My time in North Laos was short and sweet.
Laos was the trickiest country on my list in terms of getting in and out as there were no budget flights and bus rides could be painful. Initially, I was only planning to stay in Thailand for a day – arrive in Bangkok, take a night bus to Chiang Mai, then the unpopular long bus ride to Luang Prabang. I wanted to stay in the country for a week or so before I fly to Vietnam, with Vang Vieng and Nong Khiaw as add-ons to the areas I’d be covering… but because my friend coaxed me into traveling with him for a few days in Chiang Mai, none of the above materialized. And I was more than fine with that.
Knowing that my sched just got pretty tight, I immediately arranged something to transport me to Luang Prabang once we arrived in Chiang Mai. But picture this – the train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai arrived two hours late, travel time went from 12hrs to 16hrs after it broke down in the middle of nowhere, and it took us about a couple of hours to find an accommodation. I was tired, so much so that I just said yes to the receptionist when she offered me the 3D2N slow boat ride to Luang Prabang after I specifically asked for buses. It was definitely a case of language barrier, but it only took me a minute of explaining before I gave up and just booked it. Bahala na si Batman.
Before the actual journey, I spent a night in Chiang Khong with some European travelers. We were then driven to the Thai-Laos border the following day. I met Mei and Fumi, two Japanese travelers whom I’d be spending most of my time with, while I waited for my group to finish their VOA application. Guesstimating, I think there were a hundred or so travelers who’d be crossing the Mekong river that day. We huddled together as our “guide” briefed us re the journey and sales-talked us into booking this Pakbeng accommodation in exchange for the “best seats.” I knew it was just a pitch, but I was still gullible enough to book for a room through him, with Mei as my roommate. Things just sounded a bit too complicated to me. Why was I there when I could’ve just taken a bus straight to Luang Prabang? I would’ve saved daysss, too.
I went ahead of my group and hopped on another van. By the time we got in the boat, the only free seats were situated at the back. The rest of my group was thrown at the far end with the rowdy motor – best seat, huh? Boy was the motor scandalous that people just had to shout at each other. Nevertheless, they still managed to throw a party at the back, drinking beer after beer the entire trip. And I, having a bad reputation with binge drinking, just settled with soya milk. I didn’t wanna wake up to lost passport and backpack, and a bad hangover.
The sun had set when we reached the banks of Pakbeng, a small town lying in the middle of Huay Xai and Luang Prabang. Guesthouses were lined up along the main street, a few meters away from the docking area, so it was actually okay if we didn’t book anything in advance. Heck, we could’ve gotten rooms for cheaper walk-in rates. There wasn’t really anything to see or do there, and we felt that things were just exorbitant.
We got up early the following morning in hopes of scoring better seats. Same faces and a few new ones. No more partying at the back, so I alternated between sleeping, reading, and listening to stories of fellow travelers. The sun was still up when we finally reached the banks of Luang Prabang, a few kilometers away from the city center that it was imperative to hop on a tuk-tuk. Incidentally, I and Fumi booked the same accommodation, so things were easier for me in terms of not getting lost and not having to socialize :))
Laid-back and charming was how I’d describe the UNESCO World Heritage city. It was surprisingly a bit expensive compared to its neighbors – I thought it was because of its market as it seemed to me that they catered more to retirees, but then my friend told me that it was the same case even in Vientiane. I wish I had the chance to talk to some locals because Google just wouldn’t give me the answer to the big WHY, but my interaction with them was limited to none as the area was just teeming with tourists. It was funny how almost everyone looked familiar after sharing a boat ride with them. And I was glad I did. Except for the first few hours after Fumi left, I was never alone in Luang Prabang because of the people I met there.
Fumi and I were the only ones who stayed in the same accommodation and the rest were in LPQ. As the area was small, we still managed to catch up, even having dinner and drinks together. To have that bond with people from different countries and walks of life was probably the pinnacle of traveling alone – we gushed over the Before Series and how one of us fell in love in Chiang Mai; I recommended books and movies; we talked about history, language, and how much one earned picking basil leaves in the Land Down Under; we marveled in the beauty of Kuang Si Falls and gawked at the “20-dollar stuff;” we were invited to an imminent wedding in Argentina; we sincerely hoped that one of us would be somewhere in Tokyo, in the throes of love.
Mei was a rather independent lady, my spirit animal. I remember when we saw her having her dinner alone – she didn’t look awkward or anything, she seemed to be genuinely enjoying herself. I couldn’t do that to be honest, even more so with food. After leaving Luang Prabang, we didn’t realize that we were on the same flight to Hanoi until we bumped into each other at Noi Bai International Airport. And then I saw her again at Saint Joseph’s Cathedral. And then we met up again in Ho Chi Minh on my last day.
Fumi was my official partner in crime in Luang Prabang. When I first saw him at the border, he had this aura of a cocky Korean :P But of course I wouldn’t be so close to him if that was the actual case. We eventually warmed up to each other and sang together to Linkin Park’s In The End. I got a 45-minute Thai massage. He insisted how famous of a movie 8 Mile was when I didn’t hear a thing about it. We talked about what he was actually looking for in his travels and how it brought out the best in us. All these despite the language barrier. I knew he was one of the most beautiful people when he told me that Phnom Penh was probably his favorite city because of the Killing Fields. I adored him.
I was unable to convince Fumi to stay for a few more days before flying back to Thailand as he was gearing to hike Mount Kinabalu. I dreaded that he’d be leaving; I couldn’t possibly hit it up with my other roommates – the ever so hushed darner, or the overwhelming duo of France and China, or the Dutch kid who complained that Lao people were so bad at English when everyone back home was so good at it, or the new and cocky dude from Brazil. Alas, I bumped into Bram, a guy in my group from Chiang Khong. I joined him for dinner. He still thought I had a British accent which he’d be changing to American accent the following night after some realizations. We crossed the river at night because it was free, and climbed Mt. Phousi in midnight after spending some time in Utopia. We cycled around the town in the morning just to crash my bike after some stupid dogs barked at us, it felt nice to fly. Bram, who was actually into mountain biking, made me cycle to death for about 20km to Tad Sae Falls. Over our last dinner together, I mimicked the annoying Valley Girl accent. I loved our long walks at night.
I made the best mistake of booking the slow boat to Luang Prabang. I met people. The conversations were raw and sincere. I may not have gone around as much as I wanted to, but who really cares?
He gave me a peck on my forehead. A brief hug, an exchange of goodbyes. The airport was a poignant reminder of the end of good times.