Day 31-32 – Huay Xai via Pak Beng

I’d decided it was time to think about moving on from Luang Prabang, so I decided to continue heading north through Laos towards the border town of Huay Xai. Why Huay Xai? Well it was home to the offices of ‘The Gibbon Experience’. For around $100 a day on a 2 or 3 day course you could live in treehouses in the jungle, with an elaborate array of ziplines to go from treehouse to treehouse and place to place.

I hadn’t prebooked it so my plan was that I’d turn up at their offices and see if there was any availability, and if not, to cross the border into Northern Thailand.

To get to Huay Xai there were three options. I could take an overnight bus, a speedboat or a 2 day slow boat. I’d heard good things about the slow boat from people at the hostel like Renato that had taken it from the opposite direction so I decided a nice relaxing boat journey up the Mekong river was just what the doctor ordered.

I’d pre-booked my slow boat ticket and transfer to the pier already from a travel agent and so a Tuk-Tuk came along to pick me up. In the morning a German girl at the hostel approached me and said she’d heard I was going and wanted to get the boat too though hadn’t booked a ticket. In true Asia style, where everything is negotiable, we slipped the Tuk-Tuk driver a 20,000 kip note and he obliged in taking her to the pier where she also managed to get a boat ticket…and for cheaper than my price!

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At the ‘pier’ we entered a tiny hut where we were given tickets and I found an amusing Lao version of checkers available to play…

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It was around 8am when we got on the boat and set off. There isn’t really much to say about the boat apart from it floated on water and for us from A to B. The seats were like what you’d get in an old car and the only food on offer was overpriced crisps or instant noodles (and of course I hadn’t brought my own food…). For the first stage of the trip to Pak Beng it would take until around 6pm so I did a combination of sleeping and occasional talk to some of the fellow passengers. The two girls in front of me were Germans that worked in Hong Kong so we spoke a little about Hong Kong and there was a woman onboard that I’d spoken to in Vientiane.

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Still, there were some nice views…

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Eventually we docked at the tiny village of Pak Beng and the inevitable scramble of locals trying to sell us hotel rooms arrived. I actually needed a hotel room for the night but I have a little rule of thumb on travelling which is generally not to buy anything overtly offered to you. It’s like the universal taxi scam that applies at ANY airport in the world where the unlicensed drivers walk around the arrivals hall saying ‘taxi’ waiting for their prey, hoping you won’t go to the official taxi rank.

I found myself a room in the end for about 60,000 kip (£5), and it was a fairly decent room with double bed and toilet. By no means perfect, but decent value. Renato from Luang Prabang had shown me some pictures of the private room he got for 25000 kip and it looked like a set from a horror film so I was happy spending a little more on mine.

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The German girl from the hostel had checked in the same hotel and so had a guy from New York from the boat and we decided to go get dinner together. It seemed there weren’t many places but we entered an Indian restaurant and it seemed everyone else from the boat had the same idea as us.

The service was dreadful and I had to walk up to a waiter to serve us after about 15 minutes. He hated me for that and was visibly annoyed whilst taking our order. We waited ages for the food and one of my dishes never came. No tip for him!

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I looked around Pak Beng with the others and we ate mangos together on a wall by the pier whilst the American smoked weed and we just talked. I got the feeling that the American guy and German girl had more in common with each other than me but that’s part of travelling. It’s always interesting to hear another point of view from a different culture.

The next morning I was determined not to make the same mistake of not having any food so I headed out to a bakery. Looking back on Pak Beng, the one thing I can say is that the pastries in the bakeries are SUPERSIZE, I mean, one croissant was a meal in itself.

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8am arrived and I boarded the boat again ready for the final part of the boat journey to get to Huay Xai. Again, nothing notable really happened on the boat other than I dozed and talked to a few people. Oh and the German girl was ill from food poisoning after our less than delightful Indian meal.

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Most people on the boat wanted to immediately cross the border on arrival to Thailand and were worried the border might shut at a certain time. I on the other hand wanted to get to the Gibbon Experience office at Huay Xai to see if they had availability for zip lining. I tracked the journey with the GPS and google maps on my phone during the way and we were on course to arrive at 5:30pm.

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When we arrived I said my goodbyes to everyone and made my way on my own down the Main street in Huay Xai, following google maps on my phone for the Gibbon Experience Office. Unfortunately when I got there it was closed so I decided to stay a night in Huay Xai and go to the office to enquire in the morning.

Walking down the street, a group of people that had just done the Gibbon Experience were drinking beer and invited me to join them. Of course I accepted. There was an American couple, French people, an Italian and a British guy. They advised me to check in at their hotel so I dumped my bags there and came back.

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Time flew by as we drunk more and more, and we were soon at a table in a hidden location the French guy knew of, listening to weird music on an iPad.

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Yes… that is Rick Astley!

Eventually when the American guy was nearly on the floor from the amount of whiskey he had drunk, I said my goodbyes and retired to my hotel room.

Days 28-30 – Luang Prabang

Day 28 and it was finally time to say goodbye to Vang Vieng. Vang Vieng had given me so much fun and I’d made so many friends, but thankfully I met nearly all of them again in Luang Prabang! The thing with Laos is that because of the shape of the country, nearly everyone follows a very similar route. The only difference is some people are heading north and some are heading south.

The Unesco city of Luang Prabang was the next logical stop after Vang Vieng, but there was one potential snag. The bus route to Luang Prabang wasn’t exactly safe. Unfortunately there had been a recent spate of attacks against tourist buses on the route by Lao rebels killing and injuring quite a few tourists. Just some days before I was due to travel, the US government banned all officials from travelling on the roads I would be and advised against all travel to the area due to IED (improvised explosive devices) and gun attacks.

Whilst I thought about alternative routings, they were all very complex, time consuming and expensive. For example, I could have headed back to Vientiane and caught a flight to Luang Prabang but I decided against that and instead would take my chances on the bus. Those of you who know me well know that I’m not exactly risk-averse!

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The good news was I wasn’t travelling alone and so my new Chilean friend Boris from the hostel in Vang Vieng was on the same bus as me.

Stopping off for a bite to eat in the death route
Stopping off for a bite to eat on the death route

Despite the warnings, the bus journey was quite uneventful and I didn’t get shot at (yay). There was some beautiful scenery along the way and I tried to get some sleep before we headed to a rest stop and got some lunch.

I’d pre-booked a hostel and when I turned up, as well as making lots more friends, I met so many people from Vang Vieng.

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Morgane, the girl from Quebec that I’d gone trekking with in Vang Vieng was staying at the hostel. The 5 Canadians that had partied and shared a dorm with me were also there. I met up with Jade and the English girls that I’d had dinner with and shared a dorm with 2 of.

One of the good parts of the hostel was the common area was small so it encouraged a good atmosphere and everyone to talk together. I’d soon made friends with a new group of people, including a Brazilian guy called Renato, and an Irish girl and we headed out to get some food.

(Renato was a hilarious guy who I’ve kept in touch with but unfortunately I just missed meeting him in Vietnam by a day, dammit!!)

Oh and some of the toilet graffiti was funny…

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We explored the market and let me tell you, the market in Luang Prabang is just ENDLESS red tents with tourist bits. I ended up buying 3 ‘beer lao’ t shirts and so all my tops now have something to do with beers, bars or pub crawls.

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We got some street food buffet which was good but the food was quite cold. Still I think it barely cost £1 so I can’t complain really.

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Everyone had told me to go and visit a waterfall called Kuang Si Falls that was approximately an hour away and so the next day that’s exactly what I did.

The easiest way to get there was via a Tuk Tuk and so to minimise the cost I went to the common area of the hostel and quite simply asked if anyone wanted to go see the waterfall with me. About 10 minutes later there were 9 of us all getting ready to take the trip.

We knew from people that had gone previously that a fair price for the return journey was 200,000 kip in total (just under £2 each) and with the abundance of Tuk Tuks and some great haggling by the group we got the ride to the waterfall and knattered in the back.

Unfortunately for whatever reason I didn’t seem to take my phone to take pictures, so I found this image from Google.. For more just google ‘Kuang Si Falls’.

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It was a great day out and I had great fun climbing all the way to the top of the waterfalls in slippy flip flops and bathing in the pool at the bottom.

Soon enough the evening came and according to everyone ever, the only bar you should go to in Luang Prabang was called ‘Utopia’ so after a group dinner, a few of us made our way there and had some drinks. I wasn’t particularly in the mood to get drunk but I had a great Oreo shake whilst Boris the Chilean I had now been with for 5 days was getting hammered on beer and the girls were having cocktails. Morgane had taken a cup from the hostel, written ‘Richard’ on it in marker pen and was now taking it around with her everywhere.

It was a chilled out place that had a hippy vibe, we were sat on the floor on mats and soon enough I bumped into loads of people from Vang Vieng. By the end of the evening I had a nickname of ‘heyy Chrissssssss‘ due to this and about 20 of them were actually chanting my name when we left the bar in possibly the weirdest thing to ever happen to me.

We went back to the hostel at about midnight and continued the drinks. There was a picnic table with chairs and a hammock and about 10 of us sat around the table with drinks and were talking. I was wearing a white t-shirt and someone suddenly had the great idea of getting a marker pen and writing messages on me. If the t-shirt wasn’t enough, I’d soon amassed loads of marker pen writing that had gone straight through my primark quality t-shirt onto my body.

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And then the evening turned really sour.

The staff at the Laotian family run hostel didn’t like how loud we were being outside. Fair enough, maybe they would tell us to be quiet or go to our dorms? No… the father of the family that was probably about 55 years old turned up and just started aggressively jabbing Morgane in the arm whilst I was in a hammock next to her. Not cool. A very drunk Boris leapt to her defence whilst I struggled to get out the hammock and then it all kicked off.

The father came back with his sons equipped with metal sticks and wouldn’t listen to any reason. We said we would go to bed, or be quiet and we protested to the sons that their father had just been hitting a girl but their only response was ‘but she was noisy’. Maybe in Laos it’s okay to hit girls but we had to restrain Boris and eventually the sons pulled back their father from getting into a proper brawl.

By this time it was about 1:30AM and whilst the staff finally went away, I decided for me it was time to go to bed.

After a nice long sleep for everyone to calm down, and a slight awkwardness at breakfast with the staff, I started talking to an English guy that wanted to rent a mountain bike and explore. I thought it sounded fun so we headed out to a bike shop and for a few dollars I had myself a not so great quality mountain bike for the day.

The English guy showed me a plan of where we could go and I agreed to follow. Don’t ask me where we actually went though as I have no idea. The guy clearly rode bikes a lot more than me and enjoyed the torture of some very steep hills at times. By the end, he said his app said we’d gone 22km and we’d stopped at a few places on the way.

Here are some pics from the ride:

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