Author Archives: Marce

We’re not done yet

We stayed in Bukit Lawang another couple of days to enjoy the comings and goings of travelers from all over the world who come to see the orangutans. Most of the younger ones go on two or three day treks; older folks opt for one day, as we did. Regardless of the time spent in the jungle, we felt a kinship with all the other travelers. Bukit Lawang is not easy to get to, and the jungle is hot and challenging. But we can now count ourselves among the intrepid few for whom the rewards are worth the effort.

I had the same feeling when we dropped anchor in Fatu Hiva in the Marquesas in 2015. There were 18 other boats in the bay when we arrived after weeks at sea and I knew that every one of them had also crossed the Pacific Ocean in their own boats.

The other reason to stay a little longer in the jungle was to assess the damage after what was, for us, a difficult physical effort. We were fine, we discovered. Not even a little sore. Just tired.

I planned another adventure that I assured Jack would be a walk in the park by comparison, at least judging by the reviews I read online. And so we were off to Berastagi, a small town even closer to the equator but much higher in elevation. We looked forward to cooler weather and a break in humidity.

We again booked a car and driver, and after schlepping the kilometer back to the road we embarked on our second bone-jarring, stomach-churning, nerve-jangling Sumatra road trip into the mountains.

We’re always sad to see the miles and miles of palm oil plantations. I know it’s a profitable cash crop for many tropical countries but it’s also the reason orangutans and other species are critically endangered. I don’t know how you reconcile poor countries’ need for development with the first world’s commitment to protecting wild places, especially when the parts of the planet we want to protect are often the places other people are dependent on for their livelihood. It’s a dilemma.

We arrived in Berastagi under threat of rain but we quickly learned that here in the mountains the clouds roll over the peaks and through the valley all day long. It might rain, it might not. Wait an hour and the clouds are gone.

We got settled in to our guesthouse and walked into town to reload our wallets at an ATM.

Berastagi is a town of about 50,000, with a majority Christian population because of the history of Dutch settlers.

I was keen to visit the famous fruit market and it did not disappoint.

This is snakefruit, a new one on us. I’m not a fan.

We were both starving for fruit. Unlike Thailand, Indonesian restaurant food doesn’t include much fruit and we bought mango, passionfruit, mangosteen and tamarillo. We had a nice chat with our chosen vendor who kept adding more fruit to our bag. She also slipped us a box cutter so we could slice the giant mango.

On our way back to our digs we were approached by a group of high school girls who asked if we had a few minutes to speak with them for a class assignment. They were adorable and very shy and they “interviewed” us to practice their English. We experienced this the last time we were in Indonesia, and it would happen again and again during the rest of our time in Sumatra.

We finally got a good look at our coming challenge. This is Mount Sibayak, a 2200 meter stratovolcano. We’ll be climbing to the top.

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Jungle Boogie

Trekking day came and our guides Yahya and Putra checked that we had what we needed and enough water, and instructed us to pull our socks up over our trousers to prevent leeches from burrowing into our feet and ankles. Then we spritzed ourselves all over with insect repellent before heading off.

We walked back through the village to a swing bridge and crossed the river to the steep mountain ridge on the other side. Take note of the turmoil in the river. It comes up later.

We started to climb. And climb. And climb. Sometimes there were steps, sometimes just toeholds carved into the slope, but it was up all the way. I had to stop several times because my heart was pounding out of my chest, but the guides and Jack seemed not to be bothered by the climb at all. And I remind you that Jack is sporting two stainless steel knees. My original equipment is still in operation so far, thank goodness.

Along the way we passed two men carrying a 55kg block of raw latex out of a rubber plantation. They were about to start down the steep steps we’d just come up and I felt sorry for the downhill guy. He would bear most of the weight of the unwieldy load.

We continued to climb and the path grew more and more uneven. We were both mindful of where we stepped; it wouldn’t do to turn an ankle here.

We saw our first orangutans about an hour into the climb but we didn’t get any good photos. We decided right then and there that we would be present and enjoy what we saw and not worry about photography. Most of the time we needed two hands for safety on the trail.

After an hour and a half and 1300 feet of elevation gained we finally reached the entrance to the national park and the protected area. Our guide presented us with our park permits and after a photo op we forged ahead.

Once we entered the park the trail deteriorated dramatically. It’s still rainy season and it had rained all night long so the footing was slippery and often puddled. Both of us went down several times in the mud.

We started seeing more orangutans, including a mother and baby. They were much harder to spot and photograph than in Borneo because there aren’t feeding stations in open clearings. We’re in dense rainforest on narrow pathways and these are wild orangutans fending for themselves.

Our guides never hurried us. When we spotted animals we all stopped and watched for as long as we could see anything, then we moved on.

We were there for the orangutans but we also saw plenty of macaques, which we’ve had our fill of after living in Langkawi for so long, but eventually we saw Thomas leaf monkeys, a species only found here in Sumatra.

Despite the many people trekking through this park at any given time we rarely crossed paths with anyone else. The guides were good at giving us all our own experience.

Our trail lead us up and down, again and again, and as we crested another slope a large male orangutan came out of the forest right in front of us.

“Back, back, back,” said Yahya, and we quickly backed away from the animal. This individual is a known rogue who has learned that humans sometimes have food and he’s not afraid like the others. Our guides held us back until he saw that he wasn’t getting anything from us, and he moved off into the trees.

This is why we chose an ethical company. We’d heard that some guides call to the animals, or lure them with food. Our guides respect the forest and the animals and are dedicated to leaving no trace.

After a few more sightings our guides found a quiet spot to rest and within a few minutes we had a delicious lunch of nasi goreng and fresh fruit.

It was a welcome break before the long trek back. Even though the food was served in banana leaves, the guides gathered up the leftovers and fruit peels and packed it all out again. We left no trace.

As it turned out, we didn’t go back. Yahya gave us a choice: an easy uphill, then downhill to the river, or a more difficult up and down then up and down with the possibility of more animals. We hemmed and hawed. We were tired but we also knew we’d probably never be here again. Yahya sensed our indecision and suggested “the middle path,” and as a Buddhist I seized on that.

In the event, the middle path was a killer. The phones went into our pockets, not to see the light of day again until we reached the river because it took every ounce of strength on all four limbs to move forward and maintain balance.

At one point we climbed hand over hand up a near vertical rock face. Halfway up I stopped. I couldn’t do it. I had a long conversation with myself. I questioned my life’s choices and wondered where I had gone wrong to be in this situation. I wondered if I could call for an airlift. I wondered if I could just sit down and wait for a miracle. I couldn’t go on. But I had to go on.

Yahya talked me up, pointing to where to put my foot next, often taking my hand and hauling me up to the next foothold. I looked back at Jack who was doing just fine. He told me later his only thoughts were that he had no knee pain like before, and he wished he were in better shape. Yeah, me too.

As we rested on a narrow ledge before tackling another steep climb, Yahya asked us how old we are. When we told him he and Putra both gasped. When their parents and grandparents are that old, he told us, they can no longer come to the forest. They stay home.

“But we are here,” I said. Yahya grinned and nodded approvingly.

“Yes. You are here.”

We finally descended to the beach. We would return to the village by tubing down the river which was swollen and foaming over the rocky riverbed.

We knew ahead of time we’d get soaked. Jack had worn his swim trunks under his trousers but I had to duck into the forest to change into shorts. I found a rock to sit on and with hands shaking from exhaustion I pulled off my shoes and socks, then peeled off my sweaty trousers, all the while mindful that leeches were eyeing my veins. I dislodged one just as it started to attach itself to my leg. I hoped there weren’t any on my bum.

It took awhile to get recombobulated with shorts and reef runners and I returned to the river where Yahya helped us dislodge the remaining leeches from our ankles. It turns out our socks were no deterrent to a determined leech.

Putra laid out a spread of fresh fruit that we barely had the energy to eat. A third member of our team showed up with our tubing rig. He will guide us through the whitewater.

Once again we said goodbye to our phones and any possibility of photos, as everything got packed into plastic bags for the whitewater adventure ahead. I took a few photos of other rafts to give you an idea of what it was like, but they don’t come close to conveying the turbulent water we navigated on our way downriver.

Our boatman was an expert driver, fending off the boulders that studded the river with a bamboo pole, and keeping us facing in the right direction as the current tried many times to spin us around. It had rained heavily the night before and the river was running fast. We got sucked into whirlpools and spat out the other side after scooping up a large share of river, which then dumped on our heads. It was an exhilarating ride, the water bracing but welcome on our tired limbs.

We finally landed downriver from the guesthouse and we crawled out of the tubes on legs like jelly. Our guides and boatman shouldered our gear and the tubes and hoofed it back to home base with the energy of youth, Jack and I dragging our tails behind.

It was, without a doubt, the toughest trek we’ve ever done. So far.

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Sumatra bound

Back in January 2020 we were due for a visa run from Malaysia and I suggested Sumatra, right across the Malacca Strait, to see the orangutans. As I researched I found that unlike our houseboat trip up the Kumai River in Borneo, this visit to the People of the Forest involves hours of trekking through the rainforest on uneven and often muddy trails. Just six weeks earlier Jack had total knee replacement surgery, and while he was doing very well, we agreed a jungle trek might not be the best way to test the new equipment. We went instead to Singapore where Jack continued his rehab by walking miles a day, but mostly on dry pavement. A month after we returned we were locked down by the global pandemic and we had other things to think about besides Sumatra.

Flash forward four years and a second knee replacement and we find ourselves with no plans and eager for a bit of adventure after a couple of relaxing months in northern Thailand. Sumatra is back on the agenda.

Indonesia travel can be challenging outside the tourist hotspots. Transportation is often uncomfortable, sometimes even dangerous. Roads are bad, many places haven’t come to grips with waste management, the local diet has very little variation, and the currency is one of those with way too many zeros so you have to carry wads of bills just to get through the day in a cash only society.

We flew from Chiang Mai to Kuala Lumpur where we spent a week soaking up First World city life, then made the short hop across the strait to Medan, the largest city in Sumatra and third largest in Indonesia. It’s an unremarkable place, and we spent a day mapping out our time in Indonesia.

Bukit Lawang, the jumping off point for the orangutans, is only 90km away, yet getting there takes the better part of a day. There are several options for transport in various combinations of local bus, train and minivan but in the end we opted for a car and driver. Since there are two of us it’s only a few bucks more than public transit fare for two.

This turned out to be the first of four similar journeys in Sumatra and I herewith pass on my tips to anyone contemplating a similar itinerary.

The key to a successful journey in any vehicle in Indonesia is to remain loose limbed and refrain from looking directly out the front. Direct your gaze instead toward the side and appreciate the scenery as the driver veers around the most egregious potholes and, if you’re lucky, hits the brakes for the ones he can’t avoid. In general, expect the driver to have a lead foot both on the gas and brake pedals.

Try not to gasp every time your driver swerves away at the last possible second from a certain head-on collision with an oncoming truck while passing a motorbike overloaded with coconuts, timber, bamboo, market produce, or a family of six and learn to appreciate the musical quality of the signature beep-beeps your driver taps to warn vehicles that we’re overtaking.

Be mindful not to look down as you pass a section of road that has crumbled into the canyon below and save yourself the image of what it would be like to tumble into the abyss ending in a fiery Hollywood explosion at the bottom. You’re not wearing a seatbelt because either there isn’t one or it’s broken. The driver, you note, is buckled in.

Look instead toward the mountains ahead where in 45 minutes or so you’ll be flung left and right in your seat as your driver bosses the vehicle up ten or twelve tight hairpin switchbacks, many of them blind, then screams down the other side in an attempt to make up the time we lost behind a lumbering truckload of cement. This sequence will no doubt be repeated many times before you reach your destination.

I repeat, stay loose. Roll with it. I find deep yogic breathing helps.

We counted this driver as a particularly good one, or maybe the road was marginally better than expected, but all of our drives in Sumatra required a program of quiet recovery to bring our blood pressure back to normal.

We arrived in Bukit Lawang intact at the end of the road. Literally. The road doesn’t go through the village, or at least not for anything larger than a motorbike, and we still had a kilometer to schlep. Luckily a man on the street hoisted our duffle onto his shoulder and trotted along the river path all the way to our first night’s lodging at the far end of the village.

We had a hard time keeping up with him, and I stopped frequently to take photos and catch my breath. Bukit Lawang is a charming hippy village of guesthouses, trekking companies and restaurants, with a few bodegas and souvenir shops here and there. It’s as close as you can get to Gunung Leuser National Park where a lot of orangutans live.

The town has its own character and architecture and we loved the Jungle Inn, which I had only booked for one night.

Almost every guesthouse has guides and runs their own treks and we learned they don’t take kindly to booking lodging in one place but trekking with another company. That’s why I’d only booked one night at the Jungle Inn. I’d decided to book our trek with Sumatra Orangutan Explore because they’re known to be an ethical company, devoted to protecting the animals and the environment and we wanted to support them. Besides, the Jungle Inn was just out of our budget.

The next day we went to the chosen company and booked our trek. They found us lodging nearby and we reluctantly moved out of the relatively ritzy Jungle Inn (they have hot showers) to more modest but budget friendly digs. We have one more day to acclimate to the humid weather and explore the town before our trek.

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Catchup

We’re bogged down with unwritten Ireland stories but rather than let the present drift further into the past we’re jumping ahead to get current. We’ll backfill the rest of our time in Ireland later, but for now, let’s get caught up. As always, check the dates on the posts. We always date them when the events actually happened rather than when we get around to posting. We also keep posts in date order, so scroll back if you’ve missed something.

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A day to ponder

There’s only one flight per day to and from the Plain of Jars. That meant we had an extra day and a half to spend in Phonsavan until our flight out. We didn’t plan anything special. Our tour gave us so much to think about, between the mystery of the jars and the consequences of the bombing and the ongoing task of clearing the land of unexploded ordnance.

We revisited the Mines Advisory Group (MAG International) headquarters to buy a tote bag and leave a donation. They have teams out in the fields every day working to make the land safe again. We passed their vehicles and warning signs several places on our tour.

The rest of our time in Phonsavan we spent looking for food. For a vegetarian Laos is a challenge, especially away from the population centers. As veg-friendly as Thailand is, neighboring Laos is the complete opposite. The diet is basically rice and meat, and finding anything meatless is tough. After trying a couple of local places we settled on the only two restaurants that had any meat free dishes, Cranky-T’s, where I could get a salad, and an Indian restaurant with a variety of vegetarian dishes. I preferred Indian, Jack liked Cranky-T’s. Sometimes we ate together, sometimes we each went to our favorite.

We cruised the local convenience stores for healthy snacks but couldn’t come up with anything.

As usual I convinced Jack to visit the wet market. It was the most earthy market we’ve been to in a long time. Alongside the beautiful produce (why weren’t those fruits and vegetables in the restaurants?) there were tables and tables of dried sticks and other woody things. I tried asking people what they were but we had an unbreachable language barrier. Google Lens later told me many were medicinal plants, but I can’t be sure.

The creepiest thing we saw were wasp nests, complete with wiggly larvae. YouTube showed me how to prepare them but I think that’s a hard no for us.

By the time we got to the butcher tables Jack was itching to get out of there. I don’t think he likes to be reminded of what he’s eating.

I love the markets, all markets. I find them intriguing, inspiring (when I have a kitchen to cook in) and a great window into the culture. After seeing all this gorgeous produce though I’m still wondering why the restaurants couldn’t conjure up a vegetarian meal.

Once again we had to check out with immigration, even though it’s a 35 minute domestic flight. The plane parked way out past the runway. You can see from the mountains in the distance that we’re on a very high plateau and the difference in air temperature from the capital was a surprise. We wished we hadn’t left our warmer clothing in Chiang Mai.

And then we were back in Vientiane. Once again the flight connections meant we had an extra day to spend here. We have no specific plans, except for me. I’m looking for a healthy vegetarian meal.

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Plain of Jars

For Americans of a certain vintage like us, the news during our coming of age years was dominated by the war in Indochina. Words like Tonkin, Mekong, Saigon, Tet, My Lai, red tide, domino theory, Ho Chi Minh Trail, Vietcong, five o’clock follies, pacification, demilitarized zone, and so on, comprised the vocabulary of every day life. To this day the sound of any of these words makes our skin prickle.

Vietnam was the focus of most reporting, of course, then Cambodia and Laos entered our consciousness, especially when Nixon announced the invasion of Cambodia in 1970, then in ‘71 with leaking of the Pentagon Papers, when most of the country became aware of the secret bombing of Laos.

Of the two regions of Laos targeted by American carpet bombing, the northern focus was a 15,000 sq.km. area of the Xieng Khuang Plateau called the Plain of Jars, so-called because it is littered with more than 2000 Iron Age stone jars. The area was bombed not because of the jars, but because it was thought to be the location of headquarters and training camps of the Pathet Lao, a homegrown communist faction. The US, with the initial lukewarm blessing of the ruling right wing Lao government, thought they should stop the red tide from flowing across the border and taking over Laos. Over a period of nine years they blew it to smithereens.

For the first time in our travel experience our inclination to bear witness to places and people who have suffered the atrocities of war and our fascination with ancient archaeological sites happen to occupy the same space. We’ve wanted to come here since we first heard of the Plain of Jars. We expect it will be both mysterious and disturbing.

There are about 90 unique sites identified in the UNESCO Plain of Jars archaeological landscape but most are restricted because of the continued danger of UXOs (unexploded ordnance.) Only seven sites have been cleared and we booked a guide to tour the three most accessible locations. We were joined by a pair of young English backpackers and an Aussie.

We began at the Visitor’s Center where we learned more about the ongoing effect of the carpet bombing. The sites we’re visiting are safe but we were warned to keep on the established paths, not just here but in most areas of Laos where the bombing took place.

Our first view of jars was of a flat plain that gave the area its name, but we’re told the rest of the sites are hilly and wooded. You can clearly see several bomb craters across the field.

As we got closer the size of the jars took our breath away. They are huge, even the smaller ones.

I should say here that historians and archaeologists who have researched the jars hypothesize that their purpose was in some way funerary, but there’s only speculation about the exact function. They do know that the stone came from a quarry some distance away in the mountains. How they transported the stone, how they carved the jars, and most importantly why, remain a mystery. You can read a summary of the historical research and current thinking here.

Some of the jars are broken, which we initially assumed happened during the bombing, but I learned later that in the late 19th century bandits destroyed many of the jars at this site. We could only guess whether a jar succumbed to a bomb or a bandit.

At the bottom of the hill at Site 1 is a cave which may have been used as a crematorium. The opening and the roof are covered with scores of wasps nests but we didn’t see many wasps flying around, thank goodness.

Site 1 was a good introduction to the jars but we were eager to move on to the next one, an hour’s drive away over the notorious Laotian roads.

We were fortunate the sky was mostly overcast because not only did we escape the brutal heat of the sun, but we had the sites nearly to ourselves. We learned later that the lack of visitors is more a continuing effect of the pandemic and that tourism at the Plain of Jars is only about 30% of the pre-Covid level.

As we walked to the site we were mindful again to keep on the paths through the fields.

There are so many jars, and we’re only able to see a small percentage of them. It’s mind boggling. All day, as we walked among them we shook our heads in amazement and muttered some version of, “What the—?” I think we touched every one and looked inside. They’re empty, of course, except for the occasional candy wrapper, which I fished out if I could and relocated to a rubbish bin. Some are filled with water or plant life.

The last site, another long drive away, was our favorite. The jars are huge, the trees are old and the setting made it all so much more mysterious. A couple of the trees grew right through jars.

We lingered until our guide rounded us up for the long drive back to town. We can say with confidence that the effort to get here was worth it. We still have no idea what these jars are all about; it’s always amazing to me how quickly knowledge is lost. The jars were made sometime between about 500 BCE and 500 CE; some maybe as late as 800 CE, and yet there’s no record, either oral or written, of their design, construction or purpose. Maybe future technologies will answer those questions. We’re grateful so many of them survive.

The greater tragedy is that the men who ordered the carpet bombing had no regard for the Lao people who lived here and the place they called home. Thousands were killed or maimed, many more displaced, and much of the land rendered unsafe. The secret war on Laos will forever be a stain on our history.

For further reading I recommend this.

If you want to support the work of MAG International go here.

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Wrap it up

We went back and forth about whether to go to Vang Vieng, supposedly the party and adrenaline destination for young travelers to Laos. We are not young, nor are we party animals, and I can’t remember the last time I welcomed an adrenaline rush. In the end we decided to go because of the promise of mountain vistas. And we do love mountains.

Last year we did some preliminary planning for Laos but the prospect of days on crowded buses over potholed roads put us off, especially given the remote destination we wanted to visit. This year a long-awaited high speed train began operation, making the journey between Luang Prabang and Vientiane in mere hours and without kidney damage, terrifying mountain passes, or extreme motion sickness. What’s more, the train makes a stop in Vang Vieng and that sealed our decision.

Getting tickets is a little tricky and can only be done within two days of your intended journey. There are several ways to book the train, two of them requiring you relinquish your passport while someone else goes to the station and secures the tickets as your agent. We weren’t comfortable with that, nor did we want to spend nearly the cost of the ticket taking a taxi to the station and back ourselves. We settled on what sounded like the easiest option: walk to the in-town official ticket office to buy the tickets.

By “in town” I mean somewhere within the wide city limits, and it turned out to be a long hot slog out of the lovely shady historic district to a small office open only a few hours a day.

It’s funny that you can’t book ahead, and we worried we won’t get a seat on the day we want to travel, but it all worked out except for some reason we didn’t receive our tickets right then. We have to come back the next afternoon to collect the physical tickets and I was instructed to take a photo of this post-it note, our receipt for the 364,000 Lao Kip we paid, about $17.50 US.

With two more days to enjoy Luang Prabang we were determined to spend a good bit of that time by the Mekong River because we don’t know when we’ll get to see it again. There are plenty of riverside establishments to enjoy the end of the day watching the river flow.

We’re not sure if Obama means something here beyond the name of a former US president but it definitely caught our eye.

The night market here, or at least the part of it toward the historic district, was mainly geared toward tourists and same-same souvenirs.

Much more interesting was the morning market, more local and certainly more colorful. This is the kind of market I love and it’s a rare place we go that I don’t visit the local markets at least once.

Spice paste varieties, scooped for sale into plastic bags.

We picked up our train tickets and took a last turn around town. It’s been a nice place to hang out for a week, and now we’re ready for something completely different.

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Exploring Luang Prabang

Caves and waterfalls are popular excursions in Luang Prabang but we’re more interested in getting a sense of the town itself. The old section is a UNESCO World Heritage site because of the fusion of traditional Laotian urban architecture and colonial styles from the 19th and 20th centuries. UNESCO particularly likes well preserved areas, and this one certainly is.

The city lies on a peninsula formed by the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers. It’s only about three blocks wide so most days we walked one way or another down to the water.

We didn’t remember before we got here that Laos is nominally one of the few remaining communist countries along with China, Vietnam, North Korea and Cuba, so the occasional old hammer and sickle flag surprised us.

Two days after we arrived I got up before dawn and went down to the street to watch the morning alms giving. This is a ritual in most Buddhist or Hindu countries, where the monks walk through the streets gathering offerings of food and other needs from the faithful. We observed the procession from our rooftop hotel in Bhaktapur, Nepal, last year. Now I have the opportunity to watch from across the street. There are strict rules for tourists: no flash photography, no impeding the monks’ progress, stay out of the way and quiet.

As the sun rose, the monks came in waves. All in all there may have been about a hundred, many of them young boys.

Here in Luang Prabang the alms-givers sit on low stools with pots of cooked sticky rice and drop balls of rice into the monks’ bowls or baskets. In other places we’ve seen small packages you can buy to give the monks that include toiletries or other non food items.

We learned that many young boys enter the monastery for the purpose of education, since schooling is not free in this part of the world, and many poor families can’t afford the school fees.

The alms-giving ritual here in Luang Prabang was silent, with only the padding of bare feet on the street and the swish of the robes as soundtrack. In Bhaktapur the monks were accompanied by drums and chanting. I’m glad I witnessed both.

The small girl holding up a bucket is begging from the monks. This area, the historic district, is a relatively wealthy area, so I’m not sure where the children who are begging come from. I did see many of the monks share their rice with the children.

We spent each day exploring the town, trying different cafés for meals and coffee breaks. Often we ran into fellow slowboat passengers and shared more time with familiar faces. We felt like we’d gained a whole community by taking the two-day boat journey.

Luang Prabang is known as much for its crafts as for its architecture. Jewelry, textiles, carvings, unique clothing. We enjoyed every little shop, but of course with limited luggage space and no home to put anything in anyway, we had to walk away from all the beautiful hand crafted things we saw. These soft sculptures particularly delighted us. We’ve never seen anything like them, and we watched the women in the back of the shop working on other similar creations.

The days were warm and the sun was harsh. We usually retreated to our air conditioned room for a few hours each afternoon before heading out again in a different direction.

We saw this Silkworm Poo Tea in a small shop on a back street. We passed. And spoiler alert: we bought a couple of those soft sculptures. We love them.

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Posh. Or maybe not.

Back when I was looking for an affordable flight to Asia I tried for the first time the travel services offered by our credit card company. After searching via Google Flights, Skyscanner, Kayak, and all the other sites, Capital One Travel came up with the most economical and easiest journey via Hainan Airlines, a company I hadn’t heard of and that none of the other portals included in their search results. Not only was it considerably cheaper than the others, but it came with a guarantee to refund the difference if the cost went down after booking. Sure enough, a week later the price went down and I was credited $100.

Based on that good experience, and facing hotel rates in Luang Prabang higher than our budget normally allows, I applied the $100 credit to a six-day stay at a historic hotel in a deluxe room with a balcony overlooking the street where we could watch the sunrise procession of monks for the daily alms-giving.

When we arrived in Luang Prabang our slowboat company drove us to our hotel and it was as beautiful as we hoped, nestled on a shady street in the quiet historic district. We will be living within a UNESCO World Heritage site and we were thrilled.

Not so fast, said the travel gods. The hotel did not have our booking. I showed the manager my confirmation. He shook his head. “I never heard of that site,” he said, indicating Capital One Travel. He showed me the reservation list. No Schulz in evidence.

We were tired and hungry, sweaty from climbing up to the Buddha Cave. We wanted a shower, a nap, and dinner. We wanted to unpack.

The manager suggested I call Capital One. I didn’t have a local SIM card so he logged me onto the hotel wifi and I called via Skype. The woman who answered was sympathetic, said she’d call the hotel, then put me on hold. I waited. The hotel phone didn’t ring.

When Capital One Lady came back she assured me that the hotel had our booking; she had spoken to the manager Sara herself. “Go to the hotel,” she said. “They’re waiting for you.”

“I’m at the hotel right now,” I told her. “I’m sitting next to the manager and his name’s not Sara. What hotel are you talking to?”

“Can you let me talk to the manager?” she asked. I passed the phone over. I watched as he listened to Capital One Lady. Then he said, “Da.” There was a long pause.

“Da,” he said again. Another pause, then “Mister Da. That’s my name.”

With the introductions settled the two got down to business. I only heard our side of the conversation but it went something like this: Yes, that is the correct address. No, that’s not the phone number and hasn’t been for ten years.

The phone was passed back to me.

“Please hold.”

We spent the next hour and a half alternately waiting on hold and passing the phone back and forth. I kept asking Capital One Lady what hotel had our booking because at this point we’re happy to just go there and call it a day. She wouldn’t say. But Mr. Da told me “Sara” is not a Lao name so he can’t imagine that any hotel in Laos would have a manager by that name.

I practiced deep yoga breathing while I was on hold. Jack was slumped in a chair outside with our luggage. It was hot. Da got bottles of cold water for Jack and me and managed the noisy fan, turning it on when we were on hold, then off when Capital One Lady came back online. Otherwise you couldn’t hear anything.

While we waited on hold Da told me that anyway he didn’t have six nights of a deluxe room available because they were fully booked for the coming long weekend with a group of VIP envoys from many different countries attending a regional conference on economic development.

Eventually, Capital One Lady admitted defeat. “It’s our mistake,” she said, stating the obvious, and we all wished she’d come to that conclusion an hour ago. She never said what hotel we had been mistakenly booked into or what country it might have been in, but she offered either a complete refund or a handover to a supervisor who could “solve our problem.” Oh good grief. Just give me the money, I thought. I reminded her that I had used my $100 credit as partial payment and I wanted that back too. She agreed and she even added an additional credit which will come in handy in the future but doesn’t help us right now.

All parties handled the situation with grace and humor but we were left at square one with no room. It was now past 8:30. Da could give us three nights in the hoped for deluxe room with a balcony but then we’d have to move to a small room in a different building in the back for two more nights. Our planned sixth? Well, he’d help us find a room somewhere else. The town was booked to the gills.

Fine, we said. At this point we’d have accepted a futon in the alley. In sympathy he gave us a break on the deluxe room price.

By the time we got checked in it was late and we were weak with hunger. Da pointed us in a few directions for food but as we walked the neighboring streets we learned that the UNESCO part of town shuts down early and we had trouble finding anyone still serving at 9 pm. Eventually we came across a little bistro where we ordered small bites because our need for sleep was overpowering our hunger.

Back at the hotel all was forgiven as we settled in to our lovely spacious room and I set an alarm for 5:45am so I could watch the monks from the balcony in my pyjamas. This was the whole point of booking this particular room.

Not so fast.

I awoke before the alarm to find the travel gods were not finished toying with us. First of all, the view from our lovely balcony was obscured by shrubbery so that my planned morning sitting in my pj’s on the balcony with coffee watching the procession of monks was a bust.

Ok, no worries. I’ll just need to get dressed tomorrow morning and go out to the street to watch the alms-giving.

Before returning to bed I went to the bathroom and when I sat on the toilet the seat broke off and nearly launched me across the room.

Have I done something to deserve this karma? Or are we just on the Practical Joke Tour of Laos? I remind myself of our guiding mantra, “Every day is a journey” and expect the day will improve from here. But for now I’m going back to sleep.

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River dance

Ever since we crossed the Mekong River in Phnom Penh back in 2019 I’ve wanted to find a multi day cruise on the Mekong in a traditional boat. It’s not that easy. There are posh all-inclusive cruises that ply the river delta area south of Ho Chi Minh City for thousands of dollars, or there’s the 2-day public slowboat that chugs downstream from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang in Laos, a basic vessel crammed with 100 people on old car seats that aren’t bolted to the deck, where you take your own food and drink and find your own lodging for the overnight ashore in Pak Beng. These are the options.

As the travel ferret that I am, I refused to believe there isn’t a middle way, and eventually I uncovered an alternative to the public slowboat. Let’s call it a VIP slowboat. The boat is just like to the public one, but fitted out with comfy booths and limited to a dozen or so passengers, with food and drink onboard included, a deluxe hotel in Pak Beng for the overnight, and guidance through Laos Immigration before boarding, all for less than $200 each. Sign me up.

We met our fellow passengers over morning coffee in the hotel at the Thai border. They are mostly seniors like us, from Scotland, Germany, South Africa. This is going to be great, we thought, just like our old sailing community. Then the minivans pulled up and Jack and I were culled from the group, separated from people we’d just spent an hour getting to know. It turns out there are two boats going and we are on the other one. We wondered if we could request a change, but decided to wait and see what happens.

We were guided across the border — get out of the van, queue up for exit stamp from Thailand, get back in the van, drive across the bridge to Laos, queue up for visa-on-arrival with our prepared paperwork, queue up to pay in US dollars which we’d had to buy in Chiang Mai since we don’t have any US currency — an exercise that’s doable on your own but easier with the boat company handling the luggage and pointing us to the correct windows for passport control, paperwork and payment.

During this process we met most of our new fellow passengers. We are, we discovered, at least a generation older than everyone else onboard, a fact that initially disappointed us, but as we got to know everyone, we came to appreciate.

Finally we boarded our boat and we found it to be even better than the photos we’d seen. We staked out a booth and settled in while we began our 12 knot voyage down the shallow but fast-moving Mekong River. I haven’t been this excited about a river journey since we inched our way up the Kumai in Borneo to see the orangutans.

Our first day onboard took us about 150 km downriver past an unending landscape of gently rolling green hills with very little evidence of human habitation.

Halfway through the day we had a planned visit to a Hmong village which involved a steep and slippery climb while the village children scampered up beside us hawking friendship bracelets.

The village was quiet but for the children. I asked our guide where all the parents were. Working in the fields, he said, and as it was around lunchtime the children were home from school until they return in the afternoon.

For once I thought ahead and brought some copybooks and pencils to give the kids. I would have preferred to give them to the teacher to distribute but the guide advised me to just give them directly to the kids. They were quite grabby and it took some effort to make sure the less aggressive got a share of the goods. I tried to favor the girls but in the end I was lucky to get away unscathed.

We find village visits fraught. We’re happy to contribute to the wellbeing of a community when we can but there are times when a village becomes something it’s not just for the entertainment of tourists. We’ve declined village visits in some places for what we think are ethical reasons, but are we really being ethical when we don’t share our tourist dollars because a village is performing in an inauthentic way? It’s a conundrum.

In the case of this village, the children were aggressive in selling their bracelets, but the money was immediately snatched by an adult. And when I was handing out the school supplies, each kid grabbed for everything, rather than sharing. I snagged things back when I saw that a kid had two or three copybooks and made sure a different kid got something. The experience was a little disturbing.

On our way back to the boat I was heartened to see a couple of the girls holding their copybooks. I hope they do well in school.

Back at the boat we had lunch then spent the rest of the afternoon watching the world go by. The terrain grew more mountainous and scenic.

About five o’clock we arrived at Pak Beng, our overnight stay. We opted for the top-of-the-line hotel as a late anniversary splurge. We could see the bungalows overlooking the river as we arrived.

The hotel was gorgeous and our room was beyond deluxe with a balcony overlooking the river. We made it just in time for sunset.

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