a muddy Utopia…

Laos has NEVER been on my list of places to see or things to do, so when a really cheap flight with Lao Airlines to Luang Prabang came up a week ago my initial reaction was … meh.

Where the Heck is it again?

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I needed to renew my visa for Thailand in a week and I had to actually leave the country this time to do it. In the time I had left my options were: a 20 hour bus ride or fly.

Easiest decision ever. Why the Hell not! Another new stamp in my passport so Laos it is.

So…booked a flight (5000 baht return) and a few nights in a shitty but well reviewed Hostel in town and hoped for the best – at $7 AUD a night I wasn’t expecting much.

On to the airport!

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Sexy eh?

…at the airport 2 hours early as I usually do. But I needn’t have bothered – its so casual here. Breezing through Thai security and immigration in about 15 minutes. Waiting waiting waiting.

Lao Airlines is much like Qantas or Rex out of Dubbo, except it’s an international carrier  and the airline staff are actually friendly and efficient – the planes are the usual dual prop regional shuttles and they run reliably several times a day between Chiang Mai and Luang Prabang. This ‘special price’ was around $200 return (usually its about $300) but it had the added bonus of another free 30 day Thai visa upon my return.

Flying into Laos was fun but I didn’t get to see much : shrouded by grey clouds and mists it was impossible to even see the ground and  it wasn’t until we were just about to touch down that we finally broke through the low cloud cover, nose first into the driving rain. The plane bounced and clunked and thumped heavily down onto the flooded tarmac and massive arcs of water sprayed up from the wheels as we skidded along towards the terminal building.

Disembarking about 100 metres from the new terminal, the ground staff kindly handed out umbrellas to the passengers and pointed us in the vague direction of the terminal building. Soggily trundling across the tarmac, past the refuelling trucks and luggage trailers, eventually shepherded into the furthest door of the terminal building towards the immigration cattlecrushes.

Immigration was a pleasantly well organised surprise! Fill out the arrival card, hand over a passport photo, your passport and 1500 baht/$30 USD – get your change and then wait in the second line for processing. Another photo taken by teenagers in military uniforms  and thats it. Total time about 10 minutes. 30 days tourist visa for Laos. Easy peasy.

As I only had a carry on bag and no luggage I wandered through Customs barriers and bag scanners and security who pretty much ignored me.

Hitting the ATM for some local currency (kip) and suddenly I had several hundred thousand Kip in my wallet which was cool. An airport Americano and a croissant costs about 30,000 kip – we deal in thousands here.

**Travel tip : the main part of town is about 5 kms (or a 15 minute drive) so catch a taxi from the airport for 50,000 kip (about $8 Australian). TukTuks are everywhere but aren’t allowed to pick up at the airport so walk out the airport gates and up the road a bit and hail a tuktuk.

We passed the old terminal building on the way into town – it looked like something from a Vietnam War era movie, all fenced up but intact, and had a feel like someone had just locked up the doors and walked away from it never to return.

Luang Prabang eh? Pretty damn rainy (for 2 out of the 3 days as it turned out) but shows some promise.

*This guy was paddling upstream  – a mean feat considering the super strong current and the bobbing partially submerged tree trunks hurtling down the Mekong in said current – but he still seemed to be enjoying himself and waved when he notice me taking his picture (at least I’m going to assume it was a wave and not him flipping me the bird)

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The first thing that you notice though is the quiet. I’d been told it was a laid back place but wow – they weren’t joking. Lazily lounging alongside the Mekong River, the old french quarter of the Heritage Listed township looked so out of place in the steamy jungles of Laos. The twisting paved alleyways, patisseries and bakeries transported from a different time and place. The French Colonial architecture and cafes added such a surreal feel to the usual dirty streets, crowded noisy markets, palaces and golden stupa dotting the muddy township. Very cool!

So I aimlessly sploshed around the town, bundled up in my now omnipresent rain jacket. Wandered the morning wet market, walked the soggy streets and alleyways,

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haunted the muddy riverbanks and watched the longboatmen ply their trade (snoozing or fishing for catfish and tourists alike). A short hop across the muddy Mekong and back in the floating deathtraps a mere 30,ooo kip each way for tourists, 10,000 for locals.

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Mt Phousi is a pimple of a mountain right in the middle of town, with a lovely little stupa and temple on top that you can access for the grand price of 20,000 kip. The short steep hike to the summit lets you enjoy some stunning 360 degree views of the township, the surrounding countryside, Mekong river and the mountains. Sunsets the best time and its worth the price and the trip for the blessed silence of the place.

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OK time to check in so I headed for  the hostel.

FFKS  seriously?

I took no photos of the hostel. It is burned into my memory like the pain of an abscessed tooth that hopefully will dim with time. I wont name and shame the place but its one of the top ranked hostels on Hostel World.

This is what $7 a night buys you in Luang Prabang

Rude staff who yelled at the guests, that came and went into your rooms at will, that left doors unlocked and open, that kept deposits and gave back incorrect change on purpose, that pretended not to speak english, that grizzled and growled if you asked them anything. Everything was a hassle for them.

The dorm room was filthy, the walls were mouldy, the rooms smelt of mildew, the bathrooms flooded and mouldy, the aircon only available after 9pm at night (centrally wired so all aircon were only turned on between 9pm and 8am). The yard was constantly flooded, the roof leaked, the toilets leaked effluent onto the floors, the showers didnt work, the beds got dripping wet.

BUT it forced us all out of our rooms and the common room was a riotus rabble of languages and fun. Americans, French, Jewish, German and Swiss backpackers all passing though on the obligatory 3 days in Luang Prabang made for some lively time at the hostel. Couple that with the fact that there is only one place in the city that foreigners can go to for a decent drink and a meal meant that you made friends fast.

Hmmm…yep tourist hell. But I asked for it.

So unable to stomach the hostel for very long, I explored. Explored the streets and the fresh market in the morning with its confusing variety of odd vegetables, fresh fish, bunches of frogs, barrels of toads, buckets of eels, nervous chickens in pots, and mushrooms.

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So many mushrooms of crazy shapes and sizes, sold as fresh or fried snacks from street vendors across the town. Nutty yumminess and amoebic dysentery all rolled into a delicious yellow bundle.

And snake whisky, of course.

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A vicious and vile concoction of whisky, a small cobra and/or a large scorpion that apparently gives you a real (ahem) boost and is a cure all remedy for everything here. Or so the twelve year old girl (bored, world weary and complete with the lit cigarette hanging out of her mouth) trying to hawk it at the markets told me.

Small bottles were available from the markets as a curio, but a seriously happy guy by the river has an enormous garage full of large glass mason jars PACKED with whisky drowned snakes (some as thick as your wrist). I kid you not. Not for the fainthearted and for your info it tastes disgusting and I’m lucky I’m not blind.

I’m gagging a little as I think of the actual taste  : basically imagine the cheapest nastiest tequila that you have ever drank and a weird snaky rottenness that just doesn’t go away. Gives you a gaggy buzz though.

So apart from enjoying the scenery, architecture and snake whisky, what is there to do in Luang Prabang?

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The big ticket items are waterfall, elephant park, and bear rescue centre (which I only found out about on the last day and am really pissed I didn’t go). After that, its scenic wats and temples and cafes and bakeries.  Two days in Luang Prabang is all you need. After two days most move on to either Vang Vien  (Air America was based there during the Vietnam War) or Vientienne, and then get the Hell out of Dodge.

I had three. Dang.

Which is why I decided to finally head to Utopia on my last night in town…

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Utopia is a funky little bar/eatery that really is THE only place to go after dark in Luang Prabang.  Its very laid back, very cool with great music and after 9pm very very busy.

Getting to Utopia is a challenge in itself as its off a main street but hidden away. Opposite the “Aussie Bar” (jeez) you turn into an alleyway and begin your search. Winding your way though muddy backstreets or dark and unlit alleyways with only the odd “Utopia  —> this way” sign nailed to a gateway or fence to show you that you aren’t hopelessly lost.

And the place is a total surprise, all bamboo and thatch, peppled pathways and chaise lounges, right next to the Mekong river and perfectly situated for sunset. The staff friendly, the beer cold and the food amazing.

I got their way too early but managed to get a great seat by the Mekong and just sank some brewskies and watched the world go by, chatting to random strangers  and generally wondering why the Hell I hadn’t been here every night. If you want to meet interesting travellers then this is the place to be.

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The thing to do is Utopia til closing (11pm) and then hit the local bowling alley – the ONLY place that sells booze after 11pm at night. Its a weirdarse 70’s style bowling alley and it is virtually guaranteed that every backpacker in town will be there until at least 2am or 3am getting incoherently hammered and trying not to kill themselves (and the people in the next lane) heaving bowling balls left right and centre. I suck at bowling but its amazing how that doesn’t matter when you are lit up.

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Anyway, hangover successfully installed and it was time to go back to Thailand.

Seeya Laos. Its been real.

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Getting out of Laos took about 10 minutes. Getting through security and immigration super fast, and as the flight was on time it all went smoothly and, a fresh 30 day visa in hand, I soon found myself back in Thailand. Sorely needing a walk I decided to wander from the Chiang Mai airport the whole 9 kms back to the old house to pick up my scooter (I really really really needed a walk)

Anyway so I’m back in Chiang Mai, in a nice clean cheap but comfortable Hostel (Bed Addict – right in Nimminhaeman) looking for some more inspiration and direction.

**My friend Megan is flying in from Zurich tomorrow to hang out for 2 weeks. I’m a little bit excited as I haven’t seen her for a year and a half. Should be fun!

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