Ijen to Bromo, Prambanan to Borobudur: a DIY question

Here’s how we arrived at our Java itinerary

Indonesia 101


A friend recently told me that she’s planning for that dream trip to Mount Ijen and Mount Bromo. She had looked up my post about our family excursion to Java’s volcanoes, and while she couldn’t contain her excitement to visit this awe-inspiring part of the world, there were plenty of questions in her mind. I was more than glad to help a fellow traveler.

The post about that part of our trip, though, was in need of details, so I’m sharing here our actual itinerary with more specifics, tips on planning and safety, links for maps, and select transport, booking and contact info.

Take note, the island of Java is huge — almost half the area of the entire Philippine archipelago — with many attractions to choose from, so let’s start with the places in East and Central Java one ought to visit first for a one-week trip.

East and Central Java’s major sights

■ Mount Ijen via Banyuwangi
■ Mount Bromo via Cemoro Lawang
■ Prambanan and Sewu Temples in Yogyakarta
■ Borobudur via Yogyakarta

Candi Prambanan

How many days do you need?

Kicking off the tour with transit from Ubud, Bali, five days sufficed for us to see and experience four of Java’s major attractions. We had to skip visits to the town and city centers for lack of time, though. So if you wish to engage in other activities in East and Central Java, set aside seven days or more.

Merry mix of tour package and DIY bookings

We booked the Ijen BlueFlame Tour package online for the Mount Ijen and Mount Bromo legs of our trip, starting from Gilimanuk, Bali and culminating in Surabaya, East Java. BlueFlame also arranged the trip by van from Ubud to Gilimanuk in Bali and the ferry crossing from Gilimanuk to Ketapang, Banyuwangi in Java. The tour company, of course, is named after the otherworldly blue flames of the sulfuric crater lake of Mount Ijen.

We specified that we were traveling with three children, the youngest being nine years old, and BlueFlame assured us they’ll do fine (they had a blast). Although the tour company offered the lowest rates, surprisingly, the quality of the tour, the guide, driver, and accommodations in all was beyond expectation.

As for the train ride from Surabaya to Yogyakarta, we booked it online ourselves weeks in advance, alongside the accommodation in Yogyakarta.

Is it advisable to go full DIY with your Java trip? I considered doing so, but opted for the tour package for Ijen and Bromo. I’ll explain later. Moving on…

Road in Banyuwangi in East Java
IG: @thetravelingvs

Here’s what the entire tour looks like:

Day 1
(Start of BlueFlame Tour package)

12 noon
Depart for Gilimanuk Harbor

5 p.m.
Ferry to Ketapang Port, Banyuwangi

7 p.m.
Check-in Banyuwangi

Mount Ijen Crater Lake

Day 2
Mount Ijen Volcano Complex
Banyuwangi

12:30 a.m.
Pick up for tour

2 a.m.
Start trek to Mt. Ijen

5 a.m.
Watch sunrise

7 a.m.
Stop at waterfalls
(We skipped the coffee and rubber plantation)

9 a.m.
Breakfast at hotel

11:30
Check out

12 noon
Depart for Cemoro Lawang
Stop at Pasir Putih Beach for lunch

6 p.m.
Check-in Cemoro Lawang

Cyan takes a dip at Air Terjun Jagir in Banyuwangi

Day 3
Mount Bromo
Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park

3 a.m.
Pick up for tour on board 4×4 jeeps

4 a.m.
Watch sunrise at view point

6 a.m.
Start trek to Mt. Bromo

9 a.m.
Breakfast at hotel

10 a.m.
Depart for Surabaya

3:30 p.m.
Drop off at Surabaya Gubeng Railway Station
(End of BlueFlame Tour)

5 p.m.
Board train to Yogyakarta
(We booked our train seats online weeks ahead)

10:30 p.m.
Arrive at Stasiun Tugu Yogyakarta then check-in at hotel

Day 4
Explore Yogyakarta
(We booked a 5-seater car via Klook for one day)

8 a.m.
Candi Prambanan and Candi Sewu

1 p.m.
Borobudur
Magelang, Central Java

6 p.m.
Rest in hotel

Sunset over Borobudur

Day 5
Yogyakarta to Singapore

5 a.m.
Depart for Adi Sucipto International Airport

7:25 a.m.
Depart Yogyakarta via AirAsia

10:45 a.m.
Arrive in Singapore

Candi Sewu near Candi Prambanan

Where we stayed

For Mount Ijen tour:
Ketapang Indah Hotel
Banyuwangi, Java
(Tour inclusion, with breakfast)

For Mount Bromo tour:
Istana Petani Hotel
Cemoro Lawang, Probolinggo, Java
(Tour inclusion, with breakfast)

For Yogyakarta tour:
BeOne Jogja
Jalan Solo, Yogyakarta
(Booked via Agoda and chose this one as it is just 15 minutes away from Yogyakarta airport, and cheap)

Tour Info

We recommend Ijen Blueflame Tour for your Mount Ijen and Mount Bromo excursions based on our experience.

Operator: Ijen BlueFlame Tour
Website: blueflametour.com
Proprietor: Johanes Tony
Email: [email protected]
[email protected]
Johanes was with us all throughout the booking process. (Thank you, Johanes!) Request for Arif as guide, if he’s available. You won’t regret it.

Package inclusions for Bromo and Ijen tours:

✓ Private car
✓ Driver
✓ Fuel (petrol)
✓ Tickets for ferry crossing (Gilimanuk to Ketapang)
✓ Hotel accomodation for Ijen with breakfast
✓ Hotel accommodation for Bromo tour with breakfast
✓ Breakfast
✓ Guide for Ijen and Bromo
✓ Entrance fees for Ijen and Bromo
✓ Dual filter gas mask
✓ Torch light
✓ Private 4×4 jeep for Bromo tour
✓ Toll fees
✓ Parking fees
✓ Mineral water during entire tour
✓ Bonus: Waterfall side trip in Banyuwangi

Exclusions:
✘ Horse in Bromo
✘ Lunch and dinner

Road info

Ubud to Gilimanuk Ferry Port
Distance: 130 kilometers
Travel time: 4 hours (with stops)

Ketapang Ferry Port to Banyuwangi (hotel)
Distance: 3 kilometers
Travel time: 7 minutes

Banyuwangi to Mt. Ijen (parking area)
Distance: 40 kilometers
Travel time: 1 hour 15 minutes

Banyuwangi to Cemoro Lawang (hotel)
Distance: 219 kilometers
Travel time: 6 hours (with stops)

Cemoro Lawang to Mount Bromo (drop-off)
Distance: 9 kilometers
Travel time: 30 minutes

Cemoro Lawang to Surabaya Gubeng (train station)
Distance: 114 kilometers
Travel Time: 3 hours (with stops)

Gilimanuk Port

Ferry info

Gilimanuk Port to Ketapang Port
Distance: 5 kilometers
Travel time: 1 hour to 1 hour 30 minutes
Frequency: 30-minute intervals
Fare: 6,000 rupiah (₱23, included in tour package)

Railway info

Surabaya Gubeng to Stasiun Tugu Yogyakarta
Distance: 330 kilometers
Travel time: 5 hours 30 minutes
Train class: Eksekutif (soft seats)
Train name: Sancaka
Online booking: tiket.com (you need to sign up)
Tickets: 240,000 to 305,000 rupiah (₱890 to ₱1,130)
Operator: Kereta Api (major operator of public railways in Indonesia)

Passengers waiting for their train at Surabaya Gubeng Railway Station

Flight info

Yogyakarta and Denpasar, Bali have non-stop flights to and from Singapore or Kuala Lumpur via Air Asia.

Yogyakarta to Kuala Lumpur
2 hours 40 minutes

Yogyakarta to Singapore
2 hours 15 minutes

Denpasar to Kuala Lumpur
3 hours

Denpasar to Singapore
2 hours 50 minutes

Options:
You can do the Bali-Java route in reverse, depending on your entry points and flight availability. If you wish to skip Yogyakarta and just see Mount Ijen and Mount Bromo, you can use Surabaya as entry or exit points via direct flights from Bali or Kuala Lumpur.

One of the signs reads: “Be careful of the volcano area.”

Safety and other matters

■ Always follow what your guide says, especially when it comes to advisories on volcanic activity.
■ Wear the right clothing for cold weather. The temperatures on Mount Ijen could drop as low as 8 degrees Celsius with the wind chill, and even lower at the Mount Bromo viewpoint.
■ Wear comfortable hiking shoes. The hike from the drop off area to the crater rim is four kilometers. Bromo will need you to hike a little less.

The lake is one kilometer below the crater rim

■ For Mount Ijen, you need a gas mask even if you don’t have to wear it during most of the climb.
■ Masks and flashlights are usually inclusive of tour packages, but for DIY trips, you can rent a mask and flashlight at the parking area of Mount Ijen.
■ If your guide says you need to wear the mask, wear it.
■ The path to the sulfuric lake a kilometer from the crater rim is steep and unsteady so if you wish to see the phenomenal blue flames up close, make sure you’re fit to go down and back up.
■ Stay alert in the vicinity of the crater lake, especially while watching the blue flames and observing the sulfur miners, since the vents suddenly expel huge volumes of toxic sulfuric steam.

Ijen “taxis”

■ Make way for the sulfur miners. Some of them, by the way, moonlight as “taxi drivers” and offer their trolleys to hikers whose legs have given up on them.
■ Mount Bromo is a sacred volcano among the Tenggerese people, so observe proper decorum. They have a temple at the foot of the mountain called Pura Luhur Poten.
■ Since the volcano is active, those who wish to climb the crater are warned of its dangers, if not prohibited from doing so.
■ Bring a scarf or face mask as the Tengger massif is surrounded by vast sandy plains and it could get dusty when the winds blow.
■ Always bring your trash back.

Bring a quality phone camera for night time shooting so your photos of the phenomenal Ijen blue flame wont’ turn out like this. So from who’s camera is this? Mine.

Final note on DIY and tour bookings

I explored the idea of doing a DIY trip for both volcano trips, but acquiring the services of a tour organizer turned out cheaper, more convenient, and more secure for us with an experienced guide — our animated guide Arif was an ex-miner in Ijen — especially that we had three children in tow.

Consider the accommodations, which the tour package includes. When I checked the rates of similar hotels — we would have needed to book two hotels for Bromo and Ijen — the rates made little difference when I ran the numbers at that time. And to our pleasant surprise BlueFlame booked us in a three-star hotel for the Ijen leg, and then at a cozy bread-and-breakfast hotel for the Bromo leg.

The good thing with BlueFlame is that they can easily customize your trip. So, I still suggest that you ask separate quotations for tour with accommodations and tour without accommodations, then check booking sites like Agoda as they regularly offer huge discounts for you to compare.

Our guide Arif explains that pilgrims leave food offerings on the crater rim of Mount Bromo to appease the gods .

Also, consider the six separate land trips and one ferry crossing that you need to book separately. The other option is to get a package tour there. Since time wasn’t on our side and to minimize delays that could arise from having multiple “service providers,” we opted for one tour operator.

And except for some minor hitches like the ferry incident in the Strait of Bali, the trip from Ubud to Yogyakarta — to our huge relief — went on wonderfully as planned.

So, are you ready for the mesmerizing island of Java?

Crossing the Strait of Bali

Not a ferry smooth ride: near-mishap at sea

Like restless waters

“Allahu akbar!” the woman in the other row of seats beside me cried out loud, setting off a chorus of wails among our fellow passengers.

The men rushed to the port side to get a closer look as our ferry was inching toward a similar vessel whose engine might have conked out in the middle of Bali Strait.

I asked Bretha, Amber and Cyan to stay put and stay calm. There was little chance we’d hit the other boat, I thought, as there seemed more than enough time for the ship captain to veer away. Besides we were close to land, the Port of Ketapang looked within reach.

Our boat, the roll-on roll-off kind, had departed half an hour earlier from Gilimanuk, a port town on the western edge of Bali facing the main Indonesian island of Java. A woman from the tour operator we had booked accompanied us for the crossing. The entire process of checking in and boarding was, I should say, smooth sailing.

  • Statue of Shiva near the port of Gilimanuk (below)
  • IG: @thetravelingvs

The weather was clear that day — we had just taken a pleasant five-hour ride from Bali to Gilimanuk — but the currents in the strait were restless.

And the ferry we were on was a slow one, no different from the other diesel-engine steel ships navigating languidly through the swirling currents between Gilimanuk and Ketapang in Java.

The not-so-calm waters of Bali Strait

I could see the nearby port of Ketapang and make out the outline of a modern dock similar to the one in Gilimanuk, but bigger. Ketapang was our gateway to Java’s ancient wonders, both manmade and natural: Borobudur, Prambanan, Mount Bromo and Mount Ijen.

A wave of excitement rushed through my head, if not for the stalled vessel now just a few feet away from ours, completely blocking my view of Ketapang.

The wails had gotten louder. And louder still when our boat bumped the other with a dull clang. The impact wasn’t violent, but who knows what the condition of these ships are? I looked at our guide. She seemed relaxed, so I didn’t bother to ask if this was normal. (Obviously not.)

“No sitting on the railing”

As the other boat lolled mindlessly in the water, our ship captain managed to steer his boat inch by slow inch away from danger, at least for now.

“Allahu akbar!” the women chorused to their relief.

But the waters of Bali Strait remained restless and unpredictable. The swirling currents again drew both ships toward each other. Another impact was imminent. But how? Isn’t the sea big enough for both of these ships to navigate in peace?

The trepidation among our fellow passengers was understandable. On one of the empty seats lay the day’s newspaper. Splashed on the front page was the banner story of a continuing search for close to 200 passengers that have gone missing after a tourist ferry sank a week earlier in a crater lake up northwest in Sumatra. The infographic showed how the overloaded wooden boat sank 490 meters to the bottom of Lake Toba with only 18 people rescued out of the 213 on board. Perhaps some of our fellow passengers lost loved ones in the accident and were heading there thousands of kilometers away, and now this. But we wouldn’t know.

A copy of the day’s newspaper at the hotel in Banyuwanggi, Java

Cyan was crying. Bretha, Amber and Arwen were on the edge of their seats but calm. We had traveled on smaller boats through rougher waters back home and managed to get back on land mostly dry. As a family traveling in a place that’s both familiar and strange at the same time and now finding ourselves in such circumstances, we could not afford to lose our grip. But definitely, this wasn’t part of the itinerary. Our guide was her usual quiet self, though, and that was quite reassuring.

I went back to the port side to watch another unfolding collision. In everyday use, collisions conjure images of violent crashes, but in the scientific sense, a collision is a collision regardless of force of impact. And there we were in the middle of it all.

As if drawn towards each other like toy magnets, the hulls of both ships collided anew, and the sound of metal scraping against metal drowned the agitated wails of passengers. The other boat was empty save for the flustered crew. It was also facing Ketapang but heading nowhere.

Thirty minutes away from Ketapang Port and this happened

For several long seconds, the two ships were grinding slowly but heavily against each other, like water behemoths hemming and hawing in an age-old ritual, one dragged by the undertow, the other pushed by the surface currents, as the sea gurgled and swirled under the hulls and bows. Then a final separation announced by a collective sigh of relief. God is the greatest, everyone chanted quietly in their seat.

The accidental pair finally split for good, and for the next half hour our good old boat continued on its short journey without incident.

As our boat approached land, we saw a number of piers jutting out of the modern Ketapang Port. Several vehicles, mostly motorcycles, were queued on one of the piers, the drivers and passengers oblivious to the minor maritime incident the boat they were about to board had gone through.

Finally, ready to dock at Ketapang Port

After our boat docked, we disembarked — smoothly — and passed through a covered walkway, our guide leading us to a waiting vehicle that would head straight to the nearby city of Banyuwangi where we would check-in at a nice hotel.

The short drive got me thinking whether I had planned enough to mitigate risks. I don’t overdo it, but when it involves planning a non-conventional trip for a family of five, one must think hard about what we’re getting ourselves into.

The legendary aviator Charles Lindbergh did say, “I don’t believe in taking unnecessary risks, but a life without risk isn’t worth living.” I agree to a fault. And yet there are risks that you can’t see coming, risks that are beyond calculating. In hindsight, that incident in Bali Strait could have gone south. But it didn’t. The worst that happened was a slight delay of our arrival, 30 minutes tops.

So, if you ask me whether we’d still ride a boat from Gilimanuk to Ketapang if we get the chance, I’d say no way. We’d probably take the one from Ketapang to Gilimanuk instead.

Somewhere in the outskirts of Bali, which remains as inviting…
But we’ll be back. When? We don’t know…

Say hello to Sewu and Prambanan

A quiet place called 9th-century Candi Sewu, a Buddhist temple. IG: nsvillaflor

The art and architecture of ancient temples and the kingdoms that built them always fascinate me. So when the trip to Indonesia was hatched, the temples of Bali and the famed, massive Buddhist temple Borobudur in Central Java topped my list. Upon further reading, though, I came across an equally significant temple complex also in Central Java near Yogyakarta, which like Borobudur, was built in the 9th century. That sprawling temple complex is Prambanan, which actually houses both Hindu and Buddhist sacred grounds.

The Traveling Vs on board the Sancaka Train at the Surabaya Terminal for a five-hour ride to Yogyakarta
The sprawling Hindu temple Prambanan, which was built in the 9th century close to its older neighbor, the Buddhist temple Candi Sewu.

As the trip approached, we nearly skipped Prambanan in favor of Borobudur because of the entrance ticket costs, but I’m glad we didn’t because the Hindu Prambanan Temple and Buddhist Sewu Temple are among the most beautiful and impressive sacred structures I’ve seen. Further, because of the proximity between the two temples, one is left in awe that both Hindu and Buddhist communities co-existed in harmony. I also learned that the Indonesian word for temple is “candi,” or “pura” in Balinese.

The Prambanan complex is a fertile ground for fun and learning.

My other concern was whether the kids would have a temple hopping overdose. Fortunately, my fears were unfounded as Cyan, Arwen and Amber all found the temples fascinating, and as they went in and around the temple pathways and chambers, the statues and bas reliefs told stories that lit up their fertile imaginations, and the age-old construction methods behind these towering structures and the reasons they were built became a fount of wonder. Bretha, also a fine arts graduate like me but with an architecture background, would be quick to fill in essential details.

Quick stop at Candi Bubrah, one of the few minor temples scattered in the complex

After exploring Candi Prambanan, we biked to its lesser known but much older neighbor, the 8th-century Candi Sewu, with a quick stop just outside Candi Bubrah. The Buddhist temple Sewu had much fewer visitors, and for a time, we were the only souls walking down its serene, sacred grounds. We concluded our trip to Prambanan with a visit to the museum within the compound.

Candi Sewu

The Prambanan Temple Compounds, by the way, are listed as a World Heritage Site, and Unesco, on its website writes:

“Prambanan Temple Compounds consist of Prambanan Temple (also called Loro Jonggrang), Sewu Temple, Bubrah Temple and Lumbung Temple. Prambanan Temple itself is a complex consisting of 240 temples. All the mentioned temples form the Prambanan Archaeological Park and were built during the heyday of Sailendra’s powerful dynasty in Java in the 8th century AD. These compounds are located on the border between the two provinces of Yogyakarta and Central Java on Java Island.

“While Loro Jonggrang, dating from the 9th century, is a brilliant example of Hindu religious bas-reliefs, Sewu, with its four pairs of Dwarapala giant statues, is Indonesia’s largest Buddhist complex including the temples of Lumbung, Bubrah and Asu (Gana temple). The Hindu temples are decorated with reliefs illustrating the Indonesian version of the Ramayana epic which are masterpieces of stone carvings. These are surrounded by hundreds of shrines that have been arranged in three parts showing high levels of stone building technology and architecture from the 8th century AD in Java. With over 500 temples, Prambanan Temple Compounds represent not only an architectural and cultural treasure, but also a standing proof of past religious peaceful cohabitation.”

Until next time! — The Traveling Vs

Making Ijen and Bromo happen

And what brought us to Java’s epic volcanoes

Crater creatures

On the crater rim of Mt. Ijen in East Java, Indonesia, trying not to inhale too much sulfuric smoke from the crater lake. IG: travelingvs

The plan — hatched around this time last year — was to stay in Bali for five days. Just chill out. Go temple hopping. Check out the beaches. But the wife, from out of the blue, posed (although she’s denying it now): “We’re going to Indonesia and we’re not seeing any volcanoes?”

Good question, because I’d been dreaming about going to two remote volcanoes in East Java: Bromo and Ijen, arguably two of the most beautiful in this Southeast Asian country dotted with active craters. I showed Bretha some pics, and without hesitation, she declared, “Let’s go!”

This otherworldly scenery was what greeted us at the Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park, and it was surreal to be taking snapshots like this one.

Now, there were quite a few issues to hurdle. To get to Bromo, we’d either take a two-and-a-half flight from Bali to Surabaya, then another three-hour road trip to the jump-off point in Malang, then go back to Surabaya before heading to Yogyakarta for more temple hopping. This option meant we wouldn’t see Ijen Crater, which is famed for its blue flames and sulfur mining.

So, we took another route (cutting short our Bali trip by three days) to see both Bromo and Ijen. While we DIYed everything else during the two-week trip, we opted to acquire the services of an online tour agency — Ijen Blue Flame Tours, which we highly recommend along with our funny and awesome tour guide Arif — to see both volcanoes. And this itinerary explains why (more info here):

The Traveling Vs (a.k.a. The 7 Kilos Gang) arriving at the Port of Banyuwangi, East Java from Gilimanuk, Bali. Check out our bags that carried all we needed to last two weeks.

Day 1
*Ubud, Bali to port of Gilimanuk by car: 124 kilometers (4 hours)
*One-hour ferry crossing from Gilimanuk Port to Ketapang Port.
*20-minute van ride from Ketapang to Banyuwangi
*Speed sleeping in Banyuwangi hotel.

With our guide Arif at the miners’ bunkhouse halfway through the three-hour hike.

Day 2

*Call time at 1 a.m. for 1-hour ride to Mount Ijen jump-off point.

*Two-hour, four-kilometer hike in 10-degree Celsius weather to viewing point of Kawah Ijen, or Ijen Crater.

So how was the climb like? Consider the trail slope of 30 to 45 degrees in the dark. No kidding. Depending on your pace, you’d reach the crater rim. There was the optional descent to the crater along a narrow, steep pass, which takes roughly an hour with a gas mask on. My eldest daughter and I descended to witness the blue flames with Arif, while my wife and two younger kids stayed near the crater rim and made themselves warm and cozy by a bonfire that some miners made.

The hike back to the parking area with a quick stop for hot coffee or tea in between takes two hours through spellbinding scenery. Through all this, Arif was extremely helpful and encouraging, telling us his story of how he used to be a sulfur miner himself here in Ijen two years ago.

Thank you, Kawah Ijen!

*On our way back, we stopped by a nice waterfall called Air Terjun Jagir, where we had breakfast and Cyan took a dip.

Cyan takes a dip in Air Terjun Jagir

We headed back to Ketapang Inda Hotel, tidied up, then took a 280-kilometer, 6-hour drive to Cemoro Lawang village.

*Speed sleeping in Cemoro Lawang Inn.

Bye, Ketapang Inda Hotel… hello Cemoro Lawang Inn!

Day 3

One of the viewpoints to witness the indescribable beauty of Bromo Tengger Semeru.

*Call time at 2:30 a.m. for 1-hour ride on 4×4 jeep to Bromo viewing area and wait for sunrise. The weather here was much colder than Ijen, around 8 degrees and we had to warm our hands over hot coals during the wait.

Minutes later, we headed to the designated viewpoint, waited for the first rays of sunlight, and then slowly revealed before our eyes was the jaw-dropping scenery of Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park. The park features five volcanoes sprawled within the caldera of an ancient volcano: Mount Bromo (left), Mount Kursi, Mount Widodaren, Mount Watangan and Mount Batok (frontmost). In the background at the edge of the Tengger massif, an active volcano complex, is Mount Semeru, the highest mountain in the island of Java.

At the main viewpoint

From the viewpoint area, we rode to the drop off point for a hike across Tengger Sand Sea (the caldera of an ancient volcano), past the handsome Gunung Batok, and climb on top of the Bromo Caldera with a view of Mount Semeru, both active volcanoes.

Descent from Mt. Bromo’s crater with a breathtaking view of the massif where a solitary temple called Pura Luhur Poten Gunung Bromo rests.

*We then returned to to the hotel and headed to Surabaya via a 95-kilometer road for three hours. We then took a five-hour train ride to Yogyakarta.

Hello, Yogyakarta!

Surprisingly, the kids weren’t exhausted from all the hiking in the wee hours as they got to sleep and rest during transit. But was it all worth it? Hiking up Gunung Ijen Bromo Tengger Semeru massif and experiencing both from near and far are experiences that are beyond words. And the Traveling Vs would say it’s something families should do: to hike up and down volcanoes when you find yourself in Indonesia.

Until next time! — The Traveling Vs
(For more details, check out our itinerary for our entire trip to Java)

Loving Laos

And how we ended up in the Land of a Million Elephants

Laos and Found

Five backpacks, three kids, two adults, four countries, two weeks.

After a year of planning, deciding where to go, waiting for seat sales, hunting for room discounts, and scrimping on just about anything until the day of departure, our first trip to Indochina as a family of five was finally happening.

We also did it by traveling light, each one carrying a backpack weighing less than seven kilos, the airline limit for hand-carried bags.

The Siete Kilos Gang does it again. Five backpacks for five travelers, good for 14 days. Guess which bag barely lasted the entire trip.

So where exactly where we heading? Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore and land-locked Laos.

Wait, what — Laos? Well, Laos does sound like a pretty unlikely destination for a family that will be out of the country for only the second time around. Our first family trip abroad was in Hong Kong to see Disneyland, of course, in 2014. And yet we spent six days in this most laid-back of countries in the Indochinese region.

So why the off-kilter trip to a country like Laos? Five words: Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng, and elephants. Of course, we would soon find out Laos has plenty to offer, from delicious street food and great traditional coffee to natural attractions that locals and visitors can enjoy to their heart’s content.

A coffee joint in Vang Vieng. Traditional Lao Coffee is one of my favorites, along with Vietnamese drip coffee, Sagada arabica, and Malaysian Kluang coffee.

But I do have a healthy obsession with heritage sites, and I decided a few years back that I will show my children as many heritage sites as possible in our home country the Philippines and in Southeast Asia (mainly because it’s visa-free for us Filipinos when traveling to Asean countries and fares are far more affordable).

The ancient town of Luang Prabang, a Unesco World Heritage Site, fascinates me in particular, and while it was growing in popularity (e.g. morning alms giving by monks), I reckoned that the place would still retain its laid-back vibe, and it was perfect for a visit in 2016. Apart from that, there was an elephant sanctuary we could visit to see these magnificent beasts for the first time.

Having seen Vang Vieng’s dramatic karst mountain landscapes in pictures, I also thought that this town in central Laos would make for a good stop from the capital of Vientiane.

Imagine what wonders are hidden behind the karst mountain range in Vang Vieng.

Another reason to visit Laos was that it’s one of the few Asean countries my wife and I haven’t been to yet. The year before, we went to Bagan in July to celebrate our 15th wedding anniversary, while the kids stayed behind.

Now planning this family trip was one thing. Deciding exactly which places to see was another. Consider our entourage: me, my wife and three kids ages 16, 12 and 7. My main concern was that everyone must enjoy the trip, or that each one has something to look forward to in the entire trip.

Making a seven-year-old share your passion for Southeast Asian art and architecture would be pushing it too far. But talk about seeing elephants up close and watch his eyes light up with excitement.

Let’s play Spot the Elephant in Luang Prabang!
We gave these majestic creatures a bath and a fine scrub in the Mekong River near the elephant sanctuary in Luang Prabang, Laos.

In truth, Laos wasn’t our first destination of choice. The wife actually left it up to me to plan the itinerary, and what I sorely needed from Bretha was a mother’s imprimatur.

And guess what? I came up not just one, or two, or three possible itineraries, but 12. Yes 12 iterations of a two-week trip.

I chose between two hubs for our entry and exit: Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, as these two offered the cheapest fare. I also decided that we would see Legoland in Johor Bahru, Malaysia, which meant we might as well see nearby Malacca, itself a Unesco World Heritage Site, both of which are accessible from KL and SG by bus.

Luang Prabang International Airport is an hour away from Don Mueang International Airport in Bangkok.

For the first few itineraries, I plotted a trip to Krabi in Thailand with a side trip to Penang. All these involved checking bus, train and air fare from various schedules. Laos came to the picture later.

As one itinerary took shape, I’d proceed to another, until I had 12 different itineraries, all of which I showed to the wife for approval. She promptly sent everything back, saying, “You decide.”

So I did and chose the itinerary with Laos in it. And the trip that began on the fourth week of May 2016 looked like this: Cebu-Kuala Lumpur-Vientiane-Bangkok-Singapore-Cebu. Four countries, two weeks.

Arriving at KLIA2

We spent two nights in Little India in Kuala Lumpur, our favorite gateway city to neighboring Southeast Asian countries since it’s become a familiar city to us with great food.

After arriving at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport 2 the previous afternoon, we toured the green city of KL the following day, as we had the whole morning and afternoon free.

That night, when everyone was fast asleep ahead of our flight to Laos next morning, a thought popped inside my head: are the roads to Luang Prabang safe?

The shells of two unexploded ordnance mark the entrance to a wooden bridge in Vang Vieng

Now as someone who’s from the Philippines, I usually take travel advisories from Western countries with a grain of salt, but I still did check them many months ago just in case. Laos was generally safe, they said.

That nagging thought, though, prompted me to check the latest travel advisories, and to my horror, they warned against travel along the route we’d be taking from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang, following a series of attacks on vehicles carrying foreign passengers from a construction site late last year.

A Lao soldier watches over a mountain range in a remote part of northern Laos

On the verge of panic, I considered changing the itinerary and checked direct flights from Kuala Lumpur or Vientiane to Luang Prabang.

The rates were prohibitive, which meant I had two choices: cancel the trip or push through with it. I read the advisories again and, with a clearer head, arrived at the conclusion that the incidents in question were isolated and had more to do with issues concerning the construction project, not random attacks on travelers.

I lost a bit of sleep over those exaggerated travel advisories, but that was the worst thing that happened during the entire trip.

Early morning bus to the KLIA 2 airport. The bus left on schedule at exactly 5 a.m.

We woke up really early the next day to catch the first bus bound for the airport. It left promptly at 5 a.m. An hour later, we were at the KLIA2 for our 8 a.m. flight. From KL, we landed safely at the Vientiane airport at past 10 a.m.

We took a cab that brought us to a corner where the van bound for Vang Vieng stops to pick up passengers, and bought tickets from a group of men huddled in the shade. The entire gang was famished.

Since we had two hours to spare before the van would pick us up, we asked the ticket seller where we can have an early lunch.

Old and new meet at an intersection in Vientiane
Rue Phanompenh: the road to good Lao noodles in Vientiane

“You want Lao food?” said the ticket seller.

“Yes. And cheap?”

“See that building? Turn left, then right. It’s where Lao people eat.”

So off we went in a huff.

This must be it
Where the magic happens

We found the quaint noodle joint and placed our orders based on what they suggested. Every serving of Lao noodles or khao piak sen came with a plateful of vegetables (lettuce, string beans and mint leaves) plus mongo sprouts, pickled carrots, eggplant and cucumber.

Bretha and the kids relished their hefty bowl of noodles with hot, flavorful broth. I had Sticky Noodles, which turned out to be fried pork noodles with blood cubes.

I used to gorge on barbecued blood cubes in Cebu but not as noodle toppings. So how did this Lao dish taste like? Odd but in a good way.

Either way, you’d mistake khao piak sen for pho if you had no idea, and I’d say it’s up there with the Vietnamese staple. I shouldn’t be surprised since both countries have a shared culture and history, including colonial times.

We returned to the corner to find the men now taking their lunch of sticky rice that they ate after rolling it into small rice balls by hand and paired with various dishes.

The taste of delicious Lao noodles and the sight of locals enjoying their staples bode well for the entire trip, which would begin in a few minutes with a 160-kilometer van ride to mystical Vang Vieng.

The van ticket sellers and tuktuk drivers have lunch of sticky rice balls

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Our Laos Itinerary

After coming up with 12 different itineraries, we finally settled on one that took us from Cebu to Kuala Lumpur, Vientiane, Vang Vieng, Luang Prabang, Bangkok, back to Kuala Lumpur, then Malacca, Johor Bahru, Singapore, and finally back to Cebu. Here’s the Traveling Vs’ six-day itinerary for the Vientiane-Vang Vieng-Luang Prabang Leg of the 14-day trip:

Day 1

Kuala Lumpur to Vientiane
7:25am to 9:10 a.m. (AirAsia)

Vientiane to Vang Vieng
12:40 p.m. to 4:20 (Private van)

Overnight Vang Vieng
Abby Boutique Guesthouse (Agoda)
Sengsavang, Viengkeo

Day 2

Tour Vang Vieng

Overnight Vang Vieng
Abby Boutique Guesthouse

Day 3

Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang
7 a.m. to 11 a.m. (Private van)

Overnight Luang Prabang
Villa Ban Phanluang (Agoda)
Old Bridge, Nam Khan River

Day 4

Tour Luang Prabang

Overnight Luang Prabang
Villa Ban Phanluang

Day 5

Tour Luang Prabang

Overnight Luang Prabang

Day 6

Tour Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang to Bangkok
4:45 p.m. to 6:05 p.m. (AirAsia)

(Check out the full 14-day itinerary here)

Waiting for our ride to Vang Vieng
Friendly Vang Vieng

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