Laos – Landlocked & Watterlogged

Is it Laow? Louse? The Kennedy, LAY-oss? When we first started planning our time in Southeast Asia it would be very fair to say we didn’t know much about landlocked Laos, honestly, not even how to correctly pronounce its name. (For what it’s worth, we settled on the version with a silent S, rhymes with the sound you make when you stub your toe. La-Ow! No, there is no way to pronounce it that rhymes with G*! D##@ It!) Based on our small sample survey, many Southeast Asian backpackers aren’t even up on Laos. Most barely scrape through the country, shooting across the north end for a few days on route to Vietnam or in the extreme south for a few days. Thankfully, as far back as Montefioralle , we started getting little hints and tips cautioning us against rushing this slice of Asia. It became a cornerstone of our planning in the region.

How’d that work out? Well, if you’re getting tired of us telling you about how amazing Southeast Asia is then you’d best stop reading now.  The reward was handsome: one of our favorite cities, tourist-free dirt roads, hidden jungle waterfalls, and gallons of delicious locally grown coffee.

This story of Laos isn’t one 0f humans overcoming oppression, deep rich history, or even a heavy focus on food; though that story could quite easily be written. This story of Laos is a picture dense highlight reel romp through one of the more surprisingly lovable stops on our adventure and a little poke to fellow travelers to break the mold and choose extended time in Laos instead of a bland banana pancake 🙂

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Still unsure about what lay in store across the river in Laos, the trip started with an aching feeling. We’d just come off several amazing days in the north of Thailand, a country quickly starting to feel like home away from home. But there we stood, watching the sun set over the Mekong River staring at the east bank and Huay Xai, Laos. Standing there watching that sunset the thought was “if it all looks like this then it can’t be too bad, right?” Right and that big muddy river would be our companion for much of the trip.

A harried morning scramble to find the right border crossing finished at a 100-foot long green banana with seats. The famed “slow boat” takes travelers from the most convenient border crossing with Northern Thailand to Northern Laos’ main city Luang Prabang via the Mekong River. The trip stretches over the course of two days stopping for the night in the village of Pakbeng.

While the boat is indeed slow, the scenery is fascinating as you slip down the river deep into the heart of rural Laos.

Pakbeng is generally regarded as the low point of the slow boat trip. The former fishing village turned tourist-trap gets descriptives like: over-priced, unfriendly, and home to some of the worst guest houses in Laos. We got off easy. First and foremost, we found a cheap & bugless room with great Mekong views. Score 1. This is where Grant & Kate’s accounts diverge slightly. We arrived on the eve of what is most easily described as the end of Lent for Buddhist Monks and a holiday across across Asia. Fireworks, blaring Thai pop music, and paper boats sailing down the river filled the night. While Kate, unaccustomed to little kids playing with explosives was more than a little uncomfortable amidst the display, Grant found the fireworks and tunes just the right spice to an otherwise bland overnight. (Kate: They’re throwing firecrackers at everyone! Grant: Sweet, bottle rocket wars!) As an added bonus, someone accidentally blew up one of the main electrical transformers in town with a firecracker; so we were treated to an impromptu candlelight BBQ dinner overlooking the river.

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Day two aboard The Floating Banana went less smoothly, but just as beautifully. We departed early with an eerily beautiful fog hanging over the river valley…or was it lingering smoke from the fireworks?

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About 5-hours into our journey the boat pulled ashore to a sandbank and the crew began scurrying about….with a bunch of “what now” expressions.

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A banged up drive shaft had halted us four hours from our destination, but the local villagers were quick to keep us company.

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Finally fixed with the Loatian version of duct tape, old tires cut into strips and used as heavy duty lashing, The Floating Banana was back underway.

Arriving in Luang Prabang only 90-minutes late there was time to settle into our amazing guest house, The Golden Lotus, and grab (quickly becoming close) friends Ryan & Leanne for another evening of carousing with them and our 50 new friends from the slow boat. Utopia Bar in Luang Prabang is the closest thing to a “company bar” in Asia. If you’re looking for a traveler in LP, you’ve a 90% chance of finding them there after 8p.

We awoke the next morning to one of the most amazingly charming cities we’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting. Luang Prabang oozes warm, welcoming, gentle comfort.

The city retains all the charm of countryside French styling from its colonial days while still being authentically Asian.

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This fellow visiting from Thailand, another teacher, asked us for a photo.

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The entire west end of the city is filled with Wats. Some soaring and imposing, some former Royal Palaces, and some simple; but all beautiful.

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Amazing food blending Eastern favorites with tasty leftovers of French Colonialism highlights the culinary scene. We ate them too fast to get pictures, but they had chicken, bacon, & avocado sandwiches on great bread! Took us straight back to California. Maybe that’s why we loved it so much? Oh…and really first rate noodle soup too.

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The city is also home to Grant’s favorite sunset of the trip. High on the city bluffs above the Mekong, cold Beerlao in hand, with the sun perfectly framed by distant jungle mountains and reflected by the gentle river and its traffic below.

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Ending the night with a long stroll through the night market (and back for another sandwich, God bless the return of levened bread) we relaxed for a final hour watching families and monks light lanterns and romp among paper dragons. The night ended early as the next morning would come fast.

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One of the most revered traditions in Buddhism is the giving of alms. In cities across Asia monks and laymen alike leave their home at the crack of dawn; the public carrying food and monks empty bowls. The monks silently make their way through the streets of the city as the people fill their bowls with sticky rice, sweet treats, and in some cases monetary donations. Nowhere is the tradition more beautifully displayed or widely revered than in Luang Prabang, the spiritual capital of Laos.

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Photo Credit: The Telegraph Media Group

Two days earlier upon our arrival at The Golden Lotus, the manager “Bill”, asked that if interested in attending the ceremony we tell him the night before. Signs all over town ask visitors not to participate or get in the way of the ceremony if they aren’t familiar with the ritual. Unsurprisingly, unwitting tourists often show great disrespect in the ceremony by participating without knowledge of the intimate details of the ritual or worse, by jamming cameras in the faces of monks during the procession. We assumed, simply, Bill just wanted to prevent us causing trouble.  We awoke as instructed at 5a and were greeted not just by Bill himself but with warm bundles of sticky rice, traditional shawls, and mats on which to kneel. Most importantly he gave us all the information we needed to respectfully participate. We spent the next hour giving to the monks and learning from Bill. While we chose not to chance disrespecting the ceremony with pictures (hence the credited photo above) we’ll never lose the mental images from that morning.

The only image we have, our alms baskets at The Golden Temple on a quick stop for Bill to pray and give thanks for another day in the city he loves so much.

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A sweet cap to the story, Bill is a Christian from a family of Christians dating back to early French Colonialism. He gives alms 6-days a week as a way of giving thanks and showing respect to the monks and the religion that is the beating heart of his city. On the 7th day, he and his sister travel the 5km to give thanks to their God at the nearest Christian Church. We all could learn a thing or two from Bill about religion, acceptance, and respect.

With the day started right we settled into breakfast at the hotel. The scene was quintessential Asia with a bustling market two feet from our table in the adjacent alleyway.

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While only two blocks long, this might have been the most interesting market we’ve found in all of Asia. Not only was it full of colorful fruits, vegetables, and characters, it was also home to the oddest collection of animals for table fare we’ve ever encountered. The list included bats, rats, unidentifiable fish, eels, blackbirds, all manner of squirrels, insects and these adorable little fluff balls.

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We regret to inform you those adorable little fluffballs were gone within half-an-hour.

To sprinkle some more awesomeness about the day, we packed into a tuk tuk and tuk off (get it?) to Kuang Si waterfalls for some climbing, swimming, and jumping in and around the falls.

An added bonus, the waterfall admission includes a short stroll through a Moon Bear sanctuary. All of these animals were rescued from traps in the surrounding jungles or unethical animal tourism operations.

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By showing up just an hour before the tourist hoards, we had two pools and three falls all to ourselves.

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Then we climbed around with everyone else exploring the dozens of small falls and pools before arriving at the star of the show.

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Of course, you have to join the masses for a little levitating.

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That was a lot for one day! What better way to finish it off than one more cold Beerlao and Mekong Sunset.

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Oh, as if it could ever be “just one Beerlao.”

Kate made friends with two Laotians who’d won the lottery that day and were celebrating by drinking all of the beer they’d “permanently borrowed” from the hotel they all worked at. “Oh, let’s just have one more beer with them…”

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…turned into three hours of drinking free beer, dancing, and laughing.

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The Laotians aren’t the most outwardly friendly bunch in Southeast Asia, but do they ever like to pop a bottle. We kept this up until what felt like the wee hours of the morning…which was actually 9pm. Don’t judge, it was an early start and we’re old!

The next day brought an unwelcome end to our time in Luang Prabang. We climbed Mt. Phousi, explored more Buddha statues and saw an old anti aircraft gun right next to one of the temples with three kids using it as a merry-go-round.

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The best word available to describe this place is charming, but woefully inadequate. Luang Prabang lies very near the top of any best cities list we’d compile and we missed it immediately upon leaving.

Skipping the backpacker hot spot (or drug den hell hole, depending on your outlook) of Vang Vieng we headed straight for the capital of Vientiane. The capital is in every way the exact opposite of Luang Prabang. Beautiful bright buildings are replaced by rotting communist architecture, charm is replaced with industrial facelessness, and interesting sights swap places unintentionally hilarious propaganda factories passed off as museums.

Riverfront Walk at Sunrise:

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After checking in we visited their much maligned and often hilariously reviewed National “Museum”. While we’re always willing to forgive a little Nationalism in any museum, this one took it to extremes yet unseen. Everything was comrade this, puppet army that, and our personal favorite, the invention of several UN Awards that their founding comrades had supposedly won that absolutely do not and have not ever existed (UNESCO World Hero was a personal favorite). It was actually surprising how little abuse the US & France took specifically, the museum seemed most interested in belittling as broad a cross section of western powers as possible.  It was an interesting lesson in propaganda and messaging.

This was one of only two true highlights in the museum (along with a jar from The Plain of Jars) an intricately carved tree trunk depicting life in rural Laos.

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The real eye opener of our time in Vientiane was the COPE Prosthetic Center and Museum. During the Vietnam War millions of cluster bombs, huge shells that release tiny anti-personnel munitions at altitude,  were dropped on VietCong Army positions across Laos by American forces.

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The tiny little munitions, colloquially called Bombies in Laos, have an astonishingly high failure rate. As a consequence the countryside is littered, still 40-years later, with active munitions.  Millions of Laos citizens have been killed or mutilated by these devils lying in ambush. Stories range from the most common – scrap metal collectors – to the unimaginable – building a cooking fire in a pit only to have a hidden bombie detonate from the heat. Add to this curious children, a mountainous landscape where ordinance clearance is nearly impossible, and the sheer volume of the devices which remain and you’ve got a nation wide epidemic. Those who aren’t killed face unimaginably hard futures in a country with some of the worst medical care in the world (Laos ranks 165 of 191 in the world, between Congo & Cameroon). COPE stepped in as a way to get rural villagers the medical care, prosthesis, and counseling needed to move forward with their lives after a devastating accident.

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The visitors center was eye opening and drove home the point about the long term nature of collateral damage around short-term wars.

Saddled up and headed south this was our very authentic local steed. We only wish you could have seen the inside as it was so sad it was funny.

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At times this whole world travel thing can look glamorous from the outside. We’ll agree it’s a lot of great things, one of the best decisions we’ve ever made, but very rarely is it glamorous. Exhibit A: The local bus is always cheaper than the tourist bus & pretty often it’s a comfortable ride. This was an experience for sure, but a comfortable ride it was not. For 16-hours we crossed much of Laos without air conditioning, windows rolled down on red dirt roads, with a belching diesel engine as we headed for the southern outpost of Pakse. We arrived 5 hours behind schedule at 2AM and “arrived” is defined as the bus stopping two miles outside of town and saying they wouldn’t be continuing on to the bus station until 4. Nothing like a moonlit stroll through town after that ride. It took several showers to get the remnants of the trip off.

But, Pakse is nice! It’s not much more than a transit hub but as transit hubs go, it’s a winner.

After taking care of a few errands from the next day we picked up our tour guide who showed us all the best hangouts and refused to go further when we were headed the wrong way.

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Chicken to go, anyone?

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The Buddhists are a practical lot when it comes to their buildings. They believe the soul of the place is in the location not the structure. As such, temples are constantly being torn down, remodeled, overhauled, etc… This leaves you without many “historic” feeling temples. That made this place one our favorites we’ve explored.

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By now, you’ve surely figured out how we ended the day!

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We weren’t in Pakse for the city though, we were in Pakse for its status as the launching point for motorbike trips around one of Laos’ great treasures, The Bolaven Plateau. The extinct super volcano of the Bolaven plateau is 50 square kilometers of volcanic soil perfect for growing all manner of crops, including its famous coffee bean, host of dozens of dramatic water falls, dense jungles, a myriad of ethnic tribes, and more remote exploration possibilities than you can shake a stick at.

Here’s the route we took across the Bolaven, click to enlarge:

Bolaven Plateau Map - The Loop

See mom(s) we even wear our helmets!

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Dramatic scenery came immediately as we started the 1,500 meter ascent of the crater.

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The first stop is quickly becoming a can’t miss on the trail. The Katu Homestay is run by Mr. Vieng who also grows, dries, and roasts his own coffee beans. Then he hand grinds them right in front of you while chatting about his little farm before serving up your farm-to-table coffee and snack of home grown bananas and peanuts.

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We also turned his farm into something of a petting zoo 🙂

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And tell us this isn’t the cutest thing you’ve seen all year.

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Next we were off to our first of many waterfalls, Tad Hang.

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Then after lunch we dropped in on its neighbor, Tad Lo.

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After visiting some elephants and getting a very very distant look at Tad Soung we decided to scrap our original plan of staying at Tad Lo and moved on.

With the sun drawing near the horizon we pulled up in the only other logical stopping point in the area, Thateng. It is not an impressive place at first glance. It’s just a dusty roadside burg that serves as something of a regional hub with a large market, hotels, bus terminal, and hospital. A nice newer looking guesthouse was right at the city’s entrance, so we pulled in. The place wasn’t even officially open for business yet, but they jumped at the chance to put us up in a mostly finished room for a sweet rate. Convinced it would be an early night (do we ever learn?) we set off on an evening stroll before sprinting back in the direction of our hotel as a wall of rain approached. Losing the race we jumped into a bar and restaurant nearby where we were greeted by a table full of smiling locals and a hellacious rainstorm 5-seconds later. To skip the how-we-got there and get to straight to it, the night devolved into a friendly bout of American travelers vs. Laotian doctors and nurses in Karaoke Wars, Kate showing them how to finger dance and lots of Beerlao. We were one of the gang by the end of the night, which again felt like the wee hours of the morning, and was again only 9:30p. Ok, you can judge this time.

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Back in the saddle for day two.

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Beautiful scenery gave way to Tad Fek & Tad Se Noy waterfalls.

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Then, things got real. Really, amazingly, perfectly, perfect (sure, let’s say that makes sense). Turning off the main road and onto a freshly opened road we climbed up the crater wall and crested to this scene.

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There had been some pretty waterfalls, some scattered crops, and a patch or two of jungle-ish looking things up to now, but this was when it just went wild.

Our lunch stop was at this farm that seemed stuck between Jurassic Park & Big Sky Montana. Devilishly spicy food and farm fresh OJ was just what the doctor ordered.

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Then off to the dramatic Tad Katamtok where you felt the water fall as much as saw it (Video w/ sound here)

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If you look at the map, there is a choice right after Tad Katamtok. One can go straight on through to the guesthouses of Bane Nong Oy or take a left and their chances on a guesthouse in the middle of nowhere. You know where this goes.

A long recently finished dirt road ended at a gate where two lounging young men pointed us on through and down a beautiful nearly residential road…

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… where we were immediately greeted by the doorman…

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and this scene.

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Before the kickstand was even down, Nittaya was there with a warm greeting. Born to a well to do Laotian family, Nittaya has lived about everywhere in the world, but for the past 40-years it’s been Chicago. That was until family duty (and her English skills) called her home a few months ago to run the family’s new guest house at the falls.

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The map shows one waterfall on the property, in reality there are dozens. This photo does zero justice to what was our favorite fall of the entire plateau, simply called #2.

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After exploring a couple of the falls we returned to the top and settled into one of several bungalows built for the camp in a nearby village in their traditional style.

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Now, the term “guesthouse” gets bandied around a lot in Asia. Many “guesthouses” are just hotels or hostels with a different name. Tayeukseua Falls Guest House is exactly what the name is meant to be. Welcomed into the village and, importantly for us to feel at home, the kitchen. The house policy is we’ll cook you dinner or you’re welcome to cook your own. For two dollars you’re given a huge basket of vegetables picked from the resident 400-acre garden, as many eggs as you can stuff down your gullet, and all the rice, spices, sauces, and seasonings needed to make a feast.

All of this is cooked over charcoal fired woks and pots. Night one, vegetable fried rice with eggs. Breakfast, fried eggs with cold papaya ceviche. Night two, curried coconut pumpkin soup. So so full, so so good.

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Nittaya took us pumpkin picking on a long walk through her garden on night two.

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What was originally only to be a 15-hour overnight stop turned into 48-hours of exploring waterfalls, playing cards with the house’s foster kids, and watching a you-can’t-make-this-up sky of broiling lightening to the south, a crystal clear starscape above, and a meteor shower to the east all at once on our final night. You’d be called over the top for writing fiction like this, but isn’t reality always better?

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Sitting on a stunningly beautiful beach in southern Cambodia writing this we’re still wishing we’d just never left. Only a few places have gotten the title of “it’s not goodbye, it’s just see you later”, but this place epitomizes our idea of paradise and we can’t wait to get back.

With only three days left before we were due in Cambodia we enjoyed a final dreamy day cruising the Bolaven en route to Pakse.

After an 80km straight ride through a seemingly endless stretch of coffee plants we arrived first at Tad Yuang which was stunning, but backlit, so no good pictures. But, here’s us being goofy at Tad Fan to make up for it!

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Parched, we pulled off at the local Coffee Cooperative. Thousands of families have a few scattered coffee plants on their property and collectively sell them through this organization. They also had an extensive show garden full of native teas and plants.

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The famed arabica coffee plant & bean.

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Not due back in for several more hours we chanced down a long dirt road that led us to the seemingly deserted Institute for Coffee Experimentation and Agriculture.  Deserted or not, the views were all home.

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Then we rode for nearly an hour down half a dozen dirt roads criss-crossing endless coffee fields. Everything from perfectly formed rows with no trees in sight to dense jungle with little coffee shrubs buried in the overgrowth was on display. This was a “shade grown” experimentation plot.

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In a series of dozens of little “adventures of a lifetime” our time on the Bolaven will go down as some of the best.

By now you’ve noticed that for being a landlocked country, Laos is full of water and H2O plays a big role in the nation’s identity. Nowhere is this more true than in Southern Laos’ Si Phan Don, or 4,000 Islands. Near its border with Cambodia the country seemingly disintegrates into tiny specs of dirt scattered among an ever widening Mekong. For centuries the Laotians have farmed, lived, and more recently, invited tourists to join them on the larger of these islands. Famed for its cheap riverfront bungalows and mellow scene we slated our last two days in country on the island of Don Det.

We crashed at the backpacker staple, Mr B’s Sunshine Bungalows. Think wooden box, bed, fan, mosquito net, that’s it. Oh and a million dollar Mekong front location, hammock on porch, $7.50 per room per night.

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The city of Don Det is a tourist trap, at best. But the island as a whole offers a beautiful compact peek at Southeast Asian life.

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This guy got lucky, that’s the kitchen at Mr.B’s he’s wandering out of…

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When not on strolls around Don Det we spent endless hours reading, drinking cold Beerlao, & soaking in freshwater island life from our porch’s hammocks. All while the sun went down again on the Mekong.

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Laos is full of adventures and we certainly didn’t scratch the surface. The far northern reaches are home to a burgeoning trekking industry and the center of the country has amazing caves and another highly revered motorcycle loop. Add climbing and biking in Vang Vieng, another 3, 999 islands to explore, and dozens of waterfalls on the Bolaven and little ol’ Laos offers a lifetime of exploration for the willing adventurer.

Most won’t go, but we’re glad we did and can’t wait to go back.

Sabadee!

Mr & Mrs. Trading Paradises

Filed From: (had to look this up, genuinely didn’t know where we were, this is the life) Otres Beach, Camboida.

 

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