Friday, February 24, 2012

Nhong Kiaw Mountain Climbing

Tim: Lacey and Peter who we had met the night before joined us for breakfast at 8:00 AM. Our plan was to get started early with our hike to avoid the hottest part of the day. The further we go north the colder it is in the mornings and evenings. It is around 62 degrees in the morning. We began our hike at 9:15. We had a rough idea of where to go after asking a local tour operator where the trail was. The tour comany had quoted us $35 per person for a quided trip up the mountain. The first 30 minutes of the hike was fairly level after that we began an abrupt upward climb into the jungle. There wasn't much of a view while we were hiking because of the dense jungle cover. There is also no such thing as switchbacks in Laos. The trail went straight up the side of the the steep mountain that was about 700 meters tall. The trail was slipery at times because of leaves and the steep terrain. It took us about three hours to make the summit. We could see the town of Nhong Kiaw from the peak as well as the Nam Ou River. The hike back down took just two hours.

Luang Prabang to Nong Khiaw

Amber:  We returned to Luang Prabang and found another guest house to settle into.  Tim and I were both feeling pretty ill, so it was an early night for all of us.  We took our passports to an agency that would transport them back to Vientiane so that we could get our Vietnam visas (a service that took two days to complete) and went in serch of some dinner.  I had delveloped a craving for lasagne on the trekk, so after a very dissapointing, flavorless lasagne we went to bed.  The next morning we got up and didn't venture far from our room during the day as we were both feeling poorly.  Justin and Joe wanted to take a boat out on the Mekong for some sunset photos and we joined them.  The boat we ended up hiring was rather silly how long it was for the four of us, but the driver was pleased to have our fair so off we went.  He drove us up the river about a half hour then we idled back, letting the rivers current push us downstream.  The sun set was perfectly timed with our hour charter and we all got some nice pictures.  That evening we joined Khan for some dinner at his favorite Luang Prabang resturant (all the pretty Laos girls go there) then Tim and I retired and the guys went off to the local disco.
Our guest house had not planned on us staying three days so after our first two nights we had prepaied for she appologized and told us that she had rented out our room when we attempted to pay for a third.  She was able to find us a room in her friends guest house for the same price that was actually far nicer than the room we were staying in.  The second guest house was brand new, it has opened that week.  It was clean, had a nice cross breeze so was cool, and the wifi worked!  I ended up staying in the room pretty much all day uploading pictures and working on taxes.  We had begun to take cypero, so finally our symptomes were getting better.  Justin was returning to Bangkok in the morning and Joe, Tim and I were traveling North to Nong Khiaw in search of more trekking so after dining of some really good lasagne at a different resturant we plaied a few games of cards and said good bye to Justin for a few weeks. 
Our mini van ride to Nong Khiaw was not the most pleasant, but as it turns out, it could have been worse.  We got the back seat of a very cramped van.  There was no air conditioning, and the passangers with access to the windows/fan seemed to be quite cool with the windows only half open and the fans set on low.  In the back of the van, while we launched off of pot holes and sped around corners, we were quite hot.  Oh well, the ride ended up being only two hours and fourty five minutes thanks to the speeding of our driver... it was estimated to be four hours per Lonely Planet.  Other vans, we learned, had been over booked, so while Tim and I shared with one other passanger in the back, they had stacked four people in the back in another to accomidate the over booking. 
Once settled into our guest house and taking a dip in the Nam Ou we went in search of dinner.  We found an Indian food resturant, but it was packed, so a friendly couple offered for us to sit with them.  While we sipped on Beerlao and planned our hike for our next day the couple informed us that they had just come from Vietnam and it was quite chilly there.  After talking some more and finishing dinner, they joined us at our guest house for some cards and we all made plans to meet the next morning to climb the mountain that is the 2,000' backdrop of Nong Khiaw.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Three Day Trekking Continued

Tim:  We had to leave the wedding celibration early, because our transport van had to be at the elephant to return other customers back to Luang Prabang. Our driver along with our guide Khan were drunk from the Beer Lao that was flowing freely at the wedding. Our driver was the less drunk at least and he flew down the narrow road while Khan sang drunk karaoke to the blarring stereo. We made it to the elphant camp in one piece.

The elephant camp was located on the edge of a river, and the scenery was beatufil. Large limestone cliffs and a cave across the river from us had a monastary. We relaxed for the rest of the evening. I was still not feeling well and needed to lay down. Amber, Justin, and Joe joined Khan for dinner with a local family in the small village next to the elephant camp.

We woke up at 9:00 am in the morning. Went for a 30 minute elephant ride into the woods. Amber sat on the elephants neck and I sat behind her in the caboose. After that is waited several hours before riding the elephants again because other customers were taking turns riding the elephants. There were only three elephants.

Amber:  I have to start out by saying, I loved Khan, our local Lao guide.  When guessing how old I was, he said 25!!   He guessed older for all of the guys!  He knew someone that was getting married so invited us to shorten our kayak trip and join him as his guests to their wedding.  Done with rapids for the day, we were happy to crash the wedding!  Not long after arriving, Tim decided to lay down as my symptomes had caught up with him.  On my way to check on him and find a toilet, the middle aged ladies of the wedding found me and drug me back to their table.  Once seated, they provided me with two flimsy dixi cups of ice and Beerlao.  As it turns out, it is rude to not finish the beer in one drinking.  Everyone wanted to toast me, so I double fisted and drank so much beer in that sitting!  I spoke no Laos, and they no English, so there was just a lot of smiling, cheersing, and chugging.  They also decided that I must be quite hungry, so when I wasn't drinking, they were litterally putting chopsticks full of food in my mouth.  It was quite the warm welcome, but I was still feeling well under the weather from the food poisioning I had picked up two days prior, so finally excused myself and joined the guys at the table.  A very short Laos man was sitting with them and when a new song started, he drug me out onto the dance floor.  I was probabsaly a head taller than him, in my still fairly damp cloths I'd been kayaking in, trying to dance.  How funny! 

After surviving the windy road to the elephant camp, we discovered the camp monkey.  Khan demonstrated how nice she was and let her sit on his shoulder.  Convinced that it looked easy and she friendly, I gave it a go.  Khan, as it turns out, has short hair, while my blonde bun on the top of my head drove the monkey wild.  She didn't know if she wanted my hairtye to chew on or my hair, once freed of the tye, to swing on.  Either way there was a bunch of Amber yelping and monkey hair pulling! 

Khan was a little tipsy to be cooking us dinner, so he asked on of his friends if we could join them for dinner in the town adjacent to the elephant camp.  Tim went to bed, feeling worse than ever, while Justin convinced me to "man up" and have another Beerlao and join the family for dinner.  The food was actually amazing.  Khans friends wife had prepaired fresh river bass, dried river weed that pretty much is a nori wrap, a papaya salad and of course stickey rice.  Simple, but so good!  Khan and his friends broke out the Lao Lao (local whiskey) and the karaoke began!  Thankfully, I was able to avoide both the whiskey and the Lao Lao and after a few hours Justin was kind enough to walk me back to the now dark elephant camp.

The next morning Tim's fever had broke and we woke up to the three elephants walking from their place in the jungle they had been kept over night to the river for their first morning dip.  All three elephants were female, ranging from 32 to 40 in age.  Much smaller than African elephants, they were still an impressive sight!  After breakfast we loaded up; Justin and Joe in a platform like saddle on top of one and Tim on the platform with me on the elephants neck.  Khan must have know that the guys were humoring me with the elephant camp part of the treck, so I got the best seat! So much cooler than a horse!  She was huge!  We took the elephants for a short walk through the jungle but had to return them to camp to let a newly arrived group have their turn.  While we waited for more elephant time we got to play more with the monkey and had some lunch.  Finally the group left and we got to take the saddles off the elephants and take them to the river!  So much fun riding bare back on an elephant!  We got to the river and after the teenage elphant handlers had their laughs by throwing dried piles of elphant poop at each other, the elephants and us the boys swam out and the elephants followed.  They ended up with their backs covered in water and Joe, Justin, Tim and I all thought how pretty and amazing it all was.  Then the feisty mahout gave the elephants a command and they all did a duck and shake with their heads!  I am proud to say that Tim fell off faster than I did, but when the elephant completely submerged her head and then began to vigerously shake I didn't stand a chance!  After two dumpings from the elephant I had been tossed enough, the guys wanted to see who could last the longest.  I think Joe won, but was the sorest for it.   All and all, an amaing day and an amazing experiene!

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Three Day Trekking, Kayaking, Elephant Riding

Tim: We schedule a three day combination trek from Luang Prabang. This is Amber and my first trek. We were picked up for a guesthouse at 9:00 AM. We checked out of the guesthouse and dropped our bags off at the tour operator's house before setting off on our first day. Khan was our local guide. We were picked up in an old beat up mini van with two other tourists. The two others were on a one day kayak trip. After an hour ride north of Luang Prabang we set off on our hike from the side of the main road. The dirt road was wide enough for a motor scooter or even a small truck. The hike up to the first village took a little over two hours. This was a small ethnic village will around 100 people. We stopped for lunch then walked around the village before hiking another 10 minutes to the next village over the hill. The small children were curious by our presence and followed us around the village giggling.

We took a different less traveled path on the way out of the village. It took about the same amount of time to get back to the main road. We stayed at a home stay near the river.

Amber:  The first day of treking was beautiful but complicated by a little by food poisoning I had picked up from what we assumed were from some fairly undercooked, possibly old pork skewers that we had snacked on the day before after swimming at the waterfall.  Tim, Justin and Joe had tossed theirs after their first bite; I on the other hand, had happily finshed my entire skewer.  We had gone out the prior evening with Joe and Justin and had a few beers and played some cards but when we woke up early to pack our belongings and have some breakfast I could tell that it was definately more than the few beers... and it was going to be a very long day.

Justin and Joe were packed and ready to go as well as the tour company we had booked by the time we were finished with breakfast. We picked up some water and snacks for the road.  I knew that our guide was going to be a perfect fit for the guys of our group when we arrived at the locaion they stored their kayaks and he made some humorous remarks about a lady boy bird.  Tim, Joe and Justin were laughing the whole drive north!  Not only was Khan funny, but he also was a fairly decent cook.  He made us sticky rice, an assortment of boiled veggies and an incredible chile paste for dinner (very common Laos meal).  The chile paste was so good Tim got the recipe; Thai Chilies, salt, garlic, lime, all with a dash of water.  Definately going to be one of the Hillyer specials back in Anchorage in a year when he gets home!! 

After sleeping a little over twelve hours (I went to bed while the guys went to a local pub for a few BeerLaos) I was feeling a little better and up for kayaking.  The hike the prior day had been long and hot with lots of jungle to march through, so if I had managed to do that I was feeling confident that the kayak would be very easy in comparison.  We drove north a little further in search of some white water then carried our double down to the river and climbed on.  It was more of a perch-on style than a ride-in as far as white water is concerned, but we had life vests and dry bags so I was feeling very confident and talking possible a bit too much smack to Joe and Justin about who was going to flip on the first set of rapids.  We set out and the first set we went through were fun; everyone made it with just a little water splashing in the face... or if you were in the front, dousing you completely.  Khan saw where two river currents joined and thought it would be fun to go play in them, we followed suit into the confluence.  The moment the side of our kayak hit the rip, we rolled.  I came up under the kayak and hit my head on it, which was not a big deal as it was very light, but it knocked my sun glasses off.  In an effort to get the kayak off of me, I dropped the paddle which Khan had cautioned us would cost $75 US to replace if we lost/broke.  Tim was able to grab it for me, but in doing so lost his grip on the kayak and got stuck on a back eddy while I got swept down the river.  Khan, realizing I was the helpless one, came to my aid and helped me into the kayak while poor Tim was still stuck in the eddy.  Justin and Joe were able to get him and both our paddles onto their kayak and the rescue mission was complete!   Back on board of our own kayak, we took off down the river and hit a few more rapids, all of which were done successfully and a few that were more technical.  Once we had ran the stretch of rapids, we carried on down the river a ways then pulled out to go to one of Khan's friend's wedding.  It was a traditional Laos wedding, so we were all excited to experence it.

Tim: By the time we reached the wedding, the celibration was already in full swing. There was live music with a singer and a keyboardist. The speakers were large and the music was blarring Laos music with a heavy bass. We were served beef lap, sticky rice, vegetable soup, and lots of Beer Laos. On of the lap dishes was made using raw beef. The beer is usually served with ice in a small glass. The groom introduced himself and insisted on serving us food and beer. We were the only foreigners and Justin and I are about a foot taller than everyone else. Even Amber was taller than all of the men. After a few beers the inevitable happened... We were literally forced to go and dance with the locals. We were physically dragged onto the dance floor. The dancing was done in two lines facing eachother. One side with men and the other with the women. Most of the movement was in the hands, so the hips and shoulders did not move much. Some of the more "happy" people were a little more frisky; shaking their hips as they back into you. It was very fun unique experience. Unlucky for me, I was becoming more ill and had to rest in our truck for a while, but we still thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Tat Kuang Si Waterfall

Tim: Spent a few days hanging out in Luang Prabang. Finally got Laos SIM cards for our iphones, so we were able to call home. We opted for a pickup ride out to the Tat Kuang Si Waterfall. The ride took about 50 minutes sitting on benches in the back of a Chinese truck. On the way to the waterfall there was an Asiatic Black Bear and Sun Bear conservation facility. There were about 10 bears and we were able to get within 2 feet of the bears at times.

After a five minute walk we reached the first of several waterfalls within several hundred meters of each other. The water was cloudy blue, similar to glacier water. One of the bigger waterfalls had a large pool below it that included a small rope swing. You could also jump of the waterfall into the pool below. It was about a 10 foot jump. The water was surprisingly cold; probably the coldest water we have been in since being in SE Asia.