Category Archives: Laos

Video: Zipline, Gibbon Experience, Laos

Not a photo today, but I would argue it’s way more awesome!  Last year while in Laos I went on The Gibbon Experience deep in the jungles of northern Laos, which basically involved hiking and ziplines and living in treehouses for a few days.  If you ever find yourself in that part of the world I highly recommend it!  You can read my full write-up of the Experience here, complete with the biggest accident I had on my rtw that somehow involved physics saving my life and my only experience with medical quackery.  Good times.

Welcome to Cambodia

I was running out of time, so last week when I sat down to count out the days I had left it soon became evident that I needed to catch a flight out of Vientiane if I was going to get to Cambodia for any length of time. As luck would have it there was one seat left the next week to Fly to Siem Reap, Cambodia, but the bad luck stated this flight would leave at 630am.  I almost audibly heard the guesthouse owner’s friend the taxi driver laugh with glee at the thought of what he was going to charge me for the 430am ride to the airport, as he really had a monopoly at that hour.

Anyway, here is the Lao Airlines plane, aka the first turbo prop plane I’ve taken in memory-

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Now I have to say, I am left without conclusive evidence as to the safety record of Lao Airlines from my experience.  They sort of mentioned at the beginning that there were exits somewhere and seatbelts were a good idea… I started idly wondering if the plane was as old as everything in Laos until I realized this was one of those “thinking too much” moments people keep warning me about, so I decided to nap.  My favorite napping position on a plane involves elegantly sleeping while leaning on the tray table until the stewardess tells me to put the tray table up as we’re landing, so I was busy napping happily until… my body received a jolt from landing wheels.  Which has never happened to me before on the five continents I’ve been to.  Who would have guessed international airline regulations are subject to cultural relativism?

But anyway, Cambodia.  As an introduction, I should tell you that I was a touch paranoid about visiting thanks to Mr. McGee, my favorite teacher in 8th grade science who joined the Peace Corps in Cambodia after teaching me.  His descriptions of Cambodia around the year 2000 were, I must say, pretty grim, and knowing the recent history of the country with the Khmer Rouge wasn’t helping my perceptions either.  I needn’t have worried though- due to the influx of tourism Siem Reap is the sort of place even my dad would call “nice.”  It’s more French than Laos was to the point where the riverside area could almost pass a town in that country, there is lots of development, and it’s the first place I’ve been where the average age of tourists was over 25.  Who would have guessed?

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The best night shot I have of “Pub Street,” which technically has a Khmer name  but no one knows it anymore.  Pub Street is actually filled with more restaurants than pubs.  It should also be noted that it is typically more expensive to eat here (ie Cambodia, not just Pub Street) than even Bangkok, which doesn’t make sense because Cambodia is overall cheaper.  The reason, it turns out, is twofold: first of all due to cheap prices it’s much too tempting to “upgrade” your lifestyle a bit, and second Cambodia de-facto uses the US dollar as its currency (its own, the riel, is used as change- 4,000 riel= $1USD).  Right now the USD is doing quite good against currencies like the Thai baht, so Cambodians are definitely benefiting.

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View from my guesthouse window which I took one afternoon when it suddenly got so dark and windy I excitedly began thinking it might rain.  I haven’t seen the stuff since an hour-long downpour on Ko Samui about six weeks ago and I’m starting to miss it- heck if it’s somewhat cloudy I feel it’s so dark I can hardly see- but it’s not scheduled to rain for another few months yet so sure enough it didn’t this time either.

It should be noted by the way that after two months of rain I’m beginning  to think the concept as far-fetched.  You mean water falls from the sky?  Shenanagins, next you’re going to tell me there are some places in the world where you can walk on water and drink it from the tap and not die!

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Speaking of water, I saw this little commotion at the market and fell in love with it- it’s the iceman!  Remember how a century ago in the USA you had a guy who’d come around with blocks of ice every day? (Ok, you don’t remember, but you’ve heard stories.) Apparently they still do that in Cambodia.  And he has got to be one of the most popular guys in town because it’s always a million degrees here.

So that is my introduction to Cambodia.  Now to get onto the main stuff and reason I came here, the magnificent Angkor Wat…

Summary of Laos

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When I first met Alex it was my first full day in Laos, and he kept telling me how he hat Lao (loves Laos) quite fervently.  I didn’t quite get what he meant at first but now I understand completely, as I fall into the same hat Lao category.  The combination of the people I met and a country unlike any I had been to before makes it an unforgettable place, to the point where I recommend it to people over Thailand!

In the coming years I’m sure Laos will become a much better known destination as it is now, to the point where I almost feel hesitant to mention it lest it become another Thailand.  I wish the Lao people well as the rest of the world begins to pour into their borders- I hope you see what you like and dislike about your neighbors, and adopt the good things without losing your kindness and hospitality.

Highlights:

- Laos is, as I mentioned, different.  While I was there I saw no Western chains, no four-wheeled vehicles carrying less than five people, no traffic lights outside the capital, and no airplanes save in the largest two cities.  It was utterly not the same as where I am from to nearly every imaginable degree, which was amazing!

- The people of Laos, who would do everything from invite me to a wedding to feed me for free to going out of their way to be kind in every single way possible, despite having so little.  Bless them all.

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- Alex, who I knew for about half my time in Laos and made that time incredibly special.  I spent a lot of the second half wishing he was around to have a grand adventure or never-ending conversation with.

- As close runners-up, the three older Brits I met traveling who were a hoot: Anne, Sue, and Frank (the latter two who were a couple, the first who was single).  Sue and Frank are pretty much what I hope to be when I reach my fifties- still traveling to exotic lands and thinking nothing of it!- whereas Anne’s perspective on life was truly memorable.  Who would have guessed that you could learn stuff from old(er) people?!

- Learning the language of Lao, both from Alex and from a few other sources later on.  It got to the point at the end where I could do basic transactions almost exclusively in Lao, and children trying to sell me stuff in the street would exclaim “you speak Lao?!” when I politely told them to buzz off in their language.  Which was a surefire way to make them not buzz off, but there we are.

-The scenery.  You will never tire of the beautiful mountains in Laos.

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- The cheapness factor, which made me feel like I was splurging when I spent $6 a night for a room.  This was in part due to the exchange rate- it was about 10,000 kip to the US dollar, meaning just $100 made you a millionaire.  And the biggest note they have is 50,000 kip, so you always looked like a high roller with the amount of currency one needed to walk around with!

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- The Gibbon Experience.  If you have any remote urge to fly through jungle canopies and live in treehouses all for the good cause of saving endangered animals, and find yourself in northern Laos, you should do it.

- Luang Nam Tha, for being off the tourist trail and for its Chinese influence.

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- The waterfall outside Luang Prabang!

- Tubing in Vang Vieng, zoning out to Friends, and the nightlife…

- The French food in Vientiane.  I am still not over that duck.

Lowlights:

- Hurting my foot on the Gibbon Experience in a zipline accident.  It still hurts and I begin limping after walking too much actually because I probably haven’t been resting as much as I should, but that is now top priority so hopefully it heals soon!

- The roads.  Things are improving but outside the main tourist strip the roads are terrible, so traveling even a hundred kilometers can take several hours.  Granted, I still think Romania has the worst roads I’ve ever encountered, but Laos is a close second!

- The “anti-materialist” crowd.  I don’t know where these people were in Thailand, but Laos has a disproportionately large backpacker crowd all too happy to tell you how anti-materialist they are and how the US is terrible and driving more people into poverty, or whatever.  These people inevitably have packs larger than mine and make me want to scream at them to observe the poverty on the sides of the roads and see how they like surviving on less than a dollar a day, but to no avail.

If that weren’t bad enough, this crowd did a huge number of cultural faux pas that pissed me off to no end.  For example, at the end of the Gibbon Experience while waiting for our ride in the middle of a village, a girl was happily snapping pictures of the villagers with her camera.  In villages in particular you never take pictures without asking permission first- beyond being rude some people don’t want you to for a myriad of reasons- but when we mentioned this to the girl she said “oh, I have a long zoom so they can’t tell I’m taking pictures of them.”

I was tempted to start taking pictures of her with my camera like she was in a zoo for my amusement, but my foot had been injured that morning and I couldn’t hobble to her.

- The midnight curfew.  Everything in Laos closes at 11:30 at the latest officially because there is a government curfew whereby everyone needs to be in their registered residence by midnight. (Communist countries tend to want to restrict their charges’ movements after all.) They usually don’t hassle tourists but will Lao people if they’re about, but the end result is it’s always a minor challenge to find a guesthouse that won’t have an 11:30 curfew and a bar that’s open past midnight if you want the party to keep going.  I confess I got locked out of my guesthouse once and needed to scale a fence, which wasn’t really much fun in a skirt.

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- Roosters.  Good God, they are my nemesis- no matter where you go in Laos, about an hour before sunrise the roosters start crowing loudly.  And there are a lot of them, as evidenced by all the baby chicks you see everywhere, and they never shut up.  So far as I can tell their morning conversation goes something on the lines of “Hey, I’m a rooster!” “Dude, you are?!  That is so awesome, I’m a rooster too!  Hey, did I tell you I banged that nice-looking chick last night?” “Man, that is sweet! HEY EVERYONE, GUESS WHAT ROY DID LAST NIGHT? IN CASE YOU MISSED IT, HE F-“

Clearly it was time for me to leave Laos if I was making up what the roosters were saying at 5am.  And exacting my revenge by eating copious amounts of delicious, delicious chicken.

Anyway, that was Laos.  You should go.  Cheers!

Kayaking to Vientiane

By bus it’s about four hours from Vang Vieng to Vientiane, the capital of Laos, but a more interesting option exists.  It turns out you can cut that driving time in half in exchange for about three hours of kayaking, so guess what I did my last day in Laos?

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The kayaks were two person ones meaning I was paired with Andrea, a Canadian law student studying in Singapore.  We were immediately dubbed the “girl boat” as the rest of the group were strapping young European lads eager to prove their prowess on the water, but despite this Andrea and I led the pack for most of the paddling.

And then, because we needed to have a little excitement, we came to the rapids-

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Here’s a view of the second half of the rapids, so you all can be appropriately impressed-

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Now I’ve done whitewater kayaking in New Zealand and had a dry bag for all the things I wasn’t willing to leave in my bag as it was transported (ie camera, money, passport), but perhaps because of the nature of those items I really wasn’t willing to test the durability of said dry bag.  So we crossed our fingers and set off, trying to follow the same path as the guide a few kayak lengths before us.

Then Andrea noticed something in the whitewater. “Oh my God, the guide flipped!”

It took me a second to realize he had in the whitewater, but there was no mistake. “Oh, shit!” [At this point the author would like to say that while she prefers to keep things family friendly, if you’re not allowed to curse when approaching rapids on a jungle river in Laos and your guide didn’t make it there’s really no other time you’re able to.]

So anyway, we paddled like mad, assuming we would inevitably befall the same fate and taking on buckets of water.  But then incredibly enough… we didn’t.  We made it to the calm part of the water hardly believing our fortune, still patting ourselves on the back to watch the subsequent entertainment of everyone else coming over the rapids.  Verdict: all the guy boats flipped.  Feelings of awesomeness from the girl boat ensued.

Anyway, the kayaking was fun but after that and a few hours in the back of a crowded pickup I was dying for a bit of rest by the time we got to Vientiane.  But luckily there was something I had been looking forward to for weeks there- as  the capital of a former French colony, it turns out Vientiane has lots of wonderful French restaurants!

Now let me tell you this about travel in Asia: while you can always find some sort of Western fare on the tourist trail, it is inevitably a burger or pizza or something equally uninspired.  Needless to say, after two months I was a bit starved for some more interesting bits of the cuisine I was used to, and spent about fifteen minutes surveying the menu with glee.  Here’s what I finally chose though, a duck l’orange that was absolutely magnificent!

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See that glass on the right, by the way?  My first glass of wine in two months, as wine is not exactly common in Asia (it’s usually only imported for tourists but is naturally expensive).   Not a big issue as the beer in this part of the world well makes up for it, but the second I had tasted this glass I had no idea how I had held on for so long!picture-0052The appetizers looked appealing but I knew I needed to save room for dessert instead, and I was right.  I swear I almost cried when I got this pastry, as firstly I haven’t done much desert lately and secondly chocolate isn’t common at all around here outside of bar form.

Total cost of the debauchery?  Just under US$15.  Man, am I in for sticker shock once I hit Europe.

In Which Yvette Finally Gets a Haircut

And to save you the suspense, here was the picture snapped just after I got it done-

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Even something like getting a haircut in Laos is an interesting affair- after taking the recommendation of a Lao woman on the street I headed to a tiny little salon.  I decided to splurge 40,000 kip ($1.50) for haircut and shampoo, which turned out to be the first cold water shampoo I’ve ever had in a hair salon (it was also after the haircutting part, which I found curious).  Combined with an intense massage that apparently shampooing includes in Laos- partway through the line “Smithers, massage my brain!” came into my head due to The Simpsons bar so I had to concentrate hard on not laughing, which only happened when the lady started chopping at my neck with her hands.  And then put a towel over my face and massaged my eyeballs and eyebrows.  What?

Anyway, then I sat down in the barber chair again as it turns out a haircut in Laos also involves a bit of styling.  Now as a disclaimer to those who don’t know me in the real world, I tend to not spend a lot of time obsessing over my appearence.  As such, I tend to allow hairstylists to do whatever they want on the grounds that they have more experience than me and it will always grow back, and have yet to be disappointed.  Particularly this time- four women ranging from a twelve year old to a grandmother decided to give their input on what to do and only the twelve year old knew any English, so they finally settled on something and gestured at a few pictures in the salon to make sure I approved.  More fussing and arguments and a neat trick with two pins later, the women finished with a few “ah, beautiful beautiful!” comments and smiles.

And I took one look in the mirror and knew my hair wouldn’t look this good for another few months, so tonight was definitely a night to go out.  I grabbed Anne and off we went-

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Here’s another travel tip by the way: you might only have one dress, but all that means is it should be a damn good dress.  Between hair and dress I suddenly remembered why I don’t always go through the effort for appearence- guys turned their heads to the point of comic hilarity, and after a point it’s nice to have a touch of anonymity!

I can’t say I didn’t enjoy the Audrey Hepburn comparisons though.  So I will save the hairpins for another night.

Gone Tubing

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Vang Vieng is a place that makes as much money as it does primarily, I think, due to its location.  By the time you get here from anywhere you are a bit travel weary, thinking how nice it would be to curl up with some pizza and beer while watching TV, so the town has accommodated.  So much, in fact, that you cannot walk down the main street without hearing a band singing “so no one told you it was gonna be this way…” from one of the bars-

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There are a few dozen bars in Vang Vien, and the number one activity in them is playing an endless stream of Friends episodes.  I’m not sure why this is as my international friends tell me Friends was never as popular abroad as it was in the US, but I haven’t really watched it since high school so I confess a few hours have gone into this endeavour.  “Hey, this is the one where Joey and Rachel finally kiss!” “No we should stay for this one, it’s the one where Monica and Chandler go on their honeymoon…”

It never fully dawned on me how soap opera-y Friends was until I got to Laos.  Welcome to the twenty-first century!

(Oh, and for those who don’t like Friends some of the bars show Family Guy as a distant second, and The Simpsons is the third runner up.  Except they only show the new ones, so I don’t watch.)

It should be noted that Vang Vien is also ubiquitous because of all the “happy” menus you can ask for in addition to the regular meals, for all the backpackers eager to get any type of drug in their shake or on their pizza.  I don’t though because a. it’s not my style, and b. the local police have realized lately how profitable this is so lots of undercover cops are around ready to catch tourists and charge a $500 “fine,” which beats the part where the law in Laos says they’re supposed to throw you in prison and/or excecute you.  Somehow I think such an incident would put a damper on my trip.

When the TV shows get boring the other popular thing to do around here is go tubing on the river in an old tractor tube.  You go past a bunch of bars which are all too eager to pull you in for a drink, and give you a chance to try their swing-

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There is a video of this too actually, but the video will need to wait until the faster Internet connection in Bangkok… Until then I must say, while I don’t have much of a future in being a trapeze artist you have to trust me when I say it’s really fun.  I liked it a lot more than the zipline or the water slide at the other places we stopped at actually.

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A picture snapped on the river while taking a tubing break.  I like this one because all I could think of was how moms in the US always wait at the school bus stops to ferry their kids home in cars, and this woman was ferrying her kids via boat (except there was no school bus stop in Laos, obviously).

There are more tubing pictures as well, but I wasn’t really using my camera as it was mainly stored snug in someone else’s dry bag.  But when I get them, I will post them.  Until then, I will mention a bit about my guest house, which has a great view-

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I must say, I really like this place because I scored my own little bungalow for $6.  And the company can’t be beat- the first morning I went to breakfast I saw Anne, the friend I’d made my first day in Laos but hadn’t seen since, as it turned out she had the bungalow next to me.  Squealing and hugging ensued with everyone looking on understandingly, as you can’t go more than a few hours without running into someone you’d met before in Laos.  There aren’t that many tourist destinations after all, so everyone tends to go on the same path.

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For fun, a giant moth a guy found at the guesthouse, with a girl’s hand for scale.  I should mention by the way, if you’re scared of giant bugs and spiders don’t come to Laos.  Skipping all of South East Asia would probably be a good idea actually.  Your life would be one constant stream of freaking out a few times a day.

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And as a final note of advice, if you come to Laos you should always carry an emergency reserve of another, better currency with you. (The highest preference is for US dollars but Thai baht are also gladly accepted, Euros not as much.) Why?  Because this country has only a few ATMs and you can only withdrawl a max of 700,000 Lao kip (~US$70) a day assuming the ATM is working.  As of yesterday, suprise!, the ATM in Vang Vieng has had its international line down.  First day was fairly ok until they ran out of money (no international line, no credit cards!), and today they have extra security at the bank to guard the new cash infusion sent from the capital.  But lots of tourists are nonetheless stranded until the ATM comes online again.

I am sure you are all happy to know that I am not an idiot and do not travel ill-equipped to nations which didn’t even have a single ATM ten years ago- my main worry right now actually is to not have too much cash when I leave, as you can’t convert kip to any other currency!  This more to remind others on the road that even if Vang Vieng has everything Western from milkshakes to sitcoms, you are still a long way from home.

Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang is one of those places I would send my parents to if they ever decided to go to South East Asia.  The town is unquestionably nice- an odd fusion of French colonialist and Lao architecture wedged between two rivers, filled with so many lovely temples you keep running into them.  The whole town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site actually…asia-004

A view not far from my guesthouse on the road going into town, about a ten minute walk.  My guesthouse is entertaining because the owner is in one of those people determined to fatten me up.  He keeps pointing at the bowl of free bananas saying “banana? you eat banana? you very small, eat banana!” and won’t let me out of sight until I start eating one.  Then he gave me free fried rice for dinner tonight.  I’m not going to guarantee that his grand scheme will work, but I’m not saying no to the free food either.

But what is the coolest thing about Luang Prabang?  Actually, it’s a series of waterfalls-

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About 32km outside town there is a series of cascading waterfalls called Kuang Si that are a prime tourist attraction- it is impossible to walk down the street without having a tuk-tuk driver saying “waterfall?” in a hopeful voice.  And for good reason- it gets decently hot in the middle of the day in Laos, and some of the waterfall pools are great for swimming!

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And jumping, and rope-swinging naturally.  Actually, this place is quite unique and I’ve never been anyplace quite like it.

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The tallest waterfall, under which you are not allowed to swim.  However, a Canadian scallywag climbed to the top of the waterfall to provide some scale to the picture.

(Alex left today actually, realizing he needed to hightail it to Bangkok if he is to make his flight by the end of the week.  He will be sorely missed!)

asia-009And because we are in the middle of the dry season, we ended up climbing up past the “danger, do not enter” signs to check out some of the further up waterfall pools, which involves climbing up part of the cascading waterfall itself.  Surprisingly not that difficult actually, as there is so much limestone deposited your feet get a great grip, plus we got some of the falls all to ourselves.

And it feels odd to write about a town where the pictures mainly focus on something next to the town, but the Internet cafe is closing so further pictures will have to wait.  Cheers!