20
Feb
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Feb 7-13: Vang Vieng to Chiang Mai

Leaving beautiful Vang Vieng

Finally, I’ve come to the last post of our 40 days on tour! Hooray! Perhaps now I can keep up with the blog a bit better, and I hope to write smaller, shorter posts on a daily basis. And perhaps now, the photos that I have been talking about posting for over a month will actually materialize!

So on February 7 we departed Vang Vieng (*sniff*) and headed to Luang Prabang. The journey took roughly 7 hours, although the two towns are less than 200 km apart, because Laos is quite mountainous and to drive anywhere requires hours of switchbacking along curvy, sometimes badly paved roads.

Luang Prabang is the antithesis of Vang Vieng, being a culturally rich and lazy little town. It’s claim to fame is the sunset view from Mount Phousi (pronouced like a part of the female anatomy… and no, it’s not Mulva… LOL for all you Seinfeld fans out there 🙂 and it’s night market, which features beautiful handicrafts made by the local Hmong people.

In Luang Prabang, our group began to split up and do things in smaller groups, which thrilled me to no end. As a group we got along freakishly

One of the blue pools at Kuangsi Falls

well, and had eaten most of our meals together for over a month, but I think people relished the idea of being able to have a bit more autonomy, as our two full days were left entirely to explore the city at our leisure.

On February 9, the group went to Kuangsi Falls, which is a spectacular set of waterfalls about an hour Jumbo ride from Luang Prabang (a jumbo is a motorized truck with benches in the back, not an elephant 🙂 The water was freezing but after much coaxing I managed to get in and paddle around for a while before jumping out. Carpe Diem!!

That evening a few of us went to a Lao disco (read: nightclub) where we were taught to dance by some locals! The way Laos club is like this: the dance floor is empty, until the deejay plays one song that everyone knows, then the entire club gets up and does this pre-fabricated line dance that everyone seems to know, and then when the song is over everyone goes back to their seats. It was so weird. I couldn’t understand why no one was just dancing like normal, so when a song I knew came on, I pulled one of the guys in our group onto the dance floor and started dancing. And whaddaya know – all of a sudden all these locals started getting up and dancing as well! Apparently they are just too shy to dance if they don’t know the moves! Have I mentioned I love Laos!?

Since bars and discos (along with pretty much every other business) close around 11PM, the bowling alley is the place to be after everyone is kicked out. So we jumped in a Jumbo and went bowling and the place was packed! This is another curious Lao “thing” that I don’t quite understand (why is the bowling alley the only place that is open late??) so I asked on of the guys at the club why there is this restriction, but he had no idea! Laos are by nature very calm and relaxed people, and it probably never even occurred to them to question it, so we just went with it.

Locals giving Alms to the Monks

On February 10 we got up at 6AM to participate in the giving of the alms to the monks of Luang Prabang, which was a really cool and unique experience. Monks only eat two meals per day, breakfast and lunch, and the food they eat comes from the local community, supplemented with food bought by the temple. Each day the locals kneel at the side of the road with dry food such as sticky rice (a Lao staple), bananas, and mince pork wrapped in banana leaves. Each monk holds their copper pot to receive a ball of rice or other dry good, and the giver places the food item in the pot, keeping their head lower than the monk who is receiving it. Although I ran out of rice after about ten monks, it was really cool to be able to observe this ritual, and I even got a couple photos of it. Unfortunately, it has become a bit of a tourist spectacle, with tourists setting up tripods in the middle of the road We were informed that without giving any alms to the monks, this is disrepectful and irresponsible as a traveller.

After giving the alms and having a quick breakfast, we departed for the 10-hour slow boat trip down the Mekong River. The trip takes two days,

View down the Mekong from the slowboat

and we would be staying overnight in Pakbeng, a tiny village on a cliff overlooking the river. Our boat looked comfier than the public boats, with plush seats, a large table and chairs, and a bathroom. The people who own the boat live on the boat, so there was also a large area at the rear of the boat which housed their living quarters. There wasn’t much to do on the boat, so most of us read our books (lots of people trying to finish their books so they can ditch them before the market in Chiang Mai!), played games, chatted to one another, or listened to music.

The next day, February 11, was much of the same, although the morning was brutally cold (for Laos) as we had been warned. I wrapped myself in pants, two shirts, a sweater, my towel, a sarong, and my sleep sheet, and managed to stay pretty toasty, but the ride was definitely more enjoyable once the sun came up completely. The boat arrived in Houy Xai in the afternoon, just in time for us to stamp out of Laos (*sniff*), board a boat to cross the Mekong, stamp into Thailand (yay) and get to our hotel in Chiang Kong for dinner.

February 12 marked the 39th day of the tour, but for our group it was the final day we would be together, as many people were departing on the last day of the tour to go home, or onward to other destinations. This final day together was bittersweet for me (see my post “One Chapter Ends, Another Begins…”), as I was both sad to see the friends I had made leave, but also happy to be starting a new journey, and being able to experience Thailand with just my sister and I.

Rong Khun Temple between Chiangkong and Chiang Mai. So different and so BEAUTIFUL!

The bus ride to Chiang Mai took about 6 hours, which got us to our hotel just in time for a change of clothes before our final group excursion, to Wat Doi Suthep, high above the city. The temple afforded us beautiful views of the city of Chiang Mai, and our tour leader, Ae, gave us a tour of the temple, as well as special information about our colour, and our Buddha image. In Thai culture, everyone has a birth year (mine is 1983=year of the pig) a birth day (Monday) which relates to a lucky colour (yellow) and a Buddha image (Buddha with his hand raised, which means for peace).

After Doi Suthep, Court and I went to the train station to arrange our overnight train ticket to Bangkok on February 18, and then met up with our group for the last group dinner we would ever have. The meal cost more than anything I have eaten so far in Southeast Asia, but the food was fantastic, the setting was perfect, and the company could hardly have been any better. It was the perfect way to end an exciting, adventurous journey through four countries.

Since Chiang Mai requires a blog post all it’s own, this is where this story ends. I hope I can remember everything that happened in the five days immediately following the end of the tour! Thanks for reading!

Lex

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