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Chilling out in Laos

sunny 35 °C
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I know I haven't given news for a while and my trip now approaches to an end so prepare yourself for a bunch of articles in the next days! :)

After the hectic months I had just spent in New Zealand, Korea and Hong Kong, I really felt like I needed to take a break and to slow down the pace of my journey. Indeed people back home keep telling me that "you are on holiday, how can you be exhausted?" but the truth is that when you pack and unpack your bag every few days to go to another destination, visit another museum or another "amazing" waterfall, you start feeling a bit less impressed and more and more tired. When at the beginning I was finding myself craving for new adventures, I now enjoy a lot spending days relaxing and not doing much.

So in that perspective, Laos was quite a breather for me. After an overnight stay in Bangkok airport because of the cheap flight I had booked from Hong Kong, I arrived in a really hot day in Vientiane, the capital of Laos. The temperature change after a freezing Korea and a sometimes chilly Hong Kong, was quite a shock. But in a way I adapted myself quickly to that environment by incorporating the local motto "hum... it's really too hot to do anything today, let's chill out..." ! :)

And here are how my days in Laos were mostly spent...

  • Vientiane

The capital of Laos is actually quite small compared to the ones of the countries around. But it has still a definite atmosphere of South East Asia, with tuktuks, markets and street food stalls all around. I was also surprised to see a lot of signs (like for the official buildings) written both in Lao and French, but as Laos was a former French colony (used to be part of the Indochina with Vietnam and Cambodia) it all made sense. However nowadays French is only being spoken by older people, the younger generation learning English, which is more useful for tourism purposes.
One of the only sites I visited in Vientiane was Buddha Park, a statues park where 60 years ago, a monk who integrated Buddhism and Hinduism, tried to gather and build statues to revere the Buddha. Here are a few pics:

Buddha Park

Buddha Park


Patuxay, the War monument in Vientiane

Patuxay, the War monument in Vientiane


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  • Vang Vieng

Vang Vieng has been known for a long time has a party place, where the main attraction was to go down the river in a tube, and to stop every 100 metres or so at the several bars along it. No need to say that everyone was ending up really drunk and of course with time accidents happened (even deaths). So the whole thing has now been downsized a lot and out of the 50 bars or so, only 4 remains. And where maybe in the beginning it was really about tubing and going down the river, now the first and last bars are only at a mere 500 metres from each other so most of the people stop at the last bar and get a ride back in a tuktuk instead of carrying on for 2 to 3 hours on a perfectly still river (that was just before the rainy season so the river was at its driest level). Anyway the whole experience was quite fun, we met nice and funny people, but I could definitely see how it could go wrong if you keep drinking and don't pay attention to the time (it gets dark right after 6pm). Being drunk and on the river in the dark for a few hours was probably not a good idea... :)

Anyway Vang Vieng is not just about tubing but also has stunning landscapes to offer with limestones mountains covered by vegetation, caves to explore, lagoons to jump in, etc...

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The Blue lagoon

The Blue lagoon


Renting a motorbike is a lot of fun but can be a bit risky...

Renting a motorbike is a lot of fun but can be a bit risky...

  • Luang Prabang

The journey continued in Luang Prabang, a small city classified as an UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1995 and located between the Nam Khan and Mekong River. Here tons of tuktuk drivers will approach you in the main street, asking you if you want to go to the waterfalls, elephant villages or some temples... then later in the evening the same people will change their offers for the bowling alley (the only place opened late at night) or to sell you all type of drugs or again to take you to the "ladies boom boom"... Hum.....
Anyway I had a good time there, and we even managed to find a place completely randomly where to play pétanque (french balls game) while enjoying some cold beers with the locals, great fun!

One of the main temples in Luang Prabang

One of the main temples in Luang Prabang


Every morning around 6am, monks go down the main street for the Alms giving ceremony, where locals give them food for the day

Every morning around 6am, monks go down the main street for the Alms giving ceremony, where locals give them food for the day


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Jonathan with new friends <img class='img' src='https://tp.daa.ms/img/emoticons/icon_smile.gif' width='15' height='15' alt=':)' title='' />

Jonathan with new friends :)


Pétanque time!

Pétanque time!


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The Kuang Si Waterfall

The Kuang Si Waterfall


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Too hot is not good for the mind... <img class='img' src='https://tp.daa.ms/img/emoticons/icon_wink.gif' width='15' height='15' alt=';)' title='' />

Too hot is not good for the mind... ;)

  • Phonsavan

Another painful bus journey in a packed bus through the dusty roads of Laos and my friend Jonathan and I found ourselves in Phonsavan, in the middle of northern Laos. This region faced a tragic history some decades ago during the second Indochina war with American fighter planes dropping tons of bombs in the area, either when on their way to Vietnam or at their return, to avoid bringing them back to their base. As a result Phonsavan and its region Xieng Khouang were devastated by mass bombing (it is the most heavily bombarded area in the world with at least 262 millions cluster bombs dropped on Laos between 64 and 73, more than during the entire World War II!) but the sad story is that around 30% of those bombs didn't explode right away, leaving inhabitants at risk of stepping on them by mistake and dying horribly. The children especially are concerned because they don't always recognise it is a bomb before it is too late. And it took the U.S a long time to recognise all their mischief here, as this was meant to be a Secret War, meaning that even the U.S Congress didn't know what was going on at that time. Nowadays the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) work with the locals to try to find out as many bombs as they can and to neutralise them before anyone can get hurt. But the task is huge and still around 10-20 people die each year as a result of those left over bombs...

But the main reason to visit Phonsavan is to get a glimpse of the famous Plain of Jars. The Plain of Jars is dated to the Iron Age (500 BC to AD 500) but very little is known about the jars signification. There are about 50 different sites filled in with megalithic jars, where in some burials human remains were found but no one knows exactly if this was the main purpose of these jars or if there was another meaning...
Another problem also when visiting those sites, is the presence of unexploded bombs as I mentioned above. As a result, visiting can only be done on the clearly marked paths and this also slow down the restoration process of the jars and new discoveries.

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  • The 4000 Islands (Si Phan Don)

Finally, my last stop in Laos was at its most southern point, in an area called the 4000 islands, an archipelago located in the Mekong river. As its name suggests, there are several islands here, most of them being submerged by the Mekong during the monsoon season. There is not much to do there except chilling out and relaxing, going on a kayak or tubing tour, visiting huge waterfalls nearby or trying to spot the rare Irrawaddy dolphins (an endangered specie due to the Mekong river's pollution).

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On a kayak tour

On a kayak tour


Waiting for the dolphins to appear

Waiting for the dolphins to appear


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Massive waterfalls on the Mekong

Massive waterfalls on the Mekong


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Nice sunset..

Nice sunset..

Posted by manolo84 22:43 Archived in Laos Tagged landscapes sunsets_and_sunrises temples rivers kayaking monks english Comments (0)

Adventures in Kiwiland


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I feel like a post is now long overdue but I have been quite busy these last weeks or too tired to take the time to upload pictures and write something. So rather than a long post, here is a selection of about 40 pictures taken during my 7 weeks in New Zealand, on both the North and South islands. I have also tried to update the map to show you where these pictures were taken. Finally, I will post a bit more in the next few days to cover some of the big hikes/treks I did and which I think all require separate posts to avoid surcharging the blog with pictures.

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  • North Island

First stop after Auckland was in Hahei and I took the opportunity to explore the sea while kayaking

First stop after Auckland was in Hahei and I took the opportunity to explore the sea while kayaking


Still Hahei, which apparently as an air of Thailand...

Still Hahei, which apparently as an air of Thailand...


Cathedral Cove beach, one of the main spots in Hahei. The rock forms an arch and link the two beaches on each side.

Cathedral Cove beach, one of the main spots in Hahei. The rock forms an arch and link the two beaches on each side.


Next to Hahei was "Hot Water Beach", a beach where streams of really hot water comes from under (almost 80 degrees). So people gather when the tide goes up and try to get a hole in the sand while mixing this hot water with the sea water, to have a nice bath... <img class='img' src='https://tp.daa.ms/img/emoticons/icon_smile.gif' width='15' height='15' alt=':)' title='' />

Next to Hahei was "Hot Water Beach", a beach where streams of really hot water comes from under (almost 80 degrees). So people gather when the tide goes up and try to get a hole in the sand while mixing this hot water with the sea water, to have a nice bath... :)


Next stop was Raglan, the most popular surf spot in New Zealand

Next stop was Raglan, the most popular surf spot in New Zealand


And they even named the beach after me! :D

And they even named the beach after me! :D


Learning to do the Haka with some Maoris... I'm definitely missing a few tatoos... <img class='img' src='https://tp.daa.ms/img/emoticons/icon_wink.gif' width='15' height='15' alt=';)' title='' />

Learning to do the Haka with some Maoris... I'm definitely missing a few tatoos... ;)


Nice water reflections near Rotorua

Nice water reflections near Rotorua


Fishing eels at night in a lake, here is my only catch of the night, but what a catch!

Fishing eels at night in a lake, here is my only catch of the night, but what a catch!


Bridge near Whakahoro

Bridge near Whakahoro


Waterfall, Whakahoro

Waterfall, Whakahoro


Same waterfall, Whakahoro

Same waterfall, Whakahoro


A few days later, here we are in the Tongariro National Park. Here is a view of Ruapehu.

A few days later, here we are in the Tongariro National Park. Here is a view of Ruapehu.


Next to it is mount Ngauruhoe which was used to represent Mount  Doom in the Lord of the Rings movies.

Next to it is mount Ngauruhoe which was used to represent Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings movies.


And still about the Lord of the Rings trilogy, here is the Tahui falls, used in a scene with Gollum (the second movie of the trilogy)

And still about the Lord of the Rings trilogy, here is the Tahui falls, used in a scene with Gollum (the second movie of the trilogy)


Tahui falls again, different angle.

Tahui falls again, different angle.

  • South Island

Beginning of January, it was time to take the ferry and to cross to the South Island, reputed for its amazing landscapes and home to a lot extreme sports.

First stop was the Abel Tasman National Park, where you can hike or even rent a kayak and explore the surroundings that way.

First stop was the Abel Tasman National Park, where you can hike or even rent a kayak and explore the surroundings that way.


Abel Tasman

Abel Tasman


Seals relaxing on the rocks in Abel Tasman

Seals relaxing on the rocks in Abel Tasman


I call this bird the "day kiwi" for its resemblance with the kiwi which has a longer beak.

I call this bird the "day kiwi" for its resemblance with the kiwi which has a longer beak.


More seals around Punakaiki

More seals around Punakaiki


Here in Punakaiki there is an interesting rock formation called Pancake rocks, because of the shape of the rocks which look like a stack of pancakes one of top of each other

Here in Punakaiki there is an interesting rock formation called Pancake rocks, because of the shape of the rocks which look like a stack of pancakes one of top of each other


Pancake rocks

Pancake rocks


Beach near Punakaiki

Beach near Punakaiki


Punakaiki

Punakaiki


Sunset on Punakaiki

Sunset on Punakaiki


Fox Glacier

Fox Glacier


Waterfalls near Franz Josef Glacier

Waterfalls near Franz Josef Glacier


Thunder Creek Falls

Thunder Creek Falls


And also on our way that day, we made a short stop to Lake Matheson. Splendid...

And also on our way that day, we made a short stop to Lake Matheson. Splendid...


Lake Matheson

Lake Matheson


In Wanaka, I decided to sign up for a course about piloting a stunt plane and doing loops and other stunts... I'm glad my stomach held up until the end!

In Wanaka, I decided to sign up for a course about piloting a stunt plane and doing loops and other stunts... I'm glad my stomach held up until the end!


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Wanaka's team <img class='img' src='https://tp.daa.ms/img/emoticons/icon_smile.gif' width='15' height='15' alt=':)' title='' />

Wanaka's team :)


A day later, we arrived in Queenstown, little town set in a amazing location, between mountains and lake.

A day later, we arrived in Queenstown, little town set in a amazing location, between mountains and lake.


Our group in Queenstown

Our group in Queenstown


View from a hike I did near Te Anau, in the Fjordlands

View from a hike I did near Te Anau, in the Fjordlands

Posted by manolo84 21:32 Archived in New Zealand Tagged waterfalls sunsets_and_sunrises lakes beaches birds nature kayaking english Comments (2)

Panama City and Portobelo


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Not a long post there, as Panama city was for me more a springboard to reach Colombia. Indeed even though you cannot cross the border between Colombia and Panama by land (because of the Darien Gap), there are other options available. One is to fly over to Bogotá or Cartagena but this is a bit expensive, or the other option is to take a boat from the Caribbean coast of Panama and sail directly to Cartagena (or just to the Colombian border).

So while waiting to find a boat which would take me to Colombia (I have decided to avoid flying when I can), I took the opportunity to visit a bit Panama City and its famous canal:

The finance area of Panama City

The finance area of Panama City


Little streets in the old Panama

Little streets in the old Panama


Ships waiting to cross the canal

Ships waiting to cross the canal


The new Panama City by night

The new Panama City by night


The old Panama City by night

The old Panama City by night


A huge cruise ship crossing the canal

A huge cruise ship crossing the canal


Miraflores lock

Miraflores lock


The gates in action

The gates in action


A Chinese cargo ship entering the canal

A Chinese cargo ship entering the canal

I would spend 3 days in total in this city, which was plenty enough for me as I quickly got fed up with the taxis trying to rip you off of every dollars they could. I mean it's a common scenario in all countries, especially in Latin America, but the way it is done in Panama is more irritating, especially when you know how much you should be paying and they still insist that you need to pay twice more, just because you are a tourist. Besides that, the town itself (food and accommodation) is not cheap so I didn't have any regrets in leaving early.

After Panama City then, me and my Irish buddy Aidan who I met on the way to Panama decided to head off to Portobelo, a little village on the Caribbean coast, where we had found a boat which was leaving for Colombia a few days later (see next post). Not much to do there except exploring the bay in kayak and taking pictures of the different forts which were protecting the town from the pirates, hundred years ago, with or without success.

As a bit of history, the privateer William Parker attacked and captured the city in 1601 and Captain Henry Morgan repeated the feat in 1668. He led a fleet of privateers and 450 men against Portobelo, which, in spite of its good fortifications, he captured. His forces plundered it for 14 days, stripping nearly all its wealth while raping, torturing and killing the inhabitants.

Besides this, it is even said that since 1956, the coffin of Francis Drake, a pirate famous for raiding all the towns in that area of the Caribbean sea, lies down somewhere in the sea, not far from the coast, but so far hasn't been discovered.

The cannons protecting Portobelo

The cannons protecting Portobelo


The first fort overlooking the bay

The first fort overlooking the bay


Somehow we really wanted to fire that cannon! <img class='img' src='https://tp.daa.ms/img/emoticons/icon_smile.gif' width='15' height='15' alt=':)' title='' />

Somehow we really wanted to fire that cannon! :)


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Kayak session in the bay

Kayak session in the bay


Sailing ships anchored in the bay

Sailing ships anchored in the bay


Portobelo

Portobelo

Posted by manolo84 11:00 Archived in Panama Tagged boats canals cities kayaking english Comments (0)

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