Family Gap Year Adventures – Chapter 6, Laos – a pretty laid back land

Sabei sabei

One of the first expressions you learn as a visitor in Laos, is  “Sabei, sabei“, meaning don’t worry, no problem.

– Bus is 6 hours late? Sabei, sabei!

– Bus is 10 hours late? Sabei, sabei!

– You don’t have the stamp in your passport? Sabei, sabei!

– Shop closed? Sabei, sabei!

– Shop closed again? Sabei, sabei!

With such a heavy use of sabei, sabei, you feel that Laos is the backwater of South East Asia. Traffic is sparse, the population is more often sighted in a hammock, than rushing around, and it is part of the hospitality that you have to wait a few minutes or quarters of an hour, before the waiter, or receptionist, or clerk rises from the hammock, or couch, or chair, and is ready to face you. Some people accidentally mistake this ability to be laid back as rude, but nothing could be further from the truth. Time is an abundant luxury in this otherwise poor country, that doesn’t need to be watched, or accounted for. People seem immune to efficiency, the contagious disease of western culture. I remember Momo, and how she dealt with the time thieves, and am lead to believe that there must be a laotian connection.

Ziplines! Jungle fun!

We left Vietnam in a very comfortable sleeper bus from Dong Ha, and arrived hassle-free in Pakse, southern Laos. The mighty Mekong river flows slowly, the city hugs the river shores, and the pace of the city follows the same rhytm. We are here in order to try an eco adventure in the jungle, called the Tree Top Explorer, lots of fun on zip-lines of several hundreds of meters, canopy walks and swimming in a waterfall, all embedded in the green jungle of the misty Bolaevan plateau, famous for aromatic coffee.IMG_9654

The famous coffee is served every morning and dinner, cooked in a filter over a cook fire, strong and aromatic indeed. Accommodation is in small huts built in the crowns of huge trees, access true to the camp style, by zip line only. There is a shared kitchen and platform, overlooking the valley, the focal point of which is a majestic waterfall.

– Namtok – our guide Bun repeats patiently.

“Nam” is water, “tok” is falling, and all our activities are concentrated around the waterfall, we zipline above, below, bathe in the water, and gaze at the spectacle when sipping our coffees. After sunset, as the tropical night descends quickly, accompanied by a choir of cicadae, we zip into our tree top hut with a cat under one arm, a preemptive measure towards another inhabitant of the jungle trees, the rat.

We were thrilled, this trip is pure, destilled fun. Things are well organized, we eat picnic lunch off banana leaves, and can follow the enjoyable program, a mixture of zipping along the lines, trekking, swimming, and relaxing in the beautiful jungle camp, taking in the amazing view.

Climbing paradise

Next destination is Green Climbers Home, a climbing camp in Thakhek.

We look around for bus tickets, and pick the one that promises a 6 hours trip as opposed to the 10 hours, the other vendors are selling, only to arrive in Thakhek … 10 hours later. It is dark, and we have to bike to the climbing camp under the starlit sky, and the feeble light of the head lamps. After an hours bike ride trough the darkness, the climbing camp appears, a flood of light, we can hear the laughter.

When we arrive, I see friendly faces, that we have met in China, climbing bags skattered around, the talk the same at all climbing destinations in the world, this is my tribe.

We stay for two weeks, I enjoy the rush of climbing, while Pawel and Magdalena are reasonably bored. It is hard to climb again after so many weeks of abstinence, luckily I can team up with Marcel, a familiar face from Yangshuo in China, and he is patient while I freak out on the low grades, and the power slowly returns, I redpoint a 6a+, with shaking Elvis legs, and feel as a climber again.

We spend rest days going to the city of Thakhek, there is a single shop with ice creams, and wifi, a massage joint, salt baked fish at the stall next to the river, where one can sit and look across at the Thailand side.

I enjoyed the stay at Green Climbers Home so much, I didnt even wish for Christmas presents, but Christmas is only two days away, and we have to go to Vientiane, and pick up Solvej, a friend of Magdalena’s, that has decided to join us for the Christmas holidays. When we are leaving, I wish I could have stayed in this paradise.

Our Christmas Miracle

Our Christmas Miracle was to find Jungle house, an amazing guest house run by amazing people, Mike and Xoukiet. I am short listing this guest house as a candidate for the title “Best in all the world”. It is a very special place, mainly due to the personalities of the two people, that run it. Their home is a beautiful house, with a junglelike garden, and from the moment you arrive, you feel like a dearly missed friend. We enjoyed really roal breakfasts in the mornings, and the pleasure of sipping Mike’s gin & tonic, sitting above the water pond while listening to the frogs chatting at sunset, and the highlight of each evening, meeting other guests at the dinner table, engaging in fierce philosophical/political/cultural/../ discussions.

Our Christmas Miracle was to meet Mike and Xoukiet. This couple, both deeply engaged in making the world a better place to leave, fundamental humanitarians, was a huge inspiration. Xoukiet battles human traffiking, Mike has founded the COPE center, to help victims of land mines, cluster bombs, and other effects of the Secret War, bringing more bombs to this quiet backwater country, than any other place in the world.

– We should not aim for what is possible to do, but for what is right to do. – recounted Mike, of his stance at the discussion of the UN committee for cleaning up the country from bombs.

– How many casualties should we accept? 0!

Things become very simple, when you hold such a fundamental view, when you hold a plastic molded leg in your hand, looking into eyes of the crippled human, whose life you want to improve, then war, bombs, the war rhetoric is meaningless, we are humans, and should treasure our lives, as a superior value, not something that we have the right to take away from others, diminish, or end.

Our Christmas Miracle was a dozen of strangers, meeting around a table to celebrate a special day, far away from our homes, determined to launch a new friendship, and our miracle was a beautiful fusion of traditions.

So we went from sharing the polish “oplatek”, sent by my mom, dancing around the christmas three danish style, complete with running around the house, and singing “12 days of Christmas” in unison, with Mikes powerfull bass voice delivering “fiiiiive gooooolden rings“, enjoying listening to a story read alout, that was published over a century ago, and has been cherished by generations of Boddingtons since, trough sharing the warmth and joy of being human, and together.

The house was quiet and asleep, when we managed to connect with my family trough Skype, the time difference such, that they were just beginning to gather around the food. When my mothers voice came crackling trough the static, I felt a lump in the throat, felt the enormous distance, so far away from home 119, 17, as opposed to 10, 55


Next stage in our journey is a bumby ride along the Mekong river to Sayabouli, where we have signed up as volunteers on a paid program in the Elephant Conservation Centre (ECC). Rattle is the only word I can find to describe the progress of a bus in Laos, and our bus rattles north, together with the suffering passengers, the helper boy distributes vomit bags, grabbed by eager hands. A mommy, daddy and a toddler are seated next to me, the little family takes turns vomiting, the plastic bag wobbles between our seats, brimming full with a “road soup” of undefinable color.

After too many miserable hours, we stand with two legs on the red ground again, the bus station being a raised platform in the woods, excited to see the elephants of the center, to learn about our duties as volunteers. Soon a beaten up truck arrives, and after more bumbing around, we arrive at the camp, a collection of simple bamboo huts, the location incredibly beautiful, surrounded by a magical lake, that mirrors the sky, the clouds, the sunrise and sunset. IMG_2969

I remembered the buddist story about a nun, that saw the mirror image of the moon in her bucket, while carrying water, and understood the nature of things, showing thus, that enlightenment can be achieved doing mundane chores, and meditation is not anymore or less fancy, than carrying water in a bucket.

Or looking at a magical lake.

We meet the other two volunteers, a polish couple living in Scotland, and the six of us hang out together, sharing the same fate.

There isn’t really any work for us to do, and this being Laos, the staff seems worried about us not to over exert ourselves. The days pass with hanging around the elephants, or swinging in hammocks, every night has a camp fire, music and lao lessons.

Riding on the neck of the elephants is fun, but even more enjoyable is just being around these magnificient animals, sensing them. IMG_2951The mahouts are so gentle and caring, the look of concern and love on their face, when they speak to their elephant, the mighty animals are controlled using the voice and body language only, no metal hooks or other malicious inventions. Every day, there is a boat trip to visit the nursery, where a 23 months pregnant elephant lady is awaiting the birth, her belly huge, we are hoping to see the newborn, but the baby will arrive after we have left the center. The staff explains, how the elephant, the very national symbol of Laos is threatened, the species on the border of extinction, as natural reproduction is hindered by economical considerations, and 10 elephants die for every baby that is born. The purpose of the center is to provide veterinary services, and support mahouts with pregnant females, so that they do not loose their income for the two years of pregnancy and three years of nursing, that a baby elephant requires.

Being volunteers, we feel an urge to contribute to both the cause and the paradise, and we settle on a bit of gardening, doing a yoga class, and organizing a treasure hunt for the kids in the camp, which is well received by the target group.

The owners invite us volunteers to stay for the New Years Eve, and we say goodbye to the old year with a barbecue party, complete with a roasted calf, foie grass and lots of Beer Lao.

When we leave, it is with a feeling, that we leave a paradise.

Luang Prabang and north

Next stop, after the mandatory bus rattle, is Luang Prabang, surprisingly touristy, supplied by a steady stream of farang’s, meandering around the colourful markets, and the majestic temples. Not being a family of temple explorers, really, we want to see more of the simple life, and rent scooters, to ride 70 km north to Ban Na Ham. That is where we meet friends of the family that runs our guest house in Luang Prabang, and we are treated to a self-organized home stay.

The whole village is suddenly there, curious about us, we about them. Life is simple, belongings few, the house is clean, the people generous. We go with the boys to set the fishing nets in the river, a local school teacher helps with translating. We are treated to a royal dinner, and even more royal breakfast, with sweet rice cooked in bamboo over the fire, and a fish, and chicken soup, made from a chicken, that was walking proudly around a few moments ago.

We visit the village, walk among the houses where women are weaving, and give an english lesson at our teachers school, teaching the students to clap their hands to “If you are happy and you know it”. When we are leaving, we are leaving another paradise.IMG_3861

Birthday girl

It is Magdalenas 16 years birthday, when we wake up before sunset, as our night bus from Luang Prabang has sped trough the potholes of the mountain road, and has arrived in Vientiane hours ahead of schedule.IMG_3895

– Happy Birthday! – we hug the sleepy eyed main person of the day, and share a jar of cookies, as we wait on the bus platform, atop of our luggage, for  Mike to bring us to our beloved Jungle House.

The night is a hardly a surprise,  the Jungle House style elegant dinner, with stimulating converstation, champaign to celebrate the birthday girl, and a wonderful chocolate cake!

Having been on the road for a while, travelling, sleeping, eating, being together 24 hours a day, it is really hard to keep a surprise, and the birthday girl does not sound very surprised when the surprise is revealed.

I have found Backstreet Academy,  a company that connects travellers with local people, that have something to teach, the experience is thus authentic, and not to reproduce on mass scale, a platform worth supporting. The surprise we picked, is a lao style cooking class, in the garden of a family, the father and mother in law look at us, as we are instructed by the pregnant wife, the husband tends the fire, and a young student handles the translation, everybody enthusiastic  about teaching us how to cook the food. We relaxed while grilling the vegetables on the cooking fire, washed, peeled, and pounded at the ingredients, and the result was a delicous lunch with 5 dishes, that we could consume with our new Lao friends. IMG_3920

Goodbye Laos

Time passes fast, visas, even when prolonged, run eventually out, and we have to say goodbye, leave the cosy nest we have in Jungle House, and hug Mike and Xoukiet goodbye. We continue the adventure on our bikes, as we approach the border bridge to Thailand. After a half year of travelling, we have discovered how time flows in a different, slow, pace, and that small pieces of Paradise can be found on our planet, and Laos has an amazingly high density of these small Paradises …

Family Gap Year Adventures – Chapter 5, Vietnam

Holy Hanoi!

It was dark, when we arrived in Hanoi by train from China, at a very unholy time, 5 AM. IMG_3661

With a few, even less holy, thoughts sent in the direction of the master mind, that planned this international train connection, we collected our bags, and found there was very little we could do, except walking out of the train station … the time being to late too sleep, and too early to go to our couchsurfing hosts, or anything else … as we walked, and the dawn approached, the city started waking up, the first signs beings small stalls opening, and we had our first taste of the staple vietnamese breakfast, a  Pho soup with fresh herbs, a delicious novelty, and a treat compared to the chinese breakfast porridge.

With some food in the stomach, daylight to heighten the mood, having located an ATM, that made us into Dong millionaires, and a SIM card, we could relax, and have a look around.

What a difference, our eyes being used to chinese paradoxes !

The traffic is like a crazy real time computer game, where you have to move the pedestrian across a multi-directional flood of bicycles. It can’t be done, but somehow it happens, you arrive on the other side of the street.  The pace is busy, but nowhere as hectic, as in the chinese mega cities. More smiles around, people squat, talk, chat, smile.

The traces of french colonization of Indochina are sweet.

Bakeries, bread, cakes. Coffee.

I tasted the vietnamese cofee, kafe nou, brewed in a little aluminium pressurerizer on top of condensed milk, and my reaction was:

– Hallelujah!

The coffee is thick, kicking strong, sweetened with condensed milk. After two months in China, the coffee less country, the pleasure of sipping a kafe nau is beyond words.


The desserts are also divine.

Creme brulee, an assortments of jellies made of frIMG_3678uit juice, mixed with tapioca, coconut milk and ice cubes. The price tag of such a treat is 20.000 VND, or 0,5 Euro.

I found, that I longed for somebody to adopt me, so I could quit traveling, and stay in this country.

Our hosts, Travis and Zuza, opened up their home, and we found the city of Hanoi to be friendly, comfortable, full of small hidden wonders.

Is it a surprise, that we ended up staying in much longer than planned? In the end I felt that we either have to go, or rent an appartment (the downstairs one was free) and move in.

Bye bye train, hello bicycle

We have travelled from the central train station in Warszawa, to Hanoi, about 12.000 km, all the way by train. We did a high five, and then decided to change the mode of transportation, feeling that we had seen to many trains from the inside. The decision was to buy bicycles. A quick look at the map, it should be feasible to go from Vietnam to Singapore. It would make sense to sell the bicycles again in Singapore, as there are only islands between its southern tip and Australia, our ultimate destination.

We visited a few bicycle shops, and thought that second hand touring bikes might be a good value. Something proven in battle might be better than a shiny new product of unknown quality. We made acquaintance with George, a mechanical whizz at from the famous Bicycle Collective, a specialist in touring bikes. Or, so we thought, at least.


George, our pusher from the Hanoi Bicycle Collective, equipped our new steel horses for the ride.

George, was set up with the task of equipping our new steel horses for the long ride. After we agreed on a budget, his mantra was:

– I guarantee you, this is good quality

and another favorite saying:

– This is the only place in town, where you don’t buy a chinese piece of shit!

In the beginning there was lots of love, but as we rode some kilometers, and the bikes kept breaking down, the good karma dwindled.

But, anyway, it was really time to move on, and instead of becoming Zuza and Travis’s new neighbours, we studied the map, packed and repacked to fit our backpacks on the bike racks, saddled up, and finally, after several delays, left Hanoi.

Country road

And off we went.

Biking out of Hanoi took the best part of a morning, and we decided, after getting lost around the lakes and tricky one way streets of Hanoi,  that a map, and a look at Google Maps in the morning, is not enough to navigate. A local grocery store solved the problem, and sold a phone card and a scratch code for 3G internet, for about 5 USD. The friendly lady understood enoug sign language to help set it up, and we could continue with our efforts to locate the countryside, now equipped with a GPS device.

Trip map

Click the link below, to see where we went on our 500 km bike trip in Vietnam :

It is a sweaty business to bicycle in Vietnam. After a while the ass grows numb, the dust is covering the sweat, leaving a sticky texture on the skin, it is hot, and what is supposed to be holiday fun, is in fact hard work. Our family of extreme b-type persons, late sleepers and night owls started getting up 6 AM, just to beat the heat.


It is really hard work riding a bicycle trough vietnamese country side.

We managed to ride between 60 and 80 km a day, covering about 500 kilometers, until one of the bikes, that was having more and more serious problems, with a rattling backwheel, finally refused to move, the axis being broken.

We went to Mai Chau, and hit the Ho Chi Minh trails south from there.

Most places we stayed in “Ngha Nhi” – simple guest houses, no english spoken, no frills, sometimes clean. Once we were lucky, and found a hot spring spa resort next to the road, another time a homestay in a stilt house.

Hospitality extreme - we thought we booked a bed for the night, and were surprised by a dancing party on the thin bamboo floor.

Hospitality extreme – we thought we b

We had to fight with some hard core mountain passes to get there, we should have taken the darker shade on the map as a warning. What we looked for, was simply a bed for the night, and we were surprised, as a troup of girls arrived, and started a dancing party on the thin, thin bamboo floor of the stilt house. One of the dances involved jumping over banging bamboo sticks, and we were scared whether the floor would crack open under our merry jumps, but fortunately it didn’t.

This extremely hospitable family, have set up a home stay, and wanted to attract tourists to their off the beaten track village, using the platform of airbnb. I loved this combination, a surprising fusion of old traditions, simple life in a bamboo hut, and a modern platform, that brings sustainable tourism directly to a community.

Shortcut by train

After 8 days in the saddle, hot and exhausted, and having to deal with a bicycle, where the wheel was runing more sideways than forward, we decided to take a shortcut by train, and hopefully get to a place with better mechanics, than what we could find in the country side.

After a strategical discussion, we opted for 2 days of rest at a swimming pool, and decided to take the train from Vinh to Dong Hoi – to save some steam for our up coming caving trip.

The procedure was very simple and civilized

I have drawn on a piece of paper 3 people and 3 bicycles, and showed it to the lady in the ticket booth. She gave me a nice smile, and asked, in english, laughing at my surprised face:

– So, where do you want to go?

– Dong Hoi – I replied.

– First you need to buy tickets for people, and then you can post your bicycles in the goods carriage. – she explained

The posting happens in a second office, close to the gates that lead to the tracks. You are given a receit, pay a fee of a few dollars, and all the loading and unloading is handled by railway staff, while you can enjoy your ride, and watch the hills rolling by, happy not to be pedalling there.

A few hours later, as we unload from the train, we can smell the South Chinese Sea

Epic cave adventure

Having heard, thatthe worlds largest cave has been discovered in the Phong Nha CavesIMG_9427 area of Vietnam in 2011, only a few years ago, we booked a 3 day trek of the Tu Lan system, with Oxalis, our adventure operator, and I really mean adventure.

When the jeep cam to pick us up in the morning, it has been raining continuosly for 3 days, and continued to rain, as our hopeful group of 8 went trough the security briefing. Equipped with life wests, helmets and head lamps, we thought we were ready for some fun, unaware of the epic adventure ahead.

And it was truly epic.

Nobody died. We had lots of fun. I don’t remember if I have ever been that muddy in my life. After about half an hour of walking, we had to cross a river by swimming, with all clothes and gear on, and we continued the wet journey, from jungle trail, to cave, to river. Our guide kept saying:

– Careful, it’s slippery – when we were navigating the steep, steep jungle tracks, and he was absolutely right. Sometimes, there was a change of terrain, and we could hear as we were sliding, or stumbling down:

– Careful, it’s very smooth!

We were trying to crawl out of a cave, and I gasp, when I see the first of many gigantic spiders, situated on the roof of a tiny squeeze through tunnel

Our guide reassures us:

– Don’t worry. It’s friendly, it’s vietnamese.

It was at a famous cave with three whirlpools, that the adventure got an epic twist, as half of our group was swept away by the current, towards the gaping mouth of the cave. Luckily, we had a spanish guy, Jesus, with us, and he really lived up to his name, swimming to the rescue with a lifeline.

The nights were cosy, with campfire, jokes, friendly interaction with the vietnamese staff, a shared sense of bonding, of surviving this adventure together.

We return to our hotel, the Phong Nga Farm Stay, very wet, with a stinking bag filled with our stinking, muddy belongings, and stupid smiles on our faces.

DMZ and goodbye

The Phong Nha caves are just north of the DMZ, and sensible connections to Laos are just south of DMZ. So I figured it was time for indulging some pacifist propaganda into the teenagers. We crossed the DMZ together with Tam, our guide and American War veteran. The Vinh Moc tunnels, a complex of tunnels 15-21 meter undeground, designed to hide the population of a whole, heavily bombed village, made a great impression. Their motto “to be or not to be”, shed a new light on this thin worn quote, in order to survive the heavy bombing, the local people had to dig underground, and spend months and months in the tunnels.

This was our last day of our one month stay in Vietnam, we visited only the northern part, something has to be left for the next around the world trip.

From Dong Ha, we booked a bus ticket, and were suprised with an extremely comfortable direct bus to Pakse, Laos, where we continued the family adventure.

Family Gap Year adventure – Chapter 1, Russia

Overland from Denmark to Australia

We are a polish family, live in Denmark.

A mom and two teenage children.

We decided that its time to go on a long adventure, and after about a year of planning, saving money, working overtime, completing visa applications, we can take of on a year long gap year adventure.

I think of myself as a regular person, my friends tend to call me crazy.

The plan is to go overland to Australia.


… instead of buying the commute pass …

So we rented our house, with our cats. And instead of buying the commute pass Odense – Copenhagen, I purchased a set of tickets for the transsiberian railway. To Moscow. And Beijing. And Lhasa.

An officer checks our passports at the Poland – Belarus border:

– Where are you going?

– To Australia

– You are in the wrong train. This train does not go to the airport.


This is such an imperial city. I walk around, and feel to small, the houses and streets are oversize, crossing the Red Square seems a daunting task.

We are greeted warmly by our couch surfing host Dimitri, and feel quickly at home in his cosy appartment in the very center of Moscow, served with pet rats, and long intellectual discussions over tea, that drag deep into the nights.

Kosmonauts celebrated as heroes of a laboring nation

Kosmonauts celebrated as heroes of a laboring nation

The metro is a series of beautiful temples, the parks are huge, filled with life, flowers or old soviet era statues.

We ave at the uber-cool Kosmonaut memorial, full of silver foil, rocket parts, space suits, and this shiny rocket and its trajectory, catapulting into space.

We hang out with the crowds in Gorki park, and enjoy the waves of hot summer.

Wish, we could stay longer, to decipher this city.

But the train is leaving from Kazansky vokal. Time to board the transsiberian.

Siberia, Siberia

We float trough the taiga on white pillows, the train departs every single station on time, after some time it seems as if the sun was to early, as we whizz trough time zones.

Suddenly 3 days have passed, and I face the overwhelming fact, that next morning we are getting of the train.

Krasnoyarsk is pretty much in the middle of Siberia.

We paddle down the Mana and Yenisei river, and visit the Stolby national park.  

Andrej is our wonderful host, and we have a magic evening with guitar play and polish – russian – english songs, straight from the heart.

Volunteering at shores of Baikal Lake

It is the oldest and deepest lake in the world, 365 rivers flowing into it, one for each day of the year. The water is ready to drink, thanks to the purifying effect of the Epishura – a tiny shrimp that keepst he water crystal clear.

For two weeks, we are blue-capped volunteers for the Great Baikal Trail project.

We are a group of 19 people, driven by various degrees of idealism, a mix of russians and foreign volunteers, helping the national reserve to maintain trekking paths, that can tempt eco-tourists to supplement the meager budget.

We camp at the sandy shore, and every morning, when I crawl out of the tent, I am greeted by a completely new scenery, sky playing with the lake water.

And every evening, we sprawl quietly in the sand, watching the spectacle of sunset, amazed by how different it is, and how beautiful.

There is a bear in our valley, we see fresh tracks on the sand, and burn fire each night to keep it from our camp.

We cook food over open fire, cans, potatoes, and finish each meal off with tea and lots of russian candy.

The work is very hard – carrying stones, crushing rocks, digging with the “kirka” – pickaxe.

Slight to mild degrees of disorganization can lower the morale, but Kostia is my patient russian teacher, every night the evening fire sends sparks towards the infinite sky, that is full of shimmering stars, and we are a hard working family, spell-bound together by this majestic scenery.

When we return to Ulan Ude, after 2 weeks in the wilderness, I am amazed by wonders of civilization such as water in the tap, electric kitchen kettle and flush toilet.