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The Dreaded 30-Hour Bus From Laos to Vietnam

4 Feb

For most twenty-somethings backpacking around Southeast Asia, it almost seems as if the bus ride from Laos to Hanoi, Vietnam (or the reverse trip) is something of an initiation as it basically becomes an inevitable journey for the budget traveler.

I had heard so much about this dreaded bus trip before heading to Laos and, although I really didn’t want to do it, I knew that I had to.

I’ve heard so many horror stories and I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t a little intimidated by this gruelling, 30-ish hour bus trip.

Anyway, after an awesome few days in Vang Vieng, it was time to head to Hanoi. We had previously secured our visas in Luang Prabang and were ready to finally head over to Vietnam. I can’t stress this enough — make sure that all the information on your visa is accurate (i.e. the dates of validity and your passport number. This visa didn’t have my name on it like Laos and Cambodia did). Border control going into Vietnam from Laos is very, very strict. To give you a sense of what I’m talking about, read Adventure Kate’s post about how she almost got banned from Vietnam at the border.

Anyway, when we bought our bus tickets in Vang Vieng, the lady we bought them from said that it would be a 21-hour journey. I knew that this probably wasn’t going to be accurate and I actually prepared myself to expect at least 30 hours of traveling.

The bunks

We got picked up by a mini-bus at around noon which took us to Vientiane, Laos’ capital city. Once we got there we were ushered onto a random bus with bunk bed style lounge seats. It’s weird, if you go to Southeast Asia you’ll notice how much of an organized mess everything is. Here’s what I mean. When we got off our mini-bus in Vientiane there were a ton of big buses and our mini-bus driver kind of just took off. We confusedly stood around for about a minute before someone just came up to us and brought us to where we needed to go. Even though there was absolutely no verbal communication between us because he didn’t speak English, everything just kind of fell into place. It seems so chaotic, but don’t worry, it actually all works out (usually) in the end. At least, it did for me and, believe me, I took SO many buses around Southeast Asia and came to know what to expect. I eventually got used to the chaotic set-up of transportation around Southeast Asia.

Here’s a tip for you: Bring as much food on the bus as you possibly can because I swear all the bus drivers bring you to their friends ‘shops’ and get you to buy whatever they are selling. In our case, it was a plate full of disgusting mystery meat and overcooked rice. We were so hungry though so, along with everyone else, we were pretty much forced to eat this pile of who-knows-what.

After we stopped for this mystery meal, we continued for a few more hours before we got to the border. It’s funny that they tell you it’s going to be a 21-hour trip because there is absolutely NO way that this could ever be true because the border will be closed when you get there. AND they will turn the air-con off while you sit in your own sweat overnight waiting for the border to open at, I believe, 5 a.m.

Ashley!

The awesome friend who I was traveling with, Ashley, as well as many others, actually needed to get off the bus because it was too hot for them to sleep. So bring a book (or two) and fully charge your iPod! Mine died halfway there and it was torturous.

Now, as for the border crossing…

This was probably the most unpleasant border crossing I have encountered throughout my travels, other than my experience going into Bolivia. There are a few things I think I need to point out. For one, on top of the fee you needed to pay for your visa, you will need to pay an ‘extra’ fee when you’re getting your passport stamped. This is totally a tourist rip-off. You can try to fight it (as some did), but I suggest just paying the few dollars to get through hassle-free. Also, depending on your nationality, they might give you an even harder time forcing you to actually have to bribe them to get across the border. This happened with one girl on our bus who was from Morocco. She had no idea why they were giving her a hard time and, after much debate, they accepted a bribe from her. So, I would suggest bringing some extra American dollars with you in case you find yourself in a sticky situation like this.

You also need to put your bag on this conveyor belt that goes through this machine that’s probably an x-ray and I found that the men working around there were extremely aggressive, especially with young, Caucasian women like myself and my friend. They really, really gave us a hard time. I mean, they were grabbing ours arms and saying inappropriate things to us. It was really unpleasant and we got out of their as quickly as possible and chucked our bag back on the bus.

You then have to walk to the actual border crossing. It was actually quite a distance. I’m not good with accurately measuring distances, but it was probably somewhere from 1/2 km to 1 km. It took about 20 minutes. Here’s a picture (of course it was raining!).

Walking to Vietnam!

Make sure that you try and do all these steps (departure stamp/’extra’ fee and putting your bag on the conveyor belt and back onto your bus) as quickly as possible because your bus is only going to wait for so long before they leave. Believe me, they will leave without you.

Anyway, we got into Hanoi after another day of driving. Once we got into Hanoi, we all piled into another mini-van which took us to their “choice of hostel”, a.k.a. their friend’s hostel. We quickly grabbed our bags and headed into the streets of Hanoi at night. Finding Hanoi Backpackers on Ma May street was easy and stress-free as it seems like everyone on our bus had the same idea of heading there. So, if you’re planning on heading to Hanoi Backpackers, there will more than likely be someone on your bus going there as well, so just ask around like we did.

I know I’m making it seem like the 30-hour bus was awful, but it really wasn’t awful at all. Unless you’re extremely high maintenance, then this journey will probably not be so bad for you. I’m not going to lie, it was uncomfortable, but I think any bus trip that’s longer than 15 hours would be uncomfortable. For being on a bus for 30 hours, it wasn’t bad at all. You’re also going to be around several other people who are in the exact same situation and who are probably just as nervous as you are.

I made some great friends and it was definitely an experience in and of itself. More importantly, the beauty that awaited us was well worth the dreaded 30-hour bus ride. This is what greeted us on our way into Hanoi:

Arriving into Hanoi, Vietnam

The Alms Giving Ceremony in Luang Prabang, Laos

12 Jan

To be honest, I didn’t know much about Laos before I went backpacking around Southeast Asia. To be even more honest, I didn’t really know where Laos even was, let alone that it was a country. I knew nothing about the culture or the people.

Regardless of my lack of knowledge, I ended up LOVING Laos.

Before I went, I had done a little research and knew I needed to do at least two things while I was in Laos — participate in an alms offering ceremony in Luang Prabang and go tubing in Vang Vieng.

The anthropologist in me was really itching to participate in this traditional Lao ceremony.

This is how it works…

When: It occurs every morning at around sunrise. My friend and I got up a lot earlier than sunrise and we found ourselves waiting around for quite some time. So, just make sure you give yourself a little bit of time to buy your offerings before it begins. No need to get there an hour early.

Where: The procession starts on the main street in Luang Prabang. It’s not hard to find since LP is a small little town. There are a ton of little side streets in LP and one big street where all the restaurants and tourist offices are — that’s the street where the procession take place.

Who: The LP monks and novices!

What: Basically, it’s an alms offering. Locals and tourists line the street where they kneel on woven mats and hand offerings of food to the monks. The offerings mostly consist of sticky rice, bananas, and little square candies.

We chose to cover up our skin as a sign of respect.

There are also small children kneeling on the mats with their own baskets hoping to receive some of the offerings back to share with their family. The monks can choose to give their offerings to these children.

How much and what’s included: I believe I spent around $5 in Lao Kip on food offerings. I actually did not buy it on the main street. What I didn’t know was that the price included the offerings AND the spot that had the mat where you would be kneeling. So, when we got to the main street we had to buy more offerings to be allowed to sit on a lady’s mat. Watch out for that! The locals are begging you to choose them to buy offerings from, so don’t just buy from the first person you see (like we did) and wait until you get to the main street. Also, don’t try to negotiate the price. This is an offering that will help a lot of people who might need the food. Every lady we talked to was selling her offerings for the same price anyway so don’t expect to bargain.

Also, keep in mind that the procession is fairly long in duration. We actually didn’t stay for the whole thing because we gave all of our offerings away within the first few minutes. Don’t rush! Spread the love!

One thing that I had heard from many people was that this alms ceremony was completely a tourist trap. While I think that is definitely a part of it, I do think that we should respect this tradition for the locals in LP who actually find this ceremony sacred. I was extremely bothered by all the tourists who were going right up to the processing monks and snapping pictures right in their faces. I took a lot of pictures, but I did it with a little more discretion. There’s no need to get up in their faces. Believe me, I am that tourist who needs to take pictures of everything, but there are times when you just need to step back and stop pursuing that perfect shot.

The alms offering ceremony in Luang Prabang was a really cool cultural experience. Although I really do believe that it has become something that is invented more for the tourists, I really don’t see the harm in that. I mean, if everyone’s benefitting from it, why should it be a problem? We are giving the monks offerings that they can give back to people who really need food and they are giving us a little taste of what Lao tradition might really be like.

I definitely recommend participating in this ceremony if you are ever in Luang Prabang.

My Favourite Places in Southeast Asia

4 Jan

Here is a list I compiled of my favourite places in Southeast Asia. It was a trip of a lifetime and although I had amazing experiences in each place that I visited, these five places stand out to me the most.

In no particular order…

 1) Chiang Mai, Thailand

Chiang Mai was the city I visited where I could most see myself living in. It was vibrant and bustling. It had a good nightlife. It felt safe enough for me to navigate the streets by myself on cheaply-rented motorbikes. It was easy to quickly feel like a local and I loved that. There’s a university. There’s a zoo in the mountains. There’s temples and tigers. Elephants and expats. Boxing and night bazaars. Bad karaoke. Cheap beer. Cheap food. I quickly fell into a pattern in Chiang Mai and, soon enough, I had stayed there longer than I had originally planned.

2) Vang Vieng, Laos

Vang Vieng just gets me. One thing I definitely regret was not staying longer. One obvious reason is tubing. The first day I went tubing was quite possible the funnest day I have had in my life. Free Lao Lao whiskey shots (albeit watered-down). Cheap buckets. Beer pong on the river bars. Loud music that makes you want to dance. Exhilaratingly dangerous water slides. New friends that you won’t remember tomorrow. Cuts and bruises that you can’t explain. It is truly a shitshow. A twenty-something party haven. I also loved Vang Vieng because of the chilled-out atmosphere in the town. Literally every restaurant played Friends and Family Guy reruns and the decor consisted of these lounge-like wooden couch/table combos with ugly cushions — the perfect way to nurse a hangover (which actually started to become nonexistent with all the drinking). I accidentally badly electrocuted myself and I even broke my beloved camera in Vang Vieng, but it didn’t take anything away from my love for this wonderful backpacker town.

3) Koh Phangan, Thailand

My time on the island of Koh Phangan was a huge blur. I think that directly correlates with the amount of fun I had there. Before my trip, I had read a lot of negative blog posts and reviews on Koh Phangan saying that it was a beautiful island ruined by tourists. I had so much fun there though. Koh Phangan really does cater to tourists because of the infamous Full Moon Party held on Haad Rin (beach) every month on, you guessed it, the full moon; however, I loved that it was made for tourists because it literally brought thousands of different people and cultures together for one night. While the night of the full moon was one to remember, every night in Koh Phangan was a constant party. In fact, the lead up nights to the Full Moon Party were actually better than Full Moon itself. Friends reruns and movies like The Notebook dominate the TV screens in the restaurants. It was entirely possible to easily find chicken schnitzel at 7 in the morning after staying up all night. I fell in love with sunrises. I became somewhat of an artist, painting everyone in my hostel with neon colours for Full Moon. My week in Koh Phangan was the best in my entire 7 week trip.

 4) Siem Reap, Cambodia

I liked Siem Reap significantly more than Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh. Cambodia was so incredibly poor and Siem Reap was no exception. Siem Reap was such a small city and so I quickly got used to where everything was. Tourists are drawn to Siem Reap because of the wonderful temples of Angkor Wat but, while not exploring the temples, I found myself drawn to the popular Pub Street in town. I found myself there every single night and, like in Chiang Mai, I ended up staying a lot longer than I had originally planned to. I took cooking classes on Pub Street where I made the best meal I have ever had, pumpkin soup. I ate crocodile, frog, and other mystery meats that I got to cook at my table in a restaurant. I became pretty much known by name at Angkor What?! Bar. I made some really great friends. I danced on tables. I helped cute Cambodian kids practice their English. I got ripped off by locals on several occasions. I experienced extreme poverty up close. Cambodia was definitely a huge eye-opener, but I easily found a kind of comfort in Siem Reap.

5) Bangkok, Thailand

Bangkok currently holds the spot as my favourite city in the world. I love, love, love Bangkok. There’s just something about it. The hustle and bustle. The cheap street food. Huge bottles of Chang beer for 150 baht. Hostels across from Khao San Road for 150 baht a night. Bucket bars on Khao San Road. Cheap knock offs. $5 massages. Khao San Road in general. Tuk tuks (which I hated at first). The huge shopping mall, MBK. Watching the traffic. The Saturday Market. There are so many things about Bangkok that I love. It felt like home to me, not because I think I could live there, but because of the way I felt every time I returned there (4 times in one trip). I left Cambodia 3 days earlier than I planned just so I could spend my last few days in this wonderful city. There really is something for everyone in Bangkok and I think that it can easily become whatever you want it to be.

I would return to these five places in a heartbeat. I would also recommend these places to anyone in a heartbeat. But, I do see one common theme here. These are places where I had really great experiences because of really great people that I met and shared them with. So, it makes me wonder, would I love these places as much as I do if I experienced them with different people? I like to think that I would. And, maybe, one day I will return and find out for sure!

Packing for Southeast Asia

28 Sep

Last time I went backpacking I packed WAY too much. The six weeks I spent in Peru last summer (2010) was my first real travel experience and I didn’t  know what to expect. I brought things that I didn’t end up using, like my blow dryer and straightener. I even brought high heels, which I never wore once. It really depends on where you’re going and how long you’re going for. If I were going to Paris or London for a month I probably would bring high heels and some more high end clothing. If I were going for six months to a year then I definitely would bring heels and hair appliances.

Not to say that you shouldn’t bring those kinds of items. To each their own. I like to bring my makeup and a lot of people disagree with this decision, but I really don’t care. If I’m more than willing to carry the extra weight then why not?

Sometimes you need to make sacrifices though. I have a huge problem packing light, especially when it comes to clothes. After packing way too much clothes last time and having to throw out a lot of things that I liked, I had to force myself to make good choices when it came to packing for 7 weeks of backpacking around Southeast Asia.

So, here is everything and anything that I brought with me to Southeast Asia.

Note: I decided not to post this until after my trip because then I could tell you what I ended up using or not and what I ended up throwing out. This is my ORIGINAL LIST with descriptions. The words written in red are some comments after the trip was done. So, here’s the list:

Clothes

  • Shorts (4)- Yes, it’s a lot but I get so much use out of all of them.
  • Jeans (1)- This is probably the biggest ‘controversial’ item of clothing in the backpacking world. Yes, it’s going to be hot in SE Asia, but I always get use out of my jeans. If I don’t? Well, they’re an old pair so I can throw them out if need be. If I ever come back to SE Asia these will not be coming with me. Didn’t wear them once!
  • Black leggings (1)- For those possibly not-so-warm nights. Threw out.

  • Tank tops (4)
  • T-shirts (3)- Only needed one.
  • Long sleeve shirt (1)- Surprisingly got use out of this.
  • Nice shirts (3)- These are shirts that I can dress up or wear casually.
  • Hoodie (1) (not pictured)- For those cold A/C bus nights and for a pillow. Tons of use.
  • Cardigans (2) (not pictured)- Didn’t get any use out of these.

  • Bathing suits (2)
  • Underwear (10)- The more underwear the better, I say.
  • Socks (3)- One white, two black
  • Bras (4)- It sucks being a girl. Strapless, black, pink, and sports bra.

Yeah, I know it may seem like a lot of clothes to bring, but I don’t mind carrying the extra weight and, plus, it all fits into these little netted bags easily which makes them much more compact. These bags were my saviour.

Footwear

  • Running shoes- Didn’t use.
  • Flip flops for shower
  • Sturdy sandals (2)

Headwear

  • The Green Sombrero (obviously)
  • Straw fedora
  • Sunglasses
  • Bandana

Electronics

  • HP Mini Netbook (and case and charger)- Best thing I brought.
  • SD memory cards (3 x 2 GB)
  • Canon Powershot (and case and charger)- Lost it’s life in Vang Vieng, Laos. Bought new, crappy, waterproof Olympus in Hanoi, Vietnam. The Olympus Tough is CRAP, by the way. The waterproof-ness was handy, but the quality of the photos was terrible.
  • iPod touch (and charger and headphones)
  • Plug adapter for SE Asia
  • Old phone for alarm (and charger)
  • USB drive (2)
  • Headlamp- SO much use!

Toiletries

  • Toothbrush/toothpaste
  • Razor
  • Soap
  • Deodorant
  • Shampoo/conditioner
  • Bug spray
  • Sunscreen- If you need a lot like I did, bring a couple bottles because sunscreen is bloody expensive in Asia.
  • Make-up
  • Body spray (for the days I have to go without showering)
  • Brush and comb- Brush broke half way in. Had that brush for 7+ years. R.I.P.
  • Bobby pins/hair ties
  • Tweezers
  • Nail clippers
  • Band-Aids- Probably went through 100+ Band-Aids.
  • Tylenol

Other

  • Journal and pens
  • Guidebook (not pictured)/phrasebook- Didn’t need the phrasebook. Knowing how to say hello, thank you and maybe a few hand gestures can easily get you through SE Asia.
  • Books (2)- So I can exchange at a book exchange- Man, do I love book exchanges.
  • Money belt- Never used this for some reason. Guess I’m a little too trusting.
  • Travel pillowcase
  • Travel towel
  • Padlock (Not pictured)
  • Gum- Can’t live without it!- Ran out 😦
  • Toilet paper- I’m sure this will be my saviour- It was.
  • Passport, insurance info and contact info- Thank God for getting travel insurance because I broke a foot bone and needed a cast!
  • Passport photos for various visas- Most places ask for 2 photos but you only need one.
  • MONEY, debit card and credit card

Bags

  • Day bag
  • Dry sack- Came in handy.
  • Shoulder bag

And everything fits into my backpack perfectly!- By the end of my trip, with souvenirs and such, my pack was overly full, especially with clothes being so cheap in SE Asia.

Once again, I wish I brought less clothes. One day I’ll learn.

And there you have it. Agree or disagree with anything?