Once in Laos we took a minivan straight to Luang Prabang, taking 11 hours to reach. Now in any other circumstance I think our ride would have taken 12-13 hours, however, our driver drove as if he had some deadline to make. Seriously, he drove like a bat out of hell. With every weave and turn through the winding, mountainous roads, our tires would make horrifying screeches: Errr!...Errr!...Errr!...and so on. We past every minivan and bus that left before us. The ride was nothing but a blur, really. When I think back about our ride I see it in flashes: flashes of women grabbing their children out from the street; flashes of our driver forcing people working in construction off the side of the road; flashes of people waiving and hollering at our driver to slow down; flashes of pigs and dogs running and crisscrossing the street, just eluding what I thought was to be every living creatures fate that happened to get in our way--death.
Eh, but at least the ride was fairly comfortable. Well, I mean, at least Jessica and I had comfortable seats. The people sitting in the rows behind us weren't so lucky and didn't relish the comforts that we'd experienced, i.e. leg room and air circulation. That's a shame :-). Jess drew a hilarious sketch of our minivan ride, perfectly depicting the levels of comfort and discomfort according to where one sat in the minivan.
When we arrived in Luang Prabang, the minivan dropped us off on a street full of posh hotels and guesthouses--a bit too expensive for us frugal travelers. When we began searching for inexpensive accommodation we were approached by a guy from our minivan, Blake, a Canadian, who asked if he could join us. Blake just finished a one year contract teaching English in South Korea, and was traveling for a few months before going back to Canada. I told him that his voice sounded similar to actor Seth Rogen. And Blake may have been just as funny as him too. Each of our personalities (Blake, Jess and I) seemed to compliment one another, which made for a good traveling team. The next few days I laughed so much, that, at times, I felt like I was literally high. It had been a long time since I'd laughed that much. The last time I had laughed that much, as I can remember, was with my ex-girlfriend, Jennifer, just before my travels over 4 months ago.
The three of us found cheap accommodation at a guesthouse called Sokmexay Guesthouse, located along the Mekong River, costing us each 40,000 Kip (about $5 per person/night). We spent the next day exploring the the streets of Luang Prabang. Luang Prabang is a very pretty city with French colonial architecture. In 1995, the UNESCO named Luang Prabang as a World Heritage Site. There are a number of markets to see, tasty and cheap street food, boutique shops, and plenty of restaurants and Internet cafes to choose from. It's a real nice place for couples, actually. Don't get me wrong, it's a charming city, but as a sole backpacker 2-3 days here is sufficient.
The highlight of Luang Prabang was visiting Tat Kuang Si waterfalls. Not only was it the highlight of Luang Prabang, but it was one of the highlights of my entire trip. It was simply gorgeous there. My Lonely Planet guidebook does a good job describing this location as "a wide, multitiered waterfall tumbling over limestone formations into a series of cool, turquoise-green pools. The lower level of the falls has been turned into a public park with shelters, picnic tables and food vendors. A trail ascends through the forest along the left side of the falls to an idyllic second tier, which is usually very private except for thousands of butterflies and has a pristine swimming hole." Sounds nice, ey???
I went with a group of 6 people, costing only 25,000 kip per person. You also have to pay 20,000 kip to enter the park. Don't forget to bring your swimsuit as you're allowed to swim in the pools that are present beneath every waterfall. Me and Jonathan, a friend of mine who I'd met in Pai, Thailand, found a secluded waterfall and swimming pool just off the trail. After we showed Blake and Jess, we all enjoyed a nice scenic, refreshing swim. Afterwards we went further down the trail to a busier waterfall (in terms of tourists present) and pool, but this one had a swing! So we all took our turns climbing the large tree and using the swing to dive into the pool. Good times.
The next day Blake and Jonathan left for Vientiane; however, Jess and I decided that we would travel north to Nong Khiaw. I made sure to withdraw some money from the ATM before leaving, as it would be highly unlikely any ATMs would be present there. I was a bit nervous about using the ATM because I'd heard that someones ATM card was eaten by the machine the previous day. Also, I'd spoken to a few people who had problems withdrawing money from the ATMs. In the end, I didn't have any problems and was successful withdrawing my money.
Oh yeah, I also hung out with two Israeli friends of mine that I also met in Pai, Thailand. We met at a bar and watched a soccer game. I think it was Manchester vs. Liverpool. Anyways, it was great meeting up with the both of them and hopefully I'll see them again, as they're following a similar route as me.
Next Stop: Nong Khiaw/Muang Ngoi Neua