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The slow boat ride from Huay Xia to Luang Prabang takes 2 days on the Mekong River. Stopping for the night in Pak Beng, it had been recommended to us by many people so we had decided to give it a try. The first day started off around 10:30am, and on this particular day there was a huge amount of tourists – over 140 – so they put on two boats. The boats are about 50 feet long with a cabin at the back for the crew and the engine, the rest has a open sided canopy and the seats are comprised of back seats removed from old vehicles.
The Mekong river was wide, flat, and moved quite quickly so the ride was smooth. It was obviously quite shallow judging from the rocks breaking the surface and the erratic path the captain carved in its brown surface. The scenery was very pretty, with lush green banks dotted by the occasional settlement or village. People fishing, farming, and gathering water occupied the banks every so often as did moored boats. We dropped locals of every so often at these camps, either by running the bow a ground or slowly bumping into a moored boat so people could scramble across it to shore.
This peaceful and idealic scene would have been very pleasant except for one factor: the temperature. It hoverered around 14 before the wind factor, so it was very cold for the majority of people who had come from mid to high 20s the day before. Luckily we had jackets we thought we wouldn’t be using till Nepal, but others weren’t so prepared. Max (acclimatized due to months in Bangkok to warmer temperatures) was suffering greatly, and ended up borrowing Andrea’s Cowichan gloves and other people’s scarfs. Looking down the boat revealed people huddled together, hoods up, lots or layers, goosebumps and blue skin, and shivering faces – not exactly the idyllic South East Asia boat journey we had imagined.
This days journey took less than 6 hours, quicker than usual to our delight. On the ride we met two German girls (Anne and Leslie) and the five of us checked into our guest house then spent the evening having dinner, a few beers and playing some beer pong and pool at a local spot. The showers weren’t forthcoming with anything close to hot water so we went to bed dirty. Pak Beng, the town the boat spends the night at, appears to exist solely for this service role. The road is full of guesthouses and restaurants to supply the ever changing clientele with their needs for the onward journey.
Thankfully, the next day was warmer and the journey more pleasant, and Luang Prabang came into view after just under 7 hours.
Luang Prabang is setup for tourists a big street food market, and an even larger handicraft market offering people plenty of options. We found a hostel and dropped off our bags then headed to eat. Piles of fruit, bbq meat, and noodles greeted us and we ate well. One of the bars in town offered free buckets using local whiskey and coke for an hour which pretty much set us up for the evening, and the night melted into a mix of jenga, beer pong, fire limbo (Max was the only one who partook in this activity) and lots of fun and laughter.
The following morning we woke up a little late but feeling good so we met up with the Germans and spent the day walking around the town. There is the standard Buddhist temple and stupas, one featuring a very large footprint of Buddha that would put him at over 40 feet tal. The city is very charming, with the French influences felt with waterfront architecture, parks and lush green boulevards providing shade from the heat. While it has a peaceful feeling the central area is quickly realized to pretty much only contain restaurants, guest house, travel agents, hotels, souvenir shops, and other tourist accouterments. The city is a very nice place to spend time though, and the street food market is fantastic – we quickly became regular patrons at the vegetarian buffet where you can load a bowl up with various noodles, spring rolls, tofu, vegetables, fried bananas, and other delicious dishes for the equivalent of around $2.50.
The next day we went to Kuang Si waterfall, a beautiful series of tiered waterways set in the lush jungle. While the water was cold we finally got to swim for the first time on the trip. We were also able to take another drone video. There is also a moon bear sanctuary and we got to watch these rescued bears get fed and play. It was a fantastically relaxed day.
On our last day in Luang Prabang we when to the UXO (Unexploded Ordinance) Museum which highlights the plight cause by the tons of unexploded bombs dropped by the Americans during the Vietnam War. Laos is actually the most bombed country in the world per capta, as during this time period the Americans heavily targeted the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which goes through Laos, and also lazily used the country to unload all the bombs they hadn’t used elsewhere – aka bombing just for the hell of it. 30% didn’t explode and now causes daily trouble in huge areas of the country, maiming or killing children and adults who come across these devices and set them off unawares.
After the somber morning we planted ourselves on the riverbank in a restaurant called Utopia, which is peaceful and calm with areas to lay out overlooking the river from bamboo platforms. But the evening came all too soon and we are now headed to Vientiane on a night bus. It is a sleeper bus which has rows of beds rather than chairs which is a new experience for me. Andrea has had good experiences with them before though.