Slow Boat to Laos

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March 10th 2012
Published: March 10th 2012
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Leaving Pai, I take a night mini-bus to the Thai-Laos border with Val and 10 others. We arrive at Chiang Khong at 3am at a guesthouse that looks like a mental asylum out of a horror film, to be greeted by an old lady in fluffy red pyjamas; "three, three, three" she says and points to a room with 3 beds in it. We all follow like zombies and 3 girls take the room... "two, two, two"... She leads us to the next room.. And this carries on until finally we get to our room - it's horrible but we don't care at this time of night, just glad of a bed!

The next morning (about 3 hours later) we take a tuk tuk to the river, make the short crossing on the long tailed boat and arrive at the Laos border at the other side. An hour or so later and we're boarding our slow boat down the Mekong. There's a good group of us on the boat and I make friends with quite a few people all doing a similar route as I am. We spend the night in Pak Beng and share rooms which makes things cheaper and then head on the next day further down the river. The scenery is stunning... Sharp limestone cliffs line the river, as we pass the occasional buffalo or group of children playing, waving excitedly at the "falangs" as we pass by. We arrive in Luang Prabang in the evening and myself, Mel, a Dutch girl & Peter, an Irish guy go looking for a place to stay. We try a few places however they're all full but we eventually find one down by the riverside - they only have a twin room available so we decide to push the beds together and all share for tonight as it's getting late and we just want some food & drink and to dump our heavy backpacks! I think Peter is a bit nervous about sharing with 2 girls, especially since he jokes more than once that it's a big conspiracy for us to nick off with his stuff while he's in the bathroom, but it makes sense, we all get on fine and it saves us money.

We have a wander around the small pretty town - and come across a wine bar!! AMAZING!! Me & Mel are so excited for decent wine we sit down and order straight away... Pete hesitates.." I've not really had wine before" he says... Which for a man of 31 years is something of a shock! Chatting to Pete quite a lot on the slow boat earlier, we find out he lost his virginity when he was 25, he's never tried peanut butter, never eaten with chopsticks, never left the country until this 3 month trip of South East Asia that he's currently on... The list goes on so we give him the affectionate nick name "First Time Pete".

The next day we find a cheaper, nicer guesthouse where we don't have to share. So after checking in we grab a tuk tuk & head off to some nearby waterfalls for the day. They're beautiful, bright blue and with level after level we climb higher up the hill and they get even more impressive. We have a swim (another first time for Pete) and I bump into Anthony, the French guy I met in Pai. I can't say I'm particularly pleased to see him as I found him a bit creepy the first time round, but I'm polite, chat for a minute before returning to my new friends. I quickly realise the route that I'm travelling, everyone else is travelling too and he's not the only one I bump into again...Returning from the waterfalls I meet Ben & Tim the two British guys I also met in Pai and after chatting to them and several other people we've met, we realise there's only 2 places where the whole town seems to be going for a party tonight and that's a bar named Utopia down by the river and then the bowling alley. Now this seems strange why, in a beautiful town such as this with gorgeous river front bars & pubs, people would head for a bowling alley?!? But then we find out there's a curfew of 11:30pm everywhere in the town and the only place that serves alcohol after this is is a dodgy backstreet bowling club. So after lounging on plush cushions around bamboo tables at the trendy Utopia bar, sipping a few large glasses of vino, everyone leaves at curfew time, piles into tuk tuks and we drive to the bowling alley down the road. We walk in and it's like a youth club... A make shift bar in the corner, where the whisky costs less than a large beer, seedy faded posters on the wall, and everyone is bowling.. But it's great fun! We have a really good time with a group of Ozzy guys, Tortoise (not sure where the nickname comes from), Scott & Joel, a Californian guy Jake and a couple of girls. Roxy & Louisa from Berlin. We finally leave around 3am and walk back to our guesthouse with Ben & Tim, and as we sit chatting outside, arguing over who does the best fish & chips - North or South (of course it's the North) the door opens and the owner is stood there with a stern look on his face... It must be the curfew! So Mel & I scuttle inside with our heads down and tails between our legs like we're naughty teenagers been busted by our dads! Ben & Tim who've scored some opium off someone (they're not full on druggies just were eager to try it since it's so readily available here - Mum & Dad if you're reading, don't worry of course it's not for me!) go back to theirs to try & smoke the stuff then we laugh the next day when they tell us they got ripped off and it was actually hoisin sauce!

It is such a novelty to see on many a restaurant menu "happy shakes" or "happy pizzas" etc etc but what is strange is the fact that it's all completely illegal yet they get away with selling it! What I've come to realise is the police aren't interested in busting their own people, all they're interested in is busting the "farlangs". If they so much as catch you with a joint, they rob you of your passport and charge you $800 for the pleasure!

We witnessed such an "arrest" the moment we arrived at our next destination Vang Vieng. After getting the night bus we arrived around 3:30am. Me, Ben & Tim get off the bus and wait for the others, but before we know what's happening the doors close and the bus speeds off! We stand there laughing at the ridiculous situation (I laugh even more as Tim has lost his shoes, decided he can live bare foot like Jesus, and has just bought a pair of ankle crotch hippy pants which look ridiculous) and we all just stare with zombie tired eyes after the run away bus with the rest of our friends on. Luckily we see the brake lights come on further down the road and Mel, Tortoise (minus one flip flop) Joel, Jake & Scott all pile out. We're all knackered and a bit delerious at this point so we check into the guesthouse that the tuk tuk drops us outside - a well known ploy for Mr tuk tuk man as he gets commission, but we don't care. However just as we are checking in, a couple walk past, the girl is in tears and there's an "undercover" policeman trying to march them to the station. "They come with me" says the policeman "I explain Laos law to them... I catch them having sex"... This is another thing that is highly illegal in Laos, to have sex before marriage... Especially outside! The girl tells us he just appeared from nowhere but she's completely out of it, as is her boyfriend so we leave them to it, not wanting to get involved in anything ourselves. We go inside to pay for our rooms and as we do so the man on reception sneakily pulls out a hand written note from under the counter "Shhh" he says and motions for us to read it..."It is forbidden to take the drugs of any kind in Laos. Beware of the Crazy Police - they hide in the bushes and if they catch you taking the drugs they will take your passport and fine you up to $800....". He then slyly tucks it away. So the cafes sell drugs in food and the hotel owners are warning us of, not just the police but the "crazy police"... Who's working for who here?? We are all still laughing at the hilarity of this, when another mashed up guy comes out of the hotel..."Have you seen horny?"....WTF?? We look at eachother..."Have you seen horny?". He tries again.. "She's the little girl, I'm meant to be interviewing her about child prostitution".... Clearly another casualty of the happy shakes we just say no to the man and head to bed... This is enough for us for one night!... We get to our rooms and read the "rules" on the wall. Amongst the usual "do not bring the girls/lady boys back for the making of sex videos. It is restriction" (my personal favourite) there is also "Do not bring mud into the room, you will be charged for having mud in the room or on the beds...".... What happens in this place?? We have visions of us all waking up 48 hours later in some kind of Hangover 3 film, covered in mud & tatoos and a lady boy in the room not knowing what the hell happened!

Nevertheless we wake up fine, head out for a big breakfast and get down to the river around 12pm for our day of "tubing" - a pastime that's become infamous in Vang Vieng of taking what is effectively a large rubber ring down the river and stopping at the make shift bars along the way. Now people have told us not to bother taking a tube as "you won't make it past the first four bars" but I'm determined to make it all the way so me, Mel & Jake all hire one. Needless to say they were right... We arrive at the river and it's like a scene from a Spring Break, full of teenagers partying away in the sun. Myself & Mel were a bit dubious at first wondering if we were too old for all this but after a couple of drinks we're into the swing of things; playing beer pong, spray painting our bodies, drinking buckets, doing whisky trains, dancing in bikinis and getting slowly sozzled in the sunshine - for one day only, in the last month of our 20s we decide it's ok to be 19 again... And it's great fun!

After making it only as far as the fourth bar (like so many said) the sun begins to set so me and Tortoise (who've been sharing a tube) decide to go further down river. We go to locate our tube from where we left it but it's gone...shit! If we don't return it we get fined about £10. But it's the sort of place where people just pinch eachother's tubes as they're all the same and all end up back at the same place... Only thing is it's getting late in the day now and we can't see another one to take!... We spot one at the bar opposite so swim cross stream to retrieve it... The current is strong and I can feel my butchos lesbos sandals slowly slipping from my feet! Nooooooooooo!!! I swim harder and get across the river but the sandals don't make it.. Lost to the river like so many others. Speaking of shoes, flip flops seem to be another thing that people "trade" around here too.. You lose one, then just have a look outside a bar for another thats similar and roughly your size and walk away... That person then comes to retrieve their flip flops, realises one is missing and does the same - hence you get loads of people walking around with odd shoes on. However luckily I have a spare pair back at the hotel so I don't have to do this! We grab our new tube and yes! We're on our way! The two of us climb on the tube (which is really only made for one) and, completely unbalanced, capsize into the water... The bucket of whisky & coke I'm carrying gets filled with river water, my sunglasses fall off my head, tortoise loses his dry bag with all
his money in and as we make it to a platform to catch our breath, I realise my "dry bag" is in fact not so dry and not only is my money very soggy but my camera is now filled with water. Nevertheless, determined we compose ourselves and set out again down the river. Sadly about 10 minutes later we realise it's getting dark really rather quick, the temperature's dropped and we have no hope of reaching the end of the river in the state we're in, so we abort the mission, climb out at a bar, claim our free whisky shot and grab a tuk tuk back to the hotel to meet the others.

When we meet up we realise we weren't the only ones who lost our stuff to the river... Jake, who had everything from his iPhone, cards, passport and money in his dry bag, returns minus the whole dry bag! Were all gutted for him!... He and Mel decide to go back to a bar where he may have left it but when they ask the bar staff they turn on them with machetes in their hands and chase them across the bridge! They return a bit shaken & upset but we have a nice dinner nonetheless and to lift the mood show photos of what we have just done to Josh while he's been asleep - ie randomly put a bin on him, bowling shoes, lipstick all over his face and a condom in his mouth - infantile yes but made us laugh for ages... And remember I'm still 19 today.

The next day I head off for Vientiane to get myself a new camera. I say bye to the Ozzy's and agree to meet Mel later on. Getting on the bus I'm surrounded by others who're all hungover, spray paint still smudged on their bodies and the occasional light injury of cuts, scrapes & bruises; all typical souvenirs of Vang Vieng. We all give eachother a knowing look as if to say "Great fun, but enough's enough".

I'm imagining Vientiane will be like Luang Prabang - a really pretty town where I can chill for a couple of days with beautiful scenery around & clean air. I couldn't be more wrong! I arrive mid afternoon to a hot, dusty, characterless city... No mountains in the backdrop just run down buildings and wide flat roads. I'm quickly wishing I was back with my friends in Vang Vieng! Anyway I find a guesthouse, have a wander around and sort out a replacement camera. The next afternoon Mel arrives with Jake who needs to stay in Vientiane until his passport is ready. It's so nice to see them again!! This is one city where it's not nice being on your own. It's safe enough, just not much to do! We head out to the Buddha Park for an hour, then on the way back head to this spa in a temple that we've heard about but just as we arrive we're accosted by a big Laos family who are all sat drinking & eating, with loud music playing - they've obviously been celebrating something; we discover later, through bad communication that it's the birth of a baby in the family. We join them for a beer... And another... And another... The BeerLao just keeps on flowing and we chink glasses every 5 minutes as this forms the basis of our conversation with them all since we speak 2 words of Laos and them no English! They feed us lovely food, all the while topping up our glasses and chinking them again. We play with the children and join in when everbody gets up to dance. It's a real celebration and really good fun, but after a while we decide we still need that sauna & massage... But how do we leave without looking rude?? Thankfully a few of the family start leaving after a while and it looks they're packing up so we take this as our cue and thank them all individually, give the children our bracelets as a thankyou gift and head off to the spa.

Sitting in the sauna is so relaxing and after sipping some green tea we lay down for our massages. The spa is set in a treehouse so it's all outside in beautiful gardens. Just as I am relaxing in to my massage, we hear the music from the party down the road kick off again - then an awful voice comes on singing! It's Karaoke! And bad Karaoke at that! So not such a relaxing massage after all.

However we leave feeling refreshed and, after walking half in the bushes past the Laos party on the way back so as not to be accosted again we have an early night after our fun filled day.


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2nd April 2012

Boating rejuvenate your soul after a hectic fast pace life.

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