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Luang Prabang, Laos

Feb 23 – 26

From Luang Namtha, Miguel and I took the bus to Udomxai. I was glad we decided to ride our bikes to the bus station the day before and buy bus tickets, because the bus was full! But of course that didn’t stop them from squeezing more people on anyway. They just brought a bunch of plastic chairs and stuck them in the aisles. And a crazy man with a giant bouquet of colorful balloons of various shapes (birds, hearts, airplanes, swords, clowns) made his way onto the bus too. He stuck his giant mound of balloons right in the aisle so every time anyone had to move around or get off the bus, they had to maneuver around them. And of course the bus stopped many times so everyone could pee. As soon as the bus stopped, all the men went in one direction and I had a cute little female bonding moment with some of the Laos women as we all marched off in the opposite direction and shielded each other while we took turns peeing in a patch of bushes. Everytime the bus stopped, the crazy man with the balloons seemed to use the opportunity to take his pants off and walk around in his underwear. Not sure what that was all about.

The bus was going all the way to Luang Prabang, but Miguel and I had the idea that we wanted to stop in Udomxai to check it out. We hopped off the bus just before the town center (on accident) but it ended up working out best, as Udomxai has a really great tourist info center that we would have missed had we gotten off the bus in town. And…we had an interesting greeting squad when we got off the bus:

Anyway, in my opinion, the tourist info center is the best thing about the town. They have a nice library with books about social and environmental topics pertaining to Laos and Southeast Asia, informative displays about local handicrafts, and they have pamphlets with a list of things to do in Udomxai. And the smiley people at the counter give you a free map (more than I can say for most places) and let you use their bathroom. It’s clear that they’re really trying hard to turn Udomxai into a tourist destination. We decided not to stay in Udomxai though. The motorbike rental options looked gloomy and the town itself didn’t really motivate us to stick around long.

After eating at a restaurant serving lukewarm food cooked without love (which I think was the cause of my food poisoning), Miguel and I walked to the bus station to look into our options of going straight to Luang Prabang. We had just gotten off a bus headed in that direction, so we had to find another one. Luckily we found a minivan leaving in a few hours, so we sat around at the bus station and waited. Miguel entertained little kids with his skateboard while I wandered around searching for a book (only to get more strange stares from people when I tried to explain what I wanted). I returned empty handed.

The drive to Luang Prabang was long, but I wouldn’t have been able to read anyway…as the ride was super bumpy and curvy and I felt a bit carsick even without a book. Our bus was already quite packed (with people as well as bags of rice and other produce). But of course the driver kept stopping to pick people up. And just as I was thinking we were packed full and couldn’t possibly fit another person, someone just wanting a quick ride to a neighboring village would hop on and manage to squeeze in somehow. We’d all shift around to make room for the extra people. Some people would scoot over and share their seats, others would lose their seats all together. As uncomfortable and long as the trip was (not to mention dusty and hot), it made me realize why I love traveling the way the locals do. Not only do you get a peek into how these people live, but there’s a sense of camaraderie when you’re on a long journey like this. It doesn’t matter if you’re a farmer or a mother or a monk or a tourist. You’re all in it together.

After about 6 hours of long, curvy roads alongside tiny villages, our minibus stopped in Luang Prabang. Well actually it stopped just outside (so we’d have to pay an extra little bit of money to a tuk tuk to get into town). It was already dark and we didn’t feel like bargaining, so we just paid the price the guy was asking even though we knew it was a bit too much. At the last minute, some random guys jumped on and piled mounds and mounds of rice bags into the back. And even though we had paid the full fare ourselves, the tuk tuk went out of the way to drop these guys off at their house first. That’s how things go in Laos. No sense in being frustrated, because you can’t do much about it. Just expect everything to take 3 times longer than it should.

Anyway, what can I say about Luang Prabang? Most people arrive via slow boat. Traveling to Luang Prabang by slow boat seems to be almost a rite of passage among travelers to Laos. Here’s a forum about the Xuay Xai – Pakbeng – Luang Prabang slow boat. But Miguel and I didn’t want to take the slow boat. It sounded….slow.

We opted for the slow bus instead.

Luang Prabang is a UNESCO world heritage site. With its French architecture, cobblestone streets, art galleries, used bookstores, and nice but overpriced restaurants, it feels a little bit like a European town with an Asian flare. It does have a serene feel to it. Monks meander around the temples and along the Mekong river, tiny Laos women stroll around town perched on top of bicycles while holding umbrellas, and small street stalls sell coffee or fresh juice or vegetable sandwiches for people to take away and eat while wandering around the river.

Luang Prabang is a nice town, but all the tourists certainly do take away from its atmosphere. Large groups of young, inappropriately dressed tourists wander around the streets. They snap photos of the monks without asking, they pack into tuk tuks to tour the nearby waterfalls, and at night they pile into the bars to have obnoxious sessions of cheap beer drinking. And because Luang Prabang is such a big tourist destination, hotels and guesthouses are not cheap compared to other towns in Laos. And there are so many hotels now that it’s tough to picture what Luang Prabang was probably like 20 or 30 years ago.

Anyway, I apologize in advance for my lack of photos and my post’s failure to capture the essence of Lang Prabang. I know there are great things about the city. Luang Prabang has many famous sites and it is often the only Laos city people visit on their trips to Southeast Asia. And while Luang Prabang is popular for a reason, Miguel and I didn’t really see any of the temples or other sites unfortunately. There are several reasons for this.

For one, it was miserably hot and dry and walking around for even just one hour made us feel like our brains were boiling.

For two, the air was terrible! It made my eyeballs red and irritated and I was afraid to breath too deeply. Apparently we were there during the worst time. While this photo looks pretty…this is not mist – it’s smog from slash-and-burn farming. Here’s a health warning about this problem in Laos. Apparently the dry season (February to March) is the worst time to travel to there. And we were there in February.

Aside from making my eyeballs hurt, I had a bad cough and my lungs sometimes felt like they were burning. It didn’t make me want to be outside.

For three, I was terribly terribly ill most of the time I was in Luang Prabang. I had just been bragging about my stomach of steel and how I never get sick from the food or water. And of course….the very next day….food poisoning! I spent an entire day in my hotel puking. Miguel stayed with me most of the day, then would wander outside for a bit and return to check on me periodically. He tried to make me feel better, but there wasn’t much he could do. Still it was really nice not to be alone. Every now and then I’d try to leave the hotel and eat something, but I’d always end up running back to the room. My stomach was queasy for the next few days….and it didn’t help that every time I went outside, my lungs would fill up with smog. I never thought I was a big fan of papaya, but it was the only thing I was able to keep down. Now I think papaya is great.

When I wasn’t holed up in our hotel room puking, we did manage to see a little bit of Luang Prabang. We walked around the night market, where people from various tribes come to sell their handicrafts. You have to bargain of course, but I thought the prices were very reasonable and I bought a few things from them. Another night, we went bowling. Good times.

During the days, Miguel and I tried to keep cool by swimming. And we had a fun time looking for ways to gain access to the water.

We tried several ways. One involved walking on a bridge, another involved tromping through someone’s garden, another involved sliding down mountains of trash. None of these worked out well.

Eventually we found a way through this person’s backyard (thanks to the little kids who saw us on the bridge and directed us).

The current was really strong. We saw a few kids with inner tubes and wished we had our own, but who knows how far down the Mekong we would have ended up. If we’re ever back in Luang Prabang though, we’ll buy some tubes and go tubing.

The monks also went for a swim. But they didn’t go tubing. Maybe next time we can get them to join us.

The buffalo also liked the water.

And, if a vegetarian person comes to Luang Prabang, where should they eat dinner? Here! It’s a veggie buffet right inside the night market. I never would have expected that, but there it is. It’s not the most amazing food you’ll ever have, but there are many different things to choose from and it’s perfect for the price. 5000 kip for a plate (about 50 cents) and you can buy rice paper rolls for an extra 1000kip each (which we did). It’s a small street stall with a few big communal picnic table attached.

Notes:

  • Sorry to say, but the tourist brochures that talk about the pristine, tree lined banks of the Mekong River….well, they never mention the piles of trash that are also there.

  • Alms giving is an ancient tradition in Luang Prabang and unfortunately there are many disrespectful tourists who go simply to take a few photos rather than to understand and appreciate Buddhism and the Laotian culture. Here is a Lonely Planet forum about this topic (and tourism in Luang Prabang in general).

  • Miguel’s new look. Doesn’t he look like a scary cop?

  • Olive oil crossing!

  • This cat seems to be wearing lipstick.

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1 Comment

  1. nana

     /  July 18, 2009

    Cristen, let me tell you how to deal with vomiting and diarrhea. It was the way I handled it with our family, especially when your dad and Rhonda were small. Stop eating and drinking till the nausea subsides–then begin with fluids only (tea, coke, ginger ale, or water)–just 1 tsp the first time. Increase your fluids a tsp at a time, every 15 minutes. If you throw up, you must start over.

    When you can hold down a few tablespoons without throwing up, you’ll be on your way. You can then begin to add solid food. (Rice and/or bananas are the best if you have diarrhea.) Increase solids very slowly, too–and take your time adding other foods.) What your body needs most is to avoid dehydration. Increasing your iquids too quickly will aggravate your nausea and cause you to lose more fluid, so don’t rush the process, take your time.

    This worked on our babies, and it worked on me.

    Stay well. I love you,
    Nana

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