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Lovely Laos pt. 2 — Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang

From Vientiane, we took a bus to Vang Vieng, which is probably one of the most infamous locations on the backpacker trail. This sleepy town is known primarily for tubing, as well as its limestone karsts and caves. It’s an absolutely beautiful setting, particularly when the tubers are out for the day, as the three “main” streets are basically deserted.

On our fist day in town, we rented a motorbike and took a bumpy 7 km drive to the Blue Lagoon, a natural swimming hole with bright blue icy water. There is a cave right next to the lagoon, so we hiked up (slowly) in our flip flops, and were treated to an impressive cave with a small buddha statue. We hadn’t quite gotten the hang of Lao currency at this point, so neglected to bring enough cash to rent a flashlight, which meant we couldn’t venture too deep into the cave. It was intriguing and spooky at the same time, and I’d recommend others explore if they have the time.

Cave sneakin'

Cave sneakin’

The next day we partook in “In the Tubing,” as it’s been immortalized on all the t-shirts. A few years ago, tubing was an absolute free-for-all, with tons of bars lining the river, along with rickety swings and slides. Unfortunately, people got fatally injured, so the Laotian government scaled things back significantly. For our visit, there were three bars in operation, and we still had an absolute blast. It’s more of a pub crawl with float breaks, and of course, house music. Each bar has a ton of drinking games, from frisbee to flip cup, and we had a great time challenging Aussies, Canadians and Brits to beer pong. No comments on how our first challenge turned out, but we did learn some new rules!

Two casual Americans blending in

Two casual Americans blending in

On the river!

On the river!

River party

Floating down the river…

The next morning, we slowly boarded our bus for the 8-hour journey, only to realize that our VIP bus was not VIP enough to have AC or a bathroom. It was not the most comfortable trip, but we made it.

View

VIP View

Luang Prabang is a lovely little colonial town in the mountains, and is known as the spiritual and cultural capital of Laos. It reminded me a bit of Chiang Mai and Cusco for its pretty architecture, as well as the plethora of western food options. Here, we rented a motorbike to cruise around the river and visit temples.

Driving the hog

Driving the hog

We stopped in at the UXO museum to learn about the mines and bombs that remain after the US bombing, very heavy stuff but important to learn

We stopped in at the UXO museum to learn about the mines and bombs that remain after the US bombing, very heavy stuff but important to learn

Muddy

The mighty (muddy) Mekong

We had an awesome time grilling our own dinner at Lao Lao BBQ, which had individual BBQs at each table. After dinner, we headed to a well-known backpacker bar called Utopia, a great hangout with a bar, yoga platform and volleyball court. I decided to spare the lovely Lao people the trauma of seeing my volleyball skills, so while Travis played, I hung out courtside and made friends with a group of Brits. LP has a midnight curfew, so when the bar closed, we hopped into a tuk tuk with our new friends to hit up the only late night venue in town: the bowling alley.

Grilling our own dinner, Lao style, using Pork fat! Water buffalo is tastier than one might expect

Grilling our own dinner, Lao style, using pork fat! Water buffalo is tastier than one might expect

At the bowling alley, Travis had a run in with the feisty Laotian patrolling the lanes which resulted in the guy trying to kick Travis and Travis offering him a bottle of water as a peace offering.

Travis's buddy mean mugging

Travis’s buddy mean mugging

The highlight of this trip was a visit to the Kuang Si Waterfalls. We followed a friend and climbed up two smaller falls to a secluded natural infinity pool at the very top, where we spent a few hours diving into the water and peeking over the falls. It was fantastic to get away from the crowd and enjoy the views, and at one point, we looked over the falls to see a group of monks sitting peacefully on the rocks.

The main pools

The main pools

itsuphere

We hiked to the top of these falls, and you can just make out the people at the infinity pool

DCIM100GOPRO

“AHHHH!!”

 

Finally, on our last day in town, Travis hit up the Luang Prabang Golf Club, which was incidentally the nicest course he’s ever played. The course is set up along the Mekong River and the views are truly stunning. He says the course was nice and it was so formal it required golf shoes (!) and a caddy (!!). I trailed him on the golf cart with a Beerlao and enjoyed the views while making small talk with our lovely caddy.

Travy and Caddy

Travy and Caddy

olf

From LP we flew to Hanoi, which was our jumping off point for Halong Bay. More to come!

 

Lovely Laos

Since I last posted, we gained two new stamps on our passports: Laos and Vietnam. (Both are full-page visas–score!) Laos in particular has become one of my favorite countries, and I’ll share some highlights below.

We flew into the capital city, Vientiane. Coming from Bangkok, we experienced some culture shock, as we’d traded one of the most densely populated cities in Southeast Asia for a town with roughly 700,000 residents. BKK is an incredibly vertical city with shiny skyscrapers and mega-malls, while Vientiane’s tallest building clocks in at 14 stories. And perhaps most jarring of all, Laos doesn’t have western chains. In Thailand, we’d gotten used to 7-11’s on every corner, and were quite disoriented when we first tried to track down water.

Vientiane has a few notable attractions, including Patuxai, a smaller replica of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Visitors can climb to the top of the structure, which gives a great view of the city and the surrounding park. Fun fact, courtesy of Wikipedia: The monument was built using American funds and cement intended to build a new airport. As a result, some expats call it the “vertical runway.”

Patuxai

Patuxai

View from the top -- there's NO traffic in this part of Vientiane!

View from the top — there’s NO traffic in this part of Vientiane!

IMG_6561

Pha That Luang

Vientiane was boiling hot, and we found some relief walking along the banks of the Mekong River. There, we stumbled upon two public Zumba-ish fitness classes, with hundreds of women in matching outfits following a flamboyant leader in calisthenics set to loud pop music. Pretty awesome sight for the evening!

IMG_4334

Please observe the Lao fitness classes!

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The red class breaks it down

All this working out inspired us to try a burger joint by our hostel called Ray’s Grille, where we feasted on the best burger and Philly cheesesteak that we’ve had in Asia.

Fantastic cheesesteak at Ray's Grille. Travis is quite pleased!

Fantastic cheesesteak at Ray’s Grille. Travis is quite pleased!

Finally, Vientiane gave us one more wonderful gift. It was here that we discovered our love for Beerlao. Easily the best beer in Southeast Asia (and definitely the cheapest), we enjoyed a few afternoons sipping Beerlao along the banks of the Mekong and even in the air as we flew out of Laos to Vietnam. Let’s figure out how to import this to SF!

The best

The best

We are serious about Beer Lao

We are serious about Beerlao

IMG_6586

#1 Fan!

On a separate note, we flew out of Thailand on the same day that the coup became official. We were lucky because we learned from other travelers that all land borders were closed, and a 10 pm curfew was implemented across the nation. We were in BKK when martial law was declared, but didn’t see too much of a change beyond soldiers being posted around key monuments. This is certainly an interesting time for the region, and we’ll continue to follow the news when we return home.

More Lao cities to follow!

Making inroads at the Lao News Agency. I WILL bring home a hit, Howard!

Making inroads at the Lao News Agency. I WILL bring home a hit, Howard!

Saiwaidee, Thailand!

I understand some of my biggest fans (Alex Sutty, you know who you are) have been getting restless at the lack of posts, and have described this blog as “not well maintained but entertaining.” I agree! I really meant to be a good blogger, but I’ve been busy traveling. And sweating so much I am worried that my brain might be leaking.

We spent 10 days in Thailand, splitting our time between Koh Samui, Koh Pha Ngan, Koh Tao and Bangkok. After visiting BKK and Chiang Mai last year, we were eager to check out the islands. Thai beaches did not disappoint! Koh Tao was our favorite island, and incidentally where we spent the most time while we completed our Open Water certification.

See below for our island breakdown!

Koh Samui–We didn’t spend much time on Samui and primarily used it as a jumping off point, as it’s the only island in the region with an airport (albeit the most amazing open air airport I’ve ever seen). We stayed in the town’s main drag, Chaweng Beach, and were surprised to see the level of development in the area. Unfortunately, there was an extremely low tide, which made swimming rough, but on the flip side, you can walk on sandbars for hundreds of yards in ankle deep water. Plenty of food options here, but a notable lack of bikini shops! Would love to return and check out the other side of the island.

Overcast morning on Koh Samui

Overcast morning on Koh Samui

Koh Pha Ngan–Home of the Full Moon Party, which I will detail in another post. Because it’s so…unique. We chose to stay outside of Haad Rin beach (where the party takes place) and booked a place in Ban Tai beach. This island is bigger than we thought, so we rented a bike and had a blast exploring the different beaches and chasing some much-needed breeze. We checked out Thong Sala, Haad Rin, Haad Salad and Haad Yao. I liked the more laid back vibes at Haad Salad and Haad Yao, which had an awesome cafe over the water with a freshwater shower and hammocks for lounging. After two days on Pha Ngan, we were ready for a change, although if we had more time we could have explored the North side of the island, which is accessible only by water taxi.

Beach view at Haad Yao

Beach view at Haad Yao

Haad Salad - yum!

Haad Salad – yum!

Seizing the day on Haad Salad...from my hammock

Seizing the day on Haad Salad…from my hammock

More swinging on Haad Salad!

More swinging on Haad Salad!

Koh Tao–Oh, Koh Tao! My new island crush and the absolute hardest place to leave. Perfect little Koh Tao is laid back and relaxing, with clear, glassy water, clean beaches and trees and greenery everywhere. The food is also fantastic, with a surprisingly good selection for a tiny dive-centric island.

The view from the ferry on arrival

The view from the ferry on arrival

And the diving! I used to be a wuss (past tense, I am brave now), and feared fish to the point that I’ve been the lone idiot sitting on the boat in Kauai while everyone snorkels. I’ve been missing out! We “took the plunge” on Koh Tao and did our open water certification with a dive shop called Roctopus. We are now certified to dive to 18m, and we liked it so much that we’re considering doing our advanced certification to go to 30m.

Roctopus was a fantastic choice, as it’s a smaller school with limited group sizes (we had 5 total in our class) and an awesome staff. Our instructor, Kelsey, struck a perfect balance between being structured and thorough in teaching us the technical stuff while keeping the class lively and engaged. I had some trouble equalizing my ears, and she was extremely patient and made sure I was able to descend safely and comfortably. All in all, the class was 3.5 days, with classroom sessions and homework (!) plus three ocean dives, including a visit to Chumphon, one of the top dive sites on the island.

Above the water, Koh Tao is a fantastic place to hang out. The food was insanely good and cheap, and iced coffee is everywhere. In particular, we fell in love with a local Thai place called Su Chili, which served up delicious, cheap Thai food quite conveniently across from our guesthouse.

Travis is QUITE excited for his fried rice a la Su Chili

Travis is QUITE excited for his fried rice a la Su Chili

We also found the beach of our dreams on Koh Tao: Aow Leuk Bay. We reached the beach via motorbike down a bumpy dirt road, and were completely thrilled to discover a pristine bay with crystal clear water, perfect for swimming. The water temperature was perfect and got cooler as we went deeper, which is actually a good thing since the water in the shallow beaches gets HOT. And the coolest part: Travis jumped in with a snorkel and saw some baby reef sharks.

Heaven

Heaven

The worst thing about Koh Tao was the fact that leaving was so difficult. Sunburnt and sulky, we endured a two hour ferry and boiling hot van transfer to the Koh Samui airport, where we reluctantly boarded a Bangkok Airways flight back to the epicenter of crazy, lovely BKK. Of course, more adventures to come, but I definitely left a little piece of my heart on Koh Tao.

View from our guesthouse balcony

View from our guesthouse balcony

Selamat petang, Malaysia

Travis and I spent eight days in Malaysia, splitting our time between George Town (on the island of Penang) and Kuala Lumpur.

George Town is a colonial town in Penang, in northwestern Malaysia. Penang is known for its food, and is heralded as one of the street food capitals of Asia. We found a pretty awesome hawker food culture in George Town, and spent our nights eating in crowded local eateries, ordering by pointing and having no idea what we would actually be getting. The gamble worked out great and we tried tons of random dishes (most of which featured “noodles” and “fish sauce” as primary ingredients, resulting in brownish plates with bits of veggies and seafood). We ate at the Red Garden food center two of our three nights in town, and some notables included Hokkien Prawn Mee, Char Koay Teow and amazing fried dumplings called top hats. We also came across an amazing dessert stand called Dessert Rhapsody, which served up killer crepes, cheesecake and molten lava cake.

Hawker

We devoted our time in Penang to eating, walking around, hunting for street art and drinking iced coffees. There were torrential downpours for and hour or two each evening, which gave us a nice excuse to hang out in our hostel and relax. On our last day in town, we took a taxi to a beach called Batu Ferringhi, where we worked on our tans and jumped in and out of the extremely hot ocean (really, its like bathwater! A truly alien phenomenon for this norcal native).

Streetart

One of many murals on random street corners

So all was well in Malaysia. Until Kuala Lumpur.

I had gotten mixed reviews from people prior to visiting, and the consensus seemed to be that the Patronas Towers are awesome, but the city overall is “just another big asian city,” worthy of about 24 hours or so. We didn’t listen and booked four nights in KL before we had to catch a flight to Koh Samui. We knew we’d be craving a home base by this point in the trip, so booked three of those nights in an Airbnb apartment, plus one night in a random hostel.

Our first day in town was a bit of a write off as we got into town around dinner time. I went on a mini-hunger strike (fun for Travis!) until Tripadvisor led us to Bukit Bintang, one of the more developed food/shopping areas, where we enjoyed some awesome Japanese/Malaysian fusion food. We capped the night off with a drink at our hostel’s rooftop bar, which featured some gorgeous views of the Petronas and KL towers.

The best part of our time in KL was, without question, our apartment. We rented an apartment in a luxury high-rise, which included a gym, laundry service and fancy water features, including a rooftop infinity pool on the 37th floor. And after almost a month in hostels, it’s amazing what having your own kitchen and couch will do for morale! We cooked up a pasta feast one night and drank wine while maxing out the extremely fast Wi-Fi.

Pool View

Getting our rooftop pool fix in KL

We visited the Batu Caves, a cave complex and home of the world’s largest statue of Hindu god Murugan. The site features 272 steps leading up to the limestone caves, which are completely overrun with huge monkeys who do NOT fear humans. It was interesting to note that the Hindus climbed the stairs barefoot, which seemed like it was an important pilgrimage for them to make. Inside, the caves are massive and full of shrines and offerings. This was a pretty cool sight, and very conveniently accessible from KL by one of the trains.

Omen

This has to be some sort of omen, right?

Monkey

Rude little monkey

Travis shirt

No explanation needed

Caves

Inside the caves

We also visited the National Mosque of Malaysia, which was quite cool as it’s the first mosque either of us had visited (and my first time donning a hijab). The geometry is striking and it’s a great place to wander.

Mosque

New look

osque

Inside the minaret

And of course, no trip to Malaysia is complete without spending time in the malls. Our friend Xarli called “malling” one of the national sports in Malaysia, and he’s right: these guys know how to do malls. The malls are huge and beautiful, with every brand you can imagine (including Paris Hilton’s eponymous purse shop), with lots and lots of food options. Travis decided to get his hair cut at a salon in Pavilion, which marked his second experience in a fancy Asian hair salon in the past year (he also got pampered at Tony & Guy in BKK). Before, during and after are below.

Before

Before

During -- look at this diva!

During — look at this diva!

After

After

In hindsight, Kuala Lumpur wasn’t a bad place to visit, though I wouldn’t return anytime soon (or recommend that you do). I found KL to be a challenging city, with a difficult transit system, crummy signage and traffic insanity. I felt that the good things saw took a huge amount of effort to visit (think multiple rail systems, each with their own ticketing system requiring exact change, plus a 15 min walk to each sight after the train in 100% humidity). It’s not a walking city, and it’s disorienting if you are on foot because you’ll constantly be passing through huge hotels and malls and then trying not to fall into a drainage ditch on the unpaved sections of the same road. There’s no continuity. We walked into our luxe apartment building through this pedestrian entrance:

Stairs

The official pedestrian entrance from the main road, through the garage and up two elevators without interior lights.

That said, I’ve found that my impressions of a place can be hugely skewed by independent factors, like timing, how much sleep I’ve gotten and my hunger level. Hangry Gaby hates most places, and really shouldn’t be making judgement calls. We showed up to KL after an unexpectedly long day of travel, tired and disoriented, and we weren’t able to shake our initial negative impressions. On the plus side, we got some much-needed time off the tourist trail, lived the high life in our rooftop infinity pool, and saw the main sights we came to see. And the Petronas Towers are fantastic!

Patronas

Moral of the story, immediately after getting to a new place, A1 priority is getting food, water, and perhaps a beer from our local 7/11.

 

Feasting in Singapore

We spent five days in Singapore, and I fell in love with the city.

Singapore is hands down the best city I’ve visited from a food standpoint. The Hawker stalls (open air markets with individual stalls selling different types of food, basically a crazier food court) are unbelievable, and offer the most culinary variety that I’ve ever experienced in one place. Singapore is quite the melting pot, and as a result Singaporean food encompasses a huge range of cuisines, including Chinese, Malaysian and Indian. And given its proximity to SE Asia, foods like Vietnamese, Taiwanese, Korean and Thai abound.

It’s visual overload when you walk in, and it took me a few laps around each night before I could make a selection. On our first night in town, I looked for the busiest stall and got in line, and ended up eating the best Won Ton noodle soup of my life, made fresh in front of me and snipped into my bowl with industrial scissors. My favorites from this visit ended up being Hainanese chicken rice and Chili Crab, a whole crab cooked in a tomato and chili sauce, served with fresh sweet rolls for dipping. Other notables included Xiao Long Bao, BBQ Chicken Wings (legit, I swear!), satay, Hong Kong Noodles, and Pho.

Xiao Long Bao, Hainanese Chicken Rice, Live Crab for Chili Crab and Hong Kong Noodles

Xiao Long Bao, Hainanese Chicken Rice, Live Crab for Chili Crab and Hong Kong Noodles

Food from the Hawker centers runs around $5 for most dishes (chili crab excluded, that’s market price). And best of all for any fellow sensitive tummies, the stalls are regularly inspected and are completely sanitary. They don’t look like much when you first walk in but I highly recommend going Hawker as much as possible!

In addition to the Hawker stands, we went to a number of restaurants that absolutely blew us away, including the coolest stealth coffee shop of all time, Chye Seng Huat Hardware. Thank god for having local friends who can clue you in on these hidden gems!

Behind these doors is the most legitimate coffee shop I've ever seen! They roast all beans in house and serve things like cold brew iced coffee and french toast. Plz bring to SF ASAP!

Behind these doors is the most legitimate coffee shop I’ve ever seen! They roast all beans in house and serve things like cold brew iced coffee and french toast. Plz bring to SF ASAP!

Of course, you have to fill the time in between meals, and being the hardcore travelers that we are, we checked a lot of things off our lists: Botanic Gardens, Little India, Marina Bay Sands, Gardens by the Bay, Orchard Street, the Merlion and the laser show (go with a good sense of humor and a love of Louis Armstrong and you’ll have fun). We had fancy cocktails and killer views at Ku De Ta at the top of the Marina Bay Sands, and shared a Singapore Sling at the Long Bar in the Raffles Hotel (I wouldn’t totally recommend it as it’s wayyyy too sweet and $$ but it’s great to see the hotel and feel historic).

Amphitheater at the Botanic Gardens

Amphitheater at the Botanic Gardens

Gardens by the Bay at night, aka Avatar

Gardens by the Bay at night, aka Avatar

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Obligatory Singapore Harbor pic

Time to break it down by…

  • Best hangover food: Pho, Hainanese Chicken rice
  • Best dumplings: Xiao Long Bao
  • Best dessert: Fresh fruit plates (mango, papaya and dragonfruit, A+)
  • Best breakfast: Tough category, but CSHH french toast ties with Singapore’s traditional Kaya toast (white fluffy bread served with coconut jam and a thick pat of butter)

Final verdict: Love!

Singapore is clean and well-organized, full of delicious food and awesome cabbies. The MRT is expansive and easy to use, and cabs are relatively cheap. The shopping is crazy (note to self, return when rich) and the nightlife is a blast. I found everyone to be extremely friendly and helpful, and getting around is a breeze thanks to English being an official language. And once more for good measure: FOOD!

Overall, this was a definitely highlight of the trip for me. Travis had a slightly different POV, and we can only hope that he chooses to post about it here!

Panorama

We’re in Penang!

Hey all,

Sorry for the long silence! We made our way through Western Australia and then flew to Singapore to kick off the Asian part of our trip. It’s been a blast and more posts to come, but I wanted to give a mini-update.

We’re currently in Penang, Malaysia getting some much-needed R&R before we head to Kuala Lumpur and then on to Thailand! We are at a great hostel with real beds (and sheets!) and have been catching up on sleep, taking in the city’s amazing street art and most importantly, eating.

Georgetown (the town we are in) is a UNESCO heritage site and also one of the street food capitals of Asia. WiFi is not my friend at the moment, but I will post pictures when I can!