Laos

I Wish I’d Spent More Time in Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang is one of those cities that I instantly liked. It’s a small city with lots of character. French colonial architecture and traditional Lao temples peacefully, and picturesquely, coexist. Bakeries have delectable croissants, both regular and au chocolat, and markets have cheap Lao dishes. On the peninsula roads are orderly and sidewalks exist, but further south rocky roads wander through green forest. It’s the kind of city that doesn’t need time for attractions but for just living; where I could see spending days hanging out by the river, having coffee and croissants while people watching in town, or reading a book at the amazingly chill bar Utopia.

Again, I had two days in Luang Prabang, but with a day out of town and a day in town I felt like it was a good window into what this place has to offer. The mountainous landscape around Luang Prabang is known for its waterfalls, so the day we arrived we went straight to the best one: Kuang Si Falls. The light turquoise water didn’t look real, and the multi-level cascades were just too perfect. It was one of those jaw dropped at the beauty of it all moments. We hiked up to the top and looked out over the water and the land. Laos is pretty. Then we tried to go in and that didn’t last long. It was so cold! We found a patch of sun to stand in to try to get warm and dry.

That evening we discovered Utopia, an oasis bar with a view that made it onto Simo’s top bars list. A great place to enjoy some Beerlaos. We wandered the Night Market, which has to be one of the more impressive ones I’ve been to; they close down the main street for multiple blocks and venders are set up along and in the middle of the street, creating two lanes. Neither of us bought anything but it was fun to walk through. We stopped at an alleyway for dinner: 15,000 kip for a bowl that you could fill as much as you want with anything from the many dishes on a table. Our eyes were bigger than our stomachs but I was pleasantly surprised how good it was (and that we didn’t get sick). We ended the night with a sidewalk glass of wine, watching the activity on the street.

The next day I had to say goodbye to Simo. We had a final brunch at a restaurant overlooking the river and reflected on how great Laos had been. It worked out so well meeting up and traveling with Simo, and it was sad to say goodbye. It always is. But he lives in San Francisco, and we have some people in common, so I know I’ll see him again. And I’m sure when we do reunite all we will be able to do is talk about the awesome time we had together in Laos.

I spent the rest of the day wandering through the city. I went in every temple that didn’t cost money, hiked up and down the big hill in the center of town, and made it all the way out to the end of the peninsula to see the rivers meet. I also ran into the Israeli guys from the border again, we took a selfie, and Susan, the Dutch girl I met in New Zealand and saw again in Australia. The world is so small sometimes.

I left not feeling like I’d missed a lot in Luang Prabang. There are some waterfalls and things around town that I could have gone to but I wasn’t bothered to have skipped them. But I did leave feeling like I could spend more time just being there. This was also my last stop in Laos – that night I boarded the dreaded minibus for Chiang Mai – so I was a little sad about moving on. I honestly didn’t know what to expect with Laos before I went and I can say that I was pleasantly surprised by it. I had no idea it was such an active, beautiful place. Just like its neighbors, Laos is on the must-return-to-one-day list.

The Beautiful Playground of Vang Vieng

I wanted to go to Vang Vieng for the tubing. I admit it. Who doesn’t want to bar hop by floating down a river in an inner tube? But when I got to Vang Vieng I realized just how much more there was to it than the tubing.

For starters, it’s gorgeous. The mountains, the fields, the river – there is no bad view in Vang Vieng. If I had more time (how many times have I said that?) I would have loved to explore more of the area. I heard fantastic things about nearby hikes and motorcycle rides. Unfortunately though we only had two days, and due to a surprising bout of food poisoning (I think?) I was not feeling up to too much activity.

This didn’t stop me from enjoying my time there though. Day 1 was all about the tubing. I would not let my food poisoning take this away from me. It’s true that the bar scene has been severely reduced from the old “tube at your own risk” days, but it’s not totally over. Maybe it’s my old age, but after experiencing it now and then seeing some videos of what it was like before, I think I prefer it how it is today.

Here’s how it works: you go to the one place in town that still does tubing (it’s not hard to find), rent your tube for 55,000 kip plus a 60,000 kip deposit that you get back when you return your tube before 6 pm, then they load you and your fellow tubers into a tuktuk and drive you upstream to the launching point. From here, you can already see the first bar.

The distance between bars is much smaller than I thought it would be. In reality, we spent maybe 10% of our day in the tubes and 90% at the bars. To get to the bar, guys threw strings with weighted water bottles on the end in our direction and then dragged us in. The bars are more than simply a place to get drinks: the first one had volleyball, the second had a balance beam over a water pit and a water-spraying basketball net, the third was a huge dance floor, the fourth had more volleyball, ping-pong, and a stick of fire you could limbo under. I opted to not try that one. It’s like recess with alcohol. By 5:00 we were at the last bar and out of time to make it back by floating – it takes an hour and a half back to town by the river this time of year – so we jumped in a tuktuk and returned our tubes before 6. It was a fun day for sure, my only sadness was the lingering sickness that took me out of it a little. If it was me in full healthiness, and maybe with my San Francisco friends, things probably would have gotten rowdy.

Along the way we’d made friends with some other travelers and had a good group. After dinner together we decided to push through and experience Vang Vieng nightlife. Moral of the story: the fun is the tubing, not the nightlife. Although drinking beers down by the river after the bars closed at midnight was nice.

Day 2 Simo went rock climbing, but I opted to stay in town and hang out with some friends from the day before. Dan, Michaella and I had an active day of breakfast and Vang Vieng’s famous shakes, followed by a hike up a small mountain with a beautiful view of the area, and chill time at Smile Bar. Definitely go to Smile Bar. Michaella relaxed in a hammock while Dan and I floated in anchored tubes in the river for I don’t even know how long. It was a great day. Then I cut my foot on a rock walking out of the river. Why was I so beaten up in Vang Vieng? It wasn’t even because of tubing.

We left on the night bus for Luang Prabang, happy to have made this stop. Good scenery, good activities, and good people combined for a positive impression of Vang Vieng, even if it is a town made entirely for tourists. But at least that means they show Friends at dinner every day.

No Watches at Dreamtime

Dreamtime is a special place. Anywhere that has that name, and deserves that name, would be.

When Simo asked me if I would like to check out a place some people he met in Southern Laos had highly recommended – a chill Eco retreat in the forest just outside Vientiane, with wooden bungalows and without electricity, whose reputation was spreading just by word of mouth amongst travelers – I didn’t hesitate in my response: yes absolutely.

My mind instantly remembered the fantastic times I’d had at Poste Rojo just outside Granada in Nicaragua and Casa Elemento just outside Minca in Colombia. Other remote places that I had been told about by travelers. I loved those places so I had high hopes for Dreamtime. It exceeded those hopes.

We took local transport to get there, which is basically sitting in the back of a pick up truck on benches with open sides and a roof, packed with people, a random assortment of stuff, and one live chicken. Getting to these places is always part of the fun. It dropped us off in the town of Ban Hom (hamlet would be more accurate), right in front of a dirt road with a small green sign: DREAMTIME.

So we walked. For 2.5 km in already hot sun we walked and talked, spotting DREAMTIME signs along the way that reassured us we were going in the right direction. We finally reached the gate and in just a few more meters we were greeted by smiling faces on what we would come to know as “the Platform.” We had arrived.

Let me describe the Platform. It literally is a wooden platform raised a few steps off the ground and it is where we spent most of our time. It’s covered with cushions for lounging and the more you look around the more you discover: a ukulele, didgeridoos, juggling balls, a hula hoop, scrabble, poi spinning practice balls, a library, and, the most important part, the magically refilling jar. At any time of day anyone staying at Dreamtime might be hanging out here playing a game of cards, reading a book, or abiding by the retreat’s motto: Sit Down, Shut Up, Look at the Trees. It’s the ultimate chill space. It’s also where all the meals are served.

The food! The food is fantastic. Papaya salad, perfectly spicy. Spaghetti Bolognese, a perfect saucy and meaty combination. Muesli with fruit and homemade yogurt, perfectly fresh and tasty. But the two standout dishes I can barely talk about without salivating: the burger and the chocolate crepes. The homemade burger is actually buffalo meat, and its juiciness and flavor have earned it a spot on my top burgers of all time list. The chocolate crepes are a stack of thin crepes with a side of melted Belgian chocolate. I repeat: melted Belgian chocolate. This was my final meal at Dreamtime and I scraped the chocolate bowl clean.

Dinner at Dreamtime is served just after dark, and since there’s no electricity we ate by candlelight. It was lovely. All the guests and the owners came together on the Platform to dine and converse. This time of day had a real familial feeling.

All of this would not work if it wasn’t for Mike and Michelle. Dreamtime was Mike’s vision. 8 years ago he found this piece of land in Laos and turned it into what it is today. 4 years ago Michelle came to visit and she never left. Now they’re happily married and the best hosts I’ve encountered. They made us feel at home, and I thank them for their hospitality, friendship, and for sharing such a special place with the world.

I don’t know where to go from here; how to describe my Dreamtime experience and what it meant to me. Vaguely, for now, I suppose.

We went to Dreamtime for 1 day. We stayed for 3. And even then I wasn’t ready to leave. It was like we’d escaped from the rest of the world, living simply in the forest without modern conveniences, and I didn’t miss them at all. Days were spent reading, meditating, chatting with other guests, or playing games. I chilled in a hammock for a while one afternoon. Strolled down the dried up riverbed. I’d love to see this place in the wet season when the river is actually a river. One morning we went for a walk around the property to see all the bungalows; there are seven and they all have a unique design. One on stilts, one two-story one made with bottles, two you have to cross the river to get to, one with a lovely front porch, one unfortunately under repair due to an insane past guest, and Mike and Michelle’s deluxe bungalow home, complete with less than a week old kittens. Playing with kittens is anther way to pass the time. Cocaine took a liking to me and spent a lot of time on my lap; Mike tried to convince me to take her but the last thing I need is another living thing to take care of. Myself is enough. And yes the kitten’s name is Cocaine, and her siblings are Opium and ‘Shroom. It happened by chance.

The pace of life is different at Dreamtime. It got me back to base instincts: wake up when it’s sunny, eat when you’re hungry, go to sleep when it’s dark. It got me to take off my watch. Conventional time doesn’t matter at Dreamtime.

The kind of people who are attracted to and like a place like Dreamtime are a particular type that I can only hope to be a part of. Most have traveled near and far and have a unique perspective on life. Conversation was interesting and flowed easily. I learned a lot about them and myself.

I hope one day to go back to Dreamtime. I hope I can return more like the traveler I almost became while I was there. No plans, no stress, no watch. Just me, the forest, and serenity.

Vientiane: Daytime Bowling and Not Much Else

There’s not much to see in Vientiane from a tourist perspective. It’s Laos’s largest city, but it’s still very small with more of a village feeling. It doesn’t take long to walk around the main part of the city and see attractions like Wat Si Saket, Haw Phra Kaew, and Patuxai.

Wat Si Saket is an example of what happens to beautiful temples when there is not enough funding to maintain them. The interior used to be covered in murals but they’re sadly fading away. There were two things that struck me about Wat Si Saket and Haw Phra Kaew. First, the wood construction. After so many grand stone buildings it was almost jarring to see temples made out of dark wood. They mixed with stone in some places for support but the roofs were still largely wood. Second, the mini Buddha statues. Inside and on a periphery wall were alcoves filled with small Buddhas, looking like a 3-D wallpaper supporting the larger Buddha statues in front. It gave a unique texture to the spaces.

Patuaxi is Vientiane’s Arc de Triomphe minus the elegance. It’s a hulking stone structure in the center of a traffic circle. Once you safely cross the winding traffic (not so bad compared to the rest of SE Asia but an adventure nonetheless) you have the option of hiding in the shade on a bench underneath, which is what we did and not as pleasant as we’d hoped, or climbing up to the top to look over the low-rise city and the circle of cars, motorbikes and tuktuks whizzing around. We didn’t climb, it was damn hot and didn’t sound worth the money, but if you’re strapped for things to do go for it.

We were searching for something else to do and found it: the bowling alley. I’d heard of bowling alleys in Laos but for their late night activity not mid-afternoon bowling. Laos has a curfew on bars, sometime around 11:30 pm, so when they close down people flock to the bowling alley where the night rages on; at least that’s the story in Luang Prabang. I would assume it’s the same in Vientiane because they were clearly shocked to see us walk in around 3 pm to bowl a game. But it was hot out, we were looking for a fun activity, and who doesn’t love a little beer and bowling on a Wednesday afternoon?

We finished our day by playing cards by the Mekong and enjoying a delicious Lao dinner at Lao Kitchen. I love the spiciness of the Lao papaya salad. We had no qualms about deciding to leave the next morning. Vientiane may be the biggest city in Laos but it was by far my least favorite place. However my opinion of Laos would improve greatly from here.

So who’s the “we” now? The most exciting part of Vientiane was meeting up with my Laos travel buddy Simo. Months ago I’d gotten an email from my cousin connecting me to Simo, her husband’s cousin who has also left the States for an extended trip around Southeast Asia. After lots of back and forth we finally overlapped for 9 days in Laos. I was so stoked to finally meet the guy I’d gotten all the witty emails from and he did not disappoint. His adventurous spirit and inquisitive conversation was a constant pleasure during our time together and he was a huge part of my positive experience in Laos. So for the next few posts get used to his name, we had some great times. See you in San Francisco whenever we both return Simo! (Also check out his blog, he’s a talented writer: https://medium.com/re-orient)

A Tale of Two Bus Rides

I have two night bus border crossing stories for you: first crossing from Bangkok, Thailand to Vientiane, Laos; and second from Luang Prabang, Laos to Chiang Mai, Thailand. Both started out seemingly straightforward but turned out to have unpredicted waits and unforetold transfers. It’s because of these experiences that I ended up buying a flight from Chiang Mai to Mandalay. I think I’m done with land crossing for the time being.

Bangkok to Vientiane
I got a bus ticket direct from Bangkok to Vientiane, including transfer from my hostel to the bus station, from a hostel-recommended travel agency near Khao San Road. It sounded nice and easy. It was not.

I was picked up at my hostel at 4:30 like they promised, but oddly in a taxi which was too small to fit all of us for the hour drive to the bus station. Once we got to the “station” we were told to wait on a patch of grass where a group of Westerners had already been deposited. People were going to Phuket, Phi Phi, Chiang Mai, but I was the lone Laos traveler. After about 15 minutes our driver came back and called out “Vientiane!” I had to fill in a flimsy ticket and he gathered me and the Chiang Mai group and pointed in the direction of a building. It just had a bunch of minivans outside and we all knew we were getting on big VIP buses so we went right to the main station. We heard someone yelling something but didn’t knew what it was or who it was directed towards – we were all used to ignoring random yelling around us at this point – so we just kept going. The Chiang Mai people found their gate and I found where mine would be if there was a gate 99; it ended at 98 but there was a random bus along the sidewalk near it that could have been 99. Still, I asked someone, and they told me it would leave from 86 instead. I found that one and sat down to wait. I had 2 hours to kill.

About 45 minutes before my bus was supposed to leave 86 was still empty. I got up to ask some people again. Long story short, I found out I was at the wrong bus station. This is the South Station, no buses go north from here. I’m sorry, WHAT?! I found the Chiang Mai group and they were just as pissed as me to learn that we were at the wrong place. We all ran to the ticket booths to try to change our buses since we were clearly not going to make it to the North Station in time. We finally made the decision to split a taxi to the North Station when we ran into our original driver. He was just as surprised to see us as we were to see him. He ran with us to a minibus and promised to take us straight to the North Station and get us new tickets at no extra cost. At this point we’d figured out that we were supposed to get on one of those minibuses we ignored and it would have taken us to the North Station. That would have been helpful to communicate to us.

The Chiang Mai group got on the next overnight bus no problem, but Vientiane was no longer a simple option for me; I had to get a new ticket to Nong Khai, the border town on the Thailand side. The driver gave me 100 baht in cash to cover the border crossing expenses. Then he made sure we all knew exactly where to go so we would get on the right buses this time. It was after 9 by the time I was finally on the bus.

I was woken up at 8 am in Nong Khai. A Frenchman approached me – Westerners stick together – and we shared a tuktuk to the border. Leaving Thailand was simple enough – the tuktuk dropped us at the immigration building, quick line for the exit stamp, then a bus over the bridge to the next border station – but crossing into Laos took forever thanks to the visa upon entry process. I chatted with a Lithuanian girl on a border run from Southern Thailand while we waited and once we were finally through we split a cab with an Israeli duo into Vientiane. Just a few extra steps thanks to the Bangkok miscommunication. I arrived in Vientiane at 11 am.

Luang Prabang to Chiang Mai
Every travel office in Luang Prabang advertised a bus from LP to Chiang Mai. Pick up from guesthouse included, big bus, some even promised it had a bathroom. So imagine the shock of all 22 travelers when we were led to a minibus for the 12 hour overnight ride to the border. What happened to that big bus with reclining seats? We were packed in like sardines to the 1-by-2 straight-backed seats, with one unlucky passenger stuck in a fold down center aisle seat. To make it even cozier our bags were placed in the small aisle. At least they served as pillows for some people. We looked at each other in minor disbelief at the complete unsafety of our transportation and the fact that we would be stuck this way all night.

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I took a melatonin to try to sleep but the extremely bumpy roads and constant inhalation of dust (I was right behind the driver so I got to breathe in all the dust that was being kicked up through the vents) made it tough. Eventually I curled up into a ball with my feet on a backpack and at least time passed faster.

We arrived at the border at 6 am. It didn’t open till 7:30. We were told to sleep in the minibus so that’s what we did until about 8, when we found out we were waiting for another bus to take us through the border. It arrived at 9. You can imagine how unhappy we all were that we just spent 3 hours in a parking lot. Now we finally got on the big VIP bus that took us to the Laos border for exit stamps and over the bridge to the Thai border for entry stamps. That was the extent of our VIP bus ride.

We were loaded back into minibuses for the ride from the border to Chiang Mai. Someone guessed it was about 6 hours and we’d arrive around 3. No one could have predicted our driver would stop every hour for seemingly no reason, and that he’d take us actually into Chiang Rai for a lunch stop that no one really wanted. We didn’t arrive in Chiang Mai until 5 pm. I had been picked up at my guesthouse in Luang Prabang at 4:30 pm the day before. Over 24 hours on minibuses to get to Chiang Mai.

So there you have it. The hell of land crossing between Thailand and Laos. A quick side note: both of these night buses gave us snacks and blankets. An odd perk in two stressful journeys. The only silver lining I can find is that border crossings like this really bring people together. I am still in touch with Eugenija from Lithuania, and ended up running into the Israeli guys in both Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang, where we happily greeted each other like old friends. I also ran into two guys from the Chiang Mai bus at a temple the next day and proceeded to hang out with them the rest of my time in Chiang Mai. Nothing like trying travel experiences to bond strangers.