Our next intended stop was going to be Laos. We had heard around that this country was kind of a hidden gem to travelers and we needed to see it. To get into Laos from the border town of Dien Bien, Vietnam we had to depart on a 5:30 a.m shuttle bus packed full of huge bags of dried fish, rice, flour, and fruits as well as motorcycle batteries, assorted parts, tires, and irrigation pipe. I swear I saw a box wrapped with about 4 whole rolls of tape. This bus would take us to a small town in northern Laos called Muang Khoa and was supposed to be quite a quick trip. Soon we noticed that our bus was also being used as a local UPS truck and realized we were in for a long ride. After stopping to pick up at least half of Dien Biens residences outgoing mail we finally made it to the border check point of Laos. Our shuttle driver stopped in the middle of a huge parking lot in the pouring rain and pointed us to a building at least a quarter of a mile away. After getting our temperature taken, filling out a couple forms and paying about 10 different small fees we were officially in Laos.
Muang Khoa Laos was probably one of the smallest towns we had been to so far. From what we could tell there were only one of two places to eat and very few places to stay. Immediately upon arriving we already could feel a different vibe from the people of this community compared to Vietnam. They were much more reserved when it came to talking to tourists and they didn’t haggle you as much as you walked by their shops to come in and buy something. It was really very peaceful compared to the larger cities we had been to. After walking the whole town in about 30 minutes we knew we had to move on to another city the next day. We found the boat dock in the town and asked around how to get south to a another city we wanted to see called Nong Khiaw. We were told by the captain of the boat that there would be a boat leaving tomorrow morning but only if we had enough people to ride. We were thankful that by morning our German friend Sebastian who had been with us since Dien Bien decided to come along with us which made all of our prices cheaper. Although the boat was small and looked like it could easily be overtaken by some small rapids, the 5 hour ride up the river beat any bus ride we had previously taken by a hundred times. With limestone mountains all around the river, the cool breeze, green lush forests and groups of local kids swimming along many banks of the river made the ride a very enjoyable experience.
When we arrived in Nong Khiaw Laos we were happy to find that the city looked as if it had a larger population and maybe more to do than the previous town. Dylan and I decided on a bungalow on the water with a porch and hammock on it for only $6.00 dollars a night. We thought we had hit the jackpot until I went to take a shower and noticed a spider the size of my fist in the toilet munching on a giant cricket. After I sent Dylan (reluctantly but successfully) to the bathroom to battle the spider we tucked our mosquito net under every inch of our bodies and hardly slept the whole night. We knew we still wanted to get even farther down south in Laos to Luang Prabang (a city that we still cannot seem to pronounce correctly) so we decided to head out the next day.
The ride to Luang Prabang Laos was in the back of an open truck for about 5 hours. It was a pretty brutal and dusty ride but by this point we weren’t surprised by much. Once we arrived in Luang Prabang Laos we realized that each city we had gone to had progressively gotten warmer and warmer. Luang Prabang Laos was VERY hot. The type of weather that you walk outside and immediately want to go back in and take a shower or stand with your head in the freezer. This made it a struggle to do much of anything after that truck ride but we managed to gather enough energy up to go explore the town. We had heard that this city had an amazing outdoor market at night and we were yet to get sick off street food so it was the first thing we decided to do. To say it was amazing would be an understatement. This place had mile long blocks of every street food you could imagine. Anything from barbecued whole sparrows to buffets of Lao vegetarian dishes to whole cooked catfishes. It was cheap and delicious and when we were done eating we were already talking about what we were going to come back and have there the next night. The night market has a separate (just as long) street set up with vendors that were selling hand made clothing, art, jewelry, and even Lao whiskey infused with snakes. We were completely blown away by this place already and it had only been our first night. On our first full day there we realized quickly that renting a motorbike like we had done in the past cities was not going to happen due to some sketchy motorbike rental places and horror stories we had heard. Our next choice was to get a tour that took us to an elephant sanctuary. We walked around from one tour guide place to the next and noticed that in all the display photos the elephants the people were riding had chains around their necks and wrapped around their feet. This was extremely disappointing for both of us so we immediately decided this was not something that we wanted to support. It was far too hot to just walk around the town so we grabbed our favorite sandwiches wrapped in newspaper and hopped on a Lao “tuk tuk” to head out to the waterfalls to hike and swim. The tuk tuk brought us outside of the town to the Kuang Si waterfalls. It had just rained so the tiered waterfalls were cold and very muddy but that didn’t stop us from getting into the water to cool off.
On our last night there we thought three nights in a row of street food might be too much so we went to a place called Tamarind that was highly recommended. It was a set menu serving traditional Lao cuisine that was mind blowing and a nice change from our diet of sandwiches and street food. When we got back to the hostel we bought some cheap beer lao (the only beer in Laos you can get) and relaxed in our air conditioned room. Just by chance Dylan decided to open the blinds on our bedroom window and noticed that there was a huge lightening storm across the city right over one of the biggest lit up temples in the distance. We grabbed our beer lao, his camera and snuck up to the roof of the hostel. We stood up on the roof drinking beer, watching lightening light up the sky around this temple and talked about how lucky we were to be here in this moment together. This was by far one of the most memorable and special moments for both of us yet.
One of our favorite things about this place was that it was known for its all of its monasteries and temples that were spread throughout that city. This meant that pretty much everywhere you looked you would see a monk dressed in his orange saffron robes walking the streets. While in Laos we met a very interesting, smart, and informative novice monk named Heuang Ounthiyoth. He was sitting atop the wall at Buddha’s footprint in Luang Prabang Laos. He explained to us much of what his life consists of, his every day routine, and what his dreams and aspirations were. The monks live a very strict lifestyle. In Laos every boy is expected to become a novice monk for at least 3 months of his life between the ages of 12 to 20 but any man can become a novice monk in their lives even into their older age. While a novice monk only takes 5 vows of the monks full 200 it is still quite a commitment for a young boy to undergo. Waking up at 4:00 am they head to school and their morning prayer. Learning is a huge part of being a novice monk. Many of the boys who live in rural Laos do not have access to great education. Choosing to live a life as a novice monk allows them the great opportunity of a good education and a chance to make friendships that will last them a lifetime. Our friend Heuang explained that many of the families in Laos received great honor and virtue from one of their sons becoming a novice monk. Heuang – the only boy and youngest child in a family of 6 kids came from a small family of farmers who lived in the outskirts of Luang Prabang. The choice by him and his parents to have him become a novice monk means loosing one of the best working hands on the farm. In a small rural community this could be a huge loss for a family in terms of harvest and production. Making such a sacrifice to give their son a better opportunity at a good education was a very selfless thing to do. We stood atop the temple walls talking to Heuang for a good 45 minutes to an hour until the sun set over the beautiful city and we both went our separate way. It was a beautiful and very informative experience to talk to somebody who was from such a different walk of life than we are.
We’re on our way back to Vietnam and excited to see what the central and Southern Coast have to offer us!
With lots of Love,
Natalie & Dylan