22/07: Day 174 – Huay Xai
Today, RAD, rien à dire, nothing to say. Not much to do in Huay Xai. One usually comes through here just to take the slow boat down to Luang Prabang. So, I hanged around, planed what to do in Laos, skyped, downloaded, uploaded, before The Gibbon Experience tomorrow!! I’m super exited, but at the same time I am really sad it’s already happening… It means we are getting closer and closer from the end of the trip, initially planned for beginning of August…
Ha, actually yes, one thing is that it is funny to be surprised by the quantity of white people… yeah coming from Myanmar one isn’t used to it anymore!
23/07: Day 175 – Departure for the Gibbon Experience !
Today is THE day I get to make the most of my Christmas present and go to one of the most exclusive activity on this trip – 3 days at The Gibbon Experience ! They basically built the world’s highest tree houses so a couple of people each day can experience flying through the forest canopies and waking up surrounded by the incredible nature and sometimes, for the lucky ones, Gibbons.
Departure 9 am after having watched a short safety video, we take a first car for 1h30. The weather isn’t bad, nor hot nor wet, so that’s nice. We get to the first village and change cars. Yup, to get to the second village we need this big CTT (car tous terrains) to climb up that muddy, rocky mountain. So here we go up the mountain for a trip that is supposed to be about 1h. The road is supper muddy and you can feel that even the best car, with 15 people inside, is having a bit of a difficult time. After about 20 min a tire bursts. We get out, are told to start walking… at this point we are still quite far from the second village…. But, no problem, 5 min later the car comes rushing up and we all get in again. 20 min later… the second tire burst… now we have no spear tire, so get your stuff and walk !
After a small 1h30 easy walk, we get to the second village, where was supposed to start the hike… So here we walk again, this time with a couple more DIFFICULT climbs, for about 1h15 to the lodge where we are going to get our equipment for the zip lining. Once there, we split in 2 groups of 5 people, the lazy which will go to house 1 and the ones that still have fuel to go to house 5 (the furthest). So here I go to house 5. A couple of zip lines, stiff climbs and 2 hours later, here we are in the AMAZING house 5. View is amazing, bathroom is amazing, everything is breath taking !!!!!!!! I’m so happy, it’s so cool !!!!!! We are in a tree house, literally in the middle of the jungle, absolutely no sign of any kind of human activity as far as our eye could see, on the top of the majestic tree and the only way to get in or out, is through the zip lines.
Had a quick rest, but our guides also told we should make the most of enjoying the zip lines and the nature around us. So spent an extra 2 hours acting like flying monkeys in the jungle. It was wonderful!
Funny anecdote is that in the evening one of the guides came back to spend some time with us for dinner in the tree house and when he zip lined out of the house, in the dark, he didn’t put his shoes back on properly and lost both in the air. We cracked out.
24/07: Day 176 – Gibbon Experience day 2
Woke up to this amazing view and this perfect jungle noise. I couldn’t describe that sensation of full happiness.
Zip lined all day, visited the different houses and slept in house 1. The day 2 had some frustrating parts because it was very hilly to get to each zip line from house 1. So climbing all the time, and hell I don’t like that, was quite annoying for me; especially as, unlike house 5, you couldn’t really pop in and out of the house and do good zip lining. Other than that, the day was actually absolutely perfect. That sensation of freedom, the incredible high views, the couple of monkey, absolutely wonderful. The guides left us around 2 and gave us all the time we wanted to zip line and/or go back and chill at the house.
In the evening our guide taught us a card game called “the Vietnamese game”, which was pretty funny and don’t remember at all what it was all about.
25/07: Day 177 – Gibbon Experience day 3
We didn’t see the gibbons, but we heard them for sure! We were woken up to their sweet singing at 6.30, which was really nice. Zip lined some more and even heard them again as we were swinging in the air.
Arrived at the first camp to drop our material off around 10 am, then walked to the first village, which took about 1 hour and then waited for the car to bring us back to the second village, where we had lunch and then went back to Huay Xai.
Got back in town maybe around 3, agreed on a Mojito meet up time with the rest of the group and then I wanted to book the bus for the same day to go to Nong Khiaw, via Pakmong, but it was full… I was soooooooo pissed to have to stay in that shit hole one more day…. Urgh !! What a loss of time!! Poor guy at the hotel had to listen to me complaining for at least 30 min… hehe….
Met up with the others, had some drinks, had some food, chilled together, had a nice evening!
26/07: Day 178 – Huay Xai, again…
Nothing much to declare… Didn’t do much. Everyone left in the morning for the slow boat to Luang Prahbang, but I’m doing a stop before that, so I’m just waiting for the bus at 6 pm from Huay Xai to Pakmong and then a mini van to Nong Khwai.
Got on the bus at the adequate time and that was a looooong journey… That night definitely competes with the night train in Thailand in terms of feeling gross, dirty, smelly, stinky and tired. So, YES, lets talk about transportation in Laos, which is about the worst of all South East Asia! It’s pathetic, every journey takes ages! I was supposedly arriving in Pakmong at 4 AM (yes because it takes 10 hours for about 400km…), instead the driver was driving like a maniac and got me there at 2.15 am…. AM! Great, so what do I do now?!
So, let’s step back, this bus, that goes to Luang Prabang, drops me off in the middle of F***ING no where, literally now where, not even at the actual bus station, in the middle of the night… Ultimately, the “bus station” was near by and when I say “bus station”, it’s a covered platform in the middle of fields and a couple of houses around. Let’s not picture Bangkok South station before Songkran…
Anyhow… As I walked the 200 meters to get to the station, there was a guesthouse pretty close, with it seems life inside! Again, let’s not picture the Phnom Phen Mad Monkey terrace at 11pm, we are talking about one guy looking out if some stupid person like me, who would want to sleep for a couple of hours and willing to pay an outrageous price – 60.000 kips – for 4 hours sleep!!! Yes, we are talking about slightly more than 6€, but when you travel on a budget, a penny is a penny! I decided I was better than that and that I would survive… therefor I put my stuff and myself on a bench of the “bus station”, attached my backpacks together, used the small one as a pillow and started to get some sleep… actually spent most of my time Whatsapping my friends (thanks to the time difference with Europe) because I was board and wanted to complain about my terrible life and situation… Hehe.
27/07: Day 179 – Nong Khiaw
After about 1h30 of dozing on my bench, the tuk tuk that was going to Nong Khiaw finally departed at 6 am and took 1h15 to do 21km….!!! Ridiculous!
Anyway, Nong Khiaw is a really cute village. A friend of mine, I met at ElephantsWolrd, had recommended me to come here. It’s sleepy riverside village, very calm, very peaceful, with a gorgeous nature and scenery. The karstic scenery is very impressive. Not an awful lot to do hear, just relax and enjoy the views, whether it is from your hotel or from a nice terrace (Sunset guesthouse was a really good point well…. To see the sunset).
From here one can go rafting, hiking, waterfall hiking, tubing and other nature related activities. I didn’t do any of that, I just walked around for afternoon. I can’t remember why, I later went to Dalilah’s (a hostel, tour guide, restaurant) for some advice on what to do I think and met these 2 French girls. We hanged around together for the rest of the afternoon and went for a massage. It was okay, sans plus – the ladies where talking together, looking at their phone… After which we went to Deen’s restaurant, very good Indian food. At some point, it started poring rain, it was crazy!! That tropical, heavy rain, that made the electricity go down for about 20 min, so we ate in the dark and were stuck in the restaurant for about 1 hour, it was quite impressive ! Let’s not forget it’s rainy season in South East Asia…
Sunrise guesthouse: was good, basic, cheap and had a great view on the mountain and the bridge – 40.000 kips for a nice double bedroom. Another famous one in Nong Khiaw is Dalilah’s, it doesn’t have the view but I think it’s got the hostel/backpacker atmosphere, with a tour agency, Tiger Trail, attached to it – and they are supposed to do really good deserts.
28/07: Day 180 – Nong Khiaw to Muang Ngoi
Relaxed, walked around. Went to book my boat ticket to go to Muang Ngoi, an even smaller sleepier gorgeous village, 1h30 down the river. No actual roads get there, a few adventures do it on a bike, crossing through the think forest, but common mortals like me, go on the boat. There are 2 boats a day to go there, one in the morning and one early afternoon around 2.
The boat was supposed to go around 2…. It didn’t quite go like that… First of all the guy told me to arrive early, around 1.30, so as I got there, he told me that we needed to wait, that the boat was going to leave when the boat was full… Gladly, when I talk about “the boat”, it’s not a 400 seat ferry, it’s a tiny 20 seats wooden boat, rather made to transport people from one small village to the other.
Finally, between the people, mainly locals, the bags and baskets, we left around 3 something and started this mystic boat ride through the jungle and the mountains. It was perfect, the scenery was stunning and I rarely felt so far of everything. We didn’t cross villages, or shops, or roads along the way. We would stop every now and then, for some locals to get off, walk 5m and disappear in the jungle. As we arrived, I noticed most people were coming back from probably Luang Prahbang, where they had been shopping (one had a bag full underwear) and were coming back to sell everything to people in Muang Ngoi.
Got to Muang Ngoi, booked a bungalow on the river and started walking around. Muang Ngoi is a village crossed by 2 muddy dirt roads, filled up with tiny shops, restaurants and houses. The views from here are just incredible and it’s so peaceful.
As I walked around quite amazed by the scenery of this village, this guy, about my age, called me out, making me signs to join him and his friend. We started talking, he asked the usual (where I was from, what I was doing here), he told me about himself, that he was working in the rice fields, but because of the season there wasn’t much that needed to be done… He showed me around for a little bit and then I headed back to my bungalow where I had agreed to meet the two French girls I had met the day before (they had left with the morning boat).
After having dinner with the girls, guess who I met on my back… Kiew again. I had told him I was going to walk to some small, even more isolated villages up in the mountains and he insisted on accompanying me there, as he didn’t have much else to do and he would make the most of visiting one of his cousins. Everyone seemed to know him here, so I didn’t feel too much at risk, so I accepted. We would meet the next day, at 10 and he would guide me around, against no financial compensation! He agreed.
29/07: Day 181 – Muang Ngoi to HuayXen, the tiny isolated villages in the mountains.
Today was probably in my top 5 best days of my trip. It was just… I felt I was in another world. The kind of day I would have loved to have many more of and that, later, gives for such an improbable story.
He arrived at 10, as agreed and off we went. First of all we topped at this cave, 30 min walking out of the village, that had natural pools inside. It was so cool, but the water, running straight under the mountains, was so cold and I was terrified that a snake would swim up to me and get into my clothes! Didn’t happen.
Walked some more through this majestic generous pulpy green nature, but had to take refuge for about 30 min in an indention of the mountain to keep out of the heavily pouring rain. He explained that buffalos that more or less roam freely, would often take refuge under here, to get out of the rain or the burning heat. Anyhow, imagine this guy and I, sticking around this cramped up natural shelter for half an hour… awkward, but, still funny.
After 2 hours of completely getting off the main track, walking through 2 rivers, a couple of streams, the muddy forest (I couldn’t even keep my flip flops on, because they would get sucked up in the mud), taking in absolutely everything I could, we finally got to the village, where we were going to stay for the night. Here began the WTF.
HuayXen is this tiny village, maybe 150 people at the most, it’s the real local deal, no electricity, no tourists, just a couple of hand built houses, farmers and their families living here, in the middle of the forest in the mountains, ultra ultra rustic. His cousin had this tiny “guesthouse”, if we can call it this way, which basically meant 4 bedrooms the size of the double beds that were laid on the floor, in a half bamboo, half hay made arrangement (I couldn’t call it house, because it was just the 4 bedrooms). Of course, no one else was there. We first had lunch and then started the end of me…
After lunch, we went to his friends, who basically had the next door house and tradition wants that hosts offer drinks to their visitors – drinks means alcohol and alcohol means pure homemade rice whiskey, they call Lao Lao… and it also means a whole bottle of it, that you have to finish before considering to leave. So, if you think about it for 10 people, it’s okay, but when it’s 3 of you… It’s not !!!! So our host brought out a bottle of his very own Lao Lao and one glass. Why one glass ? Another tradition that wants that, to make sure everyone drinks exactly the same amount, the host pours the shots in one single glass, that turns amongst all the people. We / I bravely drunk through the first bottle and thought I was saved… until 2 other friends came along and then of course, it was only polite to fill up the bottle…!! We have to consider that last time I had been drinking was…. Probably at ElephantsWorld, so about 1 month and a half ago. Translate: It was great to be right here, but my head was already starting to tuuuurn…
We finished that part at about 4pm, when I said I NEEDED a walk to evacuate and let the effects of Lao Lao resorb a little bit. Went to walk around for about 1 hour, got back to the village and what looked like the whole +60 male population of the village (about 20 people), were having a nice little gathering in their equivalent of the sheriff or the maire’s house, to which, unfortunately, we got invited… Well… unfortunately and not… It was just amazing and surreal for me to be here, sitting with these people, who have lives that stand about 1000 light years (not sure if you can say that in English, but translate it by: very very very far) from mine and my reality, being observed and, evidently, talked about. The observation of that unknown curiosity was definitely going both ways. However, there went again another bottle or 2 for every 4 people…
Then came dinner back to his cousin’s house. It could have been and meant salvation… but no, that didn’t happen… or only for a brief moment. We had a traditional Laos style dinner with him and his wife and children: sitting on the floor, all the family gathered around a little round table, just big enough to fit in all the food: nice cooked veggies, chicken and a straw basket in the middle for the rice. Laotians, probably like others, cook their rice in such a way that once it’s done, they put it in a straw kind of basket and make it sticky enough for it to stick together but not too much so it doesn’t leave that gluey stuff on your fingers when you reach for it when eating. It’s a dry kind of sticky and it’s, most likely, a specific kind of rice. Had loads of food to prepare for what I knew was coming…
His cousin had told us earlier that we had been lucky to come that day because, of what I understood, they were having some sort of celebration and a pig was going to be killed and cooked in the afternoon, for all the village to eat and celebrate together at night and we had also been invited to join. Now I had understood that invitation + celebration + food = DRINKING. What I didn’t anticipate was his cousin bringing out a bottle even before us joining the celebration… and since I had been told it was rude to decline… all 3 of us drunk up… the bottle.
We went back to the maire / sheriff’s house for the party, that was now lightened by candles everywhere and maybe also a couple of petrol lights. What was fitting earlier 20 old lads, was now a noisy and lively room, full of still the same 20 old lads, only even more drunk, together with other men, women and a couple of kids. Everyone was sitting around a long L shaped table, they had displayed in the middle. Dishes (all the different parts of the pig) were spread along the table: the host, sitting at one end of the L, was honoured with the full head of the pig, ornamented with fruits and herbs, whilst the other body parts were shared amongst all the guests. At some point, I was handed a strange looking dish, which I couldn’t identify in the dim light, and I was served some of that strange looking dish. Up to now, everything had been edible, even good actually, but when I put that in my mouth… I just couldn’t. My friend Kiew, looked at me and discretely laughed, explaining in his broken English that what I was eating was the pure fat of the pig (explaining it by the way, by showing my own fat… please and thank you…). I’m not difficult with food, but that was just above me. I mean, who makes a dish out of fat anyways?! I was lucky no one else spoke English, so he could tell me how to pass him that food, without seeming extremely rude. The whole scene was quite funny.
Guess what else was on the table…? And this time there was no waiting for the meal to end… More, more and more homemade rice whiskey to share. Being one of the important attraction of the evening, people were happy to make me drink or rather to drink with me… 9.30 I was way pass the acceptable limit (and probably had been since 3 pm), 10 pm, went, with great difficulty, for what I thought was just going to be a quick pee, but saw my room… and collapsed in my bed, in a deep coma until the next morning…
30/07: Day 182 – HuayXen, Huay Bo, Ban Na and back to Muang Ngoi
Woke up to a terrible head ache… everyone seemed to be up and awake and fine, while I was in terrible pain! Had a bit of breakfast and my new friend and I were on our way again.
It was hot, sunny and I didn’t have enough water with me… thankfully the landscapes, in the middle of these beautiful rice fields and these karstic mountains was stunning, but I was NOT well… felt sick and weak.
So we walked under the heavy sun to the two villages Ban Na and Huay Bo. I’ve described the views, the scenery, so I won’t again, but everything was magnificent, perfect. I felt pretty lucky because as it was the rainy season, everything was SO green (I saw some pictures when it’s dry season, it’s definitely not as beautiful!) and I didn’t have anything to think about, other than, the gorgeousnous surrounding me, since my friend was leading me around, across the rice fields, only locals could possibly know. Who says local paths, says absolutely no one around, but a couple of farmers checking on their crops. We (and when I say we, I mean, I, because he didn’t have any issue obviously) had to balance each step to navigate between these rice fields and not fall into the pond of water feeding the growing plants.
The villages were so cute. Ban Na had this “gas station” you can only find in places in the middle of nowhere: a tank of gasoline, a pump and the price hand written next to it, in the middle of some sort of mechanic shop. We had lunch there and had a nap for about 2 hours in their hamacs, again looking at this incredible view. In that same little “restaurant” if I may say, there was just another family of Americans who had come with some friends to this part of Laos. I was impressed to hear the father speak Laotian to the owner and to my friend. Just like Thai, these languages are so difficult to master ! He explained that they had been living in Laos for about 15 years and that they owned a coffee business in Vientiane, the capital. I was so jealous !
It may make nature look beautiful, but tropical rain is still a pain when it start pouring down! I say that, but that rain gave me one of the most magical memories: it was starting to fall way too much so we had to take refuge in one of these little wooden shelters made exactly for these cases. Just a small roof held by 4 trunks of wood and underneath, a kind of bed made of bamboo, to have a rest while waiting for the rain to pass. We waited there, maybe 20 min, all senses alert. My ears were listening to the noise of the rain falling on the small shelter, my eyes were observing that cascade roaring down from the sky in the middle of these majestic mountains, my skin was feeling the breeze running through and the drops she was carrying with her and my nose was inhaling that universal smell of rain hitting a hot ground. That feeling of protection, just like when you are in a car and rain starts pouring, only 100 times better.
On our way back to Muang Ngoi, we made an interesting encounter and when I say interesting, it is more of a pity word. This lonely man, mentally and physically not quite there, was under one of these shelters, cooking in a tiny casserole and on a fortune fire a bit of rice. My friend explained to me that he was an orphan vagabond, who would move around in the valley, who couldn’t work because of his condition and to earn money (just enough to eat every now and then), he would carry around 2 plastic kind of cans that he would use as drums to play and sing to the music for people who would accept to stop and listen. It was a sad and rather moving scene, that again, reminded me how lucky one is to just be healthy and how much we have in our countries. He played and sang for us; he actually had a nice voice…
We got back to the main village, I had a rest after all that walking today and my friend Kiew invited me to have dinner with his family. It was modest, but so cool. Another real Laotian style diner. Here I was, sitting on little cushions on the floors, around that round table, handing into that basket to get some rice, which we were eating with chicken, that probably even my dogs wouldn’t have been interested in (and the funny thing is that the pieces they didn’t eat – within these parts that we, occidentals, already would have disregarded and thrown away – they would give to the cat) and other veggie dishes that were very good and in front of the TV, watching a Thai Boxing game, yes THE Sunday boxing games. It was really nice, very familylike. Many families have their traditions on Sunday evenings, watch a movie, get pizza, eat all together, you name it, well this was theirs.
31/07: Day 183 – Muang Ngoi to Luang Prabang
Took an early breakfast before hopping on the morning (and only?) boat and to my surprise my friend Kiew was there to say goodbye. It was sweet of him to stay and wave goodbye as the boat made its way back to Nong Khiaw, through the mountains and the jungle. I was sad to leave this… isolated, disconnected, somewhat unique place. For sure my stay there had been very very unique. I still wonder if these 3 days actually happened. Again, even though my heart was heavy and full of incredible memories, that ride was exquisite.
Arrived at Nong Khiaw, went to the bus station and made the mistake of taking my time as we got of the van that had brought us to the station. I knew there was a but departing for Luang Prabang about 45 min later, so I was in no rush and let the 15 people with us go in front and buy their ticket. After about 5 min I heard the guy at the counter saying: “no more tickets for Luang Prabang, the bus is full”. I, along with a couple of other people, were so angry, especially as he couldn’t really say if and when the next bus would depart, but we had to stay there, just in case. It was ridiculous and it’s often the case with transports in Laos…
After about 3 hours of waiting around a bus finally arrived and we were able to leave for Luang Prabang, but what a ridiculous loss of time.
Anyhow, got to Luang Prabang, hadn’t booked anything, but I had looked up this really cool hostel, Kounsavan Guest House, with a pool and everything, but it was fully booked… So I ended up in this supper crappy, but very cheap, place. Left my stuff and headed to the Night Market. The night market is famous obviously for its many touristy souvenirs but also for its food. When you go to LP, you go to the night market and you get a shake, Oreo, Mango, Passion fruit, Coffee, whatever tickles your fancy AND a Baguette (the elegant name for a sandwich). Don’t ask me why this ended up being a famous thing here, but it sure is. So I got my Baguette and my shake, and went to watch the sunset by the Mekong.
As I walked around I saw that the night market was pretty nice, even other than for its essential purpose. It’s a fusion of high colours, dim lights, heaps of people, noises and smells, all of that blended between temples, which gives it quite a unique atmosphere I thought.
Went back to the hostel and there met a group of 3 French boys, on a summer trip half helping out some association, half travelling. We chilled at the hostel and turns out they had managed to buy one of the evils of South East Asia: Opium (okay, it was probably just tourist opium, nothing too dangerous, but still). They were happy to smoke it away in a pipe they had just bought earlier in the day. Not something I would ever try for sure and I don’t think I would mind saying if I had, but it was funny looking at them, probably smoking away some plastic as it didn’t seem to have much effect… As for me, I was feeling that being back to civilisation, after 3 days of being almost fully cut off, was kind of strange… but the journey goes on !
01/08: Day 184 – Luang Prabang
In the morning, I went to give a bit of my time to Big Brother Mouse. In a country where books are an absolute luxury, this Lao organisation publishes children’s stories in Lao language. In their LP offices, they have a “volunteering” option, where they set up daily English practise sessions, where travellers, or anyone really, can drop in (no need to reserve, but it’s only from 09:00-11:00 and 17:00-19:00) and converse with locals eager to practise or learn English and learn about people from around the world. As I arrived, there was a large crowd of kids, young student from high school or even younger. Some come with a specific list of words or sentences they want to learn, some just want to practice by asking questions about you, where you come from, what you do, where you live, etc. In return, one learns about them, their families, their way of life, their school, how they can afford it… The “learning” process definitely goes both ways.
It was really interesting to go there. Many times when you travel, you chat with the kids that want to sell you something, bump into those that are working or hanging out in the villages or fields, because their families can’t afford to send them to school. Don’t get me wrong, it’s as least as interesting to talk with them, but it was interesting to meet a different kind of crowd. Some of them came here every day after school for 2 hours, to practice their English. Despite their young age, they were already mature enough to understand that English could be a great advantage for them in the future, some even already knew what they wanted to do. Some wanted to become tourist guides, some wanted to go in business…
Later on, I met up with the 3 French boys, as we had agreed we would go on a boat ride together. Along the Mekong, one of the boys had arranged with a boat captain for a half day tour. We hopped on the boat, that brought us first to the Pak Ou Caves, one of LP very famous sites. It’s quite fascinating how people find these really isolated places, in this case, a limestone cave, up a mountain in the middle of a river and make it holly. Pak Ou Caves are small, but rather interesting. There are 2 caves and the bigger one is… maybe 300 m long, full with thousands of Buddhas of all sorts, kinds and sizes. By the way, the stairs to get up there almost killed me, but it was worth it. It was surprisingly quite calm considering it’s such a tourist attraction (paid a ridiculous amount of money to go to the toilet).
As we got back on the boat, we went a bit more up (or down, I’m not quite sure), the river to further admire this beautiful and majestic scenery, which remains quite similar across Laos: karstic mountains, dense vegetation (normal, it’s rainy season), brown river… you know.
Then headed back in direction of LP and on the way, stopped in Ban Xang Hai, one of the handicraft villages or more famously known as Whiskey Villages. Why? Well, sure they had scarves and pipes and statues, blablabla, but the real thing is to, first taste (we bought a hole bottle to “taste”, which we kind of regretted considering the ambient heat and the sun hitting on our heads) and then buy some fresh and local lao lao – the same thing I had been drinking a couple of days before… Anyhow, wondered around for a bit and headed back to the boat and to the city.
Chilled at the hostel for a bit and then all went to this famous pool bar, kind of isolated in the middle of nothing in Luang Prabang, called La Pistoche. It was pretty cool: big pool, loud music, bar in the pool, cocktail and even pétanque (recognize the French touch?) – SwEEEeT!!
For dinner and drinks, we headed to the second (after the waterfalls) biggest attraction in Luang Prabang, it’s a stop no one can miss when visiting here: Utopia. It’s this zen-like garden bar / restaurant, perfect to enjoy their morning yoga sessions (with an exquisite view on the Mekong), eat a healthy (for a lot of money) and relax during the day. At night, it becomes THE place to be… so, more noisy and busy, still as expensive, with half of the people smoking pot, but everyone has fun! Okay it didn’t sound like it, but it is!
02/08: Day 185 – Luang Prabang, the Alms Giving ceremony and the temples
Luang Prabang is very famous for its early morning (I guess that’s a pleonasm), multi-century old Buddhist tradition, the Alms giving ceremony. Around 200 monks depart from the different temples, to gather their daily meal. Alms giving takes place daily, as the sun rises in the city, mostly beginning on the main street of Luang Prabang, before spreading out to all the side streets. Quite similar to what I had seen in Chiang Mai, but on a much larger scale.
That alms giving was definitely a ceremony a wanted to witness. So, got up at 5.30 am, which I absolutely hate, and made my way to the main street, where all the temples prevail (the same one that is covered with the street market stalls at night), to be there at 6. I quietly sat on the pavement, observing on one side, the locals getting in line, ready to make their offerings before the start of this gorgeous ballet and on the other, the mass of tourists getting larger and larger.
The idea is that the monks make merit and collect food, as sun rises, for their one meal of a day, dependent on what is donated to them. What I understood is that they are not allowed to ask, they can only receive what the people offer them. This should be a beautiful ceremony. I mean, the idea of seeing this ancient tradition of these hundreds of Safran robes walking one behind the other, worn by the incarnated simplicity of barefoot men and local people, kneeling to offer them food, is absolutely enchanting. However and unfortunately, the tourists have ruined it all as usual. The procession has become a parade, the tradition has become an attraction and the respect for the ritual was blow away by the greed for the best picture.
I had read beforehand that the monks were more and more reluctant to eat what they were given during the ceremony, because they were getting sick more and more often, because of tainted food (people would buy food the day before and it would get bad or not from good places or would wash their hands before giving the rice). Actually, because of some animal-like behaviours, for example thus of those who would literally get into their face to take photos, disrupting the procession and so many people being disrespectful of this spiritual tradition, they wanted to stop the Alms giving. I “read” that the government disapproved of them stopping and would be putting pressure on them to continue, because it has become such a money-making attraction. What I was reading, went as far as saying that they would even hire people to dress-up as monks to join in (but I have no insight on whether it is true or total fiction – I’m just re-stating).
I for sure felt pretty sorry for them. Again, the ceremony in itself is beautiful, but people just don’t know how to behave! It was like being in a zoo and going to observe close up some curious animal in a cage.
It lasted about 20 min, after which I treated myself to a breakfast at Utopia. It’s such a serein place in the morning: one sits on these typically Asian kind of matressy-seats and enjoys the exquisite view on the Mekong river. I had my usual favourite / ultra-healthy breakfast: a big glass of fresh orange juice and muesli, with fresh milk and fruits. MmMmmm that fresh mango, Yummmyyyy !!!
Then spent the day visiting all the main temples, pagodas and palaces of the city. Not going to mention them all, but I walked so much! In all the old city and around. Wat Xieng Thong, Wat Mai, Royal Palace and probably 20 others.
I think it was around 6pm, in all the different temples, monks gathered, sat and chanted. Their voices were elevating in the room, mingling with the floating incense fume. It gave me goose bumps it was so magical. I think they may do it every day for 30 min or 1 hour.
I finished the day with going up (up up up) to Mount Phousi to see the sun set on the old city. Yes, it was lovely and yes, there were many people… but it goes down over Luang Prabang, over the river, behind the mountain, so it’s still a beautiful sunset.
I changed hostel during the day (I couldn’t really stand the other one anymore) and made a really cool new group of friends there. French, Australian, English, Dutch (that I actually saw back in France a couple of months later). We all went for dinner and then for drinks and party in the old city, which enables me to say that Luang Prabang has a really good food and party scenery! We ended up in the famous bowling / bar place that is the last place standing once all the rest is closed. We had a lot of fun !
03/08: Day 186 – Luang Prabang > Kuang Si Waterfalls > Vang Vieng
I had organised, with the hostel, my final day in Luang Prabang and went to the Kuang Si waterfalls, the #1 most famous place to go in LP. So, jumped into the taxi-van and met these 3 Brit girls, super sweet friends travelling together. Anyhow, the falls are quite for from Luang Prabang (yes, 29 km can be very long in Laos). After paying the 20,000 Kip entrance fee, we entered the park and to my great and pleasant surprise, the domain starts with a Bear Sanctuary. Free the Bears rescues bears from bile farms and other poachers, traffickers or stupid owners. Bile farms are used for keeping bears sedated in order to extract their bile and sell them to China, who think bear bile gives eternal… vigour… you understood… which is obviously totally stupid. In bile farms, bears have approx. 1 year survival rate. However, what a great visibility they have here! It’s the perfect spot to educate people on bear trafficking: everyone has to go through it and these bears, who are now able to enjoy life outside of a 3m2 cage, are so cute!
Anyhow, bought a FreetheBears t-shirt to support the cause, because I’m like that, and we continued towards the waterfalls. Even though it was very touristy, with toilet, changing rooms and people everywhere, the waterfalls were still quite fairy-tale-like. Kuang Si is a giant waterfall that makes its way through the jungle, flows on limestones and empties out into a series of three pools. The turquoise waters one can swim in, are exquisite and, just like in the Erawan Waterfalls in Kanchanaburi, Thailand, there are little fish who nibble on your dead skin!
We got to THE last cascade and it is truly beautiful. On the right side of the cascade there is a path that was supposed to bring us (according to my app Triposo) to this other, less crowded, pool. We started following a very muddy and tricky path, that none of us were equipped for. I followed the phone, but after about 10 min, we were getting nowhere and full of mud from toe to face… so we abandoned and headed back to the main trail. Apparently, when you find the spot, there is a spectacular view over the valley and somewhere a secret passage to a deserted cascade.
After a couple of hours enjoying the water and this splendid nature site, we headed back to the city.
I walked around the old city again, to take in the last views and vibes and baguettes, before taking the late bus to Vang Vieng. Got there around 2 am, when everyone was coming back from the bar, which was pretty funny.
Real Backpackers Hostel: it’s THE place to be in Vang vieng. The hostel is awesome, loads of fun paintings on the wall, atmosphere is great, breakfast is good. It’s very popular, so if you want to stay here, make sure you book in advance and I think the pub crawl is organised in that hostel.
04/08: Day 187 – Vang Vieng
Had a pretty decent and late breakfast at the hostel, went for a walk in the city and came back around 1 to join the group I had met in my second hostel in Luang Prabang, to go and do the famous Vang Vieng tubbing. Vang Vieng is a much-loved party stop where backpackers float down the Nam Song River in rubber tubes, because it has all along, bars you stop at, get drunk on loud music, while playing drinking games. No doubt, it is fun and on top of that, the scenery and nature is beautiful… but… for sure it’s not the most ethical, environment, cultural friendly place… It’s mainly made for young western kids that want to get drunk…. The town is also very popular with Korean people, who exclusively come to Vang Vieng because a famous Korean TV show was shot here. Funny.
We grabbed some baguettes for lunch, while some were still recovering from last night’s party and headed to the (only?) place to rent the tubes. Hopped on their taxi and off we went. After a 15 min drive, we were like little ducks on the river. There used to be, so I was told, about 20 bars all along the river, that would encourage all encourage you to stop and come and drink some more, offering on top of drinks, Mushroom shakes, that Vang Vieng is also very famous for. One can imagine how alcohol and mushrooms can be a bad mix for people floating down a river on a tube… I remember my friend Matthieu telling me, way before I had left, he had one day received an email during his trip, from the mother of a guy he had met while travelling, telling him her son had died in Vang Vieng… too drunk, too young, too short and maybe too confident… He wasn’t the only case, so it was decided to close most of the bars and, on a rotation basis, only have 3 or 4 open and no mushroom shakes.
Other than that, as I was saying, we had a lot of fun! We were singing and laughing along the way, each bar catching us (actually catching us), by throwing ropes at us and pulling us out from the river, after which, one gets a drink and plays ball or frisbee games, which gets more and more funny as you get more and more drunk. For one of the games, you had to throw around a balloon full of water to the other people in the circle and of course, you don’t catch it and it breaks, you lose… I didn’t go to the end, but got the 3rd place, which was a huge win for that day… haha!
All of that fun took about 4 hours, then we got back to the hostel, rested for a bit, all went for a big Pizza and back we were on the depravity path = Sakura bar !!!!!!! THE bar I have spent the past 5 months seeing the T-shirt of everywhere, probably THE most famous bar in South East Asia; buy 2 drinks, get 1 Sakura bar T-shirt (Act single, drink double, see triple). Want a lot of T-shirts? Then you know what you have to do! It’s funny because the bar isn’t really that different from any other cool bar, with loud party music, they just found THE marketing strategy that made them famous everywhere !
05/08: Day 188 – Vang Vieng surroundings
06/08: Day 189 – Phonsavan
Got to Phonsavan early in the morning and the town reminded me a lot of Sukothai in Thailand: a rather small and unattractive place, where the main attraction is a couple of km out of the city. Phonsavan is known for its mysterious Plain of Jars. Spread over hundreds of square km in the mountains around Phonsavan, the latest and contested explanation for these big stone jars, is that they would be a 2500 years old representation of a cremating or funeral practice, therefor dating back to the iron age.
Phonsavan is the kind of place that isn’t on the main tourist road and you think that you are going to be the smart and lucky one, that is going to see it while it’s still clear from mass tourism. But then sometimes, you understand why it’s not…
Anne and I got to this hostel and hanged there for a little bit, to get over the bus ride. My plan after Phonsavan was to go to the Nam Et-Phou Louey National Proteted Area and do a night “safari”, that a friend of mine had told me a lot of good about and which I thought was very near from Phonsavan. So, while I was resting in the hotel, I called them up to organise a booking. I was SO excited to spend a whole night observing the wild life from a small boat going down the river; another expensive but so exclusive activity, which I was more than willing to spend my money in (you gat to know what you want!). What was my disappointment went they explained that I was actually kind of very far the place and realised that I had gotten it totally wrong and that it wasn’t at all near a route I was going to take… Ho well… that will have to be for another time…
We went out to get a late breakfast before renting the bikes and head to the Plain of Jars. After a maybe 30 min drive, we got to the first archaeological site and… well… it was interesting because it’s true that, other than temples and pagodas, there aren’t that many vestiges of past ways of living in South East Asia, especially with such an English touch! Why? Well, in all the 3 sites that we visited, these limestone jars are sprinkled in green grassy fields (unlike in the photo), which made me think a lot of a smaller version of Stone Henge and more generally, the British country side. It’s also interesting, in such a cute country side, to learn about ancestral customs, especially as no one is really sure what they were used for and it’s also good to appreciate being few people for once! However, most of the jars just look like broken or old stone, with a whole in them… I’m not so sure if it deserved this big detour…
07/08: Day 190 – Travel to Thakhek
I hate waking up early. I hate it! I’m on holiday!! I shouldn’t be waking up at 5.45 to get a bus at 6.30 am, to go to Thakhek. Especially to spend the whoooole day in buses, with 3 or 4 connexions. The trip was long and painful, but it was quite impressive. Well… first of all, as we departed, there was a family of 4 French people in the van and I don’t think I have ever heard such ungrateful children. They complained all the way, about everything like spoiled little brats – it was too hot, the bus was uncomfortable, they would prefer to be everywhere but here – talking like dogs to their parents (which made me realise that I was going to be a horrible parent, as I would have just given them a slap in the face, 10 euros and they would have been told to get off the bus and manage themselves! Well, that’s what I wish they would have done…). I mean, how much luckier can you get, to be in a beautiful country, seeing how fortunate you were to be born on the good side, because all around you, you see people who will never get a 10th of what you have, etc etc. Ok, the bus ride took about 4 ½ hours more, ok, the bus was stuck in an isolated muddy mountain road for ages and you asked yourself why engage in a 10 km road that is going to take you 3 hours and make your engine scream almost to death and give a headache to everyone, but come on, there was a guy, in the same bus, that had to go through all the same, but standing all the way…
Anyhow, the route was certainly (very) long and bumpy, going up and down the muddy mountainy scenery, but it was pretty nice and because we had left a place which was at a lengthy detour from the typical transportation / touristy routes, the roads we took were still quite “authentic”. However, I did spot on the way that a lot of work was being done to create new roads, new electrical settings, etc., which showed that the country was investing a lot in their development (sign of a health country?).
Finally got to Thakhek and bumped into one of my Vang Vieng roommates, Guido, a Dutch guy, who had met on the way 3 English guys. We were all going to the same hostel (I think there’s more or less only one cheap famous hostel in Thakhek), Thakhek Travel Lodge, so headed there and rented, from the hostel, our bikes for the next day (of course, they offer the combo, they know why people come here!).
That evening, I spoke at length with my friend Andy on the phone, who was telling me all about the latest gossip of ElephantsWorld (YES, it is important to keep up to date with the new volunteer’s revolutions, the latest couples, who is mahout for who, etc.!).
Thakhek Travel Lodge: I was in the big cheap dorm and it was alright, but very hot and bright (no real curtains) and the common showers were not great, but the staff was helpful, their restaurant was good, the garden was very nice and they were able to rent bikes for everyone. I think the small rooms (4 people) were not that much more expensive and nice.
08/08: Day 191 – Thakhek
09/08: Day 192 – Thakhek
10/08: Day 193 – Thakhek
11/08: Day 194 – 4000 Islands
12/08: Day 195 – 4000 Islands
13/08: Day 196 – 4000 Islands
14/08: Day 197 – 4000 Islands and on my way back to Muang Ngoi
Woke up pretty hang over… Max and Gauthier had left early in the morning, so Guido and I just enjoy the last couple of hours walking around a bit more and relaxing in one of the bar/restaurants, slumped in their Asian beds, in front of Friends, with a big breakfast.
I had decided to go back, even if it was pretty far far far away, to a place that I had found very unique, stunning and magical, Muang Ngoi. So, beginning of afternoon, we left the 4000 islands, took a boat to the mainland, crossed Jeremy and Aaron (from my Vang Vieng group), that were going to the 4000 islands, after having done the Pakse loop. Then, bus to Pakse, where I sadly split paths with Guido and waited for the night bus to Luang Prabang. I had heard about these bed night buses, but couldn’t really picture them out. What they are, are lines of 1 ½ person bunk beds, that you would think only fits one person, but… there it is, written on top of the bottom bed… seat 34 and 35… so I’m going to spend all night in a 1 ½ person bed, with a stranger… awkward! A girl I had met, had told me that she had found herself with a fat old dude in the bed… Picture me praying it would be the same… It ended up being a Laotian women I had to get intimate with… so guess I was part of the lucky ones… but still! Even they can’t really like it at all to be that proximate with farang people!
15/08: Day 198 – On my way back to Muang Ngoi
Got to Luang Prabang in the afternoon, spent it walking around and finally got to spend a night in Real Backpackers Hostel, but didn’t get to spend any time in the pool, it was raining so much! I had just realised that I had been VERY lucky with the weather in Laos and that I had been swaying through the drops for the past 3 weeks or so.
16/08: Day 199 – Back in Muang Ngoi
I’m back in Muang Ngoi… almost… and frankly, considering the reasons why I came back (after almost 3 days of travelling), I’m a bit disappointed… The rain is pouring !!
So, I leave Luang Prabang to take the bus at 9 (not 8.30…) for 4 hours of van to get Nong Khiaw. Get there 12.30, then, because their boat system to go to Muang Ngoi is so well set up, I wait from 1.30 to 2.40, just waiting for people to show up… by then I’m already pretty pissed.
Then, obviously, it is raining… but actually that doesn’t take out the magic of this place. On the contrary, the generously green mountains are gloomy with these beautiful clouds, which creates an amazing atmosphere.
I was surprised to see how much had changed in such a short time. Muang Ngoi had had a flood since I had left, so there was mud everywhere, even more than before, but anyway, went back to the same bungalows as last time, with the view over the river… this is such a romantic place – well, some sort of romantic! Took my book and went to spend the rest of the afternoon in a hammock in a bar, sipping a Mango share.
Met my friend Kiew around 6pm… and tells me about his fishing stories, which obviously I don’t care much about, but it’s fun to see him again. He was going fishing again at 11pm, which in the end turned out to be 9.30, so he invited me to have (more) food with him and his friend. The evening was fun, they even brought me to the local karaoke. There was no one there, but 4 or 5 drunk locals, so we headed back, sat by the river for a bit – the sound of the river flowing down pretty fast and the sight of the start glowing in the sky, was just perfect!
17/08: Day 200 – Muang Ngoi
So… for my 200th day! 200 days of the road… 6 months and a half that I left Boston… I feel like a lifetime has gone by since then… I’ve done so many things, met so many people, I’ve laughed and cried, been so amazed and so board, actually, no, never been so board, but asking myself if life can ever go as it was before…? Anyway, I don’t want to think too much about tomorrow or the part when I actually go back home or even decide on plane tickets, so in the meantime, I had an easy, lazy morning, enjoying, I won’t repeat it again, but I actually will, this exquisite place (This is definitely the kind of place, out of the touristy circuit that I would recommend 1000 times)!
Met up with Kiew again late morning and he took me for a new walk around Muang Ngoi. Precious! Came back and met up with his friend at his place, listen to music, boys were drinking, we ate, we watched a bit of TV… it doesn’t matter that I don’t understand anything, it’s just so amazing to see them live their day to day. On top of that, Asian series are just hilarious, no need to understand the language!
Hanged out for the rest of the day, had dinner all 3 of us at Kiew’s place – nice Laotian dinner again! 🙂 So cool.
18/08: Day 201 – Last destination. Muang Ngoi > Bangkok
Said a last goodbye to my friend Kiew and left Mong Ngoi with the early boat to get to Nong Khiaw, then crossed my fingers I could get on the first but for Luang Prabang, so I wouldn’t miss my flight. Got on the first bus alright, but it was one of these open uncomfortable vans for like 5 hours, but the most important is that I got to the airport on time!!
Arrived back hooooome, in Bangkok. As usual, felt in my comfort zone again. Arrived at the hostel in the evening, so chilled there, probably walk up and down Khao San Road a couple times and went to bed.
Warm White Hostel: if there is something I remember it not being, is warm… the staff was very nice, the rooms where fine, but can’t say there was much spirit in that place.