A Travellerspoint blog

My Utopia

Before I can tell you about Luang Prabang it is important to summarize the sketchy bus experience I had getting there. The bus is advertised as 8 hours for the short 210km. There were 15 people on the minivan. Notable characters: two Canadians (Mike), a Swede (Jacky) and an Asian couple.
A few hours and two cigarette stops into the drive things were getting beautiful as we rolled through the mountains alongside rice fields. And so when our bus driver made another stop in a deserted field we assumed the purpose was to take photos. Well not five minutes into this stop a Lao man on a bike pulled up and started screaming "no picture no picture". At this point only the Asian man was still taking photos with his $3000 camera. And so as we all yelled to the guy to stop the Lao man went over and took the camera away from the guy. To be honest the Asian man protested very little while our driver fought for his camera back but to no avail as the Lao man then got back on his motorbike to ride away. Mike (being a solid 6"something hockey player) and Jacky went over to fight with the Lao guy for the camera back. The rest of sort of backed the guys up in astounded disbelief at what was going on as Mike ripped the camera back and yelled everyone off the bus. There were no more stops on this bus ride. Which also landed us in LP three hours early.

After checking into LPQ (whose sign says it stands for Like Perfect Quality but in reality is nowhere near) a few of us went to grab a bite and go for a bit of a wander. We had intended to make it to the waterfalls but after stumbling upon Utopia- restaurant, bar, hangout, yoga studio, hotel and whatever else you want this place to be our afternoon rapidly melted away as we lounged on body pillows overlooking the mountains and river in the blazing sun.

For the evening we kept things chill as we checked out the night market full of crafts, clothing, jewellery and most importantly all you can eat buffets for 10 000 kip ($1.36). The policy here is don't ask what it is. Just eat it. And eat we did.

After so many days of being with backpackers and group decision making I decided to take a Lani day. I'm sure no reader will be surprised this meant that I spent my Tuesday at Tamarind cooking school. The whole experience was beyond incredible and I am so excited to prepare these dishes upon returning to my own kitchen. Cooking might be the thing I've missed most while travelling (sorry friends).

We started the morning with a market tour where we learned about the different vegetables and herbs unique to Laos. Interestingly very little is imported into the country due to strict regulations. We then made our way over to the sticky rice section of the market. Yes an entire section for just sticky rice. And to wrap up the tour we visited the very smelly meat section where every part of pig, chicken, buffalo were on display on wooden tables with flies, bugs and the 40 degree heat. Food safety isn't really a thing here.....

While Tamarind also runs a very nice restaurant in the city they run their cooking classes out in the country at the garden they use to grow the vegetables and herbs for the restaurant. The place was beyond gorgeous. I will spare you all and not nerd out about the cooking class but just let you look at all the deliciousness that ensued.
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I returned to the city in the early afternoon and decided it was time to test out this whole fish eating your feet thing. So for half an hour I sat on a bench while a tank of fish nibbled (tickled) my toesies, causing me to laugh uncontrollably, which in turn caused the staff at the salon to laugh at me for looking like a fool. Though it was the first time in weeks my feet weren't muddy I can't say they felt any softer. Either it doesn't really work or I don't have dead skin. You decide.

I then made my way for sunset Yoga at Utopia for a beautiful vinyasa class overlooking the water.
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Satisfied with my solo day and feeling a bit more social I met up with a friend and we made our way to the night market for our buffet dinner and then back to Utopia to lounge around. (Have you caught on that I really enjoy giving places repeat business?)

Now this next bit is where things got a bit sketchy. Somehow I got it in my head that I needed to leave Luang Prabang and my intended destination was Chiang Rai. So upon returning to the hostel instead of going to bed I searched flights for a couple hours, learning I would have to fly to Chiang Mai and then still bus to Chiang Rai. Not keen on both methods of travel I decided I would sleep a couple hours then go check out bus times. And so at 6:30 am I made my way to the ticket office and decided that a 14hr six o'clock night bus would be perfect since it would mean I could go visit the falls before departing. And so I bought a ticket and checked out of my hostel.
Well ten minutes after buying the bus ticket I was reminded that the original reason I was flying was because you need to enter Thailand via airport in order to have a 30 day visa. And so I refunded my bus ticket, decided to wait to fly to Chiang Mai Thursday and convinced my friends to let me move in with them to their new hotel.

And so we checked into the hotel and finally were ready to make it to the falls. En route I quickly popped into one of the ticket agents to purchase my flight for the following day (plane tickets are the type of thing you can bargain so best to not buy online) only to find out that the airline had actually decided to cancel the flights until Saturday. This all occurred around 12:15pm. The flight from LP to Chiang Mai departs at 1:50. Not wanting to be stuck in LP for another three days, and with assurance from the ticket agent I could get to the plane in time I bought a ticket while he called his brother the tuck tuck driver who came to take me back to my hotel, picked up my stuff and booked it to the plane. I made it there with much more than enough time but was a little flustered and also in a bathing suit as I had intended to be at a waterfall.

And so without much warning and a lot of leftover kip I said Sabaidee to Laos.

Posted by Flanilandlizard 23:09 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

More Than Just a Party

Next up on the adventure was Vang Vieng. Well known for its drunken antics and dangerous partying most travellers were suprised to hear that wasn't the agenda I had in mind for my visit.

I teamed up with Andrea (Switzerland) and Johnny (France) on the bus ride and we promptly snagged the last room at Central Backpackers before making our first visit to Otherside Restaurant. Restaurants here are more like lounge pods where you lie on pillows while you eat and most importantly they all run Friends 24/7. So with every meal you jut need to decide which season/episode you want to watch and I can pretty much guarantee you'll find it. The alternative is to continuously go to the same restaurant so the staff let you choose the season/episode. I must say it was quite lovely to hang out with my friends Joey and Phoebe for a couple of days.

After a bit of research into the activity options in the area it was time to experience the VV Nightlife. This is a night life like no other. I can't say from a business model I have any idea how these bars stay in business or make a profit but something seems to be working for them. Everyone follows essentially the same path for the evening starting with their free drink at the Irish bar, moving on to their free drink at Fat Monkey, with a stop along the way to Jaidees who offer free shots all night, and finally heading to Kangaroo bar (and back past Jaidees) for the next free drink. By this point you've also likely collected some t-shirts since most drink purchases (if you've been a sucker and not relied solely on free things) come with a tank top which quickly becomes the mandatory uniform for all activities in VV. Due to the curfew at 1145 everyone is kicked out of the bars and makes their way to one of two after hours clubs... Really it's only one they just have two locations and alternate which is open each night so people don't feel like their partying is redundant. Yes. On this front VV lived up to its name in every way.

I decided to get my tubing experience done and over with since it's a must do but I wasn't interested in centering my trip around it. And so in preparation I spent a couple hours having breakfast with Ross and Rachel before making my way to Bar Zero- the starting point for tubing. This whole activity can best be described as a daytime pub crawl, traveling by inner tube in place of bus, with free shots (of course) marked by colorful string bracelets, 45 degree heat and many activities like Jenga and volleyball to keep you going. The day's highlight for me more than anything was running into old friends and friends of friends from back home. Especially when we realized we had enough people to make a proper Guelph vs Western volleyball game. I'm going to say the Gryphons won this round.

Back in the city the tubing festivities continued into the weekly "jungle party". Again this is one of those things that is super hyped but sounds way more fun on paper than it is. You are essentially taken by tuk tuk to a hostel that is outside of town in the jungle where they've set up another bar. This may have been more fun if there wasn't a torrential downpour for the entire duration but I was more than happy to find a lovely group of Israelis heading back to the city to share a tuk tuk with.

And so with the party scene explored I was ready to take advantage of the natural beauty and amazing location of VV. I booked a day of climbing with Adams Climbing School as it was credited with being the most reputable with English guides and proper training. Tht being said once we got out to the rockface all four companies climb together, sharing ropes, guides and laughs. So if you find yourself there... Just go for the least expensive one. We started the morning climbing between two faces in a small and muddy tunnel due to the previous nights storm. I had initially only intended to climb for half day as I wasn't sure how my arms would be feeling and just how hot it would be. But when it came time to leave I put on a sad face and the guides agreed to let me stay but were very concerned that they wouldn't have a lunch for me. Despite my telling them I'd be happy to go hungry in exchange for rock time our guides shared their personal lunches of Laap and sticky rice with me. We were then down to a small group of five to climb the afternoon away on the front side of the mountain.
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Back in the city and fairly wiped I went to Other side to visit Chandler and Monica before heading out for the evening.

Sunday was trekking day! And so with 5L of wear each, and an adorable guide named Si we made our way through rice fields a plenty to the base of the mountain. Every time we passed an animal (buffalo, chicken, pig) Si would point and yell "BBQ BBQ".

After a bit of caving to pass through into the mountains it was time to pull out machetes to cut a path through the forest. Four hours later we made it to a stunning waterfall where Si made us some lunch and I opted for the swim/nap combo pack. This honestly might have been one of the hardest hikes I've done in a long while. This trek had it all- wading through quick running rivers fighting the current, crawling across Bamboo "bridges", tunneling down into sketchy caves and of course some rock climbing. A solid 7 sweaty hours later we made it back to VV. I clearly didn't learn my lesson with the bike incident to stop doing activities in 45 degree heat.
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I then spent one more night at Otherside where by this point the staff had stopped charging me and all knew me by name. This was the point where I decided it was time to leave.

And so with one more night under my belt, Monday morning I closed the Vang Vieng chapter of this adventure

--Lani

Posted by Flanilandlizard 18:07 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

Lani Laos Lessons

My first solo flight landed me in Vientiane late in the afternoon Tuesday. My first impressions were that things were bustling and not that pretty but I was still excited to explore this new country.

As I got to my hostel and checked in, a lovely Argentinian girl was having a mini meltdown near the desk as her money had been stolen and her bank account frozen. and so being the expert that I am in bank issues due to Bali I spent a couple hours helping her sort out the mess before we headed for some Laos BBQ. This was spicy food experience number one. It quickly made me realize the importance of the words "bor mak pet" or "I don't like spicy". Hong Kong had been a busy few days so I was happy to spend the evening hanging out at the hostel and eating some ice cream. Laos also has an informal curfew and so all bars, restaurants etc close at 11:30. ETB's for all!
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The next morning I decided that I would make the most of the city by following the efficient Lonely Planet self guided Bike tour to every embassy, temple, statue and significant site in town. LP suggests this tour will take 8 hours. And so I grabbed a bike and off I went.

Now much like Hanoi there are no road rules here. People drive on both sides of the street, when lights change they ignore it, motorbikes weave all over both the sidewalk and the road, street vendors randomly stand in the middle and there is constant honking and yelling. I can proudly say my bike and I made it through the day but it was no small feat. And so lesson number 2: if you are going to ride a bike in Vientiane there is a good chance you will die.

Once I had the actual riding thing down I encountered my second challenge- none of the streets are labelled with names. In either language. Each monument came with a number of wrong turns making this "efficient" tour highly inefficient. In fact I had a guard from the Olympic grounds stop me and say "you keep ride past- you don't know where go". Your right buddy, I had no clue but all the time in the world to figure it out. And so Lesson number 3: pictures of monuments are more beneficial than names and street addresses. I'm not actually going to list all the places because there were 21 but I will highlight a few.
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Wat si Saket is the oldest surviving and active temple. Because I was there early enough I was able to listen while the monks walked through the temple singing and blessing all 6000 Buddha statues (not an exaggeration this temple is also known for having the most statues from extra large to extra mini).
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Paxtui - which gives the best views of the city is modelled after the Arc de Triomph and was built as a screw you to America during the secret war using cement they had been given by the States to build highways. This was probably the prettiest and least run down looking monument.
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COPE centre -which both educates about the ongoing issues of UXO in northern Laos as well as is the main rehab and prosthetics centre. I find their physio and OT work to be particularly interesting.
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5 hours, 21 sites and 44 degrees later I was soaking in sweat and super hungry. Lesson number 4: 44 degrees is much to hot for a 5 hour bike ride. I made a valiant effort to find a recommended restaurant from LP but admitted defeat after 45 minutes settling for a super spicy (crap) shrimp salad.
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For the afternoon I paid 40000 kip to swim in a hotel pool because basically any amount of money was worth it to me at that point to be cold. Lesson number 5- Laos people are well aware North Americans have that mind set. Pool prices ranged from 40000 to 150 000 (5.50-20.35). For context my guesthouse was 25 000.

In the evening I made my way to a yoga class far out on the edge of town which isn't advertised as hot yoga but let's be honest everything here is hot. And so sweaty once more, I returned my bike, had Laap for the first time (more to come on Laap) and called it another early one in preparation for my bus to Vang Vieng.

Vientiane might not have been my favourite place but it came with good people and most importantly lesson number six - nobody in Laos is in a hurry. So if you're here, slow down, relax and enjoy "Laos standard time" complete with naps and snacks in the middle of activities.

--Lani

NOTE FROM LIZ: I am updating the blog for Lani while I sit at home and recover (read: binge watch Orange is the New Black Season 2). As such, I'm not partaking in any of above activities and do not always know if I am matching the pictures Lani is sending me appropriately with the text. If you notice any errors, feel free buy me a ticket to Laos so I can go find out for myself. Thanks!

Posted by Flanilandlizard 17:49 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

Slurpees far from Woodbine

Well, at this point I'm about a week behind so this post will be some quick highlights of Hong Kong.

Saturday afternoon Talia, Alex and I had a bit of a reunion day as we went for some hangover soup with delicious dumplings, wandered through the ladies market and most importantly found Slurpees at 7-11. I've never been so happy to have a Slurpee in my life.

We made a visit to Cafe Grey in Pacific Place to drink $20 martinis, see an amazing view and most importantly for me to meet Yvonne for the first time. Dearest family- she is amazing and the perfect addition to our clan. I highly recommend coming here to make judgement for yourself. Pacific Place was epically gorgeous and Talia was quite interested in making the bathroom her new home. Unfortunately we couldn't take pictures due to the lighting so you will just need to trust me. (Or go to their website)

Talia and I met for another meal of dumplings and some impromptu shopping late in the evening and then decided to call it an early one given our 24 hour day only hours earlier.

Sunday morning I took a bit of time to plan my next moves while Talia went for what she described as a "traumatizing" dim sum experience. We met up to take the ferry over to Lamma Island with every intention of going for a nice 1.5 hour walk, have some lunch then do a 4hr hike. Well it was 2000 degrees, and the 1.5 hours were all uphill (seriously)- and so once making it across the island we decided to re-evaluate and came up with the following plan- no 4 hr hike, lunch on the water, a 40 min walk (hike) to a beach (since we kept climbing up, and beaches tend to be down we knew this walk wasn't going to be ideal in either direction) and the biggest decision to have ice cream both before and after the hike. En route to the beach I opted for us to climb another side path leading to a great look out. This impromptu side trip was up a lot of stairs and with each step Talia vocalized her hatred for me encouraging this side tangent. The view was worth it.
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The beach was completely secluded, the water pretty dirty as all these beaches are, but we lounged on the rocks a while before trekking back up the mountain to catch the ferry.
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Back on mainland Yvonne and Elliot took us out for an amazing Italian dinner and drinks. Unfortunately due to our lack of communication devices we missed out on karaoke with our other friends. It's okay. I'm still in Asia. Karaoke will happen no doubt.

Monday morning Tara, Talia and I went for the healthiest meal I've eaten this entire trip complete with coconut water and chia seeds, and we were excited to have started on a good note. Unfortunately our eating for the day went rapidly downhill from there. But more on that to come.

Talia and I headed to big Buddha which we had been warned was too touristy and a little lame but decided to do anyways. We were fortunate to get our own cabin for the gondola over and the view was pretty stunning. 5km and a little Beyoncé party later we were on tourist trap island. I found it unfortunate that there is no information anywhere about the religion, the temples or Buddha itself just a tourist shop inside Buddha.
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There was a pretty sweet display of international cable cars (they all looked the same to me) so Talia found Spain to help get ready for her next leg of the journey.
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We didn't stick around on the island too long before taking the gondola back.
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Before returning to Hong Kong island we made a very important stop at McDonalds to celebrate our being together 20 years after our grandmothers took us for fries and ice cream. And so unhealthy meal choice number one ensued and I am happy to report that the fries were super fresh and hot, and the McFlurry was well mixed and full of smarties.

Given that it was going to be our last dinner in HK Talia agreed to let me indulge in my Peking duck love. And so Alex suggested Peking Garden and Yvonne called and made us a reservation. We had intended to meet for dinner around 8:30 but due to some technical difficulties didn't get together until 10 and by the time we got there full on Hanger had ensued. So we promptly ordered some beef short ribs while we looked over the menu only to realize that in order to get duck you have to order the entire thing. Well.... When in Rome right. Here is the before and after.... I think we did pretty well.
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Once properly duck drunk we went to meet Alex and Gen (and Gens entire family) for a quick beer and to say some sad goodbyes. Though I'm currently trying to convince Gen to join me in Thailand so stay tuned for that.

We then made our way over to Ronin to meet Tara so that I could see the digs and have some final sips of sake.

Tuesday morning I threw back on my backpackers uniform and Talia and I went for one last Dim sum before parting ways.

Hong Kong was a spontaneous decision but not surprisingly was a great one. If I don't return there on this trip I'm sure I will again soon. It felt like home though truly so far away from home and I can't thank everyone there enough for their hospitality and love over those few days.

Off to Laos for me!

--Lani

Posted by Flanilandlizard 16:41 Archived in Hong Kong Comments (2)

A Friendly Stop

I don't know that I've seen 5:30 am so many times on a holiday as I have in these past weeks but it was another early one as we woke up to say very tearful goodbyes to Liz. Shortly after Talia and I made our way to the airport as well to catch a flight to Hong Kong.
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For those who don't know I am fortunate to have a great group of friends from back home living in HK as well as my cousin Elliot and his wife Yvonne who are so kindly offering me the opportunity to stay with them, go shoeless in the shower, drink water from the tap, and not worry about my stuff getting stolen in my sleep. Big perks! And on top of it all I get to catch up with family I haven't seen in years.

From the moment we got off the plane, apart from my repeatedly telling Talia that we were in Hong Kong I was overwhelmed with feeling soooo dirty. So after our train ride into the city, and a spontaneous run in with our friend Gen, we made our way to the fancy mall across the street with our packs in tow for some sushi. Bet you thought I was going to tell you we showered. That would be too predictable. We did go our separate ways shortly after though to transform ourselves into proper humans

I first went to Sundays Grocery the newest shop in association with Yardbird and Ronin to actually see Elliot before settling in to their place.
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Talia and I met back up at Yardbird for dinner and drinks where another lifelong friend Tara (you thought I was joking about this friend thing) was running a tight ship over the 2.5 hour wait list. Fortunately we were given VIP treatment and had two stools at the bar which gave us a great vantage point for watching the magic happen, as well as easy access to ordering as we worked our way through the extensive cocktail list.
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Once Tara finished it was time to experience the Hong Kong nightlife which can only be described as intense. There is no last call which made hanging out until 5:30 am much too easy.

As you may note.... That's the same time this day started.

--Lani

Posted by Flanilandlizard 16:35 Archived in Hong Kong Comments (0)

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