Never lonely in Luang Prabang

Dinner with our fellow sailors
Dinner with our fellow sailors

People arriving in Luang Prabang via the two-day slow boat journey arrive with something unique, something that changes the way they perceive the town. For me it was a wicked case of the runs; the result of dodgy buffalo curry eaten at Pak Beng the night before. It meant my first impressions of Luang Prabang were a little skewed by having to spend a day and a half huddled in the corner of our hotel room rocking back and forth.

Once the fury had run its course I was able to get out and about and quickly realised that the place is a cool little town. It has a different look and feel to other Lao towns. The French colonial architecture infused with that relaxed Laos appeal. The old town clusters around the junction of the Mekong and Nam Song rivers. Its streets are clean, quaint and quiet. It also has UNESCO World Heritage status due to its numerous Buddhist Wats; there are dozens of them around the town, both infant and ancient.

Luang Prabang caters to all levels of tourist. Although a fraction more pricey than in other parts of Laos, there are plenty of backpacker hovels (where we stayed). Then there are dozens of luxury hotels, guesthouses and restaurants catering to your higher end tourist. This makes for an interesting mix of people on the streets: starched collared polos and boat shoes can sip single malt at US$25 a pop while dirty zip-offs and thongs can grab a Beerlao tall boy at the night market for less than a buck.

There is also is a heap to do in and around Luang Prabang but one of the great things about the slow boat is that you meet a lot of people on the journey. If you are lucky you might also make some friends. We did; two English rockers from Manchester, Terry and Michelle, so we caught up with them for a couple of dinners and beers.

The fact that Luang Prabang is such a small town meant we were continually bumping into other acquaintances that we met on the boat. We shared a romantic view of the town from the hilltop Wat, alongside Tim Rogers and his Arse Kickin’ Lady From The Northwest (or at least their look-a-likes). At the Tat Kuang Si waterfall we ran into another couple who spent their summers managing a camping ground in northern England.

We paid 120,000 kip (down from 200,000) to rent a shared taxi to take us to the waterfalls and back. I thought we had been ripped off until I realised it was 37km out off town and I did the math on the drivers margin. It would have been worth going even if we had been rolled as it was absolutely amazing. The terraced falls over a white clay bottom give the water a tinge of turquoise making it look like a series of paddies overflowing with green. The rope swing and the Asian Bear rehabilitation centre also provides interesting viewing.

The pools near Luang Prabang
The pools near Luang Prabang

We also joined dozens of fellow slow boat punters in the tourist paparazzi who stalk the  monks  at dawn. With all its temples Luang Prabang is one of Laos’ main religious centres and each morning a procession of the resident monks take to the streets. Lines of young and old monks, clad in orange, make their way through the streets offering spiritual sustenance in return for physical subsistence: a blessing in exchange for rice.

Then it was time to leave. We arrived at Luang Prabang Airport to a rooster pecking the dirt completely oblivious to the hallmarks of modernity that had consumed his surrounds. The four-hour delay on the departure of our plane provided plenty of amusement for the check-in staff but was a fitting end to our time in laid back Laos.

A meander down the Mekong

There are two ways to get from to Huay Xai to Luang Prabang, the road or the river.

Having traveled the route in the reverse direction on the overnight bus – fourteen hours of bone-rattling sleep deprived discomfort – we weren’t exactly overcome by a burning desire to repeat the experience. This left the river to provide our means of travel.

There are a couple of different choices for those opting for the water. You can go for white-knuckle pandemonium on a speedboat. Eight punters don helmet and life jacket, wedge themselves into the cramped wooden benches of a tiny fishing skiff with a Ferrari engine on the back. They spend the next six hours enjoying the piercing scream of engine and the smell of two-stroke while they dodge rocks, submerged logs and whirlpools. Having both traveled at full throttle from one fish-free fishing hole to another in dodgy tinnies we decided the speedboat wasn’t for us. This left us the slow boats option: two days onboard with an overnight stay at Pak Beng.

There is the deluxe package. By day you travel on a well fitted, sparsely occupied barge with reclining lodge chairs, open bar and a pleasant smelling bathroom. By night you sit on the riverside balcony of your luxury lodge, drink cognac, smoke cigars and play backgammon while sharing polo and falconry anecdotes and lamenting the erosion of the empire and patriarchy. At US$600 a head (and the fact that both Amy and my polo and falconry anecdotes have been done to death) meant that we had to look for a more economical alternative.

US$30 each got us on barge with a similar build but lacking in comfort in the fit out. The trip itself had both bad and good points.

There are the narrow wooden benches that leave your arse numb in a heartbeat, the dark, dingy stinkroom, and the fact that Huay Xai is boring as bat shit while Pak Beng is an ugly single street shit hole, a frontier town full of hustlers, charlatans and dodgy buffalo stir-fries (which made the second day of the boat journey very uncomfortable for this little black duck).

But if you can get past all of that, the travel experience itself is quite stunning and thoroughly enjoyable. The barge winds its way slowly through the rocky outcrops, whirlpools and rapids. White sandy beaches, villages, farms and green peaks wrap their way along both banks. The hours drift by reading or you can simply enjoy sitting with the sun on your back and the breeze in your ears. You also have time for a good old chat, so convinced was I that we were sitting next to Tim Rogers I had to ask his girlfriend if she was the arse-kicking lady from the northwest (she wasn’t nor was he our Tim, just a dead ringer). All in all, I thought the slow boat to be a capital way to travel.

Skip the paths, swing through the trees.

There is something to be said for eco-tourism. I am all for any scheme that allows you to trek into the jungle, sleep in tree houses, travel by zip wire while looking for monkeys.

It is an amazing scheme, massively painful to get to (probably a good thing) but amazing all the same. Seven tree houses built in the middle of the northwestern Laos jungle joined together by a network of zip-wire cables, some up to a kilometre long.

At 160 Euros a head for the three-day waterfall tour it is uber expensive when compared to day-to-day travel in Laos but it was definitely worth every cent. The jungle is beautiful and the zip wires are mind-blowing fun. It also ticks a lot of boxes for the contentious traveler.  Established by a foreigner, the management of the project has since been handed back to the locals who are also employed as guides, cooks, drivers, builders and for maintenance. The scheme is located in an area nominally designated as a National park but as the government does not provide protectionist resources illegal logging and poaching are rife. The Gibbon Experience now funds the employment of local rangers to patrol 25% of the park.

I would love to meet the dude who had the imagination to visualize such a scheme let alone the ability to bring it to fruition.

Unfortunately no Gibbons for us. Apparently you have to be quite lucky to see them at this time of year. We heard them, saw where they slept and where they ate. It was just like going to an open for inspection of a rental property that still has tenants living in it. Nonetheless, the trekking and zipping was more than enough to entertain us. Flying across a gorge suspended hundreds of metres in the air on a kilometer long cable is an amazing experience.  Zip wire is well and truly the highest form of travel.

Confessions of a serial urinator

I have the bladder of an eighty-five year old incontinent invalid coupled with the bathroom awareness of a cantankerous toddler traveling under duress. It is an unfortunate trait that proves to be quite an impediment to travel, especially cheap long distance third world bus travel.

I try to remember to take precautions to limit the agony; well it’s more that Amy reminds me before every departure, but most of the time I just don’t need to go. Sometimes I am lucky and I try to purge every possible drop of urine to the point of straining a phoffa valve prior to departure.

Despite these preparations without fail five minutes into the journey with the gentle bounce of the road my bladder is as full as an un-milked heifer with calf.

There have been some very uncomfortable trips recently. The final stages of bus ride from Cambodia to Laos were by far the worst. Admittedly, it was made much worse by my vague ineptitude. It was about the seven-hour mark of the thirteen-hour journey and I had relieved myself only half an hour earlier at the bus stop. Despite this the first signs of impending bladder movement began to rear its ugly head. I did a reasonable job sucking up the pain for the next hour or so. But it wasn’t long after we had past Stung Treng when the cascading yellow waters of Urine Falls were consuming my every thought. By the nine-hour mark my eyes were desperately scanning for any kind of vessel capable of holding the torrent of piss barely contained within my straining bladder. It was about then that the strange box in the back corner of the bus caught my eye and I identified the onboard toilet. Needless to say, it was a discovery that provided much joy.

Our recent overnight bus from Luang Prabang to Hauy Xai would have been a terrible trip anyway: fourteen hours, overnight, the worst seats on the bus and three hundred and fifty kilometres of windy, pot-hole ridden semi-paved ‘highway’ but it was made much, much worst by the fact that there was no toilet onboard. We had been assured there would be by the smooth talking ticket agent but I guess that is the way of the world. The bus stopped every three hours to allow passengers to relieve themselves in the bushes or on the side of a building. Most would say this a very reasonable schedule for breaks, but my incontinence is far from reasonable.

I have taken to drinking as little as possible while I travel. I probably shouldn’t drink coffee prior to travel but in reality my bladder is so infinitely minute that it wouldn’t make any difference. Still, I spend two hours out every three dreaming of yellow falls. The only consolations I receive from this unfortunate situation are the moments of great relief when a piss held too long is finally released. That moment is one of life’s simply joys.

Vang Vieng and visions of the apocalypse

The start of the tubing run at Van Vieng
The start of the tubing run at Vang Vieng

The misty jungle clad valley is home a stunningly beautiful compilation of jagged limestone peaks, amazing caves, traditional villages and a crystal clear mountain waterway. Right in its heart sits Vang Vieng, a hive of utter shit full of bars, western food, drink specials, internet cafes, travel agents and a pan-global array of fuckwit hippy wannabes. There are bars that serve ‘happy’ food and play constant reruns of shitty American sitcoms. I can’t speak for anybody else but it is going to take a lot more than a mushroom shake to make watching Friends tolerable, let alone funny.

The crowds have come for the tubing. You hire a tractor tyre tube in town, jump a Tuk Tuk four kilometres upstream then float back down the river. The start of the tube run is like stepping into a waterworld apocalypse. The floating bamboo bars, with zip wires and rope swings, lining the riverbank are filled with a mass of people getting loose like it is the end of days. If conscious-free fun is what you are after then you can have a pants pissingly good time with the booze, buckets, drugs and rope swings.

As a destination it has heaps of cool stuff on offer: stunning landscapes, kayaking, caving, climbing and trekking. The problem is you need to be able to see past the rathole of a town and the massively disproportionate number of fuckwits the place attracts. We had a good time there but it was hard work at times.

Monks on the foot bridge
Monks on the foot bridge
Heading into the water cave
Heading into the water cave
The way out of the water cave
The way out of the water cave

Tadlo on the Plateau

The Tad Lo waterfall
The Tad Lo waterfall

Rising out of the Mekong valley the Bolivian Plateau is a highland plain of fertile fields, majestic peaks, pretty waterfalls and home to a number of ethnic tribal minorities. Planted by the French with banana, coffee and rubber the regions’ plantations have become the food pantry of southern Laos.

In the heart of the Plateau, little villages cluster around a series of waterfalls; Tad Suong, Tad Hang and Tad Lo. Getting to this upland wonderworld wasn’t difficult, just painfully slow as we hopped a local shared taxi from Champasak to Paske then a local bus up to the Tadlo turnoff before thumbing a ride on the back of a tractor to the village itself.

It is a place that retains the feel of a laid back small town despite the dozens of guesthouses that crowd its beautiful waterfall. Some of the more upmarket bungalows are no more than a couple of metres from the Tad Hang falls. It didn’t matter that these were beyond our means as the roar of the falls can be heard from anywhere in the village.

We took a half-day guided trek where we walked a large loop between three waterfalls and three traditional villages. We walked through paddies and fields: rice, bananas, palm sugar, chili, tobacco, coffee and a range of different vegetables. Our first destination was the Tad Suong waterfall, a relatively small stream tumbles off an enormous rock face. I imagine it would have been super impressive before the hydroelectric dam came online. From there we made our way to the Tad Lo falls before finishing back at Tad Hang. Along the way we stomped our western way through three traditional villages, home to different ethic minority tribes who retain their traditional dialect and lifestyle.

We watched the villagers, young and old, going about their daily routines: recently harvested produce was laid out to dry in the sun, children played in the dirt, women pounded rice in large mortar and pestles, livestock free ranged under foot and farmers tilled the fields. True to the Asian norm, tobacco is king but in the villages unprocessed leaf is the smoke of choice; a bunch of five-year olds smoked it in a bamboo bong while a group of eighty-year olds women looked on while chewing it.

While it was fascinating, our time in the villages brought about an underlying feeling of discomfort that we couldn’t quite shake. Being there felt like trespass. Like we were intruding uninvited. The feeling was more acute at certain moments like when our guide interrupted a school class mid lesson so that we could take a photo (we declined). Or stopped a lady pounding rice with a giant mortar and pestle to show us exactly what she was doing.

I definitely picked up hints of animosity from some of the locals. I guess it is the same with all small towns that attract lots of visitors (like The Island or Inverloch in summer). Tadlo was a beautiful, quiet little place where we wiled away our time walking, swimming and reading. The trek was stunning and incredibly interesting but it also made me ponder the impact of the footprints I left behind.

A boy paddling the moutain stream
A boy paddling the moutain stream
The river at Tad Lo
The river at Tad Lo
Terraced gardens in the mountains
Terraced gardens in the mountains

Wat Phu Champasak

Two trees shade the ancient path to Wat Phu
Two trees shade the ancient path to Wat Phu

The Dokchampa guesthouse deck overlooks a lazy stretch of Mekong. A wide girth of water separates us from the green shores of the fishing island of Don Daeng on the opposite bank. The gentle amble of the water in your ears gets you thinking, helps you to tackle the big questions. If a double room is the same price as a plate of fried spring rolls, which is better value for money?

It is hot here and we have had a big day. For the most part we are the only two guests, so the relaxed rhythm of Lao life continues around us. The owner’s extended family shares lunch at the next table. A rooster picks his way through the ground beneath the house. Women take turns checking each others scalp for nits. Barefoot children sit on the floor sorting through plates of dried chilli while they watch rubbish soaps on television. The landlady uses a stick to evict a flock of geese from the courtyard. Lao pop music plays on the sound system. Occasionally, we are joined by groups of the tourist staple of these parts, recent retired French couples. They wander in, eat, drink, laugh then wander out.

Sipping BeerLao in the afternoon shade I take a moment to appreciate it for what it is: a tribute to Communism. How else can you describe an abundance of excellent beer without the complication of price fluctuation? A BeerLao longneck can be purchased anywhere, any time for about a dollar.

The modern day Champasak is a one-horse town, expectantly waiting for three horses to wander through. It is a laid back riverside town, one street, plenty of guesthouses but not many guests. It wasn’t always like this, it was once the capital of the Laos kingdom.

It is the UNESO world heritage listed ruins of Wat Phu Champasak that day-trippers come to see. We took a tuk tuk out there and spent the morning exploring the jumble of stone causeways, stepped trails cut into the mountain side and at the top, majestic temple ruins with spectacular views of the Mekong valley.

I order another Beerlao, day’s end approaches, soon the fishermen will pull their drift lines and a thousand dragonflies will dance to the setting sun.

The view from Wat Phu
The view from Wat Phu
The temple spire at the foot of Wat Phu
The temple spire at the foot of Wat Phu

Starting the walk to Wat Phu
Starting the walk to Wat Phu

Si Phan Don (Four Thousand Islands)

Sunset from Don Khong
Sunset from Don Khon

We were both still feeling pretty dusty from the night before when boarded the bus at 6:45am. As we drove away we said a sleep deprived goodbye to Phnom Penh. Having heard a couple of horror stories about the Cambodian/Laos border crossing we had plumped for an international bus that would take us to southern Laos in one hit.

The border crossing ten hours later provided a fitting farewell to Cambodia. The border officials promptly lost my passport. Unperturbed, they continued extorting bribes from other travelers in earnest. My passport and I were reunited about an hour later after it was delivered via moto courier, apparently it had gone on a little adventure five hundred metres up the road to the Laos border crossing. With the formalities out of the way we boarded the bus again. At Ban Thakho we changed buses and headed for the river. Three metres off the highway we hit our first pothole and broke the rear left shock spring. An hour and three bone-rattling kilometres of track later and we knew we were in Laos.

The trip was well worth it. Across the river the sun was setting over the many shores of Si Phan Don (Four Thousand Islands). By the time we had boarded the longboat and began navigating the canals the air was alive with sounds of the early evening dark.

An archipelago of constantly shifting sandbars and rocky islands, Si Phan Don moves with the Mekong flows. But there are a number of permanent settlements, the largest is to the north on Don Khong but we were headed for the less developed southern islands of Don Det and Don Khon.

After we were all ushered off the boat and stood on the riverbank in collective confusion brought about by the language barrier and darkness. We quickly deduced that we were on Don Khon much to the horror of a number of our fellow travelers. While the two islands are joined by an old French railway bridge Don Det has the more lively backpacker scene of the two. By night Don Khon is relaxed and quiet. That was exactly what Amy and I were looking for so we wandered off into the dark and soon settled on a guesthouse.

The following morning we set about exploring the charming little island with bikes. First stop was the impressive cascading falls of Tat Somphamit. We then rode down to the southern most tip of the island, where at the bottom of a rocky trail sit a couple of shack restaurants and a long sandy beach with a distinctly misplaced feel to it. We found a secluded place on the riverbank and set up for a spot at dolphin watching. A rare species of fresh water dolphin, the Irrawaddy, thrall the waters there. While we both proved to be abject failures as dolphin spotters, we swam, sunned ourselves and enjoyed the reserved beauty.

Don Det and Don Khon is the type of place that attracts a diverse mix of traveler types. Riding around we certainly saw an interesting cross section of the world. One minute a recently retired French couple walk hand in hand then a group of stoned wannabe hippies stagger along with a half finished bottle of rice whiskey and their fire sticks.

The quiet trails through the small farm plots reminded me a little of home. As soon as you leave the shores of the river the landscape gets much drier and some of the plants are much like Southern Australia. While there were many obvious differences I couldn’t help but think of the trip out to Harmers Haven.

True to form, at the furthermost point of the trip a rock punctured the front tyre of my rig so we had to do the return journey on foot. It didn’t prove too great an inconvenience as the slower pace meant we saw more.

Happily, the bulk of inhabitants of the island seem largely unaffected by the tourist trail barging through their backyard so you get a real snapshot of rural life of southern Laos. Fishermen check their drift lines on the river. Farmers till the fallow of cultivated rice paddies. Water buffalo, pigs and cows graze the fields. Children play marbles and climb trees. Ducks, chooks and geese scratch the ground.

The kids of Don Khong
The kids of Don Khon
Farmers tending the fields of Don Khong
Farmers tending the fields of Don Khon

A boy pulling a cart down the main street of Don Khong
A boy pulling a cart down the main street of Don Khon