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!

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

Siem Reap

What the city of Siem Reap lacks in authenticity, makes up for in history (and tuk tuks). It is dirty and undeveloped, however less so than Phenom Penh. Tourists come to Siem Reap to see the magnificent temples of Angkor. The attention to detail and intricacies of design is astonishing at Angkor. The vastness and magnitude of the temples are awe- inspiring. Built in the early 12th century, Angkor Wat serves as a temple and mausoleum for Suryavarman II. Angkor Wat is the pride of Khmer culture, found on the Cambodian flag and riel.

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Angkor Wat

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My favorite temple was Banteay Srei, a Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva built in AD 967. Banteay Srei means ‘Citadel of the Women’ and it is believed that women must have built it, as the elaborate carvings are too fine for the hand of a man.

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Banter Srei ‘Citadel of the Women’

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Banteay Samre – a secluded temple with little tourists and provides a lot of freedom.

Angkor Thom – 10 sq km, previously supported a population of 1 million people.

Bayon – 54 towers of smiling Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara.

Baphuon – This temple is often called the worlds largest jig saw puzzle, “The temple was taken apart piece by piece, in keeping with the anastylosis method of renovation, but all the records were destroyed during the Khmer Rouge years, leaving experts with 300,000 stones to put back into place. The EFEO resumed restoration work in 1995, and continues its efforts today. ” – Lonely Planet Cambodia

Nick and I were in Siem Reap for the Bon Om Touk ‘Cambodia’s Water Festival’ , which takes place every year in November. This 3 day festival is most famous in Phenom Penh, however is also celebrated around the country. The festival seems to celebrate a variety of things, including: the end of the rainy season, rice harvest and histroically (12th century) the victory of the Cambodian Naval forces. In 2010, 347 people were killed and 755 injured in a human stampede in the Phenom Penh celebrations. It was canceled for the next 3 years, however has since returned. The streets are lined with food, music and vendors. And the locals compete in long boat races.

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To escape Siem Reap, visit the floating village of Chong Kneas located on Tonlé Sap Lake. Here you’ll see what daily life on a lake looks like, you’ll see crocodiles and hear tales of water cobras.

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Chong Kneas Floating Village
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Crocodiles

Rent a motorbike or hire a tuk tuk to take you out of the city to enjoy Phare – The Cambodian Circus. Put on by a nonprofit that educates at risk youth, laugh and sit in amazement of these talented individuals.

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Phare- The Cambodian Circus

Favorite Eats:

Sugar Palm – Located in a beautiful wooden house on stilts try the pamelo salad and tofu satay (both about $5).

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Pamela, peanut, onion, cilantro and lime

Bugs Café – Insects are sold all over Cambodia, at rest stops and markets, however visit the Bugs Café and indulge in some classy insects. Try tarantulas donuts, ant spring rolls, waterbug and spider skewers.

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Nick enjoying tarantulas, ants, waterbugs grasshoppers and scorpions.

Peace café – This vegetarian garden café has reasonable prices and a great atmosphere.

And don’t forget to enjoy Happy Siem Reap Pizza.