Our next stop after Vietnam was Laos. Traveling to Luang Prabang or Vientiane from Hanoi is a pretty typical route on the counterclockwise “Backpackers Tour of SE Asia,” so we were surprised to learn just how difficult it was to get over to Laos—the bus ride from Hanoi to Vientiane is 24 hours of guaranteed hell on a sitting bus (no sleeping seats), and this did not sound like fun to us. Apparently, we could have traveled from Sapa by bus over to Dien Bien Phu and crossed over at the Sop Hun / Tay Trang border crossing, but we weren’t aware that this route was possible (this border crossing only recently opened to international travelers). So, we headed back to Hanoi and sadly shelled out the US$190 each for a flight to Luang Prabang. This was definitely a big hit on our wallets, but when we ran into Gesina and Katrin (from our Sapa trek) in Luang Prabang, and they told us that they had spent the 3 days after our trek on a bus making the Sop Hun / Tay Trang crossing, we didn’t feel so bad about our 1.5 hour direct flight.
Vientiane and Vang Vieng in Laos are also big destinations on the backpacker circuit, but we opted to skip both of these cities after hearing from other travelers that (1) Vientiane wasn’t that great, and (2) Vang Vieng is overrun with party people who float down the river on inner tubes, stopping only at bars to watch Friends while high out of their minds. Like the 24 hour bus ride, this did not seem fun to us either. So, we headed straight for Luang Prabang.
LP was a huge culture shock for us after Hanoi. It is, for lack of a more accurate way to describe it, aggressively peaceful there. We couldn’t believe it…as we wheeled our luggage through the streets of Luang Prabang, no one was running out of guest houses, shouting promises of discounts and good deals. No one was out on the street, trying to wave you into their restaurant. It was enough to make a person feel positively unwanted. And, we felt the distinct absence of…something in the air; something was eerily missing. Oh! I know…the incessant pounding of hammers on sheet metal!
One thing that WAS in the air was smoke. March through May is “burning season” in Laos, when the farmers in the countryside burn vegetation off the mountains in order to clear space for their slash-and-burn crops. It’s pretty bad, and Jeremy and I both suffered symptoms ranging from burning eyes to asthma to really, really dirty clothes (seriously, the smoke is that bad—so thick in the air it gets stuck in your t-shirts and pants!).
We spent most of our days wandering in and out of the wats that Luang Prabang is famous for. They are elaborately decorated, with murals, stencils, and gilding covering the walls and ceilings. Often, the outside of a wat would be covered in small mural scenes from ceiling to ground…with the the violent scenes closer to the ground morphing into peaceful scenes of enlightenment towards the top of the building.
We spent a couple of evenings wandering around the night market, which is also a huge attraction in Luang Prabang. This, too, was a big shock for us…for the first time, we saw things that tourists might actually want to buy (rather than cheap ethnic trinkets and North Fake backpacks)! There was an artisanal quality to many of the goods for sale in the LP night market that we hadn’t seen anywhere else in SE Asia.
One day, we rented bikes and went for a ride to some of the neighboring villages. I forget the name of the first village, but it was about 6km outside of LP. There wasn’t much to see there, but it was a nice ride and we had fun waving to the kids and yelling, “Sabai-dii!” (”Hello!” in Laotian). Feeling emboldened, we decided to head out for a longer ride towards Ban Phanom. Near the beginning of the dirt road toward the village, there was a really lovely wat on a hill; we wandered around inside and were delighted to find 5 levels…with each level getting progressively smaller until the top-most room was only big enough to hold the two of us and a dozen or so Buddha statues.
Our goal on this little bike excursion was the tomb of Henri Mouhout, a French explorer who “discovered” Angkor Wat and died in Ban Phanom of malaria, where the French built a small shrine at his final resting place. Little did we know that we had pushed our biking luck, for the next several hours involved bone-rattling dirt roads full of pot holes, an irrefutably unhealthy amount of inhaled dust (along with the smoke), one flat tire, and lots of huffing and puffing. It was EPIC.
Luckily, Henri’s tomb (which was totally anticlimactic, by the way) was located right next to the Nam Khan river, because we were so overheated and dusty by the time we got there, we didn’t even stop to think how dirty the water might be (the water WAS flowing swiftly and there were other people swimming in it…how bad could it be?!?).
The next day, we took it easy and opted for boat trip up the Mekong to see the Pak Ou caves, which are stuffed full of Buddha relics. The boat trip to the caves was upriver, and it was so painfully slow that any thoughts we had of taking a boat to Thailand were completely obliterated (the boat trip back, which was downriver, was far more pleasant; it makes sense that taking a boat from Thailand into Laos is the more popular direction of travel).
The lower cave of Pak Ou was absolutely filled to the brim with Buddhas, but it was also full of tourists.
The upper cave is very deep and enclosed so it is pitch black inside (i.e., good thing we brought a flashlight!). They built an entrance right into the side of the mountain, which I thought was just lovely.
Luang Prabang is a really lovely, peaceful town (there’s even a midnight curfew). It is also (to our surprise) quite fancy, which means that prices can be quite high here. We were expecting Laos to be cheaper than the rest of SE Asia, but in LP that is definitely not the case. We got lucky and paid US$15 for a nice room with air conditioning (and a view of the monks going for alms in the morning), but everywhere else on our block, rooms were US$30 and up. Restaurants are also quite expensive, but we eventually learned to buy our lunches and dinners at the market, where prices were closer to our budget (about US$0.50 to US$1 for a big sandwich or a plate at the vegetarian buffet).
We enjoyed our time in LP (it’s hard not to—the town is just so freakin’ peaceful!), but I’m not sure that we ever connected with the place. Perhaps it was the fanciness that didn’t quite gel with us, or maybe, just maybe, we do need a little bit of noise and ruckus to really feel at home in this world.