Mexico Trip Day 2: Hot Air Balloon at Teotihuacan, Mexico City

PSX_20200119_225229Teotihuacan in the Morning

After sleeping for less than three hours the night before, I woke up at 5am sharp and brushed my teeth, preparing for a pickup at 5.30 am in the hotel lobby. Three days before departing from Montreal, I have booked a hot air balloon ride in the Teotihuacan pyramid, costing me around CAD$ 230. I have always loved seeing landscape from higher perspective, and the lack of reflective glass on hot air balloon makes it a perfect way to enjoy the scenery from the top. This is my third hot air balloon ride, the first one being in Cambodia and the second one in Laos last year.

PSX_20200119_225349A Cloudy Sunrise in Teotihuacan Pyramid

A minibus was waiting for me three minutes early and there were already three other people inside it. We did a stop at another hotel downtown to pick up two other passengers before driving for another hour to the site where we have to do registration and being assigned to our balloon. The whole process is very organized, and they served hot coffee and tea while we are waiting for the balloon to be pumped. When the sky turned slightly blue, the organizer started calling our names and introduced us to the pilot who will be with us for the whole ride.

PSX_20200119_225741Looking Down from the Hot Air Balloon

DCIM100GOPROG0025542.JPGPreparing to Take Off

The departure and landing were smooth and done professionally, so safety is not an issue for my organizer, Mexitour. This is contrary to the experience I had in Laos, where our balloon hit a tree branch while trying to land. After one hour in the and having captured many decent shots of the pyramid and landscape, we landed about 2-3 Km east of our departure site. There, a minibus is waiting to drive us back to have breakfast, where we were served a mix of international and Mexican foods.

PSX_20200119_230008Landscape from the Hot Air Balloon

PSX_20200119_225607Teotihuacan Pyramid from the Air

After the ride, we were being offered two options. First, to go to the Teotihuacan pyramid (entrance fee not included), or second, to go back to the city. I chose the later, as I will have a guided tour of the pyramid tomorrow as a part of my whole Mexico tour. It was around 10.30 when I arrived in my hotel and showered. Funny thing is that I wasn’t sleepy at all, despite sleeping only for 4 hours on the plane two days before and 2 hours the night before. Feeling refreshed after showering, I decided to walk to the Zocalo, which I already visited yesterday, and further explore the presidential palace and Aztec ruins behind the Metropolitan Cathedral.

PSX_20200119_230336Zocalo in Mexico City with Metropolitan Cathedral on the Back

There is a long line to get in the Aztec ruins, but it moves quickly and orderly that within 15 minutes I was already entering the site. Moreover, there were some sort of festival on the square, where native people were wearing traditional clothes and blessed people passing by, which entertained me during the wait. The entrance was free on Sunday and there is a baggage check on the entrance. The whole archeological complex is bigger than I expected, taking 30 minutes of slow walk to exit the place.

From my conversation last night with the local youngsters, they suggested me to go to Gran Hotel Ciudad de Mexico for its architecture and have a brunch at a rooftop bar nearby. So, I went to the hotel, which is 10 minutes away but unfortunately the rooftop terrace was prohibited unless you are going to have a US$40 brunch package there. The fee was fair, but I wasn’t that hungry back then, so I look for another rooftop terrace on the west side of the Zocalo. There, after waiting for 20 minutes to get a seat on the patio, I finally gave up and decided to go to the Revolution Monument by taxi.

PSX_20200120_060436Gran Hotel Ciudad de Mexico Interior

PSX_20200120_060515Gran Hotel Ciudad de Mexico Roof

After riding over 10 taxi in the city, I learned that there are two types of taxi in Mexico City: those who have pictures of the driver in the backseat window (an honest one), and those without (the scam one). I happened to be on the scam one on my way to Monumento de Revolucion. The taxi meter (fee) increases much more rapidly and the driver was trying to fool me by saying my destination to google maps, pretending that I’m locked only to that destination. When I realized what’s happening and my meter cost me MXN 300 (US$ 17), I asked him to pullover and said I will walk to my destination (it was already close to the monument). Since he doesn’t speak English and I don’t speak Spanish, we argued and he asked for another MXN 100, arguing that he will have MXN 400 if I get out at the monument instead of MXN 300 that I gave him already. In the end, after raising my voice in the argument, I decided it’s not worth it to argue with him and bolted out of the vehicle. Bottom line is that in Mexico City, you want to ride a taxi with the driver photo glued on the window. And don’t get me wrong, 80% of the taxi ride I did was pleasant and fairly priced (cheap according to Canadian standard).

PSX_20200120_060749Monumento de Revolucion

PSX_20200120_060644Lunch at Cha Cha Cha Rooftop Restaurant

After walking for 5 minutes, I arrived in the monument but decided not to get in due to timing issue. I have done my research and concluded that the panorama from the top of the monument is not as good as the one from Torre Latinoamericana I did yesterday. So instead, I went to Cha Cha Cha restaurant located on the top floor of the building across it, also recommended by my local source. The restaurant has a great view and ambience, service and food were also great. I had a ribs and tortillas, which cost about $30 in total and was large enough that I couldn’t finish it even on a hungry stomach.

It was 15.30 when I finished my lunch and still have one more destination on my “to visit” list. It was for National Museum of History that I missed yesterday when visiting Bosque Chapultepec. It was raining and I didn’t bring my raincoat, so the walk/hike from the park entrance to the castle-like building was quite strenuous. Moreover, the museum is closing at 17.00 and it was already 16.20 when the taxi dropped me off. I managed to tour around the museum for 20 minutes and found the famous hallway with stained-glass décor before the security started pushing people out.

PSX_20200120_060917Museum of National History

PSX_20200120_061023Museum of National History

PSX_20200120_061234Museum of National History

PSX_20200120_061302Museum of National History

When I exited the park, there was no “honest” taxi around, but my eyes caught the metro station nearby. So, I headed underground and bought my one-way ticket to Balderas station. My overall impression is positive: the metro was crowded, but it felt safe to me. I walked back to my hotel from the station, arriving just on time for my 6pm meeting with my group. After a short briefing, we went out for dinner at a local Mexican restaurant five minutes away. And so it begins, my tour to other part of Mexico in the next 7 days.

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Mexico Trip Day 1: Mexico City

PSX_20200118_130606Sunrise at Palacio de Bella Artes, Mexico City

Beautiful architecture, lively street scene and rich history of human civilization are three factors that attract me to visit Mexico as my first travel destination in 2020. Having traveled extensively across South and East Asia with either of my parents in the past five years, we have always wanted to see this other part of the world across the Pacific Ocean. Unfortunately, traveling to Latin America from Asia is quite expensive and involves lengthy flight, which have successfully deterred us from exploring the region. All that changes when I moved to Canada three years ago. Now working as an investment strategist focusing on LatAm and EMEA countries, I have a more in-depth background of the country’s economic and social condition that I could relate during my trip from Mexico City to Playa Del Carmen.

The trip began with a flight from Montreal to Mexico City on Friday, January 17th at 10.40pm, with me bringing a cabin-size luggage and small shoulder bag for the trip. Since it was an off-holiday season, tickets were cheap; Montreal to Mexico City flight with Interjet cost around CAD$ 230 and the return trip from Cancun to Montreal with Air Transat cost around CAD$ 290. It is a four-hour direct flight, meaning that I arrived in Mexico City at 4 in the morning, preventing me from both exploring the city or checking-in to my hotel.

Mexico City airport is decent enough, but it simply wasn’t in the same class with a more developed Asian countries’ airport. I have exchanged pesos in Montreal, which has about the same rate with the USD to MXN rate in Mexico City, about 5-6% from the spot rate, a sizable tax on my purchasing power. Across the trip, the exchange rate in Playa Del Carmen is the best, offering to buy USD for 17.85 compared to 17.5 in Mexico City, Puebla and Oaxaca. This is at a time when the spot rate is at 18.7.

Anyway, I bought a taxi voucher from the stalls in the airport, costing me about $20 to the city. Driving at an empty street at 4 in the morning, the taxi driver managed to break every single red-light that he could find. The drive to my hotel, Kali Ciudadela, took around 15 minutes. It is a decent and conveniently located hotel in the city. I left my baggage in their storage room, do my morning routine and connect to their wi-fi to find 24-hour café, ending up with one across Palacio de Bella Artes, one of the sites where I have been planning to visit during the sunrise. I walked north from my hotel, but due to the dark, feeling of insecurity, lack of proper maps and location coordinate I got lost and ended up doing a circle one kilometer around my hotel. At that time, I was scared and cautious whenever I saw other people on the street.

After about fifteen minutes walking in the right direction, I arrived on the Western side of the large park beside Palacio de Bella Artes. There were police officers across the café where I have an egg and toast breakfast while waiting for the sun to appear. There, I also met a Turkish guy who has been working in Borneo for a mining company and is on a business trip to Mexico.

PSX_20200118_060410Breakfast at a cafe across the park

The sunrise was amazing that morning, with its cloudless and orange-colored sky. After finishing with my business (photography), I decided to walk South East to the Zocalo, or the main square, and passed the street with many stores selling international brands. Along the way is numbers of police officer and military personnel, which I knew have been directed by AMLO, the current president, to fight against crimes. In the Zocalo, I entered the Metropolitan Cathedral, together with the locals, to admire on its architecture.

PSX_20200118_130942Palacio de Bellas Artes at Sunrise

PSX_20200118_131119Sunrise at Mexico City

PSX_20200118_131228Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral

Still enjoying the morning sun and chilly weather, I walked North to Santo Domingo Cathedral and Plaza Garibaldi, all the while observing what the locals are doing. Clearly, I have been underestimating the distance between places in Mexico City, which look small in my printed google maps I carried on my bag. At that time, taxi was scarce, and I haven’t bought a local SIM card at the time, preventing me from taking uber between places.

PSX_20200118_131355Santo Domingo Church

1Little Fella on the Street

There is not much to see in Santo Domingo and Plaza Garibaldi, so I advanced myself to the next destination, Biblioteca Vasconcelos. Camera, other than phone’s camera, is not allowed in the library, preventing guests from taking a decent professional grade photographs of its gorgeous interior. I didn’t stay for long inside, but instead toured around the back of the library, where a small market selling mostly clothes is bustling with locals. Then I took a taxi to Bosque Chapultepec, a large park housing many museums.

PSX_20200118_131603Biblioteca Vasconcelos

PSX_20200118_131408Biblioteca Vasconcelos

It was Sunday, so many people are jogging on the park with their shorts and tops. Meanwhile I was dressed in my long pants and light jacket I wore since my flight from Canada under the -23-degree Celsius weather. The nice thing is that in Mexico City, almost all large park has free wi-fi, allowing me to check google maps and reorient myself. Bosque Chapultepec, the park, is divided into two sections separated by a highway. There is a pedestrian bridge that connects both side, and touring both sides of the park took me roughly two hours of walking. My favorite part of the park is on the Southern side, where there is a fountain and roads located on a higher ground facing the cityscape.

PSX_20200118_125235Bosque Chapultepec

I was tired from walking the whole morning and after walking for a while to the exit, I found a taxi dropping its passenger, which I immediately jumped into. With my broken Spanish I said to the driver, an old guy in casual t-shirt and hat with CEMEX logo on it, “Museo Soumaya, por favor”. Soumaya museum is a large and fancy building sponsored by Carlos Slim, Mexican richest man, containing paintings, watches, artifacts and other art objects in its seven floors interior. It was free to enter, but I had to put my bag on the deposit desk and carry around a little travel pouch containing my passport and money.

PSX_20200118_125516Museo Soumaya Exterior

PSX_20200118_125558Museo Soumaya Gallery

PSX_20200118_125817Museo Soumaya Gallery

PSX_20200118_125851Museo Soumaya Gallery

PSX_20200118_125952Museo Soumaya Gallery

On the back of the museum is a shopping mall and cinema, where I sat for an hour while sipping caramel frappuccino and charging my phone to recover. For lunch, Mercado Roma was on my list. It is more of a fancy food court than a restaurant, where many vendors are selling tortillas with seafood, meats and drinks. I tried the pork tortillas, which taste great and cost MXN 40 each. Feeling satisfied, I took a taxi to Plaza del Toros, a bullfighting museum, that turned out to be uninteresting.

PSX_20200119_091729Mexico Cityscape from Torre Latinoamericana

PSX_20200119_091645Mexico Cityscape from Torre Latinoamericana

DCIM100GOPROGOPR5534.JPGMexico Cityscape from Torre Latinoamericana

It was around 5pm when I took another taxi to Torre Latinoamericana, the tallest building in the city with an observation deck on the top, to watch the sunset. Although the view was great, it was packed with people and the queue to the top, top floor was quite long; there are two elevators we must take in order to get to the semi-open observatory deck. But from the top, I noticed that there is a rooftop terrace facing Palacio de Bella Artes that would be perfect to watch the sunset from, so I rushed down 30 minutes before the sunset and headed there.

PSX_20200119_091922Blue hour from a Rooftop Cafe Across Palacio de Bellas Artes

That is when I met Enrique and his girlfriend, who invited me to sit with them and skip the long queue. I gladly accept and took few pictures before conversing with them about Mexican history and culture while sipping a carajillo, a mix of espresso and 43 liquor. We had such a good talk that they invited me to go for a dinner at La Opera (which is also on my list), one of the fancier restaurants in the city. After drinking few tequilas and a bottle of beer, and them teaching me how to properly make a quesadilla, they were again inviting me to come to a party on the Southern part of the city hosted by their sibling. Initially I refused, knowing that I must wake up early the next day for a hot air balloon ride during the sunrise, but somehow, I ended up having a really good time that night with them.

DCIM100GOPROGOPR5536.JPGMe and local youngsters at La Opera

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Laos D5: Vientiane City Tour, Crossing to Thailand

Last night sleep was great and rejuvenating. We woke up slightly late today and headed for breakfast downstairs, next to the hotel lobby. Our accommodation in Vientiane, S Park Design Hotel, is a well-preserved and clean three star hotel with a bar and restaurant next to it. Our room is spacious and overlooking the city, making us feel that we are staying at a 4-star rather than 3-star hotel.

We took our time and enjoyed a leisurely breakfast since our pick up time today is at 9 am. There were lots of Korean teenagers in the lounge, I’m counting 20-25 people, probably heading to Vang Vieng for the adventure. Around 8.45 am, we saw our tour guide already waiting in the lobby, so we met him and began our city tour in Vientiane, the sleepy capital of Laos.

PSX_20190626_051112Wat Sisaket in Vientiane, Laos

The temples we visited in Vientiane are located close to each other, sometimes at a walking distance from each other. The first one was Wat Sisaket, a a yellow brick building surrounded by Buddha statues housed on the four side of the temple. Inside the temple is a large Buddha statue and a mat for prayer. Its inside walls and roof have a beautiful and detailed drawings of the ancient culture. As usual, photography is not allowed inside the temple and we have to put off our shoes when entering the building, so make sure you are wearing a comfortable and easy to wear shoes.

Within two minutes walking distance from Wat Sisaket is Haw Phra Kaew, which serves more as a museum rather than a temple, housing artifacts found across Laos such as Sanskrit writings on a stone dating back over 2000 years ago. Each of the temple we visited took around 10-20 minutes, with longer time if we are interested in learning particular aspect of the history.

PSX_20190626_051150Haw Phra Kaew in Vientiane, Laos

DCIM100GOPROGOPR4729.JPGMe and my mother in front of Haw Phra Kaew, Vientiane

Then we got back to our car and continued our tour to Pha That Luang, a gold-colored temple that was rumored to host a rib of the Buddha and is a national symbol of Laos. Like Wat Sisaket, it is surrounded by a structure housing Buddha statues on the four side of the temple. There were few women walking and chanting around the temple when we came, but other than that, the site was quite empty.

Next to the temple is a monastery where monks live and tourists are welcomed to visit, hosting a giant sleeping Buddha statue inside the complex. There were also statues telling the story of the Buddha with a monkey and elephant, a phase where the Buddha does not reach nirvana on the first meditation, when he went back to eating and was shunned by the people surrounding.

PSX_20190626_051527Pha That Luang in Vientiane, Laos

The next destination, located 10 minutes drive from Pha That Luang, is Patuxay Monument. Probably this is the best spot for photographer to see the whole cityscape and wait for sunset. Under the giant structure, there are shops selling ice cream and cold drinks, and also two staircases that lead to the top of the monument. On each level of the structure, you will find street vendors selling souvenirs.

PSX_20190626_051314Patuxay Monument in Vientiane, Laos

PSX_20190626_051426The Fountain as seen from the top of Patuxay Monument, Vientiane

DCIM100GOPROGOPR4734.JPGVientiane cityscape from the top of Patuxay Monument

We finished the downtown Vientiane part of the city tour at around 11.30 am, so we headed to Buddha Park that is located 30 minutes away from the city. The name pretty much explain itself. The park is built by a priest-shaman in 1958 and contain 200 Buddha statues, each telling stories of Buddha’s life. The more interesting part of the park is the “demon head”, pictured on the second photograph below. It is a pumpkin-shaped structure where you could enter inside and hike the three levels of the head, each representing hell, earth and heaven.

PSX_20190626_051713Buddha Park from the top of demon’s head structure in Vientiane, Laos

PSX_20190626_051752Buddha statue and the demon head in the background, inside Buddha Park, Vientiane

PSX_20190626_051842The Buddha being a mediator between fighting groups

The Buddha park is located at the Lao-Thailand border, two countries separated by the Mekong river. We had this crazy idea to cross to Thailand and visit the closest city called Nong Khai for two reason: first, for the sake of crossing to Thailand and second, to go to Starbucks. Our tour guide gladly accompany us on our expense and we rented a car and driver on the Laos border for $30 (a mistake we later realized).

The border is full of middleman and drivers offering their service for a day trip, many of them with malicious intent, including the one in contact with our tour guide. Don’t get it wrong, our tour guide is a nice guy, but he is just prone to the scam. After the border control, our middleman escort us to one of the driver on the Thailand side and extract kickback money of $10-15 from the driver with the promise that we will pay $30 later on for a two hours trip. Our driver, trying to recoup more money, tried to scam us to pay THB 120 for crossing the Thailand border, when none should be paid. We didn’t fall to his scam and got our stamp on the border by paying THB 20/person to the immigration officer, a payment which legality we questioned, but was demanded nevertheless.

PSX_20190626_044728Crossing the Lao-Thailand Friendship Bridge

Once in Nong Khai, we drove to the shopping mall hosting Starbucks and got our fix. We went around the mall to look around and study the type of store available. Unlike in Laos, there are international fast-food chain such as KFC. Then we drove to Nong Thin public park, a green space in the city with giant lake in the middle. we walked around for 40 minutes and took some pictures before heading back to Vientiane.

DCIM100GOPROGOPR4749.JPGMe and my mother with our fix in Nong Thin Public Park, Nong Khai, Thailand

DCIM100GOPROGOPR4755.JPGBeautiful day in Nong Thin Public Park, Thailand

After crossing back, we met our driver and drove back to the city after having lunch on the road in between. We asked to be dropped at Hard Rock Cafe Vientiane, since we almost always visited Hard Rock at every city we have been through. It was just 3.30 pm when we finished our city tour and all of our itinerary in Laos! We headed back to hotel by tuk-tuk and took a shower afterwards.

Around 7 pm we went to Musso, a restaurant/bar next to our S Park Hotel, which turned out to be one of the best bar in Vientiane. I had a steak and my mother had a tom yum soup, both of which were good. There is also live music playing songs in the 80/90s and soon after a large group of Vientiane social-elite came to celebrate one of their birthday. An fan of luxury goods ourselves, we noticed thousand of dollars Hermes bag and fancy watches, things we thought we would not encounter on our trip here. Overall, I would recommend going to Musso for their live music and having a dinner in Vientiane, a perfect way to end our journey in Laos.

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Laos D4: Hot Air Balloon in Vang Vieng, Road Trip to Vientiane

PSX_20190624_214311Vang Vieng from a hot air balloon ride during the sunrise

 

This morning I woke up at 5 am to catch the sunrise on a hot air balloon. It has been my dream, for quite a while, to go for a sunrise or sunset on top of hot air balloon. My first opportunity to do so was in Cappadocia, Turkey back in 2012. However, the weather was not supportive at the time that I missed the window. The same goes on my trip to Bagan, Myanmar in 2016. So when I learned that there is a window of opportunity opening in Vang Vieng, I quickly seized it.

The ride itself cost US$90 and took around 30 minutes of flight. At 5.30 am, a pick up car stopped in front of my hotel gate with two Russian couples in it. I gave the ticket, given to me the day before during the reservation, to the driver and he told me to joined others on the back of the car. We were supposed to be picking up another passenger at other hotel, but after we waited over 10 minutes the driver decided to left her and called another backup car to pick her up separately.

DCIM100GOPROGOPR4662.JPGPreparing for a liftoff in Vang Vieng, Laos

The hot air balloon ride started at an old airstrip in the city, where a giant balloon was laid on the ground connected to the basket where we would later stand on. It was quite interesting to learn how they pump the balloon from completely flat to as big as a house. First they use a giant fan connected to a generator to blow inside the balloon, a process that took about 5-10 minutes. Then they use the fire thrower, which looks more like a stove, to float the balloon. In less than 15 minutes, we were told to step up on the balloon and our journey began.

The liftoff was smooth and I felt that the whole process was taken care of in a professional manner. As we gain altitude, all of us started to taking photos and switching spots to get a better angle. I suggest to stick on one corner, as the balloon will eventually rotate itself, covering 360 degrees view even if you stick only on one side of the basket. To avoid the heat from the stove, I chose the corner near the door, which is the farthest one from the heat.

PSX_20190624_213824Downtown Vang Vieng during the liftoff

DCIM100GOPROGOPR4695.JPGGaining altitude in Vang Vieng, Laos

DCIM100GOPROGOPR4692.JPGMe and the others during the flight

The weather was cloudy, but when the sun rose, its ray still penetrates the clouds, giving a soft, orange light across the landscape. It was an amazing experience, to feel the cold air on your face and see the sunrise in the more exotic part of the world. We saw kids waving to us from the ground, herd of cattle running across a farm and clouds moving slowly in the sky.

After 25-30 minutes flight, the pilot started to descend the altitude and prepare for landing at a different spot from where we departed. When we were about 10 meters above the ground our basket hit a branch of a tree, but continued to move on and landed safely. The pick up car was waiting for us in the ground, along with 5-6 crews that will pull our balloon to the ground.

PSX_20190624_214829Observing Vang Vieng landscape from the air

PSX_20190624_215139Vang Vieng, Laos

PSX_20190624_215428Herds of cattle running in Vang Vieng, Laos

At 6.30 am, I was already back in the hotel and prepare for breakfast. Since the breakfast in our hotel, Riverside Boutique Villa, wasn’t ready and we felt like having a fancy one, we headed to the nicer hotel across our’s, at Riverside Boutique hotel. It was located on the same restaurant we had our dinner the day before and cost us $15/person. Variety and quality of food were decent, but the main attraction really was the location of the breakfast, which is at a patio overlooking the river.

We spent over three hours there, slowly digesting food and talking, not to mention checking our emails and social medias using the free wifi. The environment was pleasant and the weather was really nice, neither too hot nor humid in the morning. Closer to 10 am we headed back to our hotel and took a shower before our pick up time at 11 am.

PSX_20190624_215456Riverside Boutique Hotel in Vang Vieng, Laos

Our first site to visit today was Tham Jang Cave, located ten minutes away from downtown Vang Vieng. In order to get inside the cave, we have to walk inside a park and hike quite a lot of staircases (around 300). If you have ever been to Flute Cave in Guilin (China), you would see the similarities, except that this cave is smaller and without all the lights displayed in Guilin. There wasn’t anything particularly interesting other than the view from the top and its history; the cave was used by the locals to hide from the military back in the day.

Other than the places we visited yesterday, that was all we had planned for Vang Vieng! We continued our trip to Vientiane, the capital of Laos. The landscape along the way from Vang Vieng to Vientiane was flat and not as interesting as the one from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng, so I spent most of my time listening to music and daydreaming for the next trip.

We had our lunch at a quite nice gas station, with a minimarket and a relatively clean restaurants, before arriving in Vientiane at around 4 pm. Our driver and tour guide dropped us at our hotel, S Park Design Hotel, and leaving us for the day. Since we weren’t tired yet and had plenty of time before the sunset, we decided to take a walk on the riverside, 30-40 minutes walking distance from our hotel.

PSX_20190626_050040.jpgTuk-tuk ride in Vientiane, Laos

We were rather disappointed, however, by the riverside. There were only few shops along the road and several not-yet-ready-to-open restaurants with an “ok” view. Luckily on the walk there, we saw one restaurant chain that we recognized, a Thailand hot pot restaurant called MK. We bargained for a tuk-tuk ride there for 20.000 Kip ($1.5) and had our early dinner before heading back to our nice hotel for rest.

 

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Laos D3: Vang Vieng, Nam Xay, Blue Lagoon, Tara Hotel

PSX_20190624_013231On the road to Vang Vieng, Laos

Today we started our day 9.30am, driving toward Vang Vieng from Luang Prabang. Vang Vieng was the “party capital” of SE Asia up until 2010 when the authorities cleaned up the city image.  Having done my research on the landscape, Vang Vieng gave high expectation for photographer like me. And as usual, we started our day with a leisurely breakfast in the hotel, then a shower.

The journey from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng took between 3-4 hours, a combination of mountainous terrain and a straight road afterward. Once we were driving up the mountains, the landscape became more gorgeous and the air were fresher. We opened the window and turned off our AC to profit from the nice weather, stopping on our way few times to take some pictures.

PSX_20190624_013405Cows blocking the road to Vang Vieng

There is a rest area on the top of the mountain (we couldn’t find the name) where technically we could see the landscape, however it was very foggy that we barely could see ten meters ahead. Once we descended the mountain, the fog was so thick that our driver had to drive very slowly and carefully to avoid cars going uphill from the other direction. It took around 20 minutes of slow drive from the top to finally have a clear view on the road again.

PSX_20190624_013933Landscape on the way to Vang Vieng

It was around 1 pm and we have completed 70% of our road trip when we stopped for lunch. Since there was no decent restaurant along the way, we had to have our lunch at a small shop next to a farm whose hygiene was questioned. We ordered for a hot bowl of noodle, thinking that the boiling water will kill any bacteria inside the meal. Fortunately, we have no problem with diarrhea for the rest of the day and the next.

Our tummy half filled, we continued our journey to Vang Vieng and arrived at 3 pm. The day before, I had asked our tour guide to visit Nam Xay Top,  a vantage point on the top of mountain overlooking Vang Vieng. Passing our hotel, Riverside Boutique Villa, we drove crossing a bridge where we have to pay 20.000 Kip ($1.5) for a car and advanced toward the outer part of the city.

PSX_20190624_071948Vang Vieng landscape from Nam Xay Top

In less than 15 minutes drive, we arrived at the foothill of the mountain we have to climb to reach the viewpoint. And boy, it was completely out of my expectation. You have to be completely fit and agile to hike to the top, and I would suggest wearing shorts and dark-colored shoes so that it’s easier to clean the mud afterward. It was raining the night before, so everything is slippery, making it harder to climb.

My mother joined the hike in the first 5-10 minutes, but then we decided it’s best that she waited on the foothill due to the difficulty of the hike. It turned to be a good decision because the path become even more challenging closer to the top. There are bamboos on the left and right of the hiking path, but sometimes they are so far apart that I have to hold on the rock on the ground to move forward. It was a good 30-35 minutes hike before we arrived, completely wet by our own sweat, at the top. The landscape is simply stunning.

PSX_20190624_073044Nam Xay Viewpoint

PSX_20190624_072622Me posing on Nam Xay Top

Once on the top, I unpacked my backpack and pulled my camera out. Since the viewpoint offers 360 degrees panoramic view of Vang Vieng, it took quite a while for me to decide on the best angle to photograph. I imagine that the landscape would be even better in October, when the rice harvesting season occurs and all the fields would be covered in green. I took so many pictures on the top that I ran out of my first 16 GB memory card (for a 1-2 weeks trip shooting RAW and JPEG, I find it sufficient to bring 96 GB UHS III SD card plus 48 GB SD backup). I knew that later on, I will have to spend time on deleting repetitive pictures.

PSX_20190624_073318Vang Vieng from Nam Xay Top

The way down felt faster but not easier, as it is more slippery to step down than to step up.  I saw several worms on the way, and tried to avoid touching them when holding the bamboo rail. Overall, I almost slipped 4-5 times on the way down but each time found something to grasp and avoid the accident. I was thinking to myself that if it is time for me to die, this would probably be one of those moment.

On the foothill, my mom and the driver were waiting, looking relaxed but suffering from the heat. I, on the other hand, were not relaxed at all and literally washed out by my own sweat. My white-sole shoes were covered by mud and will have to be washed, a problem as I only bring one shoes and one slipper for the trip. In the car, I opened my clothes and enjoyed the AC full blasting toward me, a poor decision that caused me catching bit of flu the next day.

Our next destination was the Blue Lagoon, a turquoise-colored natural pool where many Koreans and Chinese were swimming. It is located 10 minutes away from the Nam Xay Top and hosts few restaurants and ice-cream shops. We didn’t spend much time there, as we do not want to swim and had to catch the sunset at one of the nicer hotel in the city, Tara Hotel Vang Vieng.

PSX_20190624_073457Bungalows at Tara Hotel Vang Vieng, Laos

PSX_20190624_073621Rice fields alongside the wooden bridge at Tara Hotel Vang Vieng

PSX_20190624_073747Couple walking at the wooden bridge in Tara Hotel Vang Vieng

I found the hotel from one of the top image of Vang Vieng in Instagram and the view doesn’t disappoint. The site is well taken care of and the landscape is gorgeous. There is only one drawback: you have to be the hotel guest to take picture on the bridge. Fortunately, there is a cafe/restaurant facing the rice fields where we were able to order some drinks and waited for the sunset.

Another highlight of the trip, other than Nam Xay Top and Tara Hotel, was a hot air balloon ride at the sunrise in Vang Vieng. Compared to the price in Cambodia, Myanmar and Turkey, the one in Laos is relatively cheap at US$90. The reservation could be done at Tara Hotel, which I did while waiting for the sunset.

PSX_20190625_083813Sunset at Tara Hotel Vang Vieng, Laos

PSX_20190625_083928Sunset at Tara Hotel Vang Vieng

Once the sky turned dark enough, around 7 pm, we left the hotel and walked to one of the best restaurant in Vang Vieng called Crab d’or, located at Riverside Boutique Hotel (not villa, which is in a poorer condition and located across the hotel). Here’s my review on Tripadvisor:

Located in one of the more expensive hotel in Vang Vieng, this restaurant provides a white glove service when we visited. We visited after a tiring roadtrip from Luang Prabang and were looking for a mix of European and Laotian food.

We were not staying in the hotel, but were welcomed warmly on the visit. The food was 4.5/5 and the price is not ridiculously expensive either (we spent $25-30 for 2 person meal). There are indoor seats with air condition (which was nice considering the 30°+ weather) and outdoor seats facing the river and swimming pool.

We met Kid, a very nice gentlemen serving us during the dinner, who constantly look for our needs. Surprisingly, he also speak few words in Bahasa Indonesia, our native languange! We exchanged stories of how he acquired the skill, an oddity in Laos. Moreover, he spoke with an excellent English! The service provided was excellent that we came back the next morning for a breakfast.

Overall, a recommended place to go if you are looking for an upscale service restaurant in Vang Vieng.

We headed back to our hotel after the dinner and rest early, to prepare for the hot air balloon ride the next morning.

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