Leaving Laos

Wobbling out of bed at 7:30, I rushed around packing the last few things and grabbing breakfast. I fell into he same mealtime-related trap as I had prior to the waterfall visit and had far too little time to eat (and check my email *ahem*) than I needed. The one thing that’s irking me right now is a lack of response from the insurance company regarding my camera. Their auto-email told me to expect a reply in 24 hours and it’s been three days. I dropped them another message.

The nice guy who runs the hostel asked when I would be back and I had to honestly tell him I didn’t know. He smiled, laughed, shook my hand and said “one year!”

Outside, it was the stereotypical Asian situation of actually needing a tuk-tuk for once and there not being any within eyesight. Usually you spend all day either ignoring them or saying “no thank you”. I finally located one, agreed a fare of three dollars and jumped in.

The airport is maybe 15-20 minutes away and I hopped out at the other end along with several other tourists on other tuk-tuks, some of whom I recognised. A shame we didn’t communicate more as we could have shared one and saved some cash! I had a little fun with my driver as he wanted paid in Kip and I had exactly none, only dollars.

“You say 30,000 Kip”

“No – you say 30,000 Kip. I say ‘3 dollar’ and you say ‘good'”

“Three dollar not enough. Only 9000 Kip for one dollar. Give me one more.”

This went on for a while until I told him I had 10 dollars for departure tax and 20 dollars to get into Cambodia. He could take the three dollars I had or I could take them back. He settled for the three dollars. In honesty, I think the guy was just in so much of a rush to get me into his tuk-tuk in town that he missed the part of the conversation where we agreed on three bucks instead of Kip.

I’m typing this up in the lounge at Luang Prabang airport. I’ve passed through the most lax luggage x-ray ever, been checked in by the most laid-back airport staff and then stamped out of the country by some not-as-unpleasant-as-usual immigration officers.

Next stop, Siem Reap in Cambodia (via Pakse as my flight’s not direct, grr).

Around Luang Prabang

Roz, by some miracle as I felt as knackered as she did, turned up at 10:00 on the dot to go for a wander round the town with me. Out came the Lonely Planet, I flipped to the page with the recommended city walk and off we plodded. We stopped at the post office to send our postcard collections (postage is twice the cost of the card – ow) and then crossed the road to see the Wat Pha Mahathat.

There were no other tourists around so we felt a little conspicuous, but the area was so tranquil you couldn’t believe there was a major road so close by. Like every country in the area, their beliefs are very similar but their religious architecture slightly different. The buildings here are grand and – on the whole – well maintained and brightly painted. This one was no exception. I’m still not sure about the two monkeys in the wooden cage, though. That was a bit random.

We next turned the corner toward the “bustling Talat Dala”. It wasn’t exactly bustling. Actually, it was closed as the building housing it was being worked on. Ah well. We walked past and on to the Wisunarat and Aham Wats. Both were lovely to see and very different from one another. The latter has two enormous Banyan trees in the grounds which provided some welcome shade from the rapidly rising sun.

Next, we walked to one side of the Phu Si atop which is a stupa which can be seen glistening in the daylight or glowing in artificial light in the evening as it stands overlooking the city. The walk up isn’t too difficult and the temple area up there is well worth a visit. There’s a Buddha footprint, a cave, many carvings and a superb view down the valley and across the city. The upper section costs 20,000K to get up, though. Still, for a once-off experience it’s only a pound. The insect life up there is also abundant and worth taking a few photographs of.

Back at the bottom, we stopped for a pineapple shake then walked right to the end of the main street and onto the riverside. It was into early afternoon so we stopped for lunch as a nice little place with a lovely view (as if there’s any other kind of view around there) and nattered for an hour over a relaxed meal. No beer this time!

After completing our circuit of the main area, we did the internet thang and Roz slapped on some aftersun. Better late than never but red really isn’t her colour… at least not a deep, glowing, you could toast bread on it red especially when it’s radiating from her arms. Ow.

While I booked my Dubai flight, Roz sorted her bus ticket and we arranged a time for dinner. I’d also re-arranged a time with Aurelie so dashed off for a shower before she turned up.

Finally, we got the timings right and Aurelie and I sat down for dinner at the Indian next door to the bank. Her original claims that she’d wait till she met Laura later for food disappeared once she looked at the menu and we chowed our way through some delicious Indian fare.

Roz arrived an hour later and we walked round to Martin’s Bar where they were showing Flags Of Our Fathers. Roz ate, we drank and the film was enjoyed. One thing to note is that around the back area, beer is around 2000K (20%) a bottle more expensive than on the main street.

After the film, we headed for the Lao Lao bar where we met Laura. We also got a free shot of something far too sweet and inevitably called “Lao whisky” by the waiter when asked. Anything they serve in a shot glass is “Lao whisky”, no matter what colour it is, what it’s made from or how much you can drink before you go blind.

I also discovered another legal Laotian beer. Technically there are two – Beer Lao and the relatively new Beer Lao Dark. These are both pretty good and made by a government-run brewery with the monopoly on alcohol production. The third is Lao Bia and – apparently – legal as it’s a traditional brew made by a hill tribe from palm tree flowers. As it’s a “tradition”, the government can’t or won’t prevent it’s brewing and it does seem a small operation alongside the Beer Lao monster. Lao Bia is a deep red colour and rather sweet but pretty nice. It made a change anyway.

Partway through our evening, a loud buzzing was heard right above us and Laura jumped out of her skin. Above her, a very large gecko had caught a very large moth-like insect which was complaining very loudly. The gecko was definitely the largest I’ve seen outside of a cage or tank and had lovely rock-like skin. The little fella gathered quite a crowd of photographers before vanishing up the tree with his still-struggling prize.

From there we went to the Hive Bar where I managed to knock a tray out of a waiter’s hand (thankfully almost empty) and Roz ran out of Kip again.

Failing in my bid to talk the girls into going bowling (the alley is open until 4am, apparently) I once more walked Roz home and then headed back for my last night in my little room in Luang Prabang.

More mad jumping in water

Luang Prabang is pretty laid back so excuse me for not having a vast amount to write up about the next two days! It’s so laid back that it’s nigh-on impossible to get a meal served in less than fifteen minutes, so if you happen to book a ticket for a trip make sure you have plenty of time beforehand to eat!

You can kind of guess by the above that I didn’t leave myself enough time. I thought half an hour would be enough to get a chicken fried rice and eat it. Wrong. It was almost 25 minutes before it was served and I had to leave half to rush back to the tour office. A shame as it was delicious!

The trip up to the Kuang Si waterfalls is 32km according to Lonely Planet. This should be half an hour in a tuk-tuk, but for some reason took us an hour. The driver told us to be back by 4:00 which meant we’d have 90 minutes to explore and frolic, while the tour office had told us two hours. So we told him we’d be back at 4:30.

Cost of entry to the well-maintained “park” is 20,000K and the tuk-tuk ride 25,000K per person. It’s a worthwhile trip for an afternoon out even if just for the large swimming areas. There are no pools in Luang Prabang and it does get hot and sticky. The water here is pretty clean and very cold! Lovely after you’ve tramped around the waterfall itself for an hour getting some lovely pictures.

An American chap and myself walked to the halfway-up point on the waterfall – the first “shelf”. From there, the views backwards are spectacular. We didn’t bother climbing right to the top and from what we were told by those who did, it wasn’t worth the effort anyway.

Back downhill a ways, we jumped into the aforementioned pool (me from the top of a small waterfall off very slippery rocks) and played on the rope swing that someone had tied up nearby. A word from painful experience – watch out for the knots on the rope when you jump. They have a habit of smacking you in places you’d rather not be smacked when you let go if you don’t shove the rope away correctly. Ooyah.

After an hour, we were all ready to head back into town. I’d got talking to a very nice girl on one of the other tuk-tuks called Roz (hey, Roz!) and we arranged to meet up later on for some munchies.

The trip back was a little quicker, I think mainly as it was downhill. We all had a good natter and I enjoyed a nice papaya shake from a street vendor with the American chap and Colin, a Malaysian guy now settled in Canada and on his annual trip in SE Asia after seeing the family.

As seems the law in Luang Prabang, I had a chill-out and waited until dinner time. I was supposed to meet Aurelie and Laura (who I met in Byron Bay) for dinner as well, but they were later arriving than they anticipated and missed Roz and I as we wandered off for food on the riverside.

Dinner turned to drinks. And more drinks. Then more. Then realisation that Roz didn’t have enough Kip. Then wandering around trying to find somewhere that would sell us more drinks. I think we might have crashed a private party asking if they had beer and they sold us some from their fridge.

By the time I dropped Roz off at her hostel it was around 2am. Whoops. A little later than we’d planned! Luang Prabang’s a little like that. You just kind of go with the flow.

Next stop, Luang Prabang

Another night with little sleep (abed at 4:30am, awake at 8:00am) before rushing around packing everything, changing currency and scoffing some breakfast. I had to walk to another hostel where a tuk-tuk was to collect me to take me to the bus area on the old runway. In honesty, I’d have been as well walking to the bus – it was the same distance.

Just as the tuk-tuk departed, I remembered I still had my room key in my pocket. Whoops. I handed it to the guy at the hostel I was leaving from and asked him if he would return it to Babylon, which he agreed to do so. Then as we were approaching the bus, I looked out the back of the tuk-tuk to see Kam from Babylon bearing down on us on his motorbike! A rushed – noisy – conversation followed where I passed him the name of the hostel where I’d left the keys and he zoomed off to get them.

I’d been warned about this bus trip being a little rough, so I wasn’t too bothered about not having slept. I usually catch up quite well on these journeys. However, it didn’t work out that way.

The road up to Luang Prabang isn’t that bad as far as the surface goes. A little bumpy, but certainly better than it would have been 5-6 years ago. What hasn’t changed is the actual layout. The route follows old cow-tracks or something through the mountains and to say it meanders would be like saying a politician is ever so slightly dishonest. There were periods where the driver would turn the bus through 180 degree hairpin bends every 100m.

As such, sleep was difficult. It’s hard to relax enough to snooze when you have to cling onto your seat to avoid ending up in the aisle. Still, I managed maybe two hours’ shuteye on the six hour journey.

Finally in Luang Prabang, we were ripped off by the tuk-tuk at the bus depot (this always happens – it’s kind of expected as you’ve nowhere else to turn to) and got dropped off sort of in the right area. Ish.

I’d buddied up with the two Dutch girls I met in Vang Vieng, and we found the main road fairly easily. They opted for a guest house at $8 per room for the two of them. The joys of travelling on my own, I decided against the same cost for my single and looked along the street. I settled on the Bou Pha Guest House mainly as the old guy sat outside wasn’t hassling anyone to look at his lovely rooms. It was pleasant enough and $4 per night, which wasn’t going to break the bank.

After a much-needed shower, I headed out for dinner at a nearby restaurant I’d spotted while having a stroll. The food looked nice, the prices fairly keen and the wi-fi free. I’m such a sucker. I sat there for almost three hours and wasn’t hassled even once to order more than my main course and a drink. I did, however, have the same old man beg from me several times and more than one cute kid try to sell me trinkets. The staff were in no rush to shift them, but on the other hand a simple “no, sorry” and a wave sent them on their way. Thankfully they’re not as determined (or annoying) as their Indian cohorts.

Then, much too late again, to bed. I have two full days here so I need to make the most of them.

An expensive day tubing

Very little sleep tonight, partly due to the availability of free wireless internet and partly as it took me over thirty minutes to fight of an invasion of flying ants – nature’s most stupidly-designed insects. There was a small gap between my room door and the floor and as soon as the light in my room was on they started to fly/crawl (upside-down) through said gap. I used about half a tin of insect repellant and a goodly portion of loo roll cleaning up the corpses.

Eventually to bed, waking at 9am and…

Sunshine! At last, the rain stopped – the day after a gazillion rockets were launched heavenwards to ask for more of the stuff. Fine by us and a large group of us donned swimming gear and walked round to the tube hire place.

Expensive thing 1: they’d put the price up since Friday when some of our group went for the first time. 40,000 Kip, plus the exchange rate on my dollar was sucky. Ah well. Still only around £2 for a day out. We collected our rubber rings, jumped into a tuk-tuk and were driven to the starting point a couple of kilometers away where we hobbled down a muddy walkway, chucked the aforementioned inflated doughnuts into the water and flopped lazily into them.

It’s harder work than it looks when the river’s calm and we paddled to the first stop where Beer Lao was on sale for the usual 10,000 Kip. After one of these I got up the nerve to go on the swing erected at the river’s edge. The platform from where I had to convince myself to jump was a whole 7m off the ground.

Grab swing, lean back, close eyes, leap, scream, splash.

Then repeat.

And again.


Across the river was a flying fox run which was also proving popular, but I didn’t get a chance to swim across. Instead, after an hour or so we flopped onto our bums in the water and floated gently down to the next bar.

Expensive thing 2: I noticed my feet were bare. I’d left my sandals at the bar. Argh.

Expensive thing 3: I noticed my pocket was empty. Somewhere in 300m or so of water lies a fairly new Olympus 720sw camera with some really good pictures from today on it. Camera is insured via the credit card I got it with, but the pictures are irreplaceable – especially those of the other folks in my group who were relying on me to get snaps of them.

Still. Poop happens. I’ve emailed the insurance company and just have to figure out how I replace it. Hopefully this can be done on the road without having to return to the UK, but we’ll see.

This bar had a higher swing, maybe 10m up. Charlotte kindly donated a beer to the “get Iain drunk enough to jump off the thing” fund and I ws therefore destined to repay her.

Grab swing, lean back, close eyes, leap, scream (for much longer this time), splash.

Repetition was involved here as well. I think we stayed there for another hour or so as the sun baked down. There was an amazing field of butterflies next to the bar which was magical to watch – I wish I could have got a video of it. As people walked through, they erupted like intelligent gravity-defying snowflakes, then settled back to the ground again.

Expensive thing 4: My cash seemed to vanish somewhere, probably in the water as I was jumping off the swing. At least it was only 40,000 Kip or so. Not a huge amount but it meant relying on others for beer and tuk-tuk fares until we got back to the hostel. Thank you all and I hope I didn’t forget to return any money. If I did, there’s a contact link somewhere to the right!

The next bar was a small one, so we just sat in the shade – still floating in our tubes – and chilled for a while before moving on to the next bar with the biggest swing of the lot – maybe 15m in height. No more beers required by this stage!

By the time we set off, dusk was visibly approaching. It was after 5:30 and the rings needed to be back before 6:00 or we’d incur a fine. Our group split in two after half an hour or so. Some of us (myself included) jumped in a tuk-tuk near the end while the others continued right to the bottom. Bizarrely nobody asked us for our late fee so we legged it before they remembered to do so. The other group were asked, but just patted their pockets and said they had no money. This works every time, by the way.

So, time for a warm shower, some dinner (Mexican pizza – mmm) and off out for a few beers. We stopped at a bar where we bought a beer each and were rewarded with a free bucket of some rather scary spirits and ice. Nobody really wanted it so we used it as the forfeit in a drinking game. I played to lose, as ever. Unfortunately I was too good so everyone else got more of the free stuff!

Our group reduced in size again and five of us made our way to the Sunset Bar for a final beer, a natter and exchange of email addresses. Well, I dished out my cards – email me, people!

I finally crashed around 4:30am with an 8:00am rise to sort all my stuff out before catching the bus to Luang Prabang. I eased my aching frame into bed (hard work on the shoulders, and the inner elbows get some serious wear and tear on the tubes as you paddle) and zonked out in an instant.