From northern Thailand heading toward Luang Prabang in Laos, there are several ways to go. For anyone making this trip, if you are not in a rush, I recommend taking the slow boat option. You can sign up for this in Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, or the border town Chiang Khong in Thailand, or you can get yourself across the border and catch a boat from Houy Xai in Laos and go from there. Leaving from Chiang Mai, I selected the 3 day, 2 night minibus and slow boat option because it was the least hassle and a pretty good deal. (A faster way to travel down the Mekong River in Laos to get to Luang Prabang is via speed boat; however, be aware that these boats have been known to flip when hitting rocks in shallow waters, injuring and even killing passengers.) The slow boat is quite comfortable and a scenic introduction to a beautiful country.
The day I left Chiang Mai, I boarded a minibus with several other people and we rode for a couple hours up to Chiang Rai, where we made a short stop to the well-known White Temple (Wat Rong Khun)–the main tourist draw of Chiang Rai, which was included in the transportation package. I had read about this temple and heard about it, but not enough to prepare me for the pure creepiness of the experience. This temple, built by Thai painter-turned-architect Chalermchai Kositpitat, was like none I had ever seen with its contemporary historical scenes and pop culture references as decoration in place of traditional murals. In addition to the Narnia-esque feel of the temple design itself and the typical golden Buddha housed inside, the murals had tiny action heroes like Batman and Spiderman, painted on them. They even had a Minion and an Angry Bird, plus a bunch of other stuff (no photos allowed inside).
I must give the architect props for what he did here–on many levels. First of all the place is gorgeous. And secondly, the experience that it gives any visitor is completely unique. I have never been so awe-inspired and weirded out at the exact same time before. To push a little further, I needed to go to the restroom and I was greeted by Gollum-like statues guarding the men’s and women’s restrooms. They were both strange and fascinating. I almost didn’t want to enter the restroom, afraid of what would be inside, but it was all good. I had a normal bathroom experience, thank goodness.
A PLACE that is LOST and FOUND
Back on the van to continue the journey, we stayed overnight in the border town of Chiang Khong, then crossed the Thailand/Laos border in the morning. From there, we were taken to the long boat and spent probably a solid six hours on the boat going down the Mekong River until we arrived at the tiny “stopover” town of Pakbeng for the night. Ate, slept, ate again, back on the boat for the last leg of the trip to Luang Prabang (which took about nine hours). The first day on the long boat was fine, although slightly crowded. But the second day was amazing! We ended up on a significantly less crowded boat and I got a seat close to the front that allowed for great views, lots of space, and interaction with the locals who were also boarding and then disembarking at various villages dotted along the river. During these days, I sort of traveled with a makeshift group that consisted of a fabulous Chilean couple, an Aussie, and a young guy from North Carolina; we stuck together and looked out for each other in transit and stayed pretty tight for a couple days in Luang Prabang.
Before I started researching for this trip, unfamiliar with Southeast Asia, I didn’t even know that Laos was a country. It probably falls into the category of being one of the poorest countries in the world and has been relatively untapped for its natural resources and only slightly impacted by tourism. The currency exchange rate is 8,000 Lao kip to 1 US dollar. This small country nestled between Thailand to its west, Vietnam to its east, China to the north, and Cambodia to the south with a small northwestern border with Myanmar has a population of only 7 million people (compared to the 92 million in Vietnam), most of them living a village life. Originally called “Lan Xang,” meaning Land of a Million Elephants, the layout of the land consists mainly of rivers and jungles.
It seems that only in the last decade or so, it has all of a sudden appeared on maps all over the world. People are discovering this tiny little treasure and appreciating how untouched it is, comparing it to how Thailand used to be before it was bombarded by tourism. China has been quick to get its hands on Laos, investing in the implementation of an expensive transportation infrastructure system and who knows what else. And tourism has started to escalate which, on one hand is great for the economy, but on the other hand, threatens both the virginity of the culture as well as the natural resources of the land. There are many ways that places can create programs for sustainable community-based or eco- tourism that do more to preserve the originality and beauty of the people and the land, however, some cultures breed entitled, inconsiderate people who believe this country exists solely for their enjoyment and other countries or people can just be downright greedy; it is these types that threaten untouched places and, unfortunately, these types of people will always exist. On that note, here I am, jumping on that tourism bandwagon! But I’m trying to do my part to contribute locally and not take more than I give.
As soon as I stepped foot in Luang Prabang, I fell in love with it. Compared to Chiang Mai, this is a breath of fresh air. Literally. The town is set on a peninsula with two rivers on its long sides, intersecting at the short side. The French were here for a while in the 1800s and left their mark on the town which is filled with French colonial architecture and riverside terraces along its streets; the town also has the reputation for having the best coffee, pastries, and service around. (Thank you, France!) The vibe in town is simple, laid back, and serene. There is plenty going on all the time, and the streets come alive with the nightly market, but peace and quiet might be a whole 5-minute walk away from the shenanigans. For less than $10/night, I found a lovely room with a riverside view from my balcony. As soon as I got it, I locked in for my entire stay, deciding it will be a great place to get my bearings, rest, write, and re-focus before I move again. Plus, the people who worked there were super nice.
I spent most of my time that week on and off with my new friends. It was perfect because during the days we all did our own things, sometimes together, sometimes not, then we would reunite in the evenings for having dinner, swapping stories and plans, and strolling the market. Our big daytime group activity consisted of a trip out to the Kuang Si Waterfalls–one of the major tourist attractions of the area. We shared the cost of the tuk tuk among the five of us (Blake, Cris & Camila, Allan, and me) for the 45-minute ride up through the jungle mountains to the entrance of the falls (and our driver waited for us and took us back to town in the afternoon). Within the National Reserve area, there were various hiking trails as well as a Bear Rescue Center that we stopped in to visit for a while. The forest was cool and serene and as we got closer to the water, we could hear the soft sounds of the stream rolling along.
There were many layers to the Kuang Si Waterfalls, starting with large aquamarine pools at the bottom large enough for swimming; the menthol-colored water was enticing, but we only stopped for some pictures and kept moving along the hiking trail until we arrived at the main waterfall. It was spectacular! The layers of rock formations added so much character to the waterfall. And while this was a beautiful sight, there was a lot left to explore so we kept on hiking up alongside the waterfall, following the signs leading us to the water source.
According to the maps and the signs, the water source was supposedly only 3 kilometers away, but we ended up hiking probably a little more than an hour through slippery mud, tree roots, and marching ants until we finally arrived–hot, sticky, and hungry–to a pool of natural spring water that was the source of all the streams, pools, and waterfalls in the Kuang Si region. None of us probably would have wandered into the jungle that far had we been alone, but because there were five of us, we seemed to share an exploratory group mentality and now have a fun shared memory. Most of us took a dip in the cold mountain water which was neat because we could actually feel the current coming up from the ground where the water came from! The water was so crystal clear I was tempted to drink it, but that’s never a good idea–especially during rainy season. After scarfing down our sandwiches, we made the journey back retracing the way we had come in, then made one last stop at the top of the giant waterfall to enjoy the lagoon-like pools feeding into the falls while we all peeked over the edge. A refreshing adventure indeed!
I really enjoyed sharing that time with my new friends and learning about each of them. Blake, 24, had just finished almost a year of teaching English in China and was spending a couple months traveling before heading back to North Carolina and starting a career. Cris and Camila, the couple from Chile, had both quit their jobs last December (after planning and saving for this trip for nearly two years) and embarked on a one-year trip around the world–but mainly in Australia and Asia. Cris was in banking, Camila was an architect, and they plan on heading back to Chile this December. Allan is from Australia and was on a 3-week vacation in Laos and Cambodia. His primary work is as the lead of a paramedic unit, but for about three months out of the year, he double as a winemaker; in his lifetime, Allan has lived abroad for years at a time and traveled all over the world. Being such a fun and interesting group of people, it was an easy choice to hang out with them and we often stayed up late when we were together, either being out strolling through the night markets or staying in chit-chatting and playing cards until we were beyond tired.
After three days, Blake, Cris, and Camila decided to take off to visit another town known for being a backpacker haven while Allan and I stayed behind. Allan had signed up for a full day Lao cooking class, and I chose to spend one more day allowing Luang Prabang to seduce me further into its sophisticated charm. I walked through the markets and visited two different coffee shops, savoring the sights, smells, delicate pastries, and bold coffee in town. I got my laundry done and went for a traditional Lao massage that nearly put me to sleep, then I strolled all around the peninsula. In a place where no one is ever in a hurry and everything is so quiet, it is nearly impossible to keep your entire body from slowing down, your breathing from getting deeper, and your mind from reaching complete relaxation. I just wanted to take it all in and store up some reserves for future use. It is a magical place.
The following day, Allan and I boarded a bus heading for Vientiane, the capital of Laos. It seemed that Allan’s and my travel routes were similar, although I had more flexibility with timing, so it worked out that we could stick together for a while. I figured that if I were going to the same places as he was, it would be both safer and more fun to coordinate travel with him since he was such good company and helped keep the creepers away. He also continued to encourage me to write and allowed me time and space to do so as he knew that it was important to me. I never felt pressure from him nor did he ever make me feel like he was waiting on me to do something. He would make his plan and share it with me, always with an open invitation for me to join or not. He was perfectly independent and usually a step ahead of me in the travel planning department. His planning always made sense so it was easy for me to say, “Yeah, that sounds good. I think I’ll do that, too.” Sometimes I felt like I was secretly tagging along to this expert traveler’s adventure, but it was in such a way that the adventure could be mine, too. And I learned so much from him along the way! New tips and tricks, some of which have already made it to my “travel tips” sections. He was the perfect travel companion! More on that later…
Upon arrival to Vientiane, we could immediately feel the change of pace as we entered the busting capital city. It was already after dark so once we were dropped off in the middle of town, the first priority was to find a guesthouse and get checked in. The place we both had in mind only had one room available so we left looking for another spot. When we got to where the guidebook said another guesthouse would be, it wasn’t there. We walked up and down and around this narrow dark street and asked everyone we came across where this place was. (I was grateful to have a 6-foot-something Australian “bodyguard” with me at this point!) After nearly half an hour, someone finally told us the place had closed down. Great. At least we got an answer! On to the next… We finally settled into a nice, clean place that had rooms available for both of us at a good price, and it was a relief to be able to take off my backpack so I could stop sweating bullets in the lingering heat and high humidity of this city-on-the-river. We concluded the evening with dinner at an outdoor sidewalk restaurant where all the local teenagers apparently like to hang out and I chattered away telling some endless story to Allan, who listened graciously and shared some [shorter] stories of his own.
As far as daytime activities go in Vientiane, there are a number of options for visiting temples, the palace, monuments, museums, etc.–all the typical stuff a capital city has on display. I think Allan took much more advantage of day while I bummed around in some coffee shops doing some work. The blazing heat of the day deterred me from stepping away from the A/C for any length of time, but I finally decided to venture out in the mid-afternoon to see what I could find. Just steps away from our guesthouse, I found my first treasure: a bubble milk tea stand! (The “bubbles” or “pearls” are made from tapioca and formed into little balls.) A refreshing purple beverage was just the right thing to help me tackle the heat. And so I walked and walked, enjoying the town and searching for one particular place that had caught my eye in the guidebook–the COPE Center.
To give a brief history lesson, the two main things you should know about Laos are that agriculture, namely farming rice paddies, is at the heart of its economy, and, because it was such a “lost land” during the time of the Vietnam War, its countryside was used as a depository for the US military planes to unload unused bombs [meant for Vietnam] because it was too dangerous (for US soldiers) to land the planes fully loaded with explosives. Laos wasn’t even involved in the Vietnam War, yet it has been–and continues to be–devastated by the effects of it. Not only were many lives lost and houses/fields destroyed by the dropping of the bombs during and toward the end of the war, but also, to this day, people’s lives are still affected as UXOs, or unexploded ordnance, are continually set off accidentally when they are found by children playing, men looking for scrap metal to sell, or families working their rice fields. The statistic is that nearly 30% of bombs do not explode when they are launched; therefore, that 30% of deposited explosive material dropped on Laos is still hot and ready, even after 4 decades. Explosions have severely maimed and even killed people all over the country and now many live in fear of working their rice fields because a UXO could be anywhere and could be set off with the slightest movement or pressure change. Rice equals life, UXO explosion could possibly equal death; rural-living Laotians are constantly having to decide if their livelihood is worth the risk.
As many civilians have become paralyzed by the loss of a limb or their eyesight, there has been an ever-increasing need for attention to this matter and that is how the COPE Center came to be. While there are governmental efforts to locate and deactivate remaining UXOs, the COPE Center is all about rehabilitation and helping victims of these accidents to live relatively normal lives again. At the COPE Center museum, there are photos and artifacts on display that share the stories of people who have lost an arm or a leg, a hand or a foot, sometimes both and sometimes their eyesight as well; the stories document who they are, how the accident happened, and how they have recovered or dealt with the after-effect.
One of the biggest ways that the COPE Center has helped is by creating and distributing prosthetic limbs to victims. Arms, legs, hands–you name it. They are funded by an NGO, sometimes the victims’ families, and donations. In addition to helping victims of explosions, they also offer assistance to people who have suffered from polio or who were born with some other genetic deformation (such as club foot) and could benefit from protheses. Furthermore, the COPE Center has sponsored victims in both rehabilitation programs as well as educational studies; some rehabilitated victims have gone on to become specialists in the field of protheses, making it their life’s work.
On my way out, I noticed something going on in the gym on site and walked over to peek inside. To my delight, it was a basketball game! But it wasn’t just any ordinary basketball game–it was a game played by people in wheelchairs who were in recovery or rehab, both women and men. I sat down to watch the game for at least 20 minutes, and I have to say that it was probably the highlight of my day. It was great! They were so good and the energy they had on the court was contagious. It was emotionally moving to reflect on how these people had the opportunity to change their lives in the wake of a traumatic event and what could have possibly been long-term hardship. They were happy, grateful, fun, competitive, normal people. Instead of choosing to live as victims, they all opted to embrace the situation for what it is and make the best of it. Their resilience was inspiring. If you’re interested, I recorded a little less than one minute of the game; you can watch it here: http://youtu.be/4FEn-NQDnHc
Overall, Vientiane ended up being an all right place. It was a shock initially after coming from Luang Prabang, but it sort of grew on me. One of the most impressive aspects of the city was the sense of community that could be felt, especially starting from late afternoon through the evening. As the sun begins to set and the place starts cooling off, people come out to enjoy the fresh air. There is a path along the river lined by parks where people are walking, running, cycling, playing badminton or practicing some other sport every afternoon/evening. They even have giant public aerobics, dance, and yoga workout sessions in open areas along the river. There were probably 40-50 people participating in each of these sessions which were going on at the same time at various spots in the public open areas. It was a big deal! In addition to that, the markets were sprawling with locals both of the nights we were there.
While this wasn’t the end of Laos, I think it is enough for now. More to come in the next chapter!
TRAVEL TIP: Before checking into a guesthouse or other type of lodging, ask to see the rooms to check for cleanliness, light, space, etc. Also, it’s not a bad idea to check the sheets and under the pillows for evidence of bedbugs or other insects. Don’t feel rushed or pressured to make a quick decision if you are not sure it’s the right fit. Look around town and check out a couple of other places before deciding on one; this is also good to gauge what the going rate is for a room. Usually once you pay, you won’t get the money back if you change your mind. Also, while booking ahead of time may give you peace of mind, if you have the flexibility and are on a budget, wait to book until you arrive and look around. This could also give you negotiating power and prices may drop if you create competition for your business. (Exceptions: fine to book ahead if a hotel with set prices, great to book ahead if you need an airport pickup and it’s included, and always try to book ahead if you know that there is a big holiday or event around the time of your stay.) But it can really be worth your while to take some time to look at your options before committing in order to ensure quality of experience and bang for your buck.