Paradise Laos’d

Last weekend I spent two days on the slow boat from the Thai border down the Mekong River to Luang Prabang, Laos. While I was sad to say goodbye to ‘the land of smiles’ after almost seven weeks, with the last two spent exploring the north (Pai, Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai), lots of people had told me how beautiful Laos is. I haven’t been disappointed.

I’ve read online that some people found the border crossing from Thailand to Laos chaotic; since I’m travelling in low season, immigration was all but empty except me and two fellow travellers from my bus, who navigated it pretty easily, picked up our visas, and then waited for a tuk tuk to take us to the slow boat pier.

The journey down the Mekong on a wooden boat, carrying a mix of backpackers and locals, was magical. Nothing but lush, green jungle for miles and miles, interspersed with the odd small rustic village, with locals embarking and disembarking periodically.

Occasionally you see local children playing by or in the river, and the odd water buffalo grazing by the riverbanks. At one point we also saw some elephants being lead back up hill, presumably after a bath, and presumably to go and work logging or similar 😦

It was so peaceful, and great to be back in nature after several days in cities. I thought I was obsessed with the sea, but on reflection I think maybe it’s actually just water.

I’d highly recommend the boat trip if you’re planning to come from Thailand to Laos. It’s about £40 including a transfer from Chiang Rai (about two hours) and well worth it for the experience.

The boat isn’t exactly luxurious but it’s comfortable enough; the seats are minivan seats which aren’t properly fastened to the floor, so you have to be careful not to lean back too hard or they get a bit wobbly.

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The slow boat, and minivan seats. A bit like the arc, all in twos, although we mainly had a double seat each

I imagine when it’s busy it’s difficult to find a seat, but most of us had a double seat each, so we had plenty of room to spread out. All the locals sat near the front, presumably to be further away from the engine (or maybe the tourists?), but it wasn’t too noisy. The boat also served beer so several of us partook in a few Laos beers – which are actually pretty good. I’ve sampled a few since then 🙂

We spent the night half way down the river in Pakbeng, which seems mainly geared up as a stopover for people travelling between Huay Xai, where you board the boat, and Luang Prabang. It’s about 7 hours the first day, then 8-9 hours on the second day, covering around 400km (I couldn’t find a reliable measure online so this is an estimate).

I booked my accommodation in Pakbeng before arriving, although there are plenty of people trying to sell you a room when you dock. While I don’t like to plan too much, I prefer to have at least some idea of what to expect from a place from the photos online, and the certainty of having a bed before I get somewhere! Here’s the view from where I stayed – which was the closest place to the pier.

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View of the Mekong from my guesthouse in Pakbeng

I finally got to sleep after battling with the light fittings which was like a really shit version of the Crystal Maze where you had to work out how to turn the lights off without also turning off the aircon and fan. There were several switches, on either side of the room, so it was a case of turn one on (or off), then go to the other side of the room and try another switch, and see what happens until you get the right combination.

Literally took me about 20 minutes. And I didn’t even get a crystal at the end of it.

After buying breakfast and sandwiches wrapped in banana leaf for lunch (Laos does good bread – something I’ve really missed the last few weeks!), we changed to a larger boat in the morning,  to continue for another few hours.

Arriving at Luang Prabang pier, me and two fellow boat friends got a tuk tuk into town. We were pretty confused when the driver unceremoniously just dropped us in the old town and refused to take us to our respective hotels – I don’t know what the point was of telling them specifically where we wanted to go. Luckily my hotel was only up the road so I walked, but the boat friends had to hail another tuk tuk who then charged them 30,000 kip (about £2.70) to take them to their hostel. Which was 10,000 kip more than we’d paid for a 7km journey, and their hostel was only 5 minutes away.

My hotel for the first three nights was right on the river, which meant another lovely sunset on night one. I do love a good sunset. Especially with a beer.

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Sunset view by the Mekong River

I’ve since moved to a different guest house as I like Luang Prabang so much I’ve decided to stay on for a full week. This one is very similar, but a bit cheaper and tucked away down a cute little street a bit closer to the night market.

Interestingly there is a set of accommodation regulations in Luang Prabang. According to them, I am not to make any ‘sex movies’ or bring any ‘prostate’ into the room. Not much danger of either of those happening, tbh, but I’ll pack the video camera away.

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Luang Prabang is the former capital of Laos. The whole city is a UNESCO World Heritage site and when you arrive you can see why – the architecture is a beautiful combination of traditional wooden buildings, with French and Vietnamese influences. It’s unlike any other place I’ve seen so far.

It also has a very laid back feel; while there are enough people, it’s pretty quiet; there are numerous little wooden guest houses (think creaky floors and lack of sound-proofing – which I think would put paid quickly to making any potential sex movies…), shops, boutiques, cafes, restaurants, a daily (or rather, nightly) night market, and in the evening the streets twinkle with fairy lights and lanterns. It’s quite possibly the most beautiful place I’ve ever visited.

The influence of the French is obvious in the cafe culture – baguettes, croissants, patries and bagels abound (including ‘bagel eggers’ which I thought was a typo until I’d seen it in multiple places. It’s a bagel with eggs on it lol). It’s generally more expensive for food than in Thailand, but since it’s basically in the middle of the jungle, it must cost more to transport everything. Beer is just as cheap though!

I sampled some amazing Peaberry cold brew Laotian coffee earlier this week while overlooking the Mekong, from a coffee shop which works with local hill tribes to produce the coffee. Well worth a try if you’re here (it’s called Saffron). It’s so good I went twice in two days. Nothing like establishing a routine immediately after arriving somewhere new.

I’ve also been to a small theatre to listen to Laos folk tales which were enthusiastically told by a young local, accompanied by a much (much) older gent playing a Khaen, a traditional Laotian bamboo wind instrument. It was fascinating to hear these stories, including how Mount Phousi (pronounced ‘pussy’) – which is not really a mountain but the tallest hill in Luang Prabang at 100m high – was formed, apparently by a Monkey King who brought it from Sri Lanka.

I climbed Mount Phousi the next day to watch the sunset. It’s 328 steps and when it’s 37 degrees and 80% humidity and you’re not used to working your calf muscles, you definitely feel it. The view from the top was amazing although half way down me and a few others got stuck in a ridiculous thunderstorm and torrential rain, and had to wait at the ticket booth for an hour before we could continue. It was pitch black, I didn’t have an umbrella, and I lost my torch in Pakbeng. Doh.

A couple of nights ago, me and my boat friends went to a French restaurant which has an extensive vegan menu and excellent ratings on TripAdvisor. On the way I managed to fall into a 3 foot deep ditch (good job I still have some antiseptic cream for my leg) which was a great source of entertainment for my boat friends as they didn’t realise they were hanging around with Clumsy McClumsy-some, and which (apart from the sunset) was possibly the highlight of the evening as the food was pretty disappointing – every course was either cold or inexplicably lukewarm.

Yesterday I went on a trip to Pak Ou caves, which is at a junction where the Mekong meets the Nam Ou river. Inside there are hundreds of Buddha statues which are thought to have been left there over hundreds over years. There are two parts to the cave, upper and lower. And a ton of steps again. I should be getting used to this by now.

Afterwards we went to Kuang Si waterfalls. This place speaks for itself – beautiful! I had a dip in the bottom waterfall as the top one was full of people; the water was freezing which was a welcome relief from the heat.  I even took a cheeky selfie. It was nice to actually see a waterfall – many of the ones in Thailand are dry because of the season, so the only one I saw (in Pai) was more of a watertrickle than a waterfall.

This morning I got up at 5am to watch the alms-giving ceremony. Luang Prabang has 34 active Buddhist temples, and every morning at sunrise the monks walk around the town barefoot and meditating, collecting alms from the locals – typically sticky rice and fruit, which serves as their single meal for the day. This is a ritual which has been taking place for over 600 years, and in exchange for giving alms, the locals receive spiritual ‘merit’ for their good deed, making it a reciprocal relationship. It’s become a major draw for tourists to observe.

However, it is of course a deeply religious act, and apparently a lot of tourists use it as an opportunity to take selfies or get in the way (idiots). I was asked by a local if I wanted to take part, but I don’t think that’s appropriate unless you’re Buddhist, so I sat on the floor at a safe distance observing, from a side street just around the corner from my guesthouse (partly to avoid other tourists who typically go onto the main street). Admittedly there’s a bit too much floor in these pictures as I was trying to be discreet and avoid being one of the idiots!

During the alms giving, women have to keep their heads lower than the monks at all times, and no eye contact – or physical contact – with the monks is permitted. It didn’t last very long but it was pretty special to watch.

Then I went back to bed for a couple of hours. Unlike the locals, I’m not used to being up at that time!

On Sunday I’ll be heading to Vang Vieng before moving on to Laos’ capital, Vientiane. And perhaps I’ll blog about that. I’m conscious I’ve missed out the whole of my time in Koh Phangan, Phuket, Pai, Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai over the last few weeks…must try harder (again)!!

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