Archive for ‘Laos’

January 12, 2012

Muang Ngoi

by Johnny

We did manage to tear ourselves away from Luang Prabang for a couple days to visit Muang Ngoi, a sleepy riverside town only accessible by boat.  Did you know you can fit 14 people in a minivan?  Well, you can in Laos.  Packed like sardines with backpacks on our laps, a four-hour minivan ride brought us to the town of Nong Khiaw, where we caught the boat to Muang Ngoi.  The jaw-dropping scenery and the tiny villages en route almost made us forget that we were sandwiched knee to knee with tourists and locals (one with a live pig in a bamboo basket) in a tiny boat.

Muang Ngoi is pretty rustic.  The town only has limited electricity from 6:00pm to 9:00pm, limited hot water, ice needs to be brought in by boat each morning and roosters are the alarm clock of choice.  It definitely feels like a place lost in time.  We had planned on going on a trek to visit some of the villages in the area, but unfortunately it was raining both days we were there.  Not to worry, as we bought a couple books from a used book store, posted up at a riverside restaurant and spent our days reading, listening to the rain fall and taking in the Land of the Lost-esque scenery, which more than made up for living without the comforts of home for a few days.

Passing fishermen on our way to Muang Ngoi
Our spacious boat ride to Muang Ngoi…anybody know where the life jackets are?
Approaching Muang Ngoi Muang Ngoi’s main street
Gardens down by the river View from our $12 bungalow
Home-made fishing nets
Hand-written menus from a Muang Ngoi restaurant

Another crammed boat ride and torturous minivan ride (this time with live chickens and plastic picnic chairs) brought us back to Luang Prabang.  Two shower free-days in Muang Ngoi coupled with two hectic travel days left me smelling pretty fresh.  Normally I enjoy a little body odor, as it makes me feel macho, but not this time.  I’m not kidding, PowerBait thought I smelled bad.  Good thing we have friends bringing Old Spice reinforcements to Chiang Mai, Thailand in a couple days!

January 11, 2012

Me Love You Luang Time

by Johnny

Can you tell that we love Luang Prabang?  To us, it’s the most perfect Southeast Asian spot.  It combines everything we’ve enjoyed about the other places we’ve visited in the region in one beautiful riverside town.  It’s got the laid-back vibe of Koh Chang, the friendly locals of Siem Reap, the charm of Hoi An, and the French influence and tasty grub of Hanoi.  Here are some more scenes from a great couple of weeks.

Seeing the Haw Pha Bang in the afternoon sunlight never got old
Feeling enlightened in Luang Prabang
Day trip to the Kouang Si waterfalls
The view from Old Bridge The view towards Mount Phousi
Lost in translation?
Our favorite meal at Phakdee (fried noodles with chicken, spicy Lao chicken salad and sticky rice)
Our room at Villa Chitdara 2 Our room at Villa Champa
The beach where we would watch many beautiful sunsets over the Mekong
Sunset boat ride on the Mekong
Making friends with the locals
Luang Prabang blessed us with many beautiful sunsets over the Mekong
January 7, 2012

Market Madness

by Anna

Throughout our travels we’ve always enjoyed checking out the markets, with some of our favorites being Les Halles in Avignon, France, the Grand Bazaar and Spice Market in Istanbul, Turkey and the Neighbourgoods Market in Capetown, South Africa. Southeast Asia has not let us down so far with its many, often crazy maze-like markets and prices that can’t be beat! Luang Prabang, in particular, has kept us enamored by its lovely, slow-paced food and handicraft markets.

The first market we discovered upon arriving to Luang Prabang was the Night Handicraft Market, which lines the main street beginning at 5:00pm every night. Th Sisavangvong is closed down for several blocks along the perimeter of the Royal Palace complex, and vendors pack the street with beautiful lanterns, jewelry, scarves, antiques, hand-stitched linens, embroidered bags and clothes, paintings and hand-made journals, to name just a few of the offerings on display. Even when we’re not shopping (or more accurately, when I’m not shopping and Johnny is waiting patiently nearby), we love strolling through the market at night on our way to and from dinner to watch the men and women at their stalls quietly embroidering, painting watercolors or hammering jewelry. It is such a relaxed, calming atmosphere, that it is hard to believe we’re actually in a market at times.

Towards the end of the Night Handicraft Market, food stalls start to pop up and intersperse with handicraft stalls. Baguette sandwiches, fruit shakes and the scent of grilled bananas begin to fill the air. Turning down a small alleyway, you enter the wonderful world of the Night Food Market. The crowded, bustling tables piled with food, opposite communal tables crammed with patrons, the Night Market snaps you out of the daze from the Handicraft market and gets you back on your toes to pick out the perfect meal for the night. For about $1.25, you can get a plate and pile it high with as many dishes as you like from a buffet-like Laos offering, or you can get a BBQed whole fish on a bamboo stick, or you can have a fresh papaya salad chopped up, or you can indulge in my and Johnny’s favorite find, some delicious soup from “Mrs. Noodle.” Not only is “Mrs. Noodle” the sweetest, most lovely woman, but she also slings some mean noodle soup. Similar to pho, she piles noodles of your choice plus fresh herbs and veggies into a divine broth and then gives you a plate piled high with other herbs, limes and chilies to personalize your flavor. We will most definitely miss sipping soup and Beerlao at Mrs. Noodle’s table. Our other favorite offering at the Night Food Market is the coconut rice balls. They are steaming, sweet little bite-size morsels that are crispy on the outside and gooey on the inside. With the ability to buy 6 for around 50 cents, we’ve pretty much developed a nightly habit of eating these tasty treats.

Last but not least, Luang Prabang’s morning market is a wonderful place to walk through first thing in the morning. The bountiful selection of herbs, fruits and veggies are displayed beautifully, big fish flop around in metal tubs, live chickens await their fate and there are of course all sorts of meats and animal parts to choose from.  All the freshly-picked fruits and veggies reminded us of the smell from our CSA farm basket back home.  Our first visit to the Morning Market was around 7am after we had attended the alms giving ceremony along the streets with Vong. At 7am the market had obviously already been bustling for hours, making me wish I was more of an early riser!

January 7, 2012

Tak Bat

by Johnny

In Luang Prabang, the daily alms giving ceremony, known locally as tak bat, is a beautiful thing to witness.  Each morning around sunrise, hundreds of saffron-clad Buddhist monks set out from the over 60 temples spread throughout Luang Prabang to collect food offerings from the local people.  In silence, they walk past kneeling alms-givers, who place a handful of sticky rice or fruit into each monk’s bowl.  This collection of offerings is all the monks will have to eat for the entire day.  The ceremony supports both the monks (who need the food) and the alms givers (who earn merit and blessings).

Anna and I were fortunate join Vong, our awesome guesthouse owner, one morning for his daily tak bat routine.  First, Vong took us to his local temple, Wat Nong Sikhounmuang, where Anna and I sat in silence as he meditated and prayed in front of Buddha statues for several minutes.  Next, Vong led us out to the street for tak bat, where he handed out sticky rice to each and every monk that passed by.  Some people have complained that tak bat has turned into too much of a tourist spectacle, and they may be right.  However, seeing Vong’s daily devotion to the monks made Anna and I realize what a sacred, special and genuine ritual tak bat is, and we felt very fortunate for the opportunity to join him.

Wat Nong Sikhounmuang Vong’s temple, Wat Nong Sikhounmuang
Vong passing out sticky rice to the monks

The numerous beautiful temples, the flashes of saffron robes that catch your eye throughout the day, the chants and drums of the monks in the afternoon, the iconic tak bat ceremony…one can’t help but feel some sense of spirituality while in Luang Prabang.  Definitely a special place.

January 1, 2012

Let the Celebrating Begin!

by Anna

From the moment we touched down in Luang Prabang, Laos, on Christmas Eve, we have been in constant celebration mode! We couldn’t think of a better place to spend the holidays. Luang Prabang has proven to be one of our favorite destinations so far, and we can’t seem to tear ourselves away. 8 days turned into 11 days which have now morphed to 14 days! More to come on all of the things we love about Luang Prabang, but for now, here is a quick wrap up of the festivities from the past week!

Christmas Eve
We arrived to our guesthouse pretty exhausted on Christmas Eve day after an overnight train from Sapa, a four hour wait at the Hanoi airport and then an hour flight to Luang Prabang. We were so happy to discover when we checked in at Villa Chitdara2, that the owner, Vong, who is one of the happiest and nicest people I have ever met (I’m suspicious that he may be related to Big Jay!), was hosting a Christmas Eve dinner for everyone at the guesthouse. Vong’s wife cooked an amazing spread of duck with orange sauce, veggies and a myriad of desserts – some rolled in coconut, some stuffed in banana leaves – all of which we enjoyed sitting on a deck overlooking the Mekong River. There was even cheese brought specially from Paris and a pile of baguettes – Vong and his wife lived there for 35 years before returning to Laos. We met a lot of nice people from Australia, Washington DC, Philly, France and Luang Prabang over the course of the evening and had one too many glasses of red wine, as Vong was constantly placing full glasses in front of us. We felt right at home after our first evening in Luang Prabang, and knew we had chosen the perfect place for our first Christmas away from home.

Hanging on the deck over the Mekong before dinner

Christmas was our first full day in Luang Prabang, so we set out to explore the old town which sits on a peninsula between the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers. We happened upon a bamboo bridge and decided to cross over to the other side to see what the area outside the peninsula was like. We had just passed a group of men watching a cock fight when we ran into our new friend, Joel, whom we had met at Christmas Eve dinner the night before. He has been coming to Luang Prabang for the past few years and has made friends with many locals in the process. He happened to be bicycling with his friend James to visit the Hmong New Year celebration in a nearby village. The Hmong people celebrate the New Year at the end of the rice harvesting season, and the festivities usually last around 10 days. James invited us along, excited to show us something he was sure we had never seen before, and after following him down dirt roads through some villages, meeting his friends along the way, we came into a clearing filled with Hmong people, many wearing traditional costumes, playing games, cooking, eating and having a really good time. Everyone was so friendly and happy, and everywhere we looked smiling faces greeted us with ‘Sabaidee’ – ‘hello’ in Laos.

Crossing the bamboo bridge En route through villages to Hmong New Year
Hmong New Year!
Hmong girls in traditional costumes
The Hmong ball tossing game pov pob
Johnny got in on the pov pob action Walking home via the “Old Bridge”

That night we had made Christmas dinner reservations at Tamarind, a restaurant we had read had delicious Laos cuisine. But before dinner we took a stroll through the lovely night market…most definitely the most laid-back, quiet, pretty market we have experienced in SE Asia to date. Johnny and I each picked out a “Christmas present” and then headed over to the river to Tamarind. The restaurant was set up in big long communal-style tables, and we immediately got to talking with our “neighbors” – couples from Philly, London and Paris. Towards the end of our meal, Johnny decided that we needed to try some “Lao Lao,” Laos’ rice whiskey that we’d heard a lot about. Since it was only about 50 cents per glass, Johnny ordered a round for our new friends…dangerous! One round turned to four rounds as each couple returned the favor. And then four rounds turned to six rounds as the guys decided that we should try some of the infused Lao Lao. I was pretty sure that my stomach lining had been obliterated after the chili-infused Lao Lao (basically like drinking fire!), but the ginger lime Lao Lao helped to ease the pain. The Parisian couple ducked out after round three of Lao Lao (smart), but the rest of us closed down the restaurant – to the extreme entertainment of the waiters who thought we were hilarious – and headed down the street for a Beerlao nightcap. We were saved by city’s 11:30pm curfew and headed home from our very fun and delicious Christmas dinner.

Shopping the night market before dinner Dinner at Tamarind
Lao Lao round #…? The dudes
Post-dinner brew with new friends

My Birthday
Luckily we had a few days to recover from Christmas before my 30th birthday! I never would have dreamed that I’d be turning 30 in Luang Prabang, Laos, and I feel so lucky to have spent my golden birthday in such a special place! Johnny surprised me with a cooking class through Tamarind, so the day started bright and early at a local market where we were guided through the amazing variety of herbs, produce, rice and meats (severed buffalo legs are a little aggressive first thing in the morning!). We were then driven out into the countryside to a beautiful little oasis on a lake surrounded by gardens where our cooking stations were set up. We made all sorts of dishes, each incorporating tons of local herbs, with our main tool being a mortar and pestle. We were stuffed after enjoying the fruits of our labor (sticky rice, eggplant dip, tomato chili dip, fish steamed in banana leaves, lemongrass chicken, pork stew and coconut purple rice pudding).

That night we posted up at a bar on the river to watch the sunset and had a wonderful dinner in the lantern-filled garden at Blue Lagoon. The only thing that could have made the day any more perfect would have been the presence of our families and friends!! 30 is off to an amazing start!

Lake by cooking school Gardens around cooking school
Our instructor, Jai Sticky rice
Lemongrass chicken The novice chefs
Pickin’ up new skills as a 30-yr-old Pork stew
Sun downers on the Mekong Feeling good in my “old age”:)

New Year’s Eve
Vong invited everyone at the guesthouse for another dinner on New Year’s Eve…lucky us!! After strolling around the streets and checking out all the festive decor in town and listening to the monks chanting in the many temples, we returned to Chitdara2 for our NYE party. Vong’s wife prepared a traditional Laos feast with sticky rice, noodles, papaya salad, chicken, buffalo, chili spread and more delicious desserts. This time around, we met families from Germany and Australia and a fun couple from Norway, along with Vong’s friends and neighbors and Joel. The best part about the night was the hundreds of glowing lanterns being released into the sky. They started as soon as it got dark and continued to rise till after midnight. There were so many in the sky, they looked like giant, orange stars.

We also didn’t realize that fireworks are legal to set off in Luang Prabang, until Vong, the Australians and the Norwegians all appeared with stashes of them. I thought they’d just be little sparklers, but they were actually huge, awesome fireworks shooting up through the palm trees! At midnight, up and down the street along the river, there were all sorts of fireworks and other explosives going off, accompanied by flaming lanterns soaring through the sky. It was quite an unforgettable site, and I think everyone was relieved that nothing caught on fire! To top it off, Vong passed around champagne to everyone for a New Year’s toast. Definitely a New Year’s Eve to remember!!

The streets around Luang Prabang looking very festive for New Year’s Eve
Dinner on the deck of our guesthouse Yum
Johnny, Vong, Anna & Joel…almost midnight Happy New Year!
Vong and I lighting a lantern Almost ready…
And it’s off Our lantern carries NYE wishes to the sky
The scene along the river Lanterns floating everywhere
Trying not to light any palm trees on fire… Ringing in the New Year!

HAPPY 2012!! Here’s a little video from the night for good measure (you can hear my obvious excitement over the size of the fireworks and you can see Vong’s excitement…love that guy!).