By mini bus from Vientiane to Vang Vieng. Oh dear God that was a journey. There are sixteen of us plus the driver: two rows of four, and three rows of three. Everyone and their luggage squished in worse than sardines. And everyone but us is under thirty. Don and I are the last to be picked up so we’re in the front with the driver. This is something I’d normally be delighted about. The best seats. The best view. Don and the driver are in regular seats. They may even have seatbelts. They may even be wearing them. I am in a narrow raised seat jammed in between them. No seat belt. My head about 15 inches from the rearview mirror and the windshield. Feeling very vulnerable. Travelling fast. Narrow winding road. Then the driver gets out his cell phone. Talks a bit. Starts flipping through it for numbers or something, looking back and forth from road to cell phone. Tension mounting. Then for God’s sake he gets out another cell phone. One in each hand, as his hands rest on the steering wheel. Looking back and forth between the two. No let up in speed. Now I’m getting close to terrified. Suddenly I scream “what are you doing?!” and some other words I don’t remember. He responds by putting away the phones and speeding up. I guess he has a reaction to being yelled at. After a while he slows down again. I apologize. Twice. By this point I’ve learned how to say I’m sorry in Lao. He waves it away, but it is not a dismissal. Obviously he is angry, but I pick up in his gesture an acknowledgement that he shouldn’t have been doing what he was doing. A bit later we stop for a lunch break. One of the other passengers takes it upon himself to explain to me that public displays of anger are considered offensive in Asian cultures. As if Asians have a premium on that. He said I shouldn’t have gotten angry I should have ‘dug a little deeper’. He said I put everyone in danger. As if we weren’t already in danger. I called him arrogant which made him angry, which I pointed out to him. Perhaps he reacted spontaneously and in that moment was not able to ‘dig a little deeper’. Or perhaps it was okay for him to get angry with me in public because I’m not Asian. It was a very interesting conversation. I won.

29-30 January 2013. Vang Vieng turned out to be one of the best places ever and we only had an afternoon, overnight, and morning there. We’d heard that it had been over-run by backpackers who had taken to getting so stoned and drunk while tubing down the river that in recent times, in separate incidents, six of them had drowned. So the government put an end to it all. Kind of – there was still plenty of tubing and beer drinking going on, but from what we read beforehand we thought that it would be party town, and not really our thing at all. How wrong we were.

I’m sure we could have found party town if we’d been interested in looking. Instead, what nourished our souls, was this:

And one from Don

We went for an evening boat ride, and a short hike on the other side of the river the next morning. We could have easily filled another two days there, hiking, kayaking, and even a little tubing. Still we’d already booked our hotel in Luang Prabang so got on the full-size bus the next afternoon as planned. We’d originally planned on staying only six days in Luang Prabang but loved it so much we stayed twelve, so could have swallowed the extra hotel cost and given up a couple of those days for Vang Vieng. Twenty/twenty hindsight always so clear. It’s sometimes the way it goes. We do our research on the net, but you can never really know until you actually get there.

30 January-11 February 2013. What a sweet lovely town Luang Prabang is, and a great tourist mecca for no other reason than that really. It’s a Unesco World Heritage Site. Many temples, many monks, a fabulous night market for dinner, a beautiful setting on the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers, some lovely French architecture, and an all round gentle place to just stop for a while. So we did.

The streets of Luang Prabang

Selling altar offerings. I thought the centres were made from some kind of palm leaf, cut, folded and pinned together. Now I think perhaps they are some other kind of tropical leaf. A quick net search didn’t give me the answer. The flowers are marigolds.

Down by the river

The night market – a long alley filled with large tables laden with many dishes, interspersed with coal barbeques cooking fish and chicken, and wooden tables and benches for seating. Buy a piece of fish or chicken, a Beerlao or two, pile up your plate, and sit at whatever table you can find. Total cost for the two of us? About ten dollars. We ate there three or four times and had some great conversations with fellow travellers. One conversation I remember was a man saying Guatemala wasn’t really a safe place to go, and the woman next to him saying she loved it and had a fabulous time there. Go figure. Maybe we’ll go find out for ourselves one day.

We shared the biggest and tenderest chicken breast on earth.

Temple beauty

A young monk concentrates as he applies fresh gold paint to the intricate temple carvings

Of course we had to find a traditional dance performance,

and went to the local waterfalls. What a stunning place, much bigger in scale than can be captured in a photograph. Pools and pools and pools of beautiful turquoise water dropping down level after level. Many people swimming, but not us. Instead we climbed up to the top, all the way across the top, a slippery treacherous path through the water, and down the other side, feeling courageous and intrepid. Mission accomplished! We looked at the pools. So inviting. Then dipped our toes in. Not so inviting.

At the top

Umbrellas on bikes. Both push bikes, and motorbikes. It’s a very common site. If there’s no passenger the driver carries it.

The remnants of an old anti-aircraft gun emplacement at the top of Phousi Hill makes a great revolving play-ground for these boys. They were having so much fun!

Every morning at about six, in an age-old custom known as Tak Bat, all the monks, hundreds of them, leave all the monasteries and walk through the streets collecting alms, mainly in the form of food. Most of the people giving food these days are tourists apparently, but we did also see many Lao people there as well. The ritual is done in silence as it is a meditation for the monks.

According to wikitravel, the monks would like to discontinue the practice but have been threatened by the government that if they do they will be replaced by lay people dressed as monks to ensure the continuance of tourist income into Luang Prabang. All a bit sad really. But lovely to watch, and really not such a hardship for the monks even if the practice has been sullied somewhat. There are worse things in life than being watched while you walk along the street and collect offerings of food.

Next post: Trekking, ‘swimming’ with elephants, kayaking, and a boat trip to a temple cave, making some new friends, and the village across the river.

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted.
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2015.