Laos

As I alluded to in my last post, getting from Cambodia to 4000 islands (or Si Phan Don) in Laos was a little tricky and definitely a haul. I had read numerous reviews and blogs on the journey and none of them sounded pleasant nor reliable. They mentioned a new “super highway” several times and advised that this was in fact a dirt road that took just as long as the journey from Phnom Penh to 4000 islands. A recuring theme was travelers being left on the side of the road with the promise of another van coming to pick them up “soon.” I was seriously skeptical of booking the trip until I came across Asia Van Transfers website. They are a relatively new service ran by a friendly European. I called and spoke with him and he was able to give me a very detailed and honest itinerary. Although it was expensive at $30 USD, we opted to go with this company as we felt they were the safest bet.

We were picked up at our hostel on-time and brought to the main office where the owner went through step-by-step how our day was going to go. It was all very useful information and removed any feelings of doubt we had. We climbed into the minivan and took off, stopping once for gas and the driver to stock up on M-150’s (An energy drink found throughout Asia that is so cheap it might as well be free. There is a direct correlation between how many M-150 drinks your driver has had and how fast you arrive to your destination). We arrived to the border town of Stung Treng at precisely the time the owner said we would, and were able to grab a reasonably priced lunch before switching vans to continue to the border. We made it to the border an hour later and disembarked the van with our belongings to complete the border crossing on foot. We got in line at the Cambodian post to receive our exit stamps, with a young European couple shoving infront of me, despite the fact we were all traveling together and would all need to finish the border formalities before leaving. When the Cambodian official asked them for the $2 fee (corruption is rampant at this border, which we were warned about by the owner of ATV in the morning) the demanded a “receipt.” They had read online, as I had, that some people get away without paying by doing this. With all of our experience crossing borders however, we know that trying to elude the demands of an official is futile and while it is right to stand up against corruption in certain circumstances; this is not one of them. The border official uttered, “You want receipt? Come back tomorrow!” and threw them back their passports in a disgusted fashion. The young guy in the couple turned to me smugly and said, “if you ask for a receipt you won’t have to pay!” I don’t know if it was a language barrier as english was not the couples first language, or just a general feeling of invincibility that only a 20-year-old can have, but they took off towards the Laos border, heads held high! I had to call after them to come back as the official had not stamped their passports as they did not pay. You could see their spirits deflate as they then had to join the back of the que and wait all over again. Karma for butting so rudely ahead of me!

Chris and I made our way to the Laos side where we filled out our visa application and paid the ridiculous fee of $42 CAD (the highest of any nationality) and waited for our visa to be processed. Once processed, we then made another donation of $2 to the Laos officials to receive our stamps. Once our minivan of people all had their visas we were lead by the driver of our minivan to a small restaurant on the Laos side of the border to wait for our final minivan ride of the day. And we waited. And waited. Constantly being reassured that the minivan was on the way. This is the part of the story where I would gripe we were left on the side of the road, but we anticipated as much and therefore were not overly concerned. Half an hour later the minivan arrived and we clamored on, eager to finish the long travel day.

We arrived in Nagasaon 20 minutes later and had to wait for our group to be ready before heading to the small wharf to the traditional boats that would take us to 4000 islands. At this point we were 10 hours deep in the travel day, hungry, and a little grumpy. Most of us had bought the boat ticket in combination with bus ticket, but the ever-annoying couple from Europe had opted to buy the boat ticket separately once they arrived to Nagasaon. What this translated to was all of us boarding the boat and then being forced to wait for this couple while they argued over $0.50 cents for the fare of the boat. At this point I was seriously ready to blow a gasket at them, as were the rest of our companions, and we all joked we would donate the $0.50 if they would just get in the boat so we could leave. I think you have to keep a fine balance when traveling developing countries; never get ripped off, but never sweat anything under a dollar. If you are going to argue over every single penny you are going to be absolutely miserable and waste previous time and effort. Not to mention it is incredibly ignorant considering the money means nothing to us, but could mean everything to the people you are fighting with. The male of the couple had previously also tried to get a better exchange rate from a local currency exchanger, the rate was 8000 and he tried to claim it was 9000! I was appalled, he actually made an effort to rip off the locals.

The ride itself was beautiful as the sun was just setting, allowing me to forget the deplorable behavior of the young European and soak in the beauty around me. It was one of the best sunsets of the trip aside from Africa, and was the perfect end to the long day.

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We landed on the tiny beach of Don Det 20 minutes later and hit the ground running to find a place to stay. 4000 islands is extremely remote and it is impossible to book anything except luxury hotels in advance. You can stay either on the sunrise or the sunset side of the island, and we opted for the sunset after witnessing such a magnificent one on the way in. We found a decent enough room with hammocks on the balcony for under $10 USD a night total. We went to the restaurant attached to our accommodation and ordered food, combating thousands and thousands of bugs while we ate. The sheer number of bugs was off-putting and we collapsed in bed immediately after our meal.

The next day we wandered into town in search of food, and found numerous cafes with travelers sprawled out watching re-runs of Friends or South Park while slurping “happy” shakes (weed in oil form is legal in Laos). I do love Friends, but the whole scene had a bit of a sad feel to it. We ate and then quickly headed back to our accommodation to relax in the hammocks for the afternoon.

We ended up leaving Don Det after only one night as I landed a job interview for the following day and we needed to head somewhere with more reliable internet. We opted for the first big city, Pakse, which we reached via minibus. We stayed at Alisha Guesthouse which was pleasant for the price. I was able to complete the interview with only a few connection breaks!

We decided to stay the next night as well as we had some catching up to do on the stable wifi connection. Nothing exciting to report other than we found a great Indian restaurant that was significantly cheaper than even the local Laos food. The prices in Laos were much higher than in Cambodia (and Thailand), making it one of the more expensive countries to backpack in SE Asia.

We then took an overnight bus from Pakse to the capital Vientiane. Unlike overnight buses in the rest of the world, you are provided with essentially a single bed for two people that even I wasn’t able to fully extend my legs in. It was one of the worst bus rides we have experienced and we were worse for wear by the time we reached Vientiane. The frustrating thing with the buses in Laos is they drop you outside the city so you have to take a songthaew (a pickup truck with 2 benches in the bed used as shared transport everywhere in SE Asia) for exorbitant prices to the centre. We arrived to our hostel and catnapped in the lobby until we were able to check in.

The main reason for our visit to Vientiane was to organize our Thai visa. We had originally planned to just get a visa on arrival via the land border crossing in the North but Thailand has decreased the number of days given via land border from 30 days to 15 days on arrival. The maximum you are able to extend this once in country is 7-10 days. As we were going to be in Thailand for more than 25 days it meant we would have to get a pre-arranged visa OR book a flight (30 days are still given at international airports). We did our research about obtaining a visa in Vientiane and learned it is one of the most popular places for ex-pats living in Thailand to renew their visas and it isn’t uncommon for 500-700 people to be at the embassy for visas on any given day. We wanted to have all of our paperwork done ahead of time and show up extra early to avoid a several hour wait in line. We had all our paperwork complete and just needed to exchange money to thai baht (they only accept baht). We headed into town to an currency exchange bureau but were shocked to learn that because it was Sunday they were only able to exchange to kip! They didn’t re-open until 8:30 on Monday morning, while the embassy opened at 8. This meant if we exchanged money the following morning and then headed to the embassy we would have several hours waiting in line to submit our application.

At this point in our trip this process wasted far too much of our precious (dwindling) time. We headed to a coffee shop to re-group and discuss our options. We found flights from Luang Prabang to Chiang Mai (our first stop in Thailand) for $100 USD. When we crunched the numbers along with the time wasted to get the visa we decided to go ahead and book the flight and obtain a visa on arrival for 30 days. If this had occurred at the start of the trip we would have had no problem tackling it, but for the sake of approximately $40 CAD extra each we were happy enough to save ourselves the headache. By flying we also gained 4 days extra to spend in Thailand!

Having settled all that, we canceled our hostel for the next two nights and bought minivan tickets to head to Vang Vieng the following day. To celebrate we headed to Rays Pub and Mexican Grill and indulged in some truly fantastic burgers.

The minivan ride the next day was absolutely horrendous; the driver swerved all over the road and accelerated and slammed on the breaks so often I couldn’t tell if we were coming or going. Chris was motion sick for the entire ride and barely kept it together. We arrived in Vang Vieng shaken, but ready to really explore Laos as to this point we had basically taken care of online business and wasted time figuring out visas without experiencing much of what Laos had to offer!

We crossed the seasonal bamboo bridge to reach our accommodation, Maylyn Guesthouse. We were very pleased at the serene garden setting and views from the guesthouse, and the surplus of cats looking for snuggles. We relaxed for the afternoon before heading into town to explore.

A bit of history of Vang Vieng: The town is located on the Nam song river and surrounded by the beautiful karst hills. The little town saw a huge surge in tourism in the late ’90s until 2012 due to the popularity of tubing down the Nam song, the availability of mushrooms and weed, and the plentiful bars that lined the riverbed selling Beer Lao and Lao-Lao rum by the bucketful (literally). The bars also erected slides, rope swings, and ziplines from the bars to the river as activities for the booze-fueled tourists. Naturally, the combination of drugs, booze and water activited lead to accidents and deaths. In 2011 alone over 27 tourists died on the river. The actual number isn’t known as any tourist they had to transfer immediately to Vientiane wasn’t accounted for in this toll. The government cracked down in late 2012, forcing all but two riverside bars to close permanently. This has drastically reduced the numbers of young backpackers and increased the number of older tourists. Additionally, the town has become very popular with Japanese, Korean and Chinese tourists. The tourist activities have shifted to biking, kayaking and trekking.

Baring the history in mind there are still a lot of pubs and restaurants playing Friends and South Park episodes in the town. Virtually every establishment caters to tourists in some way. However, there is a relaxed feel to the small town and you can relish in the beauty undisturbed. That is exactly what our first evening was about, and we were afforded an incredible sunset from the deck of one of the restaurants.

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We had a delicious dinner at a small restaurant before leisurely making our way back across the river to our guesthouse.

The following day we rented bikes and headed out to explore the area. As we biked we were both in awe with how beautiful the hills surrounding the town were, and we couldn’t help remarking how glad we were the town was no longer the “party” city of days past.

Our first stop was to check out a small cave you are able to swim in. To reach it we had to bike quite a distance down a small side road, walk through some beautiful fields, and go down a small rickety ladder. A local kid used a branch to grab the tubes in the cave for us to sit in, and lent us his headlamp to use while we were in the cave. It was a small cave but still very enjoyable as we had it to ourselves!

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On the way back we tried to find the stream to swim in and inadvertently bumped in to Jeremy who is from New York. We got to chatting and ended up spending the rest of the day and evening together!

Our next stop was to climb to the lookoff point. It was definitely a steep 500 meter vertical climb but the views more than made up for it. What a stunning landscape!

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After the viewpoint we made our way to the famous Blue Lagoon. It was so over crowded with people attempting to take the “perfect” picture while jumping in the water, but it was still beautiful and so refreshing.
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After the Blue Lagoon we biked back to our guesthouse for a shower before meeting back up with Jeremy for sundowners at the restaurant we watched the sunset the previous night. Unfortunately, the cloud cover made for a poor sunset, but we had a great time chatting. We then made our way to Garys Irish Bar, where low and behold there was actually two Irish men working the bar! What a novelty. A stop at another bar and a sandwich from a delightful street vendor later and our night was complete.

The following day started off with the amazing news that I had been offered the job I had interviewed for in Pakse. I am excited to share with everyone that Chris and I will be re-locating to Antigonish, Nova Scotia at the end of January. Antigonish is home to St. Francis Xavier University and a mere 45 minute drive from my parents house. Halifax has treated us very well for the last number of years but it is time for a change and after much deliberation we decided on Antigonish for a variety of reasons. We are very excited about this move and are looking forward to “settling” down for a while.

We happily made our way to the tubing rental agency and rented tubes for the day. After a quick mulberry shake at the organic farm at the drop-off site for the tubing we hit the river. As we lazily floated down the river the remnants of former bars, ziplines and swings lined the riverside, an eery reminder of the crazy party days. Many bars have signs stating they aren’t allowed to service tubers. The 2 remaining bars that are allowed to be open are at the start of the river and employ young Laos boys who wait with a rope to throw to you to pull you in with promises of free shots. We did stop for a celebratory beer at the bars, swinging in hammocks and watching the rest of the tube-goers pounding drinks, unwilling to accept the party days are finished. We moved on quickly, preferring the lazy pace of the water to the fast pace of the kids drinking. It was a marvelous day, the scenery from the river was absolutely incredible. I recommend tubing, but give the bars a miss, they aren’t worth it. I would also recommend going early in the day as the afternoons tend to cloud over and it can get quite cold in the tube.

After our long day tubing we had a delicious dinner before falling into our warm, comfortable bed.

The next day got off to a very rushed and rocky start. I had to run into town to withdraw money to pay for our accommodation before our mini-van pickup at 9 am. The first ATM I tried denied the transaction, the second seemed to be out of money, and it was the third ATM where something very suspicious occured. I put my PIN in, selected the amount I wanted, and then I heard a noise from within the machine and then a receipt printed, but no money was dispensed. I knew something wasn’t right but I had to continue trying ATMs as otherwise we wouldn’t be able to leave. After the suspicious attempt I wasn’t able to do anything, the ATMs displayed the message “Please contact your bank.” As it was 8:30 by this time and our guesthouse was 1.5 kms from the town I sprinted back to the guesthouse (in a total frenzy) and explained what happened to Chris. I tried to log in to my online banking to see if money was withdrawn but I couldn’t access my account. I then attempted to call my bank over skype but the quality of the connection was awful. Luckily the guesthouse kindly accepted USD that we had leftover from our time in Cambodia. The minivan picked us up and we took off for Luang Prabang at breakneck speed, and I was left wondering what was going on with my account for the 5 hour drive.

When we arrived to Luang Prabang I immediately called my bank and was told that they detected that my card had been copied at the ATM that gave a receipt but no cash, so they froze my account. I was very thankful for this, but it means I am unable to use my card any more, which we have used for the entire year. A relatively minor inconvenience considering how disastrous things could have been.

As it was Christmas eve Chris and I headed to a fancy restaurant to have a nice meal for the occasion. The restaurant was located on the other side of the river that intersects the town and requires crossing a bamboo bridge to reach. The views of the river and the town from the beautiful deck of the restaurant made for a relaxing meal. We tried the Laos BBQ fondue, where a bucket of hot coals are placed at your table and you cook your meat, vegetables and broth over them. It was really delicious, the best broth we have ever had. They also had games you could play and we spent some time playing backgammon. It was the perfect way to spend Christmas Eve together.

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After the meal we carried out the 5th installment of the Home Alone Christmas marathon tradition. While we did not have rum and eggnog, we did have whiskey and ginger ale. All that was missing were Jack and Zuri!

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The following morning had us waking very early to skype with all of our loved ones. It was particularly exciting to skype with Wes and Paula and the girls as it was still Christmas Eve in Nova Scotia due to the time difference. We made sure to tell them we had let Santa know they had been good all year and to pay them a visit in NS which made them very happy. We shared the news of my job with our families which was a very special moment.

When we finished skyping we spent the rest of the day finishing the Home Alone series and then heading to a lovely pizza restaurant run by a fellow Canadian. It certainly wasn’t a turkey dinner, but it was familiar and the company was bar none.

The next day we caught our quick flight from Luang Prabang to Chiang Mai.

A long post- thanks for sticking it out to the end! We enjoyed our time in Laos, but much of it was spent in transit or carrying out interviews so I think we missed out on some Laos highlights. I would have liked a bit more time to go to the north of the country and did some trekking. However it is all worth it in the end as I am gainfully employed, hooray!