Good to be back in Laos

Trip Start Aug 22, 2005
Trip End Jul 17, 2006

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Where I stayed
Hotel Yorba

Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  ,
Thursday, March 16, 2006

From the Thai border I took a two-day boat trip along the Mekong to Luang Prabang. This was a great opportunity to meet loads of fellow travellers, many of whom I ended up travelling with all the throughout Laos. The boat ride started at 10am, and by 11 it was time for the first round of Beer Lao. By 2pm we had managed to drink the boat dry and settled back to enjoy a beautiful sunset on the river before arriving in Pak Beng for the overnight stop. Alex and Kasima had picked up a bottle of duty free Johnnie Walker at the border and we drank it after eating a surprisingly authentic Indian curry. Originally from England, Alex now lives in NYC, whilst Kasima is of Thai descent, but now lives in DC. Incidentally, Kasima had just spent three months in a Buddhist monastery, a story which never failed to get the girls interested, but of which the rest of us guys were becoming weary by the fifth telling.

Particularly thirsty that night was Jan, a Polish-Canadian, ice-hockey playing Catholic who was giving up alcohol for lent (it was Shrove Tuesday). The next day we cruised into Luang Prabang, a beautiful UNESCO World Heritage city. Despite its popularity as a tourist destination, the city is incredibly calm and peaceful - even the night market is laid-back and hassle free - and is a great place to unwind with a massage or a temple visit. The temples (of which there are many) are interspersed with handsome colonial-style buildings, in the grounds of which the residents can be found enjoying a game of boules. One day we rented mountain bikes and headed out to Kuang Si waterfalls, a set of magnificent tiered falls with bathing pools of unreal cobalt blue, rope swings and an impressively high main fall. The nightlife in Luang Prabang was pretty funky - everybody congregates at The Hive bar, with after hours drinking at Mr Hong's.

From Luang Prabang, seven of us headed north by bus and boat to a small fishing village called Muang Ngoi. Whilst it may now be overrun with guesthouses, the simple bamboo huts don't really detract from the typically Laos laid-back pace of life. Every hut has its own hammock, which is perfect for losing yourself in a book or just watching the river ebb by. We hiked out to a cave and after half an hour's sweaty descent we came to an underground spring with water fresh enough to drink. Another day we rented kayaks and paddled upstream until we got tired, rested on a beach and then enjoyed the considerably easier trip back. Back in Luang Prabang I watched the sun set over the city from Wat Phou Si and we had one more night at The Hive with Greg, Eve and Marie before taking a scenic minibus trip south through some by now familiar karst scenery to the popular backpackers hotspot of Vang Vieng.

The guidebooks had warned us that the town was not for everyone, with cafes showing episodes of Friends on repeat to hordes of travellers spaced out on happy shakes and opium tea. The opium dens might be a thing of the past, but are these cafes really so different? We generally avoided them (apart from a brief stop for a shake) and instead spent our nights hanging out at the island bar playing ping-pong and drinking buckets. Floating downriver in an inflated tractor innertube was immensely fun, with the riverbank full of ziplines and huge ropeswings and bars which pull you to shore to serve you ice cold Beer Laos. More ladybiking took us to some caves, one of which could only be entered by swimming in through an underground stream. The day was rounded off nicely with some mulberry leaf tempura at the organic farm cafe.

Kasima and Marie decided to Kayak to the capital city of Vientiane (well actually, they kayaked for a few hours and then took the bus the rest of the way). Alex, Eve and I decided we'd spent enough time in the sun/were too lazy and took the bus the whole way. We hooked up with Greg, Nicole and Nick in a swanky beer garden and then headed out for a shameless Tex-Mex platter and watched Englan lose yet another Six Nations clash. Vientiane is a really stylish city, with its mix of Laos and European culture mirroring its native and ex-pat (mostly NGO-worker) citizens. It even has its own Arc de Triomphe and a Scandinavian Bakery, which acts as the meeting place for the Hash House Harriers, who I had been meaning to go running with all trip. We met up with Jan, Kiwi Natalie and cheeky Norfolk lads Martin and Ian to bid them farewell on their way to Cambodia and Vietnam. I ended up getting pleasantly drunk on red wine and yes, yet more Jonnie Walker. The highlight of the night was Martin getting up to perform Brown-Eyed Girl and Hotel Yorba, closely followed by Kasima attempting to ride his ladybike up the side of a parked truck. Remember kids - don't drink and drive!

The next morning, a little worse for wear, we rendez-voused at JoMa cafe and rode out to see the Thai-Laos Friendship Bridge and the trippy Buddha Park. Regrettably, we missed the Beer Laos brewery tour by half an hour on the way back. On our last night in Vientiane, and Kasima's last night in Laos, we went out for an pricey but delicious meal; one bottle of Jonnie turned into two, then three and we ended up at the only place in the city which was still kicking - the bowling alley!
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