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Published: December 2nd 2006
Bench seats and a whole boat of new people to meet!
We made it! It was quite the journey (more on that later) but Luang Prabang here in Laos seems to be everything it was said to be, and it had quite a reputation to live up to. It's a lovely town with really nice, french buildings in quite decent shape, and gorgeous woodwork everywhere. Even the most run down building has an ornately carved, wonderfully varnished door and various accents around its trim. The people here are very nice and curteous, as well. Aside from the tuk tuk drivers (and what's new?) we haven't really been hassled at all in the few hours that we've been here, and everyone we've talke to has been very low key.
It really looks like the former French colonists came here to an "uncivilized wilderness" (as I'm sure they would have considered it), decided to build a "proper" town the way they wanted it, and then simply picked up and left. Well, actually, I'm pretty sure that IS how it went down (though we're going to the Laos museum tomorrow and I can tell you more about the country's history after that). If they play their cards right and don't get carried away with
Now that's service!
After waiting for over an hour on the boat without ever leaving port, our American friends were getting thristy. There were other boats moored up beside us, and after a bunch of gesturing the Americans managed to get the message across that they wanted beer. A short time later... this window opened up and beer popped out!
out of control development and commercialization, the Laos people will have an absolute tourist goldmine on their hands. They have the infrastructure of incredible architecture in good shape all over the place and then right on the doorstep of the town is INCREDIBLY beautiful mountains, hills, jungle, rivers.... I can't begin to impress upon you the natural beauty of this country which has remained mostly unspoiled (I'll post pictures as soon as I can). With an upgrade to their highway system, which is supposed to be quite awful at this point in time, the senior tourist crowd will be coming in droves. Even as it is, we are about the youngest tourists we've seen in Laos, with the acception of a few kids traveling with their parents. The mean age of Luang Prabang tourist seems to be about 40, I would say, which is really surprising for me. I had no idea that it was such a destination for the non-backpacker crowd. Even on our boat trip, which was far from comfortable, we were near, if not the, youngest passangers. I can see why it's so popular, though! Ohhhh and the food is amazing. Well, I've really only had one
The View from the Boat
Just one of many, many breathtaking views, although this shot doesn't remotely do it justice.
meal here but it was great. I definitely appreciate the french influence because INCREDIBLY bagette sandwhiches are plentiful and cheap, and I'm not at all concerned about eating fresh veggies because I can see the vegetable gardens everywhere and they are well tended and very clean. I'm going to be eating a lot of baguettes over the next 2 weeks, let me tell you.
Alright, the journey. Well. Mom, you might want to stop reading for a couple of sentences here. So, we bought a bit of a package ticket to Laos which included and overnight mini-bus trip to the Thai border town, a trip across the river to Laos, and a ride on the 2 day slow boat journey to Luang Prabang. We boarded the minibus at 10pm from Pai. It was slightly cramped, but not *too* bad. In my seat I had ample leg room but I was continually crushed by the pile of huge backpacks which was beside/against/on top of me. Derek and no backpack crushage, but no leg room, either. Oh well, we'd make do. As we set off on the incredibly twisty mountain road, I watched the driver's skills carefully to evaluate them. Even
though I was in the very back row of the bus, I was pleased to see that he was very good at negotiating the curves and was curteous about passing and oncoming traffic and stuff. Excellent. I turned on some Josh Groban and attempt (unsuccessfully) to fall asleep. Now and again I would open my eyes and feel that the driver was no longer being quite so good at negotiating the curves, and we kept making quick stops for no apparant reason (that isn't really unusual in SE Asia, though). I thought it possible our driver was having trouble staying awake, but I tried to convince my self I was just being paranoid, until......
"HEY BUDDY, BUDDY. ARE YOU OK?" *swerve, swerve* Our driver had fallen asleep on a curve and a guy from Oregon sitting in the 2nd row had to shake him awake so we wouldn't drive off the road! Ahhhh!!!! While many were sleeping at this point, the rest of us, especially that Oregon guy, remained wide awake for the rest of the trip. I'll be writing an e-mail to the travel agency after this to let them know I was totally unimpressed with that trip.
Leaving Pak Beng
Beautiful surrounds, but we weren't sad to say goodbye to this stop.
I think we might think twice about overnight bus rides from now on. We don't like them that mcuh, anyway, because they take a big toll on us.
Anyway, we made it to our destination in one peice, and the travel agency we were dropped at was uncharacteristically nice and comfortable. It was playing soft jazz, had gentle lighting, and even some cushions and mats to lie down on. The travel agent people took our passports and our visa applications and did all the necessary pre-border crossing stuff for us. At this point we were quite dismayed to learn that the price of a Canadian Visa had gone up from $30USD to $42!!! I'm not sure when this happened, but I'm not happy about it. I'm mostly unhappy because Canadians have to pay more than any other nation for a Visa. What's that about? I may have to ask a Canadian consolate because I'm extremely curious.
During our wait I became increasingly concerned that time was moving along and we were not any where near the boat we were supposed to be boarding. I was pleasantly distracted for a time by helping to remove a tick from one of the Oregon girls (hehehe, I love first aid. I'm such a nerd). That Oregon crew was pretty interesting, in fact. They spend their summers whale watch guiding in Alaska and their winters in Hawaii leading snorkeling tours. Not a bad life, I'd say. FINALLY, our passports were returned and we walked the short distance to the Thai border, where much stamping occured before we boarded long boats across the river to Laos. Once in Laos, more stamping occured, and we were ushered on to a table where we wrote our names down in a book in preparation for boarding the slow boat. At this point we also decided to pre-book some accomidation for our overnight stop on a tiny river town, Pak Beng, because we figured we wouldn't want to deal with it when we got off the boat. We were given an extremely sketchy and plain looking piece of paper as our voucher, but away we went hoping for the best. Next we were shuttled to another waiting location, where... we waited. Then our passports were taken. Then we waited. Then they were returned with our tickets and we boarded the boat. Then we REALLY waited for nearly 2 hours.
The boats were very long wooden boats, with wooden plank benches for seating. The toilet was primitive, for sure, but at least there was one. The worst part for me was the noisy motor, which was pretty loud where we were, near the back of the boat. I didn't find the benches too uncomfortable, though. The key was to keep moving around.
After waiting for quite awhile, we finally got moving. I didn't care about the wait at the time, because it seemed like all we had on our hands at that point was time. Besides, we'd all been told that travel in Laos requires one thing: extreme patience.
The river trip seriously was gorgeous. Again, I can't describe the beauty of the area adequately in words. The river bank is sort of carved out of the earth in sandy layers, with occasional metamorphic rock outcrops jutting out into spectacular, commanding formations. The jungle was lush and green with various interesting vines dangling down. The sky was blue and the water was brown. Now and again you would see a few cows lazy ploding down the river bank or a family of goats trotting along. Often you would see children playing in the river or fisherman setting their nets. Somehow, tourists are still enough of a novelty that the locals wave at the boat as it goes by. Now and again we would make stops to load and unload locals and cargo, and once we stopped in the middle of the river--flagged down by a speed boat to load on a Laos military officer and what appeared to be several full boxes of ammunition... My favourite stop saw a bunch of children and their parents board and roam the small isle of the boat touting "BeerLaos" and "chip Pringle." While I didn't buy anything, it was a sight to see.
The first 3 hours of the trip were amazing. The next hour was OK. By the final 90 minutes, however, I was definitely wishing that we'd left port on time. We arrived in Pak Beng after dark, which created some confusion when all billion of us tried to retrieve our bags from the back of the hull. Luckily I, and many others, came prepared with headlamps. We were led to our guesthouse by a 20 something guy who was most definitely high on something, although very friendly. Sadly, drug use was everywhere in this town . Even small children were peddling every substance under the sun. It was really terrible. Although the buildings themselves were reasonably nice and the indian food we ate for dinner was tasty, we were not sad to leave the next morning. (Our bathroom was one of the grossest we've endured on our travels, too).
The second day of boat travel was rumored to be even longer than the first, although we couldn't really get a straight answer out of anyone as to the actual duration. It ended up being about 7 1/2 hours, I believe. We were starting earlier in the morning so I knew it wouldn't seem as long, but I decided that the way to make the time pass would be to meet some new people. The medical book I'm reading right now is a little too techinical for long term reading and my iPod could only sustain me for so long. After listening to some Christmas carols (it's after Dec. 1--time to crack them out!) on PinkyPod, I asked an interesting and loud group in front if I could play cards with them . I'm glad I did! They were really fun and I played with them for most of the journey. I was surprised to learn that they were all older than me, despite me really thinking that the Kiwi and Aussie were much younger. In fact, they had professional degrees. The Kiwi in Commerce/Law, the Aussie in Commerce, and this British girl had just finished her medical degree and was about to become a practising doctor! Backpacking really reduces everyone to the same level. In that group I also met a couple traveling from Nelson (who had no trouble indulging in the plentiful local weed supply--ahem), with the woman having just completed a correspondance degree at Royal Roads University. Moooore Victoria connections. The group was a bit wild for me, though, and I opted to decline a dinner/drinking invitation for once we reached town. I saw them tonight and said "hi", but I definitely couldn't have afforded their evening, though!
After a bit of searching we found a reasonably clean room here with 3 beds and a nice flush toilet. The only qualm is that there are sooo many bugs of many description. I also found a live cocroach inside my daypack, which I have yet to determine the origin, of. Oh well, as long as nothing bites us we've decided we don't care. It also has TV with English CNN, so I'm really enjoying catching up on some world news. Apparantly there was a big typhoon in the Phillappines. Yikes.
Well, time to sign off, I think. I have to pay for this in US dollars because the bank was closed when we got here so I couldn't get local currency. Hopefully they don't try to screw around with me. 1 US dollar to 10 000kip! I'm going to get quite a wad of cash tomorrow.
Alright, that's all for now!
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