Laos was a spur of the moment decision that almost didn’t happen. I’d written it off after hearing and reading less than stellar reviews and applied for my Vietnam visa instead. There was a mixup with the online payment so I didn’t get my visa approval letter, and with just a couple days before my Thai visa expired, I had no choice but to head to the next country.I opted for the two day slow boat down the Mekong River to Luang Prabang. Flying around Asia is easy, convenient and relatively inexpensive but lately I’m more about the journey and not the destination—so I caught a night bus from Chiang Mai to the Laos border at Chiang Khong. I was dropped off at a motel after midnight Wednesday and shared a room with a French girl who was also on the bus. We were awoken at dawn and walked to the lobby after a quick shower to get our immigration instructions. There we met a group of Welsh travelers and piled into tuk tuks to the border.The process, like everything in Southeast Asia, involved a lot of waiting and confusion, and I fell behind the group as I was escorted to the customs police to pay my 500 baht fine for overstaying my visa.The last bus to the boat was full of Thai people and two older men stood up to offer their seat to the French girl and I. We thanked them for their kindness and insisted they keep the their seat but they refused and we finally obliged as not to be disrespectful. One of the men grinned at me, saying “Picture! You! Beautiful!” as he pulled out his phone and started taking photos. He then handed his phone to the lady next to me and had her take some of us. The lady decided she also wanted in and I posed with her as well. I had remember reading somewhere about westerners being treated like celebrities by locals and was equally flattered as I was amused. As we came to a stop, the sweet old man had me write down my name so he could friend me on Facebook… I’m still waiting for my request. (Sidenote: the same thing happened yesterday on the plane to Vietnam)We stopped at a market before boarding to stock up on provisions as we’d be on the boat for six hours straight. The rest of our group had already been waiting with bags full of beer so I knew what kind of day it was going to be and grabbed a few bottles of my own.The boat was fairly small and every seat was taken. It was open to the outdoors with no ventilation and a squatter toilet. The engines were loud and sleep was not a possibility, so we got right to the drinking games. I made friends with a girl from Canada, another British group and a handful of Germans, migrating between tables of charades, cards and guessing games. Our clothes were damp with sweat as we forced back warm Beerlaos and gin, admiring the ever-changing scenery while drifting down the Mekong in a rickety old boat. For most people I know this would be a less than ideal situation, but interacting and connecting with others from different cultures has been my favorite part of this whole trip. I’m a sponge soaking up every drop, craving new ways to think and live. The unpleasant parts of these experiences will all be forgotten but within each one I take away something valuable that will change me and stay with me forever.Just before sunset we arrived in Pakbeng, a small village serving as nothing more than a stopover along the river. The town has one street with just a handful of guesthouses and restaurants so we all ended up at the same hotel and ate our first Lao meal together. I’m not a picky eater by any means, but after that meal we all had a better appreciation for Thai food. Our lackluster dinner was remedied with free shots of local whiskey, which happened to be the most potently harsh substance I’ve ever consumed. I finished the night at the last open bar with the Germans where I expanded my Deutschland vocabulary before heading to bed to rest up for another long day on the river.
Our second boat was smaller, more cramped and louder than the first, but we carried on with the festivities to pass the time. The mountains became more dramatic as we traveled south to our destination and passed through pockets of heavy rainstorms. Luang Prabang came into sight at around 4pm, and we finally made it to the city center nearly an hour later. There are no hostels in this town as they have odd rules about Lao people not being allowed to stay with westerners, so we walked the streets looking for a reasonably priced place that could hold 17 of us and we found one for 30,000 kip ($3.70)/night. For the quality, it was easily the best deal I’ve seen on this trip. We had to fight off a few giant bathroom cockroaches but it met my 3 most important standards of luxury—wifi, hot water and air conditioning.The next few days were spent exploring the town and making new friends. We spent one day swimming at the Kuangsi waterfall, which was the most spectacular I’ve ever seen.
We shopped the night market, ate a ton of food (still couldn’t compare to Thailand—except for the muesli at one of the French cafés), and hiked to a hilltop temple at sunset for full views of the city. I wish I would have been more diligent about taking photos—it really is such a beautiful place.At night we all ended up at the same bar, the only one every tourist ends up at hidden down an alleyway. Like most places, they shut down early due to city rules so we’d all end up at the only spot open after midnight—a rundown bowling alley with bright fluorescent lighting and blown out speakers playing distorted tunes. The English guys gambled their money against the Lao bowling alley workers (and lost, of course) and we started our own impromptu dance party in the middle of it all. Great memories in Luang Prabang.The next destination on the typical backpackers trail is Vang Vieng, a town infamous for partying and tubing. The tubing scene changed in 2012 when everything was shut down after too many tourist deaths, and has since reopened but on a much smaller scale. It was gloomy and rainy the day I went tubing and there were only 60-70 people in our group but I still had a blast. Unlike many others who were incoherent by sunset and had to be assisted back to their hostel, I paced myself and was able to dance all night, enjoying the company of new friends.
The next day, several of us caught a tuk tuk to one of the waterfalls. It had poured all night prior and the rocky, muddy roads were too much for the tuk tuk to handle at times so we had to assist the driver.
I had lost my only sandals in the river while tubing the day before, so I bought another pair on the way to the waterfall, as all I had on me were dress shoes. When we finally made through the long and bumpy drive I realized that one of my sandals had flown out on the way and had to hike the falls in my heels.The roads here in Laos are the worst I’ve ever seen. There isn’t a single stretch without potholes, mud and/or rivers. I considered renting a scooter but after my accident in Pai on the same type of road I didn’t want to risk having to cut my trip short. Tuk tuks are inexpensive and you can get anywhere for less than a few dollars, but you don’t even need them to walk around the tiny town.On the third day the rest of the group I’d been traveling with for a week was heading south but I felt like I hadn’t seen enough so I stayed.Tired of the party scene and wanting a more immersive experience, I googled things to do in Vang Vieng and came across an organic farm where you can stay and volunteer. It sounded perfect.I packed my things right away, checked out of my hostel and got a tuk tuk to the farm a few miles north of town. It was in a remote location, away from tourists and not in walking distance to anything. Seemed like the ideal place to get away and give back.There wasn’t a single person in sight when the tuk tuk drove away and I walked up to the counter. Soon after a woman greeted me, collected my $4 and told me where to find my bed. It was a narrow room with 9 beds under mosquito nets, all but one empty. It was also the hottest room I’ve probably ever stepped in with no circulation or open windows, so I threw my bag in and immediately ran out to catch a breath.I walked around the farm alone, not sure what to do or who to talk to. I found goats and geese and pigs and chickens, spending a few minutes playing with them and enjoying the company. I continued walking until I reached a hut and just beyond the door was an older man with no pants on. “Hi… sorry about that!” I apologized just as he spotted me. He spoke in a thick French accent with a friendly demeanor and tried to offer help. Communication was a bit of a challenge but he walked with me down to the river and explained that people come here to live and work for months at a time and this is his second hometown.I expressed my interest in wanting to help, at least for a day or two while I was here. I was told to find the guy who owns the farm, Mr. T, and he’d get me involved in something. Mr. T. was out of town until the next day and it seemed like there was nothing I could do at that moment, so I walked down to the rivers edge to find some relief from the overwhelming heat. A group of Lao kids were playing and swimming in the river and I wished I was them at that moment. I sat my bag down and jumped in, clothes on like the locals, and stared up at the dramatic skyline of limestone cliffs. The techno beats from one of the tubing bars could be heard in the distance but in that moment I had found my solitude—the first in a long time. I spent an hour there alone until the sun fell below the peaks and it was cool enough to venture back into the open air. After a cold shower and change of clothing, I ran into a Belgian kid who was planning on going to a bar in town that I wanted to check out, so we hopped on his bike and made our way down, just in time for sunset photos and happy hour.There were no other tourists at this bar—just a couple older westerner men and us. They’d all been living here for quite some time and I listened intently to their stories while sipping Lao whiskey. One guy in his 50’s ended up getting a 21 year Lao girl pregnant and now he’s stuck here, helping her raise the baby. Another guy in his 60’s waited until his kids were grown before divorcing and traveling the world. I can’t help but think that could have been my story and feel fortunate for everything that happened to lead me here.I made friends with a funny couple from North Korea who had escaped and said they’d never return, and a French guy who ran out of money traveling and had to work at this bar for food and housing.
Up until this point my nightlife had consisted only of socializing with young backpackers at bars and clubs, and while that’s where I have the most fun, over time those nights all blend together as a fuzzy memory while this night is one I won’t forget. It’s easy to stay in your comfort zone and stick with the type of people and experiences you’re familiar with, especially while traveling solo where there are many unknowns. But I’m here to push myself and the only way to grow is through new experiences and challenges.Motorbikes have become my favorite mode of transportation. There’s something so freeing about the open air, feeling every bump and turn in the road, the wind blowing through your hair and drying the sweat off your body. On the ride home from the bar I stared up at the sky, the patchy clouds illuminated by moonlight and distant lightning with stars peeking through. I remember the last time I stargazed, back home on my deck just before leaving. It was one of my favorite things about living in the mountains away from city lights. The stars are different here. They’re the same of course… but on this night, looking up at them from the back of a motorbike on the other side of the world, they aren’t the same stars. I see them differently not because they’ve changed, but because I have. Perspective is everything in life, and that’s why I must travel—to change mine for the better. I know it’s going to take a whole lot longer than five weeks so I’m trying to be patient with myself. An experience like this has a tendency to shine a harsh light on your own shortcomings, and as a perfectionist that can be difficult to accept. I’ve been humbled by many things here which is a good start—it’s hard not to feel gratitude and humility while traveling through Southeast Asia.A thunderstorm rolled through that night and I was kept awake by the deafening rain, thunder rattling the bed and a sweat soaked sleeping mat from the humidity. I had to use the restroom but it was across a muddy road, pitch black outside, monsooning and I didn’t have my contacts in. So I held it all night, making a mental note to get LASIK before I ever travel Asia again.By sunrise the storm was over and I reached for my camera for early morning photos. I began to panic upon realizing my favorite lens was nowhere to be found. It had either been left at the bar or fallen out on the ride home somewhere. It was the first major loss on this trip, but I tried to keep my cool and not let it ruin my day. I took a few shots with my other lens and walked to the restaurant for coffee and wifi—still the only person in this place. After catching up on work, I became restless and wanted to start helping out. I found the farm owner and asked if I could spend the afternoon teaching English at the school nearby which was one of the volunteering options listed. He explained that I’d have to commit to staying at least a week for that to happen. Onto plan B. I was also told about milking the goats and making goat cheese which the farm sells at its restaurant and thought that would be a great experience. I tracked down one of the workers who said it was too late for that today. Okay then. I continued to walk around, looking for something to do and came up to a friendly looking Lao worker next to the goats. “Do you need any help?” I offered. “No, he doesn’t.” A voice muttered behind me. I turned around to see a masculine looking female who I identified as the French lady that one of the workers pointed out earlier. “We don’t need help. You can come back at 1:30 to cut plants if you want but you need to wear pants and sleeves.” I looked at the clock and it was only 10:30. Not sure what to do with myself for another 3 hours, I thanked her for the information and told her I might come back then. “Have you been in Asia long?” she asked, “because no one will respect you dressed like that.” I was wearing a basic tank top and shorts—what I’d consider to be a modest cut, and was taken back by her bluntness. I definitely wasn’t in the touristy backpacking part of the country anymore. I thanked her for the warning and walked away, dripping in sweat and wondering how I could even survive in heavier clothing.This farm was in the middle of nowhere, away from town and there was no transportation out, so I began walking down the main road hoping for a tuk tuk to pass. An uneasy, sick feeling began to form in my gut—I’d felt this before in Chiang Mai when I was alone for almost two days. It’s the worst part of traveling alone. I was an unwanted, unwelcome foreigner stuck in a situation outside of my control, and I needed to escape.A tuk tuk finally pulled up behind me and I hopped in, directing him to the bar from the night before as my only chance to find my missing lens. At the bar one of the Lao workers recognized me and told me to wait there; a few minutes later he showed up with my lens and my mood was immediately lifted.
I’d already paid for another night at the farm but realized there was no point in forcing myself to stay in this town so I walked to the nearest bus station and bought the next ticket out. With a few hours to kill, I sat down in one of the many bars playing 24/7 Friends marathons and consoled myself with an iced coffee. Maybe I am just an ignorant tourist and should stick to the backpacker trail if that’s where I’m the happiest. I wanted more from this experience but maybe I’m not cut out for it just yet… at least on my own. Another shortcoming I need to work on.Eight hours later after a bumpy bus ride to Vientiane, I was in a new hostel with a flight to Hanoi, Vietnam booked for the next day.
Laos, you are beautiful. I wish I could have seen more but there’s a new country outside my window today and I have a feeling this will be one of the best yet. More from Vietnam coming next.