Goodbye’s never get easy

6 May 2014

While we didn’t spend much time in Laos, we really enjoyed our time there from the beautiful landscapes to the slow and relaxed way of life. But once again it was time to back our bags and start to explore a whole new city and culture.

We went into town in the morning to enjoy some of our favorite spots one last time, enjoying one last breakfast, and another delicious noodle soup and some bread for lunch before we made our way to the very tiny airport in Luang Prabang.

Mango-oat french toast for breakfast

Mango-oat french toast for breakfast

Our lunch

Our lunch

It was then on to the prop plane for our hour and a half hop to Siem Reap.

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Upon arrival we made our way to immigration to pay our visa fees and get our stamp. In our grand plans we just assumed we would get cash at the ATM at the airport and be on our way. Well, that was not in the cards for us, as the one ATM was broken. With some hand gestures to one of the guys who worked at the airport he nicely paid our fees for us and then showed us the way to the ATM outside the airport to pay him back. Now the first thing I thought of was that we were going to have to pay some crazy commission to this guy. But I was wrong he even helped at the money changer, who did not want to give any small bills, since ATM’s here only give out USD 100’s. And with that we only paid an extra $5 since at that point we were just grateful that things worked out.

It was then out to the taxi stand where our driver, Narin Chum, started on his history lesson about the area the moment we got in the car. Turns out he was also a tour guide and a driver. With so much great info we decided to have him drive us the next day to see some of the temples further out from town. It was so simple, just a handshake and a promise that he would be at our hotel bright and early to start the day temple touring!

After we settled into our room we wandered the neighborhood to get a sense of the area and find some good places to eat.

Today’s Travel: One last walk around town for breakfast and lunch in Luang Prabang then off to the airport for a flight on Vietnam Airlines to Siem Reap

Accommodations: Shadow Angkor Inn. At this very new boutique hotel, we were lucky enough to get a great rate. As we opened the door to our room you could smell that everything was new and we were probably the first guests in the room, it had that new room smell. The room was large and had plenty of space for storage. The look of the room was very modern with all concrete floors and desk, white stone and grey tiles in the bathroom and a few wood touches to round out the space it has both form and function. The hotel even though very small still has the boutique staples of a pool and rooftop patio. Since everything is still so new it appears that there are plans for a rooftop bar/café. But for now it is just a nice place to take in views of the city.     

Happy 5 Months of Travel!

5 May 2014

We started the morning with an early-ish alarm to watch the monks. As it turns out we didn’t set it early enough so we only saw one of the groups go by.

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Again we asked to use the bikes for the day so after we got ready for the day the bikes and locks were waiting on the side of the house for us to use. It was then off into town to enjoy a few cups of French press coffee at Safforn, doing some writing and planning for the next few months of travel.

Saw this sign while riding into town, just glad we weren't here when they had the bugling problem.

Saw this sign while riding into town, just glad we weren’t here when they had the bugling problem.

We are once again at that point that we have to do some research on what cities we want to visit and where we would like to stay, book flights and apply for visas.

It was also one year ago that we arrived in Budapest for at that time are longest period of travel, 3 weeks, where we would see if long term travel would suit us. By the end I wasn’t sure especially after a mini breakdown in Prague, but look at us now. Just goes to show making the decision to go thru with a fun some might say unconventional plan is the hardest part.

Crusin’ around town

4 May 2014

Our guesthouse owner had asked us what we wanted to do today as we ate breakfast and we mentioned that we would like to borrow the bikes and ride around town. And shortly after we finished eating he was making his way to our room to drop off the bike lock keys and let us know the bikes were parked in the shade. Travel here really doesn’t get much easier. All we have to do is mention that we want to do something and a few hours later we get a reminder that x will be arriving at y time. The hospitality here is incredible and I have never experienced anything like it and I like to think I have stayed at a few fancy resorts.

So the morning was spent biking around with a stop at Wat Wisunalat before heading into town to make the full loop around the peninsula.

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It was like we were back in Amboise biking thru the French countryside, but it was just a bit warmer and there was the Mekong instead of forests and chateaus.

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One of the local temples by our hotel

One of the local temples by our hotel

Check out those sweet bikes

Check out those sweet bikes

The Nam Khan River meeting with the Mekong

The Nam Khan River meeting with the Mekong

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We decided to get fancy and have dinner at Apsara. After three dishes and a few drinks where the service was top notch Western style our bill arrived, a whopping $36 USD. And it was then that I realized the going out drinks and meals I missed out on in SD were so well worth making all my own meals and drinks because I was in Lao having a great meal!!

As we were wandering around the town at night, it made us laugh that no matter where you are in the world on a weekend evening you will find teens crusin’ around town be it in a car, on a motorbike or even on bicycles. The teenagers here will just ride around in a group of 2-4 scooters with a handful of people on each scooter going about 20kms an hour through town chatting to each other and any friends the happen to see on their drive. Ah, teenagers. Thanks for making me feel like an old lady.

And in the world of doing adult things we had to contact AT&T to extend our reduced rate account suspension which was a quick shock back into the reality of craptastic customer service. After chatting online with an agent and then their supervisor and being told flat out many times that they simply could not extend our suspended plans, that the system had controls in place that made it impossible to do this and that it would not happen, Adam made mention that we had a transcript of the original chat conversation where they told us they would extend our suspension past 6 months and magically they all of a sudden could do it no problem. Maybe AT&T should send their reps to Lao for training where they could learn a thing or two about customer service.

Today’s Travel: Luang Prabang by bike

Accommodations: Phone Praseuth Guesthouse

Exploring the neighborhood

3 May 2014

We stayed on our side of the river and explored one of the villages nearby that created paper and various textiles. Of course as we stepped out the door the rain started. Luckily it was just a light rain, one that didn’t require an umbrella but did cause us to leave the camera at home.

After our morning adventure thru the neighborhood we went to our favorite coffee shop in town, Saffron, for most of the morning to avoid the on and off rain. Fully caffeinated and with no real plans but to stay out of the rain, we took advantage of the break in the rain to head over to our new usual lunch spot Le Banneton (we have had lunch here daily) so that I can make sure I meet at least a once daily consumption of a baguette.

After a day of hiking and well a few too many months without a good exfoliation we headed over to hibiscus for a fancy day at the spa including a full body scrub and aromatherapy massage. With skin as soft as a baby and feeling deeply relaxed we made our way back to our room to kill some time before sunset.

We made sure that we finally made it to the Phusi to watch the sunset. The early morning rains and the downpour from the day before had cleared out all the haze and brought just the right amount of cloud coverage for a perfect sunset over the Mekong. I now understand why so many people rave over the sunsets long the river.

Starting our walk up to the top of Mt. Phusi

Starting our walk up to the top of Mt. Phusi

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After sunset we walked thru the night market and just enjoyed the last light of the day which made for some great photos of the local temples. Just another day in paradise.

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Today’s Travel: Luang Prabang

Accommodations: Phone Praseuth Guesthouse

Really, are we on the back lot of a movie set?

2 May 2014

Our shiny magenta scoopy scooter arrived just before 9 for us to begin our journey (fully arranged by us simply mentioning to our guesthouse owner we wanted to rent one, yes travel here really is that simple)  out to the Kuang Si waterfalls. After a quick pic by our guest house owner (yes, we really are famous) we were off on the 34km-ish ride. And it was a beautiful ride. Once outside the main section of town there were just a handful of small villages, lots of rice fields, water buffalo and of course the stunning limestone mountains covered with dense forest trees.

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We arrived at the park entrance and as we made our way towards the falls we came across the Free the Bears sanctuary. I guess there really is a surprise around every corner when you don’t do too much research on places to visit. It appeared that it was nap time as most of the bears were just lying about, but we did find one that found walking in circles to be fully entertaining and we too were entertained by this site, not sure what is funnier.

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It was then on to the waterfalls. Neither of us were really sure what to expect from the waterfall, but as we turned the corner to see what would be the first of many sections of the falls we were floored. The water was a picturesque blue, which reminded me of a berry blue jelly belly.

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While Adam wanted to stop at what was the second section, he didn’t realize there was much more to see, I recalled seeing a picture of a much larger falls here and according to the map on the back of our entrance ticket there did appear to be more, so we kept going. After a few more falls and pools, we made it to the large waterfall.

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As we made our way across the bridge to take more pictures, we noticed that there was a trail leading up the hill to the falls that we could high up in the distance. In our flip flips we decided to give the trail a go. A slightly muddy hillside with what can only be described as an outline of stairs wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be to traverse in my flips that now officially have no traction on the bottom. I guess we are almost like the locals who do everything from construction to hiking in flip flops.

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Once at the top we were treated to a quiet forested area and calm stream. There was of course the one crazy tourist who thought it was a good idea to crawl under the bamboo fence at the edge of the falls to snap a picture. We stood back and took in the views of the valley below that now seemed so tiny and distant along with the quiet stream behind us.

The way back down was slightly challenging and of course humbling as a group of locals quickly walked by and down the steep slope with ease, in their flip flops! I restored to the good old fashion crab walk on a few of the sections as I felt it would be better to be close to the ground if I was going to slip and fall.

At this point we had yet to enjoy the beautiful blue waters and after the small hike we were a little warm so we decided to wade into one of the pools. Adam went in first and all seemed calm but as soon as I entered the water I immediately squealed as the fish who like eating dead skin also live in these pools. Adam clearly can keep calm in these situations or didn’t want to react so that I would actually get in the water and he could laugh at my reaction. After a few nips I headed back to the rocks. After some convincing and hand holding (literally) I was back in the water and enjoying my free fish feet cleaning, after all people do pay for this stuff.

With all the hostel tour group buses now arriving and the once empty pools now very full we decided it was time to leave, plus it was midafternoon and time for lunch and the baguette from Le Bannenton was calling my name.

About 10 minutes outside of town the few rain drops we had begun to feel, turned into a full on downpour. I guess riding a motorbike in the pouring rain could be considered our new favorite past time. But on the bright side we finally were not hot and actually felt cold.

We had thought tonight was the night we would finally make it up to the top of Phusi to watch the sunset but the weather had other plans so we stayed on our side of the river for dinner and reminisced on what a great day we had.

Today’s Travel: Luang Prabang and out to Kuang Si Falls by motor bike

Accommodations: Phone Praseuth Guesthouse

Monks, temples and pups

1 May 2014

We started the morning with an early alarm to watch the monks collect their morning alms. We strolled around the neighborhood to mainly wake up, but it also allowed us to see the women out in front of their homes in various groups waiting for the arrival of the monks and many of local families getting ready for the day, including one women who was making a noodle soup that smelled soooo good. After collecting alms the monks would then chant a prayer of thanks/gratitude for the offerings they had received. In the last group they began with a chant before they made their collection. In all we were able to see four different groupings of monks collect alms.

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Starting on the day's noodle soup

Starting on the day’s noodle soup

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Another adorable site we were able to take in at this hour was all the neighborhood pups. Since the weather was still cool, they were active and waiting patiently in the street for the monks to pass. I am sure they were hoping for someone to drop so food.

Since we were up we made our way into town to take advantage of the cool temps and see more temples. Our first stop of the day was at Wat Sensoukharem (across from our new favorite massage place Hibiscus).

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As it was a smaller temple we didn’t spend too much time here, but as this town continues to prove over and over again the buildings just seem unreal.

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We continued down the road to the northern part of the peninsula (said in the Queen’s English of course, which for some reason includes an ‘h’ and the ‘sula’ sounds like Don Shula – we have been laughing about this since NZ) to Wat Xieng Thong.  After seeing many temples in the last few months each one continues to have its own beauty and unique qualities which makes it seem like we have only seen one or two. This Wat was no different; my favorite was the collection of Buddha statues.

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At what point does it turn from an offering to a bribe?

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As we wandered south along the Mekong, we found another location of Ock Pop Tok so of course we had to pick up a few more gifts. This is a dangerous place for our credit card.

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The heat was just starting to really kick in for the day so we made our way back to the hotel to get ready for the day and enjoy some time in our air conditioned room. As Adam was taking his shower I popped in to hand him his towel and noticed on the outside of the shower curtain a creepy crawler and unwelcomed guest, a big ass spider. I alerted Adam to this fact and he stayed calm while I quickly shut the door. After he made it out of the shower we made a team effort to try to catch mr. spider, I was to hold the curtain while Adam covered him with the small waste basket.

See, big ass spider

See, big ass spider, those are 12″ x 12″ tiles

Clearly the spider knew what we were up to as I just touched the curtain he had quickly (real quickly) made his way to the wall, which caused both of us to quickly jump back in the other direction. At this point the only idea I had was to ask for help from downstairs, as I really wanted a shower and there was no way I wanted to take a shower with this creep. So I went downstairs and as it turns out the only person around was the housekeeper who didn’t speak any English. With my best hand gestures I tried to direct her to follow me to our room, but I wasn’t making my point so she called up the owner. Now it was becoming too comical. I was handed the phone and had to explain, not once but twice the situation. I think I was half laughing the first time and he couldn’t understand me. I then handed the receiver back to the young women, who was all of 5’1” and pushing 90lbs to have the owner explain to her what was happening. She hung up the phone walked around the corner and came back with a broom and rag and followed me up the stairs. When she entered the bathroom Adam pointed out the spider in the top corner of the bathroom and she simply extended the broom to knock it down and picked it up by pinching it with her fingers, not even using the rag she brought. We both were holding in our giggles as we thanked her and she nonchalantly showed it to us as I lurched back and she walked out. This was possibly one of the funniest moments ever and one that I can now give Adam shit about forever, with ‘remember that time we tried to kill that spider in Luang Prabang and then you got showed up by the 90lb housekeeper….’ classic!

After our harrowing midafternoon we ventured back out into town to do some more wandering and take more pictures as this is one town you really can’t photograph enough.

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Today’s Travel: Luang Prabang

Accommodations: Phone Praseuth Guesthouse

I love bread!

30 April 2014

We set off in the morning after breakfast to find a great cup of coffee.

Some of the architecture on our walk to find coffee

Some of the architecture on our walk to find coffee

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Lucky for us we found a great one at a small coffee shop along the Mekong called Saffron. And while waiting we learned that the owners were doing their part to help the community by growing coffee in the regions that once grew opium and since that major cash crop was banned had caused the hill tribes to resort to other crops meaning slash and burn of the forest, with new sections of land being burned yearly as the first burned section of land can only be used for one year and then used again 15 years later.

After we were fully caffeinated it was off to explore the grounds of the National Museum. We arrived about 30 minutes before they closed for lunch so we were able to see the golden Buddha and even had the chance to snap pictures without crowds, aka Adam’s dream come true.

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As the temperature began to rise we decided it would be a perfect time for a Lao massage. After all we had spent a few days trekking followed by a few days of longs bouts of sitting so our bodies could use a break.

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We walked north of town taking time to pop into a few shops and of course take pictures of this very lovely and photogenic town.

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Since we had headed north of the main center of town we had gotten away from many of the tourists shops and restaurants and came across a few that had been called out in both Lonely Planet and on Travelfish. We decided to stop at Le Banneton since the pastry and bread case at the front pretty much stopped me in my tracks. This is what happens when you go a few months without bread. And the meal was pure French/Asian influence perfection, nothing short of what you would expect. After a fully satiating meal we continued back towards our guesthouse stopping in shops we had missed and found some great local crafts that we couldn’t pass up at Ock Pop Tok. I guess we will be sending another package home in the very near future. By this time the weather was making us want to melt, according to accuweather, it stated it feels like 114, so we made our way back to the guest house for an afternoon of air con enjoyment. But the funny thing about seeing those temps was the fact that it has felt much warmer in other cities as there is a nice breeze here that you can catch every now and again.

The bamboo bridge we cross to get to our guesthouse

The bamboo bridge we cross to get to our guesthouse

Later that evening we headed back into the main center of town taking a new route towards the night market to explore a bit more.

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We were hoping that there would be some great food stalls at the market, as it turns out most of what is available is just BBQ or pre-cooked dishes that look to be created for the tourist set. If I am going to eat my way thru Asia and put on a few pounds in the process, it must be some good tasting food. So we continued on our evening walk to Café Toui. And that was probably one of the best decisions we could have made. As we enjoyed dish after dish, I could not believe how fantastic each bite tasted. I could easily eat two meals here a day and not get tired of the food even with their limited menu. We munched on fried Mekong river weed (think seaweed) with a red curry dipping paste that included pork as well, the steaming pumpkin curry was brought to our table along with the pork laap and the minced chicken steamed in banana leaves with veggies and spices. Our palates were delighted as each bite had so many flavors and they didn’t go light on the peppers!

Today’s Travel: Around Luang Prabang

Accommodations: Phone Praseuth Guesthouse

Day two of the Mekong

29 April 2014

Waking up to some beautiful fog over the river

Waking up to some beautiful fog over the river

Thankfully today’s ride down the river was much quieter. After a delay in leaving the dock, just two hours later than we were told, we began our journey. It seems like the party, party crowd does have a limit after all which made the ride today much more enjoyable. Snapping more pictures and cranking my neck to see as much of the stunning scenery as possible we really did enjoy the 7ish hour ride.

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Some kids out for a joyride

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Beer Lao distribution center on the river

Beer Lao distribution center on the river

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Mekong River Slow Boat Timelapse from Amy Hicks on Vimeo.

The only downside of the day was the stop just before the city center where one person decided to grab their bags setting off a chain reaction of almost all of the boat getting off. We were the last ones on hoping that they would take us to the actual boat dock in town but by then the engines were turned off and we were told no. So we had to pay the 20,000 kip each for a 10km ride to town and experienced our first scam of traveling. So my fellow travelers if no one is telling you to get off don’t be a lemming and follow others who have no clue and do your research with a map so you know what the dock looks like. If you are going to be foolish people will do their best to make an easy buck, and you can’t really blame them if I were in their shoes I would be doing the same thing.

Today’s Travel: Pak Beng to Luang Prabang on a slow boat

Accommodations: Phone Praseuth Guesthouse. Thanks to the advice of the girls we meet in Northern Laos we booked this guesthouse. And as per usual, word of mouth is the best way to find a place to stay. With it being low season we are the only foreigners staying at the guesthouse and only one of three couples staying here. Needless to say upon arrival we were treated as if we were the only guests here and all questions were answered with a smile and the desire to make sure we were completely satisfied! The rooms had both air con and a fan making for a quick cool down and by now to us a daytime high of 98 with 40ish% humidity feels like a cool afternoon so we didn’t have to use both too often. Plus the beds were soft, we received clean towels and housekeeping daily, breakfast was included laundry service was provided for only 2,000 kip more than we saw advertised across the river in town. The location was another plus as it was across the Nam Khan river, which is accessible by bamboo bridge this time of year, so it made it much easier to explore more than just the main city center.

Meandering down the Mekong

28 April 2014

Beer Lao, you are so delicious but now I don’t feel so great. But luckily it was nothing some water and a coconut shake couldn’t quickly cure. We met up with our new friends for one last hurrah (breakfast, with a baguette no less, oh how I missed bread) before setting off on our journey for the next two days.

We made our way down to the boat dock to begin our nearly day long journey to Pak Beng.

The slow boats lined up at the dock

The slow boats lined up at the dock

While the party traveler crowd was quiet annoying, finishing two bottles of whiskey between three people before 11:30am is not really a good sign of events to come, it was nothing a pair of headphones and looking out at some of the most stunning scenery I have seen could not drown out. Along the way we encountered and rain storm which also included lots of lighting and thunder, which I think is a new theme of this trip. I have seen more lighting in the last few months than the last 30 years.

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After 6 hours we arrived in the sleepy little town of Pak Beng which momentarily comes to life as the boats dock and guesthouse owners do their best to get you to stay with them. We made our way thru the crowds and up the hill away from the direction most people went and settled into a nice room that had a glimpse of the river. It was then just down to the end of the road to enjoy a very tasty Indian dinner before we did a quick walk thru town. Apparently sitting all day really does tire you out as we were in bed around 9pm and were so fast asleep that we missed another rain and lightning storm.

Today’s Travel: Huay Xai to Pak Beng on a slow boat

Accommodations: Satisouk Guesthouse. Only a few hundred meters away from the boat dock, but up the hill and away from the main section of town, this guesthouse had a very, very soft bed and was spacious enough for a one night’s stay. Even with just a fan we were plenty cool.

More forest adventures

27 April 2014

We slept in a little longer this morning, but we were still up early enough to once again watch as the fog lifted across the valley and just soak in the stunning scenery.

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We survived the storm and the visit from little treehouse guests. I overheard last night that the tree rats looked like cute guinea pigs, but I was already securely tucked into bed so I didn’t have much interest in taking a peak.

For our trek back to the village we had three more zips before trekking back for a few hours.

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This is what happens if you end up braking too early, you have to pull yourself the rest of the way

Sure we never saw any Gibbons, but the great fun we had was much more than I expected.

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The map of our adventure, day 1 was the top part, day two we hiked down to the bottom part and zip lined around there, before heading back to the beginning on day 3.

Our walk back included more info on local plants, even snacking on a few, and Adam having his first leech experience. Adam wasn’t so lucky, as our guide Mike noticed a blood spot on Adams shirt after the creature had already had his snack. So being on ankle watch is clearly not enough and you probably can’t even tell you are being used as a snack.

Back at the village we loaded into the back of the pick up this time, with our guides and a handful of locals, yes a truck bed can hold about  10 people, and were off on the dirt road. At our first stop we said good bye to our guide Bonlouean and his daughter and enjoyed a nice lunch along the river. Then it was back to town. From the back of the truck the views were much better than in the cab, as the valley seemed to go on for days and as we went by many small villages we had a better view to see what was going on in daily life and catch a glimpse of one of the smiling villagers. To look at their homes and see that they have very little in terms of physical possessions, but to see their smiles you would think they owned the world.

Once back in town we grabbed drinks and dinner with our new favorite Canadians. One beer Lao somehow had turned into 5 maybe 6.

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Enjoying some refreshments with our new Canadian friends and one of our guides.

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Today’s Travel: Around the Laos forest and back to Huay Xai

Accommodations: Kaupjai Guesthouse. Since we are regulars here we were given another room and this one had one of the softest beds we have slept in, in a very long while.