Crossing the Mekong
18.11.2012 - 30.11.2012
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I crossed into Laos at Huay Xai taking the boat across the Mekong, which is the boarder between Laos and Thailand. From there I got the bus to Luang Prabang, I opted not to take the slow boat route down the Mekong which takes two days. I've heard mixed views from travellers on the experience. One traveller I met said on the 2nd day only one boat turned up and 130 people crammed on board, instead of the 70 max. Journeys in Laos are on Lao time; they may or may not leave on time, and so far it always taken at least 2 hours longer to get to my final destination, however there is always a loo break, and if you're desperate the side of the road is a good option. The first bus was a night one and about an hour into the journey it broke down ... for the first time. We piled out into the night greeted by blackness, looking up hundreds of stars where twinkling at us, it made sitting on the road side very pleasant. Plus its not cold here! After the driver had rounded up all the water onboard and poured it on the overheated engine we were on our way ... for 15 minutes. The second time we piled off the bus we were in a small village, the houses were all made of bamboo and were lit up by pale lights making it again a pleasant impromptu stop. I peeked into the houses and each house I looked in I found people happily crammed into a room watching TV. It was a good sight 14 hours later we arrived in Luang Prabang, sleep was had, even though at one point I did wonder as the aircon pumped petrol fumes at us.
Luang Prabang is the old capital and a world hertiage site. There are lots of temples on the peninsular and the Mekong flows by it. I swam in the local waterfall, kayaked down the Nam Ou (a tributary for the Mekong), visited Pak Ou Cave with 4000 buddahs, ate delicious pancakes, tried rice whiskey (potent!), wandered through the night market and got up early to see the Monks alms-giving. I took a slow boat up the Nam Ou, the river teamed with life; men fishing, children swimming and playing, women washing, water buffalos bathing. I ended up in the tiny village of Muang Ngoi who only had electricity between 5.30pm and 9.30pm. It was quite refreshing and an amazing night sleep!
I took the bus from Luang Prabang to Vientiane. Apart from a local bus, which was a great experince, this was the first bus i had been on since the epic 14 hours. it was better, it was only 12 hours this time to reach my destination. We started by winding up through the mountains, it was foggy and raining at one point but when it lifted you could clearly see that the numerous bushes we been looking out at were in fact tree tops! The views were fantastic. I arrived in Vientiane in time for the final day of the Largest Buddist festival in the country. It took place at Pra That Luang the most sacred Stuppa and Temple in all of Laos. It was a crazy site to see as outside the temple were beerLao stalls, music blaring, fairground games, stalls selling all sorts. Inside the temple everyone went to say their prayers. The monks led a round of prayers, walking three times around the Stuppa and at the end, fireworks. It was truely magical.
Point to note and share: My Lonely Planet guide has been a most useful starting point in each place i've visited however the one striking thing is that in the 2 years since it was published Thailand remains similar to the pages within the guide however Laos has changed, its developed. If you are travelling to Laos no matter what your guide LP book says there are lots of ATMs and the prices have gone up, Laos is now more expensive then Thailand. I will say this, Laos is well worth the money. The people are lovely and friendly its so easy to get into conversations with them. Even when the English is limited there are lots of smiles. I was sat watching the sun setting over the Mekong this evening chatting with the Lao girl who was sat next to me doing the exact same thing.
Highlight - Buddist Festival and slow boat on the Nam Ou
Lowlight - being tired from the bus journeys.