The Lao Capital
22.10.2007 - 03.11.2007 25 °C
Well, I guess it's been a couple weeks since I last wrote an entry, so this one might drag on a bit. Time is beginning to go by extremely fast.
After leaving Sukhothai, I made my way to Chiang Mai, where I spent six days. The big draw in Chiang Mai is trekking, where you hike out for a couple days and visit hill tribes, ride elephants, sleep in the jungle, that sort of thing. I had every intention of doing this, but when I got there, every single guesthouse, restaurant, internet cafe, or bookstore seemed to be selling a trek here or a trek there, and I couldn't decide. I'm sure visiting a remote hill tribe is rewarding, but I can imagine how many times tourists have gone to these places, and it just seems like a big theme park. I got really turned off on the whole idea. That said, I never saw it for myself, so take that for what it's worth.
Basically, I just relaxed while I was in Chiang Mai. It's like a gentler, more manageable version of Bangkok, and I spent most of the days just walking around, eating and reading. On my second night there, I was eating dinner at my guesthouse, and I met a group of people who were in Chiang Mai for eight weeks taking a massage course. They had all just met each other, so it was pretty easy to fit right in. I ended up getting free massages a couple times a day, and we'd all go out at night to the bars and lounges around town. It was great. Here's a couple pics of Chiang Mai:
The inner city of Chiang Mai is surrounded by a moat.
A rooftop lounge we went to one night.
After Chiang Mai, I took a bus to Chiang Khong, which is the border town on the Mekong River before you enter Laos. I spent a night there, and in the morning took a boat across the river and got my Laos visa settled. Canadians have to pay $43, more than any other country! I was shocked. Even the Americans only pay $30. I had already arranged to take a slow boat down the Mekong River to Luang Prabang, a French colonial city that is a big tourist draw. The slow boat was great, six hours the first day, nine hours the second, with a stopover in Pak Beng. The scenery is great along the Mekong, and despite the boat being packed to the brim with tourists, locals and cargo ("cargo" meaning bags of rice, chickens and birds), it was still great.
Luang Prabang was fantastic. It was granted UNESCO World Heritage status not too long ago, which basically means it gets funding from the UN and any construction/reconstruction efforts are heavily regulated in order to protect the city's charm, which it has tons of. The old city area is filled with old French architecture, and there are cafes, shops and bakeries everywhere. There were tons of French tourists when I was there, and some locals speak French. Laos in general still has a lot of French influence. A couple pics:
One of the main streets in Luang Prabang.
This is overlooking Luang Prabang. Note all the smoke on the horizon. In order to prepare their crops, the locals use "slash and burn agriculture", where they burn what is left from the previous season. The ash provides some fertilization, and the crops are free of weeds. Unfortunately it leaves behind a haze of smoke, and the crops get weaker every year.
After a couple days in Luang Prabang, I took a bus to Vang Vieng, a tourist town in the middle of nowhere. The bus ride was a very slow, winding journey through the mountains, but there was some beautiful scenery. People come to Vang Vieng to go tubing down the river, go caving, trekking, and generally drink lots of alcohol. I went tubing on the first day and met three girls from Whistler and a guy from Minnesota (he was a Wild fan and still hates Bertuzzi and Cooke from the playoff series like four years ago). There are makeshift bars set up along the river, so it takes a good five hours to get all the way down. They sell buckets of lao lao (the national whiskey, tastes like paint thinner), coke and red bull for $3, so you can imagine what happened. There were beach volleyball nets and I teamed up with the North Americans against a bunch of Irish and Danish people. We won, but only because the Irish stayed true to form and drank excessively. They also have huge rope swings and zip lines you can jump from which are great fun, as long as you hold on. I didn't on one of them, which resulted in a nasty bellyflop and severe pain and bruising on my chest and stomach the next day. Not fun. But other than that, it was one of the best days of my trip. It was all the more fun because it was pouring rain the entire time, so we were all freezing cold by the time it was done.
Another quick thing about Vang Vieng. The main strip has lots of restaurants, and virtually all of them play re-runs of Friends. I was eating breakfast one morning, watching Friends, and I could hear two other episodes going on at the same time in the surrounding places. It's really strange. There's just a lot of weary tourists drinking and watching Friends.
That takes us to yesterday, when I took another bus to Vientiane, where I am now. Vientiane is the capital and still holds some French charm, but not like Luang Prabang. My original plan was to go through southern Laos and head into Cambodia, but then I found out they don't give Cambodian visas at the Laos-Cambodia crossing, and if I apply for my visa here in Vientiane, the visa starts on the date of issue, not when you enter Cambodia, so I will lose a week or so of travelling time in Cambodia. My other option is to head to Cambodia via Northeastern Thailand, as they give Cambodian visas at the crossings with Thailand. Does that all make sense? Good. I'll probably be in Vientiane for a few days to rest my bruised belly and decide what to do next.
If you've read this far, I applaud you. Do me a favour and send good vibes to my mom, as she has been in the hospital for the past three weeks with terrible back problems. She is due for surgery on Monday, so let's hope everything goes well.
That's all for now.