Barefoot in Burma Part II

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The divers loaded onto the dinghy at dusk, a gray sky masking the setting sun. They joked with one another to distort the clear sense of uneasiness in the air.  The sign at the border promised, “we warmly and kindly welcome tourists”, but the gruff looks on the faces of the guards said otherwise.

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My grim imagining from the dock in Ranong was swiftly becoming reality; our journey ashore bared a frightening resemblance to being kidnapped by the Burmese government!  We filed into the customs office and watched our passports be casually slung aside while we stood to get photographed.  No one spoke or smiled; the tension was palpable.

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When it seemed we were free to go, we swiftly returned to the dinghy.  As we started the motor, a few guards came shouting after us, one of whom jumped into the boat:  this was Nyein, our Burmese guide, who would accompany us on our trip.  I could tell by the look on Dani’s face that this was not a protocol he had ever seen before.  Nyein was there to act as our guide and translator, as proof of our allowance into the country’s waters, both for our protection and their own.  Captain Wat was commanded to remove his Thai flag and put up a Burmese one, which he was visibly disgruntled about.

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Despite the drama of the day, we finally sailed off into open waters.  Nyein, who turned out to be a very nice man, drank Singha beer with us as we relaxed into our new home with this motley crew.  Captain Wat didn’t talk much.  Our exchanges consisted  mostly of Sa-wat-dii kha and khop khun kha (Thai for hello and thank you) when purchasing beer from his special refrigerator.

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The ship’s fabulous cook, Swing, served us the best Thai food I ate in Thailand (next to Mrs. Jip’s papaya spicy salad).  Our dinner that first night consisted of prawn fried rice and Swing’s speciality: coconut milk soup with whole straw mushrooms, scallions, and an assortment of julienne vegetables. Another standout included soft tofu curry over rice with cabbage, aubergine, straw mushrooms, and whole quail eggs.  With our evening beers, Swing made us a special bar snack that Steffi and Boris, the German couple aboard, had eaten in Chumphon a few years prior: roasted cashews sprinkled, while hot, with salt, lime juice, chopped red chilies, sliced red onion, and chopped scallions.

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We sailed on like this, eating amazing Thai food, drinking Captain Wat’s beers, and, most importantly, diving four times a day for a week.  Each morning we awoke to the breathtaking sunrise over open water, and each evening we finished our last dive to the brilliance of the sunset.

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Throughout this time, the only other boats we spotted were local fishing boats, the fisherman sometimes waving to us as we passed by.  The diving was not easy, and we often dove with much current, needing to drift dive sites. By the end, I had 28 new dives under my belt and saw my first turtle (which Steffi said was requisite for any dive trip). The reef was brilliant, full of gorgeous sea fans, with none of the evident damage I later witnessed in The Philippines.

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The boat usually carries 12 divers, so with only the four of us we had reign of the ship.  The main deck consisted of a large dining table (three times the size of Swing’s kitchen), a center console with stereo, books in German, hot/cold water and snacks, and a main room with window seats and a big lounge area.

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The best place to sleep, though, was on the sun deck, because from there you can see the stars.  More than I’ve seen in so long, even though the moon was only a few days old and a small sliver in the sky.  On The Flying Carpet, for the first time in my life, I truly slept under the stars, not just in a tent.  I awoke every few hours to look up at the luminous sky of bright stars; they seemed near enough to touch, and I felt safe and close to home on the roof of a ship in the middle of the Andaman Sea.

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Barefoot in Burma Part I

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I hurried into the waves with CoCo, the golden retriever, splashing at my heels.  The rest of the Hornbill Bungalows crew joined me, helping to lift my luggage onto the return boat to Ranong.  Parting with the paradise of Koh Chang Noi, its golden sands, and the new family I found there distracted me; it wasn’t until halfway to Ranong that I realized I’d jumped on the boat without my shoes.  In my ephemeral time on this tiny Thai island, footwear became utterly irrelevant.

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From Ranong, I was to board The Flying Carpet, on which I’d spend seven days diving in Burmese waters.  The dive boat owner, Mr. Frank, was a Koh Chang resident and one of many friends to my Hornbill Bungalows host, Mr. Ao.  A German, Mr. Frank retired from his career as a businessman to run a dive shop on the island.  Applying for a visa to Myanmar is still a difficult process, but, through some unspecified connections, Mr. Frank is granted 7 day dive visas for patrons of his boat.  With The Flying Carpet, I was given the opportunity to witness reef and sea life that has been primarily unseen by foreign divers for decades.  Not only was I new to diving, but I had also never lived on a boat before; once again, an irresistible adventure presented itself!

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I docked, barefoot, in Ranong with the dive master and three divers I would be sharing the week with.  All were German apart from my Belgian dive buddy, Ruel.  Our gang of Europeans spent the sweltering day waiting for this infamous, illusive Mr. Frank.  He finally showed up, hours late, looking like a pirate in cargo shorts, a faded T-shirt and a gold hoop earring visible through his long, scraggly hair.  This was not the way I imagined a German financier to dress for a meeting with Thai government officials, and I began to wonder what kind of rag-tag crew I had thrown my lot in with.

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We finally arrived at the pier in the late afternoon, abandoned apart from The Flying Carpet. Our captain, the austere Captain Wat, docked the boat at an impossible angle, so that boarding became impossible.  He told Mr. Frank that he would build steps for us while our group waited to be released by Thai officials, who were to meet us at the pier with our stamped passports.  Walking the long, deserted dock made me imagine I was a Burmese prisoner of scuba, crossing the border back into Thailand, while officers stood with guns at my back.

Eventually, the four customs officers appeared in a silver SUV, opening and closing each of the doors in unison.  Without much ceremony, and certainly without use of firearms, we were free to go.  The “steps” Captain Wat promised in fact consisted of a wooden plank, leaned at a precarious angle, a 50 meter drop from the dock to the ship’s sun deck.  At this moment, I knew exactly what kind of rag-tag crew I was dealing with, but my excitement mounted.  We all crossed safely into the arms of our crew: pirate-fashioned Thai men who were to help us with our dive gear and catch fish for the captain in their downtime.  The Flying Carpet itself is a very charming boat, with blue and yellow painted panels and a flower offering to Buddha at the captain’s bow.  I felt at home the moment I stepped on board.  Even our tiny cabins, which consisted of small, stacked cubbies that only fit a full mattress, charmed me.

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Before we could sail off into the Burmese sunset, however, we still had to make it through customs at the Myanmar border.  As we entered Burmese waters, I watched a group of four men approach us in their dinghy.  Why so many customs officers always seemed necessary in these situations was beyond me, but I presume it was for intimidation factor.  We waited on the sun deck while Dani, our dive master and guide, spoke with the officials at our communal table.  After a few minutes, Dani came to speak to us, informing that we’d all have to go ashore.  The Burmese government was already keeping our passports, would they be keeping us as well?

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To read about part two of the dive trip, keep following Chomp Around the World!

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Two Chomps in Thailand

Here is the next chapter in my Southeast Asian adventure, as published in the Gold Coast Gazette !

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I awoke at sunrise and walked out of my bungalow directly on to the golden sands of the Hornbill Bungalows’ private beach. CoCo, the family’s golden retriever, was the only other creature stirring; we sat in the sand together, my feet buried in the gold and his paws on my legs.  Looking out across the pristine Andaman Sea, I found the Thailand I was searching for: a deserted, unspoiled island without Wi-Fi, modern plumbing, air conditioning and, most importantly, tourists.  Electricity is only run on generators for a few hours each night.  For me, this is paradise.

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 I was spoiled by Vietnam and Laos, both of which I visited during the low season for tourism.  The Thai islands have long been vacation destinations for an array of travelers, especially popular among Europeans, Russians, and Chinese tourists.  It only takes one step on those white sand beaches to understand what has made Thailand so loved by visitors, but many of the country’s more beautiful islands have turned into overcrowded tourist traps or been spoiled by an excess of partying Farang (Thai slang for western tourists).

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Despite my initially vitriolic attitude, I came to find that a more authentic trip to Thailand is still attainable.  There is no need to waste your precious vacation time following the crowd, and who better to advise on the unblemished islands left to explore than the locals. I took advice from two expat restaurateurs in Bangkok who have lived in Thailand for over ten years. The owner of the café Chomp – the name catching my attention for obvious reasons – drew me a map of the best islands from her twelve years of experience in the country.

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 This map led me on an overnight barge journey, on which I slept in a cargo hold full of bunk beds and had my most comfortable sleep in weeks.  After traveling across the peninsula, I took a small commuter boat which dropped me directly on to the golden sands of Koh Chang Noi (little Chang island) and the Hornbill Bungalows.  Not to be confused with the larger Koh Chang on the Gulf, this infinitesimal, elephant-shaped island is home to a tiny population of Thai locals and resident expats.

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 The sand truly is gold – not the yellow beaches of the Hamptons or the white sands of Mexico and most of Thailand’s tainted islands. On the private beach of the Hornbill Bungalows, I paid ten dollars a night for golden sand and crisp blue water the temperature of a warm bath.  After one afternoon, I understood why the lovely owners, Mr. Ao and Mrs. Jib, said they never wanted to return to Bangkok.

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 Prior to my stint in utopia, I spent a week on Koh Tao, the diving capital of the world.  I was warned by my Chomp counterpart that, while it is teeming with Farang, the island is still worth a visit for the price and ease of getting certified; with more dive shops than any other island, it only takes one week to achieve an advanced 30m (98ft) diving certification.  Apart from the lure of diving, the small island still maintains its beauty and laid-back atmosphere despite its touristic charm.  It is a running joke/truth in the expat community that the island is impossible to leave, and I certainly began to feel that way in my final days there.  Those who do stay are some of the craziest, funniest people I’ve ever met, truly a welcoming and kind family of stowaways.

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A week after pulling myself away from Koh Tao, lazily sitting by the sea on Koh Chang Noi, I watched a dive boat glide off the water and onto the shore.  Mr. Ao acted as my tour guide for the day and drove me around the tiny island where we swam in the reservoir and shared a beer with the general store owners.  As we sat on Ao Yai, the main beach, and watched the ship anchor, I sensed my ephemeral trip to paradise was coming to an end.  Mr. Ao called out in greeting to the men disembarking the boat, who had just returned from a dive trip to the Similan Islands.  My recently developed interest in diving sparked up a conversation; the next morning, I was picked up by the same boat, now headed for the near shores of Myanmar and a seven day dive trip to the country’s beautifully preserved reef.  I waved at my Hornbill hosts until the last glimpse of gold was out of sight, then looked out at the horizon of the Andaman; from this moment onward, I realized, diving was about to become a focal point of my trip to the east.

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More to come on my dive trip in Burma at Chomp Around the World

Do Go Chasing Waterfalls

Here is Part III of my road trip in southern Laos, as published in the Gold Coast Gazette !

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We had been driving for days, stopping at some of the most spectacular sites southern Laos has to offer. I wished for a rental car many times during the endless and unpredictable bus rides of our journey. Once I vocalized this thought, a plan fell into place too easily, and suddenly we were setting off in our Ford SUV for a road trip to the south.

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On the third day, after spending the night in the town of Paksong, we tried for the second time to reach the Tad Lor waterfalls, known as the most impressive in the country. The day before, we unknowingly took a route down an uncompleted road; our map contained many routes that turned out to be under construction or impassible during the wet season. After staring longingly at the half built bridge for a few minutes, we reassessed our plan. The path from Paksong, only an hour and a half from Tad Lor, luckily consisted of passable roads, which I confirmed with a monk I met the night before. On the way, we did take one sign too seriously, ending up in a tiny village consisting of a single 60m/200ft mud road. Stuck in the mud, I attempted a three point turn on a “road” the same size as the SUV, while an elderly woman with long silver hair jovially laughed at my effort.

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The Tad Lor waterfalls (pronounced Tad Lo) are a group of three, in order of size: Tad Hang, Tad Lor, and Tad Soung. We reached the village of Ban Saenvang, which sits at the base of Tad Hang, hoping to book an elephant trek with the Tad Lor Resort. Unfortunately, these only run during high season, and the only person we could find on the resort was asleep in the restaurant. The entire town was nearly deserted which came as no surprise, considering throughout our road trip we had been alone among nature and a few locals.

Since the elephants were off limits, we began trekking into the jungle toward Tad Lor and Tad Soung. There was only one discernible path down to the riverside, but after scaling the rocks for a while, we could not find a way forward. This happened a lot throughout our adventurous drive, as many paths were drowned from the monsoon season. We were on the verge of abandoning our trek when a Lao man carrying a machete appeared in the forest. He pointed us up the hill, where he had cleared a very steep, muddy, and unstable path which we had no choice but to climb.

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We trekked alone through waterfall, mud, and fields for a few hours, trying to remember our path through the jungle and keeping the river on our left. Locating Tad Lor was relatively straightforward, and we stopped to cool down in its waters. After our swim, we sat in the shade and watched as a local went net fishing. When we resumed our trek, the discernible path split into many and we found ourselves going in circles. Eventually, we crossed a village where every hut had laid out big baskets of red chillies to dry in the fiery sun. The foot path to Tad Soung, we learned from the villagers, had been flooded. Disappointed but exhilarated from the morning trek, we made our way back to Ban Saenvang. There, we learned of another, drivable path to Tad Soung. Though we could have cut a three hour trek into a five minute car ride, the adventure of the morning was well worth it, as walking off the path tends to be.

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As a light rain began to fall, we parked the car outside another small village and walked toward the largest of the waterfalls. At the base, a young boy asked if we knew how to swim and gestured for us to follow him. He guided us through the jungle, climbing the mountain with ease as we slipped in the mud. When we reached the top of Tad Soung, the boy and I stood on a small cliff against the rocks, two tiny figures compared with the massive falls that misted us. We looked down the steep descent to the rocks and river below, and I felt a sense of calm amongst the roaring of the falls.

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To hear more about my road trip in Laos, check out the series at mleaciampi.wordpress.com.

On the Road: Part II

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We arrived with empty stomachs in Thakhek and stopped for Laos BBQ, one of the best traditional dishes of Laos and a slight variation on the Vietnamese hot pots we had become accustomed to.

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In Laos – instead of a full pot of boiling water as in the Vietnamese hot pot above – a small, circular grill (resembling a bunt pan) is brought to the table and placed on top of an open coal clay pot. Boiling water is poured into the base of the grill, which is used to cook the wide variety of raw greens that come with the dish, including cabbage, lettuce, basil, Lao mints, and enochi mushrooms. Many restaurants also provide glass noodles and an egg for cooking. The menu had a variety of meats to choose from, including our beloved chicken hearts. Since we just had our fill, we chose beef instead, a safe choice when we were spending the next few days living out of our car. The meat is brought to the table raw, and the conical, “bunt” part of the grill is used for cooking it. After basting with the cubes of fat provided, you stick the thinly sliced meat on the grill. Both the greens and the meat cook quickly, and a good variety goes in your bowl. Each Lao BBQ restaurant makes their own special sauce to top the dish off, which can be doctored with extra chillies, lime, and garlic. Of course, a few Beer Laos were also necessary after a long day on the road.

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We slept in our car that night, as finding a decently clean place to stay came at too much of a price. The rising sun woke me from my surprisingly good sleep, and we continued our journey south in the early morning. I drove for many hours through mountainous terrain, open rice fields, and tiny, one road villages. Following our not so trusty map, we took a route of dirt, muddy roads that even Ginger had trouble getting down. It would have been hard to navigate regardless of the map, since there were no road signs or highway markers.

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Searching for the Tad Lor waterfalls (pronounced Tad Lo), we hit a road made exclusively of rocks and realized, an hour later, that it had not yet been completed. We stared at the broken bridge, while a group of locals stared after us, amused. Further down the river, there was a running ferry for motorbikes, supported merely by three canoes. Pointing to our car, we asked if there was any way to get it across. The ferry operators laughed, pointing across the river to a car dock that was still being built. Turning around became the only option, but it meant we would not get to Tad Lor before sundown. Instead, we drove straight on to Paksong, a town a bit south of the waterfalls and high in the mountains. With the altitude change, I had my first taste of cold weather in nearly five months, such a shock to my system that I wore a sweatshirt and pants at the open air restaurant of our guesthouse. We stayed at a haunted house on a hill with a steep winding driveway, which turned out to actually be a nice hotel called Phuthaveda. Though we did not plan any accommodation ahead of time, the entire south was so empty that this was never a problem. Paksong was a charming mountain town compared to the filth of Thakhek, and having a taste of fall was a pleasant surprise.

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Before bed, I went to ask the owner about the roads on our map to ensure we would not get stuck again the following day. He could not speak English, but called to a man staying there who, I found out, was to become a monk in the morning. He was born and raised in Laos, but had spent many years studying in Chicago. From him, I heard of the terrible Pakse plane crash that had flown right over our heads without us realizing – we had been out of wifi for many days and so were completely disconnected from the world outside of our car. The monk also helped me understand our map, pointing out which roads we could actually drive down, and I felt confident in reaching the waterfalls in the morning. We went to bed in sweatshirts and socks, ready for another early morning drive.

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On the Road: Part I

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On the outskirts of the Laos capital city of Vientiane, riding a bus to Xieng Khuan Buddha Park, I turned to Julia and said “I wish we could rent a car and drive down the south of Laos.” It was a thought I had many times on the endless and unpredictable bus rides of our journey. Though we had intended to head toward Cambodia in two days time, we had both fallen in love with Laos and were reluctant to leave before seeing the most uncharted and beautiful part of the country. Once my simple wishful thought was vocalized, there was no turning back. We hatched a plan that fell into place a little too easily, including the impossible feat of completely refunding our plane tickets to Cambodia and a rush decision for Thai visas. We returned to Vientiane, booked an SUV, packed some baguettes, fruit and pastries from our favorite shop, and headed on our way down south.

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We left early morning in our white Ford, a road map and ipod jack in tow. As we came to find, the only consistently reliable road in southern Laos is Route 13, which, though only paved in part, is at least always open to vehicles. Many of the roads detailed on our map were either not yet completed or impassible during the monsoon season. Of course, half of the adventure was veering off the path and seeing where these muddy, dirt roads would take us. A wrong turn is sometimes difficult to avoid, anyway, as there are few or no road signs in many parts.

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Southern Laos is filled with natural beauty and ever changing landscape, including uninhabited mountains and valleys, small muddy villages and an abundance of waterfalls. Our first day’s drive took us through winding mountain passes with breathtaking views of the vast valleys below. Throughout our journey, we were alone with nature or locals; many exclaimed, “ooo Falang!”, the Lao word for westerners, as we drove past.

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The road conditions landed us at our first destination, Kong Lor Cave, as it was closing. We drove through the small village and waived to the children on their mass exodus from school; the surprised and excited looks on their faces reminded me of how far from home we’d come and put a smile on my face. Kong Lor itself was completely deserted and we were at first turned away. Seeing our disappointment, the Phu Hin Bun National Park caretaker started yelling down the empty river. Our confusion abated when, a few minutes later, two men appeared in a small, motorized long boat.

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We approached the cave in their canoe at dusk, looking back as the last glimpses of daylight. It felt like we were entering the river Styx on our way to the underworld, and if I hadn’t come to know the unmatchable kindness of the Lao so well, the eeriness may have overcome me.

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The only light available in the 7km underground river came from our guides’ headlamps and my small flashlight. We blinked against the utter darkness, straining to make out the different masses beyond the artificial light. The shadows moved, a reminder that the cave was alive – inhabited by bats and great spiders. The water level was equal to the top of the canoe, the rapids spilling sizable amounts onto our feet and legs. After an hour and a half of exploring the cave, including leaving the boat to trek on foot, we arrived in the valley of the second entrance. The men cut the motor, and we sat among the silence in complete awe.

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When we returned to the park and to Ginger, we were speechless at the beauty of the day, and drove on to Thakhek in silence.

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Laos: Land of the Wholehearted People

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This slogan for the country’s beverage of choice, “Beer Laos: Beer of the wholehearted people”, says it all. Laos, a gem of a country, tucked away into the center of Southeast Asia, offers the best beer and most wonderful people in Asia. Before beginning my journey, the little I knew about Laos consisted of whispers of bowling parties and real pizza in the northern city of Luang Prabang. We expected to spend two weeks in the country, and ended up spending nearly that in Luang Prabang alone.

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The word “city” is used loosely in Laos. The country’s major city, Vientiane, is easily seeable in one day and is almost laughably small for a capital. It’s size is not to the city’s discredit though; Vientiane is a fun and welcoming place, though most tourists seem to overlook it in favor of the obviously charming Luang Prabang. Especially during non-tourist season and after a month of trekking through Vietnam, Luang Prabang’s laid back atmosphere did become very hard to leave. This isn’t to say the only thing to do there is to lay on lounge chairs overlooking the MeKong and drink Beer Laos (though I did spend many an afternoon doing just this). The wilderness surrounding Luang Prabang offers a wide variety of activities for nature enthusiasts; I climbed (and fell down) a waterfall, rode elephants and went on a two hour kayaking trip through rapids.

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Vientiane has its own sites to offer, most notably the Xieng Khuan (Buddha Park), a sculpture garden of ancient looking Buddhist Figures. Julia and I explored the grounds primarily alone, arriving with locals by tuk-tuk. The large mouth (pictured below) at the front of the park symbolizes the devil, and visitors are meant to ascend from the bottom of the sculpture, hell, to the top, heaven. Unaware, I quickly made my way to the top, and then descended the center spiral staircase to the dark caverns below. Even before knowing the symbolism, I understood the intended effect by the eeriness of my descent.

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Also worth a visit is the Ang Nam Reservoir, 1.5 hours north of Vientiane. The water was very clean and warm, and the entire reservoir is circled by large limestone masses similar to Ha Long Bay, Vietnam. In this case, we had an oasis to ourselves, and our weekend was spent swimming, hanging out with some French students, eating at floating restaurants and just relaxing. It was extremely beautiful and secluded, and we had a view of the sunrise from our room’s balcony.

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The Laos pizza rumor turned out to be true – not just in Luang Prabang but in Vientiane as well. The first real pizza we had in a month was from a French Canadian with a nameless restaurant, currently ranked #1 in the city. The backyard, wood oven spot is outdoor seating only and is not viewable from the street. To find it, follow the white “PIZZA” sign hanging in the driveway. Certainly not New York style pizza, but the speciality pies, especially the bacon and onion, finally quelled my craving. In Vientiane, Le Provencal, a quaint French restaurant on the far side of the fountain, gave us our second taste of home. Though I would normally attest to the fact that only Italians and New Yorkers know anything about pizza, I must say, in Laos at least, the French are doing something right.

The French influence from the colonial period lent to the delicious western food we were able to find in Laos, but luckily the French, in this case, let the Laos keep their own culture as well. Laos food is both unique in Asia and also incredible. Julia and I took a cooking class with Tamarind Restaurant, and had the privilege of learning to create this delicious food ourselves. My favorite, Koy/Laap, consists of medium rare or rare ground meat (pork, beef, fish, bison), and a wide variety of herbs and spices, including Lao garlic, spring onion (scallions), lemongrass, mint, and three kinds of basil, which you mash together with fish sauce and lime/lemon juice. The Lao typically make their Laap, like most of their food, extremely spicy with fresh chillies, the way I always prefer my food. Laap is to be eaten with sticky rice, Lao style, which is to ball the rice up into bite size pieces and dip it into the sauce. Sticky rice is a staple on all Laotian tables, and accompanies almost ever dish.

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The night markets in both Luang Prabang and Vientiane are the best I’ve seen, especially for food. The grilled whole fish stuffed with lemongrass and topped with fresh lime/lemon juice became our cheapest and favorite dinner. Of course, no meal is complete without a big Beer Laos for sharing. Our most adventurous eating experience at the markets was to eat chicken hearts; served at almost every stall in Vientiane and grilled to perfection, these little muscles just taste, as should be expected, like chicken. Julia and I both enjoyed our first heart, and went back for seconds.

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Being in Laos also rekindled, probably for the worse, my love of dessert. In Luang Prabang, the most incredible thing we ate at the night market are coconut custards- piping hot, with a crusted outside and gooey inside. In Vientiane, the pancake stands sent Julia and I on nightly hunts – they are similar to crepes but made from balls of dough and flattened out even thinner. The cart owner then slathers both sides with butter, fills the center with either banana or an egg, folds it up, adds more butter, then takes it off the grill and tops it with sweetened condensed milk and sugar. This is how I left Vientiane 5 lbs heavier than when I arrived from Vang Vieng, where all bad food goes to die.

My greatest advice on Laos, however, is not on the food or the sites, but simply this: get here before the magic of the country is gone! Unfortunately, Laos is being turned in to a Chinese tourist destination with a new railroad being built all the way through the country. In the next year, Laos will likely be overrun with foreigners. The Lao locals I spoke to were not thrilled, to say the least, and I cannot say I am either.

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Though our plan following a stint in Vientiane was to head to Cambodia, we decided, an hour before our flight, that the extreme flooding experienced there made a visit unwise at best. So, we got a refund on our ticket (thanks to a little help from a miracle worker) and spent the afternoon remapping our plan. We had flights booked all throughout November, and had to be to Langkawi by Nov 19th to meet my cousin Fiona. Myanmar, which only recently reopened to public tourism, was our first thought, but there are no ATMs throughout the country and getting a visa is more involved than we are capable of from Laos. The only bills you can even possibly trade for are crisp USD from 2006 or after, which we did not come prepared with. I’ve come to find in general that having US dollars in this part of the world is like carrying gold. You often cannot get through borders without it, but the banks here only buy, they do not sell. When we need bills for the border, we have to go to the black market – oddly a common practice here.

My number one choice was something I had mentioned as wishful thinking a few days before – to rent a car and take a road trip down the south of Laos. I had heard from many locals that it is the most fascinating and remote part of country. It holds one of Southeast Asia’s largest caves, some very small and authentic villages and Si Phan Don, the “four thousand islands” – a group of very beautiful islands that are closed off by mountainous surroundings. The water is meant to be very clear and we plan to go fishing and climbing with some locals. By now, my love of Laos has run so deep that I wanted any excuse to stay. So, let the road trip commence – it will be our greatest adventure yet!

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