I Was Not Murdered

Trip Start Dec 31, 2004
Trip End Apr 22, 2005

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Hotel Comatose

Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  ,
Wednesday, January 26, 2005

I have arrived safely and with all my belongings after a shockingly delightful bus ride to the alarmingly charming hamlet of Luang Prabang.

A few days ago while talking to my travel agent in Bangkok and trying to figure out how to get here we debated all my options. Basically the only places I wanted to go to prior to departing for Burma (Myanmar) by the 10th of February were Chiang Mai and Luang Prabang. I had initially planned to take the train straight up north to Chiang Mai (note the map to the right)and then take a boat trip to Luang Prabang but then I'd also have to return to Chaing Mai since that's where my flight will depart to Mandalay on the 10th.

What I hadn't thought of was what my travel agent suggested and it all seemed to make sense. Rather than back tracking I could do as I did by taking the train and a tuk-tuk to the Lao capital then I could take the bus from there to Luang Prabang. It seemed like a terrific idea and I bought my train ticket right away. After I had lunch and walked around on my last day in Bangkok I went to Cookie's Place to check my email and book a hotel in Vientiane.

What I read in my Lonely Planet didn't just give me pause it was cause for alarm. I signed off the computer, paid up and headed back to the travel agent and with my voice cracking I breathlessly asked if I could change my ticket and head straight up to Chiang Mai instead. Without asking why she had to act quickly since my train was departing in less than two hours. The answer was yes but I'd be charged for half of it and she couldn't get me on the other train until the next day, which means I'd be stuck in Bangkok for another night. Then I told her what I'd read in my guidebook.

In 2003 two buses over a period of two months were ambushed on the road from Vientiane to Luang Prabang. In the process 25 people were killed and 31 were injured. The government said that they were local bandits but others speculate that they were anti-government insurgents. If that's not enough the bus terminal in Vientiane was bombed in August of 2003. I was panic-stricken. Jay, my travel agent wasn't the least bit concerned and explained to me how many buses a day travel that route. "Maybe 50 or so a day", she said. Indeed the odds did seem to be in my favor and it did happen almost two years ago with no other incidents since. With a deep sigh I consigned myself to my fate and shuffled off half-smiling. Jay asked me to let her know that when I got here. If I hadn't however she'd have found out in the Bangkok Post the following morning.

To say that I felt a bit uneasy about the trip up here to Luang Prabang would be an understatement. To pun it, I'd say that the last few journeys have made me a bit gun shy if you will. The rush to the bus however was so chaotic I didn't have time to worry.

Before I tucked into my room for the night in Vientiane at the Hotel Comatose I asked the heavy-lidded front desk clerk for a 5:15 a.m. wake up call. He wrote it down and I saw "5:15" written on the piece of paper. After a deep and much needed sleep I heard a timid rapping on my door, I got up and opened it and looked at my watch -- it was 6:00. I was so flabbergasted, so befuddled I almost laid into to him but he was sound asleep and I didn't feel like waking him up.

In five minutes I headed out and caught a tuk-tuk in the freezing misty morning with a still glowing full moon above we sped off to the terminal. It was 6:32 when we arrived and I rushed to the window to find out where the bus was. A man with a stack of Kips (the local currency, which is 10,000 Kips to the dollar) about a foot high was standing there and proceeded to take my bag and instructed that I follow him to his truck. The man behind the glass nodded that I should go and so I did. He called someone on his cell phone and we went driving away from the terminal. I was asking all the while, "To Luang Prabang? To Bus? Yes? Where are we going? Bus? Luang Prabang? Yes?" About a half mile down the road a bus was pulled over on the shoulder waiting for me. I breathed a sigh of relief and climbed aboard.

The bus was filled with 90% locals and in the back were four smiling monks and in front of them was seated a man menacingly staring out the window with an AK-47 strapped across his chest. In the front of the bus, ridding shot gun if you will sat the steward who manned the television and across his chest was slung an AK-47, as well. In a different world such as this it actually calmed me -- at least these guys were on our side.

The ride was without a doubt the most scenically breathtaking journey I've ever taken in my life. For ten hours we snaked up and down tree covered mountains passing road-lined bamboo and thatched-roofed villages. We crossed wooden bridges over clear streams where children splashed and women washed laundry. The television was turned off and only soft Lao classical music played, the fresh cool air breezed in and I recline in my cozy seat and gazed at the passing mountains. Several times it seemed we came perilously close to the edge and even the locals sat up and looked out oohing and aahing over the straight drop hundreds of feet below. We also passed two curiously empty buses. One of them was pocked by bullet holes and the front was scorched. I was later told that it's a dangerous route mainly at night and we must've passed at least 15 buses loaded with people who appeared to be alive. I felt consoled and at one "toilet break" (which meant we pulled over on the shoulder while people hunted for a private bush) I actually got out to marvel at the view.

Arriving into Luang Prabang it is no wonder that UNESCO has deemed this town a World Heritage Site. It is stunning. The town lies on a sliver of a peninsula at the confluence of the Nam Khan and Mekong rivers and is surrounded by mountains. The town is filled with golden spired wats, traditional Lao and French colonial architecture, lovely river-lined restaurants below large trees lit by twinkling lights. It has made the journey here all worth while.

I strolled along the banks of the Mekong at sunset and had a delicious fish dinner and of course a gin and tonic while live musicians softly played. By the time I'd paid my bill the Mekong had turned an inky black reflecting the tiny fires from the jungle villages on the opposite bank of the river. It was serene and mysterious and I stared out and smiled at the gorgeous view. Later I meandered through the quiet town dodging bicycles and stopping into shops loaded with some of the most stunning textiles I've ever seen and then I went for a stroll at the night market. There I ran into an American ex-pat from Georgia who's flown cargo planes in Africa for the past thirty years. He and I met on the bus here and we made plans to meet up at cocktail hour tomorrow evening at a outdoor bar on the Mekong.

I had a feeling that if I stuck it out just a little while longer I'd find some beauty in this country and it didn't take long. An hour into the bus ride the country's beauty made itself evident and Luang Prabang emits a charming and comfortably relaxing air. Already I'm thinking about extending my trip here and shortening my trip in Chiang Mai. I also need some time to recoup from all of the traveling. The trip to Chiang Mai will be a two day boat journey that some have praised and others have bitched about. You'll be happy to know that I've researched that thoroughly and I'm not holding anything back this time --there have been no violent incidents whatsoever on that route. It seems (knock on wood) the treacherous parts are behind me for a while and I'm very much ready to soak in the beauty of Lao.

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