From Vietnam we flew into Vientiane. That night me and my sister went to go explore and stumbled upon a market where they were cooking all sorts of food on the street. We were welcomed by the most enticingly delicious smells that I was compelled to stop and taste everything.
In this area, there were mainly just locals so no-one spoke English. This provided the opportunity to find other ways to communicate with them and utilise the bits of the language I had picked up so far. Luckily, on my flight from Doha to Bangkok (nearly a month ago!) I was sat next to this really nice boy from Laos who taught me a few words and phrases.
The following day we went to visit a temple and looked around the Laos opera house. My sister and I were the only ones in the theatre so I used to it as an opportunity to fulfil my lifelong dream of being the star of a show!
There were also some lovely gardens which we went to explore. My sister was wearing a Dashiki (African print top) which drew a lot of attention. We are halfway across the world but are still representing our culture, giving the Laos locals a taste of Africa!
From here we travelled to Viang Veng. This was a very long bus ride but totally worth it as there was so much to do in this town! Firstly, we went to visit the Blue Lagoon. We were warned that the water would be brown rather than the infamous blue at this time of year due to the high water levels. But we were really lucky and it was actually quite blue.
We then climbed up the side of a mountain to go and explore a cave and it was honestly the most scared I have been in a very long time. About half way up the mountain, we realised what a big mistake we had made. The pathway was so uneven, we had no safety equipment and no tour guide with us – the recipe for disaster!
But we had already climbed so far that we decided to just fully commit to it. In addition, the journey back down looked even more dangerous. So we both braved it all the way inside the caves. Once inside we realised that we probably should have just spent the 10,000 kip (equivalent of $1.25) it cost to hire the head torches they had been offering at the bottom of the mountain. It was so dark inside that we could barely see, the floor was wet and the flash light on my phone seemed so impractical whilst trying to climb inside.
Then on the way back down it started raining which just made it so much worse. I was just slipping and sliding everywhere whilst frantically praying under my breath that I wouldn’t die. At one point I wasn’t even sure if I was just sweating profusely or if it was tears!
In the afternoon we had booked to go tubing in some more caves. This had been sold to us as a relaxing and fun experience where you sit in these rubber rings and are gently taken on a river by the current whilst you hold on to a rope to guide yourself. Sounds lovely, doesn’t it? It was like this for about five minutes before it all went horribly wrong.
We got into the enclosure of the cave and were told to get off the rubber rings by our tour guide. The next part we had to do by foot. I’m no stranger outdoorsy type activities, I’ve done my Gold Duke of Edinburgh award and I was a Scout for over 11 years but this was a whole different story. At one point the muddy floor started sinking so people started getting stuck. Then the ceiling started getting lower and lower so I had to get on my hands and knees and crawl. And the girl behind me just kept crying the whole time.
I kept on just waiting to wake up from the nightmare I was living, half expecting Ant and Dec to jump out of the corner because it felt like one of those Bush Tucker trials on the TV program, “I’m a celebrity get me out of here”. But worse. So much worse.
The next day we had a another really long journey to Luang Prabang. The roads were so narrow with really bendy sharp curves. The bus didn’t have enough seats for everyone so they installed make-shift pop up chairs. This situation was made worse by the bus driver who looked like he was going to fall asleep. Every so often he would randomly just shake himself to try and stay awake and the bus would sway off path slightly! If you didn’t think about the fact that we were on a steep cliff like edge and any wrong move would result in us hurtling towards our inevitable demise – then this would probably have been quite funny!
The views on the journey were incredible though. It was exactly how I have always imagined heaven would look like with bright skies with lots of white clouds.
In Luang Prabang we stayed in these adorable little bungalows on stilts which my sister and I had to ourselves. The beds were massive and we had this cute little balcony with beautiful flowers. When we arrived the man at the reception looked really excited to see me and my sister. He said he had seen us on Facebook! Turns out that our bus driver, who had asked to take pictures with us when we stopped off to look at the aforementioned view, was related to the owners of our hotel! Such a small world.
That night we went to go explore and found a market with my favorite thing – street food! I actually bought (and ate) a whole cooked chicken that evening. My sister, being a Vegan, couldn’t really find anything suitable for her so bought two whole pineapples.
The next morning I went to go and watch the giving of Alms to the Monks. This meant a very early 5am start so my sister decided not to go and I went by myself but it was definitely worth it. I didn’t actually partake in the proceedings but it was really interesting to just watch.
Monks are only allowed to eat what people donate to them before midday so this procession is very important for them. Laos has a very interesting combination of Theravada Buddhism and Animism which focuses at ancestors and spirits etc. I’ve always been fascinated by this religion so I’ve really enjoyed learning more about it over the past few days.
After the main procession, everyone left but I stayed a lot longer which allowed me to just watch the Monks in the monastery just living their lives. I had this really profound moment when I caught eyes with a young Monk and we must have stood there for about 10 minutes perfectly still just staring at each other and smiling. There was no-one else around and the world seemed to stand still in that moment. It’s hard to explain but it felt incredible – you can’t pay for experiences like that! The memory will forever be etched in my mind.
After this I went to visit some of the local attractions. I considered climbing the Phousii mountain but I was alone and after that past few days’ activities, I felt all adventured out so decided against it.
Instead I went to visit the very beautiful National museum. It was still really early so it was gated off but I smiled nicely at the security guard and he let me in! This was so awesome as it allowed me to peacefully experience the place without it being tarnished by other tourists.
I also saw a few other attractions such as the Xieng Thong temple and the Lau Lau gardens. I did all this before 8am – talk about productive morning! It was such a treat to get to see it by myself as well. For someone who probably looks like the stereotypical tourist with my rucksack, fanny pack and camera always at the ready constantly vlogging – it’s actually quite ironic how much I actively avoid other tourists!
The following day we then embarked upon a two day boat journey on the Mekong River to cross the Laos/Thai border…
On the first day we travelled for over 10 hours before stopping off in Pak Beng where we stayed with a family from the Kamu tribe. The last time I stayed at a homestay in Vietnam, I had severe allergic reactions so I was really worried it would happen again. However, luckily this time I was absolutely fine!
The actual homestay was like nothing I have ever experienced before. What was immediately noticeable was the dichotomy between their seemingly stripped down living and my experience of the comparatively commercialised towns of South East Asia we had been to so far.
Everything was so basic – we slept on the floor, the toilet was a dug out hole in the ground and there was no electricity. They had just what was necessary to fulfil their fundamental needs – nothing more and nothing less. Coming from the West where most of your wants are so easily accessible, it really drummed home the inequality around the world.
Despite all of this, they had the most inclusive and welcoming culture. They were so kind and shared the best they had with us. My sister and I even stayed in the house of the Chief of the whole village. They also cooked for us what was definitely the most delicious food I had in my entire stay in Laos. With each mouthful I could almost taste all the time, effort and love they had poured into the preparation of the meal. A feeling not dissimilar to when I go home from University to my Mum’s cooking.
This whole experience just reinforced something I had already known for a long time – you really do not need material things to be happy. All these extra trappings of life are a so transient but it’s who you are when you strip all of that away that really matters. It’s so easy to be a “good person” in the right conditions – when you are comfortable, have enough food, etc. But what kind of person are you when the going gets tough? I think the Kamu people showed me how it should be done.
I always used to playfully tease friends who went on gap years to “find themselves” but honestly, I’ve learnt so much about myself and others in the past month I have been traveling.
Later that evening we watched the sun go down which was so beautiful (it’s so crazy that I had never actually seen a sunrise or sunset before I came travelling!)
We then stayed up and collected firewood and had a bonfire on the beach. This was such a lovely way to end the night.
The following day we had a really early start as the boat people wanted to be back on the river for 5am. We were going against the current and wanted to avoid as much of the forecasted rain as possible. Not going to lie, this wasn’t the most interesting journey but me and my sister tried to make the time pass faster by playing games. We play a variation of charades where one person has earphones in and listens to a song to act out to to the other. Hours of fun!
Fast forward 8 hours and we finally arrived in Chiang Khong where we completed the crossing border formalities. I have so many cool stamps in my passport now!
We are spending the night here and are then going to travel to Chiang Mai and then to Bangkok but I will write all about that in my next blog post which will be all about my Thai adventures…
It’s just me, Dammy, off to explore Thailand!