Last Friday we said goodbye to Cambodia and hopped on a plane to Luang Prabang, Laos. It was one of the most expensive legs of our entire journey (around $200 for a one hour flight!) but well worth it considering the bus journey can take anything up to 24 hours from Siem Reap.
We touched down on time at a tiny little airport on the outskirts of Luang Prabang. Upon obtaining our visas Billy was horrified to find out that Canadians are charged considerably more than any other nationality in the entire world - US$42 to be exact. Even Bin Laden would get a cheaper visa than him. I paid my US$30 and skipped on through – I love being a New Zealander!
We had pre-arranged accommodation and were picked up promptly by a rep from our hostel. Our transport turned out to be a flatbed truck with two sets of three seats on the back of it. The seats had clearly been liberated from a van at some point and were literally thrown in the back of the truck – they were not bolted down in any way. I was amused to see that these same seats now form an impromptu ‘waiting room’ outside the hostel bathrooms.
Luang Prabang is a beautiful little city and has provided welcome respite from the craziness and the begging which was so rife in Cambodia. Situated 425 kilometres north of the capital Vientiane, the city is a UNESCO world heritage site and is home to a little over 100,000 people. There is a huge number of restaurants and cafes here – overall there’s a strong Thai influence, with a little bit of French thrown in for good measure. Not a bad combination if I do say so myself!
We initially planned to stay four nights but have ended up extending that a little as (a) we’ve heard some rather dubious things about our next destination, and (b) it’s such a lovely relaxing place we don’t want to leave! I’ve largely spent my days cycling around the town taking in the views along the river, dining in cafes and visiting local sights and attractions.
On Sunday we planned to go to Tat Kuang Si Park, located about 30 kilometres out of town. During breakfast we met a couple of other travelers who ended up coming along and it turned out to be a great day. On arrival at the park we paid our $2 entry fee and made our first stop at the ‘Free the Bears Rescue Centre’. Unfortunately it appeared to be cleaning time and all we got to see was a few Laotian cleaners – not quite what we were hoping for! We moved on through the park and within a few minutes arrived at the waterfall which was absolutely gorgeous. After a good walk around we found a good swimming hole and settled down for a while. Unfortunately Jacques re-injured his already injured foot while entering the water so was unable to swim – the rest of us braved the climb up a large tree to make use of a rope swing above the falls which was great fun! One of the Laotian guys with us managed to snap some hilarious mid-air shots of me, so they will be duly posted once he emails them through! Apparently he showed his friends and they call me the ‘flying foreigner’.
That night we met up with some other travelers from the hostel and hit the night markets for some dinner and drinks. After much consumption of Lao Lao we decided that given it was a Sunday night, what better to do than go to a Lao nightclub! It was an interesting place – it was surprisingly busy for a Sunday night and we had a good dance and a few drinks. One of the English guys with us began chatting with an attractive Laotian girl and came back very quickly to report that many of the ‘girls’ around us weren’t actually girls. A lot of them had done a great job at presenting themselves but there were one or two sporting rather large man hands, shoulders and jaws – something no amount of makeup can cover unfortunately. I tried to study some of them discreetly and figure out who was who - it was a bit like playing ‘Where’s Wally’, but with an adam’s apple.
I have also spent some time at a little place called ‘Big Brother Mouse’ which is located in the central part of Luang Prabang. BBM is a Laos-owned and based project which promotes literacy and English to rural and urban Laotians through the publishing and provision of books. They also run a daily English practice program, whereby foreigners can drop in to the centre between 9am and 11am each day to help locals improve their English. Today I spent two hours teaching English to a sixteen year old Laotian girl who has minimal English skills – it was tough, but I really hope she got something out of it. I spent a lot of time on the alphabet and phonics as it seemed she hadn’t even really grasped the basics yet. She was very sweet and very diligent – fortunately I was aided by a man who was there for conversation practice who was able to speak Lao and a bit of English, so he provided translation for me when needed. She doesn’t own any textbooks – just a notebook full of phrases written by foreigners who have visited the shop. I am going back to teach again tomorrow and have bought her a small Lao-English picture dictionary to help her along. BBM publishes one which isn’t particularly comprehensive, but is more than ample for beginners and costs less than $2. The centre is doing some great work and is a cause well worth supporting – . I was interested to note that in the three times I’ve been in, the only volunteers I have come across have been New Zealanders. There will be a future generation of Laotians with Kiwi accents – watch this space!
Tomorrow we head to Vang Vieng to go tubing. Given the amount of rain we’ve had recently I suspect the river will be rather high and potentially quite dangerous so I haven’t made up my mind yet as to whether I will go tubing or not. The other consideration of course is the current outbreak of pink-eye which travelers are picking up from the river – the thought of tubing down a river full of poo really doesn’t excite me, so I think I will find something else to do with my time!
More from pink-eye central soon.