Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Welcome to the People's Democratic Republic of Laos!

Even though Thailand left me with sweet memories, I still was eager to see the real South East Asia - a South East Asia without McDonalds's, Starbucks Coffee or 7-Eleven. Instead I wanted to see rice paddies surrounded by limestone mountains, water buffalos taking a refreshing bath in a muddy pond or local kids playing in the mud instead with a PS3. Some westerners already might get a Culture Shock when arriving in Bangkok, an already westernized city by all means. So how must if feel for them when entering Laos, one of the worlds's poorest countries?

As I mentioned before in my last blog post, my final destination in Thailand was Chiang Khong at the Mekong River. There I joined and Sam & Max, two guys from the US and France, and together we did the infamous border crossing to Huay Xay, Laos. But surprisingly, the crossing was only a matter of 20 minutes and we weren't scammed at all. It was just filling out the Lao Visa form (the officials would even accept hieroglyphs on their forms...), handing over the visa fee of about $35 and that's it.

The border crossing - a matter of 20 minutes. Note the horrible fisherman pants that are all over the place, aargh!

As we entered Laos, we immediately noticed the differences to Thailand. Everything seemed way more messy, dirty and unorganized - that's how I like it! Getting used to the local currency, the Laotian Kip, was also quite a spectacle as we withdrew over 1'000'000 Kip (approx. $120) from the ATM. For the first time we were literally millionaries!

We were also quite amused by the common display of communist symbolism, at almost every public building there were Hammer-and-Sickle flags waving at the arriving backpackers. We then headed to the pier to book the «Slow Boat» to Luang Prabang.

A hammer-and-sickle flag at the pier
At the pier dozens of «Slow Boats» were waiting for passengers

Our plan was first to travel from Huay Xai to Pakbeng, a 1 day stopover, before we would go on to Luang Prabang. Each of the two rides would take about 6 hours, so in total we would be on the Slow Boat for 12 hours.

The landscape along the Mekong (known as Namkhong in Laotian) on the way to Pakbeng might have been indeed beautiful, but the 6 hours ride was quite tiring after all - especially if most passengers get sleepy but are constantly disturbed by a handful of drunk westerners who spontaneously decide to make one hell of a noise throughout the boat trip...
There was nothing else to do on the Slow Boat

The countryside once more impressed us

From the boat we could see...

... hundreds of Laotian children playing along the river.

A huge bridge project over the Mekong

There were also dozens of remote villages

After finally arriving in Pakbeng, we spent the rest of the day and night in this small Laotian town. Although there were lots of backpackers like us, it was incredible to see how happy the local kids were to welcome us, the farangs (it's the same word in Lao and in Thai). When they weren't playing in the garbage, they would continiously jump on us and run after us. Such excitement was definitely not the case in Thailand!

Hordes of backpackers just arrive at the pier of...
...Pakbeng, our stopover on the way to Luang Prabang

The view on the Mekong from Pakbeng

What's more fun than playing in the garbage?
But the day after we weren't quite sure if we should take the Slow Boat again, as it was such a tiring ride the day before. We then glimpsed at the Speed Boats, quite primitive but fast, propane-fueled floating coffins. Yeah, they are that dangerous. Every year there are dozens of (deadly) accidents involving those speed boats on the Mekong River. Some backpacker rumours say that the Speed Boat operators are sometimes so reckless that they would directly crash into huge rocks while driving just next to the riverside.  But with such a ride we would arrive in Luang Prabang considerably faster than with the Slow Boat. And it would be fun as well. So after all we decided to enter the Danger Zone...

After a thrilling (and partly quite a scary) 3 hours ride we already arrived in Luang Prabang, one of Laos' most popular and touristic towns. Luang Prabang also used to be the residence of the former Laotian royal family, which lost its significance after French colonialism and ultimately after the victory of the Pathet Lao. Many buildings in the city were also built by the French during their reign over Indochina and some public buildings were even still titled in French. Noteworthy is also the love the Laotians share for Pétanque, croissants and western-styled coffee, all remains from French colonialism.

A shifty Tuk Tuk driver took us downtown...

Some construction workers were still  busy on the road

The town itself was a nice and quiet place with...

... a touch of French architecture and culture.

Just as the last two towns, Luang Prabang lies at the Mekong

A local cop at backbreaking work

... standing row in row.

Hundreds of cosy cafés were...

As in many other typical South East Asian towns there was also a holy hill inmidst of the town, with a Stupa and a temple on it. The friendly Buddhist monks were really eager to speak with foreigners and to train their (excellent) English skills.

Again a stairway leads the visitors...

Really cool and nice guys, by all means!

The Golden Stupa shines all over Luang Prabang

... to the local temple hill.

Really an idyllic place...
Just next to the temple...

... the remains of an Anti-Aircraft cannon rust in peace.

Luang Prabang also is famous for its daily Night Market, which can be loosely compared to the Night Bazaar in Chiang Mai. Except that this one is cooler.

Most of the aluminium stuff sold here is actually...

... recycled from Unexploded Ordnance (UXO).

As for myself, I treated myself a Snake Whisky.

Blackouts were quite common in Luang Prabang

Another cool story is that the local government decided to limit the bars' and pubs' opening times until 11 PM, allegedly to keep the peace at night. Many dissapointed westerners return to their hotels at that time, pissed off by this pitiful law. But there's actually still one place in town that still is allowed to party through the whole night, and you wouldn't believe it is the local bowling alley. After midnight this Chinese-funded building in the industrial zone of Luang Prabang is just packed with foreign backpackers, all drunk to their very limits and trying to play bowling. While I usually avoid farang-infested places like this, I thought it was hilarious and had buckets of fun with Sam & Max and the other backpackers. This place was so sinful, it resembled hell on earth. Drunken westerners everywhere, surrounded by shifty Tuk-Tuk drivers trying to offer them Opium-Weed-TukTuk-Drive bundles (yes, such deals really exist!).

... bowling alley of Luang Prabang.

Party time is all the time in the local...

Even more backpackers wandered in later on...
Cheers to that.

Shifty bargains with shady business men were arranged...

I sticked a while to Sam & Max, and after two days in Luang Prabang we decided to head north into the Laotian wilderness, to the remote village of Nong Khiaw...

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