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The Road to Absolution

Owen, Chantel and myself left Vang Vieng with our metaphorical tails between our legs. We had a seven hour bus ride through winding mountain roads a head of us with Luang Prabang, one of the more beautiful towns in South East Asia, waiting for us. The scenery on the drive there was amazing and I kept thinking that I would love to cruise around this country on a motorbike one day. The brilliant morning sun coming over the rolling hills as our bus slowly weaved it’s way through the mountain passes felt like I was finally on the road to absolution after the sins of Vang Vieng. Unfortunately Chantel and Owen didn’t share my poetic interpretation as the twisting roads and the bus’s bumpy suspension gave them motion sickness instead.

On the way we past two crashes, the first was a Tiger beer truck wedged sideways in a ditch off the road on a particularly sharp hairpin turn. There were a bunch of Laos guys staring solemnly at the shattered beer crates, which was a surprisingly small amount of the total beer cargo considering the half-inverted orientation of their truck. The second was essentially the same, but this truck was carrying a gigantic generator which had torn through the side railing of the tray. Those guys were going to have fun trying to get it back on. Luckily we had no crashes or breakdowns ourselves and made it to Luang Prabang an hour early.

The main road of Luang Prabang. This is where the night markets set up.

At the bus terminal I met three boys from the Isle of Man who shared a tuk tuk into town with myself and the Welshies. They looked like a trio of brothers with dreadlocked Billy looking like the younger sibling, burly Burnsey who was sporting a fresh case of pink eye from Vang Vieng in the middle, and stoic George filling the older brother roll. Maybe they could have started a backpacking boy band. They were interesting lads and ended up staying at the same guesthouse as us, they also gave me some good advice on places to visit in northern Thailand where they had just come from, and I was heading next.

The mighty Mekong River at dusk.

After checking in, Chantel and I took a stroll into town to have a look around. Luang Prabang, or at least the town center, is a beautiful place. Tourists and locals lazily walk or cycle around the quiet streets during the daylight hours, surrounded by old buildings and even older glistening temples and pagodas. The streets then come alive with bustling markets as the sun sets. The whole town has a much more chilled vibe than most other places in south east Asia, and not chilled out in the hippy sense. People here just move at a slower pace and aren’t as concerned with getting every dollar they can out of tourists. It was a pleasant change being able to walk streets without being harassed by touts and sellers every five meters.

Some locals making goods to sell at the street markets.

Eventually we found our way to the Mekong river where we sat to watch the sunset. While unwinding we were found by some friends of hers and Owen’s that they had picked up in southern Laos while I was over in Kuala Lumpur. They were two Brits Matt and Rachael, and a french girl Estelle. The group of us spent the evening wandering around in the night markets which take over the main street of Luang Prabang every evening. As we slowly meandered through the tightly packed stalls you couldn’t escape a feeling of deja vu as you passed what was essentially the same four stalls over and over. There were the t-shirt stalls, the tea and coffee stalls, bags and slippers stalls, and jewelry stalls, sometimes with the inventory mixed up in different combinations just to keep you on your toes.

For dinner we ducked into a even more crowded side street full of food stalls. Here for a mere 10,000 Kip (around $1.25) one was given a plate upon which they could heap as much food as they could safely balance from a variety of vegetarian noodle, rice and stir fry options. The food was all cold, but on request the lady running the stall would dump the contents of your plate into a wok and heat it up for you.  There were also delicious smelling sticks of barbecued chicken, pork and fish but they were a another ten to thirty thousand Kip each. If you stuck to vegetarian it was probably the one of the best value meals in South East Asia.

Kuang Si
One of the many terraces at Kuang Si waterfalls.

The next day the group of us along with the Isle of Man boys hired a tuk tuk driver to take us to Kuang Si waterfall, about an hours drive from Luang Prabang. We spent awhile trying to haggle for a cheap price with various drivers. At one point a driver was complaining about the price of petrol and told us “For him, I could take for 15 thousand Kip” while pointing at Billy, he then pointed at Burnsey and added “but for him 30 thousand”. This got a snicker from all of us except Burnsey who didn’t look happy about the implied reduction in fuel efficiency due to his size. We ended up settling on 25k Kip (about $3) per person and took off. The ride there was beautifully scenic and once we arrived we passed a random Asiatic black bear enclosure on the way to the falls. The falls were quite nice, a multiple terraced deal with a few pools of really bright turquoise water that you could swim in. Matt and myself walked up from the swimming spots to the main fall where you could hike up a slippery muddy path to the top, which of course we did. After coming back down we went for a swim where you couldn’t stop moving your legs or little fish or some other critter would come and bite you.

Matt swinging into one of the pools at Kuang Si.

We got back to Luang Prabang in the late afternoon and almost immediately after getting off the tuk tuk I spotted Argentinian Dan who was heading to Wat Tham Phu Si, a temple on the top of the hill in the middle of town which is a great vantage point to watch the sunset. I went up there with him, but we were still a little early for sunset so I explored around and found another temple on the hill where some monks were busy building a boat for an upcoming full moon festival. This was also the location of Buddha’s footprint, which turned out to be a large crater in a rock. I’m not sure what these Laotians thought Buddha was, but to leave a footprint this size he must have had been related to Godzilla.

Monk statues praying near the giant Buddha footprint at Wat Tham Phu Si.

The eventual sunset was spectacular. We had a great view of the surrounding mountains and the Mekong river and the sky slowly went a brilliant orange, then pink, before fading to dark purple. There were a lot of photographers and sunset chasers up here enjoying the scene which made it hard to get photos without people in them. I took a lot of photos, each one better than the last until the sun finally dipped behind the horizon. After it was over I ended up deleting all but the last couple I took.

The spectacular sunset from Wat Xieng Thong.

The following day I hired a bicycle and cruised around town temple spotting. The most impressive was the complex which contained the royal palace Haw Kham, now converted into a museum, and the opulent Wat Xieng Thong, a temple full of gold leaf coated furniture and statues. For bonus tucked away in a little building hidden round the back of the complex was a fantastic black and white photography exhibition on monks.

The majestic Wat Xieng Thong, one of the most impressive temples in Laos.

After a couple of temples I decided to try and find the hospital to get my stitches taken out as they were due to be removed about now. The local hospital made the nurses room at a high school look hi-tech and the staff spoke barely a word of English. I left defeated with my stitches still firmly attached to my scalp. This meant I would have to wait till Chiang Mai in Thailand to get then removed, a place I wasn’t supposed to be for another five or six days if I got the slow boat and then did the Gibbon Experience as originally planned. The Gibbon Experience is a super expensive 2 night deal here you hike into a reserve and spend two days living in tree houses 50m above the Forrest floor and get around by zip-lining. This ended up not being a problem as a hadn’t prebooked and a quick email told me they had no vacancies on the day I wanted to go.

The Naga outside Wat Xieng Thong.

With my hospital visit ended in failure I decided to ride across to a distant gold temple I saw on a hill while watching the sunset the previous day. I kind of guessed the direction from a bad tourist map which only showed the  main road and eventually weaved my way there. It was part of a big complex that still seemed under construction. There were no tourists and instead it was full of young orange robbed monks running around with wheel various building materials. I wasn’t sure if I was actually allowed to enter but an old lady sitting next to a donation box gestured me to come in. While the temple itself wasn’t particularly exciting on the inside, the view of Luang Prabang offered from the top dome was worth the ride.

Luang Prabang
This is what you see if you look away from the sunset at from Wat Tham Phu Si, you can just make out the gold temple.

That night I planned my method of getting to Thailand. The original plan was to get the two day slow boat to Huay Xai with Owen, Chantel, Matt and Rachel the following morning, and then the bus to Chiang Mai. But I had doubts now. Since I was no longer doing the Gibbon Experience I had no reason to go to Huay Xai, also I needed to get my stitches taken out ASAP not in 3 days time. The final nail in the boat trip’s coffin was that after calculating the days left in my trip I worked out I needed a Thai visa for about 25 days. If you enter overland you only get a 15 day visa, flying gives you 30 which would save me wasting another 2 days down the road on a visa run to the Myanmar border. Flying cost over double the price of the slow boat trip after including food, accommodation and the bus, but it would get me to Chiang Mai in an hour, solve my visa and hospital problems, and give me an extra 4-5 days to enjoy Thailand. All in all I was sold and hunted down the nearest travel agent to book the flight for the next day.

Flying High
Walking across the tarmac at Luang Prabang international airport.

It turned out Estelle was on the same flight as me and when we rendezvoused in the morning I discovered her and Matt had been sick all night with food poisoning. Matt and Rachel had missed the boat deciding to stay in Luang Prabang and recover for another day, leaving just Owen and Chantel as the only two who actually caught the boat. After checking into the tiny airport at Luang Prabang I sat with excitement waiting for the plane. I was off to Thailand, the country I had most looked forward to visiting in this trip.