hour (lazy Americans on holiday). The work at the village continued with some gardening and quite a bit of weeding, but we also were given a couple of new projects to keep us entertained. At the beginning of the week, we were given the task of repainting the playground's old and rusty equipment.

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paint2.JPGThe ever-sharp dresser Khai in his painting sweater vest

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We did our best to sand all of the rust and whatever old paint remained, then slapped a new coat on. No Home Depot in Vietnam to rent a pressure washer, so we had to do it the old fashion way. Since we were in the center of the playground, we were also the center of attention for many of the kids. After their initial intrigue wore off, they decided they wanted to help. It was not always "helpful", but it was fun to have them work along side of us.

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Joanna and Bach

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Linh

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Hai and Hoa

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Joanna and Hoa

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This little guy was so focused on painting…

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…so was Quan.

The kids during the second week were even more comfortable with us and were always around to distract us from what we were supposed to be doing. Hoa, you may remember him from Week 1, is very into karate, and we all got into many "fights" with him. I think he would win if it were for real!

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We also moved quite a bit of dirt from one side of the village to the other in order to make a new pathway. This was quite a messy job, but we were all glad to not be weeding!

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On our last official day volunteering we got to visit a primary school in Hanoi that is geared towards English speaking, and mainly middle class, kids in the area. The kids here were very, very active and for some reason loved to jump all over me (Justin). Amber & I were asked to teach the kids an "American" game or song. So we are pleased to say that the hokey-pokey has been introduced to Vietnam.

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Reading an English story to the kids.

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A couple of adorable girls treated us to a song.

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And speaking of adorable, look at these outfits!

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We were also brought to the school to paint a mural and help work in their garden. But, I have to say I mainly played.

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We were treated to a wonderful lunch at the school before heading to the Friendship Village for a goodbye party. We brought pictures of the kids to hand out, small toys, and a lot of sugary snacks. The kids seemed to really enjoy the pictures and many showed us the pictures of them and pointed to where they were taken. It was a nice send off, but we could help not feeling a little sad as some of the kids seemed to have grown attached to us and we just left them. We hope for them it was better to have had a short relationship with us than none at all.

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Hai, the happiest guy I have ever met.

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One of the many skills some of the people are taught at the village.

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This kid was amazing at soccer.

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All in all, it was a great experience and we are so happy to have been able to volunteer over here. It was wonderful to get to know the other volunteers and learn about their culture, especially the Vietnamese volunteers which loved to ask us questions about our culture and quick to introduce us to some of theirs.

Posted by rebmamber 20:03 Archived in Vietnam Comments (4)

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