It was my last night in Phuket, Thailand after four days of fighting the Chinese New Year holiday crowds. Not exactly the secluded island paradise I was hoping for…but I probably should have known better than to head to this popular Thai island over the busiest Asian holiday weekend of the year. I blame myself. Crowded beaches, tour boats and roads meant very few moments of tropical serenity during my stay but just before I headed to the airport on that final night, I sipped a glass of wine while watching one last sunset…and it was a stunner. Not all sunsets are created equal, of course, and this one started out fairly ordinary before transforming into perhaps one of the best I’ve ever seen. Low-lying clouds captured the retreating sun’s orange glow setting the entire sky ablaze. It was one perfect moment in an otherwise chaotic weekend and it reminded me why I keep coming back to Thailand again and again. It never disappoints.Read More
Have you ever arrived in a faraway place and known instantly that you were always meant to go there? I had that feeling when I first stepped off the plane in Luang Prabang, Laos. I’m not sure how to explain it, really. It was somewhat surreal, more a sense of immediate familiarity and belonging. Perhaps that I’d been here before – though I definitely hadn’t. After catching a glimpse of the tiny town from the air, I couldn’t wait to start exploring.
Until 1989, Laos was closed to tourism leaving it virtually cut off from the rest of Southeast Asia. Since opening their doors to the world slightly over two decades ago, Laos now has a steadily-developing economy, reliant on tourism and regional trade.
Situated in northern Laos, Luang Prabang is one of the richest and most visited provinces. It was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995 meaning a blessed ban on busses and trucks. Most road traffic consists of bicycles, motorbikes, tuk-tuks and those traveling on foot. Considered by many travelers and writers to be the heart of Laotian culture, the small and gentle town on the banks of the Mekong River is encircled by mountains and sits at 2,300ft above sea level keeping its climate relatively mild.
In Luang Prabang, most locals are asleep by 10:00pm and enforced curfews shut the city down to a crawl for the remainder by midnight. Though the town is definitely full of the backpacker set, it is by no means a party destination. There are no large hotels (or large buildings of any kind) in Luang Prabang and most tourists opt for one of many simple guest houses lining the Mekong River. There are also a few small boutique hotels – which was my choice. The Ramayana Boutique Hotel was charmingly unique, right in the center of town, steps from the banks of the Mekong and only $70US a night. Perfect for exploring the compact town center on foot.
The town’s entire historical section is dedicated to tourism, with everything from former royal palaces to more than 30 glistening Wats (temples) on the tourist trail, all set against a backdrop of French colonial architecture and extensive natural beauty. This former Royal capital still remains the main centre for Buddhist learning in Laos and despite the large number of tourists, there seem to be equally as many monks about town.
Once I made the quick trip to my hotel and settled in, I was anxious to head back out and explore a little. I was dying to see the Mekong River and also hoping to squeeze in a hike up Phou Si Mountain to get a view of the town and visit Wat Chom Si before sunset.
The panoramic view from the top of the mountain was absolutely breathtaking. After sunset, I wandered through the night market which takes over the main road at dusk each day. For dinner I found a trendy little spot near the market that was packed full – usually a good sign. I had a terrific meal and got to try a “Beer Lao” (one of Laos’ most popular exports) all for about $4US. That’s another great thing about Laos – like Thailand, your dollar goes a LONG way. At dinner I chatted with several other tourists who, like me, had just arrived and it seemed my immediate love for Luang Prabang was shared by the group.
After dinner, the town was beginning to wind down so I headed back to my room – I had yet to sleep since the overnight flight from Cyprus the day before and despite my enthusiasm for the town, I was fading fast. Plus I was looking forward to getting a bright and early start since the real show in Luang Prabang starts before dawn.
One of the must-do experiences in Luang Prabang is to observe the ritual of the monks leaving their temples en masse to receive morning alms. A daily, pre-dawn event lasting about an hour, locals arrive in the dark to secure a spot on the street along the monks’ path. While tourists are allowed to participate in this event, it didn’t seem right to me so I chose to observe from a distance. And it was a truly amazing spectacle.
Just as the morning sun began to rise, monks and novices by the hundreds (ranging in age from 10 to 60+) materialized seemingly from nowhere streaming through Luang Prabang’s historic temple district. They made a perfect square around the block, filling their bowls with alms from the locals along one street and then turning the corner to return some of their take to the local children waiting patiently with bowed heads and outstretched baskets. It was a moving experience to watch. Some in the town were obviously there to give, while others to receive.
What an awesome start to the day.
Morning alms complete, the monks disappeared as quickly as they appeared and I walked the few blocks back to my hotel for breakfast. I spent the rest of the day wandering the streets of Luang Prabang and along the Mekong. I did a little shopping and even tried a Lao massage (priced similarly to the $5 Thai massages I love so much!).
It is impossible not to warm to the place. It’s one of the few countries I’ve ever been to that seems to be the genuine article and has retained its authenticity from its pre-tourism days. I fell in love with the small-town, welcoming feel. I’ve never been somewhere that didn’t require any transportation other than to and from the airport (and honestly, I probably could have walked that). It was so nice to be able to walk anywhere I wanted to go. And despite only being there 24 hours, I kept running into the same fellow tourists on the main street – which only added to the small-town feel. I would imagine if you spent a week there, you’d know the whole town by name.
I wish I had known when I planned my trip that I would love Laos so much, I would have stayed much longer. There are many things to see outside the city as well, beautiful waterfalls, caves, etc. I will definitely be back someday to see more of what I believe is quite possibly Southeast Asia’s most beautiful and spiritual place.
Click below to view the Laos Photo Gallery
I got off to a slow start in Cyprus thanks to a full day of thunderstorms on Monday. Luckily, I’d planned a 3 night stay instead of the usual one or two so I was still able to see quite a bit of this super-sized Mediterranean island.
Known as Aphrodite’s Isle, Cyprus is strategically located between the coasts of Turkey and Syria (its nearest neighbor). Because of its location, it has long been a prize fought over by numerous conquerors including the Greeks, Romans and the Turks of the Ottoman Empire. The scars of these battles have left their mark on the island making it a huge archeological site.
The more recent history of Cyprus has been volatile since the Turkish invasion of 1974 resulted in a dividing line through the capital city of Nicosia. The “Green Line” separates the Republic of Cyprus from the 37% of the northern country known as the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (a state recognized by no other nation but Turkey). Today, the Green Line is monitored by United Nations troops and the political situation has stabilized in recent years.
Post-1974, the Greek Cypriots have turned their country into one of the wealthiest in Europe thanks to a bustling tourism industry. The first thing that surprised me about Cyprus was the sheer size of the island. After Sicily and Sardinia, Cyprus is the 3rd largest island in the Mediterranean. I had envisioned a sleepy little Greek island and I couldn’t have been more wrong.
I landed in Larnaca Sunday evening after back-to-back redeye nights with very little sleep between the two. I made my way to the rental car counter and within a few minutes I had my wheels and was on my way to the town of Limassol in search of my hotel, Le Meridien Limassol. It was about a 45 minute drive from the airport and along the way I had to re-adjust to driving on the other side of the road…and generally being in the wrong side of the car! It’s been a while since I’ve done that but I guess it’s like riding a bike, it comes back pretty quickly. My general rule of thumb for driving on the other side is, “if it feels right, it’s probably wrong.” Just fight all your natural driving instincts with respect to lanes, turning, etc and you’ll be fine.
I found the hotel without too much trouble (I got lost once) and was excited to learn they had upgraded me to a fabulous Spa Suite – my first truly excellent upgrade of the trip! The suite was lovely, complete with jacuzzi tub, chilled bottle of champagne and fruit basket waiting…now THIS is living. Of course, I didn’t learn until later that it also came with a few outspoken feline residents on the balcony. I also later learned that the gorgeous pool outside my door was drained for the season. Oh well! When you visit an island in the off-season these are the chances you take.
When I checked the weather for Cyprus the day before, it called for heavy rain on Monday so I’d already been working on a back-up plan in case the day was a complete washout. When I mentioned the impending forecast to the rental car guy and then the front desk agent, they both looked at me like I was crazy, “the weathermen never know anything” they said. But apparently, they do, since I awoke around 3am to claps of thunder, flashes of lightning and what sounded like the early stages of an apocalypse. Since there wasn’t much I could do about it, I went back to bed and slept late the next morning.
Around 10am, I decided I would put on the closest thing I had to rain gear and try to get out in the Limassol area and see a little of the town, if only to get my bearings and pick up a few groceries for the room. I got about a mile down the road before I came to a wide area of standing water of indeterminable depth (see video in the photo gallery). I pulled off to the side of the road and watched a few cars make it through OK but the water was definitely reaching the undercarriage of their cars. Since I was in a little tiny rental car, I decided not to press my luck. I probably would have made it through only to have the car die on me later.
Discouraged, I headed back to the room and settled for what turned out to be delicious souvlaki from room service and a day full of work, website updating and photo editing. The rain continued unabated throughout the day. Later that night, when it finally seemed to have stopped, I had 3 feline visitors on my balcony (which was accessible from the pool area). They were cute but they apparently had a lot on their minds – or maybe they were just unhappy about being wet and wanted to share - but they carried on an animated conversation outside my door well into the night.
The next morning I awoke to sunlight shining in my window…hooray! I was well-rested, caught up on work and ready to explore Cyprus. By 8am I hit the road. I had a guide book that I’d been perusing but I also stopped by the front desk to ask for a little advice from the locals. With my itinerary for the day loosely set, I headed out.
My first stop was the seaside town of Pafos, a UNESCO World Heritage site and home to some of the finest Roman mosaics and Greek ruins in Europe. I began my day with a visit to Pafos harbor and a climb to the top of the fort that guards it. The view from the top over the colorful fishing boats in the harbor is spectacular. I wandered around the harbor for a bit before settling into a waterfront taverna for a delicious Greek lunch of salad and moussaka.
After lunch I visited the nearby 2nd-century ruins of Sarada Colones and the Odeion theater which was damaged by an earthquake and abandoned in the 7th century. I made friends with a cat who quickly became my shadow (or possibly tour guide?) for the rest of my visit. Seriously, I thought she was going to follow me to my car but another tourist caught her eye and she was off to greener pastures.
Now, I know what you’re thinking…there seem to be a lot of cats in Cyprus. Well, you’re right, there are. Actually, there’s even a story behind it that goes something like this. St. Helena, mother of the Byzantine Emperor Constantine, allegedly stopped in Cyprus in 324 on her return to Constantinople from Jerusalem. She found the island ravaged by drought and overrun with venomous snakes. Her solution was to later return with a shipload of cats to hunt them down. And thus, the longstanding tradition of cats on Cyprus.
My next (and final) stop for the day was Kourion to visit the ruins of ancient Curium. Perched high above the sea, the visible remains at Kourion date back to the Hellenistic, Roman and early Christian periods. Raised and covered walkways allow you to view the elaborately detailed mosaic floors in the Annexe of Eustolios thought to date back to the 5th century.
Next up was the theater, Kourion’s best-known feature. With a view to die for over the Mediterranean, It was fully restored in 1960 and can seat 3,500 for a concert or play. I wandered through the rest of the sight visiting the Sanctuary of Apollo Hylates and the Christian basilica. The entire sight was as amazing as anything I’ve seen in Greece or Italy.
By the time I finished my tour of Kourion, the sun was beginning to set so after a quick dinner in town (more Greek food – OPA!) I headed back to the hotel.
For my final day in Cyprus, I didn’t have much time to work with since my flight to Moscow was at 1:30pm. So, I got up at dawn, packed and checked out of the hotel - the areas I’d decided to visit were all back toward the airport.
For my first stop this morning, I’d decided to take the advice of the front desk agent and visit the small hilltop village of Lefkara. Though it wasn’t mentioned anywhere in my guide book, the desk agent’s description of this charming town on a hill hooked me. And it was a great decision because my short trip to Lefkara turned out to be the highlight of my visit (another reason it’s always OK to second-guess your guide book and go with local advice).
Lefkara is one of those darling towns quite literally built into the side of a mountain. From its red-tiled roofs to its beautiful monastery, it was a wonderful look into real Cyprus life outside the usual tourist zones. I walked the hilly streets for a while watching the locals go about their morning routines and the kids walk to school. Then I drove back along the highway and stopped a few times on the other side of the mountain to take pictures as the morning sun lit up the red-tiled roofs. Just beautiful.
My final stop in Cyprus would be its capital of Nicosia (or the Greek name Lefkosia), Europe’s only divided capital. Defined by the UN-maintained buffer zone (the Green Line) the Northern, Turkish-controlled portion of the city is Nicosia, while the Southern, Greek controlled portion is Lefkosia. I hoped to have time to see a little of both before heading to the airport.
One of the things I had discovered about Cyprus in the past 48 hours was that the cities are not small resort towns but large, typical European cities. Which unfortunately meant traffic typical of a large city. It was slow-going once I entered Lefkosia, especially since I wasn’t exactly sure where I was going. I knew I wanted to go inside the city’s historic Venetian Walls and also attempt a crossing of the Green Line (which I’d read was entirely possible for tourists).
Without too much trouble, I navigated my way through the Pafos Gate of the city walls and into the Old City. The streets within the walls were extremely narrow and there wasn’t anywhere obvious to park so I toured the area from the comfort of my car and then made my way back outside the walls in search of the correct border crossing point.
I found the right check point and handed over my passport first to the Greek guard who asked me where I was staying and then jotted down a few things. He also informed me I could park my car in a nearby lot and walk across the border if I wished, instead of driving. Since my rental car company had told me in no uncertain terms that my insurance was invalid on the Turkish side of the island, I thought that sounded like a splendid idea. So, I parked the car and made my way through the UN no-man’s land of the Green Line on foot. On the other side I was met by a Turkish official who took my passport and stamped a visa onto a sheet of paper which he inserted back into my passport before handing it back to me.
Border crossing complete! I didn’t have much time to explore but I wandered down a few streets within Nicosia before heading back across the border to my car. Mission accomplished, I made my way back to Larnaca to return the car and check-in for my flight.
Final thoughts on Cyprus: it wasn’t at all what I expected. Though I admit I didn’t have time to explore all of the island, the one thing I thought it was lacking were nice beaches. The beach at my hotel and all the others I saw along the way were dirty and rocky…nothing like some the gorgeous beaches you find on your average Greek Island. And the sheer size of the island and its cities can be overwhelming to the leisure traveler. It seems almost essential to have a car if you want to be able to see the sights since they are spread out all over the island. I spent a lot of my limited time driving between cities and sights.
But overall, I liked Cyprus a lot. The historical and archaeological aspects alone are worth a visit. And I found the people to be friendly and endlessly helpful. Would I go back? Definitely, there’s much more to see. But it’s not likely to replace my favorite Greek Island (you know who you are) as a vacation spot anytime soon.
Next up, Laos!