Sunday, April 29, 2012

Lazing in Laos

For our remaining days in Laos, we did what is best to do in Laos - chill out.  Scenes around town:

Well, except for one last eager beaver touristy thing: we got up at 5:30 am to see the monks receive alms from the locals.  In Buddhism, giving alms in the form of food is supposed to be a way for lay Buddhists to show their respect for the monks and nuns who are "higher" or "more sentient" beings.

I found the whole ceremony a bit sad due to the busloads of tourists that lined up to give alms.  There is something quite distasteful about commercializing devotion.  Otherwise, we moved across the Nam Khan river to the Apsara Rive Droite.  We liked the BelleRive, but wanted to try a different style and location. The rooms at the Rive Droite were much larger and the bathroom contained a bathtub, but the key selling points were the huge veranda, the quieter surroundings, and... the pool!
View of the Nam Khan River
Apsara Rive Droite and the little motorboat that takes passengers back and forth

View from our room
I loved the fresh fruit readily available everywhere.  I drank fresh coconuts, mango and pineapple shakes, and freshly-pressed sugar cane juice (my favorite) with abandon.  I also gobbled my way through a bucket of mangosteens.  
We had lunch at Dyen Sabai, a lovely restaurant built like a tree house in bamboo groves.  The peaceful setting was very relaxing, both during the day and at night.

Lao barbecue/hotpot, called sindad
Farewell, Luang Prabang!

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Meet Me on the Mekong

For our first full day in Luang Prabang, we decided to take a boat ride on the Mekong River.  We booked a boat to ourselves, packed some beverages in ice in a cooler, slipped into our swim suits, and headed to the Pak Ou caves.  (In truth, we were not all that interested in the caves.  This was much more about the journey than the destination.)  Our captain and his wife were quite nice, but did not speak a word of English.  Like almost all the other boat owners, they lived in the back of their boat.

I've always been enthralled with the power and expanse of the wide ocean blue, but have recently come to appreciate the dignity and solitude of rivers. The Mekong is the world's twelfth longest river - it begins in China near the Tibet border and flows through Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam before flowing into the South China Sea.  It is one of the richest areas of biodiversity in the world.  If you watch Discovery channel's "River Monsters," this is the home of BIG fish - the famed 600 pound catfish and 600 pound giant river carp.  Sadly, due to flood controls, dams and overfishing, these majestic creatures are now rare.

We wanted to go fishing, but the local fishermen were intent on catching their day's food.  From what I could observe, they balance one or two to a wooden fishing boat, nearly skimming the surface of the water, and mostly use bamboo rods and nets.

Once we toured the upper and lower caves, we took a quick dip in the refreshing Mekong before puttering back to Luang Prabang.  Truly idyllic.

Our journey, in pictures:

Our captain walking on the boat
our boat

Credit to Michael for this picture.  He wants to submit it to National Geographic.

A Day in Transit

I guess one of the unglamorous but necessary parts of travel is... well, the actual travel.  Our third day of vacation consisted of a lot of transit.  You could say we were trying to see how many different forms of transportation we could fit into one day.

We awoke on day 3 of our trip on the train as it was still rumbling toward Nong Khai.  As I remarked to Michael nearly three hours after the train was supposed to have arrived, "If this is 'express', I do not want to know what the 'local' is..."

The train was surprisingly comfortable.  The conductor comes and makes your bed when you are ready to sleep at night, then collects the dirty sheets and resets the bed in the morning when you awake - a nice perk I didn't expect.  We chose second class air conditioned beds, and I took the opportunity to scamper up to my top bunk like a rhesus monkey.  I particularly liked the bar car, the last car on the train, with its tired, fraying seats and the hot air filled with the murmurs of mingling foreigners and locals, sitting alongside companionably with cards, grub, beer and smokes. Unfortunately, the landscape was somewhat less inspiring.  We were out in the country now, and there seemed to stretch nothing except weedy fields, bare plains, or banana trees, with nary a human in sight.
view of the landscape from our train car
When we finally arrived in Nong Khai (three hours later than the supposed arrival time!) we boarded a small, stuffy train for about 70 cents to Thanaleng, which effectively brought us over the Thailand-Laos border.  Once in Thanaleng, we wedged ourselves in with the sweaty, dirty backpackers to fill out visa forms and applications.  A whopping 3,000 Thai Baht later (the equivalent of US$100), Michael and I had our visas and departed for the airport in Vientiane in an air-conditioned mini van.  At the airport counter, we were informed we could buy the tickets for 850,000 kip...but in cash.  While two million kip is not actually that much money in US dollars, it feels a little surreal to be pulling out a million cash of any currency from an ATM.  

We flew Lao Airlines to Luang Prabang on a turboprop plane.  It was my first time on a turboprop and I loved the propellers. The flight only took 40 minutes, but it would have taken approximately 8-9 hours to drive because of the winding, narrow, mountainous roads. The airport is small and one just walks out onto the runway (with the sole airplane waiting).  While safety had crossed my mind, I was pretty sure the plane and the pilot would be okay.  And I was right - I would argue that with the free bottled water and the freshly baked raisin rolls, Lao Airlines does a better job than most US domestic carriers.

When we arrived at the (even tinier) airport in Luang Prabang, the driver from our first hotel in Luang Prabang was there and waiting for us with a placard.  He ushered us into yet another minivan.  Finally, at 5:30 pm, we gratefully checked into our darling duplex hotel room overlooking the Mekong River.  At that point, all the transit felt worth it.

After desperately-needed showers, we headed out to explore.  Luang Prabang is a really small town and all the adjectives used to describe it - "treasure," "jewel," "cute," "charming", etc. - you get the idea - are spot on.  We felt like we were in a movie set because everything was so picturesque and so clean.  Even the dark could not disguise the fragrant frangipani trees, the cobbled paths, the teak wood houses with colorful, crooked shutters.

To round out the night, I got a traditional Lao massage for about US$9 (but thought it paled in comparison to the Thai massage I got in Bangkok).  For dinner, I "splurged" on a dish of river fish with vegetables in a local tangy soup.  It was really tasty.  Washing our meal down with the ubiquitous beerlao, we bid adieu to another satisfying day.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Second Day Shenanigans, or, Wats Galore

After a restful sleep, we awoke ready to conquer another hot, steamy day in Bangkok.  Despite April being the hottest time of the year, we managed to do a lot during our second day.
train station
street scene
typical sidewalk spot

After dropping our bags off at the "Left Luggage" facility in the Hualamphong train station (the past tense did not particularly inspire confidence), we headed across the bridge to Chinatown.  From there, a taxi took us to Khao San road, where we had a satisfying lunch of soup noodles and rice for approximately US$2. We then strolled down Thanon Thao, popping into Wat Suthat Thepwararam Ratchaworamahawiham (how's that for a mouthful?) for its soothing, cool interiors: 

before heading to the Royal Palace:

and Wat Phra Kaew:


and Wat Pho:

where we saw the giant reclining Buddha.  It measures 15 meters high and 43 meters long!
 And last but not least, we took a ferry to Wat Arun, on the other side of the Chao Praya river.
Wat Arun was massive and had steep, steep steps that went to the top.  From there, with shaky legs, I took some pictures of the view:

By this point we were fully "watt-ed out", and opted to take a water taxi down the river to the Oriental pier, where we toured the beautiful grounds of the Mandarin Oriental.
We ended the night by heading back to the train station for our night sleeper train to Nong Khai.