Monday, April 29, 2013

It's Not OK - It's OK: Konglor Cave to Savannahket

After Luang Prabang, Kristin and I started our slow journey south to the Konglor cave in the middle of the country. The cave itself, and even the riverside bungalow we stayed in for a night - complete with grazing water buffalo - were quite enjoyable. However, it took two days to get there and another day to get out, and the escapade was not entirely smooth sailing. I lost count of the number of times I thought, "oh no..." and then, maybe after a bit, things would turn out alright.

Water buffalo!

Our actual time visiting the cave was great. It is a limestone formation that is about 7 km long (I read various estimates) and has a river flowing through it. Small boats with outboard motors take tourists through to the other side and back. Partway through, the guides have lit up a portion of the tunnel so we can see stalactites and stalagmites up close. Otherwise, the cave is very dark (duh) and I spent most of the time trying to enjoy the most unusual boat trip I have ever taken.

As nice as it all was, I was not in the mood to stick around. We were staying in a riverside bungalow outside of the nearest town, and therefore we were totally dependent on their restaurant for food and their schedule for getting anywhere. And I wanted the Internet.

Basically, I forgot I was in Laos. Never fear - the country quickly (or should I say slowly) put me in my place.

How we spent our first (and only) night near Konglor - trying our first Beer Laos, watching river life. And somehow we rejected a second night of this?

Thus, at 3ish in the afternoon, sticky and dirty from the cave trip and hour-long truck-bed rides each way, Kristin and I grabbed our stuff from the hotel and began our journey to Savannahket. In the end, it would take 11 hours.

Pickup ride #3 of the day: from town to the highway junction to wait for a bus.

To get from town to the highway, we had to take another hour-long pickup truck ride. Along the way, two different Lao men revealed that they were going the same direction and suggested we could travel together. There are two ways to look at this: (1) Friendly locals offered to help us (complete strangers) get to where we needed to be. (2) Strange men would be following us as we traveled into the night. We feared the latter but the truth was the former. Our new friends showed us where to stand along the road to wait for a bus and helped us figure out if the bus was going where we needed, when to transfer to a minivan, and even how to communicate with a tuk-tuk driver to get to our hotel. Thank you to them.

Now, about that bus we all took. Crazy, uncomfortable, but also wonderful in its own way. (Though I didn't feel quite so glowy about it at the time.). It was our first local bus in Laos. Local buses are not speedy, clean, air-conditioned tourist transports. They are slow, hot, and filled to the brim. All manner of bundles and bags are piled in the back seats and the aisles. It is, in short, how most people in Laos get around.

Originally we sat in the back, but Kristin's seat cushion was loose and she was next to a permanently-open window so low there was a real possibility she might slip out. So we changed to seats behind a group of young monks. One of them spoke pretty good English - which he let onto by laughing as he listened in to Kristin and me talking. During a break, he struck up a short conversation, which was thrilling. When else will I get to talk to a monk?

We were constantly stopping to pick up or drop off people or goods, but one particular cargo was kinda ridiculous. At some point in the night, we stopped for an hour to load hundreds of pounds of some vegetable (zucchini?) from a pickup truck onto the roof of the bus. In the dark, all I could see was a woman using her cellphone to light the way while she bagged greens to be loaded. I am surprised we aren't still there bagging and loading zucchini.

Loading up round #2 of veggies

Another hour-long stop for more zucchini and passengers, one breakdown, one late-night swap to a minivan (guided by our new friends, otherwise we never would have known), a couple layers of grit and grime, and one tuk-tuk later, we made it to Savanakhet.

Savannakhet: It's the Detroit of central Laos. (If you know me, you know that's a big compliment.)

And it's totally charming. Friendly people, crumbling French colonial buildings, and one rocking' cafe where we have downed all our meals and a gallon or two of iced honey-lemon-ginger tea. It's our last stop in Laos, and a good way to end this part of the trip.

Lin's Cafe: If you are ever in Savannahket, you must go here.

 

Sopping Hot in Luang Prabang

Kristin's shoes drying off at our home stay.

Sabai dee, dear readers. I am behind in my blog posts, still in Laos. So where I'd we leave off? Kristin and I spent nearly a week in Luang Prabang and miss it already. The highlight and possibly the lowlight was our overnight trek in the countryside. It was an epic journey, filled with both great memories and a little bit of disaster.

Elephants!

We started off with an elephant sighting. Yes, elephants! Ok, they were tame elephants from a nearby sanctuary who were carrying visitors on their back to take a bath in the river. But elephants nonetheless.

Once that excitement was over, it was time to work up a sweat. We started our hike through rice paddies and other crop fields, and fairly soon I had sweated through all of my clothes, with six more hours to go. It was decent pastoral scenery, but my thoughts were quickly turning to how nice it would be if it started to rain.

Getting started on the trek.

Well, be careful what you wish for. On our way to lunch at a Khumu village, the rain began. It was not until that point that I realized we had left all rain gear back at the hotel. Our resourceful guide cut Kristin and I huge taro root leaves to use as umbrellas.

Nature's poncho

Lunch was basic - sticky rice - in a small village with about a dozen young kids and a couple dozen farm animals. The rain had stopped, and it was nice to watch the kids play in the less-than-clean pond and see the animals roam about while we ate.

After lunch, the sky had cleared and the trail became a bit hilly, so we ditched the "umbrellas." Big mistake.

One of the trickier spots, when dry.

Lightning, thunder, and a TORRENT of rain began just as we were too far from the lunch village to head back. There were no more big leaves in sight to use for cover. Kristin had the foresight to put her valuables in a plastic bag in our backpack. I did not.

Not that I had much time to worry about my belongings. The rain quickly converted our trail into a small river. Thick clay and foliage coated our shoes until we had no traction and looked like a group of Sasquatches. Short inclines and descents in the trail turned into muddy slips and slides. It was comically embarrassing.

How dirty did we get? When we arrived in the village where we were to spend the night, a village with no electricity or running water, we weren't allowed to even see our sleeping hut until we changed. When we arrived back at the guesthouse in Luang Prabang the next day I still wasn't allowed to wait in the lobby while our room was readied.

Our village for the night.

Back at the village, changing did little to dry me off. All the clothes in my bag had to be wrung out. Let's not even talk about my passport, travel journal, or "waterproof" watch.

We had dinner prepared over a cooking fire by our hosts, and retired to bed shortly after dark. Something went awry along the way, though, and Kristin was under the weather by morning. Rather than hike out in the heat, it was arranged that one of the village residents would drive her on a motorbike over the path, with the rest of us in hot pursuit. (Pun intended.)


By midday, we were back at our wonderful guesthouse (Hoexing Guesthouse 1, if you are curious) in Luang Prabang, clean and cooling off. We spent much of our last few days in LP resting and taking in some local sights. I may have snuck a photo or two of some monks and other things ...

Monks.

Tuk-tuks outside the night market.

Photobombing street mannequins, cuz, you know.

Goodbye, Luang Prabang. You are missed!

Monday, April 22, 2013

The Quiet(er) Life in Laos

Anywhere you look, it seems there is a gleaming wat.

Walking along the bank of the Mekong river in Luang Prabang, Laos, Kristin and I sighed with contentment. After the hectic pace of Hanoi (and even Cat Ba), it is so wonderfully quiet and calm here. We can ride bikes around town, in very light traffic and no horns blasting. There are golden temples on almost every street, with monks in orange robes within. The town has a loose 10pm curfew and asks that, out of respect for local custom, we take off our shoes when we enter dwellings and keep our shoulders covered.

Notice the haze over the river - it is from fires set in the countryside to clear fields for crops.

Sure, it's a bit touristy, but not in a gaudy way. From what I have read, much of the rest of Laos is nowhere near as developed or easy to get around, so I am content for now to enjoy banana shakes, wifi, and air conditioning.


We may be in "the big city" in the region, but the rural life is never far from view.

Tonight we head to the "night market" for a dinner of Laotian street food. If the fluffy coconut patties we picked up from a vendor this morning are any indication, it will be a delicious meal. That will fuel us up for our two-day hike through the countryside tomorrow, complete with an overnight stay in a local village. Since it is about 95 degrees here everyday, wish us luck!

 

 

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Hello and Hasta La Vista, Vietnam

The Asia trip has begun in earnest. Leg one: Vietnam, my first visit to a communist country. It has been more difficult for me to find my groove here than in South America since I don't speak the language and the separation between tourists and residents seems more severe. We will work it out, with the help of some friendly hotel staff.

 

So, what have I been up to? Kristin and I met up in Hanoi first and took a day to explore the city a bit, walking around the Old Quarter and checking out one of the many temples.

This one is on the main lake in town. It may have been small but I doubt many others have a smiling, bronzed giant turtle!

We will be back in Hanoi later, and it wasn't our cup of tea for now. So we headed to Cat Ba Island to see the thousands of limestone islands decorating the surrounding waters of Ha Long Bay and its less-famous neighbor, Han La Bay. The weather didn't entirely cooperate, but the bay was still beautiful and kayaking and jumping off the tour boat was good fun.

Part of the panaramic view from our hotel.

Over 4000 people live on these floating houses around Cat Ba, eke-ing out a living off fishing and trapping shellfish.

From Cat Ba, the plan was to visit the northwest mountains. But as we researched the trip this week (yes, maybe a bit late) we realized that excursion would use up three (!) precious days on bus rides to our next destination (Laos), instead of a mere one hour flight. One tough decision later, we took a red pen to the schedule and said goodbye Vietnam for a while!

 

 

Monday, April 15, 2013

Utah Rocks! Part 2

After the swirling sandstone wonders of the Paria Canyon, I drove up to Escalante, UT to backpack in Coyote Gulch. Three days, two nights of tough hiking in a beautiful canyon. There were enough people I didn't get spooked but otherwise this is a wild place: no signs and no official trail (the best path often was in the creek itself).

A narrower section of the Gulch.

Coyote Gulch is a tributary to the Escalante River, which feeds into Lake Powell. The canyon offered up some incredible arches, including a massive 200? 300? foot arch next to which I set up camp.

Jacob Hamblin Arch. Try as I might, I just couldn't come close to capturing it in one photo

Climbing up under the arch gives some sense of scale. Those are full-grown trees down there.

The waterfalls and canyon scenery were not too shabby either. Hidden among the walls were petroglyphs and artifacts from earlier inhabitants. My only regret was not having more time to explore the dozens of other canyons in the area.

Petroglyphs!

Instead it was time for a end-of-trip road trip. It took about two days to work my way back to the airport, with plenty of stops along way.

A pitstop in Bryce Canyon National Park. (And I mean pitstop. After all the beautiful, uncrowded, let-it-be places I had been, the paved roads, guardrails, and concession stands of Bryce made me run for the hills.)

An "oh my goodness! this is incredible!" sunset trip to the national forest 15 minutes from Bryce, with its crazy red rocks and no other visitors.

Drove through a snowy mountain pass, on the same day as I sweated it out of Coyote Gulch.

Did a short hike up a relatively "mreh" trail near St. George, UT, the highlight of which was the goat herd that surrounded me on the way. When this is dull, you know the rest of the trip has been good.

Not ashamed to admit I giggled quite a bit around this point.

And capped off the trip with a feast-for-the-eyes journey through Valley of Fire State Park. The views from the road were great, but with a little wandering off and scrambling around . . . Well, see for yourself.

On the drive into the park.

Hmm. This is neat. I wonder what might be just a little farther off the road?

Speechless.

Utah rocks, people. Utah rocks. Next stop: Asia!

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Utah Rocks! Part 1

A mini-Wave near my campsite.
Yes, that is a bingo cage.  There is an actual lottery for The Wave.

So, I've been mildly obsessed with hiking The Wave in Vermilion Cliffs National Monument.  Not only is it a super cool hiking destination, but it is also not inside a national park.  I love those types of places, as I've written about elsewhere.  Unfortunately, my many attempts to get a permit to The Wave failed.  Thing is, southern Utah is filled with no-permit, no-lines, often no-fee hikes that will rock your socks off.

After a week of exploring the area, all I have to say now is Wave-schmave.

The first part of the week, I set up tent next to pink sand dunes and then beneath pink-and-white sandstone cliffs by the Paria River.

Near Camp # 1
  
Campsite # 2.  My green tent is in the lower center.

During the day, I hiked through the narrow slot canyons of Wire Pass and Buckskin Gulch and followed the Paria River in the river itself.  It was incredible.

Coming out of Wire Pass canyon.

The high-water mark of a flash flood.
The Paria river.
On the water trail.
And the trip was only just getting started... 

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