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Laos

Lao to Thailand

Slept in this morning and had some more banana pancake breakfast until the kids decided to run ariund the courtyard for a bit. We spent the rest of the morning doing school and packing.

The tuk tuk ride to the airport was bittersweet. I think we’ve all really liked it here. Check in for our flight was fast, and with nothing ( not even a shop) at the airport it was a boring hour + wait. Avi was entertained watching the Bangkok-bound flight get prepped and our plane land. Zoe did a dance show. She was a Pegasus.

On the plane Zoe was a bit sad and was goodbyeing her baby elephant friend, Thea dog, market kitten, and swimming pals. She wished we could’ve given the dog a bone. Avi wanted food. The local freeze dried fruit snacks were delicious again. They include jackfruit, pineapple, pumpkin, sweet potato, taro, and winter melon. Yummy!! The flight was only a half hour and Avi managed to fall asleep while we were landing.

At the airport he woke and we gathered our things, got a taxi, and sweat the whole way to the bus station. The next bus left at 1500 so we had a half hour to spend my last 13000 kip. The kids chose some baguettes, apples, and a pack of cookies from the street vendors. The Lao bus returning to Thailand was dramatically different than the bus up. This one was a crappy old city bus that had been modified by luxing it up with curtains and raw vinyl seats that would’ve reclined when they were made in 1970. Since the air con was sorta working only by butt and legs for completely soaked with sweat on the way to the border… Where the line was super long to get out of Lao. It was efficient, though, and we stamped out before the bus even made it past the checkpoint. Back across the Mekong on friendship bridge and we breezed through the Thai border as well. I’ve gotten quite adept at quickly filling out three arrival cards with only the necessary info to get in.

Avi did not want to get back on the bus, and fussed about it til we got moving. I was sleepy and wanted to nap, but both kids were wide awake. Luckily they are fairly good at playing I Spy and Makeup together. The trip ended up taking 2 1/2 hours from Vientiane to Udon. We got off, grabbed our bag and the stroller from below the bus and walked to Bryan’s hotel. He came in 10 minutes later and the kids were so exited to see him.

We spent the evening getting dinner at the mall, playing in the playland, and joining the guys for a bit of the End of Exercise party.

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Lao friends

We made a lot of friends today…animal and human! It started with a great breakfast from “grandma” again. She is so cute and silly and teases the kids. Avi isn’t quite sure what to make of her, but laughs when she tickles.

On Monday I had arranged for a tour out to the Pak Ou caves, and sure enough the van picked us up after breakfast. The driver was crazy driving at top speed down dirt roads. After 45 minutes we stopped at an elephant camp by the river. So excited to ride elephants again! AND there was a baby!! It was so cute. Zoe loved feeding her new elephant friend some leaves and petting it. We boarded our elephant via a tall platform and it purred and kept trying to turn around. The trainers put the baby on a leash and brought it over; then our mama was happy! There were 3 other big aunts in the troop and it was obvious as we walked a trail through a village that they all took care of baby. Our elephant wasnt happy until baby was in front of her. At one point a dog started barking and the front two elephants trumpeted at it and we all circled the baby. Amazing. Out of the village they were much more relaxed. We walked through a forest, past some amazing cliffs, and along some dry rice paddys. Zoe was always on the lookout for the baby, and Avi would squeal when we went up or down a slope… It’s a little sketchy staying on.

The surrounding mountains were gorgeous even with the bit of haze. It’s an area shaped by karst topography – dramatic eroding limestone allows for huge cliffs, steep mountains, and caves! That was our next stop. We returned to the camp and fed baby a bit more before walking through the village down to the waterfront. There we got on a long skinny boat. Something the width of a kayak, but more flat bottomed and as long as 3 put end to end. I thought this was awesome – crossing a huge river (it feeds the Mekong) to a cliff cave – mostly the kids wanted snacks.

The ride was short and we got off onto a floating bamboo “pier”, crossed some boards, and jumped onto the stairway leading up to the Pak Ou caves. It was pretty crowded with people from boats that came upstream from Luang Prabang. Still neat to see all the retired buddha statues staring out. This is where temple figures come when they break or are replaced. Zoe brought some special incense from yesterday and lit it. We didn’t spend much time in this cave because of the crowds, instead we went round the side and followed the steep stairs up to the Upper cave. Now this was cool! It was an actual dark cave instead of an opening. I brought a flashlight with us, so Zoe explored around first finding tiny niches everywhere full of Buddhas. When it was Avi’s turn with the light the cave mostly became a party.

After a snack we went back down the stairs and boarded our boat back across the river. From there we walked along the edge of the water back to the elephant camp. People farm the sandy soil along the river and our guide showed us that we were walking in a peanut field! He pulled a whole plant and there grew the peanuts like tiny potatoes on the roots. They tasted like green sweet peas! Zoe ate a bunch and even brought them up to the camp for lunch. Yum!! We had some kind of meat stew (duck?), veggie schlopp, and rice. It was actually delicious and the kids devoured it.

On the way back to Luang Prabang the van stopped at “whiskey village” a tiny place that makes traditional Lao whisky. We were offered samples – the strawberry was good. I didn’t try the strong ones. It was actually really interesting because we’ve seen bottles with preserved snakes and scorpions for sale at the market and found out they are whiskey – for men only. I passed on that purchase.

Both kids fell asleep on the van ride back to the guesthouse where we had a nap and some school time.

Our final night here was a blast! We took a tuk tuk to the end of the old town peninsula where a side stream splits from the Mekong. The water was warm and in inviting, so the kids waded in a bit and played in the sand. Eventually we wandered downstream around the bend to see a huge group of local kids and young monks disrobed and playing in the water. We stayed up a bit because Avi found the perfect place to dig in the sand and Zoe liked the rocky sandbar. Then some of the local boys floated down to join us. They thought Avi was a hoot which encouraged him to get in the water and swim! They showed off jumping in the deep pool and ducking under to pop up and surprise him. He loved it and swam around in the shallow to join them. Sometimes he’d go a bit deep but they would pick him up and bring him back.

Eventually Zoe looked up from her busy sand building to see the fun and joined in. She was greeted with much excitement from these boys! I would guess them to be 9-10 year olds. She jumped right in and joined them and even floated down the current a bit. A few times she got to far out and they would nearly fight over who brought her back. One young guy in particular found her fascinating and played and played with her even after the others lost interest and came back to Avi or built a little stone dam.

Avi got cold and wanted out so they showed him how to roll in the warm sand, which he loved of course. But it got him covered in sand so he had to keep going back and forth. Soon the sun was getting low and we needed to say goodbye. Zoe rinsed off from lounging in the sand and Avi complained he was cold. I had ’emergency’ clothes for him so he got dry. Zoe didn’t care about her wet shirt; it would dry soon enough. We took a great picture with all our new friends and said goodbye. What a fun afternoon!

There is a bamboo bridge crossing the river to a little rocky outcrop that we braved in order to watch the sun set. It was pretty rickety and flexible but strong enough. Across the river we found a spot to hang out. The kids had aquired sticks and dug around in the dirt surrounding the rocks. This spot is not apparently on the typical tourist circuit as we were only joined by a German couple and four monks. There was a small snack stand, so the kids each got some banana chips and I a beer as we sat to watch the sun set. That is when the monks came over to get pictures with Avi. I offered to take some for the one guy who seemed enthralled with my baby boy and wanted to know his age and name. He handed me his phone, careful not to touch even my fingers (I’m a female and that’s not allowed). Then I got a shot with my phone.

The sun set was pretty as Zoe gave us all the play by play as it went behind the mountains. Back across the bamboo bridge we walked along the main road through the quiet old town full of temples. We even popped into the Wat where we met the puppy a few days ago. No puppy to be seen, so Zoe called “Thea Thea” and here he came running! It was super fun to see the little dog again. Jhan, the monk, wasn’t around. Zoe very lovingly gave Thea her stick as we left the playful puppy. By this time it was dark and he street lights were on. I felt we should get out of the temple grounds as more and more young monks were walking around in their under-covering all wet like they just bathed. Time for bed! They wake at 4am and then walk through town around dawn to collect food from locals. This would be something to see, but I don’t think the kids would be quiet and respectful and it’s a bit controversial having tourists getting too involved in the ceremony. It’s really how locals make merit and monks remain humble. What a lesson for a 12 year old to learn!

My two kids aren’t ready for that lesson, and wanted food. On the way to the food shops we past a little store that had a few toys and a little airplane! It was only 3000 kip (.36 cents) and Avi adores it. So much so that he ran the rest of the way into town. We plopped at an outdoor crepe cafe for some sweet dinner followed by a tuk tuk ride back to the guesthouse to say goodnight to grandma.

Luang Prabang

We enjoyed some banana pancakes for breakfast at our guesthouse this morning. The grandma that lives here can’t get enough of watching Avi. She found it fascinating to watch him eat.

From there we walked out to the main road and caught a tuk-tuk to the former Palace that is now a museum. It was neat to see the not-super-ornate rooms and furnishings. Except the throne room- it was covered in mirror mosaics and gold leaf. There were also tons of relics saved from ancient temples around Laos from their historical time prior to French colonial rule and the more recent destruction from wars. The most amazing was the Prabang Buddha – supposedly made in the 1st century in Sri Lanka. It was amazing to see. Zoe was fascinated by it and all the treasures gifted to the king of Lao from other countries. I had to hold Avi most of the time as he was being naughty and touching stuff. Sadly, no pictures allowed. Bummer.

I picked up a few baguette sandwiches and we retuned to our guesthouse to get changed and await transpo to the Kuang Si waterfall. It came in the form Of a super packed mini van. Luckily we were the last pickup and got To sit up front. The ride was full of silent Europeans and then my loud kids.

The waterfall is in a national park and back a short trail past a bear refuge that was empty. It’s also not just one but a series of stepped waterfalls and pools … Many ideal for swimming. The kids were so excited they almost leapt Into the first pool until they figured out it was freezing cold. We explored up the trail a bit until we found a less crowded pool with a shallow gradual entry. Kiddos donned their life vests and braved the chill…. It wasn’t too bad once we were in. There were even Fish to feed and Zoe spent most of her time trying to catch one. Avi, however, wasn’t satisfied with the shallow area and dragged me to the small waterfalls where the young backpacker crowd was jumping in. This is what he wanted to do! So we balanced along the edge of the falls to a shorter one and he jumped in at me. He also realized it was just as cold and to deep for mommy to touch! So that made him nervous and we go out. Zoe came over too but just sat on the edge.

Eventually we tires of swimming and continued on the trail up hill to see even more waterfalls and then the BIG one showed up!! I knew there was one large waterfall but this was enormous. The kids were so excited they ran at it. We I’d get some good pictures. It’s huge!! Then we walked across a bridge at the base to see up the mountain and the waterfalls above the big one! It was awesome.

Zoe led us back down half of the hill singing, and then Avi took over as “engine” and sang his engine song while Zoe sang a coal car song filling up the engine. It was cute. We changed into dry clothes and wandered back to the bear refuge to find it full of sun bears!! Avi especially liked watching them climb all over their jungle gym.

Both kids fell asleep in the van back to our guesthouse, but until serenading the whole vehicle of stoic Europeans with a rousing rendition of Bingo, Old Macdonald, and the ABCs. Loudly. When Avi woke in his bed we realized he was missing his little orange airplane. Both kid were allowed 2 small toys on the trip, so he brought his orange prop airplane and a digger. Zoe brought a pony and little rabbit. Well, his airplane is no where to be found. I know for sure he had it walking out of the waterfall. I think he dropped it when he and Zoe were being spazzes and getting into a cooler for a Fanta. He carried the fanta to the van, and I didn’t notice he no longer had his plane. He has plenty at home. That one was a favorite though. He is surprisingly nonchalant about it.

Zoe couldn’t get back to sleep at the guesthouse so she worked on schoolwork until Avi woke and we walked into town. We were looking for a playground and I thought the school around the corner may have one, but it turns out to be a monk school. No playground.

There is a big hill in town called Phousi Hill and we made our way to he back route up the hill. It’s a bunch of stairs winding their way past the different buddha images to a stupa on top and a great view. Both kids wee motivated to go up this and we for halfway very quickly. Then, Avi found a giant seed pod and wanted to dig in the dirt at every step. Zoe was quite patient and probably doubled her steps by going up and coming back for us so many times. She even said Annyong to the big group of Korean monks we passed on their way down. Funny to see Korean monks out touring; they found it humorous when I said we were from Pyeongtak. The kids were in good spirits, though, and happy to get to the top to see the sun set – well more just get darker. There is a pretty good haze layer here. Not sure if it’s a seasonal thing or just our bad timing, but the pretty mountains are fairly blurry. The view was sill great and fun to see the city lights turn on. Zoe was in such a good mood she did pictures with about 5 different people that asked and sang happy birthday to Avi about 3 times while dancing. Pretty sure every Lao teen up there has it on their phone.

On the way down the gaggles of local young teens hanging out joined us. The girls were fascinated with Zoe and played with her hair, held her hand, and showed her how to slide down the wide white cement banisters like sliding boards. I think she enjoyed being the center of attention as usually Avi gets that treatment anymore. Avi did get a short piggy back ride from one of he boys, but they tired of kid-time quickly and hurried down. After many goodbye pictures and giggles at the bottom of the hill Zoe’s new admirers went their own way, and we went to find dinner.

Since we went up the backside and down the main path we were smack dab in the middle of the night market so we waded through all the wares – I bought a bag – and out to the street for a real restaurant meal. We have eaten from street vendors thus far and I was ready for a sit down. I got a pizza “to be safe” and Avi mostly ate that while Zoe and I shared some delicious chicken and mint and rice Lao dish. Avi also liked the chicken.

The walk back to our guesthouse was quick. We found our little orange and white market kitten from last night again, and stopped to pet it. Feels a bit like we’ve moved in when we start recognizing the local pets. After that Zoe decided she wanted the ‘jog’ and Avi ran along pushing the stroller. It’s amazing the energy they have here that I don’t see from them (mostly Zoe) in Korea. Off to bed!

Getting to Lao

We made our bus! The 0800 bus from Udon Thani to Vientiane was full, though. We woke early to eat and get to the bus terminal by 0700… And there was already a line of 20+ people at that point. No matter. The attendant made sure I already had Laos visas in our passports before giving us tickets. This is the direct bus to Vientiane. It crosses the border over the Mekong at the friendship bridge. If you don’t have a visa you can get one at the border but it takes a while, costs more, and the bus doesn’t wait for that. As it was I was rushed to fill out 3 arrival cards and ran to catch it… One guy came after me and it took off!

Vientiane was another half hour up the road. By this point it had been just over 2 hours and I was getting nervous that my time buffer wasn’t big enough. We still needed to catch a tuk tuk to the airport to catch our 11:45 flight up to Luang Prabang. That is our destination! It’s a world heritage city site nestled in the Lao mountains.

Drivers were yelling at us as we forbid the bus offering tuk tuk services. I picked on with good English and negotiated a rate as he followed me I grab our bag out of the bottom of the bus. Then we were wished – well slowly driven – to the airport and checked in. The Vientiane (this is the capital of Lao) is a small open air affair with slow lines. Its basically the size of State College airport (for my central PA followers) but without AC or all the walls By the time we checked in and went through security and a third “I don’t know what for” checkpoint we had 10 minutes to spare before boarding. Avi and I watched our bag drive by on a cart and go up into the plane. Then we walked outside and up some steps onto the jet. It was a nice fast flight! 45 minutes and some freeze dried fruit snacks later we landed.

Luang Prabang is situated on the river and the old historic town takes up an island between the main river and a side stream. Our guesthouse – the Singharate – is in a nice residential area just west of the historic zone. It’s a great small place run by a family. We’ve met quite a few of them as they live to watch the kids do ‘shows’ in the courtyard. Our room is nice with great AC and teak floors. It’s an authentic, but remodeled French colonial-era place. The windows dont have glass, just iron gating with huge wooden shutters that close up tight and dark! So nice and dark we took a great nap after checking in around 1330.

When we woke the family was out and about so we ventured on our own into town. From here it’s about 3km to the end of the historic town island and we walking the while way… And back. The town is super cute with an almost European flare, and fun to stroll. There is a gorgeous temple on most corners, and lots of street vendors selling fruit milkshakes and something I haven’t seen in Asia …. Baguettes!!!! Yes. French colonialism not only left a quaint town, but also good bread. Yum!! Avi loves it. Most people get sandwiches, but my kids just want plain bread.

We strolled along the waterfront. The Mekong river is quite broad here with mountains rising alongside. Zoe didn’t notice she had walked so far because she kept picking up flowers. There are so many flowering trees here, like in Thailand, and she loves it!! At the end of the historic district we made it to Wat Xiengthong. This is one of the huge attractions here; it is a beautiful old temple built in 1540. There are incredible gold paintings on the walls and intricate colorful glass-mirror mosaics on the exterior of the buildings. It was especially beautiful when we saw it because the sun was getting low and glittering on everything. It was also well past tourist hours, so we almost had the place to ourselves. Zoe bought a special flower token to set at the Buddha. Avi loved the huge naga-serpents.

As the sun set we moseyed through the cute tree lined lanes of old town. We passed another wat where a young monk was playing with a cute puppy. Both kids rans to play too. I chatted with the monk for a bit. He spoke pretty good English and said his mon lives in San Francisco. His name was Jhan and the puppy was called Thea. The kids loved Thea!! They played and squealed with him for a long time while the rest of the monks were in the temple chanting. When they were done they came out to see all the ruckus and thought both kids were funny.

A bit further down the road we passed the local schoolyard where a bunch of boys were playing football (soccer). Avi had to stop and watch… And even cheered them on.

From there it wasn’t far to the night market. It was hopping! It was also very fun to see all the near handicrafts and silver jewelry (this was a famous silver producing area in the past). Many of the craft items reminded me of things the local villagers would sell in Chiang Mai. Avi ogled some stuffed elephants, and has asked for them before, so I let him pick one out. He has been singing with it in his stroller ever since. Zoe was allowed to get a small peacock compact mirror. She simply loves all the sparkly jewelry and anything bunny-shaped. we even stopped to pet the cutest scruffiest orange and white kitten ever. The animals around here are certainly not indoor pets as we would have, but they are fed and treated well. Not the strays and feral cats we see in Korea.

On the way back to our guesthouse we picked up a few sandwiches, some fried dumplings, and drinks. A few ladies gave me some boiled eggs too, and pointed to the kids. It’s so interesting to me what people in different cultures find to be “kid food”. Back at the guesthouse we sat at the tables out front and tried to eat dinner. The guesthouse family was back, though, and enjoyed it with us (and with my parents on Skype). The eggs….ugh… were barely soft boiled. I wondered why we needed a spoon. Those didn’t get eaten I hate to say, but we appreciated the thought. The fam had fun playing with Zoe and Avi and a stuffed bear he pushed around in the stroller.

Now we are in our room watching Tom and Jerry and finishing the dinner that didn’t get eaten.

The Laos Embassy in Seoul

This past week I visited the Lao Embassy in Seoul to get our visa’s to enter Laos.  Though you can get them on arrival, we are doing a land crossing on a bus and I wanted to have everything in order.  I could not find information in English about how to do this, so this post is for any foreigners who are in Korea and will be travelling to Laos.

First, the embassy is in the Itaewon part of Seoul, but not on a main road.  It’s down a residential street.  Google maps accurately pinpointed it with this address: 657-9 Hannam-Dong Yongsan-gu Seoul South Korea. 

To get there from Osan I drove up highway 1, continued across the Hannam-gyo (bridge), and then took the first right exit AFTER completely crossing the bridge – signs say for Itaewon.  At the base of this ramp is a crazy intersection – you will be turning LEFT, the middle LEFT, onto Daesagwon-ro…it’s the smallest, most business-full of the options.  Continue (slowly for all the flashing red lights, taxi’s and pedestrians) along Daesagwon-ro, then take a RIGHT on the 6th alley after the intersection; it’s called 11-gil.  One landmark to look for is the Thai Embassy on your left, 11-gil will be the next right turn.  This is the alley just before the road goes up a steep hill.  It is hard to notice until you are just upon it. Continue down the alley/road and turn RIGHT at the 3rd dead-end alley.  The Laos Embassy will be in a 3 floor apartment-like building on your Right – look for the flags.  There is no where to park, so try not to block the road completely.  Driving is not ideal, but can be a lot quicker than taking the train from Osan if you miss the traffic.  I find that I can leave Osan around 9am and miraculously make it into downtown Seoul within the hour.  I then turn around and head back before lunch hour traffic begins….or stay for lunch in Itaewon and take the “back way” along route 309. 

To get there on foot from within Seoul, take the subway to Itaewon station and walk out exit 6.  Continue walking east along Itaewon-ro until just after it curves and most of the shops are behind you.  From here you will turn RIGHT down a steep road (Daesagwon-ro); be careful along this road it does not seem very pedestrian friendly, though there is a walking overpass at the center portion. Just at the base, you will be turning LEFT into the Daesagwon 11-gil alley.  Continue along this alley and then turn RIGHT down the 3rd dead-end alley. The Laos Embassy is on your right in a 3 floor apartment-like building with flags in the courtyard out front.  I do not believe a taxi would be willing to take you down 11-gil and will likely drop you at the entrance to the alley.

At the Embassy you will need to use the call box out front to gain entry; directions in English said to dial 101, which I did and the courtyard door buzzed open. Inside the building on the first floor is the Office where they have visa applications to fill out.  The people working there were very kind and helpful; I don’t believe they get a lot of walk-in visa applications. English was well-spoken.

To get a Lao visa you need to fill out the application, affix 1 passport photo, and submit it with your passport for 3 days to process.  Ask at this time what your fee will be, and what currency they would like it paid in.   For U.S. passport holders the fee was $35 in U.S. dollars cash.  You will pay when you pick up your passport with the visa stamp inside.

The office is open from 0900 – 1700, but breaks from 1200-1300.  Visa services, however, are only available from 0900-1130 and also from 1400-1600.  My visa was finished early, so they kindly called to let me know I should pick it up (and that they would be closed the next day for a Korean holiday).  I happened to arrive during the non-visa hours and they very kindly still allowed me to pick them up and pay my fee.

Laos Embassy, Seoul

The minuscule sign

Hours

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