Laos, Travel Journal

22 April – 30 April 2015

The second entry in my Southeast Asia journal. 

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Sunrise over the Mekong.

Chiang Kong/Pakbeng – Day 15

I wake early, tired after a poor sleep, nervous for the slowboat. The hotel manager has a Thai breakfast waiting for us in reception. It’s all very sweet and quite sickly to have first thing in the morning. One part looks like breaded chicken but tastes like a donut, and there’s this other stuff resembling samosas but with banana in it. We sit out on the patio overlooking the beautiful Mekong river as the sun is rising. Across from us, on the same side of the bank, is another hotel where other westerners are also enjoying breakfast; presumably about to take the slowboat with us. We are sat near three lads: Two Americans and one Americanised Korean. When the minivan arrives, they hop on with us, and we sit for a quick and easy drive to the Thai-Laotian border. We pay $70 and buy our visas into Laos. We’re stamped out of Thailand and our tour company loads us on to an open air van. The Laotian authorities didn’t even bother to search us, it was almost literally a stroll into Laos. We could have had stashes of drugs or anything. Not even a sniffer dog or metal detector or anything at an obviously popular border crossing. A van drives us to what is essentially a shack in the middle of nowhere, with chickens running about. There a guide tells us about the trip. There are loads of westerners which make me feel more comfortable (one even jokingly claims this is where they rob us), and one of the tour operators makes us a sandwich. We’re then driven to another shack of shops with grossly inflated prices, even by western standards. There we are told to wait. After half an hour in the scorching, beating sun, we walk down to the slowboat with our backpacks digging into our burning skin. I’m not nervous at all now, as there are westerners everywhere. It’s just a chore being in the sun, queuing to enter the thing. The boat itself is also not as bad as I thought. The seats are like bus seats, though they aren’t bolted to the floor. And our leg room is limited because the people in front seem to have deliberately pushed theirs backwards. Did I mention it’s very hot?  We wait for ages in the heat and leave a considerable time after schedule. Or, as one traveler put it online:

The driver is supposed to leave at 9am, but this is Laos. The driver will leave when he can be bothered.

The boat eventually departs and we drift placidly down the Mekong for nearly seven hours. What we see is outstandingly beautiful, the two sides of the river bank. The cameras simply don’t do it justice. Laotian children fish and swim, and on many occasions there are small fires and scorched hills (which I later find out are deliberate and for agricultural purposes). Every now and then, locals whip past on the deadly speedboats – deadly we are told, because speedboat accidents are common on the river. We dock at Pakbeng, a tourist-ey but otherwise remote village that only recently had 24/7 electricity installed. Our room is okay. The restaurants look run down and poverty stricken, and we find one that looks particularly bad, but the food is delicious. (I would go as far to say as one of the best meals we had on the entire trip.) Sophie and I have five plates between us, two waters, and two beers for under £9. Meanwhile a fantastic tropical thunderstorm rages above us, the rain hammering down on the corrugated sheets that make up the roof. They’re not like in England, tropical thunderstorms, they seem to last forever. Fortunately, the Pakbeng was not like the Pakbeng we had read about. We never saw any shady dealers trying to offer us crystal meth or heroin, something which is apparently common because of its proximity to the notorious ‘golden triangle’ – the drug smuggling zone on the Thai-Laotian-China borders. Instead, after all the worrying, I only remember that beautiful moment of tranquility spent watching the lightening after a good meal, it was one of those ‘It’s a good life’ kind of moments.

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The view from the slowboat.

Pakbeng/Luang Prabang – Day 16

What follows is another day similar to yesterday, most of it spent drifting placidly down the river. We wake up freezing cold, underestimating, perhaps, how cold it can get when the fog rolls off of the water early in the morning. A Laotian woman makes us rice and a sandwich from a stall for breakfast and it’s really nice! Unfortunately the boat departs late again, at 9:30 instead of 8am, so we’re sat on the boat more than an hour before we were due to actually leave. There’s some confusion as well. We’re sat with a few others on the nearest slowboat (there were two, as there were two making the journey to Pakbeng yesterday) and the vast majority of travelers seemed to be opting for the other boat. Sophie begins to worry that ours mightn’t be headed to Luang Prabang and instead is going back in the opposite direction, and a few of the travelers on the other boat opt to tell us instead. Of course in Asia, no one tells you anything, so you have to rely on intuition to get what you want. In the end, though, all the fuss was for nothing and we left the tiny village of Pakbeng, getting some phenomenal views of it hemmed in by jungle mountains, with the rolling fog that froze us hours earlier tumbling over the mountain tops. We didn’t bother getting snacks because we stupidly listened to a Laotian who told us the boat was due to dock in Luang at 1pm; we were starving when it actually docked at 4pm. And by “docked” I mean, about to be scammed. Fortunately, we had read about this online and were well aware, as were most of the travelers. The scam was this: instead of taking you into town to the real dock, westerners are directed to an alternative dock where they are forced to depart and then pay for a tuk-tuk into town. We’re about ten kilometers away from the genuine dock but no one argues and just acquiescently quits the boat, then queues for a tuk-tuk. This is a recurring theme in Asia, learning to grin and bear it when you’re obviously being ripped off. The ‘dock’ itself is ludicrous. It’s literally a white barge with a plank of wood floating on the river, with a painted sign informing us its the dock. But then again, this is Laos. The uninformed traveler could probably believe it to be genuine. We also had to climb up a steep hill (Darwinism must take care of the elderly and disabled quickly here) to order a tuk-tuk. I think no one kicked up a fuss because, in the end, the ten kilometer journey was only £2 and it provides a lifeline for the poor here.

Luang Prabang was a pleasant surprise, being hemmed between the Mekong and Namkhan rivers. We find a hotel on the side of the latter. It’s absolutely stunning at night. Everything is lit up by soft light, candle light, or gold fairy lights: as if the entire town was constructed in the image of a single designer. A gentle white and brown and gold sums up almost every restaurant, hotel, or bar. We eat chicken and wander through gorgeous narrow streets into a cute night bazaar, each stall having a red, illuminated, blanket roof. We smell French food coming from a bakery (Laos was a French colony and still has Gallic cuisine), before we book a tour to see a waterfall tomorrow – and for just a fiver! For some much desired alcohol we stopped in a place called simply: Lao bar. It’s 2-4-1 cocktails and they’re just £1. 80 each. Then we headed to an out-of-the-way but much revered bar called Utopia. Before you enter you must take your shoes off, and there are piles of flip-flops by the door where westerners have temporarily disposed of them. It’s a brilliant little place, very busy and illuminated by candle light, and is the main ‘nightclub’ in Luang for a reason. There is a sand pit to play volleyball in, and tables with cushions and rugs to lie on. A vodka and Coke is £1. 70! We play cards, eat a really nice snack and go home.

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The epic Kuang Si waterfalls.

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We wake early and take a transfer to the Kuang Si waterfalls. It’s very crowded, and there is a little black bear ‘zoo’ near the entrance. We take a short jungle-ey trek to the actual waterfall which is more like a series of plunge pools, like a beautiful, watery staircase for giants. The water is turquoise, almost artificially so. There are loads of tourists swimming in them, but for some reason, there is one completely empty. So me and Sophie enjoy it to ourselves for a bit before others catch on and jump in with us. We spent most of the day there and it was in that plunge pool that I had another this is travelling moment. I suspected we could have walked up to the top to see the main waterfall but Sophie was adamant this was it (it would later turn out I was right, and we were denied a lovely view of the falls and mountains because of her nuisance-ness). Towards the end of the afternoon storm clouds started accruing, and we got some food at a dirty little shack while our bus waited for its quota of tourists to arrive. A cat that had an eye missing and seriously looked like it had rabies or something kept checking us out, and brushing past us as we tried to eat the (horrible) rice in the shack. The locals seemed a little bemused by our concern of the cat, noticing us retreating from it, as they tried to scare it off. Maybe there was nothing wrong with it, but it kept coming back and we abandoned our meal.

We return to our hotel to shower and follow the Book’s recommendation to a bar called the Hive. It was unremarkable. After a few insanely cheap cocktails we returned to Utopia. It’s a common fact that every traveler in Luang Prabang goes bowling after 11:30pm, because Laos has a drinking curfew at that time and all the bars close. For whatever reason it’s allowed, no, encouraged, for everyone to visit the bowling alley once the bars close. And even then, you can continue buying and drinking alcohol. It makes no sense, but that’s Asia I suppose. Sophie and I are a bit angsty at first because you’re supposed to go in groups. Luckily a friendly and drunken Australian – Lisa White -literally embraced us and encouraged us into the back of her tuk-tuk. The tuk-tuk itself had five groups in it: Us, Lisa and her brother Andy, a Frenchman, two Estonians, and two English girls. The bowling alley was mundane in design but odd in experience. Perhaps a hundred or so drunk backpackers playing terribly and drinking the national beer: Beer Lao (which has a sweet taste). Sophie won the first game, I won the second, and everyone stopped caring who’s turn it was by the third. The bowling alley closed at 2:30am and Sophie took the names of our bowling team: of the Swedish girls, the Aussie siblings, and a lone Englishwoman, Rowena. It was all good fun, and with the waterfall experience of the day, probably the best and most complete day we’ve had so far on our adventure!

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The bowling team.

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We woke up hungover, ate breakfast, and went back to bed. Afterwards, we walked the beautiful streets of Luang Prabang for more food. We found a Gallic restaurant serving absolutely awful French onion soup (not like what we had in Paris and not fitting with expectations!) and booked our trip down to Vang Vieng tomorrow, another tourist trap in northern Laos. Lethargically, hungover and in the beating sun, we stagger to a bakery and sit outside, enjoying a nice view of the mountains and a bamboo bridge over the Namkhan. Sophie bought a coffee and I got an ice cream. In the afternoon, we decided to climb Phousi Hill, which was just over the road. It was a hard ascent of 300 meters of stairs in the heat and humidity, but we were lured by the Book’s promise that it was great for “sunset junkies”. We waited two hours for it and then it partially clouded over, slightly dampening the effect; all without a drink or with a proper place to sit down too, and with loads of westerners to boot. It was still a lovely view though: cliff-faces and rocky hills on the horizon, covered in shrubs. Both rivers can be seen, the Mekong dwarfing its junior partner. We descended and headed near the night market for some street food. It’s different from the other street food we’ve experienced in the sense that it’s a buffet and people are sat eating at tables, and all-you-can-eat for 10, 000 kip. The food was cold and weird, though. Fearing an upset stomach in the morning, I skipped the meat and ate mostly vegetables. Our last stop in the night was an Aussie sports bar not far from Utopia. There I watched what would be the most boring Liverpool game in recent memory. We had a few drinks, pizza, and went home knowing we’ve a 6 – 7 hour coach journey in the morning.

Luang Prabang/Vang Vieng – Day 19

We have breakfast and talk to a lovely French couple on the patio about how fantastic Southeast Asia is. Then a tuk-tuk arrives to transport us to the bus station. There are people on it and waiting. Now comes the time to pay for the hotel we had spent three nights in. (I’d wanted to pay on arrival but they insisted otherwise.) The card machine wouldn’t work! And the people in the tuk-tuk are waiting and growing frustrated. Fortunately, we have cash. We head to the station and a minibus is waiting for us despite the fact we had booked and paid for a VIP bus. The excuse is the air con wasn’t working on the only VIP bus but as we know, nothing goes to plan in Southeast Asia (and especially, we found, in Laos). The journey is seven hours, not what we expected. Laos is roughly the size of the UK, but there are no motorways – not even railroads! It was a twisty, turney, gravel-ey path that took us well into the mountains and out again. At one point it got so cold we turned the air conditioning off. There were a few toilet stops and a lunch included (rice and vegetables) in the trip. We finally reached Vang Vieng and jumped in a tuk-tuk that carried with it a vastly inflated price for westerners. Our accommodation is out of the way but acceptable: the bed being large and comfortable. We went for a walk to get orientated with the area, despite it getting late. Mountains peered out over the bars, massage parlors, and mini-marts. Westerners are everywhere here, mostly drunken spring break types with “In the… Tubing… Vang Vieng” or “Sakura bar: Drink triple, see double, act single” vests on. It’s hard to believe such a party magnet exists. Vang Vieng, once a US army base used to attack the Vietnamese, a place I’d never heard of, in a country I’d also never heard of prior to booking our flights. And here it is, defacto spring break and stuffed with Canadians, Americans, Australians, Brits, and Europeans all getting wasted and taking drugs. We look for the tubing desk because that’s the major pull factor to Vang Vieng. Scores of people are furious and kicking off because they returned after 6pm and had to pay a late fee. One American girl was absolutely furious with the staff because they allegedly had told her the wrong info, making her late in the first place. The town turns really rowdy at night, we find a place called Australian Sunset bar and play pool. Then we watched football in Gary’s Irish pub. We returned to the guesthouse relatively early, wanting to be up handy for tubing in the morning.

20

Sophie and I had a nice breakfast but it’s already 12: 15pm by the time we’re queuing at the tubing desk. It’s 55, 000 kip a tube, a 60, 000 deposit and 20, 000 is taken from the deposit if you’re late. We get our rubber rings and are taken down to the ‘start’ of the river, listening to an American boast to some Canadians “Where else do you get scenery like this?” (To which the Canadians, being from British Columbia, responded: “Where we’re from!”) There are ten or twenty people at the start, their feet still on the bank but floating on the rings in the water. The river is mostly very shallow, as it’s dry season. You could wade across. The time is 12: 30 now and it’s supposed to take 3 hours to float all the way down so we think we’ll have plenty of time before it goes dark. However, after about five minutes or drifting, we hear music. On the right side of the river is a bar, absolutely heaving, like a scene from American Pie. Lots of people dancing in swimwear and drinking and playing beer-pong. There are men throwing ropes out to us, and they pull us in. Straight away they hand us a shot and give us a wristband. There are probably six different games of beer-pong being played. The ‘bar’ is all outside, with just a little rooftop overhead. We have a drink and leave – after all, we are here to tube, not to party! But we can already hear the music from the next bar. Sophie points at a menacing black cloud over a distant mountain, claiming she saw lightning. And the wind is blowing toward us… We are thrown another rope to the second bar, have a drink and go. We feel obliged to visit each one, thinking there aren’t that many anyway. (There used to be tons but people got too drunk and drug-intoxicated and a shocking number of tourists died of broken necks or just drowning in the river. These stories really haunted me before coming, that and the scam of the slowboat, before I realized what it was really like.)

The third bar was quite full, but nothing like the still-rowdy first one. I see with my own eyes a fork of lightning from the dark clouds above the mountain tops. We have a beer and a snack and tube to the fourth, which is supposed to be the last. The thunderstorm hits as we get a drink, the temperature drops, and the heavens open. People dance in the rain and we dance with them, it’s an awesome moment. Fortunately the beer is cheap and the shots are free, and we make a lot of friends. Waiting for the storm to pass derailed our plans, however. Now we are hours behind and extremely drunk. Once the storm cleared we tubed to a fifth bar, one that wasn’t supposed to have existed. I completely lose track of time and end up being among those last to leave. And worse, somebody had stolen my ring! It’s not at the riverside. Having only traveled a fraction of the river, I’m disappointed as everyone seems to be heading to a row of tuk-tuks waiting for us, even if it is getting dark. Apparently no one “actually” goes all the way down the river – they just tube to the bars. I had a great time, but feel a little cheated. It’s all too much for us, though. Sophie and I are vomiting in bed before 8pm, and I never got my deposit back.

21

It’s an early rise for us, but actually we’d slept for about ten hours. Luckily, a combination of late-night vomiting and a good sleep seems to have taken care of most of the hangover. After breakfast we trekked long under a hot sun to the centre of Vang Vieng, where we decided to spend the day at the ‘blue lagoon’ we’ve heard so much about. After eating some fried vegetables for lunch we found a tuk-tuk and bartered a price from 150, 000 kip to 120, 000 (though there were hidden costs: another 1000 each to travel over a wooden toll bridge on the way there, and the same again over another toll bridge just to enter the lagoon). The water is beautiful and cold and deep at the lagoon, but it’s a thin sliver – like a blue cut or gash into the surface of the earth. There are crowds of westerners here, including Lisa and Andy and Ellie, someone we befriended sheltering from the storm while tubing. There are wooden swings and people climb the trees and jump in the water from perhaps fifteen feet. Naturally, it’s a gorgeous day. The sun is out and the mountains circle the lagoon. We sit on the rocks and keep cool in the water and talk to our traveling friends. At the base of the nearest mountain, a dozen or so meters away from the water, is a network of caves, and some people look as though they are about to go climbing. It gets late. Ellie leaves, we leave soon after. The tuk-tuk driver, who drove us here, is still waiting for us. For a grand total of £9, he had taken us eight kilometers, waited three hours, and was now ready to take us back. We tell Ellie (who’s traveling on her own – we met a lot of lone women travelers, but never men) we’ll meet her at Sakura bar, but our stomachs churn at the thought of too much alcohol. Back in Vang Vieng, we book a minibus to Vientiane for 50, 000 and have dinner. We meet Rowena again, who’s drunk and cuddling any street cat/dog that’s wandering around on the dark pavements, and mentions the possibility of a flight from Vientiane to Hanoi in Vietnam, in order to avoid the infamous ‘bus from hell’ we keep hearing about – something that seems an inevitable part of the journey. Specifically: It’s a bus journey that lasts anywhere from 17 – 38 hours because Laos’ shoddy roads can be so unpredictable. We head to Kangaroo Sunset Bar, play a game of pool, and stick to the soft drinks. We decide not to head to Sakura bar, despite my wanting the tee shirt you get when you buy two drinks (Sophie writes ‘don’t blame me’ next to these words on the physical version). On our way back to our accomodation we spot a lone firefly, glowing and hovering like a flickered cigarette ash. It’s cool because I’ve never seen a firefly before, even if it was just the one. We decide we’ll go to Vientiane and find a guesthouse when we’re there, partly because we can’t be bothered looking for one on the internet and partly because they are cheaper on the door. We think of the bus from hell and read endless, desperate horror stories from other travelers instead. It puts a grim foreboding mood on the night, making us look at the list of expensive flights we can’t afford instead.

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The Blue Lagoon.

Vang Vieng/Vientiane – Day 22

It’s a rush about in the morning to get ready and have breakfast before the minivan picks us up at 9:15am. There’s a lovely wooden little veranda where breakfast is served out among the greenery with a view of one of the side roads. The minivan actually arrives close to 10am and we are frustrated to find the driver was (we were told) about to leave without us until we rang the company using the hotel phone! It’s a 3 – 4 hour journey from Vang Vieng to Vientiane supposedly, we got there in three. The roads are flat, not at all like the mountainous journey between Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng, so the journey is much easier. We meet Rosie and Otto here and talk for the entire journey, which was a lot of fun, they’re a fantastic couple. The minivan dropped us at a busy street in Vientiane with plenty of guesthouses and a bakery called Pricco. The sun was unbearable – the hottest day I think so far. Lugging our bags, we headed to the bakery for some respite. The air conditioning was phenomenal, and we used the WiFi as an opportunity to locate nearby guesthouses on the map. Lao Silk Hotel is close and, according to Tripadvisor, good, so we walk down the next street toward it. But we find another one on the way that’s even cheaper! They allow us to look at the room, which is only fan assisted but under £9 so we took it. We headed out thinking of our options: the bus from hell or the expensive but one hour flight to Hanoi. We shop around several tourism places for flights. A man gives us a $155 price, which actually turns out to be £101. Cheaper than any we’d found online. (Despite the Book warning of high commission fees.) We buy them and immediately the foreboding spell of the bus dispels. We head back to Pricco and spend ages eating lunch and leeching the WiFi.

In the night we headed down to the market down by the Mekong. There was a yoga class right there for all to see, next to the main road, which appeared to be blocked off. We wandered around following the guidance of the Book perhaps a bit too literally, getting lost, and have to retrace our steps to where all the good bars were located. There’s a place called Khop Chai Deu that looks expensive and is glowing with fairy lights – something that would fit comfortably in Luang Prabang – but is actually not too bad. We order food and some soft drinks and wonder what tomorrow will have in store for us.

23

For breakfast it’s an ‘Aussie’. Which, like the full English and Irish and American breakfasts, is just bacon, sausages and eggs. But bacon in Laos is literally just the trimmings of the fat. Maybe the Laotians eat the best part and us farang (a Thai – maybe Southeast Asian – racial slur directed toward whites) only get the scraps. A ‘Lao tea’ incidentally, is indistinguishable to a normal tea – except there’s no milk. That’s something you don’t get offered in Asia, and so I’m used to black tea at this point. We jump a tuk-tuk to the COPE Visitor Centre, a non-for-profit museum and organisation that manufactures prosthetic limbs for Laotians suffering the legacy of war. Laos, though it was neutral and though the US never declared war on it, is the most heavily bombed country on earth. The US undertook 580, 000 bombing runs in 10 years, and now many of them litter the countryside with deadly consequences. At the museum we get a glimpse of the remarkable endurance of these people, of the handmade limbs the locals have built by recycling bomb metals. One family even used a bomb shell as a garden planter! It really was an eye opener.

Afterwards, we went swimming. There’s not much to do in Vientiane. It’s a dusty old former French and Communist town that’s a bit grim, really. The Book isn’t too kind on it. The pool we swam in was actually the one Laotian Olympians use to train in. It was big, being the national swimming pool, and dirty around the edges. The loungers were chipped and made of old wood, and you can see why Laos isn’t exactly decorated with swimming medals. Otto and Rosie are sunbathing by the pool and ask if we’d like to meet them later for drinks. We agree, they leave, and it starts to rain as soon as we jump in the pool. The water is warm though, so we stay for a bit longer than intended. We head back to Pricco and see the Swiss couple we met in Thailand eating there. We have lunch and head to the hotel for a shower, then return to Khop Chai Deu for a steak. Otto and Rosie meet us there and we sit and talk – for hours again like we did on the minivan – until the staff throw us out. We walk in the direction of our accommodation and are surprised to see the street is now teeming with prostitutes all standing forlornly and eerily on the street corners. No one else is even about, just the prostitutes. We stop at a conflict between our paths and wrap up the conversation: everything from traveling to jobs and private life, even what became of those English tourists murdered on Ko Samui. The mosquitoes are out in force but, for some reason, only attack Sophie and Rosie. We wish each other luck, say our goodbyes, and go our separate ways.

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The colonial, gold white and brown buildings of Luang Prabang.

 

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