Monthly Archives: July 2012

Motorbiking to Kuang Si Falls and Pak Ou

The Kuang Si waterfall and Pak Ou Buddha caves are two of the main tourist attractions around Luang Prabang. The waterfall is about 32 km south-west of the city, and the falls are about 25 km north-east. Both take about an hour to reach by road, the most popular option being to share a tuktuk (to share the cost) or go on an organized trip. To visit the caves, you can also go on a boat ride, 1 hour there and 2 hours return.

What the guidebooks don’t tell you is that there is a secret transport option C: navigate the winding jungle roads by motorbike. And it is this option that Andy and I chose. Our first hurdle was obtaining an automatic motorbike. Neither of us can drive manual, and although I have in the past (manual motorbike and dirt bike) it has been at least 4 years. Plus I don’t have a NZ motorbike license so wouldn’t be covered by my travel insurance if we crashed. Everywhere rents out manual bikes for around 120,000 kip (15 USD) and there seemed to be only one place in town that all travel agencies got automatic bikes from, which were apparently booked out and then no one answered their phone. However walking around, we found one place that would give us an automatic bike and 2 helmets for 200,000 kip (25 USD) for 24 hours (Lao Siri Ticketing Co Ltd, 023 Ban Xiengmuane Sisavang Vatthana Road (map here), (856) 71 254885, laosiri.ticketing@gmail.com). As we finally found a bike at noon, we split up our travels and did the waterfalls that afternoon followed by caves the next morning. But this decision was actually made for us by the weather…read on.

I drove, and Andy seemed skeptical and somewhat scared saying “maybe this wasn’t such a good idea”, but once I gained my balance with him on the back, adjusted my helmet and got used to driving on the right side of the road, we were off!! No map, just a general “that a way” indication of our destination. Out of all the countries I have been in Asia, Laos was the most relaxed in terms of driving. No honking, no crazy over passing, one way roads are actually one way, and I felt totally normal driving. Wind in my hair, sun on my back, the only bad thing was the beautiful scenery that wanted to distract me along the way. I had to tell Andy to take photos as we went so that I could concentrate on the road.

Going by motorbike was also great because you encounter lots of beautiful butterflies along the way. Regrettably, one or two drove into me, but there were many more that weren’t suicidal. It took about an hour to get to the falls, on windy well paved roads, through lots of wonderful small villages, picturesque rice paddies and children playing games on the sides of the road. It really was an adventure.

Upon arriving at the waterfalls, the parking lot attendants laughed at my attempt to park the bike due to my sudden braking and the slippery muddiness of the lot. But 2000 kip got us parking, and allowed us to leave behind our helmets. The waterfall and all its lower pools were really breathtaking. You walk up through the forest, surrounded by nature, past ice blue pools, until you finally reach the waterfall at the top. It is huge. I climbed over the fence for some photos, and was the only westerner amongst local Lao doing the same. Andy then finally followed me out, getting slightly closer to the waterfall, although he almost fell in at one point, due to the slippery rocks!

We then found a nice quiet pool to swim in. Because most crowds arrive after 3, we had a pool all to ourselves. The water was freezing, and you have no idea how deep it is or even what is on the bottom, but it was so refreshing. I found some rocks to stand on so I wasn’t constantly treading water, and then realized the little fish were giving me a fish manicure. Like all the places popping up in Siem Reap, where you have fish eat dead skin off your feet, I was having a fish manicure but for free, and much more authentic.

Luckily we left at 3, because about half way back to Luang Prabang it started POURING with rain. And I mean pouring. We had to stop, scramble through the backpack to find our ponchos, put them on and continue on, with Andy putting his hand over my eyes to shield them from the rain so I could see. It was probably one of the most memorable moments of my trip, turning up at the hotel soaking wet in ponchos off a motorbike. You would never get that on an organized tour of even from a tuk tuk ride.

The next morning we ventured off to the caves before we had to return our motorbike at noon. We had no map, and unlike our trip to the falls, we had no exact idea of how many lefts or rights we had to turn. We just knew how to get out of town in that direction. And the way out of town included a very long bridge, with the driving space the size of a motorbike. I held my breath, and zoomed on. Somewhat slow and swerving, we made it across, without falling off to the sidewalk area, which would have been a mission to get back on the driving portion.

We soon found our way, and after stopping to ask for directions, and receiving no legible English answer, we finally found a road sign that said ‘Pak Ou’. The road changed from paved to dirt, windy and bumpy, but we became fully immersed in the rainforest and rice paddies, having workers and children waving and yelling hello. We even had to stop for elephants crossing the road!!

Once we arrived, we had to pay for parking, and were allowed to wander into the town. It wasn’t clear where on earth the river was, so we walked and walked, and finally asked for directions. We found the river, saw boats, but no boatmen. So continuing, we walked down, looked around, and a man appeared over the horizon out of no where, and let us on his little boat.

Upon arriving at the caves on the other side, there are two caves you can visit, the lower and upper. The lower was a bit disappointing, as there are a lot of Buddhas but nothing overly impressive. Just lots of small to large Buddha statues haphazardly arranged. We then ventured up to the top cave – a total of 220 steps up. And it was a hike. It is much cooler up there, and you walk in a dark cave full of tourists. If you allow your eyes to adjust, you can actually see around without a flashlight, but most tourists are using flash on their cameras and flashlights so it took away from the magic of it. There were beautiful golden Buddha statues in the upper cave, but even those were not as beautiful as some of the Buddha statues we saw in temples in Luang Prabang. The caves themselves are not breathtaking or spectacular. It was still fun though, and definitely an adventure due to the motorbike.

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Beautiful Barcelona

The last stop on my world trip pre-San Diego was Barcelona. I only had three nights there, so tried to pack in as much as humanly possible. A girl from Amsterdam in my hostel was so impressed with what I did in a day – it was apparently more than she had done in a week!! Barcelona in July is wonderful – it was hot and sunny every day, with numerous outdoor cafes and restaurants, people enjoying ice creams and granitas by the harbor, and going to the beach. It was full of tourists – both Spanish and international – which meant that I met so many interesting people in my hostel, from the States, the UK, Canada, Australia and the Netherlands. The interesting thing was that everyone I met was on a short vacation – ranging from a weekend to three weeks. However in Asia, everyone was traveling for at least 3 months if not longer, so everyone in Barcelona could not believe that I was ‘traveling’ for the rest of the year. I just loved walking around the city, exploring and soaking in the culture.

There was a fabulous market in the middle of the old city off La Rambla, full of fresh produce, fruit, vegetables and even candy by the pound. There was a tapas bar where customers stood by the bar, ate tapas and drank wine. You could buy fresh fruit juices for 2 euro or different mixes of fruit for 1-3 euros. It was all pretty fabulous.

I just loved the historic buildings in Barcelona, they were so beautiful and so I took far too many photos of buildings and not nearly enough photos of people. On my first afternoon I did a free walking tour of the Old Town, where we saw the Placa Reial, Placa del Pi, the old Jewish quarter, government buildings, the Cathedral, the Roman City, Placa Sant Felip Neri (my favorite of the Placas, it was so hidden and secluded and quiet) and Santa Maria Del Mar. Our guide Katherine was very knowledgeable and I learnt so much about the city and saw so much that I wouldn’t have seen otherwise. I also attended two free concerts at the cathedral – both school groups, choral and orchestral, which were beautiful. Fantastic acoustics.

On my own, I explored Gaudi’s masterpieces, mainly the Sagrada Familia and Park Guell. Park Guell was huge, and quite a trek. It was very busy, so much so that people who didn’t know each other were posing together with the mosaic lizard so they could have a photo with it. The view of Barcelona was very nice from up there, and after much waiting I finally managed to push through to the front and have another tourist take my photo.

The Sagrada Familia had a line that roped three-quarters of the way around the block, so I found a free wifi spot outside Starbucks and purchased tickets online, and only stood in a queue of five people! The church itself is still under construction, so there are cranes working and so the photos of the outside are slightly tainted with cranes towering over it. The design of the building is…interesting. People either find it beautiful or ugly. I was not taken by the design, especially of the exterior, but the interior was very impressive. It is spectacular, although it requires a lot of reading and analysis to understand the symbolism and design itself.

The thing I loved the most was the stained glass in the church. The organ pipes were directly in front of stained glass panels, and the light shone through the glass and formed a rainbow on the pipes.

I also discovered amazing food – the tapas were fantastic. Especially the style of tapas where you choose your own from a huge display of different plates, each individual tapa having a toothpick in it. As you eat, you put your toothpicks in a little bowl, and at the end you pay per toothpick! This style is known as ‘pintxos’, and I discovered a very busy and popular restaurant specializing in pintxos right by the Cathedral, called Bilbao Berria. There were over 50 plates, with such amazing range. Each toothpick was 1.65 euro, and a glass of red Spanish wine was only 2.50.

And now, having had three beautiful days in Barcelona, it is time for San Diego. I don’t know what to expect when I get there, but I am looking forward to it anyways. It is a bit scary, a new experience, living in a new city where I don’t know anyone, but I am sure I will love it nonetheless.

Chasing Lions in Africa

The sky is breathtaking here. There are so many stars. There are the main stars you see back home. But beyond that there are so many faint  background stars that the sky seems continually lit up with no full darkness. You can even see the milky way! It is like previous generations are looking down and watching over us…just like Mufasa told Simba. The landscape reminds me exactly of the Lion King, with the tall acacia trees and  bare plains with grazing animals, and I may be singing “The Circle of Life” in my head as we drive through the wilderness. But I am sane. I am in Africa, in my own real life Lion King, so the connotations and comparisons with the Disney movie are allowed.

This morning I woke up to zebras and wildebeests grazing on my doorstep. We slept in a tented camp site, where the rooms were actually villas on stilts, with hardwood floors, permanent furniture and bathroom facilities, but the walls were completely canvas, like a tent. We were escorted to dinner last night in case we encountered any animals, which we did – a female impala on the footpath to the outdoor restaurant. So far after 2 full days and 3 nights, I am in love with this place. Tanzania is a wonderful country. The people are friendly and kind and very welcoming. “You are most welcome” or “Karibu” are the most common phrases you hear, whether you are arriving at a hotel, being shown your rooms, saying good night or arriving at a museum – they say it before you even have a chance to say “hello” or “thank you”. It is all rather formal but it does transport you back to the time when Hemingway and others came to this country to hunt.

And it is yet to set in that I am even here, in the middle of Africa, in a tent, on a safari trip. Transportation is so easy now, you don’t have time to prepare or transition into your new surroundings. I flew into England at 6am Friday, and left at 6:30pm Saturday. 5:30pm London time on Sunday, 23 hours later, I am in Africa. Even today and yesterday, driving around Manyara and Tarangite National Parks, I feel I will wake up soon and be in bed in New Zealand.

I am not complaining, it is just an odd feeling. Because it is such a different world here. It is fantastic. We have been to Tarangire National Park, my first safari experience, where we drove in a land cruiser with a pop up top, seeing zebras, giraffes and impalas. The first animal we saw were monkeys, which weren’t overly exciting, as they were in the entrance parking area for registration. Then we saw Zebras. Zebras, in the distance, hiding behind a bush. Zebra specks. But still, zebras! One of my favorite African animals. So off I went taking photo after photo. Little did I know, that we would see plenty more, including herds, both up close and in the distance, and little baby zebras. Even after day 2 I no longer squeal “zebra” when I see one due to seeing so many. I do squeal though when I see a baby zebra, because they are adorable. But I am trying to make a conscious decision to be as excited as I was the first time I saw an animal on safari, every time I see another one. Because it is easy to get complacent, and think “oh giraffe, I saw heaps yesterday…keep driving.” I don’t want to get like that.

All the animals, no matter how few or distant, are exquisite. They truly are. Interacting with one another, feeding, resting, fighting. Who knew that wildebeest and zebra always stick together, as zebras are good at spotting predators, and wildebeest can smell water more than 5km away. Further, baboons will eat leopard. Sneak up on them resting and tear them apart. Savage.

So yes on day 1 we saw zebras, elephants, wildebeest, verval monkeys, waterbucks, impalas, cranes and other various birds. We even chased a lion and later on we chased a pumbaa. I saw the warthog in the distance and yelled to Dad, “pumbaa!” Our driver Abdul knew what I meant right away, and started calling out “here pumbaa” and made pumbaa grunting noises. When it started running, and we drove after it, Abdul couldn’t stop laughing, in a very Lion King Pumbaa laugh. Day 2 involved Manyara National Park, a completely different experience altogether. Where Tangire was very dry and open, Manyara began with a rainforest, lush and green.

We saw blue monkeys, baboons and various butterflies. It then suddenly changed to a harsh barren landscape, which was the pattern throughout in Manyara – varying ecosystems, with very rapid transitions. It was not as impressive a park, because so much wildlife was hidden in the forest, but also because it was more distant than our first day. We saw hippos in the hippo pool, bathing in the water then coming up to bake in the sun. Nearby were thousands of birds – pelicans, cranes, Egyptian ducks and others, coming to wash in the fresh water, then dry their wings in the sun. They would then take flight and circle overhead, testing their wings to see if they were dry enough to fly on.

Now we have 2 parks left, Ngorogoro and Serengeti. Then soon it will all come to an end, and I will leave as quickly as we arrived, with my time in San Diego looming ever closer. I will have to find an apartment and prepare for my classes. But until then, I have more animals to look forward to, including leopards cheetahs and rhinos. And of course many more zebras, wildebeests and elephants. Can’t wait!!

Leaving Laos for a few days of sunny island paradise

I apologize again for my lack of blog posts. Truth is I have been enjoying my trip so much I forgot about my blog!! That and I have so many amazing photos that I want to attach to my posts. But I thought it was time for a quick run down as I am currently sitting in KL low cost airport for a 5 hour layover. It was meant to be a 3 hour layover, but 2 days ago we received an email saying our flight was delayed by 2 hours. So here we sit in coffee bean nursing our ice blended coffees to retain these comfortable plush seats before having to brave the check in havoc. However it is most depressing because they are playing a wicked upbeat playlist very similar to my running playlist. It has been almost 3 months since my knee injury, and although my ruptures have repaired, my knee cap is still not properly aligned. So I have 2 more months of taking it easy according to a knee specialist in Jakarta. And 2 exercises to do every morning and night. They hurt and are difficult but at least make me feel like I am making progress. I may not be up for the San Diego marathon in August, but I am going to find another run to make my goal.

It is also nearing the end of Asia (round 2). Andy and I spent the last 12 days in the beautiful country of Laos. It was the place I most looked forward to going to this trip, because I know no one, except my dad, who has been there. It also seems slower than the rest of SE Asia and at least 10 years behind in terms of tourism and popularity than Cambodia and Vietnam. It did not disappoint. 12 days was too little, and to Andy’s horror I am already planning another trip, to see the entire country by motorbike.

It was such a gorgeous country with such wonderful friendly people. So many beautiful temples, great rural scenery, with mountains, rain forests, the might Mekong River, and so many nature activities such as Rick climbing, caving, kayaking, mountain biking, elephant riding and more. We sadly did not participate in any, due to either rain, my knee, or Andy being diagnosed with tonsillitis on day 2, at the Australian embassy medical clinic in Vientiane. This meant not only did it hurt to eat and drink, but prolonged periods outside or doing physical activity was out of the question. Which is why another trip is on the books!

Whilst in Laos, we spent 2 days in Vientiane, basically in order for Andrew to be well enough for a bus ride. It is just a big city that we didn’t really enjoy. The sights aren’t very spectacular and the river front is very commercialized. It was hard to find local food not in nice restaurants or westernized, but we did find a restaurant literally on the side of the road, where we had our first experience with sticky rice, which became a staple food throughout our trip.

It is soaked for hours and hours, then cleaned and rinsed 3 times, drained, and cooked in a bamboo basket. You pick up a lump in the left hand, take a small portion with your right, and roll it into a ball so it starts to stick to itself. You then use your thumb and two next fingers to dip it and pick up laap or other food. It is only for dips and dry stir fries though. Any curry or saucy dish has steamed rice. Of course we learnt this all throughout our trip, so with our first experience we just picked at it and ate it, not quite sure what to do!

After Vientiane, we took a 4 hour bus to Vang Vieng, the party town. It is basically a town in the middle of no where, with two main strips, full of places serving up hamburgers, pizzas, “happy” additions to your food, and playing family guy or friends on full blast. It is also popular for it’s caves and water sports, but the talk in our bus there and when we left was “are you going tubing?” or “did you go tubing?”. Still, better than Vientiane. It at least had something making it stand out from a normal city. A strange western influence that no one quite understands.

After 1 night we then endured a 7 hour ride to Luang Prabang. My favorite place in Laos. It was beautiful and magical. It had an old school French feel about it. We stayed in the old quarter on the river amongst French colonial style houses and cafes, with crepe shops on street corners and numerous pagodas and temples about. We saw monks live their daily lives, and after 5 days i can now say it is no novelty seeing a monk. They are everywhere in Luang Prabang. It is another reason the city has such charm. It is peaceful and calming, and it is wonderful seeing monks in action at the temples, walking down the road with a yellow umbrella sheltering them from the sun, or younger ones running around playing games like the boys they are. It was our favorite place, and I want to rerun, especially to go further north to Luang Namtha and other more rural areas.

After LP we had another stint in Vang Vieng, this time involving tubing, injuries, lost jandals and a broken camera, but we made it back to town after tubing down the river in the dark unsure of where we were. We only lost $2 of our $7 deposit for returning the tube after 6. And despite the blunders, we can now saw we have tubed down the Mekong in Vang Vieng. Our last day in Vientiane also involved a visit to the COPE visitor centre, which was my favorite museum/war exhibit on this trip. We met a 20 year old man who lost both his lower arms to unexplored ordinances dropped over Laos during the Vietnam war. He was also partially blind but full of life and joy. The only really sad moment was when he revealed he has never had a girlfriend, because “no one likes disabilities”.

The exhibits were neither political nor hateful, they presented statistics, photos, and information about what COPE does to help, through rehabilitation, rural visits and prostheses. It was a wonderful albeit heartbreaking visit, and really brings you back down to earth and makes you thankful for having all your limbs in tact. 40% of those injured are children, as they follow adults into the forest, searching for exploded bombs to sell as scrap metal, and picking up the unexplored ones set aside by the adults. Or they are discovered while farming or even cooking, by heating the earth and setting one off without knowledge of its existence. It is so sad, especially as 30% of the bombs dropped on Laos did not explode upon impact, with up to 90,000 estimated to still be hidden. Makes you thankful to live in a place where you don’t have to worry about stepping on a bomb.

And with that ending our Laos experience, we fly to Jakarta for 2 days to boat out to Kotok island in the thousand islands. Looking forward for more beach time, and time to read. Will be the perfect ending to my 2 months of Asia, and my 2 weeks with Andy before he returns to work.