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From the Ground: New Two-day Lamine Village Trek Near Inle Lake

By Nicole Long and Jay Austin

We wanted to introduce our new Kalaw to Lamine Village Trek, near Inle Lake in Myanmar.  This two day trip to Kalaw allows guests to get outside of the main tourist areas, but doesn’t require a lot of time commitment. The trekking portion of this tour is light in activity (only about 3 hours long) and allows access to nature and the picturesque countryside. Kalaw is at a higher elevation so the temperatures will be cooler and comfortable for trekking. This tour provides opportunities to connect with locals and witness traditional, simple lifestyles. This is a great option for families as it includes a train ride and elephants!

Note: For guests who want more, this itinerary can be extended a day with an additional day of trekking and another night in a village homestay.

Itinerary:

Kalaw: Trek to Lamine Village – Day 1

After breakfast, you will be transferred by van to the starting point of your trek. From here you will walk about three hours to Lamine, a Pa O Village, located about 10 miles from Kalaw. Explore this village where you will meet friendly locals and observe their traditional lifestyles. You will see the farmers hard at work as they plant or harvest wheat, ginger and a variety of other crops. Lunch and dinner will be prepared by your local trekking team and you will overnight in a village homestay.

Kalaw: Lamine Village to Inle Lake – Day 2

After a enjoying simple breakfast prepared by our team, stroll about the village to observe the local morning activities, before you will meet up with the car for your to transfer to Inle Lake. On the way, stop by at the villages for plantation of regional products. The drive takes approximately 3 hours to Inle Lake and once you arrive, check in to your hotel and enjoy a free afternoon.

Photos by Andrea Ross

Walk the Walk: Fitness and Training for Trekking in Southeast Asia

By Karen Caton-Brunings, CFT and owner of KCB FITNESS

So you are planning to go trekking on your trip to Southeast Asia? Fantastic! Wether you are trekking in the jungle, on volcanos or rain forests, adventure and beauty will find you. Now it’s time to prepare! Spending a little time physically preparing will ensure that your trekking experience will be positive and memorable.

Trekking, by definition, is journey taken on foot usually in areas that have no other means of transportation. It typically involves quite a few miles over challenging or moderately challenging terrain, usually for more than one day. Preparing by walking for longer periods, on varied terrain, using varied levels of excursion is a great start. Strengthening your legs, feet, core, upper body, balance as well as your cardiovascular fitness will help you get ready for the demands that trekking requires.

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Getting prepared is fun, exciting and very simple. There are a few things to keep in mind as you plan and prepare for your trek. These tips will help you put one foot in front of the other on your adventure:

  1. CHOOSE THE RIGHT TREK: Pick an adventure that will be challenging but not totally over reaching. If you only walk a mile twice a week, you wouldn’t sign up for a marathon. The same rule applies to choosing your adventure.
  1. GIVE IT TIME: Depending on your current level of activity, fitness and the type of trek you’ve chosen, it can take between 6-12 weeks to physically prepare for the demands of trekking. Taking the time to slowly build your strength will aide in injury prevention while you train and on your trek.
  1. WALK THE WALK: How many miles will you be walking? How many hours will you be trekking per day? What is the terrain like? This is so important to know! Your training should mimic your trek. You should be able to hike/walk the amount of time and distances that you will be doing on your trip.
  1. TAKE THE WEIGHT: How much weight will you be carrying with you? Be sure to carry a backpack on most of your conditioning hikes so that the extra weight is not a surprise to you when you trek. Even if you will only be carrying a daypack with your camera, water and snacks…take it with you.
  1. SWITCH IT UP: Cross training is a great way to improve your cardiovascular and muscular strength. Any leg-based cardio like, cycling, soccer, and swimming are effective methods of boosting cardiovascular fitness.
  1. EVERYTHING COUNTS: Walk to the market. Park in the far corner of the mall. Ride your bike into town instead of driving. Walk the dog. Work in the garden. Stand on one leg while cooking dinner to work on balance. Find fitness in your day-to-day life! It all adds up.
  1. IF THE SHOE FITS: Wear them! Make sure that you have comfortable hiking boots. You will be spending hours on your feet and in your shoes. If you choose to purchase new shoes for your trek, use your training time to break them in. Blisters and hot spots can stop you in your tracks so trek in a pair of shoes that you know and love. The same idea goes for your other equipment. Using poles, daypack, backpack? Use them while training. Make sure that none of your equipment rubs you the wrong way. You can even wear the clothes that you will be trekking in to check comfort and fit.

Your 8-week plan

So let’s say you a lightly active now. How do you plan to be prepared for a moderately challenging trek in 8 weeks? Click here to download an 8-week training plan.

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It is a roadmap. You can use it as a guideline. Adjust the plan and exercises to fit YOUR physical fitness and always check with your physician before beginning any new physical fitness routine. This is particularly important if you have any injuries or health issues of any kind. Do not substitute the advice provided here for the advice of your physician.

You can use the Borg Scale (Rate of Perceived Excursion) when hiking/walking to train for you trek. The scale was created to help individuals measure their levels of excursion when engaging in physical activity. The scale helps you understand if you should speed up or slow down to meet the desired level of excursion. It is very individualized and allows all levels of fitness to have a better understand their cardiovascular/physical effort. The attached training schedule uses this scale to change the effort level during each week.

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COOL DOWN AND STRETCHING

The goal of cool-down is to reduce heart and breathing rates, gradually cool body temperature, return muscles to their optimal length-tension relationships, prevent venous pooling of blood in the lower extremities (which may cause dizziness or possible fainting), and restore physiologic systems close to baseline. So take 5-10 minutes to cool down after your training sessions. Walk slowly until heart rate returns to normal.

Stretching regularly and after exercise is an important component in any exercise regimen. Stretching helps prevent injury by:

  • Reducing muscle tension
  • Increasing range of movement in the joints
  • Enhancing muscular coordination
  • Increasing circulation of the blood to various parts of the body
  • Increasing energy levels (resulting from increased circulation)

Spending 5-10 minutes stretching after your training session helps muscles return to normal ranges of motion. Hold each stretch for about 10 seconds, and never stretch to the point of pain. Be sure to stretch all of the major muscle groups of the body. Take a look at this article on Active.com for stretches to address every muscle group in your body: http://www.active.com/fitness/articles/12-post-workout-static-stretches

HYDRATION

Dehydration caused by excessive sweating can lead to heat exhaustion and heat stroke. The heat and humidity are big factors in Southeast Asia. It is important to consume 2 liters of water per day for proper function of all of your body’s systems. Consume an additional half liter or liter of water when exercising. Juice, coffee, tea and alcohol don’t count toward your daily consumption requirements.   Drink water before you are thirsty while training and trekking.

NUTRITION

Nutrition is also important to feeling strong and healthy when training and trekking.

The body breaks down most carbohydrates from the foods we eat and converts them to a type of sugar called glucose. Glucose is the main source of fuel for our cells. When the body doesn’t need to use the glucose for energy, it stores it in the liver and muscles. This stored form of glucose is made up of many connected glucose molecules and is called glycogen. When the body needs a quick boost of energy or when the body isn’t getting glucose from food, glycogen is broken down to release glucose into the bloodstream to be used as fuel for the cells. A healthy diet with a balance of protein, carbohydrates and fat is important for the production of glycogen to keep you going on your adventure.

Be sure to fuel your body 2 hours before exercise with foods containing complex carbohydrates and protein. During exercise, it is important to prevent drops in blood sugar and low glycogen/glucose stores by consuming easily digestible carbohydrates (bars, raisins, dried fruit, gels, trail mix, etc.) while you are trekking. This will help prevent fatigue. After exercise, rehydrate and fuel your body with carbohydrates and proteins used by your body during activity.

For more information on sports nutrition and how to better prepare nutritionally I recommend: http://www.thedoctorwillseeyounow.com/content/sports_medicine/art3224.html

PROPER PREPARATION = AMAZING RESULTS

Preparing your body will ensure that your trek will be as beautiful as Southeast Asia.

Keep trekking, get stronger and have fun. Your adventure awaits.

Karen Caton-Brunings, CFT is a personal friend of Andrea Ross and the owner of KCB FITNESS. She will be joining Andrea on a trip to Southeast Asia in August of 2016 during which they will put these tips into action as they trek along some new routes in Myanmar.

On Tour with Journeys Within: Phonesavanh, Vientiane, and Pakse, Laos

The view from Vat Phou near Pakse in Laos.
The view from Vat Phou near Pakse in Laos.

Journeys Within is on our annual inspection tours this spring and traveled on from Northern to Southern Laos, with several stops along the way including Phonesavanh, Vientiane, and Pakse. Read about our recent experiences in our last update On Tour With Journeys Within: Luang Prabang, Laos to learn about some of our guests’ favorite tours in this unique destination.

Follow our journey for updates and travel tips on some of our key locations and tours throughout this spring, and get inspired for your own next adventure.

For travelers who seek to acquaint themselves with highlights of Northern and Southern Laos, these Journeys Within tours are ideal:

Day 1: Phonesavanh: Plain of Jars

Day 2: Vientiane: Full Day City Tour

Day 3: Pakse: Vat Phou and Khong Island

Day 4: Don Det and the 4,000 Islands

Day 5: Bolaven Plateau

These tours are customizable to the guest’s preferences and schedules, though Journeys Within can make recommendations on the best timing to schedule certain tours and activities to beat crowds and the sun on hot days.

Day 1: Phonesavanh: Plain of Jars

We journeyed on from Luang Prabang to Phonesavanh, a small provincial countryside city surrounded by green rolling hills, farmland, and pine forests. Our trek to this humble area was to see Phonesavanh’s main point of interest, the Plain of Jars.

Some of the ancient jars located at the Plain of Jars near Phonesavanh, Laos.
Some of the ancient jars located at the Plain of Jars near Phonesavanh, Laos.

The Plain of Jars archaeological landscape encompasses three different UNESCO World Heritage Sites clustered with hundreds of mysterious megalithic jars. Visitors at the Plain of Jars may walk through a museum located at the entrance at the beginning of the tour that provides information about the Vietnam War. Evidence of the war still exists in this area with craters from bombs seen throughout the landscape, and old Minus Advisory Group (MAG) markers that indicated where to walk to avoid active bombs before the site had been cleared. The area was one of the most heavily bombed locations during the Vietnam War, with bombs dropped every day between 1967 and 1968, but none of the bombs directly hit any of the Plain of Jars sites.

Bombs on display located at the main entrance of the Plain of Jars sites.
Bombs on display located at the main entrance of the Plain of Jars sites.

The jars date back to 2500 years ago during the Iron Age. Similar jars have been found in India and Indonesia with sites inexplicably skipping countries in between, or have otherwise just not yet been discovered.

Recent news about Plain of Jars indicates new evidence found and suggests potential purposes for the site, primarily for burial. However, the mysteries of the Plain of Jars have not been entirely solved. Our guide, Ounkham, says that while many local people of Phonesavanh have believed the site to relate to burial purposes, the mysteries remain: Why so many sites? What is the connection between these jars and those located in other countries? Why are they arranged in groups on each site? How were such heavy objects transported to the sites?

Evidence indicates the jars were placed on site as complete. Each of the three sites in Phonesavanh are located on hilltop areas, far from the original quarry site, with many megalithic jars scattered on the plain.

This tour provides a breezy walk and easy hikes along varying terrain. Visitors also stop at a large man-made cave along the way, whose purpose poses a mystery as well. The opening at the top of the cave indicates it could have been used as an ancient kiln for the jars, or potentially for cremation.

An ancient man-made cave located at the Plain of Jars.
An ancient man-made cave located at the Plain of Jars.

This tour is an ideal opportunity for lovers of history and anthropology, and for people who like to trek. The Plain of Jars offers a true sense of wonder about our early ancestors, their mysterious ways of life, and their profound capability.

We stopped for lunch in Muang Khoun and had a meal of authentic rice noodle soup. The soup is served with a garnish of extra greens, peppers, and spice sauce. Insider tip: Use the peppers and sauce sparingly! I added a small amount and found it to be very spicy, but delicious.  

Delicious noodle soup in Muang Khoun, Laos.
Delicious noodle soup in Muang Khoun, Laos.

Muang Khoun is home of the famous Wat Phia, a temple bombed during the Vietnam War and left in ruins, except for the temple’s large Buddha statue which remained miraculously intact. I discovered from our guide that Muang Khoun translates, rather fittingly, to ‘prosperous district’. Our last stop for the day was to explore the overgrown That Foun Stupa, or ‘Stupa of Ashes’, that was believed to house a relic of Buddha. The resilience of the Plain of Jars and the area’s surrounding ancient sites, contrasted by the everlasting effects from war, are profoundly apparent and evocative.

What to wear for this tour:

Walking shoes

Hat

Sunscreen and insect repellant

T-shirt or shoulder covering, and knees covered to enter Wat Phia. The temple is not active, but the same guidelines for respect remain.

Vientiane: Full Day City Tour

Prior to beginning our city tour, we were invited to visit Carol Cassidy’s Lao Textiles workshop, studio, and gallery. This is typically not a stop on the city tour, however, it can be added upon request of the guest. As the Lao New Year, Pi Mai, was still underway, the space was closed for business but Carol invited us for a private introduction and tour.

Textiles are an ancient handicraft of Laos and Southeast Asia in general. A weaver by profession, Carol and her husband, Dawit Seyoum, pioneered tourism in Laos as the first foreigners to establish a privately owned business in Vientiane in 1990. Tourism in Laos didn’t begin until the late 1990s.

Both former employees of the United Nations, Carol and Dawit fused their areas of expertise in rural development, economics, and craft development to build what is now a silk textile empire with retailers throughout North America, workshops and studio spaces in Vientiane, Laos and Preah Vihear, Cambodia, and exhibits all over the world. Pieces of Carol’s work can be found today at the Guggenheim, and her pieces are kept on permanent exhibition in museums internationally.

Carol Cassidy at her workshop in Vientiane, Laos.
Carol Cassidy at her workshop in Vientiane, Laos.

Carol received many prestigious accolades over the years and continues to teach courses throughout the US at universities such as Columbia and NYU. The ultimate result of Carol and Dawit’s efforts is a creative silk weaving workshop concept and a generation of employment for Lao women weavers. Their objective is to provide education about generations of artisans and to keep people employed to maintain traditional weaving as a craft and artform.

“We’re not interested in capitalizing from using machines. We want to follow the creativeness of the pieces, and to stay small and special.” Carol said. “Everything we do, we do with world-class excellence. We’re a small business, and our staff is like family. We’ve employed a generation of people, helped our staff build homes, and have former staff who are now retired and on pensions. We’ve sought ways in which we could combine tradition, employment, and preservation to form a model that we call ‘beyond fair trade’”.

Visitors may call in advance for workshops, and Carol and Dawit often entertain guests with cocktails and an academic discussion of the social aspects of their work. They want their guests’ experience to be more than visiting a shop. They offer a fully-functioning active studio where spectators gain an educational experience about the process from weaving to dyeing in a variety of methods. Insider tip: Visitors should ask to speak Carol and Dawit seek to learn more about their work.

We began our city tour first with a visit to Vientiane’s expansive Thong Kham Kam Market. The market is complete with what seems like miles of merchants selling fresh produce, freshly butchered meat, live fish and insects, and street food and souvenir merchants. Visitors in the morning get to see the market at its busiest time, buzzing with pick-up trucks and local people of Vientiane doing their shopping in order to get the freshest products.

Our tour continued on to Buddha Park. The park has hundreds of statues that depict Buddha in many different forms, as well as various Buddhist and Hindu iconography. Visitors may pass hours at Buddha Park to admire the expert craftsmanship and intricate detail of each sculpture. Our guide, Mr. Soun, is a Lao man who lived in California for a period of his life after his family fled Laos to escape war. His English is excellent and he took careful time explaining to us in great detail the meaning behind the park’s sculptures.

Some of hundreds of Buddha statues to be seen at Buddha Park in Vientiane, Laos.
Some of hundreds of Buddha statues to be seen at Buddha Park in Vientiane, Laos.

The statues appear to be centuries old, but the park was started in 1958 by priest-shaman, Luang Pu Bunleua Sulilat, who aspired to merge Buddhist and Hindu beliefs. He fled to Thailand in 1975 after the revolution. He built another sculpture park on the other side of the Mekong River at the Laos/Thailand border.

We moved on to the main temples and sites of Vientiane. Pha That Luang, also referred to as the ‘Golden Stupa’, is regarded as the most important monument in Laos and a national symbol. Originally a Hindu temple in the third century, the temple was destroyed and rebuilt many times, eventually transitioning to the Buddhist temple it is today. The temple’s three levels represent the Buddhist doctrine wherein Buddhists follow the path to Nirvana. Phat That Luang has been believed to house a holy relic, the breastbone of Buddha.

The Golden Stupa (Pha That Luang) in Vientiane, Laos.
The Golden Stupa (Pha That Luang) in Vientiane, Laos.

Haw Pha Kaeo was built in 1565 to house the Emerald Buddha, which was originally from Chiang Mai but exchanged hands many times over the centuries due to conflict. The Emerald Buddha is currently kept in a temple on the grounds of the Royal Palace in Bangkok, and can be seen on the Journeys Within Bangkok City Tour. Haw Pha Kaeo is now used as a museum where visitors may see Lao religious art and Buddha statues from as early as the sixth century.

Wat Si Saket was built in 1818 in the Siamese style, as opposed to the Laos style, which makes this particular temple unique to the area. It is thought to be the oldest temple still standing in Vientiane. While the temple had been sacked by Siam armies 1827 they did not destroy it, likely because it was built in Siamese style. Wat Si Saket is currently used as a museum and houses a collection of over 2000 Buddha images.

Wat Si Saket in Vientiane, Laos, houses over 2000 Buddha images.
Wat Si Saket in Vientiane, Laos, houses over 2000 Buddha images.

Wat Si Muang is another unusual temple, as it is divided into two rooms. The rear room houses a large altar and many statues and images of Buddha. The front room is a place where visitors may make offerings to Buddha and receive blessings from monks.

Next we were taken to Patuxai, also known as the ‘Victory Gate’. Patuaxi is a war monument dedicated to the Lao people who fought in the struggle for independence from France. Ironically, the monument is also sometimes referred to as ‘Arc de Triomphe of Vientiane’ as it resembles the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, though it is Laotian in design. The first floor of the monument consists of management offices of the monument and tourist shops. The second floor houses a museum that contains statues and images of the iconic Lao people. The top floor is the best vantage point for city views and photos, with a telescope and viewing platform.

An interior view of Vientiane's Victory Gate.
An interior view of Vientiane’s Victory Gate.

Insider tip: If Mr.Soun is your guide, be sure to ask him about the documentary about bombings during the Vietnam War. He has the document saved to a USB you can borrow. The documentary provides an informative context to the Vietnam War from Laotian perspective and experiences.   

What to wear for this tour:

Sandals or walking shoes

Breathable clothing with the shoulders and knees covered for entering temples

Insect repellant and plenty of sunscreen

Hat

Pakse: Vat Phou and Khong Island

Our first tour in Pakse began with no delay and we ventured to the countryside for the sacred mountain of Lingaparvata and Vat Phou. This point of interest is a 6th century pre-Angkorian Khmer Hindu temple and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The site represents the easternmost border of the Khmer empire. Visiting this special site includes a moderate hike, panoramic views of the surrounding plains, and a chance to visit a hidden sacred spring. Vat Phou offers many picturesque opportunities, with spanning views of the countryside, and countless ornate arches and temple carvings. A museum at the foot of Lingaparvata offers information about the site and and many ancient relics to see.

One of several ancient temple structures located on the site of Vat Phou.
One of several ancient temple structures located on the site of Vat Phou.

Afterward we were transferred to Khong Island, part of the river archipelago known as ‘Si Phan Don’, or the ‘4,000 Islands’. Our accommodation was La Folie Lodge, a truly secluded escape, with few hotels and a small village visitors may explore by bicycle. Visitors may also stroll the riverbank of the Mekong, seeing more animals and boats passing by than people. The island is an ideal retreat after several days in a row of travel and exploring bustling cities. Guests ‘disconnect’ at La Folie Lodge, with Wi-Fi access only in the hotel lobby and restaurant, and no television sets in the guest rooms. The guest rooms are rustic with wood-paneled interiors and accented with French colonial artwork. La Folie Lodge has the feel of a relaxing private beachfront getaway. Insider tip: Request a room with a view of the Mekong River. Visitors can relax and enjoy the view on their own private patio or from the comfort of their bed. A private villa is also available for lodging and is an ideal accommodation for groups and families.

The view of the Mekong River from a La Folie Lodge guest room on Khong Island, Laos.
The view of the Mekong River from a La Folie Lodge guest room on Khong Island, Laos.

What to wear for this tour:

No sandals – walking shoes only. The steps of Vat Phou are steep and there are rocky areas at the top for exploring.

Breathable clothing – no skirts or dresses. Visitors may slip on long dresses while climbing the steps, and skirts may catch the breeze.

Lots of sunscreen and insect repellant – the ground level of Vat Phou and the staircase have few shaded areas, but there is plenty of shade to be found at the top.

Hat or umbrella for sun protection, but ideally a hat as there is not handrail.

Day 4: Don Det and the 4,000 Islands

This day of the tour we set out for Ban Nakasang and took a long tail boat through a section of the 4,000 Islands. This is an exciting and immersive way to explore the archipelago while passing by water buffalo and local fishermen, with many different islands to be seen on either side of the boat.

The view from our long tail boat while cruising through Don Det (the 4,000 Islands).
The view from our long tail boat while cruising through Don Det (the 4,000 Islands).

We spent the day trekking to different waterfall sites, including Khone Phapheng Waterfall, known as the ‘Niagara of the East’. We took another long tail boat in the afternoon to explore around Som Pha Mit (Li Phi) Waterfall, and spotted endangered Irrawaddy Dolphins from a distance! These dolphins are rare river dolphins of Southeast Asia, and they look like a combination of the common Cetacea or sea dolphin and a manity, lacking the elongated noses typical of sea dolphins. Regardless, they are still cute!   

One of the many waterfalls to be seen throughout Don Det, Laos.
One of the many waterfalls to be seen throughout Don Det, Laos.

Guests can end the day with a quick stop on the long tail boat at a Cambodian riverbank! This part of the archipelago borders Cambodia, where visitors can stop for a drink and a little souvenir shopping before heading to their hotel for the evening.

What to wear for this tour:

Sandals or walking shoes

Breathable clothing

Hat

Plenty of sunscreen and insect repellant

Day 5: Bolaven Plateau

The fertile land of the Bolaven Plateau makes it a paradise for tea and coffee farming. The tour is a treat for coffee and tea lovers, with opportunities to taste and purchase fresh products. The higher altitude of the plateau is about ten degrees cooler than in the city of Pakse, which also makes for pleasant touring.

The first stop for the day was at Tad Fane Waterfall, the tallest waterfall in Laos, then Tad Yuang. The waterfalls are gorgeous and surrounded by exotic greenery. Guests may climb down a series of steps to get a closer look at the Tad Yuang or to sit and relax. Many people also visit the waterfall to picnic, camp, or swim.

Tad Yuang, a waterfall located in the rich land of the Bolaven Plateau.
Tad Yuang, a waterfall located in the rich land of the Bolaven Plateau.

There is also a small market at the entrance where souvenirs and traditional Lao skirts are sold. In hindsight, I regret not having bought a Lao skirt. They are made of silk, vibrant in color and pattern, and one of the most distinct Laotian handicrafts. Young girls can be seen wearing them paired with a t-shirt, and ladies typically wear them with crisp white blouses.

While visiting the plantations, our guide explained to us various growing processes and harvesting methods for not only the coffee, but also spices and fruit commonly grown in the area. We got the opportunity to crush fresh black pepper, cinnamon, and other fragrant spices in our hands and smell their fresh scent. We took the opportunity to taste coffee and green tea, which is fresh beyond comprehension and so unlike the store bought products we are accustomed to drinking. I hadn’t intended on buying anything, but bought cinnamon and green tea because the scent of the tea is incredible even through the packaging. This is a great opportunity to purchase unique, quality souvenirs. I look forward to sharing my tea with my friends back home.

Our tour guide explains details about farming in the Bolaven Plateau.
Our tour guide explains details about farming in the Bolaven Plateau.

We continued on to Sinouk Coffee and Tea, a larger plantation where visitors may see the crops in different stages of growth and tour the plantation grounds while talking in the lush landscape and rich red earth. The plantation provides many beautiful photo opportunities and a sense of whimsy with beautiful mature trees, lotus ponds, and exotic plants. There is also a restaurant located on the plantation offering fresh Lao meals, a variety of coffee drinks, and fresh fruit smoothies as an option for lunch. Coffee and tea are also available for purchase at this location.

Beautiful Sinouk Coffee plantation in the Bolaven Plateau.
Beautiful Sinouk Coffee plantation in the Bolaven Plateau.

Village tours throughout the day include several stops where visitors may observe village life in Laos, with villagers preparing food or crafting goods for sale at local markets. Some of the villages accept guests for homestays, so there may be an opportunity to meet some of these people and discuss their experiences. As mentioned in previous blogs, photography of the villagers and their children is a concept that should be treated with care. It is best to ask people first before taking their photographs, and photographs of children is particularly sensitive. You may also ask your guide to request permission from the villagers as well.

Our day ended with a visit to Pa Suam Waterfall and its nearby village, or, ‘living museum’ or ‘ethnic museum’. This is a preserved village that contains families of the Katu, Alak, and other tribes.Traditional home construction, dress, crafts, customs, and daily life may be witnessed to give visitors a look into traditional Laotian tribal life.

What to wear for this tour:

Walking shoes or sandals – there are some stops with short hikes and steep stair cases if you choose to explore them

Breathable clothing

Hat

Plenty of sunscreen and insect repellant

Next up in this series of blogs, we journey from Laos to Cambodia and see highlights of Siem Reap. See more photos of this journey on our Instagram account: https://www.instagram.com/journeys_within/. Stay tuned to get an insider account of more of our tours!

Discovering Vietnam- Part 2: Sapa

By: Anna Baldwin- Operations Manager

My next stop after Hanoi was to jump on the night train in search of the stunning paddy fields of Sapa. As the train pulled out of the station I said goodbye to the noises, lights and smells of the bustling Hanoi streets and settled into my cosy cabin as we set off north towards China. The cabins are generally made up of four beds- 2 sets of bunk beds- but often if travellers want a bit more privacy and space we are able to book the whole cabin for them. I was lucky enough to be joined by a lovely German couple, along with their local guide, and we spent the next couple of hours talking and exchanging food as the train made its way deeper into the vast countryside.

The train soon lulled me into a deep sleep, and before I knew it we had arrived at Lao Chai station, our last stop on the train before it returned south to Hanoi.

Overnight train from Hanoi

Although it was barely dawn, the station exit was surrounded by taxi drivers, guides and hawkers ready to pounce, but I soon found my local guide, Dong, who pulled me through the crowds and into our 4X4.  Within a few minutes we were off on the hour-long drive to Sapa town. It was a stunning drive as we slowly climbed higher and higher towards Sapa, where we soon reached a height of 1,600m! Surrounded on all sides by paddy fields dotted with numerous tribal villages, Sapa is very much a mountain town, with its steep roads filled with shops selling trekking gear and rows of balconied wooden houses overlooking the dramatic landscape beyond.

Rice paddies of Sapa

After some breakfast and last minute tour preparations we set off with our wonderful local porter Sing, who was to carry all our food and drinks for the next three days, and we drove to the beginning of the trek – Ta Van village.

We soon left behind the Dzay village of Ta Van and set off along the valley. This is where I truly tested my balancing skills, as we made our way along narrow paths and the edges of the paddy fields which lined the mountainside. Luckily two lovely local ladies came to my rescue; half my size and twice my age, they obviously make a habit of adopting the most hopeless-looking trekker to make sure they don’t fall face first into the flooded paddy field below.

Black H'Mong ladies who came to my rescue

The route took us through a number of different tribal villages, from Red Dao to Black H’Mong, who wear mainly black clothing as their name suggests.  The dye in their clothing often runs and so, as a result, their hands are also stained a little black.

Every so often the route would take us through wonderful bamboo forests

After a long but stunning trek, we eventually arrived at Seo Trung Ho Village, our base for the night. Never before had I seen such a dramatic, remote location for a village. In one direction you will find a magnificent waterfall thundering away behind the village, and the other provides breathtaking views across the valley with the misty mountains in the distance. There’s not a tourist in sight…

View of the misty mountains from my homestay

After an evening of rice wine and delicious home-cooked food, I went to sleep in my homestay with the sound of the waterfall and the light patter of rain.

Rice wine and home-cooked food, not a bad combination after a good day's trekking
My homestay family

This light patter was hugely magnified by morning as I woke to find we’d had heavy rainstorms all night and the waterfall was twice the size!

The waterfall...

This resulted in making our morning route a little too unpredictable with the wet conditions, so it was decided we would do that morning by motorbike. Another unforgettable experience – driving down from the village into the valley, through the river, and up onto the other side, slowly picking our way through the roads with awesome views all the way down the valley to the distant mountains. Suddenly the sun came out and the clouds disappeared, and I could see for miles. As we drove further along the valley I looked back and was thrilled to see the magnificent ‘’Roof of Indochina,’’ Fansipan Mountain, the tallest mountain in all of Indochina. I thought – I’ll save that one for next time…

My trusty motorbike driver and Sing, our porter

Interested in hearing more about Anna’s adventures in spectacular Vietnam?  Check out her other blogs and look for more to come: https://www.journeys-within.com/2012/04/27/4354/