Slow boat along Banana Pancake Trail….Northern Laos

There’s not much to do in Huay Xie, but it is the start of the very popular slow boat to Luang Prabang. We have heard good and bad things about the slow boat, but worse things about the other options. The bus ride is bumpy and curvy. The fast boat is very dangerous and uncomfortable. So we found ourselves with 150 other tourists, mostly backpackers for a two day journey down the Mekong River.  Though we were very tightly packed, sitting on modified car seats, the scenery was great and we passed the time reading, playing cards with other travelers, and swapping stories.  Our general conversations go something like this:

Where are you from?

How long are you travelling?

Are going to insert common destination?

Have you been to our next destination?

What’s your name? (this is sometimes hours after you “met”)

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Typical boats
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Riverside village
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Boat stop
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River scenery
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Laos Locals (Laotians just doesn’t sound right)
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River scenery
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River scenery
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Pretty tightly packed

After about 2 hours, we were over the whole boat thing and ready to disembark.  Luckily, they had told us it would be 8 hours and we arrived in just under 6.  We saw a lot of riverside wildlife (goats and water buffalo mostly) and the occasional village.  We arrived in a small town, Pak Beng, which is pretty much just catering to slow boat passengers.  Knowing this ahead of time and not having booked anywhere to stay, I left Riki to collect our bags amid the masses and high-tailed it up the riverbank, past the hostel representatives trying to entice me to go with them.  I found a cheap and pretty clean place at the top of the hill, dropped my bags and went to collect Riki at the boat.  We ate dinner at an OK Indian restaurant, the highlight being the small black cat who wanted to sit on my lap the whole time (that shouldn’t tell you much about the food – animals win every time with me).

The next morning, Riki dragged me out of bed incredibly early to head back to the boat.  We were first in line so Riki went off in search of sandwiches for lunch.  Luckily, our 150 people were split onto two smaller boats and we had much more space the second day of our journey.

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Pak Beng
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Elephant’s morning bath
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Our boat and seats
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River scenery
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The fast boat – our other option – notice the driver is wearing a helmet – not a good sign

We arrived earlier than expected to Luang Prabang, but encountered more Laotian scamming.  Instead of dropping us off near the town, as they used to, the slow boats park about 10 km north of the town.  At the top of a very steep and dangerous bank, there is a hut with a man behind a desk.  He demands 20,000 Kip (about 8000 Kip to $1) per person to share a tuk tuk to town.  This is a lot of money here, but your other option is to mutiny, as we saw one group do, and convince a tuk tuk driver to take you without getting tickets at the counter.  You may end up paying the same price but at least the driver gets the money, not an unknown entity.  You can also walk about 20 minutes down the road to the main road and try to hail a tuk tuk from there.

We arrived at our hostel, a great place called Kounsavan Guesthouse.  I don’t usually put hostel names in here, but this place was great.  the beds were the most comfortable we’ve encountered and we met so many great people while we were here.  Also, by far the best banana pancakes I have had this trip.  Unfortunately, there was a girl who was very sick in our 8-bed room, so we ended up spending as little time in the room as possible.

The next day we went to the Kuang Si waterfalls.  Now I’ve seen a lot of waterfalls, but people the night before had told me these were the most beautiful falls they had ever seen.  I was skeptical, but we hopped in a minivan with some people from the hostel and went to check them out.

And they were right.  So sorry about all the pictures, but there are at least ten times more than this.

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There was a bear rescue center at the bottom of the falls.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA   OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe water was such a cool color (and a bit cool).  Instead of a rocky falls, like most, this was all clay and smooth stones.  We walked to the top, which was pretty rough in flip flops, but were rewarded with a great view and a rather unstable fence keeping people from going over the edge.  It didn’t stop the guy next to me from losing a flip flop and then promptly just throwing the other one over as well.

That evening we went to a sidewalk noodle place and then to  bar where probably every tourist in town was.  We sat on the floor around a low table and drank Beer Lao until they closed (which was around 11).  On our walk back, we ran into a festival where a game that is a cross between volleyball and hackey sack was taking place.  It was incredible to watch these guys swing their feet over their heads and kick a ball the size of a cantaloupe back and forth over the net.

The next two days we explored Luang Prabang and the village across the river.  It is an old French town, so there is an interesting mix of European and Asian architecture (including rickety bamboo bridges).

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We found a really neat canvas-printing studio.  The scarves and bags were too expensive for us, but we really liked the patterns and even tried to buy some scraps (they didn’t have any – they recycle all the excess).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere is a small hill with a stupa at the top where many people go for sunset.  We skipped sunset and climbed the hill for a great view of the area.  On the way down, I acquired  a canine guide who  proceeded to join us for the walk down the stairs and for ten minutes to our lunch place, where he was chased off by some other street dogs (I didn’t initiate any of this, I promise).

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Our canine guide
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Not petting the animals is very difficult for me, especially when they are so friendly.

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We begrudgingly booked our VIP bus ticket to Vang Vieng.  Luang Prabang is more than just a tourist center for backpackers.  The landscape is incredible and it has the same laid back atmosphere that we have encountered everywhere we have been in Laos.  But it is time to head south, as we are trying to be at the beach in Vietnam for Christmas.

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