For my exodus from Thailand and into Laos, I opted for the slowboat down the Mekong River. It is definitely not the swiftest means of transport (if you didn’t already get that from the name), but it was a great way to see a lot of gorgeous country.
The journey began in Chiang Mai, where I was crammed into a minivan with a load of other people heading for the border. A long and bumpy 6 hours later, we arrived in Chiang Khong, a wee border town that appears to exist largely just to house and feed groups of people going one way or the other across the border. Our first night’s accommodation was included in the cost of our boat tickets, and we were put up in a bizarre hotel-ish place that we all soon began referring to as The Cellblock, as it bore striking resemblance to a prison. Some of the van’s passengers had disembarked at various points along the road, so the Cellblock Crew consisted of me, a lovely lady from New Zealand named Rozie, Bastien from Germany, a couple of French fellas (both named Paul), and Toby, Chris and Harry, 3 British lads enjoying their gap year. After dinner in the prison cafeteria, we headed out to see what sort of entertainment Chiang Khong might have to offer. After a bit of struggle, we managed to find The Hub, which may very well be the only bar in Chiang Khong. We were greeted very enthusiastically by the pub’s owner, Alan, a British expat. Aside from a Thai couple and the obligatory random Dutchman, our group were the only patrons, so I think he was really glad to see us. Attached to the bar is a bicycle museum run by Alan, who happens to be the current Guinness World Record holder for the circumnavigating the globe by bicycle (set in 2010, he completed more than 29,000 miles in 106 days, 10 hours and 33 minutes). He’s a really fantastic guy and we had a great time hanging out there with him and his family (along with an adorable puppy and a tiny turtle).
The next morning, it was up bright and early to get back in the van and over to the border crossing from Chiang Khong (Thailand) to Huay Xai (Laos). The whole process feels a little ridiculous. The van dropped us at the Thai side where we were stamped out of the country, then we all had to wait for another bus to drive us 5 minutes to the Laos facility, where $35, a pile of paperwork, and a whole lot of standing around buys you admission to the People’s Democratic Republic of Laos (rhymes with cow, the s is silent). Once all the immigration formalities were done, it was on to another bus for the 20 minute ride to the river. The slowboat, definitely not the most luxurious of conveyances, is outfitted with seats that all appear to have come out of the back of a van. They are bolted to frames, but not to the floor, so it’s probably a good thing that the boat crawls along at a snail’s pace. The ride to Luang Prabang requires two full 7 hour days on the river, so it was time to settle in for the duration. I once again have to give massive thanks for my Kindle and Kindle Unlimited subscription, without which I honestly don’t know how I would have survived the voyage. There’s really nothing to do, aside from reading, napping, chatting, and just watching the scenery. It is a beautiful ride, though, and there were definite moments as I sat there, watching small huts slip past on the banks, that I couldn’t help but marvel at where I was and how far I’ve come over these past many months. My former life in New York and in the law is a whole world away, both literally and figuratively. Any time these bouts of rumination fall on me, I feel so grateful that that isn’t my life anymore and that I was able to seize this opportunity to step so far outside my comfort zone and really live in the world (rather than living in my office).
After the first day on the river, we overnighted in the humble hamlet of Pak Beng, which is little more than a few restaurants and guesthouses perched on the hillside over the river. Rozie and I decided to bunk together to save a few pennies and we spent a quiet night in the room, lying flat to rest our butts after a long day in salvaged car seats. Our guesthouse host, Boon, was an interesting character. Farily flamboyant, he took an instant dislike to the English lads, leading us to suspect that he’d had his heart broken by an Englishman sometime in the recent past. We heard later from the lads that Boon had been creeping around their room in the night, singing songs into their window, and that he’d woken them abruptly at 6 in the morning by banging on the door and telling them they’d missed the boat! Our night was not nearly so eventful, but at some point in the night, a prowler had pushed in the corner of our window screen and reached through the bars to snag a small bag of Rozie’s that was sitting under the window. I’m sure the thief was disheartened to discover that his big score consisted of little more than a bottle of Advil and a handful of tampons, but it was still a bit skeevy for us to discover, and you’d better believe I won’t ever be putting anything under a window in any place I stay from here on out.
The second day on the water passed as quietly as the first, but by the time the last few hours rolled around, I was definitely ready to be free of my sweaty little seat. We all disembarked and had to climb a pretty steep hill up to the road, no small feat carrying my suitcase, but I managed. A bunch of us from the boat shared a taxi-truck into town and set out looking for places to stay. The lads and some of the other younger travelers decided on the local “party” hostel, but Rozie and I decided to stick together and found a nice private room in a tucked away little guesthouse. For $4 each a night, it couldn’t be beat!
Luang Prabang is a cute little river city, nestled in the curve of the Mekong. Culturally, Laos seems very similar to Thailand, but rather how I imagine Thailand was 20 years ago. It’s much less frantic; a slower pace of life overall. I spent a few days there, just wandering around and seeing the sights. They have a great night market where all manner of amazing food can be had for practically nothing. The big excursion was a day trip out to the Kuang Si Waterfalls, a whole series of falls and ponds hidden away up in the hills. The day that we went, there were big groups of Buddhist monks up there, swimming and playing in the water, and taking selfies on their iPads. Seemed like not particularly monkish behavior, but hey, they seemed to be having fun!
The ponds, crystal clear and icy cold, are loaded with little cleaner fish, the exact same sort that you’d find in one of the “fish spas.” They swarm you in the water and if you have any scabs or dead skin, they will go to work cleaning you up. The bites sting a bit, but after a minute or two, I really started to enjoy it. Who needs to pay for a fish spa? There is also a small bear sanctuary where rescued bears get to spend the day chilling in hammocks and lounging in cold mountain streams. Nice life!
I also managed to get my visa for Vietnam sorted out when I was there. There is a tiny little branch office of the Vietnamese Consulate in Luang Prabang where you can take care of all the payments and paperwork yourself and avoid using a visa service. The office doesn’t appear to see a lot of traffic, so the bureaucrats there were some of the most pleaseant I’d dealt with. 48 hours and $65 dollars later, my passport was complete with credentials to enter another country.
In the evenings, there are a couple of fun places to hang out. There’s a little coffee shop/bookstore that shows free movies every night, so Rozie and I went there for milkshakes and “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” There’s also a great riverfront cafe called Utopia, where you can recline on floor cushions, socializing or taking advantage of the free wifi. It’s a great place to be and I can understand how people can tend to get stuck there! I, however, had to move on, and so hopped a bus to the notorious party town of Vang Vieng. Apparently, some years ago, VV was a really crazy party scene, with new bars popping up every minute. Legend has it that things started to get really out of control and the government cracked down and so things are a little more calm there these days. I was also really excited to meet up with Kelsey again, one of my dive buddies from Koh Tao. She was coming up from Vientiane and had made a couple of friends there, so I joined up with her, Scottish sisters Megan and Laura, as well as Sophie and Jess from Australia. The six of us spent the next few days hanging out and having a blast.
The big thing in Vang Vieng is tubing down the river. You rent a tube in town and then get driven out to the top of the river route, which is lined with bars all the way back to the town center. We spent the day floating down the river, and when another riverside bar would come into view, men on the shore would throw out ropes to tow us in to come up for drinks, dancing, sand volleyball, and all sorts of fun and entertainment. At one of the spots, we were attacked by swarms of sand fleas and had to flee screaming back into the safety of the river, but that was the only real disaster of the day. I’m not sure how many kilometers of river it is to get back to town, but we ultimately didn’t make it. Sophie, Jess and I got separated from the rest of the group and found ourselves way downriver all by ourselves. After paddling for over an hour and seeing no one, as dark started to fall, we gave in to one of the ubiquitous tuktuk drivers who venture down to the river hoping to score some business from tired tubers. We made it back to the tubing center in time to get back 75% of our deposit though, which we wouldn’t have done if we’d stayed in the water (they deduct 25% of your $8 deposit for every hour past 6 that you return with your tube; quite lucrative from the looks of it!). The other girls had called it quits much earlier and were already back and having dinner by the time we all reunited.
The next day, we negotiated a ride out to the Blue Lagoon, a beautiful swimming hole with a rope swing and a couple of big branches arched out over it that you can jump from. The water is an unearthly shade of blue, and shockingly, refreshingly cold. There was a busload of Chinese tourists there that day, all kitted up in life jackets. I wouldn’t say they were fearless, but they did provide some free entertainment as they gingerly crept along the branches and tried to muster their courage to jump. Back behind the lagoon is a short, steep hike up to a network of caves that house a Buddhist shrine. In our bathing suits and slippers, we weren’t the best equipped for caving, but gave it a go anyway. The caves were stunning, but slippery and tricky to navigate, especially in the dark bits.
Kelsey moved on to Luang Prabang and I stayed another day in Vang Vieng. Laura, Megan and I just spent the day lazing about in a hut alongside the river, watching fishermen fish, kids play in the water (and try to hustle money from tourists), and random herds of cows that came by periodically to drink from the river and gnaw on the foliage. We ate lots of delicious, dirt-cheap food and drank our body weight in $1 mango smoothies. What could be better than that?
My final stop in Laos was the capital city, Vientiane. There wasn’t a whole lot to see and do there, but I was happy to have a couple of days to regroup, do some work on this fine blog, and take advantage of the hostel pool. The heat in the city was borderline unbearable, so having the pool was a huge relief. I ran into the British lads again there, just the sort of thing that happens with incredible frequency along the traveler trail. I joined up with some new friends for a trip outside the city to the Buddha Park, a big football field-sized area filled with a dizzying array of statutes inspired by Buddhist, Hindu and other Eastern religions. The park itself is only about 50 years old, but it has a weathered appearance that makes it seem ancient. The sun was wicked though, so we soon retreated back to the city and the comfort of the swimming pool.
With that, it was time to leave Laos and move on to Vietnam, the 11th country on my trip and the 34th country in my lifetime total! I had done some research into taking the sleeper bus from Vientiane to Hanoi, but by all accounts, it’s the most miserable bus experience one can have in Southeast Asia, so I splurged on a flight aboard Vietnam Airlines. I was pleasantly surprised upon checking in to find that it is a SkyTeam partner, so my residual Delta status got me into the first class lounge. It honestly wasn’t much to write home about, but I did get some snacks and a big bottle of water to take away, so definitely a nice (and unexpected!) perk that helped to justify my decision to fly.
Tune in next time for tales from vibrant, vexatious, verdant Vietnam! Thwarted (and not-so thwarted) scams! Thrilling and terrifying motorbike adventures! Eating pho as often as three times a day (whether we intended to or not)! It’s all coming soon….
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