T.S. Eliot wrote: “The journey, not the arrival, matters.”
In this instance I will have to agree with Mr. Eliot. Our journey to, and through, Luang Prabang is the story worth telling.
Since we arrived on the mainland in Phuket, Thailand we had decided we’d rely on trains, boats and buses as much as possible in order to save money on airfare. We further determined that taking overnight trains and buses would save on an evening’s accommodation and we wouldn’t waste anytime during the day, when we could be out and about, in transit.
This seems logical, and in some cases it was, but in others we faced excruciating and nauseating trips, and our journey to Luang Prabang was no exception.
Therese and I booked an overnight bus ticket from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang. We were set to leave at 9 p.m. so we checked out of our guesthouse in the afternoon, left our bags with the family running the business and used the remaining time to explore, send some emails and eat laap (a fresh salad with cooked chicken or fish, lime and a ton of mint) at our new favourite Laotian restaurant.
At 8:45 p.m. we made our way to the pick up spot. At 11:30 p.m. we finally got picked up. Our tuk-tuk driver explained the bus had been delayed, caught in one of the treacherous pot holes that rule the roads in Laos. We were frustrated but thought nothing of it as we headed off into the night. That is until I realized we were heading south, out of town when the bus station was to the north, as was Luang Prabang. We thought perhaps we had misunderstood the location of the bus station until, 30 minutes later we were still heading south in the tuk-tuk.
Just as I figured we were on our way back to Vientiane we came to a lurching stop on the side of the road. On either side were rice fields. It was pitch black. I was concerned.
As our driver started to drag our oversize backpacks off the back of the tuk-tuk my worries were somewhat quieted as in the distance I could see the lights of a bus heading toward us.
Sure enough, it pulled over to the side of the road and we were ushered on. No tickets, no explanation.
Like the outdoors it was blindingly dark on the bus. With our hands guiding us we realized this bus was yet another bunk bed bus and it was full. I asked the driver if there was an open bed. “For two people,” I insisted, worried we’d be split up, set to share a single bed with one of the shadow covered strangers. Sure enough there was a space, a bed at the back of the bus.
We climbed up the ladder to the top bunk only to find it was in fact a double-sized bed, already occupied with two local men. But as there are two people to each single this was technically a spot for four so we squeezed in, our heads grazing the ceiling as we sat up discussing the evenings events.
I’ve mentioned the bumpy roads in Laos. And we all know the back of the bus feels the bumps the most. So imagine riding on the top bunk of a bunk bed in the back of a bus. We were winding through the mountains at 60/km and hour being launched into the air and crashing back down for 9 hours, bumping into our neighbours and getting no sleep at all.
When we finally arrived, and the sun began to pour in through the windows we finally caught a glimpse of the surroundings. This was not like the first bed bus we had ridden. This wasn’t a tourist bus. This was a bus mostly packed with locals, in disrepair and needed a serious clean and we were both covered in a rash.
The journey was our story.
Still, it was all worth it when we walked down a winding side street on the Luang Prabang peninsula, stumbled across a beautiful cottage-style guesthouse and caught our first sight of the Mekong that we had followed all the way from the Four Thousand Islands.
Luang Prabang, as a whole, was my favourite town of the entire trip. It had a stunning night market every evening, the peninsula boasted more temples than hotels and you could walk across the rivers, both the Mekong and the Nam Song (the peninsula is where the two meet) on hand made bamboo bridges to visit rural villages known for farming, fishing and silk weaving.
Unfortunately while we were in Luang Prabang travelers sickness caught up with me. After spending two days in bed with a fever, headache and a rash, running to the washroom every ten minutes I thought some positive thinking would help. I livened up and booked a hiking/biking/kayaking tour to an elephant sanctuary for the next day and hoped for the best. But my luck had been used up and after vomiting three times on a 35km bike ride I knew I had reached my limit. I was driven to the hospital that day and spent four hours on an IV, replenishing fluid I think, although I was given a few shots and we had difficulty communicating as no one spoken English. My Laotian is limited to hello and thank-you.
Still, Luang Prabang was a highlight, the people were kind, our accommodation was comfortable and cheap and I managed to purchase most of my gifts (a lot hand woven silk was stacked in my backpack) in the colourful town. I also was able to witness the monks collecting alms for the first time, a morning ritual where the 308 monks who live in Luang Prabang process down the street each morning at 5:30 a.m. collecting donations of sticky rice from all of the locals. It is a beautiful and meditative sight, although tainted by the number of tourists wanting to get involved, still manages to give a moment for pause.
As we wrapped up our time in Laos both Therese and I were sad to leave. We were headed for Vietnam to meet up with some friends and though excited for the next adventure, were reluctant to leave the peaceful, picturesque country.