Luang Prabang to Vientiane

Vientiane Travel Blog

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For those of you who did not read the first part of the Laos email, here is a summary written by Matt in an attempt to teach me a lesson in brevity: "Asia is fun. I am having a great time. I went to Luang Prabang, which has many lizards. I like lizards. While there I visited temples, drank beer, ate a lot of cheap food, and saw waterfalls. A good time was had by all. I also took a cooking class with some new friends I made. I liked it a lot. After the cooking class, I went up and down some random river, bartered, and met some other travelers. Yea for Asia!"

Back in Luang Prabang, I went back to my old guesthouse to pick up my bags, which I had not lugged up to Nong Khiaw and back. We would have stayed there, but there wasn’t room for three people, so we went across the street to another guesthouse, where we got a room to share for $6. The place was a zoo: the owner kept a monkey, a baby deer, and an owl in the gardens. We also had some wildlife of the small crawling variety inside our room.  I stayed admirably calm, if I do say so myself.

Having abandoned all ideas of saving my shopping for later in the trip when it would be more sensible, I headed back that afternoon to the market to buy a few more items. I wanted a Lao skirt, but the two places I asked quoted the price around $50, a fortune by Lao standards. Even if I could have bargained it down to half of that, it wasn’t worth it. I don’t understand why the skirts were comparatively so expensive. All the Lao women wear them, and I’m pretty sure they don’t spend a quarter of their annual income on a skirt.

I was standing outside the indoor market when a Lao woman came up to me and spoke to me in Lao. I couldn’t figure out what she wanted. She motioned for me to talk to her friend, who said to me in a not particularly quiet voice, “Opium?” I declined and left.

One night after walking me back to my guesthouse one during our first stay in Luang Prabang, Laura and Martin had decided to take a back street, which they thought was a shortcut. It was dark and no one was around. They heard a motorcycle approaching. They became increasingly nervous as it slowed down and then stopped in front of them. A man got off and pulled something out of his back pocket--marijuana. He realized he had scared them and backed off sheepishly.

On Friday morning, the three of us were heading off to Vang Vieng. I wanted to take the air-con tourist bus, known as the VIP bus, and they wanted to take the local bus, which I called the RIP bus. I’m glad, I guess, that we took the local bus/truck up to Nong Khiaw (not that there was any choice) but I’d already had that experience and didn’t feel I needed to repeat it. The nice thing about traveling with other solo travelers is that you’re not expected to do everything together. So they left for the earlier local bus, and I stayed back, planning to take the VIP bus later.

As it turned out, neither they nor I got on the bus we'd wanted; the local bus was sold out, so they had to take VIP. I didn’t take VIP, because just as I was about to leave for the bus station, a downpour began and my guesthouse owner suggested I wait for one of the air-con minibuses that run from guesthouse to guesthouse. It was about a buck more than the VIP bus and I thought not getting drenched was worth it. The minibus was supposed to leave at 9:30 for Vang Vieng.

It did pick me up at 9:30, and since the van was full I assumed we would then leave for Vang Vieng. Instead, for reasons not apparent to any of us, we drove around town until 10:45, swapping out passengers and baggage with other minivans. In the final arrangement, I was seated in the back next to an Italian man with extremely long legs. In order to fit them in, he had to sit with them at an angle, which crammed me against the window. As I mentioned, it was raining, so the windows were closed and the van was getting very stuffy. And surprise, there was no AC as promised. I found though that if I cracked the window open very slightly, it would produce a nice stream of air without letting in too much rain. When we finally got on the road, the driver passed back to us a handful of candy, which turned out to be Halls cough drops.

The drive to Vang Vieng took six hours, including a couple of stops for food and bathroom stops. Most of the trip was along winding mountain roads, and the minibus strained itself to climb the steep hills. Once in a while, we would hear a loud thump from inside the van, and I’d look back expecting to see a piece of its machinery lying on the road. Along the way we listened to the a tape that included techno versions of “Lady in Red” and “Hotel California.” The driver’s companion enthusiastically clapped his hands to the music.

The scenery along the way was breathtaking, as I had come to expect from Laos. We passed many small villages along the way, and as usual, the children stood outside and waved to us. The houses, like the ones we had seen elsewhere in the north, were usually one or two rooms, with walls constructed of woven reeds. Sometimes you could see that a fire was burning inside. Sometimes there was also a satellite dish. The houses were very basic, but from the outside they were neat and tidy. It is this sort of thing, along with the demeanor of the people, that distinguishes Laos from what I saw of Cambodia: Laos is poor, but it doesn't feel desperate.

There's a sidebar in my guidebook titled, "Route 13: Safe or Not?", which talks about the problem of rebel armed gangs traveling on the road between Luang Prabang and Vang Vient. Once in a while these gangs attack buses. We did in fact see several men with large guns along the side of the road. Luckily I didn't read this sidebar until afterwards, so I didn't know I was supposed to be nervous.

We arrived in Vang Vieng around 5 that afternoon. Our driver first took us to a guesthouse a considerable distance from town, where he would probably get a commission. We requested that he take us into town. It was apparent that he had another place in mind, and we only succeeded in getting him to drop us in the center of town by screaming "STOP!" all twelve of us together.

Vang Vieng is a tiny town completely overrun by backpackers. My guidebook calls it "a miniature Khao San Road," and the street I stayed on was actually called Khao San Road, so I guess that's the feel they're going for. It's in a beautiful location along the river between Luang Prabang and Vientiane, so it was it was inevitable that it would become a popular tourist spot. Ten years ago, before Laos really opened up to tourism, we hear that Vang Vieng was much more like Nong Khiaw. But I don't think Nong Khiaw will turn into another Vang Vieng; although Nong Khiaw is prettier, it's less accessible.

The guesthouses in Vang Vieng blast Friends episodes and American movies from their restaurants all day long. There are people who stay in Vang Vieng for a week or more, just watching TV and partying. Laura thinks this is horrible, but I guess if I were traveling for a really long time, Vang Vieng's concentration of Western pop culture might be a nice break, cheaper than flying home. Given that I have less than six weeks of travel time, I did not spend much time with Friends, though I could hear every word of it from the restaurant from the restaurant across the street, which plays it everyday from 8 am to 11 pm.

On Saturday I met up again with Laura and Martin. We were going to leave Vang Vieng for Vientiane the next day, and we heard that it was possible to kayak in one day between the two. My book warned against some of the less professional outfits in town, one of which once had a tourist drown; it recommended one called Wildside that it said had well-trained tour guides. Laura and Martin didn't like Wildside though, because it charged $4 more per person than the other places. I didn't think $4 was too much for peace of mind, but they decided to go with another company. I was going to go with Wildside anyway, but when I showed up the next morning nobody else had signed up with them, which would have made it twice as expensive for me, so I gave in and went along with the other group.

Back to Saturday. After checking out the kayaking tours, we rented bikes and rode out of town a couple miles to an organic farm and restaurant that I had heard a lot about. The main crop of the place is mulberries, but they also grow a variety of other things. We ordered mulberry fruit shakes, fried mulberry leaves, spring rolls, a chicken curry dish, and mulberry pancakes for dessert. Everything was delicious. The fried mulberry leaves were surprisingly good; they were served with honey and lime for dipping.

As we finished up, it began to rain, but since I was going tubing in the river soon anyway (Laura and Martin had gone the day before), I rode back to town in the rain. I returned my bike, rented a tube, and rode back out the start of the tubing route in a tuk-tuk. It was still cloudly and rained a bit as I was tubing. The mist over the dark steep mountains and rice paddies gave it all a surreal feeling. When I was getting out, it started to pour, but it's nice to walk in the rain when you're already soaked.

The next morning, we met up at the kayaking place. They had chosen this particular place for several reasons: the guy we talked to, named Sao, spoke decent English and said he would be leading the tour, they would let Laura and Martin take solo kayaks, we were going to stop at some small villages along the way, there was cliff diving involved, we would not combine with any other groups, and there would be a maximum of ten people on the trip.

Sao was not in fact our tour guide, although we did not find this out until we were on the road. Our guide spoke little English and was very difficult to understand. There were only seven of us and luggage in the back of the truck, which by my new standards was quite spacious.  When we got to the river, we had a two minute lesson on paddling (as opposed to the hour of instruction promised) consisting of "paddle fast in the rapids." and "follow me." There were not enough solo kayaks at first for both Laura and Martin to have their own, but the guide did some negotiating with one of the other groups and arranged a swap. We combined with a couple of the other groups, with our guide doing all the talking for everybody, and we set off. I rode in a double kayak with the guide.

Right before our first set of rapids, I asked the guide, "So, do you flip over often?" He said, "No, never flip over!" Thirty seconds later we were both swimming. It wasn't a big deal; we were wearing life jackets and helmets, and we just hung onto the kayak until we got to calmer water. We took a good deal of ribbing from the rest of the group, most of whom managed to stay in their kayaks.

About half an hour later, we stopped for lunch. It had started to rain, and the place we stopped was a steep and slippery rock that only the numerous ants seemed able to climb successfully. I fell twice, bruising my hip and arm; some of the other people took worse falls, though nobody was seriously hurt. About five minutes down the river was a nice flat sandy beach. Why we didn’t eat there is beyond me.

While we were eating, somebody took my helmet and lifejacket by mistake, and so when it was time to get back in the kayaks I didn't have them. The guide told me to get in anyway, and that one of the other guides would bring them to me. But then the guide pushed off and said it was okay to go without them because the water from there on would be calm. He was mostly right, but there was one short section of rough water. The guide purposefully steered us right over the worst of it and then shook the kayak violently from side to side, trying to dump me out into the rapids. He laughed loudly. "Hey! Dangerous! Not funny!" I said. He laughed harder.

Laura and Martin were extremely defensive about the tour company, even though the company had fallen through on basically everything they promised us. Along with the things I mentioned already, there were no stops at villages and no cliff jumping. There was no place afterwards to dry off and change closes, as promised, and not even a place to wash the thick mud off our feet. When we were finished, they told us that our truck was going back to Vang Vieng and that we'd have to cram into somebody else's truck, which made for a very uncomfortable two-hour ride to Vientiane. Every time something went wrong, Laura would say, "Oh, well I'm sure it's the same with no matter which group you go with." Maybe, or maybe you actually get something for your extra $4. We'll never know.

I was beginning to feel that maybe Laura wasn't as nice a person as I'd thought. Earlier when the guide had passed out helmets, mine was a bit too small, but the guide said they were all the same size. Laura said, "well here, try mine." It turned out hers was missing some of its padding, which didn't make it much bigger but did make it much less comfortable. She then wouldn't trade it back, saying mine felt smaller to her. I thought it was pretty mean to stick me with the defective helmet under the guise of doing me a favor. I was also getting a little tired of her holier-than-thou "authenticity." Martin was a pretty nice guy, I think, but he was overshadowed by Laura. I never heard him express an opinion different from hers; once he said he might like to visit one of the caves in Vang Vieng, but as far as I know they didn't go.

That said, I'm glad that I met them. I had enjoyed their company for a while; it was just that we stayed together a day too long. When we got to Vientiane, I knew they would want a two-dollar guesthouse, so I said I was thinking of splurging a bit and we went our separate ways.

All I wanted in a hotel was a really nice shower. I found what looked like a good place for $12; it had AC, hot water, television, fluffy white towels, a minibar, and US-hotel quality beds. I was afraid the receptionist would take one look at my mud encrusted legs and turn me away, but perhaps they are accustomed to filthy travelers. As it turned out, the place was too good to be true, but I did get a terrific shower, so maybe I shouldn't complain.

It was so nice to be clean of the layers of sweat, mud, sunscreen, DEET, and river water. Strangely, my skin seems to be benefiting from all of this. Olive even noted in Vietnam that I was "glowing." Back home there were a couple rough spots on my face that I couldn't get rid of no matter how much moisturizer I applied, but they have completely disappeared here. Could the DEET be acting as a chemical peel?

That night I went in search of dinner at the night market, which was nothing compared to the one in Luang Prabang.  I bought a couple of things that looked interesting, along with some purple juice (beet, perhaps?) in a bag, which I spilled all over myself.  Perhaps this needs some explanation: many types of drinks--coffee, tea, soy milk, Ovaltine (very popular here), fruit shakes, and such--are sold here on the street in plastic bags with straws.   They're handy for carrying around, since you can hang the bag off your arm and have a free hand, but they're not so good for standing up on tables, which I learned the hard way.

One of my favorite drinks here, which usually does not come in a bag, is bubble tea, also known as pearl tea.  It's actually not tea at all.  You pick a flavor or two from a selection of powders, which the vendor mixes with ice, sugar water, and "pearls," which are kind of a cross between tapioca and Jello.  From other travelers I have heard you can get pearl tea in the US in places like Texas and Seattle, but I won't believe this until I see it for myself.

When I came back to my room that night after dinner, covered in purple juice, the lock on my door was jammed. I had told the receptionist earlier that there seemed to be something wrong with the lock, but she said I just needed to pull harder. This time, nobody could open it. I sat in the lobby for an hour and a half watching Lao TV (I thought maybe they'd feel bad about the door and at least switch to CNN for me, but no) while they brought in a locksmith. Once they unlocked it, they couldn't relock it, so in the morning I was moved to another room.

On Monday I went to the Morning Market and bought some small things. Since I started out this email series by bragging about my light packing, I must now confess that I bought a huge suitcase in Vientiane to carry all of my new purchases. I feel better keeping my things with me than shipping them home, and this way is cheaper, too. I had gone around the marketplace comparing prices on luggage, and all the sellers were all quoting me prices of 27 or 28 dollars for the big rolling suitcases. I remembered paying 18 euros in Spain for a medium-sized suitcase of questionable quality, so I was not about to pay more than 20 dollars in Laos for a large suitcase of even more questionable quality. I bargained with one man for a while and offered $20 as my final price. "Impossible!" he said, and I walked away. Two stalls down, I bought an identical suitcase for $20. As I walked past his store with it in tow, I couldn't resist pointing to it, "Possible!"

That afternoon, I took a tuk-tuk to the "forest temple," which is known for its sauna and massages. I thought I ought to check out the actual temples, too, so I walked along the path towards the buildings. Tourists must not get back there much, because the monks all gave me strange looks. One guy came up and asked if I was looking for something. He spoke decent English and offered to show me around the temples.  His name was Kong, and he said he likes to practice his English with the tourists and so we arranged to meet the next morning: he would drive me around town and explain things, and I would pay for gas and help him with his English.

I headed off to the massage and sauna area. I was planning only to get a massage and not use the sauna (the whole region is a sauna, why would I want to go someplace even steamier?), but the lady running the place said, "Massage full. I think you have sauna first." Everyone sitting around the patio agreed that the sauna was amazing. I was skeptical but agreed to try it. The lady gave me a sarong to change into, and I stepped into the sauna.

At first the heat, steam, and herbs were so overpowering that I felt I couldn't get enough oxygen. I couldn't see the face of the person two feet across from me through the steam. One of the girls inside, a sauna-pro from Texas, advised me to breathe through my nose. Gradually I adjusted to it all, and when I did, it was wonderful. It was relaxing and invigorating at the same time. It felt very cleansing. When I began to feel dehydrated, I stepped out, drank some tea, and went back in. Finally I got out, took a shower, changed into a dry sarong, and went for the hour-long massage, which was also fabulous. The whole experience set me back $3.

On my way back to the guesthouse, it began to rain and by the time we arrived, the streets were flooded. I had been planning to have dinner by the river but decided that wading through ankle deep water (probably mixed with a good bit of sewage) for blocks and blocks wasn't a good idea, so I went to a place just down the street.

I needed a break from noodles and rice, so I ordered a hamburger. From the outside, the burger looked normal, except that they put the lettuce and tomatoes on the bottom. But inside it was totally raw. Not just raw by my standards, either, which I admit are not universally accepted. The burger surprised me, though, because all the other beef I've had in Laos has been cooked to a rubber-like texture. I decided that I would just eat the onion rings.

During this time, a nice group of Israeli kids invited me to sit with them (they agreed that the burger was inedible). One of the best parts of traveling is meeting other travelers, and I've found travelers in this part of the world to be especially friendly. I often begin a meal alone, but it’s rare that I end it that way.

Most of the other travelers I meet are Europeans or Australians. There are comparatively few North American tourists in Southeast Asia. Most of the people I meet are traveling for several months, or even for a year or two. This type of thing is more common in the countries they come from, where vacation days are plentiful and leaves of absence are not uncommon. Six weeks of travel is nothing to them; they say six countries in six weeks is the American schedule.

When I returned to my hotel that night, I went to put away some money and found that $20 from my emergency money stash was missing from my locked bag inside my locked room. I had counted the money that very morning, so I knew it had been taken sometime that day. Sometimes at home I can be a bit lax about things like this, but when traveling I know exactly where my money is. I always keep a lock on that part of my bag, though didn't expect the lock to deter a really determined thief. It was obviously an inside job, but I reported it to the front desk anyway. Of course, nothing like this has ever happened before.

That night, I was supposed to get a call from Matt, but the receptionist transferred him to my old room (despite the fact that he had been the one on duty during the lock change), so I had to call Matt from the hotel phone to tell him to call me back at the right room. The next morning I said I would not pay for the call to Matt, since the only reason I had to call him was to correct their mistake. At first they acted pretty tough about it, but what were they going to do? Call the police? Fine, I've got something to talk to them about, too.

The next morning I reluctantly left my bags at the hotel (but with the money removed) when I went out to meet Kong.  He picked me up at my guesthouse, and we spent the morning visiting temples and monuments and going over his English questions.  He was a nice guy and we were mostly able to understand each other.  He's 23 years old, works as an English tutor and truck driver, used to be a monk, likes American boy bands, prefers American English to other varieties, and has been trying to get a visa to France for 3 years.

Kong answered a bunch of questions I'd been storing up, such as "why are the monks so young?"  I've talked to some as young as 15.  It seems that becoming a monk temporarily (for a few weeks or a month) is a good way to earn prestige for your family and that also many poor families send their boys off to be monks for longer periods of time because of the free education.  Kong also told me that there are 8,004,000 rules in Buddhism.  Monks have to know and follow 22, males novices have 10, and nuns have only 8.

I taught Kong several phrases and wrote them down for him, along with some new vocabulary words.  He especially liked "check it out!" and "cheese!" (you know, when taking a picture).  Once he asked, "do you know what um, skeedle, means?  I think maybe it means 'go away!'"  It took me a while to figure out that the word he was after was "skedaddle."  He saw it once on a TV show.

We saw five or so temples that morning.  They were very nice temples, but they all run together in my memory.  I remember that one of them had a "no photographs" sign, and below the sign were taped several exposed rolls of confiscated film.  Another temple had a sort of museum inside of it, and all of the artifacts had numbers painted on them (was there no better system of identification?).  We drove around Vientiane a bit, which is a nice enough town, nothing too memorable.

That afternoon I went to the airport, which was very modern and clean.  I think perhaps Vientiane is trying to establish itself as a conference capital, and the airport is of course an important first impression.  I spent my last kip there on some snacks I didn't really want, but nobody buys kip, so it's use it or lose it.

I was puzzled but relieved to find that my Lao Airlines flight was in fact a Vietnam Airlines flight.  When I bought the ticket I assumed it wouldn't be the most luxurious flight of my life, but I found out later from Jessie that many governments actually discourage their citizens from flying Lao Airlines because its safety record, while unpublished, is so poor.  Vietnam Airlines is supposed to be much better, and I thought it was fine.

I'm again one whole country and ten days behind, but we are supposed to leave for Singapore in four hours, so there's not much chance of catching up now.  Anyway, I hope to catch up before I come home, since I know from experience that it's hard to find motivation to write about travels once they're over.  Olive can't understand how I've been working on this one email for more than one day.  Her emails are a single-sitting endeavor.  But then again, she's only been away for a week.

All right, I need to get into a closed room with AC.  I feel I've applied enough DEET to scare off every mosquito from here to Thailand, but I am still being eaten alive.  Eek, I just got a bite on my ear.
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photo by: skydiver