Saturday, 28 February 2004

Travel Report Laos 2004

Brussels > Amsterdam > Bangkok > Laos (Luang Prabang)
January 28th I took the plane from Schiphol/Amsterdam to Bangkok… Just me and my backpack were ready to spend 3 weeks in Southeast Asia. After a flight of about 11 hours with EVA Airways (cheapest ticket at that time) I arrived at Bangkok airport around 6AM. I needed to board another plane at 10:50AM towards Luang Prabang in Laos, but I had forgotten to mention this transfer while checking in at Schiphol. So, my backpack was going to find itself on the baggage belt at the Arrivals and I had two options: or I went through customs in order to get my bag but this meant I needed to check in again and pay a Passenger Service Charge of 500 Baht or I went to the Transfer desk and hoped for the best. I decided to go for the latter and went to Bangkok Airways’ transfer desk. After explaining to the girl at the desk that I was worried about my bag not being checked in for transfer, she was very helpful and 15 minutes later I got confirmation that Bangkok Airways’ staff had found my bag and was putting it on the plane to Luang Prabang (I gave them a description just to make sure). Not only did they reassure me I was going to get to Laos with my backpack but I also received a voucher for their lounge, where they were serving free drinks, snacks and I could even have free access to the Internet. Bangkok Airways made an excellent first impression …

Luang Prabang … finally
A couple of coffees later it was time to board the plane to Luang Prabang. A smooth flight and I got to Luang Prabang early afternoon. I shared a sangthaew (a pickup truck reconverted to a mini bus) with and older backpacker who was chanting the merits of the local ganja there. So, here I was starting my quest for a nice guesthouse together with an old hippie on weet. I tried a couple of guesthouses from the Lonely Planet, such as Heritage House ($8 rooms, a bit worn down and not very nice), Senesouk ($20, nice place but full) but I couldn’t find a room … being very tired and not wanting to continue my search indefinitely I remembered a folder they had at the Laos Consulate in Brussels. So, I went to Lane Xang guesthouse and finally, I found a decent room with glass windows for $15 (believe me, if you want to sleep having glass windows is a good investment). This place was a bit further from the centre but I was so tired it didn’t really matter at that time. I dropped my stuff, took a shower and went to sleep for a couple of hours.

I got up around 6PM and decided to go out and find me a nice place to have some food. With my Lonely Planet guide I started my search for Soukanna restaurant only to discover it didn’t exist anymore and was replaced by Joma, a very nice trendy but pricey bakery. So, I went to look for Lao Food Vegetarian I read about in Lonely Planet … again I had to give up because it didn’t exist anymore. At that time I started to get really hungry and I decided to take a sangthaew and go for a more ‘local’ place called Maylee Lao Food. Well that place did still exist and was packed with locals and tourists … I tried some local food and a guy who looked Lao but spoke American started talking to me. Jumbo (his nickname) was from California and was visiting his relatives in Luang Prabang. So I ended up sitting at his table together with his nieces and nephews, drinking Lao Lao (local rice wine) and BeerLao.

After a while they decided to go to the local disco Duang Champa … on the back of a scooter off we went, and I was going to discover Lao nightlife, “woohoo!” Duang Champa was definitely an experience. Imagine a club where you have a band playing and people just go to sing along with the band, a bit like karaoke but without the scrolling lyrics on a television screen. Then suddenly the band takes a break and a DJ starts doing his thing … that’s when I realised the dance floor actually made sense. While nobody was dancing during the time the band was playing, the dance floor got packed in no time once the DJ was at work. We stayed there until the place closed down around 11:30PM. After midnight it seems very difficult to find nightlife in Luang Prabang, but Jumbo knew the drill and so we ended up in a karaoke bar that mostly catered for tourists. By 01:30AM we all went back home and they drove me back to my guest house on the back of their scooters. One day prior I was still stressing in Belgium and here I was having a night out with the locals in Luang Prabang … amazing!

Next day I woke up around 9AM in order to have breakfast and I discovered there was nobody else having breakfast at Lane Xang. It felt like I was the only one staying there … I probably missed the busy time for breakfast, but travelling by myself and having no other travellers around didn’t sound like a good plan. I started walking around and got to a place called Rattana Guest House which offered nice rooms with a nice sitting area on the first floor for $8. Deal! I found my spot for the next couple of days. This place was located in an area with more travellers and that was my aim.

That day I went around town and discovered how pretty it actually looked. The streets show old colonial buildings and temples everywhere. Add the Buddhist monks with their bright orange clothing and dark umbrellas, the hill tribe ladies coming to the market to sell some stuff to the tourists and a crowd of relaxed travellers and you have yourself an astonishing place with a fantastic atmosphere.

I also went to look for a spot near the Mekong that day, in order to lay down in the sun a little, being still jetlagged. It was a lovely walk around town and towards the river.

In the evening I went to the night market where I had some grilled fish and another local dish at the food stalls. Afterwards for drinks, Hive Bar seemed to be the best option. Even while being a tourist-spot it did have a very good atmosphere.

Next day I woke up way too early … you remember I mentioned that glass windows are a good investment when you want to sleep; well this is where I discovered their benefits. From 5:30AM I was woken up by noise and even wearing earplugs I still had trouble sleeping. Rattana was a very nice place but in the morning it got noisy around this guesthouse quite early.
Having breakfast a Joma, I met a Canadian guy called Peter who had just starting talking to a Canadian girl called Mylène who was travelling with her French friend Sandra. Peter was an interesting 40-year old retired guy who owns a sailing boat in Phuket … “some guys do have all the luck.” Since his boat needed to get spray-painted he couldn’t stay on it and so he needed to “take a break from his break”. Peter used to own an Internet Marketing Company back in Canada which he kind of sold to his staff a few years ago. He had been living in Asia for a while and you felt he was enjoying the Asian go-with-flow and enjoy-the-moment way of life. The four of us ended up going to the waterfalls …
On our way to the waterfalls the driver suddenly hit his brakes. He had noticed a snake crossing the road and he had decided to make it his dinner. He tried driving over it, which succeeded but didn’t stop the snake. So, he went after it with a rock and after a couple of throws he smashed the snake’s head. That’s how I learned they do eat snake in Laos! Our driver was considered the hero of the day for having killed a snake and bringing it back to his family … presumably for dinner that evening.

The waterfalls were splendid and you could head for the higher falls and have a plunge in the water overseeing the lower falls … spectacular! If you would ever go to the falls, remember that when you are going up the wooden stairs you should find a little path to your right that takes you up the mountain to the higher falls. Don’t just follow the stairs all the way, because it actually gets you nowhere.
We also got to see a beautiful tiger that was living on the grounds of the waterfall park.

Remark … I noticed I didn’t have the typical drive towards visiting temples and similar things in Laos. While in other places you have to go visit the Royal Palace (Bangkok) or Angkor Wat (Siem Reap/Cambodia), in Laos you can just enjoy life and the Lao atmosphere. Anyway they don’t have big major attractions like you would find in Thailand or Cambodia, but it’s the overall atmosphere that makes Laos a place to remember.
I did however visit the Royal Museum because 30 years ago the king and his family actually still lived there before they were deposed, imprisoned in a Lao cave and died a few years later. I do however must admit the Royal Family had an excellent taste for interior decoration.

In the evening we all got back together to have some food and since we didn’t really know where to go to I proposed we’d all go to Maylee Lao Food and try the local BBQ. I saw all the locals were having this particular BBQ but I didn’t try it the first evening. Peter who was always up for something new, said “ok, let’s go” … so we went to have a BBQ in Lao which is a totally different experience than in the West. My advice, give it a try!
After we had enjoyed our meals, I suggested we’d go to the local disco and there we went, back to Duang Champa together with some Aussies we met during the evening, afterwards to Hive Bar and at closing time Peter asked a sangthaew driver if there was still a place to go.
We already overheard something about a Rice Field party, a yearly festival that was taking place that night. The night was still young, especially on a 6-hour jetlag. That’s how on the 31st January Peter and I ended up being the only Farang having a party at a once-a-year open air festival next to a magnificent temple. We were constantly invited by the locals to join them for a few drinks at their table, and on the dance floor we were always surrounded by a crowd who found it amusing to have these two foreigners enjoying their big festival.
Finally we went back to our guesthouses around 4AM, while the locals continued till sunrise.

I intended to go for a hike the next morning, so I was supposed to get up quite early. I woke up around 11:30AM even having set my alarm clock at 7AM. No more hike for me… blame it on the jetlag, and the Beerlao ;-)
That day I had a particularly slow day just enjoying the town. I did realise that I just had spent the most brilliant night in Luang Prabang and that it could not get any better anymore. It was time to leave. I booked a bus ticket towards Vang Vieng for the next day.

That evening I went back to Hive Bar and started talking to John and Claire, a nice couple from San Francisco, who were at Hive Bar with a Canadian girl Caroline. Since Peter and I had spent some time with the guy behind the bar the night before at the yearly festival, he poured me a free shot on the house (Lao Lao with scorpions and millipedes in the bottle …glups) and we started talking about the party the night before. People thought we actually lived in Luang Prabang … I integrated quite well in just three days ;-)

Vang Vieng
Funny coincidence, John and Claire were also going to Vang Vieng. We drove in different mini busses, but once in Vang Vieng – a small sleepy dusty village – we shared a sangthaew in our search for a guesthouse. We finally decided to pay a little more and go for rooms at Thavonsouk Bungalows. The restaurant has a superb view of the sunset on the Mekong and the bungalows are located in a nice garden. Bungalows could however have been cleaner.

In the evening we went to a restaurant Give Pizza a Chance and we drank some of the local “buckets” (take a small bucket, pour in an small 37.5cl bottle of Sang Som the local whiskey that tastes like rhum, add a small bottle of the Asian concentrated RedBull, some Coca Cola and ice, a couple of straws and you have a “bucket”).

And what else can you eat when you are at Give Pizza a Chance? A pizza makes sense! However, be careful with the happy pizza … (and this is what you get to see when going to the toilets at Give Pizza a Chance ... huh?!)

The next day we all went for the tube ride on the Mekong, which is the main attraction when staying at Vang Vieng. Some advice, don’t do like we did and only start at 1PM because the water was so slow, there were so many Beerlao stop-over places on the river and the sun already sets behind the mountains at 4PM. So from 4PM you start freezing your butt off (literally, because that’s the part in the water ;-) and you just want to get back. Local sangthaew drivers seem very aware of this situation because you can stop before arriving at the finish and take the sangthaew back to town.
During our tube ride we met some people from the UK and that’s how we ended up at Give Pizza a Chance again but this time with an entire group. On the first floor they have a nice open-air terrace which makes it a nice place to have dinner even with a group.

Vang Vieng in itself not having made a major impression I decided to continue heading south towards Vientiane. John and Claire felt the same way and we ended up together on a bus towards the capital of Laos.

Once in Vientiane it seemed there was an annual tourist industry convention, making it really hard to find a room. We went towards Phonepaseuth guesthouse and we discovered there was a brand new guesthouse just next to it. No luck, there were no rooms left in this new place but Claire sees John’s best friend from San Francisco who just booked a room here … what are the odds? So, Claire and I went to look for rooms in Vientiane while John stayed with all the bags … it took us more than an hour and even then I was not convinced. John and Claire were staying in Lao Paris Guesthouse, but I wanted to search for something else. The room I could have at Lao Paris Guesthouse was very big but not very nice and since I didn’t need a big room I thought I’d continue searching. I took a tuk-tuk but 30 minutes later I was back at Lao Paris Guesthouse … the only rooms left were so far from the centre it didn’t make much sense.
In the evening I thus ended up have dinner with a San Francisco crowd at the local trendy restaurant/bar I don’t remember the name of anymore. John and Claire convinced me that if I’d ever go to the States, San Francisco and New York where the ultimate places to go to …

The next day I woke up and it was raining. I went to have breakfast at Joma (the same franchise as in Luang Prabang). The weather and the capital felt so depressing I went to book a plane ticket at a nearby travel agency. A couple of hours later I was heading back to Bangkok … ready for the smog, the noise and the hectic way of life.

Laos and especially Luang Prabang turned out to be an excellent experience … I’d go back anytime, just to enjoy the relaxed atmosphere and the friendly people.

More pics van be viewed on my Picasa Web Album:

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