A Travellerspoint blog

July 2011

Vientiane

rain 27 °C

Our day started early as we headed out to the Vang Vieng bus station. We had a choice between the standard local buses or a fancier option that the locals call ‘The VIP Bus’, it costs a little bit extra but you get air-con and larger seats. So we forked out a few extra dollars and went with the fancy option. However, when the bus came to pick us up there was only 1 seat left, which meant I had to sit in the aisle on a plastic stool. I was pretty pissed off but what can you do, we had already parted with our money and the other option was to stay another night in Vang Vieng; and we were sick of partying. So off we went. Thankfully the bus ride was only 5 hours and I didn’t have to spend overnight on the floor like we saw some people do on the overnight sleeper buses in Vietnam.

We arrived in Vientiane just after lunch and it was pissing down rain. The bus just dropped us off in the middle of the street and we quickly found a café to shelter in and get our bearings.

Vientiane isn’t really anything spectacular. As the capital of Laos it performs its function well, although there is little to do. But we thought we would stick it out for a couple of days and see if it gets any better when it stops raining.

The first night we stayed in an absolute shithole of a guesthouse because it was cheap and we struggled to find any reasonably priced alternative in the pouring rain. It was basically just a 2m x 2m cupboard in a glorified shed that shared an open roof with many other ‘buildings’ and families. However it had a small TV with an English movie channel so we watched Wolverine while the streets flooded.

The next morning the rain had turned into a light drizzle so we hastily checked out of ‘Hotel De La Crap’ and rented a couple of push bikes to explore the city and find new accommodation.

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We found a really beautiful temple called Vat Sisaket, it was built between 1819 – 1824 and was the only temple in Vientiane that survived when the Siamese invaded and destroyed everything in 1828. The grounds inside the temple were beautiful and a nice retreat from the busy streets.

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After that we just rode around searching for a new guesthouse. It took us about an hour before we found a nice one at a reasonable price, it didn’t have a window but it was much better than the barn we stayed in the night before. During our ride around looking for a new guesthouse Vientiane grew on me a bit. Even though it is Laos' capital city it somehow still retains the charm that the rest of Laos has become famous for. The moment you duck down the small alleys it is like you are transported to Luang Prabang and that was a nice surprise, I certainly didn't expect that from a busy city.
Because there wasn’t much to do we did a lot of eating and drinking, and it reflects in the photos we took, 90% of them over our 3 days in Vientiane were of us gorging ourselves until we felt sick, oh well we are on holiday :)

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^^ The Patuxai monument is a miniature Arc de Triomphe built with the concrete that was donated by the U.S.A to build a new runway in Laos, apparently the monument was higher on the list of things to do.

The last day we spent most of it at a café, once again eating and drinking, but also planning our trip to Kong Lo Cave. Kong Lo is off the tourist track (for now) so we had to do a bit of planning around what local buses to take and which towns to hop off at.

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Our last night in Vientiane we decided to eat at a restaurant called Makphet. It is run by a non-profit organisation and it teaches street kids how to cook and wait tables. We feasted well and were a bit embarrassed when all of our meals couldn’t fit on our table for two haha.

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Vientiane wasn’t much to rave about but still worth the visit; tomorrow the adventure to Kong Lo village begins.

Cheers, Kyle

Posted by KyleMac 02:37 Archived in Laos Tagged monument laos vientiane patuxai arc_de_triomphe vat_sisaket makphet_restaurant Comments (0)

Vang Vieng - Fairly Blurry Week

sunny 30 °C

After The Gibbon Experience we wanted to head south to Vang Vieng, this meant going back to Luang Prabang overnight on the bus and then catching another bus south to Vang Vieng, 160kms away.

When you see that the place you want to go is 160kms away you think a few hours on the bus. How about 8! Yeah apparently it takes 8 hours to drive 160kms through the mountains in Laos, we should have known haha. So by the time we arrived in Vang Vieng we had spent the last 21 hours on buses.

I don’t have to tell you what the bus rides are like here as I’ve already vented on many other occasions, but the woman behind us who vomited for 8 hours straight from an obviously extreme case of car sickness requires a mention. By the end of the trip it was more impressive than disgusting.

Needless to say when we finally arrived in Vang Vieng we ate, got a massage, and fell into a deep slumber.

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^^ On the tuk tuk

Vang Vieng is a small river town that has become the biggest party in Laos. There isn’t much to do here other than party, and meet other people who like to party. The main attraction is the river tubing. Basically it’s just a river lined with bars. You catch a tuk tuk 10km up the river and jump in with your tube. How do you get to the bars? You float down the river and if you want to stop at a particular bar you put your hand up and they will throw a rope out to you and pull you over to it. It’s a heap of fun, but when you mix a river with heaps of drunken 20 year olds you get a lot of deaths, in fact the week before we arrived someone drowned, so caution is definitely needed. That danger is amplified even more as all of the bars have huge rope swings and slides into the river. The only signage is a small sign with handwriting indicating rocks on one side and deep water on the other, so your aim has to be good or you can have a hard landing.
It is also a town with no rules and is unofficially one of South East Asia’s drug capitals, with marijuana, mushrooms, and opium orderable things from any of the café and bar menus.

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Once you get into the mood and past the fear of death it is super fun and the atmosphere is really great around the town, all the cafes in the town are constantly playing Family Guy or Friends. When we weren’t on the river we stuck to the Family Guy bars but surprisingly the Friends cafes were always busy, not sure why, it was a crap show in the 90’s and time certainly hasn’t made it any better.

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^^ Buckets are the main drink of choice. They contain half a bottle of spirits, yeah you read right, half a bottle of spirits.

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^^ Tubing begins
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^^ About to jump into the murky waters below
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^^ Official warning signs
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^^ Resident river dog having a play
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^^ Riverside ads
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^^ Chilling with my mates
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^^ Dancing with a local guy - his job was to drag drunken foreigners from the river haha

We were also lucky enough to be in town during a festival that celebrates the beginning of the wet season. How better to celebrate this occasion than with the launch of hundreds of homemade rockets! The rockets serve to frighten off evil spirits that may want to cause mischief during the rainy days. I must be an evil spirit because I was fairly frightened when all of these massive homemade rockets were being strapped to a bamboo frame to be launched into the nearby mountains. There were a few times during the day when smaller rockets went flying through the crowd – although I didn’t hear anyone scream, just saw lots of people ducking.

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We spent a full week here on a bit of a bender and it was almost a relief to book our bus onto our next destination Vientiane, the capital of Laos.

Vang Vieng was great and we had a lot of fun in the week we were there but we could see it would be easy to lose yourself there and let things get out of control, especially when you see the travellers that have decided to stay there on the long term. The saying ‘too much blood in my alcohol system’ is a frightening reality when you see the few drug fucked tourists wasting away. I’m sure somewhere in the world their missing persons poster is hanging high.

We had a good experience here although it wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea.

Cheers, Kyle

Posted by KyleMac 02:18 Archived in Laos Tagged laos bar tube bucket vang vieng vang_vieng rocket_festival river_tubing river_bar Comments (0)

The Gibbon Experience - Wow! Everyone Needs To Do This!

sunny 29 °C

Today we were off to The Gibbon Experience. It was a fair distance from Huay Xai so we had about a 3 hour ute drive to get us deep in the jungle. We got really lucky and snatched up the two seats in the cabin of the ute with the driver. The roads around this area are just dirt and everyone else sitting in the back of the ute was copping an epic dust storm while we chilled in the air-con :).

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About 2 and a half hours into our journey the car began filling with acrid smoke – something was burning! Our driver pulled over and opened the bonnet to find multiple melting electrical cables cooking on the hot engine. Before we knew it our hike had begun early as we walked the rest of the way to the starting point of the trek.

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After our walk along the snaking roads deeper into the jungle we found ourselves arriving at a small village. Young children laughed and ran around staring at us sweaty foreigners as we made our way down to a small river, the official starting point for the trek to reach The Gibbon Experience.

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^^ Glad we remembered the insect repellent!

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We were greeted with the puzzled looks from the car load of people who left 2 minutes before us back in Huay Xai, and their theories of our ute plummeting off a cliff were replaced with a boring broken down car.

After a quick drink the real trek began, it is a two hour trek up the forest covered mountain before we reach The Gibbon Experience base camp. The first 40 minutes was easy-peasy, only a slight incline and a few small streams to cross. The next 1hr 20min was fairly intense. Everyone stopped talking as it got steeper and all you could hear was the laboured breathing and insects laughing at us; although this didn’t stop the guy in front of me needing a cigarette to help catch his breath haha.

At the base camp we were given the safety briefing and told that our group of 14 would be breaking up into 3 groups, each with a different tree house. The first tree house slept 8 people, the second 4 people, and the last one 2 people. No one wanted to volunteer for the tree house with just 2 people, as the thought of meeting new people and sharing the adventure was far more appealing than being cooped up with one other person. So we drew cards. Kirby and I ended up in the tree house of 4 people, which we were happy with. Our two friends for the next 3 days were Frank; a German expat who now calls Chile home, and Nynke; a Dutch girl travelling through S.E.A like us.

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It took another hour and a half to get to our tree house, although this walk was unlike any other. We had to cross multiple mountain valleys, what is the best way to cross mountain valleys I hear you ask? Well the answer is by zip line. When you first hook yourself up to the zip line you are still standing in the thick jungle. After launching yourself from the platform you fly through the dense rainforest between giant hundred year old trees, and then all of a sudden you are thrust out into the open air. The mountain forest is left behind you as you float over a deep valley a couple hundred metres below. The zip lines themselves are around 300m-500m long so you are travelling along it for a couple of minutes. Although all too soon you find yourself approaching the next mountain and you dive headfirst back into the jungle, and wallah you have travelled from one mountain to another!

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When we finally arrived at our tree house (via zip line of course) it was much more than we expected. It had two double mattresses, a sink/kitchen area, and a bathroom with toilet and shower, not to mention a 360 degree view above the forest canopy, truly breathtaking!
We had a massive dinner feast waiting for us as well, it was much needed after all the exercise and excitement we had today. Did I mention a bottle of wine as well! That afternoon we just sat around sipping our wine watching the sun set below the deep green forest, listening to the forest animals perform their evening orchestra.

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^^ Kirby zipping into the tree house

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^^ Kirby in the tree house

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^^ This is going to be the standard entry method when I build a house

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^^ If you look on the left hand side you can see the tree house fly past as we zip away

^^ This video shows our tree house layout!

Later that night Kirby and Nynke got out of bed and watched a huge lightning storm far away on the horizon float past.

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^^ The moon

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^^ Lightning!!

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^^ This was in the middle of the night - lightning made it seem like day!

Some time during the middle of the night we were all awoken by the loud cracking and foliage rustling of a tree falling. It sounded really close and the fact that we were sleeping in a tree made the adrenaline pump. It seemed like forever that this tree was moaning and falling as we all lay wide eyed and frozen in our beds. Then a big shake rocked our tree! I dunno about everyone else but I nearly shit myself, so scary haha! A big tree had just fallen over and hit the tree that we were sleeping in. Our tree was the tallest one in the surrounding forest and the tree house was right at the top so we were in no danger of getting hit by branches, but it was still scary. I’m just glad our tree was healthy and decided not to ‘domino effect’. Although with the huge amount of support lines anchored deep in the ground I don’t think our tree can move much even if it was broken.

The next day began with our guide Buongpeng gliding in at 5:30am with our breakfast. After we ate we sat silently listening for the wild gibbons that give The Gibbon Experience its name. We heard them calling in the distance as the sun rose, but unfortunately they were too far away for us to go and see if we could see them. Maybe tomorrow morning we will have more luck.

^^ You can hear the gibbons singing! They sound like they are having a massive laser gun battle :)

^^ Near the end of the video you can see me zip past in the other direction.

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^^ Early morning

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^^ The mist rolling through the valley below

All morning Buongpeng took us trekking through the jungle and to see some of the other larger tree houses, currently there is one under constructing that will sleep 10 people! If you have skills in carpentry you can volunteer to help build the new tree houses, a good way to experience this awesome adventure if you have no money.

^^ Kirby zipping away!

^^ Doing the crazy zip!

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^^ Don't step on the ants!

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^^ Look out for leeches!! This one called my hand home for a few hours.

After lunch we had free time to do whatever we wanted. Needless to say we zip lined HEAPS! We glided through the jungle for like 5 hours, until our bums couldn’t handle any more harness and we were starving for dinner.

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^^ View from our tree house

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^^ Another view from our tree house

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^^ Dinner, doesn't look that great, but tasted wonderful!

That night we had some fruit cocktails that Kirby expertly created with our fresh fruit and my water bottle full of contraband vodka. We played cards with Frank and Nynke and had a great evening chatting about our different travels around the world. I’ve gotta say that travelling is the best thing I’ve ever done, I’m really glad we decided to forego settling down and getting a 30 year mortgage as the experience is definitely lifelong and worth so much more than any asset.

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The next morning we were woken once again by the smiling face of Buonpeng gliding to our house. This was our last chance to see the gibbons so we were all a bit nervous and hoping they would be close enough for us to try and trek out to catch a glimpse. Although when you look out and see the jungle stretch as far as you can see, you know chances are slim.
It was 6:30am and we hadn’t even heard a single call, and considering they normally start calling around 6:00am our hopes of seeing a Gibbon were pretty much gone.
As we were having breakfast with the big group in tree house 7 we had to leave and head over to their tree house, about 30 minutes walk/gliding away.
Just as we were almost at their tree house we heard a loud ‘whoop’, followed by another and another. GIBBONS!! and they were really close to tree house 7. We ran down the small tracks and made it up into the tree house just as the gibbons arrived!
About 30m-50m away were a small group of 5 gibbons playing in the trees and feasting on the flowers. There were 2 black juveniles chasing each other around, launching themselves from tree to tree effortlessly, while their golden coloured mother watched. It was really wonderful to see these wild creatures doing their daily routine so close, and paying us no attention to us. Tree house number 7 also has a telescope so we were able to zoom right in and see their facial expressions as they rested between plays. Soooo goood!

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^^ There are gibbons in there, we could see them much better with our eyes, unfortunately the camera couldn't capture them as well. (Little black gibbon right in the middle of the photo!)

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^^ Two black gibbons sitting in the tree with the orange leaves

The gibbons hung around for about an hour before leaving and that marked time for us to leave as well. We trekked back down to the base camp and said goodbye to our guides that had been ridiculously helpful and kind to us for the last 3 days.
Then it was back to the village (only took us 30 minutes, compared to 2 hours on the way up) where the utes (now repaired) were waiting to take us back to Huay Xai. The next day we took the night bus back to Luang Prabang.

As you can see The Gibbon Experience was awesome!! By far the best thing we have done all trip so far. It cost $290 AUD per person for the three days, and at first we were hesitant and unsure if we should do it. We have met a few people who decided not to do it because it was a bit of a budget blow out but I can tell you now that it is worth every dollar and I would do it again in a heartbeat and recommend anyone who goes to Laos to check this out.
You can contact The Gibbon Experience through their website: www.gibbonexperience.org

Cheers, Kyle

Posted by KyleMac 01:26 Archived in Laos Tagged laos gibbon treehouse zipline huay_xai the_gibbon_experience tree_house gibbons laos_jungle zip_line flying_fox gibbonexperience sleep_in_jungle sleep_in_tree_house Comments (1)

Luang Prabang to Huay Xai

overcast 28 °C

We decided that on our last day in Luang Prabang we should get up early and view the monks receiving their daily food from the local people. Yee (our guide at the elephant camp) let us know how to observe the ritual politely – keep quiet, maintain a respectful distance from the locals, and to sit down so that the monks were higher than us.

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It was really nice to see that the traditions are still alive even though the region is fast becoming one of the main tourist destinations in Laos.

We were surprised when we got a knock on our door later that morning by Yee. He had been to the office and picked up our official ‘Mahout Accreditation’ certificates and decided to deliver it to our door. What a great guy!

The rest of the day we just hung out and got another massage before we boarded the bus at 6pm to Huay Xai – a border town between northern Thailand, eastern Burma (now Myanmar), and western Laos, and also the doorstep to the Bokeo Nature Reserve where we plan on doing The Gibbon Experience (next blog entry).

The night bus was unsurprisingly hellish, for the first time on our whole trip we were freezing cold – the air-con was pumping, and so was the local Laos music…all night!! I’ll try to describe Laotian music for you. Basically if you have ever played with a cool electric keyboard that has those pre-programmed beats that start with a touch of a button – whether it be ‘rock’ with its cymbals and drums or ‘pop’ with the upbeat techno sound – you have your starting point. Add some cow bells, some horns, some shakers, and of course a high-pitched whiny voice and you’ve got yourself a number 1 hit. The only thing that changes between songs is the singer and the words, all of which sound the same to us. So that was what we listened to for 13 hours. It certainly wasn’t made any better with the rocky, pot hole riddled road winding through the steep mountain passes. But oh well, we expect it now so it isn’t a big deal.

We arrived at Huay Xai bus stop early the next morning and after a short tuk tuk ride into the main city we checked into a guest house and slept for 5 hours. The rest of the day was uneventful; all we did was feast and walk around the town. Although tomorrow brings us to day 1 of our 3 day adventure into the jungles of northern Laos as we embark on ‘The Gibbon Experience’ – exciting!

Cheers, Kyle

Posted by KyleMac 00:29 Archived in Laos Tagged monk laos luang_prabang nightbus huay_xai laos_music laotian_music monk_morning_walk Comments (0)

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