Happy Thanks-gibbon – November 28-30, 2019

“I can’t believe I’m so high right now!” I said, and then we laughed at how that sounded. It’s just that by day 2, we sometimes sort of forgot that we were living in a treehouse 50 meters above the ground, having zip lined in. No “happy water” (laolao rice whiskey) or strange jungle mushrooms necessary to enjoy the gibbon experience. If you didn’t look down, you could sometimes forget exactly where you were. But then, through the gaps in the floorboards, you would see light and the leafy foliage far, far, below you. The bathrooms had some pretty killer views, along with big gaps in the floor (for drainage) and a cold shower fed by a nearby spring.

The “Waterfall” Gibbon Experience involved a fair bit of hiking (2-4 hours each day) and a lot of zip-lining.

They spent a lot of time up front teaching us how to brake on the zip line, but it was rarely necessary. In fact, most of the lines were slow, meaning that you had to pull yourself up into a cannonball position if you wanted to make it all the way to the end. If you didn’t make it, you then had to use your arms to pull yourself along to the end. A full body workout, and all of us felt it in our abs by the 2nd and 3rd days.

We slept in 2 different tree houses, and visited 2 others. All were accessed by zip line in & out.

The nights were cool, and I was happy I brought my smart wool to sleep in. The days were quite warm, so the cold showers were acceptably refreshing. Nearby kitchen outposts prepared food for us and our guides zip lined in our meals and kettles of boiling water for tea. Anything we didn’t eat got pitched over the edge. It must be an interesting ecosystem at the base of the tree.

An exhilarating and relaxing way to wrap up my Thanksgiving vacation!

Slow boat life – November 26-27

The sun set hours before we finally made it to Pak Beng, and the sky was full of as many stars as I’ve ever seen. After 10 hours of the slow boat’s gentle movement up the Mekong, my eyes were playing tricks on me. Were those fireworks? Entire galaxies? Okay, now THAT was an airplane. But the rest…just stars upon stars. Spectacular.

Boarding in Luang Prabang had taken a little longer than usual, I guess in part due to the 2 motorcycle tourists whose bikes had to be lifted on board. After that, the ride was relaxing and beautiful. We’d get there when we got there. Occasional stops to drop off a few people and supplies to small villages.

Another beautiful sunset on the Mekong. After it got really dark, the 2 captains each used a light to scope out the rocky edges and obstacles of the river. Those were the only lights to be seen, until we got to Pak Beng.

I think ours may have been the last boat to arrive, but fortunately there were still plenty of rooms available, and it was easy (and cheap) to get one, with people and trucks meeting the boats, looking for customers. It was cool enough that a/c wasn’t necessary, so $6.25 got me a room with a private bathroom. Mine (unlike the rooms assigned to my boat companions) was missing its toilet seat, but they were kind enough to install one for me upon request. Child’s play.

The next day, another relaxing boat ride. I finished the mystery novel set in Laos that I’d picked up in Luang Prabang. An occasional butterfly would drift through the boat. The mountains gave way to hills, and as the river turned and became part of the Laos border with Thailand, we could see the contrast clearly. Fancy riverbanks with concrete and white gravel on the left, lush green and sand on the right.

We got to Huay Xai before dark. This time I splurged for a room with a hot shower. And no ants.

The next morning, I got up early to replenish my supply of drinking water, drop off my laundry, and get some breakfast. Just after I had dropped off my laundry, I saw the local monks making their morning round for alms, so I sat down on the step of the laundry and did my best fly-on-the-wall impression while using my fancy new 2x optical zoom before putting the camera away and just being quiet.

Then I went for noodles.

Luang Prabang – November 22-25, 2019

The minibus drive from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang was stunningly beautiful, and only occasionally terrifying. We left VV as a trio of mini buses, and stuck together as a pack as we climbed up twisty and bumpy mountain passes. There wasn’t a lot of traffic, and there weren’t any passing lanes (or lanes of any kind, really), so passing on blind corners was all part of the deal. As we were heading down a steep grade, we turned one corner and a car coming up hill was passing a slow truck. The minibus in front of us braked to a quick stop and our driver had to follow suit – and then made a judgement call to turn onto the shoulder area because we weren’t stopping fast enough and would’ve hit the van in front. Whew! That woke everyone up. We tried to back up, but the tires just spun in the gravel, so we had to get out of the van while a few guys pushed it back up into the main part of the road. The van didn’t seem any worse for wear, and we made it the rest of the way to Luang Prabang without incident.

Luang Prabang is a lovely city, but arriving at night, my first impression was of a large number of tourists. The night market in particular seemed targeted entirely at tourists, and had extremely narrow aisles and few exits, which made me feel a little claustrophobic. But the next few days were really nice. I walked across a bamboo bridge and through some less touristy parts of town, hiked up to the top of Phousi hill to hang out with some cool cats (and a bunch of other people) and watch the sunset, visited Kuang Si falls, sipped fruit smoothies by the Mekong river, had a nice drink and dinner at Utopia, visited some temples and went on a tour led by a former novice (who had lived in a temple for years before deciding not to become a monk and instead to rejoin “outside” society), walked through the morning market, and tried some local specialties (Lao style Khao Soy, and Or Lam). I joined a Lao guy and a Frenchman who I heard speaking English at a stall where some women were making papaya salad. I chatted with people from all over the world, including Costa Rica, Brazil, France, and Poland.

I did get up early to go observe the morning alms giving one morning, and picked out what I thought would be a good viewing spot at a respectful distance, only to have tour groups swarm the area. I could’ve gone back another morning to a different spot, far from the tour groups, but decided my presence wasn’t necessarily a good thing. I’m glad to have learned a little bit about it, and that photographers far better than me have captured the quiet beauty of it. But the locals out giving alms to the monks and novices as part of their spiritual beliefs, and the monks themselves, have become part of a major tourist attraction, and many tourists are participating just for the photo op. It gave me some things to think about in terms of my impact as a traveler.

If I went back a second morning, I know I wouldn’t be able to resist trying to get that perfect photo (even from what I’d hope would be a respectful distance). But I’m not an anthropologist discovering some new culture and documenting and sharing what I’m seeing with the rest of the world for the first time. I’m just a curious and interested observer. And while I think it is possible to observe respectfully, I have to recognize that I’m not actually a fly on the wall. Then again, if I were, a gecko would probably get me.

Vang Vieng, Laos – November 20-22

A double breakfast in Vientiane (a croissant at a fancy coffee place, and more sticky noodles at a place near my hotel), followed by a bus ride to Vang Vieng. We were delayed nearly an hour because one of the passengers had some sort of mix up with his passport (I didn’t hear all the details, but it sounded like his hotel didn’t give him his passport back, or gave him someone else’s?) and he was borrowing various peoples phones to try and figure out a plan.

Eventually, we headed out, and the road was slow going. Lots of construction along the way – roads, buildings, and a new railroad. As we got closer to Vang Vieng, the signs were in Lao & Chinese instead of in Lao & English

Vang Vieng is very pretty. It reminds me a lot of Ninh Binh province in Vietnam, but with a western (and now Chinese) tourist population. I spent my first afternoon relaxing in a hammock by the river, and chatted for awhile with the Germans next to me. They’d just floated down the river and enjoyed it. As we watched the sun set, the river got crowded with speedboats and kayaks all out for the magic hour. They said floating mid day was not like that.

The next morning, I woke up at 4am to the hotel swaying. Then when I was in the lobby a bit later, another earthquake. The staff looked pretty nervous during the second one.

My adventures in Vang Vieng included a hot air balloon ride, a short walk down to an orange bridge & up to a cave, a lazy float down the river in an inner tube, kayaking down the same river (the next day), and visiting a different cave.

My adventures in Vang Vieng did NOT include getting trapped in a cave during an earthquake, plunging to my death from a hot air balloon, or drinking at the bars as I floated down the river (at noon, there were only a handful of partiers out, most of whom I suspect were employed by the establishments).

The town is weird. It’s simultaneously really quite quiet (there were times during my floats on both days when I couldn’t see anyone else in any direction, and most of the restaurants are empty at all times that I’ve seen), and yet there are a lot of hotels and restaurants clearly expecting a lot of visitors. In the center of town, every restaurant has extensive menus in multiple languages. Pizza or Korean BBQ or Chinese hot pot or Lao food, your choice. Your guess is as good as mine if any of these places do anything particularly well. This place doesn’t seem to be about the food.

Bangkok & Vientiane – November 18-19, 2019

I landed in Bangkok ahead of schedule (just after 11pm instead of midnight) and despite being in the back of the plane, the line at immigration wasn’t too bad. I had booked a hotel room near the airport that included airport transfer, but was dismayed to learn that the only way they’d coordinate it was for me to call them after I was ready to go. I wound up having to ask a woman nearby to call, as my phone wasn’t working. Eventually, the right van came by, and I made it to my room. In the morning, it was back on the shuttle van to the airport, back thru customs, breakfast at the airport, and on to Vientiane!

On our short Thai Smile flight, they served everyone a box lunch including papaya salad and chicken. Pretty tasty, and very efficiently delivered!

In Vientiane, the line for immigration was short but slow. Turns out I really didn’t need to have brought a passport photo despite what the internet said about visas on arrival. The Americans in front of me who hadn’t brought photos didn’t have to pay any more than I did. And yet, the official told me he needed one.

Vientiane airport is pretty small, and after getting my bag, I stopped by an ATM, picked up a local SIM card, and got a taxi to my hotel. I’m not sure if the girl who set up my SIM card clicked something she shouldn’t have, or if the dual SIM stuff in my new iPhone doesn’t work the way I thought it would, but iMessage doesn’t have my US number associated with it, anymore. Hopefully when I get home, the eSIM will work normally.

Anyway – enough about the logistics!

Vientiane is pretty mellow. The internet and people I’ve talked to say Vientiane has somewhere between 500-800,000 residents. Between building restrictions and regulations prohibiting multiple owners within one building, it’s low and sprawling more than tall and dense. There are a handful of taller hotels and office buildings, but most of the structures are just 2-4 stories tall. It also feels sleepy compared to the other cities I’ve visited in Southeast Asia. Yes, crossing the street can occasionally be daunting, but by 7:30-8pm, there’s very little traffic.

My first afternoon, I just walked around a bit. Saw a stupa near the center of town, and wound up checking out the COPE center, which had information on unexploded ordinance and prosthetics. Appreciative of my ability to walk, I tried to work up an appetite ahead of my scheduled evening street food tour. My AirBnB Experiences guide was really nice, internationally educated, and took me to places with good examples of local food: meatballs & hot dogs (flash fried, with a sweet sauce), pad Thai in the Lao style (more savory than sweet, and I tried a piece of the blood pudding/curd) a delicious soup with sticky noodles that were a mix of rice & tapioca flour, grilled chicken and sticky rice (eaten with our fingers), and a smoked coconut milkshake. Yum! We walked by 2-3 different large groups of people doing Zumba – some higher energy than others.

Tuesday morning, I decided to walk (rather than rent a bike) to take in some of the sights. At one point, I stopped in at a Cafe Amazon to cool off, and then kept on walking. Not long after that, some older gentlemen drinking tea at a sidewalk restaurant/stall invited me to join them. One spoke good English. At first, I protested (“I just had coffee at Amazon!”) but they seemed friendly and non-threatening, so what the heck? We chatted for about 20 minutes, before they had to leave for work. The guy who spoke English worked for Allianz insurance. They shared some tea, helped me order an iced coffee with milk (served in a bag with a straw) and taught me how to order it.

After they left, it was just me and the dog hanging out, in the shade. When I was done with my coffee, I headed on to Pha That Luang.

On my way back into town, I stopped at a small place for a sandwich, based primarily on the welcoming yellow lab.

Later, I spotted what looked like a shaded rooftop where I might pause for a cold beverage. I asked an older English guy walking by if he had been up there, and we fell into conversation – he’d been living in Laos for years, and had just gotten back from the doctor where he’d gotten some bad news. He wasn’t up for climbing to the rooftop, but we got some cold sodas from the refrigerator and sat and chatted for a bit on their ground floor. Seemed like he needed someone to talk to, and he wound up buying my Gatorade-like soda.

I basically spent the day walking and eating. Some delightful things (like a return to the smoked coconut milkshake place) and some disappointing (like the tourist-priced soup for dinner).

Next up: Vang Vieng!

Berlin – May 9-11

The bus trip from Prague went smoothly (aside from the non-functional WiFi that was supposed to be available). Got into Berlin in the afternoon, bought a 72-hr pass for public transportation, and eventually navigated to my hotel. Took it easy, just exploring the neighborhood. Impressive sidewalk cafe culture – many restaurants with tables 4-5 deep, all with chairs facing the street. A good place to sit and watch the world go by while sipping on a coffee or a beer.

The next couple of days were a mix of visiting culturally and/or historically significant sites, and just wandering around. I really enjoyed the city. Good food, people watching, and public transportation (important in such a spread out city!) interesting that not much is open until 10am or so – many cafes don’t even open until 9. After breakfast, I visited the east side gallery (part of the wall that is covered in murals now) as well as the nearby wall museum.

The wall museum had lots of videos. This one set in a 60s “living room”

After a quick lunch at a nearby bakery, I joined an underground tour of an old WWII bunker that had been partially destroyed / partially buried. They made several attempts to demolish it, but since one side was near the railroad tracks, and the demolition explosions weren’t quite as predictable as they wanted, they left part of it standing. A fascinating tour, but no photos allowed inside.

One of the explosions managed to push out part of the wall about 4 feet (towards the train tracks). Now, people use it for rock climbing.

Last full day in Berlin, I walked through the memorial, then over to the Brandenburg gate & along the river. Rode a bus for a little while but it was slow going and uncomfortably warm so I got off and took a train to a slightly less touristy area for a late lunch.

You can make your own Ritter Sport.

I tried to go to the rooftop terrace of the Park Inn (seemed like a good alternative to the tower & dome, neither of which I had tickets for), but when I got there, it turned out to be closed until 6pm for some sort of firefighter conference.

Delicious chicken doner kebap

I went to this unusual mall because it was raining

Piri piri spaetzel

Sunday morning bus to airport, flights to London & then home. So glad I didn’t have to go thru customs again at Heathrow as that line was brutal. The cats are happy I’m home!

Last (full) day in Prague – May 8

I ate way too much yesterday, and needed to get in some good walking (not museum or shopping walking). After swinging through the old town square, I headed across the river and up the hill to Letna Park for some nice views (and lots of happy pups running around). Then over to a nearby residential neighborhood for some delicious coffee (I would’ve missed the place entirely if not for the 2 people standing outside, smoking, with empty little glasses of espresso on the arm of the bench next to them).

Then back across the river to scope out the bus station for the next day’s journey (ticket purchased via an app already, but I wanted to make sure I knew where to go).

Walking back towards old town, I found myself in a hip little outdoor food/beer garden. I was tempted to stop for lunch, but was heading for a Czech place my hotel hostess had recommended (complete with details of what to order). Traditional roasted pork with two color cabbage. Only potato dumplings (not the bread ones). Extra cabbage. She didn’t steer me wrong. It was my best Czech meal yet!

After lunch, I made my way through the crowds across the Charles Bridge (ugh – but some of the music was nice), and then walked up to the top of Petrin hill, which has the fake Eiffel Tower. And then walked up to the top of it. Definitely some nice views from there.

Back down into town for an early dinner. So glad it warmed up enough to be able to enjoy sitting at a sidewalk cafe!

My attempt at using the panoramic picture option to capture the dizzying views going up the stairs

Prague, May 7 – Had fun storming the castle.

The Charles Bridge still wasn’t too crowded around 8am, and I had a pleasant walk over to the castle. No lines yet at the security/bag check, and just 15-20 people in front of me waiting for the ticket counter to open at 9am (and once it did, the line moved quickly). I opted for ticket A (and later also got a ticket to climb up to the top of the church tower – worth it!)

By late morning, the crowds were thick. Lots of tour groups and school trips. I’d hoped to see the noon changing of the guard but managed to be about 3 minutes too late to get out to a good viewing spot. So, I was stuck inside until they were done.

Afterwards, I walked around a bit, and eventually found a place where you could see the Quo Vadis statue (strange car on legs) but the view point was a ways away, from a playground/park behind a fence.

Up the stairs to the castle!

There was a prison cell/torture chamber down the stairs thru the little door.

I didn’t expect my smoked salmon crepe with salad to have the lettuce inside it!

Hot chocolate so thick it holds up a spoon

Duck liver pate, chicken soup, and a beer from the place just up the street from my hotel. Tasty but too much.

Prague, May 6

Up super early to check out the Charles bridge at dawn. Not yet crowded, but a surprising number of young couples out getting wedding photos. It was FREEZING (okay, technically just above freezing, but dang cold!)

Then over to the square and clock tower. Then back to my hotel to warm up (and go back to bed — nothing was open yet, anyway!)

Later more walking around the city. So glad I checked out the bridge before it got crowded. And there was a protest in the square, so that was even crazier than usual. I escaped to a (heated) rooftop terrace for a view, drink, & snack.

Other food included hot chocolate with ice cream (and sea salt!). Dinner was a traditional dish of roast beef topped with lemon, cranberry, and whipped cream(!?) with bread dumplings.

Prague, May 5, 2019

Easy arrival into Prague (just 2 people in front of me at my passport check line!), I bought a ticket for the bus & subway into town, and used google maps to find my cute little hotel. The cobblestone streets are all winding and provide very picturesque views, but the lack of a grid means I wind up navigating by landmarks (and my phone) more than by sense of direction.

I spent my first day doing things that might usually be on day 3 – I didn’t go to the castle or the Charles bridge (yet). There was a marathon that day, so some streets were fenced off. I wound up going down to Vysehrad and checking out the casemates there (and some of the original statues from the Charles bridge), before walking around the top of the wall and checking out the church there. Then, back into the old city for dinner.