Bangkok, Bhutan and Beyond

May 4th, 2013, 02:44 PM
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Bangkok, Bhutan and Beyond

Thanks again to Asia Fodorites for guidance and inspiration in putting together this 2 ½ month trip (February – April), our first opportunity for an extended visit to this fascinating and challenging area. We have previously visited Hong Kong (many times), Japan, Cambodia and Singapore. This was our chance to dig in deeper to some of the places we had been before and wanted to see more of (Vietnam, Thailand) and get to some new places (Laos, Bhutan). The only fixed dates before we left were our arrival/departure (Star Alliance points on Air Canada and Thai) and a 2 week tour in Bhutan. And a brief separation while I went to India and DH did some work and hung out on a beach in Thailand.
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May 4th, 2013, 02:51 PM
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Thailand (Part I)

Bangkok served as the hub and bookends for our trip. And the Intercontinental became home base. We had booked there for our arrival as we were coming from different parts of the world at different times (a long story involving the diversion of DH to Abu Dhabi for work en route). It proved to be a good choice. The hotel is on the Skytrain route, down the street from the Central Department Store, around the corner from Central World SC, and across the road from the Erawan Shrine. The Intercontinental is not as romantic as more elegant places on the river, but rates are more reasonable, especially with advance internet booking. Great breakfast, very good laundry and reliable storage for the extra suitcase that had our Bhutan (and North American) gear. And because we were coming and going a lot, we were occasionally offered Club accommodation, which defrayed the bar bill. The service was exemplary. I left behind a phone charger in the room on one occasion; it was delivered to the door about 10 minutes after our arrival on our subsequent visit.

We did the usual things in Bangkok—the Grand Palace, Wat Po, khlong cruises, temples and eating. We toured independently, although we did succumb to the overtures of a guide just inside the gates of the Grand Palace, and were gratified that we did. Our guide’s English was good, his patter was informative and concise, and he skillfully navigated us around the crush. We would have just milled around like overheated stunned mullets otherwise.

Our best meals were at Gaggan (twice—thanks Hanuman) and Bo.Lan. We were generally thrilled with food court options and prices. We are not big shoppers, especially when the stores are generic international, but we loved the Chatuchak weekend market. Lots of unique and local offerings. I am not sure if the live animal section is pets or groceries, but it was an adventure. I don’t know if we would have loved it as much if we had come at noon, when the whole city appeared to be arriving as we were leaving.

I followed the debates on this board about the competing merits of various beaches carefully. I carry around in my head an image from a postcard that a friend sent from her honeymoon in Koh Samui. So I needed to connect the reality and the fantasy. We stayed at the Napasai, which I suspect is about as good as it gets. And we spent a couple of fun evenings at Fisherman’s Village. It was okay, but I think better when my girlfriend was there (25 years ago!). Any lingering romanticism was crushed by our return trip on Bangkok Air. I don’t think I have ever spent longer in the check-in line than the flight time. Good news/bad news was the flight delay, which meant we could spend even longer in the line. Now I have Koh Samui out of my system, and can get on with exploring some of the island and beach options.
We also spent a few days at Pattaya in the middle of our trip. The best part of that experience was the Rabbit Resort, which was charming and low-key, and so quite different than the rest of Pattaya. All things considered, I would go back to Thailand, but probably not for the beaches...
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May 4th, 2013, 02:52 PM
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Welcome back! I'm looking forward to reading about your trip.
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May 4th, 2013, 03:38 PM
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Sounds like a marvelous trip. I look forward to more.
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May 4th, 2013, 03:40 PM
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This should be good.
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May 4th, 2013, 07:02 PM
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Glad you enjoyed your visit to Bangkok and happy to hear you like the restaurants, both of which are in the top 10 for Asia and top 100 for the world. I am afraid that you chosed two of my least favorite destination for beaches so perhaps the next time!
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May 5th, 2013, 05:46 AM
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Looking forward to more.
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May 5th, 2013, 02:16 PM
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Vietnam

On a quick trip through this region last year, we checked off Halong Bay and Ho Chi Minh City. We dropped in to Hoi An that time, and thought it was worth a day or two on this visit, together with Hanoi. We were already primed for a great experience, given the ease with which we had obtained our visas. There is a consulate in our city, we went at the end of the day hoping to minimize the number of days they would hold our passports to process the visa (we were also trying to get our Indian visas and renew our Nexus cards at this time, and both those agencies are less than obliging, so every minute counted). To our surprise and delight, they asked us to wait and we had our passports back and visas in hand in about 10 minutes. Points for Vietnamese tourism.

Since this stood the possibility of being our only trip to Hanoi, we determined that staying at the Metropole was compulsory. We got a fabulous room with the most comfortable claw foot tub that I have every enjoyed. So we can never go back, since we can only be disappointed. It also has one of the biggest gaps between “street pricing” and hotel costs (for transport, food and bar, etc) we have experienced anywhere. But to be recommended if you are only going around once! As it has turned out, we will go back, but maybe check out some options on the West Lake.

Hanoi was cooler and greyer than we expected, but great for walking. We had lots of city-walking energy stored up, since it is impossible to do in Bangkok, and Hanoi let us exhaust ourselves. I don’t think we made it into any of the must-see sites or museums. For us, it was about the street life and the 7:00 am ballroom dancing lessons on the lakefront, the mash-up of elegant French colonial and Chinese utility, kindergarten kids Gangnam styling at recess, the preparations for the Tet holiday, and the markets, old and new. I thought putting the stand where gasoline is decanted into motorcycle-sized bottles next to the arc-welding shop in the Old Quarter was an interesting commentary on Buddhist fatalism…and we did see a very moving Buddhist funeral procession making its way through the market later in the day, but I am sure it was not related.

And the food, the food! Even the snack on the Vietnam Air flight (larb salad, beef with greens and coconut jelly) was a nice surprise after the inedible and unidentifiable plastic sandwich on Bangkok Air. Sadly, we didn’t do much street food, mostly because all the walking meant we needed to sit and rest when we stopped. Had we parked ourselves on the little plastic chairs on the sidewalks, I feared we would never rise again. We will line ourselves up with the Hanoi kids when we go back, and just do a street food day.

And I am sure the kids could have helped us with one existential restaurant experience. We wandered in, and the staff after some discussion sent over the waiter with the strongest English language skills. We ask about the chicken with lemon leaves, and are assured it is very good. We are asked if we like noodles, and we do. Our beer arrives without delay, and so we think we are set. Then our meal comes…beef, French fries and mustard greens. Something obviously got lost in translation, but we will never know.

There is a new airport terminal under construction in Hanoi, which will be a good thing. The existing one is kind of grim, and we know because we had to spend more time there than we expected. Our Vietnam Air flight to DaNang, for which we had confirmed tickets, did not exist. It all got sorted but took some time and drew down the goodwill reservoir.
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May 12th, 2013, 10:21 AM
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From Hanoi to Hoi An

The new airport in DaNang is very modern and shiny, a welcome contrast from Hanoi. We didn’t have long to enjoy it, our driver sent by the hotel (the Ha An) had kept up with our flight travails and was there to meet us.

Some travellers find Hoi An too touristy. Here’s the thing – we are tourists! So, from time to time, we welcome some charming shops and lively markets, a choice of restaurants and good places to stop for coffee or beer, and a tiny bit of English at hotel front desks. We had spent a damp and rainy afternoon in Hoi An on our previous visit. We looked forward to coming back to spend a few days in sunshine.

Hoi An (like Bruges, Siena and Ephesus…)has managed to hang on to some of its historic atmosphere by literally becoming a backwater. When its main river silted up in the late 18th C, a major port was lost along with trade and development. Many of the warehouses and merchant homes are still in evidence, now repurposed as small museums, galleries and yes, t-shirt shops. Efforts are made to keep traffic out of the old-town core, although they are not always successful, or maybe we didn’t understand the rules. We were occasionally lulled into a false sense of pedestrian security and had to jump a couple of times.

We went to a couple of the nearby beaches, which we enjoyed after our Thailand experience. They were clean, and essentially empty. The water quality and temperature were excellent (at least from a Canadian perspective). Lots of cold beer, iced tea and grilled seafood. The more intrepid can bicycle; we preferred to spend our time on the sand and in the water rather than dodging cars and chickens, so we took very reasonably priced taxis. There are people trying to make a living selling junk (“Please, open your heart…”) but we found them to be the most pleasant to deal with of the many we encountered on the trip.

I did plunge into the world of custom tailoring, relying on the recommendation of our hotel and going to Au Dong Silk. The trick is to go with something simple, a sample if possible, and to know your way around fabric a little. I wanted to get a tunic/pant thing to wear in India, and found some excellent linen in the shop. It took a couple of fittings and a couple of days, but I am well-pleased. It wasn’t cheap-cheap; the biggest challenge was trying to go all-cash, when the ATM limit is $100.00 a day (okay, I got two).

We didn’t have a bad meal in Hoi An, although the food at Mango Mango was a bit overwrought. And I had to skip a couple of meals with a queasy stomach. I think the 40-cent “fresh beer” was a little too fresh for me. DH went over to the restaurant dining room (which was quite good) and explained why he was having dinner alone. A few minutes later, one of the staff turned up at the door with a pot of ginger tea and a package of rehydrating salts for me. Did I say we loved the Ha An hotel? When we first arrived, we stayed in one of the smaller rooms and we moved to a bigger one with a balcony overlooking the courtyard when it became available. Front desk was helpful in making arrangements; bikes were always available and adjusted for us. There is a little spa next door where I had a massage, manicure, pedicure, facial and shampoo for $30.00. I tipped.

We are keen to spend more time in Vietnam. More to see, and many great options for just hanging out.
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May 12th, 2013, 02:46 PM
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Impressions of India

This will be a brief section, since the trip was mostly about yoga. So it probably belongs over in the Lounge, on the “yoga: religion or fitness” thread. (My answer would be, both and neither).

I went to India from Bangkok to go to a workshop at an ashram in Rishikesh. DH was originally going to come with me. He has worked in India, and really had no interest in going back as a tourist or a seeker, or in any other capacity. Turns out that his main preoccupation was my safety. He was comforted by my arrangements – fly to Delhi with Jet, stay overnight in a his “business” hotel, the Taj Palace, and get picked up by a car arranged by the ashram for the 8+ hour drive north to Rishikesh. Coming back in reverse, then take a car from the Bangkok airport to meet up with him in Pattaya, where he was doing some project work and hanging by the pool at the very sympatico Rabbit Resort.

I didn’t tell him until several days after our reunion that the car sent by the ashram was a Tata held together with duct tape; arrived 2 hours late; had two guys in it when it did; and had no air conditioning nor seatbelts in the back. The second guy jumped out of the car and disappeared as it pulled into the Taj lot, where it really didn’t fit with all the limos. The doormen at the Taj were very solicitous, to make sure this was really my ride. I don’t think they get too many pick-ups like this at the Taj. The front windscreen had some many fringes and sacred images that visibility—when I dared to look—was obscured. (The second guy was the Delhi “pilot” to get the Rishikesh driver to the hotel. The seat belts had been removed to permit the installation of orange shag carpeting. And there was a nice breeze through the open window for most of the trip. So really, what was my problem?). The return trip was much better. I came back with an old India hand, a KLM flight attendant who spoke some Hindi and was able to navigate us to a better car and good stops en route.

India is an extreme case of getting what you pay for. The Taj car that picked me up at the airport was an immaculate Mercedes, and it cost more for the 12 minute trip to the hotel than my all day drive. The service at the Taj was exquisite—maybe even OTT. The ashram, not so much—but it cost $6.00 a day, all in.

I was intrigued by the ATMs, which have different daily limits for “women’s accounts”. And the cleaners at the hotel are all men, who will not come into the room while I am there. And I was such a novelty, dining by myself in the hotel's Indian restaurant, that the chef came out to pay his respects. I am not confident that the current attention being paid to the rape cases (mostly by foreign media) will result in any lasting change. It seems pretty deeply embedded in culture and caste.

DH is relieved that I have come back with limited interest in India as a travel destination. I am enormously grateful for the time I spent at the ashram and the opportunity for a road-trip immersion. I learned a lot, and there is still a lot still to to process. But I don’t need to go back to do that.
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May 12th, 2013, 04:22 PM
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More, more, please, more!
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May 12th, 2013, 04:47 PM
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"I was intrigued by the ATMs, which have different daily limits for “women’s accounts”."

That's odd. I was in India just a couple of years ago and never saw anything like that. But I was in the south.
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May 12th, 2013, 05:30 PM
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We took money out of ATMs in Sikkim and in Kolkata, and never saw that either. Where were these ATMs with the women's accounts designation? I realize that there is not one India, there are many Indias.
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May 12th, 2013, 06:01 PM
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Love reading your report Friendship_Bay! I am doing some serious Vietnam planning right now and this was helpful on Hanoi and Hoi An. But your whole trip sounds pretty interesting!
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May 13th, 2013, 07:50 AM
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Thursday/Kathie, I am thinking this might have been the bank that has the ATM at the Taj, because I didn't see it at the airport. The ATM at the Taj was as special as the rest of the place, outside of the hotel in a staffed booth beside the parking lot. I was escorted there and back. As I recall, the daily limit for the "womens accounts" was higher than for international accounts (me) but lower than for the regular current accounts.

There are indeed many Indias. Probably too many for me!
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May 13th, 2013, 07:54 AM
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Interesting. Thanks for the info.
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May 13th, 2013, 08:02 AM
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BHUTAN

This was the organizing point and centrepiece of our trip. Because we were going as part of an organized tour, the timing was fixed (March 15 – 28). Our visit was different than others that have been reported here, where people have worked directly with Bhutanese tour companies. A friend of mine started a business a few years ago organizing yoga tours to Bhutan (http://www.yogatravels.ca/) She works directly with a Bhutanese team (guides, drivers). I thought this was a crazy idea; now she has expanded to include Bali and Sikkim. And she is thriving. Follow your bliss!

We are not usually “group tour” people. But because we had been travelling on our own for a month at this point, and because this was a smallish group (14) of like-minded people, it was great to connect. And preferable, I think, to bouncing around in the back of a HiLux on our own with just a guide and driver. We had a small bus, luggage travelled separately. The days usually started with a yoga class, then a hike to a temple or a drive to the next site, and another yoga “activity” in the course of the day – a meditation in a temple, a silent walk or a relaxing/restorative yoga session in the late afternoon. At some of the temples, where it was possible or appropriate, we had meditations. Nobody did all the yoga sessions. Everyone (even those who “don’t do yoga”) tried at least one.

The itinerary was Paro for 3 days; Thimpu for 3 days; Punakka to Wangdue (overnight) and Trongsa for 3 days. The return was one night each in Wangdue, Thimpu and Paro. We were lucky that our return to Paro coincided with the Paro Festival (Tsechu). We got to see the family gatherings, everyone in splendid costumes, and the dances. We saw the King twice; he welcomed us to his country and asked if we were enjoying our visit! (I guess our travelling clothes made us stand out as not being local).

In Paro, we hiked to Kila Goempa (the Nunnery Monastery at the Chele La Pass, 13000 feet) and Takstang (Tigers Nest, 10000). Maybe because it was on the first day, most of us found Kila Goempa harder than Tigers Nest. Lots more people at Tigers Nest, of course. And DH got kicked by a pony. I guess it was cranky from hauling tourists (not us!) up to the tea house. We had dinner at a traditional farmhouse and hot stone baths, which were welcome after the hiking. Our favourite spot in town was the archery range. It was busy all day with teams using traditional bow-and-arrow, chants and dances to celebrate success and taunt the other team. We felt very welcome to have a cup of tea from the clubhouse and join the fan clubs.

We had a couple of “surprise” guests at our second night at the Metta Resort—they were surprised to be there because they were supposed to be driven directly from their pick-up at the airport in Paro (the only international airport) to Thimpu, Bhutan’s capital city. The road (which is the best one in the country, upgraded a few years ago for the King’s wedding) had been closed by a rock-slide. That held us up, too, the next day. Travelling on the single lane roads through most of Bhutan requires courage and careful attention to construction/repair closure schedules.

Thimpu feels like a big town after Paro. There is a lot of new construction of dubious quality and design. In the geopolitical context, Bhutan has thrown in its lot with India rather than China. I get that, but it has some interesting implications. Most of the road crews are itinerants from India (men, women, and children). We are told that the Indians are brought in because the Bhutanese lack these skills (chipping rocks, really?). We see the takin reserve, Bhutan’s national animal – and it is, not surprisingly, a highly unusual beast. We buy our prayer flags. We hike to the Cheri monastery. We find a great bookstore. We have our readings done by a Buddhist astrologer (2013 is a good year for me to travel!).

The drive to Punakka/Wangdue takes us over the Dochu La Pass. It is cloudy and threatening to snow, so we are shut out of the view of the Eastern Himalayas, which is supposed to be spectacular from this point. We have to settle for tea and shopping. This actually is a challenge in Bhutan. A lot of the tourist product comes from Nepal or China, and isn’t very interesting. There are some Bhutanese handcrafts, mostly textiles, that are very expensive (and not really to my taste, or it wouldn’t matter). The shop in the restaurant at the Dochu La Pass had the nicest selection of art and jewellery that we saw anywhere. An added bonus feature is having to step outside to wave the credit card machine to get a connection.

The dzong (monastery/fortress) in Punakka is beautiful, set in a river valley and surrounded by flowering plum trees. We are there at closing, and from a gallery can watch and listen to the monks chanting the end-of-day ceremony. One of them takes advantage of a break in drumming to check his cellphone.

Prayer flags are placed high points, or on rivers and bridges. The wind carries the prayers. We figure we need all the help we can get, so we have a flag-hanging party on the way to Trongsa at Pele La, one of the highest passes in the country. The snow that was threatening in Dochu La materializes here. Between us, we have hundreds of flags that we stream out in two long threads across the highway. We scramble up trees to tie them, but our knots are obviously amateur. Only one of them is still flying when we come back through a few days later. There goes my health and good fortune.

Our days have been busy, and so most of us welcome the fact that there is nothing to do in Trongsa except soak in the amazing scenery from our guest house, the Tashi Ninjay, visit the dzong and hang out at the market and the archery range. Maybe because I have already been softened up by India and a few days of consistent yoga practice, or maybe because the Buddhism and “gross national happiness” is seeping in, I find meditation practice at the temple here effortless and effective.

Bhutan’s two biggest industries are tourism and hydroelectricity. We are contributing to the first, and DH is thrilled to check out the second. He was invited by a colleague, who he worked with on an airport project and who supplies stone to the project, to visit the construction site of a big dam that will sell power to India. Our morning yoga practice is punctuated with blasting, and there is some suggestion that the work may be threatening the foundations of the dzong. But the boom (!) has been good for the local economy. In addition to his aviation background, and his quarry, our friend and his wife also run a hotel and a shop in Trongsa. The economy is thin, diversity is necessary.

Bhutan is a stunningly beautiful country. In the spring, the rivers and waterfalls are dramatic, and rhododendrons fill the forests. The kids get a prize for cutest in the world. The people are handsome and kind. It is rare these days to find a country that is so culturally coherent, aligned as it is to the King and Buddhist practice. All the kids go to school, and the 10 year old novice monks are Angry Bird adepts. This is a poor country, though, and until very recently, isolated. There is not much diversity, luxury or sophistication in the tourist infrastructure. If reliable hot water and a variety of gourmet offerings are important to you, then Bhutan may not be your first choice. (At one hotel, the toilet seat was installed upside down…but if you don’t use a toilet, how would you know, and why would you care?)

Our tour was a great way to see it—some physical work to offset the hours on the bus, some spiritual work to integrate what we were seeing in the temples, and a community to share thoughts and impressions as we travelled. Now we are looking forward to a few days of heat and indolence in Laos.
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May 13th, 2013, 09:32 AM
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Sounds like a great visit to Bhutan. The Bhutanese are required to wear Bhutanese dress, so you would certainly stand out.
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May 14th, 2013, 11:11 AM
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LAZY IN LAOS (LUANG PRABANG)

We parked ourselves at the Mekong Riverview Hotel (mekongriverview.com). (Nearly) everything you read about this hotel on Trip Advisor is true. It has a guest-house feel, intimate and friendly, but the amenities and service are set to a Swedish standard. The staff is very helpful in setting up shorter excursions, and saved us from dealing with the agencies in town. We found the suppliers and drivers/boatmen they proposed to be uniformly professional and timely (some with limited language skills, but it was never a problem). And the best massage place in town is right next to the hotel. It is a little stark (no private rooms) but technically far better than the "softer" spas recommended by the hotel.

By this time of the year, it is getting pretty hot, and the field burning is well underway. If we had wanted to do a lot, the conditions would have been challenging. Fortunately, we didn’t. We had a smaller room on the ground floor, and spent the first day or two on our patio reading and rehydrating, watching the comings and goings to the adjacent temples and on the river in front of us. The smoke particulate made for spectacular sunsets, and it rained one night so we woke up to one of the most beautiful sunrises I have ever seen. The Mekong is a magic and mesmerizing river.

We did get up early one morning to see the alms collection, but it loses its spiritual element when you are watching it through busses stuffed with tourists from another Asian country which shall remain nameless but starts with a “C”. We redirected our spiritual quest to climb Phousy Hill instead, and later fortified ourselves with excellent croissant and coffee at Banneton. The night market in LP has a reputation as being good, but we didn’t find anything especially interesting. At this point in the trip, it is all starting to look the same, and really, how many table runners does a person need? We took Yoga classes on a platform overlooking the Nam Khan—this was REALLY hot yoga without any of the special heaters and equipment. We did a float up the river to the Pak Ou caves. The boat trip (gold panners, pink water buffalo and elephants on the shore) is better than the destination, which was mobbed when we got there. Next time, we will do the trip to Nong Khiaw. We took bikes on the ferry across the river to some of the smaller Lao villages, and conquered some scary bridges on the way.

At the hotel’s recommendation we went to a rice demonstration farm that was way more interesting than I had expected. DH got to try his hand at the water buffalo plow. You couldn’t have paid me to get into that muck; threshing is my thing. There were two other couples from Austria (not Australia, they kept having to insist) with us that morning. One of them went into the (very civilized) washroom and backed out quickly, spooked by an enormous spider. Our host plunged in after it and emerged with it in pinched fingers, proclaiming “Lunch!” He wasn’t kidding. It wasn’t big enough for all of us, so we left him to it.

A morning trip to Kuang Si (waterfall park) was the highlight of our visit. We got there early, and by some fluke had the upper pool all to ourselves for swimming for a short time. We only had to share it with multi-coloured flights of butterflies and some birds. All that was missing was a flute soundtrack, we could have been in a Walt Disney movie.
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May 14th, 2013, 11:32 AM
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Really enjoying your report. With the one exception of Hoi An, we have visited every one of these destinations. It has taken us 13 years to do it, however .
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