Quito, Ecuador – The (second) highest capital in the world!

How we decided to travel to Ecuador was by a random chance. I went to kayak.com, typed in departure from Savannah, GA to “anywhere” and a flight to Quito for $600 caught my eye. I don’t really know that much about Ecuador so I had to start researching. Ecuador is a small country in South America located right along the equator, hence the name. It has a diverse landscape with the Amazon jungle in the east, the Andes mountains in the center and the coastal region to the west. The famous Galapagos Islands belong to Ecuador as well, but I will go ahead and say we do not plan to travel to the Galapagos Islands due to our budget.
We arrived in Quito in the middle of the night. There was a long line to get our passport stamped but customs was a breeze. We went to the taxi stand and got a cab for $25. Our tired eyes didn’t see very much of the city that night. We opted to stay in the Old Town district of Quito at La Posada Colonial Hotel. Our room was like a shoebox but unfortunately there wasn’t much time or energy for a debate at 2 in the morning. The hotel is in a great location near a bunch of restaurants and has a nice view from the terrace.

Quito is very much above sea level at 9,000 feet. Being a flat lander the first day was a bit of a struggle as my body acclimated to the elevation. I could feel my heart beating faster than usual. We took it easy the first day and strolled around the old city.

We have never been to a city like Quito. The capital dates back to the 16th century. The buildings are magnificent with oversized doors and intricate designs. There are lots of people around of all different types. There are many police around as well, whom provide a sense of security. We noticed a lot of graffiti, perhaps a reminder of darker times. A popular thing to do is visit the old churches. We went into supposedly the most impressive church in the Americas, the Iglesia de la Campania de Jesus (The church of the society of Jesus).  I must admit that it was quite impressive being made of gold on the inside.  They ain’t like the churches back home!  We weren’t supposed to take pictures but I managed to sneak a few.

For a great view of the city, check out Itchimbia Park. The walk up there was more intense than it should have been but I am still trying to acclimate to the elevation. Surprisingly, we didn’t see many tourists. There is a school at the top. When we got there about 100 kids in their jumpsuit uniforms hurrying past us to get their afternoon snack of Salchipapas (French fries with chopped hotdog)….yeah it’s pretty gross.

After two days we were ready to leave. I’m sure there is other stuff to do and see but the smell of automobile exhaust is too much and we are ready to get into the outdoors. Next stop, Baños.

Our Next Adventure – Ecuador!

So Victoria officially has finished another assignment and you all know what that means, it’s time to hit the road again. We originally had planned to outfit my Montero as an “expedition vehicle”  with a roof top tent and refrigerator and all that and then drive it across the US and then all the way down Baja again. Only this time we were going to leave it there and fly back to the fifth wheel and then after her next assignment we’d fly down, pick it up, and head into mainland Mexico via the ferry and continue south. Then we’d rinse and repeat down through Central America and then maybe put it on a boat and tour South America too. Unfortunately these grandiose plans were interrupted when shortly after we decided all this Hurricane Matthew hit the east coast and dropped a tree on my Montero I had been storing at my parents home in Savannah, Ga.

We briefly considered buying another truck and a cheap camper as a replacement but ultimately decided we didn’t feel like dealing with all that(Maybe next time?). So instead we just looked to Kayak.com to see where we could fly cheaply. We’d been to Asia recently so Victoria scrapped Indonesia, we considered Spain and Greece but it’s winter there too (and we’re tired of the cold already), and then we saw Ecuador. It’s the same time zone as the east coast so that’s convenient, they speak spanish and so do I now, it’s on the equator so it’s always warm(Ecuador means equator in spanish), it seemed perfect .

Most people I’ve told don’t seem to know where Ecuador even is. It is a small country in South America on the Pacific coast in between Colombia and Peru. For a small country it has a huge variety in landscapes from the colonial towns of Quito(the second highest capital in the world) and Cuenca, to the Andes mountains, the Amazon rainforest, the Pacific coast, cloud forests, and the world famous Galapagos Islands(we won’t be visiting them as it would cost as much as the rest of the trip combined!).

We’ll be traveling for a little over five weeks and that should give us enough time to view a good part of the country. We’ll be backpacking as usual and getting around mostly by bus. As usual we’ve made zero reservations other than we’ll be flying into Quito on the 6th of January and back out on the 14th of February. We will be making a reservations at some point for our first night in Quito but other than that we’ll be winging it. We have a general plan to hit spend a few nights in Quito, head down into the Amazon, travel down the spine of the Andes, cut over to the coast and work our way back up, and then back to Quito and home. Something like below.

First we’re headed home for the holidays for two weeks. I had to get something up as we were interviewed by a friend of mine for a podcast called “Breaking The Chains”(I’ll post a link when it goes live) about people who live a bit outside the norms(us?) and I didn’t want any new visitors to think we’re too morbid with the first post being about the tragedy of Pol Pot’s rule in Cambodia. Stay tuned, I might even get around to posting about Koh Rong, the last place we went in Cambodia and an absolutely stunning island.

Cambodia’s Dark History

We took a bus from Siem Reap to the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh for $6 a person. We stayed at the Angkor Mithona Guesthouse on the 5th floor with no elevator for $16/night. I had to haggle to get that rate. The room was small and old but what I liked about it was the balcony that overlooked a busy street. Upon arrival, I was underwhelmed. Phnom Penh used to be known as the “Pearl of Asia” due to its French influence and beautiful architecture. Most of its charm was destroyed by the Khmer Rouge and what remains is a concrete jungle with rubbish lined streets. Why would one visit this city? It’s crowded and polluted but it’s burdened in the history of the atrocities that occurred in Cambodia in the 1970’s. In school, I never learned about Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. The history of it all starts in Phnom Penh. I was intrigued and had to see it for myself.

Phnom Penh fisherman on the Mekong River
Phnom Penh fisherman on the Mekong River

Here is a little history lesson for those of you like me that never learned about it. Pol Pot was a man, much like Adolf Hitler, who had a dream. His dream was for a utopian farming community where people worked together and shared everything. Pol Pot gathered his followers from poor, uneducated farmers. He basically told them that money and religion were evil and the reason why poor people didn’t have anything. Eventually he had enough followers to take over the country becoming prime minster in 1976. Pol Pot forced all urban dwellers into the countryside to work on collective farms and destroyed banks and temples. He is responsible for killing 3 million people (out of a population of 8 million). Anyone of suspicion (doctors, professors, monks, mechanics and people of any skill or trade) was imprisoned, tortured and murdered, pretty much in that order. Pol Pot told his followers that “It is better to kill an innocent by mistake than spare an enemy by mistake.” Towards the end, Pol Pot became more crazy and paranoid and murdered many of his own followers, called cadres, too. His reign ended when the Khmer Rouge tried taking Vietnamese land along the Mekong River. The pissed off Vietnamese came in and ended it all, exposing the atrocities. Pol Pot not only manipulated his own people, he manipulated the whole world. The Khmer Rouge held the seat at the UN until 1982!

We arranged a Tuk Tuk driver for the day ($13) to take us to the Killing Fields and the S-21 (Tuol Sleng) prison museum. Entry to each was $6 a person and included an audio tour. We started at the Killing Fields where, as the name indicates, the Khmer Rouge sent people to be killed in hordes. Their method of killing people was beyond barbaric. Hands bound and blindfolded, the people were unloaded and forced into small huts. Loud music played from speakers hung in the trees to disorient them. They were lined up and walked to the edge of a large pit/grave. A cadre would club them in the head making them fall into the grave semiconscious where another cadre would slit their throat. One by one this is how millions of people were killed…men, women, elderly, and children. With babies they would simply bash their bodies against a tree. Pol Pot didn’t believe in “wasting” bullets so this is how he wanted the executions or “purging” to go. Walking around and listening to the tapes describe what took place in the very space I was in was surreal. Multiple mass graves are still visible though mostly filled in with dirt and grass now. When it rains bones, teeth and cloth are exposed which you can still see in and around the pits. There are signs saying “please do not step on bones”. Many of the bones are put on display. Some people, especially Christians, may find it taboo to display bodies instead of properly burying or cremating them. After discussing the ethics, the Cambodian people agreed that the bones should be displayed as a reminder to people of what happened, hoping that history will never repeat itself.

S-21 (Tuol Sleng Prison Museum) was originally a school in the center of Phnom Penh. The Khmer Rouge turned it into a prison and torture chambers. Usually people were only here a short while where they were tortured and forced to sign confessions of being a conspirator or spy. Once they signed the confession they were sent to the killing fields. The tour starts off by going one by one into the former classrooms turned torture chambers. A bed with no mattress, metal shackles still hanging from the frame, was the only furniture in each room. The museum put a picture of the wall displaying a body in the bed. It was very graphic. Being an ICU nurse I have been around death a lot, anyone who has been around death knows that a certain smell lingers when a person dies. Even though it has been over 40 years since someone was killed, I could still smell it. The smell haunts the entire building. They used all kinds of torture techniques ranging from waterboarding to hanging people upside down until they passed out then dropping them head first into pits of feces and urine to wake them up.

Other buildings contain former classrooms split into small prison cells with bricks or wood. Most of the cells were very small, only like 4X8 feet. The prisoner’s feet were shackled to a metal hook on the floor and had a metal box to relieve themselves. Some rooms were not split up but open where multiple people were imprisoned together and forced to lie down in rows like sardines. There is an illustration in the museum showing how the prisoners were aligned on the floor that reminded me of how the African slaves were shipped to America. The Khmer Rouge took pictures and documented every single prisoner that came into S-21. In one of the buildings many of the mugshots are exhibited. It was very disheartening to look into the sad eyes of people who were taken from their homes, guilty of nothing but being born in the wrong place and the wrong time.

All in all, Phnom is worth visiting so you can see all this for yourself. Thoughts of the Khmer Rouge and all the people who were tortured and killed followed me for days. I couldn’t believe how it all happened under the nose of the U.N. I think this significant portion of Cambodian history should be included in the curriculum for world history in high school. It is gruesome but I think it speaks volumes.  I heard a memorable quote during the audio tour by the ambassador of Germany, H.E. Joachim Baron von Marschall. “No political goal or ideology, however promising, important or desirable it may appear, can ever justify a political system in which the dignity of the individual is not respected.”

I will never forget.


The mighty temples of Angkor Wat – Siem Reap, Cambodia

We flew Laos Air and were very happy with the service and snacks, certainly better than a short haul flight in the States. Both airports were tiny but the visa and immigration for both leaving Laos and entering Cambodia was very efficient.

The town of Siem Reap reminded me of Khoa San Road in Bangkok, Thailand, packed with drunken tourists, touts, and people trying to sell you drugs or prostitutes in the street (a first since Thailand years ago,though still not as open and prevalent as in Thailand where it is defacto legal. There is certainly prostitution in Vietnam and Laos but it is very hush-hush as I didn’t hear a word of it). I suppose in a country rife with corruption and a flood of tourists all over the world to the town to visit the temples this kind of crap is inevitable. Needless to say, we had nothing to do with it. We were here to see temples dammit!

The next day we arranged for an all day tuktuk ride around the short loop($15) which includes the most famous temples. We bought only a one day pass($20) although they sell three day and seven day passes also(there are dozens and dozens of temples in the surrounding area). I like beautiful temples as much as the next guy but a full day of them is more than enough for me, plus Victoria’s knee was still sore so one day was all she could take. I should also mention that the USD is the defacto currency in Cambodia, everything is paid in it even the atms spit it out. The only thing the riel is used for is for change less than a dollar because there are no US coins. It’s a strange system but stems from a fear of money caused by the horrible rule of Pol Pot (more about that nut bag in the next post).

What follows is just a listing of the few temples we were able to see and a short description of each (followed of course by our photos), there is so much written about these temples that there is no way a short summary can do them justice. The first temple we visited was Angkor Wat, the world’s largest religious building and a place that regularly competes with the likes of Machu Pinch and Petra as the eight wonder of the world. From there we passed into the city of Angkor Thom which is surrounded by a 8 meter high wall that is 12 km square, which is then surrounded by a 100m wide moat. It is estimated at it’s height the city held 1 million inhabitants, the most populous city of the 13th century! Within Angkor Thom is Bayon,  which is famous for it’s 54 towers decorated with 216 enormous smiling heads. From there we headed to Ta Prohm, where all those stunning pictures of a dilapidated temple overgrown by the ever encroaching jungle are taken(They actually now maintain the trees and temple to halt any further deterioration). In addition to these we also saw Ta Keo, Ta Nei, Preah Khan, and some other small temples. That was plenty for my temple fix but there are dozens and dozens more in the surrounding area, enough that some see very few visitors each day.

After seeing the highest of highs the Khmers reached with Angkor Wat it was time to move on to Phenom Phen and see and hear about the lowest of lows under the rule of the Khmer Rouge.


The Slow Road to Vientiane

With no sign of the rain abating we decided it was time to push on to Vientiane, no matter what. We get a few kilometers from town, bike stalls out, starts right back up and a few kilometers more stalls again. Time to find another mechanic…. We go into town and are basically turned away from several different shops because we don’t speak Loation. You’d think they’d be happy to take some money from us westerners as they always charge us a bit more than the locals, but not in Vang Vieng. I finally find a guy willing to check it out. Again with the full disassembly and four hours later no more stalling but now the bike has half the power. By this time it’s six o’clock and I decide to call it a day and bring it back in the morning. He spends 20 minutes tweaking a few things and gets just a bit more power and just sends me on my way. He of course spoke no English.

We decide it’s time to make the trip to Vientiane anyways, it’s the capital and a much larger town so I figure we’ll have better luck there. So we limp to Vientiane for four hours in the pouring rain. Thank God that portion of road isn’t as mountainous as the rest of the country or I’m not sure we’d have made it. We were literally doing 10km an hour up some of the hills, lol.

So we finally make it to Vientiane and Victoria had previously found some people interested in the bike. One guy was particularly excited about it and he was there within the hour to look at it. We figure were going to have to discount the bike or just agree to get it fully fixed before we sell it. Luckily this guy knew more about motorbikes than us and was enthusiastic and honest. He declared that it was a minor issue and he should have no trouble getting it fixed cheaply. He then proceeded to pay us what we bought the bike for. He drove off delighted as he’d wanted a motorbike like this one for a while and we were delighted to sell the bike at no loss and within an hour of arriving 🙂 I then bought our tickets to fly into Siem Reap that night, it was cheaper to wait a day so we spent an extra night in Vientiane.

For a capital of an Asian country it’s tiny, 200k vs 10+million for Hanoi and Bangkok. Despite there not being a whole lot to do or see it was a nice atmospheric town and there was good western and street food easily located. There was also a night market each night which was huge and frequented by locals and tourists alike. We also enjoyed the break after all the rain(we later found out the road between Luang Prabang and Vientiane was closed due to landslides caused by the nonstop rain.)

Next up Siem Reap and the amazing temples of angkor, one of the wonders of the world.

Bad things happen and then happy things happen. Vang Vieng, Laos.

So the saying goes bad things come in three right?  Well we had a couple…  On the day we tried to leave Luang Prabang we had some motor bike issues.  First thing that happened about 30 miles out was a flat tire.  Well no big deal, we just passed a tire shop like 100 feet away. We pushed the bike there and had the inner tube replaced in ten minutes.  Just a bump, well nail actually, in the road.  It happens, no big deal, keep going!  Five minutes later we’re cruising and then ::record screach:: the bike just stops.  We walk the 300 lb bike up and down hills for a mile in a half until we find a mechanic.  He completely dissassembes the bike and unclogs the gas line and all this stuff.  After 3 hours of hanging out, watching chickens and huffing second hand smoke and gasoline we decided we were going to call it a day.  Obvioulsy the gods didn’t want us to go to Vang Vieng today.  We started back to Luang Prabang.  On the way back, I’m not kidding you, I can’t make this up,  we got another flat tire, in the EXACT same spot we got the first one.  It was so coincidential that I couldn’t control my anger.  I screamed “WTF!!!” As Tim pushed the bike to the SAME shop where we had the tire replaced before, I paced up and down the street looking for nails or other “evidence” of materials.  After the inner tube was replaced, again, I said “Thank you! Now that you have enough of our money please stop throwing nails in the road so we can get the hell out of here tomorrow!”

Mechanic working on the bike.
Mechanic working on the bike.

So that is three bad things right? Well I think the flat tires counted as one because the next day we had a motorbike accident.  Half way to Vang Vieng, we were making a turn at about 30 mph and some how ended up eating pavement.  Luckily neither of us sustained serious injury, but I can now say I know why knee pads were invented.  My right knee ended up taking most of the hit. For Tim, it was his left hip and feet.  Luckily I was wearing shoes, whereas “sandals man” wasn’t.  Lying on the hot concrete with the sun in my eyes and the pain in my knee all I could think about was how I hope I didn’t break something.  I was scared to move.  Thats when two vans came around the corner.  I don’t know if my grandma was watching over us or what but two angels approached us.  She opened up a medical kit, showed me a bottle of something, probably an anestetic, I can’t read Laotian.  I wimpered “Are you sure?” and she replied, “Yes, I’m a nurse.” I let her go to work on me.  She cleaned all our wounds and bandaged them.  I couldn’t believe how lucky we were to have sustained no serious injury and two nurses (angels) appeared out of no where to help us.  I don’t know their names but I will never, ever forget them.  I know I would of done the same thing.  Maybe it was a good deed coming back to me for all the awesome nursing I’ve done.

Even though we were hurting, we got back on the motorbike and continued the ride.  We passed by one of the most beautful mountain ranges I’ve ever seen. The landscape was green and beauftil as it had been but the mountains in the background were jagged and sinster looking.  Like Mordor from the Lord of the Rings. As we got closer to Vang Vieng we saw clouds coming in right above us.   They encompassed the mountains around us like a macrophage.  It was so bizarre since we weren’t at high elevation (only 800 feet).

We hobbled into the Malany Villa hotel (120,000 kip/night or $15) when we got to Vang Vieng, ususally we look around but after today, no.  Thank goodness the room was on the first floor.  For the entire time we were in Vang Vieng, it rained. So even if we hadn’t been whiplashed and road rashed we couldn’t have done anything anyhow.  We spend most of our time in the room, eating take out. It was a little dispressing so for entertainment purpose we decided to hit up some of the happy bars! Obviously we would never partake in the happy items, but they were there!  You can choose from all kind of stuff, including but not limited to: marijuana, magic mushrooms, opium, and laughing gas.  The laughing gas was very popular with the young ones.  They kept buying and huffing away.   We watched, laughed, we were basically happy as the bar intended one way or another.

Apparently it used to be pretty open to do stuff like that here, kind of like Woodstock.  Po-lice look da other way.  Then after a few travelers killed themselves by being too messed up and drowning in the river, the government had to tighten up.  Now they have under cover police and they look for people to shake down. Some bars are pretty open and some aren’t.  I think it depends on who pays the police and who doesn’t.

Vang Vieng looks like a an old western town.  All it needs are some horses and a few wooden swing doors It’s kinda dirty and grungy, but in a good way. One of the fun things to do around here is to go tubing down the Nam Song River.  With all the rain the river was too flooded and the current was pretty fast.  I didn’t think it would be a good idea to submerge our flesh wounds in the river water or be in a situation that required strenght (like swimming aganist the current) so we passed.

Sooo I guess eventually good luck runs out and bad things happen.  It’s ok, we are ok, we will be OK as long as we have our health and can continue on this amazing vacation.

Asian breakfast of champions, rice soup with egg, fried shallots, minced pork and green onions. MUAH!
Asian breakfast of champions, rice soup with egg, fried shallots, minced pork and green onions. MUAH!

Follow the long road, to Luang Prabang we go! 🎶

It is a long way from Viang Xai to Luang Prabang (the biggest city in the north of Laos), especially when you are two people with two backpacks on one scooter.  Our butts can take approximately 5 hours before uncontrollable, irritable mood swings begin.  Therefore we had to make two stops before getting to Luang Prabang.  The first stop was a very small town called Xieng Thong (some people and the signage leading to it still call it Muang Hiam). The second leg of the journey was a stop in Nong Khiaw, another really small town but with a waterfall you can pay $30 to go see…no thanks.  Not trying to sound snobbish but we have seen many awesome waterfalls and therefore couldn’t justify forking over $60 to see this one.  We stayed at the Phouisak Guesthouse for 60,000 kip/night ($7.50). It is the low season so that is why the rooms are so cheap and there are hardly any travelers around. We tried Laos’ version of Hot Pot, is was much more delicious than the Vietnamese version (sorry Vietnam).  Despite its deliciousness, I would not order it again.  First of all, it’s hot, I mean like working in a coal factory hot. Second of all it’s a lot of work, I mean like working in a coal factory.

Both legs of the ride on the motorbike were worth it.  I don’t think the experience would have been as good on a bus.  The landscape is so beautiful it’s like looking into a National Geographic magazine.  Finally after 420 kilometers we made it to Luang Prabang, the largest city in the north known it’s charm and historical character. Luang Prabang is like the Hoi An of Laos.  It is quaint, colonial, inviting, charming, and…Frenchy (like from France). We stayed at the Hoxieng Guesthouse for 120,000 kip/night ($15/night).  It was a very clean guesthouse and in the perfect location – walking distance to the Mekong River, night market, and other interests in the old town.

We hiked to the top of Mount Phousi which provided us great views of the city and many interesting Buddhist statues.  There is a large hole in the rock which the people claim to be Buddha’s footprint.  Personally, I think it could be evidence for a Laotian Sasquatch, but I’m not scientist.  It costs 20,000 kip/person ($2.50) to go to the top and see all these wonderful things.

We walked around the old town and saw many temples where monks reside. Every morning at dawn the monks come out in a precession for alms. My closest experience of this was one morning from my guesthouse I heard low-pitched chanting and the slow beat of a drum, then I rolled over in bed.  The night market is great but don’t expect to get any great bargains.  Laotians are hard sellers and most refuse to haggle.  The street food is pretty good which we ate every night.  Luang Prabang is known for these little sausages you can buy on the street. I believe they’re made with pork belly and they are so, so devilishly delicious but they will kill you if you eat them every day.

My favorite thing we did was going to the amazing Kuang Si waterfall.  It took us about 45 min to get there from Luang Prabang by motorbike.   It costs 20,000 kip/person ($2.50) to enter and included a sun bear exhibition.  This is a sanctuary where they have saved sun bears from the evil Chinese people who think it is good for your health to drink their bile.  Poachers will capture these sweet animals, keep them in small cages and put drains in them to extract the bile.

The falls begin after the sun bear exhibit and start out small.  The water is usually aqua blue in color.  Due to the heavy rains the water was more green than blue, yet still beautiful.  The smaller falls almost seem man-made because of how they go on and on until you get to the BIG waterfall.  Gawp for a moment but it isn’t over.  Everyone rushes to the bridge to play in the spray from the falls.  If you look to the left of the falls there is a secret staircase.  It will take you to the top of the falls where there are far fewer people.  At the top, there’s a nice, and cold, natural swimming pool and places where you can walk all the way to the edge of the falls.  It sounds dangerous and it was definitely exhilarating but it was totally safe because there was this totally safe wooden rail made by the locals to protect you from falling in.  Lets just say that in the good ol’ U.S. of A. we would never be allowed to go that close to the waterfall.

So far Laos has been pretty amazing.  I love the green and lushness of the land.  However, the road less traveled isn’t for everyone. Since crossing the border the road has been VERY rural. Google maps isn’t up to date in Laos.  Often times we would see the name of a city but nothing else.  There is no plan. I don’t know if there is a gas station coming up or if there is a guesthouse or hotel when we stop.  If I started to worry I always told myself, we have money so we will be ok…

Crossing into Laos and exploring the caves of Viang Xai

The road from Mai Chau was challenging at times for two people and two backpacks on one motorbike, especially after a good rain.  There was one spot in particular that halted us in our journey.  In rural Vietnam, a nice paved road turned into a gravel road which the turned into a huge mud puddle.  After having driven nearly an hour all we could do was stare at it, both of us pondering our next action.  It was then a miracle happened.  A local on a motorbike, fully loaded with a mountain of stuff (chickens, plastic bottles, etc.) passed us by and with full confidence maneuvered his bike through the giant puddle with no complications.  Maybe it was the shot of whiskey a local man gave me before leaving Mai Chau that day or maybe it was something else, but I said “Go for it!” Obviously we made it through but just warning, it can get a little hairy here and there.  That was by far the worst spot.  We stayed one night in Quan Son before heading the border the next day.
Motorbike skills
Motorbike skills

The Na Meo border crossing was very relaxed and easy.  It was a Sunday and we were the only people there.  The Vietnamese officer gave us a few tips on how to say “Hello” and “Thank you” in Laotian.  It costs 200,000 VMD or ($10) to export the bike.  Once we got to the Laos side it was $3 to import the bike and $40 each for our 30 day visa.  The road on the Laos side isn’t all that great but not too bad. A little bumpy and pot-holish (that’s a word now).  Nothing a little Paracetamol (Asian Tylenol) won’t fix.  We passed little villages where people will either stare at you in utter surprise (like they haven’t seen a white person before) or warmly wave and welcome you with a resounding “HELLO!!!” It’s heartwarming when the village kids run down the steps of their huts to wave at us as we pass.

 Our first night in Laos was in Viang Xai.  We stayed at Chitchareune Hotel for only 100,000 kip ($12.50) a night.  It was a good deal. We had a huge comfy king size bed, flat screen smart tv, and air conditioning.  Ohhhh happy dayyy. There isn’t really much to this town, in fact it seems like a post-apocalyptic ghost town when you arrive. There is however some very interesting history regarding the impact the Vietnamese War had on the people.  Like the people living in the tunnels in Vietnam the Laotian people sought refuge in the many caves that surround the area.

Entrance to Viang Xai. This image can be a little unsettling for an American. Once I learned the history I had a better understanding.
Entrance to Viang Xai. This image can be a little unsettling for an American. Once I learned the history, I had a better understanding.
Tim and I decided to take the audio tour of the caves which is 60,000 kip ($7).  It sounds cheesy but it turned out to be pretty cool.  First of all we were the only people on the tour which includes a (very little) English-speaking guide.  The audio tour had good music, real interviews from survivors and the narrator sounded kind of like a British Morgan Freeman so it was easy to pay attention.  I’m not a big history buff, so I had no clue about this “secret” war that the US had going on with Laos during the Vietnam War. So here’s the Readers Digest version The U.S. bombed Laos because they wanted to stop communism and Laos was believed to play a part in its expansion. Planes bombed Laos everyday from 1964 to 1973.  Thousands of people belonging to the communist faction sought refuge in the caves from the bombs. The people had to learn life without being seen by the planes, spending most of the lives in the caves.  Interesting facts –  1) They only had one hour to cook, 0500-0600, all the meals of the day so smoke wouldn’t be seen. 2) All the clothing they had that was white they rolled in mud to dye it brown. 3) They had ducks and chickens but if one was born white or red they would kill it. They learned this from a captured pilot who told them that he was told to look for chickens. There are many caves in the area but we were only allowed to go into 7 on the tour. Some caves were natural and some were a mix of natural and man-made (via dynamite). Some caves, that housed the bigwigs in the communist movement, had airtight bomb shelters within them that had these really awesome oxygen pumps (provided by the Russian’s).  One of them still worked and you could feel the air coming out with manual cranking.
One story stood out to me from the tour.  We ascended a steep staircase to the mouth of a cave where the anti-aircraft artillery would attempt to shoot down the planes.  We listened to a survivor tell us his story about when he shot one down.  The people ran out to the plane to try and capture the pilot but he wouldn’t come out.  Suddenly another plane came and started shooting at the people so they had to run back to the caves.  Lucky for him, the pilot was rescued. It seemed like a scene from a movie. Standing where the Laotians were shooting down planes in the valley and imagining the scene of them running out to the plane. It felt very real. Viang Xai wasn’t even named until after the war was over, it means “City of Victory.”

From Cat Ba to Mai Chau

We rode for 8 straight hours through intermittent rain back through the traffic/construction hell that is Hai Phong to stay ahead of the storm. We finally made it to the town of Ninh Binh(famous for its karst formations that you can take a slow boat through) and got a room at Khach San Hoang Hai. That night at around 2am the storm hit with full furry, 70mph winds and heavy heavy rain. The power went out and our room had huge ten foot tall windows on three sides which luckily didn’t break(which was very worrying while trying to sleep) but they did leak like a sieve leaving our floor soaked. When we got up in the morning roughly a quarter of the trees in town had been blown down(including one right across from us that could have hit our hotel, and our windows) and the local Vietnamese were out with their hatchets(hatchets, lol, not even an axe much less chain saws) at 6am trying to clear a path through the roads. We decided to stay another night to give them time to get the roads clear for travel, especially since we were headed for more remote areas.

When we left the next day, the gas gage was reading empty but I just assumed it must have been broken because I knew I had about a half tank when we arrived. However a few hundred feet down the road we ran out of gas. I bought some gas from a repair shop next to where we broke down  and drove back to the hotel to inform them that someone had stolen our gas while stored at their hotel. The manager swore up and down this was impossible since they have cameras and refused to reimburse us. When I heard he had cameras I said “great let’s watch it from the time we arrived to the time we left and see what happened”, he of course refused. I called them thieves and stormed out and Victoria left a nice review on Google for them. All that for $2 worth of gas…. If they had half a brain they would have left a bit more so we were much further away rather than taking every last drop.

When we finally got back on the road it went from nice, to beautiful, to just absolutely stunning. The area near the border with Laos is mountainous with some tiered rice paddies, very cool. On the way to Mai Chau you climb and climb on a very well paved road and then when you reach the top you get a beautiful view of the small town below and then begin the long descent into Mai Chau itself, also on excellent road.

Once you get down into the valley it continues to amaze. You are surrounded on all sides by rice paddies which in turn is entirely surrounded by the tall green mountain peaks in every direction. Although there is a hotel and a guesthouse or two available the places to stay here are the homestays. This is where you basically stay at a family’s home which they’ve added a few rooms onto for travelers to stay. We got a room on stilts overlooking the rice paddies and mountains with a fan, an electric outlet, and bug netting for 200k dong ($9). Being at a higher elevation meant that the fan was enough to keep us cool at night for sleeping. In the town there are all kinds of hand made handicrafts for sale. This has been intentionally setup as a way to use tourism as a way to preserve traditional Vietnamese crafts in the area.

All and all the tropical storm added some unnecessary excitement to an already exciting trip and although Mai Chau was stunning we were excited to get to Laos so we just spent the one night.

Next up, our journey to Laos!

Cat Ba Island

After the stunning scenery of Phong Nha National Park we decided to go see the Phong Nha of the sea, Ha Long Bay, another Unesco World Heritage Site. We heard Ha Long City was over touristic so we decided to head to Cat Ba Island via the port city of Hai Phong. This involved a three-day drive. The first day we headed to a small town off the Ho Chi Minh Trail called Bach Dai Dung, this was a pretty nice drive along the scenic and little traveled road. The next day we drove to Thanh Hoa, this was a much less pleasant drive with much more traffic and development. Both days we spent the night in small guesthouses for under $10 a night. The third day we drove to the port city of Hai Phong, the third largest city in Vietnam. This drive was even less pleasant, a ton of traffic, trucks, and construction and then we had a bit of trouble finding a place to stay. We finally found a decent hotel for $15 with a garage to park our bike.

The next morning we got up early to make the dusty drive to the ferry terminal. It was 120k($4.5) Dong per person plus an extra 30k($1.5) Dong for the motorbike. The ferries run every hour from 8 to 5 with a lunch break between 11 and 1, luckily we made it just a few minutes before it left, so no waiting. The ride was fairly scenic but even more scenic was the motorbike ride through the island to the town of Cat Ba where the hotels were located. This was high season so despite being less touristy than Ha Long City there were still plenty of people around, mostly people shuttled in from Hanoi. Even being high season we got a bay front room on the main strip up on the 7th floor for $15 a night. The food however was at least 50% more expensive than the mainland, still cheap but not like before.

The first day we just kicked it at the hotel after three days of hard traveling and enjoyed the view. The next day we got up and changed the oil and had our bike rack rewelded and then went and to check out the two public beaches. We decided on the second beach and ended up renting chairs with no mats and an umbrella for 120k dong. That was pretty steep considering we paid 80k in Nha Trang and had access to a resort and pool. However from the first few hours we pretty much had the place to ourselves. The water was also ridiculously warm, I would guess 92 or 93 degrees, not too refreshing! The last day we rented a tandem kayak for 200k($9) for the day. This was probably the highlight of the trip as we paddled through the amazing formations and even through a cave to our own beach, just like the movie. We also paddled to Monkey Island, where we saw no monkeys. We tried to make the climb to the top but it was a difficult hike that required scrambling and the rocks were simply too hot to touch in the middle of the day.

The next day we had to get up early to make sure we caught the ferry. There was a tropical storm coming and it was likely that the ferries would be shut down later in the day. Luckily we made it off the island and then made a mad dash to get as far inland as possible.