Whoa. I know. Two posts within a week? The world must be ending or something! Actually, no, that was supposed to happen on the 21st, and we're all still around.
There's so much to write about, that I've decided to break it up into two parts. Michael and I traveled to Laos and Cambodia with our two friends, Ryan and Kristi, during the first 8 days of our Christmas break. We had quite a number of interesting encounters and experiences, and I'm going to do my best to hit the highlights of our trip for you! Instead of posting our pictures individually on this post, I've included an album of them at the very end - you can read first, then look at the pictures, or do the opposite, or whatever you like!
We started in Bangkok (obviously), and flew from there to Udon Thani, a little farther north in Thailand. From there we took a van to the Thai/Lao border, and crossed into Laos. Here's a map to help you get acquainted with the general outline of our trip - I've circled the major places we visited in green:
Once we crossed into Laos, we took a local bus (after ignoring several van drivers who seemed to really want to take us to our hotel!) into the capital city of Vientiane. We spent about a day and a half in this city. We were disappointed on the first day we arrived to discover that the tourist information center was closed - we had absolutely no idea what there was to do in the city, so we spent the afternoon walking around, seeing what we could find. We happened to walk past the Lao National Museum about an hour before it closed, and I'm glad we did! We took a walk through it and learned a little bit about Lao history. It was interesting to read and see the pictures about it, as none of us had any idea of the history of Laos. In particular, we were interested in the more recent history that happened during the same time as the Vietnam War. Pictures and descriptions talked about the American Imperialists and how their actions affected the region and people. I have yet to do some more research on it, but getting the Lao perspective was certainly a unique experience.
That evening we wandered around by the Mekong River, saw the sunset, and went to the night market. It was a relaxing start to our trip!
The second day in Vientiane, we rented bicycles and rode around the city. We first visited Pha That Luang; while we were there, we weren't exactly sure what it was, but it was the biggest tourist destination in the city, so we figured we'd better see it. Since then, I've done some more research! Pha That Luang is a gold covered temple, originally built as a Hindu temple in the third century. It's been reconstructed several times, and I think now it's considered to be a Buddhist temple, as well as one of the most important national symbols of Laos. We wandered around that temple complex for a while and peeked in several of the other temples that are surrounding Pha That Luang.
In the rest of our wanderings that day, we visited Patuxay, a war monument dedicated to the Laotians who fought to gain independence from France. We also saw the presidential palace, and several more temples besides That Luang. (For the record: visiting temples is sort of "one of those things" that you do on vacation in SE Asia).
That night we took an overnight bus from Vientiane to Pakse (spelled Pakxe on the map above). We had no idea that sleeping buses even existed, but they definitely do! In the bus, there are single beds along one side, double beds along the other, and four beds right in a row in the back, with top and bottom bunks in each row. Our group of four got the four top bunk beds in the back of the bus that night. On the one hand, it was great because we weren't forced to sleep next to strangers (which, of course, would be very awkward). On the other hand, the back of a bus on dirt/gravel roads is VERY. BUMPY. Honestly, although the ride wasn't exactly comfortable, it was nice to be able to lay down for the 10-hour trip; I think I preferred it over the other option of sitting in a seat for those 10 hours on a dirt road!
So, our second stop in Laos was Pakse - it was kind of a backpacker's hangout, from what I could tell. It was also a lot more dirty than Vientiane was. Our first day there, after we found a hotel (we didn't book one in advance), we decided to visit Wat Phu - the ruins of an old temple and city. It was interesting, but I think the ride out there was more interesting to me! There weren't any buses or tour groups going to Wat Phu by the time we decided to go (about 11 AM), so we caught some local transportation: a delivery truck with bags of rice and other things in the back! The truck itself is what I'd call a songtao - a pick up truck with two long benches in the back bed, with a roof over the top. We squished in the back with a few local Laotians and some rice bags and vegetables, and off we went! The woman I sat next to spoke a little English and Thai, so she and I tried to communicate in a mix of English, Thai, and Laotian. It didn't work very well, but the attempt was fun! It took us about an hour and a half to make it to where we wanted to go, but we got some good views of the scenery and villages, so we were quite satisfied.
On our second day of being in Pakse, we took a tour of the Bolevan Plateau. This was much more organized than our previous day's tour, as we were actually with a tour group this time. We got to see several coffee/tea plantations, some villages (complete with naked and half-naked children running about amidst pigs, dogs, cattle, etc!), and waterfalls. We didn't have a tour guide, unfortunately, but the man driving our van did his best to explain what was going on. He got some of the basic points across, but I'm sure there's a lot of information that we missed out on due to language barriers!
The following day we took a bus down to an area called 4000 Islands - a bunch of islands in the Mekong River, just off the border between Laos and Cambodia. Actually, from the southern point of the island that we stayed on, we could see Cambodia. There are apparently some endangered freshwater dolphins that live in that area of the river, but we were there a very short time and were not fortunate enough to see any dolphins. When we arrived, we found some very cheap lodging: $5.00 a night, and it was definitely not worth more than that! Our little cabins were right on the river and had hammocks outside the door, which was great during the day. However, there was also a 2-3 inch gap underneath the door, which is frightening to think about when you wake up in the middle of the night and can't be sure what sort of critters are crawling around in your room! The bathroom was also one of the more unique ones we've ever encountered - no hot water (pretty standard), a toilet that you had to flush with a bucket of water (also pretty standard), and a sink that drained directly onto the floor (NOT standard!). On the bright side, when we washed our hands, our feet also got a washing...
We rented some bikes for the afternoon and took our own tour of the island that we stayed on; we chose to be on the least touristy island of the ones surrounding us, so on our bike ride we enjoyed seeing some more country side, farms, villages, cattle, etc. It was so peaceful! We had a hard time deciding whether we wanted to stay an extra day, or move on and spend an extra day in Cambodia. In the end, we chose going to Cambodia, but Michael and I wouldn't mind going back to that quiet little corner of Laos again sometime!
That about covers the first portion of our trip! Stay tuned for Part 2: Cambodia (coming soon to a blog near you!). In the meantime, enjoy some of our pictures: