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 stars on the beach in Don Det.
  • Flirt with strangers. Always. Not only there 😉

Breathing and living Thailand

[leia em Português]

Yangon, Myanmar – November 07, 2016

It’s November and a dream comes true: I made it to Myanmar! This post, however, is not about this country that I’ve been fascinated by, but the past few weeks I spent in Thailand. Hopefully on the next one I’ll be able to share some of my impressions on this intriguing place.

As mentioned previously, I was fortunate to spend my first two weeks with a Thai family, getting acclimatized to Thailand and learning the basics about Thai culture and food (so good!).

Since I left my adopted family in Phuket, I have visited a few places – but still far from seeing most of the country. When you travel for the sake of traveling, and don’t necessarily have to be in a specific location by a certain date, you allow yourself to spend longer periods of time here and there. You allow yourself to experience the local pace, its culture and atmosphere. That’s exactly what I’ve been trying to do, but I have to recognize it’s still not enough time to assimilate the local way of life – and I’m an obvious foreigner – farang – here.

With the exception of Ko Phi Phi – that I left after 2 nights – I felt like I could stay longer and longer on every other location I visited. Somehow, all the places exposed me to things that are important in my life, and that I’d like to do more often. Rationally I know it’s not a matter of place/location, I should be able to climb wherever I go, or meditate, or practice yoga, or avoid meat and alcohol; still it feels like certain places are more favorable than others to do so, and that’s something I’ve been trying to change during this journey.

The first place where I felt it in a powerful way was Tonsai, Railay, a climbing paradise where I reconnected with rock climbing and realized, once again, how climbing feeds my soul and energizes me. Even though I’m out of shape and my arms and legs can’t hold for long, even though I left with bruises all over my body, I felt complete, happy and fulfilled in a way climbing allows me to feel – and I had forgotten.

I also left this climbing paradise a bit in love. In love with the geology and rock formation. In love with the peaceful and calm vibe of the low and high tides. In love with the beautiful souls – some more than others 😉 – that I met there. If it wasn’t for one of the few ‘time and date’ plans I have during this trip – a meditation retreat in Ko Samui – I think I would still be in Tonsai. I could certainly go back. I’m probably going back.

The meditation retreat in Ko Samui started on the 20th. It consisted of almost 7 full days of silence, a 4:30am-9pm schedule, only 2 daily meals and tea, and sitting and walking meditation. As hard as it was to leave Tonsai I knew something pretty exciting was waiting for me. And I was right.

At the stage I am in the meditation world, it still involves a lot of uncertainty. I have no idea what kind of tricks my body and mind will play with me, where my mind will wander to, how to maintain the focus on my breath once it starts wandering. The experience of a week breathing, dreaming, walking, eating meditation was, to say the least, positively surprising. While trying to tame my thoughts and concentrate on the air coming in and out of my nose, my mind wandered to imaginable and unimaginable places. I had visions, I fell asleep during the sessions, I was bored, I was frustrated, I made lists of things to do, emails to write and people to call. I even wrote emails and postcards in my head.

But to my surprise the hardest part was not the silence or the mindful breathing. I pretty much enjoyed the challenge. The most difficult part was coming back to this loud and “real” world. It took me a few days to acclimatize again to people talking to me, to cars and motorbikes on the streets,  to so many food options. So the idea to head to Ko Phangan after the retreat was just perfect. A bungalow on the beach, an awesome Thai restaurant 5 minutes away, free yoga sessions every morning. Again I felt like I could stay there – in Haad Chao Pao – for a long, long time. But the other thing I had planned was a trip to Myanmar and it  was time to move and get closer to Bangkok, from where my flight to Yangon departed.

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Sunset in Ko Phangan

On my way to Tonsai I met a Brazilian girl who was also running away from Phi Phi. She joined me in the retreat and there we met a Russian guy – the yoga teacher – who followed us to Ko Phangan. The three of us ended up going to Ko Tao together, a small island known by the infinite offers of affordable diving courses – apparently it is one of the world’s cheapest places to learn how to dive.

Diving is still not my thing. Somehow I feel claustrophobic when wearing a mask and snorkel under water, I can’t even imagine a full scuba diving outfit. Maybe I’ll try it one day, but not yet. So when my travel buddies enrolled on a diving course I  decided to make my way to Bangkok and spend time with Namsai, do my laundry – yay! clean and dry clothes again! – and organize my things to finally enter the fascinating world of Myanmar.

***

Dealing with uncertainty as I go – Not only my itinerary is uncertain, unexpected things also happen as I go and I have to find ways to deal with them without getting (too) upset. So far – knock knock on wood – the main thing that happened, forcing me to re-plan and rethink my already tight travel budget, had to do with technology and connectivity.

The last thing you want when traveling on a budget is your computer AND your phone to die. Well, that was exactly my case. First the computer in Phuket. Puff! One day it did not turn on anymore. Diagnosis: mother board. Dead. Thankfully there’s Dropbox! 🙏🏼

Then my phone died after we were caught on a heavy rain in Ko Phangan, on our way to Bottle Beach – northern part of the island. No, it did not fall in the sea, or in the toilet, or in the pool – so I told the technician who stared at me skeptically. It was rain. And it was gone. Forever.

I had to decide if I’d buy a new computer + a new phone – which I ended up doing – and how I’d recover this money so I can keep my previous travel plans. I still don’t have an answer to the latter, but as life already showed me many times before, I’m sure things will work out. (by the way, if I can do any freelance to anyone out there, let me know!)

 

Every journey starts with an ending

Beijing Int’l Airport – September 28, 2016

Every journey starts with an ending.  In this case, the beginning of my journey to Asia marks the ending of three years living in the USA, more particularly in the Boston area, a place I’ll dearly miss.

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Goodbye Boston!

I find it symbolic that in order to fly to Asia I had to cross North America from coast to coast, as if I could only say goodbye after appreciating its fascinating geography from my window seat. Even more symbolic to say hi and goodbye to the Pacific Ocean from the American side, and have a chance to watch a last sunset before heading back to LAX airport. For me sunsets are the perfect expression of impermanence. The sun is always the same, but every single sunset is difference. I’m happy to say my last sunset in the USA – for now –  will remain as one of my favorites until I have a chance to come back to the country that surprisingly grew on me, where I felt home for the past three years, and where I learned so much about myself.

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Santa Monica, LA, CA.

When plans fall apart and life doesn’t go as planned people react in very different ways. The way I react might seem chaotic to all of those whose are not inside my head (another way of saying everyone else), but I like to think that it’s not chaotic, it is chaordic (chaos+order). When things don’t go as planned first I panic, then I activate my “MRB’s psychological survival kit” and start brainstorming hundreds of possibilities, draw multiple scenarios, explore various options, and I always, always, have a plan B (most of the times I do that out loud. So I do understand why some people think I’m chaotic. I apologize for that). When I decided to embrace uncertainty and to be open to the unexpecte, a plan B was being shaped and I was studying it carefully. Now plan B is plan A: let’s explore Southeast Asia!

Why SE Asia?

Mainly because I did not know how much money I would be able to save during one year. My other option would be to go back to my home country but my heart and intuition kept pushing me away from it – and the political and economic crisis did not help either. After doing some research it was not hard to conclude that SE Asia would be one of the cheapest destinations, and this was the number one reason for that.

The second reason is not hard to guess. I’m lucky enough to have amazing friends spread all over the world, some of which are in Thailand, Myanmar, India, and Bangladesh. The initial search for flights considered the first three destinations. The price to get to Thailand flying from California was unbeatable (USD 520).

Lastly, I’m fascinated about the world and all the differences one can find from one region to another. Most of my worldly knowledge and experience is related to the Americas and Europe. The languages I speak are pretty much classic western languages. And although very different in terms of culture, I want to see with my own eyes if there are similarities between SE Asia (probably other places in Asia too) and Latin America.

I am super excited about the journey that starts now. An adventure that could never be possible if it weren’t for plans falling apart, for embracing uncertainty, and for allowing myself to live through all the experiences I’ve lived during the journey that ended with that sunset in California on September 26 2016.

Where is it going to take me? Let’s find out!

*

Where did September 27 go?

Last things I remember about September 27:

  • I’m sitting outside a gate at LAX airport
  • I’m trying really hard to stay awake. I woke up at 5am in Boston. Now it’s 1am in LA, meaning 4am in Boston. I’ve been awake for 23 hours.
  • Don’t sleep! Boarding is almost starting.
  • Onboard Air China flight to Beijing.
  • Chinese are loud. Comparing to Americans, with whom I spent most of the past 3 years. I guess Brazilians are loud too. I forgot about that.
  • It’s around 2:30am, and I’m probably still flying over the US.
  • My eyes close. They are heavy. Tired.
  • The plane suddenly smells like Chinese food. Should I open my eyes and eat? It’s a 12 hours flight… No. Eyes closed again.

All of a sudden it’s September 28.

I’m in China.

**