Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Summer 2012 - 6th Stop: Luang Prabang

Before we set off on our travels, this was one of the places we were expecting great things from. Everyone we had spoken to, and everything we had read, gave rave reviews about Luang Prabang, and don’t get me wrong, it was a lovely place, really lovely, and we have a lot of very fond memories from here, but I think it may have suffered a small bit from being built up too much. It really is a great place, just go there expecting it to be rubbish…

Luang Prabang is Laos’ biggest tourist hotspot but, similar to Ubud in Bali, even though there were a lot of tourists around, it never felt in the least bit touristy or crowded. There’s just a pleasant vibe around the place, the kind of town to wander about at your own pace, rather than rushing from A to B. It’s got a nice set up too, adding to this sleepy ambiance – a pocket-sized town centre with a river on each side, scatterings of charming temples here and there, quaint waterside cafes and restaurants, and a small hill overlooking it all.

Our own high expectations may have hindered Luang Prabang a tiny bit, but the biggest obstacle, for our first two days here anyway, was the weather. Luckily we had given ourselves plenty of time, so it didn’t affect our plans too much. It did mean that our first day in town was a complete write off though, but we did get some ground work done for the rest of our stay, booking an elephant trek for two days later, and our bus tickets out to Phonsavan.

The next morning wasn’t much better weather-wise, but not knowing whether or not it would clear up during our stay here, we had no choice but to brave the elements and see what the place had to offer. As I mentioned earlier, the town itself is quite small, so we were well able to see everything on foot with little effort, although we had to enjoy everything through the downpour.

We were still able to appreciate the beauty of the place despite the rain, the highlights being Haw Pha Bang and Wat Xieng Thong, some of the most beautifully designed temples we've seen anywhere on our travels.

Now, most temples you'd see around these parts would maybe have a lion or a dragon at the entrance, to "ward off intruders", but to be honest, they're wasting their time. They should all get one of these guys, they're terrifying! I was even half frightened to walk past it!

With the weather halting our progress, we instead turned our attentions to hunting. Hunting what, you ask? Why, the deadliest prey of all, monks. The town was absolutely littered with them, so whenever a bunch (a flock? a gaggle…?) walked by, we’d spring into action, trying to get a sneaky pic without them noticing. It got to the stage where we’d even stealthily follow them down the street for a block or two, just to get a good picture.

Hopefully they didn't notice...

The clouds had cleared somewhat by the afternoon, so we climbed up Mount Phousi in the centre of town. I say "Mount" Phousi but it’s really only a small hill. There were some nice views though of the town itself and the surrounding area.

As we came back down, the main street had been transformed into a night market, with lines of stalls all the way along, selling the usual – scarves, bracelets, artwork etc. We already had a bagful of souvenirs from Hoi An though, so we had to put the blinkers on and plough straight through, trying not to catch a glimpse of anything along the way.

The next day, we thankfully woke up to blue skies and enjoyed the highlight of the trip for us so far, as we packed our trunks and set off on a morning of elephant trekking!

We were taken by minibus to the forests outside Luang Prabang, and then downstream by boat to the All Lao Elephant Camp where we hopped aboard our four-legged friend for the day. The first hour we spent trekking through the jungle, myself and Ais seated on a little bench on the elephant’s back, with the mahout (elephant driver) seated in front. Halfway through, he asked if I wanted to “take the wheel”, so to speak. And I did! Riding an elephant, some laugh!

I had cleverly camouflaged myself for the occasion too…

Now, I don’t know if it was down to my mahout-ing skills, or if we just had a particularly stubborn elephant, but he was out of control! He kept going off course, crashing into bushes, stopping for lunch breaks and generally acting the maggot! If he didn’t weight 10,000 pounds, there’d have been some trouble, let me tell ya…!

The trekking was great fun, but the highlight of the day was definitely going bathing with the elephants, clinging onto their backs as they waded into the river and gave themselves (and you!) a good soaking. And even though we were bombarded with trunkful after trunkful of water, it was a refreshing way to cool off under the hot sun.

After leaving the elephants behind, we had a nice riverside lunch, before heading on to the Kuang Si Waterfall / Bear Sanctuary (an odd mix, I know), where we had another refreshing dip in equally spectacular surroundings (although, the water here perhaps looked a bit more appetising...). We spent about two hours there, lounging around, cooling off, and there was even a rope swing into the water, if you were willing to take the plunge.

The next day and our last in Luang Prabang, was spent re-walking the town, this time with a lot more sun, and a lot more fun! I know I say it all the time, but you can't beat a bit of blue sky! And even better with a few fluffy white clouds in there to seal the deal! 

It really makes those drab, grey pictures from two days earlier pretty redundant!

So, we had another stroll around the town, back through all of the temples and halfway up Mount Phousi where we made another video diary!


We also went into the Royal Palace, which is now a museum, but not a very interesting one. The best thing about the palace grounds is Haw Pha Bang, pictured above, but you can go into that for free, and see it from the roadside too, so there's no need to waste your money.

And on that cheery note, I'll sign off! The next morning we got a 7 hour bus to Phonsavan, our last stop in Laos!

Friday, July 27, 2012

Summer 2012 - 5th Stop: Vientiane

So, with Savannakhet out of the way, we were finally in Laos proper! We arrived in Vientiane at 5:30am, well rested and raring to go, and as the two Adams hadn't booked any accommodation, they came with us to our hotel, Vayakorn House. Unfortunately, our rooms wouldn't be available til 12 o’clock, so it was off to Joma Bakery for a 6 hour breakfast! (It was delicious though and they had branches in Luang Prabang and Hanoi too!). After 4 hours of stuffing ourselves with hot chocolate and cinnamon rolls, we chanced our arms back at the hotel and luckily the rooms were ready to go early. So, we rested up, showered down and headed out on our first day in Vientiane!

Ok, that sounded like a big build up to something, but we actually didn’t do much at all. It’s a nice enough city, but nothing to get too excited over. We say it time and time again but rarely listen to our own advice – capital cities are usually not that great. On our first day, we just walked around to a few nearby temples – Wat Si Saket, Haw Pha Kaeo and Wat Si Muang – which were all reasonably nice, but nothing we hadn’t seen before, and then went to the COPE visitor centre, which was probably the most interesting thing we did that day (and it was free!).

The centre contains lots of information and videos about the bombing of Laos during the American war in Vietnam. Shockingly, Laos (which was wholly neutral during the war) is the most heavily bombed country per capita in history, with over 580,000 bombing missions conducted over the country. And unfortunately this atrocity can't just be swept into the past, as 30% of the bombs dropped failed to detonate on impact, leaving approximately 80 million pieces of unexploded ordinance (UXO) scattered all over the countryside, making this a very real problem for present-day Laos. Even now, many Laotians are killed every year by UXOs, either by accidentally triggering these bombs, or from trying to collect them for scrap metal.

The COPE centre was very interesting, especially watching the testimonies of families who have lost children to these UXOs. They also do some great work manufacturing prosthetic limbs for some of the victims of these bombs. Certainly a place I'd recommend.

The next day (which was also our two year anniversary, swit swoo!) was a bit more eventful, not a lot more, but a bit. We rented out bikes and spent most of the day cycling around the place. Despite it being a capital city, it’s not very big and traffic is very manageable, so we didn’t have too much hassle getting to see everything we wanted. The main attraction around town is Pha That Luang, which is like the national symbol of Laos, but it really wasn’t that great at all. It was just a poor man’s Shwedagon Pagoda.

And while Shwedagon Pagoda was like a flawless, golden spire, this just seemed shabby and plastic. That was the thing about Vientiane, not only did it have very little that we hadn’t seen before, but we had seen much better versions of all these things elsewhere!

Pha That Luang (Laos)
Shwedagon Pagoda (Myanmar)
Afterwards, we finished off our cycling tour, taking in a few more smaller temples along the way, passed by Patuxay (which was just like a Laotian Arc de Triomphe), and then to treat ourselves, we went off to the jungle for a nice traditional massage in a stilted wooden hut. A far cry from Hoi An, where we got our own personal masseuses sent up to our fancy hotel room!

And that night, for our special anniversary dinner, we celebrated in style with a nice romantic dinner at Pizza Company! I know it sounds quite underwhelming and unspectacular, but we were delighted. It’s our favourite restaurant in South East Asia! We’ve been to a few of them around Thailand and Cambodia, but we didn’t know there was one in Laos until we spotted it randomly during our cycle tour. And it turned out to be just around the corner from us all along! Who knew?!

The next day, and our last in Vientiane, we had planned to have an early start, with the Buddha Park and a nearby waterpark on our agenda for the day. Unfortunately, as we got up, the rain came down, scuppering our plans. The waterpark had to be written off completely, but luckily the rain eased up a bit in the afternoon, giving us a small window to travel out to Vientiane’s Buddha Park.

I know I said that Vientiane had nothing that we hadn’t seen before, but the Buddha Park was the one exception to that rule. It was surprisingly good fun! It’s basically, as the name suggests, a big park filled with Buddha statues – big ones, small ones, sitting, standing, reclining, multiple heads and arms – every type of Buddha you could imagine!

I have no idea what this guy is meant to be...

So, we just chilled out there for an hour or so, taking pics, hanging with the Buddhas, and we made a rather rushed video diary too!

And that was it for Vientiane! We got our fill of Pizza Company once more that afternoon, and that set us up nicely for our classy night bus to Luang Prabang.

And that's where I'll pick things up next time!

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Summer 2012 - 4th Stop: Savannakhet

As I finished up last time around, we were saying our goodbyes, or rather our 'see you soon's to Vietnam, ready for a new challenge and a new country, Laos - not to be confused with Laois (I don't think there's a direct bus from Vietnam to County Laois...). This entry will be quite brief as Savannakhet was just an interim stop for us. Our next real destination was the country's capital, Vientiane, but going from Hué would have been an uncomfortable 15 hour bus ride, so we decided to split up the journey and spend a day in this completely nondescript Laotian town. (Wow, I just looked it up and it's actually the second biggest city in Laos! It was tiny!)

But let's back up a second, there was drama before we even left Hué...

On the morning of the 27th, we were dropped off at the station, shown to our bus and were told by the driver to leave our bags in a pile by the luggage compartment and take our seats on board. So we put down our things and walked around to the doorway. As we reached the front of the bus we thought, maybe we should wait until the bags are safely packed away before getting on, just in case, so we turned around and went back to the luggage pile. Everything seemed untouched, except for my rucksack, which was gone! There was momentary panic as I checked if it had been loaded up already, it hadn't. I went around to the luggage compartment on the other side, not there either. My momentary panic turned into a more serious one. It was nowhere to be found, and with people and motorbikes coming and going the whole time, someone had probably just picked it up and done a runner while our backs were turned. Bye bye rucksack, we hardly knew ye...

But wait, hold the eulogy! It's not over yet! It was found about 10 minutes later tucked away in a different compartment on the other side of the bus! How it got from the pile to there in the time it took us to turn our backs, I'll never know, but at that stage I didn't care, it was safe! (In fact, I just took that photo right now for the purpose of this story).

I'd like to say that after that initial scare, the bus journey itself was a dream, but it wasn't. We were tucked away in the back corner of the bus, with coal-sized bags of rice under our feet, taking up all of our leg room. A ten hour ride on an overcrowded Vietnamese bus isn't a delightful experience at the best of times, never mind when your knees are up to your chin! And to make matters worse, a local guy came over to us after about half an hour, saying that we were in his seat. In fairness, his ticket did say seat 47, which is where we were sitting, but we were never actually assigned seat numbers and the driver put us here himself. (I wouldn't be surprised if he just wrote down number 47 on the ticket himself to trick us into moving!). Getting up meant standing for the next ten hours, or else sitting in the already crowded aisles, so we stood our ground (or rather, sat our ground), and refused to move. Thankfully he had no English, so he couldn't really argue with us too much, apart from pointing and grunting, which we ignored. Ireland 1, Vietnam 0.

At the border crossing, it was a mad dash to get our stamps, get our Laos visa and get back on the bus before this guy could swoop in and take our seats. We were at the border for a good 45 mins I'd say, waiting anxiously as the guards went through all of the passports one by one, and handed them out to the crowd in no particular order. Finally, we saw our little maroon booklets come to the top of the pile, we grabbed them and jumped back onto the bus, regaining our seats just as our rival climbed aboard. Ireland 2, Vietnam 0!

For the rest of the trip, we survived on a packet of shortbread biscuits and made sure to keep an eye on our friend at any rest stop. We may have had crappy seats, but they were OUR crappy seats!

We finally arrived in Savannakhet and got a tuk-tuk to our guesthouse with two English guys and a Dutch girl that we made friends with along the way. We didn't do much for the rest of the evening besides hanging out and going for dinner. In fact, we didn't do much the next day either! There's just not a lot to do here! We hired a couple of bikes alright and had a nice time just cycling to nowhere in particular, along the riverside, around a few small temples, to the dinosaur museum, down by the... wait what, I hear you say! Yes, Savannakhet has a dinosaur museum!

I mean, who doesn't like dinosaurs?! Apparently the place is a real paleonthological hotspot! It was the thing I was most looking forward to seeing here (well, it didn't really have much competition), and even though I knew Savannakhet was just a nothing town, and the museum would most likely follow suit, part of me was still holding out hope that it would be incredible, with life-size models, interactive features and all that jazz! It wasn't...

This was really as good as it got! (T-rex not to scale)

The "museum" consisted of two small rooms with a few boxes of bones, which actually looked more like rocks (they weren't even bone-shaped!) and some small exhibits that were in Vietnamese and French. And that was it! We had a laugh though! It was only like 50c to get in, and in a way, it was so bad that it was kinda good!

And that was it for Savannakhet. The fact that I spent more time talking about our journey there, than the town itself tells you all you need to know about the place. We had a nice day there, but won't be going back anytime soon. That night we got a sleeper bus (a really good one actually!) up to Vientiane with the two lads from Birmingham (Adam and Adam) and so that's where I'll pick things up next time.

Oh, video diary too!


I hope you like the sound of wind!

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Summer 2012 - 3rd Stop: Hué

First there was Ho Chi Minh City, then there was Hoi An, and now, continuing the Vietnamese trend of “H” cities, is Hué (and we still have Hanoi and Halong Bay to come!). To sum up our stay here, I’d say it was “quite nice”, and that’s about it. Hué was just a short two day stop for us, and it didn’t let us down by any means – great weather,  lovely sights, excellent accommodation, I don’t actually have anything negative to say about the place – yet for some reason, it just seemed to be lacking that certain something that I can’t quite place. Maybe it suffered for being the stop after Hoi An, maybe I just overlooked its appeal, either way, it was a solid, 7 out of 10 town for me, and nothing more. (Aisling thought it was really nice).

We arrived in Hué on the afternoon of the 25th and, very conveniently, the bus-stop just so happened to be across the road from our accommodation, the Hong Thien 1 Hotel. We couldn’t have picked a better place to stay either, it was the business! And our room in particular. It was probably bigger than our whole apartment in Hong Kong! We had booked a double room, which in our minds, meant a room with a double bed, but to them, it meant a room with TWO double beds! We didn’t know what to do with ourselves! We had regular fancy hotel things too like a TV, fridge, bathroom, but also a breakfast table, a desktop computer and two air conditioners! We could easily live there!

After a quick lunch nearby, we grabbed some bikes at the hotel and cycled out to Thien Mu Pagoda.

It was a lovely 4km journey across the bridge and along the banks of the Perfume River to the pagoda. The nicest part though was probably the courtyard at the back. A little gateway led through to a small temple where some monks were praying, there was nice greenery, incense burning, and of course, the blue skies helped too.

That evening, we had dinner and then just walked along the riverside, where there were various market stalls set up. Nothing to report about that. There's actually very little of interest on the south side of the river, anything of note is across the water, inside the walled city, which is where we spent the next day. We got breakfast in the hotel, hired some bikes once again, and then set off to the citadel. 

As walled cities go, this one looks pretty tough to conquer - you've got the Perfume River in front, with a series of canals surrounding the square-shaped citadel on all sides. Inside this first layer of protection, you have a short strip of land before a 30m wide moat separates you from the 2m thick, 10km long perimeter walls. And that's just to get into the city, there's another citadel inside that citadel protecting the imperial enclosure!

Just like a much more badass version of Eastenders...

We entered the citadel (the outer one) on the south side, through the Ngan Gate, and then took a leisurely cycle around the walls of the imperial enclosure (the inner one). It was a really beautiful day and quite quiet too, so we could take our time and enjoy the views, without much traffic or tourists in our way. After we looped around the imperial enclosure, we had to park up our bikes, and do the rest on foot, entering at the front again, through the Ngo Mon Gate.

There's certainly enough inside to keep you entertained for a few hours, from palaces and temples, to statues and cannons. I won't go through everything we saw, but our favourite spot was probably the To Mieu Temple Complex, with its stunning pavilion, courtyard and nine dynastic urns.

We made our video diary there too!


As the afternoon drew to a close, we picked up our bikes and rejoined the hustle and bustle of Hué traffic. It was nice to cycle along with the locals, weaving in and out of lanes and over bridges, something we'd never do in Ho Chi Minh City!

And that was our time in Hué (and Vietnam, for now). We're very impressed with the country so far, and hopefully the best is yet to come with Hanoi, Sapa and Halong Bay still on the agenda in a few weeks time. The next morning, we headed off to the bus station, ready for our Laos adventures to begin, but not before a hiccup or two along the way...