November 13 – UPDATED: pictures at the bottom!
We have arrived in Siem Reap! We wanted to post this while in Laos, but had some internet difficulty. In case you are wondering, yes feeling much better now – we were back to normal after a day or so of sleeping in Vang Vieng. Here is our Laos experience.
We arrived by slow boat to the UNESCO World Heritage site Luang Prabang and the boat was in fact as described, slow. Luckily, it was not short on scenery of the beautiful Mekong River and also not short on friendly fellow travelers who we ended up with for a week of our journey.
A bit of background- Laos is the most bombed country in the world by capita (and 35% of those dropped remain undetonated). Of those 35%, they have so far cleared only 14%. This mostly impacts the North, where locals look for UXOs with chicken feathers and detonate them without professional help. They then of course use the bomb material for scrap metal. You start to see this everywhere – the bell at the entry of a wat, planters, cow bells, and so on. Laos is one of the poorest countries in the world, but regardless (or perhaps unrelated) the people are very friendly. It’s Laos’s goal to get out of the bottom 20 poorest countries in the world, and tourism (along with natural resources) will likely play a big part in that. Hopefully Laos can retain its natural beauty and culture along the way.
The highlight of Luang Prabang was biking a not so ambling 36 kilometer ride to the Kouang Si waterfall. After a refreshing Tarzan-style rope swing into the water, we climbed up to the top to find a fairy-tale like brook where, when peering over the edge of the cliff, you can see all the way down to the bottom of the falls. We also stopped at a mid-way point to the top of the falls, walking along stairs carved out of the rock and getting quite wet while doing it. Luang Prabang is a beautiful town, however we did find it difficult to get an idea of what daily life is like there given the extensive tourism.
We took the wonderful bus ride (see post below) down to Vang Vieng, which could be renamed College Town International. After learning about Laos modesty (long skirts, covered shoulders) it was shocking to see people walking around in their swimsuits after tubing on the streets around town. Vang Vieng is definitely not Laos culture, but it was fun. It wasn’t too difficult to get out of the Western bars to see some of Laos’s natural beauty. This includes some amazing caves – one filled with water in which we floated on tubs deep into the pitch-black middle, another named the Elephant cave with a natural Elephant head formation, and the aptly named Blue Lagoon with turquoise waters and fascinating-yet-spooky stalactites.
We’re now in the capital city of Vientiane, which we actually quite like – maybe because of the number of cafes with delicious Laos coffee (the French influence seems the strongest here out of the cities we visited), the friendly people and less of a tourist focus. Right now it’s the Boun That Luang festival. We walked up to the Wat to observe the colourful and joyful procession of Laos people carrying offerings, usually of banana leaves and flowers with money stapled to the leaves to ensure a good afterlife. This is a time when Laos people flood to their capital city and get together with friends and family. The festival was accompanied by a Fair-style bazaar where Claudia picked up some beautiful Laos silk.
Next up is a very long bus ride to Siem Reap. We bought a book on the history of Cambodia, so you can expect a succinct synopsis shortly which we’ll use to keep ourselves busy.