Lost in Laos (Part 1)

As I sit down to finally write this blog post about my recent trip in Laos, I find it hard to believe that next week I’ll be hitting the 5-month mark of living abroad. Have I really been away from Canada for that long? On the one hand, it feels like it’s been eons since I last tasted a Tim Hortons coffee or cuddled with my beloved dog, but on the other, I still feel like a totally newbie as I’m constantly learning new things about this country every day. I’m still discovering new grocery stores and restaurants, still making new friends and still having embarrassing exchanges with locals when I make a less-than-graceful trip up a ramp on my motorbike. In any case, at the rate I’m going, I’m not sure if I’ll be ready to come home when I hit the 12-month mark. There’s still so much to see and do and I’m really enjoying my time here!

But enough reflecting. This particular blog post is about my trip to Laos, which took place at the beginning of February 2013. As many of you reading this already know, Tết is a very important holiday in Vietnam. Tết marks the beginning of the lunar new year, and for about two weeks each year, everything shuts down in Vietnam to observe the holiday. I decided to take advantage of my 10 days off work by travelling to another country. And although I was sad to miss the festivities here in Vietnam, Kathleen blogged about spending Tết with our landlady’s family, and you can read about her experience here.

As fate would have it, I was given the perfect opportunity to travel with friends during the Tết holiday. My childhood friend Alexandra (Ally) was doing some travelling in Asia with her former roommate Steph, and it just so happened that they were both interested in visiting Laos with me. Steph and Ally showed up in Ho Chi Minh City a few days before our flight to Laos, giving Kathleen and I the perfect amount of time to show them a bit of the city and catch up with our North Bay buddies. I have to admit, it was a pretty neat feeling when it dawned on me that I was sitting in the presence of three wonderful women from my hometown. I had a little taste of North Bay, Ontario in my Saigon living room, and it made me proud to think of how far we’ve all come.

After a few days with the girls in Saigon, we boarded our plane for Vientiane on a Saturday night. I’m proud to say that this time, we did not miss our flight. I made sure I triple-checked the time of our tickets, and we had plenty of time at the airport (win!) We landed in Vientiane at about 8pm and it didn’t take long to clear customs. That said, I’d like to share this random fact with any fellow Canadians who are reading: did you know that in Laos, the cost of a visa is based on what country you’re from? Guess which nationality has to pay the most? Yup, Canada! Why, you ask? I have no idea. If anyone can riddle me the answer to that, I will send you any trinket you want from Vietnam. Because I’m still confused.

Vientiane

We spent our first night in Laos in the capital city, Vientiane. Laos is pretty strict when it comes to curfew, so by the time we arrived at our hostel, the night was well underway, and bars would be closing soon. The hostel we stayed at was the Vientiane Backpacker’s Hostel. I found it on the Hostel World website the day before our arrival, and although it was by no means the Ritz Hotel, it was perfect for what we needed. The staff were all very friendly, the rooms had cool names like: “Tiger Room” (with a tiger painted on the door!) and the backpackers I met there were all very friendly. I was surprised at how many Canadians there were at our hostel, and we even managed to meet up with Benoit and Mathieu, two friends Ally and Steph made during their travels together in Thailand. I liked them instantly and it felt like I’d known them forever.

Group of Canadians at our hostel.

Group of Canadians at our hostel.

We spent most of our night in Vientiane chatting with fellow backpackers and sipping the free vodka that our hostel kindly provided (sidenote: I stuck to beer because I thought the vodka tasted like bug spray). We decided to end our night by visiting one of the local nightclubs and we were not disappointed. The music was infectious and we danced the night away, putting our arms around the locals and swaying to the beat.

The next morning we had a bit of an er…sleep in, but when we finally did get up, we certainly took advantage of our day. Mathieu showed us the best place to get a banana smoothie and after a night of dancing, it was just what the doctor ordered. After that, we sat down for a more substantial breakfast and I ordered Lao pancakes with mulberries and honey. They were delicious! Steph and I felt ready to take on the world after that, and with my Lonely Planet guidebook in hand, we set off down the streets of Vientiane to find a tuk-tuk.

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Breakfast of champions.

This next part of the story brings a smile to my face. I really wish I could fully describe the awesomeness of what happened next, but unfortunately, I think it was one of those “you had to be there” things, but I’ll still try. We found a street filled with beautiful looking tuk-tuks and for some reason, we decided to take the only tuk-tuk that looked like it belonged on Wacky Races. Not only was our tuk-tuk falling apart with a caved-in roof, but our driver was wearing the outfit to end all outfits: a slicked back ponytail with sunglasses, matching camouflage jacket/pants and a pair of yellow Converse high tops. I don’t think there could have been a more epic combination. He was the first driver to call out to us and since he gave us a reasonable price, we clambered into his tuk-tuk. As our tuk-tuk let out a painful screech as we turned our first corner, Steph and I both looked at each other, then looked back longingly at all of the nice, well-maintained tuk-tuks lining the street. After that we burst out laughing and I don’t think I stopped laughing until we arrived at the first sight of the day. It was too much.

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The first sight we took in was Pha That Luang (also known as the golden stupa), a Buddhist monument that was constructed in the 3rd century (although it’s been reconstructed several times due to destruction after foreign invasions). I managed to capture some great photos of the stupa, and you can really see how the gold sparkled in the sunlight.

Pha That Luang

Pha That Luang

Up close & personal.

Up close & personal.

After admiring Pha That Luang, Steph and I wandered into the nearby temple, Wat That Luang Tai, where we ran into our lovely British friend Jude from our hostel!  My camera was really on it’s A-Game that day and I managed to take some exceptional photos of the décor, as well as a few cute pictures outside its neighbouring temple, Wat That Luang Neua, We finished this part of our day by touring the nearby monastery, which boasted several impressive Buddhist statues, including one giant reclining Buddha. I have to say, Laos really knows how to build some beautiful structures and statues!

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Steph & me in front of Wat That Luang Tai.

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Wat That Luang Neua

Reclining Buddha.

 

Reclining Buddha

Reclining Buddha

Once we finished touring the grounds of Pha That Luang, we said goodbye to Jude and climbed back into our glorious tuk-tuk. It was starting to get late, but we did have time for one last stop: Patuxai (‘Victory Gate’). Patuxai is a large war monument in the centre of Vientiane, which was constructed in 1957. The monument was built to commemorate those who fought in the struggle for Laotian independence from France. The monument looks a lot like the French Arc de Triomphe, but it is decorated with Laotian mythological creatures. I proudly climbed to the top of the monument, and Steph snapped some photos for me so I could prove that I did it!

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Made it to the top!

Made it to the top!

After visiting Patuxai, Steph and I made our way back to our hostel as we needed to be sure we left plenty of time to catch our bus. Steph, Ben, Mat, Ally and I all booked tickets for the 10-hour night bus to Luang Prabang, and was I ever glad to have their company! As much as I love listening to my iPod and staring out the window, I find it difficult to sleep on buses, and the company of four friends made the trip so much smoother. We had a memorable 90 minute-long game of “Alphabet Movie” and shared a few good laughs and the next thing I knew, we had arrived in Luang Prabang!

Luang Prabang

We arrived in Luang Prabang at about 6 a.m. Those of you who know me, know that I am not normally a morning person, but the excitement of being in a new city gave me a second burst of energy. We got in a tuk-tuk and directed the driver to “drop us off in the tourist part of Luang Prabang.” We really had no plan. He dropped us on a friendly-looking street lined with guesthouses, and we figured this was a good place to start. Given that we had no reservation, we figured we would just waltz into a guesthouse, tell them we were a party of 5 and see what happened. We forgot to factor in the part where many tourists were visiting the area because of the Chinese New Year and Tết. We must have knocked on ten guesthouse doors with the same response: “sorry, we’re full.” Finally, we turned onto one of the side streets and stopped at a guesthouse called ‘Silichith Guest House.’ The man who greeted us was very friendly and explained that if we waited until 9:00 a.m., he could have two rooms ready for us. He even told us we could stash our bags at the front desk and we happily agreed.

Since we had some time to kill, we decided to search for a place to eat breakfast. As we were walking, a lovely elderly lady approached me and asked if I was interested in feeding the monks. I had heard that this was something you could do in Laos and I eagerly said yes. I paid her about 3 USD and she handed me a tray of packaged crackers. Then she took my hand and we ran together to catch up with the monks. It was such a humbling experience handing alms to the monks.  They were so kind and grateful to me, and it made me reflect on how something as simple as having food to eat, which I always take for granted, is something to appreciate. I had heard that women are not permitted to touch the monks, so I was a bit shy as I distributed the food. One of the monks smiled warmly at me, however, and told me I could sit next to them for a picture. I’m glad he told me that.

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After getting my picture taken with the monks, we made our way to a cute little French bakery for breakfast, where I enjoyed a delicious latte. Once breakfast was finished, it was time to return to the guesthouse to check in. I wish I’d taken a picture of our room, because it really was delightful (and economical!) We settled into our rooms, and after speaking with the front desk, we learned that they rent bicycles, so we decided to do our own bike tour of the city. Luang Prabang is a really relaxed, chilled out city. Although it’s a city, it felt more like one of the smaller towns in rural Ontario that I’ve visited and I really liked its atmosphere. I felt completely comfortable biking around Luang Prabang, and it was so wonderful to be in charge of our own tour. I highly recommend this style of tourism if you’re tired of doing guided tours all the time. We really had a good time on our bikes and it was fun calling ourselves a “biker gang.”

The most dangerous biker gang in Luang Prabang.

The most dangerous biker gang in Luang Prabang.

The first place we stopped was at a small lookout over the Mekong River. There were stairs you could take so you could walk up to the edge of the river, so we did that and took a few pictures. After admiring the Mekong, we decided to check out one of Luang Prabang’s Buddhist temples, Wat Xieng Thong. To give a little history, Wat Xieng Thong was built between 1559 and 1560. Until 1975, Wat Xieng Thong  was a royal temple where Lao kings were crowned. The thing that stood out the most for me about this particular wat was that everything in its interior (including several impressive carvings) was made out of wood. The wat also has gilded wooden doors that depict scenes from Buddha’s life. I thoroughly enjoyed touring this wat and, naturally, I took several pictures as proof!

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Wat Xieng Thong

 After finishing our tour of Wat Xieng Thong, we decided to take a much-deserved ice cream break. We stopped at these adorable huts along the Mekong and we each tried a different flavour. It was bliss. Feeling refueled, we made our way to the National Museum, which ended up being closed for the lunch hour. This ended up being a blessing in disguise, however, as it forced us to do some more exploring and we ended up climbing a hill that led us to a small but ancient-looking temple, Wat Pahouak. There was also a winding staircase leading to another wat, but since it was hot out and you had to pay, only Ally and I decided to stick it out. I was really regretting my decision because there were SO MANY stairs and I had a sprained foot, but once I made it to the top, all my negative feelings about climbing the stairs went away. The view was spectacular and I even made a video to capture our accomplishment!

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With Ally inside Wat Pahouak

Once we returned from our hill climb, the lunch hour had ended so we were free to visit the museum. I have to admit, the museum was not as impressive as I’d hoped. We toured the grounds a little bit, which were nice, but when we made it to the actual Museum, the woman in charge told me that I needed to purchase a ticket at the entrance, which was pretty far back. She also quoted me the price, which I found steep, and told me I was not permitted to bring a camera. Since my foot was on fire from climbing the hill, I didn’t feel like trekking across the grounds again to purchase tickets, and neither did my friends. We were, however, able to visit the car museum for free which made me feel like I at least accomplished something. Unfortunately, cameras were not allowed, which is a shame because the museum showcased the cars of former kings – all white Lincolns – which I just know my grandfather would have loved! (Sorry I don’t have pictures, Grandaddy!)

After visiting the museum, we decided to grab lunch, and of course, a much deserved Beerlao. Beerlao is the national beer in Laos, and although I’m by no means a serious connoisseur, I have to say that I really enjoyed the refreshing taste of an ice cold Beerlao. Our plan was to have naps after that since none of us had really slept on the night bus, but as soon as lunch was finished, I got my third wind and did not want to stop exploring. Ben, Steph and I decided to go “sunset chasing” since the bikes were ours until the end of the day, so the three of us hopped back on our bikes and cruised around the city searching for the perfect place to watch the sunset. We ended up getting a wee bit lost for a few minutes and started panicking that we would miss the sunset but thankfully we made our way back to the river just in time to get a photo. Win.

Mekong sunset.

Mekong sunset.

The next day we got up bright and early, as we had booked a day excursion. Ally was less than impressed with our early morning start, and if looks could kill, let’s just say Steph, Ben, Mat and me would be somewhere in a Lao cemetery by now. Our van arrived to pick us up at about 8:30 a.m. and we were on our way to our first stop: elephant riding! After driving through mountainous roads for about an hour, our guide stopped just outside a small village. As we slowly pulled into the elephant camp, I caught my first glimpse of an elephant and I my heart began to flutter. I had always wanted to see an elephant up close and now I was not only going to get to see one – I was going to ride one too! Our guide wasted no time ushering us over towards the wooden tower that we had to climb in order to mount the elephant. I stared in amazement as I watched other people on the tour climb atop the elephant’s back. Elephants are such beautiful creatures, and I don’t know what it is about them, but I find them extremely calming. This might sound silly, but I made eye contact with one of the elephants as I was waiting in line, and it was as if we exchanged a silent conversation. They really are magnificent creatures.

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Finally, it was my turn to mount the elephant. I climbed on nervously, doing my best not to awkwardly graze the elephant. Mat got on next and Ally sat on the neck. The next thing we knew, we were off. Ben and Steph were on another elephant and we had fun heckling them and calling back and forth to each other. Riding the elephant wasn’t what I expected. I really don’t know what I expected, but it was very bumpy and awkward. It took me a few minutes to get used to the rhythm and movements of the elephant, but once I figured it out, I calmed down a bit and realized I wasn’t going to fall out. We made our way along a trail, through the village and into a field. The ride lasted about half an hour, which, for me anyway, was the perfect amount of time. Our guides were extremely friendly and offered to take many pictures for us. They were also patient when the elephants stopped to eat, allowing them to grab a few bites off the trees. There was even a baby elephant that was following the pack “for practice” and it was so cute to watch him stop and eat. At the end of our trip, before I climbed off the elephant, I ran my hand over his skin. It was rough and coarse, and like nothing I’d ever touched before. It was such a special moment for me, and it felt like I was touching something ancient and wise.

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I’m not sure what goes on with the elephants when tourists aren’t around, but to me at least it seemed that they were well taken care of. I’ve heard horror stories about the treatment of elephants, and although this was in the back of my mind that entire day, I will never forget the experience. I give gratitude for these beautiful creatures, and I’m so thankful I got to get that close to an elephant and marvel at their beauty.

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After dismounting the elephants, our guide led us along a path to the riverbank where there were tiny boats waiting to transport us across the river to the Buddha caves. Since we had to wait for our tour group to catch up, Ally and Steph took the opportunity to dive into the Mekong (fully clothed!) I seriously admire their bravery. We eventually made our way over to the caves, and our guide gave us about 45 minutes to do some exploring. I took some pictures and made a video, so you can check them out below if you’re interested.

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After visiting the caves, we made our way back across the river to the elephant camp. The camp served us a complimentary lunch, which was a traditional Lao meal of vegetables, chicken, sticky rice and fruit. It was delicious! Once lunch was finished, we piled back into the van to our next destination: the waterfalls! On our way to the waterfalls, we were permitted to stop for a 15-minute rest stop at a tiny roadside market. It was at this market that we were generously provided with some free samples of the local alcohol. We started off by taking a few shooters of various types of rice wine. I had never actually tasted rice wine before and it was much sweeter than I expected. I could see how it would leave you with a vicious hangover though if you drank too much. Then we moved onto the big guns: lao-lao, a.k.a. traditional Lao whiskey. To say this whiskey was harsh would be an understatement. Immediately after taking the shots, Ally ran out into the street and threw up. I had to close my eyes tight and suck wind to prevent myself from being sick and even the boys were wincing. The locals were killing themselves laughing, but something tells me they’ve seen foreigners react like that many times before.

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About 45 minutes later, we arrived at Kuangsi Waterfall Park. As we made our way into the park, we passed by a bear sanctuary which as an unexpected surprise. There were several black bears playing on rope swings and sleeping lazily on platforms. After reading some of the nearby signs, I realized that all of these bears had been rescued from poachers and abusive situations so it was nice to see them happy and well-fed.

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The waterfalls were quite lovely and tourists are permitted to swim in them, so I quickly changed into my bathing suit and waded into one of the pools. Although the water was quite frigid, there’s something so exhilarating about swimming near waterfalls. Steph and I made our way to one of the smaller falls and I stood under it letting the water wash over me. Steph had the brilliant idea to climb the waterfall, so I let her take the lead as I awkwardly followed in her footsteps as I made my way to the top. Needless to say I’m a bit lanky and uncoordinated so I did obtain a few bruises, but the point was that I did it and I felt extremely proud.

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Once we got to the top, Steph challenged me once again by suggesting we jump off the waterfall. “Is it safe?” I asked. “Of course,” she said. “I just saw some guy do it we’ll be fine.” Challenge accepted. There was no way my inner summer camper was gonna let me pass this one up. After standing at the edge of the waterfall nervously, I made the leap and it felt incredible. With adrenaline coursing through my veins, I opted to do one more jump so that we could capture it on video. Unfortunately, I made the mistake of putting Ben in charge of taking the video, and the footage below is all we got. C’est la vie.

The final waterfall we visited that day was absolutely breathtaking and I was overcome with emotion when I laid eyes on it. About a year and a half ago when I was deciding what I wanted to do next with my life, I constructed a vision board. For those who are unfamiliar, a vision board is when you peruse magazines, old pictures etc. and glue them to a page or board like a collage. All of the items on the board are things you are trying to manifest into you life. The idea is that you look to this vision board every day and it helps you to make your dreams and goals a reality. A year and a half ago, I made myself a vision board with the central theme of travelling abroad. On it a stuck a big ol’ picture of a beautiful waterfall. Imagine my surprise when I realized that the waterfall I was standing in front of in Laos very closely resembled the same waterfall on my vision board! I actually felt tears prick my eyes and I had one of those surreal “Byrne, you’ve made it!” moments. It was a very grounding feeling and it helped me to remember that dreams really can become a reality when you put your mind to it. I really do believe this.

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Although there was a large “NO SWIMMING” sign in front of the waterfall, I noticed that no one seemed to be enforcing this and I had just seen other tourists do it so I decided to go for it. We hopped into the pool and began to swim towards the waterfall. More than anything I wanted to touch it, to make the moment real. It was challenging swimming against the current towards the waterfall, but my years of swimming lessons paid off and I with the help of every muscle in my body, I managed to get myself where I wanted to be. I took several deep breaths, held my head back and put my hand under the water as I basked in the moment. It was definitely one of the highlights of my trip so far, and I’m so thankful I got some pictures of it.

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All in all, it was the perfect end to a wonderful day in Luang Prabang and I’m so happy we chose that excursion. ❤

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