Travel planning is just a big jigsaw puzzle

Well over a year ago we sat down with a lot of ideas for a trip around the world, starting in Southeast Asia. We started to piece it all together slowly, but surely.

We saw all the pieces coming together, one by one, over many months. Our travel schedule took shape as a puzzle does: we laid out all the little pieces of our many destinations, activities, and timeline. How would we ever fit so many pieces together? We sat down and took a look. It didn’t take long before we saw how two or three edge pieces locked together. We would become diverted by colored pieces that logically snapped into place. Yes, we tried to make pieces fit together that really did not belong together. Bit by bit, the puzzle of our travel schedule took shape.

What about those pieces that from early on that can’t be found? Everyone swears those pieces are lost and usually they’re not discovered until almost all of the other pieces have been put into place.

So it goes with travel planning….We weren’t sure about being part of the morning alms giving ceremony in Luang Prabang. Our hotel’s manager told us the monks would walk single file by the hotel to collect alms between 6-7 AM if we cared to watch. We stood to the side and quietly watched as the neighbors presented their offerings.

The tradition dates back to the 14th Century, and we would have hated to miss it. It was a bit like the missing puzzle piece: a piece that needed to wait until we arrived to click into place.

Another discovery when we arrived was the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre, with its gorgeous collection and informative displays about Lao’s ethnic people.

The section of the puzzle that was Luang Prabang needed time to take shape. Our friends, Cliff and Ruth, who would be joining us, corresponded with us from New Zealand about places to stay and travel arrangements. We never got to the piece about what to do for the 14 days we’d be together in Luang Prabang.

We hadn’t planned to go to the Kuang Si Butterfly Park, let alone see a Peacock Pansy Butterfly.

We all love to walk and discovered we could take the ferry from town across the Mekong River for 5,000 kip (60 cents US) to hike and explore the other side of the river.

Crossing the river provided a sharp contrast as we stepped into the quieter countryside.

On one of the last days, we headed for the ticket office to visit the first botanical garden in Laos, Pha Tad Ke.

As we waited for the boat that would carry us to the garden, we saw a rather large spider in a perfect web. Anyone know what it is? Hint: it’s big!

Beth climbed the path and looked back for Joe, who was just contemplating the tree before him. Beth saw a study in green-on-green.

And more green appeared in this ladybug-looking insect.

With each place visited, with each memory stored, we created a seamless, beautiful picture. If we stood back, we couldn’t even see the fine lines of the puzzle.

 

 

January 2018

 

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A surprise to end every day

We zig-zagged through Luang Prabang – cycling, visiting sights, doing crafts (along with purchasing a few), and walking though the old French neighborhood. Every day unfolded with a different view of life in Luang Prabang. Ah, but what did we look forward to the most? Dining in the evening, of course!

We stayed 15 days and managed to dine at 13 different restaurants in the evenings.   We also managed visits to a handful of cafes during the day. Our traveling companions, Cliff and Ruth, went along with our proposal: let’s dine at a different restaurant most every night, and we’ll alternate choosing which to try out.

“So, how did it go?” you may ask. Very well, indeed, and better than we expected…

We chose restaurants that had moderate prices for our dining choices and both Lao and international cuisines. The first item on Kaiphaen’s special menu, Lao Vegetable and Tomato Curry, is priced at $3.40 US. The most expensive item is Crispy River Fish with Lao Herb and Lime-Chili Sauce at $4.85 US.

We stuck with restaurants favorably reviewed hoping that excellent reviews meant that we had great food and a better chance of not becoming ill. While Café Toui ranked #5 on Tripadvisor, it unfortunately sank towards the bottom of our list to #9, primarily dues to the noise from the busy road.

All the restaurants we ate at ranged from “fine” to “great.” Not one was really bad but our least favorite restaurant was Tangor. Even though it looked quite promising from the exterior, all four of us ranked it “just OK.”

What did it take to be a standout for us? One night the restaurant we headed to wasn’t open. Trying to make a quick decision where to go, we remembered 3 Nagas, which we had rejected since we feared it was too expensive and had a few recent negative reviews (because of cost). We all agreed to give it a try.

We were seated at a comfortable and quiet table outdoors at 3 Nagas.

We had decided to share 4 dishes and each, we agreed, was excellent. Presentation was wonderful and the taste a treat. When it came time to score the 3 Nagas, we each gave it our highest rating for food. The cost for the 4 of us (including wine, shared desserts, and a tip) was $63 US (less than $18 US per person). That was our most expensive meal – but our best – in Luang Prabang.

We ate at a number of very simple restaurants, like Rosella Fusion, which we all rated almost as well as 3 Nagas for its tasty food. The bill for the 2 of us was $22 US.

Excitement rose with the choice of an “authentic” Italian restaurant. We were all in the mood for Italian cuisine. La Rosa looked charming with its starched white tablecloths.

The service was dreadful at La Rosa, and we ended up pretty frustrated. Good food can never overcome sloppy service.

We could not write about food in Luang Prabang without mentioning Joma, a café with tall, icy fruit drinks.

On many days we’d sit on the 2nd floor balcony at Joma at a table for 4 and cool down with a nice, cold lime mint or berry rosella freeze. How much were those luscious, large drinks? $1.80-2.40 US.

Standout dishes in Luang Prabang were sticky rice served everywhere, fried river fish at Joy’s, river weed (greens harvested from the rivers and then dried with added seasonings) at Khaiphaen, and banana bread served with espresso butter at Saffron.

Even though Cliff and Ruth are from New Zealand and we are from the US, our tastes in food are fairly similar so restaurant and menu selections came easily. What a delight to dine out with them at a variety of restaurants and to enjoy exploring Lao cuisine – and so many others – in Luang Prabang. It’s all part of our great travel adventure.

 

January 2018

In case you’re planning a trip to Luang Prabang and are interested, here’s our ratings. A score of 120 is perfection and the ratings reflect food, value, and atmosphere.

#1 with a score of 108: 3 Nagas

#2 with a score of 104:   Khaiphaen

#3 with a score of 100:   Dyen Sabai tied with Joy’s

#4 with a score of 98:   Rosella Fusion

#5 with a score of 95:   Bouang

#6 with a score of 93:   Le Café Ban Vat Sene

#7 with a score of 90:   Tamarind

#8 with a score of 85:   La Rosa Italian

#9 with a score of 79:   Café Toui

#10 with a score of 73:   Tangor

 

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Waterfalls, bears, and butterflies – in that order

When we heard about a much-visited waterfall near Luang Prabang, Laos we were puzzled. Really? A waterfall? It just wasn’t what we imagined we’d go to see in a UNESCO World Heritage Site city. When we looked online to learn more, we had the impression of a destination where the backpacker crowd frolicked in the water of a modestly small falls.   The place sounded too crowded to enjoy.

As we travel, we try do some new things that we wouldn’t normally do “back home.” So, with our friends, Cliff and Ruth, we piled into a comfortable van and headed out to see the Kuang Si Waterfall for ourselves. It was a scenic, one-hour drive through the countryside.

Arriving at the falls, we each paid the entry fee and then studied the map of the falls area. We hadn’t realized that the falls drops into a pool and then cascades down into two more pools before flowing on.

When we reached the lowest pool we were delighted. The mountains in Laos are limestone resulting in pools of water being a wonderful light turquoise blue.

We arrived in the mid-morning, not yet too hot. Only a handful of people were in any of the pools, and those in the water seemed to be intent on taking selfies.

We had fun photographing the middle pool: taking a photo or two and then adjusting the shutter speed to slow the water down bit by bit to see the effect.

A slower speed really improved this image.

The upper falls finally appeared, as did the mixed-age crowd on the bridge. We actually like having the tourists on the bridge, with their brightly colored outfits, pushing toward the center of the bridge for the best view.

On our return walk down, we spent some time at the Bear Rescue Center run by Free the Bears. We watched the Asian black bears, also called moon bears because of the crescent-shaped white color on their chests. They are classified as “vulnerable” not only because their habitat is shrinking but also because poachers hunted them to fill bile farms for traditional Chinese medicine.

While most of the bears were playing, we caught sight of one bear through the trees, relaxing in a large basket.

To end the visit we stopped at the Kuang Si Butterfly Park nearby – but that’s a story (and photos!) for another day.

We’d hoped the waterfalls would be worth the trip, and they most definitely were. The addition of the bears and butterflies made the trip all the more memorable.

In case you’re interested in what it cost in Laos to visit the falls, the private transport cost was 77,000 kip ($9.60 US) per person round trip and tickets to the falls were 20,000 kip ($2.50 US) entry fee.

 

January 2018

 

Tags: travel, Luang Prabang, Laos,

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Going by the numbers

Around the breakfast table it was decided: the next day we’d visit some of the wats we’d passed on our walks. Wats are Buddhist monasteries or temples. We don’t know how many wats are in Luang Prabang, but our 15 day visit would not be long enough to see them all. We found a list of the most important wats and started there. How far would we get?

The most important is Wat Xieng Thong, built in 1559 and extensively renovated since. This was one of the few wats to escape damage from Chinese invaders in 1887. Wat Xieng Thong also had the distinction of being the wat of the royal family until 1975.

We spent time in the building on the grounds housing not only the royal funerary carriage, but also a collection of very old religious paintings.

Decoration and story telling were achieved using colorful glass mosaics and images of Buddha.

The exterior of the sim (the main place of worship) is decorated in gold with a black background. The visual effect in sunlight is stunning.

We rounded the corner of the sim to see one of those perfect photographable moments: a bride and groom in traditional dress and posing for photographers, with a mirror-tiled elephant head peeking out from the wall. With the sparkly tiles, the scene looked ready for the wedding celebration.

Wat Aham is the second most important temple and that surprised us.

Wat Aham was built in 1818 and seemed a very modest temple. So, why was it so important?

There was previously a shrine on the site of the current temple dating back to the 14th Century. The shrine was dedicated to the guardian spirits of Luang Prabang. Two hundred years after it was built, the shrine was destroyed and a Buddhist temple built. It is believed that the guardian spirits continue to live in the two banyan trees in front of the temple.

When we visited we had no idea the importance of the trees – and now the mystery is solved.

That day we only had time and energy to visit three wats. At that pace, we would have to extend our stay in Luang Prabang by quite a few weeks to make a visit to all the wats in the city.

Visiting places of worship as we travel has always been helpful in understanding so much more than the religious practice of the people. It’s a window to their history, architecture, and art.

Seeing the two most important wats in Luang Prabang was a rewarding day for us.

 

January 2018

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How much time is the right amount of time?

Why did we choose to visit Luang Prabang, Laos? For starters, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, celebrated for its “unique and ‘remarkably’ well preserved architectural, religious and cultural heritage….”

It seems many travelers only stay a few days, which seems to be how many people travel these days. We weren’t interested in going to the effort and expense of traveling so far, and to such an amazing place, only to pack our bags and move again in a few days. The question we always ask ourselves: how many days would keep us interested?

We started by looking at online sites for “best things to do in Luang Prabang.” We consulted with Cliff and Ruth, our travel companions while we’re in Laos, and it was decided that 15 days would be perfect. That’s about 10+ more days than most people seem to stay. We crossed our fingers and hoped it was not too long.

We discovered the most important Buddha in Laos is in Haw Pra Bang, next to the National Museum. “In 1359 the Khmer king gave the Phra Bang to his son-in-law, the first Lang Xang monarch Fa Ngum (1353-1373); to provide Buddhist legitimacy both to Fa Ngum’s rule and by extension to the sovereignty of Laos. The former Lao capital Luang Prabang, where it was kept, is named after the Buddha image.”

We compiled our own list of all the appealing things others had done, knowing that when we arrived we’d discover our own activities to add to the list. No matter how much research we did, we always made discoveries that could not be found exactly as we expected from a guidebook.

Every day began and ended on the bamboo bridge that we used to cross the Nam Khan River, going from our hotel into the town center.

The temporary pedestrian bridge is only used each dry season. A toll taker collected 5,000 kip ($0.62 US) for a round trip crossing. It’s a bit rickety and a little daunting, especially at night when the bridge was lit up by a string of lights running along the bamboo railings.

As we crossed the bridge we looked out to the planted fields and the boat carrying fishing traps.

The French influence in Luang Prabang was unmistakable. Laos became a French Protectorate in 1893. After 53 years, in 1946 it was granted self-rule. Still, some of the architecture and the many French baguettes in the bakeries are a reminder.

Bamboo may be one of the most important resources in the country. It’s used in so many products, including a delicious snack we had, served with kaffir lime leaves.

This building was one-of-a-kind. We’re not sure what genre it represents.

One wonderful discovery for us was the strong emphasis on arts and crafts in Luang Prabang. Our day-long dyeing and weaving workshop at Ock Pop Tuk was just a starter.

We biked up to Ban Xien Lek and Ban Xang Kong to visit the papermaking, weaving, and handicraft villages…. and then walked back a few days later, ready to make some purchases.

We also visited the sophisticated Patta Gallery, which we thought had the most wonderful textiles we had seen.

It didn’t take long to realize that there’s a lot to see in Luang Prabang, and 15 days may not be long enough.

 

January 2018

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Happy Birthday to me!

Sometimes things seem to just work out perfectly, without even trying. Beth realized her big birthday (one of those birthdays ending in an “0”) would fall soon after we arrived in Luang Prabang, Laos. What a great place to celebrate a birthday! Adding to the celebration, our New Zealand friends, Cliff and Ruth, would be joining us for a month, arriving in time for the big day.

In the many emails exchanged about what-to-do when we were together in Laos, it was clear Cliff and Joe wanted to do some cycling while Beth and Ruth planned to take a craft class at Ock Pop Tok and chose dyeing and weaving. A perfect plan for the actual day!

Ock Pop Tok’s mission is to “elevate the profile of Lao textiles and artisans, to increase economic opportunities for artisans, and facilitate creative and educational collaboration in Laos and worldwide.”

Ruth and Beth were given plain organic cotton scarves, ready for dyeing. The dye choices offered were all natural and native to Laos: indigo, teak, sappan tree, lemongrass, turmeric, annatto tree, and jackfruit. Looking at the sample dyed skeins, Beth and Ruth made their selections.

Beth cut the teak wood into small pieces, using a (scary and sharp) knife with a piece of hard wood as a mallet. (photo by Ruth)

Ruth tossed the wood splinters into the vat and gave a stir.

We were given the opportunity to create designs on our scarfs using techniques involving folds, applying wood blocks and rubber bands.

We donned rubber gloves and soaked our scarves for 10-15 minutes in the indigo dye vat. After pulling the scarves out, they were rinsed with water, the tie-dye rubber bands and wood blocks were removed, and the finished scarves were unfurled. “Nice enough,” we thought, wishing that, now that we knew how to do it, we could dye a second scarf.

Next up: weaving a silk mat. We each were introduced to a Lao instructor (with a translator nearby if we needed help communicating). We had chosen our silk colors and the specific Lao design we wanted for our mats.

Ock Pop Tok has open-air work spaces looking out to the Mekong River. Students were dyeing, spinning, and weaving in the same covered pavilion.

Ruth demonstrated the spinning technique where the thread spun quickly on to the spool. We needed to be barefoot to better control the speed with our feet.

The loom was intimidating! After some instruction those first rows took a long time, but with each new row the speed picked up.

We were rather amazed that we actually wove a very nice mat in just an afternoon’s time. Ruth and Beth both chose the gold color for their design that looked to them very “Lao”.

We left with our dyed scarves, woven silk mats, and a nice booklet from Ock Pop Tok explaining everything we’d done. What a perfect way to celebrate a birthday!

 

January 2018

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The disorienting speed of abandoning slow travel

We prefer to travel slowly. When we take a road trip, we try to stay awhile to enjoy interesting places along the way. We don’t drive every day, and, when we do drive, we restrict our driving time to just a few hours.

International travel is rarely “slow” travel. As soon as we buckle our seat belts and the plane picks up altitude and speed, we know slow travel has been temporarily abandoned. Disorientation sets in as multiple time zones are crossed. By the time we land, in a fog of exhaustion, we try to instantly adjust to changes in weather, language, surroundings, and food (just for starters).

We started the week with an end to our California visit. The family piled into our daughter’s car and headed up and over the Santa Cruz Mountains, and pulled into the last parking space at the beach in Aptos. This was not the sunny beach you envision when you think “California.”

Sunday: Cool, coastal California was foggy, even in mid-afternoon.   Our grandson raced to get into the cold Pacific Ocean.

Monday: A side trip to Shoreline Lake Park in Mountain View on our way to the airport hotel providing a calming diversion. It would be our last slow travel experience in the U.S. for the next half-year. We spotted surf scoters and a number of other birds we’d not seen for some time.

Tuesday: Liftoff on a foggy morning in San Francisco.   The flight was as comfortable as we could hope for, but the flight was 17+ hours long.

Dropping into Singapore the next day in the late afternoon was a glorious sight.

Thursday: Care for a warm dip in the airport hotel pool?

When we planned the trip we, knew it would be just too much for us to get on another plane after the long, long flight from San Francisco to Singapore, so we stayed overnight at a hotel in the Singapore airport. That was a first for us. After breakfast, we wheeled our bags into the terminal and boarded our next flight.

After landing in Laos, still in a haze of disorientation, we questioned why we put ourselves through this. Then the veil of exhaustion slowly lifted, and the wonders of our new place came into focus.

Saturday: A visit to one of temples in the Xieng Man Village near Luang Prabang.

It took a few days to adjust to the change from California to Laos and to slide back into a state of equilibrium.   We’re happily back to the joys and rewards of slow travel.

 

January 2018

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