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I Made The Best Mistake of Booking The Slow Boat to Luang Prabang


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.

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Inside the boat. There were a couple of slow boats who left for Luang Prabang that day.

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Partying at the back.

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Catching the sunset.

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 :))

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How to kill time.

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.

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The beauty that was Kuang Si Falls.

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Our Argentinian buddies.

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.

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Mei, capturing a photo of the magnificent falls.

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.

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While people were going gaga over the beauty of this place, Fumi managed to stay calm :P

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By the Mekong river.

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Last sunset with Fumi.

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.

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Navigating the maps. I still don’t know how people could just figure out maps.

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Crossing the river.

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Just one of my Lao tattoos.

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Taking a dip at Tad Sae Falls after cycling for kilometersss.

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.

IN PHOTOS: Myanmar (Burma)


Men in longyi, women in thanaka, and monks in their robes. Land of betel nut chewing and spitting. Myanmar was my third stop and the first country I officially traveled alone to during the course of my seven-week trip. The country just started opening up as part of its reforms that in fact, it was only by the end of 2014 when they granted visa exemption to ASEAN travelers for visits of up to 14 days.

I didn’t love my stay there, but I didn’t hate it either. There I said it.

I must’ve read too many blogs raving about it that my expectations just skyrocketed. I imagined an utterly unspoiled country, which was true to a certain extent, but not like how the blogs described it. Perhaps developments had been rapid that in just a year or so, it became what it is now. Either way, the country was definitely different from its Southeast Asian neighbors.

Random bits, impression:

  • I survived without having to shell out USD, I used Kyats to pay for everything. ATMs were everywhere.
  • As opposed to what I read, I found Myanmar to be very cheap. Sure I paid $10 for accommodation (actually reasonable), but that was it – the transportation, food, and entrance fees were cheap. I managed to spend around $20 per day without starving myself (READ: 2015 SEAsia Travel Costs).
  • Buses and painfully-slow-trains were almost always on time (BETTER THAN Thailand and the Philippines, my goodness), and at least from my experience, cabbies didn’t rip me off.
  • Communicating in English could be tough, but of course that wasn’t something you’d expect Asians to speak, so I appreciated the fact that most of the locals still tried their best to help me out. Although the people were generally warm, it would be best to keep your wits about you (READ: Yangon Misadventure).
  • Out of all the Buddhist countries I’ve been to, Myanmar had the most number of monks. They were just everywhere.
  • Couchsurfing with Burmese is only allowed in areas without guesthouses and hotels, not in big cities – a local friend told me that it’s the government’s way of supporting the industry. But I think it makes more sense that it is actually because of supposedly “clashing cultures,” so surfing with a fellow foreigner is still possible.
  • Good news: no wasted travelers in their gap year roaming around. Majority of the tourists were, for lack of a better word, old.

Although I didn’t like the country as much as I hoped I would, I thought that it was beautiful. With tourists starting to pour in, I just wish that it wouldn’t be another Thailand. Below are some of the photos I took from my short trip. I was able to visit Yangon, Bagan, Mandalay, and Hsipaw.

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The streets of Yangon.

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Praying local.

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Beautiful Shwedagon Pagoda.

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Spotted these cute lil monks in a train ride.

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Joined Free Yangon Walks. If my mind serves me right, that bank’s building was said to be abandoned in Lonely Planet’s 2013 edition. The developments in Myanmar’s just crazy.

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Yangon Stock Exchange just had to put up this sign to protect its immaculate white building from betel nut chewers.

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I hated that I was alone. Some pagodas/temples in Bagan could be a wee bit creepy.

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Sunset at Shweshandaw Pagoda.

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Sunrise in Shweshandaw Pagoda.

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Watch tower at Mandalay Palace.

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Sunset: Mandalay Palace.

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Our 12-hr train ride to Hsipaw.

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Mr. Books, Hsipaw. I bought Acid Row here :)

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Two monks watched as the sun set from Mandalay Hill.

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Tourists catching the sunset at Mandalay Hill.

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A teak temple in Mandalay.

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U Bein :)

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Yangon Misadventure: My Guide Asked If He Could Hold My Hand For Thirty Minutes


WHAT DO YOU MEAN I NEED A VISA TO VISIT MYANMAR?

Myanmar was my third stop and the first country I’d be officially alone… again. For over two weeks, I had what I could call my own company so by the night before my flight, I cried to my friend out of anxiety. HAHAH! Everyone thought that I was tough and all, but I was shit scared to  go solo on an extended period of time. But had I waited for people to go with, I would’ve put off a lot of trips and would’ve not been able to achieve my goal of finishing off SEAsia by 2015. Just Do It – I wish I had this mentality on all facets of life :D

My first misadventure couldn’t even wait until I left Malaysia. They wouldn’t let me go through the boarding gate without a visa…. A VISA? Wait, what? At the time I thought I was so stupid to let this information slipped, but I was so certain that just the other year, they lifted the visa requirements for ASEAN countries. I didn’t double-check, but I was sure :D Philippine passport holders were entitled to a visa-free stay of up to 14 days, yes? After what seemed like forever and three staff confirming the status, I was escorted to finally board the plane. The thought that I took a 100-MYR cab to the airport at 3AM made me specially maaaaaaad, HAHAH! I was also that close to booking a flight to Sri Lanka instead :/

YANGON MISADVENTURES

It was the 24th of November and Catching Fire Part 2 was already out. I didn’t have the chance to watch it in Kuala Lumpur and since I didn’t feel like doing anything, I thought I’d just go and catch the movie. I asked the reception where the nearest cinemas were and of course, didn’t understand a single direction. As usual, I got lost even with a map – only had to go straight then turn right, but still screwed it up. I tried asking the younger locals, presumably because they would know a bit more English than the older ones… boy was I wrong – I couldn’t remember speaking so much broken English in my entire trip, and in spite of all the effort, I ended up being sent to a department store’s shoes section. I just wanted to watch a movie :( Tired, I went back to my hostel then downloaded an English-Burmese dictionary application. I had no idea how to read the words because of its unique script, but I trusted that it would deliver the message that I hope it would.

The following day, I walked to Shwedagon Pagoda, about four kilometers from where I was staying at. An early morning stroll in the streets of Yangon felt so nice, so calm -no traffic and the chaotic markets were closed. There were only old people exercising and birds flying past me. At the time I was nearing what I believed was the pagoda, I got to test the dictionary that I downloaded. I approached a local and tried if he could understand me by just saying, “Shwedagon Pagoda,” but to no avail. So I showed my phone as I typed  down “where” and “entrance.” It worked, thank heavens!

I was already in awe of the stunning pagoda before my eyes when a staff approached me. I looked like a local and all, but with my stupid hippie pants and map, I sure was a tourist. Chao, Kyats 8k! I appreciated how the staff warned me of thieves, though, as there were more people than usual because of a festival. I just wished he told me that crazy guides walked among us, too.

More on Shwedagon later, let’s talk about this guide who stopped me on my way out.

So Mr. Guide, can’t remember what the heck his name was, approached me and offered his services. I was frustrated and all because I had been seeing lots of interesting stuff, but I had no one to ask about it. The pagoda’s map didn’t suffice, too. I wanted and needed an interaction soooooo badly. After haggling down the price to Kyats 4-4.5k, we went ahead. Things started off great. Interesting stories, history, faith, and religion were all covered. He also let me try some of their rituals (that one was sooo awkward, ugh).

When we finished, he asked what I had planned for the day- nothing, of course. I thought I’d randomly pick the nearest places of interests on my way back to 20th Street. He offered his company without a charge, said he was already done working and wanted to practice his English – who’d say no? I didn’t. Without a second thought, I gave him my nod. Heck, I was alone.

As we sauntered our way to our first stop, he told stories about himself and blah blah. It was all friendly and I even let the moron add himself on my Facebook. We reached the calm Kandawgyi Lake and picked a spot to sit on, on our right side were a dating couple… that probably prompted him to make the shittiest move ever, ever (!!!)

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At Kandawgyi Lake

Can I hold your hand for thirty minutes? I’ve never held a girl’s hand…

Mr. Dickhead didn’t even wait for my answer and just freaking grab my hand. He then went on to tell tales about his life, teary-eyed. I COULDN’T EVEN UNDERSTAND HIM! HE AND HIS STUPIIIID ACCENT (I KNOW I’M NOT SUPPOSED TO MAKE FUN OF ACCENTS, BUT HIS WAS AN EXCEPTION AS HE WAS AN ASSHOLE) I WAS JUST THERE, LOOKING AT HIS ANNOYING FACE. I WANTED TO PUNCH HIM IN THE MOUTH, BUT I SAT THERE, JUST LITERALLY STONED. I COULDN’T FEEL ANY SHIT TOWARDS HIM – EMPATHY OR WHAT HAVE YOU. ALL I SAW WAS A DICKHEAD TAKING ADVANTAGE OF A LADY. ASSHOOOOOOLE!

My mood, body language, and tone shifted. I was so mad, annoyed, and disgusted at him. “That was weird,” with a confused smile, was all I could muster. THEREAFTER, I was foolish enough to let him still go with me to the train stationnnnn! *SMHHHHH* I just wanted to try the train for a few minutes before heading back :/

He kept on asking if things were okay. I was no longer talking, just nodding and shit, and wondering why I was still with him. Was I that desperate for a company or was just too stupid that I shouldn’t even be traveling alone? Was he stupid? Couldn’t he figure out how totally disoriented I already was or was he enjoying every bit of it?

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Train station

Summary of what followed:

  • The asshole just had to steal a peck on my hand. WHAT THE HELL. I could’ve pushed him out of the moving train!
  • He tried to make advances on the bus again, even asked if I would miss him? Excuse me? Excuse meeee? I really should’ve punched him in the mouth or something. That face was ugly enough to take it, anyway!

Those series of unfortunate events and I was just on my second day of traveling alone. Desperately wanting to get out of the city, I checked out of the hostel even without a proper plan. The buses to Bagan and Inle Lake were all full. I had an option to take a loooong train ride in the evening, but the train station already left a bad taste in my mouth. Lugging my heavy backpack, I went around and looked for any buses that would take me anywhere close to Bagan or just wherever, really. Alas, I got a seat on a bus leaving for Mandalay! :'(

I still got a few hours left, so thought I’d redeem such a horrible day…

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Slept under a tree at People’s Park :)

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Woke up to this…

I also joined Free Yangon Walks and had a great time with fellow travelers. Too bad I had to leave when I was just starting to enjoy their company, but gotta move on.

Sooo, why didn’t I punch him in the mouth or make a scene? Probably I was scared or something, especially I was somewhere where it was hard to communicate? Anyway, I thought I’d live… and I did.

You’d think I’d have a good head on my shoulders after that incident, but time and again, I’d do something reckless and stupid.

Pardon my French.