We reached Luang Prabang by bus from Vang Vieng (around 5 hours) – a pretty uncomfortable and bumpy ride. The roads were so windy that I was having to cling on to the seat in front of me, so as to not be thrown completely from my own seat! I was visiting Laos as part of a G Adventures tour (Indochina Discovery) and we were pretty disappointed with the state of our hotel when we arrived. Stained walls, stained sheets and a broken tap were just a few of the things that greeted us on our arrival. We were moved in to a different room, which wasn’t much better but at least the taps worked! When I saw the flecks of blood on my sheets (bed bugs most probably..) I was very grateful to be armed with my silk sleeping bag!! We seemed to be in the middle of nowhere and it took 20 minutes to walk to the main street, where I decided to book on to an elephant conservation day. We walked through town to reach a night market and enjoyed a drink as we watched the stalls finish setting up for the evening. We grabbed something to eat at a local restaurant and a few of us went for the ‘Crab Thai Papaya Salad’. The waiter asked us if we wanted it spicy, to we which we all replied ‘just a little bit’. What followed was a plate of what can only be described as FIRE; safe to say, none of us managed to get very far with the dish! Eyes streaming and bellies rumbling, we took to the famous night market to see what was on offer. Loads of bits and bobs were for sale – mostly the usual trinkets and souvenirs but you can’t really go wrong with a market!
The following day we woke up early to go and watch the monks being fed. Known as the tak bat, the Buddhist monks’ morning collection of food in Luang Prabang is an increasingly popular tourist attraction. When I visited 6 years ago, it still retained some of its natural and spiritual charm. Nowadays, the influx of tourists is endangering this once serene ritual. The monks leave the monasteries early in the morning (around 5 am) and walk single file, oldest first, carrying their alms bowls in front of them. Members of the Laos public wait for them, and place food, flowers or incense sticks in the bowls as they walk past.
A DAY AT THE ELEPHANT SANCTUARY
As I was the only one in my group who wanted to take part in an elephant conservation day, I joined a group of other tourists as we headed by minibus to the village. The sanctuary took in abandoned and mistreated elephants and worked closely with them to provide them with a much better standard of life. Each elephant has its own Mahout – someone who works with only that elephant, getting to know it especially well. Although we still rode the elephants (bare back – not on a chair), the conservation village informed us the money provided through day trips like this and donations, keep the sanctuary going and keep the elephants safe. We had an elephant each for the day and were involved in feeding times, as well as a quick bath in the nearby river! Although I’ve learnt a lot more since this trip with regards to animal welfare, and I wouldn’t ride an elephant during future travels, this was a great day and one I’ll remember for a long time to come.
ALL ABOARD THE JUNK BOAT TO THAILAND!
On day three, we boarded a private junk boat to travel from Luang Prabang, along the Mekong river to the Laos/ Thai border of Chiang Khong. The boat was spacious for just the 4 of us and the seating was car seats that had been screwed in to place; it looked pretty hilarious but was comfortable nonetheless! There was a large open area at the front too, which meant you could sit and read peacefully or just watch the Mekong riverside roll past.
We set off at 7am and it was 10 hours before we arrived for an overnight stay in Muang Pakbèng. On the way, we stopped for a brief visit to a local village in the middle of nowhere – buried in to the lush vegetation alongside the river. The tour guide stops here every time he’s on a trip, so they know him well. He had taken some photos on his last visit, and had printed some off this time to show them all. It was a great experience to witness the people of this village seeing themselves in a photo for the very first time! We were shown to the local ‘school’ and some of the girls were handing out handmade goods as gifts. Despite a slight language barrier, we had a great time being introduced to their village!
There wasn’t anything to do once we arrived at for our overnight stay in Muang Pakbèng, apart from admire the beautiful scenery with jagged rocks and steep mountains surrounding small huts; some on stilts perched above the river. For dinner we ended up, once again, with a dinner too spicy to stomach. The evening was made bearable by the fact our waiter was so incredibly inebriated, creating hours of endless entertainment!
Day two aboard the boat was no different to the first; another early start (even earlier this time!) and another 10 hours strolling along the Mekong. We eventually reached the Laos/Thai border of Chiang Khong. Upon presenting my passport, the guard looked through it several times before consulting with his colleagues, three pairs of eyes flicking up to regard me suspiciously. Long story short, on entering Laos (from Vietnam), the border control officer had not stamped my passport – the stamp shows you are officially allowed in to the country. I have a feeling this may have been done on purpose… When entering Laos, the officer at the border didn’t like the slightly creased $20 note I’d tried to pay with, and I had got a little annoyed, saying it was the only one that I had. Another girl in the group lent me a more presentable note and I crossed the border with no problems (or so I thought..). In the eyes of the officers on the Laos/Thai border, I had been travelling illegally in Laos for the last 7 days as there was no stamp to prove I’d been allowed in. That meant they could demand pretty much anything they wanted, or I’d be stuck in Laos – or worse, taken to a police station. They did just that, stating there was a $200 fine per day – $1400 altogether!! Luckily I was with a tour group and my tour leader was able to negotiate with the officers, reducing the ridiculous fine down to $100 (which was to go straight in to their pockets). My tour guide then offered to pay half of that, so $50 wasn’t so bad!
Top tip – ALWAYS check your passports for a stamp when crossing through borders!