After missing my flight to Laos from Hanoi on my first try, I finally made it to Luang Prabang, Laos the following evening. Luang Prabang used to be the capital of Laos, so has many important temples and other historical sites, as well being in a beautiful spot situated between two rivers.
It is very small and laid-back, though, even with the influx of tourists the past few years (I was really surprised by how many tourists there were). At "customs" after landing (just a man behind a desk), one guy on our plane was $1 short the cost of the visa fee, so was allowed to go through customs to go to the ATM and bring back the money to get his visa and "officially" go through customs. And after being in Vietnam, it was very refreshing that not everyone seemed concerned with trying to get as much money as they could from all of the tourists. The taxi touts (of which there weren't many) didn't constantly harass you as in Vietnam. I'm sure that in a few years that will change, but for now, the country does not seem "spoiled", as I felt a lot of places in Vietnam were.
I spent a couple of days with an Australian and German exploring the town and surrounding areas, including quite a few Buddist temples. The most impressive of the Wats was Wat Xieng Thong, and is almost 450 years old.
Due to the number of temples, there are monks in orange wandering around everywhere in the town, and one morning I got up very early to watch the almsgiving ceremony, where the monks walk single file down the main street and collect rice from the locals for the day.
Luang Prabang is also famous for a really neat night market that shuts the main road down every night, and I also spent my time eating and drinking at various cafes along the Mekong River with my temporary traveling companions.
After two days in Luang Prabang, the next morning I headed by "minibus" (actually just a van) 3 very bumpy and slow hours North to Nong Khiaw, which is surrounded by mountains.
However, Nong Khiaw was not my final destination. I then took a boat ~1 hour upstream on the Nam Khan River and I finally arrived in Muang Ngoi (pronounced "Mwang Noy"). Muang Ngoi is only accessible by boat, thus there are no cars or motorbikes in the village.
There is only one "road" thru town, which is dirt and follows the river. Sandwiched between some very steep mountain peaks, chickens and little children run around the tourists that come here. It looked and felt like I was either on a movie set or had traveled back in time.
Since it takes a commitment of quite a bit of time to get here, there were MANY less tourists here than in Luang Prabang. I found a bungalow overlooking the river that would be my home for the next 2 days... Very basic - just a bed with a mosquito net, but definitely enough for me for a couple of nights. After wandering around the village (this took about 10 minutes), I had dinner with two Brits that were on the boat to the village with my earlier that afternoon. Afterward, we went to the village's bar. There, we met three airline pilots on vacation who were from Alaska (some of the very few Americans I met on the trip). Promptly at 10 pm, all of the lights at the bar went out. This was not surprising to us, though, as the entire town is only powered by generators, and the main generator only runs from 6 pm to 10 pm. It was very funny to see all of the villagers huddled in their houses during that entire time as that's the only time that they can watch the thing. We all stumbled home in the dark not too long after the power was cut (the stumbling was due more to the fact that there was no lighting than the fact that we had been drinking!).
The next day, I spent hiking around to some of the minority villages that are scattered in the mountains near Muang Ngoi. I also ventured into some totally deserted caves. My Indiana Jones moment came when, while crouching down to pass through a very small hole in one of the caves, my backpack brushed against the ceiling. I thought that I felt something on my neck, my hand went back to brush off the dust, and as my hand came back into the light from my flashlight, there were four or 5 spiders on my hand, and I could feel that there were more on my neck and in my hair. I definitely jumped (as much jumping as I could do while crawling through a small opening), but luckily they were daddy long leg-type spiders and nothing big, black, and poisonous looking! After (what I will now call) my near death experience, I continued hiking through the hills and valleys in the area, across a couple of streams and rivers, past countless water buffalo, and made it back to Muang Ngoi just before it started getting dark. It was a great day of seeing some great scenery and relaxing before I plunged back into Lao civilization (which isn't all that stressful to begin with).
The next morning, I headed back downriver an hour to Nong Khiaw. At the boat dock when we disembarked, a guy asked who of the tourists were headed back to Luang Prabang, of which I was one. I said that I was and I and three others got into what they call a sawngthaew, a converted pickup with two wooden benches down the side of the bed. We assumed we were taking this VERY uncomfortable vehicle to the bus that would take us back to Luang Prabang. Unfortunately, we soon discovered that this contraption was going to be driving us and about 15 Laotians all the way back to Luang Prabang. It was one of the dustiest, most crowded, smokiest (I very seriously considered taking up smoking right then and there so that the 4 hour trip would go by faster), noisiest experiences of my life. Adding to the noise of the trip was another passenger of the sawngthaew... One of the passengers evidently had a pig that he had to take to Luang Prabang. So, the driver and this guy spent a few minutes hogtying the animal to the back of the vehicle. Every bump that we hit on the road (and there were A LOT) would be accompanied by a squeal and then a couple of snorts. I was shocked at the end of the trip that the pig, after being untied, was not only still alive, but able to walk.
Since it was too late to take the bus to Vientiane, my next stop, I stayed the night in Luang Prabang, and the following morning, took a ~9 hour bus ride (this time a real coach-type bus) across a few mountain passes to Vientiane, the capital of Laos. The trip was beautiful and VERY windy. Luckily, I don't get car sick, but there were definitely a lot of other passengers that took advantage of the emergency plastic bags that they passed out at the beginning of the trip.
Vientiane was also a really neat city. While a lot bigger and busier than Luang Prabang, it is still very small compared to the other capital cities of the neighboring countries. I visited Vientiane's Arc de Triomphe, or what they call "Patuxay". As you know, all of these old French colonies are a little sore with the French, so the Lao government decided to build this Arch after gaining independence and it is supposedly just a few inches taller than the one in Paris. To add insult to injury, it was built with cement that was donated by the US (although the US had donated the cement for a new airport). Another must-see in Vientiane is Pha That Luang, a stupa that is the most important national monument in the country.
On my second day in Vientiane, I rented a bike and rode to the Buddha Park that is outside of the city about 25 kilometers. The park is filled with concrete Buddhas and Hindu god sculptures, and it is definitely a cool place. There a huge, reclining Buddha, as well as hundreds of statues in various other sizes.
The last place I visited in Vientiane was Wat Si Saket, the oldest temple in the town at about 200 years old. It houses 2,000 small silver and bronze Buddhas in alcoves built into the walls, as well as 300 larger, seated Buddhas. Laos like their Buddhas!
Laos was definitely my favorite country of the three that I visited, and Luang Prabang was one of, if not the, favorite place I visited on my entire trip. Everybody that I met in the country (both locals and tourists) were extremely friendly and laid-back. Very different from the fast pace and constant noise that I experienced in Vietnam.
I was then off to fly to Siem Reap, Cambodia. I'll try to add that entry fairly soon as opposed to waiting another 2 weeks.
As last time, I have uploaded more pictures in the gallery than I have posted in the body of this. Enjoy!