We boarded the bus to the Laos border with little idea of what would do once we reached it. Nearly everyone we had mentioned Laos to had told us that we should get the slow boat to Luang Prabang, so this was as much of a plan we had formulated. As for getting to Laos itself, we had heard that the bus would take you to a row of tuktuks, which would, of course, charge you an overpriced fixed charge to take you the short distance to the border which the bus had just deliberately driven past. This was a common ploy, and one which, although exasperating, we had little choice but to grow used to.
Next we were faced with the task of actually crossing the border. All the tourists looked uncomfortably between eachother, trying to take the lead from anyone who actually knew what to do. We were ushered through various desks and checks, persuaded into buying an overpriced passport photograph (you are supposed to have one, but seem to be able to pay a fine for not having one, probably around the same price we paid for our photograph), forced into buying another bus ticket to take us around 100 metres, filled out more forms, and finally found ourselves ‘in Laos’. With this accomplished, we felt pleased with ourselves for about as long as it took us to realise we had absolutely no plans, nor much idea which town we even needed to get to for the next step.
We needn’t have worried. As we were racking our brains for the name of the town from which we knew the slow boat departed, a determined tuktuk driver approached us. “You want slow boat to Luang Prabang” he asserted. Astonished, we nodded. “You want tuktuk to Huay Xai”. Another assertion. I was confused: “Luang Prabang?” I tried, unsure whether his two assertions had maybe been options I was to choose from. “Yes, Huay Xai, 100 baht each”. He motioned at the tuktuk and moved onto the next tourists. Thoroughly confused, we saw little choice but to board the tuktuk. A discussion amongst the tourists who were also filing in confirmed that Huay Xai was the departure town for the slow boat to Luang Prabang. We weren’t sure whether to feel lucky that we had somehow fluked our way into succeeding in our plan, or sheepish that we were clearly quite so predictable as tourists. But as we would later understand, tourists seem to have little other choice in Laos. Unless you are part of a guided tour group, or extremely well planned and equipped, you sort of have to stick to the path carved out for you by other tourists. The locals would predict and simultaneously determine our locations and decisions for the majority of our Laos experience. Eventually we understood it was easier to go with the flow and embrace the journey, avoiding the most contrived contours and forging our own smaller deviances where we could.
Our first impression of Huay Xai was of a small, predominantly tourist-supported town. In the evening, as seemed to be our luck, we were told of a festival that would be starting in the evening. The owner of our guest house handed us bronze coins and candles and encouraged us to arrange them on the balconies, melting the wax at the base onto the coin to create a stand. Within what felt like minutes, the whole town was following suit and flames twinkled from the windows of each building. Not long after, the streets filled with people of all ages, and stalls sprung up offering everything from food and DJ booths with miniature dance floors to candles bedded in flowers and paper lanterns. Soon, these lanterns began to fill the indigo night sky, and we noticed the flower-candles riding the dark fast flowing river. We breathed in the atmosphere of celebration as we were slowly milled along the never ending street with the crowd.
At intervals along the street we began to encounter large model boats, obviously lovingly hand crafted, adorned with colourful chains of flowers and paper sails, and guarded by children. The passing crowd were attaching notes of money to the boat. We learnt that this festival was Loy Khatung, marking the end of the three month Buddhist lent. The money on the boats and flower arrangements (khatung) are offerings to the river goddess and sacrifice for their sins. Later in the evening, in the midst of the gathered people enjoying their night picnics on the banks of the river, the boats were ceremoniously carried down to the shore and sent on their way, sparkling magically with hundreds of candles. These lights drifting away are meant to symbolise the departure of bad luck and misfortune, andyy the party carried on deep into the night.
The next week or so was a blur. We had become friends with those that had been on board our first tuktuk beyond the border and the long two day journey to Luang Prabang passed easily in their good company. Once in Luang Prabang we found a family run guest house who could fit us all in and made it our base. Together we wondered the night markets, consumed as many fruit shakes and pancakes as we could fit into a day and explored waterfalls. As well as the famous Kuang Si Falls, which was every bit as spectacular as its reputation had told, we also found and loved a smaller lesser known waterfall. We scrambled for hours to the top, and picnicked in our swimsuits with our legs dangling over the edge, looking out over the humid expanse of rolling jungle.
After Luang Prabang we headed to Vang Vieng, the notorious home of ‘tubing’. I was unsure what to expect. I had read that its wild days of being the backpacker hub of South East Asia were over as a result of tightened safety laws, leaving a slightly tired and weary town which rattled with the relatively low numbers of tourists compared to its capacity. To a certain extent we did find this was true. There were too many cafes for tourists, all with identical menus pandering to western hungover tastebuds and playing reruns of friends. Our hotel seemed huge compared to the number of people we saw in the corridors. But at the same time, there seemed to be a spirit of revival amongst at least some of the people we met. There were still determined bar promotors wandering the streets and attempting to recruit people to join the ‘party’. And at night the streets still thumped and glowed with an amount of revelling, even if the bars weren’t completely full and it seemed that they were operating on some sort of ‘take it in turn to open’ system.
In terms of the tubing itself, we had to try surprisingly hard to find out what was still available. A number of tour operators offered expensive combinations with kayaking, but we eventually discovered (via the Internet) a company who just hire out the tubes and take you in a tuktuk to the start point. When we arrived there at around midday, we were met with a small group of promoters and backpackers at a run-down looking bar, who tried to persuade us into ‘free shots’. We politely declined and took to the river to make our own, gentle way down the river. It was in all a pleasant experience. The river was slow moving and we meandered down the shore, stopping at a few bars to play volleyball and relax in hammocks. The views were stunning: that part of Laos is full of jagged mountains that rise from nowhere like islands in the sea, and the steep jungle covered slopes tower above the river.
Another popular trip from Vang Vieng is to the Blue Lagoon. Our group hired push bikes from the town and set off down a bumpy track to find it. On the way we passed school students cycling to school in their uniforms and scruffy village children playing by the roads in their colourful dusty clothes. The lagoon itself is as brilliantly blue as its name and reputation promise, and whilst a little busy with tourists, it was a really fun day out that felt like a little adventure. We took it in turns to plunge into the pool from the rope swing and jump from the overhanging branches of the trees, and afterwards basked in the waters to escape the sweltering heat of the Laos sun.
After Vang Vieng it was time for our little group to go our separate ways. We took a final photograph and said our goodbyes, with promises of a European reunion one day. Karl and I headed to Vientiane, where we were to find another bus to take us to our next destination of four thousand islands. We had decided to try our first ‘night bus’ and were a little apprehensive about what it would be like. Booking through a small travel agent in Vientiane, we had been assured that it was very comfortable, with nice VIP beds if we paid a little extra. The bus could not have been anything further than VIP. In fact, it was so bad that it actually made for a fairly hilarious experience. We waited at the station, bearing our tickets and waiting to be herded to the correct spot. The bus which turned out to be ours was old, dilapidated and covered in flashing, 90s disco-esqe lights. We filed nervously onto the bus, hoping in vain that the inside would be better. What we found was a double decker bus reminiscent of ‘the knight bus’ from Harry Potter. What I had expected, and what the pictures in the travel agent had promised, was just a normal bus with reclined or reclining seats, seatbelts and blankets which simply travelled at night time. What was in front of us were dozens of crammed in, double mattresses in what seemed to be a converted lower and upper deck of your average, slightly tired school bus. Above the beds were optimistically designated seat numbers which apportioned the already small bed into two halves, and the browning mattresses were adorned with a mismatched jumble of pillows and blankets. It was one of those situations where you had to laugh. We didn’t really have any realistic alternative at that point. In fact, we felt rather lucky when we realised that not all the passengers had booked in pairs, meaning that an over six foot tall, eccentric fifty-something Spanish guy was supposed to be sharing a bed with a disgruntled looking Australian male backpacker. They both grumbled in disbelief and sat on opposite sides like an arguing married couple, until the bus drew away and they realised there was, luckily, a spare bed.
Just as we were thinking the experience couldn’t possibly get much worse, we realised that our bus driver was a complete maniac. As we reached the main road, he slammed on the accelerator and completed the rest of the journey at a hair-raising speed, simply beeping his horn for seconds at a time whenever anything got in his way and swerving wildly around corners. Needless to say, we didn’t get much sleep. We ended up befriending the Spanish guy, practicing our broken Spanish and learning about his own travels in his broken English. Somehow, another bus, boat and around fourteen hours later, we managed to arrive at a guesthouse in Don Det, Four Thousand Islands. A little traumatised, but predominantly feeling extremely blessed that we had survived the ordeal.
The last few days of our Laos journey passed comparatively peacefully, and my memories of them have a somewhat jaded quality. We explored the dusty road tracks of Don Det and the neighbouring island by bike, stopping for waterfalls and learning about the attempted railway line of the first French explorers to the area. In certain areas, the old track and even parts of the train remain. We pondered about the tailless cats of the area and were relieved to find out that they are in fact because of mutations due to the limited gene pool on the island, not, as is commonly assumed, the result of any strange, tail-butchering custom of the locals. We drank lemon juice and ate amazing coconut curries and chocolate pancakes. I took hundreds of photographs in the golden hours before sunset, where the usually brown Mekong turns a gorgeous orange, and the fisherman return to the shore in their spindly longboats. Eventually we had to tear ourselves away from the area as we realised our days in South East Asia were numbered, and we still had two more beautiful countries to explore.