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Day 6: Kayaking and Trekking in Vang Vieng

The glittering crystal in the Uneven Cave and Snail Cave were mesmerizing

Today was an even tougher day than yesterday. Somehow, last night’s dinner didn’t agree with me, so I didn’t get much sleep last night and was feeling sore from yesterday’s rock-climbing and from being up all night in the bathroom. I wasn’t looking forward to trekking and kayaking all day.

The other person who’d signed up for the tour was an older, frail gentleman who had bandages on his knee and hand from a motorbike accident 2 weeks earlier. So the trip was at a nice slow pace - the unfortunate part was because as I still felt ill, it was difficult going at his pace when all I wanted was to run for the nearest toilet!

We visited 4 caves today: Elephant Cave, Tham Loup (Uneven Cave), Tham Noi (Snail Cave) & Water Cave. The glittering crystal in the Uneven Cave and Snail Cave were both mesmerizing and it was fun going into a completely dark cave. No ropes/fence or lights in the cave, just a head torch – so watch your step! The water cave was quite the experience. Place yourself on an inner tube and feel the icy cold water from this limestone cave (source is somewhere up in the mountains). Refreshing is one thing, and this water is something else.

All the guides had a good technique to prevent them from touching the icy cold water. Kneeling on the inner tube, but that requires a lot of balance!

When I had stopped squealing, I grabbed onto the guide rope like everyone else and pulled myself along and under the low hanging cave opening. With only a waterproof head torch, there is nothing else to light the way. Just sit back, look up and don’t let go of the rope unless your paddling skills are very good. With my bum in the water, there was a slightly disturbing moment when I felt something brush up against it. I hope it was just some underwater plants that were growing in the dark……

After that unique experience, it was onto kayaking down the Nam Song River. We followed the well-travelled route of the inner tubing bar circuit for 4km back to town. The limestone peaks never fail to create a magnificent backdrop set of beasutifully by the tranquil, deep green colour of the river. It was a beautiful trip down the river, punctuated by lots of partying on the river banks along the way. One had to watch out for revelers jumping off the 10 metre swings in abundance across the bars and banks. It was Interesting watching the life of Lao people, from children bathing themselves in the river to parents working hard by the river, cutting up food or wood for cooking.

Thanks to our excellent guide Ola, I learnt a lot about Lao culture today. Unfortunately, his father was one of the many that while looking for scrap metal from unexploded bombs (UXO), was killed. Ola was only 2 at the time. We passed two Lao weddings on the way, which were interesting to see. A great day with a great finish of a much appreciated steaming hot shower (the river water was cold!!).

Kayaking and Trekking in Vang Vieng, Laos

Kayaking and Trekking in Vang Vieng, Laos

Posted by Teamworkz 04:04 Archived in Laos Tagged and in trekking laos kayaking vang vieng Comments (0)

Day 3: Vientiane

Buddha Park and Great Food

So I was giggling about the hotel staff wearing ‘winter clothes’ when it’s 20+ degrees celcius outside yesterday, but I forgot to mention that I also saw a monk donning a beanie (head warmer) while riding pillion (passenger) on a motorcycle. That was amusing! As was seeing a local man casually reclining in between two suspended metal chains, the border around the main fountain, as if it were a hammock!

Today, I was wearing a summer scarf to perturb the hot summer rays as unfortunately, even with sunblock, I got sunburnt yesterday. I think I need to take up the monks’ great idea of using umbrellas as sun visors. Almost every monk I’ve seen around town has an umbrella in hand or has one already opened up providing shelter from the sun. They truly are wise men.

Today’s main event was Buddha Park. It’s a fair way out of town and the best & cheapest way to get there is by taking the public bus from the main bus terminal behind Talat Sao (the morning market). This is a great experience being bundled up with the locals or Thai people (going to the Friendship Bridge). It’s entertaining to see how many packages and people they try to cram into these mini-buses and watch the interactions between the passengers. Noticeably, it’d be 3 to a seat for women, but men wouldn’t squish up to let their fellow man sit. Also noticeable is that women and men sat separately. Monks sat with the men too. The majority alight at the friendship bridge, so here after you have your breathing space back, the road soon gets bumpy. The road is currently under construction so it makes for an interesting last leg of the 1 hour trip there.

Buddha Park is a weird place. The statues are eccentric and strange. Not as many Buddha’s as I was expecting! More inventions of Vishna and other Indian deities were dotted about the park. The pinnacle is a spherical sculpture that you can climb to the top for a view of the park. The interior of the sphere on each level (bar the top) is filled with statues in the core (you walk around the perimeter). Only on one floor there is a door to see them more closely. Going through this park was like attending a contemporary art exhibition. I didn’t get it. There were very few explanations as to what the statues were or represented. However, they were impressive in size and in the details. Also, there were more tourists there than I had seen at other sites in previous days. Worth noting is the restaurant at the back making fresh food and has a free toilet!

Over the last few days, I’ve been hunting down sustainable practices or tourism locations. I have to say that I feel like I spent more time looking for them than finding them. Some have move or have inaccurate location descriptions and some I probably should have looked online first for their most recent location.

Good news is that there is a lot of sustainable practices going on here. I’ve been impressed. What I haven’t been impressed with is the price tag they’ve been putting on these sustainable products. I’m undecided as to whether it’s worth it. Does the real cost of labour and materials validate prices, which supports a decent living for Laotians, higher than what I would pay for the same product in developed countries? It’s hard to know how much of your money spent at this sustainable/fair trade places is going back to the producer – no matter what the shop purports, it’s hard to know the truth and believe that the price is right. As much as I want to support sustainable practices, I need to rethink on a few shops before I pull my purse out.

My favourite positive examples so far are:

1. Solar powered hot water at the hotel, with electricity only switching on when the key is inserted (ie so only when you’re in the room). So simple, why don’t more places do it?!
2. MAG – who employ & train local people to identify UXO (unexploded ordinance) and remove the UXO from harm.

I think Vientiane would be a great place to live; it’s abundant in great places to eat and relax (from interesting cafes to parks). For an active tourist who wants to see a great many historical sites or museums, I’m not sure this would be the place. There’s certainly plenty to see and absorb, but there are no Met museums or National Galleries here that can rival those of the West. Vientiane has much more to offer culturally by seeing, breathing and living the life here – even if it is just for a few days.

Walking around town, I noticed that the ratio of vehicles & motorcycles to pedestrians was far in favour of the machines than people. To cross some roads you have to be pretty careful when you step out to cross the street!

In the morning, you can see women roaming the streets wearing the old-fashioned conical bamboo hats, carrying weighty produce strung in bamboo baskets from a bamboo cane, which is purposefully sitting on their shoulder. Many people I pass will offer a Sa-bai-dee (hello) and/or a smile. Here, at the Indochina Antiques café, I’ve been sitting here undisturbed for an hour, when all I ordered is one drink. This place is very cool for anyone that likes interesting cafes with fascinating décor and cabinets full of trinkets and artefacts lining the walls. On that note, it’s time for more good food – there are just too many restaurants and not enough meals for me to try them all!

Buddha Park, Vientiane, Laos

Buddha Park, Vientiane, Laos

Posted by Teamworkz 03:19 Archived in Laos Tagged park laos vientiane buddha Comments (0)

Day 2: Vientiane

That Luang, Wat Sisaket and the Tragedies of UXO

Lao’s iconic national monument, That Luang, is serenely situated on a slight gradient to the east of the city. While Vientiane is a walkable town, That Luang is a good 4 kilometres out of the city. Walking is good only if you go early in the morning before 9am (when the sun starts really warming up). Tuk Tuk or bicycle rental are the usual or recommended transport means. Getting there earlier meant that the place was practically deserted. This was a wonderful experience as I watched a large group of monks stream out of the temple as I arrived. The gold painted monument does seem quite small and unimpressive on approach to it (perhaps because I’d seen too many pictures). The much larger temples that flanked either side of That Luang seemed to dwarf it.

However, walking around the perimeter of That Luang and then climbing the steps to walk around the I 1st level made for quite a serene experience, especially as the only thing I could hear was birds chirping and there was no one else around. On the 1st level a beautiful colourful butterfly flitted past me; it was of the same type that had flitted past me near Patuxai about an hour earlier. I’ve not seen any in between or since! It was a bit of a spiritual moment for me – perhaps it was Buddha’s doing, giving me that moment of calm and peace. It would be a great place for meditation or for just reading a book! Worth noting is that the closest toilet is in the Chinese temple to the right of That Luang when you exit, just go through the temple gates and keep going left.

Next, via a communal tuk tuk that I caught with two locals (didn’t really help me get a cheaper rate), I entered the old world of Wat Si Saket. Compared to the gold glint of That Luang (reconstructed by the French, thank goodness the French appreciate history, art and aesthetics to restore That Luang), Wat Si Saket is a lovely wooden temple filled to the hilt of Buddhas. I thought I was visiting the Buddha Park tomorrow, I can’t imagine it having more than Wat Si Saket. Inside the Sim, the peeling wall paintings are still visible to be admired, as is the high ceiling with its decorative panelling and lighting. The temple has a very quaint and calming feel to it with its dilapidated wooden structure that is in what you’d expect as a typical Eastern styled temple (Bangkok style actually).

Although, it was constructed in the first quarter of the 1800s, it has a distinctly older feel. This is probably on account for what the sign outside the main entrance says “the foreigners had aggression”. I think the foreigners still have aggression.

Just opposite Wat Saket (where it’s tempting to just sit in the forecourt and relax, read a book (or the newspaper, as the security man was doing)), is equally entrancing Haw Pha Kaeo. With high ceilings and pristinely manicured gardens surrounding it, the outside I found more interesting than the inside. The main attraction is the museum’s (inside the temple) collection of Buddha statues and relics. Most interesting is the Khmer Stele at the back of the museum. Just fascinating to see the inscriptions even if I can’t read them! Curiously, it’s the only museum I’ve seen with coins placed on the artefacts/objects on display. Many of the Buddha’s had coins placed in Buddha’s lap or even in his back (of a wooden splintered statue) – wherever there was space, there was money offered to Buddha! I’m sure the coins were not part of the display!

Now comes the sad part. I have been keen to visit MAG – Mines Advisory Group, since I’d seen their office, especially as it was so close to my hotel. While I had read and am slight familiar with Laos’ recent history, to go from visiting old beautiful monuments to be drawn into the stark modern history of Laos was heartbreaking.

With only about 9 panels of an exhibition, it was small, but very succinct. The amount of bombs that were released over Laos is horrifying. Much worse is that 30% of them (from known data), did not detonated, but are still live (referred to as UXO – Unexploded Ordnance). UXO are still lying across the country causing many problems as a result.

Their locations are not known as they are so many spread in the countryside and are not necessarily visible. Unsuspecting farmers and villagers can be severely handicapped if not killed as a result of the bombs detonating on touch. On the other hand, the metal from these bombs provide scrap metal and hence a source of income for the villagers. According to MAG, as the countryside is unsafe for agriculture due to the UXO, villagers have reduced resources available, so selling scrap metal from unexploded bombs is all too common, which in itself increases fatalities and injuries. Their plight is incredible. MAG teams are working to clear land for use by villagers and to make public spaces safer.

Walking around Vientiane, I feel far removed from this harsh reality facing the majority of Laotians.

Happily, there is one funny story I can share. I’m finding the Laos dry season quite hot. It’s 21 degrees Celsius before 9am. Passing by the hotel reception, one staff member was wearing a tartan scarf hugged around his neck and another was wearing a turtleneck under his business shirt. It’s cold for the locals, this is winter! I have to giggle a bit at this.

That Luang Temple in Vientiane, Laos

That Luang Temple in Vientiane, Laos

Posted by Teamworkz 03:11 Archived in Laos Tagged travel laos vientiane blogs Comments (0)

Day 1: Arriving in Vientiane

Vientiane - First Impressions and Patuxai

After reading a few uninspiring reports on Vientiane, I was pleasantly surprised by the capital of Laos PDR. The heat of the day, plus having taken the overnight train from Bangkok and followed by eating a lot of tasty Laotian food made me feel sluggish in the afternoon.

Given that most tourist sites close up at 4:30pm, I decided I could only see one and picked Patuxay. It was built in 1962 and is unanimously referred to as the Lao version of the Arc de Triomphe. This is because their names share the same meaning and they both are in the shape of a big monumental arch. It’s not very attractive from afar, but becomes more interesting up close. Humorously, the plaque on the arch says the reverse. It even goes as far to say that is so unbecoming up close that it looks ‘like a monster of concrete’. I think that’s being a little unfair. The detail in the façade of the arch is quite impressive. As is the rather large wasps nest that has been growing for quite some time (clear from its size) on the street facing side of the 4 sides.

The plaque goes on to say that although the monument that was never completed due to turbulent past of Vientiane (it actually says this!), the silver lining is the excellent views of the city it affords. Not knowing what time sunset was, I thought it might be well timed with when it closes. Unfortunately not, so most of my views of the city were slightly impinged by the brightness of the sun that had not yet gone to rest.

I can’t say it was particularly impressive, but what did surprise me was the number of souvenir stores that were crammed into 2 levels inside the arch. The view of the fountain and Patuxay Park on the other side of the Arch was lovely to see.

Walking into the park area, I was surprised to see that the camera touts with their portable photo printers were mostly getting business from Lao people wanting their picture taken by the water fountain. Not many tourists were around here. Up until this point, I felt like I’d seen more tourists than I had Laotian people walking through the town up to the Arch. It was around 5pm and there were plenty of locals about relaxing in the park, playing badminton (no net) and enjoying the soft, but still terrible to my ears, music that was blasted out across the park.

On my way back into the town centre and a few more times today, I passed small groups formed around 2 men playing, what seemed to be, checkers with old bottle caps. I also noticed a few of the tuk-tuk’s, who weren’t being hired, with hammocks strung up in the passenger area with their driver quietly relaxing. I also passed a small group of women drinking Beer Lao with a straw sticking out of the glass beer bottle. I think that’s the first time I’ve seen anyone drink beer with a straw!

The night market along the waterfront (Fa Ngum) with the waterside restaurants make for a nice stroll to admire the standard tourist stock that each vendor seems to have ample supply of. It would be hard to imagine that all these goods were made in Lao, however I did see one woman painting several copies of the same print and some of the lanterns being sold.


Posted by Teamworkz 02:58 Archived in Laos Tagged travel laos vientiane blogs Comments (0)

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