Vientiane (Laos) to Sa Pa (Vietnam)

Days 28-30 in Southeast Asia (Feb 22-24, 2016)

Exploring Vientiane: Wat Sri Suphan

Knowing we only had 2 full days in Vientiane to explore the city (which is plenty of time, because there’s not a ton to do here), we decided to knock a bunch of items off our list right off the bat. It was hot and humid as ever outside, but we decided we were going to see the city by foot anyways, so we set off towards a temple about 1km away called Wat Sri Suphan. It was a nice temple, but nothing super incredible to look at so we didn’t spend too long there.

COPE Visitor Centre & Learning about the UXO

Our next stop was the COPE Visitor Centre, an organization that helps educate both locals and tourists about the UXO (Unexploded Live Ammunition) that cover over a quarter of the country, and have still not blown up since the US bombing during the war. 30% of what was dropped didn’t go off, and there are certain areas of the country now that are almost deserted because of it. Slowly, COPE has been locating these bombs and safely removing them, but it is a tedious chore as one can imagine, and because of the slow process, over 20,000 people have been killed since after the war ended. COPE helps to educate locals and children as well, who often pick up UXO unknowingly thinking it is scrap metal that can be sold for profit, or who build fires in dangerous areas, unaware of the fact that if the ground below the fire has any UXO, it will explode from the heat.

The country has an incredible amount of amputees and disabled individuals because of the problem, and COPE helps improve their lifestyle through prosthetic limbs and rehabilitation. It was shocking to hear just how much of the country is still affected by this since the war, but it was interesting to learn about and definitely reminded us how lucky we are to live somewhere that we’d never worry about accidentally building a campfire over unexploded ammunition. It sometimes takes a little bit of a harsh reality check to realize what a luxury it is to feel so completely safe all the time back home, and it is something we often don’t even think about, simply BECAUSE we are so lucky. I only pray that someday the lovely people of Laos will know that luxury also.

Victory Monument (Patuxai)

After our visit at COPE, we continued walking to the centre of the city to check out Patuxai (Victory Monument), for a view of Vientiane from above. For only 3000LAK (under 50 cents), we were allowed to climb to the top, which made for a great photo of the city, despite the tourist crowds.

That Luang Temple

After, we grabbed a bite to eat at a cafe, and walked a couple more km to That Luang, a beautiful golden temple that was well worth the extra hike away from our hostel. It was surrounded by other temples, and we arrived just as the sun was setting making for a pretty beautiful view. We walked around a bit and enjoyed the peace and quiet (we arrived just afer the inside of the temple had closed for the day, and there were hardly any other tourists), and grabbed a tuk tuk back to the hostel after a long day of walking around the city.

Our Last Night Together in Vientiane

Vientiane is pretty massive compared to Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng, and it shows just in a simple drive across the city centre as you pass tens of car dealerships and shopping malls and billboards, which are nowhere to be found in either of the other cities we just visited. It was a nice city though, and definitely not as unexciting as a lot of people had told us. Mostly there’s just not much of a night life, but I’m completely okay with that being the case, especially for only a few nights, so I didn’t mind.

When we got back to our hostel, we quickly freshened up and headed back out to check out the night market in Vientiane, where we walked for a few minutes before deciding to sit down for some food. We shared some beers and laughs as we watched Nils and Andrew try the “spicy frog” dish, which made them literally cry and sweat until their faces were dripping. I tried a bite for myself and can definitely vouch for the spicy level, but it was still fun to watch them suffer through, especially Nils who insists on eating only the spiciest foods available and then proceeds to cry and sweat for the next hour while the rest of us laugh and take pictures of him.

Back at the hostel, we found out that if you buy a can of pop at the front desk (10,000LAK or $1.70), the gentleman working at the front would give you a free shot of vodka. I told him we would take 2, and he handed me a couple of glasses to pour some shots ourselves. After pouring the two biggest shots of my life, he looked at me, laughed and said “OH just take it all…” so naturally, we took the bottle, still half full, and went back to the room and drank, basically for free. The 5 of us played cards and drank until 2am (which is really late when you know how early everything here shuts down), and we honestly had the best time together.

We had nothing but an empty room, a deck of cards, a bottle of vodka, some Beer Lao and each other’s company, and I can honestly say it was more fun than any night I’ve spent out so far, at any fancy bar or club. It really was the perfect way to spend our last night together (Andrew and Nils had to leave the next night on a bus North, and David the following morning for Cambodia). In total, we will have spent 19 days with Andrew and Nils, and 23 with David. I’ve grown to love each of these guys as individuals and as part of our little family, and they will be missed dearly.

Buddha Park (Xieng Khuan) Before Leaving Vientiane

The next morning, on our final day together, we took a local bus to Xieng Khuan (Buddha Park), which only cost us 6000LAK each way, plus 5000LAK entry (17,000LAK or $3 in total), vs. 70,000KLAK or $12 had we booked through our hostel or an agency, and it wasn’t tough to figure out at all. An hour later on bus 14 from the morning market, we had arrived. The park isn’t too big in itself, but there’s a ton to see, including a main sphere with 4 or 5 stories inside to climb up and take pictures from. We spent a couple hours in the park and hopped on the bus back to the city.

Birthdays & Goodbyes

When we got back, Maddie and I ran ahead of the boys and snuck into a little cafe where we grabbed a slice of cake and a candle to bring back to the hostel, and we sang Happy Birthday to Andrew who would be turning 27 in less than a week, and we figured we ought to do a little something special for him since we wouldn’t be with him during his actual birthday. It wasn’t much, but I think he appreciated our efforts which is what matters most at the end of the day.

We hung out by the lobby for the next couple of hours waiting with Andrew and Nils for their minibus out of the city, and after a tearful goodbye, Maddie and I went out for dinner by ourselves, dragging our broken hearts behind us. It wasn’t the same without the boys, but we knew going into this trip that goodbyes were inevitable, I guess the only surprise was just how attached we had become, and how hard it was to say goodbye. I never thought I’d make such incredible friends who would mean so much to me in such a short period of time. They were with me through the worst night of my life in Luang Prabang, and for some of the highlights of the trip so far. We spent all of our time together, from exciting adventures to laying low… and while I know we’ll meet other people along the way who we’ll become friends with, I feel that it’s a rare thing to get as close with just anyone as we did with these guys. Hopefully we’ll bump into them again somewhere along the line, and I told them if we didn’t that they’d better clear a spot on their couch in Alaska for me.

Leaving for Vietnam!

The next morning we said a final goodbye to David, packed our bags, and headed off to the Airport. We booked our tickets online in advance, but I wasn’t totally sure if mine had gone through, because I never received an e-ticket by e-mail, so we made sure we arrived at the airport with plenty of time just incase. Turns out it didn’t go through, and I now had to pay 1.5 times the price Maddie paid, in CASH, meaning I also had to pay ATM fees to withdraw more to pay for the flight last minute, costing me about $190CAD total… I was unimpressed. After running around the airport for a few hours and meeting a couple of British gentlemen who had also been having issues with their tickets and visas, we finally boarded our flight and were off to Hanoi, Vietnam

Honestly, I have loved my time in Laos for a lot of the activities we did and of course the people I was with, but I feel like the food poisoning and now overpaying for a flight kind of left a bitter taste in my mouth. To top it off, we’re pretty sure we had bedbugs in our last hostel, even though I keep telling myself it was just mosquitoes that mauled me on the last night (they’re REALLY bad in Vientiane). My legs from the knee down are absolutely COVERED in bites, as are Maddie’s, and we’re planning a full clothes and bag cleaning once we arrive at our place in Vietnam, just to be safe, but the bites are enough to drive anyone crazy, and it’s very quickly getting from  slightly annoying to pull-out-your-hair-maddening.

Welcome to Vietnam!

The flight was a quick hour, and once we arrived in Vietnam, we payed the $25USD visa fee (after getting our visas approved in advance online), got our 30 Day visas and (fairly quickly) got outside of the Airport, ready to make our way to the Train Station where we’d be hopping on an overnight train to Sa Pa in the evening. We split a minivan into the city with the British gentlemen and some other tourists we met, and chatted as we enjoyed our first real view of the massive (and chilly) city of Hanoi. The streets here are crowded and hectic, buildings stacked on top of each other in endless rows, and scooters EVERYWHERE.

Overnight Train From Hanoi to Sa Pa

At last, we reached the station, booked our 8 hour train for 10pm (arriving at 6am), for 545,000VND ($33), and walked around a bit after sticking our bags in lockers at the station. We enjoyed our first meal of wonton soup and steamed pork buns, and sat in a cafe afterwards for the comfy seats and free wifi. We stayed for a couple of hours until the train left, and hopped on board to our new home for the next 8 hours. Here we met Nadia and Kiren, a couple of British ladies who were assigned as our bunk mates. The sleeper train has 4-berth rooms, which is basically two small bunk beds side by side and a bit of room between them with a table, as well as a washroom down the hall to be shared with the whole train section (it wasn’t pretty). We talked for a bit, had some snacks and went to sleep. Overall, the train was pretty nice (and warm), and other than the bug bites on my legs that were driving me crazy, I was very comfortable while I slept. I actually ran to a pharmacy last minute before boarding the train and grabbed some itch cream, which I used when I was up in the night and it actually seemed to help quite a bit.

At 5:30am, we woke up and got our things together before disembarking the train in Lao Cai, where we grabbed a 30 minute minibus for 50,000VND ($3) each to take us to Sa Pa. It was a rainy and cold morning (about 5 degrees), and we bundled up as we got off of the minibus, with nowhere booked to stay and no idea where to go. There we were, enjoying our first look at Northern Vietnam… we tightened our backpack straps and hit the road, ready to find out what Vietnam had in store for us!

Vang Vieng: Blue Lagoon, Hot Air Balloon and Tubing

Days 25-27 in Southeast Asia (Feb 19-21, 2016)

The Blue Lagoon!

Feeling much more alive than I had so far since getting sick, I was ready for an activity packed day, and even feeling confident enough in my livelihood to book a hot air balloon ride that would pick us up at 4pm for a sunset flight. To start off the day, David, Nils, Andrew, Maddie and myself piled in a tuk tuk and headed to the Blue Lagoon (Tham Phu Kham) and Poukham Cave. The tuk tuk ride was 30,000LAK ($5) each, for about a 20 minute drive both ways, and the driver waits for you there. It cost us each 10,000LAK ($1.70) entry fee as well, which wasn’t too bad at all. We had heard that it was very touristy and not overly impressive so we went in with relatively low expectations.

The Lagoon was nice, with a big jumping tree hanging over the swimming area, but it was very crowded, as we pictured it being, and loud. Huge groups of Chinese tourists cheered each other on as they jumped in with their life jackets on, one at a time. It was fun for a minute to watch and cheer but then you realize that it’s like that the whole day, and the novelty wears off pretty quickly.

Phoukham Cave Exploring

Before going into the Lagoon, we figured we’d see what Poukham cave was all about. It seemed like nobody even knew there was a cave here, too distracted by the Lagoon to bother going farther through the park, but we didn’t mind at all as we quietly climbed the stairs (I use the word stairs here loosely… It was basically chunks of rocks and dirt leading up a cliff), to the cave entrance where we saw only a couple other small groups inside.

Unlike other caves, this one didn’t have a cleared path or easy way through, and the only sense of direction we were given was by a few loosely spray painted arrows on rocks. We turned on the flashlights on our phones as we walked farther into the cave. It went back really far actually, with tunnels and enclosed spaces we had to climb over and crawl through, slipping in mud at several points as we did so. It was actually pretty cool to be somewhere that we actually felt like we were exploring, rather than walking through a clearly marked path with a guide. By the time we had finished exploring the cave, we were sweating and exhausted, and ready to head to the Lagoon.

We hopped in to cool off, and Maddie jumped off the smaller of the two tree branches while I jumped from the one above. It was a fun post-cave activity, but if you ask me the real sight to see here was the cave rather than the Lagoon, and I was so happy that we decided to explore the cave despite the fact that nobody had mentioned it before we got there and we had no idea if it was worth seeing.

Hot Air Balloon Ride Over Vang Vieng

When we got back to the hostel we quickly changed out of our wet clothes and got ourselves ready to be picked up for our hot air balloon ride. The total cost was 630,000LAK ($106 CAD) for a 40 minute flight which was cheaper than I’ve seen anywhere else so far, plus we had read about the view from the balloon and that it was the best way to see the city and surrounding landscapes, and one of the best views Laos had to offer, so we had worked it into our budget from the beginning.

We were driven to a field with a few other groups of tourists, where three large balloons lay across the field deflated, and we watched as the crew began to use large fans to fill the balloons up with air, before turning on the flames and turning the balloons upright, at which point the groups were allowed to board.

Our group was in the last balloon, which I didn’t mind at all because it allowed us to see the other two balloons get fully blown up and take off, which was honestly almost as beautiful of a sight as our own flight. Finally it was our turn, and we smiled ear to ear as we felt the heat from the flames blowing down on us while we began to leave the ground. Within a few seconds, we were swept away above the beautiful city of Vang Vieng.

My pictures will certainly not do it justice, but the view from above was spectacular, mountains and karsts jutting out from around the city, with the beautiful river below. I turned to the others, and half jokingly thanked them for saving my life a few nights before, saying that I would have been SO pissed if I missed out on this. We laughed a bit, but I think they all knew as well as I did that I really was lucky to be here, and grateful for what they all had done for me. It was a perfect sunset to be surrounded by friends.

After getting back to the hostel, we went over to Sakura Bar for a few drinks, but I decided to hold off knowing that tomorrow was tubing day and I wanted to survive it, and didn’t want to push anything while still on medication for food poisoning.

The Vang Vieng Tubing Experience

The following morning we slowly got ourselves ready and made our way to the tube rental place by around 2. The tubes cost 55,000LAK ($9) to rent, plus a 60,000LAK deposit, and the tubes have to be back before 6pm if you want the deposit back. We also bought a dry pack to put all our belongings in, and figured it would be a good investment for future water activities outside of today as well. The whole river ride should take about 3 hours without stopping, but there are bars along the way, so it’s a good idea to give yourself at least 4 hours or so.

We headed out on the water, and within about 30 seconds we had reached the first of two bars. There used to be tens of bars along the river, but ever since a few tourist groups got insanely drunk and drowned, a lot of the bars have shut down, leaving just two along the way that remain open. It’s pretty awful, and also shocking that so many people drowned, especially after seeing how shallow and slow moving the river was, but I guess that’s why you shouldn’t get insanely drunk and go tubing to begin with.

We hung out at the first bar for a bit and had some drinks, played some musical tubes (winner gets a bucket, losers get shots), and made some new friends before heading another 5 minutes down the river to the second and final bar.

Apparently I STILL wasn’t well enough for alcohol, and my stomach started hurting after the first couple of drinks, so David went with me down the rest of the river while the others stayed and drank at the bar. Unfortunately, the sky clouded over and it quickly became a very cold ride during which David and I paddled pretty quickly near the end to speed things along.

We paid a tuk tuk driver 20,000LAK each, 2km from the end of the tubing course to take us back to the rental shop so that we’d make it back in time to get our deposit back, which we did before heading back to our rooms to shower and warm up. I napped for a bit before Andrew came back to the hotel to tell me that Maddie and Nils weren’t back yet… and apparently Maddie had lost her sunglasses and was very upset and wandering the streets looking for them. She had apparently taken out her frustration on Andrew, who had been arguing with the tube rental guy because they arrived less than 5 minutes after 6 and weren’t going to get their deposit back (they ended up getting 40,000 back), while Maddie was trying to find them.

Luckily Nils followed Maddie around despite her misery to make sure she came back safely. 2 hours later, Maddie arrived back at the hostel angry and in tears. I put her to bed, and told the others that the Lao Lao Whiskey had gotten the better of her this time, and that she just needed to sleep, sure that she would regret getting so upset with them.

I went with Nils and David down the street to grab some food at a Friends Cafe and relax for a bit (half of the cafes here just play old episodes of Friends ALL DAY LONG, and you can just sit and watch as long as you like). We sat for a few hours and talked and watched friends, before I decided to call it a night.

Leaving Vang Vieng

The following morning was full of apologies, and Maddie admitted that she shouldn’t have gotten as upset as she did over a pair of sunglasses, and that far more important than her glasses were the friendships she had made with the people we had been travelling with for the past 17 days. That’s the thing about making friends while travelling I guess, you see each other at your best and worst and everywhere in-between in a very short period of time. In some ways it’s great because it feels like a family, but in other ways it means that you take things out on each other when you really shouldn’t, and this was one of those times.

After hugging it out and grabbing some breakfast, the 5 of us waited outside of the hostel with our bags packed, ready for our minibus to head South to Vientiane. The minibus was 45,000LAK ($7), for a 4hour ride from 1:30-5:30, but it was running on Laos time, and didn’t leave ’til closer to 2:30, arriving at around 7pm.

The ride was long and incredibly bumpy, and by the time we got off the bus and walked to out hostel I was feeling pretty nauseous. It didn’t help that the neighbours were throwing a wedding party and had TERRIBLE (sorry, but it’s true) music blasting all evening. Eventually the music died down and after laying down for a bit and having a shower, I was feeling much better.

Arriving in Vientiane

The hostel here is nothing to brag about, “Dream Home Hostel and Swimming Pool” cost us about 40,000LAK or $8 each per night for dorm rooms, and the swimming pool AND movie room were both under repairs. We planned on spending only a few short days here though, most of which we’d be exploring anyways, so it wasn’t a big deal that there wasn’t much to do at the hostel. We were all pretty tired from the bus trip, so we hit the hay fairly early, excited to explore Vientiane, the Capital city of Laos, the following morning.

Vang Vieng: Karsts, Caves and Recovery

Days 23-24 in Southeast Asia (Feb 17-18, 2016)

Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng (Via Minibus)

At 7am on Feb 17th, I dragged my exhausted (and still very much ill) body out of bed, and onto a minibus to Vang Vieng. The bus cost us each 120,000LAK ($20) to make the 4 hour trip. The other option for this journey would have been a 7hour VIP bus, which costs a bit more and has a bathroom, but I told the others that I was willing to take the faster minibus as long as they promised that if I needed the bus to pull over because I was going to be sick, that they’d help me scream at the driver just incase he didn’t want to stop. Luckily, the ride had 3 short stops (which was actually pretty excessive even for me) and I wasn’t feeling too bad that morning at all and didn’t get sick once. It also definitely helped that the driver let me sit in the front seat, where I was distracted by the gorgeous scenery of karsts and mountains in every direction… and Nils had told the driver that I wasn’t feeling too hot, so the driver would periodically look over and say “okay?” With a thumbs up and a smile, which was very sweet.

Vang Vieng

Eventually we arrived at our new place in Vang Vieng called Malany Villa Guest House which was just under 50,000LAK/nt ($8) each for private rooms. It was right in the middle of the city, which is very small to begin with, so it was the ideal location for basically anything we wanted to do over the next few days. Once we got our stuff into our rooms, my stomach started acting up again, and I knew that it was probably going to be another rough night for me. We all played cards in the room for a couple hours until I finally told Maddie Nils and Andrew to go ahead and have fun without me.

I stayed in and rested while they got a taste of Vang Vieng night life, and they were sure to check up on me every couple of hours as I tried to get some rest up in the room. Maddie even brought me some food when I felt like I could stomach it, which I was very grateful for since I had zero interest in leaving the room even for a quick bite. Eventually my drugs kicked in and I felt a little less sick, enough for me to get a few solid hours of much needed rest that night.

I slept in quite late the next morning, which I rarely do, but I figured that if I ever needed a good sleep-in, it was now, after a damn egg had tried to kill me 2 days before…

Seeing The City

Once we all finally pulled ourselves out of bed, we all met up and went out to the bakery around the corner for breakfast. Laos was colonized by the French (along with a lot of areas in Southeast Asia) for those of you unaware, and it is reflected more than anything in the cuisine. EVERYTHNG comes on a baguette, and every street has at least 3 or 4 bakeries with equally mouth watering treats for sale. The pastries, doughnuts and breads here are delicious, but it almost feels strange eating delicious fancy french foods walking through a dirt road in the middle of Southeast Asia… At breakfast I unknowingly ordered a chicken sandwich that was about the size of my head, and naturally had to share it with everyone else at the table because my stomach was in no condition to be stuffed full, no matter how delicious the food.

Tham Jang Cave

After breakfast (or lunch, rather), we went for a walk about 15 minutes out of the city centre to explore Tham Jang Cave. The cave is one of the most famous in the area because it was actually lived in and used as a hiding spot when the Chinese invaded. It was pretty incredible to walk through the cave and picture people actually living in it, especially as I felt myself getting a little claustrophobic at times after spending less than 30 minutes inside the cave. It was pretty easy to get to by foot, and only cost us about 17,000LAK (including the 2000LAK bridge toll), (about $3), so it was definitely worth the visit. Plus, we got a great workout walking up approximately 10 million stairs in 30 degree heat (and I had to stop every 5 steps for water because I was still so weak and dehydrated from the food poisoning… and I’m also no athlete).

Nils and Andrew went for a dip in a beautiful blue little river/pond under the cave afterwards before we headed back towards our hotel. We stopped by the river and sat to watch the sun setting over the karsts as the speedboats and kayaks went by, enjoying the absolutely incredible scenery here in Vang Vieng.
My stomach had held up really well for most of the day, but I think I pushed it a bit hard because I was absolutely drained by the time we got back, and headed to bed not long after dinner, once again missing a night out in Vang Vieng. While my FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) was driving me crazy, I knew it was definitely for the best that I gave my body some time to rest and relax, especially since we hoped to do even more fun activities the next morning, and I was certainly not going to miss out on anything else!

Luang Prabang: Valentines, Waterfalls and Hospital Beds

Days 20-22 in Southeast Asia (Feb 14-16, 2016)

Valentine’s Day Away From Home

The morning of Feb 14 I woke up with very mixed emotions. Missing what would’ve been Alex & my first Valentine’s day together was far from ideal, but once again, I knew what I signed up for when I planned on leaving for 3 and a half months. They say that distance is to love what wind is to fire, it extinguishes the small but inflames the great… Sometimes the worst of your worries as a traveller aren’t the things you might have to face while away, they’re the things you fear will not be there when you come home. I miss Alex, and my friends and family, but I know that when I get back my life will pick up where it left off, and the things I feared I missed won’t seem so important anymore. For now, e-mails and love notes will have to suffice.

Finding a Place to Stay

After searching for a new hotel or guesthouse in our price range for the next few nights, Maddie, Andrew, Nils and myself finally found a place we could actually afford. It was small with spotty WiFi at best, but they had a 4 bed dorm room available which we took, which basically ended up being a private room for the group, and for 40,000LAK/night ($7), we gladly moved into Wat That Homestay, the place we’d call home for the next 3 nights in Luang Prabang.

The WiFi Situation…

The WiFi situation in Laos is… well, crap. 99% of places advertise that they have free WiFi, but there’s only about a 50% chance you will actually connect. Even when you do, it cuts in and out like you wouldn’t imagine. Sending a photo or posting things to my blog is an hour long production, and making a call or face timing someone is almost unheard of. What I’ve started doing is basically pretending I’m going to eat at a nice restaurant, sitting down and asking for the WiFi password, and testing out the WiFi before ordering. I usually find that opening Instagram and seeing if it refreshes is a good way to tell if the signal is strong. Once I know it works, I order a beer, tea or fruit shake, which are all similarly priced even in fancy restaurants here, and I sit for an hour or so to do whatever posting/e-mailing/research/hotel booking/planning I need to do all at once.

The only downside is that when you have WiFi for an hour a day, it’s hard to communicate with the people you’re travelling with to make plans. On this day in particular, we found zero WiFi, and basically just decided to let Steph and Sam (staying at a different hostel) and David and James (at yet another) do their own thing, and figured we’d see them when we see them. I do really enjoy everyone here and it’s been so great to meet so many new people, but honestly it gets tiring travelling and doing activities with such a big group, and it was kind of nice to have a quiet day for the 4 of us to explore the city a bit on foot.

Mount Phou Si & That Chomsi Stupa

We decided to check out Mount Phou Si, the large mountain/hill in the city centre, near the National Museum. We climbed the steps to the top of the hill and saw That Chomsi Stupa at the top. It cost us each 20,000LAK ($3.50) to climb, and we spent another 20,000LAK along the way to grab a couple of small woven baskets with 2 teeny little birds inside each, to release at the top for good luck. The view from the top was spectacular, with mountains and jungle in every direction, and the river winding around the city. The entire city has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it shows as you walk through and see what great care has been taken of every building, sidewalk and garden. There are trees everywhere, and a walk through the city never feels too crowded or crazy. So far, Laos seems greener and more relaxed than most of Thailand, and it’s nice to see the subtle differences during our first few day in Laos.

Walking the City

After exploring Phou Si, we crossed the street to check out the Museum, but decided just to walk around and enjoy the area outside, rather than pay and go in. We continued walking along the street until we walked parallel to the river, and followed it as the Mekong River joined Nam Khan River to form a peninsula, which makes for a lovely walk through the city that couldn’t take more than an hour or so, even when you’re stopping for photos or snacks. Along the way you’ll also find Wat Xieng Thong, the most famous temple in the city. It cost 20,000LAK to get in, and if you’re not covered (shoulders, chest and knees), another 5000LAK to rent cover ups. It was a beauiful site, though it’s hard to feel impressed by much after our visit to the White Temple in Chiang Rai.

Utopia Bar

That evening, we went to Utopia Bar, had some drinks (and unfortunately had some free shots of Lao Lao Whikey Valentine’s day creations called “Love Bite” and “Blue Balls”…they were strong…), and played some drinking games with some new friends we had met on the slow boat ride into Laos. Maddie even won herself a beer with a new betting game/magic trick that David had taught her, and we were all very proud.

After the bar we all headed to the pier, stopping along the way at a restaurant for a washroom break, where they were also selling roses for Valentine’s day. I asked the owner if he’d give me a rose, jokingly as I said I needed a Valentine, and he gave me one. Mostly I think he just knew it was so late he probably wasn’t going to sell anymore anyways, but it was still a nice gesture. I was pretty tired by then, and honestly just missing my real Valentine back home, so I decided to head back before the others and call it a night.

Kuang Si Waterfall

The following morning, we all slept in a fair bit (of course I was still up before everyone else, writing and doing laundry like a crazy person), so that we’d be ready for our trip to visit the most famous waterfall in Luang Prabang called Tat Kuang Si. We had heard that it was a bit touristy but after seeing pictures decided we still wanted to go. We met up with the entire group (us 4, plus David, James, Sam and Steph), and grabbed a tuk tuk for 25,000LAK ($4.25) round trip. It’s much more expensive to rent scooters here than anywhere else, so it worked out well to split a tuk tuk with a large group. Plus, the tuk tuk drives you there (which is about a 40 minute drive), waits for you for HOURS, and then meets you at a spot after to bring you back, so for $4.25 I really wasn’t going to complain about not scootering, even though it would’ve been fun.

The falls cost 20,000LAK ($3.40) to enter, and they were gorgeous. Bright blue cloudy water that looked like it couldn’t possibly be the real color, but it was. Near the top the falls dropped from a high cliff, and then slowly stepped down to form several levels of pools and smaller falls where the majority of visitors spend their time, surrounded by trees and awesome spots for jumping. Of course, us being a group of “thrill-seekers”, we decided to climb up to the very top of the falls through the forest to see the view from up top. Turns out, the view from the top of the falls actually is impossible to see the actual falls from… but it was still a pretty great view of the jungle. After returning to the bottom, we went for a swim to cool off. We didn’t stay in for long though after a few of us felt little nibbles from the fish in the pools! We think they were the same type that are used for pedicures that eat dead skin, because a couple of us had scabs bitten off entirely… it was a bit unsettling to say the least. After our swim, we headed back to the tuk tuk, exhausted from our hike up the falls, and most of us fell asleep during the ride back.

The Evening Market

That evening a few of us went out for dinner, and decided to just walk around the market for a bit. Maddie, Nils and I bought matching Beer Lao tank tops for 20,000LAK ($3.40), and afterwards went back to the room where we met up with Andrew and Sam. Steph headed to the hospital with her friend who lives here, to get an infected bug bite taken care of (never neglect cuts here… always put on the poly), so the 5 of us just hung out in the room and talked for a bit.

The Blood Sugar Crash…

Before we had gotten to the room, I was feeling a bit shaky and my blood sugar was 3.4, so I ate a couple of candies that I carry around with me always (diabetic rule #1: ALWAYS have candy/juice while travelling). When we got back to the room though, I was 3.6… so I had 2 more. Half an hour later I was 3.2… I had 2 more. At this point I was concerned… was the activity from the day just catching up with me? How had I eaten 6 candies (over 70 grams of sugar) and was not coming out of my low?… I was telling the others I was worried and that this was weird, and Nils ran to the corner store to grab me a bottle of coke, hoping that maybe it’d be easier to drink that and bring up my sugar. By now, I was feeling so full… I felt like my stomach was pushing out so far that I looked pregnant, and I felt so nauseous. I tested again. 2.4…

The others looked panicked and so did I. Maddie started asking what to do if it won’t actually come up? I said she’d have to give me the emergency glucagon and call for an ambulance (half jokingly, not thinking it could happen)… I pulled out my Glucagon (kind of like an epipen for diabetics, a big needle that will raise blood sugar if oral ingestion is not an option)… but in almost 11 years of being a diabetic I’ve never needed it once, so it seemed surreal to be demonstrating it to them as I sat there sweating and shaking and slurring my words.

When Everything Got Serious

At this point, I started puking… a lot. It was more violent than I’ve ever had in my life… all the candy, all the coke, all of my dinner.

This is one of the worst case scenarios as a diabetic. A low blood sugar is no big deal if you’re 2.4 and have a juice or candy nearby. Within 15 minutes or so you should be back in the safe zone and feeling normal… but if you’re ill, everything you ingest is coming back up, and none of the sugar can be absorbed. Andrew ran to the front and grabbed me 2 bottles of orange juice, a last stitch effort to get my sugar up orally. I still didn’t understand why I was vomiting, but I felt horrible and the last thing I wanted was to CHUG 2 juice bottles… but survival instinct kicked in, and I closed my eyes and got through the first, and half of the second… until it all came back up. I was crying and scared, denying that I needed to go to the hospital, praying that my sugar was going to come up enough from what little might’ve been absorbed that I didn’t have to. I tested again.

I tested at 1.9

The lowest I’ve ever seen on my glucometer, and I knew that this was a real emergency. I was shaking and weak, and could hardly speak, but if I didn’t do something I would seizure, go unconscious, and die. This wasn’t a “what if?” Scenario anymore, it was real. I told Nils to draw up the Glucagon needle, while Sam and Andrew went to get an ambulance (which here, is apparently a tuk tuk…), and without hesitation I stuck the needle in my thigh and gave myself the dose. At first I only did half… somehow still in denial that I needed it, but then I stuck it back in and gave the rest thinking “if this isn’t an emergency I don’t know what is”…

I laid in bed, hearing Sam, Andrew, Nils and Maddie panic around me “Is the tuk here?” “What do we do?” “We need to leave NOW”…Their voices sounded like they were 4 rooms down the hall. I was shaking, in waves like a shiver but stronger, heart beating faintly, dizzy and sweating, weaker than I’ve ever felt before, unable to move or speak as I heard myself in my own head saying “get up, sit up and test your sugar. Get in the tuk tuk and go. You have to sit up. Don’t fall asleep, you’re not going to wake up.”… I pulled my eyes open and sat up and tested. 2.3… it was going up. Thank God. Body still convulsing, I got in the tuk tuk as my sugar continued to climb from the glucagon.

The Luang Prabang Local Hospital

When we arrived at the hospital, we were told to sit and wait for the doctor (thankfully I had taken the glucagon, because if I had to wait the 15 minutes it took there I wouldn’t have made it). As we waited, I puked more and more. It was so loud and so painful and so MUCH… It was almost FUNNY because it literally felt like I was on a comedy sketch with projectile vomit that was so over dramatic it couldn’t be real… but it WAS. By then, my sugar was up to 8.4, and I didn’t even care about how shitty the puking felt because I knew that I could survive this far easier than a low blood sugar.

It didn’t take long for us to piece together that I had food poisoning, especially when I started getting sick from the other end (I’ll spare you the details). Maddie kept testing my blood sugar, Andrew held open the garbage bags as I puked, and Nils and Sam paid cash for everything that the doctor prescribed me (and paid extra for toilet paper and water, that aren’t free anywhere here apparently…), and ran back and forth to the pharmacy. It cost me a total of 431,000LAK in the end or $75… a small price (and I have travel insurance), but it was still a lot of money to be expected to have on hand when it generally costs $2 a meal and $10 a night here, and you rarely carry much cash around. I was white as a ghost and crying when the doctor said I had to stay overnight with an IV because he was worried I would be too dehydrated, but everyone agreed that it was probably for the best.

The hospital was one floor, maybe 10 rooms, with no more than 6 patients that we saw, and a handful of nurses who spoke minimal English, instructed by a single doctor. The water for the taps wasn’t running for half the night, and there were mosquitoes and lizards inside the building and my room. I have never missed Canada so much in my entire life, and wanted to slap myself for anytime I EVER complained about a hospital stay back home… I didn’t know how good I had it.

By about 3am, I was in my own hospital room and hooked up to an IV with antibiotics and saline. I had taken several anti-nausea drinks, and started taking niprofloxacin, which I’d take 2 times daily for the next 5 days to get rid of whatever bacterial infection I had… Laying in bed I started going over what I had eaten that day. Every meal I had was shared with Maddie, except for breakfast. Then it all made sense… I grabbed the free guesthouse breakfast at the front this morning, but got yelled at for showing up late. “Luckily” the owner had made one for someone who didn’t come back so he handed it to me. One baguette, and 2 very runny, very cold eggs. I knew as I ate them that they were too runny (even the whites), and they weren’t even warm. I used the egg white and yolk as a dip for my bread… not thinking about how bad it could be if that egg happened to have salmonella. I’d bet money on it now that it did, especially after we looked it up and found out that salmonella has an incubation period of 12-72 hours, and it was almost 12 hours EXACTLY after breakfast that I started to feel nauseous. Never trust undercooked & cold meats or eggs, it is not worth it. LESSON LEARNED!

Maddie settled into bed with me at the hospital, and I gave the others the OK to head back. They promised they’d be back in the morning with food for me if I could stomach it, and water. They all hugged me and said to feel better and I could feel how much they cared. I’ve never felt so lucky to have met such great friends in my life.

Maddie didn’t leave my side through anything. She set her phone alarm for every hour to wake up and test my blood sugar, even if I was asleep, and she kept poking me to see if I was okay. She chased down nurses for anything I needed and made sure that we had the proper drugs and proper instructions for taking them, and asked multiple nurses the same questions to make sure there was no miscommunication. She even got a hold of viles of glucose that can be taken through an IV, but that can also be drank in emergencies and work almost as quickly (obviously I don’t know how to set up an IV)… and it took her a lot of question asking and demanding things and rephrasing things and asking the same damn question to every nurse before she got a hold of them, just so that if it ever happened again we’d have something since I now had used up my glucagon pen (and Laos doesn’t have them so we couldn’t replace it).

Maddie probably pissed off every person working in the whole damn hospital to make sure that I was taken care of, and I have never been so grateful for her being the stubborn pain in the ass that she is. Not only that, but she got less sleep than even I did, and she’ll have to forgive me for saying this, but she looked like hell because of how exhausted she was, but she still pulled it together for me. I’ve said thank you to her and the others multiple times now, but I truly don’t know what I would have done without them, or if I’d even be around to wonder.

Thank you guys for holding my hand and my hair through the scariest experience of my life. Maddie you’re my hero, and Nils, Sam and Andrew you guys have known me for 2 weeks, and owe me nothing. It would have been just as easy to stick me in the tuk tuk with Maddie and let her deal with me, but you guys took such good care of me without giving it a second thought, making me feel cared for and loved the whole time. I feel so blessed to have met you, and I’ll never be able to thank you enough for what you did for me.

The Next Day, Moving Forward

The following morning, I was feeling much more alive, and my blood sugars were higher again (I’ve never been so excited to see my blood sugar at 13 as I was after the low the night before). Nils, Sam and Andrew returned with snacks, and kept me company until I was discharged. I spent the whole day sitting around recovering, and napping most of the time. David, James and Steph came to check up on me, and Segev sent me loving words of encouragement from Southern Thailand. My body felt like I had just run a marathon with a hangover and then been hit by a bus, but my heart was bursting with the amount of love and hugs I received that day, and sometimes that’s all you need to keep you smiling.

That night we said goodbye to Sam and Steph, who were heading North for a few days before meeting us again (hopefully) in Vang Vieng, where we had booked a minibus for the following morning. I was hesitant to book a bus feeling how I did, but I honestly just wanted to move on from this city to the next, and leave this whole experience behind me, knowing how lucky I was to be alive, and ready as ever to make it count.

The Two Day Slow Boat: Chiang Rai (Thailand) to Luang Prabang (Laos)

Days 18-19 in Southeast Asia (Feb 12-13, 2016)

Leaving Chiang Rai

5am, bright and early, we packed our bags and said goodbye to lovely Chiang Rai and Thailand (for now) as we began our journey to Laos.

Originally, our plan was to fly from Chiang Mai to Udon Thani (Thailand), cross into Vientiane over land, and from there head North to Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang. After shifting things around a bit we found that it worked out in our favour financially to take a different route through Laos. We decided to take the 2 day slow boat. The boat journey starts from Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai (Chiang Rai is on the way there from Chiang Mai so it is a bit cheaper from there if you’re in town anyways), and ends up in Luang Prabang, so we are basically just reversing the order of the cities in Laos that we’re planning on visiting (heading North to South now instead).

You can book the bus/boat trip through pretty much any hostel, hotel or travel agency in Chiang Rai or Chiang Mai, but we decided after doing some research to save money and do it independently. The nice thing about this route is that it is so popular that as you arrive at each stop, the next portion of the journey is basically spoon-fed to you anyways, so it really wasn’t rocket science to plan it out ourselves, but the two day journey takes several steps, so if you’re ever planning on doing the same trip, listen up!

First, get from your hostel to the bus station. For us, this was a 5 minute walk in Chiang Rai. Next is hopping on a Red Bus to Chiang Kong (North). The bus cost all of 100B ($4) to take us straight to the border crossing, and it didn’t require any advance booking, just show up anytime (it leaves every hour on the hour from Chiang Rai), and pay on board. We made sure to get on the 6am bus because we didn’t want to end up missing the slow boat (which leaves at 11:30am) and having to stay the night until the following morning (I think they only leave once, maybe twice a day but everyone seems to always end up on the 11:30 one anyways).

Crossing The Border into Laos & Getting Our Visas

The Red Bus took about 3 hours (arriving at around 9am) to get to Chiang Kong, where everyone gets off the bus, and heads to Thai Immigration. Make sure that you have your Thai Immigration paper (blue and white ticket-like thing that you would have filled out when you got to Thailand). They take the slip, stamp out your passport (and hopefully you haven’t stayed past your visa expiration date or I think this is where they’d make you pay up), and BOOM, you’re our of Thailand, easy peasy.

From the other side of the immigration station, a shuttle bus will be waiting to load everyone up and cross the Friendship Bridge into Laos (this was included in our initial bus fare). Next, was the painful process of obtaining our Laos Visas. It wasn’t HORRIBLE, I’m sure there are worse experiences at borders, but honestly this place lacked organization like you wouldn’t believe. As you approach the mob (yes, it’s a mob) of people, all trying to get visas and cross into Laos, You first have to grab the immigration papers from the desk at the front or from the tables around you. I’d suggest bringing a pen, because we saved a lot of time filling out the papers on chairs outside of the table area with our own pens. Once the papers are filled out, make sure you have one passport photo ready (you only need one) for them to staple to your papers at the desk.

Once you get to the front of the line, they take your papers, staple your photo to them, take your PASSPORT (yes, they actually take it away, and yes, it will make you nauseous), and point you to the next line over. Now, here’s the kicker; they never give you a number, or any way of getting your passport back in an organized way, so after they put it in the giant pile of passports, they are taken to the next desk (where you line up), the visa sticker is placed in the passports, all in an area not visible to you, and then they just HOLD UP YOUR PASSPORT for you to get it back… Basically it was just a mob of people all yelling out “Lady from China!” or, “Guy with long hair from the UK!”… to try to speed things along so that everyone at the back would know if theirs was ready. Some people waited 30 seconds, others for an hour. The passports aren’t dealt with in the order that they were received, they just seem to grab a pile and start. It is crazy, and frustrating, and you will 100% be freaking out the whole time until you have your precious passport back in your hands, but I assure you that I didn’t see ANYONE who didn’t actually get it back eventually. So, while it is frustrating and chaotic, rest assured that it seems rare if not impossible that a passport would get lost in the process, and just accept that you’re in Asia at a land border crossing, and things aren’t always seamelss.

Once they call your name for you to get your passport, this is where you bring up the cash for your visa as well. It has to be in USD from everything I’ve seen and heard, and if you try to do it another way it’ll probably just take you twice as long and you’ll end up using the ATM nearby so just bring USD in the first place and have it ready. For Canadians, it’s $42 USD exactly, for Americans $35, and it varies a bit for European and other countries in Asia etc., but most of the info for that is easily found online.

Welcome to Laos

Once you’ve got your passport back, you’re basically done. You just walk through the main gate, show them your passport with the new visa sticker, and you’re in Laos! As soon as you exit the area, you’ll find a load of tuk tuks willing to take you to Huai Xai, where the boat leaves from. Almost everything in Laos (especially near the border and for the boat etc., can be paid for in Thai Baht if that’s all you have, just double check with an app on your phone if you have one, to see if the exchange rate is alright to match what they ask for in kip). Since we had a big group, we haggled the driver to take us to Huai Xai for 80B each instead of 100. The tuk tuk will drop you off on the same street as the pier, by a bunch of shops and food stands. Make sure you get some water, snacks and sandwiches to last you for the next 7 hours of the trip, because it is a lot cheaper to buy it ahead than on the boat (it’s still pretty overpriced, but you don’t really have a choice unless you want to wander miles away and potentially miss your boat).

Here is also where you buy the slow boat ticket. They’re all pretty consistently priced, so it’s not easy to haggle much, but we got a bit of a deal and it cost us each 1050B for both trips, Huai Xai to Pakbeng, and Pakbeng to Luang Prabang the following day. In total, the trip up until this point cost us each 1230B ($49), rather than the 1650B ($66) it would’ve cost through a travel agency, and it took us the same amount of time, with minimal extra effort. The trip to Pakbeng was scheduled 11:30-6:30 (7hrs), but we actually left an hour late, and still arrived at 6, so the boat ride itself was only 5.5 hours, with a bunch of waiting around time before and after.

Day 1 on the 2-Day Slow Boat

The ride itself was actually really nice, a bit chilly but beautiful scenery the whole way as you boat down the river between mountains. The boat moves at a steady speed and doesn’t have much wind or anything, so it won’t make you as nauseous as a boat ride on choppy waters would. The seats are basically car seats on chair legs that aren’t bolted down, and the washroom on board was a squat toilet without any toilet paper (so make sure you bring purell and toilet paper galore). Water and beer are sold onboard, but aren’t incredibly cheap, so worth purchasing ahead of time if you can.

On arrival in Pakbeng at around 6pm, we were greeted by a swarm of guesthouse and hotel owners looking to take us to their place for the night. Accomodation isn’t included in the boat fee or tour fees, but most places including the one we chose, were around 200B each for the night ($8), so it wasn’t bad at all. We quickly chose a spot that looked clean in the pictures, and we piled into the back of an old pickup truck for the ride there. We drove about 15 minutes through the mountains until we arrived at the bungalows. The rooms were nice and big and clean, but the showers were very low pressure with minimal heat. There was no WiFi or restaraunt, but the rooms included transportation to and from a restaraunt in town where we all went to eat an hour later, and where we would go again in the morning to pick up our pre-ordered breakfast. The food was great, and we made sure to thank the chef by yelling “Korp Jay Lai Lai!” meaning “Thank you very much!”, our first words learned in Laos.

We went back to the rooms for a chilly night sleep, and were driven back to the docks the following morning to board the boat that left at 9am to Luang Prabang, scheduled to arrive at 6pm. This boat was a bit nicer than the last, with a real toilet, sink and even SOAP. It had some snacks on board as well to purchase, though we still stocked up on the streets before boarding.

Day 2 on the 2-Day Slow Boat

We arranged our seats on the boat to face each other, and played some card games and basically just hung out for the day. It was chilly in the morning, but by noon it had warmed up enough we were all back in our tank tops and shorts.
It was actually pretty nice to have a day where we had nowhere to be but here, just enjoying each other’s company. I’m so grateful that I’m not making this trip alone. Not that it wouldn’t be bearable or anything, but life’s just better with company sometimes.

Welcome to Luang Prabang!

The boat arrived in Luang Prabang at 4pm (2 hours early), making the trip today 7 hours rather than 9 which was a nice surprise. The only downside was that we still had no place to stay, and with spotty internet the past few days we were unable to book anything in advance or even look up places to stay. To make matters worse, everything was still booked up because of Chinese New Year, so we wandered around for quite a while after getting dropped off in the city centre, looking for a place to stay.

Finally we found a few rooms, David and James stayed in one hotel, and Nils, Maddie, Andrew and I shared a one bedroom guesthouse (Tanoy Guesthouse) with 2 big beds for what amounted to about $17 each because all the prices were so high from New Years. It was insane how expensive some of these places were, and it would’ve completely blown our budget had we not all decided to share a room. There are mostly guesthouses in Laos, rather than hostels from what I’ve seen and heard so far, so it might end up costing us a bit more than we hoped each night, but we’re hoping we can find places that won’t break our budget completely.

That evening we went out to the evening market, got some Lao food, and walked around for a bit. We heard about a bar called Utopia, and followed a maze of seemingly abandoned alleys through the city until all of a sudden we were in the middle of a beautiful outdoor garden bar/restaraunt that was awesome and super busy. It seemed to be placed in the strangest location but was really neat regardless. We hung out for a bit, drank a bit of Beer Laos, and met up with Steph and Sam to head over to the bowling alley, which is apparently what people do in Luang Prabang for fun nights out because they stay open late and serve alcohol, who knew?! Bowling was pretty fun and inexpensive, and after a couple of games we all headed back to our rooms for some much needed rest.

Looking forward to exploring the city tomorrow and finding out what Laos is all about!