Saturday, January 31, 2009

Travels:Laos. Pak Ou Cave

Luang Prabang
Day 10
Monday December 29, 2008

After breakfast, we told the Bel Aire Villa ("far-away villa") people that we were leaving today. Husband J had to clear some paperwork with the agency that booked us. We brought down our bags and were sent by the villa's driver to town, where we dragged our bags to our new home - Channuane Guest House. After settling in, we took a walk down the Mekong river bank to look for a boat that can take us to see Pak Ou Cave, a cave where all the old and no-longer-in-use Buddha figurines are kept. The ride cost us USD45, and honestly, I swear we were ripped off, although J kept insisting it was a standard price.

The journey on the water took us nearly 2 hours, with stops to fill up petrol along the way. It was a nice ride, but the wind made it a bit chilly for me. Thank God I have my wrap!!

The entrance to Pak Ou Cave

We arrived at the cave and paid 20,000 Kip for entrance. There were many old and disfigured Buddhas there, and I didn't find the cave all that fascinating. For USD 45, this outing was a quick one. In and out. Unless you're a huge fan of Buddhism, Pak Ou Cave is nothing to shout about, and a waste of your afternoon and money. Oh! Well!

Disfigured and unused Buddhas inside Pak Ou Cave

When we got back, I had sticky rice and tomyam at about 4pm. It was a long day. The tomyam was hot and spicy, yes, even spicier than Thai's in my opinion.

We didn't do much at night. I didn't have dinner. Was a bit conscious of the fact I had late lunch and sticky rice at that! I do not want to come home fat!! I just bought a watermelon shake for 5,000 Kip at the Hmong Market and later an overpriced apple juice from JoMa. The Lao people sure love their fruit shakes. I would've enjoyed it more, if the weather wasn't cold!!

Tomorrow's another day in Luang Prabang..


Sunday, January 25, 2009

Puss in lazy mode


@ home

I have a few more days left on my Laos journal, and yes, I should be doing them instead of this meaningless entry, but.....Oh! Well!!

Tonight is Chinese New Year eve, and the firecrackers are already going off. It'll be in full force at midnight and beyond, so disturbed sleep tonight. Joy.. Thank God tomorrow's a public holiday. Not that it means anything to me since I am on holiday all the time!

However, I'm in Lazy Mode. Lazy and Bored Mode. My sister just text asking whether I want to go somewhere this Tuesday, because she's bored. *shrugs*

It's Chinese New Year, many of the shops will be closed, although some will open from the first day itself. Funny how the whole country goes *dead* during this celebration..

I will be back with the remaining stories from my Laos trip.

Stay tuned*

Meantime, Happy Chinese New Year of the Ox/Cow/Moooo....


Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Travels:Laos. It's true what they say about Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang
Day 9
Sunday, December 28, 08.

After an ordinary breakfast at the "far-away Villa", we head into town and climbed up to Wat Phu Si. The wat is on top of Mount Phu Si, which dominates the centre of this little town. It wasn't a hard climb (though Husband J is inclined to disagree - he claims I complained 3 times whilst climbing up! Blehh!), and we chose to go up passing by little houses built along the hill slopes. We passed by people's backyard, and went through their gardens, and they didn't seemed to mind, or too polite to say anything. I'm sure they are used to it, as Luang Prabang is nothing but tourists, tourists and more tourists!

The top has statues of Buddha all over, and a lovely view overlooking the valley. The top is tranquil, and clean, but we weren't really interested to see Mr. Buddha (you see one, you've seen them all!!), but the view of Luang Prabang was picturesque. The area around this wat is slightly narrow and small, but because it is up on the hill, most tourists give this a pass. So it wasn't crowded at all.

After J and I were done taking pictures, we climbed down to a little cafe opposite the Luang Prabang Museum to have coffee. The whole entire street looks quite different during the day. At night, it is filled with tents with Hmong folks selling their wares. During the day, the narrow street is peppered with tour offices, restaurants, coffee houses and small craft shops. The buildings are rustic, very colonial French, and the streets are narrow, but clean. Luang Prabang has been on the UNESCO World Heritage site for a decade or so. Tourism has boomed since then but it has little effect on the vibe, look and atmosphere that is Luang Prabang, it's so refreshing! Unlike other Asian towns or cities where we try to look as western as we possibly can, Luang Prabang is pretty without even trying to be, and it is as Southeast Asian as it gets. It's true what you hear about Luang Prabang: it is a pretty little asian town!

Typical Luang Prabang street. Clean!!

After coffee, we walked across to the Luang Prabang Museum (or the Royal Palace Museum), where it housed Royal properties and religious royal objects. No cameras, shoes, and bags are allowed and we found ourselves shuffling for a free locker to store our stuff. Laos is a Communist country, one of the very few left in the world, and they still proudly hoist the Soviet flag!! They got rid of the royal family, and this museum is all what's left of that bit of their royal history.

We walked along the narrow streets by the Mekong, where there are plenty of restaurants for you to sample western or Lao food. I went for my new favourite: Fish Lab with sticky rice for lunch. It was nice; eating and enjoying the breezy afternoon by the Mekong.

View from the many restaurants along the Mekong

After lunch, we decided to start looking for a place to stay. It is getting closer to New Year, so almost everything is booked up. All the houses near the town centre are renting rooms to tourists. If they are not running a guest house, they are running laundry service out of their homes. It's like the whole place is just catered for tourism. Everyone is a part of it!!

After a few unsuccessful attempts (nothing was available), we got lucky with Channuane Guesthouse, run by a 52 year-old Lao lady who speaks impeccable English. The guesthouse was newly opened a month ago, and it is her birth house! She grew up in that house and now she has turned it into a business. The house is big but we were even more surprised when she took us to see our room. It opens up at the back with more rooms and a big balcony. It is a mansion!! She gave us the 'Honeymoon Suite' for USD40 a night, breakfast included. J and I were very happy. Problem solved. The hotel is near the town centre and we can come and go as we please.

Stopped by at JoMa because I was *dying* to have a piece of Pumpkin Pie I saw yesterday at this cafe. So I said to myself, I must have a piece before I leave! And today is the day! My love for pumpkin pies goes waaaaay back during college. I used to have it like almost everyday!! So imagine how ecstatic I was when my eye caught a plate of pumpkin pie all the way here in Luang Prabang! J has never heard of pumpkin pies before this. So I happily introduced him to one my favourite desserts. Had it with whip cream of course, and JoMa's black coffee. Ummmm..mmmm! Yummy!

All the way in Luang Prabang, had my first pumpkin pie in 15 years! Yumm!

Tonight was a little cold. Walked around the Hmong Market, and went back to the far-away Villa at 9pm. Tomorrow, we are packing off to the Guesthouse. Good-bye villa!!


Thursday, January 15, 2009

Travels:Laos. Hello Luang Prabang!

Luang Prabang
Day 8
Saturday, December 27, 08.

This morning, as we were getting ready to leave Vang Vieng, it rained. It's just weird - when we were about to leave Vientiane, the weather turned gloomy and cold, and now that we were about to leave Vang Vieng, it rained. We must've been THAT lucky, huh?!

After what seemed like an eternity for Husband J to check out from the hotel, we were picked up by the tour company we bought the tickets from, to transfer us to the terminal. This time, we took the minivan. A bit more expensive than a bus ride, but definitely a little bit more comfortable.

We left Vang Vieng at 9am, as scheduled and made our way to Luang Prabang. It is a 5 to 6 hour journey, depending on the conditions of the road (and weather), and today, it rained, so the roads are wet, muddy and slippery. The scenery to Luang Prabang is pretty. Typical Southeast Asian I guess - paddy fields, with huts and rivers running through and the stunning limestone hills as the backdrop. And because it was raining, the clouds hung a bit low as well, making it look even more picturesque. The roads were awful; one kilometre was tarred, and then one kilometre was dirt. And it went on like that for quite awhile! So it was quite a bumpy ride. I think there were at leas 10 people in that van, so it was quite full.

30 minutes or so into the journey, we arrived at no where, with mountain tribal women seen selling fruits at the side of the road. There was a long line of vehicles. Uh-oh. Accident. Sure enough. One bus had one side in the ditch! Don't think anyone was hurt, the passengers were all at the side of the road waiting for another bus. Up ahead, a tanker was struggling to do a u-turn. The road was small, and it was not tarred. It was dirt road, slippery and muddy from the rain. I'm sure this happens a lot, especially when it rains. We waited for more than 30 minutes before our van driver bravely crawled uphill on the dirt road. Let me remind you that the van was full, and it was a van, NOT a four-wheel drive, which would have worked better in this condition!!

The ride after that was pretty smooth. We went uphill, through winding roads. The beautiful scenery along the way kept me from wanting to throw up (and pee!). We passed by many tribal villages, and it looked as if their houses were moved right to the edge of the hill to make way for the roads. Kids were playing at the side of the road, the womenfolk sitting together weaving dried grass to make into house tops (ceilings?), pigs and chickens running around.. it was quite a ride!

We had 2 stops, one was in the middle of no where in the highlands, where I had to pay 2,000 Kips to kids to use the toilet! Can't bargain OK! One mat salleh asked if he could use the toilet for 1,000 Kip, and this cute boy with rosy cheeks said, "No 2,000 Kip, no toilet!" *LOL*

The toilets were clean though, so it wasn't too uncomfortable for me. J had his baguette sandwich, I just hung around. It was so muddy, wet and cold, I just wanted to get back in the van and get going.

We did eventually, and the rest of the journey was nice and bumpy!

We arrived at the Luang Prabang bus terminal at around 4pm. It was bright and sunny, and a bit warm. We had trouble finding a tuktuk driver who knew our hotel (it is a new hotel), so we finally paid 20,000 Kips to take us into town. Once in town, we were delighted to see a familiar cafe -JoMa! We ordered food and coffee, sat and chilled before asking another tuktuk driver in town if any of them knew our hotel. Luckily one did, and off we went. We were taken to a bridge, which only allowed bicycles and small motorcycles to pass through. Apparently, the hotel is right after the bridge, which meant we had to drag our bags across the bridge. There was a small path way with wooden floors for pedestrians, and so we dragged our bags across the river, on to the other side. I am afraid of heights, so looking down and admiring the river below was not an option!!

Sure enough, the hotel was right after the bridge, much to my relief! However, we were put in a villa, some 20km away from the town centre beacause at this hotal, the rooms are full!! The hotel driver then drove us there way, way into a village and into this huge traditional looking mansion. This was our villa!! To get to town and back, we must arrange with the driver to send and pick us up. An arrangement that did not sit well with me nor with J.

Bel Aire Villa: beautiful place, but waaaay too far from town!

The room was exquisite. With wooden walls and shutters, I really felt like I was living in a Lao castle. We were surrounded by a village and not far, a river. But because it made of wood, and it was during the cold season, the room was cold. The beds were nice with very thick covers to keep us warm, but staying in that room was a little unpleasant. We didn't want to stay at the villa anyway, we wanted to see Luang Prabang town! So we had to make an arrangement with the driver to take us into town, and arrange for a time for him to pick us up. Hmmm...

Our room at the villa. Beautiful, but cold!

In town, we had dinner, and had coffee at one of the sidewalk cafes and watched the world go by. Every night, at the main street, there's the Hmong Market, where the hill tribes will bring their crafts down for sale. I was wide-eyed. I didn't expect the things to be so beautiful!! It's a lot of patchwork, and I like the fact that the graphics are quite simple. There were bed covers, pillow cases, tissues box covers, bedroom slippers, big ethnic handbags, the list goes on. It is so different from the stuff you see in Thailand, Vietnam or Cambodia! I wasn't planning to shop because I thought the crafts must be same-old same-old, but I was totally surprised! I might change my mind after all!!

The Hmong Market. Some great Lao crafts to take home.

The buzz at the Hmong Market. Every night until 10pm.

J and I will check out the guest houses nearby tomorrow. Hopefully we can find something and spend the rest of our week here near town.

Meantime, back to our villa, back to our cold room....



Monday, January 12, 2009

Travels:Laos. Rotee and Lab on a cold day.

Vang Vieng
Day 7
Friday, December 26, 08.

COLD morning!

The weather suddenly turned gloomy on us - it was slightly overcast, bad for photography, but great for a walkabout. And that was exactly what we did!!

We walked to Party Island to see the 'aftermath' of the Christmas parties. Last night, Husband J and I had to sleep through the throbbing of techno, but it stopped when it began to rain. Our hotel is quite a distance from the island and we could still here the drum and bass. Imagine if we stayed nearer in town - we would've been pissed off!! Party Island looked like it was having a major hang over! It was dead, of course, with hardly anyone insight. Walked by the river bank where sofa beds made out of bamboos lined the banks. Nice place to chill out, read a book or just take a nap. But today was a little windy and chilly, so the bamboo-made beds were empty. There were a few people enjoying the view from the hammock, and some were reading or playing cards. It was a very chilled-out day, in every sense of the word!

Party Island - the hangover!

We came back to the main town and was feeling hungry. Ever since I had a taste of the local rotee, I wanted more, fattening or not! Stopped by the rotee stall by the roadside and ordered a banana-honey rotee. We were amused this whole time we were in Vang Vieng, there were at least 3 restaurants playing 'Friends' over and over again!! The travel books were right about the bars playing 'Friends' all day and night long, we just didn't understand why! Of course J refused to sit in one of those restaurants! There was also a tuktuk loading up big tyre tubes to go tubing. This was one activity we initially wanted to do, but after the boat ride yesterday, and saw how incredibly slow ( and boring) the tubes float down the river, we decided not to do it after all. Can't imagine tubing today, the river must be colder than usual!!

A couple sneaking a kiss while watching 'Friends'... in the middle of the day. And night. Nothing but 'Friends' all the time!

Loading up the tyres. Let's all go tubing!

We quickly realised today is one day too long to be in a little town like this. Gorgeous view, exciting things to see, but really!! We're itching to get to Luang Prabang!!

Head out again to town for dinner. Ordered fish lab this time, and it came with sticky rice in a cute little traditional woven container. All for 20,000 Kips. I wasn't keen on the rice, but having it together with the fish lab was a whole new explosive taste!!

Lemme tell you, if I remember anything about Lao food, it's the lab. With sticky rice.

*my mouth is watering now... sigh!*

My new favourite food, and exclusively Lao - the Lab with sticky rice. To die for!

Driving the tuktuks and trucks in the river - for a quick wash!


Sunday, January 11, 2009

Travels:Laos. Chang Cave & The Blue Lagoon

Vang Vieng
Day 6
Thursday, 25 December, 08.

*Merry Christmas*!!

Our laundry was piling up, with not many fresh clean clothes left to wear, so we sent a huge bundle to the shop next door to have our clothes washed. 10,000 Kips for 1 kilo. OK. Sounds reasonable enough!

Decided also today, we do what the locals do, forgo the bridge and just cross the river by foot!! The water was shallow enough to do that and so we waddled through the cold river!! Yes, COLD!! It was in the morning, and it was still a little chilly. My foot went numb half way across the river!! Walked on a dirt road when Husband J received a call from family in Sydney to wish us Merry Christmas. Right in the middle of no where, and here we were on the mobile phone to Sydney!! *LOL*! Gotta love technology!

We crossed a bamboo bridge to a lovely area called the Vang Vieng Resort. The famous Chang Cave is in this resort and the gorgeous Blue Lagoon. It's a cool spring with 'blue water' at the foot of the cave - absolutely gorgeous!!

The cave was closed for lunch (!!!), and so we had lunch at a nearby restaurant. The food was ordinary.

The entrance to the cave is 15,000 Kip each, and you have to climb a set of stairs that leads up to the main cavern entrance. A set of stairs = 100+ steps uphill!! I huffed and I puffed, and made it! Whoa, what a workout!!

The Chang Cave is a big cave and easy to explore. No crawling, no dirt, it's already been paved with cement. From the main chamber, you can look over the river valley, and see much of the countryside.

View of the paddy fields from the top of Chang Cave

View of the river valley from Chang Cave

Later that afternoon, we hired a speed boat next to our hotel for 70,000 Kips, to take a tour of the river. It was a blast. The scenery was beautiful, we passed by many river bars, restaurants, places to chill out, saw people tubing down the river, kayaking and at the top, there were river parties, where the river is deep enough for you to dive in!! It was nuts!! Like all of a sudden, bam!! Parties!! Loud music!! People splashing in the water!! That was a scene we didn't anticipate!! The boat ride took an hour and it was bliss!

Came back and had the local pancake (rotee). I had mine with banana and chocolate and it was heaven!! Before we head back to the hotel, we got bus tickets to Luang Prabang on a minivan this time. We walked a bit more, onto the bamboo bridge, across the river and got home. Picked up laundry which cost us 70,000 Kips (7 kilos of clothes?!)!!

For dinner, we stayed in, ordered chicken lab. Whoa!! Loved it!! It tasted much better than the beef lab!! It had shallots, chillies, lemongrass, mint leaves, spring onions and coriander leaves. Wow!! Lab. Yummmmmm...!! Food-wise, Laos has not yet disappoint me..

This has been a good day!


Travels:Laos. Caving in Vang Vieng

Vang Vieng
Day 5
Wednesday, 24 December, 08.

Today, we wanted to discover a little bit more of this beautiful town, so we thought it would be good to do a bit of caving today. And that's one of the things you can do in this town. Vang Vieng is surrounded by limestone caves, and almost all of them have been discovered and have become a tourist attraction.

We had to get to 'the other side', so we had to cross a bridge. This is Laos, as nothing is for free. We had to pay 4,000 Kip each to cross the bridge and back!! We passed through villages and paddy fields and it was a very hot day. It is not the season for rice, as the fields were an ugly brown. But I reckon it to be a beautiful scenery when there is rice planted and of course during harvesting when the rice turns yellow.

It was ages before we reached the Tiger Cave, and yeah, it's 10,000 Kip for entrance, with torch lights provided!! The cave was small, we only managed to get in one of the small chambers, and we had to squeeze through a very tight, small and narrow hole. Imagine my poor 6' 7" husband trying to fit into the hole!! J managed anyway but to go further meant more tight squeezes for him. So we went out, got in through another entrance which was even smaller!! I had to get down on all fours and crawled my way in!! In that process, I slightly twisted my left knee, and so we aborted going any further. Not that we could anyway, the cave was too small for J! I think J was extremely frustrated, though I was happy to turn back and head home!

Back in town, we had tuna sandwich on a lovely baguette. I tell you, they make awesome sandwiches here, and they're simple sandwiches too!! Then back to the hotel for a siesta.

Tonight was another cold night. For dinner, we decided to try something exclusively Lao - the Lab (meat salad). We ordered the beef lab, tomyam and I had sour fish soup, which was da bomb!! Awesome food!!

Nam Song-how can anyone not love waking up to this view?!

This is life in Vang Vieng - forget taking the bridge, just drive through the river!


Thursday, January 8, 2009

Travels:Laos. Beautiful Vang Vieng

Vang Vieng
Day 4
Tuesday, December 23, 08

Husband J and I paid 80,000 Kip for a bus ride to Vang Vieng, and the van transporting us to the bus terminal picked us up from the hotel at about 9.30am. I love this door-to-door service!! We picked up more passengers along the way before we finally got on the big blue bus parked as the driver was loading the bags. It took us over an hour before we finally moved because a couple of tools arrived late! We were not amused, why did we wait for them?? It was very thoughtless of them and they didn't even apologise, though it wouldn't have mattered - we were annoyed at their tardiness.

The scenery to Vang Vieng was nothing to shout about. About an hour into the journey, we stopped by at some small village out of nowhere for a toilet/lunch break. The toilets here are clean. They use water too but they're not stinky, dirty or slimy like in Malaysia. I was happy for the break, as I am the Queen of Pee!! J decided to have a tuna baguette sandwich, I was still full from breakfast.

We jumped on the bus for the remaining journey to Vang Vieng. It is a 3-hour ride and by the end of that 3 hours, I was beginning to think if we were ever going to reach until I saw limestone hills. I knew we were close.

Vang Vieng is a small little village known for its outstanding natural beauty, with limestone karst dominating much of the scenery. It's been a backpackers' mecca for many years, and is popular for tubing, kayaking and caving activities. J and I dragged our bags to the hotel - I was lost out of my head, but I found out later the town is one small circle, that takes you back to the hotel in no time.

Vegetable gardens by the Nam Song

We stayed at the Nam Song Villa, a small but new hotel on the river bank. It is very picturesque, very beautiful. The Nam Song (Song River) is the life line of this town. It's not big like the Mekong, but unlike the Mekong, the Nam Song has clear water, so you can see the small pebbles that make the bed of this river. It looked like out of a picture book, the scenery is breathtaking! Part of the river bank is filtered with vegetable gardens, and the locals use the river for everything, even driving to cross to the other side, bypassing the bridge!!

The way of life on the Nam Song - picking out seaweed from the river

How can you not love waking up to this view??

The nights were cooler here than in Vientianne. We found out very quickly that there is nothing much to do at night after the sun goes down at 6pm, unless you decide to stay up, head down to Party Island for a bit of...partying. But we're old goats, we don't party, and hung out at the hotel's cafe overlooking the Nam Song enjoying a cup of coffee. And that's what you pretty much do in Vang Vieng - chill out.

View from across the hotel's cafe.

Sunset in Vang Vieng

p.s. Happy Festivus, for the rest of us!! *LOL*

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Travels:Laos. Welcome to the TACKIEST park on earth!!

Day 3

Monday, December 22, 08.

We stumbled upon JoMa Bakery by chance last night and decided to give this one a go. It looks a little bit more swanky than the Scandinavian Bakery but the prices are a little less pricier. It's another local coffee shop, with chains at different locations in Vientiane and Luang Prabang. It is so refreshing to not see Starbucks or CoffeeBeans in Laos!!

The first thing that caught our eyes at JoMa were the pastries. If the French left anything in this country, it was the architecture and the art of making good bread. The choices were enough to make your mouth water. We wanted everything: the apple strudels, the spinach strudels, the chocolate strudels, the muffins, the banana cakes, the cinnamon buns...the list can go on. But boring ol' me, settled for bagels and cream cheese with coffee. Husband J went for the kill: the apple strudels. I caved in after finishing up the bagel; I went in and ordered chocolate strudel. It was heavenly!!! The coffee was better than yesterday's at Scandinavian. We found out that JoMa serves great banana cake and cinnamon buns. Hmmm...Maybe next time, we will try.

After a satisfying breakfast, we hired a tuktuk to take us to Buddha Park, some 25km outside Vientiane. We paid the tuktuk driver 195,000 Kip for a 2-way trip! That's USD23!! J really wanted to see this park, so off we went. Tuktuk rides are by far the best way to see the city. We went through some pretty interesting roads, where we passed the 'Friendship Bridge' connecting Laos to Thailand, the LaoBeer brewery which the driver proudly showed us and, Daisy the Cow and friends taking a stroll down the busy, dusty streets!!

Buddha Park was an *interesting* place. OK, I was being polite.. it was a weird and very tacky experience for us. Basically, this dude decided to build this park adorned by Buddhist statues with this odd domed-shape house, depicting hell at the bottom level, earth at mid-level, and the next world at the top level. But soon after the communist government took over Laos, he was chased away to Thailand where he reportedly build a bigger and tackier park!! Anyway, the park was by the Mekong so the view at the bottom of the park was quite nice. As I walked around the park under the hot blazing sun, I still couldn't get my head around this place. It was just....weird!

Welcome to Buddha Park!!

Earth, Hell and the after-life, all in one dome!

Inside the dome: mid-level, earth?

Buddha Park: I just couldn't get my head around this place!!

We took the tuktuk back and had lunch at Nazim's, a halal Indian restaurant which seemed to be extremely popular with the backpackers. I had rice, alu gobi and some chicken masala dish; J had naan. Imagine, all the way in Laos, and we ate Indian food. I told J, we're not having naan for the rest of the trip!

The evening, as always, was cooler. We picked a restaurant that had bamboo sheds along the Mekong and sat on the floor as we enjoyed the sunset. Dinner was spectacular. Just as you think Lao food couldn't get any better, you find yourself totally enjoying another Lao dish. I had 'hotpot' - water boiled over charcoal in a clay pot, you put in the garlic, chillis, seafood (or meat), vegetables, glass noodles and eggs. And voila!! Amazing hot, soupy dinner on a cool night. And it was only for 30,000 Kip!!

Sunset by the Mekong

, is the life!!


Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Travels:Laos. 'Wat' a sunny day!

Day 2

Sunday, December 21, 08

After a surprisingly chilly night (at least it was for me!), Husband J and I woke up to a breezy, sunny morning. The sun was out, and the weather was very pleasant, although I was with my trusted denim jacket when we head out for breakfast.

Breakfast at the hotel was included as part of our room, but the breakfast hall had a funky smell and made me want to throw up, so we decided to spend our Kips on a decent breakfast outside. Just behind the hotel, there were a row of swanky restaurants, and the famous Scandinavian Bakery. The place is almost always packed with tourists. I think I just had a simple breakfast set with toast and eggs, and black coffee, and it was by far, the most ordinary breakfast I've had. I don't understand why the bakery was so popular. I supposed tourists flock to it because it is mentioned in every guide book to Laos. There was nothing Scandinavian about it, the coffee was flat, the bread was nothing spectacular, the eggs, boring and it was a bit pricey. We could've opted for something cheaper, but I guess it was just our second day, so you live and learn!

Walking along the tall white walls of the Presidential Palace, Vientiane

Sightseeing in Indochina is essentially wats, museums and more wats! Our first stop was the Sisaket Museum, which was just around the corner from where we stayed. We walked passed the Presidential Palace, but couldn't see much but white walls surrounding it. We had to pay 5,000 Kip for entrance (each) to look at Buddha figurines if different sizes in glass casings. Just opposite of the museum is the Wat Sisaket, which is said to be the oldest temple in Vientiane. It houses more than 300 mostly Lao-style Buddha images of different sizes, ages and material.

And yes, you have to pay the entrance fee of 5,000 Kip each!

Wat Sisaket

The Hwa Phra Keo Museum was next, where you get to see a little of Lao history. Old money, old weapons, old Lao know the sort National Museums are made of. 5,000 Kip entrance fee each. (As we learnt, almost everything has an entrance fee!)

The sky was very blue in Vientiane, no clouds, so you get direct sunlight. Even during this somewhat cooler season, the sun was quite strong. I didn't sweat much although we did a lot of walking today. It was hot but not humid. But still, hot.

That Dam is a old concrete stupa right in the middle of the road, near the American embassy. It looks quite majestic but a little out of place!! Due to its location, the locals have turned it into a roundabout so, no entrance fee for this one!

The holy roundabout? That Dam

The Patouxai was next. I was a little grumpy (and tired! And hot!) by this time, especially when I learned J wanted us to climb up to the top! The Patouxai (or 'Ptooi' as J called it!) was built from concrete originally donated by the US government for an airport. But as you can see, that never happened instead, up went this building. I didn't think there was anything special at the top. Half way, you can do a bit of shopping, before continuing your way to view Vientiane from the top. At the bottom, the ceiling looked like you could be in a cathedral in Rome, except it is adorned by Buddhist images. Quite stunning. Entrance fee: 3,000 Kip each please!!


We walked back and had lunch by the Mighty Mekong at one of the shacks along the river bank. As expected, food was awesome though we had simple dishes with rice. You can never go wrong with the simple local dishes...

Hot food on a hot day!!

Tomorrow is our last full day in Vientiane before we head out to see the rest of this unique country. But for now, time to get out of the sun and catch some zzzzzzzzz........


Monday, January 5, 2009

Travels:Laos. Sabaidee Vientiane!

Vientiane, Laos
Day 1
Saturday, December 20, 08

The flight to Bangkok took off from KLIA a few minutes later than scheduled, as the airline staff had to unload luggage from missing passengers who failed to show up for the flight. I wasn't too concern, I was going on a holiday!! We flew on Thai Airways, Business Class, and it was nice! Husband J was happy he could stretch his long legs. However, the food at the business lounge was kinda sad. Maybe it was too early in the morning, the flight was initially scheduled to take off at 7.55am.

2 hours later, we were in Bangkok, lounging around at the 'Royal Silk Lounge'. It was a 3 ++ hour transit, and nothing too exciting. The Thai Airways flight to Vientiane finally took off at 11.45am.

When we arrived an hour later, it was a hot afternoon in Vientiane. I got stuck at the immigration because they couldn't comprehend why I was flying in from Bangkok, but didn't have a Bangkok stamp in my passport. And they didn't ask me!! All the officer did was stare at me!! As if I could read his mind!! Haiiya..

*smacks forhead*

After much staring questioningly at me, one of the other officers asked me how long I was in Bangkok. I then understood the confusion, so I said, "Transit!" Confusion ended. I was free to be a tourist in Laos! J had to pay USD40 for Visa on-arrival (which was virtually easy), and we made our way to our hotel.

Vientiane is like any other Indochinese city, though it was not as busy as Phnom Penh. The city is littered with little local eateries, with french-influenced architecture, and cafes. At this time, there's less to no rainfall, so the city was a bit dusty. We got to our hotel, Lane Xang Hotel, across from the Mekong River. Lane Xang was the old name of Laos, and the hotel which we stayed in was said to be the meeting place of secret communist agents and high-ranked Soviet and Lao officials during the height of communism. So we were staying in a piece of communist history! But the hotel looked like it hasn't gone through much change, still looked like it was from the communist era! The rooms are decent, although for the kind of money we were paying, I've seen better. J and I were amused every time we entered the elevator, the carpeting had the day written on it! Typical if you are travelling and forget what day it is, just pop by Lane Xang Hotel, go into the lift, and read what's on the carpet!!

The local currency is Kip. And the notes carry many zeros....yeah, one of those. USD is of course accepted, but if you carry Thai Bhat, you're OK too. We decided to change our US Dollars to Kip. And you can only change in Laos. The Kip is not available outside Laos!

watching the sun sink over the mighty Mekong at 5.30pm

We decided to do a walkabout along the Mekong bank, wide-eyed as we passed by the numerous river bars scattered along the Mekong. We took the restaurant closest to the hotel, and it looked newer and swanky, compared to the others, which were essentially shacks. We sat and watched as the sun sink over the Mekong, and the temperature dropped. Vientiane goes dark by 5.30pm and gets quite chilly at night. We had rice for dinner, with mixed veggies in oyster sauce, fantastic seafood tomyam and fried beef in basil with chili that exploded in our mouths! Lao food is super hot!! That dinner on our first night, was fantastic, so we couldn't wait to sample more during this journey.

awesome, explosive food!!

At the restaurant, J and I were amused to find a replica of KL's twin towers at the restaurant next door. Surely not!! Which we later found out that Tourism Malaysia was holding a show at the restaurant next door. Yeah, OK. But bringing the Twin Towers was tacky at best!! We had to sleep through traditional Malay music as the noise was just from across the road from us. It was a tad bit annoying for me... Why couldn't they do the showcase in a proper hall??? In fact, there is a community hall nearby where the locals would go and do group aerobics...

KL's Twin Towers by the mighty Mekong!

J had to sample the coffee, so we stopped by at a swanky-ish local coffee shop called Sabaidee Coffee. I stuck to the safest - a chocolate latte - which was a good call, because I found Lao coffee to be a bit too strong for my liking.

The weather was pleasant, but I guess I would be at least in my wrap or light jacket when walking in Vientiane at night. Tomorrow, we'll do the sightseeing, so hopefully, the sun won't be too hot for us to move around.