Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Spending the holidays in Laos

Christmas present from Ancient Luang Prabang Hotel
Due to geographic proximity and reasonably priced flights, we decided to do the Laos portion of our Southeast Asia itinerary after visiting northern Vietnam. Because we were traveling over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, we made our hotel reservations prior to arriving in Laos. While I did look into a two day trip up the Mekong, the boat I wanted to take only operates a few days per week and there is no easy way to travel from Houi Xai back to Luang Prabang. Ultimately we decided to spend Christmas in Luang Prabang and New Year’s in Vientiane. Of course, that meant we would only visit the two most heavily touristed cities in the country which does not really give one a fair impression of all that Laos has to offer. In order to rectify this somewhat, we booked an overnight excursion and village homestay with an outfitter called Tiger Trail that was favorably reviewed in a travel magazine.
Louang Prabang is an easy place to spend a few days or even weeks. Prices are reasonable, although they are much higher than what they were only a few years ago. There are tons of activities to keep you occupied: cooking classes, elephant camps, hiking, biking, etc. and you can easily organize day trips to caves and waterfalls or longer excursions to minority villages. But it’s just as tempting to pull up a chair at one of the many outdoor cafes and watch the world go by. While I would have preferred to see fewer tourists as well as less development related to tourists, one can still find serenity in the sound of monks chanting in one of the wats that dominate the town’s landscape. After walking from one end of town to the other, first along the Mekong river then back via Chao Fa Ngum/Sisavangvong Road and then around again via Kingkitsalat/Phousi Road, I was glad that I booked a hotel in the Ban Phonheuang neighborhood just a few blocks from where the Nam Khan river meets the Mekong. The area feels more authentic because it is still populated by locals going about their day-to-day lives. There is a heavy concentration of wats in the area and one can quietly observe the monks receiving morning alms. It only took us about 15 minutes to walk to the main part of town (ie, the National Museum).
Ancient Luang Prabang hotel review
Souk Lan Xang Guest house review

Greg & Mae Buakham after our elephant ride
After three nights in Luang Prabang including a fairly quiet Christmas, it was time for some adventure! Tiger Trail offers numerous itineraries involving all types of activities so it can be a bit overwhelming to pick one. I primarily wanted to visit the Elephant Village but also wanted to get out in the country to see how the minority people of Laos still live. We settled on an overnight trip that included a 13km bike ride, one hour elephant ride, short boat ride to Tad Sae waterfall,  3km trek to a Khamu village, overnight homestay in the village, trek back to the Elephant Lodge, and 4 hour kayak on the Nam Khan River. All transfers, entrance fees, equipment, English-speaking guide, bottled water and four meals were included in the $129 per person price.

Just as in Vietnam, we concluded that this special excursion was well worth the additional cost. I’m glad we tried so many different activities although I didn’t enjoy the mountain biking very much because it was on a heavily trafficked, rocky dirt road and we were covered in dust by the time we reached the Elephant Village. Also, it was Greg’s first time to kayak so he had a bit of a learning curve to overcome; we took a double and I sat in back and did all the steering through the Class 1 & 2 rapids.
approaching the Khamu village where we stayed overnight
We found the Khamu homestay to be much more authentic than the Vietnamese version near Sapa. The village had not been overdeveloped in order to accommodate tourists: no western toilets, no hot water, no attempt to sell us anything. In fact, the villagers basically treated us as if we had been there for months; they even allowed us to observe and participate in a shaman-led ceremony that was in progress when we arrived. The Khamu lead very simple agricultural-based lives; nightly entertainment comes in the form of Thai movies which everyone gathers to watch in one of three thatch houses with dirt floors that are hooked up to generators.
a shaman uses his powers to extend an old man's life
After our excursion, we spent one more night in Luang Prabang before continuing south to Vientiane. To save money (it costs $150 per person to fly from Luang Prabang to Vientiane versus $17 by bus), we opted to travel overland. Despite selecting the “VIP” bus, which offered more creature comforts compared to the Express or Regular busses, we did not have a good experience. The bus left right on time at 9:00AM. However, it took us two hours to drive 50km! Within 10 minutes of leaving the bus station, the road started winding into the mountains. As there were no seatbelts, I used the luggage strap I’m carrying solely for that purpose. You can read more about our harrowing ride in my trip notes below, but suffice it to say when we arrived in Vientiane we were happy to be alive!
beautiful scenery on a scary bus ride
Many people we’ve met during our travels who have already visited the city had told us that there wasn’t much to see or do there. After spending four nights in Vientiane, I would have to agree. You can knock out all of the “attractions” in less than one day and there is very little in the way of Laotian culture on offer other than talking to the monks at the wats. For me, it turned out to be a good place to enjoy some downtime and to catch up on writing and photo editing.
We stayed in the Ban Mixay area which has a nice selection of local & international restaurants offering food & drink at fairly reasonable prices and is about a 30 minute walk to Pratuxay Monument. We ended up celebrating New Year’s at Nam Phu Fountain with an interesting mix of locals and tourists. The party was free and beer was cheap (640ml Tiger for 12,000KIP or about $1.50). We listened to live music, chatted with a couple from Quebec and eventually rang in 2011 five minutes early (for no apparent reason) with bubbles, silly string & firecrackers. The next day we wanted to get massages but soon discovered practically the whole town had shut down until the 2nd which is when we were leaving!!
Sinnakhone Hotel review

The link to all of my Laos photos is embedded in this post's title.

A few random Laos notes:

Loung Prabang
Best meals at Tamlak (orlarm) & Tamarind (lemongrass stuffed chicken, pumpkin/coconut/ginger soup, pork skewers)
Young monks in internet café, carrying loose cigarettes
Sound of monks chanting in temple
Significance of giving/receiving alms every morning
More tourists than locals
Tuk tuks, mopeds & bikes are primary transport
640ml Beer Lao avg price 12,000 kip
Indochina Spirit “Laos platter” (55,000kip) = Mekong seaweed (kai pen), fried chicken wings, salad Lao, fish soup (gang som pla), deep fried bamboo shoot stuffed with minced pork (na no ma sai muu), sticky rice (kau niau), fruit salad (mak ma luam), tea or Lao coffee
Cats & dogs everywhere
Charged entrance fees for everything: average 10-30k kip pp
Restaurants average entrée 35k
Average price of 1 hour Lao massage 40k
Laundry service ranged from 5-15k per kilo
We booked our accommodations last minute over a holiday so less expensive places were already full but average cost is $40+ per double room per night including breakfast versus what we paid at ALP ($55)
Night market seems to go on forever (size) and very colorful
Lots of street food available at all hours
Che Guavara on mudflaps, tuk tuk windows

Tiger Trail excursion
Ate rat soup, water buffalo stir fry, water buffalo “pork rind” (dried skin)
white water buffalo=farang (foreigner, same word for tourist)
Shaman - tying white string around wrist of old man who wants to live longer + his wife & baby chicken, burning string, roasted whole pig, blood, flower, rice offering…
Drinking rice wine straight from jug with tube straw, playing bamboo flute
3 generators in village to power 3 tvs; everyone, especially children, gather around to watch Thai movies
Differences between Khmu & Hmong people - kitchen location outdoor vs. indoor, style of house woven bamboo with thatch roof vs. bamboo or wood poles with metal roof
Khmu are very clean people - we observed lots of bathing, women were modest and wore sarongs to cover themselves
Animals (chickens, goats, pigs) roam free but know owners/feeders by sound of voice
Khamsing is missing the top of his left index finger because he cut it off accidentally when he was 8 chopping sugar cane; shaman healed him; it was dark so they did not find remainder of finger until next day and then too late to reattach
Hmong typically have to walk 3hrs one way to fields as they live in the mountains; get up at 3-4am, use sun to tell time; no watches so in rainy season use shadows or cicadas noise in afternoon; lightening is their flashlight or when dry can make bamboo torch
Speak different language than Lao people so hard to find teachers; Khmu must pay to go to school, free for Hmong
Saw river snake from motorboat, not poisonous, eaten by locals; saw another snake at Tad Sae waterfall
Tiger Trail equipment not in good condition (bike brakes not working, helmets very worn/straps broken, kayaks used/have holes)
Homestay was more authentic than Sapa/Ta Van; more remote (no road access), no electricity, squat toilets, no hot water, raised woven bamboo dwelling; there were a few other tourists but didn’t feel like a hotel
Villagers went about normal activities and basically ignored us except kids wanted to play; no one pressuring you to buy anything
White tape on forehead?
Most kids seemed to have sinus infections, dirty
Lots of smoking & drinking
Chinese water buffalo = tractor; difference in cost is only about $700-800 but time to plow field is one day vs. one month
Dogs everywhere, barking, whining; roosters crow at all hours
Rubber trees 3yrs old but need 10yrs to mature/harvest

VIP bus
vs. Express bus: a/c, toilet, bottled water, duration, lunch included; ticket says “snack, drink, wet tissue are provided on trip” but we only got one bottle of water for two people and no snack; were only given 30min for a late lunch break; price of ticket was 115,000kip but travel agency charged 130k; no seat belts so used luggage strap, driver’s cell phone ringer was squealing pig and he talked on it several times while driving plus smoked while driving - it was a nonsmoking bus; 2 helpers who handled luggage but didn't really do anything else other talk to driver, random stops: @ 11:15 (fruit stand with no toilets so everyone went in tall grass), finally ate lunch @ 2:45pm - we ate pho-style soup instead of meat & veggies w/rice to lessen risk of getting sick; driver almost ran off road while trying to take off shirt, no guard rails/vertical drop, beautiful scenery if you survive the trip!; supposed to take 8 hours but took 11, bus speedometer didn’t work, speed limit 30kph, narrow switchback roads with no shoulder, took 2 hrs to drive 50km, passed small villages - driver had to watch for people/animals in road, drying plants for thatch roofs, one robed monk on bus who smoked and had tattoos, double-decker style but only luggage stored below - sits high so sways more on curvy roads, driver nor attendants spoke English, Greg said mileage markers look like tombstones

International restaurants - French, Italian, Tex-mex, Turkish, Scandinavian, Indian, British pub across street
Cheap beer avg 10k for large bottle Beer Lao
Laundry 8000kip/1kg
Tuk tuks sound like their moniker
Shared taxi from bus station 20k per person
Everything closed on international New Year’s Day
Forgot to mention this earlier but Laos Airlines plays one particular Kenny G song as their boarding music on all their planes

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