Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Kong Lor Cave and Spring River Resort

We emailed ahead to Salalao or Spring River Resort at Ban Kong Lor as it appeared to be the nicest option in a village without many. It proved to be a great choice, though expensive as this trip goes. It was a kilometer off the main road to town where the bus stops and about 3km from the cave. However it was very peaceful and quiet.

We got there by local bus. It was a large bus and in relatively good condition compared to some we have seen. Plus the air-con worked reasonably well. Roads were ok at first being on the main highway #13, but got progressively worse as we went along route 8 and wound through the karst mountains. The last section was flat but very chopped up with potholes. We got off in the middle of nowhere and walked the last bit.

Kong Lor itself is an amazing attraction. It is a large cave with a river running for 8km though it, essentially passing under a mountain. You can take river boats through it, maximum 3 per boat, and stop at the other side then return in the opposite direction. You can't see much of course once inside though they do provide headlamps and we had our own. The boats are operated by locals who obviously know the cave well. Several times on the way through we had to get out and walk or wade for short distances to get around super shallow sections and in one place to see limestone formations that were somewhat lit to help the viewing.

We walked the roughly 3km to and back from the cave, stopping for lunch and thread shopping on the way back. We shared our boat with woman from Macau who was travelling alone. Linda could chat with her in Cantonese.

The resort had great food and service from a manager and staff who seemed to genuinely happy in their jobs. I don't think I've heard "cop chai" (thank you) said more often anywhere.

The room and setting couldn't have been much more idyllic, but alas; we had to move on.

Next stop would be Dave's place in Savannakhet. Leaving early in a truck that our guesthouse manager arranged to have pick us, transferring to a tuk-tuk at the next village and intersection, and another big bus (much crappier) from Thaket. In all about 180km.

Saturday, November 19, 2016


After 2 days in Vang Vieng we moved on. The same place we booked our kayaking also sold us minibus tickets. An advantage of the minibus is relative comfort of fairly modern vans, often pickup at your accommodation and some flexibity with travel times. They also usually drop you somewhere close to where the bulk of the hotels are, sometimes right at it. Regular "local buses" and other full size ones often stop well away from where you want to end up. In Yangon that was literally 2 hours away!

Our next destination of Vientiane is the largest city in Laos and it felt like it. It spread a long way and was overall busier, plus more expensive. The minibus dropped us literally 2 blocks from the beginning of the backpacker hotels. We had a couple in mind and checked some out as we went along, but for some reason turned down a narrow alley and soon saw a sign from AO Apartments saying they had a room. We took it. 

The building seemed to be all long-term rentals but they had one small but clean room with private bath near the front for short-term. It couldn't have been much quieter or more private, and it looked out onto a temple. It was also very close to sites and shopping both for food and other stuff.

By this point we we had pretty much been templed-out but we did wander the city center in our usual way of walking nearly everywhere. Tuk-tuks here were a bit pricey and I think we only used one once. We wandered around the palace, the hotel district, a rather old stupa in the middle of a traffice circle, the Mekong river front and of course the night market. 

We found a few nice chain type coffee shops with open wifi. You can hang out for a long time over a coffee and pastry and maybe even find an English language newspaper. 

Vientiane is also the home of an agency called COPE. It has a mandate to provide aid in the form of prosthetics and therapy to those disabled by the leftover UXOs (unexploded ordinance), or bombs in other words, reminders of the Vietnam war. Over 2,000,000 tons of bombs were dropped here by the US, on a country that was not even technically at war with them. Many of these are in the form of apple sized cluster bombs ("bombies") specifically designed to target people. They are very hard to find but can still kill or maim 40 years later. 

After the rather sobering experience at COPE and 2 days in Vientiane, we returned to our part of town and got our tickets to our next stop on the trip, Kong Lor cave. 

Vang Vieng

Vang Vieng has a history of being a party town. We had heard of this reputation and it kind of turned me off on the idea. Drunken and stoned Aussies doing stupid human tricks and sometimes dying because of it was not applealing. However in recent years the Laos authorities have tried to clean the act up a bit and it seems to be working.

We took a mini bus there from Luang Prabang. Travel time was about 6 hours with several others from our guesthouse and others we picked up in town at other rooming places. The mini-buses are one of the more deluxe ways to go. They are generally newer Toyota or similar 15 seat passenger vans. Seats are reasonable and air con usually works. They also don't pick up random chickens.

The route takes you over a pretty high pass at around 1500 meters. The view was quite remarkable in places on the way up though there was also significant deforestation of the hillsides. It probably wasn't apparent to many people as it had greened over with brush but the real trees were gone. The view from the top was nothing but clouds and a muddy rough road down.

The town of Vang Vieng isn't the draw. It's just a dusty little town without much to say for it's own sake. The town is at least half guesthouses and hostels and some nicer hotels. Shops sell a few crafts but most have sunglasses, sandals, shorts and dry bags. Yup, dry bags.

The draw here is the terrain and the river. The rock climbing is good, there are caves to explore, there is tubing kayaking and swimming in the river, Waterfalls and ziplines, balloons and parasailing lawnmowers. And lots of cheap food and drinks in the bars. Sometimes these things don't mix of course and that is why some overzealous thrill seekers have drowned or otherwise bit it. 

We stayed at a nice little guesthouse on the edge of town called Laos Haven. It was away from the dorm style hostels and cost us about double probably their rates but was still pretty cheap for us at around $23 per night. Still only 10 minutes walk from ''downtown'' and actually closer to a lot of the restaurants too. 

We opted to take one of the tours that included tubing in a cave and kayaking down the river. They picked us up at the guesthouse, provided lunch and the gear to help survive the trip. Other options included visits to pools and falls, etc, but you can only do so much. Our package was a pretty good one. 

The cave tubing involved pulling ourselves along by a rope attached at various points a long the cave walls. We were in the cave for perhaps 45 minutes but I lost track. Everyone was given a headlamp though we had our own, and a lifejacket just in case. The water was generally very shallow though and the cave low enough in spots you could (and I did) use the roof and your fingertips to pull yourself along. This was helpful at times as we had to pass other groups coming back. Linda got out of her tube to wade at one point because she couldn't reach the roof or over the tube well enough to paddle with her hands. Getting her back on was kind of fun as she was in water too deep to all back into the tube too but with my help and that of a young Korean we got her back on her way 

Obviously this wasn't a great place to take pictures though I had bought a small dry bag. The one of us on the way in is courtesy of a Californian with a GoPro. 

After lunch we had a brief stop at the Elephant Cave and then were off to our river kayaking. 


The kayaks were all double or triple sit-on-tops. Our group included California guy (a good one to keep near if you dumped as he was good at this stuff), several young Korean men, several twittery young Thai gals and a Chinese guy. We were the second most capable with the kayak, though I can't swim, the Thai girls and a couple of the Koreans were ok. Chinese guy  was pretty useless so was doubled up with California who did most of the work.

The trip downstream was about 2 hours and about 8km. We had to watch for the shallow bits but the guides were good and kept us out of too much trouble, and found the best routes through the best short sections of rapids and a couple of drops. Nobody dumped in our group though eventually we caught up with a large Korean group that pretty much flailed away and fell in.

We had a lot of fun. I could take the camera out of the bag once in a while at least too

Beautiful scenery but Linda, you are blocking the view!

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Kuang Si waterfall

While at the Sokdee Guesthouse we arranged a tour by tuk-tuk out to Kuang Si falls. We set out with about 18 people total in 2 little vehicles on a trip to the falls about an hour away. We went early in the morning which was a good choice as it gets busy later. 

It gets busy with good reason. It's pretty spectacular. Highly recommended if you get to the area. 

Water levels were high as the rainy seaon is just recently passed. Absolute torrents are coming down. There are multiple levels and numerous pools where you can wade or swim. 

Access to the top is possible by trails on either side. They are steep and a bit tricky in spots so are not for everyone. It takes about 20 minutes to the top where there are more pools.

The falls are in a park like setting which also features a refuge and rehabilitation site for Asiatic bears. Bears are often snared and kept alive (barely) in cramped cages in order to harvest their bile, in another one of those vile habits the Chinese have to maintain health or virility or something. 

These bears, about 6 of them, have been brought here to be brought back to health. I don't know if they will ever be released into the wild (I think not) but it has to better than refrigerator sized cages. 

Eventually we had to come back down to the tuk-tuks and ended up waiting for our fearless leader Felix. However he turned up somewhat embarrassed eventually as one of our group had stolen his clothes and pack when he went in swimming. Running around with his dark skin and long hair, wearing a black speedo, we thought he looked like Tarzan or Mowgli from The Jungle Book. :)

Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang was pretty cool. We spent 3 days there and wouldn't have minded staying longer. It was clean and well laid out. Food choices were broad and high quality, not to mention tasty. There was definitely a tourist oriented feel to the area we were in and in fact it felt a bit like a resort.

The Sokdee Guesthouse was clean, friendly and affordable. Well situated too with the Mekong very close and the night market and other things to do nearby.  A coffee shop that wouldn't look out of place in False Creek or West Vancouver was steps away, and it had coffee quality to match the decor.

The night market went on for blocks along a main street 2 blocks up. We went through it at least twice, finding a few things we liked in the art and craft departments and also sucked back a few fruit shakes, sticky rice snacks and a crepe. We also found a great bakery and bought ginger cakes, mango and pumpkin ones too. Not to mention if course buying some Lao Larb and other local food. 

Stores here often looked a bit high priced and we only really shopped in the market except for a bracelet or 2 Linda bought. We tried to find a mobile store to get a SIM card but eventually bought one from a guy who had them stored under the seat of his motorbike. Bad idea; it worked for only 1 day, not the 30 it should have. Eventually we found a slew of stores but it was too late at that point. 

Next: Kuang Si falls. 

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

Crossing Mekong River & Into Laos

Just a quick one now as we will soon be leaving from Chiang Kong in Thailand. We cross into Laos at Huay Xi and then board a boat for a 2 day trip to Luang Prabang.

The Blogaway mobile app has been giving me trouble so I haven't been able to upload a post from Mandalay. I'll fill in blanks later...

Well, here I am filling in blanks several days later. Our wifi connections for the last few days were very poor to nonexistent and the 30 day 5gig SIM card I bought in Laos worked for only 1 day.

Anyway, the slow boat to Luang Prabang turned out to be pretty good. We bought a "package" at the guesthouse. It included a shuttle from the hotel to the border, a bit of direction to the right immigration windows, and another shuttle on the Laos side. You walk across the bridge from Thailand to Laos, switching from one side to the other as you go. Thailand drives on the left; Laos is back on the right.

We were though immigration pretty quickly but with a $42 USD fee (higher for Canadians; ouch!). Another bus picked us up on the other side and after an orientation from a guide we switched to tuk-tuks to the boats.

About 90 seats I think on the boats with reasonably comfortable bus type seats. Basic toilet facility (that I never used), a few snacks beer and water for sale on board, and a smoking section at the stern behind the motor.

The group of people on board was pretty congenial. Most 20-somethings, many from Europe. A few are older, some older than us. Many of them we ended up running into again and again at Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng.

While it is a direct route, we did make a few stops to pick up or drop off the odd sack of rice or monk. Sometimes both.

The first day on the boat was from about 11 AM or so to about 6 PM. We had arranged a hotel through the guide but I wouldn't recommend doing that. We paid twice what others paid on arrival at the same place and it was definitely nothing special. In fact it was the worst place we have stayed at yet.

Dinner wasn't bad though, at an Indian-Lao place. It came complete with escargot on the hoof.

Next morning I was awoken by a rooster but coaxed out of bed by an elephant. These 2  guys were immediately across the river.

That was a nice start to the day as we had breakfast while watching them. But soon we grabbed sandwiches and trudged down the muddy road to the boat, a different one today. Same-same, but different.

A young woman from Halifax and I carried our packs plus each handle of an awkward rolling duffel that this older French woman was travelling with. It is pretty remarkable how many people have rather difficult to handle bags or suitcases.

We are self sufficient in the bag department. Frequently the drill is Linda grabbing the 2 day bags and me throwing my larger pack on my back and grabbing hers. Bags are often being tossed out of or down from racks and I can handle slinging them around better.

The second day on the boat was an earlier start and less scenic, but that was largely because it rained much of the day and we rolled down the plastic tarps. Arrival at Luang Prabang was around 2 or so PM. This was where we met Felix.

Felix is German/Vietnamese and was helping out at the Sokdee Guesthouse in exchange for a free room. He had come to the riverbank with a van to grab guests for the night. In the rain a van sounded better than a tuktuk so we hopped in.