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.
Reception area at the Ministry of Education Guesthouse
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.
The lobby of our cute inn
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.
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.
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.
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.
JOMA displays their yummy treats
Is that latte almost ready, JOMA?
REAL cheddar cheese + egg + tortilla = happy girl
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.
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.
Swensens is a popular brand in Asia
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.
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.
Jette and Waco also tried their luck as sharp shooters.
Jette did well
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.
Tuesday came quickly and we stood in line with everyone else waiting to pick our Thai visas.
Waiting for our numbers to be called
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.
Typical Lao meal
Jette is a pro! Chopsticks in her right hand, soup spoon in her left
I’m wishing I had another bowl full
Sign of appreciation
Our favorite train snack
Some delicious tiny mandarin oranges for the train to Bangkok
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.
Eleven of us (plus all of our luggage) squeezed into the back of this motorcycle-crushing songthaew
Going through immigration the station
First a short train ride to the Thai train station across the border
Crossing the border to Thailand
The sleeper car in the night train to Bangkok
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.
JOMA makes great Lao/Thai style iced tea, too
feeling better on a walk in Luang Prabang
Typical buildings along the main street of the old city
On the main street of the old city
Picking up some fallen frangipani flowers…my new favorite!
cooling off at Big Tree cafe
the “Big Tree”
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.
Time for a pedicure
these seed pods were gorgeous
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” at one of our favorite restaurants, Cafe Toui
Jette with “Little Brownie”
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.
basket of Lao food
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
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.
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.
We’re ready for a loooooong bus 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:
a rest stop halfway to Vang Vieng
At the rest stop, a steady stream of kids on bikes with colorful umbrellas (aka portable shade) rode past.
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.
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.
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.
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.
more street chickens
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.
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!
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.
this lady makes the best sticky rice!
We travelled some very bumpy roads and the skinniest suspension bridge we’ve ever seen.
He’s transporting mattresses
tight squeeze across a suspended bridge
Our driver stopped near some water buffalo who were going about their day.
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!
a bike that’s been “parked” for a very long time
View from the cave entrance
A family inside this small hut rented us headlamps
climbing to cave entrance
it’s dark in here
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.
Organic Mulberry Farm goat cheese
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.
We were more than a little excited to discover a family who sold ice by the bag full
It was time to renew our Thai visas, and we needed to get to Vientiane. A four hour bus ride later, we were there.
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.”
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.
Road to Koang Si
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.
Jette’s sad for the bears who have to live in cages
One of the rescued bears
Learning about the bears
Ready to save bears
Rescued bears have a beautiful place to live
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
I love it here!
soft blue pool
Time for a swim
Can you see the adventurous jump?
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!
Hi! I’m getting my feet nibbled!
Natural fish pedicure pool
I kind of like it in here
There was a hill to climb from the lower falls to the upper falls…
Happy muddy feet
Just a regular day in the rainforest
Walking path to upper falls
But first…a selfie!
a small quiet spot just
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.
There were plenty of vendors selling snacks. Jette settled on a crepe for the short ride back.
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.
Entering a weaving paradise
This cat found Jette and immediately snuggled right up to her
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
Natural silk skeins drying in the sun
Life cycle of a silkworm
Learning about dyeing silk naturally
Collecting 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 pods
Dipping saffron colored silk made from crushed and boiled annato seeds
Rinsing indigo silk
Our weaving studio space
This cute little guy wanted to watch us!
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.
Lovely view of the Mekong from our studio space
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
Jette with her instructor
My finished weaving
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.
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
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
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.