Laos, country #216

I’ve started to lose count of countries now that I’m older than 30, but Laos should be #216. It’s a place I’ve skirted around, having visited all the other south east Asian countries, and never known much about, but it felt familiar when I finally arrived. It has a lot of Vietnamese influence, a language related to Thai, and a revived buddhist culture that reminded me of Myanmar. There’s plenty of Chinese and Indian money, as is everywhere else in the ASEAN countries. And comfortingly enough, there were plenty of solo female travellers too.

plenty of buddhas at Pak Ou Caves near Luang Prabang

It’s a $32-42 visa on arrival for most European passports, and I was threatened deportation for not wanting to use the same passport as I had used in Vietnam. Even though I had flown from Hanoi to Luang Prabang, it was impossible I had arrived on a clean passport page since landlocked Laos is nearly always arrived to thru a neighbouring country.

monks collecting alms from lay people

Luang Prabang was a breath of fresh air, literally and figuratively. The days were hot, but the air clean, and getting up at 5 am was actually cool. Monks would start shuffling through the streets as early as 5, to collect alms and make it to temple by sunrise. The procession was a silent, mesmerising sight, one you couldn’t help but photograph and follow through the streets, but still felt strange for staring at something that’s not meant to be a spectacle, but a way of life.

river day

The city was beyond charming – a colonial town filled with temples and the confluence of the Nam Khan and Mekong rivers weaving around its many banks. It was clean, safe, peaceful and friendly, the smiles of the locals even bigger than the content tourists. Everyone goest to see the Kuang Si waterfalls and “freethebears” sanctuary (aka Tat Kuang Si Bear rescue center), which is well worth a visit. Make sure you swim in the turqouise blue water for a free foot scrub, or munch, rather, from the Garra rufa ‘pedicure’ fish.

Kuang Si falls

I visited a whiskey village and a buddhist cave during my day on the river, and spent the rest of my time walking in crooked circles to try and find as many monks and temples as I could, getting tired enough to deserve a Laos massage. Its more like a physiotherapy session – no oil, but a lot of pressure and bending, grunts and groans, as the masseuse crawls all over you and stretches you out.

the infamous Nam Song tubing river in VV

I overlanded to Vientiane through Vang Vieng, a small riverside town I hadn’t heard much about, except that it was famous spot for tubing with drugged, drunk backpackers. I found the tubing shop and 3 incredibly kind (and sober) backpackers to share an early cruise down the river, and either the bars have shut down from safety crack downs, or we were just too early to see the party crowds. I was grateful, since the road from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng was thrilling enough – a 5 hour journey not even the safest bus driver could manage without stressing out all the foreign passangers. At one point, there wasn’t even a road, but piles of rockes from a landslide, and the edges cliff-hanging turns seemed just a bit too narrow for us to make, even without oncoming traffic.

how about some bat for dinner?

I ate some traditonal Laos food, my favourite being the Larb spicy salad. There were also similar versions of Pad Thai and pho soup, but I was most impressed by their craft beers. Beer Lao had lagers, whites, ambers, dark ales and even a black rice beer. The rice wine however, or rice whisky as they incorrectly called it, was regrettably bad.

I ended my trip in Vientiane, at Ali Backpackers where I could literally see Thailand across the river. I spent the day and night alone, doing some yoga, walking around the little city that looked more like Hanoi than Luang Prabang, and window shopping at the night market. I took a local bus to the airport, which was only a few kilometers away, and changed my last kip for some baht. I was on my way to Bangkok to meet a group of twelve Americans and discover what Travr life meant.

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Themes of the Balkans

summery scene below Knin fortress

summery scene below Knin fortress

Even though every country and each city had its own charm, there are a few reoccurring themes in the Balkans.

  • Stray dogs and cats: They are everywhere, some happy, some miserable, some fed, some not, and even some that have been neutered and then re-released. Some people who have pets and don’t feel like keeping it, or move away, sometimes leave them behind, and other animals are born in the streets, leaving the cutest puppies and kittens to pull on your heart strings and make you wish you could take them all home.
  • Food and mealtime: Breakfast is pretty straight forward, usually a combination of some bread and a yogurt drink, but lunch is the meal you eat after work at 5pm and some just skip dinner altogether. Everyone has a variation of burek/banitza and cevapi, aka kebab as a fast food staple, and cheese and these huge white beans can be added to nearly any hot meal.
  • Turkish influence: all the Balkan countries were once under Ottoman rule, and they’ve still left their mark hundreds of years later. Doner is everywhere, Turkish coffee is as common as espressos, and tea served in small cups with a slice of lemon is called Turkish tea. The markets are often called Bazaars, and a lot of words in their vocabulary are Turkish.
  • Fresh produce and homemade goodies: every market sells goods that follow the seasons, with tomatoes in summer to pomegranate in the fall, chestnut roasters closer to Christmas, and once in a while some Japanese apples. Every village and even each home in the right climate will grow their own grapes, make their own wine and rakia, and others have beehives and make the most delicious honey.
  • Exchange rates: I could only use the euro in, strangely enough, Kosovo, and Montenegro, and everywhere else had their own type of denar/dinar or lei/lev/lek. But none of the rates are that similar, so sometimes you pay in the fives and tens, and sometimes in the tens of thousands.

    Ostrog Monastery in the rock

    Ostrog Monastery in the rock

  • Tourist sights: My days have consisted of walking around pedestrian city centers, monasteries in or on top of rocks, and beautifully painted Orthodox churches. The frescoes never get old to stare at, and the places they put some monasteries, hundreds of years ago, makes me wonder how the heck they built them there. There are usually some mosques and fortresses as well, not a bad bonus.
  • Pollution: the cities in the Balkans are some of the most polluted cities in Europe, including Skopje, Sarajevo, Varna and Bucharest. I only really noticed it in the first two, but I definitely noticed my first breath of fresh air I took every time I reached the mountains again.

And there were a lot of mountains to pass to travel overland in the Balkans, and they were always a delight, and I still can’t decide if it was better to see them still in full bloom in October, gold and red when autumn arrived, or snow covered pines in my last week. I guess a mix of all three was the best, so I don’t regret traveling the Balkans now, even though everyone has persuaded me to come back in the spring.

The Ups and Downs of Traveling in the Balkans

yet another beautiful view

yet another beautiful view

Besides the narrow coast line of Croatia, the Balkans are a mountainous region with tons of ups and downs and windy roads. Between the valleys and highland plateaus comes mountain range after range, and without any major highways, the journey time from place to place is slow but breathtaking, and sometimes a little frightening. Add a lot of rain and some flooding, and traveling by bus becomes quite the adventure. On the tops of the mountains between Montenegro and Kosovo, everything was pines and snow, so a bus can even take you from summer to winter in a matter of hours.

This trip started in Zadar, on the norther end of the Dalmatian coast, where I couchsurfed with a dentist named Marko. After a couple days of pouring rain and stormy winds, and a few hours of sunshine, I couldn’t really complain about my broken umbrella or soaking shoes since it was still 20`c. The only regrettable thing was not being able to jump into the crystal blue Adriatic sea, since it looked so inviting and seemed to call my name, but it wasn’t quite beach weather.

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a mini port in Zadar

The road from Croatia into Bosnia & Hercegovina was anything but direct, and we may have gotten lost a few times (I was roadtripping with 3 Croats who entrusted me to read the maps and roadsigns…). A few bus rides later I always seemed to be sitting near the one lady who got car-sick, and having someone puking repeatedly into a bag and listening to her heaving noises (one sat beside me and another time behind me) isn’t easy. When I was walking up the road to Ostrog Monastery in Montenegro, a car pulled over to let a woman out to spew throw up directly infront of me. Yum.

I enjoy walking around aimlessly, simply strolling the towns and city centres, but that doesn’t always end up so pleasant. In Sarajevo we nearly got attacked by 10 stray dogs, who seemed to think we had trespassed into their territory when walking past a Muslim cemetery too late at night. There are a lot of not-so-nice stray dogs, but mostly they’re harmless during the day. You’d think the same about people, but one guy tried to offer me a ride to the next town in broad daylight when I was sitting alone waiting for the bus. He was half my size and nearly half my age, so I said yes, only to be offered kisses and condoms and a skinny dipping adventure. No more hitchhiking for me I guess!