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 : 💛 💛 💛 💛 💛

I left my heart in Palawan

I finally made it to El Nido, Palawan after a 28 hour journey from Sagada. Although cloudy and a little rainy, I could tell I would love El Nido. Nestled around towering marble and limestone cliffs and green hills, El Nido (“the nest”) is a thriving tourist center, and probably the most popular destination in Palawan.

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As I arrived and met some people at the hostel, I was convinced to sign up for a boat tour the next day that would take us island hopping. I woke up the next morning to extremely heavy rainfall – seriously like a wall of water coming down from the sky – and was told that this was the first time in several days that the tour was not cancelled due to bad weather (go figure). Some places we saw on the tour included Helicopter Island, Hidden Beach, Star Beach and the Matinloc Shrine. According to legend, the beaches and islands surrounding El Nido inspired Alex Garland’s novel The Beach, which was written while the author was living in El Nido. Incidentally I read the book here before knowing that.

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That being said, you don’t need to do any of the tours to fully appreciate El Nido. In the 6 days I spent there, I must have spoken about those tours countless times, and with every single person I met (60% of the time, I was asked what tours I had done every time). Other possible non-tour activities include: renting motor bikes and driving to different non-tour beaches, renting kayaks and visiting different non-tour islands, and snorkeling (best snorkeling in Philippines – shout out to Isolde, pronounced Ees-old-dehh). There are plenty of great local places to eat (including a crepe stand with The. Best. Nutella. Crepe. Ever) and the two bars open at night are crazy fun.

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Next stop for about 11 of us from the hostel in El Nido was Coron, famous for its World War II wreck diving. In 1944, a fleet of Japanese ships ships hiding in the harbour were sunk in a raid by the US Navy. As a result, there are about 10 well preserved underwater shipwrecks that have spawned beautiful coral reef (shout out to my diving buddies/kings Edward and Henry).

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Apparently still tour crazed from El Nido, we hired a boat for all 11 of us one day and did our own island hopping, where we explored Coron Island and the Twin Lagoon (and plenty of snorkeling in between).

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After a quick stop in Puerto Princesa, it was time to head back to Manila.

Next stop: Saigon, Vietnam!

MellowYellow rating: 💛💛💛💛💛

Traveler’s tips: there’s a ferry to/from Manila to/from Coron, but from what I heard it can take up to 24 hours (even though they claim it takes 16 hours) and it isn’t too much cheaper than flying to Puerto Princesa. The ferry to/from El Nido to/from Coron is bearable in good weather but pretty horrid otherwise, its a pretty small boat so 7 hours of choppy waves can be a bit rough. You can always fly to/from Coron but its about triple the price. I stayed at OMP in El Nido and at Kokosnuss Garden Resort in Coron, both highly recommended!