The Poor Man’s Galapagos and Puerto Lopez

Puerto Lopez is a small, fairly quiet fishing town.  The only touristy part of town is along the malecon which is a very nice area to walk around or chill at one of the beach side bars. Many tourists from all over the world and Ecuadorians themselves come here to go Isla la Plata, known as the poor man’s Galapagos, and Los Frailes which many times has been voted the best beach in Ecuador.

We stayed at Hostal Yemaya which costs $30/night for two people.  It’s in a great location one block from the beach. Miguel runs the hostal and is very informative. Miguel set us up with Aventura tours for our day trip to Isla la Plata.  It only costs $35 each (hence why it’s the poor man’s Galapagos) and includes hiking, lunch and snorkeling.

One of the guys from the tour company met us at our hotel at a chill time of 9:30 am.  Before getting on the boat, we walked down the beach with the rest of the people in our group to check out the fisherman’s catch of the day.  We watched the men carry coolers full of fish from the boats to trucks parked right at the shore while the frigate birds desperately try to sneak a fish from the coolers.

Fisherman’s catch

We were the last boat to leave the dock but our tour guide assured us that we would be the first boat to arrive on the island.  He was right, it didn’t take long for our awesome boat to leave the others in the dust, or mist rather.  On the way to the island we saw the biggest pod of dolphins I’ve ever seen.  There had to be hundreds of them.  We also saw jumping stingrays too.

Within an hour we made it to our destination. As we approached, hundreds of frigate birds were circling high above the rocky cliffs of the island.  They look like pterodactyls gliding through the air.  We stopped at a fisherman’s boat because he was feeding fish to a bunch of sea turtles.  Again I’ve never seen so many sea turtles in one spot.  As you can see, we are already very impressed with Isla la Plata and thinking we already got our money’s worth.

Sea Turtles!!

Our tour guide took us on a short 3 km hike where we saw the famous blue footed boobies.  There were many babies hiding in the scrub brush waiting on mom and dad to bring them food.  We had to be careful not to scare them.  They can’t fly and their wings are so fragile that if you get too close they can freak out and break their wings getting them stuck in the brush.  It seems like that is easy to understand but I was shocked by how so many stupid people in our group still wanted to stop right in front of the baby and take its picture.  In fact this is why one of the trails was closed off.  The Albatross used to frequent the island but quit coming because of too many dumbass people taking selfies with them.  The trail is closed because a family of Albatross is back and the islanders want to keep it that way!

After an underwelming but included lunch of tuna sandwiches on hot dog buns, we went snorkeling at a nearby reef.  We saw angelfish, parrot fish, needle fish, puffer fish and many other beautiful species of which I don’t know.  I was so impressed with all the animals we got to see.  If the po man’s Galapagos was this awesome I imagine the real Galapagos Islands would blow your mind.

The next day we went to check out the many times voted best beach in Ecuador, Los Frailes. From town we took a mototaxi to the bus terminal and then a bus to the Los Frailes for 50 cents each.  It’s free to get in but because it’s part of the national park, you need your passport number to get in.  Since I don’t usually take my passport to the beach and I don’t have it memorized (which I probably should) I just pretended to look at something on my phone while I made up a number.

Hiking at Los Frailes

Once you make it through the gate you have two choices: pay a mototaxi to take you straight to the beach or hike the trails where you will come across two other beaches and a mirador or viewpoint of Los Frailes.  The choice was obvious for Tim (I was feeling lazy and wanted to go straight to the beach) and so we took to the trails.  I’m so glad I listened to him because it was absolutely amazing.

It was realllllly hot but there was a constant cool sea breeze which made it bearable.  We stopped at the first beach and went for a swim.  At the second beach the rip currents were too strong to swim so we stood on the rocks and ate Doritos. In a little less than two hours we made it to Los Frailes.  I can see why it’s voted the beast beach with its surrounding mountains, wide, white sand, and trash free (rare in developing countries). The water had a clean blue tint to it and was easy for swimming.  At 4 pm the beach closes down and a van is waiting to take people back to Puerto Lopez for $2.50 per person.

Puerto Lopez is a must if you visit Ecuador.  It has so much to offer and beautiful sights to see.

Giant grilled skrimp
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Vilcabamba: The Valley of Longevity

Vilcabamba is situated in a valley surrounded by lush green mountains. Many of the locals in the area live to be 100 years old and up, hence the name.  It’s not surprising that there has been an influx of wellness and yoga-mongers to the area.  When you step off the bus at the terminal, the town feels Ecuadorian enough.  But the European hippie vibe grows stronger the further you venture towards the main square.  Vegan friendly and spiritual cleansing ads a-plenty with English as the predominant spoken language.

We stayed at Hostal Margaritas for $30 a night. The hostal was cleaned daily, had (real) hot showers and included breakfast. What attracted us to the area was the hiking. There are many trails within a short drive as well as the Podocarpus National Park.

View from our room

We hiked the Mandango trail, named after the sheer cliff rock formation that stands out amongst all the greenery.  We were able to walk to the trail head, situated down a dirt road behind the bus station, from our hotel.  Make sure you bring a stick with you as there was a section along the dirt road that had a bunch of aggressive dogs. Tim picked up a rock and pretended to throw it at them which made them back off.  The entire trail is not for the faint of heart as there are steep drop offs on either side of a narrow ridge trail.  We were unable to make it to the top because of Tim’s vertigo with heights, but we were able to get to an awesome viewpoint that provided spectacular views of the valley.

Another great place to do some hiking is from Hostal Izhcayluma, located a couple of kilometers south of town. We initially wanted to stay at this hostal but they were fully booked.  We took a cab to the hostal from the bus station for $1.50. The receptionist gave us a map of a trail and pointed us in the right direction. It was free.  There are many trails to choose from and they are well marked so you don’t need a guide.

It was a little out of the way for us to come here but I think it was worth it.  Vilcabamba provided some great hiking and was our last trip in the mountains. We are now heading to the coast, the Pacific is calling my name!

Cotton candy on a Saturday night

 

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Bienviendos a la Selva (Tena, EC)

Tena is a small city that skirts the Amazon region in Ecuador. For $6 per person, it took three hours by bus to get to Tena from Baños. When we arrived at the terminal we walked through town to Hostel Austria which was moderately priced at $23 and did not include AC.  It was however very clean and convienently located.

Initially, we were underwhelmed with Tena. We are walking around town at 3:00 pm and nothing was open. The one thing we wanted to do was go on a hike in the jungle, but every tour shop we found was closed. We were so disappointed we decided we were going to leave the next day. Trying to find something to do shouldn’t be this hard. That night Tim went out to get something to eat (my stomach was still not 100%) and he found a tour company that was open! Long story short we ended up getting what we wanted – a trip into the Amazon jungle.

The tour cost $55 each and lasted from 9 am to 4:30 pm. No one else signed up so Tim and I got a private tour! The trip started outside of Misahualli where our guide peacefully paddled us in a handmade canoe through a small canal to our hiking spot. We saw a couple of spider monkeys and beautiful birds.

We donned our boots and hit the trail. Our guide, Javier, showed us different plants including the plant of which they make Panama hats. He made us headbands out of it. He also used a flower bud to make me fake nails which helped me channel my inner tiger. We found a termite nest, Javier picked at it to make them come out of their nest and then put my hand on it so they crawled on me. If you rub your hands together and smash them they release a menthol scent that can be used as a natural bug repellant.

We returned to Misahualli for lunch and had a traditional fish dinner wrapped in banana leaves and yuca, which is like a potato. After lunch we walked to the river and saw a troop of monkeys. It was entertaining to watch them easily swing from the tree branches, curiously gazing down at us.

Monkey eating a banana

We then caught a bus to a go on a waterfall hike. Our guide allowed a couple other travelers to follow us to the waterfall so they wouldn’t get lost. It was a hot, slippery hike but we were well rewarded in the end with a glorious swim in the waterfall.

After the trip Javier took us out for celebratory drinks where we met Abby. Abby is a local that told us about a white water rafting festival going on that weekend called Jondachi Fest, named after the Jondachi River. She said that there was a registration party that night and invited us to come, at least for the free pizza. Needless to say we showed up and registered for the overnight rafting trip for Saturday. Abby said they were looking for volunteers to help out with the race on Friday so Tim and I volunteered.

We got up early the next day which started with free breakfast. We rode with Abby to the race finish line where we carried boxes of empanadas down a steep, slippery trail (did I mention that all the trails in Tena are slippery??) It was physically very hard for me and also mentally challenging as I had to keep smelling the delicious empanadas without getting to eat any. After the race we hiked back up the steep trail and got a free lunch. (Volunteering is awesome!)

The next day was the overnight kayaking/rafting trip. The class of the rapids ranged from 3 to 4+. The trip was only $55 a person and included our own private tent, lunch, dinner and breakfast the next day.  We camped at Playa Selva resort. It is in a remote location that you either hike to or arrive by the river. The scenery was absolutely beautiful the entire trip. We learned that the purpose of Jondachi Fest is fighting the government from damming the river. It would be sad if they dammed it because it is quite beautiful and provides so much life to the forest.

All in all our trip to Tena was a success thanks to Jondachi Fest. We saw a side of the Amazon we never would have seen before and are so thankful for how everything played out with running into Abby and having the opportunity to volunteer.

The taxis drove down to the take out
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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.

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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.

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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!
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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…

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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.”
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Going underground…Vietnamese Tunnels and Caves

We bungeed our backpacks to the motorbike rack and hit the road to Dong Ha to see the famous Vinh Moc Tunnels.  We were excited to go inside the tunnels for a true experience of how the people survived underground during the Vietnam War. We were amazed at the complexity of the tunnels. There are 13 different entrances, 7 of which point out to the sea where they received food and weapons from the north.  There are 3 layers of the tunnel system at 12, 18 and the deepest 22 meters. It took 13 months to build and sheltered 300 people.  Each family had a very small living space, literally a hole in the wall.  The worst part was the fact that there was only ONE bathroom for everyone! ONE… for 300 people! At least the air temperature was cool, being underground and all.  When the tour was over I was conflicted with feeling happy to get out, since it can be a little claustrophobic, and a yearning to go back in when the 110 degree heat index and 100% humidity slapped me in the face.  The people lived like this from 1966-1972, six years, and 17 children were born in the tunnels.  The war ended long ago, but the bomb craters are still visible.  The Vietnamese that lived in these tunnels survived during a hard time. I can’t even imagine how awful it must have been.

Ok enough depressing stuff.  Our next adventure was at Phong Nha National Park, home to the oldest karst mountains in all of Asia (approximately 400 million years old!). It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  The park has 300 different caves and grottos.  We opted to explore Paradise Cave, founded by British explorers in 2005 and recently opened to the public a few years ago.  You can walk along a wooden boardwalk for 1 kilometer into the cave but it goes as deep as 31 kilometers.  The cool damp air within the cove is mighty refreshing after having hiked a couple of miles in the sweltering heat.   I couldn’t stop smiling like a child at the impressive formations within the cave.  Every step gets better and better.  The park did a fantastic job on illuminating the cave. It felt like being on another planet.  The cost was 250,000 VMD each (or about $13 USD). It was one of the most unique experiences I’ve ever had in my life and worth every penny.

If you don’t have a motorbike, I highly recommend renting one for the day to explore the beautiful park.  The loop around the park is incredibly scenic and there are little side trips to do as well.

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Hoi An, the biggest little city in Vietnam

Hoi An is a must if you travel to Vietnam. There are so many great things about it.  It has a nice beach, a quaint downtown scene which locals call the “old town” and lots of delicious, cheap, street food.  Most of the accommodations in Hoi An are “homestays.” We decided to stay at Thanh Laun homestay located between the old town and the beach.   The homestay came with free bikes which came in handy for getting around. The hostess of the homestay, Trinh, was very welcoming and made delicious coffee and breakfast every morning.  Thanh Luan is located right off the main road, Hai Ba Trung.  If you go north it will take you to An Bang beach.  If you go south you will hit the old town.  Since we stayed in the middle it only took us 10 minutes by bike to get to either.  And the food, ohhhh myyyy GAWWWWDDDDD! Commence food pics….

The bike ride to the beach is very beautiful, especially at sunset.  In fact, we think Hoi An has the best sunset we have seen so far in Vietnam.  There can be quite a bit of traffic on the road but it didn’t have much of an impact on the beauty of our surroundings.  There are rice farmers throwing seeds in the paddy fields and grazing water buffalo. There is an intersection before you get to the beach, turn left and take the next right and venture down one of the alleys for a less crowded area of the beach.  You can park your bikes for free and the chair rentals are only 20,000 VMD ($1).  Don’t follow Hai Ba Trung all the way to the beach or you will have to pay to park your bike and like $70,000 VMD for a beach chair.  Also it is VERY crowded at this section of the beach.  The locals start to crowd the beach daily around 5 pm.

You do not have to pay to go into the Old Town.  There are some historic buildings that you must have a ticket to go into but it doesn’t cost anything to walk around.  Wandering around the old town at night is a must.  Motorbikes are not allowed and the old town is lit up by colorful lanterns.  It creates a romantic ambiance.  There are ladies that strongly encourage you to purchase their “wish” candles you can float down the river. I couldn’t resist.  We noticed a huge difference in the amount of people on the weekend verses weekday so if possible try to avoid visiting on the weekend.

 

Another thing you must do is have some clothes tailor-made.  Having wide hips and long legs, it has always been a struggle in my life to find a great pair of jeans.  A petite Vietnamese lady took my measurements and in less than 24 hours I had a $40 pair of jeans that never fit me so good.   For $70, Tim had a purple sports coat made.  He was due for a new one.  If you know Tim, you know how much he loves his purple sport’s coat he got from a Goodwill like 10 years ago.   The ladies nailed our clothes since neither one of us needed adjustments.  You can literally have anything you want made in 24 hours.  If you have a picture of what you want, the tailors can copy it for you. It is simply amazing.

We spent five very enjoyable nights in Hoi An and could have stayed longer.  Tim and I have been hearing a lot about this very popular ride from Hoi An to Hue via motorbike….Stay tuned. 🙂

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