Chapter 4: Hot Pot...On the Street?
October 25, 2018 (Danang - Hanoi - Vientiane)
First step: an expensive entrance into Laos: $40 US/person ($110.00 CAD) for on arrival visas. Unfortunately, we had no control over how much the border wanted to charge us at that moment in time. Two people ahead of us: $25 US/person, the group behind us: $30 US/person. Yes, we got ripped off. No, you cannot fight with Laotian border control.
Next step: SIM cards.
For 80,000 Kip ($12.30 CAD), our SIM cards included: 4G of high speed internet; a good investment for the both of us.
The last and most annoying step: find a taxi with a meter. Well, good luck because taxis in Laos do not have meters. We ordered a taxi inside of the airport (which we try to avoid at all costs, but Grab doesn’t exist in Laos so we didn’t have a choice). 60,000 Kip ($9.26 CAD) for a 20 minute taxi ride to our hostel. It felt like we got ripped off again, as google maps showed that our hostel was only 10 minutes away. What we didn’t know was that, ONCE AGAIN, we had arrived during a public holiday. The streets were packed, and it ended up taking our driver 25 minutes to deliver us to our hostel. He wasn’t bluffing, which is always a pleasant surprise. You always have to err on the side of skepticism, especially with taxi drivers.
Everywhere we looked people were partying on patios. We arrived at dinner time, but it seemed as though the fiesta had started in the early afternoon. To this day, I still don’t know which holiday was being celebrated.
We arrived at Dream Home Hostel which really wasn’t a dream at all, but it was $13.00 CAD/night, and breakfast was included in that price. Imagine: a place filled with travellers on their gap year (must say in a British or Australian accent), lots of bare feet, a soggy shared bathroom, and a giant pool table. In other words, we were living in a frat house, and it was actually a lot of fun. Our dinner consisted of street barbecue - which we would continue to take full advantage of during our stay in Luang Prabang.
Liv Observation: Vientiane seems to be a fairly progressive city. We saw two Laotian men openly holding hands, while walking down the street. There seemed to be an acceptance towards gender fluidity as well, which was incredible. Laos is still fairly conservative in terms of dress and presentation, so try to keep ass cheeks and boobies in their appropriate compartments.
Oh, and our hostel had free whiskey from 8:00 - 10:00 PM every night. Dangerous and disgusting, but free.
Our night ended up being quite social with the other hostel goers, and we stayed up well past our bed time.
October 26, 2018 (Vientiane - Luang Prabang)
Usually you hit a point during your hangover day, where things start to look up, but not for me.
We only had one day to explore Vientiane, and we wanted to make the best out of it. We all know what a day after drinking feels like, but I knew I wasn’t feeling normal from the moment I woke up. I tried to ignore it, but the pain inside of me continued to grow. A stabbing sensation in my gut every 10-15 minutes would cripple me, and then subside. I was hoping that I was just having a bad reaction to the mix of alcohol from the night before, but deep down I knew it was a bug.
I pushed through the morning, and decided that I was going to make this adventure happen. We had limited motorbike options, and ended up with a ghetto, semi-automatic Honda. Not only was this bike a piece o’ shit, but we were also faced with the busiest traffic conditions since being in Asia. Looking back on it, we were the perfect recipe for an accident.
*Laos Motorbike Fact: renting a motorbike in Laos is a little bit different than in other countries. There is a scam where rental companies will steal your bike with a spare key from their shop. Then, they will charge you a ridiculous amount to replace it. You also have to be careful when handing over your passport as collateral, as these particular “rental” companies will steal it or refuse to give it back to you after they’ve stolen your bike/scooter. Take these tips into consideration if you are planning to rent a motorbike outside of your hostel, as it could save you a ton of money, time, and grief.
Lock your bike/scooter every time. It might seem like a lot of work, but taking the extra 2 minutes is worth it in the grand scheme of things. Legitimate rental shops will show you how to put the lock on the wheel, and how to lock the steering wheel.
Park the scooter in protected areas such as guarded parking areas where possible or park directly in the Wats (for foreigner this may be strange, but the Laotians do the same).
Give a piece of government issued I.D. as a deposit, and if you do choose to give your passport know where the closest Canadian embassy is located.
Do not rent bikes from Khamsay! They don’t rent bikes themselves, but use subcontractors and various agencies. At least these two agencies use Khamsay: All Lao Service Co Ltd (13/7 Sisavangvon Rd) and Luang Vi Lay Bicycles for rent.
Always refer to the rental agreement. If the name “Khamsay” is on it, leave and find another agency.
It also happened to be 33 degrees, which didn’t add to the ambience of sweaty upper lips and stomach pains. Once again, bless Ryley’s beautiful heart. He drove us to our destination with confidence and as much grace as possible (our clutch was sticky, and every bump reverberated through the entire bike). We arrived at the Buddha Park mid afternoon, and slugged our way into the park. The monk who built it, in 1958, studied both Buddhism and Hinduism. This explained why there was a variety of Buddha images and Hindu gods. There was also a mix of both demons and animals from both beliefs.
There was a cylindrical stone building made up of 3 levels. You had to walk around in a complete circle to gain access to the next level, and at every level you could see inside of the middle of the structure. There were old pottery buddha statues, which represented an ancient scene. It was like peeking into a secret vignette. Each level had a set of uneven stone stairs, that vertically led you to the next level. It was tricky trying to get up the stairs, as there was no railing and I was wearing a giant backpack. When I reached the top, there was an observation area on the roof of the stone building, which stood 25 feet in the air and was built into the shape of a cone. Skinny at the top, with a flatter base to stand and view the park from an aerial perspective. It was a bit intimidating as there were no safety rails, and the area was full of tourists coming up and down, all whilst trying to maneuver as far away from the edges as possible.
A quick bathroom stop before lunch, and quick it was. I still have PTSD from the size of the critter I saw on the ground. It had 6 long gnarly legs, and very large pinchers. It came across as a spider, but the pinchers gave it away as a beetle. I have never ran out of a bathroom so quickly in my entire life.
ROAD SIDE SOUP.
For 20,000 Kip ($3.09 CAD) we enjoyed 2 bowls of chicken noodle soup Laos style. Many families who run road side restaurants live out of the place they sell the food, as it isn’t cost efficient to own two establishments. I wanted to wash my hands (many public bathrooms have sinks, but do not have soap), and asked the chef if I could use theirs. She pointed me in the right direction, but little did I know I would be walking into her family bathroom. Toothbrushes and shampoo decorated the small wooden mantle, while the fresh water for the day sat in a large rubber garbage can. It humbled me to know that a family of 4 shared a rationed amount of clean water every day, and that the chef (Mom) allowed me (random foreigner) to use some of it. Clean water is a luxury, and many of us (not all of us) in the first world will never have to worry about not having enough clean drinking water, or having to ration the water we use to shower etc. It is important to take in moments like these, and take time to express your gratitude (let it be silently, or in my case with Ryley).
I thought lunch would help ease my stomach, but in fact it made it worse. We tried to check out another temple, but had to cut the adventure short. At this point, I had a fever and I was having trouble keeping upright. A nap would have been so wonderful, but we had checked out of our room all ready. We would only be staying for half of the day, and didn’t want to pay the price of another full night. Reception was nice enough to store our luggage until our shuttle came to pick us up to take us to our night bus. SO, no nap for me or Ry. After much deliberation, and some concerned persuasion from Ryley, I indulged in my oh so sacred antibiotics. It helped almost instantaneously, but to err on the side of caution I would take them for the prescribed 2 days, twice a day.
Time to eat again, and I really wasn’t sure if I was humanly capable of digesting anything ever again. But I mean you’re only young once, so TEST YOUR ENDURANCE AND EAT INDIAN FOOD FOR DINNER. I wish I hadn’t been so sick, because this was probably the best Indian food I’ve ever had.
Liv Observation: Vientiane is a busy hub, with a large population of Laotian locals, Indian, and Middle Eastern people. There are tons of authentic Indian restaurants all over the city, and it was really cool to eat authentic curry in the capital of Laos. Love the diversity.
We had an 11 hour night bus to Luang Prabang ahead of us, so of course we took samosas and rice to go.
It was a bit of a mess trying to figure out which shuttle was ours, and when it was coming. I ordered our tickets online through Baolau ahead of time, as I didn’t want to worry about booking them on the fly. Our hostel also sold the same tickets, but through a different company. The confirmation email stated the shuttle would be there to pick us up around 6-6:30 PM, but the other shuttle came first. The wonderful lady at reception called the company who was supposed to pick us up, and they confirmed that they were just running a bit late. The anxiety of having to stay another night, unwell, in a muggy hostel just didn’t sit well with me. I wanted us to get on that night bus, and head to Luang Prabang as fast as we could.
After a jostling tuk tuk ride to the bus station, everything started flowing much more smoothly. While waiting to board, a French group of travellers struck up a conversation with us. We commented on how tall the one guy was, and how uncomfortable the 11 hour journey was going to be. But little did we know, his 6’6 stature was going to end up being the least of his worries.
Upon boarding the jam packed bus, everyone was given a plastic bag to put their shoes in. An immediate waft of B.O, stinky feet, and ass filled our nostrils, and turned our stomachs. Thankfully, our pods were towards the back of the bus, where the smell seemed to dissipate slightly. Everyone settled in rather quickly, and we thought we might be treated to an early departure. Try not to think like this, as you will get burnt 9.5 times out of 10. If it seems too good to be true, then it most likely is. Locals started pouring in, except there was a slight issue…all of the pods were full. The bus company had oversold the tickets. So, you guessed it! The remaining passengers had to sit on our laps. Just kidding. They ended up sitting in the tiny aisles, crammed in like puzzle pieces that naturally can fit together, but had never met before. The small bit of room we had on our right hand side, was now occupied for 1 1 hours. No room to stretch, or flail. Now. Since I had a new roommate, boundaries had to be set. As he was trying to get comfortable, his bare foot came up right by the bar that semi-enclosed me into my pod. Those toes were ALL up in my business, and uncomfortably close to the range of my nose. He proceeded to tuck his arm into my pod, and pushed his full weight down to shift himself to his side. I watched in awe, hoping he would feel my gaze and adjust himself accordingly. Unfortunately, this man caught my gaze and continued what he was doing without any hesitation. His foot then crept INSIDE of my pod and left the bar he had been resting it on before. That was your girls final straw. I promptly shifted my weight, grunted, and tossed his extremities back to him. He looked at me like I had just offended his entire family, viciously sucked his teeth, and shifted onto his other side. No strange feet or arms would enter my pod for the rest of the uncomfortable journey. The poor Frenchman behind us couldn’t fit his feet into the pod, as it was only built for a maximum height of 6’0. He sat with his knees up to his chin the entire ride.
I ended up sleeping for a solid 6 hours. My stomach had finally settled, and I was feeling semi-normal. I woke up suddenly, to a strange sound that I couldn’t put my finger on. Then came the smell, and it all became crystal clear. Someone at the very back of the bus was blowing chunks, and I didn’t have the heart to look back. The acidic smell coated the all ready putrid recycled bus air, and I have never tried so hard to focus on not throwing up.
3 hours later, and we arrived. The city was beginning to wake up, and I was beyond ready to get the hell off that bus. Later I found out that not only did the Frenchman have to sit with his knees to his chin, but the person who was puking was right behind him. Never feel sorry for yourself, because there is someone out there who is always having a worse experience.
Time to take on Luang Prabang!
October 27, 2018 (Luang Prabang)
Check in wasn’t until 2:00 PM, which wasn’t a problem. We were able to store our luggage behind the reception desk and have time to hunt for breakfast. Before we left, we asked how much it would be to rent a motorbike for the next 4 days. The owner’s rate was 100,000 Kip ($15.00 CAD)/day, and our eyes almost bugged out of our head. Coming from Vietnam, we struggled to comprehend the giant price jump. We wandered down the street to try to find a better deal, and ended up locking in at 85,000 Kip ($13.20 CAD)/day. We had been used to the heavier duty Honda scooters, but received its dinky cousin version: the “Scoopy” Even though it was a brand new bike, we felt as though the tires were too small. It rode like a city scooter, and that made us nervous as we wanted to go out to the waterfalls where the terrain was unpredictable.
Indeed, our gut feelings were correct. Later in the day we made our way out to see Tad Se Waterfall (which I would not recommend visiting, but I’ll get into that later). The terrain became more bumpy the farther rural we went. The bike drove differently (weird turning radius and crappier shock system). We arrived in the village where you have to park your bike in order to access Tad Se. The back tire had blown, and we were 25 km from the city. We had to put our thinking caps on real quick, as we needed this stupid scooter to take us back to the city. AMA and roadside assistance don’t exist in rural Laos. Ryley wheeled our liability through the small village, while I walked in front of him looking sad. We did the same thing with every villager we saw, pointed at our back tire and made exploding noises. Each person pointed us down the street to the same location. Apparently, there was a village mechanic with a 5 star word of mouth review. The last man we ran into walked us to the mechanic’s home, and even knocked on his door. No one answered, and our hearts dropped. A few other boys kept referencing a name, and shouting it down the street while pointing at us and our bike. No one showed up, and we weren’t sure what to do next.
Ryley knocked on the shack door again, and this time an ancient woman appeared. She had blackened teeth and was bent in half from a severe case of, what looked like, scoliosis. We greeted her, and pointed at our bikes. She waved us away, and shook her head, but we persisted until she called a familiar name. A young man, covered in mud from a day of hard labour, came running towards us. He checked out our sad little situation, and without hesitation went right to work. A quick shout in Lao and a teenage boy came trundling out from behind the house on a motorbike. Our mechanic gave him instructions to retrieve a new tube for our tire. Off he went. He then sewed the replacement rim air seal, and tailored it to fit the bike. Yes, he HAND SEWED IT. He moved with muscle memory and poise. 15 minutes later, and our bike was up and running again. I’ve never been so impressed or grateful in my life. This man saved us from what could have turned into a giant headache. We paid him for his trouble, and he thanked us humbly.
NOW. It was time to see the waterfall we had been trying to get to for the last 3 hours. We parked our doctored bike on a gravel area near the river. 10,000 Kip for parking, and another 50,000 for a round trip by canoe taxi to Tad Se. We had no idea that we’d have to take a boat in order to get there, but we’d come too far to go all the way back. What an ordeal.
Another 10,000 Kip to enter the park, which turned out to have more than just the waterfalls as an attraction.
*WARNING. This part sucks.
Flappy grey ears in the distance made my heart sing. Of course I was going to go say hello! If you know me, then you know that besides dogs elephants are my favourite animal. As I crept closer, the rose coloured lenses were yanked off my face and shoved down my throat. Before me stood a sad faced love, with 2 giant chains around her neck. 3 idiot children sat on her flailing, while the elephant abuser stabbed her in the side with a bull hook. The parents took pictures and cheered from the sidelines. I stood in shock, as I had never seen something so horrific happen right in front of me. The abuser took her ear and twisted it with all of his might, which caused her to cry out in pain. The abuser then took a hammer and started smacking her behind the legs to make her kneel. How fucking dare he. Tears started flowing out of my eyes uncontrollably, and a million thoughts began to run through my head.
How many years would I spend in a Laos prison if I took the hammer and beat him mercilessly with it?
How could someone do this to such a gentle giant?
What can I do? Can I do anything?
And that’s the worst part. I couldn’t do ANYTHING.
After 20 minutes of bawling and hyperventilating, I finally calmed down. We walked through the waterfalls, but I couldn’t enjoy them. To be honest, I didn’t care about the god damn waterfalls. All I could think about was the elephant slave.
Insult to injury is: this is very common in Asia.
We left with an awful taste in our mouths. Do not support Tad Se Waterfall, as they promote unethical animal tourism (elephants, and a white cheeked gibbon).
The sun was setting, and we were both mentally and physically exhausted. The 25 km trek back to the city would be chilly, and pitch black.
Besides the wonderful, life-saver mechanic, the only other redeeming bit of our first day in Luang Prabang was the accidental dinner we had. A well lit area off one of the main streets showcased a variety of baskets with delicious looking items. We quickly realized that this was STREET HOT POT AND BARBECUE. Ryley and I THRIVE off of hotpot, and we never say no to barbecued dishes.
Laos Street Hot Pot Fact: We would come to learn that you had to ask how much each item costs (40,000 Kip - $6.21 CAD for a full bowl of soup and side of 6 barbecued skewers), as there is a local price for hot pot and a foreign price. We quickly figured out where the local area to eat was, and where the suckers went. #suckstobeasucker
My head continued to swim with the sound of the poor creature’s cries well into the night; a sound you can’t just forget.
An expensive, and shocking first day in Luang Prabang that we could never have predicted.
October 28, 2018
Waterfall take 2.
A clear baby blue sky guided our way down the 30-minute path to the falls. We arrived to a tourist-infested parking lot. It’s our fault that we go to popular attractions on the busiest days of the week. We couldn’t imagine what it might be like in high season.
Lunch was necessary before making the trek around and up the falls. Barbecued chicken and sticky rice satisfied our souls. There’s nothing quite like the sticky rice in Laos. It’s incredibly dense, and has a wonderful mouth feel.
Laos Modesty Fact: It’s respectful to cover yourself when wearing a bathing suit in Laos. Do not walk around with only your bikini top on, and certainly do not walk around with your butt cheeks hanging out. The culture in Laos is quite conservative this way. Revealing clothing is frowned upon, as it is not part of their cultural practices. No one will say anything to you, but you will receive dirty looks. I watched this happen with one too many tourists in sports bras, or walking around in revealing bathing suits. Always do preliminary research before visiting a country, to make sure you have a basic understanding of their cultural practices. Respect goes a very long way.
Bug spray and sunscreen was an absolute must, as you’re trekking through a rainforest like setting. The falls were breathtaking. The sun was at the highest point in the sky, and reflected off of the water like golden dust. To get a picture by the falls was mayhem. EVERYONE wanted a picture, and it was difficult as there were so many selfie sticks and tourists jeopardizing the best spots. We trekked on, all the way up to the peak of the falls. The stairs were quite vertical, and uneven. The uneven stairs we faced in Vietnam had primed us, so our pace was a little less embarrassing this time around. The peak greeted us with warm pools of natural water that people were swimming in. It’s not very often that you get to see the view from the top of the waterfall. The lush greenery that hugged the sides of waterfall looked like the set of Jurassic Park. We were waiting for a pterodactyl to come squawking through the sky.
A quick splash in the spring, and back down we went. The hike down was so much more satisfying than the way up. Giant stone stairs were built very close to the waterfall, so with every step you took you would receive a gentle shower. Our afternoon at Kuang Si came to an end, but that didn’t mean the adventure was over. On our way to the waterfall, I saw a sign for a water buffalo dairy farm. They’re so incredibly cute up close, so naturally I wanted to check it out. To my disappointment, it was a complete tourist grab. You were able to do a tour of the farm, feed and bathe the water buffalo, and then eat the ice cream or cheese of your choice. All I wanted to do was feed them, and possibly wash them. The small man who was adamant about selling me a tour said it was impossible to only do those two things. He told me I could only do it if I booked a tour. Well, goodbye small man.
We kept on, until I spotted a herd of water buffalo grazing. Ryley stopped the bike in front of a small acreage, and we crossed the street to say hello to them. They were coming closer, inch-by-inch, until two tourists saw what we were doing, stopped their motorbikes, and ruined OUR special conversation. They came trundling up, and scared them all away. I was so aggravated at how obnoxious their movements were. With my head hung low, disappointed that I had lost my best chance of meeting them, Ryley started gesturing at the acreage we were parked in front of. A man waved us over, and invited us in to sit at his table. There were 5 people at the table, and only he spoke a small amount of English. He wanted to welcome us, and share his beer and sausages. He saw our interest in the buffalo, and pointed to the man who owned them.
We sat around their small outdoor table, and learned about each other, glass after glass.
Laos Drinking Fact: Close friends and family are known to share beer out of one glass.
A line had to be drawn, because we still had quite a ways back to the city. It would have been easy to have sat there for the rest of the evening, laughing and drinking together.
These are the moments that are irreplaceable. This is what travel is all about.
October 29, 2018
What better way to spend our last night: catching the sunset. We thought that since it was low season Mount Phousi would be quiet. We thought wrong. The sun started setting as we walked up the tiresome staircase. A sweaty finish to what we assumed would be a romantic view, turned into dodging a ginormous group of tourists and selfie sticks. It seemed as though people weren’t actually enjoying the sunset, but instead only there to take pictures. Everyone’s hands were above their heads trying to get the perfect angle.
People didn’t understand the concept of taking the picture for memorabilia, and then ACTUALLY enjoying the sunset. You miss so many important details when your phone or camera is constantly in front of your face. We’ve witnessed it numerous times. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how many pictures you got of a freaken sunset, but how that sunset made you feel. What colours were you able to pick out? Who were you with? Which country were you in? Was it a thought provoking experience. There’s always going to be another sunset, but not another moment identical to the one you’re experiencing.
I try to keep this in the back of my mind at all times.
October 30, 2018
A quick farewell to Laos. We would miss the street hot pot, and smiling local faces.
It was time for another transition.
Next stop: Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Liv Review: Laos is full of natural beauty. The people are wonderful, and the food is delicious. We found Laos to be a constant adventure of not knowing what might come around the corner next. If we could do it again, we would have skipped Vientiane. It was far too busy for our liking. We weren’t bummed about skipping the drunken river float in Van Vieng either. But Luang Prabang was a must see. It’s a small city, with a town like feel located next to the Mekong River. Street hot pot is highly recommended, and so are the giant fruit smoothies. If you can, I wouldn’t recommend flying into Vientiane if you don’t have to. Try flying into Luang Prabang, to save money and time.
Check out “Chasing Water Falls in Laos” filmed and edited by Ryley.