Monday, June 2, 2014

Luang Prabang is on, via the Mekong

Travel has been busy, on the go! And much of my good internet connection time has been focused on travel planning--so there's lots to catch up on...

Floating the Mekong:
From Chiang Mai we headed north and east to Laos' most beautiful town, Luang Prabang, via the mighty Mekong River. 

Day one: road trip via minivan to a tiny border town. For some unknown reason I was expecting a minivan all to ourselves. But instead we had a party van full of folks and one pair of the stinkiest boots I've smelled to date. There was the fresh faced Canadian couple, a few geezer British folks, and a couple of kiwis that partied a little too hard at Thailand's full moon beach party (one was so completely spaced out he had no idea where we were going in Laos, the other, well, we called him stinkwi). Our van was the first sign that it was to be an unusual trip. Luckily, Thailand's freeways are a dream. There's still undoubtably the ubiquitous "extra" or invisible lane in the middle, but it was a not a death defying drive. 

This was the decal on our van. Only in Thailand. 

First stop: the White Temple. We couldn't go inside because it was damaged in the earthquake that hit Chiang Rai about two weeks before our visit. 

This is not one of Thailands many ancient temples. It is the vision of Thai artist, Chalermchai Kositpipat. A very interesting modern take, I loved the darkness of it all, within the blinding white. 

Then we stayed in possibly the worst hotel of our entire trip...

I should perhaps take a step back here and say that the slow boat to Laos is primarily organized by tour groups--you get the package deal at any number of small travel agencies in Chaing Mai and Chaing Pai. On old laminated pages in a three ring binder, you see the vague outline of a trip typed out, blurry photos of hotels you might stay in, and vauge descriptions of border crossings and buses you'll take. 

But once on the road, it became evident that our faded iteneraries equalled confusion, no one really knew what was going on. "I don't know" was the mantra. We didn't have one guide who took us through the whole process from bus to bus to border crossing, etc. and once we got to a place, we were usually were told several different things about what we needed to do. It's all part of the adventure, and very much describes getting outdoors anywhere on this trip to date.

the hotel vying for worst of the tip: like the paint job, hate the rock hard beds and non-working fans in the cement heat boxes called rooms. oh yeah, and there's the "food" that was most likely the trigger for B and I to get sick at exactly the same time. 

Luckily, we were able to find a nice pool to cool off in and talked to some interesting young Dutch kids. As van after van dropped folks off at the hotel, we discovered we had joined the 20 year old euro party curcuit that goes from Thailand to Vietnam. An interesting scene to accompany our trip.

Day two: we made it through the border crossing and found ourselves on the banks of the Mekong in one of these Lao long boats.

Capt Ben as we pulled out of the briefing, and life jackets? 

a few short minutes later, we got a little close to another boat.

The boat was packed to the max. Not one seat left. 

The scenes of Lao as we cruised the river--lush, dense forest, dotted with small communities.

There was also a lot of burning of the dense forest as well. For grazing? Agriculture? 

We made a stop at Pakbeng the first night--we found a great place to stay with airconditioning! And delicious indian food. We also saw the first indications of a place once under french dominion: baguettes!! Croissants! 

The slow boat trip ended on an unfortunate, strange note. We pulled up to a dock 10km from town, with rickshaws ready and waiting for us, when many passengers expected to land just a short walk from their hotel. What followed was an attempted mutiny: they are just trying to scam us into paying for a rickshaw! refuse to get off the boat until they bring us to the center of town! Tourists shook thick outdated lonely planet guides open to the maps of the ferry stop in LP at the captain, who claimed to know no english all of a sudden. Built up frustration from the kids travelling for months feeling as if they were getting scammed out of money at every stop was unleashed. In reality, no one actually knew where we were supposed to get dropped off, and none of us could communicate effectively with locals to figure it out. Ben tried to calm folks down and figure out the facts...but the facts were as vague as our faded iteneraries. In the end, as the 2 or 3 local passengers got off, we followed did most of the passengers. A tense start to our stay in Luang Prabang but it didn't last. More photos of LP to come! 

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