Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Over the river and through the woods…to Laos we go!

14-Dec-2009 by Jason

Alright, after a gluttonous day waiting in Pai, our minivan to Chiang Khong, Thailand, started boarding around 8pm. By boarding I mean we walked about a half km through the random alleys of Pai, set our big bags on the ground behind the van and watched as 2 Thai guys attempted to load all that luggage in a little slot in the back next to the seats. We were all loaded then we proceeded to sit there for another half hour before we finally took off, don’t ask me why. We finally got on the road around 8.45pm and were quickly whipping around the curves on 1095 (the road that links Pai with 107, a major north south road in Thailand) for about three hours. At our first stop (there were 2 vans traveling as a caravan) the passengers in the 2nd van were yelling at their driver to “Please slow down!!” Apparently that 2nd van left Pai about 45 minutes after our van left, but arrived at the first pit stop a few moments before us…woooh! I bet that was one hell of a fun ride! A few more pit stops later and around 4am we pulled up to a random hotel, were told to take a room and that we’d need to be ready by 7am! Ouch…not so much sleep. We took off from there and headed to this guesthouse where we had a complimentary (or should I say included in the ticket price) breakfast (scrambled eggs and toast) and then were taken to the pier where we exited Thailand through immigration and proceeded to hop on a ferry boat to cross the Mekong River and enter Laos.

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We arrived to a large mass of people and 2 pieces of paperwork (entry/exit cards and visa purchase paperwork.) We filled out all our stuff, waited in a very long line (of all the words we’ve picked up I refuse to switch to “queue”) and finally purchased our visa for USD $35! (We’ve entered a part of the world where the US Dollar is king, it seems, and most large prices here are quoted in US Dollars, for airline tickets, etc. Interestingly, visa prices into Laos vary by your country of origin, with the US @ $35, Afghanistan @ $40 and Canada @ $42! Why are Canada and Afghanistan paying more than us?!?!) So we proceeded up the hill after entering the country, while wearing the stickers we were given back on the other side, we were stopped at a table where they collected our passports (why, we didn’t know at the time) and got into a pickup truck where we were taken to a restaurant/convenience store.

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After about 20 minutes of sitting around there we were informed that they were using our passports to go buy our boat tickets at the dock and that we’d be leaving around 11.30. In addition, this guy offered to allow us to book and pay for a hotel room for our overnight stop in Pakbeng, Laos. At this point we were all a little put off by all the routing and dramatics, the stops without much information…and the lack of sleep didn’t help. We went ahead and booked the room and paid the man in Huay Xai, assuming that the hotel down the river would accept the little slip (not a receipt) that he offered us as proof of having booked and paid for a room. Bought a few drinks/snacks for the boat and they returned with our passports and a boat ticket for each of us at 11am. We walked down the hill and boarded the boat and we were off. Now, I didn’t know exactly what to expect and had heard these horror stories of packed/cramped boats and loud, deafening noises from the engine in the rear, so I was expecting the worst. It turned out to be a really nice boat (in my opinion) with plenty of space. Our bags piled in the rear near the engine room, most people were pretty far away from the engine, and while some who arrived late and had to sit in the back had hard wooden benches, we arrived early enough to get some seats up front that were nice padded seats (think seats ripped out of a mini-van) The rest of the day was a nice 6.5 hour day down the Mekong River with some absolutely gorgeous scenery!

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We arrived in Pakbeng, the half way town down the river, around 6pm. Getting off the boat was amusing because we stopped along a jagged, rocky shore that was pretty steep to climb up and very uneven. Loaded down with two back packs I know I was a sight to see climbing up those rocks and I’m not sure how I didn’t fall on the way up!

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At this point we’re a group of 5. In addition to Team England (remember the lovely nurses from London?) we met Trudy on our van ride from Pai and she got a room with the girls for the night in Pakbeng. We checked in (uneventful) and the room was actually pretty nice (even with a natural gas water heater in the shower so we could get a warm shower when the power is off.) One interesting thing about Pakbeng is that it doesn’t actually have municipal electricity service, so every shop, restaurant and guest house runs on a generator and electricity is generally only available from 6pm – 11.30pm or so. We headed to dinner, eating at a little Indian restaurant recommended by Eddie at our guest house in Pai and had a pretty nice little meal there. Including Swiss’s first Beer Lao…which he had to get a picture of…

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Day 2 down the Mekong River

It’s now Wednesday morning and we’re ready for our second and final day on the slow boat down the Mekong River to Luang Prabang, Laos. [A quick word on the “speed boat” option from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang. We did see a few of them going down the river on our journey, and it is a one day trip instead of two, but you’re on a tiny boat (6 people is the most I saw on board) and constantly in a life jacket and a crash helmet! Hopefully with ear plugs because those things are loud. At this time of year, early December, the river appeared fairly low to me (based upon water lines you could see on rocks at the shore.) I, personally, would not be taking one of those in the cool, dry season, on a low river and they didn’t look to safe to me. Take at your own risk!] The second day was also nice, we set off around 9am, with the only downside that we arrived a little too late and while we had seats up front (right up front) they were on a hard wooden bench, a downgrade from our minivan seats, but with our cushions it was doable.

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It was also a little more crowded since they had 2 boats worth of people in just a single boat making the final leg of the journey today. I was a little hungry late morning and ready for a snack and they had Mama Cup in the back (think Ramen Cup of Soup back home) for 10,000 kip (roughly a little over USD 1.) Now I asked to pay in Thai baht as I was out of Laos kip at this point and she punched some numbers on her calculator and asked me for 500 Thai baht (roughly USD 17.50!!) I was most certainly not paying that and figured it was a minor error. The girl asked her mother to come back and do the conversion and she then asked me for 450 Thai baht…still a no go. I finally took the calculator and showed them how I arrived at 40 Thai baht, or just over 1 US Dollar, that I would be. They were agreeable and off I was with my spicy pork soup, but still amazed at how the whole thing went down. We later made a stop (there were several random stops) where we picked up some goods: 3 dead mountain lions or cats of some sort and a very large fish…see below:

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While children sold smoked fish and scarves to us on the boat while hanging off the rocks:

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The rest of the trip was uneventful and we passed the last third of the trip playing cards with 4 other people. We arrived in Luang Prabang (to a proper pier of sorts) around 4.30pm. We took some brochures from a few people handing out info on guest houses and settled on Chitlatda Guesthouse, at least for the night. The room was only 60,000 kip/night (about 240 Thai baht or USD 7) and included a hot shower, fan (which you don’t need in these cool temperatures) and seemed well located near many restaurants and only a 5 minute walk to the main street in town, so we ended up staying here our entire time in Luang Prabang. At this point Swiss’s ATM card hadn’t been working for 3 days now, so he headed off to make some calls home from a bar that had free Wifi while I went to exchange from Thai baht into Laos Kip to at least use for dinner and a definitely needed beer after that long journey was finally over!

I joined him for a beer after he’d discovered what had happened to his ATM card (long story) and I’d gotten into the currency exchange place right as they closed at 6pm. The girls joined us and we watched the opening ceremonies of the 25th SEAgames, going on just down the road in Vientiane, the capital city of Laos. It was interesting to watch (think small scale Olympic games) and you could tell that Laos people were very proud to be hosting these games (every place in town had in on their TV and we got a few unhappy stares when a few people at our table were talking a bit too loud.) Afterwards we headed to a little place down the road for dinner, the girls choice because this place advertised red wine and I think they’d had enough beer and were longing for something else. I had a delicious plate of chicken stir fried with chilis – Lao Style with sticky rice and three others at our table had Lao Style BBQ (eerily similar to Thai style BBQ we had in Pai)

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After dinner Swiss headed back to use the Wifi in order to try and make a Skype call to his bank while I joined the girls at Lao Lao Garden, a great little restaurant/bar built into the side of a hill (think walking up campus at UC Berkeley) with small bonfires and tables spread throughout. Now, a strange aspect of night life in Laos…they have a national curfew of midnight. This means that foreigners and locals alike should be at home and not roaming the streets after that time. So at 11.15pm it was last call, the bar was shuttered at 11.30pm (with bar staff cleaning all around us) and after finishing our last drink we were walking home at 11.40pm, just as bar staff was leaving about the same time to head home too. I really wasn’t complaining, though, as after such a long journey I was ready for bed!

Exploring Luang Prabang by foot

We spent Thursday morning sleeping in, taking in a very late breakfast and then walking around Luang Prabang by foot for about 2 hours. It’s not a very large town and we saw most of it by 2.30pm.

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We headed home to gather our things and set back out around 4pm to grab a snack with the goal of watching the first half of the Laos vs Singapore soccer match (part of those SEAgames) The game was actually later than we thought, so we instead headed to the Laos Red Cross where they had an herbal sauna for just 10,000 kip (just over USD 1) with the money collected going to support the local red cross…a good use of money we thought.

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The sauna was…small to say the least…but fragrant and very herbal (lots of lemongrass and galenica if I had to guess.) We spent about an hour there then headed to the sports bar to watch the game and split an order of barbecued water buffalo skewers (lean but tasty!) The girls joined us right at the end of the match and we then headed to The Hive, a highly recommended restaurant and bar across the street as they had a special, order a pizza get a free beer with your order. The free beer was a nice touch, but I must say that their pizza was absolutely amazing. Cooked in a wood fired oven and prepared when you order (trust us, we waited) it was by far the best pizza we’ve had in Asia thus far! In addition, they had a fashion show of clothing from local hill tribes (the Hive, along with the book store next door donate a portion of their profits to support the creation of native handicrafts by local tribes which the tribes sell for much needed income) making me feel just a little bit better about that pizza I consumed while in Asia :)

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We ran to a little bakery up the road that had all food available for half off after 9.30pm (the lemon tart was delicious!!) and headed to bed as we were getting up early the next morning.

Please get out of that monk’s face…a picture of me instead!?!

So I was up at 5.30am on Friday morning in order to see the monks in Luang Prabang collect alms from locals on one of the main roads. We had seen signs to be respectful of the monks, to not get in their faces, and for women to always be at a lesser height than any given monk, most certainly when addressing them. We of course arrived and took a seat on the street across from where the Lao people were assembled to give their offerings, surrounded by gawking European/Western tourists and Asian tourists (mainly Thai and Chinese if I had to guess.) Amazingly these people were right up getting FLASH photographs of the monks as they proceeded down the street collecting these offerings. I found it to be incredibly rude and disrespectful for people to be doing that (some might argue, rightfully so, that I was also part of the problem by even being there and intruding on a local tradition. I certainly can’t argue with that but at least felt that I was respectful by keeping my distance and staying near the ground, but of course that’s just my opinion.) While I don’t fully understand the purpose of this daily ritual (I assume locals earn some karma points by making offerings to these monks) it was great to see this local tradition take place.

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We then had a little breakfast, got everyone organized and headed out in a sawngthaew to the Kuangsi Waterfall. Let me start by saying best waterfall of the trip so far! It was 35,000 kip/each (5 people) for the ride out there (about 25-30 km, so worth the price in my opinion) and the scenery along the way was gorgeous!

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Upon arrival we each paid 20,000 kip as an entrance fee and hiked about 5-7 minutes up a slight hill to the base of the main waterfall.

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These pictures don’t do justice to how amazing this sight was and how pristine the water is! We then took a small path to the left back down and encountered a series of natural pools along the way. Swiss, Caroline and Trudy took a dip in the first pool (freezing cold, of course) and pretty content after that swim, we were ready to leave until we were informed that there was a rope swing in the next pool down.

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Swiss was pretty certain he was gonna go off of it so we headed down to the next pool where he proceeded to swing off into the pool twice (there’s video but I’ll need a better internet connection before I can include it!)

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A quick afternoon nap (hey, I was tired after getting up that early ;-) and we woke up and headed to the night market for dinner. Down a small side alley was a road full of food vendors with delicious options (noodles, curries, vegetables, grilled chicken, grilled fish, other random grilled bits and parts, and soups.) We stopped at “Sum Soup” for a bowl of Pork Noodle Soup and a beer. It was delicious!! Afterwards we tried some spring rolls and lettuce wraps from a vendor up the road and ran into the girls, so we took them back to Sum Soup where they had dinner while we enjoyed another beer and split a delicious piece of cake from a local bakery. While at the soup place our second time I was seated next to three vacationing Thai people and struck up a conversation. It was great talking to a Thai person in fluent English and talking about various things (their history with coups, Hillary Clinton’s take on Thai politics, how he doesn’t see that many Americans that are backpackers, etc.) Afterwards we headed to Utopia, a bar down by the river, for a few drinks. We met Anna, a nice girl from North London who was left sitting there by herself (she’d been waiting a while for some friends to maybe show up) so we invited her over and the contingent of British grew even more. Later on two British guys joined us and squeezed into the end of our table and the amount of incorrectly spoken English continued to grow. :) A couple of people headed down to the bonfire while I, though, headed back to get some rest.

A random day of activities

This morning the girls took off on a 2 day trek (we’ll join up with them again in Vang Vieng for Caroline’s birthday on 12/16.) I got up and grabbed breakfast/checked e-mail while Swiss slept in a little later. I walked around to get a sense of prices for bus tickets to Phonsavan, our next destination, in order to see the Plain of Jars. We went back out together to check in with the lowest price option I found, which did not include a transfer out to the bus station. The owner of our guest house came down 10,000 kip each, so we decided to book with him, in a minibus, rather than pay the same price for the public bus (minibus service is usually a little more comfortable and a little faster, although we’ll see if that holds true in Laos.) We grabbed a quick baguette sandwich on our walk back from the other travel agency (the chicken and cheese was tasty!) and then I headed to the Royal Museum while Swiss went in search for a pickup soccer game. The museum (the King’s home converted into a museum) is nice although small, and quite recently built, most of the work done between 1900-1975. (There’s no longer a King in Laos since 1975 when they became a “democratic republic.” I say that in quotes only because it’s a country that now has a constitution although with communist roots and certainly does not allow the personal freedoms of expression, association or the press.) The building itself is very nice, along with checking out a small garage with the King’s former vehicles and a photo exhibit entitled “Floating Buddha” in which a German photographer chronicled through mainly B&W photos a meditation course taught to young and novice monks in the woods of Laos about 4-5 years ago. The pictures were amazing and an incredible snapshot of life and training as a Buddhist monk in Laos.

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Swiss’s search for a pickup game was somewhat successful. He walked out to a sports field we’d seen a day earlier on our ride out to the waterfall and found some young kids (9-12 years old) playing soccer. He talked to a few of them, showed a young girl how his digital camera works and gave his water bottle to a group of boys that had just finished playing and were thirsty. The boys started talking to Swiss and he kicked the ball around with them for a little while then headed back to our guest house.

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We then headed out to climb up That Phu Si & Wat Tham Phu Si, all on a great hill above Luang Prabang. The pictures don’t do it justice, again, but the views up here of Luang Prabang, the Mekong River and the surrounding mountains are just amazing. DEFINITELY worth the hike up. Swiss got a some pictures of the sun going down and got a little bored waiting for sunset so he headed back while I waited up there with throngs of people until the sun finally set behind the mountains west of Luang Prabang.

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We grabbed dinner at the Hive again (yes, it’s a repeat but it was good music, nice atmosphere, free beer with a pizza order and really damn good pizza…so YES, we went there again) and ate pizza and used the wifi to upload our post on Pai. We leave at 8.30am on Sunday for our journey to Phonsovan and the Plain of Jars, but more on that in the next post!

2 comments:

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