Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Luang Prabang - Xieng Khuang - Vientiane

100 Photographs from the whole trip are on Photobucket at:  http://s935.photobucket.com/albums/ad200/jnelson1944/Laos%202011/

Before I continue a closing thought about Luang Prabang, if you will permit me. The monks make their morning journey collecting alms and they are constantly accosted by tourists, mostly Chinese and European. They crowd the monks and basically show no respect at all. It would be a simple thing for the city of Luang Prabong to cordon off the street and allow room. The monks and the people who pay respect by giving food would have room and could experience the morning as it was meant to be. The tourist would have better pictures because other tourists wouldn’t be in the way! It is a world heritage city, this shouldn’t be to hard to accomplish. We won’t even bitch about the Europeans smoking everywhere although the no smoking signs are abound.
They deserve respect!
We hired a van to take us from Luang Prabang to Xien Khuang to see the Plain of Jars and then take us on to Vientiane. Not the cheapest way to go, but for my money it was an excellent choice. There are two descriptions of the road. From Luang Prabang to Xien Khuang and then to Van Vieng it could be described as 300 miles of road that twists and turns like the road to Rocky Mountain National Park, or up and down Doi Intanai. There are some slight differences however. As you imagine this, remove all the guard rails, never let the road get wider than two narrow lanes and add cattle every mile or so! The Road from Van Vieng to Vientiane has fewer sharp curves, but large portions are either under construction or really need repair.
Way too cute, he was at a rest stop on the way
Xien Khuang is the town nearest to the Plain of Jars. Phonsavan is actually the name of the town and Xieng Khuang the province. All the Lao, except just a few refer to the town by the name of Xien Khuang.
The Craters Cafe, You can't miss it! 
Most interesting, to me, are the NGO projects clearing the Unexploded Ordinance from the 60’s and 70’s. You do know about the secret was in Laos that America and North Vietnam waged. The North Vietnam used Laos to transport logistics into South Vietnam. They denied having any military in Laos. They lied! America responded by bombing Laos into oblivion. Of course, denial was the word of the decade! Everyone lied and the Lao people suffered. America dropped more ordinance in Laos than we did in Germany in WWII! There is a lot of information on line. Perhaps you may want to look at:

The jars are amazing!

One small area in Site 1 of 3, The Jars - Plain of Jars

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Down the River - The Mekong River that is

On the River

Finally!   The photos from the trip down the river to Luang Prabong are in Photo Bucket.  

River Boat Child

A trip down the river to Luang Prabong can be a great start of an adventure. It was great, but for me, there were a couple of things that I would do differently.  Let’s get those out of the way first then talk about the positive aspects.

When I returned to Chiang Rai I went back to the Luang Prabong travel agency and reported my displeasure to the manager.  He was very understanding and thanked me profusely for letting me know.  Except for me, all of his past clients had been traveling through Chiang Rai and would not have had a chance to let him know of the problems.  What problems?  Well, like a stupid tourist I turned my will and my life over to the care of a Thai travel agency expecting them to take care of me in Laos. The results were O.K., but in the end I paid too much and could have had less hassle on my own.   We were picked up by a minivan and taken to Chang Khong without any reportable incidents.  The driver took us to Thai immigration and waited while we checked out of Thailand.  He then put us on a boat to cross the river; by now we had green stickers on our shirts and jackets so that we could be identified on the other side.  At this point we depart for Laos without the guidance of the guide; guidance that was not needed.
We went through the process of getting a Loa visa, this was a total “fuster cluck” but largely due to the fact that we arrived at the same time as a tour of 30 plus from Chiang Mai.   After getting the Visa ($35.00 USD) we were directed up the hill to a “visitor information” station. Here it gets interesting. At the station we are subjected to a diatribe from a Lao person about how horrible the boat trip is and how we really ought to trade our tickets in on a bus.   I almost bought his crap, but caught him in a couple lies almost immediately.  Here is my opinion:
The slow boat from Haung Xai across the river from Chiang Khong is just fine.   The boats we were on were packed with back packers and the party was on.  Way too much drinking and smoking for my taste, but they were having a great time. We arrived with no problems at all.   A couple suggestions you may want to consider are: 
   a. Travel light, my bag is way too heavy for this journey
   b. Follow your instincts and the crowd.  Beware of people who try to sell you things based on how bad off you will be if you don't buy!
   c. Prepare for your head to be a buzz with currency values.  Find out the exchange rates before you come and then you may save some money. $1.00 USD is worth 30 – 32 baht.  1 baht is worth 250 – 260  Lao Kip.   Have fun!
   d.  Before you get on the boat buy one of the seat pillows that are available.  Good chance you will have a wooden seat. 
   e.  Get on the boat early if possible.  The good seats go quickly.
   f.  Forget the travel agency.  Just take the Thai bus to Chiang Khong and make your way from there, you will save money and have to listen to less mis-information.
   g.  Consider bringing a video camera, see suggestion a.
   h.  try to check guest houses before signing.  Our guest house in Pack Bang looked good, but the bed actually had no mattress, just the box spring with a cover.  O.K. for one night, but…

The view on the river is fantastic. Rock formations, people farming, other boats, jungle, it all adds up to two days of wonderment.  The still camera doesn’t do it justice.

The first day we were in plastic chairs right in the middle of the back packers drinking party. For my taste there was too much drinking, too many drunks and way too many bad cigarettes being lit.  I finally asked some English guy if he would mind keeping his ashes out of my face.  He apologized and said he wasn’t thinking; true statement dude, way too drunk to be thinking about things like that.


On day two, we made a point of arriving at the boat early and were in the "best seats" which are actually seats from a van.  The back packer party was in two parts, one ahead of and one behind us. I’m not at a point in my life where excessive drinking bothers me but one more day on that boat and I may have gone Baptist on them. The cigarette smoke was bothersome and damn near all of them smoked. Thankfully only a couple of them were smoking pot, so that stench wasn’t’ too bad.

Back at the visitor station diatribe I made a comment to one of the young guys that I was getting too old for this shit.  Late in the second day I happened by him on my way to the back of the boat.  He admonished me that I’m never too old to travel.  Live my life he said to me. Thanks young man!   I did tell him that the two days on the boat had made me a bit younger.  At least in spirit that was a true statement.

Arriving in Luang Prabong we were met by several people representing guest houses.  Being high season and due to being tired we took one and it was fine.  The party was over and the vacation could begin.