South East Asia: Laos

November 13, 2009 - Luang Prabang, Laos

From Chiang Khong we crossed the Mekong in a taxi boat to Laos to the town of Huay Xai - which has a crazyily unorganised border where there are three different desks you have to go to and you also have to pay an overtime fee of 10,000 Kip (about 1$ US) ontop of your visa charge. Half the group i'd come from Chiang Mai with and had gotten to know on the bus where scared off going on the Slow Boat Trip in favour of going on a Bus (for an extra 400Bht) by lies from our supposed 'guide' on the Laos side (who we only saw once - I nicknamed him the 'Bus Driver'). And after a bit more messing about we finally got on our way to Pak Beng the town half way down towards Luang Prabang on the slow boat - the slow boat was exactly what it said on the tin - slow and the seats where uncomfortable - but the scenery was good and it was a chilled out way to travel! We also got plenty of kids waving at us enthusiastically and seen alot of local fishermen casting there nets from their distinctive oriental style boats! It was very hilly/mountainous terrain and jungle all along the riverbanks the whole way along the journey. I half expected to see Martin or Charlie Sheen for that matter coming the other direction on a river boat (if you didn't get that reference they where both in 'nam war films). Its a journey that probably won't be able to be taken for much longer as they are in the process of daming the river to generate electricity to sell to neighbouring countries as they need the cash (although corruption is rife supposedly so the money going towards building the dam doesn't always make it towards paying for the dam if you know what i mean so it might take a few years yet)

In Pak Beng it was a chaotic arrival in the dark with alot of locals clambering to get your business for a guesthouse or sell you illegal substances - Also everyone on the boat was paranoid about there bags going missing from warning in the guide books about scams and also scaremongering by the 'Bus driver' about the town! So there was a scramble to try and get your own bag off the boat and in the dark it was quite tricky to see - so it was a little bit crazy and no-order at all of course until myself and another guy said to people to pass the bags out and if it was yours just take it and leave. The guesthouse myself and a few others i'd met earlier checked into was fine nowhere near as dodgey as had been made out!

The next day it was up early and another day on the boat down to Luang Prabang (and after a while maybe thinking I should have bought one of those cheap pillows someone tried to sell us as my arse started to go a little numb - but that wouldn't have been the 'on a shoestring backpacker' way would it!?!)

We arrived in Luang Prabang in the early evening and got sorted for accomodation. The guidebooks where right it is an enchanting town - very relaxed, with atmospheric night markets, good restaurants and bars - quite different from Huay Xai and Pak Beng to say the least! If Luang Prabang was a house you'd complement the owners by saying "I like what you've done with the place"

Just after landing in Luang Prabang I bumped into the 4 irish girls who had chosen to go on the bus instead of the boat and they had a long bumpy bus journey that had only arrived in town that morning at 6.30am - just about 12 hrs before the boat (so much for the 8 hour journey and brand new sealed road that is 90% complete we'd been told about) We went to a bar/restaurant called Utopia which was one of the coolest i've been in on my travels overlooking the river with on the ground cushioned seating and litup river garden and a beach volleyball court and a crows nest you could climb up to if you dared in the middle of the place too!

Also while in Lunag Prabang I tried a local Lao Style barbeque - which was very good - you cook it yourself over a bucket of burning charcoal at your table on a metal utensil that can grill meat and make soup at the same time - (that and a btl of beer lao and it only comes to less than 4 euro). Myself and Liverpool lads I met on the Slow boat went to utopia again the 2nd night as i had been well impressed with the place and the liverpool lads wanted to see it too!

Next it was onto Vang Vieng - the home of 'Tubing' and a real touristy spot - it has this strange trend where most of the bars/restaurants  play friends or family guy dvds constantly - and i have to say it was a nice novelty to be able to sit and veg out in front of the tv for a few hrs whilst I got my dinner as I hadn't really watched much tv in a good while. Accomodation is plentiful here and because of the competition its dirt cheap - I stayed in a Banana Bungalows Cabana just across the Nam Song river from the town - a bit more out of earshot from the late night bars - the foot bridge across is just like something out of "crouching tiger hidden dragon".

While in Vang Vieng I did the obligatory 'Tubing' - I wasn't really sure what it was - I imagined it was going down through rapids on a tyre tube, but i had heard there was bars along side the river you could stop at along the way. When I got there though I realised what it was about - it's more like a beach party for a day (on a riverbank instead of a beach obviously) people rent the tyre tube and float down pretty much the calmest river you can imagine and stop at the various bars have a drink, dance, talk , party mud wrestle, play mud volleyball, jump off platforms / go on rope swings or flying fox rope slides into the river and water slides etc. I was hanging out with a few americans one of which was watching Family Guy for the evening at my table the night before. I didn't know them that well but it was a good laugh and I got to do a few flips/sommersalts and even tried a sommersalt off the end of a big rope swing which didn't exactly go to plan.. but of course I did the macho thing and swam back to the river bank pretending the landing didn't hurt and hoping none of the girls had noticed ha! Needless to say safety didn't seem to be the top priority and alcohol being involved a number of accidents happen - not that I seen any but you see people around the town with strapped up arms or crutches. One of the places I did a sommersalt off my feet hit the river bed, it wasn't bad but I definitely wouldn't have wanted to do a dive there! With my former lifeguard head on me I noticed plenty of hazards and I was talking to an australian couple the next day she had a broken ankle from mud volleyball - they where telling me a girl died either earlier in the season or the year before on one of the slides I had gone down - honestly don't know how you die from it myself - but with alcohol involved accidents can happen easy enough - but the slide was still open!!!

All that said it was good fun though and floating down the river after and chatting to randomers while floating down to the get out point was cool - very chilled out and the Karst limestone landscape of the surrounding hills is nice backdrop - definitely an experience! But I would have liked to be doing it with a big group of mates or a few good friends! Some tourists just go in tubes or on speedboat trips on the river to see the spectacle and take pics of some of the madness! (mam and dad I only had about 3 drinks while tubing so I wasn't completely irresponsible)

(* I did see one of the coolest jumps/stunts i've seen yet there - two guys did a simultaneous running back flip into the water from a 7m high platform - which looks to be a tricky manouevre with your momentum going forward to rotate backwards as you jump - looks class although they both didn't land it perfect - don't think i'd have the nerve to try it maybe when I was a bit younger...)

Well I wrote a fair bit about Tubing there - I hope it gives you a picture of what it's like as I didn't have my camera with me to take pictures! From Vang Vieng I got the bus to Vientiane to the Airport and got a flight to Siem Reap in Cambodia.


1 Comment

Megs:
November 26, 2009
Hey Brian,
Sounds like you're not regretting doing south east Asia anyways! I couldn't feel my ass for days after that boat journey - but I still loved it.
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