Day 1 – Sept 3, 2016
Vientiane Garden Hotel, Room No. 601. Vientiane.
It’s 10 pm local time. Yesterday we had reached the Hyderabad airport at this time and today we just got back after figuring out where the “Fruit Heaven” store is. We walked to less than 20 metres from the store but didn’t see their name board. So missed having fruit juice and instead ended up having samosas and aloo tikki at “Namaste India”. Hahahahaha. Ok rewind. We started from home yesterday (2nd) around 8pm. Krishnan was able to play his recording in the coach training call and then we had to drop off. We weren’t sure if the Ola taxi that we had booked would even come due to the Bharat Bandh, but luckily it did come. The driver couldn’t speak in Hindi, I tried to explain as far as I could in Telugu then got hold of Prashanthi, to explain further. Anyway, he managed to reach and we reached the airport by 10. The flight left on time at 1.10 am, Thai Airways. Remember, in economy, rows 31 to 38 are blocked for Thai frequent fliers or any other gold card holder, but Yatra will let you block those and feel happy that you have reserved a seat, only to realise it’s unconfirmed and it won’t get confirmed. Krishnan had web-checked-in so the whole process was painless. The Hyderabad airport is not a fish market like the Delhi airport so the whole immigration and security check went off smoothly. A lovely coincidence was the girl on the seat next to Krishnan’s was a Laotian and she was tickled pink knowing that we were going to her country.
We reached Bangkok by 6.15 am local time. Walked around a bit, found level 4 which has amazing shops. We tried the mango juice at one of the stores – don’t buy it, it’s just two tiny slices of mango and a whole lot of ice. We ate some dosas and then discovered free wifi. Spent an hour updating all the apps on both our iPads. Then we walked some more and reached our departure gate.
An hour’s flight got us to Vientiane. The same girl was in this flight too, but on a different seat. The air hostesses were really sweet and offered us veg sandwiches even!
We went through the immigration and got our bags off the baggage carousel and walked out. There were several people with placards picking folks up, but we couldn’t find anyone with our name. About ten minutes later we found Mr. Ton who was there with the names written as “Govindachari and Krishnan” :):). We took a quick ride to the hotel. Lovely room and very clean hotel.
I made some tea, a little too strong because I added too much of the tea leaves and then we ate the balance dosas and just crashed out. Slept till 6 pm local time and then freshened up. Went out in search of the fruit juice place… And we realised we had just dollars and no local currency, the Kip. We walked into “Namaste India” hoping to get some dollars changed. The exchange rate is 8000 Kip to a dollar. The owner is from Mumbai and was happy to exchange dollars for Kip after he realised that none of the banks were open. We over ate … a plate of samosa chat and a plate of aloo tikki chat, plus lassi. Phew !
The portion sizes are generous so watch out. The taste is very good, so definitely a restaurant that we would recommend.
We then got back to the room, checked out the exact location of the Noy Fruit Heaven store and then went out for a short walk again. Found the Noy Fruit Heaven store easily this time and they do have a great selection of juices and fruit shakes. Will try some tomorrow. Bought some fruits from another fruit vendor and got back to the hotel.
Laos seems laid back and very friendly. There is an ASEAN summit happening here … is our PM coming for it ? President Obama is.
Day 2 – Sept 4, 2016 COPE-ing with the secret war..
We started the day early… thought we will wake up by 5 am local time and get our walk before starting the day, but we slept through till 7 am. Quickly got ready for our day long Vientiane City tour starting at 8 am. Didn’t get any breakfast as we were feeling full from last night’s samosa+tikki bingeing,
My head is feeling heavy and I am feeling bloated, probably due to the periods or just the sleep being missed last to last night. Its funny how most of my reactions are impaired when I get my periods – very different. I feel like I am moving through water or in a fog. As soon as my periods are gone, am back to my razor sharp reactions :):). Bloody hormones ? Huh.
Anyway got ready by 8.15 and were met by Noy, our guide. Mr. Ton the driver was back with us and we set off to the first place, which was Wat Si Saket, one of the oldest surviving temples. This was built around 1818 to 1824 and missed being razed to the ground when the Siamese (Thai) attack happened in 1828. A beautiful temple dedicated to Buddha. The Hinayana form of Buddhism is practised in Laos. Noy spoke about their practices when someone dies as there are several stupas with photographs inside the Wat Si Saket.
There are a 1000 Buddha statues as you enter the main temple (Sim), all along the outer parikrama.
Some of the Buddhas are made with sandstone and some in bronze. There are different poses – some to get rain, some to ward off evil, some just meditative.
We cannot take pictures inside the main temple. But its a huge statue of the Buddha inside.
We completed the tour and walked outside in the slight drizzle, crossed the road and went into Haw Pha Kaeo or the place where the famed Emerald Buddha was housed. Today its just a museum of religious art and it has been restored recently. If we had come a few weeks earlier, we would not have got the chance to see this museum.
Laos has gold mines, Beer Lao which is world famous, coffee and textile exports and it has the mighty Mekong River the 12th longest river in the world flowing through it.
After a quick tour of the Haw Pha Kaeo we went to the most important place to visit in Vientiane, the COPE centre. What the rest of the world doesn’t know is during the Vietnam war, the US bombed Laos every 8 minutes for 24 hours for nearly 9 years. LAOS IS THE MOST BOMBED COUNTRY IN THE WORLD. Unbelievable ? Well, to get bombed in a war that they had nothing to do with is even worse. It gets progressively worser – there are millions of unexploded bombs that cause death and severe damage even today. COPE is the Cooperative Orthotic & Prosthetic Enterprise which is the main source of artificial limbs, wheel chair and other walking aids in Laos.
There have been 50,000 deaths since the war ceased in 1964 – what a price to pay and I wonder if the US is doing enough to rebuild Laos. The COPE centre is trying to make life a little better for those who lose a limb and we were wondering if India could help with the Jaipur foot .. maybe.
From the COPE centre we went to see the Great Stupa or Pha That Luang. just where we entered the place, a lady was selling the rice dumplings made the Laotian way (kuzhi paniyaram, for the south Indians). We ate a couple of pieces and they were quite tasty.
As we enter the Pha That Luang, we see this huge reclining Buddha and we took a picture in front of it.
Then as we walked into the main building of the Great Stupa we found a young couple getting married and I took a couple of pictures of the beautiful bride in all her finery. We met a few Indians who were also visiting the Great Stupa. Interestingly, the Great Stupa has an Indian connection – Emperor Ashoka sent a piece of Buddha’s breastbone to be enclosed in a smaller stupa in 3rd century BC and the Great Stupa is built over that small stupa.
From the Great Stupa we broke off for lunch. Went to Khop Chai Deu and ate some sticky rice and red thai curry that was non-spicy :). How could they do this to us spice loving people :):). The fresh spring rolls were delicious as was the thai curry. We then went to the next door bank to exchange some dollars and Noy got our camera back from the Green Discovery office where we had forgotten it!!.
From lunch it was drive to the Buddha Park, about 25 kms. Krishnan and I took turns sleeping through the drive until we saw the Mekong river. Well, the other side of the river is Thailand and the Vientiane people who want to go across for a day don’t need a passport. How cool is that.
We reached the Buddha Park and it is something… found Shiva-Parvati, Krishna, Hanuman, Narasimha, Varaha avatar, Vishnu-Lakshmi and Brahma statues there, why even Guru Nanak Dev’s statue was there. Fascinating park, which was created by Luang Pu in 1958.
From the Buddha park we drove back to the Victory Gate. On the way we bought some fruits and also a Nokia phone with a local SIM card to call both our Amma’s and Nachi.
The Victory gate or Patuxai that was built in 1969 (Yay) to commemorate the Lao who died in the pre-revolutionary wars. It was built using the cement donated by the USA for building a new airport. You have to climb 7 stories to get spectacular views of Vientiane. The Chinese have built a couple of fountains on either side of the Patuxai.
After climbing up and viewing the city from a height, we got dropped back to our hotel to rest and chill out. We did just that and slept for an hour or so. Got up, watched a movie partly and again went back to sleep after eating most of the fruits that we had bought as my headache got worse. Hopefully a good night’s sleep will fix it.
Day 3 – Sept 5, 2016 Discovering textiles of Laos
We woke up early but it was raining so we didn’t go out for a walk. Just slept a little more. Today there is just one item on the agenda – visit the “Lao Textile” showroom. We will be walking down to it. Went to eat some breakfast. They have pineapples, bananas and rambutans plus bread and jumbo sized muffins. We also tried the banana crepe with honey. Krishnan got excited thinking the crepe might be salted and taste like the dosa but with the bananas in there, it didn’t work much for him.
After breakfast we got ready to meet with Noy at 9 am. He was there sharp at 9 am. We walked down to Lao Textiles, which is just around the corner from Noy Fruit Heaven. Well, the store was open and Carol Cassidy the American designer who has setup the store and has revived the Lao weaving industry was there too, but she was filming an interview that was to be shown when President Obama came over tomorrow, rather tonight. So she asked us to come back after a 45 minutes. The minute she saw me in a sari she asked if I was from India and she apparently works with many weavers in the North East – Shillong, Manipur etc.
We went with Noy to the Noy Fruit Heaven store and had a juice while waiting to return to the store. We got back to the Lao Textile store-cum-museum in 45 minutes and were told the filming was still going on. So we just got back to the hotel after stopping at the Green Discovery office to go over our trip plan. Noy took the faulty charger of the Nokia phone and got the right one from the shop while we were at the Green Discovery office.
We went at 2 pm to the Green Discovery office and Noy took us to the Lao Textile showroom again. We met with Carol who had to again leave for another interview but Mr. Davit was happy to show us around. He made an interesting observation that all weaving leads to India somehow :). He himself is an Ethiopian and he told us that he used to work for the UN and when Laos allowed private enterprise for the first time in 1990, they setup Lao Textiles. We walked around the factory and the weavers are really talented. It reminded us so much of the Chinalampatti and Dindigul weavers and we shared some of the pictures with Mr. Davit. The Lao weaving technique is called the supplementary weft technique where the design is woven wrong side up while weaving. Lao Textiles has done good marketing for these weavers and the weavers are now well settled. The next generation has also got interested in weaving which is what we are hoping for in India as well. He spoke of how only women weave in Laos, men consider weaving as a woman’s job! interesting. He also mentioned about women working hard while men don’t and well, thats exactly how it is in the North Eastern states in India. He had met a person from Shillong, who was posted to the UN and because he looked more Laotian than Indian, Mr. Davit insisted on seeing his passport to believe that he was Indian :):). What I didn’t tell Mr. Davit was that some Indians would do the same to our Khasi brothers and sisters :(. Carol and Mr. Davit were thrilled to know that I had gone to school in Shillong.
We spoke of Ikats and tapestries and blankets and upholstery and lots about weaving. A very fun tour and we will go back and spend some more time with them when we are back in Vientiane.
We got back to the room, rested a bit and then went out for lunch to the Makphet restaurant. This restaurant is run by Friends International to help street children become chefs and work in the hospitality industry. We again ate the fresh spring rolls. They were delicious. Then we had a Lao mixed vegetable dish with sticky rice. The rice is served in a tiny bamboo basket – very cute. Everything tasted really good. We also got a dessert with rice, sesame seeds balls and coconut ice-cream. Again delicious. After lunch we just got back to the room and packed the rest of the stuff.
Apparently tomorrow we need to leave by 8 am instead of 9.30 am because there could be additional security for President Obama’s visit. PM Modi is also coming for just a day on the 8th to participate in the ASEAN summit. We will be in Luang Prabang … will miss meeting him :):).
In the evening we went for a long walk to the riverfront. Its a lovely riverfront with some work still in progress. Wish we had known about this place, we would have cycled around here atleast. Took a couple of pictures and then got back to the hotel, read for some time and drank the watermelon juice. The beach blender from Oster that I carried with me works really well and the juice tasted real good.
Tomorrow we leave for Luang Prabang.
Day 4 – Sept 6, 2016 Luang Prabang
President Obama ensured that we spent an hour and a half extra at the Vientiane airport today, by arriving in Vientiane last night :). We had to leave the hotel by 8 instead of 9.30 am as planned earlier because the Green Discovery local office said there could be increased security checks. It was raining heavily all night and again in the morning. We had breakfast at the hotel – bread toast and butter, plus of course lots of fruits. I took out the yoga mats and packed them into the carry on bag, plus took out a packet of jaggery, milk powder and the spicy mixture to be carried in the carry on bag. When we checked in the bags at Hyderabad, the two suitcases weighed about 43 kilos and the yoga mats were packed into them. Hopefully this will reduce the weight to under 40 kilos because the internal flights in Laos allow only 20 kgs per passenger as checked in luggage.
Mr. Ton arrived promptly at 8 am and we reached the airport in 15 minutes since there wasn’t a lot of checking being done. The only difference was we had to keep the windows down as we drove into the airport and they had police/para military folk checking to see who the passengers were. At the airport, we just sat around till 9.30 as our flight was not even announced till then. We checked in our bags at 9.30 and then only at 10 they started doing the security check. There were two young boys who were competing with Krishnan every step of the way to be the first one’s to check in, the first one’s to do the security check and then the first one’s to get onto the bus :).
While waiting at the departure gate, there was a bit of flurry with the Japanese passengers as the Japanese PM Shinzo Abe’s plane landed. He seems like a popular Prime Minister with all the Japanese folk trying to get a picture of his plane and then after we boarded our plane, they tried to get a picture of him disembarking. The flight left a little late but reached Luang Prabang on time at 12.30. We got our luggage out and the driver was waiting to pick us up. Well, life came a full circle as we got into a Hyundai Starex car! Last year same date we were in a Hyundai Starex, reaching Ardavhar camp at Khuvsgul lake in Mongolia. Missing Nara and Amaraa so much and also the awesome Mongolian fresh butter and even fresher weather. Its hot and humid here so the contrast is a bit more. Also remembering Sumbe and feeling really sad that he is no more…. interestingly enough, the Laotian people don’t drink milk much or eat any dairy products much. They use cows and buffalo for beef and meat. Mongolians love their milk, yoghurt, and butter, so we never missed our yoghurt or Indian tea there.
The driver who picked us up was quite talkative and asked us about everything we were planning to do here in Luang Prabang. When he realised that we had done all the booking in advance he became quiet.. we felt bad but well, such is life. We got dropped off at Lotus Villa by about 1.30. Luang Prabang is really beautiful, green and just quaint. Every other building is a Wat. The Lotus Villa is beautiful and our room was pretty.
We took a short nap and then went out in search of a restaurant to have lunch around 5 pm. We strolled towards the night market, which starts setting up around 5 pm, found a sandwich stall and ate a cheese+veggies sandwich. Also had juice which was freshly made and tasted really good. We walked a bit around the night market and then just got out and tried to walk towards the Nam Khan (pronounced as Khon) river.
We walked around to the end and turned into the other side where the Mekong river flows, just kept walking till we felt the road wasn’t coming around towards the night market. We turned back and tried to find a restaurant to eat something more, but couldn’t find anything that had interesting vegetarian options and those that had vegetarian options had set menus that were too large for our diminished appetites. We stopped at another road side stall to have some more fruit juice and then just walked back to the hotel.
The room was quite stuffy since the air-conditioner wasn’t working. We waited for some time and then went and got the young man from the reception to check out the other rooms. Finally room 7 had excellent aircon, so we shifted our room from no.5 to no.7. The rooms are beautiful and completely covered in wood, so it feels like you are in a log cabin.
Slept off around 10 pm. Tomorrow is our day!
Day 5 – Sept 7, 2016… Stalked by the President of USA 🙂
Woke up early at 5 pm. Did our floor exercises and stepped out around 5.45 to watch the alms giving ceremony. Its quite a sight to watch several 100 monks walk by and receive alms given by many people sitting on the floor. Some of the monks are really young boys.
We then went out for a walk. Got back around 8.30 am and went straight to have breakfast. Met Oscar, the manager of Lotus Villa. He is from Burma and educated in Singapore, so we spoke about our vegetarian diet. He has worked out a daily plan for our breakfast which is all veg. Had a good hearty breakfast with lots of fruit, fruit juice and bread, with mouth watering home made preserves. The Lao black tea was also very good.
Amma called up to wish us, then Kousalya, Nachi and Amma wished us as well. We told both our mothers that President Obama was following us around everywhere and infact PM Modi was also landing in Vientiane tonight. Oh, how we wish we had the time to meet both these leaders, but well, we will meet them another time.
We got back to the room, took bath, did some reading and then updated our bucket list for the year. Around 1 p.m there was a buzz around us as President Obama was in Luang Prabang and was visiting the Wat Xieng Khuang which is down the road from Lotus Villa. His cavalcade zipped across and then we all waited around to see if we get to see him. Krishnan managed to capture his returning motorcade on his phone – but no luck with sighting the President. 🙁
By 3.30 pm we were ready in our new clothes to meet with our guide. Phai our guide came promptly at 3.30 and we took a ride in the Tuk-Tuk to go to Wat May for the Baci ceremony. We met with the senior monk there who reminded me of my maternal grandfather. The guide had come prepared with the basket of offering and then he did the translation for us. We asked the monk for blessings to ShikshaDaan and to us. He smilingly obliged and even shared some stories about soul mates. Then the sacred thread was tied on both our wrists. We have to keep the thread for 3 or 7 days and then take them off.
The Baci ceremony is to remember our ancestors and ask for their blessings. You pour water into a bowl while the monk is chanting prayers and the belief is that your ancestors come through the water and bless you.
We thanked the monk and got back into the tuk-tuk. It was drizzling slightly. We went to the L’elephant restaurant for our lunch/dinner, but we were early. They asked us to come back by 6 p.m. We told Phai that we can walk down to the hotel and then come back on our own at 6 p.m to have dinner. He then handed us the gifts from Beyonder – very sweet gesture from them and informed us that he will be at the hotel at 5.30 am tomorrow to come with us for the alms giving ceremony.
We went back to L’elephant at 6 p.m for dinner. Amazing vegetarian food to celebrate our wedding anniversary.
We had to take a long walk to digest all that food and thats just what we did, by taking a full round of the Nam Khan river front and returning from the Mekong river front from behind the night market. Great way to celebrate our special day in a special place – a UNESCO world heritage site, no less.
Day 6 – Sept 8, 2016 Alms giving, a lesson in humility
The day started with the amazing alms-giving ceremony. Phai came early in the morning at 5.30, ready with the basket of rice and a scarf that we had to place on our left shoulder as we gave the alms to the monks. Earlier, tourists were not allowed to give alms but recently the rules have changed and tourists now can give the alms to the monks. Many tourists do not understand the significance of this deeply spiritual practice and end up making it a photographic moment. Even as many tourists came dressed appropriately, a couple of women tourists walked around in shorts and sleeveless tops :(. I wonder if they would walk that way into the church or synagogue in their country. Even if we are atheists and don’t visit temples, we need to dress according to the culture of the place we are in, not how we wish to dress. Its very disrespectful, but Laos and India and Thailand etc are poor countries so the assumption is, anything goes!!
Anyway, we had a VIP alms-giver with an entourage in tow. Atleast she was dressed appropriately and greeted the people in the local language. While the photographer just went berserk clicking her pictures as she sat on a stool to give alms.
Buddha insisted that monks should eat only whats given as alms so that it teaches them humility and I think it encourages giving for the general people. We should ideally be kneeling down and not make eye contact with the monks, and not touch their bowl. I kneeled while Krishnan sat down on the tiny stool and we put small balls of rice into the bowls that the monks carried. Krishnan went through his rice bowl really quickly and also cleared out his candy cache :). I shared some of my candy with him and then we bought two trays of candy but we still ran out for the last few monks. It was a very fulfilling ceremony and I kept remembering Osho’s words – the receiver is bigger because if he refuses to receive, what can you give !!.
We got back to the hotel and slept for some time, then went down to have breakfast. Had amazing salad with bread. Then got back and slept some more. Finally we woke up and got dressed so we could visit the National museum. We reached around 2.30 and it was quite hot at that time. We bought the tickets and our first stop was to see the Pha Bang, the Buddha statue that was gifted in the year 1969 and which is why the city was named Luang Prabang. Its a beautiful statue of Buddha and its just as you enter the National museum to your right.
We then walked into the main museum… the erstwhile palace has been converted into a museum and its fascinating to see the collection of the King. There were gifts from all over the world, even a piece of rock from the Moon because Apollo had carried the Laos flag.
There are lockers provided to keep your bags, phones and camera because we cannot take any pictures inside. You also leave your shoes outside. It takes a good hour to walk around the entire museum and then in the garage you have a few Lincolns and a Jeep. The Lincolns are well preserved but the Jeep and a Citroen are nearly broken down. As you walk back towards the gate there is a Shell gas pump to your left, non-functional, but was probably a private gas station for the King.
We walked out of the museum and bought some rice dumplings made with coconut milk from a street vendor. They were piping hot and tasted delicious. We stopped at the Indigo cafe to buy a slice of orange cake and a slice of coconut cake. Then we saw pineapples and couldn’t resist buying one. The pineapples here taste really good – very juicy and sweet.
We crossed over to the other side and completed our walk from the Nam Khan side. Got back to the hotel and ate rice with “paruppu podi” for lunch. Ah, we relished the spice… have missed it for a few days now. We again stepped out for a long walk around 8 pm.
Good relaxed day. Now to be ready tomorrow for the visit to the Pak Ou caves.
Day 7 – Sept 9, 2016 1000’s of Buddhas
We woke up early and got ready for Phai to pick us up at 8.45 am. We had to rush our breakfast a little bit and in the process we didn’t enjoy the outstanding Khow Suay that Oscar had put on the list for us. We did do justice to it, but we were rushing :).
For the first time I wore a sari over my track pants because we had to climb some steps today. The day was already warm at 8.45 am. Phai took us to the boat and we started on our Mekong cruise at 9 am as planned.
The first stop was at the “whiskey” village after an hour. The village makes whiskey or wine with sticky rice. The process is described in the flowchart.
There are bottles of clear or black coloured whiskey depending on whether white sticky rice was used or the black sticky rice was used.
You can taste and buy … well, for teetotallers like Krishnan and I, this was just academic interest and a tourist attraction. We ended up buying rice “papad” from the next door lady.
Then we walked through the small village. Interestingly every house has a loom and they weave cotton scarfs or skirts or wall hangings.
As we walked around the small village and walked back to our boat, we saw this snake whiskey … the poisonous fangs are removed and the snakes are pickled in whiskey. Apparently drinking this is medicinal and helps with aches and pains. Lao people also eat snakes. Neither works for us, so we will live with our aches and pains and find “herbal” solutions.
We took another 30 minutes to reach the Pak Ou caves. The lower cave is Tam Ting and between the lower cave and the upper cave there are 4000 buddha statues. Every year during the Lao new year, the statues are washed and repaired. New ones are also added. Its surreal, especially the upper caves as its completely dark there.
To reach the Tam Theung, the upper cave, you need to walk up about a 100 steps. I am thrilled that I could walk up without too much effort and without my knees folding up. Ofcourse I was drenched in sweat because it was really hot and humid.
It had started to rain a bit so we waited inside the caves for a few minutes before starting down.
We went across to a restaurant in the village Pak Ou and I didn’t enjoy the meal much. The black sticky rice was outstanding but everything else was tasteless. I wish we had told Phay that we would not eat here and had gone to a restaurant in Luang Prabang instead. Anyway, lesson learnt :).
On the way back there was a cool breeze and we both slept off. Just walked back to the hotel and slept for a couple of hours. The heat during the day took its toll and we couldn’t even muster any energy to go for our evening walk. Just kept reading and spent nearly an hour and a half deleting unwanted photographs from both our phones! Non-value added work, but well, lesson learnt yet again.
Great day and a really nice visit to the Pak Ou caves, some lessons learnt and tomorrow we visit a couple of tribal villages and also see the Kuang Si falls.
I could get used to this easy-peasy languid lifestyle … all the rush and bustle of our daily life in India seems remote right now.
Day 8 – Sept 10, 2016
Slept in a little late as I had a disturbed sleep last night. Not sure if it was because I stayed up late to write my notes or just changes in food etc. We got ready to leave by 9 am. While Krishnan took bath, I managed to wash some of my blouses with “reetha” or soap nuts. They are quite handy and environment friendly. I had soaked them for a day in hot water and they were ready for use.
We were at the breakfast table by 7.45 and what a treat it was – the best fresh spring rolls that we have eaten till date. We told the server and the assistant manager that the Chef just outdid himself. We literally gorged on them. Got ready in time for our trip to the tribal villages and the Kuang Si falls.
We saw that Phai, our guide had come in a tuk-tuk truck that was really not in good shape … no back support and no side rain covers. We just hoped that it wouldn’t rain. The original plan was to trek to the Kuang Si falls from the tribal villages, but Phai said that the path was quite steep and slippery because of rains. He also mentioned there were leeches, so we decided not to trek. Didn’t know this tuk-tuk was the alternative. It certainly was a disappointment.
The paved road ended in about 15 kms and then we went for another 15 odd kms over dirt track, passable but not a pleasant ride. The first stop was at a khmu village. The Khmu tribe come from Cambodia (Khmer). The village has a school and access to TV. The most interesting thing was the entire village is kept really clean. We also sighted our first buffalo and first cows in Laos during this trip.
From the Khmu village we walked about 1.5 kms just for the fun of it and reached another village of the Hmong tribe. This tribe comes from China. Apparently both the tribes are very friendly and support each other. The head of the village is chosen every 3 years through elections. In the Hmong village we saw the dragon fruit plant.. its a cactus like plant. We haven’t seen it before.
From the village we went to the Kuang Si falls – an hour plus drive over paved roads. We first saw the bear sanctuary and its sad to note that nearly 600+ bears have been rescued by “free the bear” institution just in India. This sanctuary has 38 moon bears and they are cuddly and cute, of course from a distance. Baby bears are even cuter.
The walk up to the major falls is through a nice forest and the path is well cut. There are three swimming areas, but the water doesn’t look very clean. Also there are rocks underneath. We didn’t see many people swimming, just a couple who were walking around in the water. Krishnan had decided not to swim here so we just walked around and took pictures. Its a beautiful waterfall.
We told Phai that we will go back to Luang Prabang and eat our lunch since yesterday’s lunch was not fun and it didn’t suit us. We asked him to eat his lunch since it was close to 1 pm. We found a sugarcane juice stall and drank a couple of glasses of sugarcane juice. We have now had sugarcane juice in three countries other than India – Egypt, Cambodia and now Laos. It tastes great everywhere. Phai found out that the driver had already had his lunch so he decided to eat at home and we just drove back to the hotel.
On the way back we stopped to buy some sticky rice. We only got the white sticky rice. The black sticky rice is mostly available during Nov-Dec when it is harvested. We have requested Phai to buy a couple of kilos for us if he manages to get the black sticky rice. The hotel Lotus Villa agreed to keep one of our suitcases tomorrow as we will come back here on the 16th for a night’s stay.
We went to Le Banneton for lunch and had a really tasty veg sandwich and veg pizza. The iced chocolate was not very tasty because I don’t like watery iced chocolate :). The chocolate was of great quality. We also bought a few of their famed croissants to eat later. Got back to the hotel and slept for an hour or so.
It started to rain around 6 pm and we went out to get some dollars exchanged. The funny thing is Laos does not have denominations less than 500 kip and the banks conveniently keep the extra – if you have to be given 980 kip, you get only 500 kip, the balance 480 kip is not given. Similarly if you are to get 520 kip, you will be given only 500 kip. We wrote out a complaint and deposited in the complaints box. Lets see what the bank does with it. If 16 people are not given 480 kip the bank makes a dollar free!!
The rain intensified so we just got back to the hotel and I repacked the two suitcases in such a way that we could leave one behind. Will read some and sleep early today as we have to be ready by 8.30 am tomorrow for the minivan ride to Nong Khiaw.
Looking forward to tomorrow’s lunch at “Chennai” restaurant… long time since we have eaten spicy Indian food :).
Day 9 – Sept 11, 2016……. The day we learnt about being packed as Sardines!
We woke up early.. well, Krishnan woke up earlier and was ready even before I woke up. Trust him to not sleep if we are leaving early in the morning :). I also did well and we were at breakfast by 7.15 am. It had rained all night and it was raining still as we went for our breakfast so we had to sit in the tables in front of room number 11, 12 etc which had a solid roof overhead. We got our fruit juice and cut fruits and then we ate bread quickly and got up to leave when our server told us, that they had made sticky rice and Mango for us. We promised to eat that when we got back on the 16th and left to get our bags. We still didn’t have the minivan tickets so we called Phai. He said the Tuk-tuk driver will have the tickets. So, we took help from Bouta to bring our bags down to the reception and we left one of the suitcases with him.
The tuk-tuk driver came by 8.15 and he told Bouta that he doesn’t have the tickets. We were about to call Phai when he came on his bike and handed over our black sticky rice and then told us that the tickets are at the counter in the bus station. We thanked Phai and got onto the tuk-tuk and since we were the first to be picked up we stopped at many other places to pick up other folks. The first one to get on was an Italian who just had a backpack that the tuk-tuk driver swung over the top of the tuk-tuk :). It had a rain cover and the Italian gentleman didn’t mind. He told us that it has nothing breakable and that he had a policy of carrying faded worn out T.shirts and shorts when he travels so that he doesn’t have to worry too much about the clothes. Very different from the way we travel and maybe we need to learn! We kept talking all the way to the bus station. When we got there, the Italian gentleman very sweetly helped us get the heavy suitcase out of the tuk-tuk. We thanked him and I went to the ticket counter with the driver only to have him give some money to the lady at the counter and he just left. He didn’t speak any English but just nodded towards the lady to say she will give the tickets.
The lady asked me for the name of the hotel and then wrote out a ticket with the minivan’s number on top of the receipt. We went to the minivan number 3 and saw that they were loading all the luggage on top and a young European man helped us with lifting the suitcase. Then we looked into the Hyundai Starex and saw that a lady was already in the first row seat just behind the driver. We had asked Phai if we could get the front seats, and he called someone to get that arranged… but we realised that nothing called a seat number exists. Krishnan went and sat in the seat next to the driver and I got in there as well thinking that might be more comfortable. Wrong move. Our backpacks were beneath our feet as was the food bag. We looked back to see the minivan getting filled in quickly with 10 other people … fully packed. Then at 9.30 am started the worst ride of our lives.
The minivan driver wiped his sweat off on a denim jacket and threw it on the back of his seat which was the seat right next to me .. ouch. Then he stuffed his mouth with betel nut and walked in to the minivan, backed out and we started off towards Nong Khiaw. This was a manual gearshift so I was getting poked in my ribs every time the driver changed gears and he obviously had to change gears every so often. The road was ok with a few potholes and deep troughs every 50 or so kilometres. He stopped after an hour and a half at a petrol station and pointed to public toilets if anyone wanted to use them. We got out just to stretch and Krishnan decided to sit in the middle seat and he also checked with the driver if we could put our backpacks at the back of the van. There was just enough space to put both our backpacks there and then we sat down with Krishnan in the middle seat. Suddenly there was a bit of leg room and I felt a little better even though we both were squashed tight. No air-conditioning was offered ….
I was very very very upset and Krishnan tried to talk me out of it but it didn’t work – I just felt terribly let down because if we had known this is how a public minivan would be, we would have gladly paid a little more to go in a private taxi. Anyway, we reached Nong Khiaw bus stop in 3.5 hours as promised and there was no one to receive us at the bus stop. We thought someone was picking us up. I again called Phai and he asked me to contact the local Green Discovery office. We could not get through to them on the Laos mobile because we were probably dialling the wrong way. We checked with a passerby as to where the hotel was and we were told it was just a few metres from the bus station. We pulled the suitcase along and went out and walked just 20 metres and found Mandala Ou, our hotel to the right. The hotel was a sight for sore eyes and sore bodies :). The owner Nicholas helped us with the suitcase and our spirits revived a bit when we saw the river flowing and the beautiful room at Mandala Ou. A representative from Green Discovery came by because Phai had called him. He told us to be ready at 8.30 am tomorrow for our boat trip and the day long sight seeing tour.
Since it was around 2 pm – we asked Nic where the “Chennai” restaurant was and walked down to it to have lunch. On the way while crossing the bridge we met the Italian gentleman from Luang Prabang and he enquired after our minivan ride. We told him it was terrible. Apparently the driver of the minivan he was in, was extremely rash and people were getting tossed around. They also had no air-conditioning since the driver said it wasn’t working! He was looking for an agency to do a boat ride tomorrow and we told him to check out Green Discovery.
At “Chennai” we ate dosas and some fried rice and then pakoras. Underwhelming and actually not great fare. The food was ok but no coconut chutney, nothing spicy and no sambar. Maybe our experience with the minivan ride put us in a black mood!!. We spoke to the Indian guy there who was not the owner and he didnt know much. The owner is from Karaikal and has gone out for a couple of days. We walked back to the hotel and just slept for sometime. Got up around 6 pm and went out to chat with Nic. He is a German who lived for many years and went to school in the UK and has been in South East Asia for nearly 14 years, about 4 of them in Laos. He has a dog called butter who is really sweet and she came and just slept on Krishnan’s slipper right between us and Nic when we were chatting :). We chatted about politics, people, culture etc and then just crashed out. We were fast asleep by 8.30 pm.
Fact – the public minivan in Laos won’t have air-conditioning even if its advertised as an AC minivan. It will get loaded to its full capacity and more. No seats will be assigned, so if you have a problem sitting at the back, don’t even get onto them.
We have decided not to go to Luang Namtha and the home stay is definitely out… This was a difficult day and am pissed. Thats not what we want to feel on a holiday. We may just go back sooner if there are no private taxis, vans available… can’t travel this way.
Anyway, lets see what tomorrow brings.
Day 10 – Sept 12, 2016…. A buddhist Israeli, vegetarian Indians and a fun Italian go on a boat ride!
We managed to wake up early as we had slept really early last night. We went out for a walk to see the morning market that is open between 6 to 7.30. Its about half a kilometre from the bus station just before the two schools on either side of the road. The morning market was interesting and lots of fresh vegetables are sold. Mostly ladies have the stalls. They also sell food items like buns, bread and a “kachori” like snack. We didn’t buy anything but just looked around. Also early morning the radio news is broadcast over speakers set half a kilometre apart. We also chanced upon the alms giving ceremony at Nong Khiaw, fewer monks, but they also chant a blessing to every lady who gives alms.
We came back to an amazing breakfast. Yoghurt finally!! Fruits, Croissants, bread, milk, muesli and filter coffee. They even offered to make noodle soup, pad thai or fried rice if we wanted, but we said no. Ate well, and were ready by 8.30.
The tuk-tuk came to pick us up and our Italian friend was in the tuk-tuk. He too was doing the boat trip with us. Our guide for the day was Joy. We reached the boat station and got into the six seater boat for our ride to Muong Ngoi. We first stopped at a village enroute and because of the rains, the walkway was muddy and slippery but we managed to get up to the village. This village has some 40 families and about 160 people living here. There is a primary school and people generally do agriculture and some weaving for livelihood.
From this village a short distance later, Joy stopped the boat for the walk to the waterfall. It was again a slippery slope and he said it would take an hour of climbing through a muddy trail and an hour of climbing down. I chose not to do the trek and we asked Alex (our Italian gentleman) to go ahead and we decided to wait in the boat. Then Joy suggested that we could go to the Muong Ngoi village first and then come back to see the waterfall. Alex agreed, so we set off towards the Muong Ngoi village. This is a quaint little village and if one wants to just hide in a scenic place, this is it. There are Indian restaurants, Italian restaurants and of course Lao cuisine and plenty of guest houses and hotels to stay. We walked upto the school and I managed to photograph many butterflies. Thats the other thing we are enjoying in Laos – everywhere you find colourful butterflies flitting about… as we think back to India, the cities have hardly any butterflies :(.
We didn’t go to the caves here that were used as bomb shelters during the secret war because the way was again muddy and slushy. If one comes to Laos during the rainy season, bring rubber boots that you can wash and reuse. It is just muddy everywhere.
Alex wanted to stop for an Espresso at the Italian restaurant and we did. We also had a cappuccino each and Joy drank a cold soda. It was good cappuccino. From Muong Ngoi, as we were getting into the boat, a young girl thought it was a public boat and wanted to get in as she was headed towards Nong Khiaw. We asked Joy if its ok for him to take her across as Alex and we were ok with it. He was ok too so we put her bag into the boat and she joined us as we turned back. She is Israeli and was backpacking across Laos and she had been to India last year. She has been to Manali (Vasisht), Mcleodganj, Varanasi and Bodh Gaya. She gets three weeks off from work each year and uses them to travel.
From Muong Ngoi we stopped at yet another village which Alex and the young Israeli girl visited as we were not very keen to visit. The next stop was for lunch at yet another village. We just used an outdoor table at one of the houses. Joy had brought Lao food, packed with him but because there was a communication gap, it ended up being sticky rice, omelette, fish and some fish sauce in the vegetable curry. We just ate a couple of slices of cucumber and the young Israeli then told us that she doesn’t eat meat as she follows Buddhism and doesn’t like the way animals are treated in Israel and other parts of the world. We had an interesting conversation about food and what people eat for breakfast. So, our Indian brothers and sisters – please stop thinking that Italians eat Pizza everyday. They don’t. They eat rice and pasta everyday and pizza is probably once a week.
When we were sharing about the Indian breakfast options we realised that most of the world seems to have a limited menu when it came to breakfast. India on the other hand has a huge breakfast menu :). We then went for a short walk till the village school after lunch. Alex had decided not to go to the waterfall because he felt if he has seen one, he has seen enough!! He is training for a full marathon in November.
We got back on the boat and we were back at Nong Khiaw by about 2 p.m. Then the Israeli girl found out where she had to go to catch her bus to Luang Namtha and she got onto the same tuk-tuk as us and got dropped at the bus station while we got dropped at Mandala Ou. We ordered lunch at Mandala Ou and ate a really tasty sandwich and tastier fried rice.
Took a nap and just relaxed for the rest of the evening. We got in touch with Beyonder and confirmed that we could continue staying at Mandala Ou for the next three days and then we are still figuring out about the private car to go to the other places in the itinerary because the public minivan option is not one that we want to choose. Guess we should be able to finalise something tomorrow.
Day 11 – Sept 13, 2016 .. What is the probability of meeting a Danish young man in Laos, who knows four Tamil families settled in Denmark ?
While my genius friend Dr. Arun Krishnan works out the probability, I will tell you the story behind the question :). We decided to do nothing today, which is the right way to enjoy a holiday. We didn’t want to do any tour and hence we slept in late, woke up and had a leisurely breakfast, started my next novel in the Jack Reacher series – No. 8, “The Enemy” and Krishnan completed the first Cormoran Strike novel of Robert Galbraith “The Cuckoo’s calling”. The view outside our room is perfect for lazing around.
We decided to make some Puliyodharai (Tamarind rice) for lunch and had told Nic that we wanted one portion of steamed rice and one portion of sticky rice. We went and used the Puliyodharai mix to make the rice and since I couldn’t use the kitchen, I used half a lemon’s juice and some chilli flakes to add the spice and sour taste. We shared some of the Tamarind rice with Nic and the girls who work at Mandala Ou and they all liked it very much. We must carry a few more packs of this when we do these month long trips because rice is available everywhere, and this makes for an interesting spicy dish. The sticky rice really sticks so the curd rice didn’t turn out as nice and also the yoghurt available here is sweetened. There is no natural curd or yoghurt made in Laos, its usually imported from Thailand. We added a couple of green chillies to the rice but it didn’t work very well. So I didn’t offer it to Nic or anyone else and just Krishnan and I ate it up.
We took an afternoon nap and then went out for a walk around 7 p.m. As we walked past the Green Discovery office we saw a thin, really tall gentleman sitting at one of the tables and we knew this was probably Dennis, the country manager. What a surprise! We had tried to meet him at the Vientiane office but he wasn’t in the day we were at the office and Thor anyway took care of us so we didn’t meet him. We walked into the Green Discovery office and found Joy and asked him if this was Dennis as he was speaking to someone on his phone. Joy confirmed that this was Dennis and then we met him as soon as he completed his phone call. We shared our request for the private transfers and the experience of taking the public minivan. We also shared some of our feedback w.r.t the food (veg and non-veg being packed together), the tuk-tuk at Luang Prabang etc. We also asked for a detailed itinerary of the day to be shared with us as some of the guides were not very fluent in English and while that was ok, we didn’t want to miss seeing anything. As we chatted we realised that Dennis knew about the Tamil language because in his village in Denmark there are four Tamilian families from Sri Lanka. Just fascinating to think that a Danish guy and an Indian Tamilian couple will meet in a village in Laos and find that the Danish guy knew about Tamilians :). The world is small when you travel. And we are far more connected to each other across the world than we would like to believe.
We have gotten Dennis interested in Mongolia so we have to go tomorrow and show him the pictures of the Khuvsgul lake and other places in Mongolia. We left after the interesting chat with him and went over the bridge for a short distance before returning to the room.
I wanted to try using Skype to call Amma and I managed to pay Rs. 600 that allows me to make calls to mobile phones or land lines. Then I realised I had to download the Skype app on the laptop…. while completely forgetting that I had the app downloaded on my iPad!! I have used Skype during all my sessions with Jose and still I forgot about it. I changed the password so tried to re-login with the new password on my iPad and it didn’t work at all. At the point when I was about to give up, Skype started to work on Krishnan’s iPad and I called Amma. Amazingly clear call and cost us nothing to speak for 7 to 8 minutes. We wasted money buying the local SIM card and the Nokia phone ! Anyway another lesson learnt – we should find out if wi-fi works wherever we travel and it mostly will as the internet is the new God, omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent.
Day 12 – Sept 14, 2016
We woke up a little late as we both tried to complete our respective novels last night. It was also raining a bit so we couldn’t go out right away. When we stepped out it was nearly 7.30 so we decided to have our breakfast first and then go for our walk. We started our walk at about 8 am and by that time the morning market had shut down and the students were already in their classes. We borrowed an umbrella from Nic just incase it were to rain and walked all the way till the Swimming pool about 4 kms from Mandala Ou. We got back around 10 and it became a little warm by then.
We had a call with Beyonder to finalize our changed transport arrangements and then we washed some of our clothes. With this round of clothes we get fully upto date with the washing. Maybe one more round of washing at Vientiane is all that we will need. Krishnan’s expertise in washing clothes is improving largely because I am not trying to offer my expert opinion nor am I standing next to him when he is washing :):):). He is learning all by himself. Last year when we started the ShikshaDaan Yatra, I just told him what to focus on when washing clothes and then stayed away.
For lunch we decided to try “Deen”, the other Indian restaurant just before “Chennai”. “Deen” also was recommended by Nic. We started out around 4p.m and it was quite humid and hot still. Till the bridge we could walk in the shade of the buildings but after that the short walk across the bridge was quite warm. I got lots of positive “looks” as I wore a sari. We met the owner of Deen and he instantly reminded us of Latif, our Thekkady friend. He was friendly, spoke in Tamil and was candid about the taste being a little different from home. We opted to eat roti and a spicy kurma. While we waited he sent out tea and the tea tasted really good. Coming from a nitpicker like me, thats high praise, hahahahaha. We got the food in about 20 minutes and it was really tasty, nothing bland about it. Sure, it didn’t have the exact taste as in India but it was close and more importantly it was very tasty, flavourful and made with a lot of care. We enjoyed the food and asked for a plate of pakoras to be packed. We also placed the order for lunch tomorrow – vegetable biriyani and he is going to make some spicy side dish that is very popular. We then walked back a little slowly to Mandala Ou :). On the way we checked with Dennis if he would be in the office for us to show him the Mongolia pics. He said yes.
We got back to Mandala Ou around 6.35 pm and Krishnan met up with the young man who was going to drop us to Luang Prabang in his Toyota Hiace minivan on the 16th. I just took a short break and then packed our laptop and went out to meet with Dennis. We showed him the pictures of Mongolia and got him a little more interested in going there. Then we spoke about ShikshaDaan and what we do in India, spoke a little about the educational system in India, did some comparison with Laos and also shared the English Helper website details with Dennis. There is a lot of work that Green Discovery does with the rural and tribal people of Laos and Dennis shared the many challenges that women face. There is so much to do in every country across the world and especially the countries in South East Asia that have been in a way forgotten – Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar etc… We also told Dennis to go eat at Deen rather than Chennai where he didn’t enjoy his lunch much. We then walked back with a nice cool night breeze blowing.
The lottery day – today we found many young and old, men and women sitting outside with sheets of paper and something like a receipt book. First we thought it was the lottery, then we thought maybe some government tax official visit. While visiting the Green Discovery office we confirmed with Joy that it was indeed the lottery and its played on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Its all government controlled and the results are broadcast over radio or the television.
A great day that got better because of tasty food in the evening!!
Day 13 – Sept 15, 2016 .. Still in Nong Khiaw and loving it !
We are glad that we took the decision not to go to Luang Namtha from Nong Khiaw and then travel all the way back to Luang Prabang because by today we would have been truly exhausted and except for the homestay and the trekking we weren’t missing anything much.
We have been walking here for nearly 10 to 15 kms each day and feeling a lot better because the food is to our liking and the place is so gorgeous.
Today we went out for a 5 kms walk by 6.30 am. Some of the photographs from the morning walk –
The Deen restaurant was not open otherwise we were thinking of stopping by for filter coffee. We returned from our walk around 8.10 and ate breakfast. We managed to wish Nic goodbye as he was leaving for a trip to Thailand. We got back to the room and put the clothes we washed yesterday out to dry in the clothesline near the kitchen. We had tea and polished off the pakoras that we had bought from Deen’s yesterday. They were really tasty. We also spent an hour and a half listening to Osho’s discourse on The Dhammapada. Just hearing his voice is meditative and listening to it in the quiet environs of Mandala Ou was even more meditative. I started downloading the pictures and writing my blogs uninterrupted for a few hours from 11 am.
We also figured out what we had to do for our coach training session on Oct 7th. For the first time today, there was no water supply at the Mandala Ou. Apparently some problem with the water supply lines but usually there hasn’t been a problem at all. It did not get resolved the entire day and night … we got buckets of water and managed. Well, India prepares you for all these kind of emergencies :).
We went for our pre-ordered Biriyani lunch at Deen’s around 5 pm. Ohhhh we stuffed our faces – this was the most delicious Biriyani I have ever eaten. Mr. Deen had made two plates full of the Biriyani and one plate of curd rice. We could just eat 1.5 plates of Biriyani so we asked him to pack the rest for tomorrow. We also had the Lao filter coffee, again great taste. While we were sitting and chatting with Mr. Deen, a French tourist came by and she ordered a cheese Naan that she loved. She has been to India and wanted to come back for more of the Ayurvedic massage. I suggested Poovar’s Club Mahindra resort – the spa there is the best I have been to. oh the food was delicious and Mr. Deen said it right – if the heart is pure, then the food tastes good. We wholeheartedly agree. We shared our contact details with him and asked him to keep in touch. He never charged us for the coffee even !! What a nice man. Krishnan called it right, when he said that Mr. Deen reminds us of Latif, our Thekkady friend.
Walked back and packed for tomorrow’s trip back to Luang Prabang. We need to get the inner sole of my sandals fixed at Luang Prabang, it keeps slipping and is uncomfortable to walk if it bunches up.
Another relaxing day and a very productive day for writing … I love to write and the ambience here is just perfect for writing. I also completed reading the fourth Jack Reacher novel “The Hard Way”.
Day 14 – Sept 16, 2016 The first time we heard a Lao “horn”
Nothing changed w.r.t the water situation. So we took bath using the buckets and brushed our teeth like Amitabh Bachan in “mineral” water :). Yao, Nic’s wife told us to use the bottled water to brush our teeth and not the water in the buckets.
We were all packed and went for our breakfast early. Ate some muesli and had some Lao filter coffee with hot milk. Then we paid off our dues to Yao and brought out our packed bags to the reception area. Sat down to wait for our private minivan and it arrived sharp at 9.20 am. We were loaded up and left at 9.30. This is the only way we can travel … its a 15 seater Toyota Hiace and really comfortable. The AC works well. The route that the driver took is slightly different, like a loop and then it joined the regular route that the public minivan had taken to Nong Khiaw. For the first time, he honked while passing another vehicle… in nearly 15 days, we haven’t heard any of the drivers honking and it makes Laos a really quiet place.
On the way we saw the annual boat race from Luang Prabang to Bun Awk Phansa. We didn’t know it was happening today but just got lucky.
The air-conditioning was a little off and then the driver fixed something which made it just perfect. We reached around 1pm at Lotus Villa. It was fun to give directions to the Lao driver in his country because we know the three main roads of Luang Prabang so well now.
The clothes we had given for laundry were ready and we got back to our favourite room no. 7. It felt like coming home. We got the Biriyani heated and ate that first. Then Krishnan shaved and I read some more and we took a nap – its unbelievably hot today, and it may end up raining later at night. We got up around 5 and ate the curd rice – again Mr. Deen had added some more quantity to the plate and it tasted just great, so no complaints. He had given a pickle made of curry leaves and some of the spicy coconut chutney – we polished both off and also the curd rice.
We got down for our walk and locked ourselves out :). Oscar, the manager was at the front desk, so we spent some time chatting with him. We also asked for the fresh spring rolls in the breakfast tomorrow and checked if we could get a couple of portions of steamed rice packed for our lunch tomorrow. Since we will be driving down to Xieng Khuang, we wanted to eat the steamed rice with Paruppu podi rather than go looking for a restaurant. We then went out for our long walk along the Mekong and Nam Khan … instead of turning near the Super market after the Tourist office we turned on the next left and saw “Nisha” the Indian restaurant. We were too full to check it out. Its a day before the full moon day and we got some lovely photographs. The funny thing is Krishnan’s iPhone takes better pictures than the Nikon camera… looks like soon cameras will be passé.
Luang Prabang is magical with the two rivers flowing and the many different temples. A great place to chill out and meditate. Tomorrow we leave at 9 for our trip to Xieng Khuang.
Day 15 – Sept 17, 2016 Landslides, skidding vans and breathtaking scenery
It did rain last night and we ended up with power cuts. Laos is power surplus and intact supplies electricity to Thailand but there are seven new dams being built on the Nam Ou river and during the weekends, there are power cuts especially when they have to make some connections to the existing grid.
We woke up half asleep because without power the air-conditioning didn’t hold up for too long. We are well rested so we can manage the day. Had our favourite fresh spring rolls for breakfast and I even had time to write a blog before the private minivan came to pick us up. This was also a Toyota Hiace. Oscar helped us with the two suitcases and we left 5 minutes before 9.
The driver went and stopped at the bus station and I did get concerned for a few minutes :):) thinking he was maybe getting a few more passengers onboard. He was doing no such thing, just getting some document signed off by the authorities. Our 7 hour trip to Xieng Khuang began. The first landslide was not much of an issue, but the second one was tough … several vans skidded and were not able to get through. Finally a huge earth mover cleared the slush a bit and then we moved.
Our van also skidded a bit but it was ok. We encountered yet another land slide during the journey. The road is much better though than the Luang Prabang – Nong Khiaw section. The driver stopped every couple of hours for a stretch and toilet break. Krishnan used the toilet at one of the stops and it was absolutely clean – which is a great thing. Overall cleanliness in Laos is very very good … they are way ahead of India in this respect.
The driver stopped for lunch around 1 pm but we didn’t eat. The winding road is difficult to manage on a full stomach especially when we aren’t driving. After the third stop I started to get a little antsy about how much time it was taking .. the views are spectacular but I guess we miss having a tour guide to chat with about the country like we did in Mongolia.
We reached Xieng Khuang just before 4 pm and were checked into the hotel Anouluck Khaen Lao. The room is nice and spacious like a regular hotel room. Found a kettle but we couldn’t make tea as the inside base was completely rusted :(. Krishnan took it to the reception and the boy there tried to search for a replacement but didn’t get any. We just ate the steamed rice with Paruppu Podi and the Karam Podi that I had brought along and then walked down to the Nisha restaurant which is less than 50 metres from the hotel. We had Masala tea there and samosa. The Masala tea was fantastic but he gave us huge mugs so we ended up wasting one mug. The samosas were ok. The owner was a lot of fun to talk to as he has been in Laos for nearly 10+ years. He speaks well in Tamil and we chatted on many issues. I guess we have been spoilt rotten by Mr. Deen’s outstanding food … its going to be tough for the other Indian restaurants to stand up to that taste.
Got back to the hotel and just called Amma before crashing out. Tired. Tomorrow should be exciting – we have a packed day.
Day 16 – Sept 18, 2016 Plain of Jars – what did they pickle in them ?
I woke up in tears because I could not sleep well last night … the long winding roads left me with a crick on my left shoulder all the way from my neck downwards and I just could not turn on any side. The upper arm pain that I brought with me from India got aggravated too :(. Finally it dawned on me that probably it is what Krishnan has been saying all this while – reading on the iPad while lying down because my iPad is heavier. Earlier I even had a heavy leather cover on it, so thats what caused it. Krishnan taught me the shoulder exercises that Dr. Bharat Inder Singh had taught him for his upper arm and shoulder pain, and there was immediate relief. We went down to have breakfast and found that the young man in the reception had got us a replacement kettle. So we decided to have tea in the room and just eat breakfast in the restaurant. There were fruits and just baguettes with some tomatoes, cucumber, carrots and cabbage shredded… all the other stuff was non-vegetarian.
We had lots of fruit and a baguette sandwich each and then had tea in the room. Our guide and driver from yesterday were ready and waiting for us at 8.55 am and we set off on our sight seeing trip. The guide for today was Lian and he was all cheerful and very knowledgeable. Our first stop was at the Plain of Jars Site No. 1…
No one knows exactly what these stone jars were used for.. they are spread over several acres, site 1 being 25 hectares of land and some of these jars have been found in China, Indonesia and in Assam, India. One assumption is they were to cremate/bury the dead or they were to make the rice whiskey. The sight is awe-inspiring any which way. I think they must have been used also as pickle jars :). These have been dated between 2500 to 1500 years old and a few hundreds were lost during the secret war in the bombing.
From site 1, we drove down towards the old capital city of the Xieng Khuang province, called Muang Khoun. This city was nearly fully destroyed during the secret war and many temples were bombed out of existence… The world has lost such important parts of our civilisation and history to wars. The Bamian Buddhas in Afghanistan, the mesopotamian relics during the Iraq war and so many others that we don’t even know about. On the way we stopped at a house that was making rice noodles – the process is similar to making “yelai vadaam” the rice papad that Amma makes at home.
There are just a few remaining temples and they were also looted and the statues broken to check if there were treasures inside. We visited the Wat Phia Wat, one of the few remaining temples with a huge Buddha statue. A part of the face was destroyed during the Thai, Vietnamese and Chinese aggressions and rebuilt.
From this temple we went to the blackened hill top Stupa, the base of which has been tunnelled straight through to the other side by treasure seekers hoping to find more than a simple bone of the Enlightened One inside. Lan, our guide told us that ashes of the Buddha or some relic of the Buddha was brought from India and put inside this stupa, then a Buddha statue was placed inside it before building the stupa.
From the stupa we drove down to the jars Site No. 2. The driver and Lian took their lunch break while we just wandered around.
The stone jars had been initially found at 17 sites but now there are 58 sites where these stone jars have been found. The challenge in Laos is also to clear these areas of the UXO – unexploded ordinance, from the secret war. Americans bombed the Xieng Khuang province the most during the Vietnam war. There are 80 million UXOs still lying around :(:(.
The white van thats parked way below is actually the work of finding UXOs and clearing them… happens every single day.
From site 2 we went to the Ban Na Phia village or the spoon village! They make spoons and other useful stuff from the UXOs but we soon learnt that nowadays they get aluminium from the factory and use that to make the spoons, since the UXO material is harmful to be used for eating or cooking.
We bought a tiny aluminium “stone jar” and a spoon to remember the secret war!
Got back to the hotel by about 2 p.m. Went for lunch to Lao Falang an Italian restaurant just outside our hotel. The food was fantastic and this restaurant is definitely recommended. We came back and took a small nap, woke up and watched the 10th re-run of the movie “Bridge of Spies” :):).
The shoulder exercises are really helping. Just about to do another round of them before sleeping. Tomorrow we start at 9 am to drive to Vang Vieng, the erstwhile backpackers party paradise.
Day 17 – Sept 19, 2016 “Inthira” to the rescue
It was going to be a crazy day, and the symptoms started to show right with the breakfast! We got dressed and then went down to have our breakfast at about 7.40 am. Found that the fruit platter had just papaya and nothing else. We asked the server if more fruit could be brought out and he gave us a helpless shrug, went into the kitchen and came out to say, “no fruit”. We just went to the reception and told the person sitting there, that its silly that we don’t even get fruits. Our challenge being, fruits and bread are the only edible things in the breakfast spread for us vegetarians. Everything else had egg, fish or meat in it. The boy in the reception came with us to the restaurant and got a few words from the server in Lao but the result was no different – they had no fruits. The strangest part is that the fruit market is less than 25 metres from the hotel… they couldn’t even think of getting us some fruit from there.
We were pissed off and walked into a nearby restaurant to have some fruit juice. The reception guy came with us and tried to apologise but it didn’t really help us in anyway. We thought we will atleast get bread and some cucumbers and tomatoes for a sandwich from the breakfast spread. So we went back after having our juice, only to find that we were polishing off the last few pieces of cucumber and tomatoes. I again asked for those and got the same helpless shrug. Anyway, our driver was expected around 8.30 so we quickly ate some bread with a few pieces of cucumber and tomatoes and went up to the room. The driver was ready at the reception by 8.30 and we brought down all the luggage. He quickly loaded it up and we left by 8.45 am itself.
On the way he stopped at the Nong Tang lake and we took a few photographs. Its quite tiny – maybe spread behind the hill which we couldn’t see. Then between Ban Nam Chat and Phou Koun we had a near escape from a certain accident – in Laos people don’t honk and this bus came at full speed across a curve and our driver adjusted at the last minute. I was sure that the bus was going to ram into us, but well, we are happy that didn’t happen. The driver slowed down a bit over the next 50 kms and rightfully so. He was a good driver, just got shaken up a bit. He didn’t stop for lunch at Phou Koun but went a little further to stop at a view point. This was quite a stunning viewpoint and we again took pictures here.
We stopped for lunch at Kasi – not the Kasi in India but the Kasi in Laos. I asked the driver to check if the restaurant will steam the rice noodles that we had bought yesterday. They readily agreed and we ate those rice noodles with our “karam” (super spicy) powder. Oh, they tasted yum. The girls at the restaurant didn’t want any money for steaming the noodles so we bought a soft drink instead, just to pay them something.
Just before reaching Vang Vieng, the driver hit the brakes suddenly and we saw a beautiful snake crossing the road quickly :). We reached Vang Vieng by 2.30 itself and the driver dropped us off at Hotel Savanh. The second chapter of the crazy day started at the hotel … the room was a throwback to some of the Tamil Nadu tourism hotel rooms in India – the bathroom was drab, the room had plastic curtains and no kettle in the room. I pushed the curtains aside to see wonderful looking garbage piled outside :(. I was still having some of the discomfort in my shoulder and just wanted to sleep for some time. So we took a nap and then when Krishnan went to ask for a kettle is when we realised the room didn’t have one. He was told no room will have a kettle and breakfast was only between 7 to 8.30 … after that, no food. Krishnan also checked out the VIP room thinking it might be a little better. Well, the VIP would get toasted in the bedroom without the AC since the AC was in the living room of the VIP room !
I was just pissed – this is not the type of rooms where we like to stay. We called Anita at Beyonder and said that we wanted to be shifted to Inthira hotel, that was just 350 metres from this place and surprisingly their standard rooms cost less than this place. The sad part is, our communication doesn’t seem to be reaching either Thor at Green Discovery or Anita at Beyonder – we are not the typical, “budget” backpackers kind of travellers. We have a budget, but we like to travel in comfort. Anyway it started to rain heavily. Anita managed to get somebody from Green Discovery to come over and take us to Inthira. It finally happened at 8.45 pm. The suitcases and the backpack got wet but the minute we saw the rooms in Inthira, we were at peace. Also the guys who received us were so welcoming!!
We managed to get the suitcases wiped dry and power got cut since the rain intensified. We asked for some tea and waited in candlelight for the power to come back, which it did around 9.45 pm. I managed to speak to Amma and then we setup some of the stuff that we needed for an early start tomorrow.
So glad to sleep in this beautiful room rather than the one at Savanh. Hope the trek is interesting tomorrow.
Day 18 – Sept 20, 2016 A snake, many butterflies and an awesome lunch
We had breakfast early so that we would be ready for the guide by 8.30 am. The portion sizes in Inthira are huge and they had rambutan in fruits besides bananas and pineapple.
The guide was ready for us at 8.30 am and we set off in a tuk-tuk to pick up another guest who was doing some kayaking. We dropped that guest off at the kayaking point and then we got dropped near the elephant cave.
We started our walk across the dancing bridge over the Nam Song river and reached the elephant cave.
This has a huge Buddha foot … Buddha must have been a colossus if that were to be his footprint ! The cave has stalagmite and stalactite and one of the formations looks like an elephant and hence the name.
After the elephant cave we started to trek across paddy fields and a mini teak forest to reach the “snail” cave. Just as we were near the snail cave we saw a thin snake on top of a tree in front of us. It jumped to the ground and took off quickly but I managed to capture it on the camera :). The way to the snail cave was really muddy and we didn’t want to go in. Krishnan just went up till the entrance and got back. I also captured many butterflies on photographs – they are just everywhere.
From the snail cave we went to the blue lagoon – just another set of caves where people do tubing. We didn’t and most people we saw also didn’t since the river was flowing full and there was hardly any headroom in the caves. We stood around for a few minutes and then started our trek towards the Hmong village. We walked besides a canal and saw many more butterflies.
At the Hmong village, we met many school students who were returning to school after their lunch break. It started to drizzle a bit so we stood under an extended roof till it stopped. The tuk-tuk came and picked us up here.
Our next stop was the Organic Mulberry farm. We enjoyed the mulberry and hibiscus juice while the guide ate his lunch. We walked around the organic farm and found many interesting trees and plants.
From the organic farm we got dropped back at the hotel around 2.30. We went up, freshened ourselves up and then went to the number 1 rated restaurant in Vang Vieng called “Viman Vang Vieng”. A Thai-German man owns this restaurant and the minute he saw us, he said he can make a vegetarian thai curry for us. We said yes and sat down sipping a lemon soda while he made the food. He cooks all the food himself. The place is spotlessly clean and he washes his hands some 50 times!!!
We ate the best Thai curry today. The coconut milk was creamy and the flavours were just awesome. We enjoyed our lunch but still wanted a snack because the food was so tasty, so the owner made potato fries for us. Thats a German snack .. well, I guess its a universal snack :). We sat around chatting with the owner for sometime and then got back to the hotel and just crashed. While the heat during the trek seemed bearable, the after effects were felt later in the day.
Anyone visiting Vang Vieng MUST eat at Viman Vang Vieng. The food is really delicious.
Good day today.
Day 19 – Sept 21, 2016 A day of doing nothing
We just took it easy today. Also we needed some additional sleep to get over the walk yesterday because it was quite hot and humid, even though we didn’t realise it while walking. We had a late breakfast by Lao standards. Infact we had some fresh watermelon juice after a long time. The fruits are really tasty in Laos and are available in plenty. Then for lunch we just got some steamed rice and ate it with the paruppu podi. We also got the balance of the rice noodles steamed and ate it like the last time with the super spicy powder.
I completed the fourth novel starring Jack Reacher called “The hard way”. This book was a little underwhelming because I could figure out the plot midway. But still it was an interesting read. Krishnan and I are becoming serious fans of Jack Reacher. We called Sirisha over WhatsApp to wish her on her birthday. She thought I had forgotten :). How can I forget Siru’s birthday ever… she is one of my closest friends for such a long time. Today is also Kokka’s birthday, he finally accepted Amma’s wishes – he keeps shifting between 20th and 21st 🙂 Crazy cousin of mine – and yes, the one person who has known me from the day I was born.
Later in the evening we went out for a long walk and walked into “Veggies” a nice vegetarian restaurant and probably the only one that we have come across in our travel through Laos so far. Its on the same side as Inthira and about half a kilometre on the right. There is a Nazim’s Indian restaurant on the opposite side of Veggies. This is a better looking Nazim’s than the one opposite Inthira. We ate a hummus a pita bread platter and it was ok, not the tastiest but not bad either.
We also got the Pakse hotels changed because we were not happy with the selection that Green Discovery had made. This trip has not allowed us to enjoy Laos in all its beauty because of nagging issues with transportation, accommodation and a lack of care on the part of Green Discovery. They have constantly tried to slot us into the backpacker type transportation and accommodation inspite of clearly explaining to them that we aren’t backpackers and don’t enjoy that kind of travel. Their guides have been excellent but everything else just lacks empathy and care for the customer. So we have had to spend time in every location planning for the next one and thats not why we hired a tour agent! While we booked the tour through Beyonder in India, Green Discovery is their on ground partner here in Laos. Anita at Beyonder has been ultra responsive and we have probably troubled her quite a bit. We are the easiest people to work with if expectations are met – but unfortunately it has just been a series of gaffes on ground. 🙁
Tomorrow we are off to Vientiane.
Day 20 – Sept 22, 2016 …. A room that ends before it begins
For a long time I thought the room we stayed in at Istanbul for the first 2 nights in Sept of 2010 was the smallest room anywhere. Well, that room has a new contender. The room that we have at Mixay Paradise is just 8’X6′, maybe less :(. The reception informed us that coffee and pieces of baguette that were kept at the restaurant were free till 5 p.m. After that you had to pay for it. Ok. There are a million rules printed all over the place but really the room takes the cake. We just dumped our bags and went to have some food at Namaste India.
I am in a “Gripy” mood so here goes – I wonder why Indian restaurants overseas make the food so greasy, oily and just a gooey mess ???? We have such amazing food in India, healthy and fresh, but our restaurants will convince you that we have just oily, spicy and “curried” food! The rotis were nice, light and I guessed it must be a pahadi chef and was proven right when we met him after lunch. South Indians don’t get the thin “roti” concept :). The chana masala and Alu Gobi had a film of oil and some indeterminate sauce in which they were floating. They tasted ok, and the sauce was nothing more exotic than our trusted onion-tomato-ginger paste, but thats not the only masala in every vegetarian dish. I guess we have been spoilt by Mr. Deen and his awesome cooking. Not a trace of oil in the “awesome” veg Biriyani or the veg korma that he served. Anyway, we ate happily because the food atleast didn’t have the omnipresent smell of fish. Washed it all down (Kapil style) with lassi. We also discussed with the owner about options for us to pack and take with us to eat during the layover in Bangkok on Oct 2nd. Lets see… maybe we will land on curd rice. hmmm.
From Namaste India we walked to Green Discovery’s office to do the part payment for all the transport changes we made since coming to Laos. Met the mighty Mr. Thor and explained our woes all over again… Not sure how much of it reached him. He hoped that the rest of the trip would be good. We certainly hope so. We told him about Mixay Paradise and the tiny room but he didn’t pickup on the hint and I guess that was expecting too much.
We walked back to Mixay Paradise, took a short nap and then went out to the river front for a long walk. The night market was on in full force and its quite a spectacle. The Luang Prabang night market is tiny in comparison and less noisy. Apparently there you get authentic Laos made products while the Vientiane night market mostly sells clothes made in Vietnam. We walked to one end of the riverfront and saw some nice looking upmarket kind of stores and walked a bit more to investigate. Saw a “gelato” place and I think I saw Dennis walk away from there towards his bike. Not sure if he would have exchanged pleasantries if he had noticed us – doesn’t seem very friendly. Probably we are too old and don’t fit his idea of customers!!
The gelato was outstanding and we enjoyed eating it. We then walked back to Mixay Paradise.
I didn’t mention the nice driver who picked us up from Vang Vieng and drove us to Vientiane. On the way we found many stores selling dried fish – “karvadu” (Tamil word). I was worried when the driver stopped and tried to buy some… I probably would have puked because the smell is strong. Luckily he didn’t buy any and we were relieved. The road is easy and relatively straight and no hairpin bends to make the journey difficult. We left Vang Vieng only by 10 am and were in Vientiane under 3 hours without driving too fast.
Now the ride tomorrow to Kong Lor caves.
Day 21 – Sept 23, 2016.. The best driver and a non-functional resort !
For the first time in Laos we had a driver who could speak English quite well and I want to start with that rather than the disastrous Mixay Paradise breakfast. We had to get a coupon to get two slices of bread each and for fruit juice they had short glasses…. the coffee was good. There were a few slices of watermelon on the buffet table and somehow having a retinue of hotel folk watching you pick an extra piece of butter is unnerving :(. Back off guys. Either don’t serve breakfast or be happy serving it and let people eat without you staring at them.
We ate something and then walked out to the bakery a few stores down the road to pick up a couple of fresh croissants and chocolate eclairs for the road. As we stepped out we found a familiar face – Noy, our first guide waved out enthusiastically from a Green Discovery tuk-tuk. The Green Discovery tuk-tuk is as worn down as everywhere else… some poor sucker will enjoy the ride today. Just saying.
Ok, let me say the more important stuff. We woke up at 4.30 am and the first thing we did was to book ourselves into S Park Design Hotel for the 25th and oct 2nd nights. We cannot stay in Mixay Paradise, period. I informed mighty Mr. Thor and Anita about the change and they can keep the cancellation money and settle it amongst themselves. We didn’t want to hear Mr. Thor whine again about cancellation :(. But well, we were in for a surprise. We were destined to hear Mr. Thor whine about cancellation one more time, his parting whine I guess!
We loaded up the car by 8.15 itself and left before 8.30 am. Our driver was “One” and we enjoyed asking him many questions that we struggled with others. The ride was smooth and we slept a little because Mixay was no paradise to sleep in. The guide joined us at a place before Thakek about 82 kms from Kong Lor. His name was “Kaan”, pronounced without the epiglottis coming into use :):). Ok, for non-Indians who might not have watched the movie called “My name is Khan”, the superstar who is the main protagonist in the movie insists with everybody on pronouncing his name correctly as “Khan” which requires the use of the epiglottis.
We stopped at a view point and it was stunning to see the limestone peaks … really stunning. The road wound around a bit for about 15 kms before becoming straight again, but broken mostly.
We reached the Kong Lo view resort and were at first thrilled with the look of it. Its beautiful. BUT, we realised that the resort was nearly shut down – just the housekeeper was there. No food, no wifi (the owner took away the router)…. One spoke to mighty Mr. Thor about changing our hotel to the Springfield resort, a couple of kms away. The smart One had called them and confirmed that they had a room available and there were people to make some food. Mr. Thor whined again about cancellation and we were pissed as it is, so we asked One and Kaan to speak to the house keeper and find out if they can give us some breakfast tomorrow. She agreed to do that so we just took a room and decided to stay. The room is beautiful and we are sure the resort would be fantastic during the high season. This is the low season and mighty Mr. Thor and even mightier Green Discovery should have asked before booking us here and how the heck can there be a cancellation whining because when the resort is shut down, how can they charge cancellation???, but mighty Mr. Thor did whine and thats that. There seems to be some Karmic retribution at play here !!!
One and Kaan took us to a nearby restaurant and got us steamed rice and the paruppu podi came to the rescue again. Lunch done. We just went into the room and napped, very irritated and unable to do anything about the situation. To add to our woes the state supplied power supply got cut off at 4 pm…. no electricity till nearly 7 pm and the resort folk switched on the generator. Luckily the power supply was restored and we slept well in a nice bed and good air-conditioning. We also laughed some listening to cricket news on PTV, yeah our dear neighbour, Pakistan’s TV channel.
Day 22 – Sept 24, 2016 .. Mouldy bread to start the day and the most awesome sights in Laos !
We were ready by breakfast time at 7.30 am. Kaan was already there, he was probably worried that we won’t get any food at all. The housekeeper very sweetly brought tea first. We brought out our jaggery and milk powder and had great tea. Then the housekeeper brought the bread, slightly toasted and well it was mouldy on one side. Probably because the electricity was off last evening, so there might have been some moisture inside the fridge. She immediately took it away and we asked for steamed rice.
We asked if there was milk, but they had none. We got freshly made steam rice and asked for hot water to make milk using the Everyday milk powder that we were carrying. This is the best thing about travelling constantly – you learn “jugaad” solutions. In Mongolia, at the ArDavhar camp we were served rice, milk and sugar as breakfast and it tasted great. So I made milk using hot water and Everyday milk powder, used jaggery instead of sugar and added the rice to make the same dish as the Mongolian one. We loved the taste and ate well.
Now the question for mighty Mr. Thor and Green-behind-their-ears Discovery is, what would have happened if we hadn’t carried these things and were left with just steamed rice as an option for breakfast ???? The answer from them is – “we don’t care”.
Kaan was very upset that such a thing happened with breakfast so we told him not to worry about it. The problem was not with the resort or with him, the problem was mighty Mr. Thor. Anyway, we walked towards the boat station for the 7 km boat ride into the Kong Lor cave. We got ourselves life jackets and got onto a boat to cross to the other side and then walked a short distance to the mouth of the cave and got into another boat there, a motorboat. The most amazing boat ride started and in just a few minutes we were in complete darkness save for the headlamps and the torch that we had got with us. The stalagmite and stalactite formations are eerie and fascinating. The boat stopped about 20 minutes into the ride and we got off at a beach and walked through the most amazing stalagmite and stalactite formations we have seen anywhere. We have seen these kinds of formations at Cherrapunji, Meghalaya but we never go into the caves there, but here you are actually walking through them.
We walked down to our boats on the other end and within minutes our boatman hit the boat on a rock :):). No damage done and we just got our shorts all wet. We got back on track and did the rest of the trip without any bump. Just when we were about to exit the cave, there was a rocky patch and we waded through the water and got onto the boat again. Also in certain caves we had bats flying around. Its a fascinating trip and one that Laos tourism must encourage. We got off at the other end and just walked around for 15 minutes. Its a different district on the other side. We didn’t want to visit any of the tribal villages since we have seen enough villages. We got back on the boat and the ride back was easy-peasy and we were back on the starting side in about an hour. So the way in you take about 90 minutes because you stop and walk around one of the caves, but on the way back its just a straight ride back.
Our driver One had come there just to meet his friends. We walked back to the resort and Krishnan and I made a tiny cute snake to miss its lunch as the frog jumped away and we were a little close to the snake than was comfortable for him. He slithered away quickly. This is the third snake that we are seeing in a week’s time.
We changed into dry clothes and put out our clothes to dry at the resort. We told Kaan that we will go to Springfield resort for lunch at 2 pm. One and Kaan picked us up at 2 and we had a lovely lunch at Springfield resort. The resort had wifi and we were able to chat again with Anita with another set of woes!
We got back to Kong Lo view resort and just spent the time reading and reliving our amazing boat ride. We have decided to have breakfast at Springfield resort tomorrow and have asked One to pick us up at 7 am.
Day 23 – Sept 25, 2016 Finally a hotel that is welcoming !
Folks travelling to Vientiane, please choose to stay at S Park Design hotel. They are not super expensive, just mid-range but the rooms are beautiful, large, funky designs and the service is just outstanding.
We just polished off a complimentary fruit platter that the hotel sent up to our room, because Krishnan went and spoke to the reception about breakfast tomorrow and our vegetarian diet. How sweet ! After the way we have been treated by the mighty Mr. Thor and Green-behind-the-ears Discovery’s leadership, this was a welcome change and showed the care that a hotel must show. The best part is, the fruit platter is not stale like in the Indian hotels, but freshly cut fruits! Thank you S Park Design Hotel. We are thrilled.
We reached the hotel just before 1.30. We started from the Kong Lo view resort at 7 am, stopped for an underwhelming breakfast at Springfield Resort and then drove down to Vientiane. We dropped off Kaan just where we picked him up and then stopped a couple of times once we were inside Vientiane to pick up some bread. We also stopped at a place midway to buy some steamed corn and One picked up fish steamed in banana leaves for his mom. There was no smell of fish from the banana leaf packets and the steamed corn was outstanding. They steam the corn with the covering leaves and the corn is not GM corn, so it tastes sweet.
We said good bye to One at the hotel and wished him well. He is a smart man and will certainly do well.
We ate some of the bread and the corn mixed with lemon juice and the spicy powder for lunch. Very tasty jugaad meal. Called mom since I couldn’t speak to her from Kong Lo view. She is fine and is learning some recipes from Mami (my eldest aunt) who is staying with her for a few days. Amma was 8 years old when Mami got married to my uncle… she could be almost her mom. And Mami is a great cook. Hopefully Amma will learn some interesting recipes :):).
Took a short nap and packed for Pakse. We are leaving a suitcase here and just picking it up when we reach back here on Oct 2nd. What a difference a good hotel makes to one’s mood !!
Looking forward to Pakse tomorrow.
Day 24 – Sept 26, 2016 Pakse
11:04 pm, Pakse Hotel, Room number 405
We just got back from a short 5 km walk …. Most places in Laos start shutting down by 9 pm and the streets are deserted but the best part is you feel safe. There are enough street lights and some of the restaurants and pubs are open till 11 p.m, but even if you are walking in a completely quiet place where there is no activity, you will feel safe. Thats one of the best things about Laos. We have hardly seen police presence anywhere except during President Obama’s visit to Luang Prabang.
We left at 7 am today from Vientiane’s S Park Design hotel. The breakfast was served as promised by 6.30 am and they had amazing pineapple and melon in the fruits section. The pineapples grow locally and are really sweet. We had some cereal with yoghurt after the fruits just to keep us going till we reached Pakse. Its too early to eat. The driver was in the reception before 6.30 am to take us to the airport. The airport is just 5 minutes away, 1 km from this hotel.
The check-in counter had a big group of students from a world school, probably 8th grade who were also checking in for the Pakse flight. Ah, my respect for teachers went up a notch. Kids are so difficult to manage!! Each one had a different view and they would wander off to find something interesting and there was one boy who was restless like Krishnan and wanted to be the first off the block. Some of the kids were really tall for 8th graders. Most of them held an American passport but we did see some other coloured passports as well. Finally the school group was separated and we were asked to check-in from the other counter. We did and went and sat at the departure lounge.
While waiting for the flight to be announced we realised that there are flights also to Luang Namtha and to Huay Xai from Vientiane. There were a couple of tribal ladies with headgear that was similar to our Rajasthani Lambadis (gypsies), very pretty, and they took a flight to Huay Xai. We could have done the Luang Namtha trip as well, if only we knew there were flights !! We seem to have taken the difficult road trip everywhere.
Our flight got announced only by 8.35 when the actual departure time was 8.30 am. We walked into the plane and this was an ATR, smaller plane with two seats on either side. The flight just sat there for nearly 30 minutes before the pilot announced that some VIP was landing and that was why we were a little delayed. We were delayed by nearly 45 minutes and took off around 9.15 am. The flight to Pakse was uneventful and we landed at the tiny Pakse airport with one baggage carousel by 10.30 am. While waiting for the luggage to arrive, we had the pleasure of watching the same restless 8th grader checking with his teacher, about how long it would take to reach their hotel. When she said it would take 40 minutes he was heart broken and I don’t know why :):).
We got our bags and the Green Discovery cab driver was ready with our name boards. We reached the Pakse Hotel in about 10 minutes. Its beautiful. The reception itself is so inviting and warm. We got into the room and again the room is beautiful. We just read for sometime and then went out to have our lunch at an Indian restaurant called Jasmin. This is the hotel that the owner of the Nisha restaurant at Phonsavan had told us about. We ate a Veg biriyani and some curd rice….. Mr. Deen has just spoilt us rotten. Everyone goes up against him and fails miserably because the taste of his food still lingers !! I have the same problem with these guys as with the Chennai Restaurant (Nong Khiaw) and the Nisha Restaurant (Phonsavan). Laos is a place where you get most of the ingredients that you need to make Indian food, but these guys don’t want to make an effort at all while Mr. Deen takes extra effort in making tasty food. We asked if they have curd rice and were told no, we don’t make it. C’mon, you have rice and you have made a passable curd, all you have to do is sputter some mustard and green chillies and add some salt and mix everything together for great tasting curd rice. If a restaurant cannot even do that much, its really strange. Guess what, they had no customers as its the low season in Laos. If only they had made the extra effort, they would have got regular business from us for the next 5 days. Now they won’t get it.
After lunch, we went to the Green Discovery office to discuss our pickup time for tomorrow’s trip. We go to the Bolaven Plateau, the place where coffee grows. So we will start at 8.30 am.
Reached the hotel and took read some more, took a short nap and then spoke to Amma for some time. The view outside our room is stunning and we enjoyed that for some time and then went out for a walk.
Life is good. Maybe we will get amazing coffee tomorrow that will make it better :).
Day 25 – Sept 27, 2016 Some Karmic debt we are paying back!!
I don’t know where to begin … Since we were to go to Bolaven Plateau today which is the coffee plantation place in Laos, I decided to wear the spun gold coloured Cooptex Arani silk sari. Wore my tights (shorts) underneath since we were to trek for about an hour and a half.
We got ready in time and the minivan was also outside. Infact the guide had called the room ahead saying he was outside. We got clothes for laundry that we wanted to drop off in the laundry outside the hotel since the laundry charges in the Pakse hotel were really high. We dropped off the clothes at the laundry place that is just across from Pakse Hotel and realised that overall the laundry prices are higher in Pakse. Anyway, before I got into the minivan, the guide told me whether I wanted to change my dress to which I replied, I could trek in the sari. ….. the first sign of trouble was right there, but we didn’t cotton onto it.
We reached the dirt road where the trek starts by about 9.30 am. On the way we passed the Dao coffee factory, which is apparently owned by a Vietnamese. Our guide was named Kamalai and he kept insisting about umbrellas or raincoats. We said no, saying ideally Green-behind-the-ears Discovery should be loaning them for tourists like us. When I book with a tour operator, I look forward to being supported with these kind of one-off gear. I don’t expect them to have shoes in my size, but umbrellas are a nuisance to carry and rain ponchos are free size !. Anyway, the dirt road that we got dropped off at was an easy walk upto the village that has coffee plantations. They grow Arabica and Robusta varieties in Laos and surprisingly they don’t prune the coffee bushes like we do in Coorg. The coffee plants grow into trees and they yield for about 10 years before they are cut down and new plants are planted. We traded notes on the price of coffee that has been de-pulped or not de-pulped and found India and Laos prices to be comparable. Kamalai was amused by the fact that we had a coffee plantation of our own back home .. maybe he was wondering what the heck we were doing in Bolaven plateau :).
The trek started innocuously enough but soon about a 1.5 kms we went down an incline and had to cross a river stream by getting our shoes wet. That was the first sign of trouble and I told Krishnan that we should turn back but he motivated me to go on, saying just a couple of river streams shouldn’t be a problem for us. I agreed and went across the river stream and we started the climb up through slippery slushy mud. I asked the guide how much of this trek had inclines because I told him, we can walk for any number of kilometres on flat ground but we didn’t want to keep climbing up and down hillsides. We had made that clear to mighty Mr. Thor, and also to the Green Discovery guy at the reception yesterday in their office. The guide said just about 50 to 70 metres of incline so we trudged on. Then came another rivulet and another incline and then yet another and finally I asked the guide, what is the total distance to the waterfall and the bombs began to be dropped systematically from that point onwards…. first he said, we will climb to the volcano and then go across to a waterfall then to another waterfall and thats when the driver would pick us up. When I asked the distance, he said 2 kms. So we told him, can we go directly to the waterfall since we don’t want to trek upto the volcano. He said ok and we backtracked a bit after climbing a bit and then we think he lost his bearings…. because an interminable trek began of climbing one hill after the other. We got scratched and our shoes got muddier because the route was not a well trodden one. At one point I asked Kamalai if he knew the way and why there were so many overgrown shrubs if it was a regular trail. He had no answers. Finally we came to a flat rocky surface and found a few houses.
Kamalai told us that this place was used as an airport during the secret war, little knowing that I was in mood for a secret war myself. I was ready to kill because this was not what we had bargained for. But there was no time to think about any of this, since we didn’t seem to know where we were going. I kept telling him, I cannot walk through forest, I want to reach the car quickly and he kept telling me, its just a short distance away, just 2 kms away. From every point it was 2 kms away and I am now allergic to this distance. If anybody says 2 kms from now on, it will trigger a negative emotion in me.
For the first time in my life, I prayed to Appa that it should not rain… there were clouds overhead and the Sun played hide and seek. I cannot understand how Green-behind-the-ears Discovery and the uncaring Mr. Thor believe that one can trek in this terrain with an umbrella !! The best bet is a raincoat and an even better bet is to tell the customers to wear ankle trekking boots, because the place is filled with insects of every kind – flying crawling suspended etc. In rains it would be worse because you never know if you putting your foot into a snake pit or a scorpion pops out of a hole or if the spider drops on your head and delivers its poison straight onto your brain. The guide doesn’t carry any first aid and God forbid if you broke your leg while slipping, you hobble across to reach civilisation, however painful it is.
Sorry for digressing but these were the thoughts crossing my mind at that time. Krishnan asked the guide to go and check in the houses if they could tell us the way because intuitively we knew, we were lost. Nobody was there in these houses and then the guide called somebody who gave some directions. We started down a path and suddenly, the guy who had given directions called again and the guide took us in the opposite direction after apologising profusely for the mix-up.
Krishnan and I both believe that it was my mother’s prayers to Hanuman that brought a rifle weilding guard from the opposite side. Our guide quickly spoke to him and he accompanied us over 3 kms or so. I again asked how far we were from the car and the guide again said 2 kms … the levels of frustration were truly high at this point. The point is, we weren’t tired, my left knee had started to throb and thats all, but the biggest worry was, will we reach our destination without mishap and we weren’t sure of the answer.
The guard was a life-saver and he brought us to a point where supposedly there was a river crossing and after that was the highway. The guide tried to once again revive his tour plan and said we can cross the river and go through coffee plantation and go on the other side but I just put my foot down gently with a very cross voice and said, I will walk upto the river crossing and no more. He had to bring the car to that point and we were going back to the hotel, all tours be damned. He just wasn’t getting it. We tried explaining to him that we were not looking for adventure, we do enough of that back home, but he just didn’t understand. He didnt understand knee pain, till Krishnan pointed out his knee and said pain. He wanted to walk faster and we told him that was out of the question – on this kind of slippery slushy terrain it was impossible to walk fast. Krishnan then told him, that he was 55 years old and at this guy’s age (probably 22 or 23) he could have run 20 kms and he said I had cycled 100 kms just 7 years back, so it was not as if our stamina was the problem. We didnt want to get hurt. We weren’t here for any adventure – we were here to enjoy our holiday, see some sights and learn about the Lao culture, meet some people…. at this point I told Krishnan to just stop and say nothing more, because we weren’t getting across. Thankfully the terrain evened out to a hard mud track and I once again checked with the guide the distance to the river crossing and yes, he said the dreaded 2 kms again.
We just kept walking and we would have walked about 4 kms when we came to the river crossing that had a bamboo swinging bridge across it. Once again the guide said we had to walk just 70 metres because the car could not come till that point. I told him I cannot walk and he had to call some vehicle to this point. When I realised that he was going to do nothing, I just told Krishnan that I will continue to walk…. and 70 meters was in reality 1.5 kms. Thankfully the car was standing there, otherwise I guess I would have given up.
After we got into the minivan, I checked the pedometer on both our iPhones…. it showed 14 kms and 14.9 kms. Even discounting a couple of kilometres for wrong reading or the walking that we did from the room to breakfast etc, we had trekked for 12 kms climbing up and down small hills. I want to challenge Green-behind-the-ears Discovery and mighty Mr. Thor to do this trek in 90 minutes. If they can, I will rest my case, otherwise they are an inch away from being sued by us. They were informed about our expectations about no-adventure and still they put us through this terrible experience.
On the way back we refused to go to any waterfall and just asked the guide to drop us back at the hotel. Halfway through, we realized that our hotel’s lunch hours would be up by the time we reached, so asked the guide to drop us at the Dao Lin restaurant and wait till we had our lunch before dropping us at the hotel. Thankfully they agreed. The lunch at Dao Lin was a soothing balm because it was outstanding food. Krishnan had a veg red curry and I had Vietnamese noodles with vegetables – they were so tasty that they brought back a dose of positivity in us. We reached the hotel and just couldnt sleep even though we were tired.
Just did some reading, spoke to Amma and chatted with Anita telling her about the terrible experience and finally went to sleep really early around 8.30 pm.
Happy that the next three days we dont interact with Green-behind-the-ears Discovery !!!!
Days 26-28, Sept 28th to 30th, 2016 Happy relaxing non-adventurous days !
On Sept 28th, we woke up refreshed, had a great breakfast and went out to get our laundry back. We also walked around a bit and found the “Vida” bakery on road no.12 which is quaint and had really nice stuff. We bought some chocolate croissants, which were normal sized rather than being jumbo size ! Got back to the hotel and just spent time reading. We had contacted Nang, at the travel desk to see if there are any other tourists to share a ride to the 4000 islands. She told us she hadnt got anyone today. We still have tomorrow and the day after.
For lunch we were back at Dao Lin and again enjoyed great food. Didnt do too much of walking around except about 5 kms and then rested well.
On 29th, the only change we made was to go to an Italian restaurant for Lunch and ended up meeting the really nice owner who came close to setting up an Italian restaurant at Bundi, in Rajasthan, India! Chatted with him longer than it took us to eat the outstanding food. He has a nice Batik Ganesha in a standing pose… very nice work. We also exchanged some dollars at Vinath and got better exchange rate than at Vientiane. We gave our dirty, muddied shoes to the laundry and they wanted us to collect it the next day. We also spent the day celebrating India’s surgical strikes against Pakistan’s terror hangouts. We were able to link up to NDTV and Times Now channels. Enjoyed listening to all the comments and felt really good – no enmity with the Pakistani people, they are our brothers and sisters, but the terrorists and the Pakistani army that foolishly is playing into their hands is a different matter altogether. They need to be defeated and uprooted. Am sure the regular citizen of Pakistan doesnt care what happens to Kashmir, but is more concerned about having a safe and prosperous life of dignity.
On 30th, we went and collected our fresh smelling shoes that showed no sign of the troubles we had on the Bolaven Plateau trek. We went back to have our lunch at Dao Lin and the fried rice was just mind blowing. We again read some more… the book that I am reading, “100 years of solitude” is a big book so its taking longer than usual, but its an engrossing book. We also managed to complete some of our work related to the coaching training. We checked with Anita as to when the guide will come tomorrow for our trip to Champasak.
A bit apprehensive about interacting with Green Discovery again …. hope they dont waste our time with yet another mis-adventure tomorrow.
Day 29 – Oct 1, 2016 … Historical Champasak
We were ready as always by 8.20 am, ten minutes before the pickup time. The Green Discovery guide was also there by then and we started off. His name was Sinsay and he told us that we will take the tuk-tuk till the boat pier and then go by boat to Champasak. Yes, there was a twinge of apprehension when we saw the tuk-tuk because we were going by our past experience and expecting him to say that we were going on a tuk-tuk adventure to Champasak!!!
The boat pier is just around the corner and we reached in 5 minutes. Once there, the guide realized that he hadn’t got water along. So we waited for him to go and get water. There was a huge boat and a tiny boat next to it. We were taking the tiny boat with un-hinged plastic chairs. Whatever!! I didn’t want to keep complaining. Was just hoping for a pleasant day. The guide told us that we will have a three hour boat ride (!) to Champasak and that we will stop approximately mid-way to see a smaller temple before going to Wat Phu in Champasak. We told him, that we would like to go first to the Wat Phu at Champasak since that’s the historical site and then we can see the smaller temple on the way back. He agreed thankfully. We reached the Champasak boat pier in about 90 minutes, so we understood that the 3 hour boat trip was both ways put together. I slipped while getting onto the road from the boat pier but no harm done.
A Hyundai Starex was waiting for us on the road and we took the long straight road to arrive at the Wat Phu temple complex. The Wat Phu predates Angkor Wat and is even more damaged. The temple is built by Jaya Varman II in the 5th century AD. I also read this long paper on how Champasak was originally named as new Kurukshetra.. very interesting. Do read – http://www.southeastasianreview.com/kuruksetra.html. The road seems to be newly laid. We noticed Inthira Hotel and the Nakorn restaurant as we drove down.
At the Wat Phu complex you first visit the Museum that has all the artefacts that were removed from the temple complex as it is in ruins. This museum is quite fascinating and for Indians, you realise that the Khmer empire was essentially the Chola Kingdom and the spread of Hinduism and the Indian empires has been far and wide. Then you wonder about the useless history that you are taught in schools and further wonder about which idiot wrote it and to please whom.
There is an intact Nandi, several Shiva Lingas and the Stele that has inscriptions in the old Sanksrit and Tamil script. The South eastern languages have infact derived their script from the ancient Tamil script. Buddhism brought Sanskrit to these areas.
The Wat Phu temple is on a hilltop, the Linga Parvata, about mid-way to the top. There is a kilometer long trek to the starting point that you cover in a battery operated golf cart.
Once you reach the base, you start on the climb. The steps arent many but they are all uneven in height and some of them are really tiny in width. So watch your step on the way up. I climbed like a monkey on all fours, so that I didnt miss a step and also didnt hurt my knee.
Once you reach this spot, there is a Nandi hall to the left and the ancient road that leads you to Angkor Wat, 250 kms away.
At the entrance of the temple, there are stunning views of the entire city.
Around this time, the guide started to irritate us … he kept saying that “madam cannot walk, it is slippery there” and then he tried to take a difficult shortcut to reach this elephant and crocodile relief which is a short distance to the right of the main temple. I saw all the tourists even the younger tourists taking a slightly longer detour that was not slippery and didnt have moss layered stones. Krishnan was very irritated because we realised that our guide to the Bolaven Plateau had saved his own ass by blaming our inability to walk!
The minute we completed the short trip to the elephant relief and the crocodile stone, Krishnan showed the 14 km trek details to Sinsay and just told him off. He finally realised that it wasnt our problem but that Kamalai didnt know the way and got lost. Mighty Mr. Thor has not moved an inch from his seat in the air-conditioned office of Green Discovery and has no clue what these treks entail. Anyway, we said our piece and then got down from the temple hill to get back to the boat pier. Stopped on the way at Nakorn restaurant for an awesome lunch and a great chat with Jack, the Belgian who runs the restaurant along with his wife.
While sitting there we saw the boat race practise that was happening on the Mekong river and got some great shots.
On the way back we got some amazing pictures of the sunlight falling on the Mekong river. We got back by 4.30 to Pakse and walked back to the hotel.
Great day of seeing a historical site….and a great way to end the tour to Laos.
Tomorrow we leave for Vientiane and the day after we are back to India.
Day 30 – Oct 2, 2016 … Celebrating Gandhiji’s birthday with Pizza
We reached Vientiane by 2 pm. The flight from Pakse is about an hour and fifteen minutes. There was one passenger with a newborn baby in the seats across us … the baby happily slept through the entire flight :). Once we got to the baggage carousel, Krishnan waited with a trolley and I went and stood at the single baggage carousel that ended abruptly. While Krishnan was waiting there, Nic’s wife (Mandala Ou resort’s owners) met him as she was in Vientiane to drop off her daughter with her parents for a few days. I couldn’t meet her as she was rushing and had already got her luggage.
The S Park Design hotel was welcoming but the room was a little less interesting than last time. Some of the fittings were loose but the room was spotlessly clean as always and the reception staff was very welcoming unlike the stiff rule-based reception at Mixay Paradise, where we felt like we were about to do something wrong.
We had some steam rice with the Puliyogare mix for lunch, but we were still hungry. So in the evening we went to Aria, an italian restaurant right next to Mixay Paradise and ate a vegetarian pizza. Since they had a buy-one-get-one scheme on, we ended up packing 30% of the pizzas. We walked back to the hotel a nice 2 kms walk. Krishnan has started off on a John Grisham novel and I have started the 6th Jack Reacher novel, so we read till late at night.
Krishnan managed to book our seats on the Thai Airways website and I managed to speak to Amma with some difficulty and several call disconnects.
All set to return tomorrow.
Day 31 – Oct 3, 2016 Heading Back Home …
Krishnan woke up early in the morning by 4 am and happily completed his novel :):). I woke up a little later and packed the two suitcases. Now we just have our backpacks to carry and everything else will be checked in. While repacking the blue suitcase we realised that ants had infested the white sticky rice. We had left this suitcase at the hotel when we went to Pakse, so probably the ants got in then. We just threw out that rice and packed the rest of the suitcase.
Had a great breakfast … and escaped having noodles steamed in chicken broth because I saw them take out chicken from the same steamer. The wi-fi was better at the reception so we stayed at the reception to complete this blog. Our driver came exactly at 10.20 am and we were locked and loaded by 10.25 am. We said our goodbyes to the hotel staff and reached the airport in 5 minutes.
The check-in counter for our flight was to be opened only at 11.30 am so we just loafed around. I bought a couple of fridge magnets as souvenirs. We got a $20 changed into two $10’s. Then at 11.30 we checked-in and took a coffee and ice-cream break at the Dairy Queen outlet. The immigration counter and departure gates are on the first floor so we walked up and were told that those gates will open at 12.10 only.
Krishnan and I were thrilled that the immigration counter had no rush but we were in for a surprise. The two officers who looked at our passports, shook their heads and said we have overstayed for a day !! So here’s the deal in Laos – your visa can be valid for 90 days (like ours) or for a year, but when you enter the country the immigration officer will stamp your passport for 30 days. So you either get out of the country on the 30th day or you face penalties for overstaying. We went and met the immigration officer in a small room adjacent to the counters and he told us that we had to pay $10 each for a day’s overstay. We readily agreed to pay and another junior officer filled out all the forms and we were on our way in about 10 minutes. Wow. New learning everyday.
The flight to Vientiane was supposed to leave at 1.10 pm but left at 1.40 pm and reached Bangkok by 2.40 pm. We drove down in the plane for several kilometres and then in the bus for several kilometres before disembarking. We quickly reached our favourite hotspot on level 4 of the East gates just behind the shopping areas where the wi-fi is great and there are enough power outlets to charge all the devices at one go and plonked ourselves down to read and blog.
We will eat some late lunch and catch our flight to Hyderabad at 10.10 pm from here. We reach Hyderabad by 12.10 am….. can’t wait to eat food made by Amma. Good trip with many amazing sights seen, interesting people met and some major low days with Green Discovery.
Just loved the pace of life in Laos and the wonderful smiling people here… barring just a couple of them.
Ciao Lao… Khop Chai Lai Lai (Thank you very much in Lao).