Category Archives: Laos

Vientiane, Laos to Udon Thani to Chiang Mai, Thailand

4/12 – As we prepared to move from Laos to Thailand, we researched our options. From Vientiane, we could get to Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand on a 15 hour bus ride, or we could take a short bus ride over the Friendship Bridge to Udon Thani and catch a $50.00 flight to arrive in Chiang Mai in an hour. We’re kind of over the long, bumpy bus experience at this point, so we opted to fly for a change.

Our hotel offered to sell us a bus ticket for 60000 kip, but they were only 22000 if purchased directly from the bus station, so we tuk-tukked over to catch the 11:30am bus. By 11:40, I was starting to fret, but a friendly Vietnamese man told me not to worry, as all schedules in Laos are only approximate suggestions. Waiting around gave us time to talk with a young Korean, and a male nurse from France on a mountain holiday. Sure enough, the bus came eventually, and we all got on it. Here is the very crowded bus station – you can see a manicurist painting the fingernails of a woman waiting for her bus. She got a pedicure too! image

The bus took us to the border so we could process out of Laos, then the short drive to where we processed into Thailand. Remembering our experience in China when the bus left without us, we were at the front of the customs line and never let the bus out of our sight! No worries – the driver’s assistant counted noses each time before the bus closed its doors.

As soon as we crossed the border, things looked a lot more westernized, with paved roads, gas stations, car lots, billboards and 7 Elevens on every corner. I wonder if they have Slurpees here?

In less than two hours we arrived at the Udon Thani bus station. As most of us were going to the airport, Jim asked if we could all share a taxi, and the Vietnamese man took charge and bargained for a tuk-tuk that would take four of us and our bags for 30 baht each. New currency again – 1 baht is worth three cents, 100 baht about three dollars. As he spoke Thai, he was a much better bargainer than we would have been – I thought the driver’s original offer of 50 baht ($1.50) each was very reasonable for a five mile ride across town! image

As we rode down the road in the open vehicle, I was suddenly drenched from behind with a bucket of cold water! I gasped in shock, and our Vietnamese friend remarked that tomorrow was the start of the Thai New Year celebration of Songkran, and we should wrap our valuables in plastic and prepare to get wet for the next three days. He said we would be doused repeatedly with water to wash away the old year and wish us luck and prosperity in the new year. Oh boy!

At the Udon Thani airport, there was a small Buddha shrine, and we watched as passengers approached to pray and pour water over the Buddha. image

This ritual is the basis for the Songkran celebration – large statues of the Buddha were once carried in procession down the street, and people poured water on the statues. At some point, the statues became less important than the water, and now people just pour water on each other.

Before long, our flight was called, and we walked out to board.image

Our flight on Bangkok Air was less than one hour, so I was surprised when the flight attendants came down the aisle with beverages, and astounded when they came down again with a meal! That’s just something Americans aren’t used to! Excellent meal too!

Once we landed in Chiang Mai, a metered taxi (no negotiating needed) took us to the historic part of town where our Western House hotel is located next to a wat and a block from the bustle of the Main Street. Tomorrow we’ll explore!

Vientiane, Laos – COPE

4/10 – So here’s the thing about Laos. If you look at a map, you’ll see that it shares a long border with Vietnam, from north to south. During the Vietnam War, the North Vietnamese Army frequently stepped across the border into Laos to avoid the Americans and make their way to the south. To dissuade them, the US retaliated by bombing the shit out of Laos, the equivalent of once every eight minutes for nine consecutive years, even though Laos was supposed to be a neutral country. Thirty percent of the bombs did not explode on impact, but littered the ground making it more difficult for the Viet Cong to travel overland.

The result is that rural, sparsely inhabited Laos, to this day, has thousands of pounds of unexploded ordnance, mainly cluster bombs, that get discovered in fields and forests, often by children, resulting in loss of sight, or limbs, or life, almost every day. There are hundreds of explosions in Laos every year, 40 years after the war between two other countries ended.

Today we visited COPE, the Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise, which is the main source of artificial limbs and wheelchairs for the people of Laos. The visitor center here in Vientiane is open daily to build awareness of the ongoing need to remove unexploded ordnance (UXO) from the countryside, answer questions and encourage donations. Princess Diana was a champion of this cause, and Hillary Clinton visited in 2012 when she was Secretary of State. The US Congress appropriates money annually to assist in this effort, but it is far from done.

Here is a sculpture outside the center, made entirely of shrapnel.

There were videos explaining where the UXO are located, and the very manual process of finding and detonating them one by one.image

The education of the local people to identify and avoid the UXO is hampered by the value of metal, which many collect to sell to scrap dealers or make into household objects. Children will pick up a bomb, because it looks like a lamp or cooker they have at home.image


Wheelchairs are made out of old bicycles.image

Then there were the heartbreaking stories of those trying to live without limbs.image

Anyone who knows me knows I wept for two solid hours. You can buy a person a leg for $75.00. Donate if you can.

Vientiane – Some Wats and a Palace

4/9 – Today we cruised around some wats. Vientiane is home to over 80 Buddhist temples or wats, many serving as home to orange-clad monks. image

Some are old, and many are new and brightly painted. Here’s a fellow guarding the entrance to the wat across from our hotel.image

There are lots of creatures guarding the wats.

Some intricately carved tree roots being preserved at a temple under renovation.

Lots of stupas, or shrines, some with photos identifying who is being commemorated.

Lots and lots of Buddhas. The mudra with one hand on lap and one hand touching down is Calling the Earth to Witness the Truth.


Some of the traveler blogs we read talk about experiencing “temple fatigue” in this part of Asia, so we don’t try to see every one. We spot the Presidential Palace – tourists not welcome here.image

Here’s a statue of King Anouvong, who lost the kingdom of Ventiane to the Siamese in the 1820s. Even though he lost, he is revered, and candles are lit and offerings left at the base of the statue. image

In an example of quirky urban planning, his back is toward a beautiful park where people sit, and he faces an empty field. Perhaps something grand is planned for the field in the future.image

Vang Vieng to Vientiane

4/7 – Time to brush the Vang Vieng dust off our sandals and get back on the bus. We had a nice conversation with our hotel host this morning, a businessman from Singapore who saw potential in this town and decided to build a hotel and spa for his own retirement here. He was glad when the partying was shut down, as the kids trashed up the town and didn’t spend money except for drinks. He said that a lot of the hotel/hostels that went out of business were very low end, and now real hotels are being built. The China to Thailand train line (no more Bus From Hell) has been promised to be completed within the next five years, and will bring a huge influx of affluent Chinese tourists here. He is sitting on an acorn and biding his time…

This morning we tuk-tukked (can I use that as a verb?) back to the bus station. We had to wait for a group of six very-hungover young adults (?) to make their way onto the cab. They looked extremely green around the gills – evidently doing their part to keep the party spirit alive. We boarded the VIP bus to Vientiane. The bus has air conditioning! We can sit anywhere we want! It’s going to be a good day.image

The scenery was lush green, with little towns and real houses with yards and little fences. We’ve left the very poor country shacks behind, at least what we can see from the main road. After two hours we stopped for a break – ice cream and sinks with soap!image

At 2pm we arrived in the capital city of Vientiane, and 10 minutes later were at our hotel. It’s 100 degrees again. The AC in our room didn’t work, and we asked for a different room. We moved from a room with no AC to a room with poor Wifi. In this climate, AC wins every time!

We ate a noodle soup supper at the hotel restaurant, and watched an old Eddie Murphy movie – in English with Lao subtitles – on TV. They have CNN, MSNBC and BBC here!

4/8 – We set off while it was still relatively cool in the morning to see the That Dam, or Black Stupa, which is just down the road. I asked Jim if the Dam was a Wat? No, it’s a Dam! Sounded like a weird Asian version of Who’s on First. Legend says that this stupa was once covered in gold, which was stripped off by the Siamese when they invaded in the 1800s, and that a seven-headed naga dragon used to guard the stupa. Although it is weedy and looks neglected, it is the symbol of the city. Here is the front view:image
Here is the back view:image

We saw signs for the Patuxai, Vientiane’s version of Paris’ Arc du Triomphe, built to commemorate the ousting of the French in 1949, so we kept walking several kilometers down a wide boulevard until we spotted it. image

The Americans gave Laos money to build an airport in 1960 (preparing for the Vietnam War, no doubt) and they built this monument instead, so it is also called “the Vertical Runway” (probably only by Americans). image


Formal gardens surround the monument, and you can climb to the top to see an overview of the city.image


Now it’s past one, and very hot as we walked back toward our end of town. Even though we stopped to buy cold water, I felt a little woozy, and Jim started looking for a place to sit me down in the shade. We turned a corner, and, like a mirage, what did I see? An air conditioned Swenson’s Ice Cream shop, like the answer to a prayer! Half an hour and one scoop of green tea ice cream later, I was restored.image

Despite how the climate feels to us Westerners, Laotians maintain conservative dress standards with knees and shoulders always covered. In Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng there were signs reminding tourists to cover up, but we haven’t seen the signs here. I wear my long pants anyway.image

For dinner we went to a Vietnamese pho restaurant and I had cool summer rolls. Perfect!

Vang Vieng, Laos – Hike to Lusi Cave

4/6 – Happy Easter to those celebrating far away – no sign of bunnies or jelly beans in this town! Today we are hiking to Lusi Cave, which, according to the sign, is just a kilometer out of town. It promised to be another 100 degree day, so we left right after breakfast before it got too hot. The mornings here are very pleasant – in the 70s.

We followed handwritten signs with arrows pointing down a trail through some farmers’ fields and unplanted rice paddies. We met a herd of young cows, grazing free, and a couple of young bulls butting horns to show off for the ladies.image image

Soon the fields turned to a shady wooded path, with signs that continued to say that the cave was 1 km away. Must be the longest kilometer ever! We got to a hill with a flag on top, with a shack and a sign that promised that we could climb the hill for a great view for only 10,000 kip. There was no attendant here, and the gate to the first ladder was locked, so we hiked on.image

Jim is never quite as happy as when he is hiking a trail through the woods.image

45 minutes later, we arrived at another shack and another sign. The cave was straight up from here, but again there was no attendant. We saw a steep ascent and a ladder, which my arm was not ready for, so I told Jim to go up, and I waited in the shade below. In a minute, he called down that there is a locked gate here too, but he was going to try to climb over it.image

Just then, we heard a motorbike, and a young man pulled up! He was the attendant, and he grabbed a flashlight and motioned for me to follow him up. I declined, but called out to Jim, and when he heard Jim’s voice above, he understood that his customer was up at the gate.

I passed the time swatting flies and admiring the little altar erected at the base of the climb up to the cave, with offerings of food and flowers. Those are little 3 inch bananas, to give you an idea of how small the Buddhas are.image

Half an hour later, Jim returned, triumphant, having climbed up to the cave and experienced the dark and the cool, the stalactites and stalagmites. Unfortunately, it was too dark in the cave for pix, but it sure sounded like fun.image

Walking back in the heat of noon was not so much fun, and reminded me of the old song that only “mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun”.

Here’s an interesting note about Vang Vieng: did you know that they have bars/cafes here that play episodes of Friends 24/7? Now that is something you can’t get everywhere… Book your tickets for Vang Vieng today!image

And in case you were wondering, here’s what Coke and Pepsi look like in Laotian!image

Sheesh – slow news day. Must be time to move on!

Vang Vieng – Tubing on the Nam Song

4/4 – Our original purpose for spending time in Vang Vieng was to split up the long bus ride between Luang Prabang and our next stop, the Laotian capital of Ventiene. We were not aware until we got here that Vang Vieng was, until recently, the wildest party town in all of Southeast Asia, known for its alcohol and drug fueled tubing trips down the Nam Song River. Here is one of the many bar “menus” you can see online if you Google this town.image

Over 400 young travelers a day used to tube down the river, starting off at noon with free shots, Beer Lao and “bucket” drinks, and stopping at riverside bars every hundred yards enroute to re-lubricate themselves with both alcohol and drugs ordered off a menu, while zip-lining, swinging, sliding, jumping off bridges and doing other foolhardy things that was getting them injured and killed in such large numbers that, in 2012, the Communist government came in and ripped all the bars and party equipment down. Once the bars and drugs were gone, the kids stopped coming, and now Vang Vieng is the sleepy little town we see today.

The river is still here, and the mountain scenery is still beautiful, so we decided to have a go at tubing, without the intoxicants. My arm is still healing, and I can’t yet handle a kayak paddle or a hiking stick, but how strenuous could sitting in a tube be?


We walked down to the tube rental place and payed 55,000 kip each ($6.80) plus a 60,000 kip deposit to assure that each tube is returned by 6pm. We signed release of liability forms, and had numbers written on our hands in blue magic marker, presumably so that our bodies could be identified when they washed ashore. I had a waterproof bag for our shirts and sandals, and Jim carried his iPad in another dry bag so he could capture our journey on video. We piled into a tuk-tuk with eight like-minded youngsters, and were driven four km upstream and let off at a bar blaring Pharrell’s “Happy” to begin our journey. I thought all the bars were gone?image

The young folks jumped right into the water while we oldsters applied sunscreen and secured our clothing in the dry bag. There wasn’t much current, so we waded in to knee-deep water, and set off. A little ways downstream was another bar blaring techno music, with a man on shore holding a long rope to throw to anyone who wanted to be reeled in for a drink. The young folks all went ashore, and we had the river to ourselves. There were several more bars with loud music, then blissful silence and the serenity of the river.image

Even though we were just floating along, some paddling was required, and I soon realized that my right arm was not up to the job. Luckily, Jim snagged a long piece of bamboo as it drifted by, so we attached our tubes together and Jim steered for both of us.

There were several places where the river was only several inches deep and the current became rapid, followed by long stretches of calm. We watched young boys fishing, and women with nets at work.image

It was 100 degrees on a sunny day, but the water kept us cool enough. Kayakers waved and splashed as they passed us by.image

The dry bags weren’t totally dry, and Jim’s iPad got wet. No more pix today!

After three hours on the water, we saw a sign that said Tubing Ends Here. We stumbled out of our tubes (both my legs has fallen asleep) and onto the rocky beach at a deserted bar. Don’t know why, but I expected some sort of welcoming committee at our destination. A marimba band, perhaps?  We shouldered our tubes and hiked across a rickety bridge back to the main road, and found our way back to the tubing office. Success!  A fun day.

Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng, Laos

4/2 – I have not been looking forward to today.  We bought tickets two days ago for the bus up and over the mountains to Vang Vieng, about 7 hours south.  Every blog post we have read calls this the Bus From Hell, and advises against taking it if at all possible.  The roads are so narrow and the turns and switchbacks are so tortuous, that even the strong of stomach are advised to bring barf bags, and those with a tendency toward motion sickness are advised to take the plane.

To make matters worse, Jim and I are both suffering from something we ate yesterday. I’ll spare you the details, but we couldn’t have picked a worse day to be stuck on a bus.
In anticipation, I went to the mini-mart near our guesthouse last night, to see if they carried Dramamine (pills for motion sickness).  “I’m taking the bus to Vang Vieng tomorrow”, I said.  The clerk walked right over to the shelf and gave me the generic Thai equivalent of Dramamine.  I was obviously not the first person with this request!
The tuk-tuk picked us up at 8:30am and took us to the bus station.  We had assigned seats right up front, but the seats were over the wheel well, with no room for our legs.  We moved back a row and hoped that no one would challenge us for our seats.  This would have been unacceptable behavior in China, but here, no one seemed to mind.  30 minutes before departure, we both popped a Dramamine. 


As I had not gotten much rest the night before, the pill put me right to sleep.  Jim wasn’t so lucky.  Every once in a while, the bus would bounce so jarringly that I would open one eye, observe a hairpin turn, and go back to sleep again. So, sorry to say, no pix out the bus window.  The shocks on the bus were bad, so every bump in the road made the bus bounce twice.  My teeth were rattling in my head. There was no AC, and the temp was in the 90s.
We stopped twice for toilet breaks – best not to describe rural Laotian toilets.  Our promised lunch break didn’t occur until 3:30pm, and I wasn’t hungry in the least.  We arrived in Vang Vieng by 5 in the afternoon, and shared a tuk-tuk into town.
So now we are at the Laos Haven Hotel, showered and rested.  It is a tiny town, compared to Luang Prabang, with only one main street, and not many tourists.  Here is the view out our hotel window, of the main street.image
Traffic on the main street.image

Looks like this will be a nice place to relax!

Luang Prabang – Utopia, a Wat and a Bamboo Bridge

3/30 – We are thoroughly enjoying our time in this relaxed and friendly Laotian town, and have decided to stay a few days longer. There are lots of touristy things we could do, like visiting a Hmong village, taking a bus to a waterfall, or learning how to train elephants, but we are content to walk around town, investigate the temples, talk to anyone who speaks English, eat good food, and drink the occasional Beer Lao – the Beer of the Wholehearted People. The local folk are friendly, but not pushy, which is very nice.

Today we walked to the other side of town, along the Nam Than River, where we have not spent much time. Here we found the famous Utopia Bar, where the younger set sits on cushions and stares out at the river while drinking beer and listening to old Bob Marley music. Groovy. We had a beer, then moved on. image

We found another wat, which featured the mirrored mosaics that I like. Here is the Tree of Life, and the little Lao people covering the wall behind the Buddha statues. image


Here are the funerary urns used by the former kings of Laos, now permanently on display, as there are no more kings.image


The hand positions of the Buddhas are important – palms front is an entreaty to stop arguing, and hands at his sides is an entreaty for rain.image


We spoke with two orange-clad 17 year old monks, who explained that they were novices until the age of twenty, at which time they would decide whether to stay at the monastery. One was inclined to stay, the other wanted to go abroad to attend university. Jim asked lots of questions about some of the images we’ve seen in the temples, and they were happy to supply the answers. Very personable young men – they appreciated the chance to work on their English, and we appreciated the chat.

In the afternoon, we came upon a long bamboo bridge, that we had to pay 75 cents to cross. I thought someone should be paying us to cross this bridge! On the other side was nothing at all, just bulldozed land. I’m glad they didn’t charge us to walk back. image


It was a beautiful place to be at sunset.image

Luang Prabang – Whiskey Village and the Pak Ou Caves

3/28 – This morning we had an early breakfast so we would be ready for our tuk-tuk at 8am. We are taking a two hour tourist slow boat up the Mekong River to visit Whiskey Village, and see the Pak Ou Buddha caves. There are seven of us (two young women from Hanoi, a Spanish man from Barcelona, and a couple in the back that we never got to speak to) in the long boat, which is motor driven, so is not really that slow. The morning is overcast and it is actually a little chilly on the water.

We see fishermen and children along the riverside, and deer and water buffalo on the far shore. imageimage
We stop for gas at a floating gas dock. image

An hour and a half into our ride, the driver stops at a set of rickety steps, and we disembark and climb up to a tin-roofed shack containing a metal drum distillery heated by an open fire.image


Whiskey Village produces 100 proof rice whiskey, as well as red and white rice wine. The proprietor offers samples to anyone who wishes to partake. Jim tries some of each, and is drawn to the small bottles containing whiskey-preserved snakes or scorpions – powerful medicine. I remind him that we already have several of these bottle at home, from his previous Asian adventures!image

It’s 10 in the morning, too early for me to drink whiskey, so I walk further to see what else the village has to offer. Women sit at their looms, producing bolts of cloth and scarves in either cotton or silk. They each entreat as I pass, in low voices with eyes downcast, “Beautiful for you madam, lucky scarf, cotton for you, silk for you, discount for you.”

As backpackers, we normally have a “no buy” policy, but the morning is chilly and the thought of a shawl around my shoulders leads me to engage with one of the women. She allows me to take her picture, and we negotiate for a light cotton turquoise shawl, which ends up costing about $2.50.image

“Lucky for you, madam”, she says, and brushes the money over her other wares, transferring the luck in hope of future sales.

In 20 minutes, we are all back on the boat. I see that my fellow female travelers have each bought a scarf. The men are smiling, so they must have enjoyed the whiskey and wine.

Now we continue our journey north to the Pak Ou caves, where a bamboo bridge and a set of steps brings us to the mouth of a cave filled with small Buddha statues, mostly made of wood, that people have been bringing here for over two hundred years.

The lower cave area is illuminated by natural light from the mouth of the cave.image

We emerge and walk up another set of steps to find the upper caves. These are not illuminated, and you need a flashlight to enter. Jim, as always, is prepared, and I am able to capture some pix with my camera’s flash.image

Jim would have been happy spending several hours here, but our boat driver has only allotted us 40 minutes, (one of the reasons we try not to take group tours), so we pull ourselves away and hurry back down the steps.  Sure enough, he is waiting for us – everyone else is already on the boat.

Our return trip is heading south with the current, so it only takes an hour to get back.  The sun is now fully out and the day is hot – don’t need my shawl any more, but am glad that I got to meet the woman who made it. A beautiful day.image imageimage


Luang Prabang – Tak Bat and Mount Phou si

3/27 – This morning we rose at 5am to view the daily ritual of Tak Bat – giving alms to the monks at daybreak.  Every day, the townspeople line the streets near the 33 temples where monks reside, and prepare to feed them sticky rice, crackers and little packets of food.    


The townspeople remove their shoes, and sit so their heads are  lower than the monks’ heads, out of respect.  They dip the food with their hand, and do not make eye contact with the monks, who are meditating as they walk.  The ritual is performed in silence. This is the only food the monks will eat today. Monks eat morning and noon, and then fast until the next morning. image

When the youngest monk at the end of the line has been fed, the ritual is over until tomorrow.IMG_8424


As we were near another wat (temple), we peeked in. Prayer candles are lit in the shrines, and young monks are tending the grounds. A monk is having his photo taken – very unusual.

We spend the day relaxing in town, eating good food and taking in the sights.

In the late afternoon, we walked to Mount Phou si, the highest point in Luang Prabang. There are two set of steps, on opposite sides of the hill. We go up the steps facing the main street – up, up, and up some more!image


You may purchase little birds in reed cages, and set them free at the top of the hill. This will give you merit for your next life. I don’t know what happens to the people who imprisoned the birds in the first place…image

There is a wat at the top of the hill, and a view of both the Mekong River and the Nam Khan River. imageimage


The steps down the back of the hill were rich with Buddha statues.

A peaceful ending to our day.image