Hello again from SE Asia. I am safely back in Thailand after possibly the most dangerous and foolish thing I have ever done, but more on that in a second.
Laos was lovely, laid back, and calm. The people were friendly, the country isn’t overly touristed (even in Luang Prabang, which is THE tourist spot in the country), and up in the north, the weather was cool.
Luang Prabang is the culmination of 3000 years plus of history. Located up towards the golden triangle (that area made famous in later years by opium cultivation), and along the Mekong, the site was visited by Burmese, Indian, Chinese, Thai, Cambodian and just about every other nation in the area’s traders since people around here first loaded up a pack animal and set off. Because of its central location, Lunag Prabang flourished, and grew quite large. Over the years the mini-empires in the area came and went and the city was influenced by all of them, until finally the French arrived and left their mark. Then the US got involved in this part of the world, but Luang Prabang was too far off the beaten path to be relevant in any military conflict in the east, and so it just sat and waited to be rediscovered. It wasn’t abandoned by any means, but it did not really progress much since the fall of Indochina. Thus when I found it, the place was French colonial, but with Laos influences, a small hill-tribe village, but alpine French all at the same time. Plus they have the Mekong. Quaint doesn’t do it justice, nor does lovely, although it was both of those things as well. Unesco was correct to make it a international heritage site.
My first day, staggering bleary eyed from my hotel, had me walk past several saffron clad monks, an old Citroen, open air food stalls selling all manner of things that Laos people eat (some of which are quite good, while others would make you think at least twice), a bar and two internet cafes. As I got to the second bar, I ran into several people I had seen on the bus the day before from Vang Vieng, and I was invited over for a beerlao and breakfast.
After I was introduced to the various new people, I was invited to go with them (we were 8) on a tuk-tuk ride out 35Km or so to a huge waterfall that was supposed to be excellent. As I had little else planned for my day, I gladly accepted, and away we went.
Within 5 Km of our trip, we were in the middle of no place. The pavement ended, the jungle crept up to within a few feet on either side of us, and all signs of civilization vanished, with the exception of an odd hut here and there. We drove along, over a rutted and muddy road for almost an hour, with dust flying up behind us as we went, when suddenly I could smell the water. Living in NYC, one doesn’t get many chances to experience this. In the more arid places my trip has taken me, I am always struck by how far from the water I can be and yet still sense it was there.
The climb up the hill to the falls was eased dramatically by the availability of 750ml beerlaos at the bottom, and once we summitted, we agreed we were wise to have made it out there. The falls were big- maybe 250 feet high, multileveled, with two collecting pools- one at the mid point, one at the bottom- that one could wade in. Surrounded by the jungle, lined with wild flowers of a size and type I’d never seen before, the place was special. We spent several hours taking in the sights in the area, climbing near the mid point of the falls, and generally enjoying the fact that the sun was shining but it wasn’t 140 degrees, before filing back into the tuk-tuk and heading into town again. We got on so well as a group that we met up for dinner that night, and the following, before we scattered to the winds.
Some went north into the wilds of Laos, others back south to the party scene, but 4 of us, myself and 3 brits, decided we would meet in Chiang Mai, Thailand in two days. This was where I get back to the stupid, dangerous part. In order for me to get to Thailand in time, I could either fly (too mundane) or take the 7 hour "Fast" boat up the Mekong to Huay Xai, and then take the ferry across the river to Chang Khong, Thailand, before catching a bus south to Chiang Mai. Personally, I had preferred to take the "slow" boat, which takes two days, but my travel companion for this leg of my wander, Kath, had her heart set on getting there in a hurry, and its been my experience that given the choice, when crossing international borders in remote places of the world, its always good to go with someone else, if for no other reason then to allow for someone to report what happened to my body, should I vanish. Thus, "Fast" boat it was.
I am SO lucky I am alive. Everything I knew about the fast boat trip screamed danger- loads of accidents, lack of safety precautions, etc., but I was totally unprepared for the trip. 6 of us, plus the driver, loaded into a 25` long, 3` wide, long-tail boat, with all of our bags strapped to the front end. We were squeezed in pairs into spaces perhaps 2` by 3`, set directly on the floor of the boat, perhaps 4" above the waterline and bounded front and back with low planks which came to just the small of the back, making leaning backwards impossible. We were given crash helmets and life jackets and away we went. Rapidly. With a top speed of perhaps 40 mph, the boat rocketed up the river, being tossed about by the wake of other boats, the mild class 1 and 2 rapids in the river, and even a strong breeze. Since the boat drafted in perhaps 6 inches of water, there was little of the boat that would have held us upright had we lost control. It is no stretch to say that even the slightest wave would have tipped the boat had we hit it wrong. Several times, we managed to get the boat most of the way out of the water, at high speed, before crashing back down into the brown muddy water of the Mekong.
We stopped 3 times, twice for bathroom breaks and once for lunch. The final two stops were made at floating markets, basically large houseboats set in the river down the hill from a village. Needless to say, I was pleased to arrived in Thailand, and after falling into the nearest guesthouse and having a quick bite, I passed out.
It wasn’t really until morning that I was aware of the differences present being back in Thailand. First, the roads were paved. Even in the backwater berg of Chang Khong, all the streets were well paved. Street lights were common, as was lighting for stores. My tour book told me that there were even ATMs, something I hadn’t seen since flying out of Bangkok (Cambodia nor Laos has any). It was positively civilized.
After a slow start, we caught a bus for Chiang Mai, sat back and enjoyed the fact that I didn’t have to go near a boat for a while.
Now I am in Chiang Mai, having arrived on a long, but not unpleasant bus trip yesterday. Today is a chill out day (two days of traveling, even if I only went 500 miles, in this part of the world can be rough), and tomorrow I start to explore.
hope all is good at home....