Laos – Luang Namtha & Luang Prabang

After crossing the Mengla (China)/Boten (Laos) border, we immediately noticed the laid back difference of our new home for the next two weeks. Laos is lovely! Truck drivers no longer honked their horns incessantly, the people are polite, reserved and super friendly, and the food! The food is to die for. Seriously, after over a month in chaotic China, Laos was the perfect antidote to help ease us into the rest of Indochina. First stop was at Luang Namtha, home to over a dozen ethnic tribes, gorgeous scenery and a petite night market (the crispy roasted pork is out of this world…try some!). We rented motorbikes (50,000 Kip) and drove out to nearby Muang Sing which was a stunning drive. From Luang Namtha, we crowded into a minibus for the 8 hour drive to Luang Prabang. This French Colonial town really impressed! From dozens of Wats dotting the landscape to orange robed monks wandering the streets, we were quickly charmed by lovely Luang Prabang. Unfortunately for us, a horrible incident of bed bugs occurred in two separate rooms of our guesthouse, so we ditched the group and stayed all 4 nights elsewhere. Ugggh! Bed bugs suck and we were glad we noticed the tell tale signs right away before all of our gear got infested. While in Luang Prabang, we got up early for the alms giving ceremony, learned about the devastating effect that UXOs still have on this peaceful country (at least 1 person is killed or injured even today as a result of the devastating US campaign to drop UXOs over Laos during the Vietnam war), visited a couple of gorgeous Wats, took a riverboat to Pak Ou caves, rented a motorbike for a drive out to Kuang Si waterfall and its Asiatic bear rescue center, and got deep tissue massages for a pittance. We also bought some Lao Rice Whiskey (affectionately nicknamed “Lao Lao”) and concocted several lovely cocktails of our own creation (mint/lemon shake plus Lao Lao = perfection). It is currently rainy season in Laos, so we will have to see what impact that has on our future schedule. Stay tuned!

08 Aug – We exited China with little fanfare and boarded the bus that Tom arranged. Apparently, the bus was already fully booked, but since 8 new passengers had now joined, everyone had to adjust to make it work. We snagged the first available bunks and were told by several guys to move to the back of the bus because they wanted our bunks. So we told them to suck it…no way we were going to squeeze in with random strangers to the rear of the bus. The bus driver should never had sold the extra tickets since he now was over capacity. Getting stamped into Laos at the Boten border was straightforward. However, the bus driver drove us 500 meters to the “customs” stop, demanded that only foreigners disembark and picked us up 100 meters down the road. There was no checkpoint or inspector, so the whole scenario was quite bizarre. The driver then drove us a few minutes to a nearby restaurant where we were again kicked off the bus for 30 minutes so that the driver could eat a meal. Then we finally loaded on and were on our way, driving the 100 km direct to Luang Namtha. Two hours later, we were unceremoniously dumped along the side of a road (a make shift bus stop perhaps?), and waited while Tig organized a songthaew into town. The first driver she attempted to hire tried to rip us off when we asked how much, but he changed his tune once he saw that we were quite serious about hopping out to find a better alternative. So the 8 of us crammed into the songthaew along with our bags and zipped off towards the Phou Lu III Bungalows. Ah, Laos! What a different vibe from China..we were loving it already. After checking in, we hung out for a bit for Helen’s flight to arrive. Ant was definitely looking forward to the reunion since it had been over a month since Helen left our group at the Chinese border and detoured to India for a fun vacation. The group was getting hungry for lunch so we decided to split up and hit the town for some food while Ant picked up Helen (he had come up with the brilliant idea of renting a scooter to surprise her). Lunch was at Zuela Restaurant which had a decent menu and fabulous food. After a month in China, the food in Laos tasted heavenly! Afterwards, it was on to the nearby Bamboo Lounge for drinks. We all got to enjoy free shots of Lao Lao rice wine which put us in the mood for several rounds of drinks. Helen and Ant showed up a couple of hours later and it was a happy group reunion…we had missed Helen! Ant explained they were late because of a flat tire…yeah right! After far too many drinks, we decided to check out Luang Namtha’s night market. There, we discovered crispy roasted pork served with chili/garlic dipping sauce…yum! Our tummies were extremely happy and satisfied. Did we say how much we love Laos already? This country rocks and its only been day 1. Robby befriended a couple of Vietnamese sitting at his table and joined in more drinking games. They couldn’t believe Becky is part Vietnamese and can’t speak the language!Once our bellies were full, we finally left the night market and headed back to our comfortable rooms.

09 Aug – Thank you Connie for discovering that this place includes a free breakfast! Tig told us last night that breakkie was on our own so we had some snacks but once we got word that Phou Lu III provided breakfast, it was time for our second breakfast of the morning. Our agenda today? Rent some motorbikes to sightsee around Luang Namtha on our own. We were able to find a place that rented bikes for about $5 for the entire day and were joined by Lars, Tig, Helen and Ant on our full day adventure. The ride out from Luang Namtha to Muang Sing village was easy, with some nice scenery along the way. Muang Sing is an ethnic minority village and was the perfect turnaround point on our journey. But first we had to take a couple inappropriate sexy poses of Tig in the rice fields! There wasn’t much to see in Muang Sing itself but we did crash a boisterous party enjoying lunch at a centrally located restaurant. After lunch, we drove to Pagnueng Waterfall where both Robby and Tig discovered leeches attached between their toes! The gang decided to ride back to Luang Namtha but we weren’t done exploring yet so we split from the group, stopping by to visit several of the ethnic minority villages on our drive back. Even though the tribes have long been accustomed to wearing western clothing, seeing their stilt houses with thatched roofs was very interesting, as many only had bamboo woven strips for walls or were just constructed of rough cut timber with a tin roof. The children was super friendly, waving and greeting us in the few words of English they knew. We stopped to buy some roadside pineapple (delicious and super cheap) and drove back to Luang Namtha to check out the morning market. Just before sunset, we drove out to the surrounding rice fields before returning our bike and linking up with Tig and Lars at the Night Market for a fantastic meal of roasted pork and beer. Great day today!

10 Aug – Goodbye Luang Namtha and hello Luang Prabang! After grabbing breakfast, we loaded up a songtheaw with our gear and caught a ride out to the bus station. Our “bus” ended up being a large van stuffed to the brink with 20 passengers and their gear. Very uncomfortable, especially for us long-legged passengers crammed in the rear of the van. Thankfully, the scenery made up for our uncomfortable ride, with gorgeous mountain scenery throughout the entire drive. There was one lunch break but other than that, we drove non stop, arriving to Luang Prabang about 8 hours after we first took off. The bus station was a few kilometers from town so our group had to hire 2 tuk tuks for the ride over to the centrally located Phasith Guesthouse. There was a small issue with room availability so we all went to the bar across the street while Tig sorted it all out. She ended up getting a room down the street for one night so that the rest of us could stay together as a group. The rooms looked great…nice, clean, spacious with a balcony overlooking the river. After getting settled in, we went for a walk into town to look for food. Some of the tourist restaurants were a little more expensive than we were looking for the group of us strolled over to the night market where the food was much cheaper. We got a plate full of as much food as you can pile on and supplemented it with some grilled pork which was just enough for the two of us. The pork was really good, but the other stuff was just OK (it looked better than it tasted, which was disappointing). After dinner, we strolled through the massive night market craft section (lots of lovely souvenir opportunities here). There were lots of street vendors selling desserts so of course we had to try a couple (the brownie cake had oh so much potential but we a major let down but the banana cake was yummy). The rest of the gang was keen on bar hopping but since we were getting up early to see the monk alms ceremony, we decided to return to the hotel. This was when our night turned into a nightmare. After showering and hopping into bed, Becky noticed that her skin had erupted into a trail of insect bites. After googling the symptoms, she realized to her horror that it was the attack of the bed bugs! Since neither one of us had ever been bit by one before, we had no idea what to expect. Becky had an allergic reaction because her skin swelled up instantly, morphing into a massive irritated bump about 20 times larger than a mosquito bite. After a closer examination of the bed, she noticed a small insect full of blood crawling around and then saw remnants of smashed insects on the walls and bed sheets, which are telltale signs of bedbugs! It was the scene from a horror movie…our skin was crawling and we refused to remain one more minute in the infested room. Down at the front desk, the night shift guy was on break so we waited in the lobby for him to show up. Thankfully, around midnight he pulled up but was initially in disbelief about the bed bug incident. Due to our insistence, he finally put us up in another hotel room (since the Phasith was fully booked). We had to pay for the new room but were assured that the Phasith manager would sort it all out for us in the morning. Our new lodging for the night, Changsavang Guesthouse, looked more dingy that the Phasith but at least it was bed bug free! It was about 2 am after several hot showers before we calmed down enough to try to get a few hours of sleep.

11 Aug – Early morning today since we had to be up by 5:30 am. We did warn the night shift guy of our plans to be up at the crack of dawn to see the alms giving ceremony for the monks, so we didn’t feel too bad for having to wake him up to unlock the front door of the hotel to let us out. The alms giving ceremony was bittersweet. While it was cool to see that this tradition is in place, it has become way too touristy, with some folks positioning themselves obnoxiously just a few feet from the monks and using flash for their photos. Not cool! Their behavior was extremely disrespectful so we kept our distance. And guess what, we still managed to take some photos. It would be more pleasant for everyone involved if the tourists could be properly educated on proper etiquette around the monks. After the ceremony we visited Wat Sensourkharam and then headed towards the Morning Food Market, but it started to downpour and neither of us had the foresight to bring along our rain gear. As it was, we had to huddle beneath a vendor’s tent for nearly an hour because the rain refused to die down. In the end, we figured it was worth paying extra to hail a tuk tuk for a ride back to Changsavang Guesthouse so we didn’t have to get soaked on our walk back. We chilled in the room until Becky had to link up with Tig and the gang to sort out Vietnam visas. Becky mentioned the bed bug incident to Tig who vowed she would handle it and get our money back for us. Since Phasith Guesthouse promised they had taken care of the bed bug situation and they had a new room for us to check into, we agreed to move back so that our group could be consolidated together. The room wasn’t ready so we dropped off our bags with Connie and Gill and hit the streets towards Luang Prabang’s excellent UXO visitor’s center. There, we met Lars who had also decided to check out this shameful piece of US history. Honestly, after our visit here, we both are embarrassed to be American, especially considering the vast amount of damage that our country inflicted upon Laos during the Vietnam War. It is simply criminal that more isn’t done today to fix this UXO problem….it infuriated and saddened us and we vowed to make a sizeable donation to the UXO center to reward them for the good work they continue to do to this day. From here, we stopped for lunch at a local noodle soup shack…yummy, filling and cheap! Then we visited hit a few of the wats that Luang Prabang has so many of…Wat Mahatthat, Wat Mai Suwannaphumaham and Wat Ho Pha Bang at the National Museum grounds. Lars was keen on some shopping so we split from him and decided to hike up Phou Si Mountain. Even though it was a short hike, it was hot and humid as hell and we were drenched in sweat by the top. Nice views from the top though! Sightseeing complete for the day, we decided to swing by the hotel to grab our bags and check into our new room. A cursory inspection of the bed and sheets appeared to be bed bug free so we settled in, cooling down with a shower before linking up with the gang for dinner. The bar across the street served a mean lemon mint shake, so we joined Lars in concocting our own cocktails. Add some Lao lao and viola…the perfect combination! The food here wasn’t too shabby either, so we spent a few hours drinking, eating and chatting. Back at the guesthouse, we were stunned to discover that this new room also had a bed bug infestation. Are you freaking kidding me? This time we were a whole lot more surely with the staff, insisting that they take care of it now! Unbelievably, they started asking where we had come from, had we been hiking, did the bed bugs hitch themselves to our luggage? We pulled back the headboard from the wall and the proof was there…literally DOZENS of bed bugs crawling around. This time the embarrassed staff apologized, and raced to get us out of there. So it was a return trip back to the Changsavang Guesthouse and no, you couldn’t pay us to stay at the Phasith Guesthouse again! Horrible, horrible place and we were outraged when we realized they had put unsuspecting new guests into our old bed bug infested room! Tig heard about the drama and swung by the Changsavang to see how we were coping. Not too well! Becky seriously has some bed bug PTSD right about now. Tig mentioned she’d have the rest of the group double check their rooms because we didn’t want this to turn into an issue for the entire group. Hours later, we finally calmed down enough to relax but paranoia had crept in and it still felt like we were being violated by creepy crawlies.

12 Aug – Our hotel didn’t serve breakfast but the mom/pop shop next door did. We got delicious bowls of noodle soup along with mango and banana milkshakes for a pittance…yum! Our group was linking up today at 9:30 am for a boat ride out to Pak Ou Caves. The ride was pleasant, taking nearly 2 hours one way. The limestone cliffs that house the Pak Ou Caves are at the confluence of 2 rivers, the Nam Ou and the Mekong. The caves themselves are stuffed with nearly 4000 Buddhas, and the only way to reach this area is by boat. Since it had been raining off and on all morning long, the steps leading up to the upper caves were slick and we saw more than one person bust their ass climbing those steps! After our cave visit, we had a quick stop at Ban Xang Hai (Shang Hai) village to see a Lao Lao whisky distillery. The owner gave us free shots and that was all we needed to be convinced to buy a 1 liter bottle. Yay, more alcohol to add to our lemon/mint shakes! The ride back to Luang Prabang didn’t take too long, and our group was keen on a late lunch so we head out to the nearby Utopia Restaurant for the best burgers that we have had on the trip. They were massive, tasty and very filling! Worth the wait since it took a while for all 9 of our orders to be processed. Later that night, Tig reported that she had all the Vietnam visas back in hand so we hopped over to pick Becky’s passport back up.

13 Aug – This morning we got up early to check out the hype about Luang Prabang’s morning market. It was actually a lot bigger and better than expected, with lots of creepy crawlies for sale. Our plan today was to visit the nearby Kuang Si Waterfall but we opted to hire our own motorbike while everyone else went in a tuk-tuk. After getting our bike, we rode over to the Mekong River to have breakfast at a noodle place. An old lady was passing by selling tofu pudding (douhua)…yes please! That stuff is freaking delicious. From here we rode out towards the waterfall. Unfortunately, we noticed a flat tire only a few kilometers outside of Luang Prabang. Luckily for us, we only had to push the bike back 1 kilometer to find a garage where the guy repaired the flat in only 10 minutes (and charged us only 10,000 Kip). With our bike good to go, we zipped up towards the waterfall and arrived just minutes after our group got there. First we visited the Asiatic Black Bear (also known as “Moon Bears”) rescue center, which had quite a few bears. All the bears have been rescued by the Lao authorities from the illegal wildlife trade and bile farm industry. There was a mix of small cubs and full-grown adults. The youngsters were really playful with each other which was nice to see after the trauma they’ve suffered in their young lives. After checking out the bears, we strolled over to the Kuang Si waterfall. Even though we had been forewarned that it wasn’t really worth visiting during the rainy season, we didn’t expect the waterfall to be as powerful as it was. There was a bridge and viewing platform where you will get completely soaked from the spray. There are paths that lead to the upper part of the waterfall, but as Becky stubbornly discovered, it is impossible to go all the way across during the rainy season because the water level is so high. It rained on us during our ride back into Luang Prabang, but thankfully eased up by the time we pulled into the Phosy Market (cheap and delicious longan available here). Back in Luang Prabang, we tried our best to find the bamboo bridges across the Nam Khan River but discovered to our dismay that they are not built during the rainy season because the water is so strong. So we made a stop at Wat Xieng Tong, the most impressive of Luang Prabang’s 32 wats before riding around on a wild goose chase looking for Phanlouang Pizza Restaurant. Despite having GPS, we simply could not find it so we gave up and decided to return the bike early. Dinner and drinks was back at our favorite hang out place just opposite Phasith Guesthouse where we stumbled into Lars and Denise. Back at our guesthouse, we took showers and enjoyed hour long massages for about $5. Robby had a transgender masseuse which was the best of both worlds. A good looking lady with freakishly strong fingers resulting in a great deep tissue massage. Both of us left satisfied at our massages and were kicking ourselves for not discovering the joy of massage earlier!

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