Posts Tagged With: Mekong

Mondulkiri

Happy Thanksgiving! Or, if you don’t live in America, happy winter! Or, if you live in the Southern hemisphere, happy summer!

The weather here in Phnom Penh is moving along predictably as usual. The Water Festival, Pchum Ben, marked the end of the rainy season. Unbelievably perfect timing, it rained every day up until Water Festival, and once the festival arrived, the daily rains stopped and it hasn’t rained since. Now we enter the cool season, where the temperature drops just enough to justify a long-sleeved shirt or a pair of pants. The Cambodians, on the other hand, get out their winter jackets and hats and gloves. None of it makes any sense, though, when you look at the monthly averages and see that July is normally 90 degrees Fahrenheit, whereas December drops just one degree to 89. It’s pool and smoothie time all year long!

That is, however, unless you go to Mondulkiri.

mondulkiri-mapLocated in the Northeastern corner of Cambodia, Mondulkiri is the most sparsely populated region of the country. It is also the highest, with elevations ranging from 600-3,000 feet! That makes for a beautiful, Swiss-like land with rolling hills, pine trees, and chilly temperatures!

 

We had a five-day weekend holiday for Water Festival, and we had friends visiting from out of town. Together we drove the 240 miles from Phnom Penh into the hill country.

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Our first stop was Sen Monorom waterfall. A small falls, but with a crazy swimming pool at the bottom. There was just enough current to force you to kick your feet to stay in one place, but not enough to pull you down stream. Sean wanted to jump so badly, but all the logs in the water made it pretty obvious that he shouldn’t.

We had heard the sunsets were beautiful in Mondulkiri, so our first night we went sunset hunting.
DCIM102GOPROLook how empty the background is! There is nothing but rolling hills and beautiful nature.
DCIM102GOPROOur car was loving the smooth, red dirt roads. And we loved our car.
4Not only did we find the sunset, but we found the most beautiful hill to set up a small camp for the night.

DCIM102GOPROWe didn’t sleep there, but built a small fire and watched the moon rise.There was no one around for miles! It was one of my favorite moments of the trip.

But the main reason everyone heads to Mondulkiri, is the elephants. DCIM102GOPRONative to the area, there are still wild elephants roaming the forest. However, due to reasons such as logging, poaching, and even tribal traditions, there are less than 50 wild elephants left.

 

DCIM102GOPRONow you can visit Mondulkiri’s elephants through a bunch of tour companies. I booked with Mondulkiri Project, which provides a sanctuary for overworked elephants. Instead of riding them, we trekked with the elephants through the forest, fed them bananas, and hugged them every chance we got.

DCIM102GOPROI really loved this style of elephant interaction as opposed to riding them. When you ride elephants, you are on a different visual plane; you don’t get up close and personal with them. When you can interact with them at eye level, you really get a feel for their individual personality. They were the world’s happiest elephants!

DCIM102GOPROThis is Sophie, and she was my favorite. Sophie was 33 years old—mind you that they can live to 100.
10The goal of Mondulkiri Project is to help these elephants live a peaceful, healthy life. They are not overworked like some of the tourist camps you see. You could tell by their demeanor that they were happier than most elephants you see with a chain around their legs and a basket on their back. These elephants could walk wherever they wanted, and we just followed them!

DCIM102GOPROWe had so much fun feeding them bananas and getting up close and personal!

12Like I said it was trekking, so we then left the elephants in the forest and hiked to a swimming hole. The bridge we had to cross was pretty precarious…

13When we got to the swimming hole after lunch,  we found the mahout and the male elephant waiting.  That mahout was born in a local village, and his father was also a mahout. He has spent his entire life around elephants.

DCIM102GOPROAnd then we swam. Swimming with an elephant is the most indescribable feeling… you are in water that is waaaaay over your head, with a beast that could easily crush you. What do you do? You tread water and hang on to his scruffy hide, giving him a back rub.

14 After our swim, we had another couple hours to hang out one-on-one with the ellies in their natural habitat.

15It was amazing, the sun slowly setting, and us all alone walking slowly behind Sophie as she searched for snacks.

16When it was time to leave, they loaded us into the back of their trusty Toyota HiLux and carted us out of the jungle.

17The elephants are rivaled by the spectacular scenery in which they live.
DCIM102GOPROOn our next day, we headed to Bou Sra Falls. It is the tallest waterfall in Cambodia, and to our frustration, also the busiest.

So what did we do? Search for our own, secret waterfall.

19Here we are, preparing to cross the top of the waterfall, then hike down the other side to the second tier of the falls, which is rumored to be even more beautiful than the popular tier. We just had to figure out how to cross the river. Notice how close some of those people are to the edge of the falls…

DCIM102GOPROAnd our waterfall hunt was a success. When we got to the lower tier of the falls, we were the only people there.

21It was absolutely stunning. The waterfall was absolutely giant, and we had it all to ourselves.

The day we had to leave, we packed up our car and headed down out of the hills back into the flood plains of the Mekong.

Until… we had car troubles.

As Sean was driving, the engine just stopped being responsive. Our car slowly and silently decelerated, and we drifted over to the side of the road.

Turns out, our timing belt broke.

200 miles outside of Phnom Penh. In the middle of nowhere.

So, we did what any sensible Cambodian would do.

Found a branch, flagged down a bus, and towed our 1999 CRV back to Phnom Penh.

22It was unlike anything I’ve ever done before. By the time we got back to the city, eight hours had passed, we were now being pulled by a Toyota Camry, the Camry had overheated five times, the stick broke twice, we replaced the stick once, and we celebrated our return with pizza and a hot shower.

23But in terms of an experience, the weekend was unbeatable.

 

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Silk Island: Phnom Penh’s Tardis

If you’ve ever watched Doctor Who, you’d know that a Tardis is a time machine. Having sat through hours at my kitchen table hearing, “Exterminate! Exterminate!” or watch a phone booth fly through a psychedelic time tunnel in the opening credits, I have indirectly become well-versed in Doctor Who jargon.

A tardis is the time-traveling machine Doctor Who uses to, well, time travel. I like to think Phnom Penh has her own tardis in a way, and it goes under the guise of Silk Island.

Screen Shot 2014-05-03 at 8.57.13 AMIn Khmer is it called Koh Dach, and is north of the city on the Mekong River. A few Saturdays ago, Sean and I rented bicycles and took them over to Koh Dach for a step back in time.

IMG_0376A mere fifteen minutes outside the absolute chaos of Phnom Penh, you find dirt roads, cattle, palm trees, friendly dogs, and sleepy villages. You really feel like you’ve been transported back in time a decade or three.
IMG_0382We also found an abandoned temple complex, begging to be explored.
IMG_0383Not quite as old as Angkor Wat, but equally as beautiful.

IMG_0389All you could hear was the palm fronds swaying in the breeze, the putter of a distant motorboat, and the calling of birds.

IMG_0394Sean and I were wondering why this building grew to be so deserted. Was it during the Khmer Rouge? For such a beautiful location on the banks of the Mekong, it seems odd to have such a nice place grow so old and out of use.
IMG_0402As we cycled north on the island, we found rice paddies and farmers bent over, deep in their work, donning large hats and long sleeves to shield themselves from the sun. Like I said, you have to look long and hard to find signs of anything city-like on Koh Dach. It is a quiet paradise!

However, Silk Island is also a bit of a tourist destination for its “white sand beach” on the northern tip of the island…

SilkIslandBeachLocals love to visit the island on the weekend and rent out a little hut sitting over the water. They relax in hammocks, sip on a few beers, and have a picnic with their friends and family. It is a great concept—except that it is RIDICULOUSLY crowded. (The above picture is a panorama, which looks great when you open it in another window.) You can even rent an inner tube and float along the Mekong here. As beautiful as it was, maybe we’ll come back when it’s less busy!
IMG_0417Instead, we found a secluded hut tucked away in the trees just next to the beach. Owned by a family, they run a little restaurant on the bank of the river. With only seven or eight huts spread far apart, you can have some really nice privacy. And the food wasn’t bad! If I recall, they even had french fries. (Which Sean orders wherever he is, whatever time of day. You can’t lose a golden opportunity to get fries in SE Asia, he says.)

That’s how we spent our afternoon. You leave your shoes on the ground, spread out a blanket, and have a picnic in the hut. Here, the family brought our food to us, and we dined under the thatched roof. The shade was an oasis from the heat of the day and our sunburnt neck and forearms. Isn’t it lovely!

IMG_0430After our leisurely lunch we hopped back on the bicycles and headed back south. In the photo above, you can see the Phnom Penh skyline across the river.

IMG_0434And then we got on the ferry to go home.

Would I go back to Silk Island? Absolutely! It is a blast to pedal around the dirt roads, have a lovely lunch under the palm trees, and explore some abandoned buildings. It is a great way to spend an afternoon. And if you’re looking for a place to rent your bike, I recommend Vicious Cycle on street 144. Now you have no excuse!

Categories: Cambodia | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Bicycling Around Phnom Penh

 

Bon Om Thouk, the water festival. Happening every November, Bon Om Thouk marks the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap River. I know, sounds crazy. A three-day festival that draws millions of people to the city from the countryside. Boat races, costumes, parties.

This year, it didn’t happen. We still got off school for the holiday, but the boat races and the celebrations were cancelled. Why? Some say it was due to political instability. Some say it was due to the extensive flooding.

What to do with a five-day weekend? Sean and I wanted to go to an island, but were scared by impending storms. It was the weekend right after Typhoon Haiyan, and Vietnam was getting hit pretty hard. The island we wanted to visit (Koh Rong) is a two-hour boat ride from the mainland. We thought it best to hold off ’till clearer forecasts.

So, we lived like royalty in Phnom Penh, exploring parts of the city we hadn’t made time to visit before. We left the city the second half of the break, but the first half we had a lot of fun being visitors in our own town.

On the first day, we headed down the riverside and rented two bicycles.
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The weather was perfect! Bright blue skies mixed with fluffy clouds.
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We rented two bicycles from The Vicious Cycle/Grasshopper Adventure Tours. For $7 each, we got first-class Giant mountain bikes with great suspension and tires. Those things were beastly! We felt like we could take on the world… or Cambodia for a day, at least.

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We cruised around the riverfront for a while, enjoying how easy it was to zip up and down the promenade.
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A regular street in Cambodia, seen from my bicycle.

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We stopped at every ‘photo opportunity’… I was nervous in this picture because you aren’t supposed to stand on the grass in the parks. I know! They have concrete paths and nice benches, with perfectly manicured lawns. In every park, you only ever see people on the concrete; it is illegal to walk on the grass! I don’t think you’d ever get a ticket, but I do think people would give you some sideways glances. Sean really wanted me to pose with the elephant, though, so I sprinted into the frame, the scofflaw that I am…

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Our plan all along was to get to one of the islands on the Mekong. We got directions from the bike rental place, and headed to the car ferry. It was a busy day; I didn’t know how they could fit everyone on that tiny boat!

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But they managed just fine. A twenty motos squished up against Camry bumping a Lexus next to a Toyota Hilux in front of thirty people. And two foreigners with fancy bikes.

We thought we knew exactly where we were going… to the island… We had grandiose plans to go to Koh Dach, or Silk Island.

We couldn’t have been more wrong:

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We biked down the riverside, and hopped on a ferry. We ended up in a remote area, thinking it was a seldom-visited island. Nope. Just normal Cambodia outside of the bustling center that is Phnom Penh. We biked around, waiting to find the ferry to the ‘next island’, where we thought Silk Island would be waiting for us. This all could have obviously been avoided had I checked Google Maps.

 

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Regardless, we had fun bicycling Cambodia’s countryside! This phenomenon is often seen, but I haven’t blogged about it yet. Weddings and birthday parties are thrown on the street, outside of the house. You set up the tent and tables in the middle of the street, and anyone passing just moves around your party. Isn’t it convenient? You want to have a party? Why not just throw it in the street? It’s another example of how laid back everyone is here. I love it!

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Bicycling the remote wilds of the Cambodian countryside… (Not an island.)

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We stumbled on a cock fight! Sean snuck into the melee to see the dueling roosters. I was the only woman there so I hung back and took photos. How many kids in trees can you spot?
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And then we found Smango, the bicycle oasis. It is a resort/restaurant our friend told us to look for. Unfortunately our sweet friend also thought she was on Silk Island. Looks like this blog is going to crush many dreams…

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But the food at Smango was amazing! Sean had sweet and sour chicken, and I had Banh Chao. I’ve had it before, and I always enjoy it when I order it. It’s a delicious rice milk/coconut pancake filled with bean sprouts, sauteed veggies, and meat if you want it. You then tear pieces off, dip them in a peanut sauce, and wrap it up with cucumber and lettuce leaves. Yum!

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Smango had a pool, too, but we were looking forward to getting back to our apartment and taking a dip in our own pool. We had many kilometers left to pedal!


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We found a more major road that went through small villages. Can you spy the woman in the background balancing the basket on her head?
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Once we decided to head back, we crossed the Japanese Friendship bridge to get back into the city. This bridge crosses the Tonle Sap, which switches directions in November.

We still had a few hours to spend before we returned the bikes, so we headed to Wat Phnom, the major temple in the city.

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Not quite sure what she’s selling. If you know, please post in the comments!

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Me in front of Wat Phnom. It has a large clock on the grass in front of the temple. Wat means temple, and Phnom means hill. It is the major temple in Phnom Penh.
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I really love Wat Phnom because it has a large shaded park all around it. You can stroll thrpugh the park, look at the temple, have a picnic, or watch the sellers. I find it really peaceful!

IMG_8416As the sun got lower in the sky, we made our way back to the riverside to return the bikes. I spotted this building, which screamed French architecture. Cambodia was actually the “French Protectorate of Cambodia” from 1867 to 1953. You can still see a lot of French architecture, and excellent coffee and baguettes are actually more common than you’d think!

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After dropping off the bikes, Sean and I headed to a balcony with a view.

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Anyone who’s ever been to Phnom Penh has probably been to the yellow building, having the opposite view of this one. The yellow building is the FCC, or Foreign Correspondents Club. It is the historic bar of the city, check out a great article on its history here. They’ve also got a great, half-price happy hour. We chose the bar across the street though, for a change of pace. Which did we like better? You’ll have to visit yourself to decide…
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We were lucky we returned our bikes when we did. It looked like a storm was brewing. We savored a cold drink, an order of french fries, and the view over the Mekong river.

It was a great first day to a vacation. However, now we have to go find the real Silk Island….

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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.

27Photo courtesy of Anna.

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!

Categories: Laos | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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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