The Slow Journey from Laos to Vietnam (Mar 10-11): A Stop in Dien Bien Phu

My trip from Laos to Vietnam was even longer than the slow boat from Thailand to Laos (read about that journey here)! I went to a travel agency in Nong Khiaw to book my bus ticket for my next destination. I was wanting to do a 2-day trip into Vietnam by taking a 5-hour boat ride to Muang Khua, spending the night, then taking a bus to Dien Bien Phu and then an overnight bus to Sapa. However, I asked three different places and they all said no boat would be available unless I got a private one. I think it was actually because they could only sell bus tickets and not boat tickets, so they were telling me there wasn’t a boat (because the German guys took a boat TO Nong Khiaw). I was skeptical and was going to go straight to the boat office to see if I could get a ticket, but then I realised that I’d save time AND money by just taking the bus (even if it might make me more sick than a boat). My guesthouse quoted me 250000 kip, but the two travel agencies said 220000 kip ($35.42AUD) so I decided to go with one of them. The bus would go straight to Dien Bien Phu, and the sign said that it would take 11 hours, which I was hoping was an over-exaggeration. The guide said that if I wasn’t carsick once I got to Dien Bien Phu, I could continue to Sapa on the 10-hour nightbus. “And if you’re carsick, then you spend the night in Dien Bien Phu and leave for Sapa in the morning.” “And get carsick again?” I replied. I got up at about 6:30 so that I could get ready, pack up my stuff, and hopefully have breakfast before catching the bus. When I asked my guesthouse where I could get food and they suggested that they could make me something, I agreed. I still had just less than 20 minutes left until my 8am bus… but then it was 7:55 and they still hadn’t finished making my sandwich! I honestly didn’t know how it was taking so long to make a sandwich, and was nearly about to leave because I didn’t want to miss my bus. The man said 1 more minute so I decided to wait, but the lady was waiting for it to toast, and then slowly wrapped it in Saran Wrap. Finally she handed me the sandwich and I ran towards the travel agency. Turns out, I had nothing to worry about (as usual when I’m in a hurry) because we didn’t leave for about ten more minutes. When I got into the van, there were three other people inside and they all said that they were going to Luang Prabang, which is in the complete opposite direction of Dien Bien Phu. When the driver got in, I double-checked if the bus was going to Dien Bien Phu and he said yes. However, we started driving towards Luang Prabang. About ten minutes outside of town, the driver did a u-turn back towards town (thank goodness!) but then he just did another u-turn and started driving back. I think everyone in the van was confused as to what was happening, until he pulled over to pick up someone else. We continued our drive and he finally explained that he would be dropping me and the other person off in Pakmong, where we’d get on our respective buses. We got to Pakmong just after 9 and the driver said that my bus would come in 30 minutes. Again, all of the buses were written in Lao so I was hoping that someone would warn me when my bus was there. I ate my sandwich along with my last motion sickness pill, and about 40-45 minutes later, they made a call for Dien Bien Phu. This van was like a limo-van, so it was more like a bus. However, I was once again pushed to the back seat since most people must have already come from Luang Prabang.

There were only two other foreigners on the bus (a couple from Poland), but the rest of the people were locals. They were all friendly and tried to make conversation using the English that they knew, and even shared some oranges with everyone on the bus. The Polish girl was extremely ill, but I’m glad that she was keeping her sickness to herself because I probably would have gotten sick too. I didn’t find the ride too bad actually – but the roads got worse and worse as the ride continued. At about 12pm, the bus stopped for food and a toilet stop (which was the only toilet stop we got on the 11-hour trip – any other stops were on the side of the road when all of the guys got off the bus, and the girls stayed on). This is when it’s tough not knowing the language because had I known we would have been stopped there for 45 minutes, I probably would have ordered some food. However, me and the Polish couple just sat and enjoyed the fresh air. At about 5pm, we arrived at the border. For the first time ever, I actually had to pay to LEAVE a country, which only cost 10000 kip ($1.61). We then had to show our stamped passports to the guards before getting back on the bus, cross the border, get back off, and go through the Panghok border crossing into Vietnam. This is where my research came in handy because I knew that this border crossing didn’t accept e-visas or visas-on-arrival, so I HAD to plan ahead and get my Vietnam visa beforehand or I wouldn’t be let in. I spent a lot more than I should have on my visa ($100), but I didn’t want to risk getting it done in Luang Prabang and having it take too long (Note: I talked to Abbey, who just got that done in Luang Prabang, and she said that the process was extremely smooth). The man just stamped my passport and let me go through. Then there was a guy working the “Medical Examination” room who said hello, and I was confused about having to go through. He asked if I had money to exchange. I was told that I had to change my Lao money IN Laos, or I wouldn’t be able to change it later, so I was thankful that he was there. I got all of my Lao kip changed into Vietnamese dong, left the building, gave my passport to the guards to look at, and then got back on the bus. By that time, we only had just over an hour left until we’d get to Dien Bien Phu, so we got to enjoy the beautiful sunset behind the mountains.

We arrived in Dien Bien Phu at about 7pm and were SURROUNDED by people as we got off the bus, who kept asking if we wanted a taxi. I walked across the street to the bus terminal, but found out that the night bus had already left about an hour ago. Therefore, my options were to take a bus at either 6:30am or 9:30am the next day. As much as I wanted to take the 9:30 bus, I wouldn’t end up arriving in Sapa until at least 5:30pm so I decided to take the 6:30 bus. It cost me 227000 dong ($13.39), and the lady told me I had to be at the station by 6am. Great… I left the station (which was on an extremely busy street) and turned left on the next block. I was slowly walking around, trying to find a guesthouse, when someone yelled, “Hello? Guesthouse?” I asked how much and when he replied 200000 dong ($11.80), I said okay. I went into Tuan Minh Guest House, where he gave me a key and led me to my room. I mean, it wasn’t the nicest of rooms.. there were some burn marks on the bedspread from cigarettes, and the bed was literally the hardest bed I’ve felt in my life – I felt like I was sleeping on a table. I kid you not… I actually knocked on the bed a few times just to make sure it wasn’t made of wood. But it was cheap and less than a five minute walk away from the station, so I really couldn’t complain. At about 8pm, I realised that I’d need more money for the next day (since I had spent almost all of my dong on the bus ticket and guest house) so I set off to find an ATM, which was a 700-metre walk away and seemed to be the only one in the area. Unfortunately, it only allowed 2000000 dong as a maximum withdrawal (about $120) so it would have to do – I wasn’t going to spend another $5 to withdraw twice. I then needed to find food… Pretty much all that was around were street food vendors, so I found a place across the street from the station, where I ordered beef pho and a coke for 40000 dong ($2.36).

The thing that I didn’t realise about Vietnamese cuisine is that they put cilantro/coriander in everything. Not only that, but at this restaurant, they also gave a huge bowl of MORE cilantro to add. I would be lying if I said that I didn’t struggle eating this pho, since that soapy taste took over the whole dish (darn genetics!). I took note to make sure I say, “No green!” anytime I order food in the future. I headed back to my room to have an early night before another long day of travel.

On Monday morning, I got to the station by 6am, gave them my bag, got some snacks, and we left at 6:30. This time, I was the only foreigner in the van. Only me and one lady ended up going all the way from Dien Bien Phu to Sapa, but many other people came on and got off along the way. We stopped about an hour and a half outside of Sapa in a town called Tam Duong at noon, where we were given 40 minutes to have lunch. The thing that I loved about this stop was that everyone on the bus sat at a table together, even though most people had just met that day (whereas in most western countries, people always separate at rest stops). I sat down with all of the locals, and one of them (the only one who seemed to speak any English) asked if I wanted rice or soup, so I said soup. It was only 25000 dong ($1.48)! I enjoyed my pho at the table with a bunch of locals, who continued their conversations and gave me friendly smiles every once in awhile. We all got back on the bus and continued our journey to Sapa. Then, the driver pulled over at a little shack, yelled something inside, and someone came and I could feel the van slowly rising. Next thing I knew, the guy had one of the tires in his hands! I wasn’t sure if this was a regular occurrence, but it was interesting watching the mechanic work on the tire. Once we got our tire back on, we drove the rest of the way to Sapa (and thank goodness the tire was fixed because the roads were horrendous at this point!) and made it in exactly 8 hours, at 2:30pm. Love always

Nong Khiaw (Mar 8-10): A Quiet Mountain Town and Phadeng Peak

The trip to Nong Khiaw was the squishiest ride that I’ve been on so far. I booked my ticket from my hostel in Luang Prabang, and it cost 85000 kip ($13.69AUD). I was told that it would come at 8:30, but it showed up ten minutes early and I joined an older couple in the back of a tuktuk. I thought, “This will be nice! There’s only three of us.” But then, the driver stopped at another place and picked up one more person, and then another place and picked up one more person, and then continued stopping until there were about ten of us packed in. All of our luggage was professionally stacked in the middle, as if the driver had done this a million times.

I could hardly see the people across from me because the luggage was stacked so high. About a half hour later, we stopped at the van, where we all had to get out of the tuktuk, grab our things to put in the van, and get in. This was the disadvantage of being one of the first ones picked up – I was one of the last ones off of the tuk tuk, and the last one to enter the van so I was forced to the middle seat in the back, sandwiched between a random guy and the huge stack of luggage, some of which was taking up half of my seat space. My only two options were to 1) squish behind the big bulge coming into my seat, or 2) rest my head on the bag and use it as a pillow. Within the first five minutes of us moving, I suddenly remembered my motion sickness pills. I guess I forgot to take them 30 minutes beforehand, and they COULD end up making me feel drowsy, but I wasn’t going to take any chances this time. I’d rather face drowsiness than one or two days of feeling sick. It wasn’t a hugely swerve-y ride, but it was definitely a bumpy ride!! Many times, I couldn’t help bouncing into the guy right beside me. Luckily, the ride wasn’t too long and we arrived about three hours later, right at noon. Nong Khiaw is a not-so-secret mountain village, and it’s absolutely breathtaking with the surrounding mountains.

There weren’t any hostels advertised online, so I had to book my own room in a guesthouse, called Meexai Guesthouse, for a whopping 129000 kip per night ($20.77). However, it WAS nice to have my own room and bathroom for more than one night, especially with a king-sized bed (starfish position all night!). I checked in and oddly enough, they didn’t ask for any payment and said I’d pay at check out, which was very trusting of them. I got settled and then decided to go have lunch. I went to a restaurant closeby called Noymany Restaurant, which was known for a nice patio but slow service. I prepared myself and asked for the wifi password, but they didn’t have wifi (as well as many of the other restaurants in this town). Laos is the only country that I didn’t get a SIM card – not because it was expensive, but because I was only in Laos for a week and figured I wouldn’t need it. However, it made me realise how useful it was to have a SIM card because often when I’m on my bus or waiting for a train, I can research places to stay and things to do in the area that I’m going to. Since I wasn’t able to do that, I found myself wasting time at my accommodation because I’d spend my time researching stuff there instead of going out and doing what I had planned. I had actually planned most of this trip over a year ago, back when I was stuck doing my farmwork in Australia and had nothing else to do. I read blogs, looked at Pinterest, researched travel itineraries, and planned out my route. And I typed out a 6.5-page document to guide me through my trip. When I first started my trip, I ignored the guide and did what I wanted instead, but then when I looked at the guide later, I realised that all of the things that I ended up doing were on the list anyway. Obviously, no one knows myself like I do, so I’m very thankful that my past self prepared this document for my present self! In the document, all I wrote for Nong Khiaw was to do the 100 Waterfalls Trek. It’s supposed to be one of the best hikes to do, and has even been featured on a television show (which is why Nong Khiaw has now gained so much popularity). However, I didn’t realise that I’d have to pay to take a guide on this hike. And the cheapest amount that I heard of was 180000 kip ($30)! I’ve never paid this much to do a hike, and wasn’t really feeling like paying my entire daily budget to do it. I hummed and hawed for awhile, and eventually decided against taking the hike. It’s probably for the best because that day, I ended up getting sick. Again. At the restaurant, I ordered a green curry soup and an iced coffee for 33000 kip ($5.31).

However, I’ve noticed that ever since I reached northern Thailand (and Laos), my stomach has been a lot more sensitive to the foods. This has led me to believe that they must use MSG (monosodium glutamate, or E621 for all of you European folk) in their foods, which I react to quite badly. I was also suspicious about this when I was reading reviews about another restaurant in the area, and many of the reviews said that the other restaurant didn’t use MSG. So I figured other restaurants MUST be using MSG. Either that, or I reacted to the condensed milk that they put in their coffee, which makes it beyond sweet. Anyway, I did a brief walk around the town but then ended up spending the rest of the afternoon in my room until I started feeling better again, which wasn’t until later in the evening, when I had dinner.

I decided to go to an Indian restaurant this time (which can also be hit or miss with my stomach) and went to Deen Restaurant, where I ordered a chicken korma and chai latte for 46000 kip ($7.41).

It was absolutely delicious (and so I happily returned there the next evening!). I didn’t get back to my room until about 9pm and when I did, I was really struggling with opening my door. There were two German guys sitting on their patio two doors down, so one came over to help and couldn’t open it either. Then the other one came and finally got it open, but I didn’t even end up going in because we stayed out and chatted until about midnight. They were on a 3-week vacation and had just come from Vietnam (so they were doing the opposite route to me), and they were both really down-to-earth, nice guys. It’s always those people who I really get along with (such as Paulina in Chiang Rai) who I never end up exchanging information with, or even get a name in this case. But I enjoyed our three hours of conversation!

On Saturday morning, I decided to do the viewpoint hike, which climbs to the top of Phadeng Peak. First, I went for breakfast at a nearby restaurant called Alex Restaurant and got the Farmer Breakfast, which was by far the tastiest meal I had in Laos!

The meal came with an omelette (which was amazing and was made with dill, among other things, but why have I never put dill in my omelette before?! It takes it to the next level for sure!), cooked squash, kaipen (crispy riverweed, which is like seaweed but without the fishy taste – it was so good!), and sticky rice with a delicious eggplant dip. It was so much food, but I ended up eating it all because it was so amazing! Not only that, but with the coffee, they gave condensed milk AND actual milk so that I had the choice. All of that for 33000 kip ($5.31)! After breakfast, I headed back to my room to get everything ready for my walk, and then set off to the entry point. I had to pay 20000 kip ($3.22) to enter, and was greeted by a sign that said I had to worry about something OTHER than snakes and other creatures – unexploded bombs that were still in the area, because Nong Khiaw was one of the most bombed areas in Laos in the 60s by the US.

I was told that it would take at least one hour to go up and then about 45 minutes back down. I decided to wear my compression bands for my knees and I’m so glad I did! It was a constant uphill battle for the majority of the hike. I was going higher and higher and was already out of breath when I came to a rest area with benches and swings, where two British girls were taking a rest. I checked my watch and it had only been 8 minutes… I was doomed. I chatted with the two girls for awhile and then continued on my way. I took multiple breaks and was so thankful that I brought two water bottles because I was nearly done the first one after I had reached the halfway point. After about 40 minutes, I finally got out of the heat and reached a rainforest-like area, which was considerably cooler (yet still not quite cool enough!). I reached the top after about an hour and ten minutes, and I spent at least an hour up there. When I checked my phone, it said that I had climbed 130 flights of stairs – the most I’ve ever done on this trip! No wonder I was so tired… It was surprisingly busy when I first arrived, with about 10-15 people at the top, but once everyone got their selfies and left, I got to enjoy the whole place by myself. The haze had already started to settle in, so it wasn’t a completely clear view but it was still really nice!

I made my way back down and caught up with Hannah and Robyn, who had already started heading back so I walked the rest of the way down with them. They were both planning to move to Australia after their Asia travels (as many travellers here do), and one of the girls did her farmwork and stayed in the same hostel as me when I was in Mildura – such a small world! By the time we got back to the bottom, my legs were feeling like jelly so I went back to my room (they had to catch the bus to their next destination) and showered. I then went to a restaurant to enjoy a banana smoothie with the sunset and as I was leaving, two other girls (a German and French girl) were leaving and invited me to join them for dinner.

They were going to the same Indian restaurant that I had went to the night before (which I was fine with) so I ordered some chicken tikka masala with naan.

I had been looking forward to having dessert this time because they had gulab jamun on their menu – one of my favourite things, which I haven’t actually noticed on any other Indian menus during my travels. Unfortunately, they were out of them so I STILL didn’t get to have any. Maybe next time… One of the girls said that she had done the 100 Waterfalls Hike and because it was dry season, there wasn’t much of a waterfall. She said that it wasn’t really worth paying for, so I didn’t need to have any regrets about not doing it! I had to catch my bus at 8am the next morning, so I went back to my room to organise my things and go to bed so I could get up early enough to have breakfast before starting the extremely long journey into Vietnam. Love always

Luang Prabang (Mar 4-8): Kuang Si, Tak Bat, and a (Half-)Day in the Life of a Rice Farmer

My time in Luang Prabang (pronounced Loo-ong Prah-bong) was quite long – perhaps a bit TOO long with the amount of stuff that there was to do there (I think that three nights would be the perfect amount of time). It was still nice to have a place to relax and not feel guilty about it. Luang Prabang is another UNESCO World Heritage City, and it has a sort of charm to it. However, one of the things that I definitely noticed was the amount of stray cats and dogs that didn’t seem to be cared for. There are stray cats and dogs everywhere, but most of them still seem to be taken care of (especially in Pai – many dogs are almost fat!). Here, many of the dogs (and cats especially) looked so sad, with really rough fur/skin, and they definitely didn’t look healthy. It was difficult to see, especially when they’d come up to your table while eating at a restaurant.

The tuk-tuk arrived in the “city” centre (which still has a village-like feel) just after 5pm, and I realised that I still had a ten-minute walk to my hostel. This was also the time when all of the vendors started setting up their stalls for the night market, so I had to weave back and forth around tents being set up, and be careful not to step on the mats that they had placed on the cement.

I was staying at Smile Hostel, which cost 70,000 kip ($11.52AUD) per night for a 6-bed female dorm. This was a bit more expensive than some of the other places in the city, but it had the best hostel breakfast that I’ve had on this trip (they have a menu of scrambled or fried eggs or an omelette or banana pancakes with ham or sausage, and fruit). Plus it had the cutest puppy!

I got to my hostel and reorganised for a bit before going to Nang Tao for dinner. It was an extremely quiet family-run restaurant, and when I saw Khao Soi, I didn’t hesitate to order it. However, I quickly realised that Lao Khao Soi is very different from Thai Khao Soi, and is made from minced meat, noodles, and vegetables in a broth (almost like a hamburger soup).

That and a coke only cost me 20,000 kip ($3.22). I walked around the night market, which I was excited about because I had read that the prices in Laos are a lot cheaper than Thailand because Thailand gets a lot of its products FROM Laos. However, I found that most of the things (not only at the night market, but also entrance into temples, transport, accommodation, etc.) were a lot more pricey than they were in Thailand.

On Tuesday, I was planning to go to Kuang Si Waterfall, which is about a 45-60 minute ride outside of the city. The hostel offers three minivans per day, but the van will only stay for 2.5 hours and I didn’t want to be rushed. Luckily at breakfast, I overheard some other people planning to go so I said I would join them in getting a tuktuk. We walked down the road and were able to talk one of the drivers down to 180,000 kip (so 36,000 kip/$5.80 each), and we convinced him to stay for four hours. The scenery on the way there was beautiful! Once we got there, I picked up some food at a street vendor and then made my way inside, and we had to pay 20000 kip ($3.22) each to enter.

In order to get to the waterfall, we actually had to walk through an enclosure housing a bunch of bears. These bears are part of the “Free the Bears” project, which saved the bears before they reached the bear bile farms. Bear bile is used in traditional medicine for liver and gallbladder problems, but bears live horrible lives on these farms, confined in small cages, where their bile is constantly extracted either by ‘free drip,’ where a hole is put in their gallbladders or they have a permanent catheter inserted. Obviously, it’s better for them to be in the wild but this protects them from the poachers, and is run by the Government of Laos.

We kept walking along the path and eventually came upon a pristine blue pool, with a few small waterfalls going into it. As we kept walking higher and higher, the amount of waterfalls seemed to multiply. We then made it up to the top, where there was a massive waterfall! It really was quite stunning, especially with the surrounding blue in the pools (which was very inviting to swim in!).

We all ate some lunch and then decided to climb up to the top of the waterfall, where we could walk over it and come back down the other side. There honestly wasn’t much to see at the top – just a viewpoint and a sign that said there was a cave 3km away.

We decided to make our way down the other side, but it was a lot steeper and difficult to go down. When we had gotten about halfway down, someone had walked by and asked if we had went to the cave and we said no. She said that it was really nice and worth walking to. I was already fine with going back down to enjoy the waterfalls, but the other four decided to climb back up so that they could go to the cave. I found one of the pools to swim in, set all of my stuff in an area that I could watch, and had to walk along the top of a set of falls in order to get to a quiet pool on the other side. Some people were nonchalantly running across the top of the waterfall, and it was freaking me out! I definitely took it slow and made my way to the other side, where I sat for two hours and people-watched. The water was so cold so I didn’t actually swim in it – I just sat in it with my feet in the pool. The group said that they would be quick and come back down as soon as they could so I was surprised that at 3:10, they still hadn’t come down since we were supposed to be back at the tuktuk at 3:30. However, I figured that maybe I just missed them when they walked by. I got out, changed, walked back to the tuktuk, and made it there RIGHT at 3:30. However, it was only the driver who was there. I sat in the back and we waited for about 15 minutes before everyone else showed up. They said that they left the cave at 2:30 and were going as fast as they could, so it took them over an hour to get back. By the time we got back to our hostel, it was just before 5pm so I showered and then all of the people from the slowboat arrived. I went for dinner with a girl from Russia, where we split a couple of dishes and paid 27,000 kip ($4.35) each. We then walked around the night market and headed back to the hostel.

On Wednesday, I decided to explore the city (which can take less than two hours), so it really ended up just being a day of walking around, sitting in cafes, and relaxing. Many of the temples ended up charging 20000 kip ($3.22) to enter, which was a bit too pricey for me and because I’ve already been in many temples, I decided to just look at them from a distance. Luang Prabang also has a few bamboo bridges, which are only there during dry season (during wet season, they get washed away and then they have to build new ones), and they charged 10000 kip to cross (which goes towards building the new one). Again, I decided to just enjoy it from a distance. It’s not that much money, but paying for little things multiple times adds up quick!

I was walking back towards the hostel right before sunset and noticed all of the people climbing up Mount Phousi to get the perfect few. I decided to walk to the riverside instead, get a smoothie, and enjoy it from there.

I went to @Phonheuang Cafe later that night for dinner, ordered fried sukiyaki (which is a noodle dish), and it ended up being the best meal that I had in Luang Prabang.

And only for 25000 kip ($4.03)! While I was sitting there, a German guy (Mike) ended up sitting at the table next to me so we ended up talking until after the restaurant closed.

On Thursday morning, I had booked a half-day tour at the Living Land Rice Farm. This tour was definitely the most expensive tour that I’ve paid for at 344000 kip ($55.38), but I knew I’d regret it if I didn’t go, and it had amazing reviews so I knew I’d enjoy it. The project was started almost 15 years ago by some local families who put their land together to grow rice and organic vegetables. They support community projects and offer free English classes to village children, as well as offer their land to the northern college for students who need to do practical work for agriculture school, so I knew that I’d be supporting a good cause. They picked me up at my hostel at 8am and drove me to the farm, which was only about 15 minutes away. It was absolutely beautiful!

Laos has surprised me with how lush and green it’s been everywhere. There were only five of us in the group – two sisters from the States, and two guys from the UK. We started by being shown how to pick out the good grains of dried rice (to later plant). Our guide added salt in some water, and then took out any of the grains that were floating because it meant that they were empty.

He then took us out to the mud, where we were told to take off our shoes and walk through the fields barefoot. He showed how to make a mound of mud to sprinkle the rice grains on, and eventually they’d start to grow. We had to rip out some of the already grown ones (roots and all) to replant in the fields.

However, before we replanted them, we got to meet Rudolphe, their buffalo, who had to walk through the muddy water to plow through the mud in order to mix it around.

Then, we were ready to replant the sprouts! We took four or five at a time and had to stick them into the mud about a foot away from each other. The guide said that they’d be submerged in water for ten days, and then they’d drain and block the water for ten days.

We then went to another field where the rice was fully grown, and had to use a sickle to cut and tie a bundle. Then we’d have to lay the bundles to dry for a few days.

After the bundles were dry, we had to thresh the bundles (hit them against a piece of wood) in order to loosen all of the grains. Then, we’d take a fan and swing it over the pile to get rid of all of the empty grains.

He then showed us the three main carrying methods used by different tribes, who would have to carry the rice many kilometres.

We were shown how the rice had to be hammered by using a huge device, and then sorted to get rid of the rest of the bad rice. The sorting is a woman’s job and if a woman couldn’t do it correctly, she couldn’t get married.

That definitely put the pressure on! The rice could then be further ground into a flour to make noodles. Then he showed us how the rice was steamed for 15 minutes, flipped, and steamed for another 15 minutes in order to make sticky rice, which is a staple in the Lao culture.

Between all of these steps, we were also able to find time to watch how weaving is done using bamboo (the men were so friendly and kept making us rings and bracelets!), how to use manual bellows to feed a fire, which would heat some metal so it could be hammered into a sickle or other tool, and then the two guys from the UK used another tool to squeeze all of the juice out of some sugarcane so that we could all enjoy a couple glasses of sugarcane juice. It was actually incredible how much liquid was able to come out of a bundle of sugarcane!

We were shown the nursery and garden, which had a huge assortment of vegetables. Then at the very end, we were able to enjoy multiple rice products! Everyone eats with their hands, so we took the sticky rice, squished it in little balls, and dipped it in a Chili paste/buffalo skin mixture (yes, you read that right!) – it was actually so delicious! I ended up being the only one who finished all of my rice. We also tried some rice wine, which was extremely strong!

It really was such a good experience and I’m so glad I did it! I went back to the hostel to relax for a couple of hours but then I was starving so I walked to a French cafe that a couple of the girls recommended to me. Although it was quite expensive, it was still nice to have some French pastries (there were so many French restaurants in Luang Prabang since it was part of the French Colonial Empire years ago – also, the amount of French people who travel Thailand and Laos is insane! I could hear French everywhere I went).

I went back to the hostel to visit for a bit, and then met up with Mike for dinner. We then went to the night market, where he bought so much stuff. This made it more tempting for me to buy things (I’ve been so good with convincing myself not to buy anything!). I stayed strong though, and didn’t get anything. I went back to my hostel and Abbey had just arrived (not by coincidence this time – I told her where I was staying), so we chatted for a bit before I went to bed.

On Friday morning, I was leaving for my next destination at 8:30. However, I decided to wake up to watch the Buddhist Alms Giving Ceremony (tak bat). It has occurred in many of the past cities that I’ve been in, but it starts before the sun rises (around 5:30), so I’ve been too lazy to wake up for it. However, I was told that they come on the street right in front of the hostel at 6am so this time, I didn’t really have an excuse. I tried to set an alarm a couple of days earlier and just rolled over and went back to bed, so I was determined to get up this time, especially since two other girls in my room decided to go as well. Tak bat is a daily ceremony when the monks go and collect food (alms) from the locals, who usually give sticky rice or fresh fruit to make merit. The monks go down the streets in meditation and collect this food for their one meal per day, and don’t have a kitchen so the food is already prepared. We decided not to take part in giving food (because we were told that they expect the food to be made with love at home and not just bought from a street vendor) and instead just watch. I’ve also read that this ceremony has become such a big spectacle for tourists, and many of the locals have refused to take part anymore because they feel like the sanctity of the ceremony is ruined. A lot of people take pictures with flash and then chase after the monks in order to get a good picture. We weren’t on the main street so it was pretty quiet where we were, but I was surprised as to how many flashes I saw in the distance, as well as how many people were following the monks when the ceremony was over. It was interesting seeing how the locals (and some tourists) just took a pinch of rice to give to each monk (there were hundreds of them) – I definitely wasn’t expecting it to be like that.

It was a very quiet and peaceful ceremony to watch, even though I still felt guilty for doing so. As interesting as it is to see other cultures and religions, I guess I wouldn’t go around taking pictures of people doing communion in church (maybe cause I grew up with it), so it’s hard not to feel disrespectful by being there. It still was a beautiful sight to see, with a sea of orange robes coming down the street. After about 20 minutes, we went back into the hostel and I knew I wouldn’t be able to go back to sleep so instead, we all just made coffee and visited until about 7:30. I went upstairs to pack up my stuff, came back down for breakfast, and then my bus came early so I rushed off to head to Nong Khiaw. Love always

The Slow Boat from Thailand to Laos (Mar 3-4)

On the morning of my trip into Laos, I got up at 4:45 (after having less than 5 hours of sleep), packed up my stuff, and went downstairs for breakfast. I only took two pancakes and two bananas, but as soon as I took the first bite of a pancake, I started heating up and felt like I was going to throw up again. I kept forcing myself to eat because I didn’t want to be rude, especially since the hostel owner had gotten up at 5am to prepare everything for me. It was definitely a struggle, and I had to keep taking bites with coffee just so that I could get it down. We left at about 5:50 and the hostel owner drove me to the bus station so that I could catch the first bus to the Laos border at 6am. She gave me a big hug and sent me on my way – she was so sweet! I got on the bus, which only had one empty seat left (it seemed like there was a big group of people travelling together), and paid 100 baht ($4.36) for my trip to the border (just outside the city of Chiang Khong). The process was actually a lot more straightforward than what I was expecting! The price of that bus is actually 65 baht per person, but then they normally drop us off at a tuk tuk station and we would have to pay for a tuk tuk to go the rest of the way to the border. Because there were so many of us in the bus, they just charged us 100 baht each and took us straight to the border, which saved us one step. When we got to the border, we had to use our departure cards to leave Thailand (which they give you with your arrival card when you get INTO Thailand, so it’s important to keep it safe). Lucky for me, most of the people had lost their departure cards and therefore had to fill out new ones, so I was able to go straight to custom control without a lineup. Then I had to pay to take a bus across Friendship Bridge, which would bring me to Laos customs. The ticket only cost 25 baht ($1.09) and then the stand also exchanged Thai baht into Lao kip. However, normally the ticket is 20 baht but because it was before 8:30 (and therefore outside of office hours), I had to pay 5 baht extra.

I decided to exchange a bit of baht into kip, just so that I’d have some money on the other side of the border. We had to wait for less than five minutes and then everyone boarded the bus, which took us across the bridge. Then, we had to fill out two forms to apply for the Laos Visa-on-Arrival. I was so happy that I got on the first bus across the bridge because the line kept getting longer and longer. I filled out both of the forms (one for a Visa application, and one was an arrival/departure card) and found a passport picture stored deep in my backpack (which I had actually forgotten about, but luckily I travel prepared!). I then stood in the first line to hand in my passport, forms, and picture, and then I had to go into the second line, where they would get us to pay for the visa in order to get our passports back. As a Canadian citizen, I had to pay $43 US ($58.86AUD) so I gave $103 and got three 20s back. I then took those 20s to the currency exchange so that I could get more kip, because I realised that I’d use all of the kip I had to buy my boat ticket. I stood in line, finally got to the front, and she said that she wouldn’t take my money because there was a stamp on it. I was so mad because I had already stood in line for awhile, plus I was tired and still feeling sick, and I tried to explain that I had gotten the bills from the visa booth. She told me to go back there and return when I had new 20’s. Livid, I walked back to the visa counter and cut in front of the extremely long line to explain, and the man easily exchanged my bills. I went back to the currency exchange, waited in line once again, and she REALLY examined the bills. She pointed out a crease down the middle of one of the bills and said that she’d only exchange two of the 20s. Whatever. I couldn’t be bothered anymore – I was too sick and too tired to care (Note: the currency exchange in Luang Prabang exchanged this bill easily.. this lady was just being difficult). I got my money and went to the ticket booth to buy my ticket for the slow boat. There are two options to get into Laos – the first is to take a bus and the second is to take a slow boat (which is two 7-8 hour days). I had been trying to book a ticket beforehand so that I’d have proof that I’d be leaving Thailand but when I asked a company about it (Mekong Smile Cruises), they quoted me $700USD because as of March 1st, it was “low season” so if 6 people joined, they’d lower the price down to $130 per person! I said absolutely not, and decided that I’d just play it by ear when I got there. I’m extremely glad I made that decision as well because I was able to do it A LOT cheaper on my own (about $28USD!). I had read that the boat left at either 10:30 or 11, but was surprised to see the sign that said it left at 11:30.

It was only 9am so I’d have a lot of time to kill! I walked to the booth to buy boat tickets, which would cost 210,000 kip ($34.57). However, even though the signs said 210,000, they charged me 270,000 kip ($43.47) to include the tuktuk. I knew that this was a legitimate charge because I read that you have to take a tuktuk to the Thailand border, a bus across the bridge to the Laos border, then a tuktuk to the slowboat. I paid and then they gave me a badge to wear around my neck, which I would later exchange for the boat ticket.

About 7 of us got in the back of a songthaew and they drove us to a shop, which would be our only opportunity to buy food and water for the day (luck was on my side!). They also said that we could book accommodation and buy SIM cards if we wanted. It almost seemed like a tour company because they were only selling rooms for one type of accommodation, so I went on my phone and found my own place. Before my trip, I was told not to book anything in advance and instead walk past all of the people when I arrive, tell them I have a reservation, and then just show up to a hotel because they would charge you a lot less. However, I still wasn’t feeling very well and just wanted a piece of mind that I’d have a room with a bed and bathroom when I arrived. I honestly wasn’t even sure if spending 7.5 hours on a boat that day was a smart idea, but I just wanted to get to Luang Prabang because I’d have four nights there and could find a clinic if I needed. I booked a room on Agoda at BKC Villa 2 with my own queen-sized bed, a river view, and my own bathroom for a whopping $17.90, which was cheaper than some of the dorm rooms I stayed at in Taiwan, and almost half the amount of staying in a dorm room in Australia! After booking my room, I found some water and soup crackers for 20,000 kip ($3.22), as well as a sandwich for 15,000 kip ($2.42) in hopes that I’d eventually want to eat it. Just before 10:30, they drove us to the slow boat, where we had to wait to get our tickets, and then could board the boat. They said that day, we only needed to SHOW our tickets to the driver because we’d need to keep the tickets for tomorrow or we wouldn’t be able to get onto that boat.

We were able to board the boat, which was set up the same way that an airplane might be set up, with a set of three seats on both sides. They were actually wooden benches (which looked like pews) with cushions on each spot, and papers with numbers on each cushion. We all had numbers on our tickets, and I was assigned to a middle seat but luckily a couple wanted to sit together, so I traded and got an aisle seat.

There were over 100 people on the boat (my seat number was 95), and it nearly filled up. We hadn’t even left yet and my butt was already hurting, so I wasn’t sure how I’d survive the 7.5-hour trip. Luckily when we left, one person on my bench went to one of the empty benches at the back of the boat, and about an hour later, her boyfriend followed suit. Therefore, I got an entire bench to myself for the rest of the trip, so I was able to shift as many times as I wanted! By that time, my appetite actually came back so I was able to eat my sandwich and didn’t even end up feeling sick afterwards! The trip was really relaxing and I spent the time going from blog-writing to doing crosswords to just listening to music and taking pictures.

They said that we wouldn’t arrive until 7pm, but we ended up getting to Pakbeng right after 6. There was a huge crowd of people waiting, and many were trying to sell rooms to their establishments.

To get off, we had to balance along a metre-long board. Then, a bunch of kids crowded around and kept pointing to my bag. I wasn’t sure if they were asking for food, or offering to carry it for me, but I just kept saying no since it was the only water and food I had. I saw a sign for my accommodation held by a boy who wouldn’t have been older than 12, so he walked me to where the guesthouse was, which was only about three minutes up the hill and was likely the first hotel on the road, which was nice! They didn’t even ask for my passport or my name when I got there – they just gave me a key and pointed to my room.

I’ve never been more excited to shower and go to bed! However, I figured I should probably eat something, so I went across the street to Pakbeng Guesthouse, ordered fried rice with chicken for 25,000 kip ($4.03), and then went back to my room to shower and go to bed.

On Monday morning, I woke up after a long 9.5-hour snooze and packed up my stuff before going across the street to get some coffee and a sandwich for that day.

The boat was meant to leave at 9am and we wouldn’t arrive in Luang Prabang until about 4pm, so we were in for another long boat ride. I got to the boat at about 10 minutes to 9 and by that time, half of the boat was already full. The full part of the boat had tables, so all that was left in the back of the boat were seats that literally seemed to be taken out of multiple cars (and therefore reclined!), so they were set up two by two down the middle of the boat and along the sides. I grabbed one of the seats along the side right before the huge 10+ group of British people (who spent the entire boatride drinking the day before) came and took all of the remaining seats. Unlike the day before, there wasn’t any room to spread out so I was confined to my one seat and the girl beside me seemed to take not only her own part of the seat but also part of mine (for no reason other than not seeming to realise that there were two separate seats). Anyway, I just put my earphones in to tune everything out, and kept myself busy for the next seven hours.

Again, it went by quite fast and we arrived in Luang Prabang at about 4:30pm. They dropped us off quite far out of the city so we had to grab all of our stuff, go up a whole bunch of stairs to get to the road, and pay 20,000 kip ($3.22) per person to get a tuktuk to the city centre, which was about 10 kilometres away. Luckily, I got on one of the first ones (since the majority of the people who were on the boat seemed to be travelling with tour groups, so they had to get sorted out first) so I arrived in the city centre just after 5pm. However, I’ll save Luang Prabang for another post. Love always