Blogs from Laos

Vang Vieng and Vientiane

Date: 19/04/2007 | Author: Dave

Before getting to Vang Vieng we had heard that this town was full of restaurants and bars with reclining foreigners watching re-runs of Friends. Unbelievable - almost. After a long winding scenic drive over the mountains we slid into town and it was worse than I had imagined. That night we chose to recline for dinner in an establishment screening The Simpsons very loudly, with the added bonus of being able to simultaneously watch Friends on four TVs right across the road. How did they get it so wrong? For added convenience every restaurant in town has an identical menu. This is a paradise for the unimaginative.
We are staying at Ban Sabai Bungalows, which is on the river, thankfully, 10 minutes walk out of town. Nice location! The views around Vang Vieng are amazing. A range of precipitous mountains run north from here and is riddled with caves.
We have only one day here and we make the most of it. For US$13 each we have an excellent day out. We are taken first, to four very different caves. One of them is large and safely housed 400 people during the early 70's while bombs rained down. Another cave is half full of water with a narrow entrance. We went about 300m into this cave, using rubber tyre tubes, both paddling and pulling on ropes against the current. It was (of course) pitch black and the few head lamps they supplied only worked intermittently. The girls loved this cave. Their bravery never ceases to amaze me!
The highlight of this day was tubing down the Nam Song river back toward town, past giant rope swings and busy bars all selling our favourite thirst quencher, Beerlao. Fun for all the family this tubing. "Just remember to raise your bum a bit in the rapids" is my only advice. BBQ lunch served on banana leaves included - a great day out.
Our trusty mini bus driver (Khone's brother) picks us up from Xoyah Bungalows the next morning and we move on to Vientiane. Despite this road being a lot straighter than the mountain crossing he is now driving maximum 30km/hr and we never work out why. By afternoon end we arrive at the Settha Palace. A grand hotel with high ceilings and hallways that you could could reverse a London Bus through. The pool is reputedly the nicest in town and while the girls immerse, Gabby and I get on with our chores. We need to post about 10kgs home. Our bags are bulging and we are flying to Cambodia tomorrow.

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Vang Vieng and Vientiane

Date: 19/04/2007 | Author: Ella

In Vang Vieng we stayed in a place called Ban Sabai Riverside Bungalows. The actual town of Vang Vieng is not very nice, eg full of TV bars and unwelcoming cafes, but the surrounding mountains are beautiful. The most popular things to do around Vang Vieng are caving and tubing, we did both of them. One of the caves we went in had a river running through it so we got in our tubes/rubber rings and paddled our way to the end - about 300 metres. We went to 3 other caves, 2 of them were really big and the other had a giant Buddha and an elephant shaped rock in it.
After caving we got in our tubes again and started floating down the Nam Song River. While we were floating down the river we saw lots of swings on which you had to hold on to a bar and jump off a ledge and at some point while swinging you have to let go and fall in to the water! I didn't go on the swing but lots of people did. Caving and tubing was brilliant fun.
After Vang Vieng we went to Vientiane (Laos' capital city). We stayed in a posh hotel called Settha Palace Hotel. It had a great swimming pool and our room was lovely, Mum and Dad had a 4 poster bed.
On our second day we had to get up at 4.30 in the morning to go to the airport. The hotel took us there in their proper London taxi.
Next stop, Cambodia.

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Tubing Down Rivers

Date: 19/04/2007 | Author: Florence

I was very sad to leave Khone and Khune's guest house but Khone's brother was taking us to the next place. it was a long drive to Vang Vieng. We stayed in Ban Sabai Riverside Bungalows. Ella and I shared a bungalow and Mum and dad were in a different bungalow.
While we were in Vang Vieng we went to 4 caves. First we went to a cave where about 400 people lived during the American War. The second cave was smaller than the first cave and no people lived there. The 3rd cave we went to had a river running through it so we had to go in rubber rings to explore it. At the end of the cave there was some mud that made your skin soft.
After caving we went tubing, which is floating down the river in a rubber ring. Ella was in her own tube but then I got to have a go in my own tube. The guide stayed with me until we got to some rapids and then let me go. It was a lot of fun! There were lots of restaurants with high swings on the river but we didn't go on them.
The next day we drove to Vientiane and stayed at the Settha Palace Hotel. It had a big pool, we swam in it a lot!

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Last Few Days in Laos

Date: 19/04/2007 | Author: Gabby

We ended up staying at Khone and Khune's in Luang Prabang for nearly 2 weeks. We were all very sad to leave our new friends. As we had stayed there for so long we felt we had to speed through our final 2 destinations in the country, Vang Vieng and Vientiane. The south of Loas will have to wait for another trip
After a 6 hour drive along windy roads, mountain passes and stunning scenery we arrived in Vang Vieng just as the sun was setting. We had booked accommodation in Ban Sabai Riverside Bungalows overlooking the Nam Song river, as we had been told that the town itself was pretty noisy.
Vang Vieng has become a bit of a mecca for backpackers. The town itself is pretty awful, it's full of bars and restaurants with blaring TVs showing repeat episodes of Friends, The Simpsons and the like. The mountain scenery surrounding the town is amazing, huge limestone escarpments, great rivers and an abundance of incredible caves. We only had one day there and made the most of it - an organised day out with about 8 other backpackers. We explored 4 caves, one with a river running through it which we navigated on inner tubes - pitch black and the girls loved it. After a great picnic lunch we spent the afternoon on the same inner tubes and floated or paddled (depending on how strong the current was) down the Nam Song back towards Vang Vieng. The river has bars and giant swings dotted along it's length, allowing farangs and locals to take a cooling dip in the river. It was the day after the official last day of Laos New Year and it was still in party mode. Many farangs get stuck in Vang Vieng for weeks and spend large parts of their day sitting at the bars drinking, getting stoned, taking the odd dip in the river. It really is the closest to a beach vibe in this country - I completely understand why people are drawn here. It's just a shame the town has become what it has.
Ella and Florence really enjoyed our day out, not just caves and the rapids (which weren't too ferocious as we were approaching the end of the dry season), but the opportunity to interact with other travellers. Ella is becoming particularly independent and spent most of the day hanging out with 3 Swedish girls. Dave's (frequent) offers of help (I think he wanted to hang out with the Swedish girls) on the steeper rapids were refused, she was out to prove she could cope on her own.
We didn't really do much in Vientiane, Laos' capital, on the banks of the Mekong and a 4 hour drive from Vang Vieng. It's possibly about the quietest capital city I have ever encountered. With a lot of wiley manipulation, I persuaded Dave that we should stay in Vientiane's loveliest hotel The Settha Palace. To be honest, it wasn't that expensive and with the South East Asian currencies tied to the US $, these usually inexpensive countries are a bargain at the moment! It's a gorgeous old colonial building, beautiful wooden floors, 4 poster beds, a fantastic swimming pool in beautiful frangipani filled gardens - a great way to end our time in lovely Laos.
This is a country I definitely want to come back to - it is really beautiful, the people are lovely and there is so much more to explore!

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Laos New Year

Date: 15/04/2007 | Author: Dave

Well this was worth waiting for.
There is a dramatic increase of traffic and people in Luang Prabang leading up to Pi Mai Laos. We have found ourselves here with fortuitous timing. Judging from the crowds flocking in and our recent research, Luang Prabang is known for having the best water festival in the country (and probably the whole of SE Asia).
Khoun is busy doing repairs to the Jeep, not only so that we can experience it with a superior platform from which to distribute our watery good luck blessings but also to make us prime targets for the locals because "every family needs lots of luck in the new year". Khoun and Khone take us to build a stupa down on the far side of the Mekong. We build stupa fast "for good luck" then cover it in white flour..... "lucky colour".
Dear reader, you, like me, have probably already spotted the central theme in Pi Mai Laos. It is certainly a time for cleansing houses, bodies and Buddha statues but most folk are busy mustering enough luck to get them through to 2551. Laos is one of the poorest countries in S.E. Asia and luck plays an important roll here.
We spend two days in the middle of the biggest and best water fight I have ever seen. Actually 'fight' is the wrong word. There is no aggression, only a sea of smily happy Laos and farang. Funnily, you do on occasion see a half dry foreigner who thinks it possible to stay dry by adopting an attitude of 'I am not involved' as they walk this watery gauntlet. Useless. We are soaked all day and my face aches from grinning insanely. I take a lot of photos but believe me this is not easy.
We get hit by a lot of flour and also a black grease made from the soot from the kitchen gas burners. It is like a black creosote.
There is a superb parade to interrupt the deluge for a while and then it resumes unabated till sunset, when without a word spoken all water throwing suddenly stops. We are prepared and have our dry clothes and other dinner essentials like Boggle, pens and paper in a plastic bag.
The next morning, short one white tee shirt (now blackish) but having gained the experience of a lifetime we sadly leave Luang Prabang and our new friends, Khone and Khoun.

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Laos New Year

Date: 15/04/2007 | Author: Ella

For Laos New Year, Khone and Koune drove us in their jeep to the Mekong River to get a boat across to the other side. We did this to make a sand stupa. Normal stupas are big cone shaped tombs that you see in temples but sand stupas are slightly smaller and Laos people traditionally make them next to the Mekong River for good luck at New Year. Another traditional thing you do after making a stupa is walk right into the river and wash away all your bad luck. I didn't mind walking into the freezing cold Mekong because I was already soaked from the jeep ride into town.
Nearly all over South East Asia they celebrate New Year with water fights! People start selling gigantic water guns and people line up on the roads with big buckets of water and soak everyone who passes by. It was a three day festival and I thought Laos New Year was the best water fight you could ever have.
We had a great two weeks in Luang Prabang.

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Laos New Year

Date: 15/04/2007 | Author: Florence

Coming up to new year everyone starts throwing water. They rub powder into your skin and you have to keep your eyes peeled for people with waterguns and big buckets of water. Our guest house has a jeep that we drove around in. It seemed like it was raining and by the time it was evening you had loads of water in your ears.
There are lots of activities to do at Laos New Year and this is one of them: We built a stupa which is like a sand castle made out of mud. When we finished the stupa we put little balls of mud around the stupa and then we sprinkled flour over it and put a Laos flag at the top. If you build the stupa quickly it is more lucky. Then we paddled in the Mekong River.
We joined in the water fight for two days. It was a lot of fun.
I liked Khoun and Khone's guest house and I was really sad when we left.

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Pi Mai Lao 2550

Date: 15/04/2007 | Author: Gabby

Laos New Year is celebrated particularly enthusiastically in Luang Prabang. Wanting to be there to witness the festivities was our main reason for staying in the region for so long. I don't think any of us realised quite how fervently the Lao and farangs (foreigners) would embrace the 3 day festival. It is traditionally called a 'water festival' as getting wet brings good luck, but not only plain water is thrown, there's coloured water, flour, grease, paint. It's not a time or place to decide to wear your best clothes....
Our guest house owner, Khune, spent the week prior to New Year tinkering with his open-topped US Jeep in order to get it working so we could drive to and around town in it every day. Of course, this guaranteed that we would be soaked by the time we arrived in town. A bit of a blessing really because once we were wet through we didn't mind the additional dousings.
We, of course, participated in the more spiritual elements of New Year with Khone and Khune: for good luck we built a sand stupa on the banks of the Mekong (normally sandy but a bit muddy this year due to the thunderous rain that had fallen during the preceding nights), we watched the procession, where everyone, including monks, nuns and local dignitaries are doused in water to wash away past sins.
By far the best fun was plotting up at a bar on Luang Prabang's main road and witnessing and participating in the madness and mayhem that ensued. Of course, the girls gave as good as they got, I entered in to the sprit of things with my usual enthusiasm and Dave took plenty of photos. It was a lot of fun, no one lost their temper or got mad and once the sun went down, without a word, everything stopped enabling us to put on some dry clothes and walk through the streets safely.

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Luang Prabang

Date: 13/04/2007 | Author: Dave

I guess the true highlight of this town is us discovering the Khoun and Khone Bungalows. They have six huts on about two acres of land just ten minutes out of town. Gabby, who is the head of research and bookings for the Bracey family, discovered them on the Travelfish website. Their huts are rustic/perfect for us. Our hosts are charming and have a philosophy of including their guests in their life and after a few days we felt more like family than customers. They are happy to run us to and from town in their mini-bus or (Khoun's pride and joy) the Jeep. There is a lot to do here. The Buddhist temples are beautiful and you are never out of sight of them or the orange clad monks. The French colonial architecture looks like it will be well looked after as well, thanks to the town's World Heritage status. There are plenty of good restaurants that cater to western tastes as well as Laos food. Good shopping too (if you like that sort of thing). Especially the night market, which runs through the centre of town every day from about 5pm till 9pm.
On our third night we stir to an amazing thunder storm. We are in a separate bungalow from the kids at Khoun and Khons. We are about 10m apart but in this torrential rain we would never hear them if they were to wake up. Through my happy sleepy haze I hear the pitter patter of Gabby's feet on the path to Ella and Flo's hut just in case.
Our original intention was to stay in Luang Prabang for about five days but we are approaching Lao New Year 2550. Sounds like a big one to me. Also, we are getting a smoke cleansing storm every night now. The air is clear and we can see for miles. We like it here!
We spend a day kayaking down the Nam Pa. Florence is princess passenger in a guides kayak. We are using inflatable rubber kayaks. They do seem stable in the rapids. Ella is doubled up with the second guide except for down one set of rapids where he has fallen off the back and she is on her own for a bit. We stop for a close look at some gold panning. Here they are working in the faster flowing sections and have a mechanised rock crusher. For a closer look at the shiny stuff we pass their wok containing the precious gold dust over our four bobbing kayaks.
One sunny afternoon Khone and Khoun take us to the nearby Kuang Si waterfall. It is about 80m high over limestone and has a series of enticing milky green swimming holes below it. We do the steep climb up one side, across the very top of the falls and down the other. (pic) It is a hard trek in this heat but a long swim is our reward at the end.
It looks like we will stay here till after Laos New Year. The longest stop on this trip so far and for us the longest we have ever stayed somewhere without a beach!!

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Luang Prabang

Date: 13/04/2007 | Author: Ella

After our journey down the Mekong we arrived in Luang Prabang and met with our hostess, Khone. She drove us in her mini van to Ban na Dat, which is a little village just outside Luang Prabang. When we arrived at Khone and Khune's Guest House, Florence and I were filled with joy because we noticed that there were 4 dogs and 4 cats living there. The 3 puppies were called Max, Owen and Tim and their mum was called Ikashu. There was a ginger cat called Tiger, a black cat called Creepers and a mum and daughter cat both called Chicken! My favourites were Tim and Tiger. Khone and Khune have a son called Fly, he is 8 years old and speaks quite good English, it was fun playing with him.
While we stayed there we visited lots of temples. The first temple we went to was Xieng Thong. That one was my favourite out of all of them but the other ones I still liked. There are lots of monks in Luang Prabang. Monks are boys and men who devote their lives to the Buddha. They shave their heads and wear bright orange robes.
We had great fun kayaking down the Nam Pa. They kayaks were not plastic like normal kayaks, they were inflatable. There were a couple of big rapids on the river and because my guide was so heavy on the back, he weighed the back down, while I was flying in the air on the front over the rapids! On one of the rapids my guide fell off the kayak in to the water. I didn't see it but my Dad did, he said it was very funny! I had a very nice time kayaking.
Another really fun thing we did in Luang Prabang was going to the Kuang Xi waterfall. The best thing about the waterfalls was being able to swim at the bottom of them. It was very cold but it cooled us right down. In one of the pools there was a plank to jump off. The Kuang Xi waterfall pools were all different shapes and sizes and I really liked swimming in them.
There was also a waterfall near Khone and Khune's guest house called Nadear waterfall. We only went there once but we enjoyed making dams in it.
But all of that was nothing compared to the thing we were staying in Luang Prabang for, Laos New Year..............

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Khone and Khune

Date: 13/04/2007 | Author: Florence

We arrived at Khone and Khune's Guest House and Ella was very excited because there are 4 dogs (3 puppies and a mother). There are also 4 cats, 2 mothers and 2 kittens called Tiger and Chicken. Khone and Khune have 2 daughters who are away at school, but they have a son here to play with us, his name is Fly. There are lots of temples in Luang Prabang and we went to visit them. Most of the temples are gold and have carvings of the Buddha inside them. Monks go in the temples a lot and devote their lives to the Buddha. Monks don't wear what we do, they have to wear orange robes all the time. Their orange robes are a really nice colour. But monks aren't that different, you can find them in restaurants, temples and even internet cafes. Women are not allowed to touch monks. If you want to give something to the monks you have to get up early so they can collect it in their alms bowls.
One day we went kayaking. The kayaks weren't plastic like the ones we used in New Zealand, they were inflatable. There were rapids on the river. The first rapids were the biggest, it was like kayaking over waves because you slid up the rapid then splashed back on the flat water. It hurt my bottom! I also really liked swimming in a waterfall, it was very cold. It was very close to Khone and Khune's bungalows. Lots of people had built small dams and Daddy and I built a dam there. Then we broke the dam and made miniature rapids with the rocks. Another day we went to some other waterfalls - they were much bigger than the ones near our bungalows and had lots of pools to swim in. In one of the pools a tree had fallen over and landed in the water - but not while we were in it! It made a really good jumping spot!

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Lovely Luang Prabang

Date: 13/04/2007 | Author: Gabby

By the time we arrived in Luang Prabang, Florence's cold had developed into a really nasty cold sore and, I suspected, impetigo. Poor little thing, she was so self conscious about the huge sores on her face she couldn't bear to look up at Khone, our Luang prabang Guest House owner, who met us from the boat.
We had booked in to Khone and Khune's Guest House, in a small village about 4km out of Luang Prabang on the recommendation of Travelfish - a great online resource if you're travelling through Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos.
Khone and Khune's is a family run guest house and when I read they had kids I thought it would be great for the girls to have some local kids to play with as they have been really missing their friends from home. Unfortunately, their 2 daughters were away in Vientiane at school but there was Fly, their 8 year old son. There were also 4 cats and 4 dogs (3 of them puppies), all very healthy and well looked after, so, in contrast to our usual rule of not touching any animals in Asia, the girls were delighted when I said they could play with these. Ella and Florence were in their element and I knew they'd be happy here.
It was clear very quickly that Khone and Khune were good hosts, they only have 6 bungalows - we occupied 2 of them and were the only guests. They went out of their way to help us, run us in to town, recommend places for us to go as well as sort out a good Doctor so I could get Florence some antibiotics.
By our first night in Luang, I loved the place. It has a laid back air of sophistication I haven't experienced in anywhere else in Asia. It is now a Unesco world heritage site and is a perfectly preserved area of local and colonial teak houses, French provincial architecture and gorgeous temples encircled by mountains at the confluence of the Mekong and Khan rivers. There's a huge range of accommodation to stay in, great cafes and restaurants as well as decent wine and coffee! There are over 60 temples in the city, with monks and novices living in many of them, so the orange robes are very much part of the Luang Prabang scenery.
By day 2 we had decided to extend our 4 or 5 day stay and stay until Pi Mai Lao (Lao New Year) nearly 2 weeks away. With Florence recovering and Ella feeling that she'd arrived in heaven, we didn't think it was a bad place to stop for a while.
It was an amazing, relaxing time until the New Year mayhem started. We kayaked down one of the many surrounding rivers, we swam in the turquoise swimming pools at the Kuang Xi waterfalls, we ate really well, and just generally soaked up the atmosphere in this lovely city.
Khone and Khune became like friends. It was a lovely way to experience Laos. Sometimes you get more out of staying in one place for a while rather than haring around a country trying to grasp a little of this, a little of that. I never imagined we would spend so long in one place in this landlocked country - Luang Prabang didn't let us down.

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Smoke on the Water

Date: 02/04/2007 | Author: dave

This morning we arrive at the 'dock' at Huay Xai but the boat we are now boarding is not the boat we had booked. It is the end of the dry season and the Mekong is currently 7m below it's peak water level. Our nice boat, the 'Pak Ou' is awaiting us two hours downstream, just below the rapids. This one, anyway, seems comfortable and we are told it only draws 1m "so very good for rapids".
We have been joined by Mark and Erin, the heard but never seen inhabitants of Tree House Two. It is great to have their company for this two day boat journey. We can see very quickly that the remaining passengers are not our kind of people.
For instance: There is the English art teacher who is moaning because the visibility is low and the woman who regularly corrects our Lao guides English pronunciation. She was trying to make him say 'rice' like 'rie-sssss'. The 's' sound as we know it, does not exist in his native tongue. I did see several others cringing at that point.
We are on the overpriced boat service to Luang Prabang (the Luang Say). It stops for one night at their own, very nice, lodge in Pak Beng. We would have preferred the mid-priced boat, 'The Nagi on the Mekong', but it meant waiting three days in Huay Xai to catch it. Most people use the very frequent 'Slow Boat'. Cheap, crowded and uncomfortable. A long-tail speed boat is the fourth option. Most of their brave customers wear a helmet and suffer no leg movement for nine hours. To add a dose of terror to the cramp, it is well known that these fast boats hit rocks. There is a major accident once a week and sometimes fatalities. We see several zoom past and no one raises a hand to wave.
We pass many water buffalo, fishermen and gold panners. Stopping off at villages to purchase the local whisky and gorgeous hand woven cloths is a treat.
I am surprised how fast flowing this mighty river is. There are rapids, whirlpools or turbulence most of the time. Huge towers of basalt rock line the river's banks and also create many islands. This boat, the 'Pak Ou' is about 36m long and draws 2m. I am amazed by the skill of the captain as he guides us between the rocks. The boat takes on a life of it's own as it sways in these rapids. I would love to be here again at the end of the wet season, to see this river 7m higher. The French built concrete stepped pylons on some of the high rock to aid navigation but these are way above us now.
Speaking of wet, we are still waiting for some cleansing rain. The smoke is now at it's worst. For the first time we can see large fires burning on the hills and ash is raining down. Visibility is less than a kilometre.
But let us spare a thought and put it into perspective: We are in the middle of the most bombed country, per head of population, in world history. 12 million tons for 2.5 million farmers and fishermen. Between 1964 and 1973 there were more bombs dropped on Laos than on the whole of Europe during WWII.
What we are experiencing for a few days is not so bad.
A great journey, an enchanting river.

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Two Days on the Mekong

Date: 02/04/2007 | Author: Ella

After 2 nights in the jungle, we decided to have some boat time so we booked the Luang Say river cruise. It started in Huay Xai and was full of old people, except for a couple, Mark and Erin, we had met at the Gibbon Experience. Florence and I wanted to do some drawing so we sat down at a table at the back of the boat and drew. Soon the cook on the boat decided to come over and see what we were doing. Laos used to be a French colony so many Laos people can speak French and the cook could. She gave us a French lesson by drawing something and saying what it was in French. She got very attached to us.
After a while we arrived in a Laos hill tribe village. It was very sweet, it had a communal washing area and a little blacksmith. When our guide, called Tee, was explaining things to our group one of the old ladies tried to make him pronounce rice properly. Many Asian people find it difficult to pronounce their s's and c's and she really embarrassed him. I thought she was very rude.
We soon arrived in our accommodation for the night. It didn't have a swimming pool or playground but we wouldn't have had time to use them because we were only having dinner there, sleeping there and having breakfast there. I wish we could have stayed for another night because the beds were so comfy!
The boat was going to reach our destination, Luang Prabang, on our second day, but we stopped at two more places on the way. The first place was another hill tribe village. I didn't want to go up but dad said it was very interesting because there were lots of people weaving and making clothes. The second place we went to was the 'Cave Of a Thousand Buddhas'. That is only one of it's names, it is also known as Pak Ou caves. We gave some offerings to the Buddha and left. On the way out a family was selling birds in cages and you were meant to buy them to set them free - it is considered lucky. I felt so sorry for them - there was one cage with 3 birds in and they were all squashed together so we bought them. They couldn't fly that far. The first one got to land and the second one fell in the water. The third one couldn't fly at all so we kept it on the boat, fed it and gave it some water so it would be able to fly from Luang Prabang. Before we arrived there I was showing it to some ladies on the boat and it escaped from my hands and fell in to the water. I really hope that it's OK because it was rather far away from land when it fell in.............
We were not far from our destination, soon we were there, Luang Prabang, a Buddhist fairy tale.

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Mekong River - Burning Hills

Date: 02/04/2007 | Author: Florence

We were in Huay Xai and we were going to go on a boat trip down the Mekong River to Luang Prabang. When we got on the boat we did some drawing. I drew a picture of the boat sailing along the river. The cook on the boat came over to see what we were drawing, so I drew a picture of her at the back of the boat (that's where she cooked). She drew pictures of a little town where she lived in our books. On the way we stopped in 2 Hill tribe Villages. There were lots of children selling things like cloth and bracelets so they could earn some money. We went to see an old fashioned blacksmiths.
When we went back on the boat we played a game of Jenga. The Jenga was very tall and we were playing it while going over some rapids on the river so we had to be extra careful. It wasn't the best time to play Jenga because the rapids were a bit bumpy.
We stopped half way on our river trip at our accommodation called Luang Say Lodge. We slept in our own bungalow, the beds were very comfy. We made friends with 2 people on the boat, their names were Mark and Erin. They had been on the Gibbon Experience and were very nice.
On the 2nd day it was very smoky because the farmers were burning fires on the hills by the river. It looked very hot! We could hear the fire crackling.
The boat stopped at the Cave of 1000 Buddhas. There were 2 caves full of thousands of Buddhas, some big, some really tiny. I took lots of pictures.
After 2 days on the boat we arrived in Luang Prabang.

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The Mighty Mekong

Date: 02/04/2007 | Author: gabby

The 2 day Mekong River trip from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang had been recommended to us by a few people as a 'must do' while we were in Laos. While researching the different options available we discovered there were 4:

1 Really cheap option on a slow boat, hard bench seats, often overcrowded, 2 x 9 hour days with an overnight stop in the small town of Pak Beng (own cost in one of the few, basic, guest houses there). $20US pp.
2 Luxury Slow boat option - comfortable boat, maximum 40 passengers, 2 x 8 hour days. All meals & soft drinks included as well as one night's accommodation in the luxury Luang Say Lodge. Cost $340US Adults $170US Kids!
3 Speed Boat option - only 1 day, but have to wear helmets, no leg space and there are frequent fatalities due to the hidden rocks in the Mekong - especially at the end of the dry season. Cost negotiable. For us - not an option!
4 Fast boat option, Nagi on the Mekong, one day only, reasonably comfortable boat but departures from Huay Xai only twice a week, Cost $80US pp.

We really wanted to go for the fast boat but we would have had to stay in Huay Xai for an extra 3 days. There wasn't really that much to do there so that wasn't an option. The only other alternative was the luxury slow boat option, we knew it would be good, but at what cost?! The timing was perfect as the Luang Say boat left the morning after we arrived back from the Gibbon experience and to be honest, I felt so tired and grubby after our weekend of living in trees, I was really glad we were going to experience some luxury for a couple of days!
A couple from London who we met on the Gibbon Experience decided to do the same trip as us. I was so relieved, because when we stepped on the boat, it was full of elderly, middle class tourists travelling with tour groups! Thankfully, there were only about 20 other passengers so the boat was comfortably empty.
The boat was lovely, the overnight accommodation at the Luang Say Lodge was perfect and the food was amazing. I think we were given special treatment as the cook took a shine to Ella and Florence. It was easy to while away the 2 days by reading, playing games and soaking up the passing scenery. A lovely, relaxed way to travel.
The views on the Mekong weren't great. The slash and burn farming has created a haze across 3 countries - it does every year during March and April. At times visibility was down to less than 1km and ash would rain down on us. The river was about 7 metres lower than it's highest level (November is the best time to travel to experience the Mekong at it's mightiest!) revealing huge rocks and sandbanks. But, there is so much more to see on the Mekong. It's such a life force and is still the main artery of travel for the Lao people in this land locked country. Passing along it gives you a great insight into it's importance.

It's very concerning when you consider that the Chinese plan to build about 20 dams further up the Mekong, and along it's tributaries, in order to provide power for their burgeoning middle classes. 2 dams have already been built and the volume of water passing through the lower Mekong countries is already decreasing. As the only country of the 6 bordering the Mekong not to sign the 1995 Chiang Rai Accord (set up to settle disputes regarding development of the river), the future of the Mekong is very much in the hands of the Chinese......................

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The Gibbon Experience

Date: 31/03/2007 | Author: Dave

A short boat ride across the Mekong and we are now in Laos. Getting visas and clearing immigration is a hot and humorous affair. Having two blonde children is like having an extra passport. Border guards need more than the normal number of photos of them. Huay Xai is our departure point for the The Gibbon Experience tomorrow morning so Gabby runs the length of town to find a nice clean room for the night. The locals seem friendly. We are excited as we go to bed tonight but there is a little tension in the camp as we try to imagine all that we need for our kids in the jungle and stuff it into a backpack each.
Our early morning journey from Huay Xai to the hill tribe village was a dusty two and a half hours in an old 4WD. We suddenly discover that we have changed to driving on the right now in this ex-French colony. But of course, most road rules in Asia seem to be merely a suggestion.
We were in the village for 20 minutes under the gaze of those that were leaving the experience. Someone asked the question, "how was it" - "OK" said a rather dour chap. I am expecting this maybe to be the highlight of our whole holiday. "OK"?
Much fuss is being made over our little blonde ones again when suddenly our guides, with little fuss, start to move out of the village. We notice this subtle departure but I don't think the guides know the numbers so a few people have some catch up to do. We hike across flat corn fields, across a few streams, then up into the hills. It was hot and hard work for us. Florence was her usual stoic self. Mostly uphill and an hour and a half later, soaked in sweat we arrive at the guides hut/kitchen. A small black bear takes the kid's minds off everything else.
Time to harness up and move on, further uphill. By the time we start to bunch up at the launch platform Ella is already hooked to the zip wire with the first guide. Giving us that 'wide eyed' look of hers. "I am first Mummy......" and they are off through the green to Tree House One.
Tree House One is at least 50m from the ground, can sleep eight, but the living area has enough space for thirteen of us and several guides so we gather there for a cup of tea and a brief safety chat. Green tape is OK, Yellow for safety, and Red tape, no go. That sounds familiar. Oh, and no zipping at night. Very dangerous.
The guides suddenly disappear, leaving us to drink more tea and wonder what happens next. Liv from Copenhagen and Matt and Andy from Ontario are to live in One with us. All of the treehouses have a gas burner ring, candle lamps, running water, a shower and long drop toilet. Very long drop. We have not seen him yet but 50m below on the forest floor is a large black pig to keep things tidy.
We are all itching to go out onto the zip lines. We can hear the guides back at their hut and know that they must have a timetable of some kind, but we have no clues. They receive a prompting from a soon to be resident of tree house three and things get moving. Our next zip line does a tantalising loop out of sight through the canopy and most of us are itching to get on it. Our kids go with a guide first and last. We do the round trip along seven zip lines to Tree House Two and back again. It is as good as it sounds. A quiet English couple disappear into Tree House Two and are not seen again. Off down the track to Tree House Three go a lovely German couple, a wisecracking Brit and one tall handsome Dutchman.
There is also Tree House Four (broken) and the far away Tree House Five.
Five is the destination for the Waterfall Experience. This trip leaves on alternate days to ours, the Classic Experience. Consequently a troupe of novice zippers pass through our house early afternoon, second day. It is hot now and our thoughts turn to ice cold beer. No alcohol allowed here, understandably. I am confident enough now, day two, to take Ella and then Florence on the zip wires. Ella explains to me the best method of dual attachment. It is great fun with the girls in tow as well. Some of the zip lines are a kilometre in length and some are 150m above the forest floor. The views are spectacular and the rides addictive. Heights have rarely bothered me but I am proud of Gabby and the girls as they fly through the canopy.
This is a unique and very satisfying experience. Good for the hill tribes that service it, good for the preservation of the jungle and good for your soul.
I awake at 5am on the last day as planned and took off with the two Canadians, Matt and Andy at the slightest hint of dawn. I fly through the jungle with a healthy dose of nerves (Rule No 1- No zipping in the dark) and make it to Tree House Three just as the gibbons start singing. An amazing sound. I am so glad we made the early effort. Two guides are only ten minutes behind us and take us down the trail that returns from Tree House Five. (Three zip lines there and a long walk back.) We all get glimpses close up of these rare black gibbons but we are clumsy and noisy compared to our guides and the gibbons tiring of our intrusion swing off to parts only they can reach.
We head back to Huay Xai all very happy campers.

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Clip and Zip

Date: 31/03/2007 | Author: Ella

The border of Thailand is the Mekong River (it is the 10th longest river in the world) so we had to take a small boat across to Laos. We stayed one night in the border town of Huay Xai in Laos but not for long, soon we were at The Gibbon Experience...........
Gibbons are monkeys and black gibbons live deep in the jungle in northern Laos so we had to walk quite a long way before we could reach their habitat.
The only way to get around the jungle and to the treehouses (where we are sleeping) was by zip lines (zip lines are like flying foxes but with harnesses, not seats). I was the first person to go on the zip line and I was a bit scared because the first treehouse was a long way away but it was easy! After my first zip, they were all great fun! The first day I only went zipping with guides but by the 2nd day I was zipping with dad. I wanted to practice and be able to go by myself but unfortunately we were only staying for 2 nights (that's the limit) so I couldn't.
Zipping around the jungle was sensational and everybody would think it was fun. One of the best things about the Gibbon Experience was sleeping in treehouses - amazing but kind of scary. I'm glad there wasn't a storm while we were there. On the ground, 60 metres below our treehouse, lived a pig who ate all our leftovers and our toilet waste, which was really funny but a great way of getting rid of all of our rubbish!
We had the best time ever and I mean ever. We have done exciting things before but this was amazing!

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Our first days in Laos

Date: 31/03/2007 | Author: Florence

We drove to the Thai/Laos border. We crossed the border by going on a boat across the Mekong River. When we got to the other side I felt a bit strange because we were showing our passports but weren't at an airport. We were planning on going to a Gibbon Experience which is not a hotel, it is a treehouse experience. Before we went there we stayed one night in the Thaveesinh hotel in Huay Xai. We got the hotel very late so we had dinner and went to bed early so we could go to the Gibbon Experience the next day.
We are now at the Gibbon Experience. We are staying in treehouse number 1 and a few other people are staying with us. We drove a long long way and had to do lots of walking to get here. Ella and I were tired out when we went across our first zip line to get to our treehouse. We drink lots of water here but it is warm! Our first day we sat around the table and played cards and had some food before we started zipping again. The highest zip line is 150m above ground. I was scared when we were getting ready but it is a lot of fun when we are in the air. Ella and I go zipping with the guides and they make us feel very safe. Every day the guides come zipping to our treehouse with our food. They don't say anything, they just leave our food and then go. Our treehouse has a small kitchen and 2 bedrooms sleeping 7 people. There is also a shower and a 50 metre 'long drop' toilet, at the bottom is a pig who eats all the poo and the left overs from our food! Ella and I loved throwing down all the food to the pig. I liked the Gibbon Exerience a lot but I know we are going to have a lot more adventures!

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Laos and Living in Tree Houses

Date: 31/03/2007 | Author: Gabby

I have to admit, I wasn't really relishing the idea of The Gibbon Experience. I loved the 'back to nature' sound of it but had heard that the cables (your access around the jungle) were 150m above the ground and up to 1km long! With vertigo still being an issue for me (despite my skydive) I wasn't sure how I would cope.
I wasn't sure how the kids would fare either. Not just from the height perspective (they don't have any problem with heights), but from the biting insects, Laos food, heat, safety perspective. Before arriving in Laos, I must have sent about 10 emails to the Gibbon Experience office in Huay Xai, all answered promptly and trying to allay my fears: is there malaria in the region - no but there is a current outbreak of chicken pox; will the guides take the children on the cables - our policy is children under 8 always go tandem; is it safe for children - safety is very important to us etc etc etc.
Crossing the border from Thailand to Laos (Chiang Khong to Huay Xai) was an adventure in itself. A small boat crossing the mighty Mekong (well not so mighty really as it's the dry season so the river levels are very low). After a 10 minute formality on the Thai side, we had a longer experience on the Laos side - forms to fill in and photos to provide - but also due to the immigration officer's requests to take photos of Ella and Florence.
Huay Xai, our first Laos stop. Also the first time on our trip that we arrived somewhere with no pre-booked accommodation. It reminded me of my backpacking days in the 80's and 90's - I left Dave and the kids in a cafe while I ran up and down the main street looking at the available rooms. How the internet has changed the travel experience - even the most basic accommodation now has email or sometimes a website. I opted for the only room with a double bed and single bed, which happened to be the most expensive I looked at (of course!!). It was about 8. It was clean and air conditioned but the beds were rock hard and the pillows enormous (once again back packing memories came flooding back!).
Florence was still feeling a little under the weather although a lot better than she had been. Her cough had subsided but the air quality was as bad here as it was in Northern Thailand! She and Ella weren't eating much, they'd even gone off rice, which was also a bit of a worry............
An early start and a 2 hour drive along half constructed road, took us to the village of Baan Toup, which marked the start of the one and a half hour trek to the zip lines. There was a local festival taking place, the whole village was out and it was interesting watching the young girls checking out Ella and Florence - not many young blonde children pass through the village. It was here that we realised just what an amazing project the Gibbon Experience is. It provides employment for many of the villagers without exploiting them or their lifestyle. It's non-profit making, with all income being ploughed back in to the local area. It also encourages the locals to protect their habitat and prevent the logging and poaching which has been so endemic in this part of the world for such a long time.
After the walk (easy for the girls) we were kitted out with our caribinas and harnesses. Ella (of course) was the first to take to the zip line with one of the guides - my stomach in my throat as I watch her zip along 70 metres above the ground to the first tree house! No fear - she loved it. Florence was the same - a huge grin across her face as she landed in tree house 1 just after I did. This was where we were sleeping, 60 metres above the forest ground. Our house mates were 2 adventurous Canadians guys and a lovely Danish girl with a fear of heights far worse than my own. It was good staying with young(er) back packers - the girls learnt new card games and tricks during our time there and enjoyed the grown up company. The tree house was fully equipped with a kitchen with drinking water (from a 'safe' spring), 7 beds in 3 sleeping areas as well as a shower and a 'long drop' toilet - 60 metres to the ground where a large pig lived who consumed all the 'organic' material deposited there!
I loved the zipping - it was a great way to cover so much ground and to see so much of the forest - I even managed to take in the views, which were spectacular. Although we didn't encounter any mosquitos living in the tree tops there were plenty of other biting bugs. Not that they bothered the girls too much - they even coped with the legions of wasps who made the toilet their home, finding the best way to dispel them was to pee on them. In the end, we didn't encounter any Gibbons but their morning singing was the most pleasant way to wake up.
It was an amazing way to spend our first days in Laos. We felt tired and dirty by the time we arrived back in Huay Xai. Dave and I were gagging for a cold beer (strictly no alcohol or drugs in the tree houses - you're high enough!!). The girls were hungry, having lived on a diet of rice and fruit for our time there. But we all loved it! Definitely recommended - but, for me, 3 days and 2 nights was enough!

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