Laos

Top Ten Travel Highlights of 2013

Happy New Year! I can’t believe it’s 2014 already. Since we’ve moved abroad, Sean and I have rang in the new year in Jordan, Egypt, and now Cambodia. As amazing as it is to keep looking forward to new adventures, it is equally important to reflect on all we’ve experienced. 2013 was pretty awesome. We moved from Kuwait to Cambodia. We celebrated our second year of marriage. Sean had knee surgery. I had wrist surgery. Sean tried pufferfish. I started eating chicken again. We watched Breaking Bad. But I digress.

Anyways, here are our travel highlights of 2013. There’s not really any particular order; it was near impossible to prioritize such perfect memories…  I hope you enjoy!

 2013 Travel Highlights

10. Playing disc golf with my family over the summer (Wisconsin)547901_4009921418603_1670924733_n

 

9. My last vegetarian thali at Banana Leaf (Kuwait)img_2404

 

8. Climbing Kep Mountain (Cambodia)10

 

7. Learning to speak Khmer (Cambodia)1185019_10201246178628688_1713916646_n

 

6. Eating giant prawns on the Koh Kong coast (Cambodia)img_6725

 

5. Becoming addicted to shiro and injera (Ethiopia)img_4913

 

4. Smoking shisha with my mother and the head of the Ministry of Communication (Kuwait)img_4726_2

 

3. Hiking five nights on The Beaten Path trail (Montana)15

 

2. Petting baboons in the Simien Mountains (Ethiopia)img_5656

 

1. Standing under the raging waterfall of Tad Yeang—Can you spot me? (Laos)img_7795-version-2

 

 

 

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Categories: America, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Kuwait, Laos | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Wat Phou Champasak, Southern Laos

You know you are living a good life when the words “temple” and “waterfall” become frequent in your vocabulary.

This is our last post on Laos—thank you so very much for following along on our journey. Don’t fear, there are many post-Laos adventures queued up for your reading pleasure.  To close on Laos, for our final day, we visited an incredible UNESCO World Heritage Site, Wat Phou Champasak.
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Wat Phou (or Vat Phou) is an ancient Khmer temple complex near the Cambodian-Laos border. Archeologists have actually determined that an ancient road ran all the way from Wat Phou to the famous temple complex of Angkor Wat! Folks, that is a long way. When I first heard that fact, it reminded me of the ancient Roman roads we saw in Jordan and in Italy, and the phrase, “All roads lead to Rome”. Well, I think it is fair to say that in Southeast Asia, all roads lead to Angkor Wat.

In the above photo, Sean and I are in front of one of the ancient reservoirs created for the temple, with the sacred mountain of Wat Phou in the background. The temple comlex was built into the side of the hill, so we were anticipating some great views.

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Here is the entry road to Wat Phou. You can see two large buildings immediately behind me, but the temple complex stretched up into the hills in the background. (I have taken quite a liking to being barefoot here—maybe it is the absence of leeches after Koh Kong, but I feel that I can conquer anything!)

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One of my favorite things about traveling abroad is that the ancient ruins become your playground. Perhaps, though, they should be more protected…?

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Looking into the hills of Wat Phou.

 

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This was one of our favorite parts of the site. The ancient steps were beginning to warp with the growth of the trees. We pondered over this for quite some length; were the trees built to anchor the stone steps in this specific way? Or is it merely coincidence?

 

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At the top of the steps was the main Buddhist temple. At this point it began to rain, so we took refuge under a wooden hut that is occasionally used for selling snacks and offerings to Buddha. (It was empty on that day. Don’t worry, we didn’t kick anyone out!)

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After the skies cleared, we were able to take some great pictures. Did you know, I’ve taken up yoga in Cambodia? It is only fitting. This is the tree pose. I have yet to perfect it… But the setting certainly was perfection. If you look in the background you can see the straight road running away from the temple; this is the road that used to lead to Angkor Wat.

 

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Inside the main temple on the side of the hill, there is a modern Buddhist shrine. Did you know that it is forbidden to take a picture with your back to the Buddha? Thus, Chino recommend I take this modest and respectful pose. This temple was actually very unique because it was connected to a natural spring that came out of the mountain. The water was then piped into the temple itself, continually “bathing” or immersing the lingas (holy statues) in water. It is the only known water-temple of it’s kind. Today, you can still locate the spring, which merely drips, and you can see the ruins of where it entered the shrine to shower the lingas.

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Beautiful carvings. Incredibly preserved. This stuff is from between the 11-13th centuries!

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An ancient Hindu stone relief. Shiva is in the middle, between Vishnu and Brahma. As you can see, the temple was originally a Hindu temple, but was converted to a Buddhist temple later on, as it currently is now.

 

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We loved how the temple was just nestled within the crannies of the mountainside!

 

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More ancient carvings… We stumbled upon this, hidden in the jungle on the mountain. I love this because it shows the universal timelessness of the spiral….

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The terraced hills leading up to the main temple. Time to go home.

IMG_7924Our final night was spent in the tiny town of Champasak. I loved the architecture down the ‘main’ street.

Thus concludes our trip to Laos. A place I never thought I’d see with my own eyes! I think a return trip is in order, but this time to Northern Laos.

Check back soon to see what we have been up to since Laos! I guarantee there are two more countries that have tales to be told, and our Halloween plans are looking to be quite the blog in themselves…

See you next time!

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Three Waterfalls, Two Restaurants, One Campfire: More of Laos

You know a place has gotten into your heart when it’s a multiple-blog post kinda trip. I’ve tried to condense it, but the pictures are just too darn good!

There is so much of the country I want to share with you…

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From cows in the countryside…

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To dogs behind the wheel.  (Photo courtesy of Anna.)

Laos felt very pastoral. When I was in college, I took a classical poetry course, studying poetry from Ancient Greece and Rome. Virgil and Homer created a new literary style called locus amoenus. For some reason, I have never forgotten about.

Locus Amoenus is Latin for “pleasant place”, and is used to describe a remote, pastoral, safe, and comfortable environment, often a place of safety and devoid of people. A refuge. Animals are okay in a locus amoenus. A locus amoenus must have three things: grass, trees, and water.

Laos was my locus amoenus. 

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After cruising along the countryside, we stopped at a small cafe to get coffee and hot chocolate. It was surprisingly chilly, and we were all getting a bit hungry. Famous for their coffee, I had to order yet another latte in Laos.

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(Photo courtesy of Anna.)

After coffee, we hunted high and low for a restaurant to fill our bellies. Sean has something I like to call the “plastic chair policy”. He avoids places with plastic chairs. He does this for hygienic reasons, which isn’t entirely unfounded. A family friend of ours once said, “You think you can eat anything, and you do, until you come within inches of your death and wish you were dead. Then you’re off the street food.” Sean took his words to heart and now looks only for eating establishments with wooden or metal chairs and tables, a signal to him that the place must have a clean kitchen if they’ve taken the effort to set up a solid dining area.

Regardless, he had to throw his plastic chair policy out the window in Paksong, Laos. We were lucky to find the place that we did—Paksong is a quiet, empty town embedded in the hills of the Bolaven.

I have never had a “plastic chair policy”. I should probably create one. But, judging on the meal in the above photo, would you have turned this place down? Me neither.

IMG_7640The sun was setting, and it was time to find a place to lay our heads and dream…

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When I stepped out of the car to snap the vista photo above, it dawned on me that I hadn’t photographed our car yet. We’ve named her Champi, (pronounced chompy) after a waterfall we never saw. Poetic, right?

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(Photo courtesy of Anna.)

After our lovely morning of coffee, fried rice, and sightseeing, we stopped at Tad Fane, a famous waterfall in the Bolaven. We stayed in the Tad Fane Lodge—my favorite place in the entire trip. It felt like a fairy land. I could have stayed forever.
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(Photo courtesy of Anna.)

Not only did it feel like a fairy land, but it was also inhabited by rather mystical creatures. I swear this guy MUST have been the same spider that bite me. Yeah, right.



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Like I said, this lodge was heaven. They had two levels, with the upper level having a fire pit with a roaring fire. As we were hanging on the edge of the valley, the fog was curling up through the trees and mingling with the smoke from the embers. I was in love with the moment.

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Then this guy showed up.

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And his girlfriend. Our host found them. He just casually picked them off the ground, or from a counter, I’m not quite sure—hopefully not out of my beer—and set them on the table. After meeting each other, they didn’t waste any time getting down to business. Must have been the romantic campfire…

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In the morning, when the fog lifted, we had the most amazing breakfast and view yet.

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This is Tad Fane.

After we left the lodge, we had another waterfall to head to. I know, I know, enough with the waterfalls. But remember what I said… trees, grass, and water. Locus amoenus

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The next waterfall we visited had the most amazing overlook. Dr. Seuss, anyone?

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Sean snapped this photo from above as I fought the raging wind and water blowing me sideways.

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I was truly not many feet from the waterfall. These falls were named Tad Yeang, and were some of the more touristy falls we’d been to. They had a nice entrance area, and a restaurant nearby. We weren’t complaining!

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At the top of the falls there were a series of bridge to carry you to the other side of the river. We walked upstream quite a ways, looking for the perfect swimming hole.

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True love. Between which two couples? You decide… (Photo courtesy of Anna.)

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(Photo courtesy of Anna.) Like I said, there was a restaurant near Tad Yeang, serving traditional Laotian food. It was an open-air seating area overlooking the falls, run by a few local girls who were making the food fresh from the ingredients they had brought that day.


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(Photo courtesy of Anna.) We had Beer Lao, red sticky rice, mango salad, grilled pork, roasted yams, roasted pumpkin, and bamboo soup. You heard me, bamboo soup. Honestly, it was a feast unlike any other I have ever had. We ate every morsel and loved it. It was really fascinating; a series of flavors I had never tasted before.

Our final stop for the evening was Tad Etu, our final waterfall for our trip.

IMG_7833Look towards Tad Etu, graced by a lovely mist rainbow.

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Sean had to get a little closer, so he went exploring. Anna and I took pictures and stayed dry. Every set of waterfalls we came to ended up being our personal playground. Where else in the world can you get that?

Where is your locus amoenus?

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Hiking In Laos On The Bolaven Plateau

I didn’t have to think hard about the title for this blog post. Most of the time I sit for five, ten, sometimes fifteen minutes, trying to come up the best, eye-catching title. I want anyone browsing the web to stop in their tracks and think, “Wow, I’ve GOT to read that!” Even if I turned someone small and everyday, like finding an Indian restaurant in Kuwait, into an adventure into the bowels of the Middle East. It’s all about creativity and perspective.

It wasn’t hard today. Why? Because “Hiking In Laos On The Bolaven Plateau” is just awesome. And it’s what we did. Kind of like “Going To The Moon Tomorrow”. How can you make going to the moon sound even more awesome than it already is?

So, we went hiking in Laos on the Bolaven Plateau.

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Photo courtesy of Anna.  She let me steal a few of her amazing ones to add to the blog.

After we left the 4,000 islands area (see last post), we drove north to a town called Pakse. Pakse is kind of the hub for the Bolaven plateau; once you head up into the hills, there isn’t a whole lot in terms of facilities. We stopped in Pakse to get lunch and run a few errands. We also found these street snacks, which ended up tasting very strange.  Delicious, but strange. They’re made with coconut flour, so taste tropical, but the inside doesn’t fully cook, so it always has a crunchy outside and jelly interior. The jelly is what gets me. Regardless, we bought a couple and mopped up the grease that dribble down our chins.

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Pakse is located on the Mekong river, which runs all the way down to Phnom Penh, and out into the Gulf of Thailand. Our trip literally followed the Mekong river all the way north. As we left Pakse, we drove to Tad Lo in the north of the plateau. The average elevation for the Bolaven is at around 4,000 ft—much different than our elevation in Phnom Penh, which is only 39 feet above sea level!
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Photo courtesy of Anna.

We stayed at Tad Lo Lodge, a beautiful place right next to Tad Lo waterfall.These were our bungalows.
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We woke up to a breakfast of fresh fruit, omelets, french bread, and coffee. You can see Tad Lo falls in the background. I could have relaxed on that patio for days!

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The main building of Tad Lo lodge.

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We started our hike the next morning. Our plan was to hike up the river to Tad Suong, which was reported to be the most beautiful falls of them all. We slathered on our sunscreen, packed our bags, and struck out for adventure.

A cautionary note: We were following a distinct trail for much of the hike. When we weren’t on a trail, we were walking in farmer’s fields. Never, ever go off trail in Laos or Cambodia. The countrysides are still riddled with unexploded ordinances—Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge and Laos from the Vietnam war. We never saw any bombs or problems, but we were warned in every tourist office. Please, if you go, tread wisely!
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The first set of falls we came to were Tad Hang. We were so excited to get to Tad Suong, we just stopped for a few pictures here then kept going.
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Tad Hang.

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Photo courtesy of Anna.

We had to go through two local villages on our hike. The people were so friendly; they always smiled and said hello. When we asked, “Tad Suong?” they smiled and pointed us in the right direction.

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Trekking through the farm fields of the Bolaven. Sean took this photo as he was walking farther away from us at one point. I am in the front and Anna is in the back.

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We found coffee plants! Coffee production is a large export on the Bolaven. And of course, I brought a few bags home.

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We were finally in eyesight of Tad Suong. Isn’t it gorgeous?

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I found the happiest woman in the world inside this hut. She was roasting and shucking corn, looking out over a gorgeous view of waterfalls and mountains. She seemed so at peace with the world. I would have loved to sat with her for a while.
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But we had to go on. This was the only real river crossing we had to do, and I left my shoes on to do it. You never know what’s in that muddy water!

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We finally reached Tad Suong! Our goal was to climb to the top of the falls, but we couldn’t find the trail. We knew the view from the top was going to be wonderful, but we couldn’t figure out how to get there.

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I stopped for a minute to consider our options, then I decided to push on…

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When I got bit by a massive spider. Okay, I never saw the spider, but the bite hurt! I thought, in my wise and composed condition, that I only had 24 hours to live. At this point in the hike, I called it quits, and suggested (in more or less words) that we head back to the lodge so someone could look at my bite.

Long story short, the bite was fine. It probably was a spider, but the men at the lodge said I would be fine. And I was. But from now on, I will certainly think twice about climbing through the guts of a rainforest!

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On our way back, Kampot was overheating, so Anna was a lovely mother and carried him a bit of the way.

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On our way back to the lodge, on the other side of Tad Hang.

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When we found an elephant.

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Amazing.

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Photo courtesy of Anna.

The lodge we stayed at had two resident elephants. They would hang out in the forest around the lodge near the waterfalls.

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When we finally made it back to the lodge, we laughed at how dirty we were! Even Kampot’s little paws were a muddy mess. Further, the sole completely came off Anna’s hiking boots. She hiked the whole way back without a sole on one foot!

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We had such a great time. Sean tried to snap a photo above his head of us relaxing on the balcony at the lodge. I love this photo because you can almost picture yourself there, laughing at our adventures.

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Time to clean the mud off our legs and our shoes…

There’s one small thing I forgot to mention. Remember how we wanted to get to the top of Tad Suong? Well, there is actually a road to the top. We just wanted to make an adventure out of it. That’s why the turning around part was so easy; we just resolved to take the car to the top once we got back to the lodge.

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It was only a twenty minute drive from the lodge. What a view!
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Looking down Tad Suong.

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I love Laos.

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Once we got back, Sean and Chino serenaded us with some music. It was a wild day, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world!

Up next: No more spider bites, but many more waterfalls! Stay tuned!

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Laos: Part One!

So, we bought a car.

It took us a long time. That could have been an entire blog series in itself: “Buying A Car In Cambodia”. However, I like to focus on the frivolous, the fun, and the fantastical. Car-buying in Cambodia is none of those things.

Regardless, we are now the proud owners of 1999, 4-wheel drive, Honda CRV. We are mobile!

As the time wound down to the last final days before the week-long Cambodian holiday of Pchum Ben, we were frantically preparing our drivers’ licenses, ownership titles, and insurance. We wanted our car to be solid, unquestionable, and safe. Why?

We were driving to Laos.

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Charting our route on Google Maps makes it look a bit intimidating. In hindsight, it isn’t. Beforehand, it totally was.

Laos is pretty easy to cross into, so long as you have a Passport, patience, and money. We have heard horror stories of border crossings—people paying $10 to some guy who has to “sanitize their tires”, paying $3 to get their temperature taken or face quarantine, people stuck at borders for hours… we didn’t really know what to expect.

When we got there, it was fairly painless. There was a visa fee, a few “overtime” charges, and some random fees for the car. I had to gulp down my frustration, but after about an hour or two, we were flying through Laos with the wind in our hair.
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As we drove up to Laos, we stopped at a little place called the “Mekong Bird Lodge” in Stung Treng, Cambodia. You can’t see it on the map above, but we followed the Mekong River all the way from Phnom Penh up to the farthest point of our journey in Laos. It is a huge—and long—river!

I really liked the Mekong Bird Lodge. It was the perfect stopping point. Sean and I soaked up a few views on the balcony of our $15 lodging.
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There are two things you can be sure of in rural Cambodia: potholes and roosters. Sean much enjoys taking photos of the latter.
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At the end of our first driving day, we had a relaxing evening overlooking the Mekong.

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A pretty unbelievable dinner table. I had heard the sunsets in Cambodia were divine, but I had no idea.

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In the morning at the Mekong Bird Resort. I loved how leafy everything was!

IMG_7383After we passed into Laos, our first stop was at Khone Phapheng Waterfall. It is the highest volume waterfall in Southeast Asia.

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The region on the border of Cambodia and Laos is called the area of “4,000 Islands”. As you can see, there really are a lot of islands—and these are just big enough to warrant a drawing on Google Maps! In reality, there ARE thousands, especially in the dry season. Khone Phapheng Waterfall is right on the border of Cambodia and Laos, where the Mekong loses elevation as it tumbles into Cambodia.
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There was a really cute garden area set up around the falls. I loved how everything was constructed out of wood. It was so natural and organic. I hate it when property is sold around a beautiful area and the natural flora gets completely razed to build some hideous all-inclusive resort.

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Plumeria is everywhere.

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Here I am in front of one part of Khone Phapheng. It’s very deceiving to get a good picture of it—it’s the highest volume falls, but by no means the tallest. It stretches very wide, but not tall. And I never said the Mekong was blue…

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As you can see, the waterfall just riddled the land with islands, rocks, cervices. It is all-encompassing.

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Me catching up to Anna and Chino at Khone Phapheng.

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You can get a good feel for the swollen, flooded explosion of the falls here.

After we left Khone Phapheng, it was a short drive north to Ban Nakaseng. There we would park our car and catch a boat onto one of the 4,000 Islands, Don Det.


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As we neared the shore of Don Det, we realized it was the perfect choice. There are a few bungalows on many of the islands, but Don Det was beautiful, and so, so laid back.

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So laid back in fact, that Anna, Kampot and I floated around the Mekong for hours, struck by the siren calls of Don Det. I never wanted to leave! (Maybe it was the Beer Lao talking.)
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The bungalows we found on Don Det were perfect. They were called “Mr Tho’s Bungalows”, and had everything we needed—and we didn’t need much! Just a hammock, a place to rinse the sand off our feet, and a fan by the bedside.

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We had so much fun strolling the island of Don Det. This is a Laotian family’s yard. How many animals can you spy?

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We decided to have a drink and play cards on the sunset side of the island in the evening. It was beautiful!

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Ah, yes, the wandering buffalo. From a gift shop in Wall, South Dakota, to Laos.

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As the night rolled on, we learned a few new card games, ate some delicious spring rolls and curry, and spent the whole evening laughing and enjoying each others’ company.

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In the morning we rented bicycles and cycled the island of Don Det.

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We found some men watching (or staging, more likely) a cockfight.

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There was a bridge, linking Don Det to Don Khone, which made for the perfect resting place.

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Anna and I found a lone piglet!

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Cycling through the rice fields of Don Det.

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Sean made a friend…

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And then he made more friends…

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The bicycle path was really just through paddy fields… it was something out of a day dream.

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Next time you eat your stir fry with a side of rice, think of me.

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