The last week has been a blur of grueling travel, beautiful scenery, and too many (or not enough?) spring rolls.
The 12 hour overnight drive to Vientiane was just as awful as everyone had warned us it would be. All the dramamine in the world couldn’t have saved me from waking up every time our crowded minibus raced around a sharp turn, the driver pulling over for frequent smoke breaks to keep himself awake.
People only come to Vientiane to get long-stay visas for Thailand. As such, it is littered with guest houses, restaurants, bars, and loads of prostitutes (note the sign posted on the front desk of our hotel). There’s really nothing to do, because most people don’t linger for more than 24 hours. After spending the morning waiting three hours to turn in our visa applications, we found ourselves taking 25 minute walks around the entire city, and then retreating to our hotel room to watch movies. We picked up our passports the next day and barely made our bus to
II. Vang Vieng
A tiny little town built around a small river, Vang Vieng thrives simply because of the natural beauty that surrounds it. Tall limestone mountains filled with caves, a river that you can either kayak down or float down in an inner tube, and lots of hiking and biking trails are the main (and only) attractions. We spent our day there tubing, drinking Beer Lao by the river, and taking a long walk down the dirt path by the river at sunset. My biggest disappointment was when we tried to go to an organic restaurant I’d read about (and had been excited about eating at for weeks – they have homemade goat cheese and mulberry wine!), only to find that it was still closed after the New Year holiday. If we’d had more time, I would have spent a little longer exploring the countryside and lazing about by the river. The next day, we hit the road again.
Only 20% of the roads in Laos are paved, and I use the word paved loosely; I’m pretty sure most of the roads were constructed by the French when they were still running things here, and they haven’t been touched much in the last 60 years. The main highway in Laos, if you can really call it a highway, is two narrow lanes that wind up and down mountains, littered with crater sized potholes and bordered by bamboo guard rails that mockingly pretend that they could really keep your speeding bus from careening off a cliff. After seven long hours on a bus without air conditioning, we arrived in the wonderful city of
III. Luang Prabang
Of all the places in Laos we’d heard about, Luang Prabang was the consistent favorite – and once you’re there, it’s easy to see why. The main city is far more developed than the rest of the country, hosts a very cool handicraft-centered night market (where we bought some embroidered pillow cases done by a local hilltribe cooperative that we’re going to frame as wall hangings and a bracelet and keychain made from recycled bomb shells), and is 30 minutes from the most beautiful waterfalls I’ve ever seen. We found a bar called Utopia with a bamboo deck that hangs over the shore of the river, and spent a good part of the day just watching the water go by. And playing with the resident bar cat.
It was miserably hot and humid, but we managed to see all of the big temples in town (mere highlights considering that there are 33 temples in the city) and the royal palace. The royal palace was kind of hilarious – there’s a photo exhibit of a monk prayer retreat housed in a back building, the “royal car collection” consisting of three giant Lincoln Continentals (donated by the US in the 40’s and 50’s), a dilapidated wooden boat and an old jeep, and the main palace itself, which is filled with gifts from foreign governments to the royal family, who were exiled in 1975 after the Communist revolution.
By far, the best thing of the whole trip was the waterfalls. We rented a scooter and drove ourselves through the lush farmland and mountains outside the city, and after passing through the bear rescue center (which takes in Asiatic black bears that have been seized from smugglers and poachers), we found ourselves at the first of three large pools leading up to the main falls. The water was a brilliant light blue, very deep in some places but with shallow pools carved into the rock over time that you could just relax in. We hiked all the way up to the top of the falls, following a nearly vertical trail that seemed almost impassable at points. The whole experience was stunning, and if I ever end up back in the area it will be the one thing I’m sure to see again.
After leaving the falls (luckily just before it started raining), we went in search of a blacksmith village Kyle had found online and wanted to visit. It turned out to be pretty disappointing, since it was really just two families who made cheap machetes and shovel heads out of steel. The real source of entertainment came as we were leaving, and found ourselves having to cross what had turned into a mud lake at the end of the dirt road back to the main street. I got off the scooter to lighten the load, and expected Kyle to ease the bike around the huge puddle on a small path on the edge of the road. When I was about halfway around, I turned to see him gunning the scooter, a wave of mud shooting around him as he went fast enough to keep the bike from sinking. It was hilarious, and I’m so mad I don’t have it on film.
But eventually all good things must come to an end, and it was time to start our trip on
IV. The Very, Very Slow Boat
Ugh. Never again. Was the scenery beautiful? Yes, at times, when we weren’t being choked to death by smoke from the hillside fires. Was it relaxing? For the first hour, when it was still a novel experience – by hour 10, I was READY TO GET OFF AND NEVER GET ON A BOAT AGAIN OR I WAS GOING TO START PULLING MY HAIR OUT. And the worst part is, after you’ve arrived at this conclusion on day one – you have a whole other equally long day to look forward to.
I’ll skip over describing the podunk town of Pakbeng, the midway stop for the night, and the hellish minibus journey back to Chiang Mai. All I can say is, the $130 flight back from Luang Prabang would have been worth every penny.
The one redeeming quality of the slow boat, I suppose, is that you get to see a bit of what most of Laos is actually like. Extremely rural, extremely poor, and extremely linked to the land. Going up the river is a little like stepping back a few hundred years in time. I can’t imagine what will become of the place if China actually moves forward with plans to dam the Mekong river, because it is the lifeblood of the country and will essentially force everyone who lives on its banks to leave. I’d known about the plans for the dam before we went, but the journey really made me realize that an entire way of life will be lost.
Even though our trip through Laos was kind of a forced vacation, and one we hadn’t planned on taking right now, we managed to experience a lot in our week and I’m glad we made the most of it.