In the early morning of November 3rd, our tour leader, a couple of my tour mates, and myself got up and were out the door of the hotel at 5am. Why? Our tour guide wanted to give us the opportunity to experience the local outdoor morning exercise class that was led by someone in one of the memorial/statue square plaza places I had visited the previous day. When we got there, there was already a small crowd of people, both men and women (mostly women) in the square and across the street that were moving to the music. It was good exercise but was also slightly comical to watch. There was a lot of shoulder exercise, a lot of moving the hips which if you don’t know me you don’t know that I’m challenged in that department. My little sister joked one time that I have bolts in my hips. It is slightly true haha. Anyway, I discerned quite quickly that each person was doing the exercise to their ability, skill, comfort level, or just plain doing their own thing. So, I adjusted and just got comfortable doing what I could.
The rest of the morning was pretty much free time. We had to be checked out of our room at noon, and ready in the lobby all together at 1:45 so we could catch a private bus to the airport. At 11AM, our tour guide took us to a specialty coffee shop that I would never have found on my own. It’s down this little alley way that is only accessible by walking through the sidewalk-fronting shop. It was slightly awkward just walking through this person’s shop into the alleyway and further back into the coffee place. This place makes egg coffee – that’s right, coffee with an egg in it. It’s made by – actually, I don’t know. I didn’t get it. It just didn’t sound appetizing. I just got a regular coffee with milk. I did notice that the egg coffees that did come out had a lot of frothy foam on the top and so I do believe they beat the egg quite stiffly.
We were all gathered basically at about 1:30pm or earlier just waiting for it to be 1:45. Our tour included a regional (yet international) flight from the international airport in Hanoi to Vientiane, the capital of Laos. The airport in Hanoi is beautiful. While we were in the process of checking in, filling out our entry and exit forms for Laos, apparently my name got called over the loud speaker to go to customs for a bag inspection. I didn’t hear a thing but my tour leader came and said Anna you have to go to the security because there is something in your bag. Things that make you go hmmm. So I get into the security/bag screening room and the guy asks me “Do you have a lighter in your bag?” I said no…. because I don’t smoke and I don’t need to be starting any fires. Then he asked if I had a flashlight; yes, I do have a flashlight; a good black one that I received as a gift the night before I left (thank you again, Adel & family!!) and I knew exactly where it was so I pulled it out, turned it on. He inspected it closely, turned it on and off, and then gave it back, I put it back where it was, signed a piece of paper, and then left.
Once finished filling out the entry/exit form for Laos, we got in line to go through security when I remembered that the water bottle I bought at REI in NYC was full of water and you can’t bring water through security. So I turned around, got out of line, found a bathroom and dumped the water. The flight from Hanoi to Laos was total about an hour and half (gate to gate), but flying time was only 55 minutes. Surprisingly, I do believe we got about 30,000 feet which I didn’t really expect for such a short flight.
We stayed at the SP Hotel in Vientiane. It’s a decent accommodation; I walked into the room and there were some mosquitos and a couple small creepy crawlies that I didn’t need to see. After dinner, we came back and there was another creepy crawly. I slept in my sleeping bag because I felt just a little bit more cocooned and protected from crawling insects.
In these countries, there are laws regulating where tour guides can lead. Our G Adventures guide can’t lead in Laos or Vietnam and this is the reason we have “local” tour guides who can lead in these countries/places we visit. So, our tour guide arranged transportation to some historic points in/near/outside of Vientiane but he couldn’t go with us. For some reason, I thought that because he wouldn’t be with us, we (the group) would have to manage how much time we were in each place so that we could be back to the hotel at noon. I stewed over this all night and got myself so stressed about it that I didn’t sleep well. I woke up on the wrong side of the bed because of it and was pretty grumpy all day. Anyway, when we got to our first stop, the driver of our van said that we had about 15 minutes at this first stop and immediately, I relaxed. Someone was in control of this ship and I didn’t have to step up and take charge. It was very relieving. I am that way though, if something is happening where someone needs to take charge or make something happen when no-one else seems to be stepping up, I tend to jump up and raise my hand to volunteer and/or I just start bossing people around. Sometimes I wonder why I do it to myself especially if I don’t know exactly how to do everything that needs to be done. But I figure it out eventually and with a lot of help.
Ok, now getting to what we actually saw on this half-day tour of Vientiane.
November 4th: We went to a city gate, a temple complex that many people were cleaning up from a festival the previous day or two (or more), Xienkuane Buddha Park, and the COPE (Cooperative Orthotic & Prosthetic Enterprise) Center. This place provides access to people impacted (seriously injured) by cluster bombs and other explosive ordnance. “From 1964 to 1973, the US dropped over 2 million tons of ordnance over Lao PDR in 580,000 bombing missions – the equivalent of one planeload every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day, for 9 years.”
We managed to get back to the hotel only a few minutes late. We had time for some lunch before hopping a bus to go to our next town visit. I ended up going to Pizza Pizza Vientiane alone. I was hungry (ok, maybe hangry by this point) and once I ordered the pizza I thought “Oh goodness, I hope it doesn’t take too long to make it and then I’ll have to run back to the hotel so I’m not late.” I swear, my mind is constantly running scenarios; it’s exhausting. Anyway, the pizza came in a good time, I was able to devour about 4 pieces of it and the rest I had the lady put in a box for me to bring with me. Paid, and walked quickly back to the hotel with only a minute or two to spare.
Our local tour guide joined us by then and explained that the first half of the trip would be pretty straight and relatively smooth (ahem… the roads in Lao are pretty AWFUL so smooth is a relative term). We would then stop at a rest area to use the bathroom and perhaps get a snack. Then the second half of the trip would be very hilly and curvy. Goodness was he right. Wow. Here’s a time-lapse video of the up and down and around the corner and repeat.
On the way to our next stop in Vangvieng, we passed 12 long-distance bicyclists dressed in bright colors and peddling away. They were in two groups of 4 and two groups of 2. I don’t know if they were ultimately one group, but they were only minutes apart from each other. Wish I had a chance to chat with them but they didn’t make it to the rest stop in time before we left.
In Vangvieng, we stayed at a hotel I believe was called “Vilayvong Guesthouse.” At least that was the closest accommodation symbol on my Google Maps. Since we have an odd number of girls, it was my turn to have a room to myself; didn’t hurt my feelings. It was quite a nice room complete with mosquito net hanging over the bed. Since I was tired and pretty grumpy and still full from the pizza, I didn’t go to dinner. I did go and sign up for the activity for the following day.
We had to be ready to and it the lobby by 8:30am. As is characteristic, I was awake a few times during the night and finally was awake for good by about 5am. Mainly due to noises outside my room. Most notable were the roosters that were crowing what felt like hours before dawn and the guy that was hacking up his lungs and spitting it out. I was glad that I went to bed early.
Today was going to be a full day of activity while wearing swimsuits. We started the day’s adventures with a ride about 15-17km to a cave that you can go tubing in. They have secured ropes along the cave walls close to the water that you can pull yourself along with. I loved this! It was such a cool thing to do. The only thing that I was a little bit miffed about was that my travel group is very boisterous and can get very loud, especially in a cave. I really wanted to have just a minute or two of silence so that we could hear just the cave and the water trickling into and running out of the cave. We did have a minute of total cave darkness when we all turned off our headlamps. Oh well, I’ll just have to visit another cave alone somewhere else sometime.
After tubing through the cave, we drove about 5-7km back towards town where there was a place to put the kayaks in the water. We were going to kayak the remaining 10km back to our hotel. Once we got up to the water, I noticed that the water, while not apparently very deep or very fast moving for that matter, I did get a bit anxious. Since we’re an odd number of people, I ended up not having someone to kayak with. This was actually fine with me because I wanted to end up kayaking with someone who had been before and would be able to steer efficiently and effectively if it really came down to it. I ended up kayaking with one of the local guides which was a-ok with me. I felt really relieved knowing I was with someone who did this as their job. Kayaking the river was awesome; such a good time. We actually had some quiet time were very few people were talking and/or my kayak was so far ahead (but still in eyesight of the others) that it was really nice.
At about the halfway point of our kayak, we paddled to shore where there was a pavilion (bar). Our guides were going to cook some kabob, fish, rice, and maybe chicken. I’m going to say this again, fresh pineapple on a grilled kabob is amazing! The rice needed some more flavor but they didn’t seem to have soya sauce. The “tofu” they grilled for the vegetarians of our group (myself included) tasted extremely fishy, literally. I’ve been betting on the facts that perhaps they grilled it so close to the fresh fish that maybe it took on some of its flavor as well as that it was so nicely and perfectly rectangular that it couldn’t possibly be some sort of meat. Who knows. I didn’t get sick from it so that’s what’s important. We continued kayaking downriver after lunch for about 20 minutes before we reached the end of the route.
We headed back to the hotel for a short time to change our clothes and get our hiking shoes. We were going to hike up to an overview point on one of the nearby limestone mountains. I don’t know how many meters the mountain was but the trail was only 650m long. This equals a very steep and challenging grade. It had felt a little bit chilly when we were damp and back at the hotel putting some clothes on for the hike so I put my nice warm-if-needed Ragnar Richmond long-sleeved shirt and my long REI pants. Well, I was a big ball of sweat by the time we got to the top of that mountain. But wow it was worth every step. The view up there was incredible and really beautiful.
Back down the mountain took a bit of time because my legs haven’t had that much exertion in a long time and got pretty shaky. After the hike, we went to a place called the Blue Lagoon which is basically a creek that is very deep in an area that is accessible and where you can swim. There is also a tree with two nicely positioned branches right over the water that you can jump off of. One was quite a bit higher than the other. I went right for the high one first and wow, once you climbed that bamboo ladder, it seemed so high up. I wasn’t quite sure I would jump. But the first time was the hardest and once I jumped I went several more times. It was quite a thrill. The last time I jumped off the high one, my hand came off my nose (I always plug my nose because I can’t keep water from going up there) and a little bit of water shot up into there and that was just a little bit painful. I guess that shook my confidence or desire to jump from the high branch again and the others were wandering away and looked like they were changing back into their clothes. Wasn’t quite sure what the rush was; we had half an hour left before we had to leave. Oh well, I swam for a little bit longer and then also went to dry off a little bit.
On our way back to the hotel from the lagoon, myself, Pete, Gemma, Tina, and the local guide sat on top of the truck we were riding. The others had ridden on top earlier when going from place to place. I am so glad I waited till the last ride to ride up because… well, basically the others had to wait to get up there till we were outside the main part of the town. This meant not being on top of the truck while crossing two cable-stayed suspension bridges with wood being the material that you drive across. Yes, quite sketchy. But many many vehicles were driving across it and they seem to be tried and true. Well, I’m still here anyway. Anyway, I fully anticipated having to get off the top of the truck before crossing those bridges into the town, but we DIDN’T! They let us ride up there while crossing back over the two cable-stayed suspension bridges! I was too busy making sure my headed didn’t get scraped off by the supports that went over the bridge to take pictures. So, maybe my fellow travelers have some and if they do I’ll grab them off of our facebook page.
Back at the hotel, we had some free time to shower and get clean and decent again. Dinner was at an Irish pub called Gary’s. It was run by an Irish guy (probably named Gary, just a guess LOL) who had come here and ended up marrying a woman here. I paid for my food and left before the rest of the group. I knew my way back to the hotel and wanted to have a look around to see if there was anything I should spend my money on. I did consider buying a nice little dry bag for such occasions when I’m on the water. But I’ve been spending a bit more money than anticipated (not a ton, but ya know) and so I’m trying to limit myself. I have a lot more time to travel and a lot more things that I’m sure I’ll want to buy more than a dry bag. I did buy a big bottle of water and some snacks for the long drive that we were going to have the next day.