Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Long Way Through Laos

Before heading to Laos I made a quick detour to Bangkok, Thailand to take care of some business-- basically getting my hair done, mailing Christmas presents, replacing the phone and prescription sunglasses I lost in Nepal and getting a visa for Myanmar (preview of the upcoming post).

It's always nice to be back in semi civilization for a bit with all the comforts of a big city. In the case of Bangkok, that means malls and good food (and now a Krispy Kream which the Thai people were obviously very excited about-- will they still be when they are all chub chub??).

Sure I was staying next to the (free) art museum that I really wanted to visit, but I just ran out of time with all sorts of beautifying.

With my new robins egg blue toenails (a mistake, yes), proper color hair, Thai massaged muscles (or beating more like it) and eyesight I was ready for the overnight train to Nong Khai, only 22km from Vientiane, the capital of Laos, via the "International Train" over the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge.

Sounds great except the train was sold out!!! Oops, who knew? AND it was sold out the following day as well. :-( The nice ticket agent told me to hang around in case there was a cancellation (picture me sitting on my backpack in the middle of the not so nice train station). Again luck was on my side and I was off on the 13 hour journey with some enjoyable Brits and Dutch (those Dutch are everywhere!!!!!!)

I loved this train- I was in 2nd class so didn't have a private compartment, but the curtained off cubby was excellent. I'm sure the locals (who seem to be able to fall asleep at 7pm) were less than thrilled by the westerns playing cards and drinking in the aisles. They got us back by getting up at the crack of dawn!
I arrived in Vientiene before lunch at the most adorable Hotel Khamvongsa, where two Americans were also checking in. Despite how adorable the hotel, I couldn't stay the planned two days since there is really nothing in Vientiene.

We were able to visit the major sites in a couple hours, including Pha That Luane, the most important national monument in Laos, a symbol of both Buddhism and Laos sovereignty (it appears on their national seal). They have been doing a lot of restoration work as you can see by the before and after shot below--- things get dirty in this tropical environment.

I was also quite amused to see the Patuxai, a pseudo, asiany Arc de Triomphe. It was super ugly, but the funny part is that it was built using American donated concrete intended for the building of a new airport. Airport or Arc de Triomphe?? They chose Arc- hahahaha!

While eating my traditional Laos dinner of pizza I met a lovely family traveling for a year. The two teen/pre teen girls were chock full of info on what I should and shouldn't do with the rest of my time in Laos. I totally listened and booked all the same guesthouses based on their breakfast reviews (they didn't over hype the breakfast at Guesthouse Manichan in Luang Prabang either- yum! Former French colonies are the best- they have good bread.)

Per the title, nothing in Laos is very easy to get to, even though it looks so close on a map. The Lonely Planet also warns that the buses are made of cardboard and break down all the time. Well, they were right-- we left the station and broke down after our first turn around the corner--- too funny!!!! Another 1 hour breakdown in the middle of nowhere and finally we arrived in Vang Vieng nearly 6 hours later.

I hadn't intended on visiting Vang Vieng, but the Dutch guys on the train insisted! The town is bazaaro!

Tourist basically go there to get really drunk and/or high and float down the Nam Song River on an innertube--- with an occasional stop at the riverside bars to jump off a giant swing or slide. Then they return to town and watch "Friends" and "Family Guy" playing on all the restaurant TVs.

Okay, when in Rome, but first I joined Laura and Marika (who I met on the bus) for some rock climbing. I have never actually climbed anything but an indoor rock wall, so this was going to be interesting. I actually ended up loving it, and apparently I have a knack for climbing. It was really fun and I didn't kill our instructor while belaying him, which was also a plus. ;-)

The country is beautiful, walking through rice paddies and over shaky bamboo bridges to make our way to the climbing site while our instructor sang us some Lionel Richie and cracked himself up.

After the climb it was finally time for an afternoon float down the river, but little did we know the sun would be behind the mountains--- needless to say we froze! That shot of free whisky and bondfire at the sling shot bar did a little to warm us, but mostly I just shivered on the raft while a bunch of Aussies pulled my tube into their tube cluster.

Like everywhere, Asian hospitality is so nice! Adam, the owner of a rock climbing company who we met earlier in the day invited all of us to his place for dinner that night. We all sat on the floor Laos style and ate some yummy noodles and drank Lao Beer- the best of the SE Asian beers in my opinion (plus they appear to be the only ones that make a dark). Was a really good night!

The next morning's drive to Luang Prabang was not so good. Despite the motion sickness patch, we all felt really sick on the 7 hour journey. After wandering around looking for Guesthouse Manichan, Peter gave me all the tips on what to do in this UNESCO world heritage town. First stop was a walk through the charming Hmong Night Market on the way to Utopia, a lovely riverside restaurant with a hospitable Canadian manager.

The next morning, what else but more wats (aka temples). Among them was Wat Xieng Thong from 1560, plus the Royal Palace Museum built in 1904 (they had the king's old American cars on display).

It was then the temples atop Phu Si for sunset and dinner at Three Nagas, a gourmet restaurant with food and service (but not a tab) that reminded me of home. Ahhhh!

I had to get up early my last day for the 6am alms giving to the monks. Luckily a temple was just a block away, so I went Gidget style in my pajamas (they don't look like PJ's). I didn't exactly get it, basically lines of monks accepting donations all over (saw it a lot more in Myanmar). Since it only took 15 minutes to gawk, I walked through the morning market on my way back to bed.

The rest of the day was spent at Tat Kuang Si, a multi tiered waterfall about 32 km from town in a pristine park. On the tuk tuk drive there we encountered elephant in the road which you don't see everyday.

Off to Huay Xia on another paper mache bus for 14 hours. This time I could thank Ambien for getting me though since the bus was sub zero and pitch black thanks to the locals. I had a scarf wrapped around my head, used my microfiber towel as a blanket and had my legs in the arms of a spare fleece and was still cold- ugh! At least Ambien knocked me out so I don't even remember the 1 hr. flat tire stop complete with bond fire.
There really is nothing to say about Huay Xia other than that it is a border town with Thailand and starting point for The Gibbon Experience!

Yes, two nights spent living in a tree house like a Gibbon. No, you don't really see any Gibbons while living like one- that is the ironic part.

Inside the Bokeo Nature Reserve, Animo, a conservation-based group, has set up a series of ziplines crisscrossing the canopy, some of which lead to the tree houses perched about 200ft up.

The proceeds go to protect the forest and the animals from poachers-- five years ago poaching was threatening the extinction of the black crested gibbon.
After the 2-3 hour drive to the forest, the days consisted of hiking and ziplineing- it was a blast!
video

Tree house life was also very relaxing and cushier than you would expect. The first night I shared #3 with three others for the best view and sunset, but then we moved into #7 since it was 2 story and was reported to have an amazing shower.
It did!!! You were showing hundreds of feet in the air looking out on undisturbed forest with water fresh from the mountains (it was cold, but you were also pretty hot and gross from trekking and zipping).

I didn't think it could get much more exciting, but the transportation back was a fiasco.

After an hour on a dirt, bumpy road (sitting in the back of what is basically a pickup truck with a roof) we get to the road and happen to pick up a woman in labor (in orange). We drop her at the hospital about 2 hours later, after one of our guides jumps out of the moving vehicle (his landing was not a 10.00).

Fine. We cross the river by longtail boat to enter Thailand at Chiang Khong on our way to Chiang Rai. What happens, our maniac driver hits one of the stray dogs. Bring one life in this world and end another ;-(

The next two days in Chiang Rai were fairly uneventful since we didn't feel like any more temples, hilltribes or trekking, and the winery and tea plantation was too far.
We just kicked back, ate, drank, got a massage (one place we checked out had bored looking women in lingerie behind a glass wall- oops, wrong kind of massage parlour!), watched the best light show ever (so amazingly tacky!!!!), drank more and got a rickshaw ride (for which we paid extravagantly after all the previously mentioned drinks) before heading for our next destinations.

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