October 2012

One tour I’ll actually take

Kayaking tours on Don Det Island in Laos

I’m cheap. In fact, I’m very cheap. Luckily, while traveling, I also typically enjoy cheap activities, such as reading, writing and plopping down in the middle of an interesting place and people watching for days. While many travelers find these things interesting as well, some like to ruin the cheap, backpacking destinations for the rest of us, and encourage locals to start turning everything in to a tour. Shame on them.

Though I render myself a hypocrite with this post, there is one tour I encourage everyone to do while visiting Laos. On the sleepy river island known as Don Det, everyone should dish out $25 and go on a full day kayaking tour around the southern part of the Mekong River. The tour can be booked on literally every corner of the small island, and all of the attractions that are advertised on the hilarious signs are included in your trip.

My tour started at 8:00 a.m. with a decent breakfast through our travel company. The place was called Mr. B’s, and though the waitress didn’t seem to find my humor charming at this point in the morning, my full breakfast with coffee and water was definitely provided. After breakfast, the others in the tour and myself were given life jackets, dry bags, and traditional Asian hats for sun protection to start the trip.

Tired travel topics

Four topics to avoid discussing with other travelers

First off, let’s give a round of applause to that alliteration. Nothing sounds better than three T’s in a row. Standing ovation aside, when one becomes a seasoned traveler, they start to see patterns. Some of the patterns occur between people of different cultures, or in landscapes, but some also occur within the realm of people you meet. Though you will inevitably end up speaking the same words over and over, such as where you are from, certain topics need to be put to rest. Here is a list of topics that should be banned amongst backpackers.

The beautiful beaches of the Mekong

Don Khon Beach

With beautiful beaches scattered all over Southeast Asia, it would be ludicrous to think someone would waste their time on a beach in a river, right? Wrong! The secluded, sandy beach found on the island of Don Khon in southern Laos is a great place to spend a few lazy days.

The island of Don Khon is found in the 4,000 Islands region of the Mekong River. Not to be confused with Don Khong, Don Khon is a sleepy little island, that is attached to its more touristy, but still quite isolated, island of Don Det. Both islands are accessible from the town of Ban Nagasang, and both offer cheap accommodation, great food and tranquility.

To find the beach, those staying on Don Det (where most accommodation is found) can rent a pedal bike for a little over 1 USD per day. These can be hired at literally ALL guesthouses, as well as any store. The bike journey consists of about 5 km on a dirt path, and boasts beautiful scenery, and lovely Laotian children chasing you down the path. You can cut the ride a bit short by taking the main road, instead of the bike trail, but be prepared to be blasted by gravel from speeding Tuk Tuks.

Tham Kong Lor Cave in Laos

A natural tunnel seven kilometers long

Certain natural phenomena are absolutely breathtaking. Be it gorgeous mountains, powerful waterfalls or tranquil beaches, travel is often dictated by finding these natural wonders, and braving any ride that may lie between you and basking in its glory. This, for me, was the case with Tham Kong Lor Cave in central Laos.

Vientiane isn’t my favorite place on Earth

Hassled by police for no apparent reason

I’ve learned a lot about backpacking through word of mouth. Though the initial idea for many travelers is to pick up a guidebook and try and plan their trip, word of mouth is the best way for travelers to learn about great places to visit, and the happenings in countries they are hoping to wander in.

One polarizing topic of conversation for many backpackers is the capital city in Laos. Vientiane itself isn’t too loud nor raucous, as well as being clean and having some beautiful architecture. A number of travelers seem to hate it though. This, of course, prompted a stop over for me on my way down south.

As I pulled into the capital via motorbike, I found myself greeted by traffic. Though there was an abundance of cars and motorcycles, the driving itself was much less reckless than the rest of the country (as well as Southeast Asia). People primarily stayed in their lanes and motorcycles weren’t wreaking havoc. This was a false indication of how my trip would ensue.

The COPE Center in Vientiane, Laos

Learn about the history and people of Laos

Among the hustle and bustle of Laos’s capital city, one can find many things to do. Though great food, massage and places to shop are in abundance, it’s not always the touristy destinations that offer the most rewarding experiences in a city. In fact, it’s rarely these destinations.

For those wanting to learn more about Laos, its people, and its history, look no further than the COPE (Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise) Center. This local organization works with the National Rehabilitation Center, outside NGOs and the Lao Ministry of Health to help those who have been affected by unexploded bombs from the Vietnam War. According to their website, the four main roles of the center are:

Meeting other Americans while traveling

The pros and cons of travelers from your home turf

As much as backpackers try and integrate into the local culture, the fact is they are still tourists. Through things like volunteering, learning the language and home stays, it is becoming easier and easier to integrate into local ways of life. Even so, as a tourist you are going to meet other tourists. This is the nature of the game.

Southeast Asia is a literal hotbed for visitors from all around the world. Due to proximity, many Asians, Australians and Europeans tend to roam here. Once upon a blue moon you’ll meet Americans, South Americans and Canadians as well.  With that being said, as an American, I haven’t quite decided how I feel about meeting and traveling with other Americans.

Vang Vieng is disgusting

Tourism can ruin the beauty and culture of faraway lands

Traveling is a blessing. It is a way to see different walks of life, learn from cultures other than your own, and see beautiful landscapes that don’t appear out of your window back home. Though there are many different ideas on travel, and many different ways to do it, one thing is for sure, sometimes tourism can completely destroy a town.

Yes, in fact, your Tuk Tuk driver is drunk

Luang Prabang hospitality

When I made it to Luang Prabang, I was suffering from Paradise hangover. I know, I know, my life is very tough. I had just spent an amazing week with a beautiful Swiss girl in a mountain oasis, and I wasn’t ready for the shock of an incredibly touristy town. I had heard good things, but on initial encounter, I was quite disappointed.

After settling in, and having spent my first night doing nothing, I decided to walk around the town. I had heard about great waterfalls to visit, but I felt that I had to try and seek the out what my traveling friends had felt when they said they loved LP.

After walking from one end to the other, and seeing the riverside attractions for both rivers (the Namou and Mekong) I decided to take refuge at a small stand selling cold drinks. This is where my day got interesting.

Don't be the asshole in the dorm

Respect quiet hours, don't hook up, don't smoke and don't make a mess!

It’s 3 a.m. and unfortunately I’ve been awoken from my slumber. Oh wait, it’s not 3 a.m., it’s the next morning, but that is the hour I was awoken by the A-holes in my hostel who decided to come back and turn on the lights, try to hook up, then try and roll joints and watch TV until I so graciously told them to shut the fuck up and go to the common room.

World renowned ice breakers and jokes

Old tricks to spark a conversation

Backpacking is a game of strategy. You do your best to find the best value for your trip, both monetarily, as well as with the people you meet and the places you go. After a few days or weeks (or months if you are REALLY slow on the uptake) you realize that guidebooks and websites are decent sources for some knowledge on the country you’re visiting, but the best source of knowledge is actually speaking with locals and fellow travelers.

With this being said, sometimes the conversation becomes quite monotonous. To help bypass the boring, and get you closer to better conversation, connections and information, here are some award-winning (not a true fact) jokes and icebreakers to use while backpacking.

The “That will be (insert denomination and currency) please:” Travelers find out quickly that most things are possible, but they come at a price. Often times you think you will be meeting the nicest person, who wants to help you out, only to find out they want some cash in return. One easy way to break the ice with other travelers is to help them do something, then jokingly tell them that it will cost them a small denomination in the local currency. Is the joke old? Yes it is. Is it used? Like a pair of second-hand gym shorts. Does it still get a smile, though? Yes it does!

Hoy Taw Cave in Nong Kiaw, Laos

Head lamp and good walking shoes required.

Quickly becoming a destination on the Laos loop, Nong Kiaw is a sleepy little mountain town resting on the Namou River. Though it only stretches for a few yards, the town has a great feel, and offers a variety of things to do. Only 200 kms north of Luang Prabang, the Nong Kiaw is accessible by boat and bus.

After finding a guest house, one of the most fun attractions to visit is the Hoy Taw Cave. To start your journey, head north out of the town on the dirt road by the main bridge. There are signs pointing you the right direction, and the path itself is very pleasant.

The walk is about one hour on rolling hills to the entrance. Though this seems long, the weather in Nong Kiaw isn’t too grueling, and the sounds of the animals and river help guide you on your way. To the right side, the path is lined by amazing mountains, and in between deep jungle, you are able to see small pists and bamboo houses.