Friday 30/10/15, 7:10am, southern railway station of Jinghong. A tiny crappy bus is parked in the courtyard. No way we can put our backpacks in the boot. It’s full like an egg! No better inside. There are only two free seats: ours! The alleyway is packed with all kind of bags and suitcases. Tagged on them we can read Chanel, Lacoste, Louis Vuitton… Hum, we doubt they have certificates of authenticity. We throw our bags on the top of the pile and jump over people to get to our seats. Let’s go for an awesome 11 hours bus trip! Welcome to the special bus Jinghong-Houay Xai!
Mohan – Boten : farewell China, hello Laos
A few hours after our chaotic departure, our bus drops us at the border, in Mohan. A string of sellers is waiting there, offering to change our Yuans in US dollars to pay for the Laotian visa. As you can imagine, their change rate is not the most interesting in the world. So we decide against it, because we heard that we would be able to pay for the visas’ fees in Yuan anyway.
There is three kilometres of no man’s land between China and Laos. In Boten, the custom office of Laos, the officer asks us for 560CYN! It’s 15$US more (each) than the normal price!! No way! Finally, maybe we should have changed our money for dollars in Mohan… Anyway we don’t have enough cash to pay. We just kept the exact amount we needed to pay for the usual price. The custom officer doesn’t give a s***. If we can’t pay, then we stay outside! Damn. We are stuck in international zone with no solution at hand. Our bus is already on the other side, with our bags and everybody waiting for us. Fortunately, our chinese bus driver is not only waiting for us but, worried not to see us, he also comes to the custom office to see what the matter. He will lend us the money we are missing to pay this villain of a custom officer. Whew!
Finally well arrived in Houay Xai, we are quietly strolling in the streets when a big tall hairy shaggy guy comes to us. He is looking for any plan to sleep for a cheap price in town. As we just arrived we don’t know any hotel yet, so we go on looking for a cheap one together. We will end up in a tiny bungalow that the three of us will share in a matter to save money… That we will spend in beers in the evening! Oh we forgot to say that our new friend Paul is Polish, but lives in France since 9 years. He is very funny and loves Bretagne (Brittany) and… beer! We will understand more about this last point later…
Slow boat from Houay Xai to Luang Prabang
Here, there is no road following the Mekong river on which to walk, so we choose to take a slow boat. From what we know, we should be travelling on an old ship to Luang Prabang, with the noise and smell of the rattling engine, no seats, but bags of rice in piles, among the local people. That sounds good! Until we realise the truth, just after buying our 250000kip tickets (US$30). The boat is not at all what we were told! It looks new, with fancy curtains and soft bus seats and… 70 tourists! No local people, except for our drivers. One of our informations remains true though: the engine makes a hell of a noise!
We spend the first day sailing gently through an average panorama, and talking with a few travellers. Around 5pm, the boat stops in Pakbeng, where we are supposed to spend the night. This small city full of bars and fancy restaurants comes to life every evening when tourists arrive, but is completely dead during the day during which they even have no electricity. Some of our fellow travelers have paid their hotel room 115000kip per person booking directly on the boat. Some people who choose to wait to be in town ended up renting a room at 20000kip per person. As for us, we wanted at first to spend a night camping on the beach under the stars but we finally ended up in an hotel room completely drunk with Paul. Believe us, spending the evening partying with a guy from Poland is a true hazard for the liver! Viva BeerLao!
The second day of sailing is a bit better and we really enjoy the scenery, but in the same time we have to deal with a still-drunk polish guy who is getting completely wild! We have no time to get bored during that day, believe us! The boat seems to get ashore all of a sudden, around 4 in the afternoon.
Luang Prabang, mini Disney Land Paris !
On the shore before to get to Luang Prabang, we lost Paul somewhere. No idea where is gone! We will meet again later but this is a whole other story (and long! And which includes quite a few beerlaos we’re afraid…). For now, let’s stick to our subject!
Luang Prabang is a colonial town sitting on the edge of a very pretty peninsula at the merging point of the Mekong river and a lesser watercourse. It’s quite a charming city altogether and also a UNESCO World Heritage, were one can visit a lot of beautiful temples and see the strong French influence in the architecture and local culture. Tourism is the main (only?) source of income of this little town. Prices are generally quite high and locals may not be as welcoming as in other parts of Laos. Coming directly from West China, we are quite shocked to see so many tourists and the behaviour of some of them makes us feel a little bit sad and sick. Many don’t make any effort to respect the local culture, just think to party and drink and wear very inappropriate clothes: there are heaps of women in mini-mini shorts, men bare chested, and we even saw women bathing in a waterfall wearing j-strings! You have to know that people in Laos are shy and modest and always cover their knees and shoulders and bath in public wearing all their clothes so the contrast with tourists is quite crazy. All the cultural rules of behaviour in Laos are written everywhere in tourist centres and hotels (like wearing decent clothes, not kissing in public, not touching people heads, and paying respect to the monks) so we really can’t grasp why so many people are so irrespectful. For example, everyday hundreds of monks are walking through town at dawn in a line while locals hand them some food for the day. It is a beautiful thing to see, something very religious and important for locals. Which is interrupted by irrespectful persons jumping in front of the monks to take pictures with the flash as if they were mere animals… We really can’t get it! At home we like and insist strongly that strangers should follow our rules and adapt to our country but we are the first not to do it when we travel in other places! Fortunately, even if this incorrect people are the ones we see the most and hear the most about, we actually met a lot of amazing and sensible travellers during our stay.
Other than walking through town enjoying the relaxing atmosphere and visiting museums and temples (or drink and party 😉 ) there is little to do in Luang Prabang. We took a cooking lesson where we cooked probably some of the best food we had in Laos (and it is not because we made it!) but our teachers weren’t all that great, not very caring or involved in the course… There are plenty of options for cooking in Luang Prabang so we guess we didn’t pick up the best one. The food was so yammy though and we had also a very good recipe book to take back home!
On the other hand, Luang Prabang is a good base from where you can explore northern Laos. A lot of agencies organise treks in the area to visit small traditional villages, visits of rehabilitation centers for elephants, or weaving classes in the country side. And just nearby you can find amazing waterfalls!
Kuang Si and Tad Sae waterfalls
Respectively 30 and 15 kms away from Luang Prabang, these waterfalls are THE places not to be missed when you visit the area. Tuk-tuks offer you rides all day long. The most courageous hire a bicycle. A few others, like us, hire a scooter for a very expensive price to be able to visit both waterfalls in one day.
The advantage is also to arrive at the waterfalls before all the tuk-tuks, to enjoy the visit more quietly!
We arrive in Kuang Si around 8:30am, and nobody is there! It’s absolutely perfect for photography! We spend nearly two hours in a quiet atmosphere, enjoying the wonderful natural beauty of the turquoise terraced waterfall. Around 11:00, all the tuk-tuks arrive, overcrowded with people who don’t waste a minute and jump strait in the natural basins formed by the terraces. Photography time is over! Instead we follow a very nice path in the thick forest to get to the top of the waterfall, from where you can have quite a beautiful view on the jungle below. Then we jump on our scooter again and drive to Tad Sea, which we heard is quite picturesque too.
To get to the Tad Sae waterfalls, you have to take place in a small wooden boat for a few hundred metres. We sit on a plastic box, very low on the river. The engine sounds like an old mower. Water infiltrates the boat through small holes in the wood. It looks a bit like in an Indiana Jones movie (quiet version though)… We quickly come back to reality when we discover Tad Sea, its trained elephants kept for touring around, its slide ropes and climbing ladders, its « swimming pool », transats and cocktail bars…
Despite those attractions, the place is curiously still quite charming. Terraced pristine waterfalls running among old white trees from which are hanging heavy lianas, turquoise blue water and dozens of beautiful butterflies… It’s a real paradise! Especially since that a few meters away from the main natural « swimming pool » crowded with people, the place is perfectly quiet. As people are concentrated on getting a nice tan on the transats, a beautiful female elephant is led in the water of the lowerpools by her master for a bath. Hardly anyone notices it! We were able to spend a good moment patting her and scratching her forehead. She loved it!
Paklay, back to the countryside
We leave fairly quickly Luang Prabang. We have two choices to go to the capital Vientiane : one is to go through Vang Vieng and its pretty surroundings, but we heard that its reputation concerning drunken tourists is even worse than Luang Prabang, or we could pass through Paklay, a small town on the Mekong on which we can get nearly no informations at all. Guess what we chose?
A few hours later, a bus drops us in Paklay. Only the main road is paved, the rest is only dusty little streets. It looks very much like what we wanted to see! In Paklay, there is nothing to do except walking around and observing, and that suits us perfectly! The locals are quite surprised to see us there. They are a lot more welcoming than in Luang Prabang! Children run after us and all kind of animals are wandering in the streets.
There are a lot of small hotels and guesthouses in town. We don’t really understand why at first until a guy tells us slow boats where used to travel on this part of the Mekong river before the highway was built… Times change, fortunately or unfortunately, it is not for us to judge. Nowadays, only a few cargos and luxury cruise boats stop there once in a while. We were quite hoping we would be able to travel by boat to Vientiane… Instead we take a bus to Houayla, an even smaller town, from where we start hiking the last 80kms to Vientiane.
Around Houayla, the Mekong is quite marshy, with a lot of herbs peaking out of the water. Farmers are very surprised but also amused to see us there. Here meeting people is very easy, and contrary to Luang Prabang, it’s not induced by money, people are genuinely curious and happy to see us there. Everytime we stop in a small gloomy restaurant to eat a Phó soup or drink a Coke, they ask us a lot of questions. « Where you go? », « Where you from? », » Why you don’t have a bike? ». We try to answer then partly in Lao (even harder than Chinese), partly in English and partly by gesture. That makes them laugh a lot!
In the evening we ask monks if we can set the tent in the garden surrounding their beautiful temple. They agree immediately! This is the best place to camp ever. We have the most stunning view on the Mekong river and the setting sun. Soon enough all the village knows there are two strange « falangs » camping at the temple. All the children, shy at first, and driving bicycles far to big for them, start playing and laughing around us and finally with us! During this time, the entire sky turns pink while fishermen bring back their boat on the shore. Amazing evening.
The next day will be grossly the same. A perfect day, except for the insupportable heat. It’s crazy! We sweat liters and liters and have to walk slower, therefore longer if we want to walk our average daily distance. But once again we are rewarded by the warmth of the people we meet along the way, a night in a wondrous temple covered by exquisite frescoes, and an incredible long-glowing sunset. We bet it will continue to glow in our mind for quite a while!
Those last fe days we spent walking, make us realise that until now, we probably choose the wrong spots to visit. There is still a lot of hidden treasures and locals with beautiful sincere smiles who don’t see in every westerner only a walking wallet.
Good night everyone!
M. & Mme Shoes