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Luang Prabang, Laos

Visiting Laos was almost completely by accident. I had hoped to visit when I first arrived to do my scuba instructor course in Thailand, but as time went by it just seemed impossible… Then, one night, sitting on the beach and drinking beers with friends I said “I wish I could go to Laos…”. My good friend, Monique, replied with “Well, why can’t you??”…. That is when the seed was planted… yes why can’t I go???

In truth it had been many years since I had traveled anywhere new by myself, even though that is my favorite way to travel, but another friend hoped to join so that ignited the fire of excitement even more and I soon traded some old books for a used Lonely Planet and got on with planning. Ultimately he couldn’t join but by then the train was rolling and there was no way to stop it!

My original plan was thus:
– Travel by overnight bus to Bangkok, stay at NapPark hostel where I could store luggage.
– Travel by overnight train to the border then on to Vientiane, the capital, for a night.
– Another 13hr odd journey to Luang Prabang and spend a few days before the return journey.

But you never know how plans might change so it is never worth carving things in stone. As it turned out I met a great bunch of folks at the hostel and we planned to do a day trip to Ayutthaya, the old capital of Siam, and at the same time the travel agent who happened to have his little office in the restaurant suggested I fly to Luang Prabang instead….

With the prospect of not only getting a chance to see Ayuthaya but also spend more time in Luang Prabang I was sold!! The cost was around $189 (US) for the ticket vs about $100 and a total of 4 days of travel…. yup no brainer!

Luang Prabang was phenomenal, stunning, chilled, friendly…. one of my top 3 for sure.

The People You Meet….
Among the amazing experiences was meeting up with one of the Terrific Ten, Denise from Holland, who met up with me after visiting Chang Mai. Was like having an old friend to hang out with and to go on a kayak/trek with. The kayak trip was with White Elephant Adventures and was brilliant, post food poisoning and all. Another incredible opportunity was learning to weave with a German girl who was staying at the same guesthouse.

However, I think my all time favorite experience was meeting my “Smoothie Family”. Every night as you walk down the main street towards the night market you pass around 10 families all selling smoothies of various flavors. Well on my first night I wondered down trying to decide if I wanted one, when this young chap calls out “You want a smoothie?” with a cheeky little up swing in the tone as he said it. It caught my attention and I was hooked for the rest of the week. At some point I ended with a smoothie buddy, an older lone traveler, we had a smoothie date at 8pm 3 nights in a row… one of those rare memories you can only have through travel.

Smoothie Family and Smoothie Date

Smoothie Family and Smoothie Date

I hope to return some day!!!

 
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Posted by on March 2, 2016 in RTW, Thailand, Travel

 

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White Elephant Adventures – Luang Prabang, Laos

Choices, Choices…

Luang Prabang, Laos, is a hub for adventure! Everything from 1-3 day trekking trips to remote tribes in the hills, to kayak trips, to zip-lining, elephant riding and so much more. The hard part is not only choosing which activity to take part in but also which company to choose from the many that line the main street.

Luang Prabang Main Street

Luang Prabang Main Street

I spent a couple of days wandering along looking in at some of the tour companies but none of them really caught my attention, until I wandered in to the White Elephant Adventure Company office. Immediately there was a great vibe, and the owner, Alex, paused long enough on his way out to provide some great information.

From what I could tell the big difference comes from the fact that White Elephant uses only local guides, supports the local communities and schools and also believes in “leave no trace” activities. Unlike other companies who would take tourists to a remote community and leave their company stickers plastered all over the houses… White Elephant also has a unique pricing technique, every day of a tour costs $50 US, regardless of how many people or which tour you do, making things nice and clear.

My friend and I opted for the 1 day kayak and trek. We would drive and then trek through a local village, home to 3 of the tribes: Hmong, Lao and Khmu (In Laos these days the tribes get along really well, and often live together in communities, each with their own architectural designs and lifestyles). Then we would kayak to the Tad-se waterfalls where we would have lunch, have time for a swim and for those interested in Elephant rides or zip-lining there would be time for those (for a small fee).

This is what got my attention at first

This is what got my attention at first

A Right Proper Pair

On the morning of the big day my friend and I were a sight… she had broken her big toe while in Chang Mai after a tourist rode their scooter over her foot and I had decided to skip street food the night before and eat in a restaurant resulting in food poisoning…go figure.

But Miss Limp-along and Miss Sicky sucked it up and gave it a go… our decision was aided in the fact that there was an entry fee that had already been paid and if we changed dates we would have to pay it again (only $10US but that was equal to around 5 sandwiches and 3 smoothies). The staff at White Elephant were phenomenal, making sure I stayed hydrated and my friend had any help she needed with getting around.

A Great Day Out

So despite feeling and looking like I had a heck of a hangover… we had a fabulous day. Our phenomenal guides were Mr Manh (yup he da Manh!!) and Mr. Vee. We headed out by truck 30 minutes outside the city and then, after visiting the 3rd bush on the right (I had been drinking a LOT of water), we walked down to pick up our ride across the river. It became a source of much amusement as it turned out to be a dugout with a motor that sat VERY low in the water and did not feel stable, we were afraid to sneeze.

Once we were across Mr Vee gave us a great tour of the villages explaining all the differences in the lifestyles and their homes, how one tribe prefers double story, another prefers stilts and the other goes for a one story ground floor.

Hmong Houses.

Hmong Houses.

All very fascinating with some awfully cute kids along the way…

Super cute kids.

Super cute kids.

Then it was time a bush trek, around 30min, to get to our next dugout ride and finally to the kayaks. Mr. Vee was my kayak partner since I was under the weather and not sure how well I could keep up, he was fantastic and took over a large portion of the kayaking, also happy to answer all my questions and tell me a few things along the wa.

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Tad-Se Waterfall

After a short kayak across the river we came to Tad-Se waterfalls, similar in design to the Kuang Si waterfalls with the travertine limestone creating beautiful pools to take a relaxing, if somewhat chilly, dip.

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We also used it as the perfect lunch spot while some of the others took a dip in the falls on the back of an elephant.

Kayak, Rapids and Friends

All too soon our fun at the falls came to an end and we headed back to the kayaks for the last stretch of the river and some fun rapids. It was spectacular with a few clouds and blue sky, slowly kayaking down the Nam Khan river (a tributary of the Mekong). We hit a couple of rapids but nothing serious just a bit of fun.

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Finally we came to the home stretch and landed the kayaks smoothly. The last set of rapids were a little more exciting and one of us did tip over (as it turned out his kayak had been taking on water the whole trip without realizing it and was fairly unstable when he hit the first rapid), but no one was harmed…

All in all a phenomenal trip, phenomenal guides, and an outstanding company, highly recommended!!!

 
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Posted by on January 3, 2016 in RTW, Travel

 

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Backstreet Academy – Luang Prabang

No this is not the latest group offshoot from Backstreet Boys… rather it is an awesome organisation based online that connects tourists with locals and gives them the opportunity to experience something incredible, from knife making, to cooking classes, to mahout training, to weaving and so much more.

Backstreet Academy has courses throughout South East Asia and are often a cheaper alternative compared to going through something that is more touristy and set up.

How to Choose Where to Go

I had thought about doing a weaving course from when I first looked into coming to Luang Prabang. Doing some research online, in my guidebook and finally once I got here there only seemed to be one real option and that was to go through Ok Pop Tok. Located outside the city, the group has a fantastic textile store in town (on the spendy side) and a free tuk-tuk to visit the living arts village. They offer courses from 1/2 to full day and range from batik to weaving, prices range from $60 and up.

Another girl at the guesthouse was also interested but Ok Pop Tok sounded a bit spendy and more set up compared to actually visiting a locals house and learning from the source. So after a bit more wandering around someone happened to mention Backstreet Academy. They offered a half day (4hr) course at a weavers house for the base rate of $29 US, to make a longer scarf you added $5. Considering Ok Pop Tok offered a half day weaving course where you made placemat for over $60 this sounded awesome!!!

After some hassle with wifi crashing and not being able to figure out how to get discounts and such we finally got it sorted. In total it cost me $25 with a $10 discount I received.

So with everything sorted and ready to go we just had to wait till the assigned day and the pick up!

A Weaving We Shall Go

Katrin (from Germany) and I found our translator, Mr Pon (spelling??) waiting for us by 8.45am. We made introductions and jumped in the waiting tuk-tuk. Our host and weaving experts were located about 15min out of the city and it was great fun chatting with our translator while we drove out.

Once we arrived and met our experts, one each, we set about choosing materials and designs. So many choices so little time…

Weaving 101

I opted for a simple design of natural cotton with blue being the main color and green the secondary color.

the plan!!!

the plan!!!

Katrin, my fellow weaver who had her own mini loom at home, opted for a fine cotton one with patterns way more complicated!

First the experts had to spin our thread onto bobbins, and finally I understood how Sleeping Beauty pricked herself on the spindle needle, that bugger is sharp!!!

learning to load the bobbin

learning to load the bobbin

spinning the bobbin

spinning the bobbin

The experts got to work making it look easy as the bobbin flew from hand to hand and their feet seamlessly switched from side to side.

The expert

The expert

and then let us have a go… the mantra of the day for me was “CHANGE FOOT” as I kept forgetting to switch feet between the switching of the bobbin from side to side. Every now and then out of nowhere you would hear one of them say “change foot”, even if you thought they weren’t watching you!

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Getting into a rhythm is the only way, but then you had to remember to switch colors, thank heavens I had a simple pattern, not what I had planned but still good. My expert possibly didn’t understand what I wanted and so went for full stripes of green rather than half stripes scattered around the scarf. She planned 6 blue followed by 2 green… this pattern lasted about 2 sets before I would lose count and then ended up doing my own thing… when she first saw it she wanted to correct me then realised it was my plan to change the style and said it looked quite good.

In the end it turns out there might be hope for me yet… in Laos the quality of a wife often compares with the quality of her weaving and for a first timer I got quite a few nods of approval… even from the tuk tuk driver!

The finished scarves were delivered the next day. It was a phenomenal experience and I am really happy I opted for giving it a go, my back and arms were a little less happy but hey I have a scarf that is over 2m / 6.5ft long… I think it may end up as a table runner 🙂

I highly recommend looking into Backstreet Academy where-ever you are in Asia.

 
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Posted by on November 23, 2015 in Travel

 

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Landing in Laos

Why Don’t You?

Laos has long been one of those mysterious countries I never thought I would get a chance to visit. Even though I hoped to during my stay on the island in Thailand for some reason it hadn’t occurred to me to leave the island early and visit this stunning country until a friend said “Well why don’t you??” (Thanks Monique). It had been quite a few years since I had gone off exploring alone to a completely foreign country and, although I was nervous, as soon as I found a guide book I was hooked and so the Laos plan developed.

Farewells

The bittersweet truth of leaving to explore is the farewells that need to be said. I have made amazing friends on our little island of Koh Phangan, but since it’s magic seems to draw us back I am sure I will be seeing you all soon…ish! For now it’s off to another adventure, LAOS!!

Getting There

Researching the best way to get there from Bangkok was a little intense, there were flights (quite expensive), busses (over 12hrs or more), trains (with a sleeper bed at least) and so on… I had planned to take the train to Nong Khai, just below the Laos border in Thailand, then take a shuttle to the border, go through immigration, take a shuttle to the capital Vientiane, spend the night and then take a 13hr bus journey to Luang Prabang, my planned destination. Total cost would run around $120 US, total time 2.5 to 3 days.

This would leave me a total of 3 days in Luang Prabang with 6 days ish of travel. The travel agent suggested flying and spending a full week in the town. I agreed and we found a ticket for $279 US, double the price but also double the time.

I am so happy I opted for flying!!!

Immigration

Arriving and getting through immigration was a lot easier than expected, for US citizens it is $35 or 1450baht. I had been told that I had to take new crisp US$ notes or they wouldn’t be accepted, but it turns out they take pretty much anything with a conversion rate. Just be sure you have a passport photo. If not they will charge an extra $1 to take a photo of the passport.

It’s Sunday of Course the Money Exchanges are CLOSED!!!

At Bangkok airport I stopped at 2 or 3 money exchanges to see if I could get Laos Kip, apparently none of them carry it, but no problem right? I can exchange at the International Airport of Luang Prabang, Laos…. right? WRONG!!!!

Once through I went out to exchange money and find a taxi. What do you know??? Arriving on Sunday meant all the exchange offices were closed, what are the odds! Luckily the taxi guy in charge of taxi payments exchanged some money for me, he seemed to be trying to do it quietly and gave me a rate of 8,000kip to $1, so I was pretty certain he was getting a good deal. As it turned out he gave me the same exchange rate as everywhere else, most country’s the guy would have been sure to give a terrible rate as we had no other choice. It cost 50,000kip ($6) to get into town per taxi, so find people and go in a group, I had met a French couple from the Comoros Islands on the plane and so we were able to split it 3 ways.

Finding a Guesthouse

For the first time ever I had not booked a hostel or a guesthouse or anything, I figured I would try practice what I preach, in the sense of “don’t worry, all will work itself out”, plus since I only had my day pack with me it meant I wasn’t lugging all my stuff through town with me….

The French couple had the name of a guesthouse and the taxi driver dropped us off and pointed in that general direction. We were a bit confused as we didn’t see it until I looked up at a building that was definitely not in use! Yup the guesthouse had been closed for 2 yrs… how funny is that.

We went to the one next door but the rooms were too expensive, they had one room for 120,000kip ($15) and the French couple were thinking of taking it. I sighed and said I would keep looking and the clerk said maybe he could give me a discount on the $25 rooms upstairs and make it the same price. It looked great so I agreed (more than I wanted to spend but it was the first night)… then the couple wanted to get the same kind of room at the cheaper price (they claimed the cheaper room smelled funny)… wow! there are 2 of them and 1 of me…. in the end the clerk called the boss and he said no to discounted rooms, so we moved on.

We found a place offering a room for 60,000kip ($6), but they only had 1, so the couple said they were going back to take the cheaper room at the first place (even if it smelled funny)… these people were starting to crack me up. The room I looked at was not all that good so I kept walking. Suddenly I cam across the French couple again talking to a guy on a scooter about a place down the road for 100,000kip ($12). The conversation went something like this:

Guy: We only have 1 room but we can add a bed
Me: I don’t want to impose I can keep looking
French: oh no that is ok, that sounds good
Guy: it is just 20,000 kip more so 120,000 total
French: no no give it to us at 100,000
Me: I don’t mind you are the couple you decide
French: 40,000 ($5) each is too much we take if 100,000kip total
Guy: not possible
French: talking in French look at me
Me: you decide!
French: no we do not want to pay more we think we just take the room for 100,000kip
Me: no problem I go look somewhere else cheers….

They were arguing about paying 40,000kip ($5) instead of 33,000kip ($4.50) and ended up paying 50,000kip…. I am sorry but sometimes the French are weird.

In the end I found this great little place just down the road, 80,000kip ($10), free tea and coffee, wifi (when it is working) and it is in a room with 2 beds so when my new friend from Bangkok arrives it will be perfect! What an adventure!

Pak Huay Guesthouse

Pak Huay Guesthouse

Night Market

I went to the night market to find something to eat and am pretty certain I squealed with delight at the sight. Everything was so well organized and beautiful and when I got to the food section there was so much to choose from I didn’t know what to take, I ended up eating a sausage on a stick and buying a fruit shake… just too much to take in!!

Night Market

Night Market

I was loving Laos already!!!!

 
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Posted by on November 19, 2015 in Thailand, Travel

 

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