...to spend Christmas in Luang Prabang
20.12.2008 - 26.12.2008 27 °C
As my time in Thailand was coming to an end, it was time to think about moving on to Laos. From north of Thailand you can either take a 1-hour flight to Luang Prabang, or choose to do it cheaper way, which means a bus ride to the border followed by two days on a slowboat. I thought it sounded like good fun and I was up for a boat ride down the Mekong river. It was exactly the kind of journey that had me all excited - for some reason I have a very romantic outlook on long travels on buses, trains and boats. Anything that takes a long while and gives you luxury time to read and a chance to see the scenery.
Well. It was quite a journey. I left from Pai together with Pauline and Sebastian whom I had met earlier in Chiang Mai. The overnight bus from Pai to Chiang Khong was hellish, the minivan crammed full of people, and my arch enemy air con was on full despite the freezing cold night outside. (A guy who sat next to me later told me he had thought I was seriously weird as I was sitting there shivering under six layers of clothing and a blanket, giving him an evil eye as he took the seat next to me and forced me to pile my numerous bags on my lap.) We got a couple of hours sleep in a guesthouse at the border, and in the morning continued to the visa proceedings and the border crossing. Lao visa on arrival cost us 36 dollars, not 30 like it was supposed to, because it was Sunday. How typical!
The slowboat was pretty much how I had imagined (and seen on pictures), very simple wooden boat with hard benches. The scenery was nice of course, but the novelty of travelling this way pretty soon wore off. The benches were uncomfortable and it was actually better to lie on the floor. For most of the journey it was really cold. Every now and then we would stop, and local children came running to the boat selling expensive snacks and drinks. That was the first sign of how expensive everything imported was going to be in Laos. (By the way the Lao children are remarkably beautiful, they have such pretty faces.) I would've been fine - I had books to read, snacks to eat and friends to chat with - but on the first day I started to feel really sick. Luckily I didn't throw up on the boat. Up until this day I still can't even look at Oreos biscuits or crisps of any kind without feeling nausea!
We had a one night stop in Pak Beng, a small village merely grown to lodge the passengers of the slowboat. Not much to say about that place really. I went for a dinner with a group of people from the boat, and then me, Pauline and Carrie had an early night while the guys started to experiment with the local Lao Lao whisky. I was feeling really sick and dreading the next day on the river!
The second day on the slowboat was actually a lot better - save the enormous spider hanging from the curtains, my first encounter with a BIG spider! It wasn't so cold anymore and I even got some sleep on the floor. In fact I think I slept past all the best views. I'm really glad I did the boat trip, it was a good experience, but put it this way... I don't need to do it again! We arrived to Luang Prabang in a beautiful sunset, tired but happy to be there. Pauline and me had booked accommodation in advance, and I was so relieved just to hop on the hostel's minivan and avoid the gruelling walk around town looking for a cheap place to stay.
Luang Prabang was very sophisticated, very pretty, very European. Someone I met had described Luang Prabang as "very boutique-y", and it was obvious what she meant. Walking on the main road in Luang Prabang you could easily imagine you're in Europe. It's very clean and there's none of the usual beggars or stray dogs around. The street is full of cozy restaurants, stylish wine bars, French bakeries and beautiful little shops selling art. The prices were also closer to Europe! The saving grace was the 5000 kip (in euros that would be less than 50 cents) vegetarian buffet at the night market...
I did like Luang Prabang and I thought it was beautiful, but somehow I had built it up in my head as this magical, stunning piece of art, and it didn't quite live up to my expectations. Maybe I had read too much about it beforehand. I still wouldn't call it a letdown as the town deserves to be described beautiful. The architecture is very different to Thailand, the French influence is seen everywhere, and there are many beautiful buildings.
The first couple of days in Luang Prabang I continued to feel sick, and had some truly mortifying moments throwing up on the picturesque streets... I'm not going into details about that! To recover from my sickness I obviously had to find a nice hotel, pay 3 dollars to use the swimming pool and lie there on the sunbeds with the elderly French tourists.
One day I climbed up to the Mount Phou Si to check out the temple on the top. The temple itself wasn't even worth seeing, but it's a wonderful viewpoint to see Luang Prabang and the surroundings.
It would've been hard to tell it was Christmas had I not seen it from my calendar. Although they did have the odd Christmas tree there for tourists' sake, there obviously was no Christmas atmosphere whatsoever. I'm a big fan of celebrating Christmas in Finland, and although this was the third time abroad, it was the first time when I was truly alone, sleeping in a dorm with strangers. This year there was no stressful pre-Christmas shopping trips to Santa Cruz, instead I went to the night market and bought myself some beautiful handmade photo albums. Nor was there excessive chocolate consumption, for in Laos they only have couple of tiny chocolate bars in sale, and for example a mini sized Mars bar costs more than a dollar. I did, however, find some Danish salty liquorice from the Scandinavian Bakery. I suppose that after all the pre-Christmas Ferrero Rocher that I had in Thailand, it was for the best that I was left with no chocolate for once!
In Luang Prabang all the bars have to close early (around midnight) and while for most people it's quite unconvenient, I loved it, as for once I could say I stayed out until the closing time and didn't fall asleep on my seat!
After the bars close, people head for the bowling alley as it is the only place that stays open till the morning hours. This is a funny Lao phenomenom, so I had to check it out once. It was such a bizarre place, with bright lights and people drunk on Lao Lao, bowling away and doing funny little dances as they go. By that time I was obviously already yawning and looking for a good spot to have a little nap - after all, it was past midnight!
We had a couple of good nights out at Hive Bar, and there I met the first Finnish people since starting my trip. That's also where everybody went on Christmas Eve. Hive and another bar/restaurant next to it, Lao Lao Garden, were both full of people, and everybody got a Christmas hat.
I spent the Christmas Day at my hostel, where they cooked us a Christmas dinner of turkey, mashed potato and vegetables. It really was quite good, not as good as the real thing of course, but good. It was lovely of them to organize Christmas for us. However I was quite tired and didn't feel like participating in the whole drinking and partying thing afterwards, also I was gonna catch an early bus to Vang Vieng the next day. I was a bit homesick too, and because I was missing both Finland and Tenerife, it felt like double homesickness!
I was delighted to find a little kitten at my hostel! On Christmas Day she was so tired after all day of playing that she fell asleep on my arms.
On my last morning in Luang Prabang I got up at 6am and went to see the monks. This is a typical touristy thing to do, watch the monks collect their alms early in the morning. Well I didn't quite realize how touristy! I had heard stories of how magical and beautiful it looks as all the monks are walking through the town in the morning mist. It wasn't quite like that though, as it was pitch black and there wasn't much to see anyway, as all the rude ignorant tourists were up the monks' faces with their cameras and tripods trying to get a good shot. It was horrifying! Well, if not for anything else, then at least I was up early to grab a fresh chocolate croissant from the Scandinavian Bakery...