Pou Nong Khuay, Laos

Written by: Matthew Mayer

After our delightful stay In the lovely town of Luang Prabang, we set off to spend a week in the traditional Hmong and Khmu Village of Pou Nong Kuay in the Highlands of Northern Laos. The Hmong and Khmu are terms used to describe two individual sets of ethnic groups that live in Southern China and Southeast Asia. The Hmong and Khmu peoples are believed to be some of the first inhabitants of the aforementioned areas. Most of the traditional mountain villages in Laos consist of both ethnic groups living together in harmony. We booked the stay through fairtrek.org. Fairtrek is an organization that allows visitors to have an immersive cultural experience in a traditional Lao village while utilizing the funds from the booking to provide income to the village to supplement that which they receive through farming and handmade textiles such as weaving and basketry. As part of the agreement between the village and Fairtrek, we would stay in the village and eat each meals with a host family while using our time to explore and get to know the people and customs. We were very excited to get underway.

The Fairtrek team picked us up at our stay in Luang Prabang in a smaller version of the mini-busses that we had become accustomed to during our transitions from city to city. The village is situated about an hour south of Luang Prabang. Once we had traveled a short distance away from the city the mini-bus turned onto a small dirt road that weaved up through the foothills of the mountains. As the van made its way up into the mountains, the quality of the road began to worsen dramatically. Due to the heavy rainfall during the wet season, the dirt roads had formed deep furrows that ran down the length of every stretch of inclined roads. The driver of the mini-bus took a painstakingly slow course up each treacherous stretch as to avoid getting stuck or damaging the suspension of the vehicle that had no business driving on such terrain. As we made our slow ascent up and over mountains and through small villages, the guide passed the time by giving us a run-down of the history, customs, and daily life of the village and surrounding areas.

After around forty-five minutes of traversing the rugged roads we made it to the village of Pou Nong Khuay. Nong Khuay is a very small village of only forty-seven families. Twenty-two of these families are Khmu and twenty-five are Hmong. The structures in the village are comprised of living structures, storage barns, two little shops, and one school. Only the School is made of brick and mortar with only a handful of the living structures being constructed with cinder block and metal roofing.

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Each domicile is generally made up of a living quarter for sleeping and eating, and a kitchen complete with a fire that is kept smoldering between meals to be built when it was time to cook.

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The village is surrounded on all sides by tall limestone mountains and deep wide valleys filled with patches of bamboo and rice paddies.

DSC_3635-EditDSC_3631-EditWe would be staying in what is called an Eco-Bungalow by the Fairtrek team. The Eco-Bungalow is an open air structure constructed with clay and bamboo by a collaboration of villagers and foreign students that came to work in the village for educational purposes. The dwelling has one room with a bed and a wet-bath. As with the rest of the village, with the exception of electricity and running water, there did not exist many other amenities.

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During our stay in Nong Khuay we could completely immerse ourselves in the experience as we would be without wi-fi or cellular service for the duration of our stay. After we unloaded our things in the bungalow, our guide showed us around the village. He introduced us to the chief, whose name is Khamdee, and introduced us to the Her family with whom we would be eating our meals during our time there.

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Our time in Nong Khuay was the definition of laid-back relaxation. We spent our days, eating meals with the Her family, interacting with the ever-so-friendly villagers as they relaxed after a hard days work, hiking around the surrounding areas, or relaxing in our bungalow while we read or wrote about our travels thus far.

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DSC_3656-EditDSC_3641-EditDSC_3664-EditDSC_3671-EditSometimes while we would sit at the bungalow, the inquisitive children would stop by after school to see what we were up to. As there was a language barrier, we could not hold a verbal conversation but we could exchange names and give them the candies and treats we brought along for just such an occasion. The crowd favorites among the kids were US coins that we brought along and our camera. We would take their pictures as they made silly faces and then show them the photos. Each day they would come back to look at pictures and show us that they still had their coins. As Lao currency is predominantly paper, the coins were more than likely viewed as interesting trinkets only.

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When it came time to leave the village, we knew that we would miss our time there. The people of Nong Khuay are so very warm and hospitable and the surrounding areas are as beautiful as they come. It was also very refreshing to exist in such a peaceful and isolated place. We will always cherish our time there as one of our favorite stops in Laos.

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Luang Prabang, Laos

Written by: Matthew Mayer

After our less-than-comfortable mini-bus ride from Vientiane to Vang Vieng, we opted to charter a transport through one of the many travel agencies in town. They purported to have nicer vehicles, less cramped rides, and would pick us up from our stay in town. The agency we booked through delivered as advertised. We were picked up at our departure time at Lao Valhalla by yet another mini-bus but one that was newer, cleaner, and with a functioning AC system. As we were the last passengers picked up due to the proximity to town, we were afforded seats in the front of the transport instead of the bumpy, crammed, steamy backseat.

The ride to Luang Prabang was much more enjoyable this time around. As more exposure to views out the front windows and a smoother ride due to the less rugged newly developed road, our four hour journey included none of the rampant motion sickness, cramped seating, or the jarring ride. As our transport made its way from the lazy river town of Vang Vieng, we were treated to the most pristine views of Lao countryside we had seen to date. The mini-bus allowed us enjoy views of beautiful Lao geography rivaling and exceeding that of what we had seen in Vang Vieng. The bus climbed over tall mountain terrain, down gorgeous river valleys, and through quaint fishing villages as we made our way to Northern Laos. After an extremely enjoyable trip, the bus rolled down the main street of Luang Prabang and dropped us off at the city center.

The town of Luang Pranbang is a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to how well the historical aspects of the town and surrounding province has been preserved. Luang Prabang’s historical diversity ranges beautifully from its traditional Lao architecture of houses, ornate temples, and remnants of its time as the royal capital of Laos, to its many vestiges of French colonialism. As we walked down the main street from the city center to the hostel we booked for our first night, we enjoyed a handful of samples of each of the aforementioned buildings. The traditional Lao urban design of the pre-colonial town peeked out between the 19th and 20th century two-story French structures of plaster, brick, and wood trim as we passed schools filled with singing children, Wats with monks performing their call to prayer, and tourists enjoying coffee in front of French style bakeries and Inns.

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The tourist center of Luang Prabang is nestled between a confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers. The two places we stayed during our time in the city were close to or overlooking the latter of the two rivers. Our first night was spent in a riverside hostel as we needed a quick place to stay due to the majority of the places being booked up on short notice. Being mildly exhausted from the trip in, we spent a causal evening exploring the shops cafes and temples of the surrounding areas. As we walked we noticed that much like the architecture, the town has a penchant for the vintage. Many of the tourists, non-native residents, and locals drove around on refurbished bicycles, motorbikes, and classic cars from the fifties and sixties. As the sun went down we enjoyed a meal and people-watched at a little riverside cafe. Feeling full and sleepy we retired to the hostel to rest up for the next few day’s exploration.

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The next morning we relocated to the place we would be staying for the remainder of our time in town. Our stay was called The Ancient Luang Prabang and was situated in a restored two story building from the colonial period. The room had a small balcony overlooking one of the more quiet streets in town. Every morning at dawn, the monks in their vibrant orange robes silently walk down the city streets and collect alms from the local townspeople and tourists. This turned out to be one of our absolute favorite parts of our stay as it was a very reverent and beautiful ceremony to observe and participate in. Most mornings we would watch the procession from our balcony and then nap for a few more hours as the sun came up.

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The highlight of our first full day in town was watching the Sunset on top of Phu Si mountain. Phu Si mountain is a large hill in the center of town capped with a temple system consisting of shrines, gilded statues of Buddha, and other Buddhist structures. The way up to the summit is around one hundred meters of steps going straight up the side of the hill. Upon reaching the top we were greeted by throngs of other tourists that had scaled the hill for the same reason we did. Had we reached the top any later than we had we would have viewed the sunset through the screens of the hundreds of other phones taking pictures. However, the sight of the sun sinking through the hazy sky over the mighty Mekong river was a wonderful sight and we were compelled to watch until the sky began to darken.

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Making our way down the hill the way we came up, we were surprised to see the tops of hundreds of red tents lining the street that was full of cars, bikes, and pedestrians an hour earlier. We had descended directly into the Night Market that takes place every evening at sundown. Every night, upwards of three hundred different vendors clog the two lane street in the city center to sell anything one could imagine. The vendors sold a grand assortment of goods; from the the routine items such as souvenirs, local art pieces, clothes, musical instruments, and hand-woven clothing — to the more strange items like snake whiskey which is a full grown dead cobra submerged in a large bottle of Lao rice whiskey. We spent hours walking from stall to stall and ended up with arms full of food, paintings, textiles, and the like. 

DSC_2768DSC_2765DSC_2760DSC_2756DSC_2752DSC_2751DSC_2745The following day we awoke excited for one of our most anticipated activities of our time in Luang Prabang: trekking to Kuang Si Falls. After a hearty breakfast, we rented a motorbike with help from our hotel front desk. We packed a lunch, towels, and cameras and headed out. The falls are located forty-five minutes from town by motorbike. After leaving the city, the road wound its way through the rolling countryside as we passed by farmlands, through rice fields, and over small streams. After our leisurely ride, we pulled in to the parking area and locked up the bike. The beginning of the trailhead is surrounded by shops and food vendors all vying to sell snacks and drinks to the crowds of people coming to see the falls.DSC_3250-Edit

The hike to the falls itself is a short one up a small hill. On the way up we passed a sanctuary for bears that were rescued from poachers and a butterfly garden. Upon reaching the base of the many sets of falls we were greeted by small cascades over rounded, travertine coated rocks into serene of aquamarine water. With the limestone deposits covering everything the water touched, it looked as if everything was coated in concrete, including the trees . This coupled with the color of the water made the very natural falls a look as if they were pulled right out of The Jungle Book.DSC_3257 The day was hot but the spring-fed water was ice-cold and very few people were actually swimming. It enabled us to view the pristine water without much human interference. As the trail continues uphill adjacent to the water, the levels of falls grow taller and the pools deeper in depth and in hue. Also, as the impressiveness of each stage of the falls increased, as did the sightseers. The third set of falls was the most breathtaking. The rushing water cascaded over the rounded rocks for hundreds of meters in a stair-step pattern with the top as far away in the distance as it was tall. A viewing bridge crossed over one of the pools to provide a head-on vantage point where the weight limit was assuredly being strained by the amount of people taking pictures on it.

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Escaping the crowd, we found a minimally advertised trail to the top of the falls. As it looked uncrowded, we started up seeking the respite provided by the shade of the jungle and the mist coming off of the falls. The trail ran in a set of steps directly uphill beside the falls. As we climbed higher, water from the falls ran straight down the steps. It had been that way for some time as the wooden steps were coated in several inches of the mineral deposit from the water. After a lengthy and steep climb we reached the top and were rewarded with a view of the entirety of the falls and the people below. We caught our breath overlooking the vista and enjoying the breeze from the heights.DSC_3264-Edit

The trail down ran across the other side of the falls as to reduce cross traffic on the wet trail and to provide other views of the falls. Making our way down we spotted a large pool of water halfway up the falls that had only a handful of people swimming in it. As we had not noticed an entrance to this portion on the hike up we looked for it on the way down. Shortly after, we noticed a group of people heading down a side trail. Disregarding the “no entrance” signs we followed. After a while we came to the pools we had seen from above except they were blocked off by bamboo and barbed wire. However, others before us had found ways to scramble over, under, and through. We decided to follow suit. It turned out to be well worth the risk as the pools were completely cut off from the rest of the park. Only a few other people shared the biggest swimming hole of the falls and the best part was that it gave a clearer view of the upper half of the main cascades. We swam until we got our fill, traversed the barbed wire again and headed down. On the way home we capped off the day with a lovely dinner at little hidden farm restaurant tucked away in the rice fields where everything in the meal itself was grown or raised on the property. It was the perfect end to the perfect day.

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Our last day in Luang Prabang was spent visiting the parts of town we had not yet been to and gearing up for the next leg of our journey. However, the highlight of our last twenty-four hours was going on a sunset riverboat cruise on the Mekong river. The riverboat departed around an hour before sunset and traveled to a wide part of the river that lined up perfectly with the setting sun. The craft was fitted out with dining tables, lounge chairs, and hammocks. With a two and a half hour cruise, it allowed us to relax, eat dinner, have drinks, and relax some more. As the boat drifted back downriver after nightfall, we were welcomed back into the town by the glow of the lanterns and lights on the riverside bars and restaurants. DSC_3356-EditDSC_3384-EditDSC_3391-EditDSC_3398-EditDSC_3406-EditDSC_3427-EditDSC_3431-EditDSC_3433-EditDSC_3439-EditDSC_3449-EditDSC_3451-EditDSC_3453-EditDSC_3458-Edit

We could not have asked for a more delightful send-off to our favorite stop in Laos so far. Next we were heading off to stay in the traditional Hmong and Khmu village of Pou Nong Kuay isolated in the Lao Highlands.

Written by: Matthew Mayer

 

Vang Vieng, Laos

Written by: Matthew Mayer

Although we very much enjoyed our time in Vientiane as it was a wonderful introduction to the country and its people, we were excited to make our way to our first major destination of Vang Vieng. In our research we had seen and heard many wonderful things about the backwater backpacking river town surrounded by towering limestone mountains. 

After we checked out of our first stay we hailed down a Tuk Tuk. A Tuk Tuk is a highly unique people mover that is a popular means of getting from destination to destination over short distances — usually in the same city or province. The Tuk Tuk took us to the Northern Vientiane Bus Station where we quickly boarded the next mini-bus to Vang Vieng. A mini-bus in Southeast Asia is an oversized van that seats twelve people comfortably but usually ends up filled with fifteen or more souls. Mini-busses are generally cramped rides filled with a mix of locals and backpackers making their way from town to town. As rates are cheap, the vehicle is stuffed to the rafters with people and luggage wherever they may fit. We loaded our bags and were quickly corralled to the back as we began our four hour Northeasterly journey to Vang Vieng.

As we soon learned on our van ride North, the roads in Laos are constantly being upgraded from pressed rock and dirt to sealed roads. There are countless portions of road that transition from sealed road to gravel, from gravel to rock, from rock to dirt, and back again. This proved to be a very bumpy ride. As we were seated in the very back of the van, we would find ourselves getting airborne as the back wheels of the transport jumped from varying degrees of road development. This coupled with the winding roads and lack of air conditioning, we found ourselves stricken with motion sickness very early on. We were not the only ones. We found out that sick-bags are not only a commodity on airplanes. However, the scenery was breathtaking as the flat, wide open farmlands of central Laos slowly turned to tropically forested mountains and valleys. After a long and arduous time in the back of the steamy mini-bus, we finally pulled into the ever-so-scenic Vang Vieng

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After exiting the mini-bus tout de suite, we  realized that Vang Vieng is vastly different from the sprawling metropolis that is Vientiane. Vang Vieng is a small town nestled against the Nam Song River surrounded by the famous spired limestone mountains . The first impression of the town is one of laid back, sunbaked lifestyle. In fact, the sun seemed to beat down just a bit harder to even out the lazy harmonic tune that the town provided. The sun-soaked backpackers cruising around on scooters in the quiet streets created a stark contrast to the crowded busy streets of Vientiane. We felt that we had made the right decision in getting to Vang Vieng quickly.

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Once we shook off the nausea and got our bearings, we realized that the place we were staying was still three or four kilometers outside of town and across the river. We opted to hoof it as to avoid paying for another Tuk Tuk  and to take in some of the sights along the way. With the temperature cracking ninety degrees with full sun, the hike proved to be sweltering yet well worth it as it allowed us to get our bearings in the new city.

 

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The bridge across the Nam Song serves as a border between the quirky little river town and the open rural farmlands. The only road in sight runs straight ahead and cuts through the middle of a valley of mostly open land comprising of cattle pasture, rice paddies, and isolated patches of jungle-like vegetation. Bordering the little valley on all sides are the imposing, jagged mountains. It was a breathtaking sight as we had not previously encountered mountains quite like these before.

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Walking across the toll bridge gave us our fist real view of the Nam Song River and the surrounding terrain. The Nam Song in the dry season hardly resembled the muddy and swollen river we had seen in the photographs before we came. The river we encountered seemed cool, dark, and refreshing as it curved away between the  mountains. The water was scattered with small gentle rapids as the local fishermen navigated up and down-river in long narrow boats with propellers extending eight feet behind the boat on an eight foot long rudder pole attached to the stern. It was a picturesque scene to be sure, and we felt at that time as though we had finally received our first taste of Laos outside of the big city.

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After a short but hot hike down the country road we made it to our stay for the next few days. Tucked away in one of the little cospses of jungle vegetation was the Lao Valhalla Bungalows and Restaurant. Nestled in among the shade of the tall tropical trees were a gathering of quaint bungalows made of bamboo and brick. Our host, a very friendly lady named Nouth, checked us in to our room and left us to get settled in. Even though the little cabins are equipped with only a fan, they are more than cool enough due to the shade of the surroundings. We were in love immediately.

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The first day out we explored the town. We hiked around the city and got to know the area. We started by taking in the local cuisine. We frequented the local taverns and restaurants, gaining knowledge of the customs and food therein. Once we became accustomed to the locale, we became comfortable moving from place to place.

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As soon as we realized that we would not be able to move around as we would like to on foot we decided to rent a scooter. Our host, Nouth was more than happy to wrangle transportation for us and we were soon equipped with a scooter to get around and a map of the surrounding areas.

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On our third day in Vang Vieng and having been equipped with our own transportation, we decided to trek the Blue Lagoon Loop. The loop is a rocky, dirt road leading from Vang Vieng proper to the Nam Xay viewpoint and back again. On motorbike, you set out from town, stop by the Blue lagoon, and then turn back, hitting the Nam Xay mountain on the way back. Once we found ourselves far enough away from town, the sealed road turns to dirt with large rocks strewn throughout. On a little 125 cc scooter, one has to navigate the bumps and rocks as to avoid popping a tire or bending a rim. It is a very jarring ride from start to finish.

 

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After an hour of rambling down rocky, dirt roads to the Blue Lagoon, we spent an hour or two swimming, sunning, and swinging on the zip line into the water. The fresh water pool is around three hundred meters long and wide and was full of pristine turquoise water. Once we had had our fill of fresh-water swimming we hopped back on the scooter and headed for Nam Xay mountain. 

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Accustomed as we were to Appalachian mountain trails, we were not prepared at all for the trail up to our first major hike in Laos. As Nam Xay is a limestone karst isolated in the middle of a valley, the trail climbs straight up the wall of stone. Bamboo rails line the trail as you trek on all fours up the steep climb. After an hour of clawing your way up the karst, we finally reached the summit. A gentle breeze greets you as well as a hammock and water stand. As strenuous as the hike is, the view afforded is very much worth the strain as you look over the Lao countryside filled with rice fields and other isolated mountains. We made our way down and finished our loop on the motorbike and crashed back in to our bungalow as the fading light fell.

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Our last day in Vang Vieng we spent trekking to a falls called Kaeng Nyui. Being our last day with the scooter, we decided to take the trip up to the falls as our last hoorah before heading on to Luang Prabang. 

After around two hours on more dusty, uneven, rocky roads we made it to Kaeng Nyui falls. We parked the scooter, and after a three mile hike we arrived at a three hundred meter cascading falls. It was the most wonderful place to spend the day.  We spread out the sarongs, frolicked in the water, and read our books to the sound of the falling water. It was the perfect end to the introduction of Laos writ small. 

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As our visit in the little river town wound down, we were greatly saddened to leave Vang Vieng behind. However, we were overjoyed to move on to our most anticipated portion of our trip: The historic French Colonial Township of Luang Prabang.

 

Written by: Matthew Mayer

Vientiane, Laos

On February, 27th we boarded a plane in Nashville, Tennessee to begin our journey to Southeast Asia. After a gruelling thirty-six hour flight plan that took us from Tennessee to Laos with stops in Chicago, Hong Kong, and Bangkok, we finally arrived at the airport in the capital city of Laos: Vientiane. When we got off the plane, we made a quick trip through customs and grabbed a taxi to take us to our lodgings for the evening. Vientiane, Laos1The ride to our stay was quick and uneventful but afforded us our first impressions of the city. What we encountered was a dense, bustling cityscape buzzing with activity. The roads were packed with all manner of vehicles. Motorbikes, taxis, buses, cars, and more weaved about each other in a controlled chaos. As we rode through the busy streets away from the airport, the eclectic collection of structures forming the center of the city opened up before us. We passed large commercial buildings covered with advertisements, ornate temple compounds with gilded roofs, apartment buildings, hotels, shops, and restaurants with the occasional street food vendors dotting the sidewalk. Vientiane, Laos2The taxi driver dropped us off in front of the loft apartment building where we would be staying for the next two nights and we lugged our backpacks to our room. Our loft was a recently refurbished flat on the fourth floor. After spending the previous two days eating, sleeping, and existing in airplanes and airports, we were more than ready for a shower and a long rest. We were eager to ride out the jet lag in our quiet, air conditioned room.
Vientiane, Laos3After a lengthy and restorative sleep we awoke the next morning to a large thunderclap. Our plans for exploring the surrounding city would have to be put on hold while we waited out a rare dry-season thunderstorm. Instead we decided to brew some tea and take it to the covered roof of the building to look out over the city. Looking down from above gave us an interesting perspective of Vientiane. Unlike most major cities in the US, Vientiane had maximized the use of its space to a fault. The spaces in between the larger buildings had every manner of structure tucked between them. The houses, apartments, and other living structures were packed together so tightly that the only space to move between them was a labyrinth of slim alleyways and corridors that would not fit two people abreast. The town from above looked like a solid mass of structure separated only by the roads with a smattering of tall buildings accentuating.Vientiane, Laos4When the sun came out a few hours later we were finally free to explore the city. Our first stop was a cozy cafe across the street from our building to grab a traditional Lao coffee. From there, we made our way down to the Mekong River which separates Thailand from Laos. On our way we passed the Presidential Palace and the Morning Market, a collection of stalls where locals peddle souvenirs, foods, and other goods to tourists and townspeople alike. On our way back to our loft we grabbed lunch at a traditional Lao restaurant before heading back to rest before the evening.Vientiane, Laos5After a quick nap to combat our jet lag symptoms and restore our confused circadian rhythms, we headed back down to the river to check out the popular Riverside Night Market and Riverside Promenade. Everynight in Vientiane, a large portion of the road running parallel to the river is cordoned off and sellers set up matching red tents to sell their wares in the cooling air and fading light. Starting at one end, the individual stands are organized by trade. Clothing and cloth peddlers give way to art and trinkets and then eventually to food and drink. After the market we grabbed a small bite to eat for dinner and retired to our building for the evening.Vientiane, Laos6Our final day in Vientiane was spent packing and preparing for the next leg of our journey. We woke up early and made preparations for checkout and got bus tickets to our next desitnation. With time left to spare we grabbed some more coffee and wandered down to the corner mart to grab supplies and snacks as the travel time to our next destination was anywhere from four to six hours long. Before checkout we went to the roof of the building one last time to say our goodbyes to the big city. Vientiane was full of sights and activities and we truly enjoyed our experience there. However, we were very eager to get underway to our next stop. We were bound for the quaint river town of Vang Vieng surrounded by the jagged limestone mountains that we had heard so much about.Vientiane, Laos7

Written by: Matthew Mayer

Charleston, NC

I celebrated my twenty-eighth birthday over the weekend and we celebrated it in Charleston and stayed in the sweetest Bed & Breakfast on Folly Beach. We explored downtown Charleston, popped into little coffee shops for shots of expresso, drank lots of cold pressed juice, and maybe a Bloody Mary before noon. I’m happy to spend my days with someone who likes all the same stuff I do and someone who gets equally as excited about finding cool antique shops and weird thrift stores. Cheers to the man who sees a dress in a storefront window and encourages me to go in and try it on. Thank you for mapping out all the vegan restaurants before our trip and bringing a chocolate cake along. I love you, Matty. ❤ Thanks for sharing my birthday with me and making it super special.

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