Best of 2012

Forgive the silence… would you believe that I ushered in the New Year with colds and fever?  But that didn’t stop me from having friends over for the count down. No.  I hope you all had a wonderful holiday.

This-is-forever

Credits:  Quickpage from JSprague’s 4ever kit, created by Brenda Neuberger

2012 has been good to me.  Even with much less travels this year, I’ve managed a few unforgettable firsts.  Here they are; some I have not even posted but will pre-empt:

1.  The Bus Ride to Vang Vieng

bus-to-VV

A 4-hour bus ride from Vientaine on a sleeper bus made for petite Laotians.  Worst was the bunks were meant for (yes) 2 petite Laotians.  We’re definitely far from petite.  So imagine the trip.

2.  First time on a Hot Air Balloon

vang-vieng

Soaring high in Vang Vieng, watching the town wake up.  You get the best view in town, if you ask me.

3.  The Boat Ride to Y’ami

boat-ride-to-Y'ami

An idea that came to fruition had us journeying to the northernmost island of the Philippines on a grueling 3-hour boat ride off Itbayat Island in Batanes.  Why?  I ask the same question many times over.  An experience hard to topple.

4.  A Night in Siayan

siayan

We had to break the grueling boat ride and stay overnight in an island about 1 hour away from Itbayat (the farthest inhabited island of Batanes) because the waters along the Bashi Channel can be treacherous particularly in the late afternoon.  Getting to the island, beautiful as it is, is an adventure in its self.

5.  Hiking Up to Cape Engaño

Palaui-view

Beautiful sight, up there.  That’s all I will say for now.  Watch out for my post – coming soon.

6.  Enjoying an Onsen Bath

hirayu-onsen

While it snowed too.  A totally exhilarating and liberating experience, I dipped in those pools two nights in a row.  Awesomeness.

As for 2013, I’ve got some exciting plans already in the pipeline. I’ve been working hard to get that to fruition over the holidays, truth to tell.  It is going to be an exciting year.  I feel it in the air.  How is your 2013 looking so far?

Kuang Si Falls

Picturesque and very accessible – Kuang Si falls, 29 km south of Luang Prabang, has become a popular attraction outside of the world heritage city.  Surrounded by lush forest, the falls is 3 tiered, all picture perfect.

The breathtaking main falls is 60 meters high while the rest, equally stunning, are 1-3 meter cascades that creates small aquamarine pools.

The water invites especially on a hot day, many take a dip, some even take to jumping off trees for some thrills.

A forest trail leads the top of the falls where you’ll find the source of the Kuang Si in a stream.

The surrounding area was developed into a lovely park with bridges, a picnic area with tables and even a changing room for those wanting to swim.  My journey to Kuang Si wasn’t as easy as taking a tuk-tuk to the entrance of the park.

It started when a van picked us up and dropped us off (an hour later) at a Hmong community.

There we learned the difference between the Hmong as compared to the rural Lao lowlanders.  To get to the falls, we trekked through paddy fields and pineapple gardens before entering a rain forest.

Halfway through our trek, we stopped for a simple Lao lunch prepared by the outfitter.

About 3 hours later, the hilly trail took us to a stream that we soon realized was the stream feeding the Kuang Si.

The view from the top looking down the pool below was spectacular.  Expecting to approach the falls the regular way from below, the realization of ending at the top was a wonderful surprise and quite memorable, truth to tell.

I made this trek 4 years ago with Green Discovery.  Spare an extra day for this if you can, it’s worth the effort.

A Leisurely Stroll Through Luang Prabang

Credits: Papers by Sahlin Studio’s Sweet Story Telling papers, Creativity by Crystal’s Room Collection Solids; Elements by Sahlin Studio Sweet Story Telling Kit.

It was a beautiful ordinary day.  No agenda, we just played it by ear, went with the flow.  The plan was to leisurely walk the streets and see where it takes us.

The serene atmosphere of this enchanting city begs for nothing more.  Having strolled down these streets before, it was interesting to see new ventures turning up while many stayed the same.

Luang Prabang lies in the heart of the mountainous region of North Laos.  Also known as the jewel of Indochina, the ancient royal city sits between the junction of the Mekong and the Nam Kahn Rivers.

And our nice little boutique hotel, Villa Deux Rivieres is situated somewhere near the junction in Kingkitsareth Rd.

Monks with their signature umbrellas in Sakkarine St. — a quieter part of town.

Great location as it really is just a short walk away from many places of interest and the main street, Sakkarine,

The busier street of Sisavangvong has more tuk-tuks and motobikes lining the streets.

which turns into Sisavangvong St. if you walk further.  We spent a lot of time in Sakkarine St. browsing, sometimes buying from the many little shops or relaxing in several of the cafes lining the stretch.

Café Ban Vat Sene across the charming Wat Sene and Le Banneton with its wonderfully crusted breads are our favorites hang-outs.  We sat outdoors and enjoyed the cool air and the easy going vibe of the town.

Those breads lured us to Le Banneton

Caruso Lao never fails to lure me in each time we walk pass it.  Beautiful stuff on display, a bit pricey but well worth the workmanship, me think.

And look what I have displayed at home.  There could have been more, if freight wasn’t so ridiculously high.

Comprising this enchanting little city are ancient structures, a Royal Palace, a National Museum,

Wat Sene along Sakkarine Rd.

and a concentration of golden temples they call Wats, all thirty-four of which have been listed for preservation.

Luang Prabang, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1995, is undoubtedly rich in cultural heritage and has both historical and natural sites to boast.

Traditional wooden dwellings and old colonial style houses fused into a distinct cultural tradition with beautiful landscapes that surrounds.  Mount Phousi perched in the middle of town showcases stunning views of the surrounding temples and hills.

It is a city where time seemed to have stood still.  The old town (their historical district) in particular has an old world charm,

reminiscent of the 1940’s where bicycles dominate and colonial style interspersed with traditional houses line the streets with some vintage cars even.

Small enough to explore by foot, we started our stroll at our hotel in Kingkitsarath to the bank where Khan and Mekong meet. The street, as in many in Luang Prabang, becomes Khem Khong or Mekong Rd at some point.

At the confluence, a path led to the river below where a wooden bridge stands.  Across is a handicraft and weaving village that one can explore but we didn’t venture out there anymore.

Instead, we continued on Khem Khong to get to Wat Xieng Thong – perhaps the most magnificent but definitely the most important and impressive of Lao temples.  There is a cluster of  ancient buildings dating back to the mid 16th century.

At the back of Wat Xieng Thong is a tree of life mosaic in colored glass.  Anyone with a keen interest in Lao history should not miss the religious artworks and artifacts housed here.

When it was time for lunch, we went for L’Elephant, an institution in its own right in Luang Prabang.  Menu was mostly French.

For starters we had a refreshing Carrot and Orange Salad and a superb Escargot baked in Garlic and Parsley Butter – cooked the way we like it.  For main, I had the Mekong Perch in Coriander Sauce and A had Stuffed Roasted Boneless Quail.  I say fine dining at its best in Luang Prabang.

The laid back, open-air atmosphere with high ceiling fans half expects you to see Rick Blaine come out and entertain.

In between lunch and a traditional lao massage, we explored more of Khem Kong, definitely a very quiet street where many upscale hotels are located.

Khem Kong facing the Mekong

 One of many roadside restaurants with a view of the Mekong or the Nam Khan

We then visited the Haw Kham, which is now known as the National Museum.

Once the Royal Palace, the building is a fusion of Traditional Lao and French design.  It houses an impressive collection of royal memorabilia and religious artifacts.

Every night, Hmong people come dowm from their villages in the mountains to sell their hand-made products,

typical Lao arts and crafts that include appliquéd blankets, silver jewelries, embroidered bags and a lot more.

A short walk-through here is more than adequate if a bargain hunter you are not.  They  have interesting and tasteful designs at a bargain, the quality is another thing though. But I guess you get what you pay for.   🙂

Many of the stalls here sell Lao street foods but we had our eyes set on Mango Tree in a quieter part of Sakkarine St.

Suffice it to say that dinner was fabulous.  Superb Lao dishes plated beautifully and served in a casual garden setting.

An extraordinary meal to cap an ordinary day, I must say.

So tell me, how can you not fall in love with Mekong’s jewel, its beautiful people,

its heritage and its shabby chic French fused Lao architecture that is so uniquely Luang Prabang?

Useful Info:

Villa Deux Rivieres
Kingkitsarath Rd., Ban Khily
Luang Prabang, Laos
+856 207737 8575
 
Cafe Ban Vat Sene
Sakkarine Rd.,
Luang Prabang, Laos
+856 71 252 482
 
Le Banneton
46 Sakkarine Rd., (opposite Wat Sop)
Luang Prabang, Laos
+856 21 217 321
 
 
L’Elephant Restaurant
Ban Vat Nong
Luang Prabang, Laos
+856 71 252 482
 
 
Mango Tree
Sakkarine Rd.,
Luang Prabang, Laos
+856 71 253 750

Wat Xieng Thong
Khem Khong Rd.,
Luang Prabang, Laos
Admission: 20,000 kip
 
National Museum
Sisavangvong, Luang Prabang
+856 71 212 122
Admission: 10,000 kip
 
 
 

Early Morning Alms

I am not a morning person and waking up early can be such an effort.  Laos somehow has managed to get me up at the crack of dawn, and for good reasons.  When we snuck out of our hotel’s gate fence one early January morning, the streets were still quiet with only street lamps lighting our way to Old Town, as Luang Prabang’s historic district is called. Here, the day seemed to have started already.

Villagers found their spot, kneeling on mats, waiting with a basket of sticky rice, fruits or sweets.

Vendors likewise positioned themselves near tourists, waiting for an opportunity to sell.

We sat at a corner with our camera watching the day progress.

Every morning, between 5 & 6AM, the monks of Luang Prabang’s 30 or so temples collect alms from the kneeling pilgrims and some early rising tourists.

Barefoot, they parade through the picturesque streets single file from oldest to youngest in their burnt sienna robes carrying alms bowls over their shoulder.

Alms giving have been practiced here every morning as townsfolk provide the monk’s daily sustenance for hundreds of years now.  They say that the monks are only allowed to eat food given to them in the morning of each day hence the daily ritual.

Those that give, they also say, earn merits for the good deed.

Cultural aside, this century old tradition is a spectacle on its own – waves of mandarin clad monks flood the streets contrasting the green trees and traditional white structures.  And as soon as it has started, it is over, and people start going their way.  We head for breakfast.

Café Ban Vat Sene.  We had coffee and dessert here last night and were instantly drawn to the place – the atmosphere relaxed with a Parisian café vibe.  But you see a lot of those as Luang Prabang has a natural laid-back atmosphere with a large French influence from architecture to restaurants and bakeries.  The cool January air summons us to sit outside for breakfast and watch the last of the procession.

They make wonderful French breads– baguettes, croissants, pain de campagne… with homemade jams

and a freshly brewed pot of coffee – my day has officially started.

Useful Info:

This religious ceremony is one of Luang Prabang’s major attraction, tourists must learn to be courteous and respectful of this tradition.  Please click here to know what and what not to do.

Cafe Ban Vat Sene
Open daily from 6am – 10pm
For reservations, call: +856 71 252 482

Route 13

Credits:  Papers by Creativity by Crystal’s Room Collection, Art & Soul Papers by Sahlin Studio, Story Telling Paper by Sahlin Studio.

Flying, albeit relatively expensive, is the easiest way to Luang Prabang.  But you miss all the stunning scenery along the way.  Nestled between the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers, surrounded by mountains, getting there takes some effort via an 11-hour bus ride from Vientiane.  From Thailand, it’s a 2-day slow-boat.

We chose to take Route 13 because it was cheaper, the scenery – stunning and we wanted to stop at Vang Vieng even for just a day (although a day isn’t really enough).  From there, it still takes 7 hours on a meandering, poorly paved road leading to the ancient city, also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  The remarkable landscape makes the exhausting experience worthwhile.

We break the trip for lunch and there I had my bowl of delightful beef noodle soup as I had planned, remembering how good that bowl of soup was in 2007.  Lining up for that bowl, I watched with interest how they assembled the dish right before us.  First the fresh noodles, then the beef, the vegetables and at the end of the line sits a huge pot of soup ever so gently simmering under a slow fire.  The lady ladled up soup almost to the brim and handed it to me.

I devoured it with gusto.  It was as I remembered it to be, pretty damn good soup.

From that time till we reached Luang Prabang, we stopped a couple of times.  The entire bus tensed up when we realized that it was having problems with its brakes

– made even scarier when the air became dense with fog, which kept me awake and praying the rest of the trip.  We inched our way to the city and finally breathed a sigh of relief when we saw signs of city lights just around the bend.

It took us nine hours… but all is well that ends well.  Luang Prabang is worth it, I promise.

Not far from our nice little boutique hotel, just across The Apsara, is a sidewalk eatery I stumbled upon on my earlier trip.

It serves a mean Laotian-style BBQ that is a much like but not quite shabu-shabu.

It’s a cross between that and a Korean BBQ where the meat is grilled on the griddle while the soup is simmering on the same griddle.  As the meat cooks, the fatty juices drips on to the soup and I don’t have to tell you how divine that soup gets the longer it simmer and the more drippings it gets from the meat.  Brilliant.

And just like that, Luang Prabang has charmed me once more, today’s dreadful last stretch erased.

Getting There:  Click here for more options.

Soaring High in Vang Vieng

With most of Vang Vieng still asleep, we sauntered down before the break of dawn to the hotel lobby half asleep ourselves.  The ride came at 6 in the morning as promised and drove us to an empty lot where another vehicle with the basket and balloon arrived almost the same time.

They flipped the basket sideways, inflated the balloon with a giant fan and simultaneously flames it to give out that required hot air.

“You’re taking the VIP ride”, said a Chinese man in a coat to us.  Essentially, he meant that the basket can fit 4 but with no one else booked, the basket was ours for the next 40 minutes.  With their GPS and radios checked, we were asked to climb in.

By now Vang Vieng was waking up.

The balloon slowly lifted us up allowing us a bird’s eye view of this picturesque town.

With the air still misty, the mountain peaks looked mystical, like a painting almost.

The rice fields stretches out of the town and into the foothills.

The Namsong River beautifully snakes through Vang Vieng, manifesting its charm even more.

From the top, we see that the empty lot is actually the old airstrip and close to it is the road leading to Luang Prabang.

The beauty of Vang Vieng so captivated me; I forget that I was afraid of heights.  Tranquility fused with a rush of adrenalin was an experience unlike any I’ve had.

Hot Air Ballooning over Vang Vieng seemed to have blown away the cloud looming the town lately.

On the bus to Luang Prabang later that morning, I take one last look and say adieu to a town I have, in less than a day, become enchanted with.

Useful Info:

The Ballooning Company
Ban Vang Vieng, Laos PDR
+856-20-9691-8111
email: info@laoballooning.com
website: http://www.laoballooning.com

Fun and Frolic at the River Namsong

Credits:  Papers by Jessica Sprague (Bright Stripes paper), Carina Gardner (Coqu flirt 16), ITM Tricolor (Red tiny dot), QQ Knotty Girl papers; Elements by Carina Gardner (daisy paper bits)

Once a peaceful and quiet town, Vang Vieng used to appeal only to adventure travelers wanting to rock climb, explore caves or to simply enjoy its tranquil surroundings, its people and culture.

Surrounded with striking karst rock formation, the Namsong runs through it contributing to its serene setting.

Since the launch of inner tubing in the mid-2000, the quiet town of Vang Vieng has never been quite the same.

The Namsong now appeal to “partying” backpackers.

The town today is most know for “tubing” down the Namsong and with it came

many bars along the riverbanks catering to those floating downstream either in rubber tubes or on a kayak.

The townsfolk once farmers are now owners of bars and guesthouses – predominantly made up of chill-out bars and dance shacks all offering cheap booze,

some offering more thrills in the form of swings and ziplines.

Along with the bars, lodgings of various types line both sides of the riverbanks.

A short afternoon cruise up and down the river on a motorized boat reveal all these.  It is the easiest way to watch the goings on around the river.

Foreigners partying or simply floating down the river dominate local scenes along the river.

The “party” scene may have appealed to me years ago but today, I prefer the relaxed atmosphere of the down river part of the Namsong.

Watching the sunset over cocktails after a long day is my idea of a good time.

This looks like fun… so we booked a sunrise ride over Vang Vieng on a Hot Air Balloon… on my next post.