Eventually, I got tired of the slow pace of Luang Namtha, although it felt great after the freneticism that is China, and decided to catch the bus to Luang Prabang. I booked through the “Bus Ticket Service” which claimed to be the one serving all the others, but the prices are almost identical, so there’s no real reason to use one over the other. It cost 120,000 kip to go from Luang Namtha to Luang Prabang, leaving at 8:30AM on a supposedly 8 hour trip.
The tuk-tuk price was “included” in the bus ticket fare, so I was picked up right on the main street and taken to the bus station, which is horrifyingly about 10km out of town. Then I gingerly deposited my backpack in the holding area under the bus, uncomfortably close to the motorbike also jammed in there, and mounted the steps, whacking my head for the first time that day on the dangling nonfunctional television at the front of the bus.
Flashback! It was exactly like the bus I had taken in Viet Nam with the double-decker space seats, if that bus was forty years older. It was like a giant version of my grandparents’ ancient pea-green RV. Every surface was covered, not in vinyl, but in well-used, tweedy fabric. The interior was rich beige (oxymoron?). But it wasn’t packed to the gills, and it had air-conditioning, so I didn’t have a problem. And then I did have a problem.
The old lady directly behind me was hacking and spitting into a transparent plastic bag about every 7 seconds. This sounds like an exaggeration. It is not. I made the mistake of looking back once to see what the hell was going on, and was rightfully annihilated with a glance at the clutched bag full of milky mucous and some unidentifiable brownish, tissue/leaf sludge. At that point, I just thanked God I’d bought new headphones in China, and proceeded to tune out.
We only made two stops that included buildings during the trip, but made a number of pullovers on the side of the winding, never-ending jungle road. It was fun to be able to pee amongst the foliage with all the other Lao ladies (almost all of whom simply wear the Laotian wrap skirt and some kind of top), although I did worry about bugs or spiders getting all up in it.
Every single time I got off of the bus, I whacked my skull on that godforsaken dangling television. The Lao people are all shorter than I am, so they probably didn’t see it as an issue. I was also almost last to get off the bus each time, because I hate pushing, and because I was afraid of somehow bumping Bag Lady and being covered in escaping creamy sputum, so no one ever saw my repeated head injuries, or they probably would have done something.
The conductor and his homies(?) were busily employed at each stop in taping the windshield back to the bus with packaging tape. It seemed to hold well; we made it to Luang Prabang with it still attached. However, it did not take 8 hours to get there. It took closer to 13, with us showing up around 9PM, to a bus station that is also outside of town. Another Aryan was tumbled from the bus with me (yeah, thanks, I like it when the contents of the pockets of my backpack are dumped on the inside of the luggage space and then driven away. byeeee deodorant…byeeee toothbrush…), so I asked if he wanted to share a tuk-tuk, and then haggled it to 30,000 kip for the 2 of us.
Toby turned out the be German, and was incredibly laconic. We split once we hit the center of town (it’s almost impossible to go by twos through the Night Market), but both ended up checking into the same guesthouse–Bou Pha–and haggling the price down. My room had two twin beds and no proper door, so I asked Toby to camp out and split the bill. Backpacking economics, everyone!
The next day, we decided to look for a better place. Toby had a recommendation for one Spicy Lao Backpackers Hostel which was just a km or so away, so we hoofed it on over. 25,000 kip per night for a bunk bed, fan-cooled hostel. Sounds good!
Sai/Psy, the owner, is an Probably Slightly Less Boring Than Working guy. He just wants everyone to have a good time, and immediately put me in charge of the music (yay!)–complete with the mixer and fat speaker setup. He is constantly offering Lao beers and whiskey, and trying to help you make plans for the day. And the plans available are great. During the day, you can: wake up early to offer food to the monks, drive to the rice fields to see waterbuffalo and locals, take a free tuk-tuk to La Pistoche (a swimming pool cum bar that is NOT free–20,000 to get in, with a ridiculous 50,000 deposit [for food, you know? and drinks?] I always had to beg money off people, and I never spent it, who spends deposit money!?), two waterfalls (one is Barely Noticeable, Kuang Si, and one is lame and pipe-fed, Tad Sae), many temples, and local villages–besides other town-type activities.
At night, you can choose to go to any bar until it closes at 11, including the illustrious Utopia, which it seems everyone under 30 goes to. It’s really just a place to chill, not dance, as it’s jammed with grody little floormats and pillows inside the gazebo-like main structure, and then there’s a rickety bamboo balcony overlooking the river, and some tabled grottos via the nearby gravel path. There is a volleyball court though, and some questionable VJing, comprised generally of endless loops of people undergoing MODERATELY UNCOMFORTABLE and embarrassing accidents. Shots of lao-lao, moonshine, are less than a dollar each, and really don’t hit you until you stand up to play volleyball and the world tilts under you.
After the bars close, everyone who wants to keep the party going charters a tuk-tuk to the bowling alley, which appears to be in the middle of nowhere. I’m not sure how late it’s open, but I stayed till 3AM one night and it was still going strong. You can have more drinks and some classic bowling foods at this location. The games are 20,000 a pop, which is a bit steep for me, and you’ll also have to pay 5,000 to the tuk-tuk driver if you go with 6 or more people. Some people hate the bowling alley, citing it as a classic Western attraction and so not worthy of a good time, but I think bowling is fun and harmless, and there’s really not a lot to do at night, so options are slim.
There’s also a Lao disco that goes until (whomp, whomp) 11PM. The music is good, but the bouncers are rude and pushy and nobody really dances. You can also choose to stay at your guesthouse and run through 3 packs of tuk-tuk driver weed with your homies. At night, the tuk-tuk drivers ask first, loudly, if you’d like a ride, then mutter, “weed, weed” at you hopefully. I’ve heard of the same sack of weed being bought for 50, 70, 80, and 100,000 kip, so it’s all about your bargaining skills I suppose. A pack of cigarettes can run anywhere from 3,000 kip upwards, depending on how fancy you like to buy your death sticks.
It’s illegal to use or sell drugs in Laos, but it seems that the guesthouses turn a blind eye, and the backpacker cafes all pay bribes to the police ahead of time. People seem to get into trouble when they smoke in public, I’ve heard 4 cases of drug arrests so far. More on that in Vang Vieng.
So, I went to the pool. It’s nice, and the bar abuts the pool, so you can have your drink on a watery seat. 40,000 for 2 matched cocktails, but I didn’t try any, because I was pissed about my deposit. I went to both waterfalls; you have to charter a tuk-tuk out there, it’s about 30km, they’ll want 30 a person for the round-trip if you can get 4 or more. Kuang Si really is lovely, the water is a solid turquoise and refreshingly cool. You’ll feel chilled if you’re in it for more than an hour. It’s a cascade of falls that you can also clamber up and down, beginning with an enormous defile at the top. It’s also 20,000 extra to get in; Tad Sae is 10,000, but you’ll need to pay an extra 10,000 to take a canoe to the actual “falls”. Budget accordingly. There are also elephants there.
After your outings, you’ll want to head to the 10,000 kip all-you-can-eat vegetarian buffets near the Night Market. They’re down an alley, directly in front of The Indigo, a swank hotel/bakery. You’ll see them on all sides once you hit a certain point, and it’s as much as you can stack on a plate–all vegetarian. I love these buffets. Noodles, noodles, and more noodles for yours truly–with a fat stack of pineapple chunks and fried spring rolls on top. I’m training, ok?! It’s ok not to take the first one you see, shop around a bit. You can also buy supplementary grilled meat sticks and drinks.
Before you gorge yourself, drag yourself up Phou Si Mountain to watch the sun set from the temple that’s up there. They’ll charge you 20,000 kip and give you a ticket, but it’s good for at least twice–no one seems to go more than that and report back–so don’t let that stand in your way. Coat yourself in bug spray, or whip out your cigarettes, ‘cuz those guys are hungry! All of the sunsets I saw were lackluster, but I have seen some gorgeous skies in Laos. It’s all in the timing I think.
Eventually, it rains a little every day (July). By a little, I mean quite dramatically for several minutes, and then nothing. Just go inside or under a tree for a bit and you’ll be fine. Of course, you could be trapped for an hour if you’re unlucky in your storm. It’s Most Unexceptional to just give up the struggle to maintain dryness.
There’s the Night Market, the Morning Market–it’s next-door neighbor, and then there’s a local market, called something starting with N or M. I’m sorry, it wasn’t titled anything on my map, and it took an hour of wandering to find it. However, it’s really easy once you know where it is–nearish the swimming pool. It’s about a half-hour walk from the center of town and has clothes, produce, and some select cooked options such as sausage (yum), mango sticky rice (in Laos, the rice is green and the sweet coconut looks like light grey sludge). They’re open to light haggling–nothing on Chinese levels–and mostly can’t speak English. I walked there several times for dragonfruit–to which I am addicted.
Throughout the city, there are small booths selling “Lao sandwiches” and fruit shakes. These are ubiquitous throughout Laos. I’m not sure if it’s a response to Western tourism, or if these are just the snacks that have been most popularized through it, but you can buy a huge fruit shake for under a dollar 5-7,000 kip and a foot-long baguette with a variety of toppings starting at 10,000 kip. They’re open late, and many travelers choose to get shakes spiked with Tiger Whiskey or lao-lao, or to do it themselves.
Speaking of Westerners, the entire town seems to be comprised of backpackers. The place caters to them–Night Markets, hostels, entertainment…the poor Laos have to turn a blind eye to public inebriation and flights of fashion. It’s the first place in Asia–outside of Koh Phangan and Bangkok–that I’ve seen so many foreigners. In a way, it’s nice to meet people “like me”, i.e. with a Western culture that obeys lines and washes their hands. But it also opens a whole other can of worms, like amorous cupidity, desired or otherwise.
It’s also frustrating to deal with people’s ideas of you as a person from a certain country, and to hear your countrymen’s ideas on people from other countries as well. There have been many things posted on how to identify Americans in other countries, only a few of the ideas proffered do I actually agree with. Here’s what I think:
We are loud. I’m not sure how all of us ended up so loud; even when I’m talking quietly I feel as though I’m projecting for an audience of 15. It’s quite difficult for me to understand people, say, from Germany, who consistently speak in an undertone, and have an accent to boot. I can always hear other Americans, sometimes from half a block away.
We’re friendly. Americans are generally the first to introduce themselves, or to make conversation when entering a new scene. It’s nice, but seems almost embarrassingly ingenuous.
We also make a lot of jokes and ask a lot of questions.
We don’t understand when we’re being made fun of, especially by Brits, who delight in it. We seem to take everything at face value, not seeing “great” as anything less than great. We’re just so eager!
We also love to explain things. This goes hand-in-hand with the foregoing. If someone asks us something, we won’t see it as the opening scene of a lengthy joke, but as a great opportunity to lay some knowledge down. And, generally, the knowledge-laying is dishearteningly lacking in true information. But not as bad as the (not American) girl who, one night, told us all that gecko meant regeneration in Latin.
Canadians do not fit this mold. You can always tell a French Canadian, but the biggest difference between our Anglo Northern Cousins and us is our confidence. Canadians never start conversations, offer information, or make jokes, and they speak almost as quietly as the Germans.
New topic. If you want a massage, walk near the river. There are maybe ten massage parlors, and you can haggle that 40,000 down to 30,000 if you like. But my advice is, don’t get a Lao massage. They’re painful and amateurish, with the masseuses often seeming like bored teenagers at their part-time job–plugging in their headphones and singing along to cover your screams while straddling your back and digging their thumbs into the meat of your lats.