Travelling is freedom - Basti´s global journeys

Luang Prabang – The Ancient Pearl of the Mekong

Hey guys

I am in Vang Vieng now, the notorious place where tubing takes place. Tomorrow we are heading to the capital of Laos Vientiane. But it was a long journey to get here and we spend 3 days in Luang Prabang on the way.

Muddy roads and new friends

So last time I wrote we just got back from our jungle trek ordeal in the hills of Muang Sing! We filled up on food and Beerlao at the night market before a tuk tuk brought us to the bus station. The bus we wanted to take was coming from the Thai-Laos border and we were meant to hop on. Well when we arrived they told us that they had The crew - Jamie, Yassin, Shir, me and David only one place on the bus. So we started playing fliflaflu (rock paper scissors Bavarian style) to decide who had to sleep in the corridor on the floor. Once the bus had arrived, however, they realised that two people had to get off and eventually we all got a nice seat, well apart of the fact that they were located in front of 5 English girls (stereotype tourists on their way to tubing) and although everybody tried to sleep they kept going on and on talking rubbish and putting their feet on the seats in front (which is very disrespectful in these countries as the feet are seen as the dirtiest, lowest and unholy part of the body and pointing with feet at people or putting them on top of something is not acceptable) but I didn’t even want to tell them as the places they go to don’t have anything to do with the country they are visiting anyway.

I told you last time that the roads were much better than I thought; well I guess that is only true for the northern regions as the Chinese probably invest in the bordering regions. The roads from Luang Namtha to here have been quite rough and sleeping is a challenge in these buses.

In the bus we met two people we travelled with ever since. Jamie from England, who is 19 and not the stereotypical English tourist. He has been travelling for 5 months and been to lots of places and goes home in a few days before starting to study physics atOxford. He was very very funny and just an easygoing intelligent person to travel with. And then Shir, fromIsrael. She is very different from the Israelis we have met so far and had bad experiences with. Her family is very liberal, but she still had to serve a 2 years army service like everybody else and is travelling now after having finished it. its really nice to meet such A city stopped in time an Israeli now because I get the chance to talk lots about the Israeli-Arab conflict with somebody who lives in that area, is well educated and doesn’t reply with the sentence “well it´s written in the Torah”. Jamie took off this morning but Shir will be with us for quite a while as we all get on very well and she wants to go south towards Cambodia like David and I.

The historical and culinary beauty of Luang Prabang

Well after a looong bumpy bus ride we reached Luang Prabang. This city was once the capital of Laos and a lot of money was spent in the 15th and 16th century to build amazing temples. The old part of the city is a UNESCO world heritage and as a result bigger motorized vehicles cannot be driven there and it A milkshake and the Laos Baguette: baguette filled with a dried Mekong fish paste, lettuce, tomato, omelette and spices - awesome ´s kept very clean. We arrived early in the morning and the 5 of us wandered around this beautiful city. It’s kind of a peninsula pointing north with the Mekong floating on its left and another river on the right side. The French had been here for a long time and their influence can be seen both in architecture and in food. They have baguettes stalls everywhere and for the standard price of 1€ you can get whatever you like with lots of vegetables and sauces in a huge sandwich (sorry baguette I mean, you can imagine David when he saw that).

Picturesque Mekong We also found an incredible guest house, the best accommodation we have had so far. Nice wide beds, strong bidet flush, warm shower, fan and a TV with 60 channels (5 football channels) and this for 2.5€ a night per person. Amazing.

The Mekong and ancient places of worship

There is a lot to see around Luang Prabang and because it was quite hot and we didn’t want to walk around we decided to take a small boat and drive 2 hours upriver to a cave which we read about in the guidebook.

Basically this part of Laos is full of caves which have been used as places of worship for ages. This one was right at theMekong and you can only reach it with a boat. People have been bringing Buddha statues of all seizes there for centuries and now the cave is full of Buddhas. The cave was amazing but the Wooden statues that locals have been bringing to this cave as a sign of worship for centuries ride there even better.

Laos is just one big jungle, I think I said that enough already. But here you have quite high limestone mountains which look exactly like the ones you find in Railey (Krabi) in Thailand, Yangshuo in China or in Halong Bay in Vietnam, just not in the water but in the jungle. They are made of limestone which creates a lot of stalactites with time and the cliffs resulting from that make my climber hands sweat just by looking at them.

So we drove up one of the biggest rivers of the planet close to the jungle shore and all around these mountains, cliffs and jungle. It was incredible. We bought a few bottles of Beerlao before and spent hours on the river, drinking beer explaining and teaching both the importance and fun of fliflaflu (which we have been using with those guys ever since to settle daily disputes, such as who gets the shower first).

Luang Prabang´s unforgettable night market feasts

Back in Luang Prabang we wandered around and finally found the night market, and I have to say, it is different from the ones I have seen so far, as it’s quite tailored to touristy needs but the feasts you can have there are not from this planet! They have a street with benches and tables on the left and 5 bbq Let the feast begin! stalls on the right. They marinate and bbq everything: chicken, duck, pork and fish (theMekongis the river with the biggest freshwater fish on the planet). You sit down, tell them what you want and they bring it when it´s ready. You pay 1€ for half a chicken or duck, 2€ for an entire huge Mekong fish filled with bamboo and for whoever fancies it you can get an all you can eat plate of side dishes for 1€ (which we did only the first night as it’s just Quatsch, I mean wasting your precious stomach capacity with vegetables and rice. Quatsch). And of course you get Beerlao from these stalls as well. So you wold spend 5€ and have 2 beer, a fish and half a chicken and duck. And the marinades!!! A little bit sweet and with Chinese influence.

The first day we arrived there and were not even hungry, biiig mistake. As a result we decided not to have lunch the next days to enjoy this meat feast to its The upper part of the river before it crashes down the cliff full extend! Also they have shake stalls everywhere which prepare every imaginable variation from the fruity classics to perverse western combinations such as Oreo banana nutella cream shake :)

Magical rainforests and waterfalls

But that night one important event all 5 of us were looking forward to was waiting for us, the FC Bayern Munich rematch against Zurich in the Champions League qualifier. We set 2 alarms, one in each room for 1.30am and well, none worked :( . But thank god I woke up around 2.30am and we could at least watch the second half. It’s so surreal to sit in Laos and watch a game of Bayern Munich. there is a sports channel which plays Bundesliga games over and Stairway to heaven over again and we even managed to watch the Hamburg game, glorious 5 zero with Robben on fire (well he is just too dangerous).

The next day we wanted to visit another natural beauty around Luang Prabang, its waterfalls. First we had huge baguettes and Lao coffee breakfast. I eat a lot, Yassin and David as well. But Jamie. We just call him “The Machine”. Whatever he orders, he orders two of it. I eat a lot but I admire his determination and endurance to have a feast 3 times a day every day!

We took a tuk tuk and went to a waterfall where they told us we could go swimming and everything, well not in the monsoon time…. we arrived and the waterfalls are just massive, frightening and definitely not meant to go swimming,  but to stay far away from them. Obviously they look incredible with that Just rent a bike and cycle along the deserted streets much water storming through the jungle (to the video of the water flow in the jungle before the waterfall) . We also trekked up a little bit to the top on a path closed to tourists and at the top we could see the mangrove forest, with the slow stream, flowing the last chilled metres before creating that massive waterfall.

The typical Laos activity

But all of this nature sighting was just a way of filling the gap between waking up and the opening of the night market! This time we had breakfast only to save up precious belly space. We just ordered everything. A few chickens, duck, at least 10 fish and plenty of beer and then FEASTING. No vegetables, no rice, no bread. Just 2 hours of pure bbq meat! Soo good. Imagine one month ago a vegetarian in India and now this! Sooooo good! I was in charge of fieseln, which is the Bavarian word meaning eating the rests of an animal from its bones; we didn’t leave a gram of this meat on the plates.

The main temple in Luang Prabang We spend the rest of the night strolling around the chilled city ordering shakes and pancakes from time to time. At some point Jamie and David were tired and went to sleep and Shir, Yassin and me decided to follow the backpacker trail and go to the one and only place open after 11pm, the bowling alley (what else?). We heard of this place and told a tuk tuk driver to bring us there. You know what happened back in India (Tiger the criminal tuk tuk driver in Jaipur) and I am just very wary and suspicious when in the back of a tuk tuk. Basically he drove on a big street, then a smaller street, then a country road, then through the jungle and we were all shitting ourselves. But in Laos I know that crime basically doesn’t exist and I trust locals more, so we thought it should be fine. At one point he stops in front of a big building in the middle of nowhere and we opened the door and couldn’t Unlike other cities, the temples in Luang Prabang are quite deserted and you can really feel the energy of the place believe it, inside they build a modern bowling hall! Very surreal. Played a few rounds and headed home.

Luang Prabang is way more touristy than Luang Namtha, but I noticed that in Laos the fact of increasing tourism does not necessarily have the same impact as in Thailand. There they know how to make money and rip you off. Moreover criminal organisations and prostitution are increasing and ever-presen. In Laos they changed their lifestyle and became more western, but at the same time they still keep their friendliness, normal prices and are just nicer. Even when you are in a touristy place you have the feeling of being in Laos and interacting with locals is just so easy and nice here.

On the third day we finally made our way into the temples and walked around. It’s very nice because if you go to the most famous temples or just places of interest in other countries you get masses of tourists; here you are left entirely to yourself among beautiful temples surrounded by jungle vegetation. Also Our night these temples are actually used by monks until today which gives it a more authentic atmosphere.

Vang Vieng – the capital of Tubing

At 5pm we had our bus to Vang Vieng. The bus stopped at one point and a guy came to the rear part of the bus where we were sitting and lifted up a door under which the broken motor was releasing lots of smoke. The entire bus filled up with smoke several times, as he had to fix something while the motor was running and basically we were smoked for 30 min. then at one point the bus stopped in the middle of nowhere in the jungle, nobody knew what was going on and the bus started driving only after 3 hours. But we really don’t care anymore and the fact that it took 14 instead of 6 hours is not even worth mentioning.

So Vang Vieng. Most people have a clear opinion on Vang Vieng as it’s the one place every tourist to Laos has been to. But for 95% it means one thing only: Vang Vien and the river where tubing takes place tubing. I have to correct myself as I thought that it is on the Mekong but its not. There is another river floating through it and every single day hundreds of tourists take a tuk tuk 5km upstream, get into an inflated tube and start the 10-bar journey back to Vang Vieng. Shots are for free, buckets available everywhere, mushrooms, opium and weed as well. Moreover, slides and zip lines at every bar for the drunken suicidal people. Every now and then somebody dies (especially on the Slide of Death, which is a zip line 10m high, but you cant reach the handle, so you have to jump from the edge, hold it and then start speeding towards the centre of the river and let go. only problem is the first metres at the bottom don’t have water but nice big boulders waiting for people to slip or trip at the top). It starts at noon and finishes at sunset and it’s just crazy. I mean people love it, they come all the way to Laos just to go tubing but I was not keen to do it at all. I still wanted to stop in Vang Vieng because apart of the world famous tubing it has another world famous thing to do: climbing! I loved it! Although here I was slightly paniking

More than just tubing – Vang Vieng´s caving and climbing

I wrote about the limestone cliffs. One year ago I was climbing with a guide from Laos in Koh Phi Phi. He told me about his hometown and the climbing there. Well now I am here and could try it. I managed to convince David and Shir to come with me. Jamie, well, he is different from most English but when it comes to tubing it’s not a matter of choice, he is English and obviously keen on doing it and tried to convince us for hours! Yassin joined him and so only the three of us got to enjoy this incredible day!

We hired a guide for half a day and paid only 14€ each with transport, guide and gear included, which is nothing. We had to walk through the jungle for a while, then kind of climb up the jungle before reaching a limestone cliff in the middle of the jungle! It had a massive overhang and even when it started The beautiful scenery around Vang Vieng storming everywhere we continued climbing. Stalactites hanging down everywhere and as a climber I have to say the rock are just amazing! The routes were single pitches 15 to 30 m long and once you got to the top you could see the entire valley, endless rice fields, limestone mountains, everything.

David and Shir never went before and I have to admit that it was not the best place to start climbing as even the easiest routes were super exposed and not really easy. But Shir tried her best to fight these circumstances. However, she is scared of heights and although she never got up higher than 6m she still loved it. And David! David was on fire! He tried every route, got really high up and was soo good for a first timer. He wants to do it again and I will bring him climbing in London. For me it was amazing as well. I mean my foot is injured, that’s why I didn’t go to do hard stuff but just to enjoy myself and feel this incredible rock. I did some easy routes but then at the end the guide told me to lead climb this one route, mental. It was around 18m and I saw a few bolts, the first in 4m, the second in 6, but once I got there I found out it was broken and as I had passed the point of no return I had to keep on climbing in a difficult passage until I reached the third in 9m. But it was just amazing!

Zombieland

After climbing we came back to town to meet the others and what we saw was just crazy. I mean we were not only sober, but had been climbing, in nature and so on, then we come back here and see hundreds of muddy, wet, drunk, high people coming back from the tubing: they really looked like masses of The menu in one of the many bars in Vang Vieng - no comment really, its sad zombies!

We met the other two and they were quite all right, apart of the fact that they both got injured. Yassin has a deep cut on his toe, but will be fine, but Jamie had a massive cut on his foot and he left today, I just hope it wont get too bad. We were sober and Shir is quite good at first aid and has everything with her and took care of the two. They both loved it but still we were quite happy we went climbing.

We went to some bars afterwards and well, Vang Vieng is not Laos, they show Family Guy and Friends everywhere 24/7 and when you get to a place and sit down they hand you one normal menu and one happy menu. This one has 3 categories, mushrooms, weed and opium and then all the stuff you can order containing it. Pizzas, drinks, shakes, desserts.

Exploring hidden gems

The next day, second day in Vang Vieng aaaand still no tubing. I know we are just crazy, unreasonable and uncromprehensible for every English person Our guides for the caving here but well, there is still sooo much to see! Jamie took off and we all managed to wake up after a massive sleep. As I told you these limestone mountains here have lots of caves. And around Vang Vieng there are around 20 reachable by foot or scooter. We rented 3 scooters (standard) and the gang was back on the road. It´s really different caving here from the one in Europe. Here you pay a bit to the people who own the land and at the cave nobody apart of you is there. If you want to go inside talk to one of the many children offering to be a guide for that cave. They bought headlights with the money they earn and I have to say, they might be young but are very good. They know a few words in English such as spider The unforgettable, lush green of Laos´ ricefields (masssssiv ones), bat, small and big, and that’s about it.

The first cave we visited was rather small but had a massive turquoise swimming pool in front of it. you could swim into a very narrow canyon and follow the stream back into the mountain for a while until the canyon at the top closed and it got pitch black.

The second was the best. First, a 10km dirt track ride, then walking through the jungle 20 min and then these two 10 year olds brought us inside. Shir got scared quite early and went back, Yassin made it a little bit further but got out as well and David and I went for some hardcore caving with the boy. He told Adventure path to the cave us before starting that for a while it would be very narrow, but just how small the cave actually was! Basically we had to crawl on the floor through a 40cm high tunnel for about 3 min. It was muddy and dark and amazing! We had stone all around our bodies and could only move in one direction. After a while we got into a bigger cave and at the end finally reached the outside of the cave. Both David and I think that it was borderline, although we don’t have any kind of claustrophobia, but that was extreme! Adventure!

The last cave was another 5km on the scooter, then through the jungle and was basically a huge pool under an overhanging stalactite filled cave. On the way back we got really wet, standard and now we are so tired but I have to say, I think only very few tourists have had this programme in Vang Vieng and we are so happy we did it this way.

A lady in the group

Tomorrow morning we are leaving for the capital,Vientiane, the last place Yassin will be with us. Time flies and 2,5 months of travelling with him are nearly over. Crazy, and sad, but it was awesome!

Everybody gets t-shirts here saying “tubing,laos….” we are thinking of printing a t-shirt saying “I survived tubing,laos…” and on the back “because I didn’t go”. Well unfortunately the only people to understand the irony are the ones judging us for not going…

Now we will go for some more baguettes and a shake maybe. Right now Bayern is playing and unfortunately we didn’t manage to get a TV with a channel showing it, Mario Gomez scored 3 times, Torrero style!!!!

Well guys hope you are fine, I had some incredible days here and it’s really nice to have a woman in the group, as everything gets so more reliable and organised: we have shampoo, toilet paper, sanitary napkin….. Really nice!

Sabadii guys and hear you soon

Basti

One Response to Luang Prabang – The Ancient Pearl of the Mekong

  1. […] been to, the spirituality I have encountered at Golden Temple in Amritsar, the food I have eaten on Luang Prabang´s night markets, the situations I have been confronted with such as the involuntary drug run in the Four Thousand […]

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