Enchanted in Laos

It was with a very heavy heart that I left Vietnam. I somehow felt that I was leaving a part of myself behind. It also didn’t help that I was embarking on a 36 hour journey. So off I went, back to Hanoi and then on the road to Luang Prabang in Laos. My long journey was spent between sleep and thought. When I was awake I couldn’t listen to music since my phone had no more battery, and I couldn’t seem to focus on reading. And so, looking out the window at the beautiful mountains in the background and the lush greenery zooming past, I reflected on my last 3 months of travels. I thought of the places I had been, the people I met along the way, and all that I experienced in between. I felt sad about leaving Vietnam but I was looking forward to my adventures to come. I thought about how sad I had been to leave Bali, but how awesome the Philippines had turned out to be, and likewise how sad I was to leave the Philippines when the time came to head to Vietnam. It dawned on me that no matter how long you’ve been travelling for, there are some feelings you can never really shake off: the bittersweet feeling of leaving a place you love as you continue your journey, and the feeling of dread when packing up the few belongings you have into your little home that is your backpack.

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I was immediately enchanted by the stunning natural beauty of Laos. The misty mountain peaks edging around the jungle-clad valleys are sure to impress even the most jaded traveler. Eventually we made it to Luang Prabang 27 hours after leaving Hanoi. After so much time spent together on the bus, a couple of us formed a pack to search for a hostel. The next day, Marina (from Germany), Sabine (from the Netherlands) and I rented scooters and made our way to the popular Kuang Si Waterfalls. After a breathtakingly scenic ride along the countryside we made it to the Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue Centre, (inside Kuang Si Waterfall park). Run by Free the Bears, an organization that rescues endangered Asiatic Black Bears from poachers and bear bile farms, the sanctuary does not receive any money from the waterfall park admission and relies on donations only.

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Eventually we made it to the waterfalls, which were even more grand and beautiful than I thought they would be. The large multi-stage waterfall consists of multiple pools at different levels that you can swim in, and are swarming with the little fish that pick at your dead skin that you tend to see at fish spas all over South East Asia.

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After a day of swinging off the Tarzan rope and jumping from one pool to the next, we made our way up the 190 steps to Phou Si/Chomsy Hill to get a beautiful panoramic view of the city and watch the sunset. This was truly an amazing place to get a bird’s-eye view of incredibly romantic Luang Prabang, with its glittering temples, brightly colored robed monks and sleepy riverine lifestyle.

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That night we went to the night market for dinner where for 15,000 kip (roughly $1.50) you can fill your bowl with as much food as you want/can. Challenge accepted. After stuffing our faces, we made our way to Utopia bar where we met up with our bus buddies. Once the bar closed at 1am we made our way to the only place that stays open late – the bowling alley. Full of backpackers looking to keep the party going, I felt like I was at a kid’s birthday party. But as the game started and the beer kept flowing, I started to get the hang of it. I even coined the “Melissa Style” bowling method to try to up my game, which was essentially the same method I used when I was a kid and too weak to throw the ball with one hand, using both arms to launch the ball through my legs. While this initially garnered attention due to the fact that I looked like an idiot, after I started striking out more and more people followed my lead in hopes of improving their game. The cherry on top was when the tuk-tuk driver dropped us off at our hostel and pointed at me, then proceeded to imitate the “Melissa Style” bowling method. Priceless.

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The next day, Marina and I had a long breakfast (delicious baguette and coffee, what else?) and enjoyed the town’s picturesque charm, watching local life pass by. At night we headed to the night market, which seemed to stretch on for miles and miles, showcasing the best Laotian wares – intricate weavings, elaborate silver trinkets (sometimes made out of unexploded mines leftover from the previous decades of seemingly endless wars), and tasty specialty foods. We went to Gary’s Irish Bar for some good live music (and a free beer between 8-10pm) and ended the night at the infamous Sakura Bar (famous for its “drink triple, see double, act single” tank tops worn by backpackers across Southeast Asia, which you can get for free for every purchase of two vodka drinks).

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Our next stop was the thriving tourist center of Vang Vieng, commonly known for being the backpacker mecca for partying. Although things have seemed to calm down quite a bit since the government has cracked down on the number of bars in the area, Vang Vieng seems to have established itself as the exception to the rule that Laos doesn’t have a nightlife. Besides that though, the limestone cliffs and riverside scenery remain gorgeous and offer a lot of potential as a base for adventure tourism if that’s your thing. While the main attraction for many visitors remains the tubing (read: 20-something year old backpackers), it’s quite easy to avoid the party scene and use the town as a base to explore the surrounding countryside. After a night of indulging the party scene, Marina and I decided to skip the traditional tubing experience and instead went on a day trip outside the city. We swam through a cave on tubes and went kayaking down the Nam Song river (that covers the same part of the river as tubing and a more untouched part further upstream).

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The next day was raining so we took advantage of the situation and spent the day eating pancakes and watching Friends at a restaurant near our hostel and ended the day with an amazing traditional Lao massage. Unfortunately I only had one week in Laos, since I stayed a bit longer than expected in Vietnam, so I didn’t get to see as much of Laos as I had planned. Having said that, I heard amazing things about trekking in the far northern provinces, the mysterious Plaine des Jarres, the lazy island life in the far south, exploring the ‘in between’ in Pakse and the 4000 Islands at the border of Cambodia.

Destinations aside, Lao food is sure to entice the inner foodie in you. Spicy buffalo salad (that I hadn’t tried personally, being a boring vegetarian and all), sticky rice, noodles, curries and the culinary remnants of French colonial occupation in the form of delicious crunchy baguettes and sweet ice coffee. Add to that an ice-cold Beerlao (obviously) and take in all that Laos has to offer.

Next stop: Phnom Penh, Cambodia!

Mellow Yellow rating : 💛 💛 💛 💛 💛

Chillin in Canggu

It was hard to decide where to go from Ubud. This would be our last stop in Bali – Fred’s last stop of her trip – so it had to be a good one. We were in constant debate between Canggu and Nusa Lembongan. Canggu had the good vibes we were looking for, but Nusa promised pristine white beaches and crystal clear water that always attract us like moths to a flame.

After much deliberation, we settled on Canggu (pronounced Chan-goo). Less than two hours away and a haven for surfers (read: chillers), this was the perfect last stop. So what if the sand wasn’t fine and white, and the water wasn’t the perfect shade of blue? Tourists and locals alike were chilled out, the streets laden with rice fields and hipster restaurants/cafés reminiscent of my old neighborhood in the Plateau (or Brooklyn for you non-Montrealers).

Days were spent lazing by the beach and nights were spent drinking beer and socializing/partying with the others staying at our hostel.

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All in all, Canggu did not disappoint. In fact, it was the perfect ending to the perfect trip with my two best friends.

Next stop: Manila, Philippines!

MellowYellow rating: 💛💛💛💛💛💛
6/5 (Canggu set new standards)

Travelers tips: We stayed at Surfers Hostel (The Village, but we heard The Temple is also really good). Crate has the B-E-S-T breakfast. Also, the best tip I can give you is go to Canggu. Just make sure you go at the end of your trip, otherwise you may never leave.

Some eating, less praying and lots of love for Ubud

Our first stop in Bali was in Ubud, a small and quiet(ish) town amidst the mountains north of the hustle and bustle of the city center. It is rich in Balinese history and culture – it is hard to walk a couple blocks without seeing a temple, palace, art gallery or traditional Balinese dance performance.

This was a wonderful place to start out our trip and wean off our jet lag, since there is plenty to do during the day and not much to do at night. We started by visiting the market and loading up on breezy dresses, turquoise jewelry and harem pants – a backpackers wet dream. The next day we visited the Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary, where we got to see voracious monkeys that inhabit this nature reserve and Hindu temple complex. I personally didn’t get too close to the monkeys in fear of getting rabies, but a lot of people bought bananas to get the monkeys to climb up to their heads (which makes for a great photo op).

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The next day we did a cooking class, which I would definitely recommend doing! We started by going to the market around 8:30am and were explained what kinds of food and spices we would be using during the class. We were then taken to a small plantation where they were growing ginger, turmeric, vanilla, chillies and coffee beans. We had a tea and coffee tasting, with 6-8 samples of each and different natural flavors like coconut coffee/tea, saffron tea, ginseng tea and spiced chocolate coffee. Our third stop was a beautiful village with a huge rice field that’s divided between the different families in the village. We did all the actual cooking and eating out in the open with a breathtaking view on the field and village. After a food coma afternoon we found a free yoga class in the evening (this was unrelated to our morning’s indulgences during the cooking class) and ended the night at a quasi-karaoke reggae bar.

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On our third day we walked around Ubud (along the Ridge Walk) to see some rice fields. We walked along the electrifying green fields and stopped at a cafe to admire the view.

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Our last day was an adventurous one – we climbed to the summit of Mount Batur at 1,700 meters! The day started at 2am where we got picked up from our hostel and brought to the base of the volcano. After a surprisingly delicious banana crepe and coffee we started our ascend in the pitch dark. We must have been at least 100 people climbing, although the group from our hostel was around 12-15 people. The first hour wasn’t too difficult and it was really spectacular to see the stars glowing against the dark sheet of the sky in the middle of the night. The second part of the hike was steeper and more difficult, especially the parts that were very sandy and slippery. Once we got to the very top, the difficult climb was the last thing on my mind and we watched the village below disappear as fog and clouds rose with the sun. As we climbed down we saw the tomatoes and chillies growing by the path in the light of day, and I felt a real sense of accomplishment that was soon taken over by a wave of utter exhaustion.

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The next day we were off to Kuta and looking forward to some beach and party times to counter Ubud’s chill and laid back vibes. We found a taxi that would take us to the beautiful rice terraces of Tegalalang on our way to Kuta, and thus ended our first atop in Bali.

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Next stop, Kuta!

Mellow Yellow rating: 💛💛💛💛💛
5/5

 

Travelers tips: Ubud is the perfect place to go to if you want to get away from the swarms of tourists that come to Bali just to see the beaches of Kuta. Our cab from Denpasar airport to the hostel cost 300,000 IDR (when you leave the airport cross the street and get a Bluebird taxi and ask for the metered fare). We stayed at In Da Lodge Hostel, stupid name but really good hostel with good tours (essentially same prices you would pay in town). The free yoga class is at Yoga Barn every Friday at 6pm. Also, try Dadar Gulung. Your taste buds will thank you.