It has been over a week since my last post, and quite a bit of ground and water has been covered since then. So, what have I been up to? For ease of discussion, I will go chronologically. Below is a map of my location, with purple lines indicating travel by minivan/bus, the 90s-esque teal color indicating travel by boat, and red squares showing where I spent at least a night.
As it turns out, I ended up spending a week in Vang Vieng. I hadn’t anticipating staying so long, but it had that “oh, come on, stay one more day” atmosphere to it and I did little to resist. (There actually is a campaign in Laos called “STAY One More Day,” which I first saw in Savannakhet and warmed up to in Vang Vieng.) For one, I met a fellow American on a visa run, Sean, and we contributed to each other’s extended stay in town. It was nice to have someone to talk to in a way beyond just the standard “Where are you from? How long are you traveling? Where have you been? What do you do for work?” and so on. (Actually, I don’t know if the last question is polite but I ask anyway in an effort to gather information of ways to fund future travel. I am keeping a list of ideas for after graduation, but that is a separate post.) Good conversation is something I really miss while traveling, so thanks Sean for filling that void.
Besides having someone to talk to, Vang Vieng is just beautiful. In the last post I included a couple pictures, but they don’t really do the place justice. (Speaking of pictures, I seem to have lost my USB-SD card reader, so no more pictures until further notice. Sorry. 😦 ) Vang Vieng is great for just chilling out, which I did, as previously mentioned. And the tubing! It was so nice I went twice, getting back both times just before 6 pm, after which point you are charged a ludicrous five dollar late fee. But I made it, and had time to enjoy the ride.
A couple years ago, the river used to have somewhere on the order of twenty bars lining the three kilometer stretch, plus jumps and slides that ended up killing a number of (likely) inebriated tourists. Since then, the government has cracked down on the bars, reducing their number and removing the deadliest of the attractions. Now there are about seven bars, though only the first two or three really get bumpin’. Most offer free shots of lao lao, or locally-made rice whiskey (it’s not as foul as it sounds! Says the soon-to-be-twenty-one college student…) and give you a brightly-colored string bracelet with each drink you order. Top 40 songs plus some older classics are played, depending on the bar. One place organized “musical tubes” on the basketball court with a hose spraying over the whole proceedings. I didn’t participate, but enjoyed watching others strategize and claim tubes. Each person that was left standing got a conciliatory free shot, and the winner got a t-shirt and free bucket of alcohol with mixer.
But after you leave the bars behind, it is just like a lazy river in astounding surroundings. The rugged limestone karsts are on the right (starboard?) and all around there are trees with only the occasional trace of human existence. At one point I noticed what appeared to be a bundle of sticks drifting across the river, perpendicular to the current, but once I got closer I saw it was actually a raft supported by water bottles, following a guide rope to the other side of the river via a system of propulsion that I still have not figured out. Two old men waited on the other side. It was a scene seemingly as old as the river, though I have to wonder what they used before plastic came on the scene.
As the sun was setting, three-person motorized longboats cruised up the river, with a driver and some Asian couple in front. Everyone waved, and some people took pictures of the lone farang in the tube. I hope I make it in someone else’s scrapbook.
So Vang Vieng was nice, but once I realized that I had been there for a week I decided that it was time to get out. I booked a ticket for Luang Prabang (travel offices are everywhere, making getting anywhere easy. You can even book buses as far as Ho Chi Minh City, though why anyone would want to endure a forty-hour-plus bus ride is beyond me.) and, after a seven-hour drive through mountains and more stunning scenery, I was there.
Luang Prabang is a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its charm and cultural importance — it has over 30 temples in a small area and used to be the capital of Laos — and it did not disappoint. Granted, it was a little over-touristed, but it was lovely nonetheless. When I got off the bus, I got my bags and resisted the touts offering cheap guesthouses and walking in the drizzle with little clue as to where I was going. I wandered the streets, finding only expensive ($15+) places. I was looking for the night market area, where my prior research said there were dorm-style hostels, and ended up asking for directions to the post office, which was supposedly near the market. En route, the rain got harder (I also lost my umbrella in Vang Vieng… My mind is likely to go next if this keeps up) and I spied an Indian restaurant across the street. Masala chai, anyone?
Another girl, Sandra from Austria, was finishing her lunch and, after asking her where the cheap accommodation was, we got to chatting. She was in Luang Prabang for a month to teach English to monks, and her stay was almost up. Afterward she was going to volunteer at an orphanage in Nepal. I dutifully noted the organizations she used for future reference, and then followed her to her guesthouse. Turns out it was one street down from where the bus dropped me off. (In the future maybe I may listen to those touts; this isn’t the first time this has happened.) But the place was nice enough — free bananas! — and there was a boat racing festival going on that I was just in time for. Leaving my bag and Sandra behind (she teaches in the evenings) I went off to observe the festivities.
The road by the river was lined with tents selling food, drinks, toys, and clothes. I was surprised by the number of copies of US Army jackets on display as the latest fashion, and even more taken aback by the toy of choice: fake guns. From pistols to shotguns to rifles, children had their pick of firearms. Some even had red laserpointers, just like real snipers. Even though the guns were fake, it kind of freaked my out to see all these kids playing with them. Now I get why my mom never let us have anything that could even be used as a gun: it is an upsetting sight to see children playing like that. Books, dolls, and action figures are more appropriate toys. Or give them kites, airplanes, blocks, anything but guns. Happily no one pointed a gun at me (I had a brat in Savannakhet do so with much glee) and I was able to enjoy the fest in peace. Unfortunately the races were over by the time I arrived on the scene, but the festive atmosphere was still very much in swing. Warm welcome to Luang Prabang!
The next day, I went to the Museum, which used to be the Royal Palace, and was pleased to finally make it to a proper museum. The most memorable parts are the throne room, which is a deep red and covered with glass mosaics depicting life in Laos; the gift room, where gifts from other countries are on display (I thought there wouldn’t be anything from the U.S. given our past together, but lo and behold there was a moon rock and and a note from Nixon expressing his desire for peace on Earth. What a joke: at the time we were dropping more bombs on Laos than we dropped in all of WWII. Never trust a politician.); and in a separate wind the golden Buddha for which the city is named was housed. All in all a nice museum.
That night, I went back to the Indian restaurant to sample the food (it was okay) and ended up joining a table of people who had just arrived from Thailand via slow boat. They were a lively group, and, even better, they were speaking English! Three were from the States, one from Italy, and one from the UK. They seemed to know every other person who walked by the front of the restaurant. Apparently, they all came via the same boat. More people joined us, and it turned out to be another nice night of conversation and company.
I ended up staying in Laos for four nights, and in the intervening days I met up with some of the Boat people for different activities. One morning we tried to attend a yoga class, which was cancelled, and decided to do some freestyle yoga anyway. It was a lovely way to start the morning: stretching out and breathing fresh air, with the Mekong River and mountains beyond as the immediate scenery. Another night we went to the Night Market, where I ended up every night. The colorful, handmade goods are so beautiful and literally made my pulse race with desire. (How can a Buddhist country strive so hard to create desire? Just a test, I guess. I failed.) I ended up doing some shopping with supplies for England in mind, and had to leave some old clothes behind in order to accommodate my increasingly bulky pack. At least I managed to trade off The Count of Monte Cristo for Tiger Balm: Travels in Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia by Lucretia Stewart, a more compact and relevant choice. I have since finished it, and enjoyed reading about places I have recently been as they were twenty years ago. I got a thrill of excitement every time I recognized a place she visited and cultural differences (the author is British) differences I have experienced.
On the last day, I joined with some of the boat people and rode passenger on a motorbike to see a waterfall. (Yes I wore a helmet, but there is no way helmets here would pass the Department of Transportation’s security evaluation.) The ride was hilly, green, and gorgeous. It rained for part of the trip, and as we went uphill we passed some semi/fully naked kids using the potholed road and dish soap to make a slide. They laughed and waved as we rode past. It seemed like innocent fun, though they were playing where oncoming traffic was coming around a curve and may or may not have time to avoid them. Such is life: say a little prayer and move on.
As we neared the waterfall, the rain stopped, the roads got steeper, and I got stung by a wasp. Because of the wind I didn’t notice until the bugger’s stinger was in my leg, and by the time I swatted its segmented black body away the deed was done. Elena, from Italy and the person I connected with most, stopped for me and asked if I wanted to turn back. Two of the three other bikes stopped too, and after I shed a couple of tears (can’t help it) I climbed back on and to the waterfall we went. And I am so glad we did! There was a bear sanctuary at the bottom, and the falls themselves stretched on and on. Dave, who had been there before, showed us the “adventure trail” to get from the baby falls at the base to the big mama at the top. Everyone but me had those strap-on-and-practically-gym-shoe sandals, while I had just my flip flops which, at this point, have a hole the size of a nickel in the heel of the left foot. (That’s why rocks always felt like they were hitting the same spot: because they were!) I ended up carrying them and slipping through the mud, pausing briefly to wonder how on earth I would get down. Sit down, push off, and hope for the best? Dave assured me that there was another way down, which indeed there was. But what an adventure! That’s the point of this, right?
And the falls were beautiful, perhaps the most majestic I have seen in Laos. We got pictures, splashed in the water, and one by one did the climb to the top. I trailed behind, but due to my lack of proper footwear I opted not to try for the top. Sliding downhill through rocky mud barefoot is not a recipe for fun in my book. So I waited at the bottom, watched Asian guys take pictures of western women in bikinis, and appreciated the beauty of the surroundings. No love lost at not getting to the top as I was happy with where I was at, which is a feeling I had in Laos and still feel being in back in Thailand.
The following day, I had a ticket for the slow boat to Thailand booked. The journey took two days, about nine hours on the boat each day, and it was lovely. Going up the mighty Mekong, the ninth longest river in the world, through virgin mountains and forests was a great experience. Most tourists go from Thailand to Laos, so there were mostly Thai and Lao people on the boat. This was fine by me, and I enjoyed the long hours with reading, eating fruit, and napping. Once in awhile I would look up and take in the scenery, which was marvelously unchanged through much of the journey.
We stopped for a night in Pak Beng, the halfway point, for a night and then continued on the next morning. There were three other girls from Germany on the boat, and I shared a room to cut down on cost with one of them. At the end of the trip, they decided to stay on the Lao side while I went with a group of nuns and a monk to race for the border before it closed. Check-out of Laos was easy, and in the boat on the way across the river to Thailand I chatted a bit with the nuns and monk. They asked where I was staying, and when I said that I didn’t know, they offered for me to stay at their temple. So after checking in to Thailand (with another charming and funny customs agent — why can’t entering the US be so pleasant? I always get the old freedom fondle) I hopped in their van and went to their temple, Wat Prathat Pha Ngao in Chiang Saen. En route one of the nuns forget my name and started calling my Kay-lot, which is how Thais pronounce carrot. The name stuck on from then on I was Kaylot, aka Carrot. We got in after dark, and I was showed to a private room in the nun’s quarters. They brought me a sandwich and wished me a pleasant sleep.
And… That’s where I woke up this morning! The temple has over forty monks and turned out to be a place of interest in and of itself. It was beautiful, and the head nun said I could stay for as long as I liked. It was tempting, and maybe someday I can come back and become a nun myself, but at the moment I politely declined and made my way to Chiang Rai. One of the nuns was going home, and she and her husband took me to catch a bus, bought the ticket, and fussed over making sure I had snacks for the ride. Now I have another family in Thailand… Welcome home!
So now I am in Chiang Rai, with less than two weeks left until the end of the trip (and just two minutes left with the computer!) and I am going to stay here and likely visit Chiang Mai before leaving for Bangkok and then London. Onward!