After a 20-something hour bus ride from hell, originating in Hanoi, Faren and I safely arrived at the sleepy capital city of Laos, Vientiane. We started preparing for the worst when we saw a stack of plastic chairs in the aisle way. Usually this is a sign that the "bus men" are planning to pack more people in to the bus as we go, even if that means they have to sit on plastic chairs all night long. Sure enough, we continued to make countless stops through out the trip to load on more luggage and people. Just when we thought it could not get any worse, increasingly more passengers were forced to climb over bags to get to their seats. Somehow the bus men kept finding new ways to pile more luggage into the aisles and back of the bus. Faren and I were the only tourists on this bus and we both had real chairs. I don't think any westerner would ever put up with a plastic chair in the aisle. Hopefully these were discounted seats! So, the ride was extremely cramped. And since I could not put my seat back, it was basically a sleepless night. The entire ordeal was quite miserable and long, but I decided to use my new technique of focusing on what I could be grateful for and how it could all be worse, rather than all the ways we were being screwed (especially when we saw the normal nice tourist buses at the rest stops, which we thought we were going to be on). I know there were a million ways that the ride could have been a far worse. My seat partner was a sweet Vietnamese woman, she could have been a smelly creepy man or a grouchy old woman. Nothing was stolen from me. No fights broke out on the bus (this happened that night on another bus taking the same route). Everything went smoothly at the border between Vietnam and Laos. And most of all, we arrived at our destination safely!
We elected not to stay in Vientiane for long, since there was not a lot to do or see, and there is so much to do and see everywhere else in the country. The morning after we arrived, we left on a bus (this time a nice, spacious, air-conditioned, comfortable bus) for Vang Vieng, a little over 3 hours North of Vientiane. Vang Vieng is famous along the S.E. Asia backpacker route for tubing, which involves sticking your bum into a black intertube to float down the river, gaze at the beautiful mountains, and make frequent stops at some of the many bars for drinking and jumping off of tall wooden platforms into the river, by way of rope swing, zip line, or some other contraption. It was quite an experience and it reminded me very much of something a college fraternity would organize. I can hear it now...what's better than bikinis and booze? I can understand why young people come for miles just to go tubing. It has become something of a Laos-phenomenon, and other parts of the country are catching on and capitalizing on this popular activity. Laos is an under-developed nation rapidly expanding their tourism industry. I'm grateful that I am able to visit this unique country before it becomes westernized and a more mainstream place to travel.
The 6+ hour drive from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang was absolutely stunning, which made up for the cramped minivan and the twisting mountainous roads (perfect for causing severe car-sickness). I was too nauscious to read my book, so I stared at the beautiful scenery and listened to my iPod to pass the time. The mountains are so perfectly pristine and untouched that Faren and I felt like we had driven right into "The Land Before Time."
Luang Prabang is known as South East's Asia most charming town. And I love it! This small city (walkable from end to end), located on the junction of the Mekong and Nam Kam Rivers, has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1995 to preserve the town's 32 temples, the former Royal Palace, and classic French colonial buildings, which are remnants of the time when Laos was part of France's Indochine colony. Luang Prabang is filled with cafes, eco-friendly travel agents, sweet-as-sugar Laos people, lots of random farm animals roaming the streets, orange-robed monks, and some very beautiful arts and crafts. Better yet, the surrounding area of majestic green mountains, rivers bordered by limestone karst formations, and powerful waterfalls is ideal for outdoor adventures of all kinds. The multitude of travel agents organize tours and treks, ranging from 1/2 day to 3 days long, and include activities such as hiking, elephant riding, biking, kayaking, swimming...the list goes on. There is plenty to do.
On the first afternoon in Luang Prabang, I insisted that we bicycle to the local waterfall, which is about 30 km south of town. Faren was feeling a little under the weather (another sinus infection), but she agreed to go with me because I had so patiently waited for her all morning :) And she was sure glad she did! We started out on the ride with wary attitudes. We'd been told by several people, foreigners and Laos alike, that the bike ride was too long and hard, and we should just take a tuk-tuk or minivan like everyone else (every tour company in town sponsors a trip to the waterfalls every day). But I was stubborn, and I wanted to bike it! Even if we didn't make it all the way, I wouldn't give up until we had at least tried. As I passed a few local boys on the way UP a hill, they asked me where I was going (typical question everywhere and anywhere in S.E. Asia), when I answered enthusiastically "the waterfalls!", the boys laughed. At that moment, I thought to myself, "Ok, fair enough, I'm not even sure if we're going to make it over this giant hill." Obviously it is ideal to have a mountain bike with gears when you are biking in the mountains, but the only extra feature that my $1/day rental road bike had was a wimpy bell. Luckily, the entire road to the falls was well paved, with very few potholes. So, with all of the discouraging remarks, the intermittent light rains, and impending nightfall, Faren and I kind of expected that we would not make it all the way to the waterfalls. We took one hill at a time, fighting our way to the top and soaring down to meet the next one. And somehow, we made it all the way. Needless to say, we were (still are) very proud of ourselves. Even though that boy who laughed at me will never know, I really showed him!
By the time we arrived at the Kuang Si waterfalls, it was dusk and starting to rain again. There was not person remaining in the park. The gateskeeper must have felt sorry for us because he let us in for free. A local young man latched onto us (he wanted to give us and our bicycles a ride back to the city in his tuk-tuk) and proved to be quite a useful tour guide, especially as night quickly fell upon us and left us in the cold, dark, wet woods not exactly sure of the best way to hike back to the village where we had locked up our bicycles. The waterfalls themselves were worth every bit of effort and sweat it took to get there. The biggest fall, massive and breathtaking, gives way to a several tiered pools, each one divided by multiple smaller waterfalls. The pale green-blue water looked eerily mystical at dusk. The trees, growing out of the water and intertwined among the falls, seemed to warn us of the impending danger of nightfall. I was captivated by the sheer beauty of it all, it seemed nothing short of unreal, yet I could reach out with my own hand and feel the coolness of the water against my skin. After we tore ourselves away from the waterfalls, Faren and I accepted that it was too dark and rainy to even consider embarking on the long journey back into town on our bikes and by ourselves. Our new friend's efforts were not in vain, and after some price-haggling, we took him up on his original offer for a ride back into Luang Prabang.
We had a hard time making decisions about our itinerary for the next day. Based on several recommendations, we were determined to find a boat making the trip up the Mekong River to a small village called Nong Khiaw. The scenery on this boat ride is apparently some of the most beautiful in the country. Unfortunately, the boat doesn't leave until there are at least 8 people, or else it is not worth their money, and on this day, we could not find a boat making the trip. So, we caught another tour just as it was leaving (walked by a tour office at the right minute, I suppose) to the nearby Pak Ou caves. This tour took us on a slow boat down the Mekong River to the "cave of a thousand buddhas," stopping at the local whiskey village, where the people make traditional Laos whiskey. The caves were interesting to see for their religious significance and use as Buddhist shrines. We also met some very inspiring people on the boat, including a man whom has travelled (literally) all over the world and a young woman who just spend a year setting up an English language school in Cambodia. Faren and I immediately took the opportunity to pick both of their brains about their experiences and turned this small trip into a multi-leveled learning experience of our own. During this excursion, we found that the beautiful 8 hour boat ride to Nong Khiaw made use of the same flimsy, uncomfortable boat that took us to the Pak Ou caves. There were multiple reasons why we definitely did not want to spend 8 hours on that vessell, including the hard wooden 90 degree angle chairs and the lack of toilets and protection from the weather (it has been raining a lot). There is a minivan to Nong Khiaw, however, after internet research we were able to conclude that perhaps there is not so much to do in that area that we could not do in Luang Prabang. So we decided to cut back on our transit time and book a (local) kayaking trip for the next day instead!
The kayaking trip on Khan Nam River was nothing short of awesome. Our guide, Thuey, was very sweet and the other people were friendly. The rapids were thrilling but never too scary. My kayak never capsized, but others sure did. The scenery was stunning. Thuey loved to sing, and since he was my kayak-partner, I was serenaded many times. Also, as part of the tour, Faren and I chose an "alternative itinerary" of touring a local village with our guide rather than ride the elephants, since we'd already experienced this in Chiang Mai and it is quite expensive. It was a Sunday, so a lot of people were around. The kids were playing at the school yard, women were hanging laundry out to dry, and teenage boys were showering in their underwear outside (and were positively mortified at the sight of 2 western women catching them in the act) while teenage girls were bathing in their sarongs on the other side of town. We made friends with a group of adorable children when we pulled out the camera. They immediately started posing, and followed us as we left the village. Needless to say, the photographs are precious.
Our kayak trip down the river included a stop at the Tad Sae waterfalls. Faren and I may have already been impressed by the Kuang Si waterfalls, but these ones were even greater. And better since we had time to swim in the pools and climb around in some parts. We even decided to return to these falls, on our own without a tour, a few days later to play around and just enjoy the beauty. Which was great except for the part when we almost got stranded at nightfall without a boat ride back down the river. Luckily, we were never completely alone as we had recruited George from Canada to join us. We had accidentally paid the boy who took us across the river the entire round-trip fare. Of course he had no reason to come back, and instead another man "magically" appeared to save us at the perfect moment. From all of our experiences around here, it was obvious to us that he had set up this little arrangement with his friend to get more money out of the vulnerable foreigners. But we weren't having it, and we managed to get our ride back without paying extra. We conveyed to the new boat driver that he would have to get the fare from his friend, to whom we'd already given it. On the other side of the river, we were grateful to see that our faithful tuk-tuk driver was there to pick us up. We had only paid him half of the round-trip fare to ensure that he would be there upon our return. But then, before he would leave, he thought it would be a good idea to demand more money from us. Faren and I are so sick of being tuk-tuk drivers trying to screw us over that we refused and even laughed at his "joke." And in the end, all of our efforts to stick up for ourselves paid off :)
We had a lot of fun in Luang Prabang. We had a wine and dessert night with two new friends whom we met while tubing in Vang Vieng, David from Portugal and Daniel from Chile. We experienced our first Asian bowling alley, also with David and Daniel. We mingled with young Laos people at the discotheque. We found more new friends at our favorite dinner spot (also a very social spot)--a street vendor selling delicious and cheap vegetarian food, buffet style and only $0.50 for one plate. We shopped in the night market for hand made silk scarves, paintings on banana leaf paper, and lots of jewelry. We savored delicious coffee and goodies at the best bakery we've found in S.E. Asia, called JoMa Bakery Cafe (if you ever go to Laos...). We explored the town and surrounding areas on bicycle, stumbling upon a huge real Laos market, where we were stared at like a white person had never been seen in that market before.
From Luang Prabang, we ventured back down to Vientiane on a 12 hour bus ride and had about a day to kill in the capital city of Laos before we were to catch our night bus back down to Bangkok. We rented bicycles to explore the town, which has become one of my favorite pasttimes. Faren calls me a "bicycle fiend." It's the perfect way to see a small city when there is not too much traffic, without being confined to just one area since you are on foot, and without losing your freedom since you are at the mercy of a tuk-tuk driver. Not to mention that it helps us stay active. We've both agreed that we are much more inspired to bicycle in other parts of the world, including in our own hometowns.
After another long overnight bus ride, Faren and I are back where it all started--Bangkok--and ready to have some big city fun...