Wednesday, May 29, 2013

2 day Slow Boat from Luang Prabang--Pak Beng--Huay Xai

Sombon had agreed to pick me up at 7 am at my Namsok Guesthouse, but he showed up at my place at 6:30am instead. He was going to take me to the boat landing by his boat since he had two customers for a one hour boat ride on the Mekong River. The couple were tourists for Bulgaria and Sombon picked up a third customer from Vietnam.

Here is the pathway down to the slow boat ferries that will take me to Pak Beng and then catch another boat to Huay Xai where I will cross the Mekong River to Thailand and then a night bus to Bangkok. I was the only Westerner on this boat and there were only four other tourists---all from China--- and the rest were Laotians. the boat stopped several times a day to let off some of the Laotian passengers at little villages along the way.

Here is what the slow boat looks like and the fare to Pak Beng was 110000 kip and took 9 hours. I still did not understand how I was going to get a ticket from Pak Beng to Huay Xai. The Chinese group had purchased their tickets from a travel agency and only had an invoice to show for the next leg of the journey.

Along the way our engine died and it took the guys about 1/2 hour to get it fixed. I did not even want to think about the Plan B if the engine could not start since there were few other boats going north.






During our travels north the scenery was beautiful with craggy rocks and swift rapids along the Mekong. It was punctuated by small villages that were adjacent to a recent burn of the forest land so they could plant crops and then move on. It reminded me a lot of the checkerboard pattern of forest lands in my home state of Washington where mile squares of clear cuts alternated with protected forest lands.


We passed the Pak Ou Caves where you can see over 1,000 Buddha figurines.

As the day wore on, I got familiar with some of the other passengers. First, I recognized a Laotian young woman, Mai, who was traveling with Mom and Aunt because early that morning, they were some of the people I had videotaped that morning giving offerings to the monks in Luang Prabang. I showed them the video and later emailed it to Mai. What a small world.


Other people I met on the boat were four Chinese tourists bound for Chiang Rai after arriving in Huay Xai. Two of them---Ranchie, and Ruolyn---had quit their jobs and the other two---Yujuan and Zhi---were allowed extended leave to travel. Throughout the cruise they would give me all sorts of fruits like mangos, bananas, and mangostenos. On the second day they offered to have me join them for the Laotion food they had picked up in Pak Beng. It looked good, but I had already eaten my egg sandwich to go which consisted of shreds of carrots, lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes and eggs. Here is a picture of them at the Laotian feast---from left to right---Ranchie, Yujuan, Ruolyn, and Zhi.

Finally there were the little sisters who played up and down the boat and were very curious about my mini iPad. After getting permission from the Mom, I showed them how to play Fruit Ninja and Angry Birds. They got a high score of 594 on Fruit Ninja and also a high score on the Angry Birds. They did this for about two hours before returning it to me. It was fun to watch how lively and generally cooperative they were playing these games. Afterward they took a nap as the boat continued along until it got to their little village, and they and their parents go off along with two huge bags of rice and other bags of stuff.


We got to Pak Beng just as the sun was setting and on the steep climb up for the boat, touts started offering us "wonderful" accommodations. I agreed to see the Sivongsack Guesthouse for only 50000 kip which had wifi, hot showers, and fan and looked from the pictures, fairly clean.

It's amazing how exhausted I was from doing nothing all day. I took a nice hot shower after I figured out that they had reversed the hot and cold water knobs---reminded me of what the Inn at Loreto Bay also had done.

I headed to their restaurant and had a cold BeerLao along with a delicious rice, chicken, and cashew nut dinner. I sat with Crystal, from Germany, who was heading down river to Luang Prabang. She was following some vision that she had that she was suppose to talk to a monk there for life guidance. I told her that with over thirty monasteries full of monks, it would be very likely that she would find what she was searching for.

Since it was a bit cooler here, I did not suffer from a lack of A/C as I thought I might. I got to bed early and woke up to the rooster alarm about 5:30 am. I got caught up on my email traffic and then had a big craving for a big Lao Coffee. The roadside stands feature coffee that is put into a filter bag and hot water is dripped into the cup. Next comes the double sweetened cream---you can almost chew it. I think the coffee and the baguettes are a legacy from the days of the French influence. Here is a picture of the coffee stand in downtown Pak Beng early morning with the owner's daughter chewing on a wad of sticky rice.

Morning in downtown Pak Beng.

I am still not sure how the boat ticket onward to Huay Xai will work. The guesthouse folks just told me to be down there by 8am and I would purchase the ticket on the boat. After about thirty minutes of sitting on this boat people had told me was headed to Huay Xai, the group of Chinese tourists showed up along with the Laotian daughter, Mai, Mom and Aunt. This confirmed for me I was headed in the right direction.




We passed more villages where some of the passengers got off. We continued to see craggy peaks, jagged rocks and swirling water along the way. Many fishermen were trying their skill with a variety nets and even single poles to catch the fish out of this chocolate colored water. At the villages clusters of kids and adults could be seen swimming in this murky water of the Mekong.


During one heavy downpour we had to lower the storm curtains and everyone pitched in rapidly to keep the downpour out. About an hour later, the sky was blue, and we raised the curtains.





I am relaxing with a ice cold BeerLao as we cruise up the Mekong River toward Huay Xai.



Once again there was a curious little girl who was the ship's captain's daughter who spent much of her time either sweeping the place with a duster or visiting with others.


After landing in Huay Xai, I walked south until I spotted the immigration office and the boats that would take me over to Thailand the following morning since immigration was closed for the day.


I walked down to what looked like a fairly clean guesthouse, called Kaupjai, and it was just 100000 kip or 200 baht. Since I had run out of kip and did not want to buy a bunch more, I began to use baht in this border town. it turns out as in most border towns they use the different currencies interchangeably.




That night I ate at a terrace restaurant that overlooked the river. There were lots of scruffy looking Europeans doing some serious drinking, and the lobby there was a lot of bags and canisters that reminded me of a movie set or rock concert materials.


The following morning after I met up with the Chinese tourists again, I learned that the scruffy group were the "roadies" for a European based version of "The Amazing Race". The Chinese tourists said that they had run across them in their travels two other times and they thought they would meet up with them again in Chiang Rai according to one of the producers.



Here is a picture of some of the contestants waiting to take the little boat over to Thailand. The contestants were now down to about four couples- two Italian models, two jocks--one was an Olympic swimmer who told me he competed against Michael Phelps several times, and one was an Italian Judo Olympic champion, and two brothers. The final couple was somewhere else. One of the producers told us not to post pictures on Facebook which would reveal who the finalists were before the series was shown on TV.


They told us that they were given just €1 per day so they had to hitchhike a lot to get from one place to another. They did not know where they were going next, but they were allowed a couple days every week to eat as much as they wanted. During the race days they could not use cell phones nor watches. One of the two brothers said that he had already lost 15 kilos and his brother likewise and that this was the most extreme thing he had ever done. The two models looked like cadavers, they were so skinny.

The Chinese tourists and I shared a boat over to Thailand, but they were held up a bit because Ranchie had to go get a photocopy of his passport. I headed on down to the bus station by taking a 30 baht tuk tuk, but stopped at the first ATM.

While I was in Luang Prabang, my ATM card never worked despite trying about 5 different banks and 15 machines. Good thing I was carrying some emergency USD and Thai Baht that got me through. I was worried that the magnetic strip had gotten demagnetized by my iPad cover.

When I used the first Thai ATM machine, that one too refused to give me any money and suggested that I contact my bank---easy to say, but hard to do. Yikes! This is not good. Next trip I will take two ATM cards.

Even though the Lonely planet guide indicated there was just one ATM in this small town, I spotted a number more just down the road a bit. At the second one, I put in my card and fortunately it gave me 10000 baht. What a relief.

When your ATM is either lost, stolen or no longer works, my options get reduced to staying and eating at places that take credit cards or use your credit card to get a cash advance--- these cash advances can be quite costly at at least a 3% charge at both ends of the transaction. Both choices are much more expensive. Use of a credit card is at least a 3% charge unless you get one that reimburses you for these charges. Some stock broker companies offer this as well as some credit cards. You can see which ones do by going to

I waved goodbye to the Chinese tourists as they got on their bus to Chiang Rai and then went to find a coffee shop with wifi to while away the time before my 3 pm night bus would arrive. I ended up getting the 2nd class bus to Bangkok for just 535 baht. After a Thai ice tea followed by a green iced tea, I moved on down the road back toward the bus station.

I stopped at another wifi restaurant and talked a bit to two European travelers who were touring Thailand by motor scooter. One was Polish and the other a Slovak and both had finished a Master program in tourism management in Spain. They were now getting some actual on the ground experience in their travels through Asia.

I was getting hot and sweaty so I decided to get a massage where when finished I could freshen up with a shower. It was really an enjoyable hour for 400 baht. Refreshed I headed toward the bus station with the thought of finding a wifi restaurant. No such luck, instead it was a street stall for a bowl of soup, rice and chicken along with a Leo beer for 75 baht. At least I was able to recharge my iPad there.

With 15 minutes to spare I hit up the 7/11 for some honey green tea and an Magnum toffee chocolate ice cream bar.

I got on the bus and found myself the only customer and unfortunately I picked the sunny side of the bus for my assigned seat which won't matter once the sun goes down in a few hours. Unlike my last bus, this one is a double decker where the #1 seat is over the drive so you have an unobstructed view to the front plus lots of extra leg room. Some day I will figure these buses out. Fourteen hours from now I was back in Bangkok for a few days before I fly to Hanoi and on to Sapa before I head south in Vietnam.

Through the maze of the Mo Chit bus station, I found the local buses that were going to the Mo Chit sky train station. It cost me just 13 baht instead of a moto taxi for 60 baht.


Front seat view.


Sunday, May 26, 2013

Luang Prabang--Beautiful Compact Village

The UNESCO World Heritage portion of Luang Prabang is just as beautiful as it was when I first visited here in 2002. Since then many individual homes have become guest houses, but the downtown area still retains its original look. Most buildings are two story with traditional facades. Most of the shops along the main streets cater to the tourist crowd ranging from restaurants, travel agencies, snack shops, art galleries, trinket shops, and guest houses. There are also several street stalls during the day that sell beautiful fabrics, crafts, and jewelry along with food and drinks.

This is one of my favorite breakfast spots where I get an 18 oz cup of delicious hot Lao coffee along with an egg sandwich for 20000 kip. It is at the day market where you can watch the tuk tuk drivers try to entice the tourists into going to the waterfalls, elephant rides or to the Pak Ou Caves.



Luang Prabang has over 30 Wats or monasteries and every morning about 5:30 am you can see groups of monks walk through the downtown streets and alleys accepting alms from the villagers and occasional tourist. The protocol is for the women villagers to sit and the men to stand while making their offerings into the monks' bowls. They usually offer a handful of sticky rice to each monk. Usually the line of monks from each Wat starts with the oldest monk down to the youngest one. You are not suppose to touch the monks nor are you to photograph them closer than a meter. These processions last for about 45 minutes, and then the monks return to their Wats with rice and other treats for the day. This process is repeated every day.

At some of the spots where tourist congregate, you will find sellers of packaged sticky rice and other treats who are pretty insistent on wanting you to buy from them. If you want to make these offerings to the monks, it is better to get your own bucket of sticky rice from a street stall. For villagers, the giving of alms is their way of making merit. For tourists, they must have their own reasons for participating in this sacred ceremony.



The weather was great when I decided to climb up to the Wat Phu Si which you can barely see from this picture below. it is that golden spire hiding amongst the trees and thrusting into the blue sky. When I got to the top, I could see all around the Luang Prabang area. I then spotted a rain storm slowly moving our way.


Here is the top of Wat Phu Si---funny we have a Mt. Si near my home---along with the Buddha sanctuary.

As I started down, the winds picked up and I began to get drops of water which soon developed in to a downpour. I got to the ticket booth area which was sheltered from the rain.

I met Chu from China at this shelter from the rain so we talked a bit. I turns out that he was a middle school teacher from Chongching area and at 62 was retired. He and a group of four others had bicycled to Luang Prabang from the Chinese border and was planning to take the slow boat to Huay Xai with their bikes as I would do a day later. his English was pretty good and he said that he was an English teacher. Generally you see large groups of Chinese tourists here, but not individual tourists like Chu. He took this picture of me suing the rain storm.

Most days here it rains for about an hour and then clears up and the street merchants unfold their merchandise for the tourist to purchase.

it was a real treat to see the night market during the full moon. The silk and cotton fabrics are beautiful beyond belief. The hill people are selling some very elaborate embroidery that are on clutch bags of various sizes as well as large tapestries that tell a village story with the characters shown. They also have labeled tee shirts for the backpacker crowd that wants to wear them to advertise where they have been. There are lots of jewelry and wood crafts for sale as well.



The Royal Palace is in the center of town and well guarded by the Nagas running down the stairway.

The Luang Prabang Museum is located on the Royal Palace grounds.

The Sunday Market is primarily for villagers.


Sombon, my motor bike driver, and I stopped for a bit of lunch on our way to the Navigation Office. We shared a large BeerLao and some hot soup. At first I thought it was something like intestine soup, but it turned out to be fresh mushroom soup. The flavors and textures were mouth watering and quite spicy.
It turns out that the Navigation Office for the slow boats to Pak Beng and Huay Xai had moved from behind the Royal Palace to about 1/2 hour by motor bike north so I hired Sombon to give me a ride there and back for 50000 kip. While riding there on the back of his bike I began to have thoughts that I might be headed off to the boonies and be robbed. while on the back of the bike, I stuck my passport in one of my zippered pants pockets so if I were going to be robbed, I at least would retain my passport. I was so relieved when we pulled up to this brand new Navigation Office. I went inside and bought a ticket to Pak Beng for 110000 kip. To get further than Pak Beng, I would have to buy that ticket to Huay Xai while in Pak Beng. All of this critical information is missing from the normally reliable Lonely Planet Guide---I am now navigating on my own.


After returning from buying my slow boat ticket, I decided to have Sombon take me on a river cruise for 100000 kip to a nearby village. This village specializes in pottery.


View of Luang Prabang topped by Phu Wat Si with the orange blossomed Tamarind trees.

These are the the type of slow boats I will be taking tomorrow from Luang Prabang to Pak Beng with a stay overnight and then on to Huay Xai with a border crossing on a small river boat to Chiang Khong, Thailand.


Saturday, May 25, 2013

On the Road to Luang Prabang

After breakfast of just a fruit plate and Nescafé at the Happy House Guesthouse, Sukhothai, Jaran gave me a ride back to the bus station. This time I rode in a side car instead of their Toyota car and a cost of 80 baht.

When I got to the bus station, I learned that there were no buses that went directly to Nong Khai. Instead, I first had to take a bus to Phitsanulok which would take about an hour and cost 35 baht.

Notice there is no A/C on this local bus.






Since the bus was not leaving for an hour, I stopped by a nearby cafe and had a bowl of chicken and noodles for 35 baht.








When we arrived in Phitsanulok bus station, I was able to catch a bus going to Udon Thani, but not yet Nong Khai. Fortunately the bus to Udon Thani had A/C and cost 200 baht, and would take 7 hours. the landscape was now changing from the acres and acres of rice fields to more hills and forests with occasional rice terraces.


It turned out that the buses to my next destination, Nong Khai! was at a different bus station. After a bit of looking for a shuttle bus, it became apparent that I would need to hire one of the tuk tuk drivers to get me to that bus station. After an exciting 15 minute ride in the rain in one of these motorcycle type tuk tuks at a cost of 80 baht, I arrived at the bus station and the next bus to Nong Khai was almost filled. I got my most unfavorite seat behind the bus driver, and the short ride to the Nong Khai bus station was just 40 baht.

I arrived at the Nong Khai bus station after dark and proceeded to walk about six blocks to the Mekong River where there were clusters of guest houses and waterfront restaurants. Found a beautiful guesthouse with beautiful wood floors, A/C, hot showers, and wifi---what more could you want-----FOOD.

After checking in, I headed down to the waterfront restaurants and had a Mekong fish meal in sweet and sour sauce with sticky rice and vegetables---so good after that bowl of chicken and noodles in the morning.

After breakfast at the Darika Bakery for 100 baht, I caught a tuk tuk to the Thai-Laos border for 80 baht.

Checking out of Thailand Immigration was a breeze and getting a Visa on Arrival to Laos just required a passport photo, filling out paperwork and payment of just 1500 baht---much cheaper and more certain than what the US charges which is $200 whether you are approved for a visa or not. US Citizens throughout the world are very privileged travelers compared to other travelers.

I tried the Lao ATM machine at the border with no luck. I then exchanged some Thai baht for Laos Kip.

This Laos money really stuffs your wallet with an exchange rate of 7650 kip to the $1 USD.

I could not find the shuttle bus to the bus station and it turned out that I needed to get t the northern bus station to catch a bus from Vientiane to Luang Prabang. A persistent taxi driver told me he could get to that bus station so I went with him. It cost me 600 baht--- they use all kinds of currency in Vientiane. after 45 minutes he dropped me off. when I poked around it turned out I was at the Capital Bus Station and there were no buses for Luang Prabang. I looked at the map and saw I was not half way to the northern bus station.

While I was pondering all of this, a friendly--- they are always friendly---tout told me I could get to Luang Prabang by taking a mini bus instead of the regular bus at a cost of 200000 kip---about$25 USD. The trip would take about 10 hours. I was worn down so I said OK. The minibus turned out to be a fairly comfortable way of traveling. Half the people were European travelers and the others were Laotians.

When we were about half way there, we pulled into Vang Vieng, a beautiful village surrounded by these large mountains and is a great destination for adrenaline junkies with all types of sports activities. the driver told me I was to get out here and wait about an hour for another mini bus to complete my journey to Luang Prabang.

While waiting, I had a lunch of an egg sandwich. thanks to the French influence their baguettes were soft and crunchy. It was a satisfying delicious lunch. I tried the ATM by the school and it was broken.

During the second phase of the drive, it began to rain fairly hard and turned portions of the highway int a muddy stream. On one corner a motorcyclist and passenger were approaching us and the fell over and skidded on the ground toward our minivan. Fortunately our driver stopped and the two riders just slide int the side of our van at the back wheels and did not get run over.

We arrived at the bus station in Luang Prabang in the dark and rain and as usual a friendly tout was offering a place to stay for just 120000 kips per night with A/C, hot showers, TV, wifi and near downtown Luang Prabang. The Tida Guest house was about a mile from the downtown and other than Fox and sports channels, the only English station was some Australian station. I moved to downtown Luang Prabang after three days.