Luang Nam Tha

Nick and I took the sleeper bus to Luang Nam Tha and arrived at 1am. As we still had a week before our Laos visa expired and were doing well on budget we decided to do a 2 day jungle trek and kayak trip. Nick did a great job researching tour agencies and discovered that of the 10 tour agencies in town there were only 3 owners. Of the 3, only 1 was owned by a local villager who actually practiced eco tourism and was transparent about where exactly our money was going. Thus, it was easy to decide we’d book with Forest Retreat Laos. 

Rant: Nick and I are spending our life savings on this trip and keep track of every yen, tughrik, dong and kip spent. We are traveling as low to the ground as possible. We cook oatmeal and ramen some days and buying shampoo or conditioner is a real treat. With that being said, it is so important to spend your money wisely. Backpacks are often discussing costs and budgets and forget the importance of ensuring that your travels have a positive impact on the local economy. While not getting ripped off is important, it’s surely more important to make sure the money you spend doesn’t lead to locals getting underpaid. If you can’t tip a guide, then don’t take a tour. Do your research and pay a few extra dollars for a company that gives money back to the  community in which you are traveling. If an entire village is asking you to buy a 50 cent bracelet, buy the 50 cent bracelet, because at the end of the day, it’s the right thing to do. End rant. 

On the first day of our tour, we hiked and bush whacked about 10 miles through the Nam Ha Protected Area. This protected area is home to tigers, clouded leopards, barking deer and snakes. The lush jungle has been the most remote we’ve seen thus far in SE Asia. It was more of an adventure than expected as our guide got lost about half way through the trek and we didn’t return to the trail until dusk. We saw a variety of interesting insects, spiders and hornets (of course, nick got stung), however as usual in Southeast Asia jungles there was a lack of larger wildlife . Our guide has seen wild pigs, pythons and 1 tiger print in his 16 years of guiding. We arrived to a local village at dark and helped prepare dinner (pumpkin, mustard greens and sticky rice) over an open fire.

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The next morning Nick and I explored Ban Nalan Village which insists of 200 Khmu residents. The bamboo houses on stilts and thatched roofs were simple. We watched a group of older women roast rats over a fire, visited the village school and played with piglets and puppies. The women’s teeth were stained black from chewing beetle nuts which provides a similar buz to chewing tobacco. 

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Ban Nalan Village

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Later, we pile into deflating kayaks and began to paddle down the Nam Ha River. We stopped a second village, Namkoy , which was a Chinese minority group. The women wore handmade indigo dyed dresses. As we arrived, they were making bamboo paper for the school by pouring bamboo pulp onto large flat bamboo trays to dry. We watched a pet monkey entertain himself while being leashed to a villager’s home. 

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Mr. Loeb back in the classroom

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We continued paddling down river through easy but exciting “rapids”. While paddling, we began to smell something terrible, then we saw a “barking deer” carcus floating in the water. Although illegal to hunt in the protected area this animal was shot and ran to the river before dying. Our guide schlepted the deer onto the back of his kayak and continued to paddle. When we stopped for lunch we returned to the kayaks to a skinned deer, broken down into plastic bags.

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Steaming Sticky Rice

We returned to Luang Nam Tha and enjoyed dinner at the night market with our new French friends. We kindly declined the many opium offers we received and packed as we’d enter Thailand the next day!

 

Luang Prabang

Every backpacker has been to Luang Prabang, therefore I assumed it would be as disappointing as Vang Vieng. However, the ancient charm of the old quarter was well preserved and was similar, however almost more genuine than Hoi An, Vietnam.  The architecture was simple yet refined and the open-air schoolhouses were especially unique.

The UNESCO protected peninsula was packed with 33 beautiful Buddhist Temples built between 1500- 1700. The lavish gold lotuses and bodhisattvas painted atop jet-black walls were exquisite. Although Theravada Buddhist Temples seemed more lavish and almost gaudy in comparison to Tibetan Buddhist Monasteries, I can appreciate the attention to detail and complex mosaics.

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The night market in Luang Prabang was a blast and a great place to buy souvenirs and gifts. It was targeted toward tourists, and a variety of textiles, teas, coffees and jewelry were sold. Although Nick and I don’t have any room to shop, between the night market and Tamarind (a café that sells handmade jams, teas and spices), Luang Prabang could easily dent a traveler’s budget. The food stalls at the night market was a great find as an entire block was lined with 15,000 kip ($1.85) fill your bowl vegetarian buffets.

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$1.85 Night Market Buffet

During our second day, Nick and I rented a motorobike and visited Pak Ou Caves (Buddha Cave) and Kuang Si Falls. First, we rented a motorbike to drive 25 km to the caves.

In Asia, everything has a cost. We rented a motorbike for 100,000 kip, filled it up with 20,000 kip worth of gasoline and were on our way. 25 km later we arrived at the local village and paid 3,000 kip to park. Then we walked through the village where we met our boatman and paid 26,000 kip to get taken across the river. When we arrived at the caves we paid 20,000 kip pp to enter. The caves are impressive and full of hundreds of Buddha sculptures and although beautiful, it is sometimes tiring always having to open your wallet.

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Buddha Cave

After visiting the caves, we drove 25 km back to Luang Prabang then 32 km in the opposite direction to Kuang Si falls. Before entering the falls, we passed fenced in areas of 20+ Sun Bears. These lethargic bears were rescued from poachers and more specifically from the bile industry. Bears are hooked up to IV’s and their bile is extracted and sold in Vietnam. Bear bile is considered a delicacy there, however the practice of extracting is illegal. Thus, it is extracted in neighboring countries where although illegal not heavily enforced. In China this practice is legal and regulated and there are currently 10,000+ bears being used for the bile industry.

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Rescued Sun Bears

As we continued to walk, we could begin to hear the rushing water. The clear turquoise water reminded me of Havasu Falls in the Grand Canyon. Watching the multi tiered cascade falls flow over limestone rock was mesmerizing. It would have been easy to spend the entire day here as you can swim in the falls and hike to caves and natural springs.

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*Travel Tip: To avoid the 20,000 kip entrance fee, take a motorbike or vehicle on the trail up to the natural springs. Drink a Beer Lao then hike down the falls.

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The next day, Nick and I drove back to the village across from the Buddha Cave and on the way passed an elephant park where tourists spend time riding elephants through the jungle. This is an extremely popular attraction is SE Asia, however is an terrible industry for the elephants. Please, research and think twice before riding an elephant.

We took a boat across the river to some large rock features where routes were bolted by some American climbers in the late 90s. We arranged to be picked back up by our boatman 4 hours later. Nick and I had a blast climbing on some great rock and even some multi pitches overlooking the Mekong River. We had an audience of local village kids across the river and when we repelled down they were eagerly waiting for us on the beach. When we realized our boatman was not coming back for us we hesitantly asked the kids to boat us across the river. About 3/4 across the river, water began to rush into the boat. Quickly the boat sank and we found ourselves swimming after our shoes and gear. Our rope and quickdraws stayed dry but unfortunately this was the last of my iPhone. This trip has taught me to always expect the unexpected and remind yourself it’s all part of the journey.

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1 way ride to the rocks
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Climbs with a view
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Mekong River
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Pre-sink

Although you could spend many days in Luang Prabang it is quite expensive so Nick and I decided to move north to Laung Nam Tha. ps. Check out the video tab on our blog to view our video of Laos!

Vientiane & Vang Vieng

Vientiane is an extremely clean and organized Southeast Asian city and the downtown area is concise and lays along the river. The majority of Nick and I’s time spent in Vientiane was biking to and from the Myanmar and Indian Embassies. It was extremely easy to navigate, however there aren’t too many crucial attractions to see. Some of our favorite spots included:

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Patuxai War Monument

-The Night Market, this was the cleanest night market I’ve been to thus far. It was mostly geared toward locals, however there were some merchants selling interesting goods, like jewelry and not for profit metalware (ex: spoons made from recycled metal of bombs and aircrafts during the American secret war).

-Dakha Restaurant, cheap and flavorful Indian food.

-Scandinavian Bakery, this bakery has some delicious and affordable sweets and has the best wifi in the city (although not reliable enough to download the season finale of West World).

-Benoni Cafe, stop here to splurge on some comfort breakfast food. Try the oatmeal, cappuccino, or lox.

-Makphet, this restaurant helps disadvantage youth and provides a delicious local menu.

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Monk Laundry

Vang Vieng is a bummer. It’s made for drunk foreigners who are looking to get wasted and tube down a river. Although the majority of bars have been shut down after 27 people died in 2011, the party continues. Nick and I spent 1 full day here, climbing and tubing. The most unfortunate part of Vang Vieng was that the tubing was gorgeous and could be amazing if not for the dirty party bars lining the river. I understand why tourists flock to this place as the scenery is refreshing. Nevertheless, traveling is always better than a day at work and it was relaxing as well as a good look into how many people spend their time in Southeast Asia.

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Pass from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang

 

Behind the Scenes

337 km (210 miles) in 15 hours

I think the hardest part of traveling is the actual traveling, moving from place to place. When you get dumped off at a bus station miles in an unknown town, in the pouring rain, at 2 am and have to walk to find a guesthouse, things can get stressful. So I wanted to dedicate a blog post to the details that I leave out of my posts. Below is the journey from Green Climber’s Home to the capital, Vientiane.

Nick and I left GCH around 4:30 pm as we knew the sun would set in an hour. We stepped onto the main road heading to Thakhek and stuck out a thumb. Within 5 minutes we quickly jumped into the bed of a truck heading towards town. 8 miles later we knocked on the window and jumped out at a fork in the road just a mile before the bus station (little did we know this vehicle was heading directly to the bus station… too bad we couldn’t speak Lao).

We schlepped on our bags and started to walk. We arrived to the bus station at dusk, however sleeper bus tickets wouldn’t be sold until 10:30 pm. We sat and waited. It grew dark and we listened to pigs scream as they were shoved into the baggage compartments of busses. We watched the bus station kids play and the babies get breastfed. We watched homeless families lay out their blankets and prepare for the night. A man threw up in a garbage bin a foot behind our chairs. Later, street dogs made their rounds picking food from the nearby bins. Our hearts were heavy taking in all of the sites.

Nick and I spent about 30 minutes trying to reapply data to our SIM card and once successful got some more delightful news. Not only had I been accepted into Oregon’s Sustainable MBA program, I was accepted into the 1 year accelerated program and offered an academic scholarship. Rad! We used the data to call our folks and check in. At 10 pm we went to check on the status of the bus. “No” the man at the desk replied when I said, “sleeper bus to Vientiane.” He pointed. Okay, so we were taking the double decker local sitting bus instead of the sleeper bus. Not ideal, but no biggie. We piled on and not a seat was left unfilled (of course).

From 10:30 pm to 4:30 am the lights were on, the Laotian music was in full swing and there was no room to recline our seats. The bus was hot and it smelt like there was a hazardous explosion in the restroom. We listened to cats meow and people snore. We arrived at Vietiane at 4:30 am (it was still dark) and as always were hassled by tuk tuk drivers. “30,000 kip ($3.66) pp to city center ,” they yelled. We decided to wait for the local bus ($0.38) and slept outside the bus station. It was cold. A bus came but by time we got our bags, we missed it and I rolled an ankle in the process. Around 6 am we opted to take a song ta uu for $0.61 pp. We got dropped off at the market and walked 2 miles to the downtown area. We walked in and out of about 7 hostels and guesthouses as they were either full or the price wasn’t right. Finally, 15 hours later we arrived. Traveling has been a blast. The highs are high and the lows are low. It’s easy to let Asia get the best of you, but you put one foot forward and keep on moving.

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Random Food for Thought in Laos

  • Images of Che Guevara are found all over the communist country of Laos representing rebellion.
  • Reliable wifi does not exist in Laos, not in the south, not in the north, not at coffee shops or guesthouses. Maybe we will have better luck in Thailand?
  • Sticky rice is eaten at almost every meal, it’s rolled into a walnut sized ball with your hand and dipped into curry or eaten with eggs or vegetables.
  • Buses stop on the side of the road, everyone gets out together, walks into the woods, pees and returns onto the bus. This is normal.
  • Lao time/ Asia time, there is no exact time. You should never travel with expectations. You may leave an hour or two earlier or later than expected.
  • Cobra, worm and scorpion whiskey are commonly drunk throughout the country. Nick became friends with a bus station bathroom attendant and was offered worm whiskey. He obviously didn’t know what it was until after the fact but said it was extremely smooth.
  • The sex industry is unfortunately alive and well. You meet people at your guesthouse who you later see walking down the street with a prostitue and it’s shocking. Then you realize, it’s more common than you ever expected. and it breaks your heart.
  • Bear bile is harvested in SE Asia and China and over 12,000 bears are held in captivity  to extract their bile. Their bile is used for medicinal purposes.
  • Don’t be fooled by the eggs in Southeast Asia. What you may think is a hard boiled egg is most likely a balut egg (developing bird embryo).
  • Rather than salt and pepper being available on every table, MSG and chili flakes can be found on every table in Laos.
  • Tourists can be the worst. The majority are entitled and have no respect for the local people. They roam around local villages half dressed without any awareness of local customs. I thought all travelers travel for the same reason, to gain a global perspective and learn from the people and places visited. However, I am quickly learning travelers have different priorities and reasons for travel. Travel is such a fine balance between learning/contributing to locals and simply gawking at locals like visiting a zoo. It’s important that we put down our cameras and try to form genuine relationships. Learning to be easy and travel without any expectations is critial.

 

Green Climber’s Home

Before Nick and I left for our Asia trip we took a climbing road trip west. While in Yosemite, a Spanish couple that had been traveling for 5 months came up to us and started petting Koa. The woman (Ainara) showed us a cell phone photo of their dog who was a white golden retriever and looked just look Koa. Through Spanglish and a game of charades we were able to convey that we too would be traveling for a year and missing our dog. We spent the next few days climbing and teaching Ramon basic English commands like “off belay” while 4 pitches up. We eventually parted ways and thought maybe (although highly unlikely) we’d meet again in Asia. Now, 6 months later we were reunited and climbing in Laos!

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Entrance to Green Climber’s Home
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Climbing in the cave
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Our tent located behind the luxurious bungalows =)
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Reunited in Laos!

The Green Climbers Home is a remarkable climbing community with bungalows looking up at huge rock faces just outside of Thakhek, Laos. At night, the stars appear between jagged cliff edges. There are hundreds of dynamic limestone routes, friendly people and delicious food. Nick and I camped for a week while having an absolute blast with Ariana and Ramon. We climbed in caves, took some big falls, watched Reel Rock, celebrated Ainara’s birthday, pushed ourselves and rewarded ourselves with some good laughs and whiskey. Although we could have stayed here for months, it was time to continue exploring Laos.

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The reward at the end of a pitch
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Feliz Cumpleaños Ainara!

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Thakhek Loop

Thakhek

Nick, Dan (Nick’s dad) and I took an 8 hour bus from Pakse to Thakhek (350 km) where we began the Thakhek motorcycle loop. We rented a 250 cc Kawasaki dirt bike and 125 cc Honda MSX from Wang Wang, an extremely helpful bike rental shop. For any traveler looking to do this loop I’d recommend staying at Thakhek Travel Lodge and renting from Wang Wang. On day 1, we drove 311 km winding through rock formations and over flooded forests as a result of a backed up dam. The road conditions were great, as it was paved the entire way and much less stressful driving than the motorcycle loop we did in Northern Vietnam. We arrived to Lak Sao in the afternoon and were greeted with sheer rock looking over the town. We found the town to be rather eerie. We seemed to be the only tourists in the large town and the locals we interacted with seemed not only uninterested but unfriendly. Something seemed strange about this town, it had a ton of guesthouses, enough to house hundreds of tourists and although it was the beginning of high season the town was deserted. We ate at “The Only One” restaurant and were unsure if it’s named referred to it being the only restaurant in town or the fact that we were the only customers for what seemed like days. This was an interesting experience as the majority of our other experiences in Laos differed greatly.

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Lak Sao
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Like father, like son

Nick and I took so some joy rides in the evenings as I haven’t ridden since I got my motorcycle license last year. The size of the Asian bikes are perfect as my feet can actually reach the ground! We also enjoyed the looks we got from locals when I drove as we are definitely breaking some gender norms.

 

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vroom vroom

The next morning we left Lak Sao and drove 99 km to the Konglor Cave. A river runs through this 7.5 km cave located beneath a limestone mountain. We took a 4 person longboat through the creepy cave and although pitch black our headlamps illuminated the intricate stalactites and sleeping bats. The magnitude of this cave was incomprehensible as it reached 100 m tall in some areas. After touring the cave we drove the bikes back to the small town of Na Hin where we relaxed and ate delicious food at Sanhak Guesthouse. I strongly recommend this guesthouse as a private room and bath costs $7 ($11 w ac) and the brownie sundies was the best western desert we’ve had since leaving the states.

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Konglor Cave

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On day 3, instead of finishing the loop and driving 148 km on a straight highway back to Thakhek we drove back the way we came. We drove 335 km through huge rock faces, mountains and limestone formations. Our trip was trouble free and a blast. We returned to Thakhek and took a sleeper bus to the capital, Vientiane. Stay posted!

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Sleeper bus

Southern Laos

4000 Islands

After another corrupt border crossing we made it into Laos. An immediate difference we noticed was that it was much cleaner than Cambodia and sticky rice is eaten at every meal. Often the Lao will refer to themselves as “luk khao niaow”, which can be translated as “children or descendants of sticky rice”. Once arriving, we took a long boat to the 4000 islands. We stayed on Dong Khon, an island on the Mekong River and enjoyed relaxing in hammocks. It was quit the journey following the Mekong from Vietnam to Cambodia and Laos. We rented some bicycles and explored the neighboring island, Don Det and enormous waterfalls, Khone Falls and Pha Pheng Falls. We ended each evening with a beautiful sunset over the water.

 

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waterfalls

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We had the opportunity to see the critically endangered Irrawaddy Dolphins (freshwater dolphins). According to WWF Global, there are only 85 Irrawaddy Dolphins left in the Mekong of which only 5 in Laos (the remaining are in Cambodian waters). The main cause of death is entanglement in gillinets, which we saw hundreds of throughout the Mekong. The largest threat to this species is the proposed 260 megawatt Don Sahong Dam in Laos, just 3 km upstream from the pool. This dam would destroy the waterfalls (photographed above) to create a reservoir upstream. Although hydroelectric power is less damaging to the environment than other forms, it is still unsettling to know we are pushing species to extinction all in the name of energy.

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Critically endangered Irrawaddy Dolphins
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Beer Lao Time

Champasak

This sleepy town was a refreshing break from the tourist loop. With less than a handful of small guesthouses, restaurants and convenient stores it was easy to enjoy the serene riverside town. The main attraction in this town is visiting Wat Phu which overlooks the Mekong Valley. This is an impressive archaeological site with 2 ruined palace buildings, and a once Hindu now Buddhist temple. After climbing narrow stone steps surrounded by dok jampa (Frangipani) trees you are rewarded with an outstanding view.

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Wat Phu
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Pakse

After a short ride in a sorng taa ou (truck with benches in the bed) we arrived in Pakse. This large province capital had a big tourist scene as it is a hub for transportation north and south, to Vietnam and to Thailand. I was feeling sick so I skipped out of the days activities while Nick and Dan (Nick’s dad) rode scooters to the Bolaven Plateau. On the way to Paksong, Nick dropped his scooter in the rain but only received minor scratches and there was no damage to the bike. On the muddy road to Lao’s largest waterfall, Dan dropped his bike in the mud. Finally, to make a hectic day even more chaotic, Nick accidentally locked his keys in the scooter and had to drive the other bike to Pakse and back for the spare. This was a long day for Nick and Dan driving in the rain and into the night, however it sounds like it was a perfect day for me to miss!

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Nick and Dan enjoying Wat Phu
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Paksong Market
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Sorng taa ou riding