THE MEKONG AND LUANG PRABANG

We entered into Laos by an amazing two-day slowboat trip down the Mekong River. After a couple of weeks exploring Northern Thailand by foot, bus and motorcycle, we were ready to see the something new, and the mighty Mekong did not let us down. We had no idea what to expect when we turned up at the border crossing in Chiang Khong, Thailand, but after a 2 minute boat ride and a 20 minute line to get our visas we were officially in Laos. Just a 5 minute tuk-tuk ride to the dock and we were on our way…kinda. We arrived at the dock about 15 minutes before the boat was supposed to depart. Once you’ve spent some time in SE Asia, you’ll realize that being on time is never really a good idea. We had read that the boat owners overload their boats to make as much money as possible for each trip, so the later it got, the more we worried. The boat filled slowly at first but then, about an hour-and-a-half after we were supposed to leave, the double-decker tour bus showed up and unloaded about a hundred more passengers. At this point, we were starting to panic. It’s an 8-hour boat trip on a wooden bench, or a car seat bolted to the floor if you’re lucky, so we were really hoping that we weren’t going to have people on our laps. Finally, once our boat was stuffed to the brim, the remaining 20-30 people that showed up an hour-and-a-half late, got shuttled onto their OWN BOAT! With their feet up on the empty seats in front of them, we watched as they pushed off before us. There is an utter hopelessness that you feel when you’re dealing with the transportation system there that just can’t be explained.
Fortunately, once we finally departed and people settled in, the trip was incredible. The scenery was spectacular and undeveloped the entire trip. We only broke-down once (just an overheated engine due to being overloaded with passengers) but still arrived at our destination ahead of time. We got to Pak Beng around 7pm that evening and were greeted by a ton of excited children and guesthouse owners trying to sell us rooms and free baggage lifts. Luckily we had booked a bungalow in advance at the Mekong Riverside Lodge, which turned out to be amazing. We dropped our luggage at the room, showered and headed out for dinner at a local Indian restaurant. After some delicious curry and cold beers we walked the tiny village and watched the festivities for the festival of lights. And by festivities, we mean 4 year olds shooting off fireworks, but again, it’s Southeast Asia, so who’s looking! After a good night sleep, we got up the next morning to catch our second day boat to the magical Luang Prabang.
We loved Luang Prabang right away. Nestled on a small peninsula right on the Mekong River, it is one of the more refined Southeast Asian villages we visited on our trip. As soon as you set foot on land you feel like you’re in the right place. We had only planned to stay a couple of nights there, but we loved it so much we stayed for over a week. During the day we explored the beautiful streets by foot or bicycle and come nightfall we spent hours strolling the night market (which is every night) and eating at our favorite street vendor “Mrs. Noodle”. The local crafts are beautiful, but the thing we loved most were the vendors’ babies. It is rare to see a woman in Laos without a beautiful little baby strapped to her back. And it was hard not to want to take one home with us! We also had many amazing meals at Le Café Ban Vet Sene and Tamarind where we fell in love with the local sticky rice sampler. We learned the Laos way of eating with our hands, which was really fun. After a few days of wandering LP, visiting the temples and eating at all of the amazing restaurants, we felt like we needed an adventure. We decided the perfect thing to do in order to get us out into the “real” Laos, was a 4 day motorbike trip in the north.

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WE RECOMMEND

MOTORCYCLE TRIP IN NORTHERN LAOS

Once we booked our Honda 250cc enduro we were off to explore Northern Laos! Our first day on the road to Phonsavan started out great. We had baguette sandwiches packed earlier that morning and beautiful weather. What could go wrong? 15 minutes outside the city of Luang Prabang you really start to feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere. Nothing but roadside villages and farms nestled into a dramatic Asian landscape. The road is actually very well kept, but is a recent addition to the area. Most villagers have scooters, but we still saw people walking from one village to the next, a walk that can easily take 8 hours. Electricity is rare in any of the villages we saw, and people bathe in rivers, or runoff from the mountains. Forget gas stations, if you need gas you’ve got to get really good at spotting the one small shack in town that has barrels with hoses coming out the top, or Gatorade bottles filled with mysterious hot pink liquid that apparently functions as gasoline. Although our plan was to make it to our destination within 4-5 hours, that changed quickly as night began to fall. With pitch-black winding mountain roads, a malfunctioning headlight and not enough clothes to stay warm, our wonderful day became miserable fast. After 8 hours of driving we finally made it to our bungalow, shivering, with sore legs and numb asses. After a cold shower (not by choice), we went out to a rather strange restaurant/bar for dinner. Although Phonsavan is rich with history, we were worried that the next phase of our trip would be as long as the first and left early the next morning.
Despite having planned ahead a little better, about half way through the day Stefaan had some sort of stomach bug (possibly due to the “rather strange restaurant/bar”?). Regardless, we didn’t have our delicious sandwiches packed like the day before, and riding the motorcycle made it difficult to stay hydrated. We’ve had plenty of days where we miss everything that we take for granted at home, but this was an extreme. Sprawled out on the side of the road, hundreds of kilometers from anything, we wondered if we’d be able to continue and, if not, what we’d do. Finally after taking many roadside breaks we were able to get back on the bike and ride for the last long haul until we arrived in Vieng Thong. This place was a dump. We’ve never needed a place to be comforting like we did this night…and it was the opposite. There was only one place in the town, so we didn’t have to look very hard for a place to stay. We barely peeled the bug infested comforter off the bed before Stefaan collapsed on the hard mattress. A few hours later we stumbled down the dirt road to the only restaurant in town, which was a small garage that a family lived in. As much as we hoped we’d be surprised by how authentic and delicious the food was, it wasn’t. We wanted our Moms and all we had were strangers. We wanted home cooked food, and instead we got pre-made garage food. We walked back to our room and tried to figure out whether Obama had been elected for a second term and, somewhere in our search to find the answer, we fell asleep to Asian sitcoms.
We weren’t able to shower in the morning because the bathroom was so disgusting and there was no hot water. It was the most severe case of get-me-the-f-out-of-here-I-want-my-mom that we’d had to date. It was one of those miserable times that makes a great story. Luckily, the trip from Vieng Thong to our next destination, Nong Khiaw, was to be the shortest. Besides having to eat breakfast at the same garage in town, we were feeling physically better than the day before. The ride was easier and the weather was beautiful and before we knew it we were at the last town of our adventure, Nong Khiaw.
Nong Khiaw is amazingly beautiful and slightly more westernized than the other places we’d stopped. It felt great to have restaurants, travel agencies and other tourists that were oblivious to all the things we’d been through the last couple days. We finally had time to walk around, take pictures, and relax a bit. The next day we had a quick ride back to Luang Prabang where we immediately returned to Mrs. Noodle at the night market for dinner. We had an amazing experience that we’ll never forget, but we were ready to move on.

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Join the discussion 2 Comments

  • Vic says:

    Hey Stefaan, Sarah,

    What a story… What did you do with all of your gear when you decided to take the motorbike trip up north. Were you comfortable not having much of it with you or was it strapped to the bike as well?

    Did you need any special mechanical skills with the motorbike (I can imagine it couldn’t hurt incase of a break down) just wondering if you had to do any “tuning up”

    Thanks for all your hard work putting your stories up. very inspiring…

    • Hey Vic!
      So sorry we missed this. We were able to leave our extra gear at the guesthouse we were staying at in Luang Prabang, which was very convenient. Having stayed at the guesthouse for a few days already, we trusted the staff completely and were very comfortable leaving our (non-valuable) gear with them. In terms of mechanical skills, I do have them…but we traveled without any tools/tires/tubes. There were many times when the thought crossed my mind…how bad it would be if something happened…but I had faith in the Honda XR we had rented and she never let us down. Thanks for taking the time to read our stories!
      Cheers

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