Luang Prabang, Laos

Laos is a weird one for me. On the one side there’s this awe inspiring untouched beauty surrounding you, and on the other hand it seems everyone is trying to rip you off or sell you drugs.

That’s a broad statement and it’s unfair of me to say that. The locals are actually really nice and to watch them interact is humbling. It’s the few that have come out of themselves to be pushy and annoying that give the rest a bad name as most of the time, they’re the ones you’ll experience the most because they go out of their way to get something out of you.

This mainly takes place on the street though (or by government officials) — the small business owners, like guesthouse, cafés, street food vendors — all beautifully helpful with no other motives that to hope you have a good time in their country.

We ended up staying in Luang Prabang for 8 days before choosing the 1 hour flight to Hanoi I’m Vietnam. The other transport option was the 24-30 hour bus journey but after the slow boat I think we learned our lesson.

Walking about was nice and my favourite part was (as usual) the food. The street buffets were filling and the various bakeries were a well missed treat. Lao coffee is also very very nice.

Actually, my most favourite part was visiting Elephant Village Sanctuary where Charlotte and I had a day of Mahout training where we learned to ride and bathe the elephants.

Beautiful creatures.

The worst part (aside from being seen as a walking dollar sign) was that the internet in Laos is just abysmal. I don’t usually mind as exploring is far more enlightening — but unfortunately Charlotte was a bit poorly for a few days and it would have been nice to watch some shows or something while she got better. Also it made blogging a bit trickier as far as uploading photos was concerned.

We decided not to see any more of Laos for a few reasons but the main two were because we had a finite number of days (limited malaria tablets) and Vietnam was just too appealing so we decided to spend more time there than in a place that we were still undecided if we liked or not.

Would I recommend Laos? Definitely. It’s one of, if not the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen. As it’s still widely undeveloped you get a sense of what life was like before technology and industry (protip: it’s all about family and food). The only downside is you have to be a bit more aware of how much you should be spending and to just ignore the fast talking tricksters. It was the only place where I’ve seen a local get visibly aggressive at being politely declined.

Another thing to note is that it’s a good place to get a Visa for Vietnam. There’s the Vietnamese Consulate which if you turn up (2pm seemed the quietest) you can just apply, pay and wait for it to be done with a choice of wait times ranging from the same day to 3 days depending how much you want to pay.

Buying plane tickets from the local tour shops is really easy and they charge the same as the website direct so save the hassle and pop in if you’re planning to fly out of Luang Prabang. The airport is small and quiet, the planes are powered by propellers, you get a snack included an it only takes about an hour to get to Hanoi (Lao Airlines). It’s a nice experience.

Two-Day Slow Boat: Chiang Rai, Thailand > Luang Prabang, Laos

[images for imageless posts coming soon. It turns out the internet in Laos is not too hot]

A note to people in Chiang Rai who book any tours or trips with ‘So Good Travel’… Don’t. Everything we did we were late for (that means shitty leftover buffet food) and the driver was openly and proudly hungover as he was driving us from place to place, though he was a nice guy.

Anyway, waking up for the 6am minibus to the border we were left hanging about until 7 worrying if it was gonna come or not at all. Eventually it did and we were off on a 2 hour death ride to the Thailand/Laos border. The driver at one point — thinking everyone was asleep — put his palms together and prayed before slowing down round a curling mountain road. Probably praying nothing was driving on the other side of the road as over here it seems road markings are more of a suggestion than a rule.

We get to the border and do the passport process at the first border control section, then get on a coach that takes us to the Visa section, wait for a bit before being ushered onto a Tuk Tuk that takes us to a pointless stopover just past the border in Laos for an hour or so, seemingly just so we can buy snacks and drinks before the boat as they said there wouldn’t be any on there… they lied.

They waited for everyone to stop spending money and put us on the Tuk Tuk again to take us to the boat which because of all their shenanigans meant that the boat was already full and everyone was waiting for our group — because of this, our first 6 hour boat journey we had to sit at the back.

AKA the engine room.

This space wouldn’t be legal for cattle. Sitting in the same room as an old diesel engine pumping fumes right into the boat (also the most contained area on the boat) which probably did 40 years of lung damage and on top of this the engine let out a constant deafening noise all encapsulated in the only section walled off with only a couple of windows for ventilation.

I wouldn’t wish this on anyone.

The icing on the cake? All these fucking people came to the back (moving away from their well ventilated area) to smoke, so now we’re sitting in a people sized ashtray as well.

The whole experience was terrible.

Finally deaf and hard of breathing we arrive at the stop-over village Pakbeng, where no one really cares about anyone because they know people are only there for one night. The restaurants had nothing on their menu and took an age to bring is anything, if at all (we ordered a dessert which never arrived).

A small stroll getting off of the boat and we book accommodation — not bad but the least comfortable place of the trip so far.

Ready for bed and an early alarm prepared to get good seats I nod off with my game face on for the morning.

Day Two

6am the alarm goes off. I get up, get ready — we’re off. Walking down the street we grab some boat snacks (Double filled Oreos, banana chocolate muffin and banana cashew cake. Awww yeeaah!).

We did it! We get to the boat way before everyone else and have a choice of seats, so we get some in the middle. Not at the front where it gets crowded and not at the back where satan himself lives. We set sail with perfect open views of the Mekong River and it’s exhilarating mountainous glory.

Day two was much better, enhanced only by the pain of the day before. Luckily this was the longer leg of the journey, about 7/8 hours, so we travelled in relative comfort, and despite getting a tan on one half of my body, the journey was nice. Give me a window seat and a good view and I’m a happy guy (or a dog).

Off the boat and about 5 minutes later we get ripped off by officials short-changing for a ride into the city. Finally we make it to Luang Prabang are dropped off at the Night Market.

We scope a few hotels and happen to find one a with a balcony and a bath… do we? Hells yea we do. Just one night. Okay, maybe two. We stay for three before finding another local hotel (Vietnam Visa issues — possibly a later post).

At the night market for a bite to eat it’s noticeably different from Thailand’s markets and a nice gimmick here is the 1 plate, 1 time buffet. For about a quid you get a bowl that you fill up with whatever noodles, rice, veg, spring rolls, tofu, etc, etc that you want which they’ll fry up for you.

Our hotel is really close to the Night Market so no need for a Tuk Tuk but that still doesn’t stop them from trying though.

“Tuk Tuk?”

“No thanks, just walking”

“Weed?”

“It’s good weed!” He says shuffling his eyebrows up and down as he puts a hand in his pocket.

“Ah… No thanks”.

Getting lost in Chiang Rai

We stayed 5 nights in Chiang Rai at a hotel called Na-Rak-O — pronounced locally as Nalak-a which we were told is like “cute with an ‘a’ added to make it cuter”. This made a lot of sense as there were random cuddly bears hanging around behind the curtains.

The hotel was nice. A big double bed on a concrete slab, a shower room with a toilet and as we found out on the last day — an awesome spot to watch the sunrise.

Chiang Rai seems fairly new to the tourism boom. Initially it seems like a hotspot for tourists but spend a few minutes walking in any direction and it’s happy smiles, waves and curious stares again from the locals. I’m not sure many visitors venture too far out from the centre.

We arrived by bus and when we got off we had an ordeal finding the hotel. The tourism officer told us to go left as we leave the bus station following the road to the traffic lights where we turn left, but there were only traffic lights to the right. We walked a bit and returned to her to confirm that it’s definitely not right as that’s where the only traffic lights are. She got a bit moody that we questioned her and insisted we go left.

We did. This is where the story begins.

We follow this road for about 10-15 minutes hoping to come across some traffic lights, we finally did and from here were told to go left, so now we’re walking along a highway… this can’t be right but she was insistent so we continue and take the next left again. Walking down a dimly lit street a pair of dogs come charging at us aggressively barking their faces off. Luckily there was a chain fence separating us! Dogs are usually quite relaxed around people here so maybe not many people come to this part. We carry on and hit another main road. This definitely isn’t right. We see a Seven Eleven so pop in for directions.

Not a word of English to be spoken or understood.

We were lost in Chiang Rai with a language barrier and no internet. We show them the map but they’re confused and of no help. We leave and stumble on a hostel. Thank you Lord! We go in and they upgrade our shitty black and white printout map that we were given at Tourist Information to a colour leaflet that they draw directions to our hotel on. They were confident so we were happy and left smiling.

They didn’t have a clue.

An hour and a half pass and I hate Chiang Rai.

Further into unknown territory with no one on the streets we see a buffet restaurant. We chance it.

“English?”

“Little bit!”

That’ll do. We show the map, we explain we’re lost. The waitress gets the manager. The manager gets the waiter. The waiter gets the cook and there’s another waiter hanging around. There’s like 5 of them — two on Google Maps and three looking at the leaflet.

There’s a lot of talking. Luckily the place wasn’t that busy and they were more than happy to help. 20 minutes / half an hour of running about they figure something out. They’ve pinned the hotel down and know how to get there. They try to explain the road we’re on but quickly give up, opting for a more fail-safe solution…

Mopeds.

The cook and the waiter are ushered outside and given directions. They get on their scooters and the manager looks at us all like “This is happening. Get on”. We’re standing there with all our travelling gear and are like “Yeah. It’s happening”. I thank him and the waitress, offering a tip and they profusely decline so instead we shake hands.

With no helmets and no hesitation we jump on.

Okay okay. Some hesitation. Shit was getting real.

Charlotte and the waiter on the scooter behind, me and the cook leading the pack. Weaving in and out of traffic, holding onto the bike and our bags simultaneously; we turn up at the first set of traffic lights the Tourist Officer told us was the wrong way! Two minutes later — literally two minutes — we’re there. Only accepting a handshake before their departure they leave us and we check in with a relieved smile on our faces.

I love Chiang Rai.