I'm in Laos

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Dean grabbed his rucksack from the floor of the thatched bungalow and headed for the door. Pai had been so good to him, the small Thailand town had developed an identity and then proceeded to befriend him and almost ensnare him with its wiles. It was a difficult place to leave and many never did, but the door swung closed and he walked one last time across the rickety bamboo bridge to the minibus that would whisk him away to Laos. It would not be a short journey. The trip today would be at least eight hours on the road, finishing on the Thai-Laos border in a town called . The two days after would be spent on a slow boat down the Mekong River, always straddling the border but never returning to Thailand, to a Laos city called Luang Prabang. A three-day tour, if you will. And he was not looking forward to it. Reports had come back that the scenery was beautiful on the boat for a while on the first day, but that it quickly became a bunch of backpackers crammed onto a boat and stuck their for two consecutive eight hour days. The upshot, even the most dire reports admitted, was that this bonded the travelers together in a way that only trauma can, and you left the boat with many new friends on the backpacker circuit. The minibus chugged up the mountain leading out of the valley where Pai is situated as Dean pondered the 1750 baht ($60) fate he had purchased himself.

Pai’s hills and valley faded into plains as the minibus wound its way to Chiang Mai. The travelers were not so unlikely a grouping. Dean, a Canadian, an English couple off to do the Gibbon Experience on the Laos-Thai border, and three Thai off to Chiang Mai for a bit of business. Dean was upset to learn of yet another couple that had no problem corresponding with the gibbon people, and they were delighted to talk with someone even if his contribution to the conversation was mostly half-yawned oh yeahs. It was an early morning and had been a late night for Dean, who had spent a good part of it chatting with his Irish neighbours and then watching a movie. On the halfway stop, he announced to the English couple he was going to try to sleep the second half of the voyage. And indeed, getting in, he closed his eyes and tried to get comfortable. The English couple, having forgotten his decree moments earlier and eager to be friendly, talked to him anyway. This half-awake state made their parting in Chiang Mai all the more confusing; after all, they were going to the same place, but the driver instructed Dean to disembark while the others stayed on. Lunch and a new mostly North American minibus crew awaited and the confusion was forgotten as the new minibus sped its way to the Thai border.

The crew were not especially impressed with their most recent addition. The Canadian that stumbled on was bedraggled and looked like he hadn’t slept in weeks. Further, the one little bit of empty space in the van was now occupied by his bulk. Still, he seemed friendly enough if not especially talkative and soon was adopted as one of them. There were now five Canadians, two English, and one Aussie. With a group like that, it’s no surprise that when the minibus finally reached the border they all reached for a beer, though the stillness of the town kept them to a low-key chat. They also had to be up early for the border crossing in the morning, which left at 8 AM. For some reason, it costs Canadians more money than any other country in the world to enter Laos, but $45 later, the entire group was in Laos, crammed into a tuk tuk, and herded into the slow boat that would serve as their home for the next two days. That is, after purchasing a pillow for the hard seats and floor and recruiting an Australian girl named Kylie into the fold.

The slow boat is a long contraption with moveable benches that truly define the term half-assed. It was only a matter of time before some benches were shuffled and pillows were put to floor. The trip is a long one, sixteen hours spaced over two days cruising on the Mekong River amongst beautiful hills, misty and veiled lightly in cloud, stopping from time to time in local villages where occasionally locals would jump on or off and more often children would jump along the rail and go up and down offering fresh fruit. There was also a bar on the boat and of course we left equipped with a sandwich for lunch, but the fresh fruit is one of the best parts of traveling the tropics and many of the group picked up green mangos, pineapple, and melon. As the kip is quite weak (8500 kip = 30 baht = $1), locals are all too happy to take money in Thai baht or US dollars, especially at their exchange rate. So, beautiful scenery, small villages, a winding river, and sitting around watching it all go by over a drink or two and some conversation with yet more newfound friends (including a Californian girl named Rachel who is probably secretly related to Julia Roberts) added to the crew, most of whom were American.

The first day ended in a town called Pak Beng, where most of the group roomed (for 300 baht per night) in the ‘recommended’ guest house. Unused to paying so much, Rachel, Erin, and Dean found another room for the three of them where they paid 50 baht each staying with a funny and delightful woman named Mama Shute. After some much-needed showers, the group rejoined for dinner; most tried a Laos dish called Laap/larp, which is essentially minced chicken, pork, fish, or beef, which has been marinated and then barbequed. There is no electricity after 10 PM which led to an early night which, in turn, led to day two of the trip. There is a rumour passed along the backpacker circuit that only the first day has much in terms of scenery, but this is a flagrant lie. The second day holds scenery that is as, if not more beautiful than the first. Hills turn to mountains which occasionally turn into limestone cliffs and karst. Even if this weren’t the case, half the reason for the boat ride is the people to be met along the way. The emphasis on ‘the crew’ is not an accident, nor is the rather awkward third-person narrative. Travellers on the same path meet, make friends, and perhaps depart, but inevitably cross paths again and again. With so many in the same place for two days, this means that a lone wolf will likely find at least one or two to form a pack with along the way. Or at least play a good game of telephone pictionary, where everyone alternates drawing and captioning as interpretation and poor artistic skills morph innocent (and not so innocent) sentences into twisted messes.

Luang Prabang arrived just in time for most, neither too soon nor too late. As the crew disembarked, Dean was surprised to hear his name called out and see Dan, an American he’d met in Singapore, waving at him from shore. The crew split here, in a sense, as everyone went seeking guesthouses; Dan had a second bed in his room and so we shared one of the cheaper guesthouses in the city (Namsok 3, 25000 each per night) and then went out. Dan had business to do and so didn’t join in the crew that night as it reunited at the excellent night markets, but he did leave some good advice on a bar of choice, the Lao Lao Garden. The group met for drinks and Stuart, one of the English fellows, bought bucket after bucket of alcohol with only 20 minutes to curfew. Yes, everything shuts down at 11:30 here and locals are mostly expected to be home by midnight. There are exceptions however, mostly tourists, tuk tuk drivers, and, for some reason, a bowling alley, the last refuge of the drunk.

So it was that the crew crammed into a tuk tuk with two Swedish girls, making the total 12, and they bowled a few rounds. It was a fitting end to the complete unity of the crew, a fun night out with some making plans for tomorrow and others content to do their own thing and run into whoever they might along the way. Dean was in the latter category, especially since many of the others were planning a boat trip back upstream; he had no interest in either the cave they were planning to visit (and its 1000 buddhas) nor in sitting on a boat again. The next day was a rainy one without electricity, which seriously limits options in a small city like Luang Prabang. Dean and Dan drained their laptop batteries working on photos and while Dan went looking into options for procuring a Chinese visa, Dean grabbed lunch and explored the town. Dan had booked an overnight trip to Vientiane that day to get his visa (hopefully) there, and Dean was on his own for the first time in almost a week. A quick wander into the night markets turned up Christian, the quiet Aussie of the crew, and they had a beer before ending a much-needed quiet day.

The next morning, Dean was following Dan’s advice and setting off for the waterfall via tuk tuk in the morning (rather than taking a tour there in the afternoon). Tom and his wife, neighbours in the guesthouse, were doing the same, so the three decided to split a tuk tuk. At breakfast, they overheard four Americans planning to do the same and the seven paid 25,000 each for a big tuk tuk to take them there, wait three (which then became four) hours for them, and return; A new crew for a new day. Kuangsi Waterfall is an hour’s drive from LP and probably one of the most beautiful falls out there. The water is milky blue, crisp, and cascades relentlessly. Many photos and hiking paths later, everyone had converged at the top of the falls looking down at some lovely pools high up in the falls and wondering how to get there. The path was never found (though attempts were made), and descent back to ground level revealed that the swimming places were further downstream. It was some beautiful swimming, the group jumped from waterfalls into the crystalline waters below, off trees, everything that could be safely jumped was jumped. And their early start meant they had it mostly to themselves.

Dean also met a German girl, Michelle, rather randomly by asking her to take a photo of him jumping the falls. All his group was in the water and she was standing and admiring the waterfalls. Through her he met her travel companion, Nicky (a guy) and thought they seemed a nice pair as they wandered off. The Americans likewise agreed and plans were made. They were a really cool foursome, mostly engineers though Megan was an anthropologist. That didn’t stop her from becoming involved in geekly activities and specifically EWB, Engineers Without Borders, of which she was president for their university. They were here to do some volunteer work bringing running water to a Laos village, checking a Thai village they’d helped several years back, and of course travel.

Dean wandered the town, straying from the tourist area when they returned to LP. He found two restaurants filled with locals and decided to join them in dinner, whatever it was. Outside the tourist areas, English speaking isn’t exactly common and the menu is in Laos script, scribbled on a piece of cardboard. But upon sitting down, he was instantly offered a shot of whisky and some food from the neighbouring table. Then he shared his beer with them and later his food and it was a good experience if not a good meal. The meat was tough and, according to the owner’s gesticulating, was horse. More pleasant fare was to be had in the markets, where Dean was reunited for dinner with Michelle and Nicky from the waterfall. More market exploration separated the threesome, but they had agreed to meet for drinks after dropping stuff at their guesthouses. Dean took his time and some photos of the full moon over Luang Prabang and was surprised not to find them. He had been called from a different bar by some people he couldn’t quite recall having met… until it dawned on him they were the Americans he’d spent the day with at the waterfall.

Very embarrassed, he apologized for having asked what now seemed some really stupid questions and joined them for drinks. Hayden, a very soft-spoken Englishman and part of the crew, overheard Dean’s voice and joined the festivities as well. We were allowed to stay and finish our drinks well past curfew and Hayden and Dean wandered back to their neighbouring guesthouses to find a girl panicked about losing her purse. They tried to help as best they could, going to the police and everything, but nothing could be done until morning, which, given that it was 4:30 already, was not far off. Yet another road trip was about to start in a few hours to Vang Vieng, south 6 hours. The cycle was complete as the trip to Luang Prabang both started and ended with an overtired Dean on a bus with people he would come to know and spend some time with.

Luang Prabang Photos

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