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Nong Khiaw to Hanoi.... A long journey

sunny 35 °C

The past two days have been extremely tiring making our way through Laos and into Vietnam. We started at 8am, checking out of our guesthouse and walking 2km to the bus stop in Nong Khiaw as we had read that the bus to Odomoxai left at 9m. When we got there it didn't leave until 11am so we had a few hours to wait. The lady behind the counter looked like we had spat in her face when we asked to buy the ticket as it meant she had to actually work and refused, saying we had to buy it closer to 11am. We decided to go for breakfast and crossed the street into what was named a restaurant but was actually someone's front room. They even had a Grandmother sat on a chair watching what looked like a Thai version of loose Women and chickens walked around all over. The family was friendly and we pointed to a sign that said fried rice and helped ourselves to some drinks from the fridge. After breakfast we went back to the bus stop and Chelsea made another attempt to buy the tickets as it was around 10.15am at this point. The lady refused again and had the same 'you spat in my face' look. At this point another tourist had arrived hoping to get on the same bus as us and was also flatly refused a ticket. We sat and waited until 10.45am and Liam decided to queue for a ticket. At this point a bus load of tourists had arrived and all wanted tickets for Luang Prabang and the bus driver told me to 'buy ticket now'. I politely advised him that Liam was in the queue and we had been trying to buy tickets for 3 hours. Actually getting a ticket took an age as all the people wanting to go to Luang Prabang had to be sorted first and there wasn't enough seats for them. By 11am we had got our tickets, our bag was on the roof and there were another 3 passengers sat on the bus. The bus didn't depart until 11.30am as we assume it was waiting for more customers. The public buses from Nong Khiaw are small minivans and its cost us 50,000 kip to go to Odomoxai. The sign at the bus stop does say 45,000 kip and we did point this out to the friendly lady at the bus stop but she just said 'no'. To get to Luang Prabang the sign says 40,000 kip but she was charging 50,000 kip for this journey also.

The actual bus journey itself to Odomoxai was the worst we have ever encountered and we have been on some bad ones. The roads are the worst we have seen and the minivan just bounced along, throwing us around inside like nothing we have experienced. The road looks like it has been churned up to re-lay it and then has just been left. There are big pot holes, ditches, pools of water and big mounds of rocks. There was a lot of evidence of landslides and massive cliff edge drops. After 2 and half hours we stopped to stretch our legs at the weirdest place. There was a row of huts acting as shops but all they sold was cucumbers, there wasn’t even water for sale just cucumber after cucumber of different shapes and sizes. Needless to say we didn’t buy anything and set back off. We thought we might be past half way but we were wrong. The views on the journey were beautiful and the whole way was extremely rural, passing through tiny hamlets where pigs, buffalo and ducks roamed around. We didn’t arrive until 4.30pm and everyone on the bus was totally done in. We knew we would be getting back on a bus the following day so we found a guest house next to the bus station and went in. It was overpriced at 60,000 kip but we didn’t care and we unloaded out things and went out in search of some food. Finding a place to eat in this town actually proved quite difficult. The town is run down and everything was closed or boarded up. We found one noodle house that was open that had two tabled but when we walked in the owners looked at us in panic so we decided to try our look elsewhere. We managed to find one place that was open and that looked remotely like a restaurant. Inside was a group of men drinking beer and playing bowls. We sat down but no one came so Chelsea went up to the paying kiosk and ordered two of the only think she knew how to say in Laos, Kow Pad, fried rice and beers. The place turned out to be quite friendly and we were only stared at a little bit whist we sat and waited or our food. The food was nice and we drank our last beer Lao watching a group of men play a weird game of what looked like bowls. After we went straight to our room to relax in anticipation of another day spent on a bus on the roads in Laos.

The next morning was an early start as the bus left at 8.30am. We thought we would have to get two buses, one to Muang Khua and one to the border but there is one bus that goes straight from Odomoxai straight through to Dien Bien Pu in Vietnam which we were thrilled by. We were even more thrilled when we saw it was not another god forsaken minivan but a VIP bus with fully reclinable leather seats. It cost 95,000 kip for the journey which is cheaper than doing it in two legs and much easier and comfier. The bus journey took all day but was so nice, such a comparison to the day before. Everyone got blankets and pillows and the seats were big and comfy. We took snacks on board as we knew it would take all day. The only downside to the bus as it acts as a sort of local bus between the villages in the mountains so it regularly stops to pick people up and to courier goods on. This mean that half way into the journey Chelsea had a travelsick lady from a village sat directly behind her vomiting throughout half the trip. When we reached Muang khua it stopped to let a few people on and Chelsea pointed out a man smoking a giant bong in the middle of the street. ‘Look at that man Liam with his giant bong….. Oh that’s our driver’. However apart from the vom lady and the driver on drugs the journey was carefree.

When we arrived at the border everyone had to get off and be stamped out of Laos. Everyone just threw their passports at a man in an office who tamped them all without even looking at the pictures or the people. We then got back on the bus and drove a few kilometres through no man’s land and then had to be stamped into Vietnam. We handed our passports over and then had to be medically screened to make sure we didn’t have a fever and put all our bags through a scanner. We then picked up our passports and go back on the bus. It was simple and relatively quick.

We arrived in Dien Bien Pu at around 4pm and weirdly drove past the bus station into a small muddy car park. We were then hounded by a bus driver and a man off our bus to get on their bus to Hanoi. We said we would like our bags and the man was quite forceful and aggressive. We got our bags and said we needed an ATM before we got on any bus but they insisted we should put our bags on the bus to Hanoi and they would take us to an ATM. Both us and another couple refused and walked off in the direction of the bus station. Once at the bus station we were hounded at all sides by bus drivers wanting customers. We managed to walk through and Chelsea asked a lady where we could find an ATM. She pointed in the direction and four of us walked together. After getting cash we had to face the bus station. We walked straight through all the men shouting at us and went straight to the lady in the kiosk. She tried to ask Chelsea what time she would like to go to Hanoi but we had been totally surrounded by shouting men so we couldn’t hear her. She wrote down a list of times and gave us a pen to circle the time we wanted. All the men were shouting the time of their bus for us to pick it like an aggressive game of bus bingo but she circles 17.30. We paid the 375,000 dong and all the men were shouting the time we had picked until the bus driver who owned the 17.30 came forward, giving us his card and showing where it departs. It was totally mental.

After the ordeal we needed something to eat as hadn’t eaten a meal all day so went to the first place we saw, a mobile phone shop with a few tables and a menu of a list of different meats. Our friends from the bus joined us and Chelsea ordered chicken and Liam ordered soup. We both ended up with a noodle soup which was delicious and came with a selection of do it yourself herbs. We sat for an hour recuperating from the stress and then went to the bus station flashing our tickets at the men who heckled us to buy. We went to quite possibly the worst toilets ever and boarded the bus.

We had never experienced any bus like it. It was an overnight sleeper bus and had three rows of reclining seats all of them with two bunks, one on the floor and one higher u. we were shown to some seats and got comfy. At first it was quite comfortable but it soon turned into a nightmare journey. The driver turned the lights out at 7pm so we couldn’t read and had to go to sleep but then he turned them back on at around 8pm and then didn’t turn them fully off till around 11.30pm. It was pitch black when we should have been awake but neon, multi coloured bright when we should have been asleep with karaoke TV on. We picked people us the whole way and the lights kept coming on and he continually beeped his horn. The driver flew around corners, braked suddenly and drove like a maniac so we almost fell off our top bunks several times. We had wondered why the entire floor was padded.

We arrived at Hanoi bus station at 5.30am absolutely knackered and were greeted as we exited the bus by a mob of taxi driver poking us and shouting at us. The rules about personal area we have found out don’t apply in Vietnam. We couldn’t believe how busy the streets were at 5.30am. We found a toilet which was dyer, full of syringes and which shockingly we had to pay for the privilege of using (it was only 6p) and then decided to share a taxi with the people from our bus. Chelsea negotiated a price of 25,000 dong each and we set off for St Joseph’s Cathedral, a central point to search for guest houses. We managed to find our first choice guest house and they had a room but we had to wait until 9am to check in. The owner was really friendly and gave us coffee and tea and we sat on the sofa and waited. We can’t wait to explore Hanoi, apparently Saigon’s quieter sister (Saigon must be totally mental!!)

Posted by Chelsandliam 21:40 Archived in Vietnam Tagged vietnam laos hanoi nong_khiaw Comments (2)

Nong Khiaw.... a bit of exploring.... but mostly relaxing

all seasons in one day 35 °C

We have had a slow few days in Nong Khiaw, pretty much the same as the pace of life in this sleepy village. On Sunday Chelsea was still not hundred per cent well so we had a lazy day, sat on our balcony, reading and talking. We walked over the bridge into the little town and down to the boat station as we needed to enquire about the times and cost of our onward journey. The public slow boat leaves Nong Khiaw for Muang Noi at 11am and 2pm, it takes one hour and costs 25,000 kip (less than £2.50). We then need to get a boat to the next town, Muang Khua where there is then a bus service into Vietnam. The boat up to Muang Khua costs 100,000 kip and takes 4 to 5 hours but it will only leave with a minimum of ten people. Otherwise you have to charter the boat and pay for the whole boat rather than just a seat. Since we don’t think there are even ten tourists up here, never mind ten tourists that have decided to all go to Vietnam on the same day we had to look into getting up to Vietnam a different way. We came back and sat in a little café with the internet to see how else we could get there. There is one other option, the bus. We can get the bus from Nong Khiaw to Udomxai at 9am for 45,000 kip. We then need to change and catch a bus from Udomxai to Muang Khua at 3pm for 35,000 kip. We then will have to stay overnight in Muang Khua and get the early morning 6am bus across the border to Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam….. easy…..yes.

Once we had sorted out our plans it was time to go back to our busy schedule of relaxing.

Yesterday we decided to go on a little explore. We had seen a sign in town that said that the Pathok cave was 3km away so we decided to walk it. It was a nice walk along the quiet road, up and down small hills into the mountainous jungle. The scenery around this area is stunning, huge green mountains with wispy clouds around their peaks, farmlands and the river. We have noticed that there are a lot of butterflies on Laos, all colours and sizes. It took us a while to walk it there in the blistering sun but we soon saw a sign next to the road pointing down the hill. Chelsea has broken her fourth pair of sunglasses back in Luang Prabang so she had to wear Liam’s giant cap and look like a tool. The sign said cross the river and rice paddy so we assumed there would be a little bridge. When we got down there we were wrong. There was a lady in a hut where you could buy tickets and a fast flowing muddy river. We stared at the river for a while and Chelsea said she didn’t want to go. The lady signalled to us that the river was only calf deep so we decided to buy tickets and go for it. (does this sound familiar….. an eventful day in Koh Phayam?). Tickets for the cave are only 5000 kip and we think it is definitely worth it. We took our shoes off and began to cross the river a little scared. As soon as we were in a man came over to help. It wasn’t calf deep but it wasn’t too bad, only the very bottom of our shorts got wet. The water was brown as it is wet season but the floor was shingle and thank god, not slimy mud. There was a little ladder at the other side to climb out. Once across the man started to lead us through a field and we knew he was our unofficial ‘guide’ who we would have to pay. It was extremely muddy as it was right next to a rice paddy and our feet instantly soaked through the grass and were dripping.

It was only a short walk to the cave and then we climbed the steps into the rock. It was quite interesting and is where locals would hide in the war when the country was being bombed. Towards the back it was really dark. The man took Liam through and it opened into a massive, high cave. Chelsea stayed in the front cave as the man asked her if she wanted to see a giant and dangerous spider, she politely declined. After a look around inside the caves the man took us to another cave around the corner. The man again asked Chelsea if she wanted to see the spider and pointed to the cave so she stayed at the entrance. Liam climbed in, as there were no steps on this one. Inside was not as big as the first one but there was a huge nest of killer bees, a snake and a cave spider which they were eager to wake up and show him. He quickly exited catching a glance at the stalactites absolutely covered in giant bees.

After another muddy walk across the field and another wade through the river it was time to head back. We gave the man 3000 kip for showing us around but he wanted 20,000 kip. Given that the entrance fee is only 5000 kip, we thought that 3000 kip was reasonable and said no. The walk back was hard as it was later and hotter and as soon as we arrived back into town we went straight into a café for a cold drink. The cave is worth a look and another 1km on there is a waterfall. Walking is easy but you can also rent bicycles and ride it if you have less time or fancy a change.

The rest of our time here has been spent admiring our view, drinking cold drinks, reading and recuperating. It is very picturesque spot and the sunsets are lovely. Today we have done nothing. Just enjoyed our last day in Nong Khiaw laid in our hammock. Tomorrow we begin the two day journey into Vietnam which we are not looking forward to but will be worth it when we are in Vietnam…

Posted by Chelsandliam 00:00 Archived in Laos Tagged laos nong_khiaw Comments (2)

Sleepy Nong Khiaw

all seasons in one day 35 °C

We arrived in the sleepy riverside village of Nong Khiaw around lunch time on Thursday. It was a bumpy yet short three hour drive from Luang Prabang. Our first impressions of the place were good, we were dropped off at a tiny bus station and had to walk around 2km to the guesthouses that are situated on the river Ou that runs through the village. The locals all watched us a we made our way, we noticed that there was very little catering for tourists, a welcome change after the tourist haven of Luang Prabang.

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When we got nearer the river we could see the selection of guesthouses that hug the river bank. All the tourist amenities (and there are not that many) are situated on the opposite side of the river to the main village. There is a small bridge to cross and then you can take your pick from a dozen or so places to stay. Most offer bungalows along the river, and a very nice man called us over as soon as we crossed the bridge to see his bungalows. Compared to the bungalow we stayed in on Koh Phayam it is luxury. It is a lot bigger, mainly sealed with a comfortable bed and a balcony overlooking the river, complete with hammock. The man offered it us for 50000 kip, the price being cheaper due to the low season and we accepted.

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Once settled in we went to explore our particular side of the river, there is not much there apart from the guesthouses, a handful of restaurants and a couple of tour groups offering treks. We called in a restaurant for something to eat and a beer and sat admiring the view of the large green rocky hills that surround the village. It is amazing scenery, especially when it rains and the clouds and mist come low around the hills.

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In the evening we went out for a meal and we had the restaurant to ourselves. although we have seen other tourists walking around they are few and far between compared every where else we have been in Laos. We imagine though this has a lot to do with the time of year looking at all the guesthouses there is for such a small place. In high season the place must be completely over run by tourists. Our meal was great and cheap, afterwards we took a bottle of beer Lao back to enjoy on our balcony.

Since yesterday however Chelsea has been ill (we do not know what is up with us) so our exploring has been put on hold. Liam has been out a couple of times for supplies and something to eat whilst Chelsea has remained in the room. Luckily with the window open she can still see the view. She has improved today so we are hoping to go for a walk, if not we can spend another night or two here, explore and relax.

Our plan from here, is to catch a boat and go up river to another village Muang Ngoi, apparently an even sleepier village, spend maybe one or two nights there before carrying on up river to Muang Khua, the town from which we catch the bus to take us across the border in to Vietnam. We will be entering Vietnam on the 25th so have plenty of time to slowly make our way to the border.

Posted by Chelsandliam 22:15 Archived in Laos Tagged laos nong_khiaw Comments (2)

Luang Prabang, a fork in the road.

all seasons in one day 35 °C

We have had a change of plan.....

Anyone who knows us will know our plan had always been to go through Laos north to south and then enter Cambodia. However, after researching the places in southern Laos and talking about what we actually want to do over the next month or so we have decided to alter our route. Instead of going to southern Laos, we have decided to carry on across northern Laos and then enter Vietnam. We can then cross the length of Vietnam and then enter Cambodia from the east and work our way back to Thailand. This route makes more sense and means we also save on a flight from Hanoi to Bangkok, which we would have had to purchase had we stuck with our original plan.

That being the new plan we have had to stay in Luang Prabang three days longer than we expected to sort out our Vietnamese visa. Having a Vietnamese consulate in Luang Prabang has made changing our plans easy, it would have been a different story if we had had to go all the way back to Vientiene for the visa. Anyway getting the visa was straight forward, the consulate is a fifteen minute walk from the main tourist strip, along the Nam Khan river. It is a small consulate and obviously does not get many applicants, we did not have to queue once (extremely unusual) either applying for the visa or collecting it. All you need to take is your passport and a spare passport photo then simply complete the form on arrival. One word of advice would be to know roughly the dates you wish to enter and exit Vietnam, as your visa is valid for exactly 30 days from whatever date you put on the form. You cannot enter before the 'valid from date' and you will lose the days you are not in the country after that date. This visa has been the most expensive so far and cost us $60 each to collect in three working days. Very expensive.

So we have made the most of our extra three days in Luang Prabang and done absolutely nothing. Apart from our trip to the consulate Monday morning and then again this afternoon we have been relaxing. We have had very slow mornings with slower breakfasts at various cafes, we found a nice riverside place where we spent two afternoons, sipping beer Lao, writing our journals and talking. On one afternoon we even had a game of chess. This afternoon we went to a French café called La Benneton, where we gave in to constant temptation and treated ourselves to a cake, Chelsea had a pain o'chocolate and Liam a pear and almond tart, it was a rare treat we enjoyed immensely.

Our evenings have been just as slow paced and relaxed. On Monday we had a late lunch at our riverside restaurant and was not that hungry come dinner time. We went out for a little walk and stopped off at a ice cream parlour, and rather than going for a beer sat and ate ice cream. Needless to say it was really good. Yesterday we walked through the market to the food section and browsed everything on offer before splitting up to order what we fancied. Liam went for Khao Soy, a sort of noodle soup and Chelsea went back to the 10000kip a plate buffet. We shared some BBQ chicken again and washed it all down with a beer. On the way out we passed a stall making tiny dumplings and got a bag to snack on the way back, They were delicious, small pork dumplings with crispy pastry. Our last night in Luang Prabang was quiet, we strolled the night market, called at a sandwich vendor and stopped off for a few drinks on the way back to the guesthouse.

We have really enjoyed spending time in Luang Prabang, we have done a lot in the time we have had here, and although we lost two days to Liam being sick, we have more than made up for them. Our hightlights are the cooking course (Chelsea's highlight as Liam never actually took part) and the waterfall. We have loved strolling the city, calling at different bars and cafes, the afternoons slipping away. Our next stop is a town on Nong Khiaw, a small but apparently picturesque riverside village a further up river from Luang Prabang. We had hoped to get there by boat but being low season there are not enough people doing the journey so we are going to go by bus. There is not much to do there as far as we can see so we are hoping to continue the relaxing theme of Laos.

Posted by Chelsandliam 05:40 Archived in Laos Tagged laos luang_prabang Comments (1)

A busy two days in Luang Prabang

all seasons in one day 35 °C

The last two days have been more or less none stop. We are making up for the time we lost when Liam was sick. It started yesterday morning at 5am.

We woke to see the almsgiving ceremony. We have read a lot about it, not all of it is good where the tourists are concerned, and we wanted to see it. For anyone that does not know, alms is a service where the people of Luang Prabang, or any buddist, give food to monks. In Luang Prabang it has a long heritage and we were eager to see it. We were not disappointed. We sneaked out of our guesthouse, trying not to wake the man sleeping in the lobby on the floor and sat down on the pavement with a small collection of other tourists and locals. We did not have to wait long for the monks to appear. A long line of saffron robes came around the corner and slowly made the way down the street.

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The locals were waiting to give their gifts to the monks and thankfully the tourists stayed at a respectful distance and silently observed. We have read some horrible stories of people shoving cameras in monks faces and joining the line. We believe that we should not get involved with the ceremony as we are not Buddist, but other tourists do, and it is made easy by some locals that walk around selling rice for you to give. Luckily for us everything was ok and we sat with another small cluttering of tourists and watched the monks pass through our street, the only sound the occasional camera click.

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The monks had passed us by 6:15, so we decided to go back to bed for a couple of hours. Once refreshed we went out for breakfast and then looked into renting sme bicycles. They cost us 20000kip each and although a bit worse for ware they would serve the purpose of taking us around the city. We cycled for a couple of hours, at first it was unbelievably hot but after a while it cooled and was really fun. We cycled along the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers admiring the views, through the streets calling at a couple of handicraft shops and ventured further into the proper city rather than the tourist quatre. When our legs had had enough we stopped off at a cafe and spent an hour so talking and people watching. It was a very nice afternoon and Luang Prabang is definately best seen by bicycle.

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Our bike ride tired us out so we spent is couple hours re cooperating in the guesthouse before going back out to see the sunset from the hill in the centre of the city. It is called Phou Si (sacred hill) and It is hard climb. Around 300 steps meandering up a steep hill.

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There are a few temples scattered around at various levels but we bypassed the straight for the summit. The fee to get up is 20000 kip and the view at the top is more than worth it.

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You have a 360 degree view for miles, one one side the city and Nam Khan river, the other is the Mekong and green mountains stretching as far as you can see. We sat, catching our breath and taking in the view for a while. There were a lot of people by the time the sun was ready to go down so we left just before sunset as it was a bit too busy for us but the view was spectacular and worth the exhausting climb.

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After the action packed day of yesterday we had a little lay in this morning. It is also Liam's birthday and Chelsea has spoilt him as usual with a nice card, and a book he wanted on kindle. He is very happy. After a slow breakfast we decided today to get out of the city. We have been here for seven or so days now and fancied something different, so we went to one of the waterfalls, Kuang Si.

Most people go via tuk-tuk but we did not want to do that so instead rented a motorbike. The price was 100000kip which is extortion compared to Thailand, and we had to sign at least a dozen contracts but by noon we were on our way. After searching the Internet for directions and failing Liam decided it could not be that difficult and we can wing in. All he knew is that is was south. Needless to say, almost immediately after leaving the city we became lost on a dirt road in the middle of nowhere but it was not for long and it was the only time we got lost. The drive is awesome, the road, once you get used to driving on the right, is easy and snakes up and down hills passing villages, rice fields and the occasional herd of water buffalo. It is 32km to the falls and took us around an hour.

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We arrived, parked up and payed the entrance fee, 20000kip. For this price you get admission to the park, the falls and a bear sanctuary that is the highlight of our daytrip. We just can not help ourselves. The bears is the first stop and is several large enclosures for asatic black bears that have been rescued, some from pets and performances but mainly from the evil bile trade. Anyone who does not know about the bile trade should spend five minutes reading about it, it is horrible. We have found out about it whilst been out here and have looked into several bear sanctuaries, mainly in Veitnam, so were very happy to come across this. There were at least a couple of dozen bears but they were all happy and well looked after. The enclosures were jam packed with things for them to do and there was lots of information regarding how they are looked after and enriched, it was great. At the end there was a stall selling tshirts to raise money for the sanctuary and we could not help but buy two.

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Then we walked on to the falls themselves. Kuang Si is a multi tier waterfall with several pools where you can swim, it is beautiful. Although the path was slightly treacherous due to mud, we walked up to the fourth tier.

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The water in the pools is turquoise and clear, as it is wet season the falls are quick and the tiers vary from a couple of feet to at least twenty.

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As usual for us we found a pool with less people and got changed for a dip. The water was fresh but really cold, the air temperature had dropped since we arrived so it was not as refreshing as it could have been. We made do with a paddle before returning to dry off on a bench and admire the surroundings. We were interupted by a massive downpour though and had to make haste to some shelter. Since being in Luang Prabang, rainy season really seems to have kicked in. We have had rain every day, and even though only for an hour at most we have been caught in it every time. We waited until the worst had passed before retreating out and calling for a drink before our drive back to the city. On the way back, for a change of pace, Liam let Chelsa drive as she is now capable, give himself a turn to sitback and enjoy the view, after all it is is birthday.

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We were back around tea time and Liam has decided to go out for Indian Food tonight.

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Posted by Chelsandliam 03:26 Archived in Laos Tagged laos luang_prabang luang Comments (3)

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