Tagged: laos

N. Laos to Cambodia: the Journey

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I was picked up from my hotel in Vientiane by a tuk tuk at 6pm Wednesday night- was told 6:30pm. We arrived at the bus station at 6:30pm and was told the bus was at 7pm- not 8:30pm like I thought. We all loaded our backpacks and waited around the bus because the driver seemed like he was ready. I got a steamed bun from a vendor (minced pork and half a hard boiled in inside.) At 8pm the bus driver finally opened the doors to let us on.

The bus was a Winnie the Pooh themed sleeper bus. Short “beds” lined the bus on either side. Each bed was a tiny bit wider than a twin but much shorter, and it was meant for two people. They were all Asian sized. The ceilings were approximately 4′ throughout the whole bus. I shared the first bed with a girl from Denmark- I was D1 and she was D2 but luckily she gave me the aisle because I had to let my feet hang off. The toilet was right next to us, also with a 4′ ceiling, and one worker continuously liked to spray the whole area with baby powder smelling air freshener. The bus workers just had to move their heads slightly sideways to walk through the bus. I was practically walking on my knees.

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We drove for less than 10 minutes then stopped at another bus station. Here we stopped and waited for about 20 minutes while our driver and his three sidekicks ate their sticky rice snack. We then got handed cold pork and mayonnaise toasties and were back on our way.

Laos driving is just as nuts as Thai driving. The bus driver honked non-stop, kept stopping short, never stayed in one lane, almost collided with a few trucks, almost killed a million bikers, and of course to top it off the roads are uneven and unpaved at times. The whole trip we swayed back and forth almost falling out of our beds. I attempted to lay down on my back and my feet almost hit the ceiling. As uncomfortable as it was I hoped to sleep this way because at least I was able to hold myself on the bed for Laos driving. However people kept grabbing my feet when they went to the bathroom so I decided to switch to a sideways position. This way people just kept smacking into my knees. Lose lose situation.

We arrived in Pakse (Southern Laos) at 7am. My body was in so much pain from trying to sleep in the tiny bed, and I felt delusional. But I had to transfer myself to a mini-bus, which was going to take me to me farther south. The bus was scheduled for 7:30am, so we left at 8:30am. The bus was typical. Bumpy, felt like we were off-roading most of the time, and every now and then we stopped in a small village to let a local off.

At 11am we arrived at the ferry port for Doh Dhet. We vacated the bus and those of us that we’re heading to Cambodia exchanged our tickets for new ones. We filled out visa forms and 12 of us piled into a mini-van that could only hold about 7 people. I shot-gunned the front seat right away, but had to share with a local wearing a face mask. The driver sat all the way up and against the wheel. The 8 hour journey to Siem Reap began, or so I thought.

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At the border we got out of the van and crossed on foot with a bunch of cows on tow. I tried to take a selfie with one but he got scared and trotted away. We then boarded another big bus with old fashioned leather seats.

We drove until 1:30pm then stopped and de-boarded again to split into different groups going to different cities. After eating fried rice (the only option,) and waiting for an hour, the Siem Reap group boarded onto the most outdated minivan I’ve ever seen.

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The backpacks were loaded from the trunk and were pushed all the way forward to line the floor. The seats were torn brown leather and a few seats were randomly missing, with just the metal frame in their spots. There were 4 rows with 2 seats up front. The van was meant to hold 14 people but they stuffed 18 in. The seats were on a metal grid and slipped out as people were sitting, causing one Asian lady to fall all the way backwards with her seat onto the man behind. One local guy sat on the missing seat directly on the metal frame. Our feet were up on everyone’s bags, so no leg room whatsoever, but it was worse for the big guy in the back. Supposedly 5 hours like this- we left at 2:35pm.

After 5 minutes of driving we pulled over at a gas station to get gas. We filled up and the driver turned on the van but it wouldn’t start. The old broken down van officially broke. The store at the gas station was a wood furniture store, no food or drinks in sight. We got out and waited while they tried to fix it. No luck, so we unloaded the bags. We then waited for 45min while we thought another van was coming but instead an older man showed up with an older too kit. After 2 min of working he told us to reload the bus, so we did. We pulled out of the gas station at 3:35pm.

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We drove through beautiful landscape and watched the sunset from the window. Palm trees are becoming more frequent which I love. The van randomly slowed down at times and we all freaked out of fear of it breaking again (including the driver,) but luckily it made the trip. We got to the bus station outside Siem Reap at 8pm, with aching backs, butts and legs.

Depart hotel: Wednesday 6pm
Arrive guesthouse: Thursday 8:30pm

Transportation: $50. Visa: $40. Time: forever. Waking up to see Angkor Wat: worth it.

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Vang Vieng, Laos

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Took the 8 hour bus from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng. VV is known as the party village of Laos. It used to be famous for non-stop drinking and hard drugs; however, in 2012, the government cracked down after a few drug related deaths. It’s definitely still a party scene though set in a serene setting described as an oil painting. Caves, kayaking, rock climbing and hiking are all popular activities. But the biggest thing it’s known for is the daytime tubing/bar trip down the river. Everyone rents tire tubes and as you float down the river bars throw ropes out for you to catch and be pulled in. There are 4 bars left on the river. There are also 2 restaurants in town that play Friends episodes non-stop, and 2 that play Family Guy. I couldn’t wait for it all.

I stayed at Easy Go, the cheaper party hostel. Not known for it’s cleanliness but I needed to stay in a cheaper spot this week, plus my Canadian girlfriend from Pai stayed there and recommended it. The dorms were bigger than I expected (4 beds and not bunkbeds) and it had a great common area. All wooden and laid out like a tree house almost. The place however is very small and therefore you can hear absolutely everyone all the time. I didn’t sleep at all while staying there. The beds are rock hard, the worst I’ve had to far.

The nighttime circuit is Sakura bar, then Fat Monkey, then the club. Basically beer pong, beer pong, then dancing. The bars sell Happy Balloons. I thought it was helium so after inhaling I started talking. Fail. All the Europeans who apparently do these regularly were blowing the air back into the balloons, then inhaling again, then back in. Apparently you do this until you can’t physically do it anymore, and you’re left with a 10-second high. It’s definitely just suffocating yourself, which is crazy. I didn’t try it for real.

The two happy pizza places in town are Milan Pizza and Tifalcony Pizza, which both sell weed and shroom anything. Definitely not legal but I assume the bars pay off the cops since they even advertise it.

My first morning I got a egg and cheese sandwich, without cucumber obviously, and extra tomatoes. The second morning I repeated the same order to the same woman and she was like “I know I know same same.” After 20 minutes she came out with a cucumber and cheese sandwich, without tomatoes or egg. That’s Asia for you.

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I went tubing twice. The first time was crowded and really fun. The second time was a lot tamer but it would have been hard to beat the first time. The first bar has beer pong tables, beach volleyball and grass soccer. The second bar has beer pong tables, a muddy volleyball court and a sumo wrestling water pit. Everyone is covered from head to toe in the copper mud color after playing volleyball here. The third bar has a dance floor and DJ- but first they always do a game of musical tubes. The last bar has a basketball court in the middle of the bar. For all the bars the activities are always the most crowded.

The tubing is surreal. The partying feels just like college but you’re surrounded by huge green mountains and a river. It’s a 5-10 minute tube ride from bar to bar and it feels incredible when you lay back and take it all in. Older kayakers passing are common. When you get close to a bar the workers throw out a string with a plastic bottle attached and they pull you in. They take the tube and you’re free to go party. All you have with you is money and maybe a shirt if you want it. On my first day I got a bar shirt in a XL which was popular for girls- like a daytime party dress. Mine’s neon green from Apple Bar.

At the third bar my second time around I decided to order noodle soup, mostly because I’ve become obsessed with soup and eat it a few times a day. I was siting at a table alone when a bunch of local Lao men invited me to their table. They were all in their 40s and owned guesthouses in town. I drank BeerLao Gold with them and ate a grilled fish head that they caught and cooked. It’s common here and was really tasty.

My forth day I got another massage. The girl who massaged me was very hungover, which was a complete shock. It’s common to see local drunk men but not women. As she massaged me she kept falling over onto her face. About halfway through she started hiccuping and ran for the bathroom. I could hear her throwing up as I laid there. Another girl finished the massage, but there were no apologies or anything.

Favorite meals. One day I had breakfast at The Veggie. Carrot juice and Veggie spaghetti with garlic bread. My daily go-to was the rice soup from the Friends restaurants. I had the soup at least 10 times and got a few other people obsessed with it too. Just thick rice soup that over-powered with chili flakes. The ham and cheese baguette from the street vendors was to die for. They fry the ham a bit first and used real cheese, not laughing cow like everywhere else. They also heat the bread on the fry pan too. But there’s a massive lack of passion fruit and avocado in this town.

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My last day I did a cave, kayaking tour. We went through a dark cave with flashlights on our heads. Pulling our way through the darkness along a rope. There ended up being nothing at the end and we just turned around and went back. For lunch there was a BBQ and sliced papaya. Next we went to the Mekong and kayaked down the river. The kayaking was rough at points which was really fun. My kayaked never tipped but our friends did. At the end of the 50 min ride we stopped at the last bar. We were much earlier than the tubers but it was still relaxing. I re-found my two small puppies, Calvin and Sam, and played with them for over an hour. We then continued down the river and landed in town.

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All in all Vang Vieng destroyed me, which I think it does to most people. Two to three days really is enough. Most people go straight from all day day-drinking to the night circuit. I couldn’t. I have scrapes and bruises all over my body from tubing (walking all over rocks to park it.) My first time tubing I didn’t know there was a metal part sticking out for air and I landed right on it scratching my lower back. My second day tubing I ran right over a jagged rock that was underwater, which bruised my butt and scratched my back pretty hard. You don’t wear shoes at all, which means you’re also walking through the dirty town streets barefoot.

Lost: My first time tubing I came home with different sunglasses, the second day with none.
My flip-flops were missing from the club the first night. I stole someone else’s to walk home and when I woke up one of them was missing. I think someone put on two different shoes by mistake.

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Luang Prabang, Laos

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In Luang Prabang I stayed at Kousavan Guesthouse, which is rated #1 on Hostelworld. The guesthouse is very nice. All the dorm rooms are colored, the showers are always hot, and it’s the first place I’ve had a legit free breakfast- eggs any style and a baguette.

My first night I did the typical backpacker routine- went to the night market for dinner, then Utopia bar, then the bowling alley. The night market is the best I’ve been to so far for shopping so it’s too bad I don’t have room to buy anything. Most of the clothes, bags and jewelry is handmade and looks expensive even though it’s not, or at least most of it is not. The style reminds me of Tibet or Nepal. The food on the other hand was disappointing. There are fewer food stalls and not much choice. The new thing here is a vegetarian buffet option at the market, which I chose to do. A huge pile of vegetables.

Utopia bar is definitely a utopia. Hidden behind a side street the bar is half indoors and half outdoors. After taking off your shoes you walk into a rounded open space with a thatched roof. The inside is filled with short tables, stools and couches. There are no exterior walls. After walking through the interior you step on a pebble pathway which winds around passing tables and palm trees. To the right in the back is a beach volleyball court and to the left is a small wooden bridge that leads to the bathrooms. At 11:30pm the bar shuts down and there are a mess of tuk tuks waiting outside to take everyone to the bowling alley.

The bowling alley is a large open white room with bright white lights. To the left side is a bar selling bottles and to the right are the alleys. The alley is in no way glamorous and the brightness is shocking after Utopia. Each game is 20,000 kip per person. I played against a guy I met from the Midwest. Barefoot of course. Bottles of whiskey, vodka and BeerLao crowded the tables. All the alleys were full for hours. I only played two games and went home but the party definitely continued.

My first day I walked around the town. There is a huge French influence which is apparent in the architecture and cuisine. Many of the hotels and restaurants on the Main Street have French names as well. Baguettes, paninis, quiche and aperitifs are on all the menus, and there are a few French pastry shops. The buildings all look French colonial with a hint of Asian design.

I had lunch at Le Cafe Ban Vat Sene, a lovely restaurant on the Main Street. Wicker chairs, glass lampshades and large colorful paintings adorned the walls. It definitely had a Balinese style to it. Although the menu has a French influence I had Beef Pho, which was very cheap. The rest of the menu is very expensive. I managed to get a table that faces outside. Behind me was a large tour group of older Italians having the tasting menu. It reminded me of the Yale trips I’ve been on.

I had a Laos massage at L’Hibiscus. It was not at all what I expected and it also wasn’t very good. Instead of getting a good stretch like in Thailand the girl just poked at my pressure points very weakly. I will not be wasting my money on any more of those.

On the Main Street in town there are good vendors all selling the same thing- fruit shakes and baguette sandwiches. For a snack I had a bacon avocado sandwich which was delicious. I then walked up the mountain to the temple in the middle of the town to watch the sunset. The viewing area was jam packed, which made it hard to take pictures, but at least I ran into all my friends. The view from the top is spectacular. You can see the Mekong River snake along side the town and mountains surround the whole city. The sunset was a deep orange.

The next day I walked around again, this time checking out the street near the river. The road has guest houses and restaurants on one side, and outdoor restaurants on the waterfront side. The river is down a slight hill. Across the river is a poorer residential area. I walked across the bamboo bridge which was actually scary. At points I definitely thought it was going to break. The bridge is built by a Laos family once a year and only stands for 6 months (during the dry season.) On the other side is a fancy river view restaurant, a handmade jewelry store, some delis and the hand weaving scarf store. The silk scarves are beautiful but not practical for a backpacker.

I decided to try a foot massage but it was just as weak as the Laos massage. Found a cheaper place at least though, $5 for an hour instead of $7.50 like the day before.

On Saturday I finally went to an elephant park. Everyone else I’ve met went somewhere in Northern Thailand so I kind of felt like I needed to get it over with. I feel that way about all the super touristy activities.

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I signed up for Elephant Village but when we arrived at the park we realized the wrong company picked me up. I ended up at Nam Ou Elephant Farm. The rest of the crew in the van was part of a tour group and they were only doing a half day, so I did a full day at the park by myself, or the second half of the day I was by myself. It was awesome, like a private tour.

My elephant for the whole day was named Kham Mun, and she’s 35 years old. She was rescued from a logging farm where she was worked daily and her female organs were constantly internally tortured. She was really gentle but slow and not keen on taking directions quickly. I didn’t mind though, and felt bad when she was yelled at. I insisted on riding only on her neck which was not as prickly as I expected. With the big group we walked a bathed with the elephants. The group then left and I was given a lesson on commands. I really needed to speak forcefully otherwise she’d just ignore me.

I was then taken to the nearby resort for lunch. It ended up being a 5 star resort on the Nam Ou river. I was the only person at the restaurant and was fed an incredibly elegant lunch. After which I had an hour to relax at the infinity pool next to the restaurant, which also overlooked the river and was empty. The setting was to die for. A huge mistake turned into a private day of elephants and elegance.

After lunch I was trained to be a Mahout, someone in charge of elephants. I learned how to guide them and get on and off in different directions. We rode around the camp for a few hours then went back on the river again. My elephant continuously snorted on me, too funny. I got a Mahout certificate for the course.

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My last day I went to Kuang Si Waterfall. It’s supposedly one of the top ones in SE Asia and by far the nicest and biggest one I’ve ever seen so far. The main fall was massive and there were many smaller falls on the sides. The fall had a gushing wind and mist. My friend and I climbed up the bumpy steep dirt path on the right side (literally on our hands and knees.) When we got to the top we found out there were also a stairs path on the left side, so we did that going down. Climbing up was fun though. On the top are a few lagoons that we could swim in. There were rand trees and leafy plants jetting from the water, and short bamboo bridges connecting the pools. The area looked like utopia. There were monks swimming in their robes and a Lao man pushing around a bamboo raft. The water was cold but refreshing and clean. We swam around for a while before heading back down to the town for some soup and our trip back to town.

That night, my last night, I went to the other river for dinner. It turned out that on the other side of the night market there’s another street full of restaurants on the Mekong River. So happy I randomly went with them and discovered this. The restaurants were cheaper than the ones on the other side and authentic Lao for the most part. I had a beef noodle soup with dried burnt peppers and garlic, and a coconut milk shake. Then back for one last night at Utopia.

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Gibbon Experience, Houay Xai, Laos

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I took a taxi for 100 baht to Bus Station 2, and paid 220 baht for the bus to Borneo, Laos. For the border you need $35 USD and 1 passport photos; the form you fill out there.

I shared a tuk tuk from the Bodeo bus station with a Swiss German family to the town of Houay Xai where the Gibbon Experience is located. Houay Xai is one street long with a few restaurants, run down guesthouses, delis, and one bar. The whole place is under developed.

I walked up and down the main road a few times looking for a decent guest house but they all looked horrible. There were a few written in lonely planet- one of them had no guests staying there, the other had a gang working and hanging out, and the third had this aggressive old lady who told me I wouldn’t die if I stayed there. There is one really nice hotel but that one is not in my budget at all. I quickly realized I couldn’t stay there for three nights before my tree house adventure so I went straight to the Gibbon office and asked to move my trip to the next day. Luckily a group had just gotten back so I followed them to where they were staying, Sabaydee Guesthouse. I’m paying 90,000 kip, approx. $11. Much steeper than I wanted but I know there were at least other expats near me now. The only expats in the town were there for the Gibbon Experience.

It’s my first non-dorm room. I had my own bedroom with a queen size bed and shower. My window and one of the shared common areas right outside my door faces the Mekong River- amazing view. Also, Bar How?, the only bar in town, was right across the street.

I ate amazing rice and vegetable soup at Muang Ner Cafe, then headed across the street to Bar How? Met a group of guys who just got back from the Gibbon Experience and ended up chatting and playing cards with them until about 10:30pm. I ordered sandwiches from the woman who “has everything,” and eventually made my way back to the guest house. Hoped into my big bed and watched Laos cartoons before passing out.

I got to the Gibbon office at 8:30am. After a short safety video we took off on a 2 hour car ride. An hour through the countryside and an hour off-roading through the jungle. We were dropped off at a small village and split into two groups. My group had an older weird German guy, a guy from Holland, a guy from England, and a couple who just lived in Australia (she’s Irish and he’s Canadian.) Our guide’s name was Boon. His English was great considering he taught himself. He was 21 and had been working there for a year, and came from a village nearby.

We trekked for about 2 hours all three days. The trekking is definitely harder than they make it sound online. I was able to do it but I struggled at some points, mostly because I was exhausted the whole time. But the zip lining was incredible. The zip lines are designed to help get your farther into the jungle; a method of transportation. When we arrived at the first zip line our guide quickly showed us how to attach our harnesses to the line and then we were flying. No helmets or jackets attached. Just a harness around our waist and legs which we adjusted ourselves. We zip lined the first day to our tree house which was 55 meters high (180 feet.) The house was round, had a thatched roof and two floors- a top floor to sleep two people and a main floor with a bathroom (shower and toilet facing out), a kitchen (a sink), a low round table, low stools, and mattresses for six people. You could enter the house through a door downstairs or through a window on the main floor. To leave the house we had to open a hatch door and just jump out.

When we got there Boon gave us snacks (watermelon, black sticky rice candies and toffee) and then he just left us saying he’d be back in a few house with our dinner. We had about 3 hours to zip line around by ourselves. To exit that tree house the first time was absolutely terrifying. We could have easily just fallen out of the door. But the lack of safety actually made it all seem less scary. There was no one warning us how dangerous it was, and the guides were constantly flying around freely on the lines like monkeys.

You can’t zip line in the dark, so when the sun started to set we headed back. The sun sets around 6:30 and then there’s literally nothing to do. The tree house has one small light but other than that no electricity or outlets. We sleep on mattresses with a huge mosquito net, like a tent. The first night Boon stayed for a few hours and we chatted with him and drank two local whiskeys. The English guy bought one that tasted like medicine, and the German guy brought one that tasted like bubblegum. The bubblegum one tasted better. I also couldn’t stop eating this sugary cream sauce for the coffee. We went to bed around 9:30.

The next morning we woke up to zip before breakfast, ate breakfast (fried rice) then headed off towards the waterfall. The waterfall was small but pretty. The water was freezing but it was really fun. There was a zip line/ rope swing, and we all climbed a little bit up the fall to take photos. From there we ate lunch and trekked to our second tree house which was 40 meters high. The longest zip line was near this house, 500 meters (1640 feet.) This house only had one floor but the bathroom was downstairs, which was more private and better for the smell. Before dinner we zipped again, this time the Dutch guy and I zipped together which was not allowed but we did it anyway. You go much faster as two people which was fun but also we didn’t have to wait as long at the other end. That night we played Asshole and when I left to use the bathroom I heard a loud scream from the English guy. There was a massive spider on the ceiling upstairs, the size of a hand. Eventually it ran onto the roof but it kept us worried the whole night. We ended up going to bed earlier that night (we didn’t have any booze left to keep us occupied.)

The next morning we got up early to trek back to the village. After breakfast Boon heard Gibbon noises and we almost managed to see a Gibbon or monkey in the far distance. Although we didn’t actually see any Gibbon’s on the Gibbon Experience it was still worth it for the zip lining. The scenery was incredible- it was definitely the real jungle. I am surprised though that there weren’t many animals or flowers throughout the area. We saw a few random cows, and of course a lot of bugs, but that’s it.

That night my group went to Bar How again. We also walked farther down the village a tried some street food. We had pork on a stick that was delicious. That night I stayed at Friendship guesthouse because it was much cheaper, 50,000 kip. It was the worst bed I’ve ever slept on, I could actually feel the springs as if there was nothing on top of them. I laid all the blankets and towels on top and kept the fan off and attempted to sleep but at 6am construction next door started and all chances were lost.

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The next morning was the Slow Boat to Luang Prabang. We picked up more sandwiches from the woman who sells everything and a bottle of real whiskey. The boat was scheduled to leave at 11am (I was picked up from my guesthouse at 9:30) but it didn’t actually leave until noon. Laos time. The boats are long and thin with rows of seats and a snack bar in the back. The first day was about 6 hours. Most people brought liquor and everyone was drinking and chatting most of the time. The scenery in beautiful but all the same- greenery. The boat stops occasionally to deliver goods to local towns, and randomly picks up locals as well. That night we arrived in a small village that’s not even on the map. We had met a guy from England the night before who had been on the boat before so we followed him to the guest house he recommended. The place was nice with private bathrooms. We all ate dinner at the restaurant there then headed to the only bar in town. The bar had Christmas lights lining the entrance and was colorfully painted inside with some colored lights and two flashing lights which might have been emergency lights. A friend played house music and for the first time in 5 weeks I felt like I was at a real bar. I drank Laos Whiskey which was almost the same price as beer. It smelled like apple juice and tasted a bit like apple whiskey- not strong but not bad either.

Day two of the slow boat 9am- 4pm. I met a group of American guys and two British girls. The girls ended up being in the same hostel as me in Luang Prabang so that worked out great.

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