Laos, p2

Written by on March 30, 2013 in Asia, General with 3 Comments
The roosters woke me up early again and I stumbled down to Alex’s, my goto restaurant which served real coffee and espresso, which has been a rare find over the last several weeks that I intended to enjoy at pretty much every meal. I caught a tuk tuk to he bus station and was one of the first ones there, so scored the front passenger set for the long, hot and bumpy minibus ride to Luang Prabang, which was actually pleasant as opposed to being squished and sweaty in the back.
Despite its recent reputation of becoming “too touristy”, I’d really been looking forward to Luang Prabang, a small UNESCO protected town on a peninsula with several buddhist temples, crumbling French villas and bordered by 2 rivers.  Luang Prabang is nothing like the rest of Laos as it’s easy, very touristy, cleaner than other cities, and restaurants with pretty much any type of cuisine you can think of.  I was giving myself 4-5 days here to recharge the batteries, which is a lot of days to spend in one place, relative to how quickly I’ve been traveling.  I knew i would have access to a better selection of food options, swimming pools if needed, and strong wifi…at least in theory.  After checking into my nicely air-conditioned guesthouse, I set out to explore and figure out a plan for the next several days.  It was brutally hot that afternoon, so I quickly opted out of sightseeing and travel planning and headed towards the river for some sundowners. The sunset was gorgeous and the beers were icy cold…a nice luxury after a week in the north.
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Luang Prabang’s night market did not disappoint. This was the first market I’ve been to where I wanted to buy one (or four) of everything.  This was the place to do some souvenir shopping!  They were selling everything from t-shirts to handbags to paintings to pillow covers to table coverings.
It was kind of like going to Pier 1 Imports except everything was like 10% of the price you’d pay there.  I didn’t have the energy to bargain that night, but would definitely come back later!
Even without the roosters, I was up at 530a and couldn’t go back to sleep. Just as I was dozing off again, I remembered that the monks receive their alms from generous townspeople that line up in the streets just before sunrise to help feed them.  So, I got dressed and flew out the door to see if I could catch a glimpse of this daily ritual.
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I read about the dos and dont’s of going, so made sure to dress conservatively and stayed far away to observe.  It was a really sad site to see all the tourists with huge cameras jump right in their faces. It was actually almost a spectacle in and of itself just to see these people who seemed so desperate to get a good photo.  I ended up catching a few single-file lines of young monks down a quiet side street, which felt more normal. Amazing how young some of the boys were…some looked like they weren’t even 8 years old.
Since I was awake and just after sunrise, I took advantage of the cooler temperature to cruise around town and check out a few of the temples before they were crawling with tourists.
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It was so early, even the bakeries and coffee shops hadn’t opened!  I finally found one just as it opened and sat down next to a cool older chatty Swedish guy. We had a few coffees and watched the town wake up and start coming to life. I’m rarely up at this hour, apart from travel days, and never just to hang out and watch the world go by, so it was a really nice way to spend the morning.
Since arriving in Luang Prabang, I had been hearing whispers about an elephant festival that was taking place in a few days in a town about 4 hours away, which piqued my interest.  My mission this morning was to find out more information about it, and hopefully find some peeps to join me.  As I was walking down the street, I ran into Ali and Julia, my Egyptian and Swedish friends I’d met a few days before in Nong Kiauw.  I love running into people like this while travelling…we actually ended up seeing another 1/2 dozen people that day who’d made the same trip down river to LP.  Anyway, they had also heard about the elephant festival, so after a late breakfast, we set out to find out more information on getting a bus up there and sorting out accommodation   Unfortunately Julia had to fly out, but Ali was game, and I was excited I didn’t have to go by myself.  We finally found a tourist office who gave us some concrete information, so Ali and I bought our bus tickets, although were going to have to wing it on the accommodation as apparently everything available on the internet was booked.  It was a REALLY hot day again, so we stopped for beers at a cool little French cafe for lunch and to use their wifi while we waited out the heat.
I don’t know where the time went, but we realized the sun would be setting soon, so headed back over to the Mekong to grab some sundowners and enjoy the sunset. Scott, an American who was staying in the same guesthouse as Ali and Julia, joined us, and also decided to join for the elephant festival.  We all separated for an hour to clean up and then met in the night market where they have the most wonderful buffet for only 10,000 kip…or about $1.50.  It was yummy!  We’d heard that a bar called Utopia was a good spot to go for drinks, so headed over to find a fun but relaxed bar full of practically every tourist in town.  It was crazy busy.  We found some pillows to sit on, bedouin style, over by the river and got our drink on.  Luang Prabang closes down early.  Little did we know that after 11:30p, the party moves to a bowling alley in the middle of nowhere.  I’d heard this earlier in the day, but didn’t believe it.  Well…now I believe it.  Everyone from Utopia piled into tuk tuks and were taken to a run down bowling alley way out of town and it turned into a massive party.  Seriously?  Well…for those of you know me really well, I LOVE bowling, so was a very happy camper.  They had to drag us out of there when it shut down at 2a.
The next morning we were all moving quite slow, but managed to meet up for baguettes on the main street and arranged a tuk tuk out to Kuang Si Waterfall.
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It was super touristy and crawling with people, but luckily there were several cascades falling into different pools, the people were spread out and not as annoying as it appeared it would be from the entrance.   The color of the water was fantastic.
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We made our way back to town, said farewell to Julia who was off to the Philippines, and repeated the previous night – sundowners on the Mekong and night market buffet.
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I wanted to do some souvenir shopping, so met up with the guys an hour later and we headed over to Utopia for a couple drinks.  We were all still hurting from the night before, so weren’t up for another big one.  But, Mike and Anne, the www.honeytrek.com couple I’d met a couple times before, had caught up with me and were in town and at Utopia, so we went for a couple beers.  Coincidentally they too had heard of the elephant festival and were heading up there the next morning.  Awesome!
We took a slow local bus on a very bumpy dusty road on another scorching hot day.  It took about 4 hours to get to the town of Xayaboury, which doesn’t even appear in the Lonely Planet guide as a place to visit in Laos.  Getting there was half the battle.  This was a pretty interesting river crossing, where are bus drove onto what they called a ferry, but was more like a floating platform.  Pretty sketchy, if you ask me.
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Then we all piled into this tuk tuk upon arrival to be taken into town.
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Mike and Anne had smartly rented a motorbike, so arrived a couple hours before us.  They had gone to the tourist desk and reserved us all rooms in a homestay.  Xayaboury doesn’t have enough hotels to accomodate the crowds during the festival, so some kind citizens open up their homes for a minimal cost (about $4/night!).  We all went up thinking we’d be sleeping on the floor of a monastery or out in a barn or something, but we scored 3 nice rooms with king size beds in a nice house owned by a local attorney.  Since Mike & Anne got there so early, they were able to get us rooms all in the same house, which made it much more fun.  They were kind enough to wait for us, even though our bus was way late.  Thanks guys!
Despite the tough travel, we were all excited at the prospect of stumbling upon a “local” festival, and weren’t disappointed.  The Xayaboury Elephant Festival was implemented by the non-profit organization, ElefantAsia, which works to permanently protect the Asian elephant.
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The main objective of the festival is to raise awareness of the plight of these magnificent mammals in Laos, as in the “land of a million elephants”, there are only about 1,000 left in the country.
Anyway, after walking the mile or so into town, we caught a glimpse of several elephants bathing in the river.
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We all went down to watch and snap off a few pictures before heading up a local restaurant with some shade overlooking the river for lunch and some BeerLaos.
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After several warm-ish BeerLaos, Mike decided he wanted to ride one of the elephants in the water and went back down to the river.  It sounded like a fantastic idea, but I wasn’t wearing a swim suit, so ordered another beer.  Then I thought, what the hell…I wanna do that too!  One of the local guys on top of one of the elephants must have read my mind as he came over and asked if I wanted to hop on.  I managed to somehow scramble up on top of this magnificent elephant, with zero grace whatsoever, and out we went into the river so I could help bathe the big guy.  Amazing experience!!!  No need to go to an elephant sanctuary or zoo or pay $50-100…this was completely spontaneous and absolutely free.   Awesome 🙂
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We hung around til sunset and made our way over to the area with all the food stalls to check it out.  There was about 1 tourist for every 1,000 locals.  It was great.  But, that also meant there weren’t food stalls made for finicky eaters like me!  Oh well…beerlaos and sticky rice was fine with me.  My stomach wasn’t feeling so hot anyway, so it was best to stay away from the mystery meat they were selling.
Our program told us that the Miss Elephant Festival pageant was starting soon, so we meandered over to the stage and saw some of the contestants nervously waiting backstage.
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We found the first 10 rows in front of the stage were empty, although it was quite packed towards the sides and back.  We decided to sit up front until someone kicked us out, but noone did.  On the contrary, they invited us to participate in a lantern festival, similar to those I’ve seen done in China, which was amazing!
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I’ve seen it on TV and in the movies, but it was something else to actually get to participate, especially on such an impromptu basis.
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We ended up staying for a few rounds of the beauty pageant, and realizing the elephants had probably all gone to sleep, we decided to do the same and headed back towards our homestay, with a quick stop for dinner.  We made a plan to meet in the morning and went to bed early.  Tough travel day, but huge payoff!
Mike & Anne beat us up and headed over to watch the elephant procession, which we caught the tail end of.  All of the elephants were dressed up in regal attire, with hundreds of others dressed in traditional bright costumes adding to the dramatic effect.  I’m borrowing one of Mike’s amazing pictures from that morning.
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We were too lazy to get moving early enough to catch all the early morning madness, but caught a few of the elephants post-procession, walking towards the river.
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We took one more group shot before we had to say farewell to Mike & Anne, who were heading back to Luang Prabang to continue their journey in a different direction.  So cool to meet up with them again – hope we can figure out another country along the way!
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We had such an amazing day and the journey was well worth it!
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Now we just needed to figure out how to get to where we were going next!   The “tourist office”, which was basically one girl who ran the homestays and spoke English, told us that we could take the same bus to Vang Vieng that was leaving for Vientiane the next morning.  And we believed her, and headed home to take naps and get out of the sun.  My stomach was still not quite right, so I stayed in that night.  There was nothing really to do anyway, so it was nice to lay low.
We got to the bus station in plenty of time to buy our tickets, and were told that there isn’t a bus to Vang Vieng.  Wtf?  Our only option was the supposedly 8 hour bus to Vientiane, and then to catch a connecting 4 hour bus to Vang Vieng.  Are you kdding me?!?  We didn’t have much choice, and I’d mentally prepared myself for a long hot bus journey, but not TWO long hot bus journeys!  Actually nothing could prepare me for that bus ride.  Like many local buses, they lined the aisles with stools so the bus was completely packed.  Unlike other local buses, it was packed with a bunch of locals that had motion sickness, so several people were puking throughout the ride.  It was horrible.  Especially for me and my new friend Mark who was sitting across from me, and directly next to a mother and daughter puking team sitting in the aisle.  It took everything we had in us not to get sick ourselves.  It was horrible!  And it took more like 11 hours instead of 8.  Possibly my worst travel day ever.  Definitely worst travel day this year.  I’ll have to think hard to come up with a worse one.
One good thing came out of it, though.  I met Mark and Darlene, a super-cool couple from Seattle who were both headed to Phuket the next day to spend a couple weeks diving in the Andaman Sea.  Coincidentally, that is exactly where I was headed.  By the end of the bus trip, I’d talked them into joining me on the liveaboard dive boat out to the Similan islands in a few days, so was excited that I’d have friends for that leg of my journey.
We arrived in Vientiane around 720p and found out a bus was leaving for Vang Vieng at 730p, so Ali and I said our quick farewells to Scott, Mark and Darlene, and hopped on another bus.  At least this one was cleaner, had working A/c, and was actually quite comfortable.  I didn’t have time to stay the night in Vientiane, and couldn’t imagine having to wake up early to just jump on a bus the next day.  I was in travel mode, so what the hell…let’s just get there already!  As much as I’m complaining about the trip, there was a big payoff for the long journey as we woke up and saw how beautiful Vang Vieng was, and now understood why it was such a popular stop on most backpacker’s Laos itinerary.  I’m so glad we went.
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Ali and I had a lazy breakfast and then walked across a gorgeous field/meadow to check out the Lusi cave and then hike up to the top of one of the limestone hills to get the 360 view of vv. breathtaking. So beautiful!  The hike up was not easy.  He was in flip flops, and the hill was really steep, and really sharp!  But, we made it, and it was worth it.
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After descending, we reunited with our friend Cera, who we’d met at Utopia in Luang Prabang, and her friend Justine, for some happy pizzas.  I’d been seeing signs for these all over SE Asia and was dying to try one.  Yummy!
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In addition to normal toppings you can order on pizza, for only extra few dollars, you can choose between adding pot, mushrooms or opium!   I opted for the middle one, as we were about to go tubing, and I thought it would go well with the beautiful river and nature we were about to experience.  It was already 330, but we really wanted to go tubing, so we managed to talk the tubing guys into taking us up river even though we knew wed be getting back after dark.
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Night tubing! So peaceful. So serene. We were the only ones on the river, aside from a few local kids we saw splashing around in front of their villages along the way. And apart from the cute elderly couple that sold us some ice cold beer Laos about halfway downriver. Awesome afternoon!  The tubing was even better after it got dark.  It was so quiet, and once our eyes adjusted to the light, or lack thereof, it was pretty amazing.  Too bad it was overcast as it would have been unbelievable had we been able to see more stars or under a fuller moon. Afterwards we were wiped out, and called it an evening after a hot shower and a small bite to eat.
The next morning I said farewell to Ali and Cera and I caught our bus to Vientiane.  Short on time as I was flying to Phuket the next day, we hired a tuk tuk driver to take us around and show us the local sights.  Our first stop was Pha That Luang, aka The Great Stupa, which was pretty cool.  It was scorching hot out, so we brought roadies to help quench our thirst in the tuk tuk!
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We also went to check out Wat Si Saket, which was also better than expected.  We got there just before closing, which was nice as there were only a couple others there.
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I’d heard there was nothing to really see/do in Vientiane, so only gave it 24 hours.  That turned out to be exactly the right amount of time!  The next morning our tuk tuk drove us out to Buddha Park, which was a dusty, bumpy and hot 25kms out of town, but well worth it!  What a kooky collection of funky buddha statues, including this 50 meter long reclining buddha.
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Here was another cool one.
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Cera is awesome.  Exactly the type of person I like to travel with.  So were Scott, Ali, Mike & Anne.  Too bad I only got to know her for a couple days, but luckily she lives in the Bay Area so we can relive our travels when I get home at the end of August.  And I hope to see Ali and Scott in Korea when I pass through in June.  And Mike & Anne if/when they ever stop travelling!
So long Laos.  I had an awesome time, despite the roosters, bug bites and stomach problems.  I am ready for the home stretch – four months of island hopping and diving my way through Thailand, Malaysia, Philippines and Indonesia!

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3 Reader Comments

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  1. Mike says:

    wow Deb, great blog. so many photos and great stories in there….LOVED reading it. we had so much fun at that Elephant festival as well. stoked you got to ride one too, wasn’t that just awesome? so where are we going to meet next? NZL? Aus? Indo? Philippines? Vanuatu (we are seriously considering it). talk to me kid!

    keep traveling. we miss you!

  2. DebAdmin says:

    Hopefully Indo!?? I’ll be in the Philippines from April 13-May 2, then Indo til the end of June. Send me your itinerary again when you get a chance. Miss you guys too. Safe travels 🙂

  3. Herb Glatter says:

    I’m jealous, fabulous scenery and people.

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