Pearl Palace Heritage Hotel in Jaipur, India

Breakfast area in Pearl Palace Heritage Hotel

I don’t often do straight-up lodging reviews and then only when there’s something really worth mentioning. Pearl Palace Heritage Hotel in Jaipur is one of those places that deserves a separate write-up. Located in a neighborhood that’s gated at night, Pearl Palace Heritage Hotel is safe, convenient, clean, comfortable and reasonably priced, but above all, it’s gorgeous. Housed in an elegant historic building, the decor is over-the-top in places, but fun and displaying impressive craftsmanship and artistry. The hotel has been named #1 Romantic Indian Hotel on Tripadvisor and a portion of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel 2 was shot there in 2014. Photos are necessary to do this place justice, so here you go: read more

1910 State Hotel in Sterling City, Texas

1910 State Hotel in Sterling City, Texas

While not exactly a tourist destination, Sterling City does boast a historic little hotel and that was enough to get it on my radar screen as a half-way stop on our drive from Big Bend National Park back to the Dallas-Fort Worth area. I was looking for a hotel with character and–as nice as Hotel Settles was on the drive down–I wanted to take a different route home just to vary things up a little. When I found a list of historic Texas hotels online, I pulled up Google Maps and eyed the location of those I wasn’t familiar with. 1910 State Hotel in Sterling City seemed exactly what I was looking for. read more

Marfa, Texas: Staying in the James Dean room in the Hotel Paisano, Marfa Lights, and more

Lobby of the Hotel Paisano in Marfa, Texas

In recent years, Marfa, Texas, has gained a reputation as a funky, artsy destination town. Before that, it was famous as the filming location for the movie, “Giant,” starring Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and James Dean. (Dean died in a car crash in 1955 and the movie was released posthumously.) The cast stayed at the Hotel Paisano during filming, a -great old inn steeped in West Texas culture. The hotel plays up its connection to the movie with framed, poster-sized black-and-white photos scattered throughout. read more

Indian Lodge in Davis Mountains State Park, Texas

Indian Lodge in Davis Mountains State Park; the original adobe received a gleaming coat of white paint in last summer’s remodel.

Deciding where to stay during our much-anticipated McDonald Observatory “Star Party” came down to a historic hotel in downtown Fort Davis or Indian Lodge in Davis Mountains State Park. Highly recommended by friends, closer to the observatory, located within the state park where we wanted to hike, and newly refurbished as of summer 2018, we opted for Indian Lodge.

Built to look like a multi-level pueblo village, Indian Lodge opened to the public in 1939. The lodge boasts a big two-fireplace den/game room, a lovely pool and a restaurant with hit-and-miss opening hours. Our room on the upper level had windows on two sides and a now-blocked adobe fireplace in one corner. The ceiling consisted of large beams and twigs. Just what I had in mind! read more

A week-long roadtrip to Big Bend kicks off with the historic Hotel Settles in Big Spring, Texas

The elegant lobby of Hotel Settles in Big Spring, Texas

I’m super excited about our upcoming week-long Texas roadtrip. As a native Texan with roots going back to the days when Texas was an independent republic, it’s high time I got myself to one of the state’s most iconic, unique and remote treasures, Big Bend National Park. I reserved one of the park’s coveted Chisos Mountains Lodge cottages a year ago and crossed my fingers that the weather would cooperate when the allotted time rolled around. A government shutdown didn’t even cross my mind back then. Fortunately, although Big Bend is a national park, the park is open, if unstaffed, and the Lodge is run by a private concessionaire, so we’re still a go. On our journey, we’ll also take in other Texas classics including a “Star Party” at the McDonald Observatory in the Davis Mountains, a stay in the “James Dean” room at the Paisano Hotel in Marfa and lots more. read more

Amata Borobudur Resort: Javanese bungalows with artistic flair

“Sunibya” bungalow at Amata Borobudur Resort

Eschewing the Manohara Hotel next to Borobudur Temple for something more exotic, smaller and with better dining reviews, I chose Amata Borobudur Resort for our 4-night stay in Central Java. At about $80/night, it was more expensive than a lot of options in the area, but about $60 cheaper/night than the Monohara and with what looked like a lot more local charm and an interesting setting. Amata also provides free transportation to Borobudur Temple (including for sunrise) which is only 10-15 minutes away.

Our 1.5 hour flight from Denpasar, Bali,  was delayed just long enough that we arrived in Yogyakarta, Java, at rush hour. Fortunately, the driver Amata sent for us knew the back roads and was able to dodge some of the traffic once we were out of the city, but what we hoped would be an 1h 20 min drive still stretched to two hours and we arrived after dark. So, the layout of the little resort remained shrouded in mystery and we could only explore our bungalow…which we loved!

Flower petals on the big, comfy bed (along with a tiny salamander) were a nice touch.

Done in classic Javanese style with wooden walls and high ceiling, someone with an artistic touch had really raised it to the next level. The little attention to details charmed us.

What a dramatic and unusual light fixture!
Great organic design. The bag was a sample from the shop in the main building which also sold jewelry and other handmade items.

The shower room, while un-air-conditioned as usual, was surprisingly fully-enclosed. Save for Nusa Dua, all the bathrooms we’d had had openings to the outdoors. This makes large wood ants wandering the bathrooms a common occurrence. We learned to just ignore them. At Amata, no bugs! We did however have a large salamander that lived high in the rafters and “barked” occasionally. Oh well, when in Asia…

The first fully enclosed bathroom we came across in Bali, with a glassed-in skylight.

The next morning dawned bright and sunny and we could survey our new domain. We discovered we had the bungalow furthest from the main building, which we thought was a plus. The distance wasn’t far, but we had lots of privacy and looked out over adjoining rice paddies in the opposite direction.

View from our porch to a neighboring bungalow and the pool. The open-air dining pavilion is beyond the bungalow and the main building/lobby just beyond that.
Beautifully-kept pool. Only minor downside for some is no shade anywhere on the pool itself.

Breakfast in the nearby open-air pavilion turned out to be a multi-course affair served at table.

Javanese rice porridge with hot cane sugar syrup. Yum!
View from our breakfast table
Banana spring rolls for breakfast. Food, like much else at Amata, was artistically presented.

Later, we found dinner to be tasty and even simple dishes we’d grown accustomed to were presented with an extra flair. A limited selection of beer and wine is available, something not always on the menu in Muslim Java.

Amata’s version of one of my favorite Indonesian vegetarian staples, gado gado. It’s not usually served as as a wrap.
Nasi goreng (fried rice) and satay

From Amata Borobudur Resort, it’s a short walk to Mendut Temple which is definitely worth a visit, and very cheap (less than a $1, if I remember correctly).

Inside Mendut Temple

All in all, we really enjoyed Amata Borobudur Resort. I’d stay there again, and feel like we got decent value for the money. I paid 4,500,000 idr ($320 US) for 4 nights, or about $80/night for a “deluxe bungalow.” (Our bungalow was named “Sunibya” and I recommend it for style and location within the resort.) This price included breakfast, 10% tax and 10% service charge. The price is relatively high for the area, but provides a measure of luxury with local flair and is substantially less than the $140 or so rate at the Manohara Hotel next to Borobudur Temple, even factoring in the reduction offered there for entry to the temple. (There’s a spa on-site at Amata as well, but we did not use it.) Plenty of budget options exist in the area, for those looking for more basic accommodations. I booked via Booking.com as they had the best rate at the time and I used Topcashback to get even more off. (Currently, Topcashback is offering a 7% rebate on Booking.com bookings. If you’re not a Topcashback member, you can use my link  here.)

Amata arranged a driver for us to and from Yogyakarta Airport for 300,000 idr each way ($21.34). There was no additional charge for our pre-dawn departure. They also arranged a driver for us to explore the region for a day which turned out to be a great experience and far less touristy than we feared, a bonus of choosing a car which could wander much further than the horse-drawn tourist cart tour they initially suggested. (A car also offers air conditioning, a huge and irreplaceable bonus is steamy Central Java.) The cost was around $30. We paid via credit card for the 3 drivers when we settled our room bill.

The only minor “complaint” I have about the location of Amata Borobudur Resort is that the several mosques in the area begin an almost comical competition of calls to prayer many times a day, some starting in the wee hours and all over loudspeakers. I’m not sure it would be much better elsewhere in the area, though.

 

INAYA Putri Bali: A sprawling Nusa Dua resort offers a lot of bang for your buck

Beautiful beach at INAYA Putri Bali in Nusa Dua, Bali

[I’m way behind on blogging our 3-month, around-the-world adventure, so this is the beginning of a catch-up now that we’ve settled into our home-away-from-home in Antwerp for the last few weeks of our journey. Most of the upcoming blogs of this trip were written at or reasonably near the time of travel, but spotty or slow Internet made uploading photos difficult…and I wanted to focus on the trip a whole lot more than I wanted to post about it! – Tamara, May 25, 2018]

Nusa Dua, Bali, is lined with high-end resorts, some charging astronomical prices, especially for usually-cheap Bali. Then again, Nusa Dua is hardly usual Bali. It’s an exclusive beachfront enclave sheltered from those less-than-picture-perfect, third world aspects of the rest of the island…along with much of the authentic culture and charm. Still, I wanted to try a range of Bali lodgings and a big resort was in order.

Putu, our Munduk homestay host arranged a driver for us from Munduk to Nusa Dua. Although Google Maps put the trip at 2h30, it’s closer to 3h30 with the traffic snarl near Kuta and the ongoing construction of an underpass to the Depensar Airport. Hopefully, the underpass will alleviate some of the traffic when it’s finished next year. There’s a new toll causeway out to Nua Dusa and we happily sprang for the small price to shave some time off the trip. We sped along our way, but were surprised to see a long traffic back-up in the other direction as toll booths were apparently not working. We crossed our fingers that we wouldn’t see the same when it came time to leave Nusa Dua.

Passing the guarded gate into Nusa Dua was like entering another world. A wide, smoothly paved avenue led into a large circle with manicured flowerbeds and a central statue.

Nusa Dua, the Other Bali

It was almost embarassing when our driver from rural Munduk pulled into the lavish entry to our hotel, the INAYA Putri Bali. Uniformed bellmen sprang into action to take charge of our luggage and direct us to the soaring open-air lobby for check-in.

I deliberately chose an Indonesian-owned hotel both in hopes of some local flavor and to try out something completely new to me. The value was excellent as well in comparison to other, more familiar brands I had explored online prior to booking. Check-in was quick and professional and soon we were being driven by golf cart to our room. En route, we passed an enormous series of tiered pools by a building housing the main restaurant used for the included breakfast. The sweeping, well-tended grounds of the hotel lead to a wide, beautiful beach.

There were always plenty of lounge chairs in full sun on the beach or a bit back under the shade of beachfront trees
Looking back at the main lobby building of the INAYA Putri Bali with bistro, shops and patisserie below from the grounds near the beach
A whimsical fountain on the INAYA Putri Bali grounds

I’d booked a standard room after deciding the swim-up rooms might be lacking in privacy and having no interest in springing for a suite since we planned to spend most of our time on the beach. Stepping inside our room for the first time, I couldn’t be happier with my choice. The room was spacious with a large balcony and a view of the ocean between buildings. Tasteful Balinese decor including carved wood closet doors and frames preserved a feel of local culture.

The bathroom was gorgeous and downright enormous with a big-enough-for-two stone tub and a over-sized rain shower. I had several long, wonderful soaks in the tub, using the stone bowl of bath salts provided. As in much of Bali, the bathroom wasn’t air conditioned, so we opened the door when not in use to cool and dry the bathroom.

Breakfast was served every day in the cavernous main dining room. We were led to a table most mornings, gave our order for coffee (cappuccino) and the morning’s juice or smoothie (a bright green frozen apple juice, fresh mint and ginger concoction becoming a favorite), then headed off to the many buffet tables available.

Breakfast at INAYA Putri Bali

The scope of the breakfast offering was like nothing I’ve seen in a hotel: Western and Asian dishes, fresh fruit, yogurt and yogurt parfaits, made-to-order eggs and omelets, Balinese cooked dishes of fried chicken, fried bananas and more, French pastries and a wide selection of delicious and fresh-made breads, granola, savory dishes of all sorts and on and on.

Sushi for breakfast
Delicious pains au chocolat, croissants and more

Dining was a mixed bag at INAYA Putri Bali. Breakfasts, as mentioned, were awesome. We liked casual dinners down by the beach, too, at INAYA’s Ja’Jan By the Sea. There weren’t a lot of options there, but the casual vibe suited our beach-y selves, the food was good, the service friendly, and the prices were decent. We tried one dinner at the upscale Indonesian restaurant on-site, Homaya, but were disappointed. Although expensive (especially so by Bali standards), the food was just mediocre and the atmosphere only so-so. A disappointment that discouraged us from trying any of the other higher-end restaurants on the property. There are lots of other options in walking distance in Nusa Dua, though. All it takes is a stroll along the beachfront walkway that connects the many resorts. Our next door neighbor hotel (to the  right as you look at the beach) offered particularly appealing picnic style dining and the Park Hyatt Resort (next to the INAYA Putri Bali to the left as you look at the beach) offered several high-end restaurants. We were in lazy mode, though, and just went back to INAYA’s Ja’Jan By the Sea.

The beach at INAYA Putri Bali is lovely, with tidal pools brimming with marine life appearing each afternoon as the tide goes out. I’ll post more on that next as I’ve got some words of caution about some of the deadly sealife we came across there. No reason to avoid the water, but something to be aware of and a reminder not to pick up or touch unfamiliar creatures.

A short walk down the beach (at the end of the resorts to the left as you’re facing the beach), there’s a market selling local goods and a bit further on is a park with a huge Balinese statue atop a small building. Beyond that are observation decks over black lava rock where pounding surf shoots spray high into the air.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One of our only complaints with our room was the sound of broadcast speech in the distance that we could never place. At first, we thought it was a loudspeaker at some event outside, but the sound disappeared when we stepped on the balcony. We stepped in the hall, pressed ears to walls but the intermittent noise was hard to pin down. It was weird, and annoying when my acute sense of hearing woke me to it at 4:50am. After a few days, we finally found the source in a maintenance closet off an employee-only space behind the elevator to our floor which backed to our room. For some reason, maintenance had left a wall-mounted radio turned on high volume even though no one was in this small room. It intermittently blasted static and intra-maintenance chatter. We hated to touch the controls in case there was more to it than we realized, so I videoed the room and sound to show to a lady at the front desk who apologized profusely and got the sound turned off. Shortly after, we found a nice note of apology and generous gift of spa items. Did I mention that I liked INAYA Putri Bali a lot?

A lovely apology

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Practical info: I booked our room at INAYA Putri Bali via Agoda which I’ve found to usually have the best prices in Asia. To get an extra savings, I log into my Topcashback account then search “Agoda” and click through to Agoda before booking my hotel. The current offer on Topcashback for Agoda is 6% cash back. You’ll get an additional savings, and so will I, if you use my referral link to create and use a Topcashback account.

Note re leaving for the airport: Even though the hotel is close to the airport, we were warned to leave 3 hours(!) before our flight to Yogjakarta, Java (short, domestic flight), due to road construction and bad traffic. Worried about the back-up we’d seen on the toll road, we took this advice…but found ourselves in the airport and through security a mere 30 minutes after we walked out of our hotel room. Once the road construction is finished, the ride to the airport should be reliably short. Also, although the hotel offers a paid shuttle to the airport, we opted to have a bellman call a taxi (on the advice of a lady at the front desk) and found it to be prompt, clean and much cheaper than the hotel ride.

Tup Kaek Sunset Beach Resort near Krabi, Thailand

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I don’t usually do straight-up lodging reviews on Wanderwiles unless something really stands out. Tup Kaek Sunset Beach Resort is one of those:

I’d always wanted to visit the beaches of Thailand, but I originally didn’t think it would be possible on this trip because we’d be there during rainy season. I’d originally thought to go directly from Singapore or Kuala Lumpur to Bangkok, then travel through Thailand, ending up in Cambodia, from where we’d fly home. When Luang Prabang, Laos, found its way onto my radar screen, I discovered flights that allowed me to reverse my original circuit. Flying home from Bangkok rather than little Siem Reap had the added benefit of bigger and better Korean Air airplanes for our much-anticipated First Class flight home. (We would have had to forego First Class entirely and settle for Business Class on the Siem Reap to Seoul leg of our journey home.) So, after Kuala Lumpur, we flew to Siem Reap, Cambodia, and from there to Luang Prabang where we caught the Mekong boat to northern Thailand. This allowed us to push the south of Thailand to the end of our trip, and that meant we could add a detour to the far south beaches in November when the area would just be moving from the rainy to the dry season. Cheap direct flights were available from Chiang Mai. We had a shot a good weather and we decided to take it.

I considered Phuket or one of the islands, but opted for Krabi instead because I wanted somewhere less touristy, less nightlife-geared, and quieter. I also didn’t want the hassle and extra travel steps of getting to and from an island. Krabi (pronounced “kra BEE” rather than “crabby”) is the name of both the city and the region. The city itself is inland with gorgeous beaches not far away on the coast. The nearest beach town is Ao Nang where I found some pretty resorts, but descriptions of street noise, young crowds and bars led me to look farther afield. I researched lots of options up and down the coast before settling on Tup Kaek Sunset Beach Resort 45 minutes from the Krabi Airport. (Tup Kaek rhymes with “cupcake.”) It turned out to be the perfect choice for us.

Once we got past the AirAsia chaos at the Chiang Mai airport, the flight went smoothly. We arranged a transfer via the resort and our driver was waiting with a sign, as promised, when we exited the baggage claim area. The sky was overcast and there was a slight drizzle that ended during the drive. David and I were the only passengers in the brand new silver van and we marveled at the dramatic landscape of steep rocky cliffs that jutted straight up from the jungle as we left Krabi proper and sped through Ao Nang. The shops and restaurants gave way to a rural landscape as we neared our destination. I worried when we spotted a tanker at a long pier, but our van turned inland, skipping that small commercial stretch to arrive on the far side and our hotel.

A smiling Thai lady greeted us in the open-air lobby, offering pottery cups of chilled tropical fruit juice to enjoy while she made quick work of check-in. A waiting golf cart then whisked us to our thatch-roofed beachfront bungalow. I relished the pleasure of expectations fulfilled when we stepped inside: The room was spacious with sliding glass doors facing the incredibly gorgeous beach, gleaming teak floors and furniture, a vaulted ceiling made of woven bamboo.

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The bathroom was sleek and modern in a back-to-nature sort of way with a big tub and a pebble-floored rain shower open to the sky above and a cut-out window facing the beach.

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Looking out our shower window

Beyond the sliding glass doors, two cushioned lounge chairs on a large roofed teak porch faced the beach where the still waters of the Andaman Sea lapped against white sand only 20 meters away. Rocky little islands and outcroppings dotted the blue water, improbably beautiful. There was no mistaking this beach for more-familiar beaches back home or in the Caribbean or Mediterranean. My parents had given us a generous 5th anniversary gift in July and we’d decided to use their present on this portion of our Asia odyssey, so we were considering this a late anniversary celebration. It was perfect!

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Beachfront bungalows at Tup Kaek Sunset Beach Resort: all facing west, perfect for watching the sunset over the water

We were on the beach in no time, marveling at the bathtub warm water. Only a few small resorts shared this gorgeous beach and there were not many other guests in sight. At our resort, lots of cushioned lounge chairs and hammocks were free for the taking. Choosing lounge chairs near our bungalow, we ordered two mai tais to sip while we watched the sunset. The mai tais turned out to be the best of the trip: made with real juice, good rum, a little nutmeg and topped with a slice of fresh pineapple.

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First mai tais at Tup Kaek…but not the last!

We spent four nights at Tup Kaek Sunset Beach Resort, enjoying mai tais every day save a day we dove the Phi Phi Islands, a world-class dive site a 2-hour boat ride from Ao Nang. Breakfast was included with our room and was a generous spread of Thai and western food served in the open-air tented waterfront dining area. After trying a neighboring hotel, Tup Kaek Boutique Hotel, for lunch, we ended up eating the rest of our meals at Tup Kaek Sunset Beach. The food was good and the service excellent.

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Lunch at Tup Kaek Sunset Beach Resort
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The tented open-air dining area; the only dining space while the main dining room is being renovated

The prices were much higher at Sunset (and at the other hotels on the beach) than we’d found elsewhere in Thailand as we were a captive audience and this was a higher-end hotel. There’s no walking distance town with food stalls and the usual little dive-y restaurants. Still, by American standards, the prices were very reasonable and much better than you’d find at a comparable resort back home. We could have hired a taxi or tuk tuk to try a little place in the closest town–or one of the six restaurants in the nearby Ritz-Carlton, but we simply weren’t motivated to leave.

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The weather turned out to be great. It was raining the first morning, but stopped by the time we got out of bed. There were a couple of other intermittent, brief showers and one impressive but not overly long deluge. We’d duck under our porch roof during those periods, then be back out enjoying partly cloudy skies and delightful temperatures for most of the day. Occasionally we heard a little thunder and saw sheet lightning on the horizon, but it only made for a pretty show. The water was warm with barely any waves. The bottom is soft sand, sloping very gradually so that you can wade far out before the water is chest-high.

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Cool water flowing into the sea from the mountains behind the resorts

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Tup Kaek Sunset Beach Resort has other non-beachfront rooms, including some very neat ones whose porches open directly onto a new blue-tiled swimming pool of Olympic proportions. There’s a pretty older pool as well and rooms that open onto small man-made “canals.”

Construction/remodeling is ongoing on a large, enclosed restaurant that is not currently open. It sits to one side of the resort complex, so did not really effect our stay. Construction noise wasn’t an issue, and the open-air beachfront dining suited us perfectly. Housekeeping kept the room spotless and were quick to respond to requests for things like extra towels. Two bottles of water were provided each day. We had a small minibar fridge with a few other food and drink items for purchase which we didn’t use. The hotel also provided a large safe, big umbrella, flashlight, robes and sandals. Local “long tail” boats pull up just down the beach and can be hired to visit the islands visible from the beach.

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View from our porch. Oh, the tough decisions: lounger on the porch or hammock?!

David and I have struggled to find negatives to this stay. The internet was sometimes–but not always–very weak in the room, but was always very strong and fast on our porch and in the dining area and other parts of the hotel. We did get some maybe-mosquito bites, mostly on our sandaled feet, although we only saw one while we were there. It’s a quiet, low-key location, especially during this shoulder-season, which we consider to be a huge plus, but it wouldn’t be for those looking for a party scene. (i.e., There were no backpackers and loud music.) We spotted a lizard or two in the room a couple of times, but they didn’t bother us and we just ignored them. There are several cats on the resort grounds and they’re happy to beg if you feed them, which we got a kick out of, but I guess if you don’t like or are allergic to cats, it might be an issue. That’s pretty much all we can come up with in the way of negatives. We loved the Tup Kaek Sunset Beach Resort!

We paid 28,420 baht ($812) total for our beachfront bungalow for 4 nights, including breakfast and taxes. Meals, mai tais and private transfer from and to the Krabi Airport cost another 8,270 baht ($236.29) total, including taxes and gratuities. (The airport transfer cost 800 baht/$22.86 each way for a 45-minute ride.) I consider the cost to be good value for what we got. Value is my goal whenever I purchase anything, often more important to me than the bottom line. You can find out more about the resort at: http://www.tupkaeksunset.com/en I had some trouble contacting them, pre-trip (re questions about diving companies that would pick up at the hotel), but was finally able to get a response by messaging them on their Facebook page. Also, I booked via booking.com this time, probably because they were offering the best final price and a rebate via Topcashback, one of my favorite sites. If you haven’t joined and are interested, please use my referral link: https://www.topcashback.com/ref/tcut It’s free to join and easy money for things you buy anyway. I always check it when I’m booking travel (or buying almost anything) to get rebates on hotels, rent cars, products and more.

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Two days on a Mekong river boat: Laos to Thailand

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At a Mekong village stop

It was time to leave Luang Prabang and time for the biggest question mark of this long trip. Months ago, I’d booked us on a 2-day Mekong river cruise to Thailand in a big, open-air traditional wooden river boat. At $130 each, this was big money in Laos, but substantially cheaper and way more interesting than some sleep-aboard river boats I’d seen. These same type boats do a much, much cheaper “slow boat” between Luang Prabang and Huay Xai, Laos, but with frequent crowds, unreserved seats (so if the boat is full, you may have to wait a day) and a bus-like atmosphere, they sounded way less comfortable than I was willing to do. The company I chose, Mekong Smile Cruises, got good reviews and sounded like just the level of adventure I was up for. Lunch onboard was included, we stopped at a cave filled with Buddha statues and a local village en route. The overnight happened in Pakbeng, Laos, a village or small town that Google Images led me to believe was no great shakes…but online posts indicated that guest rooms were easy to come by and ridiculously cheap. I scanned Tripadvisor, seeing a few guesthouses listed and one “upscale” hotel at around $100. After his initial impulse that I should “throw money at it” and get the hotel, David came around to my way of thinking that we should try one of the guest houses. I made note of a few recommended names and posts saying that prices doubled if you book in advance, so why bother. Alright, we’d wing it. God, I hope I’m not getting us into a mess! I say this in present tense because I’m onboard the boat as I write this.

“Mr. Joy” from Mekong Smile Cruises met us at My Dream last night to fill us in on details and tell us he’d be back this morning at 6:30am to pick us up. He put my mind at ease about leaving our luggage onboard overnight since the captain and his wife sleep aboard. So, we only need to take a small over night bag. One worry checked off. He also told us we’d be the only guests for the cruise. On a 40-seat boat. Wow.

True to his word, Mr. Joy was waiting when we got to the lobby. It turns out that his name is more like “Choy” (pronounced with a sound somewhere between a “j” and a “ch”), a nickname meaning “skinny.” Since “Mr. Joy” sounds kind of creepy, it’ll be “Choy” from here on out.

Our lovely hosts at My Dream had packed us breakfast to go and the friendly young man who’d helped us with alms-giving and the tuk tuk to the waterfall walked us to the minivan. As the morning parade of monks filed by, he stood and waved until we pulled away. Did I mention I really, really like My Dream?

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A friendly send-off and the morning monk procession

A ten minute ride deposited us at a fair-sized navigation office building where we descended a long flight of stairs down the riverbank to where a small fleet of river boats were parked. Our captain came out to meet us and help with the luggage before ushering us aboard.

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The captain helps with the luggage

The boat is pretty, low-slung with a gently scooped roof, ornate carvings above and below its many open-air “windows,” curtains and 2 carved daybeds and 2 pillowed benches in the front section of the guest area. David and I immediately stretched out on the daybeds, and I felt like Cleopatra cruising down the Nile as we pulled away in the early light to glide past mountains thick with greenery, villages, beaches with wading water buffalo, low rapids and more. When the writing mood hit me, I left my daybed to set up a little office space at one of the many tables fronting pairs of chairs that look as if they might have been lifted from a retired bus.

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This does not suck!
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Not a bad place to blog either!
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Water buffalo

We reached the cave shrine an hour out of Luang Prabang. Our boat docked at a woven bamboo pier below the steps to the cave. The cave is filled with Buddha statues of all sizes dating back to the 1600’s. I made a 20,000 kip donation to get a flower cone offering with candles and incense. Choy instructed me in the details of presenting my offering as my Korean Buddhist teaching didn’t apply to Laotian customs. We’ve had lots of time to chat as our boat makes its 10-hour journey today. Choy tells me that while Laos is 68% Buddhist, it’s 28% animist and that most people worship and observe important events like weddings and births in a fashion that’s a blend of the two.

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Approaching the Buddha cave
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Arriving at the Buddha cave dock
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Lighting the candles and incense for my offering
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Inside the Buddha cave
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The main cave shrine overlooking the river

Lunch, cooked by the captain’s wife, was served buffet-style and we dined at 4-seater tables way to the back of our floating domain. We had thick-crusted fried chicken legs, stir-fried chicken and onions, stir-fried vegetables, vegetable soup in a thin broth, steamed rice and fresh pineapple. She went light on the spices, but served the meal with a sauce of chopped red chilies that could set your mouth afire.

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Lunch aboard
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Buffet and bar space on the boat; 2 toilets are in the hall in the rear left, behind which is the engine room, then the captain’s living quarters in the very back. (There’s no electricity for the fan or anything else when not docked.)

So now, I’m actually caught up with this blog and the daybed is beckoning for an after-lunch nap. There are other past things I’ve been meaning to blog about, but the world can live without I’m sure and David shouldn’t have to nap alone. 🙂

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* * *

We’re back on our Mekong river boat after our night in Pakbeng so I can report on our overnight stay:

Choy walked with us to help negotiate a guest room for the night and to show us the local market. I really appreciated his helpfulness as this night had been a nagging worry. We got off to a poor start when the first few guesthouses we talked to were fully booked by Thai group tours that had yet to arrive. I started to wonder about all that online advice about lots of rooms being available. Also, music was blaring from one guesthouse and an outdoor party tent set up in the middle of the road. I’d heard noise could be a problem and had brought earplugs, but this wasn’t looking good…and it was hot despite the setting sun.

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Pakbeng “port”
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Pakbeng, Laos: not much
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Pakbeng, Laos: Main Street

As we wandered uphill on the main street, a lady asked us to look at her small guesthouse, Vassana, just across from Phonesony (one of the guesthouses I’d read about, but that was booked). At first asking 150,000 kip, she dropped her price to 120,000 when I said I’d read the cost was usually 100,000 kip in the area. Clearly, things were busy, so we were happy with the price. (I actually felt a little sheepish when I focused later on how little money we were haggling over: Our room came out to $14.81, give or take a fraction of a cent.) The rooms turned out to be simple, but very clean. There was no ornamentation or artwork save pretty new gold brocade patterned curtains, clean and crisply pleated. One heavy wooden chair served as a bedside table, while a wall mirror with small wooden shelf and a row of knobs served as the hanging space. The proprietress showed us two similar ground-floor rooms and we opted for the one farthest from the road. The room was hot and stuffy, but had an a/c. We started the a/c and I wasn’t sure that it was cooling much, but we crossed our fingers and left it running and headed out to dinner at an Indian restaurant, Hasan, that got great reviews.

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Guest room at Vassana: simple, but clean and comfortable (and less than $15)

The food at Hasan was good save for the naan and roti which, as David put it, were the “saltine crackers of the naan world.” We had a corner table of their outdoor balcony with a pretty view overlooking the Mekong. Chicken tikka masala, aloo gobi and palak “paneer” (made with tofu rather than the usual paneer cheese) were all well-seasoned and spicy. A Beer Lao rounded out the meal.

Tired, with an early morning in our future and with David feeling a little under the weather, we called it an early night and headed back to our room, hoping the a/c had done its job, but feeling doubtful. I can’t describe the thrill of opening that door to a delightfully cool room.

We showered quickly in the tiny bathroom, with a handheld shower mounted on the wall and open to the room. Drains in the floor drained not only the shower water, but also water from the sink which ran directly onto the floor from an open pipe. Basic, but again, very clean and plenty of hot water (although I was happy with cool water). The bed was big and comfortable with good pillows (an uncertain thing in Asia). The room was dark, the music had stopped outside and the “turbo” feature of the wall-mounted a/c drowned out any remaining noise. Despite my earlier misgivings, I slept like a stone for nearly 9 hours. Awesome!

Up at 6am, we packed our meager belongings and bought coffee and a huge chocolate chip “croissant” to share at Monsovanh Bakery on the road to the boat. We chatted with several other travelers who’d arrived on other “slow boats” from both directions. I’d looked at these boats before I chose our boat with Mekong Smile Cruises. Veritable river buses, they run on a first come, first served basis and are often crowded. People’s description of the heat and crowds convinced me I’d been right to go with the booked cruise, although the price was just over 3x that of the regular slow boat. For our extra money, we got lots of space and the ability to move around as our whims and incoming sunshine dictated, personalized service, lunch and no hassles. Well worth the extra $80 apiece, in our opinion, to turn 2 days of misery into 2 extraordinary days on the Mekong. [There could have been more people on our boat (up to a max of 30, which would have been too many), but everyone I’ve read about or talked to who’s done it this way reports much smaller groups.]

As we pulled away from the dock this morning, we watched handlers bringing two elephants down to the riverbank opposite Pakbeng, beautiful in the morning mist.

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Five hours flew by as we lounged on our daybeds, watching the passing scenery (and drifting off to sleep from time to time). Clouds blocked the direct sun and a breeze kept us cool and comfortable. Our boat pulled in to a sandy beach around 12:30pm where a boy and girl were digging with long poles. Choy led us up the bank pointing out holes in the sandy earth where the children had been digging for crickets, a local delicacy.

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Children digging for crickets
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Holes in a dirt bank made by much cricket hunting

Choy led us a bit further up the hill to their village which consisted mostly of woven bamboo homes interspersed with 1 or 2 wooden and cement block buildings. Piglets, ducks and chickens roamed freely while women washed clothes in a village well.

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Making a gun
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A “taxi” dropping off in the village

Electricity had recently been supplied to the village, which itself was only established there in 2009 when the government moved these ethnic Khmu people (one of the largest minority groups in Laos and related to the Khmer of Cambodia) down from the mountains to try to curb slash-and-burn practices. Unfortunately, along with electricity came techno music blaring from one house. About 300 people live in the village and we felt pretty sure there must be some complaints to the village chief about the noise. We might have thought the Khmu village abysmally poor and dirty if we hadn’t been to the floating village in Kompong Khleang which, while larger, won hands down in the lack-of-sanitation department. (And, according to Choy, this was a “5-star” village, displaying signs attesting to its superiority in development, access to health care, youth programs, gender equality and such.)

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Children were friendly, waving and smiling. Three small boys clustered around David, laughing when he started a high-five routine with them. There was no village temple as these people are animist (like nearly 30% of Laotians), looking to a village shaman for spiritual matters and healing. While Mekong Smile Cruise boats stop here as part of the journey, there wasn’t anything to buy and no one asking for handouts.

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The little guy in the back wasn’t sure what he thought about David’s high-five…
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…but then he gave it a try…
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…and was mighty tickled by the whole business, as were his friends. 😀

Lunch was ready when we got back on the boat: fried fish; chicken curry soup; shredded bamboo, noodle and chicken salad; steamed rice; red chili salsa and fresh fruit.

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Having just finished that moveable feast, I’m off to the daybed for my afternoon viewing and relaxation. Have I mentioned that I’m really enjoying this boat ride?

* * *

After lunch, it was time for more reclining and river-watching as we listened to audiobooks or dozed in the fresh breeze. We came to a provincial border line and our boat had to stop to get a stamp. Another boat was also stopped and we got a glimpse, close-up of one of the crowded bus-like slow boats. This boat was heading downstream towards Luang Prabang, and we heard later that the boats going that faster route were often the most crowded. As we tried to pull away, the swift current caught the stern of our boat and pushed it into a small shoal. When our captain had trouble getting us off, two boatmen from yet another boat ran over to help, joining the captain on the roof to push off with long bamboo poles stored on every river boat while Choy and the captain’s wife tended to the bow. There seemed to be a real camraderie among the boatmen of the Mekong River, and we saw them calling greetings as they passed and springing to help each other and each other’s passengers when needed.

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Crowded slow boat stopped at the province line
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Three poles in the water to push us off a small shoal

The landscape changed as we neared Thailand, with the mountains and hills flattening. On the Thai side of the river, stones had been hauled in to fight erosion.

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Approaching Thailand
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Passing under the Friendship Bridge between Laos (on the right) and Thailand (on the left) near our debarkation point in Huay Xai, Laos

Docking at our destination, Huay Xai (“hway sigh”) was a final adventure: We arrived to a mass of sister boats crammed together like…well, like sardines. There was nowhere in sight for our boat. After a few calls from our captain to his fellows, one of the boats fired up its engine and we assumed it was pulling out and we’d take its place, although it seemed thinner than our boat. Our captain did not back up, though, and we wondered why he wasn’t giving the other boat room. Then, a small wedge began to appear between the sterns of that boat and the one to its right. We were going to try to fit between the two!

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We docked BETWEEN the two green boats to the left of the blue one. The engine is running on the green boat 2 from the blue boat as it begins to move to its left to make room for us. Unbelievable!

There was literally no room whatsoever. Nevertheless, out came the long bamboo poles and the other boatmen began trying to make space as we kept creeping forward. Choy and the captain’s wife pushed with both hands and soon the captain abandoned his wheel and David joined in. We scraped against our neighbors, knocking two thick wooden poles loose. Boats creaked and groaned as we were squeezed on both sides. Boatmen called or yelled to each other as they scampered about, pushing and trying to restore the wooden poles to their original place. Eventually, by some miracle, we wedged ourselves in. Surprisingly, no one seemed upset about the potential damage to their vessels and there was laughter all around.

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Near the end of our docking maneuver

Now, we were faced with a nearly vertical wall of grass. How were we supposed to get up that with our luggage? No problem: walk across the bow of our neighbor, hop out onto some grass and let our captain and his friends shoulder our suitcases and climb up to a waiting minivan.

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The captain’s wife on our bow just after docking…now for the steep grass embankment…

The 3-year old Friendship Bridge immigration point is lovely and modern, but a 15 to 20 minute van ride (included with our cruise) back from the dock. Choy rode with us, directing us through emigration (There’s an extra $1 charge for exiting Laos on weekends and after hours.) and buying our bus ticket to the other, Thai, side of the bridge. We bid him a very grateful farewell as he head off to an overnight bus back to Luang Prabang. There was a man who earned his tip!

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At the Friendship Bridge border crossing
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On the Lao side of the Friendship Bridge at Huay Xai
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Bus for the last bit of our trip–across the bridge into Thailand

We entered an almost empty Thai immigration building on the other side of the bridge at dusk. A super friendly immigration officer (a rarity on the trip) asked where we were staying, then left his post to take us to the tuk tuk taxi stand and make sure we were off to our hotel in Chiang Khong with no hassles. It was a nice end to our river cruise and an auspicious start to the Thai portion of our trip.

We paid $130 each for our Mekong Smile Cruise. Upstream cruises like our take about 10 hours each day. Find out more at http://www.mekongsmilecruise.com/

Luang Prabang, Laos

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Temple at the Royal Palace

It’s always kind of fun to wake up in a place you’ve only seen in the dark. A Christmas morning kind of surprise-gift (I-hope-its-not-a-dud) feeling. Waking up in My Dream Boutique Resort in Luang Prabang Laos was definitely exciting. Our welcome the night before boded well: very friendly and efficient, check-in accompanied by chilled ginger water and honeyed mango. The room itself was charmingly styled with woven Lao mats, mosquito net-draped bed, stained-stone shower, generous balcony (albeit sans view–We didn’t figure we’d spend much time in the room.) and mahogany furnishings.

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My Dream “lobby” and restaurant

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I’d chosen My Dream based on its price, glowing Tripadvisor reviews, and location across the river from–but easily accessible to–the more touristy and loud downtown area. I also liked that it had a swimming pool (something banned in the Unesco-certified downtown) and riverfront grounds. Exploring the flower-filled gardens of My Dream in the daylight, stretching out on a grass-roofed palapa overlooking the Khan River, we soon decided we were super-happy with the choice. See more at: http://www.mydreamresort.com

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My Dream is like some fantasy of a jungle resort. It’s casual and laid back, but beautiful, too, with huge bougainvillea draped across bamboo supports framing balconies and the open-air lobby and restaurant. The pool was small, but picturesque, immaculate and delightfully cool. An included breakfast buffet offered western and Asian options, fresh coffee and cooked-to-order eggs. Bikes are provided at no charge, so we had to take them up on that for our first day explore of the town.

Bikes were definitely the way to go, but My Dream could really use an update on their bikes. Oh well, despite a left pedal that missed about 50% of its push and flopped weirdly, biking beat walking any day of the week. A nearby scooter/bike/pedestrian-only bridge had us across the Khan River and in Luang Prabang town in no time. (My Dream also offers free shuttles to town, but shuttles have to take the farther “new bridge” and run at fairly long intervals. We didn’t want to be left walking in the heat downtown.) Often bumper-to-bumper with scooters and bikes, the old bridge is an experience. Made of crossbeams of wood, it has two lane of planks set long-ways for bikes and scooters, a great idea save for the occasional tire-grabbing gap near a rotted end. Paying attention was in order.

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The old bridge in very light traffic

Luang Prabang is tucked into the acute angle formed where the Khan River flows into the Mekong. The old town forms a finger pointing northeast into this angle. We biked along the Khan, stopping at a park and a small Wat, then looped back to our left across the “fingertip” to ride along the Mekong toward the main part of town.

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Rebuilding a bamboo footbridge

We quickly came to Xieng Thong, a gorgeous temple complex with graceful-roofed buildings and gilded Buddhas. The decor was noticeably different from Buddhist temples we’d seen in other countries: beautiful mosaics decorated the outside walls and stenciling covered the inner walls. In the main temple, three young Buddhist monks dressed in varying shades of orange robes, walked in and began to pray. [There’s a video of this on Wanderwiles’ FB page.] I’ve really come to love the atmosphere in Buddhist temples: the low light, incense, candles, and peace.

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Xieng Thong
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Beautiful mosaics adorning Xieng Thong

20161026_120524Leaving Xieng Thong and following the map provided by My Dream, we biked on the in the sweltering heat, thinking to visit the Royal Palace Museum. It turned out to be closed for lunch and we took the hint, choosing a outdoor riverside café. Despite lots of cute shops and restaurants, air-conditioning didn’t seem to be an option anywhere nearby and we were a sweaty mess anyway. The proprietress welcomed us warmly and brought an electric fan. Lunch was delicious, cheap and relatively cool and we left refreshed.

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Lunch on the Mekong: A muggy day gets better with a cold Beer Lao!
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Sweaty cycling along the Mekong
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Luang Prabang street

I did a little research on the Royal Palace Museum on my phone over lunch and found that most reviewers praised the grounds, but weren’t so impressed with the paid-admission portion that allowed entry to the palace itself. I got a good laugh at a Spanish-language review stating that the decor in her (the reviewer’s) house was better and that photos weren’t allowed inside so people wouldn’t know how horrible it was. Hmm. We opted to take the advice given and biked through the grounds, peeked at the threadbare collection of cars once belonging to the royal family (a Jeep, some Lincoln Continentals, an Edsel and a Citroën that looked as if it had been hauled from a junk yard), admired the temple from the outside (the only option, paid or unpaid), and were on our way. A spin past the market and we were headed back to My Dream, dreaming of the swimming pool and a break in the heat that Weatherbug now pegged at 90F (feeling like 96F).

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The Royal Palace Museum

Dipping into the just-right cool pool, we almost decided we were done for the day, but couldn’t resist a sunset hike to the top of Mt. Phousi, a highly-touted attraction. Back on bikes (but with a replacement for me), we headed back across the old bridge and along the Khan River to one of the two stairways to the hilltop. It’s possible to hike up one stairs and down the other side, but with bikes, we had to pick one. I chose the longer route given that it was closer to our hotel, less steep and reported to have more to see along the way. Minivans lined the road by the stairs and flocks of people were heading up when we got there. We climbed past a purported footprint of Buddha where a monk prayed out loud in a small, open-air pavillion overlooking the Khan and the buildings and mountains beyond; a stupa; a monastery with working young monks; scattered Buddha statues; and two large golden statues of Buddha, one seated, one reclining.

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20161026_172752A small temple at the summit housed a few worshippers and a cat, the biggest crowd being outside taking in the nearly 360° view and the setting sun. It was worth the hike, but we headed down just ahead of the crowd, not wanting to be trapped on steep stairs in the dark with a group of sometimes-unsteady-on-their-feet tourists.

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After yet another shower, we opted to eat at the hotel’s pretty open-air restaurant and couldn’t have been happier. Convenient, friendly, lovely atmosphere, delicious Lao dishes; we couldn’t go wrong. We started with two mai tais, then moved onto appetizers: Mekong “river weeds” a ubiquitous offering I’d been dying to try, and fresh rolls. The river weeds turned out to be covered in sesame seeds and thin slices of eggplant, then fried super-crispy into squares about 2×2″. I was hooked! The fresh rolls were good, but getting to be an everyday thing for us, and not as full of herbs as we prefer. Our main courses were a coconut milk fish mousseline cooked in a banana leaf bowl (delicate and tasty) and a classic Lao dish called Oor Lam. Oor Lam is a Northern Lao dish particularly associated with Luang Prabang. It’s made with either pork or chicken, flavored with cilantro, dill, lemongrass and basil and thickened with puréed eggplant. I thought it delicious. When I asked our waitress whether pork or chicken was more commonly eaten by Laotians, it took her a minute to understand my question. When she answered, “Chicken,” and I said then that was what I would have. She giggled and thanked me profusely, clearly pleased that I wanted something authentic. She waited on us two nights and was always inordinately pleased when we ordered and liked the local food. Since the food was uniformly good, it was easy and fun to make her happy.

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Mekong river weeds with sesame seed and tomato: crispy and delicious!
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Oor Lam
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Delicate coconut milk fish mousseline

After dinner, we asked the young man behind the small front desk to help us participate in the next morning’s alms-giving to the local monks. This is an every day tradition in Luang Prabang and something we really wanted to do. He told us that monks came by just outside My Dream and that he would get the offerings ready for us (sticky rice, crackers and rice cakes), charge them ($6) to our room, and have them ready at 6am the next morning when he’d also explain how things work. This sounded perfect as reviews and signs around town indicated that tourists in the main town would too often mob the monks and block their path while trying to get photos. One sign even found it necessary to advise large tour buses not to follow the monks! We definitely wanted no part of all that. See my next post for alms-giving, a spectacular waterfall and bears.