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?

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.

Road to Vang Vieng

Credits:  Papers by Crystal Wilkerson’s Room Collection series, Kaboks’ Christmas Treasure Papers; Photomask by Moninda.

A tuk-tuk picked us up at the hotel and brought us to a VIP bus parked along the Mekong River bank opposite Wat Chanh temple.  Before entering, we were asked to take off our shoes and were given a plastic bag to store them in the meantime.  The bus, like most lodgings and households in Laos, is a no-shoes zone.  Although lined with linoleum and seemingly clean enough, I felt strange and a bit grossed out walking barefooted.  But with the current seating, er… bunking arrangement, it was better this way.

The bus had double-decked bunk beds instead of seats.  I reached the end and it was all taken.  What’s going on?  Were we on the wrong bus perhaps?  It seemed like they were out of space, then I heard the conductor shout, “two in a bunk!” Are you kidding me?  These are made for size 0 petites, not the likes of us.  A couple occupying a bunk each gave one up and we thankfully took it.  At first we didn’t know how to go about it until the couple figured it out.  Facing each other, we sat uncomfortably for the next 4 hours.

Two hours down, we stopped for lunch.  Choices of sandwiches similar to Vietnam’s Banh Mi  was lunch for us.

I had a simple but pretty good canned tuna with mayo on a baguette.

At the Vang Vieng bus station two hours later, we made sure to get a proper bus particularly since we will be on the road for 6-7 hours.  Pointing to a photo of a bus with seats, we asked if there were seats available for the next day.  The lady nodded and asked, “what time?”  “10AM for the express bus to Luang Prabang, please.”

After the purchase, we got onto a jeep provided by the bus company that brought us to town.

Vang Vieng is a small tourist-oriented town about 150km north of Vientiane in Vientiane Province. It has only 3 streets, a market, a bus station and a few temples.  Before we even know it, we were on the main street in town.  We could have actually walked to town.

Small it may be but Vang Vieng is bursting with natural beauty.  The small town is beside a river and a picturesque backdrop of limestone karst surrounds it.  Mainly a backpacker’s hotspot until the mainstream travelers caught on a few years back.  Many are breaking a 10-hour road trip to Luang Prabang here, staying a couple of days to explore its natural wonders.  We had the same idea but didn’t have enough days to stay longer.  Wish we had.

In a quieter part of the Namsong River, a fair distance down river from the bars famous with the backpackers is The Elephant Crossing Hotel.  It is an easy walk from the main street even with backpacks in tow.

Because it situated on the banks of the Namsong River, the view was spectacular, but I guess anything along the riverbank would boast of the same breathtaking views.

All 31 rooms of the 4-storey boutique hotel were designed to have a private balcony

overlooking Vang Vieng’s famous majestic limestone mountains.

Their riverside restaurant was calling out to us, and there we whiled the time away with some spring rolls, a few bottles of beer and a lot of river actions.

We could sit there and watch the day go by, truth to tell, if only we had more days to spare.

Useful Info:

Buses to Vang Vieng:  Tickets can be purchased at almost every guesthouses, hotels or even travel operators.  This should already include transport to the bus station.  Several types of buses to choose from:
 
Local Buses — slower without air conditioning. Journey takes at least 5 hours.  Cost: 40,000 Kip (US$ 5)
VIP Buses — run by Malany Bus Company (856-23) 51-1633 and Thavonsouk Bus Company.  Departs 10AM and 2PM.  Journey takes about 4 hours.  Cost: 50,000 Kip (US$ 6)
AC Minivans —   Leaves as soon as it is full and is the most convenient and comfortable transport.  Cost: 70,000-80,000 Kip. (US$ 9)
 
 
Elephant Crossing Hotel:
Ban Viengkeo, Vang Vieng District
Vientiane, Lao PDR
(856-23) 51-1232

A Day in Vientiane

Credits: Page from Kayla’s Tin Album by Shabby Miss Jenn.

The outdoor seating at Dao Fa Bistro called out to us as we walked pass it.  We were tired from wandering the streets of Vientiane, visiting temples, doing some window-shopping and some real shopping along the way and resting our weary soles seemed like a good idea.

Right beside our table was a couple chatting over a plate of prosciutto on sliced garlic bread.  We decided to order the same.

While we watched the people pass by, we devoured our basket of this heavenly tasting cured ham on garlic bread over iced coffee and cold Beer Lao.  How French can you get?  Laos was under French rule from 1893-1953, the influence evident in the many French inspired bistros that line the streets.

Our day started early at the LCCT in Malaysia.  An early morning flight to Vientiane had us arriving in Laos’ capital at around 9AM.  A taxi prearranged with our hotel was waiting for us outside the Wattay International Airport.  “Welcome to Vientiane” the driver greeted us.  A friendly guy wanting to know more – where are we from, how long we’re staying, where else we’re going, so on and so forth.  What a nice start to our Laos adventure, me think!

After 15-20 minutes probably (I was so deep in conversation with the taxi driver, I lost track of time), we arrived at what looked like a pink colonial 3-storey building on an unpaved road across the Mekong River.  We thanked the driver and paid him Kip 64,000, equivalent to US$ 8 for the pick up.

The cool modern design of the interior was a contrast to the colonial style exterior.  The color maintained the same scheme of pink and light blue of the exterior.  We were told to wait as they fix our room and we can wait at The Spirit House, the restaurant next door.

It was 10AM so we opted to share an Egg’s Benedict, just enough to satisfy our hunger but leaving space for lunch.   This was the first of many good meals throughout this trip.  But I was expecting that and would have been disappointed if our meal were anything less than good.  In 2008, when I first visited Laos, I was amazed to find the food here superb – Laotian, French or a fusion of both.  Not leaving out the charm of Laos, the food was one major reason why I went back and writing to you about it.

Hotel Beau Rivage Mekong is a boutique hotel sitting on a quieter stretch (road still unpaved) of Fa Ngum Road, a short distance from the center of town where the main “riverside scene” is.

The Mekong River albeit practically dry in January serves as its main charm – great sunsets over cocktails is the main lure of their restaurant, The Spirit House.  A superior room would have the river view

while a standard room at US$ 53, had the garden view.

Our room was predictably pink – clean and spacious with a nice corner bar.

Leisurely walking to the main town, we would wander into streets; exploring shops that would catch our fancy when we happened to walk pass Makphet, a restaurant on the top of our list.

 We decided that lunch was going to be a little early since we were already there.

And as luck would have it, L’adresse de Tinay, the other restaurant we were eyeing was right beside so we made dinner reservations before we continued our exploring.

Clockwise: Grilled Beef Filet wrapped in Betel leaves with soy chili sauce, Green Mango Salad, Crispy Fried Mekong Fish with Sweet and Sour Tamarind Sauce, Red Hibiscus & Lime Breeze.

 Ranked by the 2009-2010 Miele Guide as one of the best restaurant in Asia, Makphet is a nice cozy restaurant serving modern Lao cuisine.  Not only do they serve wonderful food here, they are a “training restaurant” as well.

A training restaurant consists of culinary instructors from organizations such as Friends International to train homeless children and youths in the kitchen and in the front of house.  The group now run and support similar projects in Cambodia, Thailand, Indonesia, Honduras, Mexico, Egypt and Myanmar.  Needless to say, the dishes we chose were excellent and service was good.  They taught them well.  Be sure to get there earlier as the place can get packed.

* More on Makphet here.

Stuffed yet happy to be ticking off one item off our long list so early in the trip.  We walked to Haw Phra Kaew, once a royal temple of the Laotian monarchy that now houses a decent museum of Laotian art.  Built in 1565 by King Sethathirath as his private sanctuary.  This charming temple used to house the famous Emerald Buddha, which is today housed in Bangkok.

Intricately designed columns surround the temple

and buddhas grace the hallways where many still worship.

Practically across Haw Phra Kaew on Setthathirath Rd. is Wat Si Saket – a favorite and no doubt one of the most beautiful in Vientiane.  Both are important Buddhist sites but the latter is known to be the oldest temple still standing.

Modernization:  This was what greeted us at the entrance.

Built Siamese (Thai) style rather than Lao style, which could have saved the temple from destruction when the Siamese army destroyed and burned most of Vientiane in 1828.  The French restored the temple in 1924 and again in 1930.  The sim or the ordination halls stands in the middle of a square cloister.

Thousand of small niches were built at the outer walls of the cloister with small Buddha images on each niche.  On shelves in front of the wall are three rows of Buddhas in various shape and size.

Along the edge of the cloister were potted plants abundantly blooming bringing life to the faded yellow walls and pillars, exuding a tranquil charm all its own.

Dinner at L’adresse de Tinay was the perfect cap to our tiring yet beautiful day in Vientiane.  Tomorrow, we journey on to a Vang Vieng.  L’adressee is so to speak the newest kid in town serving outstanding French cuisine.  When we arrived, we were shown to the table we personally picked that afternoon.  A young man in black came out to greet us and get our orders.  Deliberating on what to order, the young man started giving his two cents worth and recommendations, owning up to the dishes when it hit me…  “Are you the chef?” I asked and he smiled and humbly introduced himself as Chef Tinay.

Trained in France, he went back home and opened this gem of a place with the help of his French wife, Delphine.

Main dishes: Duck Confit served as a cassoulet with Toulouse Sausage in sweet garlic cream (bottom left); Perfectly cooked Rack of Lamb (bottom right)

Everything we had from start to finish was excellent, ending with Delphine’s Limoncello, which she herself served.  Excellent French meal for US$ 40 per person… can you actually believe that?

* More on L’Adresse de Tinay here.

And with that we went to bed pleased at how well the day went.

Useful Info:

Hotel Beau Rivage Mekong
Fa Ngum Road, 
Ban Seetarn Neua,
Vientiane, Laos
+85621-243-350
Email: contact@hbrm.com
 
Makphet
Behind Wat Ong Teu parallel to Sethathirat Road,
Vientiane, Laos
+85621-260-587
Email: Makphet@friends-international.org
 
L’adresse de Tinay
Behind Wat Ong Teu parallel to Sethathirat Road,
Vientiane, Laos
+85620- 913-434
Email: ladressedetinay@gmail.com