Once we said goodbye to our friends, we checked in to a guesthouse on the east side of Chiang Mai for the next three nights. I’d be lying if I said we accomplished a lot those next few days. Truth is, once our friends left, we were exhausted. We had so much fun when they were in town that once they left, we were hungover from their visit. We basically just slept in, laid around, read, browsed the internet and watched movies for three days. In a way, it was bliss.
Finally, it was time to hit the road again. Our destination was Pai (pronounced “bye”) which lays just a few hours west of Chiang Mai by minibus. We arrived in Pai and were picked up and taken to a guesthouse on the hillside above town. Our bungalow for the night was as basic as it gets. Picture an 8×8 foot room with a mattress on the floor and a small table with a fan (sorry, I forgot to take a picture). It was a steal for $6.75 (for two people). And it was cozy…for one night. The next morning, we moved into a guesthouse that we found in the town center the evening before. For just a few dollars more than the bungalow, we scored some sweet digs which became the perfect base for exploring the small, lovable town.One day we went to the pool to chill out, but the following days, we took the motor scooter we rented ($4 per day) out to explore the surrounding area. We rode to Pai Canyon, a few waterfalls, through small villages and out to the countryside. It wasn’t the sights that thrilled us, but the remote back country roads. Cruising around by motorbike proved to be the most fun and efficient way to explore. The rest of our time in Pai was spent catching up on errands and relaxing. They say Pai is a state of mind. You don’t visit for the attractions because you’ll just be disappointed, you come to experience the ambiance. Even though it’s crawling with Westerners, we fell in love with the vibrant, artsy, bohemian town. We were only planning on staying for one or two nights but ended up staying for four.We had to go back to Chiang Mai to make our way into Laos. Two travel buddies from Texas, Kristin and Matt, just so happened to be in Chiang Mai for a few days so the timing worked out perfectly to meet them for dinner and drinks. Well, dinner and drinks turned into a night of barhopping, playing pool and beer pong. We last saw them on top of Sugarloaf in Rio so it was fun catching up and hearing about their travels since our last visit with them five months ago. Our time spent with Kristin and Matt was well worth the horrendous Changover we suffered the next (few) day(s). Our KFC, Subway and pad see ew fix only made a dent in making us feel better. By early evening, we reluctantly boarded our overnight minibus (10+ hours) into Laos. Chang beers are poison. Buyer beware!
We survived Thailand and made our way into Laos. The capital of Laos, Vientiane, was only a 20 minute tuk truk ride from the border. We arrived in the capital city at 10 AM and went to work finding a place to stay. Once successful, we didn’t leave the room unless it was to eat. Lucky for us, Laos has some great food. Large portions of noodles with vegetables were served at the local night market for $1. Fruit shakes are also very popular and very tasty. You pick out a cup of fresh fruit and they blend them together right in front of you. My favorite find? Fresh baguette sandwiches. France once ruled Laos and what’s left behind from that era is their influence in the local food (and architecture). Huge baguette sandwiches are offered at almost every restaurant and street corner for less than $2.We were only in Vientiane for two nights before we started north to Vang Vieng. We checked into Jammee Guesthouse, a lovely guesthouse on the outskirts of town, and stayed there for the next three nights. Our first full day in Vang Vieng was Chris’ birthday! We enjoyed a large breakfast and then walked a kilometer down the road from our guesthouse to a cave. To get to the entrance, we had to climb 130+ stairs until we reached the pretty view at the top. Once we stepped inside the cave, it instantly reminded me of scenes from Indiana Jones. It was quite eerie. We were completely alone inside the massive cathedral of rock until the very end when a group of monks arrived. Below the cave entrance was a smaller cavern with a crystal clear swimming hole. Chris had a birthday dip before heading back to get cleaned up.We walked the town streets and settled into a local family-run restaurant where you basically sit in their living room while you wait for your food (always the best and tastiest places)! For his birthday dinner, Chris chose rice soup with chicken for $1.20.He loved that dish. He ate it every night we were in Vang Vieng because the look and consistency reminded him of grits. After birthday cake and visits to a handful of bars for a few drinks and a birthday Jameson shot, we turned in for the night. Happy Laos Birthday, hubby!!! The next morning, we rented inner tubes in town and a tuk tuk driver drove us up the Nam Song River. We were dropped off a few kilometers from town and spent the next three hours tubing down the river enjoying the beautiful scenery. We really liked Vang Vieng but it was time to head northeast to Phonsavan. The road to Phonsavan was one of the windiest we’ve ridden on in our entire trip. The roads were carved out of the steep mountainsides and lacked guardrails which reminded me of Death Road in Bolivia. The overturned trucks and wrecks along the way didn’t help to ease our minds.Thankfully, we made it safely to Phonsavan and were dropped off on a dusty street. You don’t go to Phonsavan for the town, you go for what lies around the area (just my opinion). It’s not often touched by travelers so perhaps that is why our first impression of the town was a bit dismal. We checked into a guesthouse, grabbed dinner at a delicious Indian joint and called it a night so we could be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for our trip to the Plain of Jars the next day.
The Plain of Jars are 2,000-year-old stones in the shape of jars that are found in clusters all over the Xieng Khuang province in Laos. The actual purpose and function of these jars is unknown and we wanted to have a look for ourselves. We hopped in a minibus with three other travelers and were taken to Jar Site One. There are more than 85 sites in total but Jar Site One has the most jars in one single location (335 jars). It also had the biggest jars out of the three sites we visited that day. There are a few different theories for what the jars were used for. Theories range from storage devices for whiskey or grains, cells for prisoners, banks for villagers or my favorite…cups leftover from parties thrown by giants. The theory that makes the most sense to us is that they were urns or coffins used for burial. However, after excavating all of the jar sites, they’ve never found remains of human bones in the inside of the jars…only on the outside. Dun dun dun. The true purpose remains an unsolved mystery.
Jar Site 2 was our favorite site. The location is home to 90 jars and can be found in a beautiful setting on the hillside. Jar Site 3 (150 jars) was also quite nice because it was set way back into the countryside. What really enhanced the experience to the Plain of Jars were the multiple warning signs and marked trails identifying where you could and couldn’t walk. During the Vietnam War, over a half a million bombing missions took place throughout the province. More than 2.5 million tons of ordnance were dropped, 30% of which failed to detonate and still remain on or below the ground’s surface. The trails have been cleared of all unexploded ordnance (UXO) but outside the trails, UXO has only been cleared on the surface level, not below. This made for a very exciting day walking around the fields.
The Plain of Jars area is one of the poorest provinces in one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia where the population heavily relies on the land for agriculture. Unfortunately, UXO covers 25% of the rice paddies, fields and hillsides which leads to lost crops and lost lives every year.
The UXO that is safely removed is often displayed in tourist offices or reused by the locals as material to help build their homes. Sometimes the aluminum from the bombs is melted down into souvenirs for tourists to purchase. Profits directly benefit the local families and communities. The day ended with a tasting of homemade whiskey from a local villager. The rice whisky was strong, but cheap. They were selling bottles for 60 cents…yikes!It was well worth the trip to Phonsavan to see the Plain of Jars and to come up with our own theories on what the jars were used for. We weren’t sure what to expect and it turned out to be a really great and educational experience. Having seen and done what we came to accomplish, we set off for our next destination in Laos…Luang Prabang!