Monthly Archives: February 2013

Bus ride from Vientiane to Luang Prabang

You are tempted to take the bus ride from Vientiane to Luang Prabang, and have read about the beautiful scenery, but are worried about the insecurity and the poor condition of the road? Do not think twice: if you have a day to spare, do it!the bus in Laos

going to Vientiane by bus in LaosLonely Planet (2010) still talks about the armed attacks by the Hmong insurgency that took place in 2003-2004 on the Route 13 from Vientiane to Luang Prabang, but when we bought tickets, our travel agency based in Vientiane (DD Travel) had never heard about these incidents. The French guide book Le Routard also talks about the “bad reputation” the road has and the attacks that have taken place on it. road from Viantine to Luang PrabangTo be absolutely sure (or as sure as one can ever be), we ended up questioning DD Travel a lot and the only incident that he remembered included a Frenchman called Vincent, who “treated the Lao people like shit” and who owed money “all over”. An another local source confirmed that it was no surprise that “he got what he had asked for” (he was eventually killed on that road, but that was in the end of the 90s and had nothing to do with insecurity or road condition…)Vientiane Luang Prabang bus routeAssured, we purchased the tickets. We were asked to be in front of our hotel at 7am. A mini van came to pick us up and drove us to the Northern bus station (this took almost one hour!). After some waiting around, our rather old bus finally left at 9am. The long journey begun. There were a lot of stops and often we had no clue why. There seemed to be just one driver and he liked to smoke a lot. The road kept turning left and right, went up and then down, so maybe he needed his cigarette in order to concentrate? Once we stopped in front of a monastery to pick up two young monks. food along the bus routeWe had been warned about this road so much in advance that we were expecting much worse but in fact it felt quite safe. The road was quite flat during the first two hours, and the climbing up begun only around 11am. We had been advised to sit on the left hand side (when the destination is in front of you) as this way we would not see how dangerous the road is, but in our opinion it made no sense: the cliffs were all over, on both sides. Sometimes on your left, sometimes on your right. And honestly, if you have done a little bit of driving in the Alps or other mountains, you will soon realize that this road is a piece of cake. The only advise we followed was to sit close to the security exit: an easy way to get out can become handy!Vientiane Luang Prabang bus routeThere were plenty of stops to buy water and drinks, noodle soup and fried rice (we didn’t eat as we had had a decent breakfast before taking off). One could even buy fried frog legs and dried fish… and something else we did not recognize!village people in LaosHonestly, when you hear about the insecurity on the road, I think the only thing you should be worried about is the quality of your bus.  Many people we had talked to in Vientiane had said that they had a flat tire (some even twice during the same trip). It didn’t happen to us, but even if it did, it would have probably only meant an hour delay. The only thing that could worry me is the brakes, but that is something difficult to verify before you jump onto the bus… right?Laos busWe arrived in Luang Prabang at 8.30pm, almost 12 hours after we had left Vientiane. Was it worth it? Yes, because we saw some beautiful scenery and dramatic-looking mountains. Yes, there were many stops, but we were in no hurry. Would I recommend it –yes. For 160,000 kip, the journey is worth every penny.

Updated on February 2014: I wrote this piece one year ago and it is today the most-read article of my blog. I am happy that so many people find it useful! However, I have received a lot of questions and I think it is important to clarify some points.

  • Yes, there are night buses, but I would personally take a day bus just because it feels safer. If there is a problem, you would need sun light, right?
  • In case you choose to take the overnight bus, have a torch and warm clothes with you.
  • You cannot really check the bus condition (brakes etc.) but you can be on the safer side if you travel under good weather conditions. If possible, do not travel by bus under the monsoon and extreme weather conditions. Vientiane and Luang Prabang are both lovely places to be stuck in, so wait a few days for better weather is my suggestion!
  • Many people have asked me about DD Travel, so here you have the business card I was given in February 2013:DD Travel and Ticketing contact information

Lastly, other interesting articles about Laos:

PS If you are on Facebook, why not to follow Pearlspotting there too?

The Sleeping Beauty: Vientiane (part 2)

VientianeI decided to label Vientiane The Sleeping Beauty, but I may have as well called it The World’s Cutest Capital. This tiny capital is very quiet and traffic jams are unheard of. Instead you hear birds and see butterflies. You see monks wondering around the temples and some tourists, mainly independent it seemed, and you are pretty much without hassle while visiting the town. My first impression on Vientiane wasIMG_0810 “what a cute capital”!

My second impression was that the future and the past of Laos use Vientiane as a playground. It felt and looked very Chinese and Communist. At the same time the devoted monks were seen with iPhones and other devices for listening music. It also became obvious very soon that there is plenty of money in the capital (or was it remittances sent into Vientiane by Laotians living abroad?). We saw an abundance of expIMG_0863ensive four wheels and white seemed to be the color à la mode. There was at least one white-colored four-wheeled Porsche and an Englishman we met said he had seen a yellow Lamborghini! Furthermore, Russian influence was present in the streets and a cellular phone operator Beeline seemed to be advertising everywhere. But Russia was not the only country present. France had left its legacy, too, and there are many lovely and good-valued cafes in Vientiane serving all types of coffees and croissants. An interesting battle field of influences I reckon!

After a cup of Lao coffee (filtered coffee mixed with conIMG_0868densed milk) we started our walking tour. The itinerary we did followed the Lonely Planet “Monument to Mekong Cycling Tour” except that we did it by walking and chose a different restaurant to eat lunch at. Note: If you are interested in visiting the temples, do remember that most of them close between midday and 1pm, and close again 4pm. IMG_0864Of all wats (temples) on this route, we liked particularly Wat Ong Teu Mahawihan and Wat Si Saket. Our lunch stop was Makphet, the famous non profit restaurant run by an NGO called Friends International (http://www.friends-international.org/) and where former street youth are trained to wait and cook.  IMG_0828

We chose two main dishes: Lemongrass Spiced Chicken, Young Bamboo & Mushroom Stir Fry and Grilled Beef Salad with Apple Eggplant & Young Lemongrass. Both were excellent, but the beef salad was divine. I find it IMG_0832very interesting that they had added dill in it -dill is very much used in my home country Finland and also in the Eastern Europe and Russia, but I have not associated it with Asian dishes. Will need to do some research on the origin of dill once I get back home.

After the lunch we had two more important places to go to: we hired a tuc tuc to take us to Pha That Luang before its closing, also at 4pm. This is considered to be the most important monument in Laos and legends of the site’s origin vary (http://www.laos-guide-999.com/pha-that-luang.html). The second place we wanted to go to is Wat Si Muang (open until 7pm), where the spirit of Vientiane is supposed to reside. This temple felt very much alive and we could seeIMG_0874 people praying and asking for help. In fact there is a Buddha made of stone and locals believe that by lifting it three times from its pillow, while at the same time asking for something, your wish will come true. We saw an elderly woman  doing this and the statue seemed very heavy. Outside the temple there were many stands where on could buy offerings –something you are supposed to do if your wish comes true.

For the dinner we could not resist the temptation and returned to Chokdee Cafe (read yesterday’s The Sleeping Beauty: Vientiane (part 1) to hear more about this restaurant). I still believe their duck breast laap is one of the best in the entire world! I keep looking for a better one, but in vain…

We spent two full days in Vientiane and could have stayed a bit longer. It really is a pleasant town and in my humble opinion much of its charm lies (in addition to dozens of sacred temples) in Chokdee Cafe and interesting stories you hear there (not forgetting their laap!)…

The Sleeping Beauty: Vientiane (part 1)

(A more detailed story about Siem Reap and visiting the temples will follow at the latest from from Paris, if not before. The connection was so bad in Siem Reap that I could not do any writing and uploading).

After five full days it felt like it was time to move forward from Siem Reap. We had seen the main temples and even hired a car for a day to visit the sites further away. We appreciated the temples and the transformation they had made from Hinduism to Buddhism. We also loved havingLao Airlines meal a morning coffee in the center of Siem Reap at Le Grand Cafe, but in the evening the center became a Western Drinking Factory and this is not why we came to Asia… We had looked into Siem Reap – Vientiane airplane tickets from Paris and the price seemed stable: around 200USD per person one way. On Saturday afternoon we visited one of the Siem Reap travel agencies (www.europe-asiatours.com) and found out that we could buy a one-way ticket for 157USD including taxes and all fees (payment only in cash). Unfortunately the flight was full for the next day, Sunday, so we returned to the hotel to do some googling hoping to find something for Sunday. On http://www.lastminute.com we found a bit more expensive tickets for the next day, and the decision was quickly made: it is time to leave Cambodia for Laos.

During the flight from Siem Reap to Pakse we met a lovely couple from Finland (if PDD hotelirjo & Teuvo from Jyväskylä are reading this, all our best greetings to you and thanks for those nice discussions!). In Pakse, where everyone had to go through the visa and passport control, we were supposDD Hoteled to wait for two hours for the connecting flight, but as soon as we arrived we asked if there is a possibility to get onto the next flight, leaving in just 30 minutes. After some waiting around they said yes, and without any extra payment we checked onto Pakse – Vientiane flight. Our first contact to Lao people was very sweet. They seemed shy and reserved, but a smile was never very far away. We also found out that they like sweets: during the flight we were served two different types of cakes, one of them in the picture with some green filling… (not bad!).

Upon arrival in Vientiane we shared a taxi with Pirjo and Teuvo (7USD a car to the center). Our stop, Vayakorn House, was full but eventually we found something near by and closer to the Mekong River, Douang Deuane Hotel (25USD). Later on the day we read some reviews on http://www.tripadvisor.com and agreed with them: our fifth-floor view from the hotel roomroom was very clean, the bed was comfortable, and we even had a small balcony looking over temple roofs on the right and the Mekong River on the left. The quality of the bathroom was slightly inferior to the room, but it was still clean.

After checking in at the hotel it was time for a late lunch. Our dear friend who had been to Vientiane last year had recommended Tintin-inspired Chokdee Cafe (http://www.chokdeecafe.com), which turned out to be around the corner from our hotel. Chokdee CafeChokdee CafeI do have to admit that I can be quite reluctant about the touristy bars and restaurants, but I immediately fell in love with this restaurant that has a huge selection of Belgium beers (and even mussels on the weekend!!) and Western as well as Lao dishes. Chokdee Cafe is not your usual touristy bar, it is an expat hang out place where you are sure to meet very interesting people. During our first visit we talked to a European man learning Lao language and explaining the pronunciation difficulties to us, while we overheard a discussion on how to invest in Laos. All thispapaya salad and minced duck salad happened while a nice Dutchman (in the picture) was singing old French and English songs, and some songs composed by himself about living an expat life and going to Embassy parties… During our second visit we met an Englishman who had just bought an apartment in Thailand and his new Scottish friend, met on a Luang Prabang-Vientiane bus.

The food at Chokdee Cafe was delicious, too. Papaya salad was a bit too spicy and it is rare we cannot finish a dish… However, my favorite was the Laap Phet: the minced duck breast mixed with mint leaves and chili. DELICIOUS!!! (As I am writing this, it is the best Laap I have had in Laos so far!).

by the Mekong

We could have stayed an entire evening at Chokdee Cafe but once our mouths were burning from the chillies and stomachs full from excellent BeerLao we headed back to the streets. Walking by the Mekong is walking on a border: Thailand is just on the other side of the river and this is why you get messages “welcome to Thailangymd” on your cellular phone. (However, if you curious about crossing the border by the river on your own, do not try. A local guide told us that the Thai soldiers/customs officers are quite corrupted and will fine you very heftily should they catch you…). We also realized that the Lao people are very sportive: there were many skate boarding and jogging along the river, and we even saw an outdoor gym by the river.

Eventually the sun set, but we continued walking. The temples looked very different ftemplerom the ones we had seen in the center of Siem Reap and against the templedark sky they for sure held special magical power.

The Lao people dine early and many places close at 9pm. In addition there is this sort of unofficial curfew at 11pm, so the dining hours have nothing to do with the Mediterranean way of life… The restaurant (Makphet) where we had wanted to go was closed  but we found a food court on Th Chao Anou Street. street food

My husband had some pork sausage (I don’t eat pork) and he said it was a bit sweet but good and interesting. Together we shared grilled squid and a grilled fish (see the photo) that they call “panin” (at least this is what it sounded like to me). They stick a lemongrass inside the fish but if you do not know what it is, you may mistake it for a bipanin fishg spider or something! Panin was clearly a river fish, but the meat was consistent and tasted good.

I think the next time I visit our summer house in Finland I will catch local lake fish and serve it stuffed with lemongrass!! A great barbeque idea.

48 hours in Kuala Lumpur

(I am writing this from lovely Vientiane, the capital of Laos, where we arrived this afternoon from Siem Reap. The connection was so bad in Siem Reap that I could not even open the blog page. I am writing this from the hotel reception, but I hope to be able to report soon from my own computer. Thanks for your patience!)

This post will be a series of photos I took in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. We had a good time there and remember interesting food experiences and lovely, talkative and friendly people.

MONKEY TAXIJamil Kucing

This driver we saw had a monkey pet at his motorbike’s back seat. While I was taking photos I was warned by locals that the driver is very protective of his pet and he does not like it being photographed. Anyhow, the monkey seemed content and calm. This was taken in Chinatown.

(PS more than one month later from taking this photo I received a message from this driver! How he found my blog, who knows. I learned that his name is Jamil Ismail but people call him Jamil Kucing, the Catsman (kucing means cats). He has an animal (mainly cats) rescue shelter in Kuala Lumpur. His blog can be found here: http://jamilthecatman.blogspot.com)

Chinatown in Kuala Lumpur

CHINESE NEW YEAR

Decorations were everywhere. We were explained that Kuala Lumpur is a city of immigrants and many of them use the opportunity (of extended New Year holidays) to return home to the family, so the streets were rather quiet. We enjoyed relaxed walks and the first day we walked in Chinatown and in Little India (more or less followed the itinerary suggested by the Lonely Planet with few exceptions).

temple

TEMPLES

There are many temples in Chinatown and we watched people burning paper and fake money, which is a part of the Chinese New Year traditions. It was idyllic and calm. There was a feeling of something communal: everyone had his mind set on the new year and welcoming it as properly as possible.

Not all temples are Buddhist. There is also a temple from Tamil Nadu, South East of India, with a typical, colorful gopura.

dinnerDINNER

Upon arrival at our hotel (Capitol, recommended!) at midnight we were very tired but at the same time very curious about what the city has to offer. Instead of going to bed at a reasonable hour we went out. We were not even hungry –we just wanted to get a taste of local flavors. I had an excellent egg noodle dish with chicken and dried anchovies. I have to say I am not too keen on mixing the chicken and fish (I find it a bit strange as a combination, but then again, in France they often mix lardon (sort of bacon) with fish!). My dish was very tasty and our stomachs soon very full. At 3 am we finally fell asleep…

Malaysian Flatiron

NEW YORK CITY MEETS KUALA LUMPUR

Been to New York city? Know the Flatiron building?

We named this building the Flatiron of Kuala Lumpur. There is a hotel in it, but the exterior is more interesting that the inside.

HERITAGE BUILDINGS

No one had told us to look for the old heritage buildings in Kuala Lumpur. We thought that these small pieces of history here and there added a lot of charm to theheritage buildings city which is so modern nowadays (I felt it was a little bit the same thing in Bombay: no one really talks about the old art deco buildings that are everywhere, but once you start seeing them, the city starts looking very different in front of your eyes). Once we started paying attention to these tiny jewels in Kuala Lumpur, we also understood the history better.

green architecture

GREEN ARCHITECTURE

In one of the nicer parts of the city we found this building with a green wall made of plants. It reminded us of the French architect designer Monsieur Blanc and also of Miami architecture. I think it is such a great idea to use plants in the architecture and I loved this wall we saw in Kuala Lumpur. I do not know what plants they were planting, but I know from my discussion with Monsieur Blanc at a cocktail party in Paris that it requires serious research to realize this kind of an architectural project.

MASSAGEmassage

After a long walk, we had a massage at one of the places near our hotel. A lovely owner offered us clementines and chatted with us while the Burmese women took care of our feet, neck and shoulder. One hour cost approximately 12Euros.

frog porridge

satay

FROG PORRIDGE

Many of you have already read about my obsession with frog porridge? Well, this is what it looks like. The taste is quite bland and frog meat tastes like chicken but I think I prefer fried frog legs to ones in the porridge. Slices of ginger saved the dish but otherwise it did not have a lot of taste. I thought afterwards that maybe it suits better the morning time, but I was told it is considered an evening dish. Oh well.

CHICKEN SATAY

Many of you may know the grilled chicken chunks marinated in a peanutty sauce? It is a classic Malaysian dish and I am pretty sure everyone loves it.

ps I love the color contrast of rusty orange color against the light-blue-colored plates!

seafood

LOCAL SEAFOOD

Excellent, one of the best dishes if not the best that we had during our stay in Kuala Lumpur. The sauce seemed to have peanuts in it, too. I do not know the name of this particular seafood but it was similar to mussels yet smaller. When we return to Kuala Lumpur in March, this will be our first order!

brochette

FANCY A SKEWER?

Many food stalls offer a wide selection of skewers and even if we did not try any, they looked delicious. Pick you choice, but it may be difficult as there are so many!

soup

…OR PREFER A SOUP?

Again, I just love these colors! (maybe even more than I loved the food itself…)

We purchased these soups for next to nothing in Little India. The stand provided the usual “pick your bowl and we fill it up with hot water” eating experience. Not bad but not very tasty either.

street party

STREET PARTY FOR THE CELEBRATION OF THE CHINESE NEW YEAR

The street behind our hotel was very alive in the evening of February 10, the first day of the Chinese Snake Year. Everyone was out and happy. Fireworks were making noise. Let’s hope that the year continues as well as it started for all of us in every corner of the world. Happy Snake Year once again!!

En route from Paris to Kuala Lumpur via Dubai

It was probably the very last time we try to take the RER train from Gare du Nord to Charles de Gaulle Airport (CDG). Recently, every time we have tried to do so, we have failed. This time it was because of a body found on the tracks… sad but not atypical, and as a result, all trains cancelled. Taxi!

Safe and well ahead of time, we arrived at the terminal 2C at CDG airport, and you know what: it immediately felt like traveling toward affluence and prosperity. Terminal 2C caters for travelers flying to Asia and Africa, where the world’s economic growth is happening, and it was clear that the terminal was ready to serve clients with high purchase power. There was a seafood bar serving the best champagne, oysters and caviar, and Ladurée for those with a sweet tooth; not forgetting all major French and international fashion houses.CDG airport terminalLaduree, CDG airport terminalOur Paris-Dubai leg was flown by Emirates A380 aircraft and the terminal where we landed in Dubai was brand new, opened in January this year, specifically designed to cater A380 aircraft travelers.

Once again, we were spoiled by a beautiful terminal with shops and restaurants one would not typically see at airports.  One of those restaurants is the Belgium Le Pain Quotidien where the concept it to share a cozy croissant, sandwich or salad moment in a wooden, rustic setting. Le Pain quotidien, Dubai airportFor beer lovers, there is Heineken Lounge, and New York-style hamburger lovers have their Shake Shack. Both have a reputation for serving delicious food.Heineken Lounge, Dubai airportShake ShackBoth in Paris and Dubai, I felt that this was the right direction: people spend so much time at airports and different terminals, and it is really no longer enough to provide just a few restrooms and wireless internet. Travelers want more comfort but they also want more variety. Terminals do not all need to look the same and it is OK to make interesting choices in terms of the offer. People want to see terminals and airports as places where one can spend nice, quality time. A bit like at home!

I look forward to my return to Emirates A380 Hub in early March –who would not like to spend some fun time in a terminal as lovely as this!?

Emirates A380 Hub: http://www.emirates.com/english/flying/emirates-a380/hub.aspx

Shake Shack at Emirates A380 Hub: http://www.shakeshack.com/location/dubai-dxb-airport/

Happy Snake Year

candlesAs millions of Chinese today, we also went to a temple to leave behind last year and welcome this new year into our life, hoping it will bring plenty of happiness, stable health, prosperity and good luck. We purchased a candle and lit it up at one of the oldest temples of Kuala Lumpur, Sin Sze Si Ya Temple near the central Market (a very charming small temple).

This morning we did not respect a basic rule of traveling through different time zones: set your alarm clock and GET UP when the locals do! We woke up at 2 in the afternoon.. The day was lovely and I ate my famous frog porridge but it is already 2.30 in the morning and if I don’t get some sleep now, it won’t be good news… So, the next time I write, it will be from Siem Ream. Until then, happy new year!

Back to Asia

Bombay

This photo has a special meaning to me as I took it almost exactly one year and one month ago. We had just finished our third trip to India: a one-month-long tour in the South-East of India. The big, round and reddish Indian sun had woken us up and was looking at us above the Bay of Bombay (I always use the old name Bombay instead of Mumbai). It was very sad. Most people are always excited to return home after extensive traveling but I could have continued exploring India. Many people think it is very chaotic over there but I see the calm in people. This photo was taken a few minutes into the take-off from Chatrapati Shivaji Airport.

I am returning to Asia on Friday. Well, technically we leave Paris on Friday night and arrive in Kuala Lumpur on Saturday night –just in time for the Chinese New Year celebrations! After two nights in Kuala Lumpur we will go to Cambodia and Laos. We may and will try to add some beach time in Thailand in the end, but let’s see. Very few reservations are made: we are free birds. I will try to update the blog whenever I can, but if I disappear, you know it is because of a weak connection or simply that I am too busy tasting all those exotic dishes or that I got lost in the temples of Angkor. A bientôt!