You would think that spending two days couped up with three young boys and drunken backpackers on a slowboat to Luang Prabang would be hell on earth.
However, it turned out to be a peaceful and rewarding experience.
We started our journey in Chiang Khong in Thailand where we had to cross the Mekong River to enter Laos.
Once we got or Visa and Passport stamped we caught our boat for the two-day 16-hour ride. We quickly made friends with some Germans named Dirk and Maren. Our nickname for Dirk became Che after the people running the boat tried to overcrowd the boat. “Che” started the passengers chanting, calling for another boat. Passengers 1, Boat Crew 0. From there we became fast friends and spent much time together during the following weeks.
The trip itself takes two days with eight hours on the boat each day and one night spent in a small river village. The Mekong is not what I pictured. It is a beautiful and interesting river. The rock formations are fascinating and added to the rivers beauty. As the hours pass by quickly one needs to keep paying attention out of the boat or you will miss not only the landscape, but also the amazing people of the Mekong.
People were fishing, washing clothes, and panning for gold on the edges of the river. When we would stop, children from the different villages would rush our boat and try to sell the travelers their goods. Another common sight on the river’s edge were the many water buffalo that graze and cool off near the river. Sometimes it felt a bit surreal floating down the Mekong River in Laos.
Once we arrived in Luang Prabang we had to hussle to find lodging. It was the Chinese New Year so most of the hotels were full, making it difficult to find a proper place to lay our heads.
Finally we found a family run establishment right down the street from the main area of the city. Luang Prabang is a cute little town with a definite French influence, but with a strong Buddhist presence. One of the interesting things that happens in any community that supports a Buddhist Temple like Luang Prabang, is that at dawn the monks make their way to their temple and local people line the sides of the road to offer free rice to the monks.
It is their way to show their appreciation and to help feed and support the humble servants.
Amy and the boys spent the majority of the time swimming in the river with the monks and renting bicycles to ride around town exploring. Unfortunately, I came down with a bad head cold and was laid up for a couple of days.
Time does not fly watching bad movies in Laotian in your hotel room.
One of the highlights of the city is its night market that starts around 6pm and runs until late. Here we ate and browsed the many different stalls and also where we met some friends for dinner that we hadn’t seen for awhile.
To add to the many ‘small world’ stories out there, we had met this couple on the boat we sailed on in the Galapagos Islands in early October. It just so happens that we were in the same small town 4 months later. We had a nice time catching up with Steven and Kirsty and comparing notes of our recent travels.
After I finally felt better we decided to take a trek and kayak tour of the local area. We hiked through a mountain community and met some of the locals.
The kids got a chance to play a local game called the “friendship game”. It is volleyball like game in which you use your feet and head instead of your hands. The boys loved it and had to be dragged out of there so we could continue our journey. We hiked through the countryside and finally made our way down to the river where our kayaks were waiting. Paddling down the river we came across many people, especially young boys fishing with masks and a net.
We ate lunch floating down the river and the boys enjoyed jumping in and floating while we drifted downstream. Tyler became so tired that he fell asleep on his kayak and left the rest of the paddling up to Amy. At one point in our journey Amy and I laughed to each other when we realized how normal it had become for us to be watching elephants trek down the middle of the river. Back in town we again enjoyed the market and the great baked goods we could buy on the cheap and eat with our coffee in the morning.
Another great treat that we partook of every night was fresh crepes from one of the many street vendors. Our favorite flavors were banana/peanut butter and banana/nutella.
From Luang Prabang we travelled by bus to the capital of Laos, Vientiane. We had heard mixed reviews about the laid back capital city, but from our own experience we rather liked it. However, the ride from LP to Vientiane was from hell.
We traversed along a narrow 2-lane road through the mountains for about 9 hours. The scenery was beautiful but it was hard to enjoy when we had our stomachs in our throats. When we finally arrived in Vientiane we needed to find a place to stay. We joined a group of people in the back of truck cab and got a ride into the city. It seemed as though every hotel and hostel was filled up. We finally got a hotel and were able to relax and then get a bite to eat. The biggest surprise came the next day when we went for a walk to go get a cup of coffee and found a market that had a wide array of grocery goods that reminded us of home. We all got some of our favorite snacks and then we went off to tour the Lao Museum.
This was our first experience since our travels began where we felt uncomfortable being Americans. In many of the pictures and propaganda in the museum we are referred to as the ‘imperialist Americans’. My first thought in seeing this was to remember back to the movie “Volunteers” starring Tom Hanks and John Candy. I kept seeing John Candy in the jungle denouncing the imperialist Americans.
On a serious note it was intriguing and eye opening to get a different view of America through the eyes of another culture. This is definitely a scenario we will visit again when we visit Vietnam, but that will be in another blog. As far as the Laotians are concerned they were very friendly to us.
The last fun thing we did in Vientianne was to make a visit to the local bowling alley. The kids and I had a blast bowling next to the locals. Afterward we went and had some incredibly delicious fruit smoothies and found a treasure trove of kid’s books at a local bookstore. Score!
Seeing that we had not planned on visiting Laos in the first place, we really didn’t have a set itinerary. One of the areas that came highly recommended to us were the 4000 islands in the south of Laos on the Mekong .
The two we had heard of were Don Det and Don Khon. We chose Don Khon because it was more suited to us as a family and not the backpackers hang out that Don Det is. To get there we took an overnight bus from Vientiane to Pakse. After our last experience how could we not want to attempt yet another overnight bus.
This turned out to be even worse than the last one. First let me tell you a little about overnight buses in Laos. They are not like those of South America where you have your own seat that reclines back. In Laos the buses have double berths where you can stretch out and lay down. This could mean sleeping next to someone that you don’t know. My bunkmate was a 60-year-old French woman. However, seeing that we were traveling as a 5-person unit the bus attendants had us move to the back of the bus which had enough room for 5 people to sleep across. Great right?
No, it was the worst seat on the bus. Have you ever sat in the back of the bus before? You feel every bump and trying to sleep was next to impossible. All I could picture were those old cartoons when the characters would hit a bump and everyone would bounce into the air and come down in different spots. Not kidding, it was almost like that. Oh, and lets not forget the window next to me that was held closed by a small bungee cord. On every right turn the window opened a bit and I was waiting to fall through. By the grace of God we made it to Pakse and had to switch buses. The next bus ride was a short trip to the river where we then caught a long boat to Don Khon. Don Khon is a small island on the Mekong River. People here are friendly and live very simply. The accommodations are very rustic. We got our two rooms for a total of $12 a night. That night I was out reading on our porch and looked up into the eyes of a cow. That was the kind of place we were staying. All that being said, we loved it there. We rented bikes to ride around the island. They had a beautiful waterfall that we visited and a cool beach that we took swims at.
One night right before sunset we rented a long boat to take us upriver to see the river dolphins. It was a beautiful sunset and night. On the island we got lucky and ran into our German friends we had met on the slow boat to Luang Prabang. Another ‘small world” moment for sure. We had a great dinner with them and enjoyed the sweet sounds of the Scorpions unplugged, which I know they loved.
Unfortunately our time on Don Khon had to come to an end and we had to grab a boat back to the mainland. It was time for us to head to Cambodia.
We really enjoyed our time in Laos and were very pleased that we added it to our trip. Luang Prabang is one of Amy’s favorite places and the slow boat down the Mekong was a time to cherish.
The story of the bus ride and the border will come next time in the blog for Cambodia.