Luang Prabang, Laos

Luang Prabang (and Laos, in general) is an absolutely fantastic destination and I highly encourage everyone to try and make it there…I only expected to stay a night or two and ended up staying almost a week!  As I write this, I am stuck in Hong Kong, trying to fly home.  So here goes…my top five highlights from Laos:

Type of Trip: Self-planned

Hotel: Villa Laodeum (HIGHLY recommended and was only $35/nt…the owners were so accommodating and with me as a single female traveler, they made sure that I made it home each night before closing up) – http://www.villalaodeum.com/

Transport: Lao Airlines from Hanoi, Vietnam (HAN – LPQ); 1 hour flight

1.  The local people of Laos and the lovely, quaint Luang Prabang

I know I raved about Cambodia and the friendliness of the people, but I was blown away by Laos.  Everyone is genuinely warm and welcoming, always greeting you with huge smiles and the friendly “Sabaidee!” (Laotian general greeting similar to Aloha).  It rolls off the tongue quite nicely, and as everyone is so encouraging, I found it easy to pick up bits of their language.  I spent most of my mornings In Luang Prabang at a local non-for-profit “Big Brother Mouse”, tutoring and reading with young Laos kids to help them improve their English.  I worked with a teenage boy, named Thong, on three separate days, and it was wonderful to watch his improvement as he read and had me help him with pronunciation and definitions.  Most of the kids in the program are behind their classmates in English, but they are trying extremely hard to catch up.  Often, I would be exploring the city alone and a local resident or novice monk would strike up a conversation.  They seemed to particularly enjoy practicing their  English with you and helping to immerse you in their culture. Laotians are very traditional people, but they do not make you feel as an outsider when your customs are different.  It was easy to fall into their way of life though – conservative dress, shoes off in homes and restaurants, starting the day early and similarly, ending it early (generally everything shuts down at 11pm), sincere spirituality, etc.  Also, no haggling at the markets, the shopkeepers are honest and asked for fair and reasonable prices, with slight bargaining generally accepted.
Luang Prabang, now a UNESCO World Heritage city, is a wonderful blend of traditional Lao wooden houses as well as those infused with European influences – particularly french, as Laos used to be a part of the French colony Indochine.  The city is very clean and the many golden temples shining down on the roadways create an unspoken spirit in the town, you cannot help but to fall in love with its serenity and charm.  The Mekong River meanders gently through the city, and allows for some fantastic sightseeing boat-trips.  There are lots of french bakeries scattered throughout the town, and the food is exceptional. There were quite a few tourists, but more so than in the other cities I visited – a smorgasbord of languages being spoken on the streets. The town tended to draw a lot of older couples for a romantic getaway as well as young hippie/bohemian backpackers, looking for some R&R. One unfortunate occurrence that happened while I was visiting – there was a noticeable and irritating layer of smoke hovering in the air on the last day I was in town. Illegal deforestation by fires is becoming a huge issue in Laos, and as a resuIMG_0708lt, the air quality is sub par and the gorgeous forests are disappearing.

2.  The temples and the monks

It seems as though you cannot walk a block in Luang Prabang without running into a temple of some sort, ornately decorated with mosaics and murals of the life of Buddha.  The temples are rather modern, in terms of when they were built (1800/1900s), but the religious history runs deep.  The temples (wats) are immaculately tidy and peaceful, with young men training to be monks roaming the grounds.  They spend their day in classes, studying language and Buddhism, as well as working on meditation, art and maintaining the temples.  I spent some considerable time speaking with one such novice monk, and found IMG_0733how far he had come to Luang Prabang to study, leaving his family far behind and knows not when he will see them next.  It is a honor and privilege to be training and these young men carry themselves so maturely (even though some seem as young as 8!).  Every morning, the monks from the various temples walk a specific route around the city and collect “alms” from the locals, who bow on mats on the sidewalks and offer sticky rice and other food gifts to the monks. I participated one morning and found it to be a nice start to the day.  After you give alms, you sit and meditate/pray until all the monks have passed.  It becomes a nice time to reflect.

3.  The waterfalls

There is a gorgeous, cascading waterfall about 30km outsidIMG_0792e of the city, called Kuang Si.  I spent an afternoon there, taking pictures of the local flora (learning to navigate my new camera like a nerd) and swimming in the clear, aqua pools at the various stages of the waterfall.  There were quite a few tourists, but it became a fun time to meet new people and challenge one another to a rope swing contest over the falls.  Never one to back down to a challenge, I had a lovely red mark on my back following a failed flip.  Nice move on my part.

4.  Elephant riding and bathing

In a word, amazing!  Spent one day learning to ride elephants bareback and bathe them in the river.  Incredible, to say in the least!  The animals are so powerful and I must admit, I feared constantly that I was going to be thrown forward as we descended the steep mountain to head into the river.  IMG_0901However, my wise elephant (61 and blind -which they informed me of afterwards, thank goodness) took great care of me and thoroughly enjoyed the bath.  She was spraying me with water from her trunk and submerging her head under for minutes at a time.  She especially liked it when we scrubbed her ears with the thick bristle brush.  It was awesome, though I think I had to bathe for days to get the smell of elephant off of me.

5.  Motorboating with helmets and cruising around the city on a motorbike

Another day, I took a speed boat trip down the Mekong…boating policy that, due to the speed of the boat, helmets were required.  Enough said.  After that, I rented a motorcycle for the day and explored some of the outer parts of the city and visited some neighboring towns, stopping to enjoy a fresh mango shake and play some pick-up soccer with the local kids.  Cruising around on a motorcycle was turning out to be the best idea in a while, until my bike broke down on a side street.  I immediately had a plethora of young girls running to my assistance, and then having me buy things from them afterwards.  I am now the proud owner of about 8 plastic/faded Buddha bead bracelets…but it was worth it to get my bike started again.  I continued to explore, without ever turning the bike off again (including when I returned it to the shop).  I have to admit, it was both exhilarating and terrifying to get used to the ebb and flow of traffic and try to adapt to the seemingly non-existent traffic rules.

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The trip was a great one, indeed!  I wrapped up my adventures in Bangkok and realized the truth behind the statement – “one night in Bangkok, and the world’s your oyster”.

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Siem Reap, Cambodia

I am presently sitting in an internet cafe that is the equivalent of a sweat lodge…it’s about 90 degrees and humid as ever here.  So below are just a few of my top reasons as to why I respect Cambodia (in no particular order):

Type of Trip: Self-planned

Hotel: The Villa Siem Reap (HIGHLY recommended and was only $40/nt…they also picked me up from the airport in a Tuk Tuk for a small extra fee) – http://www.thevillasiemreap.com/

Transport: Bangkok Airways from Bangkok (BKK – REP); 1 hour flight

1.  Tuk Tuks

The most common form of transportation here – an open-air cart attached to a dirt bike/motorcycle.  It’s amazing.  If I had my way, I would take tuk tuks everywhere and bring them back to Chicago.  There are shuttleCambodia 003 buses and cars, but transportation is essentially dominated by tuk tuks, motorcycles and bikes.  I am absolutely impressed by the amount of stuff that people are able to load onto their bicycles…crates, at least 4 dozen coconuts, furniture, live animals, multiple children.  There seems to be few traffic laws, if any at all – the only rule I’ve noted is that everyone gives way to the bigger mode of transportation.  Walkers to bikes, bikes to motos, motos to tuk tuks, tuk tuks to cars, and cars to shuttles.  Despite the seemingly chaotic structure, it seems to work well and honks are merely used as a warning of passing by.  I am also amazed by the age of some of the drivers…I swear, mothers have their three yr olds driving these things.  Either way, I’m sold on the tuk tuks.

2.  The temples of Angkor Wat (UNESCO Site)
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I won’t go into too much detail here because the majestic power of this former city cannot really be put into words.  The temples are incredible – some look pristine and powerful, overlooking the vast city enclosed by an enormous moat.  Others look straight out of Indiana Jones, Temple of Doom.  The Cambodian monks walk through the various temples, chanting and bowing their praise to the innumerable Buddha statuCambodia 117es.  The city of Angkor Wat has been around since the 12th century and at that time, boasted a population larger than London. The only disappointing part of the city is that it is operated (and therefore profited by) private companies.  It would seem to me that the city/country’s biggest tourist destination and largest revenue producing venue would truly help the government to assist their people in emerging from the severe poverty that has evolved.

3.  The food

I happen to love curry, so this place rocks.  Coconut curry is their signature dish, and it’s delicious.  They also pretty much make anything into a shake – watermelon, mango, banana, etc.  Their fruit selection is crazy exotic too…dragon fruit, rabutins (and other strange pulpy-seedy-fruit things), egg chicken bananas, lotus flowers…I’m getting pretty adventurous here.

4.  The massages

$6/hr for a full body overhaul.  I’m serious, these women work you over.  Last night, the woman who gave me my full body massage was 4’2″.  But judging from her strength and the way she walked all over my sore legs and back, I would have guessed 6’8″.  Incredible; I’m absolutely getting one every, single day.

5.  Friendliness of the people

Cambodians are extremely friendly people, who always manage to have a smile on their faces.  I don’t know if it’s because I am an obvious foreigner, but everyone smiles and says hello to you as you walk down the street.  It’s so refreshing and their laughter is infectious. Everyone is so helpful and eager to practice their English with you. The kids, oh the kids – so incredibly adorable. They want to learn and they work so hard in school.  Many aspire to be tour guides or work in the nicer hotels in the city, which pretty much requires them to be fluent in English.  The country is still emerging from a holocaust (Khmer Rouge war), so poverty is to the extreme here. Everywhere you go, there are orphanages, shelters for landmine victims, etc.  The entire city of Siem Reap operates off of tourism profits, which unfortunately, is not that much.  I have met so many foreigners that are here to volunteer, which has really inspired me. They volunteer in the orphanages and in the schools, mostly to help teach English.  It’s pretty amazing and I would suggest it to anyone looking for something to do with their time off…the locals are insanely appreciative 🙂

I’ve attached a few pics to show you examples of my time five reasons above.  As a forewarning on the pictures in the next few blog posts: it is absolutely and unequivocally impossible to look good, let alone remotely decent, when you are melting under the sun.  Pale Irish girls were not meant to linger in the Cambodian heat.  Please, no judgments.

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