Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Travel Advice: Laos

From Hanoi, I took an overnight bus to Vientiane, Laos.  Red leather reclining seats and all.  You can get a visa for Laos at the border, or at the airport if you fly in to either Vientiane or Luang Prabang. Vientiane, and Laos in general, are so relaxing.  Vietnam has eighty-eight million people; Laos has six. Most of Laos is still jungle. There is no fast food in the country; a whole country without a McDonald’s is a nice change! Even though Vientiane is the capital, it feels like a small town.  There’s the Patuxai monument, and a neighborhood with sophisticated shopping--Gucci, Dolce Gabbana, and such.  There’s several wats, and along the river (forming the border with Thailand; you’d think there’d be a convenient  border crossing here, but in fact, the closest place to cross into Thailand is several miles away), open-air restaurants are set up on the sidewalk nearly every night in good weather.  I had the best barbecue ribs I think I’ve ever had  at a western  restaurant a few blocks away from the river; after you’ve been in China awhile, you really crave barbecue! There’s nothing terribly exciting to do in Vientiane other than eat and wander, but it’s a nice place to take it easy for a couple of days.  
The most popular place to visit in Laos is Luang Prabang.  They do have a small airport there, or you can go by land.  The easiest  way by land is a ten-hour bus trip from Vientiane.  The scenery along the way was so good, though, that it didn’t seem long at all.  You pass rice fields, villages of straw huts where naked children bathe by the village pump, and finally wind up into the mountains.  If you are prone to motion sickness, do take some dramamine to Laos.  About half way you pass Vang Vieng, a backpacker town  famous for extreme sports (mountain climbing, rafting, etc.) but I didn’t stop there. Once you arrive at the bus station in Luang Prabang, you can get a little truck that carries six people to take you to Sakkaline Road, which is the main street  off of which there are a lot of hotels and such.  Some of the guesthouses are quite expensive, but if you look online first you should be able to find a simpler place on a side street that is reasonable.  

Luang Prabang itself is surprisingly western for being in the jungle of northern Laos. A lot of its architecture is from when Laos was part of the French colony of Indochina; it’s filled with boutique hotels and western restaurants.  However, it’s a lot of fun, and it’s in a beautiful spot on a peninsula of land where the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers meet.   At night, there’s a huge street market on Sisavangvong Road where you can buy wonderful souvenirs.  If you go down to the very tip of the peninsula and fight your way through the weeds on a little path down to the river bank,  you will find a boy waiting with a boat who will take you across  the Khan for about  5000 kips (very little).   On that side is a village of wooden houses, with a few shops selling  woven  scarves and such.  Not a whole lot to do, but nice just to get into a village area for a bit.   There are several wats and temples in town; definitely spend a bit of time to explore these--they’re absolutely beautiful.  One of them, Wat Xieng Thong, has exterior walls  that are gilded gold, and it was only a block off the main road.  There are several others  that are just as nice along Sakkaline Road and Sisavangvong Road (The same road, really, but the name changes along the way).  My only regret about my time in Luang Prabang is that I didn’t plan time to spend more time in the wats, especially Wat Chom Si, which is up on a hill and has a good view.  Before you enter a temple, you must leave your shoes outside the door.  

Since there are so many wats and monasteries, there are lots of monks, mostly young boys in training.  They all wear bright orange robes and have shaved heads, so they’re easy to pick out.  At a certain time early in the morning, I think around six, the townspeople line the streets and the monks, hundreds of them, file through in a line with their bowls.  The townspeople put sticky rice and other food into their bowls as they pass.  They are used to  foreigners coming out to watch, so long as they are respectful.  The monks are not supposed to talk during the procession, and it’s considered disrespectful to touch the monks or block their path.  

The best thing about Luang Prabang, though, is where you can go from there.  There are elephant sanctuaries in the jungle near town; you can go for an elephant ride or spend the day giving an elephant a bath in the river.  There are several waterfalls; I went to Kuang Si and it was the most beautiful I’ve ever seen; water cascading down a whole series of drops through the jungle; the water was sea green, and there were calmer pools down from the falls where you could swim in the icy cold water; there is a little hut with a couple of stalls for changing in down there.  Along the path to the waterfall you pass a sanctuary for Asiatic Black Bears, better known as moon bears, that have been rescued from poachers  There are villages of ethnic minorities; one sells their own kind of whiskey--each bottle has either a scorpion or a small snake  preserved in it.  It made a good gift  for my brother.  You can buy it at the night market, too.  You can take a long boat across the  Mekong to the Buddha Cave.  There’s plenty of other things, too.  You can rent a scooter for about $25-30  a day and get yourself to some of them, or hire a tuk-tuk if you have a few people to share the fare, or you can join a small group  van trip.  There are several places along the main road that offer these group trips; I took one with only four people.  Visit several and compare what they offer.  These trips are about $40 for a day, but they pack a lot in.    

Leaving Luang Prabang depends on where you’re going next.  Bus to Vientiane if you’re going that way, flights to various places, a boat down the Mekong to Thailand, or, what I did--a twenty-four hour sleeper bus back into China, to Kunming.  Do not take this route if you’re prone to motion sickness.  The first five hours were terrible--winding through and over the mountains on a barely paved road in a large bus, while on a bunk that I couldn’t sit up in.  I just had to hang on tight to the rails to keep from being thrown out of the bunk while  repeating over and over, “I will not be sick, I will  not be sick.”  After those first few hours, though, it was quite comfortable.  But, it makes a great story now!  


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