So, my journey from Vientiane to Luang Prabang … firstly, I tried to avoid any travel agent’s fees by finding my own way to the bus station to purchase a ticket. This cost me about three hours of cycling energy in the heat of the day, a fair amount of frustration after receiving opposing directions from some of the locals, and the 25 baht I saved in travel agent’s fees I then had to pay double to charter a tuk tuk for the journey back to the bus station with my bag. 25 baht out of pocket, but lesson learnt.
My expectations for the bus I’d booked – a sleeper bus – were based on my previous travel in Thailand; a large, reclining seat that allowed for at least some comfortable sleep. Instead, on boarding the bus I noted with a sinking feeling that this bus had two stories of “beds” about a head-knee length. Furthermore, these single-width beds were intended for two people. Two. Maybe two Asians, but not two people my size! When you’re traveling alone the potential for an unpleasant bed buddy is vast. I had already noted the persistent whinger, the pothead, the chain smoker and the super fatty among the crowd waiting for my bus. Luckily I ended up with a lovely Austrian girl, Sigrid, a fellow single, non-twenty-something traveller who became a buddy for some of my travels around Laos. Phew.
We arrived in Luang Prabang just as the monks were collecting their alms from people on the street (early!), one of the main “tourist attractions” of the place. It was nice to see, though it doesn’t take long for monks wandering the streets to simply become part of the everyday norm. Luang Prabang has its fair share of wats – I visited only one purposefully (Wat Xieng Thong) and the ancient pagoda on top of Mt Phousi, the large hill in town.
Other highlights here included a trip north to the riverside towns of Nong Khiaw in a minibus on the most atrocious “sealed” roads I’ve ever been on – 4 hours to cover about 140km, followed by a one hour boat trip up to Muang Ngoi. Both of these places have stunning scenery and a super relaxed feel. I took the opportunity to try and rid myself of this persistent cold by forming a close acquaintance in a hammock and (as usual) my Kindle. I was also presented with much opportunity to exercise my French verbal skills here, with at least 80% of the tourists being from Francophone countries. I think I held my own – thanks Clem (and others) for helping with this part of my preparation.
Back in Luang Prabang I treated myself to a second cooking course, where buffalo mince, buffalo tripe and buffalo bile were key ingredients. I left the latter out of my dish. This also began with an educational trip to the market, etching into my memory the vision of a large plate of “blood jelly”, and a buffalo foetus (too horrid to photograph). Apparently, the buffalo foetus is normally discovered “by chance” on killing a female buffalo, and subsequently sold for consumption to people seeking a cure for certain illnesses. The slightly sheepish look on our chef’s face, however, suggested that at times a foetus is sought out by killing pregnant buffaloes. Don’t dwell on that. It was a really interesting, fun day and I got to meet a great group of people, though two full days later and I think I’m still suffering a bit …
One evening I popped into Big Brother Mouse – an organisation set up to improve literacy throughout Laos by distributing books throughout the country. People can help by sponsoring the publication of a new book in Lao or by sponsoring a reading programme in a remote village. The organisation also runs an all-day, everyday drop-in centre where locals can meet with tourists to practise their English. All of the seats were taken when I visited so I didn’t stay long, but it seems to be really effective. My trekking guide had learnt all of his spoken English there and he was very much understandable.
Two highlights to go … (all uncharacteristically out of order) …
An excursion to the beautiful Kuangsi Falls and recently opened butterfly park was perhaps my favourite day in Luang Prabang. I set off early (to avoid the influx of Chinese tourists) on a rented mountain bike I’d picked up the evening before, only to discover one minute in that the gears did not work. At all. I was prepared for a few dodgy gears, but no possibility at all for changing gears?! Hmmm. The shop was still closed after waiting expectantly for half an hour so I couldn’t swap it, which meant I biked the whole 29km there, and back again, in one gear – the front cog stuck on the hardest gear, the back one on the easiest. Both killing on the uphill and frustrating on the downhill. This was more than made up for by the stunning waterfalls, a quick dip in the waterfall pools, the bear rescue centre (a great surprise as this is not advertised anywhere), and the butterfly park.
The final highlight was getting to watch a movie. It’d been four weeks of watching nothing on the screen so being able to sit back at the bookshop/café, L’étranger, and indulge in a movie was perfect, even if it was the rather odd Hollywood film, “Birdman”.
I’m currently writing this while sitting, for the second of two days, on a slowboat heading up the Mekong – my passage back to Thailand. I’m delighted to be able to say that today’s seats are much more comfortable than yesterday’s. The overnight stop in Pakbeng was interesting … I can’t say I’ve been offered opium with my curry before. Apparently, if you are silly enough to buy any of the proffered opium or weed you’ll subsequently be found and fined by police, who I’m sure will be splitting the profits with the drug seller himself.
Overall, Laos has been great (though less smiley and friendly and more expensive than I had expected) and I would’ve liked a bit more time to spend here, particularly in Nong Khiaw and Muang Ngoi, but my start date in Myanmar is fast approaching. A rabies shot in Chiang Mai, some course planning in Mae Sot and then it’s business time.
Side note (mostly for Mum’s benefit):
While I have been a little disappointed by the lack of friendliness and smiles in Laos, I have been equally encouraged by the stories of people who have recently travelled in Myanmar. Almost all have said it’s their favourite country … “It’s dirty, the food is horrible, there’s rubbish everywhere, the hotels are expensive, but the people! They’re just so nice!” Sigrid told me that she felt so looked after as a single female traveller. Once, when she was waiting alone at a bus station, a lady took her over some fruit to eat, just because. Another time, when she had lost her iphone, locals tracked her down to return it to her two days later (during which time she had even changed hotels). Mum, I don’t think you have cause for concern.