I had been on the road for only an hour, but I already needed to pee. Thankfully, I had opted for an allegedly tricked-out bus, replete with toilet. Since we had to be barefoot during the trip, I entered the bathroom sans shoes—and immediately felt small puddles. I really, really had to go, so I stifled my imagination right away. “Probably just some rogue sink-water,” I told myself.
The light in the bathroom wouldn’t turn on. I could make out the silver outline of the toilet, but not enough to ensure my own pee wouldn’t mix with the, ahem, rogue sink-water. I stepped out, grabbed my cell phone with the life-saving flashlight, and re-entered the bathroom.
Once illuminated, all chances of the rogue-sink-water explanation were pissed away: the toilet was filled to the brim with urine (hopefully only urine, since the sign on the door declared, “Please, no Excrement”) that was splashing around as the bus driver took mad, vertigo-inducing turns around unpaved switchbacks.
I had had enough. Fuck you; fuck you; fuck you, Luang Prabang.
I was finally leaving Luang Prabang, northern Laos’s most major city. I was on a bus that left at 8:30 p.m. and was headed south to Vientiane, the country’s capital. For the preceding five days, I had tried to make the most of my vacation and enjoy a city that, at best, earned my fleeting lukewarm reception. I tried my best to enjoy Luang Prabang, but the city was persistently frustrating. Using the money I had saved by staying at a cheap guesthouse, I decided to live large and buy tickets to a sleeper bus—which was equipped with near-bed-like chairs, dinner, and a bathroom (crucial since an onset of diarrhea)—for an extra 30,000 kip, or 120 baht. If nothing else, my overnight trip to Vientiane would be nice.Psych.
But let’s get to the bus first. It begins with a journey that, like most others here, involves an overnight something to somewhere.
Pai was painful to leave: good food; good relaxation; good sights. Alas, I knew I should go: I was on vacation and carpe diem, etc. At 8 p.m. on Monday, October 10, I boarded a minivan for the seven-hour trip to the border town, Chiang Khong, Thailand, and a trip across the Mekong River into Laos. The ride was fine—I listened to music, watched True Romance on my iPod, and stole interrupted bouts of sleep—but my left foot decided to swell. It now matched my right, which grew, I presume, when it was sprained after my second motorbike accident.
The minivan ticket included a three-hour nap, which I gobbled, at a guesthouse in Chiang Khong. Once across the river and visa nonsense aside, I grabbed a baguette sandwich—one of the more delightful remainders from Laos’s days as a French colony—and debated how to make the long trip to Luang Prabang: overnight bus or three days and two nights on a slowboat? Everyone with whom I became friends on the van was doing the slowboat, which, I read, is a popular option for people traveling south. But I wanted to get to Luang Prabang quickly and, for various reasons, the boat seemed much less desirable: time; money; comfort.
And so began the shittiness that quietly followed me around Laos.
Once in Laos and across customs, I bought a ticket for a VIP bus—which are differentiated from local buses by the presence of A/C, more comfortable seats, chance food, and a chance bathroom—and was ready to finally arrive in Luang Prabang. Once at the bus station, all passengers were informed that the VIP bus had broken down and we would be taking a local bus—information we received well after our tuk-tuk driver gathered our bus tickets and exchanged them at the window. Fine. Whatever. No biggie.
For the next thirteen hours, I sat on a cramped bus with a new mother asleep on my right arm as the bus raced around corners and challenged its dying transmission on dirt hills. The driver was an aggressive motherfucker. More pressing, however, was the status of my feet: I now had cankles and the wound on my left food was regularly oozing.
I arrived in Luang Prabang around 6 a.m. on Wednesday, October 12.
Adjusting to the currency involved a steep learning curve. Laos uses the kip—but businesses and vendors also regularly accept baht and dollars, despite government directives—which has suffered such tremendous inflation that paying for things typically involves five digits. Budget rooms are typically 50,000 – 60,000 kip, sandwiches and coffee linger around 10,000 kip each, renting a bicycle for a day is 20,000 kip, and six doses of 400mg ibuprofen is 8,000 kip. Prices, compared to the dollar, are comparable to those in Thailand, but spending in thousands took some mental adjustment.
Luckily, I found a slightly grungy but super cheap guesthouse in a nice, central location: Paphai Guesthouse, which was in between the central road, Sisavangvong, and close to Kingkitsarat, the road that skirts the Nam Khan River—and began strolling.
The overwhelming majority of my time in Luang Prabang was spent on the peninsula, which juts into the meeting place of the Nam Khan and Mekong rivers. The third main road, Khem Khong, follows the Mekong. In hindsight, this limit contributed to my total lack of warmth towards Luang Prabang.
Simply stated, I didn’t like Luang Prabang because it didn’t feel like anyone lived there, but rather sold stuff to foreigners there. There was a disproportionate number of tourists to Laotians and the are of the city that I saw was disturbingly homogenous: French veneers that harkened back to Laos’s colonial days, pricey cafés, travel agencies, ritzy guesthouses, and shops full of stunning pewter wares that lost their luster when I saw the same goods outside of a convenience store. Indeed, the entire area appeared to function like a colonial veneer: pretty on the exterior, but too shallow to be scratched with any satisfaction.
Once, while in JoMa Bakery—a place that, in all fairness, thankfully makes no pretensions about being anything other than a Western-style transplant in Laos—I heard Bon Iver’s new album.
And then there was the time I helped carry two guys who weren’t breathing into a tuk-tuk.
Here’s a passage from an e-mail I wrote in the wake of the event:
“. . . I thought I carried two dead bodies two nights ago.I met up with a group of people I met at customs and there were two new guys. Around 2:30 a.m., they bought a gram of, what they believed to be, coke off of a tuk-tuk driver (all of whom deal). Around 3 a.m., they both go white and limp within 10mins of each other at a restaurant. The second guy mumbled, “–told us coke, but this isn’t like coke, man. I think was heroin?” So they both snorted half a G of heroin, possibly. If nothing else, it was the shittiest coke ever. Both turned ghost white and their lips went purple. Both were either not breathing and without a pulse or had the most minor of traces. I ended up helping carry both of them to a tuk-tuk bound for the hospital. Laos health care sucks for anything serious–you know, like an OD–so I doubted things worked out well for them.
“The next morning I was on my way to the hospital for some antibiotics for my foot and saw the group who went to the hospital coming out. It honestly took me 5 seconds before I believed it was them because I would have bet they died. The group told me both of the dudes’ hearts stopped a pair of times and they had to do CPR. They told me the hospital was shit–even showed me pics–and advised me not to go in. They said the nurses did shit and a doctor didn’t show up for 90 minutes after they arrived.”
This event, by the way, happened on my first night in Luang Prabang.
This excerpt brings me to another misfortune: my goddamn feet. Both were swollen and one was an open wound on the verge of festering. Additionally, my right shin was swollen from the second motorbike accident and repeatedly kicking the hell out of things at Rose Gym. As a result, I stayed away from the area’s beautiful waterfalls for fear of further infecting my foot, trekking for fear of exacerbating my injuries, and massages because my legs couldn’t stand a rigorous and violent Oriental-style massage.
I felt consistently thwarted in Luang Prabang. For one, the situation with my legs made even walking for long periods of time difficult. I wasn’t even able to do personal work to kill time because the 5,500-THB netbook I bought specifically for traveling broke sometime during my journey from Pai to Laos.
There wasn’t even a good selection of street food. I wandered and strolled—explored and meandered—and there was jack shit along the peninsula, just my grilled-banana lady, people with disgusting-looking fruit, a concentrated 100-yard-stretch of sandwich and coffee vendors, and fruit shakes. No fried rice, rare noodles, and little grilled meat (which isn’t on my menu, anyway). There were also plenty of tasty crèpe carts, but redundancy is not the spice of life.
But even when I attempted to maximize Luang Prabang and escape my hole of loathing and self-pity, the city laughed at me. Simple noodle places were hard to find, as the two I found were jammed in alleys between European-style restaurants. My first day there, I found a place to volunteer with little kids and teach English literacy. I picked up a brochure, but the map on it sucked so much that re-finding the place proved too difficult. Two different locals—a tuk-tuk driver and a cop—gave me two different sets of directions. For two days, I walked for forty-five minutes to attempt to find the place, but with no success either day.
I really did try to take advantage of Luang Prabang.
Not all was shit, though. I did eventually fall into a progressively comfortable routine. I read a lot at a beautiful, comfortable, and reasonably priced café near the end of the peninsula. I ate ungodly amounts of food, including delicious tofu sandwiches on warm baguettes and fruit shakes. And, every night at 7 p.m., I watched a movie in the upstairs lounge at L’Etranger Books & Tea; my line-up included Bad Teacher, Midnight in Paris, Slumdog Millionaire, and Hangover 2. I also took some awesome photos, if you’ll pardon some bragging, and was lucky enough to have my camera with me during the coincidental Bun Awk Phansa festival, which marked the end of the rainy season.
Unfortunately, I missed the part of the ceremony, after the parade, when participants cast their elaborate boats into the Mekong. The event was reportedly beautiful.
Luckily, I also met some friends along the way, including a pair of similarly-aged ladies—one from Scotland; the other from Australia—who had been bouncing around Southeast Asia for the past several months. We met each other at customs at Huay Xai, resulting in my twenty-four-hour nickname, Customs Guy. I met up with them most days, touring a wat, eating food, trying to catch the culmination of Bun Awk Phansa, drinking adult beverages, and general bull-shitting.
The couple from England-via-Slovenia, who I met in Pai, made some guest appearances in the city as well.
Not luckily, they were having troubles of their own. The pair, along with a couple others, accompanied the two guys to the hospital and participated in the thirty minutes of CPR. After leaving the hospital, they were understandably shaken by the complete lack of reported health care in Laos, alleging the nurses were incompetent, the doctor didn’t show up for ninety minutes, and the building itself was dirty and minimally stocked. Moreover, the two got their laundry ruined—resulting in an argument with a stubborn laundry woman—and one sliced open her toe her last day in the city.
On the day of the laundry mishap, we were determined to turn our fortunes and explore some of the more cultural aspects of Luang Prabang. Consequently, we made a trip up Phu Si Hill and explored the hilltop wat complex, which also offered us a stunning view of the city. It was at the top of Phu Si Hill that I realized the actual size—grand, much grander than the tiny old city to which I limited myself—of Luang Prabang.
We definitely had fun, but the three of us also definitely did not love Luang Prabang. Thankfully, they’re coming to Bangkok for a week at the beginning of November, so maybe we can make up for our shittier experiences.
Oddly enough, by my last two days in Luang Prabang, I began to slightly and regularly appreciate the place. My café was a gift from heaven, the Indian food was good, and there were cool people about, like the German guy I met who had spent the last six months cycling—and busing where he needed—from Mongolia to Laos. The midnight curfew—which can be mocked with a trip to the bowling alley—was a drag, but it did make for cool interactions at the guesthouse, like the one I had with the cyclist.
He had no idea when he’d be done with his trip.
Personally, I got a lot of benefit from a solo trip to Xieng Thong, a wat at sleepy tip of the peninsula. The temple was only an extra ten- to fifteen-minute-walk from my choice café, but I didn’t make it down there until my final stretch of days. Ugly-as-hell sign aside, I’m just happy I spent the extra time and energy to get down there—and with my camera.
There was also the astounding, delectable, expansive, inexpensive, and varied half city-block of vegetarian mess-plate vendors. The city’s nightly market, the Hmong Night Market, was comprised of mostly the same shit: beautiful textiles, charming art, Beerlao t-shirts, and pewter wares. Needless to say, it became boring after the second day of perusal. However, down a small road off of the Hmong Night Market was a deep line of tables displaying mounds of freshly cooked vegetarian food. The price was 10,000 kip—about forty baht, or $1.30—per plate, and it was heaped with all six items I indicated from the vendor’s line-up. That, along with my Beerlao Dark, was an ideal final dinner in Luang Prabang.
Although I was getting into a rhythm, I knew I had exhausted Luang Prabang as much as I could. I had accepted the part of the city for what it was—a tourist town—and was afforded some peace of mind. However, a tourist town can be squeezed only so much before going dry.
It was Monday, October 17, and time to leave for Vientiane.
But before then, a walk through a sloshing puddle of piss and—did I mention?—Thai/Laotian pop music blasted through bus speakers, and felt reverberated in the walls, from 10 p.m. until 6 a.m.
Sleeper bus? My fucking scrotum it was.
I’d go back to Luang Prabang, but after I see everything else in the world.
At least I got to play with my camera. I also decided that Luang Prabang rarely looked better in color.
I knew there was a reason I packed only my dad’s Minolta 50mm f/1.7 lens.