Sunday, January 6, 2013

Heading South

Well, it was bound to happen at some point. It was inevitable that I would come upon a place I didn't so much like. And that place was Vang Vieng, Laos. Ugh.

On Jan 2, I took off by bus from Luang Prabang (oh, LP, I will miss you!), heading directly south. Although Vang Vieng (VV) is almost directly south of LP -- and probably, as the crow flies, only about 200 miles -- it took 6 hours to get there. That's because the road is, quite literally, serpentine the whole way. It's outstandingly gorgeous -- Laos is SO mountainous! -- but it's slow going. This was a large bus (very comfortable) and the bus driver drove quite well, very cautiously. We drove up and down through the mountains, almost alway on a road that was on the side of a cliff (and they don't do a lot of guard rails in this country!). Had he been driving quickly, I'm sure I would have been white knuckled the whole way.

We arrived in VV around 4:00 and, although I had reserved a guesthouse online, I really had no idea where it was. Fortunately, my guardian angel was there, as while I was waiting to get my luggage, I mentioned to someone that I was staying in the Mountain Riverview Hotel, and someone else standing nearby said, "me too!". He was traveling with his girlfriend, so the 3 of us got on a tuk tuk, told the guy where we were staying and headed into town. Unfortunately, there are many guesthouses with similar names, so our tuk tuk driver dropped us off at the wrong place. No worries.... someone standing nearby just happened to have a map with guesthouse names and showed us where to go. We found the place and all was well. The M-R guesthouse was perfectly decent... nice, comfortable bed, pretty darn nice shower*, and away from the main part of town, so quiet. Some pics of my guesthouse, views from my balcony, and a pic of the town....

(*Many of the bathrooms here are often called (by travelers) "shoilets" because the shower head is just coming out of the wall, without any divider (shower curtain, wall, etc). So when you shower, the whole bathroom gets wet. In some cases, however (this one, in particular), things are situated in such a way that you can avoid getting the entire sink and toilet soaked. But there's no way to avoid the entire floor being soaked. It's quaint... and slightly annoying.) But I digress...

Despite its obvious physical beauty, I decided almost immediately upon arriving that I didn't need to stay in VV any longer than I'd already planned: one overnight, about 17 hours. So I bought my ticket for the minibus leaving the next morning (at 9am), for the 3.5 hour trip to Vientiane (the capital city of Laos). On the bus (actually waiting for the bus) I met Nevine, a young Belgian traveling by herself. We got talking and then decided to get a room together in VT. I had originally been thinking I'd just spend only the day in VT, taking the night bus (10 hrs) to Pakse that evening. But I realized that I didn't want to walk around VT all day with my suitcase. AND once I got there I rather liked the feel of the city.

So Nevine and I got a room then went out to explore VT for the afternoon & evening. The next day we each rented bikes and headed off in different directions, as we each had some things we wanted to do. I had read about a fitness center and really wanted to get a good, hard, sweaty workout (it'd been many days since one like that). And so I did. I also visited a bookstore, checked out one of the wats, rode all around to get the lay of the land, had a nice lunch, sate in a cafe doing a little research for the next leg of my journey, then returned the bike. Some scenes from Pakse (didn't take a lot of pics here)....

 Nice pig head, eh? Yum!

We were picked up at our guesthouse that evening around 6:30 to be taken to the bus station for our overnight ("sleeper") bus to Pakse. Oh, and what a treat! I'm being sarcastic, but it really wasn't so bad. These are double decker buses with -- I'm not kidding nor exaggerating -- beds down each side. They're sort of extra large twin beds and it's always two to a bed. I'd heard all about this beforehand, so knew that I wanted to do the trip with someone I knew, rather than getting paired with a stranger (because I would have been... and it's very close quarters!).
Nevine and I watched a movie on my computer then attempted to sleep (they provide blankets and pillows, btw). I think I actually ended up sleeping several hours -- on & off. But that was only because I managed to tune out the fact that the bus driver was going VERY fast and there were times I, honestly, thought the bus would topple over. This is a very tall, top-heaving bus and, to make matters worse, there were many times we were moving on unpaved roads. It seriously felt like we was tipping side to side. If I pulled back the curtains and looked at the road going by (we were on the lower level), it was absolutely terrifying. So I'd close the curtains, put on my eye mask and just imagine I was on a train.

We arrived in Pakse about 7am (this morning), walked through town, and found a place to stay. 
Today was all about just exploring this town a bit -- not a whole lot to tell you, but it's a decent town. Again, I didn't take a lot of pics, but did take a couple of the cafe in which I had one of my best coffees yet on this trip! Oh my! It seriously rivaled the coffees I had in Italy many years ago. There's an area very close to Pakse, called the Bolevan Plateau, that has many coffee plantations and they must grow GREAT coffee. :)

So the next day we left Pakse at 8am to take a bus, then boat, to an region called Si Phan Don -- or better known as the 4,000 Islands. This is right on the Cambodian border, where there are many (okay, about 4,000 apparently) islands in the Mekong River. It's supposed to be quite beautiful and quite rustic. Electricity only from generators, only between 6:00-9:30pm. Sooooo, unless things have changed recently (which they may have), I will be "off the grid" for the next several days.

My plan -- which could change, of course -- is to stay in the islands (mostly on Don Dhet and Don Khon) until Jan 10th, at which point I'll begin my 2-day journey into Cambodia and, specifically, to Siem Reap (and the temples of Angkor Wat). I imagine I'll be back online by Jan 11th, if not sooner.

And that's the update from here. Hope you all are having a splendid start to your 2013 and I'll be in touch soon.