Travel Notes – Laos (Part II)

[part I]

Vietnam >> Muang Khua > Muang Ngoi > Nong Khiaw > Xamneua (via Viengthong) > Viengxay > Xamtai > Viengxay/Xamneua > Phonsavanh > Thakhek > Thakhek loop > [visa run 1] > Pakse > Don Det/Don Khone > Pakse/Champasak/Don Ko > Thakhek > [visa run 2] > Vientiane > Vang Vieng > Ban Chieng (Tao Guesthouse) > Luang Prabang > Huay Xay >> Thailand [In bold the places covered in this post].

We left Phonsavanh very early and arrived in Thakhek in time to watch the sunset colors from the bus station before taking a tuktuk to the “city center”. We tried to stay at KGB (better known as the guesthouse next to Wang Wang – the place everyone rents motorbikes from) but it was full, so we walked to the Khammouane International Guesthouse and got a double room for 80k kip.

Next day we moved to KGB (35k kip/person) and sorted out our plan for the following days. It was the day where I literally fell in love with the Mekong. Love at first sight. Love at first sunset, that hit me, and hit me hard.

The Mekong is the 4th largest river in Asia, and the 12th in the world. It runs all the way from China, draws most of the border of Laos and Thailand, goes into Cambodia, and meets the sea in the Vietnamese coast. From wherever I watched its waters run, it seemed calm and peaceful, but I’d heard how tricky it can be, so I was always extra careful and controlled my willingness to swim far from its banks.

A friend once told me that he also had the impression it was calm and to easy to cross. So he tried to swim from Thailand to Laos just to find himself in trouble. Little he knew… the current took him far and he found himself in Laos territory, with no money, no passport, and no strength to cross back to Thailand. Luckily he managed to go back, this was a risk I wasn’t willing want to take. (Steve, I’m looking at you!)

After watching the sun setting over Thailand, with the Mekong in front of me, I met the French who meditate, and we decided to do the Thakhek loop together. Karen and I were settled on going for the long loop, and the French agreed to join us.

I’m sure they wondered what the heck they were doing following two Brazilians who barely knew how to drive a motorbike (don’t worry mom, now I know – and hopefully will get my license soon). I was confident Vietnam winding roads were a good training though.

Wang Wang is where 90% of the tourists heading to the loop hire motorbikes from. They are very helpful and provide good maps and info on both short and long loops. Also, it’s worth it to check the wall where travelers leave their impressions of the loop, places to go, places to be cautious of.

I have noticed foreigners tend to drive way faster than locals (not only in Laos, but in Vietnam and Thailand as well), and some of them get in trouble. Hey everyone! There might be a reason why locals drive slowly in winding roads full of gravel and sand… It’s also easier to enjoy the beautiful landscape with you go slowly. Just don’t go too slow when there are sand banks on the road… I learned it the hard way, and thankfully neither me nor Karen got hurt (I only had a few bruises as she fell on top of me. For the record – and for her mom – she had zero scratches).

Back to the loop, we left Thakhek around 9am, towards Xe Bang Fai cave. It’s part of the long loop and it’s no surprise why most people choose to skip it. It’s far! Not only far, it’s hard to get to. Our clothes and faces were literally red-brown from the dust of the road.

After long hours driving, we finally arrived in Bualapha where we spent the night (80k kip double room). The next day we headed to the cave. Wow! Looking back now, I don’t know how I managed to drive there. There were certain points Karen had to get off, cause I wasn’t sure I could do it by myself. At least I knew the French were there to give me some moral support – and laugh at me. I did it. And it was 100% worth it.

Xe Bang Fai is one of the world’s largest river caves. It goes all the way to Vietnam. And it’s quite a hidden gem. We were the only ones there. The 4 of us, our guide, a canoe, bats, and silence. Three hours of absolute silence while we entered this amazing place. Price was 60k kip/boat, for 4 people.

From Xe Bang Fai you have to drive back towards Bualapha, where we had spent the night, in order to continue the loop. The way to Thalang includes two river crossings – including driving the motorbike into a canoe, and staying on it in order to keep the balance. Quite a challenge, I’d say…

We all survived the canoes, but our mistake was to continue towards our next stop on the same day. We drove on the Ho Chi Min trail (and that was when I was finally able to answer Esteban’s question) while the sun was setting. It was getting dark and cold, and we were to optimistic thinking we’d find a guesthouse in the next village (Ban Langkhang). Well, we didn’t; there were two guesthouses there and both were full. We had to drive ~70km more in the dark, in the cold, until we got to Gnommalat.

Lesson (that should already had been) learned: never underestimate your time driving, the cold of Laos nights, and your tiredness. Finally, we found a guesthouse a few km before Gnommalat. We were exhausted!

Next day, well enough rested, we continued to Thalang. The road goes through a dammed area, offering beautiful/sad views of a reservoir landscape. The blue sky followed us all the way to Sabaidee Guesthouse. This time we arrived early and took advantage of the time we had there to get ourselves drunk with pastis and to improve our pétanque techniques. The French didn’t really like the fact that two Brazilians playing pétanque for the first time beat them a couple of times. But I have to be honest that I don’t remember much about that evening. By then, I hadn’t been drinking alcohol for a while (you won’t believe how much money you save if you don’t drink alcohol while traveling. Thanks Carolina!) and a few shots of pastis were enough to (almost) knock me down. Next day we decided to have a rest (and recovery) day before continuing our journey to the famous Konglor cave.

During our rest day we met a bunch of other French people – they really like Laos, it seems – and learned more about the secrets of pétanque et pastis 😉 . We also met some interesting characters, including one who I’d meet again in Thakhek, who used to work for MAG. He told me stories about Laos and the endless UXOs that still exist in the country.

The day after, we headed to Nahin, where we spent the night and from there visited Konglor (Sanhak Guesthouse, 50k kip person/night). I didn’t want to go inside the cave. Karen took advantage of her Asian looking heritage and went further without paying the foreigner’s fee. I, on the other hand, in addition to not wanting to pay, didn’t want to pollute my memories of a Laotian cave. Xe Bang Fai already impressed me in such a way that I preferred to keep that memory instead. Maybe, when I go back to Laos, I’ll go inside Konglor, but it just didn’t feel right then.

There’s another way of getting to Konglor instead of going all the way to Nahin. A few km before our guesthouse  in Thalang there’s a left turn that leads to the other side of the cave. There, it’s possible to pay a boat to take you all the way to the other side. We met two people on motorbikes who did that. They said it was quite hard to get to the cave, but seemed pretty pleased with the experience.

On the way back I had my first and only fall. Already mentioned above and here. Nothing serious plus a lesson: if you drive too slow when you see a sand bank… good luck!

The next day, we were on our way back to Thakhek. It’s a pretty boring drive that includes around 120km on the main road, which is a straight line. Stops to stretch your legs and give your butt a rest are highly recommended.

Once back from the loop, we stayed again at KGB and did our first visa run to Thailand. Usually people do the other way round, from Thailand to its neighboring countries, to extend their stay in Thailand. While Brazilians can stay up to 90 days there, most nationalities get only 30 – which is definitely not enough to travel the whole country.

The visa run from Thakhek to Nakhon Phanom was cheap and easy. We took a bus at the bus station (18k kip), left Laos, entered Thailand, said goodbye to the bus driver, crossed the street, left Thailand, paid the US$30 visa fee (for Brazilians, price changes according to nationality. Also for Brazilians, don’t forget to have you yellow fever vaccination card with you as you’ll need it to enter Thailand, even if it’s only for a few minutes), entered Laos, took another bus, arrived at the bus station. In less than 2 hours we were back in Thakhek with another stamp in our passports, and ready to pack and continue south.

The ride to Pakse (20k kip) took us around 7 hours. You never know how long it’s really going to take. It depends a lot on the driver and on how many times passengers ask the bus to stop so they can pee. That’s right. Suddenly someone screams something in the back, the driver pulls away, everybody gets off and find themselves a spot in the nature. We heard stories of drivers who stopped on the way to get their hair cut, or to continue a board game they’d started the day before. That said, the trip from Thakhek to Pakse can take up to 12 hours.  We were lucky.

In Pakse we stayed at a guesthouse by the river (Senoda River Guesthouse 25-30k kip/person, depending on the accommodation) – and went back there every time we were back in town. It was simple, but off the main road and pretty calm. As most places in Laos, there was no hot shower, but at the end of the day you’ll be happy to take a fresh shower and cool down a bit.

Another place we became “regulars” was the Indian restaurant by the main road, across from Ms Noy motorbike rental shop where we rented our motorbike to go on the Bolaven Plateau loop (on Part III of my Laos’ travel notes). The restaurant is pretty good and prices are cheap. Another great surprise from Laos: amazing Indian food!

Ms Noy is married to Yves, a Belgian guy who fell in love with her (and Laos) a couple of years ago. Together, they run the rental shop and provide info sessions about the trip to Bolaven plateau. They are very well organized and trustworthy. I’d definitely recommend renting a motorbike from them. Attention: if you’re running on a short schedule, you should book your bike in advance.

Two nights in Pakse and we headed to the Four Thousand Islands, known in Lao by Si (four) Phan Don. The original plan was to stay there a couple of days, maybe 4, maybe 5… but it turned out to be 14!

My stay in Don Det deserves a post for itself. There, my love for Laos grew stronger and I could see myself staying, staying, staying. When people ask me what I did there, I don’t really know what to tell. I stayed there. I rode a bike there. I found my “private” river beach that I sometimes shared with a family of buffalos. I stayed at Mama Mon & Papa’s guesthouse, where I ate the best hash browns I’ve ever had. I watched some of the most beautiful  sunsets of my life. I felt I could have stayed…

In the 14 days Karen and I spent in Don Det, we rented bikes (10k kip/day) and explored both islands, Don Det and Don Khone. We met Mike and his wife Bountip, who run The Boat House; we went kayaking in the Mekong, and we just didn’t want to leave – as you can probably tell by now.

Don Det can be a party place where foreigners go to get drunk and high. But there are alternatives to that, and places to go that don’t include mushroom shakes or high doses of alcohol. Don Khone seemed to me as a more “family-like” place to stay, with more options for “boutique” guesthouses, but I was more than happy with Mama Mon’s bungalow by the river.

After 14 days, and with our visas about to expire again, we left Don Det, and headed to Pakse once again.

If anyone asks me what my favorite place in Laos is, it’s going to be hard to choose, but my heart will go straight to the islands surrounded by the river that stole my heart and that I now carry on my skin. ❤ Mekong ❤

My ‘must dos’ in Don Det & Don Khone:

  • Go kyaking in the Mekong (160k kip for the day, including breakfast and lunch): yes, it’s full of tourists, but it’s beautiful too, and you get the chance to paddle right on the border line with Cambodia. Most tourists go to see the pink dolphins (which we saw), but having visited the Amazon a couple of times, it was no big deal for me.
  • Rent a bicycle (10k kip/day) and ride around the islands, specially Don Khone. From east to west, west to east, get shortcuts, get lost. There’s NO need to pay every time you cross the bridge from Don Det to Don Khone. Just say you’re not going to the waterfall, and keep going. (but if you do go to the waterfall, you’ll have to pay it anyway)
  • Have breakfast (hash browns!!!!), lunch or dinner at Mama Mon’s. The food is delicious, portions are huge, and price is incredibly cheap.
  • Eat the burger at the burger place I can’t remember the name… tsc tsc tsc… I just remember it was delicious!
  • Watch the starts on the beach in Don Det.
  • Flirt with strangers. Always. Not only there 😉

Travel notes – Laos

Wow… how hard it is to write about the country that stole my heart…

It was easier to write a Love Letter to Laos than to write about the places I visited during almost 3 months there. The moment I started listing places I’ve been to, people I’ve met, things I’ve done, food I’ve eaten, saudade hit me, and hit me hard. And for more than a month I procrastinated and postponed this post – the first part of my travel notes on Laos.

Hard to explain how and why, but I’ll never forget Delilah’s key lime pie and sunset in Nong Khiaw; the winding roads leading to Xamtai and the amazing weaving work I saw there; the caves in Viangxay; my first sunset on the ❤ Mekong ❤ in Thakhek; Bang Fei Cave in the company of the French who meditate; a bungalow, a hammock, and the best hashbrown ever in Don Det, at Mama Mon’s Guesthouse; the ❤ Mekong ❤ and my “secret” beach in Don Khone; waterfalls in the Bolaven Plateau; Captain Hook and all-you-can-know about coffee; visa runs to Thailand (and not from Thailand, as it usually goes); hangover after meeting the South Africans in Vientiane; duck love 60km North of Vang Vieng; Secret Pizza in Luang Prabang; and the slow goodbye going up the Mekong towards Thailand.

There are so many things to write about Laos. So many things other than simple travel notes. Feelings, flavors, colors, faces, roads, valleys, mountains, rivers. But for now: travel notes.

My itinerary was as shown below.

Vietnam >> Muang Khua > Muang Ngoi > Nong Khiaw > Xamneua (via Viengthong) > Viengxay > Xamtai > Viengxay/Xamneua > Phonsavanh > Thakhek > Thakhek loop > [visa run 1] > Pakse > Don Det/Don Khone > Pakse/Champasak/Don Ko > Thakhek > [visa run 2] > Vientiane > Vang Vieng > Ban Chieng (Tao Guesthouse) > Luang Prabang > Huay Xay >> Thailand [In bold the places I’m going to cover for now].

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Exploring and falling in love with Laos

Laos – Part I

I entered Laos from Vietnam. Took a bus in Lao Cai to Dien Bien Phu and from there a minibus to Muang Khua. The border crossing was ok. The visa for Brazilians cost US$30 plus small fees at the border that add to about US$6. Everyone needs a photography. Visa is valid for 28 days. To get a new visa all you need to do is to cross the border (in my case to Thailand) or ask for an extension at the police department (not everywhere, but for sure in Pakse, Luang Prabang, Vientiane); extension costs US$2/day plus admin fees. If the plan is to stay another month in Laos, the best option is a visa run. Or two. Or three 😉

I) Muang Khua – Muang Ngoi –  Nong Khiaw

 >>> Muang Khua is a small village and most people stop there on the way from/to Northern Vietnam. I didn’t do anything special there but heard there are nice walks and hikes to hill tribes. In Muang Khua my love for sticky rice started…
>>> Muang Ngoi is a small village at the riverbank of the Nam Ou (Ou River). From Muang Khua we took a boat (120k kip each) and the journey took approximately 3 hours. The boat leaves when it’s full or you have to pay for chartering it, which can be quite expensive if traveling on a budget. Tip: if you’re the first one on the pier, you’re probably getting a higher price for the ticket. Get there and wait for other people before inquiring about the price.
Muang Ngoi is lovely. Great place to stay for a few days and just relax. There are hikes to local villages where there are homestays as cheap as 10k kip/person. Guesthouses around the village vary from 50-80k kip/person or room. Negotiate and you’ll get a good deal.
The Chinese are building a dam upstream and the project includes a road that will connect Muang Ngoi to other towns in the area. I believe it will impact the peaceful and car-less atmosphere.
>>> The boat from Muang Ngoi to Nong Khiaw leaves around 8:30am and takes 1.5 hour.
In Nong Khiaw Laos started to steal my heart… I didn’t know it yet.

My favorite place to stay is also where I had the best key lime pie in SE Asia: Delilah’s Cafe. Karen and I offered to help with designing a new menu and were honored by having a pictured of us hanging on the wall 🙂 Let me know if you find it!

What a hard task to put together a new menu with pictures of the delicious dishes prepared by Miss Lie! We had to order the ones we didn’t have a picture yet… and eat! Oh, oh… there goes my healthy diet based on Vietnamese Pho… The highlight of the menu? KEY-LIME PIE! The.Best.Pie in SE Asia! I mean it. Really mean it.

Harps, who manages Delilah’s, also runs Tiger Trails and is a live information desk – he hates it, but it’s true. He knows everything about bus schedules, things to do and see, etc. Tiger Trails organizes tours to the main attractions in the area, including the 100 waterfall. Stop by and spare a few minutes chatting with this unique New Zealander. At first he might seem a bit crazy… but hey! who isn’t?! You can trust his recommendations 100%.

I didn’t do any of the tours despite staying in Nong Khiaw for 6 days – original plan: 2-3 – but I did check out the viewpoint across the bridge to watch the sunset. The view is beautiful! The hike is steep and took me a bit more than 1 hour. If going for the sunset don’t forget to bring a headlamp with you. The trail is pretty closed by vegetation and can be dark even if the sun is not 100% gone. I saw people taking sleeping bags and planning to stay at the viewpoint overnight so they could watch the sunrise. It’s an option – not sure if an officially allowed one – for those who want to get sunset and sunrise but don’t want to hike up twice.

Other places to eat and stay in Nong Khiaw: crossing the bridge there are two Indian restaurants that serve cheap and very good food (Deen and Chennai). No need to feel bad for choosing one over the other; it turns out it’s all in the same family. I preferred the food at Chennai and loved the mint-lime shake at Deen. If in doubt, try both. For accommodation, there are plenty of bungalows with hammock and river view.

I had no idea where to go after Nong Khiaw. First I thought of going northwest to Luang Namtha, near the border with Myanmar, cause the original plan was to cross to Thailand in Thakhek – so it made sense to explore the North before heading South. Karen wanted to go to Luang Prabang, but I didn’t feel like going to a “big” city just yet. What to do? Where to go next? Maybe stay longer in Nong Khiaw? I could definitely do that until I met Remigio, a Mexican visiting Laos to learn more about the country’s silk and weaving. Oh… did I say weaving? Yes… and Remigio pointed me to the Northeastern part of Laos, to Xamtai to be more exact, saying the village was known for having the best silk and weaving in the whole country.

That was it! So we headed East!

[NOTE] >>>> You can also go to Phonsaly, going north on Nam Ou (Ou River). I didn’t go but heard it has some interesting hikes and hill tribes to visit,

II) Viengthong – Xamneua – Viengxay – Xamtai >> from Nong Khiaw you can take a bus on a loooong journey to Viengthong where there’s a national park where you can see – if really, really lucky – tigers. I only spent the night in Viengthong (at a guesthouse at the bus station) to break the journey to Xamneua in 2. The ride was very bumpy, winding and I dont know how people can do it in just 1 day! If you get carsick, make sure you have plenty of Dramin pills with you. Also, be aware that the locals get really – really – carsick, so be prepared to having people throwing up in plastic bags next to you. (sorry… was this comment gross? well, if you plan to travel by bus/mini-bus/van in Vietnam and Laos, you’d better get used to it – also to peeing wherever the driver stops as bathroom breaks don’t usually include bathrooms)

Most people go to Viengthong and continue to Phonsavanh instead of  Xamneua.

>>> Xamneua is just a stop for people traveling to/from Vietnam (there’s another border crossing near, could be another option for you). It’s still interesting, but I wouldn’t spend too much time there. NOTE*** if you plan to head to Viengxay, you should take a tuktuk as soon as you get to Xamneua bus station to the other station (it’s far to walk!). Last bus to Viengxay leaves around noon if I remember correctly. You can also take a taxi, but it will be more expensive (150k kip).

Because I was hungry when we arrived in Xamneua, I couldn’t think clearly and was very irritated by the tuk tuk drivers who approached us. I wanted food. That’s all I could think of. Only after finding some sticky rice, we realized the bus to Viengxay left from another station. And we walked, and walked, and walked.

And when we got there, there were no more buses. Luckily we were able to get a ride with a Chinese who’s working in Laos. It was probable the most comfortable road trip we had during all our time in the country. The car was clean, silent, the ac worked, the driver was not “crazy”.

>>> Viengxay is known by the caves where the Lao government hid and operated from 1964-1973, when the country was heavily bombed by the US. Yes… Laos suffered intense bombing during the Vietnam war, even though it was never on war against the US. Still today there are thousands of UXOs (unexploded ordnances) in Lao lands, which prevent the land to be worked and still cause many fatalities.
When in Viengxay, you should visit the caves and learn more about the history behind the bombings. In order to do that, you’ll need a guide (they keep the keys to the caves, so you can’t visit them by yourself). Book your tour at the tourist center. It’s worth visiting, and the visit takes around 2-3 hours.

For food, there’s also a good Indian restaurant in town, called Sabaidee Odisha. Try the Uttapam!

>>> Xamtai is the weaving village Remigio told me about. It was quite an adventure to get there. It’s far. It’s cold. Nobody speaks English. Nobody really understands why two farang want to get there. But the weaving… ah… it’s just AMAZING! I felt the language barrier while visiting Xamtai. I wanted to ask so many questions about the silk farming, the weaving techniques, the history and tradition behind the patterns… But I couldn’t find an English speaker (only weeks after I left, I learned there’s one person at the Culture/Tourism center who speaks English and is keen in showing around).

I left Xamtai with plans to go back. Maybe to stay longer, maybe learn from the weavers. That’s for sure a place I’ll go back to.

III) After Xamtai, we finally started to make our way South, through Phonsavanh, the place where the Plain of Jars are located – archeological sites with huge jars that nobody really knows how/why they got there. If you’re into archeology, you should check it out. Another must see while in town in the MAG UXO visitor center, with videos and photos about the period when Laos was bombarded by the US, and the challenges the country still faces due to existing UXOs.

In Phonsavanh we stayed at Janeeda Guesthouse, and were stuck there one day more than planned because buses to Thakhek only run every other day. And once on our way to Thakhek I opened another chapter of my love for Laos. Soon I would meet, for the first time, the ❤ Mekong ❤

[more about Southern Laos and then my way North again pretty soon!]

Travel notes – Vietnam

Part II

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First things first 🙂

(Part I here)

We arrived in Hanoi on Christmas Eve, on a full train coming from Ninh Binh. We spent the trip chatting with a smiley 9 years-old girl and her family. Everyone going to Hanoi for the weekend.

It was the first time since Livia joined me that we were not attacked by tuk tuk and taxi drivers on the way out of the train station. Point for Hanoi! From there we took a bus (more points to Hanoi!) and walked a few blocks to get to our hostel (Old Quarter View Hanoi), in the heart of the Old Quarter. All we needed after getting settled was to find a place to have our Christmas dinner and enjoy the French wine we bought in Hue.

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Christmas in Hanoi

Just like the other places we visited, we walked, walked and walked around Hanoi. Well, not really “around” Hanoi; maybe around the Old Quarter is a better description of the area we covered. From the hostel to the lake. Around the lake. Back to the hostel. Back to the lake.

It was interesting to see how the Vietnamese people use the public space on weekends. The streets around the lake were closed for cars and bikes, and were packed with people; mostly families with kids. They organize games such as tug of war, jumping rope, and crafts. In addition to the games, many Christmas decorations, lights and this song everywhere [play at your own risk] – even though only 8% of the population is Christian (Vietnam is one of the least religious countries in the world where 73% of the population declare themselves irreligious).

In Hanoi we visited the Hoa Lo Prison, also known as Hanoi Hilton by the American prisoners kept there during the Vietnam War. And we tried to visit the Ho Chi Ming Museum and the Citadel. “Tried” because we picked the wrong days to go to each of them. Sunday and Monday respectively. They were closed. (If you go to Hanoi, go to the Citadel on Sunday and vice-versa).

Also in Hanoi I saw a friend who I met in 2010, in Berkeley, CA. I remembered Dang as this funny guy who thought us a funny warm up exercise to keep us awake throughout the day, despite all the party from the night before. He picked us up at the hostel and took us out for dinner. “No snakes, Dang, I’m not ready for that”, “Chicken, then”. And this is how we tried the traditional black chicken from Vietnam. We were skeptical at first, but pretty amazed by the taste after we tried (until I found the chicken’s head in my bowl and had to covered it to continue eating. Still: delicious). Dang also took is for a coffee with view to the lake we had circled a couple of times. We laughed a lot and had a great time with the Vietnamese hospitality. Thank you Dang!

On December 27th Livia left and I took a bus to Cat Ba island [200K VND], northeast of Hanoi. No goodbyes because neither of us like goodbyes; but also because I didn’t want to think how my next days would be without her. I’d be traveling alone after a month.

I ended up in Cat Ba for a few reasons; rock climbing one of the (i.e. the great time I spent in Tonsai, Railay). There I stayed at Mr. Zoom’s (5 USD room with private bathroom), who also owns Cat Ba Climbing.

The island is a great place to take a break from the busy Hanoi or the touristy Hoi An. And it was all I was looking for: sea, mountain, rock climbing, nice people, and the best Pho Bo I had in Southeast Asia. At first I thought I’d stay 3-4 days there, and ended up staying 6 days, and celebrating the New Year playing pebolim with a group of Italian, Dutch, Mozambican, German, and a Brazilian from Sao Paulo who knows people from the climbing gym I used to go to.

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Best Pho Bo EVER!

In Cat Ba, I strongly recommend rock climbing. Talk to Mr. Zoom or the super helpful people from Asia Outdoors, and ask about the climbing areas (an entrance fee is charged) and/or deep water soloing (DWS). Take a boat trip too (14USD) – unless you go DWS, because you kind of see the same things – and get the impressive and scenic landscape of Vietnam take your breath away. You can also hike to a view point, on the way to hidden valley, where you have an amazing 360 degrees view of the island.

After staying almost a week and starting the new year surrounded by the sea (literally) and good people, I took a bus to Hai Phong (140K VND) and from there to Cao Bang (260K VND) This time with another travel partner: the Brazilian of Japanese descent.

I’m not really sure how we chose Cao Bang. We had no idea what we would do there, but we went anyways. The bus dropped us off at 4am and we walked about 2km to the hostel owned by a lovely Vietnamese family who, despite not speaking English, were great hosts. It was the first time in Vietnam when I felt like “the different” one, mainly because of my height – and traveling with a Brazilian Japanese doesn’t make me less tall.

We walked around town, enjoyed great Vietnamese coffee, and rented a bike to visit Bang Gioc, a waterfall (40K VND) located at the border with China. As in Cat Ba, my breath was taken away by the scenic limestone formations, this time joined by winding roads and rice fields.

From Cao Bang we started a bus adventure to Ha Giang. We left on a van at 5:30 am and arrived 12 hours later, changing to a mini-bus in Bao Lam (120K + 80K VND). The roads were bad because of the rain. Still worth it.

Ha Giang was my alternative destination to Sa Pa, where most of the tourism in Northern Vietnam is, and I was happy with the decision to go there instead. We stayed at Kiki’s House Hostel where we also rented a bike. There I finally completed my process of falling in love with Northern Vietnam.

I can’t find words while writing here to express the beauty of the Ha Giang loop. The mountains, valleys, colors, people, rice fields, roads. Just: astonishing. And cold, so take your winter jacket and/or windproof with you.

Must see/visit in the Ha Giang loop:

Lung Cu – the most northern point in Vietnam, from where you can see China!

Street Market. I was there on the weekend and went to two Sunday markets (in Dong Van and Meo Vac). It is nice to see the people on their best clothes, carrying their best products ranging from rice to cattle, from corn to huge pigs. Women wearing very colorful outfits, while men were mainly wearing black.

Lung Tam – impressive weaving and dying techniques

We were lucky that in the only moment we were hesitant to take a right or left, a local guide told us to follow him. We took the left then.[1] We then took a newly open road through the valley, with spectacular views of the mountains playing hide and seek with the sun.

Back in Ha Giang we took a day off before moving towards Laos, where I fell in love. My Vietnam visa was going to expire in 2 days and I didn’t want to risk dealing with the officials at the border. At 5:30 am we got on a mini-bus to Lao Cai (130K VND, arrives at noon). From there another bus at 5:30pm to Dien Bien (215K VND), and from there 6am to Muang Khua (120K VND in Laos.

[1] When in doubt, always left!

Travel Notes – Vietnam

In 4 weeks in Vietnam I experienced different ways of traveling.

First I had the company of a very good friend who decided to spend her holidays with me – well, actually she decided to spend her holidays in SE Asia and I happen to be here, but it’s nice to think the other way around. Because she only had 25 days and wanted to visit Cambodia (travel notes here) and Vietnam. The first two weeks were a bit rushed – 2 days here, 3 days there, and a lot of long distance traveling. Still, it was completely worth it and enough to surprise me in a very positive way. The first part of these notes covers the first half of my Vietnam trip, from Ho Chi Ming to Hanoi. The second part (coming soon) covers Christmas in Hanoi, climbing in Cat Ba island, and falling in love with the landscape in the northern part of the country.

Part I

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Citadel, Hanoi

First, I need to confess I wasn’t very excited about traveling to Vietnam. Not that I’ve never thought about it – it’s actually on =e item of my bucket list to do a bicycle trip in Vietnam. Now I want to do it even more. I’m glad she insisted this was the one country she really wanted to see and we ended up taking the bus with Mekong Express from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Ming City (Saigon).

Wow! Saigon is… Saigon. I mean, tons of motorcycles everywhere. And by everywhere I mean EVERYWHERE! On the streets, on the sidewalks, on pedestrian crossings, inside stores. There’s no such thing as looking left or right when crossing a street in Saigon. You have to look all sides, many times, and look again. Oh, wait! AGAIN! I stopped at a crossroad and took a 2 minutes video with non-stopping traffic, 99.9% two-wheels vehicles.

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Vietnamese breakfast!

On my first morning in Vietnam I had Pho Bo for breakfast.My first Pho ever was at a Vietnamese restaurant in the US and really enjoyed it, so I was excited to finally try it in Vietnam. I was not disappointed. During the next four weeks I had Pho for breakfast, lunch, dinner. And I’m proud to say that my first breakfast in Vietnam was a delicious Pho accompanied by Vietnamese iced coffee. Yummy!

In Saigon we walked, walked, walked. To the train station, to the Cathedral, to the Post Office, to the War Remnants Museum. The latter, by the way, is a very interesting place to visit. The museum tells the story of the Vietnam War from the lenses of the East. It’s a very impactful and sometimes disturbing place, with war pictures I could not look at. It was super interesting to learn about history from a perspective that is not widely publicized in the West. I highly recommend a visit to the Museum.

On our second night in Saigon we had to change hostels and by chance ended up finding the brand new “Cozy House 160”, very good price with delicious breakfast (plenty of fruits included).

From noisy and busy but delightful Saigon we got on a train to Da Nang and from there a bus to Hoi An. The train ticket cost 623k VND on Soft Seat coach – there are sleeper options for a higher price. The soft seats were pretty comfortable for an overnight in our opinion. From Da Nang to Hoi An there is a local bus (#1) and it costs 20k VND. The ticket collector will try to charge you more and because we knew that I had the exact amount with me plus 5k VND just in case. When he passed collecting the money I handed him 40k and he asked for 40k more “20 for each bag” he said. We said “no way” and despite the pressure we did not surrender and he ended up accepting 45k. Tip for those planning to take that bus: pay attention to what locals pay, have exact change, and a little extra if you feel like paying a bit more. I guess in the end it all depends on your travel budget and willingness to corroborate with this kind of practice.

Bus ride from Da Nang to Hoi An takes approximately 1 hour.

Hoi An is cute little historic town recognized by UNESCO as a world heritage site. Hoi An was an important trading port in the Southeast Asian region from the 15th to the 19th century, and its architecture shows strong influences of the Japanese and the Chinese.

During the 3 days we spent there we bikes to the beach – to reaffirm my certainty that there are no beaches like in Brazil, we walked and walked around the old quarters full of yellow houses, shops, restaurants and cafes, and saw (and bought) beautiful handmade scarfs.

I want to say Hoi An is a place not to be missed. It’s charming, it’s architecture is beautiful, but it is pretty touristic, and by that I mean, shops, restaurants, cafes, shops, restaurants, cafes. We didn’t have enough time to get off the beaten path, and I’m sure there are plenty of tiny alleys to explore.

Ah, I was almost forgetting! Hoi An is known by having amazing tailors. People from all over the world go to Hoi An to have their clothes tailor made. Not only clothes but leather shoes too. We didn’t get anything tailor made there but met a few people who did and were pretty happy with the quality and price.

A few tips if going to Hoi An:

Bus Da Nang > Hoi An (read above)

Bicycles on the beach: we were charged 10k VND to park our bicycles near the beach. We were told bicycles were not allowed… we even had someone blowing a whistle at me. The trick is to go around and access the beach from another point. We saw plenty of people walking their bikes on the beach.

There’s a fee to enter Hoi An Old Town. Well, apparently there is a fee but how compulsory it is is debatable. We paid the 120k VND at one of the check points, however there were a lot of people coming and going without showing tickets and depending on the checkpoint there was nobody really checking. Again, it’s up to you to pay it or not. If you believe it’s benefiting the town, go for it.

Don’t forget to try the Banh Minh sandwich at the Chef’s restaurant. It’s a bit more expensive than the ones you find on the streets, but it’s delicious!!!! And the view from the rooftop is great. Totally worth going out of my gluten-free diet.

If you appreciate handmade scarfs – like I do – check out Viethands’ (12 Bach Dang) scarfs. Beautiful work with silk, cotton and linen.

From Hoi An we took a bus to Hue (USD 6), another historic Vietnamese town with ruins from the palace where the Nguyen dynasty emperors lived and was also the national capital from 1802-1945. It was the first time in Vietnam that we had heavy rain. A lot of rain. So much that we had to wait for a few hours before taking a walk around the city. By the time we left the hotel we were starving! So we headed to the market hoping to find some delicious local food. Well… not this time. I won’t go into details on what I saw there – my travel partner knows – but for the first time since I started traveling and eating in local places I was the one asking to leave because I wouldn’t eat anything there. We went to the big supermarket next door.

Things to do in Hue include the Citadel (150k VND) where the Imperial City used to be, as well as the Forbidden Purple City, the emperor’s home. There are also a couple of other places to see and visit, including tour on the Perfume River, but we only saw the Citadel this time.

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Rainy Hue

The hotel where we stayed was one of the best in Vietnam. The location is also great with a couple of good restaurants a few steps away.

At our hotel we bought a bus ticket to Ninh Binh (200k VND). The bus ride started with the wrong foot. I did not know about the apparently common rudeness of bus service towards foreigners in Vietnam. After a smooth train ride from Saigon to Da Nang, including onboard service during the whole trip, I was not expecting the treatment we received on the way to Ninh Binh. I explain: despite being half empty, the driver sent us to the back of the bus. I asked if we could stay in the front because we didn’t want to stay close to the toilet and we were getting off before most people. If I can recall correctly, I was pretty polite when I asked him, who replied shouting at me something like “go to the back or get off”; I asked why and he just shouted “get off” and ordered someone outside to take my bag out of the trunk. Seriously, I was paralyzed. What have I done to piss him off to that level? No idea. But later, talking to other foreigners I found out it was not an isolated incident, and it’s more common than we think.

Also after that, Livia and I were quite concerned with being yielded at by angry Vietnamese men. From that moment on I can say we started to read all the signs two, three, four times – even though we had no idea what they were saying.

The ride to Ninh Binh was very unpleasant: the initial stress + infinite horns + a driver who smoked one cigarette after the other [thanks for sending us to the back – at the end], that we did not bother getting off in the middle of nowhere at 3 in the morning.[1] We started walking and at the end of the street we arrived at the Ninh Binh hostel [check name!] where a kind security guard allowed us in and showed us couches + blankets where we were finally able to rest.

In Ninh Binh we rented a bike and drove around the region. The landscape is very scenic, as it is in the whole country with huge limestone formations,  a lot of green, and charming roads.We could had explored more, but honestly we were tired and didn’t enjoy Ninh Binh as we could have. One thing that tired me about Vietnam in general is having to pay to see everything. I had an expectation that in Ninh Binh we could explore the area without having people running after us asking for money or charging to park, to look, to whatever. Or maybe we were just tired and wanted to stay in one place longer.

For whatever reason, we decided to go to Hanoi earlier and spend Christmas there. After making sure the hostel would give us the night we had already paid back, and confirming a place to stay in Hanoi, we rushed to the train station and were able to buy a ticket for the 1pm train. And so we left Ninh Binh towards Hanoi.

[1] When buying the ticket we were told the bus would arrive in the morning… “around 6am”… ahn ahn…

Travel notes – Cambodia

I made my way to Cambodia from Bangkok, where I met a friend who came to SE Asia to spend her vacation with me. We took a flight in BKK and landed in Siem Reap 50 minutes later (Nok Air, USD55). It’s possible to do it by bus or train, you just need to be aware of the visa and border-crossing scams at the border. More about Poipet famous’ scams here. Because we spent more time in Bangkok than previously planned[i], the flight seemed a better option for us.

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Siem Reap is a lively city with its economy based on the tourism around Angkor Wat. It’s quite busy, but nothing compared to Bangkok. Despite being pretty touristy, it’s the #1 “must visit” place in Cambodia, and I’d add, in SE Asia. Lonely Planet features Angkor Wat as #1 travel destination, and most people go to Cambodia only because of the temples. That (temples, not LP) was also the main reason we wanted to visit Cambodia.

We spent 4 days there. First day was a rest day – to recover from all the walking around Bangkok and to plan our visit to the temples. The ticket is not cheap and there’s talk around town that it will increase significantly in 2017. In December 2016 it cost USD20/1day and USD40/3days. I don’t think 1 day is enough to see everything.

We visited most of the temples in Angkor complex + three others located 30-40km away from the city. We were speechless most of the time. Personally, I’m not sure if I found Bagan more impactful. The style is very different and I keep thinking whether it would change my impression if I had visited Angkor Wat first. I really don’t know. Still, there were moments where my jaw would literally drop.

Ta Phrom, for example, is magical. All those trees hugging the ruins in such a delicate way, as if they were put there at the same time. The silence… well, silence until the arrival of hordes of Chinese – IMPORTANT: get there as early as possible! And don’t stress too much about the Chinese. They do outnumber everyone else and stressing about their loudness, selfie-sticks, and lack of “simancol” won’t change the way they behave and will just ruin your day.

We chose to do the long circuit first (on our 2nd day) and leave the short circuit, which include Angkor Wat, for the following day. On the 3rd day we visit the Lady Temple, a tiny but extremely impressive building with incredible details everywhere you look. So delicate and so powerful at the same time.

Siem Reap is definitely more expensive than other places in the country. If you get there from outside the country, you might have an impression that things are pretty cheap. Hold your consuming impulses though and buy your scarfs in Battambang or Phnom Penh instead.

You can visit the temples by bycicle, motorbike, tuk tuk, car/van/bus, but we didn’t even consider the latter. It’s a great feeling to feel the wind in your face while moving from one temple to another – and it’s also a nice way to recharge and get ready for more walking around ruins.

We found a nice tuk tuk driver and decided to stick with him during our stay. It was great. He had a really good vibe. He was so nice that – our mistake – we didn’t realize he was adding things to what was agreed and would charge for it later. So, as a piece of advice, you don’t need to change drivers if you like the first one, but don’t forget to agree on the price before you leave for the day and ask him over and over again if what he’s suggesting is included in the previous agreement. I know, I know, very basic thing, won’t happen again (so I hope).

Food: we rediscovered the meaning of “fresh fruit juice” with creamy and incredibly tasty smoothies for USD1. *** avocado + passionfruit is an awesome combination! I also loved Nom Krok, a rice-coconut pancake (gluten-free!) that you find everywhere.

Before heading to Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital, we decided to visit Battambang. Capitol Tours sells tickets for USD4.5 if you buy at their office (~1km from the old market). Hotels sell it for USD6-8. Important: call to confirm pick up from your hotel if you buy the ticket directly with the company. They “forgot” us and we heard it was not the first time it happened. Luckily our host called them and thanks to the delayed departure we were still able to catch it.

Battambang is the 2nd largest city in Cambodia but it feels like a small town in the countryside. It was founded in the 11th century by the Khmer empire.

It was a nice surprise after busy Siem Reap and before even busier Phnom Penh. In Battambang we rented a bike and rode along the river. Every kid in town would wave to us and say hello. When passing in front of a school where kids were going home we almost caused an accident because they’d look at us instead of at the traffic!

“Hello, bye-bye” was our motto in Battambamg.

Food: Domlong An or Noum Domlong Barang. Delicious sweet potato cakes for only 500 riel (USD 0.12)

From Battambang we took a bus (USD5) to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, situated on the Mekong River bank.

It was the first time we were shocked with the traffic and amount of motorcycles (it was certainly an anticipation to Ho Chi Minh/Saigon in Vietnam, but that’s another post…). It was also the first time we hated the place where we stayed and maybe it influenced the way we visited the city. Yes, there were better options but they were also more expensive; we just stayed out for as long as we could so we’d fall sleep as soon as possible.

The Royal Palace (USD6.50 > price will increase to USD10 in January 2017) deserves a visit according to Livia. I didn’t go inside but she loved – and I trust her, so you should go 🙂

On our last day in Phnom Penh we rented a bike and drove to Choeung Ek (USD6), a killing field during the Khmer Rouge regime, in the 1970s. It’s a very disturbing place. I felt a peaceful atmosphere in the area but then, listening to the stories of atrocities that happened there… it’s so sad to realize what the human being is capable of. It was the first place in Cambodia where I witnessed total silence among visitors (including the Chinese!).

From Phnom Penh we bought a bus ticket with Mekong Express to Ho Chi Minh, in Vietnam, for USD12. The trip took us about 7 hours.

It was a short visit to Cambodia and I’m sure there are many other interesting things to do there. What we could notice is that people are extremely friendly, food is similar to Thai food in many ways, and the Khmer culture is present everywhere we visited. For next time we’d love to visit the mountains and the coast. One more thing for next time… I guess I’m never leaving SE Asia 😉

 

PS-You can pay pretty much everything in American Dollars throughout Cambodia.

 

 

 

 

 

[i] Because I had to get my visa to Vietnam and thought that it would be easier at the Vietnamese Embassy in BKK – oh, make laugh! First I tried in Yangon, Myanmar, and they wanted to charge USD70 for the visa. I knew it should be cheaper so I tried BKK… but no. They wanted to charge me USD61. I ended up getting my visa in Siem Reap, Cambodia, through an agency recommended by the guesthouse where we stayed. I paid USD41 and got the visa on the same day. I had no problems getting into Vietnam with it.

Travel notes – Myanmar

Yangon is a city I explored mainly on foot. People don’t usually spend too much time here, but a very good friend is living here and I very much wanted to spend time with her.

While she was at work I wandered and got lost in the humid and hot Yangon, alternating with work days when I’d find a Café with internet and spend hours looking at the computer screen.

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Shwedagon Pagoda
Shwedagon Pagoda is a must see. It’s the most important temple in Myanmar. Entrance fee for foreigners is 8000 kyat – a bit less than US$8. If you ever go and find the “Saturday corner” – you’ll understand once there – let me know; I was super disappointed I could not find it even after going around it three times.

After visiting the Pagoda, it’s worth checking Vista Bar, where there’s an impressive view of the temple, and the lemongrass lemonade is quite delicious. 🙂

Kalaw to Inle Lake trekking is one of the main attractions for foreigners. I usually try to avoid touristy things but I’m happy I did the 3-days trekking through villages (45000 kyats per person in a group of 5+). There I learned a few words in Burmese, such as choré and laré, both meaning beautiful or full of beauty. I got to ask locals about their lives and answered their questions mainly about 1) my age and 2) my country, then if I’m traveling alone, why, if I’m married or not, and so on.

As far as I can tell, the trekking is organized in a way that local villagers benefit from the tourism in the region. They host groups for tea, lunch, and for the night. If you are rested enough to wake up early you can enjoy a beautiful sunrise and witness the whole village coming to life in the very early morning. First getting water for tea, then letting the cattle out and laying the chilies to dry outside; you can smell the wood burning in the cook stoves, see the kids running outside. By 7:30 the streets were busy and full of people.

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Chilies going to the sun
Again the landscape reminded of Brazil. This time it took me to the Serra da Mantiqueira and to my grandparent’s ranch where I spent part of my childhood.

The trekking ended on a small river where we took a boat towards Inle Lake. The lake is very scenic and I couldn’t resist and jumped in the water for a quick swim. So refreshing!

Finally in Nyaungshwe I struggled a bit to find accommodation because the place was FULL due to the festival in Taunggyi – one of the largest, if not “the” largest, festival in Myanmar. Luckily I was able to find a hostel (10000 kyats) AND transportation (8000 kyats) to check out the last day of the festival.

Myiktyina is Kachin’s capital, 20 hours by train (8500 kyats, upper class) from Mandalay and 2 maybe 3 hours by car from the China border. I was the only foreigner on the train to and from Myiktyina, a city without much tourist attractions, a huge Christian – mainly Baptist – community, and a serious drug addiction problem among the youth. Because of the proximity to China, business with that country is an important source of income to most of the local families, being the trade of teak and jade, among other natural resources, the main economic activity.

While in Myiktyina, I visited one of the IDP (internal displaced people) camps that receives people who flee conflict in their villages. There I talked to a woman who’s been living in the camp since 2011. When asked how she deals with the uncertainty of being or not able to go back to her village she replied that she prays to God, that He is the only one who knows what her future will be like.

A beautiful day trip from Myiktyina is the place where the Irrawaddy (or Ayeyarwady) River starts, at the confluence of the Maika and Malikha Rivers. If carrying a large camera beware of a 1000 kyats “photography fee”. The Irrawaddy is the country’s main river and has enormous cultural importance to the Kachin people. More about the challenges linked to it can be found here.

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Where the Irrawaddy River starts
First time I visited Mandalay it was only for an overnight, on my way to Myitkyina. On the way back I decided to spend more than only a few hours and was quite happy with my decision.

I rented a bicycle (3000 kyats/day) and rode about 25-30km, from Mandalay Hill to the world’s longest teak bridge, stopping at Zay Cho market – where I couldn’t resist the fabrics and got myself two longyis – and making my way to the bridge by the riverside road. The sunset from the bridge was beautiful, and there I had a pleasant chat with a smiley monk. On my ride back to the hotel I thanked my years riding my bike in the Boston area – known by its very aggressive drivers – as I was riding confidently enough to make myself seen by trucks, buses, cars, scooters, other bicycles, and pedestrians despite not having bike lights, riding on occasional sand banks, and crossing dark streets. (don’t worry mom, I’m still alive and have all my body parts with me)

After spending the day exploring Mandalay I boarded the night train to Bagan (1800 kyats, ordinary class only) where I arrived at 3:30 in the morning, right in time to get an amazing spot at the White Temple to watch the sunrise. I‘m still looking for words to describe Bagan. All I can say is that this place will leave you speechless. Don’t give up after going to the most famous and busy temples. Rent an e-bike (I paid 5000 kyats/day) and allow yourself to get lost among the thousands of temples and you’ll find places to appreciate a quiet sunset or sunrise.

Bagan was also the place where I had two “first time” experiences. It was the first place I missed having a travel partner to share impressions, talk about the different temples, discuss which direction to take at a crossroad, and decide the best location for next day’ sunrise. Not that I did not enjoy it, I did! But I couldn’t help but think it would be nice to have company.

Not as romantic as the former, I had my first food poisoning experience in Southeast Asia. Not sure if it was the beer, the local food I had for lunch and dinner, or what. I just know it was not pleasant at all to wake up every 2 hours and climb down from my bunker bed in the middle of the night. Thankfully there’s Imodium, but I wouldn’t say I fully recovered yet.

From Bagan to Yangon I took the morning bus – not before enjoying one last sunrise (e-bike was 1900 kyats just for the sunrise). The trip took around 8-9 hours and once again I was transported to the Brazilian Cerrado as I watched the landscape through the bus’ window. The bus was super comfortable (13000 kyats) and I slept a good part of the way, hoping my stomach would behave.

Back in Yangon it was time to head to Mawlamyine for a Burmese wedding my friend was invited to – and I tagged along. Mawlamyine is the 4th largest city in Myanmar, something I could never tell. My impression was of a quiet town by the river where George Orwell lived, and that serves as stopping point for travelers arriving or leaving Myanmar through the border with Thailand. From there my first idea was to head south to Dawei, but the food poisoning is still bothering me, so I decided to head back to Yangon and enjoy having a “house” to stay for a couple of nights before hopping on a plane back to Bangkok.


Skills acquired throughout my life – and current highly valued by me:

  • Regular trips to the Amazon region from 2006 to 2010 >> ability to survive heat and humidity and to explore Yangon on foot
  • House/dog/cat-sitting during my last year in Boston >> ability to pack light, fast, and organized. Less is more. 
  • Bicycle as main mean of transportation in Massachusetts, home of the worst/most aggressive drivers in the USA >> ability to ride extra confidently among trucks, buses, cars, motorbikes, bicycles, pedestrians, and dogs without falling or being hit. 
  • A childhood eating dirt and a variety of weird bugs >> ability to avoid food poisoning for 2 months while eating a lot of street food in SE Asia. 

For frequent updates on my whereabouts follow @literal.uncertainty on Instagram 😉

Thailand Vegetarian Festival

My first week in Thailand coincided with the Vegetarian Festival. More about the festival itself here and here.

Some of the celebrations can be pretty extreme. Here’s a small – and less shocking – sample of what I witnessed.

More pictures on Flickr and Instagram.