There are various options when it comes to traveling from Thailand to Luang Prabang (Laos). We actually sat awestruck in Peru at 430 in the morning (on our way up to Machu Picchu) when a Swedish naval officer enthusiastically described his journey across the border. “There are these boats that are old as shit and look like they shouldn’t even be floating. Long boats with wooden bench seats that remind you of the football (soccer) stadium seating in the 70’s. They are meant to carry 50 people, they sell the tickets for 70, and they try to pack on 100! When all the seats are full and people are squatting in the aisle, they begin to chant in objection to more tourists being packed onto the boat like cattle. “We need another boat, one more boat, we need another boat.” he expressed surprisingly loud for as early as it was, with a smile on his face from ear to ear. “It was sooo cooool”. We found it ironic that a naval captain was confessing his love for a boat that seemed destin to sink if a light breeze picked up.
“Uh, how long is the boat trip?” we asked. When he responded two days and then proceeded to describe the battle to run up a hill and grab the best of the worst accommodation for the over night part of the trip, we decided it was not going to be an option we would consider.
Another route to Laos was taken by a couple we know from Seattle who had been in country a few months before us. In their blog they had depicted a bus ride that reconnected them with their inner-spiritual beliefs as the bus driver backed the rusted automobile off the side of the road. Leaving the rear of the bus hanging in mid-air as the passengers contemplated just how far they were going to plummet to their death.
Thus several options were narrowed down to only one, “I fly like paper get high like planes, catch me at the border I got visas in my name”. The song not only appropriate because we flew, but also handed over seven times the amount of cash as the other options. . . “Ching, and take your money.” The easy one hour flight brought us into the communist country of Laos. As an American I don’t support nor fully understand communism. All I know is I hate it and it keeps me from smoking a finely rolled Cuban cigar.
When we stepped off the plane we were overwhelmed by the gorgeous and powerful presence of the Laos mountains. The large peaks are held in the air by dramatic cliffs. Vegetation engulfing them so tightly you can barely make out the small patches of exposed rock. The low hanging clouds form a gray haze that fills the valleys and adds to the perceived hight of the amazing backdrop.
Once we were settled into our guesthouse we decided to venture into the heart of town and explore the night market. We have been to our fair share of markets while in Thailand and I was not looking forward to the hassle of not being able to steal more than a glance at something without being harassed about a purchase and shown every other piece of merchandise the vendor possess. Not to mention the headache of bartering if you did find something you were considering buying. The 30-40% rule. That is about how much you should be paying by the time it’s all said and done. If you don’t counter their initial offer by stating you wouldn’t consider even paying half of what they are asking, then you are in for a long debate.
I was bracing myself for the onslaught of attention grabbing tactics as the lights of town drew closer. I winced as we passed our first restaurant, then a second, a third, a tuk-tuk. Before I knew it we were halfway through the laid out carpets of the night market and barley a single word was spoken to us. It was like someone took the noise we had become accustomed to in Thailand and put it on mute. Further observation discovered the lack of trash on the streets and piles of garbage wedged into every break between the buildings. It was really refreshing and an unexpected surprise.
The night market overtook the main street that runs through town and made its way down several blocks. The goods ranging from hand crafted bags and slippers to silver and Lao Lao bottles stuffed with snakes (Lao Lao is the local rice whiskey). As with most of the markets we have been to there is a pattern of repetition. This is great for getting an idea of what the genuine price of a particular item is, but becomes tiresome if you walk the length of the market more than twice.
The best thing about the night market is the food ally that is off the main street about midway through the market. Every kind of street food that is available in the area is packed into the tight side street as well as several competing buffet vendors. Ten to fifteen large plates of various dishes are capped off with a selection of meat and fish grilled on a stick. 10,000 Kip or $1.25 will get you whatever you can pack onto your plate (meat is extra of course). It’s enough to put the budget conscious traveler in a food coma for the next three days.
Luang Prabang has a deep and rich Buddhist tradition. Every morning the community lines the streets with their food offering for the local monks. They sit patiently as the line of monks make their way from family to family, taking a small amount of food from each, that will collectively feed them for the day. Tourists are allowed to watch but are discouraged from participating and asked to respect the ceremonial proceedings by being discreet. Not everyone got the memo. We shook our heads at the stupidity of some of the tourists who neglected to read up on the event prior to visiting. One girl had her high-powered lens just inches from a monks face as she rattled off several pictures per second. She followed the line of monks as if they were a Hollywood celebrity and she was providing the next tabloid front cover story.
The forefathers of Luang Prabang erected a temple at the top of a hill that the town is centered around. Several hundred steps lead you to a great lookout of the small town and the surrounding countryside. It has become a tourist tradition to make their way to the top of the hill and watch the sunset behind the mountains. The night we chose to make the journey didn’t prove to be overly fruitful. The haze we had become accustomed to was enough to tint the sun a blood-red, but the lack of clouds left me underwhelmed with the unnecessary exercise.
One of the main attractions in Luang Prabang is the Kuang Si waterfall. Its beautiful turquoise water is very reminiscent of the crystal clear ocean water that lines Long Beach in Ko Phi Phi. Large pockets in the river create several small waterfalls and provide great swimming holes. The entire setting feels like it is straight out of a movie and is nothing short of amazing. The falls attract both locals and tourists alike and is easily worth the $2.50 entrance fee.
There is also a bear sanctuary at the base of the falls that is good for ten to thirty minutes of entertainment. The bears were rescued from being smuggled or kept as pets and spend most of their time being destructive or wrestling with each other.
As with any attraction there are different ways of reaching the falls. We unfortunately decided on a minibus for 50,000 kip each. For some reason when making these decisions we always neglect to reflect on our past experiences. The tour was supposed to be four hours long. Your impulsive concept of the adventure is visualizing yourself strolling the banks of the waterfall for at least three hours. It isn’t until you are sitting at the front desk of your hostel for thirty minutes past the supposed pick up time you realize your not making this trip alone. Pick up time for the jammed packed van ended up being an hour in total. Five minutes were dedicated to the South Korean lady protesting about being treated like sausage filling. The stench of wet dog and poor AC did not make the 13 people in the 9 seater van excited about their decision.
The 45 minute drive had us arriving to the falls just short of halfway through our tour time. The expected drive back ment we had about an hour and a half to enjoy the falls. The driver said we could have extra time because we took so long to get to the falls but the group needed to decide collectively when we were going to head back to town. Of course luck would have it that some dipshit (who also happened to be a member of T.A.L.K.S. Go (Those Against Letting Known Silence Go). We haven’t run into one of them since the Pantanal.) decided to squeeze the falls trip in before his flight out of country. He timed it so he would have an hour to get from his hotel to the airport after the tour. Only if we left exactly at the four-hour mark of the trip and he was the first one to be dropped off. His unrelenting blabbering for the entire hour and forty minutes it took to get to the falls sucked all of the oxygen out of the van and caused minor ear infections for the rest of us as our heads began to pound from the lack of air. Maybe if it would have been someone whose voice didn’t cause our ears to bleed, we would have been more accepting of his retardedness. It was a wonderful reminder of how democracy can really mean one asshole deciding for everyone else with no regard for anyone but himself.
That put the two of us on hyperspeed as we tried to suck in as much of the falls as possible in our short amount of time. We couldn’t help feeling envious of the few smart tourists and locals who had taken their own mode of transportation to the falls. Their packed lunches spread across picnic tables as they reached for their sixth beer from their cooler. Not a care in the world as they kicked back for the entire day. We both agreed that renting scooters would have been by far the better option.