We crossed the Thai/Laos border with our Stray bus group, and boarded a long flat covered boat for our two day sail down the Mekong River. It was very cool looking at the scenery along the way, although after two eight hour days on the river we were definitely ready to be on land! The night between the two boat rides, we stopped in a small highland village and had a homestay. The village had about 60 family houses, and we divided our group of 18 or so into five houses. We had dinner and breakfast with our hosts, spent the night on their floor on mattresses and under mosquito nets, and tried the local “Lao Lao”, which is a homemade local rice whisky. Pretty gross, but it’s cheap and a few shots of that will do the trick!
When we finished our boat journey, we were in Luang Prabang, the ancient Siam capital of the north. A pretty and small city, perfect for some walking around and gazing at all the goods offered in the markets. We visited the public library, and donated a book for their village outreach program, a “book boat” that travels to remote areas and gives kids there the chance to access a book. And Luang Prabang is great place for baguette sandwiches: Laos, having once been part of French Indochina, retains the love of French bread that is so missing from Thailand and Malaysia.
From Luang Prabang we headed south to Vang Vueng, a kind of grungy River town that basically centers on the backpackers coming through and tubing the river. For five dollars we rented a tube, got dropped off a couple of miles upstream, and floated lazily down the river. There are five or six bars along the way; if you want to get out, a young Laos boy throws a filled water bottle attached to a rope at you and reels you in, like a fish. We tubed the river with most of the group from our Stray bus, so it wasn’t long before the Lao Lao was flowing and the beer pong was a-playing.
The next morning we had the chance to go up in a hot air balloon for only $80 US, so we couldn’t pass that up. We rose up to 1,000 meters and looked down at the river, the karst mountains, the mist, the rice fields… Really beautiful. A bit of a scary “crash” landing, but we were all okay, if a little shaken.
We headed to the Kong Lor area, too small to even really be called a village. Just five or six guest houses, two restaurants, all a kilometer from the kong Lor cave, which we were there to explore. We got a boat ride into the cave- 7 kilometers into the cave- had to portage three times- walked around inside the cave for a while. Pretty spooky feeling, being that far under a mountain. At the end,when we returned to the starting point, we all swam in the cold, clear water in a natural swimming hole at the cave’s entrance. Back at our guesthouse, we all lazed the rest of the day away, nothing to do but look out over the green tobacco fields and the surrounding mountains. What beautiful scenery!
Ventiane, the capital, was next. We didn’t do much there except visit the Victory Arch, a temple, and COPE, an organization that helps bomb victims deal with their injuries and adjustment. We learned about the millions of bombs dropped over Laos during Vietnam and the “Secret War”. Laos is the most bombed country, per capita! And there are still thousands of UXO here, in fields, rivers, jungles, and villages.
After Ventiane we had another homestay, not with a family, but in a big farmhouse owned by a local and given over to Stray bus for their three times a weeks stop in the village of Xe Champhone. After dinner, the Lao Lao started flowing and the music started playing and the kids on our bus (because, yes, of course Chris and I are the oldest) started partying. This time I wasn’t in the mood, and kind of felt that the loud partying was a bit disrespectful to the rest of the village, although several locals did stop by to meet us and have a drink.
Some of our side trips on these days have included Buddha caves, UNESCO temples, waterfalls, a turtle lake, a coffee plantation, and a monkey forest where we hand fed dozens of macaque monkeys.
Our last stop in Laos, and where 12 of the 15 of us hopped off the bus for three days, has been an area called “4000 islands” in southern Laos. We are on an island called Don Dett, about 2 miles long and one mile wide. Just “beach” bungalows, bars, tubing, kayaking, and bicycle rentals. It’s a nice place to explore and I even managed a run yesterday morning before breakfast. Rice fields, water buffalo, sunsets, and relaxing. We really needed the break. Tomorrow we head across the border to Cambodia, starting with Angkor Wat.