25.06.2012 100 °F
Having heard nothing but good things about Luang Prabang (LP) we decided to make that our only stop in Laos. Almost everything we read and heard recommended giving yourself extra time there because most people end up staying way longer than they anticipated. Luang Prabang literally means "Royal Buddha Image (in the Dispelling Fear stance)". It is known for being a peaceful little town scattered with mountain views, wats (temples) and orange robed monks.
We decided that the 24 hour bus ride would be worth it. We’ve been on enough overnight bus rides to know one thing, it is ALWAYS more pleasant when there is a bathroom on board. With the heat and drinking an average of 2 liters of water a day it is always very stressful to sleep on a bus with no toilet because you have to make sure to wake up every time the bus stops (on the side of the road, mind you!) for a bathroom break, which usually only happens about twice a night. With this in mind we decided that we would be willing to pay a little extra to be on a bus with a toilet, especially since this would be our longest ride yet. We asked around at travel agents and found the ‘best deal’ and booked it. We were told that the ‘good’ buses only go certain days of the week, and one happened to go on Saturday, the day we needed.
The trip started off with a bang when we nearly missed our first mini bus since no one told us we were even taking a mini bus, let alone what time it would be there. Along the way we picked up far too many people and had to squish two to a seat. We then arrived at the bus station and the foreigners were herded around to the correct bus. Of course our first question was whether or not there was a toilet inside. Our guide just looked at me and laughed when I asked, and then pointed inside the bus terminal. All the other foreigners let out a sigh and ‘Nooooooo” at finding this out, and one girl even commented “But it’s SATURDAY!” But the guide still just looked very confused. The confusion continued when they were trying to figure out where everyone’s final destination was so they could put the bags in the correct spots. Half of the bags got put on top of the bus and covered with a tarp, then strapped on. However, it looked like this was their first time attempting to put anything up there and we were very happy that ours were not up there!
We wanted to confirm how long the ride would actually take, and which stop was first since everyone had been told conflicting things. The time that people had been told ranged from 20-31 hours, and everyone had been told that their city would be first! Here’s a map so you can get a perspective:
We were leaving from Hanoi, Vietnam and our stop was LP, and other people were going to Vang Vien and Vientiane. There was a group of about 5 guys that worked on the bus and all of them gave us a different answer about where we were stopping first when we showed them the map.
Despite all the confusion in the beginning we crossed the border with relative ease and made it into Laos (still not knowing what the first stop would be, though!). I was very excited to fill up my last full page in my passport with my new visa, and to have exactly the right amount of spaces to make it home!
We made some fun Chilean friends on the bus and passed time teaching each other card games (we could only remember one though!). They were headed to Vang Vien, and 21 hours into the journey we stopped in the middle of a town and they were told to get out. They were rubbing it in our faces that they were the first to get off, but we saw them again in LP and they told us that they then ended up having to get their own transport from where they were and drive another 3 hours!
We were now even more confused about our route since Vang Vien was in the middle. We finally figured out that no one on the bus was actually going to Vientiane so LP would be the next stop. It’s only a few hundred miles from Vang Vien, but since we were weaving up a mountain to get there we were told it would take 7 more hours. Finally, 28 hours after we got on the bus, we arrived at our destination. There was only one tuk-tuk at the station so we all packed inside and headed to what we thought was the main part of town, only to realize that they driver took us to his friend’s hotel instead. Luckily it wasn't too far from all the other hostels, and we were able to quickly navigate our way there. There is an 11:30 curfew in place in LP so we frantically combed the night market to get some food before everything shut down, and then found a friendly little hostel to stay.
We quickly realized why everyone extends their time there. We spent the day getting a lay of the town on some bikes we rented from our guesthouse. It really is a beautiful place! It’s surrounded by green, luscious mountains, dotted with temples and monks and right on the Mekong River.
In Vietnam the fad was those crazy printed pajamas, and here it seemed to be umbrellas! Most Asian cultures favor lighter skin, since darker skin comes from working outside. Whitening creams can be found in every store, and people will be in pants, long sleeves and a hat in 100 degree weather just to avoid getting a tan. It's crazy to think that in our culture people are willing to risk getting skin cancer just to get a tan, where other people will do anything they can to avoid it, including holding umbrellas while riding their motorbikes or walking around town.
Even the monks do it!
The Mekong (which comes from a mix of Thai and Laotian and means ‘Mother’) River is the main source of water for Lao, Vietnam and Cambodia.
One of the main attractions in LP is a cave off the Mekong that is home to over 4,000 statues of Buddha that were placed there by worshipers. We decided to take a boat ride out there to have a look. It was a bit of a tricky start trying to get the boat angled correctly so we could get on, but the driver finally managed to line it up so we could crawl through another boat to get to ours.
We arrived at the Pak Ou caves an hour later and there really were thousands and thousands of statues. The Mekong is worshiped for providing water to so many people, and locals make a pilgrimage there each year to bring more statues as a thank you. People have been brining their statues here for centuries.
We tried to get a picture of each of the poses, but I'm not sure how successful we were.
We took a two part tour and the second stop of the day was at the Kuang Si Waterfalls. They were very similar to the waterfalls we went to at Erawan National Park in Thailand, and equally as beautiful.
They also have a bear sanctuary for rescued bears. There was a wall showing different types of bears in height order. Of course we thought it'd be fun for me to imitate all the bears
The falls were a really fun spot to just relax, swim and explore. There was even a rope swing to go off of into the largest pool.
The rest of our time in LP was just spent wandering this neat little place.
We explored lots of wats, and per usual the detail is insane!
We walked up to a beautiful sunset wat with views of the city.
These two adorable couples were there practicing their English and having the time of their lives!
There is a nightly market that locals sell handicrafts and jewelry at. We wandered it each night, but both showed very good self control and only bought a few things!
It's amazing to see all the children at the market. About every other woman selling things had at least one child with her and they were all so well behaved. They were either sleeping, eating peacefully or entertaining themselves (often just with a pair of chopsticks). There were a few lucky ones though that had some true entertainment!
Part of the nightly market consisted of food stalls. There were four tables of buffet style vegetarian food. You got one plate and could fill it up as high as you could for 10,000 Kip, or about $1.25! Suffice to say we went back every night!
For the meat eaters of the world there were tables full of pork...
In case you can't tell, that is an entire pig, including its head and insides!
After days of wandering the temples, observing the monks and feasting on delicious Laotian food we decided it was time to head back to Vietnam. Of course the day we wanted to leave was the one day the bus didn't go! Since we had an extra day we decided to make it a spa day! We got hour long full body massages for about $4.50 and then treated ourselves to pedicures. We've been in to mixing and matching colors on our fingers and toes, so we both picked out two colors that we wanted. We both tried to explain to the girls what we wanted but were very unsuccessful. Gabrielle ended up with a very random assortment of colors, and I got one pink foot and one purple foot! The flight attendant on the way back to the US even pointed this out to me, and I just had to tell him that it was out of my control! That darn language barrier!
After our spa day we were ready for our 20+ hour bus ride back to Vietnam. It wasn't very crowded so we were able to have two beds to ourselves which was nice, but we happened to have the rudest drivers ever! They were clearly on some kind of power trip and just shouted 'NO!' whenever we asked questions so we just gave up. The trip also ended up being a lot longer because they decided to stop every ten minutes....to steal bananas from the jungle on the side of the road!!! AND, they then put them in the luggage area with our bags and everything got covered in ants! Luckily that was the worst of it.
Twenty-eight hours later and we were back in Vietnam. It was all worth it though because Luang Prabang truly is a beautiful place!