Days before I start a new year of my life, I’m finally able to finish this post looking back at 2017 and the lessons I’ve learned from months of traveling, experiencing, settling, working, and getting to know me better – and feeling comfortable with it 🙂
2017 was the year I (re)opened my heart and allowed love to flow (in and out) again. After surviving 2016 (how tough it was!), and traveling east, 2017 surprised me with lovely encounters with places, people, and experiences.
It was January 11th when I felt it was going to be a different year.
It was raining and I had been awake since 5am to catch the first of 3 buses of that day. I was extremely lucky that my travel partner decided, last minute, to continue her trip with me. Because when crossing the border I realized we’d swapped passports by mistake. I had hers, she had mine, and despite the same nationality we don’t look anything alike [another lesson learned from the road].
I can’t imagine how 2017 would have been if I was not able to cross to Laos on that January 11th. I wouldn’t have met the Mekong, nor the weavers of Xamtai, nor started a new habit, nor improved my motorbike skills, nor enjoyed sunsets and the best hash browns at the border with Cambodia. I’d probably have had a different experience in Northern Thailand, skipped Songkran (the water festival), and most important not met all the incredible people along the way.
If 2015 was the year I was forced to embrace uncertainty and deal with it without time to think or breath, and 2016 was when I embraced it and tried to add some structure to it (at least in my thinking), 2017 was when I allowed myself to live it beautifully, to enjoy the uncertainty of the paths I chose, and to experiment without fear of failing.
I spent 3 months in Laos, visited Northern Thailand, spent almost one month back in the US – covering both coasts and a bit of Louisiana and Mississippi -, introduced my mother and brother to one of my favorite spots in the world – where he indulged himself with all kinds of bugs and weird food – and had a blast having them visit my Thai family, and flew back to Brazil for a work project.
Being back in Sao Paulo after 7 years away was an interesting experience, to say the least. I reconnected with old friends, made new ones, and was able to keep feeding my nomadic soul hopping from one house to the other, thanks to the generosity of friends who are more than family to me, until I found a perfect short-term place where I spent the last 5 months of the year.
2017 also taught me that sometimes the right people come into our lives at the wrong time, and there’s nothing we can do about it other than enjoy their company while it lasts. It also taught me that there are wrong people out there, and sometimes we have encounters with them right when we need to learn a few lessons.
It was also a year of love in terms of acceptance.
Acceptance of who and how I am. Of the fact that I don’t have a standard answer to the question “what do you do” or “where’s your home”. I understood that not having a standard answer to questions like these does not mean I don’t do the things I do with professionalism and passion, nor it means I don’t feel home in the places where I am. Regardless of what people might think (and judge), I know that I’m an excellent professional, daughter, sister, and friend who will always be there for the people I love and for the exciting and challenging projects that come along.
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].
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!]
Antes de te encontrar me falaram que você era bacana, mas que eu não deveria gastar meu tempo tentando te conhecer melhor. Duas ou três semanas seriam mais do que suficientes; depois disso eu me cansaria e partiria para outra.
Eu tinha planos de voltar para algo que já tinha despertado meu interesse assim que me cansasse de você. Mas eis que aqui estou, ainda olhando para você, apreciando sua beleza. Completamente apaixonada.
Já se passaram dois meses e você ainda me impressiona e me diverte com suas cores, formas, cheiros e sabores. Você me mantém curiosa e cheia de vontade de aprender mais sobre sua história, suas pessoas, seus medos e desafios. Me diga: como eu posso te ajudar? Como podemos trabalhar juntos? O que eu preciso fazer para continuar perto de você?
Quem me conhece anda dizendo que estou mais bonita. Que meus olhos têm um brilho especial e que meu sorriso está ainda maior. Estão dizendo que irradio alegria e, embora não seja 100% por sua causa – estou alegre porque sinto que estou no lugar certo para meu corpo, mente e alma-, você tem sim um bocado a ver com isso.
Você me ajudou a reencontrar uma antiga paixão: tear; me mostrando trabalhos lindos e inspiradores, feitos for pessoas talentosas, em cantos remotos.
Você me ensinou a relaxar e seguir a energia de cada momento, inclusive me fez quebrar regras de vez em quando. Me fez provar coisas novas e experimentar mais.
Você me deu amantes e me trouxe um novo amor.
Você me fez sentir anos mais jovem, apesar de eu ficar um ano mais velha ao seu lado.
Nas montanhas, lá no norte, você me mostrou vistas de tirar o fôlego enquanto brincávamos de esconde-esconde durante o por do sol.
E quando seguíamos para o sul eu percebi quanta diversidade você carrega. As montanhas deram espaço a planícies, a brisa fresca a ondas de calor; e quando o ar ficou pesado de tão quente você me apontou águas frescas onde me banhar. E assim encontrei um outro amor: o rio Mekong ❤
Como não te amar?! Por suas redes, seu arroz grudento, suas cavernas, canoas, cachoeiras. Você me surpreendeu com sua diversidade cultural: comida indiana, café japonês, petanque & pastis.
E me surpreendeu ainda mais com suas estradas sinuosas que – apesar do meu histórico de enjôos em longas viagens – me mantiveram sã e salva.
Você também me fez chorar e me deu algumas cicatrizes novas. Ao aprender sobre suas bombas e medos eu não aguentei e não segurei as lágrimas.
Mas acima de tudo você me deu novos amigos, novas inspirações, novas histórias para contar.
Before meeting you, I was told you were nice but not worth the time to get to know you better. Two or three weeks should be enough before getting tired of you and moving on.
I had plans to go back to something else as soon as I was done with you. But here I am, still looking at you, appreciating your beauty. Completely in love.
It’s been two months and you still amaze – and amuse – me with your colors, shapes, smells, and flavors. You keep me curious and eager to learn more about your history, your people, your fears, and challenges. Tell me: how can I help you? How can we work together? What do I need to do to stay close to you?
People who know me are saying I look great. That my eyes are shining and my smile is wider. They say I irradiate happiness and although it’s not only your fault – I’m happy because I feel I’m in the right place for my body, mind and soul – you do have a lot to do with it.
You helped me reconnect with an old passion: weaving; showing me beautiful and inspiring work made in remote places by very talented people.
You also taught me to be more relaxed, go with the flow, and even break some rules once in a while. You made me try new things and experiment more.
You gave me lovers, and love.
You made me feel years younger, despite becoming a year older while with you.
Up in the mountains, in the North, you showed me breathtaking views, while playing hide and seek during the sunset.
Heading South, I realized how diverse you could be. The mountains gave space to plains, the cool breeze to heat waves, and when I thought I could no longer breath, you pointed me fresh waters to bath in. And then something else to love: the Mekong ❤
How not to love you?! – For your hammocks, khao niao, your caves, and canoes, and waterfalls. You surprised me with Indian food, Japanese Cafe, petanque & pastis.
You surprised me even more with your winding roads that – despite my lifelong history of car sickness – kept me sane and safe.
You also made me cry and gave me a few new scars. Learning about your bombs and fears was very touching; I couldn’t hold my tears.
But most importantly, you presented me with new friends, new inspirations, and new stories to tell.