Vientiane, Laos

We’re still on the island of Koh Tao in Thailand and enjoying it so much, we may never leave! In this post, Mila goes back in time once again to wrap up our Laos travels.

We took a nice short four hour bus ride from Vang Vieng to Vientiane, which we had decided would be our final city to explore in Laos. Vientiane is the capital city and it shows. Upon arrival, directly across from the bus terminal, we noticed a French bakery and many, many Western faces all about. Since we arrived on a Friday, just before a weekend, the plan was to enjoy Saturday and Sunday exploring the city. We would be able to submit documents on Monday, wait for them to be processed on Tuesday, allowing us to depart by train on Wednesday for Bangkok, Thailand.

We decided to book a guesthouse upon arrival, rather than booking in advance, a method that has worked well for us in the past. Negotiating in person can sometimes result in a better rate and allows for inspection of the actual rooms, where quality and cleanliness can vary GREATLY. Waco and Jette relaxed in a cafe and I spent some time inquiring with several guesthouses in the area. I discovered that many places were either full or were asking extremely inflated rates for the quality of accommodation. It was starting to get late and in an effort to get settled, we opted for an inexpensive, if undesirable option for one night. It was the Ministry of Education Guesthouse, just a short walk away from the cafe where all of our bags were. I won’t offend your sensibilities by showing you our Maoist room; it was pretty gross. Here are some photos from the lobby. It felt like the kind of place that had been repurposed, yet somehow suspended in time. Just down the street, capitalism was everywhere. Vientiane was filled with modern design, upscale boutiques, latte-sipping ex-pats and cleaning supplies. But here sat the Ministry of Education in a fog of Maoist former glory days, replete with baffling choices for hanging framed artwork, a heavy dose of grime, and a communist staff frozen in time and inaction. Our bathroom especially was the stuff of nightmares. You’ll have to take my word for it that these two photos make this place look deceptively tidy.

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Reception area at the Ministry of Education Guesthouse

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Jette took it all in stride, trooper that she is

The next morning, we splurged on a cute inn just around the corner and down the block and were much, much happier for our remaining time in town.

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The lobby of our cute inn

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Our suite had a nice living room which Jette quickly appropriated as her gym.

The Nam Phou color changing fountain was the designated cartwheel spot.

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I had a chance to visit a traditional Lao weaving boutique, Carol Cassidy. Both Jette and I treated ourselves to a small coin purse woven in bright silk colors.

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We found a delicious spot for dinner called Ice Cream Garden. It was quite hot, so to cool off, we were *forced* to eat quite a bit of ice cream for dessert.

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The influence of the French is quite strong still and there were many patisseries and cafes for us to enjoy as well as an outpost of our beloved JOMA.

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JOMA displays their yummy treats

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Is that latte almost ready, JOMA?

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REAL cheddar cheese + egg + tortilla = happy girl

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Trying a French bakery/cafe called Le Banneton

We walked around and explored the central part of town. We were curious about the mix of building styles and the incongruous, yet often adjacent, mix of very busy places with places that appeared to be abandoned. Our thoughts were clouded by the intense heat, so we found refuge in some ice cream shops. Waco also discovered a public swimming pool and took Jette to swim a couple of days.

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typical concrete two-level shophouse which appears empty

We stopped for ice cream more than once. The Swensens chain is very popular in Asia and has a very 50’s diner feel, but with some Asia-specific additions like an entire menu incorporating durian ice cream.

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Swensens durian menu

Swensens is a popular brand in Asia

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We visited the Lao National Museum which had some interesting artifacts and displays. One nice display included bound palm leaf books and a table where visitors could test their palm leaf-writing skills. It’s impossible to visit Laos without discussing the fact that it has the sad honor of being the most bombed country in history. The museum made great effort to give their interpretation of history and we stood impressed with the way Laos has persevered in the face of such massive adversity.

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Jette attempting to write on palm leaves

There was a nightly street carnival along the river. We enjoyed walking in the cooler evening temperatures and Jette found the balloon popping quite fun.

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street carnival

First night in Vientiane

Jette and Waco also tried their luck as sharp shooters.

Jette did well

Jette did well

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This performance appeared to be a nightly attraction

There was a Dairy Queen across from the carnival area. I promise we did NOT go, opting instead for cold water and fresh fruit smoothies.

nooooo!

Tuesday came quickly and we stood in line with everyone else waiting to pick our Thai visas.

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Waiting for our numbers to be called

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Finally picking up visas

Visas in hand, we purchased tickets for an overnight train to Bangkok and went out for delicious bowls of noodle soup. Finally, in our (now) usual fashion, we stocked up on our favorite train snacks. These include the elusive Pepperidge Farm Cheddar Goldfish and lots of fruit. Luckily, we found a good supply of both.

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Typical Lao meal

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Jette is a pro! Chopsticks in her right hand, soup spoon in her left

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I’m wishing I had another bowl full

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Sign of appreciation

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Our favorite train snack

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Some delicious tiny mandarin oranges for the train to Bangkok

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We were picked in the afternoon by a songthaew truck that was to take us to the train station. It was quite full; we ended up squeezing a total of eleven people plus luggage. Cozy!

The roads leading to the train station were very busy, dusty, in poor condition and lacked order. Though we are now used to the chaos, on this day, we experienced something unexpected.

We were in the back of the truck, in conversation with a Swedish family, when our truck swerved and jerked. We all heard a crunch and felt a grinding bounce as our truck ran over something. That something was a guy on a motorcycle. The songthaew trucks are open enough, especially for the passengers in back and we could all see a motorcyclist down on the ground, his mangled motorcycle laying next to him. Had we run over him or just his motrocycle? Was he ok? We all gasped and sat anxiously as our driver hit the brakes, but then…slowly…unbelievably…he hit the gas and sped away! We all looked at each other and then back to the accident to see that the motorcyclist was standing up. Figures became smaller as we continued to drive away. Was our driver actually not going to stop? There was outrage expressed in Thai, French, Swedish and English, but what could we do? Was this is typical for accidents in Laos? We certainly don’t know anything about Laotian traffic laws, nor do we know what local protocol is for accidents. We do know something about simple, human decency, and it works like this: If you are driving a truck and run over a guy on a motorcycle, you stop to see if he is OK and render aid if necessary. The remainder of the ride to the train station was solemn.

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Eleven of us (plus all of our luggage) squeezed into the back of this motorcycle-crushing songthaew

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Going through immigration the station

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First a short train ride to the Thai train station across the border

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Crossing the border to Thailand

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The sleeper car in the night train to Bangkok

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Peek-a-boo

Departing Luang Prabang for Vang Vieng

Another post by Mila as we continue to catch up. We’re on the island of Koh Tao in Thailand right now, but want to post more about Laos, first.

As Waco mentioned in an earlier post, end-to-end months of travel can take their toll and we all ended up with colds. We spent extra days exploring the city while regaining our health in Luang Prabang. Luckily for us, the city offers some creature comforts that helped us with our recovery. Exhibit I, JOMA Bakery Cafe. We are naturally inquisitive about local foods wherever we travel. We typically eat meals the way they are eaten by the people who live wherever we happen to be, but when you don’t feel well, exploring new foods is one of the last things you want to do. Enter JOMA, a cafe that offers items that we no longer take for granted: lattes, unsweetened brewed iced tea (VERY difficult to find), fresh vegetable sandwiches with REAL cheddar cheese on focaccia and moist banana bread. We felt better with every delicious bite.

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Enjoying a Lao iced tea

JOMA makes great Lao/Thai style iced tea, too

guesthouse street

feeling better on a walk in Luang Prabang

Typical buildings along the main street of the old city

Typical buildings along the main street of the old city

Schoold kids

School kids

On the main street of the old city

On the main street of the old city

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Picking up some fallen frangipani flowers…my new favorite!

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cooling off at Big Tree cafe

Nice big tree

the “Big Tree”

Buildings facing the Mekong

Buildings facing the Mekong River

Life outdoors is everywhere. As we walked and peeked up side streets, we would glimpse bits of daily life. Here, a woman is getting a pedicure from another woman who travels around town with her pedicure station.

Alley pedicure

Time for a pedicure

Seed pods

these seed pods were gorgeous

Traditional meets modern

traditional teak architecture with a heavy dose of modern minimalism

We enjoyed a nearby restaurant called Cafe Toui, not only because the food was delicious, but because one of Jette’s favorite furry friends was always there, too. We named this sweet dog, Little Brownie.

Little Brownie waiting patiently for Jette

“Little Brownie” at one of our favorite restaurants, Cafe Toui

Jette and Little Brownie

Jette with “Little Brownie”

Colorful decorations

enjoying the colorful temple decorations

One of the nicest aspects of Luang Prabang is being able to dine along the Mekong. In addition to having relied on the “Mighty” Mekong agriculturally, for transportation and as a major trade route, the city understands that the river has a natural beauty and has developed it into an enjoyable amenity.

We had dinner at one of the nicer restaurants across from the river one night and each ordered a basket filled with traditional Lao foods. We all love sticky rice, which Laotians eaten with every meal, as an accompaniment to savory dishes. It’s also used as a base for many other dishes, including sweets. My favorite Lao savory snack is crispy river weed. The most familiar food that I can think of that even comes close is Japanese nori, but it’s still quite different. The process for making river weed can be seen here. On our heaping basket of food, the river weed is in the top left corner just behind a small bowl of dipping sauce; it’s sprinkled with sesame seeds. Both Waco and I enjoyed the Lao eggplant dip, too.

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basket of Lao food

Dinner with a Mekong view

sunset on the Mekong

The main areas of the city can be easily accessed by a group of low-emission, electric tuk-tuks. Quite progressive!

Electric tuk tuk map

electric tuk-tuk map

This display was one we couldn’t bypass without documenting. These vessels are filled with reptile-infused alcohol, and the owner has posted some informational material to entice passers-by.

Snake infused alcohol

Instructions

incentives for imbibing

Indulging in some comfort food and a few days of rest provided enough energy for the seven hour long bus ride to Vang Vieng, Laos. Both Jette and I get motion sick, so we stocked up at the neighborhood pharmacy with some preventative tools. We bought ginger lozenges, mint chewing gum, and a menthol inhaler. In Asia, many people carry menthol inhalers and use them to help alleviate motion sickness. On our first long bus ride, a very nice Thai woman had seen Jette suffering and offered us her inhaler. The inhalers are small tubes that are about the size of a chapstick that people open and insert into their nostrils. We respectfully declined, but decided we should carry our own and test its possible potential beneficial effects.

About to board

Bus station

Bus station

Laos bus

We’re ready for a loooooong bus ride

A lovely day for a ride

The scenery was absolutely stunning

We drove for several hours and finally made it halfway. The driver pulled into a Laotian style rest stop which looked like this:

Lunch stop

a rest stop halfway to Vang Vieng

Snack shop

At the rest stop, a steady stream of kids on bikes with colorful umbrellas (aka portable shade) rode past.

Kids coming home from school

Kids with colorful umbrellas coming home from school

Thankfully, the bus ride was fine and we arrived in Vang Vieng in good spirits. Our initial impression was that Vang Vieng was a small dusty town, especially in comparison to Luang Prabang, which had initially seemed smallish and charming, but now felt downright cosmopolitan in hindsight.

We had booked a guesthouse by email and hired a tuk-tuk for the short ride there. As we drove through town, it was hard to miss the natural beauty of the green mountains and lush tropical plants that played majestic background to all of the simplistic foreground.

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Our guesthouse

Our guesthouse

This type of raised seating with flat cushions is common in Vang Vieng and we enjoyed it during breakfasts at our guesthouse. This was their covered patio lounge space with the prettiest view.

raised seating

raised seating

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View from our guesthouse to a new road being built

After relaxing for a bit, we set out to explore. A simple sign spotted from the road into town had grabbed our attention and we decided to investigate a little place called Amigos.

Back for more Mexican food

dinner

Nachos

Nachos

by Jette

We’re ready for Mexican food

We ended up having dinner at Amigos three out of the four nights we were in Vang Vieng, at Jette’s request. We chatted with the lovely Australian owner and enjoyed her mom’s absolutely incredible chocolate rum balls. We felt welcomed, the ambiance was lovely and it was clear that a tremendous amount of effort was being made to create a beautiful environment and a successful business. Oh, and yes, the food was yummy, too! We would typically walk from our guesthouse to dinner and take in the local culture.

There were lots and lots of chickens roaming the streets of Vang Vieng, and other chickens in oversized, overturned handwoven baskets that were used as cages for the birds.

Street chicken

Street chicken

more street chickens

more street chickens

chicken hang-out

two cuties

two cuties

dogs love Jette

Much of life happens outside in most Asian cities, and that concept can be quite literal at times. We enjoyed watching a game of Sepak Takraw, above and had the chance to peek in on many other activities. Case in point, hair salons. This one was between Amigos and our guesthouse, so Jette decided to get her hair washed one night after dinner on our walk “home”. They did a nice job and it was a lot of fun.

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hair salon

Jette was getting so into the concept of living outdoors that she decided it would be fun to lose her eleventh tooth while walking around one day!

I just lost a tooth!!!

Losing a tooth walking down the street

Can you eat ice cream with a missing tooth?

Some of the most extensive limestone caves in Asia are found in Laos. We were interested in a spelunking adventure, and selected Ban Pha Thou as the cave we wanted to explore. We hired a tuk-tuk driver for the day, stopped at a street vendor for one of the tastiest treats of our trip (slightly sweet sticky rice cooked in bamboo) and drove about eleven km north of town through vibrant green, natural beauty.

in our hired tuk-tuk

this lady makes the best sticky rice!

this lady makes the best sticky rice!

sticky rice in bamboo

so good

We travelled some very bumpy roads and the skinniest suspension bridge we’ve ever seen.

you can barely see the vehicle

He’s transporting mattresses

tiny suspended bridge to cave

tight squeeze across a suspended bridge

Our driver stopped near some water buffalo who were going about their day.

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we made it

water buffalo family

water buffalo cooling off

There was one small bridge that we had to walk across. It was quite simply three hollow bamboo trunks tied together with bits of string and very few vertical supports. We pondered how wet we would be getting as we had very little confidence that the “bridge” could support our weight, but our concerns were unfounded…bamboo for the win!

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my turn

yikes

it actually works!

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almost at the cave

a bike that's been "parked" for a very long time

a bike that’s been “parked” for a very long time

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View from the cave entrance

Walking to the cave (1)

A family inside this small hut rented us headlamps

hello down there!

pretty walkway to cave entrance

lush

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climbing to cave entrance

climbing to cave entrance

up up up

headlamp works

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we're ready

cave entry

cave entry (1)

it's dark in here

it’s dark in here

I love caves

about to go in

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We explored the dark cave by ourselves for some time. We exited hot, dirty, tired and in need of a snack. We found our driver and requested a stop at Organic Mulberry Farm on our way back to town and we’re so glad we did. We tried a mulberry shake which was surprisingly pungent and strongly flavored. I bought a small wedge of their house-made goat cheese. Cheese is not an ingredient of Asian food, so to find a specialty goat cheese in such a rural spot was quite exciting. Waco ordered Thod Khao, fried sticky rice with egg, which turned out to be a much more delicious dish than it sounds. We were very happy campers and Jette and I will be making some as soon as possible with minced vegetables like the ones from Organic Mulberry Farm.

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Organic Mulberry Farm goat cheese

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Sampling a mulberry shake

We spent our final days in Vang Vieng enjoying the views of the Nam Song river, Laotian food and shady sidewalk cafes.

Canoeing the Mekong

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Ice!

We were more than a little excited to discover a family who sold ice by the bag full

Vang Vieng cafe

It was time to renew our Thai visas, and we needed to get to Vientiane. A four hour bus ride later, we were there.

Koang Si Waterfall and BEARS!

Another post by Mila as we catch up with a good internet connection again. We’ll continue our time travel back to Laos – about three weeks ago!

One of the best days we had in Laos was spent at Koang Si waterfall, about 29km south of the center of town in Luang Prabang. Transportation is a booming business for many in the more visited towns in Laos. Pricing is rarely posted, and always negotiable for rides on tuk-tuks, taxis and vans. We decided to opt for a private tuk-tuk as the distance from town was relatively short and because we wanted to stay for several hours; after having discovered that most people opt for a quick round trip. After dodging a few very pushy drivers, we found someone we could talk to.

Declining his repeated requests for highly inflated “tourist-pricing”, we struck a “fair” deal (in his favor, of course) and waited to get on the road. And waited. And waited. And waited for what must have been twenty minutes, but felt like an eternity. We had been waiting on the concrete and were starting to melt. Our driver, as it turned out, had been on the phone with a friend (another tuk-tuk driver) trying to combine passengers as a means to make even more profit. Our patience with our business-minded driver was wearing down, the hot sun was heating us up, and we started to walk away to find another ride. This of course, kicked our driver into a frenzy and his friend magically appeared to pick us up. Happy to get on the road, the three of us jumped in his tuk-tuk and started to drive away. But wait, we weren’t going south to the waterfall, but north instead. Hmmm.

The “friend” parked his tuk-tuk at a travel agency back at the center of town and came around to the passenger area where we sat in sweaty confusion. Our blank stares were apparently an invitation to re-negotiate for a higher fare. When we vociferously declined, his cool response was “Ok, then we just need to wait for a few more people”. That was it. We had been strung along long enough. We jumped out, fuming at the delay and bravado and sheer gall of the two drivers and started walking hearing calls behind us, “Ok, ok, we go now”, “Ok, now”, “Your price”. But after so many shenanigans, we were finished. We walked a nice long block or two as we cooled a bit from the frustration hardly noticing that yet another tuk-tuk driver was calling to us and following us down the road. Realizing that we didn’t hear him, he drove ahead of us, parked and allowed us to walk a short feet towards him.

He seemed likable and honest, and like he genuinely wanted our business. But we had to be sure after so much wasted time. We wanted to get on the road. A short conversation later:

“Are you going to take us now?!” — “Yes.”
“Same price?!” — “Yes.”
“You’re sure?!” — “Yes.”
“Yes?!” — “Yes.”
“We go NOW?!” — “Yes.”
“You’re sure?!” — “Yes.”
“YES?!” — “Yes.”
“No more passengers?!” — “No.”
“You’re sure?!” — “Yes.”
“Ok.”

With each of his responses, I could feel the smile return to my face as negotiations finished. We all climbed in the back of his tuk-tuk, made another u-turn and started south to Koang Si.

Our ride

Our ride

Road to Koang Si

Road to Koang Si

Arrival

Arrival

Just past this sign, before the falls is an area that has been converted to an Asian bear rescue called Free the Bears. It was a nicely organized and well-presented educational exhibit about the plight of the Asian black bear. Bears kept captive for many reasons, one of which is for extraction of their bile for use in some traditional medicines in some Asian countries. They are sometimes kept in tiny cages and suffer immensely.

Awful conditions

Jette’s sad for the bears who have to live in cages

One of the bears

One of the rescued bears

Reading about bears

Learning about the bears

This girl is ready to save bears

Ready to save bears

Threats

The bears have a beautiful place to live

Rescued bears have a beautiful place to live

Raised walkway through the bear rescue center

Bear rescue path

We were impressed with Free the Bears and Jette found a new tank top, being sold there, whose purchase supports the organization.

The transition from the bear habitat to the falls was seamless as the sound of the crashing water was all around us, so we walked a bit as the decibel level increased and finally saw the beginning of Koung Si.

The water is a pretty blue and a bit milky from limestone deposits

The water is a pretty blue and a bit milky from limestone deposits

I love it here already

I love it here!

soft blue pool

soft blue pool

Other admirers

Time for a swim

Can you see the adventurous jump?

Can you see the adventurous jump?

The scene

another adventurer

Slippery rocks

Tiers

Ahhh...

Ahhh…

Climbed slippery rocks to get here!

Climbed slippery rocks to get here!

One thing we had read about the falls was that the fish species garra rufa naturally inhabit the waters at the falls. Garra rufa are otherwise known as “nibble fish” aka the fish in tanks at “fish pedicure” spas. We couldn’t stand for more than ten seconds in place without having groups of fish come lightly peck at our feet. It tickled!

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Hi! I’m getting my feet nibbled!

Natural fish pedicure pool

Natural fish pedicure pool

Time for a dip

I kind of like it in here

There was a hill to climb from the lower falls to the upper falls…

Happy muddy feet

Happy muddy feet

Super mudster

Super mudster

Just a regular day in the rainforest

Just a regular day in the rainforest

Walking path to upper falls

Walking path to upper falls

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So pretty

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Majestic

A very popular spot

Selfie moment

But first…a selfie!

Supermodel

a small quiet spot just

a small quiet spot just

under the bridge

under the bridge

Under the bridge

Although there were many others at the falls, we think we found the prettiest spot of all, UNDER the bridge where others were snapping selfies. I think the beautiful photo below, that Waco captured, is my absolute favorite.

The mist!

There were plenty of vendors selling snacks. Jette settled on a crepe for the short ride back.

 

Snack vendors

Snack vendors

Crepe!

Crepe!

Exhausted

Post-crepe nap

Post waterfall chic

Post-waterfall fashion

Weaving class in Luang Prabang

We’re back in Thailand and back in Bangkok. Tonight we’re taking the night train South to Chumpon where we will catch a ferry to the island of Koh Tao in the Gulf of Thailand.

We are way behind on blog posts, but here is the first of our catch-up posts. This is Mila’s account of the weaving class in Luang Prabang many moons ago!

Hi everyone! We’ve been wanting to post about one of the best experiences we had in Laos…learning to weave! Here is an overview of our day…

We made arrangements to be picked up from our guesthouse by tuk-tuk at 8am and driven a few kilometers from the center of town to Ock Pop Tok, a textile workshop and studio.

Getting picked up by tuk tuk

We arrived safely, and were invited to sit and wait for a few moments down in their riverview cafe. An attention-seeking cat came right up to Jette and decided to get comfortable in her lap. We weren’t too surprised as this is quite typical animal behavior; Jette attracts friendly animals around the world.

Entryway to Ock Pop Tok

Lush entrance

Entering a weaving paradise

Entering a weaving paradise

This cat found Jette

This cat found Jette and immediately snuggled right up to her

A quiet spot in the cafe

A quiet spot in the cafe

We had originally planned on taking a half day class to learn about silk dyeing, but were also tempted by the half day class for silk weaving. Jette really wanted to learn about both, so we signed up for a full day.

We began with a lesson on the silkworm lifecycle and were introduced to the various plants and minerals that have been used to dye fabric for thousands of years. We had a chance to go through the weaving studio and watched some of the master weavers. Shortly thereafter, we walked down a small path into a field of indigo on the property, to collect its leaves as Jette had picked blue as one of her desired silk colors. Other materials were waiting for us; we chopped sappan tree wood pieces for purple and shook annatto seeds from their pods for the saffron color used in monk robes.

A path through the grounds

A path through the grounds

Natural silk skeins drying in the sun

Natural silk skeins drying in the sun

Silkworms

Silkworms

Life cycle of a silkworm

Life cycle of a silkworm

Learning about dyeing silk naturally

Learning about dyeing silk naturally

Collecting indigo leaves

Collecting indigo leaves

Crushing indigo leaves

Crushing indigo leaves

Ock Pop Tok has done a great job of landscaping the property with trees and shrubs that are still used in natural dyeing today. It was nice to find out they they do not use chemical dyes in any of their products. They do, however, have to import silk from Vietnam and Thailand to keep up with demand.

We were shown how to crush and boil everything before finally getting to dip our own silk skeins into the pots of dye. Most were boiling hot, except for the indigo which is a “cold” dye, meaning that darker blue coloration would require repeated dips into the dye bath over many days.

Shaking annato seeds from their podsShaking annato seeds from their pods

Dipping saffron colored silk made from crushed and boiled annato seeds

Dipping saffron colored silk made from crushed and boiled annato seeds

Rinsing indigo silk

Rinsing indigo silk

Our weaving studio space

Our weaving studio space

This cute little guy wanted to watch us!

This cute little guy wanted to watch us!

Some of our dyed silk skeins

Some of our dyed silk skeins

We took a break for a delicious provided lunch and gathered energy for the second part of our day.

A view of the Mekong from class

Lovely view of the Mekong from our studio space

Lunch!

Lunch!

After lunch, we were each assigned a master weaver who would help us throughout our weaving project. Two design options were available, so Jette and I each chose one. Our weavers showed us everything from seat position at the looms, parts of the loom, pattern re-use, and proper shuttle technique. I can’t say we “mastered” the art, but Jette and I worked hard for about four and a half straight hours. We had broken silk strands, frustration, elation and ended with general exhaustion, but with a deep sense of pride in our finished pieces and for the women who spend their days making beautiful textile art and keeping tradition alive, while thriving themselves, with the higher wages they are able to secure in their collaboration with Ock Pop Tok.

An organza silk wall hanging by a master weaver

An organza silk wall hanging by a master weaver

Jette with her instructor

Jette with her instructor

My finished weaving

My finished weaving

Jette's masterpiece

Jette’s masterpiece

We were informed that the women who work there are paid a fair wage for their finished pieces and are supplied with all of the materials they need as well as a loom when they partner with Ock Pop Tok. The relationship provides marketing for the weavers’ artwork, has a website (www.ockpoptok.com) for international sales, as well as two beautiful boutiques in Luang Prabang. The direct translation of “Ock Pop Tok” is “east meets west”, so it is no surprise that many of the pieces have a modern aesthetic incorporating traditional patterns. The quality of the pieces is very high and I was tempted to break our budget (and backpack carrying capacity!) with textile purchases.

Luang Prabang

NOTE: This post is a few days old now, but our internet connections have been so bad that I have not been able to get photos uploaded and finish the post. I managed to get a few photos uploaded so I’ve decided to publish this one without the other photos for now. (Here are some photos on Google that will give you some idea what this place looks like). When we have a functional connection again I’ll edit this post and add the other photos and also add a post or two about the weaving class and our trip to the waterfall.

Temple in Luang Prabang, Laos

We’ve been in Luang Prabang, Laos for a week. Jette and I have been fighting colds. Despite being run-down, snotty-nosed, sneezy, sore-throated kids, we have still been exploring a bit and having fun. Of course we’ve spent quite a bit of time just resting and healing too. Yesterday Jette woke up feeling really rotten with an upset tummy. She opened her eyes, rolled over, and puked. Yep, as we used to say in fifth grade, she puked, barfed, blew chow, spewed stew, revealed her meal.

I just puked

I just puked

Thankfully by the end of the day she was feeling much better. Today both Jette and I are feeling good, almost back to normal aside from a bit of lingering nasal congestion, but Mila woke up with a sore throat! Oy vey! That’s how it started for us.

Luang Prabang is the second largest city in Laos. It has a small, sleepy feel, especially in the neighborhood of the “old city.” The quaint old city harkens back to French Indochina with lots of villas and shophouses dating back to the 1930’s and earlier, all fairly well preserved (or at least still standing and in use). It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The old city sits on a small peninsula about 1 km long and 300m wide, at the intersection of the Mekong River and the Nam Kham River. There are four streets that run the length of the peninsula and a mix of cross streets and small alleys that connect them. Overall, it’s a cute little place that is all about tourism now. Despite the fact this it is so touristy, it has its charms. For us it has been a comfortable place to slow down and rest a bit.

Having ridden and studied the Rhine, it is interesting to now be on the Mekong and to see the similarities and differences. There are common needs and patterns that have driven human’s use of the rivers and settlement throughout history. It’s no surprise that Luang Prabang sits on a peninsula at the confluence of two rivers. It’s a position that has economic, transportation, military, and general resource benefits, and a settlement and development pattern that we have now seen the world over.

Since the French colonial days, the town has expanded beyond the peninsula. The new part of town looks like a typical SE Asian town, perhaps a Thai town from 20 years ago. It is not touristy at all. While Mila and Jette were doing their weaving class last week, I walked through that part of town and one of the markets there and didn’t see another gringo. I also bought an umbrella in the market, which was apparently quite a novelty as my friendly negotiations with the seller quickly drew an audience, LOL. I ended up paying 20,000 KIP for the umbrella. Do you think I got a good deal?

Enjoying some shade

Enjoying some shade

Lao people and culture are very interesting. The stamp of communism is evident everywhere, something I may elaborate on in a future post. Culturally it is quite a contrast to Thailand, though the languages are quite similar.

Anyway, we’ve been enjoying the town’s sleepy vibe and many cafes. Mila and Jette took a full-day weaving class, and we all took a trip to a nearby waterfall. We’ll tell you about these in upcoming blog posts.

Our trip down the Mekong

This post was written by Jette. She hand wrote a report on our trip down the Mekong river, I typed it up, and she revised it in a second draft. I’ve posted it here with the addition of some photos. Enjoy!

Jette writing about our river trip

Jette writing about our river trip

Our Trip Down the Mekong

My family and I are taking a year off to go around the world. I am being homeschooled by my parents. We’re calling the trip Field Trip X. The “X” stands for unknown. We were in Chaing Mai in Northern Thailand. Our visas were about to expire, so we decided that we would go to Laos. My mom was investigating how we would get to Laos. She figured the best way to get there was to take a 7-hour bus ride and then a two-day boat trip.

On the day we departed we took a songthaew to the bus station. The first few hours of the bus trip were through winding mountain roads. I got carsick. Really carsick. For about two hours my mom and I sat in the back of the bus to be close to the bathroom. Then I went back to my seat, took a short nap, and had a piece of mint gum. The car sickness went completely away.

The bus trip ended in Chiang Khong, a small Thai town on the Mekong river. We had a few days before the boat left, so we stayed in Chiang Kong. There is a really, really, really good Mexican (yes, Mexican!) restaurant. I had a burrito. The best burrito in Thailand! The hotel where we stayed was right on the river. We could see across the river (which was the border) to Laos. At night we could see paper lanterns floating in the sky from the Buddhist Lent celebrations.

Mexican food!

Mexican food!

Bamboo Mexican House

Bamboo Mexican House

Burrito!

Burrito!

Looking across the Mekong to Laos in the moonlight. The small lights in the sky are paper lanterns.

Looking across the Mekong to Laos in the moonlight. The small lights in the sky are paper lanterns.

Dog on motorbike in Chiang Khong

Dog on motorbike in Chiang Khong

Typical transportation

Typical transportation

Chaing Khong street scene

Chiang Khong street scene

Lunch at the fancy place in town

Lunch at the fancy place in town

On the morning of our boat ride, the lady from our hotel gave me a big snack bag. She was really nice. A van picked us up from our hotel and drove us to the border crossing. After we got our passports stamped, a bus took us across the border to the Lao side where we got our passports stamped again. Then another van picked us up and took us to the boat.

Getting doted on at our hotel

Getting doted on at our hotel

At the border with Laos

At the border with Laos

Buy your boat tickets here

Buy your boat tickets here

Boarding our river boat

Boarding our river boat

On the boat

On the boat

The boat was a long boat. It was 10 feet wide and 150 feet long. Sometimes boats like this are crammed full of more than 100 people. Our boat only had about 20 people plus staff. The seats in the long boat were car seats!

While we were going down the river we saw very few towns and villages. We saw a lot of mountains and jungle and forests. We saw a few river boats, huts, and guys fishing in canoes with bamboo fishing rods.

Another river boat and hills stripped of timber (1)

Another river boat and hills stripped of timber

Typical river scene. Note the small bamboo structures.

Typical river scene. Note the small bamboo structures.

After about 4 hours into the boat ride we stopped at a village. There were about 10 kids playing on the “beach.” The girls were wearing clothes, and the boys were in their underwear. The smaller kids were naked. We walked up the hill into the village. The village was basically a couple dozen huts on thick bamboo stilts. There were a few kids playing soccer and one girl bathing at the village water pump. As we were leaving, I did a cartwheel on the beach. The village kids started trying to do cartwheels and one of the little boys was flinging himself in the water. It was really funny.

Village kids and our boat

Village kids and our boat

Village soccer

Village soccer

Village soccer action

Village soccer action

Typical village home

Typical village home

Playing in the shade

Playing in the shade

In the evening we stopped at a town called Pak Beng to spend the night. It was a really tiny town. There was one main street with street vendors, shops, guesthouses, and restaurants. We walked along the whole thing in about ten minutes. We had dinner at one of the tiny restaurants. We stayed in bamboo huts on a hillside overlooking the river. The next morning we woke up to roosters crowing and we heard elephants from a nearby elephant camp.

Approaching Pak Beng

Approaching Pak Beng

Pak Beng. Our hotel is on the left.

Pak Beng. Our hotel is on the left.

Our hotel

Our hotel

Our hotel patio

Our hotel patio

In Pak Beng

In Pak Beng

Pak Beng main street

Pak Beng main street

Walking to find dinner

Walking to find dinner

Boy butcher outside a Pak Beng restaurant

Boy butcher outside a Pak Beng restaurant

Jette asleep under the mosquito net

Jette asleep under the mosquito net

Low clouds in the morning

Low clouds in the morning

After breakfast, we got back on the boat. A few hours later we stopped at another village. It was kind of like the first village, but this one had a temple. At this village the kids were selling bracelets and pieces of embroidered fabric. We bought four bracelets and one scarf. They are really pretty.

 

Walking back from the village to the boat

Walking back from the village to the boat

Little village vendors

Little village vendors

Little ones carry the tiny ones

Little ones carry the tiny ones

Then we got back on the boat. I listened to The Graveyard Book audiobook. About two hours later we stopped at Pak Ou Caves. The caves were in the face of a cliff on the river. Our boat docked at the bottom of the cliff and we climbed about 150 stairs to the cave. At the entrance to the cave there was a lady with flashlights and little banana leaf cones with flowers around them. The cave had hundreds of Buddha statues inside it.

The Pak Ou cliff

The Pak Ou cliff

The entrance to Pak Ou Caves

The entrance to Pak Ou Caves

Lots of stairs

Lots of stairs

Then we went back to the boat and an hour later we were in Luang Prabang. I thought that the boat trip was really fun and it was cool to see everything along the river.

Arriving in Luang Prabang

Arriving in Luang Prabang

 

ADDENDUM:

The day we arrived in Luang Prabang was Halloween. Jette arrived as a panda:

Putting on her nose

Putting on her nose

Our little panda

Our little panda

Of course Halloween isn’t really celebrated in Laos, but we got lucky and a local ex-pat family pointed us to one of the few restaurants in Luang Prabang that was giving out candy. Jette got a “one-stop” trick-or-treat session this year!

——– EDIT:

Here is the photo I forgot to post of Jette doing a cartwheel on the beach at the first village.

Cartwheel on the beach

Cartwheel on the beach

Here’s a video of the village kids after Jette’s cartwheel:

And here’s a video of the soccer/football action in the village: