Slow Boat and Luang Prabang

Trip Start Jan 07, 2009
Trip End Aug 04, 2009

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Saturday, February 7, 2009

Oof, it feels like I am very behind in my blog updating! I need to stop being lazy and start keeping a better daily journal, because I have defenitely forgotten my first impressions of Laos by now...I can hardly believe I've been in Laos a whole week, and I am still in Luang Prabang!

Slow Boat to Luang Prabang
As I explained, I had decided to follow to heards of travelers on the two-day slowboat to Luang Prabang, apparently one of the most beautiful cities in SE Asia. I had booked my ticket at a friendly little restaurant in Chiang Khong, because I wasn't sure how else to ensure that I would make it on the boat. By doing this I met Andy (from England) and Collin (from Canada), who had done the same. For some reason things were incredibly slow that morning, and we were amongst the last ones on the boat, which was way overcrowded already.....but that turned out to be to our advantage, since it was so over-capacity that they had to start a second boat, and there couldn't have been more than 25 of us on it. :) (The other boat probably had about 100, and they are the same size). So pays to be late!!! It was a great day of great views along the Mekong with plenty of leg room. We arrived in Pak Beng, our overnight stop, around 6PM. What a strange first impression of Laos. Andy and Collin said they were offered weed before they even stepped off the boat, and all night this pattern continued. We ate in the strangest restaurant, where again the guy working there tried to sell us drugs. Anyway...the next morning we got on the boat, which this time was sadly completely packed. Just before the boat was about to leave a German woman steps on the boat and yells out that she had negotiated we can get a second boat to leave for 3000 baht, so if we have about 10 or 20 people, it would be cheap and more comfortable for everyone. A whole bunch of people (myself included) got up to join her because the idea of 8 hours on this packed boat was not pleasant......but when the boat guys saw this, they upped the price to 5000 baht, and caused a lot of confusion. If we had 20 people, this would have still been a good deal, so I decided to stick by this crazy lady and join her, in the hopes that others would do the same. But only 10 people did, so I paid about $15 US extra...ouch! (Here, I consider that a lot of money). But, at least I had two comfy seats to myself, instead of the end of a wooden seat in the crowd of complaining backpackers. I could actually enjoy the wonderful views along the Mekong and really relax. :)

Luang Prabang
I thought I had lost my new Laos buddies through all the boat-changing, but I ran into Andy and Collin about 10 minutes after my arrival in Luang Prabang, and made plans to meet up later. Then I started the awful search for a guesthouse...everything seemed to be full or very very expensive. To my disapointment, Laos is way more expensive than Thailand. To give you an example, a cheap street meal in Thailand can be as little as 20 to 30 baht ($.75-$1), and you can always eat a great restaurant meal for 75 baht (about $2.50). Here...the cheapeast you can find is 10 000 kip for fried rice or noodle soup (about $1.50), and two to three times that much for a good restaurant meal. and don't even get me started on guesthouses...ouch. I just hope outside of Luang Prabang things get cheaper (I think they will). It seems silly to complain over small amounts of dollars...but in a daily budget, it adds up quickly. On the plus side, coffee is much better and cheaper here than in Thailand, which makes me happy. :)

Anyway, I settled into my expensive (but admitedly very nice) guesthouse...and then a crazy Laos night began. After dinner, we decided to check out one of the bars in town, and sat around the campfire, where I ran in to Martin, someone I had met around the campfire at Cave Lodge in Soppong....this was when I was sick and had no energy and went to bed by 10PM, so he only vaguely remembered me. Anyway, he's the crazy traveler type who has been traveling for three years searching for a "different way of living", and Andy was so impressed with him and became his #1 fan from then on. I was much less impressed. lol. Anyway...They sure do know how to shut down a bar here in Laos. By 11PM, they were coming by and pouring everyone's drinks into plastic cups, and practically throwing everyone out the door. But thankfully, there were tuk tuks waiting at the door, ready to take us to the two places in two that are still open: the "disco", or the bowling alley. Yes, that's right. So off we went to the Luang Prabang disco....what a hillarious place! (There weren't that many tourists there, it about about 90% Lao). I can't really describe it. It's just like a bad university bar at home...but in Laos. There was defenitly some fun people-watching to be done here. But again...they sure know how to close down a place in Laos, and within the space of 10 minutes around 1am, it went from being packed to being empty! So off to went to...that's right, the bowling alley. Yes. bowling in Laos, can you believe it? I have never bowled to badly in my life...but it was funny! After that crazy crazy night, I returned to my guesthouse around 3am, to find that the doors were closed, and a sleepy lady came to let me in and I felt really bad. The lesson to learn from this: in Laos, you go to bed early! lol

The next day our little crew went to the most popular waterfalls in Luang Prabang, the Kuangxi Waterfalls. The falls are beautiful, but it was your standard falls filled with tourists, and I was beginning to think that I understand the "same same" expression here in SE Asia....but it's only "same same" if you let it be! When we climbed to the top we could see some crazy guys who were swimming naked in one of the pools below that wasn't on the trail, and was passed the "do not pass, danger" signs. We were determined to find a way there! It involved lots of climbing, and a few times I wasn't sure I could do it, but we made it and it was well worth it! (According to Andy, this is all thanks to Martin the Adventurer, without whom us boring inexperienced backpackers would be nothing...but I think I could have done it on my own just as well!) Anyway, we had a whole series of falls just to ourselves, and by climbing down one of the falls (yes, climbing down a fall), we could swim in this huge clear pool of water...all to ourselves! There aren't really pictures to prove how awesome it was...because I can't climb down a waterfall with a camera! So you'll just have to take my word for it. :)

The next day I woke up at 5am to catch the monks doing their morning alms route (basically, of people line up on the sidewalk to give hundreds of monks food donations for the day)...I was told that leaving at 5am was the thing to do, but apparently nothing really starts until 7am!!! It was still cool to see the town come to life so early in the morning! People were opening their coffee stands and sandwich stands as early at 5:30am. Anyway, I was one of the first to arrive on the site, and I picked a chair in front of a guesthouse, where I could be pretty inconspicuous and just quietly oberve this morning ritual that was supposedly "magical". However...I soon realised that most people don't do it this way. When the monks started walking along, they had a ton of cameras in their faces the whole time. It was a bit sad. I stayed far away and took pictures "because everyone else is doing it", which is not a good reason at all, but what can I say....

I think my favorite part was when there were some dogs in the way of the row of monks, and they were trying to quietly and peacefully shoo them away, but the dogs wouldn't move...and then without even looking down at the dog, one of them reached into his bucket, and pulled out a chocolate bar, opened it, and gave fed it to the dog...who then left, ane the monks could keep walking on. It was pretty priceless.

Trekking near Luang Prabang!
The next day, Collin and I had signed up for a trek...two days of trekking, one day of kayaking! We had a small group, just us and Michel (from Switzerland), and our awesome guide Ken. Ken (possibly spelled Kane...but defenitely pronounced Ken) was the coolest guide I've had here. He was full of interesting information and crazy insane stories, and defenitely had many priceless lines that I have now forgotten. The first day of trekking was the most difficult. We took off around 10am, and walking until 4PM, and...up and down mountains, about half the time in the sun. We passed through a few villages along the way, Khamu and Hmong. The Khamu make up 30% of the population in Laos, and the Hmong 10%. We spent the night at a Khamu village, which was amazing. We were quite pleasantly surprised that there was a cold water shower available there! (But then we met another couple who were also staying there for a the night, who said this made the village not "authentic"....since when is it a bad thing for a village to have a few showers and toilets? Come on now, the next thing you know, people will be complaining that some of the kids knew a bit of english, as if education was a bad thing?...)

So anyway, it was great just walking around the village, where the kids greated us with "sabaidee" (which is hello in Lao...but they don't speak Lao, hello to them is "smi-leu" I thought it was funny that they would say sabaidee to us, since it is a foreign greeting to both of us, but i guess it is sort of like meeting in the middle, since we both understand it.) A few of the kids practiced their english with us, which basically consisted of "what's your name?", "where are you from?" and "how old are you?". I tried to ask one of them if she went to the school in town and for how many years, but this was clearly outside of realm of what she understood. The village had only had a school for 2 or 3 years, and was funded by some sort of international aid project. We asked Ken how it is staffed, and he said that teachers come in during the week and stay in the village and then go back home on the weekend, and that it is generally new teachers who get sent to work in the not that different from anywhere else really!

Another funny thing is that the houses that have a TV sell tickets for other people to come in and watch it. We were staying in little huts that apparently belong to the "rich family" in the village, who also had a TV in their main house. Around 9PM when their movie or whatever was done, at least 50 people came streaming out of the tiny house. I hadn't noticed that so many had gone in there! All evening their had also been people looking in through holes in the walls....I couldn't figure out why, but then I realised they were watching TV through the hole in the wall! Anyway, after that was over, the generator was turned off and all was quiet. Meanwhile, we were having our first "Lao Lao" experience. Lao Lao is rice whisky that the Lao people's supposed to be 50% alcohol, although this one was clearly NOT! Ken explaining to us that when you drink Lao Lao, everyone uses just one glass, and you have to pass it to your left. Also, it's bad luck to drink an uneven amount of you can't have just one, you have to have 2, 4, 6... lol

I had so many thoughts running through my head while I was staying in this village, but I hadn't packed my journal with me so now I can't remember most of them! :(

Anyway, the next day, I think Ken took a wrong turn or something, which accidentally made our hike shorter, because we arrived at our next village by noon! But that was okay with me. We spent that second night at a small Lao village, and spent the afternoon exploring that village, the other village across the street, and going for a swim in the river. Around 1PM, we were looking for some snacks, and we stopped at a small shop where some ladies were eating lunch and drinking Lao Lao.........which they decided to share with us (as well as spoon fuls of their soup)...I was glad to know the rule that you can't just have one drink, or else I probably would have rudely said no to a second one. lol

I was most excited about the last day, the day of kayaking!! We kayaked probably for a good 6 hours or so...including some small rapids, which is new for me! I'm sure they were considered quite small, but for me it was a perfect introduction! I thought it was a perfect day. However, it seems that we all got a bit of food poisoning from our fried noodle breakfast. :( The two guys were really not feeling so well that day at all, and it seems to have hit me not as hard (maybe because I've been sick enough already during this trip!!!)...but today I still don't feel so good at all, and could only manage a fruit shake for lunch. I guess three days of exercise in the sun is also pretty exhausting, so today is a recovery day. Tomorrow I'm finally leaving Luang Prabang and will be off to Nong Khiow, 4 hours north from here. I am quite excited to see more of Laos! I don't know how I am going to do everything I want to do here in just a month!!
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