Toto, I have a feeling we're not in Vietnam anymore.
** Unfortunately our computer caught a nasty virus in Hanoi (no, not H1N1) and we ended up losing all of our Laos and Cambodia pictures (except for those from our waterproof camera). Please refer to the following link to see the pictures that we did manage to post on Facebook before our computer got hijacked.**
Luang Prabang: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=343407&id=680240141&l=89796f0376
Pha That Luang: http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?pid=9901960&l=2fe2684833&id=680240141
We flew from Hanoi to our first stop in Laos, Luang Prabang, a fantastic UNESCO Heritage town. We landed late in the evening and hired a jumbo, a small pick-up truck where the passengers sit in the box, to take us to what would become one of our favorite guesthouse on this trip; the Manichan. After we settled in and read the rules of the guesthouse, which included “not make sexual movies with prostitutes” (!!!), we went to have our first Lao meal. Along the Mekong River we found what the Lao call a grill. This heavy BBQ made from brick was placed on our table and was full of hot charcoals. On top they place a metal dish with holes in it for the fat to drip. On this dish you place the meats, noodles, veggies and water to create a tasty broth. You cook all this yourself on the grill. You do all of this while praying that the whole thing doesn’t tilt and spill on you as the whole setup was quite unstable and dangerous. Afterward we took a stroll down to the night market, which easily holds over a hundred stalls, selling all kinds of Lao souvenirs; paintings, sculptures, clothing, jewelery, snake wine, etc. We got to know this market very well since it is located the main tourist street and busiest in the city, and it was also right next to our guesthouse.
For the next six days we took our time to really discover this wonderful town and its surroundings, and we really enjoyed and loved it. During this time we got to visit many of the beautiful wats and temples located between the Mekong river and the Nam Khan river, and the Royal Palace. One of those days saw us rent a couple of mountain bikes. Besides biking around town, we ventured outside the city limits to explore the more “real” and rural side of Laos, as well as a couple other temples. This was lots of fun and one of our highlights of our time spent in Luang Prabang. But maybe our favorite thing of all was the Lao cooking class we took where we got to visit the local market, cooked up seven traditional Lao dishes, including the ever popular sticky rice, and feast on our creations.
Another special moment was when we witnessed the daily early morning alms (like 6am early) where locals and tourists line up the streets to offer sticky rice and other foods to the monks. It was quite something to experience though it was a bit ruined by the many rude tourists who can’t seem to understand how to respect and not get in the way of a tradition. At some times it seemed like the monks were being followed by the Paparazzi.
Though the city had mainly restaurants that cater to the foreigners, we did manage to find a few that serve local foods like khao niaw (sticky rice), laap (meat salad) , khai phun (fried seaweed), various noodle soups, BBQ meats, curries, and fresh fish from the Mekong. We (Mark) also downed everything we ate with a lot of LaoBeer. We also drank lao hai (fermented rice wine), lao lao (rice whisky) and our favourite, Lao style ice coffee (we were addicted!!). On our last night, after Mark had a few beers, he thought it would be a good idea to have a late night snacks of a few BBQ meats including buffalo intestines and liver. No need to get into details but it turned out to be a regretful mistake, especially the next day.
The Lao are a very quiet and modest people as there lifestyle is greatly influenced by long and hard working days and a government imposed midnight curfew. Lao people, while wanting to get a piece of the tourist business, still are very polite and respectful, and are never pushy nor aggressive (and was a welcome change compared to Vietnam). Even if this Luang Prabang caters itself to tourists (the city highly depends on tourism), with the hundreds of guesthouses, Western style restaurants, travel agents and souvenir shops, it is still very quiet, peaceful, pretty, and most importantly, very charming.
After six wonderful days, we boarded a minibus for a 5 hour trip south to Vang Vieng. The allure of tubing Nam Song river was probably the only reason why we decided to swing by Vang Vieng before heading to Vientiane. They (our Lonely Planet) say it is a right of passage for all backpackers traveling through Laos. Anyhow, since the road to Vang Vieng was through a mountainous area and our minibus’ suspension was shot, we got jerked around left and right, up and down during the whole bus ride. To make things worse, we were the suckers sitting in the back (the worst place on the bus for motion sickness) and we already felt very nauseated from the late night snacks which were knocking at our throats wanting to come back out. Needless to say, it was 5 hours of pure hell.
So we finally arrived in Vang Vieng and our first impression was: spring break! The town was filled with young people ready to party it up. Since Laos has a curfew, most of the partying happens before, after, and as we learned, during tubing.
Our first day saw us pretty much bedridden, drinking lots of fluids while our stomachs tried to forget the late night snacks we had on our final night in Luang Prabang and the minibus ride from hell…
…but the next day, we were ready for tubing!! So the whole process consists of renting a tractor inner tube, riding a jumbo to the launching point where you jump onto your inner tube, and let it take you away for three relaxing hours. Before going down the river you are welcomed by several loud riverside bars where tubers get all liquored up, spring break style. To get to one of these riverside bars, someone throws you a rope, hauls you in, sells you dirt cheap alcohol, play insanely loud music, and also offer you a chance to swing on the “tarzan” rope and jump into the river. We opted to skip on this fun since we told ourselves that we would stop later on at one of other bars along the way. It turned out that we never ended up not stopping at any of the bars because floating down the river was just too enjoyable and relaxing (or maybe we are just getting too old - lol!). With that said, at some points the current can speed up and get a little violent, and if you’re not alert (like drunk), you can lose your trunks/bathing suit (as we saw happen to an obviously intoxicated dude!) or injure yourself (we saw a dozen people with bandages walking around Viang Vieng and Vientiane). After three very pleasant hours, we arrived at the end and wished we could do it all over again.
That night, we had Indian food, played cards, had a few beers and feared the next day’s bus ride to Vientiane, the capital of Laos.
Fortunately the ride to Vientiane turned out to be a lot more comfortable and pleasant. Compared to Luang Prabang, Vientiane has more of a big city feel, but it is not near as pretty nor charming. The only thing the two cities have in common are their tourist! We actually ran into some of the same people we saw in Luang Prabang and Viang Vieng.
Vientiane is not fascinating nor is it memorable, but during our couple days there we still managed to see some interesting sites. Along with a few nice wats, we got to see the Presidential Palace (the inside is closed to the public except for festivals) and its grounds, the Patuxai (Laos’ Arc de Triomphe, but not really…) where we got to climb numerous flight of stairs to get a great panorama of the city. On our final day we visited the country’s most important wat and landmark, the Pha That Luang. The latter is a large gold covered Buddhist stupa regarded as a national symbol. We barely enjoyed it due to the scorching hot weather . It was something like 40C in the shade that day. Anyhow, the national monument was pretty cool and nice even if it was really freakin’ hot.
During our 12 days in Laos, we noticed a few things:
- We were really excited to see Laos since it was rumored to be an unspoiled, “non-touristy” country. We could not be more wrong! I don’t know if it was because we stuck to the major sights or because the towns were too small to absorb all the tourists, but it seemed like there was more tourists than locals at times, and it also wasn‘t easy to find truly traditional Lao food.
- The Lao are anal with US money or big denominations; they will not accept a bill unless it is practically in mint condition. A 2 millimetre rip will just freak them out and may just refuse a sale.
- They never have change! Making change for a 5 dollar bill is often overwhelming for the Lao.
- They think it’s OK charge you 4$ for a coffee just because that’s how much it costs us back home.
- They do not like prostitutes. The guesthouses we stayed at all have posted rules of “no prostitutes”, how discriminating. lol!
- There’s a lot of old white man with young Lao girls. Mark became paranoid that people might think we’re one of “those” couples. This phenomenon may explain the no prostitute rules.
- Outside of the main touristy areas, the Lao people are extremely poor, but yet they are so much nicer, pleasant, honest and fair.
- They love to sell bootleg Lonely Planet book with missing pages and maps that don’t even belong to the country the book is about. We bought one anyways…
Next on our trip is our beloved Siem Reap (Angkor) in Cambodia. We are going there for a second time this year…
Thanh & Mark
GO HABS GO!!!