Bike rides, waterfalls, and sickening mountain journeys.
08.02.2010 - 11.02.2010 32 °C
Luang Prabang - Part II
I truly believe that "the" most frustrating thing in the world is to spend 30 minutes putting up a mosquito net, which you thoughtfully brought from home, taking extra time and attention to make sure there are no gaps, so you can go to sleep in the firm knowledge that nothing could possibly get in, only to find that you have inadvertantly trapped a mosquito on the inside, and with no hope of escape, there is nothing left for it to do but continue biting you until it is too fat from your blood to fly away and so rests in the same well drained spot to continue feeding. To make matters worse that well drained spot happened to be right in the middle of my forehead. I was not happy!!!
I was however happy to be back in Luang Prabang, having grown fond of the laid back, yet still tourist friendly, town. Deciding to head across the Mekong, and due to there being no bridge within sight in any direction, I avoided the constant call of "private boat crossing sir" which almost every tourist goes for, and instead got on the very local ferry boat crossing. I then spent the next 3 hours getting hopelessly lost due to one wrong turn and ended up walking through some of the smallest villages in Laos. The locals came out to see the white man and gave me a mixed look of "wow a foreigner" and "what the hell are you doing so far from home". The local children however seemed to really appreciate the foreign man and came waving and yelling into the street. Not knowing where I was I decided the only other option to walking all the way back the way I came was to head to my right, in the general direction of the river. I found a very small path and followed it through a mountain pass, encountering a couple of worker women returning with seaweed and bags of plants from the river. Most of them simply stared as I walked past with a confused look upon their faces. Finally however I did reach the river and found a few tiny temples not on any map. I followed the river back and thankfully reached the river crossing where I'd begun. I now know why most people hire guides and don't wander off on their own for 3 hours before realising they might not be on the right path.
Local children (worryingly carrying blades and making gun signs!)
My second day was also fairly strenuous with the decision to visit the famous Kuang Si waterfalls. Unlike everyone else however, I ignored the constant calls from tuk-tuk drivers and instead hired a bicycle for the 75km round trip. When telling the bike shop owner of my plan to ride to the waterfalls he gave me doubtful look. I soon found out why when a killer hill almost finished me off 10km into the journey. Reaching the other side however was well worth it, with around 2.5km of constant downhill. The trick is to do the entire ride down without using the breaks at all and you will probably go for about 10 minutes without the need to peddal once.
The waterfalls were amazing and beyond anything you can imagine without having been there. Shallow blue / green pools, suitable for lazy swims, deep lakes, rope swings, small tumbling streams, to enormous gushing waterfalls.
If you want to see something amusing then head to the swing on the 3rd level of the waterfalls and watch how many ways there are to fall flat on your face from a rope.
Thankfully not falling flat on my face
Strangely, there is also a bear sanctuary located within the waterfall park.
A small bit of advice though. When returning to Luang Prabang and nearing the 70km mark of your journey it probably isn't a good idea to follow a sign for another waterfall 1km away up a steep and very bumpy dirt track. You may end up struggling uphill for more than 2.5km and still not find the advertised waterfall and then have the horrible prospect of returning down the 2.5km bumpy track with your rear end comlaining in protest at every jolt along the way!
The next day was a well deserved day of rest, my first since arriving in Asia, and when I say rest I mean sitting by the riverside, in the sun, with clear blue skies, and more than a few bottles of ice cold BeerLao to pass the time.
The journey from Luang Prabang to Vientiane has to be one of the most torturous I have ever experienced. Not to mention witnessing a fatal motorbike accident, the unfortunate demise of one or two chickens, the near miss of a few local school children, nearly colliding with on coming trucks, almost swerving off narrow bridges or toppling over the edge of a sheer cliff, the journey itself was pretty horrific. Having worked for two years on boats I can truly say that I do not suffer from motion sickness, and yet halfway through the journey to Vientiane I felt more than a little queasy, and that's a lot better than I can say for most of the passengers on board. Despite outstanding views, especially approaching the tourist mecca of Vang Vieng, after 5 solid hours of twisting, turning, bending, swaying, bumping, lurching, struggling uphills, speeding downhills, all to the sounds of non-stop agonising Lao music and the occasional retching passenger at the rear, with the faint waft of burning breaks or someone else's vomit, it was pretty much all you could do to concentrate on keeping your breakfast firmly within your stomach. Even the ticket inspectors carry a large bundle of plastic bags and hand them out during the journey. At the start I was a little confused, however after about 20 minutes of traveling it all became quite clear. And if you decide to travel on a non-airconditioned bus for 11 hours in the burning sun and think it's a good idea to sit by an open window, then be prepared to come off looking like a wind-swept 19th century chiney sweep. "NO, it's not tan, I am just that dirty!!!" Trust me, you will spend the next 5 days trying to clear the dust and dirt from the side of your face.
After dropping off all but one of the tourists (me!) at the "tourist haven" of Vang Vieng, a strange thing happened. The driver seemed to forget that he was a bus driver and instead thought of himself as a mountain rally driver. Obviously oblivious to my presence still on the bus he decided that local lives weren't as important as foreign tourist lives and so speed, not safety, became the objective of the journey. With a hair raising slalom drive around the following mountain roads, it was down to every passenger to simply hold on for dear life and hold tight to anything solidly fixed to the bus to avoid being thrown mercilessly down the aisle. We did however reach Vientiane early so I wasn't too put out by the driving conditions. In addition, having been on the roads in India, and to some extent South Africa, I wasn't completely new to this style of driving.
Unfortunately reaching Vientiane late in the evening during peak season is not a good idea. I firstly got a local transport who offered to take me to the town centre for 10,000 Kip, until he realised there was only going to be two of us so drove us far enough away from the bus station and told us to get in his friend's tuk-tuk for 20,000 Kip, being too far to walk back we had to accept the doubled fare and then after being dropped in the town centre ended up walking about a mile and a half out of town looking for a hostel that wasn't full. I'm sure we almost ended up back at the bus station by the time we finally found one with a room. A small dirty box room, with a shared toilet and shower for an extortionate 80,000 Kip. Again we weren't in much of a position to argue and so accepted the rooms given but decided an early trip into town tomorrow morning for a better, cleaner, cheaper, and more centrally located guest house would be in order.
Room in Luang Prabang (private shower) - 80000 Kip
Local river crossing ferry - 5000 Kip
Mountain bike hire - 50000 Kip
Kuang Si waterfall entrance - 20000 Kip
Bus to Vientiane (unpleasant) - 95000 Kip
Last minute room in Vientiane - 80000 Kip