A Travellerspoint blog

No choice but to relax...Luang Prabang

I woke up to soft rock music playing in a restaurant courtyard across from my window. My shoelaces were strung through the window screen, holding up my stinking runners that still faintly smelled of “eau de rotting rainforest”. In my fervent attempt to wash my shoes the night before, my tiny little guesthouse introduced me to the inventive shortcuts that the Lao people employ in plumbing. Bleary-eyed, I vaguely remembered my feet getting soaked under the sink as I scrubbed my shoes. Upon careful investigation, I noticed that the sink emptied directly onto the floor. This technique promotes an efficient system where all utilized water disappears down one gaping floor drain, along with dead crickets and any other unlucky protein runoff. I had no idea how quickly I could get used to something so entirely nonsensical, but did learn to just spread my feet behind me whenever I turned on the infamous tap.
Luang Prabang must be explored on a bicycle. The Mekong and the Nam provide pretty riverside views almost all of the way around the town, and there are many colonial buildings to admire on each street. There were some impressive wats (temples) to visit, and the sunset from the highest point in town was worthwhile, even when surrounded by inevitably pushy, sweaty tourists. I took a cooking class and went to market. Aside from the putrid odours emanating from dead animal parts on the far side, the market was a lot of fun to explore. I found a restaurant called “Utopia”, which is actually owned by two Canadians from London. They obviously still had the University of Western Ontario in the forefront of their minds when Utopia was built, as the floor plan included a day AND night beach volleyball court in the middle of their lush, tropical hideaway.
Aside from enjoying the food and my daily one-speed bicycle excursions, I can quite honestly say that three days in Luang Prabang would have been enough. I stayed for eight, and enjoyed the extra pleasures of spa treatments, a daily morning coffee and baguette ritual, an elephant/waterfall adventure, and taking part in a parade that was actually a funeral. I am sad to admit that I took a picture of the first ‘float’, and then realized that the passengers in the back of the pickup were accompanying a casket.
The only notable stress of my entire 8 days in the school of relaxation was the moment at which my mama elephant went rogue as she reacted to a nearby truck engine. She backed us up a hill into the hydro wires, and I remember wondering to whom I should pray in order to survive. Not only did the mahout (elephant driver) shout at the truck driver, but he added some extra excitement by whipping the elephant forward into a bolting frenzy, straight down a hill towards her 250 kg of reward snacks. It was a fantastic day, nonetheless, and I even bought the token t-shirt!
I was ready for Vietnam after simmering in the restful vibe of Luang Prabang, but under no uncertain terms would I travel by bus. Horns still blaring in my head, I was indelibly marked by the ground transportation in Laos. Vietnam Airlines instantly won my support, and off I flew to Hanoi.

Posted by Lana007 03:39 Comments (0)

Forget Alcatraz, try escaping Luang Namtha

I touched down in northern Laos, thinking that I was about to be immersed in culture overflowing. All I discovered was a fantastic Indian restaurant that served spinach and mushroom ‘heate’, and that it wouldn’t be completely out of place to see tumbleweeds bouncing down the main drag. If there is nothing to do in Vientiane, you may as well sleep through the day in Luang Namtha. The name Luang stands for ‘area’ , and Namtha for ‘around the river Nam’. Just for interest’s sake, the Mekong is an ochre colour, whereas the Nam is olive green. Further south, in Luang Prabang, the two rivers converge, creating a mosaic of earthy tones worthy of painting. Not being that creative, I just took a picture.
I was desperate to plunge into the wonders of the tropical jungle in this remote, fabled corner of Laos, but going on a mosquito-infested trek into imminent inundations of the wet stuff was of little interest. I think Nepal spoiled me, because not a single trek has intrigued me since!
I sat in the hotel café dreaming up how to make some fun, and decided to reserve a motorcycle in the morning for a ride up to Muang Sing, a supposed cultural mecca of Laos. There are several different tribes residing near Muang Sing, each abiding by distinct customs and rituals, so I was pretty excited about my plan. In order to kill some time that afternoon, I rented a bicycle and tried to find my way up to the massive, golden stupa on the top of the highest hill overlooking the town. I laughed when some French tourists asked me for directions. They probably never made it, because it took me three hours to find the path, and the stupa was in view the entire time. At one unfortunate moment, the asphalt turned to dirt, then to rocks and holes, and then into a private residence guarded by a minimum of a dozen angry, blood thirsty mongrels. There was no gate separating them from me, so I turned about and prayed that my legs would not get chewed off as I bounced down the badly rutted path.
Doggedly determined (get it?) to make my way up to the monastery and stupa on the hill, I finally spotted a staircase leading ‘up’. I dragged my bike hopefully up the stairs (see photo), only to meet an orange monk staring at me, bewildered. He nodded to the paved road directly in front of me, and walked away. Apparently, I took the hard way. After wiping my brow, I locked my bike and carried on by foot, eager to see an ancient stupa steeped in history. I first noticed a plexi-glass window built into the structure’s side, and then a sign indicating 2009 as the date of construction. This is actually very typical in Laos, as so much of the country has been bombed and ravaged by war over the years. The only city that has any real history still standing is Luang Prabang, and this is just because both the Japanese and the USA felt it was a neutral zone at the time.
After gazing at the jungle from the hill’s zenith, and hoping to witness something ’jungly’ (like a monkey), I noticed the looming, dark storm clouds positioned right above my head. The instant torrential downpour enveloped me as I raced down the hill, but blocked my sight so that I missed my turnoff for the hotel. I suppose I cannot blame the weather, based on my track record for rarely knowing where I am. I stayed in that night, dried off, licked my wounds, and shuddered at what trouble I might create the next day.
The next morning, and upon reassuring the Lao owner of the motorcycle shop that I would not kill myself, I aptly stalled the bike 30 seconds later as I tried to ride up the ramp into the gas station. Trying to get the bike started facing uphill was a bad idea, so I will leave the visuals to the imagination. Muang Sing is about 2 hours north of Luang Namtha, approaching the country’s border to China. It is only about 50 km, but I very quickly understood why speeding is impossible in Laos. I encountered roosters, piglets, ducks, and water buffalo on the road, mixed with an unrelenting, cool rain that mashed up the dung patties strewn across the road. That stuff is slippery. Being prepared like a good Brownie, I pulled out my pink poncho, figuring I could at least stay dry. Once the wind picked up, the poncho started flying, and I got drenched. Ahh, the glorious introduction to the rainforest. I tried to outrun the clouds, but they followed every weave, bend, and turn, all the way to my sorry little destination. Upon arrival in Muang Sing, every single member of every single tribal community was intelligently tucked away under shelters, hidden from the pelting sheets of water. I, on the other hand, was shaking my head in the middle of the intersection, soaked to the core. There was no sign of the rain letting up, so I turned around and started back towards Luang Namtha. I did not see one car or motorcycle the entire way back, but had to laugh when I realized I was pure entertainment for a group of kids heading home from school. That pink cape was useless, but funny. I did not stop to see the famed waterfall either, but I was wet enough, thank you. Four hours later to the minute, the motorcycle shop owner came out and asked me if I had fun. I giggled and exclaimed, “No!” Needless to say, no explanation was necessary, but he took a picture after telling me I made good time :).
The next morning, I bounded onto a very nice double decker bus by Lao standards, and snagged a spot up top for my 8–hour trip to Luang Prabang. My excitement dwindled about 55 minutes out of the bus station. Our bus sadly broke down, but we did not know this until 90 minutes after we stopped. I thought the driver had disappeared for a booty call in the village. At one point, we heard a rumble, sputter, and horn up the road, and turned to witness our rickety, replacement jalopy, resurrected from the local junk yard. Fortunate enough to sit in the front seat, I bore witness to the inventive ways one can use string, bandaids, and palm fronds to keep bus parts together, wired, and functional. I kid you not. The entire front dash resembled several intricately connected games of cat’s cradle, and I only wished the horn had not been rigged. I learned very quickly that the horn represents the soul of the Lao driver, and 13 hours of soul was more than any of us could take without some Tylenol 3s.
The slow-going bouncing, twisting movement was amusing for all of 20 minutes, as we wound our way around every mountainside in Northern Laos. At one point, we actually saw another vehicle on the road as we whipped around a cliff. Unfortunately, the vehicle was in our lane. As our driver braked and swerved, I was catapulted out of my seat and thrown into the stairwell of the bus, followed by both of my seat cushions and a bag of rice. I lost my breath as I turned to face a wide-eyed group of sweaty tourists, but strictly from sheer laughter. The driver and the porter were so worried, which made me laugh even harder. We rebuilt my chair, and fired up the bus for more adventure.
When darkness came upon us, we had to stop the bus because the headlights did not work. I was completely mesmerized by the driver’s ingenuity in tearing apart a plastic bag and twisting it around the steering wheel so tightly that it held the headlight wiring in place. Upon arrival in Luang Prabang, I would have been happy to sleep in the parking lot dust, but found my way into the back of a tuk tuk taxi. The driver dumped me at the top of a quaint little alley, and I crookedly wandered through it until I found a guest house that had space for the weary. I was about to learn the art of true relaxation, as a week in Luang Prabang will lull even the most resistant into an inescapable trance.

Posted by Lana007 04:25 Archived in Laos Comments (2)

Oh where, oh where is the Lao Red Cross...

View Lana's Peripatetic Voyage on Lana007's travel map.

I felt as though I had been softly transported out of the Bangkok sky into a clean, dreamy, wide-laned, empty city. Re-routing out of the floods in Thailand to Laos was a brilliant idea, however my excitement had to first wade with me through a very sluggish ‘visa upon entry’ lineup at the Vientiane airport. Canadians are charged far more than any other country for a visitor’s visa to Laos, so I suppose this is a direct reflection of what Canada charges other nations for entry to the most beautiful country in the world. We pay a lot to be Canadian, so we had just as soon continue to be proud!
Having nothing better to do but focus on the weight of my bags, I studied the passports held by the other tourists in line. Canada’s passports are pretty flimsy, if I do say so. Some countries produce hard covers, pretty colours, and fancy cover pages. Maybe Mr. Harper will endorse a less conservative passport in the future. Without taking sides, it would be a creative arts and crafts break from all of the whining on the Hill.
Upon paying an inordinate amount of money to my cab driver, I realized I did not care because it was so pleasant in Vientiane with no traffic, no exhaust filling my lungs, and a seat in a vehicle that had suspension and all of its floorboards. The hotel’s name was Phoung Champa, so getting lost was a given. There was no way I was going to remember that name, so I secretly scanned for landmarks along the Mekong River. It is probably best not to highlight whether or not my strategy was successful.
I have no memory of Hallowe’en, but that is likely due to the fact that nothing happens in Vientiane. There is truly nothing to do, but getting lost kept me busy for hours. After finding that a bicycle was the cheapest solution for getting around, I spent the day looking for the Red Cross and never found it. Just because I had detailed instructions does not mean it was easy! After watching the cab drivers, motorcyclists, and gardeners watch me circle the same block over and over, I gave up and let them have their snicker. By the end, I was laughing, too. I did manage to locate the Vietnamese embassy, a bank with a grand piano for the customers’ enjoyment, and a travel agency that could ship me out of Vientiane the next day. The travel agent just happened to recommend the best little local restaurant in town, and that visit became the best memory of my short stay. The owner, Noy, does not even have a sign on her little place, and the food was so good that I asked if I could learn some of her recipes after hours. In her tiny kitchen, and after she told me I bought the wrong mushrooms (listen, those things took 2.5 hours to find in the scorching heat. They were fine), we laughed mostly about men, and created a simple business plan for her to carry out in the next few months. I know she will become very profitable, and I fully expect to see her restaurant in Lonely Planet within 2 years!
Before leaving for Luang Namtha in northern Laos, I spent about three hours in a salon called Mango, right in front of the Mekong boardwalk in Vientiane. As the sun fell behind the river, I was lulled to sleep with slow music accompanying an extensive nail decorating ritual. Following that exhausting effort on my part, the manager asked me if I would like my hair washed, too. Well, I could barely see or walk after the head massage, wash, and blow dry. So, the moral of the story is….when there is nothing to do, eat a good meal with a friend, go to the salon, and laugh a lot. If you are really bored, get lost first.

Posted by Lana007 02:47 Archived in Laos Comments (1)

The final chronicles of Nepal

October 29-31, 2011:
Kathmandu Airport is like the Hotel California - checking in after Lhasa was no problem, but two days later, I didn’t think we would ever leave for Laos. Kathmandu had an air traffic jam, which is almost impossible given the regularity and infrequency of their flights in and out. After all, Nepal Airlines only has one airplane…Somehow, however, ‘Nepal time’ caught up with us on the tarmac, and I had a chance to revisit in my mind my last two days in that magnificently frenzied country...
I did not care that the China Air landing from Lhasa likely caused me $1000.00 in reconstructive dental work. I was just glad to feel the thick heat and stench of garbage reach my nostrils as we deplaned in Kathmandu. Nature Trails Travel was kind enough to send out staff to meet me at the airport on their day off. The guys smiled and carted me around Thamel, dodging cows, so I could gather up backpacks, my laptop, and various other items I did not want to lug around Tibet. I decided to switch guest houses for my last two nights, as I had heard that the Khangsar Hotel had toilet seats that stayed put when perched upon. All of that luxury for $10.00 per night!
As I dragged my possessions up the stairs, I saw Marlies (Holland) in the lobby. Marlies and I had just experienced Tibet together, so she and I were tight from having shared much misery. We decided to go and eat some real food, and took off before I even noticed the leaky, rusty, hideous BLUE bathroom. Leaky meant running water, and this was an instant improvement over the past week.
Within 15 seconds, Marlies asked me if I wanted to get a real cup of coffee. We walked purposefully around Thamel, but only because one of us knew where she was going. Clearly, this was Marlies. We realized we had really escaped Tibet when I asked the waiter if there was real milk with the coffee. He looked puzzled, and asked, “Real?” I sighed with relief, and ordered an extra- large Americano!
Next, after being spooked about bed bugs by numerous women travellers, we went hunting for a silk sleeping bag liner for me, as well as a cheap spa package for the next day. Marlies had never experienced a ½ day treatment, but was very easy to convince! We were able to combine blinking and smiling, which rewarded us with half the normal price of a hot stone massage, foot massage, mini –facial, and steam/sauna experience the next morning. I floated out of the spa, and we celebrated with a meal of real cheese, real vegetables, and real chicken. There were thankfully no yaks or strange body parts on the menu this side of the Himalayas.
After squeezing out of an awkward partnership proposal with the hotel, and following a fantastic dinner with my Italian friends at the Or 2 K vegetarian restaurant, I left for the airport the next morning. I suppose leaving on time would have been too much to expect, so I chose to recapture and treasure my memories of Nepal as I gazed out of the airplane window at the wildly overpopulated city of Kathmandu. Nepal is a place that simply solicits more than one visit. I will return to this complex, corrupt, impoverished, stunning country, filled with the happiest people you can imagine. I wondered what Laos would surprise me with…

Posted by Lana007 02:38 Archived in Nepal Comments (1)

The princess and the pea...

I woke up as if I had not slept, and pieced together why my featherbed did not produce good results. First, I recalled having to go to the bathroom, but thanks to my vivid, altitude-induced hallucinations, I was forced to climb down a gushing, cascading waterfall, only to be hauled away by a cable attached to the top of a skyscraper. Clearly, my dream kept me from reaching the washroom, and the bed thankfully stayed dry. Next, I remembered being frozen during the night. At first this seemed impossible with all of my fluffy layers, but I foggily recalled finding my covers on the floor at 3 AM and being unable to turn left on the mattress. The entire bed had completely collapsed to the right and was inches away from dumping me onto the cold floor. Once I rebuilt my bed, all attempts at sleep were shattered as the local Tibetan roosters systematically woke up every pack dog in the city way ahead of what any reasonable rooster would have considered dawn.
Luckily, we had our shortest bus trip to date, and arrived in Gyantse at noon. The hotel was a modest improvement from Shigatse’s, and included clean floors, hot water for ablutions, and experimental Tibetan soap and shampoo. After jumping on my bed, we set off for a long visit at the Khumbum Stupa and Pelkor Chode Monastery. The monastery was quite expansive, but due to Chinese intolerance of Tibetan Buddhism, there are now only 32 monks residing in the huge dwelling, all studying one of the three forms of Tibetan Buddhist practice.
We took off for dinner in Gyantse, noting that all signs were completely free of the English language. Not only did we have to guess which establishments were restaurants, but we immediately realized that ordering from a menu would be a complete crapshoot. I was afraid of pointing and inadvertently ordering yak tongue, limp pig’s foot, or worse yet, limp cock’s wings. Luckily, our waitress got creative and showed us some pictures of food on her cell phone. My craving for vegetables caused me to get up, snag a bowl, throw in some veggies from the counter, and point to the hot water. Her husband’s face showed amusement, and he watched as his wife grabbed some noodles to add to the creation, causing us all to laugh simultaneously. He disappeared into the kitchen while we wondered what was coming. After the wife took pictures of our incredibly appetizing dishes for her cell phone menu, we ended up eating the best soup and stir-fried vegetables imaginable! After learning how to say “Thank you”, we realized that the owners of this little establishment were Chinese, not Tibetan. I left wishing I had a husband who had the gift of creating exactly what I want to eat without me having to utter a single word! We dashed back to our room and turned in early.
The next day arrived in full sun. I gazed at the russet-coloured mountains and cow-filled pastures through our window before heading down to more egg and bread rations. I didn’t say anything, but noticed that our useless guides were being treated to a royal smorgasbord breakfast in the hotel lobby, and we all waited an extra 35 minutes due to their refusal to abide by their own departure schedule for Lhasa. While we were already used to the chaotic, disorganized approach of this tour ‘company’, all 60 of were still hopeful that Lhasa would dramatically improve our overall impressions and leave us with some positive memories of Tibet.
Our bus climbed to a staggering 5560 metres, and we were instructed to get out and try the latrines. I think we were supposed to be excited about visiting the highest toilets in the world (holes in a cement slab), but I walked away when the locals forced us to pay in order to enjoy their tourist attraction. Cath and I amused ourselves by taking pictures of one another under the glacier. Lo and behold, two Tibetan girls in ceremonial garb shoved themselves up beside me just before Cath took a picture. The taller girl, who was evidently the 'ringleader', punched me three times when she realized I was not willing to give her money for her ‘photo opp’. I was officially angry for the first time on my travels, and stared into her defiant eyes while I slowly told her twice to never touch me again. Funnily enough, I recognized her look of contempt, and clued in that I was dealing with a teenager :). Holding my glare, the girl backed away without blinking. She must have either figured I could flatten her or was just a practiced mother whose resistance to her eyeball war was simply too strong. Regardless, I was in shock that I had just been beaten on, but reckoned it would make for a good story later. Yes, I used the word ‘reckoned’, which means I have been exposed to a large number of Australian, British, and Irish travellers!
Lunch was a complete ambush. We were faced with a yak chew and chicken bone buffet, masked in a horrible attempt at curry sauce. The rice was edible, albeit cold, and we all left feeling ready to hitchhike the rest of the journey to Lhasa.
I have blocked out the rest of the day, except for our arrival in Lhasa. We bounced off the bus, and trotted into our charming little hotel’s courtyard in the city’s Tibetan quarter. There was not enough space for over half of the group, but we had all become so accustomed to this predicament that we barely reacted. We just wanted a key to a room, wherever it was. I was starting to feel unwell, so was happy to find extra duvets, a kettle, and jasmine teabags in our room.
First impressions of Lhasa included the smell of fresh French fries cooking in the alleys, snooker bars (not hooker…snooker), monks praying en masse in front of the temples, and police and military guards stationed throughout every public square and at every street corner. I bought some fine Tibetan turquoise stones, and enjoyed the visit to the very empty Potala Palace. The Lhasa Department Store was stocked with items that only the rich could afford, and the cashiers were consequently bored to tears. Children played in community parks, and computer stores lined the city’s main drag. Overall, Lhasa is a modern city that emits an unmistakable tension between two opposing cultures. There seem to be relatively few foreigners, the bulk of whom hang out in the “Summit Coffee House”, a superb little Starbucks-like escape. I almost felt invisible to the Tibetans, but the Chinese sure love to sell!
I was aware of my delight as we arrived at the airport on Day 7, ready to pounce onto the tarmac for my flight back to Kathmandu. We all noticed how happy the airport employees seemed to be as our large group passed through security and headed for the ticketing agents. They probably couldn’t wait to see us go :).
Tibet is a place that resembles nothing else I have ever seen. The plateaus were remarkably beautiful in windswept hues of brown, blue, and splashes of green. I feel fortunate to have been permitted to explore the Tibetan landscape, and to blend unevenly into Tibetan society if only for a few days. I will likely never return, but have a deeper appreciation for the history and reality of Tibet, dramatically different from what we have been fed by the media over the years. I am discovering the blessing from travelling - the permanent delivery from ignorance to experience insofar as unravelling elements of authenticity in any given community or society. As obvious as it is, physically visiting the world seems to be the only way to truly learn about it, whatever our conclusions.

Posted by Lana007 08:13 Comments (4)

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