Monday, June 8, 2009

SE Asia Trip, Part 3 - Vientiane to Luang Prabang, the long way round!

23/02/09 - 25/02/09

Although I really liked Vientiane, I did want to push on to Luang Prabang. I thought I would be able to spend a bit more time here when I headed back to Bangkok at the end of my trip (this didn't actually go according to plan in the end, however...)

The most popular route from Vientiane to Luang Prabang is by road via Vang Vieng. Vang Vieng was once a gorgeous little town on the Song river, but it has become a backpacker mecca in recent years, with a fairly overt drug scene. Not really on my 'to do' list!

I decided to be a bit different and take a route that few travellers take - a three day voyage, on slow boat, sawngthaew and public bus, via Pak Lai and Sainyabouli.

The first day involved being up early enough to catch the slow boat from Kao Liew boat landing. The tuktuk driver helped me buy my ticket to Pak Lai and I dragged my stuff down the steep bank of the Mekong to the boat. Locals swarmed around me shifting their own bags and packages onto the boat as well. I looked around in vain hoping to see anybody else who might be a traveller, but no such luck, I was definitely on my own! I attracted a lot of curious glances from people wondering what on earth I was doing there, particularly from the many small children.

The view as we set off up the Mekong.

Random but beautiful buildings perched on the river bank.

A small village on the far side of the Mekong - I wonder if it is joined to any roads? Although there is now a road from Vientiane to Pak Lai many people still use the slow boats to get to the villages that are unreachable by road.

Fisherman on the Mekong.

Reflections in the still waters.

Glad I'm not on that boat!

These are typical of the slow boats that ply the Mekong - I'm on a similar one myself.

Secluded Buddhist temple - I wonder if it is only reachable by boat?

The inside of the boat I was on - it was full to begin with, but people were dropped off along the way, often jumping to other long tail boats which came up to the sides of our boat.

The sun begins to set as we reach Pak Lai - 10 and a half hours after leaving Vientiane.

Taking the slow boat up the Mekong was a lovely way to spend the day, although quite solitary as very few of the passengers spoke to me, and those that did didn't speak any English! I tried my best, but really being able to count to 10 and say 'hello' and 'thank you' are about as much as I can manage in Lao at present. The slow boat wasn't even as uncomfortable as I thought it would be, though I did have a bench to myself and my trusty cushion. It was nice to be able to stretch my legs when we reached Pak Lai and I refused all offers of rides up the hill. I found a room at the first guest house I came across - Jainhny Guesthouse - which I shared with these lovely little reptiles:

The power supply to Pak Lai promptly stopped as I went to find some dinner, and only came back on quite late, so I had a brief walk around the town after dark. There was some kind of funfair happening in the town square but I didn't really feel it was my place to participate, so I just had a quick look before going back to the guesthouse and to sleep.

The morning sunrise view from my guesthouse.

Leaving Pak Lai - I think I would have stayed another day if I hadn't been travelling alone. As it was I was only bridging the language gap with my phrasebook and there were no other travellers to be seen anywhere. At the bus station whilst I waited for my sawngthaew I spent my time chatting to a group of young Lao guys. They had fun looking through my Lao phrasebook and trying to teach me how to pronounce random words in Lao. Funnily enough the first question I always get asked by the locals I strike up conversations with isn't what my name is, but instead 'Do you have a husband/boyfriend?' Hmm.

I don't have any photos of the next part of the trip. That's because if I'd taken my camera out it would have been immediately covered in a thick coat of red dust. Sawngthaews are by far my least favourite form of transport ever, I have decided. They are basically pick-up trucks, mostly with a flimsy roof over the back, and two long benches in the back of the truck facing each other. I was crammed into one with about 8 locals, luggage and a few chickens. For about 5hrs of speed racing over potholes on dry, dusty tracks. Fun.

I spent the entire time with my sarong wrapped around my head, my bandanna covering my face and my sunglasses on. Some of the other women had towels wrapped around their heads, and there was one old guy with a balaclava on. I could see they were enjoying the trip about as much as I was - one woman was getting quite travel sick by the end of it.

Finally we reached the bustling metropolis of Sainyabuli.

Yeah. Actually I think Sainyabuli must have grown and changed a lot in the last couple of years, as the map and information in my Lonely Planet guidebook was utterly inaccurate. There looked like there were some shiny new roads and fancy hotels - who on earth these were catering for I've no idea. It took me forever walking up and down the main streets, developing blisters on my heels and between my toes (switching between my teva sandals and flip flops not a good idea - now I had no comfy footwear...) before I found a cheap guesthouse. It took a while longer for someone who actually worked there to appear and get me a room, but at least my new found language skills enabled me to ask for a room and find out the price.

Later in the afternoon, I took a short walk around the town, checked out the river and the market and bought some oranges. Now I'm ashamed to admit I spent the rest of the evening in my room, which actually had a TV with HBO and some good movies. In my defence, I was actually getting ill!

I had planned to spend a whole day in the Sainyabuli area, but as I was developing a cold I thought I would push on to Luang Prabang instead. It was only a 3 and a half hour trip by public bus, which was quite a relief after the journey the day before. The only significant thing to note of the trip was the ferry crossing, on this vehicle ferry:

I seriously was not convinced that ferry would take the weight of all the traffic on it, but at least it was only a very short trip. Must be very different in the wet season when the river is a lot stronger and wider!

I got to Luang Prabang at lunchtime and found a guesthouse in the 'Post Office' area recommended by Travelfish - called Rattana Guesthouse. Unfortunately a little too expensive for just one person, but otherwise comfy and clean. I was planning to use Luang Prabang as a base to explore some of the surrounding area, but I think it is a lovely town to spend time in on it's own merit.

I did enjoy this 3-day trip, but I can't help but think I perhaps should have done it later in the trip, in the other direction. Although it did help me pick up more Lao than I perhaps would have done sticking to the more well-trodden route, I did find it quite lonely, which did influence me to speed the trip up and spend less time actually exploring the area. Most other travellers I spoke to afterwards were unaware of this route, or the places I had mentioned, but were quite impressed I'd done it on my own so soon into my trip into Laos. I guess it was a bit of an achievement, but I think I would have enjoyed it more if I'd been with a travelling partner.

More on my time in Luang Prabang to follow shortly!

No comments: