Thursday, October 12, 2017

Wow! It's Lao 11 - Phonsavan to Vang Vieng

Bringing it on home here in the final stages of the Lao journey. After a day of rest in Phonsavan, it was time for the longest leg of the journey, still just a modest 234 kilometers. I thought it might be boring, being in the heart of the country, not that far from the capital.
Something in me thought that you had to head to edges of a country to find it's most scenic places.

Not so! All of land-locked Laos is a hilly country and this part was no different. Simply amazing landscape. 

My routine on the motorbike was the same throughout the whole journey. Ride for 60 to 90 minutes, then take a 15 minute break.
I found lots of little restaurants and resting places between towns in this otherwise lightly-populated country. 

At first glance, dog or cow? 

The town of Vang Vieng was not on my original plan. My Vientiane guide suggested my final route, and I was not disappointed.
Just outside Vang Vieng
See, Vang Vieng has a bad reputation, at least for anyone 30+. Back in the day, this was a backpacker haven - a place for drunken gap-year travelers to flout local customs and be a bunch of besotted boobs. After a bunch of tourist deaths, the gov't cleaned things up.

The Lao backpack. Strap a basket on  your back.

I remember a friend, Anthony, telling me about Lao before I went there. He told the story of locals running down the street, waving bags of marijuana in the air, trying to sell it to him. Well, that friend looked like a hippy. Me, nowadays, not so much. Still, I'm actually a bit disappointed that not a single offer came my way to sell me weed. Do I look that old?  

I was not disappointed by Vang Vieng. There's a good reason why a place becomes a tourist destination - in VV's case, it's the tremendous topography. 

Enjoy the video.  


Thursday, October 5, 2017

Wow! It's Lao 10 - The Plain of Jars

After several days in a row of traveling, it was nice to stop someplace and not go anywhere. I was able to get my laundry done, enjoy the finest hotel in Phonsavan and go on a remarkable day trip. 

That day trip was out 30 km or so to Site 1 and 2 of the Plain of Jars. I dunno how they say it in Lao,  but the jars are very large stone receptacles. The Plain of Receptacles doesn't really roll off the tongue.

A tree has grown up through one of the jars. Amazing!

These 2000-year-old stone buckets were used to... well... that's still a matter of debate. 

Watch me visit the mysterious Plain of Jars here...



Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Wow! It's Lao 9: Xieng Thong to Phonsovan

Being a former French colony, Lao is known for baking pretty good bread, which I thought I would sample for breakfast. Simple stuff, my French roll was served with sweetened condensed milk - instant donut! 

I was a bit worried as I mounted the motorbike for this next leg of the journey. The guy I'd rented the bike from back in Vientiane had cautioned me that this route, particularly the second half on Hwy 13, could be problematic. Being so high up, it's subject to mudslides blocking the road, which he described as quite narrow. Furthermore, the rain clouds tend to stall and cling to the hills, meaning I'd likely face some bad weather. 
Driving through the clouds.

As it turned out, I saw a few mudslides, but none were insurmountable on my fancy enduro bike. The road showed signs of recent widening, and although I drove through a lot of fog, the weather was wonderful.  

I rolled into Phonsovan in time for lunch, and being a bit of tourist town, there were several nice restaurants on the main strip.
I didn't realize it until after I'd been sitting there a few minutes, but the decor of the restaurant (Craters) was bomb casing themed! This part of Lao was heavily bombed during the Second Indochina War, and un-exploded ordinance is everywhere. 

Having traveled a few days consecutively, I had given myself two days to explore the Phonsovan area, which you'll see in the next blog and video. 

Enjoy Part 9. 


Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Wow! Its Lao 8 - Nong Khiaw to Xieng Thong

This leg of the journey took me to the least heralded place of the whole trip, Xieng Thong, or Muang Hiam, or Thakon... so many names for one place... 

Pigs, water buffalo, cows, goats, dogs... the most dangerous road hazards in Lao were on 4 legs.

in any case, it was a stopover on the road from Nong Khiaw to the Plains of Jars, which you'll see in the next video, and so whereas there wasn't much to do at the destination, the road there was beautiful. 

I visited the Nam Et National Protected Area, the site of Laos' last remaining breeding population of tigers in the wild. 

After visiting the protected area, what else was there to do in this multiple named town? The market was the obvious choice. 
Finally, I found a nice riverfront restaurant that had a menu in English, and I enjoyed a nice dinner of larb. 
My waitress,
Larb, or laab, is the national dish of Lao. It's minced meat with seasonings. 

I asked that they made it not too spicy. Maybe they understood that and toned it down, but in any case, I still found myself in tears finishing it. 

Enjoy the video. 

Friday, September 22, 2017

Wow! It's Lao - Part 7: Luang Prabang to Nong Kiauw

After spending two nights in Luang Prabang, I was eager to get back out onto the road and continue my ride through the beautiful Lao countryside. There at the tail end of the rainy season, the foliage was at maximum greenery. Verdant doesn't come close to describing how lush and fertile the landscape was. 

The story goes that once there was this woman with a gigantic vag... no.
Once again, I wasn't facing a long motorbike ride, so I was able to take in a few sights along the way. First of these was Mount Phusi there in Luang Prabang itself. You must my excuse my inner 12-year-old for laughing at the name "Phusi" (pronounced poo-see). In any case, the view from the top of the hill (it's a hill, not a mountain) was fantastic. 

The view from Mount Pussy
I was a bit worried when I got to Pak Mong and I had turn off the wonderful Lao Highway 13 that I'd been on since Paklay and onto something called Highway 1C. The "1" was encouraging, but the "C", not so much. It turned out to be a fine road, not that my CRF250 couldn't have handled anything. 

Eventually, I got to the river valley town of Nong Kiauw. Wow. What an amazing place. The rock cliffs jutting upwards out of the valley, I hadn't seen anything like it since my last trip to Yosemite. 

Enjoy the video.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Wow! It'a Lao - Part 6: Luang Prabang

A popular tourist activity in Luang Prabang is waking up early to watch the locals give alms to the monks.
After three days on the road, I settled down in Luang Prabang for a full day of sight-seeing. The town is the peatl of the Lao tourism industry and even has its own international airport. As I mentioned in the last video, Luang Prabang is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, meaning it is recognized as having a cultural and historical significance that is of value to the entire world. 

On the road to Kaung Si
High on the list of things to do in Luang Prabang is the Kaung Si waterfalls. I did my research, and on the downside, people primary complained about the crowds at the falls. Being surrounded by hordes of tourists prevents full enjoyment of the soothing tranquility of the site. I was resolved to beat the crowds and so I got up quite early and was on the road to Kaung Si as soon as the sun came up. 

32 kilometers later, I was at the gates at 7:10 AM. Whoops. Again, my stellar travel planning skills showing themselves. The park doesn't open until 8:00 AM. Perhaps the guard was impressed by my determinatio. Perhaps, by not giving me a ticket, he could put my $2 entrance fee right into his pocket. In any case, he let me in and I had the whole place all to myself! 

On the short walk up to the falls, there's a small bear rescue facility. The bears live in a very nice enclosure where they have lots to do and play with and plenty others to interact with. They seemed happy enough. If you're not familiar with the species, these are Asian sun bears, smaller than their cousins from temperate climates, they're also cuter. 

At the falls themselves, I had never seen water so incredibly blue. It was practically flourescent. Maybe that's due to high oxygen levels. The water was also clean, crisp and after shakily making my way through the rocks on the shore, it made for a refreshing swim. 

In the afternoon, I had a nice rest and in the evening, my exploring lead me to an unlikely activity there in developing Lao: bowling! I blame my horrible scores on having to bowl in my socks. 

Enjoy the video! 


Thursday, September 14, 2017

Wow! It's Lao - Part 5: On to Luang Prabang

Do not stay at the Eagle Hotel in Xayabouri. So many annoying little things that would be easy to fix. No glass in the windows. The restaurant is closed. No English at all amongst the staff. I was glad to get out of there and on to the road once again. 

As you hear me explain in the video, I have a fear of tall bridges. I was looking forward to another exciting ferry crossing of the Mekong, but to my surprise, there was a bridge! It wasn't on my map. Once on the other side, the view from the hill on the far bank was spectacular. Here's a photo utilizing the 'panorama' function on the phone. 

It was a rather short trip, so I stopped often and took in the sights. Another nice thing about this enduro bike is that I never have to worry about the roads I might encounter. The CRF can handle anything.
For example, on the side of the highway, there was a sign indicating a nearby waterfall, but no indication (that I could read) as to how far down the side road it was.
I took a chance and it paid off. 

Eventually, I made it to Luang Prabang. This ancient city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it sits at the confluence of two big rivers. A former royal capital of one of the Lao kingdoms, there's lots to see and do there. Temples, museums and Mexican food were the highlights of my first day there. 

Enjoy the video...


Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Wow! It's Lao - Part 4: Paklay to Xayabouri

I left Paklay on my second full day of travel in Lao with little fanfare. I didn’t record any type of intro into my travel, I just wanted to get on my bike and ride. 

It’s remarkable country there in the west of the Lao PDR, and now, at the end of the monsoon season, it’s about as green as a place can be. 

It wasn’t that long of a ride from Paklay to Xayabouri, so when I got there, I had plenty of energy to go look for local tourist spots. A quick look at the travel websites and I knew I had to go visit the elephant protection sanctuary. It’s not an elephant park; it’s not a place where tourists can feed bananas to tethered elephants, perhaps wash them, and certainly ride them – no, this place is about letting elephants live as close to their wild roots as possible. 

As I arrived without a prior booking, I couldn’t see the elephants. This isn’t a place that accepts walk up tourists, and when you see the road it takes to get there, you’ll see why. In any case, after my arduous journey there, I had a nice conversation with Celine, the coordinator of the reserve. I learned that that their goal is NOT to release these elephants back into the wild. There are perhaps a couple hundred of wild elephants left  in Lao, and their population is suffering under a lot of  pressure. Adding new members to a population facing shrinking resources would be counter-productive. 

Myanmar, on the other hand, has about 5000 elephants still living in the wild. A valuable resource that needs protecting. 

Enjoy the video. 

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Wow! It's Lao. Part 3 - Vientiane to Paklay

The Mekong at it's narrowest point in northern Lao.
My sister asked me on Facebook what the difference was between "Lao" and "Laos". I keep calling it the former which is a reflection of being in SE Asia for 4 years. That's what it's called here. 

So where did the name Laos come from? Well, in their own language, this country is called Meaung Lao. "Land of the Lao".. Similarly the Thai word for their own country is Meaung Thai. Seems to me that if we follow the Thai model, this country should be called Laolandລາວ, or Lao, is the shorter version of that. 

Not on the video due to a dead battery, getting of the ferry in the shadow
of a brand new bridge ready to be opened.
The label "Laos" came from the the French. See, when they first started trying to impose their influence on the lands east of the Mekong, there were three competing Lao kingdoms. There was no single country of the Lao, there were three, so when talking about this area, the French pluralized it. I don't know French, but I'd imagine they'd use an article with that, Les Laos, the Laos. The article has fallen off over time. The word "Laotian" is ridiculous in my mind. It's like calling some "Thaitian". 

Your humble blogger on the Mekong
Onwards! It was finally time for me take my big bike onto the open highways of Lao. I left Vientiane heading westward, skirting the Mekong River on what were wonderfully smooth, wide highways. As I got more comfortable on the bike, I started to realize that it could go a lot faster than anything I've driven  in years, and I took advantage of that. The Mekong itself narrowed remarkably. The mighty river must be really deep at that point because it certainly wasn't very wide.
There's these consistent reminders that I
am visiting a communist country.
In fact, I'm reading an account of the Mekong which details the early French explorers of the river. This part of the Mekong distressed them because not only had it turned to the southwest after hundreds of miles heading north, but the current was like nowhere else. 

Eventually, I made a right turn and traversed the only unpaved road of the day. There's about a 10km stretch between Vientiane and Paklay that is horrid. The road is just rocks. It would have been torture on my scooter; on the CRF, it was no big deal. I'd like to show you, but this was during the period in which my action-cam's battery had died.

I got to my destination just as the afternoon monsoon rains started, and wow, did I find a gem of a hotel room for only $11/night. 

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Wow! It's Lao. Part 2 - Vientiane

That's gotta tickle.

I mentioned in my previous video that there had been a miscommunication between myself and the tour company I was going to rent my motorcycle from. It turned out to be no big deal as I had anticipated that the Myanmar visa matter would be more problematic than it was. I had budgeted myself two nights in Vientiane and was able to get my motorcycle the following morning. 

I’d like to offer a full-hearted endorsement to Remote Asia Travel there in Vientiane and their owner, Jim. Not only did he take care of the snafu with the booking, but he asked the right questions to discover where I was going, about me physically and my experience touring. Initially, I had planned to rent a smaller bike: just 220cc and much lower to the ground.
Your humble blogger
At Jim’s recommendation and after a nice discount to make up for the previous day’s problem, he upgraded  me onto a Honda CRF250, and not just any CRF, the one he uses personally when he leads tours around Laos. Moreover, he took the time to go over my route with me in some detail. My plans weren’t set in stone, and his suggestions have helped me set a more modest, but still spectacular course. A dry bag to keep the rain off my backpack (no flimsy garbage bag like I’d used previously), a helmet, a full tool kit, map, lock and chain, two extra tires and BUNGEE CORDS were all provided at no extra cost. So if you’re planning a trip to Laos, go with Remote Asia. 

Although it looks ancient, the park is about 100 years old.
As I took off for Budda (sic) Park some 25 km east of Vientiane, I started to get the feel for this machine.  Although I’ve been riding motorbikes of one kind or another my whole like, lately it’s been scooters and strep-throughs. It had been 15 years since I’d ridden anything with a manual gear box and over 200cc. Remembering how to use the clutch work came back quickly. On my bike back in Myanmar, to shift to a higher gear, you step up on the gear-shifter. On this Honda, you click up. It only took one time changing gears the wrong direction to burn into my mind that I need to be careful with this.

The real advantage of the CRF wasn’t noticeable until I turned off the highway onto a 8 km stretch of back-road leading to the park.  The road was typical of many I’ve ridden in Myanmar: extremely bumpy, gravelly, and where there is pavement, there were more potholes than smooth pavement. It was the kind of road I would have dreaded facing on my scooter. It would have a slow, bone-jarring and taxing ride on my little bike. On the CRF, I couldn’t feel the bumps; it wasn’t bone-jarring at all. I could just drive right through the smaller potholes instead of having to carefully weave my through the maze of broken pavement. What an awesome bike for SE Asian travel. 

As for more on the park itself and the rest of my day in Vientiane, I’ll let you see for yourself in the video. 

First some picture highlights:

This man is playing a flute with his nose! 

It's a large, stone.....
From the remarkable COPE Visitor Center

Enjoy the video..

Wow! It's Lao 11 - Phonsavan to Vang Vieng

Bringing it on home here in the final stages of the Lao journey. After a day of rest in Phonsavan, it was time for the longest leg of the...