Tag Archives: Laos

Rollin’ On The (Mekong) River

Sorry for the Tina Turner reference, just had to. Anyway, our two-day cruise up the Mekong river was one of the aspects of our trip I was most looking forward too, especially since we weren’t able to cruise from Mandalay to Bagan in Myanmar along the Irawaddy River.

A map of our route

A map of our route

We set off on a misty morning in Luang Prabang, carefully treading down slippery steep steps to the riverbank to embark on our Shompoo Cruise boat, made of teakwood, decidedly rustic and delightfully picturesque.

I chose this spot, and basically didn't move for two days!

I chose this spot, and basically didn’t move for two days!

The boat was prepared for a max of 40 passengers, and since it was rainy season, we were only 10, which was perfect–we could spread out, relax and have plenty of personal space. My favorite area of the boat was the loungers placed at the front and back, where you could stretch out and read, nap or just enjoy the river view scenery. The middle of the boat featured booths, with wooden benches and tables so you could eat or work.

A lone fisherman

A lone fisherman

I took my spot lounging in the front of the boat and didn’t move for about 10 hours! The scenery was breathtaking and very much uninhabited, albeit a few villages here and there and a lone fisherman looking for his catch of the day.

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For the most part, the area along the Mekong is a jungle forest, thriving with huge trees and plants jutting out at all angles. There really isn’t even a “riverbank” along most of the river, especially in rainy season, it’s just water, and then trees and then mountains. In fact, we were told that the river had risen over 20 meters in about a week’s time, as the rainy season had just hit and the rain was really pouring down hard.

Fog over the mountains at sunrise

Fog over the mountains at sunrise

The dewy mist covering the mountains was just stunning. I felt like I was in Jurassic Park or something (well, minus the dinosaurs and Jeff Goldblum). We passed by the occasional village, clumps of broken-down wooden huts, muddy roads and boats as their main form of transportation.

River debris

River debris

There was a lot of debris in the river at times, but not garbage. There is just so much foliage that the trees, leaves and plants break off into the river. There are also landslides then end up pushing a lot of branches and logs into the river. Our captain had to be very carefully to not tread over any of the big logs. At one point we actually had to stop so they could clean out some of the wood from the engine.

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The first day, we stopped at the Pak Ou caves, which consist of two caves, the lower and upper. The upper cave we couldn’t access due to a flooded staircase, but we headed into the lower cave (it wasn’t really a “cave” more of just an overcut).  The caves are famous thanks to their thousands of small, spider-covered, dusty Buddha figures set up throughout the space. The Buddhas have been left in the cave from worshippers, and some are hundreds of years old. Locals still boat up the river to pray and burn incense to the many Buddhas.

A view of the Mekong River Lodge, our hotel for the night

A view of the Mekong River Lodge, our hotel for the night

Rustic, wouldn't you say?

Rustic, wouldn’t you say?

 

The view from our shuttered wooden windows

The view from our shuttered wooden windows

 

After the stop, we cruised until about 5 p.m. having enjoyed the lovely, yet at times monotonous scenery. We docked in Pakbeng, and dropped our bags at the Mekong River Lodge before heading out to walk around the village. The village was nondescript and probably only there for locals and backpackers to stop mid-river for the night. We ate a nice Indian food dinner overlooking the Mekong and headed to sleep.

Sunrise over the river

Sunrise over the river

After an evening in our rustic river lodge, complete with mosquito net and plenty of insects, we awoke to a sunrise over the river. Although it was cloudy, it was still gorgeous, and we enjoyed some morning peacefulness on our balcony before heading down to the boat once again.

A village hut

A village hut

 

A typical Khmu house

A typical Khmu house

Our second day along the Mekong was just as lovely as the first. Relaxing on my lounger and enjoying the scenery plus the occasional nap was paradise! Later that morning, we stopped at a Khmu village along the river. Jorge enjoyed the visit, but it left me rather sad. The village has about 300 inhabitants, and no running water, cars or electricity. The Khmu tribes live in remote areas in Northern Laos and came over from Cambodia in the 4th century.

The pump, which is the main water source in the village,is shared with a variety of animals and humans

The pump, which is the main water source in the village, is shared with a variety of animals and humans

The villagers live in teak wood huts on stilts, with their animals, pigs, ducks, dogs, chickens and even cows lounging underneath the areas where they sleep and cook. The animals also run amok through the town and around the water pump, the only water supply currently available to villagers. Whereas it was very interesting to see, the villages looked sad, dirty and poor. There was one small schoolhouse, where all the kids go together. Small kids go with one teacher and slightly older kids with another teacher. They are typically married off as teenagers, except for ones that escape the village to work in the “city”–meaning Pakbeng or Pat Tha, the two nearest cities (to me these are both small villages, but it must seem like paradise after living in such a small, remote area like the Khmu’s do).

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While they are taught Lao at school, they speak the Khmu language and they aren’t Buddhists like most of the Lao people. Instead they worship a variety of gods such as a dragon and mother earth. As they don’t have access to medical care (the nearest option for them is two hours by boat to Pak Beng, and I am not even sure if there is a hospital there, but there is a doctor), they turn to the town Shaman to cure them from any mental or physical ailments they may be experiencing. They get pretty much everything they need by working the land (food such as rice, vegetables, fruit and meat, building materials like wood) and for clothes and other supplies they may take the occasional boat trip down the river.

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As I mentioned, it rather depressed me to see people living in such dirty conditions. I have witnessed this kind of living before, in the slums of India or Bangkok or remote jungle areas of Cambodia, but the people seem to be smiling and content, especially the children. In fact, in Cambodia, I actually envied the children, running around collecting coconuts naked, without a care in the world.

A Khmu villager

A Khmu villager

In the Khmu village, people seemed tired and worn. Despite seeing their apparent sadness I am glad we visited. The discomfort I felt clearly wasn’t a nice feeling, but it’s important to be exposed to the way people live. If we don’t understand the conditions in which people live around the world, how can we grow and change? I wonder if there are ways to respect and continue their traditions while taking them into a more modern, comfortable world? Maybe not, but how can I ever appreciate all the comforts I have in my life: running water, electricity, internet, soft mattresses, electronics and access to medical care and education at my fingertips without realizing it’s not a right or given ? It’s essential to understand that not everything has access to these types of comforts and to never take for granted that we can switch on a light, have a dry shelter from rain and clean drinking water whenever we want. It’s clear, especially after seeing this village close-up that not everyone is born with or given such an “opportunity” (or is it a right? Another conversation for another day).

A traditional Khmu house

A traditional Khmu house

Piglets in the village

Piglets in the village

Some typical village kids...the closest thing we got to a smile!

Some typical village kids…the closest thing we got to a smile!

 

After re-boarding my luxury boat (and feeling mildly guilty), I took my spot on the lounger and watched as the scenery changed a bit, banana plantations, rice fields, and more villages. We got to the point where the left bank of the river was Thailand and the right, Laos.

The bus taking us from Lao customs to Thai customs

The bus taking us from Lao customs to Thai customs

The friendship bridge, connecting Thailand and Laos, which we drove over on the bus (approx 10 minutes, 50 cents)

The friendship bridge, connecting Thailand and Laos, which we drove over on the bus (approx 10 minutes, 50 cents)

 

Around 4 pm on the second day, we docked in Laos, the right side of the river. Then we had to take a tuk-tuk about 10 km to go through Laos immigration, take a bus over the friendship bridge to the other side of the river into Thailand and then go through Thai customs. It was slightly tedious but no major issues and when we exited Thai customs, our driver was ready and waiting to take us the two hours to Chiang Rai.

I would also like to point out that we took the two-day slowboat cruise to the border. There are speedboats they make the trip in one day, and they are terrifying. They are small motorboats that fly over the river and it’s extremely dangerous, many people have died. In fact, the passengers all wear motorcycle helmets. No thank you! We saw a few and it looked well, not enjoyable in the least.

A typical slowboat, like ours

A typical slowboat, like ours

 

A typical speedboat. No thanks!

A typical speedboat. No thanks!

I really loved our cruise and would recommend it to anyone who wants to see the rural landscape of Laos along the Mekong.  Especially if you want to some un-interrupted relaxing time without internet!

Ciao Mekong River!

Ciao Mekong River!

Next stop, coming soon….Chiang Rai, Thailand!

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A Dreamy Week in Laos

Flying into the Luang Prabang Airport was absolutely breathtaking and terrifying at the same time. The airplane lowers into a slim valley set between two beautiful mountains covered in green foliage and floating clouds making for beautiful views, but one false move and we’re all goners.

Flying into the Luang Prabang valley

Flying into the Luang Prabang valley

 

Luckily, we arrived safely and headed to obtain our visas upon arrival. Our visas cost approximately $35 US dollars per person plus a one dollar processing fee. We needed to fill out some paperwork during the flight and we brought passport photos with us. For an added fee they will copy your passport photo for you if you don’t have photos. Although everything is done by hands the line moved relatively quickly and we were in and out of the customs area within about 20 minutes. We changed some money into Lao Kip and headed out!

We are rich! 10,000 kip is about one euro...so not really

We are rich! 10,000 kip is about one euro…so not really

Some Lao Kip and Jorge

Some Lao Kip and Jorge

Luang Prabang is such a cute town

Luang Prabang is such a cute town

The city of Luang Prabang is quaint, picturesque and charming. It’s roots are French and therefore there is an interesting mix of Asian and colonial European architecture vibe and ambience throughout the city.

Some street food: Mekong river fish

Some street food: Mekong river fish

Since we had a full week here, I won’t go through daily activities, but simply share some exciting activities and interesting tidbits from our time.

A blooming lotus from the lotus pond at the Maison Dalabua

A blooming lotus from the lotus pond at the Maison Dalabua

This is the city I was most excited to stay due to the hotels I had carefully hand-selected. Both were boutique hotels, and since I couldn’t choose between the two, we chose to do a few nights in each: the Maison Dalabua Hotel and My Dream Boutique Resort. They were both lovely, but were very different from one another.

One of the lotus ponds at the Maison Dalabua

One of the lotus ponds at the Maison Dalabua

The Maison Dalabua is a French-owned hotel boasting charming wooden bungalow huts overlooking a blooming lotus pond. I was in love at first glance. Our room was large and decorated with French antiques and Asian-weaving projects.

I have this thing with lotus flowers, they are just so magical. They close in the afternoon and open in the morning. According to Buddhists.org:

“The lotus flower represents rebirth, both in a figurative and a literal sense. The rebirth can be a change of ideas, an acceptance of Buddha where there once was none, the dawn after one’s darkest day, a renaissance of beliefs or the ability to see past wrongs. It also represents a symbol of fortune in Buddhism. It grows in muddy water, and it is this environment that gives forth the flower’s most literal meaning: rising and blooming above the murk to achieve enlightenment.”

Sounds nice, doesn’t it? I honestly don’t understand why anyone would want to be anything but a peaceful Buddhist. If I am ever inclined to become religious one day, Buddhism is definitely where it’s at!

I just can't get enough of the lotus flowers!

I just can’t get enough of the lotus flowers!

The second hotel, My Dream was a zen-like property overlooking the river, with all teak-wooden rooms and a beautiful “yard” area where you could relax in little huts and read over looking the Nam Khan river.

 

Our room was the balcony on the top left

Our room was the balcony on the top left

Both hotels were wonderful spots to recharge and relax, and I am so thrilled I was able to experience them both.

A little quiet riverside reading hut at the My Dream. Perfection!

A little quiet riverside reading hut at the My Dream. Perfection!

The city of Luang Prabang has a lot to offer. It’s small and cute main road has a plethora of Lao restaurants, touristy shops and temples to check out. Every night, vendors set up shop for a night market where you can buy all sorts of items as well as street food.

The night market goes on for several blocks

The night market goes on for several blocks

 

Tents at the night market

Tents at the night market

Rain or shine, this market goes on nightly. We had a lot of fun buying items here, and often enjoyed a crepe or Mango smoothie for dinner too!

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The view from Mt. Phousi

The view from Mt. Phousi

We were all templed out after Bagan but we did manage to stop and see a couple temples. One was at the top of Mount Phousi, a  100-meter high hill right in the middle of the city center with the temple Wat Chom Si at the top. The temple was nothing to write home about, but the mountains encased in fog overlooking the city was a glorious view. Climbing the approximately 300 steps to arrive there was worth it! 

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The other temple we stopped at was called Wat Xien Thong, and had some beautiful glass mosaics of Lao life and culture.

Jorge and his ladyphant

Jorge and his ladyphant

Me and my baby girllllll

Me and my baby girllllll

One day we went to the Elephant Village, recommend to me by fellow travel writer Eric Rosen. I always take special care to make sure that any elephant activities I participate in treat the elephants well, and this particular spot is a rescue center and conservation center where they really do treat the elephants well, which is important.

Splish splash I was takin' a bath!

Splish splash I was takin’ a bath!

 

Jorge playing with one of the two "babies"

Jorge playing with one of the two “babies”

Here we were able to ride, bathe, feed and play with elephants, as well as take a brief boat tour up to the Tad Sae waterfalls. The day was lovely, and I fall more in love with these majestic creatures every time I see them!

The Tad Sae waterfalls

The Tad Sae waterfalls

The camp was beautiful and had little cabins overlooking the river where you could eat lunch

The camp was beautiful and had little cabins overlooking the river where you could eat lunch

This butterfly followed me around the whole day!

This butterfly followed me around the whole day!

 

The elephant village also had a swimming pool...with just some average views...!

The elephant village also had a swimming pool…with just some average views…!

We took advantage of what was pretty much the only day the sun poked through the clouds and rented a motorcycle to head out of the town and into the countryside to visit the Koung Xi waterfalls.

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No caption needed

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I wasn’t sure what to expect, and well, it totally blew my mind.

Mesmorizing!

Mesmerizing!

An astounding wonder of nature, and it was so refreshing to enjoy wading into the cool water after a brief but intense hike through a steep, muddy forest to the top! (during which Jorge managed to break his camera and drop his phone into a pool of water…sigh…).

It was this very moment the phone fell out of Jorge's pocket. The convo went as such: Jorge: "Oh look, someone dropped their phone in the waterfall. Oh wow, it's the same as my phone. Oh, shit, it's my phone!" #fail.

It was this very moment the phone fell out of Jorge’s pocket. The convo went as such:
Jorge: “Oh look, someone dropped their phone in the waterfall. Oh wow, it’s the same as my phone. Oh, shit, it’s my phone!”
#fail.

Whipping my hair back and forth during the hike

Whipping my hair back and forth during the hike

 

The cold pools

The cold pools

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The best part was that the fish in the water are the kind they use in the fish pedicures, so they nibbled away all the dead skin on my feet, yay! The waterfalls also have a small moon bear conservation center and was funny to see the bears lumbering around and playing.

My next pet? A moon bear!

My next pet? A moon bear!

This is for sure an absolute must-do if you visit Luang Prabang, and luckily, no matter what season you visit it, it always has water flowing.

Alm-giving prep

Alm-giving prep

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Of course, one morning we had to wake up at 5:30 to see the townspeople giving alms to the monks. I tried to stay in the back a bit, as I had read that often times tourists get in the monks faces and disrespect the practice. It’s a sacred practice (locals supporting the Buddha by giving food and offerings to the monks) and special so I actually waited until we were in our second hotel, which was a bit further away from the city center in hopes of having a more local experience. We stood behind a few women in the pouring rain and watched them give the monks rice and to my surprise, umbrellas. It was a very beautiful, peaceful thing to see…and I kept having to remind myself they do this every single day and it’s an important, religious moment for them.

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Something else special we did was visit Big Brother Mouse to offer English conversation to young Lao students wanting to practice their English. You simply walk in and start chatting. I sat down with two young men (one 17, one 21) and was later joined by two more, and Jorge had his crew as well. They asked me a lot of questions about my life and told me about their lives too. One of the boys was one of 10 kids, and his family lived on a farm outside of the city. He is spending his summer in the “city” (if you can call Luang Prabang that!) working to save for university and trying to improve his English. It’s clear these teens have very little in the way of opportunities and it was nice to get to know a bit more of the Lao culture and know that we were doing our part to give back. I strongly encourage anyone visiting Luang Prabang (and I think there is also a center in Vientiane) to pop in and offer your native English skills to help out a Lao local. (from 9-11 am or 5-7 pm daily). One curious thing about this was that it was filled only with guys, almost no women.

My two "students" and I at Big Brother Mouse

My two “students” and I at Big Brother Mouse

As far as local Lao food goes, we tried a variety of spots and my favorites for Kaiphaen, which is a restaurant created by Friends International, a charity that helps low-income kids train as chefs and waiters. We went to their sister restaurant in Cambodia last summer, Marum, and if I can help out a great non-profit while enjoying a lovely meal, than great! A highlight for us was the food Kaiphaen, which the restaurant is named after. It’s crispy, nacho-like chip made of cooked river seaweed found in the Mekong.

Another cool spot we enjoyed was Dyen Sabai, which features Lao fondue, which is not cheese at all. They actually put a stove at your table and you cook your own meal. We got the chicken fondue, and they bring out your stove, light it up, and then give you raw chicken, veg, and noodles, and you boil your own soup and then cook your own meat. Jorge and I had so much fun doing this, and it was delicious. The only negative was that we were sweating so much after…the hot stove mixed with the hot humid temps was just too much.

We took quite a bit of down time in Laos, reading and relaxing by the pool, napping, just biking around the city (both our hotels offered free bikes, which was great) and dining and drinking along the river. After a busy, activity-filled Myanmar trip, we were so happy to just chill out a bit.

We biked across this bridge!

We biked across this bridge!

Bike riding along the river

Bike riding along the river

Laos, we will miss you!

Laos, we will miss you!

 

Next up, two-day cruise along the Mekong, coming soon!