This last weekend was the greatest adventure of my entire life. Laos is the most beautiful, exciting, friendly, and scenic country I have ever visited. 1 US dollar= 8,000 Kip. I was carrying around 1.6 Million Kip. Laos is now the third country in Asia I have had the opportunity to visit and every country continues to be distinctly different.
Day 1: Nate, Carli, and I decided to hop on the sleeper train from Bangkok to the edge of Thailand. It was a typical sleeper train ride, drink a few beers and experience lousy sleep. This time, in contrast to the full moon sleeper train, I could not sleep because the bunk above me continued to unhinge and swing loudly with a ear piercing creaking noise. Nate, Carli, and I enjoyed our two Singha beers and planned our ambitious travel plans through Laos. We had decided that we would float the river in Vang Vieng on Friday, travel to Luang Prabang and see the waterfalls on Saturday, travel to the Plain of Jars on Sunday, and travel back to Vientiane and back to Bangkok on Monday. Very ambitious but we thought we could make it. We even entertained the idea of seeing the Four Thousand Islands at the very end of the Mekong River and the border of Cambodia. However, we figured that would be impossible. We fell asleep and I was dreaming of Laos, sleeping on the bottom bed, until the top sleeper bed suddenly popped up. I have to say, it startled me as I woke up delirious and confused. I closed the top sleeper and went back to bed. This happened every thirty minutes. I tried tying the bed down with the sleeper blinds but that was no use. I finally said screw this and hopped up on the top sleeper and moved everything in order to sleep. However, the top bun was freezing and the air conditioner was on full blast and loud. I took my pillow and put it over my head. This fulfilled two requirements: canceled out the noise of the air conditioner and trapped the heat escaping from my head. I am brilliant. Sleep.
Day2: We wake up in a border town on the edge of Thailand and Laos. We hop out of the train, go through customs, and receive our Laos visa at the border. The visa was 35 US dollars and put a really cool sticker in my passport. We took another mini train to cross over from Thailand into Laos on the “Friendship Bridge” that crossed the Mekong River. Once we crossed the border, we hopped on a minivan and trekked onward toward the capital city, Vientiane. We stopped at a guesthouse to order some lunch and were pleasantly surprised by the menu. Carli and I ordered a club sandwich and Nate ordered a potato omelet and ham and eggs. We got our American grub on but we decided to spice it up. We ordered barbeque eel. I did not like it, did not taste like bbq and it tasted incredibly fishy. Nate loved it.
We hopped on another bus that traveled from Vientiane to Vang Vieng. Nate went rogue for about an hour to go find a dirt bike to rent for the entire trip. He was going to follow the bus the entire way to Vang Vieng because he didn’t know how to get there and we didn’t have a map. However, Carli and I were sitting in the bus, which was planned to leave at 2, worrying about where Nate was. He hadn’t shown up yet and it was 1:50. We wondered whether or not to wait for him and get out of the bus or ditch him behind. I was thinking, probably not a good idea to ditch him, but I wasn’t going to let Nate ruin my trip because he went off on his own to do his own adventure. Plus, I have complete faith in Nate in finding his way. Carli and I participated in a rock paper scissors where if Carli won, we would stay. I won, we were leaving. We decided to leave Nate a note saying we had left because he took too long to find a bike. We were on the bus ready to leave when Nate showed up with 2 minutes to spare. A huge sigh of relief. Off on the bus we went with Nate on his bike to Vang Vieng.
We arrived to Vang Vieng around 8pm and searched for Nate. Thankfully, Nate was at the hotel we said to meet at and he had already made friends with the hotel staff. We set up camp at Ithira Hotel and instantly had a BeerLao. BeerLao is fantastic and is much better than any Thai beer. We had dinner and the hotel staff continued to hand us BeerLao. The staff was awesome and they loved our company. I think we enjoyed their company even more. Enoy, Low, and Lee were all local Laotians and they taught us the drinking ways in Laos. If you have a beer, you pour it into a glass and had it to someone. That person finishes it, passes it back, it is filled up again, and handed to a new person. Rinse and Repeat. Enoy was the funniest hotel staff member I have ever met. He kept filling buckets up with Sprite, red bull, and Laos whiskey. He would bring it over, and we would all, including the staff, chug the entire bucket out of straws. They kept handing us drinks all night and I hadn’t even planned on drinking that night at all. It was awesome but we started getting nervous that our bill was going to be outrageous. We decided to get three shots of Lao Lao, which is the Laos rice wine, and called it a night. We asked for the bill and to our surprise, all we had to pay for was the food. The hotel incurred all the alcohol costs and we couldn’t believe the hospitality the staff had shown us. We stumbled back to our hotel room and passed out.
Day2: We woke up, little hungover but excited for the day ahead. We got breakfast at the hotel, which was also free, and determined that we should float the river as soon as possible. We applied sunblock, bug spray, and were out the door. We decided that we could not stay another night in Vang Vieng and the hotel was kind enough to hold our items behind their desk until we returned from the float. We quickly grabbed a couple beers, some water, and waterproof bags to hold our cameras and clothes. We took a tuk tuk to the innertube rental and raced to the river. The river was brown, completely opposite from the rivers in Oregon, but the views from this river were spectacular. Huge limestone mountains rimmed the river along with small podunk houses and villages. The bars along the river have been permanently closed due to the increased death rate of drunk travelers over the last few years. We could see the old zip lines and slides that ran from these bars into the river. However, we decided it was a good thing that these bars weren’t around anymore. The river was entirely ours. Not a single tourist in sight and the local houses were summoning us into their homes to drink a couple beers. However, we decided that we would enjoy the few beers we brought along and enjoy our relaxing river cruise. The backdrop provided incredible scenery and this was by far the greatest tubing float I had ever experienced. I could only compare this river float to that of SunRiver and Corvallis. Both great river floats but they can’t compare to being in the jungle, in Laos, with these limestone mountains.
We finished our float and walked around downtown Vang Vieng until we hit a souvenir stand. I bought a tank top and later found out that a large in Laos terms, was around a small in American terms. I will not be keeping this tank top and if anyone wants it, it is yours.
The bus to Laung Prabang left at 3 and it was around 1 when we finished the float. Enough time to get a bite to eat and say goodbye to the Ithira staff. However, I wasn’t going to travel by bus. I was going to “ride bitch” on the back on Nate’s dirtbike. We felt bad because we were leaving Carli behind to travel alone but I was excited. I had never ridden on a motorcycle and I knew this was going to be a trip to remember. In hindsight, I had no idea what I was in for.
We hopped on Nate’s bike around 3, Carli left in her minivan, and we were in route to Luang Prabang. Google said the drive would take 7 hours but we figured it would take the bus 7 hours and the bike 6 hours. The bike handles the roads better and can go faster. The ride was simply amazing. I was on the back taking videos and pictures of everything. We would drive through plains where rice plantations provided a brilliant green venue. The grass was taller than the average child and so green and the plains spanned so far that they looked like miniature green lakes and rivers. We drove alongside limestone mountains, blazed new trails on old dirt roads, and passed through small towns where the villagers waved at us and kids chased after us. We interrupted many people showering outside their houses as we drove by their huts. The roads switched from dirt to pavement and back to dirt with every couple miles. Potholes took a toll because the seats were incredibly stiff. The views from the top of the mountains made up for any pain or discomfort and we began driving through the clouds. It was increasingly colder as were escalated further up the mountains and deeper into Laos. Right outside of entering the Laung Prabang province, we started entering the clouds. We didn’t know what elevation we were biking at but we were high enough to enter and exit clouds. We had a debate about whether or not we were entering clouds or fog but determined the altitude proved fog as impossible. We exited the clouds and took a turn around a limestone spire to view an oncoming thunderstorm. We prayed that we were not heading towards this storm because we could see lightning cracking within the clouds. Our prayers were not answered.
We met up with Carli’s van around 8pm at a small stop in the hills. This place was selling snacks and food for the travelers in the van. We happened to stop there in hopes of gas. We were dangerously close to running out of gas and it had turned dark at this point in our travels. Also a good location to take a stretch and wiggle our legs out that had turned numb from the long travel. Unfortunately, this stop did not sell gasoline and we stood there for a couple minutes trying to decide what to do. Nate asked around and this Lao kid showed him the way to a gas station. They hopped on the bike together and woke up an old lady in order to get some gas. While Nate was gone, Carli’s van had left and I just sat there reminiscing on the amazing sights I had just seen. As I am sitting there, the floodgates start to open and it begins to pour. I am not talking casual rain, I am not talking about Oregon Coast downpour, this is flash flood rain. Nate pulls up with his bike and we begin to pull clothes out of our bags and layer up. At this point, I am wearing all the shirts I had packed in my backpack. I have put all my electronics into plastic bags or the waterproof bags I had bought at Vang Vieng. We hopped on the bike and went off on our way to Luang Prabang around 8:30.
This second half of the bike ride is nothing you wish upon anyone, ever. We were riding in a monsoon, high up in the Laos mountains, in the middle of a thunder storm. We were so high up in the mountains, we were literally riding through the thunder clouds. Lighting cracking all around us, we could barely see the road. The sky was pitch black, no stars or moon visible. The moon was absent and so was its light. There was no moonlight to see the road and the motorbike light was the only light we had. We could only see 10 feet in front of us as we rode up and down the winding roads in the mountains. I had been wearing the bike helmet the entire way here but Nate could no longer see anything. The rain was too intense for him to keep his eyes open and I offered him the helmet. He couldn’t wear his sunglasses for eye protection because he would be completely blind. The rain would hit the light on our motorbike and bounce off like mini embers and I imagined the comfort and warmth a campfire would bring to my shaking and soaked body. As we began our decent down the mountains, the rain had caused landslides and small rivers began to flow across the road. The small rivers were brown and impossible to see until you started driving through them. They carried small rocks and tree limbs that provided nice surprises that shook the bike. We could only go 10mph through these areas because we could barely see any turns until they were 5 ft in front of us. This truly was a terrible idea to travel on motorbike through this weather carnage.
I truly was afraid for my life. I had no idea if we were going to get hit by lightning. The only good part about the lightning was the fact that each bolt lit up the road and provided a split second of light in complete darkness. I had complete faith in Nate’s biking skills but there was so much happening outside of Nate’s control that it would not have surprised me if we didn’t make it to Luang Prabang. I kept hearing my dad’s voice in the back of my mind saying “You are so stupid. What were you thinking?”. I couldn’t help to agree with him. I can’t honestly fully explain the significance of this storm and the intensity of this drive. Many of you may think I am exaggerating the weather conditions but I am truly not. Trucks and buses were pulled over off the side of the road and yet we pressed on. Nate and I truly did not know if we were going to make it. Yet, I felt so alive. The way I cope with fear is through music. I had Thunderstruck by AC/DC playing in my head and Born to be Wild by Steppenwolf. I was so pumped up by the fear of death and the adrenaline of living that my heart was pounding like crazy. Every river we crossed, pothole we hit, and tree branch we dodged added waves of blood throughout my body. The heat from the bike and adrenaline were the only things keeping me warm because all four layers of shirts were soaked. I kept picturing Indiana Jones and how I was somewhat living life as a movie. I told Nate that we were a mix of James Bond and Indiana Jones because we were “living dangerously and adventurous like Indiana but love the ladies like James Bond”. That was my thought process, anything that would take my attention from an incoming lightning bolt or flood.
We finally made it through the storm and happened to run into Carli’s van once again. This time, they were the ones in trouble. The driver had hit a major pothole and lost a spare tire. He stopped the bus and required everyone to get out and look for the SPARE tire. Nate and I found this to be hilarious. Carli was more thrilled to see us alive and safe. We decided that because we didn’t really know where Luang Prabang was, it was a good idea to follow the van for the rest of the way. As we followed the van, it suddenly came to a very abrupt stop. We stopped behind the van, with a safe distance, just in time for the van to back up. We started honking and the van increased its speed as it backed up into us. We made it through the most intense storm I have ever seen only to get hit by a van, a van that was backing up. The reason why it back up is ironic. Carli just happened to see a tire and yelled at the van guy to stop. Carli was the reason why we got hit. However, no damage to the bike and we were laughing about it within 5 minutes.
We finally arrived to Luang Prabang at 11:30pm. The ride took over 8 hours and the last 2 hours were a thunderstorm. It was a ride I will remember forever and the experience of a lifetime. The thunderstorm did not bother me. This is why I travel. To experience things I have never done before. I’ve never been to Laos, never ridden a motorcycle, so why not make it the most memorable experience possible. It was also a spiritual trip. I hadn’t said the Our Father or Hail Mary in a long time but I was praying like crazy during that trip. There was a guardian angel present and helping us through those intense moments. It has brought me closer to God and that was something I did not expect. Simply an incredible adventure to the beginning of our Laos trip.
Day 3: Luang Prabang is a gorgeous town in the heart of Laos. It is a small town, just bigger than Vang Vieng where little tourists come to travel. There are the common backpackers here and there but mostly old people and Laos locals. Today is Saturday and we have decided that we are going to hang here for the rest of our time in Laos. Making it to the Plain of Jars seemed stressful, exhausting, and over ambitious. It was time to relax after the incredibly eventful day before.
We rented mopeds and headed out to the Kuang Si waterfall. It was a 45 minute drive through the jungle to get there. Right off the bat, I accelerated too quickly out of our guesthouse driveway and hit a tuk tuk. I prevented damage to the tuk tuk by sandwiching my shoulder and leg in between the two vehicles. I also did this graceful maneuver right outside of the moped rental office. I instantly drove off while my leg continued to throb. Good thing I didn’t break my leg.
We stopped at a very small village right outside of the waterfall. We were starving and saw a small mart that had a beverage dispenser. We needed an energy drink and some food. The man running the little station was sleeping on his bench so we went into town. We asked a lady if she had any food and she quickly took us back to the mart. She started cooking homemade noodles with chicken soup. It was damn good. The locals at this town were incredibly interested by us, especially these two young girls. They kept coming up to us with their puppies and it was the cutest thing in the world. They let us pet their dogs and pose for pictures and they were shy but incredibly curious. It was adorable. We ate, said goodbye, and continued to the waterfall.
The waterfall was awesome. The best part was the rope swing. I love rope swings. Except there was a large crowd and to get to the rope, you had to maneuver up this tree branch that stretched outside the waterfall river. This branch was big but incredibly slippery. I grabbed the tree branch that everyone was using and grabbed the rope. As I put the branch back on the small hook on the tree, I was struggling with my balance. I put it on the tree knob, looked at it sway left and right three times, and gasped in horror as it dropped into the running river. That was the stick that EVERYONE was using in order to get the rope and I am the idiot who dropped it in the lake. I expected anarchy and people yelling at me to get it. I hoped for that. Instead, I heard pure silence and received looks of pure shock and disappointment from the crowd of people. I had never met these people but the looks they gave me were humiliating. They were embarrassed for me. So I had to do something cool. I took the rope, leaped from the branch and proceeded to perform a perfect back flip. I swim up to the surface to no applause. Nate is still laughing at me for dropping the stick and people aren’t even looking at me. Instead, this guy pops up out of the water with a new stick, he gets a round of applause, and another guy finds the stick I had dropped and he gets a round of applause. As I walked through the crowd to get out of the water, I didn’t receive a single “good flip” or “nice bro”. I was glared at with complete disgust. I had just done a back flip, perfectly I might add, from a rope swing, which is pretty difficult, and no one gave a shit.
We decided it would be a good thing to leave and continue up the waterfall. We were no longer welcome here. The top of the waterfall was magnificent. I can’t explain it well. It needs a photo to show the beauty. It was wide, it was tall, and it was powerful. It was by far, the coolest waterfall I had ever seen. I turned to Nate and Carli and asked “how do you retain this forever? How can you possibly make sure that this memory never goes away?”. Pictures do not do the waterfall justice because of the mist. The mist was an issue because it was getting my camera wet. I couldn’t get too close without possibly damaging my camera. It was glorious.
We rode back to town just as the sun was fading and the clouds provided a very nice sunset. Luang Prabang is famous for its Night Market and it did not disappoint. The entire main street was blocked off and no traffic could go through. Miniature stands were set up all along the sidewalk on both sides and each stand was selling something different. I could have spent 200 dollars there just for souvenirs because everything reminded me of someone who would love this and that. Instead, I only bought a couple souvenirs but I won’t say who or what because they are Christmas gifts. Deal with it. I did however buy some Lao Lao for Nate, Carli, and I so we drank a little in the hotel room and went to bed. Great day!
Day 4: On Sunday, we woke up earlier than most days and set out to figure out our transportation back to Vientiane. We had hoped that Carli could take a ride from Nate back to Vang Vieng and than straight to Vientiane the next day. That would be 12 hours on the back of Nate’s bike and Carli was not positive on whether or not she could do that. We looked into transportation and Carli booked a sleeper bus that travels from Luang Prabang all the way to Vientiane in one night. Nate and I were going to face mother nature again and take the bike all the way back to Vang Vieng and set off from Vang Vieng to Vientiane in the morning.
Carli rented her mo-ped for one more day and we were off to find the Pak Ou caves. We had a vague idea of how to get there but couldn’t get specific directions from any Laotians. It took us about an hour to get to Pak Ou because we had to turn around a couple of times. The ride there was awesome. We drove through dirt roads and followed the river through the jungle forest. We arrived at an incredibly small town. The town had a lot of character and incredibly nice people. However, this was somewhat of a tourist trap. We had to pay to park our bikes, we had to pay to cross the river, we had to pay to enter the cave, we had to donate to get a flashlight, and we had to pay to cross back over the river.
The caves were cool. The ride to the caves was by far the greatest aspect of the caves. The vessel we took to cross the Mekong River was only 2 feet wide and maybe inches above the water. There was water in the boat and one small motor that was worked by a local Laotian. It was awesome. The view from the boat was spectacular. The caves were built into a large limestone mountain and the town was smushed between three large limestone mountains. The rover was light brown and I imagined hundreds of crocodiles just waiting for one of us to fall in. For some reason, the Jungle Book came to mind and I felt like Mogli. It was a very short ride but memorable to say the least.
The caves held hundreds of miniature Buddha figurines and I felt it was a little cheesy. I have nothing against the Buddhist Religion, don’t get me wrong. I felt that many of the figurines were fake and I didn’t like how new figurines were added to the cave. To me, it took away from the credibility and originality of the cave. I now realize I am incredibly picky but that is my opinion. I don’t like when man feels the need to add or manipulate something that is already great. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The upper cave was much cooler. It was completely dark and dead silent. I turned to Carli and remember saying “the silence is eerie”. She responded with “are you ears vibrating?” and I said “yeah, that’s weird. It is so silent that it is loud”. I had never had that experience before. I rather enjoyed it. We left the cave, crossed back over the Mekong as the sun was beginning to set. The sun cast a bright light on all the hills and the lit up gorgeously.
Carli’s bus was leaving at 6pm and Nate and I were hopping on the bike once more. We decided we needed to leave earlier because it would be nice to have more time during the light than driving at night. We departed at Pak Ou and off we went to Vang Vieng and meet Carli at the Northern Bus Station the next day.
God gave us the worst night to drive on Friday night but he made up for it with perfect weather for our drive back to Vang Vieng. We had complete clear skies and we rode through the hills as the sun was setting. It was great because as we increased altitude and continued to climb, we gained more time to view the sun going down. It was also nice riding through the areas that we couldn’t see the previous night. However, the road was much different from the night before. There were parts of the road missing, large boulders on the side of the road, and landslides that passed over the road. This all happened while we were riding during the storm. We kept saying, “I can’t believe we made it through all this the other night. This is crazy!”. The storm had changed the road but it was easy to maneuver threw during the daylight. So the road was no longer a problem and we had clear skies. We would stop at the top of every ridge to look at the views of the valleys. Laos is truly the most scenic and amazing landscape I have ever seen. The only issue we faced coming back through the mountains on our way to Vang Vieng was a slight wind. It was cold, that was it.
There was a point where we stopped on our way back to take a piss break. We were in the middle of nowhere, Nate turned off his bike light, and the stars were out in full force. No town for miles, no cities for even further, and no lights anywhere. I had never seen so many stars. The Milky Way looked like the smoke from a cigarette and it truly was extra milky. It was cool riding back the same way we came. We saw checkpoints and stops that we took along the way. It is weird, when you travel places like this, you have the sense that you will never see the same sight again. It was cool being able to see those stops and appreciate the fact that I had come to see it one last time. The bike ride was a fitting farewell to Laos.
Day 5- We spent the night in a guesthouse after eating cheeseburgers in Vang Vieng. First of all, the cheeseburger was good but they added a weird sauce that almost tasted like Café Yum sauce. I hate Yum Sauce, it is disgusting. We woke up early Monday morning, hopped back on the bike after enjoying a noodle soup with chicken cooked by a local Laotian and headed for Vientiane. The drive was yet again spectacular. By this point, I was ready to get off the bike and sleep on the train.
Once we arrived to Vientiane, we realized we had no idea where to go. It was a much bigger city than we remembered and we needed to find Nate’s bike rental shop and get to Carli at the Northern Bus Station before 12:30. She told us that if we weren’t there by 12:30 that she was going to leave and get on the train for Bangkok. She is a sassy one. We arrived at 11:00, got lost, drove around for around an hour before finally, using Nate’s GPS on his smart phone, found his bike shop. The lady didn’t even look for damages and we got out of there as soon as possible. We hopped on a tuk tuk and made it to the bus station. Little did we know, Carli’s bus had actually broken down only 10 minutes outside of Luang Prabang. She was supposed to arrive to Vientiane around 5am and got there at 12. She only beat us to the bus station 10 minutes before we got there. We felt so bad for Carli that I bought her a beer and Nate bought cookies. She did not like the cookies but she still had some of my lao lao that I had given her for the bus ride.
We took a tuk tuk from the bus station to the train station. It was around 2pm at this point and the next train left at 6. We had time to kill, nothing to do but get a little buzz on. We crossed the street, grabbed a couple beers, finished off the lao lao, and reminisced over the adventure we just took part in. We needed a shower so bad and couldn’t wait for the shower at our hotels but we had no desire to go back to Bangkok. Weird, dreading retuning to the most fun city in the world. That was the power of Laos. I hesitate to write about my adventure in Laos because I don’t want people to go visit their and tarnish everything. That is the beauty of Laos, the people. I don’t want backpackers to come in and westernize this gorgeous country. It is untouched, unrefined, and dirty. Laos is truly an experience.