Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Nong Khiaw, Laos

Nong Khiaw...what a beautiful town. We arrived in Nong Khiaw after another long bus ride (typical Laotian style). We decided to walk the two kilometers to the town center and on our way, we stopped for a meal of Laotian laab and sticky rice. While we were eating, the rains starting pouring down. We waited it out for about an hour, then continued our journey to find a guesthouse.

We ended up at a quaint, quiet guesthouse that was right on the river with amazing views of the limestone cliffs that surround this town. We spent the next two days walking around town, admiring the amazing Jurassic Park-like scenery and talking a hike to a more remote village. 

Laos continually amazed me with it's exceptional geography and continual beauty and this town was no exception. Oh, and we also discovered a restaurant right next to the bridge with the best banana pancakes!

{This was the view from our hotel balcony. I know the brown water looks a little strange, but just look at that jungle-coated mountain with the misty fog surrounding it!}

{View from the middle of the bridge connecting the two sides of town}

{Soaking in that view}

{The simple life}

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Udomxai, Laos

After spending a week in Muong Khoa and Phongsali, it was time to move on. We wanted to get to Nong Khiaw, another small riverside town and to do so, we needed to stop in Udomxai. 

Truthfully, Udomxai isn't all that impressive. It has a large Buddha and stupa in the middle of town, but other than that, it's mainly used as a transport hub. The infrastructure of this town is slowly being developed (largely by the Chinese) and we encountered a lot of construction and uneven sidewalks. 

Nevertheless, we made the most of our time in Udomxai. Here are some photos. 

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Phongsali, Laos

After our incredible, beautiful, breathtaking 8-hour bus ride from Muong Khoa, we arrived in Phongsali, Laos. Phongsali was a little bit bigger than Muong Khoa, but definitely still had a very small-town, peaceful vibe. 

One thing I learned quickly about Laos is that there are a lot of hills. Both riding buses and walking throughout towns, you will encounter hills to pass through. This can be a little tiring at times, but it also makes for some incredible views (and cooler temperatures--so refreshing after enduring such humid heat in Thailand, Malaysia, Cambodia, and Vietnam).

Phongsali has a decent-sized market and a large stupa at the top of a hill. We loved exploring both of these, including some delicious pound cake and banana muffins from the market!

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Muong Khoa, Laos

Laos. Beautiful, peaceful Laos. 

Before we went to Laos, I had no idea what we would be doing there. I even questioned whether we should keep it on our itinerary, wondering whether other countries should take priority. Brad never exactly answered my questions about Laos, but he remained firm that we needed to go there. He had fallen in love with the country nine years ago and was itching to get back. After spending three weeks there, I totally understand why. 

We began our Laotian journey in Muong Khoa, in the north of the country, having taken an overnight bus from crazy, chaotic Hanoi. I was pretty shocked when the bus dropped us off at such a simple, quiet town. It was a night and day difference from all the cities we visited in Vietnam. And it was wonderful. 

{This was the busiest street in town, during the busiest time of day. It's also interesting to see the prominence of both Laotian and communist flags being displayed from peoples' homes.}

{I fell in love with the green mountains of Laos and the way the fog quietly and constantly rolls through them. It is magical and comforting to be surrounded by such beauty.}

{One of several delicious banana pancakes we enjoyed in Laos.}

{This rickety suspension bridge was a little scary to walk across, especially in the middle, but it does a wonderful job of connecting the two parts of town.}

{This is a meal of larb and sticky rice, the national dish of Laos. We ate a lot of this in Laos and it's delicious. Larb is a delicious mixture of minced meat (usually pork), fresh herbs, and spices. Yum!}

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Vietnam: Perfume Pagoda

Northern Vietnam has a lot to offer outside of Hanoi. The most well-known of these attractions and the one I was most looking forward to is Halong Bay. On the morning we were set to depart for this gorgeous natural wonder, we were sitting in our hotel lobby, bags packed, waiting to be picked up. There was a light rain, then the phone rang. The hotel receptionist picked it up and handed me the phone. Our trip to Halong Bay had been cancelled due to the incoming Typhoon Rammasun. We knew about the typhoon and thought we were going to be able to squeeze in before it hit Halong, but apparently we were wrong. I didn't let my disappointment show, but I was pretty crushed. Our 30-day visa expired in six days and we needed to be out of the country before the storm would pass. When you're traveling, things don't always go according to plan and sometimes you just have to accept your fate. 

Halong Bay will not be happening on this trip, but we will go. Someday. Maybe then we won't be traveling like paupers and can do it in style; I'm reassuring myself that it's for the best. 

We decided to book a one-day tour to Perfume Pagoda and it was awesome! Perfume Pagoda is a Buddhist temple built inside a cave in the mountains about 75 kilometers outside of Hanoi. We rode in a non air-conditioned van for three hours to the Yen River where we hopped inside a slow boat. One Vietnamese woman rowed seven of us down the river for an hour before we arrived at the base of the mountain. There we ate lunch and then started the 38-minute trek (our guide timed us) up to the cave. The path was clearly paved with stones and small shops along the way, but there were a lot of steps and a lot of degrees in the temperature which meant that by the time we reached the temple, my shirt was just about completely soaked through. Pretty tiring but so worth it!

The temple itself? So cool! It had a similar feeling to the Batu Caves in Malaysia. There's something about the combination of nature and religious worship that is really beautiful. 

Here are some photos from the trip:

{Riding the slow boat to the mountain}

{and some of the gorgeous scenery around us}

{We spotted several temples on our way up the path to Perfume Pagoda}

{At the entrance to the cave}

{Standing next to some huge cave formations. Unlike what we're used to at US National Parks, there were no rules about not touching the formations in the caves so we both had a little touch and it was cool to feel something so old!}

{The lighting in the cave was so cool and provided for some really neat photo opportunities.}

{This is the main altar where Buddhists worship when they come to the cave.}

{Here you can see my beautiful sweat-stained shirt from our hot trek up. Gotta keep it real!}

{The view walking back up the stairs to leave.}

{On our way down, there was another very cool pagoda that Bradford snapped some great photos of, complete with Buddhist prayer flags.}

{I love this shot.}

After our time on the mountain, we loaded ourselves back on the slow boat and made the hour-long journey back to the vans and back to Hanoi. 

{One last snap of the Vietnam countryside before heading to Laos!}