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Charmant in the City – Luang Prabang, Laos

luang prabang monks alms giving

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 prabang

367 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 prabang

Learn 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 prabang

We 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. dani & jess eating at tum tum cheng

GlobetrotterGirls say Relax in Luang Prabang!

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 dog

Witness 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 prabang

Visit 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?

fried rice laos

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 breakfast dishes 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…

Best of breakfast in Laos:

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.

breakfast in LaosWarm 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.

laos 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.

laos breakfast

Baguette 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 lady

Other 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 sen

Khao 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.

youtiao

Which 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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Polaroid of the week: Young girl, Hmong New Year’s Celebrations in Phonsavan, Laos

polaroidoftheweekphoto11

 

polaroid of the week laos phonsavan hmong girl with umbrella

Sometimes, when you travel, you go on gut instinct alone. We had heard of the Xieng Khouang province of Laos around the city of Phonsavan, booked a ticket and endured the ten hour bus ride only to bounce into town just in time for the Hmong New Year’s celebrations.  The Hmong people, an ethnic group that originated from South Eastern China, were forced to settle in Thailand, Laos and Vietnam as a result of several wars throughout the years.  Now the Xieng Khouang province is home to one of the biggest groups of Hmong people, who, during the New Year’s celebrations (after the harvest in late November/early December), dress in their traditional costumes, dance and eat great food – for up to 40 days in most regions!

The most interesting aspect of the celebrations is the pov pob, the Hmong game of love. Unmarried boys and girls, men and women line up facing each other and toss a tennis ball back and forth – hoping that the girl or boy they like throws the ball back. If the ball drops, that means there’s no interest.  Both the girls and boys dress up in intricate costumes  which represent their clan – and they must find someone from outside of their clan to marry.

We were invited to take part – several times – but politely declined in favor of observing this adorably innocent ritual of teen flirtation. During the Pov Pob, the teens took the time to stop sending text messages and playing music from their phone’s speakers. In one sense teens are the same all around the world nowadays, so it was particularly interesting to witness the willing practice of their traditional culture as well.

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

housesitting in chicago

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 chicago

Jess 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 colorado

Dani 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 lanta

Favorite 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 2011

Dani 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 thailand

Dani 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 impressions

Most 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 phi

Dani 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 Chicago 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 burger

Jess 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 Chiang Mai. 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 mai

Travel 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 neighborhoods

Dani 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

 

 

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600 days of travel: Reflections on the last 100 days

globetrottergirls 600 days thailand laos

Six hundred days…if 600 days ago someone would have said that not only would we still be on the road, but that we would be doing everything in our power to maintain this for at least another 600, it would have been a hard sell to convince us.

While these past 100 days have flung us into an entirely different world yet again, we somehow feel more well-rested than we did in our 500 Days Reflections thanks to a relatively quick and essentially effortless adaptation to South East Asian living. The last one hundred days could have not been more filled with contrasts, as we went from enjoying the creature comforts of Chicago to the sweltering heat of Thailand.

600 days travel mapWorlds apart: Chicago to Bangkok

We were exhausted when we finally pulled in to Chicago after 34 days straight on the road through Canada and the U.S. this summer, but there was no resting – we arrived just in time for Jessica’s birthday – the first she had celebrated at home in Chicago since 2000! Our amazing friend Megan threw the perfect birthday bash. From there we did loads of sightseeing, got through loads of work and spent quality time with friends and family. It felt great to be home for Jessica’s Dad’s 60th birthday – a major milestone indeed.

Chicago skyline from buckingham fountainFrom Chicago we stopped for a week in Denver, Colorado, to visit Jessica’s sister from another mother Tracey and her Cuban fiancé Felix before boarding our longest long-haul flight to date – Air China from Denver to Bangkok via San Francisco and Beijing.

Bangkok could not be more different to Chicago. It wasn’t only was the change in climate (roughly 40 degrees warmer over here) that shocked our systems – everything from the food (no cheese, no bread, Thai food day and night!) to the people and the language (Thai – which with its five tones and entirely unfamiliar script is more challenging to learn than training for a marathon) were worlds away from Chicago.

view over bangkok & templeIt turns out that the food could not have been a more welcome change. After months of stuffing too much American food down our ever-unhealthier bellies, the freshly-prepared, nutrient-dense Thai food was good for our bellies and our wallets – for $2-$4 a meal (in a restaurant)! After just a few days, we also became surprisingly accustomed to having monks around every corner. Monks on bikes, monks on their cell phones, monks at the temples, ceremonies involving monks – even making small talk on public transport with monks. It’s hard to imagine a life without them now!

The weather took a bit longer to get used to. We knew it would be hot, but suddenly it was as if we were stuck in a sauna day and night. There is a solution to this – and it is called the mall. Bangkok’s famous MBK Mall is an incredible structure where, short of livestock or airplanes, you can buy just about everything in the world. However, as we quickly learned, a mall in South East Asia is not simply a temple for capitalist worship as it has become in the United States. The mall is a true lifesaver in the fight against the unrelenting heat and humidity of its immediate environs.

mbk bangkok

A tough start in Asia…

Truth be told, however, our Asian adventure got off to a rocky start. We were scammed in Bangkok. Big time. Look for more in a separate post coming soon, but it took weeks for us to get over this slimy, sneaky scammy scheme and we were particularly bitter that it happened in a country known to everyone else as the friendly Land of Smiles. We felt tricked and cheated when we then arrived to the island of Koh Lanta, and just as we recovered from that incident, Dani went head first into a ditch within the first ten seconds of our first motorbike rental.

We planned to do most of South East Asia on a motorbike, so that was discouraging to say the least. Despite that set back, we enjoyed our week on Koh Lanta (and our wonderful little holiday getaway there) but were then terribly, utterly incomparably disappointed with the other islands we visited in the Andaman Sea before flying into Chiang Mai.

dani & jess at doi suthep temple chiang mai

Getting our mojo back in Chiang Mai

This northern Thai city is certainly no hidden gem – in fact its smack dab on the tourist map – and we couldn’t care less about that. Chiang Mai is possibly the easiest, most comfortable city to settle down in for a while – and there is no question why so many digital nomads just like us make this city the place where they spend extended periods of time.

In fact, in the city has everything we needed to give us our travel mojo back: every kind of Western and Thai food (including the best Tex-Mex we’ve had outside of America), countless coffee shops, 80 degree sunny days and cool, comfortable evenings and excellent company. We met up with dozens of fellow nomads and bloggers and got started on some bigger projects we’ve been meaning to create for a while now. Our 30-day tourist visas were nearing expiry, but instead of simply moving on to Laos, we decided that we would visit Laos, pick up a longer Thai visa, and head back to Chiang Mai for a month. The day before leaving on our three-week tour of Laos, we booked a nice apartment in a modern building within walking distance of everything in the Old City for $320 a month. Sweet!

chiang mai - impressions 2011

Becoming backpackers again in rural Laos

Ah, Laos…We love it now, but it took a while to warm up to Laos. The first few stops were truly unremarkable, but it seems that we may have sort of snuck in to the back door of the country. That is, until we arrived to Nong Khiew.

This sleepy river town easily became one favorite place in Laos and one of our favorites of all time. We hiked, we cycled, we slept, we ate and we even stayed an extra day. From there we visited a dreamy little place we don’t even want to tell you about (because we love it so much and want to keep it that way), made obligatory stops in larger cities like Luang Prabang and Phonsavan and went through the bizarre loop-hole laden Thai visa process in Vientiane.

impressions of laos 2011

Life is good

As much as we have grown to love a bit of stability in this nomadic life, getting our backpacks back on and settling in to weeks of heavy travel re-introduced all those feelings of excitement, exploration, and learning about other cultures that we so loved during our time in Central America last year. The rural villages of Laos were a huge change to well-developed Thailand and we had the opportunity to get to know many people whose lives are so much simpler than what we know from back home.

While we try not to be naive, and not to simplify this too much, we honestly do find that many of these people are much more content and way more friendly than people back home.

Overall, there is less stress (no one in Laos is worried about their credit score or making it to the post office before it closes) and families spend much more time together. From the smallest villages to the capital of Vientiane, families still gather around an outdoor stove or fire where white and sticky rice cook, and around it they eat together as a family each afternoon and evening. While on the one hand we have a huge appreciation for the advantages we have had and the fact that we get to travel and do what we do, we are equally mindful that a simple life is may just be the best kind overall (but with Macbook Airs, iPhones and coffee).

rural laos 2011In a short span of six weeks, we covered nearly 4000 miles (6320km) in Thailand and Laos, so after moving around quite a lot again, we are happier than ever to be enjoying Chiang Mai and celebrating the holidays with like-minded folks – after a lonely Christmas and unspectacular New Year’s in Honduras last year.

What’s next?

We had originally planned to explore Vietnam and Cambodia after our stint in Thailand, but as they have a habit of doing – our plans have again changed unexpectedly. This almost always has to do with a housesitting gig – and this time is no different. We will be watching an apartment and its resident cuddly cat in Kuala Lumpur in January. So we are headed to Malayasia for that and to finally get some quality beach time in again before spending time in Singapore and Indonesia. And then, we guess Vietnam and Cambodia – but as always our plans are ever-evolving…

No matter where we end up – we’re excited to see more of South East Asia and if you have been to Kuala Lumpur, let us know your tips in the comments below.

globetrottergirls 600 days thailand laos
Stay tuned for our Tops and Flops of 600 days of travel…

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Polaroid of the week: Sunset over the Mekong River in Luang Prabang, Laos

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polaroid of the week laos luang prabang mekong river sunset

No matter what we did each day during our time in Laos, we always took the time to catch the sunset. For an entirely landlocked country, Laos is great for sunsets over water, as many towns and villages are located right on rivers with mountains and forest filling out the gorgeous backdrop. We would watch the sun disappear behind the mountains and the colors of the sky change from blue to purple to red and bright orange before the dark night sky came like a cloth dampening the fire.

One particularly great sunset was in Luang Prabang, from the temple on top of Phou Si Hill in the middle of the town. Easily the highest point in town, people gather each night to watch the sunset over the sweeping views of the Mekong river.

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Polaroid of the week: Mountain biking in Nong Khiew, Laos

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polaroid of the week laos nong khiew mountain biking

One afternoon this week we set off with a big bottle of water and two mountain bikes to conquer caves and rumored waterfalls outside of Nong Khiew, a tiny town which spans either side of the Nam Ou river in Northern Laos. The cave was easily reached just over a mile out of town across a bamboo footbridge over a stream at the top of a steep three-story ladder in the mountainside. As we continued, however, it was the mountain that nearly conquered us with stretches so steep it took all our strength to round the next corner.

All the effort was worth it, as we practically flew down on the way back alongside subtropical forest and slowing down only in each of the roadside villages where dozens of kids ran after us and surrounded our bikes, offering to refill our water bottles in exchange for pens (the kids here seem to love pens).  One of those perfect exploration days that really gave the feel of local life in Nong Khiew.

 

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

laos tractors

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 transportation9:00am 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 transportation12.40pm 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 transportation4.15pm 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 transportation8.45am 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.

Laos transportationAfter 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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Polaroid of the week: Cycling monks in Muang Sing, Laos

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polaroid of the week laos muang sing monks on bikes

Laos is a strictly Buddhist country, which means that, like in many Asian countries, monks in their beautiful orange robes are a sight almost everywhere we look. We chatted with one in Thailand in the back of a pick-up truck taxi, but here in Laos, there have been only many shy nods from monks in temples, at markets or, like these boys, on bikes.

Nearly every man in Laos joins a temple or monastery for at least a short period of time in their lives yet despite this and the fact that monks are considered the smartest people in the country due to a top education, some of the monks in Laos live a surprisingly hard life.  In some areas of Laos, monks have to forage for their own food in the woods or rely on food donations from local communities who believe that providing food and other donations to the well-respected monks will improve their karma.

 

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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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