Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Tubing through Vang Vieng, Laos (November 6-9, 2008)

Tubing down the Nam Song River is one of Vang Vieng's most popular outdoor activities, and it's also one of the very best ways to enjoy the area's gorgeous scenery. Tubers are dropped off 15km upstream from the town, and they spend the better part of the day floating down the river back to town.

The river banks are lined with bamboo bars boasting rope swings, flying foxes, or trapezes, not to mention an enticing array of fresh fruit cocktails. As tubers near a bar, the owners and staff come to the river's edge and throw out ropes to reel people in. When they've have had their fill of sunbathing and refreshments, tubers can jump back into the river and float along to the next place!
A man unloads tubes from the top of a truck (Photo courtesy of Kandis)
Here I am with my tube, ready to hit the river (Photo courtesy of Kandis)
A slightly blurry view of one of riverside bars, this one with a diving platform (Photo courtesy of James Kepui)
Here I am on a flying fox (Photo courtesy of Kandis)
Watching the sunset from a hammock is the perfect way to end a long day tubing down the Nam Song River

Motorbiking through Vang Vieng, Laos (November 6-9, 2008)

Touring the countryside is always more fun on the back of a motorbike!

Farmers tend to their crops
Rice fields and palm trees
Fields blanket the valley below mist-covered mountains
The view up the Nam Song River, with mountains fading into the mist
A rainbow brightens the late afternoon sky

A Morning Walk in Vang Vieng, Laos (November 6-9, 2008)

Early morning is the best time to explore Vang Vieng's beautiful countryside and its nearby villages. Children are out fishing or bathing in the river, some are on their way to school; their parents are opening up small shops or heading out to the fields to harvest rice. A quiet mist hangs over the mountains, and the Nam Song River meanders peacefully through the awakening town.
A bamboo bridge leads to a group of bungalows and a small cafe on the river's edge
A quiet road between rice fields, with villagers on their way to the harvest
A young girl carries her little brother on her back
Three boys head home after bathing in the river
A brother and sister on their way to the river
Monks cycle through the countryside
Two girls share a bicycle on their way to school

More Photos of Vang Vieng, Laos (November 6-9, 2008)

The view over Vang Vieng from Tham Chang cave, with the mini Golden Gate Bridge in the foreground
Rope swings and diving platforms adorn the tree over this inviting blue-green lagoon
Lush jungle, filled with thick vines and butterflies
The massive Poukham cave is an outstanding place to explore; like most caves in Laos, there is a small altar with a Buddha statue inside the cave
A group of villagers cross the green river in a cart

Vang Vieng, Laos (November 6-9, 2008)

Vang Vieng is a small town in northern Laos, situated on the banks of the Nam Song River and nestled amongst towering limestone mountains covered in dense jungle. The town caters primarily to the backpacker clientele: pizza and banana pancakes feature on most menus; restaurants advertise evening showings of cult classics or "Friends" reruns on DVD; book exchanges, Internet cafes and adventure companies line the streets; and bamboo bars with hammocks and floor cushions line the river.

The beautiful scenery and relaxing atmosphere aside, outdoor pursuits are the main draw for visitors. The nearby limestone mountains are a rock climbing and spelunking paradise, and secluded green-blue lagoons overhung with vines provide a refreshing break from exploring. Tubing or kayaking down the meandering Nam Song River is an experience not to be missed, and for those more comfortable on wheels, scooters and bicycles are a great way to see the stunning countryside and outlying villages. With individual bungalows offering pristine mountain and river views - plus a porch with a hammock - for only $5 a night, it's no wonder visitors kick off their sandals and stay a while longer in this little slice of paradise.
Villagers harvest rice in the fields outside of town
Rice is a staple of the Lao diet
Quaint bungalows on the Nam Song River, with limestone mountains behind
A Vang Vieng cat sits and watches the world go by
Countless rickety bamboo bridges cross the Nam Song River
One of Vang Vieng's riverside bars, where patrons can watch the sunset from a hammock, with fruity drink in hand. Clearly, the writer of this sign had had one too many "fee" joints!

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Final Photos (III) of Vientiane, Laos (November 4-6, 2008)

Two young monks peruse the selection of incense and offerings at a stand outside of Pha That Luang
Lao schoolgirls in the traditional uniform of long black skirt, white shirt and red or blue neckerchief
Buddha Park, outside of Vientiane, holds an impressive collection of very large Buddhist and Hindu sculptures. Here's the view from the top of the park's highest sculpture.
A ground-level view of Buddha Park; the sculpture park was built in 1958 by priest-yogi-shaman Luang Pu Bunleua Sulilat
Haw Phra Kaew was built as a temple during the mid-16th century and once contained the Emerald Buddha (now in Bangkok's Wat Phra Kaew); today it serves as a museum
A standing Buddha at the entrance to Haw Phra Kaew

More Photos (II) of Vientiane, Laos (November 4-6, 2008)

Wat Si Saket, built in 1818 by King Anouvong, is Vientiane's oldest temple
Hundreds of seated and standing Buddhas line the cloister walls at Wat Si Saket; in the niches behind them are thousands more miniature Buddhas!
A closer view of a seated Buddha at Wat Si Saket, with tiny Buddhas behind
Colorful stupas outside Wat Si Saket
Pha That Luang is Laos' most important national monument, and an image of the golden stupa can be found on the national seal
Pha That Luang was built in the 16th century, but it is believed that a stupa was first constructed on the site as early as the 3rd century BC to enclose a piece of the Buddha's breastbone

Vientiane, Laos (November 4-6, 2008)

Compared to the bustling, sometimes frenetic, capitals of its neighboring countries, Laos' quiet capital of Vientiane can come as a welcome surprise. With a population of several hundred thousand people, it is the country's largest city, but it feels much more like a town than a major metropolis. The city center is easily (and quickly) covered on foot, there are no high-rise buildings to speak of, and the wide roads are often free of cars.

Despite its size, the diminutive capital has plenty to charm visitors: peaceful temples, beautiful river views and cozy restaurants. Watching the sunset over the Mekong River at one of Vientiane's many waterfront bars or cafes is a popular evening pursuit and a fitting introduction to a country that proudly proclaims its relaxed pace and laid-back attitude.
The Presidential Palace stands at the end of a wide, tree-lined street, with its back facing the Mekong River
The view from the Presidential Palace along Lan Xang Street to the Patuxai victory monument
Patuxai, Vientiane's version of the Arc de Triomphe, was built in 1969 to honor those who died in the pre-revolutionary wars
Photographers - armed with digital cameras and portable printers - sell photos to tourists posing in front of Patuxai
A woman grills yams and bananas near the morning market
The wide Mekong River marks the boundary between Laos and Thailand

On the Road in Laos (November 3-10, 2008)

We spent several days of our two week journey driving through the Lao countryside: from the Vietnam border to Vientiane, from Vientiane to Vang Vieng, and from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang. The scenery in Laos was lush and vibrant, a welcome change from grey and drizzly Vietnam. Bright blue skies framed technicolor green jungle, yellow rice fields and jagged limestone peaks.

Every so often, we'd pass a small village in the otherwise quiet countryside. The first sign was usually a series of fields or a group of school children biking home from school, umbrellas raised to block the sun. Soon, a cluster of stilt houses would appear, invariably surrounded by dogs and chickens. Then, more children on bikes, some more fields, and quiet countryside once again.
Girls bike home from school, armed with colorful umbrellasThe view over the Phou Hin Boun "limestone forest"
The sun shines down on yellow fields
On the road north to Vang Vieng, limestone peaks dominate the horizon
The Nam Song River, seen from the road north of Vang Vieng
Here I am at the peak of one of Laos' windiest roads, on the journey from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang
The view from the mountains towards Luang Prabang and the surrounding valley