Luang Prabang 1 and Vang Vieng

IMG_3542We had just arrived off our flight from Hanoi to Luang Prabang. As soon as unloaded our bags from the taxi, I asked Courtney, “Do you hear that?”
“NO horns… silence…
It was true, and still has been so far; Laotians apparently have no need to incessantly honk their horns. After so much time in Vietnam I had forgotten that such people could exist.
This turned out to be just one of the reasons Luang Prabang was becoming a breath of fresh air (and that is not, even though it could be, a pun about the sudden lack of smog). This “city” is quite small; 36,000 people small actually. Even though it is quite overrun with tourists, it is one of the most charming places we’ve been to. The riverside (both of them actually, since the town sits at a confluence of the Mekong and Nam Song) are lined with lantern and tree-ringed eateries, making it an excellent place to have a drink at sundown. The people are very friendly, and even the occasional person who is touting for a tuk-tuk ride is polite and smiling. Perhaps we’re just a little cynical after having spent so much time in Vietnam and occasionally being stalked by a vendor or driver.
IMG_3628Being our first experience in Laos, we couldn’t help but notice the cultural similarities with Thailand, Buddhist temples everywhere. I’ve never seen so many temples in one place. So far we’ve passed perhaps a dozen, all active and filled with novice monks, who are so laid back that you can see them occasionally chatting with tourists; they seem to not mind (or perhaps simply used to) being constantly photographed by wandering tourists (who seems actually more polite themselves here, perhaps it’s just one of those places that rubs off on people). Courtney and I assume that the monks here are so friendly because (again, like in Thailand) most males are expected to join up at some point.
But I’ve got to stop here for a second, because it really isn’t fair to keep comparing Laos to Thailand, especially in the food department. I’ve never heard anyone saying “You have got to try this Laos restaurant!” We ourselves had no idea what to expect from Lao food; we had already become acquainted with Beer Lao, so we knew that at least we’d a have good lager, but maybe nothing more.
IMG_3552Thankfully, we were wrong. For those of you reading this that are lucky enough to have visited Pok-Pok in Portland… if you love that kind of food you’ll love food from Northern Laos. Many dishes that are considered quintessentially Thai, such as papaya salad, are actually Laotian (though I wouldn’t claim this to a Thai). It turns out that the Isaan region in Thailand, which Pok-Pok is inspired by, used to be part of Laos. Besides papaya salad, sticky rice is a staple at all meals (which are eaten mostly with the hands); in fact, sticky rice with a dip or paste can be considered a meal. Our favorite of these dips/sauces was called jeow bong which is a paste of tomato, chili and shredded water-buffalo ski (and very spicy).

IMG_3568After exploring LPB for a couple days, we took a day trip to Kuang Si falls, a 45 min ride by songthaew from the city. After our first ride broke down, he called a backup, so it took about an hour and a half… and right as we were arriving to the park entrance… SPLOOSH! Both Courtney and I were hit by kids wielding pails of water, drenching us immediately. This proved to be only a warm-up for what was to come in the weeks ahead. The falls themselves were beautiful, but we were there to swim, as was everyone else, though there weren’t many others, except at the lone rope swing. We spent a couple hours in the beautiful turquoise waters before the weather turned and we went back to town.

We had no plans, and we had debated whether or not to head to Vang Vieng, where the youngest/douchebaggiest of travelers congregate to get shitfaced. We decided that we needed to do it; for one I wanted to make a little documentary on our camera of the worst offenders and also we had been told of how beautiful the area is. So after finding several motorbike renters who refused to let us take their bikes since the gov’t doesn’t allow ones from LPB to leave the province (for some reason if you rent in the capital of Vientianne you can take them anywhere) we finally found someone who asked fewer questions.

IMG_3686We bought ourselves a copy of the GT Rider’s Laos map and so knew it would be a long trip; even though we were only going 224 kilometers, there was a lot of ups and downs. So we thought we could probably make it in 5-6 hours.  At 11 the next morning we took off, stopping only for gas and horrible noodle soup and arrived at around 7:30 that night, with bugs in our eyes and sore asses. The only event of note was at the halfway mark, when flames from the nearby crop-burning leapt over the road’s edge, fifteen feet or more in the air, close enough to singe us.

Just as when we arrived late in Bangkok, jet-lagged and bleary-eyed and threw ourselves into the surreality of Khao San road, we felt obligated to do the same here. So, bike-lagged and bleary-eyed, we headed out into the town of Vang Vieng, passing the stumbling half-naked teens that wandered the streets (you get an elevated sense of what young Brits do on their “Gap Year” in SE Asia).  Despite the occasional sign asking visitors to keep some clothing on while in town and the fact that it was nighttime, there were plenty of bikini-clad girls and shirtless dudes lurching through the town, many of them caught up in the sort of conversations only available to the young and very drunk. We had some pretty awful dinner (we quickly determined that it was fairly impossible to get a good meal, and all street food consisted of crap sandwiches), then sat in a bar overlooking the river, using the nearby napkin holder to cover up the puke that was on our seat cushion. It seemed as if the town was begging us to put our old bones to bed, and so we did.

IMG_3715The next day we moved to the Maylyn guesthouse, the proprietor of which is an old Irishman named Joe with no social filter (much more has been said on the tripAdvisor page, so just look there for the funny stuff, though he did take a look at me and say “Here for the cavortin’? I bet you’ve done a fair bit of cavortin’ eh?”.) The bungalows were rustic, clean and cheap and some had views of the karsts beyond.

All the youth come to Vang Vieng for the “tubing”, but having seen bunches of cut-up kids walking around with gauze-padded arms and scabby backs due to the low water level, we opted for kayaks. Unfortunately, the moment we decided to kayak was the same moment my body decided that it had eaten something disagreeable. Nevertheless, we were loaded up onto a sangtheaw with a troupe of kids and shuttled off to the river. The water was so low that at times the guides had to get out and guide our kayaks through small paths between the (very sharp) rocks. After a few kilometers of serene kayaking among the karsts, we reached the TUBING portion of the river. We knew it was coming since we could hear the thumping bass for perhaps a half an hour. We separated from the group at the Organic Mulberry Farm, which for years had been a quiet place to stay on the river, before all the bars slowly crept up until they were literally right outside.

We ate at the farm, despite my worsening condition, then grabbed our guide who had stayed back with us and got back on the river. This meant that within five seconds we were at the first of the bars constructed along the side of the river and the giant swings and slides they’ve constructed as the main attractions (despite my overwrought cynicism I would have tried one of these if my intestines weren’t battling me for my soul). This is best described with a video:

IMG_3742We arrived later in the day, so most people had already headed back to town; many “tubers” actually just rent the tubes, float down a hundred meters or so (out of the 4 kilometers), get drunk, and then hire a sangtheaw to take them home. As we arrived in town a couple hours later, as my fever started to build, we were treated to the sight of tourist balloons hovering over the river with the karsts in the background as the sun descended through the haze. I spent the rest of the evening huddled in our bungalow, sweating it out (don’t let anyone tell you that fever-reducing Tylenol isn’t one of man’s most important inventions).

[flickr video=5703170838] On our last day we headed to the “Blue Lagoon”, and explored the cave up above. This was a welcome break from the constant party that surrounded us, with the cold, calm turquoise waters, and the tree with rope swings and two levels of limbs to jump from. Well, it was a nice break from the party until the party found us, which went a little something like this:

  • “If Danny Boy was here he’d been doing flips’n’shit off those trees!!!”
  • “Hey! Danny Boy is here!!!”
  • “Hey Danny Boy, you gonna jump off those trees? Hey everybody, Danny Boy is gonna jump off the tree!”
  • “Hey Danny Boy, hold on, I wanna take a video of you jumpin’ off the tree.”

So we left.

IMG_3801On our way back, we decided to make it a two day trip, instead of covering the whole 8-hour trip in one go. So we stopped at Ban Nam Ou, one of the few places to stay in the mountains outside of the towns. Their 5 or 6 bungalows were stacked on the hillside, with their restaurant across the street and a hot spring pool in between. Truckers and locals would come by for a meal at the restaurant and/or a quick bathe at the springs. The waters were quite warm, and the locals were joking and friendly as we joined them for a dip; one woman encouraged her child to splash Courtney repeatedly over several minutes while shouting “Farang! Farang! Farang!” We weren’t sure if this was friendly or not. After a furious thunderstorm, we headed back to LPB.

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