After two fun-filled days in Luang Prabang, it was time to board the barge for our trip upstream. The boats are owned by local families, who have an agreement with the tour company to transport passengers up and down the river for a fee. That way, the costs are lower for both family and travellers. We boarded at 7:30am and made ourselves as comfortable as possible. The boat was very narrow and incredibly long, with train-style seats occupying about half the space. There was an area at the front for the driver and a retractable canopy (should the sun come out), plus a kitchen, bathroom and engine room at the back.
Physics shouldn’t have allowed the thing to turn a corner without capsizing, and I laughed inwardly when the owner split us evenly into two groups, asking one half to sit on the left and the other on the right for balance. We set off from port, all of us wrapped up warm in the cold morning air.
For the next eight hours, we were left to our own devices. Some slept, some played board games or card games (Skip-Bo made another appearance) and some read. I had ordered a Kindle before going travelling and was a little annoyed it hadn’t arrived before I’d left, so I made do with my iPod and its vast library of classical music. For that reason, the Mekong will forever more have a Maurice Ravel/Constant Lambert soundtrack in my mind.
We had made good progress, so at 3pm, the barge was moored and we climbed onto land. We had stopped at a small village on the banks of The Mekong, and we walked up the steep sand dune to be greeted by approximately 30 people; men, women and children of all ages. As our guide explained a little about the village, we walked around the site, taking in the houses on stilts, the dogs and chickens roaming free and the equipment used to de-husk rice and catch fish.
Our guide explained to us that everything there was home-made or had been charitably donated. They do not utilise money; items are traded for other goods. He also told us that the ceramic Eastern-style toilet that stood on one side of the village is the most expensive object they own. We messed about on the sand dune for a little while, then, as the children waved goodbye, we set off once more for our overnight destination.
The Mekong is over 2,700 miles long, the 12th largest river in the world, and is used as a major trading route throughout Southeast Asia. When we pulled into Pak Beng, night had already fallen, and the driver looked a little relieved that we had made it before encountering any of the larger vessels that travel by darkness.
We trudged up the hill to our lodge, tired and hungry, and dropped our bags off in our quaint little rooms, each with two single beds draped with mosquito nets and a balcony overlooking the river. Pak Beng is based exactly halfway between Luang Prabang and the Thai-Laos border and is minute, inhabited solely by people who have moved here to accommodate the enormous number of boats that travel the waters. After dinner, we slept until our next early wake-up call, and re-boarded the boat to the border.
The second day seemed longer than the first. There wasn’t a lot to do on the boat, so after eight hours it was refreshing to see the border and jump onto dry land once more. We had to disembark on the Laos side of the river, take a Tuk Tuk to the passport office and get our books stamped before boarding another boat to take us the short distance to the Thailand side.
When we arrived, a mercifully short five minute journey took us to our hotel and brought us to the beginning of our last five days in Southeast Asia…
The journey from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang took us over one of the most beautiful mountain passes that exists in the world today. We drove past whole villages, stretched out for miles in linear form down one side of the road between the tarmac and a sheer precipice. The road twisted and turned so frequently that the going was slow, and was sometimes so steep that the air conditioning in the van had to be turned off so more power could be supplied to the wheels, leaving the sun to cruelly beat down and render us all sweaty messes.
About three hours into the journey, we stopped at a restaurant located at the highest point between Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang. We had seen many stunning landscapes over the last 22 days, but this blew them all out of the water. Without a cloud in the sky, the sun lit up the mountainous landscape, casting shadows over the vegetation and producing some effective lens flare. After buying some pineapple and mango from the restaurant, it was time to continue on to our destination.
We arrived at Luang Prabang mid-afternoon. We were due to spend two full days here, and not wanting to waste any time, Maxim and Julia (a young Russian couple here on their honeymoon who had joined us on day 20), Joaquin and I walked to Mount Phou Si, a 100-metre-high hill that stands in the centre of the city. On the way up, we passed a local woman selling small birds in wicker cages. My ornithological knowledge isn’t great, so I’m not sure what species the birds were, but the premise is for one to buy them and set them free on top of the hill.
Joaquin bought a cage before realising that another two birds would have to be caught in order to keep stock levels up. When we reached the top, we looked out over the picturesque city and let the two birds fly towards the setting sun. Standing just below the golden stupa of Wat Chom Si, we took pictures of the beautiful landscape before heading back down to the night market.
That night we dined at Lao Lao Garden, a quirky outdoor restaurant complete with a fire pit and (due to the time of year) a massive Christmas tree. I had been advised by a friend to try the table barbecue, so, not really knowing what to expect, we ordered and waited patiently. We had learned by this point that there is no sense of urgency in Laos. Food does not come quickly; even canned drinks can take ten minutes to arrive at your table. But no matter, that’s their way of life, and who are we to say otherwise?
We were quite surprised when the waiter asked us to stand up, and more surprised when he proceeded to lift the middle section of the table clean out of its base. He then popped a cauldron-like coal pit in the hole and a convexly domed cooking panel on top, where strips of meat could be placed to cook. We ate our body weight in food over the next half hour, musing at the ingenuity of the simple device. After dinner we departed for the hotel; we had to be up early the next morning for a very exciting treat indeed.
As the sun rose, we were already on our way by Tuk Tuk about 20 minutes up the road towards the river. Joaquin, Ari, Maxim, Julia and I had decided that this would be the perfect opportunity to do something we had all wanted to do. It had been on my bucket list for years. When we arrived at the river, we jumped into a longboat and our driver manoeuvred downstream to our destination. We clambered off the boat, onto dry land and up the hill, finally set eyes on the cynosure; the only reason we had come. The elephants.
We had paid for a “Ride and Bathe” package at the Tad Saé Waterfalls, and not really sure what we were in for, we climbed aboard our elephants and set off through the forest. After a rather ephemeral jaunt through the trees, our elephants took us into a waterfall-levelled creek. There they walked around whilst munching on leaves and cooling their legs in the cold water, before walking up the ramp and back to the shelter.
Feeling a little disappointed that it was over, I was thrilled when the guide approached us and asked us if we were ready for the bathing part of the excursion. We stripped off to our swimwear and re-boarded our elephants, steering them down to the waterfalls once more. For the next half hour, we swam with the gentle giants, fed them and washed them, all while other tourists watched from overlooking balconies. It was an incredible experience, with only one hairy moment when I was thrown off my elephant and nearly drowned as it trampled me. Alas, a minor detail…
I didn’t see a single person dismount these animals without a grin from ear to ear. I had had the most enjoyable hour of my trip so far, and have thought about it hundreds of times since. We decided to stay on and swim in the waterfalls for some of the afternoon, the curglaff effect wearing off the warmer the day became.
I was still smiling as we arrived back in Luang Prabang. It had been an incredible day and I was finally able to tick the activity off my bucket list. After a look round the night market, it was time for dinner then bed. The next morning would be a very early one.
My alarm went off at 4:45am. I fell out of bed and packed my things, ready for my return in a couple of hours’ time. A few of us were heading down to the main street to watch the procession of the monks. Monks don’t earn money, so they cannot buy food. They rely on the locals to give alms and feed them every day. As the sun started to rise, so the line of bright orange robes became visible in the distance. They strode down the street with open canisters, receiving rice and vegetables from both locals and tourists.
We had been asked politely by our tour leader not to participate in the ceremony, which we had agreed to. It’s not our tradition, and one can only wonder how the monks feel if a tourist is giving them food just for the sake of being part of the ceremony and their culture, which, undeniably, they are not.
We watched as the line of monks snaked its way through the streets of Luang Prabang, and walked back to our hotel to collect our bags and pick up a quick breakfast.
The next 48 hours would be spent on a long barge travelling upstream on the Mekong River. It would likely be uncomfortable, cold and rather boring, so all my gadgets were charged and ready to go the night before. We departed the hotel at 7am and drove towards the dock, at last seeing our mode of transport for the next two days…
After saying farewell to Vietnam, it was time to say a very apprehensive hello to Laos. Before arriving, I had not read anything about the country, so I had no clue what to expect, and to be completely honest, the capital didn’t blow me away. I was feeling a little unwell after the flight, and when we landed in Vientiane, it was a short bus ride to our hotel and, with luggage dumped, dinner.
In every hotel we had stayed in so far on the trip, there had been the option of leaving valuables behind reception in a safe, and that night was no different. However, when I returned to the hotel after dinner and asked for my money bag, I was told I could not have it until the morning. I was poorly, grumpy and agitated and flipped out at the poor guy until he went and woke up the boss for the safe key. Not my proudest moment.
Vientiane was remarkably unremarkable, and I was all too happy to leave the following morning for the four hour minibus trip to Vang Vieng, a tiny tourism-orientated town on the banks of the Nam Song River. Street vendors sell pancakes, corrugated iron shops stock touristy clothes and the bars are heaving with visitors from across the world. Vang Vieng is formerly the most popular tubing site in Southeast Asia. For those who don’t know, tubing is simply floating down the river in an inflatable rubber ring stopping at every bar on the way.
However, all the bars were closed midway through 2012 because deaths on the river rose to two per week, with rings bursting on the rocks and their inebriated inhabitants drowning. One can still rent a ring and buy a six-pack of beer, but not many people do.
We hired bicycles upon our arrival and pedalled the two miles or so to the Tham Phu Kham cave system, also known as the Blue Lagoon because of its rich, milky-blue coloured waters. The site is beautiful; a tree with two major branches stretches over the lagoon, allowing visitors to climb up to either level and jump, and a rope swing has been added in addition to the bar and huts that surround the area.
We spent the rest of the afternoon at the Blue Lagoon, meeting fellow travellers and swimming in the sun-warmed water. It may sound daft, but I quite enjoy jumping off of things, so it was the perfect playground. As the karsts blocked the sun from view, we cycled back to the town.
With our bicycles returned, we ate a large dinner before heading back to our quaint lodge accommodation. On the way, though, it was only right to buy some very short shorts (most probably designed for women) with the Vang Vieng Tubing logo inscribed on the front, as a memento.
The next morning, we were up bright and early and on our way about ten kilometres out of Vang Vieng with a trailer loaded full of kayaks and paddles. We soon stopped and lowered our kayaks into the clear water, pairing up as we did so. I shared with Joaquin, who is very well-built and has a lot of experience kayaking and rafting down rivers with higher grade rapids than the Nam Song would offer. I, on the other hand, am positively weedy and had no experience, but it was a stunning day and we got the chance to mess about on some of the platforms left over from when the banks were populated by bars.
It took us a couple of hours to paddle our way back down to Vang Vieng and after a quick lunch were ready to head back to the Blue Lagoon to finish off our last day in this picturesque little town. Instead of hiring bicycles, we opted for motorbikes. After all, we had used them in Vietnam and there had been no issue, and the fact that we weren’t supplied with helmets wasn’t a problem; this was Laos! What could possibly go wrong?
After a pit stop at the garage to fill up the tank with fuel (less than US$2), we were on our way down the gravelly road to the Blue Lagoon, overtaking Tuk Tuks carrying tourists and crossing bridges, under which local kids were swimming in the streams. There was not a cloud in the sky, and arriving at our destination without incident, we enjoyed the next few hours larking about in the water and playing volleyball in the sun.
As the sun was getting lower, we left to drive back to town. This was when Johan, a loveable Swede, came off his bike in spectacular fashion. He had sped off ahead and rounded a corner too fast, his front wheel sliding away from him, bringing him crashing to the ground. He had sustained some pretty serious cuts to his knees, shins, feet, elbows, back, stomach (he wasn’t wearing a T-shirt), hands, chin and nose but had quite amazingly avoided hitting his head or causing anything but surface damage. The worst injury was a sizeable stone that had found its way under his skin and was lodged quite firmly in his heel.
With Johan and his motorbike loaded into the back of a Tuk Tuk and the driver instructed to take him to the hospital, we drove our bikes back rather more steadily and stayed with him whilst his wounds were cleansed with iodine, the stone was plucked out with miniature forceps and he was bandaged up to such an extent he started to look like Hargreaves’ Mr. Bump.
The men from the bike shop came to the hotel to wish Johan well and claim the money for the bike repairs; he had not only injured himself, but also punctured a tire, burst the fuselage, torn off both mirrors and broken the front headlight. He paid the US$150 and we left him to rest, paying a brief visit to the Irish bar in town to show off our new short shorts. The kayaking had taken it out of me, so I left before it got too late and walked back to the hotel.
In the morning, we were due to drive the five hours to Luang Prabang over one of the most scenic mountain passes in the world…