A Journey to the Deep North (Isarn) and Beyond: Part Five
For the final morning, of my stay in Veng Vien, the haze had finally lifted. As I sat there eating my breakfast, the view out over the ranges was bright and clear. I’d had a great two days of caving and was sorely tempted to postpone the trip up to Luang Prabang for another couple of days. But with the likelihood that I’d probably just have to cough up for another couple of seats, if I did postpone, I thought better of it and decided to stick to my agenda.
A bright, clear day over the ranges
The hotel can arrange the bus fare for you and also the transfer to the bus station. The fare on the VIP bus was 110,000 Kip per seat so I did what I normally do, on any long distance bus trip, and booked two. The departure time was 11:00 AM. The transfer pick-up arrived at 10:30 and we did the usual run around a bunch of hotels cramming people, and bags, into the back of the vehicle like sardines. The guys doing the transfer have it down to a fine art; the last two, to be picked up, were crammed into the spare seat next to the driver. When we arrived at the bus station I was pleasantly surprised; the VIP bus actually looked like a VIP bus. The seating was roomy, comfortable and had plenty of leg room for the 7-hour trip.
The only oddity, and this was the first time I’d ever seen this on bus travel anywhere, was that everyone was required to remove their shoes before boarding the bus. As we filed towards the door we were handed plastic bags to store our shoes in. For those wearing flip flops it was a minimal effort situation. For those, such as yours truly, shod in lace-ups it was a bloody nuisance. With everyone boarded, and heads counted, we lurched off on the 260-kilometer trip North to Luang Prabang. As we rumbled out of Veng Vien I already knew what to expect of the road as I’d traveled up it the day before. Thankfully the bus actually had a decent set of shock absorbers so the ride wasn’t so bad. I had my camera at the ready for views that I found particularly impressive.
As the road wound on up into the mountains we all became numbed to the bone-rattling we were receiving. I think most, including myself, just sat back and decided that if this was our lot for the next 7 hours then we’d better get used to it. 50 clicks up the road, from Veng Vien, things changed to a more positive note when we entered the province of Kasi. The road was entirely (probably 95%) sealed for the 213-kilometer trip onwards to Luang Prabang and even though it switch backed up and down through the mountains, the run was much smoother. The scenery was spectacular and I found myself, at times, comparing it to some parts of New Zealand; the Waioeka Gorge being an example. The shot below was probably the best I was able to get from a moving bus and, unfortunately, doesn’t do the dramatic landscape justice.
The dramatic landscape during the run up to Luang Prabang
Two hours into our run north, and high up in the ranges somewhere, we pulled over for a scheduled break. I was busting for a piss and had worked out a way of avoiding the delay of putting on my shoes as I got off the bus. I put them on, while still on the bus, and walked around with the plastic bags still covering them. When I got back on the bus, instead of taking off my shoes, I just changed the plastic bags. The only other thing of note, during this scheduled stop, was that there was no fee for the toilets. The bus ticket also included a coupon for a free meal; a bowl of noodle soup. 20 minutes later we were back on the bus and winding our way up through the high peaks again. We entered a remote region, well up into the mountains, which I estimated was roughly half way between Veng Vien and Luang Prabang. In one isolated little village in particular all the dwellings were constructed of wood and woven bamboo; it was stark to say the least and made me appreciate the reasonable standard of living one enjoys back in Thailand.
A dwelling in a remote mountain village in Laos
After another scheduled refreshment stop, and a further 2 hours of winding our way through the mountains, we descended down into the valley that skirts the Mekong and runs through to Luang Prabang. Just on six and a half hours after leaving Veng Vien we were pulling into the Luang Prabang bus terminal. As I shuffled off the bus in my plastic bag covered feet I was confronted by a bunch of touts offering business cards for various guesthouses. After retrieving my pack, and finding a seat to steady myself to remove the plastic bags, I took a card for one of the guesthouses. Bunches of young travelers were being herded into tuktuks, for the run into town, so I decided to sit back and wait till things calmed down before being hurried along by one of the touts. As I sat down on one of the bench seats I noticed two lovely Asian ladies sitting nearby looking a little lost. I introduced myself to find that they were indeed both Thai and from Bangkok. Like me, they had no accommodation arranged and they were a bit unsure of their next move. We eventually decided to take a less crowded tuktuk into the town center and see what eventuated from there. As the tuktuk sped towards the town square the Thai ladies told me that they both worked at a small hotel in Bang Na and were in Laos for a few days for their annual holiday. One of the things that I noted fairly quickly – and this is something which I will comment more on later – is the difference in manner, and attitude, between normal girls and bar girls. These two were polite, even humble, whereas bargirls (whores) often project obnoxious mannerisms.
Ten minutes later we were all getting down at the central town square, which also happens to be the location of the night market. The two lovely Thai ladies were shown the location of an inexpensive guesthouse, nearby, and we bade farewell. As dusk faded to darkness I was standing next to the tuktuk waiting for a bunch of young travelers to sort themselves out. They had a booking for a hotel but couldn’t remember the name of it. One of the group ran off to find an internet shop and as I hung about aimlessly I found myself wondering why such a young group would be so disorganized? Fifteen minutes later they had the name of the hotel and we were on our way again. I got off at the guesthouse address, on the business card given to me, only to find there were no rooms left. I wandered back up the road towards a hotel we’d passed, a couple of minutes earlier, in the Tuk-tuk. Fifteen minutes later I was checking into the Rama Hotel: Tel: +856 71 253255. The Rama shares the distinction, with one other building, of being the tallest structure (four stories) in Luang Prabang. The room rate was USD 40 per night and included free wi-fi and buffet breakfast. The rooms were clean, and comfortable, and all are air-conditioned with hot water showers.
I stowed my kit and wandered back down to the lobby area; attached to it was a nice restaurant called the Pilgrims Café. The food was a mix of Lao, Western and Indian and as I ordered a cappuccino I was lucky enough to meet another interesting, and helpful westerner who just happened to be working part time in the café. Josiah was a teenage American guy who’d been in Luang Prabang for a couple of years with his parents who were teachers on an assignment in Laos and, as I sat down to enjoy my meal, he talked about his amazing life of travel and adventure. Prior to being in Laos the family had been in a remote location in Northern India for a few years. In fact the area they’d been in was so remote that he said that he’d often seen snow leopards. I finished my meal and we continued sharing stories. I talked about my caving adventures, in Veng Vien, and also mentioned that I was fairly keen to get out and see the Kuang Xi Waterfall the following day. Unfortunately I hadn’t given myself much time in Luang Prabang – I was only going to be here for one full day – so I said that I was keen to cram in as much as I could in my short stay there. Josiah mentioned that the night markets back at the town center were worth a look and, if I wanted to wait, he’d show me around after they shut the café.
At a few minutes after 9 PM we were on our way, back up to the town center to have a look at the night markets. Beginning at one end of the town center, the night market is an impressive array of covered vendors stalls which run for a good distance – approximately 400 meters – up a cordoned off street. There are the usual collection of colourful embroidered cloth, artwork, woodwork, and natural jewelry that one often sees at other open markets in this region. There were also some unusual brews, and concoctions, for those who might feel their energy levels flagging or caught short for some Viagra. A number of vendors were selling snake and centipede tonic (whiskey) and I was doubly assured that “it make you strong.”
The usual traditional merchandise of a local, outdoor market
Snake and centipede tonic; it make you strong
After another hour or so spent checking out the tourist restaurant, and café area, I decided to head back to the hotel for a well earned rest; I was feeling pretty zapped after the long bus ride and wanted to get a decent night’s sleep in anticipation of the busy day ahead of me. I thanked Josiah for his time and told him I’d probably catch up with him the following afternoon. In parting, he mentioned that the morning market might be worth a look as sometimes they have wild game there; exotic creatures such as armadillo, snake or monkey. I said “I’d have a look if I was in the area.”
After a solid eight hours sleep, and a good breakfast, I was out the door of the hotel by 9 AM. I’d planned a full day and set off, at a decent clip, back up towards the river front. My plan was fairly simple; I was going to walk up the river front and around the peninsula – formed by the confluence of the Mekong and a tributary that ran into it – and then climb the lookout back at the town center. After that I’d take a look at the national museum, and nearby temple, situated at the base of the lookout. As luck would have it I was able to cut through the morning market on the way to the river front road. There was all the usual local produce, one would expect to see at these outdoor type markets, but no wild game.
The road which skirts the river front runs for approximately three kilometers astride the Mekong before rounding the point and heading back along the tributary which helps create the peninsular. The headland, formed by the confluence of both rivers, is packed solid with guesthouses, boutique hotels, restaurants, and cafes dedicated to the throngs of travelers charmed by this very scenic spot.
The river front road along the Mekong in Luang Prabang and the stairway down to the Mekong ferries.
As I made my way along the river front road I glanced down the stairs, to where the daily tourist boats departed, and reflected on something that Josiah had mentioned to me the evening before; in the rainy season, when the Mekong is in full flood and at its peak, the water level is 15 meters (50 feet) above its present level. It would mean that most of the stairs, the tourists were currently descending, would be entirely underwater. I continued on to the extremity of the headland and as I neared the point where the roads veers around, and back, along the tributary I was starting to see some rather flash looking boutique hotels. One, in particular, caught my eye so I decided to go in and check the room rates. It turns out this hotel had only just opened and had a fairly prestigious history; it was the palace of the last king of Laos – King Anouvong. The entire place had been renovated into a fairly swank boutique hotel; room rates began at USD 195 per night.
The last king of Laos’ palace converted into a swank boutique hotel in Luang Prabang
As I pushed on around the point I was beginning to work up quite a sweat in the increasing heat of the day so I stopped for a few minutes at a point overlooking the confluence of the Mekong, and its tributary, to cool off and enjoy the vista below. The road that skirts the tributary lead back towards the town center and my next destination; the viewpoint. I took it at a bit more of a leisurely pace to enjoy the cool atmosphere created by all the trees lining the river side of the road. It was quite a serene little stretch with outdoor restaurants, and cafés, protruding out, and over, the embankment of the river. Up ahead the road began rise as I approached the hill I’d have to climb to get up to the viewpoint. I turned up a side street, leading away from the river front road, and began the ascent towards the stairway that lead up to the top of the hill.
The view overlooking the confluence of the Mekong and its tributary
The climb up was a seriously good workout and, thankfully, was broken into two stages; 200 steps up to the first level – where one was required to pay the obligatory entry fee – and another 200 steps to the top. By the time I was standing at the peak the sweat was pouring out of me again and I appreciated the fact that stair climbing is one of the best cardiovascular workouts going around. The view, unfortunately, was still a bit hazy with cloud hanging around on the distant peaks. Nevertheless it was still a brilliant all around vista of Luang Prabang. There was a small temple, and a Buddha statue, on the very peak and a number of young travelers were interacting with the monks. There were also a couple of hawker’s stalls selling snacks and tourist knick knacks. One of the hawkers had the small cages, with the little birds inside, and provided a bit of a comedic interlude as was banging off a few shots. A young, fairly well presented, American guy was doing his best to dissuade the nasty little Thai bargirl he had with him from purchasing one of these little birds in a cage (I knew she was a bargirl by the tramp stamps and her manner). While she was making a song and dance about it I just laughed quietly; the whole deal with these birds in a cage is a joke. To the naive, or unknowing observer, it may seem like the purchaser is doing a good turn but the fact is that’s not what it’s really about. For a bargirl it’s simply a matter of making merit and hoping that there will be a windfall return at some point in the future. As the guy eventually caved in to her little tantrum and handed over the cash I could only sympathise with his plight – and this something I’ll write more about at a later date – because the reality is that taking a bargirl / prostitute / whore on holiday is nothing more than a waste of a guy’s time and money.
The second stage of the climb up to the viewpoint
The view from the top looking out over the Mekong and west towards Thailand
With the little bird released, and calm restored, I started the trek back down the hill. Towards the bottom I found a perfectly positioned spot to get shot of the temple I was making my way towards. The temple, and the museum, were both in a large, walled compound which, judging by the well manicured grounds, were well maintained. I walked into the compound and made my way over to the site office to pay the obligatory entry fee. Unfortunately I’d left my run a bit late for looking at the museum. You had to allow an hour’s leeway before the advertised closing times. Lunch break was at 1200 hrs and it was now right on 1100 hrs. It looked as though I wouldn’t get to see the museum as I’d planned to head out to Kuang Xi waterfall in the afternoon. No matter, I’d still get to have a look at the temple. By Thai standards it wasn’t all that remarkable but it was unique in the fact that the ornate, decorative work was constructed entirely of wood. The interior was quite stunning with amazing carved woodwork, painted in gold and red, covering the walls, pillars, and ceiling. I spent about forty five minutes inside, banging off shots from all different angles, and then, as a horde of tourists arrived, decided to head over to a café, near the town center, for a time out. As I neared the café I noticed a bunch of touts hanging around nearby so I made tentative enquiries about the round trip fee out to Kuang Xi waterfall. Most of them were quoting a price of 100,000 Kip. An agent, at a tour office next to the cafe, later quoted me double the touts’ price which only further reinforced my do it yourself approach when travelling. I was in need of a quick freshen up, and a bit of lunch, and so decided to head back to the Rama for an hour’s break before heading off to the waterfalls.
The ornate, painted woodwork of the Luang Prabang temple
A bit over an hour later I was back at the town square. I was feeling charged up after a quick shower, and a high carb Indian meal at the Pilgrims Café, and approached the touts keen to get on with brokering a better rate for the trip out to the water fall. As luck would have it I spotted a couple of Canadian chaps I’d befriended during the bus trip up from Veng Vien, sitting at a roadside hawkers stall and made a pitch to them about joining me for the afternoons outing. They both liked the idea and after getting our rate down to 70,000 Kip each (about USD 9) we were on our way. The sixty minute run out to Kuang Xi flew by as we traded travel, and personal experience stories. My two new found friends were from Montreal. They were doing a three month jaunt around Laos, Cambodia and Thailand, and I had to admit I was a tad envious of their situation. Soon enough we were pulling into the parking area for Kuang Xi falls. There were plenty of restaurants, and souvenir shops, scattered around the car park and as we made our way to the admissions gate I had mixed feelings about what to expect. Normally, when a tourist site has an over abundance of service facilities the place is normally swarming with sightseers. After paying the 20,000 kip entry fee we followed the sign posted trail and were soon standing next to a bear compound. The signage, on a nearby building, proclaimed it as a Asiatic bear rehabilitation sanctuary. I had to admit the bears certainly looked reasonably happy as they hardly moved for the few minutes that we hung around getting shots of them dozing.
Happy bears asleep at the rehabilitation sanctuary
We pushed on up the trail and any earlier misgivings I might have had, regarding the impressiveness of the Kuang Xi falls, were quickly dispelled as the spectacular three drops came into view. There were a bunch of people swimming at the large pool, on the bottom level, as we stopped to take in the majestic vista before us. As the other two guys were feverishly clicking away on their cameras I was already champing at the bit to get up onto the second level and join the thrill seekers already up there.
The view looking up from the bottom level and the reverse view from the second level at Kuang Xi Falls
Just as I was about to push off I spotted Josiah and went over to say hello. He was there having a swim with a group of NGO people who were staying at the Rama. As I approached him he reached out and plucked something off the front of my shirt; a small fury caterpillar. He asked me if I’d brushed by any vegetation and I replied that I had when I’d taken a short cut across a bend in the track. I didn’t think much of it at the time but it was to become significant over the next couple of days; a bunch of those little critters must have dropped onto me and got under my shirt creating an irritation that was like mild burning. Josiah mentioned that even though it was going to itch like hell, over the next couple of days, I had to try and avoid scratching the inflamed areas because that would make it even worse. I was to find out that was easier said than done and the trip I did to Sukhumvit hospital on arrival back in Bangkok was testament to just how bad the inflammation was. Not to be deterred, I began the ascent towards the second level, approximately 50 meters above. Josiah told me there was a trail, on the right, which went all the way to the top – with a diversion off to the second level – and another coming back down the other side. A few minutes later I was breathing hard and standing on the second level looking back to where I’d come from. The view was quite spectacular and the pool, at the second level, had a number of young travelers splashing around in it as I sat down for a well earned rest and fired off a few more shots.
With the breathing restored it was time to push on to the top. The track up to the second level was fairly crowded but onward leg to the top was deserted and I encountered only one other hiker on the way up. By the time I was standing at the top the reason became obvious; the track, in some places, was almost vertical and I’d had to pull myself up using the tree roots, and vines, that were dangling nearby.
At the top and the way back down
The top was basically a flat plateau covered in marshes and pools of water that were spilling over the edge of the cliff. It was quite a drop to the bottom and, in the interests of safety, the locals had erected a continuous wooden fence, across the entire width of the spillway, to stop people getting to close to the edge. To get some decent shots I had to wade through the knee deep pools of water that ran for fifty meters, or so, along the cliff edge. On my across I bumped into a bunch of young travelers coming from the opposite direction. We had a bit of a chat and all commented on the tranquility of the place; the only noises to be heard were sound of birds chirping in the jungle. All too soon it was time to start making my way down the stairway on the left side of the waterfall and twenty minutes later I was back at the parking area enjoying a cold coconut juice with my Canadian buddies. We all agreed on what a great location it was and found myself wondering why I wasn’t hanging around in Luang Prabang for a bit longer. We continued our friendly banter during the ride back and, after exchanging contact details, bade farewell at the town center. By the time I got back to the hotel I was feeling tired, but well satisfied, after a full day of checking out the sights and I knew I’d be asleep fairly early in anticipation of the full days travel to come. I had a flight to Vientiane followed by a taxi ride across the border, and back into Thailand, before hopping on another flight from Udon Thani to Bangkok. My time in Laos had been short, and intense, but it would be a trip to remember.
Conclusions and observations:
• The three locations – Vientiane, Veng Vien and Luang Prabang – I visited in Laos were all unique in their own way and well worth a visit. However, having been to Vientiane once I don’t really see much of a need to go there again. Luang Prabang is definitely a place to be revisited and a quick check on the internet confirmed that Bangkok Airways have daily flights from Bangkok; the price is around THB 8000 return.
• Veng Vien is an outdoor / adventure style location. There’s not much point going there if you aren’t interested in kayaking, trekking, caving or last but not least, tubing. If I go again I’ll fly to Luang Prabang and take the bus down from there. It may be a longer ride but it’s definitely a smoother trip.
• Laos is still predominantly a backpacker / traveler type destination and is, perhaps, how Thailand may have been twenty plus years ago. The lack of infrastructure – decent roads in particular – keeps the mainstream type tourists away. It is still an outdoors / adventure type destination.
• As far as the P4P scenario is concerned; there is none. I saw some guys with what were obviously rentals taken on tour from Thailand but, be warned, the Laotian ladies are off limits. Obviously a lot of guys on holiday feel they will have a better time taking a rental on tour with them. Fair enough, it’s your time and money. From my own experience I can genuinely say that I’ve never found it to be an enjoyable situation taking a rental on holiday with me and the fact is that I would never have seen / visited thirty percent of my itinerary if I had a bar girl / prostitute / whore in tow with me. If you want to spend your time idling away on a deck chair next to a pool, or on the beach, then a P4P rental would be okay. If you actually want to get out and do stuff, and by this I mean having to wake up early, then it’s better to leave the P4P rental back at the bar.
Hope you enjoyed the ride.
Great trip report and very nice accompanying photos!