Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Siem Reap, Cambodia

Even though we had gone to bed late the night before, we woke up at 6:30 to the sound of the hotel waking up. Staff walking around, chatting and laughing. We hadn’t noticed it the night before but our room window did not face outside the hotel, rather it looked out into a service corridor in the back of the hotel. Although we were able to shut the curtains, there were no glass panels or even shutters to close to keep out the noise. After trying to sleep a bit more, we got up at 7am and decided to look for a new guest house. We grabbed some breakfast at Temple Bar & Restaurant on Pub Street and headed out for the day. Very quickly we realized the city is not very big at all. Cambodia was also a French colony at one point and it had much of the architecture left over, a lot in pretty decent shape. Also, Cambodia is a democratic country (at least it claims to be, reality is probably a bit different) so right away we could feel a change in atmosphere. We liked Siem Reap right away. Not because it was a democratic country, but because right away the people we encountered were much friendlier than they had been anywhere we had been up until this point (with a few exceptions of course). True, the tuk tuk drivers are extremely pesky and don’t leave us alone. (As explained to Andrew’s brother on skype, no we do not carry cameras on our shoulders to indicate we are tourists, we are white, which makes it very easy to indentify us as tourists- walking wallets). We can’t walk 30 meters without a tuk tuk driver asking “tuk tuk sir? Go see temple today? Maybe tomorrow? Very cheap sir”. This is repeated literally hundreds of times per day. I have come to appreciate how annoying it would be to be a celebrity and have everyone constantly recognize you. Of course we’re not celebrities but it is impossible to have a conversation on the street without getting constantly interrupted and, for lack of a better word, harassed. Despite all this we have found people to be extremely friendly and this is the first time in a very long time that we don’t feel like we are walking wallets. Of course people still see you and think they can make a quick buck, but what we didn’t experience was people asking us for money for no reason.

After breakfast we started walking around and looking for another guest house. We were not only looking for cheap but also for quiet and comfortable. Somewhere we could sleep in. That is definitely something we hadn’t done in a while. Usually because of some type of noise coming in from the outside (roosters crowing, loud boats on the river, hotel staff, etc.). We found what we were looking for at Mommy’s Guest House. This is a family run guest house and we were able to get a room for $5 per night. And the best part is that it was on a side street so it was nice and quiet. The owner was very friendly and provided us with a lot of advice on where we should/shouldn’t go. We moved in that day. We spent the rest of the day walking around and discovering Siem Reap. The following day we arranged for the tuk tuk driver from the guest house to take us see the Angkor Temples. Siem Reap is a town which lies about 10km from the Angkor Temples. Those are the temples where Tomb Raider was filmed with Angelina Jolie. I won’t pretend to know too much history on these temples, and really all I can say is that they are very old and they are quite impressive as they have been preserved quite well. Siem Reap, understandably, has built its whole tourist industry on these temples and really the economy revolves around them. There are a lot of temples you can visit and various “loops” you can complete, so we arrange with the tuk tuk driver to take us on the “big” tour, which basically means the temples on the outer perimeter.

We start around 8am and by 9am it is so hot we are sweating. I really couldn’t believe how hot it was. But the temples are beautiful. It’s hard to describe them and to do them justice so below are a couple of pictures. What’s not beautiful are the number of tourists and the locals trying to sell us things. “Sir buy something, anything” But we keep going and by 12:30pm we complete the entire loop. We’re a little disappointed as we were told it would take all day but it turns out we’re fast tourists. So we arrange for the driver to take us to the floating village.

A floating village is exactly like it sounds, a village which exists on boats. Unfortunately we realize right away this will most likely be one of the tourist attractions where we will be ripped off. It turns out we are right. We pay $15 per person! for a boat to take us around. The tour is supposed to last an hour and a half but after 25 minutes we stop in the middle of the lake for our guide to tell us about the village. This basically consists of him telling us there is a school and we can stop there on the way back, and since the kids are very poor we can buy them some supplies. That doesn’t sound like a tourist scam at all. Another boat pulls up to us and starts showing us a cobra snake. I don’t wish to be anywhere near that snake and I start shaking my head but then they ask us for money! There is no way I’m paying them to see a snake I have no desire to be near. After they pull away, the guide is telling us some tourists like to jump in the lake to go swimming. At the same time I notice another boat behind us, and I see a mom is hanging her child overboard and the child is relieving himself. Not of number 1 but of number 2! Once he’s done she just wipes him with the Water and they continue on their way. I don’t know about other tourists, but I’m not planning to even dip my hands in the Water. We start heading back and again are asked if we want to go visit the school to help the children, but we decline. The tour ends after only 45 minutes. This was definitely a rip off!

We head back to the temples as we want to see Angkor Wat, the biggest temple of all the Angkor Temples, at sunset. We arrive around 4:00pm and there are hundreds of people making their way in. Apparently this is not an intimate affair. We are a little disappointed as the front of the Wat is under construction and therefore we will have a hard time getting a nice picture. Once inside the temple there are thousands of people trying to get a good spot for the sunset. There are 200 or 300 people lining up to climb to the very top of the temple. We decide to go to a more remote part of the temple and are rewarded with very few tourists. In fact, the only people there are a few monks. They take an interest in us and we spend some time chatting. It actually feels really peaceful sitting in the largest Wat in Cambodia with monks, who really are the only people that can appreciate how sacred this location is. At that moment it doesn’t feel like a tourist attraction, and I try to think about the meaning of this place. The moment doesn’t last long. Inevitably some tourists show up and like the snap of two fingers, the moment is gone. We don’t bother waiting for the sunset. We will be at Angkor Wat the following morning for sunrise.

The following day we wake up at 4am. We arrive at Angkor Wat by 4:45am. Even at this early hour there are hundreds of people making their way in. Unlike the day before, everyone wants to be at the front of the Wat to obtain a good picture with the sun rising right behind the Wat, and its shadow reflecting off the pond. Even though there are a lot of tourists, we are still able to get a good spot. Andrew settles in by sitting right at the edge of the pond. I stand just to the side of him. My camera is a point and shoot so I don’t receive a lot of respect from the other photographers. Everyone else, including Andrew, have a camera worthy of a professional photographer. It’s not long before I’m more or less pushed out of the way. I don’t mind. The sunrise is not as exciting as you might imagine. There is no point where you say, okay, the sun has risen. The truth is, the sun is constantly rising. My legs are hurting as I’ve been standing for an hour so I look for a place to sit. Once Andrew is done taking all the pictures his heart desires, we ask someone to take a photo with the both of us. It’s 6am and it is already hot. We walk around the temple and take a few more photos but we’re done with this Wat. We move on.

That day we complete the “small” tour which is all the Wats closest to Angkor Wat. These are a lot more impressive than the ones we had seen the day before. While there Andrew decided to build an inukshuk to add a bit of Canadian flare to the temples. He actually did a pretty good job. We complete our tour by 12:30pm and we are exhausted. It has already been a full day. We go out for a pizza and meet a French guy who has come to Cambodia to film a documentary about his friend that came to Cambodia and decided to stay. We exchange some stories and he tells us how while filming the documentary they also go to a school. By the teacher they are told all the kids are poor and that they don’t have money for school supplies. So the film crew pitch in and buy some crayons along with other supplies (which are of course readily available at the school) and they distribute them to the kids. The kids are all very excited and happy. They spend some more time with the kids and after getting enough material for the documentary they decide to leave. But the cameras are still rolling as everyone leaves, and they capture the teacher collecting all the crayons and supplies the film crew had just distributed. When questioned, the teacher all of a sudden doesn’t speak English. Apparently this is a very common tourist trap. The tourist is guilted into buying school supplies to the poor students (because who doesn’t feel bad about kids not having supplies to learn?), and the supplies are of course readily available right then and there, the tourists feel good for helping the kids but as soon as they leave the supplies are collected and re-sold to the next tourist who comes to help the poor kids. So the same crayons can be sold hundreds if not thousands of times.
The following day we go see some more temples on the “remote” tour. These temples are about 40km from Siem Reap. But this tour is different. Somehow Andrew has found out that in addition to the temples and the Land Mine Museum, there is also a shooting range we can stop at. Of course that is the first stop of the day. At the shooting range they have a lot of different guns. I won’t pretend to know which ones but apparently it’s a good selection. In addition to guns you can also detonate a grenade. All this of course comes at a price. To detonate a grenade you have to pay $40US! Andrew opts to shoot 50 rounds from an M18. My job is to take pictures. This is my first time around a real gun and I’m literally shaking. Not because I think I’m in danger but even with sound proof ear muffs the shots are deafening and I can feel the power of the gun. I don’t even want to think about what it would feel like to have the gun pointed at me. 50 rounds turns out to last all of 30 seconds. After that Andrew spends a lot of time posing in front of the wall of guns so I can capture this moment on film, and he poses with bullet chains hung around his shoulders while holding various guns. All this while wearing his Chuck Norris T-Shirt which he got as a birthday gift before we left (thanks M&M…it’s his favourite T-shirt), and has the caption “Chuck Norris has 2 speeds: Walk & Kill”. He looked tough alright. But I think overall we are quite disappointed. Mainly because it’s so expensive (the 50 rounds costs $50US) and also because it’s all over so quickly. I know this is something Andrew was looking forward to and it sucks that it’s over so fast. But we don’t have time to dwell and we go see some temples.

On the way back we stop at the Cambodian Land Mine Museum. This is an interesting museum because it brings out conflicting feelings. The typical horror of learning how a land mine can kill or maim, but also skepticism. The founder of the museum was a child soldier with the Khmer Rouge, who were responsible for killing millions of Cambodians in the mid 70’s and wiping out the whole capital of Phnom Penh. While he was with the Khmer Rouge he laid down thousands of the land mines he now tries to find and remove. I say skepticism because I think it’s always easy to do something and then when it’s all over to say, I’m sorry, I was made to do it and now I want to help. Maybe that makes me a cynic but I just can’t help it. I know he has now helped a lot of kids and cleared a lot of land mines and he has won the CNN Hero Award in 2010, but my skepticism is still there. The museum gives a very good impression of just how many landmines are still out there and the damage they can cause. It’s tough to see the damage a landmine can cause a person. Once we finished touring the museum the day was done. The next day we left for Phnom Penh.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

4000 Islands (Si Phan Don)

The 4000 Islands (4K Islands) are located on the Mekong river, where the river is at its widest, at the southernmost tip of Laos. The Cambodian border lies 5km from there and if you want to go fresh dolphin watching (Irrawaddy Dolphins) , you take a boat which takes you across to a Cambodian island, you pay $1 USD to cross into Cambodia (plus the cost of the whole trip to take you there in the first place), look at the dolphins and then head right back to Laos.

A ferry (nothing more than a small long tail boat) took us across the river. On the way I chatted to a Thai girl from Bangkok who was there with her friends from Thailand on vacation. They had 3 days off for the King’s Birthday and they wanted to see what all the hype was about in Laos. This surprised me for a couple of reasons. The first being that they would travel almost 1000km’s during a 3 day trip. They would be spending 2 whole days travelling and only 1 day on the actual island. The second thing that surprised me was that they hadn’t been to Laos up until this point. Laos borders Thailand and although the 4K Islands are far south and far away from Bangkok, other parts of Laos are much closer. But they were very excited to be on vacation and I wasn’t going to bring any of these things up with them. The girl and her 4 friends were psychologists in Bangkok.

We were dropped off on the island and immediately started looking for a guest house. We found one rather quickly for $4 per night. In the Lonely Planet guide they describe the Mekong river as “iridescent blue” but we found it to be a very murky brown. We found out it was because of the rains the previous month but were assured by January the river should be blue again. Right away we found the atmosphere to be completely relaxed. Our bungalow was right on the water and had 2 hammocks. Our neighbours were hanging out (no pun intended) on their hammocks. The island of Don Det is fairly small and there are no real roads. Any roads are dirt tracks (shared by pedestrians and scooters) or gravel roads. The island consists mostly of guest houses, a couple of restaurants and rice paddies. It is also connected to Don Khon (another small island) via a bridge. There really isn’t much to do except relax. We grabbed some food, ran into some people we had met at the waterfall in Pai, and just hung out.

The next morning we grabbed breakfast, and took a walk around the island. It was hot outside. The walk around the island took a couple of hours, and after we got back and showered, we stayed in our hammocks for the rest of the day reading. The following morning we rented 2 bicycles and rode over to Don Khon and crossed the bridge. The day before there were a couple of guys waiting on the other side who said we needed to pay 20,000 kip ($3) each to cross the bridge. There was a sign indicating they were telling the truth. (The locals only pay 5,000 kip) That day, however, there wasn’t anyone there so we rode our bikes across without paying. We drove to see a waterfall, and then went to see a beach. The roads were terrible and the bicycles were not mountain bikes but street bikes with baskets on the front. We also went to see about the dolphin watching but we thought paying $10 was too much so we didn’t do it. As we were on our way to the next waterfall Andrew realized he had a flat tire. We were in the middle of nowhere so there was no choice but to walk the bike. This caused us to take longer than usual to get back to the bridge. But before we crossed over we found a bike shop that had a tire pump and we were able to put air in Andrew’s tire. There seemed to be a problem however as the air kept going down. We were heading back home when the guards asked us for the tickets for the bridge. Of course we didn’t have any so we just pretended not to understand and said “ya ya, over there” and didn’t stop and rode past them as fast as possible. After we crossed the bridge Andrew’s tire was flat again so we needed to walk the bike all the way back. We returned it without saying anything. Again, we spent the rest of the afternoon in hammocks reading.

We booked a ticket directly to Seam Reap, Cambodia from the 4K Islands for the next day. The price was pretty good, $12, and it would take us 14 hours to get there. We were happy with the price because we had inquired into the same trip before we got on the island and were quoted a “very good price” of $28. We left the next morning at 8am. The border crossing wasn’t very stressful but it was interesting. Although I can’t confirm this, I’m pretty sure we were ripped off. Before we could leave Laos we had to have our passports stamped by the Laos immigration, indicating we had left the country. They told us we would have to pay $1 USD for this, which we did. We then walked over to the Cambodian immigration, but before we could get our visas we had to undergo a “health check” and pay $1 USD. The health check consisted of a lady measuring our temperature with an electronic thermometer from a distance of 3 inches from our head. I’m sure the measuring was very accurate. We could then proceed to fill out the forms for our visa. We were informed the visa would cost 1000 Thai Baht (around $30CDN). Andrew asked if he could pay in US dollars and was informed it would be $23 USD. This was obviously more beneficial for us so we paid in US Dollars, but according to our research it should only have cost us $20USD per person. In order to complete the visa application we needed to provide a passport photo. If we did not have passport photos we would have to pay an additional $2 USD per person. Luckily Andrew and I had a lot of passport photos from when we had them done on Koh Tao in Thailand. We had needed them for our Advanced Open Water course. The photo shop had provided us with 9 passport photos which have come in very handy. We obtained our visas without much problem. We then had to wait 2 hours for the bus to leave again. If we wanted to use the washroom we would have to pay $1 USD per person. Before we left however, I was able to sneak into the bathroom and use it for free. Later we found out a couple of girls questioned the $1USD for the health check and were told it was as a donation and they refused to pay it and were let through. So I guess we were scammed! We found out we would have to switch buses at one point during our trip and it turned out we wouldn’t arrive in Seam Reap until 11:30pm, an hour and a half behind schedule.

We arrived in Seam Reap at 11:30pm, were “attacked” by tuk tuk drivers who were willing to take us anywhere we wanted to go for $1 per person. We took a tuk tuk that assured us he would take us wherever we wanted to go. Unfortunately he didn’t. He stopped in front of a guest house we didn’t want to stay at. He then asked (with very pleading eyes) if we could stay there because he makes commission. We said no. So then he drove us to the guest house of our choice and then kept asking us if he could be our driver the next day. I felt really bad as it was very sad for me to see someone begging so badly for what would only be a few dollars. We didn’t know what our plans were for the next day but we took his phone number and said we might call him. We got a room for the night and settled in. It was late, we had had a long day and we were exhausted.

Getting to the 4000 Islands

After we left the cave, it was already 5pm and the park was shutting down. We thought the Tuk Tuk driver who brought us there would be waiting for us or at the very least there would be another Tuk Tuk we would be able to take back to our guest house. As we left the park the parking lot was empty and not only was our driver nowhere to be seen but neither was any other Tuk Tuk. We had no choice so we started walking. Driving in we had seen a small village (which in retrospect we should have stayed at) and we thought we could probably get a Tuk Tuk from there. After 20 minutes of walking we arrived at the village and found a parked Tuk Tuk. We went inside the restaurant to inquire, but it was deserted. We found the owner and after asking about the Tuk Tuk he said, No. So we started walking again. We were walking for around 10 minutes when we heard a car approaching. It was a large dump truck so we hailed it down. The guys agreed to drive us the 42km to Ban Nahim as they were going that way as well. After driving for some time the driver pulled over and stopped at a shack on the side of the road. I was a little nervous about stopping at a shack in the middle of nowhere but there were 3 other dump trucks there and it turned out to be a bar. It was family owned and they immediately poured us a glass of beer each. Everyone was very friendly but they no one spoke English and we didn’t speak Laos so the communication was very limited. After 20 minutes or so our driver told us that another truck driver would take us the rest of the way. We were happy to be on our way as it was getting dark outside and if we were forced to walk any further, for any reason, it would be hard in the dark. The cabin was actually quite spacious and the truck surprisingly quiet. We were dropped off right outside of town 45 minutes later after being told by the driver that we were lucky.

We got to our guesthouse and went out to eat. We had found a great family run restaurant earlier in the day that offered cheap delicious food. With the help of a local man who was eating at a restaurant, and whose English was better than the waitress, we ordered fish soup with a side or rice. The meal was delicious, but we noticed the man eating fish made differently. Andrew asked him about it and it turned out the fish was steamed and it was not on the menu. We ordered the same thing, and while waiting for the food we started chatting with him. He works on contract as an engineer at the hydro plant just outside of town. He usually lives in Vientiane but was called in to help out with a project. We spent the next hour chatting with him while enjoying the delicious steamed fish. He told us the next day we could catch a bus directly to Tha Khaek and from there catch another bus to Pakse. From there it would be no problem to get to the 4000 Islands on the border with Cambodia.

Because of the early day and the cold weather we experienced while on our way to Ban Nahim, I started developing a cold. By the next morning I was sick. But we had to keep moving and I really didn’t want to stay in that town, as it was quite small and there wasn’t much to do. I wasn’t up to getting breakfast so Andrew went out to eat and found out there was a 9am bus we could catch directly to Tha Khaek from the bus station in town. We made it to the bus station by 8:40am, but my throat was dry so I asked Andrew to pick up some lozenges for me. As soon as he left a large Tuk Tuk pulled up and all the guys at the bus station started telling me this is the bus to Tha Khaek. There was another couple on the Tuk Tuk already. I asked them and they confirmed this was the bus. I was a little confused and my skepticism kicked in as it was only 8:45, but what do I know? I saw Andrew walking back, I called out to him and he jogged over. He was also surprised and we asked a couple more people and all told us this was the bus. We asked, what about the “big bus”? No, this is the bus. So we got on along with 20 other people, pig feed, chicken feed and a whole bunch of baggage. Since I was sick I was not in the mood to sit on a hard bench, squished by too many people for the next 3 hours. We sat at the end of the pickup truck so we were at least able to hang our legs over the back of it and rest them on the steps right below. As we pulled away, the driver started driving at 10 km/h and honking. I was not happy because I really couldn’t see how we would fit any more people but somehow we did. I was at this point convinced this was not the bus but that we got conned by the tuk tuk drivers, and I said as much to the other backpackers who just smiled. I could tell they thought this was the exciting part of their travels, riding in the back of a pickup with 30 other people. I was sick and wanted a comfortable chair on a normal bus. My suspicions were confirmed half an hour later when the “big bus” passed us. It did nothing to help my mood. For the next 3 hours we were stuck in the back of the pickup. But at least I could turn my back on everyone and stew in silence with ample leg room. It still wasn’t comfortable as all the pot holes kept us bouncing and my foot kept getting shoved with something. For the first hour or so I ignored it but then I looked down and saw a plastic bag lying a there. I couldn’t tell what it was at first, but very soon discovered it was a live baby pig which had been packed up in the bag with a hole cut out for its snout. It kept hitting me because I was resting my foot on it. I was mortified. I couldn’t believe animals were transported like that and that I had spent the past hour tormenting it even more with my foot. There was nothing I could do but not rest my feet on it any more.

We arrived in Tha Khaek and found out a bus to Pakse was not leaving until 4pm, and it was a 7 hour bus ride after that. We didn’t want to wait that long so we took a bus to Savannakhet, which was on the way, and we would try to catch another bus from there. After we arrived in Savannakhet we were told a bus to Pakse was leaving at 6:30pm that night and it was a 5 hour drive. We could either spend the night in Savannakhet and leave first thing in the morning or take the 6:30pm and arrive at 11:30pm. We opted for the latter as I didn’t want to waste time in a town we never planned to spend any time in. As the time drew near we went over to our bus to get good seats. Andrew prepared me that we would be taking the worst bus on the whole lot but I didn’t believe him. But sure enough, we would be taking the worst bus on the whole lot. The whole front windshield was cracked, and it looked like it had a head on collision at one point. It turned out it did have a head on collision with a motorcycle driver whose head had bounced of the windshield (hence the cracks). This was all described to Andrew by a very animated guy who showed him in detail how the “vroom vroom” (hand motion to indicate a motorcycle) had “screeched” and “crashed” (two hands smacking together and the guy pretending to hit his head on the window). This was all said with a wide grin and a laugh at the end. We couldn’t find out if the motorcycle driver survived but I somehow doubt it. Once we boarded the bus we discovered the whole aisle (all the way from the beginning to the end) was loaded with full animal feed bags, 3 stacks high. We had no choice but to walk on top of them (which caused me to hit my head on the light above). We found the only seats with no bags under the feet and settled in for the ride.

The ride itself was pretty uneventful and we actually arrived in Pakse ahead of schedule at 10:30pm. We were approached by a tuk tuk driver asking if we wanted a ride into town. We said yes, how much? He said, 70,000 kip per person. I literally choked and told him he was crazy. That’s $7 per person! We were willing to pay $4 for the both of us. He informed us it was 10km to town and that it was night time. That was supposed to explain why the price was so inflated. We again informed him he was crazy and told him we would walk.

We started walking (obviously with the hope of another tuk tuk showing up and us getting a better deal) but after 4 or 5km’s there was no signs of any tuk tuks and it didn’t look like we were anywhere close to town. Finally, after another 10 minutes a lone tuk tuk was driving and pulled over and asked if we wanted a ride (which we obviously did) and offered to drive us for 10,000 kip each. We gratefully agreed. He took us to the hostel of our choice but we found out it was full. Andrew left me there while he went to look for a room. He came back after 30 minutes with a room key to a guest house 5 min away.

***Side note: we have now learned the distances provided in the Lonely Planet guidebook are completely inaccurate and the maps are not to scale. Either that or all the bus stations have moved 5-10km further from town than where Lonely Planet claims they are.

Our room was basic but we were spending only 1 night so I didn’t really care. That is until I went into the bathroom to brush my teeth and saw a big black cockroach crawl out of the wall. I freaked out and ran away while Andrew killed it. Then Andrew went to buy some water and I went into the bathroom again only to see another one crawl out of the hole but then crawl back in. I was completely grossed out but being that it was 12:30am we didn’t really have much choice in a guest house. We didn’t trust the bed sheets either so we took out our silk sleeping bag liners, which we had bought at MEC in Toronto and hadn’t really used yet, and slept on top of them. I did not want to touch anything in that place.

We woke up early the next day to catch a bus to the 4000 Islands. We arrived at the bus station only to be pointed to another pickup truck. Hell no, was my reaction. There was no way I would be spending another 3 hours in the back of a pickup. Hell no. After asking multiple people, even the official bus office, we were told there was no bus to go where we wanted to go to. What about tomorrow? No. The day after? No. Ever? No. So we got in and made ourselves as comfortable as possible. I guess this route isn’t as popular as other routes as since there weren’t a lot of people on it. We survived the 3 hours, and arrived at the ferry which would get us across to the Don Det island.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Getting to Ban Nahim, to see The Cave

We woke up at 4am to catch the 5am bus to Ban Nahim on December 3rd (I can’t believe it’s already December). We had prepared everything the day before so we only had to wake up, brush our teeth and get dressed. We figured this would not take more than 30 minutes, which would leave us plenty of time to hire a Tuk Tuk and get to the bus station, which was only 8km away. I think we overestimated how many Tuk Tuks would actually be available at 4:30am. We had to walk about 10 minutes before we actually came across a Tuk Tuk driver. He agreed to take us but first he had to drop off 2 other passengers. No Problem, we said. Vientiane is not a big town so we figured it can’t be that far. Our companions in the Tuk Tuk were 2 young (early 20’s) girls and they looked like they were coming back from a night out. After 10 minutes we still had not dropped them off, and since it was still dark, it was quite chilly outside. So much so that I had to get my sweatshirt. But I was still wearing shorts and even the two girls commented on this “Aren’t you cold?” while patting my knee. No! I’m freezing. Another thing we underestimated was the size of the Vientiane suburbs. After another 10 minutes we had arrived at the destination where the girls were getting off. It honestly didn’t look like a place where 2 girls should get off alone but they did. Now it was time for us to get to the bus station. We had already resigned ourselves to the fact there was no way we would catch the 5am bus, but we were still hoping for the 6am bus. We had been driving in the opposite direction of the bus station up until this point so we had to backtrack quite a bit. After 20 minutes we stopped at a gas station and filled up. As we pulled out of the gas station, 100 meters later the Tuk Tuk driver turned left. Right into the bus station! Could he have not fueled up after he dropped us off?! Really! And in our defense, the bus stations don’t look like bust stations at all so we didn’t really know we were right next to one or we would have just gotten out at the gas station and walked.

As we were pulling into the bus station a big bus was pulling out. They stopped and asked where we were going and after telling them, they said this is the bus, get on! It was 5:17am. We could not believe we had actually caught our bus! We packed our bags on to the bus, got on (it was quite empty at that time of day) and settled in for the 5 hour bus ride. After driving for a whole 1 minute, the bus stopped again to pack on a load of cabbages, and then continued to wait for 35 minutes for another group of passengers! I was so annoyed (and cold…it really was cold outside and the doors were open the whole time) because at this point I was convinced if we continued at this pace the 6am bus would beat us there! Thankfully after that long stop, we only stopped 50 more times to let people on or off.

We knew we were getting close because we started seeing some mountains, but the driver stopped the bus at an intersection and way too early told us to get off as we had reached the destination. We said no, this was not Ban Nahim, this is another town. He said, take another bus. As we got off and got our bags, we saw another big bus that turned left at the intersection, and I just knew that was the 6am bus that we would have been on! We ran after it (thankfully it stopped for a pit stop right after it turned) and we got on and delivered us to our destination! And it was the 6am bus we would have been on. Once we reached Ban Nahim we arranged for a Tuk Tuk to pick us up at 1pm and take us to the cave, 45km away. The Tuk Tuk came 10 minutes early and picked us up. Then he proceeded to drive at 10km/h while continuously honking trying to find more passengers. And that is why it takes an hour and 20 minutes to drive 45km.

I will let Andrew post the impressions of The Cave, as I do not like caves nor boats, so it would probably be a very skewed review. However I can’t guarantee when he will actually write the post, so it might appear much later and not in any chronological order.


We took a local bus to Vientiane. As with all transportation in Laos, just because it says the bus holds 40 people, it doesn’t really mean much. We were again crammed into a bus way over its capacity. After another 4 hours we arrived in Vientiane (the capital of Laos). That night we went out to dinner at a street stall. The street stalls here are much more advanced than everywhere else we have been, as they had tables and menus. We ordered Lao Soup, which is basically a broth (not sure if it’s veggie or meat) and you can order to have it with either with beef or chicken or seafood. We opted for a combination of chicken and beef. You get the broth in a clay bowl and it is placed on top of a bucket which has hot charcoals. This was placed on top of our table. We also received a plate with vegetables (Bok Choy, lettuce, green onions, basil and an egg) a plate with the raw chicken and the raw beef and a small bowl with chilies and garlic chopped up. The premise is that you cook everything yourself in the hot broth. We took a little bit of all the vegetables, threw in the chicken & beef, cracked open the egg, added some chilies and all the garlic and waited for all of this to cook. We only had to wait about 10 minutes and it was delicious! One of the best soups we’ve had so far.

The following day we rented a couple of bicycles and explored the city. It turns out it’s not that big but has some of the same charm as Luang Prabang. We went to see the Laos version of the Arc de Triomphe, which was built with concrete donated by the U.S.A to build a bridge. There were a lot of tourists there, foreign and Laos. At the top I was waiting for Andrew to take a picture when a Laos girl came over to me asking if I can take a picture of her. Of course I said yes, but it turned out she was asking if I can take a picture WITH her! I obliged and posed with her while her friend took the picture. I thought it was pretty funny that Andrew and I spend so much time taking pictures of the locals and now this girl wanted a picture with me. The rest of the day we spent drinking coffee and getting ready for the next day. It was really hot outside!

Vang Vieng

First we would like to say thanks to everyone for their comments. We really enjoy hearing back from everyone. Unfortunately we’re not always able to respond as the internet connection varies, and we’re not always able to log in long enough to respond or we only have time to post some pics. But please know that we do read your comments and look forward to them after each post.

We left Nong Khiaw the following day by taking a bus at 9am. At the bus station it said the bus would be leaving at 8:30am, so we woke up early to have enough time to walk over. It was about a 25 minute walk. We arrived around 7:45am, thinking by the time we had purchased our tickets and loaded our bags, it would be time to leave. We quickly found out that was not the case and that we have over an hour to kill. Nong Khiaw is not a large place so there were very few ways to entertain ourselves while waiting. Andrew went to look for food and came back with a lot of bananas. The lady didn’t have enough change for him so she just gave him more bananas. The bus we would be taking was not a bus at all but a minivan. It was supposed to hold 9 people. In the end it ended up holding 13 people. It was a tight 3.5 hour drive to Luang Prabang.

Once back in Luang Prabang we hired a tuk tuk to take us to the Southern Bus Terminal, as we didn’t want to spend any nights there, and we somehow convinced him to go completely out of his way to a sandwich and coffee stand we had discovered while there earlier, wait for us while we got the food and drove us to the bus station, all for the same price. At the bus station we were planning to take a local bus that was going to Vientiane but was stopping at Vang Vieng. But the tuk tuk driver dropped us off at the minbus station by mistake and it turned out we were able to catch a minbus (minivan) directly to Vang Vieng for 5,000 kip less (around $0.80 less). The way to Vang Vieng is through mountains so even though it’s only roughly 150km from Luang Prabang, it takes around 4 hours. We sat beside an Aussie named Clinton who has been travelling around the world for 2.5 years, and was in the final stretch of his travels and would be returning home to Australia in a couple of weeks. We had a good time talking with him and when we arrived in Vang Vieng we headed over to the same guesthouse, Champa Lao. We ended up with rooms next to each other which was convenient as we would ended up hanging out together for the duration of his stay. The 3 of us had dinner that night at our guesthouse and ended up meeting Scott. Scott is an American who has been travelling for the past 9 months. He went to the World Cup in South Africa, Turkey, India and was also on his final stretch of his journey to return home for Christmas. The 4 of us met up the next morning during breakfast and made plans to go tubing together.

Tubing is the thing to do while in Vang Vieng. It consists of renting a tube (essentially the inner tube from a tractor tire), being dropped off 5km upriver by a tuk tuk, and tubing your way down the river until you get back to town. I forgot to mention the river banks are lined with various bars that you float down to and stop at along the way. So what should take about an hour ends up taking the whole day. Of course you can make it back in an hour if you don’t stop at any of the bars. Each bar has a different theme and different activities to keep you occupied while there, and they all revolve around beer and alcohol, such as Beer Pong. Beer Pong becomes even more fun after you’ve been drinking for a couple of hours. At most bars, when you arrive you are greeted by a free shot of Lao Lao (Laos version of whiskey) and you can continue the free shots as long as you stay at the bar. Other fun things to do are go ziplining straight into the river, bungee swing right into the river, or slide down an enormous slide right into the river. As you can imagine, once you combine these activities with alcohol it becomes even more fun…and dangerous. Every year people die while participating in these activities, which we of course chose to forget about while there.

The 4 of us arrived at the first bar not knowing what to really expect. We bought some beer and sat down with a group of people. We started talking and drinking and before we knew it an hour had already gone by. Our group (around 10 or 12 people at this point) decided to proceed to the next bar. We got in the tubes and off we went. The river was cold and the current was swift, but the water wasn’t that deep. We were reminded of how shallow the river was each time we hit a store with our butts. To “stop” at the next bar, you wait for one of the guys from that bar to throw you a rope and pull you in. You’re pulled in, get a free shot of Lao Lao, buy a beer, play some beer pong, dance or zipline into the water and move on to the next bar. One of the bars we stopped at had mud volleyball and we all had a blast playing. Most of us didn’t really know the rules but who cares when you can’t even walk because the mud is so slippery. Getting muddy was really part of the fun.

As we were leaving one of the bars, one of the girls dropped her camera in the water (I think with an accidental kick from Clinton) with all the pictures of her 2 month vacation on the memory card. Scott and Clinton spent a good hour looking for it but we knew the chances were slim. Sure enough, it was not a happy ending, Gill was not to be consoled. I don’t blame her, I would be upset as well. Gill and her friend Sara were from Canada (Newmarket and Muskoka) and they were planning on returning back home for Christmas as well. Gill told one of the employees at the bar that if he found her camera she would give him $1,000,000.

From the last bar it was quite a paddle and it was getting dark and cold, so we stopped once we saw the tuk tuks which were offering to take us back to town. We arrived back in town, showered and met up with some of the people from the day’s tubing at the Irish bar. All of us were exhausted from the day of tubing so we called it an early night and went to sleep.

The following day Clinton and Scott went tubing again but Andrew and I just hung out, did some shopping and watched some family guy. Almost every restaurant in town plays either Friends or Family guy over and over again. So it doesn’t matter what time of day you decided to eat or drink, you can watch an episode, or 2 or 3 or… That night we went out with Clinton and Scott and they filled us in on the days events from tubing. It turns out the guy from the bar found Gill’s camera. He looked for it for 2 hours but finally found it. He was keeping it hostage until she gave him the money. They agreed to meet that night in a bar and she would pay him 1 million kip, not dollars. Getting her camera back would cost her around $100. Not bad considering she would have lost all her photos. The camera was intact as it was an underwater camera, and once she paid him the money she was able to confirm all the photos were there. So it was a happy ending after all. That night we celebrated by doing some bar hopping and we eventually ended up at Smiley Bar, where people were partying like it was 1999.

It was time for Clinton to continue on, but we stayed behind and went tubing with Scott and a few friends he had met while travelling in India. Mark, Chris and Chloe knew each other from England but they had met Cynthia in Thailand. Tubing was a blast again and again we were all exhausted at the end of the day. The following day all of us rented bicycles and went looking for the Blue Lagoon. The Blue Lagoon is a place where you can explore a cave but there is also a beautiful blue lagoon where you can swim. The bicycles we rented were street bicycles with cute baskets attached at the front. With directions from the rental place we set off. Very quickly we realized we should have rented mountain bikes. The road leading to the Blue Lagoon was not only a dirt road, but a dirt road combined with rocks. After an hour of biking on this road, Chris developed the shakes in his hands from straining his muscles by trying to keep the bike steady. It was blazing hot outside so we were thrilled to find the cave, and even more excited by swimming in the Blue Lagoon. We paid the 10,000 kip entrance fee and were guided through what felt like the jungle into the cave. The cave was large and we had to climb up rickety bamboo ladders which were muddy and wet. It was cool in the cave but we were all sweating either from the humidity or from all the climbing we had to do in the tight spaces. After we finished with the cave we were excited to go swimming. There was a small pond outside the cave and we asked (disappointed) if that was the Blue Lagoon, and were told no. So we asked where is the Blue Lagoon and the guide said “No”. We interpreted that as “not here”. He then proceeded to ask us for money for guiding us into the cave. “No, we already paid at the entrance”. He stood there for a while and waited. His English was as good as our Laos so after a few minutes he just walked away. We had been scammed! This was not the cave and Blue Lagoon we had been looking for! So we got back on our bikes and continued down the road. After a couple of km’s we found the Blue Lagoon! Again we paid the 10,000 kip and the day was blazing hot so we were really looking forward to taking a dip. We rode our bikes over to the water but again this was NOT the blue lagoon. Sure it was a stream with nice clean water but it was not a lagoon. We had been scammed again! Since it was already 3pm and we had been on our bikes since 11:30am everyone deiced to stay behind, but Andrew and I decided to push on and find the real Blue Lagoon. We were rewarded after another 30 minutes of biking. We found the Blue Lagoon! And it was beautiful. The water was crystal clear, there was a Tarzan rope and a tree you could jump from. We parked our bicycles (after paying another 10,000 kip!) and jumped in. The water was quite cold but it was so refreshing. We spent about an hour there but had to go back as it was getting late and it would be dark soon.

We went tubing once again the following day with everyone and had another great day on the water. The weather was wonderful, the company fun so we knew it would be hard for us to leave the following day. It made it a little easier knowing everyone was leaving the next day too. Everyone except Scott. He decided to stay a few days longer and work at one of the bars. He would be given free accommodation, meals and drinks for promoting the bar (Ohlala). He would be heading home soon enough so this was a good way of sticking around without blowing his budget. Andrew and I said goodbye to him, exchanged contact info and made our way over to the bus station. We had A LOT of fun in Vang Vieng. Most of it was due to the great people we met and hung out with. Both Andrew and I would love to bring all our friends here one day to party together.
P.S. M&M - Beer Pong is soooo making an appearance at the cottage the next time we’re there.