Laos, Interrupted

I’m writing from a rooftop bungalow in Ubud, Bali (Indonesia). Arrived yesterday from Bangkok. How did we get here you ask? Trains, planes, boats and automobiles. And walking :)  Autumn and I spent a total of about 10 days in Laos – not quite enough to see and do everything I had planned on. About a week ago we had to make some difficult choices. Originally we had aspirations of visiting Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia AND Bali. Not sure what we were smoking as Autumn only has a month out here and unless you have the funds to fly everywhere, there is no way you’re going to see 5 countries in 5 weeks. Autumn’s one ‘must’ was Bali, so we decided to cut Laos short, skip Vietnam and Cambodia and booked a flight to Bali out of Bangkok where we’ll spend her final week before she heads back to the states. I know I’ll get back to Laos and Vietnam at some point – I still want to spend time in the far reaches of both countries. It actually makes good sense – the height of the monsoon season begins in SE Asia this month which makes travel and trekking very difficult. It would make much more sense for me to come back in a few months when the trails dry up. Plus Bali is absolutely perfect in July – high of 85, low of 70 and no rain. Every single day 🙂 And its Bali.

A rundown of the highlights in Laos:

  • Riding a slow boat for two days along the Mekong river

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  • Spending 4 days in Luang Prabang, the slow-paced, French-inspired city in Northern Laos

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  • Three nights way off the beaten path in Nong Khiaw and Muang Ngoi

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  • Looking for the full solar eclipse the day after it happened (more on this later)
  • Exploring ancient caves that villagers hid in during the recent wars

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  • Waking at 5am to give alms to the monks in Luang Prabang

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  • Waking on my 30th birthday in a small riverside bungalow in a town without electricity or roads, then traveling back to Luang Prabang for an amazing dinner and to watch a performance of Lao traditional ballet.

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Our epic journey to Bali consisted of the following: A 2 hour boat ride , followed by a 4.5 hour journey on a 12-seat van with 18 people in it (No AC, a girl having seizures in the front seat and an engine that had to take any hill greater than 5 degrees in first gear). Then the next day a 12 hour bus ride to Vientiane in a broken seat that reclined into the persons lap behind me (meaning I had to sit upright the entire time), followed by a night-train (actually really cool when you splurge for first class!) to Bangkok and ultimately a 4am wake-up call to catch a flight to Bali…. I thought I’d share some of the more painful aspects of world travel – its not all cultural immersion and blissful bungalows. :)  But the truth is over time your comfort level and expectations change, you learn to be still, to not let little inconveniences upset you as they would easily do at home. I consider myself a patient person already, wait until you see me after this trip!

Travel Update from Laos

** Note: I typed most of this on July 17th but haven’t had a good Internet connection since.

I’m typing this from the deck of a long-boat cruising the Mekong river from Huay Xia to Luang Prabang in Laos. Its a two-day journey along this ancient river that runs from China, past Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and eventually Vietnam before existing into the sea. IMG_1031Although not the most exiting journey (there really is NOTHING out here), it has been very peaceful. I finished reading Siddhartha last week and for those who have read it,  I am starting to understand what it means to listen to a river. Time slows, scenery blends, and its just floating in the moment, literally. Although crammed on the boat with many other travelers and locals, there is this sense of camaraderie that exists as noted when a monsoon rain hit and we all had to shift seats as the front half of the boat became flooded. We have been passing small fishing villages, rice fields and a whole lot of jungle. Some may laugh, but ‘floating down the Mekong’ was one of the mini-goals I had before leaving. I’m not entirely sure what Laos has in store yet, but from my research it appears that boat travel is often faster than road travel during the rainy season.  How did we get here you ask? Not easily.

IMG_0979 Two days ago we left Pai, Thailand, taking a nauseating overnight mini-bus to the Thai/Lao border where the next morning we were herded like cattle towards the ferry. There are about 10 tourist scams you have to pass through in order to get your Thai exit stamp, Lao visa and boat ticket. A group that we met on the mini-bus stuck together and we managed to get through with only a slight premium to the hawkers. So now we float down the river for two days, stopping at a small town halfway for an evening, and then landing in Luang Prabang tomorrow. Then its off to explore Laos.

Backing up a bit to Pai – Autumn and I spent 4 nights there and really enjoyed it. Its a bit of a traveler’s mecca, a small town of about 3 or 4 thousand nestled between hills and winding rivers. We found a nice bungalow on the river and decided to stay put and do some of the things we had been looking forward to doing in Thailand – Elephant riding, rafting , Thai massage and cooking school. Pai is definitely on the tourist trail, and apparently can be packed during the high season (Nov-Mar). While there were a lot of tourists, it felt like a small town that I could imagine spending a lot of time. There were still plenty of locals doing there thing, and thanks to the tourism boom there is healthy competition amongst guest houses and restaurants, making for quality accommodation and great food. There were definitely a lot of long-term western visitors, and after going to Chiang Mai last year I have to say that Pai has all of the cool aspects of Chiang Mai without the big city annoyances. I’m not sure I’d want to be in Pai during the high season as the town looked like it could turn into quite a party scene, but in July it was nice and slow, and we got used to seeing the same people walking back and forth around the towns 3 or 4 streets.

The bad news first – I spent the first day and night wandering between my bed and the toilet. I can no longer say I have never gotten TD (Traveler’s Diarrhea), something the CDC says gets 30-50% of travelers within 2 weeks of going to a 3rd world country… I cant complain as I had been breaking all of the rules – ice, fresh vegetables and fruit… I also drank water from the hill-tribe villages. Fortunately it wasn’t horrible and I didn’t have to go as far as taking Cipro (strong antibiotic). I was out of commission for a total of about 36 hours but it left as quickly as it came and I was glad to be in a comfortable town where I could be sick and still have a nice view 🙂

Now the good news! We had several adventures in Pai – first we spent a day at an elephant camp, riding and swimming with elephants. I honestly was skeptical at first but Autumn really wanted to do this. In the end I had an incredible time – the elephants would flip you over their back with their noses and let you try to ride them as the shook you off in the water. They were incredibly gentle and our guides were quite amusing as they ate what I think were magic mushrooms growing out of the elephant poop along the trail… the next day we took a cooking class at Pai CookingIMG_1015 school where we learned how to make (and eat!) five different Thai dishes.  Our chef Daew also took us through the local market and explained many of the exotic things for sale to us. Those were the highlights – there were of course massages and fantastic meals. We found a small restaurant called “the House” where we became daily regulars. As I did in Japan, I found it necessary just to exist for a few days, catch up on sleep, eat healthily and exercise.

Not too much as for ‘insights’ in this post – I must admit having a travel partner has taken away a bit of my dependency on blogging as a therapeutic outlet!Autumn and I have been having amazing conversation about our experiences, our paths and this journey. Not too mention I’m simply not sitting around comfortable trains and hostels with my laptop open as often as I did in Japan.

I promise to bring all my faithful blog followers up to date soon!