There is one bus a day from Luang Nam Tha to Huay Xai–the border town near Northern Thailand. Keeping in mind what happened on my last trip, I went to the bus station one hour early. The bus was almost full by the time I arrived. Before we left more tourists arrived and locals were kicked off the bus. Sometimes I feel bad when we get preferential treatment, but we do pay a lot more money for the same service so I understand the motivation. I thought I had done really well by securing a window seat. I couldn’t have been more wrong. In addition to being a window seat it was also over the rear wheel. The round hump raised about one foot above floor level. The space between the seat in front of me and the front of my seat was less than 12 inches. This meant I was sitting with my knees at chest level with one knee wedged into the small gap between seats. Every bump on the road pushed the metal of the seat into my knee–I had bruises later. It wasn’t too long before I felt a stabbing pain in my back from this horrible position.
Muang Sing is known for it’s market because of the many tribes who trade there. Some people had told me it was amazing and others had told me it wasn’t worth the trouble. I decided to go and find out for myself. The Australian was back from her hike and decided to come along. One of the negative travelers had told me that the market starts very early and wraps up by 9 am. We decided to take a songthaew in the afternoon, stay the night and see the market in the morning because the first songthaew of the morning wouldn’t get us there in time.
We got up early in Udomxai and had a fairly uneventful ride up to Luang Nam Tha. This time the bus was actually a bus–four sides, widows and a door. After we arrived my Australian friend and I walked around town trying to find reasonable accommodation. Everything seemed to be overpriced, hovering around the five dollar range. This certainly was a lot compared to the $1.50 I had spent only a few nights before in Munag Ngoi. Perhaps because I had a few hours left of sunlight I was incredibly stubborn but eventually found a place with a nice family and the promise of hot showers. It turned out that although there were heaters for the shower it makes no difference when there is no running water. Every time I went to take a shower I was met with a little dribble out of the shower head. I was willing to deal with cold water or even dunking my head under the sink but there was no water at all. Usually I’m happy going around for days without taking showers but you really work up a sweat walking around the dusty roads in Laos. The nights are cold (around 60 degrees) but the days are very hot under the blazing sun (around 90 degrees). Add road dust, exhaust fumes and touching things in the market to the sweat and you end up in a pretty disgusting state. It wasn’t long before I figured out why the large bucket of standing water was sitting next to the sink–so I used it for my incredibly cold, acrobatic showers.
Northern Laos isn?t the easiest place to transverse quickly. The roads are narrow, hills are tall and potholes numerous. A large group of people left Muang Ngoi at the same time as me and my friend. He left for the city on the first bus while I stuck around Nong Kiaw to wait for the songthaew Northwest to Udomxai. Three other Westerners were waiting with me including an older South African couple who I mistook for Australians–not many people start drinking at 8 am. They were in a hurry to get up North to Luang Nam Tha, where I was heading. When the husband asked why the 8:30 bus wasn?t leaving at 8:30 the driver explained that it wasn?t 8:30 on his watch. It turned out his watch was twenty minutes late. We tried explaining this fact to him to no avail. Surprisingly, this was the most on-time bus ride I took for the remainder of my time in Laos.
North of Luang Prabang is a less-touristed area of natural beauty–mountains, caves and rivers. The roads in the north are either dirt tracks or poorly maintained one-lane drop offs snaking around the sides of mountains. I left Luang Prabang early in the morning to catch one of the two daily buses to Nong Kiaw–the closest town accessible by road. A friend I had made in Southern Laos decided to tag along before he had to head back to civilization.
Although we arrived an hour early we were confronted by a typical bus in Northern Laos, a songthaew, which is basically a small pickup truck with a metal carriage with two benches welded onto the sides. The back and sides are open and by the end of even a short ride the passengers are covered in dust and sweat. The buses in Northern Laos were the most crowded I have experienced so far. Not only is every place on the bench taken (passengers have to sit for hours with their torsos rotated at a 45 degree angle to accommodate more people), plastic chairs were also placed in the middle of the truck where everyone?s feet were supposed to go. I rode on one of the plastic chairs for the first two hours. Although I had more shoulder room, the level of concentration required to stay on the non-anchored chair throughout the ride was significant. Frankly, I was also worried that the legs would break–I?m heavier than even most Lao men.
As far as tourism in Laos is concerned, the town of Luang Prabang is it. It?s the only real attraction Laos has and many people fly directly into town from Thailand or Cambodia. My bus arrived in the late afternoon on the outskirts of town. The taxi I shared dropped us off on the outskirts of the main tourist area and I started walking. The first hotel I walked into had one large room covered in spider webs for $7 a night. Considering I hadn?t paid more than $3 in Laos so far I promptly left to find something more reasonable. Unfortunately, there wasn?t anything more reasonable–atleast in the old town area where the night market, restaurants and attractions were located. Carrying my huge backpack door to door, the first 15 hotels I tried had no vacancy. When I finally found a hotel room, even though it was $12 a night, I took it. Atleast it didn?t have spider webs.
The town has received a large amount of funding from UNESCO for maintenance and beautification. Many of the smaller streets have been re-laid with brick which adds to the beauty of the numerous wats in town. The old town is a peninsula formed by the Mekong and Khan Rivers which beautifully frame the mountains surrounding the area. Luang Prabang is famous because of it?s 32 wats. The number of wats is surely due to the fact that it was a royal city up until the 1975 revolution, when the royal family either fled Thailand or was sent to labor camps. I started my tour at the royal palace which is actually quite small. Determined to do some drawing I sat down in front of the King?s bedroom to recreate the interesting three-headed elephant bed frame. Five minutes and half a drawing later a guard came by, waving her hands and shaking her head until I stopped drawing. Photos of the interior of the palace are forbidden but I would never think that I would not be allowed to draw. I was so angry that I stomped through the rest of the palace, retrieved my shoes from their locker and left.
I hope everyone had a wonderful holiday. Internet connections in Laos are not spectacular and I apoligize for the long time in-between posts. I spent Christmas in Vientiane, Laos, and was there when the massive tsunamis hit South East Asia. The majority of travelers I have talked to in the past two months told me they were spending their holidays on the beach in Thailand so you can imagine how packed those beaches were. Laos is totally land locked and felt no effects of the earthquake or tsunamis. I am currently spending some time in Luang Prabang, making friends with monks and drawing the ornate architecture. I will soon head North farther into the mountains near the borders of China and Myanamar. My next stop is Thailand but I’m not sure if I will stay in the north or try an island on the opposite side of the country where the tsunami didn’t hit.
The road between Vientiane and Luang Prabang is now paved but the trip still takes ten hours on a winding path through the mountains. To break up the trip I stopped in Vang Vieng, a town with little to do besides look at the steep, rock-faced mountains. There are a lot of caves in the area to explore but I soon discovered that they aren’t very interesting as far as caves go–they have only become attractions because there’s nothing else to see in Vang Vieng. I spent my time walking around town, wading in the river and eating dinner. The town could be a lot of fun if I wasn’t alone. Every restaurant has raised eating platforms with pillows and a large TV showing DVDs. Strangely, one of the restaurants only showed Friends. Every time I walked down the street I heard Monica yelling at Chandler or the irritating laugh track. Of course, this isn’t what people come to Laos for but it’s hard to blame the residents for wanting to make money or the tourists for using the facilities offered.
You can see the photos from Vang Vieng here.
Wanting to be near civilization, or atleast a town with electricity, I hurried up to Vientiane on a night bus from Pakse. Arriving at 4:30am I only had to walk away from three taxis before I found one that would take me, for a reasonable price, to the hotel I hoped to stay at. Seeing as it was well before daybreak when the taxi dropped me off on the wrong corner, nothing was open. I walked around the neighborhood, confirmed that my hotel was shut tight and went back to the main street to wait for daybreak with the two drunk Swiss guys locked out of their hotel who were sitting on the curb.
Although Vientiane is the capital of Laos, it has little more to offer the tourist than a few Wats and Western food. I did manage to make good use of Laos? first ATM–installed only few weeks prior. My goal for the two days I intended to stay in town was to have a nice, expensive Christmas dinner and stay in a hotel room with a shower floor I could walk on with my bare feet. Considering my dinner cost only one dollar less than my relatively expensive hotel room I feel I was successful on both counts.
You can see the photos from Vientiane here.
On the way to Pakse from the islands I met up with a girl who convinced me to go with her to a little town with a waterfall in the East named Tad Lo. We had to stop for the night in a transit town name Pakse anyway, so we decided to make a quick stopover at an old Khmer-era temple on the way. What we thought would be a quick stopover turned into quite an ordeal. A few of us picked up a tuk tuk form the main highway to take us to the edge of the Mekong River. The town, Champasak, is on the other side of the river so we had to hire what turned out to be two canoes lashed together with a board across the top and a motor attached to the back. Once on the other side of the river we had to hire another tuk tuk to take us to to town and then on to the temple. After seeing so many temples in Cambodia this one was a bit of a let down, full of crumbling walls and deteriorated carvings. After getting back to the river and hiring a boat we found ourselves stuck. The only tuk tuk driver near the river asked for $5 to the highway, one mile away, or $15 (each) for the one hour ride to Pakse. Considering that a three hour trip was only $3 I refused to pay $15, no matter how much I was stuck. The three of us trying to get to Pakse started walking toward the highway. I guess we thought that another (more reasonable) tuk tuk might come along–I usually assume things will just work out in the end. After only ten minutes of walking (with our large backpacks while the sun beat down on us) a nice local in his very nice pickup let us hop in. He only took us as far as the highway but in five minutes we?d flagged down a truck carrying bamboo for the rest of the journey North. I can attest that sitting on bamboo next to a man carrying roosters does not make for the most comfortable journey.
Like usual, the next morning, the 8am bus did not exist so we walked around the dirt patch until the next bus was beginning to fill up. In Laos, like many other poor countries, the buses do not run on schedules even if there are schedules posted. A 8am bus may leave at 7:30 if it?s already full and a 9am bus may leave at 2pm if there?s not enough paying fares–you never know. There isn?t actually a town called Tad Lo, but a resort named after one of the waterfalls took the name and it stuck. I didn?t find the still pools on top of the waterfalls as enticing as the other tourists but I did enjoy myself in the local villages.
The first day I walked up along the three waterfalls and stumbled upon women bathing in the river, children playing in trees and sleepy villages full of curious children. The second day six of us, who had met over dinner the night before, hired a local to guide us around the area. He took us to villages on the other side of the highway, where they only see foreigners a few times a year (as opposed to the closer villages which see tourists every day). As we walked into a village we would often pass the school–a stilt house with open sides and a blackboard. The children, in their white shirts and blue sarongs or trousers, would stop listening to the teacher and crowd to the edge to wave to us. The villages were usually quiet as we approached, most people stay out of the harsh sun during the middle of the day. Soon a few children would peek out of a house and quickly we would be surrounded by all of the village children and a lot of the women. Our guide translated for us if we asked but the children were mostly interested in crowding into a picture and then running over to see it on our camera?s LCD screen. Because they all wanted to be in the image it was hard to take photographs of individuals or of anything but the children. When I broke away from the kids in one village to take photos of the drying crops and animals they followed, watching and talking to each other. After the large photo sessions we would leave town with as many as 40 kids running after us.
At the last village we visited a woman asked to have the photo I took of her. Fortunately, our guide was able to translate and explained that I didn?t actually have the photo and would have to make a print for her. When I explained how long it would take me to get home and print a copy the woman was a bit upset. Another girl our group took a photo to send to her because she was heading home much sooner. This happened to me a number of times–it always amazes me that some people don?t understand how a camera works.
My last day I took an elephant ride. It sounded better that it was, the jungle was dried up and elephants walk very slow! Even so, we walked up steep hills and through streams and rivers I could never cross on my own. A local dog followed us the entire way and walked up and down the shore of each river before attempting to cross. He wouldn?t dive in unless he absolutely had to and not without a lot of encouragement from the man steering my elephant. Considering how much the elephant is used in the iconography of Cambodia, Laos and Thailand, this is the only elephant I?ve come across in those three countries so I?m glad I took the opportunity while I had it.
You can see the photos from Tad Lohere.