Laos: Monks, Hmong, Bears & Kuang Si Waterfall

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At the top of Kuang Si falls: looking over the edge

We were up bright and early for the monks, aided by the local rooster as well as my phone alarm. Sure enough our friend at the front desk had procured a large straw basket of sticky rice, a bowl of packaged crackers and rice cakes and a straw mat for us to kneel on. We crossed the street in front of the hotel, laid out the mat and set out our offerings. Several yards down the road, the ladies running a nearby store laid out their own mat and offerings.

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Soon, we glimpsed the first monks, clad in bright orange robes, appear to our left at the far end of the road. They chanted as they walked single file, but stopped as they neared us, filing by in silence. Each carried a metal pot on their right hip, held by a rope holder slung over a shoulder and a bag on the opposite hip. As they passed us, each paused and removed the lid from his pot for us to add our offering. David pulled off small balls of sticky rice and deposited them in the bowl while I dropped a packet of crackers or rice cake in the same bowl.

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Morning alms-giving to the local monks
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There were approximately 70 monks in the group that filed by us.

The monks continued on to the ladies down the road who added their own sticky rice to the bowl. These offerings would be used to make the monks’ two daily meals…along with some vegetables one can only hope. It was a little disturbing to think of all the fingers that touched the mix of rice and other offerings in each bowl. The practice seemed less than sanitary, but they’ve been doing it a long time.

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The ladies next door giving alms

After the alms-giving, we had a little down time before our appointment with a tuk tuk driver arranged by My Dream to take us the hour drive to Zuang Si Waterfall for $32 for the day. We were surprised and pleased to find our private tuk tuk was a large “bus” style with a real small truck cab (rather than the 3-wheelers we’d used in Siem Reap) and a rear sporting 2 facing benches that could easily hold 10 people. After a quick discussion, we decided to do a stop in a Hmong village along the way and I sent David back for more money. Sadly–or maybe luckily–he didn’t realize what I had in mind and we were relatively poor for the day.

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David in our big tuk tuk

Barring the occasional massive pothole–which our driver adeptly slowed and crawled through or around, the ride was relatively smooth and the scenery fascinated us: farms and jungly forest, villages and schools, rice fields and water buffalo. The tuk tuk sped along making a comfortable breeze. With no seatbelts and an open back, we laughed that the tuk tuk brought happy memories of rare rides in the back of a pick-up truck. Thank God we didn’t have a wreck or we’d have been thrown out the back in a heartbeat.

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In a Hmong village, our driver pulled to a stop in front of an open stall where a woman spun cotton thread at a spinning wheel while a man beside her slid small tufts of cotton between the rollers of a wringer to remove the seeds. The welcomed us warmly, demonstrating how the machines work and gesturing me to sit at each and try my hand. Spinning is tricky, but I finally started to get the hang of it. Behind the stall, a loom was set up, a colorful cloth only just beginning to take life. The man brought a basket of flowers out, crushing them between his fingers to show me how that obtained the natural dye. Beautiful wall hangings, scarves and table runners hung around us. I’d have happily bought one or three, but we were short on cash. Oh well, most everything we own is in storage these days anyway and the last thing we need is house wares. Still…

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Hmong couple demonstrating removing the seeds from cotton (on left) and spinning
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Fluffing the cotton
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Flowers used to make dye
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Hmong girls

Right at an hour from when we left My Dream, our driver pulled to a stop in a dirt parking square surrounded by stalls selling dry goods and food. He gestured us to the entrance to the waterfall and agreed with our plan to stay 3 hours, including a lunch break.

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Market square outside Kuang Si Waterfall

We paid our 20,000 kip entry fee ($2.47 each) and headed towards the falls. Only 30 yards or so into the wooded path, we came to the Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue Centre that works with http://www.freethebears.org/. White-chested Lao bears rambled, slept and played in tree-shaded open air pens filled with hammocks, climbing platforms, tire swings and toys. We spent time watching the bears and reading signs telling how local bears had been hunted to near extinction and captured to milk for bile used in Asian medicines. Other signs described each bear, his or her markings, characteristics and personalities. Visiting the centre is free, but they raise money by selling t-shirts a few other items.

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Beyond the bear sanctuary, we came to the first of many beautiful pools that lie at the lower steps of the falls. We changed into bathing suits in a path-side building then headed further up (pulling on shirts and shorts–for me–over our bathing suits out of respect for the modest culture). The main fall is a spectacular cascade, spilling down the mountain in steep stages. A footbridge crosses at the base where a fine spray cooled our skin and made photo-taking tricky as lenses quickly spotted. Wild poinsettias bloomed in the rich environment along with huge ficus trees, massive vines and other plants I couldn’t name. Although you can climb to the top of the falls on either side, we opted for the side closest to our original path after a quick examination of the lower climb revealed both ways up to be steep and possibly muddy, but the closest maybe less so.

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A lower pool at Tat Kuang Si
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Part of the lower falls
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Misty Kuang Si Waterfall
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Wild poinsettias thrive in the mists of the waterfall

The path took us away from the water at first through thick jungle and we quickly warmed as we moved away from the cooling effects of the falls and lower pools. Early defined steps gave way to dirt steppes that were only moderately-helpful bumps of dirt. At least it wasn’t muddy and our trusty Teva sandals handled the terrain fine as we scrambled up slopes, pulling on vines and using tree roots as footholds when available. Although we were alone much of the way, we passed a couple of young women who confirmed we were going the right way and hiked around a slower group of three going our way. Part way up and finally back closer to the main falls, we came to a steep flight of wooden stairs over which water cascaded down one side. We waded through enjoying the cool spring water spilling over our sandalled feet.

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The path to the top; not exactly steps here

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Reaching a level open clearing near the top, we came upon a sign indicating the top to our right and more swimming holes 3km to our left. Easy choice. We turned right and soon joined other hikers enjoying the pools at the top of the falls. It was a reasonably light crowd, though, and we peeled off our over clothes and waded in to a sun-dappled pool. We caught our breath as we first slipped into the cold spring water, then sighed in pleasure as we adjusted to the change. Little fish darted ahead of us as we waded to the waterfall’s edge, protected only by a bamboo rail and our own good sense. The view over the falls to the lush mountains beyond was breathtaking.

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One of the pools at the top of Kuang Si Waterfall
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View from the top of Kuang Si Waterfall

After enjoying the water for awhile, we hiked back down, intent on swimming in some of the beautiful pools at the base. I didn’t pull back on my shorts for the hike and was embarrassed when I came upon a monk at the base wearing only my bathing suit and a t-shirt. I lagged behind him while I fished a towel out of our bag and improvised a quick sarong.

We chose a beautiful pool with low waterfalls for another swim, using vines and roots on a bank to try and pull ourselves against the current toward a higher falls. The coolness was delightful and a Canadian woman with whom I struck up a conversation smiled at how great it was after being so hot all the time. We knew it was only a matter a time before we were sweating again, but for the moment it was heaven. Actually, we were so thoroughly cooled that David and I stayed comfortable through lunch at a stall by our tuk tuk and the breezy ride home.

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David in one of the lower pools

The heat only began to catch up with us as we neared Luang Prabang, a combination of lower elevation, city heat and the setting sun shining through the open rear of our tuk tuk evading our sheltering roof. Oh well, another shower took care of that and we were off for our second meal at My Dream. We just couldn’t rustle up the energy to do more…and why should we when it was so good?

The night’s dinner started with more Mekong river weeds (I really did love them!) and dried water buffalo meat for appetizers. The meat, as expected, was basically jerky, very lightly seasoned and served with crisp-fried lemon grass shreds, garlic and kafir lime leaves. Frying made the lemon grass and lime leaves crumbly and edible, letting their full flavors come through.

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Mekong river weeds and dried water buffalo meat

Main courses were red curry duck and laap kai, a local dish of minced chicken in a salad with herbs, garlic, chili served with sticky rice. We opted for a couple large Lao Beers, nestled in an ice bucket and poured out in small, cold doses. Perfect…and only $33.25, all in.

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Red curry duck and laap kai

 

Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia. Wish granted!

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I spent nearly two weeks in Croatia with my sons years ago and the place I’d always regretted missing was Plitvice National Park. As far as I was concerned, Plitvice was #1 on my list for this Croatian vacation with David and now, as our trip neared an end, we were finally going to be there…and it was storming. Not just light rain, but a downpour. Aaargh!

The weather in Zadar had been overcast with occasional drizzle, but cleared to sunny the morning we set out on the drive to Plitvice. It’s an easy 2-hour drive from Zadar to Plitvice and the scenery is beautiful as you head into the mountains and cross over impressive bridges spanning wide inlets of water.

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As we climbed higher into seriously rugged mountains, the weather began to deteriorate.

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When we exited the truly impressive Sveti Rok tunnel (over 3.5 miles long!), wind buffeted our car to the point I was getting a little nervous despite the excellent, wide highway. Thankfully traffic was light. By the time we neared Plitvice Jezera, the skies had opened up and we pulled into the parking lot of our AirBnB apartment in the driving rain. Our lovely hostess awaited us in raincoat and hood and we left our luggage to dash inside, umbrellas held high.

Despite that inauspicious beginning, the next day dawned bright and clear and all we could have hoped for for our day at Plitvice. I was as excited as a child!

We got an early start, planning to park at the Hotel Bellevue near Entrance 2 to the park and avoid the less-convenient, paid parking designated for the park. As we turned in a guard stopped our car, asking where we were going. I just looked bemused and answered we were going to the Hotel Bellevue, of course, and he waved us in. Instead of turning left into the main hotel parking, we drove to the end of the short street and parked, near the pedestrian path into the park. This put us not far from a ticket office and park bus stop #2 (“ST2” on the map below). Perfect!

Our AirBnB hostess, Jelena, was a font of knowledge and she’d given us a park map and laid out an optimum walk for us. We followed all her suggestions and could not have been happier. Day tickets to the park were 110 kuna apiece (about $17 each). We caught the park bus (included in our tickets) heading toward Entrance 1 and got off at the bus stop #1 (“ST1” on the map below) to walk along the water (on our left) to view the largest waterfall Veliki Slap (literally “Big Waterfall”) on the far bank.

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Park map posted near Entrance 2 ticket building/bus stop

The path to the waterfall itself was closed, for which I was just as glad. I was happy with the view from the opposite bank and, once I saw the scattered nature of Veliki Slap and a building at the summit of the waterfall, I was even less interested in going. I’m a waterfall junkie of sorts and have been to the top of lots of waterfalls, but I was fine with missing the top of this one. Maybe it was just me. Anyway, there was so much I wanted to see in the lower lakes and we headed back to continue the route Jelena had recommended.

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An early view of Veliki Slap

We hiked down to the water, making our way along the water (now on our right) and past another four wide waterfalls before crossing over to the far bank where Jelena had told us to catch a boat at P3 (also included in our tickets).

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View of wide waterfall from above

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At water level
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Crossing the water
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Boat approaching the dock
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Off the bow of the boat

We got off the boat at P2 (see map above) and began an amazing wander through seemingly-endless waterfalls.

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We spent several hours hiking the park. We found it to be a moderate hike, with occasional steep stretches and some dirt paths getting narrow and muddy from the previous day’s rain. Plitvice Lakes National Park is so large that we never felt crowded and while we did see other people (and there was a fair-sized Asian tour group at the boat stop) we also had plenty of space to take in the incredible, tranquil beauty of the park.

We ended our hike at bus stop 3 (“ST3” on the map above) where we caught the bus back to ST2 where we began our day. From there, we walked the short distance back to the national restaurant “Poljana” for lunch. It’s located just by the Hotel Bellevue with lovely views of the park. Unfortunately, we found both the food and service to be inferior to its sister national restaurant, Licka Kuca, near Entrance 1.

For more information, see: http://www.np-plitvicka-jezera.hr/en/

You can check out our 2-bedroom/1-bath AirBnB apartment at: https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/4699728?sug=50 At $75/night and a 10-minute walk to the park (in good weather), it’s a deal worth considering, especially so if you need two bedrooms.

If you’re new to AirBnB and want to give it a try on this or any other apartment, you can use my referral link which should get both of us $30 in AirBnB travel credit: http://www.airbnb.com/c/tcuthrell Let me know if you have any questions.

Krka Park, Croatia–walking on water

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Krka Park pathway

The waterfalls, lakes, rivers and pathways of Krka Park lure visitors from Croatia and beyond. We got up early to start our daytrip to Krka, hoping to avoid the crowds we’d heard could be a problem. The park lies an easy hour’s drive from Split. We drove the vast majority of the way on the excellent A1/E65 highway, then followed signs (and Google Maps) along the equally well-maintained E33 to the park’s main entrance at Lozovac. The enormous parking lot was mostly empty, but cars and tour buses were already beginning to arrive. We bought entrance tickets at the booth in the parking lot then realized we’d just missed the free shuttle bus that takes visitors into the park. [The free shuttle service runs from April to October.] Unwilling to wait for the bus to return, we opted to hike instead downhill through thick forests. The walk is pretty and not overly-difficult for the fit, but views of the lake below are blocked and we actually saw more of that particular vista by riding the bus back to the parking lot at the end of our visit. Our hike deposited us just up the road from the bus drop-off.

A few yards beyond a concession stand we stepped onto the raised wooden path that snakes its way through the myriad waterfalls, streams and lakes of Krka. In mere yards, we’d left the world of parking lots and buses behind to lose ourselves in a fairytale world of green. Water rushed and burbled all around us, even visible between the planks beneath our feet. Small fish darted about or clumped in schools swimming against the currents. Sunlight glinted off moving water and the air smelled deliciously of water, flowers, herbs, grass and trees.

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We caught up to a tour group, but they branched back towards civilization and we soon had the park seemingly to ourselves. We came across other hikers from time to time, but mostly in twos and threes. Paths snake all through the area, sometimes as the raised wooden walkways over water, others as dirt footpaths through the trees. A group of mounted posters along the way describe local flora and fauna. We spent a couple hours exploring this area before we came to a footbridge over a large basin with multiple waterfalls spilling into it. The largest of these is Skradinski buk. Several buildings cluster around this spot, including a restored mill, souvenir shop and a historical display of weaving and traditional costumes. Things got crowded in this part of the park which is evidently easily accessible for tour groups not going as far into the park as we did.

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Stradinski buk waterfall

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Walking across the bridge and past the buildings brought us back to the concession stand and parking circle where the park shuttle bus picked us up. It is a full-sized bus, accommodating far more people than were waiting when we were there. The bus dropped us off at the big parking lot by the Lozovac entrance where we’d left our car.

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View from the shuttle bus that we missed on the hike into Krka

Several small restaurants line one side of the parking lot. We chose one at random, Lapis Alba, and enjoyed a cheap late lunch of hot sandwiches and cold beer before heading back to Split.

There’s lots more to Krka than what we saw, but it would probably take at least two full days to see it all at leisure. Boat rides are available on the river between falls and going out to Vivosac Island, home to a small monastery. You can find out more at: http://www.npkrka.hr/stranice/krka-national-park/2/en.html

Slovenia: Lake Bohinj and Lake Bled in a day

Lake Bled was on my absolute must-see list while in Slovenia. Photos showed something like a scene out of a fairy tale: a castle on a cliff overlooking a crystal clear lake in the middle of which sits a jewel of a little church on a tiny island accessible only by rowboats. But, as I did more research, nearby Lake Bohinj popped on my radar screen, begging to be visited as well.

Once again, we enjoyed the benefits of a small country: Google Maps said Lake Bohinj was only a little over an hour from our apartment in Ljubljana Old Town, and only 30 minutes past Lake Bled. Since the weather forecast called for more sun in the afternoon, we opted to drive through Bled to visit Lake Bohinj first, saving my top destination for last.

It was tantalizing to drive right past magnificent Bled with only a quick pause to admire the view of the island church and snap a pic or two. It turned out to be a good move, though; we stopped in parking spaces claimed by a major hotel. The man selling spots quoted us a price below what we’d seen in big parking lots much farther from the lake and we resolved to try to score one of these spots upon our return.

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On the road between Bled and Lake Bohinj. We saw fly fishermen in the river, but no fish like this!

Lake Bohinj turned out to be pretty awesome for a second choice.  With water as clear as glass, it reflected the surrounding mountains like a mirror. The famous medieval church of St. John the Baptist dates back to the late-10th or early 11th century with frescoes dating back to 1300. On the opposite end of the lake, we hiked the equivalent of 65+ stories to reach the waterfall, Slap Savica. Crude stairs have been set in the mountain, but it’s a serious climb. There’s a gondola for those who’d rather skip the workout.

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Lake Bohinj view of the church of St. John the Baptist
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Fresco on St. John the Baptist church, Lake Bohinj
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Mirror-like Lake Bohinj on the way to Slap Savica (“slap” means “waterfall.”)

Having driven a good 20 minutes beyond the church end of the lake, it took us closer to an hour to get back to Lake Bled. Still, we arrived with much of the day left ahead of us. Unfortunately, all the good parking spots were gone, so we parked in public parking near the Tourist Info where we were limited to 2 hours. Walking back by the good, lakeside hotel parking, we saw a space just opening up. I asked the man we’d spoken to earlier if he’d hold the spot long enough for us to go fetch the car and he agreed, putting a barrier up to prevent any interlopers. We quickly made the switch and were back on a leisurely schedule!

There are two traditional boats on Lake Bled providing access to the small island church: individual wooden rowboats (rented at several locations around the lake) and pletna boats, larger, flat-bottomed wooden boats operated by traditional pletna oarsmen. The charge for the pletna boats was a pretty ridiculous €14pp for about a 5 minute boat ride from the pletna boat dock. David and I had already decided we’d rather row ourselves anyway. That turned out to be a good thing because the day we were there the pletna oarsmen were on strike. (A real shame for those not up to rowing themselves!) On the other hand, that meant that all rowboats we asked after were already rented with a waiting list to boot. After a warm hike around much of the lake, we sucked it up and paid the premium asked by the spa near our parking spot. I think it was €15/hour instead of €10. A tiny drop in the bucket in the grand scheme of things, it just touched that I-hate-to-be gouged nerve of mine. 🙂 The other downside to renting at the spa was location. The spa is a lot farther away from the island church that the other rowboat rentals near the pletna boat dock. We had our work cut out for us.

In minutes, David was rowing away. Now, my husband is a pretty buff guy, but keeping that little boat on a straight line was giving him some trouble despite my awesome navigating. (The person rowing has to face backwards.) It turns out those boats are really susceptible to wind…as I discovered when I wanted to try the return row. My left arm was doing all the work trying to fight the wind and I was finally worn out. David and I eventually settled on a goofy-looking method whereby we faced each other, each of us using one oar while we tried to avoid banging the handles together with each stroke. Oh well, we made it back and the nice people at the spa spared us an overtime charge. All gouging forgiven!

There’s really not a lot to see once you’re on the island, but it’s fun to do. There’s a separate €6 charge to enter the little church where you can ring the “wishing bell.” There’s also a gift shop and an ice cream vendor with some pretty awesome gelato. 30-40 minutes max is plenty of time on the island.

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Lake Bled
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David, rowing our boat ashore
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Almost there. Keep rowing, David!
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Docked at Bled Island

We drove back to Ljubljana on the modern E61 and were easily home in time for dinner. What a great day!

April 2016