4000 Islands

July 2-3, 2009

In the southern tip of Laos there’s a place where the Mekong River fans out to cover a 14 km wide area dotted with islands.  This region is called Si Phan Don (“4000 Islands”).  After returning from our motorbike tour in the Bolaven Plateau, Pnina and I headed there.

To get there from Pakse required a tuk-tuk to the south station (10,000 kip), a pick-up truck ride to the ferry landing (30,000 kip, 2 hours), and a boat ride.

There are multiple island destinations to choose from.  The big famous one is called Don Khong.  We decided to try something slightly further off the beaten path, so we opted for a pair of smaller islands connected by a bridge.  One is called Don Det and the other, confusingly, is called Don Khon (note: no ‘g’).  But it’s not clear if we succeeded in our mission of getting off the beaten path because this pair of islands is clearly a backpacker destination.

Pnina on the long-canoe style ferry:

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Before leaving Pakse we met this guy, Chad, who comes (most recently) from Portland, Oregon.  Chad does real estate for a living.  He co-owns a small business to buy apartment buildings (with loans) and rent out units.  The business is doing well enough for him to take off on a trip like this while his business partners take care of things at home – nice!  He had a lot of interesting ideas about where the economy is going, and kept raving about a book called The Great Depression Ahead (add that one to our reading list…).  Anyhow, he was a pretty relaxed traveling companion.  He ended up taking a room in the same guesthouse where we stayed, and we spent most of 2 days on the island with him.

Pnina and Chad hanging out in one of the restaurants on Don Khon:

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This restaurant had a pretty loose policy about marijuana.  Their menu had this hillarious section called “Happy Holidays” that included various “happy” items – cakes, pizza, mashed potatoes.  We saw a group of people at another table “celebrating a birthday” with cake, so we asked them about it.  They said that the happy hits you less quickly than from a joint, but it also lasts longer.

“Happy” items in the restaurant’s menu:

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The same restaurant also had a pet monkey hanging around.  The poor guy had no choice about it since he was tethered by a leash, so he only had the freedom to go from the edge of the balcony to the nearby tree, but no further.  He looked pretty young and it’s possible he was still looking for maternal attention.  At one point he fell asleep in Pnina’s lap.

Pnina with the restaurant’s monkey asleep in her lap:

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We saw some beautiful sunsets from the restaurant’s balcony, and from another spot just down the road:

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River Dolphins and The Big Waterfall

The next day we joined a group tour to see a couple of sites – river dolphins and the big nearby waterfall.  Our group was pretty small.  Besides Pnina and I and our friend Chad, we had a Dutch couple, Marlouse and Daniel.

Shahaf, Marouse, and Daniel on the boat:

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The Irrawaddy dolphins move around from season to season.  In this time of year (July) they hang out in the southern part of the river, along the Cambodian shore.  Normally you would need to get a Cambodia visa or stamp to set foot inside Cambodia (one would think), but the people operating our tour had some kind of arrangement with the Cambodian border people.  They allowed us to pull ashore in the dolphin-viewing spot without the hassle of dealing with passports.  So when people ask us how many countries we visited in our trip, the question is now a little harder to answer – does Cambodia count??

Hanging out on the Cambodian shore trying to spot dolphins in the river:

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Anyhow, we sat on this shore looking out at the river, trying to find the dolphins.  Eventually we did spot a few, and we even took our boat out to try to get a closer view.  But we never got a really good view.  The dolphins were just way out there.  In our opinion it’s probably best to skip the dolphin part of the tour and save a little money.

This is probably the best dolphin photo we got (using Pnina’s 200mm zoom lens):

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There are a number of unusually wide waterfalls interspersed between the various islands in the region.  As part of our tour we went to see Khone Phapheng, which is the biggest of the falls.  In fact, it’s the biggest waterfall in southeast Asia by volumn, though certainly not by height.  The waterfall was very “sprawly”, and it was very hard to actually see the whole thing from any location.  It looked much more like a white-water rapid, though I’m guessing it’s far too intense to actually negotiate in a raft.

A view of just a portion of the Khone Phepheng waterfall:

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On the right edge of the falls the locals built a strange contraption – a kind of bamboo ramp stretching down into the current.  We think it’s used to trap fish, but we’re not sure.  We didn’t see any fish get caught on the ramp while we were there.

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After wandering around the falls for about 45 minutes, we all headed back to the minivan, all of us except Pnina, that is.  We waited in the car for about 10 minutes, and then the driver became impatient and wandered off to look for her.  Suddenly he rushed back to the car, waving his arms frantically, and telling me to follow him.  When we reached the river I found Pnina suspended above the water by a pair of ropes.  This was a really stupid stunt to pull.  If Pnina happened to fall into the water she would have certainly drowned.  On top of that she would probably get quietly swept at least a kilometer downstream without anyone noticing, so she would basically be gone.  And the ropes that suspended her were not attached particularly well (on one side they were tied to a tree, but on the other side they were tied to a shaky stick in the ground).  Anyhow, by the time I reached the scene Pnina was actually most of the way back to the safety of land, so I only had a chance to take one quick picture.  Pnina – please don’t do that again!!  🙂

Pnina suspended above the torrent below by a couple of loose ropes:

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Bike Ride to the Small Waterfall

After we returned from the boat trip, we rented bicycles and took a ride around our pair of islands – from Don Khon over the bridge to Don Det.

A random backpacker on a rented bicycle with a local boy clinging on the back.  I love this picture:

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Pnina riding on the edge of Don Khon towards Don Det (which is on the other side of the river):

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A couple of kids hanging out on the grounds of a temple on the island:

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Eventually we reached the “small falls” called Tat Somphamit.  They looked pretty much the same as the big falls we saw earlier.  Yeah, they’re smaller, but they’re still plenty big and they are much cheaper to reach.  So, our recommendation would be to skip the boat tour altogether and just hang out on the island.

The “Small Falls” of Tat somphamit:

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Bonus Picture

A common snack in Laos – eating the seeds of a Lotus plant.  They have a nice texture – crispy and juicy.  But they don’t have much flavor.  It’s like eating Edamame, minus the salt.

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Pakse and The Bolaven Plateau

June 29 – July 1, 2009

From Kong Lor Cave we headed back to the regular backpacker route.  We continued south to Pakse.

Just as we started heading south we ran into a minor traffic jam.  A double-length fuel truck was half flipped over on the side of the road.  To get it back on its wheels the service workers brought out a crane.

Attempting to hoist the back end of a fuel truck to put it back on its wheels:

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Pakse seemed like a decent town but we didn’t end up spending much time there.  We just used it as a hub as we explored southern Laos, and in that respect it was very convenient — there were hostels were we could leave our extra bags and arrange transportation, plus a few restaurants for good cheap food.

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East of Pakse there’s a region called the Bolaven Plateau.  It rises about 1000 meters above the Mekong lowlands, and it’s home to lots of waterfalls, some tribal groups, and the best Lao coffee.  There are a few ways to explore this area.  Pnina and I decided to go by motorcycle.  We rented our motorcycle at the Sabaidy 2 Guesthouse, which is the standard guesthouse recommended by Lonely Planet.  The price was 60,000 kip (about $30) per day, which is probably a little high compared to the other shops in town, but in this case we opted to pay a little more and save our time.  Technically, this was my first time riding a motorcycle (as opposed to a scooter), but it was actually easier than the scooter we rote in Zanzibar because this motorcycle was an automatic (there was no clutch to manage).

Me on the motorcycle as we head out of Pakse into the Bolaven Plateau:

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There were lots of stands on the side of the road selling fruit, mostly Durian.  We’d never actually tried Durian before, so we picked one up along the way and we tried it a couple days later when we got back to Pakse.  The interesting thing is that for such a big fruit, there’s not much to actually eat.  Deep inside the spiky exterior there are three large’ish seeds covered by a thin layer of flesh – you eat that flesh and nothing else.  Yes, it really does stink, and I don’t understand how people can like it (but I don’t like many fruit anyhow).  Pnina found that if she held her nose while eating it then it “isn’t that bad.”  But that sounds dumb to me.  If you have to hold your nose while eating something, you shouldn’t eat it.

Durians for sale on the side of the road:

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Our first stop, about 33 km east of Pakse, was at the Paxuam Cliff Waterfall.  This was one of the more developed tourist stops along the way.  It wasn’t just the waterfall itself.  They also had some nature walks, a restaurant, a hotel with “jungle guestrooms”, and a small village where you can see a bit of the culture of the Mon-Khmer tribal group that lives here.  It sounds a little over-developed, but we didn’t think it was so bad.  In particular, the restaurant and hotel seemed very eco-centric.

Crossing a natural suspension bridge:

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Pnina on the bridge:

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The waterfall:

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Pnina scaring the shit out of me by walking a little too close to the edge of the waterfall:

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One of the jungle guestrooms operated by the hotel in this park:

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Butterflies mating?

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Just a tropical plant:

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Pnina with a local tribesman playing music on traditional instruments:

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After a couple of hours at the falls, we continued along the open road.

We’re not sure what this was all about – a large group of people (mostly monks) were pulling this truck by rope along the road, and the truck had some kind of shrine on board.  We tried to ask them but they spoke no English:

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Pnina taking a break along the way to have a bowl of noodle soup (very similar to Vietnamese pho):

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Our next destination was the village called Tad Lo, which has a few waterfalls of its own.  We got there as the sun was setting, so this was our stop for the night.  The next day we woke up and took a short ride to the waterfall.  This one was not very tall, but it was pretty wide.  The best thing about it was that, when we arrived, there were a few kids playing in the waterfall, using a net to fish.  One of them climbed right up the falls, against some pretty strong current, walking on stones that must have been slippery.  It was impressive.

The Tad Lo waterfall:

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One of the kids watching his friend climbing up the falls:

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The other kid walking up against a strong current:

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And then it was back to the road…

Following the ice cream man:

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Our next stop was the village called Ban Kok Phung Tai (the “animist” village).  The tribe here used to have a custom of preparing wooden caskets for each village member well in advance of their death.  But they don’t do this anymore – these days they have mortuary people come and take the dead away.  It’s a very poor village and it’s obviously very desperate for tourist money.  Their new shtick is highlighting the fact that village kids smoke cigarettes using a large bong from a very young age.  As soon as Pnina and I rolled into town a few of the kids came around and started smoking in front of us.  It was a very sad thing to see.  They were probably hoping that we would take photos right away and give them money for that privilege, but we didn’t want to play that game.  Instead, we walked over to a village lady who was selling pineapples at the side of the road, and we bought a couple – that seemed like a better business to encourage.  And then we took a photo of the fruit lady with a couple of the kids standing next to her (and cropped her out 🙂

Young kids smoking from a large bong at the Ban Kok Phung Tai village:

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We didn’t spend much time in this village.  We got a bad vibe from the way tourism has upturned their culture.

Several kilometers later we found this road-side temple.  This was actually the only temple we stopped at along the way.  We thought it was interesting how the stairs lead up to the temple straight from the road (which was a pretty fast road, pretty much the local highway).  Even more interesting was the fact that this was a new temple, still under construction.  This isn’t fair or logical to say, but I generally expect temples to be very old, and it was slightly jarring to see such an old-style structure under construction.

Pnina heading up to the temple from the road:

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Look at that – it’s a new temple under construction!

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Our next stop was another waterfall: Tad Gniang.  The nice thing here is that there’s a hill facing the waterfall, and the falls generate a thick mist that make the hill very lush (and slippery).  It’s a really beautiful place, but it’s impossible to take a photo head-on – it’s just too wet.

Tad Gniang waterfalls as seen from the side – this was the best angle we could get without exposing our cameras to too much mist:

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Pnina’s hair covered in droplets:

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Me descending from the lush green hill facing the falls:

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Tad Gniang is also the site of a small coffee plantation.  You can walk around among the small coffee trees, and you can order a totally fresh cup of coffee to enjoy at a table near the river.  Fantastic!

Coffee beans growing on a branch:

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Enjoying a fresh cup of coffee by the river:

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And our final stop was (you guessed it)…a waterfall!  🙂

This one was called Tad Fane and, as you can see, it’s actually a pair of waterfalls.  They are significantly taller than any of the other falls we’d seen up to this point.  But, unlike the other falls, it’s challenging to get a decent view of these falls.  We found some trails that descended into the canyon in front of the falls, but after heading down for 30 minutes we decided to abandon and head back.  The trail was pretty steep and muddy, and my sandals gave me no grip at all.

The pair of waterfalls called Tad Fane – this was as close as we got:

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From there we finished the loop and headed back to Pakse.

Kong Lor Cave

June 28-29, 2009

From Vang Vieng we continued south to a place called Kong Lor Cave.

Our first bus took us to Vientiane, the capital, but we decided to immediately continue onward.  We made this decision partly because we had limited time until our next flight from Bangkok, but also because we heard Vientiane is kind of like Luang Prabang but bigger and less charming.

The second bus dropped us off at a random intersection along Route 13, and from there we caught a pick-up ride to Ban Khoun Kham which is the small town closest to the cave.

Pnina standing next to rice fields and mountains not far from Kong Lor Cave:

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A woman tending the rice field:

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So what’s the big attraction with Kong Lor?  It’s this: Kong Lor is a 7-kilometer-long cave running through a limestone mountain.  The cave was carved by a river that runs the full length, and you can now hire a motorized canoe to take you upstream through the cave from one end to the other and back again.

Inside the cave it’s pitch black.  Pnina and I brought our little LED headlamps but they were pretty useless in there.  The boat people brought a much more powerful flashlight, but even with that light we only had a dim view as we went through cavernous rooms and narrow passages, all the while trying to avoid trickles of rain coming down from the cave’s ceiling.  It’s an awesome feeling, something like being in an action sequence from a Lucas movie.

Part of the trip involves pausing by a “shore” half-way into the cave, and taking a short, slippery walk to view stalagmite formations.  As with other caves we saw in Laos, the formations here are OK but not amazing.  The real adventure here is in the feeling of riding in a boat inside a dark cave.

To reach the cave we caught a 30-minute pick up ride to the park entrance.  From there we walked a short distance to the river:

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At the riverbank, we could see the cave’s entrance:

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First we took one non-motorized canoe across the river and upstream towards the cave.  It wasn’t clear how we would actually get inside because there was a minor waterfall just outside the cave.  The solution was to pull this canoe ashore, walk a short distance into the cave, and then hop into a different motorized canoe that was waiting inside:

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Standing at the cave’s entrance:

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One of our two guides prepping the canoe’s motor:

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It’s hard to take a good picture in complete darkness!  🙂  This shot was taken as we neared the far end of the cave, seven kilometers later:

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And here’s a video showing us exiting from the other end of the cave:

The mountains on the other side were gorgeous and we would have loved to hang around longer, but we just couldn’t communicate with the guides.  So, unfortunately, we spent about 5 minutes here before turning around and heading back downstream through the cave.  If you go to Kong Lor, we highly recommend marking arrangements ahead of time to go further upstream on the far end of the cave:

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Bonus Shot

When you order coffee in Laos, you generally get it with a thick layer of very sweet condensed milk at the bottom, so it’s important to stir it well before drinking.  Otherwise you end up with bitter coffee followed by “dessert” 🙂

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Vang Vieng

June 26-27, 2009

From Luang Prabang we took a minivan south to Vang Vieng.

Gorgeous mountains everywhere as we approach Vang Vieng:

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Vang Vieng is situated along the Nam Song river.  Nearly all the accommodations are on the east side of the river, but there are a few on the flip side, and a few on a  small island in between.  Pnina and I ended up staying on the island because it was the only place where we could still find an available bungalow.  The price was 50,000 kip / night ($25), which was a little more than we paid elsewhere in Laos, but it was a unique experience.

We stayed in the bungalow to the right of the bridge:

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By this point we’d been in Laos for only a few days, but we were already getting the impression that Laos is kind of like Thailand but sleepier and more laid-back.  It has all the backpacker-friendly conveniences (English-speaking locals, internet, cheap hotels, etc.) but without the thick backpacker crowds and without the over-the-top party scene you find in, say, Khaosan Road, Bangkok.

But then we arrived in Vang Vieng and our impression was totally shattered.  Holy crap, this place is southeast Asia’s party central.  It’s certainly not as big as Bangkok, but in Bangkok at least some people spend some time visiting temples or whatnot, whereas people only come to Vang Vieng for one reason: to party.

During the morning, people hang out in restaurants around town, eating and recovering from the prior night, watching TV sitcoms that play in an endless loop (Friends, Family Guy, Simpsons…).  In the afternoon everyone goes tubing.  This tubing-vang-vieng thing has become a “right of passage” for backpackers doing the southeast Asia circuit.  For 55,000 kip ($27) they drive you upriver and set you off in a big tube.  Floating downriver is just part of the shtick – the real fun is that you can pull over in the various bars along both shores.  The bars are set up like MTV spring-break: sand volleyball, mud-wrestling pits, huge swings over the water, and of course lots of drinks.   Most people get stuck at the first bar and forget to tube the rest of the way downstream to Vang Vieng (which means that they have to pay extra to catch another tuk-tuk ride back).  People who actually tube their way back generally go straight to one of the in-town bars to keep drinking.

You probably gathered by now that Pnina and I are not really into this party scene.  Also, the 55,000 kip price sounded like highway robbery (for what? a tuk-tuk ride and a tube??).  There really was some kind of cartel set up in town because no other shop had inner tubes, not even for sale.  We met a couple of girls that got around this barrier by purchasing toy-like inflatable fish and using them as floaters 🙂  And actually, we later heard a rumor that this so-called cartel was actually set up to distribute the backpacker-tubing money among the town’s locals.  If that’s true then I guess it’s cool, but the big winners are definitely the people who own the bars along the river!

Aaanyways, instead of doing the standard tubing trip, Pnina and I signed up for a kayaking trip.  Our trip was much cheaper, it included lunch, and it included stops at a couple of caves.  On top of that, the last part of our kayaking trip was down the same stretch of river where the tubing people go, so we had a chance to stop at one of those bars after all.  All in all, it was a pretty good choice for us.

Pnina getting set to kayak downriver:

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First stop was at the Elephant Cave, which gets its name from a supposedly-natural elephant-looking formation up above.  This is a view of a different end of the cave, showing some of the Buddha statues inside:

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The second cave was much more fun.  We hopped onto inner tubes and pulled ourselves using ropes upstream into the cave.  After a while the water became too shallow, so we beached our tubes and continued walking another 50 meters or so.  There were a few stalactite formations here and there, but mostly it was just cool to be floating on a tube inside a cave:

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Shahaf at the cave’s entrance:

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Back to the kayak:

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The first of the river-side bars; as you can see, most of the tubing people got stuck here:

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We started cheering for the people in the bar, they started cheering back 🙂

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We stopped at a place called Smile Bar 2, which was kind of empty because everybody was stuck at the first bar (above).  Our bar had a muddy tug-of-war pit, and after eyeing it for a while we just had to try.  It was awesome:

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Me celebrating a muddy victory (though two minutes later my team got sunk pretty bad).

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Right around this time it started raining and the wind picked up, so all of us were shivering pretty bad (Pnina’s lips were blue).  This was the first and only time we were actually cold in Laos.  But even though we were cold, we had to try the big swing…

You climb onto this platform (which is probably 2-3 stories above the water), grab on, and swing away.  After a couple back-and-forth, you let go and fall down to the water.  Then the bar people (who are all sober) throw you a life-saver and pull you ashore (the current can sweep you away if you don’t pay attention).  This is Pnina just getting started:

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A final group shot as we all reach Vang Vieng again:

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Bonus Shot

This was one of my first attempts to shoot a macro video using my little Canon Elf camera:

In the News

On June 25, 2009, Michael Jackson passed away.  This was just weeks before he was set to start his first concert tour in more than a decade.  The coroner decided to treat Jackson’s death as a homicide, blaming Jackson’s personal physician for the toxic cocktail of medication found in his body after death, but no official verdict has come so far.

Luang Prabang

June 23-25, 2009

 

From Luang Nam Tha we caught a bus heading south to Luang Prabang.

Luang Prabang is an ancient royal city and is the #1 tourist destination in Laos.  But it doesn’t feel overly crowded.  The town center is definitely designed for two audiences: monks and tourists.  For the monks there are lots of monasteries.  For the tourists there are plenty of hotels (in French-colonial style buildings), restaurants, cafes, artists shops, and a bustling night market.  Just outside of this tiny center you find locals just doing their thing – going to school, going to work, playing soccer, etc.  The city has a very pleasant chilled-out feel.  It’s definitely one of the nicest cities we visited on our trip.

Pnina enjoying some pineapple as we walk down the street in “downtown” Luang Prabang:

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Guys playing soccer in a field just outside Luang Prabang’s center:

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This game is similar to volleyball, except that you only use your legs and your head, and you use a whicker-style ball.  By the way, this shot makes it look like that one guy totally round-housed the other guy over the net, but it’s just an optical illusion 🙂

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Royal Palace Museum

In the center of Luang Prabang sits the Royal Palace Museum.  To give some context about this palace, here’s a quick recap of Lao history (with help from Wikipedia):

  • The first Laos kingdom was founded in 1353 and was called Lan Xang: the land of 1000 elephants
  • In the 1700’s, Laos was taken over by Siamese (Thai) rulers
  • In the 1800’s, Laos was incorporated into the French Indonesia ‘protectorate’
  • Following a brief Japanese occupation in WWII, Laos declared independence in 1945.  The French were slow to actually give up control.
  • Laos was dragged into the Vietnam War (1959-1975) when the North Vietnamese Army invaded eastern Laos and the US responded with a large bombing campaign (in fact, Laos has the dubious distinction of being the most bombed country in the world).  This fight evolved into a civil war for control Laos, with the communist Pathet Lao on one side (backed by north Vietnamese and the USSR) and the Royal Lao Army on the other side (backed by the US and Thailand).
  • Pathet Lao was the victor.  In 1975 he overthrew the royal Lao government and forced King Savang Vatthana to abdicate.
  • The socialist regime was relaxed over time.  Laos was admitted into ASEAN in 1997.  The US established normal trade relations with Laos in 2005.

So, the palace in the center of Luang Prabang was the king’s home until 1975, when the king was forced to abdicate and the palace was turned into a museum.

At the entrance to the palace complex there’s a very ornate temple, multi-roofed and heavily gilded.  This temple is free to enter and it’s quite nice.

The temple at the entrance to the Royal Palace Museum:

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But to enter the actual palace museum you need to pay a fee and leave all your stuff at the entrance – no shoes, no bags, no food, no water, and most importantly, no cameras.  So we can only show a photo of the outside…

The Royal Palace Museum:

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The big showpiece inside the museum is a small statue of the Buddha that was made in Sri Lanka and was given by the Khmer king (of Cambodia) to the king of Xan Lang (Laos) in 1356.  This statue is called the Prabang Buddha, like the city.  We saw several local tourists come by to pray to this statue – it’s obviously highly regarded.  To us it looked nice enough, but not really all that different from the thousand other Buddhas we’d seen everywhere.

Buddha aside, there was one room that was pretty interesting.  It had glass cases displaying gifts given to the Laos king by various other countries.  The most impressive gifts were these intricate ivory carvings from China.  The most oddball: a model of the moon lander from the US.  There were also some other rooms showing various royal possessions – the bedroom, the dining room, the throne, various swords, etc.

It was all OK, but we’re not sure it’s worth the entrance fee.  We would recommend visiting the free temple at the entrance and skipping the museum itself.

 

Up the Hill

Across the street from the royal palace there’s a staircase that leads up a hill called Phu Si.  Along the way there are various temples, most of them new.  The main attraction is the view at the top of the hill.

We started climbing the hill but we got sidetracked after only a few steps.  Three girls were sitting on the side of the hill, playing games, and they called us to join them.  Kids are awesome – they don’t see a need for formal introductions or ice breakers.  Before we knew it, one girl started arranging Pnina’s hair into pig tails, while the other girl borrowed my camera to record herself singing songs.  It was all good fun until Pnina and I decided it was time to move on.  Immediately the girls rushed off to bring their trays of hand-made trinkets and asked us if we would buy something.  Ahhhh!!  Pnina and I hate being put in that position – we rarely buy anything during the trip because we don’t want to weigh down our backpacks any more, but how do you explain that to a 5-year-old local girl?  It made us wonder if they enjoyed our play time at all, or if this was all just a sales tactic.

Pnina getting her hair styled:

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Shahaf and the three girls having fun playing dice on the hillside:

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Anyhow, eventually we did reach the hilltop and the view was certainly worth the climb and the small fee.

The view from the top of Phu Si:

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We also found some incredible green insects that hovered around one of the trees at the top of the hill.  They were so beautiful – their exoskeleton was bright metallic green.  One insect would land on a choice leaf, and then others would collect on top of him (landing with a loud click), forming chains.  Then they all dispersed and collected elsewhere.  Pnina’s 200mm lens was very handy here, though I still wish we could have gotten closer.

One of the green insects about to land on another:

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At first we assumed it was some kind of mating ritual, but 4 at a time??

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When we had our fill of green bugs, we descended down the other side of the hill.  Along the way we saw more Buddha statues scattered about.

A lizard hanging out on a Buddha statue:

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Reclining Buddha:

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Monks and Temples

Each morning in Luang Prabang, hundreds of monks walk through the streets collecting donations from locals.  It’s an old tradition and now it’s also a tourist attraction.  To see it you need to wake up pretty early.  The first monks start marching around 6 AM, and the whole thing is over before 7.  I managed to wake up one morning early enough to glimpse the action but Pnina didn’t bother (she opted to sleep in).  Each monk carried a spherical bowl into which he collected the donations.  The donations were mostly simple foods (generally sticky rice), though some people brought flowers.  The whole process was unusually quiet.  No monk said “thank you”.  No donor said “you’re welcome”.  The donations were just kind of expected.  It was very strange.

Monks walking down the streets of Luang Prabang early in the morning to collect donations:

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If you don’t wake up early enough to see the donation ritual, it’s OK, you can still catch monks around town.  Actually, you’d have to try hard to miss them.

A few monk boys hanging out at the steps of a temple:

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Monks praying inside one of many monasteries (Pnina was not allowed in here):

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Most homes and shops had a kind of “mini-temple” sitting outside.  It looked like an ornate mailbox.  Some of them had fresh flowers or candles.

A mini-temple outside a shop:

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A “blessed parking spot” inside one of the monastery complexes:

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Arts and Crafts

Just outside Luang Prabang there are several villages that specialize in different arts and crafts.  Pnina and I rented bicycles and rode across the river to a village called Ban Sang Khong, where the shops specialize in silk-weaving and paper-making (the other villages focused on steel-work and jar-making, which were less interesting to us).

Riding across the river to the village of Ban Sang Khong:

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All the workshops had an area where you could watch artisans working.  We found one silk shop where we could see both the weaving machines and the actual silk worms.  The shops here don’t actually cultivate silk worms – they purchase the silk thread from distributors abroad (e.g. from China).  So the worms we saw were just there for the tourists, but we’re glad they were there – it’s interesting to see where silk actually originates.

Women using traditional machines to make silk fabrics (mostly scarves):

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A basket of silk worms:

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A close up of some silk worms:

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Silk thread:

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Simple hand-made scarves (these cost around $8):

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Very intricate silk scarves (these cost around $40):

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There were a few shops that focused on paper-making.  They used all kinds of material to make the paper (including elephant dung – no joke!).  They sold greeting cards, journals, umbrellas, and plain paper stock.

Hand-made paper drying in the sun:

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Large sheets of paper made from elephant dung:

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Umbrellas made from local paper at one of the fancier hotels in the city:

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Paper cut-outs for sale in one of the book stores in the city:

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On the way back to the city we saw these large “pancakes” drying in the sun.  We’re not sure if this was food or if it was also some kind of craft:

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Tat Kuang Si Waterfall

There are a few places outside Luang Prabang that are famous day-trip destinations.  The most famous are the Pak Ou Caves, a pair of caves in the lower part of limestone cliffs that are jammed with Buddha images.  Pnina and I decided to skip these caves because we couldn’t imagine being impressed by yet another Buddha statue (and it was probably a good call – we spoke with a few other people who did go to the caves and nobody seemed particularly excited about them).  Instead we went to a waterfall called Tat Kuang Si.  Now, we didn’t have huge expectations for the falls either because we’d also seen a ton of waterfalls by this point in the trip, and the one we recently saw in Luang Nam Tha was kind of disappointing.  But this place by Luang Prabang was truly awesome.  First off, it had the same kind of limestone-ish/clear water that impressed us back in Baishui Tai and Jiuzhaigou.  The water here was not quite as clear, but on the other hand swimming here was allowed and there was a gorgeous pool tucked away at the top of the hill where we had a blast jumping into the water.  Getting to this pool was a little tough – the path was steep and occasionally slippery – but that made being in the pool that much better.

 

At the entrance to the park there’s an enclosure for a few rescued Sun Bears.  They are very different from other bears we’d seen before:

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Pnina in front of the first of several cascading pools:

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Further along the trail.  Some of these pools had ropes tied to branches, and people took turns “tarzan’ing” into the water:

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The beautiful pool at the top – and I’m jumping into it.  My camera ran out of juice when we got here so we asked some of the other people if they wouldn’t mind taking our photo and emailing it to us later – which they did!  Thanks Ingrid!

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One of the guys at the pool told us about a fun game he and his friends play whenever they find a good place to jump into water.  Each time you jump, you need to act out some famous character while you are in the air, and everybody else needs to guess your character.  It’s kind of like charades.  The standard jump is superman: jump forward and act like you’re flying, with one fist forward (though I guess that can look like Malcolm X, right?)

 

The only thing we regret about this waterfall excursion is that we didn’t plan to stay longer.  To get to the falls we jumped on one of the many oversized tuk-tuks heading to the waterfall from central Luang Prabang, and the agreement was that our driver would wait for us for 3 hours before we all headed back.  Well, three hours was not enough.  Some of the other people from our tuk-tuk had such a great time that they decided to screw the driver and just keep hanging out at the falls.  Not cool!  Pnina and I were straight-laced so we begrudgingly came back to the tuk-tuk and headed back.  If you come here (and we hope you do), we suggest making a full day out of it.  Pack a lunch, bring a towel, bring something to read, and make sure to take a one-way ride to the falls; you can always find another tuk-tuk for the ride back (there are lots of tuk-tuks hanging out in the parking lot by the park entrance).

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bonus Shot

Where else would you put the clock?

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Luang Nam Tha

June 18-22, 2009

Our first stop in Laos was the small northern village called Luang Nam Tha.  It’s a tiny place.  There’s a single main road lined with 1-2 story buildings, and beyond this strip you have rice paddies and bamboo huts in all directions.

It was early evening when we arrived, so we took our time choosing a hotel.  But after looking around for 1-2 hours, we  ended up returning to the first hotel we saw, a place called Pheng Thavy Hotel.  For 40,000 kip ($4.50) per night we had a huge room with private bathroom.  It was very obvious that we were no longer in China – this hotel room didn’t have a thermos with boiling water, nor a TV, and we had to leave our shoes at the hotel’s entrance.

Pnina at the entrance to Pheng Thavy Hotel:

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My first Beerlao.  Every other backpacker in Laos wears a t-shirt with this logo:

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Bicycle Ride

On our first day in Luang Nam Tha we rented bicycles and took a ride in the nearby fields.  The last time we rode a bicycle was in Dali, where we tried riding a tandem for the first time.  It was funny but it wasn’t very productive, so this time we opted to each get our own bike.

Pnina riding through Luang Nam Tha’s small main strip:

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Taking a break on a bridge just north of town:

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Pretty quickly we left town and started wandering through tiny villages in the outskirts.  Our goal was to find a waterfall, but we got distracted by a patch of flowers that was just full of butterflies.  We must have spent a couple of hours, easy, watching them and trying to get better photos.

We must have burned at least 40 pictures before we were able to get this close:

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This brown butterfly let Shahaf get incredibly close – what a model!

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I’ve worked with better, but not many:

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I could have stayed there all day, but eventually Pnina reminded me that there’s other stuff to see.  So, begrudgingly, I moved on.

The road to the waterfall was interesting.  Good views of rickety bamboo huts and flooded rice fields.  In some cases the huts were placed in the middle of water, on stilts.  But the actual waterfall was kind of a dud.  By this point in the trip we’d seen so many waterfalls that it took a lot to impress us (and, frankly, a lot of the waterfalls in Washington state are much better).

A bamboo hut on stilts, in the middle of water-filled rice paddies:

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Chili peppers drying on a platter outside:

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The waterfall just north of Luang Nam Tha, not too exciting:

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From the waterfall we continued east of town and completed a loop.  It was all pretty leisurely.  We couldn’t have done more than 25 km all day.  But it felt exactly right.  Laos has a very relaxed feel.  People are friendly and nobody is in any kind of hurry.

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Rice that was recently collected into bunches, but not yet removed from the field:

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Two guys fixing a kind of motorized mud plow.  In some places we still saw people plowing earth with oxen, but we also saw a lot of these contraptions:

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Kayaking Trip

Northern Laos is filled with different tribes.  Luang Nam Tha is one of the better jump-off points for trips to visit these tribes.  One option is to go hiking, but we decided to skip that because we heard that the rainy season brings out lots of leeches.  So instead we signed up for a kayaking trip.  There are a few outfitters in town that organize these trips.  The best way to get a good deal is to find a tour company that already has a few people signed up, because the more people go, the less it costs per person.  We ended up going with Green Discovery, which is the standard company recommended by Lonely Planet and most backpackers we met.  There were 7 of us on the trip, and the price was $53 each for a 2-day trip including the kayaks, lodging, and food.

Our kayaking crew: Pnina, Lyall & Zarah (from South Africa), Scott (California) and Marie (Ireland), and Nicholas (from Melbourne):

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Our trip took us downstream along the Nam Tha river (the river from which the village, Luang Nam Tha, gets its name).  We used 2-person kayaks, paddling about 5 hours the first day and 3 hours the second day.  It was a pretty calm river so there was no real danger of drowning or anything like that.  Over the two-day trip we only had one tip-over when Scott & Marie ended up going sideways downstream and got flipped over by a rock.  For Pnina and I the main hazards were the bushes along both banks of the river.  It wasn’t just that they were thorny, they were also full of little spiders; nothing deadly, but not really fun either.  Actually we did see one truly giant, hairy spider at one of our lunch spots.  He was hanging out in one of the kayaks when we were about to get back in to paddle, and he was probably just as scared of us as we were of him.  But the guides were pretty non-challant about the whole thing; they scooped him up with a paddle and tossed him into the forest.

Lyall, Zarah, and Pnina, at one of our stops along the river:

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Our meals were always spread out buffet-style on banana leaves.  Each person got a lump of very very sticky rice to eat with the various dishes in the center – fish, plantains, veggies, etc.  Before the meal began, our guides took a small piece of each dish and threw it out into the forest, “for the spirits”.

Sticky rice and various dishes spread out on banana leaves:

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We stopped in a couple of villages along the way, Ban Namha and Ban Sop Sim.  These were definitely some of the poorest, most isolated people we’ve ever seen, but they didn’t seem unhappy.  We stopped by in the middle of the day, so most of the men were off working the fields, which means we only saw the women and children.  At first everyone was pretty shy.  But then Pnina started taking photos and showing them to the kids, and they really got into it.  You never know if local people will appreciate or resent being photographed.  This was one of the few situations where it worked out really well.

Pnina at the entrance to one of the villages:

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Kids coming close for a photograph.  In some cases they got too close, and Pnina had a hard time explaining that they need to back up a little 🙂

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The nice thing about these villages is that they are still relatively untouched by tourism, but you can tell that things are already changing.  When we entered the second village, the ladies there immediately scrambled to pull out their crafts for sale.  We have mixed feelings about this.  On one hand these people are really poor and they can use the money.  On the other hand, it totally changes the dynamics from local-and-visitor to salesperson-and-customer.  Pnina and I really don’t like buying things we don’t need; before the trip we had to pack up all our belongings and we still remember how much useless stuff we have.  On top of that, during the trip we tried not to buy much because each additional thing we bought was one additional thing we had to carry for the next few months.  But standing there in the village refusing to buy all the crafts we definitely felt like cheap bastards (note – some of the money we paid for the trip goes to support the local villages).

Our guide displaying a book with local script; it looks nice, but what are we going to do with it?

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Our guide really wanted us to experience the rain forest a bit, so although Pnina and I didn’t want to go hiking, we ended up doing a short 1-hour hike from one of the villages into the forest.  It was nice enough, but, as we expected, there were leeches.  The thing about leeches is that they are sneaky and relentless.  Pnina got one bite, and I did too, but neither one of us noticed while it was happening.  In my case I saw the fat bloody leech as he crawled off my sandal, and in Pnina’s case she never saw him at all – she just noticed a small gash on her foot that wouldn’t stop bleeding (leeches secrete an anti-coagulant, so leech bites take much longer to clot).  After these two bites we decided we had enough, so we high-tailed it back to the river and waited for the rest of the group to catch up.  Yeah, we were complete whiny bitches (especially me), but we don’t care.  Leeches suck.

Marie and Pnina heading into the forest:

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Back at the riverside we found several butterflies that were attracted to a red blanked left on one of the kayaks.  Can’t get enough butterflies:

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Bonus Shot

This is a popular road-side snack in Laos.  A tube of sweet brown-color sticky rice, wrapped in a thin sheet of bamboo and topped with coconut flakes at both ends.  We liked Laos food well enough, but as with other Asian countries, the main courses are often better than the desserts (i.e. this was so-so).

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Entering Laos

[…aaaand we’re back.  You may have noticed that Pnina and I, um, fell behind a little bit.  It’s actually late November now.  We returned from the world trip about a month ago.  We’re in Seattle again.  It took a little while to get back into regular-life-mode (back to work, move to new apartment, etc.), but now we’re settled and I finally have some time to devote to the blog.  I still plan to write about the last 3-4 months of the trip.  Here goes…]

June 17-18, 2009

The visa extension that Pnina and I got back in Golmud was about to expire, so it was time for Pnina and I to leave China.  From Yuanyang we headed south to Laos.  This was a 2-day bus journey with a night’s rest in a middle-of-nowhere town called JiangCheng.

This part of China has a tribal group called Hani.  We didn’t stick around long enough to really learn about them, but in passing we noticed that the women wear jester-like hats and the men smoke cigarettes using large bongs.

A Hani woman selling Mangosteen fruit:

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A Hani man smoking his cigarette through a 1/2-yard bong:

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The road to the Laos border was beautiful – rice paddies, hills, and rivers.  But it was also the first crappy road we’d seen in China.  At one point we reached an impasse – the road was completely washed out and there was no way to get by.  Luckily there was a bus heading in the opposite direction that found itself in the same predicament.  So, our bus conductor spoke to their conductor, and they decided to do a “passenger swap”.  Before the swap, though, our conductor went from person to person and asked for more money.  We’re not sure why (nobody spoke English) so we can only guess that the other bus was more expensive.  Anyhow, this was one of those few situations where it paid to not speak the local language.  Each time the conductor lady came by to ask for money we just flashed our bus tickets and said “we already paid”  🙂  After the 6th attempt, she let it go.

The view on the way to the Laos border.  The same kind of terraced hills we saw in Yuanyang:

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The road was completely washed out, so we crossed this part by foot and hopped on a different bus to go the rest of the way to the Laos border:

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Eventually we emerged from the canyon into flatter land:

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When we stopped for lunch I watched this scam-artist at work.  He had one of those simple games where he hides a coin underneath one of three shallow cups, then shuffles them and bets people that they can’t locate the right cup.  His trick (and it’s a really lame trick) is that when people look away for a moment to grab their money, he moves the coin to a different cup.  It was totally stupid, but I watched 4-5 people fall for it, one after another.  I was tempted to tip people off, but I wasn’t sure how the scam artist would react (better to just leave China and not get into trouble).

A scam artist betting one of the passengers that he can’t identify the cup with the coin:

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Mohan is the last town in China before the border, but it already looked pretty Laotian (or Thai).  We saw signs in both Chinese and Laos script, and many buildings had Siamese-style pointed roofs.  From here we hopped on a short-range minivan to the actual border.

We exchanged our few remaining Chinese bills for Laos kip notes.  This was the weakest currency we’d seen since Zimbabwe: $1 US = 9600 Laos kip.

Then we went to the immigration office to get stamped out of China.  The immigration officer was confused when we handed her our visa because it wasn’t a standard in-your-passport visa; instead, it was a separate piece of paper (this was the “group visa” that we got when we entered Tibet).  Her manager took over.  He said he would need to keep our original visa, but he’ll give us a xerox copy that we can show the Laos people.  The end result is that our passports contain no evidence whatsoever that we were in China.  You can find stamps showing that we exited Nepal and other stamps showing that we entered Laos six weeks later.  In between?  Mystery.

With our exit stamp, we walked about 1 km from the Chinese border (which was huge and impressive) to the Laos border (which was a small shack in the middle of nothing).  Right about this time it started to rain pretty hard, and it stayed that way for the next few weeks.  This was the Southeast Asian monsoon welcoming us.

Motorcycles in Mohan (the last Chinese town before the border) have these smart built-in parasols.  Notice that it’s sunny here:

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Only two hours later, at the Chinese side of the border, and now it’s raining buckets.  Notice the muddy river flowing along the street:

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We had just enough cash left in our pockets to take one final ride to our first destination on the Laos side – the village of Luang Nam Tha.  We reached the village after sunset with 2000 kip in our pocket (about $0.20).

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