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Laos

Luang Prabang, Laos

A touch of French chic...

sunny 30 °C
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Our coach ride from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang, Laos was horrendous!! Once again we were on a clapped out, former Chinese owned coach which was literally falling apart and was so uncomfortable for the whole 8 hours! The only plus point to the journey was the trip was through some of the most stunning jungle-covered mountains! Finally though we arrived at the bus station and again as there were so many backpackers, we had the advantage and thanks to a handy Australian guy who knew the area we managed to get a bargain tuk-tuk ride to our hotel!

The Khammany Inn, http://www.hostelworld.com/hosteldetails.php/Khammany-Inn-Hostel/Luang-Prabang/63621 was a Guesthouse/Hostel about 5 minutes walk from the centre of Luang Prubang and was decent enough, although it could have done with a good clean. Also rather annoyingly our room was right off the main communal area meaning it was quite noisy. However it was a room and cheap so would do. After dumping our bags we went off to explore and get some food.

The town is really only made up of three streets, one street running along the Mekong River, one running along the Nam Khan River and the last street running along the middle. At first glance you could easily mistake it for a remote French village with each building in French colonialism style and shop after shop a restaurant, coffee house or patisserie. We could see ourselves staying here forever.

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At night the middle street Sisavangvong Road became a street market, filled with covered stalls selling, quality handicrafts, silks, lamps, artworks, clothes and accessories. It was brilliant and we spent ages looking at them and for once we were not being pestered to buy and were able to ask questions and feel the soft silks. However this market did start getting annoying if you wanted to get from one end to the other as it was on every night and took up all the road and pavement.

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At breakfast we decided we should make the most of the day and booked on to a tour of the Kuangsi Waterfall which the hostel had at a bargain price of 40,000 Kip (£3) each. By 11:00 10 people were packing in a mini van for our 25km drive to the waterfall. 45 minutes later and we arrived at our destination (yes they were travelling at a top speed of 20mph) a beautiful jungle with a huge waterfall and bear sanctuary. The bears were sooooo cute, we arrived just after feeding time, so they were climbing trees, swinging in hammocks and just being cute. The bears were Sun Bears which are actually quiet small compared to other bears we have seen and have all been rescued from "herbalists" who were harvesting their gaul stones for the bile. According to Chinese medicine it helps cure all sorts of ailments, which obviously it doesn't and just kills the bears. They all seemed well looked after with lost of space and of course being placed next to a tourist trap were getting lots of money for their cause. http://www.freethebears.org.au/web/Projects/Laos/Tat-Kuang-Si-Rescue-Centre/

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After making silly noises at the bears cuteness, we headed to the main attraction a series of; huge, turquoise, clear waterfalls. We slowly walked through the jungle working up from pool to pool each one bigger and more impressive then the last and all of which you could swim in if you wanted. I decided it was too cold but Nick took the plunge telling me it was amazing (although his face was telling me it was a little chilly). Once Nick was dry we sat at a little bench eating our amazing cookie from JoMo and watching 50 somethings enjoying the pools. By 15:00 we had to be back to our slow mini van, so after another look at the now sleepy bears we went back to the hostel.

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Our next day was set to be Nick's best day ever, as we had booked onto a half day elephant riding and bathing tour. I wasn't too sure at first, as some of you may remember the horse riding didn't go too well and I was sure this would go the same way. However I didn't need to worry, we arrived at a reserve for 14 elephants most of which were female and the ones we would be riding, as it was mating season making the males uncontrollable. The rest of the group were on a full day trip so went off to another part leaving Nick and I alone with all the elephants and Mahouts. A seat was mounted on to our elephants backs and we very inelegantly climbed on to board behind the Mahout who was riding her neck and we were off down a grass covered bank to the river and a small sand bar. After only 10 minutes the Mahout jumped off and instructed Nick to sit on her neck and guide our elephant while he took pictures for us. It was fab and Nick had the biggest smile, which really made my day.

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After taking us round it was time for some food for our elephant, banana's, banana trucks and leaves which we got to hand feed to her. Food finished it was now time to get in our swimsuits and bath our elephants.

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This time I had no choice but to get directly on the elephant and her neck, with the Mahout behind me and Nick on another elephant we headed into the Mekong River! Once in the water we were given scrubbing brushes to clean or elephants and then were given baths ourselves when the Mahouts shouted "Ba Ba" making the elephants dive under water getting us soaking wet, Nick’s elephant even started spraying water at him with her trunk. Elephants clean and us not so much we rode them out of the river with a stop at a tree for a good scratch and more feeding, before we had to say goodbye. Sadly we didn’t get any photo’s of the bathing as we didn’t want to get our camera wet.

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That afternoon and the next morning we spent sightseeing around the small town, racing up Mount. Phousi just in time for sun set, and seeing the elaborately decorated temple Wat Nong Sikhounmuang before stopping for an early dinner ready for our night bus to Thailand!

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Posted by Nick-n-Charlie 16:00 Archived in Laos Comments (1)

Vang Vieng, Laos

Jungle Trekking fun, with the odd leech and a handy guide holding a machete

sunny 32 °C
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Our journey from Vietiene to Vang Vieng was thankfully very simple and only 4 hours (our shortest yet in South East Asia!) in a comfy air conditioned mini-bus through some stunning scenery, albeit on some very bumpy and winding roads! Strangely the mini-bus dropped as at a guesthouse rather than the bus station where we were launched upon yet again by touts trying to get us to stay there. Luckily though the Laos people are so friendly they ended up helping us find our hotel which as Vang Vieng is so small was only a 5 minute walk.

Laos Haven Hotel & Spa (there is no Spa before you ask!) http://www.laoshavenhotel.com was really nice, but could have been stunning. We got the impression that it was quite new, and still needed some finishing touches as our room was quite sparse with mis-matched furniture (and not in a quirky fashionable way!). The staff though were brilliant and it was a great location, easily walkable to the main street, but just far enough away to avoid the noise.

Contrary to what we had read in Lonely Planet or the newspaper article Susie sent us, when were said we were coming here. We arrived in a small sleepy town with the most amazing views. All around us were huge Karst mountains, Jungles, a stunning river and quiet town. The bad reputation was for a party town for backpackers with riverside "beach bars" offering ridiculously cheap drinks and "Happy Food" containing various mind altering ingredients. This firstly has the effect of causing rowdy and inappropriate behaviour with scantily clad young adults running around the town offending the very modest Laos people (a T-Shirt is as risky as as you should get in Loas along with shorts covering your knees). Combine this with a large fast flowing river running through the town where you can hire a rubber ring and float down the rapids and jump off rope swings and you have recipe for disaster with a number of backpackers being killed each year, and countless others injuring themselves. Our response to Susie's concerns is best seen in the pictures below!!

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It was already dusk by the time we ventured out to explore the town and after a quick walk discovered a bar with fantastic views over the mountains and the most amazing sunset!

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We knew that we wanted to do some Jungle Trekking while we were here and after a lot of looking around (seriously we went in every travel agent!) and our in-decisiveness which has slowly been getting worse throughout this trip was in full force with us finally booking a tour for the next day 10 minutes before the agents closed at 21.00! So after a good nights sleep we were bundled into the back of a large tuk-tuk with some other travellers and set off towards the mountains. After about 20 minutes we pulled over by the side of the road and only the two of us got out to start our trek with our own private guide (everyone else was apparently going kayaking!) - amazing!! Just walking through the rice paddies and villages on the way to the base of the mountain was stunning.

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Then we started to climb!! It was steep, seriously steep, slippery, thick with undergrowth that scratched at our legs and so humid we were both dripping in sweat within seconds. It was fantastic!

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Once at the top we came to a ledge with a amazing views of the jungle, mountains and the valley below which used to be a Hmong Village, now just two small derelict huts remaining. The Hmong would do this climb in reverse everyday to get to school, the market and even hospital! However in the last few years the government persuaded the Hmong to move out of the Village, to the bottom of the mountains closer to town, giving them land and free range as encouragement. I can see how this is for there safety, I would hate to have a broken leg and do this trek!

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Once safely down the other side of the mountain (over some very slippery rocks with nothing to cling onto but overhanging vines) we had reached the valley and what had looked like a flat plain of grass from above turned out to be a jungle in it's own rite. Pampus grass at least 8 feet in height which had completely overgrown the supposed path we were following. It scratched at our legs and was the perfect home for clouds of mosquitos (luckily we were smothered in replant!). You could not see were you were putting your feet and just had to go for it and trust our guide was doing a good job clearing the ground in front of us!

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It was at this point our guide asked if we wanted to see the river as there was a cave near by he knew saying "I think the path is this way", pulling out his machete and cutting a new path for us. Nick was not so sure at this point thinking our "tourist friendly jungle trek" may have gone wrong, especially when our guide started pulling leeches of himself, jumping in the air with a scream when he did and cutting them in half with his machete! Again luckily our repellant also works on leeches, and we followed him through thick undergrowth, ducking under branches and squeezing through bamboo. When we finally made it to the river with lots of "come, come, we try, we try" from our guide, he took of his shoes and socks (removing several leeches in the process) and started to wade into the river. It was at this point we said no (largely due to the leeches) so, following the river bank along (again ducking branches and spiky plants) before reaching a clearing in the middle of the jungle where we had a delicious (although very spicy!) BBQ lunch - I mistook a huge chunk of green chilli for bell pepper NOT GOOD!

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After lunch we trudged back through the high grass (with more leeches being plucked from our guide!) before starting our second steep climb through thick jungle before descending the other side down a very steep and very slippy "path" with both of us taking a couple of tumbles unfortuntely leaving a few bruises!!

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Once we reached the relative flat we soon realised we were not quite were our guide had wanted us to be and it took a short scramble along the edge of the river (more leeches!), a hop over some barb wire and a short walk through the mangroves before we reached our destination - the Water Cave. Here we got to do a spot of Cave Tubing where you sit in a rubber ring and use a guide rope to pull yourself through a cave which is flooded with water in the pitch black (they give you a head torch!). Needless to say Nick was not 100% sure about this prospect, but with his new found confidence after the Củ Chi Tunnels in Viet Nam he was not about to say no! The water was freezing, but it was great fun and a real experience to go that far into a cave floating on top of the water.

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From here it was a short walk through a farm and a quick boat trip to cross the river before a tuk-tuk picked us up by the side of the road to take us back to our hotel. It had been an incredible day and such an experience!! Not many can say they went on a jungle trek with their own private guide cutting their path for them! Needless to say we slept well that night!

We woke a little later than intended the next morning, but still managed to make breakfast. I wanted a lazy day, and Nick had read about The Blue Lagoon; another of Vang Vieng's "must sees" where there was a large cave and clear pool for swimming in, thinking this would be a nice place to relax for the day. The only problem was that it was about a 7km bike ride outside of town.

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Somehow he convinced me, but after about 5 minutes of riding along the extremely bumpy road having to dodge huge rocks and pot holes, and being shaken so hard it hurt I was not amused! We kept going, stopping for a quick drink along the way to catch out breath until we finally made it - and were both instantly disappointed. Not only was it expensive to get into, you had to climb up some very steep rock stairs to reach the cave (not great after our exploits the day before) and the clear pool, was more of a muddy river - hmmm, we had wasted half the day and still had to cycle all the way back - poo!

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Once we did make it back, we dumped the bikes and headed for one of the riverside bars where we sat, ate, drank and were generally lazy until long after the sun had set behind the mountains. We left the bar, just as they were cranking up the music and headed back to our hotel to pack for another long bus ride to Luang Prubang the following morning.

Posted by Nick-n-Charlie 16:00 Archived in Laos Comments (1)

Vientiane, Laos

semi-overcast 30 °C
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Our rather vintage night bus from Pak Se in the south of Laos was actually relatively comfortable with both Nick and I managing to get some sleep. Unlike the ones in Viet Nam they are completely flat, albeit double beds, so if you are a solo traveller you have to share with complete strangers! As usual the bus station is in the middle of nowhere, but there were so many foreigners on the bus that for a change we had the upper hand with the touts and managed to negotiate a decent deal straight to our hostel.

Sihome Backpackers http://www.hostelworld.com/hosteldetails.php/Sihome-Backpackers-Hostel/Vientiane/69394 was a Western style hostel, something we had not seen for months now and according to the reviews promised a good atmosphere, friendly staff and great location. We opted for a private double (as we could not face the prospect of a dorm) which was huge and very clean, but as it was right above the bar/terrace area was quite noisy, The hostel was ok, neither of us think it is worth the rave reviews it gets, but suspect that if we had opted for a dorm after all it may have been different.

We only had 24 hours in the capital before moving north and had a lot to squeeze in, as well as sorting out transport and accommodation for the next day. We set off to find some breakfast and found JoMa Cafe http://www.joma.biz another Lonely Planet top tip where we had some yummy pastries and great coffee to wake us up.

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From hear we were able to head to another Tourist Information to ask about bus tickets and they recommended just going to the bus station directly. They also said that Pha That Luang, the famous golden stupa and symbol of Laos was only about a 20 minute walk even though we had read it was 4km outside of the city? We started walking towards it trying to reach it before it closed for lunch, but after 20 minutes in the baking heat realised we had made an error as we were nowhere near it (we could see it, it just wasn't getting any closer!).

Instead we doubled back via the Patuxai, which is a structure very similar to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, only it has four arches rather than two. It is a fairly ugly concrete monolith even having a sign apologising for its appearance. It does however have a very ornate ceiling and offers great views of the city from the top.

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We were quite close to the bus station at this point so decided to go and have a look to see if we could figure out how to get to Vang Vieng the next day, however they said we could not buy tickets in advance, only on the day of travel and to arrive early to guarantee a seat. We took one look at the bus and thought there had to be a better option though. It was a local bus and looked like it would break down as soon as it left the bus station and had peoples bags piled high on top. Hmmm, maybe a rethink! Annoyingly with all of this walking my nice new flip-flops (which I bought dirt cheap in Hong Kong) had started to rub and I was not coping well in heat so we had to walk all the way back to the hostel so I could plaster up and change into my trainers!

So it was now 14.00! We had not managed to see half of what we wanted, were no closer to getting a bus ticket and still had the dreaded internet trawl for accommodation! We set off back towards our original first stop, Pha That Luang however this time took the easy way out and bartering hard with a tuk-tuk driver to get us there. Finally, much later than intended we had made it - and were pretty underwhelmed! The stups is huge and covered in gold leaf so looks quite striking, but all you can do is pay to walk around the outside of it with no explanations or information (other than LP).

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There were however some very impressive temples next to the stupa which were beautiful and well worth the trip, one even having a large reclining buddha outside it!

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Still feeling rather underwhelmed we bartered another bargain tuk-tuk back to the centre, stopping to peer through the gates of the Presidential Palace and spotting the best crazy moped yet!!

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Running out of both "sights" and time we had to get a bus sorted so headed to a travel agent close to where we had stopped for coffee. She was brilliant and very helpful explaining to us all about the bus and gave us a really good price 40,000Kip each!! (£4!!). We then headed back to our hostel to cool off, shower and book a hotel (which we did surprisingly quickly!) before heading back out to get some food at a really nice roof-top restaurant bar (even though we had to dodge a few Laos Ladyboys (apparently they are not just in Thailand!) to get there!

So after a very brief and some what disappointing day in the capital it was an early start the next morning where we were picked up by our minibus to take us to Vang Vieng.

Posted by Nick-n-Charlie 16:00 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

Pak Se, Laos

sunny 30 °C
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After another epic bus journey we finally made it to Pak Se, Laos about 22:00 (only about an hour late). Unfortunately, our bus dropped us about 2km outside of town, but there were plenty of Jumbo (large tuk-tuk) touting for business and we ended up paying US$10 dollars when it should have only been about $3!! But at that time of night our choices were limited and they have you over a barrel.

They dropped us at the Lankham Hotel, http://www.lankhamhotel-pakse.com where we had one of their newly renovated rooms for 150,000Kip (£12) which was nice and big and very clean. Unfortunately there was no water coming out of the taps in our bathroom. The guy at reception was very apologetic about this and gave us they key to another room next door saying keep both and either move rooms or just use that bathroom!

We slept really well and were up early as we needed to decide whether we were going to stay in Pak Se longer (in which case we needed to book another nights accommodation!), or whether to arrange transport to our next stop. After a nice breakfast at a local cafe we were able to do something we have not been able to do in about a month - we took a trip to the Tourist Information!! They were great and helped us come up with some options realising that Lonely Planet was a little unfair on this sleepy town and that it actually had a really nice relaxed atmosphere, but is also a great base for local activities.

On our way back towards our hotel we walked past the Phi Dao Hotel http://www.booking.com/hotel/la/phi-dao.en.html which had been our first choice for the previous night but it had been fully booked - we took a chance and luckily they had a room available and after a quick look round agreed to take it for two nights. After swapping hotels we hired bikes and cycled round the town and along the Sedone and Mekong rivers taking in the beautiful scenery and stopping for a beer along the way. The day ended with a chilled out dinner and drink before heading to bed as we had organised a trip to Bolaven Plateau famed for it’s tea and coffee plantations early the next morning.

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In our private air-conditioned Minibus we drove out to the Plateau and our first stop a Tea Plantation. We were a little disappointed as our driver pointed to a field of Tea plants and left us to it. We thought we would get an explanation of what tea was growing and how it was harvested but were just left to wander around. We did however get chance to taste the tea which was very nice. From here we went on to the Tad Fane Waterfall which is also a hotel resort but again were just dropped at the entrance wtth explantnion of where to go - this was what we had booked! The waterfalls are beautiful, but sadly you can’t get anywhere near them and you are jostling for position with large tour groups to take photo.

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Now it was time to go to a Coffee Planation and luckily this was much better. We were taken round by the owner/farmer who pointed out all the fruit and veg he was growing as well as describing the process of growing tea and coffee. Everything grown on the farm apart from the tea and coffee was for him and his family consumption so the only money he made was from selling the tea and coffee to the big factories to process. We then got to try more tea and Nick had a really strong, but delicious Lao coffee - he also gave us a homemade Passionfruit Juice!

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Just as things were starting to be on the up, we were taken to our next stop, the E Tu Waterfall but again were left to our own devices! The falls were very beautiful and this time you could go really close, so we got very wet before stopping for lunch overlooking the river.

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Our final stop on the tour was to, you guessed it...another waterfall. The Tad Lo falls were also stunning and were set inside a “cultural park” where you could also visit an Ethnic Village with traditional stilted houses, but again without a guide we were left a little clueless as where to go and what we were looking at. The tour operator had also said this is where we would be able to go swimming, but we could see no signs of this and no one else doing it so said went back to the minibus to be driven back to town where the they were surpised to see us back so soon.

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The tour had been a little disappointing. Although the scenery had been beautiful, it was essentially a very expensive taxi service. We could have hired a tuk-tuk for the day for half the price!

Our final day in Pak Se was spent, well not really doing much to be honest. We had a nice lie in, went for a long lunch and a walk by the river before spending the rest of the afternoon outside a coffee shop reading - nice and relaxing.

We had also booked our tickets for the night bus through the same tour operator who had arranged our “tour” of the Bolaven Plateau so were concerned that we may get screwed over again, but true to her word she picked us up personally and dropped us at the rather vintage looking sleeper bus to Vientiane, the capital of Laos.

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Posted by Nick-n-Charlie 17:00 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

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