CAM, listening intently as his instructor shows him how to make some traditional Laotian food at a half-day cooking class in Vientiane.
CAM, listening intently as his instructor shows him how to make some traditional Laotian food at a half-day cooking class in Vientiane.
This post is part of a series called Itineraries. In this series I document the itinerary which we used when visiting a country in summary.
When Visited: February 2011
Duration: 15 days
Laos Itinerary Day 1: Crossing the Mekong from Thailand to Laos
There’s always a frisson of excitement about crossing a border. Crossing the Mekong from Thailand to Laos was a little higher than “frisson” on the excitement scale, it was an adventure. We sat on our packs in a low boat. We gambled on being able to buy visas at the post on the other side and on there being a functioning ATM and somewhere to stay in the village on the other side. All part of your average backpacking day. Funny how navigating a day like that can make a simple supper in a no-frills cafe feel like a meal fit for a king.
Laos Itinerary Day 2-4: Gibbon XP, Huay Xai
I’d read about the Gibbon Experience months before and we were all looking forward to spending three days in treehouses, zip-lining and observing gibbons in the jungle. We didn’t plan on losing our child in the jungle but even though that made for a drama-filled initial 24 hours, the rest of our Gibbon Experience was excellent. It’s definitely worth checking out if you plan on visiting this part of Laos.
Laos Itinerary Day 4-5: Boat to Luang Prabang (o/n at Pak Beng)
The single lane roads between Huay Xai and Luang Prabang are barely paved (fairly common in Northern Laos). The boat trip down the Mekong is reputedly a better transit option. As I described in my post on the slow boat to Luang Prabang we had one day where this was decidedly untrue and a second day lazily and comfortably enjoying the scenery. On balance I recommend this boat trip but be aware that over-crowding may be a problem.
Laos Itinerary Day 5-8: Luang Prabang
Unfortunately we were all sick in Luang Prabang. We didn’t really enjoy our stay here nor get to appreciate the beauty of this old capital of Laos – but we do have some lovely photos from a day-long ramble about the old town. We’ll just have to go back. Obviously if I’m saying that it’s worth keeping on your itinerary.
Laos Itinerary Day 9: Vang Vieng
Initially I thought we’d stay a day or two in Vang Vieng – enough time to break the journey from Luang Prabang to Vientiane and maybe have some fun rafting or inner tubing on the river. That was before I saw Vang Vieng for myself, in the flesh, if you will. It is a hedonistic heaven or hell (depending on your perspective). When Murph and I went for dinner in a basic restaurant on the main street we were given the menu (for food) and the “special menu” on which there was both weed and opium in quantities large and small. It made the $3 whiskey buckets look tame. I’m just glad I didn’t go there until I was over 40 and I’ve already told my kids they’re not allowed visit, ever (or at least until they’re over 40 too). We arrived in the evening and got the first available bus onwards the next day. You may choose to do the same or not – to each their own.
Laos Itinerary Day 10-12: Vientiane
In Vientiane we stayed at the Villa Lao Traditional House guesthouse. We felt like guests welcomed into someone’s home. The rooms are fairly basic but the gardens are carefully tended and are a true pleasure to relax in especially since there aren’t many green spaces in Vientiane. Unfortunately we were all still sick for most of the time we were in Vientiane so we didn’t explore the city much. We did eat at the street food markets by the river which has a great ambiance and tasty, budget-friendly food. Murph and CAM took cooking classes at the guesthouse: they cooked, BigB and I ate :). We stepped into a time machine and went back to the 1960s for a few hours, uh, sorry, visited the Lao National Museum – definitely a novel experience for our geeky millennial children.
Day 11: Travel day to Phonsavan (Plain of Jars)
Like I said, the roads in Northern Laos are pretty bad. It’s 240 miles (380km) from Vientiane to Phonsavan. The journey is supposed to take 5 hours – and that’s after the hour-and-a-half this bus took to leave the city limits. If you plan to follow this route, pack your patience.
Laos Itinerary Day 12-13: Phonsavan
Our two days in Phonsavan were worth the effort it took to get there. On one level this was an unparalleled educational experience: we all learned about the Secret War and the way Laos was incessantly bombed during this time. We visited the MAG offices in Phonsavan and learned about their de-mining work. We were not very impressed by the Plain of Jars but we had a completely unorthodox “day tour” around the surrounding areas visiting some villages and local craftswomen which more than made up for that.
Laos Itinerary Day 14-15: Sam Neua
I planned our visit to Sam Neua for two reasons: firstly because it looked like a “more interesting” way to get from Vientiane to Hanoi (hah! what was I thinking!) and secondly as a continuation of the “Laos during the Vietnam War” edu-tour. Sam Neua was where the Pathet Lao hid during that time. Over twenty thousand people lived in the Viengxay cave complex for seven years. There complex included offices, a hospital, living quarters and even a “theater”. It was an utterly riveting place to visit even if it felt like we’d stepped back into the 1960s with the abundance of Cold War references, memorabilia and the general look and feel of the place.
Just from my own observations it seemed that Laos was the least developed country we visited during our year of travel. The people are indeed wholehearted and kind-hearted (the local brew is Beerlao, “the beer of the wholehearted people”) and the scenery, with broad river valleys through jagged karst mountains and pristine jungle territories, makes you want to find your inner Ansel Adams. As I wrote the itinerary above I realized that what with being sick and generally being focused on educational opportunities, we really didn’t get to see the best of Laos. We’ll just have to go back.
The day after we visited the Killing Fields memorial and Tuol Seng, this young monk called by our hostel as we were having breakfast. Unprompted, BigB jumped from his seat to give alms and say a prayer. I think it was his way of responding to what he’d seen the day before.
Head on over to DeliciousBaby for more travel-themed Photo Friday fun.
Today’s guest post is by Keryn Means of Walking on Travels.
Winter fun isn’t just for the big kids. Little ones can dive in feet first with family-friendly activities for kids of any age, many of which are free or cheap, and will never take place on the famed slopes of Whistler.
Get the kids bundled up and head into Whistler Village with mittens and a sled in tow. A man-made hill perfect for toddlers to climb is set up in the main field. Spend hours zooming down over and over again; the free fun may never end. Thankfully there are plenty of coffee shops near by to grab a beverage and warm up before the next round of excitement.
After you have had enough of snow down your pants you can let the kids decide between the playground or ice rink. The playground is accessible for children of all mobility needs and skill levels, making it a great place to make new friends and even have an epic snowball fight in the tree house.
Ice-skating doesn’t have to just be for the big kids. For $5 you can rent skates and get a free helmet to borrow for toddlers. Our 2 year old had no problem fitting his toes in a pair. Plus they have small walkers for younger skaters that need a little help in the balance department. The best time to go is when the slopes are open and all the older kids are off snowboarding down the mountain. Our 2 year old son wasn’t quite ready to go out on ice on his own, but we had a blast helping him and falling down together.
If you are up for it you can head over to the Tube Park, although not free or cheap for that matter, it is still a great time for kids ages 3 and up. Parents can’t ride in their child’s tube with them, but you can hang onto it as they go down.
Ski school starts at 3 years old, which is the perfect age. No fear and they still bounce at this age, unlike their parents who have to worry about breaking an arm if we hit a bad patch of ice on our board.
But what about the babies? Those not quite walking don’t have to be kept out of the fun. Most hotels in the area have outdoor heated pools and hot tubs. If you don’t want to bring your baby outside you can always head to the Meadow Park Sports Centre for some indoor water fun.
Before the kids head to bed make sure you check out the Sunday night Fire and Ice Show. This was a huge hit with our toddler. He never would have left if it weren’t for our freezing toes and growling bellies.
When all else fails babysitters are on hand to give mom and dad a break so they can hit the slopes for a few hours alone time. Either way you go, the whole family, right down to the smallest snow fanatic, will have a blast on slopes of Whistler’s.
BIO: Keryn Means is the founder of Walking on Travels, a site that gives hope to today’s modern parent who doesn’t want to stop their lives; they simply bring their kids along for the ride. You can find Keryn dragging her 2 boys around Seattle most days and across the globe several times a year. Follow along on their adventures on Facebook, Google+ and Twitter.
This post is part of a series called Itineraries. In this series I’ll document the itinerary which we used when visiting a country in summary.
When visited: March 2011
Duration: 9 days
Day 1: Travel day from HCMC to Phnom Penh
It was easy to find a coach from Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh since this is common, well-traveled path for locals and tourists. You see bus companies advertising services all over central HCMC and in hostels/hotels. We picked a reasonable-looking operator and bought tickets the day before for a mid-morning departure. The bus ride is an easy six hours. We paid ~$15 each for seats on an air-conditioned coach (and the AC worked!). The border crossing was painless: get off the bus, line up, show your passport, get back on the bus, carry on.
Day 2: Phnom Penh: Killing fields, Tuol Seng
Even when you travel for an extended period (a year for us) and you think you’re jaded and every temple and castle starts to look the same, you can still have unforgettable days. This was one of those. We visited the Killing Fields memorial and the Tuol Seng prison. We took a private tour at the Killing Fields. Half way through we stood at a tree and our guide explained that infants were killed here by having their heads bashed against the sturdy trunk to save bullets. The ground felt like it was going to give way from under me. My stomach lurched. BigB clutched on to me – many months later he confessed that at that moment he just stopped listening, his 10-year-old mind couldn’t process the horror.
We went back into Phnom Penh proper to visit Tuol Seng, the school that the Khmer Rouge converted into a prison. I thought of my friend Pam who’d told me that she sobbed on the street outside this place. Maybe it was because I was still wrapping my head around the sights of the Killing Fields but I walked through Tuol Seng in a bit of a daze. CAM and BigB checked out completely. And then outside we met Bou Meng, one of the only survivors of this prison. He told us his story, we bought his book. He was positively cheerful talking to us. Then my tears came. I felt ashamed. I remember watching The Killing Fields and reading about the Khmer Rouge. I couldn’t plead ignorance of what had happened here but I, like most of the rest of the world, moved on and stopped paying attention – even though the Khmer Rouge was still in existence until 1999!
Day 3: Travel day from Phnom Penh to Siam Reap
Let’s just say that a day of doing nothing more challenging than looking out a bus window was very welcome after what we’d seen on the previous day.
Day 4-7: Siam Reap, Angor Wat
In Siam Reap we stayed at the budget luxury Central Boutique Angkor through which we booked an Angkor Wat tour – starting at sunrise. After the obligatory photo moment we spent hours walking through temples, learning about different kinds of temples, different Khmer eras and generally scrambling about the vast complex. The size was a bonus for keeping our boys engaged but they were templed-out at least an hour before we were. Like many other huge tourist sites worldwide this is one where I think budgeting for a multi-day visit (in money and time) is a worthwhile investment.
Over the next two days we lazed by the pool, caught up on schoolwork (for the kids) and explored Siam Reap. Murph and CAM did a half-day Khmer cooking school at one of the restaurants in Siam Reap’s central tourist area. Murph and I also got to go to one of the more unusual classical music concerts we’ve ever attended: a cello concert given by Dr. Beat Richner (Dr. Beatocello) at the Kantha Bopha hospital in Siam Reap. As well as some great music we learned about his work in Cambodia and the dire state of public health in this impoverished country.
Day 8: Blood donation in Siam Reap, travel to North Cambodia
Dr. Beatocello impressed us so much that the next morning we returned to the hospital to donate blood – ironic really since as people who lived in Ireland in the 1980s we can’t donate blood at home in the U.S.
In the afternoon we were picked up by some people from American Assistance for Cambodia a charity that funds the building and operation of schools in Cambodia for a long, bumpy ride north towards the Thai border.
Day 9: Passport school opening ceremony
There’s a full trip report of our visit to the Passports school and the opening ceremony here.
Day 10: Travel day from Siam Reap to Bangkok
Siam Reap to Poipet, on the western Thai border is a pretty straight run on pretty well-maintained roads. The border crossing was also straightforward. We hadn’t booked onward transport but were savvy enough to know to walk away from the touts hanging around at the exit checkpoint. A little further in we stopped at a cafe and took our time before selecting a minibus in which to travel onward. Even with that we ended up on a overcrowded bus – the extra passengers added after we had paid and were on board. This is something which, it seems, is almost impossible to avoid when traveling independently in Thailand.
This post is part of a series called Itineraries. In this series I’ll document the itinerary which we used when visiting a country in summary. I realized I needed to add this information to help my friends and family who read my blog when planning their travels. Enjoy!
When visited: February 2011
Duration: 21 days
Day 1: Travel day from Xam Neua to Hanoi
We entered Vietnam over land from Xam Neua, Laos. The border crossing was uneventful. The bus ride was miserable. I don’t recommend this route to anyone – unless you’re going out of your way to get off the beaten track and want to haggle over pennies with bus drivers that stop for drinks and suspect-looking pipes in every village.
Day 2-4: Hanoi
In Hanoi we stayed at the Rendevous Hostel – booked via Hostelworld.com – which we loved ($40/night in a four-person dorm). The location in central old Hanoi is perfect for anyone with limited time in the city who wants to be in the thick of things every moment. We loved the hand-painted versions of Vietnam-themed movie posters in the restaurant. In our three days in Hanoi we walked all over the old city, visited the “Hanoi Hilton” prison and did a 1-day tour including visiting the Ho Chi Minh memorial and various other city sites. The high point for this family of geeks on tour? we passed an apartment block called the “Hanoi Towers”. Photos were taken. We did not attempt the puzzle with these buildings.
We took an overnight train from Hanoi to Hue. Our bunks were in a four-person compartment like on an older European train. Trains do book out quickly so if you plan to take a train in Vietnam this is something you may want to book ahead of time or at least as soon as you arrive.
Day 5-6: Hue
In Hue we stayed at the microscopic but charming Hue Nino Hotel which is on the north side of the main tourist area and across the river from the historical sights. This time we had one double room and one twin for $20 per room per night. The staff here was so lovely and tremendously friendly and welcoming so we picked them up some flowers at a local flower market just to say thanks. I think the flowers ended up costing more than our total hotel bill. In our wanders around Hue we spent almost a whole day at the Imperial Citadel, a beautiful site, which is an important reminder that Vietnamese history did not start with the Vietnam War.
Day 7: Travel day from Hue to Nha Trang
We took an early morning bus from Hue to the impossibly pretty Hoi An. If I could go back to Vietnam tomorrow I would plan to spend at least a couple of days in this picturesque little town. Sadly we had a brief four hours, just enough time for a quick walk around and lunch and then it was time to catch our overnight bus to Nha Trang. If at all possible, avoid overnight buses in Vietnam. The sleeper seats are made for people 5′ and shorter. Thankfully we were able to catch up on sleep on the beach in Nha Trang.
Day 8-15: Nha Trang and Whale Island
Our primary reason for stopping Nha Trang was to scuba dive. CAM and BigB took a certification course with Rainbow Divers. However after three nights at party central aka Backpackers House ($30/night total) we gave up and moved to Whale Island resort – a perfect island retreat just north of Nha Trang. The full board price came in at $140/night which was a steal for the quality of food served.
Having learned our lesson on our overnight bus from Hue, we took the train to Ho Chi Minh City where we celebrated the half-way point of our year-long trip.
Day 16-20: Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and Mekong Delta
On a whim we stopped by the Mekong Bike Tours offices in HCMC and found that they had spots open on a three-day cycling tour of the Mekong delta leaving the next day. This being the very kind of serendipitous event that we love when we travel, we signed up. The homestay accommodation on the delta was spotty but the overall experience was worth the effort, even if we did get stuck in a rain storm where the water rose to three feet in the streets over an hour only to recede just as quickly.
And just like that we were out of time in Vietnam. The next morning we caught a bus from central Ho Chi Minh to Phnom Penh.
When I looked up the details on the Skip The Line Eiffel Tower Tour on GetYourGuide.com I was skeptical about the duration shown. Three hours, really? How can it take that long to walk the 4.5kms from the Church of the Madeleine to the Eiffel Tower? How am I going to keep my kids engaged on a three-hour walk? As it turned out, the three hours flew by in a whirl of ambling, chatting, French history and fun.
The map above is the route we took. We stood at the church of the Madeleine and shivered on a brisk November day. Alex, our young Kiwi guide did a short round of introductions and then directed us to look straight down the broad street to the imposing building across the river. The Assemblee Nationale. Hey, look at that, it looks just like the church. That was a deft distraction from the cold and almost an abrupt: “Right, we’re going to spend the next few hours talking about French architecture, French culture and French history – but it doesn’t have to be painful. Let’s go have fun.” With that our little group of 12 was off.
And so it went. At the Place de la Concorde you could see that Alex particularly enjoyed regaling macabre and gruesome details about the “Place de la Revolution”. (My kids lapped it up in true teenage boy fashion). Without noticing we’d had a mini crash course in La Revolution we crossed the street and within minutes we were deep into whether or not Lance Armstrong should repay the Hotel Crillon for his eight complimentary stays there (a little-known benefit of winning the Tour de France) or not. Next up was a stop that you can only do while on a walking tour: a pause on the pedestrian crossing looking down the Champs Elysee. Just for good measure (while we waited for the lights to change again) Alex directed our group to observe even more historical and architectural French flair i.e. the symmetry of the view from the Jardin des Tuileries towards the Arc de Triomphe. We crossed the river and had our first photo shot with the famous Tour in the background. My kids were actually excited, who’d have thought?
(And yes, my older son is so proud that he towers over me he thought a shot of him towering with the Tower in the background would be appropriate. Sigh.)
Who walked along the river for another French history lesson stop at Les Invalides and then crossed back across the Seine. From my husband: “Careful BigB, you’d better not fall into the river – you’d be in-seine. Haha.” Witty Murphys.
In a lull in our tour guide’s banter and a little time while the rest of the group quietly enjoyed the walk we got the dreaded “I’m bored” from CAM and BigB. “Let’s do cities, you go first – start with A”. By the time Alex gathered the group at the next stop BigB had charmed the other people in our group into helping him remember the names of cities and almost everyone else was listening in on our game.
We stopped at the Flame of Liberty, the unofficial memorial for Princess Diana, found yet another statue of Simon Bolivar on his horse and continued on towards the Museum of Modern Art. Of course we talked about the May 2010 heist of paintings by Picasso and Matisse. The story, a comedy of errors, with CCTV cameras pointing the wrong way, a fancy new alarm installed but not turned on and sleeping security guards sounds like a movie script. And the exterior cameras still appear to be pointing in the wrong direction. CAM was fascinated.
The last stretch of our walk took us down Avenue de New York to the Jardins du Trocadero for an Eiffel Tower picture-taking fest followed by a mini-lecture on everything you ever wanted to know about the history and construction of the Eiffel Tower. It was just as well we were done with our letters game (thanks to even Alex for pitching in on the awkward letters X, V and Y) so we could all focus on learning about Gustaf Eiffel, the 1889 World’s Fair and the other nitty gritty details. My geek boys loved that the tower escaped demolition because wireless antennas were installed during WWI.
Alex escorted our group to the base of the tower and said his goodbyes. A tour guide who is so enthusiastic in his subject matter, who easily engages with each of the members of our tour group and has fun with kids is a rare thing. We genuinely enjoyed our three-hour walk while learning more than we thought we’d ever know about Paris and France. The best part of the tour though, was the skip-the-line part at the tower. By the time we got there it was dark and cold and the line was still quite long. We were waved on to the express elevator for a quick ride to the first platform where we had a short wait before riding all the way to the top. What a view.
You can book the Skip The Line Eiffel Tour on the GetYourGuide website. I highly recommend it – we had a blast.
Before our trip to Paris GetYourGuide, a Swiss booking website for tours and activities had contacted me and invited me to take one of their tours in exchange for writing a review of the tour. GetYouGuide provided us with complimentary tickets to the Skip The Line Eiffel Tower tour for all four of us but did not stipulate that I express any particular point of view in my review.
As Nicole Wickenhauser, the Senior Development Manager at Water.org that we’ve been working with said: “The $100,000 goal will enable Water.org to work with communities in Boucan Carre and Mirebalais to build five new wells. Each well will serve an average of 370 people.”
Today is the last day of Passports with Purpose 2012.
Just for today, you can double your donation!!
– Donate to Passports with Purpose at: DONATE.
– Leave a comment below telling me that you donated.
– OR Tweet “My donation to @PassportPurpose was matched by @wandermom #PwP #PwPMatch”.
– OR Share on Facebook “My donation to http://facebook.com/passportswithpurpose was matched by http://facebook.com/wandermom”.
From 00:01 12/11/2012 PST to 20:59 12/11/2012 PST (23:59 EST) I will match all donations up to a total of $2,500.
A reminder on how Passports with Purpose works: For each $10 donation, you get to bid on a prize of your choice, ranging from hotel stays, travel packages and gear to tours, gift certificates and electronics. Your donation will help fund wells that will bring clean water and so much opportunity to Haiti. Prize winners will be announced on December 18.
My Passports with Purpose prize is a 26-day Silk Road Tour generously provided by Intrepid Travel.
I thrilled to be part of Passports with Purpose. I would never have thought of doing something like this if it weren’t for my friend Debbie. Sometimes you just need someone to give you a push, you know?
I’m excited and proud that this is our fifth year. As with every other year, I’m terrified of our fundraising goal (this year it is to raise $100,000 to build five wells in two communities in Haiti with Water.org).
I’m humbled by the support and enthusiasm of the community of travel bloggers from around the world who participate in Passports with Purpose. I’m awed by the list of incredible prizes donated by the 100+ travel and tourism companies who also participate.
But above all, this year I am honored to be able to offer as my prize a 26-day Tour of Central Asia donated by Intrepid Travel. Murph and I traveled through this region in Spring 2011 with our boys. We found it fascinating to observe ethnic and cultural changes on people’s faces and on the streets. I sat in a cafe in Bukhara and looked up at the Kalon Minaret, which Genghis Khan spared when he sacked this city in 1220AD. It was over 30C but I had goosebumps.
Since this is such an amazing prize, I asked the Intrepid Travel to comment on why they support Passports with Purpose so generously. Here’s what Eliza Anderson, Global PR Manager for Intrepid had to say:
“Why do we support Passports with Purpose? Intrepid supports Passports with Purpose because we’ve always applauded innovation, particularly in the area of responsible travel. Traveling in a way that respects local cultures, people and environments is something we have always believed in. It’s a part of everything we do from taking local transport, eating at local restaurants and staying in small, locally owned accommodation; to The Intrepid Foundation which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. We are inspired by the creative way Passports with Purpose brings the travel and blogging community together to create positive change and we are honored to be a part of this great initiative.”
You can check out this 26-day Silk Road Tour and all the other prizes on the DONATE page.
A reminder on how Passports with Purpose works: For each $10 donation, you get to bid on a prize of your choice, ranging from hotel stays, travel packages and gear to tours, gift certificates and electronics. Your donation will help fund the wells that will bring clean water and so much opportunity to Haiti. You can bid on prizes until December 11 at 11:59 pm PST and we’ll announce the prize winners on December 18.