Thursday, July 28, 2011

Luang Prabang and our way to Bangkok

Luang Prabang is a beautiful small city in the north of Laos and the old main capital until the 1500 century. Since 1995 it is UNESCO world heritage and it’s becoming more and more touristic, yet it is a very relaxing and lazy city with a lot of good atmosphere. The authentic Lao daily life is mixed with the well-known touristic scene. Walking around on the morning market at 6 am, sniffing in the smells and impressions of everything or strolling around the evening market with other tourists mixed with locals, eating delicious Lao food right from the market buffet. Or watching the monks and young novices walk by on the street and watch their alms processions at sunrise. This, together with elephant adventure and 2 day trekking in the area and seeing the ethnic villages, made a week in Luang Prabang unforgettable for us!

The time in Luang Prabang we had outside our adventures went to exploring the city, doing some sightseeing, strolling around the markets, eating good food and drinking many good fruit shakes and Beerlao. It is such a nice city to lose your days and just hang around, joining the relaxed atmosphere.

Luang Prabang is known for its many Wats (Buddhist temples) and monks and novices (the young boys studying in the temples) colouring the city partly orange. At sunrise every morning the monks and novices all over Laos will do their alms procession, collecting food offerings from the people in the streets, giving them their blessings. Iris really wanted to see this happening, so on the last day in Luang Prabang she went out on the streets at 5.30 in the morning to watch the procession. It is known that it is becoming a problem that so many tourists don’t respect the holy act of this procession. They don’t consider the monks’ personal space and privacy by taking pictures very close to them and don’t consider the do’s and don’ts in this matter. You should dress appropriate (cover knees and shoulders), put a scarf over your left shoulder, keep a distance (other side of the street), always be lower than the monk when he passes (sit down), don’t put a camera in their faces and don’t give alms yourself unless you really have a personal reason why this feels important (never do it for the pictures). The whole city has posters about this matter to protect the monks and their procession, but still sadly I was witness to that people are not paying attention and not acting in a respectful way. I wonder if they ever think about that this is the daily life of the monks, they do this every morning and never asked for us, the western tourist who just sees another attraction. I kept my distance on the other side of the street and tried to discreet make pictures of the ritual, which was amazing, its silent and holy and the people kneel down, giving their sticky rice and other food into the monks or novices bowl. Poor kids are begging in line and the monks give some of the food they got to the begging kids. It is a ritual unlike anything I have ever seen and very special to witness. But sadly it was a mixed experience because of all the other tourists photographing close-ups, walking next to the procession, giving alms while talking and not wearing a scarf and so on. If you ever go to Laos, it is well worth getting up at 5 am, but please show respect and let the procession be as much as possible what it is supposed to be.

Slow boat trip
Laos is a very remote country and doesn’t have that much paved roads, therefore many people travel with boats over the Mekong river. We heard good stories about the 2-day slow boat between Huay Xai and Luang Prabang downstream the Mekong river. We wanted to take this boat upstream towards Huay Xai, which is at the Laos boarder to Thailand. Taking the boat upstream makes the trip even slower, but it’s a beautiful ‘ride’ along the river with the Laos nature and tribes. Each day took about 9 hours, the boats are very basic and the seats are not that great, but it’s an authentic way to travel in Laos and to see a big part of the country. Time went by with reading books, looking at nature and the local life along the river, waving to kids and fishermen and eating snacks. ;-) It were two very relaxing days. Overnight we slept in Pakbeng, a tiny village along the river with guesthouses for guests from the slow boats both ways.

When we arrived in Huay Xai, we were just too late for immigration to Thailand, so had to stay the night. We had planned to take a flight to Bangkok, but now we found it easier to take the night bus the next day, cheaper also. The 13-hour trip was going pretty fast and we both slept a few hours. It didn’t matter, because we wanted to enjoy the time still left as much as we could.

Bangkok was a great city to end our trip, we will tell about it in our next post. Now we are packing up to leave for our flight, flying home after 11 months of wonderful Southeast Asia adventures!

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Jungle trekking and tribe visit

While being in Luang Prabang we wanted to take a more-day hike into the area of north Laos but had to find a good company to use. As with the elephant adventure we wanted to use an environmental friendly agent that uses tourism for the best for Laos and its tribes. Green Discovery was our choice. They give you the opportunity to see the authentic Laos with good and trustable guides and they make sure that your money ends up by the locals, tribes and guides. You pay a bit more than other companies but then you know you don’t leave bad tracks behind when visiting Laos. To make the trip as cheap as possible we had to find more people to join the same trip. Green Discovery luckily found people and the day after Elephant village we packed our backpack for adventure. Tim and Sarah, a couple from New Zealand were our trekking buddies and turned out to stay at the same guesthouse as us. We had a lot of fun, also together with our two guides, which names are hard to spell. They spoke good English, had a lot of knowledge about nature as well as Lao culture and tribes and they where proud Lao boys.

The first day was a 6-hour trek through jungle, agriculture, walking up a mountain and sliding down muddy paths, all done in heavy rain. It could have been better weather but we actually didn’t bother that much, you’re wet anyway and the nature was still beautiful. The rain also forced our guides to be creative when we sat down for lunch, they decided to make a hut out of branches and banana leaves, which gave an extra wild dimension to our already adventures trip. Under the roof of our self-made hut, we had the most delicious Lao lunch on the banana leaves from the jungle. In the afternoon we arrived at the Khmu village where we were going to stay the night. Our feet were happy to have a break from the soaking wet shoes and we enjoyed a very good dinner cooked by our guides. The village belongs to the Khmu tribe, which is one of the four main tribes in Laos, they live very basic and are self maintained of their own farming. In this village they have made an extra village house together with Green Discovery, where 6 people can stay the night, this way the village has an extra income. Green Discovery as well as other companies try to share this idea between villages in Laos, to lessen the impact on the villages and spread the money.
The village kids gave us a warm welcome and wanted to play with us almost immediately, so for a couple of hours we were surrounded by adorable children, playing, joking and trying out and borrowing our cameras.
After a night of more or less good sleep, we played some more with our new young friends and had a good breakfast, again made by our fantastic guides. It was time to wave our goodbyes to the charmy village and the adorable kids and continue our trekking through Lao nature.

The trek of the day was less heavy and a lot shorter than the day before, which made us happy, since our shoes were not dried up at all from the day before. We started of with visiting a Hmong village, a tribe that is known for living higher up then the Khmu people and even more than the Khmu living of nature and their own recourses, still living like they did hundreds of years ago. The Khmu and Hmong tribes are also unlike the Lao people not Buddhists. After some climbing and sliding down the muddy paths, lunch and visiting a cave, we reached our final destination: the Kuang Si waterfall. A fantastically beautiful and big waterfall, which was even bigger now in the rainy season. We washed our muddy shoes and took a swim before entering the car that took us back to Luang Prabang. We were very satisfied after a great trip, seen a lot and learned a lot of Lao culture, tribes and nature.

Elephant adventure

One of the things we wanted to do in Luang Prabang was an elephant adventure. On our first day we shopped around and looked for green and eco/elephant friendly companies, to know for sure that our experience also is for the good of the elephants and environment. Laos is called ‘the land of the million elephants’, it was used to be known for its amount of elephants. Nowadays there are only 600 elephants living in the wild and 1000 elephants in captivity, and the species is threatened to die out. We ended up booking our trip with Elephant Village, because it is known to be saving elephants from people who miss treat them in captivity and they work hard to save the species.

After we were picked up and driven to the elephant village we learned how to climb up an elephant. We were in a group of 7 and one by one we climbed up the elephant for a short ‘ride’ and a basic mahout training. A mahout is a person who trains and watches over the elephant; they mostly stay with one elephant for years, sometimes its life long relationship. It was a strange feeling to climb up an elephant, pulling on his ears, setting on his neck, but the mahout and the guide explained that this doesn’t hurt the elephant. The elephant didn’t seem to bother at all and was continuously eating while we were climbing up and down and riding her. They eat 10% of their body weight every day (meaning 150-250kg), so they are probably continuously hungry :-).

The daytrip also included the visit to the Tad Sae waterfall, which we would normally end the day with, but because it was so busy we switched it to an earlier stage. The Keh Sea waterfall does only exists in the wet season and was very impressive with many places to bath and we could climb up and down the ‘trays’ of the waterfall.

With a small boat we were brought to the elephants resting place for a 1-hour trekking through the woods in a basket on top of the elephants. The elephants are so sweet, careless, relax and always hungry and grabbing food everywhere. Our mahout was sitting on the neck of the elephant giving the orders and we were enjoying the elephant and the scenery. At a certain point our mahout jumped of the elephant and took over our camera and made pictures of us :-). It was good to see that the elephant continuously moved her ears, which is a sign that she is enjoying her time and likes what she is doing.

After a very welcome and delicious Lao style lunch in the elephant village we were picked up again with a boat for the grade finale of the day: ‘bathing the elephants’. They were already waiting for us on the other side of the river and after we gave our cameras away to the guides for the pictures we each hoped on our own elephant (with a mahout of course). The elephants walked in the water and while some of us (like Iris) could really clean the elephant, others (like Rino) were constantly sprayed by the elephant by orders of the a little more humorous mahout. The both of us had a lot of fun!

After the elephant bathing we were brought back to the elephant village for some relaxing time at their pool and later back to Luang Prabang. We both found this day an incredible experience and absolute adored the elephants. We learned a lot about the species which we didn’t know anything about before. What a marvelous and massive creature!

Monday, July 25, 2011

Vientiane & Vang Vieng

So we arrived in Laos, the first stop was the main capital Vientiane. In the evening of our arrival we headed out for diner and a beer. Laos is famous for their national beverage ‘Beerlao’, something we immediately had to try out of course. Well, it’s definitely accepted, as is the Lao food.

The next morning we decided to check out the Vientiane cycling tour of the Lonely Planet, first stop was a bakery for breakfast. Laos is a former French colony and therefore there is a lot of French food and influences to be found around the countries cities. After breakfast we rented a bike and biked around the city centre. The route took us along some amazing sights, which are best shown with our pictures. In the afternoon we took a bumpy tuktuk ride to the Buddha Park, 25km outside Vientiane, this is a park with a mix of Hindu and Buddhist statues. This reminds us of Bali, who’s religion is a mix of these two religions.

Vang Vieng
The next morning we headed of with a 5-hour bus ride to Vang Vieng, a city that used to be known for its great scenery with limestone cliffs, caves and climbing. But nowadays its better known for ‘tubing’; sliding down the river in tractor inner tubes with party bars on either side of the river throwing ropes so you are able to get to their bar. The bars and restaurants inside the city are playing reruns of comedy series, especially ‘Friends’, which we loved to see after such a long time. We decided to stay for 3 nights and 2 full days, so we could do one-day nature and adventure and one-day tubing. In our nice and ridiculously cheap (€3,50 per night) guesthouse we booked a trip for the next day. The trip included: mountain biking, several caves, a lunch and a 20km kayak ride and this all for €16 per person :-). We were picked up from our guesthouse and soon sat on our mountain bikes. Our private tour guide brought us to the first cave in a one hour and 15 minutes ride half on paved pad and half on unpaved pads, which was quite challenging at times, since its rainy season. The cave was a water cave, so we had to go in with tubes, which was a very nice and fun experience. The cave looked very unreal and we both had never seen something like this before, we were very impressed. We also crawled and walked around were the water was lower it was a fascinating experience. After a lunch outside the cave we hoped on our mountain bikes again and followed the road to 3 other caves. On the way over to one of the caves Iris fell of her bike into the barbed wires, which was a less pleasant experience.

The bigger caves were used by the people in Laos to hide from the US bombs during the Vietnam War, Laos is the most bombed country in history. The caves are therefore very important for the people in Laos, they brought many Buddha statues into the caves, which is quite impressive. One of the caves was more than 2km long and therefore called the long cave, a tourist who went in the cave once without a guide was lost for 2 days before the locals found him. The smallest cave was called ‘the elephant cave’, because of a small statue of an elephant inside, which is an act of nature according to the people of Laos. The 20km kayak trip was very nice, quiet and beautiful. The quietness was over when we reached the area where the tubing starts, with the loud music and drunken people. After a whole day in the wild we didn’t feel very familiar with these partyscene.

But the next day we still decided to tube, since we wanted to experience that as well and… it was fun, wild and crazy. Rino promised himself no more hangovers so he was happy that we accidently didn’t bring that much money ;-). In our guesthouse we met James and Max, who joined us on the river and along the way we got to meet a lot of other people as well. The bars try to spice thinks up with zip lines, river jumps and even a slide, unfortunately a lot of these fun attractions were closed, since more and more drunk people hurt themselves or even die in the river. Luckily the slide (also called the ‘deathslide’, since a girl died there) was still open and one river jump. Since we were not that drunk it was absolutely harmless and we enjoyed these attractions a lot. All together it was a lot of fun and we enjoyed it more than we had thought we would. But tip nr 1: Don’t get too drunk while tubing!

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Make love not war!

More travel blogposts later. But today we are thinking of all the people back home in Oslo and Norway that are touched in some way by the terrible tragedy! Stay together, show love and affection. There are no words we can use in any language to describe how we feel.

Peace & love

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The holiday in our travel :-)

When we were dreaming and planning about this trip Rino always said that we shouldn’t set any alarms, since this would be his holiday and he wanted to get out of the rhythm he had on Bali. But ever since we left we have been setting alarms every day and even really early once, like the day we left Penang for Koh Phi Phi. At 5am our 10-person minivan would pick us up at our hostel. We were again flabbergasted about the luxurious outlook of our van, this time it looked like a PIMP’d minivan with TV screen and huge amount of speakers. But it was still 5am so no movies yet, only trying to sleep some more. It felt like no time had passed when we arrived at the Malaysian/Thai boarder, for both of us it was the first time crossing a boarder like this and luckily everything went smoothly. Unfortunately though we had to switch minivans soon after the boarder and of course the next one wasn’t that fancy anymore and they don’t really consider tall people like Rino in these countries.

A one and a half hour boat ride took us to Koh Phi Phi and we arrived late afternoon. Just before sunset, and we could still enjoy the beauty of the island with the astonishing limestone cliffs, white beaches and green and turquoise clear water. Rino had been looking on TripAdvisor again for a nice accommodation and after 3 nights in dormitories we wanted a room for ourselves again. PP Insula was supposed to offer good value and it certainly was, for around €20 we had a ‘real’ hotel room with great view and away from all the party but still very central and most of all it had a normal blanket again! A blanket we had been looking forward to for 11 months now. In the evening we had some dinner with Ege, a Turkish guy we met on the way over. After dinner we headed up to the party area and soon were confronted with Koh Phi Phi drinking scene. Small buckets with 375ml bottles of local spirit mixed with cola and red bull for €3-6, sold just on the street, a bit crazy party scene. We continued to the beach were several party places were preparing their guests for the evening with stunning fire shows (see pics in slideshow).

We planned 4 nights with 3 full days on Koh Phi Phi and the first we used to finally sleep out, relax for a day and enjoy this paradise island. The second day we had planned 2 snorkelling trips. The first one being a shark watch early in the morning (again this insane early alarm, damn it), apparently we are wrongly educated about sharks. Most sharks are afraid of humans and therefore would not harm them, Iris needed a bit more convincing about this theory, but eventually she agreed to join. Seeing sharks was guaranteed, or else you get the money back. Unfortunately for us the visibility was very low and it was windy and wavy and our good and friendly guide decided to end the trip after snorkelling for 20 minutes, because this would not give us value for money. Luckily we still had a second snorkelling trip planed for later that day, on that trip we finally found Nemo and a lot of other cool underwater life :-). We went to several snorkelling spots around Koh Phi Phi Leh (famous from the movie ‘The Beach’ with Leonardo DiCaprio that was shot there). Although conditions were again not perfect and we couldn’t go to the famous beach we had a lot of fun with our fellow travellers in the group and our sweet and nice guide. In the evening we went out partying with Ezz (who we met again on Phi Phi), Ege and some other people we met this evening. We had a great time!!!

The next day was a hangover day, especially for Rino. They shouldn’t sell these buckets; you get too drunk in very short time, luckily it hardly costs any money and we had a great time ;-). We arranged the boat out of Phi Phi for the next morning to bring us to Phuket, from were we took a flight to Udon Thani a city close to the Laos boarder. The flight went very smoothly and also the boarder crossing was very easy. Around 8pm we arrived in Vientiane and after a small search we found a hostel, but more on fantastic Laos later.

For now if you are dying to speak to us we have bought ourselves a Lao number so you can reach us on +856 2058 892 883 (until the 24th of July).

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Cameron Highlands & Penang

After the luxurious bus ride from KL we arrived in the smell of fresh air in the Cameron Highlands. We didn’t book a hostel yet, but a combination of the Lonely Planet and some sellers on the bus station brought us to Danial’s Lodge a perfect travellers hangout, we liked it very much. The main thing to do in the Cameron Highlands is trekking, so after a setting down and a fantastic Indian lunch we went to explore the highlands on our own. Unfortunately the weather is very unpredictable in the highlands and can change quickly, our hike was shortened to only 1 hour. For the next day we had planned an ‘adventure’ trip with some trekking, visiting tea plantations, and a butterfly farm. In a very old but very strong Land Rover and our relax and superb guide Nick we drove through the highlands and saw the famous tea plantations. Es, a fellow traveller, whom we met in the hostel, joined us. We had a great time and we now know how you should drink a real cup of tea, which apparently the Dutch people in particular do wrong. The slide show beneath shows our adventure in the Cameron Highlands.

For us one day in the highlands was enough, so after our adventure trip we took a 10-person van to Penang. Penang is an island in on the west coast of Malaysia and its main city Georgetown is a Unesco world heritage. According to several major travel organizations it is one of the islands you have to see before you die, so that is a ‘check’ on our list ;-). It’s known for the old colonial buildings, the food and the unique harmony between religions, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and Christians have lived in harmony for centuries. We very much loved Penang for these 3 characteristics. For the delicious food you don’t go to restaurants here, but you have to go to the street stalls and food courts on the street, which means it is cheap as well, what do you want more :-). We tried to eat only small portion, so we could try out as much as we could ;-). This slideshow shows some food experiences.

After arrival we only walked around and eat before we went to bed. We had booked 2 different hostels, since the one we wanted was fully booked for the first night. Both hostels were superb and although we slept in dormitories we had good night rest. The next day with did a walking tour through the city, which included the Penang museum, several mosques and temples, little India and many old colonial buildings. The highlights we are included in the slideshow. In the late afternoon we hooked up with Jamie and Es who we knew from the Cameron Highlands and we enjoyed several dinners together while strolling down the streets :-). Since we left Bali we miss our scooters very much, we rented one for the next day, our last day in Penang. We first drove all the way to the other side of the island to the national park of Penang, which consists of a jungle and some beaches. We took a hike trip through the jungle, which was a very very hot and sweaty experience. The jungle was a bit disappointing and the beach we saw was also nothing really special, but we enjoyed the hike and the exercise. We continued to the Kek Lok Si temple, the biggest Buddhist temple in South-East Asia, which was absolutely amazing. We were lucky because our last evening was the first evening of a 3-day festival in Penang, which meant that there were a lot of festivities in the city. Together with Es and Jamie we went for some more dinners and festivities. We saw an astonishing lion dance, were 14-15 years old boys wearing a lion suit, danced on top of small poles. The movie below gives an impression of their astonishing performance.

Pictures from Penang

The last evening we went to bed early, we had to take the bus to Koh Phi Phi, Thailand the next morning at 5am, where we are now. But more on that later :-)

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Last visit & bye bye party

Sitting here in the bus from Cameron highlands to Penang, looking out on beautiful coconut trees and Malaysian sunset, thinking back on Bali and our goodbyes…

The last weeks were different than usual, Rino was practically finished, we were packing for the shipping of our stuff and we slowly started to plan our travel and we had a fantastic goodbye party! Especially our last week was fully packed with appointments and plans. Judith, our friend from Groningen, who’s traveling in Indonesia, was visiting us for a couple of days just before we left. She joined our bye bye party and Iris went one day with her to Ubud, for the last time.
Angeline and Berry, the friends Iris volunteered with at Sjaki, were in Bali again for a couple of weeks. It was so good to see them again and meet up a couple of times.
The rest of the week was packing and planning and doing the last shopping before the boxes were closed for shipping to Norway. The boxes (1 cubic meter) are now nicely packed and are going to be shipped to Oslo, where we can pick it up when we arrive in Oslo in august. It will be like Christmas Eve when we unpack them again! :-)

Our boxes :-)

The bye bye Bali party!
We had planned a bye bye party with Samson on the beach, this way we could invite everybody, included some of our friends with less to spend. The beach is also our main hangout spot in the afternoons so it was natural to give the party there. Samson was the happy boss and could earn some extra money this evening, as well as joining some fun with us of course! :-) We picked up Indonesian food on the street and we shared arak with everyone as well as beer. It became a memorable and very cosy and fun evening with a good mix of our new and not so new friends here in Bali. It simply couldn’t be better! It was so much fun that we never wanted the night to end. Together with the small group that stayed till the end with us, we went to Cow bar and had the usual fabulous fun there with jamming, singing and talking! We had to leave the bar at a certain time and we STILL didn’t want the night to end. The beach with a beer, a guitar, good musicians and gooood company was the solution, we sang old love songs and enjoyed the moment until the dawn broke through and we finally went happy and fulfilled to our beds to sleep. <3

The last day!
The last day we really had to say our goodbyes to the last people. We had promised to come to the beach and see Samson and of course Fais, so a quick visit to the beach and some minutes melancholic walking in the sand and water and we said goodbye! Rino still went by work to shake some hands and he still got a present :-) We had planned to have our last lunch at Warung Sobat, our absolute favourite on Bali where we have been 2 times a week for the last 9 months. Rino eat more onions rings than he could bare and we even got them for free since it was our last time ;-) The lunch we enjoyed with Carla and Vincent. Now the very sad moment came to deliver our beloved scooters. We kissed them goodbye and headed of to pick up our backpacks and leave the magic island. Putu, our housekeeper was the absolute hardest to say goodbye to, she cried and begged us to stay, it was such an emotional moment and we promised to keep in touch! And of we were and the Bali chapter came to an end….. The new one may begin!