Our time in Chiang Mai had come to an end and it was time to move on to our next destination, which was the country of Laos, you may pronounce the S if you like. None of us, David, Hannah, or myself, knew much at all about Laos. We had heard stories of many drunk, stoned, tourists dying by being swept away in a river near Vang Vieng known for rope swings, tubing, and every bar having "happy menus". So many such fatalities that the Laos government had recently shut down most tourism in that area....sounds like fun.
We weren't headed for Vang Vieng...not yet at least, we were heading for Luang Prabang. We had heard great things about this small Frenchish town located off the Mekong River.
It is rare that I allow guest writing of the blog, but David exercised such expression and heartfelt disdain in his letter home to his family that I felt it warranted a guest blog appearance. Below are Dave's accounts of our journey from Chiang Mai, Thailand to Luang Prabang, Laos.
We are in the town of Luang Prabang in the country of Laos. The actual trek to get here was an adventure, and by "an adventure" I mean "it sucked". Luckily Jonathan, Hannah, and I could commiserate together along the way and making jokes about the situation made the trip a little easier.
To preface, I am reluctant to express disappointment about cities I travel to, or when guest house or hotel accommodations aren't up to my standards: I don't want to come across as a spoiled westerner unable to appreciate the different ways of life in other parts of the world, or that I don't have a sense of adventure.
But....man, we certainly roughed it to get here. While in Chiang Mai (Thailand) we booked a 2 day "slow boat" ride to get to Luang Prabang. The trip down the river sounded like a great way to see the jungle and villages along the Mekong river. Also, there seemed to be enough positive reviews on travel websites to make it sound like a good choice. It was advertised to include transportation by van to the Lao border, a night's stay at a guest house there, breakfast, lunch for the 1st day of the boat ride, and a scenic two day boat ride split up by a stay in a small town along the way. We envisioned playing chess across from each other on a table, napping, and comfortably strolling around the deck, etc.
We began the journey on a 6-7 hour van ride along with 6 other tourists from Chiang Mai to Chiang Kong which is still in Thailand, about 1 km away from the Laos border.
Mosquito infested jungle our "hotel" was located in.
It's not an important part of the story but the driver was an asshole. We spent the night at a guest house with very minimal amenities, but it was fine. At 8:30 in the morning the front desk handed us three styrofoam boxes of fried rice which was to be our lunch on the boat ride.
Used pillows for $1 to protect our assets on the boat ride.
Shortly after, we were driven to the Lao border in the van, which inexplicably dropped us off 50 yards from the boat dock even though it was raining. We hopped on a small semi covered boat with all of our bags for a short trip across the Mekong river to the customs checkpoint on the Lao side.
It was somewhat chaotic as we processed our visas along with 50 or so other backpackers after which we followed a Lao guy, (who we accepted on faith to be a travel agent associated with the our travel package) who took us to his office to finalize our boat trip pass, etc.
He brought us in front of another Lao man in the "office". He was very nice, and calmly and thoroughly explained why it was important and standard procedure for the 7 of us (my group + 4 british backpackers) to leave our passports with him until we got on the boat. We trustingly did so, and were then packed up into a truck and driven to a convenient type store in a seemingly poor area of town closer to the boat dock. We were told to wait 20 minutes for him to come back, at which time we'd be picked up again and taken to the boat.
After an hour of waiting our group began to discuss whether or not we've just been scammed and are kicking ourselves for doing what we are always told not to do-- allow our passports to be taken from our possession. It was a helpless feeling to realize that we might be stuck in the middle of nowhere in an Indochina jungle.
This is us wondering if we'll ever see our passports again.
Finally they returned, with our passports, and we breathed a sigh of relief. We were taken to the boat. the seats(formerly car van seats in a past life) were not particularly comfortable, but could have been worse. The # of passengers stuffed in the boat was maximized, the bathroom disgusting-- we felt like tourist sized sardines crammed in to maximize profit. There were locals also riding the boat, but they were asked to move to the back of the boat to open up seats for tourists. This was a bit uncomfortable to witness; however, we weren't sure what the backstory was-- were the locals paying less, or nothing? Did they care?
Repurposed van seats for 16 hours on a boat.
After a 7 hour boat ride we were taken to Pakbeng which is the approximate midpoint between Chiang Mai and our destination of Luang Prabang. It was an extremely small riverside town who's economy appears to (now) revolve around the slow boat tourists needing food and shelter for a night. Most tourists, including us, were told to simply book a night's stay once you arrive in town, which was stressful because it was hard to know what level of comfort to expect, i.e. what was good and what was not.
After some deliberating we settled on the 1st place we found, since we did not want to risk losing the room and not being able to find anything else decent. The rooms were not nice from a westerner's standpoint, but most likely extravagant by local standards. A loud fan instead of A/C, a mattress which felt more like a boxspring, but there were four walls and a roof and a bathroom with warm water. However, when we woke up in the morning there was no running water. Not ideal. On the upside, it cost us about $3 U.S. dollars each for the night which included a small breakfast.
We did make a new friend in Pak Beng.
In the morning all of the tourists squeezed back onto the boat for another 7 hours. The scenery on the Mekong is unique and nothing like anything I've seen-- brown water flowing downstream along with tree branches and some trash here and there, with the jungle and hill sides sloping down towards the shore, with the occasional seemingly make-shift village tucked into the river side or up on a hill. That said, 2 hours of floating down the river would have been plenty. 14 hours was a little ridiculous. On a side note, Jon and I couldn't help picturing what it might have been like to be there during the 60's on a U.S. gunship.
We finally arrived in Luang Prabang the next afternoon; however, the boat driver and crew dropped us at a stop before the main downtown dock, where everyone on the boat needed to go. After some mild arguing we collectively gave up when they pretended not to speak english. We soon realized that it was basically a shakedown and that motorcycle taxis (tuk tuks) were waiting to take us the 15 km into town for a ripoff price by local standards (by U.S. dollars it wasn't so bad).
At this point we were all frustrated, pissed off, exhausted, sweaty & dirty and prepared to be disappointed by the $90 a night hotel we booked in advance in Luang Prabang. We eventually found the place, and to our surprise, relief and excitement, it's probably the nicest hotel I've ever stayed at. We were greeted with fresh tea, and our suites have the feel of a French colonial villa, with indoor jacuzzis.
Will write more about our accommodations and the city later, but so far we like it a lot. Like our hotel, it's very French influenced and there's a relaxed vibe.
Off to bed, talk to you guys later,
Couldn't had said it better myself...
It turns out that Luang Prabang was an oasis in the middle of a chaotic communist jungle. The main streets are all built and designed to adhere to a standard design, giving beautiful French colonial uniformity to the town. There was bread! Actual bread! Not rice, not noodles, not crispy cakes of rice or noodles, but bread. Thank god the French colonized (and eventually left) this country. The cafes and restaurants served mostly Laos/French fusion and we had some great meals together.
We were surprised by the sleepy nature of the town, which seemed to basically shut down completely by 11pm. We soon learned that this was a government imposed curfew and in reality anyone on the street after 11pm could be arrested, although this law was rarely, if ever, enforced.
Our first night we took a tuk tuk to the one bar in all of Luang Prabang open after hours. We were basically the only non-locals that showed up which made us both love it and feel slightly uncomfortable being there.
After staying for the past week in cheap guesthouses where running water was an upcharge and mosquitos shared our beds, we were ready for some pampering and luxury. We found it in Luang Prabang at the Xiengthong Palace Hotel. The true test of the Xiengthong Palace was passed when Dave used the bathroom in the hotel lobby. The emphatic thumbs up that he gave Hannah when he emerged from the restroom was a sign that we had chosen well. The hotel grounds were immaculate and breakfast was astoundingly good. Many times these breakfasts in hotels loose their appeal after the first day or so, but this one continued to impress day after day.
We even found a place on the hotel grounds for Dave to introduce us to some much needed workouts, called tobatas. Tobatas are really a fancy name for a 20 minute ass kicking repetition of various exercises requiring coordination and stamina, 2 things that Hannah and I had lost over the past couple of months of traveling.
When Dave mentioned in his letter home that we each had our own private jacuzzi in our suite, he wasn't exaggerating. The sad truth is that none of us actually ever used our jacuzzi. The idea of a private hot tub in your home is a great one, but it wasn't really thought through fully. Having what sounded like a nuclear reactor attempting to heat a pool full of water in your suite is not only extremely noisy, but it takes at least 12 hours to heat the water, all the while creating an incredible humidity. It became so unbearable to be in our rooms with the nuclear powered water heater producing the equivalent of a jungle's humidity that we hit the kill switch and decided it was better to tell people we had a jacuzzi in our room rather than actually use it.
Dave actually never slept the first couple of nights in the Xiengthong Palace. We didn't know this about Dave, which is odd being that he is one of our best friends, but he is a super hero. He spends his evening fighting spiders and geckos. We would learn every morning of a new adventure that Dave embarked on each night, usually around 2am. One of the most memorable was when he left his villa to track down a security guard to kill a large spider in his room. The security guard's response was something to the effect of (all done in hand signals because he didn't speak English) "yeah, its a spider, good night". So, Dave took it upon himself to wage war on the spider. The spider ran, Dave swatted, the spider launched off the wall AT Dave, Dave bobbed, weaved and smashed the spider right there on the floor. Dave 1, Spider 0.
We didn't do much in Luang Prabang aside from relax, take in some baguettes and coffee at local cafes, visit the local markets, and took a day trip to local waterfalls. Our streak of never meeting a Dutch person we don't like continued in Luang Prabang. We became fast friends with Marjanne and Leon who suffered through the ill fated boat from Chiang Mai with us. Leon and Marjanne were awesome folks and we ended up doing a great dinner together at Tamarind, a highly rated local restaurant serving slightly westernized Laos food, as well as taking an awesome trip to the waterfalls.
The waterfalls were actually spectacular. The water seemed to be coming from every direction, filling pools, covering picnic tables and benches, swallowing trees, and basically turning everything around them into rivers of running water.
If you are a devout reader a A Lifeless Ordinary you will remember Hannah's friends from the bar in Chiang Mai. That's right, the ones that she innocently gave her email address to and they not so innocently chose to ignore her husband and his best friend...yeah, those guys. At this point Hannah had received the email that they sent her and we had all read it, admired their excellent writing style, and made fun of them in every way possible. I think Dave even insulted their hair. Well, it was inevitable that we would run into these momos in Luang Prabang, they were going there the same time we were, and it was a small town. Over breakfast one morning at the Xiengthong Palace Dave, Hannah, and I had rehearsed what we would say to these guys when we saw them. The plan was as follows....when we saw them I would thank them for their email to "us" and tell them how happy we were that they wrote "us".
Here we are rehearsing the encounter
When the encounter happened on a street adjacent the Luang Prabang market, the plan was executed without a hitch. After they shouted their favorite phrase, "Hey Hannah!", I bolted like a bat out of hell up to them and recited "thanks so much for writing us, it was great to get your email" at a speed of about 100 words a minute. I think they got the picture because they ignored us every time they saw the 3 of us for the rest of the trip....or they thought I was a lunatic and decided better to cut their losses and stay away from my wife.
The food markets in Luang Prabang also had some great local food. As usual we experienced a culture through the food, eating as we walked, and sampling everything we could.
After a few excellent and refreshing days it was time to leave Luang Prabang and head off to our next destination. We were catching a flight to Hanoi, Vietnam. As we sat in the departure lounge Dave and I browsed the souvenir stand and bought a few Beer Lao T-shirts. When Dave pivoted and knocked over the display of trinkets and kitchen magnets time stood still for a moment. We all watched as at least 50 figurines, magnets, and other chatchkis that no one would ever buy sprayed all over the linoleum floor of Luang Prabang airport. Dave stood frozen, I hid my face with embarrassment, the 2 Japanese girls and Hannah (after her laughter subsided) scurried to pick them up. After all was cleaned up the shop manager stood with 6 broken figurines and looked at Dave, telling him he now must pay $15 each for them. Now, Laos is a communist country and we are sure people have been jailed for less, so the decision between Hannah, Dave, and I, was that we wouldn't pay for anything we felt was unwarranted, but we wouldn't make a scene and let things escalate, we would pay if it came to that. Dave and I approached the counter and the shop manager told us she would pay for half of the damaged items if Dave paid the other half....we refused. We told her we just bought 3 T-shirts, we were good customers and these things weren't worth $15 or close to it. She then said she was going to call the "boss". As she made this phone call we took our seats next to Hannah and told her what was going on. Hannah's response...."she is calling the BOSS? we are in communist Laos! we have no idea who the BOSS is!" Fair point Hannah, Dave and I scurried back up to the counter, paid our dues, and sat back down....leaving Laos without having to meet the boss.