The Royal Palace and National Museum

The lasts sites on our list to check off while in Phnom Penh were the National Museum and the Royal Palace.

After getting breakfast, we walked to the Royal Palace only to find out that it was closed until 2pm.  To kill some time, we stumbled upon the OunaLom Pagoda nearby and decided to check it out.

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The entrance to OunaLom Pagoda
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No chaos in the pagoda
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Inside the pagoda

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The gate from the inside with the river in the background
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An example of the fractal architecture in the pagoda

We still had an hour or so to kill before 2pm, so we found a cozy place near the river to hang out and have a couple of drinks before heading back to the National Museum.

The National Museum was really cool and houses one of the largest collections of Khmer art in the world.  Unfortunately, photography was forbidden, but we really enjoyed exploring the museum and looking at all of the sculptures and statues.

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The path leading to the museum

Once we were finished with the National Museum, we moved on to the Royal Palace which is right next door.  The Kings of Cambodia have resided in the Royal Palace since the 1860s (with the exception of the reign of the Khmer Rouge.)

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Jojo in front of the Throne Hall
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The gardens
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The Throne Hall from the front
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The Moonlight Pavillion (a stage for traditional Khmer dance)

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The steps of the Throne Hall
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Walking toward the Phochani Pavillion (a dance hall)

There were also some parts of the Royal Palace (mostly inside) where photography was forbidden, but we got some shots of the gorgeous architecture and surrounding gardens.

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More gardens

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Architectural detail
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A detailed gate that we loved!

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By the time we were finished, it was late afternoon as we made our way to find a place to have dinner.  We ended up choosing a restaurant called Friends, a training restaurant for former street kids to work in the hospitality industry.  Not only was it for a good cause, the food was excellent!  It was tapas-style and we got sundried tomato hummus wontons, zucchini cheddar fritters, and braised pork quesadillas.  Yum!

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Walking outside the gates of the Royal Palace
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Some people feeding pigeons in the gardens of the Royal Palace
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The streets of Phnom Penh
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Dalmations?

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The next morning Joe was hankering for french toast, so we wandered the streets until we found somewhere promising, a place called Jay’s Diner.  As the name would suggest, it was an American style diner with all of the breakfast options that can be hard to find in Cambodia, including good french toast!

After our bellies were full of sugary delicious breakfast foods, we discussed how we wanted to spend the day.  We had seen all of the major sites to be seen in Phnom Penh, but we had to stay an extra day because we were waiting to get our visas for Thailand.

You can’t get a visa on arrival in Thailand like you can in Laos and Cambodia, so we had to arrange it ahead of time.  When we first arrived in Phnom Penh, we asked our guesthouse if they could arrange it for us, but they said they needed proof of onward travel (meaning a flight ticket) out of Thailand, which we didn’t have.  They told us we could just book a flight and then not actually take it, but we weren’t exactly keen on spending a bunch of money on flight tickets that we didn’t actually need.

In hopes of getting a second opinion, we ventured over to Lucky! Lucky! Motorcycles Shop, where they offer a well-known and well-loved visa service to travelers and expats.  The conversation went sort of like this:

“Hello, we need two 60-day Thai tourist visas.”

“Okay, do you have flight ticket out of Thailand?”

“Uh, no.”

“…okay…do you have a bank account statement?”

“Yes…?”

“Are both of your names on it?”

“Oh…no.”

Sigh. “Okay, I can help you.”

I don’t know what kind of connections these people have or what kind of strings they are pulling, but we handed over our passports and $110 and were told to come back three days later to get our passports and visas.

So here we were, three days later waiting to pick up our passports, only we were told that they wouldn’t be ready until late afternoon.  So we had an entire day to kill with nothing particular to do and no particular desires.

Having been quite a while since the last time we had gone out drinking, lounging around sipping frozen cocktails was starting to sound pretty appealing while we walked through the scorching, smoggy streets of Phnom Penh.  So, we headed to a local bar/hostel called Top Banana that has a bar on the balcony and ordered ourselves some fruity deliciousness.  On the blackboard behind the bar was a giant scoreboard with 50 or 60 countries on it and a number next to each country.  Across the top said something like “Banana Bomb Challenge.”  Naturally, Australia was in first place with 200 and America (‘MURICA) was in second with 164.  A banana bomb is a shot of tequila, chased with a shot of banana liqueur dropped into a glass of red bull.  Nothing makes you want to purchase something you don’t actually want more than proving your country’s superiority in the ability to binge drink.   …’Murica’s score was higher before we left.

After working up an appetite at Top Banana, we headed to Cocina Cartel, a burrito restaurant with a menu and set-up eerily identical to Chipotle.  Joe has been complaining about wanting Chipotle for 2 months now, so we obviously jumped at the opportunity as soon as we found out about its existence.  The food was good, although they didn’t know how to properly wrap a burrito.  We forgave them, though.

At last it was finally time to pick up our passports.  As we walked to the motorcycle shop we braced ourselves for rejection or some other issue that would further stall us in getting our visas.  Fortunately, we were given our passports back with two 60 day Thai visas, no questions asked!

We called it an early night in preparation for our 7am pick up to Kampot.  We loved Phnom Penh in all its gritty goodness.

2/26

Breakfast: $8.50

Water: $0.50

Beers: $5

National Museum: $10

Royal Palace: $13

Friends: $19.50

Water: $0.50

Accommodation: $16

2/26 Total Spent: $73 USD

2/27

Jay’s Diner: $8.50

Top Banana: $15.50

Cocina Cartel: $16

Waters: $1

Accommodation: $16

2/27 Total Spent: $57 USD

The Killing Fields – Cambodia’s Painful History

Following the Cambodian Civil War, Cambodia was reigned by the Communist Party of Kampuchea, known as the Khmer Rouge, from 1975 to 1979.  “The Killing Fields” refer to the various sites around Cambodia, where over 1 million people were brutally killed and buried by their own government during that time period.

Choeung Ek, a short ride out of Phnom Penh, is the most well-known of the aforementioned sites, where visitors can learn about Cambodia’s horrific past and view remnants of the mass genocide.

When we arrived at the entrance to Choeung Ek, we were each given headphones and an audio tour that would guide us around the memorial.  It included stories of victims of the Khmer Rouge and even an account of a former guard talking about what it was like to serve the Khmer Rouge and participate in the genocide.  It was deeply disturbing to listen to, but a part of Cambodia’s history that needs to be remembered and acknowledged by visitors.  The audio tour went into chilling details, and I’ve included photos of the signage for those interested in learning more about how things worked at Choeung Ek:

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All the prisoners could hear was the loud music and a loud generator running that drowned out the sounds of people dying.

Although the offices and buildings have been torn down, the graves, huge pits in the ground, are scattered all over the area.  They have been fenced off and covered with roofs for protection and visitors cover them in friendship bracelets to honor the victims.

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A mass grave full of friendship bracelets

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Children were swung by their feet and dashed against this tree. When it was first discovered, there were still remnants of blood and brain on the tree.

As we walked through the grounds we were warned by signs to avoid stepping on the scraps of clothing and bones that are still resurfacing today.

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A sign pointing out fragments of bone and teeth found on the ground
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And sign warning to not step on bone. The clothing on the ground is from a victim.

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Bones that have surfaced on the path

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The audio tour ended with the memorial stupa that sits in the very center, filled with over 5,000 human skulls of victims, including children.  The skulls were marked with colored dots that matched a key explaining how the victim in question was killed.

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The stupa in the center of the memorial
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The key explaining the manner of death of each victim, as evidenced by their skulls

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To continue our education of Cambodia’s grisly history, we moved on to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, the former security prison known as S-21.  Before it was converted into a prison, the site was actually a high school.  When the Khmer Rouge came into power they closed all schools (and pretty much everything else) because school was ‘unimportant.’  People were torn from their homes, jobs, schools, and even hospitals, regardless of their age or condition, and forced to work in the fields.  The prison also served as an execution center and saw as many as 20,000 prisoners killed.

Walking through the prison, many of the cells have been preserved and look the same as they did when they were in use.  The most luxurious cells were large rooms with a metal bed and a ‘case for excrement.’  The floors above were tiny cubicles made from brick or wood with nothing but shackles and a box.

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Walking the halls of S-21
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Doors to the cells
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An example of one of the large ground floor cells
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Shackles and excrement boxes
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Each cell has a large photograph of a victim that was imprisoned in a similar room.

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At first, many of the prisoners were associates of the previous regime, but later the party started turning on its own people out of paranoia.  Prisoners were heinously tortured until they confessed to the crimes they were accused of and even forced to condemn their own family members (who were then captured and imprisoned as well.)

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Brick cells
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The cramped conditions of the brick cells
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Chum Mey’s cell. One of only a handful of people to survive S-21
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The wooden cells
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The wooden cells were even smaller than the brick ones

Prisoners were subject to all kinds of horrific torture tactics and some of them were used for medical experimentation.  All of this was for the purpose of getting a confession out of the prisoners, and the guards were strictly forbidden from killing them before getting a confession.  Extreme measures, like daily body searches and electric barbed wire, were taken to prevent prisoners from committing suicide.

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Barbed wire along the walls

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There were also very strict rules enforced on prisoners.  If they so much as took a sip of water without asking a guard first, they would get a severe beating.  There are only a few known survivors out of the ~17,000 people imprisoned.

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Frightening prison rules posted outside in the yard

After walking through the cells, we went into the display of photographs of all of the prisoners that included many women and children.  There were also graphic photographs of victims being tortured and the devices used were also on display.

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Every prisoner was photographed upon arrival at the prisoner, including all of these children

Visiting S-21 and Choeung Ek was a disturbing reminder of the horrors of humanity, but it was important for us to educate ourselves on Cambodia’s history.  Despite being such a horrific event, it doesn’t seem to be something most people know many details about, and we were grateful to have had the opportunity to learn more about what happened here and why.

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Something to consider

Breakfast: $7

Tuk Tuk: $15

Choeung Ek Entrance: $12

Tuol Sleng Entrance: $6

Dinner: $10

Top Banana: $2.50

Accommodation: $16

Total Spending: $68.50

Phnom Penh – Exploring the Capital

After recovering from a stint of food poisoning in Kratie, we were ready to head down to the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh.  We were given two options: a 4-5 hour minibus where we would have to share seats with other passengers for $7 each, or a 7-8 hour full sized bus with our own seats for $10 each.  In the end, we opted for cheaper and shorter and went with the minibus.

We were picked up around 8am and made it to Phnom Penh by the afternoon.  As usual, we were mobbed by a pack of tuk tuk drivers offering us rides.  One of them conned us into a ride to a hotel that he promised would be $5.  “If you book a room, the ride is $1, if not it is $3.”  Convinced we would probably take the $5 room, we agreed.  When we got there, however, the cheapest rooms they had were $10, not $5.  Maybe he meant $5 each or maybe he’s just a dick, who knows.  Also, the room was pretty horrible, and that’s saying something coming from us.  We refused the room and paid the driver his $3, then decided to walk to a nearby hostel instead.

The hostel was full, and by then we were tired and sweaty from lugging around our packs, and we needed to sit down and eat before we started maiming each other.  After a quick lunch (and the first real meal we had since we were sick) Joe suggested that he go find a room for us while I sat with the backpacks.  A few minutes later he came back and we carried our stuff to the hotel he found.  For $16 a night, we had a huge suite with air conditioning and a kitchen!  Not the cheapest accommodation, but a good deal for what we got.

By then it was already late afternoon, so we decided to just take a walk and explore the area.  We walked over to the riverside area where there are a lot of trendy hotels and restaurant.  We didn’t realize how developed Phnom Penh would be, nor that there would be so many world class restaurants!  Apparently Phnom Penh is an up and coming “foodie” city.

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Exploring the streets of Phnom Penh
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Cambodian men playing with a shuttlecock
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Hanging out by the river

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We caught a nice sunset behind the Royal Palace and the city lit up as the sun went down.  The traffic was also insane, just as bad as the big cities in Vietnam.  Except in Vietnam it seemed organized where the traffic in Phnom Penh was more like survival of the fittest.  Sometimes it seemed like people actually wanted to run us over.

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Sunset over the Royal Palace

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We’d heard it said that Phnom Penh was seedy and we saw the truth of that right away.  There were more beggars on the streets than anywhere we had been previously and lots of neglected looking children.  At one point we passed a public bench where a woman sat huffing a can of glue or something, while her naked infant lay next to her watching us walk by with the dead looking eyes.  It was really disturbing and reminded us of the reality of life in Cambodia for some people.

Cambodia, and Phnom Penh in particular, also has a pretty notorious sex industry and is apparently a hotspot for pedophiles from all over.  There are lots of gross old white men hanging out with young Cambodians girls everywhere…it’s kind of hard to miss.  Tourists can also visit orphanages, but there are a couple of organizations trying to spread awareness about the truth of such places.  Apparently many of the children there have at least one living parent and are being exploited for the purpose of making money.  These are just a couple of the ugly truths of present life in Cambodia, but it has gotten and continues to get better.

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The streets of Phnom Penh at night

Despite its dark parts, Phnom Penh is also really hip.  It’s pretty huge and there is a lot of cool street art.  The people are pretty nice too, though they hustle you for tuk tuks and other things a lot more than in Laos.  The children are also the friendliest we have met so far in our travels.  It seemed like we heard little voices shouting “Hello! Hello!” at us from every angle.  Sometimes we couldn’t even tell where it was coming from!  And they have the biggest, most heart melting smiles you’ll ever see.  There’s nothing cuter than a beaming, two year old baby with no pants or shoes on, chasing you down the street to wave and say hello.

Kratie – Dolphin Watching and Food Poisoning

Kratie is a small rivertown in the northeast region of Cambodia.  It is not a huge tourist destination, but makes for a good stopping point when crossing the border from Laos to the capital of Phnom Penh.  Kratie is perhaps most known for the Irrawaddy River dolphins that hang out in the Kampi village, about 9 or 10 miles north of the town.

After getting used to using Vietnamese Dong and Laotian Kip, it was sort of a strange transition to Cambodia’s de facto currency: the US dollar.  When you go to an ATM in Cambodia, the money that comes out is US currency.  However, coins are not used or accepted, so anything under $1 is paid for with Cambodian Riel.  $1 is equal to 4,000riel, so 1,000riel is used in place of a quarter, etc.  Weird!

After getting up and having breakfast, we headed into town for a short exploration of the area.  We walked through the streets, found a market, and were practically stampeded by a group of kids that were SO excited to shake our hands and say hello to us.  Every single one of them asked, “Hello, what is your name?”  Never mind that they all knew our names after the first one asked, it was their turn to ask that they were waiting for!  Perhaps the most polite group of 9 year olds ever!

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Exploring the streets of Kratie
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Jojo in front of Kratie’s riverside
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Adorable Cambodian children excited to have their picture taken
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A market we stumbled upon
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Workers on bamboo scaffolding
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A sculpture in the middle of a roundabout in town

Given all the hype about these rare, aforementioned dolphins, we decided it might be worth checking out during our short stay in the area. A $10 tuk tuk and 20 minutes later, we were in Kampi and paying the ridiculous $9/ticket fee to enter the dolphin watching area.  Once we had forked over the cash, we were pointed around a building and down some steps to the boat area.  Somehow we lucked into our own private boat that took us out onto the river.

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Walking to board a boat
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On the boat in search of Irrawaddy dolphins

It was hot, humid, and full of bugs, but we could see the dolphins before we even got on the boat.  We rowed out quietly to the area where they seemed to be most concentrated, and watched for them to surface.

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Spotted!

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It’s estimated that there are only about 80 Irrawaddy dolphins left in the Mekong, and only about 15-20 of them inhabit this stretch of river.  Our boatman paddled us along, trying to anticipate where they would surface so we could get as close as possible.  Irrawaddy dolphins are very shy, but a couple times they came up right next to our boat!

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Irrawaddy dolphins are small and dark gray. Their dorsal fins are closer to their tales than their heads and their beaks are blunted in comparison to a bottlenose dolphin

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We watched the dolphins for about an hour before we turned back for the shore and got back on our tuk tuk to town.

When we got back to our hotel, it was evident that something was not right.  We had both been feeling queasy all day and it wasn’t letting up.  We decided to spend the evening resting, but it turned into a sleepless night of unrelenting torture.  To make matters worse, we had a 5+ hour mini-bus to catch the next morning at 7am into Phnom Penh.  Noooo.

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The alarm went off 6am.

“…I can’t.”

The idea of being packed into a mini bus (the woman at reception was honest with us that we would be sharing seats with other passengers) for five hours on Cambodian roads was unbearable.  We cancelled the bus ticket and spent literally all day in bed.  We knew we would probably get sick at some point on this trip, and we were grateful that it hadn’t happened until this point, but that didn’t make it any better.

The day was pure agony, but around 5pm we assembled some sort of energy and got ourselves into town to try to eat something.  It was that point where we had no semblance of an appetite, but the weakness of hunger was only increasing our misery.  Afraid to eat at the hotel restaurant again, we decided to play it safe and try a well known restaurant in town called Red Sun Falling.

It was a perfectly pleasant place, but even just reading the menu items was near enough to induce dry heaving.  We ended up sharing a bowl of noodle soup, which was enough to fill our bellies without making us sick again.

We went to bed super early that night, and were thankfully able to get a bit more rest before getting on the bus the next morning.

It certainly wan’t a pleasant experience, but it could have been worse.  We avoided the hotel restaurant the next morning as well (and ate some Oreos for breakfast, just to be safe.)  And yes, we DID make it onto the bus this time!

2/21

Breakfast: $10

Tuk Tuk to Kampi: $10

Boat: $18

Tip: $1

Water: $1

Dinner: $5.50

Accommodation: $5

2/21 Total Spent: $50.50 USD

2/22

Sandwich: $4.50

Water: $1

Water: $1

Water: $1

Red Sun Falling: $3.75

Accommodation: $5

2/22 Total Spent: $16.25 USD

Crossing the Border – Don Det, Laos to Kratie, Cambodia

We only had one more day left on our Laos visas, so it was time to move on…to Cambodia!

We booked a package ticket from Don Det to Kratie, which included the boat ride from Don Det to Ban Nakasang, the bus to the Cambodian border, and then another bus to Kratie, a tiny town in Northeastern Cambodia.

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The route

We woke up and walked to the beach where the boat was to pick us up at approximately 8am.  It showed up around 8:30 and took us across the river to the bus station.

Once at the bus station, this schmancy looking guy, naming himself our ‘guide,’ gave us the required border crossing documents to fill out.  He then asked us to give him our passports, the documents, and $40 to get all of our visas for us.  Cambodia visas only cost $35, but then there’s the stamping fee scam of $1 by both sides, and the bribe to get through without a passport photo (which neither of us had.)  Even if we had refused the guy and tried to go through on our own, it probably would have worked out to be about the same price or only a dollar or two less, so we decided the convenience was worth it.

The process of everyone filling out the documents and giving them to the guy took forever, and then we sat around waiting for a long time.  No one ever seems to tell you what you’re waiting for, but you have no choice, so you just wait.

Finally, we were instructed to board the bus that would take us to the border crossing.  Despite being very close to the border already, the condition of the road wasn’t great so it still took about an hour to get there.

Once we got to the border, we got off the bus and sat around waiting for our ‘guide’ to get out visas for us, which took at least another hour.  Eventually we were instructed to walk across the border (you can’t be driven) where we were stopped for this ridiculous “health check” scam.  Basically it was this plastic gun looking thing that they pointed about 3 inches from our necks, pressed a button, then it made a little beeping sound.  What this was allegedly ‘checking’ for, we had no idea, but it cost an additional $1 (included in the $40 we gave the ‘guide.’)

Once on the other side of the border, we waited to receive our visas and then had to wait for the handful of pioneers that decided to cross on their own, instead of paying the guide. When they finally made it over, they revealed that they had saved $3 by doing it on their own.

Finally, after more mysterious waiting, it was time for us to get on the last bus to our final destination.

As expected, the roads were horrendous and it took about 5 more hours to get to Kratie, making our journey a total of approximately 9 hours from Don Det.

We got off at the bus station, happy that we decided to stop in Kratie instead of going straight away to Pnom Penh, which is another 6 to 8 hours away-and where most everyone else on the bus was going.

We had no idea where to go once we got to Kratie, so we just started asking tuk tuk drivers to take us to a guesthouse.  Luckily, we found one who offered us a free ride to River Dolphin Hotel and promised us a $5 room.

We hopped on the tuk tuk and drove about 5 minutes out of town to the hotel, where we were greeted with glasses of orange juice and moist, minted towels (Jojo is convinced they were merely soaked in mouthwash, but whatever, it felt fancy.)  We were lead to our $5 room as promised, and were pleased to find that it was way nicer than any of the $10 rooms we had stayed in Laos!

We had dinner at the hotel restaurant before retiring back to our room, happy to have finally made it to Cambodia and ready to start our journey through the country!

Snacks: 30,000kip

Bus Package: 380,000kip

Lunch: $5 USD

2-Cambodia Visas: $84 USD

Dinner: $10.25 USD

Accommodation: $5 USD

Total Spent: $154.71 USD

Don Det – The 4,000 Islands

In the southern-most part of Laos, right on the border of Cambodia, in the middle of the Mekong, lies Don Det–one of the major islands of Si Phan Don, also known as the 4,000 Islands.

We arrived in Don Det after a pain staking journey from the North, ready to do what everyone comes to Don Det to do–nothing!

Well, not entirely nothing, but mostly.

We arrived by boat in the early afternoon where we promptly found a bungalow, equipped with a private bathroom and two hammocks in front.  We dropped off our bags and set off to walk the 7-8km path following the perimeter of the island to see what was going on.

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The main road of Don Det
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Jojo next to the river
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Some local livestock

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We explored the island for a couple of hours, passing by playing children, feral dogs, and local houses built on stilts.  We even passed a raging party of Laotians, in the middle of a dry rice field.  They were dancing to strange pop music and downing shots of lao lao, the local rice whisky.  At first we were anxious about interrupting their party, but then they started beckoning us to join them!  We declined because it was like 1pm, but it was really hilarious to see!

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Lao children carrying puppies down the road

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Once we got to the other side of the island, we stopped at a place called One Last Bar, where we ordered two amazing homemade ginger ales and enjoyed the riverside view.

Don Det is similar to Vang Vieng in that there are drug-filled edibles available everywhere (happy shakes, happy bags), lots of people with dreadlocks, and…not a ton of Lao culture.  That being said, it is wayyyyyyy less rowdy and much more laid back.  One could argue that Don Det is also a ‘party town’ but people are not nearly as loud or obnoxious about it.

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Not as subtle as in Vang Vieng

That evening, we had dinner at Jasmin Restaurant, (one of the best Indian restaurants ever) before retiring to our modest bungalow.  The mosquito net was essential too, because it was sweltering hot until about 3am (so we had to open the windows, to even be able to sleep.)

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The next morning we decided to move to a different bungalow.  There was nothing wrong with the one we had been in the first night, but we decided it would be worth the extra $2.50 to get one right on the river.

We found one on the other side of the island that better suited our needs, and decided the day would be best spent in the hammocks out front.  I do not exaggerate when I say that is all we did the entire day, with the exception of brief ventures out for food at mealtimes.  After our lengthy journey down the entirety of the country, it was well deserved and well appreciated!

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…and then we did the same exact thing the next day.  Don’t judge, you would have too.

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After two glorious days of doing nothing, we decided it was time to go out and explore again.  This time, we rented bicycles and rode across the bridge to the neighboring island of Don Khon.  

We rode along the bumpy dirt road of Don Det to the bridge that connects the two islands.  It was scenic, but also painful.

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The bumpy dirt road
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Crossing the bridge to Don Khon

Once we crossed the bridge, we headed straight for Tat Somphamit, also known as the Li Phi waterfalls.  Apparently ‘Li Phi’ means spirit trap and it is believed that the spirits of dead people and animals are trapped there.  Despite its morbid mythology, the raging waterfall was spectacular!

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The top of the Li Phi waterfalls

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We walked all the way down to the bottom of the falls to Li Phi Beach.  Although the water was much slower at the bottom, there were still signs warning people not to try to swim because of the currents.  It was still nice to walk along the beach, though.

We went back to our bikes and decided to continue on to Tha Sanam Beach a little further along, which was also really pleasant, though the sand was a thousand degrees and really painful to walk on.  We stopped for a coconut at one of the stands near the entrance before heading back.

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We rode back to Don Det in the blazing afternoon heat, just in time to catch sunset at a local restaurant.  The hazy clouds made it look like an orange ball just floating above the trees.

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We had done just about all there was to ‘do’ in the 4,000 Islands, but we wanted just one more day of lounging around in the hammocks.  After all, we still had a couple more days left on our Lao visas and we had no other destinations planned before heading to Cambodia.

So, we did!  And it was just as satisfying as the other days.  We also treated ourselves to a wood-fired pizza at a restaurant down the road which was excellent.

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…then Jojo got sick. 😦

We were worried it was food poisoning, but it ended up passing pretty quickly (and luckily, because had a long bus ride booked for the next morning.)

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We loved Don Det and wanted to stay forever.  We were really glad that our change of plans ended up taking us there, when we had not originally planned to go.

We were also sad to say goodbye to Laos, but excited to venture into Cambodia.  Laos was good to us, and we will surely visit again some day.

Our Grand Expedition from the North to South of Laos

To start this post, let us first explain how we ended up on the nonsensical route that we did.

Our original “plan” while traveling Southeast Asia was to start out in Vietnam, then go to Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia.  We started out in Vientiane Laos then headed north, with the intention of taking the two-day slow boat from Luang Prabang over to Thailand.  We would travel south through Thailand and then on to Cambodia before going back to Thailand where we have a potential gig lined up.

When doing some research on visas and the logistics of all this, we considered that perhaps it would be wiser to go to Cambodia before going to Thailand so that we wouldn’t have to worry about multiple Thai visas (since we would be leaving and then coming back.)  The unfortunate part of this plan was that we hadn’t considered it until we were already in Northern Laos.  This new plan would require backtracking down to Vientiane, and then traveling even further down to Pakse and the 4,000 Islands before crossing into Cambodia.

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15.5 hours. Right.

Here is what actually happened:

We started out with an uneventful, four hour bus ride from Nong Khiaw to Luang Prabang.  Once we arrived at the Luang Prabang bus stop, we intended to book a sleeper bus for that night down to Vientiane–only it was full, so we couldn’t.

At that point our choices were to stay the night in Luang Prabang and take a bus in the morning that would take all day and put us in Vientiane the following night, or to take a sleeper bus the following night.  12 hours sitting on a bus all day sounded horrid so we opted to hang out in Luang Prabang and take the sleeper bus the following night.

While we enjoyed relaxing in Luang Prabang one last time, we probably should have just taken the day bus, because then we could have gotten an actual night’s rest at a guesthouse in Vientiane.  Instead, we spent 12 agonizing hours in a Laos sleeper bus (why didn’t we learn the first time?) crunched up on the ground while the bus violently bounced and swayed all the way to Vientiane.

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We arrived in Vientiane at about 7am with another set of choices.  Do we take another 12 hour day bus straight away and head down to Pakse or wait and do another night bus?  With the horrors of the sleeper bus we had just exited fresh in our minds, we couldn’t bear the idea of doing it again two nights in a row.  Instead, we hopped on a bus two hours later, and headed down to Pakse.

We were assured that the bus to Pakse would be 12 hours, putting us in the city around 10pm which should have been a decent enough time to find a room for the night.  Only, the bus stopped half a hundred times on the way to Pakse for god knows what reasons, extending the journey to about 15 hours.

Do you know how many guesthouses are open at 1am in Pakse?  None.  There are none.

There was only one other backpacker on the bus with us who was also stuck in this situation and the three of us set out to find some kind of accommodation for the night.  Exhausted from no sleep and almost 30 hours on buses, we wandered the deserted streets of Pakse knocking on guesthouse windows, in hopes of waking up the employees and inquiring about rooms.  If that wasn’t bad enough, the people we were able to startle awake all told us that they were full.

An hour later, we found ourselves sitting on a bench by the road, all but given up.  “There is one more on my map, I’m going to go check it,” said our new Spanish friend.  Sure that his efforts would fail, as they had for the last hour, we sat on the bench consumed with exhaustion, frustration, and helplessness.  

Just as we were adjusting ourselves in preparation to sleep on this bench, the Spanish guy reappeared, waving.

“Come on, guys!”

We sprang up and he waved for us to follow him to this one last guesthouse he had found!  It was a little pricier than we would have liked, but being 2am and after what we had been through, we were grateful for anything.

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We woke up the next morning and decided we simply did not have the energy to get to Don Det that day.

Instead, we spent the day exploring Pakse, which is perhaps the most boring city on the planet earth.  Despite being the third largest Laotian city in population, there was hardly anyone around.  Anywhere.  The whole day.

There also isn’t really much to see or do in Pakse and it was Valentine’s Day, so we decided to celebrate by eating lots of delicious food that we normally wouldn’t splurge on.  For lunch it was Dok Mai Lao Caffe, an Italian restaurant run by two older Italian men which was excellent.  For dinner, it was Le Panorama on top of the Pakse Hotel where we could look out over the entire city and watch the sun set.

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The next morning, it was finally time for us venture on to the last leg of the journey to the 4,000 Islands.

A mini-bus picked us up from our hotel at 8am and took us to the bus that would take us about 3 hours south of Pakse to Ban Nakasang, where we boarded a ferry that took us to the island of Don Det, our home base during our stay in the 4,000 Islands.

Perhaps it wasn’t the most logical route, but we finally made it to Don Det, and the hammocks awaiting us on the porch made our arrival that much sweeter!

Journey Breakdown:

Wednesday 2/11: Bus from Nong Khiaw to Luang Prabang (4-5 hrs)

Thursday 2/12: Sleeper Bus from Luang Prabang to Vientiane (12 hrs)

Friday 2/13: Day bus from Vientiane to Pakse (15 hrs)

Saturday 2/14: Valentine’s Day in Pakse

Sunday 2/15: Bus/Ferry from Pakse to Don Det (3-4 hours)

Success!

Back to Nong Khiaw – The Viewpoint

After two phenomenal days spent in Muang Ngoi, it was time for us to start heading south.  Our visa would be expiring in 11 days and and we had to get all the way down to Cambodia before that.

We took the boat back to Nong Khiaw in the morning and decided that we couldn’t resist staying one more day, so we walked across the bridge and booked a bungalow for the night.

After dropping off our things, we decided the day would be well spent hiking up the steep trail to the Nong Khiaw Mountain Viewpoint; for what promised to be a spectacular 360 degree view of Nong Khiaw and its surroundings.

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Warning of unexploded bombs at the beginning of the trail
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A creature we spotted on the hike
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Beginning the ascent

The next hour and a half was sweaty trekking up steep inclines and steps through dense jungle and bamboo forests.

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Hiking up the mountain to the viewpoint

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Every once in a while, there would be a clearing in the trees and we could get a peak of what awaited us at the top of the mountain.

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The view from about half way up the mountain

We pressed on and on until we finally made it to the very top, and it really did not disappoint!

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We finally made it to the top!

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The view from the top made the difficult journey seem like nothing and we were happy to spend half an hour up there, enjoying the scenery while we regained our strength.

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Catching our breath at the top

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In some ways, the way back down the mountain was even harder than the way up due to the risk of sliding.  On the particularly steep parts, there were ropes on the side of the trail that you could use to brace yourself, but sometimes the pebbles underneath our feet would start rolling while we were standing on them.  We lost our footing more than a couple of times, but we made it to the bottom unscathed.

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Ropes lining the trail to aid in the treacherous descent

Once we were back down in Nong Khiaw, we crossed the bridge just in time for sunset, before a delicious curry dinner at Alex Restaurant and the comforts of our bungalow.

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Sunset over the Nam Ou River

We were really happy to squeeze one more day in Nong Khiaw before making our journey down through Laos.  Thus far, the Northern villages had been our favorite part of the country, but we were also excited to get down South!

Breakfast: 28,000kip

Oreos: 10,000kip

Boat: 50,000kip

Lunch (Joy’s): 65,000kip

Viewpoint Entrance Fee: 40,000kip

Water: 5,000kip

Water/Beer: 15,000kip

Alex Restaurant: 101,000kip

Sunrise Bungalow: 50,000kip

Total Spent: 364,000kip ($44.90 USD)

Muang Ngoi – The Northern Villages of Laos

Muang Ngoi Neua is a tiny riverside village even further north from Nong Khiaw.  To get there, we took a lovely one-hour boat ride up the Nam Ou River, passing water buffalo and fishing villagers surrounded by beautiful jungle and limestone karsts.

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Jojo on the boat from Nong Khiaw to Muang Ngoi
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Some passing water buffalo
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Villagers fishing in the river

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Once off the boat, we found a private bungalow overlooking the river at Nicksa’s, equipped with a mosquito net, a private bathroom, and two hammocks in the front.  Once we dropped our packs off, we walked along the main dirt road of the tiny town, populated by about 700.

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The main road of Muang Ngoi

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We chanced upon a sign pointing to the Tham Kang Cave and decided to follow.  We followed the dirt road for a little less than an hour, stopping now and then to admire the surrounding scenery.

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On our way to Tham Kang Cave
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Silly sign at the entrance

The Tham Kang Cave was used as a bomb shelter during the Vietnam War era, protecting people from the nearby villages.  The cave went reasonably deep and we spent some time exploring the crystalline rock formations until we could go no further.

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Tham Kang Cave
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A small grotto inside
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The mouth of the cave
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Exploring the inside of the cave
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Hard to see in the picture, but those structures were glittering with crystals!

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As we turned to make our way back, we quickly realized that the way out was not as obvious as the way in.  It took us nearly twice as long to get out of the cave because we kept getting lost and stuck at dead ends.  At this point, a group of four other travelers joined in our quest to escape the cave and after some time and only a brief moment of anxiety, we finally found our way out!

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Terrifying creature we found while we were lost (about 3-4 inches long)
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We made it out!

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After bonding over getting lost in the cave, the six of us decided to continue onward to the nearby village of Huay Bo.  We walked and walked and walked through vast farms and dirt roads, all the while surrounded by the stunning feats of nature.

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Walking to Huay Bo Village

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A helpful sign… (cross river?)
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Yes, this is what the sign meant.

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The village of Huay Bo is teeny tiny, with a population of just over 200, and looks sort of like one big farm.  We explored the village, waving to people and watching the children play together.  Similar to Nong Khiaw, some of the kids in this village had some serious ‘tudes, which was really hilarious at times!

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The school in Huay Bo Village
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Some sassy kids

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After stopping for a beer and a sit break, we made our way back to Muang Ngoi as the sun was going down.  The sky lit up in beautiful reds and purples, illuminating the landscape in a way that was truly magical.

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Walking back to Muang Ngoi
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Gorgeous sky at dusk

Then it got dark, and then it got really dark.  After walking with our flashlights for a while, we decided to turn them off to look at the stars.  It was pitch black, without a hint of light pollution, and there were hundreds of thousands stars to be seen when we looked up at the sky.  We stood there for a long time, to the soundtrack of a hundred thousand chirping crickets.

We were starving when we finally made it back to Muang Ngoi, and stopped at an Indian restaurant called Meen for dinner before heading back to our bungalow for the night.

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The next morning, we woke up intending to take advantage of the endless relaxation to be had in Muang Ngoi.  We got breakfast at a nearby restaurant, then came back to our bungalow to lay in our hammocks and sip Beer Lao, read, and enjoy the stunning view across the river.

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The view from our bungalow
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Doesn’t get much better than this. 🙂

After hanging out and relaxing all day, we went to Riverside Restaurant for dinner and a drink.  The restaurant was also right next to the river and lit up with colorful lanterns.

Muang Ngoi was one of the places where we would have been happy to linger forever, and it was really difficult to leave.  However, we had an epic journey ahead of us and needed to get back to Nong Khiaw in the morning, so we spent the rest of the evening enjoying our last few hours in the tranquil town before retiring back to our bungalow.

2/8

Breakfast: 54,000kip

Boat to Muang Ngoi: 50,000kip

Lunch (Nicksa’s): 35,000kip

Water/Beer: 15,000kip

Cave/Village Entrance: 20,000kip

Beer: 15,000kip

Dinner (Meen): 95,000kip

Nicksa’s Bungalow: 60,000kip

Total Spent: 344,000kip ($42.36 USD)

2/9

Breakfast: 28,000kip

Riverside Restaurant: 123,000kip

2-Water: 10,000kip

Beer: 10,000kip

Nicksa’s Bungalow: 60,000kip

Total Spent: 231,000kip ($28.45 USD)

Nong Khiaw – Exploring Northern Laos

We booked a mini-bus from Luang Prabang to Nong Khiaw at our hotel.  We were picked up around 8:30am and transported to the bus station, where we were crammed into a minibus and set off to our destination.  The roads were horrible as expected and our driver flew over the potholes in a way that made our heads bang against the ceiling of the van, but we made it there in about three and a half hours instead of the four or five we were expecting.

We were hounded by tuk tuk drivers offering us rides into the town, but it was a short walk so we decided to go on our own.  Once there, we negotiated a room with a balcony overlooking the river for 50,000kip a night, which we were very pleased about.

Nong Khiaw is absolutely stunning and the epitome of peaceful.  It’s situated between towering mountains and divided by the Ou River, surrounded by fantastic views and charming in itself.  The local children are adorable to watch as they bike and run up and down the road playing and teasing passerbys.  One little boy even shot at us with a bamboo mud gun!  We spent the afternoon enjoying the town and went to a fantastic Indian restaurant for dinner.

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The view from our guesthouse in Nong Khiaw

The next day, we set out on adventure to explore the surrounding areas of Nong Khiaw.  We saw signs pointing toward a cave, so we decided to start there.  It ended up being one of the most scenic hikes we’d ever been on!  

The journey started on a dirt road through the mountains.

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Following the dirt road to the caves
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There were loads of funnel-web spiders along the path!

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Soon, we came upon a village where we paid a small fee to get to the cave.  After walking a short way through the village, the painted arrows directed us through breathtaking fields and farms, all surrounded by the towering mountains in the distance.

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Passing through the village
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Walking along the dried rice paddies
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In the wet season, each section is flooded and used to grow rice
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More fields

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After we got through the farms, we followed a small path through the jungle and up to the caves.

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Hiking through the jungle, getting closer to the cave

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When we finally made it to the cave, there were more painted signs that said things like “Assembly Group” and “Meeting Room.”  During the war, this region was heavily bombed, and the local people took shelter in the surrounding caves.  We assumed that the signs had something to do with what they used each ‘room’ of the cave for during those tragic times.

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We finally made it to the Houay Tor Cave!
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A spooky old lantern found in one of the rooms of the cave

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After exploring the cave and making our way back, we arrived back in Nong Khiaw many hours later and got lunch at Delilah’s, a well known cafe in Nong Khiaw.

We spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing after our long and difficult hike before getting dinner at Deen, the same Indian restaurant we went to the night before.  (That’s how much we loved it!)

Nong Khiaw was beautiful, and well worth the horrid bus ride north from Luang Prabang; and we would be venturing even further north to Muang Ngoi the following day!

2/6

Bus to Nong Khiaw: 130,000kip

Snacks: 7,000kip

Water: 5,000kip

Vinat Restaurant: 60,000kip

Deen Indian Restaurant: 71,000kip

Accommodation: 50,000kip

2/6 Total Spent: 323,000kip ($39.89 USD)

2/7

Breakfast: 40,000kip

Huoy Tor Cave Entrance Fee: 10,000kip

Delilah’s (Lunch): 85,000kip

Deen Indian Restaurant: 72,000kip

Accommodation: 50,000kip

2/7 Total Spent: 257,000kip ($31.74 USD)