|The cave that we (bravely) swam into. Click picture for a link to some more pictures!|
There is obviously a lot to catch you up on, so I will just focus on the highlights. One new addition which I dreamed up recently will be a section at the end of the post aimed specifically at other travelers following a similar path and wanting recommendations/information about how to do things, or what to expect. We have benefited a lot from reading other travelers blogs and want to give in kind when appropriate. Enough chatting (Natalie must be rubbing off on me!), here's what we've been up to!
|Hanging out of a boat in Luang Probang|
Our last post found us in Luang Probang in northern Laos which to the very end exceeded our expectations. If it wasn't on the other side of the world from our family and friends, and if we didn't need a lot more money before considering the possibility, I think we would both be ready to retire there now! Very magical.
From there we headed to Vang Vieng (Laos) which on the backpacker circuit in South East Asia is incredibly famous for "tubing". From Bangkok to Kathmando (just guessing on that last one) you will find young travelers eagerly chatting about their adventures tubing in Vang Vieng, often showing off battle-scars in the process. For those who have never heard of this, it is pretty simple. You go to this beautiful town, surrounded by jagged mountains and forest and rice fields and rent a tube and spend the day floating down a river, both sides of which are covered with makeshift bars. The real allure, besides the drinking, are the numerous slides and zip-lines which drop you from incredible heights over the water. For their rickety construction alone these attractions would never be allowed in the US, even if they were only a few feet high. But add to that that everyone is two/three/four sheets to the wind (not only from the alcohol, but the plentiful and openly sold weed, mushrooms, and opium), and that they are insanely high (The highest is supposedly 60 feet), and it is a recipe for fun and or incredibly disaster.
|The first bar (note with the lowest zip-line)!|
The weather when we were in Vang Vieng was on the chilly side with occasional drizzles which ended up being a blessing in disguise. It gave us the impetus to skip tubing a few days in a row, while we crossed our fingers for improved conditions, and in the mean-time we did a ton of caving, another thing the area is know for (though I would guess a minority of visitors make it past the tubing). We visited some truly amazing caves, one of which was just a large hole in a mountain with a deep warm water steam flowing our of it (see the picture are the beginning of the blog). There we swam into the cave, continuously daring each-other to go just around the next bend. Neither of us wanted to be the first to turn back, so we ended making it quite far in, still with no end in sight. It was really magical, and scary for Natalie :). We also went to another cave that had a huge swimming hole in the complete dark. I don't think either of us would have entered if it wasn't for our guide who jumped in first and started splashing and encouraging us. It was super cool swimming in the eery darkness.
Finally we decided that we needed to move on, and we were going to have to do the tubing the next day, good weather or not. It ended up being cloudy but one of the warmer days so it worked out in that department. We arrived to the first bar and they put wrist bands on us and told us they were good for unlimited free shots - dangerous. The shots were of locally distilled alcohol, known as Lao Lao, and the distilling process hasn't been perfected if that means not making you wince for minutes afterwards and wishing you were dead the next day :) The first bar had a high but not deathly zip-line that Natalie and I had a lot of fun warming up on. The second bar upped the ante with free buckets of Laos Lao mixed with the local Red Bull which is about 1000 times more potent than ours, and a zip-line that was about twice as high. The good news is that we powered through for awhile, and both did the zip line a few times (I was very proud of Natalie, even with the liquid courage taken into account). The bad news is that we both wrecked our bodies for the next few days by smashing them into water at extreme speeds (Natalie, who landed wrong once, still has half a leg that is black and blue) and buy drinking too much (Lao Lao especially when mixed with Red Bull really sneaks up on you) and by ruining our sleep patters since neither of us were able to fall asleep at all that night even though we were insanely tired. We haven''t done this in awhile, but we both swore off alcohol forever!! Or at least Lao Lao....or at least for a week or so....... :)
Next we headed down to Vientiane, the capitol of Laos, which we had been told was a boring city not worth more than a day. We actually ended up really liking it and had a lot of fun over the course of a couple days exploring the city on rented bikes and eating delicious cheap food. I hate to even mention something positive about colonization, but in the case of Laos, one of the lasting benefits is some really beautiful architecture, public spaces, and food. In Thailand (which was never colonized in modern times) you definitely don't find the abundance of baguettes, pastries and coffee shops which are always a nice addition to strictly local food. In fact we found even the native food in Laos much preferable to Thailand's, with a larger prevalence of fresh, non-fried ingredients, and overall flavorful but not hot to the point of tasting nothing but that, like a lot of the food in Thailand.
Next we were off to Thakhek which is in the middle of the south of Laos. It is very famous as a starting place for "The Loop", a three-four day scooter trip around the local countryside which includes a visit to one of the most famous caves in the world, Konglor Cave, which has a 7 kilometer river flowing through it that you can raft down! While I don't think we have ever posted any photos that we didn't take ourselves, I am going to make an exception this time, because its just insanely hard to capture without more professional lighting and equipment.
|Pretty insane, ha??|
Konglor Cave was the other highlight, and the insanity of driving in a motorized boat with just a bit of light from our headlamps for about an hour through a cave each way is almost beyond explanation. Emerging on the other side into rainforest when we had left from a relatively more dry and developed area felt like arriving to the Garden of Eden! Really cool.
|Sunset over a temple|
Next we made our way down to the 4000 islands which is situated along the border with Cambodia. It got its name because that is where the Mekong stretches out and slows down, and there are a lot of little islands all over the place. Most of these are not inhabited, but just 10 feet or so wide lumps of land with a few trees and plants growing on them. The whole area was really beautiful and was a great way to slow down and chill out for a few days after our flurry of recent movement. We stayed at a large bungalow right on the river with a private patio overlooking it, and steps down to where you could swim, all facing the sunset for $6 a night (twice as much as we could have paid for an equally beautiful view but more rustic living arrangements). Needless to say we had a great time laying on the hammocks attached to our deck, and catching up on sleep and reading. We also paid one day to be taken upriver with tubes, where we spent the next couple hours floating back down. We were joking about how funny the locals must think tourists are who pay to be taken to the middle of nowhere to sit and do nothing for a couple hours as they slowly flat back to where they already where. It was a lot of fun though, and a little adventurous when we almost took the wrong route and went down the biggest waterfall in South East Asia....a story which I don't think we would have lived to tell!
Finally we decided it was time to leave and at 8am boarded a bus for Siem Reap, Cambodia, which would drop us off 16 painful hours later. Today is our first full one in Siem Reap, and we decided to rest and wait till tomorrow to go to Angkor Wat. We plan on leaving at 4am, so we can watch the sun rise over the temples, should be good!
|Monkey which had endless fun grooming us.|
As goes without saying, we are missing home and friends and family incredibly, and send you all much love! For interested parties, we will be in Siem Reap through the 13th, then in Phnom Phen for a couple days, then we are heading to Saigon (Ho Chi Min City), where we will start to make our way up Vietnam to Hanoi where we depart back to Bangkok on May 10th, then to India on the 12th, then to the Philippines on the 26th, then home on June 9th. As usual we will do our best to continue updating here whenever we have the chance. Much love to all!!!
Accommodation at Bee Bee guesthouse in Vang Vieng is really nice, and they will charge as little as 60,000 a night when you bargain, which given the soft beds, free internet, cleanliness, BBC and other English stations, etc., was totally worth it for us. It is about a 5 minute walk from downtown. Tuk Tuks know where it is if you are coming from the north, or if coming from the south you should be dropped off at a bus station that is a short walk to it over gravel area, after which you will turn left for another block or so.
Make sure to see the caves - they are totally worth checking out. Getting there on a scooter seems dumb since it is better track for a mountain bike, but it would make for a long bike ride to most of them, and all bikes we saw for rent were single speeds. If you can/are willing to learn to drive a manual scooter you can find ones for rent for 40,000 for 24 hours.
It goes without saying to be careful with the zip-lines etc, but someone literally died when we were there because of a drug overdose so stay away from that; you don't know what you are getting.
Rent bikes. Although the streets aren't super friendly for them, they are the only way to do the place justice in a day or two.
Check out COPE, where they have a little exhibition about unexploded ordinance, and the havoc that it has wreaked on the country. People there were really nice, and it is a good way to know more about where you are traveling, and the continued consequences of a war that end decades ago.
There is a really good Indian place called Nazim or something like that on the riverfront that is also super cheap. There are several Italian and French places with super reasonable set lunches ($5 or less for 3-4 delicious courses).
Everyone is going to tell you The Loop is amazing. It's cool, but if you don't have time to do it or don't fancy a body sore to the breaking point, don''t feel bad about skipping it. Do however take a tour to Konglor Cave, which is unmissable.
There is a really good and quite and cheap guesthouse close to everything right after you get off the boat on the beach. instead of walking head on or making a 90 degree right turn, turn a super hard right down a little path past a place with a pool table which will now be on your right. Keep going through the gate, and you are there. They will probably show you a place with no water access, but ask to keep going till you find the bungalows on the water. They are 50,000 a night, but super worth it with pretty soft beds, and quiet unobstructed views. They also rent the best bikes on the island for 10,000 for 24 hours instead of just till 6pm, and with a couple mountain bikes even to choose from.
If you are going to Siem Reap you can save yourself a couple bucks by booking at the bakery, which is about a 10-15 minute walk down the main road on the left (they also have a good restaurant and cheap decent guesthouse at 30,000 a night). The price is $13 and you are on the same bus as everyone else. Prepare yourself for a long day, you will leave at 8am, and no matter what they tell you will arrive no earlier than 11pm, probably closer to 12.
There is one Indian food place, and it is awesome.