Hello LAOS !

I went to Laos as part of my mission to go to all the South East Asian countries. This is a trip that was long overdue – in fact I had already bought a return ticket to Vientiane a few years ago. As fate might have had it, I had to cancel it because of some other commitment. Then I went to several other countries before the urge to go there returned to me again and I knew I really had to go this time.

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I bought my ticket at the very last minute. The fact that the Luang Prabang International Half Marathon was commencing not so soon from, well, the idea of going to Laos came about – I knew it was just a perfect time to go there. So I registered for the half marathon, which was not cheap thanks to the ever plummeting Ringgit value against the USD, and bought my return flight ticket to Vientiane.

I flew to Vientiane in the morning and arrived there when it was still early. I checked in at a hotel called Mixay Paradise which was very much strategically located with the night market is very much within a walking distance. The room was smaller than I had expected, but I was alright with it, except that it was not air-conditioned.

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Vientiane that I found out was very hot – probably hotter than it is in KL – so being in an air-condition-less room in Vientiane was like being in a sauna. The fact that they provided 2 fans – one on the ceiling and another one a table fan – did not really help much. The air was stagnant and ventilation failed miserably. Opening the window was not an option either since it would invite swarms of mosquitoes which was worse. Luckily I was only going to stay there for one night.

I didn’t really do much on my first day in Vientiane because I knew I was going to return to this capital city of Laos and spend a couple more days before I returned to Malaysia. I did however take a long walk to Patuxai Monument, which took the architectural design after the world famous Arc de Triomphe in Paris. It was such a beautiful moment to watch the sun setting behind the fountains and finally disappeared behind the gigantic monument itself.

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After having dinner at one of the restaurants nearby the hotel where the prices of food are more affordable (food in Laos are not that cheap but I will write more about this later), I returned to the hotel and be prepared for a very long bus ride to Luang Prabang the next morning. I actually booked the bus ticket to Luang Prabang via the hotel.

They booked me to a bus called ‘VIP’ and I really thought it was going to be a very comfortable VIP ride. The moment I got on the bus, I knew it was going to be a nightmare. And it really was. It was a very old bus – probably a leftover from the pre-war era, and the pungent smell was unmistakable and the air-con was nothing but a blower that produces raw air. Then somewhere along the way the air-con housing fell and almost hit on one of the passengers.

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The bus stopped for lunch at some restaurant just outside of Vang Vieng. The lunch was pre-paid as part of the package so we did not have to pay for it. But of course, we couldn’t be too choosy simply because there was nothing much to choose from anyway. Luckily the food was OK to my usually choosy appetite; in fact I found the dish to be very much like those dishes that my mom usually cooks back at home. It was very simple, very modest and very fulfilling.

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Then we continued on towards Luang Prabang and that was when the road began to take on a rough turn. It was mostly asphalted but there were gravels here and there forcing the bus to go very slowly. The fact that the ventilation was a failure and the bus was forced to scream whenever it had to go uphill, I really thought I was going to give up – except that I was left with no choice but staying put and stomaching it all. The scenery along the way was superb. The beautiful villages and the farms that stretched out towards the hills with all sorts of peculiar shapes, it really was a fantastic view to savor despite the rocky ride.

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Laos probably has some of the most mysterious lands at least in South East Asia, where most parts are still largely unexplored. It all started during the Vietnam War when the US dropped at least 270 millions bombs all over Laos in order to prevent transporting of food and arm supplies from China to Vietnam.

Luckily or not so luckily, 70 % of them did not explode so all this live ammunition are still lying all over Laos and posing danger to the people. Good thing about it is that – the forest will stay intact for as long as they are not cleared of the bombs. Clearing the bombs is not easy either. I mean, we are talking about hundreds of millions of unexploded bombs here so Laos really has a long way to go. But it is progressing of course.

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It was almost dark when I arrived in Luang Prabang. I shared a Tuk Tuk with 3 other travelers but it did not matter because the fare was paid per head. The Tuk Tuk took me along a busy road, later across a river before pushing on to an even a busier road flanked by rows of old shop houses, restaurants and guest houses. After stopping a few times to drop off the other passengers, the Tuk Tuk stopped in front of an elegant hotel called Luang Prabang Hotel. I instantly liked it.

I could not wait to explore Luang Prabang but of course I badly needed to get rested after the very long bus journey.

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Valley of Flowers – the Heaven on Earth!

Having done with Badrinath and Hemkund Sahib, it was time to do the final leg of our trip – the much anticipated trek to Valley of Flowers.

I first heard about this beautiful valley in the far corner of Uttarakhand in India when I watched a documentary about it on National Geography channel. I was busy doing an assignment for my Masters when my attention strayed off my laptop and over to the TV screen. With my eyes fixated on it, I slowly closed my laptop and began to focus my attention to what was shown on TV – and I could not take my eyes off it. I was totally captivated by the beauty of the valley which was said to have been found by Frannk S.Smythe, Eric Shipton and R.L. Holdsworth – all British mountaineers when they lost their way while returning from a successful expedition to one of the mountains around there back in 1931.

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So I later searched it on the internet and decided, almost instantly, that I was going to go there. A year or so later, I found myself walking towards where exactly it was and I knew it was going to be a happy place for me. And it was.

We started off from Ghangaria early in the morning and be at the entrance gate when it had only been opened. We bought our tickets, and slowly walked along the well-designated trail with no body to lead us on but us.

It was amazing right from the beginning of the trail. It started with a beautiful forest with gigantic ancient pine trees that made me feel like being in some fairy tale movie or something. It was like entering a garden, only this one was surreal. Being a UNESCO world heritage site, it was not a surprise that the trail was very much well maintained.

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Not far from the entrance gate, we were thrilled by a roaring river that flows straight from the mountains. The thundering sound was quite intimidating but then there was something about it that was so much captivating. One might never see a river like that anywhere else but in the Himalayan mountains. It was kinda hypnotic but I suddenly felt terrified, imagining a sudden surge of water and a wall of furious currents that suddenly came swallowing me at that very moment. Somehow I found that feeling quite thrilling and exciting at the same time. LOL.

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We hastily pushed through and waiting on the other side of the river was an ascent against the lower part of the mountains. It might be a little bit hard, especially after all the trekking that we had done for the past few days, but waiting on the other side of the ascent was what exactly where we were there for – the Valley of Flowers!

We could see the whole valley from there – which was more like a curve against the snow-capped range of mountains – and I had to remind myself over and over again that I really was there. Looking at it from a distance was more like a ‘preview’ but walking towards it commanded the best of feeling.

It was still early in the morning so we had the whole valley all to ourselves. It did not feel real. As we moved further along the trail, it was not long before we began to see flowers and all the scent was a perfect reminder that we really were there – among the wild flowers that scattered all over the valley and beyond.

I had always been an avid fan of flowers so being there among the sea of flowers made me feel so excited beyond words. I jumped from one flower to another – taking pictures and of course tons of selfies with them – before realizing that we might get stuck there longer that we were supposed to if we took too much time savoring every detail of every flower that came our way. But seriously, it was very hard not to.

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I mean, it really was crazy. We’d come upon a waterfall that flows from wherever it was up there – and it was like a complete set of picture postcard except that it was not a picture postcard. It was real and we were there experiencing it all for real.

The trail stretched for about 5 kilometers and along this trail we saw tons of flowers in a variety that I had never seen anywhere else before. I was completely over-thrilled. When I was in Nepal, it was all snow so I did not really get to see the real beauty of Himalayan mountains, although the snow itself was very much beautiful in its own way. But this was the Himalayan mountains at the peak of its beauty. It was complete greenery dotted with millions of flowers of different species and colors. Even the wild lavender comes in different colors!

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Thinking that we were already there – and it was a long long way from New Delhi and even Malaysia for that matter, we walked right to the end of the trail to see the famous view that we had seen and heard so much about. The famous mountain that dominates the view was by then obliterated by white shades of clouds, but the beauty was unmistakable. There we were, trying to grasp the reality that we really were there to witness it all in real. We allowed ourselves to stay there for an hour or so to take it all in before coming to term with the reality that every good thing has to come to an end.

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So that was it, our journey to the Valley of Flowers, a place that would forever be haunting me because seriously, a place of such beauty does not come to me that often. It is one of those once in a life time kind of experience and feeling. Those places that make me realize that there really are heavens on earth and we found one of them right there, at the Valley of Flowers.

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