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.
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
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.
Bamboo Mexican House
Looking across the Mekong to Laos in the moonlight. The small lights in the sky are paper lanterns.
Dog on motorbike in Chiang Khong
Chiang Khong street scene
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
At the border with Laos
Buy your boat tickets here
Boarding our river 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
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 soccer action
Typical village home
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
Pak Beng. Our hotel is on the left.
Our hotel patio
In Pak Beng
Pak Beng main street
Walking to find dinner
Boy butcher outside a Pak Beng restaurant
Jette asleep under the mosquito net
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
Little village vendors
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 entrance to Pak Ou Caves
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
The day we arrived in Luang Prabang was Halloween. Jette arrived as a panda:
Putting on her nose
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!
Here is the photo I forgot to post of Jette doing a cartwheel on the beach at the first village.
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: