Sunday 23 June 2013

Link Love-In: Going Home

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We're flying home today. It's been 10 months since I've stood on Canadian soil, 10 months since I've had a glass of tap water, 10 months since I've eaten an apple, purchased leafy greens, and cooked on more than one burner.  Our life in China isn't hard, but it's different in ways I didn't expect (as I have mentioned here).

Because we'll be returning for a second year, this time armed with a lot more knowledge and awareness, I've been planning my weeks at home this summer to a finer detail than I normally would.  I want to be able to maximize the fun, food, family, and friends that I will be seeing/having over the next 2 months.

I'm over-the-moon-excited for several camping/cottaging trips, the endless amounts of food I will eat on days out in Toronto, buying and eating as much fresh, whole foods as my body can handle, and lounging in the sun with friends and family sharing a drink and a laugh. Bring. It. On.

Since I'll have a lot of time to read on my 16 hour flight home I've been saving articles and books just for the occasion (that's normal, right?). And while I've read all of these below, I thought I'd provide a few tid-bits of interest I found on the interwebs recently incase you too are looking for something to while away some time. Enjoy!

  1. This sounds like a dream destination waiting to happen: Seattle's Food Forest (via Take Part)
  2. Alana from Eating from the Ground Up posted this very poignant piece on the importance of being a role model (and how the media is not helping) (via Eating from the Ground Up)
  3. I'm not the type of person to watch hours of cute animal clips on youtube, but these 51 pictures could change all of that (via Buzzfeed)
  4. Please, everyone, instagram responsibly. (via Grist)
  5. It's weird that this is news: Kate Middleton's birth plan (via The Cut)
  6. I'm not always very political, but the worst thing to happen to Toronto is Rob Ford (via CBC News)
  7. All the friendship bracelet tutorials you could ever want (via Buzzfeed)

What are your summer plans?

Monday 17 June 2013

Chill Out: Luang Prabang, Laos

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One final place in Laos that I can't fail to mention is the country's capital of calm, Luang Prabang. This is the type of place that you plan to stay a few days and end up staying a few weeks.

Luang Prabang is situated on the meeting point of two rivers, the Nam Khan, and the Mekong.  Because of its access to the Mekong, Luang Prabang has always been an important location in Laotion history.  In the wet season the rivers rage below the town, but in the dry season the meander calmly by leaving the residents perched up on high (you can see in the top photo the rough water line - everything below the lush tree line will be covered in water during the wet season!).

We had 5 days of rest and relaxation in this most charming of towns before we had to head back to the hustle and bustle of work and I think we spent it well.

There are a variety of things to do and not do in and around the Luang Prabang area. Whether you're into hiking up a waterfall, relaxing along the banks of one of two rivers, or shopping 'til you drop at the local boutiques and night market, you can do it all and more here.  Luang Prabang is a burst of colour and has a vibe all it's own.

Because we had five days to explore the area we took life at leisurely pace. During our time there we explored both the town and surrounding areas and all agreed that this was a place worth coming back to (or like many foreigners in the area, staying for longer than planned - some never leave!) We did end up losing a day due to a serious case of food poisoning, but with no knowledge of where it came from (a cooking class, and many foods from the night market were enjoyed the evening before), alack and alas I rallied the following day and made up for lost time!

Haw Kham

Haw Kham was originally built in 1904 as the royal palace but today is home to the national museum.  You can't take photos indoors at all, but once inside you are led through the palace which remains furnished as it was last used in 1975 - before the family was overthrown by communism. My favourite room was the simple Queen's bedroom. She had an eye for mid-century modern furniture and the juxtaposition between that room and the wildly ornate entrance halls is simply awesome. The grounds are expansive and well kept and offer a veiw into the life a 20th Century Laotian royal.

View from the top: Phu Si

Across the street from Haw Kham is the main entrance to Phu Si, Luang Pranbang's largest hill.  The climb and resulting exploration of the hill, its several temples and many buddhas was one of my favourite activities.  The climb to the top is a relatively easy (though not for the faint of heart) 300ish steps, with a lot of places along the way for a rest and a view.  The top of the hill is hiding a tiny little temple and a near 360 view of the surroundings.  My recommended route is heading in through the main (north) entrance and then taking the other path down, it winds at a more leisurely pace down the hill with many little stops a long the way (including a Buddha for each day of the week).  With so many nooks and crannies to explore, coupled with the fact that it spits you out near the back of small, but beautiful, Wat, this route can lead to a happy hour or two of exploring the unexpected.  Bonus: you'll end out on the main strip very close to two excellent cafés - a perfect way to finish!

A few other highlights within town were the many (many) Wats, several great cafés and restaurants, cooking classes, the daily night market, boutiques featuring local artisans, and the Monks Alms procession.  Please take special note that if you are going to be attending the Alms procession, which takes place at sunrise each day, you should do so with respect.  After arriving and not knowing at all what to expect I was disgusted by the number of people who acted like the monks were the feature act in a circus.  For that reason, I don't actually recommend going, but if you do please keep a distance, do not use flash photography, and remain silent. Treat it like the procession of faith that it is.

Edge of town: Nam Kahn River meets the Mekong River

Outside of town even more delight away you, namely waterfalls.  This area of the country is home to some of the most breathtaking waterfalls I have ever seen. With water that is crystalline blue, and stones that are pearly white, these are a must see.

Kuang Si waterfall

Again we rented some motorbikes and found our own way around (though tuktuks are readily available if you prefer someone to do the finding for you). We started our day of waterfalls with the Kuang Si, likely the most popular of the waterfalls around Luang Prabang and with good reason. The picturesque beauty of place is a treat for the eyes, and the many pools and trails offer a variety of activities. A hike to the top is well worth it, and if you're there in the dry season (as we were) you can walk right to the end of the falls (as we did) - but it's a long way down, so do be careful.

Feels like the edge of the world

A long drop down!
Our next stop was the Tad Thong waterfall which was far less busy (just the way I like it!), and only slightly less awe inspiring.  There is a trail that loops you through the jungle and takes approximately 45 minutes to complete which can be rewarded with a dip into the pool at the base of the waterfall.

Tad Thong waterfall

Some practical notes for your stay include the fact that everything has an entrance fee, but none of them are high.  It's HOT in February so plan accordingly. And while our hotel was very nice, and the staff very pleasant, if you have a chance to stay in the town centre, do so.  We stayed a 10 minute cycle out of town, but because the town itself was so pleasent and calm (this is not a place to come for late night partying, but for day time chilling) we had wished we'd stayed there instead.

Places of note:

Café: Le Banneton also has an outpost in Luang Prabang (first mentioned here), but you should also not miss the ever charming Le Café Ban Vat Sene which feels airy and chic and offers some truly great croissant.

Restaurant: So good that we went twice, Tamarind Restaurant is a must taste.  Offering modern Lao cuisine on the banks of the Nam Khan river, this tranquil spot should be top of your list.  Reservations recommended, many people were turned away at the door.  They are also home to the most popular cooking class in town, which was unfortunately booked solid while we were there.

Shop: Ok Pok Tok creates some serious beautiful textiles, all of which are made using the Village Weavers Project to promote the skill and economy of the local women. There are two outposts in town, and the main studio 5 minutes out of town that also offers classes and beautifully outfitted accommodation.

Please note: these businesses are not sponsoring this post. Any recommendations made here are based solely on my experience while visiting. I try to make a note of mentioning establishments that are authentic, have excellent service, and where possible are connected to some greater good.

When all is said and done, each place we visited in Laos had it's own vibe and feeling.  I hope I've managed to convey an honest and open image of my time in each space.  The following are the remaining photos I'd like to share from Luang Prabang that help to capture (my take) on the town's amazing ambiance.

If you ever have questions or comments about this, or any, post please don't hesitate to leave a comment below! Until next time!

Friday 7 June 2013

Vang Vieng, Laos: Caves, Waterfalls and Motorbikes

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I think Vang Vieng, part way between Vientiane and Luang Prabang in central Laos, is one of the most picturesque places I have ever seen. Everywhere I looked a different photo-op was waiting for me and my trusty DSLR.

We spent 3 glorious nights in this tiny little town, and managed to take in what felt like a month's worth of adventures. Each day was started with a motorbike exploring the area and taking in various caves, viewpoints and waterfalls. At mid-day we would find something delicious to eat and then spend the rest of the afternoon mimicking the morning.  In the evenings it was a cool drink before a scrumptious meal and chatter until our eyes closed of their own volition.

A couple of my favourite stops included the Kaeng Nyui Waterfalls and a hike up to the top of the highest cliff in the area that offered a great panoramic of the Vang Vieng area. Kaeng Nyui was a real treat to find as it was very quiet, and we were able to play and explore a series of waterfalls and pools. We spent an entire morning here relaxing and playing because it was just so serene.

Blue Lagoon
Accessible from Vientiane or Luang Prabang by bus or private car, Vang Vieng is travellers dream. There is no shortage of budget choices with a few high end options thrown in for good measure.  One of the most famous "must do" items (that I admit we did not do) is to rent a tube and float down the Nam Song River.  At one time there were a series of bars and jump offs stretched along the river to allow people to float from drink to the next.  This is essentially what put Vang Vieng on the map, and unfortunately also meant the loss of a rumored 12-20 tourists a year in drowning accidents. The government has since closed these down in order to preserve the surroundings as well as the culture, but the tubing is still a hot ticket item for most passing through.

Lounging around at Riverside Boutique Resort
If you do travel through Vang Vieng (which I heartily recommend) please do so responsibly.  A few places of note that we discovered while in the town...

Stay: If you want to really splash out I couldn't reccommend the Riverside Boutique Resort more.  It was definitely our most luxurious stop with a view over the river and mountains to live for. Luxe, clean, curtious. Bikes on site to rent, though overpriced you'll find a million little places in town for half the cost.
Eat: Organic Mulberry Farm Cafe (no website), was my favourite meal in Vang Vieng. With two locations - one in town, and one at the actual farm (where we ate) - it was a good sample of Lao cuisine. The ingredients are fresh, the dishes tasty, and drinks cold. A perfect rest stop no matter what adventure your day holds.


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