Day nine is a free day in Vang Vieng, and my birthday, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be a quiet one. We have already arranged to start the day out with a caving and kayaking adventure, which is about 30 minutes out of town by tuk-tuk. We have to hike through a small village and field to get to the caves, but once there it was so much fun. We each get an inner tube and a head lamp, and off into the cave we go. We guide ourselves by a rope, and once in the cave you can’t see anything without the lamp. Once we make it to the end, we all turn off our lamps and hang out in complete darkness for a few moments before some of the other travellers start to get a bit nervous and want their lights back on.
After the cave, we head to another spot on the river for some kayaking. The kayaks are doubles, so of course I team up with my husband (it also means I don’t have to feel bad for making him do most of the work). Since it’s dry season and the river is quite low, we have to be careful to follow the guide so we don’t get stuck in any shallow spots, or any sneaky rocks. The river is beautiful, and at the start is dotted with a bunch of rivers bars. Vang Vieng used to be very popular with river tubing and bar hopping, but quite a few travelers have died in the past, so it’s not at common anymore. Once we are out of the busy part of the river, it’s so quiet and peaceful. I let my husband take over and take a minute to just enjoy one of my favorite activities on my birthday.
The rest of the day is a little more relaxing, but still pretty full. We have lunch at an Irish Bar with some of our new Australian friends, and then we take a tuk-tuk to the Blue Lagoon, which is a beautiful lagoon just outside of town. Since it rained early this morning, the water isn’t as blue as it usually is, but it was still pretty amazing. There are a few different platforms to jump from, as well as a few rope swings. I already had my fill of tree jumping from Kuang Si Waterfalls a few days ago, so I passed this time and just enjoyed the cool waters. We finish up the evening with a massage, and a pretty early night to bed, as being in the sun all day was pretty draining.
Day ten is our last full day in Laos as we head to the capital of Vientiane. The drive is just under 4 hours, and we have one quick break along the way. Once we arrive, we jump right into our tour. We stop at Pha That Luang, a beautiful Buddhist temple with an amazing golden stupa. The original structure is over 2000 years old, though over the years has been raided for the gems and gold. The current stupa is about 450 years old, and just layered with gold rather than being solid. We also make a stop at Patuxai, or the “Victory Gate” and it resembles the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. It was built in 1962 with cement donated by the USA intended for the construction of a new airport, so it has been nicknamed” the vertical runway”. A climb to the top gives some great panoramic views over Vientiane.
Our last stop of the afternoon is the COPE Center (Cooperative Orthotic & Prosthetic Enterprise). Not many people know (including myself until this trip), but there was a secret war in Laos during the Vietnam War. From 1964 to 1973, the USA was trying to stop traffic along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. They dropped over 260 million cluster bombs on Laos during 580,000 bombing missions—equal to a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24-hours a day, for 9 years – making Laos the most heavily bombed country per capita in history. The bombings destroyed many villages and affected hundreds of thousands of Laotians. However, approximately 1/3 of the bombs didn’t explode on impact, and are still located throughout the country today. Up to 100 people per year are injured or killed by a UXO (unexploded ordnance). This is where the COPE Center comes in – they help with prosthetics, therapy and rehabilitation for anyone who has been affected by a UXO. All assistance they provide is complimentary to the patient, and many people require treatment for several weeks. As a group, we all pitch in to make a donation to the center, and we manage to put together over 5 Million Kip (about 800 CAD or 625 USD), which is just a small dent in our lives, but could mean the world to someone here. The bus back to the hotel this afternoon is a lot quieter than usual, as we all take some time to appreciate how lucky we are to have safe, normal lives.
Day eleven we say goodbye to Laos and hello to Cambodia. We take a flight with Cambodia Angkor Air from Vientiane to Phnom Penh, which is 90 minutes. Upon arrival we all notice Cambodia is quite different from Laos – there are a lot more people, and it looks a little rougher and dirtier. Unfortunately, it’s a bit of a corrupt country, and much of the money intended for infrastructure doesn’t make it that far. Many roads and buildings are incomplete, and there is a lot of garbage on roads and empty lots.
We were supposed to make 2 stops today, but unfortunately we were stuck in traffic an hour longer than planned, so we had to cut things short. It’s another heavy hearted day as we have a group tour of Choeung Ek, a killing field located just outside of Phnom Penh. More than a million people were killed and buried in genocide by the Communist Khmer Rouge regime, during its rule of the country from 1975 to 1979. This particular killing field was not found until 1980, and was discovered to have over 129 mass graves, with over 8900 victims, though it’s estimated that over 20,000 people were killed here as not all graves have been uncovered. Our local tour guide shares with us that his family was affected by the genocide, as he lost many aunts and uncles, as well the entire side of his father’s family. Our Contiki tour manager also shares with us that his father was in one of the prisons, but managed to escape when he was 15. We have another somber bus ride back to the hotel as we all take time to appreciate living in peaceful countries.
Tonight there is an included Contiki dinner, at Veiyo Tonle. It’s a Cambodia owned and run restaurant that puts its profits back into the community to help keep kids off the streets. After dinner we all heading to a bar called Top Banana for some dancing and drinks. We all needed a break from the heavy emotions of the last 2 days.
Day twelve is our last travel day as we head to our last stop – Siem Reap. We take a quick 45 minute flight, which of course was delayed, before we arrive is scorching 36 degree heat. We start out with a visit to Tonle Sap Lake and the floating villages. Being right in the middle of dry season, the lake is very small and water levels are quite low. The lake can be as small as 250 km sq., and as big as 12,000 km sq. in raining season. The people who live in the floating villages have all they need with them – schools, shops, and even churches. Since no part of the lake is owned by any one village or person, they move as they see fit, which can be up to 6 or 7 times a year.
The rest of this evening is free, so we take a 15 minute walk to Pub Street where a lot of great restaurants are located. We finish off with a little shopping at the night market, before heading back to the hotel for an early bedtime – tomorrow is a very early start.
Day thirteen is our final full day together, and its starts with a 5 am departure from the hotel to see sunrise at Angkor Wat. This is the largest religious site in the world, constructed in the 12th century and it took more than 37 years to build. It was originally a Hindu temple, but was converted to Buddhism in the 16th century. When the Khmer empire fell, the site was abandoned and lost to the jungle for over 400 years before being rediscovered by the French in the 1860’s.
In the afternoon we visited Angkor Thom, which includes Bayon Temple and Ta Prohm, also known as the Tomb Raider temple. Bayon is right in the center of Angkor Thom, and originally had 54 towers with 4 faces on each side, though only 37 towers remain standing today. Ta Prohm is where the movie Tomb Raider was filmed, and is still covered by some of the jungle. The trees have worked their way into the stone, and now support parts of the temple.
On our final night together, we all have dinner at Red Piano on Pub Street. The food was fantastic (some of my favorite spring rolls all trip), but it was an open air establishment and so hot that I was quite uncomfortable. We all hurried through our meals so we could carry on to a nearby bar for our final party. We call came wearing white shirts with markers and highlighters in tow, so we can leave goodbye messages for each other. Now I have a great memento of all the friends I made along the way. I couldn’t think of a better way to say goodbye.
As I think back at all that we did in 2 short weeks, I couldn’t have done it all without Contiki. I would have never made as many friends, seen as many sites, and felt so safe and comfortable if I tried to do it all on my own. Contiki says it best – One Life, One Shot, No Regrets!