Saturday, January 1, 2011

Lao People's Democratic Republic

Laos was another country that I was not too familiar with as we entered this part of the world. I knew it was next to Vietnam and that it wasn't too developed and that was about it. As we approached Laos I did some reading up on its history and found out some fascinating facts. It turns out that Laos is the most bombed country on the planet. In the Vietnam War the US dropped more bombs on Laos between the years of 1964 to 1973 than we did in all of World War II including both the European and Pacific theaters. We averaged dropping a B-52 bomber load of ordinance every 8 minutes 24 hours a day 7 days a week for 9 years. Twenty five percent of the villages in Laos still have unexploded bombs and over 50,000 people have been either killed or injured from unexploded bombs since the end of the war. I found these stats to be amazing since 1.) we weren't technically at war with Laos and 2). we still didn't win the war despite all the bombing. As a I read this I was thinking to myself, I hope they have a short memory. Fortunately for us they did because the people we've met have all been helpful and nice. I believe most locals knew we were Americans without us having to say so although I've been identified more as a Canadian, English, or German on our travels throughout the world than I have been as an American. Of course this is before I start talking.

Despite all the sobering war stats we enjoyed our time in Laos. We flew in Christmas Eve to Luang Prabang in the northern part of Laos. We spent 5 nights in this area before taking a very long and painful 11 hour bus ride down to the south to the capital of Vientiane where we spent the remaining 4 nights. I'll review our time in Laos by highlighting Luang Prabang, our two day trek adventure to the countryside, and our time in Vientiane.

I found Luang Prabang to be a very interesting and laid back town. Wikipedia says it has a population of 100,000 while a menu at a restaurant said it was only 30,000. I guess it depends on how you measure the cities population. The city has several Buddhist Temples and monks who dress in my favorite Any town with Buddhist monks is usually going to be a laid back town. We spent most of our time wandering around the town on foot. We checked out the National Museum which used to be a former royal palace until the king was overthrown in 1975 when the communist took over. The communist still run things. Laos is a single party state. We ate at multiple local restaurant enjoying local Laos cuisine. We also visited multiple Buddhist Temples. I don't know too much about the Buddhism but the temples were pretty. Unlike other temples I've visited these have monks living in some of them. We saw numerous walking around. One morning we woke up at 6 am and saw them as they walk through the city collecting alms from the locals. They do this every morning and from what we read the locals do this to connect with the spirit of deceased family members. One thing that surprised me was that we saw numerous young monks with some looking like they were young teenagers. Didn't realize they joined or could be become monks at such a young age. We even got to hear monks chanting before dinner on our last night in Luang Prabang.

Buddha at a temple in Luang Prabang

After our three nights in Luang Prabang proper we went on a one night two day trek as they call it through Tiger Trails which is a local fair trade tourist operator. During our trek we biked 15 km to a place called the Elephant Village and rode an elephant for a hour. We then took a boat down a river and hiked 3 km to a remote rural Khamu village where we spent the night. We then hiked back to river then kayaked for 20 kilometers down the Nam Khan river. I really enjoyed the whole trip. I had never ridden on an elephant. It bounces you around quite a bit but was fun. The village home stay was interesting because the village was very poor. They have no electricity and no roads that lead to it. There are three generators to power a couple lights but more importantly they power the three TVs in the village. The villagers gather together and watch Thai movies at night. It was a little sobering too because there were plenty of kids walking around with some barefoot in worn out clothes with pigs, chickens, goats, and dogs walking around. Hard to imagine how people live that way. We did get to interact with some of the locals which is why we have done two of these village home stays. We got to drink some local rice wine, play a bamboo instrument, and watch what Alethea called a longevity ceremony involving an old man who is sick and doesn't have too much longer to live. The only real negative was that some of the other tourists who were on the home stay had some of their belonging stolen. They left some t-shirts and towels out to dry overnight and they were taken. We were warned not to do this but they did it anyway. The next morning we hiked the 3 km back out to the river to kayak. It was the first kayaking experience for me. Paddling was a little awkward at first but I think I got the hang of it. I enjoyed it although I was sore after we got through with it. I am glad Alethea found the Tiger Trails company and planned this adventure. It is nice to balance out excursions to the more rural parts of countries along with the cities. I think we've done that pretty well throughout the trip.

Alethea petting our elephant

After our two day adventure trek we spent one more quick night in Luang Prabang before traveling to Vientiane. Good thing we rested up because the trip to Vientiane was long. We took a bus that was listed as a VIP bus. It was suppose to last 9 hours but took 11 hours. It was slow and through windy roads on a bus whose speedometer didn't work and with a bus driver who wasn't always 100% focused. We made minimal stops and only had 20 minutes for lunch which was included in the price of the ticket though which was only about $16 USD per person. Due to our experience with the long bus trip we decided to fly from Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) to Siem Reap in Cambodia. We were seriously considering taking a 12 hour bus but decided it was worth it to spend a little extra and fly.

Buddhist monks accepting morning alms in Luang Prabang

Our final stop in Laos was the capital city of Vientiane. There is not really that much to see in Vientiane despite the fact it is the capital and has a population of around 750,000. We spent the 1st half of the 1st full day working on trip planning for southern Vietnam and Cambodia before getting out to walk around our neighborhood. I did manage to get a haircut for only about $2.50 which is the cheapest haircut I've received on our journey. After the haircut was finished the woman who cut my hair gave me a simple head & neck massage which I thought was pretty cool once I figured out what was going on. We did get out and see more of the city on our second full day. We pretty much covered everything we wanted to see in about 2 hours. The city is compact and easily covered on foot. We walked down to LaneXang Avenue and walked up it to the Patuxay which looks similar to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. We hiked up to the top. After the Patuxay we walked back through the side streets to our hotel. We stopped at the US Embassy which was closed for New Year's Eve and a used book store. For New Year's we went out to eat at a nice local restaurant just down the street from our hotel. We then went back to our hotel room to take our malaria medication then walked about 5 blocks down to a New Year's Eve event sponsored by Tiger. The most interesting thing about the party was that they announced it was New Year's 5 minutes before it was actually New Year's without much warning so it was kind of anti-climatic. There were mostly Lao people at the party but quite a few westerners too. Laos doesn't actually celebrate New Year's until April.

celebrating New Year's in Vientiane

This wraps up our time in Laos. I really likes Laos. I really enjoyed our time here. Laos is a laid back peaceful country. It was pretty easy to get around except for the bus ride. You still have a little chaos which just seems part of life in Asia. You will also see a lot of poverty too but the people have all been friendly and helpful. There are some interesting sights such as the temples and the countryside to see that contrast with what we saw in northern Vietnam. It was pretty cheap for most items although some things were a little bit more expensive like our hotel & beer in Luang Prabang. I believe this can be attributed to Luang Prabang being somewhat more of a tourist town and we had fewer options to chose from since we booked our first hotel only a week or so out and it was over the Christmas holidays. I cannot really think of any real negatives. Fewer native Lao people are competently fluent in English than what we experienced in Hanoi but nearly all understand enough English to ask basic questions in order to conduct regular day to day business.

So far I'm enjoying our time in southeast Asia. I feel more relaxed traveling in this part of the world which makes it more enjoyable. I do not think I mentioned in detail that we have extended our time in southeast Asia. Originally we were going to be here from 12/14 to 1/12 before we go to India. We have pushed back our date that we fly to India to 2/20. It only cost us $100 per person to change our flights through AirTreks. The next part of our adventure has us flying from Vientiane to Hanoi where we will catch an overnight train down to the central part of Vietnam. We start with the city of Hue. We'll continue on to Hoi An then fly down to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). We found some 1 way tickets on Jetstar Vietnam for only $45. The overnight train was going to cost $38 so we decided to fly :-). This will take us to the 14th of January when we have to leave Vietnam since as I mentioned previously our visas will expire. I'm glad we decided get multi-entry visas for Vietnam. This cost us $50 instead of $25 for the single entry visa. We probably should have chosen the three month one too versus the one month visa but then again we didn't think we would spend that much time in Vietnam! You can extend once you are in the country but we've herd it isn't easy. That is all from Laos. Hope everyone had a happy and safe New Year's!

Link to photo albums:

Daily Log

Friday December 24th
Arrived in Laos ~ 815 pm. Took 30 minutes to get visa then clear immigration. Many people didn't have cash or photos for their visa. Alethea and I were prepared.
Took shuttle van to hotel. Got King room for first night because of mix up from hotel. Have to change rooms for the second night.
Took showers.

Saturday December 25th
Slept in until about a quarter till 9.
Had breakfast outside our hotel.
Supposed to change rooms at 12 pm but when I went down to check on our new room they said it wouldn't be ready until 1 pm. They hadn't started cleaning it yet. Didn't change until 2 pm.
Walked around Luang Prabang to orient ourselves.
Found numerous places to do our laundry cheaper than our hotel. Will do it tomorrow.
Visited the Wat May temple. Cost 20,000 KIP. ~$2.46
Found ATM and withdrew 1,000,000 KIP or $126.82.
Purchases bus ticket from Luang Prabang to Vientiane.
Stopped and had a beer and fries. Ran into German couple from Halong Bay trip briefly.
Continued to walk around town. Found restaurant and book shop Alethea identified.
Ate a Lao plate which was good at Indochina Spirit Restaurant.
Walked back to hotel through a long night market.
Merry Christmas! Can't believe Nashville is getting snow for Christmas and I'm not there to enjoy it.

Sunday December 26th
Woke up around 8:15 ish. Had breakfast at hotel. Redeemed the one free drink coupon but it wasn't easy as staff had to call someone over to look at the coupon given to us by the hotel before getting my free espresso.
Took laundry to laundry service place. We had 4.5 kilos. It will cost 10 K KIP per kilo for machine wash and natural dry.
Visited National Museum which is the old palace. Simple but interesting. On the grounds also is a Buddha picture exhibit, car museum and Buddhist Temple. Cost 60,000 KIP or ~$8 USD
Walked up hill to That Phu Si & Wat Tham Phu Si. It was over 300 steps up. Saw some good views of Luang Prabang.
Had lunch at local place on main street of town.
Walked down to Wat Xieng Thong which are Buddhist Temples. Pretty neat. Very intricately designed.
Walked back to hotel to rest a little bit before going out for massages later. Alethea has headache so didn't want to overdue it.
Picked up snacks for treking\traveling over the next couple days.
Picked up laundry. Only cost $5. So nice to have someone else do the laundry and not have to wear clothes twice.
Ate dinner at nice local place.
Got massage. It was a Lao Mystic massage. My masseuse was a man. It was a deep tissue massage. Lasted over a hour. Pretty good for $7.33 USD.

Monday December 27th
Woke up at 6 am to watch the Buddhist monks walk through the streets collecting alms.
Picked up by Tiger Trails represented about minutes late @ 8:45 am
Went to Tiger Trails office.
Biked 15 km to Elephant Village. Little rough ride. Had to walk bike at times. Breaks were a little spotty and gear shifting wasn't too smooth\
Rode elephant for one hour. Neat experience
Took motorboat to waterfall
Stopped at waterfall for hour and drank beer with guide
Hiked 3 km to village for home stay. Village had no regular electricity, only 3 generators for 3 TVs. Participate in extended life ceremony. Ate dinner went to bed. Village was very poor. Hard to believe people live this way.

Tuesday December 28th
Woke up around 7 am for breakfast. Slept pretty good in our hut. Unfortunately our roommates towel and t-shirts they left outside were stolen during the night.
Hiked 3 km to Elephant Village
Kayaked 20 km back to office of Tiger Treks in Luang Prabang, Stopped 1 hour for lunch. Took 3.5 hours. Pretty neat but was soar by the time we were done. 1st time I ever kayak.
Checked in at hostel. Took Showers
Took laundry to express laundry service place.
Enjoyed the Tiger Tracks 2 day adventure although the village home stay part was sobering to say the least.

Wednesday December 29th
Woke up around 7 am
Breakfast @ 7:30am
Took prearranged Tuk Tuk to South Bus Station
Ticket @ bus station to Vientiane from LB was only 115,000. We paid 130,000 in town. Other people on the bus said they paid 140,000 or 135,000. We all paid different prices.
Bus ride was supposed to take 9 hours. It took 11 hours over mostly windy roads. No seat belts on the bus. Few guard rails on roads. Speedometer on bus didn't work so you didn't know how fast it was going. Didn't matter because we rarely got the speed limit of 30 km. Bus driver almost ran off the road once when he tried to take off his pullover jacket but it didn't come off and he had his hands off the wheel. We weaved over to the other lane but it was the side with the hill and not down the hill. There was no traffic in the other lane either. Not a good experience. We'll probably fly to Siem Reap in Cambodia from Ho Chi Minh versus bus. It's worth the extra $125 per person. Everything else is much cheaper than any other part of the world we've been too.
Got to bus station around 8 pm. Had to pay 2000 KIP to use bathroom. Only 25 cents USD.
Share taxi with a young couple from Copenhagen, Denmark (Daniel & Maria). Bus station was 10 km north of city. Didn't exist until a year ago. Google maps showed only 3 km from hotel. Hotel was going to charge us 100,000 KIP for an xfer. We paid 40,000 KIP on our own.
Checked in at hotel. Had to pull up email to show we had a reservation.
Went to restaurant across the street for dinner. Big Lao Beer was only 10,000 KIP versus 12 or 15 K KIP in Luang Prabang. We both had Turkish food to break up the routine of eating local Lao food.

Thursday December 30th
Woke up around 8:30. Had breakfast in hotel
Spent two hours doing trip planning until 1 pm. Booked flights to Cambodia, hotel in Ho Chi Minh, and have narrowed down Hoi An to two hotels
Walked around our neighborhood looking for a restaurant but couldn't find it.
Ate lunch at local place. I had the spicy beef stew. It was pretty good.
Got haircut for 20000 KIP ~ $2.45
Walked around back to our hotel. Bought beers for $2.30. Two half liter beers
Came back to hotel and took shower then got online.
Decided to eat Indian food for dinner. Ate at a pretty good Indian place.
Located Belgian restaurant that we may eat at for New Year's.

Friday December 31st
Didn't sleep too well due to loud music and mildly upset stomach probably from Indian food
Woke up around 9 am.
Departed hotel around 10:30.
Walked around Vientiane. Walked by Presidential Palace and to an Arch that was built in 1962 to resemble the Arch du Triumph in Paris. Meandered our way back to hotel. Walked by US Embassy. Stopped in book store. Walked to Mekong River and peaked over unto Thailand.
Back in hotel by 1:15 pm. Not much to see in Vientiane
Went to dinner at nice local place on the same street as our hotel. Had a chicken and bacon special with mash potatoes. It was good. Been a long time since I had mash potatoes.
Came back to hotel to take our malaria pills.
Walked down to New Year's party hosted by Tiger. At first they said it was full but then said we go in the back area but not sit at a table. Talked to a French Canadian couple for a couple hours. They actually got started for New Year's 5 minutes early according to everyone's watch making it a little anti-climatic.

Saturday January 1st
Woke up around 8:30 am
Took laundry out. Figured we would start fresh and clean especially since it is so cheap to do laundry here. Only cost 20,000 K KIP or $2.45 for a machine wash and line dry our clothes.
Spent some time online after breakfast.
Ate lunch @ place across the street
Made ATM withdrawal in order to pay hotel by cash to save the 3% charge.
bought snacks @ local grocery store
walked over to book store and bought a book
Ate dinner & watched most of an English Premier League Football match

Sunday January 2nd
Woke up around 7:30 am.
Ate breakfast
Plan is to eat around 11 then check out @ 12:30 and take a taxi to the airport.
Flight to Hanoi, Vietnam is scheduled to leave around 2:30 pm