In the morning, we had a breakfast of toast overlooking the Mekong. We went through immigration at the border then headed to the pier to get on our slow boat to Luang Prabang,which left around 11:45am. Its called the slow boat because it takes 2 days to reach Luang Prabang from the border. The fast boat takes one day, but is more expensive, more uncomfortable, and more dangerous. Apparently, more than a few fast boats crash on the Mekong every year. The slow boats hold maybe 60 people in tight quarters and looks like this:
There wasnt much room on the boat, so all we could do was play cards. We played some more of the games from Bodega like Asshole. Jos also taught us a Dutch game called Toopin (sp?). In toopin, only one person loses every game. The way we played it, the person who loses earns a forfeit — in other words, he has to do something embarrassing and stupid. Mo, another Dutch guy Benji and Jos had met the day before, lost the first game and had to stand up and act like a chicken every time someone said his name. In the cramped quarters of the slow boat, Mo’s chicken antics drew quite a bit of attention, but it was a good way to pass the time. After that first game, we only made the loser do a few chickens, but they would always be at a bar or somewhere embarrassing. We also had a whole range of singing punishments wherein the loser would serenade someone chosen by the winners.
When we werent playing cards, I tried to sleep or read more Words of Radiance. We got to Pakbeng, the little riverside town where we spent the night, around 530pm. When we disembarked, Jos, Benjy, Steve, Mo and I walked up the hill to find a guest house/hotel. On the walk up, we met Werner, who had been on our slow boat as well and somehow was also front Ghent, where Benjy’s is from. We found a cheap hotel and ate dinner there as the sun set over the Mekong.
The next day we got back onto the slow boat at 9am. Another day of card games, chickens, beautiful river views, napping, and Words of Radiance. We arrived in Luang Prabang in the afternoon. Mo, Steve, Jos, Benjy, Werner and I walked around looking for a hostel. Central Backpackers was full so we stayed at Spicylaos. Spicylaos turned out to be the worst hostel I’ve stayed at so far in Southeast Asia. The mattresses were rock hard and tiny such that they didnt even fill up the wooden bunk beds. There was no glass or covering over the windows so insects could fly on in and eat us up. And everything was generally pretty dirty. Fortunately we would only have to spend one night there.
For dinner we walked down to the Night Market and had a vegetarian buffet. There we met Jesse, an American from Seattle who had rented a motorbike in Hanoi and done a motorbike trek around northern Vietnam. After dinner, we all headed to Utopia, a huge bamboo bar overlooking the Mekong river where all the travelers hang out until the bars close at 11pm. When the bars close, everyone from Utopia headed over to a bowling alley via tuk tuk. The bowling alley is the only place open after 11pm. As such, all the Western travelers gather there every night around 1130pm and stay there bowling and hanging out until it closes at 2am or so. The Utopia-bowling alley combination is a staple of Luang Prabang night life for backpackers.
Days 70-72 (March 10-12): Luang Prabang
For lunch the next day we bought sandwiches at the street food market stalls. There were about 10-15 stalls lined up serving the exact same menus. I had a chicken bacon sandwich on a baguette with mayo for $1. After lunch, we took a tuk tuk with some British people to the nearby Kuang Si waterfalls. The waterfalls were amazing. After Kuang Si, I won’t ever look at another waterfall the same way. Kuang Si is now the measuring stick for all future waterfalls.
There were 5 or 6 different levels of waterfalls – each beautiful. You could swim in the water on most levels and you could even jump off a few of the levels into the level below. The final waterfall was the biggest and there was a path up alongside it on either side. A local tour guide told us it was better to go up the right…and he was clearly messing with us because the right side was steep, slippery and had no good views. It was a strenuous 25 minute climb. At the top, you could walk across the stream and up to a railing overlooking the waterfall. On the way to the railing, I slipped on a patch of mossy rock and fell backwards head over heels into the stream. I was fully submerged for a second…and so was my bag with my phone and money. I scrambled out immediately to check if my phone was all right. Fortunately it had been wrapped in my towel and survived. I have absolutely no idea what i would have done without my phone and all the travel apps, notes, info, and pics on it. As it stands, no permanent damages. I just looked like an idiot in front of a handful of people.
Back in town I got another baguette sandwich Laos style with tofu, shredded pork and sweet Laos chili sauce. Walking back to the hostel (we switched to the much nicer Central Backpackers), one of the street vendors had a dead squirrel laid out on her mat with the rest of her wares. I’m not sure why it was there. Was it for the pelt? dinner? Unclear.
The next morning, I got another delicious Laos style baguette sandwich. Jos, steve, Benjy and I walked around town. The old city of Luang Prabang is located at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. The old city peninsula has 2 main streets and waterfront areas lined with French/Laos cafes and Buddhist temples. We had croissants and coffee at one such cafe. We watched the sunset from one such temple – the Wat Tham Phou Si – which sat atop a hill right above the Night Market in the center of town. We ran up the 300-plus stairs in 5 minutes so we could catch the tail end of the sunset. But by the time we got up to the top people were already coming down because the sun had dipped down behind the hills surrounding the town. Oh well, the views of Luang Prabang were still nice.
On the way down I suddenly had to use the restroom very very urgently. I went down the stairs increasingly quickly then rushed through the crowded Night Market looking for a bathroom. I found one in a hotel only to discover my nemesis – the squat toilet. For those who didnt read my previous blog entries, squat toilets are everywhere in Southeast Asia. They are essentially toilets built into the ground that you have to squat down to use. Asian people have perfected the Asian squat (Shout out to my homie Kevin Chang who first clued me in on the Asian squat. Every man, women and child in Southeast Asia can do the Asian squat whereby you bend your knees/legs so that your butt is resting on your heels inches above the grounds.) and so have no problem with this system, but us Westerners arent nearly as flexible so its harder to hang our asses over a hole in the ground. Despite my inflexibility and balance issues, I survived another encounter with the squat toilet. Afterwards, instead of going to Utopia with the guys, I stayed in and finished Words of Radiance.
On my final day in Luang Prabang, I did one of the 4 geocaches located in and around the town. I keep forgetting to look for geocaches while abroad, but its a great way to find cool spots while traveling. This particular cache was hidden halfway up a wall in a hole covered by a potted plant. I’m sure I looked suspicious to the hordes of young monks walking up and down the street.
For lunch I had a sampling of Laos foods at a restaurant perched above the Nam Khan river. The best dishes were the sweet buffalo sausage and the buffalo jerky. After lunch, I blogged and went over pictures at an Internet cafe. I had a midafternoon snack at Utopia while reading a new book. Walking back to the hostel I passed a schoolyard that reminded me of elementary school – jump rope, kids singing/dancing, everyone yelling.
For dinner we had a spicy pork soup at a stall in the Night Market. It was easily my favorite meal in Laos and comparable to some of the better ramens Ive had. Afterwards I bought some pants in the market and we started walking to Utopia. Less than 15 seconds after putting on my new pants a tiny dog ran at me barking and bit my pant leg. Literally 15 seconds. Unreal. But there didnt appear to be any damage.
At Utopia I talked to some girls who had just did the Everest Base Camp hike in Nepal. I really want to do a trek in Nepal, but it doesnt seem like I’ll have time this time around. Hopefully I can do another trip in the future where I hit Japan, Korea, China, Nepal and India all at once.
Overall, Luang Prabang was a nice, quient small town with a laid back vibe. There was a cool mix of temples, French cafes/bistros, local Asian markets, Buddhist monks, riverside waterfront bars and restaurants, and beautiful scenery.
Days 73-78 (March 12-18): Vang Vieng and Vientiane
The next day, Jos, Werner, Steve, Benjy and I (Mo flew to Hanoi) took a minibus south to the backpacker town of Vang Vieng. Vang Vieng is most famous for the tubing down the river that goes through town. There used to be 40-50 bars located right along the river. You could rent a tube for the day and go down the river from bar to bar all afternoon. However, in the last few years, a few people died jumping or ziplining into the river and all but 4 of the bars are now closed. But, Vang Vieng is still a fun backpackers town with beautiful green limestones karsts and hills surrounding the small two-street riverside town.
We got rooms for $4 a person at Central Backpackers and then Steve and I went in search of good and pool. We found both, but neither was very good. The town seemed empty, probably because all the tourists were tubing at the time. I napped the afternoon away and then we had dinner at a restaurant across the street that was staffed by a waitress from Michigan who had been living in VV for 4 months.
The following day we resolved to go tubing. To be honest, that was the main reason we were visiting VV. Really the only reason. We rented tubes in town and took a tuk tuk to the river. We met a bunch of people at the first stop then tubed down to the first bar. At the first stop there was a basketball hoop! The first one I’d seen in ages. There was a basketball too…which we used to play soccer. But eventually I was able to shoot around on the hoop a bit. We had a fun game of pickup soccer, 5 v 5, but it didnt last too long because the sand pitch was ridiculously hot. Next we played some Kings Cup with mostly british people before getting our tubes and heading to the net stop. I tried to jump onto my tube and fell right through the middle, soaking myself unintentionally for the second day in a row. But the 10 minute tube ride to Bar #2 was pleasant. Everyone linked up tubes and made the trip together. At the second bar there was a stage for dancing, another basketball hoop (which was being soaked in water by a sprinkler, and a volleyball court. After some dancing and shooting bball, I moved on to the volleyball court where everyone was impressed by my ability to actually hit the ball over the net consistently and serve overhand. I’m guessing they dont play too much beach volleyball in the UK and wherever everyone else was from in Europe. Eventually we took another long tube ride to the next bar, during which Steve lost his waterproof case holding his wallet, but which I found down the river. At the final bar, Werner and I played ping pong and then we all played some more volleyball. We went back to the hostel at 5pm and had some early dinner with Kylie from Florida. I took a nap and woke up to a lightning storm over the mountains. I went downstairs, bought some pringles and headed back up to the 5th story balcony to watch the lightning and read my book. By the way, the balcony on our floor had awesome view of VV.
In the morning I had a delicious baguette fried chicken sandwich with the local Sriracha-like hot sauce. Then we went to the Blue Lagoon, the only other place to visit near VV. The Blue Lagoon turned out to be just as fun as tubing. There were rope swings, places to jump into the water from a tree, a volleyball court, and a huge cave complex just a short hike away.
After jumping into the water a bit, we headed to the caves with an crazy English guy Miles we had met tubing. Near the cave entrance there was a cool Buddha shrine. A little past the Buddha though, it got really dark such that headlamps were necessary. Fortunately you could by headlamps at the start of the hike to the cave. We ended up wandering around the caves for an hour or so, but didn’t really see any end. Back down at the lagoon almost everyone else had left except us, but we stayed for a bit longer to play some volleyball with locals.
For dinner we went to the Irish pub to watch some premiership soccer. They were playing some great music (No Diggity and Kanye etc.) so we stuck around for a bit and played in a pool tournament where each entrant had 3 lives and if you failed to pot a ball you lost a life. Each person had one shot a round.
After pool, we walked the streets and bumped into Caroline, the Belgian from Pai. She had missed her flight to Belgium and decided to stick around Southeast Asia for a few more months. Steve had recently done the same after Koh Tao.
Our last day in VV was pretty mellow. No tubing or lagooning. We just had good food, played pool, and watch soccer. By the way, one weird aspect of VV is that every restaurant/cafe has a TV and every TV is playing Friends reruns. No idea why, but apparently its been the case there for years. Our hostel also played Southpark and Big Bang Theory along with a bunch of 80’s American movies and Team America World Police.
Me and Steve had dinner at this French restaurant ranked No. 1 in VV on trip advisor. I had beef Bourginnon and mashed potatos… It was the best meal I had since Bangkok. Tripadvisor was spot on as usual. They best meals I’ve had traveling seem to all be TripAdvisor recommendations. We went back to the irish pub for more soccer and pool.
We left VV by minibus in the morning for Vientiane. They bus was so backed we had to sit in the aisles. Shockingly, sitting in the aisles for 4 hours was not as luxuriously comfortable as one would expect, but we made it to Vientiane in one piece.
Vientiane doesnt really have anything good to recommend it. I spent one night there and left on a flight to Hanoii the next day. In that one night, I was laying in bed reading when I bed bug crawled up my arm. I immediately recognized what it was from my bed bug experiences in Chicago. I packed up my bags and went downstairs to get a refund and move to another hostel, but they refused to give me my money and tried to make me switch rooms. I didnt want to have anything to do with them so I just left and took the hit. it was only 5 or 6 dollars anyways.
That was really what I thought would be my last day with Steve, Benjy, Jos and Werner. I had been traveling with Steve for a month an the other guys for a few weeks. We had been having a ton of fun together. Its always more fun to travel with a few good guys than alone. Unfortunately, I had decided to part ways and head to Hanoi because they wanted to do a 4 day motorbike trek through central Laos and I just didnt have the time. I was rushing to get through Southeast Asia so I could get to Nepal for a trek and the Middle East before heading to Brazil for the World Cup in June. So, with a heavy heart, I said goodbye to the guys and got on a plane to Hanoi. (Dont worry, the story has a happy ending. I met back up with the guys in Vietnam and we are now doing a 3 week motorbike trek south to Ho Chi Minh City!)