Vang Vieng sunset
Vang Vieng is a backpacker haven of fun in the sun on the Nam Song River. Add in the numerous caves that riddle the limestone karst hillside and you can have fun in the dark as well.
It’s always Happy Hour on the Nam Song River
Renting an inner tube for 60,000 kip ($7.20 US) is almost a right of passage as you stop at the bars along the river for strong vodka and strawberry drinks. The float takes 3 hours during dry season with no stops. We went on 2 different days and it took us about 5 hours both times. We also visited a cave that we tubed into during both those trips!
Hot air balloon for only $80!
Going on a hot air balloon ride was a check off my bucket list. Watching the sunset behind the karst studded landscape is a memory I will treasure forever.
View of Vang Vieng from the hot air balloon
We enjoyed spelunking with new friends, swimming in a blue lagoon and watching re-runs of Friends in riverside bars. But eventually we had to say goodbye to this party town and head to the capital, Vientiane.
Patuxai (Victory Gate), Vientiane
French-colonial architecture, golden Buddhist temples, cafe and spa lined streets greet you in this former French trading post.
Sleepy tuk tuk driver
The COPE visitor center has a free, permanent exhibition with displays and documentaries on the history and implications of the 2 million tons of bombs the USA dropped on Laos between 1964 and 1973. Of the 270 million cluster bomblets that were dropped, 10-30 percent were not exploded. Now these ‘bombies’ continue to kill, maim and destroy livelihoods through much of Laos. All it takes is a child finding a metal ball and playing catch, a farmer hitting one with a shovel, or a mother making a fire for the evening meal to set off an UXO (unexploded ordinance).
Prosthetic legs at the COPE visitor center
A donation to The COPE Center helps provide prosthetics, orthotics and rehabilitation to people with mobility related disabilities. http://copelaos.org
After this somber reminder of the continued casualties of war it was time to seize the day, enjoy the fact that we are alive and eat French food. Vientiane has many well respected French restaurants and it wasn’t hard to find one in walking distance. Kop chai lai lai Laos! Next up: Cambodia.
The Lao are quiet people. You won’t hear thumping music, tuk tuk horns or raised voices on main street of Luang Prabang. Instead you’ll witness the improbable feat of a bustling village full of restaurants, shops and guesthouses without all the clamour usually associated with them.
Downtown Luang Prabang
Every dawn that breaks over the surrounding peaks brings hundreds of orange robed monks into town to gather alms. The monastery relies on the rice and other staples given each morning. But just around the corner you will see monks digging into their own bowls and sharing the alms with the poor.
Alms Giving Ceremony
Wat Xieng Thong is known for being one of the most beautiful temples in Laos. We appreciated the innumerable murals made of coloured glass that decorated the walls.
Wat Xieng Thong
November through May is dry season. Of the three waterfalls to see in the area, Kuang Si was still flowing gorgeously and we were able to swim in several pools. Tad Sae was still swimmable at the top pool but mostly dried up. We didn’t go to the third one due to our time limit.
Kuang Si Falls
If you enjoy seeing Buddhist temples, boat rides and caves then head to Pak Ou Caves. These two caves filled with hundreds of Buddha statues can only be reached by boat. You’ll need a flashlight for the upper cave.
Pak Ou Caves
The food is very similar to Thai with a touch of French refinement (due to the earlier French occupation). Cheers to our first stop in Laos!
Beerlao, pork stuffed bamboo shoots and chicken lab. YUM!
View of the Singapore Flyer and SUPERTREES
Our first impression upon disembarking from the plane was ‘Wow, this is clean, brand new looking and gorgeous’ and that was just the airport. When it’s time to leave they have self check out stands for immigration and plane boarding, where you scan your passport and take a picture. Picture the self check out at the grocery store but smoother and quieter. You can watch free movies, use free massage chairs, hop on free computers with WiFi, and feed the fish in the koi ponds.
The lovely ‘Lion City’ at night
Singapore quickly became one of my most favorite cities. Here’s why:
Chingay, the annual street performance and float parade
The Chingay Parade is a mesmerizing spectacle put on annually right after Chinese New Year. Travel Tip: you must buy tickets in advance, I suggest at least half a year. They will give you a bottle of water and poncho (it’s rain or shine), as well as LED pom poms to add your enthusiasm to the show.
You can ride a cable car to Sentosa Island. Where everything is a magical resort. Imagine the most famous cartoon resort mixed with a certain movie about candy and you’ll get the idea. Travel Tip: you’ll be paying for a magical resort.
The Merlion on Sentosa Island
You can literally walk under sharks at the aquarium on Sentosa Island.
S.E.A. AquariuM on Sentosa Island
Back on the mainland are the Gardens by the Bay. The Flower Dome, Cloud Forest and Supertree Grove are the star attractions.
Cloud Forest Dome at Gardens by the bay
You can see the world’s tallest indoor waterfall at the Cloud Forest. And feel like you’ve entered land of the lost….
Inside the glass biome of the cloud forest
Inside the cloud forest dome
You can witness the future as a light and sound show projected through giant vertical gardens with LED lights reminds you of the interconnectedness of all things.
The Supertree Grove music and light show is free every night
Cook your own buffet with a ‘Steamboat’ at your table
And of course the star of the show- FOOD!!!! Singapore is a foodies dream. Nom nom to the extreme. You can spend a mighty sum at the finer restaurants ($35 US for one Singapore Sling) but every keen reader knows the famous hawker stands are the way to go! There are entire food court centers where you can find cheap, famously good eats. So good in fact there are two hawker stands that have earned Michelin stars. We ate at one (Hill Street Tai Hwa Pork And Noodle) for $6 each. The cheapest Michelin starred meal you can have.
On to dessert, for a rare culinary experience you must try durian in some form. As they say, ‘smells like Hell and tastes like Heaven’. I suggest adding ice cream. And then brush your teeth.
Durian (tastes like creamed onions) with mango ice cream and tapioca
Crazy cool Singapore at night
Singapore was a bit expensive for our backpacker budget at $150 -$200 a day, but certainly worth it. It has a reputation for being expensive but we found reasonable lodging (85 Beach Garden Hotel) and the food was delicious and super cheap at the hawker stands. Add in the English speaking friendly locals, drinkable tap water, cheap transport on the metro and free shows and you’ve got quite a remarkable city. Wow Singapore!!!!
Pura Taman Ayun
Pura means ‘temple’ in Bali and they are literally everywhere. Spirituality plays a major role in Bali daily life and you will see beautiful flower and treat filled offerings in the street in front of shops as well as shrines along the road.
Pura Ulun Bratan Shivaite Water Temple
We had the wonderful opportunity while in Ubud to witness a Kecak Dance that ended with a Fire Trance Dance. The fire dancer walks through burning coconut husks in order to protect the community from plagues and famine.
Balinese Kecak Dance
Ubud is a great area for viewing monkeys at play in the Monkey Forest. Beware these highly entertaining macaques are not shy and will jump right on you to steal whatever isn’t permanently attached!
Not as innocent as he looks!
Ubud Monkey Forest
Lush green rice terraces in the misty inland mountains can soothe the soul with quiet tranquility.
The Jatiluwih Rice Terraces
On the southern peninsula you can watch the surfers catching waves in Uluwatu. They walk through this nifty cave to reach the water.
Surfer in Uluwatu
We took a fast boat (half an hour, $15 per person) from Padangbai over to the islands of Lembongan and Ceningan to snorkel in the famous turquoise waters.
Gorgeous water off Nusa Lembongan Island
And for the very adventurous traveler I recommend a boat out to explore the island of Nusa Penida, if only to see this incredible view!
Kelingking Beach, Nusa Penida Island
Two weeks in Bali was over too quickly. We plan to return in the future for more exploration of this incredibly beautiful, magical part of the world. Terima Kasih (thank you) to the friendly people who helped make our time so meaningful!
Marketing at it’s best
I decided to post a non-blog, about nothing serious, with no information to be learned. Just silly. Don’t worry my faithful readers, the next blog will be full of beautiful architecture and stunning vistas peppered with enriching nuggets of prices or historical dates. Right after these messages:
I am finally a unicorn
New hat. Not yet a unicorn.
‘Can you recommend a gooth orthodothist?’
Ian’s first sip of poOp coffee
Ogoh ogoh lady didn’t like hearing that she’s in serious need of a pedicure
Ian admitted Lola had a pretty nice boob job
No luck finding brains, starting on sunglasses
Nilaveli Beach with pigeon island in the distance
We began our Sri Lankan trip at the Southern beaches and ended our trip in the sands of the East coast. Four days of exploring temples and beaches in the East was the perfect ending for our month long stay.
The stupa at Girihandu Seya is said to contain a hair relic from the Buddha
Hinduism is actually more prevalent in this area so we were also treated to the brightly painted Hindu temples in all the colors of the rainbow.
The ancient Hindu temple of Koneswaram is dedicated to Lord Shiva
On the short walk up to Koneswaram Temple you’ll pass wild spotted deer, stalls selling brightly painted masks and vendors offering ‘king coconuts’ to drink. The brightly colored temple is situated on a point with views of blue whales in the wide ocean.
Koneswaram Temple, Trincomalee
The beautiful drive along the coast affords iconic views such as these fishing boats resting in the sand. You’ll pass villages with table after table covered in fish that are drying in the sun.
Fishing boaTs, east coast
October through February is monsoon season on the East coast so prices are cheaper and there are less tourists than during the dry season. We stayed in the artistic, backpacker beachfront Aqua Inn for only $12 a night. The refreshing pool and treehouse bar were fun highlights.
Aqua Inn, Uppuveli
We managed to keep to our budget of less than $100 per day for the entire Sri Lankan trip. That included food, transportation (buses, trains, tuk tuks and scooter rentals), rooms, drinks, temple fees and donations, toiletries and one souvenir mask that Ian is now carrying in his backpack! Sri Lanka was a diverse experience full of friendly people. A must see travel destination!
View of Pidurangala and Sigiriya Rock
The bus from Kandy to Dambulla took 2 1/2 hours and cost 75 cents each. A quick tuk tuk to our guest house cost another $5 and we had arrived in the historical village of Sigiriya. Most tourists head there to climb Sigiriya Rock ($30 per person) and a steep, 3 hour round trip. We chose to climb Pidurangala Rock for $3.30 each, a more rigorous climb but only 45 minutes to summit. We arrived at the top for an early morning misty view.
View of Sigiriya from the top of Pidurangala
Almost to the summit is a large reclining Buddha in a cave. Travel Tip for ladies: you can wear shorts for this hot and humid climb, just remember a sarong to wear for the two sacred sights on the way.
Reclining Buddha near the top of Pidurangala Rock
Sigiriya Rock, also known as Lion Rock
We rented a scooter for $10 and had a rainy day adventure starting with a trip back to Dambulla to see the Dambulla Cave Temple.
Golden Buddha at the entrance of Dambulla Cave Temple
Temple Monkey: these guys eat the flower offerings and will grab them right out of your hand
We saw lots of monkeys on the stone staircases leading through the jungle towards the actual cave temple. One quick monkey stole the entire bunch of flowers I was carrying.
Toque Macaque Monkey
Travel Tip: make sure you buy your tickets at the entrance! We didn’t see any signs until we had climbed many stairs in the rain only to discover as non-Sri Lankans we’d have to return to the bottom for our tickets to see the cave temple. So we didn’t see the cave temple after all.
Bath time for beastie
We enjoyed the many sights to see by scooter including plenty of elephants, even wild ones! Sigiriya was a quiet town with plenty of wildlife and lonely roads through rice paddies and jungles. The food was great and guesthouses were affordable. A great area to explore in Sri Lanka!
Common sight in Sigiriya
The Temple of The Sacred Tooth Relic
To those of us who speak English there is a certain humour in the fact that the city of Kandy has The Temple of The Sacred Tooth Relic. To the Sri Lankan people the tooth relic is the actual tooth of the Buddha and whoever holds the relic holds the governance of the country. To worship and give offerings in this holy place significantly helps you on your journey towards enlightenment.
Evening Puja (prayers) includes drummers and horn players in The Temple of The Sacred Tooth
Masses of worshippers and tourists shuffle in line three times a day during Puja, the only time the doors are open to see the golden casket that holds The Tooth. Actually it’s seven gold caskets nestled within each other like a Russian doll, with the tooth in the smallest one.
Flower offerings in The Temple of The Sacred Tooth Relic
Kandy was a bit warmer than the hill country we’d arrived from and downtown was busier as well. However we did find some quaint corners left over from it’s glory days.
Historic Downtown Kandy
The beautiful Royal Botanic Gardens were a special treat and for 1,500 rupees ($10) deserve a visit for anyone going to Kandy.
Royal Botanic Gardens
There is a large collection of Palm trees at the Royal Botanic Gardens
Ian under a cannonball tree
A 30 minute scooter drive through winding, quiet country roads (a relief after the traffic in Kandy) brought us to the ancient Lankatilaka Vihara Temple. The temple doors were closed but a monk was happy to open them up for us and even adjusted the lighting inside for the benefit of our pictures.
Lankatilaka Vihara Temple built in the 14th century
After two days we said goodbye to our lovely guesthouse in the hills above the city (surrounded by jungle and monkeys in the trees) and boarded the bus headed towards the historical village of Sigiriya.
This is what tea looks like
It was a beautiful 3 hour train ride from Ella to Nuwara Eliya. Nuwara Eliya is the most important area for tea production in Sri Lanka and the coolest area with day time temperatures peaking at 68 degrees Fahrenheit in late January. Altitude is 6,128 ft with amazing vistas, waterfalls and tea plantations you can tour.
Educational free tour of The Bluefield Tea Gardens
Scooty rentals are a bit more expensive. 3,000 rps for 24 hours ($20)
This town is known as ‘Little England’ and indeed you can enjoy a gin and tonic or a game of golf in the more genteel area.
Ian in front of The Grand Hotel, ready for a gin and tonic
Nuwara Eliya Golf Club
Travel Tips: Expect a bit higher budget for hotels, meals, drinks and scooter rentals. Also bring warm clothes for the evenings in January and sunscreen for the sunny high altitude days!
On the way to the tea plantation covered hill country we went on safari in Yala National Park. We saw Asian elephants (smaller than African elephants with smaller ears), a leopard in a tree, crocodiles, too many birds to count (including the beautiful green Bee Eater), a jackal, mongoose and other critters.
Asian elephant, Yala National Park
Ian watches Water Buffalo on safari, Yala National Park
Sri Lankan traffic
We arrived in the beautiful hill country town of Ella and enjoyed some typical rice and curry with the Sri Lankan Lion beer.
Rice and curry at dream cafe in Ella
Ella enchanted us with verdant tea plantations, rocky cliffsides, dreamy waterfalls and fun loving backpackers. There are plenty of hikes with different levels of difficulty where you can see monkeys in the trees, tropical flowers and tea pickers on the hillside.
On the way to Ella Rock
View from 98 Acres Resort in Ella
While in Sri Lanka you must try the egg hoppers for breakfast! Made from rice flour and coconut milk, pan fried into bowl shapes and then a fried egg nestled in the center gets topped with sambal. Sambal is chili and spice based, and can be made with coconut meat or tomatoes as shown in the picture below.
Egg hoppers at Ella Waterfall View guest house
After three days enjoying Ella we boarded the train headed for the most important area for tea production, Nuwara Eliya. The train ride was the most beautiful one we have experienced up to date!
The train from Ella to Nuwara Eliya