Friday, November 26, 2010

Luang Prabang, Laos

We woke up early and received a ride from the owners of the guest house to the river. The river serves as a border between Thailand and Laos. First we had to take a ferry over to the Laos side. Once there, we went to get our visas. This is a process I naively thought would be easy. Apparently everyone arrives at 9am to obtain their visas on arrival. There were 2 windows where Laos immigration personnel were working from, and in front of these windows there were around 50 people wanting to get their visa into Laos. Of course they were not standing in any organized fashion. There were no lines formed. After 10 minutes of trying out to figure out the process, someone (one of the tourists) told us there were 2 forms we must complete. These 2 forms were kept right by the two windows. Earlier we had met 2 German girls, Nora and Maya, and they managed to squeeze through the crowd and get the forms, and they got the forms for us as well. While Andrew waited “in line” I went to fill out my form. Once done we squeezed our way through the crowed and gave them our passports, filled out forms and 2 passport photos, which they took and told us to wait. We waited about 30 minutes and it seemed like everyone’s passports were being handed back to them but ours. It didn’t help there was a tour group of French seniors who’s guide had somehow managed to convince the immigration personnel to process the passports all at once.

Finally we had our passports and we headed to the boats, which were to take us to Luang Prabang. A lady stopped us and told us it would be more expensive to purchase boat tickets at the dock and that she had them cheaper. We were reluctant to believe her but she offered a free ride to the doc (about 5km’s away) so we bought the tickets with her. Once we boarded the boats we were quite surprised at the seating arrangements. The boat held around 100 people, and although there was enough seating for all, not all seating was created equal. Around 20 seats at the back were old car or bus seats. Seating on the boats was not assigned so it was first come first serve. All of those seats were already taken. What was left reminded me of a concentration camp. The remaining seats were hard wooden “benches” with half the required leg room. They were not only hard but small. We were stuck with those seats for the next 7 hours. It was a miserable 7 hours. Some people opted to sit on the floor rather than on the actual benches. Andrew and I alternated between one of us sitting with their legs up on the bench while the other would lie down on the floor in between the seats. Believe it or not the lying on the floor was much more comfortable than sitting on the beach.

After 7 hours we reached Pak Beng. A town whose main purpose was a stop over for the boats headed to Luang Prabang. We got a room for the night, grabbed some food and went to sleep. Our plan was to wake up early and get a couple of those old car seats at the back of the boat for that day’s 8 hour journey. The boat was scheduled to leave at 9am. We arrived at 8am convinced we would be able to grab one of the more comfortable seats. We boarded the boat and saw a bunch of those good seats free. We headed to the back excited. Then we saw that they were all already taken. People had arrived early and put their stuff there and then went to get breakfast (A good idea I must admit). We were not thrilled to be sitting on the hard benches again. We picked a bench at the front with the most leg room and settled in for the journey. At about 8:45am, Nora and Maya showed up at the boat. We ran into them the previous night before dinner and were talking about the uncomfortable seats, and we all said we would be heading down early to catch a good seat. We agreed whoever arrived first would reserve seats for the others. They saw us sitting on those benches and told us they had come early and, bless their little hearts, saved some seats for us! We were so excited! I don’t think I have ever been so happy to sit on old shitty car seats before. These were by no means luxurious, and the leg room still sucked but they were soft! The ride was uneventful, except for this amazing cave we saw right outside of Luang Prabang. We arrived at the dock and with Maya and Nora went looking for a guest house. The city is not very big but it’s a UNESCO World Heritage City and all the old French Colonial buildings are very well preserved, which translates into higher prices. In addition everyone charges in $US not the Laos Kip. After walking for 20 minutes or so we decided to drop our bags at a bench where Maya and I would stay, and Andrew and Nora would go searching for a guest house. They returned 30 minutes later with 2 rooms. They were not the cheapest (around 70,000 Kip = $9CAD) but by the Luang Prabang standards that was cheap as before that a guest house wanted $30US. While I was waiting with Maya for Andrew and Nora to return I learned her and Nora were studying to be teachers in Germany, and were starting their hand on training in January. Nora would be teaching German and Biology to High School kids while Maya would be teaching German as well along with Math to Grade School kids.

The next day I was not feeling very well, as I ate something that did not agree with me. We weren’t sure if it was the dinner from the night before or from 2 nights before. It’s hard to tell as we both ate the same thing and Andrew was fine. Either way by noon I was well enough to go out and we rented 2 bicycles to explore the town. While riding around a girl who had been on the boat with us stopped us and told us to be careful with our backpacks and to not keep them in the baskets at the front of the bicycles as her friends was just mugged. Apparently the thief just went up to her while she was on her bicycle and grabbed her bag right in front of her and ran away. We were more careful after that but I’m glad to say we didn’t run into any situations like that. In the evening we met up with Maya and Nora again and we to a bar for drinks. At “Lao Lao Bar” we ordered some drinks but we also decided to try the Lao BBQ with Water Buffalo. This dish was intended for 1 person but none of us were that hungry so we split it. It’s a good thing because it was quite large. The Water Buffalo came raw with 2 big pieces of pork fat and the server showed us how to cook it on top of the bucket with charcoals which was brought to our table. The dish they placed on top looked like a large stainless steel bowl with another inverted stainless steel bowl inside it. With the meat you get raw vegetables such as cabbage, lettuce, tomatoes, mushrooms, bean sprouts, vermicelli noodles and 2 whole uncooked eggs and a bucket of broth. The server showed us that the pork fat is placed on top of the inverted bowl to grease it up for the Water Buffalo. The broth and vegetables are placed in the bottom bowl to cook (kind of like Vietnamese Pho) and the eggs are punctured at the top and the bottom to create two holes, and the eggs are drained into the soup to cook. The cooking process only takes about 5-10 minutes. Maya is a vegetarian so she did not eat the Water Buffalo, but the rest of us did and it was very similar to Beef, however much more chewy. The soup was delicious and tasted very similar to the Vietnamese Pho but with a lot more ingredients and flavor. We were all very happy with it. While at the bar we met a couple who had been on our boat and was also staying at our guest house. We arranged to meet the following morning at 10am to visit the cave we saw from the boat and to see a waterfall in the area.
We hired a large Tuk-Tuk for the 7 of us, as Marcus, also on the boat with us, joined us. I should mention it was pretty hard getting a Tuk-Tuk for 7 people. Apparently they are only allowed to take up to 6 people when leaving the city, or otherwise they have to pay a fine, this being a communist country and all. But we somehow managed to convince one driver. The cave was 1 hour away by Tuk Tuk. We needed to cross the river again but this time by a small ferry. The cave was large and very tourist oriented. We didn’t spend more than an hour there and made our way over to the waterfall. On the way we stopped at “Whiskey Village” where they let us sample some of their rice “whiskeys”. I didn’t try any but I think the last one Andrew tried was around 50% proof. Then we continued on to the waterfall.

We arrived at the waterfall around 2:30pm. We knew you were allowed to swim there so we all came prepared with our swimming items. And I am so glad we did. The waterfall consisted of 3 or 4 different levels. We were able to swim in the smaller ones. The water was freezing but the colour was a beautiful blue. The weather was hot outside so we did not mind the temperature. We went up a level and found a rope attached to a tree which you could swing from and jump in the water. We all had a turn, or two or three. It was so much fun and a perfect end to a hot day. You could also jump from the top of one of the waterfalls and there were a lot of people doing that as well. I was so scared the first time I was going to swing from the rope, I was shaking. As I was jumping in the water I was screaming. It was so much fun!

After we got back to town we showered, changed and grabbed a delicious sandwich on a real French baguette with some Lao coffee, at the market. 2 sandwiches and 2 coffees cost us $2.50. I was so glad that Laos used to occupied by the French because they knew how to make good French bread. In the evening we headed off to a bar across another river with Maya and Nora. It was up a hill and we got to sit on the floor and overlook the city. It was beautiful.

The next day Maya and Nora grabbed a bus to Vang Vieng, and we grabbed a bus to Nong Khiaw. I was sad to say goodbye to them as we had a good time hanging out. It was nice to have other people around, but we knew we would meet others soon enough.

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