We shopped around for the trip to Luang Prabang, but all the offers were so incomparable that we just decided to figurethe whole thing out by ourselves, which turned out to save us a good deal of money. At 08.30 we took the ferry across the Mekong to Huay Xia, passed customs easily thanks to the visa that had kindly been arranged by the guesthouse owners early in the morning. We bought our tickets and boarded the boat. The boat has a 100 people capacity and seems to have a “business class” section: about 10 rows of old chairs that they took out of a (crashed?) airplane (economy chairs of course), and an “economy class” section: which looks more like a third class type of wooden bench with a 90 degrees sit angle. The guy that sold us the tickets said: “ I get you good seat”. We never saw him again, and the number on our tickets turned out to be completely meaningless. It was first come first serve …We had the two last good seats and two wooden benches. The boast was supposed to leave at 10.00; it left at 11.30 after a member of the local mafia of Pak Beng had tried to scare everyone on the boat with horror stories about the over night location: “ When people tell you we be at Pak Beng befor dark, it not true. Pak Beng no city so when we arrive at 19.00 no more light and not find guesthouse in the dark. You can by voucher for my guesthouse now no problem 300 baht. And when boat goes through rapids no looking over side or 80 people go to Buddah.” It was quite hilarious. Once we arrived at 18.00 hrs. (no rapids of course, the Mekong is at its lowest level) it was still light and there was plenty opportunity to quickly shop around for a sleeping place. Since there is almost no other business for this town, but accommodating the slowboat customers, the pier was packed with Lao trying to sell their (cheap) rooms. The whole town does go completely dark at 22.30, even the fan in the room stopped working. It was a hot, short and uncomfortable night. We left the next morning at 09.30 (not the scheduled 08.30), were of course too late to get good seats (the famous German towel trick had been done by some people) and finally arrived at Luang Prabang at 17.00 hrs. It was a long trip, nice scenery, but after all not very exciting. The children were really great though: they played UNO for hours and hours and almost never complained.
Luang Prabang May 3 - 8
What a lovely town. It is really beautiful and feels good immediately. Saskia, who had started looking quite worried after viewing the scenery of Pak Beng, sighed with relief. We found a nice family room in the old part of town (right next to the place my cousin Hermien recommended, which was unfortunately fully booked for the family rooms) and had an excellent dinner. The next 2 days (after we were woken up at 6 by the drums for the day starting prayer of the monks across the street) we rented 3 bikes and spent the whole day cycling around the town visiting many temples. We keep bumping into our fellow slow boat travellers, which illustrates how small the place is. This small city has something magical but also surreal, almost too good too be true when you keep in mind what a poor country Laos really is. We have the impression they are "up-gradng" the place for many more tourists in the future: re-doing the pavements, restauring old French mansions or buildin new ones in the "old" style
We have also met 2 other families with young children that are travelling for 6 months (who were staying in the family rooms next door!). It is great to exchange experiences etc.
We had our first day and a half of heavy rainfall. We couldn’t do much, and relaxed a bit. Saskia however, was invited by the Canadian family staying at the hotel next door to join them on their visit to the waterfalls. They were taking their 2 girls, aged 7 and 11, their son (almost 14) stayed at the hotel. Saskia had a great afternoon; she enjoyed the company of the two girls very much and came back with many exciting stories.
The next day, the sun came through and we took off for the waterfalls as well, located at about 35 km south of LP. It was truly beautiful and scenic. The water was blue as was promised by the guidebook! The children splashed around in several different pools and jumped off small waterfalls. Saskia even jumped off a 3 m high one!
We changed our two-day plan into just one because of the very hot and unstable weather. We took a ride into the country and organised an elephant ride and visited a small village. This ride was much fun again, more bugs but also more adventuress then the one in Thailand.
One morning the girls and I got up at to watch the monks receiving their alms. We were a bit late however, and just saw most monks already on their way back to their monasteries. A bit disappointed we walked around a bit and got at the early morning food market. I had read about it, but seeing this with your own eyes is something different. The weirdest animals are being sold for food here. The girls were walking in front of me and kept and finding new horrors. Saskia was shocked and became nauseous, and Nadine thought it was all highly interesting. We saw a rat crawling over a pile of potatoes, many frogs in different sizes, dead or alive, a cow claw, many still living or already sliced-up lizards, living tree rats, bugs/insects, and different kind of birds. Extraordinary to see, I must say.
Vang Vieng May 8 - 10
On May 8th in the morning we left LP by bus. After a 5 ½ hours drive (or was it a race?) through the so beautiful hills and mountains we arrived at Vang Vieng a bit shaken and stirred. Vang Vieng is a small, not very exciting town, nestled beside the NamSongRiver amid beautiful limestone karst terrain. It’s its surroundings and the offered activities that make the place a real backpacker’s hangout. Tourism here is also increasingly growing; we found multiple new guesthouse/resort developments going on here as well.
We found a nice bungalow place located scenically at the riverside, watched the beautiful sunset, and …. bumped into the Canadian family again, which was really nice. We decided to spend the next day together. We booked a day trip to do caving and kayaking. We took a truck up north followe by a hike to the hills, where we entered a cave with tubes (the inside of tractor tires) through the water with lamps on our heads. After lunch we we kayaked down the river and visited more caves; impressive ones which were used for hiding during the Vietnam war. On our way down the river we stopped at one of the much loud music playing “tubing” hangouts. This is what all backpackers do here: they let themselves go down the river in a tube, they stop along the way where they can jump, swing or dive of all sorts of high constructions along the shore (and get drunk and stoned at the same time of course!) into the river and then continue further downstream. With our group of 3 families (we also had a Thai family in our group) we were both the oldest and youngest ones at this place. The Canadian family turned out to have fearless kids that swung of some of the really high trees. Saskia wanted to do the same thing of course, and did one that was quite high (4 m?), but still OK for her in our opinion. What a dear devil! You can see her swinging on this picture.
Our children had a great time meeting up with other children. After nearly 4 weeks of travelling they were ready for some socialising and so were we by the way. Travelling together as a family is a super experience, but "personal space" is limited for all of us. Our routine by now is getting much better then in the beginning, we are quick in (un)packing, and are getting better at organising our accommodation when arriving somewhere without much of a plan and at a temp of 30 degrees combined with brutal sunshine. The "food" thing is unfortunately still a bit of an issue, the kids just won't go for much local food. The western stuff available (spaghetti or pizza) is not always very tasty, so often it's just white rice or (like last night) almost nothing. It is however compensated by a big breakfast with eggs, lots of bread and fruit.
Tomorrow we are moving on to Vientiane, Laos' capital city, and we will be travelling together with our new Canadian friends.
Vientiane, May 10 - 16
We had set our thoughts on a guesthouse that had also been recommended by the Danish family called "Villa Malony". When we arrived it was as nice as expected: an old French villa with a lovely garden and a small swimming pool, located somewhat out of town, with large family rooms. The whole setting is quite spacious, which is just what we were looking for. We had a nice dinner together with the Canadians, and the next day Megan and I gave ourselves a 2,5 hours Spa treat. In the afternoon our travel friends moved on to Bangkok. We would be staying in Vientiane for 5-6 days, while waiting for our Vietnam visas to be arranged. So it was time for some relaxing moments, and Villa Malony in combination with the many good restaurants in Vientiane, and some nice sites to be seen provided the right context for this. We also enjoyed spending time at Talat Sao, the shopping market where you can find almost anything imaginable to buy, in little boots packed on top of after one another. We were amazed to see lots of busses unload hundreds of happy Thai (as always dressed in their ever yellow shirts) to go shopping for a day. Apparently Laos is a bargain for them as well…
Vientiane’s city centre unfortunately was a bit of a mess: its most beautiful street was completely under construction, so we only know this street as one big mud pool.
We did some work with the girls, visited some temples and spent a morning at a weaving training centre for women. Saskia and Nadine received an introduction to the art of natural dyeing by having the opportunity of dyeing their own shawl. It was a fun experience and we also learned more about traditional silk weaving.
And we had lots of "pool" time of course, which the children were really happy about.
On our last day we visited our friend novice Pasith (who we met in Luang Prabang) at his Wat. We all like him very much. We had some drinks in his room and talked about his life and family. He is such a wonderful person, so inspiring already at his young age. He has been learning English, and speaks and writes it very well. He has 5 more years of study before he will become a monk, after which he wants to return to his original home village (which he left at the age of 11) up in the far north to teach the children.
This afternoon, Wednesday May 16, we are flying to Hanoi, where things will be very different again, so we hear. We will miss Laos, with its very friendly and laid back people and atmosphere. We really hope to be back some day when the children are older.