Wednesday August 26, 2015 (Asia, Laos, Southeast Asia)
We’ve spent the last five nights in Luang Prabang, Laos. It was our first stop in the country, and it was a lovely start!
We arrived via airplane from Hanoi, Vietnam. It’s funny: the airport looks incredibly close to the city on a map, but it takes a surprisingly long time to get into the city since the bridge layout is really poorly done. You kind of drive in a big circle to get into the core. The good was, though, that the ATM at the airport worked splendidly and there were prepaid taxis who even knew where our hotel was. Solid start!
Initially we’d only planned for three nights in Luang Prabang, but once we got a feel for the city we extended to five. We had several early morning runs that began around 5:30am. One of the only redeeming factors of waking up that early in Luang Prabang is that it allows you to observe the monks’ procession through the town. Hundreds of monks wander through the city in the early morning mist to collect alms from the citizens. The locals kneel down along the side of the road with urns of rice prepared. As the monks pass by, each monk stops to receive a handful of rice from the giver. Everything takes place silently. It’s a beautiful and haunting sight. I decided not to take any pictures of it because… well, it just seemed wrong!
Exploring the city was a lot of fun. Luang Prabang is chock full of old temples and beautiful, well-maintained architecture. Every evening there’s a night market along the main street that completely closes it down limiting all of the traffic to pedestrians. In the pictures, the night market is shown in the red and blue tent tops. I’m amazed that so many vendors are willing to repeat the same tear-down and set-up process every single day. Especially because the market is only really open from about 6pm to 10pm. You see, Laos (the entire country!) has a curfew of midnight. So in order to get everybody home on time, things have to start shutting down pretty early. The curfew didn’t negatively affect us much since we were getting up so early anyway.
Several times Sandra and I crossed the “bamboo bridge” in town. Why the quotation marks, you ask? Well, because in the wet season there’s no bamboo bridge at all. It gets washed away or destroyed. And in its place there are a couple of people willing to paddle you to and fro across the river for a little under a dollar per person. Sandra and I took advantage a couple of times – mostly in search of a cursed pizza place we never managed to actually eat at. We dropped by three times and either we couldn’t locate it or it was closed on every occasion. Bummer. Just wasn’t meant to be, I suppose!
On the occasions that we didn’t cross the Nam Khan River by boat we crossed on foot via a separate bridge. Our first two crossings of this bridge took place well after dusk. So we couldn’t really see where we were going. The footpath for this bridge consisted of three pieces of what appeared to be 1x6 slats of wood. With many gaps in between. You can see a picture of Sandra standing on it. And this bridge is a good 50m or so above the level of the river. You can actually feel the wood slats bending under your feet as you put your weight on them. I honestly don’t think I’ve walked over a scarier bridge. Let’s be glad all of our crossings were relatively uneventful!
We stayed at a place called the Villa Mahasok. We had a lovely room with breakfast included for 15 USD per night. Amazing! The breakfasts were fantastic, and we ended up settling on the banana pancakes for breakfast every day. And Lao green tea. Great combination! We only had one hitch in the hotel, and that took place on our very first night.
There I was staying up way too late on my computer. Story of my life. I had considered going to bed about thirty minutes before, but something caught my eye and I was still awake. I decided it was time to call it a night and I stood up from the bed. Into a layer of water. All along the floor. Utter confusion swept over me – what the heck is going on?! I immediately turned on the light and woke Sandra up with a line something like: “Uhh, Sandra. Help me get all of the stuff off the floooooohhh God GET IT OFF THE FLOOR!” There was water everywhere. It seemed to be coming in through the door, and I heard some commotion outside of our room. I opened the door to find a team of both staff and residents madly tossing towels and mops all across the floor. But more importantly, it was raining from the ceiling. Indoors. “Uhm… what’s going on?” “A water tank broke on the roof.”
Yikes. It looked like a dump truck full of water had dropped its load on the floor above us. Water was streaming in rivulets down the staircases and out of every crack in the ceiling. It was chaos. I joined in the battle and started throwing towels into the mess and squeezing them dry into buckets. Within about ten minutes it was in control. I just couldn’t stop shaking my head at my luck: had I gone to bed a bit earlier I would have had my laptop on the floor charging by the door. In other words, I would no longer have a working laptop. We got incredibly lucky and nothing was really damaged. Good thing we pack everything in plastic bags within our backpacks. Quite the scare, though! Total validation for staying up way too late, too. I will never sleep again.
One big attraction in the town is to climb up Mount Phousi to witness the sunset. It’s a hill about 100m tall smack in the middle of everything. You pay a couple of bucks to march up there and take a peek. Although the crowds can be a bit heavy, the view is really spectacular. I didn’t have my camera the first time up, so I made Sandra do the climb again. The second time around, unfortunately, the sunset wasn’t quite as nice. So instead of an epic sunset with brilliant colours type of picture, you get a nice evening light over misty hills kind of picture. Such is life.
The second time up Mount Phousi we noticed vendors selling tiny little woven cages containing two small birds. The idea being that you take the birds up to the top and release them. Sandra and I felt terrible as soon as we saw them. Sandra’s first instinct was to buy some right away just to let the birds out. They really had no room to move around whatsoever. I agreed, and we picked up a pair. We only took them about 20m away before opening up the cage and letting them go. At first it seemed like a great idea to free some of these birds. And then I realized that all we did was support a cottage industry that involves trapping birds in tiny confined spaces and having people pay to release them. It’s one of those lose-lose situations. Either we don’t do anything and let these birds suffer or we free some of the birds and potentially encourage more to suffer. Sucks. Laos should stop doing this.
The other big attraction around Luang Prabang is the Kuang Si Waterfall. It’s about 35km away, so you basically just take whatever form of transport you want over there, hang out for two hours, and then come back. The waterfall itself is gorgeous. You can also swim around in the cascading pools that surround the waterfall. Sandra got quite a scare when we entered the pools. She noticed that she kept rubbing up against some kind of twig underwater. She didn’t do anything at first. After a while it got frustrating, so she swept her leg in a big arc to find out where this branch was. But she didn’t feel anything. At which point she immediately realized that it was not any kind of foliage touching her feet: it was fish nibbling at her. This is serious nightmare fuel for Sandra. She started a bit of a low-level scream upon this realization. But hey, these are those little dead skin eating fish that people pay good money for. And this treatment is complimentary. So we should all be happy, right?!
Food was generally of pretty high quality in town. We frequented a place called Atsalin Restaurant that we’d highly recommend. For the equivalent of about 8 CAD, Sandra and I each had a full entree, I had a 500mL Beerlao can, and she had a freshly squeezed orange juice. Pretty amazing value for money!
We also took part in an evening of yoga during our stay. It was pretty magical, since the workout was timed to coincide with sunset and took place on a rooftop. Whenever we laid on our backs to relax, we could stare up at the clouds above us changing colours and drifting slowly. I can’t imagine many nicer ways to do yoga!
Today we departed Luang Prabang for Vang Vieng. It was a slightly death-defying minibus trip. The driver was pretty aggressive on the hills, but he got us here safely. We caught some magnificent scenery on the way over. One panoramic view I was able to capture during a one-minute bathroom break along the way. After the minute elapsed, the driver gave us a subtle hint that it was time to go by walking back to the van, reaching through the driver’s side window, and laying on the horn. Guess we don’t get much time to take pictures at this lovely lookout, huh? After relieving myself, I also grabbed a nice image of the hygienic state of the hand soap. Brimming with dead insects. I mean, I guess that implies that the hand soap works, right? Kills pests?
We’re now trying to figure out what activities we should indulge in here in Vang Vieng. It’s kind of a “party capital”. Strangely, on a sidenote, Laos is also rammed full of Koreans. No idea why. I guess it’s just a popular destination with Korean people? Or they’re on a holiday right now? Anyway, it’s a bit bizarre! The big things to do in this city are to do some lazy river tubing/pub crawl kind of combination. I’m looking forward to that. Our grand plan was actually to go hot air ballooning. But unfortunately it’s the wet season so you can’t do that. One of the tour desk guys helpfully added, “You can do that in… 3 months.” Great, please add 2.93 months to my stay! So yeah… guess I’ll have to wait for my first hot air ballooning trip.
And that brings us up until now! So goodnight from beautiful Laos!