First Views of Laos
From Thailand I crossed the border to Laos, paid for my 15 day visa and then was set loose to find the slow boat to Luang Prabang down the Mekong River. Here is my first view of the Mekong from the Thai side.
I signed up to take what is known around these parts as the "slow boat". This is a two day trek down the Mekong River on a very slow boat. The options for the trip from Thailand are to fly, to take a speed boat which is very dangerous and loud and uncomfortably cramped or take a relaxing slow boat down the river. I opted for the slow boat, not really sure what I was getting myself into. I arrived at the ferry dock expecting between 35 and 40 people on the boat as I was told there would be when I booked the trip. I arrived with a group of 20 or so others and were shuttled onto the boat with another 20 or so that were on already. Next we waited for more to show up. In the end there were about 125 people on the boat. I am really glad I can swim because I am pretty sure there were not that many life jackets on board!
The boat took 2 full days to arrive in Luang Prabang. The boat was full with very hard seats. The first day we stopped once for a pit stop to fill up on chips and sodas then when went the rest of the day with no stops. I was prepared though and had brought a sandwich from the guest house before I left. They did sell soda and beer on the boat but I stayed away from the beer for fear of having to run to the toilet too often. I met some really nice people and was still traveling with a couple I met from Canada (Correne and Paul) and one from Belgium (Ann).
After a full day of traveling on the river the boat docks at a small village called Pakbang. This village relies completely on tourism as all the slow boats stop here for the night. Everyone gets off the boat in the evening before sunset and then gets back on about 8:30 the next meal. I can compare it to Disney in that it is a captured audience and they can charge whatever they want for the rooms and the food because they know you are leaving in the morning. The only electricity in the village comes from generators and they promptly turn off at about 11pm which meant the fans went off and it made it difficult to find the toilet in the middle of the night! There were also stories of rats and mice scurrying around rooms. All this did not make for a good night's sleep.
The trip, despite the uncomfortable boat and the horrible rooms the first night, had some spectacular views and scenery. As we meandered down the river at a slow pace we passed by many villages and farming areas.
The views were great. I had to continually stop reading to look out and see the river. I just couldn't get over that I was in Laos slowly going down the Mekong River and thinking how few people in the world get the opportunity to do this. Absolutely amazing.
Luang Prabang--December 6-10, 2005
My next stop was the city of Luang Prabang. This has become a backpackers mecca with everything western you would ever need (well almost). There are all sorts of restaurants, both Laos and European and it was as easy to find a chocolate croissant as a Beer Lao (okay, maybe I am exaggerating a little). This is a nice town and it was good to put down some roots here for a few days. The area is very similar to Thailand, but a bit poorer. The people are all very friendly and the food here is also delicious.
My first day walking I saw the rice cakes drying along the streets. As in Thailand, rice is a staple and along with rice noodles, that is about all they eat. One big difference here is the French influence and most vendors sell both noodle soup and french baguettes.
Also had a chance when I was here to visit one of the local waterfalls. This one is called Kouangsi Waterfall. Unfortunately it was a cloudy cold day. This is a great place to swim when the sun is shining.
I also sampled for the first time a fresh coconut. They cut it open and give you a straw to drink the coconut milk. The fruit here is amazing. I have never had such sweet pineapple before. There are also plenty of papayas, watermelons, apples, palmelos, etc that are all grown in the area.
I decided to sign up for another trek. This time it was a two day trip where we mountain biked through villages for a day and then kayak or rafted the second day. The night was spent in the village.
Sabaidee (hello in Lao)
This trip was much better than the one I did in Chiang Mai. There were no other tours around us and we went to villages that normally do not seem many westerners. I have never said "hello" so many times in one day as I did on the trek. Everyone in the villages came out to say hello and to see who was visiting.
The kids loved getting their picture taken but even more they were so excited to see their pictures on the screen. Digital Cameras are wonderful.
The children were genuinely happy to see us and that made it a great trip for us.
The evening was spent in a large Lao Village. There are 450 people that live in this village and they have an elementary school, secondary school and high school all in the village. We were fed some great food by the owner of the house we stayed in. As you can see rice is a staple food. Here they are drying it out before they take the husk off the rice.
Going for a swim
We did as the locals do. Since there were no showers where we stayed, we went and cleaned ourselves up in the River. Too bad the air temp was pretty chilly. The river would have felt much better to this Floridian if it had been warm outside!
Another form of transportation..kayaking
I am trying to set a record on this trip of how many different forms of transportation I can take. My newest is the Kayak. It was a slow wander down the river, with not much paddling and much relaxation. A couple of class 1 and 2 rapids but nothing like rafting on the Zambezi.
Kids out enjoying the day
We saw many villagers on our trip down the river. The kids were all busy swimming or playing on the river banks.
Here is a picture of the whole group that went on the tour. It was a nice 2 days. The guides were great and the trip was well worth doing.
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