I miss the girl from Singapore. You would think that after six months of not talking to her that I would have moved on and just chocked the experience up to traveling alone. For some reason though I still think about her all the time and wonder what she is doing now. Having said that, I miss her.

I’m sitting in a café on what can best be described as a three-sided couch that surrounds a table. There are cushions to rest your back on and I am basically sitting on a bench (couch). I am forced to sit cross-legged to be close enough to the table to type. So why am I describing this so much… the simple answer is that I love it completely. I’m on my second beer and I’ve got a great view of the street just a few yards from my seat. I know that if I ever move back to the US that this type of experience is what I will miss the most. People in the US just don’t realize what they are missing.

There are several different types of travelers. The extremes are those people that want to be pampered and on the other side are the travelers that want to experience something different than they are used to. A professor that I worked with and traveled with to Sri Lanka, wanted to experience what can best be describe as poverty. I also had a friend that would not stay in a hotel that the bathroom wasn’t spotless. The two groups are the extremes and they may share some similarities with groups leaning to one extreme to another. I am the type of traveler that wants to see the real life of the people of the area that I’m in. I don’t want luxury, in fact I hate the idea of luxury, especially if the people around me aren’t living that way.

The reason I am making this statement is for a couple of reasons, the first being how hard I was on Luang Prabang, and the second is because I’ve read some really bad things about Vang Vieng. I also have recently been wondering why I seem to love it here so much. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s my Mother’s fault. 🙂 When I was young my mother would take my brother and myself to Mexico for the summer. It was a magical part of my life and have always considered it to be one of the strongest influences to the wanderlust that I have had as an adult. The place that she took us was, at the time, a small fishing village called San Felipe.

San Felipe was a small one street town that was dirty and dusty, but held me captivated for reasons I don’t fully understand. The old, beaten fishing boats that were beached during the day, the dirt roads leading into the city, and the bars that although I couldn’t enter, felt like something almost magical. It has occurred to me recently that I qualify places that I visit by my experience as a child in San Felipe. I want dirt, I want rough, and I absolutely hate luxury.

I’ve been in Vang Vieng now for three nights and was originally supposed to be leaving this morning for Vientiene, but I’m enjoying it so much more than Luang Prabang that I feel as if I could stay another week and still not be tired of it.

The cleaning ladies were drying out lunch. I walked by and was just stunned. They saw me and asked if I'd ever had it before....
The cleaning ladies were drying out lunch. I walked by and was just stunned. They saw me and asked if I’d ever had it before….

 

The thing that makes Vang Vieng so much better is that it is ‘rough’ in basic terms. The roads have huge potholes, the sidewalks are used more as parking lots for the scooters than they are for walking, and the overall sense is that the city is what it is without trying to be something special. This to me makes it special beyond words. There is a heavy backpacker vibe and many of the businesses have geared themselves to cater to them, but from my experience most backpackers don’t care about superficial things, they care more about experiences. Having to take an excruciating six-hour bus ride in cramped seats is awful, (or taking cold showers at 7am) when you are doing it, but it makes for something to remember, and maybe a fun story to tell.

As I was walking around I ended up being at the place where they launch hot air balloons. I kind of liked the photo but nothing really special
As I was walking around I ended up being at the place where they launch hot air balloons. I kind of liked the photo but nothing really special

 

When I was planning my time here I had a list of things that I wanted to do, the first was to go Kayaking down the Nam Song River like I did six years ago. This time I was going to go for a 40km trip down the river; a whole day. So I booked my ticket and headed out to dinner. On my way back I realized that I was getting a little low on cash so I stopped at the ATM and proceeded to get some money. Somewhere through the process though, the ATM screen blanked out and up came the desktop for Windows. Soon some other screens popped up with text like DOS. Crap! I tried to get my card and no luck, the ATM was no longer an ATM, it was a Windows computer and none of the buttons had any effect. I decided to go to the hostel and see if they could do something to help, maybe call the bank. When I explained what happened, the guy asked if it was the blue ATM at the corner, and I said yes. He told me that it happens quite a bit and everyone so far has gotten their card back.

 

This is one of the bridges that cross the Nam Song River here in the city. There are probably about five bridges in total. I love the way they are built.
This is one of the bridges that cross the Nam Song River here in the city. There are probably about five bridges in total. I love the way they are built.
Kayaking the river is big here. I was supposed to take a whole day to do about 40 km, but wasn't able to make it.
Kayaking the river is big here. I was supposed to take a whole day to do about 40 km, but wasn’t able to make it.

Hearing the news eased my concern a little, but the reality was that I didn’t have my card on my possession and I wasn’t going to be comfortable until I did. So the next morning I headed to the bank and eventually I got card back but I missed my kayaking trip down the river.

I just love the 'roughness' of the city.
I just love the ‘roughness’ of the city.

 

The whole ATM thing kind of messed with my head. It really showed just how vulnerable I am with only one card. There is a real possibility that it could happen again and I could be stuck somewhere without any money.

Repairmen fixing the only bridge that vehicles can cross the river on. They actually charge to cross the bridge too...
Repairmen fixing the only bridge that vehicles can cross the river on. They actually charge to cross the bridge too…

 

Except for the mess up with the ATM I am having a good time. I haven’t been doing very much and I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I’ve spent more time in my room than out on the city or hiking some park somewhere. I do have my excuses why I’ve been somewhat boring, but in reality I think I’d just be rationalizing.

 

I have been exploring the city and I have been going to some great little restaurants, but in the end I think I’ll regret that I didn’t do the kayaking or tubing down the river. I think this is one of the times that I really needed to be traveling with someone else, someone to kind of push me a little. I mean, I wanted to do those things, but I never got the inertia up to break my laziness.

I got into Vang Vieng yesterday about 4 in the afternoon and after a little while trying to get from the bus station to my hostel I was throwing my bags on my bed and heading out to see the small town. After my four nights in the overly touristy Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng was a welcomed sight.

Before I do an entry on Vang Vieng though, I want to summarize my time in Luang Prabang and post a few more photos that I took in the last couple of days.

As I think I noted in my last post about Luang Prabang, the city is very touristy. In fact after the initial fun of seeing some of the sights that I remembered from my time here about five years ago, the thrill quickly subsided. I would say that by the time I was booking my bus ticket to Vang Vieng I was really unhappy with what I’d been seeing in the city. Now I know that this is my opinion and I have every right to make it on my blog, but last night I read a post from someone who said what I’m basically going to say now, and she was slammed for it. I seriously doubt that anyone reads this blog, so I’m pretty sure that I won’t have to deal with what she did, but nevertheless in the back of my mind I know that there is a chance.

My personal view of Luang Prabang is that it has started to believe its hype. The hype was that it is a unique, charming town in Laos with a strong French influence. And indeed on the surface that is accurate, but, and this is a strong ‘but’ the town has gone too far in my opinion. For about three of the four days that I was there, all I could think about was that I was in some section of Disneyland, like Frontierland or Tomorrowland, but in this case it was Laoland. My personal joke was that I wouldn’t be surprised that the next time I come (if I ever do) there will be a fence around the old part of town and the tourists will have to buy tickets to enter. The four main types of businesses in the city are, restaurants, travel shops, guest houses, and mini marts, I guess souvenir shops too. Notice that I didn’t mention grocery stores, hardware stores, personal homes, or anyone of the hundred other places that a city needs to have in order to survive. The reason you don’t see these other places is because, just like at Disneyland they are hidden outside of the tourist areas. Another thing that made my experience less that fun was that all the restaurants, at least many of them, are catering to rich grandma and grandpa, but when I was here before I remember that there was a more of a backpacker’s vibe to it. Now as you walk along the main street there are high-end restaurants, boutique hotels, and luxury mini vans waiting to take grandma to the four star hotel or drop her off in front of the night market. I laughed so hard (mostly inside laugh) when I saw an electric tuk tuk (basically a three-wheel golf cart), yeah I can see how this is a quaint Lao town now. I bet there isn’t another town in Laos that has electric tuk tuks. The funniest thing though was when I saw something akin to an electric tram like you would get on at Universal Studios. I took a photo and will post it.

Carts just like you would see at Universal Studios or Disneyland
Carts just like you would see at Universal Studios or Disneyland

The final thing that bothered me was the most of the Lao people seem to dislike the tourists. I say most—not all. The guesthouse that I was at had two people working there, a young girl and an older man. For the first three days neither one of them actually acknowledged me in any way. Not a, “hello” or, “Did you enjoy your walk?” nothing. The people in the town were almost as bad except they had to interact for business reasons, but walking through the night market very few of the sellers would even look at me. For the record the man at the guesthouse started to warm up a little by the time I had left, but the girl just acted as if I was a necessary evil that she had to tolerate.

Okay, I know that I’ve been harsh on the city of Luang Prabang and I could go two ways on this, I could apologize and say that it was just unfortunate experience that I had and leave it at that. I could also say that I was expecting too much and my experience reflects an unrealistic view of the city, that the people need the money that the tourists bring in and it is working for them, as well as a great number of rich grandmas and grandpas.

In the end though, I don’t like what the city has become, but I do love the architecture and the winding streets of the city. It is beautiful on many levels, I just would trade a little of it with some authenticity.

Trick or Treaters en mass at a store that must have been giving out something good.
Trick or Treaters en mass at a store that must have been giving out something good.

I took a sunset tour on the Mekong my last night here. I hadn’t planned on doing it, but the tout that was selling it said that it was only 6000kip (about $0.80). I couldn’t believe the price and must have asked him about five times, “6000” I even made the statement that, “that’s really cheap.” He nodded his head and I returned when it was time for the boat to leave the dock. The only thing that changed was the price, it was now 60,000kip (about $7). I decided that I didn’t like feeling like I was being tricked so I declined and walked along the bank of the river taking photos. After about ten minutes the guy calls me over and lowered the price to 40,000 kip so I said okay. In my opinion, 6,000 kip was too cheap and the roughly $5 that I spent on the 1-hour cruise was fair. I got some nice photos and enjoyed being on the boat so I was satisfied and I’m assuming that the guy was satisfied as well.

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Just another photo of people living their normal lives. I don’t take a lot of touristy photos of things, but when it comes to people being ‘people’ I can’t seem to take enough.
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Yet another photo of a riverboat on the Mekong River
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Sunset on the Mekong.
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River boats on the Mekong during sunset.
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Monks disembarking off a ferry from across the Mekong.
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Every now and then I feel like I just have to take a photo of myself for posterity. This is one of them. I took it in front of a stupa in Luang Prabang
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Main street at night. I think this was Halloween night. I don’t think you can see it in this photo, but there were lots of kids dressed up and hitting the stores for candy.

 

ken curtis personal site, Luang Prabang
Even though monks are very common, there is still something special about seeing them. It makes spotting them even better when they are doing something normal like listening to music.

So I got into Luang Prabang last night and wandered around a little trying to find a place to stay. The taxi dropped me (and two other travelers) off near the night market. It wasn’t long before I started to remember different things from my time here about five years ago. Before I showed up, I really couldn’t say what the city was like mainly because I think I was confusing Luang Prabang with other towns in Laos. Like I said though, I started to remember as soon as I made it into the city… or rather the night market.

Mekong River Ken Curtis' web site
My first night in Luang Prabang there was festival going on. I wandered around for a while taking photos.

Luang Prabang is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is probably the most popular city in Laos; at least the most visited. It’s a small quaint city that has narrow streets that all seem to end at the river. There are two rivers here, the Mekong, which I came down yesterday, and another that I can’t remember the name. It really gives the city a nice feel that wherever you go there is a river very close by. It is also packed with temples.

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A lady at the local night market. The night I arrived the market was about a quarter of the normal size to make room for the parade of floats that went by.

Last night about 6, when the taxi dropped us off at the start of the night market, a festival was just starting and the main street where the night market sits was just jammed with people. The festival seemed more like a parade of dragon floats and school kids singing and chanting than it did a festival though. Along with the hundreds of tourists lining the street there were just as many proud parents snapping photos of their costumed children. The parade/festival lasted about three hours and I feel fortunate to have had a chance to have seen it.

Mekong River Ken Curtis' web site
One of the floats that was a part of the festival.

This morning I was woken up at about six from the sounds of a small café preparing for the coming customers. What a nice thing to wake up for though, tables being slid along the ground, pots and pans being rattled, and the workers laughing and joking. What a pleasant experience, especially at six in the morning. 🙂

Mekong River Ken Curtis' web site
I took this the next day. Many of the people who drive the boats also live on them as well. I don’t know if this woman did though.

I spent the morning wandering along the river just taking photos and trying to remember more of my time here before. Some things were coming back but much I feel like I seeing for the first time. An example was before when I was here, it just seemed more ‘real’ and authentic and this time I feel like I’m in a theme park. It is something that I don’t like at all. There are tourists everywhere and they aren’t the backpacking type either, more like Grandma and Grandpa being driven around by air conditioned mini vans, which is to me is the worst kind of touristlao.

I left Chiang Mai a few days ago with the basic idea that I would take a slow boat down the Mekong River. I really don’t have a good reason that I was going to be doing this since it was about five years ago that I did the exact same thing. I managed to rationalize it by telling myself that when I did it before I didn’t remember some of the key things that I had done. I remember tubing down a river, or I remember a certain temple, but I couldn’t remember what city I was in when I did some of these things. I was on a tour when I did it before, everything was taken care of along the way, so all I had to do was show up at a certain time and  get in the jeep or tuk-tuk. I think that made it so I didn’t have to remember the details. This time is different though, I’m doing all the logistics on my own and am forced to know what the name of the next city is.

Mekong River Ken Curtis' web site
As the boat made it’s way down the Mekong River we would stop to pick up passengers. This was a young girl wait for the boat to stop.

My hostel was about 200 meters from the bus station and there is a bus leaving every half hour, so I left the hostel and was on my way to the border in about 30 minutes. The bus was old, maybe about fifty years old… maybe older too, it had wooden floors and very uncomfortable benches, but it was fun just riding along, the windows open and

The bus dropped my off at a bus stop outside of Chiang Khong where about five taxis/tuk tuks were waiting. Only two of us got off the bus and we both jumped into a tuk tuk. In about five minutes I was at the border to exit Thailand. The last time I went across the border here I had to take a ferry to cross the bridge to Lao, but now there is a bridge. I have to admit though I kind of liked the ferry better. It just felt more authentic, or exotic to get on this little boat and have it motor it’s way out of Thailand. Anyway, passport control took maybe five minutes and I was on the shuttle to cross the bridge in about another ten. Like I said things just were going so smoothly… it was almost scary. 🙂

As I headed to get my Lao visa I was approached to buy a ticket for the slow boat down the Mekong, which as I mentioned was my goal. So I bought my ticket and proceeded to get my visa. Because I was kind of late to the border and the slow boat was going to be leaving in about an hour the lady that I bought the ticket from gave me a ride to the dock on the back of her scooter. I’m not going to lie, I was kind of terrified that I was getting a ride from her. She had my day pack on, I was sitting behind her with my full pack on, and we were going down the highway at probably about fifty kph. I made it there though safe and sound and got on board the boat. Since I was running late I was probably close the last person to get on. It was okay with me except that there didn’t appear to be any seats. I finally asked someone if I could sit down and to my surprise she said yes. This part of the boat trip takes about seven hours and to be honest I had a really good time. The girl was from Germany and was taking a few months off before she goes to college, there were two guys sitting across from us were taking two months off from their jobs in London to see the area. It really surprised me how nice these three were. We even met up later for dinner.

The dock where we started out for Luang Prabang. These boats are very large and hold about 100 people, ours was full.
The dock where we started out for Luang Prabang. These boats are very large and hold about 100 people, ours was full.

 

Mekong River Ken Curtis' web site
A local along the Mekong River. I think he is a fisherman but I’m only guessing.
Mekong River Ken Curtis' web site
This was the kind of boat that we were on. From what I’ve heard they are specially built for the river with a shallow draft and powerful motor.

 

Mekong River Ken Curtis' web site
This was the first boat that we were on, as you can see it was full. I met three really good people on the trip though so the long day seemed to go very fast.

I got on the boat about 7:30 this morning which was really too early. I ended up just sitting there for about an hour and a half before the boat finally left the bank. No worries though.

Mekong River Ken Curtis' web site
Just a couple of boats tied up on the bank of the river.

I am now sitting on the boat killing time writing for the blog. It about 11:30 and I think there is supposed to be probably another four hours before we arrive at Luang Prabang. The boat is pulling up on the shore to either pick up passengers or drop some off. More later….

Mekong River Ken Curtis' web site
A view from the back of the boat where the engine was. I was able to spend time back there because I had earplugs. I’d been carrying them around for like forever and never used them, finally got a chance. Even with the earplugs it was almost too loud to be there.