Lovely Laos

Chinese New Year was finally upon us, and Jun and I were more than ready to get away from work and go on vacation. Since our last trip to Europe took us a long distance away from Asia, we decided to stick close to home and decided to go to Laos.

Because of the way our schedules worked this year, I ended up having a few extra days than Jun. I decided to take it easy in Guangzhou before we left for our trip. It was nice to just spend a few days in Guangzhou relaxing and going around to see some of the Spring Festival festivities in the city. I was also able to catch up on things that I had been putting aside since I hadn’t had time to do them.

Day 1

Finally, Jun was done with work and we were both ready for our trip! We left mid-afternoon for Vientiane from Guangzhou and had no problems getting to the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. The first thing we had to do when we got there was to get our visa on arrival. The process was quite quick and efficient, they combine getting the visa and immigration process in one area so that we wouldn’t have to go to two counters. That was really nice and quick! Afterwards we collected our bag and went out to see a man holding a sign with my name on it. Our hotel had a complimentary airport shuttle and took us straight to the hotel. It was one of the quickest entries I’ve ever experienced.

When we got to the hotel we quickly checked-in and then went up to our room. We cleaned up a bit and rested as we decided what we wanted to do for dinner. Eventually we just decided to go explore and find a place that we liked. After walking for a bit we ended up at an Italian restaurant. The food was good, but the service needed work.

After dinner we went towards the Mekong River to see the night market there. This market was more for locals than for tourists. It was nice to walk around the market. Jun and I spotted some street food and ended up buying a spicy sausage that was quite good. By that time it was getting late and we decided to go back to the hotel to call it a night.

Day 2

Our first full day in Vientiane; we woke up from a nice rest and had breakfast at the hotel. We then decided just to explore the city and see what there was to see in Vientiane. Even though it’s the capital of Laos, it’s not known as a tourist destination. We discovered that morning in the city can be quite quiet. We first walked towards the river to see what it looked like during the day. To our surprise, the area near where we thought the river was is actually surrounded my marshes. It was a very pastoral scene to be so close to the city. Across the river we could see Thailand.

Jun and I walked along the river until we reached the presidential palace. We weren’t able to go inside, but we got a glimpse. The building was in colonial French architecture and seemed like a nice building. We walked a bit in a park around the palace before going on to Haw Phra Kaew.

Haw Phra Kaew used to be a Buddhist temple, but now it’s a small museum of religious art. It was interesting to see some examples of how the Lao people historically portrayed aspects of Buddhism. The building has been maintained quite nicely and was a nice visit for us.

Across the street is Wat Si Saket, while it was built only in 1818 it is considered to be the oldest temple still standing in Vientiane. The wat is really fascinating, as inside the main compound is a cloister with 2,000 clay and silver Buddha images. The main building has some really exquisite murals on the interior walls that are delicate and intricate. Jun and I really enjoyed walking around this wat.

By then it was nearing lunch, but because we had eaten a big breakfast we weren’t really that hungry. We ended up just having a strawberry cheesecake ice cream concoction at a nearby desert parlor. Jun and I were actually happy we had it since it was really good. It was just nice having something sweet for lunch since we were on vacation.

We then decided to walk around the central area and go to some stores and some of the other wats in the area. Each wat was unique in its own way. They were similar to other wats we had seen in the region, but they were also quite unique in their own way.

Finally we ended up at Patuxai, a war monument dedicated to those that fought for independence from France in the mid-twentieth century. It was an interesting mix of local and European styles of architecture. Jun and I went up to the top and got to see the surrounding area. It was a nice change to see short buildings instead of the skyscrapers of China.

From there we then went to a shopping center to see if Black Panther was playing at the local movie theater. We found that it was and that we could see it in English later that night. We bought tickets and then took a slow walk to the hotel to rest up a bit.

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Later that day we went to a local Laotian restaurant for dinner called Lao Kitchen that was delicious. The food was uniquely Laotian, but you could see how it fit in the greater cuisines of Southeast Asia. It was definitely a nice dinner. Afterwards we went to the movie theater and enjoyed the film. When the move was finished we then went back to the hotel and ended our day.

Day 3

The next day Jun and I decided to venture out to the Buddha Park outside the city. We had talked about how we wanted to get there and was deciding between taking a bus or a tuk tuk. We chose the bus and we were glad we made that decision. After leaving Vientiane we noticed that the park was actually quite far out of the city, and that the closer we got to the park the worse the road became. Near the park it was just a dirt road. And it being the dry season it was just dusty. Buildings and plants next to the road were covered in a thick layer of dust. A good decision on our part indeed.

When we got to the park it was much smaller than we anticipated. But the size wasn’t an issue as the park itself is quite interesting. Built in 1958 the park has over 200 Hindu and Buddhist statues. While the statues look like their centuries old, they’re actually quite recent. Many simply are made out of concrete. But those statues are ornate, and in many cases quite strange. It was a nice and easy side trip to see something different.

Later we took a bus and went back to Vientiane where we walked to Pha That Luang. The Buddhist stupa is considered to have been built in the third century AD, and is a national symbol for the country. As such it is considered the most important national monument.

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It was much larger than we thought it was going to be. And when we got there it was relatively quiet, only a few other people visiting. By the time we were about to leave, however, a tour group came and the energy of the site went from calm to animated. Afterwards Jun and I decided to head back for the hotel to relax. On our way we stopped by a Swensen’s for a desert lunch. It was a nice treat in the midst of the hot afternoon sun.

That evening we ended up having an early dinner and then walking along the river and stopping and trying different street food. I ended up getting another of the spicy sausage.

Day 4

Our last morning in Vientiane had us wake up and enjoy a leisurely breakfast before we checked out and took the hotel’s airport shuttle to the airport. Since we only had a domestic flight, check-in took five minutes and going through security was also a simple affair. The domestic terminal in currently being rebuilt, so we waited in a temporary building that looked like a government office with people waiting for the next available clerk.

Fortunately we didn’t have long to wait, and we were soon on the plane and on our way to Luang Prabang. The flight took less than an hour and we were there in no time. At the airport we caught a shuttle to our hotel in the heart of the old town.

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Our hotel actually used to be part of the royal complex, so the grounds and surrounding area of the Royal Peacock was beautiful. As we were having our welcome drinks the manager of the hotel explained the city and places we could go and visit. After everything was settled he took us to our room and showed us around. It was a really nice room with a lot of nice perks, including daily fresh fruit.

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After resting for a while Jun and I decided to go out and find a place for lunch. We ended up at a place called Bouang that had some really nice Asian/Western fusion food. Jun and I were quite happy with our meal and were energized to go explore that afternoon. The first place we went to was the Haw Kham Royal Palace Museum. It used to be the home of the royal family of Luang Prabang before the overthrow in 1975. The interior has been well maintained and it gives a glimpse of what life would have been like for the royal family. Also on the grounds of the museum is Haw Pha Bang, a more recent temple that is built in traditional architectural style. It was a beautiful building.

From the Royal Palace we started to walk around the side streets of the old town and saw some traditional and colonial buildings, went through a number of wats, and walked along the river. We finally ended up at Wat Xieng Thong. It’s one of the most important monasteries in the city and is beautifully maintained. Near here in the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. We were able to walk a bit around here and saw a bamboo bridge. Our visit to Luang Prabang was during the dry season, so it was possible to see the bamboo bridges and to walk down here. But in the rainy season it would be too dangerous to venture down there. So it was nice we got to experience it.

As it was nearing sunset, Jun and I walked back through town to go up to Mount Phou Si to see the sun set over the region. It was a bit of a climb, but it was nice to see the sunset and the changing colors of twilight. From there we went to dinner and went back to the hotel to call it a night.

Day 5

On our first full day in Luang Prabang, we decided we would just take it easy and leisurely wander around the town. The first thing we did was have breakfast, which was an interesting affair since it was a three course meal that was more aligned with lunch than breakfast. There was salad, fruit, bread, and a sandwich. It was different, but the food was quite good. Jun though it a bit strange, I thought it was a nice change from typical breakfast food.

Afterwards we walked through the morning market next to our hotel towards going to a wat that was also next to our hotel. Both were nice glimpses into what life is like for the locals in the town. It’s so similar to other places in the world, yet with its own uniqueness that makes Luang Prabang special.

From the wat we started walking to the UXO office. On the way we stopped at the Traditional Art and Ethnology Center. It’s a neat place that highlights the different ethnic groups in this part of Laos, as well as the traditional arts and crafts of these groups. There was a nice hands-on exhibit on learning how to tell the difference between natural materials that these ethnic groups use in their arts and crafts and those that are made from synthetic materials. Jun and I had a difficult time differentiating between the two, and we found it fascinating how the natural objects are incredibly sturdy. At the adjoining store we were mesmerized at the beauty of the intricate art and crafts on display. As we were leaving we saw another area set up for kids. I ended up exploring that area and trying on a fun little hat. If I thought they would have fit, I would definitely had played dress up with some of the clothes they had there. Alas, the hat was the only thing that I could try.

As we were going down the road to head onto the UXO office, we stopped to get some fresh coconuts. After a nice walk in another part of town we found the UXO office.  UXO stands for unexploded ordinance. They are the ordinances that were not detonated during the Vietnam War, but that remained and pose a threat to the people of the country. The UXO organization is working towards clearing them from the country, but because of the staggering number of them it will take more time and funds than they currently have available. While they still continue to clear them from the country, they also do a lot of public education and outreach activities to teach people, especially children, how to be careful and what to do in different scenarios. As part of that education and outreach, they have set up an information center in Luang Prabang. It was really edifying and brought to attention that even if a war ends the effects of it can be felt for many decades afterwards.

On that note Jun and I left and walked back to the main area of Luang Prabang. On the way we went to the oldest wat in Luang Prabang: Wat Visoun. It had a large stupa in a nicely maintained complex. From there we continued to walk on the south side of Mount Phou Si and saw that there was another bamboo bridge. At that point Jun and I were hungry and agreed that we would go on this bridge later that afternoon.

We ended up eating at a small restaurant of on a side street. The food and drinks there were amazing. Feeling refreshed we walked around a bit and then went back to the bamboo bridge. It was neat to walk along the bridge and to see what was on the other side. There was a store selling handmade jewelry and a treehouse café.

After walking back across the bridge we did some shopping and went for walk around another part of the town. We end up finding a visitor center for the Pha Tad Ke Botanical Garden. The guy at the front informed us that if we bought tickets we could take a boat and go to the botanical gardens on the other side of the river. Jun and I decided that since we didn’t have any plans for the rest of the afternoon that we should go. So we bought the tickets and went down to the boat. We got there just in time as the boat was about to leave. There was only one other guy on the boat; we essentially had the boat to ourselves. As we sailed up the Mekong we got to see the surrounding landscape. It was beautiful and peaceful. After about 20 minutes we arrived at the botanical gardens. We walked up from the pier and was greeted by a staff member. He explained all that we could see and made suggestions of what we should do. One of the things he recommended was to visit this cave along a trail along the coast. That sounded fun. Jun and I decided we would do it. First we saw the ethnic garden that showed different vegetation used by the different ethnic groups in Laos. That was really interesting to see the different plant varieties. From there we then went on the trail to the cave. That was a really scary trail as it was steep and slippery at places. It was also a lot of fun. It was beautiful to walk along the river and to venture to the cave. The cave was a good size and had a Buddhist shrine inside. Jun and I were happy we went, but were quite relieved that we didn’t fall and hurt ourselves. After the cave we walked around the different parts of the botanical garden. There was even a demonstration vegetable garden there. There was some vegetables that Jun and I were curious about but had no clue what they were. By the time we had gotten to the vegetable garden it was about the time we had to head back to the pier to get the last boat back to Luang Prabang. Again we essentially had the boat to ourselves and we got to see the start of the sun setting as we went back on the Mekong.

By then it was early evening and we were ready to go to see where we would have dinner. We first thought we might have dinner by the river, but then we saw that there were a lot of mosquitoes and we didn’t want to deal with that. We ended up at a really nice restaurant that had a set menu where we could try a number of local delicacies. The restaurant was quite nice. We ended up quite satisfied with the experience. After that we walked back to the hotel and called it a night.

Day 6

Waterfalls, caves, and story time: that is what Jun and I experienced on our sixth day. Jun and I the previous day decided to get out of the city and see some of the surrounding area. We had some difficulty making this plan. We had asked our hotel about prices and options. We were a bit confused about what they suggested at first. After we had looked at what other places were offering we thought about it and made some inferences about what we thought the hotel staff was trying to tell us. We then went back to confirm and to get some clarification. Once that was all clear we had booked a van for the day at a nice price.

The first place we would go to on this day was Kuang Si Waterfall. It was a bit of drive out there, but it was nice to drive through the mountains on our way to the waterfall. When we got there we first went through a wild bear sanctuary. It was heartening to see the rescued bears thriving in the preserve. Some of the bears were hunted and some had lived in cages. A lot of the bears had been physically harmed as well. Many were recuperating and thriving here.

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From the bears we went up to the first area of the waterfalls. It was gorgeous! As we continued to go up to the different levels of the falls they got more beautiful and intricate. We finally ended up seeing the main falls. While there Jun and I decided to go up to the top of the falls. We again chose a difficult path up, but with the support of each other we made it to the top. It was neat to see the area up there. There was a beautiful lush area where locals were doing some aqua-agricultural farming. That was interesting to see. And the trail up there was serene. To get back down we chose another path, which was much easier to traverse. When we got back down we went through the park again and then got some food to eat before taking the van to Pak Ou Caves.

The journey to Pak Ou Caves took a long time. So Jun and I just kind of rested most of the way there. But as we were nearing the caves, we went off the main road onto a side road that was being rebuilt. At the moment it’s a dirt road that at times was quite scary to drive on. There was a part that was quite narrow along a cliff next to the river. Fortunately we arrived at the caves soon and we could take a break from the driving.

When we got there we had to buy boat tickets to cross the river to get to the caves. The man at the ticket counter kind of told us where we had to go. So we went along and found the general area where we needed to go. But we weren’t sure where we needed to get the boats. So as we were nearing the river a guy came to us and took our tickets and ushered us onto a shallow bottom boat and took us on the river. All of this was done without any verbal communication. Talk about blind trust on our part. We ended up where we needed to be though and we went up to the first cave. The cave is a Buddhist shrine and there are hundreds of Buddha statues placed throughout the cave. It was interesting. Even more interesting was a group of women that came into the cave as we were leaving who were there to pray. They were dressed in traditional dress and began to kneel on the carpets placed on the ground and started their prayers. It was a peaceful scene.

Jun and I then went up to the upper cave. When we got there we donated some Kip to get an offering to place inside the sanctuary. This cave was not lighted and we had to be careful as we went around it. Jun and I placed our offerings on one of the alters in the cave and then lit our candles. We each said a prayer and then walked around the cave. We were the only ones there and it was tranquil to just experience the surroundings by ourselves.

By then the group of women from earlier were coming up as Jun and I went down to the boats. We found the same guy and he told us to get in the boat and he started to leave. As we were slowly leaving the shore, he saw that another guy was leaving as well. He talked to the guy and asked though hand and head gestures if it was okay that we would go in the other boat. It was okay with us so we transferred boats and then crossed the river.

On the other side we walked through the small village back to the van. And then we got in the van and took the long drive back to Luang Prabang. That dirt road was just as scary as the first time. But we did get to see elephants on the way!

When we got back to Luang Prabang we went back to our hotel room to clean-up and rest. Then we went out to dinner. We went to this restaurant we saw the previous night that looked good. And while the food was indeed good, Jun chose a dish that had raw fish in it. That dish would cause us some trouble later. But at this time all was good.

After dinner Jun and I went to a small theater to hear some traditional Laotian folktales. The Garavek Traditional Storytelling was a fun experience. The theater is quite small and is lit with candles. There are only two seats at the front. Sitting above it is a painting of scenes from different tales. There were two people who performed. One was an older musician who played the accompanying music, and the other was the storyteller. He told a number of tales about the area that were interesting. Jun and I sometimes had a hard time following the winding turns in the tales. But they were told in a captivating way that the way it was being told was just as important as the story itself. Afterwards Jun and I were glad that we had went. After the show we went back to the hotel. So ended this day.

Day 7

This day started early. Jun woke up in the middle of night with an upset stomach. After going to the bathroom he was able to go back to sleep. That was the first warning.

We had to wake up early this morning. Jun had wanted to go see the morning alms giving. To see it we got up early and walked up the main street and waited. Near sunrise we started to see the monks walk along the street to receive alms. It was interesting to see them follow this tradition. It was a bit disconcerting to see some of those witnessing the event get so close to them to take photos. It is sometimes difficult to see people forget that while they may find things they see in another culture interesting because it is different from what they are used to, that for those participating in the event this custom is their way of life. To have a camera placed so close to you and then be blinded by flash in a way dehumanizes what should be a simple act of faith. I am glad that I was able to see this beautiful sight, but it was thought provoking of my own role in the experience.

Afterwards Jun and I went back to the hotel to rest. When we woke up Jun felt really uncomfortable and we decided to just rest for the remainder of the morning. Jun didn’t feel he needed to get medicine. Eventually he felt better and we decided to go for a walk to see the Ock Pop Tok Living Crafts Centre. It was a bit of walk there, but Jun seemed to be getting better. When we got there we arrived just in time for the free tour to go over the different parts of the center to see how the different crafts were made. It was really neat to see the local women create the different crafts. In Laos women are the only ones who are traditionally allowed to create these crafts. And the women at this center are trained to make them and to receive a fair share of the profit for their labor. The goal is to both empower women and to ensure that the traditional culture of the different ethnic groups survive. It was a beautiful place.

Unfortunately, as Jun was getting better I started to feel bad. We decided that we would go back to the hotel to rest. Spending most of the afternoon in the hotel napping was how this day went. In the end I felt better by the early evening, but still didn’t have much of an appetite. Jun went out to get something to eat. He brought back some pumpkin soup for me. But because we didn’t have any bowls, he ended up putting it in a glass. I then drank the soup. It was a good soup and I felt a bit better afterwards. For the rest of the night we just stayed in and watched TV. Sufficed to say, we went to bed early!

Day 8

Our last day in Luang Prabang and Laos had us walk around the town one last time and do some last minute shopping. After finishing packing, we checked out and took a tuk tuk to the airport. Again everything was fine and we were soon on our way to Vientiane to catch out flight back to Guangzhou.

Vientiane is where things went a bit off kilter. First we had a bit of layover and decided to get an early dinner in the city center. We took a taxi there, but he took us at the far edge of the center and we ended up having to walk to the restaurant. Dinner was great. We then took another tuk tuk to the airport. The tuk tuk was much better than the taxi driver.

At the airport we checked in and got ice cream at Dairy Queen. And then we went through immigration and security. At that point we waited for our flight. Then we discovered that our flight would be delayed for hours. After a long time of doing nothing, we were finally able to board and take-off. When we got back to Guangzhou we had to deal with a taxi line without any taxis. At that point a bus came to take people away. Some people decided to take the bus instead of waiting for a taxi. One family was about to get on the bus when the taxis started coming again, and then instead of taking the bus they got into the taxi. That’s annoying in of itself but could be just chucked up to just a situational incident. But then the teenage son started making obscene gestures to the rest of the line taunting people. That was obnoxious. The worst part was the dad didn’t reprimand his son, but instead started joining in with his son in taunting the rest of the line. Jun, while normally able to let things slide, got so mad at them that I had to be the one to cool him down. There were a lot of irritated people in that line at that family. Fortunately the taxi attendant was able to usher us to the next available car and Jun and I were on our way back to the Guangzhou apartment.

When we got to the apartment, we quickly took our showers and went to bed. It was so nice to sleep and not have to get up until much later that morning since by the time we went to bed it was nearly four in the morning!

So it was fortunate the worst part of the trip happened at the end, and the rest of it was great. Overall, Laos was amazing. We would definitely go back.

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