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The Joys of Pak Ou

Pak Ou Travel Blog

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So Friday was my fourth and final day of traveling overland to Luang Prabang.  From Muang Ngoi I took a far too jam-packed boat to Nong Khiaw, where I switched to another boat to Luang Prabang.  The final stretch of the ride is hailed as being the most scenic in the country, so my expectations and excitement were ramped accordingly.

The ride was long.  I was told five hours; in reality we made it in just under seven.  This is for the second leg of the journey, it doesn't include the first hour or so to Nong Khiaw.  We had chairs as in the first boat, but there was twice the number of passengers and half the legroom and rather than being in the morning before it got too hot, I spent most of the trip squinting in the blazing sun and wishing I had brought more water.

The scenery was ok.  I mean, can we get some perspective over here?  I'm in Laos.  It's not every day one takes a scenic riverboat cruise down the Nam Ou river.  But seeing as I just had the day before, with a terrific group of people and as far as I'm concerned far better scenery, I found myself quite bored with the whole thing.  Enter eye-rolling here.

Things got ever more delightful when we got to Pak Ou.  Allow me to backup a tick and start from the beginning.

So about twenty minutes into our ride the dude at the front asks if we'd like to stop at a cave to see some buddhas.  This is relayed to me quite a few minutes later, vis à vis the telephone game down the length of the boat.
  The message started in butchered English by the Lao guy running the show and was passed down the line in butchered English by French and Dutch passengers.  So by the time it reaches me, the last person in the last row, the message is as follows: if you would like to stop by a cave and check out some buddhas, we can do so on the way for 4,000 Kip.  Sure.  So I nod my consent and that's that.

The buddhas in the cave thing is known as Pak Ou, and is supposed to be just that: a cave with thousands of buddhas in it.  Being the burnt out traveler that I am, I've stopped bothering to read the guidebook or doing anything resembling research or information gathering about places I plan to/am actively visiting.  (Why I still lug the massive thing around, I have no clue.
  Probably because I was raised with a fierce sense of guilt and obligation and even though I managed to pass high school without studying doesn't mean I didn't make a valiant effort at faking it.  Hence having my ass handed to me in college.  You'd think I'd learn by now.  ANYWAY.  I digress.)  So when someone told me to check out Pak Ou, that it was a cool cave with buddhas in it, I thought it was a cave with buddhas carved into it.  Not some random hole in the side of a rock that locals started dumping unwanted statues into, to the point that someone said hey, we should make some mula off those idiot tourists.  So yes, I got what was coming to me.

So, the cave sucks.  We'll just go ahead and get that bit over with.
  If you find yourself in Luang Prabang, save yourself some time and a hike up a flight of stairs and do something more worthwhile.  Like watching paint fade.  It's just a cave with a bunch of discarded buddha statues.  Period.  It's where kitsch comes to die.  It's not cool, or zen-like, or whatever the hell it's supposed to be.  If it were a collection of GI Joe figurines, it'd be a different story.  But a bunch of old knickknacks?  I can see that for free at my Nana's house.

On top of that, I, being the ever so savvy traveler (see burnt out comment above), think better of taking just the entrance fee and rather bring my whole wallet along.  Things are NEVER merely what they're supposed to be.

So the entrance fee turns out to be 20,000 Kip.
  How the hell "four thousand" and "twenty thousand" sound anything alike that they could be mistaken as the same figure, I have no clue.  Any of you French or Dutch speakers care to clarify that one?  But I'm there, and I've hiked up the stairs, and it's supposed to be pretty cool, so fine.  Take your exorbitant entrance fee.  Thieves.

So then the cave sucks (we've already been over this) and I'm grumbling to myself and heading back down to the boat.  At which point the Lao dude makes his way to the back of the boat where I'm sitting with a couple of others and stretches out his hand.  I'm too busy being annoyed and feeling ripped off to notice, so I start giving him a hard time about how come he told us four thousand when it was really twenty.  And he's all confused and not understanding and is like no, I never said four.
  Well that's what I heard.  And I want to get all up in the French woman's face next to me who gave me the bad information to begin with, but somehow manage to restrain myself.

So then the hand comes out again.  And people are digging in their pockets and grousing and chattering amongst themselves in French.  At which point I want to SCREAM.  Can someone please explain to me why this guy seems to think we owe him more money?  And WHY THE FUCK DO YOU INSIST ON SPEAKING FRENCH WHEN YOU KNOW DAMN WELL I CAN'T UNDERSTAND YOU.  Really, I deserve a medal or something.  That all those people are still breathing and are currently enjoying their Lao holidays speaks volumes about my self restraint.  I wanted to punch them all.

So finally, after repeating half a dozen times at increasing volume WHAT DOES THIS GUY WANT AND WHY DOES HE THINK WE OWE HIM MORE MONEY I get an answer: now it's his turn to collect 20,000 Kip.
  Why?  Because he ever so graciously brought us here.  Was it his idea?  Yes.  Was it on the way?  Yes.  Am I missing something?  No.

If anyone deserved a commission it was me, for putting up with a boat full of jackasses.  Thieving Lao driver included.

So I stood my ground.  I said no.  I was told 4,000 Kip.  It turned out to be twenty.  If you had said twenty at the get-go, I would have said no.  And if you had said forty, I would have laughed in your face, punched your mother, and thrown you overboard.  So no, dear sir, I will not be giving you a commission for wasting thirty minutes of my life.

And that was that.  He made me repeat myself once, shook his head, and walked away.  He relayed my refusal to everyone else as they came back to the boat, every last one of them looking at me in disbelief as if I had robbed a starving child and then kicked a puppy.
  Are you fucking kidding me?  Touts and scams and commissions exist because unthinking tourists like you happily hand over all your money without questioning anything.  Infuriates me to no end.

And then an hour and change later we finally pulled into Luang Prabang.  Where I got to argue for a fair price for a tuk-tuk to the hotel with three different drivers before forfeiting on something higher than "fair."  At which point he makes me wait a full ten minutes to see if he can pick up any more fares, which I finally put an end to by picking up my bags and walking to the guy parked next to us.  So finally, FINALLY, we pull into the hotel driveway and he plays the no-change game.  Did I do something to offend the karma police?

I always like starting things on such a positive note.

sylviandavid says:
good for you for not being a lemming.... fun blog to read.... glad it wasn't me I would have lost it because I hate getting taken....
Posted on: Feb 15, 2010
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Pak Ou
photo by: tj1777