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33 things we love about Laos

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1. Sunsets over the Mekong Rivermekong sunset

2. Beer Lao
This is our favorite beer in South East Asia, but maybe that is due in part to the relatively low price tag ($1.25 for a liter).beer lao at mekong river3. The alms giving ceremonies
We mentioned the most famous one in Luang Prabang, but no matter where you are in Laos, if you rise with the sun, you can watch as dozens of Buddhist monks, draped in their bright orange robes and carrying their pots, make their way around town collecting food from the faithful.luang prabang monks alms giving4. Outdoor cooking
Much of Lao life still takes place outside, including family meals. Sticky rice steams on wicker baskets set over big pots of boiling water, as the family grills meat and eats right outside together around the fire.outdoor cooking in laos5. Fresh fruit shakes

Sold on the street for 5,000 kip (roughly 60 cents), these are perfectly fresh and delicious any time of day.

luang prabang night market fruit shakes6. The story behind the mysterious Plain of Jars
The jury is out as to which of the theories is 100 per cent correct, but these Stone Age artifacts cover the plateau outside of Phonsavan in Northern Laos, and are considered as significant and mysterious as Stonehenge or the Maoi statues of the Easter Islands.plain of jars laos7. Lao Breakfast Cake
This thick sticky rice patty covered in an omelet and served with a side of spicy garlic-chili was enough to get me up and at ‘em early each morning – definitely our favorite Lao breakfast!

lao breakfast8. The scenes of rural village life
Whether glimpsed from a bus window or out hiking or biking through the countryside, it is hard not to fall for the idyllic, peaceful look of what today appears to be a simple rural life in Laos.luang nam tha village house9. Outdoor aerobics in Vientiane
For all the rural life in Laos, the people of Vientiane live a much more modern lifestyle. Along with the international cuisine and longer working hours comes the need to hit the gym – and the river. Along the Mekong River just after sunset each night over 100 people join an instructor, dance music blaring, to get their hearts pumping together, in their outdoor aerobics class.

outdoor aerobics in vientiane10. Pov Pob
Essentially a form of traditional speed dating, we watched this flirtatious ball tossing game when we spent time with the Hmong people during their new year festivities in Phonsavan and the Plain of Jars.hmong girls pov pob11. Muang Ngoi Neua
Well, we loved this sleepy off-the-grid river town in northern Laos, but you probably shouldn’t bother going there

12. Fresh papaya salads at the night market in Luang Nam Tha
At least half the stands at this Lao night market make papaya salads, and, as this is a fairly local experience, they are hot as fire! Poor Dani couldn’t even make conversation with a couple we made friends with as we ate, her mouth was burning!papaya salad lady luang nam tha13. Goats and pigs on long-tail boats
Far be it for us to say how to transport livestock! We loved how these passenger boats just threw the goats up on top out of everyone’s way, and let the fat pigs lay in the only bit of shade outside the cabin.goats and pigs on long tail boat in laos14. Indian restaurants
All across northern Laos there seems to be a chain of distant relatives running Indian restaurants in each of the main tourist pit-stops along the way, and we would find out about the next Indian restaurant in the next town by a tattered, grubby sign on the wall of the brother’s cousin’s father-in-law’s restaurant in the town before.

15. The many ancient temples in Luang Prabang
The cultural gem of Laos, this French colonial city has so many beautiful temples you’ll accidentally discover one on your way to another.luang prabang temple16. The views over the Nam Ou River and the mountains in Nong Khiew
There is just something so addictive above staring out at this view each day…

nong khiew & river17. The golden mountain stupa in Luang Nam Tha
Although we weren’t too fussed about the town itself, the bike ride up the mountain to the new golden stupa was quite an experience. We had the place entirely to ourselves, aside from a dear sweet local woman who gave us a blessing in exchange for our donation.luang nam tha golden stupa laos18. Sticky rice
We love everything about sticky rice – the texture, the smell, the way it is actually steamed in wicker baskets which are set just above the actual pot of boiling water. Perhaps the most fun thing about sticky rice is the way you ball it up in your fingers and eat it with your hands. In Laos you can play with your food – at least a little bit!

19. Cycling through Laos
Daily bike rentals are cheap as chips in Laos ($1.25-$2.50) so not surprisingly we cycled through almost every city we visited (Luang Nam Tha, Nong Khiew, Luang Prabang and Vientiane). Although Laos is very hilly and mountainous terrain, with only semi-paved and majorly patchy roads, we met dozens of people who were cycling across the entire country, often starting in China or Thailand and working their way across South East Asia. Incredible!dani & jess cycling in laos20. The huge Lao baguettes for $1.25
A delicious left-over from the French colonial period, baguettes in Laos are stuffed full with veggies, (meat if you must) tofu and eggs – or peanut butter, nutella and/or condensed milk.laos baguette21. The morning market in Luang Prabang
We described the surprises we found in the morning market here.

22. Cheap herbal steam rooms ($1.25 – $1.90)
What a discovery we made – first in Nong Khiew, and again in Luang Prabang. A rustic experience but incredibly refreshing, these steam rooms use fresh herbs, straight from the forest, to open up your pores, get your circulation moving and, in the chilly evenings in the mountains, keeping you warm. You would pay ten or twenty times the price for this back at home, so we suggest taking advantage of this charming luxury while in Laos!

23. Floating down the Nam Ou River
Wild water buffalo, cows and pigs frolicking on the banks of the river, waving kids from  windows of wooden huts, and ancient fisherman poised for their next catch.
nam ou river laos24. Meeting kids in the villages around Nong Khiew
There is almost nothing as sweet as hearing kids actually squealing with joy as you ride into a village…except for when they run alongside you as you pedal in, practice their English with you while you’re there and then chase your bike with smiles and laughter and shout ‘Bye Bye Miss!’ as you pedal away.
meeting village kids in laos25. Monks on bicycles
This scene, which we see over and over again, inspires such a simple, peaceful feeling. We just love how it looks.

26. Lao tractors
Essentially engines hooked onto carts, these tractors are easily some of the most common modes of transportation on the road in Laos.laos tractors27. The sleepy market vendors and tuktuk drivers everywhere
Working at the market must be tough in Laos, since at least half of the vendors can be caught snoozing at one time or another. We’ve tried to wake up plenty to make a purchase, often to no avail….

laos sleeping market vendors and tuktuk drivers28. Laojitos
This local cocktail puts a spin on the Mojito, substituting the alcohol with Lao rice whiskey. It’s cheaper, and local, but count on a bigger headache the next day!
Laojito29. Laundry ladies in the rivers
laundry lady laos30. The beautiful scenery of Northern Laos
The way the mountains jut out of an otherwise flat landscape, some surprisingly high, while others look more like little bumps across the scene.
northern laos31. Beautiful Lao desserts
What they lack in flavor, they make up for in colorful design, and for $0.60, it’ll quench your sugar cravings.
sweet baguettes luang nam tha laos32. Every single dish on the menu of the Mekara Restaurant in Nong Khiew
This simple open-air restaurant is open for an early breakfast through to late (10pm) cocktails. Here we ate traditional Western food (including a full German breakfast), but more importantly sampled traditional Lao dishes, which were very kindly explained for the ‘Falang’ or foreigners who dine here.

33. Lao sinks that have no drains but just end on the floor
In South East Asia, it’s common to have the shower right above the toilet, so that all the water just runs onto the bathroom floor. But we love in Laos all the effort they go to to build the sink, attach a pipe to the drain, only to let it also just spill right out onto the floor. Why not save all the trouble and let us brush our teeth right over the floor? 🙂laos sink

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Detour to the Plain of Jars

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When we travel, we always have a plan. Not that we stick to it, but we always intend to.

It might seem predictable, but the truth is there is a reason why travelers follow a trail, at least roughly. It is because the routes make sense to follow – from north to south or from main hub to main hub, making your stops along the way.

There are the times when I just want to pick up the guidebook, point to a page, and go there. 

Plain of jars site 2One day at lunch in Laos, while eating a baguette in the French colonial city of Luang Prabang, I was flipping mindlessly through the guidebook, and came upon a place called the Plain of Jars. The name already had me hooked, but the description possessed me. What is this plain filled with jars, I wondered?

plain of jars site 1 French archeologist Madeleine Colan (re)discovered the Plain of Jars in 1930 (along with a few bones, teeth and shards of pottery) on a plateau in the north east of Laos. Hundreds of these ancient Stone Age jars reach as high as 3m and weigh between 650kg and one metric ton. Their purpose remains a mystery to archeologists, who have put the site on par with Stonehenge or Easter Island’s Moai statues in terms of mystery and massive size. Now, this is what traveling is all about, I thought.

We had to get to these Jars. 

Despite the extra two days of travel on those nauseating Lao roads, the detour was worth it. The next day, we were off to see these jars in the Xieng Khouang province.

Its dusty capital, Phonsavan, acts as the hub for visitors to the region. Streets here are wide with soviet-style blocks and piles of rubble and bricks on either side. There are only practical businesses, repair shops and a smattering of basic restaurants and hotels. As we arrive in the late afternoon light, the scene is more how we would have imagined a trip to Mongolia. Motorcycle riders with scarves over their faces to block the dust, the cityscape here is barren but you see from the construction that there is prosperity in its future.

We loved Phonsavan right away.

hmong girl with umbrellaWe set our bags down in a sturdy, basic hotel room off the main road, ready to hunt for some dinner, and the sound of festive music started pounding through the window. It just so happened that we were not only going to be learning about ancient cultures here in Phonsavan, but also experiencing the Hmong New Year at the same time.

Originating from Southeastern China, the Hmong ethnic group slowly migrated into the highlands of Thailand, Vietnam and Laos throughout the 18th century due to unrest, and outside of Phonsavan is one of the largest Hmong communities in the world. Just near our hotel, a huge open gravel lot was spilling over with Hmong people of all ages, all dressed in their colorful festive best. New Year’s celebrations come at the end of the harvest season and involve up to 40 days of food, dancing and a fun fair.

phonsavan hmong girls bumper carWe made a bit of small talk with a trio of Hmong girls eager to practice their English and happily pose for pictures in their beautiful robes for a few minutes. Then it was off to find a guide for the Plain of Jars the next day. Visitors can hire a driver to the main site on their own, but guides are required for sites 2 and 3, not only because of the distance, but also because the area surrounding the two sites is still littered with landmines. We were happy to have an expert with us to keep us safe, but also to tell us more about the history of the jars.

Was this place inhabited by giants?

Lao legend claims that the region was populated by a race of giants thousands of years ago. More rational theories suggest that these jars, which date from to 500BC – 200AD, were used as funerary urns to bury to dead, or to catch rain water, or maybe even to brew and store the (in)famous Lao Lao rice whiskey.

plain of jars site 3Unfortunately, few jars today remain completely in tact. Locals have used pieces throughout time for building materials while trees have sprung right up out the middle of others. Many fell victim to bombs dropped here during the U.S.-led Secret War. The Laos government has applied for UNESCO World Heritage status for funding to prevent further destruction, but until the thousands of unexploded landmines from that war can be cleared  (a dangerous task costing millions of dollars), it is unlikely they will receive UNESCO’s blessing.
mag sign plain of jarsFor such a mysterious and ancient site, there are very few visitors here. With a twinkle in his eye, our guide explained that as soon as UNESCO status is granted, tourists will flock to the Plain of Jars the way they do to Luang Prabang or Cambodia’s Angkor Wat.
plain of jars site 2After all, everything about these jars is fascinating – their size, their mysterious history and also just how much ground these sites cover. There are three sites, spread over a massive amount of land and we start at the further one, site three, which sits 35km from Phonsavan.
plain of jars - site 3The Plain of Jars and a break at a rice whiskey factory

After a gut-jostling ride down a series of makeshift dirt roads, we parked at a gate and proceeded to hike fifteen minutes past muscular farmers mucking knee deep through rice fields to the top of a hill where 150 of the massive clay jars are strewn about – that is, if massive 700kg jars can be considered ‘strewn’. Rapid-fire questions immediately started. How in the world were these jars transported up here? How were they even made? Were they made nearby? No one knows for sure, is all we were told.

plain of jars site 3Each jar varies in size, some are the size and mass of a small car, while others are smaller, like a heavy-duty backyard barbecue. Picturing the diminutive ancestors lugging these up a hill is difficult, and it is clear why legend has it that giants used to inhabit the area. After a bit of gawking and talking, we hiked back down and were transported to Site 2. Here there are only 90 jars, spread out across two facing hillsides. The views from here spread deep into the Lao countryside, revealing both intimate village scenes and expansive view that made us feel as if we were the only ones here within one hundred miles.

plain of jars site 2One basic lunch later, the next stop of the tour brought us to a Lao Lao whiskey ‘factory’. This was no more than a house with ten barrels of fermenting booze, a few lazy dogs out front and a charming, older lady who explained through pointing and smiles how this fire water is produced.

laos grandma whiskey factoryHi-tech kids playing a traditional game of flirtation

With our insides still on fire from the ‘whiskey’, we hopped into the shuttle to finally arrive at the main site, Site 1, where 250 jars were waiting. It was officially New Year’s Day, and so we arrived on a most colorful scene as hundreds of Hmong people crowded here at the region’s most significant site to celebrate. Most of us hung back, just observing, until a group of teenagers invited us to join them in what was essentially a hill tribe version of speed dating!

hmong new year pov pobThe game is called Pov Pob, the Hmong Game of Love. All in intricately designed traditional outfits, girls line up on one side across from the boys. Tossing a tennis ball back and forth, they throw the ball to someone they like. If caught, that person returns the flirtation. If they let the ball drop, then they do not see their ‘suitor’ as marriage material.

hmong girl laosThe teen boys especially took to Dani’s blond hair and invited her to play, and the girls politely giggled at them for trying. This is the first step of their entire marriage process, so, of course Dani declined and settled for becoming the subject of dozens of cell phone pictures. After all, as traditional as these festivities are, even here in the middle of rural Laos, where there are teenagers, there is a high-tech situation. With mp3 players shoved in the pockets of their traditional outfits, some played Pov Pob one handed while texting, while others recorded the experience on their devices.

dani & jess and hmong kids in LaosAs for the jars at the main site, they were truly massive and, even after a long day of touring, inspired such wonder as to how in the world, and why in the world, they have been here, since the Stone Age.

plain of jars site 2The Details: The Plain of Jars 

The tour can be booked anywhere – shop around a bit if you care, prices vary by a few dollars, but they all feed into the same minivans. There are a variety of tours which focus more on the Secret War, the Hmong people, and other aspects of life in Laos. Check out this informative Xieng Khouang website for more.

What to do in Phonsavan
There isn’t much in the way of diversion in Phonsavan, but anyone looking to see the Plain of Jars must overnight here at least once as it is too far from anywhere else.

Bomb Harvest: Once here, you might as well at least pop in to watch this documentary. The MAG (Mines Advisory Group) is the organization controlling the clearance of the Unexploded Ordnances (UXO) around Phonsavan. Their office in town offers a daily screening of Bomb Harvest, about the consequences of the heavy bombings and UXO and the efforts to clean up the nearly 200,000 that remain.

Phonsavan Daily Market: The daily market the town center of Phonsavan is one of the most interesting markets in Laos, featuring the many unusual culinary specialties of the Xieng Khouang province. You will see fried bats, colorful birds, squirrels, porcupines and other big rodents ready for cooking. This is nothing for sensitive animal lovers but fascinating for everyone who is interested in getting an insight into local culture.

fried rats laos

Where to stay in Phonsavan
Despite the long journey required from other major hubs in Laos, there are plenty of hotels in Phonsavan. Guesthouses in town offer double rooms for around 100,000 kip ($12.50) and a good selection have (sometimes patchy) Wi-Fi. The Plain of Jars tends to attract a more studied (older) tourist, and therefore there are quite a few mid-range hotels as well.

Where to eat in Phonsavan
We ate breakfast, lunch and dinner at Nisha – a family-run hole in the wall Indian restaurant with plenty of western food on the menu. The food is delicious and cheap, and we ran into plenty of other travelers here two and three times.

The Craters Bar & Restaurant offers several Western dishes and has free wi-fi, and the Kong Keo Restaurant is rumored to have good local Lao food.

phonsavan restaurant with bombsHow to get to Phonsavan
Phonsavan makes a great stop on the way to the Vietnam border and can be reached by direct bus from Luang Prabang or Vientiane. Times seem to vary by seasons and weekdays/ends, but we find the Wikitravel entry for Phonsavan very useful.

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Photo Essay: The markets of Laos

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Piles of bright green seaweed and giant fish fresh from the nearby Mekong river, mounds of small, bright oranges, live toads and fried rats on the BBQ…the markets of Laos were some of the most exciting and colorful we’ve seen in South East Asia.

morning market roostersAlthough we had heard of fried rats in Thailand, it wasn’t until Luang Prabang’s morning market, geared towards local shoppers, where we saw a couple of stands though that offered these little rodents.

rats morning market luang prabangWe saw living toads, which I am sure were not sold to be enjoyed as pets…

morning market toadsThe markets are filled with local vegetables and spices that are used to make the delicious Lao dishes, like curries or rice dishes.

luang prabang morning market vegetablesWhen ordering food, we would often inquire about the herbs or veggies in a dish only to be told that they were ‘from the forest, only grow in Laos’. The markets are where people from the interior would come to sell these mysterious forest vegetables.

luang prabang morning market wood & flowersWhat a spectacle, and we loved every minute of it! Many soups and stews are cooked with a branch of wood from a tree inside – apparently it adds a lot of flavor to the dishes, but of course it’s taken out of the pot before the dish is served.

luang prabang morning market stuff from the woodsMany restaurants offer dishes with fresh seaweed from the Mekong River, and this is what that looks like:

luang prabang morning market mekong river grassFish is the main source of protein in the Laotian diet, and it is devoured in every imaginable form: fresh…

luang prabang morning market fresh fishDried…

luang prabang morning market dried fishAnd the head is supposed to be extremely scrumptious…

morning market fishAnybody hungry?

luang prabang morning market fish headThe flowers from banana trees are edible, and are cut up into little pieces and added to rice dishes or used for the famous banana flower salads, which are delicious.

luang prabang morning market banana flowersSome of the main ingredients of Lao cuisine: round eggplant, lemongrass (both used for Lao curry) and green papayas – which are a vegetable and used mainly for the fresh Papaya Salads that are served everywhere.

luang prabang morning market vegetablesSpicy papaya salads are made by pounding the spices (chili, garlic, tomatoes, salt) in a mortar, shaved papaya is added, and finally the whole thing is topped with peanuts and lime sauce. Delish! If you are a vegetarian, just ask not to have fish/oyster sauce added, but soy sauce instead.

Papaya salad stand in luang nam thaAnother very important ingredient of Lao cooking: spicy chilis.

luang prabang morning market chilisAnd nothing goes without rice – there are usually three different kinds of rice in the markets: steamed rice, sticky rice, and dark sticky rice.

luang prabang morning market riceThese baskets are used to steam the sticky rice above the pot of boiling water.

luang prabang morning market basket vendorFresh out of the Mekong River: Crabs, ready to be cooked and easy to transport.

morning market crabsSome fresh chicken…

luang prabang morning market chicken

These pretty little parcels (made from banana leaves) hold minced pork inside.

luang prabang night market pork parcelsDesserts are usually grilled bananas or taros…

grilled bananas laos…or (not only loved by Westerners) donuts!

luang prabang night market donuts…We also sampled some pretty cake from one of the bakery stands:

sweet baguettes luang nam thaLao coffee, often served in little glass cups, tends to have at least an inch of condensed milk at the bottom unless you specifically request to have it black. With a shortage of Starbucks or other coffee shops, Lao coffee is everywhere and whether you love it or hate it, throughout most the country it is the only option. Obviously, then, we have had loads of these coffees…

luang prabang night market lao coffeeThe biggest part of the night market in Luang Prabang is dedicated to handicrafts – woven cloths and blankets, silk scarves, plus silver jewelry, handmade masks, paintings and umbrellas.

luang prabang night market
luang prabang night market


luang prabang night marketAt the end of the main road in Luang Prabang, there are several stands that sell fresh fruit smoothies for 5,000 kip ($0.63) and the typical big Lao baguettes, freshly made to your order, for 10,000 kip ($1.25). They usually have them with cheese, omelet or boiled eggs, turkey, chicken or tofu.

luang prabang night market baguettesFor truly budget eating, head down a little alley towards the south end of the market (before the baguette stands). It is a tight squeeze, but dozens of food stands line this covered walkway, fitting in tables for diners who scoop up these deals. The buffets, which cost $1.25 for all you can fit on your plate, are all vegetarian, with meat (especially freshly grilled fish) added on top.

night market foodWe piled our plates high with several versions of fried noodles, rice, tofu and vegetables, along with salad and fruit at the stand we found to be the best. The dishes vary slightly from stand to stand, so it’s worth having a look around before deciding which stall to buy from – so don’t be intimidated when the first stands shove a plate in your hand right away. Just take your time for the cheapest buffet of your life!

night market buffetIf you are more adventurous, you can try some fried bugs which are available in most of the night markets…

vientiane night market fried insects

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Charmant in the City – Luang Prabang, Laos

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We’re city people. We love the buzz, the food, the art, the people-watching that can be done in big cities…

So after touring the more remote areas of northern Laos, the French colonial city of Luang Prabang almost had a big city vibe. Within the course of an afternoon of exploring, Luang Prabang began showing its colors as a charming little gem. Home to 100,000 people, Luang Prabang is the second largest city in Laos (Vientiane, the sleepy capital, has a population of roughly 1.3 million). Decades after French rule, Luang Prabang has long since been rightfully ‘re-conquered’ by international tourists, making it both a comfortable, entertaining place to visit but equally requires some good planning to avoid the masses. Read on for our recommendations of what to see and do in Luang Prabang.

luang prabang367 steps to the top of Phou Si

It might seem like quite a haul to slog up 367 steps, but for the best views of the city, this is something all visitors to the city must do.  On our first full day in town we scaled the hill, arriving at the That Chomsi temple for breathtaking views of wider Luang Prabang and the peninsula where Old Town is located, right where the mighty Mekong and the Nam Khan rivers meet.

view over luang prabangFor those of you who, like Dani, are addicted to scouting out amazing sunset photo opportunities, the sunset must be shot from up here: two rivers, mountains, a Buddhist temple and miles of palm trees jutting up into layers of striking colors. However, hundreds of people will be joining you, which means getting up to the top at least an hour early to secure a good spot (bring mosquito spray, they’re aggressive up there).

For those of you who, like me, get annoyed by masses of camera toting tourists, go up here in the morning and at dusk have a stroll through the night market at that time – the stalls are still just being set up, so not many people are there yet and you have the place to much more to yourself.

luang prabang sunsetHit the markets

We have each been living out of a 60-70 liter backpack for the last two years – so we tend not to buy much at markets, but even we ended up buying quite a few little things at the night market in Luang Prabang. Lining Sisavangvong Road, a main thoroughfare, the market is unavoidable. We spent hours here looking at the paintings, silk scarves, blankets, wooden masks and gawking at the bottles of Lao rice whiskey, which usually come with snakes or large insects in the bottom of bottle that put that tiny worm at the bottom of a tequila bottle to shame.

night market luang prabangThere is also a morning market just off this road and it is an entirely local experience. Rather than tourist trinkets, we found fresh produce, piles of seaweed and fresh fish plucked from the Mekong and some more bizarre items such as fried rats, grilled insects, fresh frogs, or ox heads.

Cruise on two wheels

It was plain to see from atop Phou Si that Luang Prabang stretches far beyond the old town, so we did what we always do to see more of a city, and hopped on bikes. Bicycle rentals are abundant and inexpensive, and touring around on two wheels was a relaxing way to really get out and explore. We rented a stylish city cruiser for a day for 20,000 kip ($2.50) and sliced through the interesting dichotomy of crumbling French-style colonial architecture and intricately designed Buddhist temples (called wats). Wat Xieng Thong on the north end of the peninsula is the grandest temple in Luang Prabang, built in 1560.

dani cycling in luang prabangLearn to cook, Lao style

Most of us are familiar with Thai cuisine, but neighboring Lao doesn’t have quite the international culinary presence despite some interesting dishes. To learn more about Lao food in Luang Prabang, we decided between three cooking schools (Tamarind, Tam Nak and Tum Tum Cheng) opting in the end for Tum Tum Cheng. We ended up with a private class, just the two of us, which meant we were able to create an all-vegetarian menu of five items.

cooking class luang prabangWe learned to cook:
Fried noodles with vegetables
Fresh spring rolls
Papaya Salad
Red Curry with Tofu
Sticky Rice and Banana for desert

Included in that was a lesson in preparing sticky rice, the absolute staple of Lao cuisine. We started the morning on a trip to the morning market with Noi, the sister of the chef. She explained many of the curious items we normally just photograph and wonder about. In our absence, the staff prepped the ingredients, so when we returned from the market all we had to do was learn to make the dishes. Unlike our cooking course on Koh Lanta, this took most the hard work out of the experience and cut the time down to about an hour of actual class time. We ended up cooking a feast for six, but ate it all ourselves at the end and washed it down with a glass of local orange fruit wine. You can find Tum Tum Cheng on Facebook. dani & jess eating at tum tum chengGlobetrotterGirls say Relax!

After all the markets and cycling and slaving over a hot stove (not really – more like eating enough for six people), it was time for some pampering. We discovered the Herbal Steam bath in Nong Khiew, and hunted down an equally inexpensive and utterly relaxing herbal steam spa experience in Luang Prabang, just off Sisavangvong Road (the night market) for 10,000 kip ($1.25). There are others, but they charge ‘foreigner’ prices up to $8.25 an hour which won’t break the bank, but we prefer paying local prices for local experiences. The steam rooms are usually simple wooden rooms like saunas. Mist laced with fresh local herbs like lemongrass sprays through a pipe into the room from a barrel, or drum, underneath. The room gets very warm, so the experience involves alternating between ten minutes of steam and ten minutes out of the room drinking warm herbal tea. The combination of steam, heat and the herbs opens the pores and is completely relaxing. The saunas provide a sarong to wear in the steam room, a towel and free warm herbal tea.

Alternatively, Luang Prabang has dozens of top massage studios in town. Indulge in oil massages, Lao massage, Thai massages, head and shoulder massages, foot massages as well as manis, pedis and facials. We found the cheapest massage places on  Khem Khong (the road right by the Mekong River) where one-hour massages cost 38,000 kip ($4.75).

luang prabang lazy dogWitness Tak Bat, but please tread lightly

Every morning just after sunrise, hundreds of monks dressed in their flowing saffron robes make their way through the streets of Luang Prabang collecting alms. Local Buddhists line the streets, sometimes kneeling, and fills the monks’ alms with rice, bananas and other cooked food to show respect for the monks and a dedication to Buddhism (a ritual often misunderstood by Westerners as charity). It is a photographer’s dream to witness this, but unfortunately the spiritual ritual has become a tourist spectacle over the last few years here in Luang Prabang. Busloads of tourists are brought to Sisavangvong Road in the morning and despite being told the rules (stay on the other side of the road, no flash, keep distance) a large percentage of onlookers literally shove their photo gear in the monks faces. It is at best bizarre, and at worst heart-breaking to witness what is essentially citizen paparazzi snapping shots of what should be a very spiritual, somber experience.

Dani found a spot off Sisavangvong on a side street where monks received alms undisturbed and asks you to please read the Do’s and Don’ts beforehand. For a more detailed account of the popular experience, you can read fellow travel blogger Barbara’s account of taking part in the alms giving ceremony here.

monks luang prabangVisit the waterfalls

Around Luang Prabang there are several waterfalls to cool off and go for a swim, the most popular being the Kuang Si waterfalls 30 kilometers out of town. Negotiate a price with a private tuktuk who will take you there and back, or for a cheaper price (40,000 kip/$5) join up with one of the tours offered by one of Luang Prabang’s many tourist agencies. For those who are very comfortable on a motorbike,  there are also moped/motorcycle rentals for the day but the roads are steep, rough and at times unpaved, so confidence is necessary.

The other waterfalls, a little bit closer to town, are the Tad Sae waterfalls, which are not as high as the Kuang Si waterfalls but spectacular, as the water cascades over dozens of levels and swimming is possible in the pools created by them. The tourist agencies also sell plenty of other tourist packages to explore more of the countryside, so have a look around town and see what you might prefer once you arrive in the city. We wouldn’t advise pre-booking any tours more than a day in advance, as there is no need.

tad sae waterfalls laosWe found Hobomaps to be the most useful for Luang Prabang. The map includes guesthouses, restaurants and all the major sights, visit Hobomaps.com.

 

 

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What’s for breakfast in Laos?

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Unlike when we arrived in Thailand, we were entirely unfamiliar with Lao cuisine. Thai restaurants are a dime a dozen in Europe and the U.S., but the only thing we knew to expect about the food in the former French protectorate was that we would be eating a lot of rice.

That did turn out to be true, although in northern Laos where we spent our time, we ate mostly sticky rice – and that at least twice a day. Most of the dishes are very similar to Thai cuisine – red and green curries, vegetable stir fries, and even Pad Thai was on many menus. But the breakfasts in Laos were brand new to us – we had never heard of the dishes with names like cheaw makork or khao piak sen.

So we decided to just order and see what we got…

Our favorites

Lao Garden Breakfast

The Lao Garden Breakfast turned out to be a delicious, fluffy omelet with steamed vegetables on the side, served with a little container of steamed sticky rice (khao niao) and a delicious home-made tomato chili sauce for dipping the sticky rice.

lao breakfastWarm Lao Bread

Like you, we expected to see bread on the table after ordering this, but Warm Lao bread does not have much to do with the bread we know – it is completely made of rice. Sticky rice is hand-formed into a large, round inch-thick patty. The patty is then dipped in to a thick scrambled egg mixture, so that it comes packed in an omelet pocket. This is then pulled apart and dipped in the chili sauce. Not only is this cheap and filling, it is one of our absolute favorite Lao foods.

lao breakfastChew Makork

Hard boiled eggs, sliced into quarters, line the outside of a plate filled with sautéed vegetables in the center. On the side, you get your big serving of steaming hot sticky rice and the chili herb paste. You eat the eggs and veggies together, and, as always, ball up pieces of sticky rice with your fingers, dip into the chili and eat that with your fingers.

lao breakfastBaguette with condensed milk

Yes, you read that right. The French influence comes from 50 years during which Laos was a protectorate of France (1893 – 1954), so in addition to crumbling French colonial architecture in cities like Luang Prabang, the baguette still remains a daily staple in Laos. There are baguette stands everywhere, even in rural villages, but rather than a healthy helping of ‘fromage’, these baguettes come two ways. One is the $1 lunch/dinner option – piled high with chicken, ham, lettuce, cabbage, avocado, egg, even plastic cheese singles – and the other is the breakfast baguette, a truly Lao/French fusion food. Here you cut the baguette open, pour half a can of sweetened, thick condensed milk over it, and voila: A simple but delicious sweet breakfast baguette, best enjoyed with a cup of delicious Lao coffee, which also usually comes with three or four spoonfuls of the same condensed milk.

luang prabang night market baguette ladyOther Lao breakfast specialties

Noodle soup is probably the most popular breakfast in Laos, but as vegetarians, it was hard to find some that wasn’t made with chicken broth, so we didn’t eat much of these below…

Khao Piak Sen

Khao Piak Sen is the typical Lao noodle soup, made from rice noodles, and served for breakfast as well as for lunch and dinner. The soup usually comes with chicken or pork, but a veggie version can also be found in some places.

lao breakfast Kao Piak senKhao Soy Noodle Soup

Khao Soy is another type of noodle soup, this one is influenced by Burmese cuisine.  however, this one is influenced by the Burmese cuisine. Also widely spread throughout Northern Thailand, Khao Soy is made from rice noodles, is spicier than Khao Piak Sen and contains lots of spices and hunks of vegetables (shallots, garlic, onions, cilantro, tomatoes and chillies) along with either pork, duck or chicken.

Lao-Food-Khao-Soy
Lao Khao Soy (c) www.laovoices.com

Youtiao

Youtiao is also known as a ‘Chinese donut’ and one of the many items that made their way into Lao cuisine from China. It is usually served as a side for rice porridge (congee) or Khao Tom.

lao youtiao via wikimedia commonsWhich one of these would you want to try the most? Or have you been to Laos – which one was your favorite breakfast?

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Please don’t go to…Muang Ngoi Neua | Laos

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Arriving in Muang Ngoi Neua

We had been advancing up the Nam Ou River for nearly an hour, cruising slowly between the white limestone rocks of the mountains that border the river right and left. Navigating the shallow wide river, we passed nothing but lush green subtropical forests, water buffaloes and pigs lazing and grazing on the sandy riverbanks here in northern Laos, and rice farmers waving at us as we went by.
nam ou river farmersAlthough our longtail boat had a motor, it resembled the shoddy wooden boats filled with families, fishermen or supplies that float up and down the river between Nong Khiaw, where we were coming from, and a modest, off-the-grid village of Muang Ngoi Neua, where we were headed.

boat landing nong khiewThe river here is wide, but either side appears almost entirely uninhabited. That was until several houses nestled into the side of a hill came into view, along with a long set of steps leading down to the water. With no roads leading to this remote village, we arrived at Muang Ngoi Neua’s only access point – this simple cement river landing. From here, travelers can head three hours north to Muang Khua, a population with town status or the hour back to Nong Khiaw, a place which, had it not been for Muang Ngoi Neua, we would have considered remote and sleepy. But the first thing we notice now is that it is even quieter here. From the river we heard the breeze rustling in the leaves, despite the ten or so of us offloading and the pair of locals who came to greet us with news of their guest houses.

muang ngoi neua from riverWe chose a guesthouse, just overlooking the pier. The building is sturdy, walls of thick cement, and the room has a double bed, a bathroom and, like the rest of the village, only has electricity from 6-9pm. We paid the $5.00 it costs to stay here and headed out to explore.

muang ngoi neua village roadFiguring out the set up is simple: one main dirt road too narrow for a car to comfortably pass runs parallel to the river, and a few paths head off perpendicular from there. The main road has several guesthouses, restaurants and shops (one even filled with hundreds of carefully curated English books), the number of which are far out of proportion for the size of the village. This village is just starting to become part of the tourist trail, but only just. At the north end of the street is a beautiful, if unkempt, Buddhist temple.

mountain temple muang ngoi neuaA smattering of lanky white tourists stand out here amongst the dozens of villagers who, as in most of rural Laos, live their lives almost entirely out in front of their homes and shops. Kids play, adults chat, eat or cook sticky rice, workers cut wood or effortlessly carry inexplicably heavy items to and fro, with bicycles – the only form of wheeled transport on this carless island – weave in and out of them all. We stopped to play with dozens of cuddly puppies..there are more of them, it seems, than people here.

playing with puppies in muang ngoi neuaWe gasped as a woman walked by with six squirrels hanging upside down on a stick, dead and ready for the barbeque. Another woman laughed at us, but in a loving way, and we felt instantly at home here. Then we decided to head up one of the paths to a set of caves which essentially define the town.

Aside from the overwhelmingly idyllic feeling, the mystic river sunsets and the absolute peace and quiet, the truly remarkable thing about Muang Ngoi Neua is that it came close to being wiped entirely out of existence. This peaceful village was almost entirely destroyed by bomb attacks by the United States during what is known as The Secret War, a war in which over one million cluster bombs were dropped over Laos. In an incredible tale of survival, the villagers here hid out in several caves high in the surrounding mountains for months at a time.

cave near muang ngoi neuaWe ungracefully huffed and puffed our way up to these caves, which are now open for visits either independently or on treks with local guides. Inside the caves, light shines through high, semi-open ceilings, but it still feels like a damp, black hole, and we could still see utensils used by villagers at that time. I stood teetering on the rocky mountainside as Dani photographed inside the caves and we remarked on how intense our respect was for these people who not only survived in here, but also undertook the strenuous climb on a regular basis, under the cover of night, to replenish supplies.

muang ngoi neua entrance to the caveWitnessing remnants of war does not require scaling the mountains, however. Just peek around the front yards in village. We saw the most ingenuous uses of bomb casings – some used as flower pots, some as fence poles, we even saw a fairly large canoe created out of a bomb casing on our way up the Nam Ou River. There is a layer of sadness here, but the hope and friendly smiles outshine the dark past.

muang ngoi neua bomb casingAfter the caves, we wandered through rice fields and forests until we noticed the sun nudging the tops of the mountains and realized it would soon be dark. Here in Muang Ngoi Neua, a place with three hours of electricity per day via a generator, that darkness lays like a blanket over the entire area. In fact, except for the fact that locals all have mobile phones, there are few signs that we are indeed in the 21st century, not a hundred years in the past.

village house muang ngoi neuaImmediately smitten, we  both harbored an instant maternal, protective feeling over our adopted village. This explains why we stopped dead in our tracks when we saw a sign offering inner tubes for rent.

You see, there is a town six hours down that same river, one that is equally beautiful but much larger, that began attracting tourists several years before. Once a serene village, Vang Vieng, is now unfortunately synonymous with ‘tubing’. Backpackers all around South East Asia can now be seen sporting ‘in the tubing’ tank-tops, proof of their drunken adventures tubing down the river, stopping at bar after bar, smoking joint after joint all the way. Rather than respect the modesty of the local culture, girls unabashedly saunter through town in their bikinis, guys shirtless in their trunks, treating the place like an international frat party. Despite having heard just how spectacular this area is in terms of natural beauty, we were too sensitive to the cultural insensitivity on display here to make the trip to Vang Vieng ourselves, especially since we keep reading disturbing articles on the state of the village.

river view muang ngoi neuaThat is why it took everything we had not to tear down these tubing signs and poke holes in all the inner tubes here in Muang Ngoi Neua. The village is not large enough to adequately handle such a huge influx of visitors – not even of the most culturally aware, eco-friendly variety – let alone becoming another ‘in the tubing’ destination.

That is why we ask you, we implore you, please don’t go to Muang Ngoi Neua. The people and the puppies might have won over our hearts here…but you know, this an uneventful little place with nothing to do but take in rural village life. Oh and the sunsets are absolutely amazing. The food is pretty good, too. If that is the kind of thing that appeals to you (and who could blame you) you might visit this remote little village in Northern Laos, but promise not to tell anyone else about it…okay?

muang ngoi neua laos

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Vomit, squat toilets and lots of tangerines: A (not-so) typical transportation day in Laos

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They say that travel is about the journey, not the destination…

In our recent Reflections post, we said that we love the nitty-gritty of bus travel. We thought it was about time to share just what ‘nitty-gritty’ entails, so we are inviting you along on our journey from the tiny, unremarkable town of Muang Sing in the very north of Laos, near the Chinese border, to the beautiful river town of Nong Khiaw.

Day 1: Muang Sing to Nong Khiaw…we hope!

6.45am Alarm goes off in our strangely idyllic bungalow in the desolate village of Muang Sing.

7.10am Awake now, we pack up and head to breakfast at hotel restaurant – coffee and baguette with scrambled eggs. It’s included in the room rate and not too shabby.

8.20am Off to walk to the bus station. It’s a far walk with heavy packs – the bus leaves only at 9:30am but we have nothing else to do.

8.40am Arrive at bus station. The bus is there and we get the last two seats on the bus. Lucky we left early or we would be stuck sitting on rice sacks on the floor for hours.

laos bus9:00am Strike up a conversation with two Spanish girls who just came through from China (we are three miles from the border). They did India and China and now South East Asia. Also on their way to Nong Khiaw, they are planning to make it in one day, so we hope we can too. Either way, this will be a long day!

9:15am The bus is fuller than full. Women with babies slung on their backs sit on rice sacks in the middle, all 12 seats are full and the roof is fully packed boxes, bags, baskets, fruit and more rice.

9:30am We’re actually leaving on time! The bus starts its ride over the bumpy dirty roads of Muang Sing to our first bus change in Luang Nam Tha, where we had come from the day before to check out this town.

9:40am Only ten minutes in and we are a bit nauseous. We’ve taken this mountain road already on the way up, what torture to do this all again.

laos mountain road10:00am The grandpa in the seat in front of us seems to be in a lot of pain. He cannot move his hand and arm and gestures his grandson to massage his back and arm. We are hoping that he’ll make the two hour journey.

10:30am Going through the mountains now, on a narrow dirt/gravel road that winds around the steep edges, hitting enough potholes to cause four flat tires, but luckily the tires survive.

10:45am We are stopped, dropping a few of the moms off in a village in the middle of nowhere, nothing more but a few bamboo shacks lined up along the road, with plenty of naked children running around, as well as dogs, pigs and cats.

laos pig11:10am Just a few minutes from Luang Nam Tha, the driver decides that he can’t hold it and stops the bus to take a pee on the side of the road. Dozens of guys untwist from the packed van and join him for his al fresco piss.

11.25am Still haven’t arrived at the station. More locals get dropped off and the driver has to climb each time to the roof to untie a box or a bag. We are getting impatient, as our bus to the next stop, Udom Xai, leaves from another station outside of town in 30 minutes.

11.30am Arrive at the bus station in town, where a songthaew (a covered pick-up truck with room for ten in the back) is waiting to take people to the main bus station 8km outside of town.

pick up truck11.45am Finally leaving the bus station, after everybody paid their 10.000 kip ($1.25). Very nervous now as to whether we’ll make this bus. If we don’t, we don’t know how long we’ll have to wait for the next.

12:00pm Arrive at main bus terminal. The bus to Udom Xai is still there but ready to leave! We sprint to the ticket counter, I’m told it’s full. It sure looks full when we peek inside, except for some room in the middle row on the rice sacks. Not willing to spend the next four hours on a rice sack, I decide to let the bus go and wait for the next bus. The two Spanish girls get on the bus though, braver than we are.

12.10pm Buy tickets for the next bus to Udom Xai, which is leaving at 2.30pm. Nothing feels very ‘main’ about this main station. Shacks surround the actual station with chips and fruit hanging down or piled up on tables. We walk around in search of food.

12.15pm I decide on an apple and a bag of tangerines. Thought about getting a baguette, but the stand in the middle of the dusty station doesn’t look particularly inviting, so decide against it.

12.30pm We are allowed to get on the bus (it is an actual bus this time) and make sure to reserve good seats for the long ride. We still have two hours to kill.

laos bus station12.40pm Impatient, Jess goes to see if there is any food and comes back with two tangerines. There is nothing to eat but cookies or chips or undefinable items with Chinese labeling.

1.00pm Still waiting on the bus. I read a book on the Kindle and Jess decides to get off the bus and join the Lao teenage boys who are obsessively watching a Lao soap opera on the TV. She has no idea what its about, but these are some hipster teenagers, so it must be good!

1.15pm A stray dog comes and I feed him some cookies out of the window. Jess won’t be happy when she realizes that I give away our only food.

1.30pm I check out the bathroom and see if the toilet is clean enough to pee. It is a squat toilet, but rather clean. I hate squat toilets, but I go anyway.

squat toilet laos2.00pm The driver jumps in, starts the bus and we start reversing. Are we leaving 30 minutes early with a half full bus? No. We drive just 30 ft to the edge of the station to pick up a super heavy, rusty motor and a grill which, after being loaded on, will effectively block the bus aisle for the rest of the journey.

2.30pm Our bus is about to leave. The soap opera fans bounce over the motor blocking the way and get to their seats.

2.50pm This road is paved, but the winding mountain roads are tough to stomach. The Chinese guy behind us is smoking a cigarette. On the bus!

3.15pm I listen to music, Jess is happy as a clam listening to podcasts. The seats are actually comfortable.

4.00pm The winding mountain roads are never-ending and we are amazed at the number of mega semi-trucks traversing these roads.

laos mountains4.15pm The lady who belongs to the motor gets off the bus in mountain village. Again, nothing more than a few bamboo shacks lined up along the road. A toddler has a small machete in his hand and no pants on. Sticky rice cooks on a fire in the front of a shack.

4.30pm We slow down to pass a semi-truck that fell over in a curve. He must have driven into the truck in front of him. The handmade wooden furniture being transported is now scattered all over the road and across front lawns and we don’t know if anyone is badly hurt. He couldn’t have been going very fast. Dozens of villagers are standing around watching the scene. The Chinese guy behind us is smoking again.

5.30pm We’re not far from Udom Xai but we’re stopping so that the driver can take a piss. We realize it will be awhile anyway until we are off this bus.

6.15pm We arrive in Udom Xai. The bus station is closed, no more buses today. We’ll have to spend the night here.

laos bus stop6.20pm Checking into a hotel across the street, we can’t be bothered to walk much further as we’ll be on the first bus out in the morning anyway. Decide to splurge on a 100,000 kip ($12.50) hotel which is definitely a step up from the cheap guesthouses we have been staying in: AC, cable TV, big soft towels, toothbrushes and toothpaste, shampoo and, the most coveted amenity, hot water!

6.30pm Put our bags down in our room and head off to find some food in Udom Xai. We’ve had only a few cookies and fruit to eat since those egg baguettes this morning.

6.45pm This entire town seems to be run by the Chinese. We find a Chinese restaurant with an English menu. We try to make clear we are vegetarians, and hope the waitress understands our order: fried rice and vegetables, and a plate of boiled rice and vegetables.

7:00pm There are bits of chicken in the rice they bring out.

7.02pm The plate returns with the chicken pieces picked out. They forgot a few little pieces, and I return the plate to the waitress, trying to express that we are vegetarians. No chicken. No fish. No meat.

7:10pm My food arrives. It seems to be actual vegetarian food.

fried rice laos7:15pm Jess’ food comes again, freshly made. It seems vegetarian too, so we scarf it down. Who knows what breakfast will be like.

7:30pm We pay the bill – $5 for two meals, a big bottle of water and a ginger tea and explore the town. People seem friendly but quite surprised to see us as we wander through a Chinese supermarket and find a night market.

8:15pm Back at the hotel. Time for a hot shower and a TV show on the laptop before making it an early night.

10:00pm Fast asleep. Bus travel is tough.

Day 2: Udom Xai to Nong Khiaw…we hope!

6.45am Alarm goes off.

7.15am Jess kicks me out of bed. She wants us to get to the bus station as early as possible, to make sure we get seats on the bus. According to the sign at the bus station, there is only one bus to Nuang Khiew, at 9.00am, and passengers are advised to buy their tickets one hour in advance.

7.40am Packed and ready to go, we check out and head to bus station.

7.45am Bus station is already buzzing, but we get our tickets.

8.00am ‘Bus’ is a minivan. We save our seats the Lao way, by putting our bags down on them, and head off to look for food. For all the poverty in Laos, no one will steal our bags.

8.05am Unable to find baguettes and condensed milk, (the typical sweet Lao breakfast) we head back to the minivan. An older couple from Hawaii, who we had met a few days earlier in Luang Nam Tha, arrives at the minivan – they’re also going to Nuang Khiaw. They spent a few days here in Udom Xai, hired a private driver to take them out to some villages.

8.10am We buy a bamboo branch filled with sweet sticky rice from a lady that runs all over the bus station with her basket. Her sticky rice sticks seem to be popular, so we figure it’s safe to eat.

laos sticky rice vendor8.45am While I chat with the Hawaiian couple, Jess gets us a couple of donuts and a baguette. Carb overload!

9.00am Expecting to leave, only us four foreigners are on the minivan. One man  gestures to us that everyone is eating now. So much for leaving on time. In fact…where’s the driver?

9.15am Still waiting. Nobody comes. Are we waiting till the van is full?

9.30am Getting two black coffees from the coffee stand. It comes in real glass cups that we have to return. The lady puts a lot of effort in making the coffees nice and strong with her filter cloth. Normally this comes with an inch-thick layer of condensed milk, but we ‘crazy foreigners’ opt for plain, black coffee instead.

laos coffee10am Still at the station. Hawaiian woman is getting impatient. Jess is happy, she has her podcasts. I am taking pictures of the bus station from the window of the minivan when suddenly the driver appears.

10.15am Boxes are being loaded on top, and people start piling in now.

10:20am We’re off on another four-hour journey through winding mountain roads.

10.40am The road is hideous, paved only in patches. It is mostly dust and dirt, and the locals are all wearing masks around their mouths.

motorbike with pots & pans11.00am Passing beautiful mountain scenery, though enjoying it is difficult. My knees are smashed up against the back of the seat in front. This ‘mini’ van is not meant for tall foreigners.

11.30am The first people get off at their stop, making more room for everyone else. The poor little boy in the back is crying. His belly is upset from these winding roads.

11.45am Time for a break, but there are  no rest stops here in northern Laos. We stop just past a roadside mountain village to pee in the bushes. I just can not make myself do this on the side of the road in daylight, but Jess goes local and joins them. I wander instead around the houses and shops along the road. The most beautiful colorful birds are hanging there, upside down and dead, for sale.

dead birds in a laos market12.00pm Back on the road, a few more people get off and now the seven remaining passengers have plenty of room.

12.15pm The little boy behind me starts to vomit like crazy, all over everything. The parents just hold him, but don’t seem to feel pressured to clean it up. Jess and the Hawaiian women go through their bags for wet wipes and toilet paper. They may not care, but we just can’t watch (or smell) the boy in his vomit.

12.30pm Little boy still vomiting. He’s naked now, as they’ve taken off his stained clothes.

12.40pm Jess finally asks the driver to stop as the little boy seems to be really sick and has puke all over him… so does daddy.

1.00pm The poor boy and his parents get off the bus in a medium-sized village. Now it’s just us and the Hawaiian couple on the bus.

laos village1.45pm We finally arrive in Nong Khiaw. The road is dirt and empty, and we are not sure where to head, but follow our gut and head toward the river. We’ve survived this bus trip, now comes the long hotel-search walk with 15kilos on our back in 95-degree heat. Jess has a bit of a temper tantrum and I’m relieved this journey is finally over…almost.

2.00pm Finally in town, we find a guesthouse that will work for the night, at least.

30 hours after we’ve left, we finally arrived.

nong khiew riversideAfter all that effort, was the trip to this sleepy river town even worth it? It turned out, we absolutely loved it and could have stayed much longer. In fact, we wrote a handy comprehensive Guide to Nong Khiaw – perfect for planning a trip or just dreaming…

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A comprehensive guide to Nong Khiaw, Laos

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The lazy little river town of Nong Khiaw (also spelled Nong Khiew, Nong Kiew, Nong Kiau or Nong Kiao) might just be or favorite town in Laos. We love the laid-back vibe in this little village by the Nam Ou River, plus there is plenty of hiking, cycling and exploring to be done during the day, and even more ways to relax at night. We spent a few extra days in town checking out every single guesthouse and nearly all Nong Khiaw’s restaurants to create this comprehensive guide to Nong Khiaw. Including:

  • Where to stay in Nong Khiaw
  • Where to eat in Nong Khiaw
  • What to do in Nong Khiaw
  • Free wi-fi in Nong Khiaw

nong khiew villageWhere to stay in Nong Khiaw

Despite being such a small village, there are plenty of guesthouses. These are mostly bungalows, and more are being built all the time. Set almost entirely on the east side of the Nam Ou River, most of the accommodation is in the budget range, but there are a couple of higher-end options if you’d like to splurge.

Meexai
Meexai has several bungalows, and each one has a terrace with a hammock. The bungalows are basic, but the showers have hot water and the hotel assured us that the free wi-fi reaches the rooms. There is a restaurant on site (where the wi-fi definitely works) but the bungalows don’t have river views.

Price: 60,000 kip ($7.50) per bungalow

laos riverside bungalowsNam Houn
Nam Houn is also a collection of bungalows, and though a bit more expensive than most of the other ones, the quality looks no better. Nam Houn has hot water showers and terraces, some of which have hammocks.

Price: 90,000 kip ($11.30) per bungalow

Bamboo Paradise
Bamboo Paradise has bungalows and a new building with rooms behind them. The rooms inside will protect guests more from the elements (mosquitoes/bugs) but it is the bungalows that offer river views, plus terraces and hammocks.  All rooms have a fan and hot water showers and there is a little restaurant on-site. You can also arrange tours, trekking and massages here.

Price: from 60,000 kip ($7.50)

Sunrise guesthouse
Sunset has a row of bungalows right on the east side of the river, near the town bridge. The older bungalows are very basic, but boast great river views, and there are a few nicer, newer bungalows made that are sturdy and made of stone. These are definitely worth it if you are looking for a value for money mini-luxe night or two. All bungalows have a terrace with chairs and a table, hot water showers and the restaurant on site was busy.

Price: from 80,000 kip ($7.50) for the older bungalows, 100,000 kip ($18.90) for the new stone ones

nong khiew bungalowsSunset guesthouse
Sunset guesthouse is also located east of the river and has bungalows right at the river. Sunset bungalows are less open to the elements than some of the other bungalows, with glass windows, for example, but we are not sure if they are worth their price tag. For example, the bungalows do not have wi-fi, but the restaurant does.

Price: 150,000 kip ($18.80)

Nong Khiaw Riverside Resort and Restaurant
The Riverside Resort and Restaurant is as luxurious as Nong Khiaw can get – for now. Spacious, well-built bungalows located right near the bridge (up a path behind the Sunset guesthouse) offer fabulous river views. Rooms come with fans, mosquito nets, hot showers plus big terraces that have hammocks. Wi-fi is available, but for now you have to pay for it.

Price: 350,000 kip ($43.80)

CT Guesthouse
CT Guesthouse is located right behind the bridge on the east side of the river, and has rooms in two different buildings. We stayed here for a few nights, and found the rooms are spacious and clean, and hot showers were definitely hot. Try to get a room in the lower building, where rooms have a terrace and river views. The wi-fi, however, only reaches the rooms in the other building but is available in the restaurant.

Price: 100,000 kip ($12.50)

Phulisack
Phulisack is a small guesthouse with only five rooms right on the road on the east side of the river. The rooms are in a concrete building, not in bamboo bungalows. Here guests have hot water showers and a little balcony that has chairs and a desk. Even though it doesn’t have river views, the rooms are clean, the owners are very friendly and the price is nice.

Price: 60,000 kip ($7.50)

Sengdao
Sengdao is the only guesthouse that has bungalows on the west side of the river. These are basic, with mosquito nets and hot showers, and all have a spacious terrace with chairs. What made us leave was that our bathroom had no toilet seat. Whether other bungalows did or not, this should have been fixed. Sitting right on the river and right off the bridge, the location is great and the garden is home to some amazing birds and curious cats. The on-site restaurant attracts more locals than foreigners but the menu looks good and if you stay here you are closer to a few of the better restaurants in Nong Khiaw.

Price: 80,000 kip ($7.50) for a bungalow

sengdao bungalowsWhat to do in Nong Khiaw

The village itself is not very big, but there are plenty of things to keep you active and busy during the day, as well as great ways to relax at night.

Hike to the 100 Waterfalls
The ‘100 Waterfalls’, only a recent tourism development, is apparently one of the best hikes in Laos. Plenty of tour companies in town can take you on a 1-day tour. It’s an adventurous trek – expect to stay wet for hours and make sure to bring sturdy shoes – but the scenery is more than rewarding. Lonely Planet founder Tony Wheeler did it in 2009 and wrote about the 100 Waterfalls in Nong Khiaw hike here.

Hike to the caves
There are two different caves near Nong Khiaw: the Tam Phatok Cave south of town (east of the river), which can be reached in an easy walk (around 1 – 1.5 hours) along the paved road, or you can rent a bicycle in town and get there in 20 minutes. Entrance for the cave is 5,000 kip ($0.63) and another 5,000 for a flashlight – but we didn’t necessarily need one. The lady who sells the tickets will watch your bikes.

The other caves are also east of the river, but about an hour walk north along the unpaved road next to the river (the path starts by the Sunrise bungalows right by the bridge). At the beginning of the little village there is a ticket booth where you can buy tickets for 10,000 kip ($1.25) to enter the cave – some of the local kids will guide you there.

nong khiew cave entranceRent a bicycle and explore the surrounding area
There are several places on both sides of the river that rent bikes – we opted for some mountain bikes from a rental place near Delilah’s (west of the river). You can either follow the dirt road east of the river north out of town and visit the cave, a little village and waterfalls; or ride on the paved road south towards the mountains. The ride can be rigorous in parts but the scenery is seriously stunning and the local kids from villages who come sprinting up to you will melt you heart. Bring some extra pens, as kids will ask you for ‘pens, pens’ often.

Relax in an herbal steam bath
We love this and can very highly recommend this very basic, very relaxing activity. The Sabai Sabai restaurant  (opposite the temple on the east side of the river) has a simple little wooden herbal steam room where you can relax for 15,000 kip ($1.85) for as long as you want. Herbal tea, taken during frequent breaks, is included in the price, and you will leave feeling truly relaxed and cleared out of any congestion.

Get a massage
Sabai Sabai also offers massages – a 1 hour massage will set you back at 50,000 kip ($6.25) – just another great way to relax after a day of hiking or mountain biking.

Take in the sunset from one of the riverside bars
The best bars and restaurants to watch the sunset from are the CT restaurant right by the bridge, and the Sunset Restaurant, both east of the river. Watching the sun setting over the mountains and seeing the sky turn purple while sipping a cool BeerLao was our nightly ritual and we could never get tired of it.

nam ou river sunsetWatch a movie at Coco Home
Coco Home (on the west side of the river) offers three daily movie screenings. You can enjoy your breakfast while watching a movie, or have lunch or dinner with a film. There is a big sign outside of the bar that says each day which movies are shown, so just decide which one you want to watch … or stay for all three. The food is excellent and reasonably priced, as are the drinks.

Take a day trip to Muang Ngoi Neua
One hour up the river (reachable only by boat) sits the remote little village of Muang Ngoi Neua, a tiny hamlet that still has the feel of past times when there were no cars, no phones and no amenities of the digital world existed. The village is, like Nong Khiaw, right at the shores of the river, and the simplicity makes the scenery all the more breathtaking.  There is only one main road, but plenty of restaurants are set up along it and related paths. Here you can hike to several caves where the locals used to hike during the Secret War. The hikes are worth it for the scenery alone, walking through rice fields between the steep mountains. Guesthouses here are seriously cheap if you decide to stay over night. We paid 40,000 kip ($5) for a nice double room. There are no hot shower or wi-fi of course.

If you do choose to come for the day, you’ll need to hire a private boat, and the more people you’ll find, the cheaper it gets – we actually joined a group of 10 on their ride up and they had hired the boat (incl. driver) for $50. Public boats go once a day, making at least one overnight necessary. We would have gladly stayed a few more nights here.

river view muang ngoi neuaWhere to eat in Nong Khiaw

There is no shortage of restaurants in Nong Khiaw and you can definitely spending a few days in town without having to eat at the same place twice. However, I am almost certain that you’ll pick a few favorites while there, just like we did…

Mekara Lao
This restaurant has the best Lao breakfasts in town. We came here quite a few times, and though you could try a new local breakfast dish every day of the week, once we discovered the Lao pancake, it was our go-to dish. If rice for breakfast isn’t your thing, you can also try one of the many German breakfasts. Spot on traditional, these German breakfasts are double the price, but still relatively cheap at 30,000 kip ($3.75, which for Germans is under 3 Euro) and worth the ‘splurge’! For lunch and dinner you can choose between a wide range of Lao dishes, Thai curries and Western dishes such as steak, sandwiches, spaghetti and garlic bread. They also have salads and most of the cocktails are only 10,000 kip ($1.25), with the most expensive cocktail is 15,000 kip ($1.85).

lao breakfast at Mekara Restaurant in Nong Khiew, LaosDeen’s Indian Restaurant
This is one of the – if not THE – cheapest Indian restaurants we’ve ever eaten at in Laos. The vegetarian dishes (of which there are over 30!) are all between $1.50 and $1.90, there are five different kinds of naan – all under $1, five kinds of Roti breads, poppadums and every classic Indian dish you can name. A big bottle of BeerLao is $1, which is the cheapest we found in Nong Khiaw. Foursquare junkies can happily check in here on Foursquare, as Deen has free wi-fi, doubling as an internet café (there are five computers against the back wall.)

Coco Home
Coco Home has a great raised outdoor area with low tables and pillows to sit on. The inside ‘tables’ offer an even better lounge feel, with comfortable beds to sprawl out on. The food is a mix of western, Thai and Lao dishes and while you pay a bit more for the Western food (30,000+ kip), you can get a delicious curry for 15,000 kip ($1.85). Wi-fi is fast, drinks are fairly cheap and there are three films on upstairs each day. A definite hangout spot on the west side of the river.

CT Restaurant
CT has a range of daily changing home-made cakes, muffins, donuts and pies all well worth trying. Drinks are inexpensive, as are food portions which are very generous. The service is slow and we did meet an older couple who got sick from eating here, but this still our top choice to watch the sunset.

Sabai Sabai
Sabai Sabai serves Western-Asian fusion, and they have an extra vegetarian menu. You can get fruit shakes for 6,000 kip ($0.75), the cheapest we found in town, plus 2-for-1 cocktails during happy hour. Curries are 15,000 kip ($1.85).

Delilah’s
Delilah’s is definitely a step up from all the other restaurants in town. Run by a pair of expats, the restaurant offers create fusion dishes, daily specials, homemade cakes and when we were there, they were building a stone pizza oven outside which means that, as you read this, you might also find Italian-style wood-fire pizzas on the menu. We had a delicious appetizer there that we still think about: dark sticky rice balls with a delicious dip – if you see it on the menu, give it a try and let us know how you like it. Delilah’s has great wi-fi.

sticky rice balls nong khiewOther restaurants include:

  • Sunset (at Sunset guesthouse)
  • Meexai (at Meexai guesthouse)
  • Vongmany (on the main road, east of the river)
  • Songdao (at Songdao guesthouse, west of the river)
  • Sunrise (at Sunrise guesthouse)

Where to find free wi-fi in Nong Khiaw

Although this little town offers the feeling of being very remote, Wi-fi is widely available in Nong Khiaw, much to our surprise. The connection is not always speedy, but we were able to upload pictures (slowly), send emails and do other work online.

The best spots for free wi-fi are:

Coco Home  – Good connection (even reaches outside) and there are plugs inside
Delilah  – Probably the best connection in town, we witnessed a successful Skype call while we were there.
Deen’s Indian Restaurant – again, doubling as an internet café, the wi-fi here works well.
CT restaurant – good connection, amazing views out over the river
Meexai Restaurant
Vongmany Restaurant
Sunset restaurant (at Sunset guesthouse)

nong khiew roadHoboMaps is the best for an overview of Nong Khiaw and most of the places named above can be found on that map.

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Goodbye 2011: Our year of travel in pictures

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Another unforgettable year is coming to an end – this time it is our second year as full-time travelers! We’ve literally been around the world this year and, rather than rattle off a list of everywhere we’ve been, this Goodbye 2011 post will highlight our favorite pictures of the year, starting in Central America and ending in Thailand after stints in Europe, the U.S. and Canada.

January 2011

As we mentioned in our Goodbye to 2010 post, we began the year at Lake Yojoa in Honduras, where we were the only guests at our hotel. 2011 started out as laid-back as can be…

January Lake Yojoa HondurasFor more January highlights, check out our Facebook album Best of 2011: January (Honduras & Nicaragua).

February 2011

Shortly after the start of the New Year, we moved on to Nicaragua – and fell head over heels in love with the country. The picture was taken in Masaya, just outside of Granada…one of Nicaragua’s most visited cities. Throughout the country, the horse and buggy is still a common and totally valid form of transportation – alongside cars, buses, SUVs, motorcycles and bicycles.

february nicaragua masaya church &horse carriageFor more February highlights check out our Facebook album Best of 2011: February (Nicaragua & Costa Rica).

March 2011

After three relaxing weeks in Costa Rica we made our way to Panama and were most impressed with the Casco Viejo area of Panama City (check out our picture post of Casco Viejo). We resisted actually picking up a Panama hat, but couldn’t resist photographing them. Panamanians have certainly got style!

March Panama hats in Casco Viejo panamaFor more March highlights check out our Facebook album: Best of 2011: March (Costa Rica, Panama & Germany).

April 2011

Going from six months in the developing countries of Central America to visiting the mighty castles of Germany was an extreme contrast. This is what we love most about our nomadic lifestyle! At the end of the month we completed our first year on the road (find out how much we spent in one year of travel here).

april neuschwanstein castle bavaria germanyFor more April highlights check out our Facebook album: Best of 2011: April (Germany, Austria & Italy)

May 2011

In Spring we traveled in Europe, from Germany and Austria to a few weeks in Tuscany. While we were both blown away by the romance of the countryside, the taste of the wine and the warmth of the locals, it was the pizza…the glorious pizza…that became the highlight of May 2011 for us.

may italy montaione pizzas & wineFor more May 2011 highlights including Jess with a group of aliens in Spain, check out our Facebook album: Best of 2011: May (Italy & Spain).

June 2011

In the first week of June, we went on our first ever cruise and followed that up by reaching 400 days on the road! Just a week later we would discover a city that could possibly, one day, be called home: Lisbon, Portugal. The Portuguese capital just ticks so many boxes – laid-back, sunny, warm, good (and cheap) coffee, beaches as far as the eye can see, plenty of history and oozing with charm. What struck us most was how similar Lisbon is to San Francisco. We spent three fabulous weeks here in June (despite a near heart attack experience that still has us cracking up).

june portugal lisbon tram 28For more June highlights, check out our Facebook album: Best of 2011: June (Spain, Corsica, Portugal).

July 2011

From Lisbon we flew directly to Toronto to begin an entirely new North American chapter of our travels. We spent six weeks house-sitting outside of Ottawa. These weeks were filled with exploring adorable villages, peaceful sunset bike rides, evenings in the jacuzzi and hanging with the friendly neighbors drinking great Canadian micro-brews.

july kemptville ontario sunsetFor more July highlights, check out our Facebook album: Best of 2011: July (Canada).

August 2011

August was truly an unforgettable month that brought us through Montreal, Quebec, Boston, and the start of our NYC2NOLA road trip through New York, Philadelphia and Washington DC on our way down to New Orleans. While we loved the freedom of the open road, it was our four nights in New York that dazzled us the most. There is just something about this concrete jungle that gets us every time.

For more August highlights, check out our Facebook album: Best of 2011: August (Canada & USA).

September 2011

After four weeks and over 4,000 miles we finally made it to New Orleans in September. What we found when we arrived is a city with style, individuality and people with a zest for life and love of music like we’ve never experienced before. We could easily spend more than a week in the Big Easy…in fact we toyed with the idea of a few months here sometime in the future, too. On September 13th, just before reaching Chicago, we hit 500 days on the road.

september New Orleans voodoo skeletonsFor more September highlights, check out our Facebook album: Best of 2011: September (U.S. Road Trip).

October 2011

And then we flew to the other side of the planet – for our first trip to South East Asia! We started in Thailand, and it was definitely a relief to gaze out at this crystal blue water after a few chilly weeks in Chicago and Colorado!

thailand long tail boats phi phi lei islandFor more October highlights, check out our Facebook album: Best of 2011: October (Chicago, Colorado & Thailand).

November 2011

After finding a good place to settle down to work in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai, we hopped a series of buses and boats to travel around northern Laos for the last two weeks of November. While the two countries have their similarities, we were struck by how much simpler life in Laos is compared to fast-paced and modern Thailand. We have learned so much since arriving in Asia, especially about Buddhism – and have become accustomed to sharing our daily lives with the hundreds of monks populating cities and villages across the Buddhist nations.

november young monks luang prabang laosFor more November highlights, check out our Facebook album: Best of 2011: November (Thailand & Laos).

December 2011

The last month of 2011 marked a major milestone for us, as we hit 600 days on the road! In some ways it feels as though we have just started traveling. Looking back at everything we have done in these six hundred days truly feels like an accomplishment. One lesson we have learned is that in order to be happy as nomads, we need to know when to take longer breaks and relax. That’s why we booked ourselves in to an apartment in Chiang Mai for one month in December. We love this city, as it has everything we could ever need or want. We celebrated Christmas with friends, went on hikes, spent time with elephants, eaten endless veggie cuisine and learned so much about Thai culture and tradition.

december moat at sunset chiang mai thailandFor more December highlights, check out our Facebook album: Best of 2011: December (Laos & Thailand).

Happy New Year 2012 to all our readers!

We would love for you to tell us about your travel highlights for 2011 in the comments below – we’re always on the lookout for new locations about where to travel next!

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Tops and Flops of 600 days of travel: Days 501 – 600

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We always say that travel ain’t always easy, but it is always exciting. The last 100 days were refreshing, frustrating, active, lazy, a bit embarrassing and entirely gratifying…We went from three weeks in Chicago to a quick stop in Denver and then on to our biggest adventure yet – South East Asia. We traveled through southern Thailand and Northern Laos until finally settling in for the month in Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand. Read on for our best and worst travel moments in the last 100 days, some serious food porn, and a couple of travel recommendations for Chicago and Laos.

Favorite travel moments

Dani says: Whizzing through Chicago on a Segway
We have seen tourists on Segways in plenty of cities and, we admit, we judged it as being too touristy, not for us and even a little dorky. After five minutes on our Segways from City Segway Tours though, we couldn’t have cared less how we looked – it was so much fun! Our guide spent time teaching us how to use these funny upright machines (which is actually a little tricky but manageable) and then we were off whizzing along Lake Michigan, through Millennium Park, past Buckingham Fountain and Solider Field down to Museum Campus.

segway tour chicagoJess says: Hiking with Tracey and Felix in Colorado
Before heading to Bangkok, we made a stop in Denver, Colorado for a week to visit my best friend Tracey and her fiance Felix.  The weather in Colorado was sunnier and warmer than in Chicago – a marked contrast to the blizzard conditions I experienced last time I was out visiting in early 2010. We took advantage of the weather and took in some of Colorado’s inspiring scenery and went on lots of hikes at Red Rocks, El Dorado Canyon and a long hike near Estes Park – which we followed up with a drink watching the sunset at the nearby Stanley Hotel (where The Shining was filmed!). We can’t wait to be back next June for their wedding!

hiking in coloradoDani says: Learning to cook Thai Food at the beach in Koh Lanta, Thailand
One of our best experience in Thailand so far has been the cooking class we took on Koh Lanta. We signed up for a class at Time for Lime, where our enthusiastic cooking instructor Junie introduced us to the art of Thai cooking in a beautiful setting right at the beach. She taught us about how to cut and prepare the main ingredients, or building blocks, to Thai cuisine, and then we prepared several dishes from Thai Red Curry to Thai fried rice with vegetables. The class was made unforgettable by our great group of seven students, a really high quality cooking facility, and our passionate instructor – plus the fact that our food turned out to taste amazing!

cooking class koh lantaFavorite places

Jess says: Chicago
Alright, alright, this is a bit biased – me being from Chicago and all. Whenever I am home, however, it is just always so apparent what a magnificent city the Windy City truly is. In fact, the more I travel, the more appreciation I have for Chicago. In the past 600 days we’ve been to over 30 major global cities, each with its own great qualities, of course, but Chicago stays right near the top no matter how much of the world I see. We love all the different neighborhoods, the friendly people, and the food! Chicago has such a wealth of international cuisine, and it’s so delicious. You can go to a small El Salvadorian restaurant for authentic Pupusas, or walk ten minutes for an authentic Serbian meal. Between the architecture, the infrastructure and the fact that Chicago is one of America’s greenest big cities – it just isn’t possible for me to leave Chicago off the list of my favorite places we’ve visited in the last 100 days (or ever).

chicago 2011Dani says: Chiang Mai, Thailand
Chiang Mai (population 150,000) is the perfect combination of historic and modern Thailand. Our current ‘home’, we love Chiang Mai for the way it balances new-built apartment complexes, chic restaurants and modern shopping centers with hundreds of remarkable Buddhist temples and traditional night markets bursting with simple, affordable, delicious food. There are two parts to Chiang Mai. There is the sleepy old town center, which is surrounded by a moat and parts of the ancient city walls, and then there is everything outside of the moat – which is a bit faster paced, buzzing, busy city with almost everything you could ever want to eat, drink, buy or do, plus a top university, plenty of great health care options and an international airport, train station and bus stations that will get you wherever you need to go.

chiang mai impressions thailandDani says: Nong Khiew, Laos
Until we arrived in Nong Khiew, neither of us were impressed with Laos. Why were people raving about the beauty of the country, we thought, as we passed through dusty, lackluster towns. From the minute we crossed over the Nam Ou river in Nong Khiew, however, we were sold! Nestled within a mystical mountain range, this sleepy little town sits on either side of the river, mainly a series of small houses and bamboo bungalow huts connected by an impressive road bridge, and dozen of long, wooden boats below. The village is cheap – private riverside bungalows run between $7.50-$12.00 per night, there are plenty of restaurants with Lao, Thai, Indian, French, Italian, even German, cuisine and our first experience in an invigorating herbal steam room. Had we not already put a deposit down on our Chiang Mai apartment, we could possibly be writing this post from Nong Khiew right now….

nong khiew impressionsMost disappointing places

Jess says: The islands in the Andaman Sea, Thailand
We admit that we might well be spoiled by having spent so much time in the Caribbean last year, but I don’t think it is possible to have been more disappointed by the islands in the Andaman Sea. Whenever we had heard about or seen pictures of the Andaman Sea, it was long, deserted white-sand beaches lined with palm trees. We were practically chomping at the bit to get out there, and Dani even booked me a surprise birthday week-long vacation getaway at a resort on Koh Lanta. We loved the resort, the island itself was alright, but the beaches were far from stellar. Ko Phi Phi was even worse. This tiny, over-developed island is under-equipped to manage the deluge of unappreciative drunken tourists that frequent it. Most of the beaches are tiny, there is garbage floating in the water, and even basic, budget backpacker digs are far overpriced. Yuck.

Then it was on to Phuket, the largest of the Thai islands in the Andaman and by far the worst. We stayed on Patong Beach – which is lined with rows of deck chairs just like Europe in high summer and dead fish floated on the water near the shore, which had a stinky is-this-from-the-sewer smell to it. None of this was as disturbing as the droves of old, wrinkly Western men mounted on bar stools while way-too-young Thai girls mounted them. If I never witness sex tourism again it will be too soon. Double Yuck. We are still hoping that we love some of the other Thai islands, like  Ko Lipe further south or Ko Chang in the Gulf of Thailand.

phuket & phi phiDani says: Muang Sing and Luang Nam Tha, Laos
As mentioned above, we didn’t warm up with Laos until we got to Nong Khiew, and this was due, in part, to these two towns. They are not particularly ugly or unsafe or anything like that – they are just unremarkable, with little to impress visitors. We first went to Luang Nam Tha, a town that sits directly on the Laos tourist trail – we couldn’t figure out why. Then we tried to go a bit more local, and drove two hours further up to Muang Sing, a little town just 2 miles from the Chinese border. Although it was interesting to see how strong the Chinese influence was (Chinese supermarkets, Chinese food, mostly Chinese immigrants), Muang Sing also left us with a ‘meh’ feeling.

Best Food Moments

Dani says: Native Foods Cafe, Chicago
After sustaining a terrible diet during our summer road trip, while we were in Chicago we decided to try as many of the vegan restaurants in town as possible. Jess often toys with the idea of going vegan, and this was a great chance to test whether vegan food would satisfy us. Some places were good, some were boring – and then we discovered the Native Foods Cafe. The vegan restaurant is actually a chain from California with three branches in Chicago (and one in Portland). We could have eaten here every.single.day. The dishes are creative, heaping with fresh organic vegetables, and for the quality of the food, it is not too expensive.

native foods cafe vegan burgerJess says: Breakfasts at Mekhara in Nong Khiew, Laos
Obviously located in our favorite little Lao town, the Mekhara Restaurant quickly became our go-to breakfast spot. We could not get enough of all the sticky rice dishes they served, especially the Lao warm bread – this is a sticky rice patty, dipped in egg and cooked on the stove which you then break up and dip into this homemade chili paste. Knowing I was going to order this breakfast literally got me out of bed in the morning!

Dani says: The vegetarian restaurants in Chiang Mai, Thailand
Like we said – one of the things we love about Chiang Mai is the availability of good food, and the many vegetarian restaurants in town. There must be at least 20 vegetarian restaurants in a city of 150,000 and countless other vegetarian-friendly spots to eat at as well. We appreciate it so much that we are able to order a Thai curry and be 100% certain that it does not contain any meat, fish, or fish sauce. The other great thing about veggie restaurants is that we are able to try out the many traditional dishes of Thailand – in meat free form. For example, one of our favorites is the Khow Suey noodle soup – a traditional northern Thai dish that always comes with meat chunks and a beef/chicken broth. We still have a bit of time left here in Chiang Mai and will be testing out as many places as we can – but so far our favorite are the Dada Kafe, Beetroot Stories, Pun Pun and AUM.

veggie heaven chiang maiTravel recommendations

Jess says: Get out of ‘The Loop’ in Chicago
If you visit Chicago, the most obvious place to start is The Loop. This area of the city is the cultural, architectural and financial heart of the city. The Willis Tower is located here, as is the Chicago Board of Trade. You’ll find the Chicago Theatre, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Lyric Opera house, the Goodman Theatre and the Joffrey Ballet and the stretch of lakefront in The Loop includes the Grant Park area – host of the glorious Taste Of Chicago fest each year as well as Millennium Park, which features Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate sculpture, known to Chicagoans as The Bean.

But get on a bike (Chicago is one of America’s best cycling cities) and get out and visit cities north of The Loop – ride along the lake shore and visit Lincoln Park Zoo (it’s free) and the Lincoln Park neighborhood, ride up to Lakeview, on to Boystown. Or jump on the El to get out to the very German area of Lincoln Square and Swedish Andersonville , or head west to Bucktown to spot the hipsters in action. Going even further – visit Evanston, just north of Chicago and right on Lake Michigan. The beaches here are less crowded and you’ll see some of the finest homes in the Midwest if you continue driving north from there.

chicago neighborhoodsDani says – Bring lots of Dramamine to Laos
Somebody had mentioned to us that the bus rides in Laos weren’t very pleasant before we went – but we had no idea just how bad the roads really were until we experienced them ourselves. The country is so mountainous, and there are no major bridges. Instead, narrow roads wind up and down the sides of mountains, sometimes without offering the opportunity to drive straight for more than one minute. The rides are long, the buses are not great, and a 400km (250 mile) trip can easily take 12 hours. Even locals spend much of their time with their face in a sick bag – so make sure to pack a lot of Dramamine for your journey. You might also want an iPod to block out the sounds of nausea around you and some toilet paper for the random, on-the-side-of-the-street rest stops throughout your trip.

Worst travel moments

Jess says: Bangkok flight cancellation through Orbitz
We found a great deal from Denver to Bangkok through Orbitz and booked it months in advance of our trip. The amount of money we saved made us giddy and proud. And then just a few weeks before our departure date, Orbitz emails that they have rescheduled our flight itinerary as Air China had re-jigged a few flight schedules. Looking at the new itinerary they issued, however, we realize we would not have enough time to change planes in Beijing. The only option given by Orbitz was for them to issue a refund. But we could never have found a fair price so near to our departure date. Back and forth between Air China and Orbitz, neither will take responsibility. I spend countless hours on the phone with both and in the end, we managed to re-book for two days later at no additional charge. We buy tickets according to price, first and foremost, and for that we are very pro third-party deal sites. However, in this case it would have been much easier had we booked directly with the airline.

air china flight to bangkok
Flying AirChina - hopefully never again.

Dani says: Almost getting robbed on the night bus from Bangkok to Krabi
After a scam in Bangkok that involved a good chunk of change and tickets for a bus down to Krabi that never showed up, another bus drove by on its way to Krabi and we were lucky enough to be able to hop on for the overnight ride. At first we were incredibly happy about this, until the entire bus was woken up in the middle of night. A fellow passenger had caught one of the bus employees trying to steal his bag. Chatter and yelling went back and forth, of course the bus helpers denied everything, but no one could sleep at all after that – instead clutching our bags and waiting for the 12 hour ride to finish. Lesson learned: do not book a cheap bus at one of the travel agencies around Khao San Road. This kind of robbery is apparently very common on these foreigner buses, with people waking up after night rides with valuables missing. Book a public bus (they’re much nicer anyway) and travel with the Thais.

Travel mishaps

Jess says: Not reading up on scams in Bangkok before arrival
Anyone who has traveled with us knows that we are usually very organized and well-informed with our travel. We research destinations, know local taxi and bus prices, book rooms and transport in advance where we should and leave it to chance where it’s been advised. After all that time in the States with a car, we got soft, a bit lazy, and we didn’t prepare like we usually do. Once we got to Bangkok, we were jet-lagged and our bodies were stunned by the humid heat. Plus, on our first morning in Bangkok we were so excited that we ran right out and got exploring, instead of reading up on anything. Had we only read the chapter on ‘Dangers & Annoyances’ in our Lonely Planet or the Bangkok article in Wikitravel.org, we would have known that all of those people who approached us were part of a chain of events that allowed this scam to happen. But we didn’t and so we were sitting ducks. We promise to reveal the whole story soon…we’re still working through the embarrassment of going through our worst travel mishap to date 18 months in to our travels…

bangkok tuktuks
The Tuk-Tuk Scam: Only one of many scams in Bangkok

If you enjoyed this, check out more of our Tops and Flops:

Our Tops and Flops of 500 days of travel: Portugal, Canada, USA
Our Tops and Flops of 400 days of travel: Panama, Germany, Italy, Spain
Our Tops and Flops of 300 days of travel: Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica
Our Tops and Flops of 200 days of travel: Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and El Salvador
Our Tops and Flops of 100 days of travel: Las Vegas, California, Arizona, Mexico

 

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