Khop jai lai lai, Laos!
(Thank you very much, Laos!)
As I embarked on my final solo journey, I was full of anticipation for who I’d meet along the way and how the Laotian culture would compare to Thailand. I caught a 7am flight to Chiang Rai then hopped on a local bus to Chiang Khong on the Laos border. I arrived around 11am. Chiang Khong is a tiny town and I was settled at a guesthouse with a view of the Mekong River before noon.
Unfortunately, and to my great disappoint, the skies of Northern Thailand, Laos and Cambodia are full of smoke and haze during the summer months (March-May). They still practice slash and burn farming—in order to clear farmland and return nutrients to soil, farmers burn everything from the previous season. This method is outlawed pretty much everywhere else in the world because it causes terrible air pollution. Some days the smoke was so dense my eyes burned.
Despite this, I was still thrilled to be there and excited for the border crossing in the morning. That evening I went to the weirdest and worst yoga class of my life. I saw signs for yoga early in the day and discovered a small studio run by an older expat couple. I scheduled a class for 6pm. The instructor was probably in her late 60s and practiced therapeutic and prenatal yoga for many years in Australia before retiring and moving to Chiang Khong. The class was very frustrating for me because the level was far below my ability to the point of boredom. Plus, there was no flow to the class. She constantly referred to her notes and had given each position different names than are traditionally used. Each position was more like a simple stretch than yoga and she never stopped referring to the habits of her past students. I was the only student and could not do anything except go along with it for nearly 2 hours. She was so gracious but I was not the right fit for her class and was very happy to leave afterwards.
The next morning I successfully crossed into Laos and was ready to board the slow boat to Luang Prabang by 9:30am. The slow boat is one of the cheapest yet slowest ways to get to LP and is generally filled with drunken tourists. I was attracted to it by the romantic concept of boating down the great Mekong River, past rural Laotian villages and through beautiful jungle. The reality was not quite as I had imagined. Due to the burning, you could not see much past the riverbanks. Also, the first day was a miserable disaster. Although I was probably the first person ready to board, I was grouped with some people through an agency that were very late so we ended up being the last people on the boat, which was overbooked. We were shunted to the cabin at the back of the boat behind the engine—deafening and filled with exhaust and cigarette fumes. It was hell. I knew I couldn’t handle it for the 7-hour trip so managed to squeeze in a seat just on the other side of the engine, which was worlds better but still far from ideal. The boats have been outfitted with old minivan seats, odd but pretty comfortable.
The only positive outcome from the day was that I befriended one of the couples in my group and we immediately hit it off. Wes and Kelsey are two American teachers living in Chiang Mai. Our shared experiences led to very similar perspectives and travel plans. We booked a room together for the overnight in Pak Beng and were determined to get good seats on the second day.
Pak Beng is a small town on the Mekong that’s livelihood is built around the tourists shuttled in nightly. The town consists of a handful of restaurants and guesthouses. It is pretty sketchy but we felt completely safe. Locals sell drugs to tourists in the dark streets and in the well-lit restaurants.
Day 2 was a 9-hour journey and much closer to that romantic dream I had initially signed up for. Our seats were near the front of the boat, far from engine noise and with great views of the river. We spent the day chatting, reading, sleeping and playing cribbage.
We arrived in Luang Prabang after dark and I was able to get a room at the same hostel that Wes and Kelsey were staying in. We roamed the beautiful city that night, soaking in the French colonial influence juxtaposed with temples and teak. I spent the entirety of my time in Laos with Wes and Kelsey. Over the next 4 days we explored the city and surrounding areas. On our first day, we crossed the Mekong and hiked through a small village with several temples lining the river. Two young girls (9 and 10) gave us a tour into a cave that wound deep into the hillside.
The second day we kayaked down the Nam Ou and Mekong to the Pak Ou caves. These caves are filled with hundreds of Buddhas that have been given by locals over the years.
The third day we grabbed a tuk tuk to the Khuang Xi waterfall, hiked to the top and swam in the bright aqua waters. You have to take the same tuk tuk to and from the waterfall and they give you about 2 hours to explore. We were not satisfied with so little time and decided just to stay longer and catch a different ride back. We were mistaken—our driver sought us out and told us that no other driver would take us back. They all know each other and work together to make sure tourists don’t do exactly what we wanted to do.
On my final day, I took a silk weaving and dying class from Ock Pock Tock, a local organization that fosters traditional art and weaving in hill tribes throughout Laos. Ock Pock Tock means “East meets West” and was named for the British and Laotian female founders. I had a great time learning about silk worms and how the natural dyes are created. I then made my own dye of lemongrass, seeds and sappan wood. I only had time for a half-day class because I flew out in the afternoon so didn’t have the opportunity to do any weaving.
My words here only skim the surface of my experience in Laos. I’m sure I’ll tell you more details in person. I feel so blessed to have met true friends there. Laos is far less developed than Thailand and much poorer. However, the people are incredibly kind and laid back. I really enjoyed the vibe and flow of the city and look forward to returning one day to explore the country further.