A few choice shots from Bali
So after not giving Ubud a raving review, we had some pretty fantastic and delicious experiences in the town. On the advice of our friends Charles and Kate (who came over from Colorado to hike with us in Nepal) as well as another couple we met in Laos (who we ran into again on the streets of Ubud – craziness!), we signed up to do a bike tour. After starting the day with breakfast overlooking one of Bali’s volcanoes and the ocean in the distance, we spent the rest of the day cruising on our bikes (downhill) through the Balinese countryside. Our guide, Wayan (what nearly every first child in Bali is named – boy or girl – so he called himself Joe) was a hilarious little man who learned to speak English from a British woman and had the most amazing British/Balinese accent. He took us into small villages where we witnessed festival preparations (the Balinese have a LOT of festivals and celebrations), and we stopped in family compounds where he introduced us to locals. He walked us through the rice planting and harvesting processes, and put some of our group members to work. He led the way on his bicycle through picturesque terraced rice fields down little paths surrounded by palm trees. And at the end of it all, we were rewarded with a fantastic buffet lunch that blew us away. After getting the feeling that Bali was crowded and that Ubud lacked character, a quick trip out into the countryside reaffirmed that the real Bali is still out there and thriving, and it’s not far outside the tourist bubble if you want to find it.
Our other memorable activity from Ubud was an evening cultural show. Sure it was pretty touristy, however, the one we saw was the work of an entire village. Everyone had a role in the show and everyone benefited from the proceeds. The men and boys had a majority of the roles as they chanted, danced and acted out a traditional story. I was impressed with the camaraderie amongst the group as I could not imagine anything comparable in our culture. The Balinese are a very tight-knit group and without the support of or role in your family unit, you’d essentially be a social outcast. The show was incredibly entertaining and stimulating. Unrelated to the story that had just been enacted, the night concluded with one gentleman performing a fire dance, walking over and kicking through hot coals. It was quite the sight to see his black, ashen feet at the end of the performance – proof of the coals’ burning temperatures. We ended our fun evening back at a Balinese tapas restaurant we discovered and loved, and left Ubud the next day feeling happy we went but ready to move on.
After a fabulous few weeks in Thailand and Laos, it was time to head south for the last leg of our journey. We had a quick overnight layover in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia before we arrived on the Indonesian island of Bali. Bali is truly a special place. Where Indonesia is the most populated Muslim country on the planet, the Balinese are Hindus with their own unique set of beliefs, food, and culture. I had literally just finished reading Eat, Pray, Love as we were landing and it got me excited about where we were headed. The book also does a pretty good job of explaining some cultural aspects of Bali that we would have easily missed or not noticed going on around us.
I traveled to Bali in 2001 when I was down under studying abroad in Australia and I was excited to be going back after 10 years. It was the first place we had been on our trip that I had been before (Ted’s being Thailand).
After a few weeks of very laid-back travel in northern Thailand and Laos, Bali was a bit of a slap in the face – we felt as though we were stepping into a tourist trap, with too much going on, not enough real character, and too many people haggling. It’s a busy place, not only thriving as a tourist destination, but as a pretty heavily populated island with a lot of domestic commerce. Before arriving, we imagined a serene and peaceful oasis, but what we quickly encountered was hectic traffic and bustling streets. But after a good night’s rest, it didn’t take long to realize the beauty and depth of this place – the landscapes are lush and green, and there is wonderful serenity to be found – it’s just not the norm everywhere on the island. We went right from the airport to Ubud, the island’s artistic and cultural center (and where our pal in Eat, Pray, Love hung out). Ubud is not on the water, but it’s a well-known spot that draws its own tourist crowd. I don’t know how Ted talked me into staying inland when we were on a beautiful, tropical island but I’m happy he did as we had plenty of beach time in our future.
Ubud is super trendy, full of culture, very ornate and well decorated, with lots of artistic presentation, lots of delicious food, and quite a bit of up-market options. Interesting, but not exactly the vibe we were going for at this point in our journey. I liked all the cute shops and nice restaurants but the place lacked authenticity. Everyone you met was out to sell you something and I was having flashbacks to India about how regularly we had to turn down offers for transport and tour bookings (“You need a taxi? Ok, how about later? How about tomorrow? How about a massage?”). You would literally have to say ‘no, thank you’ to or ignore a dozen people on a short walk from our hotel to a restaurant – it was the first time since India that we have been haggled to the point of antagonism.
And where Thailand and Laos were filled with hundreds of other long-term travelers, the visitors to Bali and Ubud were primarily just folks on a short vacation – usually from Australia. That resulted in a non-traditional vibe that permeated the whole city and drove up prices. As a short-term visitor from the U.S. or Australia, lodging, food, and activity prices may have seemed like a good deal. However, coming from Laos to Bali, our money didn’t go nearly as far. The money we were spending was top-of-mind as we neared the end of our trip and the end of our bank accounts. The fantastic news is that we scored a pretty great room that had a sweet swimming pool on-site. Escaping the urban hustle for some quiet time by the pool each day was the perfect way to unwind and get into the Balinese vibe.
We didn’t get to spend long enough in either of these fabulous countries, and for that reason we are going to lump our Top and Bottom lists together for Thailand and Laos. With Thai food in the mix, we’ve gotta do a food Top Ten – five just won’t cut it. You know the drill.
Top Ten (ok, Top Eleven – We liked it that much)
Value for money – Thailand and Laos are a cheap date. Both the accommodation and food options provided a lot of value for a little bit of money. After paying out the wazoo for crappy hotels in Africa, and paying nearly nothing and getting what we paid for in parts of India and Nepal, Thailand and Laos over-delivered on nearly all aspects.
- Bangkok party night – Shout out to JDMesh! We couldn’t get enough of our world traveler friends, this being the 4th country and 3rd continent we’ve chilled together (not including our home country/continent), and we went out with a bang on our last night of hanging together on the Big Trip. Fun times ensued.
- Chiang Mai – Yep, the whole city. If Ted and I pick up and left the U.S. on a whim and you want to know where to find us, Chiang Mai should be one of the first places you look.
- Thai cooking class on our anniversary – I love Thai food. I love learning new things. I love Ted. All these reasons and more made this experience a Top 10 in this part of the world.
- Namo yoga with Poncho – Our traveling pals connected us with Poncho prior to arriving in Chiang Mai. Not only is he a fun and fascinating person, he is one heck of a yoga instructor. We had lots of fun with Poncho both at class and around town.
- Lots of wats – and Buddhas for that matter. You can’t spend time in Thailand and not visit at least one wat. In fact, you’ll probably visit a dozen. Very unique and special places, we enjoyed exploring the different wats that Thailand has to offer.
- Village life – Talk about getting off the beaten path. Our time spent in the village of rural Thailand was pretty damn cool. Challenging and rewarding – good words to describe both this experience and traveling in general!
Slow boat to Luang Prabang – Why spend less money and get there in a shorter amount of time when you can ride for two days on a riverboat down the Mekong with seventy 20-somethings from around the world who like to drink Beer Lao?
- Waterfall day in Luang Prabang – Unbelievably beautiful waterfalls in a hot, steamy country with lots of fun people around. Yep, hard to beat.
- Tubing day in Vang Vieng – Sure we hated being the crazy Westerners contributing to this insanely over-the-top debauchery, but we still managed to have a pretty fantastic time.
- Motobike extravaganzas – Having your own transport is a fun and liberating experience for people who have been relying on others for transportation for a long time. From Chiang Mai touring to completing The Loop in Laos, we dug it.
- Heat – To avoid sounding like a whiner, I’d just like to note that this part of the world was melting hot. My Scandinavian self could hardly bear it. We almost bailed on Laos because of heat concerns, but boy I’m glad we didn’t do that.
- Gap year debauchery – especially in Vang Vieng. After Western Europe, Thailand and SE Asia are the meccas of backpackers. These young’ins are incredible partyers that are a little over-the-top.
- Our travel companion’s crash on The Loop – Talk about an adrenaline rush – and not in a good way. I don’t do well with the sight of blood and knowing this poor kid was hundreds of miles from decent medical care was a scary thought.
- Sarah losing her glasses to the Mekong River – You could blame it on our tubing day in Vang Vieng and you would be right. After 9+ months of carting around my prescription sunglasses, I lost them on that fateful day. They certainly had a good run.
- Not having enough time to enjoy these places – Cliche but true. Each of these fabulous countries deserved more time. I wish we could have given it to them.
Food Top Ten
- Bangkok street food – Where to start? Late-night pad thai? Grilled meat on skewers? Big bowls of soup? The list goes on and on. No shortage of fab options and of course they were all at a steal of deal. Life is good for food lovers in Thailand.
Dinner with the Chads – The Chad living in Chiang Mai invited us to a great restaurant right by his house and did the ordering for us. We ate a lot of things that I didn’t recognize and I know my mouth was on fire by the end of it which makes me think it was quite an authentic experience.
- Khao Sawy – A regional specialty of Northern Thailand, this curry-like soup was fantastic. Ted specifically sought it out the moment we hit Chiang Mai (he remembered from his last visit 10 years ago). At one point, we found a spot that impressed Ted so much he immediately ordered a second bowl after finishing his first!
- Fruit smoothies from our juice lady in Chiang Mai – One of Poncho’s many pearls of wisdom, this lady worked in the market just down the road from our hostel and we visited her once if not twice a day.
- Lao BBQ – You do the cooking yourself on a set of coals brought to your table. Brilliantly, the system allows you to cook meat, veggies, and soup simultaneously! Very fun.
Laap (and sticky rice) – Laap is a Lao specialty and to eat it with sticky rice is the only way to do it. Laap is essentially meat or fish chopped into tiny pieces and seasoned and spiced to perfection.
- Baguette sandwiches – Merci to the French. It sounds hard to believe, but sometimes you just can’t eat another meal of noodles. Getting to snack on fresh-made baguette sandwiches was a fun and unexpected delight in this part of the world.
- Beer Lao – Prolific and refreshing in this steamy country. We enjoyed many a Beer Lao.
- Mekong fish-on-a-stick in Luang Prabang – Don’t mind if we do!
- Mango Sticky Rice – Best Thai desert ever! Perhaps best fruit desert ever. Fresh mango with some cream-infused sticky rice. Mmmmmm….
Be sure to check out our Best of Mainland Southeast Asia photos to see some of our favorite moments from this wonderful part of the world.
After our awesome experiences on The Loop, it was back to Tha Kaek and up to Vientiane for one more night in this wonderful little country. Ted had been to Southeast Asia in 2002 but missed out on making it to Laos – which is one of the reasons we wanted to be sure to visit this time around. Compared to it’s rather wealthy and tourism-friendly neighbors (Thailand and Vietnam, respectively), Laos is very much the little kid brother – it’s got similar natural beauty (save the beaches), amazing Asian culture and food, but people just don’t seem to come here, except for those who are a little more independent and adventurous. It’s managed to avoid some of Thailand’s pitfalls though – no sex tourism (if you want to sleep with a Lao person, you have to be married, and you could get thrown in jail or deported if you forget this rule!), no lady boys, not many drug problems, etc. It’s modern when you least expect it, yet more rural and poor than you could ever imagine. The tourism services exist but not at the level or complexity that we had experienced in most other places we visited. Though many folks speak English, many more do not. It will be interesting to see what happens to this amazingly friendly place in a few short years. It would have been fascinating for Ted to have seen it in 2002 and be able to compare it to now – I’m sure it has changed a whole lot. Though Laos is still very much under the radar compared to other Southeast Asia hotspots, it has so much going for it and it is only a matter of time until this sleepy little place finds itself in the same league as the big boys.
We were not ready to leave Thailand and we were not ready to leave Laos either, but our trip was winding down, we were running out of time, and we needed to B-line it to the beach to relax in our final days of bliss. We caught an international flight to Malaysia where we had an awkward 16 hour overnight layover. We made the best of it by spending the night in a sketchy hotel near the airport, eating some ridiculously good seafood noodle dishes, and getting a decent night’s rest. Then it was back to the international terminal for our flight to Bali!
One of the most impressive parts of the entire Loop was the newly-discovered Konglor Cave. Konglor is a cave that you access by a subterranean river. The cave was first discovered in 1995, first accessed by motorboat in 2002, and is now used to for tourism and to connect two rural villages only previously accessible by a multi-hour climb over a steep mountain. In 2008, a French NGO worked with the local government to provide lighting inside the cave to show-off the impressive stalactites and stalagmites and thus make the cave more appealing to foreign visitors.
Ted and I traveled through the cave in a long skinny boat with our non-English speaking guide and his non-English speaking assistant. With the help of some hand gestures and common sense, we determined when we needed to get out of the boat to walk around and check out the cave for ourselves. It was an incredibly impressive place – we were really blown away. Though there were some lights, it was actually only several hundred yards of the nearly 5 mile long cave where we could see anything at all. The rest of the time it was pitch black except for the pathetic amount of light that came out of our headlamp. As we cruised down the river, the walls would narrow to just a small passage, and then open into a great expansive cavern. Our driver navigated our long-tail boat through the winding labyrinth, expertly avoiding protruding rocks, shallow sandbars, and even a few short falls. Certainly one of the most unique caving experiences to be had.
And just when we least expected it, we saw the smallest sliver of light that opened up to the other side of the mountain. As we approached the shore, resourceful locals were on hand to sell us chips and sodas which we happily enjoyed before heading back through the maze and darkness.
Konglor Cave is a pretty awesome attraction. It’s a relatively new place to check out and it’s just far enough off the well-traveled tourist loop to make you feel pretty cool for getting there.
Windy rural roads
Clouds floating over impressive rock walls
Mountains jutting out of nothingness
Rice patties as far as the eye could see
Lush green fields
Occasionally muddy roads
Chance encounters with Slow Boat friends
Women working in the rice patties; men with oxen plowing the fields
Quaint rural villages
Lots of open space, very few obstacles for nervous motorbike drivers
Fairly fantastic weather
Not a lot of other travelers, very little English
Lots of Beer Lao (post-driving, of course)
Dozens and dozens of caves to be explored
Surprisingly nice accommodation and food options
Two extremely happy people who were so glad they did The Loop.
Ted had confidently and adeptly displayed his motorbike driving skills throughout Thailand and other parts of the world, and I was always quite happy to be the passenger. However, our next activity was a 400km (250 mile) driving loop that required each of us to have our own bike. To further complicate matters, the bikes were not automatic transmission, so it required an additional skill that I do not excel at.
But we were excited to experience “The Loop” after the rave reviews we had heard from other travelers from as far back as Bolivia. So we took the bus 5 hours south from Vientiane to our starting point in Tha Kaek, a small town among the foothills of Laos’ central region. We got hooked up with Mr. Ku who rented us our bikes, taught me a few things about driving, provided a pretty impressive hand-drawn map, and got us some decent helmets. We also met another traveler who was going to do The Loop too, so we had a partner in crime – Deo is Philipino but on vacation from Thailand where he was currently living and working.
When we set off on our ride, it was dry but the clouds were quite ominous and we were pretty sure rain was in our future. We knew we were on the front end of the rainy season, but we were optimistic/naive about how much rain we might get. Well, about 7 minutes into our 4 day/3 night 400 km motorbike loop, it started raining. Then it started raining harder.
We pulled off to get our rain gear on and pull down the visors on our helmets before we pressed on again. Our Philipino friend was leading the way, followed by me, with Teddy pulling up the rear. Twenty kilometers north of town, I rounded the bend to see our new friend in a ditch by the side of the road. He had apparently taken a curve too quickly for wet the roads and slid right off. His bike was busted up a bit, his rain poncho was in shreds, and his poor foot was a wreck. He may have broken something and at the least needed a ton of stitches. He was a little discombobulated – as you might imagine – however, still coherent enough to call Mr. Ku and to contact his health insurance provider in Thailand! Thank goodness he was traveling with a cell phone because we were not!
Another traveler stopped to help us as well as a Lao family who spoke zero English but knew exactly what needed to happen – this kid needed to go to the hospital. They were headed the wrong direction but they waved down another passing truck, helped load the kid into the back and off they went to get medical attention. Laos is one of those countries that you hope to not need medical care in. Our Lonely Planet guide states, “There are no good facilities in Laos; the nearest acceptable facilities are in Northern Thailand”. Fortunately for Deo, that wasn’t too far away!
So as our friend headed off to the hospital, we stayed by the side of the road with his motorbike waiting for Mr. Ku to come pick it up.
At this point, only 20 km into our trip, I am convinced our driving extravaganza is over. I was nervous to begin with and then I saw what could easily happen in just a moment’s time. We had already met dozens (literally dozens) of other travelers in Thailand and other parts of Laos with motorbike injuries – ranging from cuts and bruises to broken bones. So after Mr. Ku rescued the bike, we got back on our own and headed back towards town and where we’d come from. The rain had lightened up but we still took it easy because I was a little shaky from all the adrenalin and nervous excitement.
And that’s where this story might end. But it doesn’t. No more than 5km back towards town, I changed my mind. I don’t know what really came over me but I decided I could it. I wanted to do it. We’d come all this way to do it. We should probably do it. So just like that, The Loop was back on! We decided to take our kilometers/hour down a notch, and we were not going to drive in the rain – but we were going to do it. And boy am I glad we did!
P.S. Our friend made it safely to the hospital in Laos but decided to return to Thailand for his medical care. He must know what the folks at Lonely Planet know!