After a week on the open road through Northern Vietnam, with the wind in our hair and the sun on our backs, we arrived back in Hanoi and boarded a cramped sleeper bus to Laos. Returning to a backpacker's reality. Not only would we be laying horizontally for the next 26-ish hours because the seats on this bus are permanently reclined and there is no head space to even sit up if you wanted to, but to top it all off, the back of the bus was jam-packed with boxes of chocolate chip cookies and fans...??? South East Asia randomness in full effect. So that means, the toilet was completely blocked for the next days' journey and we were at the complete mercy of the driver deciding when we could pee. In adding to this hopeless tunnel of 26 hour dreadfulness, there was at least 500lbs of cookies that we were quite literally laying on top of that we couldn’t eat (being hungry next to delicious food you can’t have... probably worse torture than holding your bladder.)
Hayden, Carter and I climbed up to claim the very last top-bunk seats and because of the boxes that were packed onto the bus, it felt like we had more room to sprawl out rather than being cramped into the single seat. This was definitely a bit of a bonus when Carter, a 6’4 Westerner, is trying fit into a 4ft Asian-made bed.
Are you thinking “how the hell did you guys survive a 26 hour bus ride?!” Well, that was my exact thoughts boarding this thing. However, it ended up not being so bad (for me, who can sleep ANYWHERE). If it were Carter or Hayden writing this blog, it may be portrayed in a completely different way. The best part of this entire experience? No one expelled any bodily fluid on/in/ or around the bus (that we know of anyways)!
We arrived into Luang Prabang late at night and in the rain, so the first-impression experience was dampened (get the joke?) but we could still see how beautiful this city would be in the daylight. We could see the French-colonial inspired buildings, the bustling night market and street food vendors that were out and around the town square.
Luang Prabang has a very rich history as it was the old capital of Laos. It has since been replaced by Vientiane but Luang Prabang remains a world heritage site as per UNESCO. I think because of this there was an ease of navigating through the city. There were standardized signs with both Laos and English written on it and all the signs for the temples and important structures through out the city had an English explanation of it's history and significance (which we rarely came across in Vietnam). Only as recently as 2003, tourists were just allowed back into Laos after it became a communist country. Tourists were only permitted to visit the three major cities: Luang Prabang, Vientiane and Vieng Vang. Now, Luang Prabang is known as the spiritual heart of the country and even visiting it for a few days, you can definitely feel why.
In the morning, the views and city far exceeded our expectations. We wandered a little to find another hostel and got to see more of what the city had to offer. The streets are narrow and wind in and around the city with the Nam Khan and Mekong rivers joining one another at the centre. There are ancient temples and wats scattered through the city, in amongst the busy market street and on top of the Phou Si mountain across the river.
We came upon the main walking street during the day, this is where I truly saw the beauty of Laos. There was French colonial influence in many of the buildings and the Main Street reminded me a bit of the French quarter of New Orleans. Not only were the buildings themselves old and charmingly beautiful but so much beauty came from all of the merchants and their handcrafted artisan scarfs, tapestry’s, table runners, dresses, stuffed animals and trinkets made from retrieved bomb fragments, that filled these buildings and shops. Everything had a story behind it; what village made it, who made it, why it was special. This is when I fell in love with the city... and probably the entire country.
Onto my favourite topic, FOOD. There is a heavy Thai influence in Laos food(our favourite). Our first meal was from a local little hole in the wall place where the owners' 10 year old son took our order because he was the only one in the family who could speak English. We all had an amazing variation of a curry & rice dish (I am salivating right now writing about it.) I had a vegetable curry, on my plate came a huge portion of mixed *regular* vegetables, rather than a plate of sautéed green bitter lettuce I normally received in Vietnam anytime I ordered anything vegetable-related. But whether the restaurants are completely local or catered to tourists, you will find something you could eat your way into a food coma with.
There is also a pedestrian night market that shuts down the Main Street from 5pm to 10pm every single night that is simply INCREDIBLE. It’s the best night market I have seen based on the absolutely stunning and beautiful artistry that goes into these tapestry and crafts...and the food. The stalls and vendors went on for miles, you could easily spend the 5 hours it was open going from start to finish, wandering and browsing everything the market had to offer. But it didn’t stop there, the market also trickled down through side streets as well. We ended up turning into a crack in the wall (it was obviously bigger than a crack but definitely much smaller than a side street) and stumbled upon the best looking street food (and all you can eat stations) that we have seen and eaten to date. Vietnam has a good rep for street food but this has it beat 100%! To top it all of it was extremely cheap.
Here are some of the paintings, scarves, jewellery, etc, etc. You name it, Luang Prabang night market has it and I probably loved it:
On the morning of December 29th, we woke up before sunrise at 5:45am and got out to the Main Street to witness the daily Alms Giving Ceremony. This is where the local monks from 45 neighboring temples walk through town silently and collect offerings (food & money) from the locals (and some tourists). There is supposedly over 200 monks who participate daily in this ceremony. When we got to the Main Street, unfortunately big white tourist vans out numbered the monks that were lining the street. The night before, I read rules and etiquette of the ceremony for tourist and spectators: no showing your chest, shoulders or legs, be quiet and respectful, do NOT follow the progression, do NOT interrupt the monks or offerers, and if you are going to take photos have no flash, and keep a respectable distance away. Well, it seems as though we were the only one who read this because there were tourists right in the monks face and running along side them to get the “perfect” shot, squeezing in beside them with their stupid selfie sticks. It tainted the experience for us, it's tough to stand by and watch so many people ignore proper etiquette during cultural traditions in order to fulfill their own needs, but it's reality unfortunately. We then left and turned down a side street, as we did a we came across a hundred monks walking in silence, uninterrupted by little to no tourists, and for us, that was the beautifully peaceful moment definitely worth getting up for. The monks were not only collecting food in their baskets, but also giving back to the poor of the community and to the elementary schools for the kids to have lunch. If I understand correctly; the locals will give to monks for good karma and a good after life when they are reincarnated. And the monks will share with those who are in need, out of duty. I don't think we could have ever captured the essence of this ceremony, with the monks walking in precession, in silence, with the sun's light growing gradually around them but here are the two pictures we took to try...
We then climbed Mt Pousi right after sun rise, it was a beautiful 360 view of the entire city because of it's central location. When we were on top, I was surprised to see how LP sprawled much bigger than I thought it did on either side of the river. We were also lucky enough to see monks return back to their respective temples to have their one meal of the day, thanks to the alms ceremony and the giving locals of LP.
Since we were up at dawns crack, we had the rest of the day to travel to Nong Khiaw, a small village 3.5 hours north of LP. The village itself is settled on both sides of the Nam Ou river and is connected by a big beautiful bridge that was built during the war. The left side of the bridge is the original village, where the residents live and local businesses are. To the right of the bridge is more built up to accommodate the small portion of travellers, with river side bungalows, guest homes and restaurants. The village is in between two high mountains, both of which you can climb to view points. One is best for sunrise, which we climbed (more of that to follow). And the other for sunset. I am sure they have names but I didn't retain this information!
Our first full day in Nong Khiaw, we took a day tour with Mr Mang and NK Adventures. We took his riverboat and cruised up the river for 2 hours to his village known for making cotton and silk tapestries. I bought a big mustard yellow hand woven blanket and Carter bought a beautiful scarf from a little lady who was sitting outside of her house weaving more pieces. It was a great feeling to support these very real people, creating these pieces of art with their own hands, rather than buying it from much larger shops in the city who buy them in bulk from small villages like this one.
We also dropped in on a school, even though it was Saturday, there were many kids playing in the school yard. The boys had a super competitive game of pétanque (similar to bocci ball) going on! Our favourite was definitely the score keeper.
The next village, Muang Ngoi, was bigger than the last and also had some infrastructure to support little travellers. Still, their main road was only one kilometre, and was made entirely of dirt. Bombs from the war were laying around everywhere in this village. A devastating fact about Laos is that it's the most bombed country in the history of the world "From 1964 to 1973, the U.S. dropped more than two million tons of ordnance on Laos during 580,000 bombing missions—equal to a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24-hours a day, for 9 years". Even today, there are foreign specialist teams who work in Laos teaching to safely deal with bombs if they come across any undetonated bombs (which are still being discovered today). In this village, they were using them as seats, garden decoration, and restaurant signage. The ones that gave me goosebumps had been painted by locals with flowers and peace signs. It was pretty surreal and saddening to see how normalized they have become.
We walked into a home, with a lady boiling rice to make the "Laos Laos". This is what this village is known for, their home-brewed rice whiskey. We were all given a sample shot and of course, the boys were sold, they bought a litre water bottle full for $3.00 and that was their alcohol for NYE the next day. Again, supporting the local community any way we can... ;)
New Years Eve Day. We did another hike to the highest viewpoint over the village right before sunset. It took us 45 minutes to reach the little wooden hut that sat above the entire lush landscape. This was one of the better climbs we have done thus far; the lush and vast landscape really helped us to understand how 'wild' and untamed Laos still is. If you are thinking about visiting Laos, I would really recommend going sooner than later before mass tourism really sets in. Carter got some incredible drone shots which almost captures what we were looking over:
After we got back down, we were invited to a big celebration hosted by the regions governor. This New Years celebration would be complete with a river boat float, ethnic beauty pageant and fireworks (even though Laos real New Years is in April). The ethnic beauty pageant with all local village girls from neighbouring districts coming together for a friendly competition. We arrived in the outdoor “stadium” (if you refer to the previous drone photos you can see the big dirt football pitch where it was hosted) at 7pm to grab our seats and some Beer Lao. We were joined by an Australian and Dutch couple and the show started. About 40 girls, dressed brilliantly in their tribe’s formal and or cultural wear, come out to the stage dancing. The crowd goes absolutely bonkers - all of a sudden hundreds of Laotians are on their feet dancing, drinking, screaming and hoisting up signs with different numbers on them, cheering for their village representative. Well, it didn’t take long for our table to get involved! As soon as Carter stood up and the locals beside us saw a tall white guy enjoying the show, they pushed one of their big signs into his hands and as quickly as that, we were cheering on our girl number 23! Carter's insert: "At one point I went closer to the stage to take a better photo of this hilariously awesome event as were were at a table near the back, people were so proud of their villages candidate, most women were very seriously screaming for their local girl and very focused on cheering, the men were more just drunk and having a blast with us and their buddies. So as I got close to the crowded front area I ran into a woman who was also carrying a #23 sign, I then realized there were about 10 other women with her cheering for #23, they saw me and all started laughing. They grabbed me and handed me a bouquet of flowers, pointed at the stage and gave me a push to start walking. I realized there was a huge open walk way where some people were giving gifts to their candidates. As I am heading up with ALL eyes on me from every angle, the commentator says a whole bunch of words in Laotian and it ends with 23 (because I'm now the massive white guy walking all alone towards stage holding the #23 sign and the flowers.) When I get to the stage #23 steps forward from the line of young ladies and crouches down to collect her gift, says "khob chai le lai" to which I say "bring it home 2-3!" It was a great moment I will never forget. Shortly after I work my way back through the huge crowed to our table of drunken friends and they're all standing on chairs in a circle laughing/holding beer lao and #23 signs. I proudly ask if they saw me get hand picked to deliver our girl her flowers, and they all died laughing because they weren't watching and didn't believe me. As far as I am concerned #23 and I will always remember the moment we had on NYE!!."
That's Carter's claim to fame in Laos, the moment he was essentially a druken Laotian flower girl! The contestants danced... and they danced... And they danced... we drank... and we drank... and we drank. They sang... and they sang... and they sang. We shared shots of the rice whiskey and tried to keep up with the enthusiasm and partying of the locals.
The hour was 11pm and the pageant was still going on. We didn’t really have any idea what was going on at that point... and then all of a sudden, a traditional dance broke out that we were invited up for. I WISH I captured Carter dancing up there alone for the first 2 minutes, he was a good 2 feet taller than everyone else, just bobbing around in a circle, snapping his fingers and two-stepping his feet; it took me the full few minutes to stop laughing and join him. Carter and I tried to mimic the moves of the locals as best we could but were probably making a fool of ourselves. Then at 10 seconds to midnight our table, and our table only, started yelling the countdown. Everyone stared at us and just watched as we yelled 3, 2, 1... I guess the actual countdown is just a western tradition?? We yelled Happy New Year to one another, kissed, hugged, and then to our surprise, the sky lit up with fireworks surrounding both sides of us and because of the lit up sky, you could see the huge mountains that towered over us and the stars peeking through the sky. It was spectacular! Happy 2018!!
We are so grateful to have had the opportunity to spend the last of 2017 in a remote village in northern Laos, what a life we are living! Cheers to more in 2018.
Carter Bender & Brittany Wilson left Toronto, Canada to travel the world. Where will they be next? Follow their #cbwtravels blog to find out!