Thursday, November 10, 2011

Day 28 - 30: Slow boat to Luang Prabang

We arrived in Luang Prabang yesterday afternoon after a 2 day journey in a slow boat up the Mekong. The alternative was either a bus or a speedboat. Having been on plenty of buses, and having both read horror stories about the speedboats and also seen them in action (incredibly noisy, passengers wearing helmets, cramped space for 8 people...) we chose the slow boat option.

We ate breakfast at the slow boat pier and had a bit of a giggle at some of the English translations on the "Free Stye" menu. These included "Friced noodle on the face" and "Friced Tiger Cry". Both of which sound pretty rare, and possibly tasty and/or painful:

There were plenty of people on the boat, but it wasn't too cramped and was relatively comfortable. Thankfully I brought a travel pillow after reading the guidebook; even though the seats were well padded, my arse is mainly bone and so after about 3 hours I was glad of the extra padding. The views up the Mekong are mainly jungle on either side, but we got a few shots on the first day.

We stopped at Pekbang in the evening, as the slow boats don't travel the river in the evening. This is a tiny little town which has developed mainly because of the slow boat stop and consequently has a decent array of competitively-priced places to eat and stay. We picked Vatsana courtesy of Trip Advisor, and were thankful - they had the softest, largest, most comfortable bed we'd slept in since starting our trip. We ate at a restaurant two doors down; nothing special, but I did get to try fried buffalo which was pretty good.

The second day we trundled back onto the boat for 8:30am and the weather was appalling with rain all day long. The boat was different to the first day, only had one toilet instead of two, and had a leaky roof. Lev and I put our joint IT skills together to craft a makeshift gutter using duct tape and plastic bags:

Perhaps we should have stuck to IT.

Some more shots from the second day:

Luckily, things had cleared up by the time we hit the Luang Prabang pier at about 4pm so we had a wander around the city, scouting for accommodation. The first thing we noticed was the price difference between Laos and Thailand. We were used to most guesthouses charging between 200 and 400 baht (4 - 8 GBP) but in Laos there is a lot of competition - much undeserved - between boutique guesthouses which charge in US dollars, where prices start at about $25 (17 GBP) and rise to anything up to $50 per night. We managed to track down one in our budget called Sokdee Guesthouse, for 70,000 kip (~ 5.60 GBP) and it was a fairly comfortable, very quiet place with free internet access chucked in. Julie and Lev joined us there and at night we all wandered over to the night market, a huge handicraft market which stretched on for what seemed like a good mile. Just off the market was a decent sized food court, where you could load up a plate of various veg, noodles, rice, crackers and other gubbins for about 60p, and then stick a freshly BBQ'd half chicken on for an extra 90p or a rack of pork ribs for 60p. Suffice to say, we were completely stuffed last night after the meal. Having said that, we managed to find room for an orange sponge cake on the way back to the guesthouse.

Today we went two doors down for breakfast at Saffron which was excellent, and then had a wander along the Mekong to the coast. Luang Prabang is surrounded by water on 3 sides, and is a pretty small city. You could comfortably walk the entire length of the old town in an hour. We stopped in a few wats (you can never get enough of wats, right?) including the city's heritage site - Wat Xieng Thong.

We ate at Morning Glory cafe for lunch, a lovely little spot with views over the Nam Khan river. A couple of fruit shakes and a shared large chicken, bacon and salad baguette, and we were ready to carry on. After some further scouting around, I found a new guesthouse (Soutikone) for 4.80 GBP per night which has massive, nicely furnished rooms, and is in an area we will be exploring over the next couple of days. We also booked a meal for tomorrow at Tamarind which is supposed to be one of the nicest restaurants in the city. Cheap accommodation means we can spend more on lovely food!

Tomorrow we will be visiting Big Brother Mouse. This is an education establishment that helps promote literacy amongst Lao people, and they have sessions at 9am - 11am where English-speaking volunteers can come in and help Lao students improve their English, both reading and speaking. This will be a great way for us to give something to the community, coming from a comparatively privileged western background, and also allow us to interact with local people and improve our own language skills. I'm really looking forward to it!

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