Europe - Germany, Belgium, and France
Nepal - Around Manaslu
Australia - Driving around Southern Australia
Australia - Olympics
Australia - Great Barrier Reef
Thailand - Bangkok
Vietnam - Central and South
Vietnam - North
Egypt - Along the Nile
Egypt - Touring and diving
Israel and Jordan
Brief return to the USA
Ecuador - Quito and surroundings
Ecuador - Galapagos Islands
Ecuador - Quito and the jungle
Peru - Machu Picchu and Lima
Peru - Cusco and the Sacred Valley
Zimbabwe and South Africa - Vic Falls and Blyde River Canyon
South Africa - Motorcycle trip
Argentina - Buenos Aires and Iguazu Falls
Argentina - Bariloche and San Martin de los Andes
Chile - Exploring the Lake Region
Chile - Pucon and the Bio Bio
Argentina - El Calafate and El Chalten
Chile - Puerto Natales and Torres del Paine
Argentina - Rio Gallegos and Ushuaia
Chile - Santiago and Punta Arenas
Guatemala and Honduras - Rio Dulce and Copan
Guatemala - Coban and Spanish school
Guatemala - Tikal and Spanish school
Guatemala - Antigua and Spanish school
We arose at a reasonable hour and went down to breakfast. We then spent a bunch of our morning trying to track down the package that was sent to us by Tom's parents. Unfortunately, everything is closed on Saturday, so we were unable to find it. We did make a quick call to the parents to have then trace it from their end. Everything seemed to be going wrong, which was exacerbated by the weak English spoken by the staff of the Siam City. This reinforced our interest to learn more languages (not necessarily Thai however).
Finally, we just decided to forget life's details and start touring the city. We grabbed a cab to the Grand Palace. They strongly enforce the dress code, but our Tevas just passed and we entered. Our luck seemed to have changed on arrival, a free English speaking tour began when we bought our entry tickets. The guide led us around the colorful buildings of the Wat Phra Kaeo, in the Grand Palace complex. She shared history, stories, and current uses for each building. We saw the Golden Wat, a model of Angkor Wat, and plenty of demons and garudas. The tour culminated in the viewing of the famous Emerald Buddha, which is actually made out of jade.
We retraced our steps after the tour finished to soak in the atmosphere, and take a few silly pictures with fanciful figures. We were surprised how gaudy pieces of colored glass and paint can make buildings absolutely beautiful, like glittering sparklers.
As we oriented ourselves with the map and walked towards Wat Pho, several different tuk-tuk drivers and vendors warned us that Wat Pho was closed. Of course, when we got there, it was open. We had been warned by our guide that taxis will tell you something is closed so they can take you to a store where they get a commission.
Wat Pho was interesting mostly because of the absolutely huge figure of Buddha lying on his side. The scale is hard to grasp, but his feet were quite a bit taller than either of us. A clinking sound bothered us until we discovered the 108 metal cans behind the Buddha. If you drop a coin in each one, you get good luck - and several people were noisily ensuring their fortunes.
On the map we saw a nearby pier into the Chao Praya river, so we threaded through some narrow streets and native markets to get there. We were offered a private longboat for a mere 300baht, but opted for the express water taxi for 6baht each instead. Hopping on board was interesting, as the boatman started to pull away from the dock before we jumped. However, the ride upstream was terrific. We observed Thai life along the river in the center of the city. Shortly we disembarked at the Oriental Hotel's pier and searched for a recommended restaurant.
We found Tongue Thai at the end of the Oriental's Shopping Palace, thanks to the map that Steve and Kim drew. We walked in and were the only customers, but the atmosphere overcame our usual concern.
We ordered Thai iced teas and perused the menu. The food, service and ambiance at Tongue Thai were outstanding. We lingered over the meal to extend the enjoyment.
We passed an internet cafe on the corner which allowed us to connect the Palm, so we sent a bunch of emails and finalized the details for Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia.
To add to our Bangkok experience, we opted for a tuk-tuk rather than a taxi. The first driver wanted an outrageous price, and to stop at a shop (where he got a kick-back), but another had pulled up and offered such a reasonable price that we did not even bargain. Riding through the streets was exciting, and quite possibly the most dangerous thing we've done our entire trip. We made it alive, though, and happily paid the driver his $1.50.
We then decided to work out, so Louisa hopped on the treadmill (in her new running shoes) and Tom headed for the pool (since he didn't have appropriate footwear). Nicely sweaty, we showered and relaxed for a bit before motivating for dinner.
We tried the fairly recently opened sky train, which was basically an elevated subway. The ride was smooth and we soon arrived at the glitzy Siam Center. It being Saturday night, there was a band in full swing, and the place was packed.
We wandered through a bit, then settled on a combination Chinese & Thai restaurant for dinner. We split up to do some more shopping before the stores closed. Just before closing, Tom bought some Nike shoes and a polo shirt.
On our way out we stopped at Dairy Queen for a Western treat then boarded the brand new skytrain for the quick return ride to the hotel.
We stayed up later than expected packing and such and then fell exhausted into bed.
One good habit Louisa has cultivated is picking up tourist brochures and maps whenever we enter an airport or hotel. We have found a great deal of useful information from these (as well as a lot of crap), and it can help a lot to get our bearings.
We got up at 5:25 to pack our final stuff - the bags were a bit more full with all of our new purchases. Breakfast started promptly at 6, and we gobbled down some food before hopping in a taxi for the airport.
After taking advantage of the Star Alliance Gold line at Thai Airways, we waited in line at passport control and finally got in to the gates. There we found no fewer than 3 internet cafes, and spent an enjoyable 20 minutes at one before it was time to board our flight to Luang Prabang.
The quick flight soon ended. We were taken by surprise with the need for a passport picture with the visa, but pulled out our stash. After waiting in line for a while, we paid our $30 each and entered Laos. Our bags were waiting, and we exited through customs to find our guide.
We guessed that the sign that said "Mr. Tom Ms. Caroline Shield" must be us, although we have no idea how they thought Louisa was Caroline. We met Soun-ton, our guide, and loaded our bags in the car.
On the way to the hotel, we drove by the president's mansion, and the victory gate war memorial. We stopped at the Morning Market to change some money, and also bought guitar strings for the guitar Tom has been lugging around and not really playing.
We had a bit of difficulty finding the Parasol Blanc hotel as Soun-ton had never been there before, and it was kind of a dump. The room was dingy but serviceable, and the AC anemic but puttered along, exacerbated by the window with no panes that we discovered later. We relaxed for a little while before eating a tasty lunch at the surprisingly good hotel restaurant.
Soun-ton picked us up at 1pm to see the sights of Vientiane. By 2:30 we had seen them all - the That Luang, the Vientiane Victory Gate, and two other Buddhist temples near the Presidential Palace, Haw Phra Kaew and Wat Sisaket. This town is not big.
The temples were really more of the same, except they hadn't been restored like the ones in Thailand. The weak economy was demonstrated by the gold paint used in and on the buildings rather than the abundant use of gold leaf in Thailand and China. One temple formerly housed the Emerald Buddha for 200 years before it was recaptured by the Thais. There are only so many images of Buddha that we can look at before we've seen enough, and the number is less than the number we saw today. We got a little silly.
The view from the top of the Victory Gate is nice, and we could see the Mekong River, so we asked to drive by. Soun-ton recommended a restaurant for dinner, and we looked across the river at Thailand on the other side.
We returned to the Morning Market mostly for lack of anything better to do. We were unsuccessful at finding a charm for Louisa's bracelet - all jewelry seemed to be gold, except for the pounded silver bowls that were everywhere.
We returned to the hotel for much-needed showers, and relaxed, alternating playing Boggle on the Psion with journaling on the Palm with the nifty Palm Keyboard.
The office manager convinced us to eat at a Restaurant Km 4, owned by the same company as the hotel. He advised us on the cost of a tuk-tuk which was waiting in front of the hotel. We 'negotiated' the price and were off. The ride lasted longer than we expected but we enjoyed seeing more of Vientianne. It seems that more of the people live away from the center of town, so we caught a glimpse of the 'city life.'
Just before reaching the restaurant we passed a bowling alley. Our tuk-tuk driver signaled that he would wait for us, and Louisa wanted to take him bowling after dinner. We discussed how to communicate to the tuk-tuk driver that we wanted to join us for a game.
We selected a riverside table. The staff was incredibly attentive and served delicious Laotian food, for a whopping $8. Other than the Laotians singing Karaoke on the other side of the restaurant, a fantastic lightning show over Thailand entertained us.
We walked outside prepared to go bowling with the tuk-tuk driver, but he had departed. The restaurant called a metered taxi (that cost 4x the tuk-tuk) to go to the hotel.
Negotiating in Laos is a loose term. It seems that the Laotian offers an outrageous price, for example 70,00kip ($9) for the tuk-tuk ride, but when you retort with the 'correct' price, in this case 10,000 kip the Laotian immediately agrees.
Thunderstorms woke us up throughout the early hours of the morning. The rain poured out of the sky drumming the hotel and the ground. Even though we had to leave the hotel at 6:00am, they cooked us a great American breakfast an hour before the restaurant opened. We attribute this to the great tips Tom left at lunch the day before.
The domestic terminal is reminiscent of a small-town bus station. It is one of the most primitive buildings we have seen still in use, and if all signs were removed would not be recognizable as an airport.
We went through a passport control even though it was domestic and then the manual check for weapons. We could see the propellor airplane on the tarmac but no one seemed to be in a hurry to load the plane. Eventually the pilots showed up and the plane was fueled. About 15 minutes after departure time, two women started taking boarding cards. Due to the rain Laos Aviation provided a shuttle to the plane - an 8 passenger minivan. We were on the second shuttle, but it must have taken 10 trips to load the plane.
The plane was easily the oldest plane that either of us had ever been on. The entire airport setting and equipment was surprising especially considering this is the capital city. We started to think about what to expect in Luang Prabang when an American across the aisle from Tom began a conversation.
The flight passed quickly filled with conversation with Ranjan about traveling. On arrival, a man greeted 'Tom and Caroline' with news that our guide's son is sick, so we have the morning free to explore the town.
We took advantage of the time by finding a local laundromat. While we waited, we watched two children play a simple game with miniature cards. The girl showed us her cards, which were the teenage mutant ninga turtles, power rangers and disney characters.
After a short break in the hotel, we walked the couple kilometers into the center of town, hungry and looking for lunch. After failing to find the restaurant we were looking for, we decided to stop in Auberge La Calao, and paid an outrageous $7 for lunch. They also had good maps, so we figured out which of Luang Prabang's 3 streets we were on.
On the way back we stopped at a small internet cafe to send some emails, and found the connection decent and the price cheap.
A tuk-tuk drove us back to the hotel where Mr. Udong, our guide, met us. Immediately he seemed quite responsible and responsive. We mentioned that we enjoy learning about places with many stories and history, and he delivered. Luang Prabang has a disproportionate number of Wats (temples), Buddhas, and monks, because it is the Laotian center for the Buddhist faith.
Udong has a bit of a stutter, and often doesn't speak clearly, but works hard to make himself understood, even spelling out words whose pronunciation we couldn't parse. Better yet, he made sure he understood our questions, and answered them.
We started out at Vat Xieng Thong, which featured a few buildings beautifully decorated with bits of colored glass on the exterior and gold pictorials on the interior. Five chapels surround the Vat, each containing a Buddha in one of the 5 main positions and have stories on the exterior about the life of Buddha. The main temple had a big Buddha, and a cool water channel for people to pour water on a smaller statue for good luck.
We dawdled a bit, because it was raining, and at each dry spot Udong was telling us good stories he had heard from old monks about the history and meaning of many of the old half-broken Buddha statues in the temples. The dragon carriage built for the King's funeral in 1959 was also there, but too big to get into a picture. We saw ubiquitous lotus flowers, too.
Next stop was Wat Khi Li, where we saw the drum used to summon the people to prayer. Everywhere we saw unmarked stupas (memorial towers containing cremation ashes). A highlight was a short break in a monk dormitory, where an old monk served us tea and told us about his sons in Nevada (his wife died 7 years ago, so he decided to become a monk).
In Vat Si Boun Heuang we saw a new stupa, with very colorful glass, and another Buddha in the rain position (very appropriate for today). Next door at Vat Sop we saw a secondary school, with packed schoolrooms of monks faithfully copying down lessons droned by a teacher at the front of each class.
We got back in the car for the 4-block ride to Vat Mai, where we saw a royal Buddha statue, and also admired a racing boat built from a single trunk of mahogany. Udong said that up to 54 people paddle each boat in the annual races on the Mekong.
We drove through town to Vat Vissunarat, where we saw kids playing in the mud, and washing under the downspout. We looked at the famous Watermelon Stupa, a giant Buddha and many relics including a pedestal seat, 2 Chinese Buddhas and a smiling Buddha.
On the way to the hotel, the driver took us through the food market which was full of people, even in the rain. We relaxed for a couple of hours before dinner, while the hotel tried to get hot water to our room. We also picked up our laundry - what a treat to have clean clothes!
The hotel dining room is set on a terrace overlooking a pool filled with lotus flowers and small fish. The food was fair, and a bit overpriced by Laotian standards (we paid $11.50 for our entire meal - outrageous!). An unexpected surprise was a Laotian band setting up and playing several numbers. Even better, a troupe of 7 young girls performed traditional dances on the terrace. Their graceful hand movements and colorful costumes with headresses captivated us. There was even one girl not more than 8 years old who did a solo dance that was quite nice.
After dinner we discovered that part of our hot water problem was that the sink faucet was reversed. We enjoyed showers, with Tom kneeling in the tub because the ceiling was far too low for standing. Then we headed to bed.
We slept in a little, getting up at 8 to have breakfast and meet Udong at 9. The rain continued hard all night, and was still coming down with reasonable force. We drove into town where we stopped at the Royal Palace museum for a quick tour.
The museum is nice, with a colorful green and gold temple outside (under construction). After checking our bags and taking off our shoes, we were allowed to enter the palace. First we saw the famous gold Buddha. Unfortunately, they don't polish it, or have it in a nice setting with lights, so it is less impressive than it might be, considering that it is solid gold.
The museum itself is a good view of how the royal family used to live. We saw the thrones, living rooms, and bedrooms of the former king and queen. One interesting part was a display of official gifts to Laos from other countries, including some moon rocks and a model moon lander from the USA.
We drove around the corner to the boat dock on the Mekong, just as the rain stopped. We boarded the long boat and sat on the tiny chairs purloined from some kindergarten somewhere. During the hour and a half trip we chatted with Udong, watched the incredibly noisy speedboats pass, looked at river jetsam, and just gazed at the riverside.
Our first stop was at the Baan Sang Hai rice wine village. We could smell the fermenting wine as we walked up the bank, and soon we saw the stills in action. We walked through the village, looked at the local temple and stupa and watched a new house go up. There seemed to be many more supervisors than actual workers, as in public works projects nearly everywhere. Kids were playing in the streets, because of the summer vacation.
Soon after getting back in the boat we arrived at the confluence of the Nam Ou river and the MeKong. Across the river from the cave, we stopped for lunch at a nice picnic table spot. The tables and chairs here, too, were stolen from a kindergarten - they were much lower than Tom's knees. Udong produced a veritable feast of Laotian food, which we devoured - the best food we've had to date. Replete, we rested for a few minutes before jumping back in the boat to cross the Mekong to the caves.
The lower cave is more like a big overhang, just above the river level. There are a few "altars" and thousands of Buddha figures in every level and nearly-level spot. The ceiling is black from the incense smoke.
After a few minutes in the lower cave, we headed up the stairs 60m to the upper cave, which is basically a tube that goes back about 50m. There are several natural dais' that have Buddha figures of different sizes, as well as another washing Buddha. A lion carved from a stalagmite guards the entrance. We suggest bringing a good flashlight - they supply some, but they're not bright.
The boat picked us up for the quick ride downstream. Louisa pulled out the Palm and wrote Udong's address in, and we marveled at the contrast of riding down the Mekong through villages where life hasn't changed in centuries, writing on a hand held computer.
One thing we noticed was that there were not many boats on river compared to other places that we have visited. Aside from the speedboats (which were so noisy they supplied helmets for noise reduction - we couldn't imagine riding on one without going deaf) and one or two slow cargo boats, we hardly passed any.
When we got back to Luang Prabang Louisa wanted to do a bit of shopping, so Udong took us to Baan Khlily gallery. We loved the paper lamps there, and spent quite a bit of time picking out the exact paper we wanted for our custom-made ones. We also had a cup of tea with the flamboyant owner, Oliver, and enjoyed his company immensely.
Since the sun was out, we decided to climb Phou Si hill to see the view. This "mountain" is right in the middle of town, and can easily be reached by climbing 300 stairs. At the top, we looked across the "city," the royal palace, and the surrounding mountains and rivers.
We headed back down and to the hotel for much-needed showers, and a bit of relaxation. After failing to find a decent restaurant near our hotel, we crammed ourselves into a tuktuk shaped like a motorcycle with sidecar, and headed back into town.
In town we walked down the main street, looking in restaurants, until we found one that looked good. We had excellent Lao food, including great curry at the Three Elephants. After dinner we checked out a few shops, but ended up in an internet cafe for a half hour, before catching a tuktuk back to the hotel and bed.
We enjoyed our last breakfast next to the lotus flower and fish filled pond before Mr. Udong and the driver arrived. They drove us 35 kilometers south of town towards the waterfall.
On the way, Mr. Udong showed us the tiny Hmong Village, Ban Na Oune. He speaks the local dialect, and seemed to be on good terms with the people. One family invited us into their hut. The one room shelter consisted of bamboo walls, thatch roof and mud floor. Inside were a 'grandmother', two adult woman, about 10 children ranging from infants to 7 years old, and an elderly man lying on a bamboo bed smoking opium.
Mr. Udong chatted with the family while the children stared at us. Our size seemed to truly frighten one of the infants. The lead adult woman showed Udong, and us, a huge open puss-filled sore on her spine. Meanwhile, the old man continued to smoke opium from his pipe.
We continued through the village with Udong showing us the new outhouses and water vats installed with the help of the UN. Louisa tried her hand at a manual corn grinder. We stopped in another woman's house which was quite similar to the first. She was working on some intricate and beautiful needlework. Every woman in the village wears a pinafore color with the back flap consisting of beautiful needlework. While visiting this woman, an elderly woman beckoned for us to visit her. She chatted with Udong and bared her one-tooth smile frequently. She has the largest house in the village, which Udong said is because she is the oldest, but also since two of her children and their families share it.
Driving along the dirt road out of town, we noticed that the construction typical in Laos tends to be two story. In fact, compared to most of the third world countries that we have visited, it appears that these houses and structures are superior in their construction and design.
Next Udong showed us the rice paddies. He grew up in a remote village as a rice farmer. he explained to us how to cultivate rice, and the yield. A family was walking through the rice paddy. One boy came over and showed us his pail half-full with tiny crabs that live in the water filled rows of rice.
A short while later, we arrived at a gate blocking the road. One car was waiting, and Mr. Udong jumped out. Moments later he returned, having succeeded in getting the gate opened. He laughed as we drove through - he told the gate worker that we were VIPs with the UN which gave us the privilege of driving to the waterfall rather than walking.
As waterfalls go, and we have become connoisseurs, this was is amazing. It falls over a cliff a few hundred meters high in the sky and continues to tumble down the uneven cliff face until it plunges into a deep pool at the bottom.
We walked along any possible pathway, even though some were quite slick and wet due to the high water level. We tried to climb to the outlook at the middle, but the path was impassable due to a new extension of the waterfall which appears in the rainy season. We continued up the steep, slick path towards the top, but turned back when a few trees blocked the way slowing progress.
On the observation deck at the bottom we saw the jovial Italian couple again, and met a friendly couple from Barcelona. We practiced our Spanish with the latter until Mr. Udong beckoned. On the way out we walked by a tempting swimming hole, but settled for cold water from our driver and some delicious sweet bananas from the Italian couple.
Back in Luang Prabang, we stopped at the bank to exchange travelers cheques into Kip. The $120 turned into a 4inch thick pile of Kip since the largest bill is 5000kip ($.62). Next we stopped at the Bahn Khilly gallery to see the custom made star lamps, which we enjoyed more than expected. They agreed to mail a few other items home for us, which was great. Oliver came downstairs to say good-bye and wish us a bon voyage before we left.
We ordered lunch at the Lane Xang guest house restaurant and then walked across the street to Udong's house to meet his wife and three sons. We enjoyed seeing his family.
While we ate the fabulous lunch, Udong went to the airport to check us into the flight. The food at the restaurant was incredible - by far the best food that we ate in Laos!
Udong and the driver took us to the airport and made sure that all went well with the passport check before saying good-bye. Then we waited, and waited.
Laos Aviation does not believe in promptness nor announcements, so the departure time passed with no activity, or sign of it. About 30 minutes later some women appeared and loaded us on a bus to drive us down the dirt road to the plane. The passengers from the previous flight were still deplaning, so we waited in the hangar. A few women run stalls to sell last minute souvenirs or drinks to the passengers while they wait, so this appears to be common practice.
Finally we were allowed to board, and took off more than an hour late. This plane, while still propeller, was more modern than the one that we rode into Luang Prabang.
We were sad to leave the charming village and this was reinforced when we landed in Vientiane. Soon-Ton met us at the airport in his usual cheery demeanor. After some discussion, he drove us to the fantastic Laos Plaza Hotel instead of the Parasol Blanc.
We loved the hotel, not only is it modern, but it is in the center of town. For dinner we walked one block to the fountain, but found the restaurants rather touristy and wandered to a Laotian one nearby. They had local music and dance in the next room, which encouraged us to eat quickly and depart.
On the way back to the hotel we stopped in an internet cafe. We were the last customers of the night, so we chatted with the two men who run it. Then we returned to the hotel for some sleep.
Revised: Wed Feb 13 11:37:55 2008 on