Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Lao Trip 4.7 - To Xaiyabuli

After three days or so in Luang Prabang, I was ready to move on. I could have stayed lots longer if I’d had the time, but time was one thing I was running out of. I had three more days of “vacation” and knew I needed to start heading back in the direction of Thailand.

The first leg of the trip back was in a very overcrowded bus from Luang Prabang to Xayabuli. A bunch of us sat on plastic chairs in the aisle with only open windows and fans for air cooling. Everyone – whether in real seats or plastic –  took it in stride and so did I. The scenery made up for the cramped quarters.

I was not impressed with Xayabuli (also spelled Xayaburi, Xaignabouli, Xaignabouri, Sayabouri and Sainyabuli) when I first visited there in October 2012. But, I think my first impressions were tainted by coming in on the very day that electricity was out, citywide, and being run off by begging street urchins down by the riverside. This time I didn’t have either problem, plus I was based at a guesthouse closer to the riverside, where I wanted to be. I had a very pleasant late afternoon/early evening there, eating and drinking at an outdoor vendor’s table.

Although a spot that’s somewhat off the tourist track, Xayabuli and Xayabuli province are important. As I wrote in 2012, east of Xayabuli is the location of Lao’s first dam across the Mekong, currently 10% completed. There are many sides to this story and here are some links to it:

What I wrote back in October 2012:

“Amazon of Asia” video, done in 2010:

“Earth Reporters” video done in 2011 is a bit dated, but gives a great, personal overview. I re-posted it here in November 2012:

International Rivers Media Kit on the Xayabuli Dam, including latest information:

Recent RFA video (not in English, but some English sub-titles and excellent video quality and graphics):

Diagrams of the project, in three phases (click on image for closer view):

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Lao Trip 4.6 - Luang Phrabang

On my third full day in Luang Prabang, I continued my street walking sight seeing, hanging out a lot at the ferry landing and areas where the smaller slowboats come in and take off.

Temples that I did not visit, but which are famous and thus noteworthy are in the Wat Wisunarat area, including Wat Visoun, That Makmo and Wat Aham.

Wat Wisunarat (Wat Visoun) image: 

Luang Prabang between the years 1354–1707 A.D. was the center of the Kingdom of Lan Xang, the first real unification of Lao as a country by Fa Ngum. At the time of its founding, the town/city was still known as Xieng Dong-Xieng Thong. The center of the kingdom was renamed after the famous Buddha Phrabang image.

After the splitting apart of the Kingdom of Lan Xang, Luang Prabang continued as the cultural and religious center of the Kingdom of Luang Phrabang (1707–1949) until the founding of the Kingdom of Laos following World War II.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Lao Trip 4.5 - Falang City

My second full day in Luang Phrabang was similar to the first. I walked the Old Town and as far as was leisurely; no hiking. I walked each and every street, side street and pathway, talking with locals whenever I could.

I passed many temples along the way, including Wat Xieng Thong, the town’s most famous temple and actually not very far from the guest house where I was staying.

Here’s some video of Wat Xieng Thong, shot by Richard Randall in late 2011 or early 2012, during a time of temple renovation:

The temple is located very near the confluence of the Mekong and the Nam Khan rivers, where, according to myth, the original town began:

I ate off the street – that is, I bought food from street vendors, staying away from restaurants that were three times as expensive. I did continue to visit Mekong side restaurants in the period between lunch and dinner, when they were generally empty or near-empty. The timing was good for great views of the great river, a beer or two, and usually some conversation with a waiter or waitress off from school for the summer.

Although tempted to buy stuff, I was content to just walk the night market again, seeing if I missed anything the night before:

Friday, August 16, 2013

Lao Trip 4.4 - Luang Phrabang

At first, I was unsure how long my time in Luang Prabang would be. I’d promised my wife that I wouldn’t be gone more than eight or nine days, so I had a cap to the overall trip I was duty-bound to respect, but what happened and where I was within that time frame was up to me.

My first full day in this World Heritage Site was spent walking around the city’s central historic section. I would have visited temples and temple grounds along the way, but they typically charged about 20,000 Kip to visit and there are at least twenty temples in the area, if not more – certainly a half dozen very famous ones.

I decided to save my money for beer and food (one expensive Beer Lao at a restaurant was the same price as on the slowboat: 10,000 Kip). The price of a typical temple visit would get me two 1.25 liter bottles of Beer Lao at a riverside restaurant, which was more of a value to me. Anyway, I could view all sorts of pictures and videos of the same temples, shot by others, uploaded onto the Internet.

I can hear you already thinking: “This guy travels all that way and doesn’t see some of the most famous sites?!” Well, I was really determined to keep this trip as cheap as I could get it and I’m pretty sure I’ll be back. I can save that tourist track stuff for another time.


It quickly became apparent to me that the city was totally geared to foreign tourists. As one waiter at a riverside restaurant mentioned to me, when we were having conversation where he was practicing his English, many of the locals call Luang Prabang “Falang City.” As testimony to this, guesthouses nearly outnumber private residences.

So, the opportunities to spend baht or kip or even dollars were everywhere. The challenge, really – if you wanted to be a “Cheap Charlie” like me – was to not be tempted to by anything you did not absolutely need or think “perfect” for another (like the silk scarf I got for Thip at the night market: perfect!).


After walking around the night market, I splurged on myself a little bit by buying a mini-pizza at a restaurant that specialized in them. There, I met Joe, a retired British world traveler. He came to my table facing the street and asked if I minded if he sat with me. About my age, he’s a solo traveler like me, but has seen lots more of it than I. Remember when I was bragging about being 64 and traveling on my own in Lao? Well, Joe puts my solo travels to shame.

I should have gotten contact info from him, but I didn’t, figuring we’d run into each other sometime during the subsequent days. Meeting people while you’re travelling is like that. One moment they are there, another moment gone. Thanks for some great conversation that night, Joe!

This would be the last time I’d eat at a restaurant the rest of the trip.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Lao Trip 4.3 - Pak Beng to Luang Phrabang

Still don’t know the name of the Pak Beng guesthouse where I stayed overnight, but it appeared to be furthest up the hill and while a bit pricier than the other options most of the backpackers availed themselves of, I liked it cuz it was clean and quiet and fit all my needs, including dinner shortly upon arrival (after ab nam), beer following (while I wrote journal notes) and breakfast the next morning.

I think, though, when I come thru again, I’ll stay two nights at some place cheaper and explore the town a little. I did none of that, this go round.

Back on the boat (reminds me of Ken Kesey’s line: “You’re either on the bus or off the bus”), I had a seat this second and last day travelling down the Mekong river between Pak Beng and Luang Phrabang.

Here's som video shot by Philip Elmer-DeWitt in late 2012 or early 2013, showing many slowboat scenes that I think represent the typical slowboat trip very well:

The kids I hung out with on the boat were actually fun to be around and I didn’t have any discomfort being around a lot of Westerners in a foreign country, as I normally would, since I’m more of the “hang out with the locals” kinda guy.

The scenery continued to be spectacular and the beer still flowed freely (over-priced, of course). At one point, when the boat’s supply got low, we put in at a village along the river bank and the crew brought several more distinctive-yellow plastic cases of Beer Lao aboard. This averted what would have been – if not a riot – a big bummer for many of us.

We made Luang Phrabang at the end of the day and all 70 of us went our separate ways. In subsequent days, we would see each other on the streets of the city and would wave and otherwise acknowledge ourselves, but none of the Falang hailed me over to join them – like most Lao and Thai people do – so, I stayed politely aloof.

After our arrival, I got set-up at a guesthouse in the center of the old town. First order of business was an ab nam. Then I went to a Mekong River edge restaurant after having the good forward sense to dose myself with mosquito repellant (DEET an essential ingredient), and had dinner followed by some Beer Lao’s.

I would end up staying in this World Heritage Site for several days.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Lao Trip 4.2d - Slow Boat

It was actually good that I didn’t have a seat the first day on The Khong. An attractive English girl – Anglo-Saxon, with a fair amount of Scandinavian in her blood (blond!) – struck up a conversation that lasted most of the day. While she invited me to the second seat she was using to store some of her gear, I was content to just hover around her. She was good company.

I tried to make sense out of the scenery we motored through. Everywhere where there had been substantial clear cutting, Khon Lao were growing something; mostly corn, which amazed me cuz those mountainsides were steep!

Some guys on the boat grew weary of the overpriced beer and started to demand land prices. I guess if I was their age, I would have been right in there with them. Now, at age 64, it just seemed bad form and I knew I’d never create a scene like that if I had a woman in-tow, no matter what my age.

We made land at the end of the afternoon, at Pak Beng.

A reminder about pictures: I did not shoot any photographs or video on this trip, but am posting pictures and video from others that are representative. I guess I got lazy, but the fill-in's are really good and the media is always credited with a link to the original.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Lao Trip 4.2c - Slow Boat to Pak Beng

The two-day slowboat from Huay Xai (pronounced “Hok Say”) to Pak Beng and then to Luang Prabang, along the Nam Khong (Mekong river) had to have been the highlight of this trip, although other moments of less duration would rival it for top honors.

Of the 70 or so passengers, the boat was almost entirely Falang, except for the crew, the bar keeps and a Japanese guy. The main groups of Caucasians were the Italians and the British, but other sizeable groups included Canadians and Americans from the U.S.

Nearly all the Falang were college-aged kids – “backpackers” I guess the term is. All moved as members of sub-groups. The Japanese guy and I seemed to be the only solo travelers on the boat.

There were two or three older couples close to my age, so I wasn’t the only Oldie But Goodie slow boating it down one of the great rivers of the planet.

The scenery was stunning. So many untouched as well as deforested mountains down a river whose color reminded me of milk chocolate or cafĂ© au’lait.

One of the great things about the ride was you didn’t need to go anywhere to see vast tracts of land and river. The scenery was constantly changing and “the movie” went on for hours, along with sensory inputs like smell and touch and interaction with fellow “viewers.”

Staying in your seat – if you had one, which I didn’t that first day; just like on buses, there are always some people who took up two seats instead of one; never could figure that out. Were they just so dense or did they just figure their ticket for one entitled them to two? Anyway, staying in your seat all the time would have been boring, no matter how great the limestone karsts. So, most everyone moved around the boat occasionally, as much as space would allow.

The engine room was deafening, but interesting and you usually had it all to yourself, with the same great scenery moving past you. Back of the engine room, towards the stern, there was always a party going on and hard alcohol (40-proof) the major drink, along with the boat’s overpriced Beer Lao (5% alcohol) that was copiously drunk throughout the boat.

Towards the bow, at the front end of the boat, the captain sat, along with one or two of his friends. It was a nice perspective from here cuz you could really get a good idea of how the boats navigate the river.

The vast majority of the seating was between the bow and the engine room. At the rear of the seating area was a small bar serviced by one or two Khon Lao, usually with children. In back of the bar, before the engine room, was the lavatory. Some boats have two.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Lao Trip 4.2b - To Huay Xai

I kept on the move in the hopes I could still make the slow boat down the Mekong before it departed around 11am.
Unfortunately, I crossed “The Khong” at the same time as two good-sized groups of Italian and English college-aged kids, so the visa process bogged down once we got on the other side of the river, on the Lao side in Huay Xai (pronounced “Hok-Say”). Luckily, however, I was one of the last five people to secure a seat on that day’s slowboat.

It almost looked like it wasn’t going to happen, though, as the last group of slowboaters were some Italian kids who didn’t have money in hand and had to hit the town’s Automatic Teller Machine. Even worse, their Mastercards didn’t work at that ATM, so the slowboat taxi driver had to run us over on the other side of the river to the town bank where – thank Buddha – they were successful in withdrawing kip. I kept my cool throughout, although it really did try my patience as I was sure I was going to miss the boat – literally. I could see the tuk-tuk taxi driver on the cell phone with guys at the boat, so it was actually not as stressful as it might have been. My coolness under pressure somewhat endeared me to the Italians and we were good friends throughout the two-day ride.

One of the slowboat ticket girls – who may have been married to the tuk-tuk driver or the daughter of the guesthouse owner – was absolutely gorgeous in a modest way – quite petite, dressed in Lao sim – and couldn’t have been much older than 22. When her father or father-in-law saw her talking with me, in Lao, for longer than deemed necessary, he whisked her away – in a jolly way – to a desk in front of the Bap Guesthouse. The family probably ran both the slowboat ticketing business and the guesthouse.

A NOTE about pictures: I did not shoot any photographs or video on this trip, but am posting pictures and video from others that are representative. I guess I got lazy, but the fill-in's are really good and the media is always credited with a link to the original.